SPOILERS: All is fair game, but if there's anything specific, it will
be noted. For now, some very vague ones from In the Shadow of 2
Gunmen and Noel. Nothing we don't all already know.

DISCLAIMER: Our first West Wing fic (`nuff said). This is an AU
story, if only to a certain degree: Pretend Sam was married when he
began working for the Bartlet Administration. Also, all characters
are the property of Aaron Sorkin and his cronies; except for Sabrina
Seaborn, who's the product of Liz's rather fertile imagination.

RATED: Currently PG-13 for mature themes and language.

SUMMARY: Sam's friends and family learn what he's been keeping from
them. This is the first chapter in what will be a first person-POV
series dealing with a difficult period in Sam's life.

ARCHIVE: If you'd like to have it, please let us know.

FEEDBACK: Would be an honor.

THANKS: To Liz, for the Long Night's Chat Into Morning, without which
none of this would have started, and for the strategizing emails and
phone calls, without which this story would have gone nowhere.

<><><>

MITIGATING CIRCUMSTANCES
by, Liz & Sid

Chapter 1: The Strong, Silent Type

<><><>

It's Sunday night and the electric blue glow from the television set
bounces off the wall behind me. I can feel my face bathed in its neon
brightness.

Onscreen, Andy Rooney is ranting and raving about something I
couldn't care less about. So what else is new?

I'll tell you what else is new: My wife has left me.

She's been gone two weeks now - two weeks yesterday, in fact - and I
still can't get used to this house without her presence. It all still
feels new to me.

She's not beside me on this couch to roll her eyes at me and ask me
for the hundredth time why I waste my time watching '60 Minutes' when
there is a wide variety of perfectly good movies-of-the-week to
choose from. Her toothbrush is conspicuously absent from the cabinet
where it used to hang next to mine. My answering machine no longer
announces her name along with mine. But worst of all, she's not there
beside me in bed anymore. I just can't get used to that.

Even after sex dwindled down to once or twice a month, if that; even
after she told me I couldn't fulfill her needs; yes, even after she
began to shrink away from the simplest touch - even after all that, I
still found comfort in her body next to mine, her warmth and weight
and soft breathing soothing my nerves and frazzled edges. I drew
strength from her even though I knew she was slowly but surely
withdrawing from me.

And now she's gone. She took her warmth and her body and her
toothbrush, and she left me alone with '60 Minutes' and silence and
an answering machine that gives only one name.

I turn off the tv and the room goes dark. The better with which to
torture myself. Pity parties are much easier in the dark, don't you
think?

With that thought I turn the light back on. Feeling sorry for myself
is something I've been accused of indulging in a lot lately. Ever
since Rosslyn. Ever since my boss was injured, my best friend nearly
killed, and the lives of the people I most love and admire were
altered forever.

I can hear her voice in my head. "You're not the one who was shot,
Sam! Stop acting like that night had some sort of profound impact on
your life!"

I used to tell myself it was because she didn't know. She wasn't
there when the bullets started flying, she didn't hear the sharp,
high-pitched sound of gunfire in her ears; she didn't shove CJ out of
the way or feel the pavement slam against her own face. She was
nowhere near the hospital when the rest of us waited to hear if Josh
would live or die. I told myself she said these things because she
wasn't there and she couldn't possibly understand. But I'm starting
to think I'm wrong.

It's been over six months. Why can't I let go? I walked away with
cuts and bruises; I don't have a long, ugly scar disrupting my chest
the way Josh does, or the emotional baggage we all know Charlie still
carries. Cuts and bruises, that's it. So why can't I let go?

I'm not saying I can't get through the days. I'm not saying the sound
of gunfire echoes in my ears. But I still remember, and the
nightmares still come.

In the dead of night I see people running, I hear screams and
gunfire, I smell fear and smoke...and blood. I'm there again, pushing
CJ to the ground. I hear my screams. I hear myself shouting at CJ to
get down and stay down. I never dream it any differently from how it
happened. It's never me that gets shot, or CJ. I never dream that
someone could have prevented it. No, I just see it all, over and
over, again and again, and I can't stop it.

And even when she was here, beside me in our bed, she never held me
or kissed me. She never once whispered it would be all right. I think
I would have sold my soul for a word of comfort.

I should have caught on sooner that this was the inevitable, but
then, I'm not always the brightest.

It wasn't just the memories or the nightmares, though. It wasn't just
that I was rarely home in time for dinner, or the fact that she never
liked any of my friends. It was more than petty squabbles and less
than love turning into hate. Somewhere along the way, she just
stopped caring, and I stopped trying to make her.

