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I'd Like To, If You'd Like To

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Wednesday 8:35pm
Josh Lyman sits alone at a table for two.

Well, technically, it’s a booth. His usual table at Palmer’s, tucked away from prying eyes and mostly out of earshot, where he brings congressional representatives, political operatives - and occasionally, dates.

The server had been quick to bring Josh a basket of bread as soon as he’d been seated, and he’s been by twice already to refill Josh’s glass and ask if he wants anything stronger than water to drink. Josh doesn’t, but he’s slogging his water down in heavy gulps and his hands are shaking and he’s moving too fast, so he can see why the server would think to ask. He’s hovering with the pitcher for just the right moment to come over for a third refill. Josh thinks the server is under the impression he’s been stood up, or that he will be.

Josh is just early. And Sam’s not quite yet late. He wasn’t expecting the table to be ready when he walked in twenty minutes early for his reservation, but he’d been seated right away despite telling the maitre d’ that he was more than okay to wait. He sometimes forgets that reserving a table under ‘Josh Lyman’ is not what it used to be. Maybe that would explain his server.

Sam had gotten tied up at the White House with something last-minute (like an omnipotent being, the White House likes to remind all who work there that life comes at you fast). Josh is not bothered or surprised when Sam rings him to say he's going to be late. It’s not like Josh isn’t familiar with the work, or like he hasn’t been late to myriad things himself for the same reason.

And, really, Sam can be as late as he needs to be as long as he does, eventually, show up. Josh isn’t sure he can rally himself together like this again.

He lets out a breath and drains his glass.

 

That same Wednesday, but much earlier, 5:19 am
“We need to get up.”

“No, you need to get up. I can lay here for another, uh...eleven minutes.”

“Yes, but we both know you’re not going to do that.”

“I could be compelled to do that.”

“I can't be late today, Josh. But dammit if I don’t applaud your efforts.”

“Aagh, you’re no fun.”

“That’s not what you were saying last night.”

Josh laughs. A short, genuine burst from deep in his chest. “At no point did I say you were fun last night.”

“No, but it was implied.” Sam sits up against the headboard, grinning. “Though not very subtly. Declared, would maybe be a better word.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Josh says as he rolls over onto his back, quirking an eyebrow at Sam. “Would you like me to refrain from voicing my enthusiasm in future?”

“God no,” Sam says. He runs his fingers gently through Josh’s hair. “That’s half the fun.”

“So now I’m fun?”

“Will nothing please you?”

“I can think of a few things, sure,” Josh says, smirking.

Sam chuckles. He leans over Josh and gives him a slow, full kiss, to which Josh responds with a throaty moan. Sam’s tempted to move further, if only to see Josh overcome with anticipation, but he decides against it. When he pulls away, he pauses for a moment to look into Josh’s eyes. Josh’s breath catches in his throat at the soft smile that spreads across Sam’s face. Sam kisses him again. “And now I really must get ready for work.”

“Ugh, if you insist.” Josh’s words are automatic as he says them, the rest of him is still caught up in his chest and thick with the remains of the moment. He watches Sam cross the room for the bathroom, and slowly, Josh’s wits return to him. Josh throws off the duvet, grabs his boxers and undershirt at the foot of the bed. “I’m returning that kiss later.”

“Yeah?”

“Oh, yeah. Coffee?”

“Yeah, milk -”

“Milk, no sugar. Yeah.”

Josh steps into some sweatpants and stumbles into the kitchen just as the shower starts to run. He shivers in the chilly dimness and regrets not taking another minute to grab some socks, but not enough to go back to get a pair. Rubbing his arms to warm himself, he goes through his morning routine on autopilot. Lights, coffee maker, TV, newspaper from the front door, two mugs down from the cupboard, a piece of fruit off the bowl. Sam is a complete-and-balanced-breakfast kind of person, so Josh pulls out the bagels he keeps specifically for mornings like these, and pops one into the toaster.

He does double back for some socks - the shower’s been turned off now - and then walks right back out into the kitchen. The coffee’s not ready yet, but he tinkers with the mugs then pulls the milk and some jam out of the fridge. Someone’s speaking on C-SPAN and someone else on CNN, but he’s only half listening.

Wednesday morning is just drawing up outside his window, bright and grey and crisp, and not that Josh is counting, but he and Sam have spent every night this week together since Sunday. And Josh would really like it if they did so again tonight, and possibly the night after, before Sam goes California for the weekend. Josh has never been one to scrutinize the times when he’s getting regularly laid, but he cannot ignore that this has progressed beyond a casual fuck now and again to something far more nuanced.

He knows he can’t continue to tell himself he’s making things up in his head when the pattern has become more deliberate than coincidental. When, some nights, they don’t even have sex, they just sleep together, which is not how friends with benefits are supposed to work. But Josh loves it. He loves that they make plans for dinner, that they put effort into hanging out during their time off, he loves their talks as they lay in bed, exhausted from a day at work but still with their fingers linked together; he really loves the way Sam will tug on Josh’s shirtfront when he falls asleep to get Josh to spoon him. Josh loves knowing that in the last two or so months, he has become Sam’s favorite place to be, and Sam his.

Josh recognizes fully what his heightening sense of everything means for their increasingly flimsy ‘friends with benefits’ label, but he’s not angry about it. Which is...new. He should be at the very least mildly annoyed that the arrangement had backfired on him so dramatically, but whatever anger should have manifested at the realization was replaced with calm acceptance. He has, of course, not spoken to Sam about this even a little bit, hoping against hope that maybe Sam feels the same way but has also opted to say nothing and the two of them are just going to keep doing this forever, without ever having to talk about it, because the reality of the situation is so obvious.

He doesn’t even know how he’d start that conversation - “So, uh, hey Sam. Gorgeous day out, isn’t it? Yeah, yeah. I hear the cherry blossoms are gonna bloom real nice this year. Um. Hey? Remember that time we fell back into bed with each other after years of...not...doing that? And, uh, how we kinda did the whole ‘I’d like to if you’d like to’ thing for a while. And then how, for like, the last couple of months, I’ve liked to a lot and you’ve liked to a lot? No, yeah, yeah. Um, listen. I was thinking. Should we maybe? Talk? About that?”

Opting to keep his thoughts to himself had seemed like a sound strategy at first, but the past few days have really hammered home just how much of a bad idea that had been. And it’s not because he’s Josh and he doesn’t know how to talk to anybody about anything, but it’s entirely because he’s Josh and he doesn’t know how to talk to anybody about anything.

“Coffee ready?” Sam comes out of the bedroom, dressed except for his suit jacket. He looks relaxed, his eyes easy and warm when they fall on Josh.

“Yeah, almost,” Josh says, and begs his head to clear. “Bagel’s up, though.”

Sam grins his thanks and starts to cover each slice in jam. Josh eyeballs him when he hands him his coffee, “Haven't you sinned enough for one night?”

“Your puritanical approach to bagels is really not as endearing as you might think.”

“Neither is your love for desecrating them with jam. But what else should I expect from a west-coast heathen?”

Sam takes an exaggerated bite of his jam-sodden bagel. “Still don’t think this has anything to do with me being from California.”

