|dc al fine
Author: forthecoast PM
This thing that they’ve been doing, it’s got him all tied up in knots. SamAinsleyRated: Fiction K+ - English - Romance - Sam S. & Ainsley H. - Words: 5,011 - Reviews: 12 - Favs: 17 - Published: 08-31-09 - Status: Complete - id: 5346703
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Title: d.c. al fine
Author: spyglass_ (inelastic)
Character(s)/Pairing(s): Sam, Sam/Ainsley; Donna is also there and Josh/Donna is more or less understood
Warning: spoilers through Transition
Disclaimer: If I owned the show, I would have kept John Wells far, far away.
Summary: This thing that they've been doing, it's got him all tied up in knots.
Notes: Written over a year ago for sorkin_fest at LJ, response to the prompt "Sam talks to Donna about Ainsley." And because I'm the world's biggest slacker, I'm just now getting around to moving this over here.
"One of the oldest human needs is having someone to wonder where you are, when you don't come home at night."
Sarah leaves him three weeks before the Inauguration.
It doesn't surprise him either. He comes home and calls out for her -- but his voice echoes long and deep in the empty room and the silence underwhelms him; he suspected as much. There's a note on the kitchen table in her familiar rolling script, and he almost misses it buried in between the stack of files he left out on the marble countertops.
Every file is color-coded -- Ginger summarily decided to adopt Donna's filing system. "In the tradition of the office of the DCoS," she explains. He has no idea how Josh and Donna made it work; he can't seem to keep any of the colors straight. The note is scrawled across a page torn from a three by five notebook - serrated edges still hanging jagged and loose - and it falls to the floor as he sorts through the green files looking for his notes on the budget for the coming fiscal year. (He should be looking in the black files). He bends over to pick it up as a familiar ache settles over his chest.
He's been here before.
"I can't stay here anymore. I don't like winter coats, and passing the bar once was enough for me. I told you to come and do this and I meant it; this is where you belong. But this is your life, not mine, and I am going home.
We gave it a shot and it didn't work out. I'm not sorry."
He crumples the note into a ball and tosses it haphazardly in the direction of the trash can. It misses, and he walks over to where it landed. On an impulse, he brings it back to the counter and smoothes it out, folding it up and sliding it back in between the green files. His posture slackens as he leans forward against the countertop.
He's not sorry either.
He keeps it to himself. Everyone else is so busy getting ready to move in that they barely notice.
There's an excitement in the air that permeates everything. It's tangible, real, something to hold on to, and he remembers what it felt like the first time he walked through those doors. It was everything and everyone and it mattered -- really mattered. He'd never felt so alive.
It still is of course, but now his family is broken up and spread throughout the country. Even when he left to find himself in the wake of the California 47th, they were all here and together and he always felt better just knowing that. Now Ginger will sit where Donna once sat and the incessant noise of Toby's red rubber ball will be absent. In California he could tell himself he didn't miss it; here there's no escape.
It's different this time, and it's just the same too. It bothers him most because, in the end, he doesn't miss Sarah very much and he feels like he should.
He keeps his head held high and buries himself in the transition. It's Otto and a bunch of rookies on the speechwriting staff, and the Inaugural Address is in need of a professional touch. Or at least someone who knows what it means to write for the President.
He's at the office late on a Thursday night when Josh hands him a scrap piece of paper with a cell phone number scribbled across it. "Ask for Bob," Josh says quietly. "He can help." Josh waits for a second and then adds, "Don't call from an office phone, use a private line."
He calls that night and is only half surprised when he hears Toby's grumbling voice pick up the other line.
The last time they needed a code word like this, it was the President and MS. When did it all come down to this?
He doesn't even know she's back until CJ slips it casually into conversation.
She calls him up one day under the claims of having a "few free seconds". He's fairly certain neither one of them have any time, let alone time that would be considered "free", but it's CJ. And there's no one on this planet whose wrath he fears more than hers.
He still hasn't been to the White House to see her. He wants to feel guilty, and he does. But then, she's not the press secretary anymore and he doesn't quite think he's ready to see her sitting in Leo's office. It shouldn't be like this, shouldn't be this hard. He's not ready for the tide to change just yet, there's still too much past that cannot be washed away by the shifting of the seasons.
