HIERARCHY OF NEEDS

1.  Food

 

The girl at the next table in the restaurant was giggling at Josh from behind her hand.  He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, made a nonchalant show of folding back the edge of his damask napkin, creased it in a neat line parallel with the hem, and wondered idly how long it would take him to learn to fold it into a lily shape.  Probably a long time, he conceded with a humorless grimace - but maybe not longer than he had.

Not that there was anybody but himself to blame for his present predicament.  Josh Lyman's public humiliation had been exactly that - public - and he had exposed himself to it by naively assuming that the man he had expected to meet would be willing to be seen dining with someone who was rapidly acquiring the status of a pariah.  Having unwittingly served as the catalyst for Senator Carrick's recent conversion from a Democrat into a Republican, Josh had undermined his boss’s position so thoroughly that Leo McGarry had threatened to take him out to the woodshed and whack him with a two-by-four; the President was already contending with a Republican Congress and a precariously-balanced Senate, and the last thing he needed right now was a defector.  Everybody had realized that long ago, with the single stubborn exception being Josh himself.  

He had destabilized, therefore, the Administration he was paid to protect and, as a result, Josh was not at all surprised to discover that he was highly toxic, a creature who apparently must be shunned at all costs.  Considerately, therefore, he'd chosen exactly the right venue to facilitate his own public excoriation; always full of Beltway insiders, Moretons on Prospect was the kind of place where those who wanted to be considered hip and happening went to see and be seen.  Anybody who dined there alone did so because either he had no friends, or because somebody wanted to make a point of humiliating him - and the general populace was never in very much doubt as to which of these two explanations was likely to be applicable in any given case.

Unfortunately it was too early to leave just yet.  Josh would have to give it at least another thirty minutes, then go through the whole empty ritual of writing a note in the remote eventuality that his dinner date might show up after he'd left.  That way he stood a chance of walking out with dignity intact, although it would be common knowledge even before he got into his coat that one of President Bartlet's most senior domestic policy advisors had been left sitting alone in the middle of a crowded restaurant for the better part of an hour.

It was subtle, it was vicious, it was intentional, and he refused to let it hurt him.  At least, not so that anyone but himself would ever get to see the scars.

"Hey, Josh.  Sorry I'm late."

The voice that addressed him came out of left field but was familiar somehow.  It was not that of the man he had been expecting before all hope was lost, however, and he looked up to confirm that, instead of a short, shrivelled sixty-something, the man who towered above him was six feet and a great deal more of mid-forties Latino matinee-idol with smooth black hair, shining dark eyes, and a suit sharp enough to be featured in a GQ cover shot.

Josh's brow furrowed.  Recognition, in these circumstances, was not automatic, but memory came to his aid quickly enough to save him even further embarrassment.  "Congressman… Santos?"

Ingrained courtesy drew him to his feet, a welcoming hand held out and a welcoming smile pasted on his face before Josh’s brain had been given sufficient chance to register astonishment.  Representative Matthew Santos (D), Texas Second, was possibly the very last person on the planet he might have expected to run into at this particular moment and in this particular place; their paths had crossed a time or two in the past but they were hardly on better than nodding acquaintance, and indeed at their most recent meeting the conversation on their shared thirty-second elevator ride had confined itself entirely to the weather.  An unlikelier knight-errant, therefore, galloping to his rescue on a shining steed, would have been almost impossible to imagine.

"What can I do for you, Congressman?"

"You can start by dropping the 'Congressman' and calling me 'Matt'."  Smiling, Santos ditched his folded raincoat at the end of the banquette, scooted into the place beside Josh, and accepted a menu from a suddenly-attentive waiter.  "Do I take it you've been stood up?"

"I'm supposed to be meeting... "

"He's not coming."  The voice was conciliatory, the soft tone somewhere between sympathy and banter.  "How about I stand in for him?  I hate to eat alone."

"Sure, but... "

Under cover of the raised menu, Santos turned towards him and said, a thread above a husky whisper, "I heard the maitre d' take the call.  If I promise not to talk politics, do I get to stay?"

"Why?"  Too emotionally bruised to be anything but suspicious, Josh was uncharacteristically blunt.

"I need to eat," Santos explained, calmly.  "So do you.  One of mankind's most basic needs - along with sleep, warmth and sex.  Satisfy the basics, and you get to move on to more interesting objectives."

"Such as?"  The theory was not unfamiliar to Josh, but he would be intrigued to get Santos's individual take on it.

"Peace.  Love.  Prestige.  What's good here?"

Josh's eyebrows lifted.  "It's a steakhouse," he said, patiently.

"You mean that’s all they do?"

"You don't like steak?  I thought you were from Texas?"

"Doesn’t mean I want dead cow for every meal."  

The smile directed at Josh was no doubt exactly the same crinkly-eyed self-deprecating grin that had driven the female electorate of Santos's district into a quasi-orgasmic voting frenzy at the past two elections, and he began to wonder exactly how many glasses of Jack Daniels he'd absent-mindedly consumed during his apparently endless wait.  He was becoming distinctly light-headed, with symptoms worryingly similar to those of nitrogen narcosis beginning to fizz through his veins.  Josh was no stranger to male attraction generally, but had always thought himself pretty well armored against the professional charms of most politicians; he'd seen everything before, the surface gloss concealing the moral and intellectual vacuum, the superficial glamour that was no compensation for the absence of genuine human warmth.  There was nothing, in this moment, to mark out Matthew Santos as any different from five hundred and thirty-four other Members of Congress, one hundred Senators, fifty State Governors and a whole bundle of other local and national political wannabes all falling over themselves to get a few quiet moments alone with even a disgraced aide who might or might not have some influence with the President, and therefore the fact that he was not only handsome but also charming and attentive could scarcely be taken at face value.  

"How's the fish?" Santos went on, glibly, unaware of Josh's misgivings.

"Maine lobster’s good.  Or lamb chops."

"I'm not in the mood for shellfish.  Lamb," Santos told the lingering waiter.  "Mashed potatoes, mushrooms, onions, green beans."

Confused, Josh was unable to think beyond ordering the same.  When the server attempted to open up a dialogue about the wine list, he waved a morose hand in the direction of his diminishing JD.  "I’ll take another one of these."

"Beer," said Santos firmly.  "Dos Equis Amber.  I'm not a wine drinker," he added, after the waiter had gone.  "Although, if we’re celebrating, we should probably be ordering champagne."

"We’re celebrating?" Josh repeated.  "Are we?  What?"

"Removal of a cancer from the body of the Democratic Party.  Josh, you’ve got so many people pissed at you at the moment that you can’t see it yet, but this Party doesn’t need Carrick or anybody like him.  The man’s been a Republican for years in everything but name, and we need to let him go.  Do you have any idea how many people on their side of the aisle are waiting for exactly this sort of opportunity to move across in the other direction?  What makes you think their base is any more solid than ours?"

"I don't," Josh acknowledged.  "You have anyone specific in mind?"

"No.  And if I did, I wouldn't tell you," Santos insisted, "because, if you recall, right now we're not supposed to be talking politics.  Why don't we see if we can't find some other topic to keep us entertained until the food arrives?  Preferably," he added, his mouth curving into a wickedly charming smile, "something neutral enough that we don't actually have to fight about it."

An hour later, Josh's recommendation of the lamb chops had met with his unexpected guest's full approval and they'd formed a consensus in favor of chocolate velvet cake for dessert.  Not talking about politics, also, had proved astonishingly successful; starting with cartoons - they were agreed on The Far Side, Garfield and Doonesbury - and wandering through music, movies, sports they watched and those they also played when they had the time - golf, golf and more golf - they had ended up discovering far more in common than might at first have been apparent, and Josh had begun to wonder why someone as easy to be with as Matthew Santos had scarcely featured as more than a blip on his radar before now.  Usually, of course, he himself was in charge of Congressional recruitment and would have vetted every successful candidate in pursuance of his duties; however Santos had been elected in the middle of President Bartlet’s first term, at a time when Josh was convalescing after the shooting at Rosslyn and Sam Seaborn had been covering that aspect of his portfolio for a while.  Sam's recommendation had always been good enough for Josh; he had experienced no burning desire to re-interview Matthew Santos even if he had been likely to find the time to do so, and as a result they had never really had the chance to sit down and talk for any length of time greater than five minutes.

Until today.

As if Santos’s unspoken approval was somehow affecting the other diners in the restaurant too, the atmosphere became steadily less and less hostile during the evening.  Josh ceased to regard himself as radioactive and started to relax, quickly coming to the conclusion that he was enjoying the man’s company immensely and in fact having the closest thing to fun he could remember experiencing for some considerable time.  Almost two years, in fact.

Unfortunately, that sudden realization brought with it an immediate sobering of his good humor.  Josh lowered his eyes to his dessert plate and slowly replaced the empty spoon with which he had been graphically illustrating a particularly telling point.

"What?" Santos asked, quickly responsive to the alteration in his mood.

"Last time I did this… "

"Had dinner?"

"Yes.  Well, no.  I mean, I have dinner every day.  More or less.  But I don’t… "

"Socialize?"

Josh shrugged.

"Well, maybe you should a little more.  Maybe you spend too much time satisfying those higher needs and forget about the basics.  That's not a good idea, you know.  People need company, friendship, peer recognition - it isn't enough just to eat, sleep and work.  You need to reach out to people from time to time."  

The tiny silver teaspoon provided with the coffee cup looked smaller than ever in Santos’s large hand.  Hands had always been important to Josh; almost more than good looks and a nice body, he liked a man to have strong-looking, competent hands.  It was somehow reassuring to have someone around who looked as if he could cope with nearly every situation.  It made him feel secure.

With a shock, he stopped that train of thought abruptly on its track.  Only a step further on from there would have been the acknowledgement that he was becoming attracted to Matt Santos, and that would be a doomed infatuation right from the start.  Josh had very strict rules about married men, and even stricter ones about elected officials; no matter how handsome, charming or even apparently available they might be, they represented the kind of complication he definitely did not need in his life.  He had therefore long ago resolved to stay well clear; it would be better never to look at all than to look in the direction of someone as obviously wrong for him as Matt Santos.  To his chagrin, however, something about the warm-hearted conviviality of the evening had cut across vivid recollections of Josh’s time with Sam and a fuddled fusion was taking place somewhere in the most secret recesses of his brain.  Memories of Sam, superimposed with images of Santos, were conspiring to give a sudden and very vivid picture of the kind of lover this attractive Texan might prove to be.

"I need to leave."  Josh became aware of the brusqueness of the statement only when Santos's facial expression changed, but he was unwilling to torture himself with visions of the totally unattainable for even a second longer than absolutely necessary.  "Before I make a fool of myself."

Santos was watching him, and his dark eyes had taken on a more sympathetic expression.  "I'll find you a cab."

"I'm sorry."

"I understand."

"Do you?"

Santos looked away, looked down at his hands, seemed to tussle with something that he was unable to say, and then slowly raised his eyes to meet Josh's guarded gaze once again.  To his profound astonishment, Josh realized that he could tell almost exactly what the man was thinking, that they were on a closer wavelength than he had even begun to imagine possible, and that this conversation - unlike the evening itself - was a long way from being over.

"Yes," said Congressman Matt Santos, in a quiet, even and placatory tone.  "Believe it or not, Josh, actually I do."

There was considerable confusion and jostling for position for the next few minutes, until the bill for the meal was finally settled and Santos was pouring Josh into the back seat of a yellow cab outside.  When he squashed in to the remaining space beside him, however, and Josh gave the driver his address, there was something so perfectly apposite about the idea of being shoulder-to-shoulder in the darkness that Josh didn't even seek to question it.  Instead he fell silent, looking out at the city streets passing their windows, and fell into a confused reverie.  There were questions he did not dare to put to Santos in the presence of the driver, things he would like to know that could not be mentioned in the hearing of a third party, and these were what now occupied his mind to the total exclusion of any other topic.

It was a nasty, self-consuming cycle of doubt.  Santos was attractive, Josh was attracted, Santos was married, Josh did not date married men - and still less those with whom he would have to continue to work.  Yet there had been an unexpected glimmer of sympathy between them, a kind of almost-telepathy Josh had forgotten could exist when two men discovered something in one another that they would like to explore further.  For all the discretion his work entailed, he had occasionally experienced that spark, that little electric thrill which given sufficient encouragement could blossom into mutual sexual attraction - and eventually maybe even into mutual satisfaction.  It seemed to him that Matt Santos was giving off all the signals that a man would give off who might consider indulging in a discreet dalliance with someone not dissimilar to himself, and Josh's sex-starved body would have been only too willing and eager to respond to any such invitation.  Unfortunately at the same time, the better angels of his common-sense and straightforward political acumen were insisting, with equal if not greater vociferousness, that there was no way this could be what he thought it was, that Santos was innocent of any such intention, and that Josh had totally and catastrophically misinterpreted the nuances of the situation.  These competing voices in his head were so distracting, so impossible to disentangle, and the dry atmosphere in the cab so stiflingly oppressive, that he quickly found himself overwhelmed by the need to break free, to get away somehow, to walk until he was tired of walking, to make all this corrosive and acidulous uncertainty leave him alone.

"Stop the cab."

"What's the matter?"

"Stop.  Right here."

They were passing the Capitol building, illuminated at night like a Gothic wedding-cake with pretensions of grandeur.  Before it lay a wide area of rancid dark grass among which half a dozen bare-branched trees supported listless chains of decorative lights.  It all seemed half-hearted and grudging somehow, a reluctant concession to a season of celebrations Josh had never been very much in sympathy with - and even less so this year, now that he was cast out of decent society like a Victorian heroine disastrously fallen from grace.

"I need air."

"Okay."

"I mean… "

"I know what you mean."  Pushing bills and change into the hand of the driver, Santos was out of the cab and following Josh even before he had finished speaking the sentence.  The cab door slammed behind him and the engine revved up, but he did not take the time to look back.

"I don't get this.  I don't get it at all."  Josh had thrust both hands into the pockets of his open coat and was standing, head bowed, the sugar-icing dome so brightly-lit behind him that he was thrown into silhouette by its brilliance.  "Why should you be the only person within fifty miles who isn't afraid to be seen with me?"

"I don't think I am," came the calmly logical response.  "I'm just the one who happened to be in the right restaurant at the right time."

"Completely by coincidence?"

Santos shrugged.  "It seemed to me that this was the kind of time you'd be needing a friend.  I wanted to be around to help out."

Josh eyed him with renewed suspicion.  "Have I missed something?  When did you and I become friends?"

"This evening, I hope."

As an answer, it was no answer at all.  Josh was reduced to shaking his head slowly and taking several exasperated steps away.

"Just tell me what the hell is going on," he growled, his tone almost menacing.  The overwhelming majority of political professionals in the nation's capital knew better than to argue with the so-called hundred-and-first Senator in this sort of implacable mood, and it would be a brave man who would even attempt it.  Nobody, however, had ever had the slightest reason to call Matthew Santos's courage into question.  "Are you putting the moves on me, Congressman?"

Santos took a step nearer, mirroring his posture, but failed entirely to meet his eyes.

"Not exactly, although I admit it had crossed my mind.  We seem to have a lot in common; it could be quite an interesting idea.  Would it be unwelcome?"

Josh shook his head.  "That's irrelevant.  It isn't going to happen."

"No," Santos admitted, softly.  "I understand that.  I'm sorry, Josh."

The silence that fell between them as a result of this remark had the potential to be extremely awkward, but somehow managed not to be.  Instead it was the silence of a shared dilemma, of a puzzle that for the time being was beyond the capacity of either of them to solve.

"Not that I'm not flattered," Josh conceded at last, a note of humor returning to his voice.  "You're drop dead gorgeous; I'd be out of my mind not to want you.  But you're married.  I don't do that."

Santos was nodding.  "I totally respect that.  I apologize if I seemed to be making any other assumption.  I just needed to spend a little time with somebody I wouldn't always have to be hiding things from."

"You talking about your wife?  Are you saying she doesn't know?"

Santos shook his head.  "No, Helen's fine; when I'm with her, I can relax and be myself.  But you know the legislative agenda better than I do, Josh; I haven't been home in nearly three months, and here in DC… I share a house with six other Representatives.  It gets to be a strain, always concealing who I am."

"So nobody in DC knows about you?"

"Nobody."

"Wow.  No wonder I never suspected."

"Never?"

"Never," Josh confirmed, with a wry half-chuckle.  "You're good.  Discreet.  But my gaydar's been on the fritz since before re-election; you could've been head-to-toe in sequins and feathers before I'd have suspected.  Man, you virtually had to drive the clue bus over my foot as it was."

"You have your own worries," Santos conceded, matching his mood.  "And I wasn't planning to take advantage of you, believe me.  It was more of a misery-loves-company thing.  I still think we could be friends, Josh.  I wish we'd started out under better circumstances, but I believe it could work.  It was a good evening, wasn't it?"

"It was a great evening."

"Okay.  So maybe we'll get to do it again some time?  As friends?"  

The emphasis on the last word was subtle but definite, and its implications did not escape Josh.  

"Call me," he suggested.

"I will," said Santos, and smiled.  He stood with his hands in his pockets, the wind ruffling his hair, a slightly sheepish expression on his face.  "And I am sorry."  

"Yeah.  Don't worry about it."  It was the toughest thing Josh had ever attempted in his life, turning his back on Matt Santos and walking slowly away across the grass, but he did it somehow.  He did it because it was necessary, and because it was the only way to get out of there with what remained of his personal integrity still intact.

And Santos, to his eternal credit, did not try to stop him going.  Instead he stood still, watched Josh walk away from him, and graciously allowed him to leave without putting up any kind of an argument whatever.

*

The following morning in his office, Josh spent a very long time staring into space, sipping intermittently from a chilled bottle of water and entirely failing to focus his mind on the niceties of protocol as applied to the President's scheduled visit to Japan.  His phone had been suspiciously silent and, other than an absent-minded greeting from CJ whom he'd seen in the North-West Lobby, he'd only been peripherally aware of his colleagues coming in and going out and generally making themselves a great deal more useful than he seemed to be.  In Donna's temporary absence he felt utterly rudderless; it was as if the certainties of life had crumbled around him one by one, his world had been reduced to one plastic bottle and one nonsensical file, and he was left in the middle of some Kafkaesque vision of Hell.

It was Margaret, Leo's assistant, who rescued him from it, her bright red hair flaming around his door-jamb bringing a startling burst of light to his jaded world-weary eyes.

"Josh?  Are your phones switched off?"

"What?"  He looked at her blankly, vaguely recollecting her name and purpose in his life and wondering what phones had to do with anything.  He had been drowsing nicely into a daydream which featured a man with many of the same attributes as Matt Santos, only in an alternative form which would make him acceptable to Josh's moral scruples.  Single, still the Marine combat pilot he'd been in a previous incarnation, there would have been nothing holding Josh back from whatever kind of temporary - or permanent - relationship Santos might have been inclined to indulge in.

"Phones?" Margaret repeated, tolerantly.  "Somebody called Ned has been trying to reach you.  From Congressman Santos's office.  That's the Texas Santos, not the other one."

"Huh?"

"Don't make me repeat it," she said in a tone that reminded him precisely how long she'd been working for his irascible mentor.  "He called last night and asked me where you'd be eating dinner.  I thought he might have caught up with you already."

Josh thought about that for a moment.  "I didn't see Ned last night."  That should be a safe enough response, he decided, being strictly and irreproachably the truth.

"Apparently.  Because he's called three times so far this morning.  Once more and we'd be engaged."

"Oh."  That was puzzling.  As far as he was aware, he'd never met or spoken to anyone anywhere by the name of Ned.

"Josh, you do remember that Donna's in the budget negotiations all day?"

"Sure I do."  And that hadn't hurt at all, no sir, that Donna was involved in discussions that Josh himself was excluded from, and that he was having to sit back and bite his lip while she and Leo's protégé, Angela Blake, aided and abetted Speaker Haffley in a process that in Josh's opinion amounted to no more nor less than corporate blackmail.

"And Ginger's at her grandmother's funeral," Margaret continued.  "You signed the card."  Now that she mentioned it, he did remember something of the sort.  "You want me to ask Toby if you can borrow Bonnie for an hour or so?"

"No," he said, quietly.  "Just switch the phones over, I'll take the calls myself.  It's not as if I'm doing much good here."  He indicated the chewed-looking file on his desk, rearing back from it as though it was a hostile snake.

Margaret's pitying look struck him on the raw.

"It isn't always going to be like this, Josh," she told him, her tone obviously intended to offer comfort but sounding instead as if she was addressing an eight-year-old with a skinned knee.  "Leo can't stay mad at you forever."

"I know," he conceded.  "But I screwed up.  It takes time to get out from under."

She nodded, although he'd've been willing to bet that she'd never screwed up in her life.

"He doesn't bear grudges.  You'll be back in the room before you know it."

"Thanks, Margaret."  Josh's tone was stronger than the rest of him as he tried to dismiss her in a businesslike boss-to-assistant manner.  "I'll be fine."

"I'll just… " she gestured indistinctly.  "The phones."

"Thanks."

"And the next time Congressman Santos's office calls… ?"

"I'll take the call."  With a shrug and the merest semblance of a rueful smile, Josh acknowledged himself beaten.  Margaret herself was already a force to be reckoned with; Margaret, Leo, and Matt Santos all working as a team was the kind of opposition against which Josh was absolutely certain he didn't have a prayer.

Predictably, with an open phone line, Josh got bogged down in minutiae almost immediately.  He was trying to disentangle several competing messages from the guys in Scheduling and Advance when, an hour or so after Margaret's departure, the phone rang again.  As he answered it, he was still trying to decipher whatever it was he'd written on a lime green Post-It forty minutes earlier.

"Starbucks, N and New Hampshire."  He had discovered that it didn't make a lot of difference what he said when he picked up the phone; his callers all just launched into their spiel regardless.  He was seriously considering patching this line through to DC Dial-A-Prayer.

"Hey.  This is Ned in Congressman Santos's office for Josh Lyman."

Josh's inattentive manner was suddenly transformed.  He sat up in his chair, hunched forward over the phone, shut his eyes and internalized a gentle voice that sounded as if it had been smoked over hickory chips.  He was blissfully unaware that the Post-It note was still adhering to the last finger of his left hand.

"Hey, 'Ned'.  This is Josh."

"Well, you know it's not really Ned, right?" Santos asked him, quietly.

"I know that.  But tell me he exists."

"He exists all right.  I don't think he's your type, though."

He should have been outraged by Santos's presumption that he knew what his 'type' might be, but Josh was far too swamped by gratitude at this welcome interruption to a very trying day even to begin to complain.

"I'm glad you called," he managed to say, into a silence that seemed to demand some contribution from him.

"Are you?  I wasn't sure."

"No," Josh reiterated.  "I'm glad."

"Okay."  Santos paused, seeming to reorganize his thoughts after an unexpected reply.  "Listen, you said you liked sports?"

"Yes.  So?"

"So… you wanna get together this weekend and watch football on TV?  I'll bring the beer."

"There's a game Friday night."  It wasn't so much a response to the question as a barely-formed thought.  Until recently there had always been plans on Josh's mental agenda and his Friday nights had been pretty well circumscribed, but since his split with Amy Gardner, he'd been going home alone, doing laundry and falling asleep early.  Anything at all had to be better than that - but, as he hadn't spent a guys' night watching football since Sam left, he might have difficulty remembering how it was supposed to go.  "You want me to… order pizza or something?" he asked, absently.

"That'd be good."

"Anything but beef, right?"

"Or fish.  Fish doesn't belong on a pizza."

"I'll remember that."  And then it looked like disintegrating into one of those juvenile situations where neither of them wanted to be the first one to hang up the phone and it could have got awkward there for a while, but mercifully Josh's brain was still running some kind of background operation that his conscious mind was totally unaware of and eventually he heard himself saying, "Oh, what time?"

"In time for the football, I guess," Santos told him, the merest trace of humor in his tone.  "Seven thirty?"

"Yeah.  Wait a minute, do you know where… ?"

"I know where.  I heard what you told the cab driver."

"Okay.  Friday, then," Josh said, and neither of them said 'goodbye'.  He only knew the call was over when the timbre of the echo on the line altered and he suddenly remembered the random Secret Service monitoring.  It was never wise to assume that any line in the White House was entirely secure; the best thing anyone could hope for was that the people doing the listening were on the side of the angels.

And then he recollected that he and Santos were supposed to be meeting as friends, and that no weekend football-watching rendezvous with Toby or CJ or anyone he considered to be the kind of friend who dropped by to share a pizza had ever produced in him the keen anticipation of their company that attended the prospect of a few hours chilling out in front of the TV with Matthew Santos.  

But then again, if it had to be 'look but don't touch' where Santos was concerned, there was no rule to say that he couldn't - at least in the short term - enjoy himself simply with the looking.

Donna came by at lunchtime, bringing Josh a crab sandwich, a soft drink and a raisin bar.  She sat down in the chair opposite his desk and stared at him between piles of blue-jacketed folders.

"Protocol?" she asked after a short while, tearing Saran wrap off her salad and spearing a cherry tomato with a plastic fork.

"Excuse me?"

"Protocol."  The fork wafted towards the files.  "You bow, they bow, you sip tea, they sip tea?"

"Yes," he acknowledged.  "'Would the President like to savor the uniquely Japanese experience of sleeping on the floor?'"

"He doesn't need to go all the way to Japan just to sleep on the floor," she told him, with a smile.  "He could spend Christmas with my parents.  Two years ago they were so cramped for space my cousin Everett had to sleep in the garage."

Josh looked up, closing the current file, and lifted the sandwich suspiciously.  "You don't have a cousin Everett."

"I do too.  He'd just split up with his wife, and they let him store his furniture in their garage."

"Don't tell me."

Donna shrugged.  "It was a case of domestic violence."

"She beat him up."

"Uh-huh."

"Donnatella Moss, you lie like a cheap rug," Josh declared, with a more cheerful look on his face than Donna had seen in a couple of days.

"Do not."

"Do too!  You don't have any cousins named Everett.  There's Earl and Maureen and Cathy-May and little Madison, and the ones in Green Bay your mother fell out with at your Grandma's funeral, and Anthony who serves on an icebreaker in the Antarctic.  No Everett."

Donna looked at him sideways.  "Wanna bet?"

"No.  No!  Because I wouldn't put it past you to hire some ape-man to pretend to be your cousin, and that would just be embarrassing for all of us.  The point is, the President isn't going to be sleeping on the floor in Japan - because if he does, everybody else will have to, and we don't want over-tired agents and Air Force pilots around the place and we particularly don't want an exhausted Press Secretary.  Remember from the campaign what all those nights sleeping on buses did to CJ's temper?"

"She was a bear," Donna mused thoughtfully, around a mouthful of iceberg and chives.

"Not the person you want handling media relations."

"No."

The almost wistfully reflective silence that fell after this remark lasted not quite long enough to be uncomfortable.  It was illuminated on Josh's part by memories of a sleep-deprived CJ snarling at everyone and a doomed attempt to picture Donna's Neanderthal relative sleeping in the garage.

"So, Margaret tells me Congressman Santos's office keeps calling.  Is that the Texas Santos or the other one?"

"The other one is a De Santos," Josh reproved.

"Santos Schmantos.  You don't have any business with the Texas Second at the moment, do you?"

Josh challenged her with a stare.  "What are you, the conversation cops?"

"No.  But if you look closely, you'll see that 'telepathy' is part of my job description.  If I had to take a guess, I'd say that you were seeing someone from Congressman Santos's office.  You know, socially."

"I am not seeing anyone," said Josh, "socially."

"It's always the same guy," Donna went on.  "Someone called Ned.  Josh, are you dating someone called Ned who works with Congressman Santos?"

He had known that Donna's astonishing perceptiveness regarding his sexuality would come back to haunt him one of these days.  He wasn't sure what had originally tipped her off, although when his always problematical friendship with Sam had finally taken its inevitable plunge into something even more complicated, Donna had seemed to know all about it without being told.  They'd finally managed to discuss it somehow, in their typical not-talking-about-things way, which had at least meant that Donna was there to pick up the pieces when the thing with Sam collapsed.  Since then she'd cast herself in the role of sympathetic sister, always trying to make him talk about what troubled him, but she hadn't been able to stop him making exactly the same mistake all over again with Amy.  Instead, she'd stood and watched him lurch from one disastrously unsuccessful relationship to another, and from her point of view he could easily see how a suspicious attitude towards an unknown somebody named Ned would be totally justified.

"Nope," he told her, categorically.

Donna put down her fork, leaned forward across the pile of files, and re-cast her question in a far more urgent manner.

"Josh, is it… is it even remotely possible… ?  I can't believe I'm asking this, but is there even the slightest, vaguest chance that you're actually dating Congressman Matt Santos?"  The last three words were rendered so softly as to be scarcely more than silent mouth-shapes, and ended with a puzzled but apologetic twist of her lips.

"I'm not dating anybody," Josh told her.  "We have an arrangement to watch football together.  It's a guy thing."

"A guy thing?" Donna repeated, wondering when was the last time she had heard those words from her boss.  "With a Congressman?"

"You know," he said.  "Football.  Beer.  Pizza."

"All excessively heterosexual," she approved.  "Good for you."

"I'm not dating him.  I don't need the complications, and neither does he."

"No," admitted Donna.  "I agree.  Well, I have to get back, I have budget negotiations to sabotage.  You need anything before I go?"

"Nothing," he shrugged.  "Thank you for lunch."

"Sure."  Donna got to her feet, clearing the debris of her meal automatically, and then leaned back over the desk.  "Josh?"

He was already half-absorbed in the Kyoto sight-seeing proposals, pondering the significance of the chrysanthemum garden that had been added to the agenda.  He had only just escaped from the sand-trap of the sleeping arrangements, and already he was teetering on the brink of another.  With luck like this, he wondered if there was any point at all in packing his golf clubs for the trip to Japan.

"What?"

"Does Congressman Santos realize that you're not dating him?" Donna asked, briskly, but did not wait for his reply.  Indeed, he was still trying to come up with a coherent response by the time the door to the Lobby had stopped swinging behind her, long after she had already returned to her seat at the budget meeting.

*

Whatever Congressman Santos realized, or did not realize, however, had unfortunately become irrelevant long before Friday evening arrived.

Late on Wednesday, with an ominous thunderstorm roiling appropriately around the White House and a general air of gloom and despondency overhanging the proceedings, President Bartlet attended a meeting in the Roosevelt Room at which he expected to be able to give his imprimatur to a Continuing Resolution regarding the Budget.  The details that had been hammered out between the parties called for a one percent cut on everything but Defense and Homeland Security; the Republicans were ruthlessly exploiting their position as the majority Party in order to undermine as many of the Democratic Administration's policies as possible and thereby place themselves in a stronger position ahead of the next Presidential election.  It was never too early to set down a marker, and Speaker Haffley - a more dynamic and forceful personality than the titular Majority Leader - was an ambitious young man who saw himself modestly accepting his Party's nomination when the time came.  He personally acknowledged no limitations when it came to the furtherance of his individual aims.

Civil at first, even cordial, the tone of the meeting soon deteriorated to acrimony.  Haffley could not now agree a Continuing Resolution with only a one percent cut; he insisted that three percent was the minimum his members would tolerate.  At a stroke, he intended to knock a further forty billion dollars out of Federal funding for schools, hospitals and welfare initiatives, and with the Government rapidly running out of money on its operating budget, he believed he had Bartlet over a barrel.  The President could not simply shut everything down, especially over a holiday weekend, unless he was willing to be portrayed in the media as the petulant child of all petulant children, the killjoy who switched off the world.

They stared at one another over the table; Bartlet, the old lion, battle-scarred from many campaigns, reduced in health, and Haffley, lithe and vigorous and with an awesome record of dramatic but showy triumphs.  A few months ago Haffley had been a nothing, a nobody, the mere sidekick of the much more stable Glenallen Walken; now, following Walken's brief temporary assumption of the Presidency during the crisis of Zoë Bartlet's abduction, Haffley himself was Speaker.  Many of the more seasoned commentators in the capital had already marked him down in their minds with the damning letters 'PBA' - 'Promoted Beyond Ability' - whereas others had vowed to give him a chance to prove himself one way or the other.  The budget negotiations, it seemed, were his chosen battleground.  This was, as he saw it, a Heaven-sent opportunity to place himself before the public as an authentic future leader of his country.

"You understand, Mr. President," Haffley explained, addressing a Nobel Laureate in Economics as if he were a retarded second-grader with little comprehension of the world, "that if you reject this compromise, you'll be responsible for shutting down the Federal Government?"

Bartlet, at the end of his tether, rose slowly to his feet.  Haffley obviously believed that he had cleverly called the President's bluff, but Bartlet was not bluffing.  His eyes were marble, his tone was ice, as he said quietly, "Shut it down."

And that was that.  The meeting was over, and staff who were still in the building were sent home immediately; there was simply no money to pay them.  Secretarial, janitorial, maintenance and catering staff were asked not to report for work until further notice; researchers, speech-writers, the unseen workers responsible for the smooth-running of the Government machine, all vanished like snow in summer, leaving senior staff to cope not only with the major policy decisions that needed to be made but with a thousand and one other routine chores as well.

In the days that followed, therefore, Press briefings were held in the open air, senior staff did their own typing and telephoning, garbage was not collected and coffee pots were not replenished.  While Bartlet himself lurked alone in the upper-storey White House Residence sullenly catching up on briefing books, watching daytime television, nursing a cold and snacking on unsuitable canned goods, Leo McGarry ran a War Room from which Josh himself was conspicuously excluded.  While his colleagues, therefore, kicked back and forth a dozen or more alternative suggestions for securing some kind of compromise agreement with Haffley - which might, if they were lucky, lead to another sixty day Continuing Resolution - Josh was relegated to Advancing the visit of the British Prime Minister, which was due to take place within forty-eight hours and which, without the services of a full domestic staff, looked as if it might end up being catered at the local IHOP.

As if this was not embarrassing enough, the lack of secretarial assistance meant that he had to do his own running about back and forth to Capitol Hill, which was why on that Friday morning he found himself emerging from the Legislative Affairs office in an almost deserted Vice Presidential office suite - the VP having tactfully withdrawn his presence from the scene of the crime - in a forlorn attempt to locate a photocopier that actually worked.

