by Marzee Doats

SPOILERS: Specifically Two Cathedrals but everything prior is also fair game.
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 Lesa, Crystal and Allison for the beta and reassurance.
NOTES: This is very late, I know. I'm working under the "better late than never" premise. Besides, I beat the second showing of Two Cathedrals by more than a day.

Wednesday, 4:52 A.M.


I say his name softly before his presence fully registers in my brain. It's earlier than I'm usually even up, let alone out of my apartment, and although it is probably the natural assumption of many people that I talk to myself when I'm on my own, it is also an incorrect one. This is my first attempt at speech for the day, and my voice is raspy. "Sam?" I try again, letting the door close behind me, and dropping my purse and briefcase on the carpeted hallway floor.

He still doesn't rouse -- besides finding Sam Seaborn waiting on my proverbial doorstep, I also find him asleep, propped against the wall opposite my door -- and I inch forward, repeating his name. "Sam?" I say, stepping over his outstretched, blue jean clad legs before reaching down to shake his shoulder. The fabric of his gray sweatshirt is soft and warm beneath my fingertips and I grip his arm lightly as I continue my attempts to wake him. "Sam, come on," I cajole, "Wake up."

He comes to with a start, looking up at me blearily, confusion registering in his expression. "Ainsley," he greets, his voice rough with sleep. "What -- What time is it?" he asks, looking for his watch on the wrong wrist.

"Not quite five," I answer, letting go of his shoulder. I straighten, eyeing him speculatively. I think I should be disturbed, at least a little, to find him here, but for some reason I'm not. I'm curious, even a bit worried, but I am not disturbed. "Sam, what are you doing?" I ask as he struggles to pick himself up off the floor. "Here? What are you doing here, now, sleeping in my hallway? You aren't stalking me, are you?" I joke lamely.

After all, nothing could be further from the truth. Since Friday night we've spent a whopping three hours total together, which isn't a lot considering that, given the kissing that has also taken place, some people -- my parents for example -- might infer that Sam and I now have a dating relationship. He didn't even call last night, after insisting repeatedly that he would. That's not exactly typical stalking behavior.

"Uh, no, no stalking," he assures me. "It's just that I didn't get the chance to call you last night," Sam continues, somehow reading my mind. "Toby and I were working on this thing, and he apparently doesn't believe in breaks. By the time we finished it was almost one, and that was too late, so ...." he trails off, shrugging.

"So, given the options of calling me this morning -- now -- or camping out in my hallway, you elected for public vagrancy?" I say, allowing myself to be sarcastic.

Sam has the good grace to look sheepish. "Actually, I was still going to call," he explains, holding out his right hand to show me his cell phone. "But, I was waiting until there was at least some hope that you might be up."

"Okay," I agree, though I don't really understand. I'm certainly glad to see him, even flattered in a strange way that he'd go so far as to sleep in my hallway in order to speak with me, but that still doesn't explain why he's here. "Doesn't your phone work from your hallway?" I ask. "Or, there's always the actual phone at your actual apartment," I remind.

Sam heaves a tired sigh, and I realize that he's as exhausted as I've ever seen him. Toby keeps him up half the night working, he falls asleep against a wall waiting to see me, and I give him grief. Considering it that way, I can't help but feel bad. "Look, it's a little early in the morning for me," I admit, shaking my head at the thought. I am never up this early, and I am most definitely not a morning person. "And," I continue, frustration seeping into my tone, "I certainly wasn't expecting --"

"Public vagrancy?" Sam interrupts, offering me a tentative and lopsided smile. "I can understand that," he adds quickly. "But I do need to talk to you. Now, this morning, before either of us goes in to work," Sam insists. He sighs again, shaking his head. "So, I came up with this great plan to wait here in your hallway, then call you about five, ask if I could come over, and, you know, already be here," he explains, watching me carefully for my reaction. "Extreme, yes, but hopefully in a good way?" he suggests. "Perhaps worth some 'that cute Sam Seaborn' points?"

I try and fight it for all of about two seconds, but, really, I can't help laughing at that. Cute Sam Seaborn, indeed. We're standing facing one another now, closer than is absolutely necessary, but I seem to have developed a compulsion for being close to Sam, and I reach for his hand. "That's a scoring method I'm not really familiar with," I tease, stepping toward him.

Sam eyes widen slightly as he considers my obvious double entendre, but then he laughs with me. Jamming his cell phone into his back pocket, he reaches for my other hand. "It's a very intricate method," he tells me, teasing in return. "I'll have to explain it to you in minute detail sometime."

"I anticipate the lesson," I return, fighting a full-blown smile. We watch each other closely for a moment, grinning idiotically, but then I clear my throat, forcing a more serious expression. "Sam," I say, "I'm giving you a twenty-four hour pass."

"A what?" he questions, his forehead wrinkling. We're close enough now that I can see not only the haggard, taut lines around his mouth and eyes, but also the sickly sallow undertone of his skin. I wonder if he's been outside during daylight in the last week. He's been working so hard recently, more than is normal, really, if the impressions I got during my first six months at the White House are anything to go by. Plus, there's everything that happened Friday night -- his father, the disagreement he had with Toby -- and then on Monday night, the unexpected death of Mrs. Landingham, the President's assistant. That news has cast a pall over the entire White House, affecting us all, even those of us who never met the woman. Sam's tired, and it's five o'clock in the morning, so I suppose I can forgive him a little confusion.

"A twenty-four hour pass," I repeat, placing my hand against the side of his face. I am simply compelled to touch this man. "My permission for you to call me on the telephone at any time, day or night," I explain, watching his eyes. "This is not the sort of invitation I issue on a regular basis, and I can't promise to be overjoyed or even coherent when you call in the middle of the night," I admit, a nervous catch in my voice. "But, it has to be a preferable option to the wanton violation of city ordinances," I say, gesturing expansively at the hallway around us. "Also, much better for your back. So next time, please, just call."

He blinks owlishly, considering my statement. I consider it, too. I wasn't overstating the case when I said I don't normally make this kind of offer, and I immediately start to wonder if I'm being rash. Five days ago we were planning a casual, working, and most definitely platonic dinner for which we would split the check; now we've had perhaps three hours together, a few extremely promising kisses, and two quickly aborted conversations about the status of our relationship. It's probably jumping the gun to start making twenty-four hour pass offers.

"Ainsley, thank you," Sam says softly, interrupting my internal debate. "That's -- Well, you know my job, my hours," he reminds, frowning.

"I do," I agree. "But, I also don't say things I don't mean," I say, and I'm surprised to realize I really do mean it. If Sam wants to call me at three in the morning, then I want to talk to him at three in the morning.

"Okay," Sam tells me, holding my gaze with his own. He lets go of my hand and takes a half step back, squaring his shoulders. "Ainsley, I really did come here to talk to you about something," he says, his tone turning extremely serious. "It's important, and I realize you were on your way out the door, I assume headed for the White House," Sam continues uneasily, gesturing to my belongings, abandoned against the door. "But, can you wait? Could we go inside, and I tell you what I need to tell you, and then ...."

"Sam, I was only leaving this early because I had hoped to get a few moments of your time," I hear myself say. I look away, trying to keep him from realizing that I seem to have lost some control of my facial muscles. My mouth is twitching back and forth between a smile and a grimace, and I cover my face with my hand, hoping to hide this fact. God, this shouldn't be so difficult to admit.

"You've been busy," I remind, sighing, once I trust myself to look up again. "After you didn't call last night, and realizing that today will most likely be even more hectic, what with the funeral and everything, I decided that, perhaps, if I went in early enough, you might have time to have breakfast with me?"

So there. I've never before in my life set my alarm clock for three-forty-five in the morning, but last night I did. I've never in my life thrown myself at a man, either, but I think I'm coming dangerously close here. I like Sam, but this is embarrassing.

This time it is Sam who reaches for me. He pulls me near, resting a tentative hand on my hip, and cupping my cheek with the other, stopping me before I can look away again. "I'd love to have breakfast with you," he tells me softly. "And -- and if the offer still stands after I tell you what I have to tell you," he says, his expression suddenly grim, "Then we will."

That slightly worried feeling I had when I first spotted Sam asleep in my hallway returns with a vengeance, ratcheting up several notches. "Okay," I agree, but I make no move to turn around or re-enter my apartment. Possibilities run through my mind. His father is my first thought, but Sam implied that this was about work, so then I think it must have something to do with Toby, or the digging I did on the *Indio*. I turned everything I had over to Justice, making sure that Jim Fulton knew that, for once, the White House wanted absolutely no credit, but if someone did realize that there was a connection there....

"Ainsley," Sam urges softly, interrupting my speculation. I nod once, sharply, then spin on my heel. I can feel Sam at my back, and he helps me collect my things off the floor. My keys are there, too, under my briefcase, a fact which throws me for a moment, as I don't remember having them out.

I push the door open -- I hadn't locked it yet, so I guess that explains the keys -- and Sam follows me inside. Flipping on a light, I look over my living room with a critical eye. Luckily, I've haven't been home much since I went on my last cleaning rampage, and there's just the usual clutter of mail on the desk and newspapers on the coffee table. Thank heavens, too, that I didn't get any farther with the laundry last night than sorting it into piles on my bedroom floor, so I won't be seating Sam on the couch next to a pile of my unfolded underwear. "Would you -- should I make coffee?" I ask as Sam closes the door behind us.

"No," he says quietly, his mouth right next to my ear. "Thank you," he adds, an afterthought, taking my hand into his. Sam leads me to the couch, pushing me down on to it, and seats himself next to me. I wait for him to begin, but all he can seem to manage is a sigh.

"Sam?" I prompt, leaning forward and turning slightly so I can see his eyes. "Something's wrong," I say, finally giving voice to my sense of dread.

"Yeah," he agrees, chuckling humorlessly. "I don't really know how to put this," he tells me, tightening the grip he has on my hand. "I haven't actually told anyone yet, though I've got a morning full of conference calls coming up in which I get to tell lots of people. Toby and I," he continues, "He said we'd tell Cathy, Bonnie and Ginger together, but he did all the talking...." Sam shakes his head at the thought, and when he stops, he meets my eye, his gaze intense. "This is my first try here, Ainsley," he sighs, "So bear with me."

I'm relieved by his mention of conference calls and the Communications Assistants. Whatever this is, it isn't a personal issue, it isn't about us. Still, it can't be good news, and that sets my brain off searching for another explanation. Haiti? I had CNN on as I got ready this morning, but they were reporting no change in the standoff. There's always the unexplained conflict with Toby, but Sam said they were working together last night.

