TITLE: You and Me of the 10,000 Wars
AUTHORS: Ellen Milholland (radiant@bluelikethat.com) & Luna (lunavudu@aol.com)
RATING: PG-13
CODES: Josh/Sam, Josh/Amy, Sam/Ainsley, implied girlslash, juicy politics, season four speculation, extraordinarily subtle C.J./Toby... and also, beware of tiny little dogs.
DISCLAIMERS: We own nothing.
ARCHIVE: Ask, please. It's at http://www.sparkgirls.com/stories/youandme.html
Notes and acknowledgements at the end.
SUMMARY: One shoe off and a bridge to cross.

*

"There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still." - Franklin Delano Roosevelt

*

You and Me of the 10,000 Wars by Ellen Milholland and Luna

There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still. - Franklin Delano Roosevelt "You're not cute. You do know that, right? That nobody thinks you're cute at all?"

Sam toys with the idea of ignoring Amy entirely, refusing to look up from the newspaper spread across his desk. Soon she gets impatient, clearing her throat with a dangerous noise. When he looks up, her arms are across her chest, and her cheeks are tight against the bones.

He takes his glasses off and folds them carefully. "So, I guess it's possible you were just talking to me."

Amy laughs sharply. "Sam, don't--"

He shakes his head. He likes her well enough, at least he tries, but she's only been working at the White House for a week and already he's learned to avoid her temper. "What did I do now?"

"Oh, little Samuel, don't play dumb with me," she says, and drops a sheet of paper in front of him.

Sam closes his eyes and thinks, National emergency, national emergency, but when he opens his eyes again, nothing's happened. Amy's still standing there, glaring down at him.

"Are you going to defend yourself here?" she asks.

Sam picks up the paper and reads it, and though he tries to stifle it, a little squeak of laughter manages to work its way out. It's a page from the dictionary, ripped out, and 'simper' is surrounded by a big, pink highlighter heart.

"Well, it's not altogether inaccurate."

"I've been here a week, Sam. A week. And already, I'm getting obnoxious messages in my inbox. I don't know what I've done to you to make you--"

"Hang on a second," he says. "What makes you think I did this?"

Amy opens her mouth and closes it, lowering her chin as if she's realized how ridiculous she looks. "It wasn't you," she says.

"I sort of wish I could take credit."

"I think I might go back to my desk and amuse myself with my own mortification now, okay?"

Sam just nods. Amy tosses her head so that her hair swishes out of her eyes. She turns on her heel and is gone, footsteps muffled by the carpet. He reaches for his glasses and then changes his mind, picking up his coffee mug instead. There's only a dribble left, and it's cold when it touches his tongue. He tilts his head and peers into the bullpen. "Ginger?"

Silence. It was worth a shot. He sighs and stands to refill the cup for the third time in an hour.

The instant he's out of the office, C.J. falls into step with him. She comes from nowhere, rustling her armload of papers like a cyclone in stockings. "Good morning," he ventures.

"Morning," she grumbles, leaving out any statement of quality. "You know, sometimes I can't believe the nerve of the United States Congress."

"You and King George the Third," he says. "What's going on?"

"You haven't heard?"

He takes a deep breath. "This is going to be that kind of day, huh?"

C.J. follows him toward the breakfast cart, picking up a cruller while he fills his cup. "They're introducing a stem cell research act this week."

"The House?" He tips the carton of half-and-half and watches the color of the coffee change.

"Senate. Sponsored by Martha Ray Grace and, you'll like this, Lloyd Russell."

Sam raises his head. "I'm sorry, you had food in your mouth there and I thought you said--"

"Lloyd Russell," she repeats, rolling the syllables. Her tongue flicks out to check her lipstick for cruller crumbs. "That's a blast from the past, huh?"

His skull feels as if it's been hammered too tight at the temples. "There's no chance this is an act in favor of stem cell research, is there?"

"Yes, because all the Republicans in the country just woke up this morning and decided to switch sides, and this is how they wanted to notify us." She juggles her notes and her pastry to wave a blue file folder at him like a battle flag. "This isn't supposed to be happening. They're supposed to be packing their suitcases and donning their Bermuda shorts so they can play kickball or whatever it is they do during recess."

"They have a convention," he points out. "In which they establish their party's entire platform--"

She stares at him down the bridge of her nose. "Exactly how weak do you take your coffee?"

Sam looks down. The coffee is lighter than chocolate milk. He rolls his eyes, sets the half-and-half back on the cart, and starts to move away. "I thought Lloyd Russell was dead. I thought Mandy, you know, staked him through the heart."

"Embryos, scientists, in vitro fertilization, cloning," she chants, walking backwards in front of him. "Not exactly a few of my favorite things. Where are you going?"

"My office?" he suggests hopefully.

"Staff." She points at her watch and her files slip. He catches the blue folder with one hand and helps her gather everything up. "Thanks. I guess--you know, I assumed Josh would've told you about this the minute you came in."

Sam hesitates as they cross into the hallway. The mug heats his palm to the point of pain. "He didn't."

C.J. glances over her shoulder. "Maybe he was preoccupied," she says innocently.

The impulse to chuckle is strong, but he turns it into a cough. "You wouldn't happen to own a pink highlighter, would you?"

She looks him straight in the eyes, and her gaze is steady even though the corners of her mouth are twitching. "No," she says. They walk to Leo's office.

They're not the first to get there. Toby is pacing and Josh is sitting on the couch, loosening and tightening the knot in his tie. He looks up as C.J. and Sam come in and gives them a lopsided smile. "Hey," he says.

"Lloyd Russell isn't dead?" Sam asks, taking the other spot on the couch. He sits back, considers the odds that he might fall asleep, and leans forward again, placing his elbows on his knees. The joke isn't funnier the second time.

"How are we just hearing about this now?" Toby asks the room at large, as he trudges in front of Leo's desk. "Someone had to write the bill, right? Someone had to research it, someone had to type it up, someone had to go to the damn Xerox machine--how were we not informed two weeks ago?" He touches his forehead, and Sam can feel the same headache coming on.

"It's my fault." C.J. brushes past him on her way to the table, where she sets her papers down. "I broke into the wrong room at the Watergate and all I found was a mop and some towels."

Toby's automatic glare softens when he notices C.J.'s unfinished cruller. He takes a step toward her. "Four months to the election. Most Senators don't tie their shoes this time of year without calling in a camera crew."

"Obviously, someone forgot to put us on their phone tree," she says, leaning against the top of a chair. "And stop leering at my breakfast; it's unseemly."

Sam's coffee tastes like sour milk, but he swallows it anyway. "Now that we know, what are we going to do?"

Josh looks too cheerful for this time of this morning, even though it's good to see him smiling. He rests his arm along the top of the cushion, a few inches behind Sam's shoulders. "The thing about Lloyd Russell--"

"The thing about Lloyd Russell," Amy says from the doorway, "is that you guys have always managed to underestimate how much Congressional Democrats hate you."

"Thank God we've got someone to enlighten us," Toby mutters, low enough that only C.J. and Sam can hear him. Sam exhales through his teeth and looks down at his lap instead of watching Amy come in.

"Russell's a clown." Josh laughs. "Three years ago when he tried to play us on 443 I dunked him like a doughnut."

Amy stands in front of the sofa, hands on her hips, and shakes her head. "And you think you smacked him around once and he saw the light? He hasn't forgotten that he made significant inroads into your support base, and here he is with a chance to remind you."

"Maybe he thinks he's going to challenge Hoynes in four years," Sam says. He realizes that Amy is staring at him, one of her eyebrows lifted in a perfect arch. All at once it's obvious, and he stands up a little too quickly. Blood rushes to his head; shadows flicker at the edges of his vision.

Amy slides neatly into his seat, crossing her legs and showing him her teeth when she smiles. "Maybe he thinks he's going to challenge Ritchie in four years."

Josh places his hand an inch from Amy's on the couch cushion. "You really think he has the stones to try to sabotage us?"

Before she can answer, Leo stomps in through the door from the Oval. There's a flash of white and blue and sunlight, before the door shuts behind him. He sets his briefcase down hard on the floor by his desk. "Tell me what it's going to take to get you all out of my office as quickly as possible."

"A bonus?" Josh suggests.

Amy nods. "Casual Fridays."

"A staff trip to Club Med." They all turn to Toby, who just shrugs and takes a bite of C.J.'s cruller. "I'm a sucker for tiki torches."

Leo is clearly not amused, but Sam is preoccupied by the fact that he has nowhere to stand where he doesn't look like a little boy come to play with the big kids. He tries to lean casually against the sofa's arm, but Josh flicks a glance at him, and Sam's across the office.

C.J. folds her arms. "Actually, we were just sitting in here, seven A.M. on a Monday morning, saying how much we love these little get-togethers--"

"Could somebody please gag C.J. with something?" Leo falls back into his chair with a sigh.

"Did the President wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, Leo?" Josh asks.

Sam notices the way Josh's hand steals closer and closer to Amy's thigh, and he doesn't want to say anything, but he wishes someone would interrupt the meeting to tell them to stop being fourteen years old.

Leo looks up, over his glasses. "I really have no idea, seeing as I wasn't sleeping in the President's bed."

"Lloyd Russell," Sam blurts out.

Leo turns to him, eyebrows raised. "Lord John Marbury."

Sam's coffee cup stops halfway to his mouth. "Excuse me?"

"I thought we might be playing a little game, like, oh, Say-A-Name-Leo-Never-Wants-To-Hear-At-A-Staff-Meeting."

"No, we weren't playing a game. I mean, I wasn't--"

"What Sam is trying and failing to say is that Lloyd Russell is the first order of business," Amy says, her eyes laughing. Sam looks down, suddenly fascinated with his own shoes.

"Stem cell research?" Leo asks, without looking up from his legal pad.

"Excuse me," C.J. says, drawing up to her full height. "I just need to know if you have some sort of superpower. Some sort of magical gift that allows you to read the minds of us unsuspecting mortals. I need you to tell me now, okay?"

"Okay, yeah, C.J. That, and Margaret passed me a note about it this morning. But the superpower thing, we can pretend that's true if it makes you happy." C.J. slouches, and Leo proceeds to ignore her. "Someone's sorting out a response to this?"

"I'm going to hand this one off to Sam," Toby says.

Sam raises his head. "You are?"

Leo clears his throat. "I don't suppose you could possibly discuss that somewhere besides my office? And Josh?"

When Sam looks over, Josh is paying much more attention to the way his breath is rustling Amy's hair against her shoulder than he is to the meeting going on around them. Sam looks away, deciding he just doesn't have the energy for this today.

"Josh?" Leo says again.

"Oh, uh, yeah?" Josh says, backing away quickly from Amy.

"Hey, welcome back to the meeting," Leo says, and Josh at least has the decency to look embarrassed. "I was saying, you're dealing with our friends on the Hill?"

"I'm your man," Josh says, too happily, and out of the corner of his eye, Sam sees C.J. roll her eyes in Toby's direction.

"Anything else?" Leo asks. "And please, let that be a rhetorical question."

Sam is gone almost before Leo invites them to leave, rushing through the bullpen towards his office. He's being ridiculously selfish and he knows it, but it doesn't keep his throat from closing every single time he sees Josh fawning all over Amy.

Donna's tossing something into his inbox when Sam gets to his office. As much as he knows he shouldn't, he just can't resist saying, "Donna, can I ask you something?"

"I am a fount of information," she says and smiles, leaning back against the doorjamb.

"Do you think--" He really shouldn't.

"Do I think what, Sam?" Donna asks, her brow creasing.

"Do you think--that Josh and Amy are happy?"

Her eyelids drop as she looks away. "I really can't say. I'm not--I'm not the person to ask. Why?"

"Just-- you know, making conversation," Sam says lightly. "Thanks." He shuts the door behind her as she leaves, then leans against it, eyes burning. Into the empty office, he murmurs, "You need a plan."

He can't have stood still for long, not more than a minute or two before the heavy thwap of a rubber ball on shatterproof glass snaps him out of it. Without turning, he can almost see through the slanted blinds, enough to make out the murky outline of Toby at his desk. Sam takes a beat. Then he opens the door so he can circle into Toby's office.

"So, hi," he says. "'I'm going to hand this one off to Sam'?"

"Yes." Toby tosses the little red ball from hand to hand. "But don't worry, I meant it in the sense that you'll do all the work and I'll retain veto power."

"Oh." Sam glances wistfully at Toby's couch, blinks and stays on his feet. "Great. This wouldn't be one of those simple positions we can just articulate in a paragraph and drop into a radio address, would it?"

"Have we ever been able to do that?"

"No."

"No," Toby agrees. "What--" He stops to think, then whips the ball at Sam's window again. It ricochets back to him. "Senator Grace, that makes sense, but what the hell is a Democrat doing backing this thing?"

Sam reaches up to rub the back of his neck. "Maybe he's passionately opposed to the manipulation of human DNA. Could be a moral position."

"A moral position. Lloyd Russell." Toby says it like an expletive, and Sam is already sick of hearing the name.

"Maybe someone promised him something. Maybe he made a pact with the Devil." Sam shrugs. "Anyway, Josh'll find out."

"If he isn't too busy picking wildflowers."

Sam bites the inside of his cheek, refusing to let himself wince. "He'll find out," he says. His throat is dry. He looks past Toby, at the framed photos and headlines on the office walls, at the books on the shelves. "You know what I'm going to do?"

Toby traps the ball against the surface of his desk with one hand and picks up a pencil with the other. "Sit down at your desk, study the schedule for the next three weeks and figure out when the President can express his support for stem cell research without putting his head on the block on the way to the convention."

"I'm going to call Ainsley Hayes." He's half surprised when he hears himself say it, but it makes sense, of course. Ainsley is intelligent, Ainsley likes talking to him, and Ainsley won't ask about Josh. In the back of his mind this is taking the shape of a plan.

"Hmm." Toby's forehead creases almost invisibly. "That's good. Get her to give you their side of the argument, plan our responses in advance."

"Right," he says, grateful for the excuse. Normally he's good at finding one, at calling the woman he wants to call. Better at it than Josh, anyway. He starts to sigh but covers by feigning a yawn, concentrating hard on the bookshelf for a few seconds.

Toby is still staring at him, looking almost as if he wants to say something, which is far from his natural expression. "Need help finding your way back to your office?"

"Sorry." He moves toward the doorway, lifting his chin up. "Hey, Toby, you're a man of letters, right? A man who respects the English language."

Toby turns the pencil in his fingers, tapping the eraser on his blotter. "...Okay."

Sam actually starts to smile. "Defacing a dictionary--that's almost sacrilegious, wouldn't you say?"

He ducks out of the office before Toby can aim the rubber ball at his head.

*

"Come on, can't we all agree that I'm much scarier than Amy?" Josh asks.

Josh is sitting on Toby's couch, and Amy is practically in his lap. Sam's balancing only half-gracefully on the corner of Toby's desk. It's the middle of the morning, but he's tired, and watching Amy and Josh only makes it worse.

"Could I point out that even Josh is afraid of me?" Amy crosses her arms smugly across her chest, and Toby presses the point of his pencil so hard against his blotter that the tip breaks.

"I couldn't be less afraid of you if you were a kitten," Josh counters, punching Amy lightly in the side, lingering just a moment too long. Sam is sure nobody notices except him, so he tries to ignore it. He tries.

"You are afraid of me. Who else recalls the fact that Josh was too scared to even call me and ask me--"

"I wasn't scared! I'm just--"

"You're an idiot, Josh, okay? A scared little boy." Toby wields his pencil like a knife. "Can we please move on now, if for no other reason than I'm seriously considering killing myself with this broken pencil?"

Josh and Amy look up from one another as if they've forgotten anyone else was in the room. Josh is bewildered. "Huh?"

"Look, maybe you two should deal with Congress together. When it comes to frightening, you two are more than the sum of your parts." Toby says it pointedly, throwing a glance in Sam's direction, but Sam is busy pretending to be a study in boredom.

Josh shakes his head. "Toby, you don't--"

"Oh, for the love of God," C.J. says, flattening her hand loudly against her knee. "Josh can go screw with Lloyd Russell's head, and you, Amy, will do the voodoo you do with women and deal with Grace. Settled?"

There's nothing about this meeting that doesn't make Sam want to run to Ainsley's office. But he manages to sit still, and he says, "And I, apparently, will be crafting the White House's response. Alone. Without any help from Toby."

"Well, I need something to say now, because I'm going to get the question at my morning briefing." C.J. leans back in her seat, thumbing through the folder in her lap, while Josh and Amy gaze at one another like teenagers.

"Say--say that the White House is glad to be engaging in a public debate--" Sam stops to think for a moment. He's easily distracted by Josh's mouth near Amy's shoulder.

"Say that the President is and always has been a supporter of medical innovation, but will gladly agree with Congress that we should take it--that we should proceed with caution," Toby says. "And if it's at all possible--"

C.J. shakes her head. "They're not going to let me ignore the MS, Toby."

Sam clenches his jaw, really lifting his head for the first time this meeting.

"Avoid it, then, okay?" Toby says. "Lead them on a tangent, amaze them with magic tricks, just, let's not get into it today."

"Sam?" C.J. asks.

Sam just shrugs, and though he hates himself for it, he says, "Let's just minimize our position. Avoid the MS, and move on to something else."

C.J. raises an eyebrow at him, but then just nods and marks something down on her pad. "It had to be a Monday morning, didn't it?"

Josh lifts his head at the tone of Sam's voice. "It's only a couple weeks until the convention," Josh says. "They have to make us look as bad as possible, as soon as possible." His eyes are soft, but Sam doesn't look back.

"Speaking of people looking bad," Amy says, waving a hand for attention, "I don't suppose any of you have taken a serious look at the women in the workplace report I went to the trouble of Xeroxing."

Toby just blinks. "Well, this is just going nowhere fast."

"You can't just sit back and ignore--"

"No, you're right, we can't. But you can't expect us to call out the National Guard every time the WLC tells me women aren't getting equal treatment. It's not like we were unaware, or that, you know, we weren't already Democrats here," Toby says, sighing.

Amy just pouts in a way that makes Sam want to throttle her. Then Josh touches her hand, rubs it soothingly, and she relaxes and looks happy.

"Are we done here?" Sam asks, more sharply than he intends. As they leave, he throws back to Toby, "I'll be talking with Ainsley."

Toby nods, and Sam is tempted to explain, but he doesn't, just heads down the stairs like a man with a mission. People know that look, and they stay out of his way.

At her office door--a real office this time, fit for a deputy, not any kind of distribution venue--he knocks, marching in even as his knuckles hit the wood.

"Hello, Sam. So nice of you to knock," Ainsley says, looking up at him over her glasses. She has a black fountain pen in one hand and a Pepsi in the other, and she's really quite stunning in her charcoal suit and her powder blue camisole.

"I wanted to, uh, talk to you," he stammers.

She caps the pen. "Here I was hoping you'd come to bring me my housewarming present. I'll just have to settle. Have a seat?" Ainsley takes off her glasses and pushes a loose tendril of hair back behind her ear. "What can I help you with today?"

"Stem cells."

