Leo does not enjoy meeting with Nick Fury. He doesn’t have anything in particular against the man, but on principle Leo dislikes meeting with people who know more than he does. Fury almost always falls into that category and recently, well... Superheroes and supervillains are too big. Most American citizens didn’t give a crap about the day to day running of the house and the hill even before, but they sure as hell don't now there are Norse gods (an extra-terrestrial who probably inspired Norse myths, Leo automatically corrects himself) flying around beating up giant robots. Superheroes are loud and flashy and they distract from the business of government.
Of course, they would also be excellent publicity except even C.J. can’t figure out how to spin Tony Stark. And that's why Leo agreed to this meeting. There's some kid running around in a damned convincing Captain America costume the last fortnight or so, and if there is even the slightest possibility that it's the real deal, then God help all of them if the Republicans get there first.
"Leo," Fury says.
"Director. Close the door please, Margaret."
"We're both busy men," Fury says as soon as the door is shut. "How would President Bartlet like to meet Captain America?"
President Bartlet, Leo reflects privately, would damn near piss his pants with excitement. While the official White House line is 'grateful for the help these individuals can offer in certain circumstances, important not to lose sight of longer term diplomatic solutions, cannot comment on individual acts, etcetera etcetera', the president is not far off being a giddy sixth grader when it comes to all things super, meta, mutated, or enhanced human. Sure, he recognises the problems inherent in having people with cartoonish abilities fighting your fights, but Leo had watched Stark's infamous press conference with the president, and there had been no mistaking the glee in his old friend's eyes, even as they began talking contingencies.
"In what context?"
"A friendly chat. Informal. Welcome to the new century."
"The Captain is...unpolished," Fury says.
In Leo's experience that means prone to racism, swearing, incoherence, or reckless honesty.
"We tell the press it's happening, C.J. briefs them afterwards."
"We get the publicity, and you get the show the captain you're in good with a form of authority he recognises," Leo guesses, thinking, unpolished.
"You got me, McGarry. My motives are less than pure. Please, think of my reputation." Fury says, his voice entirely flat, never mind the glimmer of amusement in his eyes.
"Who's coming in with him?"
"Going to have to be Stark," Fury says, and that's definitely amusement this time.
"Nick, you're killing me."
Fury spreads his hands in an expansive 'what ya gonna do' gesture that means exactly nothing coming from a man with his clearance level. "By all means, I'm happy to send Romanoff."
Leo thinks about that for a second. "Let's talk about what's on and off the table," he says. "Conversation-wise."
"Let's do that," Fury says
There's probably an equation, Leo thinks, which will spit out the perfect time to approach Toby Ziegler when he's least likely to spread gloom all over whatever idea you've presented. Ginger has the equation down pat, and Sam isn't a million miles off, but there are too many variables for Leo to keep straight. He tends to go for the tearing-off-a-band-aid approach.
"No," Toby says, long and loud enough that Leo glances towards the door.
"It's not a yes or no question, Toby. It's not even a question."
"Oh, I'm sure. I'm not saying we don't meet with them," Toby says. "Although we really shouldn't meet with them. I'm just saying, does it have to be Stark?"
"Absolutely not," Leo says. "Would you prefer the Soviet spy or the guy who turns green and literally eats heavy artillery?"
"I hate that little pissant. I hated his pissant dad."
"You met Howard Stark exactly once."
"Making a strong first impression must run in the family."
"Well unfortunately for you, Ross has been a pain in the president's ass for far longer than you have, so the president is inclined to – "
"Indulge Stark like the petty child he is ever since he had the general's favourite bar demolished, I'm aware."
"Tony Stark may not make weapons anymore, Toby, but he is still not somebody we can afford to piss off."
"Especially with the clean energy bill – "
"He knows protocol."
"He knows it."
"Toby – "
"Okay. You can tell C.J.."
Leo gives Toby the kind of look he thinks that deserves.
"Why is it Stark?" C.J. asks, in the voice of a woman wondering who she has pissed off for this to land in her lap.
"Because it is."
"Why not T'Challa? He's at least a head of state."
"Because he's a head of state. This is enough of a headache without the president meeting with the king of Wakanda."
"Janet van Dyne, then? Or...that guy."