The sudden tension between us and in Sam is unsettling, not tantalizing as it was Friday or Monday nights, or even just now in the hallway. "Tell me," I ask, squeezing his hand in return. "Whatever it is, Sam, just tell me."

"Okay," he agrees, biting his lip, and I am struck by his uncharacteristic uncertainty. He watches me intently for another few seconds, then finally, exhaling softly, says, "The President -- President Bartlet has M.S."

'Marital settlement' my brain identifies immediately. Or 'Master of Science', maybe 'manuscript'. Legal terms, because that's what I know best, but I also know I'm missing something. The President isn't getting a divorce, I'm fairly certain, nor writing a book. He's running the country at the moment, and wouldn't have time to do these things, wouldn't have time for M.S., which somehow I know must be time-consuming although I can't remember exactly --

"Multiple sclerosis," Sam defines, almost whispering, and I find myself nodding, automatically, in acknowledgement. Right. M.S. -- Multiple sclerosis. A medical condition, a disease. There's a charitable organization for it, and they have walk-a- thons or read-a-thons... something-a-thons, anyway, I remember. Last summer, my niece participated in whatever it is they do, and I sent her a check. Tax deductible, she'd reminded me, and I'd marked it as such in my checkbook. Money for multiple sclerosis.

"It's the good kind -- the better kind -- of M.S.," Sam continues quickly. "That's what everyone's saying. Relapsing-remitting, it's called, and he's in remission, and -- Ainsley, you okay?" Sam asks, breaking off his explanation.

"Uh-huh," I agree, but I think I may be lying. I feel a little light- headed, maybe a little cold. Words like 'degenerative' and 'neurological' run through my mind. Jessica sent me a pamphlet, but I only skimmed it, reading the bullet points, not the actual text. Were they close to finding a cure? I try to remember. Or, was it quality-of-life issues? Support for caregivers? I take a deep breath, trying to clear my head. "There are different kinds of M.S.?" I ask, because I don't recall anything of the sort from the pamphlet. "And, the President, he has the 'better' kind?"

"That's what everyone is saying," Sam says. "I -- There hasn't been much time for me to look into it," he admits, frowning, and I understand. If I thought I'd saved it, I'd be rifling through my filing cabinet right now, looking for that pamphlet. Sam, though I wouldn't have guessed it based on our initial encounter, is as much of a stickler for research as I am. "Toby had some articles he pulled off the Internet, and Doctor Bartlet gave us all some literature, but the rest of us were told not to do anything on our own," he explains. "Nothing that might get noticed."

I nod. That makes sense. It would be a problem, an uncontrolled story, if an overzealous web master somewhere realized that the hits on multiple sclerosis-related sites by White House computers had suddenly shot through the roof. The President certainly deserves some time to adjust to the news, as does his family and his staff, I think. I'm startled a moment later when I remember that includes me. I am staff, and I need to start adjusting to this news.

A hundred questions flood my mind, so many that it's a long moment before I can decide what to ask. "When?" I start. "How long? Can he finish his term?" I demand, dreading the answer to that particular question. In addition to the awe and reverence I have always felt for the office, I have come to respect President Bartlet personally, but that feeling does not extend to John Hoynes. "You said remission, implying that he is medically stable at this time, yes?"

Sam looks away for the first time since we sat down. He closes his eyes and rubs them hard enough that I suspect he sees stars. "At the moment the President is fine, medically speaking," he says tiredly. "The rest.... I don't know," Sam admits, grimacing. "There's going to be an address. Tonight, eight o'clock. All the networks and CNN. Press conference to follow.... But Ainsley," he says, letting go of my hand, "This isn't -- The President was diagnosed eight years ago."

I gasp. I think I gasp, anyway. My hand is over my mouth, that I'm certain of, and I feel as if all the air has left my lungs, so I assume I gasped. I look at Sam, and he's got nearly the same expression on his face that he had on Friday night when he came out of Toby's office, and later when he told me about his father.

"The President is in remission," Sam tells me again. "And, he has been for most of the past eight years. He considered it a private matter, and very few people were aware of his condition, family members and doctors, mostly," he explains.

My fingers are pressed against my mouth so hard that they've started to tremble, I realize, and I let my hand drop to my lap. "Eight years ago?" I ask, finding my voice, finally. "But," I protest, "He ran for President --"

"I know," Sam sighs, his eyes clouding. He meets my gaze reluctantly, saying, "We were all told only very recently. Toby, Josh, C.J., Babish, me.... I was told on Friday," he admits with a painful chuckle. "So that probably helps explain Friday night to you."

"Yes," I agree, somehow stammering that single syllable. I suppose that does explain Friday night very well. I gratefully push away my own sense of confusion at the situation, and allow myself to consider it from Sam's perspective, recalling just how emotionally raw and distressed he was that night. His father, the President, and the *Indio* the week before that.... This explains everything quite well.

"Babish will be going over a lot of this with you this morning, in your staff meeting," Sam tells me, and I have to force myself to concentrate on his words. Mr. Babish, right. My boss, who is the White House Counsel and, by extension, the President's lawyer. Mr. Babish, who is superior and blunt, but at least treats me like he does everyone else on his staff. Mr. Babish who, on Monday, asked me to research and be prepared to present case law on occupational medical privacy this morning.

Everyone's being told today," Sam continues. "All White House staff, ahead of the address. I wanted to tell you, but I couldn't," he says, clenching his hand into a fist and grinding it against his leg. "I wanted to tell you," he repeats. "Monday, when I saw that research on your desk. You deserved to know what you were doing and, given everything, the last few days, I thought you deserved to hear it from me. But, I couldn't say anything before now, no matter my personal feelings. I -- I --" Sam breaks off then, holding up his hands as if to indicate that he's run out of words. "I'm sorry," he murmurs a few seconds later, shrugging.

"He said it was a minor official," I tell Sam, laughing softly at myself. I shake my head, looking down at my hands folded neatly in my lap. "And, I am actually naïve enough that I believed him," I continue, annoyance bleeding into my tone.

Groaning, I remember how easily Babish played me, handing me a well-concocted story of an anonymous White House official, a department head, who had recently admitted to concealing a debilitating illness, but whom nobody wanted to see leave. A good and loyal, but ultimately minor White House official, Mr. Babish had said, and I'd believe him.

I look up and Sam, explaining, "He, Mr. Babish, stressed that it was a sensitive matter, so I didn't question any of it."

"Yeah," he nods, watching me carefully, concern marring his already tired features. Sam sits back, but he's too wound up to really relax. "Ainsley?" he ventures softly once the silence between us starts to become awkward. "What are you thinking?"

"What am I thinking?" I repeat, looking back at Sam. "What do you mean?"

"Ainsley," he reminds, "You're a Republican."

I shake my head and look away. "Yes, and you're a Democrat," I almost snap in return. It always comes back to this, I guess, and I don't even know why I'm surprised. This is Washington, D.C. after all, and politics is everything. But, I'd thought -- I'd hoped -- that Sam and I, by this time, were beyond this habit of knee-jerk political reductionism. "Both are facts we established in October," I say, frustration coloring my tone, "When on television, they introduced you as a Democrat and me as a Republican."

"Yes," Sam agrees with a resigned sigh. "But, you went out on a limb when you accepted a position with a Democratic White House," he reminds. "A Democratic White House, which is now going to be accused of lying and election fraud, just for starters." Sam closes his eyes again, and I realize his fist is still clenched, his arm twitching with the tension. "That's not anything you agreed to when you took the job," he says flatly.

"Neither did you," I counter, frowning. I can't help but wonder -- worry -- where he's going with this. "What are you trying to ask, Sam?" I demand.

"There's gonna be a special prosecutor, a federal grand jury," he tells me, evading the question. "Probably Congressional hearings," Sam adds, rubbing his eyes, less violently this time. "If you stay, you'll be defending the President, defending all --"

"If I stay?" I interject, fighting confusion and disbelief simultaneously. "Why wouldn't I stay?" I demand. "Am I being fired? Asked to resign?"

"God, no!" Sam exclaims. He stops himself then, frowning uncomfortably at his own outburst. He takes a deep breath, and starts again, speaking in a strained whisper. "God, Ainsley, no," Sam repeats. "Nobody's firing you, and nobody wants you to resign. I most definitely don't want you to leave," he adds. His hand comes up for a moment, and I think he's reaching for mine, but then he pulls back, withdrawing before I can stop him. "It's just... no one would blame you if you did leave," he tells me.

"Well, that's a relief," I mutter. I join Sam, slumping into the support of the sofa. "I'm so glad that none of you would *blame* me," I say, glaring at him. "I'm so glad that the automatic assumption is that Ainsley the Republican would, of course, turn tail and run."

"Ainsley," Sam protests, "That's not --"

"Because, of course, everyone was so thrilled initially when I accepted the job here," I remind, ignoring his interruption. I pull myself up again, turning so that I am actually looking down at Sam as I continue. "If you think you and Tribbey and everyone else didn't like my presence in the White House, well, I assure you, your reactions were mild in comparison to those of people I actually did know. I've been defending myself, my position, my choices and my beliefs since day one; yet I have shown up every day and I have done my job, always to the best of my abilities, and sometimes with brilliance," I declare.

I continue, my volume rising, and without pausing for a breath. "Admittedly, in that time I have made mistakes, mostly of comportment and protocol, but at least I have learned from them," I insist. "I am not a person who chooses to run in the face of difficulty. Furthermore, if you believe that I would view this situation along Party lines, rather than as a human being, and as a person who works at the same place you do, well then, you are, simply put, wrong."

Sam studies me closely for a moment before breaking out into a broad smile. "Just with less access than the Chinese food guy?" he asks before snaking an arm around my waist and pulling me close enough to plant a fierce kiss on my forehead. I wrap my arm around him in return, and tilt my head up so that I can see his eyes. "I'm sorry," Sam murmurs in sincere apology, "And, never so happy to be wrong," he admits before kissing me softly.

Sam starts to pull away, but I stop him with a gentle hand on the back of his neck. "Do you remember everything I say?" I question, whispering, as I brush my lips over his.

"Just everything you say on TV," he claims, chuckling. "And, strictly for professional reasons," he insists.

"Great," I mutter, rolling my eyes for his benefit. "Because, of course, I've never said anything utterly humiliating on television."

"Not really," Sam tells me, prying my hand from his neck, and kissing my palm. "Calling a Presidential initiative unconstitutional is embarrassing to the White House, not to you, personally," he says lacing our fingers together. "And," he adds, mock-scolding me, "Really, don't do that again."

