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And The Walls Came Tumbling Down

by: Abigale

Characters: Sam

Category: Drama

Rating: TEEN

Author's Note: Final in 'Tangled Up In Blue.' First two stories can be found here: http://subtractions.homestead.com/ There are also two small cut/missing scenes to this series that can be found there.

Life was just one big fat blinding ball of frustrations, Sam decided as he juggled his briefcase, laptop, Washington Post and coffee cup while walking towards the entrance of the White House. If he could just make it to the door, a dozen more steps, the rest of the day would go flawlessly. He was determined to make it happen. He could hear the gods cackling at him as the sky opened up and the cold, drenching rain washed over him, coffee splattering at his feet.

She didn't have to ask. There wasn't any point in asking anyway because, these days, 9 out of 10 times if Ginger asked Sam if he wanted something he would tell her not to bother, then get up and get it himself. She wasn't sure if he didn't really hear her, or he did it to annoy her, but the effect was the same.

Walking into Sam's office with a piping hot cup of coffee, Ginger had to jump back when Sam, standing in the center of the room, began shaking his head like a puppy after a bath. Transparent droplets of water flew off of him, dousing the assorted framed photos and videotapes that were lined up haphazardly along the shelves.

"I'll get you a towel."

"That's okay."

Goddamn him. Fine.

"So, here's your schedule. I'll just put it on your desk." Sam was peeling off his suit jacket, which was dark with moisture. But his head was bowed, and Ginger wasn't entirely confident he was finished with his doggie routine. "...If you're done."

"Thank you, Ginger." He hadn't even looked up at her yet, and if he had it most likely would have made things worse. Because she was giving him that look, the look everyone seemed to reserve just for him these days. A large part irritation with a splash of pity mixed in for good measure. The metaphor made Sam think of how good a dollop of brandy would be, added to the coffee Ginger had left him.

Moving behind his orderly desk, Sam had the sudden feeling of being watched. A glance at his door assured him no one was there, but his eyes caught a quick blur to the right, and he cocked his head, waiting to see if it would come back into view. There it was. Toby's dour face, peeking through the large window between their offices. ...grant me the strength...

"If I ignore you, you'll just go away, won't you?" Sam muttered under his breath. Talking out loud to one's self wasn't the picture of mental health, but then Sam had blown *that* image awhile ago. "Hasn't worked in any other area of my life but, what the hell, I'm a fairly open-minded guy," he continued to himself. Sam sat back in his chair and began sifting through the correspondence stacked neatly there.

It took five minutes, and he was actually grateful when Toby materialized in front of his desk. The waiting was beginning to wear thin.

Toby cleared his throat. "You left before I did last night." It was a scolding. "I tried to call you, your cell was turned off."

"My cell was turned off." Sam sipped at his coffee and waited for Toby to continue. Because technically, he hadn't been asked a question here.

"You were supposed to have the draft finished. We were going to take it in to Leo. We discussed it...." Toby's hands finished the thought for him.

Was *that* a question? It was ambiguous, but Sam decided he could be magnanimous and give this one to Toby. "I did finish it. And I checked with Margaret. Leo had already left, so I knew we weren't going in there last night." Sam pulled the neatly typed draft of the speech for the Economic Club of Detroit out of his briefcase and slid it across the desk to Toby.

Shifting from one foot to another, it almost looked as if Toby was swaying to some unheard music. "If you had left this on my desk last night, I wouldn't have to come in here and hound you for it." Toby wasn't capitulating here, just making a point. His eyes darted from the draft in his hand to his Deputy. "This frees you up to start on the remarks for - "

"Already started. Here's the outline." Another meticulously typed page fluttered across the desk. Sam sat back and picked up his cooling coffee. "After staff, I'm briefing CJ on The Presidential Environmental Management Advisory Board, which will be very... brief. She's got it down cold." Then I'm planning on finding a nice warm closet to hide in, and I won't be available for the rest of the day. Please hold my calls, and ignore any sobbing sounds you may hear coming from inside.

"Okay. Staff in 15." Toby spun on his heels and was gone, leaving Sam to ponder what kinds of foods could be easily slipped under a closed door.

"...but it doesn't really matter what I do because that's something the Office of Personnel Management is looking at anyway. So why would I waste my time, duplicating the work of - Sam. What did I just say?" Josh's pen suspended above his pad, eyebrows raised. This was the third time in half an hour Josh had lost Sam, and had to run back to find him, dragging him back onto the trail. "And *this* time, you get a cookie if you guess right."

Sam's eyes had snapped back to Josh's amused face, but didn't reflect any of the levity he saw there. "Budget. No, the... the computers. And the people." It was vague, and a little simplistic, but seemed close enough to satisfy Josh, because he was talking again, and that bought Sam some more time.

His mother might have said Sam's problem was that he had too much time. Which had to mean something was wrong; no one had that much time on their hands at the White House these days. The place was being wallpapered with subpoenas, and they were barely keeping a lid on the Democrats, never mind the Republicans. And there was still the country and a re-election to run.

But somehow Sam found his own pace slowing, and he frequently had the sensation of moving outside his frenetic surroundings. Whatever he was given to do was getting done. But Sam hardly remembered doing any of it, and he obsessively went back over everything to make sure it was all really there, and the quality hadn't slipped.

He could have sworn Josh had stopped talking. If not, it was way too long a pause for effective speaking, and Sam interpreted it as an end. Rising out of the chair he'd been rigidly sitting in, he snapped his notebook closed, thrust a hand into his pocket and shrugged his shoulders in the direction of the door. "So, I'm gonna get back to my office."

"Uh, Sam? Did you somehow skip ahead while I wasn't looking and finish this discussion without me?" There wasn't much humor in Josh's voice now, and Sam started at that. Had he done something wrong? Again? "Leo wants this hammered out today, he wants to take it to Eugene by end of business. I was under the impression you were going to put it all together for me."

"I am." He was. He would. If Sam could just remember what it was they were talking about. "I'm going back to my office to do that. Just," he extracted the hand from his pocket and reached impatiently across the desk. "Gimme the thing. I'll take care of it for you." There, fixed, everything was fine, he'd just have to read it all from the beginning and take any questions to someone else. Home free.

"I don't think so. Sit down."

Josh was up now, walking around to the door, easing it shut. A hand on Sam's shoulder guided him back into the vacated chair. This didn't feel right.

Josh took his own seat again, and placed both hands folded on the desktop. "This is getting to be a problem, Sam." Jump in Josh, the water's fine. "Every time I think you're starting to get your shit together, you do something to.... You're making me nervous."

Sam didn't want to make Josh nervous. If anything, he wanted to make everything all right for both of them. Things hadn't felt all right between them for awhile now. Sometimes Sam was afraid he'd passed over into outright paranoia, the way he sensed Josh was watching him.

