Title: Transparent Reflections
Author:Jae Gecko
Category: Josh, Josh/Sam (slash)
Rating: PG-13.
Spoilers: Extensive spoilers for "Noel". Major spoilers for "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen". Fleeting and/or vague spoilers for "The Crackpots and These Women", "And Surely it's to Their Credit", and "Galileo".
Disclaimer: Josh Lyman, Sam Seaborn, Leo McGarry, Donna Moss, C.J. Cregg, Toby Ziegler, Stanley Keyworth, Kaytha Trask, President Jed Bartlet, and Ginger belong to Aaron Sorkin, who is a far more talented writer than I am. Lisa, Karl, Didion, and the cab driver are all mine.
Archive: Yes to list archives; all others please ask.
Summary: Josh and Sam realize that they don't know what the injury count is, yet. First-person, alternating between Josh's and Sam's points of view.
Feedback: Send to jaegecko@jaegecko.com
Website: http://www.jaegecko.com/ for the rest of the Turning-universe stories and a few standalones.
Notes: This story fits into my Turning universe (between "Dancing With Shadows" and "Speechless"), but stands well enough on its own that you can read it without having read the others. The original idea for this one came from the combined imaginations of myself and Anna Maria Jennings, and it dates all the way back to February 2001 when we first started brainstorming about why Sam hadn't been more present in "Noel". The story ultimately became quite a different interpretation of that outline than we had originally envisioned, but the overall structure is the same, and there are still sentences and even entire paragraphs that are rightfully Ann's.
Acknowledgements: The Fabulous Four, with special guests. Julian Lee and Miriam D. made me believe I could keep writing. Luna brought the Sorkinesque. kel brought the football, and sometimes the common sense. Cori Lannam and Nicole D'Annais dialed zero. Kacey Linden was persistent. Minna Leigh was there the whole time, even when it hurt, bringing the funny and keeping me even. Elizabeth Collins rescued the final scene. Adina Reeve made the time. And then there's Anna-Maria Jennings, who filled this story with sharky goodness from top to bottom, and who refused a co-author credit, but shouldn't have.

Transparent Reflections by Jae Gecko

JOSH: NOVEMBER 22, 2000, 2:55 AM

There was always mist. Not the humid mist of a Washington summer, but the brutal, chilling mist I knew from afternoons spent sliding on the frozen stream by our house in the winter. This, though, wasn't home; there were no streams here. I was running across pavement, hurtling through the crowd toward the girl at the edge of the square. There were people all around, coming out of nowhere in the dense fog, whizzing by me like they could see right through me, but they were faceless. The only discernable features belonged to the girl. Her dark hair fell to her shoulders in a thick mess of curls, and her brown eyes matched my own.

She stood apart from the others in her nightgown, staring at the grove of trees beyond the pavement like it was beckoning to her. I squinted through the mist as she took a step forward, and it thickened around her, enveloping her. "Get away from there!" I screamed, dodging the strangers around me, trying to surge past them to reach her. "Jesus Christ! Run!"

She turned at the sound of my voice, tossing her hair around her in the icy wind, her face silhouetted against the forest. It was freezing, but she was barefoot and smiling. "Get away," I begged, breathless, but my voice was too faint, and she turned back and took another step toward the trees.

"No!" I tried to warn her, lunging forward, tripping on a rock as the ground opened up to swallow me whole. My fingers grasped at fistfuls of dirt along the sides of the hole, and I struggled to pull myself up to the edge. The mist had thickened further, and I could barely see her.

Sirens wailed at me from all directions, and emergency lights flashed against the skin on my barearms, shading it alternately red and neon blue. Above me, people were still flying past me, their concerns elsewhere, rushing by to some other emergency. I knew if they would stop -- if anyone would stop -- I could save her, but they kept rushing over me without looking down. "Help! You've got to help us!" I cried out, but my voice came out as a whisper.

Her eyes still trained on the trees, she stepped off the pavement, and suddenly I could no longer breathe. I struggled frantically to free myself from the dirt falling on top of me, but my muscles were paralyzed by something dark and unseen, and I couldn't move. I watched her fade into the trees as the world went black around me.

I was choking as I awoke, gasping for air. Trying to get my bearings, I reached across to the other side of the bed for Sam, and my fingers clutched ineffectually at the bedsheets. He was gone by now, of course. I vaguely remembered my own sleepy, muffled protests as he'd pushed himself up from the bed just as I'd been drifting off. His lips had appeared at the back of my neck in response, accompanied by a quiet but firm "No overnights." All the same, though, relief warmed my skin as I managed to convince myself that the red glow was from my alarm clock, that the pressure on my chest was from my own left arm wrapped tightly around myself.

I rolled over slowly, disentangling myself from the blanket, and forced myself to sit up. My eyes finally focused on the clock, and I registered that it was only a little before three AM. As I blinked against the darkness, though, my sense of relief faded quickly into recognition. Four out of five nights that week, I'd woken panting and sweating -- haunted, every time, by the same dream. The details were still a little foggy, but the effect was real enough. I was shaking, and when I reached up to my face, my cheeks were wet. Just like thirty-odd years ago. Except that my mom wouldn't be rushing in to reassure me through her own tears that everything would be all right.

Groping for the bedside lamp, I flicked the switch, and the room lit with a dim glow. Get up, I told myself. You're not eight years old this time; get the fuck up. Holding my arms stiff at the elbows, I pushed myself up from the bed and pulled on the gray sweatshirt I'd thrown over my chair. I felt my way down the hallway with one hand on the wall as I stumbled out into the living room.

The apartment was one big silence that needed filling, and my hand curled around the remote on the end table as I switched on the television. The screen lit up with some C-SPAN interview with Walter Cronkite about his perceptions of the LBJ era, and I sat down on the couch, pulling my legs to my chest and letting the sweatshirt bag at my waist. God, he'd gotten ancient. Next to the overly perky interviewer, the man looked about as good as I felt, with deep pockets under his eyes and jowls sagging to his neck.

I rubbed my eyes again as the camera focused on the girl. She had a huge smile plastered to her face, and I glared at her. "Under Johnson, the country also made spectacular explorations of space in a program he had championed since its start," she said. "Three astronauts orbited the moon in December of 1968, culminating in the successful surface landing on July 20th, 1969."

I snorted. If they were going to recount the man's accomplishments, they'd have to go back further than his presidency. LBJ had been a good President, but as Senate Majority leader, he'd been a true master of the political arena. Still an incredible jackass, though. "Who would've taken a bullet for Lyndon Johnson?" I said aloud. "No one."

Springing to my feet, I walked around to the back of the couch, pacing. What I really needed, here, was a nervous habit or two. I hadn't smoked a cigarette since college, but I'd never missed it until now. "My cardiologist would kill me before the cigarettes ever did," I muttered, half under my breath.

"... a wide-scale fight against poverty," the interviewer continued brightly, "control and prevention of crime and delinquency, and removal of obstacles to the right to vote, among other-"

"What about Medicare?" I yelled, throwing my arms into the air as I stared at the television. "That was his greatest- he got it passed as an amendment to the Social Security Act, back in '65! Tell her! Come on, Walt, you *know* this!"

Flexing my fingers in the air, I walked another length of the couch. LBJ, now there was a guy who would've just gone straight to the insurance companies and taken no prisoners. He wouldn't have even bothered fattening any lawyers' paychecks with a lawsuit.

I pointed at the screen again. "God forbid I should be an uneducated guy who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and who doesn't have the chief of staff to the president offering to leave and join his legal team. I'd probably go broke just from taking enough time off read the paperwork. Those weenies in the House can rant about the tax code, but when it comes down to it, somebody just needs to just lock these insurance guys in a room until they agree that the forms will say, 'When you get sick, we're gonna pay.' Because there's no assurance in insurance if it only works when you're well!"

I stopped pacing and stared at the television. "That only works if you're LBJ," Cronkite argued, and the interviewer giggled. A short, sharp laugh erupted from my mouth, like a sudden gasp for air.

Reaching out to steady myself against the back of the couch, I shook my head. If I was ranting at a television screen with nobody there to listen other than the furniture, I really was losing it. I lifted my hands to my face and rubbed my eyes until tiny specks danced in front of them. I was *way* too worked up to even try to sleep at this point. Maybe I could add insomnia to the list of grievances, now, and let Sam tack a few thousand more dollars on to the total.

I glanced up at the television again. "Wasn't Johnson orignally a fierce opponent of civil rights legislation?" the interviewer asked.

"Yes, and that makes his Civil Rights Act all the more ironic, since it grew to be the most reliable legal authority against racial discrimination," came Cronkite's gravelly voice in response.

A few thousand more would probably do it, actually. Sam might have left that world behind him when he came to Washington, but he still *thought* like a lawyer, and it was pretty obvious that if we could squeeze more out of the insurance companies, he'd be less inclined to want to sue West Virginia White Pride. I jerked forward suddenly and leaned across the back of the couch to grab the remote, pressing the channel-up button, and Walter Cronkite gave way to an ESPN post-game analysis of football.

"And we turn now to Foxboro Stadium, where the Patriots extended their losing streak by one more in a pummeling loss to the New York Jets. The tone for the game was set just seven minutes into the first quarter, when the Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe found himself fourth and long on his own twenty-five yard line. New England had no choice but to punt it away. Kicker Adam Vinatieri managed to get the ball safely out of New England territory, but Jets receiver Wayne Chrebet, number eighty, made a spectacular sixty-one yard return all the way to the New England fourteen yard line." Setting the remote back down on the end table, I stood up straight again and ran my hand along the back of the couch as I paced.

Surprisingly, I never thought much about the triggermen. It had been the signalman on the ground who'd been the big story in the weeks following the shooting, and it'd been his high school yearbook picture I'd stared at from my hospital bed until the nurse had gotten worried and started hiding my copy of the Post. It'd surprised me that the guy had been smiling, because apart from that he'd looked almost like a caricature of a neo-Nazi, with squinty eyes and blond hair cut within a quarter inch of his scalp.

It had taken most of an afternoon to figure out where I'd seen that deceptively friendly little smile before, but I'd eventually figured out that if you put a hand over the top part of his face, the signalman was a dead ringer for the psychopath from that old Hitchcock movie where the two guys meet up on a train and switch murders. I'd seen that one late at night when my parents had been out and I'd been home alone with Joanie, and I hadn't been able to sleep after *that*, either. Whenever I'd tried to close my eyes, I'd seen that little smile and heard that creepy voice saying "criss-cross" over and over in my head.

Joanie'd stayed up with me that night, making us both hot chocolate and pretending she hadn't noticed me shaking as she'd curled her quilt around both of us on the couch. She'd probably just done it so she wouldn't get in trouble for letting me stay up past my bedtime, but I hadn't cared. She'd acted so nonchalant, and hadn't even questioned why her kid brother had developed a sudden intense interest in hearing her blather on about Sharon Kestenbaum and her new padded bra instead of going to bed by himself.

I closed my eyes again, but it was as if the signalman's picture was welded onto the underside of my eyelids. I fumbled across the end table and wrapped a fist around the cordless phone. Feeling my heart pounding in my chest, I dialed the only private number I could reliably dial by touch alone.

He picked up on the third ring, but I heard a long rustling sound as he fumbled with the receiver. "Sam Seaborn."

"Hey."

I could hear him breathing on the other end, and I pulled the phone's antenna further out. "Josh?" he finally squeaked.

"Yeah."

"What time is- Josh? It's ..." The rustling sound met my ears again. "It's three in the morning."

"Yeah."

"Why are you calling me at three in the morning?"

I carried the phone around to the other side of the couch and sat down, glancing at the clock on the wall. "My clock says it's three fourteen."

"So ... you're calling in the middle of the night to tell me my clock is fourteen minutes slow?"

I let out the breath I'd been holding. "You, uh- you told me to remind you that you needed to call Japan before going in to the office." There was no response, and I waited just a moment longer than a comfortable pause before pressing on. "You know, the Capital Beat thing on globalization? You were gonna talk to Nakamura at KPMG Corporate before you left your place, and you said I should remind you. Because of the time difference. So, ah- I thought I'd, like, do that."

It was only a muffled cough on the other end of the line that let me know he hadn't fallen back asleep.

"So." I curled my neck around the phone and pulled my knees to my chest again. I put my fingers on either side of the bridge of my nose and squeezed, trying not to wince.

"If you were so keen to follow through on that promise, then don't you think it would have made a lot more sense to do it sometime last night?" he said finally, his voice sharp with irritation.

"Did you just say 'keen'? 'Cause that sounded kind of-"

"Josh-"

"I forgot, okay? I was a little- a little preoccupied while you were at my place, as you might recall."

"Josh, I've been home exactly two hours. I've slept maybe an hour and a half, at the outside. If I'm lucky, I'll get another two at this point. I do still actually have to show up, bright and early, at the studio in the morning, and I doubt I'm gonna sound very convincing if I drift off in the middle of Gottfried's probing questions about the ongoing conflict with the USW lobby. So if you don't say something profound and earth-shattering in the next ten seconds, I'm hanging up."

"Come on," I encouraged him. "You could even call him right now to, you know, get a jump on things. Isn't it, like, the middle of the afternoon there?"

"Seven more seconds."

"Your clock's fourteen whole minutes slow, and you're expecting me to trust it to accurately count the seconds?"

"Three."

"What was I supposed to do, here, let you appear on national television unprepared?"

"And that would be one. Time's up."

"Hey, wait," I attempted, holding my palm up in the air.

"What."

"You have to admit you won't forget to call Tokyo, now."

"Good night, Josh." I heard a click as the phone went dead.

I replaced the phone in its cradle and ran a hand along the length of my face. Where my boxers stopped, the skin on the backs of my legs brushed against the coarse upholstery of the couch. It stung, and the hairs there stood on end, rebelling. I was used to pain, by now; it still hurt to move too quickly and it always hurt not to move at all. But this was a new pain, as if the entire surface of my skin was sensitized to the point where the slightest touch would rub it raw. Standing up, I walked slowly over to the television to shut it off at the unit, and the room was empty again.

I felt my face crease into a scowl. I had to get a grip. I had a 9:00 conference call with the governors of Maryland and Delaware, a late morning meeting with the Secretary of Transportation, and at some point in there I was supposed to talk to the leader of some women's health advocacy group. All of it sounded hard. My jaw jutted forward and I turned to walk down the hall. Either I was up for this job or not; there was no halfway, here.

In the bathroom, I leaned back against the wall for a moment, inhaling the steam while the water warmed in the shower. Sam was right; he needed to sleep, and so did I. That had to be it. It had been what, a good three weeks since I'd had a full night's sleep? They said too little sleep made you paranoid, and I certainly seemed to be bordering on that at this point. I leaned forward again and squinted into the mirror, pulling at the bags under my eyes. That was what this was about. Just a little more sleep, and I'd be fine.

###

SAM: NOVEMBER 29, 2000, 7:25 PM

Slamming the car door shut, I looped the plastic bag of Chinese food over my arm and dashed up the front steps of Josh's building. I pressed the doorbell, and a faint buzzing sound penetrated the closed window as it rang inside his apartment. Sticking a hand in my pocket, I glanced quickly at my watch. 7:25.

When a minute or two passed and no one came to the door, I craned my neck to see if I could spot Josh's car on the street. A dark blue mini-van was parked where he usually liked to leave it, and I pulled my hand out of my pocket enough to glance at my watch again. Josh had mentioned this afternoon that he'd be home by seven. I waited a moment longer before ringing the bell again, letting myself lean back against the railing. I crossed one leg over the other and looked up into the low night sky.

I flexed my fingers inside my pocket, closing them around my key ring. It occurred to me that I could just let myself in. He'd given me a key last week -- "for emergencies," he'd said, but I couldn't just stand here. I looked back again over my shoulder, surveying the street behind me for observers, and pressed my lips together when I realized what I was doing. Pulling the keys defiantly out of my pocket, I unlocked the front door and walked down the short hallway to Josh's apartment.

I hung my coat in the closet and kicked off my shoes next to the door. Stepping through the living room into the kitchen, I set the bag of Chinese food on the only empty corner of the table. The rest was piled high with stacks of paperwork and dishes still sitting there from Monday night. I pushed one of the stacks off to the side, clearing a space.

This would be the second dinner together this week, and the third one since ... what was I supposed to call it at this point, exactly? We'd started sleeping together again the night after Josh had returned to work. But that first time hadn't been intentional, and we hadn't talked about it until the next day. So it hadn't really been until then that we'd ... gotten back together. Or something. It was hard to mark beginnings and endings in a relationship almost nobody else knew about.

Lifting the bag from the table again, I headed into the kitchen and retrieved a clear glass bowl from the drying rack by the sink. I spooned the Kung Pao chicken into it, filling it half full. The first time we'd tried this had been back during the Silverstein campaign, and it had started in ... well, either November or January, depending on whether you counted from the first sign of interest or the first time we'd actually acted on it. The final blow had been that following May, and that had definitely been concrete, so ... five months, or seven if I wanted to be generous. I grabbed a plate from the cupboard and set the Mu Shu pancakes on it, putting a paper plate over the top to hold in the moisture.

The second time, after I'd left New York and we'd both joined the Bartlet campaign, it had taken longer. Had it lasted a full year? Not quite. So, if I tossed in the past two weeks, that meant I'd only spent a total of a year and a half of my life with Josh. I frowned, staring down at three or four days' worth of plates and silverware on the counter. Filling one half of the sink with water, I squeezed a teaspoon or so of dish soap into it and piled the dirty dishes inside, watching them disappear beneath the suds. I rolled my sleeves up to my elbows and took off my watch, glancing at it again as I set it beside the sink. 8:00. I reached under the warm water with a pot scrubber.

Third time's a charm. I'd always liked the way that sounded -- staccato, all single syllables. And the word 'charm'. The connotation of sorcery didn't quite work, but the underlying sense of fascination definitely did. Not to mention the implied link to 'charming'. Maybe I could justify the cliché as long as I didn't commit it to paper. I piled the dishes in the drying rack and pulled the plug in the sink, and the drain sucked the water down with a slurp.

Stacking Josh's papers into a neat pile in the middle of the table, I pulled two plates and two glasses out of the cupboard and set a place for each of us. If we managed to stay the course this time around, a year from now would find us in the middle of a campaign to reelect the President. Admittedly, our track record didn't bode well for making it through any campaign intact, but maybe this time we'd finally manage to get it right. Third time's a charm. Three is the magic number. Three magic words. There was a lot of promise in threes.

