Title : Carpe Diem 3 : Another Bump in the Road
Author : Sue C
Spoilers : ITSOTG
Pairing : Josh/Sam
Rating : PG-13
Disclaimer : I know they belong to Aaron Sorkin, but I can't resist having a little creative fun with these boys. I'll give them back when I'm done.
Summary : This continues the Carpe Diem A/U, with nine month having elapsed since the shooting. Josh and Sam realise that adapting to change has its pitfalls. Beware - angst! Carpe Diem Parts 1 and 2 can be found at http://www.aeglos.org/westwing/
Archive : Yes, just let me know where.
Feedback : Please, even if you hate it, as long as it's constructive. I'm at email@example.com
Thanks to : Nomi, my beta, who never ceases to amaze me with her fine eye for detail - she is the Queen of Syntax! Again, thanks for making this more authentic by identifying my "Britishness". Thanks also to Kathi, who has given me invaluable feedback on characterization, particularly with regard to our sweet Josh. She has also pointed out where some of my imagery has been less than elegant (she knows what I mean!)
Carpe Diem 3 : Another Bump in the Road by Sue C
It was early on a Monday evening when I let myself into the apartment with the key Josh had given me a couple of days before. I hung my coat and jacket in the closet in the hallway, and as I walked into the living room I could hear Donna arguing with Charlie.
"If you put the table there, he won't be able to maneuver around it."
"Do you know that? Do you know the exact dimensions of Josh's wheelchair?" Charlie's voice rose in exasperation.
"For your information, Charlie, I can now tell to the inch what space Josh's wheelchair will go through."
"Okay, kids, play nicely, now," I said, assuming a paternal air. I surveyed the room, pleased to see that it was already looking more lived-in. I'd only seen the apartment a few times - once when Josh first viewed it, then a couple of times after that when I went with him to check the adaptations to the kitchen and the bathroom. It had taken a couple of months for him to find the right apartment and have it fixed up just the way he wanted it, but at last things were coming together to allow him to enjoy the independence he craved. Now he had moved into his new home, and today he had also taken delivery of a car fitted with hand controls. Not having to rely on other people to travel from one place to another would make a huge difference practically and psychologically.
"Donna, you've done a really good job here," I said appreciatively. I knew she'd left work at lunchtime to help Josh get settled. She would have been in her element giving orders to the moving men - in fact, sometimes I think Josh is laboring under the delusion that he's actually Donna's boss.
"She didn't do it *all* on her own," Charlie protested.
"Yes, you've been a great help, but you have to admit I *am* the organizational genius," Donna said, somewhat smugly I thought. "Now, go and get the boxes with the glasses and china and put them in the kitchen."
I smiled at Charlie sympathetically as he walked out of the room.
"Thanks, Charlie. I know Josh appreciates it."
Even as Charlie moved out of her sight, Donna continued issuing orders.
"You can start unpacking them - but don't break anything! Sam, are you just going to stand there or are you here to make yourself useful?"
"Can I go and say hi to Josh first?"
"Yes, so long as you're quick - those books need putting on the shelves," she said, nodding her head towards another couple of boxes in the corner.
"Where is he?"
"Bedroom," she said as she walked towards the kitchen. "I'm going to make sure Charlie puts everything in the right cabinets."
"Yeah, because obviously someone who looks after the President can't be trusted with complex tasks," I called back.
As I got to Josh's bedroom door I hesitated before I entered. Since leaving the hospital in December, Josh had stayed with a couple of old Harvard friends who lived in a first floor apartment. David and Caroline had been great, but it wasn't the same as Josh having his own place. We spent as much spare time as we could in each other's company, but we were still adjusting to our new found status as an out couple, and Josh in particular was reluctant to be too overt about our relationship until he had his own home. Consequently, in the last couple of months we hadn't slept together at all. We even opted not to use hotels, deciding that we wanted our first night together to be really special, spent in the privacy of Josh's home. So as I stood outside the bedroom, I couldn't help wondering if tonight would be the night. The thought of being alone with Josh in a room with a bed, even with Donna and Charlie only feet away, gave me a little thrill. I knocked on the door and walked in.
All the furniture had been arranged to make the room as wheelchair friendly as possible. The closet, with its rails at the right height for Josh, stood open, already half filled with his clothes. This was obviously what he'd been doing before I got here.
"Josh? Where are you?"
"In here," came his voice from the attached master bathroom. "I'll be right out."
I flopped down on the new bed that Josh had bought. Wow, nice mattress - it would give a lot of support for Josh's back, and it certainly wouldn't do me any harm either. Nice *big* bed, lots of lovely pillows. God, what we could get up to here, I thought. I imagined stretching out next to Josh, picturing us rolling around on those soft pillows, underneath the luxurious comforter. I was drifting off into my own private fantasy that involved me, Josh and a bottle of massage oil when I realized he was sitting next to the bed. He leaned over to give me a quick kiss, before moving over to an opened suitcase which had been placed on a chair to allow him to unpack his clothes.
"Is that all I get?" I complained. " I haven't seen you all day." Josh had taken the day off to complete his move.
"Yes, that's all for now. I'm too busy. Besides ..." he gestured with his head towards the door.
"What?" I didn't pick up on his meaning. "Come on; let's try out the bed for size." I leaned over, estimating that he was near enough for me to grab hold of his wheelchair. I managed to grip the footrest and pulled.
"Sam don't *do* that. How would you like someone to come up to you and just pull you towards them without any warning?"
"Sorry." I let go. "I didn't think. Come here - just snuggle up next to me for a couple of minutes."
"No!" Josh said vehemently. "Donna and Charlie are just next door."
"So? Like they don't know we're a couple?"
"When did you get to be so obtuse?" Josh put down the jacket he was holding and turned towards me. "In case one of them comes in. We haven't even *kissed* in front of them - I don't want them to see me in bed with you."
"First of all, Donna or Charlie wouldn't walk in here without knocking, and second of all, I don't believe I asked you to get *into* bed, just *on* it."
"Whatever. I'd just be embarrassed." We lapsed into silence as he carried on putting his clothes away.
"Anything I can do?" I asked.
"No, I can manage, thanks."
"Then I'd better go and help Donna. She asked me to put some books on the shelves." I sat up and made to get off the bed.
"No, stay there." Josh gave me a tender smile. "Just lie there so I can look at you."
"I thought you were too busy?" I asked.
"I like having a little eye candy around while I work," he said with a sly grin.
"You only want me for my body," I retorted.
"That's right. By the way," he said, changing the subject, "what's happening with that Brazilian thing? Aren't those anthropologists - "
"Archaeologists," I interrupted wearily as he got the word wrong for the hundredth time.
"*Archaeologists* - didn't their trial start today?" Josh was referring to the American couple who had ended up protesting with a South American tribe when a mining company had attempted to move the indigenous people from their land. I'd had several meetings with an attache from the Brazilian embassy but my feeble efforts hadn't prevented the Americans and some of the tribes people facing the possibility of a long prison sentence. It wasn't helped by America having interests in the mineral extraction.
"I don't know what else I can do," I said. "I've done as much as I can to exert pressure on the Brazilian government and our own people. I know what will happen - they'll find them guilty and they'll forcibly remove those people from the land that's rightfully theirs. Josh, they're going to lose their birthright and the environment will be devastated. And there's nothing - *nothing* - I can do about it."
As I spoke I jumped off the bed, moving restlessly around the room in my agitation. I stopped, running my hand through my hair and staring up at the ceiling.
"God, I feel so useless."
Before I knew it, Josh was next to me, reaching up to put his arm around my waist. He pulled me towards him.
"You're not useless. At least someone's trying to do something. Sit down."
I sat down on the edge of the bed. Josh wheeled himself over to me and placed his palm against my cheek.
"This is what I warned you about - getting too personally involved."
I could feel my teeth clenched so tightly that it made my jaws ache. Josh must have felt it too, because he began lightly massaging my face with his thumb.
"Don't say 'I told you so' - please, don't say that. I mean, what's the point in being so close to the very seat of power if I can't use it to make a difference?" I placed my hand over Josh's where it lay against my face.
"But isn't that the point about liberal democracies like ours? You wouldn't want a president with absolute power. Maybe what you mean is the power to influence. And look at those things where you *have* made a difference - there's the little matter of getting arguably the most liberal president ever into the White House." He raised his voice in emphasis. "Look at me, Sam."
I tore my eyes away from the middle distance somewhere over Josh's shoulder where I'd been imagining a Brazilian courthouse. I'm ashamed to say that nasty little ethnocentric thoughts about the competence of Brazilian lawyers had crept into my head.
"The trial's just started," Josh went on. "You can't control that, so there's no point in dwelling on it. You need to park it. Wait until the result of the trial, then you'll know what you're dealing with. But in the meantime, concentrate on the things you *can* control. If there's one important lesson I've learned recently, it's that."
"I guess you're right," I said.
"But of course." As he spoke, Josh's eyes raked over my face, and he smiled in a satisfied sort of way.
"There's no need to look so pleased with yourself," I joked.
"Excuse me, I have *every* need to look pleased with myself. I've got a new apartment, a car I can actually drive and I've got the hottest guy in the White House in my bedroom. What more could I ask? Oh, I know - will you kiss me?"
"You won't be embarrassed?" I asked, reminding Josh of his earlier reservations.
Our lips met, slightly parted, tongues gently probing, flicking backwards and forwards tantalizingly. Josh's hand was stroking my leg, but he didn't take it any further than mid-thigh.
I pulled away slightly. "Josh, can we stop? Just doing this is giving me a hard on. If you move your hand an inch higher I'll end up pulling you onto the bed."
"Sorry," he sighed. "That was thoughtless. It's just ... I wanted to take the opportunity to get close to you while I can."
"That's an odd thing to say," I said warily.
"There's something I need to discuss with you ... shit, I'm not explaining this very well." Josh frowned. "Sam, I need you to give me some space for the next few days. Well, until the end of the week, to be precise."
"What do you mean - 'give you some space'?" I didn't particularly like what I was hearing.
"Here. In my apartment. I want to be sure I can hack it on my own, without anyone to help me. If I want my life back again, if I want to be a fully functioning member of the human race, I need to prove it to myself as well as to everyone else. And I can only do that if I'm really, *really* on my own."
I listened to the words, trying to deny the hurt they inflicted. I thought I'd done everything in my power not to make Josh feel dependent, but I now suspected I hadn't done enough. But more than that, I felt a small tug of apprehension starting to uncoil itself somewhere in the pit of my stomach. His first night in his new apartment, and he wanted to do it alone, without any assistance. Christ, anything could happen. However, I knew how Josh would react if I told him this, so I decided to take a different tack.
"So that means you don't want me here," I said.
"Oh, Sam, Sam, that's - the - whole - point," he said, giving heavy emphasis to each word. "There's nothing I'd like more. It would be so easy to say 'Yes, Sam, stay here with me. Yes, Sam, you make dinner. Oh, and Sam, just put my wheelchair in my car for me.' I don't want to be tempted to let you do things for me - not for the time being, at least. It'll be so much easier if you're not here."
"And it also means we won't get to spend the night together," I pointed out. Maybe this would persuade him.
Josh laughed knowingly. "And you think I hadn't thought of that? That's the most difficult part. But if I go to bed with you - even if the intention is that you don't stay the night - do you think I could be that strong? Once we were lying together, holding each other, I'd never want to let you leave. Believe me, it's best if we do it this way. And I'm only talking about the next few days. After that - well, you know we've already agreed to give it a little time before we think about living together permanently. But we'll spend a *lot* more time together, nights included."
The part about not moving in together was something we'd already discussed. But I had high hopes that I could soon persuade Josh to change his mind. However, I was unprepared for what he had just proposed.
"You're not sending me away right now, are you?" I asked quietly.
"No. Oh, Sam, please don't look at me like that." He put his arms around me. "Don't be upset. I can't stand that. You've got to try and make this as easy as you can for me, so you need to be strong. This isn't about you; it's about me and what I've got to do. When Donna and Charlie have gone, we'll have some time alone. But you can't stay. If you really love me you'll respect me on this."
Josh knew that appealing to my devotion to him would convince me. I was still worried about him managing alone, but what else could I do? It was his life, his decision, and how could I impose on Josh what I thought was best for him? I would be the first person to defend the rights of the individual against anyone implying that because they had a disability they couldn't make an informed decision.
"You know I respect anything that's best for you," I answered.
"You'll probably think I'm being glib when I say this, but I'm doing this for you as well. I couldn't bear to think of you being with me because of some dependency thing." As he held me, Josh's hand was lying protectively on the back of my head, gently stroking my hair.
"And you think I don't depend on you?" I asked. "If you weren't in my life I would fall apart." This was getting way too heavy, but I knew instinctively that these things needed to be said.
"Well I *am* in your life, and I'm not going anywhere. So it looks like you're stuck with me." I could sense Josh was smiling. I couldn't help but smile myself, despite the seriousness of the conversation. "Are you hungry?" he asked suddenly.
I thought about it. "Yeah - I am."
"Me too - I want pizza. Let's see if that's okay with Donna and Charlie." Josh broke our embrace, then, placing his thumb and forefinger under my chin, lightly kissed me. He moved away to open the bedroom door. "Come on, Sam - we're neglecting our guests."
Back in the living room Donna and Charlie were stacking boxes and clearing away packaging.
"There are still a couple of boxes in the hallway with some books and CDs in them," Donna said.
"Leave them - you've done enough. You want some pizza?" Josh asked.
They both chorused, "Yes, please," and Charlie offered to go get some beers.
"Here," said Josh, tossing him his wallet and picking up the phone. "What am I ordering?"
"I want pepperoni, but hold the olives," I said.
"Vegetarian, no anchovies," Donna called.
"Anything with extra chilli for me," shouted Charlie as he went out the door.
"And here was I thinking takeout would be easy," grumbled Josh.
"Well you did ask," I retorted. I began looking at the books Donna had asked me to shelve. Until recently the secretive nature of our relationship had meant the times spent in each other's homes had been fleeting : the nights we'd spent together with a hasty morning departure, the occasional furtive afternoon of hurried lovemaking without the subsequent luxury of enjoying each other's company and interests the way other couples took for granted. As a consequence, whenever I'd visited Josh's townhouse I had been unable to take time to notice details such as the books he owned. Amongst the box I'd unpacked there were several political philosophy texts like Plato's Republic and Hobbes' Leviathan, which Josh had obviously owned since Harvard, together with some law books from Yale. That didn't surprise me as I still had some of my old text books. But it was copies of American classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye that caught my attention. Nothing startling there; they were standard works on any bookshelf in America. However, although I loved those books, I hadn't realized Josh had read them, let alone owned them. I had always thought I knew Josh inside out. The sight of these books brought it home to me that by coming out we were going to learn a lot more about each other. The thought filled me with a warm feeling of anticipation.
I continued with my task while Josh and Donna busied themselves in the kitchen. I heard her insisting on us using plates, and smiled to myself, thinking that if Josh and I had been alone we would have made do with napkins. I placed the final book on the shelf. Turning around I saw that Josh had sat himself on the couch. He patted it in an inviting gesture.
"Sit with me, Sam," he said.
I took a place at the opposite end to Josh so that a fair expanse of couch separated us. I know it sounds stupid, especially bearing in mind how I'd wanted to get close to Josh in the bedroom, but this felt so much more public. I felt even more awkward when Donna walked into the room.
"I'm starving," she announced, sitting herself between us. "I hope the pizza guy's not too long. Hey, don't you think the place looks really nice now? I hope you'll make the effort to keep it tidy, Josh," she said in a bossy tone of voice.
"See, Donna, what you don't understand is that those of us who think more laterally don't always conform to your more ... *traditional* approach."
"What you mean is that you're more disorganizes," she shot back.
"No, what I mean is that I think more out of the box, which is inevitably reflected in the way I organize my life." This was quickly developing into one of Josh and Donna's bickering sessions. Fortunately it was interrupted by the buzzing of the intercom.
"That'll be Charlie," said Josh. "Would you mind, Donna - I've just gotten comfortable here?"
"Sure," she replied, "but in the future don't go taking advantage of my good nature. And we'll finish this discussion back at work - the stuff you've got written on that chalkboard in your office isn't making *any* sense."
Once she'd left the room Josh smiled quizzically at me, stretching his arm along the back of the couch.
"Don't you want to sit closer?" he asked.
I hesitated before I answered, thinking Donna and Charlie might walk in. But I could hear them moving around in the kitchen having a discussion about where to put the last couple of boxes that were left in the hallway.
"I don't understand you," I said, keeping my voice deliberately low so that I couldn't be overheard. "In the bedroom you were almost paranoid about us being intimate, now you want us to do the exact opposite."
He sighed exasperatedly. "I told you - I felt uncomfortable in there because it felt furtive. But I don't want us to hide how we feel towards one another. Yes, we're out, but we aren't totally relaxed about it yet because we're still shy in front of other people. I'm not suggesting we start kissing and cuddling in front of them, but surely we can make a *little* physical contact." He gave me a puppy dog look with those irresistible brown eyes. "Please, Sam?"
I shook my head and laughed. "You know what? You just wrap me around your little finger."
"So does that mean you'll sit a couple of inches nearer to me?" God, now he was raising his eyebrow in that suggestive way that will make me do anything he wants. So I slid a little nearer to him, and he left his arm draped along the back of the couch. Then the pizza arrived and what with eating it, drinking a few beers and enjoying Donna and Charlie's company, I suddenly realized I was sitting right next to Josh and his arm had moved slightly so that his hand was lying lightly on my shoulder. And it felt like the most natural thing in the world to finally sit here with my partner, in the company of two good friends, and not be afraid to show them that we loved one another.
The evening sped over, and before we knew it, it was ten o'clock. Donna and Charlie cleared away the debris, and when Donna came back in the room she was in time to witness me leaning over to give Josh a kiss on the cheek. Obviously interpreting this as a sign we wanted to be alone, she yawned elaborately. She put her head out of the living room door to call to Charlie.
"Charlie - I'm bushed. Do you want a ride home?" Very subtle, Donna, I thought.
"Sure," he said, walking in and handing Donna her coat.
"Thanks for everything - you've been great today," said Josh. I knew how profoundly he meant this. He'd said to me recently that he knew how inadequate it was to simply say thank you and that he still found it difficult to accept help from his friends. But if the situation were reversed, you would do the same for any one of them, I'd said. It doesn't make it any easier, he'd replied.