It happens quickly. CJ, worried about what Josh is actually getting done now that Donna is busy defining policies with Helen Santos, rattles off her list of concerns. He can actually picture her sitting up at the podium as she states the facts - simple and clear and straightforward as always. "Make sure the folders on Kazakhstan get to the President Elect before his briefing tomorrow; Garfield is going to try to force your hands on gun control, so be careful; oh, and did you happen to get the list of names I sent to Josh for Chief Counsel's office? Ainsley Hayes was looking, and I told her that you might be interested..."
For someone who's devoted a significant portion of his adult life to the profession of always having the exact right words for any situation, he finds that semantics are suddenly lost to him.
"She hates it at the Hoover Institute -- I can't imagine why. She told me she wants to come back over to the dark side."
"You --- you talked to her?"
He still hasn't come up with much as far as words are concerned.
"She made it back for Leo's funeral," CJ replies quickly. She's not accusing him of anything, but that doesn't make him feel any less guilty.
He hugs his arms tight across his chest. He hadn't known until it was too late to get back, and he'll never forgive himself either.
"Spanky, are you there?" she asks finally.
"I -- yes, I am."
"Good. It felt like we lost you there for a minute."
Maybe. Maybe not.
Her name comes up again just a few days later, this time from the President Elect himself.
"Sam?" Santos calls out, holding him back after a morning meeting. "I'm meeting with Ainsley Hayes today. CJ Cregg recommended her highly for the Chief Counsel's office and assured me both you and Josh would agree with her recommendation."
"Of course." He fiddles with his hands. Something, anything to keep them occupied.
"So I don't need to worry about one of my lawyers working for the other side?" Santos winks and gestures with his hands. "There's no secret plan to overthrow the government that you and Josh have in mind?"
"You'd have to ask Josh. Secret plans are his specialty."
He holds back a sigh. Secret plans are from a lifetime ago.
He wishes he could figure out where it all went wrong. Truth is, they were probably never the same after Mrs. Landingham was no longer around to keep them all together. Sometimes, he supposes, they forget just how important she was to all of them.
The President Elect looks down with minimal understanding. Someone apparently forgot to warn him that it's wise never to feed Josh to the carnivores of White House Press Corps.
He catalogs the thought, slips it carefully back into the recesses of his mind, and puts one foot in front of the other. There will be time enough later for regrets, and he has a whole ocean full on which to set sail.
The day he met Sarah it was warm and balmy in southern California; the sun was shining and the broad expanse of blue skies seemed to go on for days. The Monday morning Ainsley Hayes bounds back into his life at full speed, the sky is gray and the temperature is just below freezing. For what it's worth, the experts are calling for snow showers.
He's on the phone with his mother, who is busy telling him that he works too hard and wouldn't it have been easier if he'd just stayed in California when Ainsley appears in his door, blonde hair draped casually over her shoulders and grinning from ear to ear.
"I was wondering when I was going to hear from you," she announces as he places the telephone back in the receiver.
He stands awkwardly beside his desk until she steps assuredly forward and wraps her arms around his neck. In spite of all the time they spent together during their last stint at the White House, he's almost certain they've never been this close.
"It's good to see you," he says finally, drawing back from their embrace.
"That's it?" Aisnley looks up at him and laughs, shaking her head. "I haven't seen you since you went gallavanting off on your suicide mission to the California 47th, and all you've got for me is 'It's good to see you'? I mean, honestly Sam, did you think that was going to cut it?"
He smiles and suddenly finds himself unable to remember if he even went home last night. Is this the same suit he wore yesterday? Would anyone be able to tell, anyway?
He tries to downplay it. "You got bored at the Hoover Institute?"
"You got bored out in California?" she counters.
He shakes his head and leans back against the cool mahogany of his desk. She's got an answer for everything. "Josh told me we could move the press corps across the street and put in that pool I've always wanted. That was the deciding factor."
She smiles at him, eyes wide and bright and full of something he can't quite define, but that doesn't matter. He'd forgotten that sometimes it can be this easy.
"I was just on my way outside to see if I can find a street vendor for a hot dog. Or maybe a pretzel." She stands in front of him with her hands on her hips. "Want to join me?"
"It's 9:30 in the morning..."
"That's never stopped me before."
He laughs and follows her through the door. Outside, the snow begins to fall.
He doesn't see her again for almost a week. He's busy with the transition and the speech, and then the speech some more, and she's busy with, well, whatever it is that she's busy with. Moving back to Washington, he supposes. And they just never seem to cross paths.
