Chapter 1: I
Spoilers: This story goes AU somewhere around late season three, but backstory established in the season four episodes "Debate Camp" and "Holy Night" is also fair game.
Disclaimer: The characters and concepts used within belong to Aaron Sorkin; I'm just borrowing for non-profit purposes.
You can lose your hope and pride
When it comes to broken dreams you'll get your share
Sometimes a man breaks down, and the good things he is looking for are crushed into the ground
Get on up, look around; can't you feel the wind of change?
- Wind of Change, The Bee Gees
It was still strange, waking up in the mornings. Strange, and not at all strange, in a way that made it seem for the first few breaths of wakefulness that the last five years had been a very convoluted dream.
Most days, it was hard to say if that was an attractive proposition.
Toby had always woken early. Stealing off in the last gasps of the night had been a habit long before there had been reason why it might be a better idea than waiting around for daybreak. This morning, however, he could tell from the tenor of the silence beside him that Andy was awake. Strange, how you could be apart for longer than you were together, and still remember the pattern of someone's breathing.
He rolled over. "You're awake."
Andy snorted slightly, perhaps amused by his stating of the obvious. "Yes."
There was a pause. Toby had never been one to be inclined towards unnecessary small talk, and Andy knew that about him. They still fitted together; even the places they were awkward felt familiar. Their gravitation back towards each other had been, he supposed, somewhat inevitable.
Whether it would last was a more of thorny question, and not one he thought he had all the data to calculate an answer to. Their marriage had foundered in the middle of a re-election campaign and the growing realisation that the children Andy had wanted so desperately were less and less likely to become a reality. With those factors not gone, precisely, but at least muted by the passage of time, it was difficult to predict where this was going. If it was going anywhere.
She tilted her gaze his way. "You're going to work?"
Andy nodded, and that would have been that, but he hesitated because something was a beat off, and he didn't know what. He waited long enough that she looked up at him again in the darkness.
This time it was a real snuffle of laughter. "And you're a real sweet-talker, Pokey," she sighed, brushing back her hair.
"Nothing... nothing," she repeated more firmly, when her first assurance came out with not quite the tone she'd intended. Perhaps it was true. Perhaps it wasn't.
He had to go to work.
Sam was stirred out of sleep by a strange and unidentifiable creaking of the floorboards. Registering Steve's absence at his side, he pushed himself upwards with a frown.
"Steve," he said eventually, "what are you doing?"
"Push-ups," his boyfriend said matter-of-factly, letting out small huffs of breath that suggested he was counting just below the point of hearing.
"At..." Sam glanced over at the alarm clock, but couldn't quite make out the digits, "the kind of hour where, you know, it's still too dark to actually see what time it is?"
"I'm trying to cure my writer's block."
He hesitated for a beat. "By building really strong arm muscles?"
Steve fell momentarily into decidedly more lopsided push-ups as he pointed an accusing finger at Sam. "You," he panted warningly, "should not mock me. You're a writer. You should feel my pain."
"Well, I'm feeling pain right now, but I think it's mostly repressed memories from gym class. Can you stop doing that, please?"
Steve lowered his chest onto the floor, and frowned up at him. "It clears my head."
"And that helps you write?"
"Not so far, but I'm optimistic."
Sam rolled his eyes, and dropped his feet over the side of the bed. "I'm gonna take a shower and get ready for work."
"Oh, fine, fine. Leave me to my agony."
He bent down in passing, and brushed a quick kiss over Steve's cheek. "You'll get over it."
He went to take a long, warm shower in preparation for work. The January air was miserably cold to his California-raised skin, but he always liked the stillness of the world in winter. A new year; a new beginning.
Perhaps this one would pass a little more smoothly than the last.
"Okay, Josh, what the hell happened?" Leo demanded, rolling his eyes.
"Well, for once, it wasn't me that did it," he announced, brushing back his hair from his forehead.
"The deal got leaked?" Toby asked. CJ pulled a face.
"I don't know how they got hold of it. Who even knew?"
"Us... McGann, Wiley and Goss," Sam enumerated helpfully. CJ shook her head in puzzlement.
"It doesn't make any sense. They're our guys."
"This setback could push us back weeks, maybe even months," Josh groaned. "We had those votes, Leo. We could have pushed it through committee like that." He clicked his fingers.
"We can still do it, but it's gonna take time to regroup. The second they found out what we had on the table, they were wooing our senators away like a con artist through an over-sixties singles bar."
Leo grimaced. "Joe Bridges is gonna be laughing."
Sam looked up. "Any possibility he could have-?"
"How?" Toby demanded. "We had it sewn up our end. And nobody their side is a friend to Senator Bridges."
Leo glanced at Josh. "Josh, find out how this happened. And make sure it doesn't happen again."
Josh nodded solemnly. Leo shuffled his papers.
"Okay, what else?"
"Leo, is the president okay?" Sam asked, leaning forward. "He seemed a little... subdued, Sunday."
Everyone was relieved when Leo smirked. "Yeah. The president has a bit of a winter cold. Because the president is four years old, and when it snows, he has to go outside and play in it."
"He caught a chill?" CJ asked incredulously.
"President 'Back home, this would be unseasonably warm for summer' Bartlet caught a chill?"
"Was he wearing a coat?"
"You know how the president feels about coats."
"I have to tell the press corps that our New Hampshire born president went outside in the snow without a coat and caught a chill?"
"Apparently, in New Hampshire, people do not wear coats out into the snow. Which really begs the question of why the population of New Hampshire is still as high as it is."
"Survival of the most thick-skinned," Josh put in sardonically. CJ snorted.
"You can talk, Benadryl boy. One sneeze and you're calling out the CDC to put you in isolation."
Josh shot her a wounded look. "I'll have you know, that was a particularly virulent strain of twenty-four-hour flu."
"So virulent, apparently, it was gone in fifteen minutes," interjected Toby.
Leo smiled. "So, yeah, it's just a cold. But people, try and keep the little things off his desk, okay? It's not that long until the State of the Union, and he'd run himself into the ground if we let him." He secured a series of nods, and straightened up. "Let's try and keep this a light week."
Chapter 2: II
"Hey, Mitch." A mug of coffee was pressed into his hands, and he nodded acknowledgement to his partner.
The two men walked into briefing room 8A. They both took seats, amidst what was already quite a crowd of serious looking individuals in dark suits. It was a scene that was probably playing out in literally hundreds of conference rooms across America.
Very few of those rooms, however, were likely to hold quite the concentrated level of experience with firearms, explosives and every other imaginable form of weaponry as this one.
Ron Butterfield stood up, giving the two agents of Nest detail a quick tilt of the head. He cut straight to the chase, never having been a great one for much small talk.
"Okay. You're all aware of the increased security procedures since Osprey's announcement." Osprey was the new codename for Zoey Bartlet-Young, adopted after her graduation since the Bookbag pseudonym was both no longer apt and too long in circulation. They had to be doubly careful with the First Daughter's security now that she and Charles Young had not just resumed their relationship, but sealed the deal by marrying in the summer. Young, Christened Peregrine by the Service, now had a full time detail of his own... whether he wanted it or not.
And then, a few weeks ago, had come the announcement. For most people, the news of a pregnancy was something to be celebrated. For the Secret Service, it brought the twin worries of increased nutcase activity, and a more physically vulnerable protectee.
"In addition to the groups added to the list in recent weeks," Ron continued, "there's a new organisation I wanted brought to everybody's attention. They may be affiliated with one or more existing groups, operating under the name of the Sons of Herod. They've sent several letters specifically targeting the baby." If it was possible, Butterfield's face grew even grimmer.
"Targeting how?" That was Tony, leaning forward in his seat.
"The OPR has said there's a consistent pattern in the letters of referring to the pregnancy in terms of a parasite or a disease - key phrases involving cleansing, purifying and burning out the infection. They're cross-referencing with similar threats against high-profile mixed race pregnancies, looking for repeated phrases."
"What about Peregrine?" asked Glenn Howard, a solidly built man assigned to the detail that accompanied Young when he was away from the newlywed's apartment, codenamed the Nest.
"Peregrine is not specifically referenced in the letters. The pattern suggests that their priority is 'saving' Osprey." Even the expert in straight faces that was Butterfield couldn't quite manage that one without a slight curl of contempt.
Mitch guessed it fell on his shoulders to ask the awkward question. "What's the procedure on informing the protectees?"
Obviously, the Secret Service didn't keep their protectees appraised of every last threatening letter that came their way - not least because if the true weight of malice and insanity that was out there was ever revealed, they might never leave the house - but when new areas of threat were identified, assessments had to be made. The First Daughter was well aware of the fact that her relationship with Charles Young made her a target; would it aid or hinder their protection of her to let her know that the pregnancy itself was an area of attack?
This time Ron did visibly grimace. "Eagle will be kept informed. We'll take his input under advisement."
That was one duty Mitch didn't envy him. Few things in this world the Secret Service had to contend with were quite as daunting as the presidential bear when a cub was in danger. A protective instinct that extended not just to his daughters, but almost anybody else who came under his wing for any length of time. Indeed, just about the only person the president didn't flip out over threats to was himself.
Ron nodded shortly. "Okay. That's all. Everybody have a good day."
In the world of the Secret Service, that parting wish had perhaps a more direct and immediate connotation than in most.
Josh breezed into the office. "Hey, Donna."
"Hey. Do you need those GNP stats this morning, or-?"
"No, that can wait." He shrugged out of his jacket and hung it up.
"Do you want me to shift Jo Chalmers to four o'clock?"
"Would you like a kitten?"
Josh paused in the doorway to his office and turned around slowly. "Okay, did you just ask me if I wanted a coffee, or-?"
"A kitten," Donna confirmed.
He let his eyebrows do the talking. "A kitten."
"My roommate's cat just had kittens, and-"
"Donna!" he objected.
"Josh, they need homes!"
"Donna... my last houseplant died of neglect, and it was made of plastic," he reminded her.
"Yes. That is true," she admitted. She paused, and then brightened again. "Would your mom like a kitten?"
"You're gonna ship it to Florida?"
"Josh, she needs to find someone to take this kitten. We absolutely can't take another cat in our apartment."
"I'm not surprised! You know those cats are plotting to take over the world," he warned her. She tilted her head on one side to regard him.
"You know, it bothers me sometimes that you have the president's ear."
"Yeah. Donna, I need you to pull all the data we have on Alec Goss, Tim Wiley, and Selena McGann."
"This is about the leak?" she surmised, switching quickly back into business mode.
Josh nodded, and wandered over to stand by her desk. "It doesn't make any sense," he mused, mostly to himself. "None of these guys would sabotage this, we've been working towards it for months."
"You want me to set you up some meetings?"
"Yeah. Yeah, see if you can get me some time with Senator McGann."
Donna gave him a look. "Senator McGann?"
"Any particular reason why Senator McGann particularly?"
He shrugged with exaggerated innocence. "Because... she's on the list?"
"And because you like that she flirts with you."
Donna rolled her eyes. "Josh, you are aware she flirts with everyone?"
He shrugged again. "I'm secure."
She snorted expressively, and he gave her a look.
"Donna, just set me up a meeting, okay?"
"Thank you." Josh headed towards his office, and paused again in the doorway. "I'm not, like, going to go in there and find a kitten on my desk, am I?"
He moved to go in, and stopped again. "Or, you know, secreted about the place in any kind of-?"
"Sorry." He disappeared into his office.
"Hey." A hand descended to cover his forehead, and Jed tilted his head back in the chair to look up at its owner.
Abbey bent down to press a brief kiss beside her hand, and pulled a face. "You're hot."
He smirked at her, upside-down. "So are you."
"Behave." She tapped him lightly on the head, and walked around to stand in front of him. Jed shrugged.
"Abbey, I really am fine. It's just a cold."
She smiled softly at him. "I know. But look after yourself, babe. That chill could turn nasty."
"I always do," he retorted in injured innocence. Abbey gave a highly expressive snort. "I do," he pouted.
"Yeah. And sitting out in the snow for half an hour was real smart."
"I have to watch the first snowfall of the year," he reminded her.
"You're in Washington, honey, it's probably going to be the only snowfall of the year."
"All the more reason why I couldn't have missed it."
She accepted that. Jed had always loved his home, and nothing could make him ache for New Hampshire quite so much as watching the snow fall somewhere else. It was a ritual of his that no matter where he was, when the first flakes started drifting down he had to be out in it.
A ritual was a ritual - but there was such a thing as common sense. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and sighed.
"It really would have killed you to put on a coat?"
He launched immediately into reminiscence mode. "I remember when I used to-"
"Jed," she cut him off before he could get started. "Were you, by any chance, sixteen years old at the time of the anecdote you're about to launch into?"
He blinked guilelessly at her. "You know, that doesn't invalidate it as documentary evidence."
Abbey sighed, and kissed him resignedly. "Hopeless man."
He grinned. "That's why you love me."
She held his gaze wryly. "Yeah. Something like that."
"And really, Abbey... I am fine."
She looked him in the eye for a long moment. He started to sneeze.
Chapter 3: III
CJ walked into the darkened press room, frowning. Carol had asked her to step inside a moment, a strange request considering the briefing wasn't until two and the press pool wasn't even here right now. She looked around the empty room, puzzled.
"Hi, CJ!" called a bright and cheery voice from behind her.
Okay, most definitely not Carol. She spun on her heel.
"Hey, CJ." He grinned at her as she launched herself at him to give him a hug.
She pulled back and beamed at him. "I thought you were still in England?"
"I came back early."
"You were supposed to come back a year ago," she pointed out.
"Yeah, but I wanted to finish my book."
"You finished it?" she asked delightedly.
"Signed, sealed, and delivered to my publisher."
She hung onto his shirt collar. "So I'm going to have a famous novelist in my press room?"
Danny grinned at her. "You'd better hang onto me. I could be worth something."
CJ chuckled easily, still delighted to see him. "So how was England?"
"English. You'd be amazed. I hung out with the press boys at Downing Street, though. Journalists are the same all over."
"Hey!" But he smiled. "Their press room is nowhere near as nice as ours."
"What about their press secretary?" she asked coyly.
He pretended to consider. "Well, Darren's sweet, but he's really not my type."
She giggled, and embraced him again. "Seriously, Danny, it's good to see you."
"I know." He gave her that same old Danny Concannon smirk, infuriating as hell... and adorable. She leaned in to give him a quick kiss. Which turned into a slightly longer kiss.
They were interrupted by a cough from the direction of the door. "Hey, don't mind me," Sam called, amused.
"Hi, Sam," Danny nodded, turning towards him, while CJ quickly recovered her composure.. "Nice beard."
"Thanks." Sam stroked his goatee. He'd had it long enough that it no longer looked like an adolescent attempt at appearing grown up, but CJ still wasn't used to seeing it when she glanced his way.
"Heard you have a boyfriend now," Danny noted cheerfully. Sam just grinned in response.
"Yeah," he said, in a warmly contented tone of voice. CJ reflected again how much happier he seemed now; more... complete, somehow. And she was a modern woman who certainly didn't need a man to make her happy... but something about seeing that quiet smile made her wistful.
And then, as Sam discreetly withdrew, it was eclipsed in her view by Danny's smirk. And that made her wistful in an entirely different way, one that was probably a very bad idea...
But oh, it was good to see him again.
"-Congresswoman? Uh... Congresswoman?"
It wasn't until the conversation came to an uncomfortable pause that she realised she'd been zoning out. Andy shook herself and smiled apologetically.
"Oh, I'm sorry. Miles away."
Instead of shrugging it off, Congressman Garvey leaned in closer and peered at her concernedly. "Are you all right, Congresswoman? You look a little pale."
Andy shuffled the papers in front of her. "Fine, I'm fine," she insisted quickly. She stood up. "But I'm sorry, we're going to have to continue this meeting later, if that's okay?"
He rose with her. "Of course. We can probably do the rest of this over the phone." He still looked unconvinced. "Are you absolutely sure you're okay? You don't want me to get you a glass of water, or-?"
"I really am fine," she repeated, giving her best 'we're done here' polite smile. Matt Garvey didn't know her very well, and he had to leave it at that.
"Okay. Well... I'll have somebody call your office later."
When he was gone, Andy let out her breath in a long, steadying sigh. This was hopeless; her concentration was completely shot to hell.
She was going to have to call him. She hated to do it; it made her feel weak and needy, unable to cope on her own, but... she needed to talk to him.
She walked out of the meeting room, and Nikki gave her a scrutinising look. "That was over fast."
"Yeah. The Congressman's gonna call me back." She rubbed her forehead tiredly, and tried to ignore her assistant's worried gaze. "Listen, could you put in a call to Bonnie at the White House, and see if he's got some time later today?"
"Okay." Nikki's concerned look only grew, and she ducked back into her office to avoid it.
"Josh." She smiled at him, but it was a smooth, glassy, political smile.
Selena McGann was a political animal. She was somewhere in the upper end of her fifties, and beautiful, in an aloof and slightly distant way. She was elegant, but in a very refined and calculated manner, not the kind of effortless grace he associated with CJ.
She could indeed, as Donna had noted disparagingly, be coyly flirtatious when it suited her; but it was a dangerous school of seduction, the weaponry of a woman who knew what she wanted and was prepared to use all the tools at her disposal to get it. He knew better than to get lured into that kind of power game.
Well, okay, there had been Mandy.
Hmm, maybe Donna had a point, at that.
Today, however, Senator McGann was not in the mood to play with him. "You're here about the leak," she assumed bluntly.
He gave a short, humourless smile. "Yeah."
"You can't possibly think it came from this office."
"It came from somewhere," he pointed out neutrally. You could learn a lot from watching how somebody reacted to a statement like that, but Selena was no political amateur, and she had a poker face. She gave him a faint smile.
"Josh, I have no idea where your leak came from, and if you think I'm not as angry as you are, you're frankly deluded. If you must insist on conducting a witch hunt, I suggest you look to your own office before you start casting stones. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a busy day ahead of me. Amanda!" She called out a young woman hovering on the sidelines. "How does my schedule look for the next few hours?"
The aide had to check a small notebook. Josh thought, with a kind of vaguely irrational pride, that Donna would have been able to recite his own schedule without even thinking about it.
"Uh... I cancelled your one o'clock and arranged lunch with Congresswoman Wells like you asked," Amanda supplied. "And then Steve Onorato straight after. Oh, and Senator Bridges called; he wants to talk to you as soon as possible."
Josh's eyebrows shot up. "You're palling around with Joe Bridges now?" he wondered aloud. The senator gave him a scathing look.
"I should imagine he's calling to gloat. As well he might - I worked hard to get this deal for you, Josh, and I'm most assuredly no friend to Joseph Bridges. Might I suggest that if you actually intend to find out how this happened, you do me the courtesy of taking your suspicions elsewhere."
"Oh, I will," he agreed, with a nod and a plastic smile.
But, he thought as he left, he might just leave a healthy chunk of them in this office while he was at it.
Chapter 4: IV
"CJ!" A forest of hands shot up. Normally she'd be dreading the first briefing after a dropped ball like the leaked deal, but today she was feeling inexplicably cheerful.
"Any comment on the source of the leak?"
"We're still looking into that, Sandy." Not that we're particularly likely to tell you when we find out.
"Has Senator Bridges' counter-proposal put a spanner in the works with a view to passing the bill?"
"Obviously, there's going to need to be some time for more negotiation, but we're confident that we can get this legislation through. Josh Lyman has already been in meetings with ranking members of the committee this morning." Mostly browbeating them about whether they were the source of the leak, but still. She picked out another hand from the throng. "Bobby."
"CJ... the dinner party tomorrow night. No press attendance?"
CJ smiled. "It's a relatively intimate affair, folks, just the president, the First Lady, and eighty or ninety guests or so." It probably came to something when you could make a statement like that, and know it wasn't entirely a joke. "There'll be photographs at the start of the evening, and if any of you folks want to camp out in the parking lot to catch the Swedish Ambassador... be my guest." She shrugged theatrically.
Chris dived in with a quick question. "CJ, about the British Prime Minister's visit last week-?"
"As I've said, both sides have been very pleased with the outcome of the meetings. We'll have the report for you soon, folks; we're co-ordinating with Downing Street over some last-minute alterations to the language."
"No friction between the parties involved?" asked Chris, a little doubtfully.
"Not at all. The Prime Minister was very complimentary about our new foreign aid strategy, and the talks were concluded to the mutual satisfaction of all parties involved." If only they could all get off so smoothly.
She spotted the familiar form insinuating its way into the back of the press room, and met his eyes. "Any further questions, folks?" she asked, beginning to smile.
He playfully raised an arm, and she took great pleasure in extending a hand to point at him. "Danny."
The way the entire room suddenly craned around to stare was immensely satisfying.
He smirked in that typical Danny Concannon way, sticking his hands in his pockets. "Hey, kids. Guess who's home."
From the gleeful exclamations that greeted his appearance, she guessed the rest of the press corps had missed him as much as she had.
He didn't look up as Andy entered his office, but he knew it was her. After long enough together, you could recognise the shape of the silence. She waited while he finished typing out the threads of speech in his head before he lost them, and then looked up.
She gave him a fragile smile. "Toby."
He nodded, and looked at her expectantly. After a moment, she let her breath out in a slightly amused huff, and sat down on the corner of his desk. "Toby," she repeated pointedly.