And so I find myself alone in this house we once shared, staring at
shelves where her books used to be mixed with mine. The constant
scent of her perfume is fading, and even the air feels emptier.

And I don't know what to do.

I haven't told anyone at work, because somehow, since Rosslyn, I've
morphed into Strong, Silent Sam. I don't burden others with the
inconsequentials of my life, because their problems are so much
bigger than mine. So what if my wife says she probably never loved
me? So what if she's gone? Josh has pain and memories and anger and
scar tissue. Charlie has guilt that eats away at him even when he's
bestowed with the forgiveness of the very people he feels should
blame him. The President of the United States, for God's sake, feels
unimaginable remorse. What do I have? Cuts and bruises that have long
since faded, and an estranged wife who never loved me.

Lots of people's spouses leave them. Not everyone has to deal with
the after-effects of an attempt on their lives.

And so, in the morning I will shower and shave. I will brush my teeth
and my hair, pick out a new suit and dress myself. I will grab a cup
of coffee and The Washington Post, and when I get to the West Wing, I
will smile at everyone, and argue with Toby, and do my job, and I
will be Strong, Silent Sam.

But for now I will sit here in the light of my living room, and I
will stare at the piece of paper in my hands. It is stained and
crumpled now, and its folds are tearing. I have read this note at
least fifty times.

But I read it again, as if to imprint it on my brain, as if to make
myself believe it's really real.

Sam -

I'm leaving. We both know I should have done this a long time ago. I
don't love you anymore; maybe I never did. Maybe I should have saved
us both the grief and ended this long before now. But you can't
change what's been done. You can only make the future what you want
it to be. I want my future to be free of this marriage.

-Lisa

<><><>


Monday morning starts off with a bang. Literally. I walk into a wall.
The wall has been there for years - certainly since I've worked here -
but I miss it anyway. Coffee spills down my shirtfront.

Behind me, Ginger snickers.

"Morning, Sam."

"Morning, Ginger."

I decide not to amuse her further by turning around to give her a
full view of my wet, coffee-splattered front. Instead I proceed to my
office, reeking of the finest blend of Jamaican Blue, my toe
throbbing.

There are papers spread around my desk and a pile of folders and
messages waiting for me. I stand there for a minute, allowing
everything to sink in, thinking how this office has become a refuge.
Not just in the past two weeks, but in the past several months.

Face it, Seaborn: This office has been an escape for the better part
of a year.

At first, after Bartlet was elected, it was just plain fun staying
late. I know I've been accused of looking at the past with rose-
colored glasses, but they were good times. CJ would order Chinese,
Josh would wander in and out of everyone's offices, Toby would crank
up old Beatles and Stones, and as the hour grew later, we'd all
eventually join up in the bullpen or an office, exhausted but
emboldened. There was an atmosphere of general goodwill and energy.
Even if things were hellish - as they frequently were - we all had
the feeling deep down that, as corny as it sounds, we were Making a
Difference. We were Doing Good.

But lately...lately work is just an escape. I'm just going through
the motions, even during our late-night Chinese food workathons. I
can't believe no one's called me on it yet.

I begin to settle in for the day. This is the White House, after all,
and there are things to be done. Toby will be in Kansas City next
week and he's already begun delegating to me, giving me plenty to do
during his absence.

My eyes fall on the wedding band circling my ring finger, and the
infinitesimal scar slanted across my knuckle, remembering CJ's
fingernails digging into my hand as our bodies slammed to the
pavement outside the Newseum.

It's all still so fresh in my mind - Rosslyn and the gunfire and the
smell of smoke and blood. It was only a few short weeks ago that Josh
exploded in the Oval Office. We all still wince at innocent phrases
like `Just shoot me now'. I realize with a sinking feeling that this
is not something we will ever fully get over.

And I think, That was the worst I've ever been through. I can get
through anything after that.

Lisa's gone. Maybe I can handle that. It still hurts - oh, you bet it
does - but I can handle it. Possibly.

I take a deep breath. Rome wasn't built in a day, Seaborn. Take it
one step at a time.

Yes, sometimes I think in clichés. So sue me.

Okay, it's time to tell my friends. Deep breath. Nice and easy. I can
do this. I can walk up to CJ and Josh and Donna and Toby, and I can
say to them, "Lisa's gone. She's left me. I need you to help me
through this."

I stand up and walk to the door.

Josh first, I think. As caustic as he is, as much as he loves to razz
me - underneath all that he has a heart of pure gold. He'll want to
know; he'll want to help.

Sure, Seaborn. Because your wife leaving you is so much bigger than
his physical rehabilitation. Because he'd rather concentrate on
helping you get over a woman than restoring his own mental health and
faith in humanity. Sure thing, Seaborn.