But then one afternoon she pops her head into his office and announces that she's brought take out and they're going to have a picnic. She was never very good at knocking.
"A picnic?" he tries not to sound too incredulous, but is she out of her mind? It's 28 degrees outside.
"I know it's 28 degrees outside, silly," she says and motions to her coat, hat and scarf; her nose is tinged pink from the cold. "I said we were having a picnic, I never said anything about having it outside in all of that." She makes another broad gesture with her hands and sets the take out on the desk in front of him.
"Oh," he says. "Okay then."
Ainsley rolls her eyes. "Men," she mutters. "Sometimes I think they need directions to get out of bed in the morning. Not that they'd read them anyway." She places a hand on top of the styrofoam containers. "I brought burgers, but then I couldn't decide if I wanted fries or onion rings so I got both. Which one do you want?"
He shrugs, and she gives him the onion rings. It doesn't matter; she eats half of them anyway.
He doesn't get another free minute until the Inaugural Balls. That is if you could even call it a free minute, hopping in a limo to go from party to party every half an hour until they've made it to all twelve. He sees more of the inside of the limo and far less of the parties inside.
Sometime around Ball Number Eight, however, he finds himself off to one side of the dance floor, hiding in the half-shadows as he nurses a vodka tonic that he probably doesn't need to be drinking. He watches as Josh and Donna sway in time on the dance floor, as the band covers an old Frank Sinatra ballad.
He wonders how Josh is still standing upright after having two drinks at Party Number Five. Still Josh stays steady mostly and waltzes right along with Donna, although he suspects Donna has more to do with that than anything else.
He wants to be happy for them -- and he is. But there's a part of him that can't help but wonder how Josh managed to get everything sorted out; when his life seems to have all but collapsed against itself.
It doesn't seem fair. Or maybe that's the vodka tonic talking.
"You're thinking hard."
He jerks his head around just in time to see Ainsley approaching, wine in one hand and shrimp cocktail in the other. She should really wear that shade of red more often, he thinks.
"Hey," he says. He has better greetings somewhere in store, but he seems to have used up his quota for the day.
"You were great today." She looks up at him with an encouraging smile, still chewing. "You really put a lot of extra work into the Address."
He half shrugs and shifts his weight to his other leg. "Otto and the speechwriting staff did most of the work, I was just involved with the editing."
She sets her wine glass down on a nearby table and tugs on the sleeve of his tux. "That's entirely not true, and you know it."
He shakes his head and starts, "It's just what I do..." He trails off and glances around the room, so full of people and life and energy when everything in front of him seems to be standing still. "Anyway," he begins "what do you think of your new office?"
"It's great," she says. She looks up at him and smiles, and he feels himself relax. "But then, anything short of a bat cave is an upgrade from the last time."
He downs the rest of his drink in one sip and sets the glass down on the table just beside where hers rests. "Wait," she says and motions for him to come closer. She adjusts his tie with nimble fingers and when she's done, proclaims, "There. That's much better."
The band switches from Sinatra to Dean Martin and he reaches out. "Dance?" he asks simply.
She accepts his outstretched hand, and together they waltz out onto the dance floor. Her black stiletto heels click in time with the music and his head begins to level out. He skips out on Parties Nine through Twelve and stays put at Number Eight.
"This is nice," Ainsley comments three songs later.
"Yeah," he breathes. "It is."
Tomorrow, he promises. Tomorrow he can think about what it all means. Tonight it's just the music and the dance floor and the flowers and finery, and they dance. He doesn't need answers just yet.
He can't even settle on the question.
By the fourth week of the Santos administration, their indoor picnics become somewhat of a weekly thing.
Every Monday morning Aisnley stops by his office with a new assortment of take out menus. Some days she lets him pick the menu; other days, her stomach is feeling a little less generous. Either way, they always end up eating on the sofa of his office. She kicks her heels off and sits cross-legged as she balances her food -- and usually some of his, on her lap.
They argue over policies and debate on everything from pizza toppings to the death penalty. She's the first person he tells about Sarah, one afternoon in early February when the skies are dull and the wind whistles around the windows of his office. She stops chewing, mid-sentence, when he tells her about it, and reaches forward to touch his sleeve gently. "I'm sorry," she says. Her voice is soft and a little bit unsteady. "I would say something else, but I'm pretty sure you've heard it all before."
He laughs at this, his lips curling in a half-smile, and grips her hand, perhaps a little bit tighter than he'd intended.
