"How are things with Steven?" Meg had been back at school about a month, and sophomore year was, at least, starting off somewhat more smoothly than the spring semester of her freshmen year had. Juliana was sitting on her bed on the other side of the room with her headphones on, in deference to Meg's phone call. She had the music up high enough that Meg could hear it through the headphones, which maybe defeated the purpose a little bit, but she was listening to the Ramones, so Meg was willing to let it go.
"Better," Preston said. "There seems to have been some sort of détente between him and your parents, and he's only gotten into one fight so far this year at school."
School had been back in session for Steven for about three weeks. "That has to be some sort of record for him," Meg said, trying to sound impressed.
"It's his superb upbringing," Preston said in serious tones. "Not to even mention the removal of some riff-raff who were bringing him down to a rather low level."
Meg nodded, even though Preston couldn't see her through the phone. "You're around a lot less now that I'm not there to both startle and entertain you with my brilliance."
"True," said Preston sadly. "Madame President asked me to restrain my more base impulses towards pugilism when around the younger Powers, but I fear I am unable to curb my influence over them."
"Pugilism," Meg said, amused.
"Unfortunately so." Preston was grinning. She was sure of it.
Meg could picture him sitting there in his office in the West Wing, despite it being - she glanced at her alarm clock – past nine at night. She'd bet money he had his jacket off – though it was most likely hanging carefully folded over the back of a chair – and possibly even his tie loosened.
She thought about that. Well. Slightly loosened.
"Meg?" Preston said. "He really is doing better. The summer helped."
"Right," she said. Summer had been – not as bad as she had feared, though yeah, there had been the usual round of operations – one more on her knee, which had been somewhat successful, or maybe it was just that more time had passed and some things had to start healing, eventually. Even goddamn never-ending knee injuries. She still had the brace, but the cane had pretty much permanently replaced the crutch, and her bad leg was – not as bad as it had been. The foot was flopping less, and the knee itself was way less likely to give out at alarmingly unpredictable intervals. "And the President and the First Gentleman?"
She had to steel herself to ask. The summer had been – somewhat rocky on that end.
A slight pause, but a thoughtful one. "Better, as well, I think."
Meg chewed on the inside of her lip, watching Juliana headbang to the tinny music leaking out of her headphones across the room, and tried to decide if he was telling her the truth.
"Having you around this summer helped them, too, Meg," Preston said.
"It's a whole boatload of fun being the spiritual advisor to an entire family," she said, perhaps somewhat bitterly.
"You're a veritable moral compass," Preston said without hesitation. "So long as we're speaking in hyperbole," he added.
Which. Okay, point. It just felt, sometimes, like she was the lynchpin holding her entire family together, and she was fucking nineteen years old. "It gets to be a little much, sometimes," she said defensively, tucking her bad hand against her chest. She sighed. "I don't always have the answer to everything."
"I don't either, Meg." Preston's voice was quiet. "But right now, tonight? Things are going better. And sometimes that's the very best we can ask."
"Are you almost done?" Juliana said tonelessly over the music in her ears. She got up from the bed, coming over to bounce next to Meg. "You should headbang with me," she explained loudly.
Meg looked up at her, grinning despite herself. "I should go," she said into the phone. "I have – homework to do. "
"Papers to write," Preston agreed.
"Studying to accomplish," Meg followed up.
"Headbanging to - achieve," Preston managed archly, and now Meg laughed, a little bit.
"You should head home," she said, before hanging up. "It's late, and you're tired."
"You have no idea the fortitudes of my resilience," Preston said…tiredly.
"I do, but I still know when you're tired," Meg said. She grinned again, making a one sec gesture at Juliana, who was still happily bouncing beside her bed, her face hidden behind the hair she'd already successfully headbanged over her face. "I bet you have your tie off, even." She waited.
"Indeed I do not," Preston said haughtily. "This is the West Wing, you know. We have couth, here."
"Dignity," she offered.
"Stature," he shot back.
"Indubitably," she said. "Good night, Preston. Go home, okay?"
"Good night, Meg," he said, and his voice was warm. "I will."