"We've established that this is me," he noted dryly, and Andy rubbed her forehead.
"I- Listen, you know what?" She stood up. "I was gonna do this now, but I think maybe that's not such a good idea, so-"
He got up, and touched her sleeve to halt her. "Andy?"
She sighed heavily, and looked down at the floor for a long moment. "I- You should probably... I thought you ought to know. I, um, I made an appointment with my doctor for tomorrow morning."
"Something's wrong," he presumed, eyebrows lowering in concern.
Andy pulled a wry face, and shrugged, as if not quite sure how to answer that. She looked him in the eye. "Toby, I think there's a chance I might be..."
"Oh." Suddenly, this conversation seemed very familiar.
There was a long silence, and he looked across at her. "Is that... possible?"
"Anything's possible, Toby."
It was his turn to smile humourlessly in acknowledgement.
"So..." he said eventually.
"So, anyway, I thought you ought to know, before I-"
Once upon a time, the possibilities hanging unspoken in the air would have bubbled with nervous excitement, but both were all too sharply aware of the double-edged sword it could represent.
If it was even anything. They'd had their share of dashed hopes.
All too many of them.
There was an awkward silence that stretched on too long, and then Andy smiled tightly, and kissed him on the corner of the mouth. "Anyway, I wanted to tell you." Toby nodded silently. "I'm going back to work now."
He watched her leave, and then sat back in his chair, staring at the ceiling. He stayed that way for quite some time, until the still-ajar door was pushed all the way open, and Sam came in.
"Toby? I just wanted to go over a few things on the speech for tomorrow's dinner party, and-" He paused, and frowned. "Did something happen?"
Toby snapped out of it, and passed a hand over his face. "Tuesday's speech?" he prompted, not answering the question.
"Oh, right." If he noticed the evasion, he probably assumed it was just typical behaviour. Sam dug in his pocket for a folded sheet of paper. "So, anyway. I cut that stuff out of the D-section like you suggested? And, well, that left the rest of it unbalanced, so I moved some things around, altered a few pieces, and... Well, we kind of need a new speech."
Normally, he'd be irritated at his deputy's frustrating inability to alter one tiny segment of a speech without the urge to rewrite the whole thing. Right now, though, he was glad of the distraction. "All right. Show me what you've got."
He looked up, turning a page, as his deputy appeared in the doorway. "Josh."
"I spoke to all three of them; McGann and Goss in person, Wiley on the phone."
"It's McGann," Josh said with full confidence. Leo frowned, and pulled his glasses off.
"It's not McGann," he said, shaking his head.
"Leo, I went to see her," Josh insisted earnestly. "I got a vibe."
"Well, that's nice for you," he said sarcastically, "but I'm telling you, it's not McGann. Selena's good people. She worked with John Hoynes on the technology bill for months, she got us three votes on 802; this isn't her."
"There was a vibe," Josh repeated stubbornly. Leo shot him a look.
"Would you stop it with the vibing? I'm having bad flashbacks to the eighties."
Josh paused. "And now I'm having bad mental images. Leo-"
"Mallory went through some strange phases," Leo dismissed. "I picked things up."
"Yeah, I'm a little worried they're contagious. Leo, I'm telling you, McGann's up to her neck in it."
He narrowed his eyes. "Up to her neck in what?"
"I don't know," Josh admitted with a frown. "But whatever it is, she's involved in it."
Leo heaved a sigh. He couldn't possibly imagine what Selena McGann would stand to gain from sabotaging a deal they'd all worked hard to get on the table... but he had to admit that, whatever you called them, Josh's instincts in these things had a way of panning out.
"Okay. See what you can find out. But I'm telling you, this isn't Selena's style."
Josh nodded slowly, brain obviously churning beneath the blank face. He started to leave, stopped in the doorway, and turned back. "Leo... why would somebody like McGann be clearing her schedule to take a meeting with Rita Wells?"
Leo frowned, and then shrugged. Admittedly, Wells was a bit low down the ladder to be awarded priority attention from Selena McGann, but still... "I don't know, Josh. Why does anybody meet with anybody?"
"Yeah." But Josh still had his distant 'I'm putting things together' face in place. "It just seems... strange." He snapped himself out of it. "Okay. I'll go... do something."
"That would be good," Leo agreed dryly.
Josh wandered off, still looking like his brain was a million miles away. He wondered what the hell was going on in his deputy's head.
Hopefully, something that would eventually lead to some answers. The president was under the weather, and thoroughly miserable with it, for all that he wouldn't admit it. It would be nice to be able to bring him some good news for a change.
Chapter 5: V
"Hi, Carol." He smiled at her.
She'd missed Danny. He always had a grin and a few cheerful word for her, treating her as a person in her own right instead of an extension of CJ or just the girl who carried papers around. Besides, having Danny around made for a happier CJ, for all that she'd never admit it. The times he cheered her up far outweighed the number of times he drove her crazy... and besides, Carol suspected that CJ secretly rather enjoyed being driven crazy.
Which was why she was here.
"Hey, CJ was wondering if you've got some time-"
"Sure," he said instantly, standing up.
"Some time this evening," she finished, smiling. "She figured you owe her a catch-up dinner."
Danny's grin widened in pleasure. "Yeah, I can do that."
"Great. Seven okay by you?"
He was still beaming happily to himself as she left the pressroom. She walked back to CJ's office and rapped on the doorframe. "CJ?"
"Oh, hey, Carol." She looked up from her paperwork.
"I was just speaking to Danny." It was fun to watch CJ try so hard to be casual.
Carol allowed a little of her smirk to show on the surface.
"He said he was wondering if you'd like to have dinner with him tonight. Sort of a chance to catch up."
CJ pulled an odd face, which Carol knew her boss well enough to recognise for CJ trying hard not to look delighted. "He couldn't ask me himself? What is this, fourth grade?"
"Maybe he's shy."
She snorted laughter at that. "Oh, but of course. Okay, Carol. Tell him if I have some free time-"
"You do. He said seven, you should be done with everything by then."
CJ threw up her hands. "Okay! Since you're obviously conspiring against me-"
"I'll tell him you said okay."
Carol left her boss's office, and smiled smugly to herself. Donna was so right. Deviousness did pay.
"Hey, Ron." He gave the senior agent a nod and a wry quirk of the mouth. He had a great deal of admiration for Ron Butterfield, but it was a legacy of the job that occasions when they met were not usually good times to smile.
Ron could never be accused of being one to beat about the bush. "Sir, I wanted you to be updated on a new security threat the OPR identified."
"Towards me?" he asked, with a twisted kind of hopefulness. Not that he relished anybody else trying to threaten his life, but better his than any of the possible alternatives.
Alas, it wasn't to be. "Towards Charlie and Zoey, Mr. President."
Jed sighed heavily, and pushed aside his papers to rub his forehead. Only Monday, and already he felt like he'd used up his energy quota for the week. Despite everybody's fussing, this really was only a simple cold he was suffering, but all the same, it was wearing on him. "Ron... is there any particular reason to consider this threat any more seriously than the tens of other hate groups that choose to target my daughter and her husband for reasons past understanding?"
Ron stared straight ahead. "No, sir." Which wasn't at all the same thing as saying they thought the threat was insignificant. To the Secret Service, no threat was insignificant. "However, since the recent announcement we've been receiving letters that indicate a different area of threat-"
"Oh, God. What?" The icy fingers of dread warred with duller exhaustion for control of his body, and the result was an instant migraine.
It wasn't often that you caught Ron Butterfield showing signs of discomfort of any kind, but he was doing it now.
"Mr. President, we've become aware of a group calling themselves the Sons of Herod." The biblical reference made it all too obvious even before he got the rest of the words out. "They're not after Charlie or your daughter, they're specifically targeting the baby."
"The baby? What do you mean, targeting the baby?" he demanded. "There isn't a baby! There's barely even a bump!"
Zoey, little Zoey, really pregnant? When he pictured her in his mind, he still saw pigtails.
Yes, Ron definitely looked decidedly pained; probably at the thought of the explosion his next words were likely to ignite. "The letters make it clear that the group consider it their... duty... to see that the pregnancy be terminated."
"Terminated?" Jed said, with the icily precise tones than anybody with any brains knew for the signifier that it was time to start running.
His Special Agent in Charge was, by necessity, made of sterner stuff. "Yes, sir. By any means necessary."
Jed rolled the words carefully over his tongue, tasting them, as if trying to make sure there was no possibility of mistake. "There is a group - a terrorist group-" never mind the ins and outs of official terminology, to him this was terrorism in its purest form- "dedicated to the... termination of my youngest daughter's pregnancy."
Ron's expression didn't waver, but his gaze was locked somewhere very deliberately away from the president's eyes. "Mr. President."
"Find these people, Ron," he said, with cold finality.
There was a long pause, during which he became aware that Ron was not moving to leave. He looked up again from his paperwork. "Was there something else?" He was not deliberately hostile, but the tightly restrained anger under the surface tempered his tone with darkness.
"Mr. President, there's been some debate over whether it would be in the best interest of Peregrine and Osprey to inform them of the threat."
Jed wondered if the slip into Secret Service designations was a deliberate attempt to get him thinking as a president and not a father. If so, it was doomed to failure; his immediate instinct was to shield Zoey from all the horrors of the world, but he hesitated. "Ron?" He requested an informed opinion in that single syllable.
The Secret Service man grimaced. "Mr. President, it's my feeling that the protectees should be made aware of the reasons for increased security. Zoey in particular has-"
"Quite a strenuous objection to a heavy security presence." Jed nodded slowly. Perhaps Ron was right. He couldn't blame the two young people for chafing under the restrictions of their security teams - Lord knew his own felt like it was strangling him most days - but if warning them that it was not just their own lives in danger would encourage them to be more careful... maybe it wasn't such a bad idea.
Still, the thought of his young, beloved, five-months pregnant daughter being told that the baby she was carrying was already a target of hate groups... He looked up.
"Let me be the one to talk to Zoey. She'll take it better from me."
"Yes, sir." Ron nodded smartly. "I'll set up a meeting with Charlie later today."
Probably he should have volunteered to take that one too... but one such meeting was going to be painful enough, and he was almost pathetically grateful to Ron for taking the duty off his shoulders. He nodded. "Okay. You do that."
He could feel a cough welling up in his chest, and tried to restrain it until the agent had left the room, but couldn't quite make it. Ron turned back and gave him the appraising eye of a US Secret Service agent with a charge to protect from whatever area danger seemed to present itself. "Mr. President?" He didn't have to fill in the rest of the question.
Jed waved him away, eyes watering slightly from the effort of coughing. "I'm fine." All the same, he was pretty glad he had a pitcher of ice water on his desk. He poured himself a glass, careful not to cause any undue alarm by letting his hand shake, and took a sip. "I'm fine, Ron," he repeated.
The agent stood firm. "Mr. President, would you like to see a doctor?"
Now there was a stupid question. "The First Lady has already had me poked, prodded and examined by a whole team of medical officers," he reassured his agent in charge with a wry twist of his mouth. "Believe me, if there was anything worse than a cold wrong with me, they would have found it." He grimaced in recollection. "They certainly looked hard enough."
Ron nodded sharply and departed, his training, at least, making him obey orders instead of lingering and continuing to bug his Commander in Chief about looking after himself. Jed carefully poured himself more water, and sighed.
It really was just a simple cold. He just wished it didn't make him feel so thoroughly rotten.
Sam wandered into his boss's office. "Toby, I'm still not happy with the D-section."
"It's more... bumpy." Sam frowned. "Actually, no. I think the word 'bumpy' implies a fairly smooth transition between levels, whereas this is... crenellated. My speech has crenellations."
Toby looked at him. "Sam, are you totally clear on what I ask you to do here? Have you been studying for an architectural qualification I am unaware of?
He shrugged helplessly. "I'm just saying, my speech has..."
"It has battlements?"
"It has an unevenness in tone you could shoot arrows through."
Toby gave him a long-suffering look. "Sam, do you want me to report you to the US Grammatical Office for metaphor abuse?"
Sam frowned, distracted. "Do we have a US Grammatical Office?"
Probably fortunately for his continued good health, Josh chose this moment to drop by.
"Hey," he said vaguely, hair sticking up in all directions as it did when he was preoccupied. Sam had never quite worked out whether this was due to Josh tugging on it while he was distracted, or some kind of build-up of static electricity from frenzied brain activity. He pointed at the two of them, finger wavering in the air. "Does... either of you two know why Senator McGann would be clearing her schedule to meet with Congresswoman Wells?"
"You mean Congressman Wells?" Sam assumed, correcting him.
"No. Not Liam Wells, Rita."
"Rita Wells?" He frowned in confusion. "She's nobody."
"I know." Josh stood in the doorway blinking for a few moments. "Okay." He wandered off.
Sam glanced at Toby, who had gone back to staring intently at his computer screen. He got the impression he wasn't wanted. "Okay, so I'm gonna go... fortify the battlements."
Strangely, Toby didn't bother to dignify this with a parting riposte as he left the office. Frowning, Sam sidled over to Bonnie.
"Do you know why Andy was here earlier? Toby seems... weird."
"Weirder than usual?"
He gave that the consideration it was due. "Well, you know. Differently weird."
Bonnie thought for a moment. "I don't know, but Andy seemed... subdued about something."
"Oh." He wondered what that was about. Could Andy and Toby's reconciliation already be on the rocks? He hoped not. But still, he supposed it was none of his business. He straightened up. "Okay, I'm just gonna go work on tomorrow night's speech," he explained to Bonnie. "Or, you know, possibly design a castle."
He headed back into his office.
Chapter 6: VI
She was the White House press secretary. She had made some truly horrifically difficult decisions in her time, some of them in a matter of split seconds. She'd made some well, and some badly - but she'd made them.
This one, however, was defeating her.
With the wrap, or without the wrap? That was the question. She'd already casually asked Carol once; going out and attempting to ask casually again was not going to reduce her assistant's level of knowing glances any.
And it had absolutely nothing to do with looking good for her dinner with Danny Concannon, no. It was a vitally important matter of outfit coordination, dammit!
CJ was aware of somebody entering the office behind her. Ah, a saviour! She turned, and saw that it was Josh.
Not a saviour. Damn.
Judging by the preoccupied look on his face, at the present time Josh would only have a fifty-fifty chance of noticing what gender she was, never mind what she was wearing. Still, any port in a storm.
"Josh, do you think I should wear this wrap with this dress, or take it off?"
"It looks nice," he said, extremely vaguely. Considering he hadn't even cracked wise about the possible alternate interpretation of that question, she guessed his brain wasn't anywhere near the vicinity of the building. He rubbed his face tiredly. "CJ, why would Senator McGann be meeting with Rita Wells?"
"They're old friends; they went to college together," CJ supplied absently, checking her hair in the handheld mirror.
Josh blinked at her for a few moments. "College?"
She twisted around to give him a wry look. "Yes, Josh, you remember college? I have it on fairly good authority you graduated. Although do I seem to recall something about a fish that made the Dean's List, and I'm beginning to wonder if maybe you let it take some classes for you."
For a moment he just stood still, and then shook himself. "Okay. Yeah, thanks." He turned to leave, and then paused, and glanced back at her. "Hey, wait, you're dressed up."
She mentally went back and demoted Josh's opinion of whether or not to wear the wrap a few steps further.
Josh's forehead wrinkled in bemusement. "Did I miss the dinner party?"
"The dinner party's tomorrow, Josh," she told him patiently.
He gestured at her outfit helplessly. "So...?"
"I'm having dinner with Danny," she said with a pre-emptive glare, and braced herself for the inevitable smart remarks. They didn't arrive.
"Danny's back?" Josh said vaguely, and then he wandered off. She wondered what the hell train of thought he was quite so wrapped up in, and what on earth it could possibly have to do with Rita Wells.
"Is he in his office?"
Charlie nodded. "We're keeping his schedule pretty light." He looked beat; no doubt he'd been rushed off his feet, dealing with the joy of working for a Jed Bartlet who was both under the weather and stubbornly refusing to admit it. Add to that a pregnant wife and a job description nobody would envy at the best of times, and it was a wonder he could even remain upright, never mind functional.
"Thanks, Charlie." Leo smiled at the young aide as he went in.
The President of the United States was a miserable sight. Hunched over his briefing papers with a pained grimace, clammy-looking skin, and reddened eyes with deep pits of shadow under them, he looked as though he should have been consigned to bed several hours ago.
"You look horrible," Leo said matter-of-factly.
Jed lifted his head and gave his Chief of Staff a wry smile. "And that's a pretty ugly tie, my friend," he countered.
Leo glanced down at his chest. "This is a good tie. There's nothing wrong with this tie. I mean, it wasn't hand-picked by a team of tie consultants, but-"
"They do other jobs!" Jed said defensively.
"You have your ties picked by committee." He let his dry look speak for itself.
The president tugged at his collar irritably. "Never liked the damn things, anyway. I think I have the wrong shaped neck."
"I think you should take a break," Leo said, dropping the teasing tone and speaking more earnestly.
Jed waved an annoyed hand at him. "I've been taking breaks! I've had nothing but breaks all morning. If I take any more breaks, they'll have to officially declare this a vacation day!"
"With all due respect, Mr. President, you look as if you're about to keel over."
"Rubbish," he snapped shortly, and Leo was left to reflect on how few people actually said things like 'rubbish' anymore. "It's just a cold."
"Well, it might be just a cold, but do you have any idea what you look like right now? I can feel my hay fever starting up just looking at you."
"You don't suffer from hay fever, Leo," the president reminded him with a flat look.
"Well, such is the power of your zombie-like appearance! Mr. President-"
"Leo, I really am fine," he insisted, smiling to blunt the edge of denial that clung to it.
He sighed, and subsided. "Okay."
After a few moments he looked up, allowing himself the beginnings of a smirk. "I thought you didn't get colds?"
The president glared at him. "It's a viral infection, Leo, it has nothing to do with-"
"This is you standing in the snow without a coat, isn't it?" he said knowingly.
"Leo, it's a common misconception that strains of the common cold are contracted just by going out into weather that's a little below certain sections of society's arbitrary temperature standards. The fact is that airborne viruses-"
"You went out there in the snow, and you caught a chill. Admit it."
There was some most un-presidential pouting going on. "Leo-"
"I admit no such thing." He folded his arms petulantly. Leo smirked.
"You're investigating the leak?" Jed asked after a moment.
"Josh is looking into it."
The president nodded vaguely. "Good... Hey, I hear Danny Concannon is back?" He looked up.
"Yeah." Leo wasn't entirely sure how to feel about that, but eventually opted to go with a smile. Danny was a friend to the administration, at least as far as reporters went... but he was also a damn good journalist, and at times the two were mutually exclusive. Danny wouldn't have liked taking them apart in the various scandals that had rocked the administration since his hiatus from the White House... but he'd have done it. He was too professional not to. Leo didn't like to think what else might be next on the list now he was back.
They lapsed into silence, and Leo watched his old friend worriedly. Whatever he said, he looked pale and clammy. And of course, with Jed, some symptoms that might spring from a simple cold carried additional worries. "Are you feverish?" he asked. He leaned across to reach out a hand and see for himself.
Jed pulled back indignantly. "You just felt my forehead!" he said incredulously. "I'm the President of the United States! You can't just go feeling my forehead, willy-nilly. Secret Service!" The joking call became a cough, and Leo handed him his glass of water, patting him on the shoulder. Jed sipped from it gingerly, and pulled a face.
"You okay?" he asked concernedly.
"Yeah." He managed a tight smile. "Seriously, Leo. I know I sound a little rough - I am a little rough - but it really isn't anything more than that."
His eyes were clear enough as he looked up at Leo, and sure enough, though he was horribly clammy he didn't seem to be running much of a fever. Still... "I worry about you," he said quietly.
Jed smiled up at him, and briefly squeezed his hand where it still rested on his shoulder. "And I appreciate that, Leo, but really, you don't need to. Abbey's had the doctors check me over, I don't have a fever, it really is just a nasty cold. You don't need to worry about... that." Even now, with Jed's health condition very much a piece of public information - and even acknowledged to be more of a worry with his recent poor health - it wasn't something that was easily spoken aloud.
Leo gave his old friend a wry, gentle smile. "I'd still worry about you if you didn't have that," he reminded him softly.
The look that passed between them said all that needed to be said, and after a moment, Leo left the Oval and returned to his office.
Chapter 7: VII
The wandering boss returneth.
"No, I'm Donnatella Moss." This rather pathetic attempt at humour did not go down well. Or, indeed, at all. Josh had his dazed, 'deep in thought' expression in place, distinguishable from his dazed, 'boy I'm drunk' expression only by the fact that he had not, yet, fallen over.
He focused on her. "What reason would I have to meet with Rita Wells?"
"You wouldn't." Congresswoman Wells was a timid, line-towing nobody. You didn't waste the Deputy Chief of Staff on meeting with people who could be just as easily pressured by Ed and Larry.
"But why would I? If I did," he said insistently. Donna rolled her eyes, but decided not to waste her time trying to track down the conversation logic that was buried in there somewhere. She thought for a minute.
He frowned. "The childcare bill's a dead cert. It's both neutral, and breathtakingly boring."
"That's why they gave it to Rita Wells."
He nodded, conceding the point. "Okay. Call her office, get me a meeting."
Donna gave him a searching look. "Why the subterfuge?"
