Author: Hannah
Story title: Brand New Me
New series: Easement
Rating: Will be NC17 eventually. Very eventually. There's a lot of pre-slash to get through first.
Summary: When Leo suffers a stroke, Josh is promoted to the position of White House Chief of Staff. Then Sam comes back and things get interesting for our guys...
Notes: Firstly, a huge big thank you to Kathi for coming up with the idea for this story in the first place. She posted a suggestion months ago outlining the basic plot for this story, and I just ran with it. She's read the drafts, and seems to like it. I hope others do too. Secondly, another huge big thank you - this time to Carmen for her incredibly detailed beta work.
Notes 2: This story takes place sometime not too long after the end of series four (because I've not seen past that). Basically, Zoey Bartlet's back with her family and no replacement has been found for Hoynes. Ooh, and Sam's in California, having lost his election.
Notes3: The title comes from the phrase "dogs of easement". My 'Forgotten English' calendar (see what happens when a person like me gets hold of a thing like that?!), this was, in the early 1600s, a term used to describe"dogs employed to take up the chase in place of those that are spent."

Brand New Me by Hannah

CHAPTER 1: BRAND NEW ME

"No, no, no. I'm not coming in. I may serve at the pleasure of the President, but if calling me at 2:45 in the morning is his idea of pleasure, then we've got a sadist as a Commander in Chief."

Growling his litany of complaints at the phone on his bedside table, Josh peered bleary-eyed at the clock in the desperate hope that he'd misread the time - that, rather than being quarter to three with the White House doubtlessly calling about some emergency situation or another, it was actually quarter past nine, and Donna was calling to pester him on the subject of his whereabouts.

"What?" he snarled as he snatched up the receiver.

"Who am I speaking with?" The voice on the other end of the phone sounded unfamiliar. Not another temp hitting the wrong button on the switchboard console, Josh silently begged.

"This is Josh Lyman. Who the hell are you?" If his mystery caller wanted politeness, she was more than welcome to call somewhere else.

"I'm calling from George Washington University Hospital". A Leo McGarry's just been brought in and we have your phone number as his emergency contact."

Josh sat bolt upright. "Leo's in the hospital? What's wrong with him? When did he get there?"

"The doctor's with him now, Mr. Lyman, but he appears to have suffered a stroke. Are you his next of kin?"

"I... no."

"Do you have the name and contact number of Mr. McGarry's next of kin?"

Josh's mind was a blank. Who would it be? Mal? She was still living in New York City, though - it would take her hours to get to D.C. at this time of night. Jenny was nearer, but as his ex-wife would she still be considered Leo's next of kin?

"I'll find out and let you know when I get to the hospital. I'm on my way now. Listen..." He paused for a moment, wondering how to best phrase his question. "I don't mean to sound rude, or patronising here, but you know who your patient is, right? I mean, you know what you're dealing with here?"

"Yes, sir." The nurse, or whoever it was, sounded as though she'd just snapped to attention. "Mr. McGarry was accompanied in the ambulance by Special Agent Kingswood. He gave us the relevant information."

"Right. Right, sorry. I just... I'm not really awake here. I'll be there as soon as I can. I'll give you my cellphone number - call me on that if anything changes. Anything, got it?"

Josh rattled off his number and hung up the phone, suddenly trembling. It was happening again. First Joanie, then his father, and now Leo. There was no way this was going to end well.

~~~

Four hours later, Josh was sitting in the waiting room nearest to Leo's room. The trembling that had wracked his body during the cab ride to the hospital had been replaced by an overwhelming sense of numbness.

Toby was pacing around, occasionally pausing to scribble down another sentence for the statement CJ would have to give to the press later that morning. CJ was sitting huddled next to Josh, having only recently arrived after a phone call from Margaret who was at that precise moment away trying to track down some drinkable coffee for the staffers.

"You should have called me sooner," said CJ quietly, her gaze still focused on the print hanging on the wall opposite them.

"There's nothing you could have done."

"I could have been here!" she snapped. "Where on earth did you get the idea I wouldn't want to be with you guys during this? When did I become an afterthought?"

"You're not an afterthought!" Josh snapped back. "And excuse me for thinking more about Leo than about you at this moment. Of course, Leo has a stroke. The first thing I should do is call CJ."

"YES! I'm your first call, Josh. Whenever, whatever. Remember? As the press secretary I needed to know, and as your friend - and Leo's too - I wanted to be here."

CJ's voice broke on the final word, and Josh reached over to hold her hand. "Sorry," he said simply. There was nothing else to say, really.

~~~

"Mr. Lyman, might I have a word?" A tall, bespectacled man in a white coat stood in the doorway, and Josh recognized him as Dr. Marquez, the man who had been treating Leo.

He nodded and, with a nervous glance at his colleagues, stepped out of the waiting room and into the harsh brightness of the corridor.

"How's Leo?" he demanded instantly.

"Mr. Lyman, please understand. While you are his emergency contact, you're not his next of kin and so the information I can give to you about Mr. McGarry's condition is very limited." Obviously sensing Josh's frustration, the doctor hurried to continue. "The patient is now unconscious, having suffered a cerebral hemorrhage - a stroke."

"I know that. How bad is it?"

"I'm afraid I don't have that information at this time."

Josh snorted. "Well how about I go call my boss and get him to ask you? Think you might be able to dredge that information up for the President of the United States of America."

Dr. Marquez stared him calmly in the eyes. "No, sir, I don't think I could. We need to wait for Mr. McGarry to wake up before we can discover the extent of the damage."

"Oh." Josh took a deep breath, trying to calm down. He was beginning to understand why it had been so hard to get the others to talk to him about what they had gone through during those hours after the shooting; about how it had felt not knowing what was happening to him in the operating room, and how helpless Josh now knew his friends must have felt.

"Doctor, forgive me," he said, knowing the importance of maintaining good relations between the hospital and the White House at a time like this. "It's just that CJ Cregg will need to go and brief the press on this very shortly and the more information she has, the easier it's going to be for her."

"It's okay," the doctor smiled. "You're far from the most difficult person I've had to deal with." Well, that would be news to a whole lot of Republicans on the Hill, reflected Josh. Quite a few Democrats too, come to think of it.

"All I can tell you is this," continued Dr. Marquez. "From the tests we've been able to run, it doesn't look good. I suspect when Mr. McGarry wakes up, we're not going to find much to smile about."

Josh bit his lip, willing himself not to cry. "Thank you," he eventually managed to croak out. "I guess I'd better go call the President."

~~~

THE NEXT DAY

It had to have been the worst phone call of his career. Not of his life - that honor would forever be shared between a tearful call from his mother on the night of the first Illinois primary, and an equally tearful call from California the night Sam had lost his election.

Sam.

Josh shook his head. This really wasn't the best time to start filling his mind with thoughts of his ex, and of the disastrous way the two men had managed to bring about the downfall of not just their romantic relationship, but of the friendship that had, until seven months, three days, and thirteen hours ago (but who was counting, really?), managed to withstand their worst arguments and their most painful separations.

For now, Josh had other things he needed to focus on. Things like the security briefing he was flicking through, or at least the abbreviated version available to him due to his clearance, as merely deputy chief of staff, allowing him to see only classified material, rather than anything of a more sensitive nature.

After telling President Bartlet what had happened to Leo, then repeating the information to Abbey in the hopes that she might be able to find some glimmer of hope amongst the bad news, Josh had been privy to a long, tense silence which had been quickly followed by the brusque order to come into work right away.

Upon his arrival, Josh had headed straight to the Oval Office.

"You're going to be the Acting White House Chief of Staff for the next few days," the President told him, without any preamble. "Your regular work can get farmed out. Leo's can't."

"Yes, sir."

"Margaret's got your schedule. You can use her as your assistant while Leo's away. Quite frankly, I don't think Donna's up to the task, and I don't want her dealing with anything of too confidential a nature - you never know when she's going to go running to a reporter."

Josh bit back a defense of his assistant - he had understood Donna's reasoning when she had covered for her boyfriend's outburst to the press, but he was politically savvy enough to know that an attitude like hers, while perfect for dealing with him and his many myriad moods, just wasn't suited to a more senior position. Not yet, anyway. And what's more, he'd need her to catch him up with what had been going on once he was back in his old job and Leo was back at work.

President Bartlet had turned his attention to the file on his desk, but Josh had one more question for him. "Sir, if you don't mind me asking, have you heard any more about Leo's condition."

"Mallory called half an hour ago." Bartlet hadn't raised his eyes, and Josh felt awkward pressing him for details, but he needed to know.

"And...?"

"And there are some problems. That's all you need to know for now. I'll see you at three."

"Three?"

"Josh, for God's sake! I just told you Margaret has your schedule. Go see her. Does this really look like a secretary's office?"

"No, sir."

Josh left. Quickly.

~~~

Given how upset Margaret was over Leo's stroke, it didn't take much for Josh to convince her to juggle his schedule around to give him time to head over to the hospital at lunch time. He arrived just after one o'clock and was met by Mallory. She was crying.

"Mal? What's happened? Is Leo...? Did he...?" Josh couldn't find the words to ask. He didn't want to know, not really. He was so sure what the answer would be. Everyone he loved died. He loved Leo. Ergo...

"No! Josh, no. Nothing like that. It's just... dad's not doing so well right now," said Mallory.

"Can I see him?"

"I'm afraid not." The male voice replying to Josh's question came from behind him, and he whirled around to see Dr. Marquez standing there. "Mr. McGarry's resting now."

"Again? He was unconscious all night. How can he be tired now?"

The doctor raised an eyebrow. "He had a stroke, Josh. A severe one. You don't think that might make someone a little weary?"

Dr. Marquez wandered off down the corridor, leaving Josh staring in disbelief and Mal smiling softly.

"Mal, seriously. What's going on with Leo?"

She opened her mouth to reply, but at that moment, Josh's pager started beeping, and a moment later his cellphone started to vibrate in his jacket pocket.

"I have to get this," he said reluctantly and, with a wave, headed outside to discover that his three o'clock meeting with the President had been brought forward by an hour. Josh glanced at his watch and was dismayed to realize he would need to leave right away. It seemed there was some global conspiracy plotting to keep him from finding out how Leo was doing.

~~~

The early afternoon meeting had been a tense affair. The President, clearly more in the know than Josh regarding Leo's condition, had disputed every point Josh had tried to make, and made a few ludicrously unrealistic suggestions regarding the approach the White House should take regarding the bill due to be voted on in Congress the following week regarding fuel efficiency targets for heavy industry.

Josh had been relieved to escape back to the relative sanctuary offered by Leo's office, although he found his concentration wandering for the rest of the day as his eyes repeatedly flickered over to the door connecting the room to the Oval Office, only too aware of President Bartlet's habit of "popping in" at the most inopportune moments.

His paranoia was finally justified in the middle of the evening, when the President summoned him to discuss the worsening situation in Qumar. For thirty minutes, the two men pored over maps showing those areas of the Middle Eastern country currently experiencing major uprisings against the American troops and many of the more reform-oriented Qumari citizens.

"There has to be something we can do," said Josh frustratedly. "Can't you just send in more troops and get the upper hand?"

The President pulled off his glasses and glared. "No. I can't. Look, Josh, I know we've joked in the past about your lack of experience when it comes to international politics and defense policy, but now's the time to get serious. For the time being, you're Acting Chief of Staff, and that means you're expected to make substantive contributions in conversations like this."

"Yes, sir." Feeling suitably chastened, Josh racked his brains for a solution to their impasse. The President was due in the Situation Room for a meeting with the National Security Council and it appeared he would be going there unprepared.

"Why don't you call Leo?" Josh suggested. "If he's awake, he might be able to suggest something."

"Charlie!"

As the phone call was being made, Josh inwardly rejoiced. At least now he'd hopefully get the chance to find out what was wrong with Leo - maybe even speak to him. He was feeling guilty for not having been able to do more for his friend, but deep down he knew that Leo would understand.

"Mr. President, I have Mr. McGarry on the phone for you, but his doctor has asked that you limit the call to five minutes."

"Thank you, Charlie." President Bartlet hit a button on the telephone and a beeping noise filled the room.

"Not that one then," he muttered as he jabbed at another button. This time, Josh could tell the call had connected.

"Leo, I'm sorry to bother you," began the President, "but we're having a little trouble deciding what my approach should be in the Sit. Room regarding the uprisings in Qumar. Josh wants to send in more troops, I want to restore peace to the country and I have a feeling Fitz is going to want to keep his men alive. Any thoughts?"

"Nugh." Josh nearly burst out laughing at the noise coming from the phone. It sounded almost as though Leo was making some kind of joke, but the look of distress on Bartlet's face made him realise this was no joke.

"Yu gu.. vys... cushn. Nugh ge'm deh."

"I've got to advise what, Leo? Cushn?"

"Cushn. Cushn. Cur'fl. Be cur'fl."

"I don't... I can't..."

It was terrible. Josh didn't know where to look or what to do. Should he suggest his interpretation of Leo's words, or should he remain silent so as not to alert Leo to the fact that there was another person listening in on the conversation? President Bartlet was growing more and more frustrated, though, and Josh realized he would have to step in soon before things could get out of hand. The last thing he needed was for the President to get stressed enough to induce an M.S. attack.

"Sir? I think Leo's advising caution."

"J'sh? 'At yu?"

"Yeah, Leo, it's me. How are you feeling?" He had hoped that by speaking softly, his voice would be undetected by the phone. Clearly not.

"Nuh gud. Tye."

"Tye?" Bartlet had rejoined the conversation.

"I think he's tired, sir."

"Right, sorry again Leo. Sorry."

The President hung up the phone. The tone of his voice had made it only too clear to Josh that his "sorry" was meant to cover more than just the disruption of the phone call. Josh sat awkwardly - he wanted to leave, but didn't want to risk bringing down the considerable wrath of Jed Bartlet upon him if he could at all avoid it. More than that, though, he didn't want to see the tears forming in the President's eyes.

Eventually, the silence was broken.

"You're excused." The President's tone was cold and filled with tension. He sounded just a moment away from the breaking point.

"Sir..."

"I said, you're excused. Just go. I'll find you later - I assume you'll be in your... in Leo's... just get out of here, Josh."

Josh got out of there.

~~~

At midnight, Josh pulled on his coat. He had been awake for twenty-one hours, all of them hectic, upsetting or hectically upsetting. All he wanted now was his bed. Okay, what he really wanted, if he was being honest with himself, was his bed with Sam in it. Their bed. But there was no way that was going to happen - Sam had made that abundantly clear.

The sound of footsteps behind him brought him back to earth, and he realised President Bartlet was speaking to him in a strained tone.

"I need a word with you, Josh. Come to my office for a moment, would you?"

"Yes, sir." Josh followed him and, when he sat, Josh did too, inwardly praying he'd be able to summon the energy to stand up again when the conversation was over.

"You're meeting with a guy from the NSC at seven o'clock tomorrow morning," began the President. "He's got some forms for you to sign."

"Forms?"

"Granting you code word clearance."

There was a heavy silence in the room as the implications of the simple statement began to sink in. Then the President spoke again.

"I want you to be my chief of staff. Permanently."

Josh sat there stunned. It was the job of his dreams, but it was being offered to him in the worst of circumstances.

"Mr. President, I don't know what to say."

"Good." Bartlet's tone was abrupt and his face tense. "I never imagined I'd be having this conversation, so how about you just say yes so we can cut this meeting short and get back to running the country?"

"Yes, sir."

"Leo's not going to get better any time soon, I gather," the President continued, as though he hadn't heard Josh's reply. "I've spoken to his doctors, and to Mal, and Abbey's been down to visit him. It's not looking good, Josh, so I need someone to fill his shoes. We've discussed this kind of situation before - hypothetically, of course - and your name came up as the only person we could imagine managing to take on the challenge."

"Thank you, sir. It's an honour, and I promise I won't make you regret this."

