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.
And if she asks you why, you can tell her that I told you
That I'm tired of castles in the air
I've got a dream that I want the world to share
And castle walls just lead me to despair
- Castles in the Air, Don McLean
The babble of many voices filled the car, fuzzing between clarity and static as the radio roamed from station to station. As rain drummed continuously on the windshield, the news story of the moment took shape between blasts of music and commercials.
"-spoke to the Washington Post-"
"-in the build up to the-"
"-sensational interview, in which-"
"-State of the Union in only-"
"-Vice President John Hoynes admitted to-"
"-personal problems, and asked that-"
"-for the sake of his family, and-"
"-word yet on whether he still intends to run for the Democratic nomination in 2006. As the impact of these shock revelations is felt around Washington, just days before the State of the Union, only one question is left on everybody's lips - will John Hoynes relinquish the Vice Presidency?"
CJ snapped the radio off with a flick of the wrist, and sighed as she paused to examine her hair in the mirror. Two days to the State of the Union, and the frenzy of media speculation was growing, not dying away.
The Vice President's confession of infidelity was dominating the news cycle, and where there was any space it was too often given over to speculation about the president's state of health. To add insult to injury, the only positive coverage the administration was currently getting was on the entirely trivial subject of the president's new kitten.
It was a terrible start to the year. It was an absolutely appalling atmosphere for delivering the State of the Union. It was... pretty much business as usual, actually.
She straightened her blouse and got out of the car.
Sam bounded into the office like a puppy just let off the leash, projecting a highly annoying aura of youth and cheerfulness. Toby glowered at him, less than thrilled to have the quiet of the morning disturbed by an energetic deputy.
It failed to have the desired effect. "Hey, Toby," Sam smiled. "How's Andy? Did she pin you down to a date yet?"
Toby grunted noncommittally. In his - surprisingly, successful - campaign to get his ex-wife to agree to be married to him again, he'd failed to consider one minor technical detail. In order to pass from a state of being divorced back into a state of being married, there would, in fact, have to be a wedding at some stage.
He was not fond of weddings. Especially when they happened to be his own. Fortunately, Andy was no more enamoured of the idea of a formal dress and relative-filled extravaganza than he was; they would have a small, simple ceremony to confirm their decision, and that would be that. Deciding that had been the easy part. Being able to find matching gaps in their schedules - and wriggle through them quickly enough to get it over with before friends and coworkers could catch on and turn it into a big event - was proving to be considerably harder.
"Hi, Sam," Bonnie greeted with a smile on her way across the bullpen. Toby snagged her on the way back.
"Is everything ready for the State of the Union?"
"Preparations are a go," she said confidently.
"Give me a list," he ordered.
"Okay." Bonnie rolled her eyes. "We have cherry pie, apple pie-" She suddenly broke off and tensed up.
"Blueberry?" Sam asked, with an anxious look.
"We have no blueberry pie," Toby surmised, grimacing.
Sam's eyes widened. "Bonnie-"
"On it," she said briskly, and turned to call across the bullpen. "Ginger!"
"Pie run?" Ginger guessed instantly.
"We need to get the interns out looking for blueberry," Bonnie confirmed.
"Real blueberry," Sam called helpfully. "From that little place on-"
"Roger that. Pie retrieval unit?" Several interns hopped up, looking decidedly scared. "Code blueberry. Go, go, go." They hurried out. Toby shot them an extra glare as they departed, just to impress on them the importance of their mission.
It was going to be a long two and half days.
Leo knocked to announce his arrival, and walked into the Oval Office. The president was sitting at the desk with the kitten curled in his lap; he swivelled his chair towards the Chief of Staff, and smirked. "Greetings, Mr. Bond."
Leo pointed a finger at him accusingly. "Okay, you stop that right now."
The president affected a pout. "Aw, you have no sense of fun." He stood up, releasing the kitten to roam with stiff-backed indignity across the top of his desk. "What's up?"
Leo glanced at the tiny creature, already treating the office - and its occupant - as its own exclusive territory. "You know, I'm still not sure you're allowed to have that thing in here."
"He hasn't been any trouble," Jed shrugged with a lazy hand gesture. "I mean, apart from that time he tried to crawl into the phone."
"Yeah, I have to say that when I asked you to emphasize how pleased we were over the trade agreement, the whole purring thing was not exactly what I had in mind."
"He just likes to be able to see what I'm doing."
He rolled his eyes. "Fine. Give him a few weeks to learn the ropes, and then we'll let him have your job."
"Fine with me," the president said casually, but there was an underlying note of warmth in his voice. It was a welcome change from the slightly bitter twist that had permeated his sarcastic asides of late.
"How are you doing?" Leo asked more seriously.
His old friend lowered an eyebrow threateningly. "Much better when people stop asking me that."
"Your doctors gave you the all-clear?" He had to keep nudging despite the obvious irritation, because Lord knew Jed wouldn't volunteer anything unprompted.
The glower he got for that was more than proof of it. "Leo, there was never anything more wrong with me than a common cold."
"This close to the State of the Union, nothing's common."
"I'll be fine."
He conceded, and changed the subject. "When's Abbey getting back in?"
"Thursday morning." From the slightly slumped set of his shoulders, that was nowhere near soon enough for his liking. "She'll be here for the speech, at least."
"Zoey's gonna be well enough to come?" The president's youngest daughter had also been afflicted by that common cold, and by all accounts had suffered even worse from it. More worrying even than the president's fragile health, perhaps, considering she was nearly six months pregnant.
"She's feeling better," Jed reassured him. "Charlie is another matter." He shook his head in dismay. "He's been chasing her around every hour of the day, trying to stop her overexerting herself. You know what she's like."
"Like you, you mean?" he accused sardonically.
"I shall pretend I didn't hear that." Jed rubbed his face. "I hope this boy Josh has found works out," he sighed sincerely.
The young secretary Ashley Bowers had been an unfortunate casualty of Hoynes's exploding scandal, caught in a tangle of ethics and loyalties when the Congresswoman he was working for was drawn into the cover-up. Josh, with his propensity for trying to fix everything, had hit upon the idea of interviewing him for a position as an aide to Charlie. How Charlie felt about that was possibly up for debate, but there was no denying that if he wanted to keep his job and be a hands-on father for more than ten minutes a day, something was going to have to give.
"Has Charlie met him yet?" Leo wondered.
"I don't think so. Josh is interviewing him today?"
"This morning. And if all goes to plan, you can talk with him tomorrow."
Jed laughed, a light huff of cynical amusement. "If all goes to plan?"
Leo raised an eyebrow. "I'm told that it does sometimes."
"There's a first time for everything, I suppose," the president smiled.
Satisfied that his leader was, at least for now, in better health and a better frame of mind, Leo took his leave and returned to the office.
Chapter 2: II
"Good morning ladies, gentlemen, minions." Josh arrived in the office and dropped his backpack, struggling out of his coat. His damp hair sprang up in all directions, resisting his admittedly cursory attempts to smooth it. "Anything?" he asked Donna as she appeared across the bullpen.
"Fifteen billion senators calling about Hoynes?" she offered.
"Any pledging their unwavering support?"
"Only to the Republican party."
"Anybody faxed in a résumé yet?" Vice Presidential hopefuls gathered to a scandal faster than sharks to drops of blood.
"No, but Ed and Larry's pool has Phillips as the favourite."
"It'll be Winston," Josh corrected confidently.
"Should I bet on that?" she asked immediately.
"Insider trading, Donna?"
"A girl has to work with her budget, Joshua."
"Indeed." He started towards his office, then backtracked. "Ash confirmed?"
"He'll be here at eleven."
"You think I should interview him for the Vice Presidency?"
"I think you should give him your job."
Josh raised an eyebrow. "Maybe I should give him yours."
"Does that mean I get to be Vice President?" she wondered brightly.
"Oh, no, you should not be given power. It goes to your head." He gave her a wary look. "For instance, that business with the supply requisition forms-"
"Josh, nobody should get through forty-seven pencils in a month."
"A month, Joshua!"
"People steal them from me," he defended himself weakly.
"This would be the same mysterious person who chews the ends of them and definitely is not you?"
There was a brief unspoken battle of wills that he had little chance of winning. "I think we have mice," he said hastily, and beat a strategic retreat.
CJ sighed and slipped her glasses on as she flicked through the papers waiting on her desk. She already had a budding tension headache; no need to tempt it further by squinting to make the words out.
"Anything exciting?" she wondered aloud, without much optimism. "Aliens land, deliver world peace? New oil field found in Rhode Island? Republicans wake up, say 'oops, we were wrong'?" She inspected the top story, in vain hopes of finding something interesting enough to distract the press from the target they'd locked on to. "Ah, cabbages. Wonderful." Well, hey, who'd want to concentrate on a sex scandal when there were agricultural bills to discuss?
She felt a shadow, and looked up to find her assistant hovering in the doorway. "Carol; tell me you've got something for me?" she pleaded. "I'm sensing many, many puns on the word 'vice' in my near future."
At this rate, she was going to be reduced to finding something cute to say about the kitten just to avoid a complete disaster. And it didn't help that the president was stringing her along over deciding on a name. If he'd just let the schoolchildren of America write in with suggestions, that would at least buy her a couple of column inches. Cheap column inches, but right now she'd take whatever she could get.
The silence lingered long enough to make her second guess her foolish wish for a headline story. "Carol?" she asked warily, pulling off her glasses.
Carol gave her a sad smile, and handed across a sheet of paper. "We just got this off the wire. Two teenage boys were shot last night in Texas."
"Oh, damn." She closed her eyes. "How old?"
"Fourteen and fifteen. The older boy died on the way back to the hospital; the other one's in critical condition. They've been fighting all night to try and get him stabilised, but they're still not sure if he's going to pull through."
"Damn," she repeatedly softly. There didn't seem much else to say.
Carol's face twisted in sympathy. "There's more," she continued reluctantly. "They were shot trying to break into a neighbour's house; the shooter was a thirteen-year-old girl."
CJ took a long, slow, cold breath, and let it out again. "Okay. Give me the details."
"Leo?" Margaret appeared in the doorway. "Mallory's on the phone for you."
His frown at the interruption immediately lifted into a smile. "Put her on." He raised the receiver and leaned back in his chair. "Hey, Mal."
"You're back in town?" he guessed.
"Yeah. Listen, about the State of the Union-"
"You can't come?" he asked, disappointed.
"No, I'll be there," she promised. "I just wanted to speak to you about my date..."
"He can't come?" Leo said hopefully.
"Sorry," he said unapologetically.
There was a slight but ominous pause before Mallory continued. "Okay, dad, I want you to hear me out first, before you completely overreact."
Oh, that boded well. "Mallory, who are you bringing?" he demanded.
His brow wrinkled. "Who the hell is Brandon?"
The voice on the other end grew more exasperated. "My boyfriend, Brandon, who if you recall I told you I was dating-"
He vaguely recalled that conversation, or at least one like it. It wasn't so much that he didn't take an interest as that Mallory's boyfriends tended to come and go faster than his infrequent contact with his daughter could keep up with. Every time he successfully pulled a name out of the air, it was greeted with rolled eyes and an admonishment that Michael was months ago, dad, I'm dating Robert now. "Brandon who?" he asked helplessly.
"I told you. Brandon Foxton."
"I don't remember you telling me you were- Brandon Foxton?" The name suddenly registered.
There was another pause, during which he'd swear he could hear his daughter's eyes rolling. "Okay, thanks for listening to the 'hear me out' part, dad."
"Mallory..." He sank down into his chair, and grimaced. And to think he'd thought Hoynes was going to be his biggest headache this week...
"You heard about Texas?" Toby demanded as soon as he walked in.
"The original wire story," Sam said with a nod. There hadn't been much detail. "Two boys were shot...?"
Toby turned to the hovering assistants. "Bonnie?"
"There isn't much more," she admitted, leafing through the papers with a dismayed frown. "Two teenage boys were shot in Lubbock County, Texas, during a break-in. Shooter was a thirteen-year-old neighbour; her name isn't being released, obviously, but I think CJ's got more details on the boys."
"The second boy's still alive?" Sam checked.
"So far," said Ginger solemnly.
Toby made an unidentifiable noise in the back of his throat. "A thirteen-year-old girl is alone in the house with a shotgun why?"
"They're going to be saying it was just as well she had it," Sam pointed out grimly. Speak the magic words 'self-defence' and suddenly no argument you could make for the other side would fall upon anything but deaf ears. "Are you going to tell them they're wrong?"
"I'm going to tell them they're stupid," Toby said bluntly. "Was this an actual break-in or an assumed break-in?"
Bonnie shook her head. "We don't know."
"Do either of the boys have records?" Sam asked. Toby's pessimism was contagious.
"We're still getting the information now," Ginger said, spreading her hands helplessly.
"You think she panicked then called break-in afterwards?" he asked Toby.
"She went and got her father's shotgun and proceeded to blast not one, but both of the intruders. That's a hell of a long heat of the moment."
Sam could sense his boss was winding up to a diatribe - and the build-up to the State of the Union was probably not the best time to let him unleash it. It had been enough of a battle hashing out a speech that balanced between addressing the events of the past year and not dwelling on them, quite without Toby going off on a controversial gun-control tangent. He cleared his throat quickly.
"So, um, CJ'll have the details by the one o'clock briefing?"
Bonnie took the hint and picked up the subject change. "Yeah. Toby, Paul from State wanted to have a word with you about one of the lines in the second section."
Toby grimaced. "Again? We've been over this. I told them-"
"I told them we'd take another look at the language," Sam cut in. His boss shot him an incredulous look.
"We already pared down that section. It's pared! If we pare any more, we're in danger of losing fingers!"
Sam settled in for a good long verbal battle that he would, quite honestly, be more than happy to lose. Still, at least it would keep Toby off the Texas shooting for a while. He just hoped that would resolve itself quickly and slip out of the news cycle before Toby latched back onto it and refused to let go.
Chapter 3: III
"Hey." Jed smiled into the phone, for all that Abbey couldn't see him. "How's California?"
"Colder than you'd think right now," she admitted.
"Ha. You need a true New England man to keep you warm at night," he told her.
He didn't have to wait for her to speak to recognise the teasing smirk she would be wearing. "I'll have to ask the Secret Service if they have any on supply." She chuckled at his indignant grumble, then changed gears. "How's your chest?"
He rolled his eyes. "Exactly as fine as it was when you left, and you know it was fine because you insisted on listening to it."
"You need to wrap up warm," she continued briskly, ignoring him. "Wear a scarf if you go outside."
"I'll look like a complete goofball," Jed complained half-heartedly.
"And you really think leaving off the scarf is gonna solve that?"
"Hey," he protested, without rancour. It was comforting to hear her laugh.
"Seriously, hon, I know you're feeling better, but don't go tempting fate. Either wrap up warm, or stay indoors."
"I'll stay indoors," he conceded petulantly.
"There's a good boy."
He snorted. "Why thank you, do I get a cookie?"
"Not unless it's oatmeal and raisin," she said, and he made a face in distaste. His strict new health regimen had been loosened a little, but not nearly enough for his liking, and only because he'd ended up losing a little more weight than Abbey was comfortable with. Never mind the cigarettes, there were days when he'd kill for a slice of cheese.
"Stop fantasizing about food," she ordered him.
He grinned, and lowered his voice seductively. "Well... what would you suggest I fantasize about, then?"
Abbey snickered, but refused to indulge him. "Get back to work."
"Killjoy," he accused.
He glanced up as the door across from him eased open. "Mr. President-? Sorry." Charlie made to back out, but Jed tilted the phone down and nodded towards him. "CJ," he mouthed.
"Send her in," Jed acknowledged. "I have to go now," he said into the receiver.
"Okay, babe." Abbey's voice grew momentarily fainter, and he guessed she was juggling too many things at once on her end, too. "I'll see you soon."
"Not soon enough," he sighed.
"Killjoy," she shot back at him. Her voice softened. "Call me tonight?"
"I will. Bye, sweetheart."
"Have a good day, honey."
CJ hovered awkwardly as he put the phone down, and he gestured her over. "Hi, CJ. What's up?"
She came over to join him. "Well, I-" She hesitated and glanced at him oddly. "Sir, somehow I hate to ask this, but are you aware there's a cat trying to crawl into your pocket?"
He looked down, and retrieved the kitten that had been stealthily sneaking up on his suit jacket. "He likes to try and creep up on me," Jed explained, absently scratching the little beast under the chin until haughty disdain gave way to satisfied rumbling. "He gets more fun out of it if he thinks I haven't noticed him. It's good for his self-esteem."
CJ blinked. "Okay, but I have to disclose that I'm beginning to second guess all those months I spent on the record defending your mental health."
"You and me both. What's going on?"
Reluctantly she grew more serious. "There was a shooting in Lubbock County, Texas last night that's likely to come on to your radar. A thirteen-year-old girl shot two intruders." He winced in dismay, but there was more to come. "They were both boys in their teens; John Rossiter, fifteen, who died on the scene, and David Calgary, fourteen, still in critical condition."
He digested that, and heaved a deep sigh. "How did this happen?" he asked, mostly rhetorically.
CJ sadly shook her head. "I really couldn't say, sir."
He nodded slowly, and petted the oblivious cat in his lap. "Keep me updated if anything-"
"Yes, sir." She beat a tactful retreat, and left him alone with his solemn thoughts.
"Hi." Josh spared a smile for the anxious young man hovering in the lobby, sipping from his coffee cup as he waved an acknowledgement to the security guy a few feet away. "You got all those forms back to Donna?"
"Yeah." Ash shifted uncomfortably, obviously ill at ease in his impressive surroundings. "I don't think I filled out this much paperwork when I was applying to college."
Josh glanced at the file in his hands as they started walking. "Well, your background check didn't turn up anything worrying... You protested new dress code restrictions in high school? Cute."
Ash's eyebrows shot up in alarm. "That's in my file?"
"You'd be amazed." He smiled. "What was it, two guys with placards outside the general office?"
"Uh, seventeen guys, actually. We bribed the football team with Twinkies."
"Resourcefulness. I like that." He held the door for his companion, and then spotted a familiar face a way down the corridor. "Charlie! Hey," he called.
Charlie came jogging up, flashing his teeth in a quick smile. "Hey, Josh." His gaze raked over Ash curiously. Josh gestured with his coffee cup.
"Ash, Charlie. Charlie, this is Ashley Bowers."
"Pleased to meet you, sir," Ash said earnestly as they shook hands, to Charlie's visible amusement.
"You don't have to call me sir," he grinned. "We call the president sir."
"Everybody else, we just call names," Josh said, taking the opportunity for a quick slurp of coffee. Could it really have been four years since he'd been giving this same introductory spiel to Charlie himself?
Charlie turned to him. "Listen, is it possible we can get a different interpreter for this thing Friday afternoon?"
Josh frowned. "Why, what was wrong with the other guy?"
