Title: Only In The Cold
Category: a general Sam Seaborn-o-rama of UST and angst
Spoilers: ITSOTG I and II, The Midterms, And It's Surely To Their Credit, The Portland Trip, Noel, Somebody's Going to Emergency..., The Fall's Gonna Kill You. It's a walk around the spoiler block here.
Summary: "Here cracks a noble heart."
Distribution: *please* ask first for archiving/linking permission
Disclaimer: Sam, Josh, Donna and everybody else you recognise here belong to Aaron Sorkin, John Wells Productions, Warner Bros., and NBC. I'm just playing with 'em for fun not profit.
Feedback: Please and thank you. CazQ@tesco.net
Only In The Cold (1/1) by CazQ
"Yahweh said to him, 'This is the land I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying: I will give it to your descendants. I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross into it.'"
They stop jogging as the sun starts to bleed through the mists and the low pearl-grey cloud. They do some stretches, cooling down, their breath huffing out in little plumes, and then lean against the railing above the beach watching the non-event that is sunrise. The restless Atlantic washes against South Carolina sands in the distance, the thin early light losing itself in the pale steel water. Josh, always fidgety, picks flakes of white paint off the wood he leans on.
"So, you think your assistant's gone home for good?" Sam asks, watching Josh's hands instead of his face.
Josh keeps picking away at the paint. "I guess for some the lure of the asshole ex is just too strong. It's a shame."
"Got used to having someone else answering your phone, huh?"
"Yeah, but...it's not that, so much. Donna - she joined the campaign to try and, and change her life, change things for herself. For the better. When she arrived I told her the campaign wasn't the kind of place to do that, but she was right. It can be. It should be. I just... I wish that'd worked out for her."
"She was from Wisconsin, right? Hell of a drive from there to New Hampshire and back. I hope he's worth it this time. No one should have to spend that much on gas for an asshole ex."
Josh's hands still, and he coughs quietly. "She, uh, she's not driving. She flew back. She sold her car the week she joined the campaign. Pretty much had to, I think. Y'know, 'cause I couldn't get her on the payroll right away."
"And what, she just had a one-way ticket back to Dairyland stashed in her back pocket?"
He watches Josh out of the corner of his eyes. A loose-shouldered shrug. "Maybe she called her folks, said she wanted to come home. Maybe the ex wanted to show his generosity."
Sam lets it go, pushing off the rail to bend and stretch out his quads again. He didn't cool down properly yesterday morning, and discovered that cramming one's body into a campaign bus seat for seven hours becomes even less comfortable when one's leg muscles ache and burn at the slightest hint of movement.
He bends over his left leg, looking out to sea to keep his head up, and above him Josh says, "So, Lisa call you back yet?"
He squints out into the distance, trying to decide where the sea ends and the sky starts. He thinks maybe if they win the election he'll try and sail more often. The Chesapeake's a tidal bay, isn't it?
"Yeah. She called last night. Left me a message."
He straightens up and joins Josh at the railing again. "She said if I came back to New York by the end of the week I still had a fiance. Otherwise she's putting my stuff in boxes for the Goodwill and advertising for a room-mate." Below them, on the beach, a middle-aged woman with cropped red hair walks by, a dog-leash trailing from her hand. He can see the dog beyond her, bounding around down by the high tide line.
"You gonna go back?" Josh inquires, carefully casual. Sam turns to look at him, but Josh is staring down the beach after the lady with the dog. Josh's fingertips tap out a syncopated rhythm on the railing.
"I really wanted to marry her, Josh," Sam says.
"Yeah," says Josh, exhaling slowly, nodding. Hearing the past tense. "Yeah."
Sam looks out over the beach, towards where he can hear the sea breaking on the shoreline, veiled in early morning fog.
"Teach me to hear mermaids singing," he murmurs, suddenly sentimental for California and the true blues of Pacific seas and skies. You might not get mermaids in those clear California seas, but you get this kind of soft, chill sea-mist often on cool San Diego days, and so he's sentimental for California anyway.
Josh glances at him, lifting his eyebrows towards his wind-ruffled hair. "I didn't think you were big on poetry. What is that...Eliot?"
He imagines Josh lounging across a seat in the back row of Contemporary English Lit 101, bored and reading Poli Sci notes hidden inside his notebook, letting the words wash over him in meaningless tides. "Nah. Donne."
"I really didn't think you were big on poetry," Josh repeats.
"I like words," he says, shrugging. "It's easy to remember words when they're put together well."
They turn and head back to the hotel, back to their complimentary Continental breakfasts (one croissant, stale, one pat of butter, foil-wrapped, one serving of fruit salad, small, one coffee or orange juice) and the morning council of war. Halfway there, Josh says, "I bought Donna's ticket home, Sam."
"Yeah, I know," he says quietly. "Yeah."
What he will remember best about the inauguration in the years to come is how damn cold it was.
D.C. in January, the young year frosted with a light, grainy snow. They wear their heaviest coats, their warmest socks and gloves, on top of their smartest suits. Dr Bartlet wears a crimson wool coat, a splash of colour glowing like holly-berries as she stands next to her husband.
