(Please see the first section for notes and disclaimers.)

My roommate is fuming when I cross the threshold.

"It's about time you showed up."

I really don't think I can take much more of this today. I don't
think I can take much more of anything today. "What's wrong?" I ask
wearily.

"What's wrong? I'll tell you what's wrong," she echoes
furiously. "What's *wrong* is that my life has become the Sabrina
Seaborn answering service. All I do is field *your* phone calls.
You're *never* here and the damn phone rings every five minutes as
the next damn reporter calls wanting a statement. It's driving me
crazy!"

I can well understand her frustration but cannot keep my own from
coming through. "I'm sorry, Claire. What do you expect me to *do*
about it? I certainly didn't ask to be plunked down in the middle of
the hell my life has become."

She snorts derisively, "I guess some people don't know how to keep
from airing their dirty laundry in public."

The last modicum of self-restraint I possess starts to snap. "Claire,
I hope you don't really mean that. I'm sorry this has affected you
too, I really am, but it's not my fault. I don't blame you for not
wanting to deal with the reporters. I don't either, but it's not
*you* they're stalking, now is it?" My fury mounts as I continue.

You know that point you pass where you know that if you say one more
thing it's going to be too much, and yet you plunge in anyway? That's
where I am right now. "If you don't want to deal with the phone
calls, then get your damn answering machine fixed, or move the hell
out. Either way, I don't care. I just got fired, my brother is
falling apart, I'm starting to feel like *I'm* falling apart too, and
I simply don't have room in my heart to feel all that badly about
your minor inconvenience right now." I don't wait for her reply. I
think I'm going to scream and opt for rushing down the hall to my
room.

I love my bedroom. It's my cozy and quiet and comfortable cocoon, the
one place where the world is not allowed to upset me. I enter its
darkened shelter and drop purse, coat, suit jacket and shoes on the
floor before sinking into the cool comfort of my bed. I struggle to
quiet my jagged breathing. I have got to get a hold of myself. Sam
doesn't need this. He doesn't need to know about what happened today,
and I can't let on that anything is out of the ordinary. He'd go nuts
and want to call Greg himself to chew him out. That's certainly the
*last* thing he needs to be doing right now.

In the darkness I feel a stack of papers on the bed beside me and
reach over to turn on the bedside lamp. I pick up the pile of mail
and begin to go through it. The first envelope in the stack is
marked "urgent information enclosed" and bears the logo of "Moorehead
and Tate, Attorneys at Law" in the top left-hand corner. I open it
with my fingernail and pull out the single piece of paper inside.

<><><>

From my bedroom I hear someone knock on the door and Claire cross to
answer it. I hear muffled voices, but I'm not really listening and
couldn't care less. I'm lying on my bed curled tightly in to a ball
watching old re-runs of "Law & Order" on A&E. I'm not really paying
attention to the TV either. Not even the sight of yummy Chris Noth,
which is usually enough to perk me right up, is doing anything for me
at the moment.

Eventually Sam will worry that he hasn't heard from me yet this
evening. The least I have to do is call him. I can't face him yet,
though. He'd know instantly that I have pretty much hit the "depths
of despair" this afternoon and I can't give him one more thing to
worry about.

I'm getting a pretty good first-hand look at a portion of Sam's
misery. First the reporters at school, then rack after rack of
tabloids with bad pictures of Sam and airbrushed pictures of the
Barracuda assaulting my eyes at the grocery store. Then Rose and
Jeanine. Then Greg. The topper was the letter from Moorehead and
Tate, a small but exclusive law firm in Virginia, that bluntly
retracted the lucrative job offer they extended to me the day before
the "Tonight in America" broadcast.

There is tremendous anger at the unfairness of it all; but at the
moment it is buried pretty deeply under the shock and desperate
desire to deny that any of this is happening. The result is utter,
numbing, all-consuming exhaustion—the kind that makes you feel that
the simple act of breathing is more trouble than it's worth. I want
nothing more than to go to sleep, yet even rest escapes me.