Josh rocks back and forth on his feet, sipping his coffee and stealing glances up at Sam. He pretends to be interested in the paper, and goes to sit briefly at the table, if only to feel like he’s not in Sam’s way. Josh wants to say something, but they can't have the conversation he needs to have in the next fifteen minutes. It would be cheap to say something right now, and could throw off Sam’s entire morning.

“Josh, are you alright?”

“Hm?”

Sam is looking right at him, eyebrows raised in question, but not unpleasantly. “Are you alright?” He repeats. “You look a little...over there.”

“Yeah,” Josh says. “Yeah. Just got a lot on my mind. My morning’s really busy.”

“Okay.” Sam finishes his coffee. “I gotta run. Toby wants to go over the Pennsylvania speech again before senior staff.”

“Okay.” Josh leaps out of his chair to see Sam to the door, he catches Sam’s hand in his and reaches out to give him a quick kiss.

“You sure you’re alright?”

“Mhm. Like I said, busy morning.”

Sam leans in and gives him another kiss, “See you later.”

“Yeah.”

 

A bit later that morning, Wednesday 7:45 am
Sam manages to make it through the senior staff meeting with only a slightly maddening ring in his ears. Josh had, as was now habit between them, dropped by Sam’s office with coffee as soon as he’d come into work so they could walk down to the Oval Office together. Instead of lingering in the doorway for Sam to join him, Josh had walked right up to Sam and handed him his coffee directly. He'd flashed him a grin Sam couldn’t decipher (but had made his knees weak all the same) and let his hand linger almost indulgently against Sam's. Josh was light and all smiles, like whatever cloud of preoccupation had overcome him this morning had dissipated and taken with it Josh’s memory of the entire thing.

During the meeting itself, Sam realized Josh’s preoccupation hadn’t left him at all. It wasn’t unusual for anyone to stand up while talking or for one of them to pace small circles if things got tense, but today Josh had darted around the Oval as if standing for too long in one spot were painful. He was speaking too fast, gesturing too much; at one point he’d crossed his arms to stop his hands from shooting between in his pockets and out of them, but he immediately started bouncing his fingers against his arm, so he’d just put his hands back in his pockets.

Sam caught Toby and CJ exchanging a look while Josh clumsily barreled his way through a budget update, and almost felt secondhand embarrassment. Josh’s head was somewhere else entirely; and to Sam it looked like he was trying to compensate for it by appearing super-present. Without context, Sam hoped, it just looked as if Josh had had too much coffee, or like he really needed to pee. Their eyes met two, three times over the course of senior staff; Sam’s confused and Josh’s always apologetically turning away.

They got through the meeting with Josh calling no greater attention to himself, and never evoking more than a wry remark from President Bartlet, which could have meant anything; Bartlet was in good spirits today, and it had been hard to tell if his retort was anything other than him being in a playful mood.

“Alright, tasks for the day,” Leo says, when a message from Charlie brings the meeting to an abrupt end. “CJ, you’re set for this morning, but check back in with me before you talk to the press. Josh -” and in the brief beat, Leo’s gaze brazenly sweeps him in search of whatever unmoored line is responsible for the last twenty minutes. Sam catches himself swallowing hard. “If what CBO is saying is true, we’re going to need an updated commerce summary before we move on this.”

“Okay.” Josh replies, casual, but squaring his shoulders against whatever he fears in Leo’s face. “I’ll have it ready to go before this afternoon.”

“Thanks.” And that seems to be the end of it. Leo turns his attention to Sam and Toby. “I’ve got Bruner coming in off the Hill with a proposal. Let’s review it, please. Burner isn't known for his biting rhetoric.”

“I'll have Sam take care of it,” Toby says, and Sam nods expectantly.

“And then, Sam, you’re in California this weekend?”

“Yes, it’s my mom’s birthday. Kind of a big one - lots of family coming down for it. I’ll be back Monday afternoon.”

“I love a good party," Leo says in his easy, gentle reminiscing. "Hey, what kind of cake are you having?”

“Éclairs. There’s a Parisian bakery in Orange County my mother loves.”

Leo shakes his head, “Who ever heard of a birthday éclair?”

When they’re dismissed, Josh is the first out the door and Sam knows better than to walk out after him.

 

Wednesday 10:37am
Josh is lost in his own head. And possibly in his chest and/or stomach. His hands are sweaty and his thoughts are a blurry scramble he can’t pull apart. Not that it would matter if he did, it's all a mixture of Sam and work and his damn feelings and how much he doesn't want to think about how much he sucked at senior staff this morning - and he really, really doesn’t want to think about how much he sucked at senior staff meeting this morning. Josh isn’t prone to bouts of self-consciousness (sorely to his detriment, according to Donna) but he is suddenly very aware of his posture, his gait, even the quickness of his steps as he swings out of the bullpen - why is he trotting - and down the hall.

He takes a breath and slows down, but not before nearly walking face-first into an open door. He staggers, and quickly scans the bullpen to check if anyone saw him. Then he remembers that he’s the White House Deputy Chief of Staff and he can goddamn trip over himself and take out a staffer, a desk, and one of the uglier vases on the way down if he wants to, and still have the authority to fire anyone who laughs. Not that he would, he doesn’t think, but he can. It’s the principle of the thing.

In this White House, Josh runs back and forth to Sam’s office five or seven times on any given day, thinking nothing of it. Most of the time, there’s not much to consider - he’s running over papers or rushing to double-check statements before a meeting. He can count on one hand the number of times he’s allowed himself to drop by for slightly cheekier visits, but even then the visits were above board and the thought of any implications were far from his mind. Today, though, today.

No one is looking at him other than to give a glance of acknowledgement, but he still feels like someone will see him and know. Which is ridiculous. It may be very obvious that he’s struggling to not end up tangled in his own shirt, but there’s no way anyone could take a look at him and know why (most would assume his smart mouth had once again earned him a visit to Leo’s office). People, as far as he knows, can’t actually read minds, but also, he just established that he has the power to fire just about everyone in this building. And yet, here he is, carrying a dummy folder along just to make it look like he has legitimate grounds to speak to Sam.

The thing about this, is that he’s walked to Sam’s office plenty of times before on the morning after, bold and casual and comfortable as ever, completely unconcerned about anyone being any wiser to their business (and no matter what Donna says, he does know better than to be cavalier about it). He’s walked over to Sam’s office on mornings when they’d been sharing a shower ninety minutes earlier, on mornings where they’d already been up for hours, or had never slept at all. Even on that one morning when Josh had rushed into Sam’s office as soon as he’d gotten to work because Sam had taken Josh’s tie instead of his own that morning, and if they were both going to be nonchalant about wearing the same suit to work two days in a row when everyone had seen them leave the bar together, then they were at least going to have to try to wear all of the same suit two days in a row. He’s walked to Sam’s office plenty of times the morning after, and it’s never felt like this.

He doesn’t even need to go as far as Sam’s office. The object of his consternation is at the copy machine out on the office floor, perched on the edge of Bonnie’s desk. Bonnie stands behind him on the phone. The room is at its usual pace, phones and keyboards and people pacing in and out. It feels louder than usual today, which is saying something. At least Toby’s office door is closed. 