I shake my head at Sam, fighting my own chuckle. "I'll try to keep my head about me," I promise as once again, his mouth descends over mine.

"Sam," I groan a few seconds later, catching a glimpse of the VCR clock over his shoulder. "It's five-eighteen," I tell him. "We should -- we should go," I say, scooting back a few inches, and placing a firm hand on his chest. "I mean, you need to go home to change, and --"

"Actually, I don't need to go home," Sam contradicts, though he -- unfortunately -- obeys my silent request to stop kissing me. "I, uh, keep clothes at the White House, a pretty complete wardrobe," he explains, wiping his hands on the knees of his jeans. "Leo thinks I put too much faith in the restorative power of a clean shirt," he chuckles.

"Okay," I laugh along with Sam, even though I really don't get the connection. "That's fair," I say, shrugging. "After all, I probably put too much faith in the restorative power of a chocolate frosted and a large Dunkin's dark roast."

We both laugh at that, some of the tension, both good and bad, of the past half hour, easing. "Look," I start, "Why don't you go ahead to the White House, then, and get changed," I suggest. "I'll stop for breakfast, and meet you in your office. We'll eat, maybe talk about something other than work...."

Sam smiles at me then, the sweet smile, the one that makes me weak in the knees. "That sounds great," he tells me, and I agree.

* * * * *

Wednesday, 5:38 A.M.

I make pretty good time from Ainsley's to the White House and, by some unfortunate chance, end up driving into the almost deserted parking lot right behind Leo. I stall some getting out of my car, digging around in my briefcase for something I know isn't there, but he waits for me anyway. Finally giving up, I climb out, moving slowly to join Leo where he stands in front of his own vehicle.

"So, maybe, you woke up this morning and thought today might be a good day to come casual?" he asks, eyebrow raised, in lieu of your more standard morning greeting.

"Uh, no," I say, laughing self-consciously as I fall into step beside him. "I'm gonna change," I assure while we trudge on toward the staff entrance. "It's just that my black suit is here," I explain rather lamely considering that Leo probably knows that I have more than one black suit. "So, you know.... I'm gonna change," I repeat.

"Sure," Leo answers with a shrug. "Hey, I'm just happy you went home last night," he tells me, a hint of humor tingeing his tone.

We reach the door, and he holds it open for me, motioning me ahead of him. It's cooler inside, less sticky, and I shiver slightly at the change. Leo joins me at the security checkpoint, and we both start to search for our identification. The night guard recognizes us, however, and waves us by.

"You're early," Leo realizes, glancing at me sideways as we start down the corridor together. "You and Toby finish the remarks?"

I nod. "Yeah, they're done." We round the corner to find a janitor running a vacuum cleaner noisily over the carpet, and we have to move beyond him before I can continue. "Done by ten-thirty," I add once I can speak without shouting. I don't explain, however, that Toby insisted we go over everything twice more, and that we didn't leave until almost one.

"And, they're good?" Leo asks as we take another turn, heading for the West Wing. He stops then, in the center of the hallway, rotating to face me directly. "You're both happy with 'em?"

"They're good," I say, affecting a confidence I don't really feel. They aren't speeches, these remarks we've written, but rather talking points for the address and 'good answers', Toby calls them, for the press conference to follow. We couldn't write speeches because we have no idea what it is the President wants to say.

"They're good," I repeat, frowning. "I just -- Do we know? Do we know what he's going to say yet?" This is the question I keep asking even though nobody ever answers. Leo at least tolerates the asking, tolerates me, which makes it easier to take when he brushes me off. "Do you -- Are we really ready to do this?" I ask, watching him closely.

Leo meets my gaze with an appraising look of his own, and I suddenly feel very conspicuous. He's dressed in a thousand dollar suit while I stand here in jeans and a ratty old Princeton sweatshirt I should have thrown away years ago except it's kind of my lucky sweatshirt so I haven't. He's ready to face this darkest of days with a strength and a poise I can only dream of, and I look like I'm headed out on a camping trip. But still, the question has to be asked, doesn't it?

"I don't know, Sam," he admits finally, sighing tiredly. For a second something in his eyes betrays exactly how much this all is wearing on him, but he blinks it away. "I don't know," Leo says again, flashing me a grim smile. Then, with a jerk of his head, he suggests, "Go get changed."

"Right," I say, accepting the dismissal with a quick nod. I really wasn't expecting anything else from Leo anyway. I start to turn, heading for the basement staircase and the men's locker room, but stop when he calls after me.

"And, get breakfast," Leo orders. I look back over my shoulder, listening as he continues. "I got 'em to open the mess early today, so you should be good in about twenty minutes. Figured it was a good idea, what with all the early meetings ... the funeral. People always wanna eat, times like these," he explains, and I nod. It is a good idea, actually, the practical sort of thing only Leo or maybe C.J. would think of. "Anyway," Leo finishes, shrugging, "I had Margaret tell 'em to lay in extra provisions, make plenty of coffee."

"That's a good idea," I respond finally. "I've got meetings all day."

"Yeah," Leo agrees. He takes two steps toward me, asking, "You're doing conference calls? The D.N.C.?"

"The D.N.C. at seven," I confirm. "Then, I sit in on Josh's call with House leadership at seven-thirty."

"Good," he says. "Well, get changed," he reminds. "Grab some breakfast."

"Got it covered," I assure him, smiling because I realize that I've still got almost a full hour before I have to worry about the rest of this day, and I'm going to spend most of that time with Ainsley. Considering that I expected her to hate my guts this morning, I plan to enjoy breakfast.

"The calm before the storm," Leo says suddenly, half-reading my mind. "That's what this is, Sam," he tells me, sighing again.

"Yeah," I agree, and I can't help but frown a little at the thought.

Leo watches me for a few seconds more, then squares his shoulders, calling up his game face. "Do a job today, Sam," he orders, already turning away. "And, for the love of Pete, go get changed already."

* * *

I get changed, relieved after my earlier chat with Leo to be wearing a suit, tie and all. It's the uniform around here, and for as often as we all grumble about the dress code, we also know that it marks us as professionals we are. We're going to need that today of all days, that shield, that defense, a part of the credentials we carry with us, as we start to reveal to the world the potential fraud we've committed here.

That probably makes my earlier actions seem calculated, I decide, as I pass through the strangely quiet West Wing. Honestly, though, falling asleep outside Ainsley's door while doing my best impression of a bum was pretty much unintentional. I just didn't know what else to do. I'd intended to call her last night, and I hadn't considered the possibility that Toby was going to argue each and every sentence, each and every word of our outline. We fought about it, Toby growing more obstinate with each of my reminders that it didn't matter, not for a speech that we couldn't throw up on a teleprompter and not for a speech the President would never take the time to memorize. I went home from the White House still worried about how Ainsley would find out, and wondering how I could catch her first thing in the morning. So, following the admittedly shaky reasoning that any plan hatched at two o'clock in the morning must be good, I found myself camped out on her doorstep.

I'm still thinking this through as I round the corner, almost jogging into the Communications bullpen to find Ainsley waiting for me, standing right outside my office. She's dressed in a dark suit, I assume out of respect for this day of mourning, although like the vast majority of White House employees, she won't be attending the funeral. She looks serious, and maybe a little nervous, and beautiful on top of that.

I come to a stop a few feet away, my shoe squeaking softly as I skid on the linoleum floor. "Hey," I greet, allowing myself a moment to openly admire her. I consider then how much I like the fact that I'm fairly certain it's okay for me to do so, and I end up grinning.

"Sam," Ainsley greets in return, meeting my smile with a warm one of her own. She turns toward me, and I see that she's loaded down with things: her raincoat, purse, briefcase, a tell- tale orange and pink pastry box, and two of the largest Styrofoam coffee cups I've ever seen.

"You made good time," I say, moving to relieve her of a portion of her burden. She hands me the cardboard cup holder containing our coffee and I can't help but comment. "You weren't kidding about the Dunkin' Donuts thing," I chuckle.

Ainsley shrugs, laughing softly herself. "Yes, well, I believe it would be nearly impossible for anyone to live the better part of seven years in Massachusetts and not develop a certain affection for Dunkin' Donuts. It's an American institution," she declares.

"You spent seven years in Massachusetts, seven years at the fine, *actual* institutions of Smith and Harvard, and what you came away with is that Dunkin' Donuts is a national treasure?" I question, not really sure whether I'm amused or appalled at the idea.

Ainsley nods. "That, a Bachelor's degree and my J.D.," she reminds.

"Right," I say, pointing her forward toward my office. She opens the door and I follow her in, eschewing the overhead lights in favor of the lamp on my desk. I set the coffee down on a stack of file folders, turning when I feel Ainsley's hand on my arm.

"Do you have scissors?" she asks. I shoot her a questioning look, and she tugs at my coat sleeve until I look down. "Dry cleaning tag," she explains, fingering the blue paper square. "If you have scissors, I'll cut it offŠ." Ainsley offers, and suddenly she can't seem to meet my eye.

"Sure," I agree quickly, looking away myself. "Thanks." I reach across the desk with my left hand, turning the pencil cup over as I fumble for the scissors. Somehow, without cutting my hand open, I manage to turn the shears around so that I can hand them, handle first, to Ainsley. "Here," I say, clearing my throat uncertainly.

Ainsley accepts the scissors with a nod, still not looking at me. I hold my sleeve up for her, and she carefully snips the offending tag loose, crumpling it in her hand. "There," she declares softly, returning the scissors.

The innocuous familiarity of the moment is somehow awkward, and we skitter away from one another, both laughing a little uneasily. Ainsley, her back to me, busies herself folding her raincoat carefully over one guest chair before seating herself in the other, while I retreat behind my desk, pretending to clean up my scattered office supplies. When I look up, she's watching me, hands folded primly in her lap, her expression guarded.

"Thanks," I repeat, holding up my right arm in case she has somehow forgotten the tag she cut off my sleeve forty seconds before. "Believe it or not," I joke weakly, "I'm not exactly known for my keen visual observational skills."

Ainsley nods, chuckling unconvincingly, and I silently curse the sudden, uneasy tension between us. This feels ridiculous. I've kissed this woman after all, and indicated my intention to pursue her romantically; I don't know why it is that suddenly in this situation we should both be nervous.

I wish I could blame the bigger issue of the President's illness and the concealment thereof, but I know that's not it. Really, I suppose the problem is that we haven't had time to become comfortable with one another, certainly not in terms of our new relationship. Worse, knowing -- or at least imagining -- what's likely coming up for us all, I don't know when we're going to get that chance.

