Jed considered the man in the mirror of his bathroom, the pasty pallor of his face, the fevered air in his eyes vacillating on the verge of panic, the dampness of his skin. He would have recognized the omens for what they were, the telltale signs of an emerging episode even without the dense numbness in his legs and the way walking had become a balancing act. He needed to find his way back to bed, but the distance to it seemed to grow a few feet with every second he lost.
Supporting himself with his two hands on the porcelain washbasin, his knuckles whiter than his skin, he needed all the power he could muster to stay upright and to regulate his breathing. Now what?
He’d let Abbey go to the dinner with her medical friends, people he would do without gladly, but who wouldn’t let her get back until much later. Curtis was in the hallway and wouldn’t hear him, even if Jed would find the power to shout, past his wheezing, past the developing tremble that ran through his limbs. He was on his own and the champagne colored marble tiles under his bare feet looked unforbidden and solid. Best get down before I fall down.
He used his arms to cautiously lower himself, bending his knees, slowly, eying the floor down below, still two vast feet to go.
His legs lost their power abruptly, his knees buckling, twisting in unforeseen directions and slipping, his hands lost their grip.
He tried to break his fall with his arms, grasping downwards, behind him, but before he even felt the cold tiles he heard a ghastly cracking sound, as the back of his head hit the sharp edge of the bath that he had forgotten about.
Blackness overtook him.
“Honey, I’m home,” Abbey called when she entered the Presidential apartment, the carpet lush under her feet. She kicked out her shoes, scanning the room. She wouldn’t have been surprised to find him napping in a chair. He’d looked pretty weary when she’d left him, too pale, too sluggish.
When she didn’t spot him in the living or in their sumptuous bedroom, she opened the decorated door to the hallway.
“Ma’am?” The boy rose from his chair.
“Has my husband left?” He could have gone to the guest room, to CJ and Leo, even if he’d seemed a bit too drained for that, or he might have been called away for an emergency of state, no matter how tired he’d been.
“Uh, okay. Thanks. Good evening, Curtis.”
She closed the door and leaned against it. “Jed?” she called out, starting a full tour through their apartment, unease settling in her stomach.
When she found him in a too large a pool of blood, she stiffened, a low moan escaping her before her medical training kicked in. She registered that the floor held more than the critical two liters of blood, bend down to check Jed’s pulse, found it, exhaled with relief, pushed herself upright and ran back to the hallway.
“Curtis, an ambulance! Warn GW! The president,” she barked, “massive blood loss.” And in an afterthought: “Get CJ Cregg!”
Not waiting to see his reaction, she ran back to her husband, kneeling next to him, pressing a towel against the abominable hole in his head, caressing his cheeks, his chest, his arms, muttering his name again and again, while his blood soaked the knees of her pants.
CJ arrived in time to see medics rush the President off on a stretcher, Abbey and Curtis surrounded by two security details, jogging behind it.
A trail of scarlet blood stained the carpet where they had been.
CJ stood and blinked and rubbed her face, trying to interrupt the tremor of her mouth. Then she hurried back through the emptied hallway to the guest room, to Leo.
“This is Bertha McNeaby, reporting life from Washington DC for CNN. The President was rushed to the hospital tonight, suffering from massive blood loss due to a head wound. It is reported that he has not regained consciousness yet and significantly no predictions are made when or even if he will wake up. Congressman Burnaby, who speculated that the 25th amendment would be invoked soon, was attacked by his Democratic colleagues and has withdrawn his statement. Despite the late hour, a large crowd has gathered in front of GW, praying for the president.”
CJ sent Leo to the hospital right away, knowing he had to be with his best friend, knowing Abbey needed the support, but she went back to the West Wing first, to make sure the White House continued to function despite the President’s injury.
When she arrived at GW in the early hours of the morning, she found most of the senior staff in the robust unpretentious chairs in the private waiting room, talking among themselves in subdued tones. Leo and Abbey weren’t there.
“What’s the latest news?” she asked, standing in the doorway, taking them in, the jagged eyes, the whiteness of their faces, the unadorned dread of their airs.
Debbie rose and came over to CJ, guiding her to a chair. “Sit,” she said in a soothing tone.
Debbie had been aware of the five-some for some time now, covering for them if necessary; never letting on that she knew. She was convinced the President would be thoroughly uncomfortable if he knew she knew and even more so, if he realized she’d walked in on their celebration of his birthday on top of the Resolute Desk two weeks ago, but she knew enough to expect CJ to be distressed at several more levels than the rest of the staff.
“Can I get you something?” she asked CJ, quietly placing her hand on her shoulder.
“Anything will do. Thanks.”
The others looked at her white, withdrawn and reluctant to tell her something; something ominous from the looks of it.
“Spill it,” she demanded.
When the reaction didn’t come forward she focused on her wing man. “I need information, Toby. Now.”
Charlie sat down in the chair next to CJ. “It’s not looking good,” he said. “Mrs. Bartlet thinks he has lost too much blood.”
“Yeah,” Toby answered CJ’s inquiring look. “That’s what she said.”
CJ shook her head, recalling how she’d left Jed only hours ago, alive and well. She was unwilling to believe the worst. “Too much, she said too much? “Where is she?”
“Outside.” Curtis pointed. “At the door of the OR.”
“The Operating Room?”
“He cracked his skull,” Charlie said. “They’re repairing it.”
“But he lost too much blood?” CJ pressed.
“They are trying anyway.”
“I’ll go find her.”
Debbie intercepted her at the door and pressed a cup of water in her hands.
“Third floor, C wing, OR7,” she told CJ, but CJ already knew where to go from the time Josh and Jed had been shot.
Ron’s presence confirmed she had been right.
“Ron.” She nodded a greeting.
“Miss Cregg.” He inclined his head.
“Where’s the First Lady?”
Ron stepped aside, revealing Abbey who stood at the window, staring into the operating chamber, hugging herself. There were dark bloodstains on her blouse and on the knees of her graceful slacks. Leo stood close behind Abbey, his hand on her shoulder, transfixed by the scene in the room behind the glass.
CJ turned to Ron. “Would you mind asking Curtis to get her some other clothes, please?”