"It's been a pleasure," said Donna, "just so long as you remember how hard we've worked when you're wreaking havoc in the kitchen."
"Come on," I said, standing up. "I'll see you both out."
"Bye, Josh, see you tomorrow," called Charlie.
The night proved cold and clear as we exited the building.
Donna turned to me.
"Don't let him stay up too late tonight will you?"
"Still worrying?" I asked with a slight laugh.
"It's not so much worrying - he's had a long day. But I've learnt not to let him see when I get concerned. It's just that he's coming into work at seven - make sure he eats breakfast."
I stood against the apartment building door, my back propping it open so it didn't shut on me.
"I think you should know that I won't be staying here tonight."
Charlie didn't say anything, I thought he may be feeling a little uncomfortable about my suddenly broaching mine and Josh's sleeping arrangements.
"I'm sorry, Sam, I just assumed ... " Donna's voice trailed off, unsure of what to say next.
"He has his reasons, mainly that for the first few days he wants to do this on his own." I didn't want to go into too much detail. What we had discussed earlier was pretty private.
"My God, Sam, do you think that's wise? I know he wanted to be independent, and I'm sure he *will* be, but his first night in his own apartment?" Donna's voice was sharp with anxiety.
"I know, I know, do you think I haven't tried to persuade him otherwise?" Funny how worry makes you angry with yourself and other people - I guess it's when things happen that you can't control. I knew I would regret being so impatient with Donna. After all, she was only saying what I'd been thinking. "I'm going back in to try to get him to think again. Maybe he'll see sense."
"Well I think you're both wrong," Charlie spoke up suddenly.
"Excuse me?" I said.
"What do you mean - 'make him see sense'? Do you think he's suddenly stopped being one of the smartest people you've ever known? I'll bet he's spent weeks thinking this through. Do either of you *know* what it feels like to have well meaning people tell you what's best for you? Because I do. I had to fight to keep Deana with me when our Mom died - they kept saying we were too young, the responsibility was too great, we would never manage. But we did. Give Josh the chance to do the same."
We stood there looking at each other, the sodium streetlights making our faces look other-worldly. My breath emerged in white clouds as I stood with my arms folded, stamping my feet in an attempt to keep warm. Finally Donna spoke.
"You know, Sam, maybe Charlie's right."
But neither of you love him like I do, I wanted to shout. He's my lover, he's my whole world, and the thought of anything else happening to him makes me sick to my stomach. But I didn't say it, partly because I knew there was truth in what Charlie said, and partly because I couldn't wait to go back inside to have one last shot at changing Josh's mind. So I took the line of least resistance and agreed with them. I knew I was dissembling, but it seemed like the easiest thing to do. I hated deceiving these two people, but all I could think about was spending the night with Josh, watching out for him and being there for him if he needed me.
"I guess so," I said. "I hadn't thought of it like that."
"It's hard, Sam, I know, but don't forget, you're the one who advised *me* about how to deal with my over-protectiveness," Donna said, not unreasonably.
"Hey," I leaned forward and touched her arm. "I know what you're saying. I'll go back in, say goodnight and leave him to it." You dishonest bastard, I thought to myself. "I'll see you in the morning."
They said their goodbyes as I watched them walk to Donna's car. I raised my arm in farewell, walked back into the building and shut the door.
When I went back into Josh's apartment, I noticed I had left my suit in its carrier hanging up on the coat rack. I'd brought a change of clothes with me assuming I'd be staying the night. I took it off the hook, intending to put it in Josh's bedroom - I was sure I could convince him to let me stay. I was stopped in my tracks by Josh's voice.
"Sam, come here - I need you."
Christ, what had happened? Images of Josh sprawled on the floor as a result of falling while getting into his wheelchair flooded into my mind. I dropped the suit carrier on the floor and dashed into the living room. I was met with the sight of Josh still sitting on the couch, head tilted on one side, wearing *that* smile. The one that gives me chills and makes me feel as if my bones have liquefied.
"I need a hug," he said.
I sat down on the couch next to him. I pulled him into my arms, holding him close.
"Brrr - you're freezing cold," he observed as he rested his cheek against my face. "Let me warm you up."
"Hey - alone at last," I joked.
"Yeah, but tonight was nice, wasn't it?"
"Not as nice as this," I said.
I felt Josh's body against mine - warm, vital. I pushed him back against the cushions, pulling his legs onto the couch so that he now lay stretched out. I paused to look at his face. The intense brown eyes, the beautifully straight nose, the well-defined mouth - even with all that, his face was so much more than the sum of its parts. I drank in the look of him as if I were a man dying of thirst : but it wasn't water, it was Josh Lyman that I thirsted for. I couldn't get enough of him.
"Josh ... oh, Christ ... Josh," I said, "you're so fucking delectable."
"Flatterer," he said, so quietly it was almost a whisper. But I could tell he was pleased.
I began kissing him - his forehead, his eyelids, across his cheekbones. He ran his hands up my arms, across my shoulders, down my back.
"Sam ... love you so much ... so much ... "
"Shh ... I know ... " I kissed his mouth - it was soft and yielding. Josh threw his head back; I stroked his throat, feeling him respond to the touch of my fingers. My senses became more acute - the series of small sounds I could hear Josh making; the pulse in his neck that I could feel as I began kissing him there; the sweet taste of Josh. His back arched slightly as he became more and more aroused. I was aware of the heat that was spreading through my groin. My fingers slid over the buttons of Josh's shirt - I managed to unfasten a couple of them, sliding my hand inside, running my palm against his chest.
Eventually I ran my hand down to his nipple, using my thumb first to trace small circles around it, then moving to the more sensitive area. By now my erection was straining against my pants, so much so that I was starting to grind myself against Josh, hoping the friction would give me some relief. Again I seized upon his lips, but not softly this time, diving in harder until I couldn't contain myself. I broke the kiss, tangling my fingers in Josh's hair. I pulled his head back - hard. All gentleness had ceased. I wanted him to open his eyes and see the naked desire that I knew was written on my face. All bets were off : I told him exactly what I wanted, so sure was I that he would acquiesce.
"Babe ... let me take you to bed ... oh, fuck, let me lie you on that beautiful big bed ... I need to undress you ... I need to love you ... I want you to love me ... please ..."
My timing couldn't have been worse. Suddenly, Josh's hands were on my shoulders, thrusting me roughly away from him. I was taken aback at the strength he demonstrated, although bearing in mind how much exercise his arms now received, I shouldn't have been surprised. But worse, much worse than that, were the words he used.
"No, no! God ... Sam, I asked you not to do this. How could you? How could you choose to ignore everything I've said? I thought you loved me ... hell, I thought you ... *respected* me."
With a series of movements I can only describe as fluid, he had pulled his wheelchair around from where it stood at the bottom of the couch, positioned it in front of him, then levered himself up onto it. By doing this he had gained the psychological advantage - there was I, sitting helplessly on the couch, while he looked down on me. He continued with his tirade, running his hands through his hair, making him look wild and dishevelled.
"You've got no idea, have you? What all this means to me." He made an extravagant gesture around the room. "All you could think of was having sex, satisfying your own needs. Is that all we mean? Is it? Is it?" He finally stopped, breathing heavily, looking at me with such a mixture of hurt and anger that I felt ashamed. What *had* been my motivation? Was I kidding myself when I told myself I wanted to stay for the sake of Josh's welfare? Or was I simply using that as an excuse because I was horny? I tore my eyes away from the searing intensity of Josh's gaze - his pupils had widened so much that I could almost imagine that he could see right through me, into my own private thoughts, into my very soul.
I bent my head, covering my eyes with one hand. I needed time to examine my feelings, decide what *had* made me act the way I did, say what I said. Yes, there was desire there; I wanted to make love to Josh, to have him touch me, give me orgasm after orgasm. But the overriding emotion was still apprehension at leaving Josh alone. Sure, I'd began by thinking that getting close to Josh would make him give way, but what had *really* motivated me was the fear. And still I didn't want him to know that.
"You wanted it just as much as I did, or was I imagining that you asked *me* to hug *you*, that *you* were kissing *me*, pushing your body against me, moaning in my ear?" I looked up at Josh to see him staring at me, unbelieving.
"I asked for a hug, godammit. I just wanted us to snuggle up, kiss a little, and then you'd leave. I didn't want you to ravish me." He stopped, as if he'd just realized what he'd said.
"No? Not even a little bit?" I couldn't resist asking. He didn't reply.
"Josh ... the truth?"
"Well, all right, maybe a little bit. I'm only human." His temper was subsiding. There was even the ghost of a smile on his face. "But I'm still not letting you stay. You have to go now."
I sat there, not wanting to move. I knew I was going to have to tell him the truth. I hated being dishonest with Josh. Anyway, he always saw through me in the end. His next words confirmed it.
"Sam, what is it? There's something else, isn't there?" He moved over to me, taking my hand and holding it in both of his. He leaned his head down so that he could look at my face. "Why so sad?"
By this time the worry I was feeling was almost physical, like it would choke me. Finally I couldn't stand it any longer.
"Josh, I don't want you to do this. It frightens me - what if something happens? What if you fall while taking a shower or you can't manage in the kitchen?"
Josh briefly closed his eyes, taking a deep breath before he replied. "I came here with my therapist and used every adaptation in this apartment to make sure they were safe and I could manage on my own. Those things you've said - *they're not gonna happen*."
"How do you know? Please, Josh, I'll just stay tonight, then you can be alone. I'm scared, really scared that you're trying to run before you can walk ... " My hand flew up to my mouth as if to stop the words I'd just said. "Oh, shit, shit, shit." I sat there, waiting for Josh to pull away from me, but the only reaction he made was to grasp my hand a little tighter. Suddenly he laughed harshly.
"Don't worry, it's not the metaphor that bothers me, it's the fact that a wordsmith such as yourself would resort to such cliches."
But I knew it did bother him. Despite recently telling people not to watch what they said around him, I knew that careless words such as these hurt him more than he let on. Sometimes they had no effect, other times I would see him almost wince. That's the reason he wanted to do this reckless thing. He couldn't make his disability go away, but he could fight the image he thought it might give him. Despite his bravado I knew Josh's biggest fear was being viewed as helpless, dependent, an object of pity. I sat there, wishing I could turn the clock back five minutes.
"Josh, that was a stupid thing to say. I know I always end up apologizing, but I don't know what else to do. I didn't say it to hurt you deliberately."
"Forget it," he said dismissively. "What *does* hurt is not being given the credit for knowing my own mind. You even used sex to try to influence me, like you assumed I'd be so easily swayed. Maybe you weren't turned on at all - it was just a ploy to get what you wanted : to stay here and show who's in control."
"Josh, stop twisting everything I say. And do we *have* to go through that thing again about me just pretending to find you attractive? You didn't stop being a sexual being because you're using a wheelchair. How many more times do I have to tell you to convince you?" Roughly, I pulled my hand out of his grasp. "This is getting us nowhere - I should go."
He drew his lips into a tight line as if to prevent himself saying something he would regret. He moved to kiss me, and I turned my face to one side so that his mouth only grazed my cheek.
"If that's the way you want to play it ... " he said, deliberately leaving the statement open-ended. He pushed himself back, moving around to turn off two of the three lamps that were dotted around the room. He didn't look at me as I walked, stiff backed, into the entry hall, full of righteous indignation. And fell over head first as my foot made contact with the suit carrier I had carelessly dropped on the floor.
"Fuck!" It wasn't the tripping over that bothered me, it was the fact that it had ruined my grand exit, making me look like a clumsy fool.
"And you were the one who was worried about me hurting myself. Well, at least I can go from one room to another without falling over." Josh's voice was heavily laden with irony as he looked at me with more an a little satisfaction now that his point had been made so graphically.
"Here." I looked up to see Josh's hand held out in front of me. He pulled me to my feet. "Did you hurt yourself?" he asked.
"Only my dignity," I said, managing a rueful smile. At least my mishap had broken the tension between us.
"Then let me kiss it better," he replied.
I sat down on Josh's lap, something I'd gotten into the habit of doing in those situations when previously we would have stood opposite one another and embraced. Josh entwined his arms around my waist and kissed me tenderly, lingeringly.
"Will you be okay to drive home?" he asked.
"Yeah - I've only had a couple of beers," I said.
"I didn't mean that. You know it takes good coordination to get in the car and put your seat belt on." He burst out laughing.
"Oh, you're a funny guy, Josh, a *really* funny guy." To pay him back, I began tickling him, knowing it drove him crazy because he hated it.
"All right ... stop ... stop ... " he cried, laughing and gasping, "I promise I won't say any more."
"And you won't tell CJ and Toby?" I said, giving him one last tickle just to make sure.
"No, I swear." I stopped tickling him. "Just Donna and Charlie," he couldn't resist saying.
"Josh!" I threatened.
"Joke, joke!" he said. He tightened his arms around me. "Oooh, I'm glad we've sorted things out. Honestly, I didn't know how concerned you were."
"I'm *still* concerned." I couldn't pretend I wasn't.
"Look, to make you feel better, if I have any problems, I promise you'll be the first person I'll phone."
Reluctantly, I stood up. I leaned over, giving him a chaste kiss.
"All right. You do that. Otherwise, I'll see you tomorrow." I gathered up my belongings and made for the door.
"Sam, you know I love you even more for doing this for me."
I opened the door, turning before closing it behind me.
"And it's only because I love you so much that I'm doing it. Goodnight, babe."
The night was still : so cold and clear that the buildings under the streetlamps stood out in sharp relief. My car was covered by a light sheen of frost that sparkled in the streetlights. After putting my bags in the trunk I jumped quickly inside, hoping it wouldn't take long for the heater to warm things up. I shivered slightly at the thought of going into my own empty apartment, lying alone in my bed once more when I'd had such high hopes for the way tonight would end. As I started the car engine I looked towards the window of Josh's living room. There was a slight chink in the drapes and I noticed it suddenly go dark as Josh turned off the light. I turned my attention back to turning on the car headlights and pulling out into the empty road, forcing away the thought of Josh doing all the things we take for granted before going to bed. Maybe he'll have to take things a little more slowly, I argued to myself, but he'll be fine.
The streets in the area around Josh's apartment were quiet, but as I drove into my neighborhood I had to pass a series of shops and businesses. It was pretty lively, with people emerging from the small number of restaurants and bars that were located there. Despite the chill in the air, some people were strolling along window shopping, a number of them in couples. As I watched them, I felt a touch envious, but also thankful that Josh and I had made our peace tonight before we parted. I turned into my street, finding a parking space fairly near to my apartment. I walked into the building, juggling with my bags as I fitted the key into the lock. Now I was home, all I wanted to do was go to bed, sleep and get the night over as quickly as possible so that I could see Josh the next day. I was aware of a feeling of anticipation. It reminded me of Christmas when I was a child : my mother always used to say that the sooner I went to bed, the sooner I would get to sleep, and that's when Santa Claus would come. I smiled, thinking I would tell Josh, imagining what he would say to being compared with Father Christmas. Something derogatory, no doubt - if there was anything he hated, it was whimsy.
Once in the apartment, I made straight for my bedroom. I unpacked the clothes I'd taken to Josh's, and laid them on the bed. After I'd used the bathroom and undressed I picked them up, put them back in the closet, suddenly deciding I didn't want to wear them the next day. Instead, I picked out a new Hugo Boss suit I'd just bought but hadn't worn, a white shirt and a blue tie that Josh always said brought out the blue of my eyes. Then it hit me. I was dressing for Josh, as if I were going on a first date with him. I was aiming to make an impression, gain his approval, make myself look hot for him. And that's what I intended to do for the rest of the week, so that come Friday I would be fucking irresistible to him. He wouldn't stand a chance. With a feeling of satisfaction at my master plan I climbed into bed. I must have fallen asleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow, because before I knew it my alarm woke me at 5 AM.
I showered and dressed in double quick time, pausing to scrutinize myself in the mirror. I've never thought of myself as vain, but on that day even I had to admit to myself that I looked good. It wasn't just the clothes, it was that I felt good about myself. I was so eager to get away I decided not to make myself a cup of coffee. I figured that could wait until I got to work. In fact, I felt on such a high that caffeine seemed totally unnecessary. I was even whistling - *whistling*, for God's sake - when I unlocked my car and drove off. It was going to be a good day, I could sense it. In fact, it was going to be a great week, and an even better weekend. Joshua Lyman, I thought, you won't know what's hit you.
I arrived at work at six-thirty. By six fifty-five I was standing on the second floor of the White House at a window that faced out onto the parking lot. I noted with relief that the weather was fine - cold, but dry, with only a light powdering of frost on the ground. At one minute to seven I saw the car I was looking for drive in and park in the newly-painted space. The butterflies that had already taken up residence in my stomach began flapping around like crazy. I stepped back slightly so that I wouldn't be seen should anyone glance up and look towards the window.
As I watched, a slight twinge of guilt tugged at me. I tried to tell myself that I wasn't spying on Josh, that I just wanted to make sure he was able to get out of his car and into the building without any problems. But still, a little part of me protested that he would hate it if he knew I was watching him, no matter how good my intentions. But I wasn't about to leave now. Anyway, I was curious to see what technique Josh would use to get himself and a wheelchair out of the car. He hadn't wanted me around when he'd practiced it. The only person he would tolerate was his physical therapist, and only then because she could offer some expert advice.
>From my vantage point I saw Josh lean over, open the passenger door and then flip the back of the passenger seat forward, which allowed him to maneuver his wheelchair out of the car from where he'd stashed it behind the seat. Then he slid over onto the passenger seat, leaning back to grab the cushion that he placed on his wheelchair after he had unfolded it. He then transferred himself from the car, leaned in and picked up his backpack, which he balanced on his lap with the strap over his shoulder. Finally, he wheeled himself back, shut the door and locked the car. The whole thing had taken him under five minutes to accomplish. I felt slightly stupid at worrying so much, and not a little patronizing that I could even imagine that Josh would need me to watch over him. After all, if he really *had* got into any difficulty, he did have a cell phone he could use.
I turned away from the window and noticed a couple of people walking past glancing at me curiously, probably because they were surprised to see me up there. The rooms on the second floor contained the offices of non-senior staff, reference material and storage space for files and various other documents that weren't classified. Added to that was the fact that the corridor was freezing cold, and not the most comfortable place to be standing gazing out of the window. The world's only superpower and we still couldn't fix the heating in the White House.