Clearing the pile of papers off the table, I carried the stack over to the table near the entryway and set it down on my way into the living room. I opened the glass door to the case that housed Josh's stereo and ran a finger along the two modest rows of CDs. His collection was small, but it had to have been one of the most eclectic ones I'd seen, with everything from Pink Floyd to Bruce Springsteen to a French opera company's recording of Mozart's "La Nozze di Figaro."

I removed a collection of Brahms' Lieder from its case and set it into the tray. A soprano voice filled the room, and I turned it up a little so I could hear it from the kitchen. Josh had grown up with this stuff, but I was really only beginning to develop a taste for it. Lisa and I had always taken clients to the Philharmonic, but at home we'd listened to old Elton John and Kate Bush.

Heading back into the kitchen, I set the dishes of Chinese food in the center of the table and placed a knife and fork on either side of the two plates. I picked up my watch from the edge of the sink and glanced at it again as I put it back on. Eight-fifteen, now. Reaching across to the far edge of the counter, I turned the salt and pepper shakers around so that the labels were both facing out.

"What the ..." Josh's voice carried into the kitchen, and I heard the door slam behind him. "Sam, is that you?"

"I let myself in," I called out. I rolled my sleeves back down as I walked over to the entryway to find Josh standing there in his trenchcoat. He was staring at the stack of papers on the table, his forehead wrinkled in annoyance. "I just figured- I mean, you did give me a key," I added. And you *are* over an hour late.

"Did you put these here?" Josh asked, gesturing at the stack.

"Yeah, I-"

"How am I supposed to be able to find anything with all my stuff thrown together like this?"

"I just cleared off the table," I said, and Josh looked up at me, glaring. "It didn't look like it was in any sort of order."

"I had- I had piles." He reached down to pry off his shoe, panting a little as he bent at the waist.

"Sorry."

Josh threw his coat over a chair and pushed past me into the kitchen, and I followed him in. "What's going on here, anyway?" He stopped and stared at the table, and I watched a look of recognition cross his face. "We were going to have-"

"Dinner."

"Oh." The next song began on a loud chord, and he took a step back, rubbing the back of his neck. "What time did I say?"

"Between 7:00 and 7:30."

"And it's-"

"8:15."

"Yeah." Josh stepped toward the table, grabbing the back of the chair and leaning against it, not quite looking at me. "I- I- there was this thing with Didion this afternoon -- we're still trying to head off HR 1320 before it goes to full committee, but he's stalling, and he didn't make it over to the White House until six, and then I had to-"

"It's okay. We can reheat it." Picking up the bowl of Kung Pao chicken, I walked into the kitchen.

"No, it's- I- I already- I stopped off at Wendy's on the way home."

I looked over at him. "You had dinner?"

"I had a burger and fries. And a Coke."

"Okay." I turned my back to Josh, lifting the spoon out of the bowl and tracing a path around the edge of the bowl with it; once, twice. I spun back around. "I'm just going to stand here and eat this, okay?"

"Sam ..." He pulled the chair out and sat down on it, slumping a little. "I'll have some. What is it?"

"This one's Kung Pao chicken. The one on the table is Mu Shu pork."

Josh leaned over and lifted the paper plate from the stack of cold pancakes, peeling one of them off. The piano pounded out a series of minor chords on the CD as he spooned some of the pork dish onto a pancake.

I took a step further back into the kitchen. "I've got some Hoisin sauce right over-"

"It's fine," he said sharply. "It's fine like this."

I looked over toward the table. Josh was fighting with the pancake, scowling as he tried to get it to fold around itself. "So you met with Didion?" I asked. "Did you talk to him about the IMF loans?"

"What?" He looked up, confused. "Oh, yeah, this evening."

"How did that go?"

"Okay. He's- it went okay." Josh lifted the pancake to his mouth, and three black strips of mushroom fell out the back end. He set it back down on his plate.

"Did I mention that Planned Parenthood has asked the President to speak at their conference in St. Louis?" I asked him.

"I think Toby said something about it."

I sat down next to Josh. A lower voice joined the soprano, and the tempo picked up. "I've got a bad feeling about it," I admitted. "I just can't help but think that they're baiting him. You know that if he does this, he's going to end up getting asked something that ignites the whole abortion debate all over again. And 'it's not the government's place to legislate on this issue' doesn't cut it with people like Valerie Fagan."

Josh shrugged. "So he's got a prior engagement."

"Maybe we could send him back to Portland. Or to Sweden, or something."

"He's not going to run away to Sweden just so he can avoid a confrontation with Valerie Fagan, Sam." Josh lifted his eyes from his plate just long enough to narrow them at me.

"Or maybe he should just do this and get it over with. The issue's going to come up sometime within the next year, anyway, maybe it would be better to do this now, where we can have a controlled plan of attack. I mean, we haven't even talked to him about it yet, so it's probably-"

"Would you just- would you turn that goddamn CD player off?"

I sprang to my feet at the vehemence in his voice, and felt my teeth clench as I stalked into the living room, silencing the music with the press of a button. The sudden quiet was an eerie contrast, and the floor creaked as I walked slowly back into the dining area. Josh was sitting hunched over his plate with his forehead on his hands, both elbows on the table. My mind flashed back to sitting with him in the hospital cafeteria the first week he'd been allowed to get up and walk around. So eager to prove to everyone he was strong, he'd been exhausted enough that afternoon that he hadn't been able to catch his breath, and Donna'd had to call a nurse for a wheelchair. But that had been more than five months ago.

"I just- if we could have it quiet for a while," he said. "I- I've got this- this headache-"

A momentary feeling of guilt flickered across my mind. It was so easy to forget that he was still recovering when he was scheduling late-evening meetings and going about his business as if he'd never been gone. "Are you in any pain?"

"I just said I had a headache, okay?" he said, lifting his chin sharply. "Last I checked, that qualified as pain."

"No, I mean-"

"I'm fine."

"Okay."

I stared at Josh, unsure whether I should join him at the table again. He rested his forehead on his hands, rubbing his temples, and I shifted my weight from one leg to the other. "Look, I don't- I didn't mean- just- just sit back down, okay?" he said finally, waving his hands in front of him.

He wasn't looking at me. His eyes were fixed on the center of the table, but there was nothing there except a glass bowl half full of Kung Pao chicken. I sat back down, spooning a little onto my plate. Just this afternoon, Josh had been standing in Toby's doorway, bouncing around on the balls of his feet and engaging him in a spirited debate about arts funding. He really had seemed a lot better, lately. Back to normal, more or less. I took a bite of chicken.

"I was just thinking." Josh pressed his eyes shut, holding on to either side of the bridge of his nose. "Maybe I should, like, try to sleep."

"At 8:30?"

Josh let out a long sigh, but said nothing, and finally nodded.

"Uh, okay." I swallowed a lump of disappointment in my throat. "Do you think you might be coming down with something? Maybe you should-"

"I'm just- I'm tired."

"Okay." I stared at Josh, but he didn't move, not even when I stood. "So I guess I'll just head out, then?"

"Yeah." His voice sounded distant, like he wasn't really hearing me. "Yeah, okay."

I walked over to stand behind his chair, laying tentative hands on his shoulders. He flinched visibly as I started to rub, and I watched the muscles in his neck tense as if he was expecting someone to burst into his apartment at any moment and catch us at something unnatural and forbidden. Pulling away, he stood and spun around. His face was drawn and his jaw was clenched tight, like he couldn't wait to be alone.

Feeling rebuffed, I turned and headed for the door, and Josh lagged behind. I grabbed my coat from the closet, still watching him. A hint of a conflicted expression flashed across his face, but he didn't protest. "So I'll see you tomorrow?" I asked.

"Yeah." Josh leaned closer, and his lips grazed the corner of my mouth. "G'night."

"G'night."

Closing the door behind me, I stood frozen in the hallway for a moment, drawing in a deep breath. Josh was just tired. I closed my eyes and let the air back out of my lungs. He had just gotten back to work; he probably still needed more sleep than usual. The fact that things had never disintegrated so quickly -- not the first time, and not the second time, either -- wasn't necessarily an indication of how things would go this time around. It didn't have to mean that.

Jerking my head up, I pulled my arms through the sleeves of my coat and walked stiffly toward the front door of the building.

###

JOSH: DECEMBER 1, 2000, 8:50 AM

"Sam, how's the thing coming?" Leo put on his glasses again and looked down at the list in front of him.

"The Planned Parenthood speech?" Sam answered. "We're still fact-checking."

I looked at my watch. I couldn't believe it wasn't even nine AM yet. Lately it was like every day contained an extra twelve to eighteen hours, and I'd spend every last one of them feeling old and exhausted. Happy birthday, Josh, and welcome to middle age. At least there'd be an opportunity to take a breath tonight and curl up on the couch with Sam in front of the Wizards game.

"You gonna bring up the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act?" Leo continued.

Sam's eyebrows flew up. "You mean in the speech?"

"No, over coffee," Leo shot back, his words soaked in sarcasm.

"If we don't mention it in the speech, we'll get questions about it after," C.J. reminded.

Toby tucked his chin in toward his chest and peered over at C.J. "Do we really want to rely so much on preemptive strikes, here?"

"He wants to see a draft by Monday," Leo added, looking at Sam.

Sam's mouth fell open just enough to make him look like he was going to say something, and then he closed it again. He raised a questioning finger in the air and cocked his head. "If he's worried about the-"

"He wants a draft on his desk by Monday. Is that gonna be doable?"

Sam's hand fell back down to his lap. "Well ... yes."

"Excellent," Leo said, nodding. "Okay, HR 1332."

I tried to dispel the hot flush I could feel spreading across my cheeks and slouched down in my chair. So much for hoping he wouldn't bring that up at senior staff. "Yeah, ah-"

"The food import bill?" Toby asked.

"Yeah," Leo answered, glancing over at Toby before turning back to me. "Can someone please explain to me how it can be that I got an irate phone call from John Mounteer at the FDA?

"Ah-"

"He wanted to know why he had to find out about the White House stance on the bill on the morning news."

"Because C.J. announced it at her briefing last night?" I tried.

"Or maybe because he failed to receive a phone call from the White House last night informing him about the decision?" C.J. said testily, glaring at me.

I clutched at the arms of my chair and sat up straighter. "Yeah, there were some, uh, timing problems with that."

"Timing problems?" Leo asked.

"Yeah, I was busy with the thing-"

"You mean you *forgot*, Josh," C.J. said, the dark tone in her voice turning up the heat in the room. "You *forgot* to tell the FDA that we've decided to back a bill that puts through only a third of the regulations we promised-"

"Okay," Leo added, cutting C.J. off. "Sam and Toby are handing us to Valerie Fagan on a silver platter, and Josh screwed up on HR 1332 and made the White House look like the bad guy. Any other minor calamities I should know about before I send you all away?"

"I think forty's still a little too young to claim senility, don't you?" C.J. insisted, and I spread my fingers along my lap, gripping my legs for support.

Leo nodded. "And now that the cat's out of the bag, a happy birthday to Josh."

"It's today?" Toby asked.

"Yeah," I growled. "Yeah, it's today. A month *after* C.J.'s." I leaned over toward C.J. "Because I'll always be younger than you."

"I've still got a few more chances today to announce it on national television if I feel like it, so maybe you could at least *try* to be a little nicer to me?"

"So what, this is gonna be like the Today Show?" Toby asked, smirking. "One of the staff makes it over the hill, and we tell the whole country?"

C.J. folded her arms, and my glare bounced back and forth between the two of them like a ping pong ball. "Much as I enjoy being compared to Willard Scott," she said, "I think there's an issue we need to focus on here- oh, wait, it's time for Josh's nap."

"You're gonna be awfully lonely in that nursing home!" I yelled.

Leo held up a hand and stood. "All right, I'm older than all three of you, and I have a meeting with the Admiral at nine. Josh, call Mounteer and apologize."

"Okay," I croaked, following everyone else to their feet. Toby and Sam filed out first, with C.J. right behind them. I waited for a moment in Leo's doorway, watching him as he sat back down at his desk. He picked up a pen.

I cleared my throat. "Listen, about Mounteer-"

Leo lifted his chin and peered up at me over his glasses.

"It won't happen again."

"Fix it," he demanded.

"Okay."

I watched Leo look back down at the papers on his desk, and it couldn't have been clearer that it was time to leave if he'd thrown me bodily out of his office. Turning around, I shuffled past Margaret's desk and down the yellow hall. A couple of people murmured a "good morning" as they walked by, but I didn't bother to acknowledge them. What a fantastic way to start the day. I glanced down at my watch again. Eleven hours until the game.

"Did you tell them?" Donna chirped as I walked past her door.

I stopped. "Did I tell them what?"

Donna pushed her chair back from her desk and joined me in the hall. "Did you tell them it wasn't my fault?"

I turned away from her, pushing my door open. "I told 'em you had to go home early last night, so you weren't around to remind me."

"Josh!" She put her hands on her hips. "I stood right next to your desk and handed you a post-it note to put in the middle of your computer screen!"

I stopped about a foot into my office, staring at my desk as the door swung open the rest of the way. A flat, colorful box sat on top of a stack of file folders, a long red ribbon scotch-taped to its edge. My eyes followed the ribbon up until it ended, tied around the neck of a bright red Mylar balloon. "Ah. What is this?"

"It's your birthday present."

I walked around behind my desk. "Why, thank you, Donna. I've always wanted a balloon that said 'over the hill'."

"It's a collection of candy from the 1960s," she said, scurrying into my office. "You know, Pez, sugar daddies. Would you have preferred the 'still looking good at forty' t-shirt?"

I put my hand on the phone. "I have a call to make, here, okay?"

"So Jujubes were real, huh? I always thought that was just something they invented. You know, for old movies."

"Donna. Get. Out."

Mumbling something about 'grumpy old men', she walked back through the door, leaving it ajar. I removed my hand from the phone and sat down at my desk, resting my chin on my right hand. Stuck to the desk in front of the file on HR 1332 was Donna's post-it, reading "call Mounteer @ FDA by 5:30!" I crumpled it into a tight ball and tossed it into the trash.

I wasn't the one with the memory that could retain the names of all of the members of Congress in order, but I didn't usually forget things like this. It had to be the insomnia; it was making *everything* seem hard lately. Last night I'd been woken up three times by three different dreams before finally giving up and calling sleep a waste of time. The last time it had taken over an hour to stop myself from shaking. I had to wonder what would happen if next time I just never stopped at all.

I ripped open the edge of the box of candy, tapping it a little against the desk, and a tube of Necco wafers rolled out and bumped into the edge of the telephone. Tearing the transluscent paper off the end of the roll, I popped a licorice one in my mouth and bit into it with a crack. Maybe I really was getting old. Back in law school I'd go days without sleep with no repercussions.

I glanced up as I heard the door squeak open again, and Sam poked his head around the corner. "So how's our birthday boy?" he said cheerfully, stepping in and closing the door behind him.

I kicked at the underside of my desk. Nothing topped off a lousy morning quite like a perky Sam. "Donna got me a box of candy," I grumbled.

"Hey, Necco wafers!" He reached over and grabbed a pale orange one from my desk as he sat down in the chair next to me. "I remember these. Here's to the nostalgia of middle-age."

"Would you maybe just- just lay off a bit with the middle age stuff?"

"Actually, strictly speaking you would have hit middle age three years ago."

I blinked at him. "What?"

"The lifespan of the average American male is seventy-four. The midpoint of a life that lasts seventy-four years is thirty-seven. Therefore-"

I waved my hands in front of my face. "I get the picture, okay?"

"So," he said, crunching the wafer. "When I came in this morning, Ginger handed me a list of phone calls to return. Guess who was right at the top?"

"Your pet statistician with his seven AM briefing?"

"Mallory. Did I tell you Mallory and her boyfriend were at the thing last night?"

I sighed. "Sam, I was on the phone with you when you saw her, remember?"

"Oh, yeah, that's right," he nodded. "You wanted to know what she was wearing."

"Actually, I was just making conversation," I said, leaning back against my chair.

"She tried to pick a fight with me about the space program." He shrugged. "I mean, it's Mallory, so of course she tried to pick a fight with me."

I rolled my eyes. "She wouldn't bother if you didn't make a federal case out of it every time she throws the slightest jab."

"It's weird," he said, his forehead wrinkling a bit. "We're in a place, you know- we sort of dated, but not really, and I just want her to-" He paused, and for a moment I thought we might be done with this. "I mean, I've got to call her back. I just don't know what I should say. I mean, I can't tell her about-"

"She's got a boyfriend," I said sharply. "It's not like she's gonna ask you out."

Sam drew back, away from me. "I was just looking for your opinion. There's no reason to get all jealous."

I snorted. "I'm not jealous of your little kindergarten romance, Sam."

"All right, then," he said, cutting off the topic of conversation with the rough edge in his voice.

I looked down at my desk, but I could still feel his eyes on me, and I shook the tube of Necco Wafers again, spilling the rest of them across the HR 1332 file. I picked up a green one, setting it on my tongue and sucking the sugar off it.

"You going to call Mounteer?" he asked, a little more softly.

"I'm supposed to be doing that now. I've got to tie that up and start on the rest of the day if I want to be out of here and at your place by eight."

"Six."

I jerked my head up. "What? I thought the game was at eight!"

"It is. I made reservations at the Willard Room for 6:30."

"Sam, we were gonna watch the game!" I felt my shoulders drop a little.

"And we will, but it's your birthday, and I want to take you someplace nice." Sam smiled. "I know you don't have any late meetings -- I already asked Donna. It's early enough that we'll still get to catch the end of the game, though we might have to skip the creme brulee if you're that eager to rush home."

I rubbed my forehead, grinding my elbow into the desk. Images of the two of us sitting in an oak panelled dining room at a cozy table for two crowded even the anticipated phone call to Mounteer out of my mind. I'd be sitting stiffly in a jacket and tie all evening, picking apart layers of lobster and phyllo dough and trying to ignore the curious looks of the waitstaff while Sam showed off his Manhattan wine sense. The very thought made me want to crawl back into bed, and not with Sam. "Do we have to do this *tonight*?" I said finally.

"We're talking about the Willard Room on a Friday night, Josh. I had to call on Monday to book a table, and even then I was pretty lucky to get something."

I scooted forward in my chair and leaned across the desk, clenching my teeth. Sam could be so goddamn presumptuous. "You made dinner reservations for the two of us five days ago and didn't bother to tell me?"

