She wasn't sure what made her change her mind, but Zoey found herself climbing the stairs to her mother's plane on a night that she had planned on studying with her roommates. It was just a quick trip, she had reasoned, and it would be good to get her mind off of some of the fears and anxieties that had been plaguing her whenever she thought about graduation and the real world and the future that she was expected to have.
But a night in Chicago sounded good, even if she'd be there on her own, and thoughts of the Art Institute were keeping her spirits up. She weaved in and out of the seats, looking for a good place to hunker down with her books, when she heard someone swear loudly to her left.
It was Elsie Snuffin, one of her mother's speechwriters. She was fairly new and very young and Zoey was happy to count her a friend. At twenty-five, just three years older than Zoey was, Elsie was the only one on either of her parents' staffs even close to Zoey in age and she had a wicked sense of humor. It was nice, too, to have someone to talk to who understood what life was like in the public eye. Elsie's father held some sort of position in NATO. Zoey wasn't entirely sure what it was, but she knew that Elsie had spent her formative years surrounded by foreign leaders and visiting dignitaries.
She liked spending time with people who had nothing to do with her father, yeah, but sometimes it was nice to commiserate with someone who understood.
"What's wrong?" she asked Elsie, dropping into the empty chair next to her. Elsie glanced up at her in surprise, but then sighed and rolled her eyes.
"Nothing," she said. "My stupid brother borrowed my CD player and used up all the batteries. I'm going to kill him." She reached into her bag and pulled out a handheld tape recorder, then snapped the batteries out and swapped them for the ones in her CD player. When she hit play again, "LO BTTRY" flashed across the small digital screen. "Dammit! I'm going to kill my brother and his boyfriend."
"I think I have some spares," Zoey said. She opened the side flap of her messenger bag, revealing a plastic baggie of AAs. "I try to always be prepared," she said, grinning. "If I don't have headphones on, my dad tends to take it as an open invitation to start a lecture on whatever pointless trivia he's got stored up."
"Sounds like Willy," Elsie said, and Zoey smirked. Elsie's brother worked for her father, and while Zoey knew the two of them were basically best friends, she also knew Will had been wearing on Elsie's nerves. To be honest, she was a little jealous. She and her sisters got along as kids, but as they grew up and their interests diverged, she felt distant from them. Sometimes she thought she had more in common with her fifteen year old niece than either of her sisters. Elsie and Will, on the other hand, were always on the same page. Well, on most things, at least.
"Has he finally moved all his stuff out of your living room?" Zoey asked. Elsie rolled her eyes again.
"Of course not," she said. "He's been living with this guy for a couple months now but it's like he's still afraid they're going to break up any minute. It doesn't make any sense for this crap to be cluttering up my very limited space, but try telling that to him."
"Do you think they're going to break up?" Zoey asked. She was genuinely interested; it wasn't that she had never met a gay guy before as much as it was that Will was the exact opposite of the flamboyant boys in her high school drama club and the fashion obsessed leaders of the campus pride group. She thought it was kind of cool, especially since Elsie's parents seemed to have no problem with it. She tried to downplay it in front of Elsie when she could--she didn't want to see naive--but she liked hearing silly stories about Will and his boyfriend whenever Elsie felt like telling them.
"No," Elsie said. "They're disgustingly in love."
"Aw! I think that's sweet," she said.
"Don't let Will and Grace fool you," Elsie said. "Gay guys are just as afraid of commitment as straight guys are. They won't actually admit that they're disgustingly in love, but anyone who spends more than two seconds with them can tell."
"I'm jealous as anything, but that's still cute," Zoey said.
"Oh, come on," Elsie said. "You have Jean Paul, right?" Zoey just shrugged. Jean Paul was a subject that was starting to make her uncomfortable whenever it was broached. At first, she had reveled in the attention he gave her. He made her feel special, like she was the most important thing in the world, like her father didn't matter. It was sweet, but she was starting to realize that he was nothing more than a shallow figurehead. He didn't care about books or film or world politics or any of the things that Zoey was interested in.
He cared about her, though, and that was going to have to be good enough for the time being.
"Jean Paul is..." she started to say, wondering how she could explain this to Elsie. "He's--" She glanced up and stopped short when she saw her mother walking quickly towards them. "Mom?"
Zoey knew it was bad news immediately. She felt it in the weight of her mother's stare, in the way she was paler than usual. She felt something hard and heavy settle into her stomach. No. It wasn't fair. This had already happened to them once, it wasn't supposed to happen again.
"Girls, I... I don't know how to--there's been a shooting at the White House."
The weight in Zoey's stomach turned into full on nausea.
"Dad..." Zoey whispered. "Charlie, Mom, is--"
"Zoey, your father and Charlie are fine, but, Elsie..."
Zoey whirled to look at Elsie, who looked confused and shocked, feeling guilty that her immediate response was, Oh thank god, not again, thank god...
"I... I don't... what?" she asked.
"Your brother, Elsie," her mom said. "I'm sorry, but Will was shot. We need to go to the hospital right now. They have a car waiting for us."
Elsie didn't seem to be moving, so Zoey took her hand and pulled her to her feet. She fumbled for her purse, but Zoey was already on auto-pilot, pulling Elsie towards the exit of the plane. She could do this. She had done it before, and it had been about a zillion times worse. It was her dad that time, and although she thought of Elsie as a friend, Will was nothing more than one of her dad's staffers. She could keep herself together enough to be a friend to Elsie, especially since it meant she didn't have to think about how close her father and Charlie had come to another bullet.
"But... but Will's not even supposed to be there!" Elsie said in a daze as Zoey and her mother pulled Elsie down the stairs. "It's his weekend--he's..."
She froze all of a sudden, going stock still so fast that Zoey nearly tripped over her.
"Oh my god," she said. "Oh my god, he changed his flight this morning and he never changed it back after... oh my god, he can't be--" Abruptly, she turned to Zoey's mom with wide eyes. "Someone needs to call Sam."
There was a limo waiting for them at the bottom of the stairs and two secret service agents were standing outside of it. Zoey tried to hustle Elsie towards it, but she was still stricken and babbling.