She quirks a brow. "Is that some kind of code?"

Sam shakes his head, and laughs nervously. "No, no. Martha Ray Grace is announcing a stem cell research act on the floor of the Senate today."

Ainsley frowns. "And you want me to help you figure out what she's going to say."

"And," Sam starts, but then his voice gets caught in this throat. He can do this. He is a man, after all. "And I'd like you to have lunch with me."

"Well, okay, I was just going to eat here, but--"

"No, I mean--I want you to have lunch. With me."

Ainsley's eyes widen just a little, and she takes a long drink from her soda can. "You're a difficult man to refuse, Sam."

Sam smiles hard enough to break something in his face. "Then let's talk stem cells."

*

The first time he has lunch with Ainsley in the Mess Hall, she pours maple syrup on her fruit salad and it almost causes him to rethink the whole plan. But then they start talking about Martha Ray Grace, her voting record, her home state. Soon they're off on a tangent about state legislatures and lawsuits and Sam manages to get enough words in edgewise to suggest that perhaps they should continue the conversation another day. During the second lunch he takes plenty of time over his turkey wrap and lets her digress again, this time into a story about when she clerked for Justice Dreifort.

"And," she's saying, "we're all standing there, and Sherman just zips up his pants and turns around and says, 'If we're going to discuss equal protection--'"

"Ainsley," Sam interrupts, clutching his napkin. "I'm trying to follow along with you, honestly I am, but you've gone from stem cells to neo-Nazi websites to--what was it a minute ago?"

"Um, the Missouri legislature's budget?" She smiles weakly. "But that part was related to the stem cells. Really, it was. I'm sorry, Sam, you just got me talking and I know I'm supposed to be focused, but it's my lunch hour and I'm relaxed and, look, I think I'm eating your pickle."

She puts the vegetable down on her plate and blushes. The pink creeps up from her throat and settles under her cheekbones, and it's very pretty. He grins at her. "You're sure you don't have a problem? An eating disorder? You're not going to go into the bathroom and--"

"No!" Ainsley drops her hands into her lap, eyes flashing, blush deepening. "See, that is something that I have a problem with. That kind of thinking. I'm a healthy woman with a healthy appetite and you assume that there's something wrong with--I'm doing it again, aren't I?"

He laughs. It's the most he's felt like laughing since Amy moved her papers, her diplomas and a potted ficus into the empty office across from C.J. and Carol. "I like listening to you talk," he says.

"Oh." She doesn't blush more at this, or look down, or let her eyelashes fall. "Thank you."

"Let's have dinner," he says. She doesn't reply right away. Uncomfortable, he adds, "Sometime, this week, tomorrow or the next day. After work. During work, even."

"Okay."

"So we can sort all of this out and you can clarify what the Missouri state legislature--"

She's the one grinning now, and he feels his face heat up until he's the one blushing. "I said okay, Sam."

So he spends Wednesday and Thursday asking about restaurants, comparing notes with his own experiences. He feels like he should know these things already, but it's not as if he's had many good dates in Washington. He pleads with Ginger in the hallway and she remembers that only jerks have ever taken her to L'Auberge. Larry contributes that he once scored big with Vidalia, which is useful information until he mentions the Deep South atmosphere, and Sam can only imagine how fake it would seem.

He's careful not to bring it up around Josh or Amy. He doesn't want to know where they go when they're not working. The glimpses he gets of their relationship during the day are more than enough. So he isn't expecting it when Josh swings into his office on Wednesday night and says, "You've been asking people about restaurants?"

"Yeah." Sam squints very closely at the screen of his laptop. Black seven, red eight.

"For dinner?" Josh continues. "Got something going on?"

Two of spades. Don't look up, he thinks. "No, why?"

"I mean, I know I'm not Zagat's or anything."

The words sound stung and Sam lifts his head before he can catch himself. Josh slides a hand up along the frame of the door, his eyes wide and waiting. Sam doesn't know what Josh wants from him, so he just says, "It's not a big thing. I'm just having dinner with Ainsley."

Josh's eyebrows jump a little. "Really."

"It's really not a thing." He doesn't know why he needed to repeat that.

"Okay." Josh starts to move out of the doorway, bounces back. "Hey. L'Auberge. They love that kind of thing."

The next afternoon, Sam crosses his fingers and makes reservations at the Garden Café. He took Mallory there once, but history can't always repeat itself. The food is good, even though the eight o'clock theater crowd makes him feel underdressed in an everyday Armani suit. Ainsley doesn't seem to mind being the only woman without an evening gown, though she's unbuttoned one more button than usual on her blouse. Sam's steak is perfectly medium rare, and he tries not to worry about whether it means something that she's having mahi mahi.

"It's great with the lemongrass," she says, raising a forkful to her lips. Sam decides to like this about her, that she enjoys a good meal and doesn't nibble, bites right in.

"You were going to tell me about Grace's position on studying stem cells," he reminds her.

"Indeed I was. What did you need to know?"

He cuts a bite of his steak. "Let's pretend I'm not very bright and start with, what's Grace's position on studying stem cells?"

"It's bad."

He's thinking more about the marinade and the glitter of Ainsley's rings when he says, "Mm. Why?"

She snorts. "Are we still pretending you're not very bright?" She drinks some Chardonnay, rolling it around in her mouth before she swallows. Lisa once told him that only blonde women should drink white wine. It sounded like a joke then; now it seems true. "There's all sorts of potential for abuse," Ainsley continues. "It's an unexplored field of research in the hands of lawless--"

"Which means godless," Sam notes, reaching for his Guinness.

She purses her lips. "--Lawless scientists, and the source material is human embryos, human fetal tissue. It's meddling with the natural order, and that's hubris, and it opens the door to cloning. And you're not in favor of cloning," she asks sweetly, "are you, Sam?"

"Depends. Can we clone Democratic voters in contested districts?" They both chuckle. Their mixed laughter sounds pleasant, and Sam goes on, "Stem cell research could save lives. This research could cure diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson's. It could cure cancer," he says, thinking, but only for a moment, about the State of the Union. "It could help us understand anything and everything about human development--what do you say to that?"

"What do you say to the fact that you just used the word 'could' four times in a row? I would be careful where I waved that banner." She wiggles her fork at him, a small slice of her fish speared on its tines. "You should taste this."

He leans awkwardly across the table and takes the bite, and it's very good. She pulls back the fork a little too quickly, but she looks at him through her eyelashes. He chokes as he swallows, and she doesn't hide her smirk very well.

Sam does what he's best at: he looks straight at her and tells her the truth. "What do I say? I say that nothing great was ever accomplished without starting out with one 'could,' or a hundred, or a thousand. If I can only come up with four in a row, I'm just not trying hard enough."

She smiles, not just her mouth, but her whole face. "You're charming. You know that, Sam?"

He laughs. "I'd rather leave you speechless. But that seems to be impossible, so I'll have to take the compliment."

The apples of her cheeks darken. Ainsley swirls the wine in her glass, stem between her middle and ring fingers, and the alcohol leaves a distortion ring against the glass. She looks away when she says, "It's going to be about MS."

"I know." Sam bites away a piece of fresh asparagus.

"Don't--"

He likes the concern in her voice. "Don't worry. We're in this to win."

She smiles. Yes, indeed, he likes this one quite a bit.

*

He doesn't exactly kiss Ainsley goodbye, just presses his lips against her jaw for a second before she gets in her car to go home. When he checks his watch, it's barely past nine, time enough to go back to his office and maybe get in a few hours of work. Besides, he likes driving through Washington at night, when everything is backlit and soft, even the asphalt. He goes the long way around.

He takes his usual spot behind C.J.'s Nissan, but Josh's Jetta, usually one space back, is nowhere to be seen. Sam tries not to notice, but it's too easy to parallel park. Get a life, he thinks. Josh has one.

Inside the building, he shrugs off his jacket and pokes his head into offices to see who's still around. He's beginning to think the place is empty, when C.J. calls out from her office, "We're in here!"

Donna is sitting on the floor, legs drawn up to her chest, papers spread out around her. C.J.'s bare feet are propped up on her desk, and her ankles are showing. "Sam the man," C.J. says. "Have a seat. Make yourself comfortable. Join us in lively discourse."

Donna bursts into laughter, hiding her face against her knees, as Sam asks, "Where's Toby? You killed him, didn't you?"

"Toby's out buying me food," C.J. says, and then, looking hurt, adds, "And what, a couple of women can't be happy without having committed some terrible crime?"

Sam folds his arms and leans against the wall just inside her door. "Not this happy."

Donna points a finger at the papers by her feet. "Amy's women in the workplace report," she explains, and when she glances in C.J.'s direction, they dissolve into helpless laughter once again.

C.J. regains her composure first. "Sam, Amy thinks you should know that fifty to seventy-five percent of employed women will experience sexual harassment on the job. So, you know, if Toby ever does anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, we'll back you up." Donna just grins.

"See, I walked in here in a good mood, and you just couldn't wait to drag me down," Sam says, but he knows it's a joke, and so he's smiling.

"Hey, now, C.J.," Donna says, wagging her finger, "you can't talk to him that way. It says here, on page"--she taps the paper for emphasis--"nine thousand eight hundred ninety-three--"

"I'm pretty sure that was nine thousand eight hundred ninety-four there, good buddy," C.J. says.

"I stand corrected," Donna giggles.

The report isn't what's funny, Sam knows; it's Amy spending six hours hovering over the copier. It's the new kid imagining that she can provide thousands of pages of information they wouldn't already have, which is exactly the kind of thing Sam would have done once, back at the beginning. But at the moment he has no reason or desire to say so--be honest--to defend Josh's girlfriend. "Hey, guys, I hate to interrupt your riotously good time here, but--"

"But you're going to anyway." Donna stretches her legs out in front of her, brushing the wrinkles out of her slacks. "You're going to take away the ten minutes of fun I've had in the last three years and smash it to smithereens, aren't you?"

"Well, I was going to employ slightly less dramatic language, but--"

C.J. rolls her eyes. "Go ahead, Sam. Donna needs to spend less time imitating her boss and more time assisting him."

"That sounded like harassment to me." Donna grabs for the women in the workplace booklet and flips its pages. "You, Sam?"

"I'm staying as many feet away from that as possible," he says. "But seriously--I was talking with Ainsley tonight."

"So we heard," C.J. says, stroking the underside of her chin.

"About stem cells. Stem cells." Sam's voice is too quick and too high.

Donna grins in C.J.'s direction. "That really drives the women wild."

Sam points to the book in her lap. "Check out page five fifteen, and you'll discover that you could be fired many, many times for that comment."

"Okay, okay." C.J. looks around as if the room is crowded. "Children, could we quiet down for a second?"

"There's more behind this than cloning, or even--the other thing." He isn't sure why he can't talk about the MS when Donna's looking at him that way. He pushes himself off the wall and steps around her. "It's an abortion issue. A backhanded attempt to classify an embryo as a person."

C.J. slides her feet off the desk and sits up straight. "Oh ho!"

"This is bigger than--" Sam stops and wrinkles his nose at her. "Oh ho?"

She tilts her head and raises her shoulders. "It's the kind of thing you say when you've found a clue."

"Yeah, if you live in a story by Arthur Conan Doyle." He turns around, leaning against the edge of her desk. "It's bigger than a low-ranking Republican Senator from Kansas and a pissed-off, washed-out Democrat. This is an organized assault."

Donna shuffles some of the loose sheets of paper together. "So along with putting the President in a position where he can't defend medical research without seeming selfish--"

"They force his hand on abortion." Sam slides his hands into his pockets. "We're already somewhat precarious on this. There are people who aren't comfortable--there are people who think that because he's a Catholic with strong moral convictions that he's tentative about a woman's right to choose."

"I know those people," C.J. says. "I'm friends with some of those people."

Sam turns his head. "He nominated Mendoza to the bench, C.J. Exactly who do your friends think they're going to vote for, Seth Gillette?"

She twists her hair up, secures it with a clip. "I'm just saying."

"If they play this well, we're going to be between the Christian right and a hard place." Sam pushes his fingers through his hair. "I don't know how they got Lloyd Russell to jump the fence. And Grace? This is the kind of thing you pull when you're running for Vice-President, and she's nowhere near that level. Someone's got to be holding out one hell of a carrot."

"I'll talk to Josh when he gets here tomorrow." Donna yawns as she stands up. "But now I'm going home."

C.J. makes a sweeping gesture at the report scattered on her carpet. "Aren't you forgetting your bedtime reading?"

"Let me see if I can summarize it from memory." Donna scrunches her eyes shut, faking intense concentration. "Sexism bad," she announces in a monotone. "Feminism good."

"Give the woman a cigar!" C.J. laughs, and they join in. "See you tomorrow."

"'Night." Donna strolls out into the darkened bullpen.

When she's gone, C.J. leans forward, resting her elbows on the desk. She watches Sam intently. "I joke around," she says, her voice soft, "but you know how I take this stuff, right?"

He knows, and sometimes it's made her his favorite person in the building. "I've seen the highlight reel."

She nods. "Yeah. So you're going to write us one of your patented brilliant statements, right? Where we address all these things like the people we are, without keeping our positions in the closet?"

Sam starts to flinch, catches himself and flinches some more. He knows he looks stupid, so he backs away from her desk. "I'm going to try."

"You could stick around for a while. Toby's coming back with Indian food. We've got to start kicking around the convention schedule anyway."

Her tone is concerned, the way Ainsley's was in the restaurant, but this time it sets him on edge. He forces himself to give her a slight smile, trying not to think that C.J. and Toby are anything like Josh and Amy. "I ate, remember?"

"Right." C.J. draws the word out. "Did you have fun?"

He pauses. "You know, I genuinely did."

"Then you have my permission to go home and swoon." She waves at him. "I'll see you tomorrow? And you'll be fired up?"

It would be wonderful if he could promise that. "I'll see you tomorrow," he says, as he turns to go. It's the best he can do.

"Sam?" He looks back over his shoulder. "You should call her," C.J. says.

He smiles bigger and nods before he walks away.

*

Josh appears in Sam's office, mouth open and ready to talk. Sam is on the phone, though, and he raises a finger: one second. Josh pushes his hands into his pockets, and tries to make himself look busy by examining the photographs on the wall, the books on the shelf.

"Oh, exactly," Sam says into the phone, and of course it's Ainsley on the other end of the line. This might be how happy feels, but he knows his own life, knows that he can never really be sure.

Ainsley is talking about the most beautiful places in the world. Sam doesn't know how the topic got started--though frankly with Ainsley, he thinks himself lucky to have any idea of what the current topic happens to be--but it's interesting, hearing her talk about the lighthouse at Cape Hatteras and the piazza at St. Mark's Basilica. He can imagine the way her eyes get faraway, and that makes him smile, too, to feel like he understands someone again.

When he raises his head, Josh is facing away from him, and Sam is somehow disappointed.

"I don't know," he says, "I'd have to argue with you about the Lincoln Memorial. I'll have to take you to the FDR."

"Sam, I've been to the FDR Memorial."

"If you didn't have to catch your breath, you didn't see it well enough," Sam says, tapping a pen against the edge of the desk. Josh turns, his expression strained, pointing at his watch. Some part of Sam wishes it would hurt Josh, just a little, to hear him talking like this to someone else. Ainsley is going on about the physical grandeur of the Lincoln, when Sam interrupts her to say, "I'm sorry to do this to you, but I really have to go do some actual work."

"Are you implying I have all day to sit and chat on the phone with you?" she asks playfully. "You are aware I have a job, right?"

"The world's smallest violin," he says with a laugh.

"I won't forget this. See you tonight," she says.

When they've hung up, Sam looks up at Josh. "Hey, sorry about that. She'll talk your ear off if you let her. Well, it's not so much the talking, it's the fact that you'll want to cut your own ear--"

"Ainsley?"

The way Josh says her name is strangely satisfying to Sam, even while his stomach twists. He nods.

"I came to, uh, ask you a favor," Josh says, but he won't quite meet Sam's eyes.

Sam almost says, "Anything," because it's true even now. Instead, he says, "I'm a talented guy. I get things done." He's trying to sound light, and it's not working.

"Amy," Josh starts, and Sam's jaw muscles clench involuntarily. Josh seems to notice and smiles faintly. "Amy needs some help."

"Shouldn't she be in with Grace?" Sam asks, checking his watch.

"She is. That's what--" Josh says, but shakes his head and stops.

"You could go in, bail her out," Sam says, understanding what Josh isn't saying. This is the first real meeting with someone from the Hill Amy's taken as a White House representative. The first meeting Sam took in one of the West Wing's plush sitting rooms, he forgot everything he knew and made an impressive fool of himself.

"It can't be me," Josh says. "It'll be even worse if it's me."

"Yeah. Yeah, fine. But I'll need, you know, at least the appearance of a good reason for sitting in," Sam says, wishing he could refuse.

Josh's eyes soften. "You've been reading up on stem cells, haven't you?"

Sam gestures towards a pile of folders and spiral bound volumes and binders. "Just a little."

"Well, Amy's just playing the woman's issue. Grace will know as well as anybody that Amy couldn't tell a stem cell from a tree trunk," Josh says, flashing a dark little smile. "You could just go in--"

"Expert witness. Got it." Sam grabs a legal pad from his desk, slides a pen into his pocket.

"I owe you one, Sam," Josh says, and when they leave the office, Josh's hand ghosts against Sam's back.

Sam knocks on the door to the Mural Room before leaning in. He looks to Amy as if to ask, "May I?" and she inclines her head in acceptance. Sam extends his hand to Senator Grace, a short, dishwater blonde in a dove-gray summer suit. "Senator Grace, I'm Sam Seaborn, and I work with Toby Ziegler in Communications."

"Of course," Grace says, and her voice is a smirk.

"It's a pleasure to finally meet you. There're only a few senators I haven't had the chance to meet. I'm beginning to think they're avoiding me," Sam says, flashing his most winning smile, but Grace is unimpressed, arching a delicately plucked eyebrow.

"The senator and I were in the middle of discussing the ramifications of stem cell research on a woman's right to--" Amy says, but Grace smoothly cuts her off.

"What Amy means to say is that she was in the middle of accusing me of being so backwards I'd like to see women barefoot and bearing children in the corn fields."

Sam shoots a worried glance in Amy's direction, but her head is down so her hair falls over her face. "Amy's just a little nervous about the stem cell research bill. We all are. And I'm sure you can understand why we invited you here today."

"You're hoping I'll keep the bill off the floor until after the recess." Grace leans back and crosses her legs so that her right knee jabs into the air.

"We're Democrats, Senator, not idiots." Sam chuckles. "Though, if that's an offer, we're not going to turn you down."

Grace's smile is small and icy, but it's a concession, at least. She shifts her body to face Sam more directly, as an equal. Sam can see Amy's face fall from the corner of his eye, and he flips through his notes to spare her. "It certainly isn't," Grace says. "But not a bad try."

"Can you give me a heads up on what we might be seeing in your bill today?" Sam tries to make it sound like a personal favor, leaning forward.

"I suppose I don't have to tell you we're not allocating the national defense budget to stem cells."