"It's your *birthday*, okay? I thought it'd be nice to surprise you." Sam stood, bringing his hands to his waist. His face was set in that cold expression he got whenever he didn't want to let on that he was hurt, but I was too angry to care. "If I'd known you'd be *this* grateful, I'd have done it two weeks ago."

"What if I'm not in the mood to sit around and be seen by the Washington upper crust tonight?"

Sam took a step back, his eyes narrowing. "Well, if you're worried about being *seen*-"

"I'm not- that's *not* what I meant." I grabbed either side of the bridge of my nose and squinted my eyes closed. "I'm just ... I'm-"

"You're just tired," he said, his tone flat.

I looked up. "Yeah, I *am* tired. And we were just gonna watch the game tonight, and I'm- I don't feel like having dinner in some hoity-toity French restaurant, okay?"

"Right, because who knows who we might run into at a place like that. And God knows, if you see two guys sitting together in a restaurant, you'd better look under the table, 'cause they're liable to be holding hands or-"

"You know what?" I could feel the bile rising in my throat. "I don't even give a damn if that's what you think I meant."

"It's not as if people don't go to the Willard Room for business dinners. Are we back to where you won't even sit across the table from me in a restaurant?"

"I just wanna watch the damn game!"

"I'll tell you what, then," he said, his voice like ice. "How about I go to dinner alone, and you can stay home and watch the game from beginning to end."

"Works for me," I snarled.

"Fine. Have a nice birthday."

I didn't move as I heard him step back toward the door, and I didn't look up when he slammed it behind him. It was only after a full minute had passed and he didn't come back that I dropped my head into my hands and felt the shaking start again.

###

SAM: DECEMBER 1, 2000, 9:45 AM

I saw Ginger scramble away as I stalked into the communications bullpen. Her ankle banged against the edge of her desk when she stepped out of the pathway to my office, and I cringed. They could all tell when I was angry. I wasn't an ogre; I wasn't even like Toby with his ranting and raving, but it was me they always ran from whenever I came back from a particularly upsetting meeting with Josh -- or Leo, or Toby -- but these days it was usually Josh. Maybe it was my silence that bothered them; maybe that was harder to deal with than everybody else's yelling.

I stopped in front of Ginger's desk and stood up straight, forcing my arms to relax at my sides. "You okay?"

She looked back at me with wide eyes. "Am I okay?"

"You hit your ankle." I gestured down at her foot.

"I'm okay," she said, sitting down.

"You know, you can tell me these things."

She shot me a puzzled look. "What things?"

"About things like- like your ankle."

"I'm okay," she insisted.

"Okay." I nodded and walked into my office, pushing the door halfway closed behind me.

Sitting down at my desk, I grabbed a blank legal pad from my top drawer and ran a finger along the margin. Toby always laughed at me, saying I was clinging to the last vestiges of my former profession, but it really was easier to get a start on things when I could fill up lines of yellow paper instead of staring at a computer screen. There was something reassuring about writing on something I could touch, despite the fact that copies of the first three quarters of the speech were already in a dozen computers all over the building.

I tapped my pen against the page. I had to work Mendoza in here somehow. When the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade just over twenty-eight years ago, I began, the vote was seven to two. After the Reagan and Armstrong eras, that majority had shrunk to five to four. I stared at the words. This wasn't him; this was me. The President would want me to balance this with- with something. Tearing the sheet of paper off, I crumpled it into a ball and set it on the corner of my desk. I looked at it for a long moment before finally flicking it across the room with a sharp fingertip and watching it land in the middle of the floor.

The note Ginger had handed me earlier stared up at me from the desk. Only four people to call, all of them women. Mallory was at the top of the list, next was Sarah Scott from Catholics for a Free Choice, who'd called twice, and then Congresswoman Reeseman. The final name on the list, then, was Lisa, no last name specified, but there was only one person who could have been meant. Lisa - @ home tonight, the message read, but I could at least leave a message for her at work if she wasn't going to be there. I picked up the phone. Even if I hadn't dialed her number at Dewey Ballantine countless times over the past ten years, her extension was only two digits off what my own had once been, and I wasn't about to forget that.

It rang only twice. "Lisa Seppala."

"Answering your own phone today?"

"Hey!" I could hear her smiling, and I felt the muscles in my shoulders relax a bit. "Yeah, Cam had an appointment this morning, so I'm my own secretary for a couple of hours."

"Weren't you supposed to be in court this morning?" I asked, recalling our long phone call of three nights ago. We'd both gone on at length about work so as not to have to talk about Josh. It had mostly worked. "I was just going to leave a message."

"No, counsel for the plaintiff sought and obtained a two-week postponement. It's okay, I can sit on my arguments. I'm in no rush. Besides, it gives me some time this weekend to spend with you."

"With me?"

"If you're up for it. Laurence Tribe is speaking tomorrow night at Columbia."

"Seriously?"

"You could fly in on the 10:25 tonight and we could spend the day together tomorrow, and then go to the thing in the evening."

"Wow."

"Come on," she encouraged me. "It'll be fun. We'll wear our Duke sweatshirts and pretend we're visiting law students."

I found myself nodding. I hadn't seen Lisa at all since coming home from the hospital the night after the shooting to find her sitting on my front steps. She'd slept next to me that night -- for the short hour we'd slept at all -- chastely and fully-clothed. The next day, then, there had been my kiss, her aborted attempt at an advance, her anger and harsh words about Josh, and then we hadn't spoken for almost five months. We'd finally patched things up with a phone call just a few weeks ago, only a day or two after Josh and I had gotten back together, but the tension between us wouldn't quite let up this time.

"I've got a lot to do this weekend," I said reluctantly. "Have I told you about the Planned Parenthood speech?"

"You guys are going to dredge up the abortion issue again?"

"Better us than somebody else, and better now than in an election year. Everybody's scared to death of Valerie Fagan and her crew, since she'll be sitting right there in the front row, and the President wants a draft by Monday. Which could easily be seen as going a bit too far on the checking-up-on-Sam front, but that's an entirely different kettle of fish." I curled my fingers around the edge of my desk and looked down again at the blank page in front of me. "Anyway, I really need to spend the weekend on that."

"You could leave New York early Sunday morning and still get in a full day's worth of work."

"I really shouldn't." I leaned back again into my chair. "This isn't the weekend to spend away from Washington, not with this hanging over my head." Not to mention the fact that Josh would be none too thrilled about the prospect of me spending his birthday weekend with Lisa. I wound the phone cord around my finger.

"Yeah, I was afraid of that. Oh well, I thought I'd ask."

"Hey, do you feel middle-aged?" I asked suddenly.

"Middle-aged?"

"You're thirty-seven, right? Do you feel- no, wait, you're a woman."

Lisa laughed, a big belly laugh that coaxed a smile out of me. "Good thing you remembered that. I'd hate to have you mistaking me for a man."

"Women live longer," I explained. "The average lifespan of the American woman is eighty, so you won't be middle-aged until you're forty. Technically."

"I don't think middle age is supposed to refer to a particular year."

"Sure, but technically, forty is the midpoint."

"Well, it's nice to know I can still expect a long, full life, statistically speaking."

"Why is that, anyway? Do women live longer because men lead more stressful lives?" And was *that* because men had a greater than average likelihood -- statistically speaking -- of being complete and utter jackasses?

"What's this about? Personally, I don't think you should be allowed to worry about this sort of thing when you still don't look a day over thirty."

"No, I'm not- it's Josh's birthday. Today." I paused, pulling at the phone cord as I shifted in my seat. "He's turning forty."

"Right," she said, too quickly. The phone line fell silent, and I slumped against the back of my chair and closed my eyes. "So he's feeling middle-aged?" she asked, her voice cracking a little.

"He's feeling- I have no idea what he's feeling. He ..." I looked up at the open door to check to see if Ginger was in earshot, and scowled down at my desk. I didn't feel middle-aged; I felt about fifteen, sneaking around like this. "I had reservations tonight. At the Willard Room. He wouldn't go."

"Why not?"

"Why do you think?"

"Well, you have to admit he isn't exactly the Willard Room type," she said flatly. "Maybe he would've preferred something a little more casual."

"He would've preferred takeout, because we could've eaten that alone in his apartment where no one could see us. Although I have to admit, the last time we tried *that*, it didn't work out so well, either."

Lisa coughed, and the static on the line was suddenly louder than the hum of activity in the communications bullpen. "Sorry," I said, filling the silence. "You don't need to hear any of this." She cleared her throat, and I knew what was coming next. "Just don't- please just don't tell me you told me so," I said quickly, as if to interrupt her, holding up a hand like she could see me.

"I didn't."

"You were thinking it," I challenged, and she didn't respond. I looked down at my desk, grabbing the television remote from the tray in front of me, and flicked on C-Span, pressing the mute button. C.J. was standing behind a podium, looking up from her notes and blinking seriously over the edge of her glasses. I rolled my chair closer to the desk until my foot hit the back end.

"I just- I don't want to see you tearing yourself up over this again," Lisa said. She sounded genuinely concerned. She always did, though I knew there had been times that she'd wanted to curse the bullet that had missed its mark by a fraction of an inch.

"I know." I set the remote back down on my desk. No one had been more supportive than Lisa both times things had ended with Josh. It wasn't fair, though, to keep doing this to her. "But yeah," I began, trying to bring the subject back around to where we'd started, "I've got to have a draft of the Planned Parenthood thing on the President's desk by Monday, and it'll be hard to get enough staff in here on both a Saturday and a Sunday."

"Okay, so maybe this weekend's a little short notice. It was just an idea."

"I really do wish I could come," I said honestly.

"Could you spare a weekend sometime this month, you think? Maybe we could catch a show. Or just hang out. I miss you."

Her voice floated across the phone line, and I felt the muscles clench around my heart. I wanted to crawl through the receiver and lay my head in her lap. "I miss you, too."

"It's just- I guess I want to make up for all that time we weren't talking."

I nodded. "Me too."

"Let's not let that happen again, okay? No matter what."

I watched through my window as Josh barrelled into the communications bullpen, a dark blur of brown suit and hair and long arms gesturing wildly. He pushed past Ginger, stopping in front of Bonnie's desk, and I held the phone away from my ear in an attempt to make out what they were saying. I still couldn't quite hear them, but I saw Josh's head drop. He rubbed his forehead and grabbed a file from Bonnie's desk as he turned around. His eyes seemed to rest for a moment on the door to my office, and I tried to catch his eye, but he looked right through me.

I glanced down at my own desk as I watched him leave. What was I thinking? If we hadn't been able to make this work during the campaign, we sure as hell weren't going to be able to make it work in the White House. He was always going to care more about making sure no one found out about us than he ever could about the relationship. It was ludicrous to think anything had changed.

"You know what?" I said. "I can do this."

"Do what?" Lisa asked.

"I can come to New York tonight."

"Really?" Her voice turned up at the end of the word, and she sounded almost giddy.

"Ginger and Bonnie and the others won't be happy about coming in to the office on a Sunday, but when I tell them that by all rights it should have been the whole weekend, they're not going to object. We've got most of a draft already -- there's just the closing we've still got to get a start on, and that's all me anyway. And I can write on the plane."

"Bring everything with you and we'll fiddle with it together tomorrow morning."

"You're not trying to get on the payroll of the communications office, here?" I teased.

Lisa laughed. "As if you could afford me. Just bring everything with you and we'll write him something that won't get you into too much trouble. You know, like we did during the Silverstein campaign. Remember how you used to walk around and rant, and I'd reel you in when you went too far over the top? We can even go sit in that cafe around the corner from the old office. It's a Starbucks now, but if we squint a little we can pretend."

"When I was writing for Silverstein, I had no idea what I was doing. And that was back when you were still the fresh-faced little blond girl everybody would underestimate." And back when I still thought the fact that Josh loved me would be enough to make everything all right.

"Hey, don't you try to stand in my way when I'm waxing sentimental."

"Okay." I smiled a little.

"Bring everything with you," she repeated.

"I will."

"It'll be fun."

"I know." It always was.

"Hey." She drew out the end of the word, wrapping it around me like a bandage. "I love you."

"I love you, too," I breathed. "I'll see you tonight."

"Have a good flight."

"I will. Bye."

"Bye."

I replaced the receiver in its cradle on my desk and stared out the window at the empty space in front of Bonnie's desk where Josh had been a moment ago. Drawing in a long breath, I turned my eyes back to the blank legal pad in front of me, and picked up my pen again.

###

JOSH: DECEMBER 19, 2000, 8:15 AM

I reached inside my shirt to rub the back of my neck, feeling my tie clutch at my throat, and stormed out into the lobby. That sound- that noise was going to drive me crazy if I had to listen to it for one more minute. I dodged the Christmas tree, and the raging screech from the bagpipes seemed to grow even louder as the pipers came into view. There were two- no, three of them, standing there in the middle of the White House in those ridiculous kilts. I gave them a disgusted look and clenched my jaw as I crossed the lobby and headed for the hallway outside Toby's office.

"Toby," I said sharply, trying not to yell.

He emerged into the hall, but didn't look up from the file open in front of him. "Yeah."

"Bagpipes?" I asked, following him into the communications bullpen.

"Yeah."

"You put bagpipes in the lobby?"

"Not just any bagpipes, Josh." He passed out a shiny black folder to each of the speechwriters as we passed through. "Those guys are the Duncan McTavish Clarney Highland Bagpipe Regiment."

"They're a bagpipe regiment," I said, shaking my head.

"They're three guys from Delaware, but they can play." Toby walked out into the hallway opposite where we'd come in, and I followed him, feeling the back of my neck tighten as the noise got louder. The doors to the lobby were open at the end of the hall, and the high-pitched, atonal shrieking rushed up to meet us as we approached.

"Two weeks ago, it was a brass quintet," I reminded him, glaring. "Yesterday, it was the Capital Blue Plate Banjo Band."

"Capitol Blue*grass* Banjo *Brigade*, and those guys were featured on the local news."

We walked into the lobby. I blinked against the screeching sounds, feeling a familiar headache pulling at the lines on my forehead. "They're pretty loud."

"The bagpipes?"

"Yeah."

"That's because the shepherds would need to call in the goats from high atop the hills-"

"Shepherds herd sheep, they don't do it in Delaware, and these guys can't play in the lobby!"

"They money that people toss in their cases will go to buy band uniforms for the St. Mary's Assumption Marching Red Raiders," he insisted, pointing back at the pipers.

I ignored him, pushing by him as I walked toward the hall that led to my office. "Toby, I'm not kidding," I insisted, hearing my voice strain against the noise. He was now officially taking this forced Christmas cheer thing way, way too far.

"These guys have a fourteen-song repertoire-"

"I can hear the damn sirens all over the building!" I heard myself yell, and when he didn't immediately come back at me with a sarcastic comment, I stopped walking. "The ... bagpipes," I corrected. Why had I said that? I turned toward Toby. He was staring at me.

"Josh?" he questioned, his voice almost too quiet to be heard over the noise.

"The- the bagpipes," I said again, more insistently, and turned back to walk down toward my office. I pressed my teeth together, feeling his eyes on my back, and spun around. "They can't play in the lobby!" I said again, waving a finger in the direction of the pipers.

I pushed inside my office, swung the door mostly shut, and stopped to lean against the wall. My breath was coming in gasps, and I spread my fingers out behind me to steady myself, the white plaster cool against my skin. From the hall, C.J.'s voice assaulted my ears, yelling for Toby and weaving itself around the bagpipe noise until the two together really did sound more like sirens than anything else. Did bagpipes always sound like sirens, or was that just because these guys were from Delaware instead of Scotland?

Swallowing my breath, I leaned my head back against the wall, my eyes darting around the room. I wanted to close them, to block out the inevitable, but I knew by now that it would just get worse if I couldn't keep reminding myself that I was standing against the wall in my office, about four feet from my desk, my chair pushed back where I'd left it when I'd gotten up not five minutes earlier. I was still standing in my office, and C.J. was still yelling in the hall, and my head was still pounding, and how could my heart have been beating so loudly when it shouldn't have been beating at all?

I slammed a fist against the wall as I charged back out into the hallway. If I could get even a minute of quiet out of these people, maybe this wouldn't be so bad. We worked in the White House, for God's sake, not a stadium. "Would it be possible to hold the noise down out here?"

Donna stopped in front of me. "Do you need something?"

I ran a hand along my forehead, trying to block out the commotion. "I- I need the CBO spec."

"It's on your desk."

I blinked down at the carpet. Everyone seemed to have something to say to somebody else, their voices all jangling together into one huge muddled mass. "It's like a damn hockey game out here!" I yelled. Turning around, I stepped back into my office and slammed the door behind me.

Reaching down to inch my hands along the smooth wood on the side of my desk, I stumbled over to my chair and sank down into it. Lying open in front of me was the budget information, just as Donna had said. Why did I need this again? I squinted down at the stack of paper inside the folder and watched the numbers blur into each other until all I could see was a blank page. I reached up to prop my eyes open, but they wouldn't focus on anything. Dropping my face into my hands, I gave in to the pull of my eyelids nudging themselves closed, and found myself staring back at the smiling face of the signalman on the inside of my brain. Criss-cross, let's switch murders. A Deputy Chief of Staff for a Balkan war vet.

Clutching at the edge of my desk, I rolled my chair back, hearing my breath catch as my muscles strained to draw it in. This wasn't supposed to happen at work. It couldn't. Lying in bed by myself in the middle of the night was one thing, but I wasn't asleep now; I wasn't alone. I was at work. I was at *work*, dammit, and it wasn't like I was a baker or something where a moment of distraction might mean that the next loaf of bread wouldn't get put in the oven at the right time; there were life-and-death decisions to be made here, all the time, and I couldn't let myself just sit here freaking out.

I rolled the chair slowly back toward my desk. Shoving the congressional budget file off to one side, I reached up and grabbed the file on Robert Cano. Cano, the smiling sandy-blond Air Force pilot with my birthday.

I opened the folder, but I didn't really need to see what was inside it to remember the information I'd read hundreds of times over the past two weeks. Cano had been an ordinary guy from Tallahassee, Florida, married to a chubby brunette named Tammy who'd taken his last name like any good Southern girl. They'd had a three-year-old son, Johnathan. Cano had joined the Air Force like his father before him, at the age of eighteen; he'd trained at Laughlin on T-37s; he'd been a sharp-witted, exemplary student pilot before going on to make a career out of flying war planes. He'd been born on December first, 1972, twelve years to the day after me, and he'd died in a self-inflicted fireball of a plane crash over the Sierra Madres two weeks ago. Nobody knew why he'd done it.