"I'm flying under the radar." Josh sighed, and rubbed his face. "It might be nothing. Maybe it's nothing." He looked across at her. "But somehow... I don't think it is."
She couldn't for the life of her imagine what any of these supposed clues he was collecting added up to, but the Lyman political instinct had pulled off some bizarre intuitive leaps before now. She headed for her filing system, and started looking for Rita Wells.
"So." CJ broke off laughing long enough to try and swallow her mouthful of chicken without choking. "Why didn't you come back?" She'd missed him more than she realised. "I thought you only went on to England to do research, it took you a whole year?"
"Hey, I'm a slow learner!" Danny gestured with his fork, and then grew more sober. "I almost came back earlier," he admitted. "But all the things that almost made me come back were things you'd hate me if I came back for."
She thought of all the things that had happened since his departure, and gave him a wry smile. "You're a reporter, Danny," she reminded him, as if either of them could have forgotten.
He brightened up, and pulled out a thick envelope from under the table. "And now I'm a novelist."
CJ chuckled. "That's your book?" Trust Danny to take it to dinner with him.
"Yeah. A hundred and fifty thousand words - it's a real blockbuster."
"I'll bet. Can I read it?"
Danny smirked. "You know how I feel about the administration reading over my copy-"
"Danny!" She shoved his shoulder lightly and rolled her eyes at him. "It's a novel."
"Yeah, and I think I should make you wait until it's on the bookshelves. Free previews cut into my royalties, you know."
"I don't get one of the vanity copies?" She pretended to be hurt.
"I'm keeping those. I have a lot of vanity to spare."
"I'll say." She laughed again, feeling pleasantly relaxed even though she'd only had half a glass of wine. This was exactly the kind of evening she'd been needing; things had been seven different kinds of hellish at work for so long it was good to take some downtime. Even if it was only in the form of Chinese takeout and a bottle of red wine, it was exactly what she needed.
"So." Danny looked down at his meal for a moment, perhaps seeking a topic that they hadn't already talked to death. "How's Gail?" he came up with.
"She misses you," CJ said dryly. "Two years is a long time. You're an absentee parent."
"Goldfish have a memory span of seven seconds," he pointed out. She waved her glass of wine at him expressively.
"See, and I want to know exactly how they think they know that..."
The evening stretched on, a warm and pleasant space where they could both take a momentary break from remembering who they were. It ended with Danny handing her a copy of his book, and pressing a sweet and surprisingly chaste kiss to her cheek as they parted. "It's good to see you again, CJ," he said earnestly.
She watched him go with a fond but slightly troubled smile.
Andy was waiting for him when he got home.
Toby Ziegler was, in certain areas, not a complex man. He approached personal matters in a very straightforward - some might say bulldozer-like - manner. Andy had, for reasons not entirely understandable, been willing to accept him back. It seemed to him that things like moving back in together and resuming where they left off should proceed on from there, but apparently this was not the case.
His ex-wife had designated this some kind of probationary stage, the terms and duration of which were apparently for her to know and him to wonder about. So, rather than just live together, they arranged time to spend together as if they were in some intermediate stage of dating. It seemed fairly inefficient to him, but what did he know?
Today, however, she was breaking her own rules. She gave him a small, slightly awkward smile, but didn't say anything as he came in.
Toby smiled back at her, and gave no sign of being surprised or disconcerted by her presence. He fixed them both coffee; no alcohol, just in case.
Just in case. They both mulled over that possibility as they drank together in near silence. The chance that Andy could be... His mind slid away from using the actual word, a stupid superstition but one that lingered from all the times before. That chance should be a happy chance, even unexpected as it was, but... well. All the times before...
It was Andy who eventually broke the silence. "I made an appointment with Dr. Havers for tomorrow."
He nodded slowly, remembering Dr. Havers. He'd liked her, from what he recalled; a brisk, no-nonsense woman who somehow managed to avoid any awkwardness by not caring whether she caused it. "Okay."
Andy played with her coffee-cup. "I could... I suppose I could have done a test, but..." She faded out into a shrug, and he could fill in the rest for himself. Tension, and memories of false alarms, and not quite knowing what you did or didn't want to see... Best to get a professional opinion. He looked across at her.
"Do you want me to come with you?"
She smiled slightly. "Toby, I think you'd be missed if you skipped work." He shrugged, contriving to indicate he both knew and didn't care overmuch, but she shook her head. "No... no. I'd rather do this alone, if you don't mind."
He wasn't sure if he minded or not, to tell the truth, so he settled for another quiet "Okay."
Andy was silent for a moment, and then burst out "I just- I don't know what to hope for." She smiled bitterly. "Isn't that terrible? I- this is- if we could have another chance..." She looked pained, and rubbed her forehead. "But I just can't help thinking, if we have another chance, and we lose it again..." She sighed, on the edge of frustrated tears. "I'm not sure I could go through that again, Toby."
She broke off, at the same time as he leaned forward to put his coffee cup on the floor. He extended an arm to her, and she accepted the invitation to move closer and rest her head against him. He didn't know what to hope, any more than she did... but at least he knew all about being the shoulder to lean on.
Abbey sloped into the Residence, yawning, and had to smile at the sight before her. Her husband, apparently bound and determined not to admit that a little bit of a cold was having any draining effect on him, had clearly decided to spend his specially cleared evening getting in some reading instead of going to bed early.
By the looks of things, he hadn't got far.
"Honey?" She lightly nudged his shoulder, and Jed cracked his eyes open.
"I was resting my eyes," he said, looking at her askance.
"Of course you were," she humoured him. He pushed himself up a little unsteadily, resting more on her supporting arm than he would have admitted if he'd been asked. "Now, come on, let's get to bed."
He gave her a tired but still devilish smirk. "You're insatiable, woman."
"Hoo, boy, somebody's got delusions of his own capabilities," she teased mildly. He'd be sinking into his chair to go right back to sleep if she wasn't there to prod him along.
"I have stamina," he told her airily.
"Yeah, yeah. Move it, sneezy."
"I'm not-" He sneezed. "-Immune to the laws of dramatic irony," he finished dryly. "I'm also not nearly as ill as you think I am."
She ignored this, and turned to help him loosen his tie as they entered the Residence. "Arms," she ordered absently, as she would have done to one of the girls when they were small, still needing help to undress themselves. He let out his breath in a disgruntled huff, but raised them to shoulder-level obligingly.
"I'm just a piece of meat to you, aren't I?" he noted, as she made a swifter job of unbuttoning his shirt than he could have in his exhausted state.
"That's right, honey, you're a real prime cut," she agreed wryly. She crossed to the dresser, and pulled out his Notre Dame sweater to toss at him. "Put that on, babe, you need to keep your chest warm." He fumbled with it for a moment and tugged it into place, yawning.
Abbey finished her own night preparations, and they snuggled up together on the bed. "You're hot when you're bossy," he mumbled against her neck, already half asleep. It was impossible not to smile.
"Yeah, well, you're a goofball when you're sick," she noted. "Now, get some rest, and don't overdo it tomorrow, 'kay?"
The only answer from the other side of the bed was a soft, rumbling snore.
"Josh, you should go home."
"Yeah." He sighed, and stretched expansively, almost overbalancing his chair. He rubbed his face, and looked up at her. "Still no response from Rita Wells?"
Donna debated pointing out that she'd given up hours ago when the end of normal people's working days had been and gone, but decided it wasn't worth the effort. "No. I couldn't get a straight answer out of her secretary all the times I called."
"She doesn't want to talk to me," Josh opined, and for a change she was inclined to agree instead of putting it down to paranoid megalomania. For a relatively minor Congresswoman, Wells had managed to acquire a staffer who was impressively good at giving polite brush-offs - but Donnatella Moss was no slouch when it came to recognising the difference between plain old incompetence and being given the run-around.
There were, after all, plenty of people in the world who would rather not speak to Joshua Lyman. Most of them, however, were a lot higher up the political food-chain than Rita Wells.
Josh leaned still further back in his chair, to look at her upside-down. "Still think I'm crazy?" he wondered.
"Definitely, but you might actually be right about this," she conceded.
He bounced back upright in his seat, and she winced, but somehow it defied the laws of physics and failed to dump him on the floor. "There's something going on here," he murmured, and ran a tired hand through his hair. "I have no idea what, but... something."
"Josh?" she said, not unkindly. "Go home."
"Yeah." He sighed. "Yeah, okay. See you tomorrow."
He got up and began to shrug his coat on, obviously still mentally miles away, chasing elusive connections.
Chapter 8: VIII
Sam was woken, for a change, by the absence of something that should be there. An empty bed, once par for the course, was now something unusual. He sat up, checked the time with a groan of dismay, and then followed the dim light under the door to find out what was going on. More early morning push-ups?
He found Steve sitting shirtless in the kitchen with his laptop powered up, a spoon sticking out of the corner of his mouth, and a ferociously intent expression. A half-finished tub of ice-cream sat on the counter beside him, which Sam moved over to prod curiously.
"Hey, I didn't know we had Ben and Jerry's..."
"Back off, it's brain fuel!" Steve warned dangerously.
"Okay!" He held up his hands in surrender, and then surreptitiously licked ice-cream from the back of his thumb when Steve turned away to scowl at his computer screen.
"Still blocked?" Sam asked, wrapping his arms around his partner's waist. Steve leaned back against him, and gave him a dry look.
"No, I'm investigating the tanning effects of computer monitors. As you can see, I'm beginning to develop a healthy green glow, which should eventually-"
Sam kissed the side of his neck. "You get very cranky when you can't write, do you know that?"
"I get cranky when it's three AM and I can't even come up with ten pages of a frelling instruction manual!" Steve glared darkly at his computer screen, and Sam decided that now was probably not the time to enquire into the etymology of 'frelling'.
"Want some company?"
Steve sighed, and then looked at him apologetically. "Did I wake you up?"
"It's okay." He should probably be working on finishing that speech for tomorrow- tonight - anyway. "I'll be back in a minute." He padded back to the bedroom and retrieved his own laptop.
Steve gave him an incredulous look as he returned with it. "Oh, that's right, that's right, taunt me in my hour of need."
"I've got some work I need to finish off," Sam shrugged. He flexed his fingers while the computer powered up. He'd probably left this a bit late, but well, cutting it down to the wire was hardly anything new. He found the speech and opened the document, and then thought for a moment.
Quite a lot of moments, actually.
Eyes widening in nervousness, he turned to Steve. "Oh my God," he said, in slow, sick horror. "You're contagious!"
"Oh, hey Charlie." The president welcomed him with a casual lift of the hand. It seemed like even that lax a greeting was almost too much of an effort; he still looked dreadful. Red-eyed and pale faced, he looked like he'd been dug up from somewhere.
"Sir, are you feeling all right?"
"I'm fine, I'm fine," he insisted irritably. "Have you got my schedule?"
"Yes, sir. You're finishing a little early this afternoon, because of the party." And because the First Lady had made it quite clear exactly what would happen to anybody who let the president push himself too hard while he was still under the weather.
The president nodded, and accepted the sheaf of papers, leafing through it quickly. He glanced up at Charlie with a frown. "We don't have the new draft on tonight's speech yet?"
"Sam's still working on it." So he'd been told, anyway. The evidence suggested that this was in fact a euphemism for 'Sam's planning to actually start writing it sometime soon'.
"Okay. Thank you, Charlie."
That was a dismissal, but he hovered. "Mr. President?" The president looked up. Charlie held up a small packet of medication expectantly.
His father-in-law groaned aloud, and Charlie couldn't quite suppress a smirk.
"The First Lady was quite insistent..." he began.
"I'll bet she was." He rolled his eyes. "Charlie, are we not men of the world here? Are we not family? Can we not agree some code of-"
"The First Lady has made it quite clear there will be a follow-up on this," he warned. "Possibly involving a lie-detector and blood tests." It was probably debatable whether this had actually been a serious threat, but with Abigail Bartlet, you were always better safe than sorry. The president lowered his eyebrows and pouted.
"Fine, I'll take the damn pills," he said, with all the grace of a petulant five-year-old. Charlie handed them to him, concealing his amusement. "I'll take them later. Before the party," he added quickly, before his aide could make any sceptical objection. "Now go away."
Smirking, he left the Oval Office. Nancy snagged him as he walked out.
"Charlie! Ron Butterfield asked to see you when you've got a minute."
The smirk transmuted into a frown. "Okay." He nodded slowly.
Meetings with Ron Butterfield usually only meant one thing; more death threats. Of course, that was nothing new, but he'd noticed a marked step-up in the security around the two of them since Zoey had announced her pregnancy. Probably just a precaution, but still, it grated.
Mood slightly dampened, he went about his usual morning duties.
Josh smiled at the sight of a familiar face across the pressroom. "Hey, Danny."
"You just flew back in yesterday?"
"Night before. I was here all day," he pointed out.
"Yeah." He ran a hand through his hair. "I was kind of busy."
"I heard. Joe Bridges stomped all over your parade, huh?"
Josh gave a flat half-smile. Danny was a friend, but... "No comment."
"Josh, you wound me." He laid a hand over his heart in pantomimed dismay, and Josh smirked and moved on.
"Brenda!" The woman reporter turned at the sound of his voice, and immediately gave him a sharp look.
He spread his hands innocently. "You don't even know what I was going to ask you yet. I could've asking you out to dinner."
She remained oddly unmoved by his obvious charms. "In that case, hell no," she said dryly.
"Okay, I'm not asking you out to dinner," he confessed, choosing to ignore this.
"And I'm not revealing my sources! Josh-"
"Oh, come on-" he protested. It had been Brenda Garland's paper that had first broken the news of the bargain the Democrats had secured, sending Joseph Bridges straight into damage control, and their hopes for finally pushing this damn bill through straight down the pan.
She glared at him disbelievingly. "Josh, I'm a journalist. You're seriously thinking you can just walk up to me and I'll tell you who said what? There's a reason it doesn't work that way."
He was well aware of that, and hence had come up with a cunning plan. It mostly involved being annoying until she got so pissed she let something slip. It was a strategy that generally served him well.
Before he could put it into play, a familiar flash of white-blonde hair showed across the room. "Hey, Donna." He half turned towards her as she hurried over. "Did you make those calls?"
"Yeah. I'm still getting railroaded. Ashley-"
"Who's Ashley?" he frowned.
"You couldn't even get Wells on the phone?"
Something... an almost subliminal flicker of movement on the edge of his vision. Brenda had reacted to that name. He had to fight from curling his lip into a smirk, barely registering Donna's next words. "She's got her whole staff running interference. They're not even willing to admit she's in the country."
"Rita Wells will not take a meeting from me?" he asked pointedly. "Congresswoman Rita Wells?"
Oh, that was definitely a reaction. Really just the minutest of twitches, but was he not Joshua Lyman, master political strategist? That was a reaction, dammit. His instincts were finely tuned to such things.
"That would be who you've had me calling all morning, so yes," Donna noted dryly.
"Okay, thanks, Donna." He turned back to Brenda, and gave her his most winning smirk. "And thank you, Brenda. You've been very helpful."
He didn't look back as he walked away, grinning triumphantly to himself. He was on the trail, at last. There was no stopping him now.
Chapter 9: IX
She felt like she was living in a cage. This was ridiculous! She'd never had this much Secret Service protection, not even in the days following the shooting at Rosslyn. Bad enough being pregnant, with all the overprotectiveness that came with that, without having to deal with an extra layer of interference between you and trying to live your life.
The trouble was that the only person she could have bitched to about being treated as if she was in danger of shattering at any moment was her mother... and there was no way her mother was listening to complaints about the level of Secret Service presence in her life.
She got the need for protection. She really did, and if she hadn't, the memory of her father's impassioned ranting about it early on in their time at the White House had well and truly driven the point home. She knew why she needed agents... she just didn't see why they had to be there at her elbow twenty-four hours a day, leaving her no room to breathe.
The only place she could get any semblance of privacy was at home, and she was gradually going stir-crazy staring at the walls. Charlie was hardly ever home, and mostly exhausted when he was, and she didn't want to be one of those sad, pathetic girls whose only existence was tied up in their husband anyway.
This was driving her crazy. Zoey grabbed her bag and decided, agents be damned, she was going out. She made a beeline for the bedroom to pull on her shoes and jacket.
Of course, they were there to meet her as soon as she stepped out. Mitch and Tony and Sarah, all perfectly nice, dedicated people she was sure, but God, she was tired of seeing their faces. Mitch was saying something into his wrist-radio; 'Osprey is on the move', no doubt, or some other such overdramatic phrase. She couldn't even walk down to collect her mail without it being radioed in to a control centre.
"Mitch, I just want to go to the bookstore," she said, picking up a destination on the fly. He nodded briskly, and spoke into his radio again.
"Yes, ma'am. Cole, bring the car up."
Zoey grimaced. "I don't need the car. It's only a couple of blocks away, I could do with the walk."
"Ma'am, we really would prefer it if you took the car," he said impassively. Her agents all stood there like a bunch of hyper-alert statues, and suddenly yearned for the days when her detail had been hand-picked to blend into a crowd and be unobtrusive, instead of the opposite.
"I'm not going to win this argument, am I?" she realised wryly.
"Fine, we'll take the car!" Zoey threw up her hands. She wasn't in the mood for yet more lengthy wrangling, with everybody else but her being so frustratingly calm and sensible. She was twenty-three years old! She didn't want to have to settle for calm and sensible all the time.
She rubbed her forehead, feeling a headache coming on, and wished briefly that Charlie was there to give her a massage. But Charlie wouldn't be home for hours, and she was damned if she was going to be frustrated out of leaving the house by her own Secret Service agents. "Can we just...? Let's just go," she groaned.
She had a feeling this trip wasn't going to be the nice, relaxing break she'd been yearning for.
CJ was sitting with her feet up on her desk when he walked in, reading a sheaf of papers. She looked up at him over her glasses as he stepped inside the office.
"Hey," he smiled.
"Hey." She made it an obvious query with a quirk of an eyebrow.
"What're you doing?" he asked.
"I'm trying to figure out who I am."
Sam blinked, and gave a cautious smile. "Okay, is this some kind of Zen thing, or-?"
She dropped the papers and gave him a sharp. "It's Danny's book."
"That's Danny's book?" He leaned in curiously.
"Yeah." She gathered up the pages and frowned over them. "The lead character is so Danny. He's definitely Danny. And that means I must be in here somewhere. I'm trying to figure out whether I'm the model for the Prime Minister's wife, the lead character's fiancée, or the brunette reporter. Would you say I'm lithe?"
The question soared in rapidly out of left-field, and he fumbled for the right answer. "I'd say you're very lithe. Limber, even," he added, for good measure.
"Don't push it, Sparkles," she warned.
Sam pouted. "Do I have to be Sparkles?"
CJ shrugged fluidly. "Do you see anybody else around here who looks like a Sparkles?"
He wasn't quite sure how to answer that one, so he forged on ahead. "I'm looking for inspiration."
"We're fresh out, try the OEOB," she answered without skipping a beat.
He frowned. "Why are they inspired?"
"They're not, but it'll get you out of my hair a while."
"So you can carry on figuring out who you are?" he smiled.
CJ gave him a look. "I have other names than Sparkles," she said ominously.
He took the hint, and scurried for the door. He paused when he reached it, and asked "Is it a good book?"
"Do you think Danny would write my speech for me?"
She lowered the book, and scowled at him. "Sam, tell me it's-"
"It'll be done by tonight!" he blurted quickly, and ran for it.
"Hey, Josh." Leo greeted his deputy briefly as he walked in, attention still half tied up in his paperwork. Josh closed the door softly behind him, and waited for him to look up. "What is it?" he asked, with an expectant frown.
"Rita Wells is the leak," Josh said matter-of-factly.
"Wells?" he demanded, puzzled. "There's no way she could-"
"At Senator McGann's instigation, I'm guessing," he elaborated. "I don't know how, I don't know why, but Wells is the leak." He radiated alert confidence.
Leo pulled his glasses off, and folded his arms across his desk. "How do you know?" he asked bluntly.
"She's ducking my calls. I spoke to Brenda Garland, Donna mentioned Wells, it got a reaction. I was watching her, and she definitely flinched when I said I was trying to contact Rita Wells. I swear to you, Leo, Wells is the one who gave the story to Garland."
Leo didn't doubt his deputy's instincts, but still... "Well, that makes no sense."
"Tell me about it." Josh grimaced, biting his lower lip. "McGann is an old college friend of Wells', she obviously put her up to it... the question is, why?"
"You spoke to Selena?"
"Yeah, and she gave me the railroad out of town. She wanted to know why on earth we would possibly suspect her of jeopardising something she's worked so hard on for so long, which is a fair point, except..." he tilted his head to meet Leo's eyes- "...she did it."
"It doesn't make sense," Leo repeated, shaking his head. "This isn't Selena."
Josh shrugged slightly. "You know her better than I do."
"I do," he agreed. He frowned. "I'll set up lunch with her, see if I can get anything."
Josh raised his eyebrows pointedly. "Good luck with that."
"Yeah." He glanced back down at his paperwork and made a brief note, then looked back up at Josh. "Are you still here?"
"I'm going," he said hastily. "So you're having lunch with McGann?"
"Yeah!" Leo nodded impatiently.
"Watch out for her, Leo. She might try to snare you in her womanly wiles," Josh advised him sagely.