"You're making too much of a little daydreaming, Josh. It's not exactly scintillating conversation, you know what I'm saying? But I have a firm grasp on what you want, and I can distill it into nice crisp talking points for you - " Sam thought he'd bounced back well, was the very picture of sincere professionalism.

"I didn't want talking points. That's exactly what *I'm* saying here. I could get anyone to do talking points for me, Sam. You have no idea what has been going on in this room for the last hour." Josh was making no effort to hide the frustration and annoyance he was feeling now.

It had been a few months since President Bartlet had disclosed his illness to his staff and the American public. Frenzied months of spinning and mending, and somewhere along the way each of them had been forced to deal with their own personal repercussions. There were still hurt feelings, and some bruising that hadn't healed. The anxiety had dissipated a little when re-election had moved from a distant abstract to a solid reality. It felt good to have that clarity after the stressful uncertainty. But, Josh had come to realize only recently; somehow Sam had been left behind.

It was a lot. It was a lot for someone like Sam, Josh knew that. But he'd forgotten to look over his shoulder, and by the time he realized Sam was no longer there, he had no idea how to reach him.

They'd all been angry. At the President. At Leo and the First Lady. And at the damned disease that seemed to be physically stalking the very halls of the White House.

And they'd all been disappointed. That they hadn't been trusted enough to make their own decisions about just what they were willing to climb on board for.

But Sam.... Sam was lost. He'd been bitter, and combative, and Josh had felt let down that it had outlasted the rest of their anger, but he also recognized that a lot of things had been flying at Sam on all fronts, and they seemed to pick up speed since the beginning of the year.

Looking at his friend now, sitting across the desk, Josh contemplated, not for the first time, what Sam's life would have been like if Josh had never made that one last effort to get him out of New York. And it troubled him to think that Sam might be thinking the same thing. Right now, Sam looked as if he was ready to bolt from the room, and Josh was afraid he might not get him back if that happened.

"Sam. I've seen you at your best. And I've seen you at your worst. And this is definitely the worst of your worst. Now tell me what the hell's going on with you." Josh held in a breath while blue eyes bore into him. "That right there? That was your cue to speak." So. He was going to do it again.

After the anger had seeped away a little, and the antagonism appeared to be draining from him, Sam had taken a sudden and drastic tack. He'd pretty much stopped speaking. It had been stunning, and dramatic and irritated the hell out of everyone, but then CJ had said something to the effect of it being better than his being so argumentative, and they'd let him alone for awhile.

Eventually Sam began to draw back to them again, but the intensity and relentlessness of his silence had been a thing to behold. Josh didn't know how he did it, how he could sit in a meeting where feelings were running high, and policy was being discussed, where everyone knew Sam had strong opinions, but he never opened his mouth unless asked a direct question.

It was awesome and infuriating and Josh had to admire the fact that while he himself was still prone to the occasional unreasonable outburst, Sam retreated further into impeccable civility.

It didn't seem so awesome now, Sam serenely sitting there detached and impenetrable.

Josh allowed a sigh to explode from his chest. In all the years he'd known Sam, he had been mildly amused by his seemingly oblivious willfulness. How he could do things like giving the letter he wrote in support of Leo to President Bartlet after having been *expressly* told not to. Or go to see Laurie after her graduation even after agreeing it was a bad idea. Josh would just shake his head and say, that's Sam.

But Sam was mining new depths of stubbornness these days, and Josh was feeling ill-equipped to handle it. This was someone he loved, and admired, and couldn't imagine his life without. And right now he wasn't even sure if he liked Sam anymore.

Sam's eyes had narrowed as the moments ticked by, and Josh felt childishly triumphant when Sam broke away first and looked down at his hands. "I'm okay. I'm just having a little trouble, Josh." Josh leaned closer to hear the quiet voice, leaned in until the edge of the desk pressed into his stomach. "I'm not sure I'm doing anyone any good right now."

"Including yourself, man. You're a mess." And I'm a screw-up. Levity was a defense Josh relied on to diffuse situations he felt not entirely in control of, and this was one of those times. As soon as the words were out of his mouth it occurred to him Sam might not appreciate having something so confessional taken so lightly. Obviously this was hard for Sam. There was nothing Josh wanted to do but make things easier. "What can I do?"

Sam was making all kinds of noises now, sighs and groans, and it seemed like he was being rendered apart over there. A sudden clap of thunder almost swallowed the word when it worked its way out of Sam's mouth: "Jesus." Josh focused his eyes on his friend's sharp features. "I've got to get out of here."

And just like that, Sam was up, and gone, and Josh was looking at an empty chair.

"Well, shit." Her day was getting better and better, mused CJ. "Carol! Do you have the agenda for the Long-term Stewardship Subcommittee?"

"The thing from this morning?" The look of confusion on her assistant's face would have been amusing, if CJ had been prone to being amused today. "I think Sam took it with him," Carol informed her.

Of course. "Please get it back. Or, no. Never mind." She needed to see Toby anyway. Gathering the file in front of her together, CJ started down the hallway.

Somewhere up ahead there was laughter, and she was tempted to follow it, because that was a rare commodity these days. And she missed being with the fun people. Maybe she'd give Jane a call. She was in town for a few more weeks, before heading back to Prague. The old friends had promised to see more of each other, had even managed it a few times. Friends were also somewhat scarce lately, and CJ was determined to hang onto every last one she could find.

Threading her way through the corridors, on auto-pilot. She could do this with her eyes closed. CJ wished she *could* close her eyes, go a day without seeing the weary faces of the people she cared about, people who, like she, were hanging by a thread.

Toby's voice was drawing her into his office. "COTTON. CANDY."

Larry, sounding a little off kilter. "I'm sorry...?"

"Sam?!"

"Ummm..." A voice laced with fatigue. "I'm guessing... spun from air and sugar?"

Toby again, triumphant. "Air and sugar! Yes! The President does not spin policy out of air and sugar."

Standing in the doorway now, CJ chuckled at the metaphor. She never would have guessed that, and was slightly amazed Sam pulled that one off. More so when she spied him on the sofa, laptop closed, forearms resting on top. He'd aged 5 years since she saw him this morning. CJ vaguely speculated on what could have happened between then and now.

Toby looked up to see CJ in the doorway. "And now, presenting the award for worst speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the lovely and talented CJ Cregg!" Toby held out a hand to her, guiding her into the center of his office where she took a small bow.

It would be so much more fun if Sam and Larry were playing, but Larry stole dejectedly into the bullpen, his lambasted remarks to the ASNE fluttering in his hands. Sam pulled himself wearily from the sofa and offered CJ a thin, distant smile before turning towards the door.

"Wait, Sam, I came for you. I need a copy of the agenda for the Subcommittee." He met her expectant look with a blank expression, then left the room. "So, thank you very much, you've been a delight to work with...." she mumbled under her breath, flopping into Toby's guest chair.

