Title: The Dragon's Rubies (2/3)

Author: Elliott Silver

Email: elliottsilver@hotmail.com

"We just invented the tenth circle," his boss muttered through clenched teeth, his hands flexing and unflexing the way he threw his rubber ball against Sam's wall which made Sam glad he didn't have the ball right now.

"Of hell?"

"Thank you for being awake this morning, Dante," Toby congratulated him as they walked through the bullpen. "The DEA made a drug bust last night on one of the cartels and now the FBI is saying that the $30 million is an illegal seizure and want us to respond. There was a school shooting in Italy and the Italian embassy is blaming it on an American student and want us to do something. The Mississippi River flooded and the farmers want us to give them relief after complaining about the drought! The President is in a budget meeting trying to change the program we worked for five months because he thinks he knows some economics and CJ has a cold and took too much Sudafed or Tylenol or whatever you take when you can't breathe through your sinuses and is delusional enough to tell the press that we invaded Nicaragua or Niagara Falls and start a catastrophe." Toby growled loud enough for most people to look up and then look away. Nobody wanted Toby's wrath.

"And on top of it all, Josh is in California and Leo is out and there's no one here to organize us!"

"CJ?"

"Passed out in her office."

"Ginger?"

"Sick."

"Donna?"

"Josh sent Donna back to North Dakota," Toby said as they threaded their way down the hallway.

It hit Sam with sledgehammer force. He'd seen her just this morning, just over two hours ago, when he'd dropped her off at her apartment to change and head to the White House on her own. She had kissed him before he drove away. He was stopped-in-his-tracks stunned and it was probably a good thing that Toby was used to that from him.

"What? Why?"

"Because they still want North dropped from their name," he said as he shuffled through the piles of folders in his hands. Toby was a great card shuffler, especially in poker. Sam didn't have the deception for card games.

"I thought we settled that last time," Sam said, taking more phone messages and memos from Madison, the pre-law secretary he'd trained when Cathy left for chef school, as he passed by.

"Apparently not," Toby concluded as he ducked into his office, skimming over the latest dispatch before the briefing CJ might or might not do.

He was surprised and surprised to be so surprised, though in the end, it made some sort of logical sense because she was saving him the trip when he had more important things to do than debate about the difference between the Mount Rushmore state and their northern sibling. But after last night, he'd hoped for something different than Donnatella Moss being in Bismarck, North Dakota. He hoped for eyes like lupines in the spring and the soft, sure way she kissed him as if it really meant something.

He was fine without her, he really was. They'd only spent one night together, which was somewhat of a theme in his experiences. He wasn't Petrarch or a melancholy romantic from the nineteenth century - he was still the same dashing, charming, witty Sam Seaborn when she was 1532.28 miles away. He went to meetings, wrote scholarly things, paid his bills, and every now and then remembered tea was not a recognized food group. He could still play political hardball and drive his car in a more or less respectable manner that prevented him from getting tickets. He could smell her lingering perfume on his passenger seat and the silver necklace with marcasite beads was still sitting on his endtable, but he wasn't dying. He missed her every time he passed a Starbucks and when he walked into Josh's office two days later to ask about the particulars for the delta flood bill and Josh was giving her instructions, it tugged at him not to interrupt and ask her how Harry Conway was. He ordered two Yo-Yo Ma CDs online and paid for overnight shipping.

He stayed in his office later than he needed, caught up on things that slipped, and slept a little less than he should. He could still make bad decisions without her, and good choices too. He could run the country, inspire the citizens, draft policy with the president, ignore Toby when he bounced his ball off their walls, and wonder at corner moments, if it had only been a night of comfort for them both, or whether it meant more. That was also a theme in his relationships.

He was reading the new Japanese trade regulations and he was trying not to pay attention to the way his glasses were itching the bridge of his nose. He was tired and he knew if he wanted to stay awake, he needed to uncork his legs and get some coffee. But he didn't want to do either and he wanted to know about whatever this chest of wonders would be that he had opened with Donnatella Moss and where it would lead.

"They sent me to North Dakota."

He looked up, pulling the glasses off with relief. She stood in the archway of his door like a silhouette, a travel bag with its jutting airport tags slung over her shoulder.

"So it's still North Dakota, right?"

"For the moment," she said with a tired smile.

"It's almost midnight," Sam said bizarrely, glancing at his watch.

"I had to drop the stuff off for Josh," she said, waving vaguely in the direction of his office and shrugging the weight on her shoulder. She looked at him and there was something more in her eyes. "He said you were still in the office."

"You asked him?"

"Not so directly," she says, and if she wasn't jetlagged, Sam thought she would have been almost coy in her answer. "I said Harry Conway asked me to pass on a message."

"What did he say?"

"I think he said, hello, and maybe a few other things," she stopped and shifted the weight on her shoulders again. "Are you going home yet?"