"Please don't. I don't need that kind of a shock so early in the morning." He levels a long look at Grace. "You know why you're here."

"Russell." Grace shrugs slightly, uncrossing and re-crossing her legs.

"We haven't underestimated your intelligence, Senator Grace," Sam says, but the second half of the sentence goes unsaid: don't underestimate ours.

This time, her smile shows her teeth. "Lloyd Russell isn't a man who easily forgets the past. Or one who doesn't have dreams for the future."

Amy is silent, and Sam rises. "Okay. Well, it's been fun."

"More than you could imagine," Grace says, extending her manicured hand towards Sam and shaking more firmly than he might have expected. Her handshake with Amy is half-hearted and her smile nonexistent, and she disappears in a single movement.

Amy turns back to Sam, thin-lipped. "Thanks."

Sam shrugs. "You're not going to be able to handle them just because you're having meetings in the Mural Room. And you know that."

Her eyes concede the point, and she doesn't move, even as Sam brushes past her.

Four hours later, and there's possibly nothing about stem cells Sam doesn't know. He's drawn up preliminary notes for the speech the President's giving to the AARP board of directors and handed it off to Toby, and he's dropped a paragraph into the weekly radio address about women in the workplace.

Ginger pokes her head in the door. "Toby--"

"Now!" Toby bellows from his office.

"--wants you to watch something," Ginger says, cringing.

Toby's television is on, and the volume is up. He's watching the C-SPAN feed from the Senate floor, where the Majority Leader is in the middle of a prepared statement. "I thought they were leaving early--"

"They are. Now listen," Toby says. Sam obeys, sitting down on the couch.

"...We cannot forget--we must not forget--that our first responsibility is not to a party, but to the people," Senator Jackson is saying. His voice comes from deep in his throat, and Sam suspects he's cultivated that to compensate for the soft edges of his Midwestern accent. "Our first task is not to get ourselves elected but to represent the citizens of our states. All the citizens. Blind loyalty to the party line..."

"Shouldn't he be halfway to Missouri by now?" Josh asks from the doorway. Toby makes a shushing sound at him, and he ambles into the office and sits next to Sam, his weight jostling the couch slightly. "How did it go with Grace?"

"Shh," Sam hisses, eyes fixed on the television. "Missouri," he mutters to himself.

The voice booms on. "...These partisan games are irresponsible and divisive, and they foster distrust among the American people..."

"Come on, this guy was cooked in Cleveland," Josh says, almost laughing, and then his eyes fly wide open. "Hang on--"

"Missouri," Sam repeats. His pulse quickens, conversations with Ainsley reeling through his brain. The penny drops. "Damn it!"

And in the exact same second, Josh knows. "Here it comes."

Jackson seems to look directly into the camera, right at them, even grinning as he declares, "I'm impressed with the cooperation and initiative shown by Senator Grace of Kansas and Senator Russell of Pennsylvania, who have come together to propose S. 3061, to put a stop to stem cell research. It's a commendable piece of legislation, and I hope we'll all find the courage to unite behind it, and I believe it'll be first on our agenda when this body returns to session in September."

Josh punches the corner of the couch cushion as if it were the Majority Leader's gut. Sam grits his teeth, and though the Senator is still talking he doesn't hear another word. Tension makes his neck ache as he turns to look at Toby. "He was the one holding the carrot," Sam says, and he wants to curse himself for not realizing sooner.

"Yeah," Toby says in a strangled tone. His face is the still, grim mask of a man caught in a nightmare. He reaches for a pen and scribbles something on a notepad.

"His home state," Sam groans. "There's a major pro-life movement--the state legislature put the attorney general's budget on the line over Planned Parenthood lawsuits--"

Toby rips the sheet of paper with more force than necessary. "Yeah." He gets up and strides to the door to shove the scrap at Bonnie. "Get this to C.J."

"She's about to start a briefing--"

"Walk very fast," he growls, already turning around. One of his hands moves, maybe involuntarily, to the top of his head. "Second time in a row on this thing, we didn't see it coming."

Josh breathes in slowly. "We saw it coming, just--only about a split second before it came."

"Think that'll fly with Leo?"

"Well, if we present a united--"

"What the hell have I been paying you people for?" Leo demands, suddenly right outside the office.

Toby shuffles his feet and mumbles, "We have no information on that at this time."

Leo stares at him with a humorless smile. "That seems to be status quo around here lately."

"We were getting jerked around, Leo." Josh flattens his hands on his knees and pushes himself to his feet. "Russell was playing coy with us on the phone; he kept running back to committee so we couldn't pin him down for a meeting. Our people knew he was in someone's lap but nobody was sure who--"

"--and Grace wasn't talking," Sam adds, interrupting because Josh sounds utterly lost. He stands up, ignoring a stab of pain between his shoulders, willing his hands not to shake. He sounds too protective for no good reason. "She dragged Amy into a debate about choice and got out of here before anyone could ask her anything substantive."

"You had a week," Leo points out.

Josh starts to say something, stops, starts over. "She... we know."

Leo looks at them one at a time, Josh first, Sam last, scrutinizing their faces in a way that makes Sam feel like he's five years old, called on the carpet for breaking his grandmother's china. With a sigh, Leo relents. "I know you know."

With those words they're over it, moving straight to damage control. It's fast enough to make Sam dizzy, too fast for him to put his guilt away. "It's going to suck up the news cycle," he says. "Politicians, scientists, the pundit brigade--"

"The best thing we can do right now is remind everyone that Congress is going home." Toby scratches his chin. "We have other issues to focus on; we'll discuss this bill closer to the time when it's up for a vote."

"Right. And underline the point that while Ted Jackson's fly-fishing we're actually here putting in the daily grind. For all the good it does us." Leo points his chin at Josh. "You."

"Getting on the phone. Now." Josh hurries to leave, his shoulder bumping Sam's on the way.

"Yesterday would've been nice," Leo says, his voice a little lighter as he steps out of Josh's path. "C.J. has it?" he asks.

"Slipped her a note," Toby says.

Leo nods toward another of the monitors on Toby's shelf. "Let's hope it's enough."

They follow his eyes and watch C.J. walking to her podium, her mouth in a straight line, giving nothing away. The three of them stand still, and Sam wants to cross his fingers for her as the barrage begins, as the first voices call out her name. She holds her head up high, and even on the screen there's an air of amused authority about her, like a kindergarten teacher about to settle her class down.

"Before we get started," she says, "I'd like to congratulate the Senate and the House of Representatives for concluding their session. Here's hoping nobody gets poison ivy or falls out of the treehouse during summer break."

Leo chuckles, Toby almost smiles, and the knots in Sam's neck loosen a little. He can't worry about what he should have realized, the problems he should have solved; there isn't time. When C.J.'s briefing is safely underway he leaves Toby's office, hardly even giving a thought to checking on whether Josh is coping. Sam has, he reminds himself, other issues to focus on.

*

"Thirty," Ainsley says. She's looking down into her glass, trying not to laugh aloud. "It's really not a difficult task, Sam, figuring out the tip."

"What are you talking about?" he says, too defensively.

"Just multiply the tax by two--"

"That's not what I-- really?" He looks down at the check, tapping the end of the pen against the table.

"You must've lived a very sheltered life," she says, mock sympathetically, and she touches his hand. Almost an entire bottle of Opus One red wine--but it's from Napa, Sam had pointed out when Ainsley had balked at the price--and everything's a little fuzzy, and Sam's glad they had the foresight to call a cab.

Sam gets out his wallet to replace the platinum card as a distraction, mostly to hide the fact that adding thirty dollars to the cost of the meal is proving to be slightly beyond his mathematical capabilities at the moment.

"Oh, Sam," Ainsley giggles, pulling the receipt towards her, adding everything up and writing the total on the last dotted line: $185.81. Obelisk, the restaurant, is prix fixe and chic and the cheese course is exquisite, but Sam didn't need any of these things to justify the cost once Ainsley caught her breath after the first bite of veal. "Can you remember your name, or do you need me to sign?"

"You, my friend, are much too smart for your own good," he says, sliding the receipt back to him, pulling the pen from her hand. All of their fingers touch as he does it, and there aren't exactly sparks, but it's really nice. Sam signs his name with a flourish, a little wobbly from the alcohol, and then he looks up. "You ready to go?"

"I am," she says, nodding.

Sam stands and pulls on his jacket, then extends his hand to Ainsley. "Then, my dear, your chariot awaits."

"You're an amusing drunk. Has anyone ever told you that?" Ainsley says, but she lets him take her hand, and as they leave, he brushes his thumb against hers. The maitre d' already has the cab waiting, and Sam opens the door for Ainsley, and she slides in, calves and feet last.

Sam leans down to look at her without getting in. "Do you want to get some coffee?"

She smiles. "I'd love to."

"At my place?"

"Where else?" she asks, patting the seat next to her. "Get in, Sam. I don't know your address."

Sam was sure that was going to be a harder sell, so now he's a little thrown, but in the cab Ainsley leans her head against his shoulder and yawns. He wasn't really trying to charm her, but apparently it's worked, and so he tells the driver where he lives and reaches over to push a strand of Ainsley's hair back from her face.

His street is quieter than he expects, and when he checks his watch it's past midnight. He's glad he warned Toby he wasn't coming back to the office. And though he isn't exactly sure what he intends to do with Ainsley now that she's here, standing just inside the threshold of his front door, he helps her out of her blazer and decides not to think about it.

"Your apartment is amazing, Sam," she says, running her hand across the back of his leather sofa. "My house is practically empty."

"Why's that?" he asks, ushering her towards the kitchen and pulling out a stool from the high counter so she can sit.

"Well, I haven't gotten a whole lot of time to camp out at Ikea."

"It occurs to me that I don't even know where you live," Sam says. "Which is sort of embarrassing."

"I have a house on Newark Avenue, near Connecticut," she says, and then adds, grinning, "I don't suppose you're hiding dessert from me, are you?"

"I bought linzer tarts. Check the fridge."

Her heels clack gently on the navy tile, drawing his attention to the backs of her legs. They're nice legs, not exactly muscular but smooth and shaped well. The counter gets in the way and he can't quite see her when she bends down to get the box of tarts from the middle shelf of his refrigerator.

"My hero," she says, setting the box on the counter between them. "Plates?"

He steps toward her. "I can--"

She fixes him with a stern look. "Don't move. Plates?"

"Up and to your left," he says, resigned, sitting down on one of the breakfast stools. "Silverware's next to the fridge."

"Coffee filters?" she continues, whirling around to rummage for spoons.

"You can just press the button." He waves at the white plastic coffeemaker, shaped like an hourglass, tucked under the cabinet because it doesn't match the rest of the kitchen's stainless steel. "It's all set up for tomorrow morning."

"Whatever will you do tomorrow morning?" she asks, over her shoulder. The squares of fluorescent light set into the ceiling make her earrings glitter. Her eyes seem to be glittering too.

"Hmm." He looks down at the countertop, the corners of his mouth turning up. "There's always Dunkin' Donuts."

"They use too much sugar." She grimaces and turns back to get plates and cups. She slides a small plate with two linzer tarts toward him and holds her own in one hand. "Mind if I look around?"

"Of course"--she's already walking past him--"not. We can eat in the living room."

"On a couch like this?" She touches the leather upholstery, browses the magazines on the coffee table. "My Nana would've made you sit in the corner for even thinking that way."

"Genteel," he says.

"You have no idea. I almost died of shock when I found out she used to bribe her driver to sneak her out to the dog track." She nibbles one of her tarts, holding the plate right under her chin to catch the powdered sugar. "And she kept a White Shoulders perfume bottle filled with bourbon on her vanity." She licks raspberry jam off her lips, and it reminds Sam what he's doing here.

He gets up and walks toward her. "Ainsley?"

She's circling the room like a feng shui expert. "I like the bar. Whoever you paid to decorate this place got it right." He doesn't say that he did it himself.

Say something charming, he orders himself. He's paid to be good with words. There's absolutely no reason in the world why he can't handle this, why he can't just open his mouth and let nature and instinct take over. So he opens his mouth. "This is a date, right?"

Brilliant.

"Mm," Ainsley says around a mouthful of linzer tart.

"You're on a date with me," he elaborates, deciding to run with it.

"Yeah." She swallows. "Why do you have so many books about yachting?"

"I mean, you can sit down," he tells her, following her. "You don't have to be uncomfortable."

She stands still, her eyes sparking, and her voice is as light and casual as a soft breeze when she says, "I'm not uncomfortable with you."

The last two words make Sam jump a little. He thinks he should be flattered, but then he thinks of Lisa, of long stupid fights where he kept talking and she didn't hear a word. Lisa would have turned a statement like that into an accusation. He frowns hard at himself and forces himself to concentrate. Ainsley isn't Lisa. So he walks up to her and touches her hair--it's so fine he can imagine his hands disappearing in it completely--and leans in to kiss her.

At the last possible second she turns her face away, and he stops, breathing softly on her cheek. "Honestly, though, the yachting thing is the tiniest bit freaky."

Sam rocks back on his heels, but only a little. "I'm in training for the America's Cup."

She looks sideways at him. "I bet you are." There's a buzzing noise, and she figures it out before he does. She gestures with her plate. "Coffee's ready. And I think I might have another one of these, if you're not going to start worrying about my blood glucose levels."

"I'm not--" he begins, but she's already moving back toward the kitchen.

"So I had a little downtime in my office today," she calls back to him. "And I thought I'd stretch out, kick my shoes off and watch a little television."

He blinks at her, bewildered. There's nothing he can imagine saying that won't sound either ridiculous or rude. So he goes back to the counter and sits down to watch her, bustling around his kitchen as if her first wander around his apartment makes her an expert. "They let you have cable now?"

"Now that I'm no longer chained in the root cellar." She splashes cream into two of his dark blue mugs. "You guys got smacked down!"

"Don't sound happy when you say that."

She hands him his coffee, and their hands touch again. "I didn't mean to," she says. "So what's the plan?"

He takes a drink and tries hard not to wince when it scalds his tongue. He has no idea.

*

The minute the briefing room door closes behind her, C.J. closes her eyes. The smile she'd managed to sustain throughout the entire briefing falls without ceremony from her face, and when she looks up again, what feels like a long time later, Sam's afraid of what she's going to say.

"Sam," she says, and that's it.

"They're like sharks who smell blood in there," Sam says, ducking his head sympathetically.

"It's the President's blood. We've had this stem cell thing a full week now; we can't keep letting it spiral out of control." She starts walking, Sam and Carol trailing in her wake. She turns to Carol. "I need to talk to the guy from Science. And could somebody possibly be responsible for finding some statistics that make us look good?"

"On it," Carol says, and swerves off down the hallway to the left as Sam and C.J. keep walking.

"So, Sam, you needed something from me?" C.J. says, not turning to look at him.

"I just wanted--"

C.J. turns to him, just outside her office. "They're having a field day with this, Sam. And they left us with a month to simmer in our own juices before they come back and carve us up for supper. Stonewalling won't work anymore."

"I'll talk to Toby," Sam says.

"Good luck. He's on the fourteenth draft of the convention speech and still swears it's crap." She sighs. "Could you talk to Josh? Somebody needs to convince Leo that a little aggression isn't going to knock the house down. Not now, when the Majority Leader's calling the shots. They aren't going to pull their punches, at least we should be able to block a few, you know?"

"I know."

Bonnie's voice surprises Sam from behind him. "Toby's looking for you."

Sam spins around. "Okay, with the sneaking up on me, there's only so much a guy can take."

Bonnie nods. "Yeah, Sam. It must be difficult being you."

"Go ahead," C.J. says. "I'm going to go convince Science magazine that they'd like to print something to make us look a little less foolish." She touches Sam's arm, turns, and goes into her office, dropping the pile of folders she was carrying onto a chair.

Sam crosses the lobby and steps into Toby's doorway, then backs out again just in time to miss the piece of paper Toby throws at him. "Have you forgotten," Toby begins, "that we're in New Orleans in a week? Am I the only person who's a little worried about that, at all?"

"Well, as long as we can keep C.J. from ending up on one of those "Girls Gone Wild" videos--"

Toby just rolls his eyes. "I'm serious, Sam. Spend some time today working on the convention speech, okay? And how's the censorship thing?"

"It's good, Toby. Well, it's fine, at least."

Toby looks towards the open door, and Sam looks over his shoulder. Amy is standing there, chin near her chest. "Can I borrow Sam for a second?"

"Keep him," Toby says, going back to his computer. Sam follows Amy back into his office, and she shuts the door behind them. She looks tired, and Sam doesn't even want to think about why, but he can't keep the image out of his head.

"Did you read the thing I Xeroxed?" Amy asks, perching on the edge of one of Sam's chairs.

He leans against the edge of his desk. "Parts of it. Look, Amy--"

"I heard you're dropping something into the weekly radio address about it."

"A couple paragraphs. But, seriously--"

"Thank you." Sam stops when she says it, because it's genuine, honest gratitude. "I mean, most everybody just took their five minutes to get a good laugh at the new kid and moved on with their day."

Sam isn't really sure what to say, so he just inclines his head a little and taps his fingers against his leg.

"I didn't really want to talk to you about the report," Amy says, and somehow, Sam knew this so he steels himself for the worst. "I wanted to ask you about Josh." That was the worst, and still, Sam's mouth fills with a taste like rotting fruit.

"He's on the Hill, with Russell's people."

"I know where he is, Sam. It's just--" Her eyelashes are dark even against the circles beneath her eyes as she presses her eyes closed, just for a second. "You're his best friend."

Sam wants to tell her that he isn't, that Josh hasn't been honest, really honest, with him in months. He wants to tell her that she should get out, that he doesn't want to help her, that she seems to be doing just fine on her own. He wants to tell her that helping her is the absolute last thing he would ever want to do, right after contracting Ebola. He wants to tell her that Josh will hurt her.

Instead he says, "Yeah?"

Amy takes a deep breath. While she's quiet, he notices how her collarbones stand out in relief, how her cheeks are hollow as if she's missed a couple meals. It's hard not to feel sorry for her. She pushes uneven dark hair out of her eyes. "I know he loves me," she says, but he isn't sure who she's trying to convince.

He has to look at his desk for a while, contemplating the grain in the wood. She says it like she doesn't believe it, but he knows she's probably right. He knows Josh doesn't put the time, or the patience, or the effort into anything that doesn't have his heart.

She's kept talking, and Sam hasn't heard a word. He drags his head up. "...And I just can't tell, sometimes," she goes on, looking at him expectantly.

So he has to ask, "What?"

She frowns in exasperation, her lower lip sticking out. It's not particularly attractive. "Whether he takes me seriously, as a person. Whether he has any kind of real esteem for me and my work outside of--our thing. I don't know how to tell that."

"You're asking the wrong person," he says. "Josh has never been in love with me." As soon as the words are out he sits up in his chair, so fast that it squeaks. He's shocked at the bitter edge of his own words.

It takes a few seconds before he realizes that Amy's gazing past him, into space. "Yeah," she says. "But you've known him, you know, you've seen him with people."

"Like what people?" he says, keeping his head up straight with a conscious effort, hoping she's still self-absorbed enough not to notice if he's turning red.

