"So, Sam, how are you?"
Stanley Keyworth, sitting in his office the morning after highlighting a pre-diagnosed case of repression and serious daddy issues in the President of the United States, is beginning to feel like the White House's personal psychiatrist. None of them - Josh Lyman, who made the first call, Leo McGarry, who signs off on the insurance for what seems to Stanley like a quarter of his staff, Sam Seaborn, who keeps coming back even though his trauma is over a year in the past or Jed Bartlet himself, who gave Stanley a nice little guessing game last night which was perfectly executed even if it wasn't exactly challenging - none of them seem to care that, since they could all have their pick of all the top shrinks in the country, there are about twenty-five in the D.C. area alone who would make a more logical choice than him. He wondered, in the cab home last night, finding himself a little dazed by the conversation he had just had, if, should he ring the White House switchboard in the morning and explain that he is a trauma specialist, not the on-call head-shrinker and surely even politicians should know that there is such a thing as the right tool for the job, anyone, from the President down, would listen.
He had, of course, forgotten that his first appointment of the next morning - today, now - is with one Samuel Seaborn, who pushes paper in that big white building at the top of the Mall.
Stanley turns his sigh into a yawn.
"How you doing, Sam?"
"You miss your coffee today, Doctor Keyworth?"
"I had a ... late night last night."
Sam meets his eyes with that serious, this-goes-no-further-than-this-room expression that Keyworth is sure he learnt at McGarry's knee.
"Yes. I know."
"You do, huh?"
"We talk to each other," Seaborn says, his face perfectly straight. "It's a thing."
"Tell me, we don't have any important national secrets at the moment, do we?"
Seaborn smiles. "We also have no friends."
"Oh, well. That's alright then."
"You didn't answer my question. Am I to take evasion as indicative of something important or just your charming personality?"
"I am regarded as rather charming, actually."
"I'm sure you are, Sam."
"I'm ... fine."
"No, really, I'm fine."
"Okay. It's your three hundred dollars an hour, Mr. Seaborn."
"I have good insurance."
"Yes, I'm sure you do."
"Although working for the President certainly bumps your premiums up. Did you know -- "
"Did you have your coffee this morning?"
"I've had three."
Keyworth raises his eyebrows.
"I get up early," Sam says, with a little shrug.
"It's only a quarter of eight now."
"We were working on a thing, a speech. And whilst it wasn't as high-profile as the State of the Union, although since it's an opportunity to throw stones at us, you won't catch CNN thinking that -- "
"Sorry. Anyway. It was foreign policy. Middle East. Toby's a little volatile when it comes to the Middle East."
"You've mentioned that."
"Yes. And you know I tend to get caught in the crossfire."
"You've mentioned that too."
"It's done now, but ... well, it pushed everything else aside for us for a while and I'm a little behind. So I wanted to come in early, get some work done, then swing by and see you."
"Are you feeling stressed? Extra work, a lack of time, Toby breathing down your neck?"
"No. Well, a little. Not much. Not ... you know, not badly."
Keyworth raises an eyebrow. "But badly enough?"
"We had an appointment anyway, Stanley."
"Yes, that's true. But you were here almost twenty minutes early, Sam."
"I don't like to be late."
"My office is only three blocks from yours."
"Okay, maybe ... a little stressed."
"But I'm fine. Really."
Keyworth narrows his eyes. The sunshine is falling on Sam's face; in an hour he's going to have to close his blinds so that his patients don't mistake him for an interrogator rather than a psychiatrist. Sam Seaborn's hands are resting in his lap, fingers twisted together. He is as dazzlingly smart as he always is. Yet something about him, something about the way his fingers are so restless or the way his eyes don't seem as bright and cheerful as they have been lately, worries Stanley Keyworth. Seaborn's answers have been evasive, defensive, brittle. His smile seems the same way. Like a man who has just lost something and cannot admit it and hasn't any the space to grieve.
"Sam, how're things between you and Toby?"
Seaborn's face is much too calm, much too composed as he raises his eyes and says, clearly and evenly, "We broke up."
It is hard to hide anything from Andy Wyatt. Toby didn't really need five years of marriage to the woman to know that - it was in her eyes from day one and something he was sure about by the end of their first date, which wasn't more than a week from day one and ended in his bed in a small Brooklyn apartment of which he has very few fond memories. Except the ones that involve her.