"Good morning," I said, smiling, as I moved away towards the staircase. They murmured a reply, hurrying on their way. One of them looked back at me with a still-curious look on her face. I gave her a blank stare and she dropped her eyes. I didn't care - quite frankly, I had more important things to worry about than whether members of the staff were speculating about my activities. I made my way down to my floor, taking the stairs two at a time. In my haste I elbowed past a secretary on her way up, almost knocking the files she was carrying out of her hands.
"Sorry," I said, not waiting to hear her reply. I guessed my behavior would probably be raising some eyebrows.
As I reached the Communications bullpen I was waylaid by Cathy.
"I've left some papers on your desk from Toby," she said, trotting alongside me. "He wants you to have a look at them before staff. He'd welcome your input."
"Those focus groups - remember, the ones he's chairing next week?"
"Oh, those," I replied dismissively. "Why does he need *my* input? And for that matter, what sort of input?" As far as I was concerned, the focus groups were Toby's baby.
"Hey, don't shoot the messenger - I just put them on your desk and now I'm telling you what Toby said." Cathy sounded slightly aggrieved by my response.
"Okay, I'll look at them." I stopped in front of my office. "Is there anything else, Cathy?"
She frowned slightly. "No - I'll see you later."
I watched as she walked off. Sighing, I opened my office door. The truth of the matter was that I wanted to get into my office as quickly as possible in case Josh decided to drop in. I didn't want to give him the merest suspicion that I'd been skulking around anxiously waiting and watching for his arrival. I made a promise to myself that I would apologize to Cathy for my abruptness. I walked over to my desk and picked up the file that she had left there. I opened it and was standing there reading when I heard Josh's voice long before he entered my office. I lifted my eyes from the page and listened.
Josh was greeting people in a way I hadn't heard since before Rosslyn : joking, laughing. He sounded ... exuberant, almost. I shook my head and smiled to myself as I heard him approaching.
"Well, good morning. Here I am, safe and sound, and ... wow!"
Josh was staring at me, his mouth slightly open.
"What?" I asked.
He started to smile that crooked smile that was so attractive.
"You look ... is that a new suit?" he finally asked.
"Er - yeah," I said, as if I'd only just noticed.
"God, Sam, you look so ... "
"Josh, what are you trying to say?"
"Hot. You look hot," he said, moving further into my office.
"Well, thank you - but does your tone of surprise mean that this is an unusual occurrence?" I asked. I was teasing him, of course, but the reaction I'd gotten from him was even better than I'd hoped. Because it was more like the Josh Lyman of old. Since he'd returned to work, there had been times when I saw a different Josh. He'd sit in meetings and yes, he'd argue and he'd challenge, but some of the old *passion* was gone. Or I'd go see him in his office and catch him looking at a document with unseeing eyes or staring at the wall or out of the window. That's when I'd speak his name as softly as possible so as not to startle him, but still he'd jump and look as if he was dragging himself back from a thousand miles away. It was as if there was something peripheral to his everyday work and activities demanding his attention. Instinct told me that it had something to do with the trauma he'd gone through, and despite letting Josh know that I was always available to talk, he never opened up about it. But today there was something of the old spark there. I could only assume it had something to do with the start of this new, more independent, phase of his life.
"No," he said in answer to my question. "What I mean is you look *especially* hot today." He shut the door and moved closer to me, tilting his face up in what I guessed was an invitation to kiss him. I leaned down and as our mouths touched his lips opened and I felt the tip of his tongue press my own lips apart. I allowed our tongues to joust for a few seconds then broke the kiss. Leave him wanting more, I said to myself as I straightened up.
"Yes, Josh?" I asked innocently. I almost felt sorry for him when I saw the disappointed look on his face.
"Nothing," he said. "I'd ... I'd better go."
"Yeah - we've got staff at eight o'clock, and I need to look at this," I said, picking up the file I'd discarded.
"I'll see you later, then," Josh said as he opened the door.
"Mmmm - fine." I waved a hand at him distractedly as I turned my attention back to the paperwork. But not before I'd seen the look of pure desire on his face. Oh, yes, I thought, now I've *really* got you interested. Let the games commence!
I was the last one to arrive in Leo's office. Most of the seats were occupied since there were always a couple of members of staff there from Communications and Josh's office to take notes and provide briefing information. Rather than make a point of finding a seat near Josh I sat on the edge of things, near the door. My reason for this was twofold - firstly, we didn't like to appear as if we were joined at the hip while at work, and secondly, as part of my strategy of keeping Josh interested, I wanted to see what effect keeping a little distance between us would have on him. So I sat there looking at the file I'd brought in with me, but I couldn't help but be aware that Josh was stealing covert glances at me as we waited for the meeting to commence.
Leo liked to meet daily with senior staff to map out priorities and identify issues. As the meeting progressed he also got us to provide updates on our own particular work areas. By the end he had identified that Josh was going to be busy all day interviewing candidates for the extra assistant he now needed; what CJ would be talking about at the day's first press briefing; which states Toby would be visiting to chair his focus group meetings. For myself, I was able to give him a review of my own work in progress on a couple of speeches I was writing for the President, one to the American Medical Association, the other, much more significant, to the Security Council of the UN.
"So - anything else I should know about?" Leo asked, indicating that the meeting was drawing to a close.
"Yeah - Toby and I are concerned about this report that the Social Issues Center has produced," said Josh, referring to the left/liberal think tank's latest findings on the relationship between poverty and health statistics.
"Go on," said Leo cautiously.
"Toby and I are ... what can I say ... not entirely in agreement on a response."
"*That's* the understatement of the year," snapped Toby. He was rewarded with a glare from Josh.
"Look, we should gather all the evidence - *not* just from this one report - and then the President can make an informed response." Josh was evidently keen to make his position clear.
"No, no, no! This is our opportunity to show what's at the heart and soul of this administration," Toby said vehemently.
"Concepts like heart and soul are all very well until you're sitting *outside* the White House when a Republican's just been inaugurated," responded Josh, his voice growing steadily louder.
I noticed that despite the fact that he'd been at work just a little over an hour and a half he had already discarded his jacket, rolled his sleeves up over his wrists, loosened his tie and unfastened the top button of his shirt. He looked like he'd prepared himself for the skirmish that was in progress.
"We *need* more than a knee-jerk reaction - we *need* to be more strategic in our response."
As Josh said this he put one hand on his hip, and with the other began making downward cutting motions to emphasize his words. Looking objectively at his behavior, Josh was being all the things that some people found irritating or even alienating : combative, confrontational, some would say aggressive. Despite our relationship I could see all of these things. But looking at him subjectively I also saw electricity and dynamism; I felt drawn to him by the sheer sexual magnetism he was giving off. God, I was acting like a sexually frustrated teenager.
I dragged my eyes away from him to see CJ on the other side of the room giving me a knowing little grin. She raised an eyebrow and I felt myself going red. Either my own behavior was a dead giveaway or she could read my mind. She opened her mouth to speak. Oh no, I thought, she's going to make one of those quips - surely she wouldn't ... she *couldn't*.
"Okay - time out fellas," said Leo. I breathed a little easier as this stopped CJ in her tracks. His intervention also caused Toby and Josh to stop their discussion, which had now degenerated into a shouting contest - by this time they were just talking over one another with no hope of either one of them hearing the other. Sometimes I wondered why Toby's job title included the word "communications".
"It's good to hear your level of debate still reaches levels of sophistication the rest of us can only dream about."
"Leo ... " began Josh, but he was rewarded with a look that silenced him immediately. Leo was the only person - apart from the President - who could do that.
"This report wasn't on the agenda for this morning, but seeing as Toby and Josh have decided to put it there, here's what we'll do. Josh - do some digging, find out what other figures are available." Josh leaned back and, folding his arms in front of him, turned and looked at Toby with an unmistakable smirk on his face.
"And Toby," Leo continued, "you and Sam might as well start writing a response."
This time it was Toby's turn to smirk. But Josh couldn't resist having the final word.
"So that means you can factor in my findings," he said.
And right there in front of my eyes I saw the old Josh return. My smart, opinionated, wonderful Josh. The Josh who wanted to win at all costs. He turned his head towards me and smiled; for a few seconds it was as if we were in our own private, insulated world. We both knew what had happened, but whether anyone else had detected the shift that had just occurred, we didn't know. So we broke eye contact and continued as if nothing else had happened. The time for celebration would come later - oh, yes, I'd make sure of that.
"That's agreed, then. In that case, why don't you all go and do some work?" Leo said, drawing the meeting to its conclusion.
The assembled group broke up in a flurry of gathered papers and files, exiting the office to go to our respective work areas. I saw Josh hang back, letting people leave before him to make his own departure easier as he maneuvered skilfully around the furniture. I followed him out. The corridor outside was empty. I hurried to catch up with him : he moved just as fast, if not faster, than he had done before his injuries. I bent down and put my lips to his ear.
"Do you even know what effect you were having on me in there?" I whispered. Before he could react, I walked away, not pausing to look around. But as I hurried in the direction of my office I heard a wistful sigh, and an exasperated "No, Sam, but I think *you* know the effect *you're* having on *me*." I smiled to myself. Round two to me, I thought.
My smile didn't last for long. I grabbed myself some much-needed caffeine, picked up several telephone messages from Cathy and walked through the crowded bullpen reading the message that was on the top of the bundle of pink slips.
"Sam, a word." Toby's voice interrupted my train of thought as I sifted through the rest of my messages.
"How long will it take - I've got a stack of phone calls to reply to, and that speech for the AMA is just begging to be written," I joked.
"Have you looked at the file I left you on the focus groups?" Toby gestured for me to enter his office.
"I skimmed it before staff. I was going to ask what you meant by me 'having some input'."
"I thought it might be an idea if you came along," he said.
"You don't need me," I countered. That was the last thing I wanted. According to the papers I'd read earlier, it meant leaving DC on Sunday, returning on the following Thursday. If at all possible, I intended spending this Friday evening and the weekend with Josh, and hopefully some nights the following week. But to be perfectly honest, I had plenty of work that needed my attention, so my reasons weren't entirely personal.
"Sam, I *do*. The demographics of the people we're talking to ... you'll appeal to them."
"Yeah, but somebody's got to be covering Communications while you're away." I was hoping I didn't have to justify my reluctance any further, but I continued to press my case. "Then there's the speech to the Security Council..."
"That's not for another three weeks," Toby interjected.
"I know, but there's research I need to do on child poverty in the developed nations. Come on, Toby - you could chair those focus groups standing on your head."
"It's not just the work you need to do on the speech that's stopping you, is it?" he asked.
Shit, I thought, my relationship with Josh is the last thing I want to explore with Toby. There was no way he would put up with it as a reason for me to avoid this trip.
"It's the archaeologists' trial in Brazil, isn't it?" he asked.
That question came out of left field. But when I thought about it, it *was* one of the reasons I wanted to stay in DC.
"Yes, I don't mind admitting I want to keep a watching brief on it," I said. And it was true. Realistically there was little I could do, but I'd taken such an interest in the case so far, I wanted to see it through to the end.
"Well, I don't have to tell you that that won't necessarily serve any useful purpose," he countered, "but I don't doubt your sincerity." He looked at me in that intense way of his. "Okay, the midwest will just have to forego the pleasure of your company."
"Thanks, Toby," I said, trying to disguise the relief I felt.
"Don't thank me, Sam. The fact that you aren't prepared to share the misery of a series of focus groups in the midwest will only serve to concentrate my mind on where I can next dispatch Sam Seaborn to in this great nation of ours."
For the rest of that Tuesday and the whole of the Wednesday Josh and I saw only fleeting glimpses of each other. His time was taken up with interviews to fill the assistant's post and meetings; mine was taken up with writing. Any personal time was strictly limited - a quick kiss good morning and one to say goodnight, and that was it. I hoped that the old adage of "absence makes the heart grow fonder" held true, rather than "out of sight, out of mind". The former was confirmed when I entered my office early Thursday morning. Throwing my coat onto the stand I turned around to see a vase containing one perfect lily standing on the window sill. There was a small envelope propped against it. Moving over to the window, I pulled out the card it contained.
"S - Meet me in my car at 12:30 - Love, J."
I looked at my watch. 6:30. I picked up my phone and dialled his number. Donna answered - he must have diverted his calls to her.
"Donna - is Josh there?"
"And good morning to you, too, Sam," she replied. "No - he's over at Justice having a breakfast meeting, then he's tied up with Leo all morning. Do you want me to get a message to him when he gets back?"
"No ... no - I'll catch him later." I put the phone down and sat back in my chair. I couldn't help smiling - the flower, the note and the idea of a lunchtime rendezvous was so unlike Josh. This week was just getting better and better.
The morning passed quickly, with even Toby allowing me to work undisturbed as he was busy preparing for his trip. Before I knew it, it was 12:28. Yes, tiresome I know but I've always been annoyingly punctual, unlike Josh, who always seems to be meeting himself coming back on his way to appointments. But today he'd managed to be on time : as I made my way to his reserved parking space I could see him sitting in the car. I hardly had time to step out of the building when I heard him start up the engine. I quickened my pace and jumped into the car.
"Hey, you," I said.
"Hey, yourself," Josh replied.
I wanted to put my arms around him and hold him tight, but contented myself with putting my hand over his where it lay on the gear shift. Josh looked me in the face for a full ten seconds without blinking.
"What?" I asked.
"Nothing. I just feel I haven't been able to look at you - I mean *really* look at you - all week."
"Tell me about it," I replied.
I squeezed his hand, then he moved the car into drive. I watched as he used the attachment on the steering wheel to allow him to steer one-handed while he used a lever with his other hand to accelerate and brake. We moved out into the busy midday traffic of Pennsylvania Avenue.
"Have you got enough leg room there - I've had to pull the seat forward to make enough room to put my wheelchair behind it," Josh asked.
"It's fine. Nice car, by the way."
"It's not bad, is it?" Josh asked.
"Oh - and thanks for the lily and the note."
"The pleasure was all mine," he said suggestively.
"Where are we going?"
Josh braked at a stop sign, and while he waited for the intersection to clear he glanced over at me.
The significance didn't escape me. Two years ago Josh, Toby, CJ and I had dinner there. For some time before that I knew I was in love with Josh, and unless I was getting the signals wrong I suspected he felt something for me. To cut a long story short, that evening had involved copious amounts of red wine, a cab ride back to Josh's place and the best sex I'd ever had. Just Josh and me, of course - it didn't include Toby and CJ.
"Josh - are we on a date?" I asked.
"Well, you've been behaving so come hither..."
"What? Did you say 'come hither?' " I asked incredulously.
"Sam, that's the only way I can describe it. You've looked so hot. The way you behaved after staff on Tuesday. But then the next minute it's been all 'you can look, but you can't touch'. Since yesterday you've been keeping me at arm's length." Josh sounded so bewildered I couldn't help but feel a twinge of sympathy for him.
"Kept you interested, though, didn't it?" I asked.
"Sam Seaborn, you're cold and calculating, and you've been playing me all week!" he protested.
"Maybe just a little - but look what it's got me - a date with the Deputy Chief of Staff of the White House. I could make at least half the women inside the Beltway mad with jealousy."
"I would have said nearer to three-quarters, but I'm not going to argue with you. Now, make yourself useful and keep your eyes open for a parking space."
"Over there." I pointed to where another vehicle was vacating a space.
"Excellent," said Josh. "We won't have far to walk."
I must have looked somewhat surprised at his choice of words because he grinned at me.
"I'm using the term in the generic sense, Sam - as in 'moving from one place to another'? Come on - let's go eat."
Lunch was spent discussing work, the short list Josh had compiled for the assistant's post - he had narrowed it down to three - until I finally turned the conversation to more personal matters.
"Well," I said, by way of introduction, "it's Thursday already."
"Yep," said Josh, concentrating on digging around in his linguine with roasted vegetables. He'd actually started eating more healthily since he'd decided he might put on weight as a result of not being completely mobile.
"And tomorrow's Friday."
He looked at me from beneath his brows.
"Sam, that's what usually happens after Thursday."
I pushed my plate away and putting my elbows on the table I leaned closer to Josh.
"Am I getting a second date?" I asked.
"Do you want dessert? I think I'll just have coffee," Josh said, ignoring my question. He signaled to the waitress, who came over and began clearing the table. Then he struck up a conversation, telling her how good the food had been, and yes, in answer to her query, he was feeling fine. She had worked at Scallini's for as long as we had frequented it. Finally, he gave her a killer smile as she went to get our coffee. At last he gave me his full attention.
"What were you saying?" he asked. Oh, it's payback time, I thought.
"Can we do something tomorrow night - have dinner, see a movie ... I don't know."
It was at that point that the waitress returned with the coffee. Josh attempted to charm her *yet again* then gave me his full attention.
"I thought we'd just stay in?" he suggested.
"What ... together?" I asked.
"Well, that was the general idea," Josh said. He asked for the check and when she returned with it he handed the waitress his credit card.
"Okay, then I'll get dinner," I said, figuring I'd return the compliment.
With our coffee finished and the check paid we decided we couldn't delay returning to the White House any longer. I stood to one side, and Josh went ahead of me to the door. On the way there we passed another room which was usually used for private parties. By the sound of things, there was a particularly lively one taking place that lunchtime. Someone had left the door ajar and the conversation was clearly audible.
"Don't you think Josh Lyman has been quiet since he got back into circulation? At one time a week wouldn't go by he hadn't beat up on somebody on the Hill."
I saw Josh hesitate. Up to that point he'd been talking and laughing but I could see his face take on a closed expression, as if he was shutting down his emotions and building a defensive wall around himself. He continued on his way towards the exit. The voice continued.
"Still, after what he's been through it would make anybody lose their edge. The Republicans'll probably give the sniper a medal for services to the Party." This last was said with an unpleasant laugh.
I stopped in my tracks and turned towards the room. I looked behind me, expecting Josh to have followed me. Surely he wouldn't let that go without retaliating? But no, he was by the door that led outside.
"Sam, come on," he said. "Just leave it."
I turned back towards the room. As I started to enter it I heard Josh again.
Ignoring him, I pushed open the door and walked in. A large round table dominated the room, covered in the debris of what looked like a very good lunch. Several empty bottles of wine stood on it, although from what I could see the participants had now graduated to large shots of bourbon. At first I could only make out a sea of faces - the anger I felt seemed to have dulled my senses somewhat. Then I saw it was a group of journalists who for the most part worked for newspapers whose proprietors and editorial policy had little sympathy with the Bartlet administration. The guy who was holding court was a hack called Pete Sewell - he held up his glass towards me as I walked in.