"I know you won't, son. That's why we're offering you the job. Now go home, you look ready to drop and I don't want to have to start worrying about the possiblity of that job being cursed or anything."

Josh rose to leave, but before he could get far, Bartlet's voice called him back.

"Actually, before you leave, though, there's one more thing I guess I should mention."

Josh sat back down and waited to hear what else was heading his way.

"You understand," continued the President, "that I'm telling you this in the strictest confidence."

Still silent, Josh nodded. This didn't sound like it was going to be anything good.

"My MS is progressing."

"Progressing?" Josh had a sick feeling he knew what that meant, but he needed to hear it from the President's lips, and there was no way he'd ever have another chance to ask."

"Into secondary-progressive MS. Basically, it's getting worse."

For the first time since Leo had told him abut the President's illness, Josh could see the upside to not having been told by Bartlet in person - he had no idea how to react. When his father had broken the news of his cancer, Josh's reaction could be emotional and personal, but here in the Oval Office his primary concern had to be professional, no matter how much the man opposite had come to mean to him.

"That means you'll be calling the shots more often than you might have expected. You may have to cover for me at times, and at others I'll expect you to second guess what I might say. You'll need to make sure to remember details and you'll have to take the blame for any we both forget. And you need to do all this without letting anyone catch on to what's happening." Bartlet grinned. "Think you're up to it?"

CHAPTER 2: THAT'S HOW HEARTACHES ARE MADE

A couple of days later, Josh couldn't help but think back to his conversation with President Bartlet, deciding that the answer to his question was a resounding yes. It was so far proving decidedly easy to slip into Leo's shoes once, that is, he'd figured out that Margaret's jokes didn't really need to be laughed at - they rarely even deserved to be - and he stopped having a minor heart attack each time the President burst into Leo's - or rather *his* - office with a new idea that needed to be explored right there and then. Okay, so the workload was beginning to build up, and Josh could see more than a few all-nighters in his near future, but that was to be expected when starting a new job of this magnitude. All in all, though, things seemed to be working out nicely. Or at least they had up to this point.

It figured, really, that things had to come crashing down around his head sooner or later. It was just such a shame it had to be sooner. Josh's promotion meant there was now a vacancy for the position of deputy chief of staff, and both Josh and the President knew how important it was to sort the staffing situation as quickly as possible, in order to minimise the problems for Josh as he settled into his new role.

For that reason, Josh and President Bartlet had decided to meet over lunch to work out a solution.

"What do you think about giving Toby your old job?" asked the President between mouthfuls of a steak sandwich. "After all, Leo brought him onto the campaign because of his strength as a political adviser. I'm not entirely sure how he wound up being Communications Director and while he's done a great job there, I wonder if his strengths perhaps don't lie elsewhere."

Josh thought about it for a moment. "There's no doubt Toby's good at strategy, sir, but if you want him as Deputy Chief of Staff, you're going to need someone out of this world replacing him in Communications to justify your decision to him."

"Indeed. And I know just the guy."

Okay, that look on the President's face? That was a self-satisfied grin that tended to mean bad things were about to happen to innocent chiefs of staff.

"Dare I ask who it is you have in mind, Mr. President?"

"Sam."

Wow. Josh really hadn't seen that one coming. Realizing his mouth was gaping open like a fish, he searched for something to say. "Sam? You mean, Sam Seaborn? Sir, are you sure about that?"

"What's wrong with Sam?" President Bartlet looked startled. "You guys are best friends. Hell, you're the guy who brought him to us in the first place. Why don't you want him back?"

For a sickening moment Josh believed the President was referring to his relationship with Sam. After all, the question was valid for that as well. Why didn't Josh want Sam back?

"I... that's not what I meant, sir. I do want Sam back. I want him very much. It's just..." Josh's voice trailed off. Had he just told the leader of the free world how much he wanted his lover back? Subtly, he pinched the back of his hand. It hurt. So, yes, it would appear he'd said exactly that. And it had been the truth. Sam may have been the first to regret the end of their relationship, but while he had eventually moved on, Josh had found himself floundering - first rushing into some semblance of a relationship with Amy, then by mooning around after Donna. Now, though, he could see things clearly and he knew what he wanted. He wanted Sam. Unfortunately, things were just never that simple for him.

"I think, Mr. President, it's more a case of whether or not Sam's going to want to come back here. After all, he turned down the last job offer you made him. I just don't know if he'll accept this one."

"Communications director? It's the perfect job for him, but if you think it'll help, I'll offer to expand the scope of it to include a fair amount of policy decision-making too. Honestly though, Josh, I don't know if we can do this without him. There's not a man or woman on this planet who writes the way he does, and the passion he brought to his work, particularly in the early days, was a sight to behold. And I think he's the only guy on earth who'd be able to cope with replacing Toby without Toby wanting to butcher him."

Josh laughed. "I guess you're right there, sir."

"So you'll call him?"

"Me? Call Sam? You want me to call Sam? Isn't that something you should be doing?"

Sadly for Josh, the President brushed aside his objections. "Ah, I'll call him to make the formal job offer, but I want you to talk to him first. If anyone can convince him to take the job, it's you."

As the conversation wound up, Josh's mind returned to Sam. He couldn't stop replaying the day their relationship had ended. It wasn't the first time they had split up - that had happened when Sam had left his post as a congressional aide to head off to law school - but it had been more painful than anything Josh had ever experienced.

~~~

EIGHTEEN MONTHS EARLIER...

"Guys?"

Toby's voice broke the silence in the car, drawing the attention of Sam and Josh who were sitting opposite him. When Toby didn't say anything else, they exchanged puzzled looks with each other then glanced back at Toby, who seemed to be focusing his stare towards the seat between them.

Following his gaze, Sam realized with a start that he and Josh were holding hands. His mind had been elsewhere and he briefly wondered if the grip Josh had on his hand was intentional or whether they had both, on some subconscious level, been seeking some degree of physical contact. After exchanging a brief, but tender, smile, the two men looked back up at Toby, not letting go of each other.

"What the hell are you doing?" asked Toby roughly. "The President is on his way to announce that he won't be seeking a second term. We're headed to a room packed full of journalists who are out for the blood of this Administration and you two are acting like I don't know what kind of idiots."

Toby's almost condescending tone caused something inside Josh to snap and he began to rant.

"Well excuse me, but in the last few days I've discovered that Big Tobacco, who are more than a little responsible for my father's death, are probably going to win any case the government ever brings against them; it's apparently time for me to start looking for a new job, four years sooner than I'd hoped to; a close colleague was killed by a drunk driver; and we just buried her a couple of hours ago. So you'll forgive me if, in the privacy of a car with blacked-out windows, I spend a few minutes holding my boyfriend's hand."

Hearing the tension in his partner's voice, Sam stroked Josh's thumb soothingly with his own, and tightened the grip he had on his hand. It had been an emotionally difficult few days for all of them, and Sam felt a brief twinge of guilt that he hadn't realized how deeply Josh had been affected.

"Boyfriend?" asked Toby, incredulously. "You guys are...?" He tailed off, unsure of what to say next.

"Dating? Fucking? In love? Yeah, pretty much," replied Josh, in a hostile tone of voice, clearly unwilling to forgive Toby just yet.

"I didn't... I'm not... I'm sorry. I'm not being judgmental. I'm just surprised," said Toby. "Why did neither of you say anything?"

Josh shrugged and turned to Sam, clearly hoping that he would step into the conversation, but when no response came, Josh continued to speak, his voice gradually becoming calmer as he leaned closer to his partner.

"We didn't want to make it an issue. Leo knows but he's the only one we've discussed it with until now. I guess it might come out, so to speak, soon - the press is bound to try to dig up as much dirt as they can on this Administration. We figured that since the President isn't going to run, we might as well be honest about it if anyone asks us. It can't hurt the Administration any more than the MS scandal will."

Toby nodded. "I can see your reasoning, I guess." He paused. "And congratulations for managing reason, Josh. I never thought you had it in you."

Sam smiled at the familiar teasing and risked a look at his boss. Recently he had felt the two of them becoming closer, and Toby's recent assurance that he trusted Sam's judgment, along with the comparison the older man had made of the two of them to Batman and Robin, had helped Sam to understand that the feeling was mutual. He didn't want this new revelation to spell an end to that.

"We've been talking about this for days, Toby. Ever since I was told the news, in fact. We decided that if the President ran for re-election, we'd break up to avoid hurting his chances. That's why I've been so tense recently. I'm sorry for that." At the apology, Toby met Sam's eyes and nodded his acceptance.

"Now we know where we stand though, which is something," continued Sam. "This situation is going to be a nightmare to live through, but at least we have each other. And although I'd never admit it to the President, I'd rather have Josh than another term in the White House, if that meant four more years of lies and deceptions."

Sam glanced at Josh and the two men shared a gentle smile that spoke volumes about the depth of their feelings for each other.

Toby studied his colleagues through narrowed eyes. "I'll admit this is a surprise. I mean, I knew you were best friends but this?" He smiled sadly. "I would never have guessed. You guys hid it well, and I'm sorry you had to do that. We don't have a lot of time to discuss this right now, but I'm here for you if you need to talk or anything. Okay?" The last word was spoken abruptly, Toby suddenly feeling embarrassed at having been so open with the two men.

Sam and Josh glanced at each other, surprised at the response.

"Thank you, Toby. That means a lot to me," said Sam gratefully.

"Yeah, me too, Toby. Thanks," added Josh, still unable to meet Toby's eyes. He wasn't as close to Toby as Sam was, and he couldn't help feeling slightly embarassed about making such a personal revelation to him.

Their car pulled up outside the State Department building, rain lashing down around it. Inside the car, Josh squeezed Sam's hand once more before releasing it.

"Let's go do a thing," he said as he shrugged his shoulders. Toby nodded and stepped out of the vehicle.

~~~

"Mr. President. Can you tell us now if you'll be seeking a second term?" asked Sandy. Everyone in the room held their breath. The President paused for a moment. That moment stretched longer and longer. Standing next to Josh, Sam began to feel slightly nervous. Surely this was an easy question. Bartlet had already decided not to run. Hadn't he? Doubt started to grow in Sam's mind and with a flash of sickening clarity, he realized that the President was about to give an answer that would spell the end for his relationship with Josh.

"Yeah. And I'm gonna win," replied Bartlet.

As his colleagues looked around in shock, Josh felt his blood turn to ice. Frozen to the spot, he tried to come to terms with what he'd just heard. The President was going to run. That meant...

"Sam," he gasped. The word was almost inaudible to his partner, but the agony it conveyed was clear.

~~


"So we need to talk."

"Yeah." Sam closed the door to the room as Josh walked over to the desk that stood in the middle, and leant against it, half sitting. As their colleagues had headed back to the motorcade that would return to the White House, the two men had crept away and found an apparently unused office.

They looked at each other for a long time, neither wanting to be the one who actually voiced the thoughts that had been running through their minds from the moment when President Bartlet had made his announcement.

"Is there anyway we can do this without saying the words? You know, we could just stay here for a bit longer then I could leave and that would be that," suggested Josh.

"Is there anyway we can do this somewhere else?" replied Sam. "Because before this is over, I'm going to be crying."

"Sam." It was just one word but it nearly broke Sam's heart to hear the sadness in Josh's voice. In an instant he was across the room, his arms around Josh's waist, face buried in Josh's neck. Josh returned the gesture with a sob.

The two men stood there for what felt like hours, unable to tear themselves apart for the last time. Sam felt his cheeks become wet and suddenly Josh wasn't the only one crying.

A knock came at the door and Donna's voice floated through.

"Josh, are you in there?"

Before either man could reply, the door opened and Donna walked in, stopping suddenly at the sight of them in a tight embrace. "What's going on, Josh? What's wrong? The President's going to run again," she asked, bewildered.

"Leave us alone, Donna," Josh replied, pulling Sam closer to him.

"But..."

"Just go, and close the door behind you. I'll see you back at the White House."

After a moment's pause, Donna left the room.

Minutes passed before Josh pulled back and looked deep into Sam's eyes.

"So," he began.

"This is it?" asked Sam, in a trembling voice. "This is really it? We've survived me getting engaged to Lisa, and you getting shot, but we can't survive President Bartlet and the Spanish Inquisition, Part II?"

"You know we can't, Sam," replied Josh softly.

"Yeah, I know," whispered Sam in a hoarse voice. "But that doesn't stop me from wishing otherwise." He pulled back and focused his eyes the man he held in a tender embrace.

"Before this ends, and you have to walk out of my arms for good, I just want to tell you how much I love you. You've been the centre of my world since we met, and nothing's going to change that. You're my lover, my colleague and my best friend. No matter how much the first two things change during the next few months and years, I want you to know that I'll always consider you my best friend.

"The place you hold in my heart is so great that were you to leave it, I couldn't carry on living. Your happiness is the most important thing in my life, Joshua, and I think you should do whatever it takes for you to be happy. Maybe one day we'll find a way to make 'us' work, but until then you have to get on with your life and if that means you find someone else to be with, I'll deal with that."

Josh swallowed past the lump in his throat as he struggled to find a response to the words he had heard. He leant forward and kissed Sam, softly at first then more passionately as their mouths opened and, for the last time, he tasted the man he loved.

The kiss ended and their lips parted, but Sam and Josh remained in each other's arms, their foreheads resting together.

"I love you too, Sam. I love you so much. If I'd known how terrible this would feel, I never would have made the decision to give this up. I'd have fought for us to stay together no matter what. But we promised each other to put the President first, and I could never break a promise I made to you."

Josh drew back slightly and paused before speaking again. When he did, it was clear to Sam that he was weighing his words carefully.

"It's going to be really hard for me to see you every day knowing that I won't be spending the night with you," Josh began. "I think the only way I can do this is if we maybe don't spend so much time with each other at work."

Sam took a step back, wrapping his arms around his stomach. "What do you mean?" he asked.

"Oh, Sam, I don't want to hurt you but I need some distance from you if I'm ever going to move on. I don't want it, but it's what I need to do. I don't mean we should ignore each other, or never grab lunch together. Just, maybe we shouldn't make each other the first person we turn to when we need something. And perhaps we shouldn't always sit next to each other in meetings. That kind of thing."

Sam nodded slowly. He didn't like it, but Josh's reasoning made sense. It would help him to come to terms with the idea that the two of them were no longer a couple.

"So, I guess we're getting separate cars back to the West Wing then?" he asked.

"Oh. Yeah." Josh realized he hadn't thought his plan through very carefully and quickly racked his brains for a solution. "I'll try to find some junior staffers who haven't left yet and catch a ride back with them. You should go find Toby."