Deep breath.

Okay, then. CJ? Warm, capable, caring CJ? She'll level me with a
glance. She has bigger things to deal with. Donna, then? That
wouldn't be fair. She's too busy watching Josh like a hawk, agonizing
over him as he tries desperately to come to terms with life after...
well, just After.

I release my hold on the doorknob and sigh heavily.

Toby likes me, I know he does. He's a softie, really, and obviously
he's going to empathize, seeing as how he still wears his wedding
ring a year after he and Andy have divorced. But what could Toby do?
Shrug uncomfortably and mumble his sympathy? If that. We all know
he's not the best with emotional problems. And Leo - he's busy
helping run a country.

There's no one. It just wouldn't be fair.

So I'll bring it up casually. Maybe in the next meeting. When
everyone's around. Just drop it into conversation. "Speaking of same-
sex marriages...maybe I should look into that, because, you know, Lisa
left me. Next topic?"

And it's not like they're bringing it up themselves. No one's asked
me how I'm doing, or noticed that sometimes in meetings I'm rubbing
my eyes to ward away tears of frustration. So that's further proof
that I don't need to burden everyone else with something I will just
have to deal with on my own.

We're all alone in the end, anyway, right?

I pick up the phone to return Congressman Everett's call.

Time to go back to Strong, Silent Sam.

<><><>

The phone rings four times before I hear a scuffle and the clatter of
the receiver crashing to the wooden floor. Then a gasp of irritation
and the phone is retrieved.

"Hello?"

"Hey."

"Hello?"

"It's me. It's Sam."

"Sam? Which Sam? I know several."

I roll my eyes, and for the first time in two weeks, there's actually
a smile fighting its way to my lips. There's nothing like your kid
sister to liven the mood.

I sigh in big brotherly condescension. "Your Sam."

"Hmm. Doesn't ring any bells. I did have a Sam once, but that was
long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away..."

"Funny."

"Okay, the sarcasm is sounding familiar."

"Sabrina."

"Oh, *that* Sam."

"Yeah," I agree in mock solemnity. "*That* Sam."

"How are you, bro?" Sabrina turns abruptly cheerful.

"Well, things are...Things are how they are."

Then some weird sibling radar picks up, because she's instantly
serious. "What's wrong? Something's really wrong, isn't it?"

"It's..."

"Is it Mom? Is it Dad? Is it Josh?" Her queries are rapid-fire.

"No, no."

"It's Lisa?" she whispers.

"She's gone."

"Gone? You mean..."

"She left."

"Well, hallelujah and praise the saints."

She's not joyous, but she is vaguely triumphant. "Sabrina," I say
wearily. "I need a listening ear, not a one-woman celebration team."

"Where are you? Are you at work?"

"Yeah."

"Stay there. I'm on my way."

"Sabrina."

Click. There's a brief moment of silence and then the insistent buzz
of dial tone.

What possessed me to call my little sister? My rash, impetuous,
headstrong little sister? I should have known she'd turn into alterna-
Mom and rush over to the office to comfort me.

Oh, yeah. That could be why I did it.

<><><>

Fifteen minutes later I look up from the piece of paper in my hand
and realize the words have long since become a blur. CJ is standing
in my doorway, arms crossed over her chest. There is a look in her
eyes I have learned to fear, but I'm just so thrilled to see a
friendly face that I ignore it.

"Morning, Claudia Jean," I say brightly.

She enters my office and slams the door behind her with a resounding
thud. Did I say 'friendly' face? She glares at me. "Samuel."

Not a good sign. I shift uncomfortably in my seat. Even though I'm
reasonably sure I haven't done anything in the last 48 hours to make
her want to kill me, there is always room for error.

"What's rule number one?" she demands.

"Sorry?"

"Rule number one, Spanky. Plan A. The Prime Directive. What is it?"

"Well, if you're referring to -"

"Sam," she says dangerously.

"CJ, what?" I'm baffled.

"I'm your first call!" she exclaims. "You get into trouble, you call
me first. You think you got into trouble, you call me first. That's
who I am, that's what I do - I'm the first call."

"CJ."

She mows right over me. "In fact, that's what they call me around the
office: CJ 'First Call' Cregg."

"CJ."

"You like it?"

"*CJ*."

"I like it. Kind of has a nice ring to it."

I am wracking my brain trying desperately to think of what I've done
to deserve this onslaught. No hookers. No public displays of
drunkenness. No nothing. I should be in the clear, but apparently I'm
not. "Look -"

CJ approaches my desk with that fiery threat in her eyes I am so
familiar with. She is extremely ticked off. "Do you know how much I
like getting the inside scoop from Danny Concannon?"

