Disclaimers: None of these characters belong to me; I only borrow them for vicarious living purposes.
In case anyone was wondering or having a hard time following, the couples scenes are in the same order in each part.
He stood in the center of the room, watching her stand by the door and cry. The tears fell unrestrained, running down her face as she looked at him and silently told him that she never wanted it to be this way. He crossed the room in three strides and wrapped his arms around her, not bothering to wipe away the tears that kept falling anyway, but wanting her to know he didn't blame her for it coming out now.
She hugged him back, murmuring all the time that she knew it would be like this but she'd hoped differently, and that there was always the hope that the press conference might go better than they expected. He didn't bother to answer what they both knew were empty platitudes, but held her tighter still and rocked her back and forth in the middle of their bedroom. When the phone rang they knew that the news in New Hampshire had just ended. It would be their oldest daughter on the phone to tell them the story had been leaked, and they would have to tell her that they had decided to leak it without consulting her, or her sister.
He sat down heavily in his big chair, staring at the pile of documents on his desk as if they held the answer to the questions no one wanted to ask. Quiet footsteps echoed nevertheless in the silent office and he could feel her hovering, wanting to ask and not wanting to upset or insult him. Although he'd been mild with her, she had learned from the last time that doubting him made him frustrated and angry. Instead she stood without moving or speaking, only pushing loose strands of hair behind her ears and waiting for him to say something, anything, to her. Their breathing was loud in the semidark and she finally inhaled deeply and caught his attention. He looked up with red eyes that frightened her, not because she hadn't seen him that way before but because she had, too many times. He shook his head, not knowing what to say but feeling that the answer to whatever question she wanted to ask must be no. She shook her head in response, as if not accepting his answer, and instead of trying to come up with something to say he extended his hand. She took it and the contact forced her to come closer, until she was dropping into the visitor's chair that had been pulled close to his. He rubbed her hand with his thumb and began to speak, slowly, softly, as if she were his daughter and needed comforting. And though she was not his daughter, she did need comforting and would never have asked, because she would have assumed that he needed it more, and it comforted him to comfort her, and so they both sat in the darkened office for a long time.
She hovered in the doorway, asking finally in her rich voice, "Is this what happened last week?" Without turning to see her he nodded.
"You couldn't tell anyone?" she guessed. He nodded again. She flipped the light switch off before entering the office, as a precaution against what she didn't know, and pulled the door shut behind her. She stood behind him, looking at his back framed in the light from the streetlamps outside, and waiting until he gave her some signal that she should be talking. She had no intention of leaving him like this, but she could be unobtrusive if that was what he wanted. Deep in her heart, though, she hoped that wasn't what he wanted. The deep dark secret she had never shared with anyone, even the women she chatted with every day, was that she had always wanted him to let her take care of him. She couldn't help feeling that she could, and easily, if he would only let her. She was a caring person, and she knew that he knew that about her, but their relationship wasn't - she would never try something beyond the simplest gestures unless given some signal. The one embrace they had ever shared had shaken him, shaken them and changed their dynamic for quite some time, and she couldn't risk that happening again. She missed him when he was uncomfortable and avoiding her, even though it had only happened twice. The other time, the first time, had been way back during the campaign when Brian broke up with her, and he sent her flowers and told her she was beautiful, and then he was too embarrassed to look at her for days afterward. That would not be happening again.
So she stood quietly behind him, and waited until he said, "By this time tomorrow it could all be over."
The dark figure at the door didn't command her attention until he said quietly, "I was going to come tonight and tell you I knew, but then I found out everyone knew."
"Not everyone," she replied tiredly, just barely raising her head from her hands.
He studied her carefully for a moment before guessing, "You didn't know until today."
She replied only by shaking her head noiselessly, willing the tears to stay back until she was home and alone.
"This morning. Before we leaked it."
He heard the strain in her voice and hesitated, trying to decide what a friend might be expected to do - and what he might be allowed, and expected, to do. "You need a drink?" he asked finally.
She raised her eyes to his and he saw the shine in the darkness that suggested tears. "You think?"
"I'm just saying, I don't think we'll be the story tonight."
A rueful smile flashed over her face as she almost laughed. "I suppose not."
