Authors: Anne Callanan and Kathleen E. Lehew
E-mail addresses: Anne -
Summary: This is the follow-up to our story ‘A Frightened Peace’, and what we think really went on behind the scenes immediately following the events depicted in ‘Dead Irish Writers’.
Spoilers: ‘Dead Irish Writers’ and our story ‘A Frightened Peace’. Alas, it is sort of necessary you be a little familiar with both. For those who want to check out/refresh their memories of 'A Frightened Peace', you can find it here as well.
Characters/Pairing: Jed and Abbey of course, but take notes. Everyone gets his or her moment in the limelight here. Seriously. We'd have even resurrected Mrs. Landingham if we'd dared.
Category: Drama, humor - we hope! -, a tiny bit of action, several emotional upheavals - for everyone - and a dash of intrigue. Again, nobody told us to stop, so we didn’t <G>.
Rating: Just to be safe, PG-13. Some language - after all we are dealing with Jed here - and a few minor adult issues.
Feedback: PLEASE!! For those of you keeping track of this sort of thing, it was the wonderful feedback - read ‘begging’ <G> - by a few of you that encouraged us to tackle our word processors once more. We’re weak. We ignored the threats.
Major thanks to Sheila for doing an amazing job of beta'ing this. Sorry for keeping you from your own writing, Sheila. We can't wait for you to get back to it either. Any mistakes remaining are ones Sheila simply couldn't persuade us out of. We're stubborn that way. We even had the cheek to use phrases like 'stylistic choice'. <G>
Authors’ notes: To any lawyer reading this, we do not own these characters in any way, shape or form. Somebody else does. In lieu of some seriously expensive therapy, we’re just having fun.
As noted above, this is the sequel to our story ‘A Frightened Peace’. While that tale was a torturous exercise in mechanical mayhem, this one is an equally tortured exercise in marital mayhem. That, and while we loved ‘Dead Irish Writers’, the resolution of nearly one whole season’s worth of emotional battles left us just a little... disappointed. So, we tried our hand at a bit of a follow-up, adding a few things of our own along the way just to make life a little more interesting for our favorite couple.
We hope you enjoy it.
This story is dedicated to Kelly, and the memory of her beloved Grandfather. There is more than a hope for Heaven, and perhaps a few smiles along the way.
Farther off from Heaven
Anne Callanan and Kathleen E. Lehew
I remember, I remember,
The fir trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky:
It was childish ignorance,
But now ‘tis little joy
To know I’m farther off from heaven
Than when I was a boy.
--Thomas Hood: 1798 – 1845
“A moment of your time, Admiral.”
It wasn’t phrased as a question, but rather a cold demand.
Admiral Percy Fitzwallace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wasn’t used to being accosted in hallways, let alone being cornered in the hallway right outside the Situation Room. It simply wasn’t done and he wasn’t in the mood. Most people wouldn’t even consider it an option. A disapproving frown at the ready, he turned abruptly on his heel -only to have his response and his mood sent completely out the window.
The woman who had waylaid him, Nancy McNally, the National Security Advisor, did not look happy. Never what you’d call an overly cheerful person, her face was a study in both anger and a grim resolution he’d seen only a few times before. Simply saying she was unhappy didn’t begin to cover it.
And Fitzwallace already had a pretty good idea as to why. The manila folder clutched in her hand, clearly stamped ‘National Transportation and Safety Board’, was all the confirmation he needed that the rest of his day was shot to hell.
“Damn”, he growled. Cautiously glancing up and down the corridor, he took her arm and led her into the SIT Room. Glaring at the two officers on watch, he ordered them curtly, “Outside! No interruptions unless it’s the President himself!”
The men scrambled hastily to obey.
Watching the door close behind them, Fitzwallace turned to Nancy and asked, “They’ve confirmed the investigator’s suspicions?”
Nancy nodded, her eyes hard and glittering in the subdued light of the active wall monitors. “Yes.”
“I received the preliminary report an hour ago. The final is still pending, but even without all the nasty details, it’s enough. What happened to Marine One was not an accident.”
Fitzwallace straightened his shoulders, took a deep breath and asked softly, dangerously, “Explosives?”
“Trace amounts of plastic, peppering the main rotor housing. Very trace amounts. The initial findings indicate just enough was used to weaken the securing bolt. Whoever set it knew what they were doing. The NTSB investigators wouldn’t have found it unless…”
“…unless one pushy, obnoxious and disliked junior kept shoving it in their faces,” the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs finished with a barely controlled sneer. “Why is it nobody else wanted to even look?”
“When you’re this high on the ladder of the powers that be, you don’t want to be the bearer of bad tidings, not unless you’re absolutely sure.”
“Don’t go political on me, Nancy. That’s not your job. It’s not my job. This…” he snatched the folder with its devastating contents out of her hand and slapped it down onto the table, “…is our job! And we failed.”
Rolling her eyes, Nancy replied with pure acidic sarcasm, “Christ, Fitz! Don’t you think I know that? I’m not playing games here. I can only work with what I’ve been told. It’s not my fault certain people are afraid to stand up and be counted. However much you may detest it, this is politics. At this level it’s nothing but!”
Fitzwallace winced at the barbed point, not really needing to be reminded. “Don’t get snippy with me, Nancy. I didn’t start this.”
“Neither did I, Fitz.”
“God damn it!” Fitzwallace swore, wandering to his spot at one end of the long table occupying the center of the room. Leaning his hands against the polished wood, he stared bleakly down its length to the empty seat at the head. “Does the President know?”
“He will as soon as I can corner Leo.”
“Good luck,” Fitzwallace snorted derisively. “It’s a birthday party, Nancy. His wife’s birthday party. ”
“This can’t wait.”
“I’m not saying it should,” Fitzwallace sighed, pulling off his glasses and rubbing his burning eyes. “He’s going to want to know why he wasn’t told sooner. Even a hint would have been enough. The NTSB knew…”
“Suspected,” Nancy corrected him irritably.
“…three weeks ago,” Fitzwallace finished with a warning glare. While his mood had taken a rapid nose-dive into the depths of expedient accountability, or whatever the pencil pushers were calling it these days, he could still summon up more than a little righteous indignation. “We should have been told then. This is the President’s life we’re talking about here.”
“Suspicions without any grounds aren’t enough, Fitz.”
“So they buried it?”
Nancy sighed. “Not exactly…”
“You use the words ‘ plausible deniability’ in his presence and he’ll bite your head off.”
Nancy couldn’t help but laugh shortly as she pulled out a chair and sat down. She’d watched the President take his shots at all the Joint Chiefs' heads at one time or another, as well as her own. The man’s verbal aim was remarkable. “And he’d have every right to.”
“I rather like my head where it is.”
“We had every chance to stop this, Fitz. But we didn’t. We’re just as guilty…”
“Guilty?” Fitzwallace echoed incredulously, chopping off her statement with a curt hand gesture. “Two days, Nancy. I was told about the suspicion two days ago! How the hell does the NTSB justify that?”
“They were frightened.” She picked up the file, waving it like a banner. “You know as well as I do what this means. Access alone indicates this was an inside job.”
“No excuses. The President should have been told.”
“No kidding,” Fitzwallace drawled with exquisite irony. “We should have been told the minute any suspicion reared its ugly head. Not now, after the fact and too late to do anything about it. The NTSB dropped the ball on this one.”
“Dropped it?” Nancy’s brows rose in pure disbelief at the naiveté of that statement. “It was thrown so far into the dirt we may never find it or the idiots who threw it in the first place. You want heads over this? Stand in line.”
“Plausible deniability my ass,” Fitzwallace muttered.
“May I quote you?”
“It’s a free country.”
“And God bless it,” Nancy said in a soft, fervent whisper. Taking a calming breath, she looked up at Fitzwallace and repeated what had begun this conversation. “A moment of your time was all I needed, Admiral. I’ve picked up the ball.”
“Your and the NTSB’s timing sucks, Nancy.” Fitzwallace sighed heavily and scratched the back of his head. “This is going to go over like a lead balloon.”
“A flying metaphor? >From a navy man?” Nancy smiled tiredly, although little of the implied humor reached her eyes. “I’d have thought sunk would be your exit of choice.”
“I work with what I’ve got. I’m already sunk. First India, then China, now this. I’m running out of safe harbors.”
“Whining does not become you, Percival,” Nancy teased.
Ignoring her with as much dignity as he could muster, Fitzwallace asked, “How much of this has got around?”
“That’s about the only good news we’ve got. It hasn’t, not yet. The NTSB played this one real close. They’re running scared. We have time.”
“It won’t last.” Fitzwallace said with cold certainty, rubbing his eyes again. “This is the White House, Nancy. No matter how deep, or how careful, someone will dig it up.”
“Maybe not. We’re due for a bit of luck.”
“I’m not gonna count on it. Keep it locked down, as long as you can. We need the breathing space.”
Nancy didn’t have to ask why. Eyes narrowing, she picked up the file and stood up. “So it begins.”
“Till we end it.”
‘I am not drunk.’
Abigail Bartlet was quite firm on that point. A touch inebriated perhaps and if asked, she might even admit to being slightly tipsy, but she was definitely doing better than CJ Cregg. She was holding one hand delicately to her head while trying to argue with Toby Ziegler. In fact, the Communications Director himself seemed to be in an uncharacteristically expansive mood, and was slightly flushed.
He wasn't the only one. Admittedly, a rosy hue was definitely more becoming to Donna's pale complexion. Abbey smiled slightly as she watched the young woman engage in an animated conversation with the clearly amused Carol at the far end of the buffet table.
Donna had proved absolutely correct in her assessment of her own lack of verbal control when under the influence of alcohol. But Abbey was grateful to her. Somehow, with that one unguarded statement, Donna had seemed to sum up the basis of the dilemma that had been obsessing her in recent weeks. Abbey had been angry at having been used as a political pawn in the wake of the MS revelation, at having her abilities as a doctor questioned and held up to scrutiny and judgment.
However, the simple fact remained that she had prescribed for her husband in contravention of just about every medical regulation and basic common sense. The fact that it had been a very personal, emotional decision in no way excused that. She wasn't ashamed of what she had done, felt no dishonor at doing her best to help her husband handle a very difficult time in his life as he wished. And for the first time in weeks, she felt that she had managed to seize back a measure of control over her future. The decision was hers now, not an imposed judgment.
So why did she still feel angry?
Instinctively, she sought out the main focus of that particular emotion in recent times. The thought depressed her somewhat. Oh, he was no stranger to her wrath. Somehow, not even thirty-four years of marriage had taught him to fully understand her trigger points, and he usually managed to trip them with faithful regularity.
But this was different, and so very wrong. Normally their fights burned high and fierce, and then out, quickly and without rancor. This lingering, sullen coldness was alien to both their natures. Particularly to his. Abbey could acknowledge freely that while his explosions were legendary and impressive, it was her wrath that tended to leave people scurrying for cover. Jed might have the fire, but it tended to burn out almost as quickly as it flared. She knew that she was seen as the one capable of nursing a grudge to quiet effect. She was not malicious, but she never took anything lying down, as her husband's staff had quickly realized, and she never forgot.
Unlike Jed it seemed. Things had been better between them recently, especially since the Marine One accident, but as the medical board hearing approached she found herself withdrawing once again, becoming tense and snappish - just as he had during the congressional hearings, she suddenly realized. Damn it, why could they never seem to be on the same page recently? They still hadn't talked, not properly. Both had been cherishing the fragile peace too much to be willing to jeopardize it, and then the coldness had started to set in again.