In the end they'd come to a compromise on the softer language for the UN speech. A kind of a compromise. More of a sixty-forty split really.
Which he isn't going to admit to anyone is his current way of coping with the fact that his ex-wife cleaned the floor with his resolve not to give in to her on this issue and in doing so has everyone from the President on down making jokes about who wears the pants in the Ziegler family. Again.
And yet, although he minds that enormously, although he hates to lose the argument to anyone and particularly to Andrea, a small, a very small part of him, doesn't mind at all.
It only took a few hours with her to make him miss her; that's all it ever takes. She is belligerent and unforgiving and happens to be completely wrong on this issue as she has been in many fights over many years. She took enormous, if understated pleasure in her victory, he could tell; in twisting the small threads of his devotion to her, and it is devotion, unquestionably, around her pinkie finger like so much spare string.
So what, asks the little voice at the back of his head which has never quite understood the rest of him and insists on being scrupulously logical at all times, are you doing here in a bar with your ex-wife and wondering if she still uses that same perfume or whether you can just smell the ghost of it, like a conditioned response? Or just wishing you could smell it; lean into her neck and smell it there, in her hair and her perfectly unsexy grey pantsuit. Be honest now.
It's a conditioned response, he tells his brain. I can't help it.
But another part of him whispers, sending a shiver into his skin, oh but you can. And yet another whisper, softly next to his ear, next to his heart, filling up that place whose yawning, terrible silence he has tried so hard to fill these last weeks: what would you tell Sam?
Her voice is clear, unsuspicious, and absolutely unnerving. Toby has to try very hard, just for a moment, not to spill his drink.
"Er, fine. He's ... fine."
"I didn't say congratulations."
He stares at her.
"On the State of the Union, Toby. You wrote an amazing speech. Both of you."
"It's in the delivery," Toby says, unsure why he has.
She raises an eyebrow. "Sure it is. And you believe that about as much as you believe that Martians hold a majority in Congress."
"Not a good hypothesis for you, Congresswoman."
She smiles; he smiles. Crisis over.
"Tell Sam I said he knocked it out of the park, okay? In those actual words, Toby."
"I heard you guys are getting famous for another reason, too."
"Yes. And I have to say, Toby, I would never have suspected."
"I'm not going to find this funny, am I?"
"I'm sure someone in the West Wing has already had a fit about it. Probably you, even."
"You're talking about that book, aren't you?"
"Inside the Bartlet White House: An Eyewitness Account. Excellent guessing, sweetie."
"Please, please tell me you didn't read it."
"Not all of it, no."
"I went through the index."
"Of course you did."
"I think he's got you just right. I can't believe you let this guy go. And this level of insight, Toby -- "
"I think you could easily have taken him on as a staff writer, too."
"I'll give you his number. You'd like him."
"I already do, Toby."
"I can't believe this."
"I particularly liked the Jefferson-Adams comparison, though I'd like to know exactly where he learned his American history. Nevertheless, it was compelling reading. Very believable."
Toby swallows, knowing that playing this out to the end is important, pretty sure she doesn't mean anything other than the joke, pretty sure she couldn't actually suspect ...
"You want me to come round, sign your copy?"
"I passed it round a few of the girls. They still ask about you."
She leans across, eyes glistening and that perfume not a phantom but a sweet, heady scent in her hair, and kisses his cheek. She whispers, "I threw it in the trash and then called his publisher."
He lowers his head, so she cannot see that his eyes are still closed or the blush in his cheeks. "Thank you."
"I was a little offended that he didn't at least try to call me. So I thought I'd just make it clear that he was a jackass."
He looks at her - the darknesses disappearing into the curves of her face, emphasising cheekbones and eyebrows, chasing the light into her eyes. He doesn't say anything.
"Am I a good ex-wife to you, Toby?"
"Yes," he says, listening to the word slur on his bottom lip.
"Absolutely. In your field of one."
