Protective Custody

by: Abigale

Character(s): Sam, Toby
Category(s): General, Friendship
Rating: YTEEN
Summary: "Sam's got the devil in him lately. Watch yourself tonight, Toby."

They'd been at it for twenty-five minutes; half business, half banter. Leo was shaking his head in resolve, but Toby was still there, coffee cup gripped loosely in his hand.

"Sam's got the devil in him lately. Watch yourself tonight, Toby."

Toby looked into his mug, drowning his thoughts there for a moment. "See, the thing is, I know deep down I should be worried here, Leo. I know it, I recognize it, yet I just can't seem to bring myself to reel him in."

"Well," Leo offered, "it's good to have him back, is what you're feeling." He sipped from his own steamy coffee before continuing. "And what I'm thinking is, it might be time. Obviously, things have got to change, and soon. We can't keep this up, Toby."

"What have I been saying?" the bearded man asked rhetorically.

~

"I laughed until I cried," Toby chortled later that day, rubbing his hands together greedily. "What a perfect setup." He and Sam sat side by side on Leo's sofa, waning winter sun streaming through the window, warming the room.

Relaxing in a side chair, Leo snorted lightly. "Tell me about it. Neither one of you, by any chance actually paid the congressman to make that absurd statement, did you?" He slapped his knee joyfully. "Hot damn! I can't imagine a better opening to nail the hypocrisy of their amendment to the education bill!"

"This is gonna be fun," Sam chimed in.

Toby radiated a smile Sam's way. "Oh, yeah."

"So," Leo began, a weak attempt to get back to business. "Inside Politics has already called; they want someone for tomorrow's show." His smile turned predatory. "This isn't gonna be fun, Sam; this is gonna be spectacular!"

The other two men nodded their heads in agreement, perfectly synchronized.

Sam sat forward in his seat and closed his notebook thoughtfully, then ran a hand over the smooth leather. "I already have about six pages of retorts; categorized, with bullet points. It'll be an easy kill."

"Fish in a barrel," Toby sighed contentedly. "I'll let you know who we're sending; you can brief them in the morning."

Sam's mouth dropped open. "Uh. I'm sorry, who we're sending?"

Between Leo and Toby, sharp glances volleyed back and forth. "Let us think about it, Sam. We'll let you know." Toby's eyes dropped with his voice, and he clasped and unclasped his hands in his lap.

The sun slid a little to the west, finding Sam's eyes, making his pupils contract violently; the blue of his irises took on a cold glint. "Am I to understand... I'm sorry, again. Am I not going myself?" He shifted away from the beam of sunlight, which darkened his eyes a degree.

Leo cleared his throat and got to his feet, moving fluidly behind his desk. "We'll let you know who's going, Sam. In the meantime -- "

"Excuse me," Sam interrupted. "I, I have to say; there are a number of problems I have with that sentence." He also rose to his feet, and looked from Leo, then down at his seated boss. "First, of course, is the implication that I'm not the obvious choice to go on the air and defend our position. Seeing as how I damn near wrote it, that seems a little odd to me."

"Sam." Toby ducked his head, shaking it wearily.

"Secondly; the 'we' you refer to as making this decision? Am I not the 'we?' This is a Communications issue, yes? Or am I now the highest paid person in the, I don't know, secretarial pool?" he challenged.

"Sam - "

"Sam," Leo interrupted, taking a seat behind his desk. "Believe me, you're at the top of our list of people to send on this."

"Okay," Sam mumbled, slamming his notebook onto the coffee table with a vehemence that startled everyone, including Sam. "What the holy hell?" As hard and cold as marble.

Stunned into silence by the uncharacteristic ferocity coming from Sam, both Leo and Toby looked on with wide eyes. Sliding his hand over his balding pate, Toby sat back against the cushions of the sofa.

Sam shifted his weight impatiently. "Someone gonna tell me what the problem is?" he challenged. "Have I said or done something recently that's made you squeamish about keeping me on this issue?" He spun around to face Toby, then back to glare at Leo.

Leo licked his dry lips, and swiped his glasses off of his face. "No, Sam. You haven't. Nobody's trying to cut you out of anything." His tone was mildly patronizing, and he shot a 'Toby wanna jump in here?' look in the direction of the Director of Communications.

Exhaling heavily, Toby came off the sofa and moved to Sam's side. "Look, Sam. Of course we'd like to send you -- "

"There's that 'we' again," Sam spit.

"Okay, enough!" Toby barked right back, his dark eyes shining dangerously. Whirling to face Leo, Toby shrugged his shoulders roughly. "What the hell's the point, Leo?"

Reservation obvious in his voice, Leo replied quietly. "It's your call."

"And about damn time, too," Toby grumbled, ignoring the pointed look Leo shot him. Gesturing to a chair, Toby indicated with his eyes that Sam should take a seat.

"Oh god," Sam said, lowering himself cautiously. "Oh my god, what have I done this time?" He looked up at Toby, now standing above him. "Guys, I really have no idea what I've done."

"Relax, Sam," Toby said, snorting mildly. "You aren't in trouble, you're not being punished for anything." He took a seat across from his second-in-command. "Look, there's, there's no way to say this without having you freak out a little. So, I'd like to start by saying -- "

"Oh. My. God."

" -- by saying that you should at least wait until I tell you this before you start the freaking. That would," Toby sighed, and shifted forward in his seat. "That would help me out a lot."