Sam nodded again. He briefly wondered if the lump in his throat would ever disappear and allow him to speak again. With one hand on the doorknob, he reached the other out and grasped Josh's hand lightly in his own. He squeezed it gently then let go and stepped out of the room without glancing back.

~~~

PRESENT TIME

Josh shook his head, trying to clear his mind. The memory threatening to overwhelm him was so painful still, and he realised just how much he wanted Sam back. It wasn't a new realisation - too many lonely evenings sitting alone with a beer in one hand and the remote control in the other, had made him understand that something was missing from his life. It hadn't taken much introspection to figure out that that something was really someone, and that that someone was Sam. Their relationship may have been on and off, but in the fifteen-odd years that they had known each other, Josh had never for an instant stopped loving Sam. Maybe it was time for him to tell Sam that.

"Josh? Josh!"

"Mr. President, I'm sorry. I was just thinking."

"Well, if that's what happens when you try, don't make a habit of it, will you?"

"No, sir." Josh grinned, even though he felt somewhat slighted by the President's dig - the implication that he didn't do a whole lot of thinking stung. More and more he had been getting the feeling that the others simply didn't respect him - they appeared to focus a lot more on his failures than on his successes. The trouble was, with his new workload beginning to threaten to overwhelm him, Josh was focusing on his failures too.

Of course, when the others thought of Josh's failures, they tended to conjure up images of badly-worded press conferences and misguided judgments regarding the posting of messages on web sites. When Josh thought of his failures, he thought of Sam. Maybe if Sam came back to work at the White House, he would give Josh another chance at their relationship. More than anything, Josh wanted Sam back in his life - he was tired and lonely and his heart ached every morning when he woke up alone. Sadly, it was more likely that even if Sam did accept the job offer, his return would lead to awkwardness and hostility between the two of them, and that would make Josh's life even harder.

Somehow it was easier to accept he couldn't have Sam when Sam was on the other side of the country. Knowing he was just a few feet down the hallway would be agony. But it would be the right thing for the President, and Josh understood that first and foremost his life was about serving the President.

The President who was giving him a funny look.

"Everything okay there, Josh?"

Josh winced. He was going to have to get a better poker face. But since Bartlet was asking... "Sir, there's just one last thing I wanted to mention. I think we need to prioritise finding a new Vice President, because, and I say this with all due respect, if your MS is, well, the way you told me it is then we need to seriously consider the repercussions of the purely hypothetical situation in which you suffer a serious attack at a time when there's no Vice President to step in while you recover."

The President stood. "I appreciate your honesty, Josh, but I really don't see that being an issue. We'll get around to replacing Hoynes soon enough. For now, though, I have to go explain to my Council of Economic Advisers why they all need to go back to college and relearn the basics of economic theory."

"Yes, sir."

Josh watched him leave, feeling a growing sense of panic. There was no way he could avoid dealing with Sam at some point - if he turned down the job, President Bartlet would doubtlessly expect him to call Sam to change his mind, and if he accepted the job, the two of them would have to see each other every day. How he was supposed to manage that without blurting out how much he still cared for Sam, he had no idea, and on top of that, he now had to worry about the President's health more than ever before.

First, though, he needed to fire then instantly re-employ Toby. That was going to be a fun conversation.

~~~

"I know going from being a director to being a deputy might sound like you're being demoted, but you know that's not the case, right?"

Toby's gaze met Josh's from where he sat behind his desk. "It's not a promotion either, though, is it?"

"Well..." Josh shifted uncomfortably on the couch. Their conversation was going about as well as he'd expected.

"I mean, you're not seriously suggesting I should have been thinking of you as my superior all these years, are you?"

"Toby, there's no promotion to offer you. Either you keep your current job, you take this new job, or you resign. The President's going to ask you to take the new job and I really hope you will. It'll give you more sway over the politics and you've said it yourself - you're not happy with your writing these days. You won't have that worry anymore. And I think you'll approve of the guy we're getting to replace you."

"You think so, do you? Who the hell is he?"

"The only person in the world capable of putting up with your temper."

"You're hiring Andi as the White House communications director?"

Josh stared at Toby in disbelief. "No. And what the hell are you talking about? She didn't put up with your temper - she divorced you."

"Really? I don't remember that happening. Thanks for the reminder, Josh. I'd forgotten what a great guy you are."

"Sam."

That shut Toby up nicely. Now it was his turn to stare in disbelief. "Sam? Sam Seaborn?"

"Yeah." Josh was torn between wanting to grin at the fact that Toby's response to his announcement so closely mirrored his own reaction to President Bartlet announcing that name, and trying to keep his expression neutral so as to deflect any awkward questions Toby might feel like sending his way. He was only too aware of the fact that Toby knew he and Sam had been in a relationship during part of their time in the White House, and from the look he was getting now, he had an idea Toby knew just how badly things had gone since then.

"You... You're telling me *you've* managed to convince Sam to come back to work here?"

Josh flushed. "Not so much me as the President, and we haven't exactly made the call yet but yes, President Bartlet has every intention of convincing Sam to come back here. And I agree with him that it's a good idea."

"Uh huh. Is this because of your thing or in spite of your thing?"

"In spite of," Josh admitted reluctantly. There didn't seem to be any point in trying to play dumb with Toby.

"And you think he'll agree to take the job?"

"Maybe." Josh shrugged. "I don't know. What do you think? You've probably spoken to him more recently than I have."

"Yeah, I would think so."

A statement like that could only mean one thing. "You know then?"

"Know about what?" Toby looked bored with the conversation, but Josh pressed the issue, wanting to clear the air between them before he had to deal with Sam. There was only so much his head could deal with and he needed to know exactly where he stood with Toby before considering where he stood with the most important person in his life.

"You know Sam and I argued."

"He swore at you, then hung up on you. Coming from Sam Seaborn, that's a bit more than an argument."

"Yeah. We haven't spoken since then. Now the President wants me to call him and convince him to say yes to the job offer when he calls him tonight. Any chance you'd call Sam instead?"

Toby's eyes narrowed. "I'm not sure I think it's the best thing for Sam to come back here. And before you ask," he added, holding out a hand as though warding off the question already forming in Josh's throat, "I'm not saying that because I want to keep this job. If the President wants me as his deputy chief of staff, then that's a job I'm happy to do. But do you really think it would be good for you and Sam to work together again?"

Josh sighed wearily. "I don't know, Toby. It's all happened kinda fast, you know? I haven't had a whole lot of time to wrap my head around the idea. But I know this - I miss Sam. If he'd have me back, I'd be with him in a heartbeat. I just don't think that's something he'd want to hear."

"Probably not." The way Toby was shifting in his chair and refusing to Josh's my eye made Josh realize he was probably feeling uncomfortable talking about this. Over the years, the two men had grown closer than Josh would have predicted given the number of run-ins the characterized their early acquaintance, but it appeared there was a line in the sand when it came to how well they would ever get on with each other; and that line was Josh's relationship with Sam. There was no point extending the conversation any longer, Josh figured.

"Well, I'm gonna go," he told Toby as he stood. "You'll accept the job change when the President speaks to you?"

"I will."

"Okay. Good. Now I gotta go call Sam."

Josh headed out, terrified of the conversation he was about to have. He wanted so badly to speak to Sam, but knew how likely it was that Sam would just hang up, as he had done the eight times Josh had tried calling in the days after the lost election. More terrifying than the idea of the phone call, however, was the deep and certain knowledge that President Bartlet would find a way to tempt Sam back. How Josh was supposed to cope with working with a Sam who was still furious with him, he had no idea.

The only solution, therefore, was to take the first step towards rebuilding their friendship. Perhaps then, he would be able to show Sam how much he still cared about him.

~~~

CHAPTER 3: IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE

Josh's head was swimming as he returned to his office. Strange, he thought as he waved at Margaret on his way past, how quickly he had grown used to thinking of it as *his* office. He was self-aware enough to know that sooner or later he'd begin to feel guilty about that, but for the time being his mind was filled with thoughts of Sam. He couldn't for the life of him figure out if he was more scared of Sam staying away or Sam returning.

"The President wants you to call Sam." Margaret's voice interrupted Josh's internal monologue.

Josh looked up, startled to find her standing right in front of his desk. When had she come in?

"I know," he replied. "I'm calling him this evening, before the President does."

"No, the President's already called him. He wanted to get a move on things."

"How did it go?" Josh asked skeptically, already sensing he knew the answer to that one. He was right.

"He asked me to tell you, 'Sam needs convincing within twenty-four hours. Get it done.' So, here's the number. I'd call soon, if I were you. I'll leave you to decide when, though."

"Okay. Thanks, Margaret."

She nodded and left without another word, and for the first time since his promotion, Josh thanked his lucky stars that Donna was no longer his assistant. He missed their banter, and their absolutely-not-serious-on-his-part flirting that had livened many a dull afternoon, but there was no escaping the fact that sometimes Donna wanted to play at the most inappropriate times. This would have been one of them.

Now, however, instead of teasing banter, he was surrounded by a heavy silence in which he could almost hear the phone number in his hand screaming at him to stop being such a coward and pick up the damn phone. Still, he hesitated.

The last phone call between himself and Sam had, after all, gone spectacularly badly. Was it any wonder he didn't want to dial the number?

~~~

SIX MONTHS PREVIOUSLY...

"So when are you coming back?" Josh had been walking through the door of his apartment after a 36-hour battle over the budget, when he heard the phone ringing. He didn't need caller ID to tell him who was on the other end of the line - less than an hour ago, Sam's opponent had been declared the winner of the California 47th District Congressional election.

Sure enough, Sam, sounding exhausted, miserable and more than a little drunk had wanted to talk. Talk, that is, about anything other than the election. Josh had played along for a while but, as he collapsed onto his bed, he decided to move the conversation onto a subject that interested him most - the future. He missed Sam, and very badly wanted him back.

"Coming back?" asked Sam. "To D.C., you mean?"

"Yeah. Well, to the city in general and to work in particular."

Sam sighed. "I'm not sure I am. I don't really know what I want to do now."

"Why not? I mean, you've lost the election, the President wants you back in the White House and I want you back in my bed. What the hell's keeping you over there."

"You arrogant bastard." Sam's tone suddenly turned cold and harsh, chilling Josh to the bone. He had never heard his friend sound so angry, the alcohol-induced slurring vanished from his voice in an instant. Before he could get a word in, Sam spoke again.

"You think you're enough to entice me back to a town that's going to be laughing at me for months, if not years? And what even makes you think I'd want to be back in your bed? I may have wanted it a while ago but let me tell you, I'm over that now."

"So come back for your job at least. We can work on the relationship thing once you're here. President Bartlet wants you as a Senior Adviser. I mean, that's gotta be tempting."

"Becoming a Congressman was tempting, Josh. I hadn't really thought about what I'd do if I lost this election. And I did. Lose. I lost."

Sam sounded devastated, which put Josh in a quandary. Should he go down the route of supportive sympathy or take Sam's mind off it by focusing his mind on his future?

He made a snap decision. "But you knew you were going to lose, Sam. Everyone could see that coming. You must have realised you needed to think about the future."

"Everyone could see it coming? I didn't. I wanted to win. Thought I could, too, for that matter. Five hours ago I was declared a loser, and now you're telling me that's something everyone could see? Well, fuck you, Josh."

"I didn't mean it like that and you know it, Sam. I just meant... I just..."

"You know what? I don't feel much like talking to you now, Josh. And I don't think I'll want to anytime soon, either. In fact, make that 'ever again'. I called you because I'm feeling more miserable than I've ever felt in my life and because I thought you'd understand. And what do I get? I get told I should have seen this coming and I should just do whatever it is you want me to do with my life because you're Josh Lyman and Josh Lyman always knows best."

"Sam..."

"Shut up and fuck off. We're through, you and me. If you can't even manage one tiny little expression of sympathy when I'm feeling like this, then I don't want you in my life."

Before Josh had time to fully process the finality of that statement, he became aware that Sam's voice had been replaced with a dial tone.

~~~

PRESENT TIME

And now he had another dial tone in his ear. Josh fought down the wave of nausea threatening to overwhelm him and took a deep breath before punching in the number with fingers that were trembling more than he was really comfortable admitting to.

The phone was picked up after two and a half rings.

"Josh?"

"I... Uh... Yeah. Hey, Sam. How'd you know?"

"That it was you?"

"Yeah. This number doesn't show up on caller ID." Excellent. The first time they'd spoken in six months, and Josh was discussing the intricacies of telecommunications. It was a real mystery how he managed to spend so much of his life being single.

"Well, who else was going to be calling me? It figured the President would try to use you to change my mind." Sam paused briefly. "Congratulations on the promotion, by the way. How's Leo?"

"Ahkay. Thanks?" Was that a genuine congratulations or a way to subtly criticise Josh for taking advantage of someone else's misfortune? Josh decided to let that one go. "Leo's doing okay. He's still in the hospital for now, but since it's more his language skills than his motor skills that were affected, they're letting him go home soon. Mal's going to stay with him for a while."

"Yeah, I know. She called me. I just wanted to be sure you knew what was going on."

Okay, so Sam's earlier comment was clearly criticism. Before Josh could decide how to respond, Sam spoke again.

"Before you bother saying anything, I might as well tell you. I've decided I'm going to take the job. Don't worry, you can go tell the President I'll come back."

"You will?"

Josh could almost hear the shrug. "I don't have anything else to do. Why shouldn't I come back? You don't think I can do the job, do you?"

"Sam, no! It's not that. Nothing like that. It's just, well, last time we spoke you made it pretty clear you didn't want to come back here."

"The last time we spoke I told you I never wanted to speak to you again, yet here we are, talking. So I guess things can change. Anyway, this is a better job, and the President of the United States asked me to work for him. Again. It'd be kinda rude to turn him down a second time, I guess."

Josh closed his eyes. Sam sounded so calm, so... empty. It was as though he'd lost the spark that made him so delightfully Sam - so enthusiastic about creating a better future for the country, so keen to serve at the pleasure of the President. Josh was concerned, but could sense that given the precarious situation their non-friendship was currently in, this wasn't the best time to pursue the matter. For now, he would be better off concentrating on getting Sam back to D.C. as soon as possible, so he could show Sam just how much he still meant to him.

"Well, at least you won't have to worry about finding somewhere to live," he commented, trying to inject a lighter tone into the conversation. "Just kick your tenants out and you're set."

"What tenants?" Sam sounded genuinely baffled, which could have had something to do with the abrupt change of topic.

"The tenants in your apartment. You did lease it out, didn't you?"

There was a pause. "Not so much, no. After I lost the election, and we had our fight, I kinda sold the place. I didn't want to go back to D.C. so there didn't seem a whole lot of point keeping it, you know?"

"You sold your apartment?" Josh couldn't believe his ears - if Sam had been that serious about staying away, Toby's suggestion that returning to the White House may not be in Sam's best interests suddenly seemed a lot more accurate.

"Sam, are you sure you want to take the job? I mean, I'd understand it if you didn't, and I'll help you deal with the President if that's what you decide," Josh asked softly.

Sam sighed. "No, I'm sure. I miss the White House. I miss my friends. And on the days I don't want to throw things at you, I miss you too. I'll come back, but only if President Bartlet's willing to offer me a 12-month contract. If I'm not feeling comfortable with the situation at the end of that year, I want to be able to walk away, no questions asked."

"Okay, I can see the sense in that. I'll clear it with the President before he calls you back."

He could almost hear the smile down the phone. "Thanks, Josh. I appreciate that."

"Come live with me," Josh blurted out before his mind caught up with his mouth.

"What?!" By the sound of it, Sam was as surprised by that as Josh was.

"Erm, that is, if you appreciate my assistance in dealing with the terms of your contract of employment, would you do me the honour of accepting my assistance regarding your living situation? I'd really like it if you'd stay with me. At least until you get the chance to find a place of your own."

"You want me to come stay with you?"

"What's wrong with that idea? Aside from the fact you don't like me all that much at the moment."

Sam sighed again and Josh fervently wished he could remember how to get Sam to make happy sounds.

"Josh, you don't seem to be thinking all that clearly. There's a pretty big problem with your apartment."

"Really? What's that?"

"Well, I'm not sleeping on the couch so unless your apartment's grown another bedroom, I think you'll find you're a little short of space."

"Oh." It suddenly struck Josh just how much had changed in his life since he and Sam had last spoken. "I... I kinda moved," he admitted sheepishly.

"You moved?"

"Yeah."

"When? Why?"

"Couple of months ago." Josh paused, unsure whether Sam would want to know the details or not. "As for why... I just did."

"Uh-huh. The guy who hates moving more than anyone else in the world just suddenly felt like moving. Why'd you sell your apartment, Josh?"

Apparently he did want to know the details. "I didn't want to stay in our place," Josh admitted softly. "There were too many memories there. I missed you. Still do, for what it's worth."

"It wasn't our place, it was yours. We couldn't live together, remember? Hell, it was hard enough getting you to let me spend an entire night there." Sam's tone softened slightly. "But it's worth something to me. That you miss me, I mean."

"So you'll come back? And you'll stay with me?"

"You know, I've been feeling pretty down recently and I've been doing some pretty dumb stuff. So I guess a change of lifestyle like this is either going to straighten me out or be the end of me." Sam laughed mirthlessly. "Guess there's only one way to find out which."

Now Josh was really worried. "Sam, what do you mean 'pretty dumb stuff'? What have you been up to?"

"Don't worry about it. It doesn't matter."

"It does matter. You matter. You matter so much to me, Sam. Please come back. Give us a chance to work things out. Please." Josh was desperate - he had a terrible feeling that if he didn't get him back soon, the Sam he had known for so many years would be lost to him forever. "Look, I'm not going to push you," he continued. "I know I said some unforgivable things the last time we spoke, and I'm more sorry for that than you'll ever know. I just want you to know that... Sam, I miss you like crazy. Nothing would make me happier than if we were together again, but I'd totally understand if you refused. I'm offering you the hand of friendship here, and that offer's going to be around as long as I am, okay?"

Josh held his breath, waiting to hear how Sam would respond to that. Eventually, the silence was broken.

"I miss you too, Josh, but you hurt me so badly. I don't know if we can ever go back to the way things were. I'm willing to try, though. You know I'm not going to turn down the job offer when President Bartlet calls back, and I know we can't work together if things aren't going well between us, so for that reason I'm willing to try and rebuild some bridges."

To his shock, Josh felt tears forming in his eyes. Sam was offering him an olive branch. Sam was willing to try rebuilding their friendship. "I... thanks, Sam," he managed to say, forcing the words past the lump in his throat. "I won't let you down again."

"Yeah. We'll see. Listen, I have to go now. I'll call you once I know when I'll be arriving so we can figure things out. If you're serious about the offer of your guest room, I'd like to take you up on the offer. Seems as good an opportunity as any to give us a reason to try and get along with each other. But you have to understand, Josh, all there's ever going to be between us is friendship. I'm not looking to get back together with you. Ever. You've broken my heart one time too many, and I just don't think I could bear to risk that happening again. I'll come back to D.C. and I'll try to rebuild our friendship, but that's all. Don't ask me for anything more - you're not going to get it."

Before Josh could reply, Sam had hung up. It wasn't much, but it was a start. Josh's emotions might still be all over the place, but at least he knew what was coming next: Sam.