He will also remember in years to come how cripplingly, overpoweringly nervous he was.
A hollow ache in the pit of his stomach, worse than anything he felt while they waited for the election to be declared, as if he were sitting at the top of a rollercoaster just about to plummet down and loop the loop. The Governor - no, the *President* - about to get up on the dais and speak the words Sam and Toby have slaved over, the words they were still polishing and re-drafting at four in the morning. As the clock-hands inched towards the four and the twelve, he had read the address through with Toby to hear the way the words fell into the air, the balanced cadences of their work, and realised that in a few hours Bartlet would be speaking these words out loud to begin his presidency.
His stomach growls loudly as a New Hampshire poet he has never heard of declaims his inaugural verses from the dais. Josh, standing at his right, glances at him and raises an eyebrow. There was a champagne breakfast for the new White House staff a couple of hours ago, but he didn't go - the hollowness in his stomach when he woke up after three hours sleep told him that anything he ate would come right back up for a second viewing.
"He's gonna sound great," Josh whispers beside him, and the corner of Josh's mouth that he can see in his peripheral vision quirks up in a quick grin. Josh can hardly contain himself, rocks back and forth on his heels every few minutes, impatient for the main event. It's all been a warm-up, a pre-game show up until now. This is where it really begins. This is where they take the field, where they set out on the great journey, where they reach the mountain-top, shade their eyes against the sun and look out at the peaks rising ahead on the horizon, waiting to be scaled.
Bartlet delivers the words they have crafted for him brilliantly. He's preaching to the choir here, of course, but still, the way the audience rises to their feet like one surging wave after Bartlet asks God to bless America makes Sam's blood tingle in every vein. Everyone there is wearing gloves against the cold, but they applaud so furiously that the leather and wool on their hands does little to muffle the sound.
Josh turns, beaming, and yells something to him that is inaudible over the swell of applause. He flings one arm quickly across Sam's shoulders, continuing to clap so that the palm of his hand slaps against Sam's left shoulder. Sam looks to his left and sees Toby smiling, a real grin with teeth and everything. The hollow ache is gone, replaced by a warmth radiating out down to the tips of his frozen, numb fingers inside their black leather gloves. This is why he strode out of Gage Whitney and followed Josh to New Hampshire, for this feeling that he gets when it all comes together, when Bartlet shows himself to be, unmistakably and wonderfully, the real thing, when he brings them over the mountain and shows them the impossible, beautiful country lying in the distance.
Later, at the Inaugural Ball, after he has been introduced to a hundred important people who all look the same to him in their monkey-suits and evening gowns, he retreats to a corner table and gets quietly, happily drunk with the rest of the new senior staff. He's going to have to move into the West Wing tomorrow morning with a champagne hang-over, but that's why God gave mankind black coffee and aspirin.
They sit and watch Leo dance with his god-daughter. Zoey Bartlet looks young, radiant and nervous in lilac silk, and keeps glancing at her new personal protection agent who hovers at the side of the dance-floor.
Sam dances with CJ, who is resplendent in midnight blue and towers over him even more than usual in her strappy blue heels, and with Donna, who looks lovely but vaguely terrified in what she confides is a borrowed dress. The night of the election, about an hour after the major networks declared for Bartlet from exit polling, he had stumbled on her in a corner of the gubernatorial mansion, sobbing into a champagne glass. She'd somehow got it into her head that when they went to Washington she wouldn't be coming as Josh would need to hire a "real" assistant.
He can tell from the stiffness of her body in the loose frame of his arms that she still doesn't feel real. No doubt she's having trouble believing that she, the college drop-out from Madison, gets to come to the Inaugural Ball at the White House. He can't quite believe it himself, and wonders when she'll notice that Margaret and Carol aren't here. He wonders how soon she'll figure out that this is one of the things Josh does best, running right over you in his haste to be where it's at and then turning round at the last second to throw you a bone, to do something generous and gentle for you.
Now he leans down and murmurs to her, "Donna, we get to do this a maximum of two times, so try to relax and enjoy it." The champagne buzz heightens his senses, and he breathes in the last traces of her perfume, the scent lingering on the warm skin behind her ears. He spins her round to make her laugh, catches her expertly just as she totters a little on her new high-heeled shoes, and now he's wondering how many times Josh will break this odd, lovely girl's heart without even thinking about it.
He stands behind the glass with Donna and watches as the doctors enter their ninth hour of surgery. He can see Josh's heart, or thinks he can, a still lump of flesh not much bigger than a clenched fist, packed around with gauze and cotton swabs. It doesn't feel right to see inside him like this, to see a part of Josh that Josh himself could never see. Except for where they're working on him, Josh's body is swathed in green drapes, and his head's concealed behind a screen, presumably so that the surgeons can focus on the square of split-open body rather than the breathing, sleeping man. So that Josh doesn't breathe his own germs into his sundered, naked flesh.
He feels like a peeping Tom, like Josh has never been more naked. Under the ridiculous green shower-cap that covers his hair, Josh's face is utterly relaxed and blank, as if he were sleeping, or dead.