He'd been flying a single-seater F-16 fighter jet on the day he'd died; the same kind of plane he'd flown over Bosnia during that war. He'd won a Purple Heart for that mission after being shot at and ejecting when his plane had caught fire, and he'd been out of commission for a while, but now he was back on the job. I thumbed through the pictures in the file: Cano drinking with his Air Force buddies, all of them in uniform, Cano on his wedding day, Cano holding his newborn son, his own father standing proudly beside him, Cano leaning up against his plane, a smug, proprietary look on his face. They all had one thing in common -- a smiling Cano. He'd had the perfect life, this guy.

My eyes stole back down to the front page of his file. Date of birth: December 1, 1972, it read. I'd told everyone about that, about the coincidence of birthdays, and they'd all laughed at me. C.J. had made another jab about my age, and Toby had snorted and rolled his eyes. Everybody except Sam, who hadn't laughed. Instead, he'd said: "Okay. Well, I'm going to talk to Leo about the SPR." And then he'd left.

Sam's dismissiveness hadn't really been about Cano, though. He'd been blowing me off for a while before that, ever since- well, at least since my birthday. Mine and Cano's. Except that Cano hadn't made it anywhere near forty. He hadn't even made it another week past twenty eight before deciding to go and crash his plane into a mountain so as not to have to face another day. I wondered where Cano had been on *his* birthday, whether he'd been left alone in his apartment flipping channels all night while his wife had flown off to New York doing God-knew what with her ex.

I shook my head, my teeth clenched. It had been two weeks; why didn't we know more about this yet? The story had been all over the front page of the papers, but then it had vanished, and the country had one more forgotten dead soldier. Here we were, sitting in the most influential building in the world, working for the most important man in the world, who served as Commander-In-Chief of the most powerful military in the world, and we still didn't know any more than we'd known the day this guy had flown his plane into a mountain? Why weren't we devoting more resources to this? We couldn't have somebody crashing a multimillion dollar plane without finding out why. It had been two fucking *weeks*. What the hell had happened to him up there?

I pushed myself up from my desk and began carving a path into the floor with my feet. The plane Cano had been flying that day had been a single-seater. He'd left the base in New Mexico in his jet, flying with the rest of his group, but he'd still been alone. There hadn't been anybody else with him when he'd broken formation and flown off for over an hour while the combined forces of the U.S. military and the White House had chased him. There hadn't been any sort of communication with an airport control tower -- just Cano up there by himself with an airplane and a bunch of missiles and a death wish.

Clutching at the doorknob, I threw the door open and burst out into the hall, crossing quickly over to C.J.'s office, where I could see her head through the doorway. "C.J.," I said in the direction of her office, but she didn't look up. "C.J.!" I said, a little more loudly, walking past her assistant's desk and pushing through into the main part of the office. The press secretary was sitting on her couch sipping a drink. "C.J.!"

"Yeah." She was still staring at what looked like a half-torn piece of paper.

"What are you doing?"

"Eating lunch."

"Why is-"

"Something's strange about this photograph," she interrupted.

I closed my eyes and held my hands up in front of me. "Listen, why is there no more information coming about Robert Cano?"

"It's not the photograph, it's the painting in this photograph," she said, blatantly ignoring me.

"Why has there been no new information?"

She turned around, looking me up and down like I'd just asked her when the White House staff was going to be getting all-expenses-paid trips to Tahiti. "Because there's no new information."

I stared back at her, feeling a wave of rage well up inside of me. It tasted bitter, searing the inside of my throat as I bit it back. "Okay." I turned to leave.

"There isn't!" she insisted.

I turned back around. "You accept that?"

"Yeah."

"A perfectly healthy air force pilot kills himself and nobody's asking why?"

"A lot of people are asking why," she shrugged. "We just don't *know* why except that he obviously *wasn't* perfectly healthy anymore."

I stood still in front of her for a moment, feeling my mouth fall open, but there was nothing to say. Could that really happen? Could someone pass a rigorous military psychological screening one minute and go off his rocker the next? "All right."

I turned back around, still standing in the doorway, and looked down at my right hand. It was shaking again. I clenched it into a fist, and it finally stopped.

###

SAM: DECEMBER 19, 2000, 12:40 PM

"If you really feel like you've got to be there, then fine," I said, leaning in toward Josh's desk. "Come to the meeting." I didn't particularly want him hovering over me when I was talking to the President, but I knew there was nothing in the world that would stop Josh when he was in this kind of mood. And my arguments were solid; I could sound convincing even if Josh was going to try to tear them down.

"I wouldn't *have* to come to the meeting if you'd just listen to me in the first place," Josh shot back, slamming his hands down on the arms of his chair. He clenched his jaw shut, and the muscles in his cheeks rippled like a rope being pulled taut.

"I'm listening to you. I've been listening to you for the past half hour."

"You honestly still think we should tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserves."

"Yes."

"Because the Energy Secretary said we should."

I exhaled sharply. "No, Josh, because it's a good idea."

"An idea that came from the Energy Secretary in a speech to the Natural Resources Defense Council."

"Why should we care where it came from if it's a good idea?"

"So, what, we let every minor secretary think all he's got to do when he wants to influence White House policy is announce his big ideas in a public speech?" Josh sat up straight, his spine stiffened at attention, and scooted to the edge of his seat.

"I told you, I talked to Jessie Witt about that," I explained again, carefully holding my exasperation in check. "It was a bad move on their part, but if we decide not to consider the idea just because it came to us in a way we don't like, isn't that cutting off our nose to spite our face?"

"It's not- we can't just change our policy on the SPR after we've been *against* tapping into it for the past two years!" Josh fidgeted in his chair again, gripping the edge of his desk with one hand and rubbing the back of his neck with his other. "What's that gonna look like to people like Didion? I've been having it out with him over the IMF loans since mid-November. If he knows he's got us over a barrel on this other thing, he'll use that against us!"

"You think Didion's going to use his pull on Foreign Appropriations to sway the vote on the IMF loans? Because of the SPR?"

"Of course he's gonna do that! I don't believe ..." Josh shook his head, pushing my SPR report away from him like he was discarding it. "First we drop the ball on Cano, and now nobody thinks Didion's gonna use his leverage with the committee. If we were trying to run a company instead of a country, we'd have run it into the ground within two weeks!"

"Hold on," I said, holding a splayed palm in the air. "Didion doesn't have a leg to stand on if he tries to object to this on partisan grounds. In the last two administrations, Republicans in Congress have repeatedly tried to either cut money for the SPR or sell it off altogether. And wasn't it a Republican who criticized the very existence of the SPR by saying it was about taking oil out of one hole in the ground and putting it into another hole in the ground? All I'm asking for is a meeting with the Energy Secretary, maybe even together with Didion as chair of Foreign Appropriations if you think that's the way to go. I just want to feel them out on this."

"Well, you can save yourself the time, Sam, because I can already tell you what Didion's gonna say!" Josh yelled, his voice rising in both volume and pitch. "He's gonna tell us that it looks *incredibly* calculating to reverse our position in the middle of December. You know how they're gonna spin this? That we're trying to give people cheap oil because it means more low-income votes!"

"It's not about low-income votes, it's about low-income *Americans*. If we lower the cost of heating oil, we make it possible for people to heat their homes. We've got nearly two years until November 2002. We're not even officially *running* for reelection right now!"

Josh laughed, his voice sharp and mocking. "Says the guy who wanted to run off to Sweden with his tail between his legs rather than face Valerie Fagan at the Planned Parenthood conference!"

"We gave that speech! I don't see how that's even relev-"

"Talk about reversing policy decisions!"

I pressed my lips together and felt the expression drain from my face. "If you're trying to tear me down here so I'll screw up the argument in the Oval, then that's a pretty underhanded way of getting what you want."

"Are you telling me you're nervous about your big tete-a-tete with the President?" Josh sneered, rolling his eyes. "After working here almost two years? That's pretty-"

"You know, I don't have to take this." I stood, bringing one hand to my waist as I snatched the report from his desk with the other. "I have a meeting to go to."

"Did you sleep with her?" Josh accused, launching himself to his feet.

I took a confused step back. "Did I sleep ... with Valerie Fagan?"

He squinted momentarily, almost wincing. "You went to New York on my birthday-"

"What are you *talking* about?"

"Did you sleep with Lisa?" he screamed, looking down at the desk, like he couldn't quite focus on my face.

"No, Josh, I did not sleep with Lisa!" I yelled back.

Josh squeezed his eyes shut, forming tiny wrinkles across his eyelids and forehead. Falling against his chair, he deflated like a balloon that had suddenly lost its helium, and pressed his fingertips to his temples. He'd been angry when I'd told him I was going to New York for the weekend, but he'd refused to talk about it, trying to act like it hadn't mattered. We hadn't talked about it since. We hadn't talked about much of anything since. If he was still that upset about Lisa, though, he sure as hell could have mentioned it to me.

"You have a meeting," he finally said, his tone distant and empty.

"I thought you were going to-"

"I'll be there, just- I just ..." He lifted his right hand to wave me away, still rubbing his eyes. "I'll be there. I'll be at the meeting."

I bit down on my tongue, fighting with my anger as I stepped over to the door and swung it open. Josh didn't look up, and I jerked my head away. I was so goddamn *sick* of pretending whenever we were around other people and being pushed away whenever we were alone. Pulling the door closed behind me, I stepped into the hall and came to a halt not a foot from Leo and Donna. They were both staring at me. Leo's eyebrows were raised expectantly.

"Uh, hi," I stammered, my eyes darting between the two of them. How loud had the tail end of that conversation been? "You looking for Josh?"

"I'm looking for you," Leo corrected. "You got a minute?"

I glanced at my watch. "I was on my way to the Oval. The SPR meeting."

"Yeah. I'll walk with you."

"Okay."

I followed Leo down the hall and into the lobby, keeping my back straight and clutching the SPR report with my right hand. I glanced at him twice, but it wasn't until we were just outside the Roosevelt Room that he looked back at me, giving me the once-over from head to toe. "I wanted to get your perspective on what's been going on with Josh," he said slowly.

"Going on ... with Josh?" My voice creaked out of my mouth like the hinge on an old door.

"It sounded like things got a little heated in there," he explained, pointing a thumb back in the direction we'd come from.

"Uh ..." My mind raced through the conversation I'd just had. Had we said anything- no, not really. Nothing obvious, anyway. Josh could easily have been yelling at me about who I was sleeping with for some other reason. Maybe.

"You don't think that's a little out of the ordinary?"

"I guess I've never thought of getting yelled at by Josh as out of the ordinary," I said, cracking a smile. My heart was pounding.

"I've just been getting the impression that this is starting to interfere with his work."

My feet ceased to function just outside the Oval Office, and I thought I felt my heart stop altogether. "I haven't been getting that impression," I said, not quite managing to keep the edge out of my voice.

"Okay."

"Okay?"

Leo shrugged. "Okay, we have a meeting with the President." He pushed the door open, and I followed him inside.

The President looked up from his desk. "Hey there, Sam."

I forced the conversation with Leo to the back of my mind and held out my hand for the President to shake. "Good afternoon, sir."

"Is this everybody?" he asked, glancing at Leo, who was standing a few steps behind me to my left.

"We're still waiting for Josh," I heard the Chief of Staff say, as the door swung open again.

I glanced back and watched Josh come in, but he didn't look up. He was in shirtsleeves, the top button of his blue shirt open and his tie partly undone. He shoved his hands deep into his pockets and hovered near the door, pacing, like he was just waiting for the right moment to jump in. I pressed my lips together and turned back toward the President.

"Now it's everybody," Leo concluded.

"All right, then," the President said, looking directly at me. "So you're proposing that we tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserves."

"Sir, last year New England had sixteen point three million barrels of commercial inventory. This year, they have six."

"OPEC will find a way to punish us," the President grumbled, taking off his glasses.

"The Saudis have announced that they'd welcome the U.S. tapping into the SPR to calm the market," I argued. "Even the Saudis think the price is too high."

"If the Saudis are that concerned, why don't they just make the oil faster?"

"Well, they're not *that* concerned."

"I didn't think so."

"But if we were to release thirty million barrels of oil into the market, that could add an additional three to five million barrels of heating oil this winter."

"That's what you'd like to bring to the table?" The President folded his hands against his desk. "Thirty million barrels?"

"Well, all I'm suggesting right now is that we set up a meeting with the Energy Secretary," I backpedaled. "But the general principle is that we deliver crude oil to the oil companies to be sold at current prices and return it to the reserve at a later date, when it costs less."

"Is that going to work?"

"If nothing else, we should be able to achieve a short-term drop in crude-oil market prices, long enough to get people through the winter."

"All right, then."

"All right?" I blinked, not quite believing this one could have been that easy. I'd hardly scratched the surface of the arguments in my report.

"Let's set up a meeting."

I held up the document. "Sir, can I say-"

"You've sold me. We're setting up a meeting." Putting his glasses back on, he grabbed the SPR file and got up from his desk.

"Excellent!" I handed him the report, and he stuck it into the file.

"Did I say I think it's a bad idea?" Josh broke in as the President headed for the door. His voice held the same tone of barely-contained anger I'd heard in his office only ten minutes ago.

The President turned around. "Why?"

"It's not something Didion's gonna like."

"Well, I'm just talking about a meeting, but if I decide to do it, the President controls the SPR and not Congress," the President maintained, turning to leave.

"Yeah, but Didion controls the IMF vote."

"The two aren't related," the President dismissed, glancing back down at the file in his hand.

"Let's move on," Leo urged.

"The two *are* related!" Josh insisted, his shoulders pushed straight back.

The President looked up again. "How?"

"Through Didion."

The President cocked his head, removing his glasses. "I'm saying the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and forgiving the IMF debt are not related," he said slowly, as if speaking to a child who hadn't been paying attention.

"Anything else?" Leo said, glancing at me.

"Of *course* they're related!" Josh went on.

"Josh!" Leo barked back.

Josh took a hand out of his pocket and gestured toward the door. "If Didion doesn't like that we're tapping into the SPR, he won't let the IMF debt out of committee!"

"We'll talk to him tonight," the President said lightly.

"Mr. President-"

"At the Christmas party, we'll take him aside-"

"No, sir, you can't just take him aside-"

Leo took a step toward Josh. "Josh, we can move on-"

"We can't move on from it!" Josh said, raising his voice and spinning around to hold up a hand in Leo's face.

"Josh," I said severely, trying to cut him off.

"We can't just take him aside!" he yelled, directly into the President's face. "If we tell him we need his help, then we give him visibility and power, and we put him in a position to say 'no' and be a hero to his party! Who wouldn't want to do that for a living?" He turned his back to the President and faced me, but didn't meet my eyes. He was out of breath, his face red and his jaw jutted forward.

"Josh, Didion's a good guy. We can talk to him."

Josh spun back around and walked toward the President, waving his hands wildly. "You need to listen to me. You have to listen to me. I can't help you unless you listen to me! You can't send Christmas cards to everyone -- you can't do it!" The President was glaring at him, but Josh stepped even closer, almost screaming, and I drew in a breath and held it. "Forget the SPR, let's get the IMF loans like we said we were going to, listen to what I have to say about Didion, and please *listen* to me!"

The President gave Josh a stern look, holding his glasses in front of him. Josh was breathing so heavily that for a long moment it even filled the silence in the room. He seemed to be trembling, ever so slightly, and I could see beads of sweat forming on the back of his neck as if he was only now realizing the magnitude of what had just happened. No one talked to the President that way. No one, not even Leo. "Josh," I said, as quietly as I could.

"All right, let's move on," Josh said finally, taking a step back.

"Josh, go wait in my office, would you?" Leo's tone was low, but there was no room for doubt about whether it was a request or an order.

"I suppose if it's just a meeting, we-"

"Wait in my office," Leo demanded.

Josh's eyes dropped. "Okay." He crossed the room in front of me, his hands at his waist, and pushed through two sets of doors into Leo's office. His shoulders hunched over as he leaned against Leo's desk.

"We'll talk with Didion tonight?" I heard the President ask, and I tore my eyes away from Josh.

"Yeah," Leo answered, his tone flat.

"By the way, it's not intervention in a free market if that's what he's worried about."

"I agree," I chimed in, my words hanging awkwardly in the air.

"It's not free trade if the price of oil is being controlled by a cartel."

"No," Leo agreed.

"Sam, you'll be in on this?"

"Yes, sir."

"Thank you," the President said, nodding.

"Thank you, Mr. President," I responded, and crossed the room to leave.

I walked slowly back to my office, feeling my head spinning. Josh had yelled at *me* many times over the past few weeks, but to take out our issues on someone else, especially the President -- that was unthinkable. That was one of the cardinal rules of Sam and Josh, second only to "Thou shalt never tell anyone about what goes on behind closed doors." It had never been discussed explicitly, but we both knew: we never, never let the relationship interfere with our job performance.

I pushed my office door open and sat down at my desk. When things had started to go wrong on the campaign trail, we'd avoided running into each other as much as possible, but never to the detriment of our common goal of getting Bartlet elected. When it had finally ended just before Election Day, I'd thought nothing could possibly hurt so much, but it hadn't occurred to either of us not to accept positions in the White House. After the shooting, when Josh's very life had been in the hands of a team of surgeons, I'd forced myself in front of the cameras the next morning to tell the world about what had happened. There was never any room to wallow; work came first, every time. That was why none of this made any sense.

I didn't even know where things stood, now. Since Josh's birthday we'd mostly been avoiding spending any time alone together, like we were both afraid of having to watch everything fall apart again if we tried to talk about it. But to yell at the President- I shook my head. Josh had never reacted like that, not even back when everyone had come within a hair's breadth of finding out.

Hearing a tap on my window, I looked up to see Leo standing just outside. He ducked his head in. "You got a minute?"

"Sure." I couldn't remember the last time the Chief of Staff had come to my office.

He pushed the door closed behind him and stood still for a moment as if to consider what he was about to say. I felt my pulse quicken again and sat up straight in my chair. "There's something I've been meaning to talk to you about," he said, "but things have been so crazy around here-"

"Okay," I said quickly, cutting him off.

"It's about what happened in there."