She got to her feet when she saw him come in, her eyes widening at the look on his face that clearly told her some tragedy had occurred. He only just remembered to slam the door behind him before pouring out, in a monotone that frightened her, the story that had just been told to the senior staff. Her fair skin got even paler as he revealed detail after detail of the legal ramifications, the possible coverup, the number of people who had known, and his knees shook as it all poured out in that same expressionless way. She took a few steps toward him, wanting both to comfort him and to shake him out of the daze he seemed to be in. He allowed her to pull him down into a chair, to hover worriedly as she asked questions designed mostly to snap him out of it. Her own concern, for her bosses, for the political ramifications, burned under the surface, waiting for a time when she didn't have his more urgent fears to deal with. He mentioned absently mid-sentence that they'd all been excused for the night, and seeing his blank, stunned face and cloudy eyes she offered to take him home. He shook his head and laughed for some reason that she didn't understand, but before she could worry that he was going into shock he met her eyes with sudden lucidity and said, "Do you think it's over?"
For a full minute she couldn't answer and he never stopped waiting, looking intently at her and drawing the words from her with his eyes. Finally she replied brokenly, "I don't know - I don't know." His eyes lifted to hers were empty. It was out of character, for both of them, but she extended a hand and he pulled himself out of the chair and stepped into the circle of her embrace. He almost collapsed into her support, but she was grateful for the display of emotion because it meant he was less frozen. They stood for a long time wrapped up in each other's arms, not feeling what should have been an awkward moment because their minds were on more pressing matters. If asked, she would have gone so far as to guess that he didn't even know who he was with. He started to cry, and she lifted a hand to rub his back, murmuring words of comfort that she didn't believe and hoping, since he had bizarrely come to her, that she could give him whatever it was he needed to get him through this. And maybe it was because she had been thinking that, or maybe they just understood each other, or maybe it was the culmination of something long in the making, but when suddenly his mouth was on her neck and his arms tight around her, when he whispered quietly, "Take me home," neither of them had any doubt what he was asking.
"Is it true?" The incredulous voice could belong to no one else, and he nodded wearily without turning to her. He wasn't sure, truth be told, whether he was up to her shock tonight, right this minute. He fully expected her to be hurt, and surprised - no different from the rest of them, but she expressed both those feelings so effectively.
Her hand dropping onto his shoulder from behind surprised him, and he finally turned and whispered, "None of us knew until this morning. Except Leo, and apparently Toby found out last week."
He watched her mind work. "The night we stayed late to help with the speech."
"I'm sorry," she whispered to his shoulder.
"For what?" he asked rhetorically. "It's your job as much as anybody else's."
"I know, but I didn't - I mean, you and him -" Her stammering trailed off as she realized she didn't have the words for what she wanted to say to him.
"I know what you mean," he said finally.
There was a long silence, in which her hand didn't move from his shoulder but rubbed softly until it seemed that the whole of his being was concentrated in that one part of him she was touching. At last he reached up and took hold of that hand, using it to pull her down to him. It was in her nature to be a comforter, and besides that she felt in need of basic human contact herself - enough to make the awkwardness and the fear of exposing her feelings irrelevant - and so she wrapped her arms around him and tucked his head neatly against her stomach, cradling him until he felt safe enough to relax against her. And when he felt her body tense and heard her quiet sniffling he wrapped his arms around her waist, and the most reassuring thing he could think of to say to her was, "Whatever happens, you know I'll make sure you're taken care of." And that was absolutely the right thing to say, but it made the tears come faster and harder.
When the phone rang he picked it up with trembling hands that had nothing to do with his medical condition. "Elizabeth, honey," he said as he gestured for his wife to take the phone. "Yeah, we know. Honey, we told them." He paused, his eyes meeting his wife's across the room as a stream of surprised indignation flowed from the receiver. "Yeah, we knew she'd hear it from kids at school. But this was the only thing to do. It was coming out anyway, it was going to come out." He paused, listening. "I don't know. We don't know. Toby thinks -"
His daughter's opinion of Toby had never been strong, and now it came pouring across the phone lines of half the East Coast. "I know you've never - sweetheart - he's not saying I should resign, he's saying there's the possibility that - I know. I know, Lizzie. I -"
He turned, not startled so much as saddened, to his wife. "She hung up."
"I know," she replied, gesturing toward the receiver she was still holding. "She has a right to be upset, for her sake and Annie's. We knew this would happen when we made the decision -"
"Yeah," he acknowledged.
"You want to call Ellie?"
He took a deep breath. "Has she called?"
"You think she watches the news?"
"I know she doesn't."
He focused carefully on inhaling and exhaling. "We'll call her before the press conference tomorrow. Let's go to bed."
"I think you should go home."
He looked up as if surprised to hear her speak. "You can go. I'm sorry. It's late."
She shook her head, and her normally throaty voice was almost husky with concern. "I didn't suggest it because I wanted to get out of here. I think you should go home and get some rest."