Josh swivels toward Sam and Bonnie, reflexively running a hand through his hair. His stomach clutches up all over again. He stops just short of Sam, who’s staring down at some papers in his hand. “You, uh, you look like you're thinking hard.”

“The printer is skipping pages,” Sam says, slow and quiet, like he’s trying to think hard and talk at the same time, and it’s proving difficult. “It printed page three twice but didn’t print page four.”

“Is...that a problem with the printer or with the computer?”

Sam shuffles the papers in his hand and turns to Bonnie. “Is that a problem with the printer or with the computer?”

“We don’t know, Sam,” Bonnie sing-songs, with just a hint of irritation. “This is why we’re calling IT.”

“Sam…” Josh nods to the scene before him. It's, quite honestly, sucking the drama from his moment. “You’re staring at that page three like sheer will power’s gonna turn it into the page four it should have been.”

Sam smirks, “Stick around, it just might work.”

“Nah thanks, I think I’ve already seen you frown at enough pieces of paper for one lifetime,” Josh says. “But I, uh, listen, I was wondering - d’you wanna maybe get dinner tonight?” He gives Bonnie a cursory glance but she’s staring at the clocks up on the wall.

It definitely doesn’t land the way he meant it to, what with all the fucking talk of printers as a preamble. “Sure,” Sam says cheerily, but offhandedly. “I can pick up some Indian food when I leave tonight.”

Josh’s hand drags from his hair down to his face, he taps his fingers against his chin. “No, I was, uh - I was thinking more like going out to dinner. A sit-down kinda place, yenno?”

Sam looks up; the pause before his response is loaded, and Josh has to push through the fear in his throat. “Sure. In that case, how about Palmer’s?”

“Yeah,” Josh says, and his face lights up. “Yeah, 8:30 okay?”

“Sounds good. I have a meeting at 6:30, but I’ll make it quick.”

“Alright. Okay. See you later.”

And he walks away. Just takes off down the hall feeling victorious and eager and, somehow, even more nervous. He shakes his head, tries to shake the feeling that’s coursing through him like a warm, pulsating buzz. Donna catches him coming down the hall attempting to wriggle free of the conflation in his chest, and he stops dead for a fraction of a second. But he recovers fast. He raises his eyebrows at Donna like he’s the one who just caught her with arms in a half-stretch and a far-off look on her face. “Uh, need something?”

“Do you?” Donna replies. “Maybe a chiropractor?”

“Don’t get smart,” he says, and beelines into his office with his hands pressed flat against his sides. “And get me that commerce summary.”

“It’s been on your desk since ten,” Donna says. “Along with five other things you’re gonna yell at me to get you later.”

“Yeah, but I promise to yell at you about them in order of importance!”

 

Wednesday, back at the restaurant, 8:42 pm
It turns out the bread is delicious, and Josh went through half of the basket in a few mouthfuls. He hasn't eaten all day, he's been too worked up to think about food. But he is hungry and the bread is delicious and at least it gives him something to do with his hands besides grab his glass every three minutes. He stares at the empty chair across the table as he chews, and thinks, not for the first time, that this has always been inevitable. That he and Sam, have always been inevitable.

Whether they were inevitable from the very beginning or they became inevitable somewhere along the way, Josh doesn’t know and doesn’t care. All he knows is that they’ve been charging toward this moment for some time, and he doesn’t want to continue putting it off. Josh can’t decide if it’s with bemusement or humility that he finds himself here, again, when so much has changed but so much hasn’t.

He never did get around to falling completely out of love with Sam Seaborn.

The first time Josh realized he was in love with Sam, he’d been 26, and the revelation had left him terrified. Unable to handle it (and, to a certain extent, unable to understand what it was he couldn’t handle), he’d run. By then, Josh already had a well-established habit of sabotaging his relationships when things got too serious; the fact that Sam was the first man he’d ever had feelings for had only exacerbated the problem and made him run that much harder.

Josh had staunchly decided last night, somewhere between Sam kissing him against the kitchen counter and Sam’s fingers digging into his back and Sam’s head in the crook of his neck, that he doesn’t want to run this time. Lost in warmth and that funny, burning bliss in the center of his chest last night, he wondered why he had even run at all, when he could have had Sam next to him this whole damn time. He doesn’t want to run anymore. He’s too old to keep pretending that he doesn’t want what he wants. He wants Sam. And he’s going to tell him.

It’s the craziest thing he’s ever done. He’s been over it a thousand times in his head today alone. It’s a risk. A huge, life-changing risk that could end in humiliation and disgrace. It could destroy both of their careers and up-end their lives in ways Josh can only imagine (and in several ways he doesn’t want to). Leo’s words from earlier come to mind, who ever heard of a birthday éclair? Yeah well, Josh thinks between anger and resignation, who ever heard of a same-sex couple on the President’s senior staff?

What he’s about to do is crazy enough without having to factor in all the political bullshit this could bring crashing down at the White House’s doorsteps. Not to mention he’d be asking Sam to put himself in a place where he might be forced to come out publicly if even one wrong person got wind of what was going on between them. Josh has more or less made his peace with that part for himself as best he can; he’s never been backed up into that particular corner before, but he knows he’s never been any good at keeping his cool when his back is to the wall.

And then there’s the possibility that while this confession - and he's loathe to call it that - makes perfect sense to Josh, it doesn’t mean it will make perfect sense to Sam. This whole thing could come out of left field for Sam, be unexpected or unwarranted or any other measure of words beginning with negative prefixes. Josh has been shitting his pants all day in anticipation of it and, if he’s honest, fear.

He doesn’t know if he’s right to be so afraid. Nerves are one thing, but fear seems almost like an exaggeration. Not fear of Sam, but of Sam’s reaction (the distinction, Josh tells himself, is important). He thinks he could live with it if Sam didn’t reciprocate his feelings, as much as that would suck. But he doesn’t know how well he’d do if Sam took the news well, was incredibly gracious and polite about it, then gently distanced himself from Josh for the sake of appropriateness or common decency or whatever. Stupid conscientious Sam would probably strive to be as respectful of Josh’s feelings as possible, and make sure he never gave Josh the wrong impression, that none of what he did could be perceived as anything other than platonic appreciation. Josh doesn’t want to lose Sam to something as relative as perception.

Which would be ironic, since it was Josh’s lack of perception that led to them becoming such close friends in the first place.

He hadn’t been planning on falling in love with Sam when he met him. He hadn’t been planning on much of anything beyond attending the meeting he’d been told to go to that day. At the time, Josh had been working as a senator’s legislative assistant, and Sam was fresh out of Duke. Josh’s first concrete thought about Sam Seaborn was that he had a name like a fictional boat captain. His second was that Sam Seaborn had the bluest eyes he’d ever seen.

His real thoughts on Sam had begun when Sam jumped into the conversation following an arrogant remark from Josh. Josh, whose emerging reputation had already accumulated a bit of weight, had been taken by surprise at Sam’s boldness. Humoring himself, Josh had slapped on his best grin and made his voice lousy with condescension, but Sam had come back at him sharp and witty and he’d matched Josh’s dismissive tone with his own.