He had tried four already; two were shrouded in darkness and incapable of being revived, a third was so vivid with klaxons and warning lights that it seemed to be in urgent need of a paramedic, and the strong-smelling electrical smoke that issued from the fourth did not bode well for its continued existence.

At the back of his mind Josh had a distant recollection of having once, in his earliest days in Government service, taken a wrong turn in this building and ended up in a subterranean stub corridor which housed a copier, a couple of vending machines and a water cooler.  If he recalled correctly, he had left a staff bathroom on the main level, plunged down a stairway redolent with the odor of roasting coffee, and fetched up beside an outstation of the Presentation Office in which an owlish old man of German extraction doled out whiteboards and projection equipment to anyone who had a point to make.  He now retraced his steps, following the aroma of burnt coffee beans, heading for the basement like a character in a Harry Potter book setting forth to battle a troll in the dungeons.

Needless to say, by the time he found the Presentation Office it was locked, the German guy sent home along with everyone else ranked lower than Secretary of State.  Locating the room, however, did at least fill Josh with greater confidence, and he rounded the corner into the stub corridor to find the copier exactly where he remembered it, surrounded by spare boxes of paper, its side hanging open and an engineer with rolled-up sleeves busily engaged on disembowelling the thing.

"Shit," he muttered, almost managing to keep the sound contained behind his teeth.  He knew this building inside and out, but he had never before today had the need to locate a fifth or sixth alternate copying machine.  He supposed he'd be reduced to wandering the corridors like the Flying Dutchman until somebody rescued him.

The engineer looked round.

"Oh, hey, Josh," he said, casually.  "Be finished here in a minute.  It's just jammed."  With the twist of a yellow plastic handle and a loud tearing sound, he produced a tightly fan-pleated wad of paper from the copy path, screwed it into a ball and threw it towards a burn bag.  Josh supposed it was always possible he might be hallucinating, but the copier engineer looked to him remarkably like Congressman Matthew Santos.

"M-Matt?"  He cursed himself for stumbling over the word, and risked a guilty glance over his shoulder in case anyone in the vicinity had heard him.  He need not have worried; apart from the two of them, the basement corridor seemed to be pretty much deserted.  "What are you doing here?"

Santos straightened up.  "Fixing the copier," he said, as if it explained everything.  "I'm a second-term Congressman; low man on the totem-pole.  If my office was one floor further down it'd be on the Blue-Orange Line.  This guy and I,"  Santos patted the copier almost affectionately, "are old adversaries.  Superman and Lex Luthor.  In the beginning, he used to win every time.  Now… "  He slammed the side of the copier closed, pressed a switch on the top, and a moment later the thing whirred into life again with a reassuring display of green LEDs.

"Outstanding," Josh enthused, grinning.  "I had no idea you were… you know… practical."  There!  He'd managed not to say 'good with your hands', which would have been embarrassing, although it had been a struggle.

"I'm a pilot.  You need to have some idea how things work."

"I guess."  Josh became quiet then, and bent his head to pretend to stare at the latest draft of the proposals for the British visit.  "I should've called you… " he admitted awkwardly.

" … but there's nobody answering my phones?"

Josh shook his head.  "I didn't think of it.  I got swept up.  You know I can't do tonight, don't you?  Because of the shutdown."

"I guessed," Santos acknowledged.  "For the same reason, neither can I.  The trouble is, though, I'm going home this weekend.  To Houston. I probably won't be back until after Christmas.  Helen and I… "  He paused, seemed to consider how much he ought to say, then plunged on.  "We've been going through a rough patch in our marriage.  I thought she wanted a divorce, she thought I did, but now it seems we're both willing to give it another try.  We're supposed to discuss it over the holidays."

"Oh."  Josh knew he was looking stunned and stupid, but the words he was hearing somehow weren't making any sense in his head at all.

"I won't be able to afford divided loyalties," Santos clarified.

"Divided… ?"

"I couldn't… be seeing anyone else.  Not at the moment."

Josh bit his lip, looked away.  "You're not seeing me," he reminded the man uncomfortably.

"No, that's true.  And I'm actually sorry about that, Josh.  I would've liked to find out where it might lead us."

"Yeah," Josh acknowledged.  "It could have been fun."

"It could.  In some other life, maybe?"

"Next time around," Josh told him, with a weak but encouraging smile.  "Or the time after that."

"Gonna hold you to it," shot back Santos.  "Some day, if the Fates are kind."

"Trust me, Matt," said Josh, "I wouldn't dream of missing it for the world."

*

2.  Shelter

It was Josh himself who, drawn back into President Bartlet's counsel at the firm insistence of the First Lady, eventually provided the solution to the budget impasse crisis.  He staged a spectacular piece of political theater in which the President walked to the Capitol to negotiate with Speaker Haffley.  Haffley, for his part, fumbled the ball; ambitious to show that he was not at the President's behest he left the Leader of the Free World waiting too long outside his office and emerged at last to see the rear end of the Presidential party disappearing into the distance.  The propaganda victory, therefore, went to Bartlet; the media loved him for it, and lampooned Haffley without mercy from that moment on.

As soon as business re-started in earnest, the domestic policy team got to work on the State of the Union.  Material had been collecting for some months already, and a whiteboard in Toby Ziegler's office was frequently referred to as assignments were handed out and sections drafted.  A few days after Christmas, however, the sudden death of Toby's father meant that he was immediately given a leave of absence and his portfolio shared out between Josh, Will Bailey and Angela Blake.  The three of them - with the assistance of Ed Smith and Larry Duffy - were left to complete the speech without him.

That address did not go down in history as one of the greatest of Bartlet's career, but even Toby - who tended to refer to it as 'hackery', and always afterwards was anxious to distance himself from its creation - was quietly impressed that the team of pinch-hitters had pulled themselves together to produce a result that did not damage their boss's reputation.  In its pedestrian way it was just as effective as any flight of oratorical rhetoric and appealed to the average American far more than Bartlet's accustomed verbosity.

In short, they got away with it.  Just.

In the aftermath of Toby's father's death, another meltdown threatened.  Having the sensation of lurching from one crisis to another, managing with the resources they had after failing to lure Sam Seaborn back into Government service, the domestic policy staff took another dive into chaos in early April.  Toby, it appeared, had been neglecting his health almost to the point of collapse.  Dragged to the Emergency Room by Bonnie and Will, he was diagnosed with a gastric ulcer and ordered a complete absence from stress.  This was all the justification Leo McGarry needed to revoke his White House credentials and lock him out of the building with the strictest orders to go away and get well and not give a single thought to work for at least three months.

At that point, however, looking objectively at Josh for the first time since re-election, Leo took one of his extravagant gambles and recruited the latest in a long line of unsuitable females to take up the slack.  This time, however, he excelled himself; this was no Ainsley Hayes, no Joey Lucas, nor even an Angela Blake.  Instead, the woman who darkened Josh's door in the late Spring and early Summer of 2004 was yet another of his nemeses, who had ultimately ended up denting not only his social life and his ego but also his career path.  Mandy Hampton's departure four years earlier had been blamed on Josh, and he had raged loud and long that Leo would bring her back only over his dead body.

Leo's response was laconic, his impassivity worthy of a Mount Rushmore edifice.

"You can shape up," he offered, "or ship out."

Josh, swallowing his pride and suffocating his objections, chose to shape up.

Mandy was no substitute for Toby; she was combative where he was dour, confrontational where he was steadfast, loud where he was studious.  She was peppy and vigorous in a way that made Josh's brain ache, seemed to have no volume control, and was bursting with new ideas when he was still trying to recycle old ones. Relying for help on Will or Angela, as mentally battered as he was himself, seemed unlikely to be successful; Mandy drained them all of energy to the point where Josh found himself wishing that Toby - or even Sam - might step in and rescue him from the living Hell that was Mandyville.

It was when he realized that he was actually missing Sam less for his personal qualities than for his professional attributes that Josh finally knew he had hit rock bottom.  The reason Mandy's presence grated on his nerves so much was that she was fresh, clear-sighted and inexhaustible - and that he was none of those things himself.   It was not Mandy who was at fault, therefore, but Josh; he was burned-out, he needed a rest, and he had probably been the last person in his immediate vicinity to recognize it.

Leo, indeed, seemed to have been expecting his visit.

"I need a  break," Josh said, bluntly.  "I'm played-out.  My brain's mush.  I'm no good to you or to the President like this."

"Yeah," said Leo, putting to one side the document he had been studying.  His attention did not so much as wander in Josh's direction.

"I mean, a couple of weeks."

"Yeah."

"So, is that okay?"  Josh shifted nervously in his seat.   Leo still had not looked towards him, his mind seemingly fixed on the document he was reading.

"Is what okay?"

"Two weeks' leave?"

Leo finally put down his papers and looked at Josh over the top of his glasses.  His eyes were flinty, but for someone who had known him as long as Josh Lyman they held a spark of mischievous humour.

"Three would be better."

Josh had been steeling himself for an assertion that he was vital and in Toby's absence could not go missing any longer than a weekend.  Leo's immediate acquiescence therefore came as something of a shock.

"There's nobody this Administration can't manage without if we have to," Leo went on.  "With the possible exception of the President.  It won't hurt Will, Larry and Ed to manage without you for a while.  But just so you don't feel left out, you can bring yourself up to date on Alternative Energy Strategy while you're sitting on the beach.  Be prepared to advise the President ahead of the Toronto Summit the first week in August."

"I don't… sit on beaches."

Leo looked him over.  "No?"

"No.  I… "  Josh tried to remember what it was he used to do with his leisure time in the days when he had leisure time.  " … golf," he said, a little unsurely.  "Fishing, maybe."  That sounded healthier, although they were both essentially solitary pursuits.  Still, he had no illusions about that; unless he invited his mother along, he would be vacationing alone as usual.

"Sounds relaxing," Leo approved, distractedly.  "Get Donna to fix something up as soon as possible.  Take all the rest you need now, Josh; there won't be time later in the year."

"Yes sir."

"Good boy."

It wasn't often that Josh resorted to calling Leo 'sir'.  They had known one another, after all, since Josh was nine years old, and their relationship had metamorphosed into that of surrogate-father/surrogate-son after the death of Josh's own father.  Usually it was easy-going, but there were times when it was necessary for Leo to pull rank and remind Josh that they were also boss and subordinate.  At times like those, Josh knew better than to argue with him.

He was so busy as he left, contemplating his own inner landscape, wondering what people actually did with leisure time and why he didn’t get the memo, that he didn't notice Leo putting a call through to Donna.  Advance warning of Josh's impending vacation, therefore, reached his little corner of the West Wing before Josh did himself, and Donna had taken out her contacts book and begun to organize accommodation almost half an hour before he wandered pensively into her cubicle to inform her that it would be necessary.

"I found you a house on Delavaca Bay.  It has four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a storm shelter, even its own dock.  It's also less than half an hour from three of the best golf courses in the state."

Josh looked at her as though she had just slapped him.  "What is it that I want a dock for again?"  Of all the details with which she had bombarded him, this seemed the least capable of explanation.

Donna's mouth curved impulsively.  "Fishing?"

"Oh.  Fishing."

"So you can… you know… ?"

Slowly, he began to catch up.  "Oh.  Sit… on the dock of the bay?"

"Wasting time," she completed, with a smirk.

"Right."  He was three steps away, entering his office and already code-shifting to consider the next task awaiting him, when a rather important question occurred belatedly to his mind.

"You said 'the three best golf courses in the state'?"

"Yes."

"Okay.  That's Florida, right?"

"Texas."

"Texas."  Josh repeated the syllables as though it was a word he didn't recognize.  "Texas?"

"Texas," Donna confirmed.  "It isn't the Dark Side of the Moon, Josh."

"I know.  But… Texas.  It's kind of… big, isn't it?"

"You'll be fine.  They have indoor plumbing and everything."

"And peace and quiet?"

"Yes," said Donna.  "They have peace and quiet in Texas, too.  I checked with your friend Ned in Congressman Santos's office."

"Ned?"

"He was the first one I called."  There was something so determinedly innocent about her manner that Josh could not help suspecting an ulterior motive.  He had never yet met anyone so honest who didn't have something to hide.  "He says you should have a good holiday and not worry about a thing."

"You and… Ned… gang up on me and I'm not supposed to worry?"  His brow was furrowed like a ploughed field, his shoulders slumped, his whole posture eloquent of exhaustion.

"That's right."  Donna was aggravatingly chirpy and far too energetic for the time of day.  "Let Ned and me do all the worrying for you."

*

In the end, he had no option.  The flight was booked, the tickets obtained, the rental car secured, the keys of the house couriered directly to his desk in the West Wing.  Donna did everything but break into his apartment and pack his bag, although she gave him a none-too-subtle reminder about arranging to have certain of his suits cleaned in his absence.  Then she personally escorted him to the airport and watched him out through the departure gate, apparently only by massive exercise of willpower stopping short of attaching a destination label to his clothing and asking a flight attendant to hold his hand during take-off.

The house was larger than Josh had been expecting, with sunny bedrooms and views out over the ocean.  There were decks and balconies at strategic points, a garage with a sun terrace on the roof, and a long, empty, boarded dock that would have taken two cabin cruisers of respectable size end-to-end.  His nearest neighbor, another house of identical configuration with a similar but shorter dock, was shuttered and uninhabited, and beyond that there was no sign of intelligent life before a small white-washed settlement a mile or so to the east.  West of him, a rocky defile hid the next habitation; it could have been fifty yards or fifty miles, for all that Josh could see of it.

Whoever had prepared this house had stocked it well.  There was enough food for one person for a month, or he could have hosted a Presidential banquet if he had been so inclined.  When he stepped into the living-room there was a basket of fruit sitting on the table; attached to its handle was a card bearing an image of the White House and - in Margaret's handwriting - the message "Best wishes, Leo".  

Selecting an apple Josh polished it absent-mindedly on his shirt, bit thoughtfully through the shiny green skin, and wandered out to the far end of his dock to watch the waters of the Gulf of Mexico slowly turning purple as evening descended.  If this was what holidays were always like, he mused, he wouldn't have fought shy of taking them over the last few years.  The trouble was, this was what holidays should be like, but in his experience they never were.  Arriving back from vacation tireder and more stressed than he had been at the start had been a pattern with him lately; this one, however, bade fair to be more relaxing than any other in recent memory.  He was beginning to be grateful to the cabal of concerned friends who'd bullied him into it.

Taking one last enthusiastic bite from the apple he threw the core out into the Bay, watching it sail through the evening air and drop neatly into the water like a diving duck.  This was his own kingdom, his place in the world, and he was suddenly and unexpectedly perfectly in tune with it.  In fact, he thought it would suit him very, very well indeed - at least for the next three weeks.

Josh enjoyed four blissful days of perfect isolation.  On the fifth morning he was on the garage-roof terrace sipping a cup of coffee when an SUV pulled up in front of the house and disgorged a Democratic Congressman and a pair of small children.  Not even remotely surprised to see them, Josh leaned down casually over the rail and called out a greeting.

"Hey."

"Mornin'."  Santos squinted up against the light, his face creased into a huge grin.  "We thought we'd help you catch fish.  I brought beer," he added, winningly.

"How could I refuse?" Josh asked.  "Come on round to the back."  He indicated the gate at the side of the house, and a moment later Santos had ushered the two kids onto the broad sunny deck.  Josh descended and met them at the corner of the house.

"This is Petey, and this is Miranda," Santos said, formally.  "Kids, this is my friend Josh Lyman.  We work together sometimes."

"At Washington?" the boy asked.

"Yes, at Washington."

"Hi Petey.  Hi Miranda."  Josh had never had much to do with children, but he shook hands with both as gravely as if they had been influential Senators or representatives of a foreign power.  "Can I get you some juice?"

"What kind of juice?"

"Pineapple."

"Yes please."  Peter seemed enthusiastic, but Miranda - who was sticking closer to her father - only nodded.  Josh led the way into the kitchen and poured juice for all three Santoses.

"So?" he said, expectantly, handing the last glass to Matt.  The children were sitting at the kitchen counter guzzling their juice through straws.

"I'm a full-time father at the moment," was the quiet explanation.  "Helen's away.  You know she's a qualified teacher?"

"I read your bio."

"Well, Miranda has some… challenges.  Helen wants to educate her at home, so she's taking a Special Ed. course.  Gives me a chance to spend quality time with both my kids ahead of Mid-terms."

Josh nodded.  Santos did not face any serious challenge in his District this autumn, but that didn't mean that he could afford to neglect his campaign.  It was always good to remind the electorate why they had chosen their representative in the first place, and what qualities he brought to the job.

"I wanted to see how you were getting on.  I thought if I brought the kids, you'd know my intentions were honorable.  I really did bring beer," Santos finished, with a laugh.  "It's in the car."

"It's no good there, unless you want to drink it warm.  We should get it into the ice-box.  I hope you have your own fishing gear."

"The kids do.  As for me… I don't fish.  I thought maybe I could grill the burgers instead."

"You brought burgers too?"

"In case you were running low."

Josh laughed.  "Then it's a done deal," he said.  "I never could resist a guest who brings his own lunch.  How about I help you unpack the car?"

By the time lunch was over, the flimsy membrane of reticence separating Josh from the younger Santoses had all but dissolved.  Peter was an easy-going child, content with a fishing-rod and a line that went nowhere, and something for bait that no discriminating fish in its right mind would have looked at twice.  He settled into his surroundings like a chameleon into the background, whistling something through the gap between his widely-spaced front teeth.  He was, as Josh's mother would have said, 'all boy', a miniature Huckleberry Finn without a care in the world.

Miranda monopolized Josh's attention.  She started out by asking him if there were any whales in the Bay, and when he described the pair of dancing dolphins that had enlivened the previous evening for him - lounging on the deck with a whisky, Nina Simone blasting out of his laptop - she was thrilled and begged him to show her.  In vain did he explain that dolphins appeared only when and where they chose to; nothing would do but that Miranda had to look for them out of every window in the house.  She stayed longest on the bedroom balcony, describing octopuses and other fantastical sea-monsters that for some reason were not visible to Josh, but when she finally announced in an awestruck tone that she had seen a mermaid with green hair sitting on a rock he was forced to resort to underhanded tactics, launching a surprise tickle-assault, sweeping her up into his arms and throwing her over his shoulder like a sack of treasure.  Thus he bundled her down the stairs, laughing his best pirate laugh, threatening to shiver her timbers and splice her mainbrace and hoping it wasn't something her father would disapprove of.

"Your daughter's going to be a politician," he gasped, dumping her at Matt's feet.  "She tells even bigger lies than you do."

"I don't tell lies," was the laughing reply.  "Not about anything that really matters."

"That's good to know," Josh told him, and held Matt Santos's gaze just a fraction of a second too long.  Too much more of this, too much bonding with the Santos family, and he would be in deeper than a La Brea mastodon.  A yawning pit stood open before him, and he was teetering at its brink.  Yet disaster had never looked so fair or so promising as this man, this day, this close but meaningless facsimile of family life; temptation was presenting itself to Josh in unexpectedly non-threatening form, so apparently innocent and so endlessly complicated that he wanted it to end and never to end, all in the same instant.

Peter was determined not to leave until he'd caught a fish, Miranda not to leave until she'd seen a dolphin.  Throughout the afternoon the two of them seemed irretrievably glued to the end of the long walkway, side by side under large hats and smothered with sun-screen.  In the shade of the house, Santos stretched out in a steamer-chair a few feet from Josh, his legs longer than ever in faded blue denim, his strong torso clearly defined by a close-fitting black teeshirt.

"Surprised to see us?" he asked, in a confidential tone.

"Yes.  No.  I don't know.  Yes.  But pleased."

"I thought you might send me away if I showed up alone."

"So you brought your kids?  Cute."

"They are, aren't they?"

Josh shook his head.  "You're a devious underhanded son of a bitch," he said, mildly.  "Congressman sir."

"True," acknowledged Santos.  "But charming with it."

Josh sat back slowly, examining his elderly chinos and his feet in scuffed boat shoes as though they held the secrets of the universe.  "Make your pitch," he invited.

"That obvious, huh?"  The wind was getting up, ruffling Santos's wayward hair, making him look younger and more desirable by the moment.

"Blindingly."

Santos sighed.  "Every time I think I'm learning subtlety," he groaned.  "Look, I'm not trying to stampede you into bed; as far as I'm concerned, that doesn't ever have to be part of our relationship if you don't want it to.  I knew you had something with Sam Seaborn back in the day, and when the two of you split up I guessed how you must be feeling.  Something like that happened to me, too; I know how long it takes to get over.  Then I heard you were dating Amy Gardner  - only it kinda went downhill from there, didn't it?"

"Yeah," Josh breathed.  "It did."  He fell silent for a long time, wiggling his toes back and forth and watching them like a cat watches its own tail - as if he could hypnotize himself thereby.  "What happened to the guy?"

"Huh?"

"The guy you broke up with.  You said nobody in DC knew about you."

"Oh."  A brief, uncharacteristically uncertain pause.  "We didn't break up.  He was in the Pentagon."

Josh was slow to follow this apparent non-sequitur.  "You mean… ?"

"In the Pentagon.  The day the plane hit.  We'd known each other since the Marines, but it wasn't… " Santos faltered.

"You don't have to… "

"Yes I do.  His name was Alex.  We were together twenty years, one way or another.  Football games, hand jobs, nothing emotional.  Sometimes we'd smoke a little weed and it would go further.  We never really… "

"Okay."

"I would've tried, but Alex wasn't… "

"I understand."  Josh drew in a deep breath.  "Sounds like Sam.  In a way."

"Oh?"

"He didn't want to…  It wasn't on his career plan.  I wanted to talk about… "

"What?"

Josh blinked.  "Getting married," he said.  "I wanted the commitment.  Sam shut the door on me.  Accused me of focus-grouping our relationship.  Said I should take a poll on whether or not we ought to sleep together any more.  Said he'd probably be voting 'no'."

"Ouch."

"We tried to work together after that, but it just wasn't happening.  Next thing I knew, he was in Orange County standing in for a dead guy.  It didn't really end so much as it just… didn't continue."

"And you've never talked about it?"

"No."  Josh was fighting back a burning sensation behind his eyeballs.  "People know," he clarified.  "But I never told anybody."

"People guess," Santos reassured him softly.  "Anyone who saw you and Sam together would have realized sooner or later.  He pretty well ended up being the administration's spokesman on gay issues, didn't he?"

"Ironically," Josh conceded.  "We were good together, but it ended."

"Same for me.  It worked, then he died.  You need time afterwards.  You don't need to rush into anything sudden."

"Yeah."

Santos stretched an arm out across the gap between the chairs, his large left hand trapping Josh's right and squeezing.  "You want to see if we can work something out together?"

Josh traced the heavy gold band on the man's third finger.  "You're still married," he said.

Santos nodded.  "That's not going to change.  But Helen and I have talked about this.  I won't pretend it would be sunshine and roses, but if we're all willing to try… "  He trailed off, words momentarily deserting him.  "Josh, what you see is what you get.  I have no hidden agenda.  I'm not expecting anything beyond… "

"Football and hand jobs?"

Grimacing at the bluntness of the question, Santos was obliged to concede that it did not add up to a particularly inviting offer.  "Maybe something… more than that but less than a wedding?" he countered, awkwardly.

"Maybe."  Josh was watching the children.  Petey was convinced he was going to catch a whale, whereas for Miranda a ship flying the skull-and-crossbones and laden with cutlass-brandishing pirates was only moments away on the other side of the headland.  The sense of suppressed excitement in the air was electric, and communicated itself to Josh through the warm hand covering his.  "I like your kids," he murmured, nonsensically.

"They like you."

"I know.  It seems to work."

"It does," Santos acknowledged.  "One step at a time, Josh, huh?"

"Yeah."  Josh detached his hand from Santos's caressing fingers without even glancing in the man's direction.  There was something looming on the distant horizon that he was not at all sure about; it could be real, or it could be metaphorical, but in either case it was more than a little ominous.  "I need to think about it," he said, gathering what little remained of his self-possession to look into Santos's eyes.  They were so brown as to be almost black, and so deep that he could have swum in them for the rest of his life.

"Is that a 'no'?"

"No," said Josh, very close to admitting himself completely overwhelmed by this man's formidable charm offensive.  "Whatever it is, it definitely isn't a 'no'."

Later in the day the weather began to deteriorate.  Unwilling to separate until it was absolutely necessary, the party moved its base of operations indoors where the adults turned their thoughts to an evening meal and the children to the delights of television.  However the bright sunshine and bracing wind had worked powerfully on the two young Santoses, and when Matt looked in after half an hour he found them both asleep on the couch with a colorful cartoon blaring away loudly in front of them.

Wandering back to the kitchen, he indulged in a spell of counterfeit domesticity with Josh.  There was no denying it, their personalities meshed nicely and there was enough physical attraction there to turn even the most ordinary conversation into a flirtation; however they had both learned to be self-contained and not to show their hearts on their sleeves, so that it seemed likely to be a reticent and slowly-evolving courtship rather than merely some shallow sexual encounter.  Matt Santos had been designed by nature as the kind of escort who could easily sweep a willing partner off his or her feet, but inclination made him a respectful suitor unwilling to take anything for granted.  He would miss nothing, flip no pages, jump no steps in establishing a basis for whatever might follow; he wanted no ambivalence and he offered none in exchange.  He was prepared, like the cat at the mousehole, to wait forever if that was what it took.

Rain battering fiercely against the window brought them back to the glowering present.  Clouds the color of new bruises had massed on the horizon, a storm unleashing its fury way out to sea.  As he concentrated on its evolving cloud formations and the greenish-grey cast to the suppressed sunlight, Santos chewed his lip thoughtfully.

"What is it?" Josh asked, tuning in to the sudden pensiveness of his mood.

"There was a tropical storm headed for the Keys," was the response.

"That's a thousand miles away."

Santos shook his head.  "It's a big weather front," he said.  "It could be a hundred miles across.  And it's moving quickly."

Momentarily puzzled by the note of authority behind this pronouncement, Josh quickly made the connection.  "Oh.  Pilot.  I forgot."

"You can take the guy out of the Marines…   I want to check this, see if we have anything to worry about.  We're kind of isolated here if anything hits."

"There's a storm shelter," Josh volunteered.

"Under the stairs, I know.  Maybe you'd better see if it's stocked up."

Josh looked at him in some alarm.  "I'm from Connecticut.  I don't know what a storm shelter is supposed to have."

"Food, water, toilet, mattresses, blankets, flashlight, first aid kit," Santos rattled off, very much the officer-in-charge.  "Whatever you think you'd need in an emergency.  And there should be a radio of some kind for storm advisories."

"Okay.  But don't we… I don't know, make a run for it?"

"Not if we have adequate protection here.  And not if the storm front is headed somewhere else.  Safer to stay put and ride it out.  Agreed?"

"Yes."  Josh pulled himself from the magnetic gaze.  It was difficult indeed to get worried about anything when you had someone like Matt Santos in charge. It was a pity that not all the politicians of Josh's acquaintance could manifest such dependable qualities; most of them went to pieces so quickly you were in danger of being hit by the shrapnel.  Fortunately that didn't seem likely to be the case with Santos, and as he ran off to check the storm shelter Josh was struck by the overwhelming conviction that if he had to be caught up in a crisis situation of any kind he would certainly rather face it with his friend than without him.

They reconvened in the hallway a couple of minutes later, Santos noticeably paler and looking more concerned.  The children, awoken by the abrupt withdrawal of their cartoon drip-feed, were rubbing sun-parched eyes and looking unhappy.

"It's turned west and picked up speed.  Expected to make landfall within the next three hours, anywhere between Galveston and Corpus Christi.  People in the target area are advised to stay under cover until it's over.  Could be twelve hours," he added, in response to Josh's look.  "That thing is huge."

Josh pulled himself together with a gulp.  "There's no flashlight, first aid kit or bedding," he said.  "Just water, a chemical toilet and a concrete floor."

"Okay.  You and Petey bring some bedding down from upstairs.  There's first aid stuff in my car."

"Daddy?"  Miranda was lurking, wide-eyed, in the doorway.  "Are we hiding?"

"Hey Princess!"  Santos's mood switched immediately, a carefree grin pasting itself onto his face as he turned to look at his daughter.  "Yes, we are. Josh has found a cave under the house, and we're going to hide in case the pirates come."

"Wow!"  The child seemed thrilled to the core by the prospect of adventure.  "Aren't you going to fight them?"

"I don't know."  Her father swept her up into his arms and hugged her.  "Do you think Josh would be any good at fighting pirates?"

Miranda looked her new acquaintance up and down slowly, and shook her head with extreme gravity.

"No?"  Josh was scandalized.  He had never had his swash-buckling credentials called into question before.  "I was the best pirate-fighter in all of Connecticut," he told her, in a wounded tone.

"Plenty of pirates in Connecticut, are there?" Matt teased, setting his daughter down again.

"Not any more," Josh assured him, as he and Petey set off up the stairs in tandem.

By the time they got down again, lugging a double mattress and a big bale of sheets, pillows and other bedding, Miranda was installed on the wooden bench in the storm shelter with Leo's gift-basket of fruit beside her, calmly unpeeling a banana.  Also on the bench was the solid black shape of an emergency radio tuned to the local weather frequency.

Miranda had taken her shoes off and was swinging her feet back and forth.  "There's a toilet in there," she said, cheerfully, indicating a curtained-off area behind the steps.

"Is there?"  Peter had lost interest in helping Josh manhandle the mattress through the small entrance to the shelter and went off to help his sister inspect the plumbing.  "It's not a real one," he said, in disgust.

With the two of them so handily distracted, Josh put his whole weight to the mattress and it squeezed through the opening, flopping open onto the floor below.  He was halfway down after it when the front door opened and Matt returned with a box under one arm, a large flashlight in one hand and a cell phone in the other.

"Can't get a signal," he said, tucking the cell into his jeans pocket.  The land-line was nearby in the hallway, and he picked up the receiver.  "Nope."

Josh looked at him.  "Is that serious?"

"I don't know.  Communications are always vulnerable."

"Maybe I'd better get my laptop."

"It won't help.  Not underground."

"I know.  But I need to keep it with me."  He levered himself out of the opening and sprinted upstairs to the bedroom.  By the time he got back the mattress had been dragged into position, blankets and pillows had been set out, and Peter and Miranda had been persuaded to join their father in organizing their little refuge.

"Yaaaay!" Miranda yelled.  "Camping!"

"This is so cool," enthused Peter, one wary eye on his father.

"It is too," acknowledged Santos.  "Hiding from pirates with three of my favoritest people."  He reached up and took the laptop from Josh.  "Are you okay?"

"Sure.  How do I… ?"

"Like this."  Santos pulled the steel shutter above them firmly into place and bolted it with a heavy bolt.

"Power went out," Josh informed him.  "As I came down the stairs."

"Doesn't mean anything."

"Okay."

"We may as well get comfortable, it could be a long night."

"Yeah."

By the light of the flashlight they disposed themselves on the mattress, the adults at the outside with the two children in between.  Santos drew a blanket up over Josh, the children and himself, switched off the light, and they all stayed perfectly still for a long moment listening to the steadily-increasing pitch of the wind as it raged around the house above them.

"Padre neustro que estás en el cielo… "  Santos's tone was so perfectly calm and ordinary that he might have been asking if the children wanted ice-cream.

" … santificado sea tu Nombre."  Peter and Miranda recited along with their father the words they had obviously learned by rote, all three of them praying together in Spanish as though it was an everyday occurrence.  Which, Josh reflected, it probably was.  

He joined in with the 'Amen' at the end, and then said, "Sorry, I only know it in English."

"You're Jewish?"  An idle enquiry.

Josh laughed.  "Toby Ziegler says I'm Presbyterian.  You know Toby?"

"Met him.  We're never going to be bosom-buddies."

"I wouldn't think so.  Pity we couldn't have let anybody know we were safe."

"Let's make sure we are, first, shall we?"

"Uh-huh."  

Taking the warning in the tone as an admonition to change the subject, Josh made an effort to settle down.  Miranda's hair smelled of sand, and although she squiggled about a few times like a landed fish she was already yawning,  her face buried into the pillow between Josh and her brother.  It looked as if she would quite happily sleep through whatever chaos befell them, and Josh could only envy her the certainty that her father would make everything right.  He remembered having the same level of trust in his own father, once upon a time, and the sense of betrayal he'd experienced when his father turned out to be just as mortal and fallible as anybody else's.

As Matt Santos was mortal and fallible, too, he supposed, although there was fortunately no reason for Miranda to have to face that devastating realization just yet.  Not while her faith in him was what was keeping her calm in the face of danger, at any rate.

For a while after that, Josh faded in and out, only half-aware of Miranda squashed in beside him.  His mind was travelling well beyond the confines of their little space, out across the sea to envisage the swirling ferocity of the winds, swooping down on isolated fishing vessels and oil rigs, seeing sea-birds with broken wings falling out of the sky to end their lives in the churning waters below.

Involuntarily, he shuddered at the image, not for the first time disturbing Miranda at his side.

"What's the matter, Uncle Josh?"

He was not entirely certain he was 'Uncle' material, yet it had taken the two young Santoses barely a day to adopt him.  Maybe they did this with all Matt's work friends; maybe they were just open-hearted people by nature.  If so, they undoubtedly took after their father.

"Nothing," he said vaguely.  "I'm fine."

"Are you scared?"

"Not really."  That at least was true.  He had done everything he could to influence the situation; he had taken sensible precautions, and the rest was up to forces beyond his control.  He didn't know whether to name that power 'God' or 'the weather', but in either case it was equally unlikely to take any notice of him.

"No," said Miranda, defiantly.  "I'm not, either."

A huge crash and the sound of breaking glass above them stopped their conversation abruptly in its tracks.

"What was that?"  Peter jolted upright in alarm.  Miranda cowered against Josh, and he could do nothing practical but hold her close and attempt to soothe away the fear she had so boldly disavowed.

"One of the windows."  Santos sounded remarkably calm.  "There may not be much left of the house when we get up there in the morning."