Sam's complexion had gone ghostly pale, and his bottom lip had disappeared into his mouth where he chewed at it compulsively. Wide-eyed, he stared intensely at Toby, his head bobbing slightly.

"Put him out of his misery, Toby, wouldja?" Leo said, bringing a hand across his eyes.

Shifting once again, leaning his body closer to Sam, Toby spoke gently. "Listen to me carefully here, okay?"

Sam's head bobbed a little faster.

"Things are obviously better now." Toby dipped his head towards the heavy oak door that flanked one wall of Leo's office. "Things are on an even keel again. You seem to be on an even keel again."

"I was uneven?" Sam whispered, as if he and Toby were the only ones in the room.

"You were uneven, Sam. And you were...." Toby's eyes cut to Leo before continuing. "You were perceived as a bit of an outsider, for awhile there." He watched as the statement sank in, watched as Sam's lips parted and closed a few times. "Sam? Did you not think it odd that we didn't send you to do the talking head circuit as often for the last three months?"

"Four months," Leo pointed out, from his place across the room. He shrugged apologetically. "Starting from..... We had to, for the -- "

"Well, yeah," Toby agreed. "We didn't really have a choice about that."

Sam waved a limp hand in the air to draw their attention. "Guys?"

"Look, Sam, just please let me talk?" Toby pleaded, leaning in closer. "The first few months, we needed everyone on the front lines, and you threw yourself into the fray admirably. But as time went on, and you didn't seem to be able to...." Toby drew in a deep breath. "I got the impression you were still harboring some resentment towards the president, no, Sam; don't deny it for Leo's sake. He's not stupid."

Getting to his feet, Toby turned his back on his deputy, and walked to the center of the room before facing him once more. "We decided that instead of taking a chance of losing you altogether, we'd...."

Toby was stopped cold by the miserable expression on Sam's youthful face. Arms flapping once in sympathy, he retuned to Sam's side. "We decided to protect the president by protecting you," he said ruefully. "We; we, Leo, Josh and I, we saw how you were spiraling, and we made a decision."

"Shit," Sam cursed, the despondency flaring into anger. "The shit assignments; keeping me off speeches."

"No," Leo interjected. "That was to keep you and Toby focused on the State of the Union, and because we cut back so drastically on the president's addresses. The only things we orchestrated were the televised appearances, shifting some lesser assignments to your desk, and keeping Doug out of your hair."

Sam's head snapped around to face Leo, shock and disbelief clearly taking the place of his anger. "Excuse me?! Did you just say... What does Doug have to do with this?!" he hollered at the Chief of Staff.

Toby's head dropped into his hands, and he moaned in frustration. "Leooo! Aw hell." He looked up at a flushed Sam. "Well god, Sam. I mean, really."

"Oh. Of course," Sam said. Struggling to his feet, he made his way to the door, and stuck his head outside. "Margaret, could I trouble you for some water, please?" Turning back into the room, he drifted to Leo's desk. "I should have known, you're right. How oblivious am I, huh? Here it is, February, and Doug hasn't been to the White House for a meeting since... Well, I can't even remember."

Margaret entered with a glass of ice water and handed it to Sam in silence, closing the door behind her when she left.

Sipping carefully, Sam stood his ground.

"That was actually Bruno's call," Toby informed Sam. "He's got his own hands full with that one, and he felt you two - obviously - seemed to bring out the absolute worst in each other. Doug became a volatile reactionary around you, and you became so pissy I couldn't stand to be in the same room, so it was, it turned out to be, a mutual decision to just keep you two apart."

The room felt warm, Toby realized. From the rays of sun or the tension, or a combination, he didn't know. He loosened his tie and stared longingly at Sam's water.

"Josh knew about this?" Sam asked, his voice hushed.

"Yes." Leo sat back in his chair. "Sam, here's the thing; we - Toby and I - feel you've managed to get past whatever it was that was weighing you down. These last few weeks have been like having the old Sam back, much to Toby's consternation." He offered a wry smile. "Don't think of this as being in the penalty box, Sam. Think of it as being on injured reserves for a little while, and now you're back on first string. I saw that," he added in response to Sam's rolling eyes.

Sam gulped down another mouthful of water, practically inhaling an ice cube. He looked beseechingly towards Toby, blue eyes plaintive and pleading, while he shifted his weight and worried a belt loop with his fingers.

"What's he doing now?" Leo asked, sotto voice.

"Just let him work through it, Leo. Sometimes it takes -- "

"So, basically, I was tucked away where I couldn't do any harm to myself or others," Sam blurted.

"But you're out now," Toby reminded him, plastering a hopeful smile on his face. Then he sighed, and closed the distance between them. "I knew this wasn't going to be something you'd want to hear, and I'd actually hoped we never had to be so blunt about it."

"Yeah." Sam nodded his head. "But I guess it had to be said."

~

Dammit, Toby thought with irritation. Sam was flirting with him again.

"So, uh, Sam."

His deputy sat inattentively on Toby's sofa, always the sofa, never in a chair. One foot rested on the coffee table, while the other tapped absently on the floor. Arms stretched out possessively along the back of the couch.

"No, Toby; really? She said.... just like last year?" Sam asked teasingly. "That's the exact same excuse she used last year. She has to wax - "

"Her kitchen floor, yes," Toby rushed ahead to finish. In one hand, he held an ivory invitation, the paper thick, with an elegantly ragged edge. He rapped it against his desk with irritation.