Josh remembers coming away absolutely captivated by Sam’s candor. He’d half-assed the rest of the meeting because he’d been trying not to look at Sam out of the corner of his eye, captivated (and only occasionally getting lost in his goddamn blue eyes). Nothing could dull his insurmountable curiosity toward Sam Seaborn after that moment. He had approached Sam afterwards, made very quick small talk about the meeting, and asked him out for a beer. When Sam agreed, Josh had felt like he’d won something, completely unaware that the admiration in his chest was the beginning of a crush.

One night for beers turned into four, then dinner, and then occasionally coordinating schedules to grab lunch together. All of it only served to reinforce just how much Josh liked Sam; before he knew he was physically attracted to Sam, Josh knew that he was attracted to Sam’s personality, to his tenacity, his sense of idealistic purpose, and to his warmth. Sam made him laugh and Josh found himself going out of his way to make Sam laugh. He wanted to impress Sam, to make him smile just that much wider and his eyes that much brighter. And the entire time, he thought it was because he wanted to be Sam’s friend.

His massive deficit in nuance, to say nothing of emotional intelligence, had cost Josh the realization that Sam was into men, and specifically into him, until embarrassingly late. It dawned on him eventually, one night while watching TV alone in his apartment and dwelling on something Sam had said about a recent article he'd read on gay rights. He was embarrassed, more than anything, about how oblivious he'd been, and concerned about the possibility that he’d accidentally mislead Sam.

That same night Josh came to the conclusion that even if he wasn't gay, he was very, very interested in Sam. It thrilled and terrified him, and Josh had no idea what to do with the information. But he owed it to Sam to at least clear up the part about him not being gay. Josh thinks he will remember forever the way Sam had looked at him, understanding but surprised, and told him it was okay. That he was embarrassed and sorry, but couldn’t really blame Josh. And something in Josh had almost broken at the sight of Sam trying to keep his face set while his eyes grew sadder and sadder. And then, because Josh is bad with words, Josh had reached out and cupped Sam’s face in his hands, and kissed him.

And Josh may not have been gay, but in that moment he realized that he definitely wasn’t straight. Realization crashed into his chest as Sam returned the kiss, simultaneously acknowledging that he had a lot to think about while letting his whole body go into a very new kind of overdrive. He likes to remember this with a bit of humor, the way his brain had journeyed from shock to satisfaction to desire.

Sleeping with Sam that first time had felt so organic and never been about experimental dalliance. It had been about attraction and desire, and not too long afterwards, affection. It still is. Josh has known that for as long as it’s been happening. It used to terrify him.

“Sir? Are you sure I can’t get you anything to start while you wait?”

“Hm?” Josh takes stock of the demolished bread basket. “Uh, no I’m still good. But, could I get more bread? Especially that dark one, what was that one?”

“Pumpernickel, sir. Chef makes that in-house. It’s pretty popular.”

“Yeah, I’ll take more bread. Extra pumpernickel.”

As the waiter walks back to the kitchen, Josh wonders why he does this to himself. His phone rings. His hand shoots to his jacket pocket, he’s still shaky, “Sam?”

“No, but I am liking your focus.”

“Donna, what - what’s going on?”

“Just wondering how dinner’s going and if you needed an emergency phone call to leave early. Judging by how you picked up the phone...I should be ordering a pizza to your apartment, shouldn't I?”

Josh smiles; he feels himself relax. Gods, he loves Donna Moss. “Donna, if I got an emergency phone call and had to leave dinner early, chances are Sam would get the same emergency phone call and have to leave dinner early.”

“It doesn’t have to be work. It could be a family emergency.”

“Donna, please, don’t hurt my mother.”

“Just letting you know that if you’re getting to the level of nervous where you start to eat and drink everything in sight, I can call you and we can rethink our strategy.”

“What strategy, there is no strategy. It’s dinner, not a military maneuver.”

“This from the man who's been at DEFCON 2 all day,” Donna deadpans.

“Okay, so it’s not just dinner. But, we’ve had dinner together before, plenty of times. It’s just that tonight I’m, yenno, asking Sam out. Formally.” He hears himself and visibly deflates. “...god, I sound like I’m asking him to senior prom.”

“My prom was in a barn. It belonged to one of the families who went to my high school. They had like seven kids - they’d been hosting prom for years by the time mine came around. I wonder if they still do. My Aunt DeeDee would know.”

“I am, again, rethinking my decision to not assume things about people just because they’re from Wisconsin. Like, that you all have your proms in a barn.”

“Just remember to breathe,” Donna says. “And don’t eat all the bread.”

“I haven’t touched it!”

“Please try to not eat the entire second basket by yourself, Josh. Carbs bloat.”

“I’m going to hang up now.”

“Do you need me to call you back in like thirty minutes?”

“Goodbye, Donna.”

 

Earlier. On Wednesday, 1:50 pm
Lunch is waiting for Sam on his desk. Bonnie’s tidy handwriting spells out ‘turkey on rye, fries’ over the Styrofoam container. He can never tell with this job if eating lunch at almost two in the afternoon means he’s having a slow day or a busy one. The last few years have thrown too many extremes at him for Sam to really have an accurate sense of it - he’s made it through days so hectic that he’d forgotten to eat altogether, but he’s also had days slow enough to actually be able to taste the food he was eating. Today has been a moderately busy day, which is why he’s able to sit down at his desk and have a sandwich, but it’s also why his sandwich has been waiting for him for nearly two hours.

Sam falls into his chair and pulls his sandwich over, hungry but unsure about actually eating. He knows he has to, but there’s a cold wriggle spreading over this stomach and he can already feel it starting to wash over his appetite. He floats his hand over the pile of french fries nestled against the bread, but doesn’t take any, and his hand falls limply to his desk.

“Dammit, Josh.”

He’s really trying not to think too hard about Josh having asked him out to dinner, but he’s not doing a very good job of it. He keeps coming back to how quickly Josh’s mood had changed this morning - trying to coerce him to stay in bed one moment, and the next keeping a marked distance. Sam can’t quite get over Josh’s too-tight denial of something being wrong. He feels a bit hurt; not only is he sure Josh lied to him, but he’s sure Josh lied to him about something having to do with him. He knows that there is definitely something behind Josh’s invitation to dinner, but he can’t decide what it is. Josh's semi-private panic attack at senior staff this morning had inspired no confidence; Josh has been jumping at the sight of him all day, as if Sam keeps catching him doing something Josh knows he doesn’t approve of.

Between juggling work and staring down errant office equipment today, Sam's been suppressing nasty, self-hating thoughts borne from anxiety and being just too familiar with Josh’s relationship M.O. to give any of Josh's behavior today the benefit of the doubt. He doesn’t want to assume anything and knows Josh will tell him everything when they meet later, but he has reason enough to think it’s serious. Which, he reminds himself, isn’t inherently bad, but also not necessarily good.

Sam eyes the clock and sighs. He’s got a revised language draft due to Toby before four this afternoon, and if he’s not going to eat, he’d might as well stop wasting time. Sam starts to close up his container, resigned to this whole eating lunch business, when Toby Ziegler strides into the room.

Toby doesn’t announce himself or even bother to knock before he hangs a left into Sam’s office. He stops right past the doorway with a stack of stapled pages, which he rustles in Sam’s general direction, “There you are. Where’ve you been, did you read it yet?”

