They told me I couldn't stay for more than 15 minutes. That was half an hour ago. I guess being a White House bigwig comes with other privileges besides getting shot at by strangers. Some minuscule part of my mind keeps piping up-saying that it's wrong for me to be staying here. That the hospital has its rules and regulations for good reason, and that I should be obeying them. Then, I remember that my best friend quite recently took a bullet in the chest, and the majority of my brain tells the minuscule part to take a hike.

Everybody there that night believes that it was their fault. Charlie perhaps most unfairly, because the psychos were shooting at him. The Secret Service agents because they failed to spot the gunmen from an impossible distance away on a cloudy night. C.J. because...well, I'm not sure why. She and Josh have this weird antagonistic/protective friendship. If we had been attacked by a platoon of disgruntled clowns, she would have found a way of blaming it on herself. Leo's reasoning seems to be based on the fact that he was the one who talked Josh into coming to see Bartlett in Nashua in the first place. I think, of us all, Toby is affected by the guilt the most. Well, at least as much as I am. Yesterday afternoon, a few hours before the President spoke very briefly with Josh, Toby told me his thoughts on the memo he had drafted for the Secret Service. He said that, if they had had the tent up, none of this would have happened. I reminded him that the gunmen would have been able to shoot through the tent just as easily as through air. The only difference would've been that they could've hit more innocent civilians as well as staff members." Toby just gave me a glare so frustrated I had to glance away.

"The President is innocent, Sam." As if I needed to be reminded. "So's Josh. Just because they work for the government doesn't mean they deserve to die."

"I didn't mean that, Toby."

"I thought he was just relaxing." This didn't seem to be addressed to me, but I looked up anyway. Toby's brown eyes reflected a sorrow so intense I was taken aback. "Why didn't I look for him first, Sam? He was the only one I couldn't find. I should've spotted that he wasn't with the group."

"Well, shame on you. You should be able to be responsible for the whereabouts of your friends, even in a crowded mob scene." I realized as soon as I said it that Toby wasn't in shape for sarcasm, as he seemed to take this to heart.

"He wasn't able to get help. I don't know if he knew how hurt he was, but he wouldn't have been able to get help if he did." I decided not to remind Toby that Josh was yelling rather effectively for me and about getting to New Hampshire. "He was cold, Sam. Josh was cold and bleeding, and I almost didn't find him." I reached forward to hug Toby, who resisted for a minute before leaning into it.

"What's that for?" Toby muttered into my shoulder.

"For finding him," I said simply. Toby made a sad little sound and then hugged me back. Sometimes I worry that Toby doesn't get touched enough, and no, not in that way. People think that, just because he appears so gruff, he'll deck you if you so much as go near him. That's one of the reasons that I love watching he and Josh play off each other. Josh communicates through touch. It's not sexual. He just seems to need that physical contact. Toby responds well to that. He just seems to light up at every arm on his shoulder, every little tap on his arm or playful punch. Anything that makes Toby happy is wonderful, in my opinion.

And then, of course, there's me. I don't regret tackling C.J. She's my other best friend, and I'd have given my life for her. I'd have also given my life to protect Josh, but he was just too far away. I wonder what's wrong with me that I didn't notice the absence of his presence. I know that I was just chiding Toby for thinking the same thing. I guess guilt doesn't listen to any form of logic.

This, I tell myself as I sit in the ICU, holding the cold hand of my best friend. The President lied to Donna. He is cold. It doesn't seem to matter how many blankets they cover him with. He seems horribly chilly. I just hope that he doesn't feel it while he's sleeping. Can I call it sleeping? The doctors say that every time his consciousness surfaces, he passes right out again. Something about the intense pain of the various method's they'd used to keep him alive.

I wonder what the last thing he'll remember is. I hope it won't be the ER, or if it is, I hope he remembers me being there. He was shouting for me, but he didn't seem to acknowledge me when I shouted back. Even worse than the memory of the ER would be the memory of the Newseum. The thought of him lying there, bleeding on the cold pavement is difficult enough to conjure up without the additional concept of him perhaps realizing he was dying. I worry that Josh was conscious enough to wonder if we'd find him in time.

I worry that he thought we had all driven away to safety, leaving him there.

I worry that he didn't think we'd come back for him.

Being a person's best friend gives you and unobstructed view into who they truly, and if you're a good best friend, you accept what you're shown unconditionally. Early on, Josh was shown how idealistic I am, how quick I am to assume the best in people. Others had called it gullibility, and taken advantage of it. Sometimes that made me bitter, but I usually continued to put my trust in people until they broke it. When I put that trust in Josh, something strange happened. Josh has quite a few protective barriers around himself, mentally and emotionally. The trust I give out automatically broke through those barriers because it was so unprecedented. So what does Josh do? He forms new protective barriers, this time enveloping my idealism. A bit like an oyster that surrounds a pearl.