The truth was, she wanted something to rail against, and Jed was going out of his way to avoid offering her a target. Frustrating didn't even begin to describe it.
Abbey sighed heavily as she watched her husband drift down the length of the buffet table, dispiritedly poking at the dishes on offer. Chances were good that the empty plate he dangled from one hand would remain unfilled. The White House catering staff were well aware of what the First Lady considered to be healthy fare, and had the tact to ensure that the menu for her own birthday party reflected those views. They were even more aware of her views on what constituted a suitable diet for the President.
Jed was extremely unlikely to find himself offered anything that might meet with his ideas of good food rather than his wife’s. And something about the dejected lines of his back suggested that he was feeling the need for such cholesterol-laden comfort quite strongly right now.
Watching the bent head and slumped shoulders, Abbey felt an upsurge of the affection he always managed to inspire warring with and momentarily beating down the anger. ‘I love you very much’. She had never doubted it, but the sheer sincerity of his words, and the expression he had worn, had almost cracked her carefully constructed façade. It was the quality she cherished most in her husband, his preparedness to drop all barriers and openly express his devotion to those he cared for. He was a very loving man; also a remarkably stubborn one and, for such a formidable intellect, amazingly dense at times.
Apparently realizing that he was going to find no palliative here, Bartlet laid down his plate and swung abruptly away from the table. Somewhat too abruptly it would seem. It was a very subtle reaction, but his alert wife caught the suppressed grimace and the quick rub to his right thigh.
Abbey winced in sympathy. It had been nearly a month, and the leg was practically mended. There wasn’t even a limp to show for the ordeal, and she doubted the staffers had noticed any appreciable reduction in the speed of the President’s progress. But healing muscles still protested at times, and the newly restored skin often pulled and itched.
The leg scar itself was a beauty, of course. Fortunately, his hair hid the smaller one high on his temple, although he had developed a habit of rubbing at that spot when deep in thought or troubled. But the other remained a reddened, angry blemish of puckered flesh on the whiteness of his upper leg. Fortunately, for the sake of Jed’s self-consciousness and everyone else’s peace of mind, Abbey and the doctors were the only ones who had seen that so far.
No, that wasn’t quite true. Abbey remembered Leo coming in to talk to Jed as he hurriedly changed clothes after the India trip. It was a familiar scene, and one none of them thought anything of until Leo suddenly trailed off in mid sentence, transfixed by his first sight of the repaired wound. He had recovered quickly of course, but Abbey had been puzzled to note what seemed to be an air almost of guilt about him, and regret.
Following her thoughts, her eyes left her husband, who now seemed to have cornered Donna at one end of the buffet table, and tracked around the crowded reception room until they alighted on the Chief of Staff, who was quietly conferring with the President’s Security Chief in a corner.
Abbey was unable to suppress a slight grin at the sight. One of the more remarkable by-products of the crash was the way McGarry and Ron Butterfield seemed to have bonded together in a silent conspiracy over their Chief Executive. The President had been heard to complain bitterly on several occasions since that he was in danger of being mother-henned to death by his two protectors and his wife. Given the shock that he had caused them all, so far he hadn’t received a very sympathetic hearing. The general unspoken consensus among the staff seemed to be that the more people the President had looking out for his welfare, the better.
The temporary lightening of Abbey’s mood was once again soured by the sight of the NSA, Nancy McNally, bearing down on Leo, a business like folder in one hand. To say nothing of the woman’s grim expression, very much at odds with the party atmosphere surrounding her. The First Lady sighed heavily. No doubt yet another security crisis would shortly result in McGarry coming to drag the President away from the party, and his wife. She was slightly nonplussed instead to see the two vanish into an adjoining room, with Butterfield in tow. What the NSA, the White House Chief of Staff, and the President’s head of security could possibly have to discuss in common was beyond her.
Well, maybe what, but not who. Fuelled by a new, indefinable unease, she glanced back at her husband, who was still talking to an increasingly agitated looking Donna Moss. Abbey could only hope he wasn’t subjecting the poor girl to one of his interminable lectures.
Jed had been a good teacher before he took to politics, with a real love of knowledge for its own sake and of imparting information. The trouble was he usually brought enough enthusiasm to such conversations for himself and his companion, and was not above impishly using his rank to command their often-wavering attention.
Still, Abbey had a suspicion that he might for once have found a match in Donna, if Josh Lyman’s tales were to be believed. Mind you, Jed seemed to be winning this round, if the increasing consternation on Donna’s features was to be believed. Abbey might have been amused if it were not for the air of despondency her husband still subtly projected, and the way he continued to unconsciously stroke his hand down along the side of his leg.
Twenty-seven stitches. She was truly grateful that the damage had been no worse. In the context, it was practically insignificant. But every time she saw Jed absently attempt to smooth away an ache or irritation the sour taste of remembered panic rose in her throat. For so long she had fought against the possibility of losing him piece by piece. The prospect of his being torn from her suddenly had had an almost physical impact. The shock had cooled her anger for a while.
But only for a while.
Why did she feel so dissatisfied now? His reaction to her news left her in no doubt that he fully understood its implications, what his actions - their actions - had cost her. The guilt had surged into those expressive eyes even as the rest of his features had frozen in shock. She had been deeply affected by his quiet declaration, so why did she feel as if his response had somehow lacked something?
What more did she want from him? What more could he give?
Guiltily closing the cell phone she’d been using, she desperately searched through the milling crowd for an escape route. Maybe she should have called a cab instead of indulging in a ridiculous craving. There were too many people and the buffet table stood in the way of the one escape route open to her. She wasn’t about to jump it and all the other exits were blocked. She was cornered.
Generally, Donnatella Moss wasn’t one to beg divine intervention, let alone twice in as many seconds. There was, however, always a first time and of course a selected place for everything. Why not at the First Lady’s birthday party? Given how this entire evening had begun by crashing down around her - she was still trying to figure out how to blame it all on Josh - and then appeared to forgive whatever transgression she’d inadvertently committed - again, still trying to find a way to blame Josh - she wasn’t at all surprised to see another disaster of truly epic proportions bearing down on her.
That the disaster in question was her boss’s boss, the President of the United States and the man she had personally voted for, did little to relieve her anxious thoughts. Especially the voted for part. Against all odds, Josiah Bartlet had won the election.
Somehow, Donna was sure it would all turn out to be her fault and he’d blame her for sticking him with this thankless job. One vote was enough. That she probably hadn’t been a citizen at the time - therefore making her vote moot - had very little bearing on her convoluted reasoning. It was turning out to be that kind of evening.
Watching him approach through the crowd, exchanging smiles and a few niceties with guests, Donna decided she didn’t like the look in his eye. It was the one Josh, in all seriousness, had warned her about. It was the one that made Toby cringe and CJ scream the paint off walls. And poor Sam? She’d thought Cathy had only been kidding when she’d jokingly claimed to have found the Deputy Communications Director hiding under his desk one day.
There was no getting away from it. The man was up to something and whatever it was involved her.
Closing her eyes and holding her breath, she concentrated and made a wish. A BIG wish. The biggest she ever had. Opening them, she nearly cursed aloud. Still here. Still cornered.
Teleporting wasn’t working. Go figure.
When the President drew to a halt in front of her, Donna tried very hard not to faint. She was just a secretary, an executive assistant. Why would the leader of the free world be looking at her like that? She’d seen him talking to the First Lady earlier. Considering what the girls had tossed around and back upstairs, she had a pretty good idea what, if not how.
Surely Mrs. Bartlet hadn’t mentioned what she’d said, had she? She’d had too much to drink, they all had. CJ, Amy, Mrs. Bartlet. They’d managed to send several bottles of pretty good zinfandel to a worthy end.
“Oh, God.” It had become a mantra.
“Let’s not get carried away, Donna.”
Blinking slowly and hoping she didn’t look as stupid as she felt, Donna stammered, “Sir?” There was nothing for it. Not only was she cornered and he was giving her the look, but he was in of those moods, too.
She was dead. She wondered briefly if Sam would be willing to make room for her under his desk. Gathering what was left of her courage and nerve, she began to apologize in a heedless rush, “Mr. President, I am so sorry. I wasn’t thinking, which is...weird because Josh’ll tell you that’s something I do far too much of and really... between finding out I was Canadian and too much wine... and not knowing which Mrs. Bartlet I was talking to... ”
“Which Mrs. Bartlet you were talking to?” The President repeated carefully, fairly certain he was about to step into something deep. “How many are there? And please, don’t tell me they all belong to me.”
“Really?” It was the only response he could think of.
“Yes, sir.” Donna couldn’t tell if the hunted look that came into his eyes was at the prospect of multiple Abigail Bartlets or the patented Moss conversation style.
“Which one were you talking to?” he asked, still trying to find the bottom of this conversation. It had to be there somewhere…
“Mostly the First Lady... I think.”
“But you’re not sure?”
“Nope,” Donna sighed. “I think it was the wine.”
“Or the topic?” At the guilty flush that spread across her face, a sad smile pulled at one corner of Bartlet’s mouth. Letting her off the hook, he said, “She didn’t say anything, Donna. I can guess though.”
“Oh.” Donna wasn’t too sure his confession helped, because if he wasn’t here about the girls getting bent upstairs, then it was something else. The need to escape was growing. “Then what... ”
“I can read lips.”
“Really?” It was all she could come up with.
“No, not really.” Shoving his hands in his pockets, Bartlet glanced casually around the room, making sure nobody was listening. “Just one word, when you were on the phone.”
He knew. Truly cornered now, Donna tried to bluff it out. “Sir?”
Donna shook her head firmly, a sudden sense of empowerment giving wings to her courage. “You can’t.”
One presidential brow rose at an elegantly accusing angle.
“Okay, let me rephrase that.” She took a deep breath, her moment of empowerment fading as quickly as it had arisen. Time to regroup. “I can’t. The First Lady… ”
“The mean one, sir.” Donna’s eyes narrowed and she dared to give the President a look of her own. It usually sent Josh scurrying for cover. Considering who this man had spent the last thirty-four years living with, she wasn’t at all surprised it didn’t faze him. “The one who scares Secret Service agents silly. The one who will do horrible, nasty things to me if I so much as let you in the same room with mozzarella cheese.”
“The mean one?” For some reason he couldn’t quite fathom, Bartlet found Donna’s sincere yet petrified observations amusing. He smiled, thinking about it. Nice to know he wasn’t the only one on Abbey’s hit list.
Donna wasn’t amused at all. “Yes, sir. Very mean.”
“She’ll never know.”
“The Secret Service… ”
“Are scared silly of her.”
Lips tightening into a stubborn line, Donna crossed her arms. Possession was nine-tenths the law. Working for a lawyer - even if he wasn’t a real one - had its advantages. “It’s my pizza.”
“My house,” Bartlet replied evenly, effectively ending the standoff.
There was no getting past that one. Donna sighed dejectedly. “You win.”
“I usually do.” At Donna’s highly skeptical look, he shrugged and added sadly, “Most of the time.”
It was probably the tail end of the wine consumed earlier, but Donna’s short laugh came out more like a snort of unenthusiastic but still respectful disbelief. At least she hoped it did. The respectful part anyway. The disbelief she couldn’t help, not with Josh to keep her in the loop. Winning was all a matter of perspective.
Looking up a bit fearfully, she relaxed when she saw the slight, mischievous smile on his face. No malice, almost apologetic and rocking back casually on his heels, he was waiting patiently. And something else, a hint of sadness, and a melancholy she couldn’t quite place. For the first time, Donna realized there was a whole other level to what was going on here.