~~~

CHAPTER 4: GOIN' BACK

Sam stepped nervously through the main entrance to the West Wing. In the week since accepting the post of White House Communications Director, he'd found himself regretting his decision more times than he could count, but somehow the idea of calling the President and telling him he'd changed his mind seemed somewhat unwise, so here he was.

A guest pass around his neck, he headed straight for the Chief of Staff's office. Josh's office. He may still have been angry at Josh for the things he'd said during that fatal post-election phone call, but he couldn't help but feel proud of him for earning his new job title. And, even though his promotion was a result of Leo's stroke, Josh had honestly deserved it.

Margaret wasn't at her desk, and the door to Josh's office was open a crack so Sam tentatively edged it open and peered in. Sitting behind the desk, his head bowed over a stack of documents and his brow furrowed in concentration, was Josh, looking more at home in his role than Sam could ever remember seeing him.

"Knock knock," he called, clearing his throat as the words caught in his it. He was totally unprepared for the flood of emotions that poured through him as Josh broke out into a beaming smile as his head shot up to notice him. Out of nowhere, Sam felt like he wanted to run across the room, throw himself into Josh's arms and never leave. How could he have ever considered not coming back?

"Sam! When did you get here?"

Josh bounded over to him and appeared about to embrace him, but at the last second appeared to change his mind to go for a more formal handshake instead.

"I just got in. Margaret wasn't around and I didn't know whether to... I'm not disturbing you, I hope."

Josh shrugged and pulled a face. "Just briefing memos. I'm trying to get up to speed on foreign policy at the moment. Once that's under my belt I'm moving on to the military stuff."

"You must be exhausted. You don't look it though."

"Really?" Josh seemed surprised, and Sam rushed to reassure him.

"You're looking better than you have in years," he said softly, as he offered a warm smile to his ex. Maybe it wouldn't be as difficult as he had feared to rebuild their friendship.

"Thanks. You're looking... you're looking a little rough, Sam," said Josh, with concern. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah," Sam shrugged. "I had a pretty bad cold a couple of months ago but it's pretty much cleared up now. I'm just feeling a bit tired. I guess that's what comes of not having enough to fill my days."

Josh grinned and gestured for him to take a seat on the couch. "Well you're not going to have that problem around here, that's for sure."

"I kinda figured that might be the case."

"Yeah."

"So did you-"

"Josh, I wanted-" Sam's voice rushed over Josh's, causing both men to fall silent.

"Sorry, what were you asking?" Sam apologized.

"Nothing important. What were you saying?"

Sam turned to look Josh square in the eye and took a deep breath for courage. "I'm sorry for the way I've been acting since we split up. I was really pissy and stubborn and I know I took my frustration out on you much more than you deserved. And I'm sorry for not calling you back after the argument we had when I lost the election. I still think you said some incredibly hurtful things, but when I spoke to Will the following day, he told me how long you'd been awake when we talked and I should have known from that why you spoke to me the way you did." He stopped and shook his head slightly. "Did that sentence make any sense at all?"

"Yeah." As Josh's hand wrapped itself gently around his wrist, Sam's heart skipped a beat. "I'm sorry too, Sam. No matter how tired I was, you didn't deserve the things I said. I knew you were hurting and I should have been more sympathetic. I just wanted to try and cheer you up, though. Guess I failed pretty badly at that."

"It's okay."

"And us? Are we okay?" Josh seemd genuinely concerned, his pleading eyes making Sam realise just how upset their six-month silence must have made him.

"I think we're off to a good start, at least," Sam reassured him with a smile.

A silence fell between them, quickly growing awkward.

"Where's your luggage?" asked Josh, whose hand had slid from Sam's wrist to rest on top of Sam's own hand.

"I just have a carry-on for now," Sam told him. "I left it by Margaret's desk. The rest of my stuff's getting shipped over to your house. It should arrive tomorrow."

"Cool," Josh grinned. "I'm really glad you agreed to stay with me."

Sam returned the grin. "So am I."

The moment was broken by CJ's voice. "Well, hello stranger!" she cried.

Sam stood and wrapped her in a tight hug, not failing to miss the look on Josh's face which, if he was reading it correctly, suggested that Josh too might have enjoyed such a greeting.

"It's good to see you, CJ," Sam told her as he stepped back. "Did you get taller in the last few months?"

"New shoes," she replied. She opened her mouth as though to continue speaking, but before she could get another word out, someone else walked into the room.

"Here's a guy in need of a haircut," grumbled Toby. "You gotta look smarter than that if you're taking my job, Seaborn."

The teasing banter continued and, tired from his early-morning flight, Sam sat back down on the couch. He found himself sitting a little closer to Josh than he'd intended but when Josh didn't move, he decided to stay put. He might not be ready to jump back into a relationship with Josh, but this kind of closeness was comforting, and something he'd missed since they had split up, and their previously-tactile friendship had turned into a merely professional relationship.

"You know," said CJ eventually, "I really have to get to my briefing. We'll have to catch up properly later, Spanky."

"Oh, God," groaned Sam. "Is there no chance of you coming up with a nicer nickname for me now that I've been promoted?"

CJ grinned and shrugged casually. "I guess there's always Schmutzy Pants."

Sam grimaced. "Spanky's fine," he assured her hurriedly. "I'll see you later then?"

"Yeah." When CJ reached the doorway, she turned back. "You know, Sam, I don't know what you were doing to Josh before Toby and I walked in, but he's looking more relaxed than he has for months. I guess you're a good influence on him."

Sam felt himself blush, and a glance at the man sitting next to him told him Josh was in a similar state of embarrassment.

"You guys are so sweet." CJ grinned, waved, and wandered off.

"You're really not," Toby assured them. "You're freaks, the pair of you. And I know you're Chief of Staff now, Josh, but so help me if the two of you set fire to the building again..."

"We won't," replied Sam, laughing. "We're not doing the fire-building thing anymore." He stopped suddenly. "That sounded wrong."

"Yeah." There was something familiar about Toby's tone of voice, and Sam followed his gaze to see where Josh's hand had come to rest around his wrist again.

Sam snatched his hand away and shuffled along the couch, feeling like a fifteen-year-old kid whose parents had come home early from an evening out to find him making out with his girlfriend. It wasn't a good feeling.

"Toby, we're not... I mean, we wouldn't..." Josh was speaking now, stammering out an explanation.

"I don't wanna know," said Toby. "It's none of my business. You guys aren't stupid and you know how things are these days. Especially with your new, high-profile, high-powered jobs." He stood up and turned to leave. "Just don't let me see anything that could put me back in front of a grand jury," he muttered.

As the door closed behind Toby, Sam and Josh burst into laughter. "Poor guy," commented Josh. "The things we put him through."

"Yeah. From your run-in with Mary Marsh to my run-in with Laurie. How he hasn't just quit his job by now is beyond me," chuckled Sam.

He leaned back on the couch and closed his eyes.

"You okay?" Josh's voice sounded more than slightly worried, so Sam forced his eyes open.

"I'm fine," he said. "The morning's just catching up with me, I guess. Do you mind if we head home soon? I know I don't have much stuff with me, but I'd like to get settled in and have a nap for a while if that's okay with you."

"Sure. You should have gone straight there, you know," Josh told him. "I still don't understand why you didn't want me to FedEx you the key."

Sam shrugged wearily. "It would've felt weird, letting myself into a place I'd never been before. Anyway," he added, "I wanted to see you in your new digs."

"Yeah. What do you think?" Josh's voice sounded less cocksure than Sam would have expected given the topic of conversation.

"I'm really proud of you, is what I think," Sam said quietly. "This is the job you were born to do, and I just know you're going to do it well. I'm really pleased for you, Josh."

"Thanks," came the soft reply. "I kinda feel bad about enjoying the work, given what had to happen in order for me to get it. But I'm really pleased to get the chance to prove myself. Plus, you know, it's good practice for when it's your turn," added Josh.

"My turn?"

"To be President."

Sam was stunned. "I don't see much chance of that happening," he said. "Not after losing that election. Seemed like the end of the dream to me."

"Oh, Sam." Josh ruffled his hair affectionately. "You'll run again, for something else. And next time you'll win. You know why?"

"Why?"

"Because I'll be there with you every step of the way."

"Okay." The level of affection in the gaze Josh was directing at him was suddenly too much for Sam, and he inwardly shook himself. The long, long list of reasons for not getting back together with Josh, which he had sat down and written every day since the President's decision to run for re-election, was suddenly forgotten. Instead, his mind was focusing on the memory of how soft Josh's lips were, how warm Josh's skin was, and how good it felt to have Josh's body pressed up against his own.

"Sam? You okay?"

Pulled out of his reverie, Sam stood. "I'm fine," he said shortly. "Are we ready to go?"

Josh nodded, the knowing smile on his face making it abundantly clear to Sam that he needed to work on his poker face, and together the two men headed home.

~~~

CHAPTER 5: I'LL TRY ANYTHING

'This is a happy and relaxed phase, with leisure high on your agenda. Your social life has improved and you are feeling the benefits.'

Josh sighed, and tore the post-it note off the top of his daily schedule before giving the sheet a quick scan.

"Margaret!"

Happily, his new assistant seemed as willing to respond to a bellowed summons as his old one had been - probably as a result of Leo's conditioning - and seconds later Margaret was standing in front of his desk.

"What the hell is this?" Josh asked, trying desperately to prevent frustration from overtaking him before six o'clock in the morning.

"It's your horoscope. I thought you'd like to know how your day's going to turn out."

Josh stared at his assistant. "Are you being serious or is this another disturbing display of your disjointed, postmodern humor?"

"Oh, it's completely serious," Margaret assured him.

"You did this for Leo too?"

She nodded.

"And he appreciated it?"

Ah-ha! He had her there. "No, but that's not to say you won't."

"Okay, well this is to say I won't. I don't want to read my horoscope in the morning, Margaret."

"And you're sure about that?"

Blinking in disbelief, Josh flapped the post-it at her. "It says I'm in a happy and relaxed phase. Do you not see the irony of sticking that kind of pronouncement on a piece of paper which tells me that, amongst other tasks for the day, I have to meet with the Army Chief of Staff, the Polish Ambassador and, in case it had escaped your attention, the President of the United States?"

"That's not all in the same meeting, though," Margaret said in a hurried, yet completely sarcasm-free, voice.

Josh pulled off his coat and sat down slowly. It was going to be a long day.

~~~

At 12:37 (these days, for Josh, every minute counted), Donna sauntered into his office and pulled a chair up to the side of his desk. As she sat, she placed a couple of polystyrene containers in front of Josh and opened them to reveal...

"Lunch. I thought you'd be hungry by now."

Josh smiled his appreciation and kept on reading as he blindly reached for the fries.

"So, how're things going for you these days?" Donna asked. "You don't phone, you don't write..."

Josh squinted at her. "Have you been speaking to my mother?"

When this wasn't met with the laugh he had expected, Josh peered closer at his now-ex-assistant. She was doing that pouting thing he had once found adorable, but now felt looked out of place on a woman of her age and status. All the same, though, whatever his opinion of her behaviour, it was clear to Josh that Donna was genuinely upset.

"I'm sorry, Donna. I promise I'll make the time for us to get together soon, but things have been really hectic for me since I got this job. But just as soon as things quiet down a bit, we'll..."

His promise was interrupted by the telephone.

"It's who, Margaret? Oh, okay. Sure, put him through. Good morning, sir."

"It's afternoon," hissed Donna.

Josh waved her off, hoping she'd get the hint to stop talking, but it seemed their dynamic had slipped out of sync a little as she continued talking.

"You remember me telling you about my new roommate, Kayla? Well, you'll never believe what she's done now."

Josh rolled his eyes in exasperation as he fumbled through the stack of papers he'd moved to the floor, trying desperately to find the briefing papers most relevant to his conversation. It didn't take him long to locate them and as he sat up to place them on his desk, he was gratified to notice that Donna had cleared a space for them. He smiled his thanks at her, which she sadly took as a cue to keep talking.

"She went and quit her job. So now she's got six days to find something before the rent's due and I don't see how she's going to manage it. She said she was happy doing temp work..."

Josh was nearing his breaking point. The impossibility of carrying on two conversations at once was quickly getting to him. Surely Donna would understand.

"Could you excuse me for a moment, sir?" he said into the phone." Thank you, I appreciate it." Josh covered the receiver with his hand. "Donna," he hissed, "I have to take this call."

"Sure." She waved a gherkin at him and he uncovered the phone again.


"Sorry, sir, you were discussing the arrangements for the Namur summit..."

"...so then I told her. I said, 'Kayla, do you really want to be doing this for the rest of your life? Because that's the way things are headed.' And you know what she said then? She actually accused me of..."

"Donna!" Josh yelled, a nanosecond before realising he'd forgotten to hold the phone away from his mouth. "No, sir, I'm sorry. There seems to be, um, a mouse in here. What's that? Yes, I suppose it may well be a female mouse. No, I'm not the one who came up with the name for it... Yes, that sounds like an excellent idea, Mr. Prime Minister. If you could excuse me another moment, I'll call an exterminator right away."

Josh turned to Donna who, apparently sensing the tense atmosphere, had put down her burger.

"I really, really need to take this call," he told her calmly. "And I need you not to be talking while that happens."

"But..."

"No! No buts." As his frustration rose, Josh's voice grew louder. "You can't just keep talking to me when I'm on the phone anymore. Maybe we got away with it in the past, but things have changed now. I've just had to put the Prime Minister of Belgium on hold, Donna. The Prime Minister."

Donna's eyes were wide and teary-looking. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "You know I wouldn't have done that if I'd known who you were talking to."

"Yeah, I do. But these days you just have to assume all my phone calls are like this. You can't just..." His voice trailed off in frustration.

"Josh, I really didn't know." Donna sounded genuinely upset, and Josh realized maybe he shouldn't have been quite so hard on her.

