The explosion was close enough to his room that Josh could feel the building shake – even down here in the basement, or whatever else you could call this place. Jerked out of his doze, Josh stood up stiffly and went to look out of the tiny window that provided his cell's only light. Unsurprisingly, the view hadn't really changed since the last four or five times he'd looked out of it: just a little square of sky, with some unfamiliar, nondescript building silhouetted against the fading light of the day. Josh supposed he should be glad that whatever had just blown up outside hadn't collapsed the walls in on him. On the other hand, at least then he wouldn't still be stuck in here, with no way out and no idea what his captors even wanted with him, after three weeks.
“Twenty days,” he corrected himself out loud. Tomorrow would be the twenty-first. Early on, he'd decided it was important to keep track, and so he had been diligently making one tear in the flyer stuck on the wall every night before he went to sleep. It was something to do, besides rereading the two books and three magazines with which he'd been supplied at the beginning of his captivity.
With a guilty start, Josh realized he hadn't even been listening to hear if anyone had cried out in pain or fear after this latest explosion. He quickly moved to the wall closest to the blast and listened. Nothing was audible.
Josh sighed, partly in relief and partly – it wasn't disappointment, exactly, but something like it. It had been more than two weeks since he'd spoken with anyone (other than whoever it was who brought him his food and water every day, who had stopped replying to anything he said to them). If someone had cried out after the blast, maybe he would have been able to call out to them and have them answer. Of course, it was equally likely that the walls of this building were too thick, and even if he'd called out, no one would have heard.
And of course, he thought wryly, as he sat back down on his cot in the opposite corner, there's no telling who or what else might have heard me and come to investigate. Even though he still had no idea who was behind his kidnapping and imprisonment here, he was pretty sure he'd rather be in their custody than at the mercy of the other side.
There was a rattling sound, and Josh looked up to see the hatch in the door open for his evening delivery of water. As usual, it was pushed through the hatch quickly and silently. Still, as he stood up to get it, Josh couldn't resist saying loudly, “Hey, thanks. Everything all right out there? I heard that explosion just a minute ago. It'd be terrible if one of you guys got hurt or anything.”
As usual, there was no response, except the sound of footsteps receding as his delivery man (or woman, he supposed) departed. Josh shrugged and picked up the tub of water, carrying it carefully into the tiny, dingy bathroom that was adjacent to his cell. There was a sink and a toilet inside, but the water only worked sporadically. When it did, more often than not it was a color that was unappealing, to say the least – which made sense, since this place was very obviously located in one of the areas of the country hardest-hit by the recent upheaval. Josh thought he might be grateful to his captors for giving him clean water so that he could both stay hydrated and keep himself clean, except for the whole keeping him locked up in a room with no human contact thing.
After he finished his evening rituals, Josh took a look at himself in the cracked, dirty mirror on the wall. He was pretty sure any of his friends or colleagues (as ever, when his thoughts turned to them, he spared a quick wish/prayer that they were all okay) would have some trouble recognizing him at this point. His eyes looked sunken and haunted, from what he could see in the low light. He hadn't shaved in … probably more than a month, since even before the choice to do so was taken away from him by his kidnappers, it hadn't exactly been a high priority during the initial chaos. Whoever was holding him here also didn't seem to think it was necessary for their prisoner to get a meal more than twice a day, so he'd lost weight, as well.
Josh almost smiled, wondering what horrified thing Donna might say to his appearance now. But the smile faded quickly. He felt his stomach twist. Wherever Donna was, she had to be okay. She had to be.
With that thought, he crossed the room to lie down on his cot. Maybe he'd actually be able to sleep tonight.
He must have fallen asleep at some point, because he jerked awake some hours later to another explosion. This one had to be a lot closer than the last one, Josh thought in dismay, blinking in the darkness and trying to gather his wits. It seemed like the building was actually damaged this time, and the din of the blast had been so loud that he now couldn't hear anything but the ringing in his ears. He could, however, feel the building continue to shake. Heart pounding, Josh pushed the bed aside and scrambled into the nearest corner, hoping blindly that he hadn't just put himself closer to the danger.
After his ears stopped ringing, Josh started to hear the shouts and the screams from somewhere beyond the door to his cell – and he thought there might have been some coming from outside the building, as well. Then he froze. There was gunfire mixed in now, automatic weapons fire. Oh, God. It was getting closer. He couldn't afford to have a flashback right now; he needed to stay alert. He needed to...
Josh gasped. He was back there, again, out in front of the hall in Rosslyn, as shots were fired, people screamed and ran for cover, and sirens wailed. He felt the impact of the bullet striking him, and then seconds later the pain hit, overwhelming every other sensation and bringing him down.
The images and memories continued to flood through his mind. There was nothing he could do to stop it, nothing. It was worse than anything he'd ever tried to face in his therapy sessions.
It was only when the flashback had finally started to abate that Josh became aware that someone was calling his name – someone who was right in front of him. There was some light spilling in from the open door to his cell, but it wasn't enough to make out the figure who was bending over him, putting a hand on his arm.
“Josh! Are you with me? Josh, come on, we've gotta get out of here.”
Josh blinked and tried to take a slow, deep breath. The voice was familiar, but surely it couldn't be... “Sam?”
His eyes finally adjusted enough to see Sam, incongruously dressed in his usual white collared shirt even as he was carrying what appeared to be a shotgun slung over his shoulder. Sam was smiling. “Yeah, Josh. It's me. Come on, let's get out of here before the building falls down.”
Josh accepted Sam's hand to stand up, but his eyes were still drawn to the shotgun now in his friend's other hand. “You're holding a shotgun, Sam.”
“Yes, I'm holding a shotgun,” Sam replied. He turned toward the doorway, obviously on alert.
Even as Josh noticed vaguely that the gunfire seemed to have stopped, as well as most of the yelling, he couldn't stop staring at the weapon. “I didn't know you even knew how to fire a shotgun, much less that you had a shotgun.”
Sam shrugged. “Well, it's not technically mine, but I've been learning a lot of things in these past few weeks.” There was something odd about his tone of voice in that last phrase, but Josh couldn't focus on that at the moment. “So, yes, I do actually know how to use it. Just not all that well.”
As they moved out of the room and into the flickering light of the hall, Josh shook his head. “Well, I have to admit I wasn't really expecting this. But thanks for finding me.” He stepped around a discarded machine gun – it looked like an AK-47 – and a bunch of spent shell casings, trying not to think about who might have been firing it, and at whom. They were about to push through some double doors to get to the stairs when another thought occurred to Josh. “How did you find me, anyway?”
“Oh,” Sam said, and then hesitated. “Well.”
“Sam?” Josh raised an eyebrow and looked at him.
The two of them turned to see a woman running toward them. It took Josh several seconds to recognize her as Laurie, Sam's … controversial lawyer friend. Her hair was much shorter, and she was also armed. “Did you find out who they--” Laurie's gaze traveled to Josh, and after a few moments her eyes widened. “Oh my God. Josh.”
“Hi, Laurie,” Josh said, managing a wry smile. “Yeah, I know, I'm not exactly at my best at the moment.” At least he was upright and able to move. That was something.
She returned the smile, although it was more than slightly tinged with worry and confusion. “Why were they holding you prisoner, Josh?”
“I have no idea,” he answered. “They wouldn't talk to me. I don't even know who 'they' are … or were.” He shivered, wondering if he, Sam, and Laurie would be passing any dead bodies on their way out of the building.
Sam frowned. “That's weird. I mean, there are a lot of weird things going on right now, but--” Then he shook his head. “We'll figure it out once we get out of here. I don't know if the building is secure, and it sure as hell isn't very stable after what we just hit it with.”
With that, he and Laurie started forward through the doors. Josh hurried to catch up. “Wait, wait. 'We'? Who is 'we', Sam?”
Sam looked at him, then at Laurie. “The group I'm with right now.”
A suspicion began to dawn on Josh. He really, really hoped he was wrong. “And this group,” he said, keeping his tone free of accusation and fear as much as possible, “it wouldn't happen to be a group of shifters, would it?”
The way Sam immediately stopped moving was answer enough. It wasn't until Laurie put a hand on his shoulder that he straightened up and started forward again. “We can talk about it when we get out of here, Josh,” he said.
Josh wasn't sure how many more shocks he could take today, but he did somehow manage to keep moving. It had to mean something that Sam had gotten him out of his cell, even if he was-- even if he … and hell, Laurie, too … His brain was having some trouble completing thoughts, apparently. Josh ran a shaking hand through his hair as they continued up the stairs.
It started to get loud again, the further up they went. Josh didn't hear any gunfire – or any sirens, for that matter, for which he was grateful even if it meant there weren't any police or National Guard on the way. But there was plenty of shouting and running, as well as the occasional sound of what had to be pieces of the building falling down. Josh wanted to ask where this building was, where they were located, but he decided to wait until they all had a little more breathing room. Assuming that was going to be in the cards at all in the near future.
They were finally within sight of an exit. The lighting inside was getting worse; the electricity must be out again, Josh thought, and of course it really was the middle of the night. It was only faintly brighter outside, and that seemed to be because people were holding flashlights. A group of people shoved past them at a run. This caused Josh to stumble and then almost trip over something he couldn't see, that Sam and Laurie had apparently had no trouble avoiding. He didn't want to dwell on what that might mean. Or what he might have just tripped over.
Just then, a flashlight beam shone out of the dark ahead of them at their group. “Hey, Sam,” an unfamiliar male voice said. “Laurie. You two all right?”
“Yeah,” Sam said. Laurie added her agreement. They continued out of the building, slowly. Sam sounded – Josh wasn't sure whether he was nervous, or something else. Regardless, Josh's own anxiety levels started increasing again. If this was the leader of a shifter gang, and the few reports they'd heard before everything went completely to hell were true...
“Who's that with you?” the voice asked. The flashlight beam moved to shine directly in Josh's eyes. Josh squinted and shaded his face with his hand.
“This is who they were holding captive,” Sam replied. “He's-- he's a friend of mine.”
The beam of the flashlight was moved away from Josh's face slightly. As his eyes adjusted again to the light, Josh tried not to show his fear. The guy they were talking to was huge – he had to be at least six foot seven, and with a build to match. And he was frowning, although as far as Josh could tell it was not in anger so much as confusion. “He's not a shifter,” the guy commented.
Sam shook his head. “No.”
There was a low murmur among the others gathered out in front of the building. The leader didn't speak for a moment, and then he said, “Well, what were they holding him for, then?”
A bargaining chip, Josh realized suddenly. Of course. Whoever had taken him, they must have recognized him as a member of the President's staff and figured that, as such, he was valuable. He could be traded to the shifters, or whoever, for whatever his captors might want. Josh wasn't about to share this epiphany, though, until or unless it became clear to him that there was some reason – other than Sam being with them – to trust any of his current companions.
“I really don't know, Phil,” Sam answered. He glanced at Josh for a second.
“So, Sam's friend. You have any idea why those bastards were keeping you locked up?” Phil asked Josh, fixing him with a gaze that was hard to read.
Josh fought down an insane urge to laugh at the fact that the leader of this gang of shifters was named Phil. At least he wasn't wearing a headband or a beret, like some South American revolutionary. “Uh, no, I don't,” Josh said, clearing his throat. “They didn't really talk to me.” He paused for a moment, and then decided he might as well go for it. “I'm Josh, by the way.” No need to give a last name just yet.
“Nice to meet you, Josh,” Phil said, with just a touch of irony. “You know what we are, right?”
There was what appeared to be a huge mountain lion circling the edges of the group, Josh noticed suddenly – as if he needed the added confirmation. He swallowed, and looked back at Phil. “Yeah, I think I do.”
“And you don't have a problem with that?” The man's tone was definitely edging toward menacing. At least a few of the other shifters around him were also now staring at Josh with obvious hostility.
Josh took a deep breath. “I don't see any reason why it needs to be a problem, no,” he said carefully. Then he cracked a small smile. “Plus, Sam is with you guys, and Sam got me out of there, so it would be pretty ungrateful of me to make an issue of much of anything right now.”
Phil nodded, looking amused. “Good point. Also, you're a little bit outnumbered.”
“I noticed that,” Josh said, again doing his best not to seem utterly terrified by this fact. He wondered how many of them saw through this attempt.
“Well,” Phil said, breaking the silence that had fallen after this last exchange, “how about we continue this conversation somewhere a little less exposed, in case any normals, or anything else, comes along to see what all that fuss was about.”
With that, the group started to move. Josh made sure he stayed next to Laurie and Sam, and tried not to notice the way certain other members of the group were glaring at him and muttering to each other. At least for the moment he was not a prisoner, as far as he knew. That was probably an improvement.
Josh wasn't entirely sure how he made it to the shifters' hideout (or base, or den, or whatever) without collapsing from a combination of exhaustion and the aftereffects of sheer terror. Part of it was probably that the terror wasn't really all gone yet – something to do with being in the middle of a group of dangerous, angry people who had very good reason to be angry, he guessed. Several times, as the shifters made their way down the streets and through back alleys, Josh stumbled. Each time, either Sam or Laurie was there to make sure he didn't fall.
The hideout, when they finally arrived, was inside what seemed to be an old middle school. This particular school had a number of large rooms below ground level, which, Josh thought wearily, made it a decent choice for a defensible base of operations.
The whole group filed in. A few of them settled on chairs, mats, and pillows that were spread around the gym and the stage, while others quickly disappeared down hallways. Josh figured it was safest to continue to be in the same room as Sam and Laurie, so he followed them into the gym. Then he sat down in an extremely uncomfortable plastic chair next to Sam and waited. Sam didn't say anything to him, and Josh couldn't bring himself to try to start a conversation. At the moment, he was honestly too drained to even worry too much about what was going on around him.
A few seconds later, Phil came over from where he had been talking to a couple of other guys and took a seat facing Josh. “So, Josh,” he said, “are you really going to tell me that you, the man who was until recently the President's deputy chief of staff, have no ideas as to why you were kidnapped and being held prisoner by a bunch of crazy, gun-toting normals whose stated purpose was war against every disgusting, unholy freak wearing the mask of a human being? I was pretty sure your job required enough intelligence that you'd have come up with a theory.”
Josh sat up hastily, his exhaustion forgotten as he fought back a renewed surge of fear. He couldn't restrain himself from taking a hurried glance around the room. It was with a tiny shred of relief that he observed that Phil must have ordered most of his people to keep out of this interrogation. There were several other shifters in the room, but they were all far enough away that it was at least possible that they might not be hearing this. Except that shifters were supposed to have extra keen hearing, even while they were in human form.
“Well?” Phil was still looking at him, again with an expression that was hard to read. Sam shifted in his seat but stayed silent.
In retrospect, Josh wasn't sure whether his response was strategic on his part, or whether his fatigued mind just hadn't been able to stop himself from blurting out what was on the tip of his tongue. Of course, there was also the fact that it had been so long since he'd had any kind of conversation with anyone. He was bound to be a little out of practice in diplomatic negotiation. “No, you're right, Phil,” he admitted, at least managing to keep his voice down. “It's not that I have no ideas. It's just that I wasn't sure whether it would be a good idea to share them with you all, since I'm not entirely sure you're not a bunch of crazy, gun-toting shifters who are at war with every normal.”
Dead silence fell in the room. Josh narrowly avoided wincing. I guess those stories about extra keen hearing are true, he thought distractedly. Next to him, he was pretty sure Sam was staring at him in a mixture of horror and anger, but Josh kept his gaze on Phil.
The shifter leader blinked, and then smiled briefly. “All right. I can appreciate your position. But since I know who you are, and since you're, hmm, our guest right now – and since none of us have done anything to harm you – maybe you can decide we're not crazy and bloodthirsty.” He smiled again, and it was not a nice smile. “Let's leave that last quality for the vampires.”
“Phil,” Sam said, “I think what Josh--”
“And Sam,” Phil interrupted, turning to regard him with raised eyebrows, “you know, I find it hard to believe that a man who was, until recently, the President's deputy communications director did not have any theories either, once you found your friend locked up in that cell.”
Sam glanced at Josh, but didn't reply.
“Well, then, let me set you both a little bit more at ease,” Phil continued. “I'm not going to kill you, Josh, or let any of my friends kill you. I'm also not going to let them tell anyone else that we have the deputy chief of staff in our custody, although some of us think that might not be a bad idea – since, as you both no doubt guessed, having such a hostage might give us good leverage.”
Josh had no idea what to say. He was honestly reassured by this to some extent, but at the same time... “And, uh, am I being held hostage?”
Phil paused and then shrugged. “I wouldn't say that, no. But I would say I'd prefer if you stayed with us for the time being, for your safety. And if that ends up keeping my friends and me safer, well, so much the better.”
“So, protective custody, then,” Josh said wryly. “I see. Great. Thanks.”
“Sure thing,” Phil answered. “Now, Sam and Laurie can set you up with a place to sleep and whatever else you might need. We can talk more later.” He stood up. “I have to go see what useful information and material we managed to get out of our little raid tonight.”
Phil left the room, taking the majority of the remaining shifters with him. Josh watched them leave, and then he turned to Sam. “Well. Phil seems like a great guy.”
“Josh--” Sam started.
“No, really. He's got real leadership ability. I can see why you decided to join up with him, Sam.” Josh tried to stand up, but found that this latest adrenaline crash was hitting him harder than the rest he'd experienced tonight. The room spun, and the next thing Josh knew, Sam was supporting him with one arm around his shoulders while Josh tried to keep himself from falling to the floor.
“You know, Josh,” Sam said, “you're an idiot.”
Josh almost nodded, but stopped himself in time. “Yeah.” Things were still spinning, but not as much.
“Come on,” Laurie said, breaking her silence. “Let's find you somewhere to lie down.”
“That might be good,” Josh agreed.
When Josh woke up, it took him quite a few seconds to remember where he was. It wasn't until he saw the poster on the wall next to him advertizing a band concert from several months ago that it all started to come back. He sat up quickly, only vaguely noticing the blanket that someone must have put over him after his head had hit the pillow last night. To his relief, there was no shifter standing guard over him. He was still by himself in his relatively private corner of the cafeteria, still on the stack of gym mats that had seemed like bliss to lie down on last night. Now it felt like it was about an inch thick. Groaning, Josh stood and stretched, feeling stiff in just about every muscle he could think of, and a few he couldn't.
He walked over to the door in the opposite wall, which had one of the only windows to the outside in the whole room. From what he could see, he figured he must have been sleeping for quite some time – it looked like it had to be close to noon, by the lack of shadows visible on the field outside, although it was also pretty cloudy.
Josh jumped and then turned around to see Sam, standing just inside the cafeteria entrance. “Hey.”
“Sorry. Didn't mean to sneak up on you,” Sam said, with a self-deprecating smile. He looked like he was about to say something else for a moment, but then he just asked, “How are you feeling?”
Josh shrugged. “I feel like I slept on the floor, but at least I slept. What time is it, anyway?”
“A little before noon,” Sam replied. “You hungry?”
“Yeah, I am, but is there somewhere I could take a shower first?” Josh almost laughed. “I honestly can't remember how long it's been since I've actually showered. I'm surprised anyone can stand to be anywhere near me right now.”
“The showers in the locker room work pretty well,” Sam answered. “I'll point you to it. Of course, I don't have an extra towel or anything, so...”
Josh cut him off. “That's all right. I know you're not exactly running a hotel here.” As they left the cafeteria, he looked around at the empty halls. “Speaking of which, where is everyone?”
“Mostly asleep,” Sam said. He paused. “They-- we mostly sleep during the day, although we take it in turns to stand guard duty. It's my lucky day, along with three others.”
“Ah.” Josh had to take a second to think of something to say. “And Laurie? Are you two...?”
Sam shook his head, and Josh was suddenly aware of how tired he looked. “No. We just happened to run into each other again after … well, after.” He cleared his throat.
Silence fell again, and this time Josh couldn't think of anything to say that wouldn't make things even more strained. But then Sam's eyes brightened and he said, “Oh, I just remembered: I can at least direct you to our stash of extra clothes. And if you happen to want to shave...”
“God, do I,” Josh sighed, rubbing a hand across his face. “It's like I'm trying for the caveman look, or something. I don't think it does anything for me.”
Smiling, Sam gestured for him to follow. “Maybe you can bring yourself most of the way back to the modern age, then."
By the time Josh had showered, changed into a shirt and some jeans he'd found that fit him reasonably well, and shaved, he did in fact look and feel better, except that he was now starving. He stepped out of the locker room only to be met with the rather hostile gaze of a kid with a gun at his hip. The kid was actually wearing a headband. Josh tried not to laugh, since he was obviously trying to look intimidating and since he was actually dangerous, what with the gun and the being a shifter.
“Um, hi,” he said. “Is there somewhere where I could have some breakfast – or lunch, I guess?”
The kid just kept glaring at him. Josh was about to try again when he heard approaching footsteps and saw Sam coming their way.
“I'll take it from here, Mike,” Sam said, nodding at the kid. “You can go back to your post.”
Mike regarded the two of them skeptically, but then he nodded and left, still without having spoken.
“He seems, uh, dedicated,” Josh commented, after Mike was gone.
Sam had already started walking, presumably in the direction of food. It seemed to be in the same general direction as the cafeteria, which made sense. “Yeah, well, having your entire family murdered tends to do that to you, or so I gather.”
“His entire family--?!”
“Was murdered,” Sam repeated grimly. “Because he had the misfortune of being turned, and then his family had the gall to try to protect him from the local 'anti-supernatural' torch and pitchfork crew.”
Josh took a breath, feeling much less hungry all of a sudden. “My God. That's terrible. I-- I'm sorry to hear that.”
Sam nodded. “Yeah. Well, anyway, here's the kitchen. We've got a generator, so the fridge and freezer work. You can help yourself to whatever's here. I have to go check some things, but I'll be back.”
“Okay.” On autopilot, Josh moved toward the fridge. He might not have been as hungry, but he did really need some water or something else to drink. Then he stopped just as Sam was almost out of sight. “Hey, Sam?”
“Thanks.” Josh pulled a pitcher of what looked like iced tea out of the fridge, and then turned to look at Sam. “You know, for getting me out of there, and for making sure I didn't get myself killed last night.”
“You're welcome,” Sam said with a small smile.
By the way, if you are reading this for its Fringe connections, they will become more apparent in later chapters. Thank you for your patience.
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
“We're holding our own against United States citizens who may or may not technically be citizens because some of them might not technically be human,” the President said. “And meanwhile, we hardly know anything about what's going on in the rest of the world, where these same supernatural beings are involved in uprisings.”
Everyone was still trying to act like they were okay, but Charlie could tell that everyone was feeling more than a touch of cabin fever. It didn't help that they'd been escorted there so abruptly that he almost forgot where exactly they were. What was more, they didn't know where Sam, Josh, or Donna were and hadn't known for the entire – was it a month yet? He wasn't sure – that this whole situation had been going on. In any case, it was still too dangerous to leave, and no one on the President's staff was enjoying being cooped up.
That definitely included the President. Charlie thought there was a chance he'd be a little calmer if the First Lady or his kids were with them. But the First Lady had been on a trip, and his daughters had been at school or traveling, and there had only been brief moments of phone conversation with them since this all began. Charlie himself had only spoken to Zoey once, very briefly. He knew the phone was needed most of the time for other, more important things than the President's assistant checking on his girlfriend, or even the President talking to his wife and kids, but that didn't make it any less painful for them.
“Any news?” he asked, coming into the room where the President, Mr. McGarry, Toby, and CJ convened after the President was finished with his briefing with the members of the Joint Chiefs (both in person and via phone).
“Hi, Charlie,” said the President. His tone was not promising. “Everything's pretty much the same as it was yesterday.”
“But we did hear that someone thought they saw Sam outside D.C.,” CJ put in.
“It's unconfirmed,” Toby said, rubbing a hand across his face.
“Still, that's something,” said CJ.
“Is he okay?” Charlie said.
“We don't know,” CJ admitted. “All we heard is that someone thought they saw him. But that sounds like he might be okay.”
Charlie nodded. “That's good.” He wanted to ask about Josh or Donna, or Mrs. Landingham or the other assistants, but he knew they would have been brought up if there had been anything to say.
“Let's hope so,” said the President. “That would be the first piece of truly good news we've had in a while.”
“We're holding our own, sir,” said Leo. “That's not bad news.”
“We're holding our own against United States citizens who may or may not technically be citizens because some of them might not technically be human,” the President said. “And meanwhile, we hardly know anything about what's going on in the rest of the world, where these same supernatural beings are involved in other uprisings. That we're holding our own may not be bad news, but I'd hardly call it good.”
There was a brief pause. “Mr. President, you have your phone briefing with Agent Broyles in five minutes,” Charlie said.
“Agent Broyles? Oh, yes, he's the guy who runs that weird science division at the FBI?”
“Fringe division, yes, sir,” Charlie said.
“I still can't believe that's a real thing,” said Toby.
“But you can believe in werewolves, vampires, and telepaths?” the President said, standing.
“They actually prefer the term 'shifter', not 'werewolf,' sir,” said CJ, as they all stood. “It more accurately defines the larger group-”
“That's right, I knew that,” said the President. “Still, my point stands. Let's hope it's a good thing we actually have a Fringe division, since we actually have all these other impossible... people.” He waved a hand.
“Yes, sir,” said CJ. “Good luck, sir.”
As he walked with the President out of the room, Charlie saw CJ watching them leave. She had an odd expression on her face, and Charlie made a note to himself to ask her later if she was all right.
As it turned out, Charlie forgot about it until it was forcibly brought back to his mind. At dinner that evening (which all of the members of the President's remaining senior staff had taken to having together), there was a lull in the conversation and it was suddenly broken by a quiet groan in a female voice. Everyone looked in CJ's direction to see that one hand was to her head and her eyes were closed.
“CJ? Are you okay?” said Mr. McGarry.
“Uh, just a headache,” she said, giving him a weak smile. “I'm going to – I'm just going to go to the infirmary and get some Tylenol.”
“That looks like more than just a headache,” he said. “Are you-?”
“I'm sure. I'll be fine after I get some Tylenol,” she insisted, and left the table quickly.
After a few worried looks were exchanged, conversation resumed, but Charlie was only halfway paying attention. It wasn't too long before the door opened and CJ stood there. “Hi. Uh, Leo, looks like you were right – it's not just a headache, they said it's a migraine. They gave me something for it, and I'm going to go to bed now.”
“CJ, you could have had someone tell us,” said Leo. “You didn't have to come.”
“Go, CJ,” said the President. “Good night.”
“Good night, Mr. President. And everyone,” she said, with another unconvincing smile. She left, shutting the door behind her.
“It's probably a wonder we aren't all getting migraines,” the President remarked after a moment.
As Toby made a sound of agreement, Charlie considered saying he thought it might be more than that and bringing up what he'd seen earlier. But it was probably nothing. If she had a migraine, it might have been affecting her all day, after all.
“They have to let us out of here eventually,” was what he said instead. “Right? Once everything's a little less crazy? That would help, to be able to get out of here.”
“That would help,” Leo agreed, “but we still don't know when that might happen.”
“This Fringe division I heard more about today has some ideas,” the President remarked. “They're frankly bizarre, and I would have thought Agent Broyles was a guy from your block of cheese day, Leo, had I heard what he was talking about just last month, but I think bizarre might be what we need now.”
“What did he have to say?” said Leo.
The President took a drink of water and then set down his glass. “It's the opinion of their division that all this might have been caused by cracks in the universe.”
“In the universe?” Toby asked, putting his glass down without drinking from it. “I didn't think the universe was the kind of thing that got cracks in it.”
“Neither did I, except in science fiction,” said the President, “but Agent Broyles said there's a lot of evidence for this theory.”
“Okay, is there any solution in all that evidence?” Toby said.
“He doesn't know, but he told me he thinks his team is our best shot,” the President said.
“Great, so we're relying on Mulder and Scully to save us,” said Toby.
“I never said we're relying solely on this Fringe division,” said the President, more sharply than Charlie thought he usually would. “But we're going to keep talking to them, among the other more usual options you heard about in the briefing today.”
“Yes, sir,” said Toby, although he was clearly not convinced.
“Anyway,” said the President. “I don't know if we can all go to bed early, but I'm going to see if it's possible to not talk about this crisis for the rest of the evening. Just to see how long that lasts.” He put the last bite of food on his fork.
A moment later, there was a knock and the door opened. “Mr. President?”
He put down his fork with a sigh at the staffer. “Yes?” Charlie felt a stab of pity for the man, since this task would no doubt have been his if he hadn't been having dinner right now.
“You have a call.” That fact in and of itself meant it was an important call, because of how restricted communication had been.
“Well, I'd say that was a record, but it probably wasn't,” he grumbled, standing and waving everyone back down when they stood as well.
The man cleared his throat. “Actually, Mr. President, I think the rest of your staff will want to hear this, as well.”
Not only did no one else go to bed early that evening, but Charlie was on his way fifteen minutes after the President got off the phone to rouse CJ. He felt a little bad about it, but the news was important enough that he knew she'd want to know. Still, he paused before knocking on her door.
As he raised his fist, the door opened, revealing a somewhat disheveled-looking CJ wearing a robe. “What is it, Charlie?”
“How did you-?” he started.
“It's something important, or you wouldn't be here,” she interrupted, blinking as she stepped out into the light of the hall. But before he could even speak again, she gasped. “Oh, my God. Josh. What happened to Josh?”
Charlie's eyes widened. “How did you know I came here to tell you we heard something about Josh?”
It was her turn to look surprised. “You just said! You just told me the President got a call about Josh.”
“No, I didn't,” said Charlie. “I hadn't said anything after you said I wouldn't be here if it wasn't important.” Then it all clicked. “Wait...”
She closed her eyes and put a hand to her head again. “Yeah, all right, I didn't think I was going to keep it a secret in close quarters for very long, anyway.”
“That's why you've got the headache?” he said quietly.
“I've been trying to control it,” she admitted. “And it's not working very well.”
Still stunned, Charlie tried to think of what to say. “I'm sorry about the migraine. Do you want to come hear what they found out? We think he should be okay.” He paused. “I guess you know that already.”
She winced. “Yes. Um, give me a moment to get dressed again.” She started to close the door again, then stopped. “Charlie?”
“Yes?” Charlie asked.
“I'd appreciate if you let me tell everyone else,” she said, not meeting his eyes.
“Of course,” he said.
“And I am trying to control it,” she said again. “I promise.”
“I believe you,” he said.
“Okay,” she said, and closed the door. Three minutes later, she was out, dressed much as she had been before she had left the table earlier, and looking generally more ready. “Let's go.”
There was no way that the walk to the briefing room was not going to be a bit awkward. There weren't a lot of handy conversation topics that came to Charlie's mind, so it was a mercy that the bunker just wasn't that big. And he thought that it would have been a tense few minutes anyway, because of the news.
“Mr. President,” CJ said in greeting, entering the room with purpose and with no sign of her earlier uncertainty. “Charlie told me we have news on Josh.”
“CJ, how's your head?” said the President.
“It's better. Thank you, sir,” said CJ. “What's the news?”
The President sighed. “Well, we got a report that he's being held as a hostage by a group whose aims, I'm told, are best described as 'anti-supernatural'.”
CJ looked from the President to Leo to Toby, and glanced at Charlie as well. “What? Hostage? But why would they take Josh?”
“As a bargaining chip with the President,” Leo explained. “At least, that's what our sources suggest. As of yet, the President has received no ransom demands from these guys.”
“But the fact that he's a hostage,” CJ said, swallowing, “that means he's too valuable for them to want to hurt him, right?”
“We think that's true,” said the President.
She nodded. “And that's all we know about this?”
“That's all we know right now,” the President said. “But there's a recon team on its way to where he's being held right now.”
“Is the team equipped for recon only, Mr. President?” Toby asked. “Because, sir, I know we don't negotiate with terrorists, but I think the fact that the US government is barely functioning right now, and Josh is being held by these maniacs, might merit a reconsideration of that rule.”