He wonders if that really *is* Josh's heart, but there's no one here to ask except Donna. If he ever knew any well-put together words about the heart, they've vanished now - he's never read any poet who sang about seeing a loved one's heart, still and dark inside the opened body.
Wordless, he curls his fingers around Donna's cold, clammy hand, and squeezes it hard ("che gelida manina", the words arrive out of nowhere, inexplicable because he never really liked opera unless you count Gilbert and Sullivan). He can feel the individual bones of her fingers under her skin and flesh, although he doesn't know the proper names for them.
He wonders if Josh's hand is frozen, under the green drapes. If it's cold down there.
He remembers something about the heart. From - oh, from 'Hamlet'. "Here cracks a noble heart". Except he's seen it now, Horatio, and it doesn't crack, it just sits there, unmoving, and that's how you die.
He hears himself make a little sound deep in his chest, halfway between coughing and choking. Without looking away from the nest of green-gowned doctors working on Josh, Donna inches closer to him and wraps her free hand around his wrist, standing at his side like a shy child clinging to her brother. He's not sure how it is that agony can make a tall, slim body like hers seem tiny, fragile, collapsing in on itself in pain, and he's not sure if he looks the same way to her.
They sit out on Josh's stoop for a good three hours the night of the mid-terms, and he's the last to leave. CJ and Toby split a cab, and he, Donna and Josh watch them go, Toby holding the door open as CJ clambers in. Her giggle drifts up through the still air to where they sit as Toby climbs in after her, and Sam thinks of them sitting close together in the back of the car, speeding through quiet night-time streets in a haze of alcohol and gladness at being alive.
For a while he thinks Donna will wait him out and refuse to leave until she's seen that all visitors are on their way and Josh is inside for the night like a good little convalescent. She sticks it out till close to one in the morning and then calls a cab, muttering pointedly that *some* people have to be up early to get to the office tomorrow.
Left alone, they sit in silence for a while. Josh sprawls on the steps above him, finishing the last of his beer, looking like a kid dressed up in his dad's pajamas and coat. The pajama sleeves fall over his hand, hiding it, when he tips the bottle back to drain it. Sam has the urge to slide his hand up inside that sleeve, under the soft blue cloth, and lay his hand over Josh's hidden fingers.
"Mandy showed up a couple of weeks ago," Josh says, setting the empty bottle down and looking up at the sky. "Came to tell me she's moving back to New York. She brought soup. In one of those little containers, what are they called...Tupperware. I didn't think Mandy owned any Tupperware."
"I understand it's what women like to do in the evenings. They have parties about Tupperware. Or for it, I'm not sure which. What kind of soup?"
"Chicken noodle," Josh says, snorting. "Like I haven't eaten enough of *that* over the last three months.
"It's a nice gesture."
"Yeah. Unfortunately when she arrived I was eating the butternut squash soup Donna had just brought over for my lunch. She was pissed. Donna had brought crackers."
"She was mad because Donna gave you crackers to eat?"
"Because *she* hadn't thought to bring crackers. Also because Donna kicked her out after five minutes," Josh explains.
"It's still a nice gesture, Josh."
"You want another beer?"
He wonders if Josh is drunk already, or if perhaps he is, and that's why he's not quite keeping up with Josh's conversational switchbacks. "Maybe not. I have to drive home."
"You could stay here," Josh suggests, head still tipped back to the sky, the column of his throat and his vulnerable-looking Adam's apple exposed. In those ridiculous oversized pajamas he looks...he looks like someone Sam wants to put his arms around, so he can rest his head on soft blue cotton and listen to a slow, steady heartbeat. He's not sure what else he wants. Sam feels something tighten in his chest. "It's not like you never had to crash on my couch before," Josh continues.
"Oh," he says. No. He's definitely not keeping up here. "No, that's okay, I...I'd only have to go home and change tomorrow before work."
Josh shrugs, which is hard to do when lying back at that angle. "Okay, whatever. Hey, you mind bringing the bottles in to the trash for me?"
He follows Josh up the steps, a bouquet of empty bottles clinking in his hand as he holds them by the necks. He holds the door open for Josh with his free hand at the top of the steps. Josh shuffles past him, the hems of his pajama trousers dragging on the floor, and Sam can smell him, a mix of Irish Spring and beer and clean cotton, and he says to the back of Josh's head, "You know what, maybe I will stay. I'll just get up early tomorrow."
Josh doesn't even look round. "Okay," he says, and shuffles on towards the stairs. Josh's legs are as shaky as a new-born deer's, and Sam has to fight the urge the whole way up to the apartment to reach out and take his arm. As Josh fumbles in his coat pocket for the door key Sam says, without meaning to, "Y'know, you should come sailing with me when you're feeling stronger. Sea air is good for you. All the ozone and...and salty goodness...".
"Yeah," Josh says, still not looking round, turning the key in the lock. "Sure. That sounds nice." They go inside. Josh finds Sam a blanket and a pillow in the bottom of the closet, and disappears off to his own bed, leaving Sam to wonder when Josh last said something and really meant it.
