Disclaimers: None of these characters belong to me, except the ones you don't recognize.
When they entered the apartment and he clicked the light on, Ainsley stopped and stared. The bouquet of roses stood in a vase on his coffee table, along with two wine glasses and an artistic arrangement of candles. Sam couldn't take credit for the arrangement - Carol had actually sketched him a diagram, so that he only had to acquire the things and follow the model. He feared Carol and Bonnie, who had been party to the whole thing, would never let him live it down, but the pricelessly stunned look on Ainsley's face was worth it.
She turned to him, a smile beginning to break through. "Is this a holiday I've forgotten about? Christmas is still *next* week, right?"
Sam grinned, concealing his nervousness well, and pushed her coat off her shoulders. "It's not a holiday. I just wanted to do something . . ." He shrugged. "Sit down."
He practically ran into the kitchen and came back with matches, the wine bottle, and a corkscrew. Ainsley took the matches from him and carefully lit all the candles, an amused smile touching her lips as he popped the wine cork and poured two glasses. When she took hers he clicked them gently together and said, "I love you."
"I love you too," she replied with a tiny frown of confusion. She took a small sip and said, "Sam, you're not dying, are you?"
He laughed slightly. "No."
"Moving to Yemen?"
"So?" Her eyebrows lifted as she gestured at the romantic setting.
"You don't trust me?"
"No." Ainsley took another sip of her wine. "What's going on?"
"Really, nothing." He took a long drink from his glass. "Hang on a second." Crossing quickly to his stereo, he pressed play and smiled at her as strains of Vivaldi filled the room. Typical, he knew, but it was the best he could do. He lowered the lights, leaving only a few small lamps, and returned to his spot by her side. Off her suspicious look he said calmly, "I just wanted us to have a nice, relaxing night." *With this ring burning a hole in my pocket.*
"Okay," she said, starting to lose that probing look.
He took another long swallow and, slightly fortified, said, "There is something I want to tell you, though."
"Is it bad?" she asked.
He rubbed her knee reassuringly. "No, no, it's not - it's nothing new. It's just - there are some things I want to tell you about, that's all. Things we've never talked about."
Ainsley frowned again, but evidently decided to believe him. "Okay." She leaned back against the couch and took another sip. "Go ahead."
He set his glass down and licked his lips, taking a deep, careful breath through his nose. "Have I ever told you about the summer house in Washington State?"
"You have a summer house in Washington?"
"No, we used to, when I was little. We went up during the summers, and my dad would fly back and forth whenever he had to work." The word "work" came out oddly as he considered what else his father might have been doing, but he left it alone and quickly moved on. "It was a cabin, kind of, but two floors with a porch. On Puget Sound."
"Sounds nice," she said, still not sure why he was telling her this.
"Yeah. Nancy and I had our own rooms upstairs, and there was a big fireplace downstairs in the living room. We used to cook outside at night and eat on the porch. My mom had this hammock that she would lie in with her books, and my dad would take me and Nancy on hikes back in the woods, and walk along the sound . . ." He trailed off, slipping an arm around her and pulling her close so that her head rested on his shoulder.
"Anyway, this one day when I was about eleven, we were down by the water - Nancy was off doing something, throwing rocks, and my dad and I were just sitting, looking out at the water. And he wasn't looking at me at all, and he said, 'This is the way it's supposed to be.'" Sam laughed. "I thought he was talking to himself. I asked him what he meant, and he said, 'This is real life, Sam. This is the way we're supposed to live, not . . .'"
After a long moment Ainsley asked, "Not what?"
"He never said," Sam replied with a wry smile. "I've never asked him what he meant - I wanted to pretend I understood - but I've always wondered. Did he mean not in the city? Not having stressful jobs, not worrying about money, or stock holdings, or cars, or . . ." He sighed. "But I've never asked. Doesn't really matter, though, because I felt like I got what he was saying anyway."
"What?" she asked quietly. She still wasn't sure what had brought on this sudden interest in storytelling, but she was trying to be supportive.
"Well, there's the obvious, you know, get back to nature. I thought maybe he meant the family together, peaceful . . ."
She reached up and held the hand that rested on her shoulder. "How do you think your parents' relationship fit into that?"