"I didn't realize it was going to be this bad."  Despite the fact that preparations had obviously been made for an extended stay, Josh had somehow been thinking only in terms of a few hours.  "I just thought - a storm."

"You know what a tropical storm turns into when it picks up wind-speed, Josh?"

"Yes."  He was thinking of his own words a few months earlier; a vast and violent vacuum-cleaner.  He'd enjoyed playing with the alliteration back then, patting around the syllables like a kitten with a ball, but he hadn't been caught up in the maelstrom at the time.  Now he was the bug beneath the vacuum-cleaner and he was busy adding adjectives like vile, vivid, vicious, vitriolic and vituperative; it was his own private literary version of "I went to the store and I bought… "

Back in November it had been a tornado; merciless, but swift.  This was worse; it would linger, it would saunter up and down the seaboard wreaking havoc with the same randomly destructive impulse as a bored teenager, it would finally go on its way uncaring - and until then Josh and the three Santoses were helpless before it.

Impulsively, he reached into the darkness, fumbled a warm handful of black teeshirt, pulled.  The bedding shifted and a broad hand reached for his waistband, looping over the belt of his chinos.  Peter's stubby fingers were in Miranda's hair, Miranda's heels digging into Josh's shins, and Matt Santos's large body was somehow covering at least part of every one of them.

"Wherever we go, we're all going together," Matt said, and there was no questioning his determination.

"Yes," said Josh.  "Please."

He dug in deep and held on tight.  Water had started dripping in from above, and the wind was raging and roaring in a terrifying cacophony.  He wanted to stop his ears and close his eyes and make it all go away - but he could not.  Instead the noise battered at him again and again, left him weak and useless and limp as a rag doll, assaulted him beyond endurance and further still, and continued long beyond the point at which he would have ceased to offer any resistance even if he could.  There was just no fighting a hurricane; it was a force of nature, it rolled right over the top of people and it crushed them, and then it turned around and caught its breath and laughed at them, and prepared to come back and do exactly the same thing all over again.

*

They were soaked and shivering after the eye-wall passed, but they were at least alive and still together.  Santos unwound himself from the three bodies beneath his, fumbled for the flashlight, leaned past Josh to the radio.

"I need to get a weather advisory," he said.

Miranda was crying.  "You said it was pirates," she accused Josh.

"No, honey.  It's just weather."

"I don't like it."

"I don't either.  Let's stay here until it goes away."  Josh squirmed to sit up, helping the children to do the same.  "Anybody want anything to eat?"

"Chocolate," Peter said.

Josh shook his head.  "There's fruit.  Uncle Leo sent it."  But he could see Peter's point of view; fumbling with peel and juice in these circumstances would be no fun at all.

"Sing us a song," the boy countered, peevishly.

"I don't know any songs."  None suitable for children; nothing that wouldn't require him to be a combination of Aretha Franklin and Luther Vandross at any rate.

Josh glanced to one side hoping for rescue, but Santos's back remained hunched over the whispering tones of the radio, and it was therefore with something very close to despair uppermost in his mind that he eventually yielded to the repeated blandishments of the two children.

"Oh, all right.  Anything to keep you guys quiet for a while."

From heaven-knew-what dismal recesses in his memory he somehow managed to dredge together a rusty handful of words and something that loosely resembled a tune, assembling the whole into a passably serviceable rendition of 'Itty Bitty Spider'.

"You sing worse than Daddy," Peter commented critically, when at last Josh had stumbled to the end.

"Daddy sings?"  And why not, when he thought about it.  There were so many things about Matthew Santos that were capable of surprising or even shocking Josh; this was just one more.

"Badly," Santos rejoined, arriving too late to save him from total, abject humiliation.  "My wife says I always go off-key in the hymns."

Thinking of drunken choruses with Sam, of the occasional desultory rendering of 'Monday, Monday' with Donna providing the harmonies, Josh could scarcely suppress a chuckle.  "Worse than me?"

"Much."

"Shall we make him prove it, kids?"

"Yay Daddy!"  Miranda's screech close to his ear was almost as painful to Josh as her over-enthusiastic knee in his solar plexus.  He would have been considerably happier experiencing neither of them.

"We'll all sing when the storm comes back," Santos promised her.  "Maybe we'll be bad enough to drive it away."

"It's coming back?" Josh asked.

"The eye is about forty-five minutes wide.  By the time the whole thing's passed overhead it's going to be four a.m. or later, and I'm probably going to have to go to work."

"Work?"

"They're calling in reserves.  I've had helicopter rescue training; if I can find someone to report to, they'll put me to use.  Will you look after the kids?"

"Yes."  Josh shrugged off the question; it was as irrelevant as asking whether or not he would prefer to continue breathing.  "Fatalities?" he asked, quietly.

"Plenty."

"Okay.  Do what you have to do."

"Thanks, buddy."  Santos slung an arm around his shoulder and squeezed once, tightly.  They were both cold, wet, frightened and tired, and the night wasn't even halfway over yet.  Josh allowed himself the luxury of leaning back against him - just for a second, just for the merest and most discreet illusion of contact.

"You're welcome," he said, and honestly tried to mean it.

*

It wouldn't have been possible to get any sleep worth the name, down there in their little burrow beneath the building, with the titanic battle of the elements raging above them.  A valiant attempt at 'Ninety Nine Bottles of Beer' tailed off in confusion when the seventy-seventh bottle insisted on leaping back onto the wall twice; Peter and his father got themselves into an unholy imbroglio over which of them couldn't count, during which Josh was obliged to take Peter's side and Miranda grizzled like the cold, wet, miserable child she was.  Wrapping a wet blanket around her really didn't help much either, and made her smell like an old fur coat into the bargain.  Josh was beginning to daydream about hot showers, cool beds, and spaces that contained fewer Santoses.

"Well," he said, valiantly shrugging off the beer bottle fiasco, "I see what you mean about Daddy's singing.  We're none of us ready for Carnegie Hall yet, are we?"

"Cargy Hall?" Miranda yawned.  "What's that?"

"It's where people go when they're not good enough for Caesar's Palace," Matt told her, his attempt to ruffle her hair only succeeding in getting his dirty fingers inextricably tangled in its wet strands.  "We'll be out of here soon, honey.  It's nearly morning."

Indeed, after only a couple more hours of blistering semi-consciousness in which waking dreams of terror pursued one another through their exhausted imaginations, a tiny pinpoint of silver light appeared in one corner of their shelter and showed like a solitary star peeping between dense layers of black cloud.

"Is that… ?" Josh asked, nervously.

"Yep."

"Oh God.  Does that mean we're out of here?"

Santos shook his head slowly.  "Not until we get the final all-clear," he said.  He'd been listening to the radio again, its volume level pitched so low that nobody but himself could hear it.  After the clamor of the torrent died away, Josh began to catch the faint whisperings of reassuring voices, scurrying sounds like mice in the wainscoting, but he couldn't distinguish any words - only the regular pattern of the station ID being announced every few minutes.  Its rhythm alone lulled him into a beneficial drowse, into a state of total not-caringness; he just wanted it to be over, but until then he was content to hypnotize himself with monotonous sounds and allow his brain to shut down its higher functions.  Thus it was that he almost missed the pivotal moment in which Santos decisively switched off the radio and reached up to withdraw the bolt on the shutter.  Cautiously, with Peter almost glued to his side, he then applied his weight to the cellar door and shifted it open a fraction of an inch.  Dust, light, blessed fresh air spilled in in equal quantities, and Josh and Miranda fell zombie-like towards the little ribbon of salvation as avidly as prisoners promised their first taste of freedom.

"Hold it," said Santos.  "I can see the sky."

Josh sat back on his heels and stared at him.  The obvious remark welled behind his lips but he managed not to utter it.  They had been inside a building when the hurricane hit; sky should not be visible unless a large part of the roof and the upper floor of the house had gone missing in the interim.

The shutter shifted a little further, small debris clogging the aperture.  Miranda shrank back in alarm, gripping Josh's hand so hard that he expected to find her small half-moon nail prints in his flesh for some time afterwards.

Steadily, methodically, Matt proceeded to shift the accumulation of objects that had drifted up over their refuge.  Unidentifiable clumps of wood, drywall, plastic and vegetable matter - probably seaweed - were edged aside, and the shutter opened a hand's width.  Then Peter squeezed up alongside him and they worked together, freeing the lid far enough for Peter himself to be boosted through it and to look around.  He, in turn, was able to push away enough loose material to free first Matt, then Miranda, and finally Josh.  

He crawled out from the ruins of his vacation rental and looked around himself in astonishment at a panorama of lilac sky.  Something of the roof still adhered to an unsteady corner of the walls, the garage terrace was sitting squarely on top of the squashed carcass of his rented 4X4, Matt's SUV was upside-down in the water, and the dock had been swept away completely.  Of the fixtures and fittings of the house there was little sign; most of the plumbing was still intact, the microwave oven was on the driveway, and a window-frame without its glass swung lazily back and forth in what was now an acceptably balmy and astonishingly warm breeze.  Very little else that remained of the place was even vaguely recognizable, its identity - along with its tranquility - swept away forever by the vengeful force of the wind.

They salvaged what they could, while waiting for rescue.

Few of Josh's possessions had survived.  His golf clubs, in what was left of the car, might be recoverable; a blue shirt, drenched and torn, was knotted in the branches of a tree, one shoe emerged from the rubble of the kitchen, and some pages of the novel he had been reading were blowing around loose.  His laptop, while still intact, was wet through; he had his wallet, ID, apartment keys, credit cards and about sixty-five cents in change.

"Local volunteer's going to swing by and pick us up," Santos told him, briskly, stuffing the cell phone back into his jeans pocket.  With the improvement in the weather, transmission had returned to normal.  "She lives just around the point.  She's the one who recommended this place."  He indicated the house.

Josh looked it over wearily.  "Nice," he said.  Then, "It would've been."

"If not for Hurricane Gennifer," Santos completed.  "Yeah.  I'll lend you stuff to wear, until you can get something else.  Just stick around until Helen gets back."

"No problem," said Josh.

"Okay," smiled Matt Santos.

Within an hour, a maroon Cherokee had rolled up, stopping in the driveway just short of the wrecked microwave.  A motherly woman got out brandishing a flask of coffee and a bakery bag, fed them, gave them hot drinks, wrapped them in blankets and arranged to drive them back to Houston.  They left behind, in a conspicuous place, a piece of white-painted debris bearing a Magic-Markered message: All safe, M Santos, and the date.  It would prevent anyone who showed up wasting any time digging for them in the rubble.

On the journey back, Josh had time to marvel about the fact that the goodwill of the Santos volunteer force extended to recovery of its principal and his family after a natural disaster, but then as Barb - the driver - so cheerfully told him, "A volunteer is a volunteer; you don't pick and choose."  If all their local organizations had such willing participants, he thought, democracy in general - and the Democratic Party in particular - wouldn't be in its current parlous condition.  All they needed was a few - or a few thousand - more people like Barb, and they could make just about anything happen that they wanted.

Such musings made him sleepy.  Schemes for world domination sprang up in his mind featuring armies of capable matrons in Cherokees; campaigns aimed at them, statutes to Federalize them, medals to honor them.  There should be more recognition for the hundreds of anonymous people who crawled out of the woodwork, helped when they were needed, and then went quietly about their business.  They should have a parade or something.  Josh would speak to someone about it when he got back to DC.

Meanwhile, it was easiest not to think; to grip the edge of the blanket and hug the damp laptop that nestled in his arms, to slide sideways with his head not quite resting on Miranda's shoulder, listening to the conversation between Santos and Barb and wondering if the man ever slept, if he ever switched off, or if he was always wide awake and watchful and always in command of any situation.

With stamina like that, a guy could get an awful long way in politics - not that Josh was equipped to think about anything quite so complicated just at the moment.  Instead, he let his mind wander back to planning the details of the parade.  

Planning had always been his strong point.  He'd had the plans for the wedding all mapped out long before he'd even thought about proposing to Sam, and he could probably re-use some of the contacts he'd made back then for this.  

There'd have to be a cake, of course.  And music.  And naturally there would be flowers.

Pink rose petals, he was thinking, as he fell asleep.  They'd be just perfect.

*

After everything else he'd been through, being shunted into a house he didn't know with two children he had barely met seemed the least of his worries.  The kids knew where everything was, and Santos fired off a complete set of instructions as he changed into uniform and headed out again courtesy of his faithful volunteer.  Basically it amounted to 'feed them, clean them up, put them to bed', but as it was barely noon that seemed a remote contingency at the moment.  Instead he decreed a rota for showers and clean clothes, set them in front of something about timberwolves on the Disney Channel, and scrounged in the kitchen to make them mac and cheese.  Nobody was really awake enough to eat however, Josh himself included, and by three in the afternoon they had all retired to bed; thus it was that the ringing of the bedside telephone woke him from a confused dream about parades of children and timberwolves in half-submerged SUVs, and he barely had enough residual consciousness to groan his name into the receiver.

"Josh Lyman."

"Hello, Josh.  How are you?"

"Unnn… "  He felt he needed advance notice of that question.  "I'm okay.  Who… ?"

"I'm Helen Santos.  Matt called me on his cell.  He says you're looking after the children."

"They're asleep," Josh told her, panicking.  Wasn't Helen supposed to be on her way home?  If so, what was she doing calling him?  He shook his head.  "I'm sorry, I… "

"You were asleep too.  I'm sorry, Josh.  I needed to let you know… I can't get there until tomorrow.  Can you stay until Matt gets back?  If not, I'll ask my mother to take over."

"No, I… "  He rubbed his stubbled chin with a half-asleep hand.  "I'm not functioning here," he explained unnecessarily.  "I can stay, it's not a problem.  I fed them, they're clean, we watched television and now they're asleep.  They're not hurt, just… tired."

"Cold and wet and grumpy," Helen supplied, with a smile in her voice.  "Matt too, I'm guessing."

"Well, cold and wet," Josh agreed.  "Does he ever lose his temper?"

"Not often.  Was he okay?"

"He was fine.  But I'm wondering if he wears a Superman suit under his everyday clothes."  The words were out before he realized that they may not have been quite the most tactful thing to say to the wife of a man he was attracted to.

"No.  It's not a suit, it's tattooed on."  She laughed, and for a moment they were complicit in something relaxed and comfortable and not at all threatening to either.  "Josh, I appreciate you taking care of my kids.  Not just today but last night as well.  Matt thinks they really like you."

"I don't know anything about kids," he admitted, although that must have been blatantly obvious to everyone including the kids themselves.

"It doesn't matter.  They understand when you're doing your best for them.  It doesn't have to be perfect; you just have to try."

"Yeah," he said, bewildered.  "I am trying."

"I know you are, Josh.  Kiss them for me, will you, and tell them I'll be home late tomorrow.  Will you still be there when I get back?"

"I… don't think so."  He couldn't see that working, somehow.  The man hadn't been born yet who could carry off that particular encounter with anything like aplomb - and if he had, his name was definitely not Joshua Lyman.

"Okay.  Then we'll have to meet some other time.  I hope."

"I'll look forward to it."  And now he thought about it, that wasn't a lie.  She sounded feisty, and he was intrigued.  She knew who he was, who he would be to Matt if given half a chance, and apparently she didn't mind.  She must be some woman.

"Me too," was the quiet rejoinder.  "Thank you for everything, Josh.  Have a good flight home."

"And you, Helen," he said, deciding that he was probably going to like Matt Santos's wife very much indeed.  "And thank you, too."

The call had faded into distant memory and thence into dreams when, some hours later, Josh became vaguely aware that he was no longer alone in the room.  An indistinct shape seemed to have coalesced out of the shadows in the doorway, and groggily he lifted his head to address it.

"Matt?"

"Hey."  The response was so subdued as to be almost non-existent.

"You okay?  Helen called."

"I know.  I'm fine." Stepping into the room, Santos was outlined by the throw of light from the window.  He seemed to be wearing nothing but dark pyjama pants, and he had his back to Josh and his hands on his hips as he stared out into the sky.

"What… what have you been doing?"

"Picking up bodies."

"Oh."

"And bits of bodies," he elaborated, the pain of the revelation evident in his tone.

"Oh."

Santos perched on the edge of the bed, but didn't look in Josh's direction.  "Must have been cut in half by wire or something; we didn't find all of him.  He'd've been about Petey's age."

"I'm sorry."  Half sitting-up now, Josh rested his hand on one cool muscled shoulder, squeezing briefly.  It was more familiarity than they'd shared so far, but nothing that couldn't be dismissed as a friendly gesture of support if the need arose.  "I guess I never thought about the guys who have to pick up the bodies."

"It's useful," Santos shrugged.  "But it isn't pretty."

"I'd imagine."  Silence fell, but there was nothing awkward about it.  Instead it was the silence of complete empathy, of shared bewilderment at the arbitrary nature of Fate.  "You want to get in?" Josh asked, at length.

"Is that okay?"

"Yeah, it's okay."

Josh scooted over, making a space large enough for a man double Santos's bulk.  For a second or two it was all very practical, the arrangement of pillows, the distribution of bedcovers, and then strong hands on Josh's waist pulled him into position and they were suddenly wrapped tightly around one another, lifeline clutching lifeline, with Matt's lips pressed dry against Josh's broad forehead and Josh's broken and bitten nails driving into Matt's biceps as if the sky was still being torn apart above them.

"You're a good man, Josh."  Breathless, but even.

"No, I'm not.  I want this to be real."

"It's real enough.  It's just not… what either of us might want it to be.  It can't be that.  At least, not yet.  You understand why?"

"Yeah, I do.  Life isn't perfect."  Then, on a rush, anxiety spilling into relief and relief into something else entirely, "I was worried about you.  I was afraid you wouldn't come back."

"I always come back.  I'm the Comeback Kid."  Communication was carried not in the words, but in the easy familiarity of the embrace; in holding and being held in a world robbed of its certainties.  "I needed to be with you, Josh.  I don't even want to try to explain it to myself."

"I know."

"I mean, maybe we have sex and this is all over, but I don't think so.  It doesn't feel like that kind of thing, somehow.  Does it?"

"No," said Josh.  "Not to me.  But I don't know what it does feel like."

"Neither do I.  Except that it's something we should take the time to get right."

"Yeah."

"So, can I stay with you tonight, even if we don't… ?"

Fingers on his cheek stopped him.  "Matt.  I'm exhausted."

The quiet ghost of a chuckle.  "Me too.  But you'll be gone tomorrow."

"It isn't like this is the last time we'll ever see each other."

"It isn't?"

"No."

Relief was eloquent in every line of Matt's body.  He seemed to sag somehow, to fall heavily into the mattress, to pull Josh in after him.  They were a warm tangle of arms, skin, cotton clothing and the weary scent of rest after labor.  They were so mixed together in the enwrapping darkness that there was no obvious division between them, so in tune that a breath inhaled by one was exhaled by the other; just for now, just for tonight, they were unified, symbiotic and inextricable.

"Okay Josh," said Matthew Santos, very quietly and very seriously.  "That's an answer I can live with.  For the time being, anyway.  This isn't over yet."

"No," replied Josh, lounging against him, luxuriating, letting the world wash over him and no longer caring what it thought.  "It isn't anything like over.  Not yet.  Not if I have anything to say on the matter, at least."

*

3. Love

The aftermath of Hurricane Gennifer completely dominated the run-up to Mid-terms.  Any elected official whose constituency fell within the considerable debris trail left by the disaster immediately jumped on the bandwagon, and many speeches were made about preparedness, FEMA funding and the importance of a clear chain of command.  These were often accompanied by self-aggrandizing tales of the heroism of the speech-makers.  Congressman Matt Santos, however, confined himself to the observation that he, his children and a family friend had taken cover in a purpose-built storm shelter and had been frightened but unscathed, then went on to lobby for stricter building codes in coastal areas.  There was very little communication between himself and Josh - an occasional, half-embarrassed nod in the hallways, a sheepish sideways smile, a tired telephone call from a hotel room in the middle of nowhere - but for the most part a respectful distance was maintained, a breathing-space granted and a cordon sanitaire established.

In September, Josh's mother hung new curtains and broke her hip falling from the step-ladder.  Josh negotiated a week off to take care of her when she came out of the hospital and Leo was wise enough to accede, but a week of old-lady talk and daytime television at mind-numbing volume was enough.  Josh flew back to the bosom of his White House family almost sobbing with gratitude at his deliverance; in his mother's world of tea parties and scented handkerchiefs, there were subtler things to fear than hurricanes.

At Mid-terms, the voters of the Texas Two were more than happy to return Matt Santos to Congress, with even those undecideds who had never previously considered voting for anyone of Hispanic origin conceding that his refusal to turn a national tragedy to personal political advantage had earned their reluctant respect.  Afterwards he embarked on such an exhausting round of thanking and reassuring supporters and lobbying for the things that were important to them that between the start of campaigning and Thanksgiving his feet barely touched the ground.  As a result, he spent most of the holiday weekend sleeping exhaustedly on his living-room couch in Houston, totally oblivious to the scene of domestic mayhem being played out around him.

Chanukah and Christmas came and went without much further contact between the Lyman and Santos establishments.  In January, former President Owen Lassiter died suddenly, reminding President Bartlet of his own mortality and prompting a concern for the nature of his legacy.  In vain, his advisors reiterated how much he had already achieved; the remaining days of his Presidency now seemed ridiculously few, and he was more aware than ever of how much he still had left to do.  

Not that he was allowed the luxury of dwelling on this dilemma, with another State of the Union message due to be delivered - after which, in rapid succession, came the bombshell that his former Vice President, John Hoynes, was preparing to write a 'kiss and tell' autobiography.  Like a dormant volcano, Hoynes had seemed harmless - and then, one day, totally without warning, he had erupted and rained down fire and destruction upon his nearest and dearest.  The only sensible thing any of them could to do in the circumstances was keep a low profile and try to ride out the ensuing tide of chaos.

In April and May, arguments between Toby and Will, the defection of Will to work for Vice President Russell, and a bio-hazard alert which saw Josh locked up for several hours with a humorless new assistant NSA made for uncomfortable working conditions.  On top of this, Donna was beginning to feel that her job as Josh's assistant didn't allow her to make best use of her career potential.  After a rather pointed lecture from CJ Cregg, who virtually accused her of 'babying' Josh for her own motives, she was forced to acknowledge that she had grown over-protective, and that it would do him no harm at all to have to manage without her for a while.  'Tough love', was what she called it.

In the end, it was tougher on both of them than either could ever have begun to imagine.

*

Josh doubted whether he would ever forget the sick sensation with which he received the news.  Admiral Fitzwallace dead, Congressman Santos dead, Donna Moss seriously injured, Congresswoman Andrea Wyatt shocked but unhurt.  The immediate correction by the media - Congressman De Santos, Alabama Four - made little difference to Josh's scrambled brain; he was perfectly aware that Matt was in Europe somewhere on business unrelated to Gaza, peace talks, a car bomb or any other part of the story that was headline news.  It was Donna who was in danger; Donna, who had blithely accepted the challenge of a fact-finding trip to the Middle East regardless of the personal hazards involved.

They had become fatally used to being surrounded by the efficient security that attended a President of the United States.  Unwarranted assumptions had been made about what conditions might obtain elsewhere.  In retrospect this was insanely optimistic, considering that Josh himself still bore the scars of an attack in which the President had been wounded.  Now that he was the one worrying about a friend and moving Heaven and Earth to be beside her, he began for the first time to have some insight into the sufferings his own friends and family had undergone back then.

Sam, in particular, had been almost unhinged by it; they were at the start of the most intense phase of their relationship then, and Sam had been obliged to internalize all his grief and worry.  He had told Josh later about the way the minutes stretched into hours and the hours into days while he waited for news; how every form of transportation seemed slower than usual, how time itself seemed to stop, how other people's needs and concerns began to seem irrelevant.  Worst of all was the inability to concentrate on anything else when the mind kept returning to the vulnerable nature of human existence, epitomized by a smaller-than-life figure marooned somewhere in the middle of an overwhelming ocean of hospital bed-linen.

Josh experienced all these symptoms and more, rushing to the military hospital in Germany where Donna had been taken.  Her parents, too, were out of their minds with worry, desperate to get greater speed out of their aircraft, sitting bolt upright and desperately clutching at one another's hands while the in-flight movie played out unheeded above their heads.

And then for several days, the elder Mosses and Donna's quondam Irish boyfriend took turns with Josh to watch at her bedside.  She was better, she was worse, she might die, she might not, and Josh himself was powerless to help.  Eventually his frustration with the pace of progress became so extreme that he was ordered out of the sick-room entirely and instructed not to return until after the weekend.  He stood indecisively in the hospital corridor, pulling out handfuls of hair he could ill afford to lose, then went outside to the grey German afternoon and punched Matt Santos's number into the keypad of his cell phone.

An hour after that, Josh was on his way to Berlin.

*

Josh drifted through the formalities at Templehof, bemused by the fact that the airport seemed to be full of American service personnel.  There had been several on his flight, in fact; they were in civilian clothing but there was no mistaking the tattoos, the haircuts, the scent of communal living or the topics of conversation.  He hadn't taken much notice, preferring to concentrate on his magazine, but became aware of them again when they were behind him in Arrivals.  When he stumbled over his own feet and was rescued from abject humiliation by being scooped into the embrace of someone in the familiar colors of a US Marine Corps uniform, their sudden silence was louder than insults ever could have been.

"Josh, buddy!"  Crushing arms and the scent of a powerful but restrained masculinity enfolded and released him almost in the same instant, leaving him wanting more of both.

"Hey," he said, dizzily, blinking up at Matt's unwontedly short hair and superior clean shave.  "What's this about?"

"I flew in on a military transport.  Haven't had time to change.  We'll get a cab to the hotel."

Brusquely, he guided Josh outside, and through some combination of rank and chutzpah steered him into the first vehicle in the line.

"Would the Corps approve of you hugging people in public?  Men, I mean?"  The response of the servicemen had puzzled Josh; probably they were quite unused to seeing a high-ranking Marine officer embracing a civilian so enthusiastically.

Matt shrugged.  "The stuff you're going through?  If the Corps didn't approve, I wouldn't want to be part of it."

And the smile that accompanied this dogmatic statement was more than enough to leave Josh in no doubt whatever about the sincerity with which it had been delivered.

Berlin was a surprise.  Josh had been here before, to the glamorous cultural and diplomatic end of the city that a Presidential visit encompassed - fortunately Bartlet had been wise enough not to attempt "Ich bin ein Berliner" - but his tour then hadn't taken in all the new building work, the steam pipes at upper-storey level across the streets, the pockmarks where even sixty-five years later bullet damage was still visible on some of the old façades.  In every Jewish family he knew there were unanswered questions dating back to that time, people who had dropped out of sight without warning and whose ultimate fates could merely be guessed.  He didn't know whether he should feel uncomfortable about being somewhere which had been at the center of so much suffering, or whether he should remember instead that Germany was a different country these days and had very different people in control.

"Something the matter?"

"No."

Matt, too, was looking out of the window.  Not all the monumental Nazi architecture had vanished; there were still reminders of it here and there.

"Jewish," he said.  "I didn't think."

Josh shook his head.  "I keep thinking I should feel more connected to it," he said, "but I don't.  It's just another city."

"It's too much to take in, all at once," Matt told him, calmly.  "After what happened to Donna.  You haven't told me how she is yet."

Josh shrugged.  "They're saying 'mild brain damage'.  She's not talking much, except about some Irish guy she's been dating.  I don't like him a whole lot."

"I'd be surprised if you did.  You act sometimes like she's your own personal property.  Maybe I should be jealous?"

It was said with a teasing inflexion, but Josh chose to take it seriously.  "We're not…  She's like a sister."

"I know.  And you feel responsible for sending her on the CoDel in the first place.  Putting her in harm's way."

"Yes."  In Josh's mind, there was something chillingly circular about exposing his 'sister' to danger.  Many years ago it had been Joanie and a fire; now it was Donna and a bomb.  No matter how often he told himself that Donna was an adult who had known all about the risks but had gone anyway, he still kept coming back to his ultimate responsibility for the decision - and the fact that if it hadn't been her, it might very well have been him.  "It's my fault," he insisted, quietly.

"Maybe it is."  Matt's fingertips lightly grazed the back of Josh's tensed white knuckles.  "But you had a good reason for sending her, didn't you?  You came to a rational conclusion based on all the facts.  Commanders in the field do that all the time.  You can't keep second-guessing yourself; you just have to play the cards you're dealt."

"Yeah."  Josh took the hand away, grateful for the reassurance of the touch but needing it now to pinch the bridge of his nose and rub a little common-sense into the corners of his sleep-deprived eyes.  "I'm sorry," he said, "I'm going round in circles with this.  Can we talk about something else?"

"No problem," was the brisk response, and by the time they pulled up outside the Hotel Delphin half an hour later, Josh knew all there was to know about what had brought Lieutenant-Colonel Santos to Germany.  He had been giving evidence at the Court Martial of a sergeant who had refused a direct order, deserted his post, hit an officer and attempted suicide by jumping off a railway bridge - all in the same night.

"You," Josh concluded.  "You were the one he hit."

"He was upset," Matt said.  "His wife left him and took the children.  I didn't know that, and I rode him a little too hard.  It was as much my fault as his."

"You told the Court that?"

"Yes."

"What did they say?"

"That it was up to them to make that determination.  Which it is.  I have to be there when they re-convene on Monday."

"So we have forty-eight hours?"

"You think that'll be enough?"

"Not nearly," said Josh, following him up the steps and into the building firmly convinced that in his present state of mind forty-eight years would be a whole lot closer to the mark.

The hotel foyer was like something out of 'The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau'.  It had blue-green carpets, mirrors on the walls, and a huge aquarium along one side which pretended to be a section of the Great Barrier Reef; if a shark had swum through it Josh would not have been at all surprised.  He only tore his gaze away from the glassy-eyed stares of the fish when the elevator arrived and he found himself squashed into a space little larger than a domestic refrigerator, chest-to-chest with Matt Santos and his impressive collection of medals.

"Good thing I'm not claustrophobic," he remarked lightly.

"Or have a lot of luggage?"

"Yeah."

Small-talk died completely, however, when they stepped out into a calmly decorated corridor, sensitive shades of linen and stone slipping like sorbet over the color-jaded palate. Mercifully their room, too, was decorated in unexceptionable style; a huge, squashy brown leather couch, a mahogany coffee table, a TV, a mini-bar, a limestone bathroom with a vertical radiator - and, the last thing Josh looked at, a big square bed with two thick white quilts folded side-by-side.

"Don't worry about it," Matt advised.  "Want to look at the room service menu while I get changed?"

Josh pulled off his coat, accepted the folder he was handed, relaxed into the corner of the couch.  When Matt emerged from the bathroom several minutes later - in faded jeans, a charcoal shirt and bare feet, wet hair defying his attempts to pat it back into place - they both voted in favor of lasagne.

"You want wine?  I still owe you a bottle of champagne; I haven't thanked you properly for last summer yet.  The kids were glad to have you there, and I must admit so was I."

Josh shook his head slowly.  "I was glad to have you there, too.  You probably saved my life.  If you hadn't showed up, I wouldn't have known to get in the shelter."

"Well," smiled Matt, "I hope you don't have reason to regret that some day."

"I might.  I'll let you know when I see how the rest of my life turns out."

"So, why me?" Josh asked later.  He was tired, shop-soiled, punchy from his dealings with doctors and inclined to be combative.  The meal was over and the champagne, little better than fizzy water, had done nothing to improve his mood.  Indeed, in his sterling endeavors not to worry about Donna, Josh had reached instead for a totally different subject about which to obsess.  "You couldn't have guessed about Sam and me. Therefore… "

"Therefore?"

"Somebody told you."

"You're right."  Matt shrugged, as though it was a matter of only minor significance.  "A guy at a party.  He was drunk and he thought I wanted what he wanted.  I didn't, but we got talking instead.  He told me about you and Sam."

"When was this?"

"During my first term."

"Your first term?  You were still with Alex?"

"Right."

"Wow.  That takes cojones, putting the moves on a Congressman - even one who looks like you.  Most people wouldn't take the chance."

"Except, maybe… ?" Santos prompted.

"Except, maybe, another Congressman.  Matt Skinner.  Really?"

"Really."

"Holy cow.  Wish I could've been a fly on the wall for that one."

Santos's head tilted in acknowledgement.  "I felt sorry for him," he said.  "He knew he wasn't going to be re-elected at the General.  His local Party were telling him to look for another job.  He just needed somebody to listen to him."

"Yeah," Josh agreed.  "That was tragic.  The conservatives in his District never liked him; he was too 'out' for their taste.  Any idea how he knew?"

"Not really."  But for once Santos wouldn't meet his gaze - and in Josh's experience, such evasion from someone usually so open could only mean bad news.  Knowing his erstwhile companion as he did, one possibility had to be uppermost in his mind.

"Sam slept with him, didn't he?"  

"He…  may have."

"Figures."  Some of Sam's other conquests hadn't been particularly well-chosen either.  It would be just like him to sail as close to the wind with men as he did with women.  Yet, amazingly, it hadn't hit the tabloids - presumably because Skinner, like Sam, had been anxious to avoid publicity at the time.  "That must have been while I was in the hospital."

"Yes."

Well, that didn't hurt as much as it would have if he'd learned about it a couple of years earlier.  Sam's fragility had shown itself in other ways since, and Josh couldn't find the energy to harbor resentment about a minor peccadillo so far into the past.  Sam hadn't been perfect; that wasn't exactly news to him any more.

"There had to be something," he acknowledged, aware that he was making excuses for Sam even to himself.  "The way he freaked out when I was shot, then over-compensated afterwards.  I mis-read the situation and got carried away.  It was a totally dumb-ass thing to do."

"You really were planning your wedding?"  There was no mistaking the sympathy in the tone; just as Santos would have consoled any bride whose daydreams had ended in disappointment, now he offered the same level of comfort to Josh.

"I was.  I didn't notice Sam wasn't involved until it was too late.  The President was looking for a way to win the respect of the gay community; our wedding was going to be it.  In fact I think he was already working on his speech."  Josh was staring down at his feet, glumly working through the whole sequence of arguments he had had with himself since the day the revelation broke.  "I got personal mixed up with political," he said.  "It's not the first time it's happened, and I don't suppose it'll be the last."

