Series/Sequel: Sequel to The Mall
Disclaimer: The characters belong to Aaron Sorkin etc
Summary: Josh tries to help Sam with his 'mall problem'
Notes:You would do well to read The Mall first!
Therapy by Jen
Josh leaned on Sam's doorway.
"Talked to Toby?"
"No." Sam eyes did not lift from his laptop, although his fingers stilled over the keyboard.
"It's just, we need to be sure-"
"I know." There was a lengthy pause. Josh ventured tentatively towards Sam's desk.
"Just tell him what we're going to do."
Sam sighed, peeling off his glasses and leaning back in his chair,
"It's not something you just drop into a conversation, Josh."
"Sure it is."
"Sure it ISN'T!" Sam put on a sarcastically cheerful voice, "Oh, hey, Toby, I need to get away early tomorrow because Josh and I are going to hang out at the Mall!"
"Sam, it's not like that."
"Well, what IS it like?"
Josh held up his hands defensively, and took a step backwards.
"Maybe you're not as ready as I thought."
"I'm sorry." Sam massaged his temples for a moment. "I am ready. It's just, it's kind of embarrassing…"
"Sam, we've been through this so many times. If you want to beat this thing, if we can start Saturday, continue on Sunday, maybe keep it up while we have a fairly quiet week – Sam, we can nail this!" He had moved back to Sam's desk in his excitement. Sam couldn't help but smile at the enthusiasm in Josh's voice, the way he bounced on his toes. He eyed Josh speculatively,
"You're looking forward to this!" It was an accusation.
Josh shrugged, already turning back towards the door.
"Talk to Toby!" he flung over his shoulder.
* * *
Predawn, and Josh rolled over, surprised to find the bed empty. Then he realised why he'd awoken, realised Sam was throwing up noisily in the bathroom. Josh lay and stared at the ceiling, wondering if Sam would ever be physically ready to start what Josh had coined 'Sam's Mall Therapy'. His mind was certainly prepared but Josh was always amazed at how the most important and stressful events seemed to affect Sam, how his body responded in such a physical way to what went on around him. Sam's migraines, his battles with insomnia, and this – Josh grimaced as the sounds of another bout of retching floated through from the bathroom – this physical response to their planned mall visits later on in the day.
They had waited for a month to find a week with no huge crises, where Josh and Sam both felt they'd have the energy to tackle the problem. And late on Friday Sam had finally told Toby what they were going to do, and he'd been quite willing to give Sam the Saturday afternoon to make a start.
Josh glanced at the clock – nearly 5 a.m. He wondered what he could do to help Sam get through today. Probably very little. Josh closed his eyes. A few moments later Sam crept back into bed, cold now, and shivering, curling up into a ball. Josh rolled over and wrapped himself around Sam.
"Rough start to the day, huh?"
"I'm sorry. Did you-"
"You wanna postpone this thing?"
Silence. Josh forcibly rolled Sam over onto his back and leaned over him, peering into his eyes. They were like glistening sapphires in the darkness. Josh let himself sink into that deep blue for a moment. Then Sam's eyelids closed down and Josh was left staring at dark lashes resting tremulously on pale cheeks.
Sam wrinkled his nose, squeezing his eyes shut more tightly before popping them open again and focusing on Josh in the darkness.
"Good. It's just, I heard you, before, in the bathroom…"
"It's just nerves, Josh. I'll be fine."
* * *
Saturdays were usually more relaxed in the West Wing. Sam and Toby had kept the morning free of meetings, to work on the President's speeches for his visit to Iowa. Sam had kicked off his shoes ages before and was sitting Indian-style on the couch, legs tucked underneath him, surrounded by piles of notes, notepads and reference books. With the threat of a new military installation being built in Iowa, Sam was mulling over a handful of anti-military quotations he was keen to play with. His favourite was one of Woodrow Wilson's,
"I am not one of those who believe that a great army is the means of maintaining peace, because if you build up a great profession those who form parts of it want to exercise their profession."
Sam wasn't quite sure how he could word that more subtly. He agreed with Wilson – but Bartlet wasn't likely to agree to such a strong condemnation of the military at this particular time of unrest in so many parts of the world, and the very real threat of further terrorism here. Sam chewed viciously on the end of his pen, wrinkling his nose in concentration.
Toby was sitting in one of the single chairs, also surrounded by papers, reading over the researchers' notes on other speeches made in Iowa, made about the military and other relevant issues for the area. Toby liked to be fully conversant with what had gone down well in the past before crafting the potential winners of the future.
Neither man had spoken for over twenty minutes. There was silence, broken only by the rustling of paper and the grinding of Sam's pen against his teeth.
Toby suddenly cleared his lap and stood up, crossing to Sam in one smooth movement. He plucked the offending pen out of Sam's mouth and tossed it into the farthest corner of his office, where it rattled sadly down behind a bookshelf. Sam's eyes shifted from the parabolic trajectory of his pen to his empty fingers, frozen in a pen-holding position, to Toby, who had moved swiftly towards the door. His mouth opened in protest but Toby beat him to it.
"Let's get something to eat."
Sam closed his mouth and scrambled off the couch, realising too late that his left foot had gone to sleep. As he made to step towards his shoes, his whole leg seemed to vanish beneath him and he crashed downwards, cracking his elbow loudly on the coffee-table. There was a poignant silence, then,
Toby didn't move a muscle. He stood there, staring at the pile of Sam Seaborn on the floor, his dark eyes unreadable, but the tiniest glimmer of a smile tweaking at the corners of his mouth.