Mostly, though, they talk about the other "real world stuff" like books and old movies and trying to figure out where the grocery store in her new neighborhood actually is. He complains about her always taking from his plate, and why can't she just order her own if she's always going to be taking from his.
She shakes her head as he asks her this. "Really," she says, her voice thick with amusement and fake exasperation. "Don't you understand that the calories don't count if you don't order it yourself? Honestly, I'm going to need to write you a guide book."
He looks at her and raises an eyebrow; he's really not sure if he believes her.
As if to prove a point, she reaches out and grabs one of his spring rolls. Between mouthfuls, she brushes a stray blonde hair out of her face and says, "See what I mean?"
He casts a curious glance in her direction and then back to his own now-empty take away box. He relaxes back against the sofa cushions and nods in agreement, thinking that this is exactly the way it should be.
It rains the entire first week in March. The clouds are dreary and dark, a deep steely gray that casts a gloomy shadow on all of Capital Hill. She's caught up in a deposition and he's asses to elbows in files on the escalating crisis in Kazakhstan, and it's the first Monday in over a month that they've missed their weekly 'picnic'.
He doesn't even realize it's Monday until he gets home and notices the take out menus that permanently reside in the basket next to his telephone. He sighs and picks up a few of the menus, glancing at them before settling on pizza.
While he waits, he takes out the black files on budget allowances for government funded AIDS research grants. Somewhere between Reconstruction, Highways and Research Funding, Medical, he notices the note he accidentally stashed away back when Sarah went home to California. He reads over the note one last time before crumpling it back up in his fist and tossing it in the trash can.
He doesn't need it anymore and anyways, he's always had a tick about notes that are left unsigned.
The next day the rain lets up just a little. He's still busy devising strategy for Kazakhstan and working to reallocate more government money for AIDS research, but he meanders over to Ainsley's office around lunchtime all the same.
Her office is dark and empty, a half-eaten pastry sits alone on her desk.
He exhales slowly and turns around; he can't go back yet. This thing that they've been doing, it's got him all tied up in knots.
The list of things he should be doing is five miles long. Pages of briefing memos, research, files; meeting with swing votes on the Renewable Resources Protection Act. He can't seem to focus though, his mind filled with static and his thoughts nothing short of nonsensical. He's searching for words and coming up empty.
He wants -- no, needs -- to talk to someone. He walks right by Josh's office and somehow manages to find his way to the East Wing. Talking to Josh about this would be just about as useful as talking to an eskimo about sunscreen, he decides; Donna is by extension the next best thing and holds the added bonus of avoiding potentially catastrophic consequences for all of mankind.
Her assistant is a pleasant woman named Nadia, dark hair is pulled back and braided. She is taking a message down when he arrives. "Ms. Moss will be with you in just a minute," she says with a wave of her ball point pen.
Donna, who still isn't used to having an assistant of her own, comes to the door herself and ushers him inside. "What brings you over to our neck of the woods?" she asks.
"I just needed to take a walk," he answers, shutting the door with a soft 'thud'. She doesn't seem to be convinced, and he adds, "Change of scenery to refocus my concentration."
"Wow," she sits down at her desk and folds her hands in front of her. She looks so professional behind the desk in her own office that it's hard for him to remember the brazen twenty-something who slept in the back of the bus for three weeks until she could convince Josh to put her on the payroll. She gives him a curious glance and says, "You weren't kidding when you said you wanted to move the press across the street so we could put in a gym, were you?" she laughs softly and it makes him feel decidedly less tense. "What's going on?" she probes.
He heaves a deep sigh and collapses back against the sofa cushions. "In all honesty, I'm not sure."
Over the years he's come to realize that the thing about Donna is that she has the innate ability to listen, just listen, without threat of interruption, and she can take even the most outrageous, far-fetched ideas in stride. After all, she's had years of practice working for Josh.
"I want to do something for Ainsley," he half blurts, half mumbles; it always seems worse when he can't make the words come out right.
Donna barely blinks at this. It's not such a ridiculous idea and really, she's heard far worse in her time. She cranes her neck and smiles. "You mean, aside from making sure she's got an office that's not in the basement. I know she appreciates the gesture, but I think the Steam Pipe Distribution... whatever that is. Well, I think she'd almost grown fond of it down there." She pauses for a beat, pensive. Her voice is deliberate and thoughtful as she says, "I think that's nice, but why didn't you bring this to Josh?"
