Posted
05/15/01
 

Pieces

by Marzee Doats

CATEGORY: Sam/Ainsley, Ainsley POV. Post-ep for The Fall's Gonna Kill You.
SPOILERS: Specifically The Fall's Gonna Kill You and Bad Moon Rising, with hints at 18th and Potomac.
RATING: PG-13
DISCLAIMER: The West Wing and its characters are the property of Aaron Sorkin, Warner Brothers, and NBC. No Copyright Infringement is intended.
ARCHIVE: Please ask first.
FEEDBACK: I'll take it!
THANKS: To Crystal and Allison for volunteering to beta-read for a West Wing newbie. And, to my college pal Tori who encourages me to do things like this.

Friday Night

"Ainsley?"

I am startled by Leo's quiet approach and greeting, but manage to hide my reaction. I, after all, have three brothers and one extremely stealthy baby sister, all of whom took great pleasure in scaring the living bejeebers out of me when we were growing up. I may never have learned to anticipate their sneak attacks, but I do know how to disguise my reaction.

"Leo," I greet brightly, turning around to face the White House Chief of Staff. He stops a few feet away, and eyes me curiously. Not curiously as in checking me out, or anything like that. More in a way that asks what I'm doing here, in this part of the building, at this time of night on a Friday. "How are you this evening?" I inquire in a rush of breath when he doesn't speak.

Leo shrugs, and I notice an uncharacteristic weariness in the lines of his face. He almost looks defeated, which is surprising to say the least. Although my daily contact with Leo can only be described as minimal, I have had occasion to see him express a myriad of emotions: fatigue, victory, anger, annoyance, amusement and even kindness. Defeat, though, has not been a part of his repertoire, and I catch myself running through my mental list of White House agenda items, hoping to identify what might be of such grave concern. I hope it is nothing.

"Another day, another dollar," he says finally, offering a weak smile. "Is there something I can help you with?"

"I'm -- I was looking for Sam," I admit, inwardly cursing the sudden heat I feel in my face. I have nothing to be embarrassed about here, and yet I am. Of course, I didn't anticipate being caught lurking in a White House corridor like some school girl hanging around in hopes of meeting up with the varsity quarterback. "We were supposed to have dinner tonight," I explain. "It's not a social engagement," I hastily assure as Leo's eyebrow arches in question. "I've been doing some legal research that Sam has expressed an interest in, and so we agreed to discuss it over a meal. A meal we had agreed would be Dutch treat," I further clarify. "Tonight. An hour ago, to be precise."

Leo nods. "Legal research?" he repeats. "You mean the *Indio* don't you? I had the feeling he was ready to fall on his sword over that," Leo sighs, "And now he's dragged you into it."

"He didn't drag me into it exactly," I defend quickly. "He -- It seemed he needed someone to talk to, for someone to remind him of what he could do, what he should do." I stop for a moment and take a deep breath I don't really need. In all honesty, I don't quite understand the new dynamic in my friendship with Sam but, for whatever reason, especially in recent weeks, things have changed between us. For example, I have, somewhere along the line, taken to referring to Sam as a friend. Also, I now feel as if I am in his confidence and, as such, am loathe to betray that confidence to Leo.

"After our initial discussion of the situation, I looked into Sam's shield, and I may have pierced it," I offer, deciding that it's safer to discuss my investigation than Sam's response to the oil spill. "Though, perhaps 'dented' would be a more accurate turn of phrase," I continue. "All of this has been on my own time, of course," I add quickly. "In an unofficial capacity. Still, I may have found a pre --"

"You pierced Sam's shield," Leo interrupts, his forehead wrinkling slightly as he contemplates what I've said. "I assume you're referring to the oil company's liability shield, and that you're not telling me that my Deputy Director of Communications has taken his knight-in- shining-armor complex to the next logical conclusion."

I am momentarily distracted by the sudden mental image of Sam Seaborn decked out as Sir Lancelot. It is an amusing notion, and I can't help but allow a small chuckle which Leo joins me in, briefly easing the deep lines in his face. "I'm sorry," I say as I paste a properly professional and neutral expression on my face. But, really, the idea of Sam in a suit of armor is pretty funny, especially since Leo's right. He does have a white knight thing going. I mean, just look at how he handled the Joyce and Brookline incident, and that was back when I'm fairly certain he hated my guts.

"I'm sorry," I repeat, still fighting a smile. "I -- It's nothing to laugh about. And, no," I assure, "As far as I know, Sam hasn't taken to wearing chain mail in his free time. Not that I know *anything* about Sam's free time activities," I add quickly. We've had dinner together a few times, but they've always been working meals -- friendly, but nothing more. I clear my throat and conclude primly, "I was, in point of fact, referring to the Kensington Oil liability shield that Sam was responsible for developing during his tenure with Gage Whitney."