"I can drive in the snow," Ainsley announces abruptly, and for a moment all I can do is stare at her, wondering what it is that I've missed. "Quite competently, as opposed to your average resident of D.C.," she continues without pausing for breath. "In blizzards, I have driven," she adds, the pitch of her voice rising slightly, betraying her nervousness. "Large, twenty-passenger vans, in --"

"What?" I interject, sitting forward in my chair. I mean, I've been sitting here contemplating the irony of my dry cleaner rather than the President's illness being a problem between us, and she starts in on snow? But, Ainsley does this regularly, I've learned. She thinks ahead of you, even changes topic as she goes through her internal dialogue with herself, and then makes these baffling pronouncements so that your only option is to somehow force her to reconstruct her thought processes for you. "Just -- What?" I demand.

Ainsley exhales deeply and gives me a genuine, if shaky, smile. "It's another thing I learned living in Massachusetts," she clarifies with a shrug. She leans forward to retrieve one of the coffees, then opens the box of doughnuts, from which she produces a small pile of napkins and a handful of sweetener and non-dairy creamer packets that she drops on the desk between us. "Here," Ainsley says, handing me the box. "Have a national treasure."

A sudden sense of relief washes over me, and I can't help but laugh. "Thanks," I say, accepting the pastry box. I still feel as if I've missed something here, but I'm willing to go with it. "Blizzards, huh?" I ask, grabbing a napkin and the first doughnut in the box.

"Large vans in blizzards," she repeats as she dumps three creamer packets into her coffee. "I played lacrosse in college," Ainsley explains, anticipating my next question. "We traveled."

"You played lacrosse during blizzards?" I ask, reaching for the second coffee. "Isn't that difficult?"

Digging through the pastry box, Ainsley shakes her head 'no'. "In those skirts?" she asks, eyebrow arched. "Not likely." Smiling, she extracts a chocolate doughnut from the box. "But, there were those occasions when we would drive through a snowstorm on our way to somewhere else, especially early in the season."

"Okay," I agree, settling back in my chair. I sip my coffee, watching Ainsley over the rim of the cup. "So, what else?" I ask. "What other skills, talents, and knowledge did you come away from Massachusetts with?"

"Oh, God," she laughs a little uneasily. "I don't even know why I mentioned the snow thing," Ainsley admits, taking a bite of her doughnut.

"You said we should talk about something other than work," I remind, referencing our conversation at her apartment. "It's not work."

Ainsley swallows and nods. "That's true," she concedes, smoothing her dark skirt over her knees with her free hand. She lifts her head, squinting contemplatively as she meets my gaze. "Well," she decides, "I know what is meant by the oxymoronic phrase 'wicked good'." Ainsley says this affecting what I presume is supposed to be a Boston accent, but the result is pretty strange, and we both end up laughing. "Okay," she concedes still chuckling, "I can't say it properly, but I still know what is meant."

Ainsley licks a dab of chocolate frosting off her finger and smiles at me. "More?" she asks, and I nod. "Okay," she agrees softly, her forehead wrinkling as she considers the possibilities. "Skills, talents, knowledge...."

I realize then that she has decided to entertain me. Ainsley is very entertaining. I've thought so from the beginning, or at least since I found her in her office, dancing around in her bathrobe, enjoying the adrenaline rush that accompanied her second successful television appearance. Then, I suppose my amusement was at her expense, at least in part, though I was almost as mortified as she was when the President opted to repeat my 'Republican sex kitten' remark. Now, I am simply entertained because she's smart, witty, often nice, and frankly more fun to be around recently than everyone else I work with.

"Well," Ainsley starts, catching my eye, "I know all ten verses of *Gaudeamus igitur*." She takes a swig of coffee, watching me until, I assume, she sees comprehension dawn in my expression. "That has actually proven to be more useful that you might imagine."

"*Gaudeamus igitur*?" I question. "The song? As in *gaudeamus igitur*, uh, *nos habe senectutem*?" I hum uncertainly. "The favorite drinking song of nineteenth century Oxford graduate students?"

"Sam, you just said 'let's therefore rejoice, we have old men'," Ainsley tells me, biting her lip while her eyes crinkle with suppressed laughter. "Or possibly 'we have old age' which is infinitesimally less odd," she decides, her forehead wrinkling as she reconsiders her translation. "Although I suppose that could be interpreted as 'let us therefore rejoice, we have *attained* old age'.... She trails off, shaking her head. "But still, you completely mangled the first verse," Ainsley informs me kindly.

"So, actually you're like this secret lacrosse-playing Latin scholar," I tease in return. "Impressive," I intone. "And, good to know. For the next time I have a, you know, Latin need."

Ainsley laughs. "Well, you know where to find me whenever you next have a Latin need."

Before I can respond there is a perfunctory knock at the door, and Josh pushes his way in, talking. "Sam, you gotta get beyond this," he says, digging through his backpack for something. "We all understand your position, but you need to let it go," he tells me, pulling a folder loose. He holds it up triumphantly in one hand, slinging the backpack up onto his other shoulder. "We have to stick to the plan. The President has to announce --"

"Josh," I try to interrupt, but he's already spotted her.

"Oh, God. Ainsley," Josh croaks, his eyes going wide. "You," he fairly accuses, then realizes his gaffe. "Um, I mean, I wasn't expecting you here," he attempts to cover. "Not that there's any reason you shouldn't be here," he continues, digging the hole deeper, "Except that it's, you know, early. In the morning. Very early in the morning."

Ainsley nods. "Yes, I do agree that it is very early in the morning. Hello, Josh," she greets cheerfully. "Here, please," she invites, gesturing to her seat as she moves over into the chair closer to the wall. "Have a seat." She points to the box on the desk next and asks, "Would you like a doughnut?"

Josh takes the chair, but ignores the offer for a doughnut which is probably a good thing considering that he looks a little ill. "Ainsley," he starts, glancing first at her and then at me. "Uh, Ainsley, hi. I -- I was just coming to, uh, discuss with Sam this blue --"

"Ainsley knows Josh," I interrupt, more to spare her his overused blue ribbon commission cover story than anything else. I take a deep breath, meeting Josh's questioning look with an even stare. "She knows about the President's thing."

Josh looks, in a word, shocked. "She knows?" he repeats, forehead wrinkling. He looks at Ainsley again. "You know?"

"Ye --"

"Since when?" he demands, cutting off her answer. Josh practically lurches forward in his seat, planting both palms flat on the edge of my desk. "Sam, you said you hadn't --"

"Forty-five minutes ago," I interrupt. "I told her forty-five minutes ago. Which shouldn't be a really big deal," I remind, "Given that Babish's staff meeting is in like an hour anyway."

"Okay, right," Josh concedes after a few tense seconds. "That's -- that's fine."

I sigh in relief, glad that he's not going to make an issue of this. "I just thought she deserved to hear it from me," I explain.

Josh nods, pressing his lips together in a grim line. "Yeah, I get that," he concedes a moment later, and I decide he's thinking about Donna, and how it was Toby who told her about the President, and then, later, Donna herself who told Josh about Mrs. Landingham. Slumping backwards in his chair, Josh buries his face in his hand for a moment. "So," he asks a few seconds later, glancing sideways at Ainsley, "You okay with this?"

Ainsley giggles a little at that, not hysterically, but it's enough to indicate that she's tense. "I would have to say, in this particular case that 'okay' is most definitely a relative term," she informs Josh, her tone a little strained as she works to sound calm. "However," she continues, meeting Josh's frank gaze without blinking, "In that relative sense, relative to this situation, I should say, I am, in fact, okay."

Josh stares at her for a moment then shakes his head. "Glad to hear it," he tells her. "I assume then that you won't be resigning?" He cocks his head in my direction, explaining, "That's what our boy Sam here was worried about, you know. That you'd up and leave. Maybe give him a good kick in the shins on the way out."

For a moment, Ainsley looks like she's about to launch into another of her convoluted, nervous answers, but she takes a deep, calming breath instead. "No," she answers. "I will not be resigning, nor will I be kicking anyone's shins." She glances at me, flashing an apprehensive smile which confirms for me that some of her initial, brave reaction was affected purely for my benefit. I smile encouragingly in return, and Ainsley looks back at Josh. "What is it that you all always say? 'I serve at the pleasure of the President'?" she quotes. "Well, so do I," she declares, giving a firm nod. "I fully intend to continue in my position here, as long as the President will have me, and in whatever capacity Mr. Babish feels is most appropriate."

Josh nods, and I'm surprised to see a hint of admiration in his eye. "Yeah, that's what Leo said about you," he tells Ainsley.

"Wait a minute," I interrupt, almost spilling my coffee as I sit forward. "You discussed with Leo whether or not Ainsley would choose to stay?" I ask.

"Actually, it never occurred to Leo that she'd -- you'd --" he corrects himself, looking at Ainsley, "-- leave. Leo says you're a trooper," Josh explains, reaching for a doughnut. "Actually," he adds, taking a bite, "You've impressed Leo enough that he wants you sitting second chair to Babish."

"What?" Ainsley and I respond in unison. We exchange a confused look, and Josh groans. "Second chair?" Ainsley repeats, turning in her seat to gape at Josh. "Second chair as in, well, second chair?"

"When he said second chair I'm pretty sure he meant second chair," Josh tells her.

"But, I'm not a litigator," Ainsley argues, her tone rising slightly. "I do research," she reminds. "In fact, I am currently assigned research which will undoubtedly prove useful to the President's defense. I write briefs," she continues, counting her responsibilities off using the fingers of one hand. "I review people's testimony, and I occasionally attend this or that committee meeting, but always in an advisory role, not --"

It's second chair, Ainsley," Josh interrupts then. "To Babish, and he knows how to litigate, don't worry. He'll be doing most of the talking. Your job will be to keep him -- keep the case -- organized. You'll basically be doing everything you normally do," Josh assures, shaking his head. "But, you're gonna do it from a front row seat at the hearings."

"There are others in the Counsel's office who have both greater experience and more seniority than me," Ainsley reminds.

"Well, the rest of us are gonna need representation, too," Josh dismisses with a shrug. "I get a lawyer, Sam gets a lawyer," he tells her, and they both glance at me, Josh signaling for help and Ainsley looking for reassurance.

"It's a good opportunity," I say because I can't think of anything else. I throw Ainsley an encouraging smile. "If you want to learn litigation, Babish is a good one to watch," I continue, "And, you might actually get credit for the work you put in --"

"Right," Josh interrupts. "Exactly. Everyone gets to play on this one. You're a good lawyer, Ainsley," he declares, and she blinks hard, surprised by the compliment. "Leo wants you where you can do the most good," Josh tells her. "Babish, too."