“Yeah. I was just getting to the re-writes now.”

“You haven’t started?”

“I’ve been at that meeting with the minority leader since noon.”

Noon? Bruner was supposed to take thirty minutes. Forty-five, tops.”

“Well it didn’t,” Sam replies. “But I read the rider, and I know what we’re gonna say. I just have to write it.”

“We need it by four, Sam,” Toby urges, because no one has reminded him recently that stating the obvious doesn’t magically rewrite policy statements.

“I’ll have it in thirty minutes, Toby.”

Toby smooths down his tie, clearly exasperated. “The sooner the better, Sam, okay?”

“Thirty minutes.”

Toby leaves, and is gone long enough for Sam to bring up a blank document on his laptop, before wheeling back into the office. “What kind of sandwich is that?”

“Turkey on rye. Help yourself.”

“I missed lunch.” Toby sits down and pretends to make notes on his copy of the rider before snatching a few fries from Sam’s open tray. “Why’d the meeting with Bruner take so long?”

Sam replies without looking up from his computer, “Can’t get through half a page of recommendations for his proposal without having to hear about how his district is really pulling through for us because of his leadership and influence.”

Toby sighs, “Yeah, he’s a gem. But you got through to him, yeah?”

“Sure. It just took me the better part of two hours.”

“Forget him. What changes are you proposing for the rider?”

“I thought it’d be good to start with the wording on the education funds. Too ambiguous, I don’t like it.”

“Did you look at the section for allocating scholarships?”

“It’s a mess.”

“It’s a mess!”

“Hey, Sam?” Josh’s voice, unmistakably playful, carries as he comes up the corridor. “Now, you know I respect your mediation skills, but you gotta tell me what you said to Br - oh, hey, Toby.” He stops in the doorway, short of whatever blustering entrance he was surely building up to he like he’s afraid to go any further once he sees that Sam is not alone in his office. He leans against the doorframe, “What’s goin’ on?”

“Language rewrite for Bruner’s rider,” Toby says, and eats another fry.

Sam smiles up at him, “You were saying?”

“Uh, the, uh, Bruner was just in to see me,” Josh says. He keeps looking from Toby to Sam. “Is there any reason he thinks we’re not planning on supporting his proposal on the school buses?”

Sam shrugs. “He wasn’t thrilled with some changes I suggested.”

Josh fights the enamored smile that wants to break over his face. He narrows his eyes at Sam and lightly coaxes, “Suggested?”

Strongly suggested,” Sam says, his tone dangerously close to something flirty. “But I never said anything about not supporting him if he didn’t make all the changes. He came to that conclusion by himself.”

“Well, how bad was his proposal?”

“Sometimes I wonder about the judgement of the American electorate,” Sam replies.

Josh chuckles. “Well that's not exactly fair. It got us here, didn’t it?”

“Electoral math got us here.” Toby deadpans around his first bite of turkey on rye.

“Right.” Josh double-taps a closed fist against the doorway and Sam waits for him to bring something else up, but instead Josh gives both of them a quick nod before turning to leave. “Okay. Well, that’s all I wanted to clear up. Later.”

“Yeah,” Sam says to the empty doorway. “See you later.” After a moment, he sighs and gets back to his rewrites before his head gets away from him. He can feel Toby staring, can see him out of the corner of his eye, but if he plays long dumb enough maybe Toby will just let it go.

“That was weird.”

To sleep, perchance to dream.

“What the hell was that, Sam?”

“Hm?” Sam peers over his laptop over at Toby, and is only a little relieved to see that it’s more curious amusement playing on his face than irritation. “What, Toby?”

“What do you mean, 'what Toby'? That, just now. With Josh. What was that?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing.” Toby repeats. “So I just imagined that just now. Did you piss off Bruner? Was Josh coming in here to chew you out, but stopped when he saw me?”

“Don’t think so,” Sam replies, now typing pointedly. “I really didn’t strong-arm him into any changes. Also, considering Josh’s singular negotiating technique, I don’t think he’s got grounds to chew me out for pissing off a congressman. Which, I feel the need to reiterate, I did not.”

Toby grunts his dissatisfaction. “Okay, well if you two are fighting or something, fix it fast.”

“Nobody's fighting. Nothing’s happened.”

“Josh imploded like three times during senior staff this morning, Sam. Something's goin' on with him. I don't think I need to remind anyone that we’ve got a lot of balls in the air right now, and I need you both on your game.”

“Well, I can’t speak for Josh, but I'm certainly on my game.” Sam replies casually, in an attempt to lighten the air and put Toby at some kind of ease. “And as such, I’m trying to reword this position before we go down in history as the administration that accidentally defunded junior colleges that one time because we didn’t proof-read something written by an ineloquent senator.”

Toby takes another bite of the sandwich before pointedly growling across the desk top. “You’re being unusually evasive today.”

“And you’re being unusually invasive.

“Look, things have been a little tense around here with the thing coming up, so if you and Josh are butting heads, fine, but sort it out.”

Sam relents just to stop the conversation from going much further, “Fair enough. But for what it's worth, no one's fighting, and we’re both getting our work done as well as ever. Maybe he's just having a weird day.”

Toby doesn’t look like he buys it entirely, but the day is getting on and there’s actual work to do, so he picks up his half of the sandwich and goes back to his office. Sam lets out a tight breath, and gets back to the rider.

Wednesday, 9:05pm. Finally.
Sam arrives in a flurry of apologies just as Josh is beginning to think his nerve might run out. He’s flooded with relief and nervous energy all at once; he jumps out of his seat to greet Sam in an embrace. “Hey. Glad you made it.”

“I'm so sorry,” Sam says, again, after the server hands them menus. “That took way longer than it should have.”

“Don't worry about it,” Josh repeats.

“Toby caught me on the way out of my meeting - wanted to talk about the wordage on the address. Anyway. That's done now. What are you drinking?”

“Uh, nothing yet. I was waiting for you.”

“I'm feeling a scotch. You?”

“Scotch is good. There's also wine.”

“I could do wine,” Sam says.

“Nah, let's get some scotch.” They order, and Josh can't be certain he doesn't see a smile on the server’s face.

Glancing down at the menu, Sam waits for the server to be well out of earshot before speaking. He pretends to be seriously considering appetizer options when he says, in somewhat of a pointed tone, “Josh?”

Josh’s fingers curl around the edge of his menu. “Yeah?”

“Why did you invite me out to dinner tonight?”

“Because we’ve had takeout in my apartment three nights in a row and I didn't feel like cooking tonight.” He wants so badly to sound casual.

Sam frowns. “You went looking for me, to ask me to dinner, specifically because you didn’t feel like cooking tonight?”

“Well, when you phrase it like that -”

“Does this have anything to do with why you lied me this morning?”

“I didn't lie -”

Josh.”

“I really did have a busy morning.”

“If you’re just going to keep avoiding the point - ” There’s growing impatience in Sam’s voice. This is going every single way Josh spent the day dreading. And he hasn’t even said anything yet.

“Sam, please.” Josh sets down his menu and folds his hands over it. “I did have a busy morning. But it’s not all that was on my mind.”

Sam softens almost immediately when he hears the quiet plea building in Josh’s voice, “Is everything alright?”