“Where?” he asked.
Donna struggled to find an answer to that one. Where indeed? It was one thing to sneak a pizza into the White House, quite another to sneak it and the President off to a quiet secluded corner - and Donna knew there weren’t many in this building - where the scavengers couldn’t find them. Glancing over his shoulder, she spotted one of the constant shadows that followed him wherever he went.
All other questions aside, the Secret Service was not going to make this easy. Unconsciously, her brows furrowed and she tried to figure it out. A certain alcohol-induced haze wasn’t helping her problem solving abilities.
Not having to follow her gaze and understanding the skeptical look, Bartlet easily reasoned out what was troubling her. For the most part, he did his best to ignore them. He’d long ago become used to the lack of privacy, of personal space. He thought he’d come to terms with it.
Apparently he hadn’t, and right now he wasn’t in the mood to try. Frowning, he didn’t bother to spare his shadows a glance. “I’ll take care of them.”
Donna saw his frown set into an expression of pained tolerance, almost depression. Given his usual good-natured spirits, and an occasion that should have seen him - at the very least - relaxed and untroubled, she took it as a bad sign.
She didn’t like it at all.
It made the final decision all that much easier. “Ainsley Hayes’ office.”
Bartlet’s eyes widened a bit, and then he nodded. “The steam trunk... ”
“ ...distribution venue,” Donna finished, rather proud she’d thought of it. It wasn’t the first time she’d used Ainsley’s office as a refuge. Usually to hide from Josh, but in this case it would serve as well. “It’s... hidden.”
For the first time a hint of genuine humor flashed in the President’s eyes. “Can’t have a Republican out where she can corrupt decent Democrats.”
Donna smiled tentatively in return. “Ainsley seems to think so.”
His shifting moods had left Donna confused, although she had a strong feeling there was more to this than simply a forbidden pizza. For the first time, she seriously wondered what it was Mrs. Bartlet had told him.
It couldn’t have been good.
Bartlet didn’t give her much of an opportunity to contemplate the mystery. Turning abruptly on his heel, he called back over his shoulder, “Be there.”
It had the ring of an executive order. Donna sighed. One way or another, she was going to get into serious trouble over this. She was sure of it. There would be no trial, no appeals, just a summary execution when she was caught. If asked, she’d have candidly admitted that this particular moral quandary was not a problem she’d have thought part of her original job description.
She hoped the pizza was going to be worth it. As a last meal, she could think of any number of alternatives that would have been preferable. And the company? Under any other circumstances she’d have been thrilled. Her only wish was that she could have pegged his mood or clearly understood his motives. The problems just kept mounting. Donna sighed heavily again, uncomfortably aware that it was a useless gesture. Citizen or not, she had no choice but to see the evening out.
The pizza had better be a damn good one.
The bellow was all too familiar. Groaning, Donna pinched the bridge of her nose. Alcohol induced or not, she could feel a headache coming on. “Speaking of problems,” she muttered, wincing as she spied her personal problem child making his way towards her.
With Amy hanging a bit unsteadily on his arm, Josh Lyman attempted to corner his assistant. “I need...”
“It’s a party, Josh. I’m off the clock.” Watching the President weave his way back through the crowd, his ever-present shadows in tow, Donna gave Lyman her best intimidating scowl. “Go away.”
“She’s got you there, J.” Amy giggled and gave Donna a conspirital wink.
Never one to take a hint, Lyman scowled at both women. The female contingent had been hitting him from all sides this evening. “Donna...”
“Shoo.” Donna waved him off.
“Hey! Voice of authority here!”
Amy laughed outright at that rather plaintive protest, earning yet another scowl from Lyman.
Ignoring them both, Donna gathered up her dignity, her purse and one bottle of wine off a nearby table. She had a strong suspicion she was going to need it. Smiling enigmatically at her boss, she leaned forward and said in a suitably clandestine whisper, “I’m on a mission.”
Lyman stared at her for a moment, and then said, “You’re drunk.”
Frankly, Donna could only admit that being buzzed was all that was keeping her from collapsing into a hysteria-induced fit. Hefting the wine bottle in one hand, she smiled sweetly at Josh, winked at Amy, and left them both standing there in confusion. For once, Josh was going to have to figure out his own problems.
Booze, pizza and the President of the United States.
Donna Moss had enough problems of her own.
The evening was progressing downward at a rapidly increasing rate. Watching Leo McGarry stand with his back to her and slowly leaf through the NTSB report for the third time - even though he’d probably already committed it to memory - Nancy concluded reluctantly she should be thankful for some consistency. Going from bad to worse was all she could expect. Considering the report's contents, only one thing was missing.
She hesitated, measuring him carefully for a moment, then told him encouragingly, “Say it, Leo.”
Her composure faltered a bit at that cold, utterly emotionless response. Perhaps it was her own uneasiness, but she had expected more. Wondering if she harbored some latent, masochistic tendencies, she said, “You’re not normally at such a loss for words.”
Closing the file, McGarry turned towards her, his eyes dark with barely contained emotion. He responded in a voice taut with rigidly controlled anger, “The words presently occupying what little well mannered portion of my intellect that remains unclouded by the need for a good solid venting are not what would be considered appropriate for civilized company.”
“That might have been easier to say if you had unclenched your teeth.”
Dropping the file onto a nearby end table, McGarry growled, “Nancy... ”
“Say it. God knows you’ll explode if you don’t, and it’s not like you’re cussing in church.”
“Mrs. Landingham could have argued that.”
McGarry looked at the closed doors of the drawing room, keenly aware of the two Secret Service agents stationed outside to keep out the curious. They at least were on alert. Muffled, the sounds of the First Lady’s birthday party continued outside. Laughter, music, the clink of glasses and lively conversation; it was all an illusion.
Reality had intruded with a much darker truth.
At that point, the events of the evening caught up with him. How much was too much? Between the medical board questions and his poorly handled confrontation with Abbey, the maze of re-election problems, and now the idiocy of human accountability, he suddenly felt exhausted. His shoulders slumped. There was another truth here, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
Sighing heavily, McGarry shook his head and managed a dry laugh. “Is language, questionable or not, all we have?”
Nancy indicated the file laying on the end table and replied in an equally dry voice, “The language is pretty clear.”
Collapsing into a chair, McGarry’s laugh took on a bitter edge. She was still fishing for a more colorful response from him. He wasn’t about to give it to her. He didn’t have the energy. “Nancy...”
“Your timing sucks.” There was the truth he couldn’t find. It suited.
Taking a seat opposite him, Nancy regarded him curiously and with a touch of disappointment. “Those aren’t the words I anticipated.”
“God forbid I should ever become predictable.”
“There’s very little chance of that.”
“Have I just been complimented?’ A sad, fleeting half smile crossed his face. “Or should I make the attempt to ignore the implied, however subtle, innuendo?”
“Choose your poison, Leo. I’m too exhausted to try and figure that one out. You’re going to have to get an outside analysis.” The sounds of merriment outside kicked up a notch. Nancy rubbed her eyes and grimaced with profound distaste. “I hate parties.”
“I haven’t enjoyed them much lately myself.”
McGarry took a moment and thought about all the parties previous to this one and how they had all been a chore, rather than the pleasure they should have been. And it wasn’t just the ones at the White House. It was at that point he realized that timing, or whatever you wanted to call it, was all a matter of perspective. Looking at it that way, the evening was advancing quite nicely down the path to complete destruction.
The observation gave him a small measure of grim satisfaction. If circumstances gave him the chance, he’d worry about the whys and wherefores later. Time to get down to business. Picking up the file, his expression stilled and grew serious. “Your analysis of this, Madame Security Advisor?”
Clearly hampered by the glaring lack of facts, Nancy shook her head and gave him the only response she could. “We have how, approximately when and where. But not who or why.”
“You’ve got the analysis backwards. What plus how equals who… ”
“ ...or a close approximation.” She looked at him with honest surprise, and not a little admiration. “You’ve been reading John Douglas.”
“Interesting how the study of criminal behavior can far too easily be applied to politics.”
“Interesting how the study of criminal behavior can far too easily be applied to politics.”
“Don’t go there, Leo.”
“You don’t think this is politics?” McGarry asked, regarding her with somber curiosity.
“Do you?” she challenged.
“No.” It frightened him that he could come to that conclusion so easily and without any doubts. He’d played the game far too long to be fooled by it. He couldn’t deny what the evidence and his instincts were telling him. “It’s too quiet, too cold. It makes no statement, no ringing diatribe against either the President or the system he represents. There’s no gain, no profit other than the strong impression of a highly irritating itch being scratched, and done just as casually. I may be wrong, God knows I hope and pray I am, but this stinks of being personal.”
“Agreed.” Nancy wasn’t surprised to hear his words reflect her own thoughts and conclusions. Given the opportunity, she knew Admiral Fitzwallace would say the same. It was all still an academic speculation at this point, but an ugly one. “If not personal, then strictly business. There was a profit to be had here. We just don’t see it.”
“Who?” Righteous anger, for his friend, the lives lost and the insult to his honor and the honor of the institution tore away at the edges of McGarry’s control. He wanted answers.
“We’re working on it.”
“We’re working on it.”
McGarry closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair, trying to relax and knowing it was a lost cause. Rather than set him off, her response served to provide some small relief. Unlike so many bureaucratic excuses he’d heard given with that same phrase, he understood that she meant it. No matter what he might say or do, Nancy and the NSA were working as quickly as they could.
That still left him on the outside looking in. A situation he in no way found at all comforting. Shifting in his seat, he glanced irritably at his watch. “Ron should have found him by now.”
“It’s a party, Leo. He’s mingling. There’s what, maybe two, three hundred people out there?”
McGarry grimaced as the exact number of warm bodies currently partying down in the ballroom flashed before his mind’s eye. “Three hundred and twenty one.”
“For a birthday party?”
“The First Lady was not amused,” McGarry responded sourly.
He’d quickly come to realize a great many things about this entire evening hadn’t amused Abigail Bartlet. The night’s list was an ever-growing accumulation of irritants. However short it may be, he also knew he occupied one of the higher positions on that exclusive register. Hardly an honor, it was a serious toss-up as to whether he or the President held the top slot.
“I can imagine,” Nancy was saying, trying in some small way to placate him. She didn’t bother to point out that, even with that large a number of people, finding the President should not be taking this long.
Not unless it was the President himself who was giving the Secret Service a collective ulcer. It wasn’t a totally ridiculous possibility. She’d heard the rumors. At the time, she hadn’t given the stories much credence. Now she was beginning to wonder.
Still, she had to give McGarry something. “Ron will find him. He’s motivated.”
That was an understatement. Nancy hadn’t considered the senior agent’s reaction when she’d included him in the initial briefing with McGarry. Ron Butterfield’s granite mask of professionalism had cracked for a split second and she’d caught a glimpse of a burning rage that had nearly taken her breath away. He, along with the President’s Chief of Staff, had been on board Marine One, been victims as well as the man who had clearly been targeted by the attack. They had survived, only just. Others hadn’t.
That moment of unguarded fury had passed as quickly as it came, but when he had taken his leave, she’d been left with the certain impression that the usually inscrutable Secret Service agent was taking this personally.
Her lips tightened as she realized yet another truth. She wasn’t immune to the frustrated anger anymore than they were. They were all taking it personally.
Especially Leo McGarry.
“He should have called a crash,” McGarry growled.