I can feel the various systems in my body shutting down, giving up.
On some level I know this isn't good, but I simply don't care.
Graduation is less than three months away. I should be finishing a
paper or cramming for exams, but I don't care. I really don't care.
That realization should also concern me; but—one more once—I don't
care. And so I continue to lie there and stare unblinking at the
television.

Some part of my brain registers footsteps coming down the hallway. I
look up and see a most unexpected silhouette coming toward my room.
Even in the near darkness I'd know Josh anywhere just by the way he
moves. He carries himself with an easy, oh-so-confident grace that is
uniquely Josh. I couldn't begin to count the number of nights—years
ago—I used to dream about Josh Lyman coming into my bedroom, but at
this moment, I don't care.

He doesn't even pretend to knock on the door, just sails through the
open doorway and sits himself on my bed like he owns the place. After
a brief minute in which he receives no particular response from me,
he takes the remote from my limp fingers and turns off the TV. He
reaches above my head and switches on the bedside lamp and for the
first time we can really see each other.

I adjust my head slightly on the pillow so I can really look at him,
and see a world of warmth and concern in his brown eyes. His mouth is
set in a very serious line and his eyebrows are raised in an unspoken
question. Without waiting for an answer, he reaches over and pulls me
up and into his arms. I rest my head on his chest and am perfectly
content to be cradled there, listening to his heartbeat. I used to
carry such a torch for Josh, but I love him now in much the same way
I love Sam, and wouldn't change or trade the platonic, sibling-type
relationship we have for anything in the world.

He rests his chin on top of my head and gives me a warm squeeze. My
eyes burn with the approaching flood and I slip my arms around his
waist and lean into him. He rocks me back and forth so gently and
raises a hand to push my hair out of my face. Say what you will about
Josh—he can be caustic and pompous and abrasive—but he can also be
one of the sweetest, most intuitive, compassionate people I know. I
relish his warmth and strength, both his strength of character and
the strength of his arms wrapped around me, as the tears slide down
my face.

"I hear you've had a hell of a day," he says quietly.

I make a strange little noise that starts as a laugh, but ends more
like a sniffle. "Josh Lyman, King of Understatement."

"Hmm," he grunts, "you were right. That was pretty bad." He
pauses. "Why don't you tell me about it?"

"I feel like such a failure, Josh. Sam has always been so good to me
and I want so much to fix this for him, and can't. I'm letting down
the one person who has *always* been there for me. And what scares me
the most is that it feels like he's slipping away from me. I've tried
being strong, I've tried bringing the funny, I've tried pleading,
cajoling, berating...nothing I do seems to get through any more. Our
sweet, funny, wonderful Sam disappears on us a little more every day.
I'm so afraid I'm going to lose him."

There, I said it. And I finally realize that's what's really the root
of my depression. We're losing Sam, and there doesn't seem to be much
I can do to stop it. I've never felt so hopeless or futile in my
life, and I want to take Sam by the shoulders and shake him or scream
at the world until everything is okay.

Josh runs one hand up and down my shoulder and pulls my hair out of
my face again. "You're right, he does need you to be strong for him.
And I know you'd never let him down. Just like he'd never let you
down. I'd like to think Joanie and I would have been close the way
you and Sam are," he says, as his tone grows wistful. "And so, little
sister of my heart, let me be strong for you. Lean on me. I promise
we'll get you both through this."

I am so touched by his words fresh tears well in my eyes. You'd think
I'd be dehydrated by now. I reach up and kiss him on the cheek before
resting my head on his shoulder. "You really are the best, you know
that? And I love you for it."

"I know," he says simply, as I hear that cocky grin creep into his
voice. "So tell me what happened at work today. Claire gave me the
summary, but I want the unabridged version from you."

"Me too," says another voice from the doorway. CJ moves into the room
and crosses to the bed. She sits down on the far side and props
herself against the headboard, stretching her long legs in front of
her and crossing one ankle over the other. "Claire says she's sorry,
by the way."

I disentangle myself from Josh's arms and prop up beside CJ. "She's a
sweetie, and we've lived together for three years. I guess we vented
on each other this afternoon."

Josh's face is bathed in the warm glow from the bedside lamp as he
gives me a stern look. "Don't stall, Sabrina. Tell us what happened
at the D.A.'s office."

