Title: The Gift
Author: Sue C
Spoilers: Slight reference to In the Shadow of Two Gunmen Parts I and II
Disclaimer: My two favorite boys, plus the other well known protagonists, belong to Aaron Sorkin/Warner Bros. Frances Carr, Dr Roberts, Tracy and Clare are my own creations.
Summary: This is a Christmas fic which is outside my Carpe Diem universe. It's a post-administration story containing lots of angst, but please stick with it as there's plenty of festive fluff too!
Notes: Although I have conducted some research on matters medical, I may have taken a little license for the sake of the story, so apologies if anyone identifies any inaccuracies. The same caveat applies to any legal or political issues that occur.
Archive: By all means, just let me know where.
Feedback: Please, even if you hate it, as long as it's constructive. I'm at firstname.lastname@example.org
Once again I have my good friend Kathi to thank for encouraging me to write this fic. Her wise words have sustained me throughout what turned out to be an enjoyable yet challenging fic to write, although her friendship and support go far beyond this.
Merry Christmas/happy holidays to everyone and all good wishes for 2005
The Gift by Sue C
Sam Seaborn stood in the cold air contemplating the modest clapboard house. Unlike its companions on the quiet road that were festooned in Christmas lights and sported Santa Clauses and snowmen, the building was unadorned. Its windows stared blankly out, giving no indication that there was anyone residing within. There wasn't even a name on the post box outside, just a white number ten painted starkly on the green metal.
As he stood there, undecided, Sam glanced down at the piece of paper he held in his hand. Five typewritten lines that had shaken his world, a world that had only recently begun to settle into a state that he could describe as just about bearable. He felt his heartbeat begin to quicken as he told himself if he didn't make a move now, he never would.
Slipping the paper into the pocket of his overcoat, Sam opened the garden gate.
Eleven months earlier
It felt like the end of an era, Sam thought as he walked through the West Wing, before thinking how scornful Toby would be at such a cliche. But he made no apologies for it. Eight years of the Bartlet administration, eight turbulent years that had seen battles with Congress, an assassination attempt, a kidnapping, a presidential censure, and finally the most radical package of measures within living memory that any outgoing president and his staff had steered successfully through the legislature. Sam still enjoyed making a mental inventory: health insurance reform, tax breaks for companies researching into alternatives to fossil fuels, new measures to combat unemployment. Not to mention the groundwork to influence subsequent administrations develop a more ethical foreign policy.
These achievements were all the sweeter to Sam when he remembered how reluctant he had been to return to the White House. After his failed attempt to enter Congress he'd stayed in the sunshine of Orange County wondering what to do with his life. Several lucrative job offers later - which he'd rejected on the basis that he would never again enter the sterile world of corporate law - he'd found himself providing legal counsel on a consultancy basis to various non-governmental organizations. But the projects he embarked on always failed to excite. Then one day, eighteen months ago, he received a call from Toby. Come back to DC. Work for the President. Help Bartlet leave a legacy that will make him more than a footnote in history.
At first Sam had been reluctant. The thought nagged at him that he'd be returning to the safety of the West Wing with his tale between his legs. He imagined how the chatter within the Beltway would resound with malicious talk of how Sam Seaborn, erstwhile golden boy of the Bartlet administration and would-be Congressman, had been eager to return to the comfort zone of the Communications bullpen. But eventually Sam was persuaded and after the initial gossip had died down he found himself attacking his work with a vigor that he'd last experienced as a rookie speechwriter.
And so here he was, moving through corridors and past offices where aides and staffers were busy clearing desks, emptying filing cabinets and transferring documents to boxes or dispatching them to shredders. Pushing open the door into an even busier work area than the Communications bullpen he knew that this mass exodus was purely physical, but that the influence of the Bartlet administration was stronger than paper, staplers or computer disks.
"Is he free, Donna?"
The senior assistant looked up from her task of securing a sturdy cardboard box with adhesive tape.
"He should be in a few minutes. I know Senator Blythman has another meeting after this. Matt, have you finished that shredding, cos I've got another pile of stuff here."
She broke off her conversation with Sam to yell at a young intern who was trying to take an unobtrusive break from the menial task he'd been given. Like many an intern before him he'd imagined the role would have involved exciting meetings on the Hill or bumping into foreign leaders in the foyer, not photocopying and shredding. Sam left Donna to her slave driving, perching on the edge of her desk while he watched the oak door that remained firmly shut.
He didn't have long to wait. He recognized two senators and a lobbyist exiting the room. They stopped to briefly exchange handshakes and some good wishes for whatever ventures Sam undertook in the future. Without a backward glance they were on their way, their thoughts probably turned to the new President and staff they'd have to deal with. Sam remembered that a British prime minister once remarked that a week is a long time in politics, and the theory held true for the transition from one administration to another.
Sam went into the office from which the visitors had emerged. He stood in the doorway, contemplating the man who stood at the window, the man who had been the deciding factor in his decision to return to DC. In the time he had spent in California, Sam had had to be satisfied with a long distance relationship - late night phone calls, the occasional letter, the odd snatched weekend. So when he was agonizing over whether to take up Toby's offer, the temptation to pick up where he had left off was almost irresistible. But still he hesitated. 'You can never go back'. The thought ran round and round his head. He'd gotten so accustomed to this long distance love affair that he worried they would start to smother one another if they occupied the same living space.
But that was until the night he'd sat contemplating another long phone call he'd had with Toby. The doorbell rang and when he opened it there was Josh Lyman.
"Read this," he'd said, thrusting a file into Sam's hand as he walked in.
Sam looked at the printed label on the cover: A Better America - A Mission Statement for the Final Bartlet Years. The author was Toby Ziegler and its circulation was strictly restricted to senior staff in the White House. It should probably never have left the building.
He followed Josh into the sitting room.
"And if that doesn't work I have alcohol," Josh had said, pointing to the six pack he'd placed on the coffee table.
Sam didn't speak. He was still in shock from Josh turning up so unexpectedly.
"And this is the last weapon I have at my disposal, and if this doesn't do it ... well, I don't know what will." Josh walked over to Sam, pushed him against the wall and kissed him passionately. Sam's arousal was almost instantaneous.
They didn't get out of bed until noon the next day, when Sam packed his bags and flew back to Washington. He held hands with Josh the whole flight back.
And now here he was. The mission statement was a reality and he couldn't believe he'd ever doubted he and Josh could be so happy. Pushing the door shut, he walked over to where Josh stood.
"Hey, sweet thing," he said. He kissed Josh's cheek. "What's out there that's so interesting?"
Josh turned to Sam with a tired smile. Not surprising after the frantic activity of the last few months.
"You know, I really couldn't say. I was just thinking about the first time I stood in this office, how daunting it seemed."
Sam let out a snort of laughter. "I don't think so! Yeah, the rest of us were scared stiff but you looked like you'd arrived in your natural habitat."
"That was sheer terror masquerading as bravado," Josh replied. "I had butterflies the size of vampire bats in my stomach."
Sam laughed, but he still couldn't believe that Josh Lyman had ever been anything else but entirely sure of himself. He also found this introspective Josh a little disconcerting.
"Listen," he said, "I'm going to head off to the Smithsonian to take a look at how the exhibition's shaping up. Wanna come?"
"Yeah, why not?" Josh shrugged his shoulders as if the action would shake off the memories that had been hovering around him ever since he'd begun preparing his room for the next incumbent. He followed Sam out into the bullpen and with a shout to Donna that he'd be back in an hour or so he turned his back on the almost painful sight of the last eight years being packed away.
It had been Toby and Sam's idea to stage an exhibition chronicling the Bartlet years. For the last six months they'd organized a team to gather in documents, artifacts, books - anything that depicted the ups and downs of the most radical leadership the country had seen for years. And photographs, thousands of photographs. Not surprisingly they told the story of the President and those around him in the most vivid, the most human way. It had taken Toby, Sam and their team - not to mention the First Family and senior staff - many hours and numerous heated arguments to decide which ones should be displayed.
Walking into the suite of rooms that made up the gallery, Sam and Josh could see the museum curator and his staff putting the final touches to the exhibition. It was stunning. As well as the photographs, a series of glass display cabinets ran the length of the room. They housed documents, letters, copies of treaties and various art treasures that had been presented to Josiah Bartlet in his role as the country's head of state. Sam walked into the center of the room, turned slowly around and mouthed a heartfelt "Wow." He looked for Josh and was surprised to see him standing at the entrance to the gallery leaning against the wall.
"Josh?" he asked. It wasn't like his partner to hesitate like this. He always pounced on every new experience, not to mention the fact that Sam was sure he would have been eager to see which of his choice of photographs had made the final cut.
"Okay, I'm coming." Josh made his way slowly into the room. He was breathing a little heavily.
"What's wrong?" asked Sam sharply.
"Nothing." He brushed Sam's concern away and walked over to begin scrutinizing the photographs.
They moved slowly around the room, stopping to read the accompanying notes, making the occasional comment, laughing softly at the memories that were stirred up. Images of the first campaign - how young they all looked! - Bartlet's first inauguration, the President with statesmen, scientists, celebrities. Photographs that had been syndicated in newspapers around the world, those that had made the cover of Time ... an incredible display of what it meant to be the leader of the most powerful nation in history.
But there were also pictures that were more personal to Sam and Josh. In some of them Bartlet didn't figure at all, but he'd insisted that they be included to show what life was like serving at the pleasure of the President. The two men stopped at a photograph that had been taken only a few months into the President's first term.
"This is so great," remarked Sam. "Look at you. I can almost hear you arguing your point."
Josh scrutinized the photograph that had been taken when a photographer from the UK's Sunday Times had been given access to the West Wing. He'd caught Josh, Toby and CJ discussing some issue or other in the Communications bullpen. Josh was obviously in full flow, shirtsleeves rolled up, tie askew. He had one arm raised expressively to make his point. CJ was smiling as if she'd identified some funny side to what he was saying, while Toby stood stroking his beard in that rabbinical fashion of his.
"Was my hair really that long?" Josh asked incredulously.
"I love it," came the reply. "But then again, I love *you*."
"Aww, shucks," Josh said mockingly, moving on into the next, smaller gallery.
Sam trailed behind Josh, but didn't continue his scrutiny of the photographic exhibits. Instead, he moved to the center of the room, where a range of board games was displayed. An intricately carved chess set from India, a colorful backgammon board and blots from Queen Elizabeth II and an exquisite mah jong set which was a gift from the People's Republic of China. He shared the President's enthusiasm for them, and had been fortunate enough to be challenged to a battle on several occasions. He would miss those late night sessions.
Sam's head whipped round.
"What?" He wasn't sure what it was Josh had said. It sounded like a thought spoken out loud.
"Remember that night?" asked Sam as he joined Josh standing in front of the photograph that had been taken the night of the State of the Union speech that had taken place after Rosslyn. In the foreground, Sam was shaking hands with the President. Josh could also be seen, standing on Sam's left, but unlike most such photographs he wasn't looking at the President as he congratulated Sam. Instead, he was gazing at Sam with such a look of love and pride that the real nature of their relationship was unmistakable. And not long after that they'd made a decision to go public.
"I remember all the nights," Josh said. His voice had taken on a bleak tone that made Sam feel uneasy.
"Hey, I think we're getting a little *too* nostalgic. There is life after Bartlet you know," he pointed out.
Josh shifted his position to stand in front of Sam. He thrust his hands in his pockets, his eyes fixed on some point on the ground.
"Sam ... " he began, still gazing downwards. He traced an arc with his foot across the polished parquet flooring, then raised his eyes to look his lover directly in the face. "There's something I need to tell you."
In those few seconds Sam knew. He knew that Josh was about to tell him something that had the potential to bring his life crashing around him. All of a sudden he saw, with blinding clarity, that there'd been a shadow hovering around Josh for the last few weeks. Nebulous, insubstantial and sometimes it had seemed like it was hardly there at all. But now he knew it was real.
"Josh ... baby ... "
He moved towards Josh, put a hand out, but Josh stepped back. It was like some ungainly dance step.
"Don't, Sam, I just need to talk ... " Josh put one hand on his hip, the other on the back of his neck as he looked up at the ceiling. "The last few weeks I've been feeling tired and a little breathless ... "
"Like when we came in here?" Sam's voice was harsh, frightened. "Christ, Josh, you need to see a doctor. Why the hell didn't you say anything about this?"
"That's what I'm trying to tell you. I've seen a doctor. I've seen my cardiologist at GW. "
That stopped Sam in his tracks. The fact that Josh had actually sought medical advice only made the seriousness of the situation more acute. He took a deep breath, realizing that he'd actually forgotten to breathe.
"Go on," he said. He was finding it difficult to speak.
"He ran all the tests. ECG, echo, angiogram ... "
"For God's sake, Josh, how did I miss all this? How the fuck did I miss it?" Sam was aware that his voice was getting louder. He suddenly remembered the museum staff in the adjoining gallery. Speaking more quietly, "When did this happen?"
"That week you were in Alaska and Washington state," Josh said, referring to a trip Sam had made with the President. "I managed to time my appointments for early morning or evening so it didn't disrupt my day."
Sam couldn't believe what he was hearing.
"Alaska and Washington? That was two *months* ago."
"Something like that," Josh agreed.
"You did this alone?"
"You didn't even want *me* there?"
Josh hesitated, grimacing at the thought of the hours spent sitting in unflattering hospital robes, lying there feeling lonely as wires were attached to him and machines bleeped, and finally sitting in his doctor's consulting room struggling to maintain his composure as he received the news he'd dreaded yet half expected.
"Of course I wanted you there. But I knew you'd worry, you were working so hard ... you had work to do, Sam. Toby ... the President ... they needed you. And if there'd been no problem, well ... there'd have been no harm done."
Sam had nothing but questions, but he felt as if he'd been avoiding the most crucial of all. But now he knew he couldn't *not* ask.
"Tell me, Josh. Will you please just tell me?"
Josh's voice was calm, unemotional as he explained the facts that he'd had time to process and come to terms with.
"It's called cardiomyopathy. The muscles in my heart aren't strong enough to pump the blood around my body, that's why I've felt tired. At first I thought I'd been working too hard, but then when I was getting breathless walking upstairs I knew something wasn't right. Dr Roberts reckons it's a combination of the strain that was put on my heart after being shot and possibly a virus. Remember when I had flu last year?"
Sam nodded, recalling how Josh had been laid low for a couple of weeks, and it had taken him several more weeks to fully recover. He waited for Josh to continue, making a conscious effort not to bombard Josh with more questions until he'd heard all the facts.
"Well, it affected my heart. How about that luck, huh? Getting hit by a bullet *and* a virus." Josh laughed slightly, but the sound was joyless.
At last Sam allowed himself to speak.
"So they can do something about it, right? Medication or a pacemaker or something?"
In the adjoining gallery somebody dropped something heavy, followed by a stream of colorful language. It sounded incongruous in the cultured atmosphere of the museum, and for a few seconds the two men were reminded that there was a world outside the bubble that seemed to surround them.
"Pacemakers aren't used for my type of condition, Sam," Josh corrected gently.
"Okay, but they can use drugs? They can, can't they?"
Sam was starting to feel desperate. There was something Josh hadn't told him yet, he was sure of it.
"I'm taking medication." Josh reached into the inside pocket of his business suit and pulled out a pack of pills encased in foil and plastic. "The thing is, Sam ... they aren't working so good. Oh, they've helped some, but Roberts tells me that eventually medication won't be the answer."
Josh placed the pack back in his pocket, seeming to take an inordinate amount of time to complete the task. When he looked back at Sam, his eyes were a little shinier than they had been a few seconds ago. He backed up a few feet and leaned against an empty wall space between two of the photographs on display.
Sam felt like he was in some surreal nightmare. This couldn't be happening. He and his lover were standing in a museum, surrounded by pictures of friends, colleagues, each other, and he'd just been told ... what?
"What does that mean ... 'eventually'?" The question came sounding like a
Josh shrugged. "A couple of years ... maybe longer. No one can say for sure."
"Josh, they've got to do something." Sam's voice was growing louder again, but this time he didn't even attempt to keep it in check. "There must be some sort of surgery they can do ... a bypass ... some sort of a graft ... "
Sam knew he was babbling. He didn't have a clue what he was talking about, he was just using words he'd heard on TV or read in the print media. He felt like he was in a blind panic.
"It would have to be a heart transplant, Sam."
Again, Sam had the impression he was in some sort of horrendous fantasy world. It couldn't be right. The words 'Josh' and 'heart transplant' just didn't go together. But then a sensation resembling something like hope suddenly kicked in. That and the realization that he should be doing more for Josh than acting like some crazed fool who was only focusing on his own helpless fear.