She teases her necklace with her fingertips. "Mandy Hampton?"

He chokes on a sound in his throat that might have turned into a laugh or a moan. "Mandy?"

Now she looks at him. "I'm serious," she insists, hugging herself. "You know how he's going after Lloyd Russell, and I know he's got plenty of reason to, but I can't help thinking that on some level, this is about--"

"Yeah, you know what?" Sam can't take another second of this. He stands up, walks to the door and holds it open for her with authority. "I can guarantee you that he didn't take Mandy seriously, okay? Not when she was trying to be serious, and not when she wasn't."

Amy stands up, keeping a hand on the top of the chair. "Am I being completely crazy?"

"You have nothing to worry about," he says, working hard to pretend his stomach isn't squirming like live bait on a barbed hook.

She lingers for a moment, her face beginning to brighten. As she slides past him to leave, she says, "Thanks for the drop-in. I mean it."

He has the presence of mind to shut the door when she's gone, but it takes time for him to be able to move again. He considers the possibility that he might throw up, decides he won't allow it, and finds his way back to his desk chair. There's half a bottle of room-temperature water on his desk, and he drinks it down in one long gulp. He opens his laptop automatically, but file after file seems incomprehensible, as if his own notes are a code he can't crack. He gives up and, in a sudden burst of action, reaches for the phone instead.

Ainsley picks up her office line right away, but her voice is distant and she's in the middle of someone else's sentence. "But in the context of child pornography, you really can't talk about it like it's just another magazine on the rack. Hello?"

"I don't know what scares me more," he says. "That sentence or the fact that I knew exactly what you were talking about."

"Hi, Sam. Hang on." He can hear the muffled sound her fingers make as she covers the receiver briefly. "We're done for now, guys," she says, and then her cheerful voice comes closer again. "You know about Miller versus California?"

He shoots a disgusted look at his laptop. "I'm writing the speech on it. And I use the term 'writing' very loosely."

"Mm. I'll have to review that sucker." Her laughter is warm and soothing. "Did you need to talk to me about that?"

"Not really." He turns sideways and notices Toby glaring at him through the open blinds. He slips the phone between his ear and shoulder and pins it there, picking up a pen and notepad and writing nonsense until Toby goes back to his own desk.

"What, then?" Ainsley asks.

Sam scribbles a little more, throwing in keywords from the schedule for verisimilitude before he lets the pen fall. "What then, what?"

She raises the volume and lowers the speed of her speech. "What did you want to talk to me about?"

"Nothing."

"You did dial the phone, didn't you?"

"Nothing about work," he clarifies. "Just--well, I had a really good time on Friday."

"Me too."

He hesitates, and feels silly doing it. It still doesn't make sense that moments like this, with her, are so stilted. She really doesn't make him uncomfortable, and he's no stammering schoolboy. "It was too bad you couldn't stay a little while longer."

She dispels the awkward moment with a giggle. "It was quarter of two, remember? I had to be here, and functional, on Saturday morning."

"What on earth," he says, relaxing a little. "I mean, I know your boss is a tough guy, but what on earth could Babish have you doing on a Saturday morning that's more important than sleeping in?"

"I have things to do, Sam," she says, mock reproachfully. "I've got to make sure all the arrangements for the convention are kosher."

He swivels his chair around so that he can see out the window, the sun on his face. "Say that again."

"Say what again?"

"Kosher."

"Kosher," Ainsley repeats, sounding puzzled.

He chuckles, and wonders how anyone can find her accent grating. "So what're you doing tonight?"

"Ordering balloons," she says.

Sam squints at the lawn outside. "You're not serious."

"Of course not. I am busy, though. I'll be working late nights until the convention," she says. He tries to discern whether this is said with regret, decides that it is. She adds, "And then you're going to be off with your champagne and your confetti and your ignorance of the Second Amendment--"

"You could come," he says without thinking.

"Right." She scoffs. "I'm sure that the forty-four hundred delegates, the six hundred alternates, and all the shining stars of the Democratic Party would just welcome me with open arms, Sam. They'd probably bake me cookies."

"I'm serious," he says, and unexpectedly enough, he is. "You should come, in fact. You really should. You can meet people--I'll introduce you--and you can get some free food. Hell, I bet we can even find you some Mardi Gras beads."

"Really?"

"Well, I'm not entirely sure about the beads."

"You really want me to come to the convention with you?" she asks slowly. It's the first time in a long time he's heard her sound this uncertain.

"I would love it"--yes, he thinks he would--"if you did."

"Well..." The word stretches like taffy. "Maybe I could make it for one night."

He grins firmly at his reflection in the mirror. "It'll be great."

"Great," she agrees, then gasps. "What on earth am I going to wear?"

There's a loud thump off to his left, and he can feel Toby glowering at him. "Ask me later," he says. "I have to work now."

"What do you think I'm doing?"

"Mentally shopping for shoes?" He cuts off the beginning of her protests, adding, "I'll call you back before I go home tonight."

"'Kay," she says, "Bye." Sam spins the chair back, lifts the receiver to untangle himself from the phone cord. He sets it down in the cradle as the ball bounces off the window again. He turns the grin on Toby, full force, and gets up to close the blinds. Then he returns to his desk and sets himself to work.

*

It's okay that it's two-thirty in the morning and that Sam hasn't been home since five A.M., because he's looking at seven complete copies of the President's convention speech inside a bright blue folder. He gets up from his desk and taps against the glass. Toby looks up, and Sam waves the folder in the air triumphantly. Toby nods and picks up the phone, and Sam knows he's rounding everybody up so he heads towards the Oval.

He meets Amy in the hall on the way, and she falls in step beside him. "I'm impressed. Forty-eight hours left, and you're already finished with the speech."

"Are you mocking me, Amy? Because if you are, I'll be forced to tell everybody who drank the last of the coffee and didn't put on a new pot," Sam says. It's not so hard to talk to her if he pretends she's just some girl they have working with them. If he doesn't think about her as Josh's girlfriend.

"You're an angry man there, aren't you, Sam?" Amy laughs like the conversation in Sam's office only happened in his head. Sam just keeps walking, rolling his eyes.

Josh beats them there, and he's sitting on Charlie's desk when Sam and Amy get to him. His eyes light up when he sees Amy, passing right over Sam, and Sam doesn't have to wonder why Amy would go back to Josh every time he does something to hurt her. Josh's hand on Amy's hip is very gentle.

C.J. and Toby walk in together, and C.J.'s saying, "You know, it's starting to get a little disturbing talking about kiddie porn for half my briefing."

Toby says, "Unless they start bringing in visual aids, there's really nothing I can do for you."

"Thanks, Toby. Because what I needed was a mental image of Arthur Leeds looking at kiddie porn," C.J. says, nose wrinkling.

Josh looks up. "Is anyone else in here really regretting the fact we had to hear the end of that conversation?" he asks, and Amy raises her hand just as the door to the Oval Office opens.

"The President's ready," Charlie says, and he backs up so they can get past him.

The President and Leo are standing near the open French doors, and a warm breeze is blowing in from outside. Leo catches the vaguely disturbed look on Amy's face and says, "What's wrong, Amy? These guys bothering you, because I read a report--"

C.J. can't help but laugh, though she tries valiantly to hide it in a cough. "It's my fault, Leo. Well, really, it's Toby's fault."

Leo opens his mouth as if to ask again, but Sam says, "Does the fact that we were just discussing members of the press and kiddie porn make you want to ask that question a little less?"

"Okay, now," Bartlet says. "I'm going to stop that discussion before it even starts, if nobody minds. Toby, Sam, I hear you've finished a speech."

"Yes, sir," Sam says, and he can't help but smile. He turns his head a little and catches Josh looking at him, and Sam wills himself not to blush.

"Let's get started, then. The night is young," Bartlet says, and so they spend the next hour reading and tweaking and rereading the speech until Sam's copy is covered in blue ink. It's worth it, though, because it's an excellent speech, and as Bartlet reads the last paragraph, Josh looks over at Sam and smiles: good work. Sam flushes.

The President finishes and nods just once in satisfaction. Leo says, "Good job, everybody. You may all feel free to go enjoy your allotted thirty minutes of sleep now. You've earned it."

They're all pulling their papers together and heading towards the door, when Josh says, "Speaking of kiddie porn--"

"I don't suppose there's any way I could convince you not to say the rest of that sentence, huh?" C.J. asks.

Josh grins. "I was just going to ask Sam if he'd finished the child pornography speech."

"I sent it down to Ainsley earlier today so she could look it over," Sam says as they pass back out into the bullpen.

Josh looks knowingly at Amy. "He sent it down to Ainsley," he says.

"So she could look it over," Amy finishes, and Sam isn't exactly sure what hell dimension he's been thrust into, but he's sure he wants to get out.

"Something wrong? She's deputy counsel assigned to the issue," Sam says. Toby makes a face and turns back to talk to Leo, with C.J. trailing after him. Sam keeps walking, not looking anyone in the eye.

"Nothing's wrong!" Amy says, and she's so obviously delighted. "I think it's great that you and Ainsley are a thing."

For some reason, she really means that. Sam is tempted to say, "Ainsley and I are not a thing," but the fact is, they are. He just isn't sure what. So instead, he says, "We're not exactly picking our china pattern."

Josh chokes a little on the coffee he's drinking, but Amy doesn't seem to notice. "I heard some of the assistants talking about it," Josh says.

"About what?"

"About you and Ainsley." Josh's eyes are strange, somehow, but Sam won't look long enough to tell. "They all think you're really cute," Josh says, and it's wobbling on a very thin line between encouragement and insult.

"Well, I'm so glad that the entire White House staff approves of my relationship with Ainsley Hayes"--he can't believe he's saying this--"but now, I have, you know, work to be doing."

"Get some sleep, Sam. The work'll be here in the morning. And don't forget to call her," Amy says, and then turns and heads toward her office.

Josh hangs back for a second, but Sam feels like there's nothing to say, not really. "She's right, you know," Josh finally says, and then he leaves, too.

Sam falls into his chair. He's still trying to work out the fact that they just ambushed him as a couple, still trying to keep himself from getting sick. He's still trying to parse the fact that he called it his 'relationship.'

Maybe Amy is right, Sam thinks, maybe it's great that he and Ainsley are a thing. They're really, he knows, only one particular step away from being an unquestionable couple.

He's suddenly very glad he thought to invite her to the convention. He smiles a little as he grabs his jacket and heads home for the night.

*

The censorship speech, which Sam wishes everyone hadn't taken to calling 'the kiddie porn speech', goes off smoothly, but at this point in the year it doesn't make much of a ripple in the media. The Charleston Citadel has a reactionary column that says the nation's family values are decaying. It runs next to their denunciation of sex education programs and Sam's glad to help accelerate the process. He reads the article as they wait for Air Force One to take off.

It's Amy's first trip, and she walks around trying very hard to seem casual, but the stars get into her eyes anyway. Even Sam enjoys watching her. There's nothing on Earth or above it like this plane, and they all had their moments of knee-wobbling awe; they all called their friends and old teachers and high school bullies to say, "Guess where I am?" But Sam also thinks that if he hears the phrase 'mile-high club' even once he's going to start looking for a parachute.

Even though it isn't strictly necessary, he buckles his seatbelt during take-off. It's good to have safe habits. But even before they've leveled off, Charlie dashes down the aisle and slips into the seat next to Sam's. "Good reading?"

"Not even a little bit." Sam folds the newspaper and sets it across his knees. "What's going on?"

"Well, aboard Air Force One, the President really doesn't mind if I--"

"What's he doing?" Sam interrupts.

"Singing the score to The Music Man." Charlie shakes his head. "Apparently it was on cable last night, at 2 A.M."

Sam inclines his head in sympathy. "Shouldn't you be back there making sure he keeps the volume low enough that the Press can't hear him?"

Charlie blinks at him. "Sam, I hold the door for him. I remember names, I make phone calls, I keep track of where he leaves his glasses. Occasionally, when asked, I offer an opinion. I do not have to play the role of Marian the librarian."

He can't hold back a smirk. "Where's the First Lady when you need her?"

"Flying down from Manchester. So she can meet us in New Orleans tonight," Charlie says, relaxing even though he's keeping an eye on the corridor. "Much like Ainsley Hayes."

Sam slides down in his seat a little, letting the back of his head thud against the chair, shutting his eyes for a second. "Please, don't--whatever encouragement you want to offer, consider me encouraged, okay?"

"Silent support," Charlie says, beaming. "You ask around, that's what I'm known for. Silent support, man. You can ask Josh--"

"Ask Josh what?" They both look up and Josh is standing there, one hand on his hip. "You mind?" he asks Charlie.

"Sure thing." Charlie sidesteps him into the aisle. "I'm telling you, my impression of Shirley Jones leaves a lot to be desired, but next to his Harold Hill..." Charlie throws up his hands and walks away.

Josh watches him go and lifts a questioning eyebrow. "I'm living this life," he says, "where I keep walking into bits of conversations I really wish I hadn't."

"Welcome to show biz," Sam says, shifting closer to the curved wall and the round window as Josh drops into the other seat. "Did you need something?"

"C.J.'s on my case about the stem cells," Josh says.

Sam rests his chin in his right hand. "She's right to be."

"You think I don't know that?"

He wants to say that he thinks Josh has been distracted so much lately, distanced so much that it's hard to be sure if Josh knows anything. But it wouldn't be fair to say that, and in any case Josh, despite appearances, let his mind slip completely away from the work. Sam knows that, and Amy knows it too. So Sam says, "They couldn't actually pass the ban, could they?"

"By two-thirds? I doubt it. And the President wouldn't sign it," Josh says, drumming his fingers on the armrest. "Anyway, if it turned into law that would just be a perk. What they really want is to make it out like Bartlet's planning to spend your taxes to fund abortion clinics."

Sam moves his left hand off the armrest to avoid Josh's right, but there's nowhere else to put it, so he gives up and puts it back. "He is planning to spend your taxes--"

"Not until December, he's not." Josh keeps drumming, then claps his hands together, lacing his fingers. "We have forty-eight people on our side in the Senate," he says.

"Forty-seven when you subtract Russell," Sam says automatically.

"Forty-seven," Josh corrects himself. "But it's a lot less than that when you count out all the people who're still pissed at us about--you know."

Josh looks at him steadily, waiting for a reaction. It's been more than a year and Sam's still expected to prove that he's over it, as if one half-baked apology and then a concurrent resolution to censure covered everything like snow. The truth is that Sam's long since forgiven the President, but he resents pretending that there was never anything to forgive; he resents having to bury the past. "Well, we have what we have," he says.

"Yeah," Josh says, leaning back again. Sam's passed this test, this time; his teeth are pressed together so hard it hurts. "But no matter how many Democrats we get to stand up and talk about curing Alzheimer's and saving the elderly, the Majority Leader will be louder when he's talking about saving the babies. We don't have a lot of ammo with Congress, even on our side."

"Things would be worse for them with Ritchie," Sam says, knowing it isn't enough.

"We need something to remind them that things aren't bad for them now." Josh runs his hands over his face. "And I want to feed Lloyd Russell his own liver."

This reminds Sam of Amy in his office hanging her head, and before he can stop himself he's asking, "Is it because he jumped party lines or because he's the clown that you decked and he popped back up?"

"Who cares?" Josh asks playfully, and looks away. "Hey, Amy's talking to her mom."

Sam turns very deliberately to the little round window and watches the blue sky that looks, this afternoon, as deep as water. The clouds that are there are puffy and white, almost as if someone could go walking in them, just float off the wing and into a place that was quiet and clear and problem-free. "That's sweet," he says.

Josh fidgets some more and starts to say something else, but he's interrupted by a loud, off-key warble coming from somewhere further up the cabin. "Well, I don't know much about bands, but I do know you can't make a living selling big trombones!"

"Mr. President!" Charlie shouts helplessly.

They both laugh, and Josh nods towards the Press cabin, saying, "We may have to go remind them why things would be worse with Ritchie."

Sam puts his hands up. "I'm not getting close to that."

"Right." Josh tilts his chair back and folds his arms behind his head. "I'm taking a nap now."

"We land in forty-five minutes."

"Well, then wake me up in forty-five minutes."

Josh closes his eyes and like that, he's out, his face smoothed into peace. Sam frowns at this, knowing that waking Josh up is a thankless task. He decides he'll try and enlist Donna's help when they touch down; she's not reluctant to grab a handful of Josh's hair and just pull.

Josh breathes through his mouth when he sleeps, and Sam just shakes his head. He tucks the newspaper under his seat and goes back to watching the clouds.

*

"And I, Josiah Bartlet, proudly accept your nomination for the Presidency of the United States of America!"

All at once, there are a hundred thousand balloons and half a ton of confetti, and there's a minute or two where Sam believes there's no way they could ever lose this election with a candidate like Jed Bartlet. The feeling passes quickly, but still, this is the best event of the year, and Sam is determined to enjoy himself.

Fingers press against his forearm, and he turns to find Ainsley smiling dreamily at him. "This is fantastic." She has the talent of always being perfectly dressed for any occasion, and the green silk she's wearing tonight is no different.

"If I'd known all it took was balloons and shredded paper..." Sam teases, but lets his hand rest gently against the slick material on her hip.

"What? You would've thrown me an impromptu party? Would there have been presents?" Ainsley asks, bright-eyed, and there's a crowd that pushes them closer together.

"There definitely would've been presents," Sam says. Ainsley's eyebrows creep up towards her hairline.

She doesn't have a chance to say anything before Josh leans over her shoulder and says to Sam, "You know, Lloyd Russell is like herpes! You think you've gotten rid of him, and then one day, you look down, and there he is, all over your--"

"Josh!" Sam flushes, and Ainsley drops her forehead to Sam's shoulder in embarrassment. "I feel relatively confident that there's nothing I want to hear less than the rest of that analogy, okay?"

"Oh, Ainsley," Josh says, oblivious. "How are you enjoying your first Democratic National Convention?"

She looks up and turns to look at Josh. Her hip presses up against Sam's. "I'm just glad to know you're not paying for it with my tax dollars."

"Yeah, that's what you think." Josh laughs, and then Amy's there, handing him a glass of champagne. From her easy smile and flushed cheeks, it's easy to tell she's not on her first glass, but she gulps down half of another just the same.

"Hell of a party, huh?" she asks as Josh wraps his arm around her.

Sam can't help but the mimic the gesture, sliding his arm around Ainsley's waist. "Hell of a party," he agrees.

Ainsley nods. "I'm still waiting for the cake. I was told there would be cake."

"Hey, Ainsley, I don't mean to be rude," Amy says, but Sam's pretty sure Amy wouldn't know tact if it was running for president, "but why'd you come to New Orleans? Wouldn't you be happier with your Republicans up in Williamsburg?"

"I do work for President Bartlet," Ainsley says, tensing a little. "And, technically, they aren't my Republicans. Besides, I'm working right now."

Josh strokes Amy's arm in a lazy and painfully suggestive way. "And what job, exactly, are you doing, glass of champagne held high?"

"I'm busy ensuring that you don't break any federal laws, state statutes, or ordinances of the city of New Orleans."