"I've asked myself that question once or twice since last year," Sam replied. "I still don't know. I wonder if maybe he felt guilty, or he felt like he wouldn't be tempted if he was far away from Gail. Maybe he thought everything would be better if he and my mom could be alone more. Who knows - I've never wanted to ask."
"No, of course not."
He squeezed her hand. "Anyway, the point of the story is, I've always remembered him telling me that. My whole life, I've had that scene in my head as a measure of the way it should be - I guess as a measure of what I wanted to have, eventually."
She was quiet for a while before she said, "I'm not completely sure what you mean."
He stared into the flickering flame of the nearest candle, which was less nerve-wracking than looking at her. "Some of it's completely literal details - ever since then I've always wanted a house by the water, where I could maybe have my boat close to home, and where I could take walks in the morning . . . the rest of it is harder to pin down. But the family is a big part of it - you know, I never wanted to live by the water alone."
"That makes sense," she said in a quiet, noncommittal way.
"I always pictured myself sitting with . . ." he blushed and admitted, "with my son - or my daughter - but probably a couple of them, you know, and taking them with me walking along a beach." He met her eyes and saw that she was smiling tenderly at his description. "And of course there'd have to be someone else - I mean, the kids are a big part, but the main thing is to find someone who's . . ." He found himself suddenly unsure of what to say. He'd planned pretty carefully, but emotion was an unexpected factor and the words didn't seem right anymore.
Ainsley sat up to put her glass on the table, and then settled back into his arms. They were quiet together - she couldn't tell whether he had perhaps intended to say something else, or whether he might be finished. Finally she said hesitantly, "There are probably some nice places out by the Chesapeake."
He was grateful that she seemed to be letting him get past the hard point for the moment, even though their words still cautiously implied the same end. "I thought of that," he said softly, his hand tangling in her hair. "Awfully long commute, though."
"By the river, maybe?" she suggested.
"Maybe down in Virginia?"
"Good point, they have Democrat senators."
Ainsley fake-slapped his thigh. "So you thinking of going for it? Buying a house?"
He took a very deep breath. "I didn't think I'd start with buying the house. Baby steps."
"Where are you planning on starting?"
He leaned his head against hers. "Well, I didn't have an established timeline. I didn't plan to do this when I turned thirty-four, or anything. It just kind of fell in my lap."
"You . . . inherited a house," she guessed.
"No." He squeezed her hand and steeled himself. "I always thought I would get married, then do the house, water, kids, everything. And then there was Lisa, and I thought maybe a brownstone would be okay if we could have a summer house somewhere, and maybe after we had the two kids she was willing to have, that maybe she would want more . . ." He shrugged. "It wasn't until after she left me that I realized I wasn't just compromising on the details, I was compromising on her."
"Compromising?" she prodded when he stopped talking.
"I had always pictured a marriage as having a completely equal relationship - not that the two people had to be the same, but equal. I thought things should be shared, not - I didn't think there should be so many things I didn't understand, or so many things I didn't even want to understand about her. I didn't think - I mean, I knew it was work, that you had to work on a relationship, but I didn't think it would be arduous work. I always pictured an ideal relationship as being the kind of thing where the problems don't make you so afraid after a while, because you know you both care enough to get through them." He sighed. "I know, I sound like a marriage counselor."
She chose to ignore that. "Do you - how do you see us?" He didn't answer right away, and she swallowed and asked again, "What do you think we're like?" Her face burned - they were used to exchanging words of affection, but not necessarily used to discussing their relationship.
Adrenaline rushed through Sam's body and his heart pounded; he knew his moment had come. He tightened his arm around her and said, "I think we're exactly what I always wanted."
Ainsley smiled and turned her body into his, relaxing against him. "I agree," she said quietly.
"So," he said, clearing his throat. "You know, there was something I wanted to give you a few weeks ago, but . . . I decided it wasn't the right time."
He felt her stiffen a little in his arms, and she asked, "How many weeks ago?"
"Before the - before the pregnancy tests, and everything," he said frankly. "I was waiting until you got over being sick, and then you were so worried about being pregnant, and . . ." He tried to pull her closer, and was relieved when she didn't resist. "I decided to wait."