Leo chuckles again, and he gives me a half smile. "So, just to clarify, you have found some obscure precedent that may prove useful in an attempt to hold the *Indio's* actual owners responsible for the disaster they wreaked?"

"Yes," I agree, biting my tongue against the urge to explain further.

"Good," Leo declares. Good," he repeats, starting forward. "Come with me," he commands as he steps around me, and heads back toward the Communications bullpen.

"I already looked for Sam in his office," I tell him, rushing to catch up. "He wasn't there. Actually, it's all deserted."

"Not quite," Leo tells me, slowing to wait for me. "Did you check Toby's office?"

"The door was closed," I say rather meekly. Leo glances at me sideways, and I look away. Toby Ziegler scares me, so sue me. Besides, Sam's been working on the Chicago speech for days, and Toby is his boss. I didn't think it was completely outside the realm of possibility that they were discussing it. I tell Leo this. "I thought maybe they were going over the Chicago speech, and I shouldn't interrupt."

I think Leo is surprised I know about the Chicago speech, though it's not exactly a state secret. Half the meetings the White House has taken over the last week are about what will and will not be in that speech and, with Oliver Babish seemingly unavailable all week, I've fielded my fair share of the ensuing legal questions. I do work for this White House, after all.

"The Chicago speech is done," Leo tells me as we enter the unusually quiet Communications bullpen. "It's pretty good. The President's happy." He veers towards Toby's office, saying, "I'm sure whatever they're discussing now, it can wait. I think your news is worth springing Sam for."

I wait a few feet back while Leo raps on Toby's door. I'm not close enough to hear a response, but Leo apparently does because he twists the knob and shoves the door open a few seconds later. Inside, Sam is yelling. ".... working blind! Got a rabbit to pull out of your hat there, Toby?" he shouts. "'Cause, I don't see --"

"Sam." Leo's rebuke is cutting, though he doesn't raise his voice. Sam desists immediately, and I heave a sigh of relief. I realize I am shaking, and I take a few seconds to wonder why. It's not as if I've never heard Sam Seaborn yell before. I have, in fact, been on the receiving end of his yelling more times than I care to contemplate. Still, for some reason, this particular moment is different -- and I can't explain it any better than that.

"Sam," Leo repeats more kindly this time. "It's okay, son --"

"Don't Leo," Sam commands, offering a bitter chuckle. "Because I think, by anyone's definition, this is the exact opposite of okay. This will quite poss --"

"Sam," Leo interrupts again. "I believe you're late for a dinner engagement."

Silence reigns for maybe three seconds before Sam erupts again. "Dammit," he swears, and the next thing I know he's trying to get around Leo and out of the darkened office. "Ainsley, hi," he greets me hesitantly. He can't look me in the eye, can't seem to focus on anything in the quiet and dimly lit bullpen. "I really didn't forget you," he tells me, glancing at his watch without seeing it. "I just lost track of time, and then with the President...."

"Leo said he liked your speech," I say after it becomes evident that Sam's going to let his statement go, uncompleted. "The President, I mean. Not that Leo didn't also indicate that he liked your speech," I clarify quickly. "But, he specifically mentioned that the President liked your speech as well."

I bite my tongue again, forcing myself to just shut up. I'm always do that, though. I jump in and try to fill the awkward pauses in conversations, and believe me, there have been few pauses in my experience more awkward than this one. The only problem is, I don't think I've done anything but make myself look like an idiot.

Sometime during my blathering, Toby surfaces from the dark, inner recesses of his office. He joins Leo in the doorway behind Sam, and the nervous energy that flows in and around the three men is nearly enough to knock me over. I don't think anyone was really planning on me hearing all that, though, to be honest, I haven't a clue what it means. I mean, Leo did say that Sam's speech was good, right?

I look the three of them over, and decide that, while I've definitely seen Leo and Toby looking better, it's Sam who looks like hell. I don't know what I should do, or if there's even anything I can do, but I do know that I don't want to add to whatever has managed to knock him so low. It's pretty obvious that it has little to do with the tax speech I was anticipating I'd hear all about. "I -- It's -- We can just reschedule for another time," I finally manage to stammer out.

"No!" Sam and Leo declare in unison. Surprised, Sam gapes at Leo, who continues. "Ainsley's got good news for you, Sam," he says. "You should go out. And, none of this Dutch treat crap," he adds. "She pierced your shield. She deserves dinner."

"You pierced my shield?" Sam questions, frowning as he tries to decipher the meaning of Leo's words. "You mean the Kensington liability shield?"

"Um, yeah," I agree, trying to ignore the binder clip I've just spotted on Ginger's desk. In addition to the nervous chatterbox thing they're all familiar with, I also have a tendency to fidget, and binder clips are probably my biggest weakness. "Though, really, I'd have to say I dented it more than I pierced it," I explain, my fist clenched at my side. "But, Jim Fulton at Justice was enthusiastic when I spoke with him about it."