"I know you didn't," he replied softly. "But this is the kind of thing I was talking about. I'm playing at a different level now. This is why we haven't had a chance to spend time together."

"Okay." Donna smiled back at Josh then closed the door behind herself, leaving Josh to wonder how - if - he would ever manage to bridge the gap that had grown between them.

~~~

Lunch was going unexpectedly well, thought Sam as he dug into the biggest slice of Black Forest gateau he'd ever seen. Aware of the amused brown eyes watching him, he slowed his gobbling and guiltily looked up.

"Did you want some of this too?"

Toby's hand waved a 'no' so Sam went back to his eating.

"Looks like you need it," commented Toby. "I don't know what you were doing to yourself out there, but you're not looking so good these days."

"I was tired," explained Sam. "I wasn't in the mood for doing much, so I just lay around a lot. To be honest with you, I think I might have been sinking into depression. If this job offer hadn't come when it did, I'd probably have ended up on some kind of medication."

Toby glanced around, and Sam realized he was checking to see if anyone near them looked likely to be listening to their conversation. "Are you sure you're okay with coming back to work here?" he asked. "Because I'd understand if you never wanted to see this place again. Or some of the people who work here," he added in a dark mutter.

Sam put down his fork and focused on his friend. "Toby, I appreciate what you're saying. I really do. But I knew what I was getting myself into, by coming back here. I love working in the White House and I think the problems you're anticipating between myself and, well, *him* aren't going to be problems at all. Plus I've been coveting your office for years."

Toby smiled. "Ah yes. My office. You do realize its contents are coming with me to my new one, don't you?"

"That's fine," replied Sam. "Just tell me I get to keep your couch, and we'll be fine."

As he finished his glass of water, Toby shot a half-hearted glare in Sam's direction. "Yeah, you get to keep my couch. I'm getting Donna."

Sam frowned, puzzled. "You're not going to sit on her, though. Right?"

Toby's only response was an enigmatic smile, and Sam's mind was instantly filled with images he could really have done without. Particularly so soon after eating.

"That's payback for the images you and your buddy managed to put in my head way back when," smirked Toby. Sam had never seen Toby smirk before. It was an even more unnerving image than the ones he was already imagining, and he blinked.

"You know," said Sam, "I never really thanked you for your support back then. It meant a lot to me, you know."

Toby shrugged. "It's fine. Look, I know I haven't always treated you with the respect you perhaps deserve, and you're never going to convince me that imagery has a place of any value in political writing, but you're the only guy I'd have been willing to let replace me. You're going to do a great job, Sam, and when you're done with it, you're going to have a great future. With or without Josh."

Speechless, Sam almost dropped his cup in amazement at hearing Toby's words. "I... I don't... I mean..."

"You keep on like that much longer and I'm heading straight back to the White House to tell the President to tear up your job offer," growled Toby.

"Yeah." Sam could tell that Toby was feeling embarrassed about his impromptu speech. "Thanks," he said simply.

The only response to that was a nod, but it was enough for Sam. Just knowing he had Toby's support meant more to him than he knew his friend would ever be comfortable hearing. The two men shared a smile and Sam felt himself relax. For the first time since stepping off the plane, he was absolutely certain he had made the right decision. He was home now. He could cope with anything.

~~~

CHAPTER 6: GO EASY ON ME

"Oh, for God's sake, Josh!" The now-familiar cry filled the Situation Room as Josh struggled to keep his hands from trembling. "We're talking about an average of 38 AK-47s, not 47 AK-38s. If you can't even understand how many guns each insurgent is estimated to have, how the hell can you expect to weigh in on this discussion?"

Josh slid lower in his seat as the President continued his rant. Every day for the past week, he had attended meetings in the Sit. Room, and every day he had felt more and more out of his depth. It appeared that no matter how many books and papers and memos he read on the subject of national defense and military techniques, nothing in them seemed to bear any resemblance to the reality of conducting the war against Qumar.

"You don't need to be here, Josh," President Bartlet continued, his voice slightly calmer now. "Why don't you go see what the rest of the senior staff are up to. Fitz can tell me what to do next."

Before Josh could even open his mouth to answer, the President had pointedly turned his back on him and begun talking in a low murmur to his military advisers. Sensing defeat, Josh gathered his papers together and left the room, his trademark swagger a mere shadow of its normal cocky self.

He shlumped along the corridor, barging through a group of giggling interns who instantly fell silent. Clearly, his bad mood was evident to all.

"Hey! Josh! Josh? You okay there?" Josh was vaguely aware of someone calling him, but it was only when a warm hand grasped his shoulder, and the scent of an all-too-familiar aftershave assaulted his senses that he realized who it was.

"Sam, hey. I didn't see you there. Any chance that's for me?" He nodded at the mug of coffee in Sam's hand and was inordinately pleased to find it being pressed into his own. Even better than the coffee, though, was the way Sam's fingers brushed against his for a brief moment.

"What happened?" murmured Sam. "You're looking all... off."

Josh took a large gulp of the coffee. "Yeah. No, I mean... it's just..." His voice trailed off. The hallway was absolutely not the place he wanted to have this discussion, but he did want to have it somewhere. Sam had always been good at calming him down; making him realize that one little misunderstanding didn't have to mean the end of his career.

"You got a minute?" Josh asked hopefully, nodding his head in the direction of Sam's office.

Sam nodded and Josh felt his hand on his shoulder, guiding him inside. As soon as the door was closed behind them, Josh put down his mug, collapsed onto the couch and let out a groan.

"I don't know how Leo did it, Sam, I really don't. I just can't keep up with the discussions in the Sit Room. I mean, I know the words everyone's using, but I have no idea how the sentences they're used in are supposed to make any sense. And I can't keep the numbers straight either - I don't know if they're referring to a make of weapon or the size of a stockpile."

"What did the President say?" Sam sat next to Josh and squeezed his shoulder comfortingly. Josh felt himself leaning in towards Sam, and he allowed himself to relax a little.

"He yelled," he admitted softly. "Again. Seems like that's all he's done since he gave me this job. Maybe I'm not cut out for it, you know? I've only dealt with domestic politics before, and this is so far beyond that in terms of complexity. I'm going to be winging it for months. If I last that long."

Josh fell silent, glad to have voiced his deepest concerns, but also slightly embarrassed. There had been a time when he had felt comfortable talking to Sam about anything, but that level of intimacy was in the past now, and he wasn't sure what response he'd get.

Sam's hand slid from his shoulder and rubbed at the small of his back - a gesture that was soothingly familiar. "You're doing great, Josh," he murmured. "No one's expecting you to get it all right the first time, and you know the President's frustration isn't just because you're having problems. He's missing Leo. His best friend just vanished from his life, having spent every day of the last few years working side by side with him. He's bound to be a little off at the moment. The two of you are just going to have to cut each other some slack for a while."

"You think?"

"I know. And deep down you know it too. You just need to stop taking his anger personally. Don't worry about all the new things everyone's expecting you to learn - they all had to learn it once too. They managed it and so will you."

Josh nodded his gratitude and the two men sat together for a few minutes, appreciating the well-earned rest in the middle of a hectic day. Eventually Josh rose.

"I should head back to my office," he said. "There's still plenty of other stuff for me to screw up today."

Sam smiled and stood as well. "Let me take you out for a drink tonight," he blurted.

"Really?" Josh could hardly believe his ears. Even though they were living together, he and Sam hadn't had the chance to spend much time with each other since Sam's return - the odd snatched conversation over early morning coffee or on the way to bed after another 18-hour day at work was about the best they'd managed so far.

"Yeah. Stop by my office around nine, or whenever you're done really, and we'll go get a drink somewhere. Maybe O'Malley's?"

"O'Malley's? Are you sure?" Sam had just named a bar they had frequented as a couple. "I mean, with the memories and all that," he added.

Sam shrugged away his concern. "Sure I'm sure. We had some good times there. I don't want to forget the past, Josh. I just don't want to relive it."

"Okay."

Josh wandered back to his office, his thoughts whirring. Maybe there was some way he could turn their evening out to his advantage - use it to convince Sam to give him another chance at a relationship. It was what he wanted more than anything. Anything, that is, except Sam's happiness. And Sam had made it abundantly clear, over and over again, that he wanted nothing more than friendship from him.

Friendship. He could do that.

~~~

"So, are you seeing anyone at the moment?"

O'Malley's was unusually quiet, and Sam and Josh had had no difficulty finding a table away from the other drinkers. Tucked away in their corner, they had chatted and joked and laughed, and with each beer, Josh had found his worries about his new job vanishing. Okay, so maybe he'd only had a couple of beers, and maybe the feel-good factor of the evening had more to do with the man sitting opposite him - the man who was now glaring at him.

"Am I seeing anyone?" asked Sam incredulously. "What business is that of yours?"

Josh sighed. "You're my friend, Sam. Or, at least, that's what I'm hoping you'll be again soon. And that's the kind of thing friends talk about."

"Oh. You're not hitting on me, then?" It could have been Josh's imagination, but he would have sworn Sam sounded ever so slightly upset as he asked that.

"I'm not hitting on you," Josh assured him. "Believe me, you'd know if I was."

Sam let out an evil cackle that reminded him frighteningly of Mandy. "Yeah, I remember your seduction technique. Subtlety had nothing to do with it."

Josh blushed, but couldn't figure out how to defend himself without drawing attention to the spectacular success his technique had clearly had in getting Sam into his bed.

The evening wore on, and the mood between Sam and Josh mellowed.

"You feeling any better about work now?" asked Sam, and Josh felt Sam's hand wrap gently around his wrist.

"A little, yeah. Thanks for this evening. It really helped." Josh smiled at Sam, a friendly smile aimed at underlining the sincerity of his thanks. His heart skipped a beat as he saw the look Sam was directing at him. Fond tenderness might sound like a tautology, but it summed it up perfectly. Sam's lips were curved upwards ever so slightly, and his eyes shone with... with love?

"I'm glad you came back," murmured Josh. "I don't know how I'd manage to get through days like today if you weren't around."

Sam's finger traced a pattern lightly across the back of Josh's hand. "I'm glad I came back, too," he said softly.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

There was no mistaking the electricity that crackled through the air between the two men as they sat gazing into each other's eyes and Josh found himself leaning closer to Sam. If they could just connect. If they could just kiss. If they could just...

"Oops, that's my beer finished. I'm getting another one. Do you want anything?" To Josh's dismay, Sam leapt up and peered around frantically.

"Sam, sit down," he pleaded softly.

"Josh, I can't." The fact that this was whispered as Sam sat back down was a pretty clear sign that Sam was referring to something else entirely. Josh knew what that was.

"I'm not asking you to, Sam, I promise. You said all you want is friendship and I'm not going to push you for anything else. Would I like for us to get back together? Of course. But I told you I was fine with us just being friends, and I meant it."

It wasn't the most auspicious way to end the evening, but as Josh got ready for bed that night, he had to admit that the level of closeness between himself and Sam was much more than he had dared to hope for. And, whether Sam would admit it or not, the chemistry was still there between them. With any luck, he would eventually admit it.

Josh fell asleep with a smile on his lips and Sam on his mind.

~~~

Sam wandered into his office the next morning, a smile plastered across his face. It disturbed him slightly, how easily he'd forgotten how badly Josh had hurt him in the past, and how much he had enjoyed their evening together. It had been just like old times.

Realizing the inherent dangers in getting swept away on a tide of sentimentality, he had forced himself to concentrate on his work, and two hours later had drafted the first half of a speech the President was due to give to the Veterans' Administration in a couple of weeks' time.

"Hey, Sam. You got a minute?"

Sam hit 'save' on his computer and smiled at CJ who had appeared in his doorway. "Sure. Have a seat."

"Oh, this shouldn't take long."

"Okay," said Sam, peering at CJ, who was shifting from one foot to the other as her gaze flitted around the room.

"What's happened?" Sam asked nervously. Had a journalist - or worse, a photographer - spotted him and Josh in the bar yesterday evening, and if so, was a scandal-filled story about to hit the papers?

"Nothing's happened," she assured him. "Nothing I know about anyway." Her eyes narrowed and, for what felt like the longest moment of his career, she peered at Sam, who struggled to keep a blank expression.

Apparently, he was sucessful - CJ smiled at him, albeit somewhat nervously, and perched herself on the edge of his couch.

"How's your house-hunting going?"

"My house-hunting?" Sam blinked in surprise. "CJ, I've only been back a couple of weeks. I haven't really had much of a chance to do anything about it yet. Why?"

"Oh. No reason."

Since CJ hadn't stood to leave, and she was tapping her feet on the floor, Sam had a feeling something was up.

"CJ, what's going on?"

She sighed. "After my briefing this morning, Peter stopped me in the hallway, wanting a few more details about what was going on with your living situation."

"Peter from the Times?"

"Yeah."

Sam felt his heart skip a beat as the implications of CJ's visit sank in. He had a horrid feeling he knew what the reporter's questions were leading to, but he needed to be sure. "What sort of details?"

"He wanted to confirm you were living with Josh. And he wanted to know if it was a long-term arrangement, because his paper feels that a man of your standing, and considerable hourly rate in the private sector, shouldn't have too much trouble finding somewhere to live."

"Oh."

"When you first returned, we told the press you were living with Josh as a stop-gap measure, but it's been two weeks now, Sam, and people are starting to sniff around. I'm only going to ask this once, and you know I hate asking it at all, but is there anything going on that I should know about?"

"Going on? What kind of going on?"

"Sam, when you say you're living with Josh, it's just as roommates, right? You're not a couple are you?"

I wish.

For a moment, Sam could have sworn he had spoken out loud, but since CJ was still sitting calmly, he decided it was just his imagination running away with him. And, just for the record, what was he doing thinking like that? He had told Josh there would never be anything more than friendship between them again, and he had meant it. Why, then, was he feeling this way? Why couldn't he get Josh out of his mind? And why had he wanted to kiss him as they left the bar the previous evening?

"We're friends, CJ. We've been friends since I worked as a congressional aide. Everyone knows that. And everyone should also know that it's really not that easy house-hunting when you're working eighteen hours a day crafting the President's message."

CJ nodded. "I was hoping you'd say that. I thought you would. It's just... I had to check."

"I know you did. And if it helps you any, you could mention I'm just back here on a 12-month contract. It's hardly worth the hassle finding a place to live for that short a time."

"You're only staying a year?" CJ looked shocked and Sam realized that Josh and the President must have kept that detail about his contract to themselves.

"Yeah," he admitted. "I wasn't sure how I'd feel about coming back, so I said I'd only agree to a year. President Bartlet said he'd be willing to let me stay on longer than that if I wanted, but it's going to be my choice."

"You'll stay, though, won't you?" asked CJ. "We missed you, Sam. It's not the same here without you. And now Leo's gone as well, you can't abandon us again."

Sam smiled at the words he was hearing. "It's good to know I'm wanted somewhere," he told CJ. "I guess my confidence just took a hit after I lost the election. You never know, I may well end up staying. I think things are going to be okay."

"Good. But if you want to avoid any more rumors popping up, you should really think about moving out. And you should think about it soon."

Sam nodded and CJ left to set the reporter straight on the facts. As soon as she had gone, he buried his face in his hands and groaned. Not because he was embarrassed about her questions, he reluctantly admitted to himself, but because of the icy hand he had felt wrap itself around his chest at the thought of not living with Josh.

"I don't want to relive the past," he'd told Josh, only the day before. Now it seemed his heart had other ideas. Ideas involving Josh, a bed and not a whole lot of clothing. It was pretty clear that Josh wanted something similar as well, but Sam just didn't know if he was ready to open himself up to that level of intimacy again. Not because he hadn't been happy while he and Josh had been together, but because he had been so deeply unhappy each time their relationship had ended.