"A heart transplant? Well ... okay .... " Track the positive, he told himself. "My God, Josh, they're like ... routine, nowadays. And they've got all the drugs to prevent rejection ... "
"Hang on, Sam. Slow down. There's the little matter of my blood group." Josh closed his eyes in the face of Sam's feverish optimism, not wanting to see it destroyed as he knew it would be by the information he'd just factored into the discussion.
Memories of the surgery Josh went through after the shooting came flooding back to Sam. How could he have forgotten the frantic requests that went out from GW to various blood banks for sufficient blood of the rare type required by Josh?
"Donor organs need to be compatible with the recipient, and that includes blood group," Josh went on. "The rarer the blood group, the longer the wait for a suitable heart. It just gets better, doesn't it?"
Sam didn't bother replying to the rhetorical question.
"Who else knows?" he asked.
"No one. Donna knew I'd been feeling tired, but like you she thought it was just a case of me being exhausted like everyone else was. Before they got my meds sorted out I asked her to cover for me a couple of times, tell people I was in a meeting when I was really taking a nap in my office. But that's all. I don't want anyone to know yet."
"I wish you'd told me." Sam knew he was covering old ground, that there was nothing to be gained by recriminations. But he couldn't help himself.
"I'm telling you now."
"Yes, but why now? Why here? It's hardly ideal," Sam protested.
"I tried. I've been trying to tell you for weeks, but you were so happy. Everything you'd worked for was coming together. I didn't want to spoil it. But looking at all of this ..." Josh waved his hand at the walls surrounding them, "I couldn't bear it ... I needed you to know ... "
Josh's voice broke and Sam knew there were no more words that would suffice. He pulled Josh into his arms, his fingers entangled in Josh's hair as he held him tight. Both men struggled to hold back the tears, each remaining dry-eyed for the sake of the other. For five long minutes they just stood there, supporting, comforting, loving.
"We'll get through this, baby," Sam said eventually. "You're going to get well. We'll get a second opinion. And if a transplant's the only answer, well, we'll get you one."
Josh lifted his head and leaned back slightly to look at Sam.
"Sam, you need to know that I can't hold down a full time job any longer. If this had happened any earlier I would have had to leave the White House. Whatever job I end up doing I might have to give up altogether. You need to be clear about it Sam, this could get really tough. I want you to promise me you won't put your life on hold for me. You've got so much to do."
"You're my priority, Josh. You *are* my life."
"Please, Sam. I need you to promise me." Josh was starting to get agitated.
But Sam had already decided. Whatever it took, whatever sacrifices he had to make career wise, everything would be done with Josh's well being in mind. But just to keep Josh calm he deployed a delaying tactic.
"Let's not make any promises until we've had time to get used to all this, okay?"
Josh sighed, but by the way he put his head down on Sam's shoulder, Sam guessed he hadn't the strength to argue about it at that point.
"Just so long as you know we'll have this conversation at a later date," Josh persisted.
"Anything you say, darling."
Sam kissed Josh's hair as they stood there, their bodies gently swaying together.
The silence of the gallery was broken by a loud cough. Sam and Josh sprang apart to see an embarrassed-looking museum worker.
"I'm sorry, gentlemen, I just need to fix these cards next to the pictures in here."
"Yes ... yes ... we were just leaving," exclaimed Josh hurriedly. "Oh, and everything looks great ... please give our congratulations to the rest of the staff."
Sam murmured his agreement as they hurriedly made their exit. As they walked out of the museum Sam took hold of Josh's hand. It was freezing cold. Sam squeezed it, hoping to transfer some of his body heat to Josh. But above all, he wished some of the strength of his own healthily beating heart could be passed along with it.
That night Sam held Josh in his arms. He embraced him carefully, gently, as if he feared that by holding him too tightly he would bruise Josh's already damaged heart. But Josh was having none of it. He kissed Sam fervently, telling him that as long as his body could take it nothing would stop him loving Sam in every way possible. So Sam made love to Josh slowly and tenderly, and as they reached their swooning climax it was as if they'd found a sweet, perfect place far away from their current reality.
And so they slept.
For the first two days after Josh's revelation Sam had veered between two states: either watching Josh like a hawk for any signs of his condition worsening or a studied casualness if he dared to ask Josh how he was feeling. Josh, for his part, was tetchy and impatient, going out of his way to give Sam the impression that he felt fine. The atmosphere was tense and finally a fiery argument upset the delicate balance of their emotions. But like the oppressive atmosphere of a Washington summer day broken by a thunderstorm, Sam and Josh felt as if the atmosphere between them had been cleansed and refreshed. For the time being at least fear and uncertainty was kept at bay by the love and attention they lavished on one another. And in the handover from the outgoing administration to the new, there was precious little time for them to brood over what the future may hold.
Josh spat out the expletive as he stood before the mirror in the men's room. That night he and Sam were to attend a black tie dinner and ball at the White House, a farewell from the President and the First Family, and as usual Josh was having trouble with his bowtie.
"Here, let me."
Sam stood behind Josh and placed his hands on the offending strip of material. In doing so, he made contact with Josh's fingers.
"Hey, you're shaking," Sam remarked.
Josh laughed dismissively. "It just makes me so mad that I *still* haven't mastered this. If Donna asks, I tied it myself."
Sam tweaked the bowtie, then reached over to pluck Josh's tuxedo from where he'd hung it on the door. He held the jacket out while Josh slipped his arms into the sleeves. Sam waited until Josh had settled himself into the garment, then wrapped his arms around his lover. Laying his cheek against Josh's he contemplated their image in the mirror. Josh hadn't looked quite as fatigued these last few days; Sam surmised it was as a result of him unburdening himself. Tonight, however, he looked a little strung out. Sam dismissed it as nothing more than a reaction to the heightened atmosphere that had permeated the White House at the tail end of the outgoing administration. That apart, Josh looked as handsome as Sam had ever seen him. His stomach lurched at the thought of how much he loved this man.
"Hi gorgeous," he said. "People are going to be *so* envious of me when I walk into that room with you tonight."
He kissed Josh on the cheek, and they stood quietly for a moment. Josh took Sam's hand. raising it to his lips.
"I love you, Sam Seaborn. Whatever happens, whether I'm with you or not, I love you. I want you to remember that."
"Don't, Josh. Everything's gonna work out. Please don't talk like that." As he spoke, Sam's hand moved unconsciously to a spot over Josh's heart.
"I just need you to know. Say you'll do it. Say you'll remember." Josh's tone was almost pleading.
"Yes. Yes, I'll remember."
Sam closed his eyes, once more pressing his lips to Josh's cheek. For a fleeting second he wished that they could go home, change into their PJs and snuggle up on the couch.
"C'mon, let's get this show on the road," Josh said, the accompanying sigh telling Sam that he'd been thinking along similar lines.
The reception room was filling up rapidly as Sam and Josh arrived there. Although their relationship was no secret in Washington, as senior staff they'd always made a point of arriving separately at events such as this, preferring to maintain a professional space between their public and private lives. But on that final evening they'd decided they would make their entrance as a couple before going their separate ways to work the room. As they went through the door Josh paused and placed his hand on Sam's cheek.
"Seeing as this is the last time we'll do one of these things, what the hell ... "
And he leaned forward and kissed Sam, his lips parted ever so slightly, feather light against his lover's mouth.
"Josh ... " Sam said breathily, the unexpectedness of the moment making him feel suddenly aroused.
Josh moved away, smiled and winked at Sam.
Then he was gone, moving swiftly through the crowd, leaving Sam feeling slightly unsettled. 'Be happy'? Sam thought. What was that all about? Pushing the vague sense of unease to the back of his mind, Sam began circulating.
Politicians, ambassadors, heads of non-governmental organizations, academics, a smattering of people from the worlds of art and entertainment - the list of guests at the presidential farewell ball was like a roll call of twenty-first century movers and shakers. Speeches were made, dances were danced and the outgoing President toasted his family and all the people who had worked so hard to serve him over the previous eight years. Sam and his peers who sat dotted around the room listened as he made special mention of his senior staff. Sam glanced around and noticed that even Toby was smiling. He looked down the room at Josh but was surprised to see no trace of pleasure on his face. Rather, he was sitting with his elbows on the table, his clasped hands pressed to his mouth, wearing an expression that could only be described as pensive. He looked about a million miles away from the White House. Then the toasts were over, the loud buzz of conversation took over once more, and Sam lost sight of Josh as the dancing resumed and people began mingling with those who'd been seated at other tables.
At last the final strains of the National Anthem died away, the President and the First Family left the room and the evening drew to a close. Sam began looking for Josh, intending to suggest that they make a quick getaway, rather than get caught up in a post-function analysis with the President who was no doubt still on a high. However, he couldn't see Josh anywhere in the main ballroom, so he extended his search to the reception rooms and the various anterooms that had been used by those guests who wanted to talk rather than dance. No luck. He looked outside on the balcony, and fast running out of options he tried the men's room. The slight feeling of unease he'd experienced earlier began nibbling at the edge of his consciousness; he knew it wouldn't be long before he was in full-scale panic mode. Visions of Josh lying collapsed somewhere began surfacing, and when Sam spotted Donna he grabbed her arm a little tighter than was necessary.
"Jeez, Sam! I bruise easy, you know!" she joked.
"Have you seen Josh?" he asked, lowering his voice so as not to attract any more attention than was necessary. Being aware of the eyes and ears of the press was a habit that would be hard to break.
"Not since a couple of hours ago but I've been dancing and you know how he hates that, so he's probably somewhere giving some captive audience the benefit of ... " She stopped when she saw Sam's face. "Sam, what's wrong?"
"I don't know. I don't know if *anything's* wrong, but I can't find him anywhere in this part of the building." Sam didn't look at Donna as he talked, but continued casting around the room for any sign of Josh. He forced a smile on his face to wave at a senator and his wife as they left the party.
"Have you looked in his office? I know it's all cleared out, but you know what he's like. He probably forgot some *vital* memo that he composed five years ago that he wants to keep for posterity."
"Yes, *yes*!" Sam cried, not sure whether his response to Donna's suggestion was one of relief or desperation. As he jogged towards the West Wing he imagined how exasperated Josh would be at his over-reaction.
The area that was normally so busy was now dark and silent. Sam thought it was a little eerie as he negotiated the corridor which was lit only by a dim light spilling from one of the offices. Thankfully he realized it was Josh's office, the half open door indicating his presence.
"Josh! Josh - time to go home," he called.
Sam's heart began racing a little. Once again, he pictured Josh sitting slumped at his desk or worse, on the floor. Pausing in the open doorway he didn't know whether he was glad or sorry to see that the office was unoccupied. He dashed back out into the corridor, through the bullpen and trawled the entire wing. No Josh. Feeling frantic, he found himself back where he'd started.
Sam could see Donna standing behind Josh's desk. She was staring at something lying there as if it would rise up and bite her if she attempted to pick it up. She looked scared.
Her voice sounded faraway as Sam walked over to stand next to her. On the desk was an ivory colored envelope, the stationery Josh favored for personal use. Not unexpectedly, Sam saw his name scrawled on it in Josh's firm black handwriting. He picked it up slowly, as if he could delay the moment of reading its contents. It dawned on him that the unease he'd felt all evening hadn't been unfounded.
"Donna, get Leo," he said.
"Sam ... "
"Just give me a minute, will you?"
Sam waited until she'd departed, before sitting down in the visitor's chair. He swiveled it to one side so he didn't have to look at Josh's desk and the place where he would have sat, feet propped up on the desk. He put his thumb in the gap where the adhesive hadn't caught and ripped open the envelope. His hands felt clumsy and uncoordinated as he unfolded the paper held within.
My darling Sam, he read,
I've thought long and hard about this and it goes without saying that this is the hardest decision I've ever had to make. I guess that now you're reading this you'll have searched high and low for me throughout the White House. Please, please don't look for me there, at our home or anywhere else.
Don't worry, I haven't done anything stupid, I've just decided to disappear to give you a chance to be your own person. Give yourself a break and get on with your life. I don't want you opting out of your career or the opportunity to have a life by hanging around me while I wait for a new heart or worse. Sam, you've got so much to give, so much potential, the world shouldn't be deprived of that. And before you think I'm being totally self-sacrificing, I'm doing it just as much for me because it would kill me quicker than any heart disease to see your hopes and dreams stifled.
Don' tell anyone else the reason behind this. Tell them I've been having some problems, you've dumped me, anything, just don't tell them how ill I am. I can't stand their sympathy, however well meaning. I need you to promise me that.
I've arranged for my attorney to contact my mother. I'll make any contact with her through him. He has the number of your cell phone. I've told him only to use it in a case of extreme urgency, so don't expect to hear from him more than once.
I know I didn't say it often enough, but I love you with all my heart and soul. I always will.
So my beautiful, brilliant Sam, prove to me I'm doing the right thing. Go out there and make your mark on the world like I know you can.
I'll be watching.
With love - always
By the time Sam read to the end of the letter he could only just read the words through the blur of tears. Snatches of Josh's words ran round and round his head: 'Whatever happens, whether I'm with you or not, I love you'; 'Be happy'. It all added up. And the way Josh sat there when the President gave the toast to the senior staff - he'd been saying goodbye, that's why he looked so thoughtful. Why didn't I read the signs, Sam thought.
His friends came with words of comfort, questions, offers to do everything they could to find Josh. But he knew he had to respect Josh's wishes. No one slept at all that night. Through all their repeated demands for the details of why Josh should bolt in such a shocking manner, Sam would only repeat that his lover had some problems and issues to work through on his own. President Bartlet and Leo took him aside and insisted he tell them more, but Sam held firm. The only person who came near to weakening his resolve was Abbey Bartlet, who looked at him shrewdly and asked about Josh's health. When Sam feigned ignorance, her silent acceptance spoke to him of her suspicions. Finally, in in the cold light of dawn Sam went home to the sight of an apartment stripped of Josh's clothes, a few personal items and all his legal documents. Sam surmised Josh had slipped out during the day to pack, returning to the apartment while the ball was in full swing. Then - who knew where?
In the following week Sam drank a lot, ate little and, it seemed, slept not at all. His friends gathered round, they talked, they cried, they sat blankly wondering what they could have done to help Josh. But no one really understood, only Sam, and he was forced to dissemble to the very people who he longed to confide in. Their reactions varied. Toby agreed that Josh should be allowed to disappear if that was his decision. CJ - more reluctantly - agreed. Donna begged Sam to find Josh, hire a private detective, call in favors with the various government departments who could help track down his whereabouts. Eventually CJ made her see how impossible this was. Josh had made his choice, Sam stood by it, that was an end to it.
The worst thing were the rumors that were flourishing in DC. Josh Lyman's PTSD had returned. He was in a clinic somewhere. He'd been having a love affair without Sam's knowledge. He was having some sort of mid-life crisis. Someone had even claimed to see him wandering along a beach in Mexico. Throughout it all Sam neither denied nor confirmed anything. He began to be overtaken by the numbness of resignation to his situation. Once more he began to function as normal. Talking, eating, finding a job. But in the long dark nights he stared into the emptiness that was his life, lying there for hours while his emotions fought for ascendancy. Anger, sadness, grief. He spiraled down to such a depth that eventually he could go no lower.
So he pulled himself out of his nosedive. He read Josh's farewell letter and decided if he really wasn't going to see him again, maybe he should accept it, get on with his life. Do what Josh wanted. But as the year hurtled towards its end, the first anniversary of Josh's disappearance cast a shadow over his attempts to move forward.
Until a piece of paper with five lines on it fell out of a Christmas card, and it seemed as if hope might still exist.
Sam walked up the path, past the lawn that was white with frost. The garden had an uncared for air about it in common with the rest of the property. Not exactly dilapidated, more as if the person who lived there had little interest in their surroundings. Just the sight of it made Sam feel sad. He paused at the door, reaching into his pocket for the sheet of paper he'd looked at so many times since receiving it, although he knew he didn't really have to check that he was at the right place. He looked at it anyway, more to give himself an excuse to calm himself than anything else.
If you go to this address you may find something you thought you'd lost. It doesn't matter how I got this information - just consider it an unexpected Christmas gift. Go to 10, Maple Avenue, Elmira, New York State.
And that's how Sam found himself screwing up his courage to ring the doorbell in an anonymous street in a town he'd never visited. It's now or never, he thought as he rang the bell. A minute passed ... two ... He was just about to give up when he saw a movement behind the pane of stained glass that was the sole adornment to the house. The door opened and Sam was face to face with a dark haired woman. She'd obviously been involved in some domestic activity as she was wearing an apron and looked a touch irritated at having been disturbed.
"I ... er ... is there a Mr Josh Lyman living here?" he asked.