"Both out of the country."
C.J. sighs, leans back in her chair. "Actually Captain America?" she asks after a beat.
"Actually Captain America."
"The president's going to be – "
"Excited," Leo says, before C.J. can continue.
"That's exactly the word I was searching for," C.J. tells him.
"Send Josh to the hill that day. You know how he'll get."
"What? How will he get?"
"Did you not see Stark in Scientific American three months ago?"
"Should I have?"
"Named no names, but it was largely an exercise in schooling Josh Lyman on his 'ill thought out, financially unfeasible, and just plain dumb' suggestions on sustainability in that debate. I read it six times."
"I did not."
Leo nods. "Alright. I have to go."
"And tell Stark he's not allowed to touch anything. We will not be having a repeat of the Latverian embassy, Leo!" she calls after him.
Leo waves a hand without turning back.
"I mean it, Leo!"
The day starts out pretty much as Leo was expecting. Josh pretends he's pissed to be sent to the hill, Sam hangs around pretending he isn't waiting to catch a glimpse of what Leo is willing to bet was his childhood hero, and Toby lurks around corners waiting for things to go wrong.
Stark is, unsurprisingly, the first one of their VIPs to come to Leo's notice, because God forbid the man goes where he's told. His particular brand of flirtation/irritation is hard to miss, even when he isn't laying the decibels on thick just because he can.
("Donna! Come work with me. Pepper misses you, you know how she pines."
"We had lunch last week."
"If you worked with us we could have lunch every day."
"Would you be there?"
He waits until they're seated outside Charlie's office, tipped off by C.J.. There's a spot near the security service guys where you can hear but not be seen, and Leo lingers there for a moment to take the measure of them. Well, the measure of the captain really. For all the other things he is, at least Stark is a known quantity.
The captain, on the other hand, is a bit of a surprise. Leo doesn't want to admit he was half expecting the outfit and the shield, but it's more than that. He might be built along the lines of usually-steroid-enhanced body-builders, but other than that Leo could walk past him on the street and not give him a second glance. He looks like any other (terrifyingly young) veteran in his dress uniform.
"Honestly, Steve," Stark is saying. "You look so damn handsome in these old threads. I think Sam Seaborn's going to cry."
"It's protocol, Tony," Rogers tells him. He sounds amused and exasperated at the same time. Leo knew from footage of various Avengers run-ins with interesting creatures that they are a well-oiled team, but there is obvious friendship and camaraderie here too. "I'm a member of the military."
"Are you? I mean, still? Technically?"
Rogers shrugs. "No one ever discharged me."
God save us all from stubborn good guys, Leo thinks.
"You don't think they'd make an exception for someone in their eighth decade?"
"Do you even know what protocol means?"
"Buddy, I have spent my whole life trying not to," Stark says, the smile loud and clear in his voice.
That's about enough for Leo and he walks around the corner at a pace perfected to look like he's come the length of the corridor. When Leo draws level with them, Captain Rogers stands. Stark does not.
"Mr. Stark – " Leo starts.
"Aged retainer," Stark says with a nod. "Sup?"
Stark actually does tend to keep a civil tongue in his head inside the Oval Office, but he makes up for it everywhere else.
"Captain Rogers, I'm Leo McGarry, the president's head of staff."
Rogers has a predictably firm handshake. "Good afternoon, Mr. McGarry."
"I'm very pleased to meet you Captain, I know the president's looking forward to it. Despite the company you keep, huh, Stark?"
"Bite me, Leo."
"Uh-huh. The president will be ready for you gentlemen in a moment," Leo says, standing and gesturing them towards Charlie's office. "I'm going to leave you in the care of Charlie Young here, the president's personal aide."
Charlie is, as usual, professionalism itself. Leo loiters long enough to hear Charlie offer them both coffee, which they decline.
"Do you want to show a little respect, Tony?" Rogers asks in an undertone.
"Not especially. Steve, you met FDR. Unbunch your panties."
"It's the office of the president, Tony," Rogers says, and sounds like he really means it.
Stubborn good guys, Leo thinks again.
The meeting with the president starts out smoothly enough. There are handshakes, there are introductions, there is a brief flash of amusement from the president that Leo would bet his last buck is about General Ross's bulldozed bar.