"Oh, would you stop -"
"No, I will not," she replied with a force that made his tired eyes snap open. "Nobody looks after anybody around here and that's why we're all falling over ourselves when something like this happens because nobody knows what to do. I have seen you fall apart before and I don't even care, I'm not letting you do it again, and you need to go home!"
They looked at each other for a long while, her chest heaving with her agitated, nervous breathing. "Are you assuming that he's out and you're about to lose your job anyway?" he asked curiously.
Something in his tone told her that she hadn't really crossed the line she'd thought she had. "I'm assuming it's not worth keeping me in my job if I'm not doing it properly, and if I let you stay here and eat at yourself all night then I'm not doing my job." She looked back at him evenly, practically daring him to cross her. It was late, the final crisis had come, and she felt suddenly empowered to do everything she had ever wished and not back down.
He looked right back at her, listening to the seconds tick by on his watch. Finally he got to his feet. "I'm keeping my cell on, in case anyone needs me. I'll be back at five."
"You should -"
"Five," he repeated firmly. "There's still a country to run. You can stay out till six."
"I'll be here at five," she challenged, rising and matching his stance.
"Six," he said, beating her at her own game.
She acknowledged defeat with a nod, adding, "If you need me for anything . . ."
"Okay." She stepped back to allow him access out of the office.
He turned to her before leaving, and she knew what he was going to say before he said it, but she was relieved to hear it all the same. "You're a good girl."
This time she replied, "You need one."
"Over?" she repeated, the word echoing ominously in the small office. "You mean the story, or . . ."
"Everything, I don't know," he replied tiredly. "Who knows? Who the hell knows what the press is going to say, what the -" He was too exhausted, to weary to finish.
She moved silently, sitting down on the couch where she could see at least the side of his face. "Are you going to put out a poll?"
"You bet we are," he said bitterly. "Right after the press conference. We need to put a poll in the field to tell us the country's lost faith and trust and . . ." She hadn't seen the ball he was turning over and over in his hand, until he threw it hard against the wall just below the window. He threw wildly this time and instead of coming back to him it ricocheted off the desk and flew into the side of the bookshelf, where she had to move quickly to keep it from hitting her foot.
"Were you waiting until he told the rest of the staff?" she asked softly.
"Waiting for what? The press conference? We did think the rest of the staff deserved to hear from him and not from the night news - especially C.J."
"I'm sorry," she almost whispered. "That was a stupid question. I just - I don't know what to -"
He turned to face her for the first time, and his face looked a little bit chagrined in the shadows. He extended a hand, which she stared at hard but didn't take. She knew this was going to be like last time, and it would feel good for a minute - good, and safe, and secure - but it would be a bad idea nevertheless.
He didn't back off, re-extending his hand and saying quietly, in such familiar tones that the corners of her eyes pricked and burned, "It's okay. I'm sorry. Come here."
She knew from reliable experience that when they pulled away he would get up and flee the scene and that she would miss him for days while he refused to talk to her, but she was weak and so she went for the instant gratification of his arms around her and his shirt against her face.
"I can't believe we didn't know - I mean I can't believe no one . . ."
"Hmm?" he asked, a bit confused.
She shook her head, staring down into her second scotch. "I just . . ."
"How on earth could you have known?" he asked, wanting to take her hand but settling for the most soothing tone he could muster. "It's not like it shows. He's not missing a limb, he has a disease."
"He's sick," she said firmly, swirling the scotch in her glass. "Shouldn't someone have noticed that he was sick?"
"He doesn't have the flu," he said in the same gentle tones. "It's not like he's having attacks every - what is it?" He'd seen her head snap up, a horrified statement on her tired face.
"Oh, God," she muttered to herself. "That's - that's not possible. That would have been the worst possible time . . ."
"The worst possible time for what?" he asked, a sneaking suspicion beginning to dawn on him. Perhaps he was having attacks after all.
"When you said about the flu -" Suddenly she looked at him with all the force of a fury. "Off the record?"
He looked insulted, and a little hurt. "When I'm with you, socially? I promised once it would always be off the record."
Her face melted into an statement of regret. "I know," she said softly. Then she shook herself and returned to what had startled her. "Last year - right before the State of the Union -"
"The President had the flu," he finished. Then the same terrified light dawned in his eyes. "You don't think . . ."
"He passed out," she recalled, letting him in on something that had not been shared with the press. "In the Oval, he passed out. He broke a - a thing. Leo said it was the flu. Everybody said it was the flu. What if he's - he said it was in remission but it can't be in remission if he's having -"
She didn't even nod, but she didn't have to. Her eyes, shadowed and betrayed, answered for her. Instead of holding her, he handed her an orange slice from the little dish and then licked the juice off his fingers, saying, "Maybe it was the flu."