I nodded. "Okay."

"I know you've known Josh a long time," he said, sitting down across from me.

I spread my hands against my desk to steady myself. "I have."

"You two met during a campaign?"

"Mike Silverstein for Senate. New York. 1986." I leveled my eyes at him, wondering what I would do if he asked me point-blank if Josh and I were sleeping together. I'd already run through hundreds of potential scenarios for what could happen if it finally came up, but it had never occurred to me that the entire relationship might seem so precarious when it did. "Uh, Leo, do you mind if I ask what this is about?"

"Have you ever heard of ATVA?"

I leaned back, confused. "The All-Terrain Vehicles Association?"

"The American Trauma Victims Association."

"Don't they get sent in to work with families who've lost their homes in natural disasters?"

"Among other things." Leo leaned in toward me a little, and the corner of his eye twitched. "Listen, I'm gonna need you to sit with a guy about Josh."

I blinked. "What?"

"I need you to sit with a guy from ATVA."

"About Josh? Wait." I felt my forehead wrinkle, and I dropped my chin, keeping my eyes on Leo. "What exactly are you saying, here?"

"I'm saying there are different ways to recover from the kind of thing that happened to Josh, and maybe he's not all the way there yet, that's all."

My hand moved involuntarily to my chest. "This is about the shooting?"

"Yeah."

"Is this- this is a formal intervention? Like with ..." drug addicts, I almost said, but bit back the words as they formed on my tongue.

"With alcoholics and addicts? Yeah, it's kinda like that." My eyes grew wider, and I stared at Leo. "He'll probably just ask you if you've noticed any unusual behavior from Josh since he came back to work," he continued. "It's pretty routine."

"Josh- he's been pretty ..." My voice trailed off and my gaze fell to my desk as I turned my thoughts inward. The overreaction to little things, the near-constant exhaustion, the way he'd been pushing me away -- that wasn't about us. It wasn't about being afraid people would find out; none of it was, not this time. "I didn't even see it," I whispered.

"You get good at hiding it."

I looked up at Leo and inhaled slowly. His lips were set and slightly pursed in a neutral expression, but I could see the concern in his eyes. Leo had known. I'd missed it, but Leo had known. "I mean, I know he's been- like what happened in the Oval- but he's always had a temper. That's just- that's just Josh."

"Well, it seems that this time, it *isn't* 'just Josh'." Leo stood. "So you'll do this?"

"Of course I'll do this," I said vehemently.

"Good. I'll have Ginger set something up for you within the next couple of days. "Oh, and good show with the President today. You'll be talking to Didion at the party tonight?"

The party. Tonight. Work came first. "Uh, yeah, I'm planning on it."

"Terrific." I heard the door close behind him.

Time stood still as I sat silently at my desk, running all the moments through my mind where I should have realized what was happening, all the signs I should have seen. How could it not have occurred to me that for all Josh's "fly by the seat of your pants" attitude, he wouldn't typically have been forgetting to make phone calls? And despite his renowned hot temper, he certainly wouldn't have screamed at me about Lisa in the middle of a workday under normal circumstances.

My hand reached absently across my desk to the shell Josh had given me all those years ago, and I traced the pattern of gold swirls on its surface. The SPR question -- my first priority only an hour before -- suddenly seemed so trivial. My stomach jolted at the thought of trying to prepare to meet with a Congressman while this was happening. I shook my head. I should be out there, doing something.

I rested my forehead on my hand, weaving my fingers through my hair. Really, though, there wasn't anything left for me to do. I'd have been in a prime position to do something back in November, but by now I'd missed the boat. Drawing my hand back from the shell, I folded my fingers together and blinked down at them. It was amazing how ineffectual I could be, sitting at the very seat of power. Sam Seaborn, speechwriter and attorney -- but what good was any of that to Josh now? The only tools I had were information and rhetoric, and all those hard-won skills were useless in the face of something like this.

Information and rhetoric. I jerked my head up suddenly, lifting myself out of my chair. Walking over to the door, I swung it open.

"Ginger, do you think you could ..." I began, raising a finger in the air, and let my voice trail off. This would fall under science, probably, which would mean the fifth floor of the Adams Building. Or would this be part of the National Library of Medicine? I took a step forward into the communications bullpen and shifted my weight from one leg to the other. Back and forth, rocking.

"Do I think I could what?" Ginger prompted.

"Sorry." I let my arm fall back down to my side and glanced at my watch. The Library would be closed by the time I was done here, but I could get a jump on things on the Internet. "You know what?" I met her eyes. "I think I'll take care of this one myself."

###

JOSH: DECEMBER 19, 2000, 7:55 PM

I leaned back against the couch, trying to get a better angle in the mirror I'd propped up against the pillow. Tilting it to one side, I focused my eyes on the place where my neck met my collar, just below my chin. Cross the base at the short end, I thought, weaving my white bow tie into a loop. Drop the point down from the collar button. I pulled the knot tight, and it came apart in my hands once again. "Damn it!" Dropping the tie against my shirt, I flexed my fingers in the air in front of me.

Okay, I was *not* going to lose my cool, here; there had been more than enough of that for one day. I glanced away from the mirror so as not to have to see the fresh embarrassment on my own face. I'd definitely stepped over the line for a couple of seconds, there. Though that was no reason for Leo to blow it this much out of proportion. He hadn't even let me apologize to the President.

"I think I should go back in there," I'd told him.

"You're gonna sit with a guy," he'd responded, his voice carefully level, as if trying to calm a wild animal. I rubbed my forehead, trying to wipe away the memory by wiping away the creases that seemed permanently etched there. "You're gonna sit with a guy," he'd repeated, after I'd protested.

"If this is because of what I just said in there," I'd interrupted, trying to appease him. "I wasn't at my best with-"

"Josh, I'm not sure you were fully conscious while you were saying it," Leo had finally insisted. Like he knew so much better than I did what was good for me. The guy had probably changed my diapers, which already gave him that added edge of justified smugness when it came to determining the path my life would take, but now he was my boss as well, and there was no room to argue.

He meant well. But the fact remained that Leo McGarry was an ex-drunk who swore by the principles of the twelve steps to enlightenment, or whatever they were called these days. He was bound to see any momentary slip-up as a sign of something more serious. I wasn't wallowing in the bottle, though. I went to work every day, for eleven, twelve hours, sometimes more -- and that wasn't counting events like this ridiculous holiday party that were really more about another four or five hours of work than they were about either holidays or parties. I wiped my sweaty fingers on the formal black jacket the President was making us wear tonight.

Okay, one more try. Just this one last step and I was out the door. Cross the slightly longer end over the place where my fingers meet, I intoned in my head, then pass it around behind and up through the top. Looping one end of the tie through the other, I let the long end dangle along the front of my shirt. Push one end with your finger into the knot in the middle, and tug it through. I pulled the knot tight, grasping the loops and ends in both hands.

I moved my hands away carefully, slowly. The bow stayed tied, but sat there, lopsided and awkward, and pointing out in four different directions. I tensed my fingers, scowling into the mirror, and tried to adjust it, moving it to the left and then back again to the right.

As if from out of nowhere, a loud buzzing noise sent the room erupting into screeching and static. Sitting suddenly bolt upright, I jerked involuntarily at one end of the tie, and it collapsed to my chest again as my head filled with bright flashes. The noise stopped as quickly as it had started, and I leaned back against the couch, my heart pounding and sweat breaking out on my forehead. Breathe, I told myself. You can breathe. I forced air into my lungs in a ragged, straining gasp, grabbing the edges of the couch cushions with both hands.

The noise returned, and this time I recognized it as the doorbell. My jaw jutted forward, I jumped up and ran over to the unit beside the door. I pressed the button, silencing it. "What?" I yelled.

There was a long pause, and for a moment I thought it was a bunch of kids playing tricks. "Hello?"

"It's us, Josh," I heard C.J.'s hesitant voice saying from the front step, and I ran a stiff hand through my hair. Toby had said that he and C.J. would come by to pick me up tonight, and I'd felt too numb to argue with anyone at that point.

"Yeah, okay," I said, buzzing them in.

I opened the door and stepped out into the hall, watching them as they approached. C.J. was wearing a waist-length black wool jacket over what looked like a pretty fancy red dress, and Toby was right behind her in an outfit identical to mine, but with a perfect bowtie tied just below his chin.

"Ready to go?" C.J. called out. She looked me up and down, her eyes following the line of my tuxedo, and stopped walking directly in front of me. "You're not dressed."

"I look naked to you?" I tried to joke, but it came out sounding like a rebuke. I turned around, and they followed me into the apartment. "I've just got to tie this stupid tie," I explained, walking over to sit back down on the couch.

Toby stepped closer, hovering directly behind me, and I ran through the instructions in my head again. Hold the first loop with your right hand, I thought. Pull the new loop a little tighter. I scrutinized my reflection in the mirror, and behind my frantic wrist motions I could see Toby standing there, watching me. I glared at him over my shoulder.

"At least the worst thing we women have to put up with is pantyhose," C.J. said from the doorway.

"Take one side and make a bunny ear," Toby added.

I dropped the tie again, clenching my teeth together. "I've just got to ... you know, you're supposed to loop this one thing around this other thing, and then it doesn't want to stay." I picked the two ends up, folding the left edge for what seemed like the hundredth time.

"My dad trained my mom to do this for him," C.J. mused.

"Yeah, well, since your mom isn't here right now ..." The knot came apart in my hands again, and I jumped to my feet. "Damn this thing!" Straightening my arms out to my sides, I rocked back and forth in sheer frustration.

For a long moment, the tension expanded to fit the space between us, magnifying the silence, and then I heard one of them cough. I pressed my lower lip against my teeth, my head down.

"Hey, you know what?" C.J. finally said, the cheer in her voice obviously forced. "I'm sure nobody would object if you decided to sit this one out."

"I've just got to tie this stupid tie," I growled, sitting back down in front of the mirror.

"Josh," Toby said quietly, and I felt his hand on my shoulder.

Jerking back from him, I turned around. "Okay, tell me the truth. Why did you two come here to pick me up? 'Cause I'm pretty sure it wasn't because you thought I'd need a designated driver."

The two of them exchanged a look. "I was picking C.J. up, and your place was on the way," Toby answered.

"Yeah, but I'm on your way to work every morning, too, and I can't remember either of you ever offering to pick me up when you were heading in to the office."

C.J. shook her head, stepping toward the couch. "It's no big deal-"

"Leo put you guys up to this, didn't he?" I looked from C.J. to Toby and back again. "He wanted you to keep an eye on me."

C.J. opened her mouth, but her words turned into a sigh. "He's worried about you."

"God damn it, I- I told him I was fine!" I grabbed the edges of the mirror, propping it back up.

C.J. took a few more steps forward, and I could see her reflection behind mine as I picked up the two ends of the tie again. "Well, he doesn't think so," she insisted, "and frankly, neither do-"

"You don't know a damn thing, okay? You don't know a *damn* thing." I made one more loop with my right hand, weaving the left end around it. My face in the mirror was red, and I pressed my eyes closed for a moment. Get a grip, I chided myself, exhaling slowly. "I'm going," I said, more quietly, carefully keeping my voice even. "I'm gonna go to this party, and I'm gonna corner the Speaker of the House when he's got a couple of glasses of wine in him, and-"

"The Speaker can wait," Toby insisted, glancing at C.J. over his shoulder like they were conspiring to get me to stay home tonight. I gritted my teeth and turned my eyes back to the mirror.

"I can't believe it's the twenty-first century and they're doing this thing white tie," I said, forcing a laugh. "Whatever happened to business casual?" I pulled the long end of the tie through the loop in my right hand and smiled, but there was no response from the peanut gallery behind me. Raising an eyebrow, I tried to catch Toby's eye in the mirror. "What, you're not gonna try and claim that it isn't the twenty-first century yet? That the new millennium doesn't begin until January first-"

"Josh-"

"Would you just- would you both ... quit ... *watching* me like that?" I dropped the bowtie one last time, balling my hands into fists, and stood, spinning around to face them again. They both looked down at the floor. C.J. cleared her throat.

Toby looked up, and as his eyes met mine, they filled with so much sympathy that I wanted to hit him. Stepping toward me, he picked up my tie in both hands. With practiced fingers, he looped the long end through the knot and grasped both ends, and pulled it tight, straightening it. I lifted a hand to my throat. It was perfect.

I took a step back, my eyes darting away. "Donna's usually around to- I've always had trouble with ..."

Neither of them responded. I looked down at my shoes, reaching a hand around to the back of my neck. It was wet.

"I'm okay," I said again. "I just- I'm okay. I'm okay."

"Okay," Toby conceded, and held my coat out for me as we walked out the door.

###

SAM: DECEMBER 19, 2000, 8:45 PM

Retrieving the final page from my laser printer, I skimmed the bullet points on the list and glanced again at my watch. All right, so maybe I'd be a little late for cocktails and hors d'oevres, but if that was going to be a problem, they'd all just have to deal with it. There were limits, here, even in this job. I set the printout on my desk and pulled my door closed behind me, smoothing the wrinkles out of my jacket as I dashed down the hall.

"Hey, Sam," Karl called out to me, looking up from his desk as I walked past him on my way into the hallway leading to the main part of the White House. The short, gray-haired security guard smiled as he saw me in my tux. "You done for the day? Aren't you supposed to be at some big shindig in the East Room? You're sure dressed for it."

"Yeah, I'm on my way. Just finishing something up."

"You the only one left back there?"

"I think so." I rushed past him, turning around briefly to make eye contact, but kept moving, taking a few long steps backward. "See you tomorrow."

The East Room was filled to overflowing with U.S. Congressmen and the occasional White House staffer, each of the men clad in the prescribed uniform of an angular black tuxedo with a white shirt and a matching bowtie. A coat check was set up near the main entrance, intercepting the guests as they poured in, and they were all heralded by a trio of classical musicians. The heavy turnout was expected, given the guest appearance of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, but it still surprised me to see so many members of Congress at a single social occasion.

I scanned the room for Josh, ultimately finding him standing along the far wall with the Speaker of the House. He had his chin down and his eyebrows raised in that slightly skeptical, challenging look I saw nearly every day, but his shoulders were still drooped just a little too far. He raised a hand to the back of his neck, rubbing, and then dropped his arm back to his sides. Just hang in there, I thought at him, nodding, and turned my eyes elsewhere.

I spotted Didion as he crossed the room, shifting his glass of wine to his left hand as he reached down to adjust the shirt that strained to cover his stomach. Seeing my chance, I approached him from the front. "Congressman," I announced, holding out a hand.

"Mr. Seaborn," he responded, drawing his bushy white eyebrows together and looking at me over his glasses. He drew back, feigning alarm. "You're not holding a drink!"

I smiled back. "Haven't had a chance to make it over to the bar yet, sir."

"You work too hard, Sam. It's Christmas. Have a glass of wine. They're serving Hagafen's award-winning 1988 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve from your very own home state."

"Sir, the White House would like to float the idea of reversing our policy on the SPR."

"Ah, yes," he said, nodding. "I can't imagine how I could have seen that one coming. You're looking to make the announcement now, just in time for the holidays. Have you folks ever thought about doing the *unpredictable* thing at some point?"

"The price of home heating oil has gone up nearly eighty percent since last winter," I argued. "The Northeast is facing a crisis of yet-undetermined proportions if we don't find some way to intervene."

"The fact that the Energy Secretary already announced this policy shift doesn't have anything to do with it, I assume?" he purred, drawing his upper lip back into a smirk.

"This is exactly the sort of crisis the reserves were intended to help abate," I insisted, ignoring his reproach. "By raising the specter of greater intervention later, we'll even be able to avoid having to tap them too deeply now."

"Most heating-oil refineries are already producing at near-maximum, Sam. More crude oil isn't going to help the refineries produce any more heating oil in time to make a difference."

"We'd just like to set up a meeting, explore our options."

"If that's the case, why are you speaking with me about it first?"

"Sir-"

"On second thought, Sam, why don't we give this a rest for now. Within about ten minutes, each of us will be having our eardrums personally tickled by the most stunning cellist in classical music today. I can already sense I'm not going to win this one, and I'd like to make sure that any bad taste in my mouth is from the afterglow of those marvelous crab puffs." He reached out to grab a puff from a plate as one of the caterers walked past, popping the golden brown pastry into his mouth.

"All right, sir," I said, smiling at him as I backed off.

Didion returned the smile, displaying a row of perfect white teeth that matched the shirt of his tuxedo. "Come find me after the performance, and we can talk then," he said as he walked away.

Heeding the Congressman's advice, I walked over to the bar to get a glass of wine and eventually followed the crowd drifting toward the chairs set up in the far corner of the room. Feeling a hand at my elbow as I passed the back rows, I turned around to find C.J. standing in front of me, wearing a red ball gown. "Did you meet with Didion?"

"I'm supposed to talk to him again after this," I said, tilting my head toward the clearing on the hardwood floor occupied by a chair for the cellist. "But he's not going to stand in our way."

"That's great," she said, smiling. "I'll let Josh know -- maybe it'll reassure him a little."

"You picked him up earlier?" I asked, my eyes surveying the room to find him again, but I saw only a sea of tuxedos and brightly-colored dresses. "Did he seem okay to you?"

"I think he's doing all right," she said earnestly. "He was a little upset about us watching him, but since we got back here he's been making the rounds, talking to the Speaker, you know. Being Josh."

"Yeah." I pressed my lips together, craning my neck into the aisle. I couldn't see him.

"Hey," she said, reaching for my arm again, and I looked up to meet her eyes. "Smile, Skippy. It's Christmas."

I cracked a grateful smile, nodding. "Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas," she agreed, rushing off.

It took about another ten minutes for the guests to take their seats, leaving entire groups standing at the back as the chairs all filled. Josh finally appeared, seemingly engaged in a debate with Congressman Warren, and took a seat a couple of rows from the front. I slipped in to sit directly behind him and made conversation with the wife of Senator Grace, keeping one sharp eye on Josh.

The President looked simultaneously regal and exuberant as he introduced Yo-Yo Ma, and the music began. As the cellist played Bach's Suite in G major, completely unaccompanied, a sense of calm settled over the room. Allowing myself to become engrossed in the performance, I almost failed to notice the first signs that everything was not, in fact, completely all right with Josh. Minutes into the first movement, his shoulders jerked forward and sweat began appearing on the back of his neck. I leaned forward a little, alarmed, as he began shaking. He reached up to wipe his neck, his fingers trembling.