"Well -"

"Not so much, Sam, not so much!"

"CJ, I have *no* idea what this is all about!"

CJ slams her hand on my desk. Not hard enough to make any real noise,
but enough to emphasize her anger. "Lisa Taylor-Seaborn, Sam, that's
what this is all about!"

Oh, Jesus. That.

"She left you two weeks ago, Sam! Two weeks ago! Do you know when I
found out about it?"

"Today," I mumble.

"Fifteen minutes ago! And who told me? A reporter, that's who. Not
Samuel Seaborn, my co-worker, who *knows* to tell me this stuff
first; not even my buddy Spanky, my pal, the guy whose house I've had
to crash at on more than one drunken occasion."

Her voice has gone softer and when I look up, I see hurt in her eyes.
She's hurt that I didn't tell her. If possible, I suddenly feel like
an even bigger jackass than I did when I woke up this morning.

"I'm sorry."

CJ looks startled. "Is that all you have to say?"

"My verbal brio isn't at peak performance today."

"Now the sarcasm!" She throws her hands up in the air and an
expression of exasperation has overtaken the anger. She drops down
into my visitor's chair and faces me, eyebrows raised, mouth set in a
line of impatience. "'Fess up, Sam. What's going on? Why did the -
Why did Lisa leave you?"

"I don't - Wait a minute. Did you just - What did you just call her?"

CJ's lips twitch. "Nothing. I didn't call her anything."

"You called her `the' something."

"I called her Lisa."

"You almost called her `the' something."

"No, I didn't." Her eyes are trying hard not to twinkle.

"It sounded like it might start with the letter `b'."

"Did it?"

"Were you about to call my wife a rude name?"

Then CJ sobers again. "Sam, she's not your wife anymore."

I stiffen in my chair. "We're still married, CJ. We can work this
out."

"Do you really believe that?"

I don't know, so I don't answer. I don't really think I believe it,
but for some reason the words popped out of my mouth.

"Because she's serving you with divorce papers, Sam."

The floor opens up into a great big, gaping hole, and swallows me
down with it. I don't reply for several minutes, and CJ allows me to
sit in silence.

I don't know why that came as such a shock, but it did.

"How - How do you know that?"

CJ leans forward over my desk and reaches for my hand. She takes it
in both of hers, her fingers gently stroking my knuckles. It could
just be my imagination, but I think she's staring at that scar on my
knuckle. "She filed for divorce yesterday. One of Danny's `sources'
at the courthouse alerted him this morning, and so he came to me."

"Well, bully for Danny's sources."

"I'm sorry, Sam. I know how hard this must be for you."

I try to smile gratefully at her, but I think I fail. "No," I
say, "to tell you the truth, I'd much rather hear it from you than
from some lawyer she's hired to take me to the cleaner's."

She gives me a look of surprise. "You really think that's what she'll
do?"

I shrug and remove my hand from CJ's grasp. Suddenly I feel very,
very tired. "I don't know. Maybe. Probably. She hasn't been very
happy for a while," I admit.

CJ leans back in the chair and watches me, her eyes raking me
over. "You look tired," she finally pronounces.

"Well, I am." I rub my hands over my face. "I haven't been getting
much sleep lately."

She shakes her head and sighs. "Why didn't you tell us, Sam?"

"I don't know," I lie.

"Liar."

I shrug again. "It's not important."

"Oh, how I would love to slap you right now." She rises to her feet
and heads to the door. "Unfortunately I have a corps of rabid
reporters assembling in my pressroom, baying for blood."

"Sounds charming."

She rolls her eyes. "Mary Marsh is always charming."

"What's she done now?"

"She's given a quote to the AP; something along the lines of, `Those
bleeding-heart liberals in the White House who would rather spend
their time saving an endangered tree than sanctifying human life.'"

"Wow."

"Just paraphrasing."

"Why is the smallest quote from some wacko right-winger always news?"

"That, my friend, is the million-dollar question."

"I guess if we knew the answer, you'd be out of a job."

"Probably." CJ opens the door and pauses. She turns back to look at
me. "She's crazy," she says.

"We established that long ago."

"Not Mary Marsh - Well, yeah, her too. But I meant Lisa."

"Lisa?"

CJ flashes me one of her best crooked grins. "You can be a pain in
the ass, Sam, we all know that." She shakes her head. "But how could
anybody not be happy with you hanging around her life?"

I open my mouth to speak, but no words come out. She's rendered me
speechless.

She points in my direction. "I'm not through with you," she says, and
then sails through the door, on her way to the pressroom.

---

TBC

 

 

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