“And accomplish what?” They’d already had this argument; one Nancy and Butterfield had won, barely. “Right now the only advantage we have is that whoever perpetrated this has no idea that we know. It was an accident. They have to know the report was delivered. That’s a given. Call a crash now and not only will every guest at this party start asking the wrong questions, but they and whoever they paid to do this will know it too and go so far underground we’ll never dig them out.”
“Do you honestly think there’s a chance of that?”
“Finding them? Honestly? Money always leaves a trail, however faint. Let’s not lose perspective here. The security risk is minimal. Leo, I know he’s your friend... ”
McGarry’s head snapped up at that. It was rare for any of the senior advisors to acknowledge out loud the unique relationship between the President and his Chief of Staff. That it was a given was accepted, but never dwelled on. Friendship had very little bearing on how he did his job. But it did color it to a significant degree. It was a problem McGarry struggled with on a daily basis. He had yet to find the perfect balance and doubted it even existed.
“Don’t finish that sentence, Nancy,” McGarry warned her in a low voice. The problem, as it were, remained his. He didn’t need anyone to rub his face in it. “Friendship doesn’t enter into the equation.”
“You’re a better poker player than that, Leo.” All Nancy earned with that comment was a dark look through narrowed eyes. She ignored it. “Let Ron and me do our jobs.”
“And my job would be?”
“To keep him from going ballistic when he finds out.”
“Fine,” McGarry muttered, perhaps just a bit sullenly. “Call me Job and give me the impossible tasks.”
“You do have a rep as a miracle worker. He listens to you. Can’t say the same for the rest of us.”
This time the look McGarry shot her could have melted lead. Ignoring those looks was becoming habit and Nancy felt she was getting pretty good at it.
Nancy and McGarry started as the door to the drawing room slammed open with a violent crash, then closed with equal force behind the tall, glowering form of Ron Butterfield, Special Agent in Charge of White House security. Both the Chief of Staff and the National Security Advisor were well aware the display of uncontrolled emotion was out of character for the man.
It did not bode well for whatever news he had to impart.
“He did it again,” Butterfield growled, glaring at McGarry as if it were all his fault.
The implied accusation was obvious, and in a way, the man was right. McGarry had been the primary mover and shaker behind getting Josiah Bartlet into the White House. Whatever problems and headaches the Secret Service now had to put up with could be traced straight back to him. He could well imagine not being at the top of their Christmas lists.
Only by reminding himself that the man carried a gun and knew how to use it was the Chief of Staff able to stifle the smug grin that threatened to split his face.
Along with a great many other people tonight, Butterfield was not amused. Eyes narrowing dangerously, he let the Chief of Staff understand in no uncertain terms how he felt.
Nancy opened her mouth to ask the obvious question, but a quick glance between the two men - McGarry trying to disappear into his seat cushion and Butterfield doing his level best to intimidate and be respectful at the same time - and she decided discretion was the better part of valor.
This was not something she wanted to get in the middle of.
Not long ago, Leo McGarry had speculated on what it would take to make the unflappable Butterfield lose his cool. His own ill-conceived actions at the time had brought the agent as close to the brink as he’d ever seen him. He’d come to the conclusion that it was situational. From the look on the man’s face, the barely contained frustrated anger radiating from him and the state of the door - which more than likely was going to have to have its hinges realigned - he figured the situation control had hit another all time low.
Whatever dark humor he may have found earlier quickly disappeared. McGarry didn’t need to ask what had set Butterfield off this time. “He ditched his detail again, didn’t he?”
Whether it was his training finally taking hold, or the slight possibility he was so far beyond words as to be rendered mute, the agent’s rigid silence spoke volumes. Eyes blazing, Butterfield merely nodded.
“Again?” Nancy had latched on to the apparent keyword in both Butterfield’s and McGarry’s statements. Apparently the rumors were correct, and from the way both men were acting, she didn’t need any further confirmation of her suspicions. “He’s done this before?”
The combined glares from McGarry and Butterfield would have sent a lesser person running for dubious cover. Nancy McNally was made of sterner stuff. Besides, if this was a regular occurrence, she was beginning to have a very strong heart-felt sympathy for what these two had to put up with.
Nancy thought about it for a moment. “Leo?”
“His timing sucks.”
Butterfield surprised them both by snorting derisively and muttering, “Go figure.”
Standing, McGarry straightened his shoulders and tugged at the line of his suit. He stood there a moment, giving both Nancy and Butterfield the benefit of his silence. All things considered, he should have anticipated it. The unexpected had long been what he’d come to expect from the man he’d called friend for more than half both their lives.
In truth, he wasn’t at all surprised.
Settling his gaze on Butterfield, he commanded softly, “Find him.”
Torn from her thoughts, Abbey jumped violently, barely suppressing a gasp. “For heaven’s sake, John!” she complained heatedly. “I’m not used to you announcing yourself quietly.”
Lord Marbury beamed at her. "Dear lady, forgive me," he boomed with tipsy gallantry. "I simply could not endure the sight of such a beautiful woman standing unattended. Besides it struck me that, in the heat of my emotional response to your outstanding comeliness earlier, I may have neglected to offer you my sincere felicitations on your birthday."
Abbey rolled her eyes, but could not suppress a fond grin. It was almost impossible to be offended by Marbury's outrageousness, perhaps because most women could sense the honest appreciation that lay beneath. She suspected this apparent forbearance was part of the reason why the Englishman irritated so many of his own gender.
Another was almost certainly the constant air of near inebriation. Her husband was one of the few men who took the time to see through Marbury's air of blurred caricature to the sharp, incisive mind below.
"Besides," the ambassador's voice dropped discreetly, "it occurred to me that both you and my old friend are unusually despondent this evening." Suddenly appearing perfectly sober, he regarded her gravely. "I want to take this opportunity to wish you well with the Medical Board tomorrow. I am aware it won't be easy. But what you did was born of love and affection, and concern, too. No action that stems from such motives can ever be regarded as base, and I believe the board will realize that as we, your friends here gathered, do." He gestured with his glass to indicate the crowd milling around them.
Abbey ducked her chin as she felt the emotion welling up inside her. She reached out and squeezed their old friend's arm affectionately. "Thank you for that, John. It means a great deal to me, and to him. But there will be no hearing tomorrow."
At the man's raised eyebrows, she took a deep breath and told him, "I've decided to voluntarily forfeit my medical license for the duration of Jed's time in the White House."
The British Ambassador was silent for a moment before speaking. "Well, it is a brave decision, and a gallant one. Also, I know it means a very considerable sacrifice to you. You are a highly talented surgeon and doctor. But if you and the President feel this is the best decision for you… "
Abbey interrupted him with an abruptness that surprised even herself. "No, John. This is my life and my decision. Jed was gearing up for a fight on my behalf. I only told him of my decision a short time ago." A faint, oddly bitter little smile twisted her lips. "I rather think I yanked the rug out from under him."
Marbury paused a moment. "I see."
He glanced around the room, as if seeking out the object of their conversation, then turned back to Abbey. "That would certainly explain the somewhat… deflated air I noticed about him since your return to the party."
Abbey instinctively glanced around herself, but Jed was now nowhere to be seen. With a slight frown, she hoped he wasn't plaguing the unfortunate Charlie again. At least the toast was safely delivered now. Donna was now arguing with a petulant looking Josh, and clearly having the last word in that particular conversation.
She mentally applauded the young woman. It was about time Lyman learned to appreciate the jewel he had in his assistant.
"Yes, I think he was hoping to be able to ride to my defense somehow." Her tone was wry. "You know, save the day, slay the dragon." The last words slipped out unconsciously, "Make amends."
The words and the unspoken accusation lay between them and Marbury regarded the glass in his hand thoughtfully.
Abbey shifted uncomfortably and looked around for her errant husband again. Still no sign. She was slightly puzzled to see that several of his constant shadows were still present. Since the accident, Butterfield had discreetly but discernibly increased the President's personal detail, ignoring a couple of executive tantrums on the subject with his trademark calmness.
Of course, he had found a stalwart ally in Leo McGarry, and the President had discovered that no amount of rank pulling created the slightest impression on either man's determination.
“If it isn’t too personal a question, how did he take the news?” Marbury was reclaiming her attention.
Abbey smiled at him. She had always found it easy to talk to this man. Jed and she had friends in common, but Marbury was one of the few who held both of them in equal regard. Even Leo, whom she liked and always trusted to look out for Jed, was somehow more her husband’s friend than hers. Now that he was also her husband’s Chief of Staff, that division was even wider. His present duel role in Jed’s life made some subjects simply too difficult to discuss easily.
“You mean, about my forfeiting the license?” Abbey paused to throw her mind back to that intensely personal moment there in the crowed ballroom. “He was shocked, I’m sure. Very shocked. I think he expected me to continue to fight.” She looked up at the elegant man beside her. “He didn’t understand, it wasn’t a case of my giving up. I had a revelation of sorts this evening. I don’t regret having helped Jed, but I violated several professional tenets I had sworn to uphold by doing so. I’m not accepting censure for my motives, but for the way I handled things. Jed’s already stepped up and acknowledged his own responsibility, and done so with some grace and dignity. I decided it was my turn to do the same.”
“Hmmm.” Marbury was giving her his full attention. “It is certainly a very impressive gesture on your behalf. I hope he appreciates it, and you.”
He was fascinated, and more than a little envious of Josiah Bartlet, as he watched a tender smile of remembrance lighten the First Lady’s features.
“He told me he loved me very much,” Abbey answered softly, momentarily basking in the warm glow the memory bestowed.
“I don’t think you ever doubted that,” Marbury interjected gently. “Certainly no one here who watched the two of you together ever thought otherwise, even when things were at their most uncomfortable between you.”
A twinkle in his eye, he gave her a typically courtly little bow. “I have always held Josiah Bartlet to be a lucky man in his ability to win and hold your love. But I will say this for my old friend, I do not think it could have happened to a better man.”
Abbey felt herself blush a bit at that.
Seeing her embarrassment, Marbury puckishly added, “I’m sure he will thank you appropriately too.” He was startled to observe his companion’s features darken abruptly in angry realization. “Abbey? You’re still angry with him. Why?”
Abbey gave a short, mirthless laugh. “Yes I am, John. And I’ve only just realized why.” She scowled around the room. No, still no sign of him. Where had the man got to now? “He never said thank you. Damn him anyway. I gave up my license, my career, for him, and he never even said ‘Thank You’.”
“I… see.” Lord Marbury winced at this evidence that, President of the United States and Noble laureate or no, Josiah Bartlet was still not winning any prizes when it came to judgment calls about his wife. “Well, I know it’s not much of an excuse, and even when you know he’s grateful it is still nice to hear him actually say it, but you did take him by surprise with your announcement… ”
He broke off as he saw an expression of irritated dissatisfaction flash across Abbey’s face. Leo McGarry and Josh Lyman might have plenty to say on the subject of the British ambassador, but even they were forced to acknowledge, however grudgingly, that the man was a perceptive observer of human nature. “But that’s not all, is it?” he asked quietly.
“Hmmm?” Abbey’s attention was momentarily distracted by a slight flurry among the group of Secret Service agents nearest to her.
They were such a constant presence that normally the First Couple had little difficulty in disregarding them, but every once in a while those silently efficient and intimidating figures made their presence felt. She guessed that some idiot had probably tried to crash the gate. It often happened when the White House hosted a party, sparking the usual discreet security alert despite the fact that the perceived threat usually had a snowball’s chance in hell of setting foot on White House grounds, never mind inside the executive mansion.