"Who's asking?" She didn't sound rude, just wary.
"I'm his attorney. There's no cause for concern but I have a message from his mother." Sam trotted out the excuse he'd been practicing for the past twenty-four hours. He hoped he sounded convincing.
She gave him a look that he couldn't interpret.
"Would you mind waiting here?"
She turned on her heel and walked towards the back of the house. Sam heard a door open, then voices. One was the woman, and he strained his ears to hear the other which was quieter, more indistinct. Sam stood at the door, stamping his feet to keep warm. Despite the clear blue sky and bright sunshine it was a freezing cold day. He hoped his nose wouldn't turn bright red, then felt a little foolish at his vanity.
"Come in, Mr ... " The woman held the door a touch wider for Sam to enter.
"Thanks," he said, ignoring her unspoken request for a name, thinking the simpler he kept things the better.
Sam took in his surroundings as he followed her towards the back of the house. The decor and furnishings didn't look as if they'd been put together with any real thought. The impression was of a house whose contents had been added to haphazardly over the years. He suspected the house was now rented as furnished, perhaps belonging to someone who'd inherited it, and now they used it as a means of bringing in some extra income. Overall it wasn't particularly cheery or homely, and Sam was relieved when at last they stood in front of the door to what he presumed was the living room. The woman pushed it open, stepping back to allow Sam to enter. He thanked her as she closed the door softly. Taking a step further into the room he felt a rush of emotion. At last the long months of emptiness had ended.
His beloved Josh stood there in front of him. And this time he wasn't a dream, he wasn't a product of Sam's imagination, he was real.
For a second Sam didn't see any spark of recognition then remembered that Josh had been expecting to see his attorney or one of their representatives. Then the reaction ... shock, incredulity, and worst of all, dismay. For a few seconds the two men just stared at each other. Finally, Sam found his voice.
The most prosaic of phrases. As he said it, it sounded to Sam as if he'd just stepped into Josh's office in the West Wing, maybe to walk with him to senior staff. But this time there was no loving response from Josh. Just a hostile silence that was worse than a loud declaration of anger. Sam started to think that he'd made the worst mistake of his life.
"Josh." He tried again, feeling uncharacteristically hesitant. "God, Josh, it's so good to see you."
"I didn't think you'd do this, Sam," Josh answered. "I told you not to ... I told you."
"I know what you said, how you didn't want me to look for you. But I just need to see you ... talk to you."
"There's nothing to talk about." Josh's voice was flat. Sam had never heard him speak like this, so lifeless, so unemotional. "I'm sorry you've had a wasted journey, but I think you should go."
This was the worst scenario imaginable. Sam was at a loss for what to do or say next. Then out of nowhere he suddenly remembered the night Josh had come to California armed with a mission statement, beer and his irresistible body. Well, he didn't have the document or the alcohol, but ...
Sam walked over to Josh who stepped away before Sam could get close enough to make any physical contact. The rejection was obvious. Sam was fighting to hold it together but despite his best efforts he could feel the tears stinging his eyes.
"Josh ... oh, Joshua. Please."
Josh stood there, raising his arms to clasp his hands around the back of his neck. He was shaking his head, and to Sam he looked nothing short of terrified.
"No ... no .... don't do this ... don't Sam ... I don't want you here ..."
Sam couldn't believe what he was hearing. He'd convinced himself that as soon as Josh saw him everything would be all right. They'd hold each other, they'd cry of course, but there'd be laughter and kisses and a sweet reconciliation. But this wasn't right. Not Josh standing there looking scared and Sam feeling as if he'd been run over by the emotional equivalent of a ten ton truck.
"You don't meant that. You don't. Christ, Josh, I *know* you don't. Just hear me out ... I'm begging you ... "
"You need to go, Sam. Just go. Now."
Sam abandoned all efforts to disguise his emotions. The tears were pouring down his face unchecked as he looked at Josh, *his* Josh who had once been so full of life and who was now frighteningly pale and thin. Sam recognized the sweater he had given Josh the previous winter. It looked like it was a size too large. That small detail made Sam ache inside.
"I can't go. I can't go until I know how you are, until we've talked." He was weeping now, desperate to pull Josh into his arms.
"Don't. Please don't cry. I can stand anything but that," Josh whispered.
Tapping into every ounce of courage he possessed, Sam held his hand out towards Josh.
"Don't!" Josh's voice was shaking. He put a hand on a nearby armchair to steady himself.
"Why?" Sam was so distraught he was ready to think the unthinkable. "You don't think I'd hurt you, do you Josh?"
Josh's eyes were dark, Sam could see the pain in their depths.
"If I let you touch me I know I won't be able to let you go," he replied. Then, to Sam's alarm Josh's body seemed to crumple, as if his legs wouldn't hold him. Before Sam could get to him he was down on his knees, his hands in front of his mouth. He began to sob as he spoke.
"I just ... miss you ... so much."
"Joshua ... I'm here sweetheart, I'm here." Sam knelt next to Josh, enfolding him in his arms, rocking him back and forth. He pulled Josh's head into the crook of his neck, but where he would once have held Josh as tightly as he could, he now seemed so frail that Sam was afraid he would hurt him. So he embraced Josh gently, kissing the top of his head, Josh's hair soft against his cheek. God, it felt good to have Josh's body against his once more. Sam stroked the back of Josh's neck, all the while talking to him, soothing him as Josh sobbed painfully.
"Shh, baby, it's okay, it's going to be all right. I love you Josh, you know that. You know that's why I couldn't stay away." Sam kept talking through his own tears. "We need to be together, Josh. I need you, baby, I need you."
Josh's sobs subsided at last. He lifted his head and placed his hands on either side of Sam's face. Then slowly and sweetly he touched his mouth against his lover's. Goosebumps ran the length of Sam's body as Josh's lips caressed his. Josh opened his mouth, his tongue tracing the shape of Sam's lips as he delicately probed his way into the warmth of Sam. Their tongues touched as they explored one another after their long months of separation. Soon Sam felt Josh turn his attention to kissing his face, his jaw line and he threw his head back as Josh kissed and sucked his way down the soft skin of his throat. All the while Josh was making small, whimpering sounds until he finally kissed his way back to Sam's mouth. Sam felt himself go limp under this sweet onslaught, Josh 's arms encircling him as he at last reluctantly broke the kiss, needing to catch his breath. He laid his cheek against Sam's.
"I guess this means you're pleased to see me after all," Sam laughed tremulously.
"You're pretty sure of yourself," Josh shot back, and Sam sensed that he was smiling.
Josh drew back, a few stray tears continuing to run down his face. Sam shrugged out of his outdoor coat, threw it to one side, then reached into his pocket for a handkerchief. He shook out the freshly laundered piece of cotton - he knew he'd need it that day of all days! - and gently wiped the tears from Josh's face.
"There isn't an hour gone by that I haven't imagined us together again," Josh said, resulting in more tears from them both.
"Then this is how it'll be," Sam said when they'd composed themselves once again. He studied Josh's face, his mind processing what he could see and what it told him about Josh's state of health.
There were dark smudges under his eyes.
His normally pale skin was like parchment.
His fine features had acquired a delicacy about them, his cheekbones standing out sharply due to the weight he'd lost.
"You look tired," was all Sam said, trying not to show how shocked he was.
Josh took hold of Sam's hands.
"You don't need to sugar the pill, Sam. I know exactly how I look, and it's not just tired," Josh smiled. It was a smile full of love, but there was also a melancholy quality to it. "I've sat here for eleven months waiting for my cell phone to ring or a message on my pager to tell me there's a donor. In the remote possibility I might go anywhere apart from visits my cardiologist I wear this ... "
He let go of Sam's hand to reach inside his sweater, pulling out a slender silver chain with a medical alert medallion attached. He let it dangle there briefly before dropping it back into place and once again gripping Sam's hands.
" ... and I take so many pills I have to mark them off on a chart to make sure I take the right ones at the right time. This is what my life is like, Sam. If you expect us to be together, *this* is how it would be."
Josh dropped his head, staring at Sam's fingers entwined in his own. Sam lifted Josh's hands to his lips.
"So I'll be waiting with you 'til the call comes," he said.
He kissed Josh's right hand.
"Wherever you go I'll be with you keeping you safe."
A kiss on Josh's left hand.
"And I'll give you your pills and mark your chart."
A kiss on Josh's forehead.
"Come home with me, sweetheart," Sam pleaded. He held his breath waiting for an answer.
"I can't. You don't know the full picture." Josh lifted his head to look steadily at the other man whose face held such a look of hope and optimism. Josh saw Sam flinch slightly in anticipation of what he was about to hear, but he quickly caught himself and gave an encouraging smile.
"They've bumped me up the transplant list," Josh continued.
Sam's smile got even wider. "Well that's a good thing, isn't it? I mean, you might get a heart sooner than we thought."
"Sam, you do understand what I'm saying, don't you? They've given me a higher priority because my case is more urgent now." Josh gripped Sam's hands as he saw Sam's expression change. He wasn't smiling now and his eyes had grown a little wider.
"That means you're worse?" asked Sam. He was finding this hard to take in and he knew he was acting as if he were stupid. In fact, he knew that ever since he'd come in the room he'd been deluding himself about Josh's condition, but his appearance gave the lie to that.
"Sam, they've given me a year at the most." Josh couldn't think of a way to break it to Sam any more gently.
Sam heard the words and afterwards he would wonder how his world could change so drastically from one moment to the next. His mouth was dry and he had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach as if he'd gone into freefall. He fought a sudden urge to scream and shout that this wasn't true, it couldn't be happening to them. It wasn't fair. Then it struck him that Josh was just sitting there so quietly, so composed, and what else could he do but force himself to answer calmly?
"All the more reason to come home then," Sam said.
"And for what? To have you running yourself ragged trying to hold down a job at the same time as worrying about me? You can't win human rights cases without being able to give them your full attention," Josh pointed out.
"Don't tell me what I can and can't do. This is *just* like the way you left me, as if you know me better than I know myself. Josh ... " Sam stopped abruptly as the full meaning of what Josh had just said sank in fully. "Wait a minute ... how do you know I'm doing human rights work? Who have you been talking to?"
The thought of Josh maintaining contact with anyone else while cutting Sam off completely was almost as hurtful to him as not seeing Josh for almost a year.
"Sam," Josh sighed patiently, "that case with the Rwandan refugees was in the Post and the New York Times. I didn't *have* to speak to anyone. You made a few yards of newsprint for a couple of days. And since you ask, no one apart from my attorney and my cardiologist knows where I am, which rather begs the question of how you tracked me down."
Sam knew Josh would ask this. He reached over to his jacket and pulled out the sheet of paper he'd brought with him. He passed it over to Josh and watched him frown as he read it.
"He saw you coming out of the hospital in Syracuse where he was researching a story. Don't ask me how but he found out your address. He hasn't told anyone else and doesn't intend to, but he thought I deserved to know. I got the note yesterday, spoke to Danny and the soonest I could get a flight was this morning."
What Sam didn't tell Josh was that he'd been hell bent on walking out of his office as soon as he could and driving all night to get there, but Danny had persuaded him otherwise in the interests of road safety. He took the paper from Josh, watching him warily, trying to gauge his reaction. Josh pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezed his eyes shut.
"So that letter I left you meant nothing?" he asked.
"You mean the one that said 'Give yourself a break and get on with your life. I don't want you opting out of your career or the opportunity to have a life by hanging around me while I wait for a new heart or worse.'?" Sam recited the words effortlessly.
Despite himself, Josh laughed. "Freak - I might have guessed you'd be able to quote it from memory."
"Josh, I haven't *got*a life without you there. Oh, sure, I go to work, I meet up with CJ and Toby and Donna, I've gotten accustomed to going to the movies alone and watching the sports channels without being interrupted by someone telling me what *he* would do if he managed the Mets, but believe me it's not a life."
Sam stood up, flexing his knees that had grown stiff from kneeling on the floor. Josh began to follow suit, but as he made to straighten up into a standing position he began to sway. Sam put out a steadying hand to stop him from falling.
"It's okay," he replied, leaning against Sam who got an arm around his waist and walked him towards the couch. "I just get a little dizzy if I stand up too quickly."
"Can I get you something?" asked Sam anxiously. "Some water?"
"No thanks. Just let me sit down."
Josh flopped down on the couch. Sam nestled in next to him with his arm around Josh's shoulder. With his other hand Sam stroked his hair.
"If you come home we can do this," he said, kissing Josh. "And this."
He moved his fingers to caress behind Josh's ear. He knew it always made Josh putty in his hands.
"Stop it, Sam."
"I can look after you Josh, I can make sure you eat right, and don't tire yourself out. Days when I'm not in court I can work from home. And in the spring we can take a holiday. Nowhere too far away from DC - Maryland, maybe - because we want to be within driving distance for when they get you a heart ... "
"I mean it, Sam, stop it!" Josh pushed Sam away. "I can't think straight when you talk like that ... when you do ... that."
Josh's voice trailed off and the two men sat in silence, Sam sliding forward to sit on the edge of the couch, his elbows propped on his knees, his chin resting on his hands. After a little while he felt Josh's hand stroking his back.
"I'm sorry, Sam. When you turned up I got such a shock. There's all this stuff going round my head."
"I shouldn't have done that. I could have made you ill, for God's sake," said Sam, regretting his impulsiveness.
Josh sat up. He lay his head on Sam's shoulder, slipping an arm around his waist.
"You know what? I feel better than I've felt for months. Since that last week before the inauguration, in fact. To see you standing there looking as beautiful as ever, to hear your voice, touch you ... " Josh's voice broke slightly as he leaned closer to press his lips to Sam's temple. "It's been amazing."
"It's *been* amazing?" asked Sam, ever the speechwriter picking up on Josh's use of the past tense.
"So what happens if I come home with you?" Josh countered Sam's question with one of his own, the classic politician's technique. "I'll sit waiting for a heart; there'll be more, increasingly aggressive, medication; eventually I'll be relying on oxygen and even if I get a heart there's the risk of rejection."
"If you come home with me we can spend more time together than we ever could in the White House; you'll be surrounded by people who love you; I'll help you manage the medication *and* the oxygen if it comes to that and they've got really good drugs nowadays for dealing with rejection." Sam turned his head and looked at Josh triumphantly.
Josh opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it and nuzzled the side of Sam's neck.
"Darling, I want you to give me a little time. I need time to think."
Sam's heart sank. He envisaged leaving this house, waiting in DC for Josh's decision then finding out Josh had moved on to some new, unknown location. Sam saw himself desperately searching for Josh's whereabouts, because he knew that now he'd found him he couldn't bear to be parted from him again. He rose from the couch, picking up his coat that he'd dropped on the floor.
"I'll wait for you to get in touch then. Maybe you'll send me another letter," he added a touch bitterly.
"No, Sam, wait, I don't mean for you to go now." Josh stretched out his arm, and Sam took his hand. "Go into the kitchen - first door on the left. Get Frances to give you a cup of coffee, give me half an hour and then I'll give you my decision."
He trailed a finger down Sam's cheek.
" But this I will tell you. I've never loved you as much as I love you now."
Josh pulled Sam towards him, and this time when he kissed him it was with a lingering intensity.
"Now, go," he said. The finality of the statement told Sam he'd brook no argument.
Sam walked over to the door, pausing before he made his exit. He turned to see Josh was now standing staring out of the window. The sky was leaden, darkening the room so that it appeared later than the actual noon hour. He held Sam's handkerchief, closing his eyes and raising it to his lips before placing it in his pocket. As Sam left the room, he couldn't help but think it looked as if Josh intended to hold onto it as a keepsake. The thought made him feel sick inside.
Sam knocked on the kitchen door before opening it. The woman who'd greeted him at the front door - he presumed she was Frances - stood at the sink washing dishes.
"Hi," said Sam above the sound of the radio that was quietly playing MOR music.
The woman turned round and smiled slightly, an improvement on the slightly suspicious way she'd previously looked at him. Sam held out his hand.
"I'm sorry, I didn't introduce myself earlier. Sam Seaborn."
She picked up a towel that was lying on the counter, dried her hands and shook hands.
Sam took in more of her appearance than he had earlier. Her dark hair was tied back loosely with a barrette and she seemed to be in her mid-thirties. Her wide set green eyes were very direct and she gave the impression of being a no nonsense, capable individual. All in all she looked like the kind of person he would entrust with Josh's care.
"Coffee?" she asked breaking into Sam's mental appraisal of her appearance.
"Please." Sam was pleased she'd offered as he felt a little awkward making himself at home in a strange kitchen. He sat down at the table while Frances busied herself pouring his coffee and placing the cream and sugar on the table.