"Also? She ordered the balloons." Sam pinches Ainsley's side, and her laugh diffuses any tension that might have been forming.

"See, now that's way more impressive than the other thing." Amy pats Ainsley's arm and tosses her head to send sprinkles of confetti flying.

"I think it's possible there are people here without champagne," Toby shouts over the heads of some strangers. "And I am the man who has come to change that."

The little circle widens to include him and C.J. As they move over, Josh's elbow is pressed against Sam's, but he concentrates on Ainsley's cheek against his shoulder instead. C.J.'s balancing three glasses, and Josh snickers at her. "How come she's the serving wench?"

"Well," C.J. says, letting Sam and Ainsley each take a glass, "after Toby dropped the glasses the first three times we tried this--"

"She's lying," Toby says, frowning into his champagne flute.

"Spilled all over himself." C.J. squares her shoulders. "Lick his pants if you don't believe me."

"You'll have to forgive me if I pass on that one," Ainsley says, and everybody laughs.

Josh starts to complain about the ridiculousness of the theme song Bruno picked out--"Patti Smith? Could the President be less of a punk? Was 'I Wanna Be Sedated' taken?" C.J. jumps in to defend it, and within a minute, they're arguing.

The music is playing loudly on a repeat loop over the sound system, so Sam can duck his head to Ainsley's ear and no one else will hear him say, "Aren't you glad you came?"

She just nods, her hair brushing against his mouth. Her perfume is warm and smells like brown sugar, and she says, "I want another drink, Sam."

"I don't know. Last time I saw you drink, you managed to make a pretty impressive fool out of yourself in the presence of the President," Sam says, grinning.

"Well, it's a hard act to live up to, I admit, but I can try, at least," Ainsley says, taking Sam's hand and pulling him away with her.

Sam says, as he goes, "I'll catch up with you guys later, okay?" C.J. blows him a kiss and Josh smiles, but Toby and Amy are arguing too intensely to care that Sam's gone anywhere.

At the bar, Ainsley orders a Fuzzy Navel and Sam gets a whiskey sour, and they drink them too quickly and have another. Ainsley asks Sam to dance, and they're giggling in one another's ears and dancing to terrible music from the '80s, and Sam thinks this is the best time he's had in months.

It starts to get late, and he says to her, "Come on. I have a room. I bet there's fruit."

"Chocolate mints?"

"Anything's possible," he says, smiling, and so they go together. They have to walk to the hotel. The night is hot and sticky, as Southern summers are required to be, but Ainsley's perfectly comfortable.

She says, "Weather like this makes me nostalgic." She has a sheen of sweat across her upper lip, and Sam trips over his feet, paying too much attention to her and not enough attention to putting one foot in front of the other.

The lobby of the Hyatt is blessedly cool, and he strokes her bare back while they wait for the elevator. His room is on the third floor and has a queen-sized bed. "And there are little jets in the bathtub," Ainsley points out, calling out from the bathroom as Sam sits on the bed and unties his shoes.

She comes out of the bathroom with her face and hair wet with water, a drop or two sliding down under her neckline. Just the sight of her makes Sam nervous. "You look good tonight," he says. Because, yeah, he thinks, girls love it when you're a complete idiot.

"So do you." She's leaning her forehead against the glass and looking down onto the courtyard. "I miss the South," she says.

"Yeah. I can understand that," Sam says. "Thousand degrees, humidity through the roof, big hair--"

"Don't mock Southern hair, Sam. We've worked many a year to perfect the art. I mean, you try to get your hair to stand up correctly when you're being assaulted with a wet blanket."

Sam isn't sure why they're talking about hair, so he stands up and tries not to shove his hands into his pockets. "Quite a kiss the President planted on the First Lady tonight, huh?"

"Convention coverage will have to put up a parental warning," Ainsley says, nodding.

"Wouldn't want to poison any young, defenseless minds," Sam says, and he wishes that there was some way to make that sound alluring, but there really isn't. He touches Ainsley's arm and nudges her to turn around, and when she does he thinks, This is it, Sam.

He leans in to kiss her. He's been practicing since he was twelve, so he's not exactly a bad kisser, but this time he can't seem to figure out where to put his nose or his hands, and Ainsley's mouth doesn't open like he expects it to. And after a second, an almost unbearably awkward second, she puts her hands on his chest and pushes him back a little bit, smiling faintly.

"Sam, I don't think this is such a good idea," she says, ducking out of his clumsy embrace.

He just stands there, facing the window, blinking. "But I thought you liked me," he says, and then he wants to bite the words back. He sounds like a whiny little boy, and he braces himself for her to call him on it.

"I do like you," she says, and the way she says it makes Sam turn around. She's sitting on the edge of the bed, legs crossed, pushing the hair back from her face. "I like you enough to tell you that there's no way this"--she motions between them--"is going to work that way."

"Either you're being more confusing than usual, or I'm--"

"Sam," she interrupts, shaking her head, "Just--you're not the only gay one here, okay?"

Sam's head swims and he shrinks back from her. His mouth opens and shuts a few times before he manages to say anything. "Okay. Okay, hold on. We'll come back to, you know, I'm not gay in a second. You're saying, you're saying what exactly?"

"I'm gay, Sam," she says.

"You're--" Sam starts, but then he just laughs. "You weren't, say, going to tell me?"

She shrugs, grinning. "I'm telling you now."

"So this whole dating thing..." His voice trails off.

"Sort of funny when you look at it that way, isn't it?" she says, patting the bed next to her, inviting him to sit down, and he does. It comes as a shock, and he'd hate to admit it aloud, but he's a little relieved.

He crosses his arms against his chest. "Okay, I think it's time to come back to the fact that I'm not gay."

"Sam," she says, using the voice she'd use to talk to someone very young or very stupid. "You can be honest with me."

"I'm serious. I'm not!" The words come out much louder than he would've liked.

"Okay!" She lowers her head and presses her fingers to her mouth. "I'm being very inappropriate, aren't I?"

This is so many worlds away from the evening he'd planned that he isn't entirely sure where he is, or what 'inappropriate' means here. He inches his hand toward her knee. "It's okay."

"No, it's not. Clearly, we had some mixed signals, but I don't have any kind of standing to make statements about you and your--it's not like a black and white thing, anyway. I shouldn't expect you to hand over a weather report."

It's not the first time she's jumped to a metaphor he can't yet reach. "A weather report?"

"Like fair, partly sunny, partly cloudy. You have, today, a forty percent chance of liking other men." Ainsley giggles against her fingers. "Look, I do apologize, Sam, it's just that I thought--"

"That I was asking you out because I was gay?"

She looks up at him. "I thought you were asking me out because you liked me and you wanted to be around me. And in the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit that being seen with you doesn't exactly hurt my credibility with some people."

"Yeah." He knows this is supposed to bother him. Maybe it's the alcohol that makes it inconsequential, or maybe it's the fact that liking her was only one of his reasons for taking her out.

"Not that I would ever go out with you just because--"

"Yeah."

She bites her lip. "I'd heard some talk, and I made some assumptions, but that doesn't mean you have to tell me anything. And I think what I'll do is I'll go now. Downstairs, to my room, which I'm sure is much less--"

"You don't have to." At first he isn't sure why he says it. Then he is.

"I think it'd probably be best." She stands and picks up her little silver evening bag. "We can talk back in Washington, and it won't be as, well, weird."

"Ainsley."

She looks at him. With her makeup washed off and her hair coming loose she looks much younger and softer. Sam's tired, and the alcohol smudges his thoughts together, but suddenly he can see his own behavior over the past few weeks, and it's so ridiculous it makes him catch his breath.

He gives her a tiny smile. "Maybe sixty-five percent."

Nothing happens for a second, and then she throws her purse at him. He has fast enough reflexes to sort of catch it as it whacks him in the chest. She collapses on the bed beside him, and her shoulders shake with what he realizes after a second is laughter. Sam is more than a little relieved.

"I knew it!" Ainsley says, managing to get herself under control. "You mocked me, Sam Seaborn. You mocked my gaydar, you mocked my sources--"

His forehead wrinkles. "You have sources?"

"Oh, that's hardly the point." She wipes her eyes and sits up. "I shouldn't make fun. Obviously this is a big deal for you."

"It's not a big deal for you?" Sam stares at her, thinking, this is Ainsley. The same girl who kicked his ass soundly on Capitol Beat, and by now he should be cured of underestimating her. "You're a Republican."

"Shhh." She puts a finger to her lips. "The gay thing, Sam, I really don't care, but we're in a hotel full of big time bleeding-hearts, and if it got around that I'm a Republican..."

She's cracking up again. He rolls his eyes. "Your family's been Republican since Republicans were Democrats. I can't imagine--"

"I don't discuss my sex life with my parents," she says. "You can call it that old-fashioned Southern gentility. It's just not the center of my world, that's all, and I'm not going to bow to the politically correct thing that says it has to be."

He doesn't say anything for a little while, trying to string the words together in order in his head before he speaks. "It's not the center of my world either. I mean, I like women a lot, and I've liked a lot of women a lot." She glances at him in a way that lets him know she can see through posturing, and he tries again. "I've had serious, a few serious relationships with women and they were good." He hesitates, thinking of Lisa. "At least most of the time. And I haven't, really, with a guy I've never had that. It's just been this intermittent--it's mostly been--"

"It's mostly been Josh," she murmurs, and every muscle in his body tightens up. She notices. "I'm being inappropriate again."

There are a few seconds of thunderous silence before he forces himself to say, "No." His voice is a dry croak. It hurts to swallow. He looks down at his hands, pale as paper, and digs his fingertips into the slippery crimson bedspread. "Well, we, we're friends."

"Sam, if you're like that with all your friends..." Ainsley covers his hand with hers.

He's won arguments with her before, but it's never been easy, and he's never done it by being dishonest. Her hand stays there, resting on his with just a little pressure. He realizes he's holding his breath, and lets it go in a rush before he blacks out. "I didn't realize it was that obvious."

She squeezes his hand, and it makes him feel pathetic even though it's reassuring. "It's not so bad," she says. "If I hadn't been paying the right kind of attention, I probably wouldn't have thought. I was sort of trying to pick up the signals. Most people aren't. Anyway, you don't have to worry; when you have a crush on someone they're usually the last one to figure it out."

"It's not what you'd call a crush," Sam says.

"I won't debate semantics with you." As an afterthought, she adds, "Tonight."

"Not semantics." He turns his head to look her in the eyes. "I mean, it's not a crush. It, we, it..." Pick a pronoun, he scolds himself. "We used to be a thing," he blurts.

Sam feels dizzy when the words are out of his mouth, such an inane little statement to carry so much weight in his head. It is inane, the whole affair, though it hardly even qualifies for that term. Ten years of friendship balanced against only a handful, only a few occasions when the sky opened and impossibilities became possible. During his internship; toward the end of the campaign, when Mandy was leaving; that time after Rosslyn--desperate measures. Not an affair, then, just a thing. But Ainsley's right. Semantics don't matter.

For once, Sam realizes, he's left Ainsley speechless. She's staring at him with her mouth a little open. Then her eyelids flicker and she catches herself. "Well," she says, "I have to tell you, I'm impressed."

"Impressed," he repeats. He likes it better than 'shocked' or 'disgusted,' which would probably be a more common reaction if people knew. The feeling of relief is starting to take over.

"Yes, impressed. I always thought lusting from afar was more your style."

"Hey," he says, "I didn't lust after you from afar. I picked up the phone and asked you out."

"That you did." She elbows him in the arm. "You really know how to pick 'em. A call girl, your boss's daughter, a lesbian--"

It's hard to believe, but he's almost laughing. "How was I supposed to guess? You don't have a pink triangle in the middle of your forehead, and God knows you don't tell people--"

She waggles her eyebrows at him. "I tell people I went to Smith."

That pushes him over the edge, and he laughs harder than he has in days. Weeks. Months. Maybe ever.

When it's passed, Ainsley rubs his hand lightly and asks, "Everything okay?"

Her tone is genuinely worried, and he appreciates it, but he says, "Yeah." He reaches for his shoes and starts to put them on. "Let's go out. Let's go eat and drink and dance and act like idiots in front of as many complete strangers as possible."

"Why?" she asks. She still sounds concerned, but her face is brightening.

Sam finishes tying his shoes. He stands up and extends his hands to her. "Because what else is a convention for?"

Ainsley nods and lets him help her up, ducking into the bathroom to fix her hair and swipe on some lipstick. She's beautiful. They walk out of the hotel room and down the hall to wait for the elevator, and he places his hand in the middle of her back, right where the shimmer of her dress drops away. Her skin is warm and smooth under his palm, and now it feels comfortable to stand this way with her. It feels exactly right.

"It was a really good speech tonight," she says. "Congratulations."

"Later." He looks at their reflection in the mirrored doors and realizes he's beaming. "So tell me about these sources of yours."

"God, Sam," she laughs, and leans on his arm. "You're not very good at this, you do know that, right?"

"I'm learning," he says. He pulls her into the elevator. "Let's go get drunk."

*

Sam is lying down on Toby's couch, and the pad he'd been reading from has slowly dropped until it's resting on his forehead, blocking his eyes. After the convention, it takes a few days to get back on their feet, after too little sleep and too much alcohol. "I'm too young to feel this old," Sam says, voice muffled by the yellow paper.

The pencil hurts when it hits Sam's leg. Sam yelps, and Toby says, "Hey, Sam, I've got a really novel idea. I was thinking we could write--oh, what's the word?"

"A speech?" Sam says, moving the pad but not going so far as to sit up.

"A speech." Toby nods. "I mean, I'm just throwing it out there."

"I'm getting the sneaking suspicion that I really don't have the option to say I'd really rather not, and to go for lunch."

"It's eight A.M. And, also? No." Toby taps a rhythm with the end of his pen against the computer monitor. "Stem cells."

"Vague drop-ins aren't going to cut it anymore, huh?" Sam asks, pushing himself up to at least give the appearance of doing something productive. Actually, all he's thinking about is that he's the only person in the West Wing who knows Ainsley's a lesbian, and he's wondering what Toby's reaction would be if he told him.

And because he's thinking about those things, he's not paying any attention to what Toby says. All he hears is the end: "There's no time left." Sam nods seriously, hoping it won't be obvious that he has no idea what Toby's talking about.

"You know," Toby says, "It would be easier to have this meeting if you were actually here. Not that I want to know what you're thinking about, because God knows I don't, but--"

"I'm sorry, Toby, really." Sam leans forward, elbows on his knees, trying to focus, and when he looks up, Toby is shaking his head.

"Whatever it is, it must be good. Which, again, is not an invitation--"

"Got it," Sam says. After a minute of silence he says, "Stem cells."

"Unfortunately, it looks like there's going to need to be more to the speech than just repetitions of the phrase 'stem cells.'"

Sam looks down at the blank pad in his lap, at the fountain pen he's holding, closed, between his fingers. He says, "Writing a speech shouldn't be this hard. I mean, stem cells are an excellent metaphor. Unlimited potential. Unimaginable growth. Power beyond what we can even hope to understand." Sam stops because he realizes Toby is writing down what he says.

"Yeah?" Toby says.

Sam considers everything for a moment before saying, "Toby, what's our stance on stem cells?"

"Well, we're not against them." Toby shrugs.

Sam sighs, pushing a hand back across his forehead and through his hair. "Toby."

Toby looks away, back over Sam's shoulder. "Why can't we just say that we're in favor of stem cell research based on the material we've already produced?"

"That's a great idea. One problem."

"Yeah?"

"We already did that."

"Ah," Toby says. "Well, can't we just, you know, do that again? We are the ones in favor of government spending, aren't we?"

"Technically, but somehow I don't think that's really what FDR would've had in mind," Sam says. "Why can't we just say-- say that we like stem cell research? I mean, I don't know about you, but I'm pretty much pro curing Parkinson's, Alzheimer's--" He pauses, then says, "Multiple sclerosis."

"You know as well--"

And of course he knows. "I'm just saying, Toby."

"This can't blow up in our face, Sam. We can't afford it, not right before the election." Toby says it as if it's something Sam couldn't figure out himself.

Something about this makes him angry. "Then we'll walk right down the middle of the road, as usual, thinking it's the safest way," Sam says, jabbing at his paper with the end of his pen. "But what we don't seem to realize is that if we never pick a lane, we're going to get run over by a Mack truck."

"Convince Leo. Convince the President. Help me write the speech, and we'll convince them," Toby says softly, and all the wind goes out of Sam's sails. He falls in on himself a little and looks down.

"What about Josh?"

"If I could find Josh in the storm of angry feminist that is Amy Gardner..." Toby says.

"What did Josh do now?" Sam says, looking up, suddenly interested. Ainsley would laugh at him, but he chooses to ignore that.

"Well, judging by the way they acted after the thing last night with Kirwen and Boer"--Sam recognizes the names as two of the child pornography experts--"it's really more like what didn't Josh do now."

There's no way, Sam knows, to ask for more information without sounding over-interested, overeager. "When did you start listening to office gossip?"

Toby steeples his fingers. "I have considerable powers of observation. I watch, I listen, I pick up on the undercurrents--"

"C.J. told you," Sam guesses. He can tell by the way the corner of Toby's mouth quirks under his beard that he's right.

"Point being," Toby says, "that if anyone around here's going to make an effort to concentrate, it's going to have to be us this week."

Sam flips his pen around with a flourish and straightens his shoulders, hoping that if he looks more like a writer the inspiration will strike. Toby does the same, his pencil poised a millimeter above his notepad. They both look into the distance instead of at each other, focusing on the unseen. In spite of the ringing phones and footsteps and chatter just beyond the office door, the room is filled with an anticipatory hush that deepens into stillness.

It breaks when Sam drops his pen on top of his notepad. "So why would anyone want to become an expert in child pornography?"

"I try not to ask questions." Toby lowers his forehead into his hands.

"Where exactly did they go to school for that?" Sam asks. What he really wants to ask is what happened in Josh's meeting--wasn't it supposed to be Amy's meeting?--but Toby's looking at him dubiously enough already. "I mean, so I can never, ever go there."

"Write," Toby says, brandishing his pencil without looking up. "Now. Silently. Without interruption."

That's a cue if ever there was one, and Sam's looking at the open door almost before Donna knocks on its frame. Toby greets her with an inarticulate growl, but she's only taken aback for a moment. "Excuse me," she says. "Toby, Josh would like you to come by and--"

"And bail his ass out of an argument," Toby says.

She smiles politely. "Those weren't his exact words. He and Amy are having a vigorous discussion on the finer points of First Amendment law."

"A vigorous discussion?" Sam scoots forward a little. "Do you think anyone would believe it if we said the President's having a vigorous discussion with Congress?"

Toby ignores him. "How badly is Josh losing?"

Donna glances thoughtfully over her shoulder. "Well, when I left, she'd gotten him to agree that we could hold Victoria's Secret responsible for the objectification of women."

"Well, can we?"

She crosses her arms. "I think that's the kind of question Amy would encourage us not to pursue, don't you?"

Toby looks vaguely unsettled. "Yeah," he says. He uses the edge of his desk to push himself up to a standing position. "Josh is going to owe me a favor," he tells Donna. "And you're going to remind him. Repeatedly."