She pinches the soft flesh of his belly, makes the breath hiss in his throat. She smiles at him. It promises nothing, that small, secret smile that belongs only to him, but something in Toby wants to hold on to it, as tightly as light in the darkness - comfort, familiarity, a heart that knows everything about his. Part of him wants to confess, or confide. Tell her everything, because of all the people he knows she is the only one who might understand why; as the only other person still living who he has ever been in love with. But he knows that would be stupid, and not only because wives, even ex-wives, don't want to hear about their ex-husbands' homosexual affairs but because the part of him that wants to confide is the same part that wants to smell her perfume again, that wants to go with her, back to her place, sit on the couch and yell at CNN with her, and go to bed with her and feel that silent place fill up with memories of her body, made real again, and wake up in the morning, and pretend that it could all work out this time, if only he could try, hard enough.
But not tonight. Not tonight.
"I'm glad you called, Toby," she says. "You won't wait another year to call me again, right?"
He nods, slightly. He doesn't know what to say.
She smiles: genuine, no flirting, no joke. "I was glad to see you."
"I'll call. Soon."
She nods. "You do that."
She kisses his cheek again to say goodbye, then drains her glass of expensive white wine. He thinks about saying that she can't drive after that much alcohol, but remembers, reluctantly, that it was only two glasses and that she can walk to her place from here anyhow. He watches her slip on her coat and then slip out of the door. And then Toby turns back to the barman and orders another Jack Daniel's straight up and holds it in his hands for a while, until the noise in his head goes down to silence.
He doesn't even make it to nine o'clock the following morning before he hears the knock on his office door. CJ's smirk - and it is a genuine smirk - is enough to remind him that women always talk to each other and enough to make him wonder if there are any secret trapdoors in the floor of his office which he might avail himself of in a hurry. There aren't.
"So, you saw Andy the other night?"
"And she was, you know, okay?"
"I really -- "
"Imagine I used some synonym for 'nice' that your anally retentive dictionary-like brain would prefer, Toby."
"It was pleasant, yes."
"I heard there was a little yelling."
"First yelling, and then pleasantries."
"You guys really ought to write a book on how not to maintain a happy marriage."
"I think the divorce probably stops that amazingly unnecessary idea in its tracks."
"Yes, well. Possibly."
"Where is this going?"
"I was just asking!"
"Any matchmaking would surely seem completely pointless?"
She opens her mouth to protest.
"On a number of levels," he adds, quietly.
"I'm not ... matchmaking! I'm just curious."
"Yeah, she was fine. We yelled a little. She got her way. She left me alone."
"And then you asked her out."
"We had a friendly drink. Between friends."
CJ raises an eyebrow. "Come one, come all - see the mighty wordsmith ply his trade!"
"She flusters you. You're a little flustered. I've known you a long time, Toby, I can sense these things."
"I'm perfectly fine."
"So, a little shouting, a little small talk. Absolutely no match-making?"
"A standard day in the Ziegler household."
"If there was any such thing."
"Would you like me to leave?"
She grins as she closes the door.
Toby doesn't let his expression change by so much as the tiniest fraction when Sam opens it, less than thirty seconds later.
"CJ's very excited by this whole Andy thing," Sam says, as though he has just brought up the new coffee blend on offer in the Mess, or the colour of Toby's tie.
"You ... heard about that?"
"Kinda hard to miss it, really."
Toby sighs. "Women talk."
"Yes, they do."
Sam smiles. It doesn't look a tense smile, one given in spite of himself. And that doesn't make Toby feel any better.
"Divorce still holding?"
Toby nods, slightly stunned.
"Okay," Sam says, quietly. Almost as though he was hoping for the opposite answer. He opens the door again and smiles, looking up into Toby's eyes with a too-bright, brittle expression, like sunlight on fresh snow. "I'm going to go now."
"I'll see you. Later."
The door closes with a small, light click. Toby finds himself wishing Sam had slammed it.
"So it was a mutual decision? For the good of the team?"
Sam has talked Stanley Keyworth through the progression, more than once now. Deepening intimacy; a crisis that brought them together, even if Sam wasn't exactly in possession of the full picture at the time; perhaps a month of what might loosely be called a relationship; 'I love you' and, an ending. It sounds just like the plot of a cheap novel, stalled at the 'boy loses boy' stage; Sam doesn't think they will make it to happily ever after. Not now.
"Or," Stanley says, in the tone of voice Sam has come to associate with sudden, unpleasant revelations about himself, "Perhaps a little more mutual on one side than the other?"