Still, there was no denying the attraction he had felt towards Josh at the bar last night. There was always going to be chemistry between them. Now it was just up to Sam to decide whether or not to act on it.

~~~

CHAPTER 7: TIME AFTER TIME

Two weeks after he had taken Josh out to O'Malley's, Sam still felt as though he was glowing from the closeness he had felt. There had been a time - many times, in fact - when a closeness with Josh had been all he wanted from life, but things had changed now. Now, he understood that for all the good times he and Josh had enjoyed as a couple, there had been periods of nightmarish misery accompanying their breakups.

Nonetheless, as he watched Josh grow into his new role of White House Chief of Staff, and as he himself found his feet as Communicatons Director, Sam couldn't stop his mind from wandering, during meetings, in the shower, in bed late at night; couldn't stop it from wondering how it would be if he and Josh were together again.

As the idea of giving their relationship yet another try grew on Sam, he made an effort to distance himself from Josh. Deep down, he knew that he wouldn't be able to cope were they to break up again, and the only way to prevent that from happening was to not get back together in the first place.

As far as Sam could see, there was only one reason to get back together with Josh: he still loved him.

~~~

The Monday morning senior staff meeting had gotten off to a good start, but quickly deteriorated into a shouting match among Josh, CJ and Toby. The argument had begun when Josh had floated the possibility of his giving a statement to the press regarding Leo's current condition - convalescing at home with the help of a full-time nurse, visiting physical and speech therapists, and Mal - and outlining his own approach to the job he now held.

"Have you completely lost your mind?" CJ had cried. "You've got enough power now to bring down the entire Administration with one misplaced word. And, in case you'd forgotten, over the years you've displayed an alarming propensity towards misusing words when confronted with journalists."

"Excuse me?" asked Josh, his pinched lips and clenched fists recognisable to Sam as signs of just how frustrated Josh was feeling about CJ's comment - the latest in a long line of light-hearted criticism that appeared to have taken a less frivolous tone since he had last worked in the West Wing. He briefly considered stepping in to defend Josh, but decided Josh would only resent his interference. Anyway, Josh was more than capable of defending himself.

"Oh, come on Josh," Toby said. "We know you. We've seen you in action and we know the kind of dumb-ass things you manage to say whenever you stop thinking for a second. And by all evidence, you have a tendency to stop thinking whenever someone shoves a microphone under your nose."

"It's true," CJ added. "We can't risk you screwing up again."

Apparently sensing the tension that suddenly filled the room, CJ fell silent. Sam's attention was focused on Josh who, judging by his lip movements, was counting to ten. He appeared to make it to six before he cracked.

"All right, that's ENOUGH!" Josh slammed his hand down on his desk, causing his pen to roll off and fall to the floor with a clatter. No one noticed it, though. Their attention was focused on Josh as he stood.

"I know you're all having some difficulty seeing me as the Chief of Staff but guess what - it's not your imagination. I'm your boss and I deserve your respect. So you need to stop thinking of me as Josh the buffoon. I was never that anyway, but I ended up with that label because Sam was the sweet and innocent one, Toby was the grouchy, sarcastic one and CJ was the principled one who still knew how to have a good time.

"Well those labels come off and they come off right now. Before I joined Governor Bartlet's campaign, I was working for Senator Hoynes. That man was a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination, while Jed Bartlet was polling in single figures. Then I switched sides and so did the voters." Josh paused to take a breath. No one moved a muscle.

"I was the senior political adviser on Bartlet for America and he won. Yes, the candidate was a brilliant man, but I was the one who set the policies that would get that message out to the country. I turned that campaign around for you, Toby, and don't think I don't know it.

"And CJ, maybe I did once tell the Press Corps that the President had a secret plan to fight inflation, but you're the one who told them he was relieved to be thinking about a potential war when he'd just told the country he'd kept a debilitating illness hidden from them. So don't you think it's time you took that argument out of your arsenal?"

With a sigh, Josh sat back down. "Okay, go home. If you can accept that I'm your boss, and you can offer me the respect I deserve, then I'll see you back here at seven-thirty tomorrow morning. If that's too much to ask, then it's time to update your resumes. Hunting season on me is *over*."

Toby nodded briskly and walked out, followed closely by CJ, who was looking paler than Sam had ever seen her. When the door had closed behind his colleagues, Sam turned to look at Josh, who was grinning triumphantly.

"That showed them, don't you think?" said Josh.

Sam smiled. "You know, you're hot when you get all authoritative like that."

"Yeah, that's what all the girls say," replied Josh with a wink, before he started leafing through the memo on his desk in a gesture clearly dismissing Sam.

"Josh, that's what *I'm* saying." Sam's voice was quiet, but Josh had clearly heard his words as he put down his papers and stared open-mouthed at Sam.

"You think I'm hot?"

"You know I do." Suddenly embarrassed at the way his mouth had run away with him, Sam tried to diminish the impact of his words. Sadly, his efforts proved futile.

"I know you did. I didn't know... I mean, I don't... What are you saying here, Sam?"

"I'm not saying anything."

"You said you think I'm hot."

"Okay, so I said that." Sam could see no way to take back his words, and he quickly decided that his best bet would be to admit to their truth, but to nothing else.

Josh walked over to Sam and rested his hands on Sam's shoulders before leaning forward to peer at him. Their faces were only a couple of inches apart, and Sam could feel the warmth of Josh's breath against his skin.

"Do you want us to get back together?" asked Josh softly.

"I... I don't... I don't know!" Sam's frustration with himself boiled over and he found himself shoving Josh backwards. "I don't know, all right? I was doing fine until we went out for that drink the other week, and now I can't stop wondering..."

"Wondering what?"

Sam was saved from having to answer that question by Margaret's sudden arrival in the room, which cut short the conversation between the two men as she whisked Josh off to the second of the fourteen meetings he was due to attend that day. Sam was left standing there - alone and more than a little confused about his own feelings, about what he should do next, and about what Josh would do next. Sam knew his ex well enough to be certain there was no way Josh would let this conversation go.

~~~

"January first, nineteen eighty-seven, three forty-two am, we have our first kiss, on the corner of your street."

Sam's head whipped around at the surprise of hearing Josh's voice behind him. He had come home early, bringing some work with him and had been so engrossed in his reading that he hadn't heard the front door open.

"February twenty-second," continued Josh, smiling gently at Sam's confusion, "you finally let me debauch you. An hour or so later, you return the favor."

At the memory, Josh's smile became a feral grin, and he sat down next to Sam.

"May eighteenth, I finally get the courage to tell you I love you. And that's something that's never changed, Sam. I never stopped loving you; not for a second. I know I got my priorities screwed up a couple of times, but I'm not going to be the only one to take the blame for that. The first time we broke up was when you walked out on me - and I don't care how many times you say you did that because you thought I was going to leave you anyway: when all's said and done, you left me. And the second time we broke up, it was a mutual decision based on what we thought was best for President Bartlet."

"It didn't take you long to get over me," muttered Sam, desperately wanting to move away before he gave in to the temptation to throw himself into Josh's arms.

"Sam, I'm never going to be over you. At times, if circumstances demand it, I can act as though I am, but you're the one who's got my heart."

"Oh."

Josh's grin broadened even more. "Cat got your tongue?" he murmured.

All Sam could do was nod.

"I'm not going to push you," promised Josh. "I know I keep saying that, which probably sounds a lot like me pushing you, but I really mean it. Honestly. It's up to you now. I want us to be together again, and I'm beginning to think you might possibly be more open to that idea than you originally suggested. So if you ever reach the point where you feel you can trust me with your heart again, then come find me. I'll be there for you."

Apparently sensing that the mood could do with being lightened, he stood up and pulled his coat back on. "For now, though, how about I take you out for dinner?"

"Now?" asked Sam, finally managing to speak past the lump in his throat.

"Yeah. And feel free to either think of it as repayment for the drinks at O'Malley's, or as a date."

"How about both?" It was the closest Sam could come to telling Josh how he felt. He couldn't yet bring himself to say the words he knew Josh wanted to hear. For now, this would have to be enough, and if the tender look Josh was bestowing upon him was anything to go by, it was.

~~~

More hours later than they would care to think of in the morning, Sam and Josh staggered back through their front door. At least, they did on their second attempt, after Josh remembered that doors tended to open a whole lot easier after turning the key in the lock.

They wandered into the kitchen and each downed a large glass of water, then they headed off to bed. As they reached Josh's bedroom door, there was an awkward pause. Josh held his breath, desperately hoping that Sam would follow him inside.

For a brief, wildly erotic moment Josh dared to believe his dreams were about to come true. Sam's face was just a breath away from his own, and his gaze was flickering between Josh's eyes and his lips, which parted involuntarily at the thought of the kiss that was surely about to happen.

Sam leaned forward and Josh's eyes fluttered shut in anticipation.

"Good night, Josh," he heard Sam whisper, before warm lips were pressed against his cheek.

Josh opened his eyes in time to see Sam disappearing up the hallway to his room. He wanted to shout after him - call him back and demand.. what? A real kiss? An open acknowledgment of the sexual tension that had been following them around for days, and of the electricity that crackled through the air whenever they were close to each other? Or better yet, to chase after Sam, throw him down onto the bed and ravage his body just as surely as he had ravaged Josh's heart and soul.

~~~

Sam threw himself onto the bed, one arm behind his head, the other flung out to one side as though reaching out for... for Josh, he admitted to himself. The feelings he had been doing his best to ignore, then repress, for so long were now flooding his mind.

He shouldn't have taken Josh out for dinner - it had been too close to a date for comfort. He was supposed to be focusing not on his complicated, gut-wrenchingly painful love for Josh, but on his job. That was, after all, the reason why he had agreed to return.

It was, however, becoming rapidly apparent that the lines of communication between his heart and mind were down and out for the count. His mind was screaming at him to leave - to find his own apartment and keep the contact between himself and Josh to the absolute minimum their work demanded. But his heart lurched at the thought of not spending every possible moment in the company of the kindest, brightest, sweetest, most complicated man Sam had ever had the misfortune of loving.

~~~

CHAPTER 8: ALL I SEE IS YOU

When Josh staggered into the family room at three in the morning it took his brain a moment to process the sight of Sam, dressed in black silk boxers and a worn white t-shirt, sitting on the couch with his feet propped up on the coffee table and a laptop on his lap.

Josh shuffled over to the couch and sat down sideways on the opposite end to Sam, who looked up with a start.

"Couldn't sleep," muttered Josh by way of an apology. It was the understatement of the century - his mind had been racing with thoughts of Sam; memories of their relationship playing on his internal movie screen. He had finally given up hope of ever getting to sleep and had decided that the tv was the only thing likely to distract him. Unfortunately he hadn't counted on Sam's own insomnia wrecking his cunning plan.

All thoughts of watching CNN and C-Span vanished from Josh's mind as he decided to indulge in his favourite activity: watching Sam. The frown that crossed his face as he sought the best way to phrase an idea; the upward twitch of his mouth as the words fell into place; the way his lips were pursed around the pen he was holding despite the fact that there wasn't a pad of paper in sight.

Sam was beautiful. Handsome for sure - that chiseled jaw, those firm thighs and his muscle definition, which was clear even through a layer of cotton, would leave no one in doubt of his masculinity; but the long, luscious eyelashes, the sparkling blue eyes and the slight upturn of the tip of his nose moved him into the group of beautiful people who could arouse interest in all who saw them - men and women, gay or straight. Sam was a sight well worth missing sleep for.

~~~

Sam shifted on the couch, uncomfortably aware of Josh's gaze focused intently on him. He continued typing, turning the laptop slightly so that Josh would be unable to see the screen from where he was sitting, unwilling to let Josh read the nonsense-words that were filling the screen as Sam's thoughts shifted from the President's forthcoming speech.

He couldn't stop thinking about Josh. To be more exact, he couldn't stop imagining how it would be to start their relationship all over again. To be with Josh again, by his side, just where he was meant to be. After all, they were already living together - how big a step would it really be to...

Sam's thought process came to a sudden halt as something freezing slid under his thighs.

"Josh!" Sam would have shot him a half-hearted glare, but deep down he knew that if they made eye-contact his resolve would vanish and he would launch himself at Josh in an instant.

Out of the corner of his eye, Sam saw Josh shrug sheepishly. "My feet were cold."

"No shit."

Although Sam forced himself to sound annoyed, he made no move to knock Josh's feet out from where they had crept under his legs. Instead, he brought his right hand down to stroke the top halves of Josh's feet that hadn't managed to burrow into the warmth.

The noise this action elicited from Josh sounded as if he was fairly content, but Sam wanted to make sure.

"This okay?" he asked in a hushed voice, unwilling to speak any louder for fear of breaking the spell of intimacy that seemed to have been cast over them.

"It's fine. It's good, actually. I like that."

Sam smiled. "Yeah, I remember your feet thing."

It wasn't a big thing, really, but through the years they had been together, Sam had discovered just how great an erogenous zone Josh's feet were. It appeared that with his emotions so close to boiling over, his subconscious had decided to act on some of its forgotten desires, including the desire to make Josh feel good.

"Would it really be so bad?" Josh's voice was a whisper, but every word resounded in Sam's head.

Sam gave himself a moment's breathing room by using his free hand to lift his laptop onto the coffee table in front of him. "Would what be so bad?"

"Us. Together again."

Sam closed his eyes. "I knew you were going to say that."

"Why'd you ask then?" Josh's fingers curled around Sam's where they rested on Josh's foot and, just like that, they were holding hands.

Sam breathed deeply, desperate to get a grip on his feelings and to work out a strategy for this conversation. He decided to avoid the second question by answering the first. It was time to be honest about his feelings - it was the only way things would ever get sorted out between himself and Josh. "It wouldn't be bad at all," he murmured. "It'd be good. Really good. We were always good together."

"Then why..."

"Because I couldn't cope if we broke up again. I'm not kidding here, Josh. The end of us would be the end of me."

Keeping his feet right where they were, Josh scooched up the couch so that he ended up sitting crouched right next to Sam, who opened his eyes and turned his head so that his face was just barely inches from Josh's. They gazed into each other's eyes, and Sam knew what was coming.

"I miss you," Josh stated simply, his voice calmer than Sam would have expected, given the emotional intensity of the situation.

"I miss you too," Sam told him as he reached a trembling hand up to cup Josh's cheek. He leaned forward. Josh leaned forward. This was it. Finally, the moment Sam had wanted for so long. Their lips were almost touching. Josh's eyes fluttered shut and...

Suddenly, the peace of the moment was jarred by the shrill ring of the telephone on the coffee table, which was joined a moment later by the beeping of Josh's pager and, from where he had left it in his jacket pocket, the electronic ring of his cellphone.

"Shit." Josh rested his forehead against Sam's as he groped around on the table for the phone.

"Josh Lyman," he snapped into the receiver.

Sam pulled back, uncomfortable with the combination of the warmth of their physical proximity and the harshness of Josh's tone. He started to stand up, but Josh's hand shot out and grabbed his arm, pulling him back down.

"Uh-huh. But what...? Okay, you've called a car for me? I'll be there as soon as I can, then."

Josh hung up and turned to face Sam, looking suddenly pale.

"Josh, what happened? Is it Leo? Did he...?" Sam couldn't think of anything else that would put that spooked look onto Josh's face.

"No, no. It was the White House. I have to go in." Josh let go of Sam and stood.

"What happened? Should I come in too?"

Josh shrugged. "I don't know. I don't think so. They wouldn't tell me what's going on. I guess I'll see you when I see you."

"Yeah." Sam leaned back on the couch and rubbed his eyes wearily.

"Hey." Sam felt the warmth of Josh's body next to his and leaned into it, allowing himself the indulgence of a one-armed hug from his friend. "I'm really sorry Sam," murmured Josh. "The timing really sucks, I know, but don't think I'll forget what was about to happen. Just as soon as whatever's going on at work gets straightened out, the two of us are going to sit down and settle this thing once and for all, okay?"

"Okay."

Josh nodded and hurried off to get dressed. Five minutes later he rushed past Sam with a wave.

"I'll see you in a few hours," he called, slamming the door behind him. Sam was left alone, his mind reeling with thoughts of what he and Josh could have been doing at that exact moment if the phone hadn't rung.

They would have been making love, he admitted to himself. It was happening again - he was falling into a relationship with Josh. Maybe this time they could make things work out. He had to hope they would, because there was no way he was letting Josh get away from him again.

His thoughts consumed with the idea of getting back together with Josh, Sam made his way back to bed, feeling more relaxed than he had in months. Now it seemed certain that they would get back together again, he could stop worrying about whether or not he wanted it. He knew he did, and from the electricity he had felt between them that evening, he knew it would be good.

Now all he had to do was wait for the right moment to tell Josh.