Ginger, who'd been working on some of their other projects, joined Toby in the doorway. She too found her mouth twitching with suppressed humour. She glanced sideways at Toby,
"Is he all right?"
Sam lifted his head and frowned at both of them,
"D'you think, a little help here?" He managed to crawl out of the gap between couch and coffee-table. Toby and Ginger leaned down together and hoisted him up by his armpits, Sam stamping his foot to get some feeling back into it. They let go of him as he steadied himself, rubbing tentatively at his elbow.
"How long had you been sitting still, Sam?" Ginger was desperately struggling not to laugh out loud.
Sam glanced at his watch, wincing as he turned his arm,
"A couple of hours, I guess."
Ginger sniggered and returned to her desk, Toby following her out of the office.
"C'mon, Sam, food and coffee."
Sam trailed after Toby, absently rubbing his elbow, deciding to go shoeless rather than hold Toby up again.
* * *
"I'm really not feeling that hungry."
Josh plonked down at the table. Sam brightened immediately.
"Hey, Josh. How'd the meeting go?"
"Fine. Are you eating that?"
"Yes, he is."
"Don't push it, Toby. Anything he eats now'll come back to haunt us in a couple of hours." Josh picked up Sam's sandwich and began to eat. "He already started down that road at four-thirty this morning."
Sam ducked his head, concentrating on his coffee. He could feel Toby's eyes boring into him.
"No wonder you looked like death warmed up this morning."
"I looked fine this morning."
Josh caught Toby's eye, a warning to just leave it. Toby left it.
* * *
It was nearly 4 p.m. when Sam and Josh wended their way through the suburbs of Virginia, headed for Josh's Mall Number One. Josh had insisted on driving for all of the mall therapy sessions, leaving Sam, he claimed, to just relax and focus on the experience. Sam had snorted at that.
A heavy greyness had clawed across the pale winter sky since lunchtime. It was a charcoal-laden cloud mass that pushed before it a bitter, biting wind, one that sliced sharp cat's claws of cold through several layers of clothing. Snowfall was near.
As they approached the mall, Josh glanced sideways. Sam's conversation had faded away and he was staring fixedly at the dashboard. Josh laid a firm hand on Sam's thigh, the warmth seeping through the denim of Sam's jeans, the contact seeping into his consciousness. Sam inclined his head slightly towards Josh and placed his own hand over Josh's, who jerked involuntarily, his fingers tightening momentarily on Sam's thigh,
"Shit, Sam, you're freezing!"
Sam curled his fingers around Josh's, holding tightly, a nervous tremor rippling through to his fingertips. Josh steered one-handed into the car-park and stopped. He rolled his hand over so their palms met. He had to do this right for Sam.
Sam's eyes caught his and held them. A quick, nervous nod.
"Let's go then." As they walked towards the entrance, Josh went over the plan,
"Remember, we go in, two shops on the right, two on the left, windows only then we leave. Right?"
"Do you leave before me?"
"Do I leave you alone?"
Josh's hand grazed across the small of Sam's back as the doors slid apart. Sam swallowed noisily and they were in.
Two shops to the right.
Two to the left.
Back out the door.
Sam leaned against the wall, gasping. Josh frowned at him.
"Sam, did I forget to tell you something?"
"I – don't think so – no."
"Because you obviously need to be told. We're going back in."
"You didn't do it quite right."
"I did! I looked in every window!"
"Yeah, but you didn't breathe!"
They stopped in front of the first window.
And at the second.
-Out. In. C'mon, Sam, you've been doing this for a long time.
And at the third.
And the fourth.
"Right, let's go."
"Was that it?"
"Don't sound so hopeful. That was our FIRST mall. We're on to number two now. I have a list."
"You made a list of malls?"
"Well, Donna did it for me."
"Don't shriek, Sam. She knows. You know she knows."
* * *
"Right! We go in. We go right. We look in as many shop windows as you can stand, and it HAS to be more than four, then we turn together and stroll out. Stroll. Don't forget to breathe."
* * *
On their way towards Mall Number Three, Josh tried to ignore Sam's growing paleness and increasing fragility. Josh began to feel like he was out with a child, checking seatbelts, looking out for cars in the car-park, watching the breathing…Sam was retreating inside himself and Josh needed to stop that. He was amazed at the way Sam could shut down his exterior emotions, could appear outwardly calm and in control, hair perfect, clothes perfect, his voice even. Sam could keep quiet in situations where Josh would have expected him to be swinging from the rafters yelling blue murder. Sam possessed extraordinary self-control.
But Josh knew that Sam's powerful inner self was sometimes his own worst enemy. Sam HAD to clean the apartment, brush his teeth, change the sheets. And those things weren't so bad. But Sam also had trouble letting go of disappointment, or fear, or anger, and at those times would turn those emotions in on himself in frustration, shutting out those around him and trekking a solo path in a different direction from everyone else. And the frenetic pace at which they worked meant sometimes they didn't notice Sam was not just behind them, that Sam had indeed taken a different path, and when they were all together again, were surprised that Sam had a completely different response to whatever problem they faced at the time.
"Josh?" Josh felt a tentative hand on his arm. He shook his head,
"Sorry, Sam. I was just thinking."
"Josh, I'm sorry-"
"No, not that! Look, here's our next mall."
