Leo McGarry pulled his glasses off and dropped them to his desk blotter, pinching the bridge of his nose against the headache he was sure he'd had since the day after the inauguration. "Margaret!"
His assistant appeared in front of him, setting a water glass and a bottle of aspirin on the desk. "Are you looking for the Ludlow memo?"
"Yes, I'm looking for the Ludlow memo. Where is it?"
"It's in your file cabinet, under E. I was going to file it under L for Ludlow, but then I decided to file it under E because you might look under E for environment or maybe E for emissions, so statistically speaking there was a better chance of you looking under –"
"Margaret, just get the damn memo, would you? I'm meeting with Ludlow right after senior staff this morning. What time is it?"
"Five minutes to nine. Toby told Ginger to remind me to remind you that he needs a decision on the UAW statement today."
"And Congresswoman Shapiro wants to meet with you concerning the women's health bill. You have an opening at three o'clock, should I book her?"
"Naw, have Josh meet with her. Tell Donna's he's gonna need stats on post-partum depression. Anything else?"
"Today is Sam's birthday. You got him a very nice gift, it's wrapped and ready in your right desk drawer."
"I assume it's in my usual good taste?"
"A silver Mont Blanc, which compliments the cufflinks the President will be giving him."
"You and Charlie go shopping together?"
"We had a catalog. Are you ready for the senior staff?"
"Yes. How old is he, twelve?"
"Thirty-five. It's a milestone, Leo. Try to be nice." Margaret vanished through the office door.
"I'm always nice," Leo muttered as the rest of the senior staff filed in and took their places. "All right, sit down and shut the hell up. We have a lot to cover, so let's get started."
"Good morning to you too, Leo," Josh chirped, dropping onto the couch next to Sam. The speechwriter was patting his pockets absently. "Lose your glasses again?"
"I just had them," Sam mumbled, going through his pockets again.
Toby glanced up and rolled his eyes. "You're wearing them."
Sam blinked and raised a hand to his face. "Huh."
"I guess some of us don't get better with age," Josh smirked.
Leo raised his eyes from the Ludlow memo and leveled a scathing glare at him. "I'll have you know I've done that myself."
Josh was saved from his own hemming and hawing by C.J. "He's a little wound up this morning. He already got into the birthday cake."
"Great. Speaking of which…" Leo retrieved the gift from his drawer and tossed it at Sam, who caught it awkwardly against his chest. "Happy birthday."
"My sentiments exactly." The President stepped through the door, bringing the staff to their feet. "Sit, sit. I just came in to wish Sam felicitations on this auspicious day. Any special plans for this evening?"
The speechwriter shifted uncomfortably. "Actually, sir, I'm having dinner with my parents."
"Sounds nice. Here's a little something from Abby and myself." The president handed Sam a box, wrapped identically to the one he'd received from Leo. "Now if you'll all excuse me, I have a Pentagon briefing." He left to the greetings of the staff.
Leo raised an eyebrow. "Your parents are getting along better?"
"No, actually they're separating. Once Mom found out Dad was flying out for my birthday, she decided to come too. Couldn't let him get one up on her."
"You've got a hell of a fun evening ahead of you."
"In all honesty, I'd rather try to negotiate peace in Northern Ireland than sit through this dinner."
Grunting in sympathy, the chief of staff turned his attention to the UAW.
Leo was not in the habit of eating in restaurants alone, but when he finally left the West Wing at eight o'clock he decided to indulge his craving for Italian. So it was that he found himself seated at a corner table at La Travatoria, sipping seltzer water and waiting for his calamari while browsing through the Washington Post. He was halfway through the crossword puzzle – and the breadsticks – when the sound of raised voices earned his attention. Glancing up in irritation, wondering if there was any place on the east coast where he could find some peace, he followed the noise to a table on the other side of the restaurant. Around the heads of other diners, he could just make out the arguing couple. The man was in his sixties and sported a thick head of black hair liberally sprinkled with gray. He was wearing a dark-blue suit jacket with a starched white shirt and red power tie, and Leo could see clear across the room that his face was flushed with growing anger. Across the table from him sat a woman whose ash-blonde hair was done up in an elegant twist. Her makeup was impeccable, but her lips were drawn into a tight thin line. Leo had a glimpse of pearls and a silk blouse before the waiter appeared in front of him, bringing his entrée and blocking his view.
The arguing couple was forgotten while he ate. It wasn't until he was drinking coffee and waiting for his check that the voices registered in his mind again, loud enough for the words to reach him.
"…just kills you that he still talks to me, doesn't it?"
"Don't be an ass, Richard. He's just too polite to tell you to go to hell!"
"I should have known you'd try to poison him against me –"
"Oh, please. Like you need my help for that. I'd say you managed to destroy his faith in you all by yourself. I don't even know why you came out here. Don't you realize you're making him miserable?"
Leo's check arrived and he gave the waiter his gold card, anxious to get the hell out of there.
"I'm not the one making him miserable! All I wanted was to have a quiet dinner with my son on his birthday, but you couldn't allow that, could you?"
"I came out here to rescue him! He's barely able to talk to you on the phone without getting upset, why would you possibly think he'd want to hear your pathetic excuses in person?"
"You hate the idea of him spending time with me and not you. It's always been a competition with you, hasn't it?"
Leo was getting a bad feeling. He signed his credit card receipt with a grateful flourish, then stood and gathered his coat. The woman's next words stopped him in his tracks.
"Yes it has!" the woman fairly shouted. "Only I didn't know it at the time! I was competing with some whore in Santa Monica for twenty eight years!"
Dread settling in the pit of his stomach, Leo turned and got his first unobstructed view of the volatile table and its third occupant. "Crap," he muttered. He was not a man given to indecision, but he hesitated a moment before heading over.
Sam sat between his parents, eyes fixed on the tablecloth, seemingly oblivious to the argument that raged on either side of him. Three empty highball glasses sat in front of him, and he drained a fourth before Leo reached the table. He squinted at his boss as he approached. "Leo? Hi, Leo. Look, Mom, Dad, it's Leo!"
Leo forced a smile. "Hi Sam. Are these your parents?"
The speechwriter blinked. "I'm sorry, how rude of me. Leo McGarry, meet Richard and Diane Seaborn."
Leo shook their hands. "Sounds like you're having an interesting dinner." He noted with satisfaction that the elder Seaborns colored in embarrassment.
"Oh, you heard?" Sam peered into his empty glass with a sigh, then signaled for the waiter. "We're here celebrating my birthday. It's been a blast so far. Another drink, please." Leo caught the waiter's eye and shook his head slightly. The young man nodded and drifted away. Oblivious, Sam gestured to the fourth chair. "Join us, Leo. We're holding a custody hearing."
"Sam, please," murmured Diane, folding her napkin in her lap.
"It's a little late for discretion, Mom. You just aired our dirty laundry in front of half of D.C. Where's my drink?" Sam twisted in his seat, trying to spot the waiter in the crowd.
"I think you've had enough," Leo said quietly. "In fact, why don't you let me
drive you home?"
Richard Seaborn frowned at him. "Thank you, Mr. McGarry, but we'll be fine."
"No," Sam announced, standing unsteadily. "Leo's right, I have had enough. Why don't the two of you sit here and argue all night. Thank you for a wonderful evening." Evading his father's reaching hand, he stumbled a bit until Leo caught his elbow. He tottered toward the door without looking back.
Pausing outside, Sam turned his face into the cool night air and took a deep breath. After a moment he wiped a hand across his eyes and allowed Leo to guide him to his car.
They drove in silence for a while, Sam gazing out the window and Leo trying to think of something to say. He wasn't very good at being comforting and feared anything he said would only make it worse. Right then it was difficult to think past the gut-clenching worry he experienced while watching the young speechwriter try to drink away his misery, but he sensed a lecture on temperance would have to wait.
"I don't want to go home," Sam said suddenly. He sounded weary, like some of the old soldiers he'd known overseas. "Could you…could you take me to a hotel? Any one, whatever's close."
Leo opened his mouth to suggest a nearby hotel, but what came out was, "You'll stay at my place. I have an extra room."
"I couldn't ask you to—"
"You didn't ask. At least this way I know you'll be on time for work tomorrow."
Sam nodded, the movement quick and jerky. "Thanks. It's just, if I go home, one or both of them will probably be there, and I just can't…"
"I understand. I guess you didn't have a very happy birthday, huh?"
"I'm not a kid anymore, Leo. Birthdays aren't that big a deal."
Leo doubted that. He knew from experience that an only child's birthday remained special, regardless of the child's age. Instead of arguing, he asked, "What did Toby get you?"
Sam snorted, one corner of his mouth turning up. "A new basketball and a box of Band-aids."
Leo had to grin. "Does he know you, or what?"
"Yeah. Josh got me tickets to the Ravens' next home game, with the assumption that I'd be taking him. And this big stupid pin that says 'Kiss me, it's my birthday.' He chased me around half the morning with it, wanted me to wear it on the Hill. And C.J. got me the Ken Burns Jazz videos, and a chain for my glasses, like old ladies wear. I guess she's tired of me losing them." Sam leaned his head back against the headrest and closed his eyes. "You know, I think I drank too much tonight."
"Are you mad?"
"More like concerned. I wouldn't want you to think drinking's the answer."
"I know it's not. I just…I couldn't deal with my parents."
"Gee, now I feel a whole lot better."
"I won't make a habit of it, okay?"
"Leo, please. I really don't need another argument tonight." There was a hard edge to Sam's voice that Leo seldom heard. He got the message.
"Okay. No more arguments." They drove in silence for a while, Leo flicking his gaze from the windshield to the rearview mirror to Sam and back. Sam leaned his forehead against the side window and watched the streetlights flash by with heavy lids.
Leo slipped a hand in his coat pocket, feeling the slim form of his cell phone. This was a side of Sam he'd never seen before, and he was beginning to doubt his ability to cope with it. He should call Josh – hell, even Toby was probably better at this sensitive stuff. He glanced again at his passenger. Sam's eyes were closed, and one tear tracked soundlessly down his cheek.
Leo sighed. The last thing Sam needed tonight was to be abandoned. "You look tired, Sam."
"Yeah," came the whispered reply.
"When's the last time you got a good night's sleep?"
A pause, and then another whisper.
Leo flipped on the light and ushered Sam into his hotel suite. "Take your coat off. I'll make some coffee." The answering machine was blinking as always. He pushed the play button, skipping each message after listening to a few seconds. When he looked up, Sam was still standing where he'd been left, blinking dazedly around the room.
"Take your coat off, Sam." Leo used his 'boss' tone to break through the younger man's fugue and watched with satisfaction as he obeyed.
Standing in the kitchen scooping coffee grounds into the plastic basket, Leo wondered if he should be calling that shrink of Josh's. They had dropped the ball after Roslyn. Even after Josh's breakdown, they hadn't learned their lesson, hadn't insisted the rest of the staff get counseling. Had Sam been suffering from his error all this time, struggling through the days, a breakdown of his own just around the corner?
In the other room, the object of his concern was staring at a photograph on the bookshelf. Leo peered over his shoulder at himself, Jenny and Mallory in happier days. He took the coat out of Sam's lax hands and hung it next to his own.
"My mother asked me to represent her in the divorce." Sam rubbed his face wearily. "They want me to choose. How do I do that? I mean, I'm still so angry with him, but he's my father…I'm so tired of being in the middle of this. Neither of them gives a damn about me, that's what I think." Sam began to pace, agitation taking the place of his stupor. "You know what? To hell with them. They want to use me to hurt each other? Screw 'em. I don't need them. They want to rip this family apart? See if I care. I don't care. I don't care."
Leo put a hand on his shoulder.
"I don't care, Leo."
"Shut up," he said softly, pulling the dark head to his shoulder.
"I don't care," Sam mumbled.
Leo held him in a loose, one-armed hug while soft breaths warmed his shirt. In a moment, he knew, Sam would cry. Leo would hold him like he would his own child, and tell him it would be all right while he silently cursed Richard and Diane Seaborn. And in the morning, if God was merciful, Sam would remember none of it and be able to hold on to his dignity.
The coffee pot beeped. Leo ignored it, supporting most of Sam's weight while the younger man concentrated on breathing.