Butterfield nodded his accession. While he muttered something in his sleeve, CJ silently walked over to the pair. She slipped her arm around Abbey’s back, hugging her, leaning her cheek on Leo’s hand and joined them in the long wait.
At the break of day, the President was wheeled to a private recovery room. Without a sound, his security detail took their places in the corridor, their faces grim, as the medical staff hooked the President up on oxygen and machinery monitoring his vital signs.
Abbey crossed the threshold, caught sight of Jed and stepped back. His face had the color of death. His head was wrapped in a bandage that was barely lighter than his face. CJ felt how Abbey drew a shivering breath before stepping forward.
The doctor turned at their entering. “Doctor Bartlet,” he acknowledged her.
“What’s his status?” Abbey asked businesslike, taking over the clipboard from the young man to have a look.
As Abbey engaged the doctor in an inquiry using medical jargon that for the most part escaped the others, CJ walked to the bed to take hold of Jed’s cold hand, rubbing it.
She had often seen him sleeping and had taken pleasure in the boy-like quality that took over his face when he was dreaming, but now it was hard to imagine that this old white-faced stranger was the warm and witty man she had come to love. Involuntarily she checked his pulse.
“Is he alive?” Leo murmured against her upper arm.
“Yeah.” She leaned against him, grateful for his solid body behind her.
Abbey had finished with the doctor and turned their way.
“What did he say?” Leo asked.
Abbey walked to them in silence, her gaze at the worn out green linoleum, her shoulders drooping, her one hand holding on to the iron rail of the bed as if for balance, the other one wrapped around her torso as if she was hugging herself. When she reached them, she looked up, but her dark eyes didn’t seem to register them.
“Abbey?” Leo prompted, leaning towards her, taking her elbow.
She shook her head, closing her eyes briefly.
CJ placed a hand on the small of Abbey’s back, catching the eye of the doctor on the other side of the room over Abbey’s head. He bit his lip, cast a glaze at the President, and then silently shook his head.
“Abbey?” Leo asked again.
The small woman just stared at them, drained and lost, but they understood her now. Even if they were unwilling to believe it, they accepted her medical judgment. CJ and Leo enveloped Abbey in their hug and silently rocked her.
That’s how Ellie found them.
Abbey disentangled herself from Leo and CJ and staggered to her daughter; her arms open, clutching her in her embrace.
“Mom?” Catching her mother and holding her close, dread and confusion in Ellie’s voice. She made eye contact with Uncle Leo. The silent agony in his face did nothing to help her relax, nor did the waxen stillness of her father.
“Mom?!” She held her mother at arm’s length, demanding answers.
Abbey stuttered the list of Latin words the doctor had shared with her.
CJ saw the momentum leave the girl, a doctor in training who seemed to understood these words in all their finality. Ellie stepped backwards, her hands feeling behind her for the chair she’d seen there when entering and sank down in it, still watching her mother’s face.
“No,” she protested.
Abbey nodded. “Yes.”
“Will they not try anti-excitotoxic pharmacotherapies?”
“They will, but as likely as not it will have no effect. You’ve read the papers on it.”
Ellie nodded. “It’s diffuse ischemia, caused by the contusion, then?”
“Yes. MAP is at 48. His body just can’t do enough to reduce the intracranial hypertension”
“So what can we do?”
Abbey shook her head, at a loss, rubbing her arms. “Pray. We can pray.”
When Zoey and Elizabeth arrived and the Bartlet women huddled close, Leo and CJ walked over to the bed, kissed their friend goodbye and left the room in silence.
In the waiting room they found the others.
“He’s out of surgery,” Leo told them, while CJ slumped in a chair.
“What’s his condition?”
As Leo tried to fill the others in, Debbie pressed a cup of coffee in CJ’s hands. “Drink this.”
CJ thanked Debbie with her eyes. After a few minutes, the caffeine kicked in, dissolving some of the fog in her brain, making room for thoughts of necessity and command.
“So, what is the prognosis?” she heard Toby ask Leo.
Leo’s eyes clouded up and he seemed to focus on the Move-for-your-health-poster in the back of the waiting room.
“Leo?” Toby prompted.
“Our message to the press” CJ stopped Toby with a hand signal and turned so that they could all see her face, “is that no predictions can be made. But between ourselves,” she exhaled, “it really doesn’t look good.”
The others nodded gravely.
CJ rose and supported the still abstracted Leo to the chair she had just left, pressing the remainder of her coffee in his hands.
With her hand on his shoulder she turned to the staff.
“Charlie and Toby,” the men looked away from Leo and focused on her, “I need you at your posts today. So, if you could, please come with me.”
The men nodded and rose.
“Debbie, of course you are not reporting to me and I can see how you would like to stay, but if you can, I would appreciate it if you could go over his schedule and confer with Margaret what needs to be taken care of today.”
Debbie turned to Curtis.
“You stay here,” she ordered the boy. “I want to know any change. Any change and right away.” The boy nodded.
“I’ll keep you informed,” Debbie assured CJ.
That afternoon, after the President’s schedule had been rearranged and the press had been briefed, Toby walked over to Leo’s office. He found Leo toying with the letter opener Jed had given him decades ago, concentrating on how the gilded utensil rotated when he made it spin around on its sharp point.
When, after a minute, Leo started to twirl the letter opener around the other way, Toby knocked on the doorpost.
Leo looked up, looked down at the opener, dropped it and waved Toby to the couch, but Toby stood. He looked uncomfortable.
“Toby?” Leo asked, rubbing his eyes. He was too wrung out to deal with Toby’s complicated communication style right now.
Taking in Leo’s troubled face, Toby bit his lip and studied the desk.
“You want to drive me nuts?” Leo asked.
Toby shook his head and stepped inside the room.
“Nobody’s said it with so many words,” he ventured, “but I don’t feel that you expect the President to recover.”
The words hovered in the air between them.
Leo just stared at Toby, having tried to come to grips with that very idea the whole day and not succeeding.
“Recover at all,” Toby added.
Leo, after some hesitation, nodded. It was too difficult to admit, even to himself, to say it out loud.