Or maybe it was something else? This flurry seemed a little more agitated than usual, and was spreading out in tiny little ripples, passing over the oblivious guests to encompass the other agents scattered throughout the room. Then Ron Butterfield emerged from the side room with a face like thunder to engage in a controlled but unquestionably heated sotto voce debate with a flustered looking Agent Carlyle.
Abbey rolled her eyes in sympathy for the agent, who was on her husband’s personal detail. She sincerely hoped that Jed hadn’t done it again. It really was too bad of him. Butterfield looked like he was about to have a seizure. A few more vigorous exchanges, then Carlyle took off out of the ballroom, while the Security Chief retreated back into the side room. He emerged again a few moments later and Abbey could have sworn that she heard the door slam behind him, even over the sound of the orchestra.
"He didn't give you what you wanted."
"Sorry?" Abbey's attention was jerked back to her conversation with Marbury. "The thank you? No. No, he didn't."
"I don't mean just that." The Englishman met her puzzled gaze squarely. "You hadn't even thought of that until a few moments ago. I mean he didn't even give you the chance to say 'See what it feels like'."
"John… ” Abbey’s eyes were beginning to narrow in a fashion that would have caused her husband, had he been present, to hastily withdraw and regroup.
Marbury's own sense of self-preservation seemed to have been dulled by the alcohol. Either that or he believed diplomatic immunity extended its protection even to the wrath of the First Lady. "You didn't consult him about your decision."
"No, I didn't." Abbey's tone was testy. "I told you, John. My life and career, my decision."
"So you presented him with a fait accompli."
"If you want to put it that way, yes."
"You took a major decision that affected both your lives, and you didn't consult his thoughts on the issue. You simply told him what you were going to do." Marbury took a deep breath and struck straight to his point. "Just as he did to you when he decided to run for re-election."
Marbury broke it first. He spoke gently, sensitive to the roiling emotions of the woman beside him. "I know, it's not exactly the same thing. But you did make a major decision without discussing it with him; something that I know is unlike either of you. Admit it, there was just an element of payback there. You wanted him to know what it was like, to get angry with you for deciding without him. Then you could ask him how it felt."
The ambassador was warming to his subject, gesturing freely with his fortunately empty glass for emphasis. "But he didn't give you that satisfaction, did he? No anger, no challenge. He simply accepted your decision, because you told him it was what you wanted to do. He respected your wishes."
Abbey simmered quietly. John Marbury was one of their oldest friends, and she had been convinced that if anyone would sympathize with her, it would be he. But honesty compelled her to admit that he was being sympathetic, and that he had a point. She had taken her decision from the purest of motives, but there had been a flash of vengefulness in her decision to present Jed with the finished act.
She had wanted him to feel something of how she had felt when she had sat in their bedroom at the Residence and listened to that fateful news conference.
But instead of responding with anger or wounded pride, or attempting to talk her out of it, he had had the nerve to totally disarm her with that simple, accepting declaration of love. Once again she had been left with nothing to rail against. Oh, she knew the decision had wounded him, left him feeling horribly guilty. That much had been clear from his reaction. But he hadn't questioned her decision for an instant.
He respected your wishes. Why did regarding the evening in those terms make her feel vaguely uncomfortable?
Marbury had paused to gauge the atmosphere, and now decided to go for broke. "Abbey, why were you so angry with him after the news conference?"
She whirled to view him incredulously. "I can't believe you asked me that question. He broke his word to me, John! We had a deal. One term only, and he broke his word!"
"Yes, he did." Marbury managed to keep the surprise from showing on his face. One term? The deal, as it were, and the President’s breaking of it, put in plain words what Abbey was feeling, explaining her still simmering anger. He regarded her intensely. "And that fact isn't to his credit. But Abbey, why did you hold him to it in the first place? You know how good he is at this. Why didn't you reconsider holding him to a promise made when neither of you really believed he would ever be granted this opportunity at all? Why allow him to hold this office in the first place if you weren't going to let him give it all the time and energy he had to give?"
"Precisely because it does take so much of his time and energy!" Mingled frustration and fear caused Abbey's voice to catch in her throat. "Do you know that medical opinion believes the most beneficial long term treatment for MS is to live as stress-free and restful a life as possible?" She smiled grimly at Marbury's whimsical expression. "Yeah, he sure picked the right job, didn't he?"
She laid a hand on her companion's arm, desperate to make him understand. "John, this office can exact a considerable toll. He was my husband before he ever was President. I want to know I'll get that same man back once we're finished with this place. I won't lose him to this job!"
Marbury's features were grave. "You're afraid for him", he stated quietly.
Tears blurred Abbey's vision. She blinked them away, refusing to let them fall. Looking away, she whispered, "Yes, I am. I love him, John."
"And he you." Marbury waited until she met his eyes again. "You've never seriously doubted that, have you?" When she mutely shook her head, he continued quietly. "So, why make it a contest. Why force him to choose?"
"I'm not!" Abbey protested, startled. "I'm a doctor. I'm fully aware of the dangers… "
"Are they really so much greater if he remains in office?" Marbury interrupted her. "He has after all had only one attack since he began. And he is surrounded by the best in medical care. Be certain now, are you speaking from the knowledge of a doctor, or the fear of someone who loves and dreads to lose him?"
Abbey glared at him defiantly. "A bit of both", she admitted reluctantly. "Does it matter?"
Marbury smiled gently at her. "It matters if what caused you to hold him so tenaciously to his promise, despite knowing that it was against his own wishes, was certain knowledge or merely fear of a future possibility." He leaned forward to speak quietly. "Abbey, your husband is a remarkable man. He has served his country well at home, and represented her abroad with grace and distinction. I have seen enough of the cynicism and apathy of international diplomacy to know the worth of a world leader who is prepared to make hard decisions, yet allows himself to be guided by a sense of morality. The world needs more men like your husband in positions of power.”
Drawing back, giving her a moment to think, he regarded her intently. Finally, satisfied she’d had enough time, he challenged her gently, “Ask yourself, honestly, do you really believe that he is incapable of continuing to serve for as long as he is needed?"
Abbey stood with slightly bowed head, considering the new perspective just offered her. She had known Jed wished to be released from their agreement. He loved the work he did, and desperately wanted to continue it for as long as possible. And he was good at it. She felt real pride in the way he administered his great responsibilities.
So, why had she ignored what she knew to be his personal desire? She knew her actions had been inspired by her fears for his health, but had there also been just a touch of selfishness there too? She definitely didn't want to lose him, and this job seemed so often to threaten to snatch him away. She had wanted to keep him safe, for her sake as much as his.
She looked up, to find Marbury regarding her quizzically, head on one side. She gave him a smile and was promptly beamed upon with an extravagance characteristic of all the Englishman's actions. She felt her own smile instinctively widen in response.
Abbey was still irritated, but the anger had cooled. Jed had better find the right words when next they met, if he knew what was good for him. And he still wasn't absolved by any means. There had been a great deal of blindness on both sides in recent months. But she felt a turning point had been reached. For the first time in a long time, she had ceased merely reacting and started to think again. Maybe it was time to see if she and Jed couldn't finally have that long overdue talk at last.
Touching Marbury's arm, she smiled gratefully up at him and said, "John, would you excuse me? I rather think I need to go find my husband."
Marbury saluted her with his empty glass as she left. Rocking back on his heels, a small, satisfied smile lighting his face, he watched her weave her determined way through the crowd in search of her husband. A true diplomat’s job was never an easy one, but it did come with no few rewards.
Tonight, at least, he’d earned his title. Staring morosely into his empty glass, he decided filling it would be ample recompense and headed towards the bar.
“The Egyptians were the first people to celebrate birthdays.” Scowling, Bartlet picked the last bit of onion off the pizza slice. It was overpowering evidence. Next time he bullied a staffer into a reluctant bit of apportionment, he’d have to remember to warn them. Nothing like the lingering smell of an onion to let the blood pressure police know he’d broken the law. “Did you know that?” he asked, before taking a bite.
Donna chewed thoughtfully for a moment before answering. She was having no problems with the onions. Personally, she loved them and as Josh repellent they were indispensable. The Deputy Chief of Staff hated onions and considered anything even remotely touched by them hopelessly contaminated. Any pizza so decorated was safe from his scavenging.
Watching Bartlet, she was forced to conclude that apparently New England presidents weren’t quite so picky.
Swallowing, she said, “I thought it was the Babylonians?” She’d lost her nervousness early on. Whatever else she had expected, this agreeable, quietly relaxed, simply pleasant gentleman hadn’t been part of her fevered speculation. Every once in a while, she even managed to forget that he was the President. Against her better judgment - and despite Josh’s insistence that she had no better judgment - she was enjoying herself.
And she was holding her own in the useless factoid department. Donna was rather proud of that. Of course, the more than half bottle of wine she’d polished off certainly helped in lowering her social and conversational barriers.
“Nah. The Egyptians beat them to it. Of course, only the members of the Royal family were honored with a celebration.” Bartlet’s voice retained a genial tone, but a suggestion of annoyance hovered in his eyes. The parallels with what was going on upstairs were a bit too close to a historical truth and a sour present day reality. Only not nearly as much fun. “The local peasantry was left to best guess their date of birth.”
“Probably figured it by harvest years. ‘You’re twenty-six harvests old today, let’s see about adding another to your tally, make it a good one’.”
“Could be. Pity the poor kid born during a famine.”
“Or when the Nile didn’t flood. That would suck.”
“Bad luck, that.” By no means a snob as so many political opponents had accused him of being, Bartlet was still impressed by Donna’s performance so far. At this point in the conversation, he was used to getting the ‘deer in the headlight’ look from any cornered staffer.
It was a pleasant change of pace.
“Yeah, a social pariah.” Donna tossed a tail end crust into the box and picked up another slice of pizza. Happily taking a fortifying bite, onions and all, she finished her commentary around a mouthful, “‘Don’t talk to him. On the day he was born, the Gods dusted the inundation. It was all his fault’. Talk about carrying a load.”
Bartlet winced at the innocently delivered observation, a momentary look of discomfort crossing his face before he masked it with mild indifference. Right now, he didn’t need to be reminded about whose fault anything was. He was all too aware that following the line of pointing fingers led directly to him.
With suitable gravity, he selected another slice of pizza and began the process of making it safe for consumption. The pile of onion bits was growing exponentially. No hint of his troubling thoughts was in his voice when he said, “The Greeks broadened the concept a bit. All adult males were entitled to a celebration each year. Women and children weren’t very high on the priority list, so they didn’t get one.”
That unequivocal analysis required something a bit more empowering than pizza. Reaching for her drink, she decided her luck this evening hadn’t really been all that bad. Having forgotten to grab some glasses when she’d snitched the wine, Donna had been relieved to find that Ainsley’s office had come complete with the paper variety, saving her a return trip.
She’d have to mention the idea of a utensil stash to Josh. After all, you never knew when a hidey-hole was going to need supplies. Or when a party was going to branch out into unknown territory.
Speaking of parties, another silly historical tidbit occurred to her. “And they didn’t know when to quit. Kept on celebrating even after the honored doofus bit the big one.”
“The Greeks knew how to party down.”
“Any excuse to bust open a jar of wine,” she noted sagely. Taking a healthy sip of hers and draining the cup, Donna decided that wine from a Republican paper cup tasted just as good as it did from Democratic crystal.
Life was just full of surprises.
“They invented the birthday cake, too,” Bartlet said, politely waving her off when she offered to top off his drink. His brow rose with amused surprise as he watched her happily empty the bottle into her own cup. “Probably the ensuing sugar rush as well.”
“And considering who the candles on that cake were supposed to honor, this whole males only thing totally bites.”