"That's not fair, Stanley. He did what had to be done."
"Yes, perhaps. But he did it. Toby did."
"You're saying that I'm upset because I wasn't in control? Really, Stanley, anyone who knows me could tell you how ridiculous that sounds."
"I think I know you pretty well now. So you'd say that was an inaccurate supposition, Sam?"
"Yes, I believe I would."
"Since you're so used to Toby making your decisions for you."
"Stanley -- "
"And your personal relationship has the same rules as your professional one."
"Oh, come on!"
"Toby makes the calls; you do what he asks."
"You make it sound like ... "
"Sound like what, Sam?"
"Like I'm a thirteen year old girl with a crush on her math teacher."
"Bingo," Stanley says, quietly.
"I don't think that's true. I don't think that's true at all."
"Exactly what reaction are you looking for here? Would you like me to be angry and prove to you that I'm in touch with my emotions? Or start crying? Or give you Toby's number so you can get him down here for a little couples' therapy? Really, Stanley, because I'm completely at sea now!"
"You always defend him. Have you noticed that?"
"He's ... " Sam bites his tongue on the word 'boss'. And he doesn't much care for any of the alternatives which come to mind either.
"He's what, Sam?" Stanley asks, as the silence stretches.
"I don't know. I suppose now he's just my ... boss."
"Please, please, don't ask me how that makes me feel."
"Sam, come on. You know I ask harder questions than that. Questions which have specific answers."
"Questions I'm going to need the answers to, eventually, whether you want to give them or not."
Keyworth smiles. "This is why you keep coming back. I can tell."
Sam smiles, despite himself and the enormous swell of pain and panic he is feeling in his chest. A pain which is physical, insistent, real. A panic he knows he is finding it increasingly hard to hide from Stanley Keyworth.
He gets the email the morning after Toby's unintentionally well-publicised meeting with his ex-wife and so he spends most of that morning repeating to himself, in an undertone he makes sure no-one else can hear, variations on the theme of his long-standing ability to cope with pressure. He remembers law school exams, and sitting up until four in the morning with legal pads and more coffee than he believed, at the time, one human body could hold; working on briefs at Gage Whitney; nights on the campaign trail when they got no sleep at all, and the days and nights of the State of the Union, which are unlike any other stretches of time he has ever experienced: twisted out of all reckoning; impossible levels of responsibility and professional pride, running on nothing but caffeine and less than three hours sleep a night, on Toby's couch.
And that thought is the one which makes all his efforts at composure impossible. He sits in his own office, alone, slowly becoming aware that his hands are shaking and that the noise in his head is becoming deafening; made up of voices he can't help but listen to - Josh and his father and Leo and the President and Lisa and Toby. And the voice he imagines for the sender of this damn email.
God hates a homosexual, Mr. Seaborn.
Snide as well as hateful. The words sound high-pitched and nasal, almost precious, pedantic. But confident too, not the impossible, permanently affronted tones of a serial offence-taker whose one attempt at controlling the events he finds so offensive is to send a letter to the New York Times, or an email to the White House. That isn't this guy, though.
Which is why he's sending you to hell.
Sam finds himself almost frightened. Numb, as though fear is still far away, like the promise of winter in early September; an early shiver.
The bullet missed; what a shame.
It hurts - that place in the lower left quadrant of his back, near his spine, where the bullet came through. It hasn't hurt for months and months now. He's a healthy guy; eats right, works out, has a good support system - good friends. But when he closes his eyes he is at the scene of his nightmares again, with his hands pressed into his belly in a desperate attempt to stop his guts falling out and no-one able to hear his cries for help as they suffocate in his throat. And when he opens his eyes, Toby isn't there. He's in the next-door room, writing, reading, speaking on the phone. Working. Resolutely being nothing but Sam's boss and friend. And Sam can't blame him, because after all, he doesn't know. It's not his fault.
We'll try harder next time.
He knows he should tell someone. He knows he should tell CJ and then Leo, and then Toby. But he can't.
We'll catch you next time.
He just can't.
"Sam, you know you're not very good at hiding things from me, don't you?"
"And yet you always make me feel so much better, Stanley. Is there a point you're trying to get to here?"