“Then, wouldn’t this,” Toby appeared to be studying the painting above Leo’s couch, “be the time to inform the vice-president?”
He wavered as if he’d expected a sharp retort, but Leo’s mind wandered off to the lifeless way Jed had lain in the hospital bed and the finality of Abbey’s wordless message. The reality of it slowly seeped through, intensified now that Toby had lent his words to the facts: the chances that Jed would recover were extremely slim. They would be blessed if he would only open his eyes just once, before he…. Leo held his breath. He was going to lose him, he knew it now, he was going to lose him, he was - .
“Leo?” Toby interrupted Leo’s internal wail. Having seen hopelessness take over the older man’s features, unnerved by the way Leo now seem to be devastated, he felt it was his duty to press on.
“The 25th, Leo?”
Leo shook his head vehemently. He could not evict his friend. Not the man he had prompted to run for the office in the first place. Tears prickled behind his eyes. He blinked them away.
Toby avoided his eyes. “Isn’t it time for the 25th?” he asked the carpet.
“He’ll hate it,” Leo whispered.
“Will he ever know?”
Leo contemplated the question. Would Jed ever know? Would he wake up at all? Would he be alive at the end of the week?
He bit the inside of his cheeks to prevent his lips from trembling. He was going to lose him; his friend, his President, his lover, he was going to lose him. Hot tears welled up again, no matter how hard he tried to blink them down. Abruptly, he pushed himself up from his chair, needing privacy, and in a haze of tears he stumbled outside to the portico.
He sat down on the bench near the Oval Office, his head in his hands, his body shaking. When he remembered Jed’s clumsy attempt to seduce him on this same bench, he bend double, hugging himself.
Toby and Margaret stood close, but kept their distance, unsure what to do. Margaret held a glass of water, but didn’t draw nearer.
They turned when the door to the Secretary’s office opened and Debbie let Lord Marbury in the portico. The ambassador looked more disheveled than usual and, after a slight hesitating glance at Toby and Margaret, sauntered over to Leo.
As one, Toby and Margaret moved over to take a stand between the ambassador and the bench, bodily blocking the way, trying to grant Leo some time to pull himself together again. Marbury regarded them benignly, but Debbie shook her head at them, sharply.
“Leo?” John asked.
It was the first time Margaret had heard Marbury not refer to the other man as ‘Gerald’.
“John.” Leo looked up and miserably raised a hand in welcome.
John excused himself when he slipped past Toby and Margaret and sat down on the bench next to Leo.
When Leo continued sobbing, he drew him close in disregard of propriety and the presence of staff, making soft consoling noises and kissing the smaller man on his hair. They rocked each other on the bench.
“I came as soon as I heard, Leo.”
“He will die.” Leo clutched onto John.
“Yes,” John acknowledged, recalling the blessedly honest briefing Debbie had given him, “that seems very likely.” He delved up a monogrammed handkerchief from his pocket. “Sometimes, Leo,” he said, handing it to Leo, “sometimes, dying is not the worst outcome by far.”
Leo’s low wail drove Toby and Margaret from the portico.
“This is Bertha McNeaby reporting in front of The White House, where Jed Bartlet is now back once again, after the First Lady has taken the unprecedented decision to bring her husband home. It’s much debated if that’s a good sign or the very worst, as the condition of the president is still unknown.
The most likely next step that would confirm the grave expectations, would be when the vice-president and a majority of the department secretaries would send a message to the Speaker of the House and to the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, stating that the President is unable to fulfill his duties as President.
Once this message is signed and sent, the Vice President immediately becomes Acting President. It’s clear that that hasn’t happened yet.”
There was a body denting the mattress to his right, only inches away, emanating warmth and smelling like CJ. On his left side his mattress moved as someone sat down on the bed there too. The calloused hand of a man slid some hairs from his face and caressed his cheek with the back of his fingers.
“Any change?” he heard Leo ask.
The form to his right moved. “Nothing.” CJ sounded jaded.
Jed smelled Leo when he bent over him and gruffly whispered “Come back to us, Jed. Even if just for a few days… please…,” and, after a beat, hoarsely and almost reluctant, “I love you.”
It set off a warm glow in Jed’s chest, though the heart-rending misgivings in Leo’s voice worried him. I love you too, Leo.
He was sure he hadn’t said it out loud, but he felt Leo’s lips brush his face, lingering warmly, much gentler than normal, kissing him on the forehead in what almost felt like a farewell gesture, a sad and definitive gesture.
Not wanting Leo to leave, not wanting him to feel this forlorn, but unable to respond, to act in any way, a sense of misery overtook Jed, ripping through his contentedness like his mother had torn his old shirts to cleaning towels for their silverware, brutal and effective. He appeared to be losing his friend and it seemed too late to tell him what their bond had meant to him, unable to speak, unable to nod, unable to raise his hands to get his feelings across. Powerless tears formed behind his closed eyelids. He could not even stop them from running their course to the cushion.
The smell of CJ’s sweet perfume became more pronounced when she leaned over. A finger slid through the wetness on his face.
“Oh, god.” He heard her draw in her breath.
“What? Abbey’s voice, raw with fatigue and sorrow, floated in from the other side of the bedroom. Then the sound of high heels approached the bed.
“You can hear us,” CJ told him softly, moving her body closer, until he felt it press against his right side. Her hand stroked his face. “You are here, aren’t you, Jed?”
Yes, he was there. He had forgotten where he had been before, but now he was here. He groaned softly. It was the best he could do by way of confirmation.
He was rewarded with a sweet kiss on his nose.
“I knew you could do it!” his Chief of Staff praised him, a warm welcome in her voice. “I’m glad we have you back.” Her hand was on his chest now.
Jed was pleased too and tried to curve his lips in a smile, but somewhere between initiative and implementation he sank back in the heavy layers of exhaustion and deepening blackness.
“Though MS is reported to be a non-lethal disease, it appears that President Bartlet may be dying from it after all. The President has already been in a coma for 48 hours. Even if he would regain consciousness, experts agree that the severe trauma and blood loss caused by his MS induced fall, will have brought about extensive oxygen deprivation and possibly also have triggered the onset of the secondary progressive phase of his disease and irreparable loss of function, physically and mentally. How extensive the damage is, has yet to be determined.