"It wasn't," she said with absolute certainty. "Oh, God."
He watched her with concern. She had started to nibble delicately on the tip of her finger, where the sharp pain of her teeth was the most noticeable. She wasn't looking at him anymore, and her eyes had grown darker. Very carefully he took her by the wrist and pulled her hand away from her mouth, handing her another orange slice instead. She turned half away from him and ran her tongue along the smooth surface, biting idly just hard enough to release juice but not break off pieces. He watched her worry the peel between her fingers and wondered if she'd let him take her home, and knew that he shouldn't.
"This is crazy," she muttered to herself with absolutely no doubt in her mind. Ahead of her, he staggered up the stairs, doing a remarkably good imitation of a drunk for a man who hadn't had any alcohol. "My family would take me out back and shoot me if they knew. People would be lining up to take me out back and shoot me." He faltered, leaning on the banister, and she planted a hand firmly in the small of his back and urged him upward. "Almost there," she said quietly, in a tone strikingly more tender than the one she'd been using to herself.
He didn't - possibly couldn't - look at her as he fumbled with the keys and pushed the door open, letting them both into his apartment. He shut the door behind her and for a moment they stood motionlessly in the entryway, dealing silently with the possibility that what was supposed to happen was that she would drive him home, maybe force him to lie down, and then leave. That was probably, she considered, still a good idea.
And unlikely to happen. He finally met her eyes, with the shy uncertainty of a teenager on his first date, and one corner of her mouth turned up in a sad half-smile as she held out her arms. He held her very tight, but just stood for a long while, inhaling deeply and rubbing her back. When, as before in her office, his lips found her neck, her fingers tightened reflexively on his shoulders and he pulled back. It suddenly struck him what was going on here, what she was really doing, and a line appeared between his eyebrows. "Are you okay with this?" he asked softly, still holding onto her waist.
Last out, she thought. But as she stood there with her chest heaving like the heroine of some cheap romance novel, she knew very well that there was a lot more going on here than pity. Allowing those feelings free reign while he was vulnerable was still dicey territory, but - in a split second she evaluated whether she was taking advantage of him because it had been a while, or whether she thought he legitimately needed her. The latter won out, and she nodded. He bent to kiss her lips this time, more carefully than she would have expected under the circumstances, but then this was only the first of many surprises she could expect tonight. It was still a bit odd to have your first kiss with someone after you'd mutually decided in advance to have sex, but it was a nice kiss all the same. It built from gentle to fiery at a steady pace; she couldn't tell whether it was from actual passion and desire or from the simple knowledge that they had decided to take this all the way right now. Even as his fingers fumbled with her shirt buttons she wasn't sure whether he was really desiring her or just thinking that if he could work up the enthusiasm then sleeping with her would help him forget.
Surprise number two was a rather longer, drawn out surprise. In this particular situation she would have expected it to be desperate, fast, hard, and over quickly - almost violent in its intensity and as emotionally detached as high-impact aerobics. In fact, the only twinge of doubt still pulling at her was the question of whether she could bury her feelings enough to sleep with him seeing that he wasn't feeling anything for her. She was therefore rather surprised - stunned, even, but pleasantly - by the actual event. He made love to her slowly and tenderly, worshipfully even. It was her name he cried out, and even in the dark room in his darkened eyes she recognized that he was present with her. She was still strangely disoriented lying awkwardly in his bed while he trooped off to take care of the protection afterwards, not knowing what to expect of him but anticipating the worst-case scenario. Instead he slipped into the bed, shy enough not to meet her eyes but immediately reaching out and curling her into him. He stroked her hair with a lover's touch, not the gesture of a man who wanted a quick fling to take his mind off his troubles, and kissed her forehead before inhaling and sighing deeply. As she tentatively stroked his chest, still not sure of her place, he held her and whispered, "It's just that there are some things you're sure of." She couldn't have known that he was repeating his own past words, but she correctly read the emotion behind them. She twisted a little so that she could wrap her arms around him in return, and as he nestled his head close to hers the answer to the night's mystery came to her as clear as day - it had been unlike what she expected because he hadn't been craving sex per se to make him forget. His drug of choice was affection and love, and he hadn't known how else to ask it from her. He'd thought she was offering sex - which, who knew, maybe she was - and decided he would take physical closeness if that was what he could have.
When they had reached the top of his stairs he pulled out his keys and she asked worriedly, "I didn't see Sam. Do you think he's okay?"
He stopped fumbling with the lock and looked at her thoughtfully. "He looked pretty upset, but he went tearing off - I don't know where he was going, but I thought he was headed home."