Matt leaned back, entertained by the visuals attending the whole scenario.  "It would have been quite something.  I'm almost sorry it didn't happen."

"Almost?"

"Sam's loss… "

"Oh.  Right."  Josh's brow furrowed still further.  "I wanted to do the whole thing properly, but I fumbled it.  Asked Sam to marry me, and he said 'no'."

"That was all?  Just… 'no'?"

"It wasn't what he wanted.  He wasn't serious enough about the relationship… and what the hell had he ever done to make me assume he was the girl, anyway?"  It was clear from Josh's tone that he had dwelt on Sam's reasons for refusal until they had eaten away at the very core of his self-belief.  "When the guy you've been sleeping with for nearly three years asks you that," he went on, sadly, "you realize you're talking about two different things.  That was when I found out Sam thought we were 'friends with benefits'.  I wish I'd known before."

"Sounds like he was defensive," Santos commented mildly.

"He was.  He felt he'd let it go way too far.  He apologized for not putting an end to it before I got in too deep.  He wasn't expecting me to… "  Josh shrugged uncomfortably.  "You know.  He moved out of my apartment and I told the President the wedding was cancelled.  After that... "

"California," Santos completed.  "Amy Gardner."

"Yes.  Also a disaster, but in a different way.  Sam moved in with one of the speech writers from his campaign," Josh went on.  "Elsie Snuffin.  Will Bailey's half-sister."

"I don’t know Will.  Or Elsie, for that matter."

"Not important."

"Okay."

"Looking back, maybe I realized it wasn't going to happen right from the start.  You know how, when you think a thing's too good to be true… "

" … that means it probably is."

"Yeah."  

It felt quite natural by now that Matt should be finishing Josh's sentences, even though the total amount of quality time they'd spent together was almost derisory.  Their thoughts and attitudes dovetailed well, their wavelengths seemed perfectly attuned, it was almost as if they'd known and trusted each other for a decade or more.  Yet Josh had also known and trusted Sam; for fifteen years they'd worn one another like a second skin, and two very intense periods of physical intimacy had turned their apparently straightforward guy-type friendship into something that to Josh had felt more like a lifetime commitment between permanent partners.  He hadn't realized that was what he was looking for when they started out, but with Sam he'd been unable to do casual sex and he'd ended up wanting more.  He'd ended up wanting everything and losing it all on a single throw of the dice.  He wasn't expecting his luck to change any time soon, either.

"Which is why I'm afraid to trust this," he admitted, one helpless hand indicating the room in which they sat.  "You, me, champagne seduction.  I can't help feeling there has to be a price tag."

"I understand.  Want me to leave, Josh?"

And if that wasn't absurd, Josh thought, he didn't know what was; Matt Santos metaphorically offering to walk out into the blizzard for his sake, just the way Titus Oates had long ago walked out on Captain Scott.

"Where would you go?" he asked, tiredly.  

"I could… "

"Rhetorical, Congressman.  No, I don't want you to leave."

"Okay," smiled Santos.  "This is me not leaving."

"Thanks.  But I still don't understand what's happening with us.  What, in the name of Elvis, would… Ricardo Montalban… want with Harpo Marx?"  The hand-gestures accompanying this question made it abundantly clear which of them, in Josh's opinion, was which.

"Ricardo Montalbán?"  Santos made something subtly different out of his pronunciation of the name.  "I'll take that as a compliment, my mother adored him.  But you talk too much to be Harpo, Josh."

"I'm serious.  Explain it to me."

"I know you are."  Santos took a breath and braced himself to deliver an honest response.  "Okay, here's what happened.  I thought maybe you could introduce me to somebody, but I liked your company more than I expected to.  I didn't think we'd hit it off, but we did; the more I saw of you, the more I wanted to see.  Nothing mysterious about that, it's the way a relationship's supposed to work."

"O…kay?"  Josh still didn't sound convinced.

"People meet, they like each other, they get closer.  My kids like you, which is important to me.  Even Helen wants to know when she's gonna get to meet you.  We care about you.  Maybe that wasn't supposed to happen, but it did."  An almost defiant declaration.  "And then you called, and you wanted to see me.  That was something new."

"Yeah."

"There's no price tag, Josh; whatever you want… or don't want… this to be, that's fine with me."  He paused, collected himself, continued again in a less impassioned register.  "Seriously, if you want to get naked and jiggy, I'm your man.  If you want to hold hands and look at the moon, I can do that.  If you just want to watch a movie and be two guys who don't have sex, that's good for me too.  We do as much - or as little - as you want.  This is not about me.  At least, not tonight.  Understood?"

"Understood," Josh echoed, numbly. "But… 'jiggy'?"

Santos grimaced.  "Bad choice of word?"

"Very."

"Okay.  How about 'horizontal'?"

"'Horizontal' is good," Josh conceded.  He paused a moment, evaluating what he'd just said, then  added, "I mean, yeah, 'horizontal' is good.  I like the sound of 'horizontal'.  I'm not so sure about 'naked'," he went on, aware of babbling almost uncontrollably.  "I need a shower or something first; I feel like I travelled in the baggage compartment, and somebody's been using my eyeballs for hockey pucks.  I need to take my lenses out."  It was a limp, downbeat, bathetic conclusion which did his speech-writing credentials no honor whatsoever.

"No problem," came the calm response.  "Take all the time you need."

"Right."  

Construing this a less than subtle attempt at a hint, Josh stumbled to his feet, groped in his overnight bag for contact lens paraphernalia, and sidled off towards the bathroom door as surreptitiously as someone trying to sneak out of a department store with a lawn-mower under his coat.  He felt as awkward as if he was wearing giant clown shoes and an illuminated nose.  Given his lack of self-possession, he was almost driven to wonder whether he would emerge looking clean and refreshed only to be doused from head to foot in flour and pink paint.

In the doorway he stopped, turned back, looked over at the composed figure even now unfolding a newspaper and settling down patiently to await his eventual return.

"Matt?"

"Uh-huh?"

"Are you scared?"  Josh's voice trailed away to nothingness on the last syllable, and the unwisdom of asking six-foot-three of ex-Marine Congressman whether he was scared did not even occur to him until after he spoke.  Then, with a sinking feeling, he wondered whether Matt would knock him on his ass and come out with some well-rehearsed hoo-ya diatribe about how the Corps is never afraid of anything, buddy, and you darn well better believe it.  However, Matthew Santos had long ago refused to conform to anybody's well-worn stereotype of Latino male deportment; a sudden relaxation of the broad shoulders and a look of gratitude in the brown eyes confirmed that it had in fact been exactly the right question to ask.

"Who wouldn't be?"

"Thank goodness."  Theatrically, Josh slumped against the door jamb. "I'd hate to be the only one here out of his depth."

"You're not, believe me.  It's scary stuff for me, too."

"Scary as a hurricane?"  Josh tried to make light of it; there were so few situations this man couldn't take in his stride that it was quite worrying to be entering into one now in which he felt himself at a loss.

"Worse.  There have been more hurricanes in my life than men.  I know how to deal with hurricanes."

"How many?"

"Hurricanes?  Five.  Men?  You're the third."

"Oh."  Josh drew a deep breath.  "Four," he said, exchanging confession for confession.  "Or five, depending on how you count Sam. It was two different relationships - and in between, we both grew up."

"Well, you did," Matt countered, with a smile.  "From what you've told me, it sounds as if Sam Seaborn has quite a bit of growing-up still to do.  I just hope," he added, as Josh dived for cover and security behind the shelter of the bathroom door, "he doesn't take time out to break anybody else's heart along the way."

*

"What are you reading?"  

Twenty minutes later Josh stepped almost silently out of the bathroom wearing nothing but a large green towel tied sarong-style around his waist, with his hair plastered so far back that his 'high forehead' was mercilessly exposed.  He leaned on the back of the couch, elbows sinking into the squashy leather, mouth close to Matt's ear as he looked over the other man's shoulder.  Uselessly, as it turned out; what little of the text he could focus on seemed to be in Spanish.

"Retienen a sospechosos de terrorismo," was the quiet reply.  A hand reached back, touched Josh's cheek.  "You smell good."  The whole tone of their encounter had altered now, from outright panic to a sort of tentative intimacy, as if they had decided to skip a few pages in their self-written script and let some of the more uncomfortable clichés of the occasion go unspoken.

"I stole your cologne," Josh told him cheekily. "¿Cuántos sospechosos?"  His Spanish was minimal, but somewhere along the line Josh had acquired just about enough to hold a conversation if ever he needed to.

"Siete."

"You can actually get Diario La Estrella over here?"  The format of the Fort Worth Spanish-language paper was recognizable even through the fog.

"On the base.  Together with Hershey bars, Cheez-Its, mom, apple pie and all the game shows you can eat."

"That's just depressing," Josh said.  "Knowing we've exported our culture down to the last Cheez-It."

"All part of making the world safe for democracy," Matt replied, wickedly.  He let the newspaper fall, turned his head and leaned back far enough to kiss Josh lightly on the cheek.  "Mmmmm," he murmured.  "How're you feelin' now?"

"Better.  Wanna go to bed?"

"Thought you'd never ask."  A moment later he had detached himself from the deep interior of the couch, risen to his feet, and was standing there with a sheepish expression on his face, his broad hands reaching for Josh's waist.  "That's a fine collection of scars you have there," he commented in an approving tone.

"Surgeon General says they're very neat," Josh admonished.  "'More like petit-point than surgery'.  With that and the hairline… I thought you should know the worst right from the start."

"Hoped it would change my mind?"

"Out of luck, huh?"

"Afraid so.  You still get any pain from these?" Fingertips smoother than if they had been wearing silk gloves stroked lightly over bare flesh, taking as courtly and respectful a hold on Josh as though the two of them were social acquaintances gliding onto the dance-floor at some ultra-formal diplomatic reception.

"Only existential."  Josh swayed nearer, letting himself be drawn inexorably like a willing satellite into the gravitational pull of a larger, brighter planet.  "Everybody gets that."

"True."  A soft, reflective silence, and then a deep, deep breath, "Josh?  Are we really going to do this?"

"We've been waiting long enough," was the whispered reply.  "I think we should, don't you?"

The only response was a sharp nod, but it was far more eloquent than words ever could have been.  Josh began determinedly unfastening buttons then, exposing an inverted triangle of hairless caramel-colored skin.  Santos's musculature was well-defined but not hideously over-developed; he was a man who looked after himself without making a fetish out of physical fitness.

"Nice."

"Thank you."  With a deft flick, Santos separated Josh from the towel.  The thing landed over the arm of the couch and slithered silently to the floor, while brown hands moved appreciatively over dead-pale buttocks.  "You don't get enough sun," he said, softly.

"Well," amended Josh, "not there, at least."  A brief scenario entered his head which involved him sunbathing naked, ass-upwards, in Lafayette Park.  No doubt he would have got to meet a lot of very nice and very eligible men that way, but most of them would probably have been in the law enforcement profession.  "Do you?"  He busied himself with the copper button at the waistband of the butter-soft jeans, and with a zip that slid down easily to reveal a dark and abundant nakedness beneath.

"It has been known," came the teasing response.  "But not recently."  

A shrug, a wriggle, and jeans and shirt joined the towel and newspaper on the floor.  What remained was skin, golden-sugar and creamy-white blending together as naturally as crème brulée or dulce-de-leche as they moved into a closer embrace.  Matt's hands travelled slowly up Josh's back, indulging in the pure tactile sensation of a slender masculine physique, of strength without aggression; Josh's moved to inventory jutting hipbones, a raw male shape with its own awkward elegance, the impression of controlled power given off by a man completely in touch with his own emotional core.

"I'm going to kiss you," Santos warned him, every word articulated with the careful clarity of one accustomed to addressing an audience.  "This is your last chance to say 'no'."

"'No'."  But the word and the body language were totally at variance, and the look in Josh's eyes was a better indicator of this state of mind than either of them.  

"You don't actually mean that."

"I don't.  Unfortunately for both of us, I never have."

"So all those moral scruples of yours… ?"

"Were absolutely real.  They still are.  But I'm human, and you're… "

"Naked."

"Yeah."

"You like?"

"You know I do.  Egotist."

"Okay, so… "

"So."

"Oh, I get it.  I have to make the first move?"

Josh looked up at him then, wide-eyed, apologetic, pleading.  It was not in his nature to be entirely passive, completely supine, but there were moments in life when nothing else would suit, and this was as close to utter, abject surrender as he was ever likely to get.  "Yes… "

If there had ever been more to the word than a half-spoken syllable, an inconclusive exhalation, it was taken away altogether in the next moment, along with all thought and all sense.  Warmth closed on Josh, velvet, liquid, the taste of wine and garlic and somewhere sweetness riveting him to an open mouth, to a tongue that owned him, to wet exploration and an explosion of sensation through nerve-endings so long ago cauterised that he had forgotten he ever grew them.  The heels of his hands knew the feel of Matt Santos now, the soft skin on the inside of his arms was stroking over a smooth back just starting with perspiration, the individual hairs on the calves of his legs were brushing against their counterparts, and ankle-bone hit ankle-bone in uncompromising physicality.  Not least, although far from the only sensation registering in his consciousness, a hot tautness was making him harder than he ever thought possible - and, so close against it that only a minor adjustment of position was necessary to bring them together, was its direct and flattering equivalent.

"Oh God," he groaned, his hand finding it automatically; steel-hard, warm, moist, springy with hair, a suitably weighty handful of pulsating flesh below.  "Oh God."

"Yeah."  And his mouth was devoured again, teeth biting into his lower lip, commanding tongue making free of him, powerful fingers taking an answering grip on his own rigid pride.

"Bed?" Josh whimpered.  His legs had lost their tensile strength; like what remained of his mind, they too were unable to withstand the full-frontal assault on his senses and resigned without a struggle.  He wanted nothing but whatever was going to happen, wanted subjugation and mastery, wanted sex without guilt or responsibility, anonymous, alien, with a man he felt he hardly knew.  "Please?"

There was something almost triumphant, almost evil, deep in the dark eyes above him; something atavistic which threw him backwards so roughly that the whole bed swayed, the lights flickered, and he feared for the occupants of the room below.  It was no accident that his legs parted as he fell, nor that when Santos followed him down it was to lodge firmly between them in the traditional man-superior position, prick to prick, a massive hand gripping Josh's balls until he almost yelped in pain.  But that was what he wanted, what he needed, rough and uncontrolled and undignified; nothing sophisticated, nothing with a patina, just the honesty of flesh on flesh, skin, sweat, the dark smell of fierce shared arousal and the sounds of something dangerous and wild beginning between them.

"Josh, I wanna… "  The growl was nothing like the urbane, tempered tones he had become used to.  "Christ."

"Yes," Josh told him.  "Do it."

"I can't…  Can't…" Violent friction that bordered on extreme, skin searing against skin lubricated only by copious amounts of sweat, tearing pain and heat and incoherence and Josh's teeth in Matthew's shoulder.

"Do it," he stuttered.  "Do it."

"I want to," howled the voice above him, but the pounding between his thighs didn't let up, and he rose again into it without demur although his muscles ached with the effort of stretching himself so far apart.  "God, Josh, I want to."

"Next time," Josh soothed, wondering where that eleventh-hour wisdom had come from, with Matt Santos unrestrainable in his arms, driving into him, pubic bone crushing his own, frustration equal to or better than his being visited on a groin that had enjoyed only its own company for far too long now.  It was a compliment, this savage avidity; it was bestial and grand and painful and a hell of a turn-on.

"Next time.  Next time.  Shit, Josh, shit, shit, shiiiiittt."

"It's okay, baby," Josh whispered, and felt the quivering muscles release, the repressed emotions flow forth, the sudden rush that was death and life and triumph and catastrophe all in one visceral catharsis.  "It's okay."  And his own letting-go, sheltered and shaded by this most magnificent of passions, lost in the maelstrom, a footnote in history, quiet tributary to the flooding torrent.

"Easy," he said, petting the pale-gold shoulder beneath his chin.  It had begun to grow cold already, paralyzed beneath its weight of embarrassment, pressing him into the mattress and holding him prisoner there.

Matt shook his head in bewilderment.  "That wasn't… " he said, strangely.

"I know."

"I mean, I wanted… "

"You wanted to be a gentleman," Josh told him.  "Don't worry about it."

"I thought I could… "

"Nobody stays in control when they're having sex.  That's not the way it works."

"I'm sorry."

Josh wriggled, pushed damp hair back out of Matt's eyes, lifted with one finger the chin that seemed resolutely unwilling to level with him.  "You and Alex… ?" he began, and then reminded himself how tacky it would be to ask any intimate question about the man's dead lover.

"It was never like this.  It was… "

"Practical?"

"Yes."

"Been there, done that."  Josh's arms slithered around him.  Sex without emotion, sex without commitment, sex for its own sake; arid, ordinary, functional and degrading.  He knew what that was like, and he'd been struggling all his life to avoid it.  "Whoever told you you had to be a machine?"

"I didn't… "  But for the supremely articulate public speaker, words seemed to be extraordinarily elusive at the moment.  "I didn't know there was anything more."

"Even with Helen?"

"It's different with Helen."

"I know."

"You do?"

"I've been married," Josh reminded him, calmly.  "In everything but the name.  Just because Sam didn't want it… "

"Didn't alter the way you felt about him.  I get that.  You still love him?"

It was a question Josh had asked himself over and over, in the months since Sam Seaborn had walked out of his life.  He wasn't entirely sure he had a complete answer to it yet but he had, at least, come up with part of one.

"You never stop loving somebody.  Even when they hurt you.  You just… love them in a different way."

"Yes."  There was something about this one syllable of agreement that indicated a wealth of experience.  Now was neither the time nor the place to examine that, but it seemed to be yet one more thing that the two of them held in common.

"I haven't been in love with him for a long time," Josh added sagely.  "When I finally realized we weren't going to be together…  You learn to live with it.  You move on."

"You think you'll… fall in love again?  One day?"

Josh looked up at the ceiling; grey textured paint, buff cornice, a tasteful line of antique gold picking out the fine details of the moulding.

"No," he said, allowing his lips to rest on the outer rim of Matt's ear and kissing him very softly and very, very thoughtfully.  "I have no intention of ever falling in love with anybody else, ever again."

"That's sad."  A sympathetic murmur buried in the folds of his neck, breath gusting lightly across his collar-bone.

"No, it isn't," replied Josh, stroking the dark head that lay against his shoulder and listening to the slowly decreasing clamor of two over-excited heartbeats against the background thunder of the city traffic.  "It all depends on how you look at it."

*

By four a.m. they were awake and taking their time with slow, languid, morning sex.  The burning necessity of the night before had diminished now, translated into the kind of desire that never really goes away no matter how many times it may be satisfied.  The simple fact of sleeping and waking together had conferred a still-greater intimacy onto their relationship, in which their continual astonishment at finding themselves together had metamorphosed into a complete absence of surprise; into the feeling of certainty with which those who are quite content with their partners greet each advancing day.  It was normal, it was familiar, it felt as right as showering and shaving before breakfast; comfortable, sane, all questions answered.

"You know what I want to do?" Matt asked, having wrung from him a far more gentle and rewarding mutual climax on this second occasion.

"Yes.  Did you bring condoms?"

"No.  Tell me you did?"

Josh shook his head.  "I didn't want to hex this by assuming anything."

"Then we'll have to go shopping.  It's 'kondome' here."

"Don't tell me?"

Matt shrugged.  "I used to have to give the sexual health lecture to the guys.  You'd be amazed how many languages I could buy them in.  I noticed a Drogerie on the next block."

"Is it open all night?"

"I don't know.  We could find out."

"Okay," said Josh.  "Let's go."

Urgency seemed to have faded, however, for the time being, and instead of making haste to obtain supplies, they slid side-by-side into their limestone shower stall to stroke slow lather trails over skin now becoming as familiar as breath, eventually climbing awkwardly into far-from-fresh clothing, brushing, tidying and generally making one another respectable.  It was almost six, therefore, when they ventured forth, and the sky was a silvery wash above the yellow-lit windows of the city, the electric bustle of the trams, the steam rising like dragons' breath over the narrow buildings.

"This place is really beautiful," Josh whispered, stepping out onto the sidewalk.  "I never thought it could be, knowing everything that happened here."

Even the façade of the hotel seemed charming in his present mood, its over-wrought gilded dolphins cavorting in baroque seas a heavy example of the kind of taste he rejected when he was in his right mind - but he was not in his right mind, and when Matt reached over and took his hand and kissed his fingers right out there in the public street he could barely contain his delight.  

"You shouldn't do that," he warned, but did not mean it.

Matt pulled a plain black baseball cap from his pocket and jammed it onto his head.  In that, leather jacket, jeans, dark glasses, he looked the very epitome of the tasteless American tourist scouring the streets of a foreign city.  Josh, at his side, felt exposed; blue wind-breaker, tan slacks, shades, hair a wayward tangle, not quite famous enough to need a disguise, nor yet anonymous enough to go completely unrecognized.  Discretion, in those circumstances, was a hard habit to break.

"Fifty bucks nobody knows who we are," Matt told him with a smile, holding onto his hand determinedly.  "Fifty bucks we can walk up the street, buy condoms, and crawl back to bed without a soul recognizing us.  This is Berlin, Josh, not The Ellipse."  And because he was so persuasive, and because Josh wanted with all his heart to believe it, he let his fingers rest in the stronger grip, smiled adoringly, and wondered what in the world he had ever done with all that willpower back in the days when he had any.

The Drogerie was closed.  A careful reading of the sign in the window suggested that it would be at least two hours before any rational customer would expect anything else, and until then the pair of them would just have to occupy their time in some other way.  Yet the prospect of returning to a soiled hotel bedroom did not appeal; the sun was breaking golden over the rooftops and there were vistas to be explored, places they had never seen before and probably would never see again, and the day was their own.  Besides, there was something in the unaccustomed novelty of simply walking along hand-in-hand - in a place where nobody knew or cared who they were, what they did for a living, and whether either one of them had other ties - that was simply too enticing to be given up.  So they kept going, beyond the drugstore, on and on in a straight line past intersections and shuttered shopfronts, talking idly, stopping to exchange a confident kiss, taking one another for granted, growing together, growing familiar, blending in.  After an hour they were in an unknown part of town, recognizing nothing but the road they had come in on, and their initial enthusiasm for the adventure had begun to wane.

"We should go back," Matt said, quietly.

"I know.  But I need a restroom first.  And coffee."

"Okay.  There's a Bahnhof over there; they should have a bathroom, at least, and maybe a coffee stall too."

They crossed at the lights, nervous of the unfamiliar traffic regulations until a business-suited German with a briefcase showed up beside them and also crossed when they did.  He was making for the railway station too, but his speed was far greater than theirs and he showed absolutely no interest in their joined hands.

The concourse was the liveliest place they had encountered on their walk, with people funnelling through it on their way to work and incomprehensible announcements being made over a reverberating tannoy.  It was also clean and bright, recently renovated, full of people with hopeful expressions and echoing with their conversations.  Metro Center at 8 a.m., translated onto another continent.  And, just as there would have been at home, there were restrooms and a coffee stall, the latter with a short queue of patrons shuffling steadily forward.

"I can handle 'Zwei kaffee'", Matt laughed.  "Go."  And he joined the line, nodding gruffly to the person in front, hoping that he wouldn't be faced with the usual barrage of mocha-skinny-decaff choices in a language he barely understood.

By the time Josh returned, Matt had secured two cappuccinos, four little packages of sugar and a plastic stirrer.  They stood awkwardly at the end of the counter emptying sugar into their cardboard cups, stirring, and then stepping away, grinning gleefully whenever they caught sight of one another.  It was surreal to be lovers, to be on the loose in a city thousands of miles from home, to have only one another and endless, endless freedom beckoning to them.

Matt reached out a fingertip, stole a fleck of cappuccino froth from the corner of Josh's mouth, replaced it with a kiss and grinned at him wolfishly.

"We don't ever have to go home," he said, almost delirious with the notion.

"You mean the hotel?"

"I mean home," Matt reiterated dizzily.  "The USA."

"Yeah we do.  Apart from anything else, I think the CIA would go looking for a missing Congressman."

"I'll resign," Matt said, but he didn't mean it.  It was an entertaining possibility and nothing more.

"No, you won't."

"No.  I won't."  

They crossed the street again, settled down on a bench in a small open plaza with lime trees in the center.  Around them the city was revving up for its day; trams and buses clattered past, people met and parted, pigeons foraged for scraps, a busy little vehicle with brushes beneath cleaned along the gutters.  

"I love my job," Matt said.

"I love mine," was the quiet rejoinder.  "I'm not ready to leave it yet.  But I wish there could be more of this.  More of you."

"There will be."

"Good."

It was such a pleasant prospect that they allowed themselves to dwell on it while they drank their coffee, lulled by the easy familiarity of the morning rush, detached from the citizens around them, burrowing into the niche of tourists in a working environment like all those out-of-towners who clogged the DC traffic lanes and drew curses from them in their everyday existence.  Relaxed, utterly in step and happy with their folie-à-deux, there was an invisible barrier between them and the world, a bubble into which nothing that represented reality could gain admittance; they dreamed awake, and life as they had previously known it was unable to find them.

"Hi, guys."  

Soft, non-threatening, almost reluctant, the voice of Nemesis interrupted their reverie.  Josh, stunned, stared into the bottom of his cup as though an answer was to be found there; it was not, only a few dregs of chilled coffee.  

"Shit."  Unaccustomed profanity from the man at his side; sharp words during sex were one thing, but his well-tailored vocabulary would not normally have encompassed anything quite so crude.

"Matt?  You know Danny Concannon?"  Polite enough, but Josh could not keep the trembling out of his voice nor the daggers out of his eyes.

"Yes, I do."

"Congressman Santos," Danny acknowledged, with a nod.  "Hiya, Josh.  Mind if I sit down?"  He had a small travelling-bag with him and had obviously just crossed the road from the front of the Bahnhof.

"Do we have a choice?"

"Not at the moment."  Danny squeezed in between them, his bag tucked under his feet. "Hate to do this to you," he said, in accents of genuine apology.

"Then don't do it," Matt growled.  "Whatever 'it' is."

"No choice," Danny told him.  "I saw you, guys.  Holding hands.  Kissing.  I know you both, I can't not know what's going on with you.  I'm not going to walk away and pretend it didn't happen."

"You're blackmailing us," Josh assumed.  "Is that it?"  Loathing dripped from every syllable.

"No, it isn't.  I came over here to tell you that I know, but you have nothing to fear from me.  Also that you look good together, if you care."

"Nothing?" Matt echoed, disbelievingly.

"Once a reporter always a reporter?  I can understand why you'd think that," Danny acknowledged.  "But I'm not on duty this weekend.  Nobody's expecting me to file anything, I'm blind and deaf until Monday morning.  I'm here for my brother's wedding, that's all."

"I didn't know you had a brother."  Despite himself, Josh's finely-honed Beltway networking instincts were piqued by this revelation.  Useful knowledge, grist to the mill, a contact is a contact is a contact.

"His name's Marcus, he works with the Press Association, and he's marrying a German girl in about… " Danny looked at his watch.  "Six hours.  I'm not following you, believe me.  You're two of the last people I expected to see in Germany.  How's Donna?"

"She's getting better."

"I would think."

"He was thrown out for pestering her doctors," Matt explained, dryly re-entering the conversation.

"Yeah," said Danny, with a nod.  "How about you?"  Deliberately he omitted the 'Congressman' from the end of the question; somehow this seemed no time for titles or honorifics.

"Court martial.  Darmstadt."

"Right.  Good opportunity," Danny observed.  "How long have you been together?"

"This is it," Josh told him.  "So far."

"Okay.  Then I'm even more sorry I saw you."  Danny stood up.  "I'm going to find a cab," he said.  "I'd like to talk to Donna sometime, when she's strong enough; happy to wait until she's back in the States, though.  As for you two - if you ever decide to go public, I hope you'll consider me."  He stepped away.  "You feel you need an alibi for this trip, being seen at a wedding with a lot of Press people would do it.  Nobody's going to think there's anything suspicious about a Congressman going where the cameras are, and Josh happens to be an old friend of the groom's brother."  He hooked a card out of his pocket and presented it to Josh.  "That's my cell," he said.  "Call me if I can help."

He picked up his bag and walked away.  They watched him cross the road by the cab rank and slip into the back of a waiting vehicle, then as he was driven past them towards the west, vanishing like a memory into the multi-colored melée of the morning scene.

"Well," said Matt Santos softly, squeezing Josh's paralyzed fingers by way of reassurance and meeting his eyes with something like ruefully suppressed humor mingled with embarrassment, "it looks as if I owe you fifty bucks."

*

4. Esteem

Josh's sojourn in Germany lasted long enough for him to be drafted into undercover negotiations foreshadowing the renewal of Middle East peace talks.  He established tentative lines of communication between the parties, but was recalled to Washington soon afterwards and happy enough to be relieved of the additional responsibility.  He flew back with Donna's father, leaving Donna and her mother behind at the hospital; Donna's recovery would be a matter of weeks rather than days, but the original panic and despair at her injuries had subsided enough to leave family and friends confident of her return to health in due time.

A similarly optimistic prediction could not be made, however, in the case of Leo McGarry.  In October, struggling under the strain of holding together a department that had been seriously under-staffed for months, Leo suffered a heart attack in the woods at Camp David.  Body-heat sensors operated by the Secret Service eventually located him; the dogs had been unable to detect his scent, and he had fallen into such deep undergrowth that he was invisible to the naked eye.  

It was 'all change' at the top after that.  Josh should have been the natural inheritor of Leo's role, but Toby felt better suited to take it on himself.  Neither considered for a moment that there was a third person just as qualified and possessing in addition a degree of personal serenity they both lacked.  The unexpected appointment of CJ Cregg as Chief of Staff represented an almost suicidal leap of faith both for her and for the Administration; however she hit the ground running, never looked back, and gave nobody any reason to regret her elevation for even a moment afterwards.

The relationship between Josh and Matt Santos had changed subtly, too.  From a convenient flirtation wrapped around a dependable friendship it had metamorphosed, during the course of one very intense weekend in Berlin, into something a lot less predictable.  Josh was unwilling to examine it in detail, preferring to skim along and accept it at face value while becoming aware that there were undercurrents he wasn't yet willing to address.  Matt surging into Josh and Josh surging up to meet him, bodies washing back and forth like sea against rock against sea, had taken on a gravity their light words belied.  If they could have given it expression - and they did not try - they would have said that intimacy elevated them both, turning what could have been a marginally sordid association into one that in other circumstances would have been dignified by a different name altogether.

Inevitably, it impacted on their daily lives.  Matt became withdrawn, thoughtful, and foresaw conflicts between their professional and private roles.  In late Autumn he began to express doubts about continuing in the House after the next election, feeling that without a substantial amount of kow-towing before a number of unappealing Party grandees he stood very little chance of rising any further in his career.  It was depressing to have to abandon it so soon, but he was still young enough to make a success of anything else he might turn his hand to - and he had a ready-made alternative in a community health project he was eager to develop.

Matt's restlessness in turn afflicted Josh.  When he looked at his future options the simple fact was that, as President Bartlet's second term neared its close, they had begun to seem very limited indeed.  Bartlet would be taking a reduced staff with him into retirement - probably only Deborah Fiderer and Carol Fitzpatrick - and if Josh wanted to remain in politics at the highest level it was time for him to decide who should have his allegiance from now on.  With Hoynes discredited and Bingo Bob Russell the only viable candidate for the Democratic nomination, it began to look as if the next few months would comprise a lacklustre campaign followed either by a resounding Republican victory or by a tame, wishy-washy, egotistical and ultimately disastrous Russell Administration.

Leo, had he been well, would never have stood still for a Bob Russell Presidency.  He would have gone out to the grass roots and found some unknown firebrand, moulded him into a statesman and run him instead.  He would have gone looking for the same integrity and commitment he had found in Jed Bartlet, the same conscientious humanity, the same healthy balance of self-assurance and self-deprecation.  Leo would have known exactly where to find such a man, but without him Josh didn't even know where to start.  Few people he had encountered on his journey through life met that specific template, and those who did all had strikes against their names for one reason or another.  They were unelectable by virtue of being too old, in poor health, being appalling public speakers, or having all the charisma of a three-day-old bagel.  The voters needed someone to sweep them off their feet, someone charming, dynamic, someone they could fall in love with against their better judgment.  People like that, in his experience, were few and far between.  Of the younger generation currently rising through the ranks in Congress, the Senate and the various State legislatures, scarcely a man was fit to be considered Bartlet's equal or potential successor even at some unimaginably distant future time.  Yet an inheritor must be found, and the more Josh thought about it the less acceptable he found the notion of Bingo Bob stepping in and undoing all the good his mentor had done.  He would not allow it to happen, if there was anything he could do to prevent it.

Thus, in the late months of 2005, Josh realized that he was beginning to think the unimaginably unthinkable unthinkable, beginning to toy with an idea that would haunt him on and off in the months that followed, tinkering with something that could alter his own and his country's destiny forever.  At first rejecting it as a foolish romantic pipe-dream, he returned to it again and again in moments of quiet as though to prove to himself that it couldn't possibly work.

He could not get the idea out of his head; it was simple, right, as bold as anything he had ever thought of in his life, and given luck and goodwill it was close enough to actually being feasible to make it worth trying.  But the moment had to be now; there would be no other time when all the planets were lined up in the right order, no other window of opportunity within the next century or two.  Wait, and this single slender chance would be lost forever.

A man of courage, a man infused with insane optimism such as himself, might just be able to bring this to pass.  The more he thought about it, the more he realized that he owed it to himself and the country at least to try.

Whatever people said about him, now or in the future, they would all - enemies as well as friends - have to agree on this one thing in any event; that Joshua Lyman had never in his life had any small ideas.

*

The grandiose scope of the notion kept Josh awake on the flight.  He ran it around and around in his mind like a rat chasing its tail through a maze, and half the time he ran up against brick walls and gales of mocking laughter.  His problem lay in the other half of the time; in those moments of clarity in which he knew he was quite simply going to change the universe.  All it would take was one single, devastatingly straightforward question - and one appropriate answer.