It’s confirmed that the 25th amendment will be invoked as soon as possible. Vice-president Russell is reported to have entered the White House a few minutes ago.
It’s has also been suggested that the First Lady wants to move her husband to Manchester and clear the White House for the next President of the United States.”
On the other side of the table CJ had taken a chair. Her face was ashen and grim, and she seemed too tired to be a partner in this conversation, this historical moment, as Bob called it in his secret thoughts.
When he started to speak CJ raised her hand.
“Just a second, Bob.”
So they sat in silence and the weary sad cloud CJ was emitting covered Donna and Will, and then even Bob was affected by the despondency in the room. After a few minutes Toby entered, followed by Leo supporting Mrs. Bartlet who faltered forward with small wavering steps. The others rose at her entry.
“Abbey,” Bob acknowledged her with his southern charm.
“Bob,” her voice was soft and croaky.
When they were seated CJ opened the meeting.
“Mister Vice-President, it’s my sad duty to inform you that the best medical advice has confirmed that the chances that President Bartlet will recover from his current injuries are too slim to keep the country waiting for it.”
As exhilaration swept through Bob, he heard Donna moan in earnest distress. He nodded at CJ with what he thought was his gravest face, but nobody was fooled and wave of dislike washed over the table. Abbey had closed her eyes. Leo looked fierce and ready to strike the man who appeared happy with the turn of the events, but Abbey slipped a hand on his arm to hold him down.
“That’s why,” CJ continued, “I have to inform you it is time to take the steps the 25th amendment requires of you.”
Bob held his face straight this time and nodded solemnly.
“Thank you for informing me. I will take the steps needed.”
At that he stood and left the room, glad to leave the gloom and hurt behind and to start his new life as President of the United States.
Donna lingered behind and walked over to hug them all. They padded her, because she was one of them and would hurt as well.
“Can I help? In any way?”
They shook their heads. “Thanks,” CJ said for the rest of them. “You are welcome to stay, though, if you want to.”
At that they left together, leaving Will Bailey behind.
When Jed woke again there was a crushing pressure on his right side, from knee to torso, and he wondered if he’d had a stroke on top of everything else, until he smelled Abbey, felt her hair trickle his nose, and his right arm recognized her contours pressing against him.
Her body trembled, tears trickled down his neck, her arm over his chest hugged him close, too close for comfort, and she softly repeated his name, over and over again. There was a desperation and dissolution in her voice Jed couldn’t bear to hear.
Jed heard the man’s voice. He was almost certain it wasn’t his own.
“Oh, Abigail.” The smell of whiskey confirmed that it was John’s weight that now pressed down the mattress where he’d flopped down beside her.
Jed couldn’t see what John did, but whatever it was, it pleased him, because her sobbing subsided and, with an unsteady inhale, she relaxed against him. The tears still dripped in his neck though.
“I can’t take any more of this, John.” Abbey sounded immeasurably worn out.
“I know, my dear,” John’s voice was warm; gentle love and worry evident in his tone. “I’m not sure that we have a dreadful lot of choice, though.”
In response Abbey pulled Jed closer again, her shaky breath cooling the wetness in his neck.
He couldn’t take the distinct desperation that spoke out in her voice and her actions, but the control over his body was gone and he didn’t know how to tell her he was there and would not leave her like this.
With immense effort he tried to mimic the moan that had alerted CJ earlier, but he only managed a soft sigh that vibrated against his palate and hardly left his mouth at all.
The way she yanked up her head told him she’d heard him anyway.
He tried it again. It was difficult to remember just how he had managed it the first time, but now that Abbey strained to listen, she noticed the change in his breathing and the almost imperceptible contraction of his belly muscles as he tried to reproduce the sound that had stopped his love from crying.
“I hear you, Jed,” she whispered against his ear, the gratefulness in her voice unequaled by anything he could remember. He wanted to touch her.
“Are you sure?” John’s voice came.
“O yes.” She sounded happy as a kid. “Feel this.” A hand was placed on his abdomen.
Jed sighed to himself. So now he was performing tricks at her command, but as anything that made her stop crying made him happy, he let his breath escape in short bursts, shaking his chest and hopefully also the hand.
“Indeed.” John’s voice picked up the almost giddy joy Jed had noticed in Abbey’s.
In his private darkness Jed was drained by his performance. He fought the drowsiness that threatened to overwhelm him, entertaining stray thoughts about coffee and caffeine, anything that would help him to keep awake a bit longer and see to it that Abbey was fine.
“Open your eyes, Jed.” Her voice cut through the layers that separated him from the world. “Open them for me.”
With concentrated effort he raised his brows, hoping his eyelids would follow. They seemed glued shut after days of disuse.
“Don’t be alarmed,” she cautioned him in gentle tones she usually reserved for patients, “I’ll help.”
Good, he thought. Her fingers came to rest softly on his eyelids. When she slid them open, the brilliant daylight nipped at them. His eyes watered. She let go. The eyes closed by themselves.
“Do close the curtains, please,” John commanded.
Now that the eyes were no longer pasted shut, Jed could open them himself. It took some doing, though, to focus on the tableau around him.
He was in his bedroom, in Manchester.
His lovers and his children had gathered around the bed. Lying on his back, he could only see them in the periphery of his vision. He strained to move to a sitting position, but his muscles merely reacted with small spasms, not with any helpful movement.
Abbey, her hand still on his abdomen, felt his struggle.
“Do you want to sit?”
He looked up and down, trying to mimic a nod.
She smiled at him. “And what would be a ‘no’?”
Jed beamed inwardly, warmed because she had understood him so quickly and so well. He looked left and right in answer to her question and when she kissed him in response, he dozed off, fatigued by the effort.
CJ walked over to the door, wanting to give the family their privacy. John followed her lead. Leo, who was an old friend of the family, also stood up to leave and kissed Abbey softly at her cheek.
“We’ll be back later,” CJ said, when Abbey raised her brow at her.
They looked at her and then at her kids.