“Yes. It’s more than alright.” Josh says, breathing out. “I've just. I've had this thing on my mind that I think we really need to talk about. This morning was just a bad time to bring it up and so I got...all weird and stuff.”

The server reappears with their drinks, places a glass in front of either man and pulls out his notepad. “Gentlemen, can I get you started with anything?”

“Uh,” Josh fumbles with his menu, but Sam is ready with an order of salmon carpaccio. “I’d appreciate it if you left off the capers,” he adds, as the server nods and ducks away from the table. Alone in their corner again, Sam takes a drink of his scotch and puts the glass back on the table. “What's going on?”

“Uh. Well.” God, the stuttering. Sam’s directness, when aimed at him, always made Josh uncomfortable. “Uh, so. I wanted to - wanted to talk about what we’ve been doing.”

“What we've been doing,” Sam echoes; it sounds almost disdainful. “You mean the sleeping together.”

“Yeah - the, uh, the sleeping together.” Thank god for his secluded corner seat. Josh taps his hands along the table, and speaks in a voice verging on a whisper. “And, well, the not-sleeping together, too. I mean, yeah, we’ve been having a lot more sex but we've also been spending a lot more time together, in general, than we used to. A lot more often than we used to.”

Sam nods. 

“Have you noticed the purposefulness of it all?”

“You mean, how intentional it's been?”

“Yeah, intentional.” Josh lets out a breath. “I mean, we used to sleep together every few months. A bad day at the office, bad date, to let off steam. And now we plan on it, yenno? We spend multiple times a week together. That friends-with-benefits feeling has really started to fade. It's been - it all feels - so intentional.”

“I'm a little relieved you mention that. I thought it was just me overthinking. What are you trying to say?”

“When do you think that started?”

“When what started, the me overthinking things or the excessive hanging out and sleeping together?”

“Sam,” Josh almost groans at how clipped Sam’s words are. “That's not what I mean, please don't get that way. I'm trying to have this make the most sense.”

This being…?”

“We’ll get there,” Josh says. “Stop being a lawyer for one second. Please. Just. Tell me. When do you think we started spending so much time together?”

Sam breathes out, his jaw relaxes. “I'm sorry. I don’t know where you’re going with this and I’m trying not to be defensive.”

“Could you maybe try a little bit harder?”

Sam shoots him a sharp look, and Josh takes an apologetic sip of his whiskey. “So, you’re asking when do I think we started spending more time together, not just having sex?”

“Yes.”

Sam considers. After a long moment, he says, “Right before Rosslyn. I remember I went over to your apartment after I was miserable when I saw Mallory at the office that one night. We talked, you cheered me up a bit, and then we had sex. You showed up at my place a few nights later unexpectedly and things kind of took off from there.”

“Okay,” Josh says. He’s fumbling for a follow-up, but Sam keeps going.

“And I felt kind of awful, because it was almost like you were a semi-rebound. I was trying to curb it because I didn't want to be a dick. But I kept seeking you out. I kept inviting you over, and I kept coming over. And I never denied you when you came to me, so I don’t think I did a very good job of curbing anything. If I'm honest, I was conflicted about how I felt - how I feel, I guess - about you. I wanted to bring it all up, but things kind of fell by the wayside when you got - when Rosslyn -”

“When I got shot. It’s okay, you can say it.”

“When you got shot.”

It’s quiet between them for a moment, but Josh will be damned if tonight gets derailed by Rosslyn (Dr. Keyworth would have a field day). “How you feel about me,” Josh repeats, clearing his throat. The beginnings of a smile creep over his face; it would seem that’s all it takes for his mortification crack and be replaced by something bypassing relief entirely and verging on cockiness.

“Yes, Josh. How I feel about you.” Sam looks half-annoyed and half-coy, but is still mostly frowning.

“And, how do you feel about me?”

“First you have to tell me what this is.”

Josh shifts in his chair. He fights the urge to smooth down his tie, brings his hands together on the table, knuckles brushing against his glass. “What this is, Sam, is that when I wake up in the morning and I see you lying next to me, I think about how happy I feel and how happy I am that you’re there. When I wake in the morning and you’re not there, I feel like you should be, and how happy I would be if you were. And that’s not what friends with benefits are supposed to be.”

Sam leans forward over the table, cautious of becoming too optimistic about what is going on. Josh is, in typical Josh manner, taking ten minutes to ramble toward a point that might realistically only take a minute to state. Which, Sam thinks, is viciously unfair. He wrestles with himself to be patient, to hear Josh out, and to most importantly, not jump to conclusions. “Josh…”

They’re interrupted by their server again, bringing in their carpaccio. They apologize for not having looked at the menu, and tell the server they’ll let him know when they’ve decided on the dinner course.

“Sam, the past few months, I have spent an irresponsible amount of time thinking about you. I’m pretty sure Donna’s caught me daydreaming in my office more than once just this week alone.”

“Wait, Donna knows?”

“She figured it out quickly, but didn’t tell me she knew for some time. But Donna’s good people.”

Sam lets out a breath. “Did she - what did she say?”

“Sam, I’m trying to tell you something important, here.” Josh says, raising his eyebrows expectantly. “D’you think I could get to that?”

“Yeah, sorry.”

“Okay. Look, I know that when we first started - for lack of a better term - hooking up again, it was a spur-of-the-moment thing. We’d just won the election, we’d been working together closely for months, all those old feelings from back when caught up with us and we slept together that night. Next morning, you said you didn’t want anything, and I didn’t either so we agreed on our...on this, right? I’d like to if you’d like to. And, to our credit, I think we did a good job of it that first year we were in office. And again the year after that. Casual, fairly infrequent, but always enjoyable and mutually desired.”

“Okay...I feel a little like I'm having my work performance evaluated.”

Josh smirks, but continues undeterred, “But last spring, something changed. I started seeking you out more often. I started coming to you because I just wanted your company. I’d go out of my way to make myself available when you were free. Things just started veering out of neutral territory, yenno? I knew what I was starting to feel. And, yeah, then I got shot by Neo-Nazis and anything I may have wanted to address had to be put on the back burner. And I think I made a mistake and kept it there too long.” Josh breathes. He can feel the admiration swimming in his face as he says all of this, can feel the heat in his cheeks and the tremor in his hands. Josh, breathes. “And, I know that wasn’t what we agreed on. When we started this, we weren’t supposed to be picking back up where we left off all those years ago. Lately, though, I have become less okay with the causal part of this supposedly-casual arrangement. And I’m wondering if maybe you have, too.”

“You’re not as bad with words as you say you are, you know that?”

“Don’t give me too much credit, I mostly practiced that.”

“Mostly?”

“Well, you gotta leave some room to improvise. Otherwise, it’s not heartfelt.”

Sam allows himself a small, quiet smile. He takes another drink. “To be completely honest, I’ve been arguing with myself over what's going on between us. We did agree to keep things casual, precisely because of our history. But I’d have to be stupid to not notice what’s been going on. I want to spend as much of my time with you as I can get away with, and I love every moment that I get, and usually I just leave wishing I didn't have to. The thing is, Josh, I don’t have to wonder about what this all means to me, I know what it means. And I think I’ve kept quiet all these months because I’m scared to break the spell. I’m scared of finding out what it means to you. Because we have been here before.” Sam’s voice drops to a tight and deep rumble, “And when it turned out we weren’t on the same page, it got really ugly, really fast.”