"So you want me to go as your date?"

Toby moaned in exasperation. "I don't want to go alone," he explained for the third time. "These things, you need to have a built-in escape hatch."

"So I'd be your contingency plan." Sam's brow furrowed slightly, and he squinted at Toby from behind his glasses. "I'm not flattered. Besides." He drummed his fingers on the top of the sofa. "I have my own invitation. Maybe I want you to go as MY date."

"Never mind, Sam. I'll, I'll just find someone else, if you're going to.... Just forget it." Toby tossed the invitation down, and pivoted his chair a few degrees to his left, hoping it sent a message to Sam that they were done.

"Now, hang on," Sam began, dropping his arms, and leaning forward earnestly. "Wouldn't you rather go with someone who actually belongs there? And I own my own tux. I'm told I cut a rather striking figure in it, too." He smiled at Toby, a touch of tasteful conceit underscoring his logic.

Toby hesitated, rubbing hard at his eyebrow. "And you'll behave yourself, and won't do anything.... Well, promise me you won't do anything, and, and, okay. You have a -- "

"Date!"

"Deal," Toby insisted. "You have a deal."

"And we use my invitation...."

"Let me ask you something," Toby interrupted. He leaned over his desk, folding his hands in front of himself. "When was the last time you went on a date?"

"You mean not counting tonight?"

"Sam."

The younger man's smile fell, and he blinked a few time in concentration. "I'll have to get back to you with those figures...."

"I'm just asking."

"And I'm just answering. I can't be sure about that." Sam rose to his feet, and stepped towards the door. "I have to get someone to go get my tux."

Toby stood, and followed Sam into the Bullpen. "Big date tonight, Bonnie!" Sam called jovially to the assistant, who sat at her desk. "I'll need my tux, some black socks, and my shiniest shoes. Is there anyone available who can make a run to my place?"

"The benefit gala? But, you said you had a philosophical problem with the Library Advisory Council's handling of the new 'undesirable books' campaign by the Christian Coalition," she reminded him.

Sam stared hard for a moment, then turned and headed to his office. "That was an impressive distillation of my past rants over the last three weeks. Well done. My tux, please!" he called over his shoulder.

~~

After battling with his bow tie for ten minutes, Toby emerged from his office, feeling debonair and dashing. Sam stood between Ginger and CJ, who were both eyeing him with appreciation, and Toby's posture deflated at once.

"Lookin' good there, Toby," CJ said approvingly. She flicked at Sam's tie, and breezed out of the Bullpen. "Have fun, you two!" she called over her shoulder.

"So, I have a car," Toby informed his impeccably attired deputy.

"I have a car, too," answered Sam amiably.

Cocking a hip against Ginger's desk, Toby huffed in frustration. "I mean let's go out to the car, Sam; let's go, let's leave now in my car." He swept his hand out, beckoning Sam to start towards the exit.

Sam ducked into his office, calling behind, "I just need my list. One sec."

"What list -- ? Oh no." Toby blocked the doorway. "I said you aren't to do anything tonight to embarrass me. That means no confrontations about the 'undesirable' books."

Sam squeezed past his boss, patting him on the shoulder as he passed. "You're assuming that any conversation I have on the subject will lead to an embarrassing scene, Toby. I assure you, that would be counter-productive, and I'm smart enough to know that." He patted his pockets for his phone, and peeked inside his jacket at the pager on his hip. "I'm locked and loaded. Let's go. To your car."

Toby followed behind, rolling his eyes so violently he nearly collided with a wall.
~ ~

After walking the gauntlet of flashing bulbs outside and flashy society sycophants inside the entrance to the Hay-Adams, Sam led Toby straight to the center of the ballroom and snagged two tall champagne flutes from a drifting waiter.

"Is there dancing?" Sam wondered out loud. "I don't remember if there's dancing." He sipped at his wine as his eyes slid across the room.

The drink tasted bitter on Toby's tongue, and at his first opportunity he handed his half-consumed glass off to a waiter and nodded in the direction of the bar. "I'm leaving you alone for three minutes, Sam," he declared. "I'm going straight there, then straight back, and so help me god, if there's blood on your shirt -- "

"Hey! There's Thomas Anderson! I'm just gonna step over there and say hello," Sam chirped happily, and Toby couldn't tell if he was purposely ignoring his directive or not.

By the time Toby had bickered his way to securing a double Jack Daniels from the sour-faced bartender, Sam was on his second glass of champagne, and speaking animatedly with a reed-thin African American man with an intense expression.

"Toby!" Sam greeted his boss enthusiastically. "You know Thomas, don't you? Chief council for the Library Advisory Council?" Not waiting for an answer either way, Sam tipped his head towards his companion and continued. "Thomas is sickened by the way the Council has dismissed concerns about its perceived soft-stance on the latest list of challenged books."

Thomas nodded his head eagerly, and patted a large, bony hand across Sam's shoulder. "Damn right I am; we're already trying to gather support to put pressure on the board to speak up and put itself out in front on this issue, where it belongs."

Sam cocked a rascally eyebrow at Toby, then turned back to Thomas. "I'll fax you those resources as soon as I get back to the White House," he assured him. "We'll get this done!" As Thomas made his way through the crowd, Sam faced Toby with a satisfied grin. "One down. Like, what? Five-hundred to go?"