“Artemis, goddess of the night.”
Bartlet frowned. He wasn’t used to being corrected. “Night,” he insisted stubbornly and with suitably affronted ceremony. Quite sure he had won this round of trivial pursuit, he lifted his own cup and took a sip, waiting patiently for her to acknowledge the point.
Totally missing the presidential clues, Donna shook her head vehemently. “Moon. See, the candles were supposed to represent moonlight, which means moon, so Artemis… ” She looked up and finally realized whom she was contradicting. Making a quick save, she stammered, “Of course, I’m sure night is included in the whole honoring thing somewhere. Moon, night, they both kind of go together, right? Inseparable.”
In danger of crushing the paper cup in nervous hands, Donna waited for the ax to fall. She’d seen Josh after a presidential dressing down too many times to count. Considering his state, she hoped her scolding wouldn't hurt quite so much. She attempted to give the President a weak smile, failed miserably, and then braced herself for the inevitable.
Bartlet tried to maintain a disapproving expression, and then he grinned. He couldn’t help it. Watching Donna squirm wasn’t quite as entertaining as putting his Deputy Chief of Staff on the hot seat, but it was close.
Besides, as a gentleman, he was bound to let a lady off the hook. “We’ll go with that for now,” he said, more than a trace of laughter in his voice.
Donna visibly relaxed, on the point of melting with relief and slumping into her chair. Saved by the bell. Letting out the breath she hadn’t been aware she was holding, all she could manage was a sickly smile of gratitude.
“I’ll have Charlie look it up and get back to you.”
Donna couldn’t hide her surprise at that revelation. “He does that?”
“Charlie?” Bartlet shrugged a bit self-consciously. “Occasionally. I can’t remember everything.”
“Really?” Donna asked with a teasing drawl, one eyebrow raised with comic skepticism. She hadn’t meant it to come out that way; it wasn’t exactly respectful. Still, it wasn’t everyday a minor mystery was solved.
“Sharing your pizza entitles you to a great many things, Ms. Moss…”
“Sharing, sir?” Now she was interrupting him. It was the wine, had to be the wine. Ignoring the warning signs - she’d never been accused of being verbally challenged before, so why start now - Donna threw caution to the wind, took another healthy swallow of wine and said, “I thought it was an executive order?”
Helping himself to another slice of pizza, Bartlet grinned smugly and replied archly, “Rank hath its privileges. A minor, yet endlessly entertaining perk.”
“Like torturing your staff?”
“And you don’t?”
“Torture my staff?” Donna drew herself up and announced proudly, “I don’t have a staff.”
“That’s enough,” Donna sighed with long suffering dedication.
Bartlet laughed at her forlorn expression. When it came to Josh Lyman, most of the staffers, senior or otherwise, had acquired the same look at one time or another. “I’m curious. Why so haughty over a lack of staff?”
Emboldened by his gentle laugher, not to mention the wine, Donna answered with a satisfied grin, “I’m incredibly efficient, a staff of one.”
“I’d be ever so grateful if you’d remind him of that for me, sir. He forgets.” Wrinkling her nose, she thought about it for a moment, then admitted honestly, “Besides, I don’t think I’d know what to do with one. A staff, I mean.”
“Half the time I don’t either.”
“And Donna Moss scores!” She might have gone a bit too far with that, but quickly rejected the idea as absurd. After all, the President had been the one to start this and he was still smiling.
Still, it wouldn’t hurt to play it safe. Unable to quite stifle her grin, she added a bit more respectfully, “Sir.”
Her wide-eyed innocence was merely a smokescreen. Eyes narrowed speculatively, Bartlet studied her for a moment, then asked carefully, “Exactly how much wine have you consumed this evening?”
“Probably far too much.” On that note, she finished what was in her cup with a flourish.
Donna picked up the empty bottle and stared at it morosely. It was a truly sad sight. Where had it all gone? A quick glance at the President’s cup, the original and still with about half its contents, and she was forced to consider the evidence.
The conclusion wasn’t a pretty one. “Considering the evidence, or at least what I perceive to be the evidence, way, WAY too much. Sir, with all due respect, you’re not making me look good.”
Just to make her happy, Bartlet lifted his cup and took a token swallow. “I’m driving.”
“Oh.” Donna blinked a few times and thought about it. Somehow, it made sense. In a truly bizarre way, he was driving. “That’s okay then.”
The President’s only response was a dry chuckle.
As a long, heavy silence descended, Donna tried to figure out if she should feel some relief or nervous that she had finally gone too far. When the President was in this kind of mood, it was hard to tell which way a person could turn. Watching him absently swirl the contents of his cup, staring off into space, she decided the silence had been his choice. Either he’d had enough pizza, or had grown tired of picking it apart for onions. His last slice lay forgotten in the box.
It had been a good pizza, too. Definitely not a good sign.
The conversation seemed to have staled for him as well. Whatever peace of mind he’d sought and found, however briefly, had eluded him once more. As it had earlier that evening, it struck Donna once again that something else was going on here.
“So,” she began, praying she wasn’t sticking her verbal foot in a bear trap. “How’s the party going?”
“I don’t think I could handle the truth. There’s been far too much of it tonight.”
Bartlet’s short laugh had a bitter edge to it. “Now there’s a glaringly blunt yet oddly innocent observation.”
“An understatement,” Bartlet muttered, scowling into his cup. “A highly evocative word, sucks. I’ll have to suggest to Sam that he work it into the next State of the Union. I may as well invite the ire of the Hill as well as those few who tune in to watch the circus. Piss them all off, let them join the club. God knows it’s not exclusive.”
Confused and not completely sure where this was going or whether she really wanted to follow; Donna asked warily, “Sir?”
A depressed smile pulling at the corners of his mouth, Bartlet told her candidly, “I’m trying, but I can’t think of one person, who matters, that I haven’t managed to piss off.”
“Leo?” Donna suggested helpfully.
“Hides it well.”
“Incredibly annoyed, bordering on pissed, but it’s still directed at me.”
“Toby?” The moment she said his name, the absurdity of her suggestion was immediately apparent. She didn’t even have to think about it. “But then how could you tell? He’s always angry about something.”
“Trust me,” Bartlet replied with dark emphasis, all humor lost, “he’s not happy.”
“Is he ever, sir?” Donna asked with all seriousness. A happy Toby staggered the imagination. Suddenly, she brightened as she thought of the one person who by his very nature couldn’t possibly be pissed at the President. “Sam?”
“Crushed. That’s even worse.”
“CJ?” Donna wasn’t about to give up so easily. Then she remembered what happened upstairs. “No, wait. She swallowed cork. She wouldn’t do that if she were emotionally stable.”
Bartlet was almost afraid to ask. “Swallowed cork?”
“It was very ugly, sir. A screwy corkscrew, poor hand-eye coordination. It was pitiful. You really don’t want to know. What about Lord Marbury?”
“Elegantly ticked, but still angry.”
Donna took a deep breath and sighed. She was running out of names and the President wasn’t helping. Scowling with frustration, she muttered, “Amy doesn’t count.”
The President nearly choked on the wine he was in the process of swallowing. Coughing, he caught his breath and managed to croak, “Thank God for that.”
“Josh sort of just... twists in the wind. You gotta love him, but his emotional attention span lacks any cohesive staying power.” Realizing what she’d just admitted, and that she could only partially blame the wine, Donna began to stammer an apology, “Oh, God...”
“Donna, please. Let’s not start that again.”
“I’m not mad at you,” Donna told him sincerely, meaning every word. She wasn’t sure it was what he wanted or needed to hear, but it seemed the right thing to say.
“I stole your pizza.”
“It’s a good pizza. Plenty to share, executive order or not.”
“You’ve an innate talent for diplomacy, Donnatella Moss.”
Donna shuddered dramatically and said with all seriousness, “Ick. What a nasty thought.”
Bartlet stared at her incredulously for a moment, then burst out laughing. The high art of the diplomat had found its best and worst critic, someone who with blunt honesty called things as she saw them. All things considered, he couldn’t bring himself to totally disagree.
Donna relaxed at the sound of his laughter. While still a bit subdued, it was at least heartfelt. He was going to need it, because only one name was left to toss into the emotional hopper.
Keeping a mental eye out for those pesky verbal bear traps, Donna regarded him with wary concern and said, “Well, sir, that leaves...” She couldn’t quite bring herself to finish the sentence.
Sensing her reluctance, Bartlet finished the sentence for her. Letting out a long, audible breath, he said in a soft, resigned voice, “My wife.”
“Yep,” Donna couldn’t lie to him. “She’s definitely pissed.”
“Yet another diplomatic understatement?”
Donna shrugged uncomfortably; increasingly unsure as to how far she could take this. Even being who he was, who he was married to, what had happened upstairs with the girls - and in this case, the First Lady was definitely included among that sorority - was strictly an alcohol induced confidence. The present level of alcohol in her blood stream didn’t change that.
“Let me guess,” Bartlet offered with a wry yet indulgent glint in his eyes. “I’m a jackass.”
“I vaguely recall that word being used.”
“Applied to me, no doubt.”
“Diplomacy again. Good girl.” The President couldn’t help but laugh at her reluctant candor.
As he’d told her earlier, Abbey hadn’t given him a single clue as to what had gone on upstairs between the girls. But he was more than capable of coming up with a few good guesses. He knew his wife. Hell, he didn’t have to guess; he knew all too well that when Abbey was well and truly ticked at him no other word would serve. It was her favorite. Three decades of marriage had infused that simple word with a myriad of hidden nuances and she was fully capable of including each and every one in a single, heartfelt burst.
Bartlet was used to it, and right now he couldn’t deny the truth. He deserved it. The good Lord knew he hadn’t been fair to her. She’d given up so much and he hadn’t even had the courage to ask why. What had he given her in return?
Grief, and nothing but. He was getting pretty good at it; yet another bitter truth. No matter how hard he tried, he kept missing her signals, passing her by. The easy way out, using the office as an excuse, once more disappointing the woman he loved. When exactly had he started doing that, and so easily?
Lately, he had given Abbey too much of everything, except himself.
Scowling, he took a swallow of wine. It could have been vinegar for all he tasted it.
Bartlet didn’t know why, maybe because she’d earned it with her patience, but he felt he had to tell Donna part of the truth. “She’s giving up her license.”
For a moment, his words didn’t register in Donna’s mind. When they did, she could only offer a confused, “Sir?”
“Voluntarily. For the duration of our stay in the White House.” His lips twisted wryly at that, and he added with heavy sarcasm, “However long that may be.”
A pitiful response, but all she could come up with. It was at that moment Donna guiltily realized she had begun this. Her words. How she’d said them and when she’d said them. One blunt, ill advised but honest statement that had spurred the First Lady’s decision. The harder she tried to ignore that truth, the more it persisted. While she had been confused at the time, unsure of whom she was talking to; it had been Mrs. Bartlet all along who had been listening.
Beyond any logic or reason, her thoughts driven by a heartfelt instinct, Donna also realized it was the only decision Abigail Bartlet could make. Wife, mother and healer, she’d chosen the only path circumstance and her husband had allowed her. She could have fought, but she didn’t.
Donna hoped and prayed that someday she could show that same kind of courage and depth of love. It was humbling.
“Did you tell her thank you, sir?” she asked tentatively, trying to put the pieces together and still feeling a touch of guilt. Watching him stare blankly at the desktop, the thought occurred to her that maybe helping him fix this would give her a bit of release.
Startled at the question, Bartlet’s head jerked up and he snapped, “What?” It came out a bit sharper than he had intended.