"You actually managed to talk to Jim Fulton?" Sam asks, meeting my gaze. Behind him, Toby allows a low whistle, and I get the feeling that I've impressed them all. I should note that Jim Fulton has a reputation for being difficult, although I saw no evidence of this trait. "Jim Fulton actually discussed the *Indio* spill with you?" Sam continues. "And, he was enthusiastic?"

I nod. "He seemed to be, yes," I confirm. "And, he talked to me, though I did have to say I was calling on your behalf to get fifteen minutes," I admit.

"Hey, whatever works," Sam says, almost smiling. "Though, I wasn't aware Fulton would take *my* phone calls."

"Well, it worked like a charm," I say, shrugging. "Actually, I was thinking of asking if you could get me a good table somewhere in a few weeks," I joke, chuckling uneasily. "My parents are coming up."

Sam's expression clouds over again. "I doubt you'll get very far with the maitre d' at the Capitol Club using my name," he tells me, his tone sour. Toby places a hand on his shoulder, and I see Sam tense up. I can't help but remember that he was just yelling at Toby, and I have to remind myself that I really shouldn't be speculating as to why.

"Well," I announce, "That's pretty much the gist of my --"

"What about dinner?" Sam demands, shaking Toby's hand off his arm. He strides forward, stopping less than nine inches in front of me. He can't seem to decide what to do with his hands, and for a second I actually think he's reaching for mine, but then he shoves them both in the pockets of his trousers. "You want to get out of here?" Sam asks softly. "You've gotta be starving."

"Well, I had a snack earlier," I find myself whispering back. Sam acknowledges my statement with a sweet smile I can't help but return. "But, I'm still up for dinner if you are."

"I am," Sam murmurs. Then, he turns on his heel and addresses Leo and Toby. "We're going to go now," he announces.

Both men nod their understanding, and Toby says, "You know where to find me if you want talk about this some more."

Sam makes an odd, derisive noise, replying, "I think, maybe, there isn't a whole lot more to say, Toby. Have a nice weekend." Then, he turns back to me, and directs me out of the bullpen.

* * *

We're halfway to employee parking before I work up the nerve to speak. "Um, Sam," I begin, coming to an abrupt stop in the corridor. He's been following closely, cupping my elbow with his hand as he hurries me along, and is therefore forced to quickly sidestep around me to avoid tripping. I flash him a not completely apologetic smile, and ask, "You didn't, perhaps, need to get anything from your office, did you? Briefcase?" I clarify, holding up my own. "Coat?"

Sam appears to contemplate this for a moment before reaching into his back pocket and producing his wallet. He hands it to me, then makes a big show of pulling keys, spare change, and half a roll of Tums out of his other pockets. "I think I'm good to go," he declares, retrieving his billfold from my hand.

"Okay," I agree even though I am anything but convinced. Sam Seaborn does not leave the White House without an armload of work, and he does not go out in public looking anything less than G.Q. I may not know what's going on, what's happened here today, but I do know that this is not Sam. And, even though I really do know better, I can't help but push a little. "So, I guess were not going anywhere with a jacket and tie requirement," I say.

Apparently, I strike a nerve. Sam peels his glasses off, folds them closed, then hooks them onto his breast pocket. Closing his eyes, he pinches the bridge of his nose tightly, releasing a deep sigh. "I left my coat in Toby's office, Ainsley," he admits wearily. "I'd really rather not go back, if that's okay."

"Okay," I somehow force myself to say around the lump that's formed in my throat. I want to apologize, though I couldn't tell you for what, maybe just the fact that it's obvious that he's had a really bad day, no matter how well received the Chicago speech was. "I'd prefer casual, actually," I mumble. "It'll be faster, and I'm a little hungry."

Sam laughs at that, though it sounds a little too tinny, a little too false to my ear. "Whatever you'd like," he tells me.

We make it the rest of the way out of the White House without incident, even exchanging pleasantries with the security guard, who tells us both to have a good evening. We exit the building and I can't help but breathe a sigh of relief as the door slips closed behind us.

"Ainsley," Sam starts, and I'm expecting him to ask about logistics. Where do we want to go? Should I ride with him, or should he follow me? All are perfectly reasonable, even necessary questions, given that we're attempting to go out for dinner. This however, is not what he asks.

"This is going to sound like a strange question," Sam tells me, "But does anyone in your family own a plane?"

I would have to agree, that is definitely an odd question. I eye Sam suspiciously as we cross the small patio between the building and the parking lot. "Is that a Kitty Hawk joke?" I demand.

"A kitty what joke?" Sam responds. He pulls me to a stop then turns so that we are facing each other. I can tell that he's confused, and I realize, whatever he's doing, he's not trying to make fun of me. "What does that even mean?"