After making some nervous adjustments to the television on his shelf, Toby slid behind his desk. "It's been a bad afternoon." He offered it to her with a sheepish flick of his eyes. CJ considered for a moment whether there was a tinge of guilt there too, then dismissed it at once.

"You, on the other hand, seem to be having a frightfully cheery day. What's up? Care to spread the joy?" CJ inquired.

"Oh just, riding the wave of satisfaction, knowing we're in control of the country, moving ahead with the President's vision for the future, making life better and richer and more secure for every American. You know, the usual." Sarcasm dripping from his beard, CJ was tempted to lean over and wipe it off with her sleeve.

"Since when are we in control?" It was supposed to sound light, she so wanted to keep things light. "Anyway, I brought you a gift." She handed the folder she'd been clutching across the desk. "The interview. I've looked it over, but I know you want final approval."

"Yeah."

CJ felt the air behind her stir, otherwise she would have been startled when an arm appeared suddenly in front of her face holding a clipped sheaf of papers. Looking up in time to see Sam heading back towards the door. After he'd gone, CJ turned to Toby, busying himself with a file. "Was there something specific...?" she ventured, pointing with her chin to the glass dividing his office and Sam's. Toby was already shaking his head.

It wouldn't surprise her in the least if there was no discernible explanation for Sam's change in mood. Sitting in the morning Staff meeting he appeared a little distant, quiet, but that wasn't so unusual anymore, and it was to a far lesser degree than they'd seen before. But when he'd come to CJ's office 20 minutes later to brief her on the DOE, he was helpful and accessible and hadn't once made her feel like hurling anything at his head. He'd left after complimenting her on her firm grasp of the material, and said he'd be available if she had any other questions.

"That man gives me whiplash." And with that CJ began the long walk back to her own office.

"I wanna come too!" God, Josh could whine like a champ, and as appealing as that was to CJ, she just didn't think Jane would appreciate the addition of a 3 year old to their girl's night out. Which she'd explained to him as patiently as if she was his mother.

"Just as - on occasion - you and your brethren feel the need to go out carousing and overindulging, we women sometimes have a desire to satisfy our more sophisticated impulses. Like good conversation, maybe some cognac, tossing our heads back in gentle, amused laughter," CJ elaborated.

"So, you're gonna try and pick up guys?" If he wasn't welcome, Josh at least wanted assurances it wasn't because he couldn't drink cognac, have a good conversation or toss his head back gently and laugh. Or was that laugh gently. Didn't matter, he'd ceased caring, and was now skipping to keep up as CJ continued careening down the corridor.

Momentarily distracted by the realization that she wasn't really dressed for meeting men, having worn a suit far too severe for that purpose, CJ swore under her breath. "We have no plans to pick up men, Joshua. The point is to share a relaxing, stimulating evening with another woman - out of the gutter, NOW! - and reestablish my connection to the outside world."

"Fine, I'll just see if Sam wants to go out carousing and overindulging."

A snort the size of Alaska escaped CJ's nose. "Yeah, have fun there!" she tossed at him while accelerating around a corner.

It had been a long time since Josh had been out with Sam. Part of it was that he'd tired of being consistently rebuffed. A couple of times they'd made tentative plans to get together, but it had become predictable that Sam would back out at the last minute, and his excuses were almost embarrassing. So Josh quit asking, and now he couldn't even think back to the last time they'd just hung out.

In place of spending time together, Josh had gotten creative. He looked for small ways to remain in Sam's peripheral vision. On the first really hot day of summer he'd asked Donna to bring back an iced mocha when she'd gone out to lunch, and he'd placed it on Sam's desk without comment. And one evening, killing time online during a house vote, Josh had come across an interactive Lakers fan site, and he'd forwarded it to Sam. But finding little things to brighten the gloomy corners of Sam's world was no replacement for the intimacy of time spent together, and Josh was suddenly determined to regain some of what they'd lost.

Pounding the keys of his laptop in time with the pounding in his temples, Sam dug deeper into his concentration. He'd promised himself he would finish polishing Josh's appalling brief for the head of the OPM, and so far he was pretty confident he could get it done. Some things still came so easily.

The storm was whipping at the bushes outside his window, an unsettling metaphor nagging at him. And he kept obsessing over the idea that if he'd just made it inside this morning, before spilling anything, or getting soaked, the whole day would have been better.

It was unreasonable, to say the least. He could pull himself out of this any time he wanted, Sam lectured himself. He just needed a catalyst. An outside force to throw him against the wall and slap him around a little. Just as long as it wasn't Doug or Bruno. Sam's fingers stopped typing abruptly, and he swiveled his chair around to stare at the rain lashing itself against his window. Turning slowly back to his desk, he pulled open a drawer and extracted a bottle of Advil, spilling 5 tablets into his hand.

Head back down now, trying to strangle some order into the disjointed information Josh had gathered together, Sam felt rather than heard a new presence in the room.

"Hey." Sam wasn't surprised to hear Josh's voice or see him standing there, clearly wary about moving any closer. It was a pretty shitty feeling to have the person to whom you were closest be that scared of approaching you. "What are you working on?" Josh took two hesitant steps closer.

"Oh, you know." Whatever. Did it matter? They were all the same anyway, and it would require far too much effort to explain that to Josh. "What can I do for you?"

The too-bright overhead light reflecting off his glasses, Josh wasn't sure if Sam was even looking at him. "CJ and some friend - Jane - are kicking their heels up tonight, and we're not invited." If he thought Sam might make the connection to Josh's being there, he was going to be disappointed. "And I thought we should do something."

"You don't mean... like try to sabotage their evening or something?" Sam asked apprehensively. It wasn't out of the realm of possibility when Josh was concerned.

"No, no! I mean *us.* We should do something, go out. Grab something to eat."

"Oh." Sam saw the hope there, and it told him Josh was trying here, trying to offer him a way out of this inky sea he'd ended back up in. All Sam had to do was reach out. He didn't even have to get out of his chair. He knew instinctively that if he just raised his arm a little, made the gesture, Josh would be there, flying across the room to grab hold and haul him back in the boat.

All he had to do was throw Josh the look, the one that would reveal how alone, and empty and out of control he felt. And Josh would catch it, and help Sam examine it, and find a place to put it where it couldn't hurt him anymore. That's all he had to do.

Instead, Sam lowered his eyes to his keyboard and cleared his throat. "I can't. I'm sorry." And he wasn't just talking about getting dinner. He didn't dare look up, couldn't bear to see the disappointment he knew was there on Josh's face. He'd made it sound final, and definitive. But he wanted to say more. He wanted to tell Josh, 'it's okay, you can give up now.' Almost told him, 'I can't be with you right now. I can't take anything from you yet.'