He rehearsed it in the taxi, recognizing the darkened streets and landmarks as they passed but most of all recognizing the handsome house in front of which he paid off the driver and stood trying to summon up courage to ring the doorbell.  Inside there was pandemonium; through the window he could see Matt Santos, a Christmas tree and a horde of children half-hidden behind the tree.  It was such a peaceful domestic scene, Matt looked so entirely happy and free from care, that for the longest possible moment Josh was reluctant to interrupt it.  In fact he very nearly turned and ran, hoping to stop the taxi before it reached the corner.  That he didn't could only be attributed to whatever drive to remake the world had brought him into professional politics in the first place.  Ringing this suburban Houston doorbell was merely the first in a series of a million interlocking actions that could bring his goal into existence, could see the most outrageous idea he had ever entertained reaching its ultimate and glorious fruition.

He rang.

Matt threw open the door with a smile of enquiry on his face, an expression that gentled to open affection as soon as he saw who his visitor was.

"Wow.  You lost?"

Josh shrugged uncomfortably.  "I think I might be."

With a grin Matt stepped back, welcoming him in.  Helen was calling out something about tinsel, but as always happened when they met, their surroundings had suddenly been reduced to mere background noise, the true communication taking place somewhere in the short electric distance between them.  Nothing, for the moment, mattered to either of them but the other.

Numbly Josh handed over the crumpled plastic bag he had been clutching in his hand.

"Got you a present," he said.  "I bought it at the airport."

Matt accepted it, looked inside.  A jade green tie with a design of tiny gold leaping dolphins.  "That's nice," he said, puzzled.  "Josh… ?"

"I know.  I can't believe I'm doing this."

"But… ?"

Josh gritted his teeth.  "I want you to think about something.  Before the filing deadline."

"Filing deadline?  I don't intend to go back to the House, Josh.  I thought I made that clear?"

"Not the House."  Josh shoved his hands into his pockets, looked up shyly.  "I mean the New Hampshire filing deadline."

The Christmas tie crumpled in Matt's fingers.  He was staring at Josh across the shadowed hallway and his eyes were huge and his expression awed as the overwhelming implications of Josh's words began to sink in.

New Hampshire.  There was only one reason why a Congressman from Texas would ever want his name to be on the ballot in New Hampshire.

It was not that he had never had such thoughts before, in his more ambitious moments, but he was too young, too unknown on the national stage and far too much a maverick for the idea ever to have come under serious consideration by anyone but himself.

"President?" he breathed, awed.  "Are you kidding?"

"No."

"I can't… "  Matt swallowed convulsively, the words getting stuck in his throat.  "I can't think about this now.  I've got a house full of people."

"I'm sorry.  I'll go."

"No.  Stay and meet Helen, have something to eat.  We'll talk about it later.  You got a hotel room?"

Josh shook his head.  "I came here straight from the airport."

"Well, you know where the guest room is.  I'll tell Helen you're staying the night."

"Won't she… ?"

"She'll be fine.  Trust me, Josh."

"I do."  Josh was almost stepping past him, his foot on the lowest tread of the staircase.

"I know you do," murmured Santos, his breath catching strands of Josh's hair as he leaned in close enough to whisper but not close enough to touch, no matter how much he might want to.  "You'd have to, to ask me that."

"With the world," Josh confirmed, not daring to look at him but focussing his attention higher up, at the wall above the stairs or at some invisible objective a long way beyond it.

"Yeah," said Santos, slapping him once, reassuringly, on the shoulder.  "I got that.  I only hope I'll be able to live up to it, Josh."

The party was a confusion of faces and voices he didn't know - Jorge, Camilla, Andrea, Bastian, Ronna, Ned, neighbors, friends, co-workers and members of the local church.  In the middle swam Matt, the bright host, the two children - delighted to see their Uncle Josh again and alternately shy and demanding - and Helen, a vivacious blonde who regarded Josh with suspicion for fifteen whole seconds before she decided to like him.  In fact, she more or less monopolized his attention during the evening - when she wasn't trying to separate her mother from a large jug of sangria - to the extent that he had begun to wonder by bedtime whether it wasn't a deliberate ploy on her part to keep himself and Matt at opposite ends of the room.  Perhaps she expected them to go at it on the carpet in front of all her suburban friends with their suburban attitudes, he thought uncharitably, although whether she would have responded with disgust or enthusiasm was extremely difficult to tell.

In the morning, it was made clear to Josh that he had severely misjudged his hostess.  She knocked on his bedroom door a little before nine a.m. and entered, bringing with her a tray on which were two large European-style breakfast cups full of milky coffee.

"Hi," she said.  "The others are all out.  I thought we could get to know each other a little."

It was disarming, but a shock.  Under the bedcovers Josh was naked, and she was a little too close to knowing him better than he was entirely comfortable with.

"Oh," she said, setting the tray on a footstool.  "Teeshirt?"

"Thanks."  She threw him the one he had taken off the night before and he squirmed into it, sitting up carefully and accepting the cup of coffee.  The smell and the taste were both heaven, and Helen Santos moved up one further notch in Josh's estimation.  "Oh God, that's wonderful."

"Glad you like it," she sparkled, taking her own cup and withdrawing to the pink velvet armchair beneath the window.   "Matt took the kids out on their bikes.  He's wearing shorts," she added, wickedly.

Josh choked on a mouthful of coffee.  "What?"

"It's worth seeing, believe me.  He has great legs.  But you know that."

"Yes."

"Okay."  Helen paused, sipping her coffee, apparently perfectly at ease.  It was Josh, rumpled and bleary-eyed, who was at a disadvantage here.  "He told me what you asked him.  Do you seriously think he's the man for the job?"

"Yes, I do."  Josh was obliged to respect her unemotional straight-talking style.  This was a woman who could run dialectical rings around most of the politicians he knew, and yet she seemed understated and modest about her own intellectual achievements.

"Why?"

"Because every time I asked myself what would be good for the country, I came up with the same answer.  He has all the right qualities."

"Except age and experience," Helen conceded thoughtfully.

"True.  But time will take care of that."

"It usually does," she acknowledged.  "So, what happens to your relationship if he runs for President?"

"I don't know," he admitted.  "What happens to yours?"

Helen nodded appreciation of the point.  "I get to be First Lady, which is probably a bit of a mixed blessing.  You get… what?  Chief of Staff?"

Josh shrugged.  "I don't even know if he'd want me around for the campaign."

"What?  You wouldn't insist on running it, every detail, right from the start?"

"I wouldn't insist on anything, Helen; this isn't about me, it's about Matt.  I can bow out altogether, if that's what he wants.  This country's future is far too important for me to play games with.  Also, believe it or not, so is Matt's."

"I know that," Helen conceded.  "But do you think you could still work together, even if it meant no more sex?"

"We're not exactly… "  He stopped, biting the words back.  "Well, you know.  It's not… everything."  And if there was a more excruciating conversation to be had with a lover's wife, he could not imagine how it would go.  Yet Helen was right to want to discuss it, in view of the spectre he'd raised over their marriage.  A President - even a Presidential candidate - could not have a gay lover in addition to a wife, not when every member of the public felt he had a right to intimate details of his Chief Executive's life.  He was inviting Matt Santos and his family to place themselves on a microscope slide for the detailed examination of the whole world, and anything that looked like a blemish would have to be removed or concealed before that unwavering gaze turned anywhere remotely resembling their direction.

"And it's not as if you'd be selling your story to the newspapers, is it?"

"No."  Josh paused to think about that.  "Is there anybody who could… ?"

Helen shook her head vigorously.  "He wouldn't be considering it if there was.  Alex, you know about; there was one before him - before Matt and I ever got together - but I don't know his name.  Just that he's dead, too."

"Did you ever meet Alex?"  Josh couldn't help himself; curiosity was gnawing at him, and he never expected to have a better opportunity to check this out.

"Once."

"I don't know anything about him," he admitted.  "What was he like?"

"Nothing like you.  He had a moustache."  Helen smiled.  "He wasn't… approachable.  I couldn't imagine having this conversation with him.  You realize if this plan's going to work you and I are going to have to be friends?"

"Yes."

"Can you do that, if I'm sleeping with him and you're not?"

"Yes."

She was watching him acutely, her head tilted to one side like a bird's, her mind focussing solely on him.  It was like being under the intense telepathic scrutiny of some alien creature, the most demanding examination he had ever endured, but Josh bore up beneath it because this was as important as anything else he had ever done in his life.  On Helen Santos's yea or nay would go the campaign - if campaign there was to be - and everything that would follow as a result of it.  The final decision would be Matt's, but Helen was the one who required to be convinced of Josh's sincerity - and of his ability to deliver what he promised.  Matt already knew what he was capable of; Helen was his toughest room yet.

"You really love him that much?"

Josh bit his lip.  It was not a question he'd been willing to consider before, but now that Helen asked he supposed he owed her his best attempt at an answer.

"I'm not sure," he said, looking down.  "I think… maybe."

"Okay."  A reflexive swallow, as if she had caught his words and wasn't entirely sure what she should do with them.  Then she set her coffee cup aside, got to her feet, and reached over to squeeze his shoulder.  Her fingers were small but strong, betraying a steely character - which she would certainly need, if she and Matt were going to consider accepting Josh's notorious invitation.

"Okay," she repeated.  "Let me think about it.  What time's your flight?"

"Eleven thirty."

"Good, you'll have time for breakfast.  Don't let Matt make any decisions until he's had a chance to talk to me, though, will you?"

"No, I won't."

To his surprise and flustered astonishment, Helen leaned down and kissed him briefly on the temple.  "If anybody can make this work, Josh, it's you - because you care.  You'll do a good job."

"If he lets me," Josh shrugged, as she let herself out of the room.

"Oh," shot back Helen, closing the door behind her, "I have a feeling he most probably will."

*

A subdued parting between Matt and Josh took place later that day in the airport parking lot, with Petey and Miranda chirruping like sparrows in the back of the car.  One firm handshake, one deep look into one another's eyes, and then Josh tore himself away, waving to the kids and scampering off in undignified haste towards the terminal.  Nothing had been settled; indeed the word 'Presidency' had not even been uttered again, although Josh had apologized for raising the unmentionable subject and Matt had made some half-shy promise to 'kick it around over the holidays'.  Neither, in his heart of hearts, expected more from the idea than a temporarily entertaining day-dream of glory, a speculation about might-have-beens followed by a reality check and a degree of public embarrassment from which they may or may not recover.  Josh did his very best, therefore, to put the subject out of his mind and determined to make the best he could out of the altered landscape of the West Wing and the unattractive prospect of a choice between Bingo Bob and Republican Senator Arnold Vinick for the top job.  Deep down he agreed with Donna; if those were the only two alternatives, it would be very difficult not to end up voting for Vinick himself.

He wished the American people knew how close they'd come to being provided with a genuine alternative, a charismatic man with an air of competence and an authentic record of practical compassion.  Matt Santos would have ticked all the boxes, as well as having the cachet of novelty.  Despite the best efforts of recent administrations, the middle-aged white man was still the paradigm Beltway insider; it would do the electorate no harm to be presented with a real choice for once - and a vigorous, youthful Latino candidate would attract a great deal of attention.  It would be the perfect combination of dream and nightmare campaigns, tough enough to be interesting, edgy enough to be fun, a roller-coaster ride through the political theme park with nobody having the least idea how it might end - and all at a time when Josh himself was more than ready to take on the challenge of a potentially disastrous step into the unknown.

It had been a nice idea while it lasted.  Josh tucked it away with some of his pleasanter memories, smiled sadly, and took up the reins of his everyday life once more.

*

He was beating his head against a brick wall trying to get his temporary secretary to understand why he didn't want a hateful gay-bashing piece of trash amendment attached to the Federal Budget when his life turned upside-down again all of a sudden.  Donna had come back to work after her recovery with a whole new perspective on the world and had tried repeatedly to persuade Josh to talk to her about her future in the job, but with Bartlet's health giving serious cause for concern at the time, he had had absolutely no energy to spare for her woes.  As a result she was now working on the Russell campaign, leaving him with a temporary replacement and a sense of dislocation that just wouldn't go away.

Whether he was missing Donna, the sheltered working environment she provided, or the chimera of a Santos Presidency, he was unable to identify.  He had, however, in a moment of nihilistic depression, sworn his life away to Toby Ziegler, promising to remain staunch and loyal at Bartlet's side until the lights went out.  Giving one's word to Toby was a serious business; the Communications Director was a man who felt things deeply and experienced every diversion from agreed protocol as a personal betrayal.  Switches of direction worried him, and he would never have understood either Josh's attachment to Matt Santos or his bizarre Road-to-Damascus conversion to the belief that Santos might be Presidential material.

That, however, was a dream Josh had more or less abandoned long before - in mid-word - he glanced up and realized that the doorway behind the secretary was filled with a figure that looked and even at this distance smelled very familiar indeed.  There was something about that cologne that took him back immediately to a hotel bedroom in Germany, to a weekend of experimental sex with a man who had enjoyed it - and him - about as thoroughly and completely as he had ever been enjoyed.  Fortunately Josh's blush reflex had been dormant for centuries, but the unexpected eruption of Matthew Santos into the middle of a scene of office domesticity would have been enough to revive it if anything could.

"Got a minute, Josh?"

"Sure."

The temp - Marta?  Marla?  Merlyn?  - was stridently reminding Josh that he was due somewhere or other for some meeting or other, but he made a point of ignoring her.  His vision was filled instead by brown eyes, shining dark hair, and a pair of finely-sculptured lips which made him want to latch onto them and never let go.  He had been hungry enough for Sam back in the day, but their connection had never been as visceral as the one he shared with Santos.  With Sam it had been sex and fun until he himself had decided to take it too seriously; with Matt it was sex and belief, and even if the sex was removed from the equation completely he knew for certain that he would never stop believing in this man.  That made it all infinitely more complicated, riskier than ever, and passion on a grander scale altogether.

"So," Santos said, as the door closed between them and the world, "I thought about your suggestion."

"And?"

"And… I'll do it.  If you go along with me and run the campaign."

Josh stood staring at him, not taking it in.  Thinking, in fact, that he was being set up for some elaborate practical joke, because something as good as this couldn't possibly be happening to him.

"You realize what you'd be taking on?"

"I realize," Santos confirmed, and sounded confident that he did.

Josh nodded.  His brain was reeling, his system flooding with adrenaline as if he was in some emergency situation.  It was too sudden and too great, the prize he had resigned himself to losing returned to a point just within his reach.  Now all he had to do was stretch out a hand and take it.

"How about Helen?" he asked.

"Helen agrees.  She kinda likes you.  Mad at you, too, but she'll get over it."

"I got a lot of women mad at me," Josh confessed, laughing.

"Yeah.  You should work on that."

"I plan to, as soon as I get time."

Santos perched himself easily on the edge of the desk, camel-colored overcoat falling open to reveal crisp dark suit beneath.  He was picture-perfect for a campaign, the visuals of him and his wife and kids would be stunning, yet he didn't seem to have as much personal vanity as a guy that good-looking normally would.

"I got you a gift," he said, throwing the line away as if it was nothing.  "For whatever you celebrate - Christmas, Chanukah, Divali, Fozzie Bear's birthday, whatever.  Season's Greetings, Josh."

The little package he took from his pocket was the size and shape of an egg and covered in grey plush.  Tipping back the lid Josh discovered inside, nestled on a bed of white silk, a gold signet ring with a black stone.  An intaglio of a leaping sea-creature on its face almost exactly duplicated both the logo of the Hotel Delphin and the design on the tie he'd bought on a whim for Matt two weeks before.

"A dolphin."  Josh tried not to choke on the words, and just about succeeded.

"I saw it," Matt said, dismissively.  "It said; 'Buy me for Josh'.  Just so you realize," he went on, in a husky tone, "Berlin meant a lot to me, too."

"I hoped it would."

"It did.  So, I'm not sure if that's the right size, but we can get it altered.  Gonna wear it?"

"Yes, but I… "  Clumsily Josh parted his fingers, looking at his hands and wondering when they had become so knobbly and unattractive-looking.  "Where?"

"Oh.  Well, let's see where it fits, shall we?  Come here."

Josh stepped closer.  He could hear his heart thumping, and wondered if like a cartoon character's heart it was going to bounce right out of his chest and carry on beating on the outside; Leo had said something about being very conscious of his own heartbeat after surgery, and how reassuring it was to know that it was still going on with a regular rhythm, but Josh's sounded like some eccentric piece of machinery about to break apart, as though pieces of it would fly off like shrapnel in all directions at any moment.

Matt's fingers were cold.  He spread Josh's left hand and slid the circlet of gold-colored metal over the knuckles of the third finger slowly and practically.  Shorn of romantic symbolism, the down-to-earth gesture became somehow more committing instead of less.  Here, in a business office completely devoid of glamour, it meant something solid, something that wasn't all moonlight and rose petals, something they both apparently intended should last.

"Can't promise anything," Matt said, holding Josh's hand loosely.  "It could all blow up in our faces.  And we're going to have to put 'us' on a back-burner for a while if we don't want to attract the wrong sort of attention.  You think Danny's going to be a problem?"

"I doubt it."  Josh retrieved his hand, stepping away cautiously.  Martina-or-whatever had already exhibited a distressing tendency to throw open doors and interrupt conversations with all the sensitivity of a cop breaking up a fight, and the last thing he wanted was to be caught under her scornful gaze in even the mildest indiscretion.  "He could've said something six months ago, but he didn't.  He wants the bigger story, some time in the future."

"So maybe we have a chance?"

"Maybe.  The ghost of one, at least."

"Well," said Matt Santos, grinning back at him conspiratorially, the matter apparently settled between them, "I guess that's about the best we can ask for - don't you?"

*

That evening, following Santos's visit to his office, Josh was party to another very strange conversation - this time with President Bartlet - which consisted mainly of long, thoughtful silences interspersed with brief, puzzled interrogatives.  Bartlet's initial; "Matt Santos?  Matt… Santos?" had been bemused, and then a slow light of comprehension dawned behind his eyes as he began to appreciate the possibilities inherent in such a campaign.  

"You know, that might be interesting," he said, in the tone of voice of a man relishing the struggle to come.

"Yes, sir."

"I don't know him."  Bartlet waved Josh to an armchair and leaned over in the confidential manner CJ had long ago characterized his 'Uncle Fluffy' persona.  "Tell me what you see."

Josh bit his lip.  Bartlet was like a parent to him; he'd watched the man assume Presidential form on the night of the New Hampshire primary eight years ago, witnessed the mantle of statesmanship draping itself invisibly around his shoulders, but he could never quite separate the international figure from the friend who had wanted to console him over the death of his father.  Telling lies to Bartlet, hiding the truth from him, just wasn't on his agenda; the President knew him well enough to ask the question that would arise if he enthused about the telegenic qualities of any man, and Josh knew Bartlet well enough to answer it honestly if he did.  Nevertheless, he hoped that for the time being at least the words would go unspoken between them.

"I see a guy who saved my life in a hurricane," he said, calmly.  "He made me feel safe when the world was falling apart around my ears.  I just thought - maybe he could do that for other people, too.  Maybe for the whole country."

Bartlet sat back, nodding thoughtfully.  "It's a good answer.  I'm not familiar with his bio; I seem to remember… military service?"

"The Marines."

"Active service?"

"The Gulf."

"Well, the Joint Chiefs wouldn't have to bring their flow charts and colored pencils any more," Bartlet smiled.  "They'll appreciate that.  Is he a family man?"

"Great wife and kids," Josh confirmed.  "Assorted brothers and sisters I haven't met yet.  Nothing nasty in the woodshed as far as I know."

"You need to find out for certain," Bartlet warned.

"I will."

And then silence fell again, at the end of which Bartlet said, softly, "Matthew Santos."

"Yes."

"Good choice."

"Yes, sir."

"I can see you've thought it all through, Josh, and I wouldn't want to stand in your way.  Good luck and God speed."  Bartlet reached out and shook his hand by way of dismissal.  "Don't be a stranger."

"Thank you, Mr President."  Josh got to his feet, relieved to have the interview over and done with relatively painlessly, and was halfway to the door before Bartlet's voice stopped him and turned him round again.

"Josh?"

"Sir?"

"That a new ring you're wearing?  The one with the dolphin?"

"Ah… "  Josh's mouth flapped open like that of a fish, and momentarily his expression became distressed.  Bartlet was watching him with that knowing look he so often turned on his subordinates, the penetrating look he had presumably inherited from his headmaster father; it was a look which told its unfortunate victim that his skull was made of glass, that his every thought was laid bare to inspection - and that it was not a pretty sight.  "Yes sir," he said, knowing he was probably confirming Bartlet's worst suspicions but not really caring  either way.

"Uh-huh.  Well, good luck to both of you, then, and my regards to Congressman Santos.  See you on the campaign trail."  Bartlet waved his hand cavalierly, satisfied with his minor intellectual coup.  It never hurt to let the staff know that he still had what it took, even though his days in office were strictly numbered.

"I'll look forward to it," said Josh, loyally, and made good his escape while he still could.

*

The announcement of the Santos candidacy - virtually unnoticed by the media - and the early days of the subsequent campaign soon blurred together into one long, hectic melange of travel plans, unfamiliar accommodation, Congressional staffers Josh barely knew, and the inevitable strain of enforced togetherness on a relationship which hitherto had thrived on long periods of separation.  By the time they reached one God-forsaken motel room in the wilds of New Hampshire, with snow piling up outside and the campaign seeming doomed before it started, Josh and Matt were both unbearably lonely and, as Josh said, 'a long way from home without their mittens'.  It was beginning to feel like the biggest disaster either of them had ever been involved in, and the nearness of one another had become the only fixed point in a world disintegrating rapidly all around them.

They'd argued on and off all day, bitching about small things - mainly Matt's desire to make a showpiece education speech in a venue that in reality amounted to no more than somebody's living-room, before an audience comprising of their host's aunts and cousins and the guy from across the street, but also Josh's insistence on involving Joey Lucas in opposition research - and reached their miserable twin-bed motel shack with its cardboard walls in fractious mood.  There was no mini-bar, no room service, no coffee-maker, and the space they were obliged to share was so small that they virtually had to go outside to turn around.  It was decorated, in addition, in finest 'The Shining' ski-lodge chic, which would have been very much improved by the head of Jack Nicholson bursting in through the door.

"Not what you were expecting?" Josh asked, as Santos slumped down hard onto a bed that creaked beneath him.

"Oh, I knew it wasn't going to be all parades and marching bands," Matt acknowledged.  "I just didn't realize it would be this kind of nickel-and-dime stuff.  The whole operation's kinda hand-made, isn't it?  Are we really relying on a donation of $2,000 from Lizzie Bartlet?"

"She's just the first," consoled Josh.  "There'll be others.  You want some good news for a change?"

"Anything," was the dispirited response.  "Clutching at straws here."

"Okay.  Joey's research didn't show up anything about Alex, and it didn't show up anything about me."

"Yeah."

"Doesn't that make you feel better?"  Josh sounded mystified.

"What, being part of a political system where a guy has to hide one of the most meaningful relationships in his life because a few throw-back fundamentalists aren't going to understand it?  Knowing that even if we get to the White House you'll have to be 'the invisible man' instead of the full partner you ought to be?  No, that doesn't make me feel better.  I don't want the world to work that way."  Always so upbeat even in the face of overwhelming disaster, Santos's tone of despondency was unfamiliar and therefore disturbing.

"Neither do I," Josh admitted, resting a hand on his shoulder and trying to impart reassurance through his touch.  "But we're not going to change it from here.  The day we get you into the Oval Office, we can start talking properly.  Until then - we have to work with the rules the way they are."

Santos looked up at him, uncertain for once, relying on Josh's temporarily greater strength to get him past the crisis of the hour.  "You really think we can make that much of a difference?"

"Yes," said Josh, leaning down and resting his cheek on the other man's hair, letting Matt's arms slide slowly up and around him and not, this once, seeking to remind him of the extreme vulnerability of their situation.  "I do."

Santos sighed deeply, the fight going out of him all in one breath.  "Will you sleep with me tonight, Josh?" he suggested, almost humbly.  "I know it's against the rules, but please?"

Josh shook his head.  "I don't want to sleep," he countered, firmly.

"No," said Matt.  "Oddly enough, Josh, neither do I."

*

From that night forward, as a cold Winter made way for a sharp, wet Spring, they picked their way slowly along a perilous path bordered by hazards.  As their temperaments gelled, their aims coincided and their trust in one another increased, so did their mutual professional esteem.  They worked at the same level, neither wholly the driver nor entirely the passenger, surprising one another day after day with displays of strategic acumen and political savvy that could only sensibly be attributed to the cumulative effect of their being together all the time.

New Hampshire brought a temporary hiatus to their physical relationship.  After falling into one another's arms and making love with a kind of despairing edge-of-the-abyss tenderness that was novel to both of them, they had slept tangled up together in a single bed and woken promising faithfully never, ever to do anything so dangerously indiscreet again.  Such intimacies as there were from then on - the occasional touch, tired hug or congratulatory kiss - would have to be severely limited by the proximity of others and by their commitment to the task they had undertaken.  The Presidency was not to be enterprised lightly, and they did not choose to fool around with it.

February found them back in DC for an annual gala, a black tie grip-and-grin at which President Bartlet would exchange formulaic words with each of the viable Democratic candidates.  There were several of them at this stage, including Russell, Hoynes, Santos himself, and a spoiler candidate in the shape of Senator Richenda Rafferty.  The confident prediction was that she would burn out by Super Tuesday, yet her candidacy was interesting enough at this stage to siphon votes away from others who had a better chance of staying the course.  

It was Donna who discovered that Toby Ziegler was the power behind the Rafferty campaign.  Brought low by the suicide of his brother, Toby had encouraged and supported Rafferty; it was a classic example of displacement activity, a make-work task to stop him thinking about grief that dug deeply enough to give him serious questions about his religion, and because he could not solve the mysteries of the universe Toby opted instead for involving himself in something he understood.  He knew elections, he knew strategy, he knew policy, and he gave Ricky Rafferty the benefit of his experience.  He was hidebound, however, by the knowledge that he could never abandon either Jed Bartlet or Leo McGarry, two men who had given him a chance years earlier when his career had reached its lowest ebb.  Their faith in him was not open for negotiation, and this exaggerated sense of loyalty set Toby up in violent opposition to what he saw as Josh's untimely 'defection' to the Santos cause.

There were hard words between them. Toby's ill-tempered dismissal of Matt as Josh's 'garage sale find' was enough to provoke Josh to unaccustomed anger; for the first time in his life he actually threw a punch and genuinely wanted it to connect with its target.  Later, when he had calmed down, he realized that Toby could have had no idea that the insult would strike him so painfully; Josh had been pushed further in defense of Matt Santos than he had ever been pushed before, which indicated in turn that Matt meant more to him than anything he had previously believed to be important.

Fisticuffs in the West Wing?  Was this what he had come to?  Smashing his fist into Toby's face, scarring it with the edges of the dolphin ring, had given brutally effective point to the transition between past and present.  There could be no going back now; Josh's life before Matt Santos was a closed book, and the people who inhabited it had slowly begun to disperse like pages scattered on a bitter wind.  There was nothing for him to do now but go forward and let the campaign trail take him wherever it would, because nothing was more certain than that the path was blocked behind him and return was forever impossible.

Alone and miserable in his apartment, Josh twisted the ring on his finger, thinking about the evening of smalltalk and empty frivolities still to come, and wondered sadly whether loving somebody always had to hurt this much.

*

The gala was all about the photo op.  People who normally met one another wearing lounge suits or sensible skirts were here in Armani and Donna Karen, wearing jewelry and pomade and shoes that pinched, dusting off finery that came out maybe once or twice in a season so that they could be photographed consuming warm champagne, limp lettuce and canapés pierced by cocktail sticks.  The affair was bright with lights, syncopated with jazz, self-consciously stylish and not nearly as substantial as an eggshell.

Josh, marshalling the troops for the group photograph with the President and two Vice Presidents in the middle, gripped Matt by the arm and ushered him over into the mêlée.  Matt cleaned up nicely, looked sharp in evening wear, and Josh was temporarily transported back to the night of a long-ago State Dinner when he and Sam had unwisely indulged in one of their hardly-heterosexual bouts of mutual admiration in front of Mandy Hampton.  It was one of the few memories of Sam that was still sweet, and perhaps as a consequence he leaned closer to Matt than he otherwise would have; in a large room populated by a number of people it should have gone completely un-noticed, but shortly afterwards he found himself being cut out of the herd by a more than slightly sozzled CJ Cregg, who dragged him away and flung him into a small empty side-room with the intention of imparting something of urgency to him in private.

"Idiot!" she hissed, slamming the door behind them.  Her Secret Service guy stayed outside, as though primed in advance to safeguard the sanctity of their space.

"What?"

"Idiot," CJ repeated, reasonably.

"Are you drunk?"

"Oh yeah.  You bet your ass."  CJ thumped down onto a tapestry-covered couch, her champagne still clutched in one hand, and waved at the chair opposite.  Thus commanded, Josh sat.

"Okay," he said.  "Why am I an idiot?"

"I don't know," she said.  "I expect you were born like that.  You should ask your mother some time."

"Thank you."

"De nada."  Buoyed up on a cloud of champagne bubbles, CJ could not hold back an engagingly girlish giggle.  "Tell me something, Joshua Mary Lemonade Lyman; are you honestly trying to make your boyfriend President of the United States?"

Josh shook his head abruptly, like a spaniel shaking water out of its ears.  He let the nickname go unheeded; she'd called him worse, and he'd called her things that were just as ugly in return.  She was amused, she liked to toy with words, and there was no harm in it that he could see.

"He's not my boyfriend," he said, quietly and with dignity.

"No?"  CJ caught his mood and leaned forward.  "You were sleeping with Sam, right?"

"Is that relevant?"

"Only if you're sleeping with Santos."

"I'm not," he said.  Then, with a sigh and because they had known one another forever, he added, "Now."

"You were?"

"Yes."

"Are you in love with him?"

Josh didn't answer.

"Don't know, or don't want me to know?"

He shrugged.  "I have no idea."  Opening his hands wide in a helpless gesture, the dolphin intaglio caught the light and Josh paused to examine it.  "Probably," he conceded, after considerable thought.

"Have you told him?"

"No."

"That's wise."  She fell silent for a moment, tracing with the tip of her shoe the small geometric pattern on the border of the carpet; ziggurats of impossible steepness in shades of plum and terracotta.  "Word of advice, my friend?"

"Okay."

"Back off," she said, leaning away in her chair as if to demonstrate what she meant, her long legs stretching out in front of her.  "Let him work the room.  If he's half the guy you think he is, he'll have them eating out of his hand in no time.  Let him schmooze and charm and kiss asses if he has to; let him work his magic.  Don't give anybody the idea you're pulling his strings, whether you are or not.  He's a fine-looking man, people will be impressed anyway; the more they drink, the more charming he is, the more impressed they'll be.  That's not you, Josh, you're not a party animal.  This is what he's good at; you should concentrate on keeping him grounded, giving him the support he needs.  Know what they say, Josh?"

"What?" he asked, jaded by her obviously well-meaning but nonetheless quasi-hysterical tirade.  "What do they say?"

Her lips pursed, and her expression became more serious.  "If you love something," she said, "let it go.  If it doesn't come back to you, it was never yours in the first place.  Let him do what he does, Josh.  Don't cramp his style."  She paused.  "You and he really… you know?" she asked, with a wickedly roguish grin.

"Yeah."

"Wow."

"You're imagining that, aren't you?"

"Obsessively.  You have the best taste in men, Joshua.  How do you manage to pick such delicious guys every single time, you dog?"

"Both times," he corrected her, peeved.  "It's not the greatest strike rate."

"Quality is preferable to quantity, you know that as well as I do.  I'm hoping quality isn't a problem this time around?"

"Like I'd tell you if it was," he shot back, bluntly.  "So unless you want to give me chapter and verse about your sex life with Danny Concannon, maybe we should change the subject?"

"Sadly," she said, "there are no chapters to give, let alone verses.  Danny's in Strasbourg with the European Parliament until he makes up for whatever it was he did that pissed off his Editor.  I do have some other news that might interest you, though.  I just appointed an old friend to Legislative Affairs."

"Really?  Who?"  Despite himself, Josh was intrigued.

CJ grinned.  "Cliff Calley."

"Cliff?"

"Leo's idea.  He thought we needed another pair of hands to help out."

"Cliff," Josh repeated, thoughtfully.  "It's a shame Donna's not around.  She thought he was cute.  They had a thing."

"They did?"

"Yeah.  He'll do a good job," he told her, feeling a universe away from his old responsibilities in the West Wing and even further from the people he had worked with then.  "Get him a decent assistant, though; not that… creature… you wished on me.  I still think that was deliberate - or Fate, or mojo, or something."

"I'm thinking Ginger."  CJ cut through this reiterated inanity.  "She should be fine as long as she stays out of Toby's reach."

"So, Ginger is the new Donna?" Josh chuckled, mollified.  "And Cliff Calley is the new me?  That's surreal, when you think about it."

"It's all surreal, Joshua," CJ laughed, hollowly.  "Have you only just noticed?  I'm Chief of Staff in the White House, you're screwing a guy who could be our next President… assuming all the other viable candidates are suddenly wiped out by a monsoon or a virulent strain of beriberi.  Show me anything about that whole scenario that isn't absolutely abnormal, if you can!"

"I can't."

"No," she said, looking him up and down with an expression of inordinate   sympathy and understanding dawning deep in her eyes.  "Somehow, Josh, I didn't think you could."

*

5. Challenge

The Santos campaign made its first real mark on the national consciousness that Spring when Matt, Cliff Calley and - unexpectedly - Donna organized a Congressional ambush which left Speaker Haffley with egg all over his face.  Somewhere in the middle, Santos and Donna met for the first time, in a comic encounter which involved him accidentally sitting on her.  Having the story re-enacted for him later by the parties separately, Josh relished both Santos's falsetto 'Donna', leaping from her place of concealment with a cry of alarm, and Donna's 'Santos', going straight into vote-soliciting mode despite the fact that she was employed by the opposition.  It was good to know that people he cared about actually liked one another, even if he had not been around to make the introductions himself.

