Disclaimers: None of these characters belong to me, sadly, and we all know that. Apparently fanfic is illegal anyway, but I am making no money and/or fame from this story, just personal enjoyment.
In a rare moment of quiet at the eye of the hurricane Donna and Margaret sat close together, huddled in chairs in Leo's otherwise empty office, waiting for someone to need either of them. The other assistants had gone home when the rest of the staff left for the press conference -- except Carol, of course, who was still with C.J. somewhere -- having been told by their respective bosses that the day was over. But that was back when they thought that more than the day was over -- that the whole thing was over as well. Donna had gathered that much from Josh's face, and Margaret had heard one or two things she probably shouldn't have. That was before the President had thrown everyone for a loop. In the back of the press conference they'd squeezed each other's hands till they hurt and gasped quietly with joy, squealing softly once the room erupted and they knew no one would hear them anyway.
Now back in Leo's empty office -- he was in the Oval having another tense meeting with the President and Babish -- the gravity of the fight before them had begun to sink in. They were both still thrilled that the President was going to run, that they didn't yet have to lose the jobs, the excitement, and the people (the two men in particular, truth be told) who had come to mean everything. But there were other considerations.
Donna was thinking of Josh, of how the spirit had just begun to come back into his eyes and his walk before this happened, and of how he was already beginning to look weary again. She knew relations between him and Toby had been more than usually strained lately, and she didn't know why but she prayed it wouldn't last. Josh still needed all the friends he could get, and she wasn't sure whether he was ready to gear up for a fight of this magnitude -- not yet.
Margaret was thinking of her boss as well, predictably worrying that the stress might turn him to drink -- but really she knew his strength and knew that that was unlikely. What really worried her was a bit more insidious. She knew Leo's incredible capacity for self-sacrifice, for fading into the background, for political martyrdom if necessary. Leo had known about the President's MS for over a year. Few people would believe that Bartlet's Chief of Staff and his best friend wouldn't have known long before that. Margaret knew that this job and the companionship of these people were the only things keeping Leo alive in Jenny's absence. She also knew that he would take the fall if he thought it would keep Bartlet in office, or get him reelected, or keep the administration from going under. And she knew what that would do to him.
The door to the office swung open, and they both jumped guiltily as Leo entered the room. Margaret expected a sarcastic comment about gossip and/or loitering in his office, but instead Leo only said quietly, "Donna, Josh needs you." A flush crept into Donna's cheeks, embarrassment for having been caught not doing her job. As she passed Leo he actually stopped her with a hand on her arm; then while Margaret was looking away he said softly, "It's okay, he just needs you now." Donna nodded mutely, and she must have looked upset because Leo actually reached up and smoothed her hair back from her face -- something he hadn't done since Mallory was twelve -- before sending her on her way.
"Margaret!" Leo started to shout, modulating his voice when he turned around and remembered that she was already in the room. "I need you to pull something for me. We may have it, or Josh might -- but Donna's going to be out, so if you can't find it here just go into his office. It's the file with the President's yearly health evaluations . . ."
"We have it," Margaret replied immediately. "The First Lady came looking for it once. What do you want me to do with it?"
"Ginger's gone," Leo reflected. "Give it to Sam. I'll attach a note."
When she handed the thick file folder to Sam and motioned toward the attached note, his brow crinkled in confusion. "'As many heads as possible?' Am I supposed to kill people?"
"I think you're supposed to discuss it with someone else," Margaret replied in her usual dry tones.
He shook his head. "Josh and Donna are with Babish, and Josh never practiced law anyway." He heaved an enormous sigh. "No, I know what he means."
Margaret looked at him neutrally. "Good luck."
He descended the stairs to the basement slowly, both because he didn't really want to get there and because every footfall sounded like cannon fire in the unnatural silence. When at last he couldn't put it off anymore he pushed her door open and leaned inside. "Ainsley?" he asked meekly.
She looked up from a desk covered with tall stacks of paper. "Hey, Sam." She sounded every bit as distracted but not quite as energetic as usual.
He came into the room and closed the door behind him, although the need for secrecy had been pretty well eradicated by the press conference. "Did you, uh -- did you watch the thing?"
Ainsley stopped typing away on her laptop for a moment. "The press conference, not the interview. I taped it at home in case I needed to watch it later."
"There probably won't be a test," Sam said, his tone not really teasing.
"Not for me there won't," she said, resuming her typing. "There might be for the President."
"You want to watch it later to see whether he said anything potentially damaging?" he guessed.
"Other than the fact that he has a degenerative neurological disease and concealed it from the country?" she asked, eyebrow lifted. "I want to watch later and see whether he admitted to anything illegal."
"Distinction noted," Sam admitted. "So -- what are you doing now?"
She shrugged. "Flipping through old depositions, old cases where people were accused of lying under oath in somewhat grey circumstances -- nothing really useful but it makes me feel better."