He grimaced. "Nothing, except that the last time he was here the president found out he was a massive opera buff, and as you can imagine-"
"Ouch," Josh commiserated, with feeling.
Ash looked lost. "The president doesn't like opera?"
"Oh, no, the president loves opera," Charlie explained. "Especially, he loves to sing opera-"
"Although opinion is divided over whether you can call it 'singing'," Josh put in.
"-Mostly divided along the lines of those who've heard it and those who haven't. And believe me, once he starts in, the members of the second group are few and far between." Charlie's expression grew slightly glazed with not-so-happy memory. "Then comes the half-hour pop quiz on great moments in the world of opera, famous divas, composers of the eighteenth century..."
"With accompanying lecture on the importance of absorbing culture," Josh recalled with a groan.
"Last time the guy came around, I ended up with assigned reading."
"The president makes you read up on opera?" Ash wondered incredulously.
"Opera, tax accountancy, the Visigoths... He likes to educate people," Charlie shrugged.
"Frequently, against their will." They reached the meeting room, and Josh stuck his head in to make sure it was empty. "Okay, we'll be in here. Go right in, I won't be a second."
Ash entered, looking suddenly a whole lot more apprehensive.
Josh shot Charlie an enquiring look. "Opera stories?" he wondered.
The personal aide smirked. "Hey, this guy's going to be doing half my job - I'm not allowed to have a little fun with him first?"
Chapter 4: IV
"Leo?" Margaret handed him the note, and he unfolded his glasses to read it. A shooting. Damn.
"Okay. Thanks, Margaret."
His assistant withdrew, and a few moments later CJ took her place in the doorway. He looked up at her.
"What can you tell me about Lubbock County?"
She frowned solemnly. "The shooter was a thirteen-year-old girl. She was home alone; the parents were out at a restaurant across town. She heard intruders in the back yard and got her father's shotgun."
Leo winced. "What's the condition of the second boy?"
CJ sighed. "Still uncertain. He hasn't regained consciousness since he was brought in, and they're not sure he's going to. The media already has the names of both boys, but they're keeping the girl's identity under wraps."
"Were they repeat offenders?"
She shook her head. "That's just it. Both local boys, no records on them; they literally lived down the street. The girl would have known them both in daylight."
His headache was increasing by orders of magnitude. "Could this have been a case of mistaken identity? A practical joke gone wrong?"
CJ shrugged unhappily. "The girl was adamant it was an attempted break-in..." She trailed off, not needing to enumerate all the possible interpretations of that.
Leo massaged his forehead tiredly. "This is going to get even uglier than it is already," he pronounced grimly.
Paint it as a besieged youth heroically defending herself from attackers or an horrific accident born of a trigger-happy culture, both sides of the gun-control argument were going to sink their teeth into this one and start tearing. What was already a human tragedy was about to turn into a bloody political battle of the kind they really didn't want to get into right now.
At least, most of them didn't want to get into. Leo could have sworn Toby's mood preceded him through the building like the ground-shaking footfalls of a dinosaur on the prowl.
"Leo, we need to tackle this in the State of the Union," he announced curtly as he stormed in. Leo lowered his eyebrows warningly.
"Okay, unless we're talking about social security here-"
"This is gonna be all over the national news in a matter of hours, we can't just ignore it."
Sam squeezed through the door behind his boss, giving a sketchy little shrug as if to say there was nothing he could do about it. Leo focused his attention back on Toby. "The speech is in two days' time, Toby, nobody's expecting us to-"
"This is a prime example of exactly what we're talking about!" he argued emphatically. "We need to get aggressive on gun control, Leo, we need to get aggressive and we need to-"
"Do it after the State of the Union," he completed brusquely. "Toby, half the country's tuning in to see if we cut Hoynes loose, and the other half wants to see if the president can still walk and talk unaided." His old friend's fears over his MS early the previous year had not been widely known, but the lines of his suddenly strict diet and health routine were not hard to read between, and the big media blowup about the details of his relationship with his father had raised all sorts of ridiculous questions about his mental state. "It's gonna be an uphill battle to get the media to swallow any positive news we can feed them, you want to open up a can of worms and tip that into the mix?"
Toby took the point, but not gracefully, and was probably about to launch into further ranting when Sam hastily cleared his throat. "Josh is interviewing this guy to work for Charlie?"
Leo nodded, welcoming the distracting tactic. "If there's no problem, we'll let the president take a look at him tomorrow." If Charlie was going to reduce his hours, they definitely needed somebody around the place to pick up the slack, but there was no telling how the president would take to new people.
"That should be fun for him," CJ noted sardonically.
"The First Lady tells me that this kitten is supposed to making him mellow, so miracles may happen."
"It might be helping his blood pressure, but it's doing no favours for mine," she grimaced. "Leo, can't you make him name it? The press corps won't get off my case about it."
"I'll bump that to the top of my priority list," he said sarcastically. "Okay. Any more news?"
"Toolan and Cairns are pushing for us to ditch Hoynes," Sam supplied.
"That's not news, that's probability theory." He shut the folder in front of him with a snap. "Okay, everybody, go do a thing. The runthrough's on at two o'clock now, we'll discuss the foreign policy language then. Thank you."
The staff mumbled their acknowledgements and dispersed.
"Hey, Margaret." Donna smiled at her fellow assistant as they met by the copy machine.
"Hi, Donna. Was that Ashley Bowers I saw with Josh earlier?"
"With the spiky hair? Yeah." The news of a prospective addition to their numbers had quickly rippled through the ranks at assistant-level. No doubt to Josh the idea of getting Charlie an assistant was a casual afterthought, but his presence would be felt lower down the chain of command. Poor Charlie must be having mixed thoughts to the extreme; they might all bitch about the hours and unreasonable duties they worked, but the idea of letting somebody else muscle in on your responsibilities... Not that Charlie stood the slightest chance of being thrown over for the new guy by his father-in-law, but still, it had to grate to suddenly start sharing his previously exclusive access to the president.
"He looks young," Margaret said pensively.
"Charlie was younger, when he started," Donna reminded her.
Margaret blinked in realisation. "Wow, have I been in this job too long."
They traded places with the efficiency of many years' experience at the copy machine dance. "Mallory has a new boyfriend," Margaret told her.
"Really? I'll bet Leo's cranky."
"I'll say. She's dating Brandon Foxton."
Donna raised her eyebrows. "Brandon Foxton the radio guy?"
"Well, good on-" She paused. "Wait a moment." There was a reason why the name of a fairly minor league radio presenter had been floating close enough to the surface of her thoughts to be identified. "Didn't he just do a thing about-?"
Margaret bobbed her head in a quick nod. "Yeah."
"Mallory wants to bring him to the State of the Union. Leo is not pleased."
"I'll bet he's not." Donna had to admire the understatement.
"Want to trade jobs?" Margaret said hopefully.
"Thanks, but I think I'll keep Josh." Her boss was frequently irritable - and irritating - but rarely actually intimidating. Leo on a rampage was not fun for anybody. "Although, if it's any consolation, he's still hung up on this Hoynes thing, so-"
"Remind me again why we work here?"
"For the prestige, the pay scale, and the excellent benefits package," she said with a perfectly straight face.
Margaret smirked at that. "Thanks, Donna. I needed that."
They split up and headed back to their respective pain-in-the-ass bosses.
Josh shuffled papers, looking momentarily lost, and Ash surreptitiously stretched his legs to relieve the cramp of sitting too long whilst very tense. So far, it was not the worst interview he'd ever sat through, although Josh constantly disappearing to deal with other things was disconcerting, and there were rather more questions about his history and behaviour than he'd ever faced before.
The Deputy Chief of Staff coughed awkwardly to re-draw his attention, looking almost... embarrassed? "Now, I have to, um... I'm required to ask you some questions about your, uh, social life..."
Ash stared at him blankly for a moment, then got it and blinked. "You want to know if I'm gay?"
"I'm required to ask." He stretched and pulled a face. "I don't think I'm required to give a crap about the answer, which is just as-"
"Because I'm working for the president?"
"No. Because you're gonna be the guy who wanders in and out of the Residence when he's asleep, or not dressed, or... whatever." He didn't look particularly happy with his own argument.
Ash sat back in his chair. "Wouldn't 'Are you typically attracted to people four decades your senior?' be a better question?" he wondered mildly.
"I'll add that to the next draft," Josh said wryly.
"Seriously," he frowned. "Are they worried about me molesting him, or him molesting me?"
Josh gave a chagrined 'what can you do?' shrug. "I think it's just to make sure you're not going to be bowled over by his manly presidential magnetism."
He suppressed a smirk at the turn of phrase. "The president's a handsome guy, but he's a little short for me," he said dryly.
Josh shrugged. "Good enough for me." He made a lazy check-mark on his form.
Ash hesitated for a beat. "Manly presidential magnetism?"
Josh looked at him from under his eyebrows. "The job offer is conditional on you not mentioning I said that to anybody, ever."
"Ah." He nodded wisely.
The interview continued.
Chapter 5: V
"Toby!" Leo hurried after the Communications Director in the corridor. Toby slowed down to let him catch up.
"Runthrough's still on for two?" Leo confirmed.
"Yeah." The speechwriter shot him a sidelong look. "How is he, Leo?"
"He's fine," he assured shortly. All grumbling about being fussed over aside, Jed did seem to finally be over the nasty cold that had laid him low earlier in the year. Still, it should never have hit him so hard in the first place. It was not just for political reasons that Leo wanted to see him visibly healthy, strong and confident when it came to reading the State of the Union Thursday night.
And that meant no plunging him head-first into stressful issues with no clear route to a solution.
"Toby, I don't want to see Lubbock County on the president's desk," he said curtly.
"Not now. Friday, it's a thing, but right now, we're just writing a speech."
Toby glowered. "A speech in which we are, ostensibly, discussing the state of the nation."
"State of the nation isn't any different than it was yesterday," he pointed out, with more cynicism than he actually felt. Toby had rather that effect on him.
"It's an opportunity to-"
"-Stir up a hornets' nest," Leo finished. "We can suit up for this argument, but we do it after the State of the Union. We've got enough on our plate with Hoynes."
Toby lowered his eyebrows. "It's not too late to jettison Hoynes."
"It's not too late for a lot of things, doesn't mean we're dumb enough to do them. We need a VP we can trust."
"And Hoynes is trustworthy?" Toby wondered sceptically.
"For the things we want him for? Yeah." Hoynes's relationship with Jed Bartlet was cranky at best, openly hostile at worst, but he'd proved he had presidential material in the panicked hours after Rosslyn. And these days they were all too well aware that the politics of the thing took second place to the knowledge that if the worst came to the worst, the man they chose for the co-pilot's seat would be the one their country was looking to. Hoynes was certainly not the easy choice... but he was probably the right choice.
Toby nodded briskly. "Okay."
"CJ's about to brief?"
He glanced at his watch. "In a couple of minutes."
"Tell her to lay off the-"
"Yeah. Okay. And make sure the teleprompter guys read through the speech after they spell-check it," he called as they parted. "He was useless for hours after the 'election' typo last year. If that had made it into the final draft we'd have had a complete disaster on our hands."
Toby grunted an absent acknowledgement, probably already redrafting in his head.
"Hey, Charlie." The president smiled at his young aide. "What's next on the list?"
Charlie took a moment to consult a folded sheet of paper, although he probably had it clear in his head anyway. "Uh, you have a meeting with Tim Henley from-"
"Okay." Nothing wrong with his memory; things didn't escape him, he just had to be reminded of them. And anyway, he'd only really asked as a conversation opening gambit. "Charlie, come here a minute." He nodded the young man into the seat across from him.
Despite the marriage to his daughter that had put an official stamp on a relationship that was already closer than just the job, Charlie remained scrupulously correct while they were working, even when they were alone in the office. However, he seemed a little distracted and agitated today, and Jed was pretty sure he knew why.
"Josh is interviewing this boy about working for you?"
"Well, technically, sir, he'll be working for you."
Ah. And there was the crux of the matter. If the whole point of getting Charlie a second-in-command was to reduce his hours, then the inevitable result was that the new guy would be, at least some of the time, taking over Charlie's job.
"Yeah, but you'll be the boss of him," he pointed out.
His personal aide grinned, then immediately went straight-faced. "Yes, Mr. President, but then you're supposed to be the boss of me, and look how that worked out."
Jed pointed a warning finger at him. "Careful there, Skippy."
Charlie chuckled for a moment, but then started to look sad. Jed looked down at the floor, understanding perfectly. He liked hanging out with Charlie, feeling comfortable, knowing he could make a friendly little jab and have it returned in kind, making free with the sarcasm without fear of misinterpretation, knowing he could rely on his aide to give him a gentle prod on those rare occasions when he was genuinely in the wrong... It wouldn't be the same, spending a couple of hours a day with some new kid. The position was about more than the job.
He sighed. "It's going to be tough to get used to."
"Yes, sir," said Charlie, with feeling.
He glanced up. "Still, you'll have more time at home, and that's the main thing. Especially when you're a father, don't think that isn't a whole extra full-time job in itself."
"No, sir, I know."
"How is Zoey, by the way?" he enquired.
"You've talked to her three times already this week," Charlie pointed out with a smile. Jed narrowed his eyes.
"I'm a hands-on father, Charlie. You just wait until your little girl's a married woman with a baby on the way."
"I think I've got a little time before that happens," he noted wryly.
"Oh, you think? One day they can fit in the palm of your hand, the next thing you know..." He shook his head.
Charlie smiled at him, and glanced towards his watch. "Sir, you have to-"
"Yeah." He straightened up, and clapped his young aide fondly on the shoulder. "Come on. Let's go."
It was funny how quickly the roar of the press room became familiar. These days, she was soon disconcerted if she went more than twelve hours without a pack of reporters baying her name and flashbulbs going off everywhere. "Derrick?"
"CJ, has the Vice President announced whether he still intends to seek the nomination for the 2006 presidential election?"
"I think it's probably just a little early to be counting those chickens, folks." She ignored the groans this response elicited. "In case you haven't noticed, the president - that's President Bartlet - is just about to deliver the State of the Union address, and unless somebody's been amending the Constitution without telling us, we still have another three years to go before we start changing the name tags."
"CJ! How does the president respond to Grant Toolan's demand that Vice President Hoynes resign his position immediately, pending a full investigation?"
"Well, I think if he was given the chance, the president would probably respond that he doesn't answer to Grant Toolan, and neither does anybody else in this government. As to the issue of an investigation, the Vice President chose to volunteer the details of this very personal matter of his own free will-" in a very loose manner of speaking- "in order to spare his family further embarrassment or run the risk of compromising his position. It's difficult to see how even Grant Toolan could consider that 'conduct unbecoming'." Time to call for another question, quickly, before anyone could jam in a followup. "Chris."
"CJ - any comment on the Lubbock County burglar shooting?"
It had been too much to ask that the press wouldn't turn this political. She pushed up her glasses. "Obviously, what happened in Lubbock County last night was a great tragedy whatever the surrounding circumstances. However, I should remind you that the local police department have yet to issue a statement as to whether there was, in fact, an attempted break-in."
"CJ!" Keith leapt in. "Are you saying there's a chance this could have been a mistake?"
Well, which part of 'thirteen-year-old girl kills teenage intruder' sounds like an ideal set of circumstances to you? "I'm saying, the police have yet to comment on whether they consider there to have an attempted break-in."
"How does the president respond to Senator Millman's comments that the gun bill he wanted to introduce last year would have removed this girl's means of defending herself?"
It was only years of practise that stopped her distaste from showing. "Well, the president has yet to hear Senator Millman's comments-" and somehow, I doubt he'll be in that much of a hurry to- "but I think that, whatever your side of the gun control issue, we can all get together on the fact that we'd rather not have any thirteen-year-old put in a situation where the use of lethal force for self-defence should be an option. Katie?"
"Has there been any change in the condition of the fourteen-year-old who was shot?"
At least the White House press pool had enough sense of responsibility to not follow the lead of whatever idiot in the local press had thoughtlessly released the names of the two boys. "He was rushed back into surgery a few hours ago after unexpected complications; he's stable, but still in critical condition."
After that, the briefing shifted towards more mundane matters, but CJ stayed on her guard. This close to the State of the Union, the last thing they needed were any more slip-ups or complications.
Chapter 6: VI
"Okay, that's pretty much everything." Josh closed the folder and stood up. Ash shook his hand again as he threaded his way around the table. "The president's kinda busy today, but if you can come back tomorrow at half eleven-"
Ash halted, abruptly, in the doorway. "Wait a minute, you want me to-?"
Josh was amused. "You are totally clear on what I'm interviewing you for here?"
"Yeah, I mean, I-" He held his forehead, as if suddenly beset by head pains. "I guess I kind of assumed there would be, uh, some sort of... The president? Tomorrow?"
"At half past eleven." Josh patted him on the shoulder cheerfully. "Don't worry, he doesn't bite. Well, not literally, anyway."
"You'll be fine," Josh assured him casually. "Donna'll see you out. Donna!" The bellow conspicuously failed to produce his assistant. "Or maybe I will," he conceded. He led Ash in the direction of the lobby.
"Should I- I mean, is there anything I should-?"
"Just be yourself," he said, steering the younger man with a hand on his shoulder. "That's what he wants to see."
"And if he doesn't like me?" Ash asked nervously.
"Oh, he won't." Josh grinned at his expression. "But don't take it personally. He never likes new people. If he still hates you in six months, then you should probably worry. But on the plus side, at least by then he'll probably know your name."
His interviewee was looking greener by the second. "Okay, I'm not totally sure I-"
"Sam!" Josh waved and beckoned him over. Sam came jogging up, jerking a thumb over his shoulder.
"Hey. Listen, we're about to go do the thing-"
"Yeah, I was just finishing up here." He gestured to Ash. "This is Ashley Bowers."
"Hi." Sam flashed one of those dazzling beams he was so good at, and shook his hand. "I'm-"
"The Deputy Communications Director," Ash knew already. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Seaborn."
"Sam," the two of them corrected in stereo.
"He's polite," Josh explained.
"We'll train it out of him." Sam turned back to Josh. "Ted Hobson still wants us to make those changes to the section on healthcare."
"He's got a lot of support for that," Josh frowned.
"What are you going to do about it?" If they let every group with a quibble cut out everything they wanted to, they'd be left with a State of the Union address you could fit on a postcard.
"We're pursuing a strategy of selective engagement."
"We run away whenever we see him coming," Sam said wryly.
"How's that working for you so far?"
"Fine. Apart from the time I tripped over the printer cable. I exhibited grace," he insisted quickly.
"Under fire?" Josh raised an eyebrow.
"Under printer paper, mostly," he conceded. "I'll see you at the runthrough?"
"Yeah." Josh returned to guiding Ash as Sam moved away, and smiled at his befuddled expression. "Not like your old job?" he guessed.
"Not even close," he said, with feeling.
His daughter was waiting for him in his office when he got back to it.