“Please,” Abbey added. “You belong here as much as we do.”
Leo scratched his chin.
“You are part of his family,” Abbey pressed on.
Marbury seemed skeptical of the wisdom of that statement in the full room.
“How’s that?” Liz asked a bit irked. “I mean, Uncle Leo obviously has been around since forever, but CJ and certainly the ambassador…”
She had already thought their performance more than awkward in the hospital when they all had been in shock and nobody cared all that much about decorum, but later on, small signs kept surfacing, indicating that the three visitors noticeably had more than just a working relationship with her father. The way the British ambassador had simply taken his place on the bed as if he belonged there, had only been the last of these unusual behaviors.
In GW it had neither been the time nor the place to ask the question, but now she would remain silent no longer. “Just exactly how are they related to dad?”
The three kids looked at their mother now, questions in their eyes. Zoey and Elizabeth looked a bit detached, trying to figure out how the seniors fitted in the picture too, but as if they were hoping not to be confronted with the intimate details of their dad’s life right now.
Ellie had none of these qualms. She had drawn her conclusion and wanted to protect her mother, fiercely.
“Are these dad’s shacks?” she asked, thinking of the grief this must have caused her mother and still must be causing.
A swift grin crossed Abbey’s face. It was too absurd, but then she realized that Eleanor was serious, and driven by love and the will to protect.
“No,” her mother’s tone made it absolutely clear.
Abbey hesitated a second, searching for the eyes of the Leo, CJ and John. Then she shrugged.
“If anything, they were our shacks.”
The children looked wide-eyed at the three newcomers.
“And we were theirs.”
“I would really rather not be called ‘shack’,” Leo objected gruffly.
“Nor ‘Gerald’,” John disclosed.
“Or ‘dear’, CJ muttered for good measure.
Abbey smiled a small smile. “Our lovers,” she corrected. Leo smiled gratefully. CJ slipped her arm through his as he seemed to feel particularly uncomfortable by the detached scrutiny of these kids that had bobbed on his knees not so long ago.
“You slept with all these people?” Elizabeth incredulously asked her mother.
“We did,” Abbey conceded.
The kids looked from one senior to the other now, looking for confirmation, trying not to dwell upon what three men and two women could do if they set their minds to it.
CJ nodded earnestly, Leo followed suit somewhat reluctantly and John sophisticatedly bowed his head in acknowledgement.
“Mother!” Elizabeth said, rattled and revolted.
But Zoey had a smile on her face. “And I thought I was the open minded one,” she chuckled. “Was it fun?”
The four of them suddenly grinned as one, warmed by the attitude as much as by the recollections.
Zoey pleased by the synchronized display of warmth, grinned back.
“Yeah,” Abbey answered. “That, and much more.”
“I can’t believe it!” Elizabeth again.
“Oh, I can vouch for it, if that is necessary,” his Lordship informed her.
“You…!” Elizabeth shook her finger at her mother, “I can imagine you to ….” She moved her hands in the air unable to phrase the words to describe the degeneration, “but he,” she pointed at the still form at the bed. “He is an honest and decent man. He would never….” She shook her head.
Zoey placed her arm on her shoulder, “Well, I guess he did,” she pointed out with a friendly tone in her voice.
Ellie placed her arm around Elizabeth’s shoulder as well. “And without asking our permission,” she added, a little mockery surfaced in her voice.
Elizabeth shook their hands off and stomped out of the room.
When he came to again, Jed was perched against a warm body, holding him up. The size, leanness and the scent of Lagavulin all conveyed John was sitting behind him, supporting him, his arms comfortable around him.
Jed leaned against him contently, John having been an intimate and indispensable part of their five-some for a long time now, before Jed opened his eyes with ease, scanning the room, the faces of his children and his lovers. Unable to speak, he looked them in the eye one by one until he felt he made the connection.
They seemed awfully teary to him, but, on the upside, the children appeared to react well to the others. Jed wondered if they were informed. By the undaunted way they reacted to John holding him and the way they mingled, he supposed their mother had taken care of that.
“Are you in any pain, dear?” Abbey asked him.
His eyes said no.
“But you are feeling groggy?” she prompted. She placed a hand on his forehead to check his temperature.
“So you’re doing okay?”
He looked at the ceiling at that. He was far from fine. He just didn’t need any fuss right now.
“Is there anything you do want?”
“What is it, honey?”
He looked at her wearily.
“This may take a while,” Leo grunted.
“If I were in his position,” CJ brought up, “I’d foremost want to know what the hell happened.”
“You want to be briefed?” Leo asked.
Yes. Jed looked at CJ gratefully.
So they briefed him; told him about the accident, the hospital and Bingo Bob’s visit.
He tensed when he learned about the 25th amendment and John soothingly rubbed his hand over Jed’s chest.
“It’s the way things go, Jed,” he murmured in his hair, “It’s the way of the world. We have more important worries.”
Though meant as support, Jed thought that far from reassuring. He raised his brows at his wife.
Abbey avoided Jed’s glare.
Jed exhaled noisily. It was the best he could do by way of a shout.
She looked up. He saw the sadness creep in her eyes and the corners of her mouth turning down as she studied him. When her chin started to tremble, Leo stepped behind her and calmly held her close, his arms around her waist.
“Tell him,” he encouraged her. “He has a right to know. He must know.”
Ellie and Zoey seemed a bit distracted by the casual closeness of Uncle Leo to their mother, but Jed feared the worst now.
Abbey stepped closer, bringing Leo with her to the bed. They both crawled near Jed. CJ followed suit and curled up on his other side, taking hold of his hand.
This was not a good sign. If he could only shout and bring them to the point. What?!
“You can feel us, can’t you?” Abbey asked, stroking his chest.
“So this doesn’t feel like an episode, does it?”
No Now that she mentioned it he knew that he should have noticed it before.
“That’s because this isn’t an episode, not anymore. You hit your head on the bath.”
Jed recalled the sharp pain and signaled he knew that part of the story.
“You lost a lot of blood. She sought his eyes. “Too much.”
She gave the verdict and he recognized it for what it was, even while he was holding her eyes and waiting for the slightest bit of hope. He found only distress there. She slowly shook her head.