“It's a recon mission,” the President repeated. “But if Josh is there, the team leader is going to call me and tell me what these people have in the way of guards. And then we'll see if we can't make it a rescue mission as well.”
There was a short pause, and then CJ cleared her throat and spoke. “How long until we know, sir?”
“They'll arrive at the site in no more than twenty minutes,” said the President. “You might as well sit, CJ.”
As she did so, Charlie said, “Mr. President, can I get you something? Coffee?”
The President shook his head. “No, thanks, Charlie. All we've got here is instant, anyway, and I can't stand that stuff. Anyone else?”
Everyone murmured a negative response.
CJ wished she had taken Charlie up on his offer, even as she declined. Drinking something would have at least been a minor distraction from the tension in the room, which she could literally feel building as they waited. But she didn't want to draw attention to herself again.
At least the Excedrin the nurse had given her really was having an effect, although the added pressure of all the minds in the room was threatening to undo it. And at least everyone was sitting, since the walk here had taken quite enough effort as it was. She leaned her head on her hand and tried to surreptitiously massage her right temple. It seemed to help to focus her own thoughts, so she sent up a silent plea to anyone who might be listening for Josh to be alright. Sam, too, while she was at it, and Donna. And everyone's families. This whole situation was beyond unbelievable – and CJ didn't even have as much of her duties as usual to think about instead.
She felt Charlie's eyes on her a few times, and she didn't even have to read his mind to know he was wondering when she might tell everyone. She was thankful to be able to trust in his discretion. Much as she knew she needed to tell the President, especially, now wasn't the right time. Now was about Josh.
“So, you're feeling better, CJ?” Leo asked quietly.
“Better,” she said. “The nurse recommended a good night's sleep on top of what she gave me, but I'm not going to miss hearing an update on Josh.”
Leo nodded, and yet CJ heard, almost as clearly as if he had spoken it, that he wasn't sure she was telling him the whole truth. In fact, he'd been worried about her for a few days.
She didn't react. She hoped not, anyway. Obviously she hadn't been hiding things as well as she had thought. “Anyway, I'll be fine. I'm not the one who's been kidnapped by thugs.”
“Yeah,” Leo sighed. She could tell he was particularly worried about how Josh would deal with this after just starting to cope with the fallout from being shot. There were no platitudes forthcoming from him, not that she was surprised by that.
“Isn't it time yet?” she wondered out loud. That specific worry about Josh had occurred to her, too.
The phone rang, causing them all to jump. The President answered on the second ring. “Yes?”
CJ couldn't help it. She found herself listening to the other end of the conversation through the President. She heard him hear that they had reached the building where Josh had been, without incident. They saw signs of recent fighting outside, and in fact part of the building had been destroyed in some kind of explosion. That was when CJ put a hand to her mouth and focused firmly instead on the song that had been stuck in her head all day. She suddenly realized that she might hear that Josh had been killed, and she didn't want to learn that this way. She didn't want to learn that at all, but at least the President wouldn't sound so... coldly military about it, if he had to pass that kind of news on.
So focused was she on not listening that she almost missed when the President said, “Thank you,” out loud, and hung up the phone.
Leo was the first to speak, and his voice finally brought CJ's attention back to the situation. “Mr. President?”
“The building was empty. Signs of recent fighting, he said, and part of the building was damaged by some kind of explosion, but no one was there.” He paused, and glanced at their faces. “The team found some bodies outside, he said, but there was no one we know.”
CJ let out a breath.
Toby let out more than that. “So, we don't know anything more? What happened to him, for God's sake?”
The President was expecting this. “They did find a room with a broken lock on it, that looked like a kind of cell. Someone had been living there recently. It could have been Josh. That's all we know right now.”
“Any ideas on who launched the attack on these people?” Leo asked.
“Not yet,” said the President, “but they are still investigating the scene. We'll get more if they find out anything else.”
“Well, that was worth getting CJ out of bed for,” Toby muttered, not really under his breath.
“I'm still glad I didn't miss it,” was her response. “How soon would there be another update if we were going to get one tonight, Mr. President?”
“He didn't have a precise answer for me. They'll be as thorough as they can. I'd give them an hour, I guess, but they've already been out long after curfew, and there's a good reason we have that. So after an hour, I'm going to attempt once again to call it a night.”
She swallowed. It was now or allow it to come out accidentally, like it had for Charlie. “Well, sir, then now that the immediate crisis is as past as it's going to be, there's something I should probably tell you. And everyone else, while they're here.”
“What's that, CJ?” he asked.
She shot a glance toward Charlie, who looked encouraging. “Uh, well, there's a reason why I had a migraine today. I – I haven't been feeling great for a few weeks now, and...” She cleared her throat and looked the President straight in the eyes. “That's because I've been starting to manifest telepathic abilities.”
There was silence, and CJ couldn't even hear anyone's thoughts in response for the moment, over the ringing in her ears. Then she realized the President was speaking.
“You're saying you're a telepath.”
She nodded, then regretted the gesture and tried not to wince. “Yes, sir.”
“And this has been going on for a few weeks?”
“Yes, sir,” she said, heart still racing.
It was his turn to nod, and she wasn't reading his mind, she just wasn't, she told herself. He looked at her speculatively. “And you've waited this long to say anything... why?”
“Well, sir,” she said, clearing her throat again, “I didn't quite know what to say. And I didn't want to make things even more stressful for everyone.”
“Except for yourself,” he pointed out.
She chanced a look at Leo, whose face showed surprise but also, she thought (again, refusing to cheat by reading his mind), concern. Toby looked as shocked as he ever looked, and Charlie still just looked reassuring. “Uh, what was that, Mr. President?”
“I said, you may have been protecting us from stress, but you weren't making it easier on yourself.”
“Sir, I thought... things are bad enough already-”
“Exactly. CJ, have you been deliberately spying on our thoughts for these past few weeks?”
She blinked. “Of course not, sir! I wouldn't – I've been trying-”
“You've been trying your hardest not to, right?” And now she could feel his compassion, and had to blink again, for another reason. There was another emotion there, too, but it felt more private and she didn't want to pursue it.
“That's why you got the headache,” said Leo, and she felt his compassion and worry, as well.
She blinked again, and took a deep breath to steady herself. “I believe so, yes.”
“I'm no expert, but I imagine that might be easier if you don't have to hide that you're dealing with this, on top of the process of actually dealing with it,” said the President.
She was fast losing her composure, but she nodded again, more carefully this time. “I'm sure you're right, sir,” she said in a voice that came out rather choked.
“Of course I am,” he said. There was that other emotion there again, even as she could tell he was being sincere. If she hadn't known better, she would have thought it might be guilt, but again, she didn't want to dig.
She wiped a hand across her cheeks quickly. “Mr. President, if you'd rather not have such a clear security risk on your staff, I've been thinking about it, and I could have my resignation on your desk before the night is over.”
“Absolutely not,” he said. “The last thing I need, while the whole country is falling apart and some of my staff is missing, is to have the ones that are here start quitting on me, too.”
CJ sniffed. “It's just that I'm not very good at controlling it yet, sir, and I don't want you to have to-”
“CJ,” he interrupted, “where would you go, even if you insisted on quitting?”
She paused. “I'll admit I hadn't quite thought that far, Mr. President.”
“I thought so,” said the President. “You'll stay. However, I don't ever want to hear my press secretary of all people trying to claim she didn't tell me something important because she didn't know what to say.” She thought she caught a snatch of another thought, something almost ashamed about keeping secrets, and wondered just what he might be referring to, before again reminding herself that she didn't want to know.
“Yes, sir,” she said, turning her attention back to what he had said out loud. “It won't happen again.” Leo took that moment to hand her a box of tissues. She took it and blew her nose. “Thanks.”
“And no one here disagrees with my decision, right?” the President asked.
There was a chorus of “No, sir”s from around the room, and no one sounded hesitant. The relief was so great that it felt almost unreal to CJ. She used another tissue. “Thank you. I just wanted to say that I really am trying not to hear anything you wouldn't want to me hear. I think I'm learning.”
Toby caught her eye and said, “Sure. Well, I guess this means I'll have to make sure not to indulge in my fantasies about you while you're in the room.”
CJ wasn't quite ready to laugh just yet, but she scoffed, smiled a genuine smile, and sat up straight to look at him. “Meaning you would with me in the room before?”
“I, personally, would rather not have heard about it either way,” the President said, with a long-suffering sigh.
There were a few chuckles around the room, and CJ knew that she wasn't the only one who had needed this break from the tension. It was only natural that her mind turned to how Josh and Sam might have reacted to the news, though, and what kind of jokes they would be making right about now, which sobered her very quickly. She hoped that one event going better than she had expected today might be a sign that they would get good news when the recon team called back.
When the phone rang, startling them all again, CJ practiced not listening again. She was able to focus on what she was hoping for, instead, and be a little more in the moment while doing so, which felt like an accomplishment. All she did pick up was that the President's worry did not lessen, and that there was some surprise added, which could mean a variety of things.
He hung up after a several minute call, and faced them. “He was there,” were his first words. “They confirmed from fingerprints they found at the scene.”
“Thank God,” said CJ. “Anything else, sir?”
“Yes, and that's the weird thing. Among the other fingerprints at the site, there were some others that matched the files they had with them, on the door of the room and in just a few other places. They were Sam's.”
“Sam's?” Leo repeated, taken aback. “Sam was there?”
“They don't think he was there as long as Josh, although they aren't sure about that,” said the President, frowning. “And that's not all. We know more about who attacked the building. They found a couple of large animal tracks in the mud outside. More than one kind.”
“Shifters,” said Toby. “Okay, obviously we have a pretty good idea why they'd attack a base for an anti-supernatural group. But does that mean Josh just went from being held prisoner by those guys to being captured by shifters, sir? And now Sam is, too?”
CJ heard Leo use a word he would never tolerate hearing in front of the President, and turned to look at him before realizing he hadn't spoken out loud. When he did speak, his voice revealed the same strain as Toby's. “Have they tracked these shifters, Mr. President?”
“The team lost their trail somewhere near the east edge of the city,” said the President. “As for what that means for Josh or Sam, it's hard to say.”
But CJ was following his train of thought, even having only caught hints of it. “Mr. President, if Sam wasn't there for as long as Josh, and his fingerprints are on the door of the cell... No, that doesn't make sense.”
“What are you saying?” Toby asked. She didn't answer right away. “CJ? What are you saying?”
“Nothing,” she said, backing down. “It doesn't sound like there's enough evidence to say anything. But I was wondering if Sam might have rescued Josh.” That was a more neutral way to phrase it. Perhaps it was staggeringly optimistic, but she did hope it was possible.
“I don't know,” said the President, giving her a questioning look. After a moment, when she didn't respond, she felt him dismiss the most troubling implications of that possibility, much as she had. “Like you said, though, we don't know enough to make any guesses.”
CJ was fairly certain that her silent interaction with the President had not gone unnoticed by anyone. Dealing with all this was still not going to be easy, clearly. But the next person to speak was Leo, and it was only to ask if the team was going to be continuing their recon mission.
The President said they would attempt to try to pick up the trail of the shifters in the morning. Waiting made sense, as it had become dramatically more dangerous to be out late at night, even when armed. “After that, they can only be spared for one more day for this mission. And that's it, and I really am going to bed now. I recommend you all do the same.”
This time, the chorus was of “Good night”s and “Thank you, Mr. President”s as they all stood and started to move toward the door. CJ thought getting to sleep sounded like heaven, after the day she'd had. She was tired enough that hearing the President ask Leo to stay behind while the rest of them left only piqued her curiosity ever so slightly. Instead, she made sure to leave quickly enough that she wasn't tempted to eavesdrop.
“CJ,” Toby said, as she closed the door behind her. “Can I talk to you for a second?”
She had an inkling of what he might want to discuss. “Can it wait? I was hoping to get back to bed.” She wasn't above playing the sympathy card at this point.
Toby paused, ran a hand over his head, and then nodded. “All right. Nevermind. Good night.” He turned to go.
“Are you sure?” she asked, although from what she could catch without trying, she was sure she didn't want to answer what he wanted to ask.
“Yeah. Sleep well,” he said.
Relieved, she told him good night, and headed back to her room. The last thing she wanted was to have a conversation about shifters with Toby. There was no way it wouldn't be highly charged. Toby had known for the entire time they'd been here that his brother had been attacked and killed by a gang of shifters, and he was understandably not disposed to give any of them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps not even if it turned out that... but no. She shook that thought off again and did her best to clear her thoughts of anything stressful as she reached her room and started to get ready for bed. Again.
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
Sam left Josh to his meal, his thoughts in something of a turmoil. He kept going back to the moment when he had discovered Josh in that locked basement room. The lock on the outside hadn't been too heavy-duty, but it had still required some effort to break open. When he'd seen who was inside, and the way Josh had looked...
Sam sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. After Josh came back to work after the shooting at the town hall meeting several months ago – God, it felt like years ago – he had seemed like himself for the most part. But there had been little changes, and little moments where it was obvious that he wasn't entirely okay. Then there had been that day in the Oval Office, and the Yo-Yo Ma concert, where it became even more obvious that he wasn't okay. Sam had been deeply relieved a few days afterwards when Josh had almost casually mentioned to him and to Toby that he was seeing a therapist.
So it hadn't exactly been surprising that Josh had reacted badly to the sounds of gunfire practically right next to him last night. But still, when Sam had found Josh all but curled up in the farthest corner of his cell, he had been alarmed at how long it took for his friend to notice he was there. And then even after he'd recovered a little, Josh had still looked very much worse for wear after however long he had been locked in that room. Thinking back on it, Sam couldn't help being grateful again that it had been him who had found the prisoner that the group had heard the rumors about, and not anyone else.
And now what do I do? he thought, continuing along the perimeter he was assigned to guard. He squinted as he passed the largest window, trying to concentrate for a moment on making sure there was no movement outside. Everything looked to be clear. His thoughts turned back to the situation with Josh.
Joining this group was never supposed to be a permanent or even long-term thing, Sam reminded himself. It wasn't like he had really become devoted to the cause of the shifters after he'd been turned; it had just been a necessity to find a group, and thankfully Phil was both willing to accept him and much more principled than most shifter leaders. That said, Phil was still looking at Josh as a windfall that could be useful to his people. And since Sam was reluctant to find out just how loyal the members of this group, out for revenge against normals, would be to Phil and his commands to leave Josh alone...
It didn't take too much more time for Sam to make up his mind. Quickly and quietly, he made his way to his corner of the sleeping area and gathered up his belongings. He'd have to stop at the armory on the way out. He paused as he passed by Laurie, who was fast asleep. Hopefully she'd understand. Based on her compassion toward Josh last night, she probably would. He thought about leaving her a note, but he didn't want to leave behind any more clues to his plan than he had to.
Feeling oddly lightened now that he'd made his decision, Sam walked back to the kitchen. He pushed open the door to reveal Josh spreading cream cheese on a bagel. Based on the empty cereal bowl and banana peel next to the sink, and the half-empty box of powdered donuts, this was at least his third course. “I take it you're kind of hungry,” Sam commented.
Josh swallowed a bite of donut and shrugged. “Hey, after weeks of the same thing every morning, this is like paradise, man.” Then his gaze moved to the little duffel bag Sam was carrying. “What's that for?”
“I'll tell you in a minute,” Sam said. “You can finish eating first – provided 'finishing' doesn't mean you consume everything edible in the whole kitchen. I might catch a little heat for that, you know. In case that has any effect on your restraint.”
Looking faintly guilty, Josh sat down at the table with his bagel and then held out the box of donuts.
“I'm not really a big fan of these things,” Sam said, taking two anyway. He'd eaten a good-sized meal earlier today – but as he now knew, being a shifter meant being constantly ready to eat.
“Okay,” Josh replied, watching Sam eat the donuts with amusement. “Sure you aren't.”
The two of them were quiet for some time as they both ate. Sam was planning out their next move in his head when Josh broke the silence. “So you never said, last night. How did you find me?”
Sam looked up. He frowned, and then finished off the last bite of donut. “Luck, mostly.”
“That's all you're going to give me? 'Luck'?”
“Fine,” Sam conceded. “We'd heard rumors that a particular anti-supernatural group had captured someone – someone they thought would be valuable – and that the group was holding them hostage.” He dusted the powdered sugar off his hands. “To be honest, pretty much all of us thought they'd captured a shifter. You may or may not know that a number of formerly high-ranking people in the government have disappeared after it's become known that they were shifters, so we thought this hostage might be one of them.”
Josh was listening intently. “And you guys wanted to get your guy out of harm's way, as well as have someone on your side who could influence policy in the future. Right?”
“That was the idea, yes,” Sam said. “So once we figured out where they were, we raided the place. It had to have been just good luck that they didn't have all that many people guarding you or the rest of the building. It wasn't much of a fight once it got started.”
At that, Josh's expression grew dark. “Not much of a fight, huh? It certainly sounded like enough of a fight from my vantage point.”
Sam dropped his gaze to his hands. “I'm sure it did. And I'm sorry about that.”
Josh was quiet for a while. Then he got up and put his plate next to the other dishes by the sink. “Sam, I have to ask … No. Never mind.”
“What?” Sam leaned back, meeting his eyes.
“No, it's nothing.”
“What is it?” Sam insisted. He had a feeling he knew what Josh wanted to ask, and it wasn't going to get any easier to ask or answer if the issue was ignored.
“All right.” There it was: Sam could see the betrayal on Josh's face. “I have to ask, why did you join up with, with these people? I mean, I'm not saying I think you should have tried to go it alone, but you could've--”
“I didn't have a choice, Josh,” Sam snapped. He stood up, nearly knocking over his chair as he did so, and started to pace. The memories and the emotions connected with them were making it difficult to stay in control, but Sam refused to let himself give in. Especially not now. “I was attacked outside my apartment one night. I was – bitten. I didn't even see the shifter until it was too late to get away.” He looked up at Josh and then looked away quickly. He didn't want to see pity. “When you first get bitten, it makes you feel sick, like the flu, except exponentially worse. Like you're going to die. And it hits you fast, too. I don't think I got more than a few steps toward the door to my apartment building before I collapsed.” Sam took a breath. “I was delirious for a while, but I know there were people who saw me lying there. They didn't help me. They ran away from me. They knew the signs, I guess.”
It took him a few more seconds to be able to continue. Josh remained silent, for which Sam was grateful. “Anyway. I don't know how long I was lying there before the first change struck. It's pretty much impossible to control, the first time, and I'm sure it wasn't a pretty sight. But that's when Phil and Laurie showed up. Between the two of them, they – corralled me, I guess you could say, and at the end of the night they brought me back here. And that's why I'm with the group right now.”
When Sam finally looked up at Josh, he was almost amused at the utterly shocked expression on his friend's face. Josh closed his mouth, blinked, and then said, “Holy shit, Sam. When this is all over, you should sell the rights to a movie studio or write a book or something, because it would sell. For real.”
“You're an asshole,” Sam fired back, even as he laughed and shook his head.
Josh's grin faded after a minute. “Seriously, though. Sorry. I didn't know what happened to you, so I shouldn't have jumped on you like that.”
“I accept your apology,” Sam said. Then he picked up his bag. “Especially since you aren't totally wrong to be suspicious of Phil and the others.”
Eyebrows raised, Josh just said, “Oh?”
“Yeah. This is all my stuff. I'm all packed. We're getting out of here, now, before--”
“Before it's too late?” Josh cut in. “I've kind of always wanted to say that. Sorry. What else do we need?”
“You don't have anything else you want to take with you, do you?” Sam asked.
“No. But I think we should bring some food and water and stuff, too.”
“Yep.” Sam opened a cabinet and tossed Josh a canvas bag, and then grabbed one for himself. “Here. Fill it up. Then we'll swing by the armory and then get out.”
“Armory?” Josh stared at him briefly before going back to pulling out supplies.
Sam tried not to sound too irritated. “There are people and – things out there that aren't going to be easy to persuade to leave us alone. We need weapons.”
“All right,” Josh conceded after a pause. “But just so you know, I don't actually know how to use a gun. Just the theory.”
“No reason anyone else has to know that, though,” Sam pointed out. “Or so we hope.”
Josh snorted. “Yeah, let's hope.”
They finished gathering supplies, including flashlights and some first-aid items, and then Sam led the way to where the weapons were stored in – oddly enough – the principal's office. When Sam opened the door of the office to reveal the group's stockpile, Josh made a crack about guns in schools that didn't quite conceal his continued discomfort with this whole idea. In fact, it clearly wasn't easy for him even to follow Sam into the room.
“Look, you don't have to carry one if you don't want to,” Sam said at last, after Josh had looked over all of the available options without choosing one. Sam had already picked up the same shotgun he'd had last night. “But it might come in handy, and we should decide quickly and get out of here. I'd like to get as far away as we can while it's still daylight.”
Josh nodded, gingerly reaching for a revolver. “The safety on this thing better be working,” he muttered. Then he stood up and asked, “So what's the plan? Where are we going?”
“Well, I thought we'd head back toward the White House,” Sam said. He tried to keep his voice calm. “I'm sure the President and everyone else have been evacuated somewhere safe, but there are bound to be National Guard and police that could maybe take us to them.”
Josh stared. “You want us to just walk back into the center of DC? Right now?”
“From what we've been hearing, things are quieter there since troops were deployed,” Sam said defensively. “And besides, it's got to be a better idea than staying around and waiting for someone to make Phil an offer for you that he decides is too good for the group to pass up.”
“How far are we from the vicinity of the White House?” Josh at least sounded a little less incredulous now. “They knocked me out when they took me, so I really have no clue.”
“We're just about on the northeast border with Maryland,” Sam answered, wishing it had occurred to him to orient Josh earlier. Of course he would have no way of knowing where they were. “So, uh, obviously it's not going to be a quick jaunt, but--”
“No, I think you're probably right, this is the best we can do.” As they left the office, Josh added morosely, “If either of us still had our wallets, we could just find a working phone and call that number the Secret Service gave us, but I didn't memorize the number.”
“Neither did I,” Sam sighed. “Which would have been smart.”
“Yeah, shoulda woulda coulda,” Josh said with a shrug. “Maybe we can try some phones on the way into town anyway, just pick them up and ask the operator for the Secret Service. But at any rate, let's get out of school before some of your friends start to wonder where you are.”
Sam was half surprised that no one seemed to notice them leaving. He had taken the precaution of having them exit from the side of the school he was supposed to be guarding (he felt a little bit guilty about leaving it unguarded, but it couldn't be helped), but still, he almost expected shouts of alarm or anger as they left the school behind. Instead there was silence – the now usual eerie silence of a city with no traffic of any kind.
“Well,” Josh said, looking back over his shoulder as well, “so far so good, I guess.”
“Yeah.” Sam shaded his face from the sun as he looked up. “We should keep moving.” He turned around and started toward their goal.
Some hours passed without incident, for which Sam was grateful. They were making good progress as far as he could tell. Josh seemed to be mostly recovered from his exhaustion. Even so, Sam did his best to be alert for signs of fatigue from his friend, since it was likely he himself wouldn't start to flag for some time.
The light was just starting to fade when they decided to stop for dinner. By unspoken agreement, they found a building – a doctor's office, as it turned out – that was easy enough to get inside. Sam suspected neither of them were comfortable with the idea of eating outside. At least the doctor's office had only two exits to watch.
Absorbed in his thoughts and worries as he ate his sandwich, Sam was startled when Josh broke the silence. “Do you know anything about everyone else? I mean, like, who's with the President?”
Wiping his mouth with a napkin, Sam shook his head. “Not really, no. I think we can be pretty sure the President and the Vice President are okay. I'm guessing you missed it, but the President gave his weekly 'I'm still here, the country's still here, we're going to get out of this all right' fireside address a few days ago on the radio, and he mentioned something about Hoynes being okay, too. I'm sure he's not at the same location, of course.” Sam swallowed. He decided not to mention how the President had sounded when he'd closed the broadcast with his prayers and his promise that all who were missing family and friends would be reunited with them soon.
“Yeah, I did miss that,” Josh said. He was quiet for another few minutes. Then, bleakly, he said, “I don't know what happened to Donna. I had just said goodbye to her when they took me. It was literally less than a minute after I'd said goodbye at her car that some guys came out of nowhere and grabbed me. I don't know if they saw her, I don't know if they-- did something to her, or if she's okay...”
Sam took a deep breath. He thought about all of his friends, and about his own family. He didn't offer any empty words of comfort. “The not knowing definitely sucks.”
Josh agreed. Silence fell again. They finished their meals quickly, but Sam was still getting worried as he tracked the passage of time. It was going to get dark soon – much sooner than he'd prefer. He had a horrible feeling that their luck at not running into anyone would not hold very far into the evening. There was, after all, good reason for the curfew that was in effect throughout most of the country.
Josh was obviously thinking along similar lines. As they exited the doctor's office, he said, “I'm thinking we're going to have to find a place to stop for the night before it gets too dark, right?”
“I think that would be safest, yes,” Sam replied.
“Okay.” Josh walked a few feet, then glanced at him. “So, what is it that you change into?”
It took Sam a second to understand the question. He tried not to clench his teeth. “What?”
“I said, what is that you change into? Or shift, or whatever you're supposed to call it.”
“You really don't know when to shut up, do you?” Sam asked, already knowing the answer.
“I think I've been told that, yeah,” he replied breezily.
“Yes, you have. Several times by me, in fact,” Sam pointed out.
Josh kept walking. “Is that so? Huh.”
“I can see it made a real impression, too,” Sam said under his breath. More loudly, he said, “I don't really want to talk about it, okay, Josh?”
“Sure. Fine. No offense meant,” Josh said.
“Right.” They continued on in silence for a while. Then Sam sighed. It wasn't like it was some kind of big secret – and besides, if Sam had anything to say about it, Josh would never know any other way. “Okay, whatever. A wolf.”
Josh turned to look at him, surprised. “A wolf?”
“Yes. And before you ask, the phase of the moon has no affect on when I transform,” Sam informed him.
“I wasn't going to ask if it did,” Josh said, but he looked faintly disappointed, maybe at this preemptive shutdown of related comments.
“Uh huh.” Sam wasn't interested in going into any more detail, but knowing Josh, it was going to be difficult to avoid it.
Just as he'd expected, Josh spoke again. “I was actually wondering why you guys were all – well, mostly – not transformed when you raided the building last night.”
“Because it's much easier to communicate with each other when we can actually speak,” Sam said. He hesitated for a moment, but decided to go on. “It's also much easier to hold yourself back from – hurting anyone that way, unless you have to.”
“Oh.” Josh didn't look amused anymore. “That makes sense, if that's a big risk otherwise.”
“Yeah. Not all shifter groups seem to care much about that risk,” Sam said quietly. He could still remember all too well how little of himself, his human mind, he had retained the first time he transformed. Even now, it was terribly easy to just let go of rational thought when he changed. That was yet another reason that he avoided doing so whenever he could.
“So I've heard,” Josh replied. “Hey, does that mean--”
“Hold on a second,” Sam said, putting up a hand as he listened hard. He thought there was something...
“What is it?” whispered Josh, looking around with more than a hint of anxiety.
Heart starting to pound, Sam whispered back, “We've got to find some cover. I think we're about to have company.”
Josh followed him willingly enough to the door of the nearest building, although he complained in an undertone, “Seriously? 'We're about to have company'? What are you, an extra on an action movie set or something?”
“Yeah, well, I'm not on speechwriting duty at the moment, okay?” Sam retorted as he tried the door of the pharmacy. It was locked, of course. “I'm a little too busy thinking about how to keep us both from becoming bloodless corpses.”
Josh's eyes widened. “Vampires? Are you telling me there are vampires tracking us right now?”
“Yes. I'm pretty sure there are vampires on the way.” Not only could he hear them, but there was that distinctive smell ... Sam shoved against the door, but the lock didn't give. It probably wouldn't be a good idea to shoot it open, either, he thought, since it would just help the vampires pinpoint their location even more quickly.
“Well, then, we need to get off the street right away,” Josh said, peering around the edge of the doorway. “And speaking of action heroes, you don't suppose there's really such a thing as a vampire slayer, do you?”
“Unfortunately, I have heard nothing about any contact with a real live Buffy,” said Sam. The sound of their approach was getting louder. They didn't seem to be making any effort to keep quiet, in fact. He guessed it wouldn't be all that long before Josh could hear them. “And yes, getting off the street would be a really, really good thing. I just don't know if it's possible.” He didn't want to add that he didn't think much of their chances even if they did find somewhere less exposed; by the sound of it, there were at least five vampires converging on them.
“How about that place across the street?” Josh said, pointing at what appeared to be an empty commercial building with a ground-floor office suite. “It looks like there's just a board across the window there. Maybe we could pull it off.”
Sam considered quickly. “Yeah, let's give it a shot.”
They dashed across the street and immediately started pulling at the board. Thankfully, whoever had nailed it across the window had not done a very good job of it, so between the two of them, it came off within seconds. Of course, the window under it was not completely broken, so they had to carefully push in as many of the shards as they could without cutting themselves, and then avoid the rest when they climbed in. As soon as they were inside, Josh went to check the front door and reported that it had several locks including a padlock.
“Good. What about another entrance?” Sam was busy trying to replace the board against the window frame, although he knew it was mostly futile since he had no hammer or nails.
Josh hurried through the largely empty space, and then came back to report, “The back entrance is locked, too. I think we're good on that end. Power's off, of course, so even if they tried to get in from upstairs, they couldn't get down the elevator. The door to the stairway has a keypad.”
“So all we have to worry about are the windows, then,” Sam said grimly. At least this office was not at the end of the block, so there were only two sides with windows.
“Is it true vampires can't come inside unless you invite them?” Josh asked after a second. The sound of their approach – mocking laughter and footsteps – was getting louder. Meanwhile, he and Sam were crouched behind a solid-looking desk which was about the only furniture in the suite.
“That's if you're in a house, which we're not,” Sam said. “But from what I've heard, it's not true even then. Also not the garlic thing. Oddly enough, chopping off the head, lighting them on fire, or staking them through the heart does work.”
“Because that would pretty much kill anyone.”
“Right.” Sam loaded the shells and then gripped the shotgun tighter, looking toward the window through which they'd entered. “Also if you sever the spinal cord with a bullet. Otherwise bullets are … less effective than you might want in this situation.”
Josh swore. “Well, that's just great.” He had taken out his handgun, and he was dividing his attention between it and the window. “And there's no chance we could, I don't know, reason with them, or anything?”
Sam smiled without humor, remembering his last encounter with vampires, during his time with Phil's group. “I highly doubt it. We're food to them, and they like playing with their food.”
Swearing again, Josh took off the safety on his gun. “Anything else I should know about how to work this thing?”
“No, I think you've probably got it,” Sam told him. “Just aim and pull the trigger.”
A tense minute passed. The vampires arrived in the street right outside the office suite. It was too dark by now to make out many details, but Sam thought he had guessed right: five separate shapes and scents. “God, I'm hungry,” said a smooth, female voice that made Sam's skin crawl. “You think there'll be enough for all of us?”
“We'll make it work,” replied another voice, this one male and equally sinister. “Although … Yeah, you were right, Seth, one of them's a shifter! Damn it, his blood'll be tainted.”
Sam clenched his jaw as another male (Seth, apparently) made some remark about how he was never wrong about these things. Then another female voice chimed in that she didn't care, she was hungry enough to eat anything, even if it was a shifter.
Just being this close to them was making it harder for Sam to focus. If he were able to be an objective observer right now, he thought he might be forming some theories about an instinctive antipathy between shifters and vampires – but he was nowhere close to being able to be objective right now.
Josh's whisper took a moment to register, but finally Sam looked over at him. “Yeah,” he managed to say, although his voice sounded extremely tense to his own ears.
“Uh, I just wanted to say--” Josh started, but he was interrupted by the crash of something heavy hurtling through the other window facing the street. Both of them ducked instinctively. Whatever the object was fell far short of their location.