“I - I know.” Josh can feel the old embarrassment, the self-loathing that’s chased him across sleepless nights coming up to meet him in the throat. “Last time, I couldn’t get it together to actually follow through with what I was feeling.”

“Last time, Josh, you broke my heart.” Sam’s words are quiet, they're facts and bear no malice, but they cut Josh right below the ribs and send sparks of adrenaline surging into his system all the same.

“I was an idiot. I was - I was scared and I didn’t know how to handle being in love with you. It was homophobic; there’s no way around that. I know it hurt you when I refused to acknowledge you as my boyfriend or my partner. I was scared, and I was selfish and I didn't - I didn't handle it well at all. It was easier for me to tell myself that I just wasn’t sure, or to accuse you of being too pushy, of not measuring the risks of being out publicly, which I knew was a totally bullshit thing to say to you. But it was easier to blame you for my fears than than to face my internal problems. And that's exactly what I did, and I will never be sorry enough for that.”

Sam runs his fingers over the rim of his scotch glass. His face is almost dark. “I appreciate that, Josh. I believe you when you say you’re sorry. But you can’t gloss over the fact that this whole thing between us is a secret. Yes, for more reasons that just personal comfort, but it’s easy to think that you’re over everything that caused you to run away from this the first time, when you’re only hypothetically -”

“I know where you’re going with this and I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. There are no hypotheticals here, Sam. I’ve thought about this a lot. I’ve considered everything. Being out, telling our close friends, our parents. How it could throw so many things we've both worked for off the tracks. And I’ve worked through my internalized homophobia in therapy for years, now. I’m not a scared kid anymore, Sam. I’m ready to stand by you proudly, I want to. I can be the person you need me to be this time around.”

“What are you saying?”

“What am I - ?” Josh brings his voice down into an even lower whisper, leaning in across the table, “I’m in love with you, Sam Seaborn. With your made-up name and your ridiculous eyes and your bewilderingly perfect hair. I am in love with you, and I have been since I was twenty-six years old and that has not changed. I would like it if we could please give this thing another shot. I would like to, if you would like to.”

Sam does not smile, as he sometimes did when Josh imagined this in his head. He does not smile, but he also doesn’t roll his eyes or frown or leave the table. Sam sits very still for one long, breathless minute and then he reaches for his glass, takes a small sip, and nods. “So now what?”

“What do you mean?” Josh is mildly confused for the umpteenth time since Sam sat down to dinner.

“What’s the plan? We just walk back to the White House hand-in-hand and let the newspaper headlines explode tomorrow?”

“If you...want...to? Wait. Wait, are you saying yes?”

“I’m saying I’m in love with you, Josh Lyman. With your stupid dimples and your ridiculous hair and your utter lack of a middle name. I’m in love with you, too. And I would like to, if you would like to.”

Josh’s smile is so wide, it makes his face hurt but he does not care. He quickly drops some bills on the table and they abandon their carpaccio untouched and their scotch only half-drunk. Outside, the air is chilly enough to knock a little bit of sense back into them. Josh grabs Sam in an enormous hug, pushing into him, his chest vibrating with relief and an elation he hasn’t felt in such a long time. Sam is hugging him back, his head is thrown back and he’s laughing gently. He wants to kiss him, wants to hold him for a moment under the lamplight and kiss him like partners do, but he knows - reality tugging at them already - he knows it's not safe. So he hugs Sam closer, presses their chests together so tightly he can feel both of their racing heartbeats.

“Wait, wait. Wait, wait, wait.” Josh starts taking stock of himself. He holds Sam at arm’s length for a moment. “We can’t do that to Leo.”

“What?”

“We can’t - we can’t let Leo find out off a headline. He’ll kill us. We have to tell him. Fuck, we have to tell him.”

Sam shrugs, “So we’ll tell him.”

Josh nods. “No hypotheticals.” He grabs his cellphone and dials Leo’s office. His hands are shaking.

 

Wednesday, 10:34 pm
Leo is filling out paperwork when Margaret ushers Sam and Josh into his office. She doesn’t announce them, just closes the door as she exits, leaving them standing in front of Leo’s desk, still smiling from earlier, breathless and only somewhat panicked. Leo raises an eyebrow, “You two are looking...windblown and giddy tonight. What’s this about?”

“We have something to tell you,” Sam starts.

“That much, I figured,” Leo says. He takes off his glasses and leans back in his chair. “What’s going on?”

“Um, well,” Sam comes forward a fraction of an inch. “Well, Josh and I. Josh and I just…” This had felt much easier when they were emboldened by the particular brand of euphoria that comes with resolving more than a decade’s worth of tension. Josh steps up next to him, and then takes Sam’s hand is his.

Leo furrows his brow inquisitively. “Still unclear, here.”

Josh’s breath rattles in his throat. “Well, there’s no way to say this without sounding like a teenager, so bear with me. Sam and I are together. We, uh, we’ve been sort of seeing each other for the past few months in absolute private and we’ve decided that we're going to continue to do so. But since this has taken a turn for the serious, we both agreed it would be imperative that you know. ”

Leo looks at them like the last thing he needs in the world tonight is another headache. “Uh-huh. Well, I guess Josh, you’re not technically Sam’s boss so there’s no real conflict of interest to worry about and, oh wait - what the hell, you two?”

“I can exp -”

“Leo, just -”

Months? Please tell me you’ve been careful not to be photographed or overheard.”

Sam jumps in first, “No, Leo. Nothing’s public. We have been very careful to not be seen in any sort of context that would spark rumors." Because he can't say 'no, we've just been fucking in secret'. "We're not playing with this fast and loose. I mean, give us some credit. We considered what the next step was going to be, and you're the first person we're seeing. I swear, Leo. We don’t want to hurt the President or color the administration’s policies in any way.”

“You say that, Sam, but I can already hear Mary Marsh and every conservative family advocacy group in the country coming down the hall.” He points to Josh. “If she comes in for this, I do not want you anywhere near her.”

Josh raises both hands palms-up. “Absolutely. Lesson learned, I promise.”

“That’s right, you promise.”

“Look, Leo,” Josh says. “I know this is the last thing you were expecting today, but we’ve never forgotten that the President and the administration are easy fodder if this gets out, and it could ruin so many things.” Josh’s hands haven’t stopped shaking since Palmer’s, but at least he’s keeping his voice even. “Which is why I’m willing to resign if it will keep the pundits at bay. I have plenty of other options in Washington that would pose no conflict to the administration if news of me and Sam ever made it past senior staff.”

“No one is resigning, Josh.” Leo replies, quick and even. “And no is being fired, either.” He sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose; when he resurfaces, he sounds much more composed. “I started that whole thing off wrong. I’m sorry. It's been a day and, well, this isn't what I was expecting to have on my desk tonight." Leo's face softens as he speaks, his voice grows warmer. "I’m happy for you guys, really. I’m not going to lie, I am surprised. Not in a bad way, just in that way like when you eat a potato chip and it turns out to be plain instead of salt and vinegar. It's not unpleasant, it's just not what I was expecting.”