He grabbed his coat and turned off the lamp; she was still waiting when he came to stand beside her in the doorway. She stepped out of his way and he followed her; the door slammed aloofly through the empty space. They heard the static from a secret service agent and a muffled banging from the janitor. They walked out into the night and he held open the car door for her. No one paid them any attention; he'd taken her home on occasion before when Josh was too busy or she stayed late or for any other inscrutable reason. Josh had taken Ginger and Bonnie sometimes, and even Margaret when Leo was out of town and didn't want to go alone. They could be real gentlemen, the men of the West Wing, sometimes. He backed out and started into the street, the car lights glaring through the night as he braked for a red light even though there was no one else in the intersection but them.

"Sam," her voice was shivery in the car even though he had the blowers on high. He was in the right turn lane to head towards her apartment. He turned to her as she leaned across the console and kissed him and he felt the miles that had separated them for three days in the way she did and the way he kissed her back. Her lips were little chapped and he could taste Burt's Beeswax on her. Her eyes were open and he wondered if she had ever closed them.

"You're in the wrong lane," she pointed out. The light had been green all this time, but no traffic had come up behind them or across from them, or even catty corner. It faded to caution and then red again and he slid the BMW out of the turn lane, floored the gas delightfully, and went straight, quite illegally.

They parked and slipped into his apartment, shrugging off coats and bags and suddenly just standing, awkward and silent and still before one another. They weren't but five feet between each other, but Sam wasn't sure how to cross that space. He knew there was a way, but he didn't know what it was.

Across from him, Donna crossed her hands across her waist and pulled the rusty sienna shirt over her head. Her hair sparkled with static in the dark, racing blue-green streaks of pent electricity. The shirt lingered in her hand before she dropped it and walked to him. Her bra was white and edged with lace.

He had sacked his tie earlier in the night and undid the first button on his white shirt. It made a popping sound against the crisp fabric; it seemed to swallow them. She blinked as he unloosed the other buttons and stripped the shirt. He jerked the cotton undershirt over his head, knowing it spiked the ends of his hair.

There was half a footstep between them as he slid his hands down her arms from shoulder to elbow and across the planes of her back, unhooking her bra and letting it slide to the wood floor like a dandelion wisp. When he touched her, it felt like she had never left.

She swayed towards him, her breasts and stomach pressing against his chest as she kissed him and he pulled her tighter as they stumbled backwards to his bedroom. When they fell to the bed, she was still kissing him, her tongue dancing against his until he broke the kiss and traced the ridges of her collarbone with the tip of his tongue. His hands steadied her hips as she ground against him and he felt like screaming. They stripped the rest of their clothes as he melded into her and when she came, his name on her voice was possibly the most beautiful thing he had ever heard.

She fell asleep twisted into him and he laid there, propped on his bent arm and watching her. He had seen her doze before, briefly on Air Force One, but she had always looked hurried and tense, and when she startled awake, guilty. Now there was a peace in watching her sleep that reminded him of iambic pentameter, where words measured and breathed together and everything that encompassed the world fit into one single line of prose.

He watched her until the sky merged into a blue conglomeration like a Kandinsky painting, knowing he would feel the wear on him but unable to look away. The color fell over her like a wave and when he ran his fingers down the side of her face, he almost expected them to be wet.

"I can feel you watching me." She said it quietly, without moving or opening her eyes.

"I thought you felt my touch."

"That too," she said and her voice was drifting with sleep.

"Should I stop?" He was already fifteen minutes past his usual waking hour, when he rose and dressed and hurried to his office when the building was quiet – it was never still.

"No," she answered simply, yawning so that he felt the puffs of her exhalation against his skin. She curled to him and her skin was cool, the way it would feel after a dive into the ocean. "Five more minutes," she begged as her hand wound in his.

"Ok," he said, and wrapped himself around her. CJ would arrive before him, and Ed and Larry, and probably Leo. And when he gave Donna five additional minutes of his own, until the sky faded from blue to sunburst, he knew Toby would be there too and Josh.

But the blue sky had turned to rain as he ran into the White House an hour later, spewing huge pouring droplets the size of sanddollars so that the trees, the sidewalks, and the black macadam were all slick with watery pomade. By the time he skidded into his office, cursing the smooth soles of his expensive shoes, the thunder had started pounding like a war drum.

He hadn't even set down his bag when Madison came into his office with a whole sheaf of notes.

"Ok, Sam," she began like a drill sergeant, "You've got a meeting with Senior Staff in three minutes, and Toby's already been here twice about problems with the Wolsey Bill. Also David Cates from Department of Transportation called about the bridge that collapsed in Alabama – "

"And a good morning to you too, Maddy."

Madison kept reading despite his interruption. He sat down at his desk. He felt giddy.

Madison stopped reading; she hated being called Maddy. "Sam, did you just say good morning to me?"

"I most certainly did."

"Sam, you realize it's pouring rain out and there's a chain of severe thunderstorms passing over DC for the rest of the day?" Sam nodded. He still felt giddy; she wasn't wearing off. "Sam, you realize you have a meeting on the Hill and that requires you to go out into that rain, right?"

"Yes, Maddy, and it's a task whose challenge I relish with delight."

"Sam, are you happy?"

He wasn't just happy; he was exalted, exuberant, inspired. Madison walked out, shaking her head and muttering something about how all bets were off in the universe since Sam Seaborn was in not just a tolerable mood, but by all appearances, a middling to ecstatically jolly mood, on Wednesday morning as he followed her and headed towards Leo's office for Senior Staff, pouring a turpentine cup of coffee on the way.