* * *
Josh leaned against the car. The sky was really dark now, a huge tumbling mass of black cotton candy, billowing out to smother the distant hills. He tried to ignore the sound of Sam retching into the gutter. A light breeze skimmed the car-park and Josh shivered. He was pleased this was a quiet mall – there were few people around, and most had their heads down, rushing for their cars ahead of the impending chill.
The sounds of Sam's retching began to slow, longer gaps between attacks, and Josh glanced over at the hunched form sitting on the kerb, head hanging between his knees, hands pulling on the hair behind his ears. Josh winced as Sam shuddered through one more gut-wrenching spasm.
Deciding Sam might have been through enough, Josh peeled himself off the car and approached him.
"You ready to head home?"
The dark head bobbed up and down. Josh rested a hand on Sam's head for a moment, then grasped one of Sam's frozen hands, hefting him upwards.
* * *
As they neared their apartment, Josh took a deep breath, letting it sigh out slowly. Sam looked at him inquiringly.
"You know, we have to talk about this, right?"
Sam nodded. Josh could see, even in the fading light, he was still very pale.
* * *
Josh cooked himself some eggs on toast while Sam lay face down on the couch, a limp rag, not moving even an eyelash as Josh sat down at the table.
Pushing away his plate afterwards, Josh moved over to the couch and lifted Sam's stockinged feet. He plonked down on the cushion and carefully arranged Sam's feet back onto his lap. Watching an immobile Sam closely, Josh gently raked a fingernail along Sam's sole, pleased to see him squirm in response. He crossed Sam's feet at the ankles and twisted, forcing a protesting Sam to roll over onto his back.
"Good. Now we can talk."
Sam scrubbed his hands over his face tiredly and blinked tentatively at Josh,
"Right. Fine. Tell me about Mall Number One."
"The one where I didn't do the breathing?"
"Yeah, that one."
"It was okay, I guess."
"No, no, I want you to tell me how you FELT! God, Sam, could you make this any more difficult?"
Sam flinched visibly, pulling his feet off Josh's lap. He scrooched up into the corner of the couch and stared at his sock-clad toes.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry." Josh lifted his own feet and took over the other corner of the couch. He pushed one toe out and gently nudged Sam's toes, "Can we try again?"
Sam nodded, hair falling over his eyes.
"Fine. You were in the first mall- "
"Mall Number One- "
"Yeah, Mall Number One, and you forgot to inhale – why was that, Sam?"
"I – I – all I could think of was getting OUT. That's ALL I thought, gotta get out, gotta get out."
"And the second time?"
"Same thought, but you talking helped."
"What about the second, I mean, Mall Number Two? We made it to six shops in a row."
"What were they?"
"What shops did we see?"
Sam frowned, biting his lower lip. The frown grew deeper, drawing in his eyebrows, his eyes staring into the distance. Finally, he looked right at Josh, the frown melting into a lost expression.
He whispered, "I don't know."
"You can't remember ANY? The sporting goods store, the ladies' underwear shop, -and they were well placed side by side, I must say…"
Sam shook his head.
"That shop full of toy bears? The kitchenware one?"
"Hmmm." Josh frowned. "Maybe I'm not so hot at this. Mall Number Three, which will be fondly remembered as First Puke Mall…"
Sam went back to staring at his toes. He cleared his throat, then whispered,
"I can't remember that one at all."
"You mean what stores we saw?"
"It's just blank, Josh." Sam's voice rose in confusion, "What did we do in the third mall? Why can't I recall it?"
"Sam, Sam, calm down!" Josh scrambled to his feet, moved over and knelt on the floor at Sam's end of the couch. "You can't recall that one because the minute those electronic doors closed behind us, you had turned and gone back out, running for the bushes. We barely got in the door."
Sam stared in horror at Josh.
"How can I just blank that out?"
"You obviously have a special 'mall-blank-out' ability. Look, by then you were pale and shaking and nauseous. It's my fault. We should have stopped." Josh ran an apologetic hand across Sam's hair.
"No, you were right. How many malls on Donna's list?"
"She chose seven for the weekend."
"Three down, four to go tomorrow."
Sam fixed Josh with steely blue eyes, tentatively running a slender finger from Josh's collarbone in a lazy line down his ribcage towards his hip, before settling a determined hand at Josh's waist, his fingers squeezing Josh seductively, drawing him close.
* * *
Josh awoke at seven, surprised to have slept through the night with no interruptions, and even more surprised to find Sam fast asleep beside him, flat on his back. Josh rolled over to have a good look. Sam was beautiful in repose. He looked so young. Josh wondered what had happened to him in that mall all those years ago.
He gazed at Sam's long, dark lashes, the innocent, peaceful face that hid a brilliant, complex mind, a nature both withdrawn and loving, seemingly independent but sometimes desperate for attention he was unable to ask for. Josh laid a very gentle hand on Sam's diaphragm, absorbing the slow, warm rise and fall. Sam didn't even stir, testament to how much Saturday's events had exhausted him. Josh gently smoothed his hand across Sam's troublesome stomach, wondering how many meals he was going to lose over this mall therapy. He traced a light finger from one hip to the other. Feeling a warmth of desire spreading through his own body, Josh decided to get out of bed and let Sam get as much rest as he could.
Sam appeared in the living room over an hour later, t-shirt raked up on one side, running a hand through his hair, eyes still bleary with sleep. Josh was buried in his usual heap of Sunday papers.