The keyboard clattered away under Sam's long slim fingers, and he flew through three more paragraphs before he allowed himself to look back up at the place Josh had been standing.

The rain had slowed to a claustrophobic drizzle, and it was really cramping CJ's style. She was acutely aware that her impressive legs were one of her best assets, something she had only begun to appreciate when she'd moved into her late twenties. When she was feeling powerful and confident CJ lengthened her strides consciously, just enough so her skirt would pull against her long thighs with each step. Only, that was really hard to do when the sidewalk was dissected with rivers of runoff from the buildings lining the block.

Jane had brought an umbrella, and was hunched beneath it, but since it would have been too awkward to share with her 5'4" companion, CJ was desperately looking for somewhere halfway decent they could duck into for a drink.

They'd been able to blithely skip through the perfunctory 'how was your day' nonsense during dinner. Although she now lived overseas, Jane was a well-informed and intelligent woman, and CJ hadn't felt the need to explain the stressful atmosphere she was facing at her job each day. Now she was looking to cut loose a little.

"How about here?" CJ pulled up short in front of Sesto Senso. "It's still early enough that the music hasn't started yet. If you can handle the cigar smoke."

"As long as there's good ventilation, I'm game." Jane peered into the dark entrance. "Is this new since I've been to DC?"

The smoky scent of sweet cigars assaulted them the moment they entered the bar, but surprisingly it dissipated significantly the further they moved inside. The two women found a table under a lazy fan, and ordered Cosmopolitans from the server.

"What Washington needs is more coffee houses," Jane was saying when their drinks arrived, rims crusted with fine sugar. "Prague is lined with them. There's one near Dennis's office that some of the tortured local artists seem to favor." Laughter tinkling like glasses behind the bar. "They display their work there sometimes, but the owner is very discerning. I bought something once, a Gannon. Very orderly piece, but there's a disturbing quality to it...."

Jane stopped speaking and was peering over her drink at the people strung along the bar in front of them like Christmas lights. "CJ, isn't that...?"

It was. CJ huffed audibly in momentary frustration. She'd recognize that elegant posture anywhere. And god, Sam needed a haircut.

He was seated at the farthest end of the bar, turned on his stool so his back was to CJ and Jane. At first CJ thought he was talking to the bartender, who was leaning in the corner of the bar. It took her a second or two to see that his attention was actually on a man sitting at a right angle to Sam.

He might have been a few years younger than Sam, and he was using his hands expressively, rocking back and forth on his stool while clearly trying to make a point. Sporting a wide grin. Since she couldn't see his face, CJ didn't know if Sam was smiling or not, but a moment later she saw him cock his head and reach a hand out to touch the man's cuff.

The young man raised his beer to his mouth, swallowing hungrily, and Sam suddenly threw back the contents of his own glass, immediately inclining his head in the bartender's direction.

The last thing CJ wanted was to end up spending the evening with Sam and some boy's club politico. She considered asking Jane to go somewhere else. But it was raining, and her drink was starting to warm her stomach, and the smell of cigars reminded her of her father. And Toby. So she scooted her chair around to offer more of her back to the bar, and pointedly asked Jane to keep telling her about Prague.

"Sam." He was really beginning to hate the sound of his own name, especially when it was coming out of Toby's mouth. "The outline was good. You're gonna keep building on that?"

No, Toby; I'm just going to sit here and bask in your glorious praise.... "I'm on it."

"And Leo's notes on Detroit...."

"I'm skipping around, but I've already re-worked the middle section."

The pen Toby had been idly twirling came to an abrupt stop in his hand. "And the Cotton Candy speech, you were going to help Larry out on that...."

He'd hoped Toby would stay away from that one. Sam had an ever so slight hangover, and his game plan for the day was to avoid any and all yelling.

"I deleted it. To hell and back."

"You wha- ?!"

"It was worse than awful."

"It needed polish!"

"It had to go."

"GO?!"

"I'm fixing it."

"We need it TOMORROW!"

"And you'll have it. And it will be a brilliant luminous thing you can hold in your hand, and you'll be sorry you ever doubted me."

"I'm sorry I ever hired you."

Back in his own office now, the first handful of Advil securely in his stomach, Sam leaned back in his chair and raised his feet onto his desk. He was having a good day. And it felt mildly dangerous to be reflecting on it so early, but then Sam had been feeling a little reckless lately. Or, a lot reckless. And he knew he was headed for trouble. But right now, he was having a good day, and he was going to enjoy it for all the 10 minutes it was likely to last.

"Senior Staff in five, Sam." He didn't mind the way his name sounded when Bonnie said it.

Scooping up his notebook and double checking that his pen was in his pocket, Sam started towards Leo's office, gratefully accepting the envelope that was thrust at him by a staffer. "This just came for you," she told him.

First to arrive, Margaret waved Sam into Leo's office, telling him the Chief of Staff was still with the President and would be delayed. Sam arranged himself on the sofa, and began flipping through the papers he had been handed moments before.

Slowly drifting into the room, CJ, Toby, and Josh took up various positions around Leo's desk, Josh colliding into Sam on the sofa. "Hey. Nice tie."

"Hmm?" This couldn't be right. Sam was still leafing through the sheaf of papers, nearly oblivious to Josh's proximity.

"...makes this godawful clanking noise. It sounds as if I'm dragging cans behind my car." What was CJ saying, something about cans? Her voice drifted in and out as Sam tried to bring what he was reading into sharper focus.

"Did you check to see if there actually were cans being dragged behind?" Josh, sounding very far away. Hadn't he sat down right next to Sam?

"Exposure." Sam's voice was hoarse, his tongue felt desperately dry. And the word was almost lost as Leo breezed into the room.

"I have a meeting right on top of this, so let's get swinging, shall we?" Leo began, but Josh didn't hear him. Turned in his seat, he was staring at Sam's pale face, and was the only one that seemed to notice the confusion there.

Josh placed a steadying hand on Sam's arm, pulling the papers in his hand around so he could read them. "You look like your best friend just ate your dog. Or, you know.... "

All eyes in the room on them now, and Josh still had no clue what was going on. Sam looked near tears. Wordlessly, he shoved the document into Josh's hand and rose unsteadily to his feet.

"What the hell's going on?" Leo's impatience finally cutting through Sam's fogginess.

"Charlotte Stiles. She's... a lesbian." Sam's voice sounded tight and low.

"What?!" Gasped four different ways by four different people, all of whom were flocking around the pages in Josh's hands.

Sam whipped his glasses off his face and stumbled to the farthest side of the room, as far from the document, Leo, his friends, as he could get. Like a schoolboy, being made to stand in the corner when he'd screwed up, only no one was making him, he was going there all by himself.

Toby's voice reaching across the room now, speaking directly to Sam. How had Toby found him? He thought he was invisible, here behind Leo's door.

"Where did this come from? How do we know it's true? Sam, GET OVER HERE!"