Groaning inwardly, Toby was about to claim a debilitating headache, when a familiar voice slunk over his shoulder. "My. You White House guys do set a girl's heart aflutter in your tuxes."

"Connie?" The expression of accomplishment Sam had been wearing just seconds earlier went crashing to the floor at the sight of the shapely redhead. "Oh god. Are you alone?" The question came out of Sam as a whimper, and Toby couldn't suppress a chortle.

Looking put out, Connie brushed aside a lock of glimmering hair and leveled a look of absolute affront at the young man. "I am not. And what kind of question - ?" She turned to Toby in annoyance. "You let him talk to people like that?" she inquired.

"Yes." Toby slurped at his drink, and rocked on his heels.

"I didn't mean to imply that you were unable to find a date," Sam said, recuperating slightly. "My question had more to do with the fact that I hoped to god you weren't being accompanied by... that if you were here in an official capacity, there was a chance you were here with... I'm told I sometimes don't play well with others, and I was really hoping I wouldn't have to be put to the test tonight, is all that was going through my head."

Connie blinked at him with kohl-lined eyes, and plastered a sickly smile on her face. "You think I'd bring Doug to something like this as my date?" she asked, appalled.

"You knew it was Doug I was talking about?" Sam questioned, with obvious concern.

"You think I'm the only one who didn't know there was a conspiracy to keep you two apart?"

"No," Sam admitted sadly. "I thought that was just me." He shot a squinty look Toby's way, then squared his shoulders and reached into his breast pocket. "Say, Connie; what do you think of the latest list of books being challenged by the Christian Coalition....?" He flipped though the pages of a tiny, stylish notebook.

"Did I write any of them?"

"No."

"Did you?"

"Um, no..."

Connie caught Toby's eye, and winked at him freely. "Then I say, this isn't an issue for the federal government, Sam. I say, what's wrong with local communities taking up a grassroots cause and voicing their opinion about what their own children are exposed to?"

Sputtering franticly, Sam's neck flushed pink. Once recovered, he stepped closer to Connie, and leaned towards her. "Well, it's not just thier children they want to shield, it's every kid within their reach. And shield isn't a good word, because that implies that they're under attack by something, when that's not the case at all, and it's a federal issue because of a little thing we like to refer to from time to time as the Constitution."

"Well, you convinced me, Sam. Where do I sign?" Her eyes twinkled, and she looked over his shoulder. "There's someone I really need to see. But first..." She reached out and gave Sam's tie a little tweak.

Sam held his chin up for her to make her adjustments, and Toby was momentarily intrigued that it seemed like such a natural reaction for him; as if the fact that at any given moment a beautiful woman would paw at some part of him was in no way unexpected or unwelcome.

When she was done, she stepped back to admire either her handiwork, or Sam's eyes, Toby couldn't really be sure.

"So," Sam was saying. "Your escort...?"

"Snuck outside to bum a cigarette, I'd bet. And you're here with?"

Slinging a warm look Toby's way, Sam said, "Toby. Or, he's here with me. We never really settled that. See, we're using my invitation, but his car."

A stunningly arched eyebrow signaled Connie's amusement. "You don't say."

Finally having enough, Toby scratched at his own brow and felt the need to speak up. "He does say, and he'll continue to say, until people stop asking." After guzzling down a third of his drink, he swiped at his mouth and smiled tightly.

Her expression guarded, Connie excused herself, leaving the two communications staffers standing together in a whirlpool of ball gowns and tuxedoed men. Sam spotted three people he knew to be members of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and with a promise that his voice would not be heard above the orchestra tuning up, Toby gave his approval for Sam to go speak with them.

~

"That did not go well," Sam confessed, swirling the dregs of his champagne around in his glass. His tie was as stiff as when he'd first put it on, but his countenance was drooping noticeably.

Toby couldn't help but feel a twinge of sympathy. He was as infuriated as Sam about the silence the LAC had so far shown in light of the new debate raging about censorship. But it wasn't an issue that would make or break the campaign, and Toby couldn't see pulling needed energy from more urgent matters to focus on what, in his heart, he believed was something someone else was perfectly capable of confronting.

Sam sighed extravagantly, and Toby wondered just how much the other man had had to drink in the hour he'd been apart from Toby. Inclining his head at Sam's glass, he asked that very question.

"Me? This is still my third glass," Sam lamented. "Every time a waiter goes by, his tray is empty."

Taking Sam by the sleeve, Toby push-pulled him along until they struggled through to the bar. After Sam ordered his drink, he leaned back and looked out at the throng of people.

"You're pouting, Sam," Toby informed him. "And while I'm sure that's the sort of thing that brings out the maternal instincts in some women, I can't say I find it particularly attractive myself."

Sam snickered into his glass, then looked at Toby through his lashes. "You mean, you're not the kind of women that's affected by it?"

The flirting again. Dammit.

As the orchestra began a monotonous waltz, Toby ordered another Jack, and planted himself next to Sam. "I'll tell you what," he began, a bargaining lilt to his words. "You lay off the strong-arming for the rest of the night, and I'll let you get drunk." He thought it was a generous gesture, but he knew his deputy well enough to know he wouldn't accept it eagerly.

"Why do I need your permission to do either?" Sam asked. His petulance marred his otherwise perfect face, making Toby think of his nephew, sweet and angelic until the clock struck bedtime.