The vampires outside all started laughing. “Whoops, sorry, boys,” the first male called out between breaths. “Didn't mean to interrupt your touching goodbyes.”
“Yeah,” added the first female, “it's just that we're in a little bit of a rush.” They were coming up to the windows now.
Sam was having more and more trouble breathing steadily. He reached out for Josh's arm and grabbed it without looking at him. “You're going to need to take the shotgun, too,” he gasped out, handing him the weapon. “It's loaded. There are … more shells in the bag. And try not to shoot me when you fire at them.”
“What-- no, you need it,” Josh protested. He tried to push it back at Sam before suddenly stopping. “Oh. You mean you're--”
Sam nodded, since he wasn't sure if he would be able to speak. The change was already beginning. With a low growl, he scrambled up on all fours. Then all his wolf senses were focused on the vampires as they started to climb through the windows.
Before he had a chance to spring out at the foremost vampire, there was a scream of shock from outside, and then the sound of gunfire mixed with other growls and roars. Shadowy figures were attacking the vampires from all sides – figures who were very familiar to Sam. But he couldn't afford to think about them for the moment, since the vampire in the lead had decided to keep attacking its prey regardless of this new threat.
Snarling, Sam leaped at the creature, knocking it onto the ground. Before it could struggle free, Sam's fangs were at its throat. Then he yelped, as the vampire struck him in the side with something sharp. Probably a shard of glass, his human mind realized distractedly. Still, he held on – until the vampire gathered its strength and managed to throw him off and send him crashing into the wall.
His shoulder and back hit the wall, and the wind was knocked out of him. Dazed, Sam took several seconds to recover, aware even as he tried to regain his breath and his footing that the vampire was already standing up and coming toward him. The part of Sam that was still human was horrified at the huge, bloody wound in the vampire's throat, but even that part of him was more horrified that the vampire was still able to move. Sam couldn't seem to get his legs to cooperate, and the other shifters all seemed too occupied with their own battles to come to his aid.
Now the vampire, grinning horribly through the blood on its face and still wielding the jagged piece of glass, was within striking distance. Sam made one more attempt to get up and almost made it. Then there was the sound of a shot being fired, oddly muffled in the chaos of the room. Sam saw the vampire's eyes widen, and then it fell face first to the ground, one hand clutching at the back of its neck.
Finally managing to get to his feet, Sam looked over from where the shot had come and saw Josh still holding the revolver pointed at where the vampire had been. His arms were shaking slightly, but he looked unhurt. If it had been an option to do so, Sam would have congratulated Josh on his aim. Instead, he turned his attention to the rest of the scene.
To his intense relief, Sam saw that the rest of the vampires were all dead or gone. Most of his fellow shifters who had transformed were making the transition back to their human forms, assisted by the others who were handing out blankets so that they could get dressed with some privacy. No one was paying a great deal of attention to Josh, which was probably a good thing at this point, considering everything.
As the adrenaline began to wear off, Sam started to feel the various injuries he'd accumulated. He looked down at his side and saw that he was bleeding.
He looked up at the sound of Laurie's voice. She came toward him, smiling in relief, but her smile faded at the sight of the blood on his face and his side. “Oh my God. Come on, I'll give you a blanket – you need to change back so we can look at that cut.”
Sam glanced behind Laurie at Josh. He was now sitting on the floor, with his back against the front panel of the desk. He seemed shell-shocked, but otherwise okay. Sam looked back at Laurie and nodded.
“Okay. Here.” She spread the blanket partially over him, and Sam began the change.
Chapter 4: Chapter 4
Thankfully, Toby didn't show any signs of wanting to bring up the topic again the next morning as they were working on the President's next 'fireside' radio address together. CJ focused on the introduction. It was more along the lines of something she might have given herself, but she agreed that the President have as much on-air presence as possible during this crisis, especially since the press corps was all but nonexistent at this point.
“I feel like the President has already said all this,” she remarked, looking at her computer. “Aren't people going to notice that this is basically what he said last week, just with slightly different wording?”
“Maybe,” Toby said, glancing to her screen and then back to his, “but maybe a little stability is a good thing.”
“All right.” She stared at the page. “Stability.” She put her hands on the keyboard, then took them off again. “Toby, you're not just humoring me by giving me this part of the speech, are you? You know I'm not a speech writer, and I don't know how much I'm helping here.”
“I'm not just humoring you,” he said. “I gave you that part of the speech this time because you wrote that part of the speech the last time, which was helpful then and it would be helpful if you actually wrote it now.”
“Okay,” she said. He did seem sincere, even from the very surface-level scan she still couldn't help doing. She wrote a few words, then went back and erased a whole sentence. “But we better find Sam soon, because I'm not switching jobs.” She did her best to rephrase the problem sentence and frowned as she tried to imagine the President saying it.
“Yeah,” said Toby, typing furiously and barely paying attention.
She sighed and went back to work. It was definitely better than sitting around doing nothing. Time managed to pass until it was getting close to lunch, and then there was a knock at the door. It was Charlie, and he looked serious. “Excuse me, Toby, CJ, but the President would like you to join him in the briefing room.”
“Something happened?” said CJ, making it into a question at the last instant. She stood.
Charlie nodded. “Leo's already there.”
She and Toby followed quickly. “Is it about Josh or Sam?” she asked, although she was already fairly sure he didn't know yet.
“I don't know,” he said. “But if I had to guess, I'd say it was bigger than that. He just met with the Joint Chiefs again.”
They arrived, and Charlie announced them. The President gestured for them to enter. “Charlie, you can stay, too, if you want.” They were all starting to get used to a bit of bending of protocol at this point.
“Yes, sir,” he said, stepping in after them and closing the door.
“I'll get right to it,” said the President. “I just heard that there's been a major explosion at Harvard. Intel isn't great at this point, but I'm told it tore a hole in the campus that took out the biochemistry building and everything within a 300 foot radius.”
There was a moment of stunned silence, although CJ was cogent enough to notice that Leo wasn't surprised and must have heard it before they arrived. “Sir, isn't that where they've been researching the cure for the shifters and vampires?” She didn't add “and telepaths”, because there hadn't really been any word on that before the media had started to go dark.
“It is,” said the President. “It's not the only place, but it is where most of the work has been going on.”
“Wasn't the building being guarded?” asked Toby.
“It was,” said the President, “but apparently not well enough. Or they had a man on the inside. No one knows yet.”
“Mr. President, has anyone claimed responsibility for the attack?” was Leo's question.
“The word is that there are a lot of very excited shifters in the area,” said the President. “I can probably expect to receive some kind of statement of demands about shifter rights soon.”
This time it was Toby that CJ heard saying something extremely rude about what the shifters could do with their rights, but she didn't bother to look at him because no one else had heard. What he said out loud was, “What can we do in response?”
“Everywhere else where the cure is being worked on has beefed up their security and been granted more protection from the joint law enforcement task force,” the President said. “And I've authorized an operation to try to narrow down the responsible party and take them into custody, or take them out if necessary.”
CJ could sense how his stomach turned at having to authorize that kind of action on American soil, on those who were in all probability Americans themselves. Toby, on the other hand, was nodding. Leo agreed with both the President's actions and his disgust at the necessity for them, and Charlie seemed somewhere in the middle. CJ didn't realize her headache was coming back until she heard the President say her name and she looked up, quickly taking her hand away from where she had absently been rubbing at her temple. “I'm sorry, sir?”
“I asked if you were all right,” he said.
She tried not to blush. “Yes, sir. Sorry. I'm fine.” If everyone would just try to keep their thoughts a little quieter, she wished silently.
“You're sure,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” she insisted, meeting his concerned gaze. “I apologize if I interrupted you.” She increased her efforts to push out everyone else, which seemed to help, though her headache was definitely threatening to come back full force.
“Fine,” he said, and she knew he didn't quite believe her. “We don't have an accurate count of casualties yet, but we know that number is likely to be fairly high. There were scientists working on the cure from all over the country, and even some from universities in Europe.”
“God,” CJ said. She felt ill, quite separately from anyone else's reactions.
The President nodded. “That reminds me. Charlie, I'll need to get in touch with the UK government, and someone from France and Germany, as well.”
“Yes, sir,” said Charlie, making a note. “Would you like me to start contacting the Prime Minister now, or would you like to wait until after lunch?”
Looking at his watch, the President sighed. “I'd completely forgotten about lunch. I can't say that I have much appetite, but I suppose I'll eat first.”
“Yes, sir,” said Charlie.
“I'm suggesting you all join me, although I'll understand if you want to skip lunch today. I would, but I know Charlie will just keep pestering me about it until I give in, anyway.”
“Yes, Mr. President,” said Charlie, with a brief, faint smile.
After lunch, CJ and Toby went back to work on the President's next address, having received instructions to discuss the Harvard explosion in the speech. Charlie headed to the communications room to start contacting the British Prime Minister, and the President told him he would catch up in a minute.
Leo had a feeling he knew what the President wanted to speak to him about. They had talked after last night's very eventful meeting, but there was certainly more to say. “What is it, Mr. President?”
“Leo, do you think CJ's really all right?”
“I think she's still adjusting, but I also think she's proven that she will tell us if something's majorly wrong, eventually,” he said.
“Eventually,” the President echoed, nodding. “Well, I don't mind telling you that I'm still adjusting, too. I don't know what to think about this.”
“Me neither, sir,” said Leo. “Frankly, if it were anyone else but CJ, I might be downright nervous to be around her. But she's probably even more uncomfortable than we are. That's got to be extra motivation for her to figure this out.”
“You're right,” said the President. “And I meant it when I said I don't need to lose more of my staff. I'd prefer not to have to deal with fallout from anyone finding out about the MS on top of everything else, but I'm going to trust she won't, for now. If she does... well, we'll deal with that, too.”
“Yes, sir,” said Leo. CJ did seem sincere in her desire to give everyone the privacy of their own thoughts, although... He hesitated, then decided it was time to ask the question. “Mr. President, I didn't imagine that you and CJ both thought of some other implications of Sam's fingerprints being on the door to Josh's cell, last night, did I?”
“No, you didn't imagine it,” said the President. “It just seems like a huge coincidence that Sam might have rescued Josh, apparently around the same time a bunch of shifters attacked the building where he was being held.”
“Do you think Toby or Charlie thought of that?” Leo asked quietly. Though he hadn't allowed himself to put it into words, the idea was not a surprise to him.
“I hope Toby didn't,” said the President. “I don't know. And what I am supposed to think about that, if it's true?”
“You mean, if Sam is a shifter now? Or if he rescued Josh? Because that second one sounds a lot like something Sam would try to do if he could, sir,” said Leo. “No matter what had happened to him beforehand.”
“I know I can't paint one group of people with the same brush, Leo,” the President said. “I've always thought I was pretty secure in the knowledge that people are people, and some of them are decent and some aren't as decent. But Toby's brother, David – just for entertainment, so it seems! And all the violence since then, and then this bomb at Harvard!”
“I know, Mr. President,” said Leo. “It seems like chaos. But I think the people who enjoy spreading chaos would enjoy it no matter what had originally set it off. And that's not Sam.”
“True, that's not the Sam Seaborn I know,” agreed the President. “If I can trust CJ is still CJ, I'd like to trust that Sam is still Sam.” He looked thoughtful. “Anyway, I guess we won't know until we know what happened to both Sam and Josh. I should go talk to the Prime Minister.”
Leo thanked him as he left the room. He thought he had helped the President talk out his concerns, at least well enough that the President could focus on the next task. Hopefully, his own words would be beneficial to Leo himself, as well. Despite his assurances, he wasn't completely confident, either, and he found himself glad that CJ wasn't present in case she picked up on that – among the other things she had the potential to pick up on.
Leo came back into the President's office, having been alerted by Charlie that the President had gotten the call updating him on the status of the recon mission sent after Josh (and possibly Sam). From what Charlie said, it sounded like the call was already over, which puzzled him. “Mr. President,” he said, upon entering, “is everything all right? You could have gotten me as soon as the phone rang.”
Toby and CJ came in as he was asking, and turned to the President as well for his answer.
“You're all busy,” he said. “I decided you didn't need to get worried standing and waiting for me to tell you what I just heard on the phone, and trying not to overhear. But don't worry, the news isn't bad. It's not great, but it's not bad.” He sighed and leaned back against the desk.
Leo frowned. “What did they find, Mr. President?”
“They didn't find anything. In fact, they lost the trail of the group,” he said, crossing his arms.
“They lost them?” said Toby. “I thought they were supposed to be good at this.”
“I did, too,” said the President. “And I'm sure they are. But apparently, the shifters are also good at covering their tracks. They thought they picked them up again a few times, but each time, the trail led nowhere.”
Toby scratched his head. “I see. So. After all this, basically, we know that Josh and Sam could both be alive, and could both be with a gang of shifters. That's terrific, sir.”
“It could be worse, I guess,” said CJ.
“It definitely could be worse. Anyway, the men on the team are needed on another mission now, but they've put out another alert to all the law enforcement people to be on the lookout for them in that area especially,” said the President.
CJ glanced at Toby, and back at the President. “Is that all we can do, Mr. President?”
He didn't reply immediately, first standing up straight and then crossing his arms again. “I talked to the Joint Chiefs when we first got here about what I could do to find our people. I talked to everyone I could think of. And no, that is not technically all we can do. If I insisted, I could pull people away from what they're doing – which ranges between guarding facilities like the one at Harvard, gathering intelligence on the largest and most dangerous groups of shifters and vampires, and guarding our nation's boarders and most important areas – and I could probably get them to all be focused on finding people I want to be found. I'm the Commander in Chief and martial law is in effect, after all.”
“I understand, sir,” said CJ quietly.
Toby nodded, as well, although Leo didn't need CJ's abilities to know that, while they probably all had needed to hear those words, no one there was satisfied, still. Leo knew he wasn't. The last he had heard, Jenny was safe, but neither he nor his ex-wife had been able to locate Mallory, much less Margaret. If he allowed himself to think about it too much, he knew the worry could easily drive him crazy.
“Yeah,” said the President, matching CJ's tone. “So. Do you two have the speech ready?”
“We'll have it for you before dinner, sir,” said CJ.
“And how's your head today, CJ?” he asked.
“It's fine, thank you, sir,” she said. “I'm, uh, I'm still not as in control of – everything as I would like, but I'm getting better at that, too.”
“Good,” said the President. “I'm sure you'll keep working on that.”
“Yes, sir,” she said.
“Okay. Well, I have to go review some recommendations from some people,” said the President. “Charlie will find you if I hear anything else.”
Leo stayed as the others left, since that was what he was working on, as well.
“Leo, some of these recommendations are almost as scary as the problems they're supposed to solve.” He opened the other door that led to his temporary office, and Charlie shut it behind them as he left. “One of my favorite examples is that there are quite a few people at Homeland Security who think we should be directing our resources into detention centers for all known shifters and vampires. Some suggest telepaths, too, although they're willing to just register them, and not detain them.”
“Have these people completely forgotten the Japanese in World War Two?” Leo wondered. “Nancy isn't signing on to that one, is she?”
“No, thank God,” said the President. “Although the plan that's just registration and tracking, she's been silent on, which worries me.”
“There have to be suggestions that aren't as bad, Mr. President,” said Leo. He wished he could say that he was shocked that these kinds of ideas were being floated.
“There are a few that I would be more willing to consider,” said the President. “If we can just get enough of a law enforcement presence on the streets, and start getting power on again across the country, maybe get things edging back toward normal, I think we-”
“No! Wait, stop him!” came a muffled shout from outside the room.
“What-?” the President started to say, and then flinched as there were more shouts and then several gunshots in quick succession.
Leo drew a breath to tell the President to get away from the door, but it opened and several Secret Service agents rushed in.
“Mr. President, are you all right, sir?” said Agent Butterfield. Several of the others were on their radios as they scanned the room and secured the other exit.
“I'm fine,” he said. “What the hell happened?”
“We're still figuring that out, sir,” said Butterfield. “But it looks like a shifter attack.”
“A shifter attack? How?” demanded the President, looking toward the door the agents had come in. “I thought no one could get in or out of this place.”
“That's right,” said Butterfield. “We're trying to figure out how and why someone who was already here would decide to attack you, Mr. President.”
“Well, who was it?” said Leo, suddenly chilled to the bone.
“Whoever it was, he was shifting when I saw him,” said the agent. “I don't know. But CJ does.”
“CJ? How does she know?” asked the President.
“She's the one who alerted us,” Butterfield said. “Don't ask me how she knew he was a threat before we did. I'll be asking my people that question, though.”
Leo exchanged glances with the President. “Is she all right?”
“Weston, would you ask someone in the hall how CJ is?” Butterfield said to another agent in the room.
“She's fine, sir,” reported the other agent after checking via radio. “She's asking after the President and Mr. McGarry.”
“I need to talk to her, anyway,” said Butterfield. “Mr. President, let me take you and Mr. McGarry out the other exit. Weston, make sure there's a table ready in the infirmary for when we move the body.”
Butterfield and two other agents (not including Weston, who stayed) escorted the President and Leo out the other door. Charlie joined them, wide-eyed and clearly relieved to see them. They came around the corner in the hall to find CJ standing there, looking pale, with Toby behind her and several more Secret Service agents.
“Mr. President, thank God you're okay,” said CJ, in a shaky voice.
“From what I hear, we have you to thank, too,” said the President. “What happened?”
“Well, sir, I-” she started to say, then stopped and swallowed.
“CJ, if you don't mind, I need to take your statement, and I don't want to make you tell it twice,” Butterfield interrupted smoothly. “Let's go somewhere more private. Toby, Charlie, I might need to hear what you have to say, as well. If you could come with us?”
“Yeah,” said Toby, who Leo saw also looked pale. Charlie simply nodded.
Butterfield directed them into the dining room. “If everyone would have a seat, we can start. I know we're all in shock, but it should help to know that I just heard my last man check in, and no one is reporting any other casualties.”
“That's good news, Ron, except now we know for sure that at least one person who has been here the whole time with us just tried to kill me,” the President was saying to Agent Butterfield. “So you'll understand if it's not as reassuring as it would be under other circumstances.”
CJ was still trying to slow her racing heart rate. She was listening, but also trying not to focus on the utter astonishment, anger, and – yes, that was fear that she was feeling from Toby, who had seen the whole thing. Of course, he had perfect right to be angry and afraid. It didn't have to be directed at her. Charlie's fear was very noticeable, as well, although there was a lot else going on and she knew he had come on the scene after she'd yelled, anyway, so he probably didn't know much.
“CJ, do you want some water?” Leo was asking.
She tried to break herself out of the daze. “Um, yes. Please.” Her hands shook as she took the bottle from him, though she tried to still them. She took a drink and managed not to choke, at least.
“Ron, before CJ gets started, I'd like to say something. I'm guessing that as part of her story, she's going to tell you something she hasn't told a lot of people. I know I can trust you to keep it as quiet as possible,” said the President.
She met his eyes gratefully, then looked at Butterfield.
“Of course, Mr. President,” he said. “CJ, are you ready?”
No, she thought. She still hardly believed any of that had just happened. It was all completely impossible. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I guess so. Okay. Uh, Toby and I were working on the President's address in our office. I happened to look up through the window and see Ed Jacobs, from the counsel's office. He looked focused. He didn't see me, but that wasn't all that weird.” She paused to take another drink, noting that the shaking seemed to be dying down.
“I tried to go back to work, but then...” she glanced at the President again. “Okay, Ron, I'm a telepath, and the President was right that I'd rather keep that fact quiet if possible. So I tried to go back to work, but then it was like I could hear him, I could hear him saying all these things-” CJ stopped and swallowed. Her stomach clenched at the memory, and she almost regretted both her lunch and the water she had just drank.
“It's all right, CJ. It's over now, but I need to know what you heard,” said Butterfield, gently and firmly.
She nodded and took another deep breath. “Okay. I don't know how he could think those things, but he was saying that the President was going to put all the shifters and vampires in camps, and he was really angry, but he wasn't talking about killing the President. But he wanted to get close enough to... to turn him.” She swallowed again, staring at the table in front of her. “It only took me a few seconds to hear all that. I didn't even – I wasn't even trying, but it was like he was... broadcasting it. So I went after him, because I realized nobody was hearing it, so nobody knew. And I saw that he was going toward the President's office, and no one would have any reason to suspect he didn't have a good reason to be there. But he was so sure that he was going to do this.
“So I yelled. I don't remember what I said. He turned toward me, got really angry, and turned back toward the office. I think I yelled again, and then he... changed. And someone shot him,” she finished, still looking down. She wasn't listening for anyone's reactions. She didn't want to hear them. She was tired of this whole thing.
“Thank you, CJ,” said Ron, after a short pause. “I realize it may not feel great right now, but you helped stop an attack on the President. You have nothing to feel guilty about.”
“You should listen to the man, CJ,” the President said, and she had to look up. “He knows what he's talking about. That was very brave of you.”
She smiled just a little, though she was having difficulty speaking just yet. It felt like she had run out of words.
“It was also probably not the smartest thing you've ever done, confronting a violent shifter by yourself.” He shook his head. “But I'm sure you were counting on the Secret Service the whole time, right?”
She smiled again and cleared her throat. “Uh, yes, sir.” She actually hadn't even remembered they were there until Jacobs had turned when she yelled, but she guessed that was sort of the point of the Secret Service.
“You did good, CJ,” said Leo warmly.
“I don't suppose you'd consider joining the Service yourself? We always need quick thinkers like you, with good instincts,” said Ron, with a rare smile of his own.
She shook her head. “I think I'll leave that to you, but thanks.” She could tell that his compliments were sincere, and his only thoughts about her revelation seemed to center around how best to report it when he wrote up this event.
“I thought you'd say that,” he said. “All right. Toby, do you have anything to add, or other thoughts?”
“Well, CJ already said most of it,” he said. “I obviously didn't, um, hear what she heard. But I saw her get up when Jacobs walked by, and she looked shocked. I asked her what was wrong, and she just said 'Jacobs' and kept going. And then... she shouted at him to stop, and I thought he was going to attack her, but he turned toward the door of the President's office, and then he was some kind of big cat. And then he was shot.” He brought his hand down from where he had been leaning on it, and clasped both hands in front of him. “That's about it, I guess.”
CJ was relieved to notice that she hadn't sensed any particular fear when Toby mentioned what she heard, although he was obviously uncomfortable. There was nothing she could do about that, though. As Ron answered him, she realized that Toby felt guilty about something else, but she couldn't work out what it was without looking deeper than she felt comfortable doing. She wondered if she'd have to flat-out ask him later, and hoped not.
Charlie didn't have anything to add when Agent Butterfield asked, except to corroborate that he also saw Jacobs turn in a way that looked threatening toward CJ before he changed.
“Okay,” said Ron, finishing writing in his notebook. “That's a good start for my report. Mr. President, I'm going to contact the joint LEO task force to report the incident. I don't know exactly how the Service will be changing our procedures after this, but we'll review that and let you know our recommendations for you and your staff.” At the President's nod, he went on. “For now, I'm considering ordering a blood test for everyone currently here, to make sure we don't get surprised again.”
“A blood test? Ron, you can't find violent tendencies in a blood test,” said the President.
“That's true, Mr. President, but we do have a test for the shifter virus,” said the agent.
“Mr. President, I'm uncomfortable with the message that blood tests might send to our people here,” said Leo.
The President frowned. “Yes, I agree. Obviously, though, I don't want to be surprised again, either. There has to be another way. We're not going that route – oh, and while we're at it, I'd like to know how Jacobs got that idea about me in the first place.”
“I don't know, sir,” said CJ, although she wasn't sure whether he had asked her specifically. “It seemed like he read it somewhere. It must have been somewhere that he couldn't dismiss it.”
“Not necessarily,” said Butterfield. “It sounds like this guy was ready to snap, and just needed a trigger of almost any kind. Probably the pressure of hiding that he was a shifter made it all worse. Either way, we'll do our best to look into that, as well, Mr. President. And I do have another suggestion for how to proceed without blood tests. You might not like this one, either, and it would depend on if CJ would be willing to play a role.”
“CJ? What do you mean, Ron?” asked the President.
But CJ knew exactly what he was intending. “Ron, I'm not – I'm not a polygraph. I'm just the press secretary, for God's sake.” She wished everyone weren't staring at her, and her longing that this had never happened to her in the first place intensified.
“You can't be serious!” said Toby. “Mr. President, forgive me, but this is insane. Hasn't CJ already done enough to help, without anyone forcing her into a position where she has to be a part of some kind of inquisition?”
CJ suddenly saw why he had been feeling guilty – he thought he'd frozen and just stood there uselessly in the hall while she went and put herself in danger. She shook her head, but Ron was speaking already.
“No one's forcing anyone to do anything,” he said.
“Good, because I thought that was a joke, earlier, about her joining the Service, and I'd like to keep her on my staff,” said the President. “So what exactly is this idea?”
“Yes, Mr. President. CJ, you've already shown that you can identify threats to the President's safety,” said Butterfield. “There are a limited number of people in this location. I'm sure no one would be surprised if the Secret Service announced we needed to do interviews with everyone here after an event like the one that just happened. We can call it a matter of routine, ask questions about whether anyone has heard any rumors, whatever. And meanwhile, you could, if you're willing, be present during these interviews just to make sure no one else is going to turn out like Jacobs.”
“Ron, it's not that I don't want to help, but isn't that going to look pretty weird if I'm sitting there while the Secret Service does interviews with everyone?” she asked. Toby's words about being seen as some kind of inquisition did not sound like something she wanted. It sounded much, much worse than interviewing staffers to plug a leak, which was always bad enough.
“You're right, and I've thought of that. How's your range, for your telepathy?” he asked. “You said you heard Jacobs from inside your office, with the door closed and him out in the hall.”
“Oh. Yeah, I guess so, but like I said, I think that was because of, um, how intense his emotions were. It felt like he was shouting,” she explained. “Are you thinking I could be in the next room from you, or something?”
“Would that work? No one would need to know you were involved in any way,” said Ron.
“CJ, you don't have to do this if you don't want to,” the President said, when she hesitated. “Toby's right. What you did today was more than enough, and that's not even getting into the civil rights gray area that we're moving toward even by discussing this.”
“We have to do the interviews either way,” said Ron. “Your assistance would make them more effective, but I'd understand if you chose not to.”
“Do you need some time to think it over?” asked Leo. He turned to Ron. “Maybe we should talk this over from a policy perspective first, anyway. We can take some time before you start, can't we?”
Butterfield agreed. “I would like to get started within the hour, though.”
CJ remembered the terror she had felt when she realized that this man she'd spoken to a few times, who had seemed perfectly sane, was planning to attack the President, and that no one else knew. She didn't want to infringe on people's privacy, but any misgivings she had didn't seem as important. She shook her head. “No, I'm willing to do it. I'd like to be able to do my regular duties, also, but I'll help with the interviews unless we need to discuss it first. I think I could do it from the next room, no problem.”
The President gave her a lingering look. “All right. If you're okay with it, CJ, I can make the decision that we'll have the discussion later. So. Toby, how does the latest address look?”
Toby blinked. “I'd like to look over it a few more times, sir, but it's almost done.”
“And how's my office, Ron?” the President said.
Ron checked over the radio. “The scene of the incident is clear and secure, Mr. President.”
The President stood, as did everyone else. “Well, Leo, going over these recommendations is obviously even more important now. Let's get some work in before dinner.”
“Yes, Mr. President,” said Leo.
“Oh, and CJ,” said the President, turning from the door.
“Yes, sir?” she asked.
“Thank you,” he said. “I won't forget this.”
She wondered how much she was blushing, and cleared her throat. “Mr. President, you're welcome.”
“Charlie, I've got something I'd like you to check into for me,” he said, and the three of them left.
Ron waited until they were gone, then asked, “Toby, do you need CJ to finish up that speech?”
“I'll be fine. Go ahead, CJ,” he said.
“Okay,” she said. “Hey, Toby.”
“Don't beat yourself up. Having you out there with me in the hall was important. It would have been worse if I was alone,” she said. At his surprised look, she added, “I know, I'm sorry. I couldn't help it.”
He took that in. “Okay. See you at dinner.” He left.
She smiled, then turned to Ron. “Where do we start?”
Chapter 5: Chapter 5
The first thing that brought Josh out of his daze was the sound of someone near him being sick. Still feeling like he was looking at everything through the wrong end of a telescope, Josh turned toward the sound. He saw Sam on his hands and knees next to the wall, still throwing up, while Laurie crouched next to him and said something too quiet for Josh to hear. He noticed vaguely that Sam was only partially covered in a blanket and wasn't wearing a shirt. That made sense, he supposed, since the shirt Sam had been wearing was behind the desk where the two of them had been hiding, in shreds.
Josh's gaze traveled inexorably back to the body of the vampire he'd shot just minutes ago. It was fairly dark in here, but there was enough light from flashlights brought by the shifters that he could see the entry wound in the back of the vampire's neck. The entry wound that had been created by the bullet Josh had fired. It was still hard for his mind to accept that information. He was pretty sure if he thought about it for too long, he would be joining Sam in throwing up everything he'd eaten in recent memory.
He flinched when Laurie appeared next to him. Her expression was apologetic, but she just said, “Sam said something about some first aid supplies you guys brought with you. Do you know where they are?”
This was an important request, Josh realized. This probably meant that Sam was hurt. He nodded and cleared his throat. “Um. Yeah. Let me just go get it.”
To his relief, Josh was able to stand up without feeling too much like he was just going to fall down again. He tried not to flinch again when the gun fell out of his lap as he stood. It wasn't hard to locate the bandages and gauze in the bag, and then he successfully made it over to where Sam was leaning against the wall without looking at the dead vampire again.
Sam was, in fact, injured. In the light of a flashlight that Laurie had brought over, Josh could see that Sam was holding his hand to a deep cut in his side, and that there was blood leaking through his fingers. Josh couldn't help the brief flash of memory that came over him at the similarities – but he fought it off quickly and bent down next to his friend with the first aid supplies. “Here you go.”
Sam opened his eyes. “Don't-- don't get too close, Josh,” he warned, grimacing as Laurie started to peel his hand away from the cut. “It's transmitted by blood.”
“I'll be careful,” Josh said. He stayed where he was. Then he turned to Laurie. “Is he going to be all right?”
“Well, I'm not a doctor,” Laurie said, glancing up at Josh for a moment, “but I think he'll be okay. I don't think his lung was punctured or anything, so that's good.”
“Yeah, that's definitely good.” Josh met Sam's eyes and gave him a wry smile. “I'm speaking from experience here.”
Sam gave him an answering smile, and then winced again when Laurie had him lean forward so she could wrap the gauze around him. “Ow.”
“That should do the trick for now,” Laurie said. “I'll go get you something so you can clean up a little, and some clothes, too.”
“Thanks, Laurie,” Sam said, leaning back against the wall with a sigh. There was a smear of blood by his mouth, as well – another thing that Josh didn't want to think about too much. When he looked away from that, Josh then couldn't help noticing the livid scar on Sam's left shoulder. It had to have been from a fairly recent injury, and based on the shape … Oh. Josh had to fight down another surge of nausea, this time on his friend's behalf. It had to be the mark left from when Sam was attacked and turned.
Josh sat down against the wall. The chaos of the room was clearing out, to be replaced by organized activity. Some of the shifters had dragged the dead vampire out of the middle of the room, for which Josh was selfishly grateful, since that meant the body was harder for him to see. A few others were having minor injuries bandaged up. Laurie returned from outside (she climbed back in through the shattered window with a grace that might have been distracting in other circumstances) holding a pile of clothes for Sam.
“That's my cue,” Josh said under his breath. As he got to his feet and took a few steps away, he saw Phil standing outside, illuminated by the beam of a flashlight. He clenched his fists. There was really nothing preventing the shifter leader from taking Josh back into 'protective custody' whenever he wanted. Phil was probably pissed at Sam for leaving, too. All in all, Josh wasn't looking forward to their next conversation with the guy.