"You had something to give me, and you didn't want to do it while I was worried?" she asked with a touch of skepticism coming through in a heavier accent.
"I was also afraid -" He coughed and started over. "I wanted to give it to you the week before you got sick, way before the whole - pregnancy - issue, but then I was afraid you would think it was for the wrong reason." He turned and leaned his forehead against her hair. "Do you know what I'm talking about?"
"Not a clue," she said, not meeting his gaze.
He pulled back from her, still keeping as much contact as possible while his hand went into his pocket. He pulled out the ring box and handed it to her without a word.
"You were afraid I'd think you bought me jewelry because I was pregnant?" she guessed.
Sam wondered whether she was deliberately misunderstanding. "Sort of." He reached over and opened the box as it sat on her palm. "I was afraid you'd think I wanted to marry you because you were pregnant. Or thought you were."
She sat very still for an interminable amount of time, not speaking, just looking at the ring. He'd chosen it carefully with the help of the practically ancient jeweler; it was a beautiful, understated ring: a small but perfect diamond framed by dark, brilliant rubies set in the band. Her hand was starting to shake. "So," she finally said, "why do you want to marry me?"
He had anticipated this question, and he slipped his hand under hers to stop the shaking as he spoke. "Because you amaze me every day. Because I feel safe and comfortable with you. Because we have a relationship I was beginning to think I'd never have with anyone. Because we're just about as perfect for each other as anyone could be. Because I can't imagine wanting to live with anyone else, or have children with anyone else. Because I think we are, and can be, partners in a way that very few people can. Because we understand each other. And because I love you more than I have ever loved anyone else in the world."
Ainsley lifted a hand to her eyes and brushed away tears, laughing as she said, "I can't believe I'm doing this. It's so - romance novel." She sniffled quietly. "You know, Jed Bartlet is really lucky you weren't writing speeches for any of his opponents."
"I'm not trying to sell a candidate," he said softly.
"I know, she replied, meeting his eyes with a smile. She took the ring from the box and handed it to him. Just as he was about to begin panicking that she was giving it back, she held out her left hand with fingers extended, wiggling her ring finger at him. He gave her a sudden understanding smile before sliding the ring carefully onto her finger, holding her hand tight the entire time.
"It fits," she whispered.
"Yeah, I borrowed your college ring for a while."
She held up the back of her hand to her eyes, and he gently turned her wrist toward him. "Let me see."
"You didn't see it when you bought it?" she asked.
"It wasn't on your hand when I bought it." Their fingers threaded together and he felt the cool metal under his fingertips. "Um - Lisa kept hers, you know."
Ainsley smiled, still looking at their intertwined hands. "I didn't think it was the same one."
He pulled her hand into his lap. "So is that a yes?"
She leaned in and kissed him gently. "Did I not say two months ago that I would marry you if you asked me?"
His face suddenly took on the excited little boy statement that she found completely adorable. "You did," he replied.
"So what were you worried about?"
"I was scared," he admitted quietly. "I was afraid with everything going on that you might have changed your mind."
"I haven't," she replied, matching his tone and catching his eyes with hers.
"Okay," he said. He smiled again, the corners of his eyes wrinkling. "So we're getting married."
Ainsley realized there was something she hadn't technically said, and she decided now was as good a time as any. "Yes," she replied, grinning back at him like a maniac.
He tugged on her hands and pulled her into his arms, hugging her close as she buried her face in his shoulder. He wanted badly to kiss her, eventually - he wanted to do more than that, eventually - but for the moment it seemed right just to hold her like this. His arms tightened as he realized he had earned the right to do this for his entire life, whenever he wanted. It occurred to him that so many more things had just happened than a couple deciding to get married - and before he knew it he had spoken this thought aloud.
"What do you mean?" Ainsley asked without moving from his shoulder.
He shifted them both back against the couch so that they could relax without her stirring from his arms. "Well, I guess a lot of what I mean is part of the getting married - but I think a lot of people get married without what we have. It's like I said before, I think we're going to be excellent partners, in every way possible. That's what I always thought it should be like. Neither of us ever has to make a career decision again without someone to talk to. It means we both have a pretty good devil's advocate when we take a position on something. It means I get to have you with me all the time, in one house, and that we get to spend our weekends painting the kitchen together."