With a loose shrug, Toby turned away to survey the room. "Because." If it worked for his sister, maybe it would work for him too. With complete and unqualified shock, Toby listened as Sam beckoned to the bartender, and ordered another drink.

~~

The night air was sharp enough to cut a gash through Toby's lungs. His chest felt weighted and thick, and his eyes were stung by the biting wind. He would have wrapped his scarf around his neck, if he didn't have an armful of Sam Seaborn.

A contrary man in nearly every way possible, Sam hadn't sobered when Toby heaved him into the car, window cracked so the frigid breeze could smack some sobriety into him. Instead, he'd giggled happily and tried once more to convince Toby that he hadn't misspoken when he'd tried to proclaim himself a cunning linguist to the president of the American Association of University Women -- who quite luckily was a good friend of Sam's.

Recalling it made Toby blush.

"You wait until I have you upstairs before you throw up, do you hear and comprehend, Samuel?" Toby demanded, as they stood at the curb in front of Toby's apartment house. For the fourth time, he wavered on the edge of changing his mind and taking his protégé to his own home, but the probability that Sam could last another ten minutes in a moving vehicle seemed more unlikely by the block.

"I hate throwing up," Sam said, arm wrapped snugly around Toby's neck. "Isss unpleasant." Looking directly into Toby's eyes, Sam brought them both to a hesitant stop on the bottom stair. "I'm just gonna sit here and not... What?... Huh?" he sputtered, too drunk to find the end of his sentence.

"Oh no you don't!" bleated Toby, pulling up sharply on his charge. "Your ass, upstairs."

"Where?" Sam asked blearily. "You want my ass where now?"

Nearly five minutes and a string of curses that would confound a pimp later, Toby had Sam propped against the wall next to the coat rack, trying and failing to remove an arm from Sam's sleek winter coat.

"You're sleeping in it if you don't cooperate," threatened Toby. He tried to pull the fabric from Sam's shoulder once more, but the younger man spun effortlessly with the motion, coming full circle back to his originating position. "I'll be damned. That doesn't make you want to vomit?" Toby asked, fascinated.

Once he had Sam uncloaked and settled on the sofa, Toby went to the bedroom and quickly stripped down to just his slacks and undershirt. He returned to find Sam, cross-legged on the floor in the kitchen, methodically laying out paper towels on the floor.

"Sam?"

"Ssssam's not here," Sam lisped.

Watching him continue with his meticulous placement of the paper products, Toby filled a large glass with water and squatted awkwardly. "Drink this, then it's to bed with you. Unless you need to, uh..." His face wrinkled in distaste.

Sam looked up at him with earnest, bloodshot eyes. "'Knowledge will foreverer govern ignorance; and a people who mean to... be their own governors must arm themselves with the power, with the power which knowledge gives.' Jimmy Madison said that, Toby."

Though he'd been excruciatingly slow, Toby was nonetheless struck dumb by the clarity with which Sam had spoken. Letting his legs slide out from under him, he plopped to the floor beside the intoxicated young man.

"I talked to Lloyd Culliver of Family Friendly Libraries, didja know?" Sam asked, a needy hitch in his voice. Slumping visibly, his careful row of Bounty squares rippled when he stretched his legs out through them.

"At the thing tonight?" Toby asked quietly. That couldn't have gone well, he surmised. He wondered why Sam hadn't mentioned it earlier.

But Sam was shaking his head. "Nuh uh. Today. Before the tonight." His eyelids fluttered with the effort of concentration. "I called him. I said, I told him Family Friendly Libraries was a misssnomer if I ever heard one. I've spoken to some people from there before, Toby, and I'm here to tell you, there ain't much friendly 'bout them."

Resting his back against the cupboard, Toby stared at his hands, puffy and red from exposure to the cold.

"I'm not long for this world." Sam's defeated voice splintered, the shards nearly slicing open Toby's heart. "I want some salt, and I'm... I'm not long for this world, Toby."

It didn't all have to make sense, Toby reasoned. Maybe Sam really did just crave something salty. Maybe he was delirious. But he was also speaking the truth out loud for the first time, and Toby only hoped that by morning Sam would somehow go back to suffering in silence.

"Hey," he said, stroking his beard uneasily. "Hey there now, Sam." His arm found its way around Sam's shoulder, and he dropped it there clumsily.

A quiet sigh brought Sam's head back, resting against the arm behind him. "They think we're evil. That reading books can be evil. Homosex-ls and lebians, and libruls," the words slushy in his mouth. "We're trying to seduce and corrupt the kids, but we're not." He swung his head around to face Toby, just inches away. "I'm not. Are you?"

Toby chuckled dryly. "I'm pretty sure, no. I don't, I don't even like other people's children," he said, attempting some levity. Seeing Sam's eyes drowning in concern, he shook his head gently. "No really, Sam. I'm not."

Sam's own head lolled back, away from Toby, and he sank lower until his hips were pressed snuggly against his boss. "I want to make them understand," he tried to explain. "Doesn't it seem like the kind of thing... I thought it was the sort of thing weasonable people could just sit down and dithcuss."

It did, and so Toby agreed with Sam.

"And I thought," Sam continued, "that I could do that. I mean, that's what I do, right?" He gazed eagerly at Toby. "I do that, right? But then he called me evil. Like... like he even knew me."