"The Wright Brothers," I say. "Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. 'First in Flight'. Airplanes."

"You think I'm making fun of your home state?" Sam demands. His expression is made up of equal parts confusion, amusement and annoyance. "I know it might not seem like a serious question," he concedes with tired sigh. "But, I can honestly say I was not thinking of any of those things when I asked. I would just like to know if anyone in your family owns a plane. Of any type."

"We're not really airplane people, Sam," I answer, returning his sigh. "I'm sure that this will sound very quaint or silly to you, but I was eighteen years old before I ever even rode on an airplane."

"Really?"

"Really," I confirm. "Thanksgiving Break my first year of college." I wait a moment, expecting some sort of snide remark. Sam might be nicer to me now, but he still seems to be alternately amused or horrified whenever I reveal another piece of personal information. But, he doesn't laugh, doesn't offer any response really, as we stand there watching one another in the diffuse light thrown off by the overhead streetlamps. I decide to take matters into my own hands. "Sam, do you want to ride together or take separate cars?" I ask.

"We can take my car," he offers, and I accept with a nod. I turn and manage to take three steps toward Senior Staff Row before Sam speaks again. "Well, how about a pool?" he inquires as he falls into step beside me. "Any swimming pools in the Hayes clan?"

"Does the twenty year old, above ground Doughboy in my parents backyard count?" I return.

Sam chuckles half-heartedly then grants, "I'll give you half a point."

"How many points 'til I win?" I ask as we walk past Leo's and then Josh's parking spaces. I'm mildly surprised to see Josh's car; I couldn't find him either, earlier when I was looking for Sam. Actually, I realize as I look around, all the senior staff parking spaces are occupied.

"Ainsley," Sam stops me at the hood of his car. "I've got one more question if that's okay."

"Sam, I own my car, the contents of my apartment, and a very nice eighteen foot antique dining room table with all its original chairs that my grandmother left me," I tell him, hoping to forestall any further questions about the Hayes family fortune. "I store it at my parents house which is five bedrooms, three baths, and an attached garage on an acre and a half lot," I continue. "Do you want to know about their cars? About my siblings and their possessions? How about the balances of my checking and savings accounts? Because frankly," I conclude, not bothering to disguise my annoyance, "I'd like to know what this is all about."

Sam shrugs carelessly. "Nothing, really. A throw away line for a throw away speech," he claims. "And, I threw it away," he tells me, chuckling softly at his own joke. "It was just -- it was nothing."

"Okay," I acknowledge with a nod. The Chicago speech, I assume, and I have no trouble imagining the type of line he's talking about. Something about Republicans and our insatiable desire for luxury items, no doubt. "But if it's 'nothing' then why --"

"Ainsley," Sam interrupts, "Did your father ever lie to you?"

I am, in a word, dumbfounded. Really. Dumbfounded. Dumbfounded and confused. I mean, how in the world did he get from taxes and swimming pools and a bad day at work to this?

"Did my father ever lie to me?" I repeat once I find my voice.

"Yes."

"Did he lie to me?" I can't help but say it again. I consider making a joke -- laugh it off, but refuse to answer. I consider becoming indignant even though I realize that the only thing that would likely accomplish is to confirm my reputation as the high-strung, uptight Republican bitch. So instead, I find myself repeating, "Did my father lie to me?"

Sam nods. "Yes," he confirms softly. "Did he ever lie to you? A bald faced lie, a half truth, a sin of omission. Anything?"

I twist away for a second to place my briefcase and purse on the hood of Sam's car. "My first reaction would be to say 'no'," I admit, crossing my arms over my chest. "But that can't really be true, right?" I ask, reasoning aloud. "Besides, I know my father has lied to me to protect me, to spare me pain," I explain, exhaling slowly. "So, yes?" I say, uncertain. "Is that what you want?"

"Sort of," he says. "But, how did he lie?" Sam wants to know. "How old were you? What did he lie about?"

I lean back against the car's grill, needing the support if I'm going to consider Sam's questions. This is ... This is odd. I don't go around contemplating whether or not my father lies to me. I love my father, and I trust him. He doesn't lie to me, and if he does then I know there are good reasons for it. But Sam looks so needy and I find I can't not answer him.

"When I was five he told me our dog was going to go live on a retirement farm for dogs, and he really took her to be put down," I say, finally recalling something that will make some small amount of sense. "But, I grew up, and I realized, I don't know, that although I'd been to farms, they were never overrun with retired dogs."

"Okay," Sam says, his gaze steady. "What else?"

"There was this time, I was eleven maybe, and we drove by a bad car accident that had just happened. I knew the people were hurt, dead maybe, and I got upset," I tell him, rooting through my memory for something, anything, that might satisfy him. "But, Dad kept telling me they were fine, that the highway patrol was there and that they would make sure the people would get to the hospital, they'd be taken care of. I knew, I just knew, that it wasn't true," I explain, shaking my head at the clear vision of the incident that comes back to me. "The next day it was in the paper, right on the front page, you couldn't miss it. 'Fiery Crash Claims Family of Four.' I remember I was so mad that day ... so mad that he treated me like a child, even though I was one."