He took the opportunity, while he was waiting, to go find his own bag of supplies and dig out a water bottle. After all the exertion of the past … however long it actually had been, he drank almost all of it in one go. After another thought, he got out another one for Sam, who probably needed it even more.
He started to turn around toward Sam and Laurie, but he stopped himself and asked, “Hey, Sam, are you decent yet?”
“Ow. Yes,” came Sam's reply.
Josh turned the rest of the way to face them. Sam was just wiping his hands on the towel that Laurie had brought. “You need some water?” Josh offered.
“Yeah, thanks.” Sam took the bottle and finished it off in less than ten seconds.
Before either of the two men or Laurie could say anything further, Phil spoke up, loudly and suddenly enough that Josh and his companions jumped. “Okay, let's get this front door opened. No reason we need to keep climbing in and out through the windows. And Sam?”
Sam took a few steps closer so that the shifter leader could see him. “Yeah, Phil?”
“There you are. You okay?” Phil sounded genuinely concerned.
“I'm fine.” He did look better than he had just a few minutes ago, Josh thought.
“Good. We're going to need to have a talk once this door is open.”
Sam just nodded. As some other shifters went to work cutting open the padlock with what looked to be a bolt-cutter, Laurie came over to Sam again. “You know he does have good reason to be angry,” she said, in a voice that suggested she might be a little miffed as well.
Sam looked at Josh and then back at her. “We had good reasons to leave, too,” was all he said in reply.
Josh decided to remain silent for the time being. A part of him wondered whether he shouldn't go get his revolver again, just in case – but the larger part of him knew he would rather delay the moment when he had to touch the thing again for as long as possible.
It didn't take long at all for the locks to be opened. When Phil came inside, he almost casually dismissed the rest of the members of his group, including Laurie, and told them to wait outside. Josh had to admit he was impressed at how quickly they obeyed, and without protest; Phil did seem to have real leadership ability, although of course he wasn't sure if that was a good thing in this situation or not. Laurie did stop and say something in an undertone to Phil before she left, and Phil nodded, keeping his gaze on Sam.
“So,” Phil said after a brief pause, “you left, Sam.”
“I did,” Sam said without hesitation.
“And you took Josh with you.”
Phil folded his arms. “Would you care to tell me why?”
“Because I thought it was time for us to leave,” Sam replied.
“Uh huh.” Phil was far from satisfied, obviously. “And what made you think that?”
“Phil,” Sam said, meeting the man's gaze directly, “I'm grateful to you for what you did for me when you found me, and you certainly saved my life and Josh's life tonight. But Josh and I both work for the President, and it's time for us to get back to him.”
Josh had to smile at that. “Couldn't have said it better myself,” he put in.
Phil nodded, glancing at Josh for just a second. “Okay. But are you sure he'll want both of you back? You're a shifter, Sam.”
“That's true,” Sam conceded. “But President Bartlet isn't a bigot, and he won't let anyone else's prejudices get in the way of his own beliefs, either.”
Despite how sure Sam sounded, Josh couldn't help wondering if this was entirely true. He didn't think for an instant that President Bartlet would assume the worst of Sam, but it was true that there were probably a lot of other people who would object strongly to having a shifter in the White House (or more accurately, wherever the President was right now). Some of these people were no doubt in positions of great influence who couldn't just be ignored.
Phil didn't speak right away. Then he shrugged. “Well, you know him a hell of a lot better than I do, of course. But he does come across as a fair-minded person, for a politician.” He rubbed a hand across his chin and added, “It's not like I think this country is going to continue in this condition for too long before the government gets its act together and figures out a solution, either. Which is to say, once the dust clears, it would be good to have an ally at the President's side.”
“Well, I would hope it doesn't come to allies and enemies,” Sam said. “But I can advise the President on matters relating to shifters. Whether or not he listens is entirely up to him, since I don't actually make policy.”
“Fair enough,” Phil acknowledged. Looking around at the office, he asked, “What were you planning for your next move, before you were … distracted?”
“We were going to keep heading further into town and try to find a phone that worked,” Josh spoke up, stretching his arms behind his head to try to work out the stiffness, “so we could contact the Secret Service, or maybe the FBI or NSA if they're the ones monitoring all the phone lines.”
Raising his eyebrows, Phil said, “And then what, just stand around until they come for you?”
“Pretty much, yeah,” Josh answered. He didn't think it was too vain to think that people might be searching for them already.
“Wow. I guess it's not too far-fetched,” Phil said. Then he turned back to Sam. “All right. You have my-- well, not permission, since you clearly don't need it, but my blessing, I guess. Just try not to be out in the open tomorrow evening, if you're still traveling by then. I wasn't planning on having us follow you guys around as your own personal bodyguards, but I also don't want to find out that you got yourselves killed or captured.”
“We'll do our best,” Sam said. He gestured around the room, and then put a hand to his injured side. “This isn't really an experience I want to repeat.”
“Amen to that,” Josh muttered. He was ready to do just about anything if it meant they could be somewhere not at the mercy of vampires or whatever else by tomorrow evening.
“All right.” Phil took a breath. “Here's what I propose: you stay with us for the rest of the night, and we find a decent place for everyone who was injured to rest and recover. We've already done a good night's work as far as I'm concerned.” He pointed to the dead vampire. “Then we say our goodbyes, and you two try to get in touch with the Secret Service – with the understanding that Sam will speak for us to the President, if and when the opportunity presents itself.”
Sam looked at Josh. “Sounds reasonable to me.”
Once again trying not to think about that vampire, Josh nodded slowly. “Sure.” He still wasn't one hundred percent sure that Phil didn't have something up his sleeve, but there wasn't a whole lot he could do about it, if that turned out to be the case.
“Good.” As he was about to turn away, Phil stopped and said, “By the way, Josh, I hear I should congratulate you on your first vampire kill. Well done.”
Josh felt an immediate – and, he recognized, mostly irrational – surge of anger, which he tried to stifle. “Thanks, Phil,” he replied, ignoring Sam's look. “It's a real milestone.”
“Yep. Anyway, we should get going.”
“We'll just grab our stuff and follow you,” Sam said as Phil stepped out the door.
“I still don't like that guy much,” Josh commented, as soon as Phil was outside.
Sam sighed. “He was serious, you know. He wasn't trying to mess with you.”
Josh laughed shortly. “Yeah, well, it doesn't take much these days.” He reached down to pick up his stuff, saw the gun on the floor on the other side of the desk, and froze. From there, it was only too easy to remember how it had felt when he had pulled the trigger, and the way the vampire had seemed to fall in slow motion.
He shook himself out of it and looked up to see Sam's concerned expression. “And as if to illustrate that very point...” he said with a grimace.
“I'll take the gun for now, if you want,” Sam said after a beat.
It felt like giving in, but Josh nodded anyway.
At least this time, Josh reflected, it didn't seem to take as long for the shifters to get to where they wanted to go. It was still some distance from the main street they'd been on before, but he almost smiled when he saw their destination: a motel.
“Hey, real beds!” Josh said to Sam as they approached.
Sam agreed. “Should make a nice change.”
After Phil and a few of the others made a quick sweep through the motel to make sure none of the rooms were occupied by unwanted guests, the group filed in. To their surprise, the lights worked when tried – at least for a few minutes, before the building was plunged into darkness again. By that time, however, Josh had at least made his way to a room. It was a double, so Josh used the small flashlight from his bag to navigate to the bed at the far side of the room, onto which he threw himself. The sheets were a little bit musty, but the very fact of the mattress' existence was heavenly. He spared a few seconds to pull off his shoes and shove the bag off his bed before stretching out and closing his eyes.
“Hey, do you mind if I take--”
“Go ahead,” Josh mumbled to Sam. The last thing he heard before sleep overtook him was Sam sitting down on the other bed.
It seemed like only minutes later that Josh awoke suddenly from a nightmare so severe that he couldn't calm himself down at first. He sat up and tried to take slow, deep breaths without waking Sam with his gasping, even as he did his best to remember the techniques his therapist had been teaching him to deal with these situations. The dream had been a mixture of memories from the shooting, his capture and imprisonment, and the vampire attack, with some other equally terrifying images his subconscious had invented just to add to the joy.
Josh's instinctual reaction was to try to forget it all as soon as possible. Instead, he made himself think through what hadn't already faded, without skirting past the worst parts. Then he reminded himself that he was no longer in any of those circumstances: he was completely physically recovered from his gunshot wound, he was no longer in captivity, and there were no vampires anywhere near enough to be worried about. In fact, he was fairly safe right now, in a comfortable room, and on the way back to civilization. Sam was (he hoped) asleep on the other bed. Things were actually pretty okay.
It seemed to do the trick, Josh found. At least he was able to stop feeling terrified. Of course he was now totally awake, and previous experience strongly suggested he would not be able to go back to sleep for hours, if at all.
Sighing, Josh rubbed his eyes and let himself fall back down onto the bed. It was a cool enough night that he could have benefited from getting under the covers, but he didn't want to risk making too much noise, since--
Josh turned, although it was too dark to see anything in the room. “Not anymore, no. Did I wake you up? Sorry.”
“Don't worry about it. I wasn't really asleep, either,” Sam replied. There was a pause. “This might be a stupid question under the circumstances, but are you all right?”
“Well, I'd rather be asleep, but other than that...” Josh trailed off. “I'm all right for the moment.”
Sam said, “Good,” and then was quiet for long enough that Josh wondered if he'd fallen asleep. Then he spoke again. “Josh, do you think I was right when I told Phil that the President won't have a problem with me coming back to work?”
Josh pondered the question. He knew Sam would be able to tell if he tried to sugarcoat it, so he didn't bother. “I think you're absolutely right that the President won't have a problem with it, once he knows what happened to you. But I also think you might have some trouble with other people who'll tell the President it's too much of a risk to have you in the White House.”
Sam sighed. “Yeah. That's kind of what I figured, too.”
“On the other hand,” Josh mused aloud, “what Phil said about you being a representative could go both ways. I'm sure everyone but the most paranoid and prejudiced alarmists could see the benefits of having you onboard. It does seem like the shifters that aren't crazy might be much more willing to listen to anything the President has to say if they know you're on his staff – which would hopefully mean that most of the shifter population wouldn't feel like they need to strike against the government.”
“I guess so,” Sam said, sounding doubtful. “You know, I wasn't looking to become the de facto representative of a new minority group. I just want to be allowed to do my job.”
“Yeah, well, stuff like that tends to happen when you work for the President of the United States,” Josh pointed out. He found himself smiling. “You'll do fine, Sam. Maybe they'll even create a new advisory position for you to fill.”
“But I like my job now,” Sam protested.
“Aw, come on, don't tell me you couldn't do both,” Josh said.
Sam snorted. “Whatever. This is all just speculation, anyway.”
“It is,” Josh acknowledged.
There was a brief period of silence, and then Sam said, “Thanks, though. I appreciate it.”
Josh yawned, suddenly feeling his eyelids grow heavy. “Yeah, you're welcome, Sam.” He rolled over, and within seconds he was asleep.
Author's Note: The therapy techniques that Josh tries to implement for himself to work through his PTSD are a mixture of exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, both of which are common methods of therapy for people dealing with the effects of traumatic memories (according to Wikipedia). I attempted to be as accurate as possible under the circumstances. Any inaccuracies are my fault.
Chapter 6: Chapter 6
When the sun coming through the thin curtains woke Sam the next morning, he was surprised by two things: first, that he had been asleep at all, and second, that Josh was apparently not asleep anymore. In fact, he wasn't in the room – which brought Sam out of his drowsy state very quickly. Had something--
The door to the bathroom opened before he could complete that panicked thought, and Josh came out, dressed in the change of clothes he'd brought and drying his hair with a towel. “Hey, good morning.”
“Morning,” Sam said. He yawned and got to his feet. “How long have you been up?”
“Just about twenty minutes,” Josh said. “I was surprised you didn't wake up, but I figured you could use the extra minutes.”
“Thanks,” Sam said. “I don't suppose the hot water is working?” He gestured to the bathroom.
“Not really,” Josh answered. “But it's not ice cold at least.”
Sam showered quickly and got dressed. He was ravenously hungry; he hadn't eaten anything since dinner last night, which he hadn't kept down, so he hoped Phil and the others might have procured some extra food for the group this morning. Otherwise, he was going to have to eat all the rest of the food he'd brought with him, which would leave him nothing for the rest of the day.
Josh was standing at the window when Sam got out, but he turned around. “You hungry? The electricity has been working for a while, and I just heard someone going past our room say something about how they found some bags of pancake mix in the kitchen.”
Sam's stomach rumbled. “Okay, but I'm going to hold you personally responsible if that turns out to be just a rumor,” he told Josh.
Josh chuckled as they headed out into the hall. There was a scent in the air that strongly suggested the pancakes were not, in fact, just a rumor. The two lost no time finding the kitchen, where there was an almost festive atmosphere among the shifters who were making themselves breakfast. Sam was pleased to note that Josh's arrival didn't cause more than a momentary break in the mood.
“Good morning, Sam. Good morning, Josh,” Laurie said, walking past them toward the seating area with a plate of pancakes in one hand and a little pitcher of syrup in the other. “You guys hungry?”
In answer, Sam reached out and stole the topmost pancake, ignoring the fact that it was still hot enough to burn his fingers. “Hey!” Laurie protested. “These are for me.” She elbowed him in the uninjured side, then rolled her eyes as he ate the pancake in two bites. “We're each making our own, so you'll have to wait your turn.”
“Oh, come on,” Sam said plaintively, “how many people are ahead of us already?”
“Pretty much everyone else,” Laurie answered, grinning at his look of dismay.
Josh followed him hastily back to the kitchen. “No sympathy from the ex, huh?” he commented, sounding amused. “That's rough, man.”
Sam shook his head and sighed. “Well, as long as the power stays on and we don't run out before we get a chance to eat, I'll try to forgive her.”
“Sounds fair,” Josh said.
They got in line behind a couple who Sam didn't know all that well, but who nodded at him pleasantly enough. Thankfully, things were moving along at a sharp pace; Sam guessed everyone else was at least close to as hungry as he was, which had to help keep it efficient. Still, by the time they were at the front of the line, Sam was wondering if Josh would mind too much if he used all of the rest of the batter.
Just as Sam was about to pour the first cup of batter on the griddle, the lights flickered. Sam and Josh looked at each other.
“Now that's just not fair,” Josh said. He looked up at the lights with a pleading expression. “Come on, just a little bit longer...”
The lights flickered again – and then went out. Sam dropped the cup back into the batter with an exclamation of disgust. “This can't be happening.”
Phil came into the kitchen, holding his empty plate and looking highly entertained. “Really? After everything that's happened to you both, this is your last straw?”
Sam was about to reply when the lights came back on. He sighed in relief. “We'll never have to find out, I guess.”
After a satisfying breakfast of as many pancakes as Sam and Josh could eat, they went back to the room to pack up. Sam knew Phil wanted to talk to them one more time before they parted ways, and Sam wanted to say a few words to Laurie, too. Josh was mostly quiet while they were getting ready to leave, although he did take the revolver back from Sam without much hesitation.
Once again, most of the rest of the group was elsewhere when Sam and Josh went to talk with Phil. He was in the front lobby area, listening to a small portable radio that was on the coffee table. It didn't take more than a second for Sam to recognize the voice of President Bartlet, and judging by the way Josh immediately stopped moving, it didn't take him long, either.
“Do you want to keep listening?” Phil asked, seeing them. “It's a replay of the address he gave last night, but I think it's almost over.”
“I'd like to hear it,” Josh said quietly. He sat down across from Phil, and Sam sat down next to Josh.
The President did seem to be wrapping up. “And so, as we reach the close of another day, I renew my pledge to you that our nation will survive this – and not only survive, but rise out of the dust and disorder of the past weeks stronger than ever before. This is not just a distant dream; it is well within our grasp to make it our reality. But in order to reach this goal, I must also ask each of you to put aside the fears that can so easily rule us during these times, and instead work to foster a spirit of cooperation. It is only when all Americans decide to set aside our differences in favor of working together to rebuild that we will be able to move past our present troubles, to the greater triumphs that await us all.” He paused for a moment. “I would like to close with these final words: We have all been affected personally by the upheaval and changes of these days, and we have all lost friends and family who are dear to us. Some are still missing, and their fates are unknown. Let us honor the lives and the memory of those who are gone by our actions in these next days – and let us not give up hope that we will be reunited with those who are missing. Thank you. Good night, and may God bless America.”
As the radio announcer informed listeners that President Bartlet would be back next week with another address, Phil turned off the radio. The three of them sat in silence for a minute. Sam couldn't help analyzing the address even as he found himself encouraged by it; he could hear Toby in certain elements of its composition, and he wondered who else had worked on it. CJ, maybe.
Josh broke the silence first. “Was there any news at the beginning of the address?” he asked, leaning forward to rest his chin on his hands.
“Yeah,” Phil confirmed. “There was an explosion at Harvard yesterday that was targeted at scientists who were working on cures for shifters and vampires.”
“A cure?” Sam blinked. The idea hadn't ever seriously occurred to him, though of course he'd wished for some way that he could go back to being normal. He bit his lip. “How many people died in the explosion?”
“Unknown.” Phil sighed and leaned back in his armchair. “Sam, I know you would rather not be a shifter if you had a choice, and I know a lot of the rest of our group feels that way, too. But not all shifters feel that way. So when you get to the President, if he doesn't already know it--”
“He wouldn't force anyone to have any kind of medical procedure done against their will,” Sam stated. Even as he said it, though, he wondered just how many vampires would willingly go back to being normal, and whether the President would have to find a way to make the cure compulsory in some cases. The idea was disturbing.
Phil looked like he might have some idea of what was going through Sam's head. Still, he nodded. “All right. Just make sure he knows there are a variety of opinions on the cure among us.”
“I will,” Sam promised.
“I have one more thing to tell you before you leave,” Phil said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a folded piece of paper. “There's a roadblock set up on the way into town at that location. National Guard soldiers and police are there. Word is they're there to direct people to the safest areas of the city, or the safest ways out if they're trying to leave. They're also set up to help as many people as they can with medical emergencies and whatever else.”
“That should work,” Josh said. “How far away is it?”
Phil thought for a moment. “Not too far. If you keep a steady pace, you should get there not long after noon, I'd estimate.”
Sam took the paper and stood up. “Thanks, Phil. It's good to have an exact destination in mind.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Josh added. He sounded sincere.
“You're welcome,” Phil said, and shook each of their hands. “Like I said yesterday, just be sure you avoid any further run-ins with vampires or anti-supernaturals, and...” He met Sam's gaze. “And do what you can to improve this situation for all of us.”
Laurie was waiting near the front entrance. Sam glanced at Josh.
“I'll give you two a minute,” Josh offered.
Sam thanked him and then went to her. “Hi.”
“Hi.” She tried to smile, but it didn't quite succeed. “You're going to try to get back to the President.”
“Yes, I am,” he said. “I want-- I need to do my job. I'm sorry I left without telling you last time, but I'm telling you now.”
Laurie nodded. “Sam, I know President Bartlet is a good man, but are you sure he's going to let you come back to work for him? Sometimes when they're scared, people … do things they wouldn't normally do. They hurt people who used to be their friends.”
“I know.” Sam took her hand. “But I think it's worth the small risk in this instance. I don't think the President will let me down.” He smiled. “Besides, I have Josh to tell everyone how I rescued him and was heroic. That has to count for something.”
This time, Laurie really did smile. “I'm sure it will.” Then she leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “Goodbye, Sam. I hope I'll see you again sometime.”
“Me, too,” Sam said. He pulled her in for a hug. No need to worry about paparazzi now. “Bye, Laurie.”
Josh came up as they separated. “Thanks for looking after Sam, Laurie,” he said. “Take care of yourself.”
“Thanks, Josh,” Laurie said, then surprised him by giving him a hug as well. “You stay safe, too.”
The sky was moving toward overcast by the time they left the motel. There was a chilly breeze, but at least it was dry for the time being. Sam took another look at the location given for the roadblock, looked back to wave to Laurie, and then they set out.
Phil's estimate turned out to be pretty accurate. Just as the sun was reaching its highest point, as Sam and Josh were eating their lunches on the go, they started to see increased signs of civilization. There were a few cars on the road – most of them going in the opposite direction, but not all of them – and a few other pedestrians. These regarded Sam and Josh with suspicion and/or interest, but no one seemed to want to start a conversation with them.
“Is it just me,” Josh said in a low voice as he finished his bag of chips, “or does it feel kind of tense around here?”
Sam tossed his own empty bag into an over-full garbage can. “It's not just you,” he said to Josh quietly. “I had thought being near a National Guard outpost would be a good thing for this part of the city, but now I'm not so sure.”
Josh nodded. “Yeah. I hope...” He didn't finish the sentence, but Sam had a good idea of what he was going to say: I hope we didn't make the wrong choice, coming this way. I hope everything works out.
They continued on down the sidewalk. As they crested a small hill, the roadblock became visible on the other side, just about a hundred yards away. At the sight of all the uniformed personnel, Sam had to fight back a surge of anxiety. It was going to be fine. There was nothing to worry about.
“Well,” said Josh, standing next to him and looking a little nervous himself as he surveyed the scene, “here goes nothing.”
In what seemed like a matter of seconds, the two men were approaching the policeman who was standing at the barricade across the sidewalk and the street. “Hi, there,” the policeman said. “Where are you folks headed today?”
“Uh, we're actually hoping we might talk to someone in charge,” Josh said. “I'm Josh Lyman, and this is Sam Seaborn. We're senior staff to the President.”
The man's eyes widened slightly. “Do you have some ID I could check?”
“Unfortunately not,” Josh said, sounding both apologetic and irritated. “I was kidnapped, and Sam was-- attacked. But our fingerprints are probably on record, if you wanted to check that way.”
“I'll have someone take you to where they can check,” the officer said. He took out a walkie-talkie and passed along the information Josh had shared. “A soldier will be here momentarily to escort you,” he reported after the conversation was done.
“Thank you,” Sam said. He was trying not to fidget, just in case it gave the impression that he was on edge in some way. He was actually on edge, but it would be a really bad idea to give that impression, he hazarded.
“Do you need any medical attention or anything, Mr. Seaborn?” the officer asked after a second. “You mentioned an attack, Mr. Lyman...”
“No, I'm okay now,” Sam said quickly. Too quickly. He stopped himself from cringing at the gaffe. He was probably just being paranoid.
“And I'm fine, too,” Josh added. “We've been trying for a few days to get back to the President, so we're hoping we came to the right place for that to happen soon.”
“The National Guard has been told to be on the lookout for you,” the man said. He smiled briefly. “So we should be able to make it work.”
“That's good to hear,” said Josh.
Just then, a man in soldier garb approached the barricade. “Sirs, I'm Private Wilson. If you'll come with me, we can get your IDs verified ASAP at our mobile command center.”
Josh exchanged a glance with Sam, and then they nodded to the police officer and followed Private Wilson past the barricade.
“It's not far from here,” Wilson told them. “We have the fingerprints of all the missing members of the President's staff all ready to compare with yours. Just as a security precaution, of course.”
“We understand,” Sam said. He was starting to sweat. This was ridiculous. Surely they would confirm his and Josh's identities, and then transport them to wherever the President was, and then the Secret Service could debrief them. There would be some tension over the fact that he was a shifter, but nothing over the top. It would be fine. This administration had weathered bigger scandals.
The fingerprinting process went without a hitch, as a matter of fact. The technician who printed them was a pleasant older woman who introduced herself as Margaret, which made Sam wonder briefly if Leo's Margaret was okay. It only took a few minutes for their identities to be confirmed.
“Great,” Josh said, after Margaret and Private Wilson reported the confirmation. “What's the next step? Can you guys take us to the President now?”
Wilson hesitated. “There is one more thing we'd like to ask you both to do, as a security precaution.”
“What's that?” Josh asked, even as Sam felt his heart sink.
“We'd like you both to take a quick blood test. Just a few drops of blood – that's it.”
Josh frowned. “For what?”
“Just as a precaution,” the private repeated.
“A precaution for what?” Josh insisted. He got no answer.
“And what happens if we say we'd rather not do it?” Sam asked after a rather tense silence, attempting with some success to keep his voice calm.
“Then we may have some trouble, sir,” said Wilson.
Before either of them could argue anymore, five other soldiers arrived on the scene and took up positions around the inside perimeter of the large trailer that was serving as the command center. Sam looked at Josh. It was obvious what they were checking for with this test, but it was also obvious that it wasn't really voluntary. Josh was plainly outraged and worried, but Sam nodded to him. It was going to come out sometime, anyway.
“Fine,” Sam said. “We'll go along with it.” At least there shouldn't be a reason Josh wouldn't be able to get to the President after this circus, no matter what else happened.
Margaret put on some gloves and a face mask and took some blood from each of them – first Josh, then Sam. “This will only take a moment,” she told them both. Somehow that wasn't as reassuring as it had been the last time she had said it.
Sam watched in silence, pressing down the bandaid at the crook of his elbow while Margaret took the sample from Josh and put a few drops of some other solution into it. Then she waited. When nothing happened, she nodded, seeming satisfied. When she did the same thing to Sam's blood, however, a reaction slowly changed it from red to very dark blue. At this, her hands started to tremble, and she nearly dropped the sample. “It's positive,” she said, loudly but shakily.
With almost blinding speed, Sam found himself surrounded by soldiers. Two of them grabbed his arms, pulled him up out of the chair, and forced his arms behind his back while Margaret reached for something in another box next to her.
“Hey! What the hell is going on?” Josh yelled, jumping to his feet and moving toward Sam. “What are you doing to him?! Let him go!”
“Please, I'm not a threat,” Sam tried to tell them, grimacing as his arms were wrenched further behind him. He didn't want to resist – he didn't want to prove them right. “Please!”
Two other guardsmen, including Private Wilson, quickly moved to hold Josh back as Margaret located what she'd been seeking: a syringe.
“Are you people out of your goddamn minds?!” Josh bellowed. His eyes were wide and appalled as he grasped the implications. “This is insane! You can't do this!”
Meanwhile, at the sight of the syringe, Sam's resolve not to resist fled. He started to struggle as hard as he could against the grip of the men holding him, while Josh continued to shout about how this was completely illegal and immoral, and how the President would hear about it, and how Sam wasn't dangerous. But the soldiers didn't give an inch. Sam couldn't break their hold without shifting – and he didn't want to give these bigots the satisfaction of doing what they obviously expected him to do.
“Hold him still,” Margaret ordered, loudly enough to be heard over Josh's continuous protests and threats. She was holding the syringe up to the light to check its contents.
“No,” Sam said raggedly. He made one last attempt to twist free, and was rewarded for his effort when the one remaining unoccupied soldier stepped forward and punched him in the stomach. After that, he was too busy trying to recover his breath to avoid the drug that Margaret injected into his arm.
The effects were almost immediate. A feeling of heaviness and dullness began to spread throughout his body. He couldn't stay standing, and barely felt it when the soldiers had to catch him to keep him from crumpling to the floor. Josh's anguished shout of his name seemed to echo in his mind as everything went dark.
Chapter 7: Chapter 7
An hour later, the Secret Service had completed five interviews – all of them other Secret Service agents, a necessity which had briefly startled CJ, but she agreed that it was probably better to be over cautious. She had told Ron before they started that she had been working in close enough proximity to the rest of the President's staff that she could rule them out. He had come to the same conclusion, and said that it wouldn't look like they were singling anyone out anyway because they had all been interviewed directly after the incident.
It was comforting to know she wouldn't have to do this to her friends. Either way, none of the Service agents had been thinking about anything very suspicious. This included Butterfield, who had been interviewed by another agent. The only thing CJ had noticed so far, station in the office next to Butterfield's, was that Agent Weston had a sister who he thought might have been turned by vampires.
She reported that to Ron after the man had left, and before the next agent came in, although she felt a twinge of guilt. She hadn't allowed herself to fully realize how it would feel to invade people's privacy this way. Instead, she had been so focused on the idea of stopping anyone who was hiding anything dangerous that she hadn't realized that everyone hides things – and that, with some notable exceptions, most of them are better off staying hidden.
When she mentioned her qualms to Ron after telling him about Weston's sister, he nodded. “You're right. This is far from ideal. I'd rather not have to do it, although you should know I won't pass on Weston's secret unless it becomes unavoidable.” She must not have looked convinced, because he added, “CJ, if you've changed your mind about this, I won't force you to keep going. You're free to stop at any time.”
She sighed. “No. I just – I guess I wasn't as prepared as I thought. But it's fine. Let's do it.”
It wasn't really fine, even though the next three interviews also brought up nothing of note. She didn't like knowing even the few private things about Butterfield and the others that she knew now, and couldn't avoid feeling guilty that she had found them out without their permission. Moreover, it took a lot of effort to look just deep enough without accidentally going further or not hearing enough to be sure. By the time they had completed eight, she felt irritable and tired and she almost didn't believe how relieved she felt when Butterfield said they were going to take a break for dinner.
She entered the dining room totally unwilling to even accidentally catch anyone's thoughts. Toby was the only other person who had arrived yet. She tried to make herself seem cheerful as she went to sit by him. “Hi. How's the speech coming?”
“It's done. As done as it's going to get. How was the inquisition?” he asked.
She winced. “Well, nobody's a secret traitor, so far. But to be honest, I hate it. I don't want to violate people's privacy like this, and I don't want to know what I know now.”
“Have you told Ron that?” Toby said.
“Basically. And he was understanding, but he said that's the way it's going to be if I keep doing it. And I have to keep doing it.”
“He said that? CJ, you don't have to-”
“No, he told me I could stop anytime I wanted,” she said quickly. “But I can't.”
“Can't what, CJ?” said the President, coming in.
She stood. “Mr. President. I was just telling Toby that everyone looks good so far.”
“I'm glad, but that's not what it sounded like you were saying,” he said, taking a seat on her other side.
She sat. “No, sir. I mean, it's true that everyone looks good so far. I was saying that this is hard, but I'm keeping going with it.”
Leo and Charlie came in as she was finishing and sat down.
“As long as you're sure,” said the President. “You look tired. I don't want you to exhaust yourself out of some kind of exaggerated sense of duty.”
“I won't, sir,” she said, and expected to feel Toby's incredulity – and didn't. When she glanced his way, he looked disbelieving, though. Their food was served, which distracted her for the moment, but then she realized as everyone started to eat that there were no thoughts in her head except her own. Evidently, her resolution when she had come into the room had actually worked. Somehow, in the process of actively using her telepathy to achieve a goal, she had learned to turn it off, as well.
She ate with renewed energy, pleased with that development even as it took a minute for her to get used to it again. It wasn't entirely gone, she thought – when someone told a joke and everyone laughed, she felt the amusement, just a little. But it was like there was a wall between her mind and theirs, and CJ was glad that she had figured out how to do that.
No one asked for too much detail about how the interviews were going, which was good, too. The President and Leo had found some options for next steps for the country that could be a decent place to start, and everyone was more interested in that, which only made sense.
“We're going to start with getting the power back on and then the phones and the internet,” said the President. “Of course, that's just common sense, but we've got a plan for distribution of the LEO task force that might make that actually possible.”
“We know there are vampire and shifter gangs who don't want things to go back to being stable, but we'll take that into account. We've even got Canada and Mexico on board,” added Leo.
“I doubt Mexico's going to be able to give us much help,” said Toby.
“Maybe not, but we'll take whatever we can get,” said the President.
“Does the cure play a role in the plan, Mr. President?” asked CJ.
“It will,” he said. “Of course, we don't actually have a cure yet, but I'm told our scientists in other locations had been in discussion with the Harvard contingent before the attack, so at least there was less completely lost than could have been.”
“What about the, um, Fringe division, was it?” CJ asked.
“Oh yes,” said the President. “I learned today that it was a scientist working for them who identified both of the viruses that give us shifters and vampires.”