"Well if it isn't Sam Seaborn, taking a break from fashioning those pearls of wisdom that seem to drop so effortlessly from the President's lips." He stood up, swaying slightly, his words distorted slightly by an alcohol-induced slurring.
"I'm not here to discuss the President or my speech-writing skills," I said. "And why don't you sit down before you fall down?" He sat back down in his seat with a puzzled look on his face. "You're so stupid you haven't even realised why I've gate crashed your little party, have you?"
"Hey, Sam, you're more than welcome. Let me get you a drink. John, go and grab a waiter." He waved a hand towards one of the other diners.
"I don't want a drink. What I want is an apology from you for the comment you just made about Joshua Lyman. The Joshua Lyman who is Deputy Chief of Staff of the White House and a Senior Adviser to the President of the United States."
"What comment?" he said, feigning ignorance. "Oh, *that* comment. Well, I was only stating a fact. He has been quiet, but like I said, you have to make allowances bearing in mind he's disabled."
How I didn't dive over that table and beat him to a pulp I'll never know. I forced myself to take a deep breath before answering. The rest of the room had gone very quiet.
"Pete, just apologize - maybe you *did* go too far," somebody said.
"Damn right you did," I replied. "I don't know which is the more contemptible - the remark you made about the sniper or the fact that you think Josh needs to have *allowances* made for him. But it's all cruel and malicious, and totally unacceptable."
"Then why isn't Lyman here himself?" he asked nastily. "Why did he send his little *friend* to argue his case? But then again let's face it - it must be difficult being the President's attack dog when he's sitting in a wheelchair."
I leaned over the table towards him. "We know you and your newspaper hate this administration. We know you hate the President and all he stands for. We know you hate us because you see us as lily-livered, pinko, politically correct liberal democrats. And that's all right, because it's politics. I've even enjoyed some of the columns you've written. I haven't agreed with them, but I've enjoyed them because they were well-written and well-argued. But I will *not* allow these ... these ... asinine insults to go unchallenged. And you know what? I know why you said it. Because you can't think of anything else to say to attack us. And because you know people are saying Josh is working harder and better than ever. And because you're embarrassed by disability. And because I can see the fear in your eyes, the fear people get when they see that something like an accident or even a shooting can happen to anyone, to the most active, energetic person. And that frightens you to death. So to cover your embarrassment and your fear you make jokes - sick, tasteless jokes that aren't even funny. Don't think I'm making excuses for you. I'm just explaining to somebody lacking the self-awareness to understand the reasons for their behavior."
I looked Pete Sewell in the eye, daring him to respond to my tirade. He didn't speak, just picked up his glass and downed the contents. I walked towards the door, stopping before I exited.
"I'll expect a written apology on Josh Lyman's desk tomorrow morning. And I'm sure CJ Cregg will be interested to hear about the informal discussions that take place amongst some of the White House press corps."
I closed the door behind me. Josh had gone so I went outside expecting to hail a cab. But there he was, parked outside the restaurant, waiting for me. I heaved a sigh of relief, glad that he obviously wasn't angry at me for rushing to his defense. It wasn't until I was sat in the car that I realized how wrong I was. The look on his face told me I had misjudged the situation entirely.
"Josh, I couldn't let him get away with it," I said.
He gave me an icy glare, pulled out into the traffic and didn't speak to me for the whole of the journey back to the White House. I didn't pursue the subject. It was never a good idea to argue with Josh when he was in control of a car : he tended to take it out on the other road users by driving just this side of illegal. He parked the car, and when I got out I made the mistake of putting my hand out to steady his wheelchair as he maneuvered it out from behind the seat.
"Leave it!" he said abruptly.
I turned my back on him to go to the entrance to the building. I could hear Josh following. We made our way to the West Wing in silence.
"Hold my calls, Donna, I don't want to be interrupted for the next couple of hours," he instructed her as we entered his bullpen. I was unsure what to do next until he opened his office door, looked at me and jerked his head towards it. I followed him in.
"Close the door," he said.
I leaned back against the wall and watched as Josh positioned himself in front of his desk.
"What the hell were you doing back there?" Hs voice was ominously quiet.
"Josh, the things Pete Sewell was saying - they were cruel and untrue and just plain vicious."
"I know that." Still speaking quietly. This was unnerving.
"And you weren't you angry?" I asked.
"Yes." He seemed unable to talk in anything other than monosyllables.
"At one time you would have gone in there and taken him apart," I said, feeling like I was talking to Josh over a great distance, although only a few feet separated us.
"What? You're saying I'm 'losing my edge'?" Josh raised one eyebrow, the first inkling I had that he was feeling any emotion.
"No." My voice rose in exasperation. "But you're the last person to keep their anger in check like that - it was just so unlike you."
"What is like me, Sam? Always ready to blow my stack about something?"
"Always ready to fight back, " I said.
"And what if I'd decided not to fight back there and then? Maybe do it some other way?"
"I didn't know that," I replied.
"No, even though I asked you to leave it. But you didn't - you just went right ahead because it felt good for you to go in and fight back because you figured poor, damaged Josh couldn't."
"No! No, it wasn't like that. Josh, I was just so angry."
"But I asked you, Sam, I asked you not to. Why couldn't you listen to me, do what I wanted? It was me he was talking about, not you. It was my fight, not yours."
"Josh, you didn't hear what he else he said," I blurted out. As soon as I'd said it I wished I hadn't.
"What? What else did he say?" Josh asked.
I looked down at the floor, shoving my hands in my pockets. I knew he'd never let this go.
"Tell me what he said or I'll go and ask him myself."
"Look, Josh, he was drunk - I don't think he knew what he was saying," I parried desperately.
"So it wasn't 'cruel, untrue and vicious', " he said, echoing my earlier words. "What he said were just the meanderings of a drunk. Then why did you stay so long in there? What did he say, Sam?"
There was no going back. I swallowed, but my mouth was dry. "He said ... he said ... " I couldn't meet his gaze. "He said it must be difficult being the President's attack dog when you're sitting in a wheelchair."
Josh didn't make a response. I finally dragged my eyes away from the carpet and looked at him. His face was like a mask. His right hand resting on the wheel rim of his chair was the only sign I could see that he was affected by what I'd told him : he tightened his fingers, the skin on his knuckles whitening.
"Josh, I couldn't let him get away with it."
He made a sound in his throat midway between a laugh and a sob.
"Could you make me feel any more emasculated?" he asked.
I felt like he'd hit me in the face. "Jesus, Josh, don't use words like that; please, just don't do it. If I thought ... I'd never ... I wanted to tell him how wrong he was ... Josh, I wanted to hurt him for hurting you." I wasn't making any sense and I knew it.
"Sam, I don't want you to fight my battles for me. It makes me look pathetic."
With a quick flick of his wrist Josh turned his wheelchair so that he was facing the wall which was covered in photographs : his parents, his sister Joanie, himself as a child with his grandfather.
"I never thought I'd say this, but ... " He paused, as if he found it difficult to form the words. "I'm glad my father isn't here today to see me like this."
I couldn't stand it any longer. All the way through the dialogue we'd been having I'd fought the urge to go over and touch Josh. I pushed myself away from the wall to stand behind him, placing my hands on his shoulders.
"He'd be so proud of you, you know that," I said.
Josh twisted his upper body so that he moved out of my grasp. He pushed himself behind his desk.
"Why? Because I can get around the White House in a wheelchair?"
I put my hands on the desk and leaned over towards him.
"He'd be proud because you're brilliant, because you were instrumental in getting President Bartlet elected, and because of what you've achieved as a part of this administration. But why shouldn't he be proud of the way you've come through everything - why diminish it? Because if that wasn't the case, he wouldn't be able to be proud of what you'll achieve in the future."
Josh picked up a file from the pile lying on his desk.
"Well, in that case, why don't you leave me in peace to achieve something?" He looked up at me and sighed. "Just get out, Sam, I can't do this right now. Just leave me alone."
I stayed leaning on the desk for a couple of seconds, hanging my head as I tried to compose myself. When I looked up Josh was engrossed in the file he had opened. But as I left his office I saw him sitting rubbing the back of his neck distractedly. All the life and animation I'd seen in him lately had deserted him, and he just looked weary and defeated. I closed the door softly. The force of his rejection was like a physical presence.
"Hey, Sam, " Donna called over to me.
I pasted a smile on my face and walked away. I don't know how I managed to get through there without falling apart. I made it to the men's room, which fortunately was empty. No sooner had I got there than I threw up. After a few minutes of violently retching and gasping I stood at the wash basin, throwing cold water on my face. Then I wiped my face dry with some paper towels, went to Toby's office and told him that yes, I would love to accompany him on his trip to the midwest.
Sunday night found me in the bar of the Chicago Hyatt. Toby and I, accompanied by a couple of staffers, had flown in this afternoon over a city shrouded in a grey mist. It was now ten PM and we'd just enjoyed - if that's the word - a dinner in the anonymous dining room : three bland courses washed down with an inoffensive New World merlot. We'd spent the time discussing how we'd play the following day, which we would spend in an anonymous conference center gathering the views of a select group of the citizens of Illinois on subjects as diverse as health, education, foreign policy and the state's urban/rural divide. Now I was nursing a gin and tonic and Toby was on to his second bourbon as we engaged in conversation with a couple of luminaries from the local Democratic Party. As Illinois is a traditional swing state, we had decided this would be time well spent. For myself, I was happy to sit back and let Toby take the lead, occasionally chipping in a comment when I felt I had something valid to contribute. But as he seemed to be doing just fine, I continued sipping my drink, half listening to the dialogue, and helping myself to the salted peanuts from the bowl on the table in front of me. As I chewed them I suddenly had the feeling that there was a surfeit of sodium coursing through my veins. Causes high blood pressure, I thought. I must tell Josh to lay off them.
Christ. Josh. He was the reason I was sitting in this bar that looked like a homage to corporate interior design of the late twentieth century. My mind drifted back to the previous Friday, which was the last time I'd seen him before leaving DC. I was standing talking to CJ when he'd gone past with Donna in tow. We didn't acknowledge one another, but I saw enough to notice that his eyes were red : whether from a sleepless night, weeping, or a combination of both, I couldn't say. I only knew that I didn't look much better. CJ frowned slightly, then seeing that I wasn't about to give her an opening, went on talking about the questions she expected to field about the latest Republican assault on affirmative action.
I didn't see Josh for the rest of that day. When people hear the words "the West Wing" they get a vision of a palatial suite of offices as befits the seat of the US government. Those who are lucky enough to actually see it first hand are surprised by the number of offices and the working space occupied by so many people that the only word to describe it is cramped. So it's surprising but nevertheless true that one member of the senior staff can go through a whole day without bumping into *another* member of the senior staff simply by virtue of the fact that the varying demands on them dictate this. At least, that's the reason I came up with to account for mine and Josh's avoidance of one another on that Friday. The other, less comfortable reason, was that Josh and I were subconsciously keeping out of each other's way.
No such problem existed on the Saturday, however. I was in my office by seven AM knowing that the doctors had imposed an embargo on Josh working weekends until they were satisfied he was fit to work the usual punishing schedule he had been accustomed to pre-Rosslyn. Of course, that hadn't stopped him from sneaking into the West Wing one Saturday morning when he knew Donna was away for the weekend. Unfortunately for him, he hadn't reckoned with the First Lady unexpectedly turning up looking for CJ. Dr Bartlet's threat to tell his doctors, Leo *and* the President were enough to stop him trying that little stunt again.
Thinking about Josh, my thoughts inevitably turned to the events of last Thursday. I started dissecting everything that had happened on that horrible day, from the early morning when I'd felt so hopeful and happy. By the time I'd started re-running the argument with Pete Sewell, I felt like a surgeon probing an especially painful wound without the benefit of an anesthetic. But in a weirdly masochistic sort of way I was unable to stop myself.
"So I was thinking if we could get this in front of the President , state our case ... Sam, what do you think?"
"What?" I looked at the woman who was speaking to me. She looked a little taken aback at the sharpness of my tone. "I'm sorry, it's been a long day ... err ... " I struggled to recollect her name.
"Jean," she said, the set of her mouth showing her displeasure at my forgetfulness. "Jean Craig. We were discussing the vacancy for the seat on the Supreme Court. I sit on the board of a family planning clinic in the city, and we're very concerned that one of the names that has been bandied about as a possible nominee is extremely conservative. The pro-life lobby are already making political hay out of it. We *need* the ear of the President on this."
"Do you even know how many people make this request on a daily basis?" I asked. "If the President gave time to everyone who needed 'his ear'," I emphasised the phrase, "he'd never have time to govern."
"The clinic is in a deprived area - we've been making great strides with sex education, the use of contraception, promoting safe sex, as well as giving women the right to choose. I'm sure Senator Thompson would be interested to hear the response I've gotten tonight. Particularly as the President is keen to enlist her support for his welfare reforms." Jean Craig sat back, confident she had played her bargaining chip at just the right moment.
"Sam," said Toby softly.
"Jean." I knew I was in danger of screwing up badly. "Toby and I are probably not the right people to put this in front of the President. I suggest you contact Josh Lyman - as Deputy Chief of Staff he's probably best placed to ... "
"I *know* who Josh Lyman is, Sam," she said tartly. Oh, boy, I thought, if there's a wrong way to do it ... of *course* she knows who Josh is. Her companion - God, I'd even forgotten his name - looked uncomfortable.
"Forgive me," I said. "I'll make sure I speak to Josh about it as soon as I get back to Washington."
I looked over at Toby. His expression was unreadable, but I guessed I'd have some explaining to do later on tonight. Here we were talking to these two people who had done so much to help win this state for the President, but who had probably now got the impression that two members of the political elite had decided to breeze into town and patronize them. And we needed them, we really did, but I'd let my personal problems get in the way. Toby broke the difficult silence by mentioning another round of drinks, indicating to the waitress by sticking his hand in the air and then pointing towards the glasses on the table.
"Not for me," I said. Quite frankly, I wasn't in the mood, what with my thoughts being so preoccupied I couldn't even handle a request from an amateur political operative. There I go again, I thought, as my bad mood made me feel more and more mean towards a woman who hadn't done me any harm.
"Speaking of Washington," I heard Toby say, "when was the last time you visited DC?"
"I was invited by Senator Thompson a couple of years ago, but you haven't been, have you, Graham?" Jean Craig said, taking the drink from the tray that was proffered to her.
"Well, that's something we should fix up for the both of you." The sound of Toby pouring oil on troubled waters was deafening. "I'll give you a call in a couple of weeks. And someone will be in touch about that other matter," he concluded pointedly.
The rest of the evening went relatively smoothly, with Toby steering the conversation into less contentious areas. I managed to string a few coherent sentences together, and by the time our guests had left I had banished all thoughts of Josh to the back of my mind. But when Toby and I walked towards the elevators I knew what was going to be on *his* mind.
"Damn near dropped the ball back there, Sam," he said, not looking at me but concentrating on the indicator showing which floor the elevator was currently at.
"Yeah, I'm sorry about that. But some of these people seem to think the President's just sitting there waiting for their calls," I said defensively.
The doors to the elevator opened and we stepped inside. I pressed the button for the fifteenth floor.
"Don't blame them for your shortcomings. Your mind wasn't on the business in hand, simple as that. Despite what you think about them, the President needs 'these people'. You might have come on this trip thinking it's a cosmetic exercise to show we want to get out there and listen to people, but I don't need any passengers who've come along to get away from something that's going on in another part of their life."
Before I could answer the elevator stopped and a man and a woman got in. They smiled briefly, then everyone stood looking anywhere but at one another the way strangers always do in elevators. They got off a couple of floors later, giving Toby the chance to start in on me again.
"So I'd be obliged if you could get a grip and make yourself useful. And whatever it is that's bugging you and Josh - get it sorted out." He turned and looked at me as we stepped out onto our floor. So he'd worked out that something was wrong. I knew how he felt about personal relationships getting in the way of professional effectiveness, which didn't make me feel any better. "We need to be out of here by eight tomorrow. 'Night, Sam."
I watched him as he walked towards his room.
He turned, raising his eyebrows questioningly.
"I really am sorry abut tonight - I'll make sure it won't happen again." I stopped short of mentioning my problems with Josh.
"Good. See you in the morning."
Lying in my too-hot room - why do hotels always turn the heat up to tropical? - I couldn't help thinking that if it hadn't been for my own stupidity, I could have been back in DC holding Josh in my arms. I cursed myself for acting so hastily, running the scene in the restaurant through my mind over and over again. I wanted to find out why I'd done it. What was it Josh had said? "It felt good for you to go in and fight back because you figured poor, damaged Josh couldn't." I squirmed at the thought. I couldn't decide if it was that which had motivated me, or because I was still trying to protect Josh from every hurt, every problem, every situation that could harm him. Maybe I wanted to keep him in a hermetically sealed world, insulated from the obstacles and perils of real life. But if I did *that*, it would also stop him from enjoying the good times, the happiness, the challenges and rewards life could offer. He didn't fight back from his horrible experience just to inhabit some sort of half-life that didn't allow him to be Josh.
I lay in the dark, staring up at the ceiling. I loved Josh; I'd die for him if I had to. But the unpleasant truth was that I was so inclined to be over-protective that it could end up destroying us. Maybe it already had. As soon as I'd gotten into my room I'd checked my cell phone for messages, hoping that Josh had tried to contact me. But no, he obviously wasn't ready to speak to me yet. I didn't have the courage to call him and risk a further rejection. And so it begins, I thought. That long downward spiral that occurs in relationships when neither party, for one reason or another, will break the silence, until it gets to the point where neither one can remember just how it all started. And that's when the relationship gives up the ghost, dies, shuffles off this mortal coil. With that cheerful thought in my mind I turned over on my side and made an unsuccessful attempt to get some sleep. Feeling empty and sad, I slid my hand between my legs. Josh should be doing this, I thought, as I touched my erection in an attempt to lose myself in the sensation. My orgasm was quick, intense and ultimately unsatisfying, but relaxed me enough to fall into a fitful sleep troubled by dreams and images that stayed with me for the rest of the subsequent day.