The alarm screeched the next morning and Sam fumbled from under the covers to turn it off. After a few seconds, he managed to shut it off and shrugged back under the sheets.

"Donnatella," he whispered.

She squirmed against him and ducked her head under the blankets. Donnatella Isabella Moss wasn't a morning person, especially after sex and jetlag and sex.

But Sam was wide awake, even after sex and politics and sex.

He scrunched down under the blankets with her, pulled the navy linen sheets over his head too so that his forehead and hers were touching. Her arms were pulled up across her chest and she was curled against him so that her breath lulled against his face.

Gently he inched down and began kissing her forearms, where the ulna and radius turned and twisted against each other. He heard the quick intake of her breath, the small shifting of her weight as she leaned towards him, and even in the dimness of their tented world, he could see the fluttering of her eyelids that belied she was awake.

His fingers wrapped around hers and laced them together as he drew her arms down and kissed her shoulder blade, where the joint of her scapula met her collarbone, tracing the slight dip in her warm skin with the tip of his tongue.

She twined her leg between his, anchoring herself to him as he kissed up her neck to the fine line of her cheek, tugging on her corner of her ear as she rolled slightly and he leaned his weight down on her warm chest, her breasts pressed against his sternum as he kissed her temple and down to her nose and hovered over her for a second so that she opened her eyes before he kissed her lips.

"Sam," she whispered between kisses as she wrapped her arms around him and tugged him closer. "Do you have any shirts?"

Sam was busy kissing his way down Donnatella's elegant breastbone. "Yes," he answered in his typically Sam voice.

"Can I wear one?"

"Sure," he mumbled as his hands swelled around her firm breasts and kissing his way under the sheets. "Why?"

"Because I'd rather have another fifteen minutes of this than going to my apartment to get dressed."

And that was how Donna Moss ended up wearing the Deputy Communications Director's shirt to work at the White House.

He handed her the pink shirt still in its original Brooks Brothers giftbox when she came out of the bathroom, her hair tucked up in one of his sapphire towels, another tucked around her damp body so that he longed to pull it off, fall with her onto the bed, and nest themselves in its blue-shadowed world.

"But this is new," she protested as he handed it to her, his own white button-down fluttering open on his chest as he stood in his black boxer briefs.

"Pink's not my color," he said and she grinned. He also explained how it was also 2 inches too small around the collar and 2 inches too short in the sleeves and how his aunt persisted in giving it to him anyway.

And the truth was Donna Moss looked better in it than he ever would. She slipped into it and tucked it into the grey pants she'd worn the day before, tugged on her black heels, and looked so immaculately precise Sam felt undressed next to her.

And although Sam had his doubts about her couture choice, no one else did. Bonnie told her she wanted a shirt just like it, and even the President's new secretary made a comment about how nice Donna looked. Sam guessed they weren't looking to see which side the buttons were on.

He didn't see her after that morning. Toby kept him busy with grammar school lessons about preposition choice and when he tried to slip out of the office at 6, CJ informed him they were working with Bruno late into the night about the President's ad campaign. Sam gritted his teeth and went to the meeting.

He unlocked the door to his apartment and dropped everything he was carrying onto the floor, slamming the door after him and leaning against it. He'd wanted to see Donna again tonight and even though they both knew White House schedules didn't coincide well with relationships, and usually those schedules killed relationships, or all the ones Sam knew of including Leo's, Toby's, Josh's first, and his second, Sam had wanted to work this one out. And that was why he wasn't about to go knocking on Donna Moss' door at almost 2 in the morning either.

He walked through the dark room past his couch and into the kitchen, flipping on the light and standing at the sink staring out the dark window at the flaring lights of DC in the night sky.

"Sam.'

He swung around so fast he felt off balance. She stood half in the shadows in her bare feet, her hair tussled around her shoulders.

"Donna," he breathed, his heart pounding. "What are you doing here?"

"I wanted to bring your shirt back," she explained softly, fingering the cotton seam as the collar plunged into a deep v to the soft swells of her breasts. The tails of the shirt brushed against the top of her thighs, thin enough so that Sam could see the lacy embroidery of the pink string bikini she wore. The shirt was all she had on.

Sam went to her and holding her face in his hands, kissed her. She covered his hands with hers and drew them down over her breasts to the buttons of the shirt. Sam left the pink shirt on the tiled floor of the kitchen as he stumbled with her into the deep dark of his bedroom, falling into each other until they breathed again.

When the alarm went off the next morning, she was pooled next to him, her skin melded into his, into every crevice and niche, every place he had never known before was empty.

"Sam," she murmured as she twisted over in his arms so that her head tucked under his. "Can I wear one of your shirts again?"

By the end of the next week, they were mostly living together, although working at the White House, they had really been living together for years – now they just spent nights together as well. She was hesitant about spending so much time with him at first, afraid that someone would see them and take notice. But besides all the sex – the most Sam had ever had with one person – there was the simple yearning to spend time together, and although she picked up her mail and watered her few plants, the time she spent in her apartment was minimal. At first, there was an unsureness to her movements and motions when she was with him that faded only with the way they laughed together, the klutzy way they tripped over things and nothing, and the way they fought over the last slice of ham-pineapple-pepperoni pizza.