"Yay," Juliana said, holding out her arm for Meg the second she put the phone down. "Let's go."
Meg grasped Juliana's arm and used it to haul herself carefully off the bed. And then – because the brace didn't actually do anything to hinder this particular sport – she did, indeed, headbang along with Juliana.
Because – "The Ramones, dude," she said.
"The Ramones," Juliana agreed.
Christmas break was yes, a hugely necessary vacation from…everything. From her classes and from hauling herself around campus and from the constant stress about feeding herself, but it was also a break from things like seeing Jack on what had turned, this semester, into something she did on a daily basis. It was weird, thinking about being away from him for nearly a month. They had seen quite a bit of each other over the summer. He'd come to see her at the White House, even. ("Vacationed," he'd insisted. "I vacationed at the White House." He grinned. "It sounds way more awesome that way.")
And it had been – weird, but good. Fun, even. Steven had loved him – he'd rolled his eyes and made more than his fair share of not-so-lightly-veiled comments laden with sexual innuendo, and pretended to gag whenever they even looked at each other – but Jack gave as good as he got, and also he'd started teaching Steven a little bit about Ultimate Frisbee. That had pretty much been all it took to get on Steven's good side. When they came in from the first lesson out on the South Lawn, Steven had a rapidly darkening black eye from slamming into a tree, Jack had looked a little amused, but a lot more nervous about what the President's reaction was going to be to the afore-mentioned black eye. Steven and Jack had pretty much been the best of friends from there on in.
(Neal had been desperate to be part of the Ultimate Frisbee training. Desperate. There had been no way, no way, their parents would have been okay with it, and he'd resigned himself to bouncing on the sidelines, cheering them on and commenting on their technique and racing happily after the Frisbee every time it went out of bounds, like a very enthusiastic golden retriever.)
But a whole semester accomplished, with only a quick trip home for Thanksgiving – it felt like a feat. It felt like, well, a success. A minor success, what one might call a normal life for most other nineteen-year-olds, but hell, Meg was taking what she could get these days. She had goddamn well earned her Christmas break.
And her cell phone had a message from Jack when she turned it on after the plane landed, so there was that. Not that she had been waiting for or expecting one or anything. It was just – nice to get.
She'd been home for a few hours now, and had successfully petted Vanessa with only a bite mark or two to show for it, and hung out with Neal and Steven for a little bit. The weak late-afternoon winter sunlight was filtering through the windows as she made her way over to the West Wing. Her mother was behind closed doors this afternoon – Meg had seen her this morning, when she'd arrived, and she'd see her again at dinner – but she'd called down earlier, and Preston had had a few minutes to spare on his schedule.
"Meg," he said, after his secretary had smiled at her and told her to go on in. He got up from his desk and came around, hugging her strongly, and easily, all the while managing to avoid jarring her bad arm or knocking her off balance with her bad leg. Preston was a pro at this. It sucked that he'd had to learn how, but still – Meg appreciated the ease with which he worked around her goddamn disabilities.
"It's good to see you," he said against her ear, softly, still holding onto her, and she just held on back. It was really good to see him.
He let her go after a bit, holding her at arm's length and studying her with a critical eye. He moved one wayward piece of hair from one side of her head to the other. "Don't tell me you dressed up just for me," he said.
She scuffed one sneakered foot oh so shyly against the floor, plucking at the worn fabric of her sweatpants. "Your sartorial prowess is an inspiration to all," she said. "I'm just trying to measure up."
"Well," he said, stepping back and nodding at her to sit down on the couch across from his desk. "You have certainly put me to shame."
She lowered herself down, and nodded her thanks as he piled a couple of pillows on the coffee table so she could put her leg up. "You never could pull off a pair of sweatpants," she said.
"Not that I haven't done so in my day," he said, with a surprisingly lascivious wink, then he looked startled at himself.
She grinned at him. Lasciviously.
He shook his head at her, smiled, and sat down at the other end of the couch. "You're looking good," he said, with a far less critical eye than earlier.
She shook her head. "I'm a mess."
"You look healthy," he said.
She shrugged. "I've been eating."
"That helps," he said dryly.