She frowned, clearly still worried, and he found that he couldn't resist that face any more now than he could before. "You want to call him?" he asked, leaning into the door as it opened.
"I don't know," she replied, following him inside. "I don't know if it's my - I mean, we're friends, but . . ."
"Do you want me to call him?" he relented, watching her sink onto his couch. She paused for just a moment before nodding, an apologetic statement on her face.
He patted her shoulder. "Okay."
The phone rang four times and the machine picked up, with the eternally perky voice asking him to leave a message. He cleared his throat. "Hey, buddy. I hope you're not picking up because you're in bed already. We - I mean, I was - we were - we wanted to make sure you were okay. Um - you can call any time, you know, whenever. Somebody'll pick it up. Just - yeah. I'll talk to you later." He hung up gently and rubbed his forearm over his face.
"You still want me to stay?" she asked in her most helpful voice. She'd offered in a hazy moment while he was still in her arms, and he had nodded against her stomach before pushing back and gathering his things. Now he crossed back to her and rested one hand on top of her head, caressing her hair as if she weren't the one offering solace but the one requesting it. Although a careful look at her reddening eyes suggested she was only hiding her pain until she felt he didn't need her anymore.
"I want you to stay," he said, surprising them both by being so forthcoming. He rubbed his hand over his forehead. "It's pretty warm, I can get you some shorts or something?" She nodded and he continued, "There's still that cot in my hall closet from my mom - I could put it in here, or I could stay in there . . ." He trailed off, not wanting to suggest more than she had in mind.
She shook her head. "First of all, I didn't offer to stay so that I could kick you out of your bed." An almost unnoticeable blush crept over her cheeks as she continued, "And let's keep the cot in the bedroom."
"Okay," he said quietly. He decided to break the tension once and for all by acting as though this whole insane mess were something completely normal. He held out his hand. "Come on, let's get some sleep." When she stood and took his hand he used it to draw her to him, putting an arm around her shoulders and leading her to the bedroom. "You can go and change," he said calmly, leaving her to pull clothes out of a dresser drawer, "and I'll pull out the cot." He put the pile of shorts and t-shirt in her hands and turned her toward the bathroom.
By the time she returned he was perched on the small cot waiting for her, practically matching her in cotton boxers and a white t-shirt. He blushed faintly in the dark when a look at her reminded him that a half-transparent old white shirt might not be as effective for her as for him, but it was dark and when she clicked out the light on her way that made it darker. In the shadows they embraced tightly, and he thanked her for staying and kissed her forehead before gently prodding her toward the bed. Before she fell asleep she murmured, "You'll wake me if you want me?" He answered in the affirmative, and she was satisfied enough to let go.
She stood behind the window, watching through the separating glass panel. The tears had stopped. There was home, and there was public, and this was in public. Tears could wait until later.
And at least he didn't falter when he stepped up to the podium. This was going to be a tough enough sell as it was, without him actually appearing to be ill. She crossed her fingers and fought the very un-First-Lady-like urge to lean her nose against the pane, just to be that much closer. C.J. glanced back at her from her spot casually beside the podium, and the air between the two women crackled. How often it all came down to one moment.
When she'd come in - at five forty-five - he'd been stabbing away viciously at her computer keyboard. Silently she'd laid down her coat and asked, "Leo? What are you doing?"
He'd jumped about three feet and made some perfunctory exclamation about her sneaking up on people, before saying that he was drafting a statement.
"Don't we have people that do that?" she'd asked rhetorically, sitting in the visitor's chair and feeling suddenly out of place in her own area.
"I wanted to write this one myself." It was in case anyone asked him to comment. He'd worked on it for the next hour without letting her come near, then printed it up, closed the program without saving anything, and disappeared into his office.
When she slipped in the door without opening it all the way, he looked up from a stack of papers and raised his eyebrows at her. Through his glasses she saw that his eyes were redder than they had been when she got to work. "It's time?" he asked, clearly wound up like a spring.
"Almost," she replied. She crossed the room almost hesitantly, as if afraid he would yell at her, and picked up the television remote. "What channel?" she asked.
"I think it'll be on just about every channel," he replied quietly, pushing back from his desk and coming to join her. He removed his glasses as she chose a station and together, side by side, they leaned back against the desk.
"I should be there," he muttered.
"You've been saying that all morning," she reproved.
"Which you know because you had your ear to the door. Margaret . . ."
"For all I know you could have passed out and fallen off your chair in here," she replied, not taking her eyes from the TV screen.
"Wouldn't you have heard the thump?"
"You've lost weight."
For the first time in several days a tiny smile pricked at the corners of his mouth, before the network broke in with, "We bring you live to a press conference at the White House . . ."