He nods. "Anything else?"

"Sam!" I protest, "I don't really know what you want here!" Still, the fierce expression on Sam's face inspires me to continue. "My father and I used to always fight over the last piece of cake or pie, and more often than not, subterfuge was involved. During my first band concert in high school I made a really atrocious mistake -- bad enough that I hid out in the bathroom for an hour afterward. But, when I came out, my dad told me that I was great. He always told me that, no matter what," I say, working on a full head of steam. I know my father must have lied some of the time, but I can't think of anything bad. I don't want to think of anything bad.

"Sometimes my parents would argue and I'd hear them, but if I said anything they'd deny it," I continue. "And my brothers, one of them was always in trouble for something, but they were older and my father didn't talk about it in front of me. Is that lying?" I ask. "I think it's just families."

Sam nods. "Yeah, I guess so," he agrees. He allows a low chuckle then, completely devoid of humor. "My dad lied to me, though," he tells me. "He lied a lot, actually. Everyday. He had an affair. A twenty eight year affair."

"Oh, Sam," I gasp, and I don't know what to do with my hands. I push off the car, moving toward him, but stop before I get too close. I want to touch him, cup his cheek or twine our fingers together, something that will let him know I am here for him, that I am his friend. But I can't, and so I settle for making little shocked noises, and holding my hand over my mouth.

"It wasn't really an affair, though," Sam tells me, suddenly animated. "I mean, it was so much more than just an affair. It was an apartment twenty minutes from our house. It was, for all intents and purposes, a second wife. It was another family," he catalogs. "It was a goddamn second life!"

He's in debate mode now, using inflection and tonal changes to color his words; relying on facial expressions to illustrate his argument. He's being sarcastic and obnoxious, all to make his point. He's hurt, and I can understand that, so I nod slowly, encouraging him to continue.

"So, see, Ainsley," he tells me then, "About the same time your dad was telling you that Rover was going to be so much happier with green fields to run through and all the rabbits he wanted to chase, well, my dad was telling me he had to go on a 'business trip' which, it turns out, was just a euphemism for getting some on the side."

We stare at each other. It becomes a contest. I want to help Sam, but I don't know what to do or say. And so, we stare at each other.

Finally, Sam closes his eyes, squeezing them tightly shut. He scrubs a hand over his face tiredly then mumbles an apology. "I'm sorry, Ainsley. Today Today ended up so differently than I would have ever expected." He allows a bitter bark of laughter then falls silent staring off into space above my head.

I contemplate what to say, and find I can't speak either. What is there to say, after all? How can I offer comfort for something that is so large and so gaping? What do I do?

"Would you like to get out of here?" Sam asks, his exhaustion rendering him almost hoarse. "You wanna --"

"I love my father dearly," I interrupt. I'm barely whispering, but Sam hears me, and he stops talking, shuffling a few steps closer so he can hear me. "None of my friends, no one that I've ever known, was as close to their father as I am to mine," I say. I look up at Sam and offer a weak smile that quickly becomes a frown. I can't believe I'm about to tell him this, and so I draw a deep breath to prepare myself.

"I revere my father," I tell him again. "But, I was lying when I said he never lied to me, because he did. He had cancer, colon cancer specifically, during my first year of law school. It was right after Christmas, and I had an internship that summer in Boston, so I never went home in all those months. I should have known something was wrong, actually," I admit, and amazingly I'm just realizing this now, for the first time. "No one ever tried to get me to come home."

"When I finally found out, when it was almost all over, Dad said he didn't tell me because he didn't want to worry me," I continue, concentrating on keeping my voice even. "He said it was more important to him that I concentrate on my studies. But, my little sister knew, and she was a sophomore at Emory then. He went through all those months of chemotherapy, all those months when we talked on the phone two or three times a week, all those months when I should have been there for him, and he didn't tell me." I shake my head, momentarily unable to speak. I hate thinking about this. "He didn't tell me," I repeat. "Everyone else knew. Just not me."

I stop when I feel Sam's hand wrap around my wrist. He works his fingers through mine then pulls me closer, reaching for my other hand. We stand toe to toe, his hands cupped around mine, and, when I look up, I see that there are tears on his cheeks. I feel my own eyes flood with moisture and my sinuses tighten up with a sob, but I fight it off, more worried for him than upset for myself. My first impulse is to pull him into my arms, and I act upon it though Sam makes it difficult for me at first, fighting me when I flex my hands, trying to free them from his grip. Then though, my arms are around him, and his around me, and we stand there, sharing both our pain and our strength.