"I'm making a note," she says.

He points at Sam. "You."

"Words on paper," Sam replies, though he has no idea what the words will be.

Toby seems to sense this, because he pauses on his way to the door. "Honest to God, if I come back here and you've written five pages on how there ought to be a stem cell research facility on every corner--"

"I know," Sam says. He supposes it's small and mean of him to think, at Toby's receding back, I know a lot of things you don't know.

He hasn't got much, but he tries anyway, forcing phrases and sentences across the paper's blue lines. Everything he puts down turns into nothing when he reads it aloud to the empty office. It sounds like what it is: the safe bet. Spin.

Coffee might help. He yawns, stretches, and wanders into the bullpen to find that Donna's still there, along with Ginger and Bonnie and Carol, in a semicircle around the breakfast cart. They're not facing him, and Bonnie's saying, "Well, if my boyfriend said he was going to take me to a restaurant like that, I'd think it was a fairy tale, too. I'd probably check the closet for a glass slipper."

"There's a joke of some kind here," Carol says. "Something about pricking your finger, but I don't quite have it."

Sam clears his throat as loud as he can, approaching them. "I don't mean to interrupt--"

"I'm going back to my desk," Carol says quickly, and she goes.

"Oh, Sam doesn't mind," Ginger says. "Do you, Sam?"

He sidesteps her and reaches for the coffeepot. "No, not really. What am I not minding this morning?"

"We just think it's cute, that's all," Bonnie says.

Sam looks up from his coffee mug--he's only getting the dregs, anyway, the pot is mostly empty--and realizes that all three of the women are beaming at him. The overall effect is unnerving enough to make him jump slightly. He furrows his forehead and peers at their faces. "What did I do?"

"Whatever it was, I guess you did a nice job." Ginger shuffles the files she's holding and hands him a magazine. It's folded open to a glossy gossip page, and for some reason he recognizes Ainsley before he recognizes himself.

The picture's from the night they went to Obelisk, the night he brought her back to his apartment and all she did was admire the décor. It's outside the restaurant, and his right hand is on the cab's door to open it. His left hand is on Ainsley's arm. Part of her tipsy smile is hidden behind his shoulder, and he's bending toward the top of her head. It's the kind of picture that makes people say, 'See how happy they look?' Sam's tempted to say it himself.

The women are still watching him. He sips his coffee and gives them what he hopes is a cryptic expression. "I knew I shouldn't have worn that tie," he says, and Ginger makes a face at him.

"Did you read the caption?" Bonnie leans over and underlines it with her fingernail.

"True love knows no party," he reads aloud. "You'd think the fine folks at George could come up with something more creative."

He hands the magazine back and returns to Toby's office, accompanied by catcalls from Bonnie and Ginger and random staffers passing by. An intern, whose name he hasn't even learned yet, wolf-whistles at him. He keeps his head down, and doesn't notice until he's actually inside the office that Donna's followed him.

"Your kids are going to be just beautiful," she says, so gleeful she's practically clapping.

Sam groans. "It's not enough that I've got my own staff to put up with all day, I get to hear it from you too?" He falls back onto the couch, and when he looks up at her, Donna's face has fallen a little. He doesn't mean to burst her bubble, but this has the potential to get ridiculous.

"Hey, I read it in George like everybody else around here," Donna says, shrugging.

Sam sighs. "Look, it's just strange to find myself the topic of office gossip. Again."

"Look on the bright side," Donna says. "She may be a Republican, but at least she's not a call girl." She's grinning again, and when Sam rolls his eyes, she adds, "But just remember, I get to be Aunt Donna. And I'll take them to the park, and to the circus, and I'll give them presents." She taps her chin. "If I'm still working for Josh, they'll have to be very, very small presents--"

"Donna? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I don't think there are any kids on the horizon for Ainsley and me."

Her smile is not small enough to hide. "Of course not."

"No, I mean it."

"Mm hmm, of course. That's what you say now, but give it a few months."

"Donna, really, Ainsley and I are not having children."

This time her smile is bright. "I believe you, Sam," she says, and then she's gone, but not before tossing Sam a copy of the George, flipped to the page with the picture of him and Ainsley, circled in a ring of red lipstick.

*

"Okay," Sam says, leaning across the table, "okay. So how many lesbians does it take to screw in a light bulb?"

Ainsley asks in a monotone, "I don't know, Sam. How many?"

"Three. One to screw it in and two to write a folk song commemorating the occasion." He waits in anticipatory silence, and then says, "Come on, that was funny."

"I suppose it will surprise you to find out that it really wasn't," Ainsley says, then takes a long gulp from her wine glass.

"Careful with the wine, unless you're picking up the check," Sam says, smiling. He's discovered that this is what he missed about having friends who could get out of the office occasionally: going to lunch, buying wine by the glass, ordering the most outrageous dessert on the menu, mocking the waiters, splurging on the tip. He's discovered that he enjoys laughing so loudly everyone turns to look.

"You need the ten bucks, Sam? I'll write you a check," she asks, ducking for her purse.

"Oh, come on, Ainsley, I was just kidding."

"As was I. You see how this little joke here was funnier than your lesbian light bulb joke? Did you notice that?" The wine is a warm-colored Pinot Gris. Ainsley's taking her time with it. He likes that about her. In fact, now that he's not worried about getting her into bed, he can't seem to think of much he doesn't like about her, apart from her opinion on the ERA.

"Hey, can't blame me if lesbians are entirely unfunny." Sam shrugs and pokes at the remains of his beef bourguignon with the tines of his fork before reaching for his glass.

"Lesbians are too--" she starts, but Sam's already laughing, and so she just joins in. "You win. We're not very funny. We never shave. We are, in fact, obsessed with Joan Baez. And we're frigid, entirely."

"Hmm, I'd believe that, except I've seen your legs and the CDs you keep in your car." Sam grins. "And I feel relatively confident that you're not at all frigid. I bet I could guess the object of your affections."

"What would you like to bet that you couldn't?" Ainsley asks, gesturing towards him with the rim of her glass.

"I guess, you get the check," Sam offers, eyebrows raised.

"Deal," Ainsley says. "Take your best shot. In fact, I'll give you three chances."

Sam doesn't hesitate. "C.J. Cregg."

"I'm not even sure how one would begin to kiss a woman that tall. Though--"

"Yeah, okay. So everyone has a thing for C.J. That doesn't really count." He pauses a second, then says, "Mary Marsh?" a little less confidently.

"One word, Sam: frostbite," she says, then wiggles the tip of her tongue between her teeth, and Sam laughs hard enough to make his sides hurt.

"Okay," he says, but he's all tapped out. "Donna?"

"I can't decide whether that would be masturbation or incest," Ainsley says, shaking her head. "And the check returns to the good man with the American Express."

Sam grins. "Okay, but now you have--"

"Ann Stark," Ainsley admits with a shrug.

"Ann Stark?" he sputters. "Short? Blonde? Gets all hairy at full moons?"

"Oh, that's funny," she says. "Wait, no it isn't."

"This is too good! Ann Stark?"

Ainsley sighs. "You're impossible, you know that."

"In fact, I do," Sam says, nodding.

Ainsley rolls her eyes before saying, "Okay, so I have to know."

Nothing good has ever started that way, but he ventures just the same, "Have to know what?"

"Why Josh?" She says it like she's asking about the beef, and Sam chokes on his wine. He takes longer than he needs to recover, considering the question, considering how honest he should be. He takes long enough that Ainsley prompts, "I mean, he's not the nicest guy in the world. Possibly, he's not in the top billion. Maybe two."

"Yeah," Sam agrees, dragging the syllable out.

"He's smart, I'll give him that," she says. "And he's handsome in that I-went-to-Harvard kind of way. With the hair."

Sam can't help but laugh. "Yeah, Ainsley. I've been secretly lusting after Josh for the last decade because he has cool hair."

"Hey, I'm working with what I've got here, Sam. If not the hair, then what?"

The waiter comes by to collect up their empty dishes, but Sam doesn't look up as Ainsley says thank you. "He's-- he's--"

"Sounds like?" She pulls on her earlobe, but a sharp look from Sam stops her.

"About ten years ago, it was September and Congress had just come back into session." Sam has his head down, but Ainsley reaches across to touch his arm, and it keeps him talking. "I was interning for Paul Stern, during his second term, a really great internship that took a miracle to land. I expected to get there and stuff envelopes, like all the kids have to do, but it didn't matter, because my father was so excited about it. But when I got there, this guy they had running things, Bryan, thought I was the smartest person he'd ever met, or maybe just the prettiest, and so he had me running all over the Hill, hand-delivering things and getting lunch.

"And one day, Bryan hands me this giant pile of folders and tells me where I'm headed with them. And that's the day I met Josh, as I spilled the folders all over the floor of his office. But he didn't do anything but laugh and tell the person on the phone to hold on, and then he got down on the floor and started to help me pick them up. And when we've gotten everything back in order and I'm heading for the door -- and you can imagine my embarrassment -- he touches my shoulder, leaves his hand there, and when I turn around, he's just grinning like I'm the most adorable thing he's ever seen.

"He never forgot my name after that," Sam says, gulping down the last of his Cabernet Sauvignon. When he meets Ainsley's eyes, they're soft and she's smiling, just a little.

And then she asks, "Why didn't you say that in the first place, Sam?"

"I'm not sure," he says. He twists the stem of his glass between his fingertips. "The thing is, Josh really never means to be an unkind person. He just... forgets, sometimes."

"Someone ought to tie a string around his finger," she says gently. Then her smile twists into a smirk. "Or some other part of his anatomy." She walks her fingers up his arm suggestively, craning her neck to see something behind him.

"What?" Sam asks.

"Our waiter's staring at us and whispering to someone." He starts to turn around and Ainsley squeals, "Don't look!"

He settles in his chair, setting his glass down and touching Ainsley's arm. "Donna is convinced we're going to have lots of excessively Aryan-looking children."

"Do these look like childbearing hips to you?" she asks, perfectly straight-faced. "Though they would be pretty, wouldn't they? Maybe if you were willing to donate--"

"Only if they'd have my politics," he teases.

She reaches across the table and pats his hand, partly for the benefit of the waiter and partly, he can tell, from real affection. "Maybe if you knew some funnier jokes," she says. "Would it trouble you if I ordered the banana napoleon?"

"A little bit," he says, but he waves the waiter over. Ainsley orders her dessert in a drawl that's even deeper and richer than her usual speech, throwing little glances at him as she runs a finger down her dessert menu. As soon as the waiter's back is turned she dissolves into laughter, and Sam can't resist joining her. It fades when he glances at his watch. It's going to be hard to go back to work.

*

He's gone back to work, and he's standing in Leo's office, studying the carpet at his feet very closely. Sam knows the notes he left before lunch are sparse, and weak, and the easiest thing to do is to keep his head down and dodge the dangerous look Toby keeps training on him from the couch. Worse, Josh and Amy are standing together near Leo's table, not touching and not speaking. Sam doesn't dare watch them closely enough to gauge whether they're closer to flirting or fighting. The entire room is on edge.

It's a relief when Leo finally comes in, saying, "I just spent three hours in a one hour meeting with five guys from the President's Council on Bioethics. If nothing else, can we get behind a ban on cloning bioethicists?"

"No," Josh says. "'Cause then who would there be to warn us about the greater implications of the see-through tomato?"

No one really laughs, but somehow Amy's silence is louder than anyone else's. Leo scans the room as he picks up his glasses. "Where's C.J.?" he wonders.

"The President of Hungary's photo op," Toby says. "North Lawn."

Sam looks up. "I thought that would be over by now," he says.

"So did she."

"We'll get started without her," Leo decides, putting on his glasses. "Tell me where you are."

Sam doesn't dare say anything about this before Toby does, so he just waits. Toby shoots him one more unpleasant look before turning to his notes. "We've got the AMA saying that 128 million Americans have diseases that could be cured or, ah, ameliorated by embryonic stem-cell therapy. We can argue that the Republicans are attempting to sell out half the country to limit the odds of a misuse of the technology--"

"Which would be against the law anyway," Sam says, thinking better on his feet now than he has all day. He takes a few steps toward Leo's desk. "You run someone over in a car, you go to prison. No one's proposing legislation against driving."

"But we have proposed legislation against guns," Leo says.

Sam's eyes immediately slide sideways to see Josh. It's a reflex he never remembers to check in time. Josh is looking down, his expression unreadable. But what stings just a little is the fact that Amy's head has turned, and she's peeking through her hair at Josh with the same spontaneous concern. Sam looks back at Leo. "Guns are designed with no purpose other than to destroy. Stem cells are therapeutic."

Amy says, "So is marijuana if you're a cancer patient."

Josh's head flies up and he frowns. "Yeah, we really don't need to bring that into this."

"I think we do. I also think you're ignoring the fact that what they're really attacking is a woman's right--"

"What they're really attacking is the President," Josh interrupts, scoffing.

"From what I was told today," Leo says, in a measured and rational voice, "we're going to hear a lot of talk about the slippery slope. There'll be allusions to Nazi eugenics. There'll be a discussion of slavery."

"We can't make this a hypocritical stance," Amy insists. Sam wonders how the right argument can sound so abrasive coming from her; maybe it's because she's unlikely to offer a workable solution. More likely, it's because Josh nods when she says it, like she's the only one who would think of it. She says, "If we're not going to call this what it is, if we're just going to ignore this--"

"We're not going to ignore it," says C.J.'s voice, and they all turn to see her coming through the door from the outer office. She slouches a little in front of Leo's desk. "Sorry I'm late. The President and President Gyongyosi actually started bonding."

Leo blinks over his glasses at her. "What on earth--"

"They're both big fans of American collegiate football." C.J. grimaces as she sits down next to Toby. "The photos will come out nicely, but believe me, it wasn't pretty."

"You think Americans would elect a guy whose name takes longer to say than his term in office?" Josh asks, trying for levity.

Amy retorts, "You think Americans'll elect a guy who's not willing to stand up for his biggest voting block?"

"That's not his biggest voting block," C.J. says, crossing her legs smoothly. "Women aren't--seniors are the biggest block on either side of the aisle."

"Anyway," Sam says. "We can't ignore any of it. The longer we say nothing, the more the Republicans push the point. We'll get asked about this in the debates if we haven't disposed of it before then." Sam's eyes meet Toby's. If Toby nods, it's imperceptible, and Sam sets his jaw. "We'll probably get asked about it anyway, but if we don't take a firm stand they'll just keep throwing coal on the fire, and pretty soon we're cooked."

"Hold on," Josh says, tapping his knuckles against the edge of the table. Suddenly, he raises his hand to point at C.J. "That's it. You've got it."

"I do?" C.J. looks down at herself. "Well, I'm flattered--"

"Seniors," Josh says. He circles the table and comes to stand in front of the desk, next to Sam. "That's the ballgame."

"We can defend our position on the grounds that this research can create a better quality of life for senior citizens--" Sam begins.

But Josh shakes his head. "No, it's not enough to defend our position--we gotta go on the offensive. Leo." He places his hands on Leo's desk and leans forward. "We have another week and a half before Congress comes back. In that time, how much do you want to bet that I can get every Democrat who's up for re-election to co-sponsor a prescription drug plan for Medicare?"

"A counterstrike." Leo yanks his glasses off and raises his eyebrows. "It won't pass."

"It doesn't need to pass," Josh says, bouncing up and down a little on the balls of his feet. He's starting to glow, and it gives Sam goosebumps. "We just need to get it on the floor. They won't be able to talk about stem cells without talking about the President's new proposal, and while they're picking over the details the President's up there wondering why the Republican-controlled Senate is dragging us down."

"We could sell it," Sam says, half to Leo and half to Toby. Josh's energy is contagious, buzzing into the air, and he's breathing it in. He rubs his hands together. "Lay it on the line: they're trying to control science and we're trying to save lives. Add to that, we're right and they're wrong."

"It'll just look like a cheap political ploy," Amy says, stepping around the table. "Which it is, if you're not serious about putting it through."

"Sure I'm serious about putting it through," Josh says. "That'd be some pretty excellent gravy. And it sure as hell makes better headlines than their stem cell ban."

Leo pauses. "Toby?"

He holds up his hands. "This is Sam's thing."

Sam stares at him over his shoulder. "Yes, and I want to thank you for giving me such free rein--"

"You could sell it," Toby says, with the faintest hint of a smile on his face.

"And when they ask where the sudden priority came from?" Amy asks.

C.J. glances back and forth between Toby and Sam; she doesn't really look at Amy at all. "The President believes so much in this issue that he wants to see it addressed now, regardless of all the fuss created by a campaign."

"Oh, yeah, they'll definitely buy that," Amy says snidely. Josh crosses his arms as if he's warning her without turning around.

It's quiet for a long moment and then Leo nods. "See what you can do with Congress," he says to Josh. "Try and keep it as low-key as possible, because if this ends up on Nightline before we're ready it really will look cheap. Sam--"

As Leo says his name, Sam snaps his fingers. "Next week, the 28th. The speech at the FDR memorial--it was going to be about Social Security anyway, everything's about Social Security. We can roll it out then, and the Republican leadership will only have the weekend to come up with a response."

"During which time we'll be shoring up bipartisan support," Josh says. "They lured Russell over to the dark side--I'm sure there's some dissent in their own ranks too, and for something like this I can get it done."

As he's saying this, Margaret peeks around the door. "I'm sorry. Leo, the President would like you to drop by and meet President Gy--Gy--"

"Gyongyosi." C.J. sounds it out helpfully. "I've been practicing."

"Thanks," Margaret says. "Gyongyosi."

"Yeah." Leo waves a dismissive hand at her. "I'm on my way. Guys?" He looks around the room one last time. His eyes are brighter than they've been in a while, and it gives Sam a surge of pride. "Get it done," Leo says.

As they're leaving the office, Josh falls into step with Sam and rests a hand on his shoulder. "This feels pretty good, doesn't it?"

Sam tries not to be aware that Amy is a few steps behind them, looking daggers at the backs of their heads. "Yeah," he says, and he's still smiling when they part ways to head for their own offices.

*

At four-thirty A.M., Sam decides that looking awake is as close to being awake as he's going to get, and so he closes his laptop and drops his pen decisively. He gets up, and ducks into Toby's office, saying, "I'm leaving! And you can't stop me."

Toby doesn't even look up. Sam can hear the scratching of Toby's ballpoint against the paper and feels momentarily guilty about leaving until Toby says, "If you're not back in two hours, I'm sending Ginger to retrieve you."

He looks back over his shoulder at Ginger, who looks up from her computer and smiles sweetly without saying a word. Sam wonders for a second if she has immunity, and then shakes his head. "This place is like prison."

"Nah," Toby says, "in prison, they get three square meals and occasionally see sunlight." He pushes an empty Pringles can off the edge of his desk, and it clatters a little to the floor.

"And HBO," Sam agrees.

He opens his mouth to say something else, when Ginger interrupts him. "One hour, fifty-eight minutes. Better get moving."