"What do you mean, sweetie?" her mom said, pulling Elsie towards the car. "Who's Sam?"
"Sam!" Elsie insisted, and Zoey saw tears starting to well up in her eyes. "Sam Seaborn, Willy is--Sam is his boyfriend, no one knows, no one's going to--oh my god, Will!"
She was shaking when Zoey and her mother pushed her into car, tears rolling down her cheeks. Zoey put an arm around her shoulders as the car sped away and Elsie began to cry outright. She was worried and upset, but also a little shocked. Will was dating Sam. Sam Seaborn. Josh's best friend, who all the girls had a little crush on when they weren't too busy crushing on Josh himself. Josh had always seemed like more of a big brother to Zoey than anything else, but Sam... Mallory had dated Sam. Or, well, not quite dated, but still. Sam was definitely interested and something had definitely happened between them and Sam was gay?
"This is just... this can't be real," Elsie whispered, and that was as good as anything at pulling Zoey back into the present. She had to shove the idea of Sam and Will into the back of her mind, throw it into a compartment along with the fact that she was way too concerned for Charlie's well-being and that the thought of her father being around guns still gave her a stomachache and deal with it all once she was sure Elsie was okay, that Will would be okay.
But, god, Sam? Even as she pulled Elsie into a hug, it was still something she couldn't quite wrap her mind around.
Elsie couldn't stop thinking about how angry she had been at Will. It was a stupid thing, using up her batteries, but she was so frustrated with him, ready to call him up and shout at him, and now he was shot and in critical condition and in the hospital.
All she had done for the last week was complain--about his things in her living room, about borrowing her things, about blowing off their weekly lunch to go out with Sam, about refusing to go up to Chris' for dinner. They hadn't had a conversation in six days that hadn't ended in blown tempers, and just thinking about it made her want to throw up.
She was actually in the bathroom, hovering over a sink with her mother at her shoulder when Donna came in with the news. She had already thrown up twice, and was relatively sure that her stomach had little left to give, but she couldn't be sure.
"I just thought--" Donna said haltingly. "Um, Will's awake. Sam and the General and the President just went in to see him, and I'm sure he'd want to see you."
"What do you say, baby?" her mother asked, and Elsie nodded fervently. Just knowing that Will was awake seemed to make the nausea pass, and if she could actually see him, maybe she'd be able to sleep sometime in the next decade without having nightmares.
"Let's go see Willy," she said.
The hallway leading up to Will's hospital room went on for ages. They passed the President, who paused to kiss her mother on the cheek and squeeze Elsie's shoulder.
"He's a little stoned from the pain medication, but he looks like he's going to be fine," he told them. Elsie nodded, but her attention was on the open door at the end of the hall.
"Thank you, sir," her mother said. "We're going to head in now."
The President nodded at them both and went back down the hall, trailed by two secret service agents. Elsie went towards the room, but stopped when her mother put a hand on her shoulder.
"Hold up, baby, let's clean your face off, okay?" Elsie turned and looked up at her, wincing when she got a tissue in the eye as her mother wiped tears and mascara from her cheeks and snot from her nose, like she was six years old getting ready to meet a foreign dignitary.
"Mom!" she said, swiping at her mother's hands and glaring when she just laughed.
"There you go," her mother said. "Go see your brother."
She walked quickly into the hospital room, only hesitating for a moment when she saw her father sitting on the foot of Will's bed and Sam in the chair next to it, clutching Will's good hand between his own. Sam looked terrible, but there was a calm about him that had been missing during the long hours they spent together in the waiting room. He didn't look like he was going to let go of Will's hand anytime soon, but he also wasn't going to keel over from the grief of it all.
Will, on the other hand, looked like hell. He was pale, with dark circles under his eyes and a bruise on his forehead. One of his arms was in a sling and held tightly against his chest. He was dazed, eyes glassy, glasses askew, and still somehow managed to spot Elsie the moment she walked into the room.
"Elsie-boo," he said, face breaking out into a goofy grin, and Sam and her father turned to look at her. She froze.
"You haven't called me that since I was eight years old," she said. She swallowed against the lump welling up in her throat. Oh, he was so stoned, but she didn't care.
"In front of the whoooole swim team," Will said proudly.
"I didn't speak to you for two weeks," she said, and she couldn't hold back a giggle. "I locked you in the pantry for eight hours that night."
"Worth it," Will said. He took his hand back from Sam, though Sam seemed reluctant to let go, and waved at her. "I miss you, Elsie."
That was it. Of all of the ridiculous, stoned things that Will could have said to her, of all of the stupid things he could have mentioned, he had to go and say he missed her. He had to--
She hadn't even realized she had run over to the bed until she was very carefully wrapping her arms around Will and sobbing into his shoulder.
"You idiot," she cried. "You should have changed your flight back! You should have--after Sam cancelled, you should have just--you could have--oh god, Will, why are you so stubborn?"
She was embarrassed to be crying so openly in front of Sam, but she knew it was long past the point where he was just a handsome stranger both she and Will wanted to impress. He was family now, and more than that, she knew that he understood, that if it was up to Sam, Will would be locked in a room away from anything that might hurt him for the rest of his life.
And if she didn't know it when she started to cry, she certainly knew it when Sam put a hand on her back, right between her shoulder blades, rubbing gently as she sobbed and Will blinked at her in confusion.
"Did I do something?" Will asked when Elsie finally pulled away. She had to laugh at that, and she wasn't the only one. Sam was laughing too, though he looked precariously close to crying as well.
"No, Will," Sam said, reaching out to brush his hair back. "You didn't do anything."
Abruptly, Will's eyes started to droop. "M'tired," he muttered, lying back against the pillows.
"That would be the morphine," Sam said. Elsie stepped back from the bed, smiling fondly.
"Get some sleep," she said. "I love you so much."
"Love you too," Will muttered. He grabbed Sam's hand again. "You too, okay?"
"I know," Sam said. There was a tenderness to his voice that made Elsie hurt inside. "Go to sleep, Will. I'll be here when you wake up, I promise."