"Makes you feel better?"
"Like I'm doing something," she clarified.
"Want to do something?"
She looked up and stopped typing again. "What?"
Sam slapped the file he was carrying onto her desk, carefully avoiding the other piles. "The President's yearly health evaluations. Look through them with me, give me your opinion."
She considered him for a moment, her eyes drifting down toward the file. "Okay."
He settled into her extra chair with a look of confusion on his face. "Ainsley?"
"Hmm?" She was already reaching for the President's medical files and clearing away the other clutter on her desk.
"Where do you stand on this?" Sam asked carefully.
She met his eyes, hers slightly widened. "Where do I stand on this?"
"Where do you stand on this?"
She took a deep breath and paused. "Do I think he did anything wrong?" Her mouth twisted in a little grimace. "Running for President and not telling people that you may eventually be incapable of doing the job is morally questionable -- whether the concern is completely valid at this time or not. Do I think he did anything illegal? I hope not. I like the man, I don't want to see him go down -- but I honestly don't have enough information to tell you whether that seems likely."
Sam patted the medical file, seemingly satisfied by her answer. "Well, then let's work on some of that information."
An hour later, after skimming through files until their fingers were rubbed raw and their eyes burned, Ainsley and Sam faced each other over her desk. "So," she said.
"MS doesn't show up in any of the standard tests done at a routine physical." She flipped back to the most recent exam report and made imaginary check marks as she went down the list. "Blood pressure, heart rate, weight, cholesterol screening, blood sugar, iron, prostate . . . plus a few bonuses: no cataracts or signs of glaucoma, full range of motion in all joints -- well, full for fifty-six, anyway." She sighed. "When you go to a doctor and you fill out the medical history, it asks about hereditary diseases: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension. They don't ask about MS; it's not a hereditary disease."
"No," Sam replied.
"You know all this already," she stated plainly. It wasn't a question.
"I've been through it with the First Lady," he confirmed.
She shrugged. "Then -"
"Because there's more, and you'll find it," he said. "Go on."
"Go on," he nodded. "Go -- I don't know, follow that thought to its logical conclusion."
"Sam," she began, frustration creeping into her voice.
"Ainsley," he interrupted before she could scold him. "We're going to appoint the most vicious Special Prosecutor we possibly can. That's the only way anything can be salvaged of his image. Whoever this person is, he's going to have obscure points coming out of the woodwork. Babish is busy working on the big stuff; we need someone who can anticipate these off the wall interpretations of the law, and Leo thinks that's you."
"What about you?" she asked after a moment.
"He said something about 'as many heads as possible.'"
She smiled for the first time. "Are you sure he didn't mean . . ."
"Probably not primarily, but I haven't ruled out violence as an answer."
She laughed a little, then sighed again. "Every medical history form also has a blank for 'other.' Now, it could be argued that 'other' refers only to other hereditary conditions not already listed on the form, in which case he's still technically not leaving anything out."
She gave him a look, still frustrated that so far she was only coming up with things he'd already thought of. When he looked innocently back at her she gave up and said with a little groan, "Let's talk some more about full disclosure."
An hour and a half and nine total collective trips to the mess and the restrooms later, they sat in nearly the same positions but slightly the worse for wear. Coffee sat cooling in mugs on her desk. Sam's jacket was off, his tie loosened, and his top button undone, so that he looked vaguely like Clark Kent about to tear his shirt off and reveal the Superman outfit underneath. His hair was considerably sloppier after hours of running his fingers through it. On one of her trips to the bathroom Ainsley had given in and ditched her stockings and work shoes, sliding her feet into an old pair of sandals she kept in her briefcase and propping her bare legs on another extra chair. She had tugged her long hair into a ponytail and shed her jacket as well. In the middle of a sentence about disclosure and military secrets she had completely trailed off, leaning her head back against the chair and twisting a pen in her fingers. Sam had barely noticed when she stopped talking, because for the last five minutes he hadn't heard a word she'd said anyway. It actually wasn't until she rolled her head to the side and called, "Sam? Hey, Sam?" that he realized he'd been staring at her legs stretched out bare in front of her.
"Sorry," he said hastily. "I uh -- kinda fell asleep there."
She sighed and closed her eyes, pinching the bridge of her nose. "Me too."
"You want to quit for the night?" he asked.
She lifted one arm and looked at her watch. "It's only ten."
"You're right, what kind of full day is that?" he asked, his eyes sparkling just a little.
She gave him that look, the one that clearly said he was being cute but she was pretending not to notice. He gave her the warm smile that look always elicited, and for a moment neither of them talked and the air crackled as it sometimes did when they were together. She laughed shortly, and then stopped and groaned under her breath. "I think I broke a rib," she complained.
"Doing what?" he asked, amused.