She was a better actor than he, of which he attributed to her drama minor. He would see her across a crowded copy room and want to go to her. He would see her walk by his office with a handful of blue folders and want to call to her. One time he found her alone faxing a memo, humming Vivaldi under her breath, and all Sam could think was how much he wanted to touch her. Then Josh walked in and called to him and Donna looked up. But she didn't look at her boss; she looked at him and in her eyes, he saw the world.

He would come home and she would be there and they would cook something to eat, or rather, he would cook something or she would order Thai takeout or Moroccan. They were both used to insane schedules that rarely coincided and eating at macabre hours of the night. Sam found he liked curry and mint and peanut sauce; he liked the way her lips got sticky and how she would use the tip of her tongue to lick them clean. And how of all the people he knew, she was only one who could actually eat with chopsticks.

He would come home and he called it home, not just that place outside the office where he sometimes went and stored stuff. He told her they were out of trash bags on Tuesday and she had looked at him from blow-drying her hair and asked whether he wanted big ones or small ones and when he had come back, there was a new box of Heftys. One day he had come home and she had put the Beatles on his stereo and she was singing "Lady Madonna" in the kitchen and suddenly he was so damn grateful for the British invasion.

A wilted violet plant had appeared on his kitchen windowsill, in a plastic pot and a huge pottery saucer that had the name Maude glazed on it in iridescent turquoise. In a week, Maude was proudly sprouting feathery pink and white flowers. Suddenly there was color in his rooms that had never been there before. It was the way she was.

She liked tucking herself up in his chair and reading his books from college, the eclectic collection of valuable treasures, childhood friends, and textbook enemies with his bent earmarks and notes scribbled in the margins. He had Kerouac, Steinbeck, and Salinger, and here and there a Faulkner and Hemingway. He had Heart of Darkness next to All the King's Men, and he had seen her flipping through his Auden, Frost, and Wordsworth. She minded Machiavelli and Cicero with a critical eye, and bypassed Leviathan and The Social Contract, as well as Locke and Montesquieu. He had The Guns of August and a Tom Clancy someone had given him but he had never read, and then he had all his Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times, Bleak House, and the book that had started it all, Great Expectations in several editions and one in Spanish. These were his favorite books; all his political references and congressional data were stuffed in his office. And Donna knew it, knew by touching them and reading them, she was learning a part of him. He'd assumed her favorite poet was Emily Dickinson because that was every girl's favorite poet and told her he didn't have a single copy when she'd tartly informed him Walt Whitman was her favorite and that it just went to show even Sam Seaborn could be wrong once in a while. He had a few DVDs that people who didn't know him had given him, but he'd only seen her watching AMC or CNN on the wide television he hardly ever watched, since he didn't have time to collect a menagerie of porn the way some people did.

She wasn't the Donna people thought she was, the absent-minded but efficient secretary to the deputy chief of staff. She was Donnatella Isabella Moss, smarter than anyone gave her credit for, tough as an Iwo Jima Marine on the outside, and as fragile as blown glass on the inside. She was allergic to penicillin, had loose curls in her hair if she let it air dry, had been scared of carousels as a child, and loved Casablanca and any movie with Cary Grant to no end. When she woke up, if she woke up, she could be awfully grumpy, and when he kissed her awake, she'd put a hand over her mouth to ward off morning breath. Then, sure that she was up, he'd get out of bed and shower and leave the water running for her, so that she could lie in bed for 5 extra minutes. Then he'd call and she'd stumble in, still sleepy, fully nude, and she'd slip into the shower and turn on so much hot water that the bathroom fogged up and Sam would grouch at her that he couldn't see to shave. She'd wash her hair with the shampoo that smelled like orchard apples and he would breathe in the hot sweet scent over the spice of his shaving cream, listening to the water echo off the stalls of the shower as she moved. She'd turn off the water and step out and he would hand her the towel, and sometimes he wouldn't and she'd either smack at him pointedly or drip water all over the bathroom, and she'd dry herself off and twist the towel around her hair and push him outside to get dressed so she could brush her teeth and dry her hair and dab on her makeup. And then she'd come out and he'd kiss her before she got dressed and she'd taste like Crest Mint and Scope, since she hated Listerine, and she felt powdery and warm and smelled like heaven and he could have stayed with her like that until the end of time.

But they'd go to work and he would run the country and she would help Josh help him run the country.

"Why did it take us so long?" he asked one night out of the blue when he couldn't stand pondering it any longer.

Donna looked up at him from where she was organizing papers for the next day. She'd been so engrossed in her task that she hadn't noticed he'd been watching her for the last seventeen minutes.

"You were my boss's best friend," she pointed out, straightening a sheaf of papers by tapping them against the endtable and stapling them together. "What was I supposed to do?"

"You were supposed to be in love with your boss," he defended.

"I know," she answered and she chewed against her one cheek in something that reminded him of regret.

"So why did you?" he asked, curiosity getting the best of common sense which was a great academic trait, but not so wonderful in the real world where women gave answers he didn't understand and couldn't decipher.