"You know, Margaret's supposed to stop people doing this," Leo grumbled resignedly as he walked in.
"She wasn't at her desk, so I let myself in."
"Well, I'm fairly sure that's breaking at least one security protocol, so-"
"Dad, you can't stop me bringing Brandon to the State of the Union!" Mallory launched back into their phone argument without further preamble.
"Actually I can, because it's my job," he said, lowering his eyebrows. "Thursday night is about making the president look good, and Brandon Foxton being there will not be helping to make the president look good."
"Because he devoted one section of his radio show to the Vice President's adultery?"
She glared at him. "I don't think disapproving of the Vice President of the United States cheating on his wife is a particularly unreasonable opinion!"
"It's not," he agreed, "and he's welcome to expound on it in absolutely any forum that is not the State of the Union!"
"Oh, come on, dad-"
There was a tentative knock, and Donna's rather anxious face appeared in the doorway. "Leo? They're getting ready to do the runthrough."
"Okay, thanks, Donna," he nodded. "Tell Josh I won't be a minute."
"Okay." She gratefully withdrew.
Mallory placed her hands on her hips. "Dad-"
"Mallory, I can't talk about this now," Leo said exasperatedly.
"This argument is not over," she warned.
He sighed faintly. "I didn't for a minute think it was."
"You can't stop me bringing him," she called after him, as he started to depart.
"Tell that to the Secret Service, if I order a security alert."
"Dad!" Her indignant cry followed him down the hallway.
"CJ? The president's ready now."
"Okay. Thanks, Charlie." She acknowledged him distractedly, obviously preoccupied. "I won't be a minute."
"News from Lubbock County?" he guessed gravely.
"Some vulture of a local news organisation managed to get hold of the Rossiter family," she frowned, rubbing her forehead. "It'll be all over the national news in a few hours; the transcript's bad enough. The father's out for heads, he says it was nothing but cold-blooded murder, and the mother spent the whole interview repeating that John was a good boy, never did a wrong thing in his life... She keeps talking about him in the present tense," she added softly, after a moment.
There wasn't anything he could have said to that, and certainly nothing he wanted to, so he stayed silent. After a moment she shook herself out of it, and stood up with a sigh. "Okay. Thank you, Charlie," she repeated more firmly, as she headed off to the meeting.
Carol snagged him as he made to follow her. "Hey. How'd the interview go?" she asked curiously.
"Huh?" For a moment, he had no clue what she was talking about. "Oh, you mean-?"
"That was Ashley Bowers, right? Margaret saw him with Josh. She said he looks young."
"Not that young," Charlie admitted pensively. He'd been only twenty-one himself when he first took this job. Strange to realise that it hadn't really been a million years ago.
"So what's he like?" she enquired eagerly. "Will he get the job?"
"I guess, if the president okays it." Despite the fact that Ash had seemed perfectly unobjectionable during their brief conversation earlier, Charlie couldn't help an uncharitable hope that he would somehow manage to screw up so badly the president would reject him outright.
"That should make everything a lot easier on you." Carol interrupted his distinctly ambiguous train of thought.
"Yeah," he agreed unenthusiastically. She gave him a knowing look, and after a moment, he cracked. "It's just that..."
"The president's yours, and you don't want to share him?"
He hesitated for a beat. "Well, that sounds... disturbing and vaguely stalkerish."
"Yup. But I get it."
He eyed her sideways. "Yeah?"
She smiled aggressively. "You see anybody taking CJ away from me without a fight?"
Charlie had to chuckle. "Yeah." He leaned back against the wall and sighed. "I know, I know. This is a good thing, I guess..."
"Time off," Carol offered.
"Somebody else to send into the lion's den." That was one duty he certainly wouldn't mind being able to delegate - especially when the president was with the First Lady.
"You get to boss this guy about," she reminded him.
"True." He grinned. "Yeah." Maybe there would be some good sides to this, after all.
Chapter 7: VII
"Okay, here we go." Jed tucked away his reading glasses into his pocket and straightened up.
"How's the teleprompter?" Sam called from the sidelines.
"It's fine," he asserted. A little less clear without the glasses, perhaps, but not so bad he had to squint. Bitch though he might about this damn health crackdown, he had to admit he hadn't had another incident of blurry vision in months. Now that nasty winter cold had left his chest and he could breathe clearly, he felt better than he had in years. He waited for someone to give him the signal.
"Where's CJ?" Leo asked, after a moment's awkward pause.
"She's on her way," Sam supplied, looking around. He was hovering anxiously on the sidelines, next to a dour-looking Toby.
Josh straightened up in his seat. "Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States," he announced somewhat half-heartedly in her stead.
"I think we knew that," Jed said dryly.
"Sir." That was a little sharp; Leo never had much patience for his wandering off the script at these rehearsals. Jed glanced up at the teleprompter, and began to read.
"Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President. Members of Congress, distinguished guests, and my fellow Americans." As always, he tried to hide the faint tremble of an amused smirk at setting Congress and distinguished guests in distinctly separate categories. "I come before you today to speak of a time of great trials and great triumphs."
Ha! He'd been practising that one all day. Jed was convinced Toby put in some of these tongue-twisters specifically to provide himself with the opportunity to tear his own remaining hair out over his president's helpless mangling of them.
Back to the script. "This last year has seen much turbulence-" He was interrupted as Josh scraped his chair out of the way to let CJ past. "Well timed, that man," he noted wryly.
"Sorry!" They both winced.
"Keep going, Mr. President." Leo waved a hand.
"This last year has seen much turbulence, but without upheaval, there can be no progress; without bold moves, there can be no successes; without challenges, we can never hope to achieve our full potential. And America is a country of great potential, we are a people of great potential-" his emphasis became a little wobbly as he grew distracted by CJ, Toby and Sam whispering together- "striving... uh, constantly striving towards a union of- kids, am I keeping you from something more interesting?"
Leo twisted around irritably to see what had caught his attention. "Is there something-?"
CJ hastily held up a hand. "Uh, no, sorry, Mr. President, go ahead with-"
"Lubbock County's going to be a thing," Toby cut in bluntly. Josh rubbed his face and sighed explosively, while Leo shot him a dark look that Jed recognised full well as his 'I thought we agreed we wouldn't bring that up in front of the president?' glare.
Naturally, it piqued his interest. He peered at Toby over the podium. "What's going on, Toby?"
"John Rossiter's parents have been speaking to the press," Sam piped up helpfully. "They say their son was murdered, and they want to bring charges against the girl and her parents, both for the shooting and for impugning their son's name, and for-"
"I think we get the gist," Leo cut him off pointedly. "Mr. President, this is something we need to focus on after the State of the Union. Toby, you can put gun control on the agenda, but not right now. We've already got forty-five groups lobbying for changes to the text, we're walking a tight-rope with Hoynes, and the last thing we need to do is bring a whole new controversy on board. After the speech."
"Carry on, Mr. President," Josh urged in agreement, sitting forward.
It took him a moment to relocate the thread of his speech. "Constantly striving towards a union of..." Union, union, union- ah. "...Hearts, minds and ideals. We, as a people, have many colours and many faiths; we may vote differently, think differently, talk differently, live differently... but we are all Americans. A union of similar minds is as worthless as a wall made out of grains of sand; it is our differences that bind us together and reinforce us."
He straightened up a little as he got to his favourite part; the part where he could remind the country, and himself, that they really were doing some good up here.
"To that end, last year I made a vow to the American people to seek out and bring an end to institutionalised discrimination in all its insidious forms, and already we have made great strides in that direction. Last summer, the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' rule was repealed, allowing patriotic Americans everywhere to serve our in country's armed forces without secrecy or fear of reprisal for being open about their sexual orientation. We passed measures to make sure that threats of violence against religious and ethnic communities are treated with due seriousness, and local police forces have the information available to them to quickly recognise and combat patterns of attacks." He shifted position.
"Equal rights for every American means opportunities for every American; there must be healthcare, education and security for all. Last year, we extended federal health programs to cover a further three million disadvantaged children, and introduced successful pilot schemes in three states to help combat the level of teenage pregnancy in poor neighbourhoods."
He paused for breath, and Toby immediately jumped in - or perhaps 'shuffled in' would be more appropriate, considering the interjection was a dissatisfied mumble. "I don't like this beginning. The tone is all wrong."
Jed narrowed his eyes at him. "What's wrong with my tone?"
"We sound too self-satisfied." Toby grimaced and rubbed his face. "I said right from the beginning, we have to be- We need to be ready to-"
"We shouldn't be trumpeting our accomplishments?" Josh leaned back in his chair to shoot him a look.
"Yes, but not right off the bat. We need to emphasise how much we still have to achieve."
"To which the American public says 'Well, what the hell did we elect you for, then?'" Leo glowered.
"Sometimes I wonder myself," Jed put in, but nobody was listening to him.
"This is a pep rally, Toby, we can't play the 'good ideas that got voted down' card in front of Congress," CJ pointed out sensibly.
Not when Congress were the ones doing all the shooting down. Sensing that this discussion was going to go on a while, Jed took the opportunity to grab a gulp of water.
"It's been a pretty rocky year-" Sam began diplomatically, and Toby immediately cut him off.
"Yes it has, and sitting back and mouthing off about how much good we've done just makes us look like we're living in a dream world."
"We have done good," CJ reminded him.
"Yes, but not enough of it. We don't want to go out there and tell the American public 'Well, we think we did reasonably okay this year, and by golly, that's good enough for us'."
"By golly?" Sam wondered. Toby glared at him.
Jed wandered down from the podium, sat down and put his feet up.
"We want to come out saying 'We did some good this year, but we're not satisfied with that, and we're gonna do more, and we're gonna be running twice as fast to catch up the time we missed'. We've got to come out fighting."
"Fighting what?" Leo demanded pointedly.
"Everything," Toby shrugged after a moment. Jed had to smile. That right there was a pretty succinct summation of the Ziegler MO.
"Toby, right now our biggest priority is getting this over with without a complete disaster."
"Yes it is, and that's exactly the problem. Leo, this is a- this is a retirement speech!" He waved the papers in his hand emphatically. "Dwelling on past victories, glossing over the problems, and pretending the future doesn't exist. It's so neutral we might as well put a life-size photograph up there and play classical music for eighty minutes!"
"Personally, I think that's a great idea." Once again, nobody listened to him. Jed cleared his throat for attention, and straightened up. "Hi. Hello. This is your president speaking. Is there any chance we could possibly-?"
"Sorry, Mr. President," they chorused, with varying levels of sheepishness.
"Toby, your point is well taken, and we can think about shifting things around a little to bring more focus onto our goals for the next year." Neither Toby nor Leo looked happy at this attempt at suggesting a compromise, but hey, what was new? "But for the moment, let's just concentrate on the current draft and see if we can get it licked into shape." He cracked a smile. "Now, who can tell me where the phrase 'licked into shape' comes from?"
"Oh, holy God." Leo buried his head in his folded arms. Jed ignored him.
"I'm gonna say it has something to do with... cows," Josh said sardonically.
"Wrong, but nice try," he allowed. "Claudia Jean?"
She shook her head at him, but smiling. "I'm gonna go out on a limb, and guess it doesn't have anything to do with getting to the middle of a tootsie roll?"
He smiled, satisfied to have a piece of knowledge to impart that no one else could come up with. "In ancient times-"
"Such as back when this meeting started?" Leo wondered.
"In ancient times," he repeated, "people used to believe that bear cubs were born as little shapeless balls of fur. They saw the mother bear tending to her newborn cubs, and assumed that she was, in fact, literally licking them into the shape of a baby bear."
"Aww." CJ chuckled, looking delighted by that mental picture, and Sam grinned. Josh rolled his eyes good-humouredly.
"And this is relevant to the current situation, how?" he wondered.
"Broadening your knowledge is always relevant, Josh!" he said expansively, standing up. "Now, should we get back to this speech?"
"Please," said Leo, into the palm his chin was resting on.
"Just go straight on to the next section, Mr. President," Sam advised.
"Okay." He got back up to the podium, and found his place. "Ahem. In order to improve the lives of Americans everywhere, we must not become insular and isolated, but look beyond our borders to the larger international community, and do our bit to establish America's place as a friend to developing nations and a supporter of human rights everywhere. Thanks to the initiative spearheaded by Congresswoman Wyatt, the annual foreign aid budget has already been increased from eight billion dollars to fourteen billion, with plans to raise it by a further four billion within the next two years..."
Chapter 8: VIII
"Josh?" Donna shrugged her coat on and peered through the office doorway. Her boss looked up from his paperwork and blinked at her blearily.
"Hey... You're still here?"
"I was just leaving. It's late."
"Yeah." Wonder of wonders, he took this for the hint it was, sitting back and running a hand over his face before beginning to straighten the papers on his desk.
"You've been quiet most of the day," she observed, careful not to sound accusing; it was hard to tell sometimes if it was just an ordinary quiet or the worrying Josh-quiet.
But he shrugged it off, and smiled disarmingly. "Hey, it's Toby's turn. We've worked it out in shifts so the White House always has at least one irrational guy wandering the halls and ranting." He stood still, and cast around helplessly for a few moments.
"File cabinet," Donna directed, without needing to ask. He twisted around, saw the folder he was looking for sitting atop the indicated cabinet, and gave her a sheepish smile.
"Thanks." He tucked it into his backpack, had another look around, and gave up on finding anything else he was supposed to take with him. "You're finished up here?"
"Uh-huh," she nodded.
"Come on. I'll walk you out." He steered her out of the office with a hand on the small of her back.
"Hey!" He could hear his wife's surprised smile in the way she answered the phone. He knew Zoey was feeling frustrated with being so housebound; the extra security protection surrounding her pregnancy and her own hampered ability to get about were combining to make all but the most routine of trips an increasingly difficult proposition.
"We're finishing up early so your father can get some rest ready for the State of the Union," he explained. Against the president's will, of course, but what else was new? "I'll be home pretty soon. You want me to pick you up anything on the way back?"
"Ben and Jerry's?" she requested instantly. He had to smile.
"Okay, you say these are cravings, but this is just getting me to buy you ice- cream, isn't it?"
"Make sure it's got chocolate," she ordered. "Lots of chocolate."
"Your wish is my command, my lady," he said dryly.
"Hey, if I've got to be the size of a house anyway, I might as well feed the fat."
"You're not the size of a house," he said loyally.
She giggled. "Is that what your books on dealing with crazy hormonal pregnant women told you to say?"
"Maybe the size of a one-bedroom apartment," he allowed. She laughed more, and if he'd been there would probably have swatted him on the shoulder.
"I'll be home soon," he promised.
"Okay. See you then."
"I love you. Bye."
Sam was passing as he put the phone down, and paused to give him a nod. "Hey, Charlie. Managed to get the president tucked up in bed yet?"
"Leo's gone up to glare him into submission." On nights when the First Lady was out of town, the president had a distinct tendency to stay up reading reports long after they thought they'd successfully argued him into getting some sleep. "I was just leaving."
"How's Zoey?" Sam asked him.
He grinned. "Bossing me about."
Sam smiled in return. "She's in training to be a mom."
They fell into step together as Charlie pulled on his coat. "Getting nervous yet?" Sam teased.
"You have no idea."
"No. I guess I don't." For a moment the Deputy Communications Director was quiet; no doubt thinking of the complicated prospect a future family of his own might be, if he and Steve remained together. Charlie glanced sideways at him - and then blinked.
"You shaved your beard." He'd been sensing something slightly off about Sam all day, but it was only now he'd finally put his finger on it.
Sam had been wearing his new goatee for - wow, it must have been a couple of months now - but, though it had suited him well enough, somehow there had always been something... fundamentally un-Sam-like about it. Now that it had vanished, he just looked like himself again.
Sam smiled wryly. "Fifteen hours I've been at work today. You know you're the first person who noticed?"
They'd reached the point where they had to split up. "See you later, Sam."
"See you tomorrow."
They went their separate ways.
"Hey, Leo," the president called through the door at the sound of his gentle knock. He was sitting propped up in bed with the black-and-white kitten curled up nearby in a hollow in the bedclothes. The piles of paperwork he'd expected to have to confiscate were nowhere to be seen, but...
"Next time you want to pretend you're not working late, try taking your glasses off," he suggested.
Jed tugged them off with a guiltless smile. "Ah, is that how Abbey catches me all the time?"
"That, and the fact that she knows you," Leo pointed out. He nodded towards the kitten. "Is that thing allowed on the beds in here?" he wondered.
The president shot him a look. "These are my own blankets, Leo, it's not like they belonged to Abraham Lincoln. Besides... he gets lonely." He lightly brushed a fingertip over the cat's curled form, eliciting a small 'mrrp' of protest and an inquisitively raised head.
"Ah. I see. It's the cat who wants company."
Jed narrowed his eyes, and then relaxed and allowed himself a sheepish chuckle. "Oh, all right. Yes, I admit I like the cat. Yes, it's nice to have him here," he conceded petulantly. He grew more solemn as he let the little creature nuzzle his hand. "Still not the same as having Abbey here, though," he sighed.
Leo smirked. "Okay, there are so many bad taste jokes there that I'm not even gonna-"
"Oh, give it a rest, would you?" But the slightest flicker of a smile touched the corner of his mouth for a moment. "I heard Mallory was here earlier," he added. "You two were arguing about something?"
"Oh, it's nothing," Leo dismissed the question. "She wanted to bring a totally unsuitable date to the State of the Union. I talked her out of it."
Jed said nothing, but gave him a rather pointed look.
"...Or I will, eventually, talk her out of it," he conceded. "Anyway, it's nothing for you to worry about. You should get some sleep."
"I should start calling you mom now?" he smirked.
"Damn right," Leo nodded firmly.
Jed smiled affectionately. "Goodnight, Leo."
He smiled back. "Goodnight, Mr. President." It was a definite relief to see him back in a lighter mood again. "And get some sleep, or I'm telling Abbey you let the cat stay in here with you," he threatened as a parting shot.
"Traitor," Jed called after him, chuckling.
Leo closed the door, straightened his jacket, and headed for home.
Chapter 9: IX
"Thanks." Sam accepted the plate automatically from his other half, still focused on the TV news despite the fact that the sound was turned down to a few steps shy of mute. Steve sat down beside him, frowning at the graphic behind the anchorwoman.
"Is this about those kids in Texas?" he guessed.
"Yeah." He sighed, shaking his head. "It's amazing how quick these guys are to pull out the fact that with stricter gun laws, this girl wouldn't have been able to defend herself. Nobody seems to question whether she should have been defending herself with lethal force in the first place."
"Did they find out any more about the two boys?"
Sam shook his head. "They're just- by all accounts, they were just two ordinary teenagers. Maybe they were going to rob that house, who knows? But one of them's dead, and if the other dies too, we'll never find out."
The solemn silence that fell after that was broken only by the crunch of toast for several moments. Sam reached for the remote when a picture of Hoynes appeared, and jacked the sound back up.