"Well, that's the thing. I haven't done anything," she said, her brow furrowed. "It's just been tender for the last week."
"You know you can break a rib just by sneezing or laughing," Sam said.
Anyone else would have laughed at him for knowing that -- or possibly for believing it -- but Ainsley only crooked an eyebrow. "Really?"
"And here I thought I was just being a weenie," she said, leaning back in the chair again.
"Well, I wouldn't rule that out," he teased.
"Right," she said, laughing again. "Ow."
"Should probably stop that," he offered.
"Shut up," she said, but she was smiling.
The look on her face -- tired, affectionate, and weirdly contented -- made him say something he wouldn't have dreamed of under other circumstances (although the view of her legs had probably affected his judgement slightly as well). "Come on, let's get out of here," he said.
She raised her eyebrows again. "Let's get out of here?" she repeated.
"Sure, let's go," he said, not yet completely losing his nerve. He tilted his head to the side and tried his charming look. "We need drinks."
Ainsley very slowly lifted first one leg, then the other off the chair and set them on the floor. The action caused her skirt to ride up her thigh a bit, and he could have sworn she was flirting with him. "You think I'm going to go for drinks with you?" she asked.
His smile got a little broader and he tried the deep, seductive tone. "Yes, I do."
She got to her feet and came over to stand practically over him, leaning down slightly as she said, "You know Sam, guys think that kind of thing works, but it really doesn't."
He managed to keep a straight face long enough to say, "It really does, Ainsley," and then broke into a grin. She laughed as well and shook her head.
"Fine," she said, heading back for the desk and shuffling her things together.
"Fine?" he repeated, shocked.
She turned back, an annoyingly self-satisfied smile on her face. "Sure." Then she hesitated and some of her assurance faded. "I mean, if you want to . . ."
"I suggested it," he reminded her, standing up. Her sudden uncertainty gave him the warm, protective-like feeling that she sometimes inspired.
"Okay," she said with a tiny hint of a smile. While he pulled himself together, shedding his tie and trying to straighten his shirt, she eyed her bare legs and sandals and finally said, "Oh, what the hell." She opted for simply grabbing her things and walking out like that. He clicked off her office light and pulled the door shut for her, and with his hand at the small of her back they walked out and up the stairs.
Sitting at a perfectly stereotypical dark corner table in a fairly quiet downtown bar, Sam found himself again falling into a reverie, staring somewhere between his glass of whiskey and Ainsley's general rib area. When she tilted her glass so that the ice clinked against it he started and looked up to meet her eyes.
"What are you thinking?" she asked.
"I don't know," he said with a laugh. She gave him a wry look as she sipped her own whiskey and he said, "I don't think I was thinking about anything. I was just . . . being."
Her eyebrows lifted, but she seemed to understand. "Why, what are you thinking?" he returned.
She shrugged and took another swallow; he watched her throat move and then looked hastily up at the light glinting off her hair. "I was . . . trying not to think about full disclosure," she confessed.
He laughed again, but this time he meant it, and then he caught sight of her face and stopped laughing. She looked -- not right, somehow. "What?" he asked in the sincerely concerned voice that they didn't often show each other.
She frowned and started to open her mouth several times without actually saying anything -- at moments like this she reminded him of C.J. -- before finally asking, "Sam, do I -- am I -- do you think I -- or I don't know, maybe both of us -- are we -"
"Ainsley," he interrupted, "would you please ask me something?"
His mock-irritated tone seemed to snap her out of her hesitation. "Do you think I'm the kind of person who can't talk about anything but work?" she asked, looking him straight in the eye.
His brow furrowed to match hers, and he considered carefully while swallowing whiskey. "Well -- no."
"You don't sound very sure, there," she said worriedly.
"Well," he said. "It's like -- yes, talking to you almost always involves politics. But politics isn't just work, you know, it's -- it has to do with everything. It has to do with education, and economy, and philosophy, and morality -- it's everything. Politics the way we do it is just -- life. Talking about politics doesn't mean you're talking about work, unless you're talking specifically about a bill we passed yesterday."
She still looked unsure, and he asked, "Did someone . . ."
"What?" she asked, frowning across the table.
"Sam . . ." she began.
"I was about to ask something extraordinarily personal and probably pretty rude," he said. "Never mind."
She paused a moment, swirling her glass again. "Did someone tell me that?" she said finally. "Is that what you were going to ask?"
He wavered for only a second. "Yes."
"Yes?" he echoed, not sure whether that had been the answer to his question.
"Sam," she started, in that tone that clearly meant, 'leave it alone.'
"No, who?" he asked again.
"It does matter," he said. "Whoever he was, he was wrong."
"Sam . . ."
"Seriously, what did -" He stopped himself and lifted his glass to his lips, draining it. "I'm sorry. I have no right to pry."