"Thanks," Sam murmurs I don't know how much later. "And, I'm sorry," he adds, squeezing me tighter for a moment before letting his arms drop loosely around my waist.

I'm suddenly self-conscious, and although I argue with myself, I can't help but pull away, taking a small step back. We're standing in a public area after all, and anyone can come by. I don't think I'm ready to explain what's happened here to anyone, least of all myself. "You're sorry?" I ask softly, clearing my throat.

"Yeah," he confirms tiredly. "I'm sorry that I upset you," he explains.

I almost laugh, not because I wasn't upset, but because he was more upset and I catch myself ready to argue the point with him. Sam's exhausted, though, emotionally spent and physically weary, and I recognize that right now he needs care and kindness, not debate. "It's okay," I assure him, "And, you're more than welcome." Sam teeters on his feet a little, and I reach out to steady him. "Sam, give me your keys," I demand.

"Why?" he asks even as he extracts them from his pocket and hands them over.

"Because you need to go home, and you're in no shape to drive," I explain. "So, I'm going to drive you home."

Sam doesn't protest as I take his arm and carefully lead him to the passenger side of his car. I unlock the door and push him inside, gently instructing him to put on his seatbelt. "What about dinner?" he asks as I start to close the door.

"We'll pick something up on the way," I suggest. "Drive through? Hamburgers, maybe?"

"There's a pizza place in my neighborhood that I like," he tells me. "They deliver. I think they can even bring that Fresca you like."

I smile, a little surprised that he knows that. "Sounds good," I agree, reaching down to brush a lock of hair out of his eyes. "Pepperoni and mushrooms?" I suggest as he captures my hand in his own.

"Can I add bell peppers to that?" Sam requests, lacing our fingers together.

"Sure," I agree, squeezing his hand before reluctantly pulling away. "I'm going to take you home now," I tell him again, and I shut the door.

* * *

The drive to Sam's apartment is short, the atmosphere between us, charged. We're entering new territory here, and I at least, am still trying to process the last forty minutes. We avoid talking about what has happened between us, our discussion, for lack of a better term, in the parking lot, or anything to do with the White House. I concentrate on driving the unfamiliar car while Sam gives me directions in and around placing our dinner order using my cell phone.

We arrive at Sam's building, and he directs me into the underground garage. We take the elevator up to the lobby, and he retrieves his mail. Bills, credit card offers, two magazines -- National Geographic and something to do with sailing -- and a box that I suspect is a care package from his mother. "Oh, you're in luck, Ainsley," he tells me as he shakes the box. "I bet you this is cookies. We've got dessert."

"Your mom actually makes and mails you cookies?" I can't help but tease. I'm struck by the simplicity and casual intimacy of the moment. I've never done this; I've never driven home with someone at the end of the day and checked the mail. Even my few past relationships which could be considered serious were always conducted with much more formality than this. "That's just so --"

"Josh's mother mailed him shoes," Sam interrupts before I can brand him as 'adorable' or 'cute'. "Besides, she doesn't do this often," he explains. "My mom, I mean. Holidays, my birthday. It's just the last couple of weeks.... I don't think she knows what to do with her time right now."

I nod, swallowing around the lump in my throat that forms at Sam's allusion to his father's infidelity. I still don't know what to do or say about that. Luckily, I am saved by the pizza boy's arrival.

We argue a bit over the bill, but Sam wins by listing off all the horrible things that Leo might do to him if he finds out that Sam didn't buy me dinner. "You're still going to have to let me take you out to a restaurant sometime, though," Sam tells me as we get on the elevator, juggling my things, his mail, and our dinner between us.

"I think that can be arranged," I agree, not bothering to hide my enthusiasm for the idea. We grin at each other like idiots as the elevator climbs to Sam's floor.

* * *

"So," I ask an hour later as I reach into the cookie care package for another brownie, "How come you're not going with the President to Chicago? Don't you need to be there since you wrote the speech?"

"Not really," he answers, absently rubbing the back of my hand with his thumb.

We are sprawled out side by side on his couch, the remains of our pizza cooling on the coffee table, and Sam has been holding my hand almost the whole time. I am well-fed, I have Fresca and, although I've suspected it in the past, I now know for certain that I am falling for Sam Seaborn. I'm exhausted, anxious and exhilarated all at once, but there isn't anywhere else I'd rather be at the moment.

"Toby likes to go with the President when he writes a speech because he doesn't trust the President not to ad-lib," Sam shrugs, glancing sideways at me. "Of course, the President *does* ad-lib, but it's not as if you can stop him. " Sam chuckles then says, "Toby goes along so he can yell at the President afterward. Sometimes the Secret Service has to step in," he jokes. "But, anyway," Sam sighs, "I wasn't invited to Chicago, so that's the main reason I'm not going."