"I should be there."
She almost rolled her eyes, but not quite. "You're not there because -"
"Because C.J. thought I would throw things at the reporters."
"Actually I think she thought you'd throw things at the President."
He pointed a stern finger in her direction. "You are not allowed to talk to Sam anymore. Understand?"
"Yes sir." Her words, and the tone in which they were spoken, were faultlessly meek. He eyed her for another moment before turning his attention back to the TV screen. "I should be there."
This time she rolled her eyes. But deep inside she was glad.
When he'd released his hold on her the night before, they had looked at each other and he had tried to smile. It was an statement she knew well, on his face. Her heart had immediately sunk, knowing he was about to withdraw - and also knowing that these days he would need her, or someone, more than ever and could not afford to shut people out. That was the part of the deal she hadn't fully considered at first - that not only would she miss their usual interaction while he avoided her, but he would need her and would be too embarrassed to let her in. In that split second she'd had visions of him self-destructing with guilt and lost faith, and her unable to help.
Instead of gently putting her away from him and then getting up and leaving, he'd kissed her forehead and said softly, in a very unfamiliar tone, "These are going to be bad days."
"I know," she'd replied just as softly, a little confused, still half leaning on his lap.
"I'm going to need you."
Her eyes had widened, but she'd managed to reply again, "I know." A trace of her usual sass, as Sam would call it, crept in and that had almost made him smile.
Almost. Instead one hand stroked her hair back and he'd given her the only thing he could. "I don't know what I would do without you here, Ginger. You and Bonnie." She'd smiled, a real smile that lit up her face, and she'd understood for a fleeting moment why Andrea Wyatt had married this irascible, complicated, terribly sweet man. Then she'd climbed off of him and ordered him to go home.
And when he'd seen her in the morning, he'd half smiled at the first sight of her and then carefully schooled his statement into one of sour contempt. "Can you believe they're not letting me go to the press conference?" She'd fought a grin, knowing it was completely inappropriate at this time, but she almost couldn't help herself - this was Toby, just like normal, not avoiding her, not embarrassed at his confession of the previous night - and that almost made her think that they could actually be as invincible as they'd felt.
Out on the street he stopped and faced her in the glow of lamplight. The light from above and the shadows brought out the worry lines on her forehead, the circles under her eyes, the deep frown that hadn't left her face all night. It also glinted off the red in her hair as she raked her fingers through it, the little idiosyncratic gesture that revealed she didn't really know what to do next. He reached up, against his better judgement, and pulled her hand down. "So," he said.
"So," she replied, closing her eyes for a moment against the dry burn created by too many held-back tears and too much alcohol and cigarette smoke. He made himself let go of her wrist and stepped back, putting at least two feet of space between them.
"You want me to drive you home?" he asked.
"I have my car," she replied.
"You're not driving like this."
"I am perfectly capable of -"
"Not after three scotches. You want me to call you a cab, or do you want me to drive you home?"
She sighed and lifted her hand slightly, then lowered it again, as if about to mess with her hair and then changing her mind. "Danny, I can't . . ." She changed the angle of her head, looking at him intently, and waved one hand in a general way as she looked for the words to convey what she needed to tell him. "You know, I still can't . . ."
"I know," he said quickly as soon as he caught on. "That wasn't a proposition. Just let me drive you home so you get there safe."
She laughed shortly to herself and finally nodded. "Okay."
She walked straight as they went to his car, but once inside he noticed she slumped against the back of the seat - he couldn't tell whether it was the alcohol or the day. They didn't speak on the way to her building, but when he cut the engine she looked over sharply at him.
"Just going to walk you to the door," he assured her, holding up both hands in a defensive posture. She nodded tiredly and opened the door, leaning heavily on the side of the car as she got out.
As she fumbled with her keys he asked gently, "You ready for tomorrow?"
Key in the lock, she turned and met his eyes with her tired, sad ones. "As ready as I ever will be."
"He'll do okay."
"You think?" she asked, still keeping her hand on the key but not turning it. "There's no way to predict how people are going to - hell, how the reporters are going to react."
"I'll ask a good question," he promised, leaning against the wall and holding her gaze with his. "One that'll make him look good and let him stand up for himself."
She blinked slowly and said in a deep, low tone, "That's why it never would have worked, Danny."
"I'm not doing this for you, I'm doing it because I like him," he answered, folding his arms across his chest.