~~~

CHAPTER 9: I THINK IT'S GONNA RAIN TODAY

The car pulled up outside the White House and Josh stepped out into the pouring rain. He headed straight for the main lobby then went through security before turning to head to his office.

"Josh, this way."

He whirled around in surprise at the sound of Abbey Bartlet's voice. "Mrs. Bartlet! I mean... Dr. Bartlet. Sorry, I... I haven't had any coffee yet. What's happened?"

She shook her head and Josh followed her along the hallway then out of the building. "I'll tell you in a minute," she said softly. "It's best not to say anything for the moment, I think. And for the moment, would you just call me Abbey? Leo always did."

"Okay." Josh was growing more and more worried with each step they took. Something was clearly going on. He just hoped it wasn't the kind of something likely to end in subpoenas and grand jury testimonies.

Sadly, that hope died a quick death as Abbey led him past his own office, past the Oval Office and outside. As they entered the Residence, she spoke again in a low voice.

"I'll take you to see Jed in a minute, but I need to explain a few things first. Let's go in here, shall we?" She opened a door and ushered Josh into a small room. The walls were lined with bookcases and as he read the medical-sounding titles of some of the volumes, Josh realized he was in Abbey's private study.

He sat on the chair Abbey offered him and waited for her to speak.

"Jed's had an attack," she began. "He's in bed at the moment. You and I are the only ones who know about it, and I think we should try and keep it that way."

Josh sat in stunned amazement. "Abbey, you've given up your medical license. You shouldn't be treating him."

"I know." She shook her head. "But when I tell you that this is the most serious attack Jed's had, and that he's going to be in bed for a few days, perhaps you'll understand why I'm doing it."

"Ma'am, I'm not sure..."

"In case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the same shall devolve on the Vice-President," quoted Abbey solemnly. "That's what the Constitution says. Jed's unconscious, Josh, and he's going to be bedridden and drugged up for a few days. There's no Vice President, and if the Speaker of the House gets wind of what's going on, we're going to find ourselves with a Republican President again. You can't let that happen."

"But..."

"In two days' time Congress is due to vote on the Medicare bill. Do you really need me to tell you how close it's going to be? With a Republican in the Oval Office, we'll lose the vote and hundreds of thousands of people will be left without access to the most basic medical treatment. We can't let that happen. You have to cover for him, Josh. You have to run the country for the next week."

Unable to believe what he was hearing, Josh rubbed his eyes. "Abbey, do you understand what you're suggesting here? This is practically a coup d'etat. We could get thrown into jail for this."

"It's nothing that dramatic, Josh. You'll have access to Jed if you really need it. Whenever he's awake, I'll let you know and you'll be able to speak to him about what's going on. He just won't be in the office for a few days. That's all."

"I can't believe I'm even considering doing this," muttered Josh, "but when you word it like that, it doesn't sound too bad."

"That's because it isn't too bad," Abbey assured him. "And it's what Jed would want, you know that. We'll tell the Press he's got a migraine - that should buy us a couple of days at least. We'll say he's awake and coherent, but due to the pain and temporary sensitivity to light, he's chosen not to work in the Oval Office for the duration of his illness. Some eyebrows will be raised, and some questions will be asked, but CJ knows what she's doing. She'll make it work for us."

Josh thought about it. This was going to test him to the limits, but he'd always been up for a good fight."Okay then," he said. "Let's give it a try."

~~~

The first day passed without a hitch. Fortunately, everyone was too focused on pulling together votes for the Medicare bill to ask any awkward questions about President Bartlet's health. One or two of the reporters had even gone out of their way to ask CJ to pass on their best wishes for a speedy recovery to him. Josh went to bed that night a happy man.

The second day wasn't so good. Toby had caught up with Josh around lunchtime to update him on the situation regarding that evening's vote. "We're still two down," Toby told him. "Sam thinks he knows a way to tip the balance in our favour, but he's a little caught up in a crisis with some of the speechwriters."

"What kind of crisis?" This was the first Josh had heard about it.

Toby stared at him. "You haven't noticed how hard he's been working? Josh, he doesn't have a deputy yet, and he's trying to catch up on everything that happened while he was away at the same time as doing his regular job, which I can tell you is no damn picnic. And now a bunch of the speechwriters have decided to start complaining about their workloads, so instead of getting his own work done, Sam's been busy trying to convince them not to walk."

"Why didn't he tell me?" Josh was torn between feeling amazed that Sam had managed to hide the strain from him, and feeling guilty that he hadn't made more effort to check up on how Sam was settling in.

Toby shrugged. "I can only guess. But I don't think this is quite the place for me to be doing that, is it?" His piercing look left Josh with no doubt about what Toby was hinting at.

"I'll talk to him soon," promised Josh. "For now, though, get Sam and the two of you go do whatever it is you have to to get us to win this vote, okay?"

Toby nodded and headed in the direction of the Communications Bullpen. Three hours later, he and Sam strode triumphantly into Josh's office.

"It's done," beamed Sam. "We got the votes for you. From being two down, we're now five up."

"Five up? You mean you won us seven votes? How the hell did you manage that?" Josh was astounded.

"It was him." Toby gestured at Sam, who was practically bouncing. Josh supressed a smile at the sight - Sam was looking more alive than he had in - well, years really. Probably since before the President's MS announcement, Josh realized.

"What did you do?" he asked, grinning at the still-bouncing Sam.

"I just asked them nicely."

"You did what?"

Toby rolled his eyes. "He spun them a tale of woe and pity, full of anguish and sickness and the good fairy Congress who cast a magic spell of healing over the land."

"You told them a fairy tale?" Josh couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Are you serious?"

"He's exaggerating," Sam reassured him. "I simply pointed out the benefits of this bill being passed, and after a while the esteemed gentlemen decided it was easier to agree with me than to keep listening to me."

At that moment, Josh's phone rang and, mouthing an apology to Sam and Toby, he answered. "Josh Lyman. Charlie, hey." He paused, listening to the caller. "Really? That's great. Yeah, someone'll be over soon." He hung up then grinned at Sam.

"Feel like going to tell the President what you just did?"

Sam blinked. "He's awake?"

"Yeah, and feeling up to having a visitor for a few minutes. I don't need to see him, so why don't you head over?"

"You're sure?" Sam asked as he stood up. "You really don't mind if I go instead of you?"

"Sam, I'm not going to steal your thunder from you. You did a fantastic job there, and you deserve to be the one to tell the President. Make sure you track down Dr. Bartlet, too. She'll be delighted."

"Okay." Sam flashed another blinding grin at Josh then bounded out of the office, leaving Toby staring in disbelief.

"Well, that's a Sam I haven't seen in a long time," he commented. "You should have been there, Josh. It was incredible. That man has a way with words like no one else on Earth. When he's in full flow, he's unstoppable. And that look he's got now - the one that says he knows he's done a good job - I've missed that."

"I was just thinking the same," agreed Josh. "It's a good thing to see back, isn't it?"

~~~

The third day of the President's illness, Josh woke up to a phone call from Abbey Bartlet.

"Jed's doing better," she told Josh as he gulped down a mug of very strong coffee. "I think he should be back in the office as early as tomorrow, providing I keep him sedated for most of the day."

"Sedated? That sounds pretty serious to me. Are you sure he's doing better?"

He could almost feel her glare down the phone. "I may have volunteered not to practise medicine for the remainer of Jed's term, but I'm still a doctor. And I'm his wife too. I know how he's doing and he's doing better than I expected. He'll just recover even quicker if he's not trying to push himself too hard, and the only way to keep him from doing that is to sedate him."

"Okay." There wasn't really anything else Josh could say to that, and when CJ mentioned, at the Senior Staff meeting a couple of hours later, that the Press were wondering what kind of migraine lasts three days - "'A bad one' isn't going to work as an answer for much longer," she warned - Josh was able to reassure her that the President would be back in the office the next day.

"And in the meanwhile?" CJ asked.


"'In the meanwhile' what? There's nothing major going on today, is there?" Josh asked.

"President Bartlet's supposed to be meeting the Foreign Secretary of Tajikistan this afternoon," CJ reminded him. "I'm assuming that's not going to happen, so you're going to have to unruffle some formerly-Soviet feathers."

"Oh." Josh's heart sank as he remembered the persistence of the Ukranian nightmare who had practically taken over his office way back in the second year of their first term. Hopefully today's visitor would be less troublesome. Somehow he doubted he had that kind of luck.

"At least there wasn't a photo op scheduled," Sam chipped in. "Just a closed-door meeting. We can handle that between us."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

And so at four p.m. Sam and Josh stepped into the Oval Office, their strategy planned. If only they could pull it off. Josh had every hope, though. After all, if Sam could conjure up seven congressional votes in three hours, he could probably deal with a potentially-belligerent foreigner.

~~~

"Goodbye, sir. You have a safe journey home now. It was good to meet you and I hope you feel our meeting was productive." Josh shook the Foreign Secretary's hand one final time and was astounded to find himself being pulled into a hug.

"Goodbye, Mr. Lyman," the Foreign Secretary told him through his translator. "You are a credit to your country and to your President. Please convey to him my best wishes for a quick recovery, and tell him I look forward to his telephone call."

As the door closed behind the visitors, Josh flung himself down onto the couch and grinned up at Sam. "Well, we did it."

"We really did." Sam sat next to him and nudged Josh's shoulder with his own. "You were great, Josh. I thought his head was going to explode when you told him he wouldn't be meeting with President Bartlet, but the way you handled him... I've never been prouder of you."

Josh smiled back at Sam. "I couldn't have done it without you there. We're a good team, you know. I forgot how good."

"Yeah. We kinda drifted apart for too long. We shouldn't have done that."

"We won't again," Josh promised. "I'll make sure of it, Sam. I won't make that mistake again."

Had they been anywhere else, Josh would have taken the chance to kiss Sam, but as it was he knew Margaret would be in at any moment to drag him away to his next meeting. Sam's slow smile and half-closed eyes left Josh certain that he understood what was going through Sam's mind at that moment.

"I have to go," he told him regretfully. "I've got a security briefing in the Sit Room. Come find me later, though, when you're ready to leave. It'd be good to spend the evening with you, if I can."

"I'd like that too," murmured Sam, with a small smile. "Until this evening, then."

Josh smiled back at him. "Until this evening."

~~~

"Hey, Josh, you ready to head home?" Sam caught up with Josh who was hurrying up the corridor away from the Sit Room. The rest of the day had passed in a blur of anticipation at the thought of what could happen at home that evening. Since his mind was so focused on that, it took a moment for Sam to notice that Josh's attention was elsewhere.

"Huh?"

Sam grabbed Josh's arm. "I'm going home," he said in a quieter voice. "I thought we could go together if you're ready."

"Oh. I... no. I can't. I have to go see President Bartlet about... I have to go see the President, then I'm needed back in the Sit Room. You go ahead. Don't wait up for me, though - I don't know when I'll get away."

"Josh, you okay?" There was something about Josh's demeanor - possibly his paler-than-usual face, or his refusal to meet Sam's eyes - that concerned Sam. "You're not looking so good."

"It's okay." Josh shook Sam's hand off his arm and continued along the hallway. "I'll see you at home. Or in the morning."

"Josh..."

"I have to go, Sam. Don't."

With that, he was gone, and Sam was left standing alone. Something was clearly wrong, but had it been anything serious, surely Josh would have told him to stay at work. Sam shrugged and turned to leave the building. Maybe he'd catch Josh when he got in.

~~~

"Noooo. Please, God, no. Stop! I didn't mean..."

Sam sat bolt upright, jolted out of his sleep by the noises coming from up the hallway. As he shook the sleep-induced fog from his brain, he realized he had heard similar cries before - years before, when he and Josh had finally restarted their relationship, just a few weeks before Josh's Christmas meltdown.

Josh hadn't been home when Sam had eventually crawled into bed a little after one o'clock, and a quick glance at the clock told Sam it was now nearly three in the morning.

Another cry from Josh's bedroom pulled his attention back to the moment and, without thinking about it, or even pausing to grab a robe to throw on over his boxers and t-shirt, Sam jumped out of his bed and hurried up the hallway. He pushed the bedroom door open and ran over to kneel next to the bed where Josh was thrashing around, tangled up in the sheets.

"Josh, wake up. You're just dreaming. Josh." Sam reached out and shook Josh's shoulder, hoping to wake him up.

"I'm sorry! I'm so, so sorry," cried Josh, clearly still caught up in his nightmare.

Sam shook his shoulder more firmly. "Come on, Josh. Wake up."

It did the trick - Josh's eyes flew open and he sat up, staring around him wildly.

"Sam? What are you...? What...?"

He looked so lost, so confused. His brow was covered in sweat, and Sam could see that his t-shirt was drenched as well. Whatever he'd been dreaming about must have been bad.

"You were having a nightmare," he told Josh in a soft voice as he rubbed his shoulder soothingly. "You want to tell me what it was about?"

Josh shook his head. "I can't," he whispered. "I don't want you to know."

To Sam's dismay, he saw tears forming in Josh's eyes, so he did the only thing he could think of. Sam pulled back the bedclothes and sat down next to Josh, before wrapping his arms around him.

"Don't shut me out, Josh. Please. Let me help you."

Josh sniffed and shook his head.

"Okay," Sam pulled back and cast an appraising look over Josh. "Will you at least let me get you a new t-shirt? You can't be comfortable in that."

"Yeah."

Sam nodded and wandered over to root through Josh's drawers until he found what he was looking for. When he turned back to the bed, the sight that met his eyes tore at his heart. Josh was sitting wrapped around himself, hugging his knees and furiously blinking away tears. He looked utterly shattered.

"Hey, let me just..." Oh so gently, Sam lifted Josh's arms up then pulled his t-shirt off him, balling it up and throwing it across the room. As the cold night air met Josh's sweat-covered skin, he began to shiver, so Sam handed over the new shirt and helped Josh put it on. He sat back down on the bed and, as Josh continued to tremble, Sam realized the bed sheets were soaked through with sweat as well.

"You can't stay here," he told Josh softly. "Come on."

"Huh?" Josh looked up at him blankly.

"Come share my bed. I mean, it's yours anyway - you own it, I mean. And I'm not putting new sheets on your bed at this time of night. I love you but I have my limits, you know."

For a moment, Sam couldn't understand why Josh was looking at him with such wide eyes; why his mouth was hanging open in surprise. It was only when Josh spoke, that he realized what he'd said.

"You love me?" Josh's voice was a hoarse whisper, but Sam could hear the hope in it. There was only one answer to that question.

"I do."

"Oh." Josh shook his head. "You shouldn't. I'm not a good person."

Sam closed his eyes, heartbroken at the tone of despair he heard. From hope to devastation in just a few seconds - something was clearly wrong with Josh.

"Come to bed," Sam whispered. "We can talk about this there."

"Sam..."

"No. You don't get to talk your way out of this one. I'm not leaving you alone tonight, and there's no way I'm getting into this bed until there's new sheets on it, so come on, Josh, please."

Josh's shoulders slumped even lower, but he nodded his consent and allowed Sam to tug him to his feet and down the hallway, into Sam's bed.

As soon as they were lying side by side, Sam wrapped his arms around Josh and guided Josh's head to rest on his shoulder before pressing a kiss to his forehead.

"You going to tell me what you were dreaming about?" he asked softly. "I think it'd help you."

As Josh tried to pull away, Sam held on tighter, murmuring soothing words of nonsense until he felt Josh relax. He waited for Josh to speak, the silence stretching for what felt like hours. Eventually his patience was rewarded.

"I was dreaming about all the people I just killed," began Josh. "They were all there, crowding around me, and then when they fell down dead - bleeding everywhere, limbs torn away from their bodies - their families showed up. They were crying and blaming me because it's my fault all those people are dead." His voice cracked on this last word and he began to sob. Sam held him tighter, running his figners through Josh's hair then rubbing circles on his back. Anything he could think of to help calm Josh down.

"Which people?" he asked softly. "You didn't kill anyone, Josh."

"I did. All those people in Qumar."

Sam pressed another kiss to Josh's forehead as he spoke again. "Which people in Qumar, love? Is this what was going on in the Sit Room this evening?"

Josh nodded. "Admiral Fitzwallace wanted President Bartlet to order a bunch of air strikes on various targets, but when I went to try and discuss the situation with him, Abbey said he was too tired for a long discussion. She woke him up but he fell back asleep really quickly. I had to make the decision for him, Sam. I had to tell the President to order the strikes. I don't know enough about these things to be able to argue against the idea, so I just had to take Fitzwallace's advice. He said there'd be collateral damage, but I went ahead and told the President to give the order anyway. I told the President to have innocent people slaughtered. It's my fault they're dead."

"Oh, Josh." There was nothing Sam could think of to say that could make Josh see he was wrong. In the morning, he would try and convince him to contact his therapist, but for now he would do whatever else he could to help him.

So as the hours passed, Sam lay next to Josh, holding him in his arms, soothing him with soft words and gentle kisses; doing everything in his power to reassure the man he loved that he wasn't alone.