"Sam! You're up! There's bagels and coffee in the kitchen. And the weather's cleared a little."
Sam turned towards the kitchen, "I overslept. When did you get up? Why didn't you wake me?"
"I've been up for a while. You looked so peaceful – and yesterday was a little – ah – stressful."
Sam snorted from the kitchen.
"What does that say about today?" He wandered back with coffee, chewing on a bagel.
"It says, eat that bagel now and we don't leave until it's digested. You need to keep some food in you."
Sam rubbed a hand back and forth across his stomach in a vaguely soothing motion.
"I wish I didn't do that."
"What? Throw up?"
"Yeah." He sat down at the table. "I really hate that."
"I hate even the sound of it."
* * *
Mall Number Four was the first one in the northern suburbs, and was fairly busy on a Sunday. Josh went in ahead and scouted a bench, hurrying back to Sam, pacing in the chilly car-park.
"We're going to walk in slowly, and sit on the bench. See how long you can last. Ready?"
Sam nodded. Great, thought Josh, he's paling again already. They headed in, walking very closely together, arms bumping repeatedly.
They sat together on the bench. Josh watched Sam out of the corner of his eye.
They lasted five minutes.
* * *
A huge monstrosity in glass and white tile, the fifth mall looked like a bad idea as soon as they got out of the car. The sky had begun to darken again, and Sam shivered involuntarily as a fresh, chilling wind sliced right in and under his leather jacket.
Josh consulted his notes as they threaded their way between a myriad of cars, all colours and shapes, lined up patiently while their owners were swallowed up by the mall.
"Right. Same drill. We go in together, find an empty bench, see how long you last. But you need to beat five minutes, Sam."
He sounded confident enough, but Josh caught the falter in his step as the electronic doors opened ahead of them and a huge family group, with shopping trolleys, prams, balloons on sticks and handfuls of colourful shopping bags spilled out, their tight formation loosening as they were freed of the confines of the mall. They parted and oozed around Josh and Sam, trickling away into the car-park.
Two more steps and the doors opened again. As Josh and Sam stepped inside, they were instantly assaulted by the noise, a huge wave of enclosed shopping sounds blending into a constant cacophony that swelled and rose and dipped around them, enveloping them. Josh, on alert, had a heightened awareness of all of this, and he was surprised how oblivious he had been of it until now. He placed a reassuring hand between Sam's shoulder blades, guiding him towards an empty bench. Sam was quivering noticeably. They sat down, very close, shoulders pressed together.
Josh glanced around, wishing he was anywhere but here.
Sam sat quietly, desperately trying to leech some calm from Josh, pressed against his side. He was very aware of the tremors running through his body, a sweat prickling across his forehead. There was something here, in this mall, that was twanging at his memory bank, a smell or a sound.
Sam felt unbelievably overwhelmed. His senses were crowding in on one another. The mall was buzzing with activity and Sam could smell the - , he frowned, was it the collectiveness of the people? A real seething mass of humanity? Trite, he admonished himself, he could do better than that. He rummaged through his scattered thoughts, trolling for a description of the people, but it was the smell that seemed to assault him most intensely, an indoors-outdoors sort of smell, of shops and wet shoes, new products for sale, fast food and flowers, people and perspiration. Sam wrinkled his nose in irritation – it was too familiar, this smell, there was something powerful lurking in his memory, something he had avoided for a long time, and the smell was very much a part of that – he leaned closer to Josh.
Josh's cell rang suddenly. Both men jerked visibly. Josh studied the ID.
"Hey, Leo, what's up?"
"I need you in here."
"Why? What's happened?"
"There's been – where the hell are you, Josh? What's all that noise?"
"I'm in a mall, Leo. Can you speak up?"
"Move a little, would ya?"
Josh, his mind back in the West Wing now, phone pressed to one ear, hand over the other, rose automatically and walked a few paces to a quieter spot.
"Better? Can you hear me now?"
"Yeah. We have a situation in Mexico…"
Sam tried to blot out the waves of mall noise, breathing slowly, teeth clenched, out, in, out. He knew something was being triggered deep inside him and he was scared. He suddenly realised with a momentary flash of clarity that he'd been running from something, no, someONE in that mall in L.A.
He gasped out loud, turning in shock towards Josh – but Josh was gone! Sam stared in horror at the vacant seat beside him. His breath froze and his heart thumped achingly.
"Josh?!" It was a strangled whisper. Sam tried to look around but everything seemed to spin and melt into a blur. He knew he was going to be sick. He rose and moved swiftly away.
Josh clicked his cell shut and turned back to Sam – his mouth dropped open. There was an elderly woman sitting on the bench – but no Sam. He rushed over to the woman.
"Excuse me, ma'am."
"Was there a, did you see, a man sitting here, dark hair, black jacket…"
"He rushed off. He looked unwell."
I'll bet, thought Josh grimly, mentally kicking himself. "Which way did he go?"
The woman pointed back towards the exit. Thank God he'd gone in the right direction. Josh took off.
He burst out through the exit, hit immediately by a blast of cold air. Snow was definitely on its way. He spotted a small group huddled on the pavement and recognised Sam in the middle. He sighed and approached the group cautiously. One woman looked up at him.
"How is he?"
"Do you know him?"
"Yes, he, he, he was with me."
"Yeah, I'll take him home. Thank you."
Another woman was gently rubbing Sam's back. She looked up at Josh,
"Have you got a container?"