"It wouldn't have mattered." She slumped against the door, seemingly forgetting to let herself in. His eyes raked over her body, from the highlights in her hair now caught by the hall light, to the tired contours of the face he had grown to love, to her slender frame and long, elegant legs which at the moment all radiated total exhaustion. Not for the first time, he understood what he could never have. The tiniest grain of selfishness reminded him that if Bartlet were impeached she wouldn't be the press secretary anymore - but he fought that voice down. She loved what she did, and she was born for it - and he would do everything in his power to keep her, to keep them all, from losing that. Even if it meant that it would be another five or six years, and that she would surely find someone else before then. Even that.
Gently he reached past her and turned the key, pushing her apartment door open. "Go to bed, C.J.," he told her softly.
She looked up at him and nodded, her exhaustion showing through in the fact that she didn't even try to argue with him. As she turned he dropped a hand on her shoulder, allowing them both that much contact, and said, "You'll be fine tomorrow. You always are." With an statement he might have described as ironic she thanked him and shut the door behind her. The next time he saw her would be across the press room, as she stood at the podium, trying not to shake visibly, her eyes darting over to the doorway where the President was waiting to make his announcement and face the people. He would see her from afar and want to go to her, and want to let her cry, and know that he didn't have that right.
When she woke it was to the hazy realization that there was a warm body pressed along the length of hers and a hand resting in her hair. A mental catalogue of her body revealed some soreness, and as she was contemplating the best way to sneak out and then come up with a plan to deal with what had happened, the body under her shifted. Holding back a sigh, she opened her eyes and found him looking down at her. "Hi," he said quietly.
Her smile wasn't entirely forced; the look in his blue eyes reminded her of various points of the night before. "Hi," she replied.
He looked down for a moment, realized that he was staring at her chest half-covered by blankets, and looked back up to meet her eyes with a sheepish smile. Groping for something to say, he cleared his throat and said, "It's only five-thirty."
"Okay," she said, not able to come up with anything better either.
They looked at each other for another moment, and then both of them laughed nervously. It cleared the air a little, and when they had stopped he grinned broadly at her and said, "Let's try this again. Good morning."
"Good morning," she replied, her eyes twinkling.
The hand in her hair began to stroke gently as he asked, "Did you sleep well?"
"I should be asking you," she replied softly, taking a deep breath and reaching for his free hand.
"I did," he said a little shyly. His hand stopped its motion, but the other one gripped hers firmly. "I want to thank you, but I don't want you to think - I mean, I'm not thanking you for sleeping with me, just for, you know, being here. I don't want you to think this was a using you for sex thing, or . . ."
"I didn't think that," she said quickly.
He raised an eyebrow. "Not even a little?"
He felt her stomach contract under their hands as she laughed. "Okay, a little."
"It wasn't that," he repeated more quietly. "When I came looking for you, I didn't intend to . . . but then once it started to happen it was - such - comfort."
"I'm relieved to hear that sex with me is 'comfortable,'" she said dryly as he fumbled for more words.
He laughed. "You know what I mean." They both suddenly realized that in the process of the conversation they'd rolled back into each other. In the light of day and rationality being skin-to-skin wasn't a thing to be taken lightly, and a faint blush spread over her entire body. In a split second he decided to seize the moment and banish the embarrassment permanently. He slid back down in the bed, resting his head on the pillow, and pulled her back into his arms. One hand stroked up and down the length of her spine as he whispered, "I mean, just on top of everything - plus everything I feel for you . . . Last night was - really nice."
"It was," she agreed, thinking that sometime soon they would have to come back to 'everything I feel for you.'
He inhaled deeply and continued, "And I don't really think it's something we should reserve for times of national crisis."
Her heart pounded, but she tried to keep her emotions under control. "So you're saying we should do this again?"
Instead of answering he tipped her face up to his and kissed her, hesitantly as if it were the first time but gradually growing more confident and deeper. In a way it was the first time, since last night they had been able to hide behind the screen of desperation, fear, grief, whatever they chose to call it - but anything they did this morning was without that excuse. It would have to mean that they were attracted to each other on a more than visceral, sexual level, which last night had not forced them to admit.
When their lips parted he pulled her closer still and said with a smile, "We make good partners, you know. At work, after work, in bed . . . you know, when you blush I can actually feel your skin getting hotter?"
She only buried her face in his chest and smacked him lightly. They lay for a moment, nestling together and getting the hang of comfortable silence. His chest lifted with a deep breath and he said thoughtfully, "I'll be standing at the back during the press conference . . ."
"You want me to come with you?" she asked softly.
"I don't know," he replied. "It's going to be stressful enough for C.J. and the President without looking over the room and seeing a Republican out there . . ." He wasn't able to keep the smile out of his voice at the end of that sentence, and she hit him again before asking, "Seriously, though?"
"Seriously," he replied, "please come with me."