"Because you came out of Josh's office that day and you stood there looking at me, and I saw that look in your eyes," she said all in a rush so that she almost sounded like CJ mouthing a cover-up than Donnatella Moss. "I've wanted someone to look at me that way my whole life." The last part she said so slowly he could hear the truth between every syllable. "Why did you?"

"Because I hoped," he said so honestly he realized he had almost forgotten what honesty felt like, that clean jab that could slice you to the bone and deeper. "Because I hoped that there was hope."

She was silent as what he said sank in.

"I can never promise you normal hours, free weekends, the usual holidays, dinners out, movies in, or all the other sane things most people do."

"If you can't give it, I don't want it."

"But you should," he protested, rattled by her words and her remarkable calm and certainty in saying them. He had kept his certainty on rein for years and knew it well, but hers flustered him because it was so true and it meant only one thing, that she wasn't in love with Josh Lyman, hadn't been for some time, because she was in love with someone else.

Donna put the papers in the stack and closed the file, padding over on her knees to where he was sitting on the couch. When she took his hands and then kissed him, he knew she wasn't lying, she really didn't. And that was when he finally wondered if she was right, if there was some admirable part in the sinking black morass of his lost soul.

Donna was one of the few women who he could read. By watching her across the room, he knew she was spurned and furious. Sam could read that just by the irate corkscrew of her back as she sat at her computer, and the jerky mechanisms of her movements. He was fascinated by the intricate tappings and joltings of her fingers against the keyboard, the plinking sound her short nails made against the plastic, the poking of keys that all signaled carpal tunnel and a smashed computer in no small way. He knew from across the room that she was frustrated because the Internet wasn't working correctly and he wondered idly what that said about their technology.

He slunk back into his office. He returned two calls to people he didn't like. He signed several papers and gave them to Madison without really knowing what they were about. He refilled the ink cartridge on his second-favorite pen and put it in its box so he would forget what he'd done with it. He went looking for Toby, but Toby was out of his office. He skimmed through two proposals. He tried to pay attention.

When he couldn't bear it anymore, he asked her to lunch. It was 1:04. There were people milling around – there always were – but she had given up on the computer and was scribbling notes out of a huge maroon binder. She finished her line and looked up at him with her blue eyes.

"Let's go to Gilgarry's," he said, standing over her. Her look simmered crystalline between admonition and invitation as she glanced surreptitiously around them.

"You can get Josh lunch," he prodded.

"He's with McMurdock right now," she informed him.

"Ok," he turned to go back to his office and count paper clips.

"Sam." When he turned around, she was standing and reached for her windbreaker and black purse. As they went out, he held the doors for her, and he liked that second where she paused and waited for him still unused to the gesture so that he escorted her through with a hand on the small of her back.

D.C. was crowded with traffic and bleeping horns. Pedestrians, joggers, and tourists flocked in muddled herds through the shifting cars. It was early spring, a week and a half before the cherry blossoms burst out, but the sky was sunny like summer. She walked beside him in her light jacket and tortoiseshell shades that had seen better days without saying a word as they threaded their way down to the deli.

They stopped at a crosswalk and she stared at him from under the shaded lenses. She didn't have to ask; he already knew the question and he also knew she already knew the answer.

"I just wanted to see you," he said innocently as they dodged between cars on the Don't Walk signal.

"That's all you wanted?"

"Yes." He didn't, but that was beyond the point.

"You know we can't, Sam."

"It doesn't mean I want it any less." He also knew he didn't have to tell her that it wasn't really that they couldn't have it, but that it was the price they would have to pay for it. They were doing a good job so far of having what they couldn't have.

He barely saw the woman coming towards them before she greeted them and this was exactly why Donna had been so leery. It was because he wanted to believe the best of people, because he didn't know the cool restaurant and didn't care, because he didn't know where the Tommy Hilfiger party was, didn't care, and didn't know what to do once someone made him get there. It was because of him, because he believed things could be easy because they were right. It was because she believed him.

"Congresswoman Kinney," he said as she stopped in front of him.

"Sam, I thought I saw you." She was an attractive blond, somewhere around Toby's age he supposed, who could be just smart enough to be dangerous on occasion. "Congratulations on 876."

"Thank you," he replied. Donna had shifted a half-step further away from him. "We couldn't have gotten it through without your help."

"I was just one vote," she replied neutrally, meaning she expected quid pro quo in the future, and glanced suspiciously at Donna.

"Congresswoman, this is Donna Moss – " he began.

"Josh Lyman's assistant," the woman placed her, as Donna held out her hand and she shook it lightly.

"Yes," Donna agreed breezily, "I'm just out to get him lunch now."

The comment disarmed the congresswoman and she said a few more words to Sam and then darted back to her work. Donna was cleverer than people gave her credit for; she had a talent for misdirection that could very possibly save them both when his attachment to truth upended everything they held sacred.

Neither of them said anything as they walked the last half block to Gilgarry's. Sam opened the door for her, but didn't touch her to escort her through. That was the way things had to be, if they were to be at all. They both knew it, hated it, and accepted it.