The next few days were a rapid succession of cities, hotels, conference centres and airports. Each location had its own issues, its own problems, but it was a case of "If it's Tuesday it must be Cleveland, Ohio". So I became acquainted with that city's relationship with the medical and industrial research centers, and the controversy that stirred up over vivisection and animal rights; Indianapolis wanted to make the case for more money for its educational centers; in Nebraska a large contingent of agricultural workers lectured us on the vicissitudes of the farming community. So Toby and I listened, responded where we could, and made some promises to progress issues when we deemed it realistic to do so.
By Wednesday I was actually starting to enjoy the opportunity to get out there and talk to some real people, away from the political pressure cooker of Washington DC. For a lot of the time my worries about Josh receded into the background, a bit like having toothache that became a dull ache that was just bearable. But then someone would ask about Josh or send him their good wishes. Or, sitting in some bar that Toby insisted on visiting, some cheesy love song would come on the jukebox. And that's when it was like something had hit the sensitive tooth and the pain came back with a vengeance. All I could do was let it sweep over me and hope nobody noticed me wince. Toby didn't mention Josh again, so I presumed I'd given him no further cause for complaint.
It was eleven PM on Thursday evening when we finally arrived back at the White House. That morning we'd flown from Detroit to Kansas City which was the last stop on our itinerary. I hadn't realized how exhausted I was until I walked into my office and threw my bags onto the floor. The West Wing was fairly quiet, looking like it was the end of an uneventful day. Well, uneventful in the terms of the White House, which is a relative concept. I went to my desk, unpacked my laptop and plugged it in, intending to make a last check of my e-mails. The sound of a car's brakes screeching made me look towards my window, where I noticed the vase that held the now-dead lily that Josh had sent me. I leaned over the back of my chair and pulled it from the vase, looked at it regretfully, then threw it into my waste basket. I stared at my computer screen for a few seconds, then on an impulse stood up quickly and walked towards Josh's bullpen. I didn't think he'd be there, and if I was truthful I felt reluctant to speak with him, but I wanted to check that he was okay.
There were still a few people there, but the pace of things had slowed compared to the more frenetic atmosphere which had probably prevailed earlier in the day. Donna was at her desk working at her computer, while Josh's office door was closed. I presumed he wouldn't be here at this late hour.
Without turning her head to see who had walked in she called out, "Hey, Sam. Good trip?" How does she do that?
"Better than I thought, although it's confirmed my suspicion that if there's an afterlife, Hell must be spending eternity in a series of anonymous hotels."
She laughed slightly. "Do you need anything, Sam?"
"I just wondered ... I take it Josh has gone home?"
She stood up to walk over to the printer. "Actually, he was here until about a half hour ago." After retrieving her document and checking it was all there, she came and stood in front of me. "Sam - are you two okay?"
It was impossible to lie to that steady gaze.
"I don't know," I said.
Donna waited a beat as if turning the words over in her head.
"Tell me if it's none of my business, but there's been something wrong since you and Josh went out to lunch last week. You just taking off like that. And he's been in a horrible mood, working every hour that God sends - or should I say, as many as he can without Dr. Bartlet getting on his case."
"Has he said anything to you?" I asked.
"Not a word." She made as if to say something else, then looked as if she had thought better of it.
"What?" I looked around as I spoke, but there was no-one else within earshot.
"Have you spoken to him at all while you've been away?"
"No, I haven't, but then he hasn't called me either." It suddenly struck me that I must have sounded petulant. "But I guess that's no excuse."
Donna rested against the edge of the desk clasping her sheaf of papers in front of her. She looked thoughtful.
"Can't you work it out? It can't be *that* serious - you were so happy up until then. That night we helped Josh move in - it was obvious how good you are together." She paused, then said simply, "It was lovely to see. It would be a crime for that to be lost just because you're both too stubborn to be the one to speak first."
"What happened last week ... it ... it was bad. It wasn't just a lovers' tiff," I replied. "I need to think things through."
She shifted from her perch on the desk, resuming her seat in front of the computer.
"Well, don't leave it too long." It sounded like a warning left hanging in the air. She picked up a pad of paper that I recognized as containing the extravagant scrawl of Josh's handwriting. "I need to finish this - Josh needs it first thing tomorrow." She turned and smiled at me, but I still felt as if I'd been dismissed like a troublesome child. I wished her goodnight then went back to my office to finish up before leaving to endure yet another troubled night.
"Sam? Spare me a few minutes?" CJ's voice down the phone sounded more perky than anyone had a right to at the end of a long, hard week.
"Is it urgent? What's it about?" I was drowning under the work that had accumulated during my absence from the White House.
"Yes it is, and I'll tell you when you get here. You can't be *that* busy," she said forcefully.
"Noooo, I've just been away from my desk for five days so I'm sitting here with my feet up, drinking beer and watching daytime television."
"That's my boy," she replied. "See you in five." The line went dead, signifying that CJ would brook no arguments. What had happened now, I wondered. It could have been an issue that had come up at this morning's briefing that needed some spin. Then again, it might be breaking news that the press corps would expect her to have a response to at the next briefing. She hadn't sounded particularly harried, so I wasn't too concerned as I went to her office.
As I approached, I noticed her emerge into the corridor.
"Hey," I said.
She didn't speak but as I reached her doorway she nimbly moved so that she stood behind me. I felt her hand in the small of my back as she pushed me into her office.
"Don't come out until you two have spoken to one another," she said.
I heard the door shut behind me and realized that although CJ had left I wasn't alone. Josh was there, sitting staring into the goldfish bowl that stood on her desk. He turned his head slightly.
"Aaah," he said, resuming his examination of the goldfish. It now became obvious we'd been set up. I just stood there. Neither of us spoke. It crossed my mind how ludicrous it was - here we were, over the last couple of years we had been as intimate as two people can get; not only physically, although yes, we knew every inch of each other's bodies. But we'd shared thoughts, feelings, likes, dislikes, hopes, fears. And now here we were, unable to reach each other over the chasm that had opened up between us.
"What's wrong with the fish?" I finally said. Anything to break the atmosphere.
I leaned over a little to get a closer look.
"What's that in the bowl?" I asked.
"It's a model of the Taj Mahal," Josh replied. "CJ thinks Gail should expand her horizons."
"Wouldn't that be better achieved if she put her in a pond or something?"
"*No*." Josh sounded impatient. "She'd never survive - she's domesticated now."
"I don't think 'domesticated' is a concept you apply to goldfish," I couldn't help replying pedantically.
We lapsed into another uncomfortable silence. CJ's plan didn't seem to be working. I slouched against an adjacent filing cabinet.
"How did your trip go?" Josh finally lifted his head to look at me; his eyes were heavy lidded, his mouth turned down at the corners.
"Better than I thought. And I've learned that the state bird of Indiana is the cardinal."
"Fascinating." Suddenly he moved closer to me. For an instant I thought he was going to touch me, but he stopped short of that. "It was a bit drastic travelling through six states to get away from me."
"You damn near threw me out of your office, in case you've forgotten," I retaliated. "Toby needed me and there didn't seem to be anything to keep me here."
"And you're basing that on what? You didn't even tell me you were going - I had to find out by accident when I heard Cathy talking to Donna." His voice was starting to get louder as it always did when he wanted to prove a point.
"Well, if you were so eager to let me know how you felt, why didn't you call me?"
The argument went back and forth like a game of verbal tennis, a fruitless exercise. We may have both scored a couple of cheap points but neither of us were winning. I wanted desperately to be the one to relent, to say the first conciliatory word, but something - stubbornness, anger, pride, I don't know what - stopped me. And I was pretty sure Josh wouldn't be the one to give way. Or so I thought.
"I'm sorry, Sam."
I gave a mirthless laugh.
"That's so easy to say." I wasn't going to make it easy for Josh to find a way in.
"I know that, and you've got every right to be angry. But I really do mean it." He looked so miserable I was sure he meant it. But I was miserable too, and a few words of apology weren't going to make everything right.
"Look," he went on, "we need to talk about this - settle it one way or another. It's too important. We've gone wrong somewhere ... *I've* gone wrong somewhere. Let me explain, Sam."
"I think it's going to take more than a few minutes in CJ's office to do that," I retorted. "She'll be back soon."
"God, Sam - just give me a break. Can you stop punishing me for just a few minutes? I know we can't do it now - we need to give ourselves some time, some space. Will you come to my place tonight - we can have dinner, we can really talk. Please."
It was too much, too fast. The last five days had given me some distance from this situation, not just physically but emotionally. Seeing Josh had reopened the wound. I didn't think I could stand to start probing it again so soon.
"Not yet, Josh. We will talk, I promise, but it's too soon."
He lifted a hand to his mouth. I noticed that it shook slightly. Once upon a time Josh would have simply resorted to yelling at me. Since the shooting he had become much more emotional. I hoped he wasn't going to cry.
I walked over to the door. I stopped for a second before opening it.
"Josh, don't beg. It doesn't suit you."
He didn't follow me as I left CJ's office. She was standing outside talking to Ed and Larry. When she saw me she waved them away and went inside. I was continuing on my way when a sudden wave of guilt swept over me.
"Shit," I said to myself, turning around and retracing my steps. I got to CJ's office and seeing the door was ajar I opened it to look inside. There I saw CJ kneeling next to Josh holding his hand. His head was bowed and he was talking to her in a low voice.
"Josh," I said.
Hearing me, CJ stood up and walked over to where I stood. Josh turned his face away so that he was looking anywhere but at me.
"Not now, Sam, okay?" she said. Before I could reply she shut the door, leaving me on my own to deal with the guilt and self-disgust that I was feeling.
Frustratedly I pushed away the report in front of me. The material from the World Health Organization on poverty in the developed world made for uncomfortable reading. If countries like the US and the UK still couldn't get it right, what hope was there for the rest of the world? And how much credibility did it give us to allow us to go preaching to the United Nations? No matter how hard we worked it felt like any good we did was infinitesimal in the wider scheme of things. I couldn't even sort out my personal problems, let alone take on those that affected the world.
All afternoon I'd attempted to make sense of the research I was conducting. But no matter how hard I tried to concentrate, images of the stricken look on Josh's face materialized in my mind. He was hurting, I was hurting and I'd only made matters worse. There was a tight feeling behind my eyes. I hoped I wasn't getting a migraine. I massaged my forehead with my fingertips, trying to drive away the confusion that crowded my thoughts.
It was no good. I had to do something. Okay, think. Sitting here isn't achieving anything. I'm not working effectively. And why not? Because I feel guilty. I keep thinking about Josh, and that's getting all mixed up with the issues I'm reading about. So, in the short term - like now - what can I influence? Child poverty? No. The situation with Josh? Possibly. Am I able to do that sitting here? No. So how can I do something about it? Talk to the other person involved. Therefore what do I need to do now? Go see Josh. Talk.
Before I could change my mind I sprang to my feet and got out of my office as quickly as possible. I had to move fast - Toby hadn't interrupted me for about two hours and I figured he'd soon want to check on how I was doing with my research. I looked at my watch. Five forty-five. Maybe I could persuade Josh to go to the mess for a cup of coffee. It would be a start anyway.
I didn't bother checking with Donna on his whereabouts. His door was half open so I knocked once and went straight in. I realized how psyched I was when the anticlimax of the sight of the empty office hit me. Maybe he was in a meeting, I thought. As I paused to reassess the situation my eye was caught by a yellow Post-It stuck on his computer screen. In Donna's neat handwriting it read: "Doctor, 6PM."
Christ. And I didn't know. All the hurt and resentment I had felt over the last week disappeared as my heart started beating fast. Why was he seeing his doctor? I thought of how he'd looked earlier. A little tired, but that wasn't unusual. Ever since I'd known Josh he'd pushed himself so hard that there were occasions when he looked completely wrecked. Anyway, Donna had remarked on the longer working hours he was now keeping, but she didn't indicate that this was a problem. Had he been a little pale? Not so much that I'd noticed. There was just one thing - those observations were made in the few minutes *before* I'd given him such a hard time this morning. I hadn't seen him since. Oh, God, what had I done?
I left the office and half ran over to Donna's desk.
"Donna - why is Josh seeing his doctor? What's wrong?" I almost shouted the words at her.
Her eyes widened in surprise. I must have looked half mad.
"Nothing's wrong. It's just a routine check. Didn't he mention it?" She gave me a half-amused, half-concerned glance. "Are you all right? You've gone terribly pale."
I laughed shakily. "Yes, yes, I'm fine. So it's just routine? He's not ill or anything?"
"No, Sam, he's not ill. He's not coming back here, though - he's going straight home. I shouldn't say this because I don't want to tempt providence, but it's been quiet this afternoon. Maybe we should *all* take advantage of that - get a little time for ourselves." She said this with some emphasis, like she was trying to tell me something - which, of course, she was.
"You're a wise woman, Donna." I allowed myself a smile, I felt so relieved. "Thanks."
Well, that decided me. I would clear my desk and go to Josh's as soon as was realistic. At least, that was my plan until CJ came up behind me.
"Sam, there's some news just in I think you need to hear."
I ran my finger along the rough edge of the key in my jeans' pocket. I debated whether to fit it into the lock, turn it and open the door.
I remembered that the last time I stood here I'd had no such reservations. On the contrary, I had hardly been able to contain my excitement at the prospect of spending time with Josh on that first evening in his new home. Tonight I was tired, unsure of myself and stressed by the events of the last couple of hours since CJ had broken the news I had dreaded hearing. The only reason I was now considering letting myself into the apartment was because there had been no response to the door bell, and I knew Josh was home because I'd seen his car outside. So now I added apprehension to my ever growing emotional turmoil, as I imagined all sorts of dire things that could have happened to him. And even if I did establish that he was okay, it wasn't as if I was relishing the prospect of the heart-to-heart conversation he obviously wanted to have. The main reason I was here - apart from putting my mind at rest about his doctor's appointment - was that I didn't want to be alone with my thoughts.
"Josh?" The sound of my voice hung in the entrance hall as the door swung shut behind me. No response. But I could hear the TV in the living room, so I assumed maybe Josh hadn't heard me. Or maybe he was still mad at me after what had happened this morning. I pushed open the door and went into the living room.
Josh was lying on the couch fast asleep. And I mean *really* asleep. His breathing was deep and regular, and my coming into the room didn't rouse him. His hair was damp so I guessed he'd only recently showered and changed into the tee-shirt and jeans he was wearing. I glanced over to the table near the door and could see that his answer phone wasn't showing any outstanding messages. So he must have picked up the one I'd left as soon as I'd finished talking to CJ. Knowing he wouldn't have been able to pick up his cell phone at the hospital, I'd phoned his apartment, where I'd left a message to say I would be at his place as soon as I'd had time to sort things out at work then get home to change out of my work clothes. But my attempts to "sort things out" had taken longer than I'd anticipated, so I wouldn't have been surprised if Josh had given up on me.
I looked back over at him and decided not to wake him. He looked so rested. He'd evidently started watching the news then fallen asleep. His left hand lay on his chest in the exact position where his scar was. He'd gotten into the habit of placing his hand there protectively because in the weeks immediately following his surgery, any slight movement or coughing gave him the sensation that his wound would open. I looked at him lying there and felt the old familiar fluttering sensation just underneath my ribcage. Even in the uncertainty of where our relationship now stood, even in the midst of all my feelings of anger and resentment, the mere sight of Josh moved me.
Suddenly I noticed that he was barefoot. It made him look vulnerable, and I smiled to myself, thinking that whenever he was at home relaxing he *always* liked to walk around barefoot.
"Christ, Josh," I muttered to myself. He always liked to walk around barefoot ... but now ...
I moved to the end of the couch and placed my hand lightly on his foot, despite the fact that I knew my touch wasn't likely to wake him. His feet were freezing cold, not good for someone who was paralysed and therefore with the likelihood that the circulation to his legs was impaired. Okay, I thought, you might not want me looking after you, but if you won't do it yourself you'll just have to put up with it. I went through to his bedroom and found a pair of socks. Back in the living room Josh was still fast asleep so I put the socks on for him as carefully as I could. That done, I touched his foot again, but this time I closed my eyes and gently squeezed. I stayed like that for what seemed a long time, but was probably only a few seconds, allowing myself the hopeless indulgence of wishing that when I opened my eyes my touch would have wakened Josh. I looked down at him, lying there motionless, undisturbed. If he knew what I was doing he would be so angry. He was still handling this a lot better than I was. Get a grip, I said to myself as I sat down in a chair to wait as patiently as I could for him to wake up. I wasn't in any hurry to begin discussing our future together, but like I said, I'd rather be with Josh than be alone.
The TV was tuned to MSNBC. By the time thirty minutes had elapsed I was watching the latest celebrity couple to announce their divorce. The TV was showing them on the red carpet at last year's Oscar ceremony, arms wrapped around each other's waists in a very public show of affection. The TV anchorperson back in the studio had started on the history of their film careers. Apart from the fact their joint income ran onto the multi-millions and that they were household names the world over, how different were they to any other couple who were breaking up? My cynicism was in full flow when I heard Josh make a sound.
He was lying there looking at me drowsily, a shy smile on his face.
"Sam - was I asleep? I'm sorry. I thought you weren't coming so I started watching the news and I must have dropped off. I seem to do that a lot these days," he finished ruefully.
"Yeah - Donna told me you'd been keeping later hours." I resisted the temptation to ask if he wasn't doing too much.
He stretched his arms above his head and yawned.
"Well, now you're here and I'm awake ... " he paused, as if summoning up the courage to make the request that followed, "can we talk?"
I laid my head back against the chair and looked up at the ceiling.
"Do you mind if we don't do this right now?"
"Have I got it wrong?" Josh asked. "Forgive me, I thought ... I assumed, wrongly maybe, that that was the reason you wanted to come around. I don't understand ... why *are* you here if you don't want to talk about us?"
I couldn't believe he was being so insensitive.
"Well after the news I've had today, I would have thought you'd realize I couldn't do full justice to a conversation about *us*." I couldn't resist snapping at him.
"News? What news?" He began sitting up, paused, grimaced, then slowly eased himself into a sitting position. I congratulated myself for not rushing to help him.
"I thought you'd been watching the TV?"
"Sam I *told* you - I fell asleep after the first item. Help me out here - I honestly don't know what you're talking about."
I looked at the puzzled expression on his face. There was no doubt it was genuine. Anyway, whatever bad feeling existed between us, Josh would never play games like this if he knew I was really upset.
"This afternoon - after you'd left - there was some news that came through from Brazil." I looked away and so I didn't have to meet his eyes I began brushing my hand at a piece of imaginary lint on the leg of my jeans. I couldn't bear it if he gave me that sympathetic look he was so good at.