"Her womanly- What are you, twelve? Get out," he suggested with a sharp gesture.
Josh did as he was ordered, and Leo rolled his eyes to himself. Womanly wiles? Yes, Selena McGann was an incorrigible flirt when it suited her, but you'd have to be a hapless walking ego to trip over yourself because of that. Which was, he supposed, why Josh was so terrified of her.
He walked out to find his assistant. "Margaret? Clear my one o'clock, and set me up a lunch with Senator McGann."
Margaret gave him a baleful look. "Selena McGann?"
"Yes, Selena McGann!" he snapped impatiently.
"I should set you up a lunch date with Selena McGann?"
"It's a business meeting!" he growled.
"Okay," said Margaret, in her 'yeah, right' voice.
"Okay, okay!" She reached for her list of contact numbers. "I suppose you want me to find the two of you a nice restaurant?"
"I always do, and you know it," he reminded her curtly, and stomped back into his office.
Honestly, some days you had to wonder if that whole 'substitute teacher' analogy was at all inaccurate. It sure as hell felt like he was working in a high school.
Chapter 10: X
"You wanted to see me?" Charlie asked.
It was funny how, even when there was no crisis looming on the horizon, just being in the same room as Ron Butterfield seemed to heighten your awareness of the dangers all around. He was a very high-profile, extremely visible reminder of all the ways in which this wasn't your everyday office job.
"Charlie." He nodded soberly. Ron did almost everything soberly. Even on the rare occasions that he smiled, he somehow projected the impression that it was a carefully regulated expression, ready to be shucked off at a moment's notice and replaced with something more suitable.
The two of them had moved temporarily into an out-of-the-way office, less liable to be invaded by interns or wandering senior staffers at short notice.
"Is this about the threatening letters?" he assumed.
Ron nodded. "We've identified a new area of threat that you should be aware of."
"Oh, boy. New threats." He probably shouldn't take it with such sarcasm, but, well... what else was he supposed to do?
"We've been tracking a series of letters from a group calling themselves the Sons of Herod, who may be affiliated with one of the organisations already on the list, or possibly an aggregate of members from several other groups."
"So what's new?" Charlie wondered with a frown. Ron regarded him seriously.
"The letters show a consistent pattern of phrases involving 'cleansing' or 'purification' that we believe to be in relation to Zoey's pregnancy."
It took him a moment to get to the centre of that, because it was such an impossibly hard concept to try and grasp. "They're talking about- what, they're-? The baby?"
Ron didn't sugarcoat it. "The group consistently refer to the foetus as a parasite or disease, and appear to consider it their duty to make sure the pregnancy never comes to term."
"Duty," he echoed bitterly. Somebody out there considered it their duty to ensure that his baby was never born.
"The OPR consider this a credible threat, and we're stepping up security around Zoey in public. We don't have any reason to believe you're in further danger, but we need you to be aware, particularly when you and Zoey are out together."
Somehow, that was the icing on the cake. They didn't even care about him anymore, they were shooting straight past him to aim at his unborn child. But wasn't that always the way? They hated him, and everybody else ended up in the firing line.
He didn't say anything, and after a moment Ron nodded in acknowledgement, and said "I'll keep you informed," and left him alone.
He sat down on the edge of the desk, and thought quietly for a moment. Then he calmly got up, walked over to the wastepaper basket, and kicked it hard enough to leave a dent.
"Charlie?" Linda from accounting poked her head in and glanced at him curiously.
"Nothing, I just-" He shrugged away any enquiry, and pasted a smile on his face until she went away again.
After that, it didn't last long.
CJ wandered into his office with her nose in a manuscript. She perched on the corner of his desk without waiting for an introduction.
"Bubbly," she mused. "Would you say I was bubbly?" She pushed up her glasses and frowned. "Bubbly is not a manner in which I'm accustomed to being described. Bubbling, possibly, I'm told I have a bubbling laugh..."
Toby looked at her. She didn't seem to take his lack of response as unencouraging.
"How about feline?" She flipped to another page. "I'm feline." She frowned. "However, I'm neither blonde nor petite. Although that could well be a cunning act of misdirection." She peered over the top of the papers at him. "Tobus?"
"You are neither blonde nor petite," he agreed, and returned his chin to the palm it was resting in. She folded her papers away and gave him a searching look.
"You've been somewhat quiet of late, Mr. Ziegler."
"Well, since this morning." She folded her arms and sat back to regard him. "And a quiet Toby is a disconcerting thing. What's going on?"
He weighed up his options, and decided on selective honesty. "I'm waiting for a call."
CJ frowned worriedly. "Something wrong?"
He shook his head. "No." He hesitated, and then after a moment, slid his gaze up to meet hers. "Possibly something... not wrong." She looked puzzled, but CJ knew him well enough to know when to respect his silence. After a moment, he asked "Was there something...?"
"No." She stood up, closing the manuscript. "Okay."
She gave him an odd look as she left, but he didn't volunteer any further information.
Toby looked at his watch. Andy should have left the doctors' by now. She still hadn't called.
"Donna!" Josh charged into her office area. "Who are you talking to?"
Donna blinked at him for a moment, then looked very carefully around the empty room and down at the silent phone. "My grandfather's ghost," she said brightly. "He follows me around, but only I can see him, and wacky hijinks ensue. We solve crimes."
Josh leaned against the doorframe and gave her a look. "I meant on the phone."
"Do I look like I'm on the phone?"
"No, and why is that?"
"Because I can only do four things at once, and currently those are typing, picking out points from the commerce report, talking to you, and trying to eat my lunch."
To her boss, this was apparently some kind of coded signal for 'Yes, Josh, you may begin stealing my fries'.
"Hey! Back away from the table, hyena boy, I need those carbohydrates, and you definitely don't."
"That's a risk I'll... just have to take," he said dryly. He paused for a beat. "Hyena boy?"
"Hyenas are scavengers. They scavenge," she elaborated.
"For French fries?"
"No doubt they've learned to adapt to the urban environment." Donna slapped his hand away as he reached to steal another. "No more, Josh! I paid for these."
"With money you earn by, hypothetically, working for me. So why aren't you on the phone?"
"Because Rita Wells didn't answer it the last forty-seven times, and unlike you, I recognise that repetition expecting different results is a sign of madness?"
"Hence, my question," Josh shrugged, as if this was logical.
"That's why you asked if hyenas eat French fries?"
He narrowed his eyes. "The... other question. If Rita Wells won't even come to the phone, who have you been talking to all this time?"
"Ashley Bowers, I told you."
Josh snapped his fingers decisively. "Then call Bowers, and set up a meeting. Ask if the two of you can..." he shrugged- "meet up for coffee and bitch about your unreasonable bosses or whatever it is you people do."
"We plot rebellion, Josh."
"I'll bet you do."
"We have colour-coded battle plans and everything. It's gonna be the best organised bloodless coup in history. Josh, why do I want to have coffee with Ashley Bowers?"
"I know that. So why are we saying that I do?"
"Because it would be pretty weird for the Deputy Chief of Staff of the White House to arrange to meet with the secretary of a minor-league Congresswoman, don't you think?"
"That is weird," Donna agreed.
"But you want to do it?"
"I do," he nodded.
"So I should set you up a meeting?"
"But I should say that it's for me."
"Because otherwise it would be weird."
"Because otherwise it would be weird," Josh agreed.
Donna gave him a look, and then loosed a long-suffering sigh. "Okaaay," she said, mostly to herself. She reached resignedly for the phone.
Chapter 11: XI
The phone was ringing furiously when she got back in, weighted down by shopping bags; the Secret Service might close in around her like the world's most menacing babysitting service, but they had to keep their hands free, so she was still on her own with the bags. Zoey dropped them all on the table and slumped into a chair before reaching for the phone.
"Hey, honey." It was her dad, sounding bunged up and somewhat rattled. "I've been trying all day - you weren't answering the phone."
"Jeez, dad, panic attack!" She sat back and gave a resigned chuckle, unsure whether to be irritated or touched. "I just went out."
"Yeah, yeah, I'm sorry, sweetheart." Zoey could picture him running a hand through his hair. "I... I worry."
She smiled wryly to herself. "The baby's not due for another four months, dad." And Lord, what was he going to be like then?
There was a beat of silence, and when he spoke again, he sounded melancholy and subdued. "Yeah. Listen, Zoey, come have lunch with me."
"At the White House?"
"Yeah. I don't see enough of you lately."
"You've seen more of me in the last couple of months than the whole time I was at college, but okay."
"You'll come?" He sounded almost relieved. Had he really been worried about her, just not answering her home phone for a few hours? He might be the national role model for an overprotective dad, but that was a little much even for him.
"Yeah, sure, dad. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, honey." Now he sounded faintly exasperated, as he always did when the tables are turned.
"You don't sound fine," she accused.
He sighed, a heavy huff of breath. "It's just a cold."
"Dad, you're President of the United States of America!" she reminded him. "It's never 'just' anything."
"Well, thank you for reminding me of that, sweetheart," he said dryly, "because it slipped my mind for a while there, and I was just about to get in the car and drive out to the university to teach my economics class." Behind the sarcasm, she thought she detected the faintest edge of wistfulness.
Her father seemed down enough already, so she left that well alone. "Did you take your-?"
"I've had this from your mother already, sweetheart, and from your husband," he said, no doubt rolling his eyes at those crazy people who were just trying to get him to look after himself once in a while...
"Which means you didn't take them yet," she divined. He chuckled softly to himself, and sighed again.
"I will take the pills, Zoey."
"Take them now?" she prodded.
"I'll take them later," he shrugged off her concern. "I'll take them after lunch - you can even watch me do it." This was said in the tones of one magnanimously going to great lengths to satisfy unreasonable demands.
"You should take them now," she sighed, knowing that she wouldn't win.
"I need to keep a clear head, honey, you know that." Her father spoke with more seriousness than he would usually allow entreaties about his health, which probably meant he was feeling rotten, damn him. "I can't take too many pills, and I have a dinner party tonight."
"Promise to take them before the party?"
"Because I'm gonna check up on you."
"I'll take the pills!"
"Good. Because otherwise I'll be forced to call mom."
"Traitor," he accused, but his slightly laboured laugh was genuine enough. "Who bought you all that candy when you were a little girl, hmm?"
"Liz, mostly," she remembered.
"Yes, but I put her up to it."
She laughed. "I'll see you for lunch, dad."
"Yeah. See you then. Look after yourself."
That simple direction as he signed off was delivered with great solemnity, and she found herself feeling inexplicably nervous.
Get a hold of yourself, Zoey, she ordered herself sternly. Honestly, five months pregnant and already she was all over the place.
"So." CJ paused, and counted things out on her fingers. "It's down to the Prime Minister's cold but elegant wife, the lithe - but blonde and petite - fiancée, or the bubbly brunette reporter."
Carol smirked at her across the desk. "I think the Danny effect has returned." She slipped out before CJ could register her disagreement.
"The Danny effect." She rolled her eyes to herself. As if she completely lost her head the moment Danny Concannon was in the building.
She paused to brush aside memories of carrying around a fish and walking into doorframes.
Isolated incident, Claudia Jean. Get a grip.
Reminded of the goldfish on her desk and its unlikely origins, she leaned across the bowl, and sent ripples through the water with a quick dab of one fingertip.
"Hey there, Gail."
Gail gawped up at her blankly, and CJ sighed.
"Hey, he's your daddy, you tell me what's going through that infuriating curly head of his." What was Danny thinking? Was he planning to waltz back in and take up his old position as a seasoned reporter as if nothing had happened? Did he want to be friends? Did he want...
She sighed again. Gail remained stubbornly silent. CJ pushed back her hair and glared down at the fish bowl.
"Hey, it's all right for you. It's not like you have to worry about these things. You're just a fish, and I'm-" She considered. "Talking to a fish. Yeah. Um, should probably stop doing that."
She got up to leave, and then hurriedly returned to the fish bowl. "No offence, by the way."
Yup, she reflected as she scurried out past Carol's amused expression, definitely the Danny effect.
"Sam." The president sat back in his chair and smiled at him. It was about the only part of his appearance that held the slightest trace of warmth. Sam frowned hesitantly.
"Sir, are you-?"
"About half an inch from having the Secret Service step in and shoot the next person to ask me if I'm all right?" The president gave him a tigerish smile. "Funny you should mention that."
"Okay." He smiled, a little nervously, and took the offered seat.
"What's on your mind?"
"Uh, this evening's speech?"
"Ah, yes." Even in the grips of a miserable winter cold, the president could muster a penetrating gaze when it suited him. "I seem to be missing a final draft on that."
Sam suddenly found the Oval Office carpet very interesting. "It's being polished," he excused quickly.
The president pulled his glasses off. "Still? I thought you were gonna do that last night."
"Well, yes sir, I did."
"And that wasn't enough polishing?"
"Well, as it turned out, that turned out to be more-" He winced. "Really more of a... sandblasting, Mr. President." He quickly forged on ahead. "I just came by to check- Sir, are you absolutely sure you're going to be able to-?"
"I'm absolutely sure." The president's tone was flat; Sam knew he hadn't been completely joking when it came to his frustration level at people checking on his health. He hurriedly stood up.
"Okay. Then I'll get the draft to you as soon as-"
"Thank you, Mr. President." Dismissed. Sam scurried back towards the bullpen to polish the final draft.
As soon as he'd actually, well, written it.
Chapter 12: XII
Despite her relatively frustrated mood, a smile slid naturally enough into place as she spotted her other half across the hallway. "Charlie!" She hustled towards him.
He didn't muster much of a perfunctory smile in return. "Hey." He looked tired, and stressed, and she could feel the last tatters of good cheer beginning to drift away. Charlie was overworking and undersleeping all the time these days, and it somehow made it even worse that she knew it wasn't his fault. Dammit, how were you supposed to even be satisfyingly pissed at anybody if you knew the reason your husband was running himself ragged was to try and take some of the heat off your father?
Things hadn't been easy on her dad in recent months. Oh, it was laughable to say they ever were, but it seemed like every new crisis went on to top the last. The shooting, then the MS hearings, then Mrs. Landingham dying, then reelection, then his health taking a turn for the worst, then that book coming out about his childhood...
After all that, a few coughs and sneezes that a long parade of military doctors and her mother were all prepared to swear blind was just a cold didn't seem like much - but even that worried her. Her dad didn't get colds. They might mock his 'why, when I was your age' ramblings, but there was some truth to it; her dad was such a pain in the ass over being sick her mother would never let him get away with wandering out in the snow if there wasn't. He had to be pretty drained for such a minor bug to attack his system like this.
Great, yet more worries. Zoey indulged a brief pang of longing for those carefree days when her dad was just a governor, and she was still a schoolgirl who could get away with being a whiny brat for a couple of hours when she wanted to.
She realised her husband still hadn't said anything. His forehead was crinkled angrily, as if he was not just zoning out from exhaustion but actively brooding about something. She frowned. "Hey, Charlie, are you okay?"
"I'm fine," he said tersely. The tone of voice said a lot more than the empty words. Yup, he was angry about something. Charlie in a mood was fairly rare, but when he was, it went deep, and getting to the root of it was like drilling for blood out of a stone.
Probably she should be the dutiful wife and patiently try to get to the bottom of it anyway, but screw it, she was five months pregnant, tired, frustrated, and her feet hurt. She could only deal with one cranky family member at a time, and her dad was next on the list. "Is he in?"
"He'll be back in a minute."
Normally, that minute would be a gratefully snatched chance for a few giggles and perhaps some surreptitious kissing and snuggling, but today it just stretched out in awkward silence while they waited for her father to return.
"Selena." She smiled like a shark, but he knew how the game was played. He smiled warmly in return, took her coat and held out her chair for her. If they were playing the charm offensive, well, he wasn't exactly unarmed in that area.
Josh, on the other hand, would have been hopelessly set adrift. His deputy must have some form of protective charisma - there had to be a reason none of the long list of dangerous women he dated had killed him yet - but when it came to political manoeuvring, he had a one-track mind. Throw in further complications, and the only two routes were hopeless derailment or bulldozing on through in complete obliviousness. Neither of which would hold sway against the Selena McGanns of this world; if you wanted to be anything but coquettishly stonewalled, you had to be prepared to dance.
Well, he could definitely do that. Leo admired the menu, and she leaned across the table towards him. "I hear the lemon chicken here is good."
"Miguel does a wonderful salmon," he informed her.
"Really? Well, I'll trust your judgement," she smiled.
"If only more people would do that, the world would be a better place."
She laughed at that, a pleasant enough sound. She was only flirting with him for the sake of it, he knew; not that she wouldn't consider the arm of the Chief of Staff a useful acquisition, but they'd met on enough previous occasions for her to know he was far too wily to be caught in any snare he didn't want to.
Selena was a rampant political opportunist, of that he had no doubt, but a saboteur? It made no sense. She wanted this bill as badly as they did, and she hated Joe Bridges. Why leak information, even through a third party, that would shatter months of careful deal-brokering at no benefit to her? If Josh's instincts were even halfway right, then there had to be some big piece of the puzzle missing.
They waited on their starters. Selena drank wine, and he tried not to smell it. Lord, he missed accenting a good meal with a carefully selected vintage. That was from back in the days when it had still mattered what he was drinking, and a treacherous temptation; it was funny how sometimes it could be harder to resist the lure of a drink when it wasn't desperation driving you. When he was beating down the crippling pangs of stress he knew exactly why he shouldn't, but the desire for a simple sip could creep up on you.
He wondered for a moment if it was a deliberate cruelty, then dismissed it. Not that Selena would necessarily be above toying with his weaknesses, but to her it was old news. She didn't know - almost nobody knew - of his lapse back into secret drinking less than a year ago. If that ever escaped into general knowledge, he was finished in Washington, and it had been too long since it happened not to take Jed down with him when he went. Not that he wouldn't fight it - if it ever came out, nobody on earth would hear from his lips that the president had so much as even guessed about his lapse.
"I assume your deputy set you on my trail," she said airily, taking another careless sip. He looked innocent.
"I can't call up an old friend and ask them to have dinner?"
Selena chuckled again. "You? Never."
He shrugged easily. "Hey, you know me. Any chance for a good meal." He nodded at the server. "Thank you."
The senator shook her head. "Honest to God, Leo, I don't know how one man puts away the amount of rich food you do and stays so slim."
"It's working in the West Wing," he dismissed lightly. "You've hiked five miles by the time you've had three meetings."
She inspected her nails. "All that hustle and bustle," she sighed, projecting the entirely false image of the carefree socialite for all she was worth, "I don't know how you stand it. I much prefer to conduct my business in more... informal surroundings."
He smirked, but refused to be drawn into commenting. She tilted her glass at him, and then set it aside. "And so, to business," she said with a world-weary sigh. Leo straightened up, knowing her mind was much more on the ball than she chose to appear.
"The leak can only have come from three places," he said without further preamble. "You, Tim Wiley, or Alec Goss."
"Four places," she corrected pointedly. "It takes two sides to tango."
He nodded in acknowledgement, but said bluntly "It didn't come from our end."
"Nor did it come from mine," she countered, meeting his gaze with ice cold confidence. "So if this is a witch hunt... the only thing you're getting out of it is a salmon dinner."
That much he'd already figured out for himself. Selena McGann put up a perfectly unreadable mask. The only question was, was it concealing her guilt... or nothing but the truth?
A soft knock of knuckles against the doorframe interrupted his train of thought. Admittedly, the train had been going round in circles for some time, but still. "Ginger, can it wait?" he grated.
"Well, you know, I just couldn't wait to show you my new look."
Okay. Not Ginger. Sam raised his head and blinked bemusedly as Steve smirked at him from the doorway. "You're not Ginger," he observed.
"Thanks, 'cause... I was worried for a moment there."
Sam realised that he'd been tensely hunched over his computer screen for so long that his muscles were aching. He stretched, and was sure he heard something pop in his back. "What are you doing here?"
"I availed myself of this new concept called 'moving around'. It's radical, I know, but I think you should try it sometime."
He glowered at his other half. "This is all your fault, you know," he accused darkly.
"Aww, poor baby. I was blocked before you were. Come have lunch with me."
Sam sighed, and rubbed his eyes tiredly. "Steve, I really can't leave the-"
"So we'll eat in the mess!" he shrugged. "Bring your laptop if you can't bear to leave it. I brought my notes." He waggled a sheaf of papers pointedly. "Come on, you need a change of scene. I know I did."
He was probably right. Sam groaned as he stood up, and Steve smirked at him as he held the door.
"You've taken to making old man noises when you get up, do you know that?"
"Old man noises?"
"Old man noises. I'm thinking we're gonna need to install a stair-lift."
"Hey, somebody - who shall remain nameless - kept me up all last night-" He realised with some alarm that Bonnie was leering pointedly at him. "-Uh, not like that," he added hurriedly.
Steve leaned towards her. "Totally like that," he smirked, and dragged Sam away by the arm before he could attempt to protest.
"Hey!" he grumbled helplessly. Steve smiled softly at him, and pressed a kiss to his temple with no regard for constant the flow of staffers around them in the hallway.
"Lighten up, Sam," he suggested.
"I wish I could," Sam sighed, as he sat down with his meal a few moments later. He ran a tired hand through his hair, then rubbed his beard too for good measure. "I've been working on this speech since-" He broke off, and shook his head.
