Sam went into work. He went to his office and sat down. He looked at the numerous files and memos that had appeared on his desk overnight. He stared at the wall. He stared at the ceiling. He stared everywhere but blank television set.
In a few hours, the press would file into the briefing room and begin their scribbling. One of them would inevitably ask CJ about the President’s thoughts on the arrest. She would give a statement about how, while she hasn’t spoken with the President on the matter, he is undoubtedly horrified and sadden that such a monster would pray on children.
Because that was what John Keller was. The monster under Sam’s bed.
When Sam was nine, he had a piano teacher. Mr. K, he told Sam to call him, since Sam was shy and well-trained by his mother and father not to call adults by their first names. Mr. K taught him scales and simple beginner's pieces twice a week for three years. Mr. K was a great teacher; he had a lot of students.
Sam made his parents drop the lessons when he was twelve. Mr. K didn’t stop teaching until the FBI knocked on his door and dragged him from his house, along with forty-nine boxes of evidence.
Details leaked to the press hourly: He taught at his home. He moved from state to state, never staying for more than a few years in any one spot. He gave to the communities he inhabited. He taught free lessons to underprivileged kids in poor neighbors. He made tapes.
Somewhere among that monster’s collection was a tape labeled “Sam Seaborn.”
Sam held his breath as the investigation continued. Someone would connect the dots. Someone would realize. Someone would know.
It would get leaked. He was a high profile figure, after all. A senior staff member at the White House. Someone would sell his name for forty thousand dollars to a tabloid dirty enough to print it. They might even get a copy of the tape, if they could swing it. His nightmares would be on the internet before you could blink.
The world was falling apart, and people just watched like it was a sideshow. A lesson to be learned. A horror movie in real life, unfolding in front of them.
Sam’s mother and father had been out of the county for the month. A second honeymoon after forty years of marriage, a twenty-eight year long affair, and a divorce. They came back to find a media hurricane centered around Sam’s old music tutor Mr. K.
His mother called him, nearly hysterical. She couldn't get him at home, but she did catch him at the office. CJ was standing right there, waiting for him to finish so she could continue ranting about the latest Republican stunt.
“He didn’t touch you, did he?” she asked. She was crying. CJ frowned at him as he let the silence drag. “Sam! Sam, please, please tell me that he didn’t--that that monster didn’t--Sam--”
Sam swallowed harshly. “I can’t, Mom.”
“No. No. No, that can’t be true. You can’t have been--”
“I have to go,” Sam said. He put the phone down as gently as he was able. His hands shook, slight tremors that worked their way up through his arms until it felt like his whole body was going to crack apart and unravel at the seams.
“Sam?” CJ asked softly. He had no idea what his face looked like, but it must have been bad. She got up and closed the door. “Talk to me, Sam.”
He could tell her. She was a smart woman. He wouldn’t even have to say more than a few words for her to figure out. Just a few words. Just “when I was younger, I had this piano teacher” and she would have it. The case was all over the news, and the news was CJ’s business. She would know.
Someone would know.
“It’s nothing,” Sam said. He smoothed his expression as much as he could. “Nothing. Now, what were you saying about Walters?”
She didn’t believe him, but she let it go. He tried not to appear too grateful.
“There’s been something up with him lately,” he heard Josh whisper.
“I know,” Toby whispered back, and wasn’t that a kicker. Toby didn’t lower his voice for anyone; he shouted at the damn President when he felt like it, roared at foreign diplomats. He didn't give a damn who he offended or upset or woke up, but. But there he was, speaking softly while Sam pretended to nap in his office.
“What is it?”
“He’ll tell us when he’s ready,” Toby said confidently.
Yeah right, Sam thought. He’ll never be ready.
“Sam!” one of the aides called, catching his arm as he left a meeting. Sam flinched before he could stop himself, but no one appeared to notice. “Sam, there are FBI agents in your office.”
The aide’s eyes were bright and curious. It would be all over the White House within minutes. Sam sighed and adjusted his tie. “All right,” he said. “Tell them I’ll be right there.”
The aide nodded and then scampered off to tell at least six people on the way back to Sam’s office that there were federal agents in the office of a senior staff member. CJ and Josh, who had been in the meeting with him, watched as Sam took a deep breath and masked his panic.
This was it.
“Sam Seaborn,” one of the agents said. She held out her hand to be shaken. “I’m Special Agent Gabrielle Payne. This is my partner, Special Agent Arun Malik. Can we talk to you for a few minutes? You might want to close the door.”
“Yes,” Sam said flatly, although he didn’t know which part he was responding to. He motioned for Ginger to stand guard and make sure he wasn’t disturbed.
“Do you know why we’re here, Mr. Seaborn?” Special Agent Malik asked.
“I can guess,” Sam said.