"-still given no word on whether he intends to run for the presidential nomination in 2006. Leading Congressional Democrats are putting pressure on the White House to have Hoynes step down to clear the field for a VP with a fighting chance of securing the election. Many experts attribute the narrowly scraped victory for the Democrats in the last election to Bartlet's own personal charisma, and the added advantage of running as the incumbent. This scandal will have done a great deal to undermine the Vice President's support base with the American public, and consequently within the party itself. I have here with me today Cindy Walmington from the Traditional Values Coalition -"
Steve gave a sharp snort at that, which Sam acknowledged wryly. Nothing good for the Democrats ever came out of an organisation with a name like that.
The woman across the desk was wearing a neatly pressed blouse, rather too much makeup for the camera, and a supercilious expression. She carefully arranged her hands before speaking. "Well, Jennifer, I think one thing many people are overlooking is the place of Jason Hoynes in this. I ask you, is it fair to this young man-?"
What, exactly, was supposed to be horribly unfair to the Vice President's teenage son would forever remain a mystery, because at that point, Sam turned the TV off in disgust. "Gah."
Steve smirked at him.
"What?" he demanded.
"You know, sometimes you're a lot like Toby."
Sam blinked. "Okay, I'm going to hope that was meant to be complimentary."
"But of course," Steve agreed airily, standing up.
Sam stood too. "I'd better get going."
"Yeah. So what are you guys doing about Hoynes?" Steve wondered as he headed towards the kitchen.
"Honestly? I have no idea. Which either means there's a plan that nobody's bothered to tell me... or nobody else knows, either."
"I'm sorry, Mr. President, the First Lady and her party left the hotel half an hour ago. If you like, we can put you through to-"
"No, no, that's fine," Jed said, trapping the receiver between chin and shoulder as he sat up with a creak that he hoped was the chair. "Thank you."
"Thank you, Mr. President."
He hung up and frowned at the phone. Abbey wasn't supposed to be moving on her next engagement until the afternoon. If there'd been a last minute reshuffle, that didn't bode well for her getting home tomorrow morning as planned. He'd hoped to have at least a few hours to spend with her before the State of the Union.
There was a gentle knock. "Come in, Charlie!" he raised his voice.
His aide hovered apologetically, knowing he was again cutting in to the time Jed usually set aside for talking with his wife when she was away. "Mr. President? CJ."
"Send her in." He stood up.
"Mr. President." She gave him a warm smile.
"What news on Lubbock County?" he asked.
The expression dimmed a little. "David Calgary still hasn't woken up. They won't know until he does - if he does - if there's going to be brain damage."
He sighed regretfully. "What's happening about the girl?"
"I honestly couldn't say. It turns out she would have known them both from school; the police are still trying to figure out what they were doing in the yard in the first place."
Jed shook his head sadly. "What a senseless thing..."
"Yeah." CJ looked down.
He shook himself out of it, and wandered over to where the kitten sat curled on the corner of the couch. "Leo tells me you want me to give this fella a name?" he asked, smiling at the small wet nose that rubbed across his knuckles to greet him.
The press are beginning to get itchy," she agreed, following him over.
"Yeah, well, they're not the ones who got a kitten dropped on them out of nowhere. You know, this is exactly how Zoey ended up with that damn pony." The complaint was more by rote than anything else by now. Abbey knew him entirely too well. As soon as the expense and inconvenience he was objecting to was turned into something that could stare at him plaintively, the battle was already lost.
"Zoey had a pony?" CJ enquired, perhaps a touch enviously.
"We live on a farm," he reminded her.
"I never got a pony. I always wanted a pony."
"Claudia Jean, are you asking me to buy you a pony?"
"I don't think I could fit one in my apartment," she noted. She smiled down at the kitten, now pointedly ignoring them both in favour of delicately licking the back of one paw. "So, sir, did you have any ideas? Something literary, maybe mythological..."
He scratched his pet between the ears. "I was thinking probably Buster."
CJ blinked. "See, sometimes you're whimsical, and sometimes you're just messing with my head."
"What's wrong with Buster?" he demanded.
"It's not very... presidential," she said diplomatically.
"And I'm sure that will hamper his chances in the 2006 election," Jed said dryly. "However, I don't think he's going to meet the age requirement anyway, so-"
"You know, it's not too late to let the children of America write in with name suggestions," she offered.
"Cats have to be allowed to name themselves, Claudia Jean," he chided her. "And this one wants to be called Buster."
She hesitated for a beat. "Okay. Please don't ever tell the press room your cat is giving you instructions."
Jed smiled. "Buster..." he murmured softly, to get the kitten's attention. " See? He knows I'm talking about him. He just looked at me."
"All due respect, Mr. President, he just looked at you because you just prodded him in the ear."
"Oh ye of little faith." He pointed at her. "Buster! Kill."
The kitten, probably by complete coincidence, actually did stand up and move perhaps half a step - before flopping down again with every evidence of heaving a world- weary sigh. CJ couldn't help but let out a chuckle. Jed smirked in response.
"See? He's a born comedian. Buster it is."
"Buster it is," she agreed, still grinning. "Thank you, Mr. President."
"No problem." He saw her out of the Oval Office with a smile.
Chapter 10: X
He paused, coffee cup halfway to his mouth, and wondered if he could get away with ducking down the nearest side turning. Probably not, unfortunately. He wheeled around. "Toby."
They started walking together. "We need to use more aggressive language," Toby said, without preamble.
"In general?" he wondered, deliberately obtusely. "'Cause, you know, once that first morning dose of caffeine starts circulating-"
"It's the State of the Union! It should be bold, visionary - not read like we just got set an essay to write 'What I did in my last year in office'. We need to be pushing new initiatives, not rambling about whatever little success we could squeeze of the old ones."
"We're trying to keep our feet, Toby," Josh reminded him.
"Which implies we're standing still!"
"In my book, that beats falling over." Too many screw-ups and scandals in the last twelve months: a flurry of political losses, the dissection of the president's unhappy childhood, Sam's relationship with Steve, and now this thing with Hoynes... If the election had fallen a year later than it had, it was hard to believe they could have pulled off even the narrow victory that they'd managed.
"That depends which direction you fall in," Toby muttered darkly.
He knew full well what this was about. "Toby, this isn't the time to go after gun control."
"This is exactly the time to go after gun control! We have a high profile case, we have the biggest platform we get for launching ideas, we have-"
"We have no chance in hell of forcing any bill with anything resembling teeth through Congress," Josh reminded him forcefully. "Toby, we can't send the president out there to push for a new initiative that'll self-destruct in a matter of months. We don't need a symbolic implosion, we need victories!"
"The debate is coming right to us, and we're turning it away."
"Because we can't win it! Toby-"
"This is one of the ones we should go for whether we can win it or not."
"In other circumstances, yes. But not now."
Toby eyed him sideways. "I expected you to support me on this."
"Why?" he demanded. It was hardly his place to be the champion of idealism over practicality around here. "Leo already said to put it down until after the speech was over. Did you think I wouldn't back him?"
"I would have thought that you at least would have some kind of-"
Josh had a sudden dark suspicion that he knew where this was headed. "Don't finish that thought," he warned.
"No." Toby at least had the grace to look mildly chagrined.
There was a burn in his chest that he knew was wholly psychological. "Leo's right, Toby. We don't go after this now. We can put out feelers after the speech, but we can't take another public failure right now."
He turned and walked off in the direction of his office.
He straightened up in surprise. "Oh, hi, Leo."
Leo frowned at him in puzzlement for a moment, and then waved a hand vaguely. " Okay, what's-?"
"I shaved," he supplied, after it became clear that the answer wasn't going to present itself.
"Oh. Yeah. You had a beard, didn't you."
"Apparently, not a very memorable one," he noted wryly.
"You look better without it," Leo told him.
"Okay. What's up?"
"Oh, I just came by to tell CJ to be prepared for Mark Winston having made some comments."
"He's jockeying for the VP spot?" Sam guessed.
"With an incredible lack of subtlety. He doesn't have much support, but the word is Tony Phillips is picking up a following. Of course, he's got the sense not to shoot his mouth off to the press and kill any good will he might have had going for him."
"Does he have any?" he wondered.
"Not nearly enough. There's no halfway suitable Democrat to take the position if we give Hoynes the boot, and these guys ought to have the brains to know it."
"They're still putting pressure on to get rid of him?"
"Well, it just wouldn't be the State of the Union without somebody pressing us to fire somebody," Leo said sardonically.
"Toby still thinks we're being too neutral," Sam informed him.
"Well, that's politics for you, Sam. Right now, all we want to do is get in, get out, and if the president doesn't fall flat on his face? We're calling it a good day."
"Hey." Ash rapped his knuckles against the doorframe, and Josh blinked up at him. "Where's Donna?" he wondered.
"That's a question I ask myself ten or twenty times a day."
"I'm in here!" Donna called from the sidelines. Josh paused.
"Why is she in there?" he asked, somewhat helplessly, as if Ash might be able to provide him with the answer.
"I had to leave the room," Donna supplied. "Your incredible personal magnetism was pulling the staples out of my filing."
Josh lowered an eyebrow. "Hmm. My sarcasm detector is sounding, and yet I can't quite..."
"You asked me to pull those files on the thing for Sam. They're all over the place. It's gonna take me a while."
"Yeah, okay." The Deputy Chief of Staff did not, on the surface of it, display the face of a man who remembered ordering any such thing. He appeared to dismiss it a heartbeat later, and turned his attention back to Ash. "Hey. You ready to meet the president?"
"No, actually," he admitted.
"Relax," Josh counselled with a hand on his shoulder. He reconsidered. "Well, don't. Just try not to you, know, salute or pee in his closet or anything."
Ash blinked at him. "Those are options?"
"You'd be surprised. This way." Josh steered him around a corner.
"You know, we could always leave this and Charlie could keep working right up until he needs paternity leave and I could, uh... go home and live on dog biscuits or something."
It was the equally unpleasant prospects of trying to scrape a living flipping burgers or crawling home to his parents that had convinced him to take a wild stab at the job opportunity Josh had offered him. However, Ash couldn't help feeling he was in way over his head. What was he doing, being interviewed by the president? A month ago, his most important duty had been preventing Congresswoman Wells from double-booking lunch.
Josh clapped him on the shoulder with a cheerful lack of sympathy. "You'll do fine. Here we go."
He marched straight towards the Oval Office without the slightest hesitation, and stopped a young blonde woman passing by with a pile of folders. "Hey, Nancy, where's Charlie?"
"He went to take a message. The president's expecting you, you can go right in," she invited, as if it was nothing at all.
"Great. Come on, Ash."
His stomach defied several laws of physics by simultaneously churning and freezing solid. If there hadn't been a rather alarmingly visible Secret Service presence, he might have actually followed the overwhelming instinct to make a run for it. He crammed more tiny steps into his journey towards the Oval Office than it should have been physically possible to fit in such a small distance.
"Josh!" That too-familiar voice, loudly intimidating even in a friendly greeting, wound his nerves several times tighter. Ash finally crossed through the doorway, trying not to actually look at the carpet he was walking on. Which meant that he came eye to eye with the president almost immediately.
He had a good six inches in height on his country's leader, but when that steely gaze pinned him he was utterly unaware of it. The president's face was every bit as stonily imposing as the bust of Abraham Lincoln behind him. In a perfectly crisp navy suit jacket and subtly striped tie, he looked every inch as magnificently presidential as he did on TV.
Josh, for some incomprehensible reason, didn't seem to be at all overawed or intimidated. "Mr. President? Ashley Bowers."
The president nodded, and extended a hand to him, face still impassively unreadable. "Jed Bartlet."
Ash rather thought that had gone without saying. Trying to ignore a pressing desire to scrub his sweaty hands on his pants leg beforehand, he shook hands with the president. "It's an honour to meet you, sir." Bartlet's brief but not perfunctory grip was as firm as the set of his jaw.
That whole getting over the nerves thing? Not happening very fast.
Josh smiled. "Well, I'll just leave you to-"
Ash was saved from the indignity of having to lunge across the room, grab him by the leg and beg him to stay by the fact that Charlie arrived. The aide spared them a brief glance, but focused almost immediately on his boss, handing him a square of folded paper. "Mr. President?"
The president unfolded a pair of glasses from his breast pocket, and slipped them on to read. After a moment, he handed the note back to Charlie, and straightened up. " I'm sorry. We're going to have to do this another time."
"Situation Room?" Josh guessed, and the president nodded. Those two words made Ash's guts twist with nerves; he had a feeling that any room in the White House with that kind of name was not going to be used to handle budget problems or staff shortages.
The president brushed past him. "I'm sorry, Mr. Bowers, we're going to have to reschedule this meeting for later. Charlie, is Leo-?"
"He's already on his way down there."
"Okay. Thank you, Charlie. Josh, I'll be-"
The president and his aide left at the same breakneck speed everybody else around here seemed to use. Ash blinked to himself. "Well, that happened fast."
"It does." Josh led him out of the Oval. "Sorry about that. I'll speak to Nancy, see if he has any time free later today..."
"Is this a regular occurrence?" he wondered uneasily. For all he knew, the president getting called to the Situation Room could be the precursor to all out nuclear war.
"They have to keep the president apprised of international issues as soon as they start to develop," Josh explained. "The situation can change at any moment, so they need to make sure the president's aware of things that could get ugly even before they do."
"Oh." Potential situations sounded a whole lot better than actual situations. "How long will he be down there?"
"On whether they're just giving him the heads up on a situation, or they want him to give a strike order."
Ash swallowed slowly.
This really wasn't your everyday job interview.
Chapter 11: XI
"Mallory! Hi." Sam's eyes widened in surprise. The pleasant sort, he rather hoped.
"Hey, Sam. Got a minute?"
He considered the alternatives, which mostly involved going another few rounds with Toby. "Sure, come on in." They went into his office. "I shaved my beard," he added, by way of rather uninspired small talk.
"Oh, that's right," she realised. "You had a beard."
Sam rubbed his chin self-consciously. "Well, this is disheartening." Clearly, it took more than a drastic change in physical appearance for anyone to notice any difference around here.
"It didn't suit you," Mallory told him.
"Thanks for that."
"Oh, it didn't look bad or anything. Just didn't suit you."
He pulled out his chair and sat down. "What's on your mind?"
"It's about my date to the State of the Union."
He blinked. "Okay, you remember I-?"
"Not you, Sam." She rolled her eyes. "Yes, I do know you have a boyfriend now. So do I. Dad doesn't want me to bring him."
"Because he's a fascist dictator!"
"Dad! Just because of one thing Brandon happened to say on his radio show last week-"
"Radio- wait, you're dating Brandon Foxton?" Sam gulped.
"You can't bring him to the State of the Union!"
"Why the hell not?" she demanded irritably.
"Because you can't be seen with him! He can't come to the State of the Union, it opens us up to the possibility of major embarrassment."
"So you're saying I can't date the guy?" she said darkly.
He sat back and raised a steadying hand. "I'm saying, you can't be seen with him."
"So, what, he should wear a bag over his head? Sam-"
"Mallory, he spoke out against the Vice President!"
"No, he said some things about morality in politics. Which you agree with! You're punishing him because he said things you agree with!"
"On his radio show, in the context of criticising this administration's Vice President. If he's seen with our people at the State of the Union, it looks like we're endorsing his view that Hoynes should step down."
Mallory glowered at him. "That's ridiculous!"
He shrugged. "That's politics."
"Mallory, your dad's right," he cut her off. "It's not a problem that you're dating the guy, it's not a problem that he disapproves of Hoynes, but you can't bring him along to the State of the Union this soon after critiquing the administration a major political issue. If the press spot him and get any kind of quote that sounds like it's disparaging the president, it's going to be seriously embarrassing."
She looked as if she was going to snarl something more, but ended up just grimacing and throwing up her hands in frustration. "Fine! Fascists!" She stormed out.
"It's nice that we still have these little chats," Sam called after her. He rolled his chair back over to the desk, and got back to his work.
"Hey, CJ." Danny arrived in the doorway and gave her an ingratiating grin. She decided it wasn't worth the effort of inquiring how he'd managed to be let in yet again. She pointed a warning finger at him.
"I'm not discussing the Vice President with you. Or Lubbock County. In fact, nothing from Texas whatsoever. Don't even think about bringing anything Texan into this office."
Danny produced a small container of goldfish food from his pocket, and made a show of inspecting the label. "I think this is from, you know, the pet store."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "You don't trust me to feed my fish?"
"Our fish," he corrected, and shrugged. "I just wanted to buy something nice."
She gave him a look.
"For Gail," he added. He wandered over to shake some flakes into the bowl, and blinked. "Your goldfish bowl has been colonised by the British," he said accusingly.
CJ chuckled. "One of the Prime Minister's guys gave me a flag." The young man had seemed quite taken with both Gail and the tiny podium and American flag that had been decorating her bowl in honour of the upcoming State of the Union. She'd come back the next day to find a miniature Union Jack had mysteriously appeared to join its US counterpart.
Danny looked aghast. "I have goldfish rivals?"
"Gail's attentions are a fickle thing," she warned him gravely.
"Well, I'll just have to be more attentive from now on." He waggled his eyebrows at her.
She couldn't help but smile in response. Annoying as Danny might be, it was good to have him back.
"Mr. President." Leo raised his head in greeting as the military officers all jumped to their feet.
"Easy, boys," Jed said with a brief wave, taking his customary chair. "What's up, Fitz?"
The admiral had notes in front of him, but didn't pause to consult them. "Mr. President, we're getting reports that Libyan fighters have brought down a plane five miles south of the border with Chad."
Jed narrowed his eyes. "Deliberate act of aggression?"
"We don't know. It was definitely a military plane; according to our sources, the pilot ejected, and Chadian ground forces retrieved him."
"Could it conceivably have been some kind of malfunction?"
Fitz shook his head uneasily. "We can't say for sure, sir. The Libyan fighters weren't seen to fire on the plane, although they were definitely chasing it."
"What are we getting through political channels?" Leo asked.
Fitz glanced at him knowingly. "Libyan ADC is denying the plane even exists."
"That's not surprising," Jed jumped in. "So would we."
"Yeah... except Chad is also denying it's there."
Jed gave him a wry look. "Are we sure it is, in fact, there?" he asked sardonically.
"We've got a man on the ground saw it go down, Mr. President. It's no surprise that the Libyans don't want to admit to the incident, but the fact that Chad is trying to cover up to a third party opens the possibility that they're thinking of retaliation."
"And now we've got a ballgame," Jed said. He scraped his chair forward to sit closer to the table.
He tried to ignore the mutterings of disgust from over his shoulder as he read.
-without upheaval, there can be no progress; without bold moves, there can be no successes-
-without challenges, we can never hope to achieve our full potential. And America is a country of great potential, we are a people of great potential-
"This is middle of the road! Totally bland, and, and-"
Sam sat back in exasperation, forcing Toby to dodge out of the way of his chair. "We've done a lot, Toby," he pointed out.