"He's sick, you silly man. Dave," she turned to a man beside her, "Fetch one of those ice cream containers from the trunk." The man slipped away, and Josh crouched down cautiously in front of Sam. He was used to the paleness, but was taken aback by the dull shocked look in Sam's eyes.
They stared at each other for a moment, before 'Dave' tapped Josh on the shoulder, handing him a plastic container,
"In case he's sick on the way home."
"Thanks." Josh took it in one hand, helping Sam up with the other. He eyed the small group of people, "Thanks very much, all of you."
"Take good care of him."
* * *
"We have to go into the office. There's a hostage situation in Chiapas, Mexico, for God's sake. They have a Senator."
Sam leaned back in the seat, clutching the ice cream box, his knuckles white.
"Okay." A whisper.
"You gonna be up for this? I could drop you home…"
"I'm fine." Sam was still whispering, as if that was all the energy he had left.
They drove back towards the District. Josh kept glancing at Sam.
"I didn't mean to-"
"-to walk away?" Sam's voice rose with frustration and fear, "Josh, you put me in there and then you just stepped away. What the hell-" he stopped and stared into the container, fighting a lingering nausea.
"You said answer the phone."
"I didn't say leave me alone."
"I was just there."
"You weren't THERE! I couldn't see you. I just…I-" Sam's voice cracked, faded. Josh drove on in silence.
Sam stared out the window, feeling a whole raft of emotions. He began to construct a list in his head – fear – that was definitely number one – he could feel the flutter of fear rippling through his system, his hands still shaky, his stomach aching; and anger – that'd have to be number two – he embraced that one. It gave him a little power of his own in what was proving to be a powerless day, and the thumping headache he was developing was a sign of his annoyance.
Number three was surely panic. Was that an emotion? Sam decided that it was, and the fact that they'd left the mall didn't instantly erase the mind-numbing fog of panic that had enveloped him.
Sam recalled a time, years ago, when Josh had sat down with him one day, asking him to describe exactly what he went through with a panic attack. Sam had had an awful hangover, and was trapped on the couch unable to lift his head an inch without wincing and Josh had taken the opportunity to elicit some details about the whole thing. That was when Josh had first proffered the idea of therapy…
The night before, they had arranged a dinner with some old friends at an Italian restaurant in Fredericksburg. Driving down together, they'd been surprised to find it was smack-bang in the middle of a big mall. They'd stood outside the entrance, Josh stamping his feet in the snow, Sam frozen with indecision as much as cold.
"Maybe I'll be fine this time."
Josh blew on his hands, "Better than hypothermia. C'mon, Sam, I'll look after ya!" He'd clapped an encouraging hand on Sam's shoulder and guided him into the mall. They'd found the restaurant and settled down with their friends, Sam sticking close to Josh, hoping for support as his nervousness grew. But Josh had quickly become involved in a fiery discussion about police usage of pepper spray and rubber bullets.
Sam had brushed off a couple of enquiries about his reserve, claiming a pounding headache, and in desperation had consumed the best part of a bottle of wine before the main course even arrived. Unfortunately, the alcohol did little to dispel the mounting panic within. Everyone at the table seemed to be deep in conversations he couldn't follow.
Halfway through his ravioli, Sam had tapped Josh clumsily on the shoulder and leaned in close to his ear to whisper,
"Josh, gotta get outa here."
Frowning, Josh had leaned back a little to get a look at Sam. He quickly took in Sam's pale face and wavering expression, his blue eyes huge and confused. Josh leaned in close again,
"Is this a panic thing?"
Sam had nodded vehemently, his eyes fixed on Josh. Josh pushed back his chair and stood up, catching the attention of the other men at the table.
"Sorry, guys, Sam's not feeling so good – uh – I'm going to take him outside for some fresh air."
"It's freezing out there."
"Just a migraine. Give us a few minutes." Josh realised Sam was still sitting. He carefully hefted him upwards, grabbing both their jackets, and turned him towards the door, wrapping a supportive arm around his waist. He was surprised to find Sam quivering badly – he felt very unsteady. Outside the door of the restaurant, the noise of the mall intensified and Sam ducked instinctively, leaning in to Josh. They began to make their way towards the exit. Josh was still frowning at Sam's unsteadiness.
"I think I might've had too much wine…"
"I was just thinking that myself."
Sam rubbed a hand across his eyes, "I can't quite focush – can't she, see, I can't see where we are and – and - "
"And I'm gonna throw up." Sam reeled over to a litter bin and puked noisily into it, catching the attention of a passing security guard. Josh caught his eye,
"I'm sorry. He has a migraine. I'm getting him out of here."
The guard grimaced in understanding and drifted away. Josh had struggled with a reeling Sam, shepherding him on towards the exit. Sam was breathing in tiny, fluttery gasps and seemed totally at sea. Josh had practically carried him out into the cold air as the panic attack took over Sam's confused system. Calming him and settling him in the car, Josh had rushed back to farewell the others, leaving money towards the meal.
Returning to the car, he had found Sam out on the kerb, ill again, and had been moved with compassion for his sensitive friend, determined that minute to find a solution for Sam and his mall problem.
And now, years later, Josh's plan to 'cure' Sam was not going quite according to plan – Sam leaned against the cool glass of the window and sighed. What was the point…
* * *
They met Toby in the car-park. He took one look at Sam and frowned across at Josh,
"What've you done to him?"