The line was oddly short and they ordered quickly, Donna paying for her chicken salad on sourdough and Josh's hot pastrami and provolone, no mustard, on burnt black bread, with Josh's money, and Sam paying for his Black Forest Ham on rye on his own. They could have been two strangers as easily as they could have been two lovers.

"Sam, you know we can't do this, right?"

"But we are," he defended, and as she looked over at him, she knew what he meant.

The candle beside him guttered as he cursed and the words echoed off his walls. Outside, thunder crashed mercilessly enough to knock out power throughout DC and leave the city in a blackout that was going on three hours long. Throughout it all, Sam was trying to finish the speech for the reception of the Palestinian delegation in the Rose Garden the next day. Needless for him to mention, it wasn't going very well.

He'd left the office just as the first set of storms were sliding through and had been drenched by the first shower before even getting to his car. He drove home sopping wet through rain so hard it bounced off the ground in ricochets. Before he'd gotten the door to his apartment open, the city had gone black. Donna had already been there and they had lit all four candles that Sam had, and then after a very quick, cold shower, he discovered that his laptop had 14% battery left. He was writing on business envelopes because he had left his briefcase and legal pads in the office and after stubbing his toe against a molding hard enough for him to wince, he wasn't about to stumble around his apartment looking for anything larger.

He sat on the couch trying desperately to conjure the word he wanted in his sentence while Donna reclined in the chair across from him flipping through some papers by the light of another candle. At his cursing, she looked up.

"I should go," she said quietly as thunder boomed in the distance. "I'm just distracting you."

"No – " But his voice was raggedly vehement.

"It's ok, Sam."

"No, Donnatella," he said more quietly. "You don't get it."

She had risen from the chair already.

"I need you now more than ever." Josh couldn't push this beautiful, fragile, tough woman far enough away, and Sam couldn't get her close enough. He wanted her close enough so that he couldn't ever forget this was why he was in the government, that this was what he was protecting. He wanted her so close that the words hung between them, as if he could take a knife, cut the air between them, and use the words that bled out to write the most articulate, moving speech he could imagine. After all, there was nothing to writing but sitting down and opening a vein, or at least most of the time.

"Ok," she answered softly. She rose and went to his bookshelf and after thumbing his covers, pulled out a leather-bound copy. She sat back down and pulled one of the candles closer to her so that her face was wreathed in flames like tiger lily petals as the pages flickered through her fingers. It was the first edition of The Great Gatsby his mother had given him on his sixteenth birthday. In the background of the guttering candles, he could hear the swirl of the parchment pages as she turned through Daisy's life and Gatsby's devotion, the echo of thunder as it slid over the sky.

'Vindication', that had been the word he had been racking his brain for, the vindication of not of victory or defeat, but of a quiescent truce. He scribbled on, his pen jutting oddly over the gummy seal of the envelope backs. When he finished, she was about a quarter of the way through the book.

"What do you think?" he asked and it was only when he called her name that she blinked and looked up at him. He grinned. "Where are you?"

She cast her eyes back down at the beautifully black printed lines. "He has an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again."

Donna read in a clear voice that gave off mellifluous undertones and firm remonstrance. Her voice was like baklava, not to be trifled with, and he could see her doing CJ's job in a few years.

There was a disturbing calm within him. It wasn't the thrill of finishing a piece of writing, nor was it the impenetrable anxiety of letting other read what he had crafted.

"Would you read this?"

She marked her place in the book and got up without a word. Sam moved over on the couch so she could sit next to him. His thigh barely brushed hers as he handed her the stack of envelopes he'd written on. She took them carefully and pointed out all the spelling and grammar mistakes but one, an optional comma that Sam and Toby used just to insure the President knew when to breathe and break the line.

"It's not about an end or even how it ends," she said, pointing to the last line. "It's about hope, the vindication of hope and the hope of vindication."

And as he scribbled down her words, he knew she was right, not only for Palestine and the Rose Garden, but also this night and them.

He went to the West Wing for several hours early Saturday morning to let her sleep and he'd returned to a yawning, hungry Donna who had by various not-so-clear ways enchanted him into making pancakes at two hours past noon and the game on tv. She had mixed the Bisquick batter in one of his old tee shirts that fell just to the top of her thighs, threatening him with the batter-dipped whisk when his hands ventured up and under the shirt. They were both laughing for no certain reasons and it felt wonderful.

After fending off his advances, she had stationed him in front on the spuzzling frying pan and changed into jeans and shirt while he poked at the dollop of lumpy beige goop with the spatula and flipped it, sending a hail of batter drops across the stove. Dubiously, he shoveled out the misshapen pancake and Donna poured another cup of batter into the pan. Before he could turn around, she was already eating the first product of his labors – one that not even Aunt Jemima would claim – slathering it with a layer of peanut butter he didn't even know he had and then rolling into a wrap. She did the same for pancake number two.

"Are you going to leave me any?" he asked, hands on his hips as she got two bites into her third peanut butter pancake wrap and the count was 3 Donna, 0 Sam.

Donna stared at him, her cheeks bulged like a chipmunk's guiltily, and with great difficulty swallowed. He watched the lump sink down her throat and prayed between the dough and the sticky peanut butter, she didn't choke.