A person having a flashback usually believes that the traumatic event is happening all over again, I remembered reading, in the document now sitting in the middle of my desk. Josh's hand jerked forward to his chest, and there was an audible gasp that left no doubt in my mind that this was exactly what was happening. I glanced around the room, but the music kept playing, and I watched in horror as Josh struggled to keep his composure. If he was angry about his friends keeping an eye on him, I knew there was no way he'd do anything to draw attention to himself like this unless he was completely unable to help it.

I didn't hear another note of the performance. My eyes remained fixed on Josh, and I watched as the physical manifestations of his terror were displayed like textbook examples of all the things I'd read about that afternoon. The Congressman next to him shot him the occasional concerned look, but the rest of the party remained oblivious to what was going on in the third row. Everyone stood in joyful applause as the piece came to an end, but Josh remained seated, leaning forward in his seat and rubbing his eyes. As soon as Yo-Yo Ma had taken his final bow, Josh shot out of his seat and bolted from the room.

Swiveling my neck around, I followed him with my eyes rather than my feet. I was pretty sure he wouldn't tolerate being interrupted by anyone at all at this point, much less by me, given the way things were between us. Standing still as the crowd moved around me toward the opposite end of the room, I kept my my feet frozen to the ground and my eyes trained on the door as Iwaited for Josh to return. He didn't.

Finally tearing myself away from the spot, I found myself venturing slowly toward the back of the room, still watching the door. "All right, Sam, I'm all yours," a familiar voice called out from behind me, and I turned around to find myself nose to nose with Didion. He grinned at me, his cheeks flushed red from the wine. "I'm coming to you filled with holiday spirit and the wonder of Yo-Yo Ma's magnificent performance, so here's your best chance to convince me." The Congressman brought his hands to his waist, straightening his belt.

"I appreciate your candor, sir," I said, casting a glance back over my shoulder. I positioned myself so I could see the door without turning my back on Didion.

"So tell me again why you'd want to tap the reserves -- apart from endearing yourselves to lower-income voters, of course?"

My eyes darted quickly over to the door and returned to Didion. "Republicans in Congress like to paint Democrats as insincere, but I assure you that any hypocrisy you see is a trick of the light," I joked.

"Naturally."

"If we were to take only thirty million ..." My voice trailed off as I thought I saw Josh reenter the room. I lifted my chin to see past the head of a tall redheaded woman, but it wasn't him.

"Sam? I have the feeling you're not quite with me."

Straightening my shoulders, I turned my eyes back toward Didion. "All we need is ..." I stood on my toes to get a better look at the back of the room, and then looked back at Didion and blinked. "I'm sorry, Congressman, could you excuse me for a moment?"

A look of surprise crossed the Congressman's face, and he nodded. "Be my guest," he said, gesturing toward the door.

I sprinted out into the entryway, my head jerking around as I searched for Josh among the scattered crowd. "Did Josh come by here?" I asked C.J., cornering her by a marble column.

"I haven't seen him," she answered.

"Leo, have you seen Josh?" I asked, yelling across the hall to the Chief of Staff.

"Not since before Yo-Yo Ma," he said, looking me over. "Is something wrong?"

"He ran out of there like the place was on fire, and now I can't find him."

"Maybe he needed some air."

"No, I think- I'm pretty sure something was wrong," I said, hearing my voice shaking. "I mean, I don't want to make this a thing ..."

Leo shook his head. "If it's a thing, it's a thing -- it doesn't take you to make it one. Why don't you check and see if he ended up back at his office?"

"Okay," I said, nodding. "Thanks."

I bolted down the hallway leading back down to the West Wing, past security guards and a small handful of after-hours staff, and I was out of breath by the time I reached Karl's desk. "Karl, did Josh Lyman come back here?" I asked, panting.

"He was here just a few minutes ago."

A wave of relief rushed over me, and I closed my eyes briefly. "He's in his office?"

"No, I- he left."

"Left?" My eyebrows shot up.

"He went outside, and when I walked over to the door, I thought I saw him get in a cab down at the end of the road."

"He went home?"

"I think so."

I stared out the door as if I could cause events to run in reverse and have him reappear at the end of the road. Raising my hands to my waist, I shifted my weight back and forth between my legs. He was on his way home. He'd be okay.

"Is something wrong?" Karl asked, and I jerked my head up to face the security guard. The tiny man's forehead was wrinkled with concern. "He didn't say good night, and I called out to him twice."

"He's ..." I raised a hand to my chest, spreading my fingers against my jacket. Josh was going home, to sleep. He'd deal with this.

Unless he couldn't sleep.

I turned my head back toward the exit and stared out the door again. Biting my lip, I reached into my pocket and grabbed my cell phone. "Hey, Karl, you got a phone book?"

The security guard rolled open a drawer and set the thick volume on the desk.

"Thanks," I said, opening it and scanning the lines of names with my index finger. Marigold, I reminded myself. Whipping open my cell phone, I dialed the number at the end of the second column on the left hand page.

The phone rang six times before someone answered. "Marigold Properties."

"Good evening, this is Sam Seaborn. I work with Joshua Lyman at the White House. I'm very sorry to disturb you so late."

"What can I do for you?"

"Mr. Lyman left work tonight rather abruptly, and I was wondering if I might be able to get somebody to run down to his apartment for a minute to make sure everything's all right ..."

###

JOSH: DECEMBER 19, 2000, 9:50 PM

The wind sliced through me as I stepped outside, but I didn't think to button my trenchcoat until I looked down to see my shirt rippling. Wrapping the coat clumsily around me, I fastened a single button and stumbled down the steps. I raised both hands to my face, rubbing my cheeks and squinting my eyes shut. I was standing just outside the White House. I was walking, one foot in front of the other.

Pulling my cell phone out of my pocket, I clutched it tightly enough that I wouldn't drop it. I blinked at the display as it lit up, pressing the button to dial the operator. A guy with a deep voice who sounded remarkably like James Earl Jones picked up. "Welcome to Verizon."

"Yeah, I ..." I wiped the sweat from my forehead with the palm of my hand. "I wanted to, uh, call a cab."

There was a click, and I realized the voice had been a recording. It rang twice more. "Can I help you?" a woman's voice said.

I closed my eyes, opening them again, wider this time. The night seemed far too dark, the only lights coming from the building behind me. "I'm sorry?"

"This is the operator, can I help you?" the high-pitched, nasal voice repeated. Ducking my head a little, I pressed my chin against my chest. I was standing down by the street in front of the White House, near the entrance to the West Wing, I reminded myself. I was holding a cell phone, talking to the operator.

Squinting against the blackness, I watched a cab turn onto the end of the road. "Ah, that's okay," I croaked, folding the phone back together and sliding it into my pocket.

The car came to a halt directly in front of me, and the window of the passenger door rolled down. The driver looked about eighteen, with bronze-colored skin and a dirty white winter jacket. "You Mr. Phelps?"

"Yeah." Loud rock music blared from the front speakers as I opened the back door and climbed inside. I could be anyone this guy wanted right now, as long as he was willing to take me home. I wiped my eyes, grasping the bridge of my nose between my thumb and forefinger. "Fourteen fifty-two P Street."

The kid pulled away from the White House, glancing at me in his rear view mirror. "Pretty fancy party, huh?"

I looked up at him. "Hmm?"

"Everybody I been takin' to the White House tonight's been wearin' that same penguin suit there. All of 'em. Like clones."

"Yeah, pretty fancy," I mumbled, rubbing at my forehead. The speakers were amplifying the bass, and it roared in my stomach.

"I suppose they'd have fancy food at a fancy party like that, huh."

I hadn't touched the food. "Yeah."

"I had caviar once? Just about spit it out, it was so disgusting. Man, I'd never eat that shit again. And oysters, too. Taste like snot."

"Yeah."

"Hamburger, man. It's good enough. Y'know what I mean? It's the original all-purpose food. You know what you're doin', you can make anythin' with it. Anythin' at all."

"Mmm," I grunted, squinting my eyes shut again.

"This one lady? I took 'er over to the White House about an hour ago? She was wearin' this dress that had these black feathers all the way down the front. Same lady? Wearin' *fake fur*. Makes me wonder about those types, you know? Can't kill a chinchilla or a mink, but it's okay to rip the tail feathers off some bird. Y'know what I'm sayin'?"

I leaned my head forward, resting it on the back of the front passenger seat. The music was blaring in my ears, and the strain of the electronic keyboard transformed itself into wailing screeches. The kid's voice tuned in and out like a radio station just far enough away that you couldn't quite pick it up. There's a wind, but it's still warm. "It's, ah- windy," I heard myself saying, in a voice so hollow that I barely recognized it as my own.

"Windy? You mean the blower? I've got the heat on low, man, but I'm not gonna turn it off. It's too fuckin' cold."

"Cold?" It wasn't cold. There's a wind, but it's still warm, and I think about taking off my jacket.

"Yeah, man, it's fuckin' freezing out there. I thought Old Man Winter would wait a little longer, but he's really hittin' us right between the eyes. We're gonna have snow by Christmas -- I can feel it."

There's a wind, but it's still warm, and I think about taking off my jacket. "It's only May! It's not supposed to get this hot yet," I say to C.J., but she's not there anymore. "It isn't supposed to get-" I started to say, but cut myself off with the firm pressure of teeth against the flesh of my tongue. I tried to draw in a breath, but it shuddered through my lungs and felt painfully shallow in my chest.

"You okay, man?"

I looked up as the kid stopped the car, raising a fist to my mouth to stifle a cough, half-expecting to find my fingers stained red. The guy's greasy black hair fell into his eyes as he pivoted his body around toward me. Blinking at him twice to make sure he wasn't going to turn back into C.J., I turned my head to glance out the window. We'd pulled up in front of my building. "Ah, sorry. What?"

"That must've been some party. Hey, you havin' a bad trip or somethin'? Because I don't know nothin' about no CPR and stuff like that."

I lifted my hand to my forehead. It was still drenched in sweat. "Ah, no, I'm- I'm fine. I ... how much do I owe you?"

"Eight fifty."

Taking my wallet out of the inside pocket of my trenchcoat, I stared down at it, breathing loudly through my mouth. He'd said an amount, but I hadn't heard him -- or it hadn't quite registered in my brain, like I'd forgotten what the words meant. "How ..." I tried again, but my voice wouldn't come out, my words sputtering into the air as my lungs strained to wheeze. I took a bill out of my wallet and reached forward into the front seat, handing it to the kid. "Here, just take this," I rasped.

"That's-"

"Dammit, just- just take the money!" I screamed, not looking at the guy. He grabbed the bill from my hand, and I stumbled out of the car, pushing the door closed behind me. The street light was blaring down on me, and I looked up at it. It was warm against my face.

There's a wind, but it's still warm, and I think about taking off my jacket. "It's only May! It's not supposed to be this hot yet," I say to C.J., and I wait for her to come back at me with a wisecrack about how I never fail to wilt in the Washington summers. But she's not next to me anymore; she's up near the front with Sam.

I heard the mechanical hum of an automatic window rolling down behind me. "You sure, man?" the driver called out, his voice squeaky. I turned around, my eyes focusing just enough to see him clutching the steering wheel like it was his ticket to freedom. I opened my mouth to respond, but couldn't speak. The kid shifted into reverse, and there was a screech of tires as he pulled away. And then I was alone.

The crowd surges, and the new Secret Service agent whose name I don't remember bumps into me from behind, almost knocking me against the metal gate. "Hey," I say crossly, glaring at him a little. He's still got his eyes trained on the crowd ahead of us. I expect him to apologize, but he doesn't, and then he's off, like a racehorse when the gates fly open.

I turn a little to watch the President work the rope line as I walk, and I can't help but smile, even though I know it'll hold us all up. This is Bartlet at his best, and if each one of those hands he shakes ends up attached to a voter in 2002, it's worth making an already late night half an hour later. Behind him I can see Gina trying to shake off Zoey's eager questions as she combs the crowd with the same look the other guy had, but at least Gina isn't steering Zoey into the railing.

And then she's turning, knocking Charlie to the ground, screaming something incoherent that's instantly drowned out by explosions. "Get down, get down!" I hear her urging us, and I throw myself against the railing, voluntarily this time. I grasp the bars, wrapping my fingers around the metal, an icy jolt of fear rushing through my body as I watch the President being pulled back and down. There are screams from the crowd in front of me, from the group behind me, surrounding me from all directions, but the sound is almost reassuring. When an eight-year-old version of me was huddled behind a car watching a trail of orange eat away at the roof of the house, all I could hear was the crackling of flames. It wasn't until later that I realized it had only been that way because the girl left inside had already lost the ability to scream.

"Get down!" I hear someone say again, and I realize I'm still sitting up, that the metal gate is leaving me exposed. I move to the side as if by instinct, pushing myself up from the bars until I'm crouched on all fours, and then I feel the impact of another human body propelling me three or four feet backward. I try to duck behind a planter just as the explosions break out again, and a flash of light knocks me against it.

I don't feel the bullet as it hits me. The small piece of lead deadens the tissue and organs it crushes, leaving my entire chest numb. I think of Mannix, manly Mannix who'd always get shot in the shoulder with an elephant rifle in one scene and curl his dapper black sling around his new girlfriend five minutes later. I know I'm supposed to collapse to the ground in a tidy, bloodless heap, but for a moment all I can do is stare at the air in front of me, air that suddenly feels thick and impenetrable as I try to lift my arm.

I reach for my shirt and close my fingers around the fabric. The slight effort of movement is enough to make me feel winded, but there's no breath to catch. My lungs are frozen in place and won't expand. A red hot poker stabs me in the chest, and I look down at where it's burning to watch a stain swelling on my shirt like a child's red marker against the rough page of a coloring book. The stain grows, and I can't look away; can't quite fathom that it's my own body I'm seeing.

"Who's been hit? Who's been hit?" I hear a voice yelling, and I try to call out in response, but the same pressure that's stolen my breath robs me of my voice as well. All around me I hear people crying, shouting out names, but then there are sirens echoing in my ears, in my head, like on the night the house burned but multiplied by a thousand, and I can't hear anything else.

This is how it ends, I think, feeling the small of my back against the edge of the planter that wassupposed to save me. Not lying in some hospital bed at the age of eighty with tubes shoved up my nose and Sam's hand on my arm, but sitting upright against a slab of concrete in Rosslyn, Virginia, surrounded by hundreds of people and yet still completely alone. As the minutes tick by and no one comes to help, all sound disappears but my own heartbeat, and even that's growing fainter with every passing second. It rumbles like a low voice in my ears, whispering over and over again that I should have known it would be this way, should have realized all along that I'd end up dying alone.

Then Toby's in front of me, and although I can't quite focus on him, I know he's there because I can hear him yelling at me for not responding to his shouts of my name. It's too late, though, and I feel myself slipping, the hand that's been clutching my shirt falling against my lap just before the rest of my body goes limp.

When I became aware of my surroundings, I had one foot on the second step and the other on the ground, standing halfway up the stairs to my building. I didn't know how long I'd been there, but it had definitely been long enough for my fingers to have turned to ice around the railing. I tried to breathe and ended up gasping, unable to draw in enough air, but I could see the clouds of vapor in front of me as if the night air was sucking the breath out of my lungs.

Staggering up the stairs, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my keys. I was shoving the key into the lock in the front door of my building. I was hearing the tumbler click -- no, no, that was the tumbler, in the lock, the one on the front door of my building. I was walking down the hall to my apartment. I was taking out another key, the one to my apartment, and I had it in my hand because I was walking into my apartment. I was shutting the door behind me. I was ripping my coat off, and the jacket to my tux; I was throwing them into the front closet of my apartment.

I flicked the lights on one by one, first the one in the entryway, and then I felt my way along the wall into the living room, turning on both the overhead light and the lamp on the table by the couch. Standing in the middle of the room, I stared up at the one directly above me, squeezing my eyes shut and opening them wide again, trying to draw in enough light to overpower the images in my mind. I was panting.

I covered my face with my hands, pulling at my cheeks, stretching my skin. Catching a glimpse of the outline of my body reflected in the window, I froze, standing upright, shoulders pushed back. I trapped the breath in my mouth, wide eyes staring at the ghostly apparition superimposed onto the surface of the glass. It was backlit, hazy around the edges so that I couldn't quite be sure whether it was actually present, its facial features fuzzy and distorted. My gaze penetrated straight through it, seeing past it to the trunk of the oak tree out front.

Tearing my eyes away, I rushed into the kitchen, flicking on lights as I went: the incandescents in the hallway, the fluorescents overhead, the one above the stove. Turning on the tap in the sink, I splashed cold water on my face and turned to the cupboard, pulling out a glass. I was getting a bottle of Scotch. I was pouring myself a drink. I was taking two ice cubes out of the freezer. I was adding them to the Scotch -- the Scotch that was in the glass, the glass my hand was wrapped around. My fingers slipped, almost dropping the drink, and lukewarm liquid splashed out onto my hand and the floor as I walked back into the living room.

I sat down on the couch. Setting the glass on the end table, I stared into space, my eyes focusing and unfocusing on the coffee table in front of me. There's a wind, but it's still warm.

Rubbing my eyes, my temples, I blinked against the dry air. I was here, I thought frantically. That was me I was touching, my face, my body; I was solid. There's a wind, but it's still warm, and I think about taking off my jacket.

I couldn't do this again.

Lunging forward, I ran to the window, watching as the angry face of the phantom on the glass shattered into a million pieces and disappeared. I took a step back, looking down at my hand. The skin on it had torn open. I lifted my chin, looking back at the window, finding it broken and open to the cold December night air. A car honked its horn as it drove past, drowning out the rhythmic hissing of my breath.

"Mr. Lyman? It's your super." I jerked my head around to face the door, hearing the frantic sound of knocking. "Mr. Lyman, are you okay in there?"

Bright red blood was seeping out of my hand, dripping down my arm, and I followed it with my eyes, my vision blurring into edgeless shapes and colors. As the darkness drew me in, I heard the super calling my name again and again from the other side of consciousness, like a beacon, or a heartbeat. And then it was gone.

###

SAM: DECEMBER 23, 2000, 3:00 PM

"Sam? Mr. Keyworth is upstairs."

I looked up from the page in front of me. Ginger was standing in the doorway. "Who?"

"That guy from ATVA?"