"Shut up!" Josh hissed. He let Sam walk ahead a couple of paces. "I fucked up, okay? But right now I have to go to work. I'll sort him out later." Josh pulled ahead of both of them and disappeared into the West Wing. Toby took hold of Sam's arm and steered him through security into the Bullpen. Sam seemed completely compliant, which worried Toby very much. He deposited Sam on the couch, sitting down at his desk.
Bonnie appeared a few minutes later.
"Leo wanted to see you as soon as you arrived – Oh, hey, Sam." She frowned at him. "Are you feeling all right?"
Sam blinked owlishly at her, and smiled for the first time,
"Sure, Bonnie." He struggled to his feet and looked across at Toby somewhat defiantly,
Let's go see Leo."
* * *
Sam knocked on CJ's doorframe. She smiled up at him over her glasses,
"C'mon in, Spanky. Are you here to brief me?"
"Uh-huh." He lowered himself down onto the couch, all efficiency, putting on his glasses, opening his briefing folder…realised CJ was staring.
"You look awful, Sam. What's wrong?"
"I'm fine, CJ."
"You can't be. You're all pale and drawn-looking, haggard even."
"Gee, thanks. But it's okay, CJ. I guess I, ah, had a rough morning. I'm fine now."
"A rough morning? Doing what? Surely you weren't here…"
CJ rose and moved to sit beside Sam on the couch. She put a hand over his.
"Sam. What's gone wrong?"
"It's nothing, CJ. It's just, it's – it's," he began to breathe faster, "Can we do the briefing first, before I lose it?"
CJ's frown deepened. Sam carried on,
"Now, there's a Senator, Woodison, Aaron Woodison, New Mexico, he was on holiday in Mexico – he's a fanatic when it comes to Mayan artefacts, he's quite an expert. He was caught up in a deal to purchase some samples, unaware initially that they were stolen historical items, and of course it's illegal to export these out of Mexico. Once he began to study them, he realised what they were and made to contact the authorities. Unfortunately, a third party, militant protectors of Mayan heritage, had been tracking the thieves, and took everyone hostage. One thief is dead already."
"What are we doing?"
"Josh is co-ordinating a team of negotiators – they're flying in from Mexico City right now. Meanwhile the local bishop of Palenque is trying to get the hostage takers to see some sense – in co-operation with the local police, of course."
"Does the Senator have a family?"
"Yes, his wife Pamela and daughter Maya, yeah, they really called her that, are safe in Palenque. It's in Chiapas. They hadn't gone with him that day."
"Who's looking after them?"
"We have a local contact – Joel Espinoza – he is attempting to fly them out, but they refuse to leave the area without the Senator." Sam handed her a copy of the briefing notes.
"Right, I have it. Now, " CJ took off her glasses, "You."
She leaned back on the couch and rubbed her hand back and forth across Sam's back. He turned towards her and she was surprised to see sudden tears glistening in his eyes. He blinked desperately. CJ sat forward again, and took Sam's folder out of his hands, placing it on the table. She lifted off his glasses and gently wrapped her arms around him. He felt stiff as a board, but as she held on he slowly relaxed against her. CJ could feel Sam shimmering with tension. She waited.
"We've been doing Josh's mall therapy thing."
"You and Josh? Today?"
"Yesterday and today."
"I – I – "Sam shuddered horribly, "I felt – I lost – Josh left – I –he, he – he walked away, on the telephone, he – Leo – I was – " Sam swallowed, "I was alone," he whispered.
"Sam, you need to get away from here, get some rest."
His head shook vehemently,
"I can do my job, CJ."
CJ squeezed him tightly, "Josh is an ass."
* * *
Four hours later, the hostage crisis had been resolved. Sam had spent the time in Toby's office, settled on the couch, writing furiously, getting a head start on the week ahead. Toby had been happy to have him there, determined to keep a watchful eye. CJ, too, seemed to have a reason to pop by every half hour or so. They were both acutely aware that Sam was not his usual self, and that Josh came nowhere near the Bullpen all afternoon.
* * *
At 8 p.m. Sam and the ass drove towards home, stopping to collect Chinese takeout on the way. They talked about the hostage crisis most of the way home and through dinner.
Sam finally leaned back on the couch.
"I'm full," he sighed contentedly. Josh peered into the food containers, frowning.
"Sam, you didn't really eat that much."
"I'm catching up, Josh. I'm at least hoping to hold on to this meal. I've deposited most of my food intake this weekend at malls scattered around Virginia!"
Josh snorted and turned carefully towards Sam.
"I need to – " he stopped and frowned.
"Sam, I need to apologise. When Leo called, I just, I dunno, I just – "
"It's okay. You were distracted." Sam stared at his hands, feeling again the panic at finding Josh gone from the bench in the mall.
"Yeah, but I shouldn't have moved away. It must have been, you must've – "
"Josh! Stop!" Sam pressed one hand to his stomach, the other a restraining one on Josh's arm, "I'll lose this meal as well."
"Oh God, I'm sorry. Here, think about something else, quick!" He grabbed the t.v. remote and flicked through to a football match. Oakland Raiders. Sam brightened, successfully redirected.
Josh turned his full attention back on his partner. He pushed Sam's hands away and lifting his t-shirt, laid his own palms gently across Sam's fluttering stomach, feeling a warm flush of heat in himself as he absorbed Sam's warm skin. He smoothed his hands in gentle circles, one clockwise, one counter, slowly moving outwards then back together, then out again, up over the ribcage, back down and across Sam's belly, back up to the stomach…he felt Sam relax a little and heard a small, contented sigh slip out. He kept his eyes down, fearful of recognising the hurt he must have caused Sam. His repentance was in his hands, in his focus on Sam.