"Then tell me," he said gently, "otherwise I'm going to keep on saying the wrong things and you'll just keep getting mad at me."
Still averting my eyes I replied, "They passed sentence this morning." I took a deep breath that shuddered in my chest. "They all got ten years. Graham and Sarah and the three Brazilians."
I heard Josh shift on the couch.
"Oh, Sam," he said, "I'm sorry ... I really am."
His tone was so kind, so full of ... empathy, I supposed. Please don't say any more... please ... I'll fall apart. The thought kept running through my head as I fought for self control. I was afraid if I broke down he would see it as a cheap move to get back into his affections. And I didn't want to do it that way. I took a couple of deep breaths and started telling him about the rest of the car wreck that made up my last few hours at work.
"After ... after CJ told me, I couldn't think straight. All she could tell them was that the court had sentenced them and they were being moved to a prison outside Sao Paolo. Finally she managed to find out that Graham and Sarah had been seen by someone from the embassy. He said they were bearing up, considering, but that the other guys - the tribes people - they'd found it really hard in the prison. Christ, they'd never even been in a suburban house, let alone a *prison*." I stopped to draw breath. Josh didn't interrupt me, but I finally looked over at him and saw he was watching me intently. I knew what that look meant : as well as listening to my pain, he was analyzing the situation from a political strategist's perspective. Josh Lyman - ever the professional.
"I was all for getting the Brazilian ambassador to come to the White House until CJ pointed out to me that he wouldn't usually do that at the behest of the Deputy Director of Communications." I laughed slightly, then continued. "She tried to persuade me to sit down and think the whole thing through rationally, not make any knee jerk reactions. But I didn't take any notice of her. Oh God, Josh, you won't believe what I did next."
I stopped and began worrying away at a hang nail on my thumb.
"What *did* you do next, Sam?" he prompted.
"I went to the Oval, stormed into the outer office and told Charlie he had to get me in to see the President. I begged him, I pleaded with him, but he just kept saying he couldn't get me in there." I covered my face with my hands. "I feel so ashamed ... it was so unprofessional."
Josh didn't say anything, just waited until some of my mortification had passed. I slid my hands away from my face, and sat hunched forward, my elbows on my knees with my hands clasped tightly in front of me.
"That was when Toby came in. He virtually dragged me out of there by the scruff of my neck. It's a long time since I'd seen him that angry. He sat me down in his office and read me the riot act. He said he was appalled at my behavior and what had come over me? Even in the worst circumstances, there's no excuse for being so disrespectful to the President. And he's right, I have no excuse."
"Sam." At last Josh interrupted me. "I don't know *anyone* who shows as much respect to the President as you do, both to him personally and to the office he holds. That's the way you are. You have so much respect for everyone you deal with or come into contact with. That's why you're so upset about all of this, because you want to do something for a group of people who've been shown *no* respect."
I smiled thinly.
"What happened next?" he asked.
"He said if I'd calm down he'd see if Leo could give me a few minutes of his time, but there was no chance of me getting the President involved. So we went to see Leo."
"And nothing. We're not going to do anything. Leo and Toby had it all worked out what they were going to say. There's an election due in Brazil in a few month's time and it looks likely there'll be a change of regime. They think we might have more chance of influencing the new administration than the current one."
I looked over at Josh. He raised his eyebrows and nodded, reflecting on Leo and Toby's strategy.
"They do have a point," he said finally. "The opposition leader comes from a background of trade union activism. He's standing on a platform of social reform. And the polls look good."
"So that's it, then?" I asked, "I just sit back and do nothing?"
"In the final analysis, you're a member of the senior staff to the President. You understand how all this works. Like it or not you're a part of it," Josh replied, not unreasonably.
"I guess." Sighing, I resumed my original position, leaning my head against the back of the chair and scrutinizing the ceiling.
"Do you need anything, Sam?" Josh asked.
What could I say? My heart was saying, "Yes, I want you to hold me and make it all better", but my head was telling me that it would be a disaster, that we needed to work things out between us, not just try to paper over the cracks. So I simply said, "No, nothing."
But Josh was nothing if not persistent.
"At least stay for dinner - you've got to eat." His tone was concerned, persuasive.
"Okay." I suddenly realized I hadn't eaten all day.
"That's settled then. I'll go get it -it's all prepared." Josh moved his legs over the edge of the couch to enable him to get into his wheelchair. He looked so pleased that I'd said I would stay that I felt some of the day's tension leave me.
"No," I stood up. "Let me - if you've gone to the trouble of preparing dinner, at least let me bring it in." Despite the fact that talking about something other than our personal problems had helped us begin to communicate once again, I had the absurd feeling that we were both on our best behavior.
As I walked out of the living room towards the kitchen he shouted after me, "Well, the word 'preparing' is a bit of an overstatement - most of it's from the deli!"
Deli or not, it all looked delicious. There was chicken, a Mediterranean salad, potato salad in a creme raiche dressing, French bread and Brie. Josh had also chilled a bottle of my favorite Robert Mondavi Chardonnay. I arranged it all on the low table in the middle of his living room, then sat down on the floor with my back leaning against the couch so that I was nearer to Josh but still maintaining a distance. I knew that we still had things to settle before the night was out.
Before we started to eat he threw a DVD case into my lap.
"I got that for you," he said. "I thought we could watch it tonight - I've set it up already in the machine."
I picked up the plastic case and looked at the title : Casablanca. One of my all time favorite films. It suddenly struck home what an effort Josh was making.
"Well, I remembered that time we watched it with the President and Dr. Bartlet - you said how much you liked it, and you knew *all* the dialogue." Josh was looking at me expectantly.
"Play it, Josh," I said.
"Hey, was that a sense of humor I detected there?" he asked as he picked up the remote and pressed "Play".
So for the next two hours we enjoyed our dinner and immersed ourselves in the drama that was played out in the old black and white movie. We cheered when the French ex-patriots sang "La Marseilles" in defiance of the Nazis; we agonized in the choices that Rick, Ilse and Victor had to make; we chorused "Round up the usual suspects!" with Claude Raines. And when it finished we sat for a few minutes in a contented silence.
"Thanks, Josh," I said. "Tonight was just what I needed."
"My pleasure." His voice was quiet, intimate almost. I was painfully aware that if I shifted a few inches to my left I could lean against Josh's leg and that he would be near enough to lean over and touch my face.
"I'll clean up, then leave you in peace. You must be tired," I said, changing the subject. I moved to stand up.
"No, Sam - not just yet." Josh slid himself nearer to the edge of the couch. He stretched out his arm. His fingers encircled my wrist like a warm bracelet : the sensation wasn't one of restriction, but made me feel secure and supported. "Do you want to go?" he asked.
"Do you want me to stay?" I was suddenly finding it hard to speak. There was an ache at the back of my throat and my vision was starting to blur with unshed tears.
"Do you even have to ask that question?" Josh responded. "But if you *do* want to go, will you hear me out first?"
I nodded, swallowing hard. I hoped I could recover myself before Josh saw how near to tears I was. This wasn't what I had planned. If we were going to talk about "us", I wanted it to be calmly and rationally. So I decided to let Josh initiate the discussion and give me time to pull myself together.
Josh's hand remained on my wrist. He coughed slightly then began to speak.
"Since last May I've had to accept help from a lot of people. Some of them have been paid to do it, some of them have been family, some of them have been friends and colleagues. One of them ..." he paused, "has been the man I love. It's not been easy, and I know I've been a monumental pain in the ass a lot of the time, but I've started to come to terms with it. And as I've started to get my head around being a wheelchair user, I can do more things for myself. But sometimes I still need to ask for help or take it when it's offered. Like when I woke up tonight and saw someone had put a pair of socks on me."
>From the tone of his voice I could tell he was smiling.
"I'm sorry - I knew you wouldn't like it, but your feet were so cold, and it's not good for ... "
"My circulation," he finished. "It's all right, Sam, there are some things I'm okay with ... practical things like that. And if I ask you to do something for me or you offer but give me the choice - that's okay too. But last week in the restaurant, that was something I could have dealt with myself if I'd chosen to. It was about some ignorant guy's attitude, not about whether I needed help to get into a building or someone to carry some boxes for me. But I made one big mistake. I didn't think about why you did what you did. All I could focus on was me, and how it made me look." Josh released his hold on my wrist and moved his hand to cover mine. I didn't pull away, but let our fingers interlace. He began stroking my hand with his thumb.
"I'm not trying to excuse how I treated you, and I know it's a pretty poor explanation of why I did what I did. But please believe me when I say I'm sorry - I've never regretted anything as much in my life. Whatever you decide to do ... " Josh took a deep breathe before he continued. "Sam, it's your call."
At last I turned to look at Josh. His words were like arrows fired into the armor I'd oh so carefully constructed around myself. I didn't bother to try to conceal the tears that were now flowing freely down my face. The next thing I knew, I was on my knees in front of him, and Josh had his arms around me. He pulled me towards him and I lay my head on his shoulder and wept.
"Oh, Sam, Sam," he kept saying, "it's all my fault. I should never have argued with you. I know you wanted to put up a fight for me. I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
After a few minutes I lifted my head up. My face was slick with tears; Josh leaned over and managed to grab some paper napkins from the table. After he'd wiped my face he grinned at me.
"Why do your eyes look even bluer when you've been crying?"
I shrugged and shook my head.
"Come and sit next to me?" he asked tentatively.
I got onto the couch. Josh slid himself further back onto it, and we settled down with me curled up next to him with my head leaning against his chest.
"Josh ... there's something you don't understand," I said. I placed my hand against the place where I knew the indentation from the bullet lay. I could feel another sob rising in my chest.
"What is it?" he asked anxiously.
"I wasn't there to stop it," I replied.
"What? Pete Sewell mouthing off ? Well, no, you couldn't stop it, you didn't know what he was going to say. But I got a very grovelling apology from him the next day, and CJ says he's been very well behaved, so *somebody* did *something* to scare him shitless." Josh kissed me on the top of my head.
"I'm not talking about that," I said, aware that my voice had risen and that I was getting tearful again.
"Hey, hey, calm down. Tell me what you mean - stop what?"
"I wasn't with you - of all the days I should have been with you, and I wasn't there. I went on ahead and let you walk out of that building on your own. And you nearly died."
Josh sat bolt upright, forcing me to sit up too. He pulled me around by my shoulders, making me look at him directly.
"Are you saying what I think you're saying? That you should have somehow stopped me from getting shot?"
When he said it like that, it did sound crazy. But ever since that moment when I heard Toby shout for a doctor the thought had always been with me in some shape or form. As the months had gone on it had receded so that I could almost forget it. Then suddenly something would trigger it and it would be would be there, tormenting me.
"I should have protected you somehow - like I did CJ. I pushed her out of the way. If I'd been with you I could have done the same for you. Or I could have taken the bullet instead of you." Josh looked shocked at what I was saying, but I knew we were finally facing the thing that had created a barrier between us.
"If's, if's, if's ... that's what life's all about, Sam. *If* you'd been with me and not CJ. But then *she* might have been shot. If *you'd* been with me *you* might have been shot." He shook his head. "If anything had happened to you I would have been in pieces. The way I look at it Sam is this - if I hadn't gone to work for Bartlet I wouldn't have been at Rosslyn. And I probably wouldn't be here with you now. If Bartlet hadn't won the election, I still wouldn't have been at Rosslyn. But again, chances are I wouldn't have been here with you now. See? It's all random - I got a crappy break, but I also got something that's priceless. And I will *not* have you carrying around some sort of misplaced survivor's guilt because I got shot and you couldn't stop it." As he looked at me his face suddenly took on an expression as if a light had just come on. He shook his head slowly, as if denying the truth he had just stumbled upon.
"Oh no. No, Sam, no. Oh God, it's not what I think?" he asked. "You couldn't stop a bullet but you *could* stop somebody hurting me with words. That's why you went after Sewell, isn't it?"
Josh got that tight little smile on his face that usually meant he was going to cut the legs from under some unfortunate political opponent. But this time it was himself he was angry with.
"And there was I being so callous and selfish, and all the time you'd wanted to protect me because you hadn't been able to do it at Rosslyn?" he asked.
"Josh, I don't want anyone hurting you ever again. I promise I won't do anything like I did with Sewell, but if you ever need ... no, want me to be there for you, I will be. I'll do anything."
At this point I moved away from Josh so that we once again sat apart, not touching. I took another napkin and wiped my still damp face.
"I'm sorry for crying. I feel really stupid. I don't know what came over me."
Josh looked at me pensively before he spoke.
"I want to tell you something. I haven't told this to anyone, but it's something I'll never forget as long as I live." Josh's voice took on a matter-of-fact tone, a welcome shift in mood after the recent intensity. He shifted back so that he was sitting in the corner of one end of the couch, while I sat at the other. It seemed as if neither of us wanted to make any attempt at intimacy or physical contact, as if to avoid anything that might distract us from the importance of what would happen in the next few moments.
"You remember the first few days after I came out of surgery?" Josh asked.
"I remember that no-one would let me see you." As I answered him the memory of that awful time overwhelmed me. Mrs. Lyman and Leo were the only visitors Josh was allowed. I pestered the hospital staff to let me in, but I was met with a point-blank refusal every time. Finally CJ sat me down and explained to me what should have been obvious : that Josh was in such critical condition that the medical staff needed as few family and friends there as possible to allow them to carry out their jobs properly.
"Yeah ... of course, that's right." Josh propped his elbow on the back of the couch, leaning his head on his hand. "I was so out of it ... I'd drift in and out of consciousness ... I can remember my mom being there and holding my hand. There were the medical staff, and later they told me Leo visited, but I can't recall it. It was like a dream. But then there was this one night ... I don't know if they'd reduced the sedation but ... I was more ... aware of things. And I knew my mom wasn't there, but I knew I wasn't alone."
Josh stopped speaking, and I could feel the silence stretching out between us. He took a deep breath and started talking again.
"I woke up and it was dark outside, but there was a dim light on above the bed. And I think it was the first coherent thought I'd had for days, but I suddenly thought, 'I can't do this anymore. It's too hard.' My chest was sore, it hurt to breathe. There was something weird going on with my legs - I didn't know what, but something wasn't right." Josh rubbed his fingers across his forehead. I started to worry about the effect this was having on him.
"Josh, do you really want to do this?" I asked.
He continued as if he hadn't heard me. "So I lay there looking at the ceiling, thinking, 'If I just close my eyes, I can finish this.' " He smiled slightly. "It wasn't one of those 'white light at the end of the tunnel, near-death experience' things. I just felt like I'd had enough. Then I heard this voice, very quietly saying, 'Stay with me, Josh, don't leave me.' And that's when I knew who was in the room with me. And because of that and because of what you said, that's when I decided it might be worth fighting. I felt myself drifting off again but I knew I wasn't going to give up."
I knew the night he was talking about. I could visualize the room : Josh lying there with numerous tubes snaking around him, IVs, the heart monitor bleeping. He was right, it was late. By now his mother was totally exhausted, so Leo persuaded her to leave earlier than she normally did. The head nurse finally relented and let me sit with Josh for a while. I'd been there for about fifteen minutes when he'd woken up. I'd been sitting there watching him breathe, concentrating on every exhalation and inhalation, willing him to take the next breath, and the next. Then he came to and I saw a look of what I can only describe as despair as his eyes slowly stared to focus. I don't know how I knew what was going through his mind, but I did know and it frightened me to death. That's when I spoke to him. But then his eyes closed again so I assumed he was oblivious to the fact that I was there. I was terrified it would be the last time I would ever see him. I leaned over to kiss him but lost my nerve when the door suddenly opened and a nurse came in. Even in the worst possible circumstances, don't forget who you work for, I remember thinking with grim humor.
"That pulled me back from wherever it was I was going," Josh said, his voice reminding me that I was here in his apartment and not in the ICU at GW.
"I didn't even know you'd heard me," I replied, "let alone realized it was me."
"Oh, yes, I heard you. Sam, I'm telling you this because I want you to know that you saved my life that night. You didn't need to take a bullet for me to do that. You were there when it really mattered. The surgeons can do all the nuts and bolts stuff like sewing up arteries, but you letting me know how much you cared was what really mattered. And that's you Sam - that's what you're about, whether it's trying to stop the world from hurting me, or whether it's about fighting an almost hopeless cause like helping a couple of archaeologists ... "
"Josh, they're archaeo ... oh," I replied, suddenly realizing he'd actually got their occupation right this time.
"You see - I *do* pay attention," he said. "I know I told you not to fight my battles for me, but it's one of the things I love about you - you really do want to change the world."
Josh swallowed hard and bit his lip. He began running his hand along the back of the couch in an agitated way.
"I miss you so much and I can try my best not to act the way I did ... but ... " He took a deep breath, letting his next words tumble out as he exhaled." If I'm honest, I can't promise it won't happen again. It probably won't be anything you'll do. It's just that ... I think I'm fine, handling everything, adapting ... when bam ... something happens, something trivial, and I lose it."
He shrugged. "So there you have it. What I'm saying is that if you want to be free I won't hold you to any promises we may have made before all of this. I just needed to be honest because I couldn't bear to see what we've had become ugly and us ending up hating each other."
I took a few seconds to let Josh's words sink in, although I knew I didn't need time to make a decision. There would never really be any question of what I wanted, now or in the future. I'd known that from the first moment I'd ever set eyes on Josh.
I slid over to sit nearer to him.
"Stay with me, Josh, don't leave me."
A look of relief came over his face as the significance of my choice of words hit him. He moved his face close to mine. For a moment or two we hesitated in delicious anticipation, making as if to kiss then drawing back. Then I saw Josh's eyes close as our lips brushed in the gentlest way possible. The sensation was almost imperceptible; Josh's touch was exquisite and I felt my skin tingling, the experience was so sensual. He continued with these tender, sweet kisses as we wrapped our arms around each other, both of us emitting small cries at the sheer pleasure of again showing our love for one another.
This went on for the next few minutes, our kisses getting longer and deeper. Josh's hand slid under my sweater, running his fingers lightly up and down my bare skin.
"Joshua," I said between kisses.
"Mmm-hmmm," he responded absently, lightly nipping at my lower lip with his teeth, then beginning to kiss me some more, moving down my face towards my jaw line.
"Joshua," I said again, more insistently.
"What?" he asked, his voice muffled, his lips now on my neck.
"Your doctor's appointment - what happened?"