Fury began to smolder in Toby's gut, mixing with the trepidation Sam's earlier declaration had deposited there. "That's bullshit, Sam," he said fiercely. "You're not stupid enough to believe it, so, so why the hell have you let this get to you?" He pulled his arm away jerkily, and Sam rolled to his right as a result. Pulling him back into a sitting position, Toby kept his hand on Sam's arm as an anchor.

Sam kicked his legs restlessly, and began struggling to stand. "I'm evil and stupid?" he complained. "Well, that makes me sound pretty... stupid."

A foot caught a paper towel, and sent Sam sliding back to the floor. A yelp of pain and frustration broke free from him, and he clumsily batted away Toby's helping hand. "Let me go," he sniffled, crawling to his knees. "Pretty soon, you're gonna have to let me go."

Bile rose in Toby's throat. The hell he would, he argued silently. Not until Sam could convince him he wasn't leaving out of bruised ego or hurt feelings. And more than that, that he wasn't doing it in order to win a winless argument.

And even then...

How was he supposed to let Sam go?

Apparently, by sitting on his butt, while Sam stumbled off into the living room. Scrambling to his feet, Toby hurried after him, still clad, he noticed, in his tuxedo and looking disgustingly no worse for wear.

When he caught up to a wandering Sam, Toby eased off his jacket, drew him to the sofa, and pushed him down wordlessly. Prying the tie from around Sam's neck, he dropped it on the coffee table, and went to work on twisting around his cummerbund.

"You have hair on your face."

"I do."

"Is it... do you hide behind it?"

Toby sighed heavily, though he couldn't help but smile, and slid Sam's suspenders from his broad shoulders.

"Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear," Sam listed sleepily.

"Are they... men with beards?"

"Textsss pulled from class reading lists, for 'adult language' and ref'ences to sex and violence." Sam reached out and took Toby's wrist firmly. "High school seniors, Toby," his voice grief-stricken. "Seventeen year olds shouldn't read Shakespeare?" He flung himself back against the cushions and closed his eyes. "Toby?"

One by one Toby labored at the studs on Sam's shirt until he could pull the fabric free from his pants. "Shh. You are not to say another word, Sam," the older man instructed.

As he peeled the shirt from Sam, he felt his face caught between two cool, slim-fingered hands. The drunken man peered intently into his eyes, and he wondered, momentarily what Sam wanted to say, but then Sam let go, falling back into place on the sofa. Sam's words were garbled, nearly indistinct. "It'ssofterthanIthought."

Removing shoes, but leaving on his socks, Toby lifted Sam's legs to the sofa, and tilted his body until he lay snuggly situated along its length. After spreading a soft fleece blanket over Sam's still form, Toby stepped back to admire his handiwork. He placed both a saucepan and a glass of water on the coffee table, then shuffled off to bed.

~~

The next afternoon Ginger stepped into the office and surreptitiously closed the door. "Sam's having trouble with his lunch," she informed Toby.

He barely looked up as he clenched his fist around his pen.

Thin arms crossed over her chest, Ginger stood her ground. "He says the lettuce in his chef salad is slimy; the hard-boiled egg is still warm, and the olives taste funny."

"Olives do taste funny," Toby assured her. "They're olives."

A huff or two brought her his full attention. "It's not the food, Toby." Her eyes stared exaggeratedly. "It's you."

There were a number of things that Toby had to admit his opinion held great sway over. He had the ear of the president; he counseled the most powerful man on the planet in matters of state and domestic affairs, and he put words in his mouth that the entire world hung on.

Somehow his deputy's slimy salad didn't seem like the kind of thing he'd be responsible for.

"He's doing that thing," Ginger told him impatiently. "You know; the thing.

"Ah."

A moment later Toby stood in Sam's doorway, observing the bespeckled young man poking a plastic fork at an unnaturally orange chunk of cheese. "I told you to order the falafel," he scolded, dropping into a chair.

"It's inconceivable to me that anyone would include a pickle with a -- Don't get me wrong; I love a good pickle. Fat and sour and sharp enough to cut my tongue on. What I'm saying is, pickle? Chef salad. Not a combination that gets my toes tapping." Sam snapped off a bite of the plump pickle and chewed thoughtfully.

Raking his fingers through his beard, Toby counted to ten. "I understand you're having trouble with my decision." Sam peered at him and kept chewing. "Actually, I heard you were having trouble with your food, which somehow over the course of time seems to have become code for when I'm doing something you don't like."

"That's crazy," Sam said evenly and crunched another bite of pickle.

"So," Toby declared, getting to his feet. "Good. Then everything's fine. Keep at it, I need to see something on greenhouse emissions by -- "

"Uh."

Toby sank back into the chair, and examined Sam closely.

It had been a dramatic, painful sight to see Sam trudge into the Communications Bullpen earlier that morning. When Toby had awoken to find Sam gone from his couch, blanket folded, glass washed out and sitting in the drainer, he wasn't sure if he'd even be seeing him that day.

It seemed unlikely that Sam would be there before noon, but he'd arrived preened, pressed, and perfectly on time, a faltering smile for everyone, a weight to his step.

And it left Toby feeling guilty, beyond reason. A part of him couldn't be sure that the night before he hadn't anticipated Sam coming in badly hung over.