I rolled my chair back, standing. "It would be Dr. Keyworth, actually. Though I suppose technically he's not a medical doctor. He's a social worker. He's got an MSW from Cal State Fresno and a Ph.D. from Florida State University."

"Okay." The corners of her eyes twitched, like she was physically restraining herself from rolling them. I pressed my lips together, struggling to remember that she had no idea this was more than just one more meeting, more than just another stupid reason for her to have to be in the office on a Saturday afternoon. "Sam, *Dr.* Keyworth is upstairs," she repeated, correcting herself.

"Okay," I answered, pushing past her into the communications bullpen.

I walked down the hall and up the stairs to the second floor conference room. Pausing for a moment outside, I straighened the collar of my shirt. As I opened the door, a middle-aged man in slightly faded khakis and a charcoal gray sweater stood up from his chair at the far end of the table. "Hi. I'm Stanley Keyworth."

"Sam Seaborn." The guy's informal dress looked out of place in the White House, even on a weekend, but I felt the knot in my stomach loosen a little. Josh wouldn't have opened up to a guy in a suit; it would've felt too much like work.

"Thank you for taking the time for this," he said, extending a hand for me to shake. His grip was strong, reassuring me further.

"Of course."

Dr. Keyworth sat back down, and I claimed the chair next to him. Several files and loose pieces of paper were spread out in front of him on the table. "I assume Leo McGarry has talked to you about why we wanted to speak with the people Josh works with," he said.

"I know you want to ask me some questions, and that's fine. I mean that's- that's good. But first I'd like to ask you something."

"You can ask. I don't have all the answers yet."

"No, it's- it's about Josh's hand. He came in the other day with a bandage wrapped around it."

"Right."

"Do you think he might have ..." I let my voice trail off, unable to say the words out loud.

"That's one of the things we have to find out."

I felt a sudden jolt of panic. "Do you think- is he a danger to himself?" God, he was in his office today, with the door closed. "He shouldn't be left alone."

"We're going to do this as soon as possible. His assistant is clearing his schedule-"

I launched myself to my feet, thoughts whirling around in my mind. "I should go find him."

"Mr. Seaborn." He held up a hand. "There are people keeping an eye on him. The biggest help you can be to Josh right now is to work with me on this."

Sinking slowly back into my chair, I lay my hands flat against the surface of the table. That was almost certainly true; there wasn't a whole lot I could do at this point. I'd had plenty of chances to help and had missed them all. I inhaled a long breath through my nose and met Dr. Keyworth's eyes.

"There will be an assistant in with us during the actual debriefing," he continued. His expression was confident, with just a hint of warmth. "She'll be able to-"

"An assistant? Are we talking about a secretary or a traumatologist trainee?"

His eyes widened slightly. "A trainee. Her name is Kaytha Trask."

"She's training at Florida State?"

"Uh, through the U.S. Army, actually."

"Field traumatology? Level one? Certified?"

"She's- she's in the process of becoming certified." He looked me over. "You've done your homework."

I shrugged. "I looked a couple of things up."

"I think you did more than that."

"Once I realized- once Leo came and ..." I swallowed, turning my eyes downward to the dark brown stain of the wooden table. I raised a hand to my forehead, rubbing. "You know, when you've got the Library of Congress at your disposal-"

"You care about him," Dr. Keyworth said, gently.

My gaze met his, and I let my mouth fall open. A lump chafed against the base of my throat. I closed my mouth again and nodded slightly.

"Have you known Josh a long time?"

"About fifteen years."

"And you've been close all that time?"

"We've- we haven't always been close." I blinked, my eyes darting over to the window. "But off and on, all that time, we've been close. Yes."

He shuffled the stack of paper in front of him, pulling out a page with a red rim. "It says here that you two were both a part of the President's campaign staff."

"Yeah, Josh was ..." Josh had insisted to the entire staff of a struggling presidential campaign that they really needed to hire an old friend of his. On the basis of the work I'd done on the Silverstein campaign years before, when I'd been nothing more than a kid. And then he'd come to New York, and I'd known I would never practice law again. "Josh brought me on board."

"He must have a lot of respect for you."

My chin snapped up, and I looked the doctor squarely in the eyes. "I have a lot of respect for him."

"When was the first time you noticed the changes in Josh's behavior?"

I sniffed, feeling one corner of my mouth turn up into a self-flagellating smirk. I *hadn't* noticed; Leo'd had to hit me over the head with it. "That depends."

"That depends?"

"Are you asking when I noticed, or when, with current levels of hindsight, I now recognize that the changes occurred?"

"Let's go with the latter."

I scooted forward in my seat. Josh and I had agreed not to actually spend the night together in an attempt to minimize the risk of being found out. But I'd still been at his place at one in the morning more than once, and I was almost certainly the only person who knew anything at all about how erratic his sleep had been. And that dated back well into November.

I folded my hands in front of me. "I ..." My words turned into a frustrated sigh, and I smiled a little, my lips pressed tightly together.

"Or when you noticed. Either way."

"I guess about three weeks ago," I said reluctantly.

"And what happened then?"

"Well, I'd just come back from a meeting over at the Energy Department, and I wanted to talk to him about that -- about a policy change that we might want to consider making. And he- well, at the time, I thought he was just being dismissive, you know, blowing off my idea. But now I think he was probably preoccupied with something else."

"What makes you think that?"

"Josh was- he got an assignment to look through the file of an Air Force pilot who'd more or less gone rogue. He seemed fascinated by the fact that the pilot had been born on his birthday. And then the guy ended up crashing an F-16 fighter jet into the side of a mountain."

Dr. Keyworth jotted some notes in the margin of the page in front of him. "So he was pointing out similarities."

"Exactly."

"And that concerned you."

"It- it didn't then. It does now. I mean, he was- he was searching for these analogies between himself and this guy who then went and committed suicide." I inhaled a sharp breath, and it shuddered through my throat. "And then- well, I have to assume you already know about what happened in the Oval Office the other day."

"Yeah."

"Well, right before that, he blew up at me."

The doctor raised both eyebrows, his forehead wrinkling with surprise. "In front of the President?"

"No, no." I shook my head. "In his office."

"I take it this is unusual for Josh?"

"No, well- yes." I clasped my hands together in front of me. "I mean, it's not unusual for him to raise his voice while we're debating whatever's on our plate that day, but this- this was more than that." I could say that much.

"This all happened on the nineteenth?"

"Yeah, I think- yes, it was the nineteenth."

"What did he say to you?"

"He was just- I was a little nervous about my meeting with the President, and he threw that back in my face. At the time I assumed it was because he disagreed with me about the substance of the meeting, but- and then he ..." Then he had flown into a jealous rage about my trip to New York. I coughed.

"He what?"

I looked down at the table again, removing my glasses. The more information this guy had, the easier this would be on Josh in the long run, but I knew Josh would never forgive me if I said anything that overt. "He- at the Congressional Christmas party that night, I'm pretty sure he had a flashback," I said, shifting gears. "While Yo-Yo Ma was playing."

"Why do you say that?"

"He was obviously agitated, and I was right behind him and could tell he was shaking. And then immediately afterward he ran out of the room and took a cab home."

"And that worried you."

Sitting up straight in my chair, I raised both arms, holding my hands open in front of me. "It worried everybody! Josh, he- let's just say he's not the kind of guy to leave the party early when there's a room full of Congressmen with drinks in their hands. And then- well, he showed up at work the next morning with his hand wrapped up and a chip on his shoulder the size of the state of Delaware."

"And you thought you'd been right to worry."

"Yes."

"Have you talked to him since then?"

"I ..." I folded my hands again, locking my fingers together. "We had a short meeting where I briefed him about how things had gone in my second meeting with the Energy Secretary."

"Did you mention that you'd been worried about him?"

I shook my head. "He was so wound up, and so angry at everybody about- well, about you, to be completely frank. About this. He obviously didn't want to talk about what had happened with his hand, so I just let it go."

"But you hadn't stopped worrying."

"Of course not." His face had seemed to be set in a permanent glare that day, and he'd been so ready to jump all over anyone who asked how he was doing. But I'd seen the circles under his eyes, and had wondered how I'd ever missed them. "I think he might be having nightmares about the shooting," I said tentatively.

"What makes you say that?"

"He- he called me once. In the middle of the night, back in November. He said it was about something else, something work-related. And he woke me up, so the memory is a little fuzzy, but I'm sure now that it was about that." I opened my mouth again, hesitating.

"That's it?"

Drawing in a long breath, I balled my right hand into a fist. I pushed myself up from the table, crossing over to the window. The oak trees on the North Lawn were stripped bare of leaves, their branches jutting awkwardly into the air. It happened that way every year. Trees always faced the entire winter without that protective outer layer.

"He doesn't ..." I began, letting the thought evaporate before it was fully-formed. Back before things had become so tense between us, Josh had been continuously trying to get me to stay the night, and I'd always been the one to insist I couldn't. But I couldn't say that to this guy.

"He doesn't what?"

I leaned against the window ledge, reaching out with one hand to grab onto the thick curtains. I'd assumed it had been just another example of Josh trying to get what he wanted in the moment, with no thought to the long-term consequences, but now it seemed more serious. Serious enough.

"He doesn't want to sleep alone," I said, almost under my breath.

Dr. Keyworth didn't respond. I stood for a moment at the window, immobile, and then finally turned around. He met my eyes, but his expression didn't change. "Okay," he said, nodding.

###

JOSH: DECEMBER 24, 2000, 8:05 PM

Stanley looked down at the file open in front of him on the table. "So why were you pissed at Sam?"

"I told you, it was about the SPR!" I said, my voice tense with irritation. We'd already been here since noon; if we were going to cover the same ground over and over again, it was never going to end. I was supposed to have been meeting with somebody over at HUD this afternoon, but Donna'd claimed they'd had to cancel. My jaw jutted forward, and I bit into my tongue. Even if that was true, it was a Sunday. I could've been at home, watching football. "He wanted to put together this one meeting, and I thought it was a lousy idea."

"Did you yell?"

"At Sam?"

"Yeah."

"I've known Sam since I was twenty-five years old. We met in politics. We're always yelling at each other about something." My eyes stole over to the dark-haired girl standing by the wall, her fingers wrapped around that notebook. She walked back to her chair by the window, and I narrowed my eyes at her. It was pissing me off that she was writing all this down. It was pissing me off that she was there at all, like I needed a babysitter. She looked like an overaged teenager who still hadn't outgrown her buck teeth.

"Do you think Sam's been concerned about your behavior?"

I turned my head to face Stanley, still glaring. "What's this fixation on Sam, here? It wasn't Sam who called you -- it was Leo."

"After your blowup in the Oval Office."

"It wasn't a- I didn't *blow up* in the Oval Office. I was a little too harsh, maybe."

"And then what happened?"

"Leo sent me to his office and told me I had to sit with a guy from ATVA." I leaned forward, resting my right arm against the table across from Stanley, displaying my bandaged hand to prove I had nothing to hide. "So here I sit."

He looked down at his notes. "Well, thank God for Leo."

"Yeah," I sniffed.

"I'm serious. The man's an alcoholic -- he knew what he was talking about."

"I'm not sure it was as bad as maybe it was-"

"It was."

"Stanley, you can ask the questions and you can answer them, but you can't do both at the same time."

"Yes, I can," he insisted.

I snorted. "Why?"

"Because I know the answers." He looked me directly in the eyes, unbuttoning the sleeve of his shirt to roll it up. "And I don't work for you."

I blinked at him. It occurred to me that my future at the White House -- and possibly my entire career -- rested in the hands of what this guy reported back to Leo about this meeting. "Is there gonna be ... a-"

"How'd you cut your hand?"

I looked down at the table, my eyelids heavy with exhaustion. "Stanley."

"No, how'd you do it?"

"I put a glass down!"

"Yeah, I don't think you did." He started rolling up his other sleeve.

"Stanley, I got home from the thing," I began, running back through what I'd already recounted for him at least four times. "I made a drink. I sat down, I pushed the magazine aside to use as a coaster, and I missed the coaster."

His lips pursed in a feigned expression of admiration. "You missed the coaster with quite a bit of force."

"I work out when I can."

"I swear, I am completely unimpressed with clever answers."

"And I was so hoping we'd have a second date."

Stanley chuckled, nodding a little as if conceding me a point, and I raised my eyebrows at him, waiting. His slight smile vanished as quickly as it had appeared, and he looked simultaneously grim and all-knowing.

"You're in nine kinds of pain," he said finally, his voice low, and I felt my stomach clench. "You don't know what's going on inside of you, and you are so locked into damage control that you can't-"

"You diagnosed me in eight hours?" I looked down at the table.

"Josh, I diagnosed you in five minutes," he insisted. I looked back up at him, feeling my face freeze. "Talk about the night of the party," he said, moving on. "You said you put down the glass when you came home from a party that night."

"Yeah, the Congressional Christmas party." He raised an eyebrow, prompting me, and I continued. "The Congressional Christmas party was white-tie, which is unusual, but the President likes it." I looked away from him again, a familiar static beginning to blur the edges of my thoughts. "Toby and C.J. picked me up, I went to talk to the Speaker of the House, I got cornered by Congressman Warren, I sat down to listen to Yo-Yo Ma."

"You know you're just listing off an inventory of events, here?"

"I thought you wanted me to tell you what happened!" I yelled, propping my left elbow on the table and clutching my hand into a fist.

"Don't just tell me what happened." He met my tone, in intensity if not in volume. "Tell me what happened to *you*."

I looked back down at the table. "What was the diagnosis?"

"I'm sorry?"

"You said you diagnosed me in five minutes. What was the diagnosis?"

Stanley glanced down at his notes, surveying them, and looked back up at me. "You have post-traumatic stress disorder."

"Well- that ... doesn't really sound like something they let you have if you work for the President." I tried to keep the tremor out of my voice, but I knew he'd heard it. He blinked, nodding, as if to acknowledge that I really could lose my job over this, and all the muscles in my chest clenched at once.

"So can we have it be something else?" I asked, laughing to cover my panic. He opened his mouth, but I interrupted him, not wanting to hear what he'd have to say. "Seriously, I- I think you might be wrong about that. I- I'm not trying to be difficult."

"I don't think you are."

I scooted forward in my seat. "I know that I- I'm giving you cocky answers, I- that should be-"

"Listen-"

"I know that you want me to talk about my feelings-"

"No I don't, Josh. The last thing I want you to do is talk about your feelings. I think if you heard a tape recording of this day, you wouldn't hear the word 'feelings'."

I stared at him, stunned into silence.

"What we need to be able to get you to do is to remember the shooting without reliving it. And you have *been* reliving it." He leaned forward, suddenly looming over me, and I felt my eyes begin to lose their focus. "Right? It happened during the Christmas party?"

The next words out of my mouth emerged almost in a whisper. "I'm not ... trying to give cocky answers-"

"I am the guy you tell, Josh!" Stanley yelled. "It happened at the Christmas party."

My vision clouded over, my mind turning inward onto itself. The tiny conference room transformed into the splendor of the East Room, ornamented with the bright red and green of Christmas decorations. I was making small talk with Congressman Warren, sucking up to him a little so there might be less of a chance he'd object the next time we wanted to spend some money on something. The President was introducing Yo-Yo Ma, and then it started. I pushed my eyes wide open, unable to hear anything other than the wail of a siren.

"Josh?" Stanley's voice echoed as if from inside a tunnel, and the room snapped back into focus.

"I was fine."

"Josh."

"It- it was the Bach G Major," I managed.

"That's a nice piece."

"It is."

"Did he play it well?"

"It's Yo-Yo Ma."

"I've never heard him in person."

"He's really-he's really quite something." I bent down over the table. I'd heard only a couple of minutes of it, myself, before ...

"How did it start?"

"I don't know," I whispered.

"Yes, you do."

"I was- I was just ... sitting there."

"And then what happened?"

"I don't know!" The sound of a single gunshot exploded into my mind, and I felt myself jerk back.

"What, are you in the fourth grade?" Stanley taunted.

"I don't know how it started!"

"You tasted something bitter in your mouth." My head snapped up, but it took me a few seconds to realize that the words had come from the girl by the window. A familiar taste burst onto my tongue, like biting into a copper coin, and I swallowed it back. "It was the adrenaline," she explained. "The bitter taste was the adrenaline."

Stanley nodded, still looking at me. "What happened then?"

The wooden chair became the cushioned folding chair from the Congressional Christmas party, and two rows of tuxedoes appeared in front of me. I heard someone scream, and then there were doctors shouting jargon across to each other, over me. "I couldn't make it stop," I gasped, and the images flashed across my mind like a story unfolding onto a movie screen. "I couldn't make it stop."

"No you couldn't, Josh," Stanley said, "but you'd been trying for three weeks, and that's why you were feeling sick inside. And what happened when you went home that night?"

My arm jerked up, and I stared down at my hand. A white bandage was wrapped around it.

"You had an episode at the party -- that afternoon you had blown up in the Oval Office. What happened when you went home that night?"

"Honestly, nothing!"

"Okay." Stanley got up from his chair and walked over to sit directly next to me.

"I sat down on the couch-"

"Can you honestly tell me-

"I- I pushed the magazine aside as a coaster-"

"That when the pilot committed suicide-"

"I- I didn't-"

"Can you honestly tell me that you didn't wonder if you were suicidal too?"

I looked back at my hand, and the bandage disappeared, revealing a rough bloody gash. "I- I didn't wonder that."

Stanley reached across the table, grabbing my arm. "You're lying."

"I didn't wonder that," I said, my voice shaking.

"Everything that the two of you had in common-"

"We had nothing in common!"

"You know you had the same birthday-"

"Who gives a damn if we had the same birthday!"

"But you knew something else."

"Stanley-"

"You knew he'd been shot down once, that his plane had caught on fire, that he had ejected, and that there were some injuries."

"Stanley! I made myself a drink -- I pushed aside a magazine to use as a coaster."

"Josh!" he yelled, his eyes fierce. "Josh. How did you cut your hand?"

I looked up at him, and this time, when our eyes met, something inside me loosened and broke free. I'd been sitting in my seat, three rows back from Yo-Yo Ma, remembering -- no, not remembering, reliving -- the shooting, smelling the rancid stench of gunpowder in the air, hearing the sirens and the screaming, feeling my lungs collapsing in my chest. And then I'd bolted from the room, taken a taxi home, and when I'd gotten there, it had happened again. From the beginning.