"Right," Ainsley returns, frowning as she considers Josh's explanation. "So," she asks, watching him carefully for his reaction, "Is this the best assignment for me because I'm a good lawyer, or is this the best assignment for the White House because I'm young, female and a Republican?"

Ainsley's question hangs heavily in the air, and I end up holding my breath waiting for Josh's answer. I glare at him, feeling stupid, because honestly I didn't see this one coming, but now that she's asked the question, the answer is obvious. Ainsley is a good lawyer, but the White House is full of good lawyers. She is, however, the only young, female, Republican we have, and that makes a nice contrast with Oliver Babish and, more importantly, President Bartlet.

Somehow, Josh manages to answer without flinching. "Yes," he agrees. "Exactly. Both," he declares, unrepentant. "Is that a problem?"

Ainsley doesn't even glance my way, which is good thing, really, because I'm trying my damnedest to telegraph that I knew nothing of this, and I'd probably blurt it out if she looked at me. That wouldn't be good, given the whole united front thing the Senior Staff is supposed to be presenting publicly these days.

"Well, that's honest," Ainsley concedes after a long pause, laughing humorlessly. She's clenching her entire face, unwilling to look at either of us as she considers her options. "And, I guess, given that I must, I can live with it," she decides, raising her head.

I exhale the breath I was holding, loudly enough that she finally glances my way and we exchange an understanding look. "That's all any of us are doing right now, Ainsley," Josh says, surprising me -- both of us -- with his admission. She turns toward him, and Josh catches her eye with his own. "Right now, we're just living with it," he assures her.

None of us says anything for a long moment. We all shift restlessly in our chairs, and then Ainsley and I both reach for another doughnut at the same time, laughing together as we each grab an end of the box. "You first," I offer, pushing it toward her.

Josh takes this as his cue to leave. "Well, you know, I really think I was interrupting something here," he starts, looking back and forth between us. "And, we covered the one thing, right?" he asks me, and I nod my assent even though we really didn't. I'm still not sure today is the right time to go ahead with President's address.

"Plus, you know, I got in this other thing I wasn't expecting to get to yet," he continues, glancing at Ainsley. "And, well, the last thing I had isn't so important." Josh pauses then, nodding in agreement with himself. "So, yeah, I think I'm gonna go...."

Normally, I'd protest that he didn't need to, but today I refrain. Josh pulls himself up out of his chair, retrieving his abandoned backpack from its spot at his feet. "So, House leadership, seven-thirty?" I remind as he opens the door.

"Yeah," Josh agrees, looking back at me. He stops in the doorway, absently wrapping his knuckles on the exposed wooden frame. "You know, you're gonna have to bring the D.N.C. guys in this morning," he tells me.

I nod. "Yeah, well, better to break the news over the phone where they can yell and scream but can't actually kill me," I answer, rolling my eyes. Josh snorts his agreement, and I shrug. "We blocked off a half hour for them at nine-thirty," I inform him.

"Yeah, good," he acknowledges, rubbing one eye. "Make sure to wear your flame retardant suit," Josh advises, and we both chuckle a little uneasily at the truth in his words before he finally slips out the door.

Ainsley is cleaning up, tucking unused napkins and sugar packets back into the doughnut box, crumpling used ones into her empty coffee cup. "I should get out of your way," she tells me. "I'm sure you have a lot to do."

"Ainsley, I didn't know about any of that," I say, ignoring her attempts to leave. "I just want you to know.... It's another thing I didn't know."

She pauses in her housekeeping, meeting my eye. "That was fairly obvious," she assures me, frowning crookedly to herself as her words sound in her own ears. "I mean, I know you didn't know," she corrects. Ainsley sits back in her chair, slouching comfortably. "It's okay," she dismisses with a wave of her hand. "Even if you had known, it would be okay. I doubt you would have been given a vote."

"Yeah," I acknowledge. I get up from my chair and walk around the desk, assuming Josh's seat. I place my hand over Ainsley's on the arm of the chair, and then she flips her hand over, lacing our fingers together. "You are a good lawyer," I tell her.

"I just don't want to be a P.R. stunt," Ainsley says. "I realize that it will be impossible to completely avoid, but I don't want that to be all I am on this."

"You're not, you won't be," I assure. "Leo's not like that, neither is the President," I remind, squeezing her hand. "As for Babish, if that's what he intends, then I have no doubt you will put him in his place," I finish, flashing Ainsley a rueful grin.

"Okay," she nods, emitting a deep sigh. Stretching, Ainsley lets go of my hand, and begins to reach for her things. "I really should get out of your way," she tells me.

"Eh," I shrug, checking my watch. "Cathy won't be in to make me start working for at least seven more minutes."

"You need your assistant to make you start?" Ainsley asks, pulling her raincoat loose. "That's some work ethic you have there, my friend."

"It's just that she yells at me if I try to use the conferencing equipment by myself," I explain, frowning as Ainsley stands up, all her belongings in hand.

"I think I don't want to know," she chuckles, shaking her head at me. "Sam," Ainsley prompts a few seconds later, motioning for me to move out of her way.

Reluctantly, I stand, but I purposely block her exit. Stepping closer, I reach again for her free hand. "Word of advice," I start, "Say something profound in Latin --"

"Nemo enim fere saltat sobri --"

"-- to the President," I complete, shaking my head. "Say something profound to the President. He likes people who speak Latin."

"Oh right," Ainsley groans, wrinkling her nose. "I'm gonna have to meet the President again, aren't I? Well, that just makes my day," she complains.

"Third time's the charm," I offer, and Ainsley nods reluctantly. "The Latin will help," I assure. "And, people said you'd never fit in around this place," I joke.

"Do I?" Ainsley asks, her expression serious. She hefts her raincoat on her arm before it can completely slip away, watching me carefully.

I nod, not quite able to say 'yes' because I can't honestly claim that everyone has accepted her presence in the White House, and I certainly can't claim that these next few weeks and months are going to be easy. Finally, I squeeze her hand, murmuring something intentionally unintelligible which Ainsley seems to accept. "I hope I do," she murmurs.

We watch one another for a few seconds more, and then Ainsley blinks, offering me a wry smile. "Vivat et respublica, et qui illam regit," she recites. "Verse six. 'Long live our Republic, and the one who rules it,'" she translates. She pulls her hand loose from mine and lays it gently on my chest. "Something profound to think about," she offers, sighing.

"Gaudeamus igitur really has ten verses?" I ask, snaking one arm around Ainsley's waist.

"Yeah," she nods, still smiling. Shaking her head, she dumps everything she's holding back onto her chair, and takes the final quarter step toward me. "Buy me something properly English and alcoholic to drink sometime and I'll undoubtedly sing them all for you," Ainsley promises, tilting her head to brush her lips over mine.

"Done it before, have you?" I ask laughing softly against her mouth. I pull Ainsley closer, kissing her lazily until she pulls reluctantly away.

"You just know the phone's gonna ring or someone's gonna knock," she tells me, glancing at the door.

I groan, acknowledging her statement with a nod. Ainsley stoops to retrieve her things once again, and I step back, allowing her to pass. "I'll call you, or whatever," I say as she opens the door.

"Twenty-four hour pass," Ainsley reminds.

"Yeah," I agree. "You, too. I mean, you're gonna be just as busy."

"Yeah," Ainsley nods. "Probably." She takes a deep breath, and offers me one final smile. "See you, Sam," she tells me, pulling the door closed behind her.

* * * * *

Thursday, 2:23 A.M.

The cordless phone rings in my hand, a harsh, electronic trill that startles me from the shallow sleep I was certain I would never achieve tonight. I let go of the receiver, the muscles in my fingers working independent of my brain, and then have to fumble for it again as I force myself to sit up on the couch. Finally on the fourth ring, just before my answering machine would pick up had it not been rendered inoperable by the sheer volume of telephone calls I received before making it home tonight, I answer. "Hello?" I croak into the mouthpiece.


It is Sam, and I release the breath I am holding. I've been waiting for his call, hoping that each time the phone rang it was him, if only out of the desire to speak with someone who isn't under the impression that I've completely lost my mind. For almost three hours after I arrived home I answered the telephone to find family members, friends, former colleagues, law school classmates I barely remember, and other assorted acquaintances, all intent on peppering me with questions about when I found out and what I intend to do with myself now. Those calls, however, ended abruptly about a half-hour ago, as if the tacit social understanding is that you don't call past two A.M. to get the inside scoop on a national scandal, just as in high school, my mother's rule was that you never phoned a classmate after nine on a school night. Even after the phone stopped ringing off the hook I stayed up, too jumpy to sleep, not to mention that I was still hoping Sam would call.

"Ainsley?" he asks again, and I realize I haven't made any sort of audible response.

"I'm here, it's me," I tell him finally, clearing my throat. "Hi, Sam," I greet softly.

"I woke you up," he guesses immediately, his tone regretful. "I'm sorry, I thought with everything you might still be awake, and --"

"Sam, it's okay," I interrupt. "I wasn't really sleeping, and I told you to call," I remind, pausing to muffle a yawn. "Really," I declare, forcing what will have to suffice as a cheerful tone, "Don't worry about it."

"Yeah, okay," he responds distractedly before falling momentarily silent. I take advantage of the pause to curl myself into one corner of the couch, and to switch the phone to my right ear. "So," he asks a few seconds later, "What's up?"

The question throws me and I catch myself giggling softly in response. I don't know if it's just not what I was expecting, or if it is the odd note in Sam's voice -- although that, I realize, is most likely exhaustion -- but I really don't know how to answer. "What's up?" I repeat skeptically, drawing my legs up to my chest so that I can rest my chin on my knee for a moment. "Which version of my answer to that particular question would you like?" I ask with a sigh. "I have, at this point, quite a few."

"Right," Sam coughs in acknowledgement on the other end of the line. "Of course," he agrees. "That's gotta be the million dollar question tonight, right?"

"From everyone I know," I offer, tracing my finger over the faint scar on my knee, earned honorably in the first grade during my attempts to learn to ride a two-wheeler under the less than gentle tutelage of my eldest brother. "I was beginning to develop an aversion to the telephone," I admit with an uneasy chuckle.

