The smell of coffee wafted out of the Bullpen and towards Toby's office. There was always coffee on and at certain times in the day when it had been freshly made, its aroma filled the Bullpen and surrounding offices and Toby paid it little attention apart from taking it as a reminder that he needed a refill. Today though Toby smelled it and immediately darted out into the Bullpen and told Ginger to switch the machine off.
"Why?" Ginger asked, "Are you trying to cut down? It's a little late in the day to be reducing your dependency on-"
"Turn it off. It's Sam's first day back and I'm thinking the least welcoming thing we can do is fill the place with the smell of coffee!"
Ginger's smile disappeared and she nodded as she quickly unplugged the machine.
Toby knew the gesture was a futile one as there was no way the West Wing would function for any length of time devoid of caffeine, but he also wanted Sam's first day to be as easy for him as possible and if going without coffee for a morning would enable that it was a small sacrifice to make.
Sam was outside. He would have denied the accusation that he was lingering but lingering he was. Tony had spotted him a few minutes ago and had busied himself serving coffee and pretending he wasn't there. His last customer in the queue swore when Tony spilt his coffee on seeing Sam approach. "Sorry, here you go," he hastily refilled his cup and offered him a complimentary bagel. By the time the man had gone, Sam had walked up to Tony's stall.
"A hot chocolate and a cinnamon Danish, please," Sam said. "Funnily enough I'm off coffee at the moment."
Tony smiled and held out his hand which was shook warmly by Sam. "My wife told me, she said I didn't have to worry but I've felt so damn guilty, you…all those people."
"You came to see me," Sam said, ending Tony's words.
"I did. You weren't awake but I stayed a while. I wanted to see you…to apologise."
"My dad said you'd been. He said you'd stopped running your stall."
Tony shrugged. "For a while. It just didn't feel right. It was my wife who convinced me to go back to it."
Sam stuck his hands in his pockets and nodded. "She made you realise it wasn't your fault?"
"No, she said if I didn't get out and start earning again she'd be on the first train to her mother's place."
Sam shook his head. "Back to work for you then, Tony, and me."
Tony handed Sam his drink and pastry. "It's so…I can't begin to tell you how good it is to see you."
"It's pretty good to be here. Tomorrow I'll get you up to date on the latest basement operations."
Tony laughed. "You do that, Sam, you do that."
When Sam arrived in the Communications Bullpen, the first thing he noticed was the absence of the familiar smell of coffee and he asked Ginger if the machine was broken. She fumbled through an explanation while Sam looked at it and realised what had been done. "It was Toby's idea," Ginger offered immediately. Sam just smiled and plugged it back in.
"I was poisoned by strychnine, not coffee. While it's fair to say I've puked every time I've tried to drink it, I still, believe it or not, like the smell of it." Ginger responded by pulling Sam into a hug and asking him if he'd like a cup of tea.
Sam was finishing the drink Ginger had made him when Toby peered, for the fifth time that morning, around his door. "How you doing?"
"I'm doing okay. How are you doing?" Sam put his glasses onto the desk and smiled up at Toby. "It's okay. I'm okay. You don't need to keep hovering."
Toby raised his eyebrows at the accusation. "I'm not hovering. Josh hovers, I…assess."
"Okay," Sam sat back in his chair. "So what's your assessment?"
"And not in any imminent danger of a relapse."
"Not that I'm aware of."
Toby nodded and stepped into Sam's office. "Good." He walked over to the window and looked out for a few moments before walking over to the shelves and browsing Sam's books.
Toby turned and looked at Sam. "You're sort of hovering and it's not that I don't like it in a protective, big brotherly type way, but it's really quite unnerving."
Toby nodded again and walked towards the door. "I'm going to go now."
"Okay, well thanks for dropping by."
An hour later, Sam had been visited by Toby three times, CJ twice, and Josh four. He finally gave up and went to the Mess when Donna came for the second time to remind him to eat something.
Sam could get used to the concern of his friends, what he couldn't get used to were the constant stares from other staffers, the way people he didn't know stopped him and welcomed him back and the endless requests from the media to have an exclusive interview with the 'man who survived against the odds'. Sam saw his illness as a private thing and the realisation that every moment of his progress and recovery had been national news still made him cringe. He was grateful for all the good wishes, a little humbled by the countless cards and flowers but still a part of him wanted to sneak away and hide until all the fuss had died down.
He took an unusual route back to his office in order to avoid any more well-wishers. Once back in the Bullpen he walked over to Toby's office.
"They keep staring at me."
Toby was sitting at his desk, Josh standing beside him. They were deep in conversation but both stopped and looked up when Sam entered. "Who?" Toby asked.
"People, I don't even know them. I just went to the Mess and people were staring and then coming over and telling me how hard I must have fought and how much they admire me and how hard it must have been." Sam sat on the sofa and stared at the window. "They don't know, they don't anything about it, they don't know if it was hard or not or whether I fought or if I did, how much. They don't know."
Sam turned away from the window and turned a puzzled expression towards Toby.
"Was it hard?" Toby repeated.
Sam looked up at Josh and Toby and then back to the window. "It wasn't hard to start with. I don't think…I can't really remember the start of it. I know I was confused a lot of the time. I remember having seizures, I can remember them. I remember not being able to breathe. I know that you were there." Josh walked over to the sofa and sat beside him and Toby pushed his chair away from his desk and turned it towards Sam. "Then, I remember fighting but every time I felt like I was breaking through something else would happen. I'd wake up and be attached to that mask again or I'd be trapped in some sort of blurred world where I couldn't reach anyone. I think I just wanted to stop waking up."