Donna flinched. She’d put her foot in it again. “Mr. President, I’m sorry. It’s none of my business...”
“Pay no attention to me, sir. Lately I seem to have developed a taste for shoe leather and toe fungus. I think I need therapy.”
The President gave no indication that he’d heard her, staring off blankly into empty space. “I told her...” his voice trailed off. Failure slumped his shoulders and he rubbed his eyes wearily. “Shit.”
Donna began to shift uncomfortably in her seat, squirming. This has gotten into territory she was not at all happy with. Losing it with the First Lady was one thing. Losing it with her husband, who just happened to be the President of the United States - First Lady, President, she should have copped to that one sooner - was a horse of another color. And she couldn’t lay all the blame on the wine.
What was it Leo was always telling the staffers? Think before you open your mouth? How hard was that simple advice to remember?
Donna wondered if she was starting to like the taste of her own feet. Pizza, booze, the President of the United States; she didn’t know if it was the combination of all the above, or simply the logical conclusion to a biblically awful evening.
At that moment, one of the ingredients to her downfall made its inevitable presence known. As a closing chapter, it somehow seemed a touch anti-climactic. Shooting an urgent glance towards the office door, Donna said, “Umm, sir?”
Lost in his own thoughts, Bartlet wasn’t listening.
“Sir, I really have to...” What was the polite way to say this? “...go.”
“Go?” Reluctantly dragged back from his thoughts, he looked up at her curiously, nearly smiling in sympathy at what he saw. The empty wine bottle – and no doubt the companion bottles consumed earlier - was exacting its revenge. Her eyeballs were nearly floating.
Absently waving his hand, he gave her silent permission to leave.
“I’ll be right back,” she promised before bolting.
And she left, perhaps a bit faster than circumstances and the somewhat august company would allow. Bartlet couldn’t really blame her. He’d unfairly put her on the spot, although his guilt over the subterfuge was balanced by what he’d learned.
Watching the door swing closed behind her, he pondered the wisdom of one young lady who had not yet been corrupted by a cruel world. So simple. So easy. He hadn’t seen it, but Donna had. He wondered if Abbey did.
“Jethro,” he muttered.
His wife had understood. He was beyond jackass.
Bartlet’s hand slammed down on the desk angrily, perhaps a bit more forcefully than prudence would have allowed. Shaking out his pained fingers, he gave himself the title Abbey had refused.
He had, after all, earned it. Blind stupidity had its rewards.
This, at least, he could fix. He hoped. If it wasn’t too late.
Something was up.
Joshua Lyman crossed his arms and leaned his shoulder against the door jam, letting his gaze slowly travel the length of the ballroom and with some concern carefully noting the stepped-up security activity. The Secret Service was trying to be discreet and were, for the most part, doing a pretty good job. Extra agents were stationed at the exits, more than the usual chatter into palm radios and earpieces. Checking out a few of the guests, gauging their reactions, he figured nobody not already in the know had figured it out yet. Probably wouldn’t. The majority of the guests - unlike him - were having too good a time to even care.
A tight expression settled on Lyman’s face and he thought sourly, ‘Lucky them.’ His fortune hadn’t been quite so good tonight.
Watching two more agents - they always traveled in pairs - exit the ballroom with grimmer than usual expressions, hands to their earpieces, Lyman couldn’t deny the facts any longer. Party or no party, they were far more intense than was customary given the situation.
Without evidence to the contrary he couldn’t be exactly sure, but something was definitely up. Laying his next paycheck on that would be a safe bet, about the only safe bet he’d take tonight.
He’d just come back from pouring Amy into a cab. He was still trying to figure out how to confront the First Lady about getting his girlfriend plastered and filling her head with ideas. As if she hadn’t had enough of those to begin with. The ideas weren’t the problem. He could deal with those. It was the overdose of smug she’d laid on him afterwards that he hadn’t wanted any part of. Lord, but that woman knew how to drive a point into the ground, and then stomp on it mercilessly till any sort of logical resistance was futile.
Thank God, point made and driven home, she’d been okay about leaving. Amy’s machinations and gloating was one thing. Her drunken machinations and gloating resembled one of Dante’s levels of hell. Which one he hadn’t been able to figure out yet, but quite probably the lowest and the nastiest. Lyman couldn’t really blame her; you took your opportunities where you could and private parties with the First Lady were few and far between. But tonight wasn’t the night for her games. He’d just wanted to have fun.
A thin-lipped smile on his face, he candidly admitted to himself that he should have known better. If anything, Amy was not what you’d term typical and her idea of fun often bordered on the Machiavellian.
Pushing himself off the wall and shoving his hands in his pockets, he debated whether or not he wanted to stay. It hadn’t exactly been the evening he’d imagined it would be, and judging from the Secret Service activity, he just might want to leave while he still could. His date, the party and the evening had been a total bust.
Well, not quite all of it. A fond, indulgent smile lit his face as he thought about Donna. He’d done good there. At least he had something to be proud of tonight. Feeling just a touch smug himself, Lyman figured that would be a pretty good note on which to call it a night.
Spirits out of tempo with the sounds of gaiety and laughter around him, Lyman was about to leave when out of the corner of his eye he spied Leo McGarry along with Ron Butterfield and Nancy McNally huddled near the main entrance. Taken separately, each of those individuals would send up warning flags. Take them together, add the flurry of activity going on right now, and the final sum was not a reassuring one.
Trying not to appear too obvious, Lyman watched them with as much nonchalance as he could manage. Butterfield soon left, moving off into the crowd with a tight expression on his face he could only describe as... angry. No other word for it. The man was ticked.
Then Nancy turned to leave and Lyman caught a quick glance of the National Security Advisor’s face. She had never been what he’d call an easy read, but the signs were there. Angry again. It was a toss-up as to whose slow burn would erupt into an all-consuming conflagration first.
As for Leo, Lyman didn’t need a road map. He’d known the man since he was a kid, learned the rules of the political game from him and watched him make his mark in the party and as Labor Secretary. Now, as one of the most influential Chiefs of Staff in living memory and the most powerful non-elected official in the White House, it was clear that Leo McGarry was on the hunt. His face as he scanned the milling crowd was a study in tightly masked emotion.
Lyman frowned. And there was that anger again. This was not good.
The storm warning flag went up another length on the flagpole. From the look on the man’s face, Lyman had a very nasty suspicion who his boss was hunting for. He hoped he was wrong, but experience had taught him that that much focused emotional energy was usually reserved for only one man.
Resigned to his fate, it was at that point Lyman realized that he wasn’t going to be leaving the building any time soon.
From across the room, Leo McGarry made eye contact with his deputy. With a curt nod of his head, he motioned for the younger man to follow him out into the hallway. Pasting what he hoped was a sincere smile on his face, he muttered a few niceties to passing guests, shook a few hands, and politely ignored the rest.
Right now, politics and refined social pleasantries were the furthest things from the Chief of Staff’s mind. Let the curious guess if they wanted to, but he was feeling as far from pleasant as he could possibly get.
Taking his deputy by the arm as he drew near, McGarry stepped across the hall and took up a position that provided a good view of the ballroom interior and the length of the corridor. And a bit of privacy. He was taking no chances.
Struggling with the uncertainties aroused and the myriad of questions he wanted to ask, Lyman quietly voiced the one that covered the most bases, “What’s up?” McGarry would choose the answers.
“Nancy got the report,” McGarry kept it simple, keeping his voice low and hoping Lyman hadn’t been into the booze too deeply. A quick glance up and down the hallway assured him that none of the wandering guests were paying any attention to them or getting suspicious.
McGarry silently prayed that innocent ignorance would continue.
Eyes narrowing, Lyman held his silence for a moment, studying the Chief of Staff. The man could have been talking about any number of reports, none of which would have brought him to this stage. Knowing McGarry and recent events, he didn’t need to guess. “The accident.”
“Son of a bitch.” He definitely wasn’t going home any time soon. The heightened security made sense now, but not why it hadn’t been taken to the ultimate level. “Why no crash?”
“Not now, Josh.”
“Hell, Leo! They’ve called crashes when a chipmunk sets off a ground detector. This...”
“...is different.” McGarry frowned at him, silencing him with a black look. All he needed at this point was some passing guest to hear Lyman fly off the handle. The glare worked. He nearly laughed at the ‘crushed puppy’ expression that inevitably crossed the younger man’s face when he got stepped on. “Ron’s people are on it.”
“Does he know?”
Lyman flinched and took an involuntary step backwards as McGarry turned things up a notch and shot him an even darker, hooded glare. That familiar look and the buzzing security could only mean one thing. “I don’t believe it. He did it again, didn’t he?”
Grateful beyond words that Lyman’s powers of deduction hadn’t failed him, McGarry could only clench his jaw till he could hear his teeth cracking. President or friend, he knew if he gave in to the urge, the stream of invective wouldn’t stop.
Silently chewing on a few choice words of his own, Lyman eventually could only observe dryly, “His timing sucks.”
“You are not the first to make that observation.”
“How the hell does he do it? There’s what, thirty, maybe forty agents on this floor alone. What’d they do, all blink at once?”
It was a question McGarry would have paid any price to have the answer to. “I’m sure Ron has considered that possibility.” And if there were one thing he was sure of, Josiah Bartlet would continue to do so until they did figure it out.
Another certainty was that the President was not going to make it easy. Forty years of friendship assured him of that. Shaking his head, he could only conclude that the fault was his. He should have known that, ground rules or not, the unpredictability of his friend guaranteed his life on a day to day basis was not going to be boring.
“They know what he looks like, right?” Lyman was asking sarcastically, his voice dangerously close to breaking into a higher volume range. “His picture in their wallets and everything?”
“Now you’re getting silly.”
“I’m silly?” Insulted, Lyman was more used to getting that sort of comment from Donna than the Chief of Staff. Considering the whole of the evening, he should have expected it. “Teenagers could recognize him on the street!”
“Your average teenager couldn’t recognize their school principal on the street, let alone the President of the United States.”
“The Secret Service is not staffed with teenagers.”
“Could have fooled me.”
Tapping Lyman on the chest with an adamant finger, McGarry warned the younger man with all seriousness, “You’d best not let Agent Butterfield hear you say that. He’s looking for someone to take it out on.”
“Now that’s a scary thought.” The accompanying shiver of expectant dread was only partially dramatic. Lyman had a pretty good imagination and Ron Butterfield was... intimidating.
Satisfied that he’d made his point, McGarry pulled back a bit and said, “Here’s a scarier one, Joshua. We need to find him, now. Before Ron does call a crash.”
“Ron, hell. You’re gonna call it.”
A familiar voice made itself heard over the party’s din. Glancing across the hall into the ballroom, Lyman saw Mrs. Bartlet talking with Lord Marbury. The conversation appeared somewhat animated and neither participant looked happy. She turned away into the crowd, leaving Marbury alone with a somewhat bemused expression on his face.
A thought occurred to him and he asked cautiously, “Have you asked Mrs. Bartlet? Maybe she...”
“Hell, no!” McGarry responded with some heat, horrified at the thought. “Like I’ve got enough problems without letting her know we’ve misplaced her husband? We wouldn’t need a crash at that point.”
“She doesn’t know about the... thing?”
McGarry laughed shortly, hoping he was only imagining the tremor he heard in his voice. Only Jed Bartlet could have brought him to this stage. The thought wasn’t exactly a fond one. “Tell her about the thing right now and they’ll be looking for him through the rubble of the building.”
“Another fair point.”
“I’m full of them tonight,” McGarry muttered, shoving his hands into his pockets. “When was the last time you saw him?”
