Toby hadn’t been surprised to see a harried-looking staff of three crammed into the space where Margaret once reigned supreme, but he’d been taken aback when one of them had showed him into Josh’s empty office to wait. Sounding slightly confused herself, the young aide had told him that “Mr Lyman said you should look around.”
Toby’s brow furrowed. Was Josh trying to rub this all in his face? This room would forever be Leo’s old office, and in its brief incarnation as CJ’s domain it had been the scene of the worst moment in his West Wing career. He’d been reluctant to come back at all, suggesting that they meet somewhere on the Hill, but Josh had been apologetically firm.
“This weekend’s going to be crazy, Sam’s in California, I need to stick around. It’ll be really good to see you though.”
But for lack of anything else to do, he did a slow turn, taking in his surroundings, and understood almost immediately.
For one thing, the office looked completely different, far more like the headquarters of a busy staff than the receiving room of a political broker. The desks were laid out in an almost exact replica of Josh’s old office, and were even messier, if that was possible. But what Toby was sure Josh had wanted him to see were the pictures. Originally a neat array of frames along the walls and on the shelves, the carefully thought-out display was now interspersed with loose prints and carefully crayoned pages, stuck, pinned or propped on every available surface. Smiling to himself, Toby approached for a better look.
The wall above the couch was dedicated to a new White House tradition. Toby remembered hearing that the President and Chief of Staff’s morning run had been forcefully suggested by their wives, but it had quickly evolved into something far beyond a fitness routine. It had become the highest honour to be invited to join the President on the two-mile course around the grounds, and the series of photos documented President Santos and Josh jogging with two Superbowl-winning teams, several G8 heads of state, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, some girl scouts, an astronaut, the latest actor to portray James Bond, and Yo-Yo Ma. Mrs Santos, Donna, Sam and various other White House staff appeared in some of the shots, but in pride of place was a photo of the President feigning exhaustion as he was overtaken by a cheering gaggle of children – the White House kids, the sons and daughters of the occupants of every room from the Oval to the mess, at the annual family picnic. Josh was at the very edge of the frame, arms outstretched, steadying toddling Noah who was waving both arms in the air and seemed to be yelling with delight. Toby smiled and peered closer, and, sure enough, his own children were in the middle of the scrum, Huck smiling happily and Molly, of course, screaming and – was she tackling Miranda Santos to the ground? Toby shook his head with an indulgent smile. Andy hadn’t made his wayward daughter own up to any specific misdemeanour on that occasion, so he surmised no lasting damage had been done.
Trying to remember how old the small Lymans would be now, he turned towards the desk. A framed family photograph sat front and centre, a beautiful black and white formal portrait taken not long after Evie was born. Donna sat with the sleeping baby in her arms, Josh standing behind her with Noah on his hip.
“I like this one better.”
Josh appeared beside him, reaching over his desk to pick up a frame only he would be able to see from his chair. Patting Toby on the arm, he handed it over. “It’s from last summer, I think it’s a bit more accurate.”
This snapshot was a candid, presumably taken in the garden of the new Georgetown house. Donna was kneeling on a blanket, Evie squirming against her shoulder. The baby was wearing an adult-sized Re-Elect Santos t-shirt that hung off her like a tent, and a single purple sock. Donna was looking up at her husband, laughing, and Evie was concentrating intently on trying to stuff as much of her mother’s hair in her mouth as possible. Josh was kneeling next to them, looking like he’d just arrived home from work, with Noah perched on his shoulders. The little boy was dressed in a superhero costume and his father’s dark glasses, and had a firm hold on the end of Josh’s tie, which he was tugging rather forcefully, judging by the Chief of Staff’s pained expression. Toby laughed, and carefully set the frame back on the desk before turning and hugging his friend.
“I just need to make one quick call, OK?”
As Josh dialled, Toby turned to the shelves around the televisions on the far wall. Between certificates and precariously balanced piles of folders, he encountered several much beloved pictures from the Bartlet years. Both election nights – everyone looking worryingly inebriated, and considerably older, in the second one – and assorted black-tie events, Toby searching until he found his favourite, from the night of second inaugural ball. They’d spent barely any time at the parties, and when Abbey had come to order the President to bed around dawn, she’d demanded a dance. They’d borrowed Carol’s CD player and somehow managed to move the table in the Roosevelt room. The picture was of the second song, after the First Lady had had her dance with the President – she’d coaxed a blushing Josh out of Donna’s gentle arms and spun him around the room. The photo showed CJ leaning on Will – who looked terrified – for support, she was laughing so hard, and Donna and the President whispering to each other as they executed a precise waltz, while Abbey hauled Josh around by the lapels. Toby had taken the photograph himself and kept his own copy tucked inside his copy of the constitution, as a reminder.
Behind him, Josh spoke into the phone.
“It’s me. How did it go?”
There was a lengthy pause and Toby resisted the urge to turn and check his friend’s face to gauge the seriousness of the conversation, but when Josh spoke again he was evidently happy.
“That’s great. Are you feeling OK? I’m really sorry I wasn’t there.”
After a moment he laughed.