"And so we should stop now, to give things a chance to average out?"
Despite himself, he couldn't help but be drawn towards Toby's point. "Maybe we could think about strengthening the language a little." He had to admit, they might have gone overboard on being carefully neutral. "If we went after it a little more aggressively..."
This attempt at reaching out only served to make Toby more irritable. "The president could leap down from the podium and bitchslap the majority leader, and it still wouldn't be aggressive without the policy to back it up!"
"It would probably help with the ratings, though," Sam contemplated.
Toby made an unidentifiable noise deep in his throat.
"And help dispel rumours about the president's physical state. Maybe if we could put out some promos, this whole viewer apathy thing-"
"Get out of the way, and let me edit that." Toby wheeled his chair aside impatiently.
"Toby, seriously, you know you're not going to get it by Leo." This was no after dinner speech, it was the State of the Union, and any inflammatory language Toby even thought about putting in there was going to get bogged down in half a dozen checks and balances before the president was allowed to even hear a rumour of it.
Toby knew that, which was probably why he was hitting keys forcefully enough to make Sam cringe for his poor laptop. "Then at least I can get rid of some of this cotton -candy sugar fluff writing! 'A union of hearts, minds and ideals...' What is this? 'It's our differences that reinforce us...' Are we writing a Very Special Episode About Tolerance for pre-schoolers?"
Sam stood back to let him type, and tried to spot an assistant through the door he could surreptitiously signal to bring pie.
Chapter 12: XII
"So what's our position?" Jed glanced at Fitz expectantly.
The Admiral frowned. "This has the potential for a pretty big blowout if we don't tread carefully. Chad's still smarting from the Libyan incursion in the eighties, and the Libyans are still smarting from how soundly they got trounced. If we take any action, we run the risk of severely antagonising Libya."
"I'd say they're being pretty antagonistic themselves." They were supposed to be on better terms with Libya these days, but it was still a pretty prickly proposition. He glanced sideways at Leo. "How's our relationship with Chad?"
"Good, usually, which is why their refusal to acknowledge the incident is pretty worrying," his Chief of Staff supplied.
"Could it have been a spy plane?" Jed wondered.
"It's possible," spoke up one of the many other uniforms in the room. Jed could never keep their names straight, and always hesitated to call on them by rank out of residual paranoia that he'd get it wrong and utterly humiliate himself. "The plane that was brought down doesn't seem to have been attached to any legitimate air manoeuvres in the region."
"So Chad is keeping quiet to cover their own dirty laundry?" Jed guessed. Leo gave him a tiny shrug, part acknowledgement, part warning not to jump to conclusions.
Leo was right. This was too sticky a situation to go leaping in until they knew exactly what was what. He stood up. "Get me somebody on the phone who can give me a confirmation or denial," he ordered.
The others at the table scrambled to copy the move, and Fitz gave him a firm nod. "Yes, sir."
He looked to Leo. "I've got some kind of lunch arranged with the... women's group of... something. Any idea what that's about?"
The shrug he got this time was a lot more theatrical, with a hint of exasperated eye-rolling. "I have no idea, Mr. President."
Neither did he. Wow, this was going to be fun. "Okay. Thank you, gentlemen." He headed out.
Josh returned, offering an apologetic shrug. "I spoke to Nancy. The president's going to be tied up all today. The best we can get is a quarter hour tomorrow."
"That's okay." Anything that delayed that nerve-wracking encounter with his prospective new employer was okay by him. In fact- "Actually, isn't that cutting it a little too close to the State of the Union? I could always-"
"No, it's fine." Josh stood in the middle of his bullpen and looked around distractedly. "Donna? Donna! Dammit, where the hell is Donna?"
Nobody seemed unduly distressed by the Deputy Chief of Staff's agitation. In fact, his staff appeared to be completely ignoring him. Ash tentatively raised a hand. "Uh, she said she was going to be-"
"Oh. Yeah." He turned around in a complete circle, perhaps looking for somebody else to grab, and then shrugged. "Okay, come on. I have to just take... this thing to... somebody... and then I'll show you out."
"Okay." Ash was content to follow him around. The West Wing was a bewildering and fascinating hive of activity. He'd fully expected it to be packed with busy people, but, well... you tended to expect the business of government to take place in offices and meeting rooms. From what he'd seen so far, most of it actually occurred travelling down hallways at a pace that would knock you unconscious if you collided with someone head on.
"Hi, Josh!" A scruffy looking guy with a beard and a press badge gave them a friendly nod as they passed.
"Hey, Danny. What are you doing back here?"
"Delivering fish food," he said cheerfully, as if that explained everything.
This seemed, bewilderingly, to make perfect sense to Josh. Ash trailed awkwardly after him, wondering if he was still being escorted out or had been forgotten entirely. The Deputy Chief of Staff's attention span seemed to be... erratic, at the best of times.
Josh snagged a passing assistant. "Hey, Ginger. Have you seen Donna?"
"Yeah. She's... somewhere."
"Okay." He was silent for a beat. "Thanks for that. Listen, could you spare a moment to take Ash down to-?"
"Sorry." She shook her head. "Pie crisis."
He held up his hands hastily. "Well, hey, don't stop to talk to me. Get going!"
"Yeah." She hurried on.
Ash caught up to Josh. "Is 'pie' some kind of code for something?"
"Regrettably, no." He looked around. "Okay, there seems to be an assistant shortage, so- Oh, wait. Hi, Charlie, can you show Ashley out?"
"Sure, in a second." Charlie looked rather harassed as he jogged over to join them. "Listen, did you just see Buster run through here with a squeaky duck in his mouth?"
Josh paused. "Uh-"
"Incidentally, in not unrelated news," Charlie said dryly, "the president has just decided to name his kitten Buster."
"Great. He made a break for it when I was supposed to be moving him out of the Residence for the- I'll be back in a second."
He dashed off.
Josh stuck his hands in his pockets, and offered Ash a wry smile as they waited. "Okay, I'd like to say this isn't an average day on the job, but... yeah, pretty much."
"Mr. Ziegler!" She sat back in her chair, in a much happier mood despite herself since Danny had dropped by. "What can I do for you this fine January afternoon?"
He stepped in and pulled the door shut behind him. "What's happening in Lubbock County?"
She grew more sober. "The Calgary boy's still in a coma. The doctors warned this was going to be the danger zone. If he doesn't wake up soon..." The longer he stayed unconscious, the less likely he would ever wake up. Not only would it be a senseless waste of another young life, it would mean the disappearance of perhaps their last chance at finding out exactly how this tragedy had come about.
"What about the Rossiters?"
"They're still making noise about lawsuits, but it's not getting much press."
"They're getting shouted down," Toby surmised.
"Sympathy for the criminal doesn't play well in Texas, Toby," she reminded him. It didn't play well in most places, actually. Nobody wanted to hear about reeducation and scientific studies and overcrowded prisons, they just wanted to hear that the bad guys had been put away where they could never do it again.
"Assuming they were even criminals," he said darkly.
CJ met his eyes, and shrugged pointedly. "We may never know."
"And yet the girl gets lauded as a hero anyway."
"Heroine, Toby," she corrected.
"You're offering me drugs now?" He eyed her sideways.
She sat up with an explosive sigh. "Listen, Toby, I know you want to take this on, but-"
"I want you to back me on taking this to the president. Leo wants to lie low and keep it off the agenda, but we need this front and centre. We need to-"
"You want to get up there on what's likely the biggest pulpit we'll have for the next year, and take on a thirteen-year-old girl who heard somebody breaking into her house?"
"I want to get up there and take on the fact that a thirteen-year-old girl who hears somebody breaking into her house reaches for her father's gun before she reaches for a phone to call the police," he said softly.
They locked eyes. CJ dropped her gaze first.
"Toby..." She sighed, shaking her head. "You know it won't play well with Hoynes hanging over our head. We're already under fire for not showing him the door. If we come down hard against one of the major points where he disagrees with the administration's message-"
"The administration's message is that we don't think kids should shoot people! Who disagrees with that?"
"It's not gonna play that way," she told him.
"Then we'll play it another way."
CJ smiled sympathetically. "You can't, Toby. You don't get to talk guns without the second amendment baggage. You know that."
The only evidence that he'd conceded the point was the way his shoulders slumped as he continued mumbling into his beard. "Regulated. It's built right into the amendment. Regulation! A thirteen-year-old girl with a shotgun is not a well-regulated militia. The drunk guy who hangs around outside bars and starts taking potshots at people based on their sexual preference is not a well-regulated militia! Two teenage neo-Nazis with pistols who decide to start taking potshots at the president are not-"
"Toby." She cut him off gently, just a quiet reminder that he wasn't the only one who'd been there that night.
He wound down slowly, and sighed. "We should be taking this on."
"Yes, we should. But not this time, Toby. Not this time."
"Yeah." He gave her a small, tired smile. "Yeah."
Chapter 13: XIII
Sam walked into the café, and was not at all surprised to see Mallory seated with a red-headed man in glasses who had to be Brandon Foxton. He walked over to join them. "I sense this lunch invitation comes with an ulterior motive," he said dryly.
"Sam, I have to tell you, if you couldn't have predicted that, you may be in the wrong job," Mallory said.
"Oh, no, I was definitely expecting something like this."
"Then why'd you agree to come?"
"I was hungry." He sat down, and extended a hand. "Sam Seaborn."
"Brandon Foxton." The rich, deep radio voice seemed oddly incongruous coming out of such a nondescript little man. The hearty handshake, however, matched the voice better than it did the appearance. "Mallory's told me all about you."
"Let me guess, she told you I was the weak link who could be pressured into arguing your case to Leo McGarry?"
Foxton cracked a smile. "Broadly, but she suggested I pretty it up with words like 'idealism'."
Sam grinned back, already warming to the man. "Mr. Foxton, I hope you appreciate that neither I nor the president - nor Leo McGarry, for that matter - has any issue with you personally or with your radio show. However, if you're seen attending the State of the Union so soon after causing a stir with your remarks about the Vice President, it has the potential to be very embarrassing for this administration."
Foxton leaned back in his chair. "Well, for a start, I wouldn't say I was 'stirring' anything. It was hardly an ad hominem attack on President Bartlet - or even John Hoynes. My intention was to generate discussion on integrity in politics, and I'm pretty damn sure we succeeded. We took responses from callers - not all of them were agreeing. It was a perfectly well balanced piece."
"Yeah, well, we hate those. They're so much nastier than partisan ranting and raving," Sam said dryly. "Seriously, as I say, we have no problem with the content of your show. However, the fact remains, in your radio program you put forth an argument calling for the Vice President to resign."
"To preserve the integrity of the office," he agreed.
"Which is a perfectly valid opinion, and nobody's trying to talk you out of it. However, you must appreciate that if you're seen at the State of the Union, it creates the impression that the president endorses your opinion, which leaves him open to some potentially very awkward questions."
"I do see your point," Foxton nodded.
"But I don't grant it."
"I don't think it would look like that at all. I think it would look like the president was considering all points of view on the issue, instead of just shutting out the ones he disagrees with."
"The president does consider all points of view!" Sam burst, frustrated. "He just doesn't invite their vocal public proponents to a speech that focuses on setting out his agenda for the coming year, because if he does what they say he looks weak, and if he doesn't he looks indecisive!"
"I don't think it's a sign of weakness to listen to what the public wants," Foxton countered.
"The voice of the public and the voice of the media are not the same thing."
"The media follow the tide of public opinion."
"Well, so do we, so get in line!" Sam noticed that Mallory was sitting back and smirking. "I'm sorry, did you have something to add?" he wondered sardonically.
"No, not at all. I'm finding this perfectly fascinating. After all, debate is the lifeblood of democracy. Please, go right ahead."
He had an irritating feeling he was about to get suckered into making a case for Brandon Foxton to be allowed to come to the State of the Union.
"Mr. President." His young aide was smiling suspiciously widely. Jed suspected he was entirely too amused by the thought of his boss being trapped for an hour with some militant women's group he couldn't even remember the name of.
The location seemed rather odd for that, actually. "We're eating in here?"
"Yes, sir. They're ready for you now."
Strange. He'd expected one of the bigger rooms... oh, Lord, what if it was only two or three people? There'd be no escaping awkward conversations. What idiot had slipped this onto his calendar? He couldd have sworn it was a last-minute addition.
"I don't suppose you know what this meeting is about?" he asked, a last- ditch effort.
"Oh, I think you'll find out pretty soon," said Charlie, still grinning.
Jed narrowed his eyes suspiciously, but walked in. The table was set for two, and the room was completely empty. He turned back in confusion. "Okay, what-?"
He whirled again, and gaped at the vision in the doorway. "Abbey!"
She walked in with a smile, and draped her hands over his shoulders. "The one and only."
"What are you doing back?" he asked, able only to stare at her in wonder.
"I came home early." She leaned up to give him a light but heartfelt kiss. " Pleased to see me?"
The only possible response to that was another kiss in return.
A moment later she broke away from him and pulled him over to the table. "I cancelled your scheduled dinner. Rene's gonna do you a steak."
Jed was wide-eyed with amazement. "I can have steak?" His once-favourite meal was very high on the list of things that had been struck off his allowed diet on pain of, well, pain.
Abbey gave him a knowing smile. "Special occasion, babe."
He couldn't quite contain the grin beginning to spread across his features. "So you're saying this is the steak of the union?"
"Rene?" Abbey called. "Cancel the steak."
But she spoilt the effect by laughing, and before the chef could arrive to break up the mood he leaned forward to steal another kiss.
Suddenly, he was having a much better day.
He looked up and tugged off his glasses as his deputy appeared in the doorway. "Josh. What's up?"
Josh came in and pulled the door shut. "Got another call from Waterstone."
"He's threatening the bill?"
"He's threatening the bill."
Leo shook his head in exasperation. "I'll handle it." He made a quick note on the margin of the report he'd been reading before he forgot it. "But not yet; we'll let him stew over the weekend." It wouldn't do to let the crowd of mid-level Senators trying to push them around believe they were at all important.
"You're gonna slap him down with the Iowa thing?"
"Yeah. He's an idiot if he thinks we've forgotten the stranglehold we put on Kendrick and Bannister to pull his ass out of the fire."
Josh shook his head and sighed. "It's a total free-for-all, Leo. They know we're not strong, they know the president's approval ratings are swinging wildly... Every Democrat with half a degree of leverage thinks they can put the pressure us on to force out Hoynes."
"And every Democrat with half a degree of intelligence knows that if we force out Hoynes, we've got nobody." He rolled his eyes. "Pity we can count the number of those on the fingers of one hand." It was amazing how quickly the support of their own party could degenerate into backstabbing the minute the even wholly imagined whiff of personal gain was in the air. None of the available candidates could hope to make good on a presidential run in three years' time, but that didn't stop them jockeying for position to try it.
Josh leaned against the back of the chair in front of him. "They've got a point, Leo. His numbers-"
"Are immaterial when he's not gonna be running for another three years," Leo said briskly. "An admitted affair's a scandal, but it hasn't got the juice to run for years."
Josh gave him a solemn look. "You know it's not the only one," he said softly.
"Nobody on that list's a talker." A verbal list, naturally. There were some things you didn't even think about writing down, lest, as Toby put it, you tempt the wrath of the whatever from atop the thing.
"We think," Josh said pessimistically.
"None of them have come out of the woodwork yet. None of them came out of the woodwork five years ago, back when nobody in their right mind thought anybody was gonna steal the nomination from him. These women aren't publicity hounds, and if the press manage to dig one or two of them up, it's old news by then. He's already confessed."
Josh still looked uncertain, but let it slide. "What's going on with this spy plane?" he asked. Leo raised a cautioning hand.
"We're not sure it's a spy plane."
"But neither side's acknowledging its existence."
"No." He rubbed his forehead, and a random thought struck him. "Hey, you sent the Bowers kid home?"
"Yeah. I've spoken to Nancy, we might be able to squeeze him in again tomorrow morning."
Leo raised his eyebrows. "You're that sure this is our guy?"
"Positive," Josh nodded. "I'm telling you, Leo, it's the same feeling I got with Charlie. The president's gonna like him."
"Okay." He trusted Josh's judgement. Well, when his ego wasn't powering it, anyway.
"Toby's still making noise about the State of the Union," Josh observed.
"Making noise is what Toby does best."
Josh gave him a sideways look. "You don't think he's right?" he wondered softly.
"Toby's frequently right. That's what makes him such a pain in the ass. But that doesn't change the fact that we can't do this now."
"No." His deputy sighed.
Leo stood, and clapped him on the shoulder. "One battle at a time, Josh," he said. "First, we concentrate on getting the president through the State of the Union. Then we get to worry about changing the world."
Chapter 14: XIV
Sam sighed, chin resting in the palm of his hand. It still felt weird to be without the beard, however long he might have lived before without it. It was harder to hide when he was pulling faces in meetings, for a start.
Not that his reaction was being taken into account in the slightest right now.
Toby was still pacing, but the rant had become as circular as the footsteps. He decided he might as well jump in now as at any time. "Toby-"
"We need to address this, Sam!"
"Toby, we can't just hijack the State of the Union to-"
"This would be the specialised meaning of 'hijack' that involves taking it where it's supposed to go? It's the State of the Union! We're addressing the state of the nation, I say we discuss the state of the nation!"
Sam rubbed his forehead tiredly. "Okay, it's not me you need to convince, Toby. You know nobody's going to let a controversial statement about-"
He waved a hand irritably. "Toby, you can say we need to deal with gun crime, but you cannot connect gun crime-"
"-To the presence of guns. Yes. Presumably on the same theory that says bombings should not be linked to the presence of explosives."
Sam reflected that the only thing more frustrating than arguing a point against Toby Ziegler was arguing a point that you didn't agree with against Toby Ziegler. His boss had an infuriating habit of going after anybody playing devil's advocate - or indeed, Republicans' advocate for that matter - with exactly the same full-frontal assault on their intelligence he used on people actually espousing the position.
"You put that on the table, they're just going to say the exact same thing they've said all along." He rolled his eyes. "They'll say 'Guns don't-'"
"Guns don't kill people, people kill people. Yes." He stomped off towards the far end of the office. "Computers don't send messages, people send messages. So let's replace the internet with carrier pigeons, it won't make any difference!"
Ginger, who'd had the misfortune to open the door in the middle of this, gave Sam a sidelong look. "Toby's having a cow?" she presumed.
"Toby's having a cattle ranch. Let's put the pie away until the sugar high wears off, 'kay?"
Toby turned back, and fixed a glare at the interrupting assistant. "What?" he demanded rudely.
"I have to get to that meeting with Leo?" Sam guessed hopefully, sitting up. He'd take even refereeing an argument between Leo and Mallory over this.
Ginger shook her head and held up a folded note apologetically. "The president's in an urgent call, and Leo's advising. Margaret says he should be free in an hour."