"You're comparing our friendship to a shellfish?" he'd asked me after I had described my theory to him once. We were both very drunk at the time. I'd simply grinned and then lapsed into a slurred version of "Louie, Louie."And that's where my description of the pearl analogy to Josh had stopped. I didn't go into how secure it made me feel that someone was looking out for me. I didn't tell him why I felt so protected.

Once, in one of the many office hallways, I happened upon a Congressman ranting about my position on a bill to an aide.

"Seaborn's living in a fantasy world. If he thinks this thing will pass, he's even more delusional than I thought he was. He's in for a big surprise if-" That was as far as he got. I had been about to cut in when the person who'd been at the copier turned to face the Congressman. The aide recognized him as Josh and hurried away. Neither the Congressman or Josh noticed me, though, and I simply watched what followed.

"Have a problem with Sam, Congressman?"

"Well, yes..."

"No, you don't."

"I beg to differ."

"You're problem isn't with Sam. It's with me."

"You aren't even involved with this."

"Oh, but I am." Anyone who's ever seen Josh in vengeance mode would recognize that tone. "You see, when you're making negative comments about our staff, it reflects on all of us. And when you talk about our Sam, you should be prepared to face me."

"But that doesn't make any-"

"You take your problems to me or Sam, but you do not discuss the validity of Sam's opinions to or with anyone else. Understood?" Josh was quiet now. People who've never spent any time with Josh think his shouting is intimidating, but those familiar with him realize that it's when he's being quiet to watch out for. The Congressman evidently knew Josh well enough to know this. He simply nodded and Josh walked away.

There's another thing that I didn't tell Josh, something he doesn't appear aware of. In letting me slip by his defensive shielding, he's also, probably unknowingly, given me access to all the sides he would never let anyone else see. Where the press sees an arrogant advisor to the President, I see a man who simply can't keep his opinions to himself, not even if he knows how much trouble he'll get into by expressing them. Where the staff sees a workaholic who won't go home, even to sleep, I see a man who gives himself, heart, soul and body, over to what he believes in. So much so, in fact, that sometimes I have to forcibly separate the two. If I don't periodically drag Josh away from the Bartlett administration, I worry that he'll lose himself in it.

I think that the thing Josh is most unaware of revealing to me is exactly how emotionally invested he is in work. The rest of the staff doesn't see how he's unconsciously begun to use them as a substitute for a family. I take that back, I think C.J does. C.J. has seen how he fights going home each day. C.J knows that he'd set up house in his office if he could. C.J. and I have talked this over, and we both worry about him doing this. Making the rest of the staff into his family doesn't mean that they'll do the same for him, unfortunately. C.J and I love him like a brother, but we're concerned about those that don't. Say what you will about my naivete, it helps me to know exactly how much trust to put in people when I meet them. While Josh isn't so free with his trust, when he finally gives it, it runs deeply. Josh simply doesn't get over broken friendships or failed romances as easily as I do. I've helped him through heartaches and the periodical bout of self-loathing. Each time he's come back a little more wary of relationships, of loving someone. I think the first time that happened was before I met him, when his sister, Joanie, died. I think that behind every cynical crack Josh makes, behind each partner who dumps him because he won't devote every waking moment to her, there's the eight-year old Josh, still waiting for his sister to meet him outside their burning home. It hurts to know that my best friend will be subconsciously waiting forever for her. It hurts that the first time he learned not to trust was when she said "I'll be right out to meet you."

And, oh god, it hurts to see him like this.

With one hand still holding one of Josh's, I brush the other hand against his forehead. His skin still feels cold beneath my fingers, and I'm about to go harass a nurse into finding another blanket when a slight movement of Josh's eyelids stops me.

"Josh?" I ask. "Come on, buddy. Wake up, Josh." I can already see in his face that the pain medication isn't effective enough. He gets these little crinkles by his eyebrows whenever he has a headache or stubs his toe or the like. Now I wonder if I should've let him rest instead of encouraging him to wake. But I don't wonder long. Josh's eyes open, and stare glazedly at the ceiling. "Hey, Josh. Welcome back." After a brief hesitation, his brown eyes wander over to focus on mine.