She swallowed the rest of her glass -- nearly a quarter of the way full -- at once before setting it down and saying, "I had only been out with him twice. He commented that I 'talked shop' an awful lot and said something like, 'What if I tried to make you have a whole conversation that had nothing to do with politics?' I just -- I wasn't real surprised when he never called again."
"Did you really want him to?" Sam asked in disbelief.
"I guess not," she admitted, tracing circles on the table. "That doesn't mean it wasn't insulting when he didn't."
"True," he said, smiling. "Well, he was wrong, and also an idiot."
She gave him an affectionately dry look. "Sam, not knowing that politics is life doesn't make you an idiot."
"No, but walking away from you does," he replied. It took all of three seconds for his face to start burning, but he ignored it and drained some of the whiskey-flavored melting ice from his glass. By the time he was able to look back at her she had recovered from her own shyness and managed to hide her shocked pleasure.
After a long moment of awkward silence she finally asked, "What do you think is going to happen?"
He raised an eyebrow. "With -- the thing? The President?" He found himself looking hastily around to make sure no one was within earshot, before remembering that everyone knew now anyway. "I don't know."
"Deciding to run again is a good sign, right?" Ainsley pressed.
"This President has never lost an election in his life," Sam intoned.
"You think he's going to start now?"
Two pairs of tired blue eyes met over the table. "I hope not," Sam answered soberly. "It would be a hell of a time for a first."
That almost made her laugh because she understood perfectly that he was joking, but not really. She rested her elbows on the table and looked down, breaking their eye contact, as a sudden wave of exhaustion swept over her entire body. When he asked softly if she was all right she replied without thinking, "I've never been so tired in my life."
He hesitated before asking, "Physically tired, or . . ."
"Tired," she repeated. "Physically exhausted, mentally drained, and so tired of dealing with all this . . ." She didn't finish, but she didn't have to. She shrugged and looked up at him. "I'm sorry. You've been dealing with it for so much longer than I have, and I'm just whining . . . and it's not, you know, that I don't want to help." The apparent non sequitur didn't disturb him in the slightest, and she went on, "I don't like what's being done, what's going to be done to a good man and, if I'm forced to admit it, a good President. I want to help you -- you all, I mean -- I want to help all of you, the staff, to defend him as much as possible . . ." She trailed off, face burning from her little slip and train of thought completely derailed by the look on Sam's face. She had expected amusement at her usual nervous rambling, but this time she'd seen only exhaustion and a probing awareness she'd never sensed with him before. It made her, if at all possible, even more flustered.
Sam noticed that she was flustered, but he was too busy to wonder why -- busy praying she wouldn't notice where his thoughts had been going. He reflected, as she swallowed another sip of whiskey, that sometimes it took so little. The smallest things -- the flush on her cheeks, the alcohol, the way he licked his lips, the rise and fall of her chest that indicated a slightly disturbed breathing pattern -- could turn the awkwardness and tension between them into a completely different kind of tension. He didn't have to wonder whether she felt it -- the air had thickened between them as a result of completely mutual awareness. He did wonder whether they were both drunk and that was why this was happening, after so much time and in the middle of so much frustration. Of course, maybe that was the answer after all. He only knew that he was torn between sleepy sentiment and raging desire -- one side of him wanted to confess his growing affection and then fold her in his arms and fall asleep, and the other side was quite sure that both talking and sleep could wait until he knew what her lips tasted like. There was also a third side telling him quite forcefully that she'd been drinking and was worn out and frustrated, and that her reaction might be the reaction of a woman in that state to a nearby man, with no real distinction between her friend Sam and anyone else. In short, it was possible that her body wanted someone, and that her mind had no intention of that someone being him.
He hadn't spoken in a long while and Ainsley had started idly playing with her whiskey glass, tracing her finger in circle after circle along the rim. He wasn't aware of his eyes widening until she had taken the edge of the glass between her teeth and started running her tongue where her fingertip had just been. He must have looked pretty scary, because when her eye caught his she immediately put the glass down and asked, "Sam? Are you okay?"
"Fine!" he replied too quickly. "I'm -- fine, nothing's wrong."
Her brow furrowed momentarily, but she chose to let it go. "Okay."
"Would you sleep with me?"
Had she been drinking, she would probably have choked and/or spit whiskey across the table. As it was, she gave an odd involuntary half-cough and said, "I'm sorry?"
His eyes widened even further in complete and total surprise at himself. "Well, that's something that shouldn't have been said."
"Are you drunk?" Ainsley asked in disbelief.
Sam pondered that one for a moment. "I don't think there's really a good answer to that question, is there?" Off her look he continued, "If I say no, then there's no excuse and you'll probably feel free to hit me or, you know, sue me for harassment. If I say yes, you'll think I was only considering it because I was drunk and you'll probably be insulted. So no, I don't think there is a good answer to that question."
"Are you this articulate when you're drunk?" she asked, frowning.
"Probably not," he admitted.