"I took a cab home," I heard myself saying. I'd stood on the front porch of my building that night, feeling the warmth of late spring crowding out the December cold, bucked over the railing like it was a planter in front of the Newseum. "The driver, he was- he had this loud annoying music on. And I gave him a twenty, or maybe it was a fifty -- I wasn't paying attention at that point. I could- I could feel it all, the whole thing, like it was happening all over again."

I felt a sharp pain in my chest, and my hand jerked up to cover it. The fabric between my fingers transformed itself from the cotton blend of a plain work shirt to the ornate ripples of a tuxedo. I looked down at my chest, watching it turn back into an ordinary white shirt. An ordinary white shirt, the top button unbuttoned, a red tie loosened around my neck. The sharp pain just below my heart eased into a dull ache.

"I let myself into my apartment and fixed myself a drink," I continued. I had rushed through the hallway, turning on every light I could. "I kept turning on lights. I guess I was trying to convince myself I wasn't standing outside, you know, after dark, like the night of the shooting. And I couldn't make it stop -- the pictures ... in my head, everything. It wouldn't stop. It- it got a little better for a few minutes, but it wouldn't stop. And then it started again, from the beginning, and I felt myself ... I dunno ... losing it, I guess. Again. I couldn't- I couldn't do it again. I couldn't go through that again."

Lifting my right hand, I looked down at my palm. The red gash glared at me, blood dripping, and slowly transformed back into a white bandage covering a wound that was just beginning to heal. "In the window, I could see this- this thing. It was me, my- ah- reflection, I guess, but it looked like- like a ghost or something. I could see right through it. I remember thinking that if I could just make the thing go away, that I could make it all stop."

I looked up at Stanley. He was watching me, his eyes expectant. "And so I put my hand through it. Through the reflection. And through the- through the window."

He nodded at me, smiling a little, and glanced down at the table in front of him. When he looked up again, his eyes met mine. I didn't move, but I could feel a weight I hadn't even realized I'd been carrying begin to ease itself from my back.

"Okay, then," he said.

I raised a hand to my lips. "Okay then?"

"That's that," he added, nodding.

That couldn't be everything. "I'm ... cured?"

"Yeah, Josh." His voice was laced with sarcasm, and his lips turned up into a smirk. "You're cured. No problem."

I sat up straight, my shoulders feeling lighter. I hadn't felt this good in ... in a long time. "Stanley-"

"I'm gonna recommend a therapist you'll like."

"I like you!" I insisted.

He shook his head. "You're too easy a case for me."

"I broke a window!"

"Yeah. Stop doing that. I want to commend you on not hurting anybody else and not hurting yourself too badly, but nevertheless, stop doing that." He got up from his chair.

I felt my forehead wrinkle in confusion. "And ... that'll do the trick?"

"Yup." Stanley walked over to where he'd been sitting before and started gathering his notes. From behind me, I heard the girl stand as well, and she crossed in front of me and began putting on her coat.

"I- I'm gettin' short-changed, here."

"Merry Christmas, Josh! We're done." He slid his papers into his briefcase. "I'll call your office after the holidays and give you a number."

"It was nice meeting you," the girl added, smiling.

"Hang on!" I said, gesturing up at Stanley. "What happens if tomorrow some pilot with my birthday decides to kill himself?"

"No, that wasn't what started it."

"What started it?"

"You were already cooking for a few hours before the pilot."

"I was?"

He nodded, closing his briefcase. "Usually with a gunshot victim it's a car backfiring, or a twig snapping, but that's not what it was with you."

"What was it?"

He half-turned toward the girl. "Kaytha?"

"The music," she said, still smiling.

"The brass quintet," Stanley amended.

That didn't make any sense -- there hadn't been any music the night of the shooting. "Why would the music have started it?"

"Well, I know it's gonna sound like I'm telling you that two plus two equals a bushel of potatoes, but at this moment, in your head, music is the same thing as-"

"As sirens," I said, as another piece fell into place in my mind.

Stanley nodded back. "Yeah." He picked his coat up from the chair, sliding an arm through one sleeve.

"So that's ... gonna be my reaction every time I hear music?"

"No," he said, giving me a thin smile.

"Why not?"

He put his arm through the other sleeve, shaking it free at the collar. "Because we get better." His smile broadened, and he followed the girl out the door.

I shook my head. "All the same, I need some more therapy!"

"Oh, you're gonna get some," he reassured.

"I mean now!" I stood, following him out into the hall.

"Merry Christmas, Josh!"

"We can order a pizza!"

He chuckled. "Have a good night!"

"Stanley, I haven't told you my dreams yet!"

"Fax 'em over to me!" he yelled back, disappearing down the corridor.

###

SAM: DECEMBER 24, 2000, 11:35 PM

I slid the key into the lock and opened the door to Josh's apartment, quietly in case he actually was home and choosing not to answer the door. The front closet gaped wide open, the jacket to Josh's tuxedo tossed onto the floor and forgotten. I bent down to retrieve it, hanging it alongside my own coat.

A half-eaten bag of potato chips sat open on the coffee table alongside three paper plates, each covered in crumbs and days-old pizza crusts. A sink overflowing with dishes indicated that I had probably been the last person to do them, and my stomach clenched. As recently as a week ago I would have chalked that up to Josh's natural chaotic tendencies -- before realizing he'd been fighting a battle I was only just beginning to comprehend.

Setting my stack of printouts and photocopies on the kitchen table, I wandered back into the living room. A blue tarp covered the floor in front of the window, the broken glass hastily patched with duct tape and a piece of plywood. I ran my fingers along the window ledge, forming a pile with the shards that still littered it. Icy wind seeped in through the cracks around the board, overpowering the warmth within the room, and I shivered. Pulling the curtains shut, I crossed the room to the far wall and turned up the heat at the thermostat.

The sound of a key in the lock drew my eyes over to the door, and Josh walked in, followed closely by Donna. She stopped in the entryway, her eyes betraying her surprise. "Sam!"

I cast a furtive glance at Josh, but he just wrinkled his forehead and turned away from both of us, taking off his coat and hanging it in the closet. "I've got a spare key," I tried to explain, taking a step forward. "In case somebody ever has to look after Josh's apartment while he's out of town."

Donna raised an eyebrow, cocking her head at Josh. "You get Sam to look after your apartment?"

Josh closed his eyes and stumbled over to the couch, his face drawn with exhaustion. Dropping a white paper bag onto the coffee table, he sat down, leaning back against the pillows and grabbing onto the bridge of his nose. I brought my hands to my waist, watching him. I swallowed hard.

Crossing over to stand behind the couch, Donna propped herself up and leaned over Josh, her hair drawing across them like a curtain. "I think I should stay," I heard her say quietly.

"You're not gonna stay, Donna," Josh mumbled in quiet protest.

"You shouldn't be here by yourself."

I took a step closer to the couch. "Actually, he's not here by himself."

Donna lifted her head to look up at me. "He's a little out of it. They gave him something at the hospital."

"Donna," Josh groaned, covering his eyes with one hand.

"What do you mean, gave him something?" I asked.

"He panicked in the emergency room," Donna explained. "They gave him something to calm him down."

"Did he have another flashback? What did they give him?"

Josh lifted his forearms and spread his hands in an empty gesture of irritation. "You know, I am sitting right here, in case, you know, anybody wanted to ask *me* anything."

"I don't remember what it was called," Donna said, reaching over Josh and groping for the white paper bag on the coffee table.

"Valium?" I prompted. "Ativan?"

"That's it," she nodded, pointing at me.

"Or you could just keep talking about me over my head like I can't understand a word you're saying. That's fine, too." Josh sounded diminished, like a worn, shriveled version of himself. I shivered.

"We're just worried about you," Donna insisted. "I've been worrying about you for four straight weeks!"

I turned my back on them, jerking away from Donna's words as if responding to the sharp jolt of an electric shock. Donna had seen it. She'd only met him a couple of years ago, but she'd still known.

"Come on," I heard Josh say, almost inaudibly.

"You just have to deal with the fact that all of us were right and you were wrong, and we're all going to take care of you now." Donna's tone was a mixture of smugness and relief.

"You can't stay here, like, forever," Josh argued. "I've got to sleep sometime."

"I'll stay on your couch tonight."

"Donna, aren't you doing that big family thing tomorrow? You're not gonna-"

I spun back around. "I can stay. I mean, I'll stay for a little while."

Donna lifted her head again. Josh's eyes stole over to me and turned quickly back up at her. "I promise I'll brush my teeth and say my prayers, Mom," he said in a mock-whine.

Standing straight and folding her arms, Donna looked again at both of us and finally nodded. "All right," she said to me, and pointed an accusing finger at Josh. "But you're *not* going into the office tomorrow. It's Christmas."

"Has everybody just suddenly, like, *forgotten* that I'm Jewish?" Josh said incredulously, sitting up against the pillows and holding his arms out to his sides.

"Josh!" Donna put her hands on her hips.

"Okay, I won't go in to the office tomorrow!"

Leaning over, she kissed him on top of his head. "You be careful with yourself."

"I'll use tongs," he grumbled.

"I'll come check on you on Tuesday," she called back as she walked back into the entryway. "See you, Sam."

"Bye."

The door closed behind Donna with a click, and the silence surrounded us. I stood there for a moment, my hands at my waist. Josh leaned his head back against the pillow again, closing his eyes, his legs bent at the knees. Lifting one hand, he rested it against his forehead.

Biting into the soft flesh on the insides of my cheeks, I turned around and crossed back into the kitchen, grabbing the stack of pages from the table. I walked back into the living room and set them down on the coffee table next to Josh, finally sitting on the opposite end of the couch. Laying my hands flat against my legs, I stared down at the light brown carpet. Say something, dammit. Information and rhetoric were all I had, and now even rhetoric was failing me.

"Were you just saying that to get her to leave?" Josh said, in a voice so small I almost didn't recognize it.

"I'm sorry?"

"Did you say you would stay so Donna would leave?"

I opened my mouth. The ensuing silence felt empty and horrible, and I fought with my tongue, struggling to say something, anything at all to fill it.

"Just- just ... if you could," Josh continued. "I mean, I know you can't actually *stay*, you know, with the 'no overnights' thing, but just for a little- I mean, I don't want to-"

"Okay," I said quickly.

Josh let out a long sigh. "You know, I really meant that to come out sounding a lot less desperate."

I looked away, stiffening my fingers against my lap, and the springs in the couch shifted as Josh let his arm fall to his side. The water from the tap in the kitchen dripped rhythmically into a shallow pool of water on one of the plates in the sink, once for every passing second.

"They gave you a prescription?" I said finally, gesturing toward the white paper bag on the table.

Josh opened one eye, lifting his head a little. "That's- that's more of what they gave me tonight. Doc made me take some home."

"It helped?"

"Yeah." He dropped back against the pillow. "I can't take it again, though."

"Why not?"

"Knocks me out too much."

"Did you have another flashback?"

Josh scooted back so he was sitting up straighter, glaring at me. "Do you have any idea how much I don't want to be having this conversation right now?"

"I've been doing some reading," I said quickly, stumbling over the words. "I was over at the Library on Wednesday, and I had them photocopy me a bunch of stuff. Did you know that most mental health professionals in this country didn't really know about the existence of post-traumatic stress disorder until after the Vietnam War? There wasn't even a DSM category for it until 1980."

"Is that right?" Josh said, but the growl in his voice suggested it wasn't a question.

"There's some good stuff on the Internet, too." Reaching across to the stack of paper on the table, I handed the first page to Josh.

His eyes scanned the page. "Point number six," he read. "Avoid adult activities after a flashback."

"Uh, yeah, I think that particular one is aimed mostly at childhood abuse survivors." I leaned over again, grabbing it back from him.

"Adult activities? It's good they specify that, 'cause, you know, there's nothing sexier than flop sweat on a guy strung out on tranquilizers."

"They don't mean- they mean that generically, Josh," I said sharply. "They mean things adults would do, like going to work, or driving."

Josh rolled his eyes. "You know, if everyone who'd been traumatized were to stop driving, nobody would ever get out of the parking lot after a Michael Jackson concert."

"Some of this is good, though. Here's a breathing technique. Inhale through the nose while counting at least five seconds. Allow your stomach to relax, taking in the air fully. Hold the breath for three-"

"Sam, I think I learned how to breathe about forty years ago, give or take a few weeks."

"But if you hyperventilate, you could have a panic attack," I insisted. "You have to train yourself not to overbreathe."

"You're not gonna start chasing me around the office with a stopwatch and a paper bag, are you?"

My back stiffened, and I held both hands up in front of me. "Josh, I'm trying to help, okay?" I yelled. He raised his eyebrows at me, but he didn't smile. Tension pulled at the muscles around his eyes, and I felt my shoulders slump. "And- and it's not really helping," I said, defeated. "And I should just let it go."

Josh leaned his head back against the pillow again, letting his eyes drop shut. Snapping my head away, I pressed my lips tightly together. It was pretty pitiful if this was all I had to offer. I couldn't do this. Donna had wanted to stay. He'd have been far better off with her. I wrapped my fingers around the arm of the couch.

"Hey." Josh nudged my leg with his toes. "Thanks."

I turned back toward him. "For what?"

He shrugged. "For this." He tilted his head toward the stack of paper on the coffee table.

I sniffed, my lips turning up in a scornful smile. I bent over, resting my elbow on my knee, and leaned my forehead against the palm of my hand.

"What?" he asked.

"Don't- don't thank me for that."

"Why not?"

I shook my head, inhaling a long breath and pushing it out again through my nose. I looked up at Josh, flinching at the eye contact.

His expression shifted from inquisitive to annoyed. "Sam-"

"I- I've been around the whole time, okay?" I blurted. "I've been right here with you since mid-November, and it took Leo and Donna to figure out what was going on. Leo had to *tell* me you were in trouble."

"You know, this is just so-"

"I should've been able to see it. And even if I didn't, I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions about why you were acting that way. At the *very* least, I shouldn't have left town on your birthday."

Josh pushed himself up into a sitting position. "You know, I haven't been the easiest guy in the world to deal with lately, either."

I shook my head. "I swear, if you try to *apologize* to me, I'm-"

"Sam, I'm not- would you just shut up for a minute?"

My jaw snapped shut. Josh rubbed his eyes, letting his head hang low over his lap. My hands fell to my sides, and I clenched them into fists.

He lifted his head and met my eyes. "I'm not apologizing, okay? I'm just saying you might have had reason to keep your distance."

"I should have done something. I should have known."

"Maybe I didn't want you to figure it out."

"You did, though," I said quietly. He blinked at me, wrinkling his forehead, but he didn't deny it, and I felt something sharp grab onto my heart. "When Leo asked me to talk to that guy from ATVA-"

Josh sat bolt upright. "He *what*? You talked to Stanley?"

I spread my hand flat against the couch. "Leo had a bunch of us-"

"I thought it was just gonna be Leo and Donna! You- God." He shook his head, his jaw jutting forward. "How long were you- what did you tell him?"

"I told him you had been kind of preoccupied with the pilot-"

"I mean what did you *tell* him, Sam?" Josh screamed, scrambling to his feet.

I jumped up. "I didn't tell him anything, all right?" I yelled back. He was glaring at me, eyes blazing with rage, and I was overcome with a sudden visceral sensation that we'd done all this before, time and time again. I took a step back, catching myself. I felt my lips curl a little at the corners, and I let out a breathy laugh.

"What the hell is so funny, here?" Josh threw his arms out to his sides.

"It's just that you- you sounded so much like yourself for a minute there."

Our eyes locked on each other, and I watched the anger in his expression fade. His lips parted, and a spark of amusement flickered in his eyes, almost but not quite masking the circles underneath them. "Yeah?" he said, raising an eyebrow. "So you're not thinking I've been taken over by aliens or something?"

A torrent of relief washed across my skin. This was the Josh I'd always known -- the same guy who could wage a daily battle against the U.S. Congress and always come out on top. "Seriously, Josh," I said, trying to scowl, but my lips wouldn't cooperate. "If the aliens were looking for hosts for a new life form, you think you'd be anywhere near the top of their list?"

His shoulders raised in a shrug. "Well, if they fed off of, you know, grease and caffeine, then I'd probably be their first choice."

"Or maybe if they fed off of arrogance and sarcasm?" I suggested, tucking my chin down and peering up at him.

Josh's face spread into that impish grin that always made my heart stand still, and I felt my own lips mirror it back at him, smoothing some of the rough edges of my guilt. He cocked his head at me, and I thought I might burst with the sudden rush of feeling in my chest.

Stepping toward him, I reached for his bandaged hand and ran a gentle finger over it, my fingernail catching on the edge of the rough gauze. Josh flinched instinctively, jerking his hand back and pressing it protectively against him. A momentary flicker of anger returned to his face.

My gaze fell to the floor, and I swallowed hard, taking a step back in retreat. "I'm sorry," I whispered, not daring to look up at him.

Josh let out a long sigh that turned into a muffled cough as he stepped forward, his toes nearly touching mine. Opening his hand, he displayed the fresh bandage across his palm, trembling as he held it out. I looked up at him, questioning, and he answered with eyes that were full of a mixture of trust and pain. Taking his fingers in mine, I caressed the bandage with my thumb. It was incredible, absolutely incredible that something so fragile could be so resilient.

Josh's good hand reached up and curled around my own, and as I felt the strong, steady pressure against my fingers, my throat began to sting and my eyes blurred. I drew him toward me, my arms like a cloak around his shoulders, and he rested his forehead against my neck. Turning my head inward, I buried my lips in the soft curls of his hair, kissing his temple.

Josh leaned harder against my shoulder, his feet faltering. "I-"

"What is it?" I whispered. The hair on the back of my neck stood at attention, my mind suddenly alert.

"I'm feeling- I'm a little dizzy, here."

"Right."

I eased him down onto the couch as his body went limp, positioning the pillow so that his head could fall back against it. Stretching myself out next to him, I reached up and grazed the top of his eyelids with my fingers, urging them the rest of the way closed. I lay my head down on his chest, listening to the slow, steady beating of his heart. Spreading one palm against his stomach, I wrapped one arm tightly around him. I'm sorry, I repeated mentally, sending the message through my fingertips.

Josh mumbled something not quite audible, and I lifted my chin. His face was blank, like he was hovering in a state between waking and unconsciousness. "What?" I whispered.

"Glad you're here," he murmured.

Smiling, I propped myself up on one elbow and ran my hand slowly along his chest, watching it move up and down with life.