"Yeah, that's understandable," Sam concurs absently. "That's pretty much how we all feel here, I mean. Too many phone calls," he mutters tiredly. In my mind's eye I imagine Sam as I've had occasion, once or twice, to see him: sitting in his office at the White House, his glasses abandoned on the desk while he attempts, vainly, to rub the fatigue from his eyes and re- focus on the task at hand. "Tech services had to shut down the phone system three times tonight because of the volume of calls coming in over the trunk lines," he tells me. "The email servers, too."

"I know," I answer. "I mean, I was still there, through the second crash, at least. After that, Oliver," I continue, stumbling some over 'Oliver' because it is only today, or rather, yesterday, that he has requested of me that I use his given name, and it's going to be awhile before I'm comfortable with the practice. "Oliver sent us all home after that," I repeat. "We were getting not a lot done by that point anyway."

"Right, of course," Sam returns quickly. "So, did you have time to watch? I mean, with everything else going on, I don't know, maybe you didn't --"

"No," I interrupt, "I watched."

I watched, ironically enough, in room S-515 with Oliver Babish and eleven other White House lawyers. After our staff meeting yesterday morning, Oliver had ordered the group of us, about one third of the office, to follow him, and then he'd led us on a surprisingly fast-paced march through the sub-basement to S- 515. We filed in quietly, still unnaturally subdued after his earlier announcement and the discussion -- a worst case analysis -- that had ensued. "Leo McGarry's been using this room as a war room of sorts, and now we are inheriting it with his compliments," Oliver had announced, his tone clearly implying that he didn't really care about Leo's blessing. He followed that up with what, for Oliver Babish, suffices as a pep talk, concluding less than two minutes later with a gruff "Let's get to work." So, we got to work, none of us stopping for more than the occasional trip to the bathroom or the mess for twelve hours until eight o'clock when we took a mass break to watch the President's address.

"And, what do you think?" Sam asks a few seconds later, after I don't verbally elaborate upon my answer. "Now that you've seen the address and the press conference, " he clarifies, hesitating for a second before continuing. "What do you think?"

"Well," I begin slowly, picking nervously at the sofa cushion with my free hand, "We talked about it -- those of us in the Counsel's Office who have been assigned to the ... the effort," I say, unsure of how to characterize the situation. Although we are clearly preparing for a grand jury and for Congressional hearings, we have avoided making references to 'the case' or 'the defense', as if by ignoring those terms we can keep what is coming at bay.

"It's all legally defensible," I continue. "That we all agree on. We've all done our research," I remind, and we certainly have. Oliver Babish had what I can now think of as the foresight to parcel out research assignments ahead of time, and as a result we were able to hit the ground running. There's an unimaginable amount of work ahead of us, but at least we have a solid foundation to start from. "And," I explain, "We've identified some rather compelling case law. Additionally, Mr. Babish -- or rather, Oliver --" I correct myself, "Is of the opinion that it may prove easier to defend a running President than one who has already con --"

"But, what do *you* think?" Sam interrupts.

He is asking, I decide, for the same personal opinion everybody else has demanded of me tonight, and, not knowing what to say, I deliberately misunderstand the question. "I think that any chance of a bye in Congress is shot to hell," I answer bluntly, letting my head fall against the couch's high back. I close my eyes for a moment, continuing with a humorless chuckle. "Admittedly, that chance was, to begin with, unlikely," I tell him.

"Still," I say, maintaining a coolly analytical tone, "It's easier to defend overall as there isn't the implied admission of guilt that would be associated with the decision against running again. On the other hand," I explain, "He has -- we -- the White House -- has done enough to antagonize Congress over the last two and a half years that this will surely bring out anyone and everyone who feels they have a bone to pick with the Admin --"

"Ainsley," Sam interrupts quietly, "As interested as I am in your astute legal and political analysis, can we save it for coffee in the mess in the morning? I -- I want to know what *you* think." He says this all softly, his voice rasping slightly as a result, I'm sure, of the strain of using it all day in the strident defense of President Bartlet. He also says it with a warmth and an interest that I'm not completely used to, but that I can't help but enjoy. "As a person who works in the same place I do," Sam adds, repeating the words I used twenty-some hours before, "What do you think?"

For once in my life, I don't have a quick answer to a question. I don't know what to say. Just as I couldn't express the moral outrage my brothers were expecting of me earlier, I also can't muster the enthusiasm I'm certain Sam is listening for. I saw him this evening, or a few brief flashes of him anyway, during the press conference. More than once, the camera operator panned the gaggle of staff standing in a knot off to one side, looking, I'm sure, for a reaction, and he certainly found one. Sam's expression -- and Josh's, and C.J.'s, and everyone's -- bordered on gleeful, a fact that he couldn't hide despite the fist he'd pressed to his mouth. He was ecstatic.

I, on the other hand, am neither outraged, nor ecstatic. I'm simply overwhelmed and, while I managed to put off relatives and friends with the standard phrases my colleagues and I drilled into one another today as we worked on the President's ... thing, I realize I'm not going to get away with the same now.

"I don't know what I think, Sam," I say finally, tiredly, slowly. The words hang on the line between us for a few seconds, and then he starts to protest again, but I cut him off. "Honestly, I don't know what I think," I repeat, forcing myself to sit up. "I have not had the time to think yet. Not really."

I move to the edge of my seat, my knee banging against the coffee table as I plant my bare feet on the carpet, and I'm distracted for a moment while I try to rub away the sting. "We just kept working all day, trying to do as much as we could, to figure out as much of this as we could," I continue, massaging what will certainly be a bruise in a few hours. "Then, it was time for the address and the press conference, and when I came home everyone, yes," I decide, repeating myself, "Everyone I know had called, or did call. I simply haven't had the time to think," I finish with a sigh.

Yet another somewhat uncomfortable silence ensues until, finally, Sam mutters, "Okay." He clears his throat and continues, the slightest of hitches in his speech. "So, all these people calling you .... You talked to your family?"

"Indeed, I did," I agree. I'm so glad to be off the question of my own opinion -- even for the topic of my family -- that I don't bother to disguise the note of relief in my voice.

"And?" Sam prompts.

"Mom, Dad, brothers, baby sister, they all called," I answer. "My sister, in point of fact, called solely for the purpose of admitting that I have an interesting job after all," I say, chuckling softly. It's a true statement, and also, more importantly, the most innocuous thing I can report. For certain it is better than relating how my Uncle Frank kept snidely insisting that someone -- 'probably the wife!' -- had to be secretly running things from behind the scenes, and obviously had been from the beginning.

Thankfully, Sam is distracted by my misdirection. "Your sister doesn't think working at the White House is interesting?" he demands, sounding a little insulted by the thought. "I mean, the whole Democrat/Republican thing aside, most people are impressed when you say you work at the White House," he argues.

"It's not that," I assure, resting my elbows on my knees. This leaves me holding the phone awkwardly, though, and I give up, settling back into the sofa. "Well, it is, in part, the Democrat thing," I admit with a sigh, once I've properly adjusted my position. "But, It's more that she's twenty-five and still in grad school. She seems to find the general concept of a job to be ... dull," I explain. "Also, if it makes you feel better, she thought my working for the Supreme Court was even less interesting."

"But now, because of what's going on, she thinks your job is interesting," Sam summarizes skeptically.

"Yeah," I agree. "Pretty much."

"Okay," Sam says, emitting a strangled noise that could be a laugh if he'd let it be. It's the same sort of sound he made the last time we really got into it over something -- just to get into it over something -- and he realized that he was going to have to concede a point or two. That was a week and a half ago, after I got back from Smith, but before the news broke about the *Indio* spill, before Mrs. Landingham was killed, and before the President's presidency became the only thing we have time to worry about. Sam and I ran into each other in the mess the first morning I was back. It wasn't the first time that has happened recently because it seems we both like to grab a second cup of coffee around eight-thirty if we have the time. We chatted in line and then, agreeing that the world probably wouldn't fall apart if we took a ten-minute break, found a table at which we preceded to debate, among other things, a GAO report on the school lunch program and the latest Small Business Administration's proposals for redirecting tobacco-dependent local economies.

Sam made that noise then, too -- a couple of times -- but he was smiling when he did it, and I'd ended up smiling as well. Only after I'd finally granted that maybe he'd made a good point or two as well, did Sam start making motions to leave. Still grinning and groaning, he'd swallowed the last of his coffee, then pulled himself up out of his chair, thanking me for the quick trip back to the dark ages. I glared benignly in return, handed him my coffee cup and plate to bus along with his own, and informed him sweetly that if things went the way he hoped, I'd be recognizing it as the first sign on the apocalypse. We headed in opposite directions then, and I didn't see him again until he came to my office to confess his perceived culpability in the *Indio* disaster.

"And, what does your father think?" Sam asks, forcing my thoughts back to the present. There's a wary note in his voice, but he continues. "About what you're going to be doing, I mean," Sam adds, "And, well, about everything?"

"Oh God," I mutter, a soft groan escaping me before I can stop it. It's not that my father's opinion of is all that negative, but the whole situation is complicated, and I'm not sure how to explain it in a thousand words or less. "He -- He was okay with it," I start, and it is a reasonable, wholly truthful beginning. "He's always supportive, my father," I continue. "Of me, and of any endeavor I choose to undertake. Even this."

I yawn, not so much because I'm tired -- I am, by now, conditioned to a certain level of sleep deprivation -- but to give myself a moment to consider what I'm saying. On the other end of the line, Sam makes listening noises, and it prods me into continuing before I'm really ready. "It's -- I don't know," I mutter, shaking my head purely for my own benefit, given that Sam can't see me. "Perhaps, though, my father has simply become accustomed to these little announcements that I periodically make."

I'm thinking aloud, and there is a little voice in the back of my head that's sounding the warning bell, but I ignore it. Sam has made fun of my relationship with my father more than once, but he certainly isn't the first to do that, and he wasn't making fun of me on Friday night. I've said more to Sam about my father than I've probably ever said outside of my family. There's really no point to holding back now, I realize, and so I plunge ahead.

"He took the whole 'I got a job offer from the Bartlet White House and I'm going to accept' announcement without missing a beat," I tell Sam. "Then, practically right on top of that it was 'Leo McGarry is a good man, not the bastard I'd always assumed'. Maybe, after that," I decide with a sigh, "And after everything else, the natural progression really is 'I've been asked to help defend the President, Dad, and I'm going to be seen on television doing it. Tell everybody to watch."

Sam doesn't respond, and in fact, the line is so quiet I try holding my breath in the hope of hearing him breathing on the other end. I don't hear anything however, and so I start again. "Well, at least after tonight, he's probably not even going to blink at 'I'm sort of seeing Sam Seaborn'," I say, a nervous giggle escaping me before I can stop it.

