"Old friends… Sat on their park bench like bookends… …memory brushes the same years, Silently sharing the same fears "
The man at the end of the counter caught her eye and pointed at his empty glass. In an understanding born from years at the tap, she obligingly filled the tumbler with more scotch. No words need be spoken. He was someone that looked like he could pay a bar tab without so much as putting a dent in his wallet. Come an hour or so from now, he would no longer be her problem, as he left for destinations unknown when the airport finally lifted its ban on travel that evening. Besides, he wasn't nearly as bad off as some of her other patrons that night. February had to be the worst month to travel through the mid-west, and her little establishment did good business when the runways were icy or the visibility next to nil. She wiped down the bar and moved on to her next customer.
Toby Zeigler hunched over the bar, arms forming a protective circle around his glass. A television with the Weather Channel was droning in the background. Damn weather systems. Damn Minneapolis for being in the center of one of them. Damn the President and his ill-begotten quest to suck up to the education gurus. And damn the man for deciding to send them on a little fact-finding mission, adding Seattle to the itinerary, to see how their education initiatives might play out. Now they were stuck, it was closing in on 11 pm local time, and it wasn't looking good to leave before midnight. Sometimes he hated his life.
At least the airport bar was open. There was some consolation to an utterly abysmal trip. It wasn't that he hated flying. The flying part he could handle. It was the pushy flight attendants, the noisy passengers, the snot-nosed kid he inevitably was seated next to, the choppy air, the lousy food and the delays at the airport that he disliked, like any red-blooded American. Air Force One had its saving graces in that the attendants were military trained, they knew when to leave you alone, and the only snot-nosed punks he had to deal with were usually seated in the press compartment. He could hide in one of the conference rooms, he could raid the wet bar without having to fork over $4 a pop, and he could get a decent meal that did not look like it was hatched from a mechanical chicken.
He swallowed what was left in his glass swiftly, closing his eyes in more of the remembrance of a taste than the actual sensation. It wasn't bad scotch, but it wasn't good either. But it was enough to take the edge off the tenseness that had settled in his shoulders soon after take-off in D.C. He reached into the inner pocket of his suit jacket to grab the ever present spiral notepad and ball point pen. If he was going to be stuck in the middle of Eastjesus for the next couple of hours, he could at least get a little bit of work done. Later he would dig around in his carry-on for a legal pad to do the actual writing, but first he wanted to brainstorm. Toby motioned for another refill and outlined what he wanted to do in the next hour or so.
From the corner of his eye, he watched the bartender remove his tumbler. When he looked up again, a taller glass had taken its place and it most definitely was not full of scotch. He was about to protest when he felt someone stop and stand behind him, and he knew without looking who the culprit was.
"I thought I might find you here," C.J. Cregg said, settling down on the bar stool just around the corner from him. She draped her overcoat over his, and took a sip of her drink. He noticed it was the same thing that she had just forced on him.
Toby pointed at the sweating glass of ginger ale in front of him, making a face at it as if it were poisoned. "That's not what I ordered."
"Tough. It's what you're getting."
Toby allowed himself a self-deprecating chuckle. C.J., patron saint and savior of misanthropes. He was surprised he had managed to elude her for this long. Ever since the Christmas holidays, C.J. had taken it upon herself to be Camp Counselor for nearly everyone in the West Wing, making sure everyone and everything was on-kilter. Mother hen took on a whole new meaning with her around. And she had decided to set her talons on him this evening. "Who died and made you Bar-Police?"
"I need another adult when we finally get to board the plane. I'm not going to handle Sam and Josh by myself."
"Why, what are they up to? I haven't seen them in here all night?"
"Not here," she replied, hooking her thumb over her shoulder. "Over there."
Toby looked over her shoulder, across the pedestrian traffic lane and into the shops and stores on the other side of the walk-way. There was an arcade directly across from the bar, mostly empty, save for the Deputy Chief of Staff and the Deputy Communications Director and a very bored attendant sitting at the change counter. Josh Lyman and Sam Seaborn were currently going head to head at a mini-basketball court. With all the noise they were making, he was surprised he hadn't noticed them there earlier.
"The Testosterone Junkies have been at it for the last hour," C.J. informed him. "They passed 'manageable' about thirty minutes ago."
"They have to run out of money soon."
"Don't bet on it." She pointed at the ATM machine standing just outside the arcade.
"Now, that's just criminal. You didn't think to snag their wallets before we deplaned?"
"No, Officer Grumpy, I didn't. I thought I'd let them reenact their Bill and Ted's Excellent Mis-use of the English Language Act at the air hockey table again."
"You realize that your attempts at pop-cultural references have no effect on me."
"If you liked that one, there was a real ditty in the third stall of the women's rest room around the corner."
"I think I'll pass."
"You pooped my party when you changed my drink order." He flagged down the bartender again and ordered another scotch.
"And how many is that?" C.J. asked as the bartender deposited a refreshed glass next to the ginger ale.
"Am I still sitting on this bar stool?"
"Then not enough."
"C.J., I have a mother, and she is has the monopoly on the guilt trip, moreso than you will ever aspire to."