"Yeah, I know the feeling. This-" Steve bit back whatever swearword he had in mind, still slight in awe of even this more prosaic area of the White House. "- Documentation," he grated, filling it with enough feeling to substitute. He sighed, and absently stole one of Sam's fries as he stared disconsolately at his notes.
Sam pulled out his own crumpled - what was it? - fifteenth draft, and grimaced at it. As dinner party speeches went, it... well, it stank, actually. A few moments later, he became aware of Steve peering over his shoulder.
"It's really not that-"
"It is!" he snapped.
"Well, maybe if you-"
"Do you want to write this?" he growled, frustrated.
"Only if you want to write this."
They both paused, and then exchanged a long look. "Okay." Sam nudged his speech over to Steve.
"Okay." His boyfriend pushed across his notes.
A few moments later, both of them were scribbling away.
The only thing more frustrating than watching the clock was being irritated at himself for doing it. Individual units of time seemed to stretch out unreasonably, and yet every time he checked the clock it was later.
Andy must have had her doctor's appointment by now. She'd had time to get home. Go to the office. Come here.
Unless something had gone wrong. That was an irrational thought, he knew. There was not, at present, any proof there was anything to go wrong. Andy just suspected...
His wife - ex-wife, he corrected, inner proof-reader jumping on the mistake even though he made it every single time - might be pregnant. Or not be pregnant. Such a simple, mundane case of questions and probabilities... one that had never been simple or mundane for them.
Andy hadn't even known, the first time she was pregnant. Not until that dreadful night when by the time they'd found it out, she wasn't. The second time they'd known... but it hadn't ended any differently. The third time... Well, they'd battled for there to be a third time, but the best fertility experts in the state of Maryland hadn't been able to make it happen.
That had been a time of heart-wrenching false alarms, until it reached the point where neither of them could trust themselves to accurately read a test result. This could be another.
Or it could be real... with all the terrifying world of possibilities that brought with it. By now, Andy almost certainly knew, one way or another.
And she hadn't called.
She hadn't called, and he was increasingly sure now she wasn't going to. Whatever she'd been told, she wasn't ready to share it with him here, now, while he was at work.
The question was, did that mean she was pregnant... or that she wasn't?
Chapter 13: XIII
Lunch proved difficult for him to stomach; he had neither an appetite nor much of a sense of taste with this infernal cold, and he wasn't sure he'd have enjoyed it much in any case. Too many of his favourite foods had been stricken from the menu after the worrying dip in his health a few months ago. He couldn't even muster more than a token effort to escape his new dietary restrictions when he knew in his heart Abbey was right. He couldn't afford to ignore it anymore.
His body was failing him. He hadn't fallen to the dreaded slippery slope of progressive MS just yet, but all the same, he was weaker than he'd ever been. How else to explain his current miserable lack of health? He would have laughed away this kind of cold when he was twenty - hell, when he was forty.
Zoey had been watching him worriedly throughout the meal. "Dad, are you all right?" she asked for the thousandth time when he finally pushed aside his plate, able to eat no more.
Jed bit back the urge to be harsh with her. "I'm fine, sweetheart," he smiled reassuringly.
"Did you take your pills?" she asked, relentless.
Rolling his eyes, which seemed entirely more painful than such a motion ought to be, he patted his breast pocket. "They're right here."
"Good. Take them now."
She really was turning into her mother. Maybe it was some instinct or hormone invoked by this pregnancy...
That reminded him of the real reason he'd scheduled this lunch, and suddenly he didn't have the will to argue any longer. Finally surrendering, he swallowed the medication, and washed it down with water. "Happy now?"
"Not really." She leaned across to feel his forehead. "Dad, are you sure you should do this dinner party tonight?"
"Honey, there are two trained medical doctors in this family, and you're not either one of them," he reminded her. "Zoey, I didn't bring you here to fuss about my health."
"Why did you bring me here, dad?" she asked, looking serious and a little nervous. He sighed.
"Come sit over here, honey," he suggested, moving them both to the couch where he could sit beside her. She looked up at him anxiously.
"Dad, what is it?"
He sighed again, knowing that there was no more chance for procrastination, however much he might want to. "Zoey, the Secret Service are... worried about some letters they've been getting lately."
Zoey looked more resigned than shocked - something that was a gut-punch in itself. When had this become an ordinary part of his daughter's life? "More death threats?" she guessed tentatively, and he nodded.
"But these are-" He finally managed to force the words out. "Zoey, they're worried about the baby."
He almost marvelled to see how her hand instinctively flew to her belly, a gesture so reminiscent of her mother in days when she was no more than that barest hint of a visible bump. "The baby?"
Her eyes were wide with horrified dismay, and he wanted to hug her close and reassure her that it was all a lie and everything was fine, but he knew he owed the truth. "There's a group. Calling themselves the Sons of Herod..." He didn't need to say anything more. She understood just fine. He wished she didn't. He wished he could live in a world where such things were too unthinkable to understand.
Zoey was shaking her head in mute denial. "Dad-"
"I know, honey," he said softly. "I know."
He pulled her into his arms, for what reassurance he could still give against the horrors of the world.
It felt like pitifully little.
It was strange how much the White House felt like home; far more so than a musty old apartment that hadn't been aired in far too long while he was on his travels.
Danny wandered through the corridors between briefings, reacquainting himself with the place. Funny how you forgot just how busy it was. Fifty-seven conversations going on at once around you, tantalising snippets floating by in the wake of fast-moving staffers. Around any corner you were as likely to run into a gaggle of bickering Senators as a group of interns.
Or, indeed, the Deputy Chief of Staff. "Josh!" he called out cheerfully.
Josh blinked around, as if startled out of deep thoughts. Of course, with Joshua Lyman, that could as easily mean woman trouble, contemplating junk food, or some convoluted train of trivia started by his assistant as anything political. "Oh, hey, Danny," he nodded vaguely.
Danny, always observant, noted that he was wearing his outside coat. Josh seldom got out of the building during daylight hours, and it was rather close to the time of the dinner party to be sneaking out for a meal. "Where are you going?"
"I have to meet a secretary."
"Oh. Secretary of Agriculture, Transport Secretary...?"
"One that types."
"Ah." Danny smiled in puzzlement, and fished a little more. "And you're missing the party to do this?"
"Believe me, Danny, nobody feels the pain of missing the Swedish Ambassador's company as keenly as I do." Josh smirked, and Danny didn't blame him. The Swedish Ambassador was a notorious tool. But given that - and knowing Leo McGarry's propensity for making sure his staffers suffered in equal measure when he had to - he doubted it was a scheduled absence.
"Isn't that gonna leave an empty seat at the table?" he prodded.
"Yeah- hey, you want to fill in for me?" Josh smirked suddenly.
"Josh, I hate to break it to you, but despite our striking physical resemblance, I think they'd rumble us pretty quickly," Danny pointed out dryly.
"Yeah, but the point is, I'd be pretty far away by then. Two seats away from CJ?" he attempted to entice. Danny shook his head, but had to smile.
"Josh, they wouldn't let me in."
"Ask Donna or Carol to sneak you in on the guest list," he suggested. "They can do it. They have secret list-altering powers."
"Josh, does it bother you that your assistant has considerably more influence in this building than you do?"
"It used to. But then Donna told me to stop worrying about it, so I did."
Danny shook his head as he bounded off; and decided that even if he couldn't get in to the dinner party, it surely couldn't hurt to be hanging about the place in a tuxedo...
"Leo." The president mustered a wan smile.
"What've you been doing to Charlie?" Leo wondered as he entered the Oval Office. It was far from uncommon for the young aide to look tired and over-stressed, but it was rare for him to be visibly pissed. If such a subtle expression even counted as visible.
He half expected Jed to begin blustering about people fussing over him again, but instead he sighed heavily. "I spoke with Ron earlier."
Ron Butterfield. Oh, that was never good. "Security issues?"
"Yeah. It turns out we've got a new group on our hands, a pleasant little society this, calling themselves the Sons of Herod. Dedicated to the destruction of my potential grandchild."
His stomach lurched. "Oh, Jed."
He barely registered the shift in address. "Yeah. I just had the fun duty of informing my youngest daughter of this. I guess Ron spoke to Charlie already."
"It's procedure, Mr. President," Leo reminded him. "Ron tells you these things, but-"
"Don't tell me it's not a clear and present danger, Leo," the president warned with a thunderous scowl, "you know better than that, and so do I. So does Charlie. So does my daughter."
Still, he had to try. "Sir, the odds of-"
"Don't come to me with odds, Leo, since when has this administration done anything according to the odds?"
"I can honestly say working for this administration has been nothing but odd, Mr. President." That worked, provoking a chuckle, and a lighter atmosphere prevailed. The president gestured to a chair and smiled.
"Take a seat, Leo."
He sat, and shifted more firmly into Chief of Staff mode. "I met with Selena McGann for lunch."
Leo scowled at his old friend's pointedly raised eyebrow. "For business reasons, as you very well know," he added irritably. "Don't you start, I've had Margaret glaring at me all afternoon."
The president gave him an annoying smirk. "Selena McGann's a very attractive woman, Leo."
"Yes, and she's tried to set her hooks in me before, as you should certainly recall, and she knows better by now."
"You were married to Jenny then."
"And now I'm married to you!"
Jed gave him a wry look. "Are we speaking figuratively now, or have I been very drunk recently?"
"Selena McGann wants a date she can use for leverage, and I'm too close to you for her to play me. She knows that, and she won't even try. The woman's a barracuda, Mr. President, she never does anything that doesn't pay out."
"And you think she's the leak?"
"Josh is positive of it," Leo said.
"In the absence of any more intelligent course of action, sir, I'm forced to listen to Josh."
"You think she'd sell out this bill?"
"In a heartbeat... if I could only figure out what's in it for her." Leo's brow wrinkled in confusion. "She hates Joe Bridges for some reason-"
"Other than the fact the man's a toad?"
"Other than that," he agreed. "There's bad blood there of some sort. No way she hands him the key to this deal on a platter, it doesn't make any sense."
"Josh will ferret it out," the president shrugged, dismissing it from his mind. Leo took his cue and stood up.
"Okay, I'll leave you alone now. Did you-"
The president glared at him. "Yes, I took the pills, Leo. My youngest daughter already blackmailed me into it this afternoon."
"Good. Because, you know, the First Lady's going to be back in half an hour, and-"
Leo departed, smirking as he caught the tail end of a mumble about the illusion of who was really in charge of running the country.
Chapter 14: XIV
Toby left the West Wing before the party began. Nobody would be surprised at his absence, unless they should wander back into the communications department and find he wasn't working, either. Tonight, he had more important things to do.
He tried Andy's apartment first, but found it empty. Even though she had, without ceremony, given him his own key, it felt uncomfortably invasive to be there on his own, and he left quickly.
She was waiting for him at his own home, sitting quietly in the dark. He crossed over to join her without speaking, and waited patiently while she examined the floor in minute detail.
"I was going to call you. I'm sorry," she said after a while.
He shrugged, letting silence signal his forgiveness less awkwardly than words could.
"I just couldn't-" He heard the edge of tears in her voice; she did too, breaking off to collect herself. He covered her hand with his own, a simple, non- intrusive gesture. "I didn't want to be that woman. The one who breaks down in the middle of... everything." She shrugged, almost angrily.
"You're not that woman," he reminded her. Andy snorted slightly.
"I just- I didn't want to cry on you over the phone."
"Okay," he accepted.
There was a long pause before he asked, and he thought he knew the answer, but he couldn't be completely sure.
"No baby," she confirmed, and mustered a watery smile that collapsed almost immediately into tears. He pulled her close to him, and patted her shoulder quietly.
There'd been enough false alarms like this he should be used to it by now.
He knew he never would be.
CJ bore down on him, muttering furiously. "Kill him. I'm going to kill him," she announced as she approached.
Having witnessed the unexpected last-minute change to the guest list, Sam took a stab at the likely culprit. "Danny?"
"Josh. Both. I'm going to kill them all."
He took a step backwards, on the off-chance that the unspecified 'them' included him, and sought a quick diversion. "The president did well, I thought?"
"With the speech?" Whew, mission accomplished. "Yeah. I'm just glad he managed to keep it short, I had visions of him pitching face forward into the entrée while the Swedish Ambassador took advantage of the distraction to finish the rest of that champagne bottle he was hogging."
Sam hid a smirk behind a sip from his own glass. "And what would be the headline running over that picture, do you think?"
"Press Secretary Quits; Moves to Albania," she supplied without missing a beat. They both watched the president as he cheerfully greeted a couple across the room, patting the man on the shoulder enthusiastically. "That was quite an unusual speech for you, I thought," she continued after a moment. "Unusual style?"
"You didn't like it?" he queried quickly.
"No, I liked it. It was... it was crisp, it was sharper than your usual thing, it was quite-"
"Don't like it too much; I didn't write it," he cautioned. She gave him a piercing look.
"Well, I not all of it. I kind of co-wrote it with Steve. And I helped him with his instructional manual!" he added brightly, but CJ failed to be distracted.
"Sam, you threw your boyfriend some writing work in the form of a presidential dinner address?"
He shrugged. "Hey, it's not like I paid him for it."
"Good, 'cause there's a term for that."
"Press Secretary Quits; Moves to Albania?"
"That's the one."
The president had moved on from one cluster of guests to another, and was now drifting their way. CJ swilled her wine in the glass, and frowned.
"Sam, is it me, or does the president seem a little... funny?"
He turned to her, puzzled. "Funny, how?"
"Sam!" The president had noticed the two of them. "Samuel! Sam." He bounded over exuberantly, and patted him on the shoulder, a few too many times. "That was a great speech."
"Thank you, Mr. President-"
"Great speech." He continued vaguely tapping Sam's arm as if he'd forgotten what his fingers were doing, and turned to CJ. "And CJ, you look... tall." He blinked. "CJ, are you taller than usual today?"
"No, I'm still my regular size," she assured him patiently.
The president swayed backwards, a little further from his centre of balance than Sam was entirely comfortable with, to look up at her. "Hmm," he said, after a rather lengthy pause for thought. Another possibility eventually came to him, and he looked sideways at the Deputy Communications Director. "Am I shorter than usual, Sam?"
"I... wouldn't think so, Mr. President," he said carefully.
"Okay," he accepted amicably. "Must be the lighting in here. Very... very odd lighting." He was definitely swaying slightly.
"I should speak to Charlie about that. They should get somebody in here, check the lights. Where's Charlie?"
"He's... standing right behind you, Mr. President," Sam reminded him slowly. The president patted him again, apparently in reward for coming up with this.
"That's right. That's right," he said delightedly. He turned to survey the room. "Hey, there's Leo," he noticed, previous train of thought forgotten. "I should go and talk to Leo."
"That might be a good idea," Sam agreed dryly. He and CJ both watched, almost mesmerised, as the president made his way across the crowded room.
She leaned sideways towards him. "Like that kind of funny," she supplied.
Sam sipped reflectively from his glass. "See, and now I'm thinking perhaps he shouldn't have had champagne on top of his cold medication."
"You think?" CJ said wryly. They watched the president stop to enthusiastically greet a couple of Congressmen. Neither seemed to notice anything amiss.
"So the president's a little tipsy," he shrugged at her. "It's a party. Half the people here are drunk anyway. What's the worst that could happen?"
They exchanged a look. CJ turned away first. "I'll go get the First Lady right now."
"Good idea," he agreed fervently.
The Congresswoman's office was almost empty this late in the day; Josh had to remind himself not everybody kept White House hours. A young man who looked like an intern was whistling something he didn't recognise - which probably covered anything recorded in the last ten years that wasn't a TV news theme - as he stacked files. Josh crossed to tap him on the shoulder.
"Hi, excuse me, I'm looking for a woman named Ashley Bowers?"
He straightened up, and gave Josh a wry look. "Yeah? That would be me."
"Ah." Mental note: fire Donna. He wasn't entirely sure that flawed assumption could be pinned on his assistant, but he was going to take a damn good shot at it. "I think I have... bad information."
The secretary held his gaze, seemingly unfazed. "Well, you don't look too much like a Donnatella, either, so I guess we'll call it even," he said dryly.
"Ah, yes. A little subterfuge there," Josh said smugly.
"So I noticed." He frowned slightly. "Forgive me, Mr. Lyman, but can I ask why you set up a meeting with me? I have to say it doesn't look like a particularly sensible allocation of your time."
"Because you weren't answering my calls."
"Actually, I answered all your calls, I just didn't give you the answer you wanted to hear," he corrected smoothly. "The Congresswoman was unavailable. The Congresswoman is still unavailable. I appreciate your tenacity, but I'm afraid it's not going to change the salient point here, that being, the Congresswoman is unavailable."
"For me, she's available," he said confidently.
"Then, one would think, the fact that she's remained consistently unavailable despite your repeated calling would suggest that she has a good reason for being so."
"I'm not at liberty to divulge that information," he said calmly. Too calmly; he wasn't reacting like your average Congressional secretary who'd had his boss's office suddenly invaded by the White House Deputy Chief of Staff. Somebody had clearly prepped him well for what to expect.
"Then divulge this," Josh said abruptly. "We have good reason to believe your boss leaked information of an important deal to Brenda Garland of the New York Times, at the instigation of her old college friend Senator McGann, which resulted in the messy implosion of said deal, and a severe impediment to the passing of a bill that this administration has spent a great deal of time, money, and bargaining power ensuring." Rattling all that off in one go, he took a brief pause for breath. "You mind telling me what the hell she thought she was thinking?"
The fact that he didn't look immediately baffled at such a bizarre accusation told Josh a great deal of what he needed to know. "I... don't think I can help you there, Mr. Lyman," said Bowers, just a touch dryly. "Obviously, if you've got some reason to think she was involved in this, you'll have to talk to the Congresswoman."
"Obviously," he said sardonically. The secretary gave him a mild shrug.
"And yet... the Congresswoman is still unavailable. Perhaps you should try again tomorrow," he said with a guileless smile. "Now, if you'll excuse me, Mr. Lyman? I have filing to do."
Josh left the office with no further answers - but not unsatisfied. He still had no earthly idea why Selena McGann should want to sabotage this bill... but he knew without a doubt she was the culprit. McGann was involved, Wells was involved, and so was Wells' secretary. Three people made a chain - and where you had a chain, you inevitably had a weak link. All he had to do now was keep chipping away from all sides until somebody caved...
Chapter 15: XV
Leo wandered away from the thick of the crowd to answer his phone. "Josh, where the hell are you?" he demanded irritably.
"Standing outside Rita Wells' office. Uh, getting rained on."
"You were supposed to be at this thing!"
"I know, Leo, but I wanted to strike while the iron was hot."
There was a brief crackle from the other end of the phone. "She's the leak, Leo. Her secretary confirmed it."
"She up and said so?" he demanded in disbelief.
"He - and not in so many words," Josh corrected. "But... yeah. Didn't bat an eyelid when I said Wells had leaked it for McGann. Let me keep working on him, Leo, he seems like a smart kid. Don't know what he's doing working for a nobody like Wells, but I might be able to convince him it's in his best interest to talk to us."
"And then where do we go?"
"Back to McGann," Josh said shortly. He hesitated. "You want me to show up at this thing?"
Leo sighed. "Nah, you're off the hook." He didn't miss the sigh of relief from the other end. "At least until tomorrow, when CJ kicks your ass for letting Danny Concannon in to the party."
"I figured we could use a little friendly representation in the press section," Josh covered himself, although Leo knew damn well he'd done it purely for the amusement value.
"Yeah, well, you just- Oh, God. Stay on the line," he ordered suddenly.
"The president's bearing this way, and he looks like- Yes, he's definitely gonna hug me."
Josh just chuckled. "We all make our sacrifices for the country, Leo," he reminded him. "Be proud to serve at the pleasure of the president." He hung up.
"Leo!" The president seemed to be beaming even wider than usual as he approached.
Leo surrendered to the indignity of being squeezed in front of a ballroom full of people, and mentally vowed to deliberately set CJ on Josh the following morning.
"Okay, it's not too obvious, is it?" Sam fretted anxiously beside him.
"That the president's mildly stoned?"
His boyfriend shot him a dark look. "Okay, you're not helping."
Steve shrugged easily. "Oh, come on, Sam, relax. It's not like he's throwing up or dancing on tables or anything. He's just..." They watched him greet another dinner guest with an over-exuberant level of hand-shaking. "Friendly." He considered for a beat. "Very, very friendly."
"I can't believe nobody's noticed," Sam groaned, momentarily shielding his eyes with a hand.
"So he's a bit... bouncy," he shrugged. "It's a dinner party! Look at these people - they're hammered. Half of them wouldn't notice anything amiss if he formed them into a conga-line and started doing high kicks. I don't think it's the end of the world as we know it."
"It's a political disaster waiting to happen," his boyfriend mumbled despairingly.
Steve smirked, and took a reflective sip of champagne. "I think it's cute."
Sam spluttered. "You think it's-?"
"Cute," he repeated mildly.
"You think the President of the United States, who is also incidentally my boss, the leader of the free world - and did I mention my boss? - is cute?"
"Well, look at him," Steve grinned. "Bounding around the place, with that totally adorable-"
"Okay, I'd like you to stop talking now," Sam butted in urgently. He blinked. "And then, you know, go and discover time travel, so you can have stopped talking half a sentence ago." Steve had to chuckle at the expression on his face.