"That one's yours," she said, pointing around him to the one in the frying pan. "The one that's burning."

Sam turned and flipped it over in a spray of butter and oil. One side was definitely more black than brown. She looked at him so innocently.

He kissed her and she tasted like peanut butter and suddenly he wanted to try a pancake with peanut butter. He set the spatula down on the batter-speckled counter as she leaned into him, not caring about his pancake because charcoal was good for the digestion and because she was sitting on a stool in his kitchen and they were kissing and making deformed pancakes that probably weren't fully cooked to USDA regulations and because it was so perfect.

He would have kept kissing through the burnt smell and the batter marks his fingers left on her cheeks and the game he wasn't all that interested in on tv, except that the phone rang.

He sighed and Donna laughed, hopping off the stool and rescuing the frying pan from the heat as he dug out his cell phone. He could hear her scraping the burnt pancake into the trash.

"Donna, it's your phone," he said, grabbing the other Nokia from the endtable. She set the pan down on the sink and he could feel her reluctance to take the ringing thing. She did though, answering it curtly as he sprayed the pan again with no-stick and poured another cup of batter onto the heat.

"Josh," she said with consternation and she stopped looking at him.

"I'm at home," she answered brightly, but her voice sounded a little strained. "I didn't hear the other phone."

Sam's smile tightened as she turned away from him and paced to the other end of the kitchen.

"You knocked?" she asked suddenly and there was more than surprise in her tone, a little hostility at invasion. "At my apartment?"

Everything stopped. The world falling down made the same sound as a mosquito buzzing close to his ear, the dreadful bloodsucking sound of beating wings and jaws that slurped out your soul in one careful incision.

"I was probably in the shower," she explained easily. "You know, personal hygiene and all, Josh. I'm not lying, Josh. Where else do you think I'd be? Ok? Alright, fine. I'll be there in twenty minutes."

Sam turned to her, already knowing because that was how the White House worked. There was a smudge of batter along the side of the phone from where he'd marked her like coup on her cheek.

"Does he know?"

She shook her head and then she looked straight into him with her lupine eyes.

"Are you sure?"

She didn't shake her head that time. "And what's going to happen when they do find out about us sleeping together?"

"Does it matter?" he'd asked though he knew it did.

Donna just stared at him and then chuffed in disbelief.

"You're the Deputy Chief of Communications and I'm the Senior Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Staff, so yeah, I think it matters at little," she said. "You're Josh Lyman's best friend and I'm his secretary."

"I know that," Sam replied evenly.

"Then maybe you should start caring about what this relationship looks like instead of what it is."

"This isn't about sex," Sam returned, suddenly on the defensive.

"Yeah?" Donna questioned as her fingers curled whitely around the cell phone. "Then why do I feel like I've just been fucked?"

When he didn't say anything, she just shook her head. "I have to go in," she said, washing her hands under the faucet and wiping her face with a paper towel.

It seemed as though the world had suddenly split. Not five minutes ago, they'd been laughing and here she was walking out his door, the very muffled echoes of her jogging down the wood stairs ringing in his ears.

But she came back.

He got up from the couch as she flicked on a light. He'd been sitting there so long his eyes had grown accustomed to the dimness.

"You were right," he told her because she was. And then he handed her what he'd been holding.

"What is it?" she asked, thrown off guard.

"Open it."

She opened the nondescript bag and pulled out the DVD inside with Bogart and Bergman on the cover.

"It was on this afternoon, but you weren't here," he explained. "So I – "

Donna threw her arms around him. "I'm sorry," she whispered and he knew she was sorry for being right. He was sorry they had ever felt wrong because holding her like that in his arms was one of the rightest things he knew.

She fed in the DVD and they ate the pancakes he'd saved from the morning, and he was even brave enough to try one with peanut butter the way she liked them. It wasn't half-bad he told her as they watch the scenes in Rick's American Café. She leaned against him as Ilsa asked her famous request, "Play it once, Sam." She never said 'again' in the movie.

They watched up through the famous plane scene when Donna's head lolled against his shoulder, her eyes softly lidded. In the dark room, she was cast in an amber glow by the one light he had left on and her sleeping form reminded him of the smooth grace of a Neruda poem he had memorized once.

"Ya eres mía," he whispered to her, gently touching her cheek. "Reposa con tu sueño en mi sueño. Amor, dolor, trabajos, deben dormir ahora. Gira la noche sobre sus nvisibles ruedas y junto a mí eres pura como el ámbar dormido..."

He'd always called it the amber poem, though it was actually one of Neruda's sonnets. Beside him, Donna shifted slightly and he continued as if parsing a lullaby. "La noche, el mundo, el viento devanan su destino, y ya no soy sin ti sino sólo tu sueño," he finished softly and kissed her forehead.

"It's beautiful," she said without opening her eyes, as if she was afraid it was only a dream. "What does it mean?"

"I'll tell you," he told her as he pulled her into his arms and carried her to his bed. She was too tired to change and instead, just pulled the sheet up around her as he slid in and she spooned to him.