Will's head listed to the side and he was asleep a split second later. Elsie would have marveled at it if she wasn't so busy wiping at her eyes again.
"We're going to go get some coffee," her mother said. Elsie blushed; she had completely forgotten her parents were even in the room. She turned to them, smiling sheepishly. They were holding hands and standing at the foot of Will's bed. "It's going to be a long night, sweetie. Do you want anything?" She shook her head. She couldn't even think about eating. "What about you, Sam?"
"I'm fine," Sam said quietly. "Thank you, Mrs. Bailey."
"Barbara, please," her mother said. "No one calls me Mrs. Bailey except for General Bailey when he's trying to cause trouble." Elsie laughed at that and even Sam cracked a smile."We'll be right back."
Elsie watched her parents leave and then turned back to Sam. He was still staring at Will and still looked slightly broken, as if a piece of him was missing.
"Are you okay, Sammy?" she asked quietly, settling into the chair next to his. Sam looked at her and smiled again.
"You call me that just to bother me," he said, and she tried her best to smile back as she nodded. "I... god, Elsie, this is a mess. It's all--this is my fault. I got him the job, I made him change his flight and stay late and I just--"
"It's not your fault," Elsie said quickly. "He's an idiot, it's his own fault, it's just--don't blame yourself for this."
"Can I at least blame myself for what's going to come next?" He swallowed and looked away, looked back at her sleeping brother with his disheveled hair and his mouth part way open, dead to the world.
"It depends," Elsie said quietly. Sam wouldn't break up with Will after this, she absolutely knew that. But that didn't stop her from feeling dizzy with worry. "What's coming next, Sam?"
Sam stood up and sat on the edge of Will's bed. He didn't touch Will, just stared down at him in silence for a long time.
"I did something stupid tonight, Els," he said. "I ran in here like a lunatic. I yelled at anyone who would listen that I needed to see Will. I begged and cajoled and I did it in the lobby in front of everyone. It's not going to take long for them to put the pieces together, and when they do..." He turned to her, and that broken feeling hit her again, full force. "I don't want him to go through this, Elsie. I don't care about me anymore. I mean, I do. I'm not--I'm not happy about any of this, but when it comes out, they're going to drag him through everything. He was just shot. He's... Jesus, Elsie, he's still a mess, they're not even done with him yet, and the press and my constituents and the Republican party... I don't want him to have to go through it. He deserves better."
Sam leaned over and kissed Will's forehead before standing up and returning to the seat next to Elsie. Elsie took his hand and held it tightly, but said nothing. She was tired of crying, and figured that Sam would just argue with her if she tried to tell him that, despite everything, Will was lucky enough to get exactly what he deserved.
When Cathy left the White House, she was afraid her life was over. There was, of course, the obvious fear that the cancer instilled in her, for all that she tried to be brave. The other, more superficial fear was that nothing she could do in her life would ever be as wonderful as working for the Bartlet White House, as working for Sam Seaborn in particular.
Sam could be annoying, like a nerdy little brother, but he was the real thing. He truly believed in the things he worked for, he worked hard not to sacrifice his ideals, and he genuinely wanted to make the world a better place. It didn't hurt that he treated her more like an equal than an assistant and professed on several occasions that he would be lost without her, even though she knew that his anal retentive filing methods were even better at keeping track of his work than she was.
She shouldn't have been surprised, then when Sam continued to e-mail her regularly and even call her while she was recovering. He sent her flowers every year on the anniversary of being cancer-free, and told her time and again that when she was ready to get back to work, she hoped he'd be the first person she called.
In the end, though, he was the one who called her.
"Um, I just won an election," he said to her. There was a lot of noise in the background.
"I know," Cathy said. "Congratulations! I've been following you on television. You need to cut your hair."
"Why does everyone keep--nevermind. Listen, Cathy, I know you've only been working part-time, but I was wondering if I could convince you to come back and work for me."
She had weighed it in her head at the time. Tommy was in school, Jeff was working, and she was getting a little bored just sitting around the house when she wasn't doing filing for the Department of Education. Helping Sam out a couple of days a week hadn't seemed like a problem.
"Like, once or twice a week to lend a hand around the office?" Cathy asked.
"Exactly!" Sam said. "Except, instead of once or twice a week, how about every day? And, instead of helping out around the office, you would be my Executive Assistant and principal scheduler."
Cathy had laughed him off the phone, but when he called back twenty minutes later, she accepted. She couldn't help herself; she knew she should have woken Jeff up, talked about it seriously, given it some more consideration as a family, but it was Sam. When she did tell Jeff the next morning, he just smiled and hugged her and said he was glad she was happy.
She was afraid that Sam the Congressman would be different than Sam the Bartlet Staffer, but he greeted her with the same smile and the same hug and introduced her to his intrepid staff of eight. They seemed young and eager, and as they ran off to do their jobs, Sam took her into the office and introduced her to someone else.
"Cathy," he said, "This is Will. Will, this is my assistant, Cathy."
Will was sitting on the edge of Sam's desk holding a bottle of champagne and a plant. His smile rivaled Sam's and Cathy knew before they had done anything more than look at each other.
"So Will gets a direct line into your office?"
"Yes," Will said.
"No," Sam said. Will glared at him over the top of his glasses. "You killed all my plants! Plus, you're just gonna use it to, you know, bug me."
"I brought you a new plant," Will pointed out. "And yeah, I'm gonna bug you. Every day for the foreseeable future, Mr. Congressman." Their goofy smiles returned and Cathy just rolled her eyes. She was pleased for Sam, who had worse romantic luck than anyone else she had ever met, but that didn't mean she was going to sit around and watch them make googly eyes at each other.
"Okay, nice to meet you, Will. I'll get you Sam's private extension as soon as I figure it out, but if you two are just going to stare at each other--"
"Okay," Sam said.
"Nice to meet you, Cathy," Will said. They were still staring at each other when she closed the door.
"The Congressman is going to be in a meeting for a little while," she said to Sam's Press Secretary, all of 25 and staring curiously at the closed door. "Do you want me to have him call you when he's done?"