The president being who he is, his questions for Captain Rogers start out pretty history-based. Rogers answers questions about his neighbourhood, about the war. No one mentions Operation Rebirth, and they skirt around the delicate issue of Rogers as a leader of men, much less the national icon he became after the war. Rogers makes a joke about the price of milk these days. The president says he can relate to that. Stark looks bored, and occasionally a little disappointed, probably that this is all going so smoothly and in line with protocol.
"You know, I'd be interested… Sometimes I think we tend to favour progress for its own sake. As someone with a...wider perspective, what do you think? How do you feel about the changes you see around you?" The president asks. It's not one of the questions they discussed in advance, and if Leo was less of a pro, he'd be holding his breath.
After a beat, Rogers says, "Well the polio vaccine is just swell, Mr. President. And the internet is very helpful." There's definitely a slightly sardonic twist to his voice now, and Leo is willing to bet that somewhere in the building, Toby just got a headache. For the first time since they walked into the Oval Office, Stark doesn't look like he'd rather be playing with his phone.
"It certainly is," the president says. "Why do I feel like there was a but in there somewhere, Captain?" he adds, because he cannot let it go.
Rogers is silent for a moment, and he carefully doesn't look over to where Stark is sitting straighter in his chair, dangerous glee starting to spark in his eyes. For a moment, Leo thinks Rogers is just going to shrug it off, say something non-inflammatory. But really, when is that ever their luck?
"Kids are still hungry. Veterans still don't get the support they need. Lot of people still can't afford basic health care. We do have much more efficient guns, though."
Reckless honesty it is, then, Leo thinks.
"I see," the president says. "And is there anything you're not pleased with?"
"Well I'm not wild about don't ask don't tell," Rogers says.
Stark looks like he's actually putting a little effort into not laughing, which is a big thing for a guy like him.
"Well," the president says. "You have that in common with a lot of people in this building."
"That's good to know, Mr. President. I'm sorry if I've given any offence. I just figure I have nothing to lose by being honest."
"No, no, no offence. That's a refreshing attitude in this particular office," the president says, sounding amused.
"I imagine so, sir."
"And how about you, Mr. Stark? It's been a while."
"Yeah," Stark says, leaning forward in his chair. "The gala…"
"That's right. How have you been?"
"Just peachy, sir. World peace is very rewarding," Stark says virtuously.
"Isn't it just? And you get to be so direct about it. And how about the rest of your team? They're keeping well?"
"Very well, sir. Except Hawkeye, he's resting up some broken ribs."
"Yeah, but he's starting to annoy me again," Stark puts in. "Must be almost healed."
Rogers smiles and says, "We're meeting some of the others for burgers and hot dogs when we get done here."
The president blinks, wrong-footed for barely a moment. "Well I imagine that would be a sight to see," he says a little helplessly.
"Yes, sir. Sometimes Hawkeye, Hulk and Ms. Marvel have eating contests. The winner is rarely who you'd expect," Rogers says, suspiciously straight-faced.
"Sounds like a cook-out not to be missed," the president says. "You know, the perfect hamburger – "
Leo relaxes minutely and checks his watch. The remaining five minutes pass without incident and the president's farewells are warm. Leo stands at the president's side as they watch the pair leave. The president grins as they just manage to overhear, as Stark smacks Rogers on the arm, "You crack me up, Steve."
"Well," the president says. "That was an experience."
"Yes, sir," Leo says.
"I want everything we have on the avengers – individual and group activities, backgrounds. And tell C.J. I'd like to see her in fifteen minutes or so."
"Thank you, Mr. President."
On the whole, Leo thinks as he closes the door to the oval office behind him, it could have been a lot worse. Sure, he didn't really like that gleam in the president's eye a couple of times, and Captain America's tendency to outspokenness is something they'll have to be aware with, but Stark was practically angelic, the building is still standing, and the press didn't get any shots of Iron Man blasting off from the Rose Garden.
"Charlie," Leo says, sure he will be within hearing.
Sure enough… "Yes, Leo?"
"Captain America looks younger than my daughter."
"He is younger than your daughter," Charlie offers. "In a fashion. I guess it depends how you calculate his age."
"God save us all from stubborn good guys," Leo mutters.