"And now you're mine," he began, translating in his mind the Spanish to English. "Rest with your dream in my dream./ Love and pain and work should all sleep, now./ The night turns on its invisible wheels,/ and you are pure beside me as a sleeping amber." She asked him for the rest and he continued until the end: "The night, the world, the wind spin out their destiny./ Without you, I am your dream, only that, and that is all."

He came back late Wednesday night from working out at the gym, still in his Adidas shorts and sweaty Duke tee shirt, lugging his gym bag after him. She was curled up on his couch flipping through a proposal and making notes; a Brahms sonata was on in the background and he could smell apples on the air so that he knew she had just showered. He dropped the gym bag in the closet without bothering to dig out the damp towel inside. In the distance he could hear the dryer rumbling with a fresh load of clothes as he went over to the couch and leaned over to kiss her.

"Mmm," he whispered as he ran his tongue over her lower lip.

"Mmm," she mocked flippantly, "Sweaty Sam."

"Uh huh," he agreed as he ran his hand through her damp hair and she opened her mouth to his kiss, her tongue dancing against his.

"Shower first, Sweaty Sam."

"Why," he whined at her. "I'll just get sweaty again."

"Yeah, but you smell."

"Thank you, dear."

"No problem, darling."

She was giggling, her finger in the binding of the pages where she'd been reading. She was wearing his terry robe with the red-sailed ship embroidered on the back, the ship he could have taken to the Olympics if he wanted to and though things weren't back to where they had been between them since the argument, they were getting there.

"I ordered Thai again," she called as he headed towards the bathroom, flicking on the light and leaving the door open.

"So how was the meeting with Everglades people?"

He could barely hear her voice as he turned on the faucets and water gushed out of the shower. She'd left the cap open to her shampoo and the room smelled of apples.

"It went well," he said, raising his voice so she could hear him.
"Well well, or just well?"

"They agreed with us," he said as he stripped off his clothes and stepped into the pounding water. "We'll set aside 7 million dollars and they'll protect new land and the breeding grounds of four endangered species."

"And Ritchie?"

He could barely hear her now.

"We're gonna win," he shouted back. "This is going to make him look bad in his home state."

He rinsed the shampoo out of his hair, careful not to use Donna's as he had once and smelled of apples all day so that even Bonnie had noticed. He shut off the water and toweled himself off just as the doorbell rang.

"I'll get it," she called and he heard her padding across the floor for the food. He slipped into the bedroom and pulled on a pair of jeans and a black tee just as he heard, "I don't believe this," and easy as that, his world fell apart.

Donna had the door open, his blue terry robe belted twice around her waist and falling almost to her knees.

"Josh," she said.

Sam came up behind her, and Josh stared at him dumbly. Donna glanced back at him once and then kept her eyes on Josh. She was wearing his bathrobe, her hair was just slightly damp and down, her lips just-kissed, and her cheeks pink from where his stubble had rubbed at her. It was damning.

Josh stared at her and Sam saw it hit in his eyes, saw his world break and fall apart too. That made two of them. He stood in the doorway in the shit-brown suit and brown-gold geometric tie he'd worn to work, trying to make sense of what he was seeing and failing to get there.

"Josh," Donna said and he focused on her. "What did you need?"

He couldn't stammer a coherent reply as the Thai deliveryman rounded the stairs, out of breath as always, his toupee askew and his cell phone glowing on his belt. Ricardo was at least fifty and he was always the one that delivered, calling Donna "Mrs. Sam" so that she'd laugh.

He barged right into the middle of them and at any other time it would have been funny. Donna had the money rolled in her hand and she handed it to him as Josh had to step back. Ricardo chattered on and on, but as she took the two brown bags, he took one look at their faces, bid them goodnight and left.

"I'll let you two talk," she said as she turned and took the bags into the kitchen. Sam heard her set them down on the counter with a thump. He looked back at Josh.

"I don't believe it," Josh said, running a hand through his hair without really knowing what he was doing.

"What did you need?" Sam asked.

"Uh," Josh said and Sam could see him struggling to think back. His face was still tan from the few days he'd taken with Amy in the Bahamas or Bermuda or whatever Caribbean island you went to get a tan and get drinks with little purple umbrellas and get laid and call it luxury. "Your cell was off."

"Josh."

Suddenly Josh's attention returned and the cold anger of reality sunk in like oil seeping across his retinas. He straightened his back and stared at Sam. "Leo needs to talk to us about Ritchie. We're meeting at 7 tomorrow morning."

He turned his back and started down the hall. Sam went out after him, calling his name and asking what the meeting was about, but Josh just raised his hand and kept going.

Donna was waiting when he closed the door. She had changed into jeans and a grey shirt and was standing with her arms crossed in the center of his living room, her hair pulled back into a ballet dancer's bun so that it made her look strained and serious.

The apartment smelled like curry and the smell got into his nostrils so that it smelled like he was breathing fire. And all he could think was that he was Lancelot: he had stolen Guinevere from Arthur and no one would ever be the same, not king, queen, knight, or country.

Donna was still standing there.

He couldn't lie to her. His only sin was Lancelot's, of loving too deeply, now, then, and forever.

"Well, that's the beginning of the end," he said quietly.

 

Part 3