"Thanks. How long have you been working for Josh?" Sam enquired, more to break the silence than anything else.
"Since he moved here last January. They're home made," she said, indicating the plate of chocolate chip cookies she'd put down in front of Sam. He bit into one suddenly realizing how hungry he was. He hadn't had breakfast, only coffee on the plane.
Frances continued with her chores around the kitchen while she and Sam made idle chit chat about the weather, where he'd traveled from, how his journey had been. After a final check to make sure everything was neat and tidy, she sat down at the table.
"You're not Josh's attorney, are you?" she asked.
"What makes you say that?" parried Sam.
"Because he keeps a picture of you by his bed."
"Oh." Sam put his head down and studied his coffee.
"I wasn't sure when you stood at the door - you look older and your hair's different. But I can see it now." Her gaze was very direct.
"Has he mentioned me at all?" asked Sam.
"Josh didn't say very much about anything when he first arrived here. I knew there was a health problem because one of the first things he asked me to do was drive him to the hospital in Syracuse, which has been part of my duties ever since. I knew he'd worked for the government, but I've never been particularly interested in politics so the face and the name meant nothing." She paused. "I had to agree to maintain full confidentiality and not disclose his name to anyone. He was a bit of a mystery man in fact."
"And now?" Sam prompted.
"He's told me things little by little. I know he regrets leaving someone behind in Washington." She raised an eyebrow. "And I'm not sure how much good it will have done him you turning up so unexpectedly with no warning whatsoever."
Sam could hear the rebuke in her voice.
"Ms Carr, I think I know Mr Lyman a little better than you and believe me it was the only way," he said defensively.
"You think he wouldn't have seen you if you'd told the truth? Mr Seaborn, one day I caught him unawares in his room holding that picture and crying as if his heart would break. That's when he told me a little of why he'd decided to live here like a recluse. It's been tearing him apart."
"Oh, God." Sam covered his face with his hands as Frances continued.
" I don't like subterfuges and in particular where they can prove detrimental to someone's well being, no matter how good the intention." She stood up. "Now if you'll excuse me I need to get Josh's meds - I think he's forgotten them."
"I don't think he wants to be disturbed for a little while," Sam warned her. This earned him another reproachful response.
"He needs these meds at regular intervals - it's not up for negotiation."
Frances took a packet of pills from one of the cabinets, extracted one and dropped it into an empty glass. She poured bottled water into another glass, put them on a small tray and without another word walked out of the kitchen. Sam felt as if he'd been put well and truly in his place, but considering that Frances had taken good care of Josh for the best part of a year he wasn't inclined to argue.
Left to his own devices he stood up and paced the kitchen, studying his surroundings. Like the rest of the house the furniture, fixtures and fittings dated from at least thirty years ago. He walked over to the big old-fashioned refrigerator and scrutinized the chart that was held in place by a couple of fridge magnets. Times of the day were printed along the top, with the names of various drugs listed on the vertical. Sam fingered the paper, the technical sounding names meaningless apart from telling him how reliant Josh now was on medical science. Sighing, he turned his head to glance out of the window and saw that a few white flakes had started to fall from the sky. The radio had switched from rock music to a program broadcasting Christmas carols. For the first time that year Sam was aware of what season it was. Up to that point he hadn't taken much notice of the fact that the holidays were imminent. He'd been the same at Thanksgiving, preferring to spend that celebration alone, working on some case papers. He moved over to stare out of the window, allowing himself to enjoy the sound of the traditional songs that he'd always loved so much.
Sam didn't hear the door open. The first he knew that Josh had walked in was when he felt him take hold of his hand. Josh stood behind him, wrapping his other arm around Sam's waist and pulling him towards him so that their bodies touched. The snow was falling more heavily now, the strains of 'Silent Night' drifting from the radio. Sam didn't say a word, fearful of what answer he would get to the question he longed to ask. Instead, he waited, and finally Josh spoke.
"Take me home, Sam."
Sam had booked them onto the early evening flight from JFK. He'd taken a gamble buying a ticket for Josh when he'd purchased his own at Dulles, but it had paid off. Time was tight, so the afternoon was spent in a flurry of packing and telephone calls to the house agent and the various utility companies. At last they were ready to leave and Sam stood to one side as Josh and Frances said their farewells. From the way she hugged Josh and the tears that were shed it was obvious to Sam that real affection had developed between them. He was thankful that in their separation there had been at least one person looking out for Josh. He heard Josh promise to keep in touch before he headed towards Sam's rental car. As they drove off Frances stood on the sidewalk waving until the car disappeared from sight.
They made it to the airport with minutes to spare, sitting back thankfully as they settled down for the journey ahead. As the plane took off, climbed, then banked in the dark December sky Sam told Josh something of what his life had been like over the past months: his initial numbness; his lack of enthusiasm for his career and interests such as sailing; finally his decision to enter the field of human rights law, which at last gave him something useful to focus on. He told Josh about some of the rumors that had been circulating throughout DC since his disappearance. Finally, he brought him up to date on what his erstwhile colleagues were doing since leaving the Bartlet administration: Donna was working for the new - female - Democratic Senator from Massachusetts; Toby had taken a job as a senior consultant in a freedom of information lobbying group; CJ had set up her own public relations company with particular interests in promoting women's rights. As for Leo, he had gone into semi-retirement but his expertise was still sought on a range of policy matters by various government and non-governmental organizations, while President Bartlet was writing and preparing to embark on a series of lecture tours. Dr Bartlet had returned to a full time career in medicine, much to her delight.
After a while Josh grew sleepy, and he napped for the last hour before they landed.
And just like a journey they'd once taken from California to DC, they held hands for the whole flight.
There'd been a light covering of snow when they arrived at Dulles. Sam had left his car in the airport parking lot and Josh felt quite emotional as the lights of DC came into view. He reached over to lay his hand on Sam's - there was no need for words, the gesture alone conveyed his relief and thankfulness at being home once more. Josh watched in silence as the familiar Georgetown surroundings rolled past, but when Sam turned the car into an unfamiliar street he was confused.
"Sam? I thought we'd be going straight home?"
"We are home," said Sam as he drove through a gate towards an old building that had been refurbished into a block of up market apartments. In front of them was the entrance to an underground car park, where Sam pulled into a numbered space next to the elevator.
"You've given up our old apartment?" When Sam had relocated back to DC Josh had decided to sell his townhouse and move in with Sam. Although they'd talked about putting the apartment in both their names, they'd decided to put it on hold until the Bartlet administration came to an end and they knew what their plans would be - after all, who knew if they'd still be living in Washington? Subsequent events, of course, had changed all that.
Sam turned off the engine and the headlights. He turned to face Josh.
"Once you'd left I hated that apartment. Everywhere I looked I saw you. I couldn't bear the furniture, the belongings you'd left. So I put all your stuff into storage, sold up and moved here." He sighed. "It still didn't stop me seeing you, or at least imagine I was seeing you."
"Well I'm back now and I'm not going anywhere, so let's see this fabulous new home," smiled Josh, squeezing Sam's hand as he kissed him on the cheek. He suddenly felt very tired, and the thought of lying next to Sam as he fell asleep had been occupying his thoughts since they'd left the airport.
Sam climbed out of the car saying, "Why don't I take you up to the apartment then I'll come down for your luggage?"
"What, you think I can't carry a case?" Josh asked in exasperation.
"Baby, they're heavy. I don't think you should even attempt it." They were now both standing next to the open trunk of the car. Sam picked up one of the cases. "See?"
"Okay," Josh reluctantly agreed.
"Look, why don't you take your backpack then I can manage both cases without having to make another journey," suggested Sam.
"Yeah, just make me feel like more of an old man, why don't you?" Josh grumbled, but he slung the backpack over his shoulder anyway.
"You're not an old man, you just need a little help with some things until you get well." Sam locked the car then picked up the cases from where he'd placed them on the ground. He was damned if he was going to let Josh get into a negative frame of mind. He led the way to the elevator and pressed the call button.
"How convenient, you just happened to pick an apartment with an elevator. So much more convenient than having to use the stairs," remarked Josh wryly.
"Well you can take the stairs if you like, but I sure as hell won't while I'm carrying these cases," Sam said mildly. He made a deliberate decision not to argue the whys and wherefores with Josh, figuring that it would turn into some sort of issue between them. He was afraid he might let slip that he'd chosen an apartment equipped with an elevator should Josh's medical condition demand it, because even in his most desperate moments Sam had hoped Josh would return. His tactic worked as, without another word, Josh followed him into the elevator and in a few minutes they stood inside their new home. Sam dumped the cases in the hallway then gave Josh a whistle stop tour.
"This is the living room ... I've turned this small bedroom into a study, we can both use it ... here's the kitchen ... the guest room - hey, we'll have to have your mom stay as soon as possible ... bathroom in here but we've got our own en suite ... and this ... " Sam pushed the door open and hung back, letting Josh enter, "this is our bedroom."
Josh didn't say anything, just stood there looking around him. Sam had furnished the apartment from scratch, and he'd made a good job of it. The effect was comfortable but uncluttered, the furnishings cherrywood, the room dominated by an inviting king-sized bed. Sam stood behind Josh, laying his hands on his arms and rubbing them lightly. All of a sudden the two men felt a little shy. After the heightened emotions of the day - the whirl of packing, the rush to catch the flight to DC - the quiet atmosphere of the apartment all at once reminded them of how long they'd been apart, living lonely, separate lives.
"I'll go and get the cases," Sam said, taking shelter in the mundane.
When he returned Josh was still standing in exactly the same place. Again, Sam stood behind him, but this time he put his arms around him, clasping his hands in front of his chest.
"Welcome home, baby," he said softly.
Josh didn't reply, but lifted his hand and Sam realized he was surreptitiously wiping his eyes.
"I don't know what to say, Sam, after everything I've done ... the way I've treated you ... "
"Shhh, none of that matters. I understand why you did what you did, but that's all over now. Oh, Josh ... " Sam squeezed his lover a little more tightly, "you're home. You're really home."
"I can hardly believe it - it's all happened so quickly." Josh leaned against Sam, at last allowing himself to give in to the tiredness that had swept over him.
"Well, we can slow down now. I don't need to go back to work for a couple of days, so we can just chill out. Sounds good, hm?"
Josh nodded, and Sam was glad to see there were no more tears.
"What do you want to do now?" asked Sam. "Unpack? Have something to eat?"
"Is it okay if I take a bath?" Josh's voice sounded small, almost hesitant.
"Josh!" Sam laughed, "you don't have to ask. You can do what you like. I've told you - you're home."
He released Josh from his embrace and turned him round so they were face to face. Josh smiled, a sweet smile that made Sam's heart flutter. He placed his palm against Sam's face and kissed him softly on the lips.
"I know. Home for good."
Sam unpacked some of the basics that Josh would need, leaving the rest until tomorrow. Josh's medication and checklists were in his backpack so he put the appropriate pills and a glass of water on the nightstand. He placed his pajamas on the bed then went through to the kitchen to make Josh a hot drink. While he was there he secured the checklist to the fridge with a magnet, just as it had been in the kitchen in Elmira. Paying attention to small details such as this, Sam reasoned that there would be as little disruption to Josh's life as possible.
Returning to the bedroom, Sam saw Josh sitting on the end of the bed. He'd pulled on his pajama bottoms, clutching the jacket and staring at his image in the cheval mirror that stood opposite. This was the first time Sam had seen Josh even partially undressed for eleven months and he felt something tug at him inside. Josh had always been slim, but he'd always been toned and athletic looking. But now his ribs stood out, his arms were thinner and he looked ... smaller, somehow. Sam put the cup he carried onto the nightstand then sat down next to Josh.
"I've made you some hot chocolate, but I've used semi-skimmed milk 'cos it's better for you." Sam had started the way he meant to go on, making sure Josh had a healthy diet. He planted a kiss on Josh's shoulder. "Don't let it go cold. Are you hungry?"
Josh shook his head.
"Put your pajama jacket on, Josh, you'll freeze."
"I look pathetic, don't I?" Josh's head drooped. "Old and sick and too thin."
Sam knew better than to lie. He slipped an arm around Josh while he considered his answer.
"You look more exhausted than anything. How've you been sleeping?"
"Badly, then I'm wiped out all day."
"Yeah, me too," Sam agreed. "But that's because I missed sleeping with you so much."
Josh brightened a little and laid his head on Sam's shoulder.
"I think I'll sleep better now," he said.
"And yeah, you've lost weight," Sam continued, "but I'm going to make sure you eat properly. I know what you're like without me around - I'll bet you've been skipping meals."
"I haven't had much of an appetite recently," Josh muttered.
"Then we'll do something about that - you've probably just gotten out of the habit of eating. However ... " Sam paused and kissed Josh's shoulder again, "you're *not*old, and you're most definitely *not* pathetic."
As Sam progressed from kissing Josh's shoulder to his neck he watched him in the mirror. Josh had closed his eyes and his lips were slightly parted. A low moan escaped from them.
"Mmm, that's nice," said Sam. He wasn't sure how much physical intimacy Josh could take, so he curtailed the activity by giving Josh one final kiss on the cheek. "Come on, put your jacket on and get into bed. I want to get rid of those shadows from under your eyes."
Josh didn't argue, but allowed Sam to take the jacket from him and help him put it on. He watched as Sam drew back the comforter, and let him tuck it around him as he settled into the bed.
"I'll be back in a few minutes. Drink your chocolate," Sam ordered with one last kiss before leaving the room. He went through to his study, logged onto his computer and sent an e-mail.
Thanks for the gift - it's just what I always wanted. I hope I can repay the favor one day.
By the time Sam returned to the bedroom, Josh was fast asleep. Sam turned off the lamp on Josh's side of the bed, noting that he'd drank the hot chocolate. The glass of water was empty, so he assumed that Josh had taken his pills. He made a mental note to take some photocopies of the check list from the master copy that Josh had brought with him. A quick visit to the bathroom, teeth brushed and flossed, Sam undressed as quietly as he could. He stood by the bed, taking a minute to enjoy the sight of Josh lying there, back where he belonged. Then he pulled back the comforter slowly, so as not to disturb Josh and slid in beside him. Sam felt a lump forming in his throat.
Josh lay on his side facing Sam. Sam stared at him, drinking in the way he looked: the way his curls feathered behind his ears and around the nape of his neck; his pale complexion; the mouth that could look so determined but now showed Josh's vulnerability. He stretched out so that he mirrored Josh's position, draping his arm over Josh and resting his hand lightly on the back of his head, as if to protect his lover from harm. He leaned forward and grazed Josh's lips with his own. Josh didn't stir, so deeply did he sleep. Eventually Sam reached over to the lamp on his side of the bed and extinguished it. In the darkness that enveloped them both, Sam listened to Josh breathing. The minutes turned into hours as he realized he was fearful to sleep in case Josh needed him. Sam knew he would have to accept Josh's illness so that he wasn't existing in a state of perpetual fear, but on that first night he kept vigil until at last the rigors of the day won out.
Sam hadn't realized he'd actually fallen asleep until he was roused by Josh stirring next to him. Immediately Sam was wide awake, and he watched as Josh opened his eyes, his face registering first confusion, then surprise. But best of all was the smile of pure happiness that crossed his face as he comprehended where he was. He stretched out his hand tentatively, touching Sam's face as if he was afraid it would break the spell.
"Sam, you came and got me," he said wonderingly.
"Yes, yes, I did Josh," Sam confirmed. He took Josh's hand and kissed his fingertips. He slid his other hand down to slip it under Josh's pajama jacket. Sam experienced a thrill inside at the warmth of Josh's skin as he stroked his back.
"Hold me, Sam. Please?" Josh lifted himself slightly to allow Sam to put his other arm underneath the side he lay on. Their bodies pressed together even more closely as Sam lifted his leg over and around Josh's. They lay there, enjoying the quiet intimacy of it all.
"This bed is just the right size now," Sam said.
"Mm-hmm," came Josh's voice, muffled by the fact that he'd moved down the bed and pressed his face against Sam's chest.
"It's comfortable, isn't it?" Sam was once again wide awake.
"I even considered buying a single bed, but ... I dunno ... something stopped me. I'm glad I didn't." Sam laughed softly at the absurdity of it all now. "I don't know how many mattresses I tried ... I wouldn't have bothered, but it was CJ - she insisted I had to have something for my posture. Something about it being just as important to have a good position lying down. Man, you should have seen the guy's face in the shop when she said *that* ..."
"Sam." Josh lifted his head up. "Will you shut the fuck up? This is the first good night's sleep I've had in I don't know how long and you want to tell me about a shopping expedition?"