"And you've only had . . ."
"Two whiskeys," he said flatly.
"So you're probably pretty sober, is what we're saying here."
"Maybe not sober," he reflected. "But definitely not drunk."
"Okay," she said thoughtfully. "Um, I need another drink . . ."
"Are you sure?" he interrupted.
"Oh, yeah," she replied. "And then when I come back, we're going to have a chat about, you know, this."
"Okay," he managed to say through the paralysis that had just seized most of his body.
She stood from the table slowly, taking her glass with her and walking just about as -- Sam wondered whether "sultrily" was a real word -- just about as sultrily as one can while wearing flat sandals and a suit skirt. She leaned heavily against the bar with one hip while holding her glass out, and he could have sworn she was flirting with the bartender. He didn't know what the hell had happened, but suddenly Ainsley had gone from the pleasantly irritating thorn in his side to -- well -- the phrase "sex kitten" entered his mind briefly, but he got rid of it in a hurry. Ainsley was coming back ready, he suspected, to kick his ass.
She dropped into the booth across from him and swallowed half her glass in one smooth move. The glass hit the table with a bit of a thud and the look she gave him reminded him of the First Lady. He gulped.
"So," she said.
"What the hell was I thinking?" he guessed weakly.
She raised an eyebrow. "Oh, I know what you were thinking."
He lifted his glass to drain a few more drops of whiskey-flavored melting ice. "No, you don't," he replied quietly.
In less time than it took for him to swallow Ainsley had lost about three-quarters of her self-assurance. "I don't?" she asked. She was trying for sarcasm, but she only made it to uncertainty.
"No," he replied, setting the glass down. He couldn't quite meet her eyes, so he occupied himself with wiping the condensation from the sides of his glass with a fingertip. It came back as soon as he could wipe it away. "I wasn't propositioning you."
"You weren't?" That time she made it most of the way to sarcasm.
He laughed shortly. "Okay, maybe I was. But that wasn't the main . . . point."
"What was?" She sounded more curious than -- well -- likely to kill him, so he continued without lifting his eyes from his glass.
"It was more of a request for information than a request for -- you know."
"A request for information?" she repeated. She sounded torn between wanting to laugh at him and something a little softer.
"Okay, can we just forget it?" he asked desperately.
"Sam!" she said, now starting to laugh. She picked up her glass and started swirling the liquid in it, and that was his only clue that she was nervous. "You mean you weren't asking me to sleep with you, just asking whether I would?"
"Yes?" he said, suddenly no longer sure. He looked up at her without lifting his head, giving her an uncertain glance through his eyelashes that she tried very hard not to find cute.
"Why?" she asked, still laughing to keep herself from thinking too hard about what this conversation might be getting at.
"Because I -- oh God." Had he really been about to admit that he'd been watching her and wanting her just then? On the other hand, was there really any other way to go at this point? "I was -- I *am* -- um, I was -- you know what, no." He broke their eye contact and reached for his glass. "I think I need another one."
Her hand suddenly pressed down on his, keeping him attached to the table. "I don't think you do," she said quietly.
He raised an eyebrow in annoyance. "What are you, my mother?"
She matched his look. "Hardly."
"Ainsley, I'm not drunk."
"I know you're not," she replied. "But I don't want you to get drunk."
"Suddenly you get to make that decision?" She hadn't removed her hand, and he hadn't budged, so he stood awkwardly half-bent over the table.
She looked him the eye firmly and seriously. "Sam, I'm part of this too. And I think we should finish it, now, without either of us being intoxicated."
"Finish what?" he asked, veering dangerously close to snide.
The look in her eyes made him stop and banished his annoyance, because he saw how serious she was. "If we end this conversation here, and you get drunk, either we're going to have a fight and not be able to look each other in the eye tomorrow, or we're going to wind up at someone's apartment and not be able to look each other in the eye tomorrow."
She'd won and they both knew it, and he sank back into the booth. "I'm sorry," he said softly, playing with his glass again.
She shook her head and waved his apology away.
"I'm just not sure how this got to where it is," he said obscurely.
She laughed at him again, and this time he welcomed it. "I'm pretty sure it started when you asked if I would sleep with you," she said.
"For you," he said without thinking and watched with odd detachment as her eyes widened in amused surprise. Screwed that one up, part of his brain considered.
She drummed the fingers of one hand on the table as she asked the inevitable question, "So when did it start for you?"
"Probably when I was staring at your legs in your office," he replied. Wow, the logical part of his brain reflected. That was a stupid answer.
Ainsley looked as if she couldn't decide whether to laugh or run. "Okay," she said, trying desperately to sound normal. She drained her glass before asking, "Is there any chance things aren't going to be weird after this conversation?"
"No, I'm pretty sure we've blown that," he said. Their eyes locked and she couldn't help smiling at the sheepish grin on his face.