"Well, basically I got fired. And then I got home and had a letter
from a private firm in Virginia that fired me before I even had the
chance to go to work for them." CJ and Josh regard me with grim
expressions on their faces. I tell them about the job offer I got
from Moorehead and Tate, and show them the letter.

CJ studies the letter as she listens to me relate my conversation
with Greg. She passes the letter to Josh. "Well, we should get a
litigator to look at this, but they seem to have covered themselves.
If it were anything else, I'd want Sam to take a look at it. What do
you think, Josh?"

"No, I don't think we should tell Sam about this just now, but I do
think Leo should know. I *definitely* think he should know about the
incident at the D.A.'s office."

"Josh, I don't think that's—"

"Oh, don't worry, I don't expect you to be willing to discuss it with
him. So I will first thing tomorrow morning. If I know Leo, he told
you to call him if you needed anything. And he meant it. If he finds
out you've had trouble and didn't tell him about it, he'll be
furious."

"Besides," he continues, "the man knows more people than God. If
anyone can place a discreet phone call and get this issue resolved,
it's Leo."

"Oh, well, if I'd known it was that easy, I'd have started calling
Leo for all sorts of things years ago," I say as I toss my hands in
the air and roll my eyes. "You know what I'd really like to have
someone *resolve*, don't you?"

CJ smiles sadly. "If I could wiggle my nose and make it go away, I
would. I promise."

"Want me to call my mafia connection?" Josh teases me.

"Do you really have one, Yankee boy? If so, then yes."

I stare at my hands folded in my lap. We're quiet for another moment
before a new thought occurs to me. "Not that I'm not grateful for
your company or anything, but what brings you guys by on a perfectly
good week night?"

"Two things actually," Josh begins. "First, Sam was worried about
you. The media bloodhounds hadn't left his place yet so he didn't
want to leave, but he called me in the office a little while ago
saying he hadn't been able to find you all afternoon."

I frown and lean over to retrieve my purse from the floor as Josh
continues. "He said he called your cell phone and was starting to get
worried. I told him I'd stop by and fetch you on the way over. We've
got some paperwork to review, and as I'm sure we're all well aware,
*I'm* not the litigator in this road show. I'm counting on you and
Sam for that."

I rummage around in my purse for the cell phone. Yep, I managed to
let the battery die. Good one, Seaborn. Sam and I have really been
wearing out those free minutes, as well as the battery charge.

"And," CJ says, smoothly picking up where her colleague left off. "I
wanted to talk to you about the press. I know you're under a lot of
pressure to give someone a statement, and I wanted to make sure
you're handling it okay."

I grimace and wrap my arms around myself. I can feel my body start to
tremble the way it does when I get cold, tired or stressed, and I am
all three at the moment. I can feel Josh and CJ's sharp eyes studying
me and I try to pull myself together. "Sometimes I think so, but then
sometimes I wonder. This monster Lisa created just won't die. There
are almost as many reporters around campus as there are at Sam's
house every day. It's like they know everywhere I go during the day
and everything I do and *someone* is waiting around every corner to
shove either a camera or a microphone in my face."

"It can be truly overwhelming," CJ says. "But you seem to be doing
the right things. Don't say *anything* to anyone. Even a simple `No
comment' can be printed in the paper. Don't discuss any of this with
your friends. It's harsh but true that you never know who will sell
you out during times like these. You and Claire really should put an
answering machine on your phone and only answer calls you can readily
identify. Change your number if you have to. You might want to
install caller ID. And most importantly, don't let a reporter goad
you into anger. It only takes one angry comment to start a brand new
media blitz, and none of us needs that right now."

"Yes, Ma'am," I nod solemnly.

Before anyone can say anything else, the phone rings. I sigh
inwardly, knowing in my heart that it's Sam. I've got to put on the
happy face for him and answer the phone, secretly worshiping Josh and
CJ for coming by tonight.

"Hello?"

"Bri, it's me."

Instantly I know that something is horribly wrong. "Sammy, what is
it?" Josh and CJ perk up and watch me intently.

"I need you."