“There was oxygen shortage, honey.”
He closed his eyes, contemplating the message.
The others waited in silence.
What was his future going to be? Jed opened his eyes and fixed his wife in a stare, willing his question to pop up in her brain. She looked back, reluctant to recognize what he asked, so he looked at CJ instead and saw she had anticipated his question. Her eyes were brimming, what didn’t bode well for the answer.
“Prognosis?” she asked Abbey on his behalf.
Abbey eyed CJ sharply for cutting short her escape.
“He’ll not be happier for worrying,” CJ gently pointed out.
“This can go on a long time,” Abbey told him. “But it will probably get worse. It certainly will not get any better. The damage cannot be undone.”
Zoey grabbed her older sister’s hand.
Jed contemplated what Abbey told him.
It was over. He closed his eyes again, needing the privacy for his desperation. That it should come to this. A stupid fall. He tried to appreciate the irony, but failed. It was just too appalling to be reduced to this, to be incapacitated forever and to cause grief on top of that. He had made up his mind about this sort of a situation long ago, a few months after he was diagnosed with MS. He just had not expected to be implementing it so soon. But here it was.
It was clear to him this should not go on indefinitely.
He opened his eyes and signaled No.
“Yes,” she answered, thinking he objected the diagnosis.
Abbey swallowed, as if she thought he was struggling with the truth and didn’t want to force it on him, but felt obliged to nevertheless. “There’s nothing that can be done, Jethro. We’ve gone through all the possible options, and some of the impossible too.”
“Yes, you accept that there is nothing that can be done?” Leo asked.
Jed sighed inwardly. How could he tell them he refused to live like this?
So he told them by answering No to everything. Signaling no, no, no to whatever they asked and even when they did not ask a thing. Sometimes the movements of his eyes made him nauseous, and then he stopped for a little while to rest. But after a short time he would take on his constant cry of no, no, no, no.
Abbey was the first to grasp his meaning. As the others kept on guessing, she turned an unhealthy shade of green and withdrew from the bed, turning to the window, unable to look at him.
Jed noticed it and stopped signing, watching her. Knowing she knew. The others stopped their quizzing of him to look at her too. In that silence she turned, seeming suddenly to be all of her 61 years. She looked trapped and defenseless when she met his eyes and asked the inevitable.
“You want this to end, honey?”
Yes. He exhaled; glad they had come to the point.
“You want us to end this?” she elaborated. His children held their breath.
Yes. Zoey clutched Ellie.
“Are you sure?”
“Please say ‘no’.” She simply wanted to check their language, he knew.
He saw her draw a deep breath. Understanding him, but he saw how this exchange wounded her and how she staggered. Their children moved closer to support her.
“Now?” Abbey had to ask it, her eyes praying he wouldn’t say yes; explaining she couldn’t stand to lose him tonight.
She started breathing again, though she forced herself to go on.
Tomorrow, he thought.
It’s tomorrow, she sensed, but she didn’t ask.
Mild mention of the five-some Jed/Abbey/Leo/CJ/Marbury established in The West Wing Multiples, in bed together, but brief and hardly specific. If that is not for you, scroll the word Toby.
That night the five of them slept together in the Bartlet master bedroom, hugging each other, hanging on to the warmth he was still emitting. They had asked Abbey if she would not rather be alone with him, but she insisted they should be together his last night. Even though he had never said it, they understood that too.
They peacefully made love that night, as Abbey hoped they would when she invited them. After some hesitation, Leo guided Jed’s powerless hands to his wife and Jed was grateful to feel her body one last time, even if he did not entirely agree with the choices made by Leo in touching her.
Abbey, aware of the differences between Leo and Jed in loving her, asked CJ to spoon against Jed’s back and help out, having come to depend on what the others called CJ’s psychic intuitions, but what Jed soon recognized as a gentle, reined in, replay of his favorite way of making love to her.
When the other men noticed his pleasure, they smiled fondly and gave wide berth to Abbey and CJ, slowly helping themselves at each other for good measure and old time’s sake.
At last they fell asleep, leaving him awake, looking at the ceiling, contemplating his life and trying to make peace with what was to come.
In the West Wing, Toby’s phone rang for nearly two minutes.
“Yeah!” he shouted in the horn, not bothering to be polite, irate because of Bob’s order to make room for his own communications personnel in 48 hours, frustrated because both CJ and Leo had withdrawn to Manchester and left the minute details of the retreat to him.
“Toby?” CJ’s voice was soft and sad on the other side.
“CJ?” Pissed as he was, he adjusted his tone to hers, fearing what was to come.
“Yeah. It’s me.”
“How’s it going?”
He waited in silence.
“He’ll receive the Last Rites today,” CJ continued. “It’s a Catholic sacrament that…”
“He’ll die very soon.” Her voice was not much more than a whisper.
Toby nodded. The sacrament had made that very probable. “I want to come.” However much it would hurt, however much it interfered with Bob’s planning, he wanted to be there.
“Do come. The ceremony will be at two. But please, if you can, brief the press first. They have to know, they have to expect.”
“Yes, I can do that.”
Abbey and CJ had prepared the bedroom; placed a table were Jed could easily see it, covered it with a white cloth, placed the crucifix that had belonged to Jed’s mother on it, and flanked it by two candles.
Father Cavanaugh had come over from Hanover and was guided by Abbey to the bedroom. The others filed out when they entered.
“Jed, can you hear me?” The priest softly placed his hand on Jed’s upper arm. Jed opened his eyes and took in his old priest.
“Yes,” Abbey translated.
“Do you want me to hear your confession?”
“Yes,” Abbey echoed.
Father I have sinned. Jed started the familiar phrases in his head and then looked wearily at the priest. He had no way to voice his sins, or his regrets. He looked deflated.
Father Cavanaugh nodded kindly. “Even if I can’t hear you, Jed, God still can.”
Jed gratefully closed his eyes and sought his God with his mind, acknowledging to Him his transgressions, bowing down for his greater wisdom and asking pardon, salvation for his soul, surrendering himself to God’s grace and judgment. He took the time to be thorough and honest with God, making peace with Him on this final day of his life.