“I was with Amy...”
“Don’t remind me.”
Boss or not, Lyman was getting a little peeved with the smart-ass remarks regarding Amy. “Hey...”
“Josh,” McGarry repeated with infinite patience, “where?”
Apparently the entire evening had devolved into ‘pick on Josh’ night. Sighing with resignation, Lyman searched his memory. The original reason escaped him - but it must have been important at the time - but he’d been hunting for Donna. He recalled seeing both of them, the President and his erstwhile assistant, from across the room. The incongruity of the pairing had struck him as odd and Donna had unquestionably appeared flustered and cornered.
That thought had barely crossed his mind before another hit him. It was ridiculous, but considering the participants and the fact that Donna possessed a truly lousy poker face, the conclusion made a bizarre logical sense.
Or at least he hoped it did. Somehow, this entire evening had defied the normal rules of sound reasoning. “Donna,” he said, turning his attention back to an impatiently waiting Chief of Staff.
“Focus, Josh,” McGarry growled, rolling his eyes with exasperation. “The President, not your secretary.”
Lyman backed up and hit the wall. He hated it when McGarry got like this. “He was talking with Donna.”
McGarry perked up at that and regarded Lyman with intense expectation. “When?” he asked eagerly.
“About a half hour ago.”
“Did they leave together?”
“He left. She stayed.” For some time after Donna had left, despite Amy trying to add her two cents in, Lyman had been unable to stop himself from thinking she’d been up to some sort of mischief. She generally was, but now he was sure of it. “Something happened, Leo. She wasn’t all there after he left, kinda distracted, confused.”
“Our Commander in Chief has that effect on a great many people. Besides, she works for you, Josh. Give her a break, why don’t you?”
Scowling, Lyman risked giving McGarry a dirty look. “Thanks, Leo,” he muttered.
He didn’t feel the need to relate everything Donna had said before she’d abandoned him, doubted whether McGarry wanted to hear it. But considering whom she’d been talking to, she had said something fairly interesting.
Fixing McGarry with a steady, sure regard, Lyman told him, “She said she was on a mission, Leo. It’s a long shot, but...”
“Long shot my ass!” McGarry cut him off angrily. Turning sharply on his heel, he stalked off down the hallway and confronted one of the Secret Service agents stationed outside the drawing room door.
Caught off guard, Lyman scrambled to follow, catching up just in time to hear McGarry telling the agent to pass the word and to locate and detain Donna Moss.
“...bring her here!” he ordered sharply, grabbing the door handle and yanking it open. Motioning for Lyman to follow him, he snapped, “Inside!”
Sparing a brief thought of profound sympathy for his assistant, Lyman swallowed nervously and reluctantly followed McGarry inside. He should have left while he had the chance. Honesty forced him to admit he’d had no choice in the matter, but there was no longer any doubt about it. His immediate future was secured.
When she found out about his part in this, Donna Moss was going to kill him.
The wait seemed interminable. Glancing at his watch, Lyman tried to figure how long it would take the agents to locate Donna. From the way they swarmed during the weekly practice crashes, his speculation was that it shouldn’t take them all that long. But then, they couldn’t seem to find the President, let alone one of the senior assistants.
Wincing, he decided to keep that errant thought to himself. No sense inviting trouble and the ire of far too many irritated and well-armed people. Looking up, he watched McGarry impatiently quarter the room like a caged lion. He was getting tired just watching him.
“Tell me I’m wearing a hole in the carpet and I’ll not be held responsible for my actions.”
“Wasn’t going to.” Actually, he was, but he didn’t think McGarry needed to know that.
McGarry’s pacing came to an abrupt halt and Lyman’s head snapped round when the door opened. Hand to his earpiece, Ron Butterfield gave both men a curt nod and said something quietly to the agent stationed outside before closing the door.
Without further acknowledging Lyman’s presence, he turned directly to McGarry, “We’ve got her. They’re on their way.”
Lyman squeezed his eyes shut and winced. Donna was definitely going to kill him. Messily and painfully. Feeling a bit weak in the knees, he collapsed into a nearby chair with a loud, melodramatic groan
“What’s with him?” Butterfield asked McGarry curiously.
McGarry smiled thinly and replied, “No doubt contemplating his mortality.”
Butterfield gave a muffled exclamation that was somewhere between a grunt and a chuckle.
“They’re gonna be... nice to her, right?” Lyman asked weakly.
One arched brow was the only indication McGarry found anything even remotely amusing. Dryly, he asked Butterfield, “Does the Secret Service even know how to be nice?”
One corner of Butterfield’s mouth twitched, as close as circumstances and his training would allow him to a smile. Another time or place and he wouldn’t have allowed himself even that. But since the accident, he and McGarry now had an understanding. In some ways, it made things easier.
And even though he wouldn’t have dared to admit it aloud, a great deal more fun.
Leaning forward, Lyman buried his face in his hands and groaned, “I’m dead.”
Butterfield had a pretty good idea what was troubling the Deputy Chief of Staff. Not much went on in the West Wing that he or his people didn’t hear about. Certain staffers had become minor legends. It was no great feat of deduction to figure out what Lyman feared.
Turning to McGarry, the senior agent inquired with stoic composure, “Think Ms. Moss will let us watch?”
“Donna’s a practical girl. I’m sure there will be tickets.”
Pretty sure he was at the end of his rope; Lyman included both men in the wounded, accusing look that crumpled his face. “You know, life around here was a lot easier when you two barely acknowledged each other’s existence, let alone...”
The rant was rather rudely interrupted when the door opened. With an agent holding her elbows on either side, Donna was hastily escorted in. Almost literally carrying her across the threshold, they brought her to the center of the room. Feet barely brushing the floor with each step, her darting glance quickly settled on the most intimidating man in the room, a very unhappy looking Butterfield.
From the concerned looks on their faces as they carried her forward, McGarry concluded the Secret Service agents weren’t so much treating her as a suspect as they were worried that if they did let go of the girl’s arms they’d have a limp disaster on their hands.
Finally set on her feet by the accompanying agents, barely managing to lock her knees before she collapsed, Donna took a deep breath and thanked the powers that be she’d been able to make it to the bathroom before they’d caught up with her. Otherwise this entire frightening situation would have included a seriously embarrassing accident.
Butterfield dismissed both agents with a commanding look, and then turned his attention to Donna. A rabbit cornered in a deadfall by a hungry panther probably looked a great deal calmer. Not unaware of the affect the Secret Service had on the staffers, the menacing impression their presence and training left on even those who were familiar with their jobs, he softened his expression and took both of her hands in his. Leading her to a chair, he invited her to sit down.
Ron Butterfield wasn’t a complete ogre, and right now he didn’t want her thinking he was one. This was his job, but if she fainted from sheer terror he wasn’t going to get any answers.
Crouching down, lessening his imposing presence, he looked into her eyes and smiled at her.
In unison, McGarry and Lyman’s jaws dropped in shock.
Donna nearly melted. Butterfield had smiled at her and it looked like he actually meant it. It was an odd thought to have, especially now, but he had a very nice smile underneath that mustache. Swallowing some of her fear and nervousness, she asked him in a small voice, “What did I do?”
“You didn’t do anything, Ms. Moss,” Butterfield sighed and shook his head a little sadly. He honestly didn’t like feeling like a bully, and right now her fidgeting was making him look like one. Perhaps it was the circumstances, but a little more of his reserve disappeared and he began to mutter, “Knowing the President...”
Donna started guiltily. “The President?”
Butterfield exchanged a knowing look with McGarry and patted the poor girl reassuringly on the shoulder. Shaking his head, he levered himself up and stepped away. “The President,” he said, holding the Chief of Staff’s gaze and daring him to contradict his conclusion.
McGarry didn’t even bother to try.
“Where is he, Donna?” McGarry asked, stepping forward and trying to keep his tone unthreatening, a not so easy task considering his mood. The girl looked like she was still ready to bolt.
“He’s with the pizza.”
“No games, Donna,” Lyman warned her with exasperation. The words may have sounded playful but the meaning was not. “You’re not making me look good...”
Butterfield and McGarry silenced the Deputy Chief of Staff with a collective glare. Gratefully, Donna watched as Josh withered and, feeling a little braver, added a dangerous warning look of her own.
Shrinking back under the onslaught, Lyman scrambled out of his chair and stammered, “I’m just going to go stand in the corner now.”
“You do that, Josh,” McGarry told him, meaning every word. Turning back to Donna, he gently asked again, “Where is he, Donna?”
The alcoholic fuzz, rapidly clearing from her mind, dissipated a bit more, but not quite enough. “I thought it was an executive order,” she answered vaguely.
“It probably was,” Butterfield muttered darkly. “In all likelihood, it’s not your fault.”
Donna beamed up at him gratefully. He really was a nice man. “It was my pizza.”
“Pizza?” McGarry echoed incredulously, finally putting the pieces together. Throwing his arms into the air, he growled a sincere promise, “I’m gonna kill him.”
Lyman stared at his boss with open-mouthed amazement.
Butterfield shook his head sagely and said with cool aplomb, “I can’t let you do that, Mr. McGarry.”
“Why?” McGarry challenged him, throwing caution and whatever good sense he had left to the wind. “You gonna get there first?”
Donna almost choked.
Lyman’s mouth closed with an audible snap, nearly biting off half his tongue.
Butterfield’s eyes narrowed, an unidentifiable glint in his eyes leaving everybody to guess what was going through his mind.
McGarry shook his head. Words. Just words. “Where is he, Donna?” he asked again, beginning to feel like a parrot and so tired now his nerves throbbed. Hoping that maybe, just maybe this time he’d get an answer, he waited.
The last of the fuzz cleared, giving Donna a good impression of the men’s seriousness. “Ainsley Hayes’ office,” she told them in a tiny voice.
“Hiding among the Republicans.” It was so simple. McGarry could have kicked himself for not thinking of it first. “With the pizza?”
Not all of the fuzz was gone. “What’s left of it.”
Butterfield was already talking into his palm transceiver. Message sent, he gave McGarry a brisk nod, then turned another relieved smile on Donna and said with all sincerity, “Thank you, Ms. Moss. We’d have found him eventually, but you’ve saved us some time.”
That gentle smile was another minor miracle, but they were all getting used to it. Including Butterfield. He chalked it up to the greater than usual stress he’d been under lately.
Donna, feeling a bit braver, asked, “How did you know?”
McGarry hooked his thumb towards the man trying to hide in the corner and said with some relish, “Josh told us.”
Donna drilled her boss with a supremely dark, promising look.
Lyman sighed heavily. Life couldn’t get much better than this.
Feeling some relief that it was all over, McGarry couldn’t help a sincere laugh. The next few days in the Deputy Chief of Staff’s office was going to be interesting. If Donna were smart, she would sell tickets. She’d make a fortune. He sure as hell would buy one.
Standing off to one side, Butterfield put his hand to his ear. Listening, his face went stone hard and he demanded harshly into his palm mike, “Say again?” Curtly waving off the others questions before they could be asked, he listened for a moment, then swore hotly, “Shit!”
Lips tight with frustration, anger and something the observing Chief of Staff couldn’t quite put his finger on, the senior Secret Service agent told them all flatly, “He’s not there.”
“Shit!” McGarry took his turn at swearing. They’d been so close!
Donna shrank back into her chair, clutching at the armrests and looking horrendously guilty. “Oh my God,” she whispered.
“Donna?” McGarry asked, alarmed and concerned. She looked like she was about to faint or be sick. He prayed it was the former.
“I lost the President.”