"Well, then I'll come over. What is it? What's wrong? And, Sam,
what's wrong with your voice? You sound all muffled, like you're
stuffed in the closet or something."

"Almost. I locked myself in the bathroom."

"You *what*?" I yell into the phone. "Did you just say you locked
yourself in the *bathroom*?"

He sounds definitively defeated when he answers me. "Yeah."

"What the hell is going on over there?" No sooner has the question
left my lips than the answer occurs to me. There is only one thing,
one person, one force of nature in the world that would cause my
strong, manly, self-assured brother to lock himself in the bathroom
like a ten-year-old, no matter what else was going on in his life. I
groan audibly, and CJ and Josh both reach out to place a hand on me
in support. They look worried enough to jump right through the
phone. "Please, oh, God, please, Sam, tell me she's not there."

"If only I could do that for you, Sweetheart. But I've never lied to
you, and I'm not about to start." The frustration in his voice is
clear.

I understand completely why Sam has locked himself in the bathroom.
Suddenly, I wish I were locked in the bathroom with him, because I
know I'm going to have to deal with the creature that Sam has tried
so hard to escape. "When did she get there?"

"About half an hour ago."

"Half an hour? A new record. And to think it used to take her at
least an hour and a half for one of her children to want to slit his
or her wrists." I turn pleading eyes to Josh. He knows just enough
about our family to have caught on and turns his dancing eyes on CJ.

"Mother," he mouths to her.

She shakes her head in confusion. I know she's wondering why the mere
mention of one's mother would turn two rational adults into quivering
masses of nerves. But that's only because she's never met our mother.

"Their mother must be at Sam's," he tells her in a stage
whisper. "I've only met her once, but I can understand why Sam locked
himself in the bathroom." CJ and Josh snicker behind their hands.
Bully for them. They have that luxury. Unfortunately, I don't.

I struggle to hear what Sam is telling me over Josh's whispers. "...and
she says she's going to stay with me until this is over. Sabrina,
baby, I hate to ask you to do this, but *help*! " The desperation in
his voice is also totally understandable. I'll even play Daniel in
the lion's den if it will help Sam. He better have some idea how much
I love him. And somebody Up There better write this down for me.

"Okay, Sammy, I'm coming. And I'm bringing reinforcements."

"Who?" he asks skeptically.

"Josh and CJ."

"Oh good. Hurry," he finishes in a whisper. He stops me as I start to
hang up the phone by saying, "Sabrina!"

"What?"

"I really love you, you know? You're the best little sister a guy
ever had."

"Brother, you don't know the half of it," I tell him and disconnect
the call. I turn pleading eyes on Josh and CJ.

CJ watches me expectantly, while Josh is actually biting his lower
lip in a vain attempt to keep from smirking. He met our mother while
he and Sam were working together on the Hill, but he hasn't yet been
fully indoctrinated into the cult of Pauline Seaborn. And to think I
didn't think this could get any worse. What a na´ve little thing am I.

"I need your help, guys."

"Let me guess. You're mom showed up on his doorstep and is moving
in," Josh asks with a rueful smile.

"Yeah. And he wants me to come bail him out."

"How would you do that?" CJ asks.

I sigh heavily. Can't lightening just come strike me down now and put
me out of my misery? "There's only one thing our mother likes more
than smothering Sam, and that's berating me. Just having me in the
room ought to give Mom something else to obsess over so Sam can have
a break."

"Excuse me?" CJ asks with a bewildered grin.

"She's my mother and I love her, but she's a nutcase, CJ. There's not
really any good way to explain her, you'll just have to meet her."
Suddenly, a horrible thought occurs to me. "You are going to come
with me, aren't you? You're not going to make me go over there by
myself? Please, CJ, Josh, I'm begging you. For the love of all that's
holy, please don't abandon me now."

CJ tries hard not to burst out laughing while regarding me like I've
suddenly sprung an extra head or two. Josh, who at least has some
basis for understanding, can barely contain his mirth. I give
him `the Look' and am pleased to see that it works as well on him as
it does Sam and Dad.

"Sorry," he mutters, looking over at CJ and giving her a wink.