~~~

CHAPTER 10: WELCOME HOME

Josh woke up to find his face buried in the warm crook of a familiar neck. Strong arms and legs were wrapped tightly around him in a full-body embrace - the type that just cries out "you're safe now".

"Hey. You awake there?" Sam's voice was as warm and tender as the kiss he was pressing into Josh's hair..

"Mmm."

Josh felt a small, amused huff of air against his forehead. "I take it you're still not a morning person then."

"Mmm-mmm."

"Okay. You stay here a few more minutes, then. I'm just going to have a shower, then I'll be right back. The alarm's not due to go off for a little while, so you don't have to worry about getting up just yet."

Already drifting back to sleep, Josh was only vaguely aware of Sam padding across the room to the bathroom. He heard the water running and then...

there was heat and noise and fallen buildings and people crowding, pushing, shouting screaming weeping yelling and bombs falling and children bleeding and Joanie in the middle of them all, flames surrounding her, reaching out for him, crying "Josh! Josh!"

..."Josh!"

He jerked awake, panting at the images that had been so vivid in his mind - images that were instantly replaced by that of Sam's worried gaze.

"I... I was... they..."

"It's okay. Shhh, it's okay." Sam pulled Josh up and they stood, nose-to-nose, arms around each other's waist. "I'm here, Josh. I'm here for you, whatever you need. I love you."

Those were the words Josh had been longing to hear for so many months and as Sam spoke them, Josh pressed up closer to him, sliding his hands across Sam's back. As he felt his fingers grow wet, Josh realized that Sam had come running out of the shower to comfort him. Experimentally, he slid a hand lower to check - yes, Sam was standing in his arms wearing nothing but a towel.

"Sam, I..." He couldn't find the words he needed. Words to express how much he loved Sam, how grateful he was to Sam for being there for him. So, in the absence of words, Josh found another way to speak.

He moved his lips against Sam's, slowly, gently at first, then pressing harder when he heard Sam's moan of appreciation. Josh opened his mouth ever so slightly and felt Sam's tongue slip inside to trace the outline of his teeth. He pulled Sam closer to him, threading trembling fingers through his hair as he sought to join their bodies as close as they could be.

The push of Sam's tongue into his mouth became more insistent, and Josh opened wider, accepting Sam into him as their tongues licked and thrust and duelled and explored. The taste, the sensation, the noises coming from the back of Sam's throat were at once reassuringly familiar and excitingly new. Josh growled and scraped his fingernails lightly down Sam's back in a move that elicited a groan of appreciation from Sam.

Josh could feel Sam becoming hard under the towel, and he reached down to caress the growing erection, but to his surprse Sam stepped back.

"Not now, Josh," he whispered with a wistful smile and a tilt of his head. "Not yet. We have to leave for work soon and once we get started with this, I'm not going to want to leave your arms for a good long time."

Josh nodded, both understanding and agreeing with the sentiment. "Raincheck, then?" he murmured, leaning in for one more kiss.

"Raincheck... definitely," Sam confirmed as their lips met.

~~~

"Good evening, Sir. Welcome back."

President Bartlet swept into the Oval Office with his customary panache and Josh grinned at the sight.

"Thank you. It's good to be back, even if it is twelve hours later than Abbey originally told me I'd be here. I don't know what it is about that woman, Josh, but she seemed insistent on treating me as though I was some kind of invalid. Anyone would think she was a doctor."

"Yes sir." Hoping that this last statement was an example of the President's unique sense of humor, rather than one of lasting brain-damage, Josh sat down and began to bring the President up to speed on what had been going on during his illness. The more major things he already knew about, but there was any number of smaller issues Josh needed to discuss with him before the end of the day.

The discussion was going well, Josh felt, with President Bartlet nodding and smiling and generally agreeing with the decisions that had been made in his absence. Eventually, Josh wound down his briefing and sat expectantly, waiting for the President to comment.

"Josh, I'm proud of you. You've done a wonderful job - far better than I could have hoped given how recently you took this position. You're a credit to Leo, a credit to your country and a credit to yourself."

"Er, thank you, sir." The unexpected praise was music to Josh's ears, even if he wasn't quite sure how to react to it. "You know, I hope you don't mind my saying so, but in light of how well you think I've performed so far, would it be terribly out of line for me to point out that none of this would have had to happen if you'd appointed a Vice President?"

President Bartlet's smile faded slightly. "Not terribly out of line, no. But more than a little. We'll find a replacement for Hoynes soon enough, Josh, but I wanted to wait until I had a chance to sit down with you and discuss what direction you see this White House taking now that you're the Chief of Staff. Now seems as good a time as any."

Josh's eyes widened. "Sir, I appreciate the offer, but I haven't had a chance to prepare anyth-"

"I know," the President interrupted. "That's what makes it so fun for me. Go on, you've got the floor. Where do you see us heading in the next few years?"

Taking a deep breath to give himself a few precious seconds to collect his thoughts, Josh focused his mind. He had thought about this before, of course, but only in the most abstract sense of "What would I do differently if I were chief of staff?" Since he had actually been appointed to that position, he hadn't had a moment to reflect. But now was his chance to impress the President with his ideas - he had to just go for it.

"Sir, you don't need me to tell you a president's second term is his lame duck term. Your promises of future support don't carry so much weight anymore, and there's not enough time for us to push through any major pieces of legislation. But I'm pretty sure we can limit your... I'm guessing you'd prefer I kept the word 'impotence' out of the conversation?"

There was a look. "Yes."

"Okay. We can keep your, um, lame duck-ness to the very final months of your presidency. Because we can come up with a strategy allowing you to make judicious use of executive agreements. Okay, so Congress can refuse the funds to carry out these agreements if they want, but there's plenty of things you can do that won't cost enough to be worth them kicking a fuss up about. Things that could still make a huge difference to the lives of millions of Americans. It's too late now for you to be the guy who brokers peace in the Middle East, or to wipe out global poverty, or offer the funds to cure AIDS. But it's not too late for you to leave a substantial legacy behind you.

"You made an incredibly strong start with your inauguration speech, and I'm by no means suggesting you deviate from the objectives you set out in that, but there's plenty you can do that would have an immediate domestic benefit. There are issues out there that a lot of people care about - issues that deserve to be debated at the highest level. We're still fighting Big Tobacco, healthcare in this country's a mess, we could go public with the details of the sex education report we received way back in our second year, and if you wanted to do something about 'don't ask, don't tell', you'd be paving the way for great changes in the way society perceives gays and lesbians.

"We live in a great country, Mr. President, and, on a great number of issues the world looks to us to lead the way. We're making great strides in the fight against terrorism, but the threat of that to our future existence is dwarfed by the threat posed by environmental problems. Heavy industry never liked you anyway, so why try to stay on their side now? If you can't get bills passed that would force them to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, or stop polluting the lakes and rivers near their factories, then speak out and tell the world that you're not the one causing the problems - they are.

"Sir, you have three and a half years left in office. Don't waste them."

Josh stopped and looked at the President expectantly. For a long time, Bartlet sat very still, clearly ruminating over what he had just heard. Eventually he turned his head to stare at Josh.

"You know, it sounds an awful lot like you're trying to tell me that Leo was doing things all wrong around here," he commented in a tone that, if it was meant to sound light-hearted, was clearly missing the mark.

Josh blinked in surprise.. "No, sir, not at all. I'm simply trying to make it clear to you that he and I have different approaches to our role, and if you hired me because you thought I'd do things exactly the way he would, then I should offer you my resignation here and now."

Bartlet nodded. "Okay."

"Okay? Is that 'okay, I want your resignation' or..."

"It's okay, you're right. I miss Leo, Josh, don't get me wrong. But he knew what he was doing when he made you his deputy, and I knew what I was doing when I offered you the job as my chief of staff. We'll try things your way for a while and see how it goes. For now, though, I believe we're needed in your office. Something about a poker game?"

"Yes, sir. And if you could possibly keep the trivia questions down to a minimum, I'm pretty sure that'd go down well with the others."

"But not with you? Well, I guess I'll have to come up with extra questions just for you."

President Bartlet grinned and headed in the direction of Josh's office. Josh sighed. It was going to be a long evening.

~~~

As it turned out, Josh was right: it was a long evening. However, the slow passage of time had less to do with President Bartlet's quiz show host fantasy, and more to do with the game of footsie Sam seemed intent on playing with Josh under the table.

The first hand had just been dealt when Josh had nearly lept out of his chair at the sensation of a foot rubbing slowly against his inner calves. As the hand had continued, the foot had slowly stroked higher and higher, until Josh had been forced to clamp his knees together to prevent any more explicit wanderings.

From across the table, Sam had grinned at him and, after a quick glance to check that their companions weren't watching them, Josh had grinned back, flashing a brief wink at the man who still loved him.

Sam still loved him. That thought had been running through his mind the entire day, and Sam's boldness in inciting the foot-play had made it pretty clear to Josh that the sooner the two of them could get home, the sooner the two of them could get horizontal and naked and sweaty.

Finally, the game drew to a close. Snatching up his meager winnings, Josh hurried over to the coat rack and pulled on his jacket.

"Sam, you want a lift back with me?" he asked, desperately hoping his colleagues wouldn't hear the urgent sexual tension in his voice.

"Sure, that'd be good." Okay, Sam's reply sounded just a little too casual, a little too forced. Out of the corner of his eye, Josh saw Toby's eyes narrow in suspicion and, with a sinking heart, he realized that Toby probably knew what was going on.

But that was a thought to deal with another day. For now, all that mattered to Josh was surviving the drive home without flinging his face into Sam's lap - he had a feeling that was a sight the Secret Service agent assigned to be his driver could do without. At least, Josh reflected, he could thank his lucky stars that the Secret Service had agreed to post his protection detail outside his building and in the lobby, rather than actually inside his apartment, for the time being.

~~~

The front door was barely shut behind them when Sam threw himself at Josh, tearing frantically at his clothes. As they continued to undress each other, snatching desperate kisses whenever they could, the two men made their way down the hallway to Josh's room, their bodies wrapped around each other.

By the time they fell onto the bed, they were naked.

"Too long," murmured Sam, kissing a trail across Josh's jaw. "It's been too long." The sensation of his skin against Josh's had ignited something inside of him, something he hadn't felt since... well, since the last time they had been together this way.

"What do you want from this?" asked Josh as he rolled them over until the weight of his body was pressing down on Sam.

Sam slowly slid his hands down Josh's sides, bringing them to cup his ass. As one finger circled Josh's hole, the tip barely pressing inside, he kissed Josh long and deep, moaning into his mouth as Josh began to rotate his hips, rubbing their cocks against each other.

Eventually, Sam tore his mouth away from Josh's long enough to ask, "Do we have condoms?"

Josh stilled on top of him. "Shit."

"That's a no then?"

Josh's head flopped down so that his forehead was smushed into the pillow, next to Sam's head. "Big no."

Inwardly, Sam groaned. The tension had been building up between them for weeks - how could they not have had the foresight to make a quick trip to the drugstore? Okay, so maybe he had been avoiding his own feelings until very recently, and maybe Josh's new super-high profile job meant he couldn't make that kind of shopping trip without attracting media attention, but none the less it was a frustrating situation to be in. Still, it wasn't worth dwelling on that now. Not when he was naked in bed with a naked Josh.

"You know, I'm sure we can think of something to keep ourselves occupied with," he said, as he rolled Josh back on top of himself, then slid a hand between their bodies to grasp Josh's throbbing erection. "Something like this, maybe."

He began to stroke the cock in his hand, slowly at first, circling the head with his thumb, seeking out that spot that never failed to elicit a deep growl from Josh. As Sam sped his hand up, Josh began to thrust into it as he nibbled and bit and sucked his way across Sam's chest, pausing to tease the nipples with his tongue.

There was so much Sam had forgotten about during their time apart that - the needy little moans Josh made in the back of his throat; the nonsensical words he murmured against Sam's skin as, with lips and tongue and teeth and fingers, he mapped the terrain of Sam's body; the overwhelming sense of completeness that settled on him when they were together - and he relished in the chance to experience it all anew.

"Josh, please. I need... God, just get your hands on my cock," cried Sam in desperation as Josh launched an attack on his navel. "If you don't do it, I will."

He was rewarded with Josh's fingers trailing through his pubic hair before wrapping around his erection and beginning to pump it in a steady rhythm with one hand, while the others caressed his balls, fingers occasionally slipping further back to tease the sensitive skin there.

"It's not that I don't appreciate the image that throws up," panted Josh into his ear, "but maybe we could save that for some other time."

Sam was lost for words as the heat grew between their writhing bodies. Josh's skin was slippery with sweat, and Sam took the chance to slide a finger inside him.

"Oh, oh Sam. Fuck!" Sam felt the warm splatter of Josh's cum against his belly and he began to rock his hips faster as he slid his finger out of Josh and brought his hand to wrap around Josh's, forcing it into a tigher grip around him.

"Come on," murmured Josh. "Just let go. You want to come, don't you? Come all over me."

Josh's eyes were dark with desire and Sam kept his gaze fixed on them as his balls tightened and he came with a yell. As the final tremors shook his body, he settled back and Josh rolled off him to curl around his side.

"You okay?" Josh asked quietly, stroking a hand through their mingled cum.

"Never better." Sam kissed the tip of Josh's nose. "I'm gonna go get a cloth. I wanna clean you up."

Trusting that Josh would remember how much Sam liked to be able to take care of him after sex, Sam rolled out of bed and went into the bathroom to wet a bath cloth.

Sam returned to the bedroom and smiled at the sight that met him - Josh was sprawled on his back, naked and smiling, his eyes half closed. He looked more relaxed than Sam could ever remember seeing him. Gently, he wiped Josh's stomach and genitals clean then rubbed a clean part of the cloth briskly across his own body.

Once he was satisfied that he could put off a shower until the morning, he crawled into bed and tugged the covers over them before pulling Josh into a hug.

"You mean the world to me," he whispered. "Thank you."

"For what?" Josh sounded as if he were moments away from sleep, so Sam answered as simply as he could, hoping that his words would be enough to make Josh realize how content he finally was.

"For bringing me home."

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