“Thank...you?” Josh ventures.

Leo waves haplessly. “Who else knows?”

“Just Donna,” Josh replies. “And she won’t tell, you know that.”

“Whoever you two chose to tell in your personal lives is one thing, but here, I’ll ask you to please keep your relationship on a must-know basis for the time being. Anyone on the President’s senior staff can know if you chose to disclose this, but no temps, no junior staffers, no higher-up staffers you don’t know personally. Obviously, and I say this to all employees who may have familiar or romantic relationships, all behavior must remain office-appropriate during work hours. I have your guarantee this won’t affect the quality or consistency of your work or the rapport around here.”

“Yes, Leo.”

"Absolutely." 

“Mmkay.” Leo nods and goes back to his seat. The flash of - panic, anger - from earlier gone as quickly as it came. “Then that’s all that matters. And it's not that I don't want to chat, but I do have work to do before I leave. The President is in on a call tonight, I’ll let him know when he gets out. If you’d like to talk to him personally, he’s in before senior staff tomorrow." Leo smiles at the them both. "Congratulations, you two. Be happy.”

Sam tightens his grip on Josh’s hand. “Leo, thank you so much.”

“Nothing to thank me for. Have a good night.”

“You, too, Leo.” They start to head out toward the hall instead of Margaret’s desk.

Leo calls quietly, “And Josh?”

“Yeah?”

“Not that it's my place, but Noah would not have loved you any less. He still would have been very, very proud of you.”

There's an intrusive lump suddenly in Josh's throat. “Thank you, Leo.”

Leo shakes his head, because there is nothing to thank when two of the most dedicated public servants he knows can't be open about their relationship because the majority of the country would lose its mind over implications. And also he cares about them, and he's angry on their behalf. But all Leo says is, "Good night, guys. See you tomorrow morning."

Some ten minutes later, President Josiah Bartlet comes into Leo’s office. He’s in his faded jeans and old Notre Dame sweater, and reading from a large stapled package. He’s planning to be here late. He offers no pretense when he begins their conversation with, “Leo, what’s the price of a barrel of crude oil right now?”

“About twenty-five dollars, Mister President.”

Bartlet adjusts his glasses and looks down at his papers again. “Hmm.”

“I know you’re going somewhere with this, but we've have a slight personnel development that I need to talk to you about. Would you mind closing the door for a minute?”

“Oh? Are we firing someone?” Bartlet asks. He puts the papers down on Leo’s desk and hovers over one of the chairs he doesn't quite want to sit in. "Something wrong?"

“Nope, everything's fine. Josh and Sam were in to see me a few minutes ago.” Leo says. "They came to tell me that they're dating. And quite seriously, at that.”

“Oh." And it's not that Leo was expecting Bartlet to react badly, but it's that he's entirely nonplussed. Bartlet tilts his head as he considers the situation, but ultimately doesn't appear bothered. Or to care at all. Leo feels cheated a reaction, despite himself. "Well good for them. Finally.”

Leo's raises an eyebrow, “I'm sorry - finally?”

“Oh, don't pretend you haven't noticed them making puppy eyes at each other over the desk for the past two and a half years. They’d might as well get something out of it. 'Course, now I owe Toby and CJ fifty bucks. Each.”

“Mister President, you’ve been betting on your employees' personal lives? Isn't that a bit, I don't know, gross?” Leo’s eyebrows shoot into his forehead; he looks genuinely insulted and amused at the same time. “Was I the only one who didn’t know?”

“You can't be serious,” Bartlet says, laughing. "Leo, I may be an old man and have one million better things to care about on a given day, but even I know flirting when I see it." He grabs his papers again from the desk, good-naturedly flashing Leo a smug smile. “You really didn't know?"

"No. When would I have had time to pay them that much attention?"

"Fat lot of good it did me; I'm still out the money."

"Betting, though?" Leo's trying to frown, but he's not really managing it under Bartlet's genuinely chuffed expression. "Really?"

"You should see how much the kitty's worth in the bet about you."

"There's one out on me?"

There's no way to tell one way or the other from the wink Bartlet gives him, "I'm assuming you talked to them about discretion?”

“Yeah, but it turns out I may not have had to. Josh offered to resign if it would help the administration save face in the event of a press leak. And I'm sure Sam's offer was right behind his. They haven't lost sight of the whole picture. They don't want to hurt you or the administration.”

“Protect me? Yeah, that's a good one," Bartlet says through a sigh. "They're good kids, Leo. And it sucks that they can’t be open about their relationship around here, considering everything they do. I know they’ll be careful. And when the press leak eventually hits, we’ll be ready. I expect I’ll be seeing a lot more of Mary Marsh. Josh is not allowed within fifty feet of her, by the way."

“He knows.”

“Good. You should go home.”

“I leave when my work is done, sir.”

“Of course," Bartlet says softly, and walks back into his office.

 

Almost Thursday, 11:47 pm
Josh has never been more relieved to be home. He is exhausted, happy, and beginning to run an adrenaline hangover. Sam doesn’t look much better beside him. But they’re home, and today really happened, and everything is going to be okay, and that’s what matters tonight. Josh beelines for his couch, falls down into it like his legs have lost the strength to carry him six extra feet to his bedroom. He tilts his head toward Sam, who’s leaning against the front door. Their eyes meet. Josh thinks he hears himself chuckle.

“Holy shit.”

“I know.”

“We did it, Sam.”

“I know.”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Josh erupts into laughter, nervous and bubbly. “I think I’m giddy. Or getting my second wind.”

“Definitely looks like both.” Sam walks deliberately over to the couch, shrugging off his coat and scarf as he does. Josh follows him with his gaze until Sam is standing directly in front of him, hands in his pockets and a determined look on his face. Josh looks blissful, quiet. “You’ve had a long day. Let’s get you to bed.”

He offers Josh a hand and yanks him up to his feet, but Josh is not quite ready to go retire for the night. He pulls at Sam’s suit jacket lapels and brings him into a deep kiss, which Sam is only too happy to oblige. Josh gently places one hand at the base of Sam’s neck and the other at his waist, and pulls him in closer. Sam melts into it, and when Josh breaks the kiss, he’s left breathless.

“Told you I was going to return that kiss later.”

“You weren’t kidding, either.”

“Nah.”

Sam grabs Josh in another kiss, then another, and slowly starts to edge him back toward the bedroom. “It's late and everything is telling me to go to bed, but I distinctly remember hearing something about a second wind?”

Josh laughs. "Trust you to take that seriously."

In the end, they lay against each other in Josh's bed, in the spots where their day had begun ambiguous and secretive. Josh is holding Sam's hand against his chest, breathing evenly as he drifts further toward sleep. Sam had fallen asleep almost as soon as he'd gotten into bed, threats of a second wind all but forgotten. Josh looks at Sam's face, neutral in his sleep, watches the rise and fall of his chest as he breathes, and enjoys the moment for what it is. In a few hours, his mind can go back to racing and shifting and turning and running the world. Tonight, he's sleeping with Sam and for once not wondering what it could all mean. He knows now. And he's never been happier. He kisses Sam's hand and just sleeps.