The phone rang.
Josh's hands barely flinched, "Leave it."
"But – "
Josh leaned in and laid his head against Sam's chest, finding a heartbeat louder than the telephone. The machine clicked on.
"Sam." It was CJ. "Can you tell the ass to give me a call at home? Thanks, honey."
Josh's head bobbed up and he stared closely at Sam, "Did she just call me an ass?"
Sam tried to look surprised, but a wide grin took over, "Well, you are sometimes."
Josh wasn't slow, "She knows about today – "
"I swear she beat it out of me."
"Sam, I'm really sorry."
"Just call her, will you?"
Josh moved to get up but suddenly,
He dug his fingers deeply into Sam's ribs, causing Sam to writhe desperately, falling sideways on the couch, howling, before finally rolling to the floor to escape. Josh stood up, dusting off his hands.
"My work here is done." He stepped over Sam and headed for the phone.
* * *
It was nearly two in the morning when Josh was rudely awakened by a stinging smack in the face. He blinked in shock, putting his arms up to protect himself. There were no more blows, but a desperate cry came from beside him. Scrabbling up onto his elbows, Josh flicked on the bedside lamp and rubbed a hand across his damaged cheek.
Sam was clearly the perpetrator. He was writhing desperately in the bed, arms still flailing, the duvet flung aside, billowing between them. Josh watched for a minute. Sam was having an awful nightmare. He wondered if he should wake him. Sam solved that problem by bursting awake, his eyes huge and staring, his mouth gasping in panic.
Josh quickly scooted up into a kneeling position as close as he could, catching hold of Sam's hands. Sam turned and focused on Josh and stared at him, first in horror but then in a more relaxed way as recognition sunk in.
"Josh!" he mouthed.
"Sam, it's okay."
"Josh, there was a man!"
"Where? In your nightmare?"
"Josh, there was a man. Oh God, Josh. Oh my God." His voice was shaky. He clung tightly to Josh's hands, his whole body shaking with – fear? Recognition? A memory? Josh decided to just wait.
"There was a man, Josh."
They sat there for several minutes, Sam repeating the same phrase, while Josh wondered when his legs would cramp up.
"Sam, how about we go out to the kitchen, make some tea or something?"
"Yeah, okay." Sam frowned and released his steely grip on Josh. They padded out to the kitchen together. Josh put the kettle on, rinsing out the rarely used teapot, and opening a packet of real tea leaves. Sam sat quietly at the table, an odd look on his face. Josh wondered how much tea to put in the pot. Sam always did that. He shrugged and tipped the whole box in. He kept an eye on Sam, watching Sam's head dip lower and lower, his shoulders shaking, and realised Sam was crying, really crying. Josh froze, unsure of what to do.
I am an ass, he thought, angry at his indecision.
Sam laid his head down on his forearms at the table and sobbed miserably. Josh opened and closed his mouth a few times, realising there was really nothing clever he could say here. As he stood, staring at Sam's dark hair, his shaking shoulders, Josh felt a peculiar sensation somewhere inside him, like a fiery hot coal tracking a path down through a hillock of ice cream, melting and warming as it tumbled deep into the frozen mound. Josh felt that warmth wrap its tendrils tightly around his heart, and, completely moved, he glided on weak knees to the kitchen table. He drew a chair close to Sam's and sat down, wrapping strong arms right around him.
Sam groaned with a deep-seated misery welling up from within, and leaned into Josh, hugging his arms protectively around himself. Josh held him even tighter.
He waited as Sam's sobs slowed, and eased into a series of broken shudders. Josh loosened his hold on Sam, now gently rubbing his back in soothing circles. Finally, Sam raised his head, turning shakily towards Josh. His eyes were swollen and red-rimmed, tears streaked down his cheeks, his hair standing on end – Josh felt a lurch of desire, wondering if he had ever seen Sam looking so vulnerable.
He lifted a tentative hand and laid it against Sam's damp cheek, absorbing the fear and giving Sam skin-to-skin contact. Sam stared at Josh, and leaned into his warm hand. He was overwhelmed by emotions that rushed and tumbled like a swollen river through a rocky gorge. The surge and pull of fear, of sadness, of relief were threatening to engulf him, but that single hand of Josh's, firm and steady against his cheek, was centring him and he breathed in a long shaky breath, a fractured breath, which hissed back out between his teeth.
Sam stared at Josh's eyes, melting into the warm brown, knowing that at this moment Josh was completely his. He reached out a very shaky hand and touched Josh's cheek with his index finger, running down the line of his dimple to his jawbone. Josh let go of Sam's face and drew him into a fierce hug,
"I'm gonna make that tea now."
Sam nodded into his shoulder. Josh sat Sam back up and passed him the tissues from the counter, silently praising Sam for always insisting they buy a box for every room. He reboiled the kettle and poured the hot water into the pot. He peered in frowning. The tea looked very murky. Shrugging, he fitted the lid and turned the pot around three times as Sam always did, then carried it triumphantly to the table.
Sam stared at the tabletop, wondering how to voice the extraordinary relief washing over him.