"You're behaving like a child."
"A child does not drink scotch at a bar in the middle of a blizzard."
"No, but you're a stubborn son of a bitch sulking over that drink like my nephew does when he doesn't want to eat his lima beans… How much longer do you plan on playing Angry at the World?"
"Well, since my understudy is no longer up to the task--" He regretted the words the minute they left his lips.
C.J. punched him in the arm, hard. "Don't EVER joke about that. EVER. Do you hear me?"
"That was tactless of me."
"You bet your ass it was."
"I let you get away with a lot of shit after the shooting, Toby. While you were on your little vendetta against the Bill of Rights, you treated the rest of us like pariah. I've known you a lot longer than the rest of these yahoos, so I was willing to put up with it then because we were all under a lot of stress; I shouldn't have to put up with this sort of crap from you now." Though the words were angry, the tone belayed an underlying sense of exhaustion that he knew she was trying very hard to hide. It had been a long couple of months with the administration at a virtual standstill. After a promising jump past first and into third gear, they had been stuck in neutral since the Newseum. They had hoped this new education initiative would start the fires burning again. So far all they had was a few smoldering embers to work with and it was wearing on everyone's nerves.
"My, you're being quite hostile tonight. Did someone swipe your happy pills?"
"I used the last one when you left me to deal with Farmer Bob and the Green Bean Brigade in Salem."
"I told you that would come back to haunt you." He slid his glass of scotch in front of her. "You could probably use this more than me right now."
"Not my choice of indulgence." She slid it back.
"Sorry, but I believe your preferred choice of indulgence is currently in Vancouver with the First Lady."
"Don't go there, Toby, if you know what's good for you."
"What's the point of knowing if I can't tease you about it?"
"You are an ill-humored, intractable, irascible, irritable--"
"Your use of alliteration is astounding." He picked up his pen and flipped to a clean sheet in his notebook.
"Interruptive pain in the ass."
"Glad to get that off your chest, C.J.?" He took a small sip of his drink and sketched out an outline for his education reaction paper.
"Go to hell."
"Been there, done that, got the commemorative t-shirt." She laughed. He tipped his glass to her in a mock-toast.
They sat quietly for a spell. Toby continued to jot down notes; C.J. people-watched. The activity through the airport had dwindled in the last hour. While she was on the phone with Leo updating him on the progress of the meetings they had attended, she had seen dozens of disgruntled passengers headed for the airport exits in search of shelter for the evening. At least their flight had only been delayed and not outright canceled, as many other flights out of Minneapolis had been.
She hated weather delays like this, but at least Toby hadn't been in a completely foul mood. He hadn't told her to go away and leave him alone, not that she would anyway since babysitting Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Twit was not her choice of evening entertainment. Toby's singular focus on whatever he was doing was far more amusing to ponder. She was too tired to read, too wired to give the television above the bar any serious consideration, and too restless to leave Toby to his own affairs. Slowly, she pulled the bowl of shelled peanuts towards her. Lining up ten of them on the counter, she flicked each and every one of them at Toby's chest.
When he calmly brushed them away rather than acknowledge her presence, C.J. decided to take a proactive approach and leaned over his arm to take a peak at what was written on his notepad. "Whatcha writin'?"
"What are we, eight? Talk about a deplorable use of the English language."
"Humor me. I've had eight hours of sleep in the last 72 hours."
Toby folded his notebook and put it back in his coat pocket. "I can see I won't get anything done on it anyway, not with you sitting here and asking inane questions every five seconds."
"I think I'm too tired to be offended by that remark."
"Where's your deck of cards?" C.J. looked at him askance before reaching in her coat pocket for said item. "C'mon, I know you have them. You never get on a plane without cards. I see this as an excellent opportunity to win back my money from last week's poker game."
"I don't think we'd be able to convince Huey and Dewey over there to join us."
"So we'll play gin rummy. Dime a point."
"At least make it worth my while. A quarter a point and you've got a deal."
They had lost track of time playing cards. The only indicator they had that it was getting late was the arrival of Josh and Sam to the bar. Apparently the arcade closed at midnight; they stopped by long enough to say they were headed to the hotel next door to grab some food. The weather had changed for the better in Minneapolis, but Chicago had become the trouble spot and all flights there had been delayed until further notice.
C.J. had noticed that as soon as they started playing, Toby was too busy trying to win to pick up the scotch again. After they had decided to call it a dead even tie, since three dollars was hardly anything to write home about, she had started to play solitaire, having to slap away his hands from time to time when he tried to play for her. Toby had started work on whatever he was doing before they had started playing cards. He was mumbling something about tuition incentives when she stopped paying attention.
She was propping her head up with one hand, half paying attention to the cards in front of her and the television behind the bar. Jay Leno was on, having been delayed by an hour because of some movie of the week that ran long. There had been no President Bartlet jokes in his monologue; either the President had had a good week, or something else more humor-worthy had taken place while they were incommunicado. She was tempted to give Leo another call about the continued weather delays, but thought better of it. Even Leo would have left for home by now.
Toby was staring at her funny when she turned her attention away from the television screen. "What?"