Some weeks later, the campaigns were in California when the Hoynes battle-wagon was abruptly derailed in New York.  Heading into the primary, therefore, the Democratic nomination began to look like a two-horse race; Russell had name recognition and big-money backers, Santos had the extensive Latino vote plus a groundswell of popular opinion.  His was a message the voters were more than willing to hear.

California, however, gave Josh his biggest headache yet; there was no money left in the war chest, and although they could meet their outstanding commitments there was no way they could finance their proposed trip to the Congressman's home state.

The candidate was in the middle of changing his shirt when Josh told him the Texas swing would have to be cancelled.  Helen, sitting on the bed in the elegant hotel room, got up and left without a sound, closing the bathroom door and starting to run water for no very obvious reason.

"No."  The discarded shirt flew across the room and disturbed a dried flower arrangement gathering dust on an occasional table.  "We don't cancel Texas."

Josh began to expostulate, citing campaign regulations and harsh realities.  "You know we can't… "

"We can."  Matt had paused with the clean shirt in one hand and turned back towards Josh, exposing a wedge of caramel-latté torso.  Since New Hampshire they had been excessively careful around one another, pushing temptation to the backs of their minds, keeping lustful thoughts at bay with unadulterated exhaustion.  The attraction between them still surfaced at unexpected moments, however.  "I want the Joses and Jorges and Ramons in my old district to realize there's a way out of the barrio that doesn't involve either a prison van or a dirty needle.  If it takes the last penny I have, I'm going to let those people see me campaigning for the Presidency.  You're Jewish, Josh, you know what I'm talking about; there are doors open now that a few years ago would have been closed to both of us.  It's important to me people realize that."

Josh was near enough to reach out.  The fingertips of his right hand brushed lightly across the prominence at the top of Santos's spine, then ran slowly down the living cordillera to rest at his waistband.  He leaned closer, inhaled warm skin-scent and impassioned breath, heard the accelerated beat of the man's heart and wanted to believe he was responsible for it.

"I understand," he said.  "I'll find a way."

"Appreciate it," said Matt, and kissed him swiftly on the mouth.

"Problem solved, I'm guessing?"

Helen stepped out of the bathroom.  Josh might have collapsed in confusion had not the teasing challenge in Santos's eyes strengthened his resolve.

"Partially.  I need to start work on this right away.  You may want to put some clothes on, Congressman, you've got a meet-and-greet in - uh - eight minutes."

"And we wouldn't want to let them see you half-naked," Helen completed, with a laugh.  "Why waste the good stuff on the voters, after all?"

"Enough!" replied Santos, in a tone of exaggerated outrage.  "When you two start double-teaming me, I know I'm beaten.  Get the hell out of here, Joshua, and let me dress in peace.  And you," he added to Helen, "not another word, or I'll go out there in my Speedos and let them all see exactly what they've been missing.  I'll be there in five minutes," he completed, glancing across at Josh with a look halfway between intimacy and professionalism.

"Yes sir," grinned Josh - and got the hell out of there, exactly as he had been instructed to do.

*

After all the anguish and the nail-biting, with the Hoynes challenge collapsing like a tent in a high wind, at the last minute the California primary unexpectedly went Santos.  The dream which had come close to disaster was suddenly alive again; an injection of campaign funds could be expected, and the Texas swing was now back on the agenda.  Everyone, it seemed, had got exactly what they wanted out of their trip West.

Throughout the early summer, Hoynes limped on, backed by enough die-hards to underwrite what seemed increasingly like a last doomed attempt to resurrect his career.  In the run-up to the Convention in July he still considered himself a viable third choice candidate, despite the fact that his delegate count lagged behind those of the two front-runners.  This opinion was not shared by President Bartlet, however, who summoned the two main protagonists to the Oval Office for a combined photo op and lecture on electoral etiquette - an occasion from which Hoynes was conspicuously excluded.

Photographs taken on this occasion showed Bartlet careworn and serious-minded, bowed down by woes far greater than the immediate shenanigans disrupting his Party.  Russell, by contrast, came over relaxed and complacent, trying to impress all and sundry with his savoir-faire but succeeding only in looking like a dilettante.  Of the three it was Matt Santos who displayed the greatest animation; thrilled to be in such company and sensitive to the honor of the invitation, he straightened his spine in the presence of his Commander-in-Chief and treated him with military courtesy throughout the duration of the encounter.  

That was the first time Santos and Bartlet had met on any but the most perfunctory basis; they had never exchanged more than half-a-dozen words in some receiving line somewhere, and took the opportunity to look one another between the eyes.  There, like the two strong men in Rudyard Kipling's poem, they found no fault.  It was not enough, yet, to bring Bartlet over to the Santos cause, but respect born of that meeting confirmed him in his determination to stay out of the nomination race until the Party had made its choice.  The President would neither prompt nor provoke; Russell and Santos would go into the Convention on an equal footing, and whoever subsequently won the nomination would have succeeded on his own merits and not through any word of his.  It would be an election, not a coronation, and the eventual winner would be much the stronger for the fight.

As it turned out, though, the run-up to the Democratic National Convention was overshadowed by media focus on problems besetting the International Space Station.  An announcement by NASA had at first been reported only in specialist science columns, but the story soon widened when investigative journalists began scare-mongering about how difficult it would be to retrieve the astronauts - two American, one Russian - in an emergency.  After that it developed exponentially, multiplying out of control like a single-celled organism intent on taking over the entire planet.

*

Finishing up their last strategy meeting before the Convention, digging deeply into the late-night coffee after sending everybody else home, Josh and Santos were making one final round-up of breaking news stories on a variety of media outlets.  Too hyped to rest, they had stayed together rehashing details in a way that betrayed reluctance to part; starved of more intimate contact, they had thrown themselves into planning the campaign almost as a form of sublimation.  Now, Matt was hunched over a laptop keyboard while Josh drained tarry coffee from a plastic cup.  They were bone-weary, functioning like hyper-developed brains with vestigial bodies, existing on a plane of pure intellect.

"You seen this article on the New York Times website?" Matt asked.

Josh leaned down over him, resting a familiar hand on the back of his neck and stroking lightly.  "Greg Brock?  Yeah."

"'There is a secret military Space Shuttle that could be sent to rescue the astronauts'.  Is there?"

"I don't know.  You were in the military, what do you think?"

"Could be true.  Probably should be.  But if it is, how'd Brock get ahold of it?"

"A question the FBI would no doubt like to have answered," countered Josh.  "They'll be all over it like a rash."

"Yeah.  This is one of those cases where you're just glad you have an alibi."  Matt scanned the article and attendant 'artist's impression' again, then turned away from the screen to look at Josh.  "He's got a point.  NASA takes two fully operational Shuttles out of service for maintenance at the same time?  What the hell were they thinking?"

"Its not my area of expertise," Josh confessed, with a grimace.  "But it does seem… short-sighted."

"Try 'criminally short-sighted'.  And the Russians, who have a cosmonaut up there, are sitting on their hands doing nothing?  As soon as we took our second Shuttle out of commission, they should have had a vehicle prepped and ready to go at a moment's notice; think of the propaganda victory they'd've won by bailing us out on prime-time TV!  Everybody fumbled the ball on this, Josh.  I'd expect the media at least to be asking why."

Josh could see which way the wind was blowing.  "You want to put out some kind of statement, don't you?"

"I do.  But not until we see how it turns out."

"You realize you can't publicly support Greg Brock?"

"I know.  But we can do something about regulatory oversight of the space program.  Or ask who ordered both Shuttles taken off-line at the same time.  You'll think of something."

"Okay."  Josh sat down opposite him, taking in the wild-eyed fanatical expression on Matt's face together with the heavy dark smudges on his cheeks.  He looked like an exhausted revolutionary, worn out from defending the barricades, and for both of them at that moment it was exactly like looking into a mirror.  "So, how you feeling about the Convention?"

"Looking forward to it.  The big stage.  Chance to reach a national audience."  It was the same answer Santos had been trotting out to every news organization in the Western hemisphere for weeks now, accompanied by the identical confident smile.

"How about Helen?"

"Not so much.  But at least she gets to talk about her favorite subject, Special Education.  You think this Shuttle story kills our media?"

"I don't know.  If we were looking at the usual freeze-dried Convention package with all the loose ends tied up in advance, it would - but this is going to be a pie-fight, totally unpredictable.  It's anybody's guess which way it goes."

"So we give them reasons to stay interested in us, and take the focus off the Shuttle story?"

"You got it," Josh grinned.  "You may want to reconsider the Speedos idea," he added, wickedly.

"Expose myself on national TV?  Think that'll get their attention?"

"No idea," came the teasing response.  "It would get mine."

"Yeah?" smiled Matt, reaching out tiredly and squeezing his shoulder with a kind of rough and ready affection.  "I was pretty confident I was going to get your vote anyway."

"Well, so you should," said Josh, with a weary smile.  "You sure as hell did enough to earn it."

Barely twelve hours later the two Santoses, together with Josh and their aide Bram, stood and watched as a roller shutter cranked slowly upwards to reveal a twenty-five-thousand-seat Convention Center arena usually only filled to capacity by luminaries such as Tina Turner or Billy Joel.  Drones were scooting about here and there, checking security, polishing lenses, coiling cables and positioning temporary signage in an atmosphere of suppressed excitement.  It was grand and imposing, nightmare and challenge, and even above the bustle of preparation the sound of the candidate taking a deep breath and swallowing the urge to flee was plainly audible to those on either side of him.  Helen's fingers found his, clutched and held in a small socially-acceptable gesture of reassurance.  Josh concentrated on transmitting silent empathy instead, yet was somehow not surprised when Santos's hand briefly caught his own and crushed it in a lobster-claw grip.  It was over so fast that only somebody standing immediately behind them would have seen it, and when they turned around there was no-one within fifty feet in any direction except Bram, who seemed deeply - perhaps too deeply - absorbed in the contents of his clipboard.

Apart from that moment of unanimity, the Convention was noteworthy at first only for division; for in-fighting, horse-trading, and a passionate plea from Josh to the shattered ghost of John Hoynes' political ego.  Hoynes disliked Santos, but his hatred of Russell was far more deeply entrenched.  If there was one thing he absolutely could not stomach, it was any suggestion that his supporters might ever vote for Bob Russell.  At the eleventh hour, therefore, with his own challenge well and truly over, the former Vice President scraped together what remained of his personal dignity and went out on stage to ask his devotees to vote for Matt Santos on the next ballot.  It was the last thing he could do to keep Russell as far away as possible from occupying the Oval Office for himself.

Shortly after that President Bartlet, too, got down off the fence.  Beset by the Shuttle story leak and the ongoing investigation into it, he nevertheless found time to talk with the leader of an influential teachers' union.  That was enough to sway a block of votes which tipped the entire New York delegation and was therefore the reason why, after two days of tied votes, the Democratic Party finally found itself in a position to give unequivocal endorsement to a single candidate.

That was when they astounded the entire world by giving a clear mandate to a man who had gone into the Convention with no serious pundit crediting him with even a fighting chance.

To a junior league no-hoper from a Texas cow-town.

To the first-ever Latino to mount a serious challenge for the Presidency of the United States.

The Democratic National Convention, in its enduring wisdom, concluded its business in that auspicious year of 2006 by unexpectedly awarding the nomination to Congressman Matthew Santos.

Such was the insane pace of the Convention, so meteoric the rise of the candidate from zero to hero, that the selection of a Vice Presidential nominee was barely considered until it was almost too late.  When the triumvirate of Santos, Bartlet and Josh foregathered in the President's hotel suite to discuss the matter, they were mainlining on coffee and frayed nerves and their situation was surreal enough for none of them to be in much of a hurry to start the proceedings off.  Once the steward had finished disposing the tray of sandwiches and faux-Dresden chinaware and retreated in respectful silence, they all sat and stared at one another in a kind of numbed reverie for what seemed to be the longest time.

"Well," said Bartlet, reaching casually for his cup.  "Any thoughts?"

Josh and Matt exchanged glances.  It was Josh who leaned forward, half-awkward and half-relaxed, not entirely certain of his place in this altered universe.

"Sir," he said, "we've never really discussed the Vice Presidency."

"Didn't think you'd get this far?"  Bartlet's raised eyebrows openly doubted this incongruous humility.

"Superstitious," Matt said.  "Didn't want to sabotage anything by getting too many steps ahead."

"You weren't supposed to win," Bartlet acknowledged.  "Neither was I.  I only ran to keep my opponents honest.  Strikes me you started out the same way.  All it takes is one fanatic to persuade you to run."  He glanced over at Josh, who lowered his eyes to his coffee-spoon and continued stirring thoughtfully.

"Josh, you're a fanatic," Santos told him, quietly.

"I'm aware," was the low-key response.  Josh did not look at either of them.

"Russell's out?" the President enquired, briskly.

"Definitely.  I turned him down for VP.  It wasn't pleasant."

Bartlet's mouth narrowed into a straight line.  "I'm betting he patronized the hell out of you.  Tried to make you feel grateful for the offer."

"Something like that."

"Okay.  I'm assuming Hoynes isn't a contender either.  How about Baker?  He's got the experience, and the demographics would work in your favor."

"No," Josh said.  "He's asked us not to consider him.  Doesn't want his wife exposed to the media more than necessary."

"He should've thought of that before he agreed to be drafted from the floor," countered Bartlet, disapprovingly.  "Who's next?  Tilman?  Berryhill?"

"They're good men," Santos conceded.  "I could work with either of them, but they're not at the top of my list.  I'm looking for someone with a thousand years of government experience.  What would you say to Leo McGarry?"

Bartlet pursed his lips and sat back, looking at Santos thoughtfully over the rim of his coffee cup.  "Leo," he repeated.  "Josh?"

"He'd be my first choice," Josh confirmed.

"I'm sure I don't need to remind either of you about his health problems?"

"No, sir.  But, with respect… "  Santos left the rest of the sentence unspoken; questions of health disclosure pertaining to the highest office in the land were a mite too delicate to be rehashed in present company, but nobody was in any real doubt what he meant.

"Point taken," Bartlet acknowledged.  "Just don't work him into the ground."

"I'll try not to."

"You really think he's your man?"

"Yes.  I really do."

"Then get out there and kick his ass all over the schoolyard.  Or have Josh do it for you.  Don't take 'no' for an answer."

"We won't.  Glad to know we have your blessing."  Santos's shoulders relaxed.  He had been concerned that the President would somehow disapprove or try to block his plan, and he now turned to Josh and flashed him a smile somewhere in the range between conspiracy and intimacy.

"Yeah, you do," drawled Bartlet, fully aware of the wordless aside.  "And that's something else we need to talk about."

Glancing back, Santos was surprised by the additional gravity in the older man's expression.  Bartlet seemed to be carrying an even greater weight now than when they entered the room, and he began to realize just how much effect the responsibilities of the Presidency might have on a man's physical health.

"What's that, Mr. President?"

Bartlet looked at him levelly.  "Matt, if you're elected, I want you to promise me you'll take Ron Butterfield fully into your confidence.  You understand what I mean?  Fully.  If I was to tell you half the things the Secret Service have covered up for Presidents over the years - JFK, Nixon, Marshall - you'd be astonished.  Let's just say that what they could tell you is a thousand times worse than anything you could tell them.  There's a reason they're called the 'Secret' Service."  He paused, artfully.  "That's a nice tie, Congressman.  Are those dolphins?"

"Yes, sir… "  Matt's head spun around, from Bartlet to Josh and back again.  "I'm sorry, I don't… "

"Josh knows what I'm talking about.  Ron Butterfield, Josh.  Promise me."

"Yes, Mr. President.  I promise."

"You do?  On my behalf?"  The mock-scandalized tone only half-concealed Santos's mystification.

"Yes."  

It was almost the first time, since persuading him to take the ethanol pledge back in the earliest days of campaigning, that Josh had stepped so far out of his sidekick role as to shout Matt Santos down.  That he did so now in the presence of the President of the United States was enough to make Santos pause, reconsider his position, and understand that something was going on that for the time being was way above his head.

"Well, okay," he said.  "I'm sure you'll explain all this to me at some point?"

"The moment you need to know," Josh assured him, "trust me, I'll tell you."

Matt smiled, shrugged, and relaxed further.  "Doesn't look as if I'm going to have a whole lot of choice, now, does it?" he acknowledged with an easy grin, and returned comfortably to sipping his coffee.

*

It should not have worked, but somehow it did.  The media called them 'the unlikeliest double-act since Felix Unger met Oscar Madison', and Leo's personal experience of campaigning was virtually nil, but once what Josh referred to as 'sticker shock' on the part of the voters had started to wear off the idea of a Santos-McGarry candidacy began to take a firm hold on the imagination of the country.  

The partnership was in its infancy however, and Josh was still trying to run a one man band, when the next development in the Shuttle leak saga emerged; it transpired that the White House was stopping its investigation in order to co-operate with the FBI and Congress in theirs.  Bartlet had sworn not to cover up for the leaker and now took a step back, which left him open to criticism from the Vinick campaign.  The Santos faction, however, did not jump on the bandwagon; instead, the candidate found a subtle way of making it known that he fully approved of President Bartlet's decision.

He himself had more pressing concerns at the time.  Called up for reserve duty at the worst possible moment, he found himself breaking off from the campaign to fit in a couple of days' marksmanship and flying hours in Fort Worth when he should by rights have been out on the road.  Vinick was quick to denounce it as a stunt, but the visuals of Matt Santos - in flight-suit and jangly hardware - striding out across airfield tarmac to take command of a single-seat fighter knocked the pale, jowly seventy-something Republican off all the front pages in the land.  A brief injection of glamour did for the Santos campaign what a hundred nights of serious speech-making could not; it impressed his image on the consciousness of the public as a man prepared to take to the skies in defense of his country, while Vinick showed up as too old and sedentary to serve in any capacity.  The subliminal choice offered was that between a man who would do, and one who would order others to do; competence versus the ability to delegate.  

As summer drew richly on, it began to be apparent which, in general, the majority of voters were finding the more attractive option.

*

The tempo of campaigning grew more and more frenetic as July gave way to August.  Josh had hired an acerbic female named Louise Thornton to be Communications Director, which took a lot of the weight from his shoulders, and as soon as her iconoclastic ideas began to be put into operation the remaining shreds of torpor were beaten out of the Santos-McGarry machine and the roadshow got up to full speed.  The whole plate-spinning, head-patting, tummy-rubbing thing had become far too energetic for Josh alone, who sometimes felt he was only holding himself together with rubber bands and duct tape; Lou was at least as agile as he was, sometimes beating him to the punch, and together they made up a team that could trade blows with Vinick's team on a weight-for-weight basis.

In early August, however, the plates began to wobble.  Josh, despite circling as fast as he could, hadn't a hope of keeping them all in the air at the same time.  It was Lou who suggested wholesale redundancies, among them Ned Carlson from the Congressional Office.  Santos greeted the news with mild dismay.

"I take her point," he said, ushering Josh into the bedroom on the campaign jet.  Helen was outside watching a Rob Zombie movie, counting down the last half-hour before landing - wherever the hell they were this time.  "He's fine for the everyday stuff, but he doesn't have the fancy footwork we need on the road."

"We'll get him something in the Administration," Josh said, consolingly.  "Anybody else on the list you're concerned about?"

"No.  Most of them are new hires, they weren't expecting it to be a job for life.  You gonna take care of it?"

"You bet," Josh nodded.

Santos was sitting on the end of the bed, his hands folded between his knees, his tie at half mast, the smudges beneath his eyes almost a permanent feature now.  He'd have to apply a whole lot more concealer before he went out in front of the cameras again.

"Can he screw us?" he asked, quietly.

"Ned?"

"Yeah.  Can he screw… you know… 'us'?"

Josh shrugged.  "I don't know.  We did take his name in vain a few times.  And he was only on the other side of a particle board wall in New Hampshire."

"We were kind of loud that night," Santos admitted.  "I'm guessing Ronna and Ned both heard pretty much everything.  Anyway that whole motel looked like it was thrown together in a weekend with a truckload of stuff from Home Depot."

"Yeah.  It's a good thing there wasn't a fire."

"No fault of mine," the candidate smiled, tiredly.

"No, it wasn't," Josh conceded.  He unwound a little, pushed a defeated hand through the thinning remnant of his hair.  It was rare these days that he had a chance to relax his guard around the candidate; in fact, he had successfully negotiated a way of working that kept 'Congressman Santos' and 'Matt' in different compartments, and sometimes it tripped him up when the public Santos looked or acted like the lover he had known so well in private.  "We've been lucky."

"We have.  But somebody, some time, is going to pick up on it."

"Says the man who… "

"What?"

"Berlin."

Santos grinned at him, having no alternative but to concede the point.  "I wasn't running for President back in Berlin," he said, softly.  "And that was your idea.  We could have stayed the way we were."

"No, we couldn't.  You're too good not to want more.  You're too good not to want everything."  Josh paused.  "I was there, the moment Jed Bartlet stopped being a candidate and started being a President.  I watched it happen.  I'm seeing it happen with you."

"Right now?  I feel as if I've been in this shirt three days and I haven't brushed my teeth in a month."

"Bit by bit.  Every time you speak, every decision you make.  You'll end up going where I can't follow you."

"Sounds as if you're planning to leave me," came the dispirited response.  "Is this the part where I wake up to a red rose on an empty pillow?"

"No," said Josh.  "Not yet.  But this campaign's bigger than you and me and it's bigger than 'us'.  If I ever start to think our relationship's getting in the way, I'm going to step out and let somebody else take the ball over the line.  I'm watching you turn into a President.  I'm not going to do anything that could jeopardize that."

"Careful," Santos cautioned, with a weary smile and a hayseed inflection.  "Talking purty like that could turn a feller's head."

"If you think it's empty talk," came the quiet response, "stick around till Election Night.  Then we'll see who's the one turning heads."

Later that same night Josh was admitted to the Santoses' suite on the eleventh floor of yet another hotel.  The television was playing, quietly, and the Congressman lay napping on the couch in front of it with a file open on his lap.  To judge by the debris in the room around him, he had fallen asleep somewhere in the middle of eating takeout pizza from the outlet catty-corner on the plaza below.  It was safe to assume that Helen would have gone to bed; it was still light outside, but her system seemed to be permanently stuck on DC time.

"That you, Josh?"  Sleepily idle, Santos barely moved except to allow one eye to slide open a fraction.

"Yeah.  Sorry to disturb you."

"W'happened about Ned?"

"He left you a note."  Josh handed down the folded scrap of paper, which Santos scanned quickly.  "Nothing about selling his story to the tabloids?"

"No."

"Okay.  I came up to tell you, the President's making an announcement in about… five minutes.  Something about the Shuttle leak.  Thought if I watched it with you, we'd be able to make a start on shaping a response right away."

"Good plan.  You want coffee or a Diet Sprite?"

"No thanks, my kidneys are awash.  I'll take a slice of that pizza, though.  What kind is it?"

"Mushroom.  It's cold.  Help yourself."  Santos got to his feet.  "I need a pit stop," he murmured, and headed off for the bathroom.

When he returned, the television screen was showing an empty lectern with a rolling marquee trailing a Presidential announcement, and a female voiceover was hysterically trying to fill an unexpected hiatus.  He squeezed down next to Josh, shoulder-to-shoulder although there was more than enough space not to; this tired, this far from home, the simple familiarity of bodily contact was reassurance enough to counter whatever might befall them.

So, leaning together, they learned over the next few minutes from the lips of the President himself, that Toby Ziegler had been dismissed as White House Communications Director after admitting to leaking the existence of the classified military Space Shuttle.  While his audience was still reeling from the shock of this announcement President Bartlet introduced Will Bailey as his new Communications Director, then stepped smartly away from the podium and the so-called press briefing descended rapidly into a manic free-for-all.

"Did you suspect Toby?"

Matt hit 'mute' on the remote control and left fifty reporters screaming at one another in silent rage on the screen.  Will looked as if he was being torn apart by ravening wolves, and was probably having just about as much fun.

"No."

"Why not?"

"Where'd he get it from?  That's a code-word cleared item."

"Wasn't his brother an astronaut?"

"David?"  Josh gave the matter some thought.  "Yes, but they weren't close.  David wouldn't have pissed on him if he was on fire."

"Somebody else, then."

"People Toby would cover up for?  Few and far between.  His ex-wife.  CJ.  Leo.  The President."

"You're saying Leo might be implicated?  My Vice Presidential running-mate?"

"I'm saying… maybe Toby has reason to think he is."

"Okay."  Matt kicked that one around in his mind for a moment or two, then moved on.  "Is Toby going to talk?"

"I doubt it.  If it is Leo, the President or CJ, he'll let himself be flayed alive before he'll utter a single word."

"Awesome," Matt commented, without humor.  "That kind of loyalty."

"Fanaticism," Josh amended.  "Sometimes he's the kind of guy you're not too sure you want on your side."

"I get that."  Matt paused.  "You think we need to do anything about this tonight?"

"No, I don't.  Lou's going to say the announcement came after you went to bed.  You'll consider your position and make a statement in the morning."

"Okay.  And what do I say in the morning?"

"I have no idea.  We'll work on that in the morning.  Right now, why don't you get some sleep?"

The candidate chuckled softly.  "Only if you promise to do the same.  Have you seen yourself lately?  If I didn't know we were virtually the same age… "

"Thanks," Josh grimaced.  "That's the campaign trail for you.  No sunshine, lousy diet, no sleep when there's an 'R' in the month."

"Take it easy, okay?  I don't want you ending up a walking by-pass like Leo."  Santos clambered to his feet, patting Josh's shoulder warmly in passing.  "There anything else?"

"No.  I'll see you tomorrow.  Sleep well."

"You too, Josh.  Promise me it won't always be like this?"

"No, it won't," Josh told him, with a sleepy grin.  "It'll be a hundred times worse."

And with that, he let himself quietly out into the hotel corridor and left his candidate alone to try to snatch a few precious hours of much-deserved rest.

*

In the weeks that followed it almost seemed as if there was a conspiracy between the Santos and Vinick staffs to prevent their principals meeting in a genuine head-to-head Presidential debate, a format both preferred to the stage-managed sound-bites which were all the media expected.  Each publicly accused the other of trying to avoid him, while their advisors played the game of lowering expectations.  In the end it was Santos and Vinick in person - meeting backstage at a shared public appearance - who thrashed out the terms for the encounter; men of different backgrounds and political ideologies, they met on common ground in their desire to run an open campaign with no holds barred.  Each was firmly convinced that he held sufficient cards to defeat the other; each quietly relished the opportunity to test his mettle against a worthy adversary; both, in their separate ways, revelled in the intellectual thrust and parry of their eventual televised showdown.

Most commentators had Santos shading victory in the debate, although the focus groups were more admiring of his stylish delivery than the policies he espoused.  Josh lost very little time, however, agonising over whether or not people were turning his way for the right reasons; he was too busy trying to co-ordinate the efforts of a revamped campaign staff which now included Donna, while the unexpected announcement of a White House wedding - Ellie Bartlet's, to the man her father had always referred to as 'the fruit fly guy' - had thrown the schedule into more than its customary disarray.  Naturally both Santoses were invited, along with Josh and Leo, and although the resulting coverage of their guy schmoozing with the Beltway glitterati at the social function of the season would be the kind of publicity the campaign just couldn't buy, it would also take them away from things that might reasonably have been considered rather more important.

Dropping by the White House to co-ordinate schedules with CJ - now de facto campaign liaison in addition to her many other responsibilities - Josh was embarrassed to be reminded that he had scarcely spared a thought for Toby since his summary dismissal was promulgated.  CJ was obviously concerned for him; under intense media scrutiny she could make no attempt to contact him herself, but would be glad to find a proxy prepared to make a visit to him on her behalf.

Josh gave it a moment's thought, weighed the minimal danger to his candidate's chances against his own increased public profile, and agreed to do it.  An hour later, he was thundering on the door of Toby Ziegler's apartment.

"Why are you here?"

It wasn't the most gracious of welcomes but at least it was better than having a scene on the doorstep, so Josh followed him inside.  The room was full of kiddy-clutter, as though Toby couldn't bear to tidy anything away that reminded him of Huck and Molly.

"Wanted to see how you were."

Toby quirked a disbelieving eyebrow at him and let it pass.  "Still alive," he said.  "If you care."

"CJ's worried about you."  Josh made a feeble effort to deflect attention from himself.  It didn't work.

"Yeah."  Toby absorbed the comment the way sand absorbs water, giving nothing back.

"So.  Seen anything of the campaign?"

"The hectic social whirl," Toby said, easily bitter.  "You know how it is; I don't get time these days, there's always some party or other."

"Right."  Josh thumped down into an armchair, no longer disposed to wait until he was invited.  "What'd you think?"

"Of your guy?"

"Of Santos, yeah."

Toby sat opposite him.  He adopted a non-threatening attitude, but Josh would sooner have turned his back on a grizzly bear; there was scarcely-contained aggression in every line of Toby’s posture.

"I think," began Toby, softly enough, "that he's very pretty.  He's got nice manners, you've taught him all the right things to say, but you haven't persuaded me he's any more than a six-foot Hispanic Ken doll with a good tailor.  That's okay, though, because there are plenty of people willing to vote for shadow rather than substance, and he'll clean up in sex-starved teens and menopausal women.  No doubt the pink vote will be out in droves, too - no pun intended.  It's just the movers and the shakers you have to convince now, and unfortunately that won't be quite so easy."

"Easy?"  Josh picked up on the word, obsessively trying to process it.  "You think any of this has been easy?"

"I don't suppose it has," Toby conceded, "asking for money to support a sparkly ex-jock who couldn't argue his way out of a paper bag.  Tell me you're not seriously thinking about putting this man into any position where he'd have control of nuclear launch codes?  Are you really sure you want to give power over the lives and deaths of a gajillion people to a guy because he has beautiful teeth?"

Josh sat back and looked at him with a sensation of crawling horror.  Toby was a human train-wreck, a disaster that for too many years had been looking for a place to happen, and now that his disintegration was far advanced it was no longer possible to offer him anything that even began to resemble comfort.

"Matt Santos is a good man," he said, quietly.  "But I'm not going to waste my time trying to convince you.  I'd be happier if you voted for Vinick."

"Nice," Toby sneered.

"Yeah."

"Honestly, Josh, would you be trying to make him President if he wasn't so cute?"  This last was pronounced with the volatility of a curse, with the vicious inflexion of a man who has never in his life been considered 'cute' and automatically despises those who are.

"What's that supposed to mean?"  Josh shifted uneasily.  He was wondering how quickly he could dive for the exit if this exchange turned sour, and whether in fact Toby was sane enough to let him go unmolested.  The sensation of being locked in a cage with an unpredictable wild animal was almost overwhelming.

"It's a while since Sam left," Toby told him, with a shrug.  "You've been dating women since he went, so you're probably deeply frustrated.  How can you be sure this whole campaign isn't something you've dreamed up in the hope that you might one day get your hands inside Matt Santos's boxer shorts?"

Josh's jaw dropped and he shook his head in open-mouthed bewilderment.  "Tell me you didn't just say that."

"Tell me you haven't got a crush on him the size of Mount Rushmore.  Has it never occurred to you that he's a married man, ex-military and a good Catholic into the bargain?  You seriously imagine someone like that would want anything to do with a workaholic Jew of the wrong gender?  Or do you really and truly, as I've always suspected, keep your brains in your balls?"

"Okay."  Josh got to his feet decisively, unwinding slowly from the chair as though every bone and muscle was creaking under the strain of movement.  Toby's eyes were watching him, large, miserable, hollow eyes lost in a pale hollow face.  "Take care of yourself, Toby," he said, calmly.  "I'll call you."

"Yeah."

"I mean it, I'll call you."

"That's it?  You've had your fun?  You've walked around the asylum and prodded the lunatics, and now you get up and walk away?"

"Rather than let you carry on insulting the next President of the United States?  Tough call," Josh acknowledged, "but yeah, I think I will."

"There's no way he can win.  You know that.  Vinick's not the worst thing that could happen to this country; you fucking Santos would be a recipe for disaster.  I hope he has the sense to keep you at arm's length."  Toby paused, gave vent to a laugh that had absolutely no humor in it.  "Leading you on and promising you the Earth, with no intention of ever delivering on it.  'Matt Santos, Congressional cock-tease'.  Hell of a campaign slogan."

Josh had pulled the door open and was already half-way through it, but he turned back now and ran a scathing glance over the tattered remains of his one-time friend and colleague.

"You know, Toby," he said, coldly, "your head is so far up your ass you must be getting intimately acquainted with your own prostate."

"Yeah?" shot back Toby, one last flurry of vitriol thrown even as the door closed between them.  "At least that's better than playing around with somebody else's!"

But this schoolyard-level taunt did not receive a reply.  A moment later Toby heard the outer door of the building closing after Josh, followed by footsteps on the sidewalk outside, the slamming of a cab door and the revving of its engine.

The surge of intellectual triumph he felt when he contemplated the scale of his most recent victory thrilled through him and set all his nerve-endings on fire.  It lasted a long time, too - very nearly until the echoes of Josh's departure had finally died away and been lost forever against the persistent heartbeat of the capital city beyond.

*

By the date of Ellie Bartlet's wedding a few weeks later, Josh had wound himself into a virtual cocoon of paranoia and self-doubt in which he questioned and re-assessed every decision he had ever made in his life.  Toby's accusations, ill-founded as they were, had nevertheless started an introspective train of thought which resulted in suspicion of his own motives and a kind of self-inflicted psychoanalysis reaching back almost as far as the moment of conception.  At the same time, his higher brain was telling him not to be so pathetic, to grab hold of his own and Matt's future with both hands, and to re-shape the world to fit his peculiar vision.  That was what men of character did, it insisted, while weak-spined introverts sat at home and brooded.