"Okay," she said evenly. "So -"
"You know what?" he interrupted. "We're adults here, and we're friends, right?" She gave him a confused smile, and he continued, "There is no reason this has to be weird. I -- said what I did, before, because I was attracted to you and I was wondering, in a purely philosophical way, whether you could ever be attracted to me. That's all." He sat back and took a shrunken piece of ice into his mouth.
"Yes," Ainsley replied.
"Exactly," he said around the piece of ice. "We can just -- wait." He nearly swallowed the ice whole as something occurred to him. "Were you agreeing with me, or answering the question?"
She paused a moment to unravel that. "Both."
He willed himself not to choke, and somehow it worked. "Really?"
A deep crimson spread over her face. "Okay, never mind."
"No, I mean -- really?"
She decided to play it casual. "Well, why would you think I wouldn't?"
"Why would I think you would?" he shot back.
"I think I'm lost," she said in such a helpless tone that he burst out laughing.
He jerked his head toward the door. "Want to get out of here?"
Ainsley raised an eyebrow and tapped one fingernail against the side of her glass. "Um, Sam?"
"No!" he corrected quickly. "I mean, just to walk, or something. Just out of here. The smoke is starting to cloud my vision."
She laughed in spite of herself and got slowly to her feet. "Okay."
The night air was mercifully cool, particularly on her burning face after he said, "Really, I'm not trying to get you into bed," and before she could stop herself she replied, "Why not?" When he nearly stopped walking with surprise she laughed shallowly and said, "I'm kidding, Sam."
They were silent for a while, heading by unspoken mutual consent for the Mall. As the brightly lit side of the Monument came into view he asked, "Were you afraid I'd answer?"
"When . . ." He almost decided not to ask her, but finally did. "When I said I wasn't trying to get you into bed, and you asked why -- were you afraid I would answer?"
Her mouth opened and closed a few times, but she couldn't decide on a reply. Finally she said lamely, "Sam, I don't know what you're -"
"Were you?" he asked again.
"I don't know," she replied honestly.
They walked further, crossing Constitution and heading out onto the grass of the Mall instead of on the concrete paths. "You want to know why?" he asked.
She was noticeably looking down at her feet instead of at him, but she said, "Sure," in a tone that indicated she didn't think things could get any worse.
He was quiet for a moment, trying to find the right words without crossing any lines. "Because . . . someone you try to get into bed is either someone you don't ever expect to see again, or someone that you might start dating afterward but it wouldn't matter too much if you didn't. Someone you try to get into bed is . . . only about sex. That's why." He fell silent, hoping she would understand what he was trying to say.
She took her time answering. "So, what you're saying is . . ."
". . . That I'm not trying to get you into bed because I wouldn't want to sleep with you only once."
She stopped walking and he jerked to a stop beside her. "Okay, wait, that wasn't exactly what I meant either," he amended.
"Let's hope not," she said, looking up and waiting for him to explain.
He took a deep breath and groaned quietly. He and Ainsley had always steered safely clear of emotion -- they would laugh and tease and make it clear enough that they had developed an odd friendship, but expressions of sentiment were across a line they had chosen not to approach. Finally he said, in a halting, stilted manner, "I -- value our relationship too much to screw it up by doing things out of order."
Ignoring the urge to laugh at him for sounding like a Hallmark card, Ainsley asked with a touch of amusement in her tone, "There's an order?"
"Well, yeah." He had started walking again and she followed him. "Jumping into bed is fine if you don't care about your relationship, but if you do then you don't sleep with someone until -- well, until your relationship is ready to change."
"Okay," Ainsley said.
"Yeah, okay." She didn't look at him, but rather up at the Monument.
"I'm not sure what just happened," he admitted.
She met his eyes in the dark, partially silhouetted against the floodlights. "You gave me a perfectly acceptable reason for why you're trying to convince me that you don't want to sleep with me."
"Okay," he said. He looked back at her questioningly until she broke the connection and wandered away a few feet, gathering her skirt delicately around her thighs as she sank onto the grass.
Sam watched uncertainly for a second before making up his mind and settling on the grass beside Ainsley, folding his legs awkwardly in front of himself like a kindergartener at a campfire. The image made him snicker out loud, and made Ainsley turn and give him a questioning look.
"Um, nothing," he said, opting to keep his thoughts to himself.
She looked unsatisfied but turned away anyway and looked back at the glowing obelisk. "You know, I never got this thing," she commented.
"Mmm-hmm." Frowning, she rested her chin in one hand. "It doesn't say freedom, or liberty, or nationalism, or America, or whatever it's supposed to say. It just looks kind of forbidding."
He unconsciously matched her posture. "I think it's supposed to be forbidding."
"Forbidding?" She leaned back on her elbows, close enough to lying down that he gulped quietly. "Strong, maybe. Proud, maybe. But I don't think they meant for it to be forbidding. It's a monument, not, you know, a war camp."