No kidding. It was an effort – still, after all this goddamn time, she had to make a concerted effort to eat like something resembling a normal person – but she remembered, more often, to make the effort, and that was something.
"What about you?" she asked, studying him with a critical eye right back.
"Fashionable, as always," he said, brushing an invisible piece of lint from the knee of his – clearly very expensive – suit pants. He was dressed in grey today, various complementing shades, with a tie that had more than a hint of pink in the pattern of tiny, distinguished diamonds.
"Obviously," she agreed. Then she shook her head. "Seriously, Preston, before your secretary comes in here to move you along to your next meeting – how have you been?"
"Good, Meg." He looked at her. "I've been good."
"Get out much?" she asked.
He smiled, and shrugged.
"Get out at all?" She raised one eyebrow, and he raised one back.
"You know the job, Meg." He shrugged again, but he looked – tired, this time. A little worn out by the job, maybe. "And I knew the job going in."
"Yeah, but." She wasn't sure if she wanted to ask this question. He looked at her, and waited. She adjusted the velcro on her brace a little, the sound loud in the quiet of the room. "Are you – I mean." She stopped again, trying to frame the question in her head.
Preston waited, watching her.
"Are you going to want to stick with it? You know." She swallowed. "For – four more years."
He tilted his head at her. "If the opportunity were to arise," he said, slowly. "For four more years. Then – yes, most likely."
"If the opportunity were to arise," she said.
"Yes." He was watching her closely from his end of the couch.
"Which you can neither confirm nor deny is the case," she said. Like she couldn't see what was going on in the media, couldn't see clear and present evidence that her mother was doing really well in the pre-campaigning season, lining things up smoothly for her upcoming run at a second term.
"Meg," Preston said. "The job isn't a definite."
"Is the administration?" she shot back.
He moved his jaw a little. "Nothing's certain."
No, nothing fucking was, was it? Still, it felt very much like there was an inevitability to all of this. "Four more years is a long fucking time, Preston," she said softly, looking down at her lap.
She felt the couch shift as he moved forward to sit slightly closer to her, and he put his hand on her arm, high up, a steady pressure. "A long fucking time," he said. "I know."
Right. She shook her head, looking up at him. "But wouldn't it be something," she said, "for her to come back for round two?" She couldn't stop the tiny grin that came over her face. Her mother's political rivals had surely expected her to stand down after what could only be categorized as a particularly rocky first term as President.
"Wouldn't it just?" Preston said softly, grinning right back at her.
"Listen," Meg said quietly, not looking at Preston, who was seated next to her. Steven was on Meg's other side, with Neal next to him, and her father was up by the podium with her mother, who was about to get sworn in to her second term of office as President of the United States of America. It was seriously cold up here on the dais, and Meg felt like the wind was pulling the words out of her mouth.
"Yes." Preston shifted in his seat, leaning minutely towards her, while never taking his eyes off of her mother. There were cameras everywhere and they both very much knew it.
And this wasn't the place to have this conversation. Meg very much knew that. Still.
"Listen," she said again, her voice pitched low, for his ears only. "Do you think, when this is all over, that we might still be friends or something?"
He glanced at her then, for a handful of long seconds, and she was all too aware of the cameras again. For some reason, it felt like a wildly, inappropriately intimate handful of seconds. Then he looked back towards the podium, where her mother looked tall, and imposing, and beautiful. And warm. How did she look warm, when she'd worn only the elegant, fitted coat on this cold, windy day?
"Meg," Preston said, and his shoulder pressed against hers for the briefest of instants. "You and I will always be friends." He didn't look at her. "Or something," he said, after a long pause.
Right. "Right," she said, and if she felt a little dazed, a little – overcome – she could always blame it on the excitement of the day. "I – Preston, I -"
"Meg." Steven said, shoving at her a little. "Shut up, it's starting."
Oh. And yes, her mother had one hand resting on the Bible, and one hand raised, and she looked strong, and sure, and confident. And warm, damn it. "Shut up yourself," Meg murmured at Steven, without moving her lips, and he growled at her quietly, his eyes never leaving their mom.
It was starting. Four more years. And after that - who knew.