Sam doesn't sleep well, and in the morning he is awake before it gets light. He slips into Josh's room to put the folded blanket and the pillow back in the closet before he leaves. Josh has kicked back the covers in his sleep and lies on his back. Some of the buttons on the loose pajama top have slipped out of their holes in the night. Sam can see the top of the scar from his surgery peeking out at him where the top button has come undone. The entry wound is hidden by the fabric. The scar tissue is angrily pink and has an ugly shine to it.
Sam has that same feeling he had watching the surgery, that he is a voyeur, that he should be ashamed to be looking. He wants to crawl into the bed, do up the buttons and hide Josh under the covers with him before the sun rises. He wants to lie under the blankets, listening to Josh breathe, and wait for it all to go away, far far away. He wants to know if Josh's scar tingles in the cold morning air.
"I don't feel beholden to you," CJ says one night, poking her head into his office, "but I do want to buy you a drink, Sam."
"Oh. Okay," he says, twirling a pen back and forth between the fingers of his right hand. "I'm sort of working on the thing for Monday night."
"How's that going?"
He looks from his legal pad, covered in scribbled fragments of rhetoric and angular doodles, up to her face, and then back to the paper. He hits the trash can with the first shot.
"Nothin' but net," he says glumly.
"So get your coat, Spanky," she says. "It's raining out."
They walk together through the drizzle to Finlay's, where she orders a dry martini for herself and Scotch on the rocks for him. He actually wanted a beer but he doesn't protest. They sit at the bar and she crosses her long legs, takes a quick look at the TV showing CNN before she raises her glass. Finlay's is that kind of place, a haunt for federal employees who like to pretend they're still grad students without having to endure the noise level and the music of a student hang-out.
"Well...to the grand high theory of everything," she says, clinking her glass against his, and he thinks of Josh and his throat tightens. "You know Josh *still* discourses on cutting-edge physics every once in a while? Yesterday he started giving me a lecture on dark matter. I had to pretend I was late for an off-the-record clandestine, you know, rendez-vous to leak a thing."
He shrugs. "The President went out and bought him a bunch of books when he was recovering to give him something other than work to think about. For some reason he threw in a copy of 'A Brief History of Time'."
She pulls the olive out of her drink, holds it up and regards it for a second, and then takes it delicately between her teeth and slides it off the cocktail stick and into her mouth. "He drives me crazy sometimes. Does he drive you crazy?"
"Josh or the President?" The ice-cubes in the low-ball glass clink together as he swirls the Scotch round in it.
"I was thinking of Toby, actually, but take your pick," she says quietly, but she doesn't elaborate.
They're silent for a while, sipping at their drinks, watching the CNN ticker scroll across the bottom of the screen. "Is there a television in this town that *isn't* tuned to CNN twenty-four seven?" he wonders out loud.
She shoots him a sideways glance, drains her martini. "I hear there are secret Republican speak-easies where they show Fox News," she says, tilting her empty glass at the bar-tender.
She orders another round. He drinks some more Scotch, starting to enjoy the burn in his throat and the whiskey glow settling in his stomach.
"So I hear you wanted Josh to sue the Klan."
"No, the Southern Poverty Law Center wanted Josh to sue the Klan."
She tips her head sideways and gives him a sad little smile. "No, you wanted him to." She holds the cocktail stick that spears her olive delicately between two fingers, twirling it around in the martini glass. "Sam, you and Toby...you can't fix this by destroying the hate groups."
"Why not?" he demands, setting his glass down on the bar a little harder than he meant to. "Why the hell shouldn't we go after them? I agree with you that it would've been the wrong answer to try and sneak around the Constitution to do it, but this way we can do it within the bounds of the law. We can make the world a better place by going after these people. Isn't that what we're meant to be doing?"
She picks up her cocktail napkin and starts folding it into ever-decreasing triangles. "Yes, it is. But what I mean is, you can't fix Josh this way. You can't fix any of us. You'd take us into a long, dirty fight, we'd all come out looking bad and feeling worse, and Josh...what he needs is for things to be normal. That's what he needs now. Josh isn't up to taking on this fight right now. I don't know if any of us are."
He stares at her, and then down at his hands. "I just want to make it better. To make it right. This shouldn't have happened to him."
"It shouldn't have happened to anyone," she says gently, placing a hand at the back of his neck. Her fingers stroke the short hair there for a moment or two, brushing against his collar. He needs to get a hair-cut. One of the many things he keeps forgetting to find time for as the life of this administration takes over his small life. "Give it some time, Sam. We're all going to hurt from this for a while."
"And how long is Josh going to hurt from it?" he asks his hands, and hears her sigh. Her hand moves down from his neck to his back and she rubs slow circles between his shoulderblades. "It wasn't meant to be this way," he hears himself mutter. It really wasn't. It was meant to be the grand journey, the bold exploration, the great undertaking of all their lives. It wasn't meant to be a country where white guys shoot at a black kid for daring to date a white President's daughter. It wasn't meant to be Josh slumped and bleeding on concrete and Toby wanting to jump the Constitution with a baseball bat in a back-alley. He doesn't want to start hating this job, or this country.