They continued to watch the president, Sam now looking decidedly flustered. Steve smirked into his champagne glass. It was a toss-up which was more fun; teasing his boyfriend, or watching his country's leader bounce around the room with all the wide-eyed exuberance of an over-eager puppy. He didn't care what Sam might think - it was definitely cute.
Sam made a slightly nervous sound in his throat as the First Lady appeared, making a beeline for the two of them.
"Ma'am." They both swivelled to face her. Mrs. Bartlet's gaze, however, slid right past them to settle on her husband.
"Oh, dear," she sighed tolerantly, although Steve thought he could detect a distinct flavour of amusement as well. "I can see why you and CJ called me."
"I don't think he had particularly much to drink, ma'am-" Sam hopped in quickly, probably already feeling guilty for calling out reinforcements.
"He knows he shouldn't drink at all when he's on medication," she breezed right past him. "The party's just about wrapping up; let's wrap it faster. We need to get him into bed."
Sam began to splutter once again. She gave him a sharp sideways look.
"You're looking a little red there, Sam, are you okay?"
"We were just having a spirited discussion," Steve put in helpfully.
"Really? What about?"
"I disturbed his sense of protocol by calling the president cute."
By this point, his boyfriend was making distinct choking noises. Mrs. Bartlet paused for a beat, and then smirked.
"The president is cute," she agreed gracefully.
He gestured with his glass. "Well, exactly. It was... descriptive."
The First Lady turned to Sam, and gave him a distinctly tigerish smile. "You don't think he's cute, Sam?"
Sam stuttered helplessly for a moment. "I, I- I need to go and get another drink. A big one." He fled the scene.
Steve paused to take a calm, reflective sip, and exchanged a look with the First Lady. "I think we scared him."
Andy knew what she had to do. And she had to do it now, tonight, before she let the moment slip away and plunged them back into the same old circular routine.
She just wished she didn't have to be so emotional when she did it.
"Toby... this isn't going to work," she said. Looking at the wall, trying to collect the threatening tears even though she knew they wouldn't hold off for long.
It didn't matter that she wasn't looking at him; she could still see his expression in her head. "What isn't?"
"This, Toby!" She wheeled around to face him, frustrated and upset. Her voice cracked despite her best efforts not to let it. "I can't- I just... Toby, I can't do this again."
He got up and came towards her, speaking quietly. "You can. We can." Why did he always have to be like this? Arguing when didn't want to fight, calm and gentle when it would be easier if they could be shouting. Why did he always have to be so... complicated?
Just for once, she would have liked things to be simple. She needed something to be simple.
"We can't, Toby," she refuted, shaking her head. "We always say it's going to be different, we're going to do it different this time, and it never is. It never is, Toby. We just go round in circles."
He smiled slightly behind his beard. "I like our circles," he said, almost plaintively.
"I don't, Toby." She sat down heavily, resting her forehead in her palm. "We go round, and round, and I'm just... so... tired-"
"You're upset," he reminded her, moving towards her, and she almost laughed because it was such a stupid thing to say; did he think she'd forgotten? "This is-" he reached for her awkwardly, never quite sure what to do with an distressed woman. "We both know why you're upset."
Andy just looked at him, nakedly, letting her face say all that lay underneath. "We've been here before, Toby. We've been here... so many times before. And we're just going to end up here again." She wasn't even tearful anymore, just numb, crushed under the leaden weight of exhaustion. She was just so tired of this.
"You don't know that," he said sensibly.
"I do. Because it's not even about... this thing, it's about- it's about us. We're always- here, we always seem to end up here, and I just- I don't want to do this anymore, Toby. We've done this so many times before, and I don't want to do this anymore." The same old cycle as they both retreated into themselves to nurse their grief in private, and then the guilt, and then the stupid, pointless, worthless anger...
Wasn't it better, wasn't it easier, just to be lonely? Better than hurting all the time. Better than building something that could actually make you happy, and seeing it torn down, again and again and again.
He wanted to gather her in his arms, but she wouldn't let him. Andy stood up, pulling away from him.
"I can't, Toby. I just... can't, anymore. I'm sorry." She retreated, wanting to get out, wanting to be away from the temptation to just collapse against him and let herself be swept up into it all over again for the promise of temporary comfort.
"Stay for tonight," he suggested softly. Offering it as a compromise, when she knew there couldn't be any compromise here. Andy shook her head.
"If I don't go tonight, then I won't go at all."
"Then don't," he said simply, dark eyes on her.
She smiled, and wanted to cry. "Toby..."
There was nothing to say. It had all been said before. If there was one thing they were good at, it was talking themselves round in circles.
"I'm sorry," she finished simply. And meant it. Their locked gaze held for a moment, and then she twisted the doorhandle, and stumbled out.
She had to fumble her phone from her purse to dial a cab, and stand outside his home at the roadside while she waited for it to arrive. She knew he was watching her, but he didn't come down.
She was composed for the whole of the cab ride home, but when she got inside, she curled up on her bed and cried.
Chapter 16: XVI
"Hey!" Danny came bounding up to her, annoyingly cheerful as always. One small blessing - at least he hadn't seen the president close up for long enough to notice his state of mild intoxication. Most of the partygoers probably wouldn't even have spotted anything amiss, but Danny was sharp. Plus, he knew the president far better than most people in the room, after following them on the campaign trail. She knew there'd been a reason they hadn't invited any press.
Well, okay, that had been more to do with the Swedish Ambassador's propensity for causing a scene - he tended towards a much more loud and obnoxious form of drunkenness. He'd behaved himself tonight, at least, insofar as there had been no blows exchanged and he hadn't thrown up on anybody. All in all, apart from certain red-headed reporters bugging her, the evening could probably be counted a great success.
"So... I never got that dance," Danny observed chirpily. CJ, perhaps just a tad tipsy herself, reminded herself to play it icily cool.
"Imagine my distress," she brushed him off casually.
"Thank Josh for the invite for me," he said, undiscouraged.
"Oh, I'll be talking to Josh about this. At length," she prophesied darkly.
"Have dinner with me again tomorrow night?" he interjected optimistically.
"Okay," she accepted before her brain caught up.
"Great!" He sauntered off into the distance, whistling.
Nice deployment of the icy-cool defence there, Claudia Jean, she reflected.
Abbey had to smile as Charlie brought her husband stumbling over to her. He'd dipped down from the more manic stage of his intoxication, and gave her a sweet, goofy smile. Jed had never been much of a drinker, but when he did go over his limit he was a silly, sappy drunk, dopey but very tractable. It was hard to be anything but affectionately exasperated with him.
She sighed, and folded her arms. "What am I going to do with you?" she asked rhetorically. He just blinked at her, big blue eyes all innocence.
"Just pass him over here, Charlie," she directed. The young aide had been surreptitiously supporting and guiding the president in case of sudden staggering. Abbey took his arm, and he immediately rested his chin on her shoulder, a complete dead weight. "Oh, dear God," she sighed. It was going to be a long, long walk back up to the Residence.
Obviously sensing this, Charlie lingered; she shooed him away. "You can go now, Charlie. You should get on home to Zoey, you look exhausted."
Indeed, he seemed uncharacteristically reticent; tired or not, she'd have expected him to be highly amused by the display her husband was currently putting on. Instead, his face was etched with frown lines, and he just nodded. "Goodnight, ma'am."
She sensed that now was not the time to be chiding her son-in-law for over- formality. "Goodnight, Charlie."
"G'night, Charlie," Jed mumbled in echo against her shoulder. Abbey ruffled his hair absently and sighed.
"Come on. Let's get you up to bed."
They made their slightly unsteady way towards the Residence. Fortunately, there was nobody left to see but the Secret Service agents, and they kept their own counsel.
"You smell good," Jed suddenly felt the need to inform her, apropos of nothing.
"Well, that's nice, babe," she said tolerantly, "but do you think you could stand to take a little of your own weight there, pumpkin? Thank you."
He screwed up his face in concentration as they entered the Residence. There was a lingering pause while they both waited for the incoming thought to line itself up. " What was that with... Sam and Steve?" he asked finally, having difficulty with the sibilants.
Abbey had to smirk. "Sam's all freaked out because his boyfriend thinks you're cute," she informed him as she helped him tug off his jacket.
He blinked. "Oh." He contemplated this drunkenly for a few moments. "I am cute," he finally pronounced, with a decisive nod.
Abbey rolled her eyes at him. "Yes, honey, you are," she sighed.
She pulled him close to her, and helped him into bed.
"Dad told me about the death threats," Zoey said without preamble as her husband walked in. He looked exhausted, and she almost regretted starting this, but she knew that if she didn't, he'd just let it fester.
"So what's new?" he said, sounding bitter and resigned. She narrowed her eyes at him.
"You know what's new."
Charlie sighed heavily as he fumbled his shoes off, and then gave her a dark look. "What do you expect me to say?"
Despite herself, she felt her own frustration building up into rising anger. "I expect you to say 'Hey, Zoey, I'm your husband, do you want to maybe talk about this?'" Why did he always have to shut her out when he was pissed about something?
He stood up to shrug his jacket off, not entirely coincidentally turning his back on her. "I don't want to talk about this."
"Well maybe I do," she countered.
The look he turned on her was not even angry, just earth-shatteringly weary. " Zoey, there's just- There's nothing to say, okay?"
"Charlie-" she said, abruptly shifting from irritated into pleading.
"No, Zoey, what is there to say, what are you gonna say?" he demanded. "This just... is, okay? This is what we get. We should both be more than used to it by now," he added bitterly.
It broke her heart as much as it drove her crazy to see him in this kind of dark mood. "Charlie, you can't-"
"It is what it is, Zoey. And nothing we say tonight or any night is going to make a damn bit of difference."
She reached out to his beseechingly. "I know, but can we just talk-"
"Yeah, I don't want to talk about it." There was a long pause, until final he said brusquely, "I'm working early tomorrow morning. I need to get to sleep."
He walked past her into the next room, and she knew there would be no more talking with him that night.
"Look, I already apologised."
"I'm not going to do it again."
"It was a perfectly innocent comment. And it's not like he's your dad."
Still no response. Steve rolled over, and prodded Sam in the back. "Listen, I know you're still awake. You're not snoring."
He didn't even rise to that old familiar bait. He must really still be sulking. Steve lay back, and chuckled faintly to himself.
"I can't believe you're this wound up just because I called the president cute."
Sam remained silent, but Steve could see his shoulders tense. "C'mon, talk to me!" he whined. He sighed heavily. "Oh, this is ridiculous. You're a grown man, just accept that your boyfriend has a perfectly innocent crush on the president, and move on."
Sam yelped and sat bolt upright. "It's a crush now?"
Steve couldn't help giggling at his expression. "Oh, Sam." He patted the side of his face. "Sam, Sam, Sam."
"It's not funny," his boyfriend pouted. "I find this very... very disquieting," he grumbled.
He rolled his eyes. "I honestly don't see what your problem is. I'm not allowed to think the president's good looking?"
Sam spluttered, apparently looking for an appropriate point to make. "He's the president!" he came up with finally. "And he's, he's, he's- he's married! Not to mention old enough to be your father. Or, indeed, my father."
"Oh, well, in that case he's ancient." Steve leaned back to cast his eyes heavenwards. "I just said I thought he was being cute back there, Sam. I didn't say I had plans to leap on him and-"
Sam yelped in distress, and physically cut him off with a hand across his mouth. "I beg you, do not finish that sentence, or I will be forced to move out of this bedroom and, you know, live out in the hall. Forever. Possibly rocking back and forth, whimpering."
"Whatever," Steve sighed. "All right. In deference to your delicate sensibilities, I will never again to refer to this or any future president with any terminology that might suggest they could be considered in any sense whatsoever physically attractive."
"Of course, you realise this will have an impact when you unexpectedly rise through the ranks to take the White House in 2026."
"Somehow I'll survive," he said sardonically. Steve just smiled at him, and leaned over to give him a kiss.
"Go to sleep, Sam," he advised.
Chapter 17: XVII
The president gradually came awake, with all the grace of a sleeping bear rudely startled out of hibernation. Abbey smiled fondly at him, and brushed an errant curl of hair from his forehead.
He smiled back. "Hello."
"Hey, babe." She gave him a pointed look. "Hungover?"
Jed frowned. "I wasn't drunk," he protested.
Abbey had to laugh aloud at that. "You keep telling yourself that, sweetheart."
He pouted. "I had two glasses of champagne!"
"On top of your cough medicine and the pills?"
He had the grace to look chagrined. "I forgot about the pills... but I was stone cold sober!" he insisted. "I was fully in charge of my faculties."
"You were cuddling people and talking about getting Charlie to rewire the lighting system," she reminded him.
"I'm friendly!" Jed protested. "And the lighting in that ballroom is appalling. In fact, I've a good mind to-"
Abbey sighed. "Jed..."
"All right, all right." He looked down. "It was the cold medicine."
She gave him a sad smile. "Jed... you know your tolerance to alcohol is not what it used to be."
He hesitated for a beat, then breathed out heavily. "Yeah."
"You shouldn't really be drinking. Especially when you're not well."
"It really is just a cold," he said softly, meeting her eyes.
"I know. But honey... you have multiple sclerosis, you haven't slept a full night through in five and a half years, and 'just a cold' is not the same thing as it was when you were seventeen."
He let out a long, heavy sigh. "Yeah," he said quietly. "Yeah."
She stroked his hair.
"Did I embarrass myself last night?" he asked, grimacing.
"Nobody noticed," she assured him, pressing a gentle kiss to his forehead.
He met her eyes sharply, not believing that. "You said-"
"They know you're not well, babe," she reminded him. "The only ones who noticed are the people that love you, and they don't care."
He smiled wryly, but said nothing. Abbey leaned her head against his shoulder.
"You know you'll always have your good and bad days," she said gently. "We're here to pick up the slack. Don't worry about it, okay?"
"Okay." He smiled at her, and pulled her close for a kiss.
"Okay." Leo shuffled papers and looked around at the staff. "Let's try to keep this short. It's supposed to be a light day, so let's see if we can hold off on having a disaster until at least eleven o'clock?"
He noticed he was one staff member short.
"Toby's off working on the thing?"
He nodded. "And Sam, you're working on-?"
"The other thing," he supplied in a helpful tone of voice.
Leo gave him a look. "I'm so glad we have these meetings."
"Oh, and I'm pleased to report I've got my groove back," he added chirpily.
"Well, good, 'cause we were worried there," he said sardonically. "Josh, you're still chasing McGann?" His deputy nodded.
"McGann's the leak?" Sam wondered, forehead wrinkling.
"For sure," Josh agreed.
"That doesn't make sense," CJ frowned.
"No, but it seems to be true. Keep me posted on that," Leo ordered, still wondering what game Selena was playing here. "CJ, you're briefing at two?"
She nodded, and then abruptly blurted "Danny asked me out to dinner." Josh and Sam exchanged schoolboy smirks.
"CJ-" he warned, without real rancour. Having any of your staff fraternising with the press was never good news, but CJ was a professional, and Danny was a good guy, so far as reporters went. If it wasn't going to be any trouble, he wasn't about to make it his business.
"It's a business meeting! We're re-establishing ties," she insisted hurriedly.
Sam grinned. "Is that what you kids are-?"
"Stop that thought right there, Sprinkles." CJ glared at him until he nervously dropped his gaze.
Josh looked like he was gearing up to make a smart remark, but was forestalled as the door from the Oval Office creaked inwards, followed by a rather worn and fragile- looking president.
"Mr. President." It was Leo's turn to smirk.
His old friend gave him a baleful look. "Leo." Sam and CJ both hid grins of their own. "Everything in hand this morning?" he asked briskly, seeking to shift the subject before it started.
"Everything's just fine," he agreed, denying him that escape route. "Feeling better, sir?" he asked innocently.
Jed pointed a stern finger at him. "I'll have you know, I was perfectly sober last night."
Leo gave him a look. "You told me I was adorable last night," he reminded him, eyebrows raised.
The collected staff snickered.
Jed narrowed his eyes... and then abruptly broke into a wide smile. "Oh, Leo. You are adorable." He leaned forward to give his Chief of Staff a casual kiss on the cheek, and then swanned out, smirking. "Keep me posted," he called airily over his shoulder.
Leo glowered at the rest of the room. "First person to say anything is fired."
Any attempts made to disguise their amusement were not visibly successful.
"You will be clearing out your desks. Get out."
They filed out. As soon as the door fell halfway shut, he heard a burst of sniggering outside it.
It was going to be one of those days, he could just tell.
"Ashley?" she guessed, giving the young man a bright smile. He looked up and grinned in response, obviously recognising her voice.
"Ah. The real Donna Moss, I assume?"
She smirked. "You rumbled Josh's cunning disguise, then?"
"I applied my considerable deductive powers to it," he said dryly. Donna snapped her fingers in mimed frustration.
"I told him he should have gone with the blonde wig."
"Well, that would have cinched it," he agreed, leaning back in his chair. "I suspect I know the answer to this, but... what can I do for you, Miss Moss?"
She gave him a slightly apologetic shrug. "Josh orders, I obey." She handed across the document she'd been asked to prepare. He took it, and flipped through for a moment before looking back up at her.
"Senator Joseph Bridges, chapter and verse. Every dirty deal he's ever been caught out in, and plenty more he wasn't." When it came to the lowdown on the opposition's more unsavoury elements, Josh's information was among the very best. He might not understand the concept of 'organised' in ninety-nine percent of daily life, but at keeping track of other people's strengths and weaknesses, he was a pro.
"And I have this because...?"
"He wants you to know who you're dealing with."
"I'm not dealing with anybody," he said lightly, but his gaze was steady and locked on hers.
"Your boss is. Josh knows it, and he knows you're covering for her. And he thinks that whatever it is, you're too smart to be mixed up in it."
He smiled wryly at that. "Oh, and Josh Lyman is never wrong?"
"Josh Lyman is often wrong. I just smack him around the head until he gets over it."
He raised an eyebrow. "They didn't teach me that manoeuvre at secretary school."
"You got gypped."
"Guess so. Miss Moss-"
"Donna," she corrected quickly. The West Wing's attitude towards formalities was contagious. Nobody stood on ceremony, because with the president in the building, everybody else's title started looking a whole lot less impressive. Those who were important didn't need a special form of address to make it known.
"Ash," he smiled in return. "Donna - would you ever betray your boss's confidence?"
"No," she answered simply. She looked him in the eye. "But you know what? My boss is often short-sighted. He's frequently insensitive. There are times when he's outright moronic. But I also know that whatever else he might be, he's always, always looking to do the right thing. And maybe you should ask yourself if your boss is doing that."
He held her gaze for a moment, then tipped his head in acknowledgement. "I'll read the file."
Donna turned to leave, and then doubled back.
"Incidentally, would you, by any chance, be interested in giving a home to a very sweet black-and-white kitten?"
Ash looked completely befuddled for a moment, and then laughed. "Thanks, but- I'm on a secretarial wage. If I was to have cat food in my house, it's not entirely outside the realms of possibility that I would end up eating it."
"Okay." She smiled at him. "Thanks."
She left him sitting looking down at the file in his lap with a thoughtful expression.
Chapter 18: XVIII
Sam wandered into his boss's office. "Toby, I've got those notes you wanted on-"
He broke off, and let the upraised papers drop down against his thigh as he registered the fact that Toby was ignoring him and staring into the distance. He was rolling something absently around the desktop with a metallic sound; as he looked up at his deputy he stopped it with his fingers, and Sam saw that it wasn't a coin as he'd first thought, but his wedding ring.
Toby focused his gaze, coming down from whatever thoughts he'd been lost in. "Sam."
Sam ignored his original purpose, and leaned back against the doorframe.
"Toby, what's going on?"
"Any number of things are going on," his boss answered brusquely. "The president is presiding over a budget meeting with a severe cold and a marginally less severe hangover. Josh is hassling the staff of minor-league Congresswomen for reasons best known to himself. CJ is attempting to convince several members of the press that comments made by the Swedish Ambassador last night were not actually extremely offensive, which is likely to be a challenge, because they were."
"Are things with you and Andy all right?" Sam probed. Toby shot him a dark look.
"Which part of the preceding sounded like 'this is a good time to ask me about my private life'?" he wondered rhetorically.
Sam looked pointedly at the wedding ring trapped under his fingers. Toby followed his gaze, and briefly snapped it up into the air before catching it and tucking it away into his pocket.
"It's fine," he said shortly. "We're just... coming to some decisions."
Sam raised his eyebrows at that, but Toby showed no inclination to say any more. After a moment he handed over the notes he'd brought, and they got back down to business.
"Charlie." He gave his aide and son-in-law as much of a smile as he could muster. He still felt decidedly blocked up and stuffy, and it made all his facial muscles ache. The faint traces of a hangover didn't help any, either.
Damn medication. Tipsy after two glasses of champagne! He knew he should never have let them coerce him into taking those pills.
Charlie nodded at him, all business. Too businesslike. Ever since Ron Butterfield had given him the lowdown on the latest threatening letters, he'd been going through his duties in a stiffly mechanical manner, with none of his usual good humour or moments of subtle impertinence.
He was angry. And Lord knew Jed didn't blame him for that, but it couldn't be good for him to keep it all tightly locked down like that.