He throws her a dirty look, but heads towards the doors, checking his watch and digging in his pockets for his car keys. "Have a good morning, sir," the guard at the desk says to him as he passes through the lobby.

Sam looks at him, and then almost smiles. "You know what? Somehow, I doubt it."

Two hours later, exactly, he's back. His hair is still damp from the shower, and he's in a polo shirt and khaki pants, because he just couldn't cope with the idea of donning yet another suit just to sit on Toby's couch for eight hours in a row.

"You look wide awake this morning, Mr. Seaborn," says the communications intern, a girl named Jody, and Sam can't tell whether or not she's being sarcastic. Caffeine might help.

He's crossing the lobby as he hears Amy's voice, a loud, clear shriek from the direction of Josh's office, "You son of a--" Sam doesn't stop until he hears her again, and her voice is brittle, breakable. "If we don't do this here, we'll never do it. We can't keep--"

"You keep saying 'we,' Amy, but you're only talking about me, right?" This time, it's Josh, and Sam finds he's holding his breath. "Just so we can be on the same page."

"I keep trying and trying, Josh. You're not going to blame me for--"

"For what?"

It's acid, the way he says it, and Sam can imagine Amy's recoil. Before she replies, C.J. rushes up, pulling Toby in her wake. "We're getting bagels. And possibly cream cheese!" C.J. announces, too loudly, as she squeezes between Sam and a white pillar.

"A healthy breakfast is an important part of every, uh, day," Toby says with a hasty nod, and then they're out the door.

Sam hardly sees them, waiting to hear what Amy will say. There's sunlight pouring in through the entrance, and it's a warm morning, but he's freezing. Frozen. He doesn't catch everything, but he hears enough.

"--sick of playing games with you, Josh. We're not children anymore, and I don't have the energy--"

"I must make your life so difficult." Josh's voice is dark now, muffled like he's turned his back to the door.

"Can't we be adults for one goddamned second? I'm so tired of being eight, where you pull my hair and I run home crying to mommy."

"Because you know what's mature, Amy? Cutting my phone cord. Stealing my files. Canceling the meetings you don't want me to take. If I'd just take a page out of your book, we'd be having the most mature relationship I've ever seen outside of a kindergarten classroom."

"It isn't my fault," Amy counters, "that you bring out the worst in me."

"Are you sure that's really true? Or is it that you bring out the worst in me?"

Sam is stuck to this spot on the marble floor, his briefcase clutched tightly in a white-knuckled fist. Nobody in the lobby moves, afraid that if they do, they'll have to admit how incredibly awkward this situation is. Sam hears the beep of the metal detector like a warning, and then Amy's voice, wet with swallowed tears.

"I'm just trying to do my job. I'm just trying--you can't say I'm not--"

"I think that what you're trying to do is keep me from doing mine. I didn't hire you to--"

"What exactly did you hire me for, Josh? Because as I recall, I'm supposed to be a political consultant, and when was the last time you consulted me about anything other than whether you should order the chow fun or the lo mein?"

"You don't have as much experience here as Sam or C.J. or Toby, Amy. Given the choice between going to one of them and going to you, you know what I'm going to choose."

"How the hell am I supposed to gain experience if you make sure to keep me out of everything major you ever get into? For God's sake, Josh, the stem cell ban is a blatant attack against a woman's right to choose, and if that's not my field, I don't know what is. And do you want to know how many times I've held my tongue, because you're all off in your own world? I'm not as stupid as you take me for."

"I don't think you're stupid," Josh says, but the way he yells it, it's hard to believe. Even the security guards are cringing now.

"Of course you do! And why wouldn't you, considering you're the smartest guy in the world? No, wait, I'm not the one that thinks that-- you are," Amy's voice is nails on a chalkboard.

Sam can't breathe.

"I'm not going to argue about this, Amy. I'm your boss. I'll consult you when I feel it's appropriate. End of story." Josh sounds childish, and cold.

"What about when you said you loved me?" Amy asks.

Sam's heart jumps into his throat, strangling him. He feels lightheaded, doesn't want to hear any more, but he can't move, can't do anything but wait for the answer. His pulse is a scream in his ears.

Josh is inaudible, but Amy isn't, and she shouts, "It's never that you mean to hurt anyone's feelings, Josh! You never mean to do any of the things you do to people."

There's a tightening in Sam's chest and throat, and it feels like torture.

"There's only one question," Amy goes on, choking the words out. "Do you want this or not? Do you want to keep doing this, to keep having these arguments or don't you?"

Sam can almost believe he hears Josh's half-whisper, but he doesn't. The only thing he hears is C.J. behind him, "Sam, you haven't moved. You awake?"

And far away, the squeak of Josh's door opening fully, and then closing completely. Amy emerges into the lobby, her eyes red and her eyelashes shining. She smiles at Sam, halfheartedly, and then turns to C.J.

"Bagels!" she chirps. "I hope you got cinnamon raisin."

Sam turns towards her as she pulls the bagel from the brown paper bag C.J.'s carrying. "I'm sorry," he says, barely a whisper.

"For what?" she asks, but her eyes know exactly what he's talking about.

They're not friends--face it, Sam reproaches himself, you've never liked her, and you didn't really even try--and it's certainly not his place to offer her solace. If he'd gotten to know her better, over the month she's worked just a few yards away, he might have sought her out later in the day. He could have brought her a bottle of water, waited in her office, given her the option of reaching out for support. But they're not friends.

He looks quickly at C.J.'s and Toby's faces and guesses they're thinking the same thing. It makes the whole thing worse, knowing that the one person in this building who was ever sincerely on Amy's side has just closed a door on her heels. Sam reaches in to take one of C.J.'s bagels, and his hand happens to brush the side of Amy's arm. "Sorry," he repeats. But the word is too small to mean everything, to mean anything, and she turns away with her head and shoulders bowed. They all walk away too quickly to look casual.

Ginger's put her head down on her arms at her desk, but she winks at Sam as he passes. He pretends he didn't see it, and closes his door. He sits down at his desk with a wearying weight on his shoulders, opens a fresh file on his laptop and tries to think of words to say.

It feels like mid-afternoon, but it's only quarter of nine, when Josh comes to the door and opens it wide without knocking. "Hey."

Sam saves his document and looks up as Josh swings himself around the doorjamb. The jaunty smile on Josh's face startles him. "Hey," Sam says carefully. "How's it going?"

"I've got calls in to Grissom, Newberry..." Josh paces around the office, ticking the names off on his fingers. "Ford. Stanwyck. Everyone who's running a close race back home. Max Lobell wants his name on it, how do you like that?"

Sam tries to smile but it feels like some kind of paralysis has set into his face. He chalks it up to exhaustion. "Well, he is nearing retirement age."

Josh chuckles. "That's funny." He perches on the edge of Sam's desk, close enough to send Sam's temperature up a degree or ten. "You know, I think we should bring Seth Gillette in on this. I can't ask Toby to come meet with him--we can't let Toby near him without a whip and a chair--so how do you feel about taking a walk up the Hill with me?"

For a moment Sam's tempted to say Josh should ask Amy, but there's something behind Josh's eyes that warns him away from even thinking her name. "I've gotta get this written," he says instead.

Before the words are fully out, Josh is back on his feet, circling Sam's desk to stand behind him. "No problem," he says. "I'll bring Ed and Larry. Gillette'll be too busy trying to figure out who's who to realize he's being played." Josh bends down, leaning in close, squinting at the screen of Sam's laptop. "Twenty pages, that's not a bad start."

The air between them is charged, and though Sam tries not to, he can smell Josh's cologne. "No," Sam says, "but you know what happens. I get to page twenty-seven and I realize I have to cut the first ten, and Toby hates the ten after that. So." He remembers the cancer cure they nearly slid into the State of the Union, and his fingers tremble above the keys. "I have to write."

"Okay," Josh says, without moving.

Sam manages to type the word 'or,' but then he's sitting there, with a blinking cursor and blank space, and Josh breathing down his neck. He holds on for a few more seconds. Then he can't stand it any longer, and he asks, "You just killing time, there?"

"Yeah." Josh takes a step back and laughs a bit louder than usual. "Sorry. I'll go back to my office." He moves toward the door and then stops there.

Sam deletes 'or' and replaces it with 'and.' Then he changes it back. He can feel Josh's gaze on the top of his head, and he looks up, nervously.

Josh is grinning. "Want to hear a joke?"

"No," he says. "But that hasn't stopped anyone since the monkeys came down from the trees, has it?"

"The American Indian name for Bartlet is--"

"Josh!" He leans back in his chair. "I'm writing."

"I'm going," Josh says, but he steps forward, close to the desk again. He's nervous, boyish in the way he can't keep still, and Sam can't stop watching his restless hands. "It's a terrible joke, Sam. You may need to get drunk to appreciate it." He rubs the back of his neck with one hand. "Hey, tonight, barring an international incident of some kind, maybe we could get out of here. I'll buy you a beer and tell you my joke, and if you're insulted I'll buy you another beer so you forget about it."

Josh isn't good at dissembling, and Sam knows what this is. Already, he can picture them in the back of a sports bar, voices raised to compete with a basketball game, debating first whether Lincoln could've taken Washington to the hole and then whose apartment is closer. Sam can almost taste the liquor. He knows what this is, and it would be so easy. "I'm not sure I'll ever be able to get out of here," he says, forcing himself to smile.

"Ah." Josh backs up. "Yeah, I know the feeling."

"Good luck with Gillette." He casts a meaningful look at the door.

"Right." Josh turns around and slowly, slowly leaves.

Sam watches him go, watches him pass around the plastic walls that enclose the bullpen and disappear for good in the general direction of C.J.'s office. He doesn't bother to get up and shut his door again, just stares at the laptop screen. His eyes start to sting and the words blur and float. When he blinks they settle back into place, but he has no momentum now. He changes 'or' to 'and' again, closes the file without saving, and hopes that lightning will strike.

*

Sam hears the bell echo through the house, even through the door. It's an old house, but the kind of house a person might think of as a testament to an earlier time, and on the front door is a wreath of dried red and white roses. He almost presses the bell again, thinking that it's possible she didn't hear it, when the door swings open.

"You're early," Ainsley says, smiling. She's wearing acid-washed jeans--trendier than anything Sam owns--and a tank top advertising a restaurant on the Outer Banks. She backs up to let him pass and when he hesitates, she says, "Are you a vampire? You need an engraved invitation?"

Sam smiles sheepishly. "It's big," he says, motioning with his head deeper into the house. She takes the bottle of wine and the loaf of Italian bread he offers and walks off, he surmises, towards the kitchen, floorboards creaking randomly under her feet.

"Well, Daddy apparently thought that I'd be married early, and that we'd be the modern day von Trapps, a whole herd of children. Things haven't worked out precisely the way he expected," she says. The warm yellow walls of the hallway are decorated with big sepia photographs of antebellum girls in wide skirts, of sweeping cotton farms, of 1800's sunsets. The wood floor is the color of slick, freshly burnt sugar.

The house is a little like an embrace, and Sam feels little muscles in his neck relax for the first time in days.

"Yeah, I hear you. I mean, where's a good Nazi invasion when you need one?" Sam says, and then she pushes the door open to the kitchen.

"You're a wise man, Sam Seaborn," she says, grinning at him over the door of the refrigerator as she opens it. "So why're you early?"

"Hey, now. I grace you with my presence--"

Ainsley laughs, and it's like the color of the floorboards. "Oh, and I'm ever so pleased that you'd be so kind, good sir," she says in a thick drawl.

Sam purses his lips. "I came to a stopping point. And also," he says, looking down at the tiny, pale-haired dog licking his shoe, "your dog has, I think, a taste for leather?"

"Sam, you and Toby have been working on the FDR speech for a week. And I know you well enough to know that the only stopping point you'll come to is located around the minute Bartlet gets up there to deliver the thing. And his name is Rutherford. Pet him." She says it as she pulls down two glass dishes from the cabinet above the sink. "Would you grab some silverware from that drawer over there by the compactor?"

Sam shakes his head and pulls the drawer open. He tries valiantly to ignore the dog, who waits patiently at his feet. "It's--it's a long story. I don't suppose we could wait until I've had a glass or wine. Or four."

"Which is an excellent segue into dinner, wouldn't you say?"

"Oh, absolutely," Sam says, nodding and getting down two wine glasses from where they hang, beneath a cabinet. The glasses are wide-mouthed, deep, long-stemmed. German, Sam thinks, but only because it's easier than thinking about what he's not telling Ainsley. "What are we having?"

"I'd like to warn you, I make only two things well. The first is a banana split, and the second is baked ziti. You're getting both. Don't complain." She dons oven mitts, decorated with cats, and leans to open the oven door. A gentle steam rises and fills the kitchen with the smell of pasta, and Sam's stomach rumbles, reminding him that it's been many, many hours since the last time he ate anything.

"Who's complaining? I'm here, the little woman's making me dinner--"

"Pardon me? Who're you calling little?" Ainsley says, grinning and waving the Pyrex dish around menacingly. "I have ziti, and I know how to use it."

"Okay, let's not get crazy. Put the ziti down," Sam says, on the verge of bursting into laughter, and he leans around her to grab the wine bottle from behind her.

She nudges him with her hip. "It's nice to see you, Sam."

He's not used to people saying things like that, so he just shrugs and says, "Corkscrew?"

"With the silverware," she says, smiling. He digs around in the drawer for a moment before he finds it, but when he emerges triumphant, basic silver corkscrew in hand, she nods. "Grab the plates and things and follow me."

"Don't tell me a proper Southern belle like you serves dinner somewhere other than the formal dining room?" Sam says, mock-surprised. The dog's nails tap against the wood floors, and Sam feels like he's being followed.

"I'm a crazy one, all right. They keep threatening to kick me out of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and if that happened-- my mother, she would just die." In the living room, Ainsley kicks a pair of sandals underneath the coffee table and places the hot dish down on top of an old issue of In Style.

They serve themselves, and end up sprawled out on her big, soft couch watching a rerun of Friends on her big screen TV. The bottle of wine disappears, and Ainsley reaches over to grab the remote control from the floor to switch the television off.

"Okay," she says. "Now that you're mildly inebriated, I want details."

Sam looks down at Ainsley's feet, resting in his lap. He runs a fingertip across the tip of her toes. "It's about Josh."

"Well, yeah, because it took a rocket scientist to figure that out." She nudges his stomach with her toe. "Come on, Sam. Out with it."

"I would, really, but--your dog is staring at me. I really can't--"

"You're disturbed by the fact my dog is looking at you?" The well-groomed little shih tzu has been sitting near the sofa all evening, waiting for the little pieces of pasta Ainsley hand-feeds him.

"I mean, seriously, Ainsley, it's hardly a dog. It's--it's a cat in dog drag."

Ainsley's mouth drops open in surprise, but then she bursts into laughter. "Rutherford," she says to the dog, making a shooing motion, "go to bed." And, obediently, the dog scampers off towards the staircase. "Better?" she asks, still giggling.

"Much. Thank you," Sam says.

"Okay, then. Keep going. Now that the big, bad dog is gone."

Sam smiles a little. "Josh has been--since the fight last week? Josh has been my shadow."

Ainsley nods. "Well, there's something to be said for that..."

"I'm serious. It's been ridiculous. I swear to God, he's following me around. At one point, Toby just burst out, 'Isn't there somewhere you need to be?' in the middle of a conversation, because Josh was being completely useless." Sam shakes his head. "Ever since the fight."

"You think it has to do with the fact that he and Amy are no longer an item?"

"What else?" Sam flushes, just a little, along his cheekbones. "It's been--he's been--" Sam breathes a little, then says, "Like when we were..."

"Ah," Ainsley says, looking down. "Like when you two were a thing."

"Yeah," Sam says. "It's driving me crazy." After a moment, he adds, "He thinks you and I are dating."

"Everyone does." Ainsley rubs Sam's calf. "We haven't done much to discourage the assumption. But what would Josh do, if he knew? That we weren't, I mean."

Sam doesn't answer, just closes his eyes and lets the warmth of the Merlot swim through his stomach, through his temples.

"I think you should tell him," she says, after a long silence. "That we're not dating. And everything else."

Sam shakes his head. "I can't."

"You mean, you won't. It'd be relatively easy. 'Hi, Josh. I'm in love with you.' See? That's not hard."

With a sigh, Sam says, "It's not--it's not that easy."

"I know. I'm just--I think you owe it to yourself. He's wearing a sign, Sam. He's wearing the come-and-get-me sign, and I think you deserve the chance to take him up on the offer."

Sam says nothing.

"This is as good as it gets, Sam."

He lifts his head, meets her eyes, and almost, almost smiles.

*

When Sam's standing alone in the Oval Office, he's always trapped between contradictory impulses: the urge to touch the desk, or the carpet, and record the texture with his fingertips, and the fear that at any moment a Secret Service agent will step in from the Portico and tell him that he doesn't belong here. It doesn't matter how many times he's been here or how well he knows every stripe on the sofa. The feeling doesn't leave.

Then the President comes in and Sam stands up straighter, because the office is a place, but it's also a man. Bartlet's carrying a blue binder, and as Charlie shuts the door, he holds it up high. "Franklin Delano Roosevelt," he says.

"Yes, sir," Sam says warily, because it's all there is to say when the President opens a conversation that way.

"One of my personal heroes," Bartlet continues, as he crosses the room to stand in front of his desk. "I was about four years old when he died. How much do you remember from when you were four years old?"

He tries to think, but the images he can retrieve are fuzzy and soft; it's like looking through a lens smeared with Vaseline. "Not much. I remember I got in a lot of trouble for writing my name on my cousin's building blocks."

"But you were writing, that's the important thing." Bartlet smiles. He opens the binder and flips the printed pages, and Sam is surprised to notice the blue pencil is fairly minimal. "It's a good speech, Sam."

Sam bows his head, looking down at the brightness of the seal in the carpet. "Toby did most of the work, sir."

"Toby tells me you did most of the work," Bartlet says. He gives the binder a little toss and catches it so that it's closed. "And between you and Toby, I'm betting that his ego may get beat by honesty, but you're the one who'd get beat by modesty."

Sam looks up faster than he meant to, and he ignores the nagging beginning of a headache to say, "It was a team effort."

"Of course it was. And you wouldn't be able to write this way if it wasn't for Josh corralling Congressmen and C.J. handling the press corps and Amy placating the entire army of lobbyists to our immediate left." The President says this so naturally that Sam can almost believe it's all that simple and smooth, or at least it should be. He goes on, "Nevertheless, I know Sam Seaborn when I read it. I'd know it if I read it on building blocks."

This stirs a little bit of courage in Sam; he's not sure why, but he'll take it. He says, "There was no way to hide our position on this one, sir. And I think it would've been wrong. It's wrong not to stand up for the promise of science and medicine, regardless of personal--" He stops himself. Tries again. "I think it would have been wrong if we'd let certain perceptions govern what we--"

He's saved by a paternal nod. "'The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.' Franklin Delano Roosevelt." Bartlet looks down at the binder in his hands. "He would've liked this. He would've liked what you wrote for today."

Sam inhales and realizes he's smiling, blushing, pride suffusing him so that it shows through the skin. "Thank you, sir."