Turned towards them now, his back to the wall for support, Sam, clutching his glasses, placed his hands over his face and shook his head. He needed to chew on his words, chew them until they were small enough that he wouldn't choke when they came out. "It's true, I knew. I've always known."

"That the President's nominee for assistant attorney general for civil rights is gay?" CJ's tone was incredulous, and Sam briefly wondered if he was more afraid of her right now, more than anyone. "And you never once mentioned it, not in one meeting, one discussion? There is something disturbing about you, Sam," she spit at him, drenching him in her disgust.

Hands down, ready to accept the glaring stares, Sam moved back towards Leo's desk.

"I know." He knew. Now. But then, it seemed like the right thing to do. Stiles was closeted, and it wasn't Sam's place. And even if he'd felt it had been, he never would have been the one. He'd wrestled with this, 6 months ago when they were throwing the names of nominees around. Stiles came up again and again, and everyone was so enthusiastic....

And it wasn't as if the woman had concealed a degenerative disorder from the American public, then asked them to elect her to an important political and moral position. Fuck!

Maybe it was the copious amounts of alcohol he'd had last night. Or the massive quantity of Advil he'd downed just 30 minutes ago on an empty stomach. Whatever it was, it wanted to come out and play with the big boys. Sam lunged for the wastebasket and doubled over.

"Get him the hell out of here," growled Leo.

There was just no good way to do this, mused Josh, seated as close as he could get to Sam on the stiff sofa in the Oval Office. No good way to tell Sam he'd really blown this sky high. "That was pretty spectacular, Sam." Josh's best attempt to soothe Sam while he'd hyperventilated in the men's room hadn't seemed to help much. He was ready to put his arm around his shoulder right there, when the President and Leo entered from the portico.

Josh was impressed when Sam rose to his feet on his own, and stood there holding the President's steady gaze until they were just a foot apart. "Mr. President?" There was no disguising the fear in Sam's whispered question. "Josh, would you step ou

t, please?"

No, Mr. President, I really don't think I will. Because either Sam's gonna pass out or hurl on your shoes; either way I'd like to be here to -- "Yes, sir."

"Have a seat, Sam." President Bartlet moved to stand behind a chair, hands gripping the fabric. "Tell me how this happened." Was he gnashing his teeth?

Two more breaths, Sam promised himself. Two more deep breaths to fill his lungs with air, and he would be able to speak, be able to sound coherent. One. Two.

"Mr. President. Leo. I made a terrible mistake. Obviously. At the time... it was information I'd learned outside our vetting process. Years ago, when I'd done some pro bono work for Stiles in New York. She never specifically asked me not to tell anyone, but I felt that if it wasn't something easily uncovered during our investigation, it would probably be safe. And since I wasn't involved in any way in the - "

"So where did this document you got come from?" Leo wanted to know. Sam wanted to know too.

Did Sam's voice always sound this way, strangled? "I don't know. It was sent to me. No return address, no cover letter. I just don't know." Defeat was gnawing at his him now, threatening to devour him.

"I'm beginning to wonder about some of your 'friends,' Sam. You appear to have become a kind of conduit for information outside forces want to share with this administration." Bartlet's voice had softened.

"I went on tv. When we announced Stiles, it was me on all the shows." It was the only reason Sam could think of that people felt they could come to him with their secrets. Because if they knew Sam, personally knew him or had any idea who he really was, they wouldn't trust him with their laundry. "I should... someone has to call Charlotte." Like it had only just occurred to him, even though it was all Sam had been thinking since he'd read the steadily blurring words.

In the end, it wasn't CJ Sam should have been afraid of. Or even President Bartlet. It was Toby, trapping him here in his office, stalking back and forth in front of the door.

"...when she gets here, you leave. Do you hear me Sam? I want you nowhere near this building." And Sam wasn't quite sure if Toby meant for the meeting, or forever. "We want to hear it from her mouth, that she never asked you to lie." Hadn't they just been through all this, with the President? About the President? Really, he ought to be better at this after all that practice.

Every so often, Sam would see Josh drifting past his window into the bullpen. The first two times it looked as if Josh was actually passing through, and had pitched Sam a distracted glance. The last four times it was pretty obvious he had run out of legitimate reasons to be there, and it appeared now that he'd given up all pretenses. He was standing there with his hands on his hips, nose practically pressed up against the glass.

Casting Josh a look over his shoulder, Toby bellowed "Oh for crying out loud, get in here!"

Josh scampered through the door, closing it behind him.

"You know, I'm just thinking," Josh began, as though he'd been in the room the entire time. "This could end up being a huge benefit. Having a gay assistant attorney general for civil rights is actually very cool. There's no reason this can't work to our advantage."

Even Sam had to groan. "And you thought *I* was naive. Josh, it would have been great. If she was out. But she's been living a double life. And I - unlike CJ with President Bartlet - had this information and chose not to disclose it. She's toast. Not to mention the scrutiny our vetting process is going to come under." Sam reached for the drawer and contemplated giving a few Tylenol a whirl.

Until Toby spoke quietly. "Or not." Had he really said that? And why would he? It couldn't be to make Sam feel better, because god knew, just half an hour ago Toby was plotting ways to make Sam feel very very bad. "Let the spin begin."

"Come home with me. All you're gonna do is sit at your place and watch CNN kick your ass all over the place. Come home with me. We can watch your ass together." Josh was full of good ideas like that.

Sam was literally shuffling his feet through the parking lot, eyes planted firmly on the ground. "She has a partner, you know? I didn't know that."

"I know. They've been together 8 years. How the *hell* do you keep a relationship a secret for 8 years?" Josh wondered idly.

"Oh, I'd imagine the same way you'd do it for 28 years, but, you know, for not as long."

If it smells like shit, and it feels like shit...

"Come home with me." It was a plea now.

"I'm gonna get some sleep." Sam, sliding behind the wheel. "Another time, Josh. Really."

It had been two days since the story broke, and after valiantly trying to gain control of the situation, Charlotte Stiles had graciously withdrawn her nomination and walked away with what little dignity she'd had left. Leo had danced fast to keep the failings of their initial investigation as quiet as possible.

The administration had been taking the hits, Sam absorbing the majority of them, and Josh was proud that he hadn't fallen completely apart. Though it had been touch and go. And he admitted to himself that his motives for getting to spend some time with Sam weren't as simple as wanting to get his mind off things. Josh really wanted to gauge how Sam was coping.

Josh drifted towards his own car, pondering the complexities of his friendship with Sam. And he had to acknowledge, he was feeling a little wounded by how Sam had been shutting him out. Everyone needed space once in awhile, and Josh expected that was truer for them than most, because they worked together everyday. But it was as if Sam was reaching out an arm to physically hold Josh back.

If he was going to find out what exactly was eating Sam alive, Josh was going to have to put a little more muscle into it to get him to open up.