She backed out of the room, offering Sam a sympathetic shrug as he made urgent 'save me' faces at her.
He groaned and slumped down in his chair as Toby wheeled around for another pass of the table. "Right," Sam said resignedly. "Let's take another look at the language for the introduction..."
"Got a moment, mi amor?"
"Sure." Josh sat up and blinked blearily at her. "What's up?"
CJ shrugged. "Just visiting."
"Then I need a moment to...?"
She came in and sat on the corner of his desk, and ran an appraising eye over him while he ignored her in favour of the file in front of him. He looked rumpled and weary, but with Josh that was a fairly ordinary state of being. She thought this Lubbock County thing was getting to him, but it was difficult to be sure.
"Danny brought me fish food," she announced, after the lull had gone on long enough.
"I think it's a sign."
"I haven't figured that out yet. It's just, you know, a general sign. Signatory. Omen-filled. Although not ominous, I hope."
Josh just nodded vaguely in time with this chain of babbling, then blinked as it came to an end. "Am I required to be insightful?" he wondered.
CJ raised an eyebrow. "Groovy?"
He nodded. "Groove-filled. Generally full of groove."
"I'm gonna go now."
There was a pause.
"Josh, are you obsessing?" she asked him mildly.
"I'm not, CJ."
"Okay." She accepted that, since there was little point in pushing further. "Did you hear Mallory was dating Brandon Foxton?"
"The radio guy?"
"Didn't he just make an annoyingly logical case for demanding Hoynes's resignation?"
He eyeballed her. "You seem suspiciously calm."
"Leo's pretty much got the ranting and raving thing covered," CJ explained.
"It's nice when you can delegate upwards."
"I think so." She rose, and headed for the door. "Don't start obsessing, Josh," she ordered on her way out.
"I said I'm not," he reminded her, with a resigned smile rather than annoyance.
"And I'm saying, don't start."
"Okay." He held her gaze steadily enough.
"Okay." She nodded, and left.
"Ah, Mr. Ambassador."
"Mr. President. This is a great honour."
Jed didn't have to be in the same room as the man to recognise the soulless diplomatic smile that was surely locked in place. He cut straight through the usual introductory bull.
"Mr. Ambassador, we have reports that your forces brought down a Chadian plane five miles over the border north of Aozou yesterday night."
There was a pause that lingered on just a fraction too long to be the international phone lines. "We have no knowledge of any such incident, Mr. President."
Jed glanced across at Leo, and rolled his eyes ceilingwards. "Libyan fighters were seen to be pursuing the plane before it crashed, and Chadian military forces were in the area after the crash. The pilot ejected, and was seen to be retrieved by uniformed troops."
"I assure you, Mr. President, there are no records of any such mission being ordered. We would not attack our neighbours in so heinous and unprovoked a manner."
"Then what about the wreckage of the plane? Or does no one have any record of that, either?"
"Perhaps it was... a civilian craft. An inexperienced pilot may well find himself stranded far from any airfield with insufficient fuel to return home."
"Are civilian craft routinely pursued across the border by Libyan fighter planes?" Jed wondered sharply.
"No doubt our fine military forces would move to the aid of any pilot signalling distress - or to attempt to warn one that had unwittingly strayed into Libyan airspace. However, even should such an action have taken place, there is certainly no truth to this reprehensible suggestion that we would pursue and shoot down a plane belonging to our Chadian neighbours. Perhaps you should contact their military and ask them to explain the nature of the operation they were conducting so close to our country's borders yesterday night."
"Oh, I'll be speaking to Chad," he agreed coolly. "Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. You've been most... enlightening." Not quite the same thing as 'informative' or 'helpful'.
"Thank you, Mr. President."
He put the phone down, and turned to the room's other occupants. Leo tilted his eyebrows enquiringly.
"Well," Jed said slowly, nodding, "if I wasn't sure about our intelligence before, I am now. I don't know what he's lying about, but he's lying about something."
Fitz glanced at him. "They're still disclaiming all responsibility for the plane?"
"I don't think they'd be admitting it existed if we didn't have pictures of the smoking wreckage to prove it. They also seem oddly confident that Chad won't challenge their version of events."
"It's looking more and more like a surveillance mission," Leo noted.
"We need to know for sure," Jed said firmly. If the Libyans had brought down a Chadian spy plane, this incident might disappear into the murky waters of international diplomacy without any further action from either side. On the other hand, if it hadn't been a spy plane and the Libyan fighters had crossed the border for reasons of their own... "We need to hear Chad's side of this."
"Can we get hold of the Chadian ambassador?" Leo asked.
"Might take a while," another aide warned. "He's going to be-"
"Make it happen," Jed cut him off. "Before the State of the Union, please. Let's get this sorted out before it turns into an international incident."
Chapter 15: XV
"Sam! What did you- oh dear God, no, she got to you already."
"Hi, dad," Mallory said wryly. He gave her a look.
"Mallory, what did I tell you about enlisting my staff to conspire against me?"
She paused. "I don't think you did mention that one, actually."
"Fine. I'll write you up a list. Sam-"
"I'd like to make it perfectly clear that she bullied me into this," Sam put in hastily, raising his hands. Leo transferred the glare.
"What's interesting is that you think this somehow gets you out of taking responsibility for this."
"Your daughter ambushed me, lured me out of the White House on false pretences, and subjected me to reasoned and rational arguments," he attempted to excuse himself.
"It was a drastic step, but I felt forced," Mallory said.
"The answer is still no," Leo said, shuffling his paperwork in an attempt to cut off further argument. It was a tactic that worked very well on most employees, but, tragically, not so much on daughters.
"Dad, you're being unreasonable."
"It's one of my more useful qualities, Mallory."
"Leo, I had lunch with Brandon Foxton." Sam launched into the argument he'd known would be coming. "He's a good guy."
"Well, that's nice for him, but being a good guy doesn't buy you a ticket to the State of the Union. And I'm not happy about you having lunch with this guy when I'm specifically trying to keep him off the White House credibility radar," he added warningly.
"That would be the part where the luring under false pretences came in," Sam explained.
"Good, 'cause I was worried about that," he said sardonically.
"Dad, he's not going to cause trouble!"
"Quite true, largely owing to the fact that's he's not going to be there at all."
"Leo, you really ought to at least talk-"
"I will not sit down and talk with a radio host who just attacked our VP about attending the State of the Union!" he snapped.
"Fine," said Mallory.
"Good!" he said.
"In that case? Dad, I'd really like you to come with me and meet my new boyfriend."
Leo lowered his head into his hands. "I'm not going to get a moment's rest until I agree to this, am I?"
He glowered at Sam. "Did I invite you to-?"
"I'll just... go and do some work," he said hastily.
Sam fled the office. Leo sighed, and stood up. "Okay, Mal. Tell me where you've got this guy hidden, and I will talk to him. Just- talk to him."
Mallory smiled sweetly. "Daddy, that's all I ask."
"Did I train you to be this evil?" he wondered, as she linked her arm through his.
"I learned by following your example."
"Ah." He allowed her to lead him out.
She looked up, and then stood with a smile. "Ma'am! Good to see you. We weren't expecting you back until tomorrow."
The First Lady smiled back, and closed the door behind her as she entered. "I decided to fly back incognito. How's my husband been?"
Coming from the First Lady, she knew the question wasn't just a formality. It had been a rough few weeks - months, even - and she paused to consider the point honestly. "Better," she was relieved to be able to say. "I don't think it's just being over the cold. He hasn't seemed so depressed lately."
Abbey gave a self-satisfied nod. "You know what it's down to, of course."
"You heard he named the cat Buster?"
"There are reasons we always let the kids pick names back on the farm," she noted.
"The finest journalistic minds in Washington are currently dissecting it for political relevance."
"Slow news day?" the First Lady wondered dryly. CJ sighed.
"We should be so lucky."
"The Hoynes thing?" Abbey guessed shrewdly.
"That and others," she admitted.
"My husband needs someone he trusts at his back. He likes a lot of people, but he doesn't trust easily. You can replace John Hoynes with the finest, least troublesome, most politically advantageous candidate you can find, but if Jed doesn't think that the Vice President's got his back..."
CJ nodded. John Hoynes might be nobody's ideal Vice President on paper right now, but he was the one that they had, and he'd proven he could step into the breach in a crisis. It might be politically easiest to show him the door... but sometimes, you had to step outside the politics, and remember what, come the bottom line, you needed a Vice President for.
"It's gonna be a tough sell," she admitted.
Abbey smiled. "You put a man who once fell in the same ornamental Koi pond twice in one day in the Oval Office. I have faith in your ability to make tough sales."
CJ straightened up, and grinned in return. "Yes, ma'am," she said.
It sometimes seemed to Josh that the more there was going on in the White House, the less he actually had to do. He was there to hound, prod, harass, cajole, persuade and occasionally bribe people into doing what they were supposed to. When something big like the State of the Union was imminent, everybody inside the administration was busy working on it, and everybody outside put off troublemaking until afterwards so they wouldn't have to compete for media attention.
Which left him at rather a loose end.
After Donna finally lost patience with him bugging her, he wandered down to communications, skirting CJ's office on the theory that annoying the press secretary could wait until he'd made sure there were no easier targets in the area.
As it happened, one presented itself.
The Deputy Communications Director was frowning over something on his laptop; Josh could tell from the expression that it was a piece of his own writing he was cynically contemplating. It took him a moment to slip out of the trance and look up with an inquisitive smile. "Hi. What's going on?"
"Curiously little. I was going to go and annoy Leo, but it turns out Mallory already has that covered."
"So you thought you'd come and annoy me?" He sat back from his work.
"Yeah. What are you writing?"
"The State of the Union."
Josh blinked. "Okay, that's not something that should have been finished, say, sometime before we gave it to the president to learn?"
"It's finished," Sam confirmed with a short nod. His gaze dropped back to the laptop screen, and the pensive frown returned. "This is a redraft."
"It's the State of the Union, Sam. We don't usually release a director's cut."
"Toby wants us to get more aggressive with it."
"Toby wants many things, Sam. If we gave him everything he wanted, he'd be miserable." Toby was never quite so lost as when he had nothing to rant and rave about.
Sam's forehead creased unhappily as he contemplated his words. "Yeah, but... he's right."
"He usually is. Sam-"
"I know, I know." He sighed, and rubbed the back of his neck. "It's just a draft. What we could have said."
Josh pulled a face. "Okay, but you're going to write it, and then you're going to get itchy that we're not using it, even though you knew when you starting writing it we weren't gonna use it. And then you're going to sulk." Sam was one of the few adult human beings to whom that word could be seriously applied.
"It won't make any difference," he refuted, with a tired shrug. He looked up at Josh, and smiled softly. "I don't have to have the right words written down to know when we're saying the wrong ones."
Josh didn't have an answer to that, so he just moved towards the doorway, and lingered until Sam started typing again.
Chapter 16: XVI
"Well, dad?" Mallory took the opportunity to ask him, as Brandon slipped off to use the restroom.
Leo shrugged slightly. "Isn't he a little skinny for you?"
She elbowed him. "No he's not, and don't evade the question."
"He... seems to be rational enough. For a radio person," he allowed, with poor grace.
"I told you!"
"That's really not the point," he reminded her, taking a sip of his remaining coffee. It was starting to turn cold; they'd been sitting talking for a while now. Mallory's boyfriend seemed personable enough, and a good debater... but still. "Just because he's a reasonable guy doesn't mean you can bring him to the State of the Union."
"He's not against the administration, dad. He's not even against Hoynes."
"He just called for his resignation!"
"He said he thought it would be the most noble thing for Hoynes to do, to preserve the integrity of the office."
"That's a pretty fine distinction."
"Not that fine!"
"The media won't make it."
"Dad, what are the odds any reporter there has the slightest idea who he is?"
"You know, it's just as well I don't have low self-esteem," Brandon observed from behind her. She twisted around, and smiled up at him.
He didn't sit. "Mr. McGarry, I appreciate that you have the best interests of the president at heart, but believe me, I'm not acting against them. The press don't know me, I'm not out to court them, and I've absolutely no intention of causing a scene."
"And what will you say when these press who theoretically don't know you from Adam mysteriously do recognise you, and do chase you up, and do harass you into giving them a quote?" Leo demanded.
Foxton managed to hold his gaze. "The truth," he said simply. "That I'm there in an entirely apolitical role with my date, President Bartlet wouldn't know me if he ran me over with his bicycle, and my comments about the Vice President were made in the spirit of supporting the integrity of a government that's made me proud of voting for it more often than it's disappointed me."
Leo nodded slowly, digesting that. Mallory chose to speed the process by giving him another less than subtle jab with her elbow. "Dad..." she said pleadingly.
He wondered, resignedly, just how many government-shattering disasters had been preceded by the thought 'Well, okay, I guess it wouldn't hurt to let it go just this once...' "All right," he scowled. "You can bring him. But if I see this guy within fifty feet of the president, I'm retroactively taking back that car I bought for you in high school."
She wrinkled her forehead at him. "Dad, I haven't seen that car in fifteen years."
"That's okay. I'll take cash," he shrugged.
She ignored this threat, and leaned across to give him a kiss on the temple. "You're a sweetheart, dad," she smiled.
He rolled his eyes, knowing the president would be mocking him mercilessly if he could see this now. "Whatever you say."
Mallory stood up when he did. "I'll walk you back to the hotel."
"Thanks, Mal, but I'm allowed out on my own now. The president wrote me a note," he said sardonically.
"I wouldn't mind you being out. I just know for a fact that if I let you go now, you'll go straight back to the White House." She linked her arm through his as Brandon reached for his coat. "Come on, dad. Let's get you home."
There were times when Leo wondered just why the hell anyone imagined he was in charge around here.
"Goodnight, Mr. President." His aide gave him a warm but weary smile.
"Kiss Zoey for me," he ordered.
"Yes, sir!" his son-in-law agreed, with what Jed considered just a tad too much enthusiasm. He pointed a cautionary finger.
"That's one little kiss, no need to go overboard, Skippy."
"Oh, I think the ship's already sailed on that one, Mr. President," he smirked.
"Whereas the ship to take you to your new posting in Alaska is just waiting at the docks for my signal," Jed warned.
Charlie only smiled. "Goodnight, Mr. President," he repeated, as he shrugged on his coat and departed.
Instead of going straight up to the Residence, he walked through the West Wing. A light remained under Josh's door, so he knocked lightly on the doorframe, and walked in.
"Mr. President." Josh scrambled tiredly to his feet, but Jed waved him back down again. This was just a social call, really; he had an itch to be moving around, and he'd had a feeling Josh would still be here. He leaned against the back of the chair in front of him.
"Hey, what happened to that kid you wanted me to meet?" he wondered, after a little mental filtering to figure out when he'd last spoken to the Deputy Chief of Staff.
"He, uh- we sent him home." Josh rubbed the back of his neck. "He'll be back again tomorrow."
Jed dredged up a mental picture, already somewhat unclear; he saw too many faces in this job. He vaguely recalled spiky hair and a nervous, extremely young-looking face. "How old is he, fifteen?"
Josh gave him a small smile that made him think he wasn't the only one feeling his age. "He's twenty-three, Mr. President."
"He looks like he should be in school!"
"He's a good kid," Josh assured him.
"They're all good kids," he allowed. He sighed faintly. "Washington used to be full of old men when we got here. Now it's full of kids."
"Well, maybe your presence has rejuvenated them, Mr. President," Josh said, with barely perceptible sarcasm.
Jed cocked an eyebrow pointedly. "Your tactfulness is noted."
"Toby wants to write about the Lubbock County shooting."
He wasn't surprised at the non sequitur. "And what's your opinion?" he asked mildly.
"I..." Josh spread his hands and sighed. "I don't have one. Honest to- I don't have one."
Jed nodded, and let him keep talking.
"It's just-" He shook his head. "This is political, and that's my thing, and- everybody assumes this is gonna be my crusade now. Everybody expects me to be out there waving the banners, and..." He trailed off.
"Yeah," Jed agreed softly. He thought of all the people queuing up after the revelations about his childhood, expecting him to sign off on a dozen domestic violence initiatives. And of course he supported them, but... The fact that it was personal hadn't magically swept aside all his other duties and responsibilities, all the other issues he had to weigh such decisions against. It hadn't suddenly raised it above all the other things.
Just because you'd been through something didn't make it your personal crusade.
Josh looked up at him. "Do you have an opinion?" he wondered.
"On being shot?" He considered for a moment. "It hurt, and I'd rather not go through it again, and I'd rather nobody else had to go through it, either." He hesitated for a beat, then smiled. "Too simplistic, you think?"
Josh smiled back at him. "Maybe just simple enough." He stood, and ran a hand through his rumpled hair. "Goodnight, Mr. President."
He outlined it all, in bold, powerful words. The good words. The right words. Words that could shape or shatter the world; words that flowed straight from the subconscious to the page in a surge of fiery certainty. Exactly the words that needed to be said.
Toby stopped, and balanced his pen between his fingers.
A soft sound from the doorway made him look up. Andy knew him well enough by now to know that a loud interruption wouldn't be welcomed if he was caught up in mid-sentence; a quiet one wouldn't be heard.
"What are you doing?" she asked him mildly, when it became clear after a moment he was neither going to write on nor respond.
Toby hesitated for a while, then snapped his fingers closed around the pen. "Brooding," he admitted honestly.
She gave him a faint smile. "Working on the State of the Union?" she guessed. Though Toby's head was never less than overflowing with words, it was a rare speech that occupied him to such an extent that he didn't feel comfortable leaving them to percolate until the next morning.
He looked down at what he'd written. "In another universe, maybe," he conceded.
These were good words. These were the right words. This was the gun control argument he wanted to make.
And they couldn't use it.
He knew, much as it grated, that Leo was right. If they tried to launch this now, it would only drown in the controversy surrounding Hoynes and the concern over Bartlet's health. But he also knew that if they left it until after the State of the Union, it wouldn't pack nearly the punch they needed to have a hope of getting somewhere. Nobody would believe it was any more than the usual token flurry of quickly-forgotten meetings if they didn't announce it tomorrow night.
And the hell of it was... if they didn't announce it tomorrow night, then it would only be a few token meetings.
Andy leaned against the doorframe. "Coming to bed?" she enquired, with a sympathetic smile.
He stood, and tore the front page off his notebook. On his way out of the room, he crumpled it and tossed it in the trash.
Chapter 17: XVII
"CJ." Carol met her in the corridor as she walked towards her office.
"Good morning, Carol." She hastily downed the last gulp of copy and disposed of the cup. "Do we have that file through from-?"
"It's on your desk."
CJ sensed from her assistant's unusually sober demeanour that there was something unpleasant lurking in the wings. She led the way into her office and turned around when she reached the desk.
"News from Lubbock County?" she guessed.
Carol nodded, and handed her across a sheet of paper. CJ unfolded her glasses and slipped them on to read.