The first thing Toby had done, the moment he'd arrived at work, was to tackle Leo in the hall and explain that Sam would be in no shape to go on the air later. With a brisk nod from the Chief of Staff, Toby then went in search of Ainsley Hayes, warning her that she'd be making the case for the administration to oppose Congressman Hewitt's amendment. Within fifteen minutes he'd notified the producer of Inside Politics and had barked at Bonnie to begin gathering preparatory information for the woman from the counsel's office.

And then Sam had appeared. It took three aborted attempts for Toby to finally come out and tell him he wouldn't be going on the air. He tried to appeal to Sam's reasonable side, telling him that he couldn't possibly feel up to being grilled under the hot lights of a tv studio.

But Toby could tell by the soulful frown and the way he slinked off into his office that Sam wasn't convinced that it wasn't because Toby was afraid Sam would commandeer the show for his own agenda.

"Let me tell you one more time," Toby began, tenting his fingers in front of him. "You look like shit."

"But last night, I was damn pretty," Sam countered defensively. "All I need is a few hours, a good meal, which this is not, and a little nap, and I'll be good to go. Great to go. Ready for battle, with... bells on."

Toby dropped his head, chin nearly to his chest. "The image that invokes is just too absurd to contemplate," he mumbled.

A blast of CJ swept into the room, effectively derailing any attempt Toby was about to make to soothe Sam's troubled self-esteem.

"Whoa, hey, what the hell are you doing eating a pickle with a chef salad?" she crooned, pointing the pen she held at Sam's lunch.

After aiming a barbed look Toby's way, Sam pushed back his salad and relaxed in his chair. "I'm not. I'm only eating the pickle." Sat up straight when CJ planted her buttocks onto his desk, and dangled a leg casually.

"So, you two," she said, taking in each man over the top of her glasses in turn. "Quite a night, huh?"

"When?"

"Where?" Toby shifted in his chair, and crossed his legs in a defiant show of disinterest.

CJ swung her head back and forth between them, a frightening and rapacious look growing noticeable. "So you're saying you have no idea what Mitch Billings from the Ledger just asked me a minute ago about someone sliding little slips of paper that said "Reading is Fundamental, not Fundamentalist" into the coat pockets of about a hundred people at last night's gala?"

Toby noticed Sam's color pale a degree, but he also lifted his chin and maintained strict eye contact with the press secretary. "Hm," was the only auditory response Sam gave.

As CJ leveled her laser sharp gaze on Toby, he tried valiantly to remain as aloof as Sam was managing to appear. "Well," Toby began, shifting once more. "Only a hundred?"

CJ slithered off of the desk fluidly, and dug a hand into the pocket of her pink silk cardigan. Withdrawing a piece of crumpled paper, she waved it in the air in front of Sam and Toby. "Maybe they could have done more if they hadn't HAND WRITTEN THEM," she boomed.

Sam's left eye twitched, and Toby stared, mesmerized, as he paled another shade. Clearing his throat in a weak attempt to draw fire away from his rapidly blanching deputy, Toby brought himself to his feet. "That sounds incredibly amateurish. Some day, these people are going to have to get organized and -- "

"Yeah," CJ agreed sarcastically. "And some day my prince will come. My point is..." She spun around to face Sam, and held the paper in front of his face. "It's YOUR handwriting, Sam!"

Sam's mouth opened and closed futility three times. His eyes went from Toby to CJ, back and forth, gaining anxiety with every bounce. It occurred to Toby that he was logically CJ's next target, but he couldn't help but be enthralled by Sam's increasingly ashen complexion.

"You, you might try and distract her with one of your dazzling smiles, there, Sam," Toby finally suggested. When Sam bared his teeth to a glowering CJ, it looked more like a grimace than a grin, and Toby flinched inwardly. "Never mind," he muttered.

Somehow Sam found his voice, and rose to face CJ as he spoke. "Would it do anything to mitigate your anger if I explained to you that I was a little drunk when I came up with this plan?" he asked hopefully.

CJ's eyes flashed at him, and she crossed her arms in front of herself. "Why no, Sam. No, I don't think it -- wait." She swung her head around to take in Toby, slouching back down into his seat. "You were there," she accused. "You let him get drunk?"

"Actually," Sam broke in, his voice lightening somewhat. "It was Toby's idea that I get drunk. In fact, he insisted on it."

With a glorious groan, Toby once more joined the two staffers on his feet. "That is such a misrepresentation of what happened; I can't believe you have the nerve to try and get that past me," he snarled, moving by CJ and getting menacingly into Sam's face.

"Hey ho," CJ chided. "Don't start confusing the issues here! In all fairness, there's a spanking for each of you in this. Sam." She again waved the small sheet of lined paper under his nose. "You do realize at least three journalists saw you sneaking out of the cloakroom looking as guilty as a piddling puppy, don't you? And you..." She settled her lethal gaze on Toby. "Insisted that he get drunk??"

"And that as long as I didn't speak to anyone, I could write the messages," Sam elaborated. Toby wondered briefly if it ever occurred to Sam that they were the last words he was likely to ever speak.

While CJ paced back and forth across Sam's office, Toby realized where her Secret Service codename must have come from. "What a brilliant plan," she muttered over and over.

Toby remained where he stood, nearly nose to nose with Sam. "You smell like the floor of a men's locker room," he told him scornfully. The wounded expression that put on Sam's face took Toby by surprise, and he softened his tone. "Or... maybe it's the egg that stinks."

Sam shot him a crippled and emaciated smile.