He laid his head back down again, and promptly fell asleep, leaving Sam thinking that no matter what, Josh would always be Josh. And he wouldn't have it any other way.
Sam let Josh sleep as long as he could, then woke him to give him his meds. They ate breakfast in bed, read the papers then lay there talking and snuggling and kissing. It was mid-morning before they rose, so while Josh finished his unpacking Sam caught up with his e-mails and work messages before Josh shut himself in the study to make some phone calls. First he spoke to his cardiologist at GW and arranged an appointment to see him after the Christmas holiday. The next, more difficult call, was to his mother. It was an emotional conversation and when Josh finally emerged he went through to the kitchen where Sam was preparing dinner. Sam turned to see a shattered looking Josh standing in the doorway. Without a word Sam crossed the room and gathered Josh into his arms while he listened to him describe how Jane Lyman had been both shocked and relieved to hear from him. There'd been tears on both sides as Josh had broken the news about his prognosis.
Sam and Josh spent the rest of the day alternately talking and just being quiet in one another's company. Finally Sam broached the subject of Josh contacting their friends to let them know he was back in DC, but he was adamant. For the time being he wanted only Sam. The old fear of being an object of pity emerged once again.
"But *I* don't pity you," argued Sam. "Why would they?"
"You're different. You're Sam," replied Josh.
So for the time being, that was that. Sam dropped the subject - partly because he was scared of Josh becoming agitated - and decided to leave it until after the holiday. Not that they were celebrating the holiday. Despite the fact that Josh had never objected to Sam decorating their apartment and playing Christmas carols, this year felt different somehow. Sam decided that they had enough to do coming to terms with their situation without adding the rituals of what could be an emotionally charged time of year.
They spent the rest of that evening watching TV and went to bed early.
And Sam lay awake for hours listening to Josh breathing until he once again succumbed to his own weariness.
The next day was Sam's final day's leave until he returned to work for the days prior to Christmas Day. He worried about leaving Josh alone, but was reassured when Josh told him that he hadn't employed Frances full time and that for much of the time he had actually lived alone in his home in Elmira.
By now Sam and Josh were feeling more relaxed and settled. Sam brought Josh's belongings out of storage and they spent the time organizing his books, pictures and papers. It was an enjoyable day spent in reminiscing and reflecting. They ate an early dinner, listened to some music and went to bed.
That night Sam listened to Josh breathing, realized he no longer felt as fearful, and thankfully allowed sleep to claim him.
He woke to the sound of Josh's voice.
"Sam ... Sam ... I want you Sam ... I need you ... "
Sam snapped on the bedside lamp.
"I'm here Josh, I'm right next to you."
It was only then that he saw Josh was still asleep, his head moving from side to side on the pillow.
"Josh, Josh baby, wake up. You're having a bad dream," he said softly, not wanting to awaken Josh too abruptly.
Eventually Josh's eyes opened and he sat up, finally taking in his surroundings and the fact that Sam was there next to him, his arm wrapped around his shoulder.
"Oh God, oh God," repeated Josh, putting a hand over his eyes. He groped around to find Sam's hand and gripped it tightly.
"You're okay, I'm here, there's nothing to be scared of. Come on, lie down and tell me all about it." Sam coaxed Josh to lie back so that he lay against Sam's chest. He kissed the top of his head. "Do you *want* to talk about it?"
Josh nodded, swallowed hard.
"When we were apart I'd get this recurring dream," he began, "where I was in this dark place. I couldn't see clearly, there were just shadows. But I'd have this feeling that you were there, somewhere beyond it. The feeling would get stronger and stronger, but I couldn't see you and even though it was a dream I knew it was all my fault. Eventually I'd wake up calling out for you."
Josh turned towards Sam and wrapped his arms around him.
"I'm sorry I disturbed you," he said.
Sam groaned at the apology. "No, Josh, don't. If you *ever* need me, day or night, you've just got to say the word."
Josh drew in a long, shuddering breath. "I'd lie there in the dark just ... *yearning* for you, Sam. It hurt, it hurt so much."
"Why didn't you get in touch, Josh?" To Sam it was the obvious question. "Like I say, I'd have come, any time, day or night."
"After all I'd said? What if you'd found someone else? You'd expect me to come crawling back, put you on some sort of guilt trip?"
"You're a stubborn bastard, Josh Lyman," remarked Sam. But there was no malice in the words, just a strange sort of admiration.
"Stupid more like."
"Nah, never that." Sam kissed Josh on the forehead. "Feeling better? Has the dream all gone?"
"Mm-hmm." Josh sounded calmer.
"I'll chase the shadows away, baby - I'm here now," reassured Sam.
Josh sighed contentedly, feeling the safest he had in many a long while. The two men kissed slowly, then drew apart. Their eyes locked as they stared at one another appreciatively, as if they were making up for lost time.
"You know what would happen to me?" asked Sam suddenly. "I'd wake up, stretch out my hand expecting to touch you and there'd be ... nothing. Every day it happened. *Every day*, Josh."
Sam's voice trailed off as, totally unexpectedly, he began to cry. He hadn't realized that just remembering this would affect him so deeply. He heard Josh's voice, comforting, soothing, but this only made him sob harder.
"Let it go, darling, let it go," Josh said. He rubbed Sam's back, dropping delicate kisses on his face. "Shh, it's okay, it's okay, I'm not going anywhere."
Josh hated to see Sam so distraught, but at the same time he liked the feeling that it was now his turn to console and reassure his partner. After a little while he spoke again, broaching the subject he'd backed away from ever since Sam had turned up on his doorstep.
"You must have been so angry with me," said Josh.
"Yeah, if I'm honest I was, but more sad and confused," Sam said, sniffling a little and wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. "Then after a while I had to resign myself to it, but just when I thought I was starting to function again something would happen that would set me right back where I started. Like one day I was standing in line at the bank and someone's cell phone rang ... it played Hey Jude, just like yours. And I really, really thought you were there standing behind me, so I swung round and there was this woman ... a total stranger ... "
Sam broke off, pressing his hand against his mouth until he was able to speak again. "Every little thing like that I'd be in pieces. It would take me a whole day to recover."
Josh was horrified. He clung to Sam even tighter.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he repeated. "I don't know how you even found it in yourself to come after me ... how you can still love me."
Sam drew back from Josh's embrace, even managing to summon up a small, sad smile.
"Because no matter how bad I felt it couldn't have been half as bad as how you were feeling. When I think of you, all alone, in that horrible little house with just a stranger to take care of you ... don't forget, I had all our friends to support me. If it hadn't been for them I don't think I'd have gotten through it."
As he spoke, Sam was wishing above all else that Josh would contact the people who'd been his friends for more than eight years. But Josh continued to refuse, maintaining that he wasn't yet ready to face anyone but Sam.
Josh traced a finger tip down Sam's cheek.
"I want to make it up to you, Sam. I don't know how, but I will."
"Well I'll tell you how." Sam took Josh's hand and kissed the finger that Josh had rested against his face. "Just love me, Josh. Stay with me and love me. That's all."
The simplicity of the sentiment overwhelmed Josh. When he'd arrived back in DC he'd been physically and mentally exhausted. The long months of solitude had exacerbated his already serious health problem, and for those first few days back home with Sam he'd been content to sleep, rest and recharge his emotional batteries. The physical contact between the two men had been limited to kisses, hugs, caresses and nothing more. Indeed, they hadn't even discussed the advisability of anything more demanding. But now, as Josh listened to Sam's words he ran his fingers through the soft black hair, traced a path across the taut muscles of Sam's back, and felt himself becoming hard. He kissed Sam open-mouthed, his tongue eagerly exploring and probing. Josh slipped his hand inside Sam's boxers, his palm cupping one perfectly formed cheek. Sam groaned, grinding himself against Josh as he sought out some satisfaction for his own long denied arousal. He felt as if he were losing himself in the sensation, until something, some warning bell, sounded somewhere in his brain.
"Josh ... should we ... can you do this? Oh, God, oh yes, that's nice, that's so fucking nice," as Josh's hand moved over the crack in his butt, down between his legs to caress that sensitive place behind his genitals. "Maybe we shouldn't ... "
"I don't know ... Sam, you're so beautiful ... it's been so long ... shit, I'm ... I'm ..." Josh's voice trailed off as his body quivered. Sam felt Josh suddenly tense against him as he came in a short, sharp series of spasms.
Before Sam could do or say anything, Josh jumped away and out of the bed, hurled himself into the bathroom, shutting and locking the door behind him. Almost as quickly Sam was across the room, rattling the door handle. He could hear Josh breathing hard.
"Josh, open the door. Open the goddamn door!" he yelled frantically as he leaned against it.
There was the sound of the lid closing on the laundry basket, then running water, until at last the lock clicked and Josh stood there minus his pajamas. He pushed past Sam as he made for the chest of drawers, where he found an old tee shirt.
"Josh, whatever you do, I don't *ever* want you to lock yourself in a room," Sam said as he walked over to him. "What if you'd ... I don't know ... fainted or something?"
Josh pulled the tee shirt over his head, standing there looking so miserable that Sam couldn't stay mad for long.
"Josh, what's happened that's so terrible? It happens to every man at some time or another."
"I'm just so embarrassed." Josh sat down heavily on the bed, his head hanging down. "There was me thinking we were going to have hot sex and I shoot my load after a few seconds like some teenager making out for the first time."
He lay down and pulled a pillow over his face. Sam climbed into bed next to him, and the two men lay on their backs, side by side, not touching.
"I assumed it happened because I'm so irresistible," Sam said, turning his head to look towards Josh. "Ow!"
Josh had whipped the pillow off his face and hurled it at Sam.
"I mean, I know you were pleased to see me, but man, that was so *fast*. It must have been some sort of world record," Sam continued.
"It's not funny, Sam!" Josh protested.
"Well at least we know your heart's managing to pump your blood to the places that really matter." Sam waited, hoping his strategy of using humor wouldn't backfire on him.
Josh didn't make any retort, but his lips twitched, and then he started to laugh, the first proper laugh Sam had heard for a long, long time. Sam joined in, and for the next few minutes they were helpless. The tears ran down their faces, until eventually they'd exhausted themselves and they managed to catch their breath.
Josh stretched out his arm. Sam caught his hand, stretching out his own so that they rested, palm to palm, fingers to fingers. Not for the first time he admired Josh's slender hand, but now the skin seemed to be stretched over the bones as a reminder of their owner's mortality. Their fingers interlaced, Sam pulling Josh's hand over to lie against his chest.
"Babe, I hate to make an issue of it, but ... " he began.
"I know," came the rejoinder. "Don't worry, I'll be sensible. I'll need to ask Roberts what I can and can't do because the subject was never up for discussion with my doctor in Syracuse. But ... "
Sam's insides flipped over at the way Josh looked at him in that half suggestive, half affectionate way he had.
"What?" he managed to ask.
"If he says sex is off limits I may want to take a risk." Josh turned over so that he lay on his stomach, resting on his elbows. "Even if it's just the once."
Sam's stomach flipped once more, but this time it was with apprehension at the thought of participating in anything that may be harmful to Josh.
The bluntness of the response surprised Josh.
"What do you mean 'no'?"
"I don't think I could do that," Sam ventured. "If anything happened ... I'd feel responsible."
"But if it was my decision? If *I* wanted it? Please, Sam, if you love me as much as you say ... "
"As much as I *do*," corrected Sam.
They both fell silent, until finally Sam shook his head.
"You know I can't refuse you," he said quietly. "So if that's what you want ... okay."
Josh grazed his lips over Sam's knuckles, his eyes closed tightly.
"I wish you'd see Donna and CJ and Toby. They were so upset and ... *hurt* when you left. I didn't tell them anything. I wouldn't have blamed them if they'd abandoned me, but they didn't. They stopped me making a fool of myself in various bars, they listened, they talked. They kept me sane."
Sam watched as Josh changed his position. He still lay on his front, but he lay his head down on his hands which were flat against the pillow, his face turned towards Sam.
"After I've seen Dr. Roberts, Sam. I do want to see them, and I do want to thank them for taking care of my guy, but for the next few days I just want it to be me and you."
Sam slid his hand over to rest on Josh's lower back.
"Donna and CJ will want to know how I'm spending the holidays," he said.
Josh reached over to brush a strand of hair from Sam's forehead. "Please, sweetheart, can't you make an excuse?"
Sam could resist anything but a pleading look from Josh.
"Okay," he sighed. "I'll tell them I'm going to visit my brother."
Josh closed his eyes for a second. "Thank you."
"Tired?" asked Sam.
"No more bad dreams?"
"No more bad dreams. And Sam?"
"When you stretch your arm out in the morning I'll be here."
It was six o'clock the following evening. Sam had just returned from work, and after greeting Josh as if they'd been parted for another eleven months, they sat while he told Josh about his day. The most noteworthy occurrence was a phone call from CJ, wondering why Sam had been out of town, closely followed by an offer for him to spend Christmas Day at her apartment. He managed to give her a convincing story about some fictitious case that had taken him out of DC, and deflected her invitation with the excuse about visiting his brother. Pleading a heavy workload that prevented any pre-holiday socializing, he promised to call her after the holiday. He hated the deception, but rationalized that it was all for the sake of the greater good of keeping Josh happy and content.
Just as Sam was asking Josh what he would like for dinner, the intercom connected to the front door of the apartment block buzzed. Sighing at the interruption, Sam picked up the handset.
"So you *are* home - so much for all those urgent cases needing your attention." The unmistakable voice of CJ sounded in his ear.
"CJ!" Sam looked over at Josh, whose face was a picture of horrified surprise. He jumped up from the couch and walked over to Sam.
"We figured you'd be acting like a recluse, so we've brought dinner," CJ continued.
"We? Who's we?" Sam looked at Josh and shrugged his shoulders exaggeratedly.
"Toby and Donna, you numskull. Now are you going to let us in 'cos it's freezing out here."
"Can you hang on ... I'm ... er ... just on the phone to my managing partner."
Sam put the intercom receiver down.
"What do you want to do?" he asked.
Josh looked like one very scared rabbit staring into some extremely bright headlights. Before he could get his brain working sufficiently to find an answer there was a thump at the window. Sam pulled back the drapes to see some snow clinging to the glass and Toby preparing to throw another snowball. Donna raised some brown paper bags that she carried and CJ pointed to the beers she held. Sam closed the drapes as Toby let fly with the second snowball.
"They've got Chinese food," he said feebly.
At last Josh managed to make a coherent sentence.
"Let them in."
"You sure?" Sam asked anxiously.
"They've brought dinner, haven't they?" He rubbed his hands together nervously, then smiled. "It's now or never, right?"
The buzzer sounded again.
"Sorry, CJ. Come on up."
A minute later there was a knock on the door. Sam looked at Josh. They both took a deep breath as Sam went to let their guests in. Josh listened to the voices as they floated in from the hallway, the sound making him feel more emotional than he could have imagined.
"About time!" CJ.
"Hope you've got some bourbon - it's the least you can do after making us wait when it's minus ten out there." Toby.
"Sam - you're looking good - those few days out of town have worked wonders." Donna.
The living room door opened and in they walked.
Then stopped dead at the sight of Josh standing there grinning shyly.
CJ was the first one to speak.
"Josh?" It was a question, as if she was asking for proof that she was really seeing what her eyes were telling her. "Josh? My God, Josh!"
She was across the room and enveloping him in a hug almost before the words left her mouth.
"Where the hell have you been? Why did you just run off like that? Are you back for good?" The questions came tumbling out giving Josh no time to answer.
"It's great to see you CJ," was all Josh could manage. He was near to tears, but managed to hold them at bay.
"I ... I don't know what ... God, Josh." She held him tightly, uncharacteristically lost for words, then drew back, holding him at arms length. "You've lost weight."
"You look fantastic," Josh observed. He looked over her shoulder towards Toby and Donna.
Toby stared at him for a beat. "I'd better take this into the kitchen to keep warm. Looks like someone's got a lot of explaining to do before we get to eat."
He took the bags from Donna, turned abruptly on his heel and left the room.
"Donna." Josh spoke the name softly.
Donna appeared as if she were rooted to the spot. She'd gone chalk white as if the blood had been leached out of her, her pale blue eyes fixed. The last time Sam had seen that look on her face was at Rosslyn when Toby broke the news that Josh was critically injured. CJ stepped to one side as if deferring to the woman who'd been much more than a mere assistant. At last, without a word, Donna walked over to Josh, contemplated him for a couple of seconds, then drew back her arm and struck his cheek with the flat of her hand.
"Donna, don't ... " said Sam, his first thought being to protect Josh. He moved forward, but saw that save for a slight step backward Josh hadn't flinched. Instead he put out an arm and pulled Donna towards him as she started to weep uncontrollably.