"How long until my next meeting?" he asked, seeking a non-confrontational way in.
"Four and a half minutes, Mr. President," Charlie answered promptly.
Not much of a window for a heart to heart talk, but he gave it a shot anyway. He sat back in his chair and took a sip from his water glass. "How're you doing, Charlie?" he asked gently.
"I'm fine, Mr. President," he said stiffly.
With most people, that would be an open invitation to roar at them to cut the crap, but he doubted that would work with Charlie. He kept his emotional cards close to his chest.
"And Zoey?" he asked instead.
"She's pretty tired these days, sir."
"That happens," he nodded. "She's like her mother, you've got to watch her, she's gonna think she can be playing football and lifting pianos right up until the day the baby's born."
"Yes, sir." It was like talking to an unfailingly polite brick wall.
"Have you two talked any more about what the baby's going to be called?"
He shook his head. "We haven't had the chance to talk too much lately, Mr. President, it's been some pretty late nights."
"Yes it has," he nodded. "But you should always make time for your family, Charlie. You're gonna be a dad in a couple of months, and believe when I say everything else is about to see a sharp shift in priorities. That baby's going to be the most important thing in your life from here on in, and that's never going to go away. A man never stops looking out for his kids."
Jed mentally grimaced in frustration. The only way he could think to more openly invite Charlie to talk to him about the threatening letters would be to say 'Charlie, talk to me about the threatening letters'. He was more than halfway considering doing that when Charlie stood up.
"Sir, you'd better get going."
"Yeah." He pushed himself slowly up out of the chair, and sighed. Wheedling some sort of emotional response out of Charlie would have to wait. Government called.
Josh sat with his feet up on his desk, contemplating. "Wells, McGann, and Bridges," he mused aloud. "Wells, McGann... and Bridges."
It made no sense! He knew the what, he'd pieced together the how, but the all- important why remained elusive.
Selena McGann had been part of the group that had helped pull together the deal. She'd spent months working with them to carefully shepherd this bill to the point where it was now... and then she'd sabotaged it at the eleventh hour.
Sabotaged it incredibly unsubtly, too. One little behind the scenes double- cross, and they'd have been sitting there as their work was shot down wondering what the hell happened, but instead she'd chosen to leak the details to the media through her old college mate Wells. Bridges and his guys had moved countermeasures into play double quick, but their team had been also been alerted by the media coverage and scrambled to pull the deal off the table before it imploded.
Leaving them all right back where they'd been several months ago, with neither side gaining an appreciable advantage.
What the hell was she playing at?
"Wells and McGann." That was easy to work out; Wells was small fry, she'd been a convenient route to a media leak without McGann being seen to get her hands dirty. " McGann and Bridges."
That was where the money was. That was the million dollar question. The only one who'd made any gain here was Bridges - and even he'd only gained a stalemate, not a victory.
But he knew McGann hated Joe Bridges, there was personal bad blood there. He was fairly sure it could be traced back to his complete assassination of the technology bill a year ago. Nobody was entirely sure how Bridges had accomplished it, but Hoynes had been pissed as hell to see his pet project go down in flames. Of course, that had been in the dark days surrounding the messy battle for reelection, when it seemed like every other piece of legislation they introduced was hacked to pieces.
McGann was still pissed at Joe Bridges for killing her big bill a year ago. Why would she deliberately blow open a secret deal that would have been one in the eye for him?
Josh spun round in his chair, physical circles to match the ones his thoughts were making. Donna came in with some paperwork, and eyed him disdainfully.
"If you get motion sickness again, it's on your own head," she warned. He skidded to a stop and blinked up at her.
"I had food-poisoning that day!" he insisted defensively.
Donna expertly neatened his desktop as she rolled her eyes at him. "You made yourself dizzy spinning round in your chair, and then you threw up in your trashcan. It was a real red-letter day for the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, I've got to tell you."
"It was the chicken in white wine sauce!"
She gave him a look. "You ate chicken in white wine sauce, and then you came back to your office and spun round on your chair for half an hour, and you wonder why you threw up?"
"It helps me think," he defended.
"I thought standing with your back against the wall did that?"
He gave her a baleful look. "Somebody kept hitting me with the door."
She refused to look contrite. "See, and most people, after the first time, would think about moving to a different wall."
"I like that wall," he insisted, probably more petulantly than he wanted to sound. "And I like spinning in my chair. Being in motion helps me think."
"Great! So go to the gym."
"I don't want to go to the gym," he objected.
Donna was using her worried face on him, damn her. "Josh, you don't exercise enough."
This was a favoured theme of not just Donna but the Surgeon General, the First Lady, and any other physician types he came into contact with. He had a theory it was a plot of some kind. It had been three and a half years since Rosslyn, he exercised as much as he thought he needed to, and his health was doing just fine, thank you. Clearly this whole 'you should have a proper exercise regimen' thing was all a big con.
"I exercise!" he insisted.
"When... you're not looking at me," he finished a little lamely. She was still giving him the face. "I can go to the gym another time, Donna, right now I need to think."
"And spin in circles in your chair?"
"And spin in circles in my chair," he agreed. He made a brief circle to prove it, and then leaned back over the headrest to look up at her. "Can you order me up a burger and fries?"
"No, but I can get you a plain salad."
He sat up, and turned around to eye her suspiciously. "This is revenge for not going to the gym?"
"This is a pre-emptive defence for if you're going to keep spinning in that chair all day. And give me your trashcan, I'd better empty it before you have lunch."
Josh let out a world-weary, put-upon sigh, the effect of which was somewhat muted by the fact that Donna had already left. He leaned back in his chair, and went back to his interrupted thoughts.
McGann and Bridges. Bridges and McGann.
After a while, he started to spin again.
Chapter 19: XIX
CJ frowned thoughtfully over her notes. "Hey, Sam," she smiled gratefully as he came in. Anything to take her mind off lists and lists of mind-numbingly dull figures.
Well, anything that didn't involve Danny Concannon or yet another gaffe by the Swedish Ambassador, anyway. She pulled off her glasses. "What's on your mind?"
He leaned back against her doorframe. "I'm wondering what's on Toby's, actually. Does he seem... distant to you?"
"These past few days?" She shrugged. "Maybe." She'd thought so, in passing, but then she'd been more than a tad distracted herself.
"Yeah... I'm just wondering if everything's all right with him and Andy," he reflected,
She shrugged again. "It's a complicated thing, Sam. It's best if everybody else stays out of it."
Toby and Andy had always had a convoluted relationship, whether it was during their marriage, divorce, or less sharply defined states before, after and between. The knowledge of their difficulty having children filled in several highly uncomfortable blanks, but still... There was really no predicting where the two of them would end up next.
"Yeah, you're right," Sam agreed. He tilted his head back and stretched, apparently not inclined to leave her office just yet. She rested her chin on her hand to regard him.
"So how's things with your other half?" she asked him. He blushed, a source of amusement that never got old.
"We're- we're fine," he shrugged, ducking his head. "Things are great. Really."
"That's great," she nodded, and meant it. It was funny; a year ago, she would have screamed blue murder at the idea of the Deputy Communications Director dating a man - when it had come to light nine months ago, she'd done exactly that - but now it just seemed natural enough it was hard to remember a time before Steve had been on the scene. If anyone could pick up a date and forget to pay attention to what gender they were until after the fact, it was Sam Seaborn.
The White House staff had mostly embraced this new yet somehow unsurprising aspect of Sam with good grace, and he seemed to have straightened things out with his family after a rocky start. She knew certain segments of the media and the general public were a lot less accepting of it, and he'd no doubt kicked up a serious obstruction to what should have been a fast-track ascent to the high-profile position of his choosing... but at least he seemed happier than he'd been for a long time.
Happier than she'd been in a long time, too. She sighed, and absently tapped her nails on the rim of Gail's bowl.
"So how are things with you and Danny?" he asked her after a moment.
"They're not," she said, with a warning glare, but he shrugged defensively.
"I just- you know."
CJ relaxed, and sighed again. "Yeah."
Sam smiled sympathetically. "So, did you figure out who you are in his book yet?" he said, deliberately shifting the subject into lighter areas.
She gave him a look. "Did you come here for a reason?"
"Not really, no," he shrugged cheerfully.
"Then whatever you're doing here, do it quietly."
"Okay." He shrugged, and leaned back against the wall. For a moment, all was quiet, and she read through a few more transcripts and highlighted points.
"CJ," Sam said finally, oddly hesitant. She looked up expectantly.
"Would you say the president-? Never mind," he decidedly suddenly, cutting himself off.
She peered at him. "Do I think the president what?"
"Do you think he's-? No. No, forget it. Something that Steve said, forget it."
He wandered off, looking troubled. CJ frowned after him for a few moments, and then went back to her work.
"Hey, sugar. Still sober?"
Jed smiled wryly at that, but his pleasure at seeing his wife won out. "Hey," he said warmly, as she came over to sit on the arm of his chair. She brushed back his hair; no doubt a cunning ploy to surreptitiously check his temperature, but he leaned into her touch happily enough.
"How're you feeling?" she asked. Gently, but then the dire threats for if he pretended to be fine went entirely unspoken by now. He mustered a smile.
"Better... A little tired," he conceded.
"Yeah. You should try to get to sleep early tonight."
"Charlie cleared me some time," he assured her.
Abbey frowned, leaning against him. "Did he and Zoey have a fight? I spoke to her this morning, she sounded pretty down, and Charlie's been out of sorts since yesterday."
Jed sighed, the comfort of cuddling up to his wife for a while beginning to evaporate. "I spoke to Ron Butterfield on Monday; the Secret Service is worried about some new letters they've been getting. I had a word with Zoey last night, and Ron talked to Charlie."
Abbey looked concerned. "What kind of letters?"
He hesitated for a beat too long in answering.
"Jed-" she said warningly.
Hiding things from his wife was never a good idea... but he didn't much relish talking about this one. "They're, uh... they're worried about the baby," he said softly.
She frowned in puzzlement. "I know they have to think about these things, but isn't it a little bit early to-?"
"Even before it's born," he said, perhaps a touch too brusquely. It was hard to meet her eyes and see the mirror of his own distress and horror. "There are people who don't want to see our grandchild born, Abbey. There are people who would rather see our daughter dead or horribly brutalised than see her give birth to a baby that's whole and healthy and loved and wanted. How..." Words failed him. "How can anybody hate that much?"
She gave him a desperately sad smile, and rested her head against his chest. "I don't know, babe," she said softly. "I don't know."
"Andy?" Nikki appeared through the doorway, phone in hand. "Toby."
Andy took a slow, deep breath. She was tempted to tell her assistant to duck the call, but that would only lead to more concerned looks and complications. She wasn't sure she could deal with complications right now.
She sighed. "Put him through in my office." She nudged the door closed before picking up the receiver.
"Andy." Just the sound of his voice brought on an instant headache, and she massaged her forehead tiredly. Crying herself to sleep hadn't led to a very restful night.
"I think we should talk," he said simply.
"Toby, I already-"
"I think we should have dinner, and we should talk," he rolled on determinedly. "You were very upset last night, and-"
"That doesn't mean I wasn't right, Toby," she said wearily. There was a brief silence.
"Come to dinner," he said eventually. "I have... things to say."
"It won't change anything."
"Then I should have a chance to do it."
She smiled, without humour. "It's not a political debate, Toby." Trust her ex- husband; he could never leave anything alone without arguing his case exhaustively.
"It's more important than that."
And, as always, his soft-spoken, solemn tone knocked her off balance more thoroughly than any amount of shouting could do.
She found she just didn't have the strength for arguing further. "All right, Toby," she sighed. "But not somewhere busy, I just don't have the-"
"Okay," he acquiesced without question. "I'll pick you up tonight."
She put the phone down with a heavy heart. He always did this. Always, always did this. She'd come to a decision, but he'd keep arguing, and just keep arguing, and it never changed anything...
All too often, his words were too persuasive, and she'd allow herself to believe that this time, this time maybe it could all be different... and then they'd both get sucked into the whole awful, painful, self-destructive cycle all over again.
But not anymore. There were only so many times you could go through the same heartbreak before it ground your soul down into dust. She would go to dinner with him, and she would break it off, and this time, it would be for good.
Chapter 20: XX
"Mr. President." Leo stood up with a start at his unexpected visitor. "You should be taking it easy," he chided.
"I'm at ease," Jed waved him off shortly. "And so are you, so sit down." He took his own advice, and sat down opposite his old friend with a barely audible groan.
"That doesn't sound very easy," he noted caustically.
"It's fine," Jed waved him away shortly.
Leo retook his own seat. "What's up?"
"I wanted to talk to you about Charlie."
He didn't need to guess in which context. "He's taking it hard," he said, not really as a question.
Jed looked troubled. "He won't talk to me."
"He's a private guy," Leo reminded him.
"Yeah." He sighed. "I know how hard this is on him, but he shouldn't- I wish he wouldn't keep it all bottled up like that."
"Talking's not gonna help, Mr. President," he pointed out softly.
"I know, but... He's an angry young man. And Lord knows he's got a right to be, but..." He trailed off.
"I was one of those, once," Leo noted quietly.
"It never ends well."
He'd come back from a war that should never have been fought with twice the disillusionment he'd left with, and a burning core of angry resentment aimed at the world in general. And he'd locked it all down, because that was what men did, until it poisoned his system in a thousand different ways, and the only cure he knew for them was alcohol.
Jed looked saddened. "He's angry at the world because he wants to hold himself to blame for things he knows just aren't his fault."
"Remind you of anybody we know?" Leo couldn't help the light jab. Jed gave him a sharp look.
"I'd say something about pots and kettles, but I swear to God one day Toby's gonna kick that door down and kill us all in an anti-cliché rampage."
They both contemplated that for a beat. "You don't think the Secret Service would bring him down?" Leo mused eventually.
"Stand between Toby and a language rant? They're the most highly trained professionals in the western world, Leo, but even they have their limits."
There was a long silence, and then Leo sighed heavily. "I know what it's like to crash and burn on trying too hard to fix everything for the people that love you."
Jed smiled, and covered Leo's hand briefly with his own on the desktop. "You do just fine," he said sincerely.
Leo held his gaze for a moment, then abruptly pushed back in his chair and stood up. "Okay, I don't know what the hell it is they're putting in that cough medicine, but I'm really not sure I want you in charge of the Sit Room right about now."
Jed chuckled and echoed the movement, but his gaze remained serious. "You're too hard on yourself," he chided softly.
"Round here, it's a catching disease." Leo rubbed his brow. "You want me to have a word with Charlie?"
"If you think he'll listen to you."
"Maybe not, but I'll talk to him." Jed nodded. "Now, you should go get some rest," Leo added sternly.
"It wouldn't hurt you to take your own advice," the president told him, but he moved obligingly towards the door.
"Don't stay up late reading reports again," Leo called after him.
"Yes, mom!" he smirked, with a short salute, and left the room.
Andy gave him a fragile smile when he picked her up from the office. She was silent during the drive to the restaurant; he tried to catch her eye in the mirror a few times, but she was always looking out of the window.
Toby knew that when she made up her mind, it was made - but he still had a card to play. She was convinced that nothing had changed, he hadn't changed, but he was determined to prove that she was wrong. He'd been thinking long and hard since their reconciliation; time had passed, and he was an older man than he'd been when they divorced.
As their second term progressed, he was increasingly dogged by the feeling that his life's major work was coming to an end. It was one he doubted Sam or Josh would understand, but the president would sympathise only too well. This was his time; his chance to do something of importance. In less than three years time, it would be gone - and then what? There would be other works, but none of them would ever be quite the same as this.
He needed there to be something more. In three years time, he would be a man whose greatest accomplishments were behind him, not ahead... and when that time came, he would need there to be something more.
He would do things differently this time around. He'd already decided that; he just needed to convince Andy of the truth of it.
As they walked into the restaurant, Toby slid his hand into his inner pocket, and momentarily closed his fingers around the wedding ring that rested there. He quickly pulled his hand free again, before his ex-wife could attach any significance to the gesture.
He watched her as she ordered; she was pale-faced, but carefully composed. He'd been prepared to exhibit unaccustomed patience while she browsed the menu, but she quickly picked out a lightweight salad instead of deliberating as she usually did.
He took a breath to speak while they were waiting, but Andy interrupted him. " Can it wait until we eat, Toby, please?" she said tiredly.
He nodded acquiescence, and the rest of the waiting took place in near silence. Andy didn't look at him.
"Toby," she sighed finally. "I know you want to argue this with me, but-"
"-I think it's the best way," she continued determinedly, speaking over him. He shook his head.
"It's not the best way."
He looked her in the eye earnestly, setting aside his knife and fork. "It can be different this time."
Andy rubbed her forehead, looking pained. "Toby, it's not going to be different this time. It's never different. It's- Nothing's changed, Toby."
"I've changed," he said forcefully.
She smiled wryly. "You don't change, Toby," she said, not harshly. "You're the least changeable person I know."
"I change when I want to change," he countered.
"You don't, Toby. You say you want to, but you don't. And that's okay. I've made my peace with that. You're- you're who you have to be. But I can't be around you, Toby. I can't keep coming back to you and living the same old cycle over and over again."
"I can do it differently. I can do it properly," he insisted.
She just looked sad. "Toby, let's not-"
"Marry me again," he said, the words coming impulsively though the intent had been there all along. For a moment, Andy looked startled, and then her face crumpled. She shook her head, more refusal of the question itself than an answer to it.
"Please - marry me again," he repeated. He took her hand across the tabletop. "I have changed, and I will change, and I want to change. I want to do this again. I want to make this... how it should have been, the first time."
He could see his sincerity was striking home, but it only made her look more tortured. She started to speak and then choked, beginning to tear up. "Please... please, Toby, can we not do this here?" she pleaded. "Can we not do this now? I don't- This isn't a good place and time to do this."
Toby slowly withdrew his hand from hers, gaze still locked on her face as she looked down at the tabletop, trying to blink away tears and compose herself.
His hopes for a gesture that could mend the rift silently shattered, and drifted away on the wind.
Josh jolted upright with a start, half asleep in his chair. Ashley Bowers frowned down at him, and dropped the file he'd sent over on his desk.
"Why did you give me this?" he demanded.
Recovering his equilibrium, Josh leaned forward. "I just thought you had a right to know who your boss is in bed with."
"My boss isn't in bed with anybody," he refuted.
"Then why do you care what's in that file?" Josh shrugged pointedly. Bowers narrowed his eyes.
"Half of that stuff is unproven. I could have gone straight to the papers, you'd be in a world of hurt for even writing it down, letting alone handing it over to me."
"But you came here," Josh pointed out mildly. The secretary looked down at the floor for a moment, as if trying to get a grip on his frustration.
"Mr. Lyman, leaving aside the whole issue of what kind of person Senator Bridges is or isn't, the fact remains, I'm not working for him."
"But Selena McGann is," he countered coldly. "Now, I don't know why, but I think you do, and whatever it is here you think you're protecting, there's no way it's worth letting Senator Bridges get his way with a bill that could help hundreds of thousands of people. So why don't you close the door and sit down?"
For a moment the young man stood stiffly glaring at him, then he moved across to push the door shut, and sat down.
Chapter 21: XXI
"Hey, Donna." Sam smiled warmly at her as he approached. "Is Josh-?"
"He's in a meeting," she told him apologetically. He was still in there with Ashley Bowers; she hoped whatever her boss was saying was getting through to the young secretary. He seemed like a good kid. "Do you want me to-?"
"Oh, no. No. It's nothing." Sam leaned back against the wall beside her desk.
"Just looking for company?" she guessed.
"Yeah," he admitted with a slightly sheepish smile. "CJ's gone out to dinner with Danny, Toby's snuck out somewhere; I sent all the assistants home early. And now it's, you know, kind of creepy out there in communications."
Donna had to smile. "Why don't you go home?" she suggested. Sam just shrugged. She got the sense that he was preoccupied about something.
Well, she wasn't doing anything useful here. She stood up. "Want to go down to the mess and see if we can scavenge some food?"
"It's a plan."
The mess turned out to be almost empty of food, and wholly empty of other staffers. "Guess when the president takes an early night, everybody takes an early night," Sam observed as they took a table.
"Yeah." Donna examined the last available slice of cake and tried to decide whether, having bought it, she actually wanted to eat it. "What's up, Sam?"
"Nothing," he said innocently, a hair too quickly. She waited, knowing it wouldn't take long for him to break. Sure enough, it didn't. "It's-" He shrugged and shook his head at himself. "You'll laugh."
"My boyfriend thinks the president is cute," he blurted.
Donna burst into an uncontrollable flood of giggles. She covered her mouth with her hand, and looked up at him. "Sorry." She calmed herself down. Then got one look at the expression on his face, and immediately started giggling again.
"Yeah, that's what I thought you'd say," he said wryly, picking disconsolately at his sandwich.
Donna wrestled her laughter under control. Eventually. "Sam..." she sighed, shaking her head. "Are you seriously-?"
"No!" he sighed explosively, slumping back in his chair. "I just- I know- It's... I told you it was stupid."
Compassion gradually won out over the desire to mock mercilessly. "What's on your mind, Sam?" she asked him gently.
He remained tilted back in his chair, head bent at an angle that probably gave him an excellent view of the light fixtures. "It's just- it's ridiculous, I know it is, but it freaked me out."