She got used to saying that. Will didn't spend too much time at the office and tried to keep phone calls to a minimum, but they had a standing lunch date and Will had a habit of gravitating towards Sam's office whenever he found himself in the Rayburn Building, even if it was just to say hi. Cathy liked him. He was sweet and smart and usually brought her a snack when he showed up with lunch for Sam. Mostly, though, she liked how much he liked Sam. Sam needed grounding. He needed someone to catch him when he went out on a limb and remind him of how the world worked and take his mind off of his job. There had been a lot of people interested in Sam over the years, but Will was the first that Cathy had seen who went out of his way to care for Sam.
She liked that. It made her job easier.
Or, it had made her job easier. When she had a job.
Sam hadn't said anything yet, but she knew when he came in that morning, tired and defeated, what his decision was going to be. They were the only people in the office--some of the only people in the building--and after sorting through the papers left on her desk and the e-mails from overnight, Cathy walked into Sam's office and sat in the chair across from his desk.
He was staring at the ceiling. His computer was still off, and he hadn't even taken off his jacket.
"How's Will doing?" she asked him.
"He's fine," Sam said. "He's sleeping. Or so I would assume, given it's five thirty in the morning."
"I'm a little surprised that you're here and not there, given it's five thirty in the morning," Cathy countered. Sam's shoulders slumped and she just knew. She was far too good at reading Sam's body language.
"I got the phone call," Sam said. He sat up properly and looked at Cathy for the first time. "CJ called me this morning. Someone has it. Someone who's going to write it."
Cathy nodded. "Have you decided what you're going to do?" She already knew the answer, but until she heard Sam say it out loud, she could pretend that the outcome would be different.
"I'm having a press conference this afternoon. I want to tell the staff and Will first. CJ doesn't think that it's going to print until the evening, so I should have time to cut it off at the pass." He covered his face with his hands. "I need to make phone calls. I need to find jobs for these people. I can't just--"
He slammed his fist into the top of the desk. Cathy jumped at the sound, at the sudden movement, at the violence from a man who implored her to brush spiders out the window instead of squashing them.
"Dammit," he whispered. "Goddammit. How can I do this, Cathy? How can I do this to these people? Is it more selfish of me to want to be honest with WIll or to lie to the public because I want to keep my job, even if keeping my job means keeping all of you employed?"
"Sam," Cathy said softly, "it's not a matter of being selfish."
"It certainly feels like it," Sam snapped. She flinched again, though she knew the anger wasn't directed at her. It wasn't like Sam to take this tone, no matter how strung out he got. She wanted to hug him, to reach over the desk and squeeze him until he relaxed. She didn't know if he would accept a hug, though, not like this. "I've got eight staffers, three assistants, and two interns, plus five people in the California office. That's eighteen people who are going to be looking for jobs just because I couldn't say no to Will, because I thought I could have everything. Cathy, you've got a kid in grade school and medical bills to pay, and now you're going to be out of work because of me."
Cathy took a deep breath and pursed her lips. She thought, for a moment, about Jeff and about the cancer and about leaving the White House.
"Don't use us as an excuse, Sam," she finally said. "I know how much you love this job and I know how much you wanted this, but don't use us as an excuse to not do what's right. I'm not the only one who will kick you ass for it."
Sam opened his mouth to protest, but shut it just as quickly and closed his eyes. "I love this job," he said when he did speak.
"Do you love it more than you love Will?" Cathy asked. He shook his head. "There will be other jobs. For the rest of us, too. There are half a dozen members of Congress who would be happy to snatch up Liz or Damien or Peter or any of them. I bet I could talk Bonnie and Ginger into pulling strings at the White House for the rest. We'll be fine, Sam."
"I wanted to make a difference," Sam muttered. Cathy couldn't take it anymore. She got to her feet and walked to the other side of Sam's desk, pulling him into a hug. He resisted, at first, or maybe he was just surprised, but after a moment, he hugged her back.
"You still can, Sam," she said.
When she pulled away, he smiled at her tentatively. She smiled back.
"And I expect another phone call," she said. "Just as soon as you're set up as a Governor or a mayor or a car salesman in East Bumblefuck. Someone's gotta remind you to eat lunch."
In the outer office, Cathy heard the door open and Lisa and Peter come in, talking animatedly about something on television the night before. Sam's smile melted away and he looked at her with something close to despair. She wished she could help, but she had a feeling she had already soothed all the hurt it was in her power to soothe. Still, she reached out and squeezed his shoulder before heading out into the outer office, trying to look composed and not like she knew these were her last few hours of work.
"Cathy?" Sam called after her. She turned back to him. "Expect that phone call."
She couldn't help but grin. "I'll count on it, boss," she said.
Will wasn't eating again.
Barbara really couldn't blame him--the antibiotics they were giving him for the infection that had developed in his shoulder were probably enough to put anyone off of food. Added to Sam's press conference, which was set to start any minute, it was not set to be William's greatest day, and Barbara almost wanted to concede and let him protest in whatever little way he could manage from his hospital bed.
When it came down to it, Will was her son, and being a mother came before everything else.
"Will, sweetheart, you should eat," she said. She took a seat next to his bed and frowned at the full lunch tray sitting in front of him. "You'll get better faster if you eat, and I know you want to get out of here as quickly as possible."
"I'm not hungry," he said. He didn't look away from the television, which was showing CNN in the lead up to Sam's announced press conference. Will looked paler than usual.
"I should be there," Will said softly. "I should be with him."
"Oh, Will," Barbara said. "It's better this way. You shouldn't be out of bed, and this is something Sam needs to do on his own." She didn't fully believe it, but she knew that Sam was strong, and if that wasn't enough, he had Tom with him.
None of that mattered to William, though, who poked at his lunch with a fork and then pushed his tray away again. He glanced up at the television again and then back at the floor, the walls, the windows. She knew how much this was hurting him and she wished there was something she could do. When Elsie and Will had been teased growing up, it was easy to send a stern look of reprimand at their abusers. She didn't think the same look would work on the American public.