“Huh,” she said, suddenly realizing that she had no idea whether it was also a virus that created telepaths. She guessed that, since they were a less obvious threat, it wasn't a priority to know.
“Yeah. Their input apart from that seems to be along the lines of making sure we don't have another crisis, another bunch of cracks in the universe.” He sighed. “I'm ready to leave that to someone who knows anything about it, that's for sure.”
Overall, dinner was both nourishing and uplifting, which was what CJ desperately needed before heading back to do more interviews. Toby and Charlie decided to go with the President for his address, and CJ would have much preferred to be there listening than going back to the office next to Butterfield's, but she told herself now that she knew what to expect, it would be better.
By the time they called it quits for the evening, CJ had lost track of how many people had come through. She knew it had been two hours since dinner. Though they had taken several short breaks, and she had refined her technique so that she knew exactly how much effort she should need to expend each time, she was exhausted. What was worse, she felt the weight of all the secrets she now knew as if she were physically carrying something beyond her strength – even though nothing she'd learned revealed any dangers. Out of all the Secret Service agents, only Weston and two others even had any personal connection to any shifter or vampire, and though she reported those, Ron agreed that they didn't seem like a threat.
“And that was the last of us,” he said. “It's good to know I won't have to tell the President he can't trust his own guards.”
“Yeah,” she said. “That is good.” The last agent she had read was having an affair, which he had felt sufficiently guilty about that she could not help but pick up on it. Now she was trying without success to forget that she had, since it wasn't anything to do with the safety of the bunker.
“We can pick this up sometime tomorrow,” said Butterfield. “I know I could use some rest. I bet you could, too.”
She nodded, then stood. “Look, Ron, I know how important this is, but I have to tell you that two hours of this at a time is probably my limit.”
He nodded in turn. “All right, CJ. We can work with you, the President, and Mr. McGarry to get a schedule together that won't burn you out and will let you do your other duties. But if it helps, I think we can finish tomorrow.”
“Okay,” she said, mentally working to put back up the wall that she'd had to remove in order to do the scans. “Uh, good. I guess I'll see you tomorrow, then.”
“Good night, CJ. And thank you,” he said.
She managed a smile, then headed to the infirmary. Despite her improved control, the effort had been enough that she was pretty sure she was getting another migraine that she wanted to head off as soon as possible. Thankfully, the nurse didn't ask questions. She simply offered that migraines often recur, dispensed the Excedrin to her, and once again recommended that CJ go to bed.
On her way there, she saw Toby. There was something she should ask him. Ah, that was it. “How did the President do with the address?”
“He was good,” said Toby. “Very good, actually. Having a more specific goal in mind, even though he wasn't talking about that yet, really came through when he spoke.”
“That's great,” she said, and hoped she sounded enthusiastic enough.
“How are you?” he asked.
“I'm, uh, off to bed. But it went well. All the Secret Service agents are cleared,” she said.
He nodded. “Good. Take care of yourself, CJ. You are taking care of yourself, right?”
“I'm fine,” she said. “Just tired. Good night, Toby.” It was barely a half-truth, but she was afraid that if she went into any more detail, she wouldn't be able to stop, and she just wanted to get some sleep.
“Good night, CJ,” he said, and she knew he was watching her until she got to the hall that led to her room.
Somehow she made it inside and stayed upright long enough to change into pajamas, brush her teeth, and then fall into bed. Her last thought before falling asleep, oddly, was to wonder again if this, what had happened to her, was caused by a virus. If so, she decided, she'd have to advocate for a cure for telepathy, too.
CJ almost didn't hear her alarm the next morning. It sounded wrong, anyway – shouldn't her clock be playing the radio? But just as she was about to dismiss the buzzing as part of a bad dream, she remembered where she was and why her alarm sounded different. She sat up, and then remembered that her schedule for the day also included looking telepathically for potential threats to the President. It was all she could do not to turn off the alarm and pull the covers over her head.
But the more time she spent awake, the more scenes from her bizarre and unsettling dreams came back to her. Some of them she could easily identify as her own worries about the state of things. Much more disturbing, though, were the images she realized were from the minds of the agents she had examined yesterday. Apparently that had joined her collection of things that she didn't stop worrying about even in sleep.
“Great,” she muttered to herself, as she continued to get ready. “That's just terrific.”
By the time she was ready, she had already missed breakfast, so she had to content herself with grabbing a muffin from the kitchen on the way to the President's office. When she came in, everyone was already there, including, she saw while trying not to let her heart sink too much, Ron Butterfield. It wasn't like anything was his fault. “Good morning, Mr. President. I'm sorry I'm late.”
“Good morning, CJ,” said the President. “We missed you at breakfast.”
“Sorry, sir, I overslept a little,” she explained, brushing a few phantom crumbs from the front of her jacket.
“Well, you're here now,” he said, “and we were just about to get started, so you haven't missed anything yet.” He looked at Leo. “Leo, you were going to say something?”
The day's schedule was sketched out. Butterfield informed them that he thought the rest of the interviews could be completed in about six hours, possibly less, not all taken at once. Leo wanted Toby and CJ to start drafting a press release about the plans that the President was considering, which was going to require them to research the reports that he and the President had been looking through, first. The President had more meetings and teleconferences, and yet more reports to read.
Agent Butterfield and CJ decided to get a batch of interviews out of the way to start the day, while Toby got started on reading and summarizing the first bunch of reports. The remaining White House counsel staffers were first on the docket for the day. CJ noticed that they were all rather freaked out, and most of them balked at having to talk about rumors of any other threats among people in this location. This was very understandable, though, considering that Jacobs had worked pretty closely with these people, and she didn't find any questionable reasons for not wanting to talk about it. She was able to report that none of them was hiding anything worrying.
“They did have reason to be particularly upset about my questions,” said Ron. “It's good to know that's all it was.”
Once all the legal staff were done, they had a few aides from Leo's office to do. She knew some of them better than anyone she had yet scanned, which made it all the more uncomfortable. Still, she gritted her teeth and did it. Of course there was no threat. She still learned some secrets that she would have preferred not to know, however.
They took a break at around 10:30. CJ entered the shared office where Toby was working. “Anything left for me to summarize? Some straightforward summarizing actually sounds pretty good right now.”
“You're in luck,” said Toby. “I've done almost as much as I can stand, so I left you a stack.” He gestured to the pile next to her computer.
CJ sat and picked up the first file. “Okay.”
“And how was your morning?” Toby asked, after a minute of blessed silence.
“Fine,” she said. “I still can't wait until I don't have to do this anymore, but I guess the upside is everyone should be feeling safer and safer, because we're not finding anything to worry about.”
He nodded. “And I suppose you're still going to tell me you aren't going to stop.”
She sighed. Stopping did sound good, but it seemed like it would be pointless at this stage. “Yes, that's what I'm telling you. Can we please stop talking about this, though, Toby?”
“Fine,” he said.
She went back to reading and taking notes. Other than wondering just how many recommendations the President and Leo had simply discarded without further consideration, CJ didn't ponder what she was reading over-much. She decided she would form an opinion about them when she started the drafting process.
By lunchtime, she was done with her first read-through, and she realized that she had passed all that time without saying anything else to Toby. Apparently he had not minded. She leaned back in her chair a bit and stretched. “Well, I'm done with my section. I guess you can take a look at it after lunch when I go back with Ron.”
He looked up. “Good. I've got some draft material you can look at later, too.”
Lunch was pleasantly normal – at least as normal as it got here. CJ was still able to keep everyone out with a high degree of success. The lighter mood was spoiled, however, when as they were all beginning to finish up, an aide knocked and pushed open the door. “Mr. President? You have a call from the commander in charge of the National Guard regiment in D.C. He says it's urgent.”
The President stood and pushed back his chair. “All right.” He looked around the room. “I'll see you all later.”
“Thank you, Mr. President,” they said, and he left. CJ bent over to retrieve her last bite, and finished it. “What do you think that's about?” she asked.
“It could be a number of things,” said Leo. “I'm sure we're all hoping it's good news about Sam and Josh, but in the meantime, let's keep moving forward with what we've been doing.”
She nodded. “It's going to be extra fun to try to concentrate, though.”
“Try being in the next room knowing he could be having that conversation,” said Leo. “Anyway. You'll know soon enough if it is.”
CJ went back to her interview station. It did, as she had expected, take more effort to focus on the task at hand now that she was wondering what the President might be hearing. She found herself thinking when the first session began that they probably weren't going to be finding anything for this guy or for anyone else, anyway. But she did the scan anyway. He was fine.
As Ron started to open the door to the adjacent office, CJ suddenly sensed a burst of anger. It wasn't the Secret Service agent. In fact, she knew with absolute certainty who it was. “Ron. Uh, this guy's fine. Nothing to report. But I – there's something going on with the President.” At his alarmed look, she shook her head. “No, I mean, he's safe. But he got a phone call after lunch, and... he's about to need to talk to his staff.”
“You can tell that from here?” Butterfield asked. It was the first time he had shown any surprise about her abilities.
“I guess so,” she said. The President was still furious, although she couldn't tell anything further than that. “But like I said, I think I'm going to need to go.”
“All right,” Ron said. Since her walls were down, she could feel his faint incredulity. “We can do this later.”
“Thanks, Ron,” she said, and left the room as quickly as she could without running. She knocked on the window of her office when she got there, and Toby came and opened the door. “Toby. I just heard – well, felt – something's happening.”
“CJ, what's going on?” he asked, confused and worried.
“Whatever that phone call is about, it's not good,” she said bluntly.
His eyes widened. “You can tell that?”
“Yeah,” she said. “The President is angry, and it must be pretty strong for me to pick up on it all the way from the Secret Service offices. That's all I know, and I'm not looking deeper than that.”
“You think it's Sam and Josh?” he asked, exiting the office and closing the door behind him.
She swallowed. “I don't know. I have a hunch it is, though.”
They both started to make their ways toward the President's office. Charlie met them coming. He looked very tense, and CJ's stomach dropped another notch. “CJ, Toby. I was just coming to get you. The President needs to see you in his office.”
“I thought so,” said CJ. As they all walked the last few yards to the office, she asked, “Do you know what this is about, Charlie?”
“No, but do you want to hear my guess?” he said quietly, knocking and opening the door.
“I don't think we need to,” said Toby, in the same tone.
“Good, you're here,” Leo greeted them, gesturing for Charlie to close the door.
The President was still on the phone, but he had seen them when they came in, and he said, in none too gentle of a tone, “Keep me updated, First Sergeant,” before slamming down the phone. He took a deep breath, leaning forward on his desk, then stood up. “I can't believe this. No, that's not true. I can believe it, but I wish like hell I couldn't.”
“Mr. President?” said Leo, in a noncommittal voice.
“The National Guard found Josh and Sam. Actually, Sam and Josh found them, and they told them who they were, and the commander of the unit had it verified, so he knew I was looking for them,” said the President.
CJ was shielding herself again, but it didn't take any special insight to notice that he was still very angry. She didn't speak, and no one else did, either.
“Apparently, someone somewhere in the chain of command made the bright decision that anyone requesting access to a secure location needs to have their blood tested,” the President went on. “And you'll note that at no point did I make that decision, which I made sure to tell the First Sergeant, who's in charge of the detachment. Anyway, Sam failed the test. That means he's a shifter.”
Toby made a half-strangled sound of shock.
CJ put a hand to her mouth, but again couldn't speak.
Leo said, somehow still managing to keep his tone almost steady, “Mr. President, what did they do?”
“They held him down, and they drugged him. The First Sergeant admitted when asked that Sam hadn't actually done anything threatening, and apparently Josh protested enough that they felt it necessary to arrest him, after drugging my deputy communications director!”
“Good God,” Leo breathed, steadiness gone.
CJ was trying not to imagine the awfulness of that scene. Unfortunately, she wasn't succeeding.
“What did you tell this guy, sir?” Toby asked, sounding as if he spoke through clenched teeth.
“I did not tell the First Sergeant that I was hereby dishonorably discharging him from the services of the United States military, but it was a close call,” said the President. “I did, however, tell him that he was going to bring them both here with all speed, not under arrest, and without any more drugs or arrests unless either Josh or Sam actually shows any evidence of trying to attack anyone.” He came around to the front of his desk and leaned against it. “I should have told him to tell them I said exactly that.”
“Sir, did you find out how they are?” CJ asked.
“I was told they both appear to be all right,” he said. “Physically, anyway. I really should have tried to pass on a message to them, but I was too distracted.”
“You can call the First Sergeant back, Mr. President,” said Leo. “But I would also suggest that this warrants having that policy discussion about shifters and vampires right now. We should get Ron in here, and Nancy on the phone as soon as possible.”
The President nodded, visible signs of his anger starting to fade. “I shouldn't have to order anyone not to assault people because of a blood test.”
“No, sir,” said Leo. He sighed. “You know I agree with you, and I'm as furious as anyone that our people were treated like this. But they do have a reason to view shifters as dangerous.”
The President nodded again. “I know, Leo. But I think viewing any shifter as a wild animal to be taken out is even more dangerous.” He shook his head and then rubbed a hand over his face. “CJ, Toby, you each have unique perspectives on this. What should I tell Ron, and the National Security Advisor, and the people who are running the joint law enforcement task force?”
Toby looked at CJ, then at the President. “Mr. President, I understand the reasoning behind blood tests for people requesting access to secure locations. We almost decided to use similar tactics ourselves after the attack on you, sir.” He sighed. “I know there's a civil rights issue, but as you mentioned earlier, I think any court that heard about it would still judge what we're doing instead to ensure our safety as a violation of those rights.”
“What are you saying?” said the President.
“I'm saying that, despite the fact that this First Sergeant's orders were beyond extreme and I don't think anyone here would have cared if you had fired him, I don't know if we can in good conscience forbid the use of the blood test in those specific circumstances,” said Toby.
“I notice you're leaving out what the response to a positive blood test should be, but I take your point,” said the President. “Which doesn't mean I agree. How about you, CJ?”
She gathered her thoughts. “I agree that I wish you had fired him, sir. As to using the blood test, I see Toby's point, as well. I hate to start down the slope of just a few civil rights violations during a time of crisis, but we might already be there and I don't know if I see a ready alternative.”
“Fine,” he said. “Charlie, any thoughts?”
Charlie looked surprised to be asked. “Uh, Mr. President, I'm not sure. But I guess we have to worry about someone making a list of all known shifters and vampires, as long as people are using the blood test. As long as that's not happening, though, I think I understand why someone would want to use it in these specific circumstances, like Toby said.”
The President sighed again. “All right. Those are all things we're going to have to keep in mind.” He stood up from the desk. “Charlie, if you could go get Agent Butterfield, and Leo, you know who to start contacting. I'll call the First Sergeant back with my message. Meanwhile, Josh and Sam are on their way and they should be here in about two hours.”
“That's good news at least, Mr. President,” said CJ. “What would you like Toby and me to do?”
“Well, I guess Ron will be too busy to keep doing those interviews for the next little while,” he said. “And whatever we decide here is going to be a priority in the next press briefing.”
“Yes, sir,” she said.
“That doesn't mean you can't keep working on what I gave you earlier,” he decided. “We'll still need it, and it will pass the time.”
“Okay,” she said. “And when Josh and Sam get here, Mr. President-”
“Of course I'll make sure you all know,” said the President.
“Thank you, Mr. President,” said CJ, and Toby echoed the sentiment before they left.
As they went back to their office, Toby said, “It's a mark of the insanity of this day that I'm starting to wish I still had summaries to do.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I thought concentrating was going to be hard when we just knew we might hear about Sam and Josh soon.”
Chapter 8: Chapter 8
As it turned out, forty-five minutes later, the Secret Service's part of the policy discussion must have been over because Ron came to ask CJ if she would be able to start the interviews again. They had evidently decided the interviews were still okay, as well. She still wanted to get them over with, so she agreed to come, with an apologetic look at Toby for leaving him alone in his worry.
They went through three more people without incident. The process could never be called mundane, but CJ was definitely familiar with the pattern of how it went by this point. She was trying not to watch the clock, knowing that it had been close to two hours now since the President had said that was when Josh and Sam were arriving. When the fourth person, an assistant in the kitchens, came in, though, CJ's attention quickly centered completely back on her.
There was something different here. Ron asked the first of his routine questions, and the only response CJ heard was murmured words through the wall of the office. Startled, CJ tried focusing a little harder when the next question was asked – but this time, she felt actual resistance, as if something was blocking her. What the hell was this?
Her astonishment increased when she heard the woman pause in the middle of her response, and then she clearly heard the woman's voice say, Hey! What's going on here? But Ron had obviously heard nothing of that, since he was simply asking her to repeat her response.
Oh my God, CJ thought. Of course. She had been naïve to think there might not be another telepath in the entire group of staffers who had been moved from the White House when she had. Making up her mind quickly, she knocked at the door to Ron's office and opened it.
The woman, Marie, CJ remembered her being introduced as, stared at CJ from the table. “Hey! Was that you?”
“CJ, what's going on?” asked Butterfield.
“Ron,” she said. “Sorry to interrupt.” She suddenly couldn't recall exactly when she had put her shield back up.
“Wait a minute,” Marie cut in, narrowing her eyes and looking between the two of them. “I get it. Isn't this illegal?”
CJ sighed. Evidently it was time to go all in. “Technically? I doubt it, since I doubt anyone's had the time to make any laws about telepaths. If you think about it, you might admit that could be a good thing for the both of us.”
Now it was Ron's turn to glance between the two of them. “CJ, is there a problem here?”
“I don't think it's a problem,” she said. “Marie? If you know why I'm here, I bet you can guess why we're doing this, and why we're not telling people about me being here right now.”
Marie frowned. “Well, I guess I know all about keeping a low profile. I've been trying my hardest not to freak people out.”
CJ smiled faintly. “I know the feeling.”
“Okay. But I had to pass a security screening before I was hired. I'm not a threat,” she said.
“Unfortunately, so did Mr. Jacobs from the counsel's office,” said Butterfield. “We don't like this necessity, but we have good reason to do another screening now.”
Marie nodded slowly. “I see. Hmm. Well, I still don't like it, but you can scan me, I guess.”
“Really?” asked CJ. “I haven't – I mean, you're sure?”
“You kind of have to, don't you? And unless I want to look extra suspicious, I kind of have to let you, don't I?” she said.
“Well-” CJ started to say, but felt that Marie had already lowered her shield. The awkwardness of doing this was even greater than usual when she could feel that Marie could feel it. Still, she had permission, which she supposed should be comforting. “Okay. Ron, you can finish asking the questions, then.”
There was no trace of deception as Marie answered. She didn't know anything about any plots on the President's life or safety, and she didn't know anyone who was a shifter or vampire and might try to use the connection to the President's staff. “I guess you're the only other supernatural person, or whatever we're called, that I know,” Marie added, looking at CJ.
“Okay,” said CJ. “We're good, then.”
“All right,” said Ron. “Thank you for your understanding, Ms. Smith. I can't prevent you from letting anyone else know that CJ is helping us out, but I hope you see why we're keeping it quiet.”
“God, yes,” said Marie fervently. “As weird as this is for me, I wouldn't want to make anyone else feel that. And it's got to be really weird for you, CJ. I'm glad I'm not in your place. I won't tell anyone, as long as you won't.”
“I promise,” said CJ, letting her see that she was telling the truth.
“I don't see any reason why I would need to, either,” said Ron. “You're free to go.”
“Okay. Take care, CJ,” said Marie, with a genuine smile.
“I will. You, too, Marie,” said CJ.
When she had left, Ron looked at CJ. “Well. I guess we don't need to do the usual debrief. You're sure she'll keep it quiet?”
“I am,” said CJ. She knew the other woman was still not convinced of the ethics of the situation, but CJ was sure she wouldn't spread the facts around. And CJ could hardly blame her for being unsure when she was, herself. “Sorry for breaking in on the session, but I couldn't think of any other way to do it, once I figured out what was going on.”
“I should have realized that this was a possible situation,” said Ron. “I'd say it went as well as we could have hoped, given that it took us all by surprise.”
CJ nodded. She was about to speak again when she sensed that Charlie was coming down the hall. Belatedly re-shielding, she turned toward the door just as he knocked.
“Excuse me, Agent Butterfield, CJ. You're not in the middle of something currently?”
“No, we're all right. What is it, Charlie?” asked Ron.
“The President asked me to tell you both – the National Guard detachment with Sam and Josh just arrived,” he said. “They're outside the bunker.”
Leo, Toby, CJ, and Charlie were waiting in the small lobby outside the elevator that was the only entrance and exit to the bunker. The President and several Secret Service agents (including Agent Butterfield) were seeing to the rather complex security arrangements that were required in order to allow someone inside after it had been occupied. This left the four of them with nothing to do but wait and imagine what was going on outside.
“Do you think Sam is still drugged?” CJ asked. She wasn't trying to find out for herself, since she was pretty sure the distance and amount of structure and materials between them would mean she couldn't.
“You mean, has it worn off yet?” said Toby. “If they drugged him again...”
“They wouldn't dare,” said Leo. “But no, I doubt it's worn off, although it depends on what they gave him.”
The door to the lobby was opened a moment later, and the President entered, accompanied by the same agents he had been working with. “They're on their way in,” he announced, coming to stand with them.
“How are they doing, Mr. President?” asked Leo.
“From what I can find out, they're fine,” said the President. “I did ask to make sure, and I'm told my orders have been followed and no one has done anything further to them during the trip.”
“Are there any threats outside?” Toby asked, running a hand across his face.
“None so far as anyone knows,” said the President. “That's the only reason why they're being allowed in.”
They were silent for a few minutes. CJ could feel the tension ratcheting up even through her defenses. Again, she couldn't help coming back to the idea that it was usually Josh or sometimes Sam who would crack a joke at this point, but in this situation, that thought only increased the strain.
Finally, they saw the indicator light appear, and the elevator doors opened. The first people visible were two men in what CJ supposed were National Guard uniforms. They stepped out and saluted, and the President moved forward. “At ease, gentlemen,” he said quickly. “Do you have my staffers with you?”
“Mr. President,” came a voice from inside the elevator that was very welcome, if a bit more hoarse than CJ remembered. “We're here, sir.”
He looked exhausted, much too thin, and more disheveled than he had any other time she'd seen him except right after his shooting, but it was definitely Josh who walked out of the elevator. When he saw who was there to greet him, the relief on his face was vivid and profound. The President took the last step that separated them and clasped Josh's hand and wrist. “Welcome back, Josh.” They embraced.
“Thank you, sir, and thanks for your message,” said Josh, voice rather thick. He blinked a few times, and then looked at the rest of them. “Hi.”
CJ couldn't wait another moment. She ran forward and gave him a hug, which he returned. “Thank God you're back.”
“So you missed me, is what you're saying?” he said when they broke apart, and he smiled.
“A little,” she said, mirroring the smile and wiping a few tears from her eyes.
“Yeah, we've been working harder to pick up your slack,” said Toby, but even he was smiling.
“I know, I'm irreplaceable,” was Josh's reply. They gave each other a side-hug, which was positively effusive coming from Toby.
“That's true,” said Leo, quite seriously, hugging him as well. “Glad you made it, Josh.”
“Thanks, Leo,” said Josh. He turned to Charlie and clapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, Charlie.”
“Hey, Josh,” said the younger man, smiling. “Glad you're all right.”
This all had taken no more than a minute, and then their attention was all caught by the sound of something wheeled coming out of the elevator. CJ turned. Two more National Guard soldiers were wheeling out a gurney with an unconscious Sam strapped to it.
The President's smile faded as he watched the gurney get closer. “Why is this man strapped in, soldier?”
The man closest to him replied. “Mr. President, it's for his safety during transportation. Would you like us to take him to the infirmary, sir?”
The President shook his head. “That won't be necessary. Thank you for delivering them both. You're all dismissed, unless there is something else you need to do while you're here.”
“No, sir. Thank you, sir,” said the man who had answered his questions. “Let's move out.”
The four National Guard soldiers got back into the elevator, though no one was paying them much attention. CJ looked down at Sam, whose expression even in sleep was hardly peaceful, and allowed herself to check just briefly to see if she could tell why. “How is he, Josh?” The only thing she noticed was that he was dreaming.
“I don't know what they gave him, but he's been pretty solidly out since then,” said Josh quietly. “Once the guys that were holding us finally decided to talk to me, they said he should be asleep until some time late tonight, maybe longer.”
“But how is he? How was he before this happened?” she said. “And you, for that matter?”
“That's a long story,” said Josh, sighing.
“Let's tell it inside,” said the President. “We can take Sam to the infirmary and undo those straps, first, but then I suggest we have an early dinner and we can all hear what Josh has to say. Unless you'd rather not, Josh. I know you've been having a hell of a time.”
“Yeah, you could say that, Mr. President,” said Josh. “No, dinner definitely sounds good, and as long as I get to hear what's been going on here, too, I don't mind.”
Josh insisted on pushing Sam's gurney, although CJ quickly volunteered to help. The entire entourage, flanked by Secret Service until they were back inside the halls of the bunker, made their way toward the infirmary. Josh glanced around a little as they walked, but he was clearly so tired that CJ wondered if he was really taking in much of his surroundings. Still, he was trying. “Nice place you've got here, Mr. President.”
“That's not what I'd call it,” said the President, “although if we're comparing where I've been living and where you've been spending time, I guess I can't complain.”
Josh looked at him, expression rather guarded. “So you know about... where I was?”
“I'm sorry we didn't find out sooner,” the President said, grave. “By the time the recon team found the building, you were already gone.”
Josh's expression changed to something that was probably supposed to be a smile, but CJ found it rather heartbreaking, instead. “I didn't know... I hoped you were looking for me, but I thought maybe-”
“Of course we were,” said the President. “The only reason it took so long is that things are still so chaotic, so the people I could ask to look for you, Sam, Donna, and Mrs. Landingham, and everyone, well, I couldn't make that their only mission.”
Josh nodded. “Do you know anything about Donna?”
They had reached the infirmary, and the nurse, very surprised to see them all there, quickly opened the double doors for them before excusing herself to get the doctor. “I'm sorry, Josh. Not yet,” said the President, as Josh and CJ maneuvered the gurney in.
“Okay,” said Josh.
Then the doctor came in. “Mr. President. What do we have here?”
The President said, “Hi, Dr. Long. This is Sam Seaborn, and he's been given some kind of tranquilizing drug that's supposed to wear off sometime later tonight. I'd like him to be taken care of until then.”
“Of course, Mr. President,” said the doctor. “We don't know which drug it was?”
“No, but it knocked him out pretty fast. That was right after lunch,” said Josh.
“Oh, and we don't need those straps anymore,” said the President.
The nurse gently removed them, and CJ took in an involuntary breath at the bruises that were visible on Sam's arms underneath the straps. “Oh my God, are those handprints?” she said. Once again, her imagination filled in what must have happened in order for those to show up, and she felt her stomach turn. She could tell she wasn't the only one in the room to have that reaction.
“It looks like it,” said the doctor, frowning. “Mr. President, I can do a toxicological exam to see if I can narrow down the drug. That might help me know how to bring him out gently.”
The President was frowning, too. “That sounds good, Doctor.”
“Are there any medical conditions I should know about, just in case? Allergies?” asked Dr. Long. “I guess I have his records somewhere.”
The President cleared his throat. That earlier guilt was back for him in full measure, and CJ really didn't want to know. She watched as he exchanged a glance with Josh. Whatever he saw there, he seemed to take as some kind of permission. “Doctor, of course this needs to remain confidential. I'd rather he had the chance to tell you himself, but Sam is also a shifter. I don't know if that will be relevant, but maybe it will help you narrow down what kind of drug they might have chosen.”
The doctor's eyes widened, and he nodded. “I see. You're right that it might be helpful to know, sir. And you can trust that I'll keep it confidential.”
“Good,” said the President, still uneasy. “Well, we'll leave you to it, Dr. Long.”
The doctor promised to let them know as soon as there was any sign of Sam starting to wake up, and to let them know the results of the tox screen as well. The President thanked him, and the five of them left. CJ saw Josh hang back for a moment, watching as Sam was hooked up to monitors and an IV. Then something struck him.
“Oh, God, before we go, I can't believe I almost forgot – Sam got stabbed yesterday,” Josh said, going back inside the infirmary. “It was a piece of broken glass, and it was on his right side. He got some first aid afterward, and I think he's feeling better, but that's probably something you should look at, Doctor.”
“He was stabbed with broken glass?” Leo exclaimed, walking quickly back to the room's entrance. “What the hell happened?”
“Long story,” Josh repeated. He looked grim. CJ felt a sharp pang of guilt from him now, and wondered just how they had both gotten out of whatever situation had led to this. She had known it was dangerous out there, obviously, but she was beginning to realize she had no idea just how bad it could be.
“I'll take a look at it now,” said Dr. Long. “But his vital signs do look pretty stable, all things considered.”
“Thanks, Doctor,” said the President.
“Thank you, Mr. President,” he said. “I'll let you know as soon as I have news for you.”
They were all even more reluctant to leave after this, CJ thought, but at the same time, it was hardly practical for them to all stay in that small room and get in the doctor's way.
In the dining room, everyone got food and there was some scattered, rather subdued conversation. However, it was clear that what most people wanted to hear was Josh's story. He seemed to pick up on that quickly. “Okay, so what do you already know? You know where I was being held. That was right near the beginning of this whole mess. I think it was for twenty days? There's not much to tell about that. It was actually pretty dull. The real excitement started when Sam and his friends came to rescue me.”
“They came for you, specifically?” asked Leo.
“Not exactly. Apparently someone in the group heard that these people had some kind of hostage that they intended to use against the President, and thought it would be better for their cause if I wasn't in the hands of a crazy anti-supernatural group,” Josh explained, which confirmed what the President had heard about the identity of those who had kidnapped Josh in the first place. “Sam didn't know it was me until he found my cell.”
“That's a lucky coincidence,” remarked the President.
“Yeah,” said Josh. He absently ate another bite and swallowed. “It felt a little less lucky, at first, when I figured out what kind of a group Sam was in.” He shook his head. “But they were actually all right, once you get to know them a little. I'll let Sam tell you how he ended up with them.
“But Sam and I decided, once we were both together, we should try to find you, Mr. President,” Josh continued. “We were far enough away from anybody that it was a long trip. And a dangerous one, it turns out. That's when Sam got stabbed, because the next evening, we were both attacked by vampires.” He laughed once, without much mirth. “I still can't believe I can say that and mean it seriously. I told Sam then, and I'll say it again: it doesn't seem fair that if there are actual vampires, there's no Buffy.”
No one felt much like laughing. “Oh my God,” said CJ. It felt like she was saying that a lot lately. “Josh. How did you escape?”
Josh set his fork down and put his hands in his lap. His gaze was distant. “We were trying to hide inside an empty office building, and one of them came at us through the window, and Sam... well, Sam shifted, and he fought him.” He swallowed. “And he got stabbed with the glass, and it was awful, and I thought... I was sure we were both going to die.”
CJ could feel his remembered terror, and she wondered and feared if he was reliving it. As gently as she could, she reminded him, “But you both got out alive. How did that happen?”
Josh blinked. He took a breath and explained that he and Sam had brought guns with them, and so Josh had shot the vampire that was attacking Sam, and that was when Sam's friends had shown up to save the day. “We didn't see what happened to the other vampires. They were outside.”
The President spoke in the silence that followed. “That is an incredible story, Josh. It sounds like you both rose to some occasions no one should have to face.”
There were murmurs of agreement from the others around the table, but Josh didn't meet their eyes. “If you say so, sir. It doesn't feel like that.”
“I do say so,” was the President's response. “Anyway, we have a pretty good idea of what happened after that. I wanted to tell you personally – and I'll tell Sam, when he wakes up – that I'm absolutely appalled that you had to go through that.”
“We all are,” added Leo.
Josh nodded, and CJ caught just a brief flash of the helpless rage he had felt. “Thank you, Mr. President.”