"Do I need to give you the list of the trouble I've managed to get in when I get Josh involved in something like this?"
"Touché." Donna glances up and meets his eyes. "What exactly did you have in mind?"
His gaze wanders and his shoulders shrug. She seems to sense his hesitation, and her mouth opens in a small 'oh'.
"Okay, so here's what you're going to do." She taps her fingers on the edge of her desk, strumming in time with the involuntary motion of his knee -- up and down like a jackhammer. Her voice is all business and poise and balance, and he envies the ease at which the words flow as she speaks. "First, you need to figure out what this is between you. I can help you then, but once you get that figured out you probably won't need me anyway."
He shifts in the chair, uncertain.
"Trust me," she answers his silence query. "Just trust me --" Her voice trails off and her lips curl in an impish grin. "And when you figure things out, promise you'll give me a heads up. I'm pretty sure there's an old pool out there that had your names on it."
He rolls his eyes and slowly rises to his feet. "Some friend you are," he calls over his shoulder as he walks to the door.
He catches a glimpse of her waving her hand as he turns to grab the door knob. One hand in the air and shoulders shrugging off, feigning innocence.
"Can't blame me for trying," she counters. "I really only have your best interests at heart."
He shakes his head, and the door shuts behind him with a soft click. He's no closer to answers than he was twenty minutes ago but he feels better nonetheless. Okay, even.
He treks back to his office and there's a note sitting on his desk, scribbled haphazardly on the back of a take out menu.
That next Monday he's waiting in her office at 1:00 on the dot. She however is coming from a meeting at the Minority Council's Office, and she walks in the door at 1:04, heels clicking down the hallway announcing her arrival.
She stops suddenly in the doorway when she sees him. "Oh, I'm sorry. Should I knock?"
He shrugs innocently. "You're late, and you left the door unlocked. What can I say, I'm just a punctual guy."
She raises an eyebrow and lets him know in no uncertain terms that, in fact, she doesn't believe him for a second. "Oh really. So then tell me, exactly what meeting are you skipping right now?"
He glances down at his watch. "Nothing very important." She gives him another look, and he relents. "I sent Otto," he admits, eyeing her sheepishly.
"That's better," she says. She drops her coat on her desk chair, but comes to sit beside him. The sofa cushions dip as she gets comfortable and she glances up at him. "So," she begins, "how do you feel about Italian?"
"I guess I could eat," he replies. "That is, if you're hungry."
"I just spent four hours listening to Frank Gottlieb drone on and on about proper use of parliamentary procedure, oh and by the way, did you know that I'm a traitor for coming back to the 'dark side'?" She stops for dramatic pause after the entire sentence tumbling out all at once in exasperation. There's that look again. "Of course I'm hungry. We should get mozzarella sticks."
He shakes his head, figuring they're going to have to get bruschetta too -- just in case. And like a proverbial light switch somewhere has suddenly flicked on, he has an answer to the question he never needed to ask.
This is everything.
In the end, it happens like this.
March slowly fades away and April rolls in, bringing with her blue skies with gray clouds and sporadic, torrential downpours that will strike any minute without warning. And the second Monday in April they decide to venture out around the Mall, grab a hot dog, and maybe take their picnics outside for the spring and summer.
They've just finished paying the vendor, a middle-aged man whose name tag reads "Al" and whose shoulder scrunch over like he had scoliosis as a kid. Al has just told them to "Have a nice day, kids," when the heavens open and the rain begins to pour over them. He's soaked through within seconds, and it's all instinct now. He grabs her by the hand and there they are, dodging Tourmobiles and large groups of people with oversized cameras as they run for the nearest cab, laughing like two kids running after the ice cream truck on the hottest day of the summer.
"Maybe these are supposed to be indoor picnics," she says, frowning slightly as she peels wet paper from her hot dog roll.
Her hair is wet and matted down, and he lets go of her hand just long enough to brush it back and out of her face. She links her fingers with his and her gaze turns downward to where their hands rest entwined together.
Later on, he'll remember that the rain pelted down against the windows suddenly slowed to a gentle pitter-patter, that they were in the back of a cab, and that his hot dog was as water-logged as he was. But for right now, he can't focus on anything but her.
"What is this?" she asks softly.
He feels her breath cool against his face as she exhales. He grips her hand tighter still.
"It's a beginning."
And just like that, he finds his lifeboat.
(He hardly even knew he was drowning.)