"Okay," CJ said, coming to a stop near the door. "Barring disclosing that you have a twin brother you've never mentioned before, Sam, we just give Mitch Billings and the others a really compelling reason for what happened."

Toby and Sam exchanged looks that were sparked with interest. Sam bravely made the first move towards her. "Did you have something in mind?" he asked tentatively.

CJ's contemptuous snort sent him back to Toby's side. "Do I have to do everything here?!" she shouted, slamming open the door. "Make it good, and make it snappy," she ordered, before stalking away, her sweater fluttering behind her like angry wings.

"I think... I think she may have forgotten about you," Sam ventured, as he cautiously went to the door and looked down the hall before closing it. He leaned back against it, hands behind his hips.

"Oh no," Toby assured Sam. "She hasn't forgotten anything. She's timing it so as to cause me the greatest amount of pain, is her plan." He scraped a thumbnail across his forehead a few times. "But first, we need to come up with something to feed the press."

"Can we feed me at the same time?" Sam suggested, looking pointedly at his wilted salad. Toby hustled Sam aside and swatted the back of his head as he passed, leaving his protégé standing stunned in the doorway.

"Well, come on," he insisted, motioning for Sam to get moving. "I want this over with as quickly as is humanly possible."

~~

According to Sam, the potato salad was too yellow, and the coleslaw too runny. The baked potatoes were too hard, and the tuna smelled too much like tuna, and Toby had finally pressed a turkey sandwich into Sam's hand and headed off to get himself a cup of coffee.

Somehow they'd managed to muddle through a passable though extraordinarily transparent excuse for Sam's behavior the night before, using words like 'youthful' and 'enthusiastic' without mentioning Jack Daniels or cowering, yellow-bellied hypocrites. It was an afternoon well spent, until CJ came back to inform them that all the reporters wanted was to have their Air Force One seats changed, so they wouldn't have to sit so near to the toilets.

Sam seemed to have recovered from his hangover, even if he was still playing the guilt card about his exclusion from appearing on Inside Politics.

"What could be better than having a female Southern Republican nail them on their amendment weakening rural education?" Toby asked, not for the first time.

"Having one of the president's advisors do it? Someone who has a hand and a voice in shaping our policy makes a little bit of sense to me. But who am I? Just... oh. One of the president's advisors."

Toby didn't find the scowl persuasive. "I want you here where I can see you," he explained, shifting back in his chair. Sam had gotten to the sofa first again, and was lounging across it gnawing on some crackers. Crumbs dusted the front of his shirt, and there was a moment when Toby nearly leaned forward and brushed them away.

"Well, here I am," Sam informed his boss with a quirk of the eyebrows. "Do with me what you will."

Dammit.

From the doorway, Bonnie and Ginger appeared as if conjoined, their mouths rubbery and fighting back smiles. "You might want to put on the television," Ginger said with barely concealed excitement.

Toby checked his watch. Four fifteen. Dear god. What had Ainsley done that could possibly be worse than if Sam had gone on and tried to highjack the agenda? Toby moaned inwardly.

"....feel it's important no, vital," Thomas Anderson was saying from behind a podium with the Library Advisory Council seal on it, "that we challenge this latest attack on the Constitution in any way we have at our disposal, including using the courts, the administration, and by mobilizing the grassroots efforts of strongly principled and committed Americans everywhere."

When Sam beamed an impressive smile at Toby and said, "That would be me," the DOC shook his head and kicked him out of his office.

~~

"Oh, just send Toby or Josh," Bartlet suggested to Leo later that night.

"I don't want to send Toby, sir. He knows the stats backwards and forwards, but he can get a little defensive; and besides, he mumbles."

"Okay. It's okay to send Josh, then. He's a scrambler, he'll bring 'em to their knees."

"Really, I don't feel comfortable sending Josh for this. Yes, he'll fight to the death for us, and his wit is as sharp as a scalpel. But he sometimes lets his sarcasm get the best of him, and he can come across as a little condescending."

"Right. Right. You got anything against Sam?"

"No, not at all, I think he's our guy for this." Leo gave a definitive nod of his head. "He's poised and articulate, and for some reason people are attracted to that," he acknowledged.

"He's also damn good-looking, and for some reason people are attracted to that too," Bartlet snickered in response. He arched an eyebrow at his old friend. "Leo?"

"Mr. President?"

"Are you telling me he's back?" Jed shifted forward in his seat, but maintained dogged eye contact with Leo. "Do we have him back?"

It took a moment for Leo to consider his answer. He stared at the wide seal in the center of the blazing, blue carpet at his feet. "Yes, Mr. President; I think we may just have him back. For now, anyway."

Bartlet cleared his throat, and dipped his head. "Well, that's fine. I'm.... You have no idea how -- "

"I know, sir," Leo assured him. "I know just how you feel."

Taking his leave, Leo went through the open door of the Oval, into the hallway. He was just a few feet shy of turning into his office, when his attention was caught by the sound of gentle bickering coming from the Roosevelt Room.

"The agreement was, I get the tickets, we use your car," Toby was saying.

"But if we use my car, I can't have more than two beers at the game!" Sam complained.

"My boy," Toby said, patting his hand firmly on Sam's shoulder. "If you go with me, you're not having any beer."

"Afraid we'll end up spending the night together again?"

"For the love of god...."

Leo grinned, and as he went into his office said to himself, "Sam's got the devil in him lately. Watch yourself tonight, Toby."

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