"A war camp?"
"Yeah, I couldn't think of anything that you would build just to scare other countries."
That made her laugh, the kind of short, silent laugh that was more a tightening of her stomach muscles than anything else. She turned away before he could catch her smile and looked back up at the obelisk. "I just never liked it," she commented.
"Well, that settles it."
"What?" she asked, sitting up curiously.
"You really are un-American."
"You going to turn me in?" she asked, twisting sideways.
He gave her a sly smile. "Maybe we could work something out." He leered suggestively, one eyebrow lifted.
She had to lay back on the grass in order to laugh without collapsing, and he looked down at her almost fondly. "You're going to get grass in your hair."
"That's part of my evil plan," she said, grinning up at him.
"This way when I get up you can offer to brush the grass off."
"Which will then lead to our rolling around like teenagers on the National Mall."
"And possibly getting arrested by the Park Police, yes."
"Maybe we should rethink that."
"Maybe." Her smile softened dangerously and she looked up at the sky instead of at him. "Yeah, as romantic and wild as this is, I think I'm getting bitten by mosquitoes."
He held out his hand chivalrously and she used it to pull herself back to a sitting position. "See," he complained as she carefully pulled her skirt down over her thighs, "now you've got me thinking."
"Okay, cut that out."
"What?" she asked almost seriously.
"That complying thing you do."
"Sam, I think we can safely say that my compliance has never been a problem in our relationship."
"Well, no, because if it were . . ."
"We'd be rolling around on the National Mall?"
"Right." He leered again and she burst out laughing.
"But not really," he rushed to say, "because . . ."
"I know," she interrupted, allowing herself a softened look again before asking, "What have I got you thinking about?"
"Well, if you really want to know, at the moment it involves you, me, and a perfect world with no floodlights, Park Police or grass in uncomfortable places . . ."
"Sam!" she exclaimed, laughing again. "I meant, when you said I'd gotten you thinking. What were you . . ."
"Oh," he said, pretending to be embarrassed. They shared a smile that felt almost a little too intimate, and he quickly said, "You, me, and the National Monument."
"That's ambitious of you," she said, barely able to restrain her laughter.
"Ainsley!" he said, horrified.
"What, you're the only one who's allowed to use bad sexual innuendo?"
"You win." She opened her mouth and he quickly said, "Don't you dare."
She grinned. "Fair enough. So what were you actually thinking about?"
"I don't know -- I think I might agree with you about the monument. I'm not quite sure what it's supposed to stand for, either."
"Truth, justice, and the American way?"
He laughed. "You think?"
His eyes narrowed. "Constancy?"
"Of the government. No, not the government, of -- the country? This isn't coming out the way I mean it . . ."
"No, I think I know what you meant." He swallowed the last remnants of laughter and looked up at the object in question. "That it means something always lasts, even if one administration . . ." He trailed off, unable to voice the dire thoughts in his head.
"I'm sorry," she said softly.
"Yeah," he acknowledged without looking at her.
There was an uncomfortable silence, and then she said, "I think it lies, a little."
That caught his attention, and he turned his face to her. "Okay."
"I mean, it gives you that . . ." Unable to find the right words, she gestured with a hand that glowed white in the semidark. "That feeling that whatever happens is for the good of the country, and that the right thing is somehow always done, and that's . . . not always true."
"No kidding," he agreed with a short, humorless laugh.
"In fact," she said, drawing her knees up to her chest while carefully keeping her skirt over her legs, "I'm beginning to wonder if it's ever true."
"Working in the White House'll do that to you."
"I'm serious, Sam," she told the grass at her feet.
"So am I."
She nodded without looking up. Something in the downward tilt of her head struck a chord with his own idealism, and he said hastily, "But it works both ways, you know. Sometimes, when something actually gets done . . ."
"I don't get to see much of that," she said wryly. "I spend most of my time looking at the White House's mistakes."
"So nothing's changed since you came to work there."
Ainsley smiled into her knees. "You could say that." She stretched both legs out in front of her again and leaned back on her arms, this time so close that her shoulder brushed Sam's and their arms came almost into contact. In the long silence that ensued he began to get nervous, and so he said quickly, "The President likes you," before he could be completely overcome by the tiny heat and pressure of her shoulder on his.
She laughed again. "The President thinks I'm a lunatic."
"No, he doesn't." He smiled slyly because she wasn't looking at him. "A former exotic dancer, perhaps, but not -"
"Ow!" He reached over to rub the arm she'd just hit, dragging the backs of his knuckles over her arm in the process. Because he could have sworn that she leaned into his touch just the slightest bit he said, "Listen, about that . . ."
"The -- you know, the, um, Œsex kitten' comment . . ."
She groaned and, just for the tiniest part of a second, leaned her forehead on his shoulder. "Can we just not discuss that right now?"