"Your father is there with him, Will," she said, moving her chair closer to the bed as the clock inched closer to 12:30. "He'll be fine."
Sam had come by early. Barbara couldn't be sure exactly how early it was, but when she and Tom arrived around eight, he was already there, pacing the hallways. They knew before he said anything.
"They have it," Tom said. It wasn't a question.
"I'm calling a press conference at 12:30," Sam said. "I'm... I'm resigning my seat. I'm admitting to everything. But I don't want to do anything before I can talk to him."
Barbara had been impressed, but not surprised. She wasn't surprised when Will tried to talk him out of it either, just like she wasn't surprised when Tom immediately offered to lend Sam his support. She was blessed with a family of exemplary men. She knew they would be there for each other.
"I feel sick just thinking about it," Will murmured. "This is all my fault. If I hadn't gotten shot, if I had changed my flight back to the 10:15... hell, if I hadn't convinced him to run or kissed him outside the bar or...." He trailed off and gave the television another furtive glance.
"I think that if you hadn't kissed him outside the bar, your lives would be very different right now," Barbara allowed. "But I don't think you'd be very happy."
"I'm not very happy right now," Will pointed out.
"But you were and you will be again, William. I promise."
There was a flurry of activity on screen, and Barbara caught the edge of Tom's shoulder in a gaggle of people standing away from the podium. He seemed to have acquired a uniform from somewhere, despite leaving his as Christopher's house when they rushed down from Connecticut. She didn't see Sam, but didn't doubt that he was somewhere in the middle, being shielded by her husband from the world at large. One of the very first things that drew her to Thomas was his desire to protect his family at all costs. It was uncommon to see a similar sentiment in many of the military men of Brussels, but to Tom it wasn't posturing. Thomas wasn't trying to protect his children from the world in order to be seen as a powerful caretaker, but rather because he loved them so much he couldn't stand the thought of them being hurt or used or disappointed. When pressed, he would admit that those were all parts of life, but that didn't mean he didn't want to spare his children the pain.
Sam had been included in that just as soon as it was apparent how serious he and William were. Barbara would never judge Will's choice in men; she knew he was busy, that he was in a business that didn't look highly on his orientation, and that his work was more important to him than his social life. At the same time, she couldn't help but feel a pang of regret every time Will dated someone who didn't seem to care about him or cared more about their future than they did Will. Sam helped her sleep easier. Will may not have been her child by birth, but of all of Thomas' boys, he was easily the one she was closest to. She had taken care of him since he was ten years old, and she wanted him to be as happy as his brothers were, as happy and she and his father were.
"I think they're starting," Barbara said quietly, and she could almost hear Will's muscles tense. "We could always change the channel, sweetheart. You know what he's going to say. You don't need to watch."
"I should be there, Mom," Will insisted. "The least I can do is watch."
She blinked back the tears that were welling up in her eyes as she watched Sam cross to the podium. She could count the number of times Will had called her 'Mom' over the years without taking off her shoes. She never knew Miriam Bailey other than through the pictures and stories that were told to her by Tom and his boys, as well as the family friends that she was introduced to. She didn't resent Miriam or the place she held in Tom's heart or Will's or any of the boys'. She didn't resent William for making the distinction between the mother he grew up with and the stepmother who entered his life when he was nine years old. But that didn't stop her from feeling pleased and blessed every time he called her 'mom.'
She took his hand as Sam began to speak.
"Good afternoon. As many of you may already be aware, a story is about to break regarding the shooting of White House staffer Will Bailey last week. Several sources have discovered evidence of what they are calling an affair between Will and myself."
Will's hand clenched around her own.
"I'm here today to clarify that, yes, Will Bailey and I are in a relationship. It is not an affair. It is not a secret. We have been in a long term, monogamous relationship for several months. I deeply regret not making my constituents more aware of this relationship during my election and I understand the hurt and resentment that they may be feeling upon discovering this. However, I make no apologies for my relationship with Will. I do not regret becoming involved with him any more than I resent my feelings for him. I will not apologize for who I fall in love with."
Will made a choked sound and looked away.
"I'm going to be sick," he said, wrenching his hand back and using it to steady himself on the rails of the bed. "My god, I'm going to--he shouldn't have to--I'm going to be sick."
Barbara bit her lip and looked back and forth from Will to the television.
"--resign my seat in the House of Representatives, effective immediately."
"I can't--this isn't happening. This isn't real."
It was real. And it hurt Barbara to see Sam giving up a job that he and Will had worked so hard for, just as it hurt her to see Will curled up in a hospital bed, looking greener and greener as the press conference went on.
"Was President Bartlet aware of the fact that you were--"
But she couldn't shake a surge of pride as she watched Sam stand up to reporter after reporter and hold his ground, refusing to let them demonize his relationship with Will, with Tom and Toby Ziegler standing behind him, in full view of the camera, ready to take on the world. It would have been easy for them both to hide from this, Sam and Will, to turn this around, to dismiss it, to pretend they were nothing more than colleagues. But there was Sam, taking everything the press could throw at him. The only thing keeping William from being there with him were strict doctor's orders not to leave the room. They were holding themselves together as best they could, and it was one of the bravest things she'd ever seen.
"Does General Bailey have a comment for us?"
Barbara froze and looked back up at the television. William did as well, and she knew she wasn't the only one surprised when Tom walked to the podium, steely as he ever was when facing down warring nations and potential catastrophes.
"My youngest son was shot two times last week. He's still in the hospital, and will be for at least another week. He's been through two surgeries and needs at least one more to repair all the damage, in addition to the around-the-clock pain medications he's on and the antibiotics to battle the infection. I cannot even comprehend the idea that the most important story to come out of this incident has to do with who he's sleeping with."
Tom walked away from the podium and from the sea of flashbulbs going off and reporters shouting questions. He stood back with Toby Ziegler while Sam, clearly as dazed as everyone else, answered a few more brief questions himself. Barbara turned to look at Will.
"Your father loves you very much, William," she said.