"I don't remember the day FDR died," the President says, letting his gaze roam the Oval. "I remember V-E day. Maybe because my mother told me I was supposed to remember it, maybe it's just something I've put together over time, but I don't think that's it." He looks at Sam and shakes his head. "You're too young, you don't realize. You never forget the day a war ends."

It's almost like being alone in the office again, and Sam's voice is very soft when he says, "Well, I'm getting older as fast as I can, sir."

"Don't do that," Bartlet scolds lightly. He places the binder on his desk. "What do we have, ten, twenty minutes?"

"Technically?" Sam glances at his watch. "Five."

"So, ten or twenty."

"Okay." Sam realizes he's being dismissed, and he starts to head for the door that leads into the hallway.

"We're not letting them define who we are," the President says, almost to himself.

Sam looks back, and their eyes meet.

"We're not letting them take that."

Sam nods, and he strides on out.

He's halfway to his office before he remembers he's supposed to stop by C.J.'s office and give her the high sign so that she can get the Press ready, and the quickest route will take him straight past Josh's office. Instead, he turns around and goes back the way he came, hurrying past the Oval, around the corner and straight into a collision.

"Whoa," Josh says, rebounding off the wall. "Preoccupied much?"

"Sorry." Sam tilts his head toward the Briefing Room. "We're just about ready to get going."

He hopes Josh won't follow him, but of course Josh does, one step too close. "Are you coming in the car, or are you driving Ainsley over?"

Sam stops walking, hunching his shoulders. "She's not coming."

"She's not?" Josh must realize that he sounds thrilled when he says this, because he instantly takes a shuffling step backward. "That's too bad. It's quite a speech."

"Yeah," Sam says. He doesn't want to let himself be too pleased by this, to let it be as important as the President's praise, but it is.

"So why isn't she coming?"

Sam moistens his lips and decides to tell him the truth. "She's at the thing at the Convention Center."

"The Republican fundraiser?" Josh looks incredulous; he puts his hands in his pockets and leans back against the wall. "The big, conservative, corporate, Glaxo-whatever fundraiser, that 'thing'?"

"That's the one," Sam says.

He'd tried to convince Ainsley to blow it off, and she'd shaken her head and laid her hands, face up, on the table, saying, "Sam, you have to do what you have to do."

Josh is scrutinizing his face. "What's that about? Are you guys having trouble?"

Sam turns away from the steady look. "You could say that," he says. "Trouble right here in River City." And he goes down the hall, trying not to but imagining Josh's reaction all the same.

*

"America has always been a frontier nation," Bartlet declares. "Not only in terms of territory, but in terms of ideas. Today our scientists stand on the frontier of new possibilities, cures for diseases that afflict hundreds of millions of Americans, and countless more around the globe. There are some who don't believe we should support their struggle to free us from suffering, but there were some sixty years ago who didn't believe we should support the European Allies' struggle against a totalitarian regime, against genocide. Then, as now, America is a nation that fights--that must fight--on the frontier of freedom."

The speech is better than Sam could have hoped. Halfway through, Sam looks around, and on every person's face he sees it. That look. The look that says, This is my President.

"We are here tonight, sixty-seven years after the passage of the Social Security Act by the great Franklin Delano Roosevelt--we are here to be half as brave as the men and women of that era. We are here to honor our veterans, both of the battlefield and the home front, and we are here to stand up and say: your triumph has not been forgotten!

"And that's why tonight I'm charging the United States Senate with the important mission of creating, before the end of the year, a prescription drug benefit for all Medicare recipients."

The speech goes on, but the announcement ripples through the crowd, and the press corps is a sudden flurry of notepads and pens and cell phones. There's nothing about the way Bartlet presents it that makes it seem anything like a political ploy, that makes it seem like anything but dedication to an idea. Somewhere near him, Sam hears an elderly woman say of the President, "He's a good boy."

Sam looks up, smiling, but the only eyes he meets are Josh's. Amy's standing on the other side of the crowd, near C.J., and Josh is standing by himself, arms crossed across his chest. He smiles at Sam and nods, and Sam feels that usual warmth creep up from his stomach.

But at the end of the speech, he wishes that Ainsley was there to celebrate with. Josh and Amy are making everything cold by pointedly avoiding one another. And, frankly, Sam's a little afraid of the mass of elderly people pressing forward to shake the President's hand.

He decides to make his exit unnoticed, casually examining one of the etchings near the memorial's entrance, and slipping through the first passageway. He's relatively sure no one's followed him, and so he takes his time, dipping his hand into the clear, cold pool under one of the waterfalls, reading the plaques above the heavy statues.

He's made it to the third room, the one about the war, when he hears the footsteps behind him. The sun has started to drop, so the spotlights have switched on, but the sky is pink and blue in a way that promises a perfect summertime sunset. Sam lets his fingers skim across the rough edge of a block of granite and doesn't have to turn around to know who it is.

He says, "Josh," but he doesn't know if Josh hears it over the splashing of the waterfall.

But Josh is closer than he thinks, and so then, just behind him, he hears, "'Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated.'"

Sam smiles without turning. "Nothing less than genius."

"He had smart guys behind him. Just like Bartlet." Josh says it, and Sam feels how close he is. I could just turn around and--

"Well, you know, nobody's a genius on his own. Except, possibly, Thomas Jefferson," Sam says, leaning hard against the block of stone.

"Maybe not even him," Josh says.

"Yeah," Sam says, shrugging.

There's a long, awkward silence, Sam still facing away, until Josh says, "Look, Sam," and touches Sam's shoulder.

Sam draws in a sharp breath and says nothing.

"I'm sorry, uh--it was an excellent speech. It's too bad Ainsley couldn't have been here." He says it like he's fishing for something, like there's something he can't figure out.

"Well, you know how it goes. Her party calls," Sam says noncommittally.

"Must be difficult," Josh says. "Dating a Republican, I mean."

"I'm not dating Ainsley." His voice sounds almost unbearably careless, as if the words were easy to say.

He can almost feel Josh falter. The sky is turning into an explosion of color.

It's that easy.

"You're--uh. Okay, yeah, but--" Josh says, never quite making it to a full sentence.

"I'm serious. We're friends. We--she made me ziti. We go to wine bars." It's complicated, of course, and Sam finally turns around. Josh's face is shaded, and a very white floodlight frames him from behind, and his expression is unreadable.

"You go to wine bars."

"Exactly," Sam says.

"You aren't dating Ainsley."

"Josh, I feel like maybe we've established the facts at this point." Sam can't deal with the way Josh is looking at him, too seriously, too hard.

"I'm just--" Josh takes a step forward. They're close enough that Sam can tell Josh's hands are shaking. "I wish I'd known."

It occurs to Sam that he can't hear the camera shutters or the senior citizens anymore. Just his pulse and Josh's voice and the splash of running water. Somewhere, a bird's singing. It's like they're in the middle of nowhere.

Then he hears himself say, "So it could've been like when you broke up with Mandy? I'm not--I'm not this guy, Josh."

Josh tenses like Sam's physically hurt him, pushed in the knife a little bit deeper. "I didn't say you were."

Sam grinds his teeth. "Ever since you and Amy--"

"I know," Josh says, and he looks away, over Sam's shoulder, into the tops of the trees.

"And Ainsley keeps saying to me, keeps telling me that you're waiting for me to do something, or say something--"

"You're taking advice on me from Ainsley Hayes?" Josh says, failing at levity. "That seems like quite a gamble."

"Josh, I'm serious. I--" Sam's throat hurts, and he isn't sure what he intends to say. I love you? I need you? Because there's nothing like melodrama in the evening.

"What?" Josh asks, almost under his breath.

It's this hard.

"God," Sam sighs. "You really don't bring out the best in me."

Josh's eyes widen in understanding. "You heard that?"

"People in Baltimore heard that." Sam sort of smiles. "You're not quiet people."

Josh half-laughs, like a cough. "No," he agrees.

Sam shakes his head. "I can't do this, where you have a headache and I'm your aspirin, where I'm supposed to temporarily make it go away. I--you can't do that to me."

"I don't," Josh begins, but then he closes his eyes. Not lying. "I know."

"If there's something, there has to be something. Something real. Something you'll say out loud, at least to me."

Josh doesn't say anything, just dips his chin.

"I need to know if you want to try or not." Sam can't manage much more than a whisper. He never imagined this conversation would happen, and the pain is illuminated by tiny, guilty flashes of relief. He says, "I just want a yes or a no."

The sunset is brilliant, scarlet and shimmering gold. Everything's closing in on them, the sky overhead and the granite underfoot; Sam can feel the force inside his bones. Josh finally says, "We should get back. They'll be waiting for us."

Sam doesn't fall apart. He doesn't even blink. "Yeah. We should go."

As they leave, Sam presses his fingers to the carved stone that says, "I hate war."

The cars are still there when they make it back to the entrance, and when C.J. sees Sam's face, she doesn't ask them where they were, just makes room for him and then they go.

*

By the time Sam drives home, all the streetlights are on, forming beaded strings all over the city and giving the sky an unnatural amber glow. The moon is lopsided, just beginning to wane. Sam parks on the street and takes the creaky old elevator up to his apartment. He doesn't turn on his lights. This is as dark as it gets.

He skipped dinner, and he doesn't remember eating lunch. But he looks in the fridge and there's nothing that even remotely stirs his appetite. So he takes a glass of ice water into the living room and tries to watch a baseball game. The Orioles are getting pummeled by the Texas Rangers, and Sam's finding it extremely hard to sit still.

He wakes up half-sitting, half-lying on the couch, just before the distant beep of his alarm clock. On his way to the bedroom, Sam switches the television to the early news and turns the volume up, so he can listen to the excited chatter of the anchors.

"In a speech last night to veterans of the Second World War, President Bartlet unveiled a bold new agenda..."

Though he's sure that other pundits are already sharpening words like 'transparent' and 'pandering,' Sam allows himself to feel satisfied. Successful.

When he gets out of the shower, they've moved on to rounding up last night's sports scores. The Orioles, he hears, won the game in extra innings. He turns off the set and locks up behind him.

It's easy as anything to go work, because he lives there as much as the apartment, because he went to work after he found out about the MS, and he went to work after he found out about his father, and he went to work after Rosslyn. And it's easy because he knows what will happen now.

Josh will avoid him for a few days, and Sam will see him around the office, flirting heavily with Donna and playfully with the interns, smiling hard, working hard, going into a conniption as soon as something miniscule goes mildly wrong. People will ask what's going on, and Josh won't tell them. And Sam will start planning for the next trip to California, though he knows that one's more Bruno's show than theirs.

Sam gets out of the car, and he can tell by the brightness of the air that it's going to be another sticky but beautiful day. He walks through security and into the building. C.J. and Toby and Amy are lingering in the Communications bullpen, and before Sam even hears anything he can identify their conversation as an argument. Toby's raised voice reaches him first, saying, "I can't believe you're seriously trying to convince me that every human with an X chromosome is a pure-hearted liberal and every human with a Y chromosome is too stupid to realize--"

"Don't mind the yelling," C.J. says, laying her hand near Toby's elbow. "He's a little shirty when he hasn't gotten enough caffeine, and we haven't hooked up his IV yet."

Toby glares at her for just a second, but it's enough time for Amy to jump back in. "The campaign advertising staff is four men and one woman," she says, folding her arms and tossing her head back. "Finance? All men. Strategy--"

"We've got Connie Tate on Strategy," Toby offers.

"Connie Tate's a lapdog, only slightly glorified," Amy says scornfully. "I'm talking about granting women the level of influence and access you know they deserve, considering we're the ones who elected Bartlet in the first place!"

She's happy, Sam notices, and he knows it's not because she's winning the argument, or because winning it would effect any kind of change. It's because she's in the argument, and there's nothing dismissive about the way Toby's debating this with her, nothing deferential about the way Amy's getting in his face. This is real. Even so, Sam hurries into his office before he can get roped into participating. He's not up to this.

Sam sets his briefcase down and looks at the thick stack of memos that's already starting to sprawl over his desk, consuming the space. It's the first day in a long time he hasn't had to think about stem cells, the first day in even longer that he can say he's won a fair fight. He sneaks another glance into the bullpen. Amy and C.J. are laughing now, together, and Toby's starting to look deflated. Sam watches them and suddenly he senses, like knowing that something is hot to the touch, that Amy and Josh won't get back together.

Maybe they'll see Joey in California, he thinks. Meanwhile, Sam will keep hanging out with Ainsley and deflecting the serious questions along with the teasing ones, and they'll dance at parties and make fun of each other's fundraisers. And there will be work. And he'll be glad, grateful, to have the friends he has.

He's reading a memo on education in Africa when he hears first footsteps, and then a throat being cleared. The eyes on him are headlights, and he freezes like a deer.

"So here's the thing," Josh says. "There's this party."

Without moving, barely opening his mouth, Sam says, "I really don't think this is a good time."

"Sam, you're supposed to be, you know, still celebrating." Josh closes the door as he steps into the office. He shuffles forward self-consciously. "It's ten after seven in the morning. You can't possibly be so deeply mired in work."

"I'm mired," Sam says firmly. "I'm reading about rural literacy in Africa, and this--this is a pressing issue. Because"--and he's quoting the memo now, because using its words are easier than dredging up his own--"if the United States is serious about its commitment to democracy in Africa, we must be serious about--"

"I read that too," Josh says, cutting him off. "We get that memo every two months."

"I'm mired, is what I'm saying." Sam waves an unsteady hand at the papers on his desk, sending a few of them cascading to the floor. He drops his hands back into his lap and scowls at them.

"Yeah. Okay. Look, just let me--" Josh places his hands on the back of one of Sam's chairs, wiggling his fingers and lowers his head. "There's this party I've been invited to."

"Whose party?" Sam asks reluctantly, slowly.

"Doesn't matter. Just--I know that it's going to be a good party. There'll be wine, good wine, and cheese platters, maybe grapes, and those little cookies with the jam in the middle--"

"Will there be dancing?"

"Hmm. I don't know. I mean, it's possible, I guess --"

"It's a party," Sam says, and since Josh missed the sarcasm before, he makes it sharper. "I understand the concept. I've seen pictures in magazines once or twice over the years."

"Right." Josh hesitates, and then he steps around the chair and sits down in it, pulling it forward a few inches so he's as close to Sam's desk as he can get. He says, "The thing is, I'd really like to go to this party."

"So?" Sam doesn't bother to stifle the exasperation in his voice. "You were invited to the party, right?"

"That's not the thing. The thing is..."

"Whatever this is about, whatever point you're aiming at, let's get there quickly so I can get back to rural literacy, or maybe something I'm actually supposed to be getting done."

Josh flinches a little this time, and Sam feels remorse, like something heavy bearing down on him. Stop it, he thinks, no more pity and no more self-pity.

But then Josh leans closer again, his eyes shadowed, and Sam is still sinking. "I want to go to the party. But I have this feeling that if I go, I'll have to leave early."

A shiver creeps up Sam's spine. He runs a hand through his hair and asks, "Why would you have to leave early?"

"I left my coffeemaker on!" Josh snorts. "That's not the point I'm aiming at, okay? Are you with me here?"

Their eyes lock then, and Sam wants to look away, but he doesn't dare. "Yes," he says slowly. "I think I am."

"I go to the party," Josh says, shifting his weight around in the chair. "And then I'm there and I'm having a great time, maybe--maybe the time of my life. At the party. I'm not going to want to leave. But the coffeemaker's on, or the clock strikes midnight, and I'll have to go. So I keep telling myself, the wise thing is, don't go to the party. The problem never happens if I just stay home. Right?"

Sam's ashamed of himself for feeling abruptly short of breath, like he's taken a hit to the solar plexus. Like he's stumped by the cleverness of the little metaphor. Say something. Say something.

Josh looks anxious, even scared, the usual defenses lowered. "Right?" he repeats.

And Sam knows exactly what to say. He stands up and slides his hands into his pockets, and waits for one more contemplative beat before he asks, "Who said you had to leave the party alone?"

For a second nothing moves, neither of them and not a molecule of the air.

Then Josh smiles.

Sam doesn't know how long they're just looking at each other, staring and smiling, like fools--no, not like fools at all, Sam thinks. Like old friends, freshly reintroduced. He's not sure how long it's been before Josh stands up and, still grinning, reaches across the desk to touch his arm, moves closer--

He hears the door hinges, somehow, and looks past Josh's shoulder to see Donna standing on the threshold. He pulls backward, but only a little.

"Okay," Donna said. "I'm going to step in the way-back machine now. I was never here. I'll be back in sixty seconds."

Josh turns around in time to see her fleeing, and then he turns back to Sam, shaking his head. "What's that all about?"

Sam knows his face is probably the color of a stop sign. He decides he doesn't care, because of Josh's smile. "We have staff," he says.

"Ah. Right." Josh scratches his head. "So, uh. Tonight. If you're not doing anything."

"There's a party?" Sam asks.

"Yeah," Josh says, and his smile hasn't diminished. "There's a party."

Sam walks around his desk, and they stand side by side. They're both looking at the open door, at the work that's already in full swing. Everyone's rushing around, accompanied by the beep of fax machines and the endless perky burble of the Today Show on more than one television. The day's well underway.

"You think Leo will be in a good mood today?" Josh wonders. "'Cause last night went so well?"

"I think Leo realizes we have a long fight ahead of us," Sam says. It sounds more depressing than he wants it to, and he wishes he'd just nodded his head.

Josh shrugs it off. "We should get him some of those cookies with the jam. Fix him right up."

The laughter rises in his chest, as irresistible as a sneeze, and he manages to keep it down long enough to ask, "Where do you get this stuff?"

"I don't know," Josh tells him, one hand just grazing Sam's shoulder. He leans in close enough for Sam to feel Josh's breath against his ear. "But you know something? You're kind of cute when you're confused."

Of course this turns him redder, and Josh smirks at him until Donna pops back into the doorway, her face almost perfectly composed. "Senior Staff in two minutes," she says rapidly, looking back and forth between them. She hurries away so fast it's practically a jog.

Sam laughs, because he can't help it anymore. "Let's go," he says, trying desperately to muster up a straight face.

And, walking in step, they leave the office together.

*

The End.

Thanks for reading. Feedback is welcomed.

Acknowledgements:

"We live at google.com, and everybody ate at a place from Zagat's. We drank Opus One with Sam and a bottle of Citra with Ainsley, George magazine let us hijack it's society pages, and everything in the world belonged to the Indigo Girls first, including the title. Jae listened to us talk about it, most of all, and everybody got excited. And nobody asked us to do anything of importance for three weeks while this got written.

Luna's my better three-quarters, or possibly five-sixths. She did some stuff, too." -- ellen m.

"What she said. Also: Greyhound got me where I was going. bartlet4america.org filled in the blanks. Robert B. Parker and the Golden Girls are embarrassing sources of inspiration. I pay nothing for Salon, and C-Span2 owns me. This song's for Kacey Linden and the many, many other people who listened to one or both of us blather about this story. Here's hoping they don't regret it.

And ellen m. imagined and made real the best sixty-five percent of everything." --luna