“We want you to testify,” Special Agent Payne said. She looked at him square in the eye. “We want to make sure that John Keller never sees the outside of his prison cell. No parole, no pardons, no mercy.”
“You have more than enough evidence,” Sam said, because he’s a lawyer and he knows these things. Even if he didn’t go into criminal law. “You don’t need my testimony. It’s been years; the statute of limitations has run out several times over.”
“We know,” Special Agent Malik said. “But every little bit helps. Most of the -- the tapes. Most of the tapes were damaged. We have to nail this guy.”
Sam thought. Sam glanced at the television he hadn’t dared to turn on for the past three weeks. He thought of his mother’s voice on the phone, the way she’d taken to calling him at odd hours just to sob. He thought of his father’s silence. He thought of Mr. K, the monster under his bed.
There were a hundred and seventeen tapes found in the man’s house.
Sam made his decision.
“I’ll do it,” he said hoarsely. He inhaled sharply and rubbed at his eyes. He felt like he had aged ten years in a month. He had never hated his own idealism and sense of responsibility until now. A hundred and seventeen tapes. He wondered how many of them were made after his. “I’ll fly to wherever you’re having a trial. I’ll do it.”
“Thank you,” Special Agent Payne said. She looked pitying. Sam couldn’t meet her eyes.
“I have to tell my boss.”
The walk to Leo’s office was horrible. It felt like he was walking through glass. Like anyone who glanced at him would be able to instantly read his history in his face. He kept his gaze trained on the carpet, so that he wouldn’t have to look at anyone. His face felt like it was made of wax. His life felt like it belonged to someone else. He walked past Margaret and knocked on Leo’s door.
“Come in!” Leo called. Sam opened the door, went inside, and closed it behind him. Leo took one look at him and dropped the briefing he was reading over. “Sam, what’s going on?”
“I’m going to have to take some time off,” Sam said. The words sounded clumsy, leaden. Far from his usual eloquence.
“Is this about the two FBI guys in your office?” Leo asked, because of course Leo would know. “Are you in some sort of trouble?” He reached out and touched Sam’s shoulder, radiating concern. Sam flinched, feeling foolish even as he did it. This was Leo, for God’s sake. It was just Leo.
“They want me to testify.”
Leo stood, silent, waiting for him to finish.
“They want me to testify against John Keller.”
The air seemed to vanish from the room as Leo’s eyes widened. He connected the dots: Sam’s strange behavior for the past month, his jumpiness, the case in the news. The color drained from his face, and he looked like he was going to be sick.
“Sam, are you telling me that--?” he started to ask, but he couldn’t manage to get the rest of the words out.
“They want me to testify,” Sam repeated.
Leo nodded mechanically. “Take all the time you need.”
Sam closed the door behind him as he left. He stood for a moment, collecting himself. From inside Leo’s office, he heard heavy silence, and then, suddenly, the loud crash of something being thrown at the wall and a roar of anger that felt like a physical blow.
He fled back to his own office as fast as he could. He didn’t want to face anyone.
There were news crews outside the courthouse. Sam turned his face away and tried not to slump his shoulders. He wasn’t a shy little kid anymore. He wasn’t nine, or ten, or eleven, or twelve. He was a grown man doing the right thing.
I’m doing the right thing, he told himself as he pushed his way through the reporters.
I’m doing the right thing, he told himself as the prosecution prepped him.
I’m doing the right thing, he told himself as he was cross-examined in court.
I'm doing the right thing.
Once Sam’s testimony was done, he left. He couldn’t bear to stay. He couldn’t bear to see that man’s face looking at him in the courtroom. He dreamed every night he was in South Carolina, the state they had the trial in. The nightmares etched themselves into his brain until they painted his waking hours as well.
Sam’s return to the West Wing was as low key as CJ could manage. She kept the press in the briefing room, spinning them bullshit stories until Sam was safely inside the building and away from any area the press could access. She was kind for doing so, especially since they would resent her for it.
Before Sam could retreat to his office, close the door, and never emerge again, Charlie appeared in front of him.
“The President would like to speak to you,” he said. Charlie’s face was a careful mask of respectful indifference. Sam kind of wanted to punch it away until he could see the pity and horror he knew was lurking underneath. He didn’t, of course, because Sam wasn’t that kind of guy.
“Sam,” the President said once Charlie had closed the door. “Sam, I’m so sorry.”
Sam’s President looked worn out. Worried. Tired. His hands shook until he clenched them into fists and hid them behind his back.
“You have nothing to apologize for,” Sam said, intentionally misunderstanding. He didn’t want to have this conversation, didn’t want to be here.
“You know what I mean,” President Bartlet said. His eyes pierced through Sam’s bullshit, his veneer of acceptance, and shredded his defenses. This man was his President, his leader, his hero, and he was looking at him as if Sam had broken his heart. Maybe he had.