He isn't sure she's heard him over the music and the chatter for a second, and then he hears her let out a long, shaky breath.
"C'mon. Let's get back," she says, and they walk slowly back to the White House together through the rain, which has gotten heavier and colder. There they get in their cars and go their separate ways home, and she never does answer his question, because she doesn't know. Because none of them do.
He spends the next month holding his breath, waiting for Josh to fall apart. He never sees it coming, though, the way you don't see the speeding truck that runs you down because you're too preoccupied with worrying that the chemicals in tap water are giving you cancer.
Josh breaks into little pieces like splinters of glass at Christmastime. Sam's heard the statistics on how suicides and instances of depression rise at Christmas, but Christmas was never too big a deal to Josh - as a non-observant Jew, Sam's not sure Josh really gets any holidays to lay claim to except Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. It seems too cliched, for Josh to give up on life - and yes, once he twigs what's going on, Sam is fairly sure that Josh wanted to die during the weeks of Advent - as all around him the merry, glowing world celebrates peace and goodwill towards men.
He doesn't go to see Josh over Christmas, but he does go to see Donna, who couldn't afford a return trip to Wisconsin and has stayed in D.C. to feed her roommate's cat and keep a weather eye on Josh. He shows up at her building at five p.m. on Christmas day, wondering if she'll be there or in Georgetown, with a bottle of mint schnapps and a very expensive Christmas cake.
"Merry Christmas, Donna," he says shyly, standing in her open doorway and holding both out towards her.
He shrugs. "It seemed...festive. I'm not really sure why now that I stop to think about it, so let's just not speak of this any further. Can I come in?"
"Of course," she says, standing back to let him into the entry-way. "I thought - you didn't go to California for Christmas?" She's wearing red sweatpants with the cuffs of another pair of navy sweatpants peeking out from the bottom, a University of Wisconsin sweatshirt, red wool gloves, a green scarf and a red woolly hat with a blue bobble on top. The tip of her nose is pink.
"No, but now I see how cold it is in here I'm thinking California would have been the smart place to go. What happened to the heat in here?" He sets cake and bottle down on her coffee-table, seeing his breath puff out in frozen clouds as he talks. He's only wearing jeans and a sweater beneath his coat, and he's shivering already. Donna has a CD of Christmas carols on and choirboys with high, holy voices are singing 'Once in Royal David's City'.
"The heat to our floor has mysteriously ceased," she says, going into the apartment's little kitchenette to get a knife and two plates for the cake and a couple of glasses. "The super says he can't get anyone out to fix it until tomorrow. There's only one other tenant besides me on this floor over Christmas anyhow so he doesn't really care too much."
"Donna, you can't stay here. You'll freeze in your bed in the night. You'll become a Donnasicle." He sits down on the edge of the couch and the room-mate's black cat twines around his ankles until he leans down and scratches its head.
"It's fine, Sam," she says, kneeling beside the table like a geisha girl and cutting him a slice of cake. "I wanted to give Josh a little space this afternoon but I'm going to go back there to sleep there tonight. Josh is even taking the couch so I can sleep in a proper bed. He says it's his Christmas present to me."
"Offering you refuge in your hour of need is his Christmas present?"
"He hasn't felt much like shopping this year, I guess," she says carefully. He feels like an asshole. He feels like an asshole because just as he was getting into the idea of rescuing Donna from frozen death, of doing a Christmas good deed, he finds that Josh has gotten there first, and he's actually a little resentful about that.
He feels like an asshole because while he didn't go see Josh today, Donna has obviously spent Christmas morning with him, and will spend the night with him, and what kind of best friend is he if he isn't ever going to be any part of rescuing Josh? That's what he does. He's good at rescuing people, from circumstance, from themselves, from cruelties of fate. He's slipping, though, and it had to be Donna in the end who caught it, who listened, who stretched out a hand at the last second and caught hold of Josh as he fell.
He feels like an asshole because this woman is helping Josh reassemble the scattered pieces of himself, and all he can feel is a petty jealousy that he's left on the outside of that.
Then Donna passes him a shot-glass filled with schnapps, and he looks up and into her big, tired eyes. She plucks her eyebrows too thin and wears better suits nowadays, and it used to make her look polished but now she simply looks weary. "Thank you, Sam," she says in a low voice. "Thanks for thinking of me." They clink glasses and swallow the cold-burn of the liquor simultaneously, and then Donna brings him a blanket to wrap around himself against the cold. They eat a slice of cake each, and then another slice each because it's damn good cake, and they have another shot of schnapps each, but Donna still doesn't look very festive.
"Donna, you look about as merry as the Ghost of Christmas Future," he says. "I know it's hard but...Josh has turned a corner. He's admitted he needs help. I know it'll be a hard road, but things are going to get better now." He reaches out and lays a hand over one of her gloved ones, wincing at his own therapy-speak cliches.
"I know," she says, her hand perfectly still beneath his. "I just feel so awful, Sam. I've been so angry at him. I've wanted to hurt him for things he's said lately. And all the time he was eating himself up inside trying to keep a handle on how much he was hurting..."