After a moment, she let out her breath in a slow, sad, sigh. She looked up at Carol. "The press have this?"
"They will have soon."
CJ nodded, and sighed again. "What a mess," she said softly, mostly to herself. "What a sad, sorry, pointless mess."
Carol gave her a sad smile of agreement, and diplomatically slipped away, shutting the door behind her.
It was a pleasant change to take a few minutes with his wife and just relax in the morning. No chance to stay in bed, of course, but at least they could actually snatch a little precious time together over breakfast. With, of course, the latest addition to their family on hand.
"Jed, stop feeding that cat your breakfast," Abbey chided mildly, without looking up.
"He's just looking," he protested innocently, as Buster nosed his way over the contents of his tray. "Whoa there, kid, that's a lemon slice, I don't think you're going to- see, what did I tell you?"
The kitten shook himself and blinked indignantly, before retreating to Jed's lap to try and lick himself clean. It was amazing how quickly pets seemed to realise exactly the same thing his daughters had: namely, that daddy was a soft touch for making a fuss over anybody who could make a convincing enough display of wide-eyed innocence. He ruffled the kitten's fur gently, and Abbey smiled at him.
"You look rested," she noted, looking pleased.
"Well, I had good company last night," he grinned. He never slept well without Abbey there beside him.
"Oh, like that kitten hasn't been sleeping on my pillow every night I've been gone," she teased him knowingly.
Jed spread his hands, all innocence. "Careful with the accusations there, lady. You can't prove a thing."
"Unless I bribe the staff."
"Ah, Buster has them wrapped around his paw. Don't you, Buster?" He induced the purring furball to briefly raise its head, and planted a kiss on it.
"Well, he's certainly got you wrapped round it," his wife agreed, but she smiled fondly. "Ready for tonight?" she asked.
He nodded. "Do I get another steak dinner?" he wondered hopefully.
"One's your limit. We want you lean and mean."
"Well, I'll definitely be mean," he grumbled, but it was pure habit by now. This damn diet was here to stay, alas, although he was allowed a little more wiggle room now that Abbey thought he was a little too thin. He'd never thought of himself as particularly overweight in the years when he'd been carrying perhaps a touch more padding than he truly needed, but now he was actually skinny - a word he couldn't have laid claim to since he was in his early twenties. In the grip of that bad cold he'd seemed frail even to himself, and it was a relief to feel so much better now.
Leo knocked, and let himself in apologetically.
"Good morning, Leo," Abbey greeted him, warmly enough considering the interruption. He gave her a nod.
"Good morning, ma'am. Sir-"
His Chief of Staff most definitely had his political hat on. Jed stood up, brushing crumbs from his lips. "What's up, Leo?"
"We've got Chad on the phone."
"Finally." He turned regretfully towards his wife. "Abbey-"
She waved her toast at him in acknowledgement. "Duty calls," she accepted with a shrug. He pressed a kiss on her in passing.
"How are you feeling?" Leo asked, as they left the Residence.
Jed stopped in the middle of the corridor, and held out a hand. "Hi, I'm Jed Bartlet. I thought we'd met sometime before, but judging by your question, I'm mistaken."
"It's the State of the Union," his Chief of Staff reminded him.
"Yes, thank you, Leo, I'd almost forgotten. Look, how about, if I keel over in the middle of the hallway you can assume it's a good time to ask that question, and other times, we take it as read? Is that too much to ask?"
"Well, I worry."
"I hate it when you come over all maternal. Good morning, Charlie."
"Good morning, Mr. President. Admiral Fitzwallace is waiting for you now."
"Thank you, Charlie." He gave his aide a nod, and kept on walking.
Fitz stood up to meet him. "Mr. President. We have the Chadian Ambassador for you on line one."
"Thank you, Fitz." He took the proffered receiver from a nearby military aide. "Mr. Ambassador."
"Mr. President. It is a great-"
"I'm sure it is," he cut the man off shortly. "Listen, Mr. Ambassador, we're less than twenty-four hours away from the State of the Union and I'm a busy man, so let's make this very direct. Was there, or was there not, an incident two days ago in which Libyan fighters pursued a Chadian plane across the border, where it promptly crashed somewhere to the north of Aozou?"
"Yes, Mr. President, there was."
He exchanged startled looks with the rest of the room.
"Yes. But Mr. President, on one particular you are mistaken. The craft did not originate with us. It was a Libyan plane."
"Hey, Sam." Josh gave him a nod over his coffee as they met in the hallway.
Sam looked grave. "You've spoken to CJ?"
"About Lubbock County?"
"Yeah." There was a brief beat of sadly resigned silence. "How did they find out?" Josh asked.
"Turns out one of the girl's classmates overheard her with the two boys. They were threatening to come over while her parents were out... there was no way she didn't know they were going to be there."
"Did she crack?"
"The girl? No. She hasn't said a word. But apparently, an amazing number of other kids started miraculously remembering things after the first one came forward. The boys had been harassing her and bullying her for years."
"And so, one night, they threaten to come over, and she sits up in wait with her father's shotgun..." Josh filled in, and trailed off. "What's going to happen to her?"
"I don't know." Sam shook his head slowly. "What should?" he genuinely wondered.
"Toby knows?" Josh asked, after a sombre moment.
"It's taken the wind out of his sails. He's not fired up anymore, just... depressed." By the look on his face, Sam was on his way to joining him. Some days, you were angry at all the compromises and restrictions that stopped you from getting out there and changing the world.
Some days, you wondered if you even knew where to start.
"You wrote the stronger language," Josh reminded him softly.
Sam gave him a small, quietly sad smile. "We knew all along we weren't going to use it."
They split up, and went their separate ways.
Chapter 18: XVIII
"Toby!" The Communications Director was passing as he emerged from the Roosevelt Room, and Leo gave him a nod. "Did you want something?" he checked.
"World peace, the ascent of logic, and a decent cup of coffee," Toby muttered darkly. He glared into his coffee cup with an expression that said that if it couldn't provide at least two of those, it was in trouble.
"This is the White House. We don't do any of those," Leo reminded him. They fell into step together along the crowded hallway.
"I have changed my mind about gun control. It's no longer this country's most vital priority. I want statistic control. There are people who should be banned from exposure to any kind of figures until they've demonstrated enough common sense to understand that two plus two does not equal a purple hippopotamus!"
"You haven't been looking at websites again, have you?" Leo winced. Toby's last foray into the world of political debate as conducted by anybody who could power up a web browser and type something stupid had not been a fun time for anybody.
"I have been quoted figures about increased crime in Britain since they banned handguns! Increased figures! Because of course, why should we pay attention to such things as critical values and statistical significance when you have the immeasurably better analytical method of 'look, that one's higher'? Why should we consider the differences in the system for crime reporting or every other social factor in the intervening years, when it's transparently down to the government taking away people's handguns? The handguns that almost nobody actually had! It was not normal in British culture to own a handgun! We are arguing on the basis of the removal of weapons that did not, in practical terms, even exist!"
"You're arguing, Toby," Leo reminded him calmly. "I'm just along for the ride."
Certainly, his input didn't appear to be required. Toby was still going. "Of course the increased crime figures are down to the removal of weaponry that only a tiny fraction of the population ever possessed! It all makes sense now. Just like our crime figures would surely rocket if they took away our bulletproof vests!"
"'Kay, Toby, are we going to have to put a childlock on your browser as well as Josh's?"
"We are governing a nation of stupid people, Leo!"
"I'm fairly sure that at least some of them are pretty smart, Toby," he said dryly.
"Then they should pick up blunt objects and start hitting people. There ought to be a law against being that stupid! We legislate against far less dangerous things. The police ought to be able to stop people in the street and administer a moron test whenever they have reasonable cause to suspect gross stupidity!"
"Unfortunately it would have to be passed by Congress and, well, therein lies the problem," Leo said. "Listen, Toby-"
He was, thankfully, rescued from the alarming prospect of defusing a ticking Toby by the sudden arrival of Margaret. "Leo? The National Security Advisor's on the phone."
"Excuse me." He hastily ducked into his office and picked up the receiver. "Nancy. What have you got?"
"Leo, the ambassador's story checks out."
He let his breath out in a gratified rush. "The pilot was a Libyan defector?"
"Yuh-huh. He took a dive over the border during a training exercise, and was pursued by the rest of his unit until he ran out of fuel and was forced to eject. The Libyans would probably have mounted a recovery operation, but Chad must have been informed he was coming because their forces got there first."
"Is this going to be a thing?" he asked warily.
"No. Libya's got too much to lose by way of ruffled feathers if something this embarrassing goes public. The pilot was high-level enough to be a humiliating loss, but he's not about to divulge any major secrets. Most likely Chad wanted him this bad just for the gloating factor."
"Are the Libyans likely to take steps?"
"Not with us watching. We'll keep an eye on the region for a while, but I predict they're gonna cool off and pretend it never happened for the moment."
"Okay. Thanks, Nancy." He put the phone down.
Toby was still hanging around in the hallway when he went out. "Nancy says the Chad-Libya situation's resolved," he explained.
"The current Chad-Libya situation's resolved," Toby corrected.
"You're a real little ray of bitter sunshine there, aren't you?" Leo noted.
"You know it'll only take the slightest thing for it to flare up again."
Leo shrugged. "Then we'll step in again. That's what we do."
"It's all we ever do," Toby said, and stomped off. Leo watched him go for a moment, then went back into his office, and got back to work.
He turned, and gave Josh's assistant a smile. "Oh, hi, Donna."
She was already on the move as he crossed the lobby to join her. "This way." It was an effort just to keep up. He thought working on the Hill had accustomed him to hiking between meetings, but people in the West Wing seemed to power-walk like they were training for the Olympics. Slip behind, trip, or get snarled up in the crowds, and half your instructions had gone over your head before you knew what was happening.
He found the pace, and managed to draw level with her. "Well, at least I'm getting in some practise at walking into the building," he observed. It was amazing how just being confronted with that big seal in the lobby magically disconnected your brain from your legs.
"Don't worry, the security guys are trained to deal with White House geekout syndrome," Donna reassured him.
Ash smiled. He was finding there was a fascinating kind of dual attitude with people who worked in the West Wing; for want of a better way to phrase it, a kind of irreverent reverence. There were few things so sacred that nobody would mock them, and yet underlying it all was a deep aura of respect. These weren't people who venerated the country and the work of government from afar, but rather treated it with all the familiarity you gave a much-beloved relative.
"I guess this must be a pretty busy day for the president?" he asked, as they turned another corner. The main core of offices in the West Wing was not actually that big, but the speed with which they travelled through them was enough to make you dizzy and disoriented.
Donna shook her head. "Big days mean a lighter schedule, if it can possibly be worked out. He needs time to get prepared if there are last minute changes, and he can't look tired on camera."
Ash thought privately that the president quite often looked tired in his press conferences, actually, but he still took the point; it was a dignified sort of weariness, one that said he had a lot of weight on his shoulders but he was bearing up under it, rather than that he was reaching the point of exhaustion.
"Then should I be seeing him today at all?" he wondered. At least partly out of desire not to be a burden, as opposed to raging nerves. He'd grown comfortable enough interacting with Josh fairly quickly, but there was a whole world of difference between the Deputy Chief of Staff and the president. Josh might have many impressive qualities, but an imposing air of dignified mystery wasn't one of them.
"Don't worry, you're fine," she told him absently.
"When will the president will be free?"
"Right now." They swung to the right, and suddenly there was the Oval Office. Charlie Young was there to greet them with a nod.
"Hey, Donna. Go right in," he directed.
Swallowing slightly, and wishing he'd thought to start psyching himself up earlier on, Ash followed her through into the Oval. And so, without further warning, there he was again face to face with his country's leader.
Or rather, knee to face, since the President of the United States was currently sitting of the carpet of this most famous of offices, trying to persuade his kitten to bat at a small fluffy toy of some description.
Donna swallowed a giggle. "Good morning, Mr. President."
"Good morning, Donna," he said expansively, with a flicker of a brilliant grin. He hauled himself up with the aid of the corner of his desk, and straightened his tie. Somehow, the utter lack of embarrassment about the position he'd been caught in robbed it of its indignity.
Still, there was no denying it had rather deflated the pomp of the occasion. Ash's jelly legs steadied themselves enough for him to risk a shaky smile of his own. "Okay, suddenly this isn't quite as intimidating as I was expecting," he noted.
"You hear that, Buster?" the president enquired of his pet. "You're bad for my image. Either you're going to have to learn to look properly dignified, or else we're going to have to trade you in for a tiger."
Donna grinned, and knelt to allow the kitten to sniff her hand. "He's a cutie, isn't he?"
"See. Right there. 'Cutie'. That, to my mind, is not a presidential word." His warm smile graciously included Ash in this moment of light-heartedness. His whole demeanour couldn't have been more different from the sternly unapproachable man he'd seemed the morning before.
Donna straightened up, and glanced briefly at the president.
"Okay, thank you, Donna," he said, with an acknowledging nod; a polite dismissal, but clearly more than just a formality. Genial or not, he was still the man with the power.
"Thank you, Mr. President. Would you like me to take Buster?" Donna asked as she was leaving. The president waved her away.
"No, he can stay." He glanced sideways at Ash. "You don't mind if he listens in on your interview, I hope?"
"As long as he doesn't take notes."
He was rewarded with an infectious grin, and relaxed a little. Perhaps this wasn't going to be so bad...
Chapter 19: XIX
"Hi. Changing jobs?" CJ asked sardonically as she spotted Josh and approached him. He blinked, and gave her an absent smile in return.
"No, just scenery." He ran a hand through his hair, and looked back down at the document he'd been reading.
"Well, what brings you to the wonderful world of communications on this fine and sunny day?" she asked him.
"Was that sarcasm?" he asked her, after a moment.
"Swear to God, some days I can't tell anymore." She nodded at the papers in his hands. "What are you reading?"
"The new language Sam wrote for the State of the Union. Have you seen this?"
"Well, given that I was under the impression the final draft was delivered to the president several days ago-"
"Sam listened to Toby," he explained, turning pages.
"Hoo, boy. I thought we cured him of that." Toby's frequent bouts of - she supposed you'd call it 'conscience', except that seemed to imply something rather too quiet to adequately cover a Ziegler tirade - were usually better defused or diverted than pandered to. It caused less heartache for everybody, in the long run.
"He has relapses sometimes. Listen to this. A time to unify... stand up and take ownership of our mistakes... nothing is fixable until it is faceable... we should be saying this."
"I don't think Toby would take well to the suggestion we should be saying 'faceable'." Sam, when left to write unchecked, had a tendency towards flights of poetic language that left his boss tearing out the hair he didn't have.
"We should do this, CJ," Josh said earnestly. "We can't keep going out there and pretending we fixed everything, because nobody believes us."
"It's the State of the Union, Josh, it's what we say. Last year, we fixed half of the country's problems, next year we're coming back for the rest." She shrugged slightly, acknowledging the faint ridiculousness of it. "It's what we say."
"Well, why can't we say it differently this year? Why can't we stand up there and be proud of the fact that we're not stupid enough to think we've got the answers to everything?"
"Because if we stand up there and say we haven't done very much, people might realise we're right. Then we're screwed."
"Yeah," he accepted, calmly enough. "I know." He rifled through the pages. "It's just that some days... you see something so bold and optimistic, and you just think... yes."
She tilted her head to one side to regard him. "You don't think we've been bold enough already to be getting on with?"
Josh shrugged. "Where does 'enough' start?"
Then he smiled, rolling his eyes at his own words, and shook himself out of it. "Come on, Claudia Jean. Let's get to work."
He sensed as they stood up that the interview had gone well. Bartlet was sharp, and quick to pounce on the slightest thread of hesitancy or uncertainty, but he was also good humoured and, well... just plain easy to talk to. The formalities of their meeting had wandered in and out of what would have passed well enough for a perfectly pleasant - if somewhat intellectually intimidating - conversation.
"One last question," the president said as Ash made ready to leave.
"Yes, sir?" he asked, turning back.
He flashed that twinkly-eyed grin again. "You think you're going to like working here?"
Despite his prior confidence, a wave of tension-relieving delight washed through him. "Yes, sir!" he agreed emphatically.
"Excellent. Come with me." This impulsive directive appeared to be tossed over his shoulder as an afterthought, but if nothing else Ash had quickly absorbed the prime directive of the White House: play along with the boss. He followed the president out, caught off guard by the pace he set. Seated in the Oval he'd shifted and grimaced as if feeling his age a little more keenly than he'd like, but he walked like a man who had places to go.
"Charlie! You can come too."
"Yes, sir." The aide calmly fell into step, without bothering to ask why or where. Ash was extremely aware of some rather more intimidating suited figures also flanking them. Security was everywhere and obvious in this place, but around the president the Secret Service were swarming.
Charlie seemed to know the route, but Ash was still too easily disoriented, and it took until they were face to face with Mr. Seaborn and Mr. Ziegler to realise they must have come to communications.
He had to admit, there was kind of a power trip in seeing people rocket out of their chairs, even if you knew you were only trailing after the guy they were doing it for.
"Sam, Toby. This is Ashley Bowers," the president introduced.
"Hi." Sam grinned brightly. Toby only gave him a surly nod, but he'd heard enough of Toby Ziegler's reputation to consider that getting off lightly.
The president immediately shifted gears and got down to business. "I hear you wrote me some stronger language," he said.
Ash didn't know the context of that, but the speechwriters both looked surprised. "Mr. President, that was just-" Sam began.
The president forestalled that with an outstretched hand. "I know. Let me read it."
They exchanged sideways glances, but there was obviously no possibility of a refusal. Sam produced a sheaf of papers, and hesitantly handed it over. "Sir-" The president waved his concerns away with a nod, and he fell silent.
The president turned pages, reading silently to himself. After a moment, he said "This isn't all Sam's work- Toby, you edited this?"
"I may have," he allowed. Bartlet nodded, slowly, and put on his glasses. He turned back towards Ash and Charlie.
"Listen to this. This is not a time for empty promises." He shifted into oratory so smoothly it made goosebumps rise on Ash's skin. "This is not a time to take credit for all the things we've done, when the things we've done are nowhere near completed. This is a time to stand up and say: 'We can do better'. We will do better. Our time here is not done, and we will spend every last minute of it fighting to make things better for our fellow Americans. All Americans. Every life we improve is a victory; every one that we fail is a human tragedy. I come here before you to deliver the State of the Union, and I tell you this: the State of the Union is a work in progress."
He seemed to have grown inches taller, but perhaps it was just that he was wrapping the world around him like a cloak, wearing it as if it belonged to him. "Our country has problems. We're proud to say so. We're proud to have the freedom to say so. We know we have problems, and we're facing them head on. We're going to face up to each and every struggle, and we're not going to falter, and we're not going to hesitate, and we're not going to sacrifice one tiny fraction of who we are and what we represent to fight them. We will not break down our ideals and our freedoms and give them away piecemeal for the sake of false security and temporary fixes. We will fight our battles, and we will do it on our terms, and we will do it side by side, as equals. As Americans."