"You're panicky. Defensive. I haven't seen you like this for a long time, Sam. I'm concerned, that's all."
"You think it's Toby's fault, don't you?"
"You're a psychiatrist, Stanley, not my friend. It's not your job to be concerned about me."
"That's exactly what my job it, Sam. And I think you know that."
"You think it's Toby's fault?"
"No, I don't."
"It's not his fault, Stanley."
"Yes, I know."
"It's my fault, really. If it's anybody's. It's mine."
"You want to tell me about this, Sam?"
"I should have ... I should have done ... "
"I ... don't know."
"Sam, has something happened? Something you haven't told anyone?"
"I should be able to cope with this stuff. I shouldn't need someone here to hold my hand. I don't want that -- "
"Sam, this is important -- "
"I know, Stanley! I'm not some kid off the street, I can recognise important and not when I see it. I'm not a child!"
"I know, Sam. I know."
"Sorry. I'm ... sorry. That was unnecessary."
"I'm really sorry, Stanley."
"Sam, please. This all gets easier if you tell me what's been bothering you. Really."
Sam drums his fingers on the arms of the chair he is sitting in. His breathing seems fast and uneven to Keyworth, like someone who has just come back from a six mile run. Sam's eyes are closed tightly and the lines around them look like those of one in actual pain. Stanley wonders if something can have happened which is serious enough to have undone all the good work they've done in the last year and a half, something more serious than losing a boyfriend.
"Sam?" Keyworth tries to say it gently, like the friend Sam is wise not to mistake him for.
"I ... got an email."
They haven't spoken much since the State of the Union, since Toby's attempt at psychoanalysing the President, since he went out with Andy. He has seen Sam every day of course - at staff, at briefings, at meetings, in the office next door to his own, sitting at his desk in his perfectly white shirts, working, not looking up, not letting his attention wander. He comes when Toby calls for him, in hard slams of the rubber balls against their window, but the expression on his face is nothing more than the pained indulgence he had before, when they were just men who worked with each other.
But here Toby's train of thought de-rails and something in his head, a strident voice reminds him that they were never just two guys who worked together, not since that night in South Carolina, when he learned the taste of Sam's mouth and gave in to a desire he hadn't realised he had, on the strength of five-hundred words that sang in his heart and the smile on Sam's face. And whatever that was, whatever it grew into, whatever it is now that he has promised himself that it will go no further, Sam was never just anything. Sam has been his friend, and his partner, as well as his lover. And Toby misses his presence and the silent assurance he has only ever dimly acknowledged - that Sam will always be at his right hand, to stand up for his boss, to comfort his friend, and to promise his lover. He is pretty sure he has lost two of the three forever.
There is a way that this all makes sense to him. His ability to long for a person only partially present in his life, staying silently true, in a way no-one notices, or thinks remarkable. This is a twisted kind of sense, born out of three years of hard practice - the practice he has had losing Andrea and the way the love he has for her curls up inside him, dormant, waiting for its time and a good enough reason to emerge, and shred his composure and force him to admit that all these intervening minutes and hours and days have only been a pretence of coping, that he still wears that ring for a reason and it won't ever be over.
It is something more than desperately confusing to admit that Sam is now capable of producing all the same reactions, with no more effort than a simple, friendly smile.
Toby imagines a series of embarrassing trysts - embarrassing because he shouldn't want them; he shouldn't even admit to himself that he still does - in various locations around the West Wing: Sam's hand catching his as he walks into his office, late at night, Bullpen empty. He imagines how they might kiss each other, Sam asking for tenderness and Toby unable to give it, because desire is a violent, disrespectful urge in him. He fantasises lazy Sunday mornings, when nothing seems to matter except turning off their cells and Sam's pager, ignoring the phone, leaving the newspapers unread - real life giving way to a gentle pattern of sleep and sex, which is how Toby knows it's all a dream, because they would never do that, not if their poor excuse for love lasted the rest of their lives.
Toby sighs; it's late, but no-one is going home, not yet. Not until the forty-two registered voters of Hartsfield's Landing have done their duty, and given Jed Bartlet another four years as President of the United States. So he's not surprised to see Charlie slip into the Bullpen, like a guy who needs absolutely no sleep at all (which is just as well, since Toby is sure he never gets any) and tap gently on the door of Toby's office.