"I was wondering when you were going to notice that someone else is finishing your game," he said, indicating the cards with a dip of his forehead.
Sure enough, there was a gloved hand moving her red jack to the black queen. Both of Toby's hands were on the bar. She sat up and felt someone lean against her shoulder. "Someone is letting perfectly good scotch go to waste."
C.J. turned and smiled as she recognized the voice. "Hey, what are you doing here?"
Danny Concannon let his carry-on fall to the floor and pulled his gloves off. "I got a late start and my flight got re-routed."
Toby gathered the rest of his things and signaled the bartender for his bill. C.J. rescued her coat before it fell to the floor. "Where are you going?" she asked.
"I'm going to check on our flight and then meet with the guys. I'll check on you later." He threw a couple of bills on the counter and headed out.
Danny took Toby's place at the bar and ordered a cup of coffee. C.J. went back to leaning her head on her hand, only instead of staring at the television, she was staring at Danny as he rubbed his hands together for warmth. When he was aware he was under such scrutiny, he smiled and feigned a similar pose so that he was facing her. "How'd the education thing go?" he asked.
"Nah-uh. You can read about it in the press packet tomorrow morning."
"Nah-uh. I won't be there tomorrow, I will be with the First Lady in Vancouver, if all goes well. Tell me now."
"Nah-uh. Read it in the Post."
"Party-pooper." C.J. laughed just a little too hard. The bartender passed him his cup of coffee. "I said something funny?"
C.J. really didn't want to go into all-out detail about the evening's events, so she simply shook her head. "Long story."
"We may both have a long night."
"Not that interesting a story."
"So if we can't talk shop, and you won't tell me what you were laughing about just a second ago, what are we going to talk about?"
"Read any good books recently?"
Danny laughed and C.J. joined him. "Never thought I'd ever actually hear that pick-up line in a bar," Danny admitted. "And as a matter of fact, I have." He pulled a battered paperback novel about of his coat pocket, placed it on the counter and pushed it to her.
"'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'? Isn't this a kid's story?"
"And your point is?"
"You're reading a book meant for twelve-year olds."
"The kid's parents die a horrible death when he's a year old, he lives in a home that makes David Copperfield's life look like a picnic and an evil wizard is out to get him. Do you really think this material is appropriate for twelve year olds?"
"It's hardly your Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery. So why are you reading it?"
"Saw it in a bookstore, thought my nephew might like it. I wanted to read it before I gave it to him though, you know, to make sure it was appropriate. Suffice it to say, I bought him a brand new copy and kept this one for myself. I've got the next installment in my carry-on."
"Sometimes you never fail to amaze me."
"I'll take that as a compliment."
"Today, it was meant as one."
Toby had gotten tired of Fric and Frac's constant prattle about this, that and every other subject that had come to mind, so he had left them at the hotel restaurant and looked for quiet in the chaos of the airport. He had given Josh and Sam explicit instructions not to leave the hotel lobby for parts unknown. The weather in Chicago was expected to clear within the hour; he would page them when their plane had been cleared to leave the area.
He was headed for the ticket counter near their gate when a scene caught his eye. It wasn't unusual to see people lounging in the airport chairs this late at night waiting for red-eye and delayed flights, trying to get a little sleep before boarding their flights. Off to a corner, he spotted a couple from behind. He was seated on the end of one of the couches. His head was tilted slightly to the right as it rested against his companion's head, which was lying against his shoulder. Toby knew in an instant who the couple was, but he wasn't going to make a big deal about it. At least Sam and Josh weren't around, or else C.J. would never hear the end of it.
As Toby walked away from the ticket counter, he got a better look at them. C.J. had both arms wrapped around Danny's right arm. Her eyes were closed as she cuddled against Danny's side. Danny held a paperback in his left hand; his lips were moving, so Toby assumed he was reading aloud, regardless if C.J. was asleep at his side. Danny may have behaved like a neanderthal at times, but Toby had enough respect for the man not to believe the reporter needed to mouth all the words as he read. Danny caught his eye, smiled slightly, and continued to read quietly to C.J.
Toby readjusted the shoulder strap of his carry-on and found a place on the other side of the lounge. He pulled out a legal pad and began to write his position paper on their education reform bill. At least one of them would be getting a little sleep, and one of them would be getting a little bit of work done. He didn't really care what Josh and Sam were up to as long as they were out of his hair.
There was a chime over the public address system. Toby looked up briefly to see if it was someone at their gate. One of the several airline employees he had been pestering throughout the night held the mouthpiece of a telephone receiver and started speaking.
"Attention, passengers for United Airlines flight 716 with service to Chicago and Washington D.C. Due to a weather front that recently passed through the Chicago area, Flight 716 will be delayed another hour to allow the runways to be plowed and accommodate increased traffic to O'Hare. Thank you."
Toby deflated in his chair and rolled his eyes. He looked over to Danny, who tried valiantly to shrug his shoulders without waking his charge. He wondered how much battery life he had on his laptop. Maybe he could get his paper written and typed before all this was over. Hunkering down and claiming the seats beside him for his personal space, Toby set to work once again, blotting out the world and the weather around him.