His body tensed up and he lifted his head up to look at me.
"What?" he asked again, this time in a much louder tone. "Donna! I'll kill her!"
"It wasn't Donna. I saw the note on your computer."
"Damn." He sat up straight, moving his hand from where it touched me underneath my sweater and resting it on my hip. "What were you doing in my office?"
"I'd had time to think after we'd talked in CJ's office. I wanted to see you to try and sort things out." I stroked his hair where it curled over and behind his ear. "Did you have an ECG? How was your blood pressure?"
"God, Sam, I love it when you talk dirty. Why don't I list my electrolytes and potassium levels, it's such a turn on." Josh pushed me back against the couch, placing his hands on either side of my face. He proceeded to kiss me again, his lips parted slightly. I felt his tongue lightly flick against my mouth.
"Josh." I got hold of him by the wrists and pulled his hands away from my face. "Stop avoiding the issue. I wished you'd told me this morning in CJ's office."
"What, and have you thinking I was going for pity points? No way."
"Jesus!" I said exasperatedly. "And do you think *I* was going for pity points by coming here and spilling my guts about the verdict?" I knew he didn't, but it was the best argument I could come up with. "Tonight you've taken care of my emotional well-being. Is it any different that I'm concerned for your physical well-being? Josh, you're my one and only - it goes with the territory."
My hands still clasped his wrists. He didn't pull away, but leaned in towards me.
"The world of litigation doesn't know what it's missing," he said kissing my cheek. "All right, you win. " He sighed, grinning in a satisified sort of way, then listed the outcome of his consultation. "My ECG was fine. They'll keep an eye on my blood pressure - it's still a touch high, so just to be on the safe side I need it checked every month. He took some bloods - I'll get the results in a week. All in all, no problems. Satisfied?"
"Completely," I said, letting go of Josh's wrists and lifting his hands up to my lips to kiss them. I put my arm around him. We snuggled up, not speaking, just enjoying the fact that we were spending this quiet time together. I felt my eyelids drooping as the tension of the day began to leave my body. The last conscious thought I had was whether Josh wanted me to stay the night or not. Apart from that, all I was aware of was the closeness of Josh, and how comforted I felt. It was the most contented I'd been in a very, very long time.
After a while Josh sat up and moved to the edge of the couch. I groaned at the disturbance.
"Ssh," he said. "Don't move."
I opened my eyes a fraction. "Where're you going?"
"The bathroom. Stay here." His fingers touched my face lightly. "Promise?"
"Mmm-mmm." I folded my arms against my chest and settled back against the cushions. I was too relaxed to argue, and besides, I now felt a small surge of hope that maybe at last I'd get the chance to sleep with Josh tonight. I explored the thought, and realized that when I said 'sleep with' I didn't necessarily mean in a sexual sense. Sure, I wanted Josh physically - I yearned to satisfy him, and I yearned for him to satisfy me. But the idea of us lying together, sharing the same bed, our bodies touching in that intimate space, filled me with longing. And not only that. We would be safe in the knowledge that we could enjoy that fundamental, human pleasure with our relationship no longer a secret. Although that didn't mean we wouldn't be discreet when the situation demanded it. After all, work was work, and we had to maintain our professionalism. Images of myself and Josh filled my head : working with other political operatives, wheeling and dealing on the Hill, accompanying the President on his trips around the country and overseas.
"Sam ... Sam."
I jumped at the touch of Josh's hand on my leg.
"Josh ... stop it - we're in senior staff." I opened my eyes, then panicked slightly at the sight of the unfamiliar room. This wasn't the Oval. "Oh, God ... I must have been dreaming."
I rubbed my eyes and focused them on Josh, who was sitting looking at me with an amused expression on his face.
"Jeez, that was horrible," I said, sitting up straight and running my hands through my hair. "The President had just asked me to name all fifty states of the Union in alphabetical order, and I couldn't remember which ones come before Arkansas. Everyone was looking at me ... Toby was glaring ... and I was thinking 'I am *really* screwed if I don't get this right'. Then *you* started running your hand up my leg and the President looked at us over his glasses - you know the way he does? And that's when I woke up."
Josh had moved on from looking amused to laughing out loud.
"I'm sorry I woke you up," he said between chortles. "That always happens in dreams - just when it's getting interesting you wake up. You okay? I didn't give you a fright?"
"No. Just for the record, it's Alabama and Alaska isn't it?"
Josh rolled his eyes heavenwards. "Well if you say so, you geek, then it must be. Anyway, the reason I woke you was to say I've run you a hot bath. Have a long soak, get into bed and I'll join you when I've cleaned up in here."
That sounded so good, especially the part about Josh joining me in bed. I stood up, stretched, then knelt next to Josh's wheelchair. I put my arms around him, leaning my forehead against his.
"Thanks, babe," I said. "I don't know what I would have done without you tonight."
"Hey, don't mention it." His mouth quirked into that wry smile that was so Josh. I shivered in anticipation. The sensation was in sharp contrast to the warmth that suddenly radiated through my groin.
"Christ, Josh," I said, "it feels like it's our first time."
"I know." His voice was little more than a whisper. "Now - go take that bath so you're nice and relaxed for me."
The bathroom was starting to get nicely hot and steamy when I entered. I checked the level and temperature of the water. Just a little more, then it would be just right.
I looked around the room and noticed that there were two bathrobes hanging on the back of the door. Next to the sink was a brand new toothbrush still in its wrapper, some mouthwash and a container of dental floss. As I undressed I smiled slightly at Josh's thoughtfulness. I turned the faucet off and lowered myself gratefully into the hot water. I luxuriated in it as I soaped myself, feeling as if the day's troubles were being eased away. I lay back for a little while, feeling cosseted and peaceful, before realizing that I hadn't noticed any shampoo. But there it was, balanced on the side of the bath nearest the wall. My own brand. Not any old brand, but my own personal preference. Such a little thing, but one that I found unbearably affecting, the reason being that for himself Josh would buy the first brand that he put his hand on in the store. It wasn't a grand, romantic gesture, but as I picked up the bottle and looked at it, I felt the tears that hadn't been far from the surface all evening begin to prick at my eyes again. I sat there, sniffing and wiping away the tears.
Suddenly, the bottle was removed from my hand. Josh leaned over and kissed me where the tears were trickling down my face. He placed the shampoo between his legs so as not to drop it, and without speaking lifted the shower head from its attachment on the wall. Tilting my head back, he began wetting my hair, placing the edge of his hand carefully on my forehead to stop the water running into my eyes. I was aware of his long fingers smoothing my hair back, then felt him begin to apply the shampoo, gently massaging it into my scalp. The care and attention he gave to it, the touch of his hands ... such a simple act, yet as an experience it was comforting, intimate and sexy as hell. Again I felt the hot water as he rinsed away the lather. He took a strand of hair between his fingers, making sure it was squeaky clean. Then he reached for a towel, gave my hair a rub and gently wiped my damp face. Finally, his hand gently cradling the back of my head, he leant down and pressed his lips to my forehead. Neither of us uttered a word as he left the room as quietly as he had entered it.
Ten minutes later I half sat, half lay in bed. I took a sip from the cup of herbal tea Josh had left on the nightstand, sighing contentedly. The day's events ran through my head like a reel of film. I couldn't have wished for a better ending if it really had been a movie. And the day wasn't finished yet. I drained the cup, put it down and closed my eyes to await Josh coming to bed.
A few minutes later I heard him come into the bedroom.
"Sam - you awake?" I wondered idly why he was whispering - there was no-one else here.
"Kind of," I said. Truth to tell, I was on the verge of falling asleep.
"I'm just going to the bathroom," he informed me.
I didn't reply, dimly aware of the sound of the toilet flushing and water running as I lay there getting more and more sleepy. It was ironic - for the last week I'd been desperate to lie here with Josh, hold him close to me, make love to him. And now that it was just about to happen I was on the verge of becoming comatose. So I struggled to stay awake, feeling the comforter pulled back and the mattress move as he levered himself from his wheelchair onto the bed. As he did so, I heard a sharp intake of breath and Josh mutter "Damn it" under his breath. I was instantly wide awake. Sitting up, I saw Josh sitting on the edge of the bed, leaning over so that he was propped up on his right elbow, his other hand clutching his left side. I felt my heart do a back flip at the sight. I swept the comforter back and moved over so that I was kneeling behind him.
"What's wrong, babe? Are you in pain?" I asked, trying to keep the panic out of my voice.
"No ... yes ... maybe a little," Josh replied, breathing a little too heavily for my liking.
While hospitalized and after the initial critical period after the shooting, he had played down the fact that he was still experiencing pain. He was even less inclined to disclose it since he had resumed work. So for Josh to even admit to it meant that he was in some degree of discomfort. In actual fact, this was the first time I had been alone with him when the situation had arisen. So a whole set of feelings came with it : fear, concern, unsurity about what I could do to help. But I was also at a loss to know how I should behave towards Josh. Things were still in a delicate state between us, and inevitably last week's disastrous attempt to help Josh was still sharp in my memory. So I decided a light touch was called for. I was still kneeling there, so put my arms gently around him.
"What sort of pain is it?" I asked, keeping things as factual and calm as possible. I knew that the worst case scenario, but one we'd been told was fortunately the most unlikely, was that the bullet still lodged in his spine had moved. Next, and still a cause for concern, it could be a kidney infection, something that an individual with paraplegia can be prone to due to restricted mobility. Third - and this was the best case scenario, relatively speaking - Josh could be suffering from a muscle spasm, caused by the trauma of the bullet wound and the subsequent surgery.
"It feels like a spasm," he said.
"Would it feel more comfortable if you leaned back against me?" I phrased it as a question so that I gave him the option.
Josh leaned his head back against my chest and I felt him relax somewhat.
"Oh, Sam." He said it so wearily I could almost see him physically letting his guard down. Eagerly, I seized on the small window of opportunity that was afforded to me.
"What do you want me to do?" I asked. I was careful not to use the word 'need'. I wanted Josh to feel in control. I'd learned that much in the last week or so.
"Can you hand me those tablets on the nightstand? And the bottle of water?"
I did as he asked, keeping one arm around him while I leaned over and passed him the tablets from the nightstand on his side of the bed. Once he'd removed a couple from the foil wrapper, I handed him the water. After taking the medication, Josh gave no sign of wanting to move, so I tentatively placed my hand on his left side.
"Where does it hurt?" I asked.
"Mmmm, right there and a little towards my lower back," he said.
I began gently massaging where he indicated. This went on for a few minutes; I laid my cheek against the top of Josh's head, concentrating on touching him as soothingly as I could. Gradually, I felt his muscles start to relax a little.
"Sam." Josh's voice broke the companionable silence that had developed.
"What is it, babe?" I stopped the massage, fearful that I was hurting him.
"I think I'd like to get into bed now," Josh replied. He moved his head so that he was looking up at me as he continued to lean against me. "If I move further onto the bed, will you swing my legs onto it?"
"No problem." I moved back and Josh used the strength in his arms to lift his ass and move himself where he wanted to be. Once he'd done this I stood up, grasped his legs and swung them around so that he now sat stretched out on the bed.
"Okay?" I asked.
"Give me a minute," he said, wincing. "Don't look so worried - it takes a little while for the medication to kick in."
I sat down next to him.
"Do you want to get undressed?" I asked.
He nodded. "Want to help?"
"You bet." So he did the top half and I did the bottom half - in other words, he took off his tee-shirt and I divested him of his socks, jeans and boxers. I couldn't help noticing how his muscle tone had improved since the last time we had slept together on that first afternoon he'd left the hospital for a few hours.
"Do you want your PJs?" I asked.
He reached out and ran his fingers down my arm.
"Not while you're naked - I want to feel your skin against mine."
I leaned over and we shared a long, lingering kiss. My hand was against Josh's face, and something inside me melted as I felt Josh caress my thigh. We pulled apart.
"Babe, let me make you more comfortable." I put one arm around Josh's shoulder and pulled him towards me. With the other I arranged his pillows as near as possible to the way I'd seen the nurses in the hospital do it.
"How does that feel?" I asked.
"Can you put a pillow under my left side?" he replied. "There's another one in the closet if you need it."
I found the pillow and carefully positioned it as he asked. That done, I walked around to the other side of the bed. I paused to look at Josh as he nestled against the pillows, his face turned towards me.
"Love you, Sam," he said.
"Love you more," I replied. Then I laughed slightly, because we normally used this endearment when saying goodbye. I jumped into bed and snuggled up as close to Josh as I could. With the pillow supporting his left side, he lay slightly angled towards me. I took hold of his right hand, and with my other I ran the back of my fingers across his forehead. I hoped he didn't realize I was checking to see if he was running a temperature. Fortunately, his skin felt cool and dry. He sighed.
"Yeah?" I continued stroking his forehead, feeling almost overwhelmed by the closeness of him.
"I'm sorry ... I'm really sorry ... I don't think I'm up to doing anything more tonight than lying here like this. At least until this pain goes away."
"That's okay." It was no more than I expected in the circumstances.
"Sam, don't say that. It's not okay. Tonight of all nights I wanted us to make love."
For the first time tonight, Josh looked tired and strained. I guessed the rigors of the past week coupled with the pain had begun to take its toll.
"Josh." He turned his face away, refusing to meet my eye. I pressed my hand against his cheek, forcing him to look at me. "Josh."
No reply. I carried on speaking.
"If by making love you mean sex - well, you may be right. But to me making love is much more than that. Making love is you listening to me tonight, patiently, non-judgementally. Making love is you holding me close while I cried. Making love is having my lover wash my hair ... God, you don't know how good that felt. And making love is this ... "
I kissed his mouth tenderly.
"... and this ... "
I slid my left arm underneath Josh's shoulder so that it encircled him.
" ... and you don't know how many times I've made love to you with my eyes in a room full of people. Including the Oval Office."
At last Josh smiled.
"I'll make it up to you, I promise," he said.
"Shhh." I kissed him soundly. "We've got all he time in the world. And guess what? I've got the weekend off. So long as I keep my pager and cell phone switched on, Toby says I don't need to go in unless there's anything urgent. So let's just enjoy lying here. We can snuggle up, kiss, talk ... whatever you want."
"Tell me about your trip," he said. So we discussed which states Toby and I had visited, my run in with the local Democratic Party in Chicago, the issues and arguments we'd had to deal with and the bars Toby had dragged me to. We interspersed it with kisses, laughter, touching, and I omitted disclosing the loneliness that was no respecter of whether I was surrounded by scores of people or lying alone in some impersonal hotel room. That didn't matter now.
"Are you tired, babe?" I asked after a while.
"A little," said Josh in a muffled tone of voice. He'd slipped down the bed somewhat, his head resting against my chest. I could just see his curls above the comforter that enfolded us.
Trying not to disturb him I turned onto my back and moved to turn off the lamp that stood on the nightstand.
"No!" Josh's voice sounded, the tone sharp and edged with something I couldn't define. "Don't turn off the light."
I froze, my arm suspended where it reached out towards the light switch. Wary of spooking him even more, I slowly turned back on my side so that I was once more facing Josh. The drowsiness of the last few minutes had disappeared. He was now wide awake, his eyes wide with ... what? Fear? It looked a lot like it.
"Why do you want it left on?" I asked. I was totally nonplussed by Josh's reaction.
"Goddammit, does it matter?" he snapped. "I only asked you to leave the fucking light on. It's nothing to get worked up about."
"All right, we'll leave it on," I said. "But it doesn't look like nothing to me."
Josh moved away; he took hold of the pillow supporting his left side and flung it viciously onto the floor. Turning onto his back he lay there with his arm resting on his forehead. I could see that his fist was clenched tightly. I kept quiet, telling myself that he wasn't deliberately hurting me, that it wasn't personal. There was something else going on here that I didn't know about. I could only hope that he would tell me about it in his own good time. I don't know how long we lay there side by side like two statues, both of us staring at the ceiling as if the solution to this new problem would magically appear there. I was just starting to think that Josh had fallen asleep, and that I could risk turning my head to look at him, when I felt him take my hand. He drew it towards him so that it rested against his chest.
"I've done it again, haven't I?" he asked.
I didn't answer, not because I was mad at him, but because I couldn't come up with a suitable response that didn't sound patronizing.
"It doesn't help, I know, but it's nothing you've done. It's me," he continued. "I'm angry at myself because I'm so feeble."
I pulled myself up, turning onto my side and pulling my hand from his grasp so that I could prop myself on my elbow. I stroked Josh's forearm and looked into his sweet, troubled face.
"Josh, have you slept with the light on ever since you moved in?"
He averted his gaze. Eventually he nodded. I began stroking his hair, trying to calm him.
He didn't answer, but the look in his eyes gave me the impression he was looking beyond me, beyond the room, to a place I couldn't reach.
"Josh," I repeated. No answer. "Josh, come back to me. I'm here, you don't need to be scared."
With a sudden convulsive jerk he sat up. He stared around the room - a little wildly, I thought - as if he'd pulled himself back to reality. Grabbing hold of the edge of the comforter, he sat hunched forward, gripping it tightly to his chest, rocking back and forth in an agitated way.
"Josh, tell me ... please tell me ... what is it that's frightening you?"
"I'm not frightened ... I'm not," he said, although as I put my arm around him I could feel him tremble oh so slightly. The only thing I could liken it to was a wire with some sort of electric current running through it.
"I'm *not* frightened," he repeated, trying to pull himself away from me. I held him tighter, managing to get my other arm around him. He struggled against me, raising his arms to try and push me away.
"Let go!" he shouted, "I won't tell you ... I *can't* tell you, I can't."
By this time his arms were clenched between us as I fought to keep him still, to calm him.
"Shhh, Josh ... come on ... just let me hold you ... oh, my Josh, my own Josh ..." The words kept coming ... any loving word I could think of. Eventually I felt him grow less tense, until he sat there slumped against me.
"Come on. Lie down. Let's get some rest," I said in what I hoped was a persuasive tone of voice.
I slid carefully down the bed so that Josh went with me. I moved him as gently as I could so as not to jolt him and cause his muscles to spasm again. Eventually I got us settled so that I was lying on my back with Josh sprawled face down against my chest, his body limp and yielding with exhaustion. His hair tickled me slightly where his head rested on my shoulder.
"Better?" I asked. Inwardly I was starting to acknowledge that we'd hit yet another bump in the road that I had hoped was taking us toward a more settled relationship. How many more, I wondered wearily.
"A little," Josh sighed.
"You know, it might help if you told me what was bothering you," I suggested.
"Sam, don't hassle me. I've told you ... I can't." Josh's voice started to rise once more in resistance.
"It's not a sign of weakness to admit to being scared, you know," I persisted.
"With all due respect, how the hell would you know?" Josh lifted his head to look at me sceptically. "Look, it's hard enough getting people to accept that I use a wheelchair. Let them think that my head's messed up too ... " His voice trailed off leaving the thought unfinished.
Nothing I could say was helping, I could see that. I began to stroke Josh's back: slowly, rhythmically. I listened to our breathing, and began matching Josh, breath for breath. With one hand I continued to caress him, with the other I pulled the comforter over Josh's back to prevent him getting chilled. As we breathed in unison, as I moved my hand against Josh's skin : it felt almost hypnotic. I knew that in the next few minutes we would both fall asleep.
"I was so happy that day." Josh's voice - steady, quiet - startled me. It was so unexpected coming so soon after the last few minutes' turmoil. I didn't know what had changed his mind, but all of a sudden here he was, ready to open up to me. I stayed silent, listening to what he had to say.
"What a day. The President's question and answer had gone really well. Toby's brother was safe. And Charlie ... well, Charlie was on a total high after the President used that report he'd found. Yeah, I was so happy - for me, for Toby and Charlie ... for everybody."
I felt the weight of Josh lying against me lighten as he slid away from me. He positioned himself to lie on my left side and lifted my arm up over his head and around his shoulder. He looked full into my face with those candid brown eyes that I loved so much. I turned my body towards his and settled down to give him my full attention.
"I walked out of that building like I didn't have a care in the world. I could see everyone else ahead of me because I'd got separated from you and Toby and CJ : a couple of students stopped to talk ... "
"Josh's harem," I interrupted.
"Yeah." He laughed slightly. "I was quite the hot guy then, wasn't I?"
I ran my hand down the side of his body until it rested on his hip.
"So what's changed?" I asked.
He reached down and grasped my hand, moving it up so that it made contact with his upper body.
"This. I need to feel you touch me," he explained.
"Sorry. I forgot." I didn't add that I thought he'd be pleased that that was the case. The smile he rewarded me with confirmed it, though.
"Where was I?" Josh asked.
"Coming out of the Newseum."
"Right. So there I was, I walked outside and I could just see the top of your head as you followed the President. He was starting to work the rope line, and I can remember thinking, 'This will take a lot longer than we'd intended.' And I didn't want it to take too long because we wanted to meet up later at my place. Remember?"
I nodded, swallowing hard. My heart was beginning to beat a little faster. It almost felt like that night back in May. I felt myself tense up as Josh continued.
"I didn't know what was happening when I heard the first shot. It was like all hell was let loose, people were diving to the ground, everyone was shouting, the Secret Service was going ape. And I know my first thought should have been about the President, but it wasn't. All I could think was, 'Where's Sam? Is he hit?' I couldn't see you and I was running around like a headless chicken. I remember someone pushing me back, then I was on my own. It was then that I felt it ... it was like I'd been kicked in the chest. No pain at first, just the impact. Then a sort of a red hot pain like nothing I'd ever felt before. And you know what?" Josh looked at me questioningly.
I shook my head.
"I didn't realize what was happening. How stupid is that? It wasn't until my legs went from under me that I worked out something wasn't right. I tried to stand up, and *nothing happened*. So I managed to drag myself over to a planter and rested against it. By this time I was starting to gasp for breath, so I put my hand over where it hurt. It was only when I felt something sticky that it suddenly sunk in that I'd been shot. Why do you think that is? Does your brain shut down or something? Like some sort of self-preservation?"
Again I shook my head. I couldn't - wouldn't - speak. I didn't want to interrupt Josh's train of thought. He brushed his fingertips against my face.
"And I *still* didn't know what had happened to you. So there I was - my beautiful Sam could be hurt or ... worse, and I was starting to think that I was going to die. Either way, we weren't together. The worst moment of our lives, and we weren't together."
The thing that impressed me most was Josh's remembrance of that day - dry-eyed, matter-of-fact. It was more affecting than if he'd cried, gotten emotional, clung on to me. And still I listened, rapt, at the memories that were now unfolding before me.
"Then I heard Toby's voice and the next thing I knew he was kneeling next to me. I was gasping, but the more I tried to get some air into my lungs, the worse it was. I tried speaking but no sound came out. Can you imagine it? Me, Josh Lyman, not being able to speak! Then all I could see were black spots floating in front of my eyes. I was falling, and I knew Toby caught me and the last thing I remember is your voice. So I knew you were okay, and I just let myself go."
The picture of Toby holding Josh in his arms appeared, sharply, vividly, in my mind's eye. Some of the despair I had felt at that moment returned, and I closed my eyes at the force of it.
"Hey." Josh placed his palm against my cheek. "Is this too much for you?" he asked. I couldn't believe that his concern was for me and my sensibilities. "Because if it's too painful, I can stop."
"Christ, Josh, don't worry about me. Do *you* want to go on?"
Again, that candid look. "I need to. I need to explain."
"Then do it," I said. "We've got all night." "We've got all night" - just saying it felt good. I eased myself closer to Josh. The contact between our bodies felt like heaven itself.
He exhaled slowly. "Okay." He stopped, collecting his thoughts before continuing. "I came to again in the ambulance. Do you remember?"
"Yes, but I could hardly see you. The paramedics worked on you all the way to GW - I was in a complete panic."
"No, you weren't. You talked to me the whole time, just saying my name, telling me to hang in there. And by this time I knew you were fine, you hadn't been shot. I remember thinking that if I died then, at least you were with me. I don't remember much about being taken into the hospital, though ..."
By this time I felt comfortable enough to give a sad smile at the thought of what came next.
"You were delirious - I think it was lack of oxygen or something because you kept pulling the mask off to speak to me. I managed to get hold of your hand, and I was starting to cry, but nobody noticed, or if they did they probably thought it was just the whole trauma that was getting to me."
"Really?" Josh asked, surprised. "You actually cried?"
"What did you expect? The love of my life was critically injured and I didn't know whether you were going to live or die. Did you think I was concerned about what anyone would think? I was too busy running alongside the gurney and trying to follow you into the trauma room to worry about that."
"But they wouldn't let you do that," Josh said flatly. The lighter mood of the last few moments suddenly disappeared. "When they pushed me through those doors they got the oxygen mask back onto me, and I could see I was in a room in the hospital. But I couldn't see or hear you. Oh, there were lots of people there, and even though I'd never met them in my life they all seemed to know my name. It was like I was suddenly the center of their universe. But it's then that I got *really* frightened. Because if I died then, you weren't there. And I remember thinking ... with amazing clarity, it was weird ... 'So this is it. I'm going to die and Sam isn't here. In a room full of strangers and medical equipment. This is so banal.' All these people, and all their attention was focused on me. And I'd never felt so alone. Because you weren't there. And the next thing I knew someone was pushing a tube down my throat, and everything started to go black around the edges." Josh stopped and the look on his face was one of such bleakness that it chilled me to the bone.
"And that's why I sleep with the light on. Because the darkness reminds me. It reminds me of being alone; it reminds me of being deprived of the one person I needed most at that moment when everything went dark and I thought I would die."
It was then, and only then, that Josh betrayed any emotion. His eyes misted over, but before any tears could spill over he blinked rapidly and recovered himself. He gave me a shaky smile.
"You do understand, Sam? Because when that feeling hits me I could swear I'm going crazy."
I was suddenly struck by a revelation. "You know those times when I've come into your office ... when you've looked like you were miles away?"
He sighed. "Yeah. That's when I'm right back there."
"See, what I don't understand ... " I was struggling with this. "Why did you decide to spend your first week ... well, two, as it happens ... alone in this apartment with all of this going on?"
"Because I had to. I couldn't let it beat me. Whenever it hit me through the day I just let it ride over me and eventually it passed. That first night you left, you don't know how much I wanted to stop you when I heard you start your car. But I figured that if the worst that could happen here at night was that I had to sleep with the light on, I'd be okay. And generally I was. At least, until the evening of that day we'd argued about ... about Sewell."
Remembering how poorly Josh had looked the next day, I opened my mouth to speak, but Josh put his hand over my mouth to stop me.
"No, Sam, I know what you're going to say. But you weren't responsible. I was a jerk and I pushed you away. But you're here now, and you deserve an explanation of why I just acted like a three-year-old who's scared of the dark." He looked at me uncertainly. "*You* don't think I'm crazy, do you?"
"No, I think you're stubborn, and independent and very, very strong," I answered.
"Because that's why I was scared to tell you. I thought you might think I couldn't do my job."
"What? Because you sleep with the light on? I think if there'd been a problem Leo would have told you by now - he wouldn't make any concessions. And the way you explained it to me - that was one of the most rational things I've ever heard." My left arm still held Josh close to me; I cupped Josh's face with my right hand.
"Sam, my love ... "
Josh almost never used endearments - he was a great believer in actions speaking louder than words in the bedroom. So hearing those words almost made me fall apart. But before I could respond, the physical had taken over. We were in such close proximity that the movement required was minimal, and the next thing I knew, our lips were touching. It was long, searching and very, very satisfying. Eventually we looked at one another and I managed to find my voice.
"I'm here, Josh. I was always with you - when you went into the trauma room, I was on the other side of those doors, but I was in there with you. The same when you were in the OR. Wherever you were, you were never out of my thoughts. You might have felt like you were alone, but you weren't. And that's the way it's always going to be."
"I don't know what to say," Josh said huskily.
"Well, that's a first," I joked. I ran my thumb over the lines of fatigue that were etched below his eyes. I looked over Josh's shoulder and saw the clock radio read 12:40. I suddenly became aware of how exhausted he must be.
"Stop worrying," he said.
"I'm not," I lied.
"Sam, never kid a kidder. I can tell - you get that little worried frown between your eyes." He kissed me on the spot he'd cited.
"I was just thinking you looked a little tired," I answered. I began running my fingers down his spine.
"Mmmmm," I heard him reply. I saw his eyes were closing, but felt him give a wriggle against my hand where it had come to rest against his lower back.
"Is it uncomfortable?" I asked, concerned.
"God, no," he replied sleepily. "It's so good - it makes me feel safe."
Within a few minutes Josh was fast asleep. I knew it wouldn't be long before I followed suit.
I was having that dream again. The one I'd been getting regularly whenever I was in need of Josh. I'd be lying there and I'd feel his hand touch me, touch me as I got harder and harder. His fingers were around my cock, gently teasing me. I knew that this would go on for a while, then I'd turn around to face Josh and he'd be gone. That's when I would wake up with a monumental erection and I'd stumble into the bathroom and jerk myself off while taking my shower.
"Sam ... please ... let me make love to you."
No, that wasn't right. Josh *never* spoke in the dream. The voice continued to permeate my sleep-fogged consciousness.
"Wake up, Sam ... I want to love you."
I opened my eyes. Rolling over onto my back I saw Josh leaning over me, looking at me intently. The delicious realization hit me that this wasn't a dream at all.
"Oh, babe, it *is* you," I said.
"Who were you expecting?" he asked in mock hurt tones.
I smiled happily, and groaned as he moved his fingers to stroke that sensitive place behind my cock.
"Oh, God ... " I breathed.
"Sam, do you even know how gorgeous you look when you're sleeping? I've been watching you for hours." Josh leaned over and stifled my cries with a gentle kiss. I opened my mouth and he slipped his tongue inside. This went on for a little while, then Josh began kissing my throat. I whimpered like a child as his lips moved down my chest, over my stomach, until eventually he took me in his mouth. He sucked on me, and I felt his teeth lightly graze my foreskin. The slight friction caused me to shout as my hips bucked. I grabbed Josh's hair, my fingers tangled in his curls. I'd waited for this for so long that I knew I couldn't hold on much longer.
"Josh ... I'm nearly there ... "
Josh moved his head and I slid out of his mouth.
"Not yet," he said. He worked his way back up my body. Wrapping his arms around me he rolled onto his back, pulling me with him so that I was on top. Josh's hand grasped my erection. He placed his other hand on my ass and guided me so that my cock made contact with his groin. We covered each others' face and mouths with kisses, those kisses where you want to kiss as much of the other person as you can so that you end up making contact sharply, roughly, quickly. No finesse, but plenty of passion. I was vaguely aware there was something missing. Then I remembered how Josh used to wrap his legs around mine, running his heel up and down my calf, matching the pace of our bodies rocking to and fro. Now his legs lay motionless, a little untidily even. Our lovemaking now wasn't the most graceful, but what it lacked in esthetics it more than made up for in sheer joy and depth of emotion.
I moved myself steadily against Josh. My cock fitted snugly next to his groin; it throbbed as I moved closer to orgasm with Josh's hands placed on my hips, increasing the speed of the rhythm I had built up.
"Need you, Sam, need you ... " Josh's voice cut through me as I lost myself in my own pleasure.
"You've got me," I managed to gasp. I briefly opened my eyes and saw Josh looking at me, his eyes shining. "Oh, Josh ... you're so .... you're so ..."
I didn't finish the sentence as I bent my head and kissed his neck, sucking and biting, oblivious to the livid red marks that appeared there. He moaned his response, the sound only serving to arouse me all the more. I was on the brink of coming, and pressed myself even harder against him. He cried out, but not from any pain or discomfort because he gripped my ass and held me even closer, if that were possible. Josh slid his hands up my back and neck, until he had hold of me by my hair. I swooped down and kissed him hard on the mouth, and reaching behind me I grasped his wrists. He loosened his grip on my hair and allowed me to pull his arms around so that I held them flat against the pillow above his head. I kissed him some more, then - I don't know why I did it, call it luck or instinct, whatever - I pulled one of his arms towards me and began kissing the inside of it, downwards from just below his arm pit. The effect was like dynamite.
"Yes ... oh, yes ... oh, *God* ... yes, there ... don't stop ... "
I stole a look at Josh. His eyes were closed and he was rolling his head from side to side on the pillow. I kissed his arm again, and noticed the tiniest of moles just inside the crook of his elbow. It was one of those moments when the smallest of details becomes the most important thing in the world. I touched my lips to the small brown mark, kissing it, licking it, the sounds Josh was making telling me I had hit the jackpot, his arousal the product of a mysterious alchemy of the physical and emotional. My own orgasm hit me like a wave. I screamed Josh's name once as he pulled me into a crushing embrace, holding my head on his shoulder until I stopped shaking and could breathe once again.
Josh's heart was beating rapidly against my chest as I lay against him.
Christ, I thought, I'm going to kill him - he'll have a heart attack or the arterial repair will break or something. But his body felt warm and strong, and eventually I detected that his heart rate had slowed until it was somewhere near to what I assumed was normal. I lifted my head and looked at Josh. He burst out laughing.
"At last! I thought we were *never* going to do it again!"
I rolled away from him, feeling our skin pull slightly at the stickiness that my cum had left there. I touched my fingers to the scar that bisected his chest.
"All I want to do is make you happy, Sam ... show you how much I love you." He'd stopped laughing. "Did I get anywhere near that?"
"It was ... it was ... " I searched for an appropriate word, " ... sublime," I finally came up with.
"You know, that's one of those words that I always think I know what it means, but now I'm not quite sure. But it sounds like I did okay?" he said, looking pleased with himself.
"Oh, you did okay, babe - it means moving, transcendent, magnificent."
"Well, if you say so." Josh took my hand and kissed it.
"I do say so. What do you think?" I asked anxiously.
"I haven't got a word to describe it," he said quietly. "But that thing you did ..." He ran his finger along the inside of his arm. "I think the word would be ... creative."
For a while we just lay there, holding hands, looking at one another.
"I gotta pee," I said.
"Now I know romance isn't dead," Josh shot back ironically.
I jumped out of bed, reaching for the bathrobe I'd left draped over a chair. It had grown a little chilly. I walked over to the bathroom, and as I opened the door I turned to look at Josh. He was sitting up, his hair was all over the place, his cheeks slightly pink with a post-coital flush. I stopped, going back to sit on the edge of the bed next to him.
"What?" he asked.
I leaned over and kissed him.
"It *was* sublime," I said.
"Josh, I've got to ask - I didn't hurt you? Things got a little rough back there."
He smiled, slowly, and I knew he was reliving those moments when we had totally lost ourselves in each other.
"You know what? My heart could have jumped out of my chest and I wouldn't have noticed. But, no, you didn't hurt me ... " he stroked my cheek gently. "My Sam always takes care of me."
"And my Josh always takes care of me," I said.
We sat in silence for a few seconds letting the full import of our words sink in. It was a mutual acceptance of what we both wanted to give and receive.
"God, Sam, if we don't lighten up we'll both start crying. I thought we were in a sex-induced state of delirium?" Josh draped himself over the pillows; he looked almost wanton. "What do you want to do with the rest of the day?"
"Keep looking at me like *that* and the question's academic." I said, remembering I had the weekend to myself, barring emergencies.
"How about we go out for some breakfast, then a mooch around my new neighbourhood? There's a great bookshop nearby, " Josh suggested.
"Yeah?" I asked eagerly.
"If you're *very* good I may take you there."
I squeezed his hand, stood up and made my way to the bathroom. As I peed, washed my hands and brushed my teeth I noticed the daylight coming through the frosted glass had a new quality about it. Back in the bedroom I went over to the window and pulled back the drapes. Leaning on the window sill, the sight before me confirmed what I had already suspected.
"Josh, if we want to go out today I'm going to have to dig a path for you."
He groaned. "Nooo - snow and wheelchairs do *not* go together I'm told."
I looked over my shoulder at him.
"Do you have a shovel?" I asked.
"No. Do you?"
"Not on me at the minute."
Josh raised an eyebrow. "So we're staying in?"
I moved away from the window, shucked off my robe and jumped into bed.
"I guess so. Got any ideas for how we should amuse ourselves?" I asked, pulling the comforter up and around us. I felt Josh's hand between my legs. He tweaked me and I felt myself responding.
"Oh, I'll think of something," he said as his head disappeared beneath the comforter. I leaned back against the pillows. Things were just starting to get interesting when Josh's face popped up again.
"And tonight we'll sleep with the light off, yeah?" he grinned.
I pushed his head back beneath the comforter. Josh snickered wickedly. I smiled to myself : that bump in the road had been just that. Maybe not the last, but it was my travelling companion who made the journey worthwhile.
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