"Hey. Good trip?"
"It was long," Charlie says, with feeling. "And I could probably sit a paper on the history of India between 600 and 1200 AD."
"Think of it as a transferable skill," Toby says, with a small smile.
"Yeah, real useful for my C.V.," Charlie says, with the silver twinkle in his eyes which passes for a smile in the young man.
"What d'you need?"
"I have a message for you."
Charlie passes across a small, folded piece of paper without a word, and lets himself out as Toby unfolds it.
At first he assumes it's a joke, and then worries that it's not. But he would know the handwriting anywhere and, when he sneaks a look through the window which he and Sam share, sees his Deputy bent over a beautiful, brand new chess set, looking like he's about twenty moves away from a crushing defeat. So Toby rolls down his sleeves, and puts on his jacket, and goes, he assumes, to play some chess with a man he has not spoken to in better than ten days. The kind of chess game which, he suspects, will never really end.
"You're going to run for President some day, Sam. Don't be scared. You can do it. I believe in you."
Sam looks up at him, into Jed Bartlet's dark eyes, shining with the reflected glare of the lamp which illuminates the chess board. Sam opens his mouth to say something, anything - he has absolutely no idea what; the President fills the space:
As Jed Bartlet walks away from him, a broad back in a blue shirt and he has to clamp his palms down over his thighs to stop himself standing up and thereby giving in to that now-hardwired action, Sam's head fills with noise.
It's not something Sam has ever thought about. There is a little switch in his mind that replays a circuitous thought whenever he thinks about anything with such audacious ambition: you might be pretty good at the kind of thing they teach at Princeton, and maybe you did make it as a half million dollar a year lawyer, and okay maybe you're pretty good at this business of putting one word after another, but running the country? You must be out of your mind.
This particular thought speaks with his father's voice, in the same tones as it had whenever Sam said, as a little boy, that he had ambitions other than those his father had picked out for him. That maybe he'd like to be a fireman, or an Olympic athlete, or the President of the United States. Sam has to admit that, side by side, they all look about as likely as each other, since he's not wild about fire and he can't stop tripping over his feet however much track he runs and although he has a good brain and knows how to use it he is a long way, a very long way, from being the guy who can stand in the Situation Room and order an airstrike or a political enemy shot, quickly and cleanly and secretly, in the head. He doesn't know that he could ever give the order to declare a war. He wonders if he could even deliver a State of the Union; he couldn't even fake a ten minute tour of the White House for a bunch of kids.
And another voice, a pinched, nasal voice, says: and, just by the way, you know America will elect a gay President the same year that the Martians land in the Rose Garden and demand coffee and bagels.
And for this thought Sam is almost grateful, because it makes him angry. Furiously, almost righteously angry. And he doesn't know if it's the PTSD talking or the way his chest aches for Toby all the hours he is awake or the glittering promise in his President's eyes, but suddenly, irreversibly, it seems to matter what the hell he does with the rest of his life, as it never has before. He has cared, and he has put his care into his work, but his principles have never been his work, not really. They have not defined much more than the way he stands up and takes account of himself; have not been the true north of the moral compass at the Bartlet White House. He hasn't looked much further than his boss to have his voice heard or his opinion counted for something, and when it has gone further than that - when it has been the President himself who has clapped him on the back and told him he has done a good job, all Sam has felt is a rush of pride and privilege. It never goes away, and Sam wouldn't want it to. He hasn't looked for anything else. Until now.
He wonders if he is just replacing one dream with another; trading the hope he had for Toby, that unembarrassed, fiercely true love that swells his chest in the same way he has always imagined the sight of the flag does Jed Bartlet's. One more impossible hope, too easily nurtured by the part of him that dares to have dreams like this one. The part of him his father has always despised, and the part which, if he's honest, he always half-believed Toby despised too.
Sam wonders if Toby would believe in his ability as Jed Bartlet seems to, and can't make up his mind whether he would or not, nor whether it matters.
"Did you win?"
Toby speaks as quietly as he can while still being sure he isn't just saying the words inside his head. He stands in the doorway of Sam's office, at the threshold, uncomfortably. His arm is wedged painfully against the doorframe and he wishes now he'd kept his jacket on so he could have had a place to hide his hands. He can't look Sam in the face for more than a few seconds; his eyes are too blue.