Sam's revelation wasn't really one at all. Toby and Josh had both seen him slowly giving up, but still, the knowledge that it had been a conscious decision on Sam's part struck both men hard. Unaware of their reaction, Sam continued. "I felt bad because I knew everyone was worried and although I couldn't always tell what was being said or even who it was by my bed I knew they were frightened. It just became too hard to keep trying to fight against my own body and sleep, or at least that's what I thought it was, became so tempting." He turned to Josh. "I was so tired."
"I know," Josh nodded and waited for him to continue.
"Remember that night you read me the President's letter?" Again, Josh nodded. "You set the chessboard up. You were joking about something I think." Sam fell silent and didn't see the concerned expression Josh turned to Toby or the slight shake of his head in reply. "I had a dream…it was a dream but it was real too…I could hear you calling and see you but not where you were…not in the room, it was…I was somewhere else but I think your voices were real. You told me to hang on," Sam said to Josh. "And Toby, you told me to fight…I think you did…I heard you…but it was a dream so I can't have done. But dream or not, I knew if I let go I'd never…" Sam shook his head. "What I mean is I'd never…if I'd let go…I don't think…"
"You knew you'd die," Toby finished for him.
"Yes." Sam nodded. He leaned back into the sofa and stared at his feet for a while before looking back up. "I am sounding like a freak?"
Normally, Sam would have expected Josh to reply to a comment like that with a wisecrack and Toby to simply affirm that he was a freak. Neither man spoke and their silence made Sam more uncomfortable than telling them about his experience had.
Toby scratched at his beard and looked briefly at Josh before returning his gaze to Sam. "Everyone who was in your room that night felt…something. You were going to die, Sam, I knew it, we all did. But you didn't, and that alone is miraculous enough for me. I don't think any deity, force or mother ship was at work, you chose to live, you chose not to die and maybe it's just as simple as that."
Sam returned Toby's gaze and for a moment Josh was almost jealous of the bond that had grown between the two men but the knowledge that Sam was still here to be jealous over made him smile and as he did he rose, pulled his coat on and threw Sam's at him. "Take me to a bar and buy me many drinks for you, my friend, have just reached a whole new level of freakdom."
"I actually think Toby was being a bit freaky there too," Sam pointed out. Toby grumbled a reply but it was half-hearted and he was already pulling on his coat and following them out of the door.
"If we want them on our side then we have to go after Hagin. I think it's about time we stood up to them. I think it's about time we said we 'know whose side you're on and it's the wrong one'." Sam folded his arms and nodded to indicate he was done. His words had been strong and he waited for Josh, Toby, CJ or Leo to reply. When no one spoke, Sam looked around at them and studied their faces. He was almost back to full health, and had been back at work fulltime for two weeks. The memory lapses were becoming less frequent and had long since stopped having uncomfortable silence follow them.
Sam frowned and looked at Leo. "I've already said this, haven't I?"
"About ten minutes ago," Leo answered.
"Damn!" Sam shook his head. "Did it go down better the first time?"
"Not so much," Leo said.
"Okay." Sam sat back down. "Do you want to wait a few minutes, see if I have another memory lapse and let me try again?"
Josh walked over to Sam and put his arms around his shoulder. "We could, Sam but I've got to tell you that it's unlikely we'd agree anymore with you than we did the first two times. You spoke well though, I was impressed with your points and the way you delivered them."
"I could have died, Josh, I could be dead right now. Everyone seems to have forgotten that."
"I haven't." Everyone turned to the doorway to see the President standing there, hands in pockets and smiling at Sam. Everyone had spent as much time as they could with Sam during his recovery and recent return to work but Bartlet had seen very little of him since his last hospital visit. He walked over to him now and sat beside him. "Everyone else can go and do their jobs. Sam and I are going on a little trip."
"We are?" Sam turned a puzzled expression to Toby who shrugged in reply.
Bartlet took off his glasses and leaned back into the chair. "Abbey knows this guy who worked on the Sky Vision projection system at the Einstein Planetarium."
Toby couldn't help but smile at the thought that most people when told that information would have little to say in reply. He watched as Sam's eyes lit up.
"The digital projection system that the West Germans gave us for the Bicentennial celebrations?"
"The very same." Everyone else in the room might as well have been invisible as the President sat forward and turned to face Sam. "Six-channel surround sound and duel projection. The sensation of flying through the cosmos enveloped in colour saturated,
moving images and spine tingling sound."
"You got that from the brochure, right?"
"Yeah, except for the spine tingling thing." Bartlet stood and gestured for Sam to follow him. "Toby, Sam may be gone for some time but on his return I promise he'll be writing words that soar. Leo, I'll be back later, I'll probably be pretty much the same when I return. Right, we're off to experience the sensation of flying through the cosmos."
"And there may be some spine tingling involved," Sam called over his shoulder as he followed the President out of the room.
CJ, Leo, Toby and Josh stood and stared after him for a few moments. The room was silent as each friend stood lost in contemplation of what it meant to have Sam back and how close they had come to losing him.
"What, you don't have your own offices anymore?" Leo asked.
He watched as CJ, Toby and Josh exited his office and then he returned his gaze to the door through which Sam had left. He smiled, it lingered and remained on his face even after he had replaced his glasses and returned his attention to the papers on his desk.