"Sally sells sea shells at the seashore," Sam quips in return, and any relief I feel at the sound of his voice after such a long silence is quashed by his flippant response. My throat tightens painfully, and my ears hurt too, so I almost don't hear what he says next. "Sorry," Sam mumbles softly, "I'm sorry. I ... I tend to find alliteration amusing when I'm tired. I -- It's a character flaw," he sighs.

The constriction in my throat begins to ease somewhat and I manage to mutter a response after a few more awkward seconds. "If only your mother had known, given that you're so alliterative."

Sam makes another one of his ambiguous noises, but I'm still too annoyed to bother worrying about what it is. "'S.S.' really aren't the best initials to grow up with," he tells me.

"You initial everything 'S.N.S.'," I counter tiredly. And people accuse me of abrupt subject changes, I can't help but think. "'S.N.S.' on anything I've ever seen," I continue to argue. "It's monogrammed on your shirts."

"Yeah, now," he agrees affecting a light tone that doesn't quite ring true. "Not when I was ten." There's another pause, and I take advantage of the time to rub my itching eyes. On the other end of the phone, Sam clears his throat, asking uncertainly, "Ainsley? Is that what you're going to say to your family? To your father? 'I'm seeing Sam Seaborn'?"

"Well, what should I say?" I snap dully in return. I prop my elbows on my knees, fighting the urge to clench my jaw. "What would you prefer --"

"I didn't mean it like that," Sam interrupts, frustration coloring his tone. "I did not mean it like that," he repeats again, loudly and slowly. "Ainsley," he sighs, "Tell them -- tell your father -- whatever you like. Exactly that. 'I'm seeing Sam Seaborn,'" he quotes. "I want you to, but it's also your call. I know how much your father's opinion means to you."

"Oh," I answer because I don't know what else to say. Closing my eyes I rub them again while I try to digest this latest revelation. All I can come up with is that this really isn't the sort of conversation we should be having by phone. I need to see Sam, I need to see his eyes and his smile, because I don't always know what he means just by his words alone. And, really, I can't help but think, that's exactly what twenty-four hour passes were made for.

"Sam?" I start a little tentatively, "Where are you?"

"Where am I?" he asks in return, and he sounds surprised by the question.

"Yes," I answer, my tone firm. This, I've decided, is exactly the right thing to do. "Physically, where are you right now?"

"Would you believe the O.E.O.B. parking lot?"

I laugh softly. "Sam, this morning I found you in my hall. The O.E.O.B. parking lot is pretty tame compared to that."

Sam laughs too. "Extremely, even," he alliterates.

"Yeah," I murmur, sighing as I settle back into the sofa once again. "So, Sam?" I begin.


I take another breath, and then I ask, "Would you like to come over?"

* * * * *

Thursday, 2:56 A.M.

Fifteen minutes after we hang up I'm standing outside of Ainsley's building. It's almost an hour later than when I arrived here yesterday, and the bars have been closed long enough that there's no friendly drunk around to let me in this time. I therefore settle for the more standard method of gaining entry to a locked building, and call Ainsley's apartment over the intercom.

"Sam?" she answers on the second ring.

I almost ask whom else she was expecting, but I dismiss the idea because I realize Ainsley is more likely to hang up on me than recognize it as my lame attempt to break the ice. I'm still a little surprised she didn't hang up on me earlier. Instead, she invited me over, though I'm not certain to what end. I just hope it isn't for an end. Ainsley, after all, is the decent and proper sort of person who would probably never dream of breaking off a relationship, no matter how tenuous and unsettled, over the phone.

"Yeah, it's me," I agree, because that seems harmless enough. I wipe a trickle of rainwater off my forehead, and then run my free hand through my damp hair, trying to convince myself that I'm not really *that* nervous. "Can you -- can you do whatever you have to do so I can come in?"

"Which begs the question: how did you get in last time?" Ainsley asks, speaking loudly over the static on the intercom.

"A neighbor of yours, said his name was Jim," I admit. I'd been ready to turn around and go wait in my car, but Jim had insisted I follow him in. "He wouldn't believe I wasn't Doug from four-oh- something whom, I got the impression, routinely forgets his keys."

"Figures," Ainsley mutters. "Here you go." The lock on the door buzzes then, and I grab for it, hanging up the intercom receiver without another word.

Two minutes later, I disembark the elevator on the third floor, immediately spotting Ainsley, silhouetted in her open door at the end of the hallway. As I approach I see that she's leaning against the doorframe, her hair pulled back into a ponytail and her hands hidden behind her back. She's dressed, much as I was this morning, in a gray college sweatshirt and denim shorts, a fact I remark on as I stop a few feet away. "Hey," I greet, flashing a tentative smile, "It's like déjà vu in reverse," I say, pointing first at her clothing and then at mine.

Ainsley shakes her head at me, first smiling and then frowning. "Yeah, well, I wasn't all wet this morning," she reminds, stepping closer. Ainsley lays one hand on my forearm, brushing a small shower of water off my overcoat. "Sam, you're soaked," she worries, absently wiping her hand dry on her shorts.

"Not really," I argue. My coat is, after all, water-repellant if not waterproof. "It's hardly raining anymore," I add, though that's not exactly true. While the heavy storm winds and torrential cloudbursts have died down, the rain itself is still falling fairly steadily. But I wasn't going to stick around the West Wing to find my umbrella once Leo and C.J. decided it was finally safe for us all to leave. "It's just sprinkling," I tell her, running my hand over my hair again, which unfortunately slicks another small stream of water off my head. "I'm fine."

Ainsley rolls her eyes at me this time, giving me that eloquent look I most often earn from Cathy or C.J., the one that just screams 'Men!' She reaches for my hand, pulling me into her apartment then forces me to stop right inside the door. "Hang up your things," Ainsley directs, gesturing to the wall-mounted coat rack. "I'll get a towel so you can dry off."

"You don't have --"

"Maybe I don't want you dripping all over my living room," Ainsley interrupts my protest. "Stay there," she orders.

I watch as she disappears down the hall, then pull off my overcoat and suit jacket, hanging them, as requested, on the rack. I toe off my shoes, too, which are just wet enough to squish a little because, naturally, I managed to park my car so that I stepped out right into a puddle.

Ainsley returns quickly, carrying a dark green towel. She crosses the living room and stops at the coffee table to reach down for the remote. The TV is on, tuned to Headline News, the volume turned low. They've been giving a rundown of baseball scores, and it's strange to realize that normal things like professional sports and, I don't know, high-speed chases, went on today. Ainsley takes aim with the remote but the story changes, and I stop her.

"Hold on a second," I request. "I haven't seen this, and ... I'd like to," I explain, shrugging. It's not as if I know or care, really, about all the times I'm on television these days. I could do without *Hard Copy* of course, but that's been awhile. As for the rest -- debating policy on *Capitol Beat* and Larry King*, or the incidental appearances at press conferences and bill signings -- it's all become part of the job. This is different though, and I want to see it.

"Okay," Ainsley agrees quietly. Without thinking I move a few steps forward, meeting her in the middle of the room, my concentration centered on the TV. She hands me the towel and I nod my thanks, wiping it across the side of my face and over the top of my head, all the while watching the report.

"Delores Landingham, longtime assistant to President Bartlet, was mourned today in a funeral that brought out the political elite of both New Hampshire and Washington D.C.," the anchor intones over a video clip of the six of us carrying Mrs. Landingham's coffin from National Cathedral to the waiting hearse. "Landingham was killed in a traffic accident in Washington on Monday night. President Bartlet has been in seclusion since learning of Landingham's death, ostensibly in mourning, although --"

"I think we know the rest," Ainsley says softly, turning off the television set. She tosses the remote toward the couch then takes the towel from me. "Your glasses are steaming up," she tells me.

I take them off and wipe them clean on my shirtsleeve. Ainsley turns slightly, moving so that she's standing directly in front of me, and then reaches up, running a corner of the towel over my forehead in one gentle, fluid motion. For some reason this surprises me as much as it gives me hope, a fact that I can't seem to keep from showing on my face. Ainsley notices my startled expression and, blushing, backs up, explaining, "Your hair, it was still dripping, so ...."

"It's okay," I assure her with a smile, shrugging off my initial reaction to her touch. I replace my glasses and take a step toward Ainsley reaching for her hand. "Thanks."

Ainsley nods then turns away, leading me to the couch, abandoning the towel on the coffee table before she seats herself primly on the sofa's edge. "I didn't see the cameras," I say, letting go of her hand as I sit down. "At the church," I explain, glancing sideways so that I can look Ainsley in the eye. "Not exactly the best thing to admit, given my job, but I never noticed them."

"I've never been a pallbearer before," I continue a few seconds later, glancing down at my hands. It's an odd thing to say, I realize. It's an odd thing to think about -- to worry about -- but it's also an admission I've been wanting to make to someone all day. I almost said something to Josh and later to Charlie, but I couldn't find a way that didn't sound stupid or unimportant when I considered everything they've both been through. "I -- My family is small, and everybody's healthy, I guess. My grandmother died when I was twelve or thirteen, but that was the last time...." I stop, the thought uncompleted, and out of the corner of my eye I see Ainsley watching me closely, her expression serious. "Anyway," I conclude, clearing my throat, "I was surprised, I guess, when Leo told us all that the President wanted us to do it."

"Who were the other two?" she asks gently. Surprised by the question, I glance again at Ainsley and catch her gnawing her lip. "The other two pallbearers," she clarifies unnecessarily, settling a throw pillow across her bare legs. "I didn't recognize them from the White House."

"They're not from the White House," I confirm, shaking my head. "Mrs. Landingham's brother-in-law and nephew," I explain. "They accompanied her -- the body -- back to New Hampshire so she could be buried with her husband and sons," I say. I didn't know before yesterday that Mrs. Landingham had even had children; that I learned when Toby asked me to read over the obituary he'd written for her. "Her family -- her sister -- agreed the funeral should be here, but she was to be buried in New Hampshire."

Ainsley continues to watch me, her eyes a little wider than normal, but she doesn't say anything, and I quickly realize that she's waiting for me to continue. "Can we -- Let's talk about something else, okay?" I request.

"Sure," she agrees with a quick nod. She waits a beat then, fixing me with an appraising stare, asks, "Why were you sitting in the O.E.O.B. parking lot at two-thirty in the morning?"