Sam looks up from the chess board. It is cream and black, and every bit as beautiful as the one Toby just carried back to his own office with exaggerated care and the President's words in his ears.
"Did you win?" Toby says, a little more distinctly.
Sam smiles. "No, of course I didn't."
"I tried to resign."
"He wouldn't let me."
"He likes to see me suffer, I think."
"I think he's a masochist, actually," Sam says, still staring at the board.
"That's right - take his side."
Sam laughs quietly, and perhaps a little sadly, and looks up into Toby's eyes. Toby tries not to flinch.
"You going home?" he says.
"Hartsfield hasn't been called yet."
"Really? I thought it was ... later than that. Feels later. That felt like a week's worth of chess."
"They haven't called it yet. Still some to go."
"You want to wait with me?"
Toby nods, just once. "Yeah."
It feels like a walk of miles from the doorway to the chair on the near side of Sam's desk and when he sits down he can't stop shifting, tapping his fingers, adjusting his tie.
"Could you just ... sit, please? I'm not going to jump you."
"I wasn't -- "
"Can't we just sit here?"
"Was it a good game, otherwise?"
"Well, I'm not sure I'm done trying to prove I'm his new shrink."
"But you didn't get fired."
"No. Not yet, anyway."
"Told you he's a masochist."
Toby smiles. "It was a stalemate. No-one won."
Sam nods, slowly, as though slotting thoughts into place in his head. "Yeah. Sounds about right."
"Was it a good game, otherwise?"
"I was comprehensively outclassed."
Toby nods. "Yeah."
"Thanks a lot," Sam says, without the slightest trace of ill feeling in his voice.
"You don't play a lot of chess."
"No. That's true."
"And you'd need to play a lot of chess."
"He ... The President said something to me, when we were done. Something ... important."
"I don't know a way to say it without ... without sounding ridiculous."
"Just say it. I'm used to you sounding ridiculous," Toby says, gently.
"That I could be President one day."
Sam's eyes are calm, unemotional. Toby gets the feeling that his immediate reactions, beyond the danger of being embarrassed by what he thinks Toby is going to say next, have been quietly stored away, to be considered and kept secret. Toby is a little surprised, in fact, that Sam has said anything at all.
"Is that a 'yeah' of disbelief, or -- "
"He's not about to mess with you on this one, Sam."
"You think ... "
"If I work hard in school."
Sam's face is impassive, carefully composed. But his eyes are dark, unhappy, if only for the flash of a second.
"Sam -- "
"It's stupid. Really. To even think about it."
"You can't plan it, Sam. You can't be the guy who wakes up one morning and decides he wants to be the President. It doesn't work that way. Not for guys like you."
"Guys like me?"
"Guys with integrity. Guys who might make it. Who deserve to."
"Toby ... "
Toby holds up his hands, palms outward. "What do I know? I've had one win, my whole life. So I wouldn't ask for my expert opinion, if I were you."
"That's one pretty spectacular win, Toby," Sam says, looking out of his window, following the path the President took through the Bullpen with his gaze. "I think you get a few bonus points for that one."
"So maybe you could get some more. Some day?"
Toby looks at him, and imagines him standing behind a podium with one palm raised and the other resting on the holy book of a religion he doesn't believe in, with a smart, shocked smile and a white shirt, on a day in early January, year to be decided. To say that he looks beautiful would be, for Toby, an understatement. He is - would be - young, idealistic, dazzling, very human. Very electable. Then he remembers standing on the cold floor of the State Department building, wet through with rain, watching to see if his career would be ended by one sentence from one man, and something in his heart cries out. Because he already knows what the Seaborn scandal would be, and that a President who had slept with a man wouldn't even get the first four years, let alone the second. And part of him is enraged, and part of him is quietly, selfishly glad at the foregone conclusion. Because part of him has been counting on those years as his own; perhaps unconsciously, foolishly, assuming that there will be a time when there is no need to be secret and all that has been undone will be put back together; that it will never really be over.
"Sam, have you told Toby?"
"I haven't told anyone. Until just now."