"He said things to you that hurt you?" Sam asks. He knows that Josh's joking around can occasionally slip into accidental cruelty, usually when Josh lets his mouth run on ahead of his brain too much. He knows that Josh has upset Donna before. He didn't know that Josh had ever been truly mean to her, though.
"When you were in Portland with the President...he said I had no self-worth. And then he told me I looked incredible like that made it okay. Like it was okay for me to just be some dressed-up, silly little girl ruled by the mating urge." Donna speaks in a flat, empty voice, although tears make her eyes shine. Sam has no idea what she's talking about.
"He said you had no self-worth because...?" He strokes Donna's hand gently, slowly, the red wool glove warm and scratchy beneath his cold fingertips.
"Because I had a date with some guy - some loser guy, actually, but that's not the point - because I just wanted to go out and have drinks and dinner and feel like a fun, happening single girl for once."
"You're very happening," Sam assures her, and gets a tiny, weak smile. The choirboys on the stereo launch into 'God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen'. "Donna," he says, sighing, slipping off her couch and on to the rug next to her. He kneels at her side and fumbles his way out from under the blanket to put his arms round her. "Josh gets... jealous."
"It's not an excuse," she says into his shoulder, her voice muffled.
"God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay..." sing the choir, voices ringing like little bells.
"No, it's not," he says, and feels like the biggest bastard on earth. No. Jealousy's not an excuse. They are running out of excuses in this administration. They should never have needed them in the first place. He strokes her hair where it spills out from under the woolly hat, and holds her while she cries quietly for a minute or two. She loves Josh and he loves Josh and Josh is a wounded animal in the skin of an unstoppable, powerful man, and he feels in this moment more akin to Donna than ever before.
When she stops crying, he pours them both another shot of schnapps, and then they sit on the couch side by side, each in a nest of blankets, and watch 'How The Grinch Stole Christmas' with the sound turned down. The choirboys sing a carol he doesn't recognise, a plaintive little song about Mary rocking her baby and holding him close in the cold of the night, and Donna makes them both strong black coffees so that she will be sober enough to drive to Josh's and he will be sober enough to get home.
They walk down to the street together, and he sees her to her car. "You could come," she suggests, standing with a hand on the open door of her Volkswagon. "He'd be happy to see you, Sam."
He considers it for a minute, imagining a happy little sugar-frosted Christmas scene where he, Josh and Donna drink egg-nog, play parlour games, and sing carols around the old piano, but of course Josh doesn't have an old piano, Josh *does* have post-traumatic stress disorder that makes music sound like sirens and death, and they aren't characters from 'It's a Wonderful Life'.
"No, I'll just go on home. Tell him I'll come by tomorrow, though. I wanted to bring him his gift, anyway." He's bought Josh a scarf, a cashmere-wool mix brown scarf, because he still wonders if that scar on his chest tingles when it gets cold out.
"Okay. I'll see you, Sam. Thank you, again." Donna reaches up and kisses him quickly on the cheek with cold lips. She drives off towards Georgetown in her old blue VW, and he drives home, to be overwhelmed by the heat in his apartment after two hours of frigid, unheated air. The heat seems so stifling that he leaves five minutes after he gets there, and walks around the quiet, dark streets of his neighbourhood for an hour while the tip of his nose turns pink with cold.
He meets them in a bar in Georgetown at the end of Big Block of Cheese Day, when he gets through talking with his dad, and they have a cold beer and a shot lined up for him already. He plays pool with Donna, who he always forgets is something of a hustler, and the drinks keep coming, appearing on the edge of the pool table. He never sees Toby or Josh put them there, but there they are, and he drinks them, the beer bottles sweating condensation in the greenhouse warmth of the bar. He sweats too, his shirt sticking to his skin, and he presses the long cold neck of a bottle against his neck. Looks up to find Josh watching him.
When he loses to Donna for the third time, she smiles triumphantly at him and shouts, "Yeah! Who's your momma?"
Toby yells over from the bar, "Getting your ass kicked by a girl again, Sam? We should see if Ainsley plays pool." To his surprise, he laughs, and Donna slings an arm around his waist and leans her warm body against him for a moment.
CJ shows up at some point. He expects her and Donna to start showing girly solidarity by drinking girly drinks, but they start drinking Jack Daniels, straight up. The sight of CJ and Donna standing by the pool table, both leaning their weight on one hip like gunslingers and knocking back Tennessee sippin' whiskey, makes him feel like he's about to fall down over his own feet.
A little later, he does just that. Josh and CJ loom over him as he blinks on the sticky floor and pull him back upright. CJ shovels him into a booth, and he leans back against the black vinyl seat and feels like he's floating, his body a tethered helium balloon. Donna feeds quarters into the jukebox, and dances with CJ to Tom Petty's 'American Girl', strutting and laughing.
Josh and Toby slide into the booth, Josh beside him and Toby sitting across from him.
"How you doing there, little buddy?" Toby asks, stubbing a cigar out in the ashtray.
"I can't feel my teeth anymore," Sam says, slumping down on to the table. Josh's thigh brushes against his.