I'm actually surprised by the rather indirect nature of Ainsley's question. After all, she'll tell anyone and everyone when she's hungry, argue the Second Amendment with Josh, inform Leo that she needs to pee, and she certainly has no trouble letting me know when she thinks I'm wrong. So, I'm a little surprised that she doesn't come right out and ask me why it is I called her, or why I made light of her intention to tell her father that we're -- to use her words -- 'sort of seeing' each other. It's a softball question, really, and one I certainly don't mind answering.

"Because I wanted to call you after everything today and I didn't get a chance until I was in the parking lot at two-thirty in the morning," I say, meeting her even gaze. "Leo and C.J. kept us all until after the late newscasts began on the West Coast," I explain. "They'd rather our individual 'no comments' not make the news before the *Today Show*."

"Yeah," Ainsley acknowledges with an approving nod. She considers the situation for a moment, then asks, the slightest hint of anxiety in her tone, "Did you run into any reporters? When you left?"

"Not at the White House, no," I answer. "And there probably won't be any at my apartment. I didn't pick the place because of it, but the underground parking is normally enough of a deterrent," I explain.

"Okay," Ainsley replies, breathing a sigh of relief. She runs her hands across the pillow in her lap, momentarily flattening it. "Well, that's good at least," Ainsley declares, her worried frown easing.

Something about her expression clicks in my brain, and I find myself watching her carefully for a reaction as I ask, "Are you afraid I might have been followed here?"

Ainsley blushes a little, silently granting the truth in my words. "Well, I'm quite sure that isn't the best way to let Leo, Toby and Oliver know that you and I are, you know --"

"Sort of seeing one another," I supply.

Ainsley nods, still looking a little embarrassed. "Exactly," she says, clearing her throat. "Seeing one another. Involved in a relationship of a personal nature."

I watch Ainsley as the last of the pink fades from her cheeks, choosing my next words carefully. "Okay," I start, taking a deep breath once I think I'm ready. "First of all, although I haven't had much of a personal life since, well, you know...." I say, emphasizing the 'you know', and feeling immediately stupid for doing so. It's not as if I expect Ainsley to blanche and swoon like some Victorian maid at the mere mention of Laurie; she, after all, laughed just as hard as anyone when Donna was getting in her 'Sam's prostitute friend' digs a couple of weeks ago.

Ainsley doesn't say anything however, just nods a little, understanding registering in her expression. I exhale the breath I was holding, and continue. "Well, anyway," I explain, "I'm hoping that it's possible to have a personal life that doesn't attract a lot of tabloid attention."

"That would be nice," Ainsley sighs, shaking her head in agreement.

"Yeah," I mutter even as we share a look that expresses our doubts on the matter. I move closer to Ainsley then, crossing the invisible dividing line we established down the middle of the sofa when we first sat down. I reach for her hand, folding it between both of mine. "I guess that brings me to my second point," I say, giving her a lopsided smile. "So, second is just that I meant what I said earlier. We tell the people we want to tell," I explain. "Your parents, my parents, Leo, Babish, your unimpressed little sister...." I list off. "We're seeing one another now, and that's what we're going to tell people," I insist, squeezing her fingers between mine. "I guess we just work from there."

"Okay," Ainsley agrees, offering me a rather bemused grin. She scoots around, moving so that she's sitting both next to me and against me, our legs pressed together and her head laying on my shoulder. I'm just starting to enjoy the sensation of Ainsley Hayes once more in my arms when she shifts again, this time arching her back to press her mouth to mine.

We kiss softly, but we're both too unsure to take it much further. With a groan, I break contact, still cupping the back of her head with one hand. "So," I mutter, regret coloring my tone, "This is probably a great time to tell you that I'm going to L.A. tomorrow. Or actually," I correct, pressing my lips to her forehead, "Since it already is tomorrow, tonight."

"L.A.? Los Angeles?" Ainsley questions, pulling back just enough that she can look me in the eye. "Why?"

"For -- I don't know, really," I admit, shrugging. "Because Leo wants us all to get our personal lives in order before everything really starts rolling next week," I explain. "And, somehow, that translates into me going to California for the weekend."

"And that would be as opposed to this week when nothing happened?" Ainsley asks, somehow managing to not sound completely sarcastic. "He wants you to go see your parents," she says, and it's a statement rather than a question.

"Yeah," I agree. "He told us we should get things settled, and then everybody else pretty much voted me out of the West Wing for the weekend," I say, rubbing the back of her hand with my thumb. "C.J. told me to go see my Mom, then Donna insisted on making my plane reservation...." I shrug as best I can, holding Ainsley against me, and she nods her head, against my shoulder, in understanding. "It's been over a year since I was home," I admit, "And my Mom seemed really happy when I called her."

"What about your father?" Ainsley asks, looking up at me expectantly.

"I'll probably call him," I admit. He and I haven't talked much over the last two and a half months, just three stilted phone calls and a dozen or so emails, with the last of his still sitting unopened on my laptop. But, I know I can't go to California and not do something. "When I get there, I'll call him," I repeat. "And we can go out to lunch or something. I mean, he's a jackass but he's still my father."

Ainsley looks up at me, giving me a weird look, and then she begins to giggle, although she tries, unsuccessfully, to hide this fact behind her hand. She leans forward to rest her arms on her knees, and for a moment I'm not sure what's happening, but then she gives in to another wave of giggles which turns into a full-blown laugh that leaves her breathing hard and wiping away tears.

"Ainsley?" I prompt, fighting -- despite my utter confusion -- a contagious chuckle myself. "What?"

"I'm sorry," she says then titters again, I think because she finds the questioning look I'm giving her amusing. Ainsley has to take another moment to compose herself, but then she tries to explain. "I -- It's like your alliteration thing," she tells me, waving one hand in my direction. "I'm tired, and it's late, and that's the first Democrat joke I've been able to really enjoy in months!" Ainsley declares, throwing me a wicked grin. It takes me a few seconds to figure that one out, but when I do I can't help laughing myself. I reach for Ainsley, pulling her close for a fierce kiss. Breaking apart, we share a smile, and I shake my head at her. "Laugh it up, sweetheart," I mutter, glaring ineffectually. "'Cause I believe that as the President's lawyer you just might be prohibited by attorney-client privilege from enjoying any more Democrat jokes for the foreseeable future."

"Yeah," Ainsley agrees, sighing. "No doubt." She moves back into her spot, settling herself in the crook of my arm, her head pillowed on my shoulder. Glancing up at me, Ainsley offers a slight smile and questions softly, "Sweetheart?"

"Yeah," I agree, returning her steady gaze. "Is that a problem?"

"Not for me," she assures me, grinning widely. This time, she kisses me, and by the time she pulls reluctantly away, she's sitting in my lap.

"Sam, I have to be at the White House in three hours," Ainsley says, her tone regretful. She strokes one hand down my cheek and along my jaw, explaining, "I have a meeting with Oliver, a pre-meeting to be precise, and then he and I have a breakfast meeting. With the President, we will be meeting," she admits, not quite able to keep from grimacing at the thought. "I have to eat, in front of the President, oatmeal or eggs or something else I can spill or accidentally fling across the room."

I chuckle and grab her hand, kissing its palm. "It'll be okay," I assure, smiling sympathetically. "You are his lawyer now, even more than before, and he's invited you because he wants to hear what you have to say," I remind, "You wouldn't be having breakfast in the Presidential Dining Room if he didn't think it was important to meet with you."

For a second it looks like Ainsley is going to argue the point, but she doesn't, instead giving up with a shrug. "Thanks," she murmurs, attempting a smile.

"But, you know," I can't help but tease, "Starting a food fight is still probably not a good idea."

Ainsley groans, socking me half-heartedly on the shoulder. "You know, sometimes the quality of your advice astounds me," she grumbles, but she's also still smiling.

"Yeah, well, I try," I answer, fighting a yawn. I stretch my arms over my head, and start to sit up. "I guess I should go," I tell Ainsley.

She doesn't move, and in fact works against me, forcing me back into my comfortable slouch. "No," Ainsley argues, pinning me in place. I mean, you don't have to leave now," she tells me. "I'm gonna have to kick you out in two hours, but ...." Ainsley catches my eye with her own, and murmurs, "Stay for now. If you want to."


Ainsley arranges herself in my arms, laying her head against my chest and lacing our hands together. I kiss the top of her head, and then we both just sit there, enjoying the closeness of the other. It's quiet in her apartment, and I start to feel like I'm going to fall asleep -- and that maybe I should mention this to Ainsley, if only so she can set an alarm clock -- when she asks, "Sam, what time is your flight?"

"Tonight?" I guess, fighting the lethargic feeling that's started to set in. "Six, I think."

I feel Ainsley nod against my chest. "And, on Sunday?" she questions. "When do you get back?"

I think about it, trying to remember the details that Donna and Margaret gave me around midnight. At the time I was more concerned with the fact that, apparently, they both -- and I assume the other assistants as well -- have all my credit card numbers memorized. "Around nine," I answer finally.

"Okay," Ainsley acknowledges, yawning. She sits up, just enough that I feel the sudden loss of her warmth next to me, and I want to protest, but she's already talking. "I could, uh, I could pick you up from the airport," she says, brushing a few loose hairs off her face. "On Sunday, I could pick you up if you like. I'd offer to take you tomorrow except I'm pretty sure that Oliver is going have us working a pretty aggressive schedule over the next few days," Ainsley reasons. "But Sunday night, I could meet you then."

"I've got a direct flight, so it's in and out of Dulles," I caution, hoping that she won't take this small out even as I wonder why I'm offering it. "But, if that'll work for you.... That would be great," I say, capturing her hand as it roams lightly over my chest and holding it in place over my chest. "Thanks."

"It'll work for me," Ainsley says, pressing her lips to mine.

It's an offer of a ride home, I realize then, but it's also a lot more, and I'm a little amazed that I recognize this fact. We've agreed that we're seeing one another, but the rest is still somewhat murky and this, I decide as I hold Ainsley close, is a request to work on that little more, and to let her in a little more. It's a chance to get my personal life to a place where, in spite of everything that's going on -- and that will be going on -- I know we would both enjoy and benefit from. It's not what Leo was talking about of course, but it's what he should have been.

"Me too," I answer, kissing her.


* * * * *

(Latin) Notes:

Gaudeamus igitur isn't owned by anyone these days, and I have no idea who wrote it. It's definitely a Smith College favorite, and it has been around since at least the eighteenth century.

The full quote that Ainsley starts to give is: Nemo enim fere saltat sobrius, nisi forte insanit, courtesy of Cicero, and translates as: "Almost nobody dances sober, unless he happens to be insane." So, yes, I was having a little fun.

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