Having no idea whether he was a man of character, a weak-spined introvert, or something in the middle, Josh steered an erratic path between the two extremes.  Some days his decisions were bold and far-sighted, other days cautious and conservative, and some inevitably turned out better than the rest.  There was no readily discernible pattern to his triumphs and disasters; he felt as if he would have done just as well by throwing dice or cutting cards or reading chicken entrails, because the whole experience had begun to seem unalterably random to him.

On the morning of the wedding itself, Josh was in DC strategizing with Lou while the Congressman was in Philadelphia making a joint appearance with Governor Baker.  It was a stage of the campaign, just six weeks out, when it was necessary to think fast, to respond quickly to polling data and to be ready to move what was left of the advertising budget into markets where it would make the greatest impact.  Advisors from all over the Party were jumping on, telling Josh he could get this or that hitherto unregarded group of voters firmly into the Santos camp if only he increased his media buy in the relevant area.  They were men he respected, they made their cases well, but as a result he was suffering from information overload.  Nor was there ever a chance to sit down in a corner somewhere, take a deep breath, and re-examine the problem from the ground up.  The decision was wanted now, or preferably ten minutes ago, and Josh was simply not getting time to think about it.

That he had barely had any opportunity to touch base with his candidate also troubled him.  Their lines of communication were stretched almost to breaking point, and although he trusted his team and could see for himself that they were doing everything he asked of them Josh had begun to feel estranged from the man to whom he had dedicated the major portion of his life.  It was not that he gave any credence to Toby's snide allegations, but there was a glass wall now between himself and Santos.  Josh stood with his face pressed against it, hoping that someday soon Matt would stop moving long enough to give some indication that he wanted him back inside the room.

In addition, an overt 'Dump Josh' coalition began to gain credibility in the days before the wedding, which went nowhere towards bolstering his self-esteem.  He knew he had made mistakes - circumstances had altered more rapidly than he was expecting, and there were always wild cards to disrupt the flow of any strategy - but there seemed to be no margin for error among the Party grandees, and there were plenty now who wanted him out.  They were, he was not surprised to notice, already discreetly suggesting that they were the ones who had thought up the idea of running Matt Santos for the Presidency in the first place; they'd apparently only let Josh carry the start of the campaign to give them plausible deniability in the event of the Santos crash-and-burn that so many of them had confidently predicted.

With enemies on all sides - or so, in his moments of most extreme paranoia, he believed - Josh was having difficulty identifying his next move.  He had lost sight of who was to be trusted and who was not, and the last thing he felt like was making nice in any social context with the people who were busy whittling away the remnants of his career.  Thus he found himself sitting out the wedding on a set of ice-cold back stairs at the White House, staring obsessively at a piece of paper he had folded and unfolded so many times that it had no structural integrity left.

"Want something to eat?" Donna asked, from the landing above.  To judge by her slightly slurred tone, the look in her eyes and the way she wobbled on her high heels, she had been partaking of the refreshments for quite some time already.

"Nah," Josh shrugged.  A moment later she had levered herself down beside him, a considerable feat given the figure-hugging cut of her gown.  "Won't Cliff be looking for you?"

"He's arguing with Oliver Babish.  I didn't want to get in the middle."

Josh shuddered.  "Good call.  Who'd want to be the meat in that sandwich?"

"Absolutely.  And I was worried about you.  It's all kind of crazy up there - there's no sign of the President yet, or CJ, so presumably there's something going on - Doug Westin's trying to pretend it's his White House, and the Congressman's hunched up in a corner with Leo and Barry Goodwin and Senator Montgomery.  Looks pretty intense."

"Yeah.  They're talking about replacing me."

"No."  For a moment Donna seemed to think he must be teasing, and reacted accordingly.  However the bleak expression on his face persuaded her otherwise, and she dropped her bantering manner immediately.  "Wow, really?"

"Really.  I did some things wrong.  They want somebody who knows what he's doing."

"What things did you do wrong?"

"I was in Illinois when I should have been in Wisconsin.  Or maybe it was the other way around."

"So you're human," Donna pouted.  "Big deal."

"They don't want 'human'," Josh informed her.  "They want 'superhuman'.  They want somebody better."

"Better than you?  I don't…  Oh.  You think they want Leo?"

"Why not?" asked Josh.  "That's who I'd want."

"You think the Congressman would actually replace you with Leo?" Donna repeated, thoughtfully.  "Josh, are you out of your mind?"

"Huh?"

"What's Leo to him that you're not?"

"More experienced?  Wiser?"

She considered the response carefully.  "Maybe," she allowed, in justice.

Josh's shoulders slumped.  "I promised him that if… you know what… got in the way of the campaign, I'd back off.  Maybe this is the time to do that."

"You have to be kidding.  You think you're too close?  Maybe not seeing the whole picture?"

"I'm not seeing any picture at all," he admitted, with a sigh.  "I've lost my objectivity.  I should walk away and give somebody else a chance."

"That's bullshit!"

"Excuse me?"

"Bull-pancakes, Joshua!"  The remark was even more vehement the second time around.  "Whoever said objectivity was a virtue?  What you need is passion!  Don't try to tell me you're not passionate about Matt Santos!"

"I'm sorry?"

"Why the hell would you imagine Leo could do a better job for him than you can?  I know he's the guy who got God elected, Josh, but he doesn't have the stake in this that you do.  You're in love; it doesn't get any more passionate than that!"

In a sudden cold sweat of embarrassment Josh put a hand quickly across her mouth.  "Want to say that a little louder?" he asked, dangerously.  "The Secret Service maybe didn't pick it up."

"If you think for one moment the Secret Service don't already know about you, you're dangerously naïve," Donna pointed out, freeing herself.  Nonetheless she moderated her tone, gripping his hand as though to reinforce her point.  "Matt Santos isn't going to get into the White House without you.  It's both, or neither.  You want the best for him and I respect that, but the two of you have to make this happen together.  Don't let it be anybody else's victory, Josh.  Let it be yours and his."

Astounded by the force of Donna's tirade Josh could only sit holding her hand, taking deep breaths, letting his heart-rate slow to something close to normal.  The power of speech had temporarily deserted him, it seemed - and so had the power of reason.  All he was left with now were feelings, and chief among them the unconquerably possessive inclination he felt towards his candidate.  Even without the sexual dimension their friendship had been the most intimate he had known in his life; he was damned if he was going to hand that over lock, stock and dazzling smile to some chair-polishing Party hack this late in the day.  He had made up his mind to stand or fall only by Matt Santos, and that Matt Santos should stand or fall only by him.  There could be no going back on that now.

"When'd you get to be so smart, anyway?" he asked her sheepishly.

"Gaza," Donna smiled.  "I had brain damage, remember?"

"I remember.  Brain damage and an IRA boyfriend; an irresistible combination."

"You seriously think Santos would let anybody take him away from you without a fight?  You're his guy, you know, just as much as he's yours."

"Think so?"

"Know so.  That's what a relationship is, Josh, although I'm not surprised you don't recognize it.  You should go back in there and break up that meeting.  The Congressman's probably wondering why you haven't rescued him already."

"Yeah?  And suppose he needs rescuing from me?"

"He doesn't.  Take my word for it.  And tell Cliff where I am, will you?  I'm going to stay here and wait for my feet to cool down."

"You're… sending me away?" Josh murmured, more than a little confused by her unwonted assertiveness in the face of his characteristic dithering.

"No, Josh.  I'm sending you to.  There's a difference.  You want him, Tiger, you go in there and get him back, all by yourself."

"Okay."  One hand on the banister, he hauled himself upright without dignity.  "I can do that.  Morituri te salutant, Donnatella," he added, with self-deprecating irony.

"Hmm, nice idea," grinned Donna, misunderstanding deliberately.  "How about curly fries to go with it?"  The manic look on her face altered, softened, and so did the tone of her voice.  "Go on, Josh," she said, gently.  "You'll be fine.  You'll both be fine.  Eventually."

"Yeah," he said, returning her smile as he headed off up the stairs.  "Just for once I think you're right.  At least," he finished, wistfully, "I'm hoping you are."

*

Over the weekend before the Election the Santos war machine settled into a luxurious hotel in Houston that would henceforth be its tactical HQ and started gearing up for the denouement of the campaign.  The candidate was still on the road, running here and there with his wife and Bram in attendance, rounding up undecideds and all but offering to drive them to the polling place himself.  Josh, meanwhile, was spreading himself thin, co-ordinating the media assault, trimming the message, coercing and exhorting staff and candidates to greater efforts and resorting to outright blackmail when necessary.  He and Lou between them had all the bases covered; they talked scenarios until their throats were dry, thrashed through every possible variation of success and failure from outstanding triumph to abject debacle, and made sure plans were in place for them all.

Leo returned from somewhere late on Monday afternoon.  Whether it was Ohio, Utah or Ulan-Bator Josh couldn't for the life of him remember, but they managed to find time in the midst of chaos to dine together in Leo's suite that evening.  At least, Leo dined; Josh sipped a mineral water and looked at a plate of salad with sheer loathing for several minutes, then gave up and ate the bread roll instead.  Leo raised one grizzled eyebrow, but otherwise refrained from comment.

"Nervous?"

"Yes.  You're not?"

"Nah.  I've seen too many of these."  Leo waved his fork in the general direction of the TV, where the campaign was being recapped in fine detail for the benefit of anyone who had been asleep for the past few months.  "Little advice, Josh.  Eat and drink in moderation and get plenty of sleep.  I'd tell you to chill, but I heard you wanted to fire the last person who tried that."

"Until I found out it was actually the Congressman."

Leo nodded.  "He's cool all right.  Not a nerve in his body.  Man's never going to get an ulcer or end up in a cardiac ward like the rest of us mortals."

"We can only hope," conceded Josh, with a grimace.

"Amen.  You honestly think he wins it tonight?"  With one question Leo cut through Josh's self-protective layers of bombast to the deep core of uncertainty beneath.

"I think," was the quiet reply, "he can win, and he should.  I feel… he will.  But 'tonight'… don't ask.  It's always been too close to call.  Recounts and challenges - could take a month."

"A month of this kind of tension?  I'll never last."

"Are you kidding?  You're fitter than I am."  Josh shrugged.  "What am I talking about?  Owen Lassiter's fitter than I am, and he's senile.  Not to mention dead."

"Hey, don't knock it.  Horton Wilde won an election from the afterlife.  Death isn't the career-crusher it used to be, you know."

"Yeah, but it puts a crimp in your day," Josh smiled.  "Leo, I hate to not-eat and run, but there are seven other places I need to be."

"I know.  Get outta here.  I'm going to watch a movie before I go to bed," Leo told him, in the happy tone of one who thoroughly relishes the prospect.  "Bette Davis always makes me think of Delores Landingham.  Or maybe it's the other way around."

Josh patted him warmly on the shoulder.  "Annabeth'll be by first thing,"  he said.  "If you need anything in the meantime, just call somebody."  His face twisted into a parody of a smile.  "Sleep well," he added.  "Mr. Vice President."

There was a far-away look in Leo's eyes. "'Mr. Vice President'?" he mused. "That sounds strange."

"It does," admitted Josh.  "But I have an idea we're all going to have to get used to it.  G'night, Leo."

"G'night, kid," said Leo.  "Get some sleep.  I'll see you in the morning."

If Leo did manage to get to sleep that night, he was probably just about the only one who did.  The rest of the campaign staff foregathered in the early hours for an impromptu party in Josh's room, and the downstairs War Room was opened up long before it was humanly possible for anyone in the country to have voted.  People who had been suicidally busy for the last several weeks now found themselves with surplus adrenaline to burn and nothing very much to divert it into; volunteers were deployed, pollsters were active, pundits were talking, and Josh sat fretting with a blank notepad on his lap, his eyes focussed on nothing, not a thought in his head.

When the first exit polls awarded early territory to Vinick, the mood in the Santos camp became strangely subdued.  Footage of their candidate casting his vote helped raise morale, and so did word that he was relaxed and confident and going home to rest; it was exactly what they would have said about him anyway, but hearing from Bram on the scene that it was actually true was somehow especially endearing.  Above all, it reinforced the certainty that they had chosen a guy who could take just about any development, national or personal, adverse or favorable, in his not inconsiderable stride.

By mid-morning Josh had interfered in every area of event co-ordination that either did or did not concern him.  He had wandered into the ballroom to supervise the sound checks, made a nuisance of himself in the Head Chef's office, and only narrowly prevented himself watching over the housekeeping crew while they cleaned his bathroom.  It was Donna who bullied him into shaving and putting on a clean shirt, his reward for which was an interminable meeting with two guys from the transition team who seemed as if they were bidding to be the new Larry and Ed - only without the personal charm.

He virtually had to use a pry-bar to escape from Bruce and Gene.  Bustling away down the corridor, with a file in his hand that he would never even open, Josh ran almost headlong into Donna.  He hadn't seen her looking so miserable in quite some time; she was white-faced and her lips were trembling as though there were words behind them that she just couldn't bring herself to form.

"Leo… " Donna began, unsteadily - and, in those two despairing syllables, Josh could hear every word that she had been struggling so unsuccessfully to say.

Endless hospital corridors, endless; white, green, cream, buff, doors with discreet name-plates, elevator music, thick carpet, flowers.  There were the usual professional people with stethoscopes and clipboards, young men in crisp white shirts, young women in sensible heels, round motherly ladies with reassuring bosoms.  The same flat lighting, the same institutional art on the walls, the same chairs and magazines that every hospital everywhere always had.

It was a rabbit warren, a maze, a computer game with a million variations; the building was so large it should have had its own bus service from end to end.  Too blank-minded to concentrate on looking at signs, Josh navigated his way by the Secret Service detail; they knew him, and each one pointed him towards the next and then the next and then the next.  Vistas opened up before him like concentric Russian dolls, and at the end of the last vista was Annabeth, a tiny woman made smaller by grief, and the look on her face sent the heart plummeting right out of his chest.  Annabeth loved Leo - and Annabeth no longer had any hope.

She was in his arms before he knew it, fragile in mourning.

"He's gone?" Josh asked, in a voice that wasn't his.

The blonde head nodded against his chest and he squeezed her tightly.

"They couldn't…   In the ambulance.  He was already…  I mean, it could've happened an hour ago.  There was no heartbeat.  He just… on the bathroom floor."

"I'm sorry," he said, automatically.  Despite the fact that he had known Leo forever and Annabeth only a few months, she seemed more connected to the experience than he was - perhaps because she had been the one to find Leo.  "I should… " he started, then swallowed and straightened his shoulders.  "The Congressman."  If all had gone to plan, the motorcade should have been arriving at the back of the hotel round about the same time Josh and Donna were leaving it though the front.  There hadn't been time to stop and talk, just to fire a few instructions at Lou to hold the fort until he got back.  Whenever that might be.

Annabeth was looking up at him.  It was odd, but he'd had the impression that women these days used some kind of waterproof make-up that didn't run when they got emotional.  Whatever it was, Annabeth maybe needed someone to put her wise.  Or maybe some emotions were just too overwhelming to be contained by miracles of cosmetic science.

"The… Congressman?" she repeated, numbly.

"Matt," he clarified, wincing.

"Yes.  You'd better."

Donna moved in and steered Annabeth out of his embrace, escorting her back to the couch where she had been nesting when they arrived.  A box of tissues on the low end-table betrayed her long-term occupancy.

Josh reached for his cell phone.  Bram's number appeared beneath his fingers, and within moments Bram had transferred the phone to Santos.

"Matt," he said, very softly, "I'm sorry."

There was a groan from the other end of the line, and then a husky whisper.  "You okay, Josh?"

"I… don't know.  You?"

"It's… a shock."

"I'm gonna have to… do some stuff here, I think.  I'll be back when I can."

"Take your time, buddy.  Call me if you need me."

"I will.  And you… call me if you need me."

"Josh," said Matt Santos, "you know I do."

"Yes," said Josh, "I know," and he closed the cell phone before he could say more.

Then he sat down, put his hands over his eyes, and silently began to cry.

*

6. Everything

News of Leo's passing hit the media at 9 p.m.  An hour later Santos made a televised statement, and after that stayed closeted in his suite receiving condolence calls.  The suite was as much a hub of activity as the War Room itself, with the legal team disposed on couches and armchairs surrounded by a tidal wave of paperwork, and there would be no extracting the candidate from the middle of that mess until something happened to require his attention elsewhere.

Josh, Donna and Annabeth crawled back to the War Room just before 11 p.m. and fell into the supportive embraces of their co-workers. Josh settled down immediately to the nerve-stretching business of waiting for tellers with arthritic fingers in Nowheresville USA to count ballots as enthusiastically as people employed to watch paint dry.  That he wanted to get out there with a whip and make them pick up the pace was merely a symptom of his default hyperactivity; he growled, fretted and tore nervously at his fingernails, driving himself into such a frenzy of anxiety that he would cheerfully have bitten the head off anybody reckless enough to get too close.

Just before midnight, Donna calmly led him out onto an empty roof terrace.  He would not have been astonished - nor even much opposed to the idea - if she had announced her intention of throwing him over the parapet.

"If this is going to be the standard lecture about taking it easy and being nice to people," he said, wrapping his arms around himself for comfort -  dammit, this was Texas; shouldn't it be warmer? -  "I've heard it before."  

"Helen sent me to find out why you haven't been to see the Congressman."  Despite the fact that they were alone and, given the weather conditions, likely to remain so, Donna was whispering.

Josh turned away.  "Wasn't invited."

"Since when do you need an invitation?"

"Since the guy I recommended for Vice President keeled over and died."

This argument clearly did not make much impression on Donna.  "That's ridiculous.  You knew the risks, so did Leo.  You have to talk to Santos - if only to stop him putting his fist through a brick wall."

"And say what?  ''We can do this without Leo?'  I don't know if we can."

Donna shook her head.  "I don't understand how Leo's death makes any difference.  We knew what we were getting into; we gambled on his health, and our luck ran out.  But if Matt Santos is the right man, he's right with Leo or without him. That's what he believes."

"Because I made him believe it.  He has to think this is his destiny - and if he loses it'll be the public that's wrong, not him."

"He's not going to lose."

"No."

"Then go up there.  He wants to see you."  

"I want to see him," Josh acknowledged.  "But I won't walk into that room if there's any chance I might embarrass the guy.  Tomorrow he's going to wake up President-Elect of the United States, and what the two of us had has got to be buried so far underground it never sees the light of day again.  You understand?  Chernobyl deep, fifty million tons of concrete and an exclusion zone good for a thousand years.  Nothing grows, not even lichens."

There was no disguising the bitter bleakness of Josh's apocalyptic vision, and his unaccustomed vehemence rang instant alarm bells in Donna's mind.

"Josh?  Did you two have a deal?"

"No, we didn't.  I made the deal.  With myself."

"He wins, you back off and find somebody else?"

"Has to be better than asking for more than he can give.  Which will probably be 'nothing'."  A shiver ran through him then, but whether caused by the chill in the air or horror at the thought was impossible to tell.

"So you will yourself to stop caring?  It's that simple?"

"Starting tonight," Josh confirmed, with a shrug.

Realization caught Donna unaware.  It had never occurred to her before that Josh might be anything other than whole-hearted in his support of the Santos campaign; it had, after all, been his idea in the first place.  "You don't want him to win, do you?  You don't want to share him. You want to keep him for yourself."

Josh turned back towards her.  "I'm… starting to be ambivalent about it," he admitted, slowly.  "I thought I was prepared for anything, I thought I had all the bases covered.  Then Leo died.  Now… I keep wondering who I have to part with next.  You?  Sam?"  He paused, reluctant even to entertain the thought, then added more softly.  "Maybe Matt?"

Donna took a step closer.  "You do understand that Leo didn't die because of you?  It wasn't retribution for anything you did."

"That's not how it looks from where I'm standing."

"That's just ego," she snapped.  "Leo died because he died; there's no cosmic significance to it.  You honestly think God said: Hey, Josh Lyman fell in love with the wrong person, better kill Leo McGarry to punish him?  I doubt it.  Death happens; people are ill, they die.  It's not supposed to make sense.  It hurts because you loved him," she added, more calmly.  "And that's why you feel guilty."

"Because if I hadn't been so wrapped up in Matt I might have noticed Leo wasn't well," Josh amended.  "He might still be alive."

"Or he might not.  He could have died months ago.  This campaign gave him a purpose; he was valuable, he was doing what he loved doing.  He died happy, Josh; if you want to be responsible for something, be responsible for that.  And for getting Matt Santos into the White House, even without Leo's help."

"I had to," he said, shaking his head.  "It's where he belongs."

"Even if it means you don't get to spend quality time with him ever again?"

"Even if."  He shrugged.  "When it's right, it's right.  Nothing I can do about that."

"That's my boy." Donna moved closer still, slung a slender arm carelessly around his hunched and defensive shoulders.  " It really sucks to be you some days, doesn't it, Josh?"

"God yes," he told her, on a note of pain shading almost into despair.  "Some days, it absolutely sucks."

Donna stayed close by Josh's side for most of the rest of the night, and at 3:30 in the morning Oregon went Santos.  That left Nevada, with three electoral votes, to determine the fate of the country.  The scene in the ballroom was like a refugee camp; people who had spent the night revelling were sacked out on chairs, there were burst balloons and trampled streamers all over the floor, and the hotel staff were concerning themselves with breakfast.  The night was not yet over, but they were already preparing to start the day.  It was an eloquent metaphor for what the Santos campaign was trying to achieve; matters of great importance might be decided elsewhere, but in the here and now people would always need to be fed.

Some time after four, driven out of his suite by regurgitated sound-bites and the incessant chatter of his guests, Matt Santos made slow progress down a deserted hotel corridor.  Deserted, that is, except for his Secret Service detail and a solitary figure silhouetted against a darkened window.

"Josh?  You okay?"  

Josh spun around.  "Congressman?  Is there something you need?"

"Yeah."  Matt eased closer.  "I need you to quit with the 'Congressman'.  This is me asking; are you okay?"

"I have no idea.  How about you?"

Matt shrugged.  "This is probably the best night of my life, and it's like some kind of slow torture.  I hate it, but I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.  You were avoiding me," he accused.

Josh shrugged.  "There was a reason."

"I know.  Donna told Helen."  He paused.  "You were right.  It would've brought the whole house of cards tumbling down around our ears."

"I figured."

"Really turned into something, didn't it?" Santos went on, leaning against the window-casing and staring out across rooftops and rain.  "You and me?  I didn't know what I was getting into.  I was looking for a little easy fun and games, with somebody who had good reason to be discreet.  I wasn't expecting it to get so… intense."

"What you had in mind… "  Josh winced.  "Never would have been enough."

"I'm sorry."

"Wasn't your fault," Josh said.  "We shouldn't have started it.  Once we did - there was only one way it could go."

"Yeah," Santos conceded.  "I understand.  So it's the real thing for you?" he speculated, uncomfortably.  "I'm the one?"

"Yes."  It wasn't anything like as difficult to admit that as Josh had once imagined, perhaps because he had had time to get used to the idea for himself.  On the other hand, the man he was speaking to was emotionally secure enough not to handle his feelings without compassion.

"I feel like I should apologize," the candidate told him, huskily.

"I'm an adult, I knew what I was doing."

"Better than I did, probably."

"Maybe."

"I never intended to hurt you."

"I know that," said Josh.  "I wouldn't be here if I thought you had."

"No," allowed Santos.  "I'm sure."  He fell silent for a moment, then went on, "Josh, there are things we're going to need to talk about."

"Not tonight.  Tonight I need you to focus on what really matters."

"Okay."  It was a weary concession, and looking up Josh became conscious almost for the first time exactly how worn-out his candidate was. "But I'm not about to let the subject drop."

"Well, move it further down your priority list," Josh suggested, evenly.  "Everybody's gonna want a piece of you and I'm supposed to be protecting you, not making it worse.  I'll take a rain check," he added, one eyebrow quirked in the direction of the weather battering at the window; on the plus side, at least it had had to warm up in order to rain.

"It can wait," was the wry acknowledgement.  "You know, you… "

"Sir!  Congressman!"

Whatever Santos had been about to say was never completed.  Ronna, one of the impossibly bright-eyed campaign staff, burst out of the suite and advanced along the corridor.  "They're getting ready to call Nevada!"  She was already celebrating, as if she had caught something in the announcer's tone, or the look on his face, or the twist of his eyebrow.

Josh's heart started to thunder out of his chest.  This was the moment he'd been aiming towards ever since the outrageous idea had first occurred to him; the answer to this one question, the result of this one remaining state poll, would determine the course of the next four years not only for himself and Santos and all those who would potentially be involved in their Administration, but for people all over the world whose names they would never know.  On these next few moments depended life and death, wealth and poverty, health and disease, all their courses influenced by the simple choice the people of Nevada had been required to make.

The TV announcer was smiling, a smile that gave away nothing more than that he would be glad to wrap this up and go home to his family.  He was a middle-aged man with a voice like a blender chopping up peanuts; his taste in ties was moronic, his suit cut by a left-handed idiot and his shirt purchased from a thrift shop.  Josh hated the guy, although he knew no more about him that that he was taking an unconscionable time imparting information that Josh needed - desperately - to have.

The man opened his grey lips, glanced once more at the script in his hand, and then with about as much emotion in his tone as a speak-your-weight machine read out the last in what had begun to feel like an endless series of results.  

Josh did not hear him.  The words were lost, whatever he said, because people were screaming and the graphic on the screen was blue-blue-blue and the words 'Nevada' and 'Santos' stood out from it in neon letters twelve inches tall.

…  Nevada ...

… Santos ...

"Oh my God."  The words did a slow acid-burn through Josh's cerebral cortex, finally resolving themselves into knowledge somewhere in the deeper recesses of in his mind.  "You won."  

And, after that, nothing else made any sense at all.

*

From that moment on, the sense of dislocation simply did not go away.  Over the next seventy-two hours Josh held high-level meetings, helped assign Cabinet posts, made detailed decisions about staffing and was interviewed nineteen times, once in his intolerable high school French.  It was as surreal as any experience that did not include melting clocks or men with umbrellas falling from the sky could have been; moreover it included a series of encounters with a stocky guy of medium height who turned out to be the head of his own personal protection team.  For all the thought he had given to the security of the President-Elect and his family, Josh had never spent more than thirty seconds considering his own; fortunately Ron Butterfield, as the senior Secret Service agent assigned to the White House detail, had already done that thinking on his behalf.

Leo's funeral took place the following Friday, and was remarkable for the numbers of luminaries who emerged from the woodwork to attend.  Cliff remained at the White House with Ed and Larry on the basis that somebody had to run the country, but otherwise people were there who hadn't been seen in the West Wing for several years - some with selfish intent, most out of genuine affection for the man to whom they were paying their last respects.  Even Toby, spurned by almost all who knew him, stood at the back of the church, his beard un-trimmed in accordance with Jewish tradition, an enigmatic expression on his face.  He spoke to nobody and nobody spoke to him; he was as unapproachable as the dead himself, but he was there - and no-one with a compassionate soul would have wished him otherwise.

The pall-bearers carrying Leo from the church constituted one of the most illustrious assemblages of political talent ever accumulated under one roof.  President Bartlet, despite his own declining health, would not be denied the privilege; he was supported by President-Elect Santos, proto-Chief of Staff Josh Lyman and former Democratic National Chairman Barry Goodwin.  Leo's son-in-law Richard and Bartlet aide Charlie Young completed the party.  An ill-matched group, unrehearsed and unco-ordinated, their shuffling progress seemed somehow far more poignant than any immaculately-drilled display.  That people of such diverse sorts and conditions could be brought together by grief for one man demonstrated the high regard in which Leo had always been held, even by his most unrelenting enemies.  There were plenty of people, on both sides or none, who would miss his gravelly, reassuring presence and the light of battle in his eye.

That afternoon there was a reception in the East Room of the White House.  Those of Leo's friends who were able to attend stood around assuring one another that it had been a lovely funeral and uttering clichés about promise unfulfilled.  In public service such platitudes were kept folded away in the closet alongside the black suit and the jet jewelry; eulogies were frequently required, and a politician had to be quotable on almost all occasions.  Real emotion, however, was somewhat thinner on the ground.

"Matt!" President Bartlet strode across to shake the hand of his successor-in-waiting.  "It's good to see you."

"And you, sir.  I'm sorry for your loss."

"It's your loss, too," Bartlet reminded him.  "The whole country's, really.  There aren't too many like Leo around."

"I know that, sir."

"Which some might consider a good thing.  He could be a bad-tempered son of a bitch at times.  But we'll miss him, no question.  I suppose you're inundated with résumés from prospective Vice Presidents?"

Santos looked over his shoulder.  "How many, Josh?"

"A… hundred and four at the last count," was the reply.  "Good afternoon, Mr. President."

"Welcome, Josh.  How's everything going?"  The buzz of conversation having resumed around them, Bartlet dropped his tone and drew the two men aside.

"It's… overwhelming," Santos told him.  "Goodwin is taking the pressure of Transition off our shoulders, but the detail we have to get into is… "

"Mind-boggling?"

"Incomprehensible.  You should see Josh tap-dancing to keep up with it. The last guy I saw moving that fast was Jimmy Cagney."

"Time you appointed a Deputy, Josh," Bartlet advised.  "I can make some recommendations, if you like?"

"Thank you, sir, I have someone in mind.  Going to see him tomorrow."

"Tell him you need all the help you can get.  Matt, this would be a good moment for us to talk about Kazakhstan.  Will you excuse us, Josh?"

"Yes sir," said Josh, loyally stepping aside.  "Thank you again for the invitation."

"Later, Josh," Santos told him, with the ghost of a confident smile.  "Give my regards to Danny Concannon; he's over there by the buffet table."

"Sir," nodded Josh automatically, as he discreetly absented himself from the conversation and made himself scarce.

Sure enough, Danny was standing nearby with a glass of champagne in one hand, giving off a Cary Grant air of suavity and looking as much like 007 as a small-ish man with a pepper-and-salt beard can look.  There was a note of bantering raillery in his tone when he greeted Josh.

"Hey, Joshua, long time no see."

"Daniel!  How's your brother?"

"He's good. Carlotta's pregnant.  I brought you a photograph from the wedding in case you wanted to - I dunno, put it on your desk or something.  In the White House."

Josh flipped open the envelope Danny handed him.  Inside was an unposed snap of a small group chatting and laughing in obvious good humour; Danny, his brother, Josh - and Matthew Santos.

"It's the only one that shows all four of us," Danny said.  "There's a good one of Matt kissing the bride, though.  Glad he wore his uniform after all; gave the rest of us a little class."

"I think he was kind of low on options," Josh remarked, quietly.

"Figured.  Anyway, you keep that.  And Marcus and Carlotta asked me to pass on their congratulations on your win."

Josh laughed.  "You can pass ours right back.  On the baby," he elucidated.

"Thank you."

"Well, hello stranger," CJ interrupted, insinuating herself between the pair of them with an oddly manic grin pasted on to cover up extremes of tiredness.  "Is that Marcus's wedding?  I didn't know you and he knew each other."

"They don't," said Danny, defensively.

"Yeah, we do," said Josh.  Unfortunately they both spoke in the same split-second, and both contrived to look like infants caught with their hands in the cookie jar.  It would have aroused the suspicions of someone far less acute than CJ Cregg.  "It was… a coincidence," Josh finished up lamely.

CJ had the reproving air of a teacher about her as she extracted the picture from his hand, looked it over, handed it back.

"Interesting coincidence.  Anything you'd like to tell me, Josh?"

He smiled tightly.  "No," he said.  "Don't you two ever talk?"

CJ looked at Danny, but Danny was looking at Josh.  "Not a lot of time for talking," he remarked, wickedly.

"Uh-huh.  Then maybe it's time you started," he said.  "Excuse me.  Good to see you again, Danny.  Catch you later, CJ."

Josh had not moved more than half a dozen steps away from them, however, when an all too familiar voice stopped him once again in his tracks.

"Well," said Amy Gardner, "fancy meeting you here."

"Amy.  What an unexpected - and blood-curdling - surprise."

He turned to face her, and she fluttered her eyelashes in the way she'd employed to such good effect when they were boyfriend-and-girlfriend or whatever they used to be.  Not quite live-in lovers, although they'd spent a lot of time pretending.  It was never going to work; they had agendas that simply would not mesh, and the sex never could have been what Josh needed in his life.  They had parted by mutual consent, and subsequent meetings had been rather less than harmonious.

"Joshieee."  To judge by her wheedling little-girl delivery, a full orchestral rendition of 'My Heart Belongs To Daddy' was never far from her lips.

"Ayyymeeeee?"

"Carol Gellsey.  Is she on your VP list?"

"If we had a list, she would be."

"You have a list, she's on it.  Where?"

"Near the top."

"First?"

"Second."

Amy sighed.  "Too much to hope that an outstanding female candidate would trump a middle-aged middle-class white guy, I'm guessing?"

"Far too much, I'm afraid.  She's already trumped a hundred and two other candidates of all shapes, sizes, races and genders.  She's being considered on merit; we like her, but the President-Elect is going to be the one making the final decision."

"'President-Elect'," Amy repeated, thoughtfully.  "You like saying that, Josh, don't you?"

"Honestly?" he asked, with a lop-sided smile. "Yeah."

"Good feeling?  Did what you set out to do?"

"Sense of achievement."

"Well, goodie for you.  But you need a social life, Joshua."

His chin fell.  "I thought you were dating some… tree-hugger?"

"Sculptor," she said.  "And I don't mean me.  No, I have a friend… "

"Thanks," said Josh, "but I have a social life at the moment.  If by that you mean a sex life."

"You do not!"

"I do."

"Do not!"

"Actually," said Donna, "he does."  Appearing seemingly from nowhere - Josh had had no idea she was even in the room - she slid alongside him and put a cool white hand on his sleeve.  "Hello, Amy, how are you?"  She spoke as if from an immense distance, and without very much interest in the answer.

"Donna."  The dark-haired woman took a sip of her drink and looked from one of them to the other.  "Okaaaayyy.  Well, stranger things have happened.   Remember what I told you, Josh.  About Gellsey."

"I'll get you a meeting with the President-Elect if you think it'll help.  Give you a chance to put your case, although I think he's pretty well made up his mind."