"Sam?" he mouths. Dr. Bartlett warned me about this. After 14 hours of surgery, Josh's body has to re-adjust to breathing without the ventilator. I've heard that the intubation process itself isn't exactly comfortable for the throat, either, not to mention that one of Josh's lungs had recently collapsed, much to the surprise of the rest of his system. But even the shock of seeing my normally verbose friend unable to voice my name doesn't faze me. I'm just glad he recognizes me.

"Yeah, Josh. It's me." I lean in closer so that he can see me without having his head turned at such a severe angle. "It's Sam," I say simply, wishing that that phrase were synonymous with "Now everything will be okay."

Then a strange thing happens. When I confirm my identity, it looks as if Josh is actually hearing the phrase I'd wanted to say. He sighs a little and appears relieved. As if my being there actually did mean that everything was okay. I search inwardly until I come up with what I think might be a reasonable explanation for this, but facing it isn't easy.

"Did you think we were hurt? That I was hurt?" Now I'm back to stroking his forehead with the backs of my fingers. I know it'll be embarrassing if anyone walks in, but I can't help it. It's as much to soothe me as it is to soothe him. "Oh, god, Josh. Did you think that?" Josh studies me. I know he must be taking in my haggard appearance and my rumpled shirt. (Well, okay. Only slightly rumpled.)

"Were you?" he mouths, and I swear, the worry in his gaze is almost too much to bear.

"Hurt? Of course I was. All of us were. But not in the way you're thinking. Only because we were scared we had lost you. We were scared, Josh. Scared of the gunmen. Scared for the crowd. But most of all-" I lean forward so that our foreheads are touching. There's something I can sometimes pull off when we're like this, something that doesn't normally work otherwise.

"We were scared of losing you. I was scared, Josh." My voice is cracking, but at this point, I couldn't care less. "So scared of never seeing you again."

There. Right there. Right between the milli-second Lyman-scan of my eyes to make sure I'm not B.S. ing him and the quiet sentiment I see in his face when my words have sunk in. I know right then that I've gotten through to Josh, past all those defensive shields, past the bluffing, past everything, and reached that 8-year old boy who has yet to doubt that he'd be worth coming back for.

Josh's right hand, the one I'm not holding, makes a little movement. I wonder if he's about to swat me for my emotional words when he coordinates his arm enough to reach toward our faces, still joined at the temple. His fingers brush my cheekbones gently, unconsciously mirroring my earlier gesture.

"I thought I'd lost you, too." It takes me a moment to realize that I'm actually hearing the words, not just reading Josh's lips this time. It's in a whisper, naturally, but I can actually hear him, which is an improvement over just a few minutes ago. I consider my own thoughts, and realize that, up until this point, I'd firmly believed that I was sitting beside the deathbed of my best friend.

We stay quietly like that for awhile, brown and blue eyes locked, each relishing the knowledge that the other had made it out of the shooting alive. Or, at least, that's what I'm relishing. For all I know, Josh could be thinking about cheeseburgers. And I chuckle softly as I realize I wouldn't care if he was. My laugh seems to break the spell, and Josh grins tiredly.

"Not that I'm not enjoying the emotion of the moment-" he says. "But my arm's getting kind of exhausted. "

"Oh, yeah. Sorry." I reach quickly to grasp the hand that had been stroking my face, and lower it gently to his right side. Since I'd been sitting on his left, he'd had to reach across his chest, and I didn't want him dropping his arm and colliding with the stitches. I discover that, in moving, he's disturbed the blankets that cover him. I tug the blanket back up to his chin.

"Thanks," he mouths sleepily. His eyes close, and I resist the urge to start brushing his forehead again. Josh looks so young and defenseless like this, but I know it would be a mistake to treat him as if he were. Josh Lyman doesn't do helpless, and it's going to be a long and hard recovery for both of us if I ever forget it.

"How are you doing?" I ask, as I notice the lines around his eyes are still present. He simply gives a noncommittal little shrug, which answers my question. "I'll call a nurse for some pain medication, which C.J., by the way, says she'll kill you if you get addicted to." He gives me a questioning look, although he doesn't appear to notice that his eyes are still closed. "Do you know what kind of programming they have in the hospital at daytime? Donna, Toby and C.J.

are watching soaps as we speak and C.J.'s been getting... ideas."

"Not good."

"No, not good." I reach for the call button, even as I know Josh is nodding off. I don't want him hurting, even in sleep. There's only one thing I can do to help now, and that's to protect Josh like he's been doing for me since we met. I think I can be the oyster for a while, as long as I don't tell Josh. He'd object to being something as showy as a pearl. I push the call-button and settle back in my chair.

"Stay," Josh requests softly, perhaps realizing that the nurse might kick me out once she arrives.

And I promise to do so. And I will.