"So, tell me if I go wrong here, you've had a death threat sitting in your inbox for the last three weeks, and you haven't informed anyone of it? Not Leo McGarry, not CJ Cregg, not the person against whom it might also be directed?"
"I think ... I think it's me that -- "
"And do you think Toby will see it that way?"
"No, I'm pretty sure he'll react exactly like you're reacting now. Which is why I haven't told him."
Sam shifts uncomfortably in his seat.
"Sam, you have to tell him."
"Why is that?"
"Because it's incredibly stupid for you to carry all this around inside your head, waiting for it to explode. And it will. And you know damn well it will."
"Are you frightened I'll throw another beer bottle, Stanley?"
"No, I'm a little more frightened that you'll step into the path of a bullet, Sam. He's still your friend, and at the risk of sounding like that thirteen year old with a crush on her teacher, how do think he would feel if your positions were reversed?"
"I ... I just can't, Stanley."
"Why? Because you've decided that now's the time you become a man? I've got news for you, Sam - no-one's watching, no-one cares how well you perform. But I think your friends at the White House would probably prefer not to have to identify your body at the city morgue. Do you think?"
"You don't think you're overreacting just a little?"
"No, I think you're underreacting. A lot."
"Stanley, we get emails from nutsos. From a whole nation of really pissed off nutsos. And we're still here. We're all fine."
"Oh, yes? Remind me again how we came to meet, Sam?"
"That was different."
"Death threats, gunmen, and a whole set of people who are damned lucky to not be dead right now. You not least, Sam. So are you going to take this seriously?"
"Stanley, I really don't -- "
"You need to get over this. I realise, god knows, that you have certain problems with the control of your life and the decisions you make in your job having been taken away from you, subverted. And that's all fine and going to earn me a couple hundred dollars in fees, with which I have no problem. What I do have a problem with is this suicidal need to prove yourself, which you have suddenly acquired. Probably because you've noticed that maybe you're not the biggest man in the room. And whether that has to do with your daddy not loving you or the bullet that was fired into your stomach two years ago, I don't care. You need to recognise that this is a problem, and you need to tell someone you trust that you're in danger of getting yourself killed."
"I ... I can't tell him."
"Tell someone else. But tell someone, Sam. I'm serious."
The imagery which comes most easily to Sam's mind as he looks at Josh, almost silhouetted against the light streaming in from between his blinds, is that of a hurricane. The nervous, raging energy of his body, which seems to gather and twist like a cyclone in his fingers and the jerky movements of his arms, is both frightening and compelling. Sam stares at him, not really listening to the disconnected rants which he expected, nor the hushed, scared sentences which he is ashamed to realise he did not.
Josh takes hold of his arm, gently, as though he wants some reassurance that Sam is still whole, still here. Sam smiles at him.
"I'm fine. It'll all be fine."
"I can't help feeling like you're inappropriately calm about this. It's serious. This isn't something you just laugh off, man."
"You sound like my shrink."
"Sam, this isn't funny."
"I couldn't think how to tell you. Any of you."
"Because ... of the thing?"
"No, not that," Sam says, dismissing Josh's suggestion of his embarrassment, the idea that he couldn't cope with the whole West Wing knowing more than he's sure they'd really want about his sexual preferences. "Not that. Just ... it's so stupid."
"Stupid? Jesus, Sam. We already almost lost you once."
Josh's eyes are dark grey and hurting with, Sam supposes, the memory of that night which Sam can't remember very well; haunted by the pattern of loss already threaded into his life - sister, father, friend. And suddenly Sam feels guilty, as he never did before, because it was Toby who was guilty, Toby's fault that he got shot, Toby's job to nurse that pain. A revelation in anger and resentment, and the intense scurl of loss which has been with him much longer than the seven or eight weeks it has been since that night that they finally admitted that forever wasn't possible. And those black thoughts know why he couldn't say anything, or didn't want to: because trust is a delicate, hard-won thing in Sam's life and however unfair it might be, some of his trust in his boss, in his partner, is gone.
He doesn't want to lean on Toby anymore, or nurture the shifting, shameful weight of his approval, or disapproval. He doesn't want to long for the blank, broad back of his boss anymore.
"Go tell Leo, okay?"
"Yeah," he says to Josh, quietly, calm. "Yeah, okay."