They take him home in Toby's car and wait outside the bathroom door as he throws up. He grips the cold porcelain of the toilet bowl and retches, and tried not to think about betrayals. They put him to bed and put a glass of water and a couple of aspirin on the bed-side table, and neither of them say at any point, "I'm sorry about your dad," for which he's endlessly grateful.
"Sam," the President says, getting up from behind his desk. He nods to Charlie, who slips noiselessly out of the Oval Office, and he's left standing between Leo and the President.
Bartlet motions him to the couch nearest the door, and sits in his usual chair by the end-table. Leo remains standing, his hands gripping the back of the couch. Sam feels like he's being set up for something. He can't think of anything he has done lately that would merit being fired...
"Sam, eight years ago I was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis," Bartlet says, rocking forward slightly in his seat, hands clasped in his lap.
"I'm sorry," says Sam, his mind blank of any other words.
"It's a disease of the nervous system -" Bartlet begins.
Unthinkably, Sam interrupts him. "No, sir, I - excuse me. I know what MS is. I understood you. I just meant...I'm sorry, sir."
Bartlet sits back in his chair and glances at Leo, and then back to Sam. "Thank you."
"How, how are you feeling, sir?"
Bartlet stares at him for a long moment, and then coughs awkwardly. "I'm - I feel fine. Thank you. Sam, this is about to become a thing. I'm going to go public with this, soon."
Sam thinks about that for a minute. The President and Leo are silent, watching him. He looks down at his hands. He's clasped them together in his lap, unconsciously mirroring the President. As if they are at prayer.
"A lot of people are going to have something to say about this, sir. They'll say you've lied to the American people in order to influence the outcome of a presidential election."
"I know," Bartlet says, dipping his head for a second.
"They'll say it on Capitol Beat, in the Post, on the Hill. They'll say it in Congressional investigative committees and hearings. They'll say it loudly, and they'll say it again and again and again until everybody who hears it believes them. We won't be able to control this thing, sir, once it begins."
"Yes we will," Leo says behind him, speaking for the first time. "We're gonna have a damn good try."
"And we're going to need you for that, Sam," Bartlet picks up smoothly. "We'll need you to help us make this fly. It doesn't matter how many times I apologise or how many times I defend my choice to have kept this private for so long if the people don't hear me say it. They won't hear me say it unless you guys help me say it right."
"The others know already," Sam says, not looking at either of them, and it isn't a question.
"Yeah," Leo says. "We wanted to wait until you'd finished the SME speech. We needed you in the zone for that. But now you need to know."
"I need you to help me say it and say it right," Bartlet repeats. "We need you, Sam."
"I serve at the pleasure of the President," Sam says, twisting his hands together in his lap, and is amazed that the words don't stick in his throat and make him choke up bile.
Toby is waiting when Sam comes back, but Sam sets his jaw and marches past him into the office. He grabs his coat and his briefcase and tears out of the building, because he's sure he'll be sick if he stays in the White House a minute longer. He walks aimlessly around the Mall for an hour or more. He ends up at the Korean War monument, the one people always forget is there, and he stands in the dark staring at the bronze soldiers of a forgotten war, with their guns and capes and terrified eyes, and tries not to throw up.
He shouldn't really be surprised that he was the last to be told, because he's always the last to be let in, last into the loop. He wonders with a dull rage burning in the pit of his stomach why they do that to him, why they leave him on the outside. Sure, Toby can stand there and say "I trust you" until he's blue in the face, but it doesn't mean a thing when they all know this terrible, terrible thing and nobody's told him.
He knows why they do it, actually. It's because they see him as a sweet-faced little boy who doesn't have as much bitterness in his blood as they do, who believes in trying the best thing before you try the most expedient thing, and they love him for it because he's their walking, talking blue-eyed conscience, but it also means that they don't want to hear his voice. They want to protect him, because they can't protect their own tender-skinned inner idealist, and they want to keep him outside the room so that when they concentrate on ignoring their own better angels, they don't have to concentrate on ignoring him too.
The rage burns off in a few hours, though, and by the time he walks back to the White House, gets his car and drives home it is replaced with disgust at himself for his first reaction of childish resentment when the man they all love has this dreadful affliction laid upon him. Wrapped around that is sorrow, a deep abiding grief for them all and for the fading of their grand dreams. Their vision of a better tomorrow is going to die a slow, ugly death, like a maimed animal lying out in the sun while the buzzards circle, and it wasn't meant to be like this. Twelve hours ago it was great news that the country was going to have less money eight years down the line, and he'd thought that *that* was screwed-up, and he'd really had no idea.
He doesn't sleep much that night and when he does finally drift off at four in the morning, he dreams grief dreams, panic dreams.
He dreams that he and Josh are trapped alone in the White House by snow. They look out between the shades on his office window and see a frozen world, where the snow will deepen and never thaw, where cliffs of green ice grind towards them up the Mall at a glacial, inexorable pace. They are locked in by ice with nowhere to make a fire because Andrew Jackson's fire-place in the Mural Room was sealed off a long, long time ago.