He stopped, and smiled - a different smile, now, a fierce one edged with visionary determination. "What do you think, Charlie?" he asked.
Charlie nodded slowly, smiling to himself. "It's good, Mr. President."
"Yes, sir. It's- very good," he almost stammered, still too caught up in the spell of the president's speaking voice to expect it to come his way.
"I think so too." The president nodded to himself, and turned to face his speechwriters again. "Let's do this version."
Sam's face split into an incredulous grin. "Mr. President-"
"I don't want you to rewrite the whole speech, just change the flavour. We can do this. We should do this. Let's do this version."
"Mr. President, you are completely clear that you have to read this speech in less than twelve hours?" Toby wondered.
"Read, Toby," the president echoed. "Call me overconfident, but I'm reasonably sure you won't put any words in there that I won't recognise. I'm not asking you to write me a whole new speech. This is the speech you wrote - this is it, with the gloves off, and the teeth bared, and all the fire that was carefully smothered in diplomatic language. You don't need to rewrite it, because it's already in there - we just need to step right up to the plate from the very first word, and take ownership of it. Let's not pussyfoot around the things we want to say like we're ashamed of them; let's get out there and say them, right up front."
They both straightened up. "Yes, sir," said Sam earnestly.
Ash sidled over towards Charlie. "Does this sort of thing happen a lot?" he asked tentatively.
"Maybe not as often as you'd like to think, but yeah - more often than you'd suppose," Charlie agreed.
"They're really going to write a whole new beginning to the speech with only twelve hours to go?" he wondered. "And the president's going to learn it?"
"Well, 'learn' might be too strong a word."
"Watch your step there, Charlie, I've got a replacement ready and waiting now," the president warned, but smilingly. "I've had some experience thinking on my feet," he told Ash confidently. "And besides... these guys won't let me down."
Ash looked over at Sam and Toby, who had huddled together over the papers the president had been reading from. Having apparently completely forgotten the presence of the leader of the free world, they were already absorbed in babbling back and forth at high speed.
"Toby, if we're actually going to use this, we need a total-"
"-Complete rewrite, from the first paragraph to the-"
"It's been a-"
"-Long, hard... battle?" Sam tried hesitantly.
"Struggle," Toby supplied.
"It's been a long, hard struggle, and it's not over yet."
"It's a long way from over yet."
"It's a long way from over yet. America is standing on the precipice-"
"Get off the damn precipice."
Sam looked wounded. "I like the-"
"We already ditched the precipice."
Ash had to grin. The president and his Secret Service entourage were already leaving, but Charlie no doubt had that covered, so it was probably safe to linger and listen just for a moment...
"America is on... the borderlands between the chaos of indecision and the dawning of a new age of equality and democracy."
"Stands on the borderlands between the chaos of indecision and the dawning of a new age of equality and democracy."
"If we are to-" Toby raised a hand over his head and snapped the fingers without looking up. "-Pie, Bonnie, now. If we are to move forward from this... perilous juncture, we must... pull together? Drive together?"
"Unite. Enjoin. Unify."
"Unify. If we are to move forward from this perilous juncture, we must move in unity. In this dark age of- terrorism?"
"-Underground warfare and terror tactics, the greatest dangers come not from without, but from every compromise we make in the name of fear and hesitancy. We will not let outside forces divide us. We will not give away ourselves to try and buy an easy solution. America... is not for sale. It's not an ideal to be set aside when times are rough and picked up again when we want it. To protect this nation we must be this nation, and in our darkest hours we all must stand together. And so I come before you today-"
"-To deliver the State of the Union."
Chapter 20: XX
"Mr. Vice President." He rose from his seat to give a polite nod. More his own preference for formality than for Hoynes' sake - the Vice President might be very status conscious in public, but that had more to do with politicking than personal vanity. In private, he was blunt or informal as the situation demanded it.
At the moment, he was both. Relations had been closer between the president and his second of late, but this wholly dumb scandal of his had strained things, and Hoynes knew it.
"How's the president doing?"
"He's better." It was nice to be able to say that and mean it. Jed's health had been precarious of late, but ever since he'd shaken off that winter cold he'd been steadily improving. Hell, maybe it was down to Abbey's idea to get him a kitten. It certainly made for a more pleasant distraction than most of the things he had to deal with.
"I hear Toby Ziegler wants to go on the offensive on guns," Hoynes observed with cool wariness.
"And he will. But not yet." Gun control was one of the main areas where their Vice President was publicly known to be on the opposite side of the fence, and if it became a major policy issue right now when the pressure was still on to have him step down, things were going to get even messier.
"How many people out there are pushing for my resignation right now?" Hoynes wondered casually.
"We lost count when the intern we put on that had to take a bathroom break." He didn't bother to keep the sharp edge out of that. They might be defending Hoynes, but that did not mean they were happy with him right now.
"A lot of people would wonder why you don't listen to them." It was not quite a question, but it still carried an implicit request for a response.
Leo gave a very slight shrug. "That's because a lot of people are dumb enough to conflate 'best' with 'least controversial'. You're still in the game, John. You screwed up, and you screwed up messy, but messy we can fix."
He raised a wry eyebrow. "You think?"
"If the election was tomorrow, you'd lose it." He shrugged. "The election's not tomorrow. In three years time, you're gonna be glad that this happened three years ago."
"You're assuming that I'm going to run," he noted neutrally.
Leo shrugged again, this time a little more pointedly. "My tenure's up the same time yours is." He might have a certain personal loyalty to the Vice President and a political one to the party, but he was Jed Bartlet's man before both of those. "If you run, we'll back you. If you don't, we'll find somebody else."
Hoynes was nobody's dream candidate for the next election, although he was head and shoulders above the current crop of contenders looking to get in on the action. The party had their objections to him staying, and they weren't entirely wrong - but Leo's priorities were not the party's. They were already focused on refilling Jed Bartlet's seat in three years time; Leo was more concerned with what happened while he was still in it. A Vice President that Jed trusted to take the reins if anything went wrong was worth ten that would meekly do whatever they were told and not cause trouble.
Hoynes nodded slowly to himself, apparently satisfied with this answer. "Has the president got a moment?" he asked, standing up.
"Yeah, but probably only that. He'll be in the Roosevelt Room; he's been doing a couple of last minute runthroughs."
The Vice President narrowed his eyes. "Cutting it a little fine, isn't he?"
"Toby and Sam were rewriting a couple of chunks of it about five hours ago," Leo revealed, grimacing. Not that he didn't have faith in Jed's ability to deal with new material, but Lord, if he got the versions mixed up-
Hoynes's eyebrows shot up. "Did somebody let them have sugar after midnight again?"
"He felt it needed more punch." As usual, he didn't need to specify the identity of 'he'.
"Who's he intending to punch?"
"That remains to be seen." They were going to be skirting close to the edge tonight, he knew, but Leo still couldn't quite suppress a glow of satisfaction. There was something to be said for playing it safe... but some days, there was even more to be said for taking real a swing at it no matter what the chances of falling on your face.
It might go stunning well tonight. It might go horribly wrong. But either way, the real Jed Bartlet was going to show up... and he was looking forward to seeing it.
"Hi." Josh gave her the hazy-eyed vague smile that meant he'd been miles away, and was still on his way back. Donna entered the office and crossed over to join him.
"In a minute." He fiddled with his bowtie, and she took over by unspoken agreement. They went about the familiar ritual in silence, although not an uncomfortable one. She leaned back to regard him, and straightened his collar as an afterthought. He smirked, but didn't bother to tease her.
"The president's got the new speech down?" he asked her, as they started walking.
"Seems to have. Sam's crawling up the walls."
"Mm." He nodded absently, and she glanced sideways at him.
"I'm fine," he answered automatically. The lack of defensiveness more or less confirmed it, but she gave him a closer inspection anyway.
"This Lubbock County thing-"
"It's fine, Donna. Really." The smile he gave her was melancholy, but genuine enough. She returned it, and briefly linked her arm through his as they walked.
"You think this is going to be a better year for us?" he asked her.
She shrugged. "I don't know. But I'm gonna be optimistic anyway."
The expression broadened into a full-on grin. "Yeah," he agreed. "Let's do that."
They walked on.
Well accustomed by now to doing at least two things at once, Charlie went about his usual duties while talking over his shoulder to Ash.
"-You won't have to make coffee or anything like that, he has people to do that sort of thing. He has people to do all kinds of stuff, but we try to limit the number of people going in and out where we can. So you're gonna end up getting handed lots of things to take in by other people who stop at the door." He paused to quickly sign a piece of paperwork and move it to another tray.
"You always knock before entering the room. If he's alone in the office, it's okay to knock and go in without waiting for a response; if he's in with anybody apart from senior staff, you don't go in until he calls you. If he's alone in the Residence, knock at least two or three times to make sure he heard you, but go in after that 'cause he might be asleep. If he's in with the First Lady, knock loudly, and then run down the hall and hide behind the biggest Secret Service guy you can find."
Ash grinned at that. "Okay."
Charlie left him to find out the level of truth behind that 'joke' for himself. The president was a fairly forgiving employer most of the time, but in some areas he was more than willing to call an all out nuclear strike on the messenger.
Which reminded him. "If you have to give him a wake-up call in the morning, don't take his word for it. Call at ten minute intervals until he's actually standing in front of you. Don't, under any circumstances, allow him to talk you into letting him have a lie-in. He'll just go straight back to sleep and deny all knowledge of the previous conversation. Also, don't worry if he tells you you're fired. He fires everybody at that time in the morning."
Ash followed him as he went over to retrieve some files from Nancy.
"You usually don't need to worry too much about his moods," Charlie continued. "If he yells, he's mad, but it'll blow over quickly. If he gets angry quietly, stay out of his way." The president frequently raged at people to let off steam, but when he was truly, earth-shatteringly furious, he went dead silent and icy cold. "When he's in a good mood, you're not gonna be so lucky. Be prepared for trivia questions, bad jokes, and singing. The Elvis songs and greatest hits of the 1950s may seem scary at first, but they're to be encouraged. If you challenge him about his choice of music he switches to opera, and that's not fun for anybody."
"Maligning my father's musical abilities?"
He swung around to greet his wife just as the straight face employed for this indignant statement shattered into giggles. "Hi, Charlie." She flung her arms around his shoulders.
"Hey, Zoey." He gave her a kiss. She was visibly pregnant by now, a look that to his mind rather suited her, although it caused the president to glare at him even more than usual when they were together. It was getting a little easier to actually believe there was a baby in there, although despite Zoey's assertions that the little guy was doing the Macarena in there he'd yet to feel a kick. "You look good."
"I look like a beach ball in a prom dress, but thanks." She turned to Ash, and gave him a glowing smile. "You must be Ashley Bowers."
"Pleased to meet you, ma'am," he smiled back. Zoey rolled her eyes theatrically.
"Oh, Lord, another one. No calling the First Daughters 'ma'am'," she chided.
"Sorry-" Ash began, and cut off somewhat awkwardly without any way to end it.
"Zoey. Zo-ey," she articulated, grinning to take any sting out of the teasing. "We managed to teach Charlie to say it, so it can't be that hard."
"Sorry. Zoey," he repeated, practically blushing. He tugged at his collar nervously. "This is all a little... overwhelming," he admitted.
"I'm getting him acquainted with the ins and outs of the job before he starts next week," Charlie elaborated.
"Like dad harassing people with Puccini arias?"
"Exactly." Charlie remembered his own awe when he first started working in the White House - an awe that had, just as Josh had told him, never truly gone away - and started to smile. "Actually," he said to Ash, "there is one little thing that you could have a go at right now..."
Chapter 21: XXI
"It's on the teleprompter?"
"Yes, Toby, it's on."
"And it's definitely the right draft?"
"I checked, Toby!"
Sam narrowed his eyes. "Toby. I checked. I double checked. I deleted it and reloaded it, just to make sure. You checked. Three interns and two assistants checked. Unless we're suffering from group hallucinations-"
Toby appeared to assess this as a genuine possibility. He turned to snag the first available assistant. "Bonnie! Get on the internet, and find out the sugar content of the average blueberry pie, and how much it takes to induce visual hallucinations."
"Yeah," she said dryly, and continued on her way.
"I don't think she's gone to do that," Sam noted.
There was a brief silence.
"It's definitely done?" Toby said.
"The president didn't trip over anything?"
"He read it through twice."
"And we're happy that this final draft is State of the Union quality."
"Yes. No. I think we should read it again." Sam wheeled around to run back to the office, and Toby held him back.
"Yes. Of course it is." Sam straightened his tux. There was another pause. "But still, maybe we should-"
"Samuel! Mr. Seaborn!"
"Steve!" Sam turned around to greet his other half with a grateful smile. He immediately walked up and started adjusting Sam's bowtie. "I just did that," he noted, leaning his head back.
"See, this is why we don't let you dress yourself on big speech nights." He gave Sam a quick kiss on the cheek. "How are things in the Thunderdome?"
"I think I'm going to be sick," he admitted honestly.
"Well, fine, but you can do the laundry yourself this week." He stepped back and admired his handiwork. "There you go. You're a work of art."
"And adjusting the tie made all the difference," he said sardonically.
"It is the detail that makes the difference between 'good' and genius, my padawan."
Toby made an indecipherable noise. Fortunately, he was quickly distracted by the arrival of Congresswoman Wyatt. "Hey, Andy," Sam called cheerfully.
"Hi, Sam. Hi, Steve. Hey, grumpy." Andy gave her ex-husband a kiss. "How goes the rewrite?"
"It's done," said Sam. "Maybe. Possibly. Oh, God, we're all going to die."
"I think we should get going," Steve said wryly.
"I think so too," Andy agreed with a nod. They steered their respective other halves in the right direction.
They passed Mallory and Brandon Foxton in the hallway, heading for her father's office. "Don't look at us, we're not even here!" Mallory told them, rolling her eyes melodramatically.
"I'll introduce you to Toby later," Sam called after Brandon. Somehow, he had a feeling they'd hit it off.
"Should I ask what that was about?" Andy wondered.
"Sam's giving people invitations to the State of the Union for attacking administration policy," Toby explained.
"Hey, if you ply them with enough food and cheap liquor, it just might work," Steve opined.
"You never know," Sam shrugged. The energy of writing had transferred to walking now, and he and Toby both set a pace that the others could barely keep up with. The drafts were in, the speech was on the teleprompter, and it was too late for second guessing; nothing left now but to get out there and do this.
He'd almost succeeded in convincing himself he wasn't missing the cigarette he'd usually be smoking about now.
"Filthy habit," Abbey said, reading his mind as she took his arm.
"Yeah, but you'd have kissed me anyway." He smirked at her. "I'm irresistible that way."
"Smug, is what you are," she chided teasingly.
He raised his chin, but spoiled the pose by sneaking a little grin at her. "Tonight, I get to be smug."
"Yes, you do." She stood up on tiptoe to press the promised kiss on him.
They both turned as CJ came out to join them. "Sorry, sir."
"That's okay," Jed forgave her, just this once. "Is it time?"
"Not quite." She held up a slip of paper. "We got news through from Lubbock County. David Calgary's out of the woods."
News that, despite his best intentions, engendered mixed emotions, but relief that at least one consequence of this terrible tragedy had been lessened won out. "Good. That's good."
"Yeah." CJ gave him a sad, quietly understanding smile. "It's hard to feel sorry for him," she admitted.
He gave a slow nod. "It is. But we're in the business of doing what's hard."
You had to keep your faith in people, even when the news kept rolling in of all the terrible things human beings did to each other. The price of leadership was heavy enough without losing that underlying belief that you could change things for the better. If you didn't have that anymore, you didn't have anything.
Abbey gave his arm a gentle squeeze, stirring him out of his maudlin reflections. He smiled at her in thanks.
CJ cleared her throat apologetically, conscious of interrupting again. "Leo said to remind you that you must not, under any circumstances, talk to Mallory's boyfriend at the party after the thing."
Jed smirked. "See, when I try to have my daughters' boyfriends locked away you tell me I'm deranged, but-" Abbey gave him a gentle nudge. "Okay. I'll avoid the boyfriend," he promised, hands held up.
CJ smiled. "I'll leave you two alone, sir." She slipped back inside.
They stood in silence for a while, enjoying the night air. It was funny how, on this most important of nights, he had the chance to snatch a moment of peace and reflection that was almost unheard of in the day-to-day chaos of the White House. In the brief sliver of time before something big, there was a chance to stop and catch his breath that no one bothered to give him for all the little things.
The next year was going to be hard - just like all the years that had gone before it. It would be hard, but they'd get through it.
They always did.
The door opened, and Ashley Bowers emerged. His face was pink with nerves, but he stood up straight, and spoke levelly. "Mr. President? It's time."
Jed gave him a nod of acknowledgement, satisfied. Yes; that was another thing that he was pretty sure was going to work out. "Thank you, Ashley."
And now, it was time to do his job. He linked hands with his wife, and followed the young man back inside.
"Hey." Josh settled into place beside Leo, Toby, Sam and CJ. They acknowledged him without speaking; all eyes were focused straight ahead, waiting for the president to emerge.
The president walked in, and the texture of the air changed. You couldn't bottle it, couldn't define it - but there was a crackle in the air, a magic of confidence and mastery that made the room his before he even opened his mouth. All the signs of age and ill-health had melted away, and he was leaner, taller, younger, stronger... in control.
Beside him, Leo shifted in position. Josh didn't have to look at him to know how he was smiling. He could feel it on his own face.
The president took up his position, and smiled. "Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President. Members of Congress, distinguished guests, and my fellow Americans." The words rolled out like thunder, without a flicker of hesitation over passages he'd learned only hours ago. "This past year has been a long, hard struggle, and it's a long way from over yet. America stands on the borderlands, between the chaos of indecision, and the dawning of a new age of equality and democracy."
A ripple of tension passed through the room. This wasn't the speech they'd been primed to expect; a self-congratulatory parade of tested lines and carefully spun accomplishments. This was something different, bold and passionate, and who knew where it was going?
The president's imposing presence suffused every word with the ring of power. "If we are to move forward from this perilous juncture, we must move together. In this dark age of underground warfare and terror tactics, the greatest dangers come not from international threats, but from every compromise we make in the name of fear and hesitancy. We will not let outside forces divide us. We will not give ourselves away to try and buy an easy solution. America is not for sale. It's not an ideal to be set aside when times are bad and picked up again when it's more convenient. To protect this nation we must be this nation, and in our darkest hours we all must stand together. And so I come before you today... to deliver the State of the Union."
For a moment, just a moment, the pause was filled with perfect silence, and the reception of Sam and Toby's new, fired and impassioned speech hung in the balance.
And then the applause spread out across the room like the breaking of a summer storm.