“I've been working to come up with a coherent, rational policy so nothing like it ever happens again,” the President said. “I'll welcome your input, and Sam's, although we can talk about it later, of course.”
Josh nodded again. “Yes, sir.” He cleared his throat and took a drink from his glass, making an obvious effort to switch gears. “So what about you guys? I know you're getting reports, but has it been pretty quiet here?”
Toby snorted. “It's been quieter here than outside, but only slightly.”
“Really?” Josh asked, raising his eyebrows. “I thought this place was sealed up tight.”
“Oh, it is,” said Toby. “And you'd think that would make it safe, maybe even boring.”
“But not so much?” Josh guessed.
“Only if you count an attempted shifter attack on the President as safe or boring,” said Toby.
“I don't, personally,” the President said, with a heavy dose of irony.
Josh's eyes were wide. “Seriously? Jesus. Is everyone all right?”
“Thanks to CJ and the Secret Service, the only casualty was the attacker,” the President said, nodding toward CJ when he mentioned her.
“CJ?” Josh repeated, turning to stare at her. “I'm glad you're all right, Mr. President. But CJ, did you get some kind of extra training I missed out on?”
CJ shook her head and tried not to blush. She'd known Josh and Sam would need to hear about this, but that didn't mean it wasn't awkward for her to explain it. “Not exactly. But I guess there is something you've missed out on learning. I was able to help stop the guy because I'm a telepath, and I heard that he wanted to attack and turn the President, before anyone else figured out what was going on.”
Josh's mouth dropped open. He closed it after a moment, then blinked and took a deep breath. “Wow. I leave you guys alone for just a few weeks, and look what happens.”
“She forgot to mention the part where she ran out into the hall after this guy to yell at him to stop, even though he could have just as easily attacked her,” Leo put in.
Josh smiled, and she could feel his surprise and admiration. “Go, CJ!”
She laughed, embarrassed. “Whatever, Josh. You're just saying that because now you know there's even more reason not to get on my bad side.”
He laughed. “Oh, you're right. I'll have to be more careful whenever we're arguing about something now, so you can't cheat and get the counterargument from me.”
CJ narrowed her eyes at him. “Very funny. The thing is, Josh, there would be no need for me to sink so low in a discussion with you, since all your thoughts come out for all to hear the instant you have them.”
At this, Josh opened his mouth to protest, but the rest of the table was now laughing at him. He looked around with a put-upon expression, and met no sympathy.
“She's got you there, Josh,” said the President, when the laughter had died down.
“I've really, really missed you guys,” Josh grumbled, though he was hiding a smile. There was a brief lull, and then he spoke again. “So, who was this guy that CJ stopped?”
“It was Ed Jacobs, from counsel,” said Leo.
“Jacobs? Can't be,” said Josh. “That's crazy! Wait a minute, so, if no one knew about him until he almost attacked the President, how do we know there's not-”
“It won't surprise you that Ron Butterfield had the same thought,” the President interrupted. He explained about the Secret Service interviews, and added, “And CJ's helping with that, too.”
Josh looked at her again. “Everyone's okay with that?”
“Well, no one being interviewed knows I'm there,” CJ admitted, spreading her hands. “It's awkward, and I can't say it's fun, but it's a way to make sure we're safe.”
“Huh,” said Josh. “Find anything?”
“Nothing of note,” said CJ. She glanced at the clock. “Although we actually still have a few more to do. I wonder if I should go find Ron.”
“He'll probably come get you,” the President pointed out.
“Anything else I should know about?” asked Josh.
“There are other policy decisions we're working on,” said Leo. “I don't think you need to be back to work tonight, but you might get started looking at the reports with CJ and Toby tomorrow, and I'll probably delegate some phone calls to you.”
“Okay,” said Josh.
As if their mentioning him a moment ago had summoned him, there was a knock at the door, and Ron Butterfield opened it. “Sorry to interrupt, Mr. President. I was wondering if I could borrow CJ again, to finish up the interviews.”
“It's no problem, Ron,” said the President. “CJ?”
“Sure,” she said, standing. “I guess I'll see you all tomorrow. Good night, Mr. President.” He said good-night as well. She turned back once more before leaving. “And Josh? I am glad you're here.”
“Me, too,” said Josh. “See you later.”
It figured, thought CJ a few hours later, that her penultimate interview subject would be the one where she finally found something that emphatically needed to be reported. Agent Butterfield was talking to Kevin Franks, who worked as an intern, and as soon as the talk turned to shifters, CJ felt chilled by his thoughts. He kept fairly calm on the outside, even when telling Ron that his father had been killed by shifters, but when he told Ron, “Whatever. As long as they leave me alone, I guess I'd leave them alone,” CJ heard that he was lying. What Kevin wanted to do to anyone he found out was a shifter was actually so violent that CJ found herself recoiling from the door to the room, even though he didn't know she was there and she wasn't the target of his ire, anyway.
She told Ron once Mr. Franks had left that he was probably not a threat to the President, but quickly added what she had discovered about his hatred of shifters. “If it gets out about Sam, for example? Sam's still unconscious. He wouldn't have a chance.” She swallowed, and tried not to shudder as the images from the other man's mind came to hers again. They hadn't been an idle fantasy. There had been real purpose there.
“All right. I don't expect anyone to hear about Sam anytime soon, but I'll order some agents to patrol near the infirmary for the time being, while he's there,” said Ron.
“Thank you,” she said.
“You're welcome. Once he's up and around again, though, it's going to be a different story. We don't have anything to hold Mr. Franks on, so we can't keep him away from Sam. They'll probably run into each other eventually,” said Ron. “It's not that big of a building.”
“Yeah,” CJ said. “That's true. Well, I guess I'll have to tell Sam about him, and tell him to try his best to avoid him.”
“Good. And I'll pass the word along to the rest of the agents,” said Ron. “We can keep an extra eye out on the situation, as best as we can.”
“Okay,” she said. “Well, that was definitely the main thing I found.”
“Okay,” he echoed. “Just this last one, then. It's a Ms. Caroline Broadside, another intern.”
The last interview was unexceptional, and both that part and her debrief were over within ten minutes. “CJ, I want to thank you again for helping us out,” said Agent Butterfield, shaking her hand when she stood to leave. “You can be sure you've helped us make this place safer, for as long as we're all here.”
She smiled. “You're welcome. I'm glad I could help.” As she went out, she thought that it had been far from enjoyable, but she had been telling the truth when she had told Ron she was glad to have helped. It was good to feel like there wasn't any reason to fear another attack on the President, and that they could hopefully prevent any misplaced vengeance against Sam. And hey, she thought, her telepathy wasn't even causing headaches anymore, so that was better. For something that she hoped she would never be called on to do again, it could have turned out much worse.
CJ headed toward her room, still tired enough that she knew it wouldn't be hard to get to sleep even though it was barely past eight o'clock. Maybe she would read for a while first to get everyone else's images out of her head. The only issue there was that there was a distinct lack of reading material in this place, which probably meant she would have to reread the same novel she'd happened to have had with her when they were brought here.
Still pondering this, CJ almost ran into Josh in the hall. “Hey, Josh.” He looked more relaxed and slightly less exhausted than he had when she'd last seen him.
“Hey, CJ,” he said. “How did your thing go, the interviews?”
She sighed. “Mostly fine, although I saw a guy who really, really doesn't like shifters. So much so that I probably need to tell Sam as soon as he's awake.”
“He woke up about an hour ago, actually,” said Josh. “Happened while I was there getting a check-up from the doctor.”
“Really? How is he?” she asked.
“Well, he was still pretty out of it, and he was feeling sick, from the drugs,” said Josh. “So someone here has an axe to grind against shifters? You think they'd take it out on him?”
“The guy might want to, but the Secret Service knows about it now, so he won't be able to try anything while Sam's still in the infirmary,” said CJ. “I think I'll go see Sam, though – do you think he'd be up for that?”
“He fell back asleep before I left,” Josh said. “But you could check. I bet he'd like to say hi.”
“Okay, I'll check,” she said. “Did you have someone give you the grand tour yet?”
“Yeah, Toby showed me around,” said Josh. “I get the room across from him, actually. It's like being at camp or something.”
She scoffed. “At least there are no bunk beds.” He grinned. “Anyway, are you headed to bed?”
“I think so,” he said. “I'll see you in the morning. Breakfast is at 7:30, right?”
“7:30. Good night, Josh,” she said.
“Good night,” he called back, already walking toward his room.
It turned out Sam was awake when she visited, although he was disoriented and a little groggy. It was a relief to both of them when Dr. Long explained that the reason he couldn't remember waking up earlier was a side-effect of the drugs. Still, CJ could tell Sam was uneasy, and she didn't have to guess why. He was worried about how everyone would react to him – and if she were honest with herself, CJ's own first reaction was to be relieved that he had that worry, since it proved conclusively that this really was Sam they were dealing with, not someone changed so as to be unrecognizable.
The President visited as well, and they had a short conversation in which he expressed his anger and apology to Sam for how he and Josh had been treated before arriving at the bunker. Sam seemed glad to hear that there would be consequences for whoever had initially ordered the blood test and drugging, which CJ couldn't disagree with. Since the President had to leave shortly after, it fell to CJ to update Sam on what had been going on for those of them inside the bunker, which she did. He was astonished and, when she got to her own role in recent events, rather impressed, as well.
“So. You're a telepath,” Sam said, straightening his blanket after a pause in the conversation.
“Yes,” said CJ. “And you're a shifter.”
“Yeah,” said Sam. “This is pretty weird, isn't it?”
She huffed. “'Pretty weird' doesn't begin to cover it.”
“Not hardly,” he agreed, with a wry smile. “After all this time, you'd think I should be used to the idea. But I'm not.”
“Me, neither,” said CJ. “Do you know, I don't even know how it happened to me? I mean, it's not like I'd have preferred to be bitten, but I don't even know if it's a virus, or what.”
Sam shook his head. “Wow. I have to admit I hadn't even thought about that.”
“I don't think anyone really has, which is why I don't know,” she said. “I don't know if anyone's working on a cure for it. But then again, I'm not sure what I'd think if they were.”
“Well, I know what I want for me,” said Sam, without a trace of doubt in his voice. Then he sighed. “I'm sure that won't be the case for everyone, though.”
“Yeah,” she said, thoughtful. “What do you think we're going to do? I mean, the President, and everyone?”
“I have no idea,” said Sam. “Even if we get the country's infrastructure completely up and running again, I can't see any measure working that makes the cure mandatory.”
CJ shook her head. “I don't think the President wants to try that, either.”
“Although for vampires,” Sam said, wincing, “something like that is going to have to be done.”
“And it's going to be difficult for some people to make any distinction between them and – well, and the rest of us,” said CJ. “Obviously I don't need to tell you that.”
He nodded. There was a brief pause, and though she was shielding again after having checked to see if he was all right, she could feel both curiosity and embarrassment from him before he spoke. “It's fine if you don't want to talk about it, but I was just wondering. Is it... I mean, do you have trouble controlling it? Your telepathy?”
“I did at first,” she said. “And I still do, sometimes. Short of some kind of cure, I don't think I'll ever be able to switch it off completely.” It was odd to be telling someone this, but if any of her friends would understand, it would be Sam. “What about you? If you don't mind my asking.”
“Well, it's not like it happens during a full moon, whether I want to or not,” Sam said, with a smile that wasn't particularly happy. “It's mostly a choice, after the first time.”
From just the briefest flash that she saw of what that was like for him, CJ decided not to ask further about the first time. “That's good, isn't it?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Small favors, I guess.” He cleared his throat.
“And being able to shift, it sounds like it saved Josh's life,” CJ pointed out. “I mean, you saved his life.”
He grimaced. “Yeah, well, that could have gone either way. If Josh hadn't shot the vampire, neither of us might have made it.”
CJ nodded, then grinned. “I see. So is that why you didn't have a little speech for him about 'I Dream Of Jeannie', and coconut oil, and being beholden?”
Sam looked confused for the smallest of seconds, and then burst out laughing. “Yes, CJ, that's it. And you know, I don't like to give the same speech twice.” He sobered a bit. “But hey, I guess you're officially off the hook, since you told me about Kevin Franks.”
She rolled her eyes. “As if I ever was on the hook.” Then she smiled again. “But you're welcome.” She fought back a sudden yawn. “Sam, I'd love to keep talking and make sure you're totally up to speed, but I think I've got to go to bed. It's been quite a day.”
“I think I'm supposed to be tired, but it's funny how spending the whole day unconscious makes you not want to sleep anymore,” Sam said. “Anyway. Good night, CJ. It really is good to see you.”
“You, too,” she said. “Good night.”
As she exited the infirmary and turned toward her room, she was surprised to see Toby standing there in the hall. “Hey. Are you going to see Sam? He's awake,” she said.
“Yeah,” said Toby. “I am.”
She waited a moment, but he didn't move. “He might not be awake for all that much longer, you know.”
Toby nodded. “I know.” He ran a hand across the side of his face.
CJ sighed. She had a pretty good sense of why he was still so uncertain. “Look, Toby. It's Sam. He didn't have anything to do with David. He probably doesn't even know about it, and he'll feel terrible when he hears, like we all do.”
Toby still didn't look entirely convinced. “You've been talking to him?”
“Yeah,” she said. “It's Sam, Toby. I caught him up a little on what's been going on. The President talked to him for a while, too.”
“How is he?” said Toby.
“How's Sam? For God's sake, ask him yourself,” CJ said. She shook her head and left without looking back – although she heard it when he finally entered the infirmary. She let out a breath in relief and at last headed to bed.
Chapter 9: Chapter 9
It took a long time for Sam to wake up fully. Once or twice, he thought he heard something – sounds of people talking near him – or felt the sensation of moving, but unconsciousness would always return to overwhelm it. After some unknown amount of time, Sam heard several voices speaking – voices he hadn't heard in a while. He tried to focus on the sounds, but again the drug pulled him back under before he could manage it.
When Sam finally started to make his way back to consciousness, it was to discover that he felt like hell. The room – wherever he was – seemed to want to start spinning whenever he opened his eyes. On top of that, he was extremely thirsty, and his head ached like he'd had way too much to drink last night. But that couldn't be the reason why he felt like this … Last night he had been--
His eyes shot open again at the memories of the vampire attack, and then he groaned at the increase in dizziness this caused. Thankfully, when he shut his eyes again and took some deep breaths, the dizziness receded to a more bearable level.
“Sam?” It was Josh's voice, Sam thought, although it sounded hoarse. “Doctor, I think he's waking up.”
“That's unusual,” said an unfamiliar voice, getting closer. “With what he was given, he should be out for another few hours. But I suppose it's possible that his body would break down the drugs faster, since he-- Mr. Seaborn? Can you hear me?”
Sam was still trying to figure out where he could be right now. The last thing he remembered was the road block … and then … Oh. That explains it.
Slowly, Sam opened his eyes again. The room still wasn't staying put, but he did see Josh and another man standing next to him before he had to close his eyes again. “Dizzy,” he tried to say, past his dry throat.
“That's the aftereffects of the drugs you were given,” the man – a doctor, Sam assumed – told him. “The dizziness should pass on its own, but let me get you an icepack. That sometimes helps. And I'm guessing you're feeling pretty thirsty right now, so I'll bring you some ice for that, too.”
“Bad headache, too,” Sam croaked out, eyes still shut. He raised a hand to put it to his head, and was forcibly reminded of fighting against the soldiers who were holding him down when he felt the bruises and soreness in that arm.
“I can give you something for the pain when I come back,” promised the doctor.
There was a moment of silence as the doctor departed. Sam was still feeling awful, but he needed to ask Josh some things. “Where are we? Did they take us to--”
“Yeah, we're with the President, somewhere in Pennsylvania,” Josh told him, sounding relieved even through his evident exhaustion. “Leo, Toby, and CJ are here, too, and Charlie. They were glad to see us. You've been out for about seven hours, by the way.”
Sam absorbed that information. “Do-- do they all know?”
“They do,” replied Josh quietly. “But the President asked the doctor to keep that information to himself, and no one else is going to spread it around, either, without asking you.”
That sounded better than Sam might have feared. He still wasn't going to be entirely reassured until he had the chance to speak to everyone himself, but it was still good to hear. “Hey,” he said, as another thought occurred to him, “are you okay?”
Josh laughed. “Me? Don't worry about me, Sam. I was just getting a checkup from Dr. Long, and he says I'm fine.”
That wasn't exactly what Sam meant, but his headache was making it too difficult for him to attempt to clarify, so he just nodded very slightly.
Returning footsteps just then announced the return of the doctor. “Here you go, Mr. Seaborn. If you put this at the back of your neck, it may help with the dizziness.”
Sam opened his eyes for long enough to take the icepack and place it behind his head. It felt good, and did seem to calm the spinning sensation a little. He sighed. “Thanks.”
“You're welcome. I'll leave a cup of ice next to your bed in case you need it,” the man said. “Oh, and let me give you some pain reliever for your headache.”
Briefly, Sam wondered if he was going to be expected to swallow a pill, which he didn't think would be a good idea at this point. Then he recalled seeing an IV pole next to him during one of the times his eyes had been open.
“There we go,” the doctor said after a second. “That should start to take effect very quickly.”
It did, in fact – and the combination of relief from the pain and lessening of his dizziness meant that Sam found himself falling back asleep. He heard the doctor explaining to Josh that Mr. Seaborn would need more time to sleep off the effects of the drugs, but by then it was all fading away.
When he next woke up, Sam had no recollection of the room in which he found himself. It looked like a hospital room, except it was bigger than they usually were, and had several beds in it. The bed he was lying in was the only occupied bed, as far as he could see. He felt like he should know why it had been so hard to wake up just then, but he couldn't remember. This fact was more than a little disquieting.
There was an IV line in the back of his left hand, he noticed, and something that felt strangely squishy at the back of his neck. He had just reached up with his other hand to find out what it was when a very familiar figure came into the room.
“Sam,” said CJ, smiling broadly. “You're awake. How are you feeling?”
He'd been drugged, Sam recalled suddenly, while he and Josh were trying to get back to the President. That explained some things. The recollection also made it more difficult to concentrate on his honest happiness at seeing CJ. He and Josh must have made it back, if CJ was here. “Hi. Uh, I'm okay, I guess.” He swallowed against a dry throat and tried to think. “Did Josh make it here, too? Is he all right?”
CJ looked faintly confused, but she nodded. “Yeah, he's fine. He said he was here when you first woke up a little while ago. Do you remember that?”
Sam stared at her. “No, I don't. He was here? I talked to him?”
She nodded again, and then handed him a cup from the table next to his bed. The water was cold and refreshing, although it made him feel just slightly queasy. Before he could ask CJ anything more, a man wearing a doctor's coat came into the room. “Mr. Seaborn, you're awake. Are you feeling any better?”
“I, um-- I'm sorry, have we met?” Sam asked, trying not to panic as he cast back in his memory for any interactions they might have had.
“We haven't been formally introduced, no,” the doctor said, seeming unperturbed by the question. “You woke up about an hour ago, but I'm not surprised you don't remember. The drugs you were given tend to have that effect as they're wearing off. Don't worry. That should be a very temporary side effect.”
“Oh.” Sam blinked. CJ looked relieved, but probably not as relieved as he felt to have a reasonable explanation for what he was dealing with.
“I'm Dr. Long, by the way,” he continued. “When you woke up before, you said you were feeling dizzy and you had a headache. How are you feeling now?”
“A little bit queasy, but otherwise fine,” Sam replied. “Thanks.”
“Good,” said Dr. Long. “Please let me or the nurse know if you need anything else, but for now, I'd say that if you rest for a while longer, we can have you out of here in not too long.” He looked at the bag on the IV pole. “I'll come back and check on you in about half an hour, and then maybe we can take your IV out.”
Sam thanked him again, and the doctor left the room. “So, where are we?” Sam asked CJ.
“We're in a secure facility somewhere in Pennsylvania,” CJ told him. “That 'we', by the way, is me, you, Josh, the President, Leo, Toby, Charlie, and a lot of the aides and assistants, though not all of them. And a lot of Secret Service and other White House staff, of course.”
“What time is it? How long have I been out?”
CJ glanced at her watch. “It's a little after eight. You and Josh got here sometime before five – so based on what Josh told us, you've been out for seven or eight hours.”
Based on what Josh told us. Sam swallowed again. Of course Josh would have had to tell them, to give a reason why Sam had arrived here drugged into unconsciousness. He looked away. “So, you all know--”
“We knew before Josh even got here, Sam,” CJ interrupted gently. “The National Guard contacted the President as soon as they had you both, and they told him what their completely unethical blood test had discovered.”
Sam finally looked up to meet CJ's eyes, and he saw nothing but compassion there. He was about to try to say something when the door to the infirmary opened, and the President walked in.
“Sam!” he said, smiling just as widely as CJ had when she came in. “I heard you woke up, so I wanted to stop in and see for myself. How are you doing?”
Sam struggled briefly to sit up until CJ pointed out the mechanism for raising the head of the bed. “I'm doing okay, sir,” he replied, relieved that the change in position hadn't made him feel any worse. “Dr. Long said I should be ready to get out of the infirmary in just a little while.”
“I'm glad to hear it,” said the President. “No need to rush, though – take as much time as you need to recover.” His expression turned serious. “Sam, before I say anything else, I'm so terribly sorry about what you were forced to go through in order to get here. None of that should have happened.”
“Thank you, sir. I appreciate that,” Sam told him. He took a breath. “But you don't have to apologize for that. I know the order didn't come from you.”
The President nodded, looking touched. “It didn't come from me, but it's still my responsibility.” Then he cleared his throat. “Josh said you were stabbed? Are you healing all right from that?”
Sam put a hand to his side. He had almost forgotten about the injury. “I think so, sir. One of the side benefits of my … condition: I heal very quickly.” He couldn't keep the sarcasm out of his tone, especially as he said the word 'benefits.'
For their part, the President and CJ seemed to take his statement at face value. “I guess it's good that there are some benefits,” the President said quietly. “I'm sure you've had to discover a lot about it in the past few weeks, just out of necessity.”
“Yes, sir,” Sam replied. He was finding it hard to look at them for more than a few seconds at a time. “You could probably call me an expert on shifters at this point.”
“Well, I think that's something we could use around here, to be frank,” said the President. “We can talk more about that later. But more importantly, we're all glad you're here, Sam. And I want to be sure you know that I still want you on my staff, as long as you want to be here.”
At this, Sam met the President's gaze. “Thank you, Mr. President.”
Silence fell for a moment. Then Dr. Long came in from the back. “Good evening, Mr. President,” he said. “I thought I heard you out here talking to our patient.”
“Yeah, he says he's doing okay,” the President replied. “What did you find from the tox screen – if you don't mind my hearing about it, Sam, and CJ?”
“I could step out, if you'd rather--” CJ began.
Shaking his head, Sam said, “No, that's fine.” He wasn't going to protest, especially if this information might lead to criminal charges being brought against whoever had given the order about the blood tests and the drugs. He thought he saw CJ smile grimly after he thought this, but then his attention was on the doctor.
“All right. It looks to have been a mixture of lorazepam and at least one other drug, a barbiturate,” Dr. Long reported. “I imagine the barbiturate was to knock you out quickly, Mr. Seaborn, while the lorazepam was to keep you unconscious for a longer duration. But I have to say, it's a dangerous mixture, and I personally wouldn't recommend it in almost any circumstance. And based on the level of lorazepam that was still present in your blood, the initial dosage was much higher than I would be comfortable using – even taking into account a higher metabolism, which I theorize is a result of your being a shifter.”
“So it was overkill no matter how you look at it,” the President interpreted, frowning. “Not too surprising, unfortunately – but,” he added, looking at Sam, “also not something I am going to let slide by any means.”
Sam nodded. He hadn't really doubted that the President would respond in any other way, but it was still satisfying to hear it.
Just then, there was a knock on the door, and Charlie came into the room. “Sorry to interrupt, Mr. President, but you're needed back in your office. There's an update from the Energy Secretary and the Secretary of Transportation about the power and road situation in DC.”
“Thanks, Charlie,” the President said. He turned to Sam again. “Sam's awake.”
“So I see, sir,” said Charlie. He smiled at Sam. “Hey, Sam. It's good to see you. Are you feeling better?”
Sam returned the smile, and said, “Thanks, Charlie. It's good to see you, too, and yeah, I'm doing fine.”
“I have to go,” the President said to Sam. “I expect to see you with the rest of the staff tomorrow morning, if you're feeling up to it after a night of sleep that isn't drug-induced.”
Sam wasn't sure if he'd feel much like sleeping after the drugs wore off, but he said, “I'll be there, sir. Thank you.”
“CJ, maybe you can stay for a few minutes and bring Sam up to speed on what's been going on here,” continued the President. “Sam, you might be surprised at how much news there is. Anyway, good night, everyone.”
Sam, Dr. Long, and CJ wished the President a good night, and he left with Charlie and a couple of Secret Service agents. The doctor reminded Sam that he'd be in his office in the back if Sam needed anything.
“So, CJ,” Sam said, after they were alone, “why don't you pull up a chair and tell me what's been going on? I have to admit, the President's last cryptic comment has me curious.”
CJ moved a chair from next to another bed over to Sam and sat down. “Well, I'll start off with the bad news, I guess,” she said. “We still don't know where Donna is, and we haven't heard anything from Margaret, either.”
Sam's heart sank. “What about Ainsley? Is she here?”
“No,” CJ said, sighing and leaning forward in her chair. “She hadn't come into work yet when-- when everyone had to be evacuated. Margaret and Mrs. Landingham hadn't come in yet, either, and Donna went missing a few days before that, as best as we can figure it.”
“Okay.” Sam rubbed a hand across his face. He knew the statistics about the decreased likelihood of people being found the longer they were missing … but on the other hand, he and Josh had been 'missing' for a long while, and they were both all right. So it was still possible the others were all right.
“The First Lady and the rest of the President's family are okay, though,” CJ reported. “They all happened to be traveling in other parts of the country when all of this hit, so they were brought to another secure location.” She paused. “And then there's the real, uh, excitement of the past few days,” she said – and the expression on her face was one that Sam hadn't seen there often. It was hard to describe, in fact.
“Yes?” he prompted, when it became obvious that she wasn't going to continue right away.
She smoothed at a wrinkle in her slacks. “You remember Ed Jacobs from legal?”
Sam thought for a moment. He hadn't had much interaction with the man, but he knew who CJ was talking about. “Yeah, I know who he is.”
“Well, it turns out, he was a shifter,” CJ said, and it seemed like it was her turn to have a little bit of trouble looking him in the eye. “He tried to attack the President a couple of days ago – not to kill him, but to turn him.”
“What?!” Sam felt his mouth drop open as he tried to imagine this scene. “But he didn't--”
“No, the Secret Service got to him before he could reach his goal,” CJ assured him. “He's dead.”
“It sounds like that was the only thing that could be done,” Sam said after a few seconds. “I know there are a lot of shifters who would do that kind of thing if given the chance, but there are a lot who wouldn't, too.”
“Yeah, of course,” CJ agreed, fairly obviously relieved at how well he had taken the news. “It's sad that Jacobs apparently thought that would be the only way the government would be fair to shifters.”
Sam nodded. Then he cleared his throat. “CJ, I hope you didn't think I was going to be upset that the Secret Service had to kill a guy who tried to attack the President – or at least, not any more upset than I would be usually, just because Jacobs was a shifter.”
CJ had the grace to look slightly guilty. “Sorry. You're right.”
He was about to make a sarcastic comment about discrimination when something odd in how CJ had related the story occurred to him. “Wait,” he said, frowning, “how did you guys know what Jacobs had planned? He got shot and killed, so I think I can assume that he wasn't interrogated regarding his motives.”
Somewhat to Sam's surprise, CJ smiled. “Yeah, I'm glad you noticed that little discrepancy, Sam,” she said wryly, “because it gives me a perfect segue to tell you my most exciting news.”
“And what would that be?” asked Sam, curiosity piqued. Something else had happened on top of an attack on the President?
“Had you heard anything about telepaths before you were attacked, or afterward when you were with the other shifters?”
“There were rumors about their existence,” Sam replied. Then he blinked. Then he stared at her. “Are you saying--”
She nodded. “That is what I'm saying. I heard Jacobs' thoughts before he got to the President. And for some reason I actually thought I could get him to stop. I'm glad the Secret Service agents were right there.”
Sam laughed and shook his head in admiration. “So how did the President and everyone else react to this development?”
“Well, I'd already told them about my, uh--”
“Condition?” supplied Sam, grinning.
“Whatever,” she said. She went on to tell him about her recently completed sessions with everyone the Secret Service had interviewed – sessions for which most of the interviewees hadn't known she was listening in.
“Huh,” Sam mused. “I guess telepathic scans are a legal gray area as far as current privacy laws are concerned, though the spirit of the law is probably pretty clear there. Not that I don't see the merit in this instance, of course.”
“Yeah, that's why I decided I had to do it,” CJ explained. She pushed her hair behind her ears. “But it wasn't fun, let me tell you.”
“I believe that,” Sam remarked. Then he narrowed his eyes as his mind made some connections. If the President had gone along with Ron Butterfield's idea in that case, did that mean... Could he have...?
Before he had even quite finished the thought, CJ's eyes widened and she quickly said, “No, no, there wasn't anything sinister or underhanded in my coming to talk with you after you woke up, Sam. The President didn't ask me to check you.” She looked at him directly. “I promise, all I wanted to do was see you.”
Sam nodded slowly. “Okay, but the fact that you just read my mind to see that I was worried about that possibility doesn't exactly strengthen your position, you know.” He smiled as an extra reassurance that was probably redundant, considering her abilities, that he did believe her. Besides, as the old saying went, he really had nothing to hide at the moment.
There was a pause, during which Sam took another sip of water. Then CJ sat up so suddenly that he almost dropped the cup. “Oh, I almost forgot: I did find out something from one of my last interviews. Kevin Franks, who's one of the interns who ended up here, has some pretty strong anti-shifter prejudices.” She folded her hands. “Really strong. In fact, I-- I think it would be best if you stayed out of his way as much as possible, and Ron agrees. He's also assigning some agents to patrol the area outside the infirmary while you're in here, just in case Franks finds out about you.”
Sam took a moment to absorb this. He barely knew Franks on sight, but he wasn't overly shocked that someone out of everyone on staff would have this attitude. “Thanks for the warning,” he said quietly.
“You're welcome,” CJ said.
After an interesting conversation between the two of them about the weirdness of their separate 'conditions', CJ said goodnight and left. Sam was about to lower the bed in preparation for trying to get some rest when he heard CJ start talking to someone out in the hall. She hadn't closed the door all the way behind her, but she and … Toby, it sounded like, were probably still under the impression that they were far enough away that Sam wouldn't be able to overhear them. But he could – at least enough to catch something from CJ that seemed to be an attempt to persuade Toby to go in to see Sam. He thought he heard Toby's brother's name, too, but not the context. Overall, Sam got the impression that there was a reason having something to do with David that Toby might not want to visit him … and Sam had a shrewd, horrible feeling he could guess the rest of the story.
After that realization, Sam couldn't help being both relieved and nervous when Toby did come into the room at last. Sam did his best not to let on what he had overheard. “Hey, Toby.”
“Hi. You look better than you did when you got here,” Toby commented. He didn't quite smile, which wasn't in and of itself unusual. “How are you feeling?”
Sam wondered if there might not be a double meaning in that question, but he decided not to overthink it. “Okay,” he answered. “Just a little groggy, still.” Then he thought of a topic of conversation that would no doubt interest Toby. “Hey, I got to hear the tail end of the President's latest radio address yesterday. It was good. Not as good as it would have been if I'd been here to work on it with you, but still good.”
At this, Toby looked amused. “Thanks. CJ and I made do.” He finally sat down in the chair, though Sam noticed with a pang that he'd pulled the chair back a bit first. “So you managed to hear a radio broadcast or two while you were … out there?”