"Yeah," he confirmed, squeezing her shoulder. "I'm going to want the company."
"Okay," she replied, trying not to make too much of the request.
"Plus I want a human shield in case the conservative press get violent."
"Sam!" she exclaimed, laughing and exasperated at the same time. "What am I going to do with you?" Seeing the glint in his eye she added, "Wow, I walked into that one, didn't I?"
He nodded, grinning, and glanced over at the clock. "Well, it's going to be a pretty bad day, and it would be nice to start it off right - and we do have about an hour before you should go home and change . . ."
"Seriously, Sam," she said again as he rolled partially on top of her, "it's going to be bad, isn't it?"
"Oh, yeah," he said soberly, leaning down to kiss the bridge of her nose. "Be with me?"
She frowned at his ambiguous request. "Now, or . . . ?"
"Well, now would be nice, but I meant today."
She smiled and pushed up a little to kiss him back. "Of course."
When she woke the cot beside her was empty, the blankets bunched at the bottom as if they'd just been kicked off. She slipped curiously out of bed, caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, contemplated covering up the slightly immodest white shirt with something, for an unknown reason decided against it, and padded out into the apartment. She smelled coffee and warm soapy steam and wondered how long he'd been up.
"Hi," he greeted her, his face actually brightening when she walked into the small kitchen.
"You made coffee," she replied.
"It's surprisingly easy," he teased. "Want a muffin?"
"Did you go shopping?" she asked in disbelief, dropping into a chair.
He grinned sheepishly. "There's a little convenience store on the corner . . ."
"You're crazy," she said fondly, reaching for the box of muffins he offered.
"Certifiable," he replied, and for a moment there was an uncomfortable silence. He broke it by saying, "The shower's yours if you want one here - I don't think your boss will mind if you're a little late today."
"He better not," she replied smoothly. Their fingers and eyes met over a cup of coffee, and then they both shook off the moment and ate in relative silence. When she got up to take a shower he stopped her with a hand on her arm, turning her to face him. In response to her curious look he said, "I want to thank you."
She shook her head, foregoing the usual banal remarks. His hands slipped up her arms to her shoulders and he whispered, his voice nearly cracking, "I need you." Her eyes welled up with tears, which for once he didn't seem to mind, and she fell forward and wrapped her arms tightly around him.
He hugged her again when she left, in last night's clothes but smelling of his soap. She still smelled that way when she came into work in a fresh suit, and he found the reminder of their night pleasant - even though nothing had happened. "And shouldn't," he reminded himself firmly. "Definitely should not." This was growing harder and harder to remember. But they had other things to worry about today.
At the designated hour they walked down the hall together, side by side and in step, an inseparable duo for the time being. Assembling press saw them coming and greeted them both, Donna as deferentially as Josh, and it would have been harder to say which of them was prouder. But that was not the focus of the day, and the closer they got to the press room the more his chest constricted and he felt sick to his stomach. He knew, as well as did everyone else, that this could be the day and the hour that it all fell apart.
Sam was already in place, standing at the back of the room; with surprise Josh registered the presence of Ainsley Hayes beside him. He'd always sensed some connection between the two despite their constant bickering over policy, but it was interesting to see her by his side on this kind of occasion. What was even more interesting, as Donna observantly pointed out a moment later, was that Sam had a death grip on Ainsley's hand. As the time approached and the press corps started to get fidgety, Ainsley leaned in to whisper something to Sam and he bent down to hear her, releasing her hand to slide his arm around her waist instead and draw her closer. The casual intimacy of the gesture was highly suggestive, and Josh filed that as something to ask Sam about later. Assuming they weren't too busy saving their boss's job, and their own.
C.J. was shaky. Probably no one but Josh and Sam - and possibly Danny Concannon, who looked worried - would have caught it, but she was clearly in a bad way. As she introduced the President, Donna's hand slipped into Josh's and her fingers intertwined with his. Careless of who might see he tightened his grip, breathing in her support and yes, love, grateful for her presence always beside him. At the front of the room their boss took the podium to applause from the press corps. As C.J. stepped aside her eyes lit on something in the back and her face grew, if possible, slightly sadder. Josh knew without turning to look that the First Lady was behind him. His eyes burned, he swallowed hard against the lump in his throat, and he squeezed Donna's hand almost painfully before releasing it and pulling her into the circle of his arm. At the front of the room their boss looked up and began to speak. "As most of you have probably heard, there are rumors going around that I have been keeping a secret from you, and from the American people. I am here to put those rumors to rest." He took a deep breath and continued, his voice growing stronger after an almost unnoticeable tremor. "Eight years ago, I was diagnosed with a case of relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis . . ."