Chapter One

Sam walked into his office and sat down behind his desk. He had stopped off to get a coffee on his way to work hoping that the caffeine rush would help him to finish the speech he was working on. He was stuck, he was more that stuck he was blocked. He stood up again and walked to the doorway of Toby's office. "I'm going to finish my coffee, then I'm going to open my mail, then I'm going to start writing."

Toby didn't look up. "The first two are avoidance strategies and the last one you should have started an hour ago."

"I'm not avoiding writing…I'm easing into it."

"Well can you ease into it quickly because we need the first draft finished today?"

"Okay." Sam turned and walked out of Toby's office. "I'm easing into it, Ginger."

"I can see that." Ginger was busy at her desk and like Toby, didn't look up at Sam.

"I'm just going to finish my coffee, then I'm going to open my mail, then I'm going to start," Sam took a swig from the cup, "and you better be ready, Ginger, because it might look like I'm avoiding writing but actually I'm about to burst forth with meaningful phrases and concise points, well made."

"Do I need to be ready just yet or have I got time to go to the restroom?"

"You've probably got a few minutes," Sam said to her retreating form before returning to his office. He sat behind his desk and picked up the pile of mail he had brought from home. He opened one and threw it straight into the bin then placed a handwritten letter from a friend to one side. The next letter he opened, it was a telephone bill and he scanned the list of numbers. "What the?" he pulled out his cell phone and started scrolling through the numbers. "Ah," he said as he realised the number with the ridiculously high amount of call time was Toby's new phone. He picked up his coffee and grimaced at its unusually bitter taste. He switched on his laptop. The screen lurched from side to side and Sam shook his head and took another swig of coffee. He decided to put off starting work by phoning Margaret and asking if Leo would be free later in the day.

As his hand touched the phone his office appeared to tilt ninety degrees before righting itself. Sam rubbed at his eyes and tried again. This time the phone seemed to move out of his reach. He took a deep breath and swallowed hard at the swell of nausea that rose in him. The taste of coffee and something that he didn't recognise rose in his throat. He lifted the Styrofoam cup to his nose and breathed in. It smelled normal but the taste in his mouth had now intensified, making him want to retch. His office was spinning and he leapt from his chair and started to pace haphazardly. His phone rang and Sam covered his ears at the noise. The lights suddenly seemed too bright and Sam winced as with one hand on the wall, he guided himself out of his office and into Toby's.

"I don't feel very well," was all Sam could manage to say.

"Do you want me to write a note for Phys Ed? Just start the draft already."

Sam stared at Toby and willed him to lift his head and look at him. He clung onto the filing cabinet for support and said Toby's name.

Toby sighed, finished the sentence he was on and then looked up at his deputy. The sight that greeted him shocked him and for a while he was unable to move. Sam stood holding onto the cabinet. His face was ashen and his body was trembling violently. The worst thing though was the look of fear in his eyes. Toby rushed to his side. He grabbed hold of Sam who collapsed in his arms. He tried to get him to the sofa but Sam was unable to make it and collapsed on the floor in front of it instead.

"Don't go," Sam mumbled.

"Don't worry, I'm here, it's alright."

"No," Sam was trying hard to control his breathing but it was becoming more erratic, "don't go…my office…coffee…think…coffee bad," Sam could hardly string a sentence together but Toby understood what he was trying to say.

"Ginger!" She was used to hearing her name shouted but not in the tone Toby had just used. "Call an ambulance- lock Sam's office. Don't go in." Ginger nodded and set about her tasks.

Toby had one arm around Sam's back. The other was being gripped firmly by Sam. He prised Sam's hand off in order to loosen his tie and undo the top buttons of his shirt. When he had finished Toby let Sam take his hand and tried not to flinch when he felt his fingers being crushed together. Sam was sweating and shaking uncontrollably.

"Try to relax your breathing, Sam. Try to relax." Toby brought his hand further up and rubbed the top of Sam's back. "Are you in pain?" Toby hoped this was an asthma or panic attack but a deeper part of him knew Sam had been a victim of something horrific, he just didn't know what. "Sam, does it hurt?" Toby repeated.

Sam nodded and squeezed his eyes shut as the pain intensified. When it had passed he mumbled, "Back…back hurts…legs…hurts." He groaned and pulled his knees in to his stomach as he rolled towards Toby, ending up nearly in his lap.

"Shit," Toby said but realized that probably wasn't very comforting for Sam. He stretched his legs out and pulled Sam upright until his head was against his chest. Toby could hear Ginger talking to Donna and knew that it meant the imminent arrival of Josh. Sure enough Josh quickly appeared at Sam's side.

Sam was leaning against Toby but turned his head towards Josh. "Did…tell you…don't go in my office?"

Toby ignored Josh's confused expression and answered for him. "Stop worrying about that, Sam. Your office is locked."

"Good…tasted funny…tried to phone, Leo…tried…but-" another wave of pain swept through Sam making his body jack-knife against Josh. Sam moaned and Josh grabbed hold of him, desperate to help but unable to do anything more than hold on as wave after wave of pain coursed through him. Suddenly, Sam's back arched and Toby and Josh could only look on helplessly as convulsions racked his body. Sam's moans filled the Bullpen and drew curious staffers to Toby's window. After a few moments the convulsions stopped and Sam fell exhaustedly back to the floor.

"What's wrong with him?" Josh asked in a horrified whisper. Before Toby could answer, Ron came rushing into the room and knelt down beside Sam.

"Sam, look at me." Sam opened his eyes and tied to focus on the new voice that he couldn't quite place. "I need you to tell me what happened." Ron spoke calmly but forcefully, knowing that Sam's ability to talk was rapidly fading.

"What happened…," Sam repeated.

"Sam, Listen. You need to tell me what's in your office."

Another wave of pain hit Sam. He could feel Toby's hand on his back and knew his head was on Josh's lap but he couldn't place the voice that was talking to him in such urgent tones. Another voice cut through his haze of pain. "Sam, it's okay, we're here. It's going to be okay."

Sam opened his eyes again at the sound of CJ's voice. Next to her he could see a man with a moustache. "Ron?" he asked.

"That's right, Sam. I need to know what happened."

One of Sam's hands was gripping Josh's shirt. The other was taken by CJ. Sam held it tightly it and focused on her as he answered Ron. "Don't know…coffee tasted…don't know…knew something wrong…taste…"

"What coffee? Where did you get it, Sam?"

"Don't…taste, just taste, don't know." Sam tightened his hold on CJ's hand as the pain intensified.

"What did it taste like? Sam! Look at me, Sam. What did it taste like?"

Sam curled into a ball and gasped. Josh cursed and flashed a helpless look at Toby.

"What did it taste-"

"Bit…bit…" the pain had lessened but Sam was gasping for breath.

"Bitter?" Ron asked and at Sam's nod he squeezed his shoulder, told him he had done well, stood up and left the room.

Toby glanced at CJ and noticing the pained expression on her face, he leant forward and unclasped Sam's hand from hers, replacing it with his own. CJ smiled gratefully at him and placed her freed hand on Sam's head. "It's alright, it's alright," she murmured. Josh looked down at Sam and tried to force the memories of CJ soothing him at Rosslyn out of his mind.

"What the hell happened?" Leo entered the room but remained by the door. No one answered him.

Ginger stood in the doorway helplessly holding a glass of water that she had fetched for Sam. When the first paramedic entered the room she was jostled to the side, oblivious to the water that slurped over the edge of the cup.

"Sam! Can you hear me? I need you to look at me, Sam." The paramedic let Josh remain where he was only asking him to lower Sam to the floor. There was no room for Toby and he rose reluctantly and perched on the sofa. "That's it, Sam. Now keep your eyes open. Can you tell me where it hurts?"

Sam couldn't feel Toby anymore, only Josh's hand. He looked up but there was only ceiling above him and the face of a man he didn't recognise.

The paramedic repeated his question as his partner began to put an IV in Sam's arm and place an oxygen mask over his face. "You're doing great, Sam, keep looking at me and tell me where you hurt."

"Back…stomach…breathe…"

"It hurts when you breathe?" Sam nodded in reply. "On a scale of one to ten, where's your pain?"

"Ten," Sam answered without hesitation. "Breathe...can't…"

"I know and we're going to give you some oxygen to help with that, I need you to take nice, deep breaths for me."

Sam managed two breaths before a wave of pain made him cry out and curl into a ball. One of the paramedics struggled with the IV line while the other turned Sam onto his back and tried to get his attention again. Sam's face was gripped by pain. The paramedic muttered something to her partner as Sam's eyes widened and his back once more arched from the floor. The paramedics seemed ready for it though and rescued the IV line talking soothingly as Sam cried out. Eventually Sam's body relaxed once more and he could feel Josh's hand clasp his again. Tears ran down his face but Sam didn't care. He felt a warm hand brush them away, he didn't know whose.

Ron came back into the room. He had spoken to the paramedics on their way in and knew that there was nothing more he could do here. He took the key from Ginger and left the room. Sam could hear voices that he recognised but the voices that he didn't recognise were closer. He tried to listen to them but all he could focus on was the pain and the fact that he was finding it impossible to draw a breath.

"Can't…can't," Sam murmured. He knew he was being told to do something but whatever it was he couldn't do it. "Can't…go away…leave me alone…can't."

Josh watched helplessly as Sam was lifted onto the gurney and strapped in. He heard Sam call his name and called out to him but his voice sounded far away to him and so he replied again louder. "I'm right here, I'm coming with you." He followed the paramedics from the room oblivious to CJ's instructions to phone as soon as he knew something.

Toby followed Sam out to the entrance of the West Wing, staying close to the gurney until it was loaded into the ambulance. There were three ambulances outside. Toby wondered if that was a normal response to a call-out to the White House but then he saw another gurney being wheeled towards one of them. He walked quickly up to the driver of the third ambulance. "What's going on?"

"I don't know. All I know is that we had three separate call-outs, something going on if you ask me."

"You think?" Toby answered, but his usual biting sarcasm was less effective with the shadow of fear in his voice. He walked quickly back to the West Wing, intent on finding Ron and finding out what was happening.

Josh blocked out the sounds of the sirens. It wasn't difficult as the sounds of Sam's moans were filling the ambulance. Sam was past being aware of where he was or who was with him. All he knew was that his head and stomach were exploding and every breath felt like his last. Josh kept hold of his hand anyway and continued to talk to him. The ambulance stopped and the doors swung open, the sudden sunlight making Josh close his eyes. He followed as far as he could but was turned away from the room that Sam was wheeled into and led to a waiting room. He sat down, stood up again and paced for a while before returning to his seat once more.

Leo raised his hand and beckoned Toby in when he saw him standing at the door to his office. Toby cursed silently as he listened to Ron talking to Leo. He should have realised that the situation would result in a crash and now he wouldn't be able to get out of the building to get to the hospital. He focused again on Ron's words.

"…three have been taken to hospital- Sam, Ben Canton who's a member of the press corps and Julia Swan who works in the East Wing. So far we can't find any link between them. I've got people checking on any staffers who called in sick today."

"And these other two, they had the same symptoms as Sam?" Leo asked.

"As far as we can tell, obviously the hospital will be able to tell us more. I have to be honest, Leo, I have no idea what we're dealing with here. The President's in the Residence and-" Ron was interrupted by his phone. "Are you sure? Hold on-" he looked up at Toby, "Did Sam go to the Mess this morning?"

"No he came straight in, no, hold on, I can't be sure of that."

"Shut it down," Ron ordered into his cell. "Yes, all of them…well that's tough…you're kidding me…calm him down and then find out if Ben, Julia or Sam went in there this morning." Ron put the phone back in his pocket. "One of the cooks is in a state because he thinks the chicken soup was past its best."

"I think we're dealing with something a little more sinister than out of date soup here," Leo said.

"So do I, but right now, discovering a serious bout of food poisoning would make me a happy man," Ron said as he made his way out of the office and headed for the Residence.

Toby looked at Leo and waited for him to say something. He waited for a few moments more before he realised Leo was waiting for him to do the same. Margaret entered and ended the wordless stalemate by telling Leo that he was needed in the Residence. Toby left and walked back to the Communications Bullpen. He couldn't help but jump as a man dressed in what appeared to be a spacesuit entered Sam's office and started removing items from his desk. Ginger appearing at his side made him jump again.

"Sorry, Toby, I'm meant to find out if Sam went to the Mess this morning. I went to the desk and it says he signed in at 6:56. Do you know what time you saw him arrive?"

Toby thought for a moment, walking absently into his office. "I do know! I was watching CNN and Daybreak had just finished when I saw Sam go into his office. It finishes at seven so Sam can't have been to the Mess in that time."

Ginger smiled with relief, glad that she had something to tell the agent that might be of use. Toby sat down at his desk and switched CNN back on. It was now halfway through American Morning and the main story was the ambulances called to the White House. Toby grabbed for the remote and switched it off.

Josh had been joined in the waiting room by Ben Canton's wife and Julia Swan's husband. He didn't join in their conversation as they tried to make sense of what could have caused their partner to leave the house perfectly fine and be rushed into hospital less than an hour later.

A doctor entered the room instantly silencing the conversation and causing Josh to stand up. "Mrs Canton, can I speak to you outside please?"

Josh closed his eyes as the sound of Mrs Canton's wails filtered into the room. He didn't need to be outside to know what the doctor had told her. He looked up to find Julia Swan's husband staring at him and, unable to take the look of fear in his eyes, Josh looked away. After a few moments a different doctor entered the waiting room and asked Josh to step outside. Josh was so certain that he was about to be told that Sam was dead that he had to ask the doctor to repeat what he said to him.

"I said you can see Mr Seaborn in a while." As they walked towards the ICU unit, the doctor told Josh that they were running tests but he was pretty certain that Sam had ingested strychnine. So shocked was he by the doctor's words that Josh just nodded and asked about Julia Swan. The doctor would only say that she was holding her own.

"What about Sam, is he holding his own?"

"Mr Seaborn is very sick at the moment. His breathing hasn't improved and he's in a lot of pain. We're also having problems stopping his convulsions. We're doing all we can."

Josh hated hearing those words especially as the tone of the doctor's voice led him to suspect what they were doing was not enough. Josh walked towards Sam's bed and tried to ignore the wires and tubes attached to his body. Sam's eyes were closed but his hand moved restlessly on the blanket. Josh sat beside the bed and reached out and took hold it. Sam opened his eyes and looked around the room before seeing Josh at his side.

"They don't know," Sam mumbled. Josh had to strain to hear him.

"They're doing some tests, Sam."

"Fri…" Sam began and Josh silently pleaded with him not to say it. "Frightened," he managed and Josh closed his eyes before tightening his hold on Sam's hand.

"It's alright. Everything's going to be alright." He knew what a state Sam must be in to admit his fear so readily to Josh. "I'm here, I'll stay."

"Stay," Sam echoed and his hand gripped Josh's as his face scrunched up in pain.

"What's wrong?" Josh asked, sitting upright.

"Don't know," Sam said, "they don't know."

"Jesus," Josh mumbled and he reached over and placed his other hand on Sam's head.

"Stay," Sam repeated and Josh nodded and moved his chair closer to the bed.