“Yeah.” This would be awkward, but Sam wasn't willing to lie or hide the truth. “The guy who was leading the group I was with had a portable radio. We all tried to listen to the presidential addresses when we could.”
Toby nodded, resting his chin on his hands and not really looking at Sam. The silence that fell then quickly became so tense that Sam couldn't just stay quiet. “Toby. What's wrong?”
Scoffing, Toby got to his feet. “What's wrong?! Don't you think a better question would be what isn't wrong?” He started to pace. “We're stuck here in this bunker while the world goes to hell out there, CJ has developed telepathic abilities, Josh was kidnapped by a bunch of lunatics, you're a shifter, and David … David's dead, torn to pieces for the crime of existing, apparently. By a group of shifters like the ones you were with!”
That was too much. Sam jumped in before Toby could continue. “You know what? All of those things are true, Toby – except for the minor detail that the group of shifters I was with saved my life more than once, and they've also saved the lives of other people who aren't shifters, including Josh!” He took a breath, trying to calm himself enough to continue without shouting. “I'm really, truly sorry to hear about David. It's absolutely appalling. But not all shifters are monsters. I hope you can believe that. If you can't, I guess you'll have to fire me for the crime of being attacked by a shifter myself, and then finding a group to help me stay alive.” He leaned back against his pillows, suddenly feeling drained. In a lower voice, he added, “I'd rather not have to quit my job, either.”
Toby looked at Sam for several seconds without speaking. Then he sighed and took a step back toward the chair. “No, you're right. You're right, Sam. I-- I haven't been thinking straight.”
Just then, the sound of someone hurrying toward the room became audible to both of them. Leo pushed open the door, came in, and looked from Toby to Sam. “What the hell is going on here?” he demanded. “I was just coming down the hall to visit Sam when I hear all this yelling. I thought you were supposed to be resting, Sam?”
“I was about to say the same thing,” said a woman who Sam guessed to be the nurse as she came in from the back. “Is everything all right out here?”
Toby now looked rueful. “I think so,” he said quietly. “Sorry, Sam. You should rest. I'll, um, I'll see you tomorrow.”
“No, it's fine,” Sam said, sitting up. “I'm fine. I can rest while you guys are still here.” He met the nurse's eyes. “Thank you.”
“All right,” she said, faintly skeptical. “Call if you need me. Dr. Long will check in on you in a few minutes.” She nodded to Leo and Toby and then left.
“Sam,” Leo said, coming over to stand next to him, “I haven't said so yet: it's good to see you. You're looking better.”
“Thanks, Leo,” Sam replied. “It's good to see you, too.”
Leo smiled, and then he turned a severe gaze on Toby and back to Sam. “Now, what was all that about, that yelling just a few minutes ago?”
Sam looked at Toby, who seemed to be staring at the floor. “Toby and I were just … talking about what's been going on, and a little bit about the future.”
At that, Toby looked up, barely managing to conceal his surprise. Leo observed this, folded his arms, and said, “I see. And this conversation – it didn't involve either of you getting upset about the implications of Sam being a shifter?”
Sam and Toby both started to reply at the same time, but Leo held up a hand. “Obviously, this is not an issue any of us can ignore, but before we can talk about policy and how to help people, we need to be able to talk about it with each other without ending up shouting at each other. Is that going to be a problem for you two?”
“No, sir,” said Toby, and Sam echoed him.
“Good,” Leo said. “I'm glad to hear it. We have enough going on right now without senior staff members getting into fights or deciding they can't work together.” He took a deep breath and then smiled again. “And speaking of what's going on right now, I've got some good news: it sounds like we're getting very close to being able to move back aboveground, and back to the White House.”
Sam's eyes widened. “Really? The power and water and everything is back on?”
“Just about,” Leo said. “The police and National Guard say it'll be maybe another couple of days, and then we should all be allowed out of here. Most of the hardest-hit areas are well on the way to being rebuilt, too.”
“That's fantastic news,” Toby said, sounding much less subdued. “I imagine the President is looking forward to the chance to see his family soon.”
“He is,” Leo confirmed.
The doctor came back into the room at that moment, and after greeting him, Leo said, “Well, I think we should leave Sam to get his checkup and some sleep, Toby.”
Toby nodded. “Yeah. Good night, Sam. See you tomorrow.”
“Good night,” Sam said. He watched them leave, and then turned to Dr. Long. “So am I free to go?”
“You should be, but there are a few things I need to check first,” answered the doctor. “Any lingering symptoms?”
It didn't take too much more time before Dr. Long was satisfied that his patient was sufficiently recovered and could be discharged. After he took the IV out, the doctor brought Sam a change of clothes and pointed out the tiny bathroom. “I'll say goodnight as well,” he finished, “and remind you that you can feel free to come talk to me if you experience any other symptoms from the drugs.”
Sam thanked him. When he had changed into the clothes he'd been given, he left the infirmary – only then realizing he didn't know where he was supposed to sleep. There was a Secret Service agent at the end of the hall, though, so Sam approached him.
“Hi,” he said. “Uh, I'm Sam Seaborn, and I just got here today. Do you know if there's a room for me for the night?”
“Yes, sir,” the agent said. “I was instructed to take you there if you're ready. It's in the same area of the facility as Mr. Ziegler and Mr. Lyman's rooms.”
“Great.” Sam followed the agent down the hall. Whether or not he was able to sleep at all tonight, he reflected, at least he could look forward to the return of some semblance of normalcy tomorrow.
I feel like I should say, I apologize profusely for any inaccuracies I may have included about the National Guard in this story. Any mistakes are mine and I take full responsibility for them. Also, I should point out that as far as I know, the National Guard is composed of good people doing hard work on behalf of their country. Even the people in the Guard in this story are not meant to come across as bad or evil, and I hope that was clear.
Chapter 10: Chapter 10
Even after CJ's reminder, Josh came close to missing breakfast the next morning. In fact, he had been so deeply asleep that his alarm clock buzzed for almost fifteen minutes before he even started to wake up. He had to scramble to get ready, but he did manage to make it before too long after 7:30.
He opened the door to the room to which he'd been directed, and had to take a second to compose himself at the sight of so many of his friends all together in one room. Then Toby looked up from his plate and said, “Josh, how nice of you to join us. Did you get lost on the way here in this vast, complicated facility?”, and the moment was past.
“What are you, the hall monitor? Do I get a detention for being tardy?” Josh shot back, grabbing a plate for himself. He looked at the President. “Good morning, Mr. President. Sorry I'm late. Still catching up on sleep, I guess.”
“Good morning, Josh,” replied the President with a smile. “Have a seat and dig in. As long as you don't fall asleep during the rest of the day's schedule, I think I can forgive you.”
“Thank you, sir,” he said.
The rest of the meal passed in a similar fashion, with topics of conversation mostly tending toward the lighter ones. Josh could tell that he wasn't the only one who was feeling encouraged, both by being reunited with his friends and by the news about the progress of the rebuilding of the infrastructure. Even when reference was made to Sam being a shifter, there was little if any tension. Josh was relieved by this fact; he'd heard from CJ about what had happened to Toby's brother, and he had been afraid this would drive a real wedge between Toby and Sam. Evidently he didn't need to worry about that, based on how normal the interaction between the two of them seemed to be today.
When they were finished eating, Leo told them all that he and the President were going to be starting the day's work by spending more time on policy issues regarding shifters and vampires. “Sam and Josh, if you two are feeling recovered enough to join us, you both have valuable input on the subject that we'd appreciate hearing,” he said, looking at them in turn.
Josh nodded, and Sam, looking appropriately serious, said, “Yeah. I actually have some messages to pass along from the other shifters I was with.”
“We'll be interested to hear them,” the President said. He stood, and everyone else followed suit. “Toby, I'm sorry we'll be keeping Sam and Josh busy for a while, but you and CJ can work together on the press release and your other tasks, right?”
Toby shrugged. “That's fine, sir, although I'd like Sam's input at some point today.”
“You'll have him back,” promised the President. “Meanwhile, Charlie, would you let Nancy McNally and the Secretary of Defense know that I'm going to need them in on this conversation in about an hour and a half?”
“Yes, sir,” Charlie said.
They split up, with Josh and Sam following Leo and the President to the President's office. As soon as they were inside, the President invited them to sit, and he did as well. “Now, before we get started, Sam, I want to assure you that this is not an interrogation, nor is it going to turn into one. If you start to feel at any point that Leo or I are asking you questions that are too personal or in any other way something you'd rather not answer, speak up and let us know.” He looked to Josh. “The same goes for you, Josh. This is meant to just be a brainstorming and information-sharing session, so that we can be as informed as possible before making any policy decisions.”
“That sounds fair, sir,” Sam replied. He looked slightly nervous, but still resolute.
“Yeah, I'm fine with that, sir,” Josh agreed. He had doubts as to how much input he could personally give, but who knew.
“Good,” said the President. “Then we'll start out by sharing with you where we are for the moment, as far as ideas and news. Leo?”
“Thank you, Mr. President,” Leo said. He cleared his throat. “Obviously, it's been difficult to do much in the way of compiling accurate statistics, but from what we have been able to gather, it seems that it's mostly shifter groups who are making organized attacks on targets, while vampires seem to be causing more damage to isolated individuals and groups.” He looked at Sam for a moment before looking back down at his notes. “I'm not saying that all shifter groups are involved equally, but they are the ones who seem more politically motivated and organized in their attacks. That includes the attack on Harvard – one of the shifter groups that seems to be most prominent took credit for that one.”
“Does this one group have a name?” asked the President.
“Yeah, they call themselves Shifter Rights Now,” Leo reported.
“I'm not surprised to hear that they took credit for the Harvard attack,” Sam said grimly. “We-- Rumor among shifters was always that they were the most dangerous, dedicated, and largest group out there.”
The President leaned forward. “Is there anything else you can tell us about them, Sam?”
“Well, they believe that large-scale conflict between shifters and normals is inevitable, and that it's the only way to be sure we'll be treated fairly,” Sam answered after a moment. Then he sighed. “They're not unique in that belief, either. I think shifters who think otherwise are in the minority, in fact.”
Josh thought about how the other shifters in Sam's group had seemed to feel toward him, and he had to agree with Sam's assessment. It was really no wonder, especially if you considered what was happening to people like that kid Mike and his family, who Sam had told him about.
“Unfortunately, I can see why they would feel that way,” said Leo, unknowingly echoing Josh's thoughts. “We've heard plenty of reports of violence against shifters to go with the reports of violence committed by them.”
“Yes, sir,” said Sam. “And that's not even getting into the whole issue of whether most shifters are willing members and participants in these groups.” His voice got a little quieter. “I can state with some certainty that there are plenty of shifters who would just as soon not be involved in any group, but that's not usually an option.”
“I'm sorry to have to ask, but can you explain that further, Sam?” the President asked.
Sam swallowed and nodded, and Josh could guess that he was remembering the story he'd already told Josh. “The thing is, right after you're attacked by a shifter, if you're turned rather than killed, the first transformation hits not too long afterward. It's … well, it's pretty much impossible to stay in control. You basically just run yourself into exhaustion. And shifters tend to seek each other out, even the first time we change, so you usually end up with a group of other shifters sometime during that time.”
By this point, Sam was staring fixedly at the floor. “If you're lucky, they're the good ones, who'll help keep you from doing anything you would regret once you come back to yourself. Then you stay with them just to stay alive, to protect yourself – and you stay with them out of gratitude, too, I guess. I was lucky. But if they're not the good ones, they won't let you leave. They'll bully you and do whatever they have to do to get you to stay. In fact, there's a better-than-average chance a shifter will end up in the same group as the one who turned him or her in the first place.”
There was a brief period of silence. Josh felt ill, and based on the expressions on Leo's and the President's faces, he guessed he wasn't the only one. “That's-- that's sick.”
“Yes, it is,” Sam agreed. “Some of the shifters in my-- the group I was in were, ah, refugees, I guess you could call them, from that type of group.”
“It is sick,” Leo said, frowning, “and it's something we're going to have to address in our policies. It sounds like we'll need some kind of support system for shifters who have just been turned – although of course in the long run, I think it's fair to say that our goal would be to have no one else be turned.”
“Which brings me to one of the messages that my group wanted me to pass along,” Sam said. “That is, if it's all right for me to share that right now, sir.”
“Go ahead,” said the President, and Leo added his agreement.
As Sam reported on the divided opinions among shifters on any theoretical cure, Josh found himself still thinking about the revelation that most shifters ended up in the same group as the one who turned them. In conjunction with the fact that Sam had said Phil and Laurie found him very soon after he first transformed, and the fact that Sam said he hadn't seen the shifter who attacked him … Josh gave himself a mental shake. Phil had given no indication of being the kind of man who could do that to anyone. He was probably borrowing trouble even thinking of that idea.
Josh blinked, realizing that the President must have already spoken to him once. “I'm sorry, sir, what was that?”
“I was just asking whether you agree with Sam's assessment,” said the President. “He said that he thinks it's very unlikely that vampires would seek out a cure at all, assuming one becomes available.”
“Uh, yeah, I agree,” Josh answered, doing his best not to dwell on the memories this question called up. “I-- I'm not a doctor, but it seems pretty clear that the virus, or whatever it is, that makes people into vampires must cause major changes in their brain chemistry as well as changing their appearance. From my limited experience, I'm guessing there would only be a few vampires that would want the cure, whereas there's obviously a significant percentage of the shifter population who would want it.”
“I think that's a fairly accurate description of the situation,” Sam said. He paused. “Like Josh said, we would obviously need real evidence and the opinion of medical professionals, but it seems to me that whatever biological agent causes people to change into vampires also damages their ability to make sound, rational decisions.”
“So we classify them all as mentally unsound?” Leo looked skeptical. “True or not, I don't see how that won't come across as discrimination against a minority, especially if we use that argument as justification for rounding them up and forcibly give them this theoretical cure.”
“I fully admit that I may not be able to be objective,” Sam replied, “and I don't like the idea of rounding anyone up to force them to undergo any procedure. But it's my opinion that if we were to announce that policy decision and ask for counterarguments from representatives of the vampire community, we wouldn't get any rational ones. I think most of them have lost that ability. And while we work on ways to get that back for them, they remain a serious threat to anyone they run across.”
“Well, that's something to research further,” put in the President, “as soon as we have the means to do so without risk to anyone doing the research. We can table the vampire issue for the moment, unless any of you have anything else that needs to be said.”
Josh shook his head, and after a moment Sam did likewise.
“All right.” The President turned his gaze back onto Sam. “Sam, what do you think should be our next move regarding shifters, once we're in a position to implement policy?”
“Regarding how to move forward with a cure?” Sam asked.
The President shrugged. “Well, before we even get to that, since that FBI Fringe Division and the rest of the team haven't actually invented one yet.”
“Fringe Division?” Josh wondered aloud. That was a new one to him. “What is that? It sounds like a bunch of wackos.”
“It does sound like a bunch of wackos, Josh,” acknowledged the President, leaning back in his seat, “but if you'd spoken to Special Agent In Charge Broyles, as I have several times, you'd start to change your mind. The man seems about as far from crazy as you can get. But if we could get back to the question I was asking Sam...”
“Of course, sir. Sorry,” said Josh. “Sorry, Sam.”
Shooting Josh an annoyed look, Sam said, “I think some kind of statement making it clear that shifters will not automatically be viewed as terrorists or criminals would be a good first step. That might help those shifter groups that aren't already in the Shifter Rights Now camp decide to wait and see what we'll do next, at least, before they do anything rash.”
“All right. And in your mind, would this statement be something CJ releases to the press, or would you want to deliver it yourself?”
At this, Sam appeared taken aback. “Sir?”
“I understand you may not have decided if you want to make it public that you're a shifter, Sam,” said the President, “and that choice is entirely up to you. Your group already knows, though, and they and other shifters could take encouragement from the fact that you're White House senior staff. It might legitimize any statement we make.”
“I see,” said Sam, clearing his throat. “Well, um, Mr. President, let me say that I wouldn't dismiss the possibility out of hand. I don't think it's fair or honest of me to try to hide, but I haven't figured out exactly what I want to do yet.”
“That's all right,” replied the President. He glanced at Leo. “What else do we need to talk about?”
Leo thought for a moment. “I like the idea of a statement that at least starts to let shifters know that we aren't going to classify them all as terrorists. I think that's a good first move. The only thing I'd worry about is if we should include something that addresses vampires as well, and telepaths.”
“I don't think we necessarily have to combine everything into that statement,” Josh said. “Since it's shifter groups who have been – I was going to say 'in the news', but I guess that's not all that accurate. So what I'm trying to say is, it seems to me like shifters might need the most reassurance that the activities of groups like Shifter Rights Now won't lead to all of them being labeled the same way.”
“We can see what CJ thinks, but that makes sense as far as it goes,” Leo said. “We could also incorporate something about how we're working on a support system for newly-turned shifters and any others who need help.”
Sam chimed in, “And I think that if we wanted to mention – in another statement or the same one, whichever we end up deciding on – that we aren't going to automatically assume that all vampires are criminals, that would actually work just fine.”
“Because we want to take it on a case-by-case basis with them as well?” said Leo, and Sam nodded.
“All right, I think we have a good start,” the President said. “I'm expecting a call from Nancy McNally in a few minutes, so we can hear what she and the Secretary of Defense have to recommend after they hear what we've been discussing. Sam and Josh, if you could stick around for a little while longer, we could use your input on this conversation as well.”
As Josh and Sam were stating their willingness to stay, there was a knock on the door and Charlie opened it. “Mr. President, they're ready for you on the phone, sir.”
“Thank you, Charlie.”
The ensuing conversation was … interesting, for sure, Josh reflected afterward. It became evident quickly that not everyone at the DoD was as willing to believe that shifters weren't all equally dangerous. It also became clear that there were already rumors about Sam – which, thankfully, seemed to have all been corrected or quashed by the end of the meeting. If he hadn't already been witness to Sam's restraint in the face of much worse circumstances, Josh would have been even more impressed than he was by how Sam didn't blow up at the ignorant comments and opinions that came up during the conversation. Meanwhile, Josh himself had trouble staying calm. At least this time, the fact that he was in the presence of his President and his direct superior did seem to have an effect.
After the call was ended, the President called Toby and CJ in to give them an update and hear what they had to say. CJ wanted to be sure telepaths were included in the list of people who would be assured that they were not automatically labeled as criminals. Toby, meanwhile, was less than happy with the idea that vampires were not all to be treated as criminals, but at least he was willing to move on for the moment. He agreed with Sam's and Josh's reluctant conclusion that the vampires would probably end up having to be cured without their consent.
Sam stayed with Toby and CJ to work on the truly monumental task of writing and condensing all of these recent policy decisions and updates into coherent statements. Josh, meanwhile, dove back in to as much of his usual tasks as made sense at the current time. He found himself expecting to see Donna whenever he looked up. Instead, he only saw the other desk in the room which was for Leo. This never failed to send a pang of worry through him when he remembered that she wasn't there. There hadn't been any word yet on where she was.
Most of the rest of the day passed without incident, until about half an hour before dinner. Josh had returned from a visit to where Sam, Toby, and CJ were working, having heard what they had so far and offered some suggestions. Now he was just hanging up the phone after a surprisingly fruitful conversation with the Attorney General when he felt the entire room start to shake. It didn't last all that long – it couldn't have been more than thirty seconds – but it went on long enough that Josh realized what was happening and recalled that you were supposed to get under a desk or something during an earthquake.
Then, of course, once Josh was under his desk, it was only a tiny step for his messed-up brain to decide that this was all too similar to the way the building where he had been held prisoner had shaken when it was attacked by the shifters. Then his brain translated the shouts of surprise from the neighboring offices to screams and cries of terror. He knew it was coming, but he still found himself unprepared to prevent the flashback. There it was, the bitter taste of adrenaline … and then he was reliving everything again, starting in Virginia and moving forward. He flinched violently at a sharp, loud crack that had to be gunfire...
This one wasn't as severe as the one that had hit him in his cell. It had already started to fade when the door to the office opened. Josh was still under his desk, but at least he could begin to try to calm himself before whoever it was found him.
“Josh, are you in here?” It was Leo's voice, quiet and concerned. “Are you okay?”
Heart racing, Josh attempted to speak, but he didn't have his breathing back under control yet. When he tried to take a deep breath, he ended up choking and coughing.
Leo came around and crouched down in front of Josh. “You need a hand?”
Finally managing to stop coughing, Josh nodded and took Leo's offered hand. “You know, I'm getting pretty tired of this whole thing,” he said wryly between breaths, as he got to his feet.
“I'm sure you are,” said Leo, still looking concerned. “And in other circumstances, I might say you should try to do a better job of staying out of traumatic situations that are obviously going to slow down your recovery, but unfortunately I don't think that's possible for now.”
“Yeah, so I've gathered,” Josh replied. His heart was still pounding, but the terror was mostly gone. He knew where he was, and he knew that – a minor earthquake notwithstanding – he was safe. Safer than he had been in a while, in fact. “Is everyone else okay?”
“Yeah,” Leo told him. “A little unsettled, but I don't think anyone was hurt.”
“That's good.” Josh closed his eyes and rubbed a hand across his face.
“Of course, the Secret Service reminded me on the way here that we need to be ready for the possibility of aftershocks,” Leo continued.
“Right,” Josh sighed, leaning against the edge of the desk. That just meant he had another reason to be worried about when a flashback was going to shut him down next.
There was a gentle knock on the open door, and Josh looked up to see Toby, CJ, and Sam standing in the doorway, all three wearing almost identical expressions of worry. “Everyone okay in here?” Toby asked.
“Yeah, we're fine,” Leo answered. “You guys?”
“CJ almost got hit in the head with a clock,” said Sam, “but otherwise we're fine.”
Josh raised his eyebrows and looked at CJ. He thought she was looking back at him with an odd intensity, but he just said, “Well, I don't do puns, but I think there's one in there somewhere about getting your clock cleaned.”
Nearly everyone rolled their eyes. “No puns, please,” CJ said. “My latest headache was just starting to go away.”
Leo wanted to know what CJ meant. She admitted that she'd gotten a pretty bad headache unrelated to anything falling on her during the earthquake, and that it had been harder to control her telepathy for a while. “It was very disconcerting,” she said, “but I guess it meant I didn't have time to worry too much about the actual earthquake. But like I said, it's going away already.”
“This happened only for the duration of the earthquake?” Sam asked. At her nod, he looked thoughtful. “That's weird. I mean, I don't think that could be a coincidence.”
“What?” Toby looked between the two of them.
Then Charlie came down the hallway and said, “Excuse me, everyone. The President just got a call from that FBI division that deals with the strange cases--”
“Fringe Division?” Leo supplied.
“Yes, Fringe Division,” Charlie confirmed. “He said he has some news that he'd like you all to hear.”
“Thanks, Charlie.” Leo glanced at Josh, and then said to Charlie, “We'll follow you back.”
Josh was pretty sure that Sam and CJ and Toby were aware of what had happened to him during the quake, but none of them seemed to feel the need to bring it up again, for which he was grateful. He cleared his throat. “Charlie, did anybody get hurt near the President's office?”
“Nope, we all made it through okay,” Charlie said. He looked around at them all again. “You guys all okay, too?”
“Yeah, we're good,” Josh told him. “For the most part.”
Charlie gave him an odd look, but didn't ask.
As soon as Charlie knocked on the door to the President's office, there was a call for them to come in. The President was standing next to his desk, staring at the phone that he had, presumably, just put down a few minutes ago. He looked up as his staff entered, and Josh thought he appeared troubled. “Hi. You guys can have a seat. Charlie, you can stay if you want.”
They sat, and the President made his way to his chair as well. “So, as Charlie probably mentioned, I got another call from Agent Broyles at Fringe Division just a few minutes after my first call about the earthquake, from the USGS.” He stopped for a moment. “All of you are all right? No one was hurt?”
“No, sir, we weren't hurt,” Toby said.
“Good.” The President nodded. “Good. From what I hear from the Secret Service, the worst injury here was one of the kitchen staff who had a stack of plates fall on his foot, but it's just bruised, according to the doctor.”
“That's good news, considering,” Leo said. “Do we know how strong the quake was in the rest of the country? Did the USGS have data to give you?”
“The director told me the epicenter was right outside New York, but that it still wasn't terribly strong even there. About a four point seven,” said the President. He shook his head. “It ended up being a good thing that the city is mostly empty at the moment, though, because that was strong enough that there was a fair amount of damage to some structures and roads. No reported casualties, but it's early yet.”
“Okay,” Leo said. There was a brief pause, and then he asked, “So what was it that Broyles had to say?”
The President sighed. “Yeah, this is where it gets interesting. Agent Broyles told me that it's the opinion of his team of experts that this earthquake, as well as all the other recent ones, are caused by the breakdown of the fabric of the universe. No, universes. He was specific about the plural.”
There was another pause, longer this time. Then Josh found his voice. “The breakdown of the fabric of the universes? That's what's causing all of this? Does-- Is there some kind of proof for this theory?”
“Apparently so,” the President said. “He said he'll have it sent to me as soon as he can. Meanwhile, he warned me that we may see increased activity from telepaths, shifters, and vampires as a direct result of the quake, as well, since some alternate universe is probably the source of all of these phenomena.”
Josh saw CJ's eyes widen, and Sam looked confused. “I thought it was a virus that was the source.”
The President nodded. “Yes, in the case of shifters and vampires, there are viruses that are spreading. But these viruses originated in another universe, from what Fringe Division has discovered.”
“Another universe,” CJ muttered. “Okay then. I'm not entirely sure how much I want to know this, but what about for telepaths? Is that a virus, too, or what?”
“As far as they know, no. It's something else they haven't been able to pin down yet, although again they seem fairly certain that it has its origins in another universe,” said the President. “Sorry, CJ.”
“Oh.” She folded her hands. “Okay.”
“Well, I guess that sort of makes sense,” Sam said after a moment. “I mean, as much as any of this makes sense, which isn't much. But CJ, you said you suddenly had trouble keeping people out with your telepathy during the quake, and I...” He glanced at Toby and then continued, “There was a moment there while everything was shaking that I wasn't sure I was going to stay in control.” Unstated but clear was Sam's relief that he had been able to maintain control, even in the face of this.
“That does seem to support the theory that there's some common source for both conditions,” remarked the President.
Leo agreed, and then said, “I think the most important question is, does Agent Broyles have any information on a way to stop this from happening again? Or are we going to keep having more and more earthquakes, and hell, more damage to our universe itself?”
“That's what worries me most,” admitted the President quietly. “He said they're working as hard as they can on a solution, but they don't have anything permanent yet. They do have some measures they can implement to keep things from getting too much worse in the meantime. I told him we'd get him all the resources, equipment, and personnel they can use, and I intend to follow through on that as soon as I can – but even though it sounds like they also have the resources of Massive Dynamic to draw on, that doesn't seem like anywhere near enough, if all of what he's telling me is true.”
“It seems like it's all we can do for the moment, though, sir,” Toby said. “And maybe these Fringe Division people will have more specific requests for you after they do what they can.”
“That's true,” said the President. Then he stood up, and they all followed suit. “If I'm not mistaken, it's about time for dinner. Let's all try not to worry too much about the world collapsing around us while we eat, all right?”
There was a chorus of murmured agreement as they headed for the door. Then Josh thought of something. “Mr. President, have you heard from your family?”
“Yeah, they're fine, Josh,” he answered, smiling. “They're far enough away from here that they didn't even feel the quake. I think Zoey was almost disappointed, since she's never felt one before.”
“You should tell her she's not really missing out, Charlie,” Josh said to the younger man.
Charlie shrugged. “I don't think I would change her mind, no matter what I told her.”
“Smart man,” said the President, clapping Charlie on the back.
Chapter 11: Chapter 11
Warning: Character death in this section. We're both very sorry - we promise the story didn't work without it.
It was unexpectedly moving the next morning to have the entire senior staff present at breakfast. Even though there were still people missing or simply not present, CJ felt a kind of peace she had hardly known she was lacking for these past few weeks. Everyone else seemed more relaxed, as well, although that was also partly because there were signs that they would be allowed to leave very soon.
“Hey, Sam, you know the food here needs to last at least a few more days,” said the President, when Sam came back to the table with thirds.
“Ah, but that's what he does now, Mr. President,” Josh put in. “He eats all the time.”
“I have a faster metabolism than I used to,” Sam said, with a glare at Josh. “And isn't there enough food here for at least six months?”
The President nodded, pretending to look grave. “I tell you what, we can let it slide for today, considering that you just got here.”
“That's very kind of you, sir,” said Sam, who definitely got it.
CJ had assumed that Sam would join her and Toby in their increasingly crowded office now that he was here. As it turned out, Leo suggested that Sam start the day by meeting with him, the President, Josh, and a few others to talk about shifter policy, if he was feeling up to it. He said he was, so she and Toby were back to trying to figure out how to put all the important updates they now had to work with into a coherent address.
“We're going to need a longer speech,” said CJ, after they had spent some time looking over each other's summaries. “Aren't we?”
“I'm beginning to think we're going to want an actual TV press conference on top of the weekly address, actually,” Toby replied. “Especially if we have a specific policy to share with the country, which we're obviously hoping to.”
“Well, I know power's coming back on, but we're still not going to have the kind of TV audience we really need for that important of an announcement,” said CJ. “Not to mention, of course, there is no press corps here. But I can work on the idea of a television address, anyway. I still think the radio address probably needs to include some highlights from whatever we say on TV.”
“Yeah,” said Toby. “And we'll rebroadcast when things are better, of course.”
“Okay,” she said. She began making notes to that end, and found an aide to send over to Leo's office with a message explaining their plan.
Before lunch, there had evidently been enough progress made that Charlie came to bring them over to the President's office to hear about it. The most salient points were that Sam had suggested the White House make a statement guaranteeing that no shifter would be assumed to be a criminal based solely on their status as a shifter, and furthermore the cure would not be made mandatory to any shifter.
“Mr. President, if we specifically mention shifters and not any other kind of supernatural, isn't that going to send a message that criminality and perhaps the cure will be made mandatory for the ones not mentioned?” asked CJ.
“We thought of that,” said Leo. “Sam made the point that shifters are the only group who seem to have any political aspirations, so that is why we need to make a statement to them right away. Is that fair, Sam?”
“That's right,” Sam said. “As for vampires, I think we can state that we won't make them into criminals, either.”
“So, what, we're letting them attack people and then we'll allow them to be captured?” Toby said, raising his eyebrows.
“Of course not,” said the President.
“Then how are we stopping them, sir?” Toby insisted.
“Our best option is probably surveillance,” the President replied. “It's not perfect, but it's a lot better than rounding people up without legal cause.”
Toby nodded, although he didn't seem quite convinced. “And the cure for them?” he wanted to know. “Assuming we actually get one, are they going to need to have it administered forcibly?”
“I can't see any other option,” said Sam. Josh echoed the sentiment.
“That's a question we haven't quite decided yet,” said the President. “CJ, do you think a statement needs to be made about telepaths?”
CJ paused. “We obviously should explicitly include them in the list of people who won't be called criminals. Other than that, I really don't know, sir. I don't feel like I know enough about their – uh, our situation and what we'll be facing, yet.”
The President nodded. “Well, that's a good start. You and Toby can work on those statements.”
“Sam, you can join them,” Leo added. “We'll come get you if there are more questions we need you for. Josh, I've got some meetings I want you to set up.”
“We'll see you folks at lunch,” said the President.
“Thank you, Mr. President,” said CJ and Toby and Sam, and they headed back to their office.
“So, CJ, thinking about speechwriting full-time?” asked Sam as they went.
“Hardly,” she said. “Toby's been very nice about my input, but I'm glad to start doing less of that so I can focus more on the actual press angle.”
“That reminds me, there's going to be a whole lot of material to cover in the next statement that goes out,” said Sam. “Have you thought about doing a TV address?”
CJ exchanged glances with Toby, amused. “Great minds, I guess.”