“I know,” Sam whispered. The President reached forward, slowly, and drew him into a hug. It was the first human contact Sam hadn’t flinched at since this fresh nightmare had started two months ago. Two long months of remembering.
“Sam, you’re like a son to me,” the President said, holding him tight. “If I could, I would torture the man. I would shoot him myself, I would drag him through the streets and let the citizens stone him. I would make his death as painful and humiliating as possible, but it still wouldn’t be enough, would it?”
“No, Mr. President,” Sam said. “It wouldn’t.”
Sam returned to his office. He set down his briefcase and sat at his desk. He looked at how freakishly clean it was.
“Ginger!” he called. His assistant poked her head through the door. “Where’s my work?”
“Toby thought you should take it easy for a few days--” she started to say. Sam shot to his feet and marched to the office next to his. He flung open the door and strode to Toby’s overflowing desk. As Toby watched, Sam scooped half of it into his arms. He turned on his heel and walked back to his office, his spine straight as a rod. He dumped the files onto his own desk and sat back down.
He had already had so much taken from him: his story, his privacy, his coworkers' respect. He wasn’t going to lose this too.
“Let’s go get something to eat,” Josh said from his doorway.
“No,” Sam said. He was trying to put together some remarks for the President on school vouchers (it was that time of year again) but the words just weren’t coming. He refused to leave until he had it nailed down.
“Yes,” Josh insisted, and somehow Sam found himself getting drunk with Josh at a seedy bar at eleven o’clock in the morning.
“It doesn’t define me,” Sam slurred. Josh’s face was blurry, but he could still tell how worried the other man was. “I won’t let it. I can’t let it.”
“I understand,” Josh said. The words sounded like they were being dragged out, as if his friend was choking on them.
“You don’t,” Sam corrected with drunken honesty. “You can’t. No one can.”
“Of course not,” Josh said.
“I’m not going to let him win,” Sam said, taking another shot. After that, things dissolved into a kaleidoscope of raw emotions and smudged colors. Somehow, Josh got him home without being caught by any reporters or photographers. Small miracle, as it was the middle of the day in Washington D.C. Josh got him to his apartment and then into his own bed, where Sam gratefully passed out.
He woke up to see Leo McGarry standing beside his bed.
“Oh fuck,” he groaned, blinking through his hangover. “Am I in hell?”
“No,” Leo said shortly. He threw some clothes at Sam’s head. “Get up.”
“Ugh,” Sam moaned, but he did as he was told. He navigated himself back into some semblance of order as Leo watched dispassionately. Once he was dressed, Leo didn’t bother holding back or pulling his punches.
“Don’t you dare do this,” he said, his eyes hard. Sam’s head pounded in time with the cadence of his words. “Don’t you dare throw everything away.”
“I’m not,” Sam protested. Leo sneered.
“Your writing is taking twice as long for half the product. You can’t concentrate. You can’t sit still. You’re not sleeping. You’re not functioning. We don’t need dead weight on the staff.”
“You’re not going to fire me,” Sam said. “It would look terrible for the administration.”
“Watch me,” Leo snorted. “I’ll pack your office myself.” He leaned forward, making sure that Sam was looking directly at him. “You’re drowning, kiddo, and it’s time to pull yourself out of the pool. Get it together or get out.”
Sam swallowed. “I’m don’t know how.”
“That’s why you ask for help,” Leo said. His face softened with concern. “We’re worried about you, Sam. Let us help you.”
“Okay,” Sam whispered. He took a deep breath. “Is that guy Josh talked to still around?”
Leo smiled tightly. “I’ll ask around.”
Things got worse before they got better, but they did get better. Sam had coped for almost thirty years. He picked up the familiar pieces and patched up as much as he could. He still got looks in the halls, but after a tense few days, the senior staff, at least, started treating him normally again. Leo lead the shift, acting as if none of it had ever happened and calling out people who tried to treat Sam with kid gloves.
If Sam were an outsider looking in, he would never have known that Leo destroyed his office in a fit of fury after Sam had told him about -- about it.
It took until the next big disaster for Toby to forget himself and actually assign Sam work without being prodded. Sam gleefully spent all night writing circles around the Congressional Republicans and their latest attack on Roe v. Wade.
CJ actually kicked one of the journalists in her press corp out over a string of questions he asked about Sam. She sent a clear message to the rest of the remaining news hounds that it was none of their damn business, and they should focus on things that were, like the situation in the Middle East.
Josh clearly didn’t know what to do with himself, but he tried, which was all anyone could ask of Josh.
The trial continued. When the verdict was announced, he very determinedly refused to drink, no matter how many bad memories clogged his head. He knew what had scared Leo into giving him a talking to that one time. It would be all too easy to fall into the kind of dependence that would destroy him.
John Keller was sentenced to more jail time than any human could possibly serve. He would spend the rest of his life in prison.
It didn’t feel like a victory. Nothing ever would.