"You have to talk to Leo," Josh declared, leveling his gaze on his friend's tired face. He'd been trying quite unsuccessfully to convince Sam to take a few days off. The seven day work weeks were killing everyone, but Sam already looked half dead.

Sam sighed quietly and lifted the top of his sandwich to peek at the tomato resting there. "I don't have that kind of relationship with him. I'm not even sure what I'm asking for."

"He's really good at that part."

But that would require articulating what the problem was. And if Sam could do that, he pondered silently, he probably wouldn't have allowed himself to become such a train wreck in the first place.

Sam, nibbling at his pickle distractedly, Josh plowing through his chili, neither aware of the bustle of the diner around them. This was good, sitting here, having lunch with Sam. It was a small step, but a big win, as far as Josh was concerned. And it was the first time in ages that they were having a conversation that didn't end with Sam fleeing, or shutting him out.

And it was tempting beyond all reason to keep pushing. But Josh was determined not to give Sam an excuse to slide back, even an inch, so he squirmed in his seat, and watched Sam look under the bread again.

"Something wrong there, Sam?" Josh was honestly curious now, because, not that he was counting, but that was the third time Sam had done that.

Surprised at being caught, Sam looked over the rim of his glasses at Josh. "Hmmm... I may be hallucinating here. But I think this tomato is alive."

Josh lifted himself off the plastic bench and craned his neck for a better view of Sam's chicken salad sandwich. "When you say alive, you must mean..."

"Well, it moves."

Nearly choking on a pinto bean, Josh shot Sam an alarmed look. And noticed that Sam was wearing a rather perplexed expression himself. He couldn't mean it literally moved.

"This doesn't *concern* you, Sam?!" Josh's voice squeaking a little at the end.

"That my tomato is moving, or that I might be hallucinating?"

So, this was bizarre. Because either one of those things would be causing Josh a hell of a lot more angst than Sam was demonstrating right now.

"Let me see. Show me the thing."

Sam calmly lifted a corner of the sourdough bread and slid the plate a fraction closer to Josh. "It might take a second to.... There." Sam sitting up a little straighter was the only visible reaction he showed.

Josh, on the other hand yelped and threw himself against the back of the booth. "What the hell is that?! What the hell is that?!"

The commotion brought the waiter to the table, where Josh proceeded to sputter out a demand for an explanation. After another showy display from the exposed tomato, the waiter reached out gingerly and lifted it off the bed of chicken.

All three men leaned closer to examine the woolly-looking worm that rested obliviously among the bits of celery.

"Hmph." Sam, frankly relieved that he hadn't been seeing things.

Josh, bleating at the waiter, throwing money on the table, pulling Sam out of the booth. Out on the sidewalk, Josh tugged at his jacket, regaining some composure. He cocked his head at Sam, who was looking magnificently unconcerned. "You okay, Sam?"

"I'm fine."

Well of course he was.

And Josh decided he needed to do something about that.

There were too many people in this room, Sam thought almost desperately. No way was there enough air to sustain this much life. But what disturbed him most was not the image of the bodies of his co-workers writhing on the floor, clutching their throats in anguish. No, what was causing Sam to inch slowly towards panic was the realization that if they all dropped dead right now, that would leave more air for him. What kind of a man did that make him?

"Excuse me." Sam spilled out of his chair and, leaving his open notebook, laptop and files in place, stepped around the people lining the Roosevelt Room.

Without a clearly defined destination, Sam started towards the lobby, distantly hoping the openness would calm him a bit. He'd completed three full circles around the area, eyes firmly planted on the tile in front of him, oblivious to the skeptical guard watching him, when he heard his name being called.

Donna. "Did you drop something, Sam?" She tottered over and began examining the ground surrounding him. "What was it?" She was doing a little dance now, darting her small feet around as if afraid she might be stepping on the precious item Sam had obviously been intent on retrieving.

Wide-eyed at first, confused by the question, until he realized why she had asked it. No, I was just, you know, wandering aimlessly trying to get these horrific images of dead, decaying corpses out of my head.

Sweet, concerned Donna, just trying to help. One of the few people who didn't seem to think Sam had metamorphosed into a woolly worm over the last few months. It made him smile.

"No, I didn't drop anything. I was just wandering aimlessly trying to get these horrific images of dead, decaying corpses out of my head." Well, Josh was always telling him he had to talk about these things....

The alarmed expression on Donna's face nipped the urge to share any more of his thoughts in the bud, and Sam's grin turned sheepish. "Sorry. Just, forget I said anything. Thanks all the same for helping me look."

Okay.

When Sam finally returned to the abandoned meeting in the Roosevelt Room, he was at first keenly relieved that the crowd had thinned to almost nothing. Until he saw that Toby was one of the few remaining people, sitting at the head of the table, arms folded securely across his chest. Sam's closed computer and notebook neatly stacked in front of him.

"Oh god," Sam groaned. How long had he been circling the lobby? Hadn't he just stepped out for a minute? "Oh god," he repeated. Moving across the room, aware that the lingering staffers were now scurrying away. Against all instincts for survival, Sam found himself steadily closing the distance between himself and his boss. "Oh. God."

"You know, for a secularist, you say that a lot."

"Only in times of intense distress or incredulity."

"Well, then." Toby's dark eyes firing a thousand volts into Sam.

"Oh -- " He had to stop that. "Toby. I don't know what to say. Please tell me they're all on a break or something." But Sam knew better. The room was empty. All signs that an hour ago 20 people had been strewn about, trying to hammer out a revised Superfund site list had been wiped away in Sam's absence.

"They seemed to be under the impression the meeting was over. Since the person leading it had left the room. And didn't come back." Toby replied accusingly, unfolding his arms and placing his hands atop Sam's laptop.

There was nothing to be gained by Sam pointing out that he *had* come back. Just, um, a little later than he'd intended. And telling Toby that the various people from the Department of Energy, and the State, Tribal, and Site Identification Center among many others had been sucking up all the air - that it was every man for himself - probably wouldn't cut it.

Releasing a lungful of air he hadn't even been aware he was holding, Sam collapsed in the chair closest to Toby. "Am I fired? Just tell me, Toby. 'Cause I don't think I can survive the suspense."

Toby's thick fingers began drumming the top of Sam's laptop, lazily and absently, while he stared at his dejected deputy. "Are you ill? Did you get sick again?" Toby's tone was so even and inquiring, Sam was momentarily lulled off his guard.

"No, I... I usually get sick *after* I've fucked up." Said so matter-of-factly, Toby struggled against a smile.

"So, you just got up and walked out of the meeting." That was a pretty succinct summary of events. Toby rose to his feet and started for the door. "I've always found you a little... odd. But never this flaky, and in case you haven't pulled your head out of your ass in awhile, you're working in the White House. I don't tolerate flaky. So you can imagine how Leo and the President feel about it." And then he was gone, leaving Sam with his head resting on folded arms atop the gleaming table.