For these and all the sins of my past life, I ask pardon of God; penance, and absolution from you, Father.
He opened his eyes again and looked at the priest, who took his lead.
“Dominus noster Jesus Christus te absolvat. May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you; and by His authority, I absolve you so far as my power allows and your needs require.” Father Cavanaugh made the sign of the Cross. “Thereupon, I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Jed noticeably relaxed now he had made his peace with God. He sank back deeper in the bed, drained from the strain and the effort. His eyes closed.
“Jed?” Father Cavanaugh looked concerned at Abbey. She brushed Jed’s throat with her hand.
“He’s asleep,” she reassured him. “It’s okay.”
“How do you want to progress?” Father Cavanaugh carefully worded his question. There was no need for Jed to be conscious to receive the Last Sacrament.
“Why don’t we let him have his nap?” Abbey suggested. “I’m sure he would like to be aware of it, if he can.”
From one o’clock on, the house filled with his friends. Debbie had already been there for days. Toby drove in and brought Donna and Charlie. Nancy and Kate had come together, Josh and Donna had left Santos, and Sam had flown in from California.
When Mrs. Bartlet and the priest came downstairs, she wordlessly embraced them all.
“He’s asleep now.” They nodded solemnly.
“Does anyone care for lunch?” she smiled at them, trying to lighten the mood.
That brought on some polite murmured answers and a number of rejections from people who didn’t think they could eat now, but then Toby asked for coffee and when Abbey pointed them to the kitchen, Debbie took charge and everyone followed her to take care of somebody else.
CJ saw the group leave the living and sank in the couch next to Abbey.
“How are you?” She took hold of Abbey’s hand and interweaved their fingers.
Abbey sighed, letting go of the tension, and leaned into CJ for comfort.
“I just don’t want him to die.”
CJ slipped her arm around Abbey and held her close.
“Me neither, Abbey, me neither.”
When everyone had had something to eat, Zoey and Charlie came downstairs, holding hands.
“He’s awake and asks if someone would care to proceed before he dies waiting,” Zoey announced
“He said that?” Toby was taken aback.
“Not with so many words,” Zoey admitted.
“But it was pretty obvious that’s what he meant,” Charlie added.
“Was it now?” Abbey smiled. She could very well imagine that was exactly what her husband was thinking. “Then perhaps we should humor him. Just this once.”
When they all had found a place in the corners of the bedroom, Father Cavanaugh calmly started the rites.
“Peace to this house,” he sought eye contact with Jed.
“And all who dwell therein,” Abbey, the kids, Leo and CJ responded from their Catholic upbringing. The others stood in solemn silence, grateful to be able to be part of this, and despondent to know this was their farewell to a great man.
Father Cavanaugh traced a cross on Jed’s forehead with holy oil.
"Through this Holy Anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit."
He then traced a cross on Jed’s palms. "May He who frees you from sin save you and raise you up."
“Amen.” Even the non-Catholics joined in that blessing.
After the ceremony the visitors one by one stood near Jed’s bed to say goodbye. Some like Nancy and Josh soberly nodded their respects, others like Donna touched him warmly. Toby was not the only one to whisper something in his ear or to softly kiss him.
Jed found the strength to stay awake and look at them, with knowing and grave eyes silently blessing them and thanking them. Though no words were heard, most knew what he did and they left the room forlorn by the definitiveness of the farewell.
When all the guests had left, they gathered in the living.
“I have diplomatic immunity,” Lord Marbury reopened the discussion.
“I’m his wife,” Abbey countered.
“Certainly you are, Abigail, but you have enough concerns as it is.”
“Still.” She was unwilling to put this dreadful task in the hands of someone else.
“I love you,” John told her, covering her hand with his own, “I’m devoted to the both of you. It would be my honour and duty.”
“Well, I would certainly not want to spoil any plans you have, John,” CJ interceded, “but somehow I don’t expect diplomatic immunity to extend to the killing of foreign heads of state.”
The look he cast her, told her he had been very much aware of that.
“Jed is that no longer,” Leo pointed out. “And if John here wants to kill Bingo Bob too, he has my blessing.” Leo knew how to hold a grudge.
“Quite right, Gerald.”
Leo cast him an exasperated look at the mode of address.
“Sorry. Not amusing at all. But I still stand by my offer. Let me be the one.”
Jed saw them coming, his wife, his daughters, his lovers. They looked unanimously grim.
He wanted to crack a joke to lighten the atmosphere. One of the ones his daughters had classified as ‘bad’ would do the trick, he thought, but since he was unable to do that, he just watched how they shuffled uncertainly around the bed, each with their own doubts, all with pain in their eyes.
He felt the agony too, though less now after the sacraments than before, but there was still the torment of leaving them, the pain of hurting them.
He was relieved too. Immensely relieved that Abbey could and would do this for him. That she would not let him linger and slowly wither away, but end his suffering, allowing him to end their suffering too.
She took hold of his hand.
“Are you sure, love?”
“And now is the time?”
“Before we go on, is there anything you want, honey?”
She chuckled dryly. She could have seen this one coming.
“Not the guessing game all over again.”
He wriggled his eyebrows at her in response to her cheek; glad that the tension was dropping. It was going to be difficult enough without it.
“CJ?” Abbey looked at her friend.
“Hey, don’t look at me. I’m no psychic.”
But Jed looked at her too, remembering her helpful performance that night.
“Why don’t you endeavor it, my dear?” John asked.
CJ shook her head at Jed, sat down on his right side and took his hand.
“A last cigarette, perhaps?”
Abbey chortled. Jed grinned to himself. Way to go girl.
“A last kiss?” That was not was he was thinking of, but he wouldn’t mind. He flashed his brows at her.
CJ kissed him nevertheless, and then sat back to think, considering him. She recalled the solemn occasions she had been in with him, and how he’d always altered them to fit his wishes.
“It’s about how we do this?” she asked.
“Well done, my girl,” John congratulated her.
“Please tell me you don’t want this to be formal, solemn and profound?” Leo objected deeply to the idea, none to fondly remembering the fuss with the Bible for the second inauguration. But then, if it was his friend’s wish…
“Thanks.” Leo nodded.