“So you have thought about it?” said Sam.
“Yes, Sam, we have,” Toby said. “I don't think we can do it all in one radio address, or even two. We're going to have to do an actual full-length speech.”
“And before you ask, yes, we know not everyone we want to be able to see it might currently have access to their TVs,” CJ put in.
“Okay,” said Sam. They had reached the office by this point, and he opened the door to let them all inside. “By the way, you should probably know that I haven't decided yet, but I might be the one to speak about shifter rights.”
“Really?” asked CJ, shutting the door behind them. She wanted to ask if he was sure, but obviously he wasn't.
“Well, I haven't decided yet,” he repeated. Then he looked around the office. “Wow. This is going to be fun. Like being back in a classroom.”
“You mean the space issue? Yeah, it's been invigorating,” said CJ.
Toby rolled his eyes and said down at his desk – which was, in fact, connected at a right angle to the same table at which CJ worked. “I guess you get the middle.”
“I guess so,” said Sam, pulling a chair over and taking a seat between them.
“So you might speak about shifter rights?” Toby asked, not looking up as he started to sift through the papers he had been working on.
“Maybe,” said Sam. He didn't elaborate. “Anyway. What should I take a look at first?”
Toby handed him a stack. “Start there.”
CJ watched as his eyes widened. He blew out a breath. “This really is a lot of material, isn't it?”
She laughed. “I think we've pretty well established that.”
“So let's get to it,” Toby said.
Overall, it probably was easier to make progress with everyone on the senior staff working. That was how it should be, certainly. Yet CJ found that having Sam in the office as well did tend to mean more conversations, which may have led to Toby and CJ accomplishing a little less. Maybe it would balance out, since they at least had a third person working on it (who was trained for it), she thought.
She didn't get a chance to make that kind of call, however. Shortly before dinner, during a period when none of them was talking, she noticed a growing rumbling noise. “What's-?” she started to say, and then her papers started to slide off the table and the clock fell off the wall above her, narrowly missing hitting her in the head.
“Another quake,” Sam said, rather unnecessarily, speaking loudly to be heard over the noise.
They quickly got under the table. Suddenly, CJ noticed the alarm of her friends very clearly, as if she hadn't learned to block at all, and though she tried to concentrate on pushing it away, it didn't seem to be working. She could tell that Toby was hoping that no one would be hurt, and was also hoping that the quake wouldn't cause any more delay in the country's infrastructure getting back online.
And Sam... it felt like Sam was perhaps being especially affected by the quake. He was tense, but not only out of worry for everyone's safety from the earthquake. In fact, CJ wondered for a moment, because Sam did as well, if she and Toby might shortly be sharing the office with a wolf. It wasn't an idea that pleased her – or Sam. But she heard Sam redouble his own efforts, and after a moment or two the danger seemed likely to pass.
So, why? she wondered. It seemed that both she and Sam were suddenly having more difficulty controlling their abilities – because of the quake? That didn't seem to make sense, but she was too busy trying not to hear what seemed like all of the thoughts of every single person in the bunker to really pursue the question. Naturally, this effort brought on a headache within moments, which didn't make things any easier.
The shaking had only been going on for a few seconds when CJ picked up on a thrust of terror so strong that other emotions and thoughts faded in comparison. She instantly recognized that it was from someone she knew, although she didn't immediately know why the person should be so much more scared than others. Then she saw a flash of a small, dark room that she didn't know, which was being jolted by an explosion. The image was accompanied by the sound of gunfire, though CJ was aware that there was no one currently firing any weapon.
When that flash was followed at once by another image, this time of a location CJ knew all too well, and then a feeling of indescribable pain spreading from her torso, she realized it was Josh. It took her several seconds to notice that someone was speaking to her, and that the shaking had stopped. She blinked, and also became aware that tears were pricking her eyes.
“CJ! Are you all right? Are you hurt?” Sam was saying. He was crouched in front of her, and Toby was standing next to him, looking worried.
She shook her head and crawled out from underneath the table. “No, I'm fine. It's Josh.”
Sam paled. “What do you mean?”
“He's having a flashback. The earthquake, I think it reminded him of when he was captured? I don't know. And then he remembered the shooting. God, it's horrible,” she said, blinking rapidly again and accepting Toby's hand to stand up. The intensity of everyone's thoughts had faded now that the quake was over, but she could tell it wasn't over for Josh.
Sam looked grim. “You can feel that?”
She was already moving to go open the door. “I didn't know – I knew it had to be bad, but...”
A Secret Service agent was in the hall when she opened the door. “Is everyone all right in there?” he asked.
She turned to look at Sam and Toby, both of whom just looked distressed. “We're fine. Is anyone hurt?” she asked in return.
“Not as far as I know,” he said. “Be careful. There may be aftershocks.” At her acknowledgement, he continued walking.
“Someone has to help him,” CJ fretted.
“He'll come out of it,” said Sam. “But he shouldn't be alone.”
“He was in Leo's office, I think,” said Toby.
They went in that direction, and CJ was relieved to start to feel the terror dying away. “I don't think he's alone now,” she informed them. “Maybe Leo found him.”
“Good,” said Sam, sounding relieved.
Leo's door was not closed when they reached it. Toby still knocked before he pushed it all the way open. CJ's worry eased as she saw that Leo and Josh were both standing in the room, and though Josh didn't look completely together, he looked much better than she had been feeling from him. When he said something, it was to crack a joke, which helped confirm that he was starting to feel more back to normal.
She allowed herself to calm down. It helped that the headache brought on during the quake seemed to be on its way out. Sam seemed to be totally recovered from whatever had been happening with his control, too. And then, shortly, they were all summoned to a conversation with the President, which took all her attention.
~~~~~Several Days Later
The President's first TV appearance since returning to the White House went extremely well. There were a few small technical glitches, but nothing to seriously disrupt the flow. They had all worked on the speech, spending as much effort on it, even in the limited time available, as if it were a State of the Union address – which, as more than one staff member had noted, it basically was. It went out to as many houses in the country as had functioning TVs and radios, and the entire text was printed in most newspapers. CJ could feel the President's absolute sincerity and determination as he spoke about how they as a nation were going to rebuild, and she could sense the pride of her friends as they all listened to his words.
Sam had been next to appear on television, clearly outlining the White House's policies on shifters, as well as other supernaturals. He had also bravely stated that he knew firsthand how these policies would benefit shifters and their interaction with others. When asked for clarification on whether that meant that he was a shifter, he didn't back down. Instead, he told a small amount of the story of what had happened to him, although he didn't go into how he and Josh had made it back to the President. CJ made a note to herself to pursue the idea of getting that whole story out to the people somehow, provided both Josh and Sam agreed. She thought it would be both inspirational and a good example of what the White House policies on shifters were not going to look like.
Riding a high that had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with genuine optimism (which she had been missing deeply), CJ performed her other duties that first official day back at work almost as if she had never left. That, in and of itself, was almost surreal. Of course, not everyone had returned since not everyone had been located yet. That fact reminded her that the apparent normalcy was largely because everyone had been too busy to think about the ways in which everything was decidedly not normal.
One break from this was when she took a few minutes at lunch to call her family. The phone lines were still pretty busy, and the connection wasn't perfect, but she spoke to her father and learned that he and her stepmother were fine. They had been forced to barricade themselves inside their house for several days during the worst of it, which, though alarming, made for a point of commonality between her experience and theirs. There were other family members that had still not been heard from since it all broke out, which was worrisome. She was able to tell her dad that searches were still actively going on, and promise to tell them if she heard anything before they did.
After CJ's last briefing of the day (during which she had seen, with relief the scope of which she didn't want to dwell on, that Danny Concannon was in the press room), she and the rest of the senior staff had a meeting with the President. It turned out to be a debrief of how the day had been. The tasks they had been working on were still all in the very beginning stages, but they had made decent starts, although not everyone was on board with the policies the President and Sam had laid out.
“CJ, Sam, I have something else I want to talk to you both about. I guess the rest of you can stay and listen. You'll hear about it soon enough,” said the President, after everyone had given their status reports.
CJ exchanged a perplexed look with Sam, but they both gave him their attention.
“Sam, I'll start with you,” said the President. “Leo and I talked about it, and I had Charlie check into the qualifications, and we all agreed: I'm going to recommend you for the Presidential Citizens Medal, as soon as it's possible for me to start giving out awards again. I know some of you are familiar with it, but in case anyone else here needs a reminder, the Presidential Citizens Medal is the second highest civilian award in the United States.” He took a piece of paper off his desk and put on his glasses to read it. “Let's see. It recognizes US citizens who have performed 'exemplary deeds of service outside of their regular jobs', especially those 'individuals who have demonstrated notable skill and grace, selflessly placed themselves in harm’s way, taken unusual risks or steps to protect others, made extraordinary efforts to further a national goal, or otherwise conducted themselves admirably when faced with unusually challenging circumstances.' I expect this to be announced in a regular press briefing once things calm down a bit.”
Sam cleared his throat and blinked rapidly, sending a few tears down his cheeks. “Sir?” he said, sounded rather strangled. “I don't...”
“You risked your life to rescue Josh, and then again to protect him when you were both attacked. You suffered injury in the process. Then, when you faced completely senseless prejudice, you took the high road by not fighting back, just so you could come back to work. And now you're willing to face more prejudice to ensure that your firsthand experience means a better chance of justice for all shifters, and more understanding for all of us,” said the President. “So it seems to me you deserve a thank you.”
Sam still looked stunned, but he managed to say, “I – well. You're welcome, Mr. President.” He cleared his throat again. “More than welcome. Thank you.”
Leo was smiling broadly. “Good job, Sam. We're all privileged to have you working with us.”
“Thank you,” said Sam again. It was clear that he was profoundly touched. He looked around and his gaze rested on Josh in particular.
“Congratulations,” said Josh, clapping him on the back and then breaking into applause.
CJ and the others joined in immediately. She was very familiar with the Medal and the criteria for its nomination, since announcing recipients was part of her duties. And she was thrilled for him, and that the very worthy story that she had been hoping people would be able to hear would be sent out soon, after all.
“We are privileged,” the President agreed with Leo. “But that's not all I wanted to say. CJ? I want to tell you that I haven't forgotten that you helped stop an attack against me. When I first had Charlie start looking into the criteria, before Sam and Josh came back, it was for you.”
CJ blinked. She had already almost forgotten that he had mentioned her name at the beginning of this. “Mr. President-”
“Wait a minute. I'm not finished yet. It also hasn't slipped my mind how you assisted the Secret Service to let us all breathe a little easier, even though that was an uncomfortable situation to put yourself in. I understand you caught a possible threat against Sam, too.”
“That's true, sir,” Sam put in.
The President nodded. “So I'm going to recommend you for the Presidential Citizens Medal, as well.” He picked up the paper again. “You, too, have performed 'exemplary deeds of service' for the country, and have certainly helped your country and fellow citizens through one or more extraordinary acts. It's the same with placing yourself in harm's way and taking unusual risks or steps to protect others, as well as conducting yourself admirably when faced with unusually challenging circumstances. It fits you perfectly, I think.” He lowered the paper and looked up.
CJ was fairly certain she had stopped breathing several seconds ago, or at least that some important part of her body wasn't functioning properly. Even after hearing that Sam was going to be given this award, she had never in her wildest dreams imagined this. She drew breath to respond, and found that she had to close her mouth and bite her lip to keep from sobbing out loud, instead. She knew tears were starting to stream from her eyes. Despite her efforts, a sob did escape.
The President's eyes looked suspiciously bright as well, but he spoke. “I'm sorry, what was that, CJ?”
She sniffed and swallowed, wiping her eyes. “Thank you, Mr. President. I, uh... thank you. I don't – I mean...” And then she realized what to say. “I serve at the pleasure of the President.”
Leo started the clapping this time, and Sam, Josh, Toby, and Charlie joined in. When the applause ended and CJ's face still felt hot with embarrassment and shock, Leo said, “Congratulations, CJ and Sam. You couldn't be more deserving, either of you.”
“Hear, hear,” said Toby, and the others chimed in with the same.
“Thank you,” CJ said, barely audible through her still-choked throat.
“Thanks,” Sam echoed.
“That's exactly right, Leo,” said the President. He added, “I'm proud of all of you. Few White House staffs have ever had to deal with the kinds of issues you've all been facing, and you have all continued to excel. You can probably all expect commendations before this is over.”
“Thank you, Mr. President,” said Leo. “I know CJ spoke for all of us in her response.”
The President smiled. After a moment, he put down the paper that he had been holding and said, “Well, you all probably still have things to do, and I know I do, so I won't keep you. Toby, stick around for a second, would you?”
Outside the Oval Office, Josh caught up with CJ. “Hey, CJ, you know about this stuff. So, tell me: does this mean you and Sam are going to get to fly anywhere in the country for free?”
“That's for recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, Josh,” said CJ. “So, no.”
“Too bad,” he said. “That'd be pretty handy. No burial at Arlington, either?”
“Shut up,” she said.
“Do I have to salute when you go by?”
“Shut up,” she repeated, rolling her eyes. “Neither you nor I nor Sam are in the military, as you well know.”
“Fine,” said Josh.
“You could still salute when I go by, Josh,” Sam suggested brightly, joining them.
“Yeah, fat chance,” Josh returned immediately. “You're not the one who saved the President's life.”
“Josh, Sam, CJ,” came Leo's voice behind them, cutting off Sam's mock-injured reply. They all turned.
CJ's heart sank at the expression on Leo's face, and the shock and sadness that she couldn't help picking up from him. “What is it?” she asked, adrenaline starting to course through her veins for an entirely different reason than just a few minutes ago.
“I just got a call from the law enforcement task force,” he said, still looking grave. “They've still been tracking down our people that are missing.”
Ashen-faced, Sam said, “Who is it? What happened?”
“Josh, I'm sorry,” said Leo, and CJ knew with a horrible spreading feeling of numbness before he finished speaking. “It's Donna. She didn't make it.”
Chapter 12: Chapter 12
Josh leaned forward in his seat again, gazing out the window at the countryside as they drove through it. The sun was out, and the sky was almost cloudless – but that didn't quite distract from the evidence of the weeks of chaos: damaged, darkened buildings, empty streets, and burned-out husks of cars by the side of the freeway. Still, Josh thought, it was encouraging to see crews of repairmen working on power lines and other sites. There were more visible signs of life than there were of destruction. Plus, after three weeks in a basement cell, and then about a week in an underground bunker, it was just nice to be able to see the sky again.
Next to him in the FBI-supplied black SUV, Sam was bent over a pad of paper, writing busily. Toby was similarly engaged. The speech they were writing for the occasion of the President's official return to the White House would be great, Josh was sure. He wondered how many people across the nation would hear it. Of course, there were many areas that had remained largely unaffected by violence if not by the sudden existence of vampires, shifters, and telepaths, and television service was being restored as quickly as possible, as well.
“Hey, CJ,” he called up to her seat as an idea occurred to him, “do you think you'll be able to shield your mind against the thoughts of an entire room full of reporters? That group is always loud enough with just normal hearing.”
CJ turned around to look at him, eyebrows raised. “That in itself is enough motivation to get really good at shielding myself,” she told him, “and that's without the added worry of finding out which ones of them are secretly hoping to ask me out, or whatever else. So yes, Josh, I don't think there's any reason to think that I won't be able to make a really good mental barrier against the press corps.”
“Good,” Josh said. He leaned back against the seat. “Although you know, if you didn't keep the shield up, you could be ready for any question with at least a few seconds' warning. Then there would be no chance that someone could blindside you.”
“For God's sake, Josh,” Toby interjected, looking up from his notes for a second, “will you stop talking about raising and lowering shields? Despite the fact that we're all basically living in a science fiction story now, CJ's not a spaceship.”
While Josh and Sam laughed, CJ said dryly, “Well, thank you, Toby. I appreciate that. I think.”
“Any time,” Toby replied, returning his focus to writing.
Josh thought about it, and decided anything he could say on the topic of CJ as a spaceship would result in her hurting him. It was probably best to stay quiet. He had barely finished the thought when CJ gave him a look and said, “Wise choice, Joshua.”
“What did you just think?” Sam asked, having observed this.
“Oh, nothing,” Josh answered, still meeting CJ's gaze and feigning fear. “Nothing at all.”
CJ smiled broadly and sat back in her seat. “You know, I could get used to this.”
“What, inspiring fear in anyone who dares to challenge you?” Josh said. “You don't already do that?”
At that, she chuckled and said, “Okay, you've got a point.”
During the rest of the drive, the four of them mostly divided their time between working on the speech and watching the scenery as they passed by. There were areas of more severe damage as they got closer to the capitol, but again, Josh was heartened by the crews working to rebuild at most of these sites.
At one point, when Sam and Toby were taking a break from writing and editing, Toby cleared his throat and asked Sam if he'd given any more thought to whether or not he was going to speak out on behalf of shifters.
Sam seemed ever so slightly hesitant to answer, and Josh wondered what exactly had happened between the two of them since Sam had been back. But what Sam said was, “Yeah, I think I'm going to make the statement. I think it's my responsibility to do it.”
Toby was silent for a moment. Then he said, “I think you're right. We need to educate the country about this whole situation, and we also need to be sure that shifters have a reason to believe what we're saying.”
Sam blinked. “Yeah, that's it, exactly.”
“Okay. So we need to make sure your address says exactly what you need to say,” Toby continued. “Go ahead and focus on that for a while, and then you can take us through what you have and we'll give you feedback.”
“Okay,” Sam said, sounding a little choked up.
When they finally arrived, Josh didn't have to be a telepath to know that the sight of the White House in front of them brought them all a rush of emotion. It was obvious that a lot of effort had been made by the grounds crew in preparation for the arrival of the President's motorcade; there was very little lingering evidence of the initial attacks that had forced the seat of power underground and out of the city. Josh couldn't help smiling when he saw the small crowd gathering along the street behind the barriers. Not a few faces that he glimpsed looked emotional, and many people were cheering and waving.
It felt almost surreal to get out of the car and enter the White House after all that had happened since the last time Josh had been here. And as if any of them needed another reason to feel emotional, as soon as they got inside, they witnessed the President's reunion with his family. Josh found himself having to clear his throat and surreptitiously wipe a tear out of his eye. Even some of the Secret Service agents in the hall looked moved.
“Yeah, it's good to be back, isn't it?” Sam said, from where he was standing next to Josh.
“It really is,” Josh said.
“I'm glad to hear you say that,” Leo said, coming to join the rest of the senior staff, “because we have a lot of work to do. So let's get started.”
The President broke away from his family for a second to turn toward them. “You guys are writing me a speech, right?”
“We are, Mr. President,” Toby answered. “And it's going to be a memorable one.”
Smiling, the President said, “Good. I look forward to seeing it. In the meantime, though, I'm a little busy.” He turned back to his family and pulled all of his daughters and his wife into a hug again. The First Lady gave them all an amused, fond look over her husband's shoulder before closing her eyes.
Although Josh once again constantly expected to see Donna outside his office (or coming in to give him a message or just to talk), it still felt good to be back at work. With the various speeches and addresses to prepare, there certainly wasn't much time to worry about much else – but Josh did ask Ginger and some of the other assistants to keep him updated if there was any news about the missing staff members. He also stole a few minutes to call his mother, who was so relieved to hear his voice that their conversation was largely just her repeated exclamations to that effect. His friends spent some time contacting their own families as well, although not all of them were able to reach everyone they wanted to reach. That was something they all tried not to worry about. Josh did hear that Toby was able to contact Andie, and CJ talked to her dad, and Sam reached his mother.
Josh and the rest of the senior staff joined the President in the Oval Office some hours later when he gave his televised address to as much of the nation as had access to a TV. They had all put a lot of work into the speech, and as usual, even though he was very familiar with it by this point, Josh was swept up into everything the President was saying as he spoke.
About an hour after the address, the press corps gathered in the press room to hear the promised White House statement about new policies regarding supernatural groups. Josh thought he could tell that the reporters were all a little bit surprised to see the entire senior staff on the stage – and even more surprised that the President was there as well. Then CJ introduced Sam, who delivered the statement clearly and without faltering.
Josh couldn't help getting nervous for his friend when a reporter asked if Sam's comment about personal knowledge of how these policies would benefit shifters meant that he himself was a shifter. But Sam just calmly said yes, and gave a very brief account of the attack outside his apartment. He didn't mention any details about how he and Josh had gotten back to the President, only informing the extremely excited crowd of reporters that it had taken him many days to be able to return to his work, and that it was thanks to the group of shifters who had found him first that he had stayed alive and well during that time.
“I'm grateful to them, to the President for the efforts he made to find me,” Sam finished, “and for the President's willingness to open up a dialogue with shifters so that we can work to right those wrongs that have been committed by both shifters and non-shifters. Thank you.” Then he ignored all of the clamoring and flashbulbs from the press corps and left the podium, stopping briefly to shake the President's hand as the President smiled and spoke to him quietly. Josh and the others except CJ followed the President out of the room.
“Good job, Sam,” the President said as soon as they were out of the room.
“Thank you, sir,” Sam replied. He looked both energized and relieved to be out of there.
“Yeah, I don't think the press corps have been so stirred up about a senior staff member since I was in surgery,” Josh remarked.
Sam rolled his eyes. “And you weren't very charismatic at that point,” he observed. “So I think I have you beat.”
“You're probably right,” Josh conceded as they continued down the hall.
“I'm glad we settled that extremely important issue,” the President declared. They stopped outside the Oval Office. “I'll be expecting to see you all here at the end of the day, by the way. I want to hear updates on how everything's been going, and just debrief a little. It's going to take a long while before things are anywhere close to back to normal around here, and Leo and I agree that a debrief might be good for all of us. One of you let CJ know when she gets finished, would you?”
There was a chorus of “Yes, sir”s, and Toby said he'd tell CJ.
“Excellent. I'll see you all later.”
As the day was winding down, Josh joined his friends in the Oval Office to share what he'd been up to that day, as well as to listen to everyone else's reports. There were no big surprises – until the President ended the meeting by announcing that he was going to be recommending both Sam and CJ for Presidential Citizens Medal, the second-highest possible award for a civilian to receive. As he heard President Bartlet read aloud the qualifications, Josh couldn't keep the smile off his face. Of course, both Sam and CJ deserved the award. They had both more than earned it, for their very distinct acts of heroism. He cheered along with the rest as CJ and Sam tried not to lose their composure completely. Hearing that the President also intended to issue commendations for each member of his staff was just the icing on the cake, as far as Josh was concerned.
They had left the Oval Office, and Josh was still in the middle of some good-natured ribbing of both heroes when Leo called out to them from his office. He had news on the missing members of staff – and from the look on his face, it was anything but good news.
“Josh, I'm sorry,” Leo said, his voice quiet. “It's Donna. She didn't make it.”
The words didn't seem to register at first. Josh blinked and stared at Leo, barely noticing Sam, CJ, and Toby's shocked reactions. “What do you mean?” he said finally, taking a step further into the room. “Are-- are they sure?”
Leo nodded slowly. “They found her body in her car, which was half-buried in rubble. It looks like she was hit by falling debris from some kind of explosion.”
Josh couldn't think of any way to reply. He couldn't think at all. This couldn't be happening. He thought he might be about to fall, so he staggered into one of the seats in Leo's office. Leo, he noticed in a detached fashion, had started adding more names to the list of those who had been found dead. He saw Sam flinch backward when Leo said Sam's father's name, and then the list continued, but Josh wasn't really hearing anything anymore.
It wasn't until Leo had come around from behind his desk to stand next to him that time seemed to unfreeze for Josh. “Josh, do you need--” Leo started to say.
Josh stood up, ignoring Leo's outstretched hand. “No. No, I'll-- I'll be … I just have to...” He turned and all but fled from the room, almost blindly making his way back to his office. The sight of Donna's empty desk was more than he could deal with, so he shut his door quickly, pulled the shades, and sank into his chair.
Now that he was alone, there was nothing preventing him from remembering countless little interactions and moments with Donna. The memories weren't in order: he remembered the first time he'd woken up in his hospital bed to see her sitting beside him, his bewilderment on the day they had met as he overheard her answering his phone for him before he'd even hired her, their last conversation as she worried about the growing unrest and he tried to make her feel better with some dumb joke, the look on her face when she'd told him about his father's death...
Josh only realized he'd been crying when he felt wetness on his face. He took a shuddering breath and wiped his hand across his cheeks. None of this was possible. Donna had to be out there at her desk, probably figuring out something Josh needed for tomorrow's workday before he even knew to ask her for it. She couldn't be gone. There was no way she could be dead.
Some time later, there was a knock on the door. Josh wiped his face again, cleared his throat, and said, “Yeah?”
Toby opened the door. “Can I come in?”
“Yeah.” Josh looked away from Toby's face quickly, fearing what he might see there, and resumed staring at a spot on his desk.
Toby came in and closed the door most of the way behind him. “Well,” he said, after a brief pause, “I'm not going to ask you if you're okay, because that's a stupid question.”
Josh nodded, almost smiling for a moment. But the guilt and grief were too strong to keep at bay. “I just … I keep thinking, if I hadn't let myself get taken by those psychopaths, maybe I would have been with her, and maybe I would have been able to save her. Or at least...” His voice cracked, but he cleared his throat and tried again. “Or at least she wouldn't have been alone.”
Toby was silent for another short while. Then he sighed. “You know, the night David was killed, I was supposed to call him. We were going to go out for a beer. But I was too busy, so I ended up just telling him it wasn't going to happen that night.”
At this, Josh looked up. “But … Toby, if you had been with him, you probably would have been killed, too.” Even as he said it, he knew what Toby would probably say in response – and yet that didn't seem to quiet his own impulse to feel like this was somehow his fault.
“Yeah, I know,” Toby said quietly. “Still doesn't make it feel any easier. But I do know he wouldn't want me to have died along with him.”
“Yeah.” Josh swallowed. Donna would not, in fact, want him to have been crushed by falling debris. He knew that, just like he knew that it made no sense to blame himself for being kidnapped and thereby not being there for Donna when she needed him most. It still didn't really help. Josh supposed it was good to be reminded, though.
Just then, there was another knock at Josh's door, and CJ pushed it open. “Hey,” she said.
Josh saw Sam was standing behind CJ. He wasn't looking at anyone in particular, although he raised his eyes to Josh's for a second. Josh cleared his throat again. “Hey.”
“You want to come out and get a few drinks with us?” she asked. “I know I could use a few.”
Josh had already started to shake his head when he changed his mind, sighed, and said, “Fine. Okay.” As long as none of his friends would be expecting him to be social, he could definitely stand a few beers. They all could, after a day like today. And it sure beat sitting around by himself.
“Okay.” CJ smiled faintly, and then stood aside so Josh and Toby could leave the office.
Chapter 13: Coda
Before any of them had even gotten a chance to start to absorb the impossible and terrible news, more reports came in: Sam's father and Lord John Marbury were two names in particular that pierced the cloud of shock CJ was still in, casualties of the chaos outside that was only now fading away. And though CJ was selfishly glad that none of her family appeared on the list, not all of them had yet been confirmed as all right, either.
So, after quite the roller coaster of a day at work, Toby, Sam, Josh, and CJ found themselves in a bar in the District. (Charlie had been asked as well, but he and Zoey were planning something together.) “Hell of a day,” Toby said quietly, over his beer.
CJ nodded. She kept feeling that someone else should have been there with them, and wondering why Donna hadn't been invited, and then being reminded again of the bitter truth that she would never be joining them again. But though her own grief was definitely making itself known, Josh's was so strong that CJ was sure no mental wall could withstand it.
He had hardly spoken since they left the White House, except a few minutes ago to order his drink. He hadn't really wanted to come out with them, but had also seemed to not have the heart to argue when they pushed. Sam had also been uncharacteristically quiet, and she couldn't block his pain either. Still, she thought, especially if it turned out that she really was lucky enough not to have lost anyone as close to her as her friends had, the least she could do was to sit with them and grieve and not complain that her empathy was more literal than it might have once been.
“Hell of a month or two,” she said, taking a sip of her own beer. “However long it's actually been.”
“So fast,” said Sam. “Everything's changed now.”
“Yeah,” said Toby. “It's a new world.”
“I'd rather have the old one back,” Josh said. “I mean, who here wouldn't? What the hell have we gained from this? Anyone?” He looked around, a hint of desperation in his voice.
Sam scoffed. “Gained? I don't think there are many people who would say we've gained anything.”
“What's the point?” Josh said, swallowing another mouthful of beer, voice sinking back down, low and depressed. “I know what we wrote, and what the President said today, but I can't see it anymore.”
Toby sighed. “As cliched as it sounds, it's our job now to make it all have a point.”
Josh didn't reply right away. He shook his head. “That's not good enough.”
“No, it's not,” Sam agreed. He finished his drink. “We don't have a lot of choice, though, do we?”
“Well, that just sucks,” said Josh. He put his own bottle down with more force than was necessary.
“I'll drink to that,” said Sam. They brought their bottles together, and Toby and CJ silently added theirs.
There was a pause. CJ pondered the disconnect between her earlier hope and current sorrow, and she certainly had to agree that it sucked. Before any of them said anything further, though, CJ noticed that someone was approaching their table. It was a young man, maybe around Charlie's age, and he looked very nervous. “Can we help you?” she asked. From just her shallowest scan, he seemed about as far from dangerous as he could be.
“Hi. Um, I'm sorry to bother you. Are you Sam Seaborn?” the man said, looking at Sam and then glancing around as if to see if anyone else was watching.
“Yes,” he confirmed, voice and expression rather guarded.
“Okay. Uh, my name's Rob. I just wanted to say, I saw you on TV earlier. I heard what you said,” the kid said. “And I wanted to thank you. I'm – I'm a shifter, too, and it meant a lot.” He cleared his throat.
Sam's expression softened. “You're welcome, Rob. I'm glad to hear that.”
Rob nodded, and he gave a tentative smile. “Anyway. That's all I wanted to say. Sorry to interrupt your conversation.”
“Not a problem,” said Sam. “Take care of yourself, all right?”
“I will. You, too,” he said.
When he had left, CJ spoke. “Well, that was sweet.”
Sam gave a short laugh, looking down at the table. “I guess it was.”
“See, the President was right,” said Josh, with a faint smile. “You're a bona fide hero.”
“Not like CJ, though,” was Sam's answer.
“Oh, please,” said CJ, leaning her head on her hand. “Don't start this again.”
Toby cracked a smile of his own. “You better get used to it, CJ. We need good news right now, or haven't you noticed? And some of that's going to be Sam, and some is going to be you.”
CJ groaned. She had put that out of her mind. “Well, someone else can give that briefing, at least.”
“I'd volunteer, but the President would probably kill us both just for suggesting I do another briefing,” said Josh, a wicked glint in his eye.
“True. Someone else other than me or Josh, then,” CJ corrected herself, and the others chuckled. She again automatically pictured Donna at the table, and imagined what the other woman would have added to the banter. Her smile faded, and she tried not to feel guilty for having allowed herself to laugh when everything was still so awful.
In the pause that followed, it was clear to her that the others were thinking similar thoughts. “It's going to be even weirder, trying to get used to going back to work, now,” she remarked.
“Yeah,” said Toby. “I don't think things can ever be normal again.”
Josh snorted. “I guess weird is the new normal.”
Sam's mouth quirked. “That, I'd also drink to, except I'm out. Everyone want another round?” They all nodded, and he signaled the bar. When their drinks came, he said, “Shall we drink to the new normal, then?”
“The new normal,” CJ repeated, raising her bottle. “And to remembering those who shaped what we used to have.”
FYI, Presidential Citizens Medal info taken directly from http://www.whitehouse.gov/citizensmedal/criteria . Additional background info about past recipients and US civilian awards gathered from Wikipedia.
Also, both of us as authors must repeat how extremely sorry we are to have killed off Donna. The two of us couldn't be bigger Josh/Donna shippers, and we tried other options, but it just didn't work to write an apocafic without any loss as big as this.