Josh was still staring intently at the bottle of water sitting precariously at the edge of his desk. He'd been watching it for a good three minutes, mesmerized by the slight quivering of the liquid. It was so small, so imperceptible. Unless you were really looking. Which he was. It was the only way he could keep his mind from slamming over and over again into what Donna had just told him.

Bewildered by her boss's apparent lack of interest in the latest calamity Sam had visited upon himself, Donna raised her voice a little louder than the conspiratorial whisper she'd used a moment ago. "And he's not coming out. Josh, did you hear me?"

"Hm?" Wrenching his eyes away from the hypnotic lure of the water, Josh focused on his assistant. Glory be, couldn't she leave him alone for one blessed minute? "I heard you, Donna. What exactly did you want me to do about it? And please, be specific, 'cause I'll be damned if I have a clue what to say to him." He hadn't intended to sound so irritated, but he imagined there was nothing so frustrating as feeling this helpless about someone you cared so much about.

Get out of the damn chair and go see him, Josh's mind was screaming. Help him fix this, or bring him some coffee, or just stand there dumbly like you always end up doing. But let him know he's not alone. Because if you don't... he won't be alone tonight. And then....

"...didn't hear exactly what they were saying," Donna's voice worked back into his consciousness again. "But she says it was loud. And Charlie said the President poured a drink the minute Sam left the Oval, and told him he needed a minute alone with Leo." As the implications occurred to her, Donna gasped dramatically and reached a hand out to Josh's arm. "Oh my god, Josh! Do you think," and her voice dropped again to a marginally hysterical whisper. "They're going to fire him?!"

Shaking his head from side to side as though it would help clear the confusion he was swimming through, Josh groaned to his feet and strode to the door. "If I'm not back in 30 minutes, make sure they use a picture that shows off my dimples for my obituary."

"Do you still work here?" Josh's voice drifted across Sam's dark office, blinds closed on all fronts, one lamp weakly lighting the room. Josh stood in the fractured light coming from the partly opened door, cutting through the gloom.

"Oh yeah. And I'm finding that a little unfathomable." Sam's voice was hollow and humorless, and he sounded a galaxy away. "I would have fired my ass days ago. Maybe they're just keeping me around for entertainment purposes. Or because deep down, they're as curious as I am about what I can possibly do to top myself. What other possible reason...."

"Eye candy," Josh mumbled, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

"What?" Sharp as a knife.

Shit. "I mean.... It was a joke. Or, it was *supposed* to be a joke. Sorry." Josh stood stock still now, his eyes adjusted to the dimness. Which was when he saw the bottle. And before he could finish forming the question in his head, it slipped out of his mouth. "Since when do you keep a bottle of whisky in your office?"

A snort from Sam knocked Josh back a little. A sound so bitter and alien, he almost thought they might not be alone in the room.

"Come here. I'm in the mood to share tonight."

That's exactly what Josh was afraid of, so he quickly pulled a chair up and sat on the edge of it, elbows on the desk. A glass slid over to him, the same glass that had been sitting next to the bottle, and Josh took a generous sip of the smoky liquid.

"Can you tell me what the hell happened?" Josh asked. Feeling the whisky burn a path down his throat, it amazed him how quickly he began to relax. Or maybe it was because he felt a loosening around Sam.

When he'd approached Sam's office, Josh had been nearly paralyzed with fear at what he might find. To say that Sam had been tightly wound lately was a gross understatement, so Josh had imagined he'd find any manner of hideous wreckage when he'd tapped on the closed door.

But Sam seemed almost relaxed there behind his desk, leaning back, head resting on the back of his chair. There was a glint in his eye, and from where he sat, Josh couldn't tell what was fueling it. Alcohol, possibly. Or something more feral. Josh drank again, then slid the glass back to Sam. Who raised it to his mouth and drained it before refilling it.

"It's embarrassing," Sam spoke quietly. It was beyond embarrassing. And he momentarily entertained the idea of embellishing a little, to make it all sound very dramatic and more in line with the consequences. But all his life, Sam could never imagine anything more humiliating than being caught in a lie. So he told Josh about how he thought there wasn't enough air left, and how he'd lost track of how many times he'd walked around the lobby, and how it all just got away from him. There was no great trauma, nothing existential that happened in that meeting. Just Sam fucking up.

They sat in Sam's dark office passing the glass back and forth for an hour. The phone never rang, and no one came to the door, and Sam allowed Josh to ramble on about everything and nothing and he even chimed in once in a while to make it feel like he was still in the room.

"Sunday," Josh was saying. "Let's... let's go sailing. You haven't done that all year, did you realize that? It'll be good for you." Josh allowed himself to feel hopeful, anyway.

"I have. Gone sailing." Nearly strangling on the words.

"Oh." Josh hadn't known that. And Sam was grateful when Josh let it drop.

Sam was so *incredibly* grateful. That he still had his job. That he had a friend like Josh who would still be here this late helping him get past the danger when he could be in his own apartment, decompressing from his own day. So he told Josh this, and he told him he was really going to get his shit together, that he just needed to figure a few things out.

"You haven't talked to Leo yet," Josh observed as he swallowed what surely had to be his last drink, if he was going to be driving home tonight.

"I'm trying to decide when to do it." Sam noticed the skeptical look on Josh's expressive face. "If I go to him early in the morning I'll have his full attention, but I'd probably ruin his day. If I wait till the end of the night he'll be tired and cranky."

"So do it in the middle."

"That's when he's busiest."

Josh shrugged his shoulders loosely. "Now you're just making excuses."

"Real lawyers call it 'making an argument.' " As much as Sam had been dreading going to the Chief of Staff asking for some time off, after today's impressive implosion, he figured he was actually in a better position than ever to approach him. Even Leo had to see, Sam really shouldn't be allowed to walk the halls of the White House right now. "You okay to drive?" he asked Josh.

"Yeah. You?"

"Yup."

Her gleaming red hair falling into her face as she leaned across Leo, Margaret flipped though the pages until she found the blank line for him to sign.

"That's it?" Leo asked abruptly. "So," turning his full attention back to Sam, sitting deathly still across the desk. "How much time?"

"I have no idea." Hadn't even occurred to Sam he'd get this far in the conversation. "Couple weeks?"

"You think you can untangle this in two weeks?"

"Probably not."

And that was pretty much it. He'd gotten three days instead, starting tomorrow, one of them a Sunday, and Sam walked out feeling damned thankful.

Sam had felt a little uncomfortable when Leo pointedly asked him if the drinking made him feel better. But he seemed to let it drop when Sam had answered "drinking makes me feel nothing." He felt he could at least be reassuring, even if he felt nowhere near assured himself. So when he returned to his office, he placed the half empty bottle he'd shared with Josh the night before in the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet, and locked it.