"Painting the kitchen?" she laughed.
"And it means that when you run for Congress, I will support you even if your one seat is the difference between a Republican or a Democratic majority."
"I am not going to run for Congress," she said, fondly stroking his chest. "But you will. And I'll be right there."
He froze for a moment and looked down at her. "You think?"
"Yes," she replied seriously. "And just think of all the campaign events we can have in our house with the well-painted kitchen."
He laughed with her and kissed her forehead, several times in succession. "That's good then, because I can approve your court appointment."
"That'll be the day," she grinned. But suddenly it was as if she'd closed her eyes and had a vision. She could see absolutely everything, through a fog that obscured details, but the general themes were as clear as day. They would find that perfect house near a body of water big enough for Sam, with windows looking out over it and places to walk. Probably in a smallish town, more rural than suburban. He would run in a few years, that much was obvious, but from here, not his home state where he hadn't lived in years. They'd most likely move into a district with a Republican incumbent that he could challenge. He was right, they would be excellent partners.
She'd be luckier than most Congressional spouses, because they'd both be able to commute to the same city and she'd have him both during the week and on the weekends, because he could stay in his district all the time. Even when he ran for Senate, they wouldn't have to move. And beyond that - a brief twinge told her that a Republican wife would be a liability when he wanted to run in the Democratic presidential primary, but her subconscious knew that he'd probably manage it anyway. It also told her, as chills of something that she would describe as certainty crawled up her spine, that she would make a very interesting First Lady. It might not have been her choice, but she suddenly realized that when she agreed to marry Sam she agreed to this possibility that now seemed almost definite. Because she knew he would do it.
She wished her mental picture would be clearer on her own career, but she figured it was always easier to read someone else. And she did see the children - several, hopefully as many as they wanted. She was afraid of that, too, but she knew she wanted it anyway. And hopefully a short commute would make it less difficult to balance family and work.
As if he read her mind, he pulled her a bit closer and said softly, "You know what else this means? Once we get married, we have license to have a child whenever we like. It makes the timeline all ours. No scandal, no worries. Whenever we choose."
If their recent struggle had caused any good result, it was that he wasn't afraid to suggest having a baby soon, and she wasn't afraid to hear it. She held his hand and said, "I think we've learned that it's not always when we choose."
"No," he conceded. "But the restraint would be gone. It would be only your career, you know, for you to decide when the best time would be."
"I've decided that," she said so quietly that he thought he'd misheard.
She breathed in deeply. "I've been thinking - there will never be a good time. I mean, after reelection when you'll be home more, but other than that - there will never be a good time for me to stop everything for three months, or for me to be wandering around work big and pregnant. Any time I chose to have a baby it would disrupt everything - your job as well as mine." She looked up at him and smiled shakily. "So I decided we might as well have one whenever we want. After the election."
He gave her much the same look, with a little awe mixed in. "Okay," he whispered.
"You all right?"
"Yeah," he replied, wonder still in his voice. "I just - I feel like we've started it already."
She reached up and stroked hair back from his face. "A year from now," she said definitively, "if we're ready."
"That's a good time." He still sounded as if he were in church.
"I'll be thirty-one." She nodded. "I'll be ready."
"When do you want to get married?" he asked, taking her left hand again and running his fingers over the ring.
"Hmm." She frowned. "I guess if we want to - it should probably be before the election, if we want to have a baby after . . ." She still stumbled a bit over the words. "But with everything so crazy - what about after all the primaries, but well before the convention?"
"Don't you think?"
"I think that's perfect."
"At the beginning of the month, so hopefully it won't be too hot yet. Probably on a Saturday."
A wide grin spread slowly across his face. "Okay. We're getting married in May."
"Yes, we are." And then he bent to kiss her, and all significant conversation ended for the evening. In the morning he would tell her that Josh already knew, and that C.J. probably suspected, but in the meantime they had a forthcoming marriage to celebrate. It had always been meaningful between them, never just sex, but tonight it felt symbolic and almost sacred. Having decided to unite themselves permanently, they felt bound together on a completely different level - and that was how Sam knew beyond doubt that they were making the right decision. Really, it was the only decision they could have made.