They lie on the floor curled up together for body heat in the cold, clawed grip of endless winter and Josh, his breath puffing out in little frozen clouds, says with pale blue lips, "My scar hurts, Sam. Because of the cold."
Josh shows up at his building the next night, at two in the morning. Sam had been sleeping, fitfully and gripped by dreams, when Josh buzzed, and he stumbles to the door in navy blue cotton boxers and a grey t-shirt, squinting against the light.
"Hey," Josh says, leaning against his doorframe.
"Hey," he says, suspicious, squinting. His eyes refuse to adjust to the light and Josh is a dark backlit blur with a fuzzy halo around his head where the hall light shines through his hair.
He stands back to let Josh in and wonders what Josh wants from him. What they want from each other.
"Were you sleeping?" Josh tosses over his shoulder as he heads towards the couch, shrugging his coat off on the way and throwing it over a chair. Josh flops down bonelessly on the end of the couch and sprawls, looking up at Sam with an expression impossible to read in the dark. Sam doesn't want to turn on a light.
"Oh. I figured you probably weren't sleeping. Because, you know. Because of the thing."
"You figured I'd find the need to sleep would disappear because the President has MS?"
Josh winces when Sam says it, a little too loud. "I dunno. I just figured...you didn't look like you'd slept all that much when I saw you this morning."
He shrugs. "What's up, Josh?"
Josh shifts in his seat, and Sam sees his face for a second, in the shafts of dim light slipping in between the slats of the blinds. Josh looks tired, more tired than he ever did during the campaign, or during his recovery. He looks bone-weary and there are more creases around his eyes than Sam remembers. "I was just in my office, thinking, and I didn't feel like being there on my own anymore. And I thought maybe you'd need some company." Josh cocks his head to the side and Sam can't see his eyes anymore. "It was tough, after he told me, Sam. The only people who knew besides me were Toby, Babish and I guess, you know, the First Family and his doctors and Hoynes, and I couldn't, I couldn't talk to any of them. I wanted to come find you and go out to some noisy bar where no one could overhear us, have a drink and talk to you about it and I couldn't. And I know you haven't talked to me, and I'm guessing you haven't talked to CJ or Toby or Leo about this. So maybe you want to."
Sam scrubs at his eyes with his hands. "Oh. You, uh, you want me to switch a light on in here? You want a glass of water or a beer or something?"
"No," Josh says. "This is fine."
He stares down at Josh for a minute and then gives up, sitting slowly down beside him. He hears his knees crack as he sits and feels much older than he is.
"Do you want to?" Josh asks, very quietly.
He stares into the dark space of his apartment. Josh breathes slowly next to him.
"This isn't what we planned, is it? I followed you out of that law office like you were some goddamned messiah come to lead me to the promised land, and for a while there I really thought it was."
"I know. It almost was. We just - we were just human, Sam, was all."
"We were going to be part of something grand. We were going to be the architects of it. Are we...are we doing something grand?"
"It's not over. Don't, don't talk like it is. We can still do great things here, Sam. So we're going to tell the truth. We're going to defend a good man," Josh says, a little shake underlying his words like he's still convincing himself that they can even attempt this.
They sit in silence for a while. Josh breathes in and out at his side, with his lungs that took a bullet because they were part of the dream of a good, fair, equal world.
"I don't want them to destroy it, Josh," he blurts out, like a child. "I don't want to watch them spit on what we dreamed of and try to trample it in the dirt, as if it was something cheap. I don't - I don't -"
"I know," Josh says again, covering Sam's hand with his own.
Sam feels the choke in his throat and the burn behind his eyes, but doesn't cry. "So I guess we show up to the fight," he says, "because..."
"Because of fidelity," Josh murmurs into the dark.
"Yeah." Sam feels the warmth of Josh's palm on the back of his hand. "Because of the last full measure of devotion."
He wakes in the morning with his head on Josh's thigh, while Josh sleeps on, head thrown back to rest on the back of the couch, throat open and naked to the thin, early light. Josh's left hand is still resting on his right, and the pale grey wool of Josh's suit pants is warm and slightly scratchy against his cheek. He sits up carefully and watches Josh sleep. Josh's tie is loose and the top few buttons on his shirt are undone. In the warm spring weather, he wears no undershirt. Sam leans forward, barely breathing, and sees the top of the scar between the edges of the white, crisp fabric.
He touches it, with the tip of one finger, and Josh's eyes fly open. He stares at Sam, and Sam stares back, still touching the scar.
"Does it hurt?" Sam whispers, not sure what he is doing or why.
Josh nods, slowly, a tiny movement, his eyes locked on Sam's. "Only in the cold," he whispers back. Sam's own chest tightens and aches, as if he has a phantom scar there, and then. Then the tears come.
Many thanks to the wunnerful Meg for beta duties.
Hit me with your rhythm stick: CazQ@tesco.net
"We are swimming with the snakes at the bottom of the well, So silent and peaceful in the darkness where we fell, But we are not snakes and what's more we never will be And if we stay swimming here forever we will never be free."
-- Patty Griffin, 'Forgiveness'
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