It registered in his brain that their tactile relationship had increased steadily this night, but he tucked that away in anticipation of her anger at his next confession. "I just thought you might want to know that, um, the President didn't exactly generate that statement."
Her eyebrows narrowed as she tried to follow that. "Sorry?"
He winced, positive he shouldn't be sitting this close to her when he said this. "He was repeating it."
If possible, Ainsley looked even more horrified than she had that night. "Oh, God. From who?" Before he could answer she went on, "Did someone -- I mean, is that what the Republicans in Congress have been saying? That the White House hired me because -"
"Ainsley," he interrupted. "First of all, you know that's what people have been saying, although they haven't been saying it to the President. Most of them, anyway," he muttered under his breath. "But I am glad to see you're beginning to recognize that the Republicans are the enemy."
"Sam . . ."
She stopped, confused again. "What?"
"Me, he was repeating me."
Her face turned a shade paler and he realized instantly that he'd incorrectly predicted her response. She looked much more hurt than angry. "Who did you . . ." She barely managed to choke the words out and had to start over. "Who did you say that to?"
"Ainsley, not -- I didn't -" He sighed and began again himself, noting without surprise that she had shifted her weight away from him. "I didn't say that I thought it was true. I said -- when I talked to the President about coming down to meet you he asked if there was anything in particular he should say, and I said he could say something like -"
"ŒA lot of people think we hired you because you were a blond Republican sex kitten?'" She had probably intended only to repeat the words, but somewhere in the middle it turned into a rather shrill, disbelieving question mark.
He winced. "Yeah."
"Are you out of your mind?"
"In my own defense, you know, things are usually pretty informal with the President. I didn't think he'd repeat it, but I think he found it funny."
She frowned. "So he really repeated it more to embarrass you than me."
Her gaze had turned back to the obelisk, probably because she didn't want to be looking at him. "Why did he think it was funny?"
That was, oddly enough, a question Sam had never really asked himself. When he did, his breath stopped for a moment and he could feel his face reddening. "He thinks I have a crush on you," he said flatly, realizing belatedly that he'd spoken aloud.
He could hear in her tone that her eyebrows were lifted again, even though he was too humiliated to look at her. "The President thinks you have a crush on me," she echoed.
"Yes, I think he does," he said, trying desperately to pull off casual.
"Do you?" she asked half-seriously, turning to face him again. He opened his mouth and she said quickly with a laugh, "I'm kidding, Sam, you don't -"
She stopped mid-sentence. "Yes?"
He fought the new blush that threatened to creep over his face and said lightly, "Who wouldn't? I mean, I personally have always been attracted to very conservative women who think I'm an idiot."
"I don't think you're an idiot," she said, keeping her tone just the safe side of seriousness.
"Sadly misguided, yes, but . . ."
He would never know what complete and total insanity took over him at that particular moment -- although he would blame it on the alcohol, the casual conversation, and all the careful dancing-around-sex talk -- but as he started to laugh again he dove over and grabbed for her side. She didn't disappoint, turning out to be extremely ticklish and shrieking with a combination of laughter and indignation, clutching at his arms until he stopped. "I hate being tickled," she stated from her supine position on the grass as he loomed over her.
"I'll keep that in mind," he said with an exaggeratedly suggestive grin.
She rolled her eyes and pushed him off of her. "Let me up."
"Yeah," he agreed quickly, suddenly afraid that he might have gone too far. Joking was one thing, but he never wanted her to feel threatened. As she sat up, though, he saw in her look that she was fine and that she hadn't misunderstood his mood. He tested her with a hand on her back, very lightly rubbing. She didn't object, and he began to enjoy the unaccustomed freedom to touch her -- until his mind suddenly filled with thoughts of touching her in other ways, and heat flooded his face again. As he tried to rein in his imagination, she said quietly but distinctly, "He's going to win."
"The -- President?" he asked, dragging his mind back from wherever it had been.
"You think so?"
"Yes," she repeated more certainly.
"I'm serious," she said for the second time, giving him a piercing look.
"I know you are," he said, and the affection in his voice surprised them both. She looked away from him and leaned back, angling her head toward him just the slightest bit, almost as if she were asking . . .
He decided to take the plunge and risk being wrong. The hand on her back slid up to her far shoulder and he pulled her into him, tugging her head down onto his chest and carefully supporting her with both arms. She came into his embrace willingly, settling herself before wrapping both arms around his waist. He decided to stop thinking, stop worrying and stop planning. He let his arms go tighter around her and bent his face into her hair, feeling her breath lift her chest against his. They both carefully avoided turning this into a sentimental moment; he made a comment about full disclosure and she countered with some obscure argument. But she was warm against him, and they had finally stopped arguing long enough to appreciate each other, and so he held her a little closer and they talked -- a Democrat and a Republican -- about reelection.