"I'm sorry, Donna," he whispered as she buried her head on his shoulder. He looked at CJ and Sam who hovered uncertainly. "Give us a few minutes, guys?"
Sam took CJ's arm and herded her to the kitchen where Toby sat at the table. The bottle standing on the counter indicated he'd found the bourbon and he was busy glowering into the bottom of the glass he nursed. Without a word Sam took a couple of glasses out of the cupboard, poured a measure for CJ, handed it to her and began pouring his own.
"This better be good," Toby growled. "Josh disappears for a year, leaves Sam a gibbering wreck and us to help pick up the pieces, and then he just turns up as if nothing's happened. Yeah, it better be good."
"Donna just slapped him," CJ said.
"Good for her. Sometimes actions speak louder than words."
Sam stood at the counter, his back to them, drinking the liquor and feeling it burn its way down to his stomach.
"She shouldn't have done that," he said without preamble.
"She's upset, Sam," explained CJ. "Apart from you she took it harder than any of us. Why shouldn't she show it? He's a big boy, he can take it."
Even though it was through no fault of their own that they were ignorant of the true facts, Sam felt hurt and angry on Josh's behalf.
"She shouldn't have hit him, she could have hurt him." Still Sam didn't explain, unsure whether Josh would want him to disclose the truth in his absence.
"What? A little slap from Donna? She's hardly a heavyweight boxer." CJ laughed slightly at the absurdity. "How's that going to hurt him?"
"Because he's dying, for Christ's sake!" Sam slammed his glass down , watching the amber liquid splash onto the counter. He could feel the stunned silence from the other two people in the room as if it were a physical thing. He took a piece of kitchen paper from the dispenser and absent mindedly mopped up the spilt bourbon. Eventually he turned round to face his companions.
Toby continued to stare into his glass. CJ was standing with a stunned look of disbelief on her face, but the movement from Sam seemed to make her react. She sat down heavily, took a gulp of bourbon and found her voice.
"Dying? What do you mean - dying?"
"It's his heart. He's got something called cardiomyopathy, and his only chance is a heart transplant." He stopped while he summoned up the courage to tell them the worst of it. "Without that he's only got a year to live."
The words fell from Sam's mouth, the stark truth of them falling like icicles on that snowy, wintry night.
"I don't know what to say," said Toby, "except I'm sorry. I'm sorry for my reaction without knowing the facts, I'm sorry about ... everything."
"I know," Sam replied. He walked over and put his hand on Toby's shoulder.
CJ slid her chair back, the noise of it screeching on the tiled floor. She put her arms round Sam and cried quietly.
"It's awful, Sam, I can't believe it."
"I know, me too." Sam suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of relief at sharing the truth about Josh. He clung to CJ, hanging onto her for support. "Oh God, CJ, I get him back at last but if he doesn't get a heart I'll lose him again ... my clever, funny, magnificent Josh."
"I'm just glad you decided to tell us - now we can all help. There's got to be something we can do ... get a second opinion ... talk to someone who's got influence on the transplant register ... "
"I'll start making some calls tomorrow," Toby joined in.
Listening to them, Sam felt a sudden sensation of deja vu. It was like they were all senior staff again, exploring the options, coming up with ways to fix a complicated situation. Except Sam knew this situation was simple: Josh needed a new heart, but no amount of calling in favors was going to magically produce the result they all wanted. But above everything else Sam knew Josh wouldn't want his personal contacts to give him any advantage over other people in greater need than himself.
"I really appreciate it guys, but can we wait and see what Josh wants before we do anything?"
CJ wiped her eyes.
"But we're all here to support you both, and if there's anything we can do - *anything* - just ask."
"I know," said Sam, "thanks."
They sat back down and once the initial shock had subsided, CJ and Toby had countless questions to fill in the huge gaps in their knowledge. Sam decided to let Josh explain about the background to his disappearance, so confined his answers to the details of how he'd come to find Josh and bring him back to DC. Eventually the door opened and Donna walked into the room. Sam stood up and opened his arms to enclose her as she apologized for her earlier reaction.
"It's okay, it's okay," he said, his earlier resentment forgotten. The two friends hugged, with CJ standing alongside rubbing Donna's arm consolingly.
"We'll get through this - somehow," Sam said. "We've got to be strong for Josh. I'm doing everything I can to keep him positive and happy."
Sam suddenly had the feeling that they were being watched. He lifted his head to see Josh standing in the doorway, grinning sardonically.
"If this is the part where you guys tell me you're planning on taking me to Disneyland, then I really *will* know my number's up."
After that intervention that was so typically Josh, the evening took on something of a party atmosphere. Not your average party of course - there were still some tears, some sadness - but as the assembled company began to learn of the story behind Josh's absence it was amazing how they fell into their old, easy relationship of banter and friendly argument. By the time his friends took their leave, Josh was thankful he'd been forced into facing them. Seeing the way they intended to support himself and Sam, Josh was reminded of the value of friendship.
And once again the feeling of coming home intensified.
Sam walked through the streets filled with commuters carrying out their last minute shopping or simply hurrying home to spend Christmas Eve with their family and friends. Sam imagined people attending midnight carol services or parents coaxing unwilling children to bed prior to stealthily playing Santa Claus and placing gifts in place while they slept. Slithering through the snow which was rapidly attaining a sheen of ice on its surface, Sam was thankful he'd managed to make his excuses and leave before the rowdy office party got into full swing. He'd given gifts to his secretary and support staff, who between themselves noted how much happier Mr Seaborn was looking these days. They hoped it was more than just the festive season working its magic. Dodging a paralegal brandishing a sprig of mistletoe, he took his leave, looking forward to hurrying home to Josh. They had no seasonal plans, but Sam wondered if after dinner they could at least watch something festive on TV. He would open a bottle of wine, and maybe Josh could have half a glass.
"Hi, baby, it's me," he called as he shut the front door behind him. He dropped his briefcase on the floor, then hung up his coat before making his way to the living room.
"Chestnuts roasting by an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping at your nose."
The voice of Nat King Cole sounded as Sam opened the door.
In the corner was a Christmas tree - a real one - decorated with baubles, ribbons and twinkling lights. At the top a star glowed.
Garlands of holly and ivy festooned the room.
A mobile featuring Santa Claus, reindeer and snowmen hung from the ceiling.
The Christmas cards that Sam had allowed to pile up in the study were fixed to the walls, artistically displayed.
Fragrant candles were placed strategically around the room.
Sam gasped as Josh slipped from his place where he'd hidden behind the door. He kissed Sam gently on the cheek.
Sam put his arm around Josh's waist, pulling him close.
"It's wonderful, I love it. I love *you*!" Sam felt like a child again as he looked around the room. He went over to the tree and began examining the baubles. "But how on earth did you manage all this?"
Josh blushed slightly, delighted at Sam's reaction. "Donna helped. We went shopping yesterday, and today she got an intern from her office to bring the tree. You should have seen him maneuvering it into the elevator!"
"I'll bet he didn't realize that was in his job description," remarked Sam, admiring the snow globe that he found on the window sill. It contained a miniature White House, National Cathedral and Washington Monument.
"You should have seen his face when Donna introduced us. We had quite a conversation about my glory years," Josh said.
"And which years would those be?" teased Sam. He grabbed Josh, spinning him around gently and giving him a noisy kiss. "Thanks, baby. This means so much. As long as you didn't tire yourself out too much shopping."
"With Donna in full Florence Nightingale mode? What do you think?" Josh asked. "You go change - I'll just check on dinner."
When Sam returned Josh handed him a glass of wine while he had allowed himself half a glass. They clinked glasses.
"Merry Christmas, Sam," said Josh in deference to Sam.
"Happy holiday, Josh," said Sam in deference to Josh.
It was a perfect moment. A little while later they ate the dinner that Donna had helped Josh prepare, then snuggled up on the couch to watch White Christmas followed by It's a Wonderful Life. They touched and caressed one another, their kisses warm and loving as they curled up, their bodies accommodating each other perfectly.
"Sam?" Josh's voice was soft.
"Make love to me."
Sam looked into Josh's deep brown eyes. He'd never loved him more than at that moment, but he'd never been more mindful of Josh's health, his very life even. But as he studied Josh's face he saw that he looked happy and rested, stronger somehow, than when Sam had found him in chilly New York state. It was as if the Christmas magic created by Josh had cast an even more potent spell. Sam stood up and stretched out his hand.
Without a word they walked hand in hand to the bedroom.
Sam and Josh stood, face to face, body to body, slowly undressing each other. It was leisurely and dreamlike, their clothes falling in a heap on the floor. They stood contemplating one another, reveling in the joy of anticipation, until Sam made the first move.
A soft kiss to Josh's lips, a gesture of delicate passion; a smothered cry and Josh's hands slowly slid down Sam's sides where they rested on his hips, his thumbs stroking with the tiniest of movements.
A quiet gasp of pleasure from Sam as he experienced the delicious sensation of his growing erection.
Sam's kisses moved lower, landing with practiced precision on the most sensitive places of Josh's neck, his throat, until they progressed in a loving route way to the scar that bisected Josh's chest. Lower and lower went Sam until he knelt before Josh. He placed his hands on the back of Josh's legs, who shifted position slightly to allow Sam's fingers to caress the inside of his thighs.
He paused briefly before touching his lips to the soft springiness of Josh's pubic hair.
"My love, my love, my only love," Sam whispered, then heard a moan as his tongue made tender contact with Josh's cock.
Sam licked and explored, bringing Josh to the edge of his desire.
"I've missed you Sam, I've missed you, sweetheart." Josh was crying and shaking; he pitched forward slightly and clutched at Sam's hair. With exquisite timing, Sam relinquished his possession of Josh's shaft, leaving his lover ready and willing for whatever he had in store for him. He stood up, grasping Josh by the waist and lifting him off his feet, depositing him gently on the bed. He straddled Josh, who pulled Sam down, wrapping his legs around his body. They moved together, finding the rhythm that always came so naturally, their cocks grinding hard and fast. For long, luxurious minutes they moved in perfect harmony, their kisses becoming harder and more searching, as if they couldn't get enough of the other's taste, feel, his sheer essence.
"Inside me, Sam ... I want you inside me, please, oh God, please ... "
And Sam did as he was asked. Gently, carefully at first, mindful of how long it had been, until he felt Josh relax and take him in. And everything was all right, everything was wonderful as the two men rocked and moved and heard the music of their mutual climax. When at last they rested, Sam held Josh close, his hand resting over Josh's heart.
"It's still beating, Sam," Josh murmured.
Sam rubbed his cheek against Josh's.
"You've given me so much tonight, Josh. I've never been happier."
"The only way I can match that is to say ... I love you."
"Goes without saying." Sam took Josh's hand, placing a loving, lingering kiss on his palm.
Josh curled himself up against Sam, yawning contentedly.
"Sleep, sweetheart, I don't want you getting over tired," Sam whispered.
"Mmm, it's a nice tired." But his voice trailed off and his eyes drooped.
Earlier that evening Sam had thought there was magic in the air, but he'd put it down to the newly festive atmosphere in the home he once again shared with Josh. But as he watched his lover sleep, as he luxuriated in the afterglow of their lovemaking, he really believed there was enchantment in the air.
The idyllic holiday season was over all too quickly. Christmas Day had been followed by a visit to Josh's cardiologist, who assessed Josh's health status as currently stable with the proviso that he remained rested and took good care of himself. He advised a good diet, gentle exercise and so long as Josh monitored himself carefully this didn't preclude sex. Sam accompanied him to the appointment, and quickly reassured Dr Roberts that he would ensure Josh followed this advice to the letter. Seeing the hope that had dawned on their faces, however, Josh's doctor had no option but to temper this news with realism: that the longer-term prognosis remained unchanged. So despite the fact that Josh felt as if he'd been given a new lease of life, he knew that this could prove to be short lived. Nevertheless, as they left the hospital the two men felt encouraged, and at CJ's party to welcome in the New Year they began to look forward to 2007 with a renewed optimism.
In mid-January Josh's mother paid a visit. Sam put in long hours in his office and the courtroom, giving him the opportunity to both immerse himself in a couple of challenging new cases and to tactfully merge into the background while Jane Lyman made the most of her time with her son. Small in stature that belied her inner steel, Mrs Lyman astonished Sam with the strength and grace with which she dealt with the illness of her son, her closest surviving relative. But there were moments when he'd catch her gazing at Josh when she knew he wasn't looking, and Sam felt for her when he saw the sadness in her face. It reminded him that he wasn't the only person whose world would grow dark and empty should their worst nightmare come true. However, despite the poignant aspects of the visit, it was a happy time, and Jane made her way back to Florida content that Josh was relatively well, buoyed up by the hope that one day a donor heart would become available.
The long winter months passed quietly for Sam and Josh. Sam would go to work while Josh had found himself approached by a couple of polling organizations to provide expert input on an ad hoc basis. As a consequence, he found that he was able to work a few hours a week at home reviewing polling strategies and providing advice and guidance from his wealth of experience. At last he felt useful again, and was relieved that he was able to make a small financial contribution to the household. Other than that, he would read, watch TV and when the weather permitted take gentle strolls around the neighborhood.
Evenings and weekends were best. Sometimes they would entertain with quiet dinner parties or pizza and beer in front of the sports coverage on TV. Trips to the cinema, even art galleries, were regular occurrences. But what Sam and Josh loved best were the times they were alone. Quiet times, when Sam was working and Josh reading; times when they'd find themselves both look up at the same time and catch one another's eye. There was no need to verbalize their feelings; there would just be an affectionate smile before they turned their attention back to whatever occupied them.
And so the cold winds and grey skies of January and February gradually metamorphosed into calmer, warmer weather. Sam and Josh's life had settled into a similar, steadier rhythm and sometimes they marveled at how they'd made the transition from the hectic lifestyle of their White House years to this more leisurely pace. Admittedly Sam's job was demanding, but all in all they were blissfully happy. Even the fact that Josh had to take things more slowly than a year ago only made them appreciate all the more the time they spent together.
In late spring they took the holiday in Maryland that Sam had talked about that day in Elmira. The weather was sunny, the soft air stirred by warm breezes. The two lovers walked through woods filled with newly budding trees, strolled hand in hand on deserted beaches and lay in each other's arms listening to the sound of the ocean from their beachside apartment. And as spring turned into summer they managed to convince themselves that Josh's condition had reached a kind of plateau, that if they continued with this gentler lifestyle the worse case scenario wouldn't happen. They'd even stopped jumping every time the phone rang, when previously they'd hoped every call was GW's transplant coordinator. Despite his cardiologist's reservations, Josh still managed to work for a few hours each week, and in Sam's free time there were drives out to the Virginia countryside and picnics in a shady area of Rock Creek Park. But as the temperature rose and the humidity increased Josh became more fatigued. He insisted it wasn't a cause for concern, but Dr Roberts frowned slightly at the results of his monthly ECG and increased Josh's visits to fortnightly.
May turned into June and June into July. Josh grew a little more tired, a little more tense as he waited for news of a donor heart. Sam grew a little more anxious, a little more vigilant of Josh. But they managed to keep their hopes alive, keeping their darker fears to themselves as if naming them would break the fragile normality they'd managed to create.
Until the day in early August when a security guard slipped a note into Sam's hand as he sat in court watching counsel for the defense cross-examine a witness appearing for his client. With a whispered "Excuse me" to his second chair Sam hurried out to the lobby, where he saw his secretary Tracy pacing impatiently. His first thought was that she'd come to deliver some new evidence that had come to light. Her first words dispelled any such notion.
"Sam, it's Josh. He's at the hospital."
Sam felt hope flare up.
"They've found a heart? My God, they've found a heart?" he repeated.
Tracy put her hand on Sam's arm. It was the worst news she'd ever had to deliver to anyone in her life. "No. I'm sorry, but he's in the emergency room.
He collapsed ... Sam, that's all I know. I didn't want to leave a message ... Sam?"
Sam put his hand up to his forehead, trying to make sense of what he'd just heard. He was in the middle of a sexual harassment case and all he wanted to do was run from the building to find Josh.
"Sam?" He was suddenly aware of Tracy's voice. "Sam - do you want me to drive you to the hospital? Your car's still at the office."
Sam remembered that he'd driven to the court in Clare's car. Clare Morgan was the junior counsel who'd taken second chair in his current case. The logistics of it all seemed too confusing when all he wanted to do was be at Josh's side.
"Yes , please," he replied, "but I need to let Clare know ... "
As if on cue, the door from the courtroom opened. Amongst the people spilling out, Sam saw Clare and his client. Feeling horribly torn between his professional and personal responsibilities, he managed to pull them to one side.
"Ms Hodges," he said, addressing his client. "As you know, Clare is handling this afternoon's proceedings. Another matter has arisen that I need to attend to, so I won't be around this afternoon. Clare will brief me this evening. Is that okay?"
His client nodded. "I have every confidence in Clare. Will you be here tomorrow?"
Sam took a deep breath. He had no idea what was happening with Josh, but he had no option but to reassure his client. "Yes. Yes, I'll be here to cross-examine your employer. Clare - can I have a minute?"
Sam steered Clare away so that they were out of his client's earshot.
"Clare, Josh is in the hospital," he started.
"They've found a heart?" she interrupted. Sam's domestic situation was known to his colleagues; many of them had met Josh and consequently had concerns for his health.
"No, he's in the ER," Sam explained. "I don't know all the details but it sounds serious. You'll be okay with this? I know we'd agreed that you'd handle the witnesses this afternoon, but you'll be okay if I'm not there?"
"I'll be fine, Sam. Go ... go to Josh. Give him my best."
Sam looked at Clare. He saw the conflicting emotions on her face: concern for Josh, but at the same time an eagerness that she was being given the opportunity to prove herself. He understood. He'd have felt exactly the same way when he was fresh out of law school.
Clare leaned forward and kissed his cheek. "Go."
Without wasting another second, Sam left the courthouse.
Josh lay in bed, an IV line in one arm, heart monitor attached to his chest, a monitor clipped to a finger to measure his sats. A nasal canula fed him oxygen. His face showed the despondency he felt at finding himself in hospital, yet he still managed to smile when Sam pulled aside the curtain to step into the cubicle. Crossing the floor with rapid strides, Sam stood at the head of the bed and leaned down to kiss Josh.
"What happened, babe? What's the doctor saying?"
He made an effort not to sound over anxious. Seeing Josh conscious and seemingly stable had gone some way to lessening the panic he'd felt on the drive over. Sam pulled a chair over. As he sat down he grabbed hold of Josh's hand, realizing with a little sickening lurch inside that his lips were slightly tinged with blue. That couldn't be a good sign.
"I went out for a walk," explained Josh. "I just needed to get out for a few minutes. I'd only walked a block when my chest felt so tight ... I couldn't get my breath. Sam, I had to stop and lean against a wall to stop myself falling over ... "
He stopped and took a breath.
"Take it slowly," warned Sam. "I'm not going anywhere."
Josh nodded and went on. "Old Mr Tyler came along walking his dog. He phoned for an ambulance."
"Thank God. I'll have to go and thank him tonight, take him a bottle of that Irish whiskey he likes." Sam rubbed Josh's hand. "So what have they said?"
"They've taken an ECG, enough blood to equip a blood bank and Roberts has done a lot of that frowning he's so good at. Other than that ... nothing."
"How do you feel now?" Sam asked.
"Tired, but my chest's not tight any more and as soon as the paramedics got me on oxygen I felt better." He smiled ruefully at Sam. "That's not good, is it?"
"Let's just wait and hear what Roberts tells you before we start jumping to any conclusions, yeah?" Sam smiled in what he hoped was an encouraging way, and they lapsed into silence.
"Sorry Tracy dragged you out of court," Josh said suddenly. "If I'd rang her myself I would have told her not to tell you until they'd adjourned for the day, but they must have panicked her."
"Don't worry about it. Everyone sends their best, although I think Clare was struggling not to punch the air when I asked her to fly solo this afternoon."
Sam was glad to see that made Josh laugh slightly, but he quieted when Dr Roberts walked in.
"Hi Sam," he said as he stood next to the bed. He opened a file and began scrutinizing Josh's notes. "Okay, here's the situation, Josh. The ECG shows there's been a further weakening of your heart, which isn't entirely unexpected."
No, but it's still a shock, thought Sam as he listened to the cardiologist while keeping one eye on Josh's reaction. On the face of it, Josh wasn't giving anything away, but he squeezed Sam's hand a little harder.
"And that means ... ?" he asked.
"What it means is that you'll find any physical activities severely curtailed. I wouldn't recommend you taking any more walks unaccompanied. You're going to get a lot more fatigued and breathless. In fact, I'm surprised you haven't been feeling the onset of this sooner." Dr Roberts looked at Josh searchingly.
Josh shifted around a little, a surefire sign to Sam that he'd not been entirely truthful.
"Josh? Is there something you haven't been telling me?" demanded Sam.
"Okay, okay, maybe I've been feeling more tired and ... well, a couple of days ago I blacked out for a couple of seconds," Josh admitted reluctantly.
"For Christ's sake, Josh ... " Sam couldn't believe what he was hearing. "You could have hurt yourself, and how do you expect the medical staff here to help you if you don't tell them the full story?"
"I'm sorry ... I'm sorry," Josh whispered.
"Well, we know the full picture now," interjected Dr Roberts, "so at least we can start doing something about it. I'm adjusting your medication, so I'd like you to stay here overnight so we can make sure we have everything stabilized."
"Stay overnight? I don't want to, I ... " Josh started to say.
"Josh," said Sam warningly. "I don't think you're in any position to argue about this."
Josh subsided into silence while his doctor continued.
"I'm suggesting that you keep a supply of oxygen in your home." He raised a placatory hand when he saw Josh open his mouth to make yet another protest. "I'm not saying you need to use it all the time, just as and when. But I have to be straight with you: there will be times when you'll be glad to use it. I won't patronize either of you. It's now extremely urgent that you have a heart transplant should an organ become available."
He stopped there to allow the two men to absorb what they'd just heard.
"Well, thanks for being so honest," said Josh, "we appreciate it, don't we Sam?"
"I'd appreciate a little more honesty from you, Josh. You should have told me things were getting this bad." Sam's admonishment was quiet and controlled, and because of that, all the more effective. "Will you tell him not to be so stubborn, doctor?"
"Sam's right, Josh. You *know* this isn't anything to be taken lightly."
"Well in that case will you tell this guy," Josh lifted up Sam's hand, "not to spend all his time worrying."
Dr Roberts stood up. Sam noticed he didn't endorse Josh's request; it was then that he knew the cardiologist understood exactly how much Sam worried, and that it was justified.
"The nurse will be along soon to admit you," was all he said as he took his leave.
A few minutes later Josh was moved to the cardio-vascular unit. Sam went to the hospital shop for a toothbrush, toothpaste and shaving gear then spent the next few hours sitting with Josh while various nurses and technicians came in and out to monitor his condition. As the early evening approached, Sam could see Josh starting to flag somewhat, a fact that didn't escape the notice of one of the nurses.
"I think it's time you left now," she said to Sam. "Josh needs to rest if he wants to be discharged tomorrow."
As Sam stood up and leaned over to kiss him goodbye, Josh put his arms around him as tightly as he could.
"This shouldn't be happening," he said, and by the way his voice broke Sam could tell he was becoming distressed.
"I know you hate hospitals, Josh, but just let them help you, then you'll be home all the quicker." Sam tried to sound as reassuring as he could. With a monumental effort of will he stopped himself from breaking down.
"It's not so much the hospital or the feeling scared by what's happening, it's having to spend a night apart from you."
Sam hitched one hip onto the edge of the bed to allow him to pull Josh close.
"Shhh, honey. The calmer you are, the more likely they'll be to let me take you home tomorrow. Do it for me, baby ... I hate us being apart too, you know."
Josh sniffed, grabbed a tissue from the nightstand and blew his nose.
"Okay." He sounded so forlorn it cut Sam to the quick.
"That's my boy," said Sam, tilting Josh's face up towards him. He kissed him slowly, lovingly. "You get a good night's sleep, do what the nurses tell you and I'll be here as soon as I can to pick you up. Do I have a deal?"
Josh managed a watery smile. "Deal."
A half a dozen kisses later, Sam walked out of Josh's room. He smiled a goodnight at the nurses. He traded pleasantries with the check out guy at the store. He called in at Mr Tyler's with a bottle of Irish whiskey and biscuits for his dog. He rang CJ and Toby and Donna to tell them about this latest development. He spoke to Clare for an update on that afternoon's session in court. He ate a sandwich, drank a cup of tea, brushed and flossed his teeth before falling into bed. He stretched out his arm but Josh wasn't there.
It was then - and only then - that he broke down and cried.
Sam spent the next morning in court, and could have kissed the judge when he adjourned the case at lunchtime to reconvene the next day. After a hurried discussion with Clare and their client, he made his way back to the hospital. 'Please let him come home, please let him come home.' The words went round and round in his head as he dashed up the stairs to Josh's ward, eschewing the long wait for the elevator in his haste.
Josh was sitting on his bed, fully clothed, grinning widely when he saw Sam.
"What kept you?" he said, standing up and flinging his arms around Sam. "Mmm, it's good to see you ... love you heaps."
They stood there, cheek to cheek.
"They're letting you come home?" asked Sam, although the look and sound of Josh had already told him the news was good. The transformation from the sad and anxious man to one who was happy and relaxed was marked.
"I have my medication... " Josh turned away from Sam and held up a plastic bag filled with various boxes and bottles, "and we have to take that too."
He nodded his head towards the portable oxygen stand and bottle that stood in the corner.
"Right." Despite the fact that this equipment brought home the reality of the situation, Sam couldn't help but smile cheerfully at the fact that Josh was leaving the hospital. "Let's go."
As soon as Josh entered the apartment he flopped down on the couch, closed his eyes and sighed contentedly. Sam went into the kitchen and made coffee. When he returned Josh patted the cushion next to him.
"We need to talk," he said.
And how they talked: the practicalities of managing Josh's health issues; how they felt about his prognosis as a result of the events of the day before; what the future held. At the end of it all they'd reached a new level of honesty, no longer holding back from disclosing their true thoughts and fears. Josh dissuaded Sam from cutting his workload to spend more time at home, but did allow him to contact an agency and arrange for a health care worker to come in for a few hours each day. It was clear their life together had entered a new phase.
Over the next couple of weeks Josh finally accepted and used the oxygen with good grace. He even admitted that it was comforting to have someone around during the day in case he got into difficulties. Sam could see the physical changes that were taking place. The improvements Josh had shown after returning to DC went into a sharp reversal. But mentally he was as strong as ever, hopeful that a transplant was still possible, but realistically aware of the alternative.
Returning home from work at the end of a warm and sunny day, Sam heard voices as he let himself into the apartment.
"Hey, Toby," he called, seeing him sitting in the chair opposite the couch where Josh sat stretched out along its length. He bent down to kiss Josh on the top of his head. "You all right, babe?"
"I'm great. Toby's got this report that needed the benefit of my superior analytical skills." He held up a bound volume that bore Toby's name as the author of the document.
Toby leaned over and snatched it out of his hand. "I needed to make sure the language wouldn't go over the heads of the common people. Josh was the ideal person to test that out. Anyway, gotta dash."
He stood up, placing his hand on Josh's shoulder as he made to exit the room.
"Thanks for the input, Josh. See you soon."
Sam walked Toby to his car. He wanted to talk to him out of Josh's earshot.
"How do you think he seems?" he asked.
Toby opened the car door, leaning on it as he answered.
"Josh is Josh. He's joking, trying to make light of things ... " he paused.
"But?" prompted Sam.
"I don't think it's a 'but', so much as a 'however'. "
"You're the pedant to end all pedants, you know that?" said Sam.
Toby ignored the jibe. "I get the impression he's hoping for the best and preparing for the worst."
Toby shifted his gaze from Sam and scrutinized his car key.
"Yeah, you're right," Sam agreed quietly. "He's got a bag packed ready in case ... no, for *when* he gets the call from the hospital. But he's also seen his attorney and he's had a Do Not Resuscitate order put on his medical notes if ... if he ... "
Toby put his hand on Sam's arm, an awkward yet human gesture. "Yeah. God, Sam, there's so much I'd like to be able to do but it's this ... helplessness, this feeling so fucking *useless* that's so hard to take."
Sam gave him a bleak smile. "It's good of you to visit him like this, talk about your work. It makes him feel useful."
"It's not occupational therapy, Sam," replied Toby somewhat sharply. "I really did want his input. You know as well as I do that he can spot someone patronizing him from five hundred paces."
"I know. Still ... thanks. Look, I'd better go back. He'll guess we're talking about him."
"Anything I can do, just give me a call," Toby said through the open car window, then he was gone.
"Come and tell me about your day," said Josh as Sam came back into the apartment.
Sam knelt down next to the couch.
"Oh, nothing much. I just won that sexual harassment case," he said off-handedly.
"You did? Wow, Sam, that's great! Do you know how brilliant you are?"
As Sam looked at Josh he reflected on how much he loved that smile of his. His whole face lit up, and for a few seconds Sam forgot about the nasal canula, and the pale skin, and the fact that he was resting against a pile of pillows. All Sam could see were a pair of expressive brown eyes, a set of sensational dimples and those unruly auburn curls that looked so damned attractive now Josh's hair had grown a little too long.
"I love you," Sam said, ignoring Josh's reaction to his own success.
"Not as much as I love you," Josh said.
"Do you want to fight over this, 'cos I'm still hot from my closing address this afternoon," Sam shot back.
This made them both laugh, and they were still laughing even when Sam leaned over and kissed Josh.
"Josh, I think it's time," Sam said when they eventually broke the kiss.
"Time for what?" asked Josh.
"Time I took a leave of absence from work." Sam waited for the reaction, but Josh was silent.
Sam took hold of his hand. "I want to be here when they call from the hospital. I don't want to be in the middle of some case. I want to go with you and wait there until you've had the surgery."
Josh covered Sam's hand with his other, free hand.
"And if the call doesn't come, I want us to spend as much time as we've got together without me having to spend half of it at work while some stranger takes care of you."
Josh reached up to pull the canula from his nose, placed his palm against Sam's cheek, gently stroking his face with his thumb.
"Josh ... " said Sam, reaching for the plastic that was helping Josh to breath.
"No, Sam, I can't do this properly wearing that thing." He leaned forward and kissed Sam so deeply and with such feeling that he - Sam - was left weak with the sheer emotion of the moment.
Josh drew back and nodded.
"Yes, Sam, it's time."
The next day Sam met with his managing partner and his outstanding cases were reallocated. Several months before he had reached an agreement to take a leave of absence when his personal situation demanded, so he was able to conduct a handover to his various colleagues by the end of the week. He dismissed the agency worker and dedicated himself to looking after Josh.
August gave way to September. The days grew shorter, the nights began to take on a chill. Sam and Josh spent their days peacefully, enjoying each other's company and that of their friends when they came to call. Even President Bartlet (as they still referred to him) and Dr Bartlet visited, making a special trip from New Hampshire. The significance, although unspoken, was obvious.
At night Josh would lie in bed, although in order to aid his breathing he actually half-sat against the biggest pillows Sam was able to find in the store. Physical intimacy now consisted of Josh lying in Sam's arms while they exchanged sweet, gentle kisses, or sometimes they would just hold hands and talk.
As the fall colors blazed and the year began to wane, Sam knew Josh was starting to slip away from him.
The bare, black branches of the trees were etched against the thick whiteness of the snow laden sky. The stillness of the afternoon was broken as a flock of birds burst out from woodland, wheeling and turning as they headed south. The sound made Sam's head jerk up sharply as he stood alone at the graveside. He contemplated his surroundings, removing his leather glove to wipe the last of the tears from his face.
"Come on, Sam, it's time to go." CJ's voice sounded uncharacteristically subdued as she linked her arm through his.
"I still can't believe it," he said. "As ill as he was I still can't believe he's gone."
He allowed CJ to turn him towards the path that led to the area where the fleet of vehicles waited to take the mourners away from the cemetery.
"Sam, I know it's a cliche but he would hate to think of you like this. It's hard, but we've all got to come to terms with it." She didn't have much faith in her words. When they left her mouth they felt emptier than some of the spin she used to put out to mislead the White House press corps.
As they neared the cars they could see Leo and Toby deep in conversation. Leo looked as if he'd aged ten years, and Toby was scowling even more than usual. The driver of one of the cars jumped out as Sam and CJ approached and held the door open to allow his passengers to seat themselves in the back of the Lincoln Continental.
"You get in, Sam - you look freezing cold. I'll go and get Toby." CJ walked away and Sam thankfully sat in the car.
"I thought you weren't coming back."
Sam smiled and turned his head at the sound of the familiar voice. Josh was smiling too, and it struck Sam that it was strange to feel so sad and yet so happy at the same time.
"I just wanted a moment alone," Sam explained.
"Yeah, me too," agreed Josh.
Their driver had remained standing outside, so Sam took the opportunity to slip his hand into Josh's, enjoying the sensation of warmth and comfort.
"Do you feel okay, babe? Not too tired?" he asked. Josh's heart transplant - it still seemed like a miracle - had taken place in October. Sam had been astonished by the speed with which his health had improved, but Josh still had to take things carefully until fully recovered. He'd attended the church service and the actual burial, but had returned to the warmth of the car while Sam had lingered outside.
"Health wise - I'm fine, otherwise ... " he paused, and the smile had gone. "My first trip away from DC since the transplant and I'm attending the President's funeral ... I think I'm still in shock."
In fact, they were *all* in shock. In November the President had left for a lecture tour of Europe, and it seemed he'd never been in better shape. But two weeks later in London his MS had flared up viciously and he'd been flown home for treatment. A subsequent chest infection had developed into pneumonia. He fell into a coma from which he never regained consciousness.
Sam and Josh sat quietly, both lost in their reflections of the life they'd heard celebrated in the quiet country church. But at the same time they couldn't help their thoughts turning to another life - a young life of twenty-one years - that had been lost in a car crash in DC. One family's loss had bestowed a new lease of life on Josh.
Sam leaned over to Josh and kissed his cheek.
"I think the President would be happy that we're so happy at his funeral," he said.
Josh moved closer to Sam and laid his head on his shoulder. When CJ and Toby climbed into the car, they drove in silence to the Bartlet farmhouse.
Jed Bartlet had left specific instructions for his funeral service. He didn't want a great state occasion with the attendant pomp and circumstance. Instead, there would be a service of thanksgiving to take place at the National Cathedral in the New Year. But the real occasion to mark his passing was the requiem mass and burial that had just taken place in New Hampshire, followed by a gathering of relatives and friends at the Bartlet home. For the next few hours the people who had known and loved the former President gathered to share anecdotes, memories and experiences. What began as a sad event soon developed into an exchange of affectionate reminiscences.
As the afternoon faded into the December dusk, the farmhouse glowed in the warm light of the antique lamps that were scattered throughout. The atmosphere was relaxed, almost convivial, and Sam remarked on it as he sat talking with Abbey.
"It's exactly what Jed wanted. He couldn't bear the idea of some grand state funeral attended by the great and the good - and God, how he hated that phrase!" She took a sip of wine. "What was important was the affection and respect he got from his staff. He was so proud of them all, but you and Josh - you were like the sons he never had."
Sam was touched. "It was an honor and a privilege to serve at his pleasure. He gave me the greatest opportunity of my life."
"You grabbed it with both hands. Jed always said he owed you all an enormous debt. And to see you and Josh now, so happy ... thank God he died knowing Josh's transplant was such a success."
Sam looked over to where Josh sat across the room. He had Elizabeth and Ellie Bartlet on either side of him on the couch, while Zoey sat on a cushion on the floor. All afternoon they'd been tending to his every need. What was it about a handsome man who needed a little extra care and attention that could turn even these most ardent of feminists into his slaves? Then he smiled to himself as he remembered Josh had exactly the same effect on him.
"What's so funny, Sam?" Abbey asked.
"I'm just watching Josh with his adoring harem," he replied.
"He does look well, though," Dr Bartlet said approvingly. "The team at GW did a great job."
"Not to mention the donor's family." He and Abbey sat quietly, then Sam looked at his watch. "I think I'll get Josh back to the hotel. We've got an early flight tomorrow and I want to make sure he gets to bed early."
Abbey patted his arm. "Of course. I wish you could stay for a few more days."
"Me too, but I've got my refugees' hearing the day after tomorrow, and I need to go over my closing speech one last time."
"You're in court on Christmas Eve!" Abbey exclaimed.
Sam shrugged. "Needs must. It's my last chance to get this family a reprieve."
Abbey leaned forward as Sam began to tell her their story.
At the exact same time the conversation was taking place between Dr Bartlet and Sam, Josh looked over towards his lover.
"I should be getting Sam back to the hotel. He's got a tough two days ahead of him," he said.
"Is he back at work?" asked Zoey.
"He went back at the beginning of the month. He's taken this refugee case pro bono," Josh explained. He paused, taking the chance to just sit back and enjoy looking at Sam. "It's a Sudanese family threatened with deportation - a mother, father and two kids. The mother was raped by soldiers and has AIDS. If she returns to the Sudan it's a death sentence, so Sam is pleading that to return to her own country puts her in actual physical danger. If he can stop the deportation he can buy them some time to lodge and appeal so they can get residency here."
"What an awful story." Ellie looked near to tears. "How healthy is the woman now?"
"On the drugs regime here she's doing well, but if she returns to the Sudan ..." Josh shrugged. He'd been living and breathing this case along with Sam for the last month. "The final hearing is on Christmas Eve, would you believe? And Sam has had a hell of a year ... "
"You *both* have!" pointed out Elizabeth, her laugh slightly tinged with irony.
"Yeah, but if it hadn't been for Sam, I doubt I would have survived long enough to get this new heart. " Josh stood up, his eyes narrowed slightly, the painful memories of what he and Sam had been through still close to the surface. "So if you'll excuse me, ladies, I think I'll go and tell my guy it's time to go."
The three women watched as Josh walked over to Sam, who was now standing talking to Abbey and Leo who had just joined them. Josh stood behind Sam, placing his hands on his shoulders and whispering something in his ear. Sam smiled, took his hand and nodded.
President Bartlet's daughters said a collective "Aaah!" and smiled approvingly at one another.
"Sam! Sam, what happened? Did you win?" Josh was at the apartment door as soon as he heard Sam's key in the lock.
Sam handed Josh his briefcase, who immediately let it fall the floor with a crash as he helped Sam off with his coat. Sam dragged himself into the living room, sat down heavily on the couch, laid his head back and closed his eyes. Josh was in an agony of suspense. He flung himself next to Sam and continued to bombard him with questions.
"How come it's taken so long - it's seven o'clock. Are they going to let them stay? Saaam!"
Sam turned his head, opened his eyes.
"We won. We won, Josh. They're going to let them stay." Only then did he smile, a lazy, slow smile of triumph.
Immediately Josh was all over him, hugs, kisses, cries of "I knew you'd do it!"
For the next couple of minutes Sam just sat there, letting Josh's exuberance and the memory of the moment when the judgment was announced sweep over him. He thought of the tears of his clients, how they'd hugged him, the cheers from the public gallery where representatives from the Red Cross and the local refugee council sat. All his hard work had paid off, all the work with his team - which included the now invaluable Clare - and the evenings he'd spent with Josh as he ran his questions and his closing speech past him. The appeal was the next hurdle, but Sam relished the thought of the challenge ahead. He was dimly aware that Josh had finally stopped assailing his face with kisses and was now kneeling in front of him removing his shoes. He looked up at Sam, his face lit up with love and admiration.
"You're unstoppable, you know? I think you can be anything you choose, Sam. You just have to set your mind to it."
"You know what I choose tonight? Just to be here with you, and you so fit and happy. I couldn't ask for anything else." Sam tousled Josh's hair.
"Awww." Josh ducked his head as he pulled Sam's shoes off. "What do you want for dinner? I've got tuna steaks or chicken ... "
"I'm exhausted, Josh. I don't think I could eat much." Sam yawned as if to confirm his words.
"How about some soup? You wanna take a shower first?" Josh jumped up eagerly.
"Yeah - soup would be good. I think I'll just sit here for a while, maybe have an early night after we've eaten."
"Okay. Whatever you want babe." Josh kissed Sam lightly and made for the kitchen.
Sam sat alone, thinking about the previous Christmas Eve when Josh had surprised him with the tree and the decorations. This year they'd done it together, and when it was complete Josh had found Sam standing by the Christmas tree shedding a few quiet tears as he thought of how things could have turned out so differently. Even now the memory of that made his eyes a little moist. Sam didn't know if it was some sort of delayed reaction to everything that had happened, but since Josh's surgery he felt himself becoming emotional at the slightest thing. He blinked away the tears, and just when he thought he'd composed himself Josh walked in.
"Here we go, sweetheart," he said, placing a tray on the coffee table. "I wish I could say it was homemade, but it *is* that organic range that you like."
Oh, no, thought Sam as he felt himself tearing up again.
"Sam? What's wrong?" Josh gave him a probing look as he handed him a spoon.
"Nothing - just ignore me." He wiped the back of his hand over his eyes. "I think it's just reaction from winning the case, and the time of year ... you know how it is."
"Yeah." Josh sat next to him and placed his hand over Sam's. "Yeah ... I know."
So they ate their soup, chatted for a while, then as Sam's eyes began drooping again Josh took him to bed. He undressed Sam slowly and lovingly then held him close.
"My beautiful, clever Sam," he whispered.
They snuggled up together, cocooned in their shared warmth while the soft snow fell outside. Josh entwined Sam with his arms and legs, a sweet entanglement of love. He didn't sleep immediately. For this was the moment Josh had waited for, the moment when he could at last return some of the care and devotion that Sam had given him.
Sam was dreaming that he was walking beneath trees with the leaves tickling him, first on his forehead, then his nose. This was followed by the sensation that someone was leaning over him. But the feeling was pleasurable, particularly when he was finally roused by soft lips teasing and gently sucking at his own mouth. He felt a sudden warmth flood through his groin, and he groaned slightly as he awoke to the pleasant experience of the drowsy awareness of an early morning erection.
He opened his eyes to see Josh's face and a sprig of mistletoe suspended above him.
"Compliments of the season, baby," said Josh huskily, bending his head to continue his exploration of Sam's mouth. He moved across so that he straddled Sam, sliding his hands over Sam's upper body.
Sam felt his hips begin to move involuntarily in a sinuous motion against Josh. They'd began having sex about a month after Josh's surgery. Dr Roberts' words were "As long as you don't strain your incision or get seriously short of breath, have fun." So they'd taken him at his word, enthusiastically making up for lost time.
Josh bent over Sam, sucking and nibbling at his neck. "Have you been a good boy this year, Sam?"
"Mmm, you tell me," Sam replied, inserting his hand between himself and Josh, and noting that Josh's erection matched his own.
"Oh, I think you've been a very, *very* good boy, but now I think you should be very, *very* bad."
Sam put his hand behind Josh's head and kissed him hard. He mashed his lips against Josh's mouth, pummeling and grinding. Josh pushed his pelvis against Sam's, their cocks making contact, hot and needy. Sam wrapped his legs around Josh's waist so that they were locked together. They moved together in a slow, easy dance at first, which gradually grew faster and faster, the tempo matching their breathing.
"Get in me Josh, get in me hard, hard as you can." Sam spoke breathily as his hands moved down Josh's back, caressed the tender area over his kidneys, then clutched at his butt. He lifted his hips, exposing himself to Josh as Josh slid a pillow under him. Sam watched, drinking in the sight of Josh as he waited, heavy with desire, while Josh's lube slick fingers glided smoothly into him.
Then it was all Josh, slowly, gently, then finally thrusting his whole length into Sam. The two men moved rhythmically together, rediscovering the familiarity of their bodies. For this was the first time in over a year that Josh had topped Sam, the first time since the onset of his illness that they'd known he was strong enough to tolerate it. It was physical; it was emotional; it was joyful.
It was perfect.
Afterwards they lay quietly: kissed; rubbed noses; repeated over and over how much they loved each other; laughed quietly. Then Josh went to the bathroom, brought back a washcloth and towel and carefully washed Sam clean. He touched him as if he were the most fragile and precious thing on earth.
"You want some breakfast?" Josh asked.
"Yeah, but let me do it," said Sam, throwing back the covers.
Josh pushed him back against the pillows. "No, it's my turn to look after you. You're exhausted. I've got to get you good and rested to start working on that appeal."
He looked at Sam and raised one suggestive eyebrow.
"And for anything else I might have in mind for you."
Sam didn't argue. He stretched out luxuriously, reflecting on his good fortune while Josh busied himself in the kitchen to return a little while later carrying a tray laden with good things. He climbed into bed, and together they ate scrambled eggs with smoked salmon. There were hot croissant, strawberry jam and marmalade, and fragrant fresh coffee. Once they were replete, Josh put the tray to one side. Getting out of bed, he opened his closet and retrieved an armful of parcels.
"Snap!" said Sam, tumbling out of bed and collecting a similar amount of booty from *his* closet.
Together they deposited their packages on the bed but before opening them Sam left the bedroom. When he came back he was carrying two glasses of champagne.
"You're allowed one today and one on New Year's Eve - I checked," he said, handing Josh one of the crystal flutes. Sam touched his glass to Josh's. "To us, and to everything that the future holds."
"I'll drink to that," smiled Josh, and so they did.
They sat down side by side on the bed and prepared to exchange gifts. But first, Sam stroked the back of his fingers down Josh's face, running his thumb against Josh's lower lip.
"Happy holidays, Josh."
"Merry Christmas, Sam."
Josh smiled his most loving smile and handed Sam the first of his gifts. It was a digital camera, because he knew that Sam hadn't gotten round to upgrading to something more high tech and had regretted it on their trip to Maryland. When Sam unwrapped it he immediately began thinking about their future holiday plans.
"Smile," he said, focusing it on Josh. "There - that's the first one for the album."
Josh looked at the result and groaned at the sight of himself in his robe with his hair all mussed, but Sam thought it was the most beautiful image he had seen in a long time.
"Josh, you're going to need this," said Sam, sliding over a large, gift wrapped box.
Josh ripped off the paper to reveal the latest state of the art laptop. He'd just received an advance from a publisher to write his memoirs as a key strategist to President Bartlet.
"I guess I'd better start work soon," he grinned.
Eventually the bed was strewn with CDs, books, items of clothing, expensive cologne, not to mention wrapping paper and ribbons. Sam crawled over the colorful heap to wrap his arms around Josh.
"I've got one more gift for you," he said as he buried his face in Josh's hair. He reached into the pocket of his robe and placed a gift-wrapped box in Josh's hand.
Josh tore off the paper to reveal a velvet box. The material was faded, indicating its age. He opened the lid, which made a slight squeaking sound.
"Oh my God," he said, lifting out an antique silver pocket watch. "My grandfather had a watch like this ... they took it from him at Birkenau. My dad described it to me ... it would have come to me eventually if ... "
He gave a short, sharp gasp.
"Your mother told me," said Sam, "so I thought you'd like it."
Josh tilted his head on one side, looking at Sam with an almost grave intensity. "You can see into my soul, you know that?"
Sam stroked a stray curl behind Josh's ear. "I thought it was appropriate - we've been given time that we thought we'd never have."
Josh hugged Sam tightly, then leaned over to the nightstand, pulling open the drawer and removing a blue gift bag. He dangled it from his fingers and Sam recognized it as coming from Tiffany's.
"I hope you like it," Josh said.
Inside the bag Sam found a box. He opened it, and pulling apart the leaves of tissue paper he found something wrapped in a square of cotton material. He pulled the cloth carefully aside to reveal a Lalique figurine depicting a medieval knight seated on a horse. Sam lifted the piece out of the box, the facets of the glass catching the wintry sunlight streaming in through the window.
"Josh, it's exquisite."
Josh put his arm around Sam's waist, leaning his body against him.
"When you came to Elmira it was like you came on your white charger to save me. You fought the dragons I faced ... the fear, the pain, the uncertainty. And you're still fighting dragons ... government bureaucracy, prejudice ... you're my knight in shining armor, my darling."
By this time Sam was incapable of speech. The tears were streaming down his face, and all he could do was wrap his arms around Josh and bury his face in his shoulder.
Sam lifted his head to see Josh holding the piece of cotton material that had enfolded the figurine. He used it to wipe away Sam's tears, then placed it in his hand. Sam unfolded it.
It was the handkerchief that he'd used that day in Elmira. But where it had once been a plain white cotton square, it was now embroidered with two entwined hearts and the initials 'J' and 'S' similarly linked. Underneath was a quotation worked in the same delicate needlecraft.
'Two souls with but a single thought,
Two hearts that beat as one.'
Sam took Josh's hand and pressed it hard against his lips. His eyes were squeezed shut as he sat like that for a full half a minute. Finally he looked up.
"I don't have the words, Josh - they couldn't do justice to the way I feel right now. This ... " he held up the handkerchief, "is just so wonderful. You blow me away, babe, I love you so much you just blow me away."
Josh knelt in front of Sam, resting his hands on either side of his face.
"I couldn't think of any other way to tell you how much *I* love *you*. If not for you I wouldn't have survived. I'm here because you kept me alive long enough to get a new heart. When you brought me back here you brought me back to life."
Sam laid his palm flat against Josh's chest, and felt his heart beating strong and steady.
Josh covered Sam's hand with his own. And as the bells rang out from the National Cathedral the two men thought about the parents who'd given their son's heart to Josh so that he could live, love and be loved by Sam.
And that was the best gift of all.
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