"I'm willing to try," said Amy.  "Thank you.  And…  good luck."  Her eyebrows lifting in disbelief at the sight of them together, Amy moved away, concentrating on her champagne, drifting back towards the food.

"You know what she's going to think?" Josh said, softly, to Donna.

"I know.  It would probably be a good idea if other people thought the same thing."

"I couldn't ask you to do that."

"You don't need to.  I volunteer."

Josh digested this information thoughtfully.  "You're still seeing Cliff?"

"Yes.  It's… something.  I don't know what.  But it's interesting.  Meanwhile, if you and I spend time together…   Who does it hurt?"

"You want to make him fight me for your favors?" Josh mused.

"I wouldn't mind seeing the two of you duke it out," Donna teased.  "But I don't think it'll come to that."

"Probably not.  And I'm not allowed to get into fights any more, not even the kind I can win.  Gus is supposed to do all that for me."

"Gus?  The same Gus who used to work for Hoynes?"

"The same."

"Wow," said Donna.  "He's good."

"Yeah, I know.  He's going to fight all my battles for me in the future."

"Okay," she grinned.  "I'll warn Cliff.  He should probably take out some kind of insurance."

*

The following day, after an energy-sapping transcontinental flight, Josh selected one corporate door from a hundred others on a Los Angeles boulevard.  He had reached such a fever pitch of bewilderment and frustration being a one man Transition team that he had even started feeling sentimental about his own past, and had ended up rationalizing away a purely emotional decision.  There were few people he would trust to be his Deputy, fewer still who could translate his thoughtwaves into action, and if he was going to be the wise counsellor to his President that Leo had been to Jed Bartlet he was going to need someone to help him who was capable of reading his mind.  There was really only one person he would ever seriously be willing to consider.

Eight years earlier Josh had arrived in New York City, soaking wet and over-excited from New Hampshire, with a story about an intellectual heavyweight State Governor who talked like a human being.  He'd hammered on a glass partition like Dustin Hoffman in 'The Graduate', manic, driven and already in love with the quest ahead, and Sam Seaborn had got up and walked out of a lucrative career to follow him.  They'd been a team then, and in those days there wasn't anything they couldn't achieve.

Now it was another board-room, another meeting, another parade of expensive suits and cosmetic surgery; soulless, passionless, driven by the pursuit of affluence, most of the men and women who sat around this table would be just as deaf to idealism as those New Yorkers of eight years before.  They would not see the point of service which did not involve a massively unhealthy level of personal remuneration.

One of them, however, might not yet be quite beyond reach.

Josh didn't waste his time hammering on the glass wall.  He opened the door and walked in.  The usual bloated executive was blustering away about something that mattered not in the slightest, the usual self-satisfied toadies were making effete little sallies to prove they were still awake.  It reminded Josh of everything he had never wanted his life to be.

"Excuse me?" Mr. Overpaid Suit said, and Josh wondered why he hadn't thought to bring a flame-thrower to cover this eventuality.  "May I ask… ?"

Josh ignored him.  He simply stood there, saying and doing absolutely nothing, while Sam swiveled slowly in his chair and looked up at him with eyes that had lost nothing of their clear blue charm.

"Well," he said eventually, "you took your damn' time."

Previously it had been a hot dog from a vendor with a cart.  This time, as they had both moved up in the world, it was brioche at a sidewalk café.  Sam was surprisingly relaxed for a man who had been embarrassed in front of his workmates, and listened to Josh's sales pitch without emotion.  Finally, when Josh ground to a halt, he sipped his coffee and considered his response.

"You know I'm getting married?"

Josh winced.  "To a woman?"  No matter how hard he tried, the note of incredulity in his voice would not remain suppressed.

"Yes 'to a woman', what else?"  Sam paused.  "My bad," he admitted, with an apologetic shrug.

"So you don't… ?"

"Not any more.  You?"

"I've been… seeing someone," Josh supplied, but did not specify further.

"What kind of someone?"

"Male."

"Oh.  Oh, good."

"Yes.  Very."

"I meant, it might make you more pleasant to work with."

"You're considering it?"

Sam leaned back.  "There would have to be some conditions.  Number one, you and I are over for all time.  That's not going to happen again."

"Okay."

"Just 'okay'?  Because when we discussed this before I thought you were going to cut your own throat or something."

"That was then," said Josh.  "What else?"

"I'll have to talk it over with my fiancée.  I wouldn't want to delay the wedding until your guy's out of office."

"So there's money in it for you?" Josh asked, snidely.

"Touché," Sam acknowledged.  "Not so much money as political support; State Party Chair's daughter.  I haven't lost my ambition."

"Eight years with Santos, you'll still be under fifty.  You could sidestep the House and go for the Senate instead.  Assuming you had a few senior Party people in your corner."

"It's an attractive offer," Sam told him, neutrally.  "Let me think about it.  I'll get back to you."

"Yeah?  Well, don't take too long about it," Josh told him.  "The rate I'm losing brain cells and hair follicles, if I don't get some help soon I'll be bald - and certifiable - long before January 20th."

*

Back in DC in the following week, Josh was over-tired, irritable, running on caffeine and making lousy decisions.  Sabotaged by a time-zone snafu he hadn't had even the minimal ration of sleep he allowed himself, and he was struggling.  His decisions - and those of the President-Elect - would have repercussions for millions of people; he sweated every one, leaving no consequence unexplored.  His nerves tautened like bow-strings, his eyes felt as if someone had poured acid into them, his skin was gritty and his breath foul from inadequate diet and far too much coffee - and if he could have had one wish, just one, it would have involved Matthew Santos, a large double bed, and an infinite quantity of dreamless, undisturbed sleep.  What he got, however, was definitely the next-best thing; like the Seventh Cavalry, complete with fanfare of trumpets, Sam Seaborn came riding to the rescue right on cue at the fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh hour.

"Oh God," Josh groaned, looking up at him from the depths of his distress.

"I haven't said I'm staying yet."  Indeed, Sam was so far from staying that he hadn't even removed his coat.  The temperature difference between Los Angeles and the District of Columbia at this time of year was such that he would probably keep it on for a month.

"Okay," said Josh.  "I get that.  But since you're here… "  He took him outside, introduced him around the office.  "Sam Seaborn, Deputy Chief of Staff.  You may want to start by talking to Lou about fleshing-out the policy team.  We've got Cliff for Transition but he'll be moving on at the end of February; after that Congressional Liaison will be your bailiwick."

"Got it," Sam said, and started work immediately.

Before lunch on the same day, however, Josh's increasingly fragile temperament bubbled over, expending itself on the young man who had put himself in the position of being the next Donna.  Hearing howler-monkey screeches from the direction of Josh's little cage, Sam interposed himself smoothly between the exhausted man and his hapless victim; Otto was talented but in some ways incredibly dim, although he would work out well enough if only he was given the right kind of encouragement.  Rabid, frothing aspersions and insults to his dignity probably would not help, and it was much to Otto's credit and that of his ambition that he weathered the storm, letting Josh work out a backlog of frustrations and disappointments dating back, had he but known it, long before the start of the campaign.

"Are you done?" Sam asked coldly, at length.

Josh opened his mouth, then took a look at the expression on Sam's face.  He had brought his most forbidding courtroom demeanor to bear, the one that told his opponents he might appear the soul of wit and geniality on the surface but he had a steely core of resolve they would do well not to challenge.

"Are you done?" he repeated.

"Yes."

Sam dismissed Otto without another word.

"All right," he said.  "Matt Santos is the man?"

Taken aback, Josh could only mouthe, "Huh?"

"The man?" Sam insisted.  "The new Bartlet, the best thing to happen to this country since insert-your-favorite-cliché-here?"

"Oh.  Yes."

"And you made him?  Built him from the ground up?"

"Not entirely."

"Okay.  But you customized him, gave him a new paint job, tweaked the engine."

"Why are we comparing him to a car?" Josh asked, sitting down heavily

"Because a car is no good without a driver.  That's why he needs you.  He may have all the right attributes, Josh, but you're the one with the motivation.  If you want this administration to be effective, both of you need to be functioning at peak efficiency - and you, my friend, are so far from the peak that you haven't even reached base camp yet."

"Mixed… y'know," Josh pointed out, incoherently.

"Metaphor.  Thank you, I'd noticed."

"Are you saying I'm out of my depth?"

"No.  But you should try to get in a few rounds of golf before the Inauguration.  How about Florida?"

"What?"

"You need a vacation, Josh.  Stat.  I'll cover for you here; you can rely on me to do whatever you would have done yourself."

"That mean you're staying?"

"If you take a break, I'll stay.  If you don't… I'm outta here."

"Then it looks as if I don’t have a choice," said Josh.

Whatever he had expected of the first apocalyptic meeting between Sam Seaborn and Matt Santos, it didn't happen.  They looked at one another for a moment, cautiously shook hands, and each made some sort of assessment of the other.  Josh, between them, noticed how much taller Matt was than Sam, and how much more energetic he seemed; there was a washed-out quality to Sam now, but Santos had inner reserves which he had not yet begun to explore.  However fondly Josh had thought of Sam in the past, seeing him now standing alongside Matt pointed up the contrast in the two men; oil and water did not even begin to cover it.

"This is Sam Seaborn," he said.  "He's getting married."

"Oh?  Congratulations."

"Thank you, sir."

"I need a vacation," Josh told him, abruptly.  "You need me at my best, and I'm not.  At this rate I'm not going to make it through Christmas without cracking up.  Let me take a week to get some sleep and some fresh air, then I'll start again.  Sam can cover for me, he's done it before."

Santos regarded his crumpled but eager face with considerable sympathy, weighing the prospect of dealing with a perfect stranger in Josh's job against the strain distorting his friend's perceptions, and eventually said, "I know someone who has vacation rentals on Delavaca Bay.  Get Ronna to make the arrangements.  You need a ride to the airport?"

"No," said Josh, and would have said more but he could no longer speak.  Instead, he shook his head distractedly, flashed a look of abject gratitude in Santos's direction, and dived for the exit, leaving the two greatest loves of his life standing facing one another across an ocean of polished walnut desk, having absolutely no idea whatever of anything that either could say to the other.

*

Delavaca Bay in winter was emptier than it had been the first time Josh visited.  The house had been rebuilt and looked stronger, which made him wonder about the nature of the insurance deal the owner had enjoyed, but this time it stayed in one piece.  Donna went with him, so did his Secret Service detail; he was used to having them around by now, although they still had the capacity to take him by surprise.  Browsing at a gift shop, selecting a souvenir for his mother, he would glance up and see Gus in a careful choice of casual clothing conspicuously not blending in with his background and wonder what the hell he had brought on himself and the rest of the world now.  It was a strange universe in which Joshua Lyman rated this kind of protection and ultimately wielded this kind of power.  He wasn't sure he would ever totally believe that it was true.

Christmas in Transition went virtually unregarded.  Although the Santoses celebrated in media-friendly style, Josh was working thirty-hour days again in response to the President-Elect's maverick desires to mingle in Bartlet's Kazakhstan debacle and appoint Arnie Vinick, of all people, Secretary of State. After Christmas, the days only grew shorter. Josh was learning the fine art of delegation, understanding who he could trust, building an infrastructure like a mad scaffolder racing to erect a trestle strong enough to carry the train that would roll across it, come what may, twenty days into January.

By New Year there was talk of a possible early release for Greg Brock.  Since Toby's indictment there had been little public appetite for holding Brock in contempt, and consensus ran that no useful purpose would be met by keeping him in prison.  He was doing time in a minimum security facility and his career, when eventually he emerged to resume it fully, would scarcely have been damaged at all.

To Josh, such speculation was encouraging.  Sympathy generated by Brock would inevitably spill over in Toby's direction, and there were already plenty of liberal and pacifist causes who wanted to adopt him as their own.  Ironically, in view of his follicly-challenged condition, Toby Ziegler was emerging as the long-haired hippie peacenik of the rising generation; the brown-rice-and-sandal brigade had taken him to their organic hand-made hearts, embracing him and his rebellion with open arms, making him their infinitely recyclable poster-child.

Josh seized a moment when the President-Elect was not frustratingly preoccupied with other matters to ask him if he had seen Brock's latest in the New York Times.  "Opinion seems to be coming around to the side of the leakers," he hinted cautiously.

"Yes, it does.  Are you thinking about a Presidential pardon for Toby?"

Josh weighed the idea without enthusiasm.  "Bartlet would be crucified for it.  On the other hand, he's leaving office anyway, so why would he care?"

"Except for a little thing called 'posterity'," Santos reminded him.  "Has Toby even applied?"

"I doubt it.  It's not his style to ask for anything."

Santos sat down, waving Josh to a nearby chair.  "You're concerned about him?"

Josh shifted uneasily, like a kid caught with a football in close proximity to a broken window.  "I care what happens to him," he admitted.

"Good old loyal Josh.  You seem to have an infinite capacity for forgiveness.  I admire that."

"Thank you."

"Take Sam, for instance.  After everything he did to hurt you, here you are working together again.  That takes strength of character."

"Yeah," Josh acknowledged.  "How are you two are getting on?"

"Fine.  He seems good at his job.  Efficient."

"But?"  That there was some kind of reservation to be expressed had been apparent from the President-Elect's tone.  Josh prompted him to further explanation.

"But I'm finding him taciturn, maybe even a little dour.  Was he like that before, or has he changed?"

"He's changed," admitted Josh.  "He's less these days than he used to be."

"Less what?"

"Less fun.  Maybe just - less Sam."

"It would have to be something like that," Santos nodded.  "I have difficulty looking at that guy and seeing anybody Josh Lyman could put his career on the line for.  I don't see what the two of you had in common.  Maybe I'm just not getting the full picture."

Josh shrugged.  "No," he said.  "What you see is pretty much what you get.  I thought there was more, but it turns out I was wrong."

"I'm sorry about that," the President-Elect conceded, with a shrug.  "I mean, I'm sure you would have been happy with him, but I'm glad it didn't happen."

"Yes," Josh told him, with a smile.  "I must admit, these days I'm pretty glad about that myself."

*

January 20 was cold and sharp, one of those brittle bright mornings that feels as if one could shatter it with a loud sound or a sudden movement.  Josh didn't so much wake early as never fully get to sleep; there were a million scenarios playing through his head and, despite the fact that the organizational detail of the Inauguration ceremony had been handled by people whose area of expertise it was, he could not help obsessing about whether every eventuality had been anticipated.  CJ had frightened him by rehearsing arrangements for injured horses, ambulance cover, foul weather provision and sniper surveillance; he had further frightened himself by imagining a crisis of confidence striking Santos on the podium.  Would he turn around at the last minute and swear that he could not accept this heavy charge because he loved Josh and Josh alone, and they would be eloping to Paraguay instead of taking up their new appointments?

Well, no, he would not.  Amusing as the idea might be, Matt Santos was far too ambitious for himself and his country to fall at the last great hurdle, and it was some consolation to Josh in his pre-dawn paranoia that Matt had never loved him enough to contemplate giving up his future.  They both had things they wanted to accomplish in their lives; for Josh, making a successful and productive match between President and nation was about as good as it got, and he knew for certain he had got that part absolutely right.  Personal considerations were way down his agenda; his feelings for Matt had been filed under "Would be nice, but isn't going to happen" in his mental archive, and he was happy enough to leave them there until such time as the Presidency ceased to be a factor in either of their lives.

That, however, was not going to stop him being almighty proud of his achievement.  He did not subscribe to Sam's view that he had built Santos himself, nor to the opinion that Matt would be nothing without Josh's genius backing him up; in fact Josh had had very little to do in the way of honing Santos’s skills or polishing his image, it had all been totally instinctive.  Josh's contribution had consisted largely of putting Santos into a situation in which he could take full advantage of his pre-existing natural assets - charm, intelligence, and integrity.  A man with all of those qualities in any political arena would wipe the floor with the opposition, who by and large possessed none.  It had therefore, on the whole, been a most unequal fight.

By the time he was squinting into sunlight on the podium and looking out over the crowd, Josh had reconciled himself to his fate.  He had admitted that he did not want to be 'the guy' himself; what he wanted was to be 'the guy the guy counts on'.  If that meant playing second fiddle, always being Bucky Barnes and never Captain America, he had no problem accepting it.  It didn't remove him from the firing line when issues of responsibility were being considered, but it left him out of the public limelight in a place where he could do his job more effectively.  Matt was the one with the larger-than-life personality, he was the one who could stand up there pledging himself to the service of his country with an almost religious fervor and be believed by millions; Josh was merely a part of the organization that had brought him to the public's attention.

Donna noticed the way he was smiling, although she could not have realized that it had as much to do with the way the breeze was teasing Matt's hair as with his sense of pride in the moment itself.  They had argued about the adhesive properties of styling gel; Matt had nodded and smiled through clothing choices, make-up, women who seemed to think he was some kind of store-window mannequin, but he had finally put his foot down at the glue they wanted him to use on his hair.  Hair that didn't move when the wind touched it didn't send the message of sincerity he had in mind, and anyway he couldn't stand the smell.

"Hair's a mess," Donna whispered.

"Yeah," Josh said, just as softly.  "But at least it's an authentic mess."

"True."  She paused a moment, then said, "You happy?"

He glanced around him.  Razzamatazz, flags, marching bands, distinguished guests, ceremonial this and that, omens, portents, wishes, plans; how could anybody not be happy at this place and in this time, with the world unrolling like a carpet before his feet and every step an adventure?

"Yes," he said, but there was so much more to it than that.

In early afternoon they took possession of the White House.  Some Bartlet appointees were staying on, but most of the West Wing had already been vacated and the furnishings in the Oval Office changed during the ceremonies.  Pictures of the Santos family now adorned the Resolute desk; there were different clocks and ornaments, paintings of a less forbidding character, books demonstrating that Matthew Santos was a practical man rather than an abstract thinker.

Josh reviewed the arrangements in the Oval Office before stepping next door to his own.  Some of his personal belongings had made it, too; a framed photograph of his parents, a painting of his dead sister, snapshots of friends and colleagues and partners-in-crime.  He had moved the décor down-market, installing a big soft couch and some Kandinsky-inspired prints; his surroundings were largely irrelevant to him, but he liked to feel comfortable in a room.  What he had created was a hybrid between his mother's living-room and his own, done on a much better budget than either of them had ever had access to.

"Nice," Sam said.  He was in the doorway, surveying the alterations.

"Thanks.  How's yours?"

"Not quite the hell-hole it was when you were in there, but I'm thinking of having it painted."

"Knock yourself out.  Something you need?"

"Just stopped by ahead of the meeting," Sam told him, with a shrug.  "I'm at a loose end, thought I'd go visiting.  Oh, did you know Ginger was going to be my assistant?"

"I think I did.  Is that okay?"

"Sure.  She knows what she's doing."

"Well, she put up with Toby; she can probably handle you."

Josh was browsing a document that had been left on his desk while Sam wandered around looking at things in the room.

"You never really personalize your office spaces," he said, idly.  "Not like the rest of us.  It's all 'work' with you."

"Huh?"  Josh barely looked up.  "I thought you said you liked this?"

"I do.  It's better than anything you've had before."

"Well, maybe I was just passing through before.  Maybe this was where I was trying to get to."

"Maybe," Sam acknowledged.  "Is this Danny Concannon?" he asked.  The framed picture from the wedding had been half-hidden behind a group of other snapshots.

"Yes."

"Who's the guy with him?"

"That's his brother."

"Uh-huh.  What's the occasion?"

"Brother's wedding.  Year and a half ago."

"You and the President?"

"Yeah."  Josh did not look up, and his answer to Sam was casual, almost throw-away.  When he did glance in Sam's direction, it was to catch a puzzled expression which suggested he was trying to put together a coherent narrative from a series of discontinuous facts.  "What?" he asked, bemused.

"You and Santos were at Danny's brother's wedding in 2005?  I didn't realize you'd known each other that long."

Josh shrugged.  "You recruited him.  He's been around since 2000."

"Time flies."  Sam shook his head in disbelief.  "So, did you tell him you were seeing… whoever?"

"He knew," Josh acknowledged, carefully.

Sam looked down again at the picture, and then back up at Josh.  "Okay."  There was a smile somewhere behind his eyes.  "Well, I'm going to annoy Lou for five minutes.  I'll be back before the meeting."

"Cool," said Josh, as Sam excused himself.  "Catch you later."  And for a few moments he watched him go, and thought the strangest of thoughts.  Then the phone rang and he had to give his attention to business again, and he put Sam completely out of his mind for the time being.

Towards the end of the afternoon, when the first strategic decisions had been made and the Joint Chiefs had departed, Josh and Santos sat in the Oval Office dealing with more easily managed domestic matters.  Evening events were scheduled which would soon demand their attention, and it was already beginning to seem as if they were trying to superimpose a modicum of governing onto an overcrowded social calendar; they would have to do a better job in the future of balancing out competing claims to the Chief Executive's time.

"So what's next?" Matt asked, unconsciously echoing Bartlet's catchphrase.

"That's it."  Josh snapped shut the last file in his collection.  "You need to get ready for the Inaugural Ball, or Helen'll hang me out to dry.  I don't want to start out by having a major conflict with the First Lady."

"You know, she hates that title."  Matt kicked back, drew a deep breath, looked around himself with kid-in-a-candy-store glee.  "And it isn't one Inaugural Ball, it's nine.  If you're thinking of telling me 'that's a lot of balls', believe it or not my wife got there first."

"She always was the smart one in the relationship," Josh laughed.  "Maybe we should've made her President.  So, how're you feeling?"

"It'll take some getting used to," was the quiet response.  "This place - it's awe-inspiring."  He was beginning to feel that it was his place, but there was still something intimidating about being in the Oval Office where the ghosts of previous Presidents seemed to cluster on the pelmets and hang in the folds of the flags.  Their approval was important to him, and he was conscious that he had done little to earn it as yet.

"You'll be fine.  You hit the ground running.  Good start."

"Bartlet was a great President.  Gave me a lot to live up to."  Santos produced a folded sheet of paper from an inner pocket.  "He left me a letter full of good advice.  Apparently 'the Joint Chiefs put their pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us'.  He didn't want me to feel intimidated.  This can be the first item in my Presidential archive."

"More like thousand-and-first," Josh corrected.  "But one of the most valuable.  Did you know he was going to pardon Toby, when you and I talked?"

"No. I guessed. He filled me in on who was really responsible for the leak, and I agree with his decision.  You were right about Toby taking the fall for somebody else.  I can't tell you who - but if you want to re-establish your friendship with him, you won't have any trouble from me."

"Thank you, Mr. President."

"Hmmm."  Santos glanced quickly at his watch.  "I want to talk to you - not about work.  Are we done here?"

"Yes."

"You have to go home to change?"

"Only as far as my office.  It has, believe it or not, a very large closet."

Santos's mouth compressed to a thin line as he eschewed the obvious remark.  "Okay, I'll be generous.  You passed on 'nine Inaugural Balls', I'm going to pass on your closet.  Come on upstairs; I want to show you the changes we're making in the Residence."

Josh followed him from the room.  They exited to the Portico, passing a phalanx of agents who whirred into activity with the silent precision of automata.  Doors opened, spines stiffened, eyes became alert, the mechanism of transferring the President from one room to another operated without him noticing a thing.  As they stepped into the elevator, Santos said, "The kids miss you.  They keep asking when I'm bringing you to visit.  You made quite an impact in a very short time."

"Can't have been my cooking," was the mild response.  "I'm amazed I didn't poison them."

"Well, since you never cooked for me I'll reserve judgment."

"Maybe I should wait until you're out of office.  My rap sheet is already pretty extensive."

"You could plea bargain it down to 'justifiable homicide'," Matt joked, as the doors opened on the upper level.  "You might not get the chair."

"Oh really now?" Josh asked him, with a wicked raised eyebrow.

"Oh really now," was the unequivocal rejoinder.  "In fact you'd probably get a round of applause."

To suggest that the Residence was in turmoil would have been exaggeration, but the best efforts of the White House moving staff had not been sufficient to bring it to completeness in the time available.  Zoë Bartlet's bedroom had been redecorated for Miranda, but she was obliged to share it with her brother until his own accommodation was finished.  Unoccupied rooms elsewhere still stood full of packing crates as the whole of the Santos family's modest Houston life waited to be distributed around their new home.

The novelty of living in a glorified apartment was not yet lost on the Santos children.  Reveling in the vast amount of space, in the nooks and corners of butlers' pantries and service elevators, they had thrown themselves into a shrieking wild-goose chase around the corridors that looked likely to wear out their Secret Service detail in the first few days.  Such unbounded excitement had not been seen in the Presidential quarters for years, and although the older staff were shocked by their lack of reverence for their august surroundings, the consensus was that the Santoses would be - here, as elsewhere - a breath of fresh air.  This new administration for the twenty-first century would see the emphatic turning of a page in far more ways than one.

The two over-excited children made a bee-line for their Uncle Josh the moment he stepped off the elevator.  Each took hold of one of his arms, and they tried to drag him off in separate directions to look at different rooms.  He stood it for a moment, poised on the brink of being torn apart like the wishbone from a chicken, and then their mother mercifully stepped in to restore decorum.

"Children, let Josh have a moment.  He's had a full day."  Helen, dressed to the nines in a Fifties-style sheath of peacock satin, managed to be both utterly incongruous and completely appropriate in one and the same moment.

Matt, who had been laughing himself into a decline at Josh's plight, guffawed even more loudly at her remark.  "He's had a full day?"

"Josh is the one who carries all the weight while you do the smiling and the waving," Helen teased.  "It's about time you recognized that."  Then her tone altered.  "You realize we'll never get these kids to sleep tonight?"

"That's why we have… ummm… "

"Karen?"

"Yes.  That's why we have her."

"We could have Hulk Hogan and it wouldn't make a difference.  When we come in at four in the morning they'll still be tearing around full of energy, I guarantee it.  They are not going to sleep, period."

"I don't know if I will myself.  It's not every day you get to take over the world."

"Just one more step on your road to intergalactic domination," Helen suggested.  "Kings and armies bowing down before you.  Don't let it go to your head."

"All that power, and I still can't get my kids to bed on time," Matt sighed.  "Josh, you can fix pretty well anything; what can you do about that?"

"Not a thing," was the wry response.  "The impossible, I do at once; miracles… I leave to you."

"Nice," laughed Helen.  "Never hurts to flatter the boss."

"I've always thought so," Josh grinned back.

A briefly uncomfortable hiatus followed, and then Helen rolled her eyes up to the ceiling in mock exasperation.  "Okay, I have children to persecute.  Matt, you have twenty minutes.  See you later, Josh."

"See you, Helen."  When she was out of the room, Josh turned his attention back to her husband.  "What was it you wanted to show me?"

"It's at the end of the corridor.  I want you to tell me what you think."

Josh went with him, eyes wandering over controlled chaos at every turn.  Ironically, he knew his way around the Presidential apartments far better than their newest occupant.  "I'm amazed you're managing to find anything."

"That," said Matt, "is why God gave us Post-It notes."

"And staff?"  

"Yes," was the reluctant concession.  "And staff."

Josh detected discomfort with the notion.  "You know, if it's any help, you could always think of them as being the President's staff - not your own."

"You don't think I can be an autocrat if I have to?"

"No," conceded Josh, "I don't see that being a problem."

"Darn right."  They had stopped in front of a door at some distance from the Santos family's rooms.  Accommodation in this area was reserved for informal guests of the First Family, close personal friends and relatives.  "Recognize this?"

"Yeah, ah… "  Josh's brow furrowed.  "This was where Eleanor Roosevelt's girlfriend lived."  All of a sudden, he wasn't wild about the parallels.

Santos threw open the door.  "Ron Butterfield suggested we turn it into a bedroom and office for you; there are going to be times when you have to work late, and you may as well stay the night."  He ushered Josh in and closed the door; the room had a desk, a chair, a telephone and a wall of empty shelves.  Up against the window someone seemed to be auditioning fabric samples for drapes; three different heavyweight gold brocades were pinned up to catch the light.  "Apparently Leo did from time to time."

"He did?"

"So Ron says.  He raised the subject at our first meeting.  When were you going to tell me about the conversation you had with Bartlet?"

"I wasn't," Josh admitted.  "He guessed... well, you know what he guessed."

"Yes," Santos confirmed.  "And he won't be the only one."

"I imagine not.  In fact Sam may have figured it out already."

"Sam?"

"He seemed to hint… "

"Hmmm.  I don't like the idea of Sam Seaborn 'hinting' anything," was the wry rejoinder.  "I'm not sure I trust his judgment."

"I'm sorry?"

"He let you slip through his fingers, Josh.  Missed the opportunity of a lifetime.  Believe me, that's not a mistake I'm going to be dumb enough to make."

Josh wanted to say something, but he did not know what.  He was conscious of standing there with his mouth open like a vacuous schoolchild - his grandmother would have asked him if he was trying to catch flies - and he had the unnerving sensation of being on some consciousness-altering drug which had warped the boundaries of reality and turned all his perceptions into perplexity.

"I don't understand."

"Yes, you do.  I wouldn't've made it this far without you, and I'm not going to throw that overboard now.  This is your room, if you want it.  If you still want 'us'."  Santos paused irresolutely before adding almost humbly,  "Me."

Furiously, Josh shook his head.  "You don't have to do that.  You don't owe me anything."

"Who mentioned owing you?" Santos stopped abruptly, retaining control over his temper only with difficulty.  "Do you really think I'd offer you sex as a quid pro quo?  Is that it?  Because I won't leave Helen, that must mean I don't have any feelings for you?"

Josh did not reply immediately.  He shuffled his feet.  "So what does it mean?"  Words that forced themselves out apparently against his will, to judge from the pained expression  which wandered miserably across his face

Santos stepped nearer.  "This is my fault," he acknowledged.  "I should've made myself clear a long time ago.  Josh, you're part of my life and I don’t want that to change.  Helen and I will stay married while I'm in office, but when I leave… I'm going to need you around."

"Why?"  The question was blunter than Josh had intended.  He'd grown so used to watching every word around this man that he had almost forgotten how strong Matt Santos could be; not for the first time he'd got the man inextricably mixed up with the office and censored for the office things he should have been saying frankly to the man.  "I mean, what for?"

Emboldened by the response, Santos took Josh's hand in his and thoughtfully stroked the backs of his fingers.  "So that whatever we do with the rest of our lives, we get to do it together.  Openly. Whatever's left of me when this is over will be all yours.  I warn you, it may not be much."

"You're crazy," Josh accused him.

"Maybe.  But no crazier than you were the day you flew down to Houston to talk me into running.  Josh, most people who fall in love can get married and make children.  You and I don't have those options; we have to make history instead.  I'm asking you to help me turn this country into the kind of place where an ex-President can come out of the closet the day he leaves office - with or without his Chief of Staff - and nobody will even care."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Josh demanded, abruptly.

"This," was the quiet response, the firm hand squeezing his in reassurance.  "If people see me being honest about my sexuality, maybe they won't feel they have to hide their own.  Of course we'll need to change the climate first - adoption, civil partnerships, AIDS research, whatever it takes to get the gay community on our side.  After all, we're on theirs."

"You're not planning to mention that in any speeches, are you?"  The idea was outrageous, but Matt Santos might just be lunatic enough to try it if Josh didn't stop him in time.

"Not at first, no.  But I'm serious.  I want this to be the most gay-friendly Administration ever.  I want us to go after the pink vote in a big way."

Josh could not hold back a guffaw of pure irony.  "A nude centerfold in The Advocate should just about do it.  Want me to set that up for you?"

"All right," Santos smiled.  "Give me a couple of weeks to hit the gym first - waistline's totally out of control since the campaign."

"I believe you would, too," Josh told him, shaking his head in utter bemusement.  "If I persuaded you it was a good idea, you'd go right ahead and pose."

In reply he was pulled closer, folded up into a familiar embrace.  "Of course I would.  And I don't need much persuading where you're concerned, Josh.  I trust you.  You know that."

"Trust?" Carefully, Josh evaluated the word.

"Well, you know."  A spasm of discomfort creased Santos's face.  "Love you.  I may have trouble saying it, but that doesn't mean I don't feel it."

"Okay."  Josh let his arms slide slowly around the man's neck.  "You're telling me you honestly want to risk carrying on a clandestine affair in the world's biggest, most transparent goldfish bowl?"

"Why not?  We wouldn't be the first, and I'm damn' sure we won't be the last. You're a bachelor, Helen and the kids are perfect cover. Besides, if you believe I can hack seeing you every day and not laying a finger on you, Josh, you've seriously misjudged your man.  The campaign was bad enough, but four more years… "

"Eight," corrected Josh, stubbornly.

"Huh?"

"It's eight years, not four."

"If you insist," was the wry rejoinder, "then it goes double.  And you're no better adapted for celibacy than I am.  You know damn' well I'd only have to lock the door.  There's a bed in the next room, and if you didn't look so tired…  "

"There isn't time," Josh reminded him.  "The whole world's waiting for you."

"Us," Santos corrected, gently caressing his face.  "It's waiting for both of us.  I'm not going anywhere without you, and you don't leave this room until I get my answer.  Remember, the Secret Service work for me now."

"Answer?"  Overwhelmed by the man's sheer presence and the proximity of what had been denied to him for so long, Josh had abandoned all pretensions to conscious thought.  He had tried to fight it; he had really given it his best shot, but now there was nothing to do but relax and let Matt Santos take the lead; it was, after all, what he had been born to do, and Josh had seen that from the very beginning.  "What answer would that be?"

"'Do you want to help me make history'?" prompted Matt Santos, a wide grin plastering itself all over his handsome face.

Josh affected to deliberate.  Things did not happen quickly in Government service, and this was after all a serious matter which would require thoughtful and intelligent study over an extended period; it wouldn't be sensible to rush into making any decision without thoroughly considering all the alternatives.

"Well, I don't know, Mr. President," he said, after a very long, much attenuated pause for deliberation.  "I'm probably going to need some more time to think about it."

*

If our job teaches us anything, it's that we don't know what the next President's going to face.  If we choose someone with vision, someone with guts, someone with gravitas, who's connected to other people's lives and cares about making them better - if we choose someone to inspire us, then we'll be able to face what comes our way and achieve things we can't imagine yet.

Toby Ziegler:  20 Hours in America