"You scheduled your breakdown for over the weekend?" Toby sounded incredulous.

Well, that was plain ridiculous. He hadn't scheduled it; Leo had. And it wasn't a breakdown. It was an emotional time-out. Hadn't Sam just told Toby that? Moving around his office, sweeping files off various surfaces, distractedly trying to pull some sort of order out of the multiple half-finished projects he had on his desk. "I know it's on short notice...." Sam began.

"These things usually are...."

Sam glared in Toby's direction and handed off another folder. "But the only thing on a deadline is the Mental Health Services position paper, and I've gotten far enough along anyone can finish fleshing it out."

The bright blue of a file caught Sam's eye and he snatched it off the shelf. "Ah, shit... the Women's Leadership Forum. I'm sorry, I haven't gotten very far on that. But here," He shoved two binders in Toby's quickly filling arms, and then flung a yellow legal pad on top. "I have enough notes there to write two speeches."

Toby shifted his weight and peered at his clearly frazzled deputy over the top of his bounty. "Detroit...?"

"What?" Sam stopped in his tracks and looked at Toby as if he'd just started reciting a nursery rhyme. "It's weeks away. And nearly done. I'll be back Monday. What do you want from me?" All right, that came out a bit harsh. But really, knowing he was this close to getting the hell out of there was making it that much harder for Sam to focus in on the task at hand. "Let me just get this stuff together and I'll bring it in to you. Okay?" And when Toby didn't move. "*Okay?*"

Five hours later, the edginess he'd been experiencing earlier still dogging him, a visibly frayed Sam ambled towards CJ's office for a last minute impromptu meeting about a press conference gone wrong when Congressman Bailey declared that President Bartlet's list of judicial nominees "is weighted with conservatives."

Distracted by an imaginary clock ticking down the minutes until he was free to leave the White House, Sam ran smack into an equally disheveled CJ standing in her doorway, splashing some of her coffee to the floor.

"You're so fired," she declared, thinking momentarily that it might not be the best thing to say to Sam.

"And rightly so." With about as much enthusiasm as he felt.

"My goodness. You're just a bundle of insecurities, aren't you, Spanky?" And she couldn't be absolutely positive about it, but she'd give pretty good odds he said something like "go to hell," before he slithered inside.

"Three women, two blacks and a Hispanic. What's he talking about?" Toby, shrieking to the choir. He recalled how Himlen clerked for William Brennan, "one of the court's most revered liberal judges."

CJ, shoes off, feet planted on the top of her desk. "He's one of our guys. Does anyone know why our own people hate us so much?"

"I'm sorry, I still don't see why this has turned into a thing...." Sam had been asking this for half an hour. An ineffective congressman from a marginally important district, he just couldn't fathom why they were still sitting here talking about it, why Toby and CJ were *still* talking about it.

"He's an asshole," CJ scoffed.

"Certifiable."

"How exactly does one certify an asshole? 'Cause I don't imagine there are people lining up for the job."

"I'm just saying...." Sam tried again. It suddenly occurred to Sam that perhaps he wasn't really there in the room with them. He thought he was, he could see *them* after all. But they didn't seem to see Sam. Or hear him. And now he wasn't even too sure he could hear himself. He felt his chest expand as he formed the words, thought his mouth was expelling them in the proper order. But he couldn't hear them. And now he was quite sure they didn't either.

Except Josh. Who was stealing glances at him, was watching him carefully as Sam climbed out of his seat and slipped out the door.

"He can't keep doing that!" CJ, screeching like a gull.

"I know, I know! I'll - give me a minute." Josh pulled himself off the sofa.

Catching up to Sam hadn't been difficult. He didn't seem in a huge hurry to get very far. In fact, Sam didn't look like he knew *where* he was going. Which was of more than a little concern to Josh.

"Sam. What was that all about? You can't just - you know you're making a habit out of just leaving the room in the middle of things. That's...." Did he really have to tell Sam this? "Not what people do."

But Sam's done it. He had walked out of his life easily enough, once before. Maybe he could do it again. Was there anything left Sam was willing to stand up for? Anything he felt was worth the effort?

"C'mere." Taking Sam's arm, drawing him towards an unoccupied hallway. Josh, standing there, striving to take an inventory of his friend. Not letting go of his arm. Sam could feel the heat through the fabric of his shirt as the moment drew out, Josh's hand still firmly grasping him.

Josh was clutching at straws, as well as Sam's arm, trying to hold on tightly in the wake of all the uncertainty he saw in Sam's eyes.

"You're doing this all wrong, Sam," Josh began simply enough. "You've got it so backwards, that's why nothing is making sense to you right now."

Eyes squeezed tight for a moment to regain his bearings, Sam focused back on Josh. "What are you - I don't understand what you're saying."

Josh relaxed his hand a little, but maintained his grip on Sam's arm. "Look, you feel out of control. But instead of confronting that and wrestling it back, you remove yourself. Physically, emotionally. We just look up and you're gone! You may think that puts you back in control, Sam, but believe me, it's all wrong."

Sam's head fell a little, eyes sad and resigned. "Thing is, Josh." A whisper barely carried across the 10 inches that separated their faces. "I don't particularly *want* to have that control right now. I'd rather someone who knows what they're doing be in charge for awhile." Throw him against a wall. Slap him around a little.

Josh felt Sam's breath against his cheek as he listened to the soft words of defeat. "Okay. Okay. Then... I need you to do something, Sam. For me." And Sam knew there was no room here, when Josh put it in those words, using that voice. "Saturday night. You, me, my apartment. And I don't want to argue about this. Please don't make me fight with you. Trust me enough to give me a tiny bit of control this one night, and I think.... I'll feed you, we'll watch some awful videos. You can even break some stuff, if you want. Just... show up.

Sam stared dumbly, and Josh added pressure to the grip again. "I'm not arguing about this, Sam." But Sam wasn't arguing. "I just want you to show up. Whatever happens after that is up to you." And it looked like Sam might be getting this, his eyes were coming into focus and he blinked at Josh a few times in quick succession. "Promise me."

"Yeah." And Sam weakly attempted to pull his arm free from Josh.

But Josh wasn't letting go. "Promise me."

"I promise," Sam croaked. The contact was beginning to ignite Sam's arm now, and he distantly thought that if Josh had asked him to 'swear' he would have been embarrassed, and that would have made him twelve. But he'd asked him to make a promise, and Sam felt a sudden surge of courage, a transfer of courage from Josh's fingers burning into his own arm. Traveling through his body, licking into life the dead space that had gradually been filling him.

Because after all the dead ends he'd taken, looking for the way out, Josh had been here all along. Had waited for Sam to catch up, knew the way home, and had been biding his time until Sam was ready to let him lead the way back.

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