"I don't know," Will said, his eyes wide and glued to the television. He was no longer shaking, though he still looked smaller and paler than she had seen him in a long time, even that first night after the shooting. "I think he really just likes to snap up the chance to intimidate large groups of people whenever possible,"
"You're not wrong," she said, cracking a smile. She reached out and took the remote from him, turning off the television. He didn't protest. She had a feeling they'd be seeing their fill of the press conference over the next few weeks. For now, she was content to revel in the silence for as long as it lasted.
Donna was beginning to get impatient. Sam's press conference had been over an hour ago. Toby was back in the west wing, CJ was fielding questions left and right in the press room, and everyone else was doing their jobs.
No one was doing anything for Sam.
Politically, she understood the issue that it posed. She wasn't as stupid as Josh liked to think she was when they walked through the halls and talked about policy. No, no--it wasn't that Josh thought she was stupid. She honestly thought he just liked to explain things out loud and she never really bothered to stop him. Still, she understood why, politically, it wasn't a great time for the White House to come out and say they supported the fact that a Democratic congressman was having a gay affair and hiding it. That made sense, sure, but all that aside, it was Sam.
Sam had been with them from the start. Sam had taken the fall for this White House, had his heart broken and put back together by it. Sam had given everything he could to this administration, and just when they thought he was gone, he came through again and gave them Will.
"I know that," Josh had said when she brought it up to him. "And believe me--Donna, believe me, there is no place in the world I want to be right now more than at Sam's side. Sam is my best friend. But this is--we have to wait for the dust to settle to find out where we stand and what we can do. This is Sam's thing right now. We'll be there for him, but we need to figure out how best to do that first."
She'd let him talk for a bit longer before leaving his office and hunting down CJ. Josh didn't get it. She thought if anyone would, it would be Josh. They were, after all, best friends and had been inseparable since she had known them. But Josh wasn't looking at the situation any different than anyone else. It was driving her crazy.
CJ was no help, either. "I'm doing my best to help him any way I can, Donna," she insisted. "I'm answering as many questions as I can and shooting down as many reporters as I can. But we all should have been a little more prepared for this inevitability, because we're making a bigger mess out of something that we should be able to control." She seemed to be talking more to herself than anyone else at the end there, and Donna excused herself as quickly as she could from CJ's office. She felt guilty for even going to CJ with it. She had seen the briefings, knew that CJ was probably running on fumes at this point after being hounded by press wherever she turned. But after Josh and Sam and Will, CJ was the member of the senior staff she was most comfortable with, the person who took her most seriously.
Sam, though. Josh was her boss. There were times that Josh was her best friend, although most times it was more likely that she wanted to beat his head in with a stapler. Josh knew more about her than almost anyone else in the world, but Sam was the one, at the end of the day, who looked her in the eye and said, "That's a good idea."
It wasn't that Josh didn't acknowledge her or appreciate her. He did both. She knew that he knew that he couldn't without her, and she was confident that, without her, his world would crumble. Some days he could barely be trusted to get out of bed on time if she didn't call him first. Josh took her for granted, though, or maybe it was more that he let her fade into the background. Sam actually listened. When they had lunch, he asked for her opinion on things. He practiced speeches on her and listened to her input. At the end of a frustrating day, Sam let her rant and rave and lent a sympathetic ear.
She knew it wasn't just her. She knew it was all of them. Sam listened to Josh and CJ, he listened to Toby when Toby allowed himself to talk. She knew that when Cathy got sick, Sam still called her, still e-mailed, still visited her in the hospital. Sam went out of his way to be there for them. He always had. She couldn't understand why they weren't offering him the same thing.
She headed down the mess and pulled out her cellphone. She had already left Sam two messages and was hesitant to leave a third, but it was better than feeling helpless. She could call Will's hospital room, but she was leery of interrupting. If Sam was there and not picking up his phone, he probably had a good reason. It made sense that he wouldn't want to talk, not after a press conference that was exhausting even just to watch. Plus, she figured Sam and Will could use the time together. She doubted they'd gotten very much of it in the past few days, what with west wing senior staff flitting in and out of Will's hospital room and Will's family flying in from all over the country.
She wondered how much of it they'd gotten, period. Even before this, it couldn't have been easy. A few days together in California, a few days in DC, all over the course of a back-breaking election. Even once Sam moved back to the District their schedules had to have been all over the place.
And yet, they were together and happy. At least, they had been prior to last week.
No matter how she looked at it, she still couldn't understand how anyone could see anything wrong with that.
She had been a little surprised when Sam told her, or rather, when she figured it out. He'd come out to visit her on the street on election night. He did it twice, actually, once in the morning and again, later in the afternoon. It was the morning visit that gave it away. I went to see a guy out in California... he said. The wording stuck in her head all day, all afternoon, all the way into the evening when he returned with a sandwich.
"Sam," she said slowly, "about before... you met a guy out in California." He nodded. "Did you meet a guy or did you meet a guy?"
She'd never thought about it before, about Sam being gay. There were rumors, of course, and jokes about Josh and Sam and how close they were, but she had always dismissed them. But something about the way he said that, about the look in his eyes when he said Will's name....
He blushed when she brought it up. It was already getting dark, but she could tell his face was going red and he said, "Donna, the thing is, I didn't do it because of that. I absolutely did not. But... god, he's... he's turned it into a whole other thing because if he wins... it can't go anywhere, Donna. It shouldn't go anywhere if Horton Wilde doesn't win, but if he wins...."
She'd given him a hug and assured him that they'd probably be up all night counting, that things would be fine and that he'd get a chance to bring this Will Bailey character out to DC for a closer inspection by his nearest and dearest. He'd rolled his eyes, but the prospect of it just... he was happy. He was happier than she'd seen him in a long time.
She didn't know why anyone in the world would want to change that.
She was still staring at her cellphone when she bumped into Toby.
"I'm sorry," she said quickly. "I was just--"
"It's okay," Toby said.
"I was going to call Sam again," she said. "I left messages, but he hasn't called me back yet."
"He's probably at the hospital," Toby said. "That's where he and General Bailey were headed after the press conference."