Abbey was sure Jed chuckled. She slipped on the left side the bed, burrowing against him, laughing with him at the little teasing game.
“Yes?” Leo asked.
“Yes what?” Leo was at a loss, never having heard a question.
Abbey looked up at Jed.
“You want to cuddle?” Abbey mumbled in his ear, “Is that it?”
She slipped her leg between his and rolled over to come to rest on top of him, bracing herself with her hands so that he didn’t have to carry her weight, and looked him in the eye. Ellie blushed and Liz looked at the wall behind the bed. The others just smiled.
“That’s your dying wish, Josiah Bartlet?” She was a bit surprised, having expected him to go for solemn and profound, just as Leo had, but not displeased he now chose warmth above decorum.
“That and the kissing thing CJ mentioned, I recon?”
“Well okay than.” She tried to sound casual, but when she bent down to kiss him he could feel the trembling of her mouth against his.
This was it; the last time she would hold him like this, the end of their marriage, the end of their affair. When the realization knocked her over, she clung to him, despite her resolve. Her body shook as she caved in, not wanting to give him up, no matter how disabled. They would find a way to communicate. They had to.
Tasting the salt of her tears, Jed’s silently cried too. He abhorred hurting her like this, but he smarted even more for not being able to comfort her, to hold her.
CJ, who saw his agony and his helplessness, supported his powerless hands to Abbey’s back and neck. He was glad she did, but it also strengthened his resolve. They could not go on like this. It would not get any better as time went by. It would only hurt more.
So he waited until Abbey’s breathing eased and she watery looked him in the eye again.
He held her gaze in a battle of wills.
Let me go.
“Don’t go, Jed.”
Please, let me go.
“Please stay.” Her big green eyes filled up with tears again
I can’t, sweetheart, I can’t.
“I love you.”
And, oh, how I’ve loved you, Abigail Ann, my life.
He closed his eyes. Ending the conversation. His mind made up.
This had to stop right now.
Leo and John transferred Jed to the center of the bed, with tender care and measured movements, to make room for the others on the sides. Abbey found her place behind him, holding him in her arms as she had so many times before, stroking his chest, cherishing in the solid pounding of his heart.
The others clambered near them, his kids to his left, CJ and Leo to his right side, and they huddled close, touching him, caressing him, leaving John standing at the foot of the bed holding the syringe Abbey had prepared.
When they had all found their paces and were done hugging and kissing Jed, John cleared his throat. They looked up at him.
“Josiah,” he looked directly at Jed, who watched him, a solemn expression in his eyes. “If anything, I can empathise with your desire to go and look for greener pastures.”
Abbey rubbed her cool cheek against Jed’s ear. Jed relaxed against her, relieved she was with him in this.
“I’m, however, not overjoyed” John resumed, “that you abandon us without a forwarding address…”
Abbey tensed and looked away. John waited for her, allowing her what time she needed. She swallowed, signalling him to go on.
“… and that you don’t seem to be considering coming and visiting us once in a while.”
Leo smiled at the thought of having a Bartlet ghost. He sent Jed one of his crooked smiles, fearing Jed might contemplate the same thing.
“Though I’m an atheist myself,” John carried on, “I most certainly hope you will find what you seek, and I wish to God, your God that is of course, that there is just a blink of a possibility to see each other again, later.”
John bleakly smiled back at him. “I do hope you are right.”
“Now,” he composed himself, “not having inquired before, I have to ask you this before I will perform this… ah, service. Do you truly desire me to …” John looked pointedly at the syringe “ … end your life for you?”
I do. Yes.
“Then, I will miss you.”
Jed regarded him quietly. Trusting him with his life.
John stepped forward. “Miss Bartlet,” John addressed Ellie, because she was holding her father’s left hand. “Would you be so kind as to present his arm?”
Ellie swallowed, not having guessed she would participate this close in her father’s death.
Do it, Ellie.
Ellie complied and held up Jed’s arm.
“Please hold it still,” John asked bending forward.
Jed looked away when the syringe came close, never having been one for needles. He felt the point slide through his skin.
“There. Well done,” John complimented Ellie.
Jed let go of his breath and looked at John.
He was profoundly grateful.
I’m in your debt.
“You are welcome.”
The lord regarded him warmly, knowing he would not see these wise eyes again, nor meet this soul. He then inclined his head in farewell, put down the syringe on the nightstand and clambered on the bed to find his place behind Leo, wrapping the despondent looking man in his arms.
The medication took effect almost immediately. Jed’s body sank back into his wife’s arms and when he felt death enclosing him in her embrace, he gave himself over to the beckoning oblivion. Caressed by seven pair of hands, he closed his eyes.
They studied his face, saw oblivion take him over and watched his breathing slow down. With a final sigh, his body relaxed. Abbey, whose hand had been on his heart, softly whimpered when it stopped beating. The desolate sound hurt their souls and they clambered up to her, trying to comfort her, but they were too empty and at loss themselves by the suddenly lifeless body in their midst, to do much more than weep with her.
They lay there for a long time, holding Jed’s body and embracing each other, until Debbie knocked on the bedroom door and, without waiting for a response, wheeled in a trailer with sandwiches, coffee and hard liquor.
John nodded his thanks to her, having asked her to do that.
But Debbie stood transfixed by the sight on the bed. Her hands flew to her mouth. The blood left her face and she swayed a little, taking in the lifelessness of the President and the dejection of the others.
John with difficulty let go of Leo and stiffly crawled from the bed.
“There, there,” he said to Debbie, supporting her to a chair. “Better sit. Here,” he poured her a whiskey. “Drink.”
After a swig Debbie retook herself and looked up at him.
“And you couldn’t have warned me?”
“No, my dear girl, unfortunately not. You’ll see why, if you come to think of it. But,” he bent forward, “I do apologize.”
Her left brow rose, emphasizing what little use she had for his excuses right now.
“You are welcome,” he reacted affably and poured himself a drink.
“Anyone else?” He held up the bottle to the group on the bed.
“Yeah,” Leo said. “Make it a double one, please.”