"Well, that'd do it," I reply, shifting on the sofa as I try to find a more comfortable position. If it happens to bring me a couple millimeters closer to Sam, well, that's just a bonus.

"Yeah," he agrees, frowning. "Ainsley," he addresses me seriously, pulling on my arm so that I turn sideways on the couch to face him. I lay my head against the sofa back, and he follows suit so that we are facing one another, his face is only inches from mine. "I want to thank you for rescuing me tonight," he says, cutting me off when I begin to protest. "No, let me say this. You did save me. I was -- Something came up today, and I was really going to let Toby have it. Not because it was his fault or anything, but because he was convenient. The fact is, though, I could've ranted and raved at Toby all night and it wouldn't have changed anything, and I wouldn't have felt any better."

He stops for a moment, and lets go of my hand, reaching up to gently rub the corner of my mouth with his thumb. "Brownie crumbs," he assures me with a smile as he lays his hand on the side of my face, cupping my cheek. "But, you have made me feel better, and I want to make sure you know that, in case you didn't know, or weren't sure. Thank you."

"You're welcome," I answer, laying my own hand over his to keep him from removing it from my cheek. I want him to kiss me, and I try to tell him this with my eyes and by the gentle pressure I apply to his hand. I inch closer, tilting my mouth toward his, and it is enough that he takes the hint.

His lips brush over mine tentatively, and I close my eyes even as we both adjust our positions on the couch, trying to do the nearly impossible, and bring ourselves closer to one another. I tangle my hands around his neck and in his hair, while he pulls me practically into his lap, never breaking the wonderful contact of our mouths, and then the phone rings.

Jarred back into reality, we stop. Sam pulls back slightly, heaving a very ragged breath, and cocks his head to the side. The phone rings two more times, and then the answering machine comes on in the next room. We listen as his short, cheery greeting plays, and then we hear, "Sam, it's Josh. If you're there pick up."

"I've got to --" Sam starts, looking very apologetic. I nod my consent, and he abandons me, scrambling over the side of the couch to grab a cordless phone off the end table. "It's me," he announces into the receiver. He pauses, listening to Josh, then explains unrepentantly, "Well, that's because my phone is in my jacket and my jacket is in Toby's office."

The change in Sam is dramatic. The impassive face he wore earlier this evening is back, only the tightness around the corners of his mouth indicating his distress. "I did," he answers another of Josh's questions, his tone taking on the same hard quality it had previously when he spoke to Leo and Toby. "We did," he says, and then, "Yes."

Sam half turns away, and I decide they're talking about me. Josh, I realize, has probably called to talk about whatever it was that has Sam yelling at Toby earlier, and I know I shouldn't be listening to this. I scramble off the sofa, gathering up the pizza box, soiled napkins and finished soda cans. "Believe me, I know that," Sam grumbles into the phone. I head for the kitchen, ostensibly cleaning up, but really to give Sam the privacy he needs for this phone call.

The kitchen is small and obviously underutilized. I stall, looking for something to put the last three pieces of pizza in. Normally, I'm not the type of person to go rifling through other people's cupboards, but tonight I ignore the pricking of my conscience, hunting around until I find a medium sized plastic container that will just work. On the lid is one of those 'This Tupperware is the Property of:' labels, and 'Sarah Seaborn' is written underneath in elegant cursive.

I find myself laughing at that, and I'm not really sure why. Maybe because my mother labels her Tupperware just as obsessively, or maybe because I know I only know small pieces of what has gone on this evening, and I'm suddenly afraid to return to the living room because I might learn more. I'm still giggling quietly, and it takes all the effort I can muster to stop myself. It wouldn't do to become hysterical, I think, forcing myself back to work. I rinse out our soda cans and toss them in the recycling bin then dispose of the rest of our trash. Finally, I take a calming breath, and head back to the living room, hoping that Sam's conversation is finished.

"Ess-five-one-five," he says into the phone, nodding, his back to me. "Sub-basement, right. I got it."

I retreat back into the kitchen, posting myself in front of the refrigerator. There's a group photograph from the *Bartlet for America* campaign taped to the door and I study it, trying not to think about what I just heard, or at least not about all the things it could mean.

Room S-515, in the White House sub-basement. It's nowhere near my office, is in fact at the other end of the sub-basement, but I do know that room. It was one of the many rooms Leo and I poked our heads into while we tried to locate my office on my first day at the White House. "I didn't know we had this room," I remember Leo saying as we stood at the top of the stairs looking down at the painted brick walls and the industrial lighting offset by the lacquered table and overstuffed leather chairs. "I don't know if it's supposed to be a rumpus room or a board room," he'd jokingly complained.

A friendly janitor, attracted by the light we'd flipped on, had joined us then and, overhearing Leo's comment, had told us, "No one knows what to do with this room, Mr. McGarry. It's been ten different things in the twenty-five years I've worked here. Photo office, conference room, you name it. Now we just store old files here and keep it clean, waiting until somebody needs it."