"I know," Donna said. "Thanks." Toby nodded and turned, heading back up towards his office. "Wait, Toby!"
He turned back to her, surprisingly patient.
Donna didn't know exactly what she was going to say. Aside from Josh, Toby was probably the closest to Sam, and he was certainly the closest to Will. She didn't want to seem accusing. But...
"Toby, after everything Sam has done for us over the past four years... why aren't we doing anything for Sam?"
Toby sighed and rubbed at his face with the hand not wrapped around a cup of coffee. "I know it seems that way, Donna, but there are protocol. Politically, aligning ourselves with--"
"Forget politically!" Donna said. "I'm not talking about politically, Toby. I get that CJ is doing her best and that you guys are trying to show support and that the White House can't be seen siding with a sullied congressman. I get that. That's not what I'm asking."
Toby lowered his hand and looked at her, head cocked to the side.
"I'm not asking," she said more quietly, "why the White House isn't throwing it's weight behind Congressman Seaborn. I'm asking why we aren't doing anything for Sam."
Toby stared at her for a long time. She was starting to get uncomfortable.
"I mean," she said, "he's our friend, right? And I know that you went to the press conference and CJ is taking questions and Josh is doing his best to come up with a strategy but... am I really the only one calling him to see if he's okay?"
"You know, Donna," Toby said finally, "sometimes I think you're the only one out of any of us with half a brain." He rubbed his forehead with his fist. "You're right. You're--I'm gonna go upstairs and talk to Josh, but you're right. We need to--we should do something. Are you--you're going to be around?"
"Good," he said. "Okay. Um, thank you. For--we'll come up with something."
"Okay," Donna said. Toby looked at her for a few more seconds as he walked away, then rushed up the steps. When he was gone, Donna hit Sam's number into her cellphone again.
"Hi, Sam," she said when the message beeped. "It's me. I just wanted to let you know that we're thinking about you and Will. All of us."
Matt wasn't surprised that the television over the bar was tuned to CNN, but that didn't stop him from being irritated by it. The sound was muted, but he had seen Sam Seaborn's press conference enough times during the day to recite it. There were exactly three members of the House of Representatives who were openly gay, and Matt could only assume that Diane Frost and Paul Benoit's phones were ringing just as much as his was. Every reporter in the country wanted to know how he felt about Sam and Will Bailey. All he really wanted, at this point, was to know the score of the Yankee game.
"Hey, Bill, can you put on ESPN?" Matt asked the bartender.
"The Yanks got crushed, man," Bill said, but he reached around the television anyway, flipping up to ESPN.
"Thanks, Bill," Matt said. He was right--the Yanks were crushed, and the replay currently on screen was showing exactly why. "Shit," he said, grabbing a handful of peanuts from the bar. "I can't believe Rivera missed that!"
"Tell me about it," Bill said, twisting the cap off of Matt's usual and handing it over the bar. "I watched it live. I wanna know what happened to the team we had in pre-season."
"I think they'll pull together," Matt said. He took a long drink of beer, which was refreshing after the day he'd had. "This is going to be a big year for us, I can feel it."
"They'd better pull together, because if they keep playing like that, the season's gonna be over pretty soon."
Matt watched the highlights, shaking his head to himself. It wasn't until he went to grab another handful of peanuts that the booth in the back corner caught his eye. Sam Seaborn, sitting alone, nursing a bottle of beer and looking like he had been hit by a truck. Matt felt a pang of something stab his chest. He was torn; he was absolutely sick of hearing about, thinking about, and talking about Seaborn's ill-timed affair with a Bartlet staffer. All he wanted was to sit at the bar, like any other guy, watching a ball game of some kind and drinking a beer. He didn't want to think about politics, especially not gay politics. On the other hand, he was sure that this day had to be one of the worst in Sam's life, and he could certainly use a friend.
They had been friends, once. It felt like a million years ago, another lifetime, at least, but he and Sam and Josh Lyman had worked in the same wing of the Rayburn Building. After a fight over office supplies very nearly turned ugly between Josh and Matt, Sam had stepped in, all of three weeks as an aide under his belt, and smoothed everything over. They didn't stop arguing afterwards, but they melted from catty barbs about each other's parties and into substantive debates about policy.
He liked Sam. He had history with Sam. He was sick of being asked to weigh in as a fellow homosexual, but he had no problem with offering support to someone who was living out his worst nightmares.
He picked up his beer and crossed the room, sliding into the booth across from Sam. Sam glanced up defensively, but relaxed when he recognized Matt and did his best to offer him a weak smile.
"I thought you'd be at the hospital," Matt said.
Sam shrugged. "I was there for awhile. They gave him a sedative to sleep, and his dad said I should sleep in a real bed for a few hours and not, you know, a plastic chair."
Matt didn't comment on the fact that Sam had opted out of the bed and found himself in a crappy sports bar in Georgetown instead. "How's he doing?" Matt asked instead.
"Okay," Sam said. "He should be fine, but there were some complications from the surgery. He's got an infection and they should be able to kill it without too much effort but..." He shrugged. "I worry."
"Understandable," Matt said. "I'm glad to hear he's okay. I haven't met him yet, but beating the pants off the White House isn't as fun when the staffers aren't at one hundred percent."
Sam forced another smile and turned his attention back to his beer. They were both quiet for a moment, and Matt wondered how he could bring up the things that Sam probably needed to talk about.
As it turned out, Sam did it for him.
"I never used to understand you, you know," Sam said conversationally. "You'd go out and vote on all these things along party lines. Just being a Republican flummoxed me. I'd think, 'God, he's gay, he's out, and yet he's a member of a party that demonizes who he is. How can he do that?'" He wouldn't look at Matt, staring instead at his beer, the tabletop, the walls, the floor. "I was so sure you'd switch parties before you started to run. When I heard from Josh, years later, that you were going after that seat in New York I thought, 'He has to be running as a Democrat. There's no way they'd elect a gay Republican.' I was shocked that you managed to pull it off, but even more shocked that you were still a member of the Republican party."