"I don't think it's unreasonable, Sam," she pointed out, unable to totally banish amusement from her voice. 'Cute' was, well... not an entirely inaccurate term for Jed Bartlet in a bouncy mood, once you came to think of it, but it lacked a certain presidential dignity. "You didn't upset Steve, did you?" she asked, sobering up a little. That didn't sound much like Sam, though; irrational jealousy was much more Joshua Lyman's forte.
"No. He just mocked me."
Donna smiled. "Then, Sam, what's your problem?"
He sat up slowly, with a heavy sigh. "I don't know," he said, rubbing his face. "I mean, I didn't think it was that unreasonable at first... I mean, who wouldn't freak out if people started going around calling the leader of the free world 'cute'-?"
"It's not unreasonable," she agreed. And snickered.
Sam massaged his forehead, looking honestly troubled. "But then I just started thinking, well, maybe it's not reasonable, maybe it's me and I'm freaking out too much. Maybe I've still got a whole bunch of hangups I didn't even realise I had. I mean, I've got Steve - I love Steve - but what if there's some part of me that still- what if I have this thing deep down where I still feel like thinking other guys are attractive is something wrong, something to freak out about?"
"Oh, Sam." Donna smiled at him kindly, and leaned her head against his shoulder. "You worry too much, you know that? You're a good guy, and you worry too much."
He looked sideways at her. "You think?"
"I'm sure." She ruffled his hair.
"So," Danny smiled at her across the table. "You read my book?"
This was a rather different venue than either a dinner party with a few dozen other guests, or a completely private dinner late in the White House. She was too conscious of the other guests around her, too conscious of the fact that from the outside, this would look too much like a date.
Too conscious of the fact that it couldn't be allowed to do anything more than look that way, and even that was pushing it further than she ought to.
She nodded, in mid-swallow, and gestured with her fork. "Mmm. I did."
"Well?" He raised his eyebrows expectantly.
CJ almost teased him, but honestly won out. "You're a great novelist, Danny."
"Thank you." He had a way of smugly accepting compliments that ought to be obnoxious, but somehow retained an edge of charm.
"You should write more books."
"I will, when I'm not so busy."
There was a brief, slightly awkward silence as they thought all the things that went unsaid. Then both of them spoke up at once.
They smiled wryly at each other, and she nodded for him to continue. He took a deep breath.
"CJ, I'm a journalist. It's what I do. It's what I love," he said, but despite the conviction behind the words, his eyes were sad.
She looked down at her meal. "I know," she said softly. He was silent for a moment.
"I probably shouldn't have come back," he said quietly.
CJ met his eyes, and gave him a melancholy smile. "I'm glad you did."
He smiled back, but for a while, neither of them could find anything else to say.
Despite the fact that the president was no longer working, Charlie remained at his desk. He was ostensibly catching up on paperwork; Leo doubted he was doing much more than pushing it around the desk and glaring at it.
He considered stopping by, and decided that would get him nothing more than a brush-off. Well, he was the White House Chief of Staff; he might as well use protocol to his advantage. He returned to his office.
"Margaret? Send Charlie down here, will you?"
She frowned. "Charlie's still here?"
"It can't wait until tomorrow?" He wondered whether it was his own fatigue level or Charlie's she was worried about. Probably both; nobody could ever accuse Margaret of not having enough anxiety to go around. He levelled a glare at her that they both knew he didn't mean.
"I'm paying you to argue with me now?"
"Okay." She scuttled off.
"And Margaret?" he called as she reached the door. She turned to look at him. "Go home."
She eyed him suspiciously. "Will you?"
"As soon as I've spoken to Charlie," he promised, glowering. This whole damn building was stuffed full of people who were entirely too concerned with their opinion of what other people needed.
Here came a prime example now right.
Charlie stood almost rigidly to attention, his obvious inner frustration lending a stiff air of formality to his usual politeness. "You wanted to see me?"
"Yeah, sit down," Leo ordered with a cursory nod.
"Is this about the president?" he guessed.
"No, it's about you." He leaned forward. "I have it on good authority you're in danger of doing something pretty stupid, so this is a friendly warning before you screw things up with Zoey, and by extension, the one guy in this building you most definitely don't want to piss off."
"Excuse me?" Charlie drew back in indignant disbelief.
"You're pissed off, and I don't blame you," Leo said with a shrug. "But shutting out everybody else in the world isn't gonna help anybody, so I suggest you kick that in the head right here right now."
The young aide narrowed his eyes, anger beginning to rise visibly to the surface. "With all due respect, Leo, I really don't see how it's any of your business."
"You work in this building? It's my business," he said bluntly. "The president's worried about it? It's my business. You're married to the president's daughter, it's my business."
"Apparently it's everyone's business," Charlie noted bitterly.
"Yes, it sucks," Leo agreed shortly. "And I'd love to fix it for you, but there are a load of crazy people out there who are pretty damn resistant to being fixed, and we can't make it illegal just to be crazy 'cause that's the price you pay for living in a democracy. And nobody's trying to tell you that it's fair, but it's reality, and you're not telling me you didn't know that when you married Zoey Bartlet."
Charlie looked furious. "They want to destroy all traces of an unborn baby because it has my blood in it, Leo, do you have any idea what that feels like?"
"No. Of course I don't." He looked him in the eye and spoke forcefully. "But I've been a husband, and I am a father, and I've been good enough and bad enough at both along the line to know the difference. And you can be as angry as you like 'cause it's not fair, but you don't get to play the martyr card. You signed up for the best and worst, and that didn't just mean hers. You married her and now you're gonna have a kid together, and you don't get to make the call on whether you think you're ruining her life or not. If you want to kick a trashcan, go kick trashcans, but you don't get to go around shutting out your own wife because you're too pissed at the world for screwing up your chance to be the perfect husband for her."
He paused for a beat. "And stay away from bottles of whiskey. They never help."
Charlie was silent for a moment, and then let out a long, slow breath. "I don't get drunk very easily anyway," he said quietly.
"Yeah, neither do I. That was a lot of the problem right there."
There was a long silence. Leo leaned back in his chair.
"Don't screw this up, Charlie," he said more softly. "I know you're mad. You've got every right to be mad. You've got every right to be spitting furious. But don't let it get in the way. Don't let them make you so bitter you destroy yourself, because that's worse than anything they could ever do to you." He looked the young man in the eye. " You've got the chance to do it right. I didn't do it right. And no matter how much Jenny and Mallory say they forgive me, I've paid for that, and I'm gonna be paying for that for the rest of my life."
Charlie looked down at the carpet, and said nothing.
"Talk to Zoey," Leo advised. "Shout. Kick things. Throw a few things, if it makes you feel better. Just don't take it all on your own shoulders, because all you're gonna do is end up hurting everybody that you're trying to protect."
He sighed quietly, and then slowly nodded. "Okay."
Charlie turned and headed for the door. He paused as he reached it, and looked back with a curious frown. "Leo... who told you I kicked a wastepaper basket?"
Relaxing, he allowed himself to smile. "Put it this way. We can handle the Kremlin. We can handle the Middle East. We can handle the world's most efficient espionage agencies. But if Margaret's network of informants ever goes over to foreign intelligence? We're in trouble."
Charlie managed a slight smile in return. It was a reassuring sight. "Yeah."
"Talk to Zoey."
"I will. Goodnight, Leo."
The door fell quietly closed. Leo sat back in his chair, and thought about missed chances.
Chapter 22: XXII
Oh, God. She should have known he was going to pull something like this, she should have been better prepared... she should never have agreed to eat out with him. This should have been done in private, if it had to be done at all.
"Toby, I can't- I can't marry you."
"Why not?" he said, too sensibly. He always had the trick of sounding like he was the one who was being rational and reasonable, making her feel defensive and over- emotional. "Why can't we-?"
"Because it just-" She covered her face with her hands. "Toby, I love you, you know I love you, but we couldn't stay married before, and it's not going to work if we do it again."
"We can make it work," he insisted softly. "I know I didn't... I haven't done right by you before. I can change that. Tell me what to do."
She was getting tearful again. "It's not that simple, Toby."
"It can be. It should be."
"Toby, you..." There were reasons, she knew there were reasons, but she didn't want to put them into words that couldn't be taken back, didn't want to say the truths that would surely be immeasurably cruel. "We don't fit together right. When things are... bad, we're not- we're not there for each other all the ways we should be."
"I can be there for you," he said earnestly.
"You can't, Toby," she stressed. "It's not your fault, it's not anything you do, it's just... I need someone to lean on, Toby. I need someone to make me feel better. And I know you love me, I know you'll always be there for me, but you're not- you're never happy, Toby."
"I'm not cheerful!" he protested. "It's not the same thing. I don't have to smile all the time to be happy. You make me happy."
She gave him a tearful look. "Oh, Toby." She stood up. The restaurant air was beginning to choke her, and if she stayed here one moment longer she was going to break down completely, she just knew it.
"Andy-" He got to his feet.
"I'm sorry, Toby." She shook her head. "I wish you hadn't- I didn't want to do it like this. I didn't want to end it like this. But I can't take going through all this again. It tore me apart, Toby. It tore me apart so badly I only just finished putting myself back together again. We should never have tried to go back, we should never have tried to do this again. The old cycle just starts up again, and- I can't take that kind of hurt twice in a lifetime. I just can't. I'm sorry."
She left him standing alone in the middle of the restaurant. Perhaps he would have come after her, if there hadn't been the check to settle.
Perhaps he wouldn't have.
Donna scooped up the last of her yoghurt with a twist of the spoon, and wondered absently if Josh was looking for her. Well, if he was, he'd have to manage on his own, because she suspected she was more needed here.
"You really think I'm overreacting?" Sam was now draped over two chairs, leaning in a precarious position which, if he'd been Josh, she wouldn't have been able to resist nudging off balance.
She gave him a look. "Sam, you passed overreacting several miles back, and now you're well on your way into the hyper-reacting zone."
He groaned and sat up. "I know, but... what if I have issues?"
"Presidential cuteness issues?" She couldn't hold a straight face after that, and after a moment he laughed too.
"Okay," he sighed, "but-"
"Sam." She looked him in the eye. "Overreacting. You found it disturbing your boyfriend said the president is cute." She shrugged. "I don't think that has a whole hell of a lot to do with the president being male. I think it has to do with him being, you know, the president."
Sam looked unconvinced. She waved her spoon at him. "You could just as easily have freaked out if somebody said something about... Mrs. Bartlet."
He shook his head. "Nope."
She sought for other potentially freakout-ish female figures. "Or... the National Security Advisor." Sam shrugged indifferently. "Or... Josh's mom."
"Yah!" He jerked upright in his chair.
"See. That was a freakout, right there."
Sam looked slightly panicked. "How did Josh's mom get into this?"
Donna gave him a look. "Sam, do you have a secret crush on Josh's mom?"
"Okay, uh, you've made your point," he said hastily, getting up, "albeit in a slightly disturbing manner, and now I'm gonna just go and maybe scrub my brain, or-"
He smiled, and allowed her to hug him briefly. "Okay," he said softly.
She drew back, and touched his cheek. "Sam... Nobody handed you a membership card at the door. Nobody sat you down and said 'hi, welcome to your sexuality, these are your instructions'. You just... do what you do, you're not getting graded. You said it yourself, you love Steve. You're not ashamed that you love Steve. And I don't know why you think that anything else should matter, because it doesn't."
He hugged her again, and rested his head against her shoulder. "Thank you," he said indistinctly.
Donna leaned against him for a moment, and then smirked quietly to herself. "The president is cute, though," she said close to his ear.
He pulled away from her, and laughed. "I'm leaving."
"Goodnight, Sam." She smiled.
She stood alone in the empty mess for a few moments, thinking about what it must be like to have someone you loved to come home to. Then she told herself to get a grip, tossed her yoghurt pot in the trash, and left.
Josh sighed, and leaned back in his seat. He was beginning to reach the edge of his patience. He glared at the young secretary. "So, McGann and your boss are pretty close?"
Ash shrugged shortly. "They're old college friends."
"And you know what's going on."
He breathed out slowly. "My boss... trusts me with things." He looked at Josh. "And that, in itself, is a pretty good argument for why I shouldn't be talking to you at all."
Josh regarded him intently. "But you wouldn't be here if you didn't think it was something you should pass on."
He grimaced, and ran a hand through his spiked hair. "Listen, this is- I have a loyalty to my boss, okay? And I may know... certain things, but-
Josh thumped the flat of his hand against the desk impatiently. "Okay, Ash, are we dancing the tango here or are you going to tell me what the hell is going on?"
The young man glowered at him. "I keep telling you-"
"Why is Selena McGann working for Bridges?" he demanded.
"She's not working for him!" he snapped abruptly.
Josh narrowed his eyes. "Then what is she doing?"
Ash sighed heavily, and then rested his arms on the desk. "Bridges tried to blackmail her into sabotaging the deal," he finally explained. "He wanted her to give your people the okay so you'd think it was in the bag, and then put a few guys in a headlock so it would all fall apart. She didn't want to play, so she got my boss to leak it to the media through Brenda Garland." He pulled a face. "Obviously, it wasn't as difficult a trail to follow as they thought."
Under normal circumstances, Josh might have taken the opportunity to be smug about his investigative abilities, but he was too busy pulling it all together in his head. "So she leaked the details of the deal... to make sure we would panic and take it off the table?"
He nodded. "Yeah. It screwed the deal but not the entire bill, and got Bridges off her back without having to give him what he wanted."
Josh frowned thoughtfully, resting his chin on his palm. "Okay. I'll buy. But what the hell can Joe Bridges possibly have on McGann that would give him this much influence?"
Ash raised a wry eyebrow. "Apparently, she hasn't been too discreet about the company she keeps."
Josh snorted bluntly. "Oh, come on. Everybody and his brother knows about Selena McGann's little amusements. She's a big girl, and she never pretended to be the poster girl for family values. What could possibly be big enough to bring her down? I know for damn sure she's not sleeping with the president."
"No," Ash said flatly. "Not the president." He put a pointed accent on the final word, and Josh slowly raised his gaze to lock with the young secretary's. His eyes widened as the implication behind the words sunk in.
"Oh, no," he said, shaking his head. "No way."
Ash looked him in the eye unflinchingly. "Yeah," he said simply. He stood up. "And now, if you'll excuse me? I really have to go draft my letter of resignation."
Chapter 23: XXIII
The meal seemed to end far sooner than she wanted it to. She would have liked to linger over drinks and dessert, but she knew they had to think about how it might look. They left the restaurant together, but called for separate cabs.
It was still raining, and they took shelter close to the building while they waited. Danny gave her a sad smile.
"I missed you," CJ told him quietly.
He sighed, a soft breath of sound almost lost amidst traffic and dripping water. "I missed you too."
They shared a brief kiss, in the relative privacy of darkness and falling rain. As they pulled back, she rested her hand on his arm, and looked him in the eye.
"Danny... you know that if it was three years later, this would be a different conversation."
He gave her a slight smile. "Yeah."
For a moment, they were silent, watching the rain. A car pulled into the restaurant parking lot, blazing headlights disturbing the shadows. Danny pushed away from the wall.
"That's probably my cab."
"Okay." She wanted to say something else, but there really wasn't anything else that needed to be put into words. "Goodnight, Danny."
"See you tomorrow," he said with a smile. And he would... but she knew, they both knew, that everything would be right back the way it had always been. He was a journalist, and she was the White House Press Secretary... and that was the way it was.
CJ watched him walk away. "Danny!" she suddenly called, when he was halfway out across the parking lot. He turned, lit from the side by the neon light of the nearest sign. She folded her arms across her chest. "I read your book, but I never figured it out. Which one of the characters was based on me?"
She could only just make out the shape of a smile in the darkness. "They all were," he said. "Ever since I met you, I never see anybody else."
He turned away from her, and walked over to get in his cab. She stood out in the rain, and waited.
"Hey." Charlie came in, shrugging out of his soaked raincoat as he entered the front room.
"You look tired," Zoey noted neutrally, still remembering the brush-off he'd given her last night, and the curt, almost non-existent conversation over breakfast this morning.
"Yeah." He came over and sat beside her on the couch, and gave her a slight smile that looked like a peace offering. "I wanted to apologise for not talking to you last night."
"That's okay," she said leadenly, shaking her head. Suddenly she was feeling pretty tired, too.
"No." He sat up, briefly pressing his hands together. "It's not okay, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have shut you out like that."
It was funny how she'd been so annoyed at him, and now it had all melted away into not wanting him to beat himself up over it. "You were angry, Charlie. It's perfectly understandable."
"Yeah." He looked sideways at her. "But you're my wife, and I don't get to shut you out of things just because I don't want to talk about them."
"I just- I hate that it hurts you so much, and I can't do anything about it," she burst out. "It's terrible, but it's not your fault, Charlie, and it shouldn't be down to you try and fix it. It's not your fault that you can't fix it."
He sighed and looked down at the floor. "I feel like it is my fault, Zoey. And it's not because of anything I did, but just because of who I am, and because you love me."
She shook her head, beginning to get tearful despite herself. "You can't think like that, Charlie, you can't let them make you think like that."
He smiled sadly at her. "They're after our baby because of me," he reminded her softly.
"They're after our baby 'cause they're bigoted assholes, and they were always going to be- Charlie, you can't just try to claim responsibility for the fact that people hate you when they hate you for no reason."
"If you hadn't married me-"
"If I hadn't married you, I wouldn't be married to you. And there would be no baby. There would be no baby, Charlie! You think the fact that some people out there don't want us to have this baby could ever cancel out how wonderful it is that we are?" She moved closer to rest her arms around his neck. "I love you. I wasn't afraid to marry you, and I'm not afraid to have a family with you. And I don't care if ten people don't like it, or a hundred people don't like it, or a hundred thousand million people don't like it. They don't count. You do."
He smiled at her, a genuine smile at last, and wrapped strong arms around her waist. "I'm worth a hundred thousand million people?" he teased.
"Don't push it, mister." She rested her head against his shoulder, and listened to him chuckle faintly.
"I'm sorry, Zoey," he said quietly, after a few moments. "I'm sorry that it has to be like this."
"Yeah." She closed her eyes. "But we're gonna have a kid, and he's gonna grow up in a world where it's less like this. And maybe for his kids, or their kids, or somewhere someday along the line, it's not gonna be like this at all."
He sighed. "Maybe," he said softly. "Yeah, maybe."
She snuggled closer against his shoulder, content for now just to be in the peaceful warmth he provided. They stayed that way for a good long time.
Abbey poured herself a glass of wine, and put down the last of the paperwork she'd been reading over. It was late now, and her vision was beginning to slip into fuzziness as tiredness took its toll.
She wandered through into the bedroom, and watched her husband sleeping. He looked peaceful enough, although his breathing was still ragged. She wanted to smooth his hair back into place, but was afraid she'd wake him. He never got enough sleep.
Abbey sighed quietly to herself. She fought not to show it when she was with him, knowing how much he hated it, but... she worried. He was so fragile now, more fragile than he had been in all the time she'd known him. The MS might be in remission, but the wounds it had done to his general health were not so easily banished into nothingness.
The last few months had been horribly hard on him, much as he didn't want to show it. His father's ghost still hung heavily over him, even this many years on, and dredging all those painful memories to the surface for a hungry media had led to too much stress and too many sleepless nights. He paid for every one of them, in aches and pains he tried to hide, and the heartbreaking, breathtaking weariness.
Her inner doctor taunted her, cruelly mocking her inability to smooth it all away with a magic touch. She did everything she could think of to make it easier on him... but she couldn't be there all the time, and he pushed himself too hard whether she was there or not. A cold was just a cold... but it was also a precursor of things to come, and she was afraid.
There was no way of knowing what the future would hold. She clung to the hope that the end of his presidency would lift the burden from his shoulders, but she also dreaded its approach. What would happen once he lost the drive that propelled him through his days? Would he at last be able to find some peace... or would he fade away into a pale shadow of his former vibrant self?
There were no answers to her questions; no reassurances to be had. All she could do was wait, and watch, and hope, and pray.
His chest rose and fell in sleep. She lay down on the bed and pressed close against him, listening to her husband's heartbeat; slow, and regular, and strong.
Leo sat staring up at his shell-shocked seeming deputy. His promise to Margaret to finish up and go home was forgotten; suddenly, he didn't feel remotely tired.
"Josh, if there's any chance this is-" he began warningly.
"It's for real," Josh said simply. He rubbed his forehead, looking pale.
"How could he be that stupid?" Leo demanded angrily.
"I don't know." He looked down at his feet, as if it was his own shameful secret he was forced into revealing.
"And this kid who told you this-"
"Ashley Bowers," Josh supplied.
"He's Wells' secretary."
"Then how the hell can he possibly know-?"
"McGann trusts Wells. And she obviously trusts him."
"And yet he's shooting his mouth off to you at the earliest opportunity?" Leo knew what he was doing; it wasn't any mistrust of Josh's instincts, just the desire to attack the evidence of something he really didn't want to believe.
Josh offered no relief. "He obviously thought it was important enough to spill to the White House," he said softly. "The kid's perfectly serious, Leo. He's even talking about giving up his job for telling me what he knew. This is real."
He took a slow, steady breath, and met his deputy's eyes.
"Then we'd better get ready," he said shortly.
To Be Continued