"I'll have to remember it in case those yahoos upstairs ever really get to me, and I need a secret clubhouse," Leo had joked, directing me out of the room. The janitor and I had laughed, and then he'd sent us back in the other direction to look for my office. But, I remember the number. It was painted on the inside of the door, and I'd ended up staring at it while Leo and the janitor talked. I remember that number.

I hear Sam coming up behind me, making enough noise that, despite the fact he's no longer wearing shoes, I'm not startled when he drops both hands lightly on my shoulders. Without thinking, I lean back against his chest, and he obligingly wraps one arm loosely around my waist, the other over my shoulders, holding me close. "What are you doing?" he asks, his mouth right next to my ear.

"I was looking at this picture," I lie because I haven't really been paying as much attention to it as I'd intended. I peer at it closely and comment, "You all look very happy."

"Ecstatic, actually," Sam murmurs, and I can feel him smiling. He lets go of my shoulder, reaching out to run his fingers down the photograph. I identify many of those in the picture as people he works with now: Josh, Donna, Leo, Toby, C.J., the President and Mrs. Bartlet, Zoey Bartlet and the President's assistant. "That was Election Day afternoon in Manchester," he explains. "We had enough pre-polling numbers in that we knew we were going to win. By the skin of our teeth, sure, but still a win."

"You were celebrating," I say, smiling with him. "While I spent most of that day grinding my teeth," I admit, allowing a self-deprecating chuckle. "And, now look where we are. My, how things change."

"Yeah," Sam agrees. "But for the better, I hope?"

I turn my head a little and look up at him, a little afraid of what I might see in his expression at the moment. He's smiling though, and his eyes are giving nothing away. "Could be," I answer finally. "I hope so."

Sam nods. "So, Josh called to say I have a meeting tomorrow at six A.M.," he tells me, his voice low.

"So much for 'have a nice weekend'," I return, recalling his parting words to Toby earlier.

"Ainsley, I had a great weekend," he contradicts, blowing in my ear as he speaks. "I had a great weekend," Sam repeats, "It's just that it only lasted for about two and a half hours tonight." I can't help but make a rather strangled noise at that claim, and so he amends it. "Well, the last hour and a half then."

"Okay," I respond. I think I can accept that. "I've had a great weekend, too," I tell him. "For an hour and a half. But," I continue, reluctantly pulling out of the circle of his arms, "If you've got a meeting in eight hours, then you need to sleep and I need to go."

"Yeah, okay," he agrees grudgingly. "So, I'll drive you back to the White House."

I'm facing him now, and I shake my head no, letting my hand drop softly on his chest. Though he abandoned his tie as soon as we got to the apartment, Sam's still wearing his dress shirt, and I can't help but play with one of its buttons, twisting it between two of my fingers. "No, Sam, I'm gonna take a cab," I tell him. "And, the next thing you say had better not be that you'll pay for it. I came here of my own free will because I wanted to be here with you, and for you, tonight. You need to get some rest," I remind, "And I am perfectly capable of getting myself home. Okay?"

He still looks like he wants to argue with me about this, but he doesn't give into it. He shrugs then leans forward to kiss me softly. "Okay," Sam agrees when he pulls away.

I don't believe in dragging out goodbyes, and I'm pretty sure Sam and I could drag this out forever if we tried. I let go of his shirt, and back away, hardening my heart to his exhausted and adorable smile. I ask him to call a cab for me while I use the bathroom, and he does so reluctantly.

I return to find him asleep on the couch, the cordless phone still clutched in his hand. I take the phone away and gently nudge him into a prone position, covering him up with a blanket I find in the hall closet.

Next, I call Josh, thankful that Sam has actually written his speed dial assignments on the inside of the phone. "Josh, this is Ainsley," I say when he answers. "Sam's really tired, and he fell asleep on the couch. If you want him at your meeting tomorrow morning, you'll have to call him, and wake him up. Don't call before five, though," I order, hanging up before Josh can respond.

I hunt for a pad of paper next, finding one in the kitchen. When I sit down to write, though, I don't know what to say. My cab is come and gone, I'm sure, by the time I settle on 'Have a better day today. Call me when you can. A.' I prop the note on the coffee table next to the phone, then brush a kiss across his forehead. "Good night, Sam," I whisper. Finally, I find my abandoned shoes and blazer, my briefcase and purse, then let myself out of the apartment, turning off lights as I go.

While I wait for a second cab, I think about what has happened tonight and how I feel. I think about what I know and what I don't know. I consider, for a moment, just how badly this could all end before pushing that idea away, considering instead the touch of Sam's hand, and the promise inherent in his most chaste kiss. And I decide, going over all the pieces in my head, that I'm willing to risk this, whatever this is.

The End

Marzee's Stories | Archive by Author | Archive by Title