“I’ll try to get home early… I know, my love, but I’d like to. Kiss them for me. I love you.”
There was a click, and Toby turned back as he heard Josh approaching. He passed over the photo he’d been looking at and Josh beamed, tapping Donna’s image lightly with an enigmatic smile.
“I’m glad you came in today, you can be the first to hear.”
Toby raised his eyebrows questioningly, and Josh beamed.
“We’re having another baby. Well, and it’s appropriate that it’s you I’m telling first actually, two babies, we found out yesterday.”
Toby grinned, delighted.
They hugged again.
“They wanted to do some other kind of scan this morning, apparently it’s freakishly detailed, Donna swears they’ve got freckles already. They’re a little small but cooking nicely. They’re due six months today so we can tell people now.”
He glanced towards the connecting door.
“Well, some people know already. Helen’s going to be pissed if I tell him about the extra one before she hears from Donna so I’ll leave it a few minutes.”
“Boys or girls?”
Josh faked a look of horror. “Both girls, God help me. Noah’s not impressed, let me tell you. He got the edited highlights of the birds and the bees when we told him and he blames me completely.”
Josh’s computer made a noise and he clicked something and grinned.
“Now I get to mess with the assistants. They’re great, but they’re completely hysterical.”
He pressed print and waited a moment.
“Three… two… one…”
There was a scream of delight from outside and then all three young women tumbled into the office, clutching a printout of the scan Donna had just emailed over, elbowing Toby out of the way in their haste to hug their boss. Toby watched with an indulgent smile as he accepted their congratulations, endured their scolding for not telling them sooner, and quickly clarified who they could and couldn’t talk to about it.
“So what are the codenames, boss?”
Toby raised his eyebrows.
Josh shook his head with an exasperated smile.
“We get to pick their secret service codenames ahead of time, and we used them around here to keep it quiet for the first two. Noah was Butterbean until he made them change it to Batman, Evie’s Jitterbug. What do you think? Sam’s not here, he picked the other two.”
He held up the picture, and then turned it upside down, squinting. Toby thought for a moment.
“Nephthys was the Egyptian Goddess of surprises, and, appropriately, sisters.”
“Donna would love that, but we need something they can actually pronounce. And, I guess, two.” He blanched. “Oh, God, we’re going to need two of everything.” He ran a hand through his hair.
“Guys, do you still have all the info from when we stocked up for Evie?”
They nodded, and started scurrying around at such speed Toby decided to sit down to get out of the way. After a moment, Josh sank into his own chair, occasionally ducking as files were passed over his head. His computer pinged again.
“Did you seriously not get any emails in the last ten minutes?”
“I wish. No, there’s a filter, I only get them from a handful of people directly. Including you, I might add, if you ever emailed me.”
Touched, Toby shook his head.
“You don’t want to hear what I think.”
Josh gave him an appraising look.
“I might not always enjoy it but it’d be valuable.” He broke into a smile. “This one’s from Sam, Donna must’ve called him.” He raised his voice. “Guys, Sam says call them Bubble and Squeak.”
There was a chorus of awwwwws and giggles from the outer office and Josh chuckled and typed a few words in response. “They’re all hopelessly in love with him.”
“Well that makes a change.”
Josh reached up to tape the sonogram picture to the edge of the bookshelf next to him.
“Anyway, how are you doing?”
“Life’s a lot quieter than this.”
“I’ll bet. How’s teaching?”
Toby rubbed his mouth. Josh narrowed his eyes at him.
“Well this should be easy then. I need you to come back.”
The Chief of Staff gestured around him, at the drifting heaps of paper, the pictures of his growing family, finishing with a flourish by pointing at his now more receded than receding hairline.
“I promised I’d see out the full term, but we’re going to need to spread out the cover more. Four kids….” He suddenly looked exhausted. “You won’t be able to get a terribly high security clearance but we can use you plenty.”
“As what exactly?”
“We still haven’t figured out what Leo’s job title was after CJ took over in here, but that, basically. How to make the most of our last two years, and looking ahead to the elections. Advisor, counsellor, whatever.”
“Just think about it, please. Sam will tell you, I’m not above begging.”
“Or emotional blackmail.”
Josh inclined his head in acknowledgement. “I swear the pictures are always here. I just wanted to make sure you had time to look at them. And whether it helps bring you in or not I’m happy I got to share our news with you first.” He scrambled out of his seat and picked up a folder from his desk.
“Here’s my parting shot. I have to head downstairs, but please think about it.”
He laid a hand briefly on Toby’s shoulder and strode off, several pairs of high heels clattering in his wake. Toby looked down at the pages in his hand and ran his hand over his face, feeling his mind make itself up in spite of him. He suspected Donna’s handiwork in the careful preservation of the memento before him.
Two identical, fading pages from the Washington Post, one covered in Josh’s distinctive but illegible scribbling. The other sectioned by a large circle, and in his own block capitals: “We can make college cheaper”.
He nodded to himself and laid the folder on the desk, taking his own copy of the short article from nearly a decade ago, folding it carefully and sliding it into his pocket, trusting his friend would understand the message.