He looked up, suddenly, and caught Matt's gaze. Matt froze under the scrutiny. He could see how tired Sam was, how raw and damaged and strung out. He could also see, abruptly, why everyone fell in love with Sam Seaborn as soon as they met him. Matt would admit, under duress, to carrying a torch for Josh in their youth, but he never understood why the world stopped for Sam. Something in his eyes at that moment, though, made it abundantly clear.
"I get it now," Sam said. "I get it. Because it doesn't matter to you. Because these are the things you believe and you just happen to be gay. It doesn't control your life. It shouldn't have to. I love Will, Matt. I do, though I don't know if I knew it, if I really understood it until that night. And I just don't understand how that has anything to do with my job or how I do my job or what decisions I'll make."
"It isn't fair," Matt agreed, quietly. "But for the moment, it's all there is."
Sam was silent. "I liked my job, Matt," he said. "I was a freshman Congressman from a conservative district with little to no chance of moving up in the world or even being re-elected, but I liked what I was doing. I felt like I was helping. And there are moments when I'm just so angry about this whole fucking thing. Angry at the idiot who shot Will, at the reporters for fixating on it, at the assholes in the Majority Leader's office, at myself for not being more circumspect, at Will for getting shot. I just want to scream because I love him, I do, but I wanted this." He hung his head, voice bleak. "I was supposed to have this."
Matt regarded Sam closely. He wasn't good at this sort of advice--in fact, he usually tried to avoid it if at all possible. He knew the stereotype, the wise gay man giving advice to the lovelorn, but this was something else entirely. This was something that he had been through, and the parts of it that he hadn't been through he had spent years and years having nightmares about. He had been there and Sam was his friend. He had to give it a shot.
"You're allowed to be angry," he said. "Be angry at yourself, be angry at your party and mine, be angry at the shooter. You can even be angry at Will, though I probably wouldn't tell him that. Because it's not fair and it's not right and if the world was fair and right, you'd still have a job right now. But you're right in saying that being gay or bisexual or whatever isn't all of you. It's only a tiny thing, and you need to let the world know that. You need to take hold of the story while you still can. I'm sure every news organization in the world is calling you for an interview and I know you probably turned them all down, but you need to turn that around. Tell them, 'Not now, not until Will has recovered,' but take those interviews. Change the story. Speak out about how screwed up this whole thing is because you have the chance, and maybe if you do this now, it won't happen to the next guy."
He was surprised at himself. It was the exact position he didn't want himself to take, the uncomfortable Catch-22 of having to make a big deal out of his sexual orientation in order to show everyone that there was no need to make a big deal out of his sexual orientation. The idea of it still gave him a headache, and he'd just as soon skip it all and stay home in bed with Anthony. Sam Seaborn, though... Sam Seaborn might be able to make a difference, or at least make people sit up and notice. And, well, it wasn't like Sam had a job anymore....
"You're right in thinking you're through in the House," Matt said, "just like I'm not going to be in the Senate any time soon. But you're young and this is going to rub a lot of people the wrong way. I think you have more of a future in politics than you think."
"And I should try and make it count?" Sam inferred. He rolled his eyes, but there was a spark of something there, a half-formed idea or maybe a reminder of why he got into politics in the first place. It was something, and Matt could practically hear it stirring in Sam's head across the table.
"You should," Matt said. "Because, frankly, someone's got to step up one day, and it might as well be the one of us with a cute little baby face."
Sam laughed at that, a laugh that sounded mostly real, and Matt congratulated himself on a job well done. At least Sam didn't look like he was going to drown himself in his beer anymore.
Sam's cellphone rang, and he fumbled for it quickly. Matt imagined he'd be just as nervous about calls if his boyfriend was in the hospital, and winced a little as Sam breathlessly said, "Hello?" into the phone.
"Oh," Sam continued. He sighed. "No, no, thanks, Elsie. I was just... I thought it might be bad news." He smiled a little, murmured some affirmatives into the phone, and then rolled his eyes again. "Okay," he said. "I will. I just ran into a friend and he was...thanks, Elsie. I appreciate that. It's probably--I don't think I could--thanks. I'll see you in a little bit."
He closed his phone, and Matt waited patiently for any news.
"That was Will's sister," Sam explained, putting his phone into one pocket and pulling his wallet out of another. "She dropped by my apartment to bring me dinner and was surprised that I wasn't there. She offered to let me stay at her place for the next few days so I don't have to be alone while Will is in the hospital."
"She sounds nice," Matt said.
"She's the best," Sam said. He pulled some money out of his wallet and left it on the table. "I think she's going to force me to sleep, though, starting now."
"It'll do you good," Matt said. Impulsively, he reached across the table and grabbed Sam's wrist. "This is on me, okay?" he said. "Will's going to be fine. Things are going to suck for a little while, but I'll bet you another drink that you'll be fine, too."
Sam stared at him for a moment, but then nodded and pocketed the money from the table.
"Thanks," he said.
"When Will's feeling better, give me a call," Matt said, pulling out his own wallet. "But Anthony's got a rule--no politics at the dinner table."
"I think we'll both enjoy the respite," he said. He shrugged his coat back on and stood up. "I'll see you around, Matt. And just... thank you. I really--it was--I appreciate it."
He left the bar after that, hands shoved deep into his pockets, and Matt watched him go, eyes lingering on the door long after he left. He was still staring when Bill wandered over a few minutes later.
"Friend of yours?" he asked, gesturing towards the door.
"I hope so," Matt said. He rolled his shoulders and took a deep breath. He could feel the weight of Sam's problems just from sitting across from him for a few minutes. He hoped to god that things worked out for Sam, because if Sam Seaborn couldn't make the world right, then the rest of them were well and truly fucked.
"You know, Bill," he said conversationally, picking up his beer again and finally looking away from the door. "Sometimes I hate my job."
"That's not news to me, kid," Bill said. "I always hate your job. But I've gotta say, seeing something like that?" He gestured towards the door again. "Sometimes I hate it even more than usual."
Matt raised his beer. Now that was a sentiment he could drink to.