"Josh?" Oh dear, he sounded so frail. He cleared his throat as Josh plonked down a couple of mugs, "Josh, when I was in that mall, the last one…"
"Mall Number Five, hereafter to be known as Second Puke Mall?"
"Mmm, that one…well, it was really familiar and it reminded me, it – it made me remember what's happened."
"Yeah." Sam stopped and drew in another long, shaky breath. "I was looking for Dad, running and looking, and I was stopped by this man, he was…" Sam shuddered, "he was really tall, tall and skinny, with a little silver beard, and he said, and he had these piercing eyes. I remember that, and he said, he asked why I was crying. I must've been crying and I said why and he said he'd help me, and we walked through the mall a bit, and he took me into a few stores to look at things and I kept saying I have to find my dad and he steered me down this corridor to the bathrooms, but we went right past and it was a sort of cleaners' corridor and it was suddenly really quiet but it still SMELT of the –" Sam's voice wavered and shook, "It still smelt of the mall and he undid his pants and he – " Josh's eyes had grown huge with shock, his mouth hanging open,
"He, he tried to put his hand down my pants and as he did, I suddenly sort of clicked and I kicked out at him – but he grabbed me by the arm, but Mom had taught me how to swing your arm around to break someone's grip and I did and I ran and ran and ran all over that fucking mall and I still couldn't, I still couldn't find –" Fresh tears spilled out over Sam's cheeks and he bowed his head, whispering, "I still couldn't find Dad."
Josh realised Sam had finally unblocked the entirety of that awful day when he was nine years old. He patted Sam on the arm, handing him another wad of tissues.
"You did it, Sam. You remembered it all. But shit, what a thing to remember. I'm really sorry, Sam." They both watched as Josh picked up the teapot and poured some tea into Sam's mug. Sam's mouth opened in fascination as a thick glug of black leafy sludge thumped down into the mug. Josh frowned.
"It doesn't usually look like that, does it?"
Sam blew his nose, and wiped his eyes. "Josh, how much tea did you put in the pot?"
Josh shifted nervously in his seat. "Just the one packet."
"ONE PACKET???" Sam collapsed against the table, snorting with laughter, "A whole packet? In one teapot? Josh, we'd need about three spoonfuls." He grinned weakly at a crestfallen Josh, "But thanks for the laugh, I really needed that." They embraced gently, and rested there, in the kitchen, at three in the morning, safe in one another's arms.
* * *
Monday morning and Josh and Sam slipped late into Senior Staff, trying to appear unobtrusive.
"Where the hell have you two been? What happened to your face? (at Josh) And why do you look like death warmed over? (at Sam)" Leo was his usual cheerful self. Josh rubbed the back of his hand across the bruise he'd acquired as a result of Sam's nightmare.
"I walked into the shower door."
Sam was translucently pale with huge shadows around his eyes.
"I have a headache."
"You're both late, but I'm going to ignore it because you both look so awful. Sit down, the pair of you, before you fall down."
Sam sat down delicately next to Toby, who patted him absently on his thigh in a caring sort of way. Sam closed his eyes for a moment. He had found it hard to sleep after the revelations of the night, and felt about as energetic as a washed-out rag. He was completely drained. He dragged his eyes open to find Josh and CJ gone and Toby closing his folder. Even Leo had left.
"Wha- what happened? Where did everyone go?"
Toby smiled at him and actually put an arm around his shoulders.
"Sam, you fell asleep the moment you sat down. Josh gave us some idea of what you've been through. You can sleep on my couch for a while, and then we'll get onto the Iowa speech. All right?"
Sam looked closely at Toby. He seemed to be genuinely concerned.
"I can't believe it – asleep? Right here? How long?"
"About ten minutes. And don't worry about it."
"But Leo – "
"He could see you looked like crap as soon as you walked in. And what really happened to Josh?"
Sam bit his lip, "I think I hit him – I was having a nightmare."
"You had a rough night." He patted Sam's shoulder and stood up. "C'mon, back to my office."
Sam stood up a little groggily, Toby steadying him with a guiding hand. They headed back together.
* * *
Everyone sat around Sam and Josh's living room, relaxing over beers and pizza. It had been a long week and a particularly busy Friday.
CJ cleared her throat, rustling in her handbag. She brought out a box, wrapped in purple with a gold bow on top.
"Sam, we bought you a gift."
Sam looked at the group draped around the furniture, thinking how lucky he was to have such good friends. Donna passed the gift along, nudging him,
"C'mon, Sam, open it."
He took the box and eased off the wrapping, folding it carefully and placing it on the table. Toby rolled his eyes.
"Sam, a normal person would just rip it off and ball it."
"This is Sam we're talking about." Josh's voice was laced with humour. "Do you see anything that looks like it could have been ripped or balled or even thrown in the direction of a bin in this entire apartment? He can't help it. Except when he's being a klutz – then things can go flying…" He nudged Sam's other shoulder. "C'mon, buddy, open the present!"
Sam opened the plain white box and drew out a coffee mug. Josh coughed delicately,
"Remember when you smashed that other mug – I know it was one of your favourites."
Sam turned the mug around – it was a deep red, emblazoned with the words, Spotsylvania Mall. He looked at the group around him curiously.
"You bought me a mall mug." He turned to Josh, "Josh, did we go to this mall?"
"No, but it had the funniest name!"
Sam smiled gently.
"This will definitely be my favourite mug." He eyed Josh sternly, "And YOU will not be allowed to use it, under any circumstances."
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