"So, not to be nosy, but what's up with your family?" CJ asks. "Just
what is it you've begged me so pitifully to get myself involved in?"

I sigh again and look to Josh for support. How exactly does one
explain the Seaborn family?

I'd like to make a joke out of it, but having to clue CJ and Josh in
brings back all the pain I usually manage to push away. "My mother
hates me, CJ. She didn't want any other children and has basically
never forgiven me for having the audacity to show up at all."

"Wait a minute," CJ breaks in, shaking her head. "from everything
I've heard about your mother, she absolutely dotes on you guys."

"No, she dotes on Sam. That part is true. Before I came along, she
had everything she needed for her country-club lifestyle. She had a
wealthy husband who threw money at her and never asked what she spent
it on, a healthy, handsome son who was smart and popular and made her
look great at the PTA, and plenty of time to spend shopping and
hanging out with her friends. Then she found out she was pregnant
again. According to the story I heard, she had no intentions of
carrying out her second pregnancy. Apparently she and Dad even
discussed it in front of Sam, who was just eight-years-old at the
time. Can you imagine?"

I am acutely embarrassed as I sit here and tell them my tale of woe,
but hope that they will gain the basis of understanding necessary to
deal with Mom, who will undoubtedly be making her presence known over
the next several weeks. I look up to see them giving me these
heartrendingly sympathetic looks, and have to turn away again.

"Apparently she changed her mind and decided to go through with it
when Sam told her it might be fun to have a little brother to play
with. And then I didn't even have the good sense to be a boy. Pretty
obnoxious of me, huh?" I try to laugh, but feel more like crying
again and abandon the effort.

"So, as you can see, Mom's been pretty disappointed in me since
before I even had a say in the matter. We did have one brief, shining
moment when I was in high school and won a scholarship to the America
Ballet Theatre. For a while there she was the ultra stage mom and I
thought that she actually loved me, that I had found a way to prove
my worth to her. But I think it was the visions of a prima ballerina
dancing in her head that she loved.

Not long before I was supposed to move to New York, Sam came home one
weekend and I blew out my knee playing basketball with him. Mom
thought I did it on purpose because I was too afraid to go away to
school. She wouldn't even take me to the hospital. Dad was away on
business as usual and if Sam hadn't been there, I don't know what I
would have done that night."

"I can't believe that the woman you're telling me about is the same
one I've heard Sam talk to on the phone," CJ shakes her head in
disbelief.

"Well, like I said, she's always been extremely proud of him, and I
can certainly see why. I think he's pretty spectacular myself. What
really amazes me is that any man who grew up with a mother like ours
could turn out to be as strong, rational and, well, *normal* as Sam
is. In some ways he's been more of a parent to me than either Mom or
Dad. Dad's great but he was always on the road. I can't think of a
week when he hasn't traveled overnight since I graduated from high
school. Sam was the one who helped me with my homework, spent time
with me, taught me how to ride a bike, how to drive, you name it."

I can tell from the look in CJ's eyes that she'd expect no less from
Sam. "And then Lisa came along and you pretty much lost your whole
family in one fell swoop," she surmises.

"Kinda, yeah. Although Lisa hates Mom every bit as much as she hates
me, if not more. I always thought Sam was attracted to Lisa because
she and Mom were so different. Lisa didn't want Sam to socialize with
anybody but her friends, as Josh will attest to," I shoot him a
glance and he rolls his eyes heavenward, "but she was strong-willed
and opinionated and not afraid to speak out about what she thought.
She didn't hang on his every word like Mom did."

"You know, I think I'm sensing a pattern here. The women in Sam's
life seem to really like giving him hell," Josh winks at me.

"Josh Lyman, so help me if you even *hint* at lumping me in the same
category with those two again, I'll kick your ass."

"Oooh, so tough," he jeers, but only until I launch myself at him
from across the bed, tackling him and helping him to a seat on the
floor.

"Ow!" he yelps as CJ and I burst out laughing.

"Okay, children," she says, rising and shaking her head. "Let's get
this show on the road. I think Sam's expecting the cavalry."

<><><>

 

 

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