Farther off from Heaven
Anne Callanan and Kathleen E. Lehew
“Damn, I kicked up an ant hill this time.” As observations go, Bartlet had made better and with far more penetrating acumen. Still, there was a great deal to be said for plain speaking.
The Secret Service had shifted into high gear. Not the ultimate level, but pretty damn close. Letting out a slow breath and keeping an eye on yet another pair of extremely agitated agents hurrying past, he realized that while his latest escapade had been worth it - onions and all - his timing sucked. The current level of anxiety being displayed by his well-armed and somewhat combustible chaperons wasn’t going to help him achieve his latest objective easily.
He wanted, no, he needed to find Abbey.
There was any number of ways the President could go about locating his wife. It was simplicity itself. All he had to do was ask. Unfortunately, asking meant being seen and he wasn’t quite ready to be seen as yet. Right now he was on a mission and as far as he was concerned the job, the country and the world could take a flying leap.
A quick survey of the ballroom assured Bartlet that Abbey was no longer in attendance. The search didn’t take him long, it never did. He’d always been able to pick her out of a crowd, instantaneously focusing on her to the exclusion of all else. He knew the ability annoyed her, especially since she couldn’t duplicate it with any degree of accuracy. When asked how, he’d simply smiled enigmatically and told her, “Magic.”
That smug comment usually earned him a playful wallop on the arm and an indulgent laugh. He missed that, her laughter and spirited amusement. The good Lord knew he hadn’t given her much to be amused about recently. Defying common sense, it was a talent he seemed to be developing of late, excluding her and ignoring the warning signs. Even more than he, she’d been pulling away; hiding behind walls he’d helped her build.
He had no one to blame but himself.
‘I love you very much.’ Damn, but that had been lame. Bartlet shook his head, suddenly vulnerable in the face of his own stupidity. How could he have missed it? Thirty-four years of marriage and he still managed to trip over his own folly when it came to the woman he loved.
It was obvious now that Abbey had been waiting for something more and, as usual, he’d failed her. It was becoming routine.
Frowning, he shoved his hands into his pockets and turned away from the disappointing scene. Even without the guest of honor, the party was still going strong. ‘Hell, why not?’ he thought with some heat. It was the White House. While those few friends and family members in attendance truly did respect the occasion, the rest were there merely to see and be seen; the art of bureaucratic kiss ass and politics at its worst.
A shadow of annoyance crossed Bartlet’s face and he clenched his jaw, stifling the muttered curse he was on the verge of uttering. It would have been a dead giveaway. Any language at this point would only draw attention to himself, and so far his luck had been holding.
At the other end of the corridor he caught sight of Donna being efficiently escorted by two forbidding agents into the drawing room. Scowling and biting back yet another curse, he didn’t have to guess who was waiting for her inside. The executive absence had been noted. Leo and the bloodhounds were on the chase and, with the cornering and capture of his somewhat plastered partner in crime, they were getting far too close for comfort.
He was running out of time. Knowing Donna, she’d keep them confused, but not for long. Leo McGarry, especially in the menacing frame of mind experience told him his oldest friend was probably cultivating to the exclusion of all else, would have her sobered in short order. And if Ron Butterfield were in there as well...
“Better her than me,” Bartlet risked muttering, the cynicism of that remark pricking at his conscience. His lips thinned with guilt-inspired irritation. The poor girl deserved better than that. Being raked over the coals was paltry reward for her innocent kindness and befuddled compassion.
His movements deliberately casual, Bartlet turned on his heel and moved off in the opposite direction. Beating his conscience into submission, he decided that atonement and Donna were just going to have to wait in line, along with Leo and everyone else. Right now there was only one person he wanted to find.
Finding her was the trick.
Taking the nearest side corridor, he found himself alone. For the moment anyway. The current level of activity dictated that wouldn’t last unless he could find some safer ground and his wife. Not really paying attention to his direction, he soon found himself wandering into the pressroom. Empty of course. The news tonight was elsewhere.
Starting to feel depressed, Bartlet stared at the empty chairs, and then let his gaze travel to the seal prominently displayed behind the podium. Fat lot of good hiding behind that damn thing had done him. Exhaustion enveloped him as he tried to concentrate, to ignore the ache that had started to creep up his lower back. The muscles in his right thigh were beginning to protest as well.
Abbey would have told him he was pushing it, that he didn’t know when to quit.
Bartlet laughed shortly, dropping wearily into one of the chairs. Lately, neither one of them had known when to quit, when to cry pax and be done with it. Rubbing his eyes, he had to honestly admit he was the worse culprit when it came to that particular failing. He didn’t know when to quit. Absently running his hand along his leg, he could feel the rough edges of the scar beneath the fabric.
With a shiver of vivid recollection, he relived the crash. Stanley would tell him he should remember, not relive, but he couldn’t help it. The terror and helplessness of not knowing when or where the next blow would fall. The darkness of the wreck and the howl of the storm screaming outside. Of being lost.
Of being locked in a box.
Pressing both hands over his eyes, he drove the memories away. This wasn’t working, nor was it helping. That event was over. In the hospital afterwards and during the weeks following, he and Abbey had been so close to a resolution, but then it had slipped away. As it always seemed to these days. Nothing would hold.
Tilting his head back, he blinked and listened as the sound of hurried footsteps passed by outside. Nobody looked into the room, probably already had. Bartlet smiled thinly. If any of them had grown up with his father, they’d have known exactly how to find him, where to look. With that man, you learned how to hide, to gather those few moments of peace when you could.
Hiding, it would seem, was something he had become very good at. A pity the one person he had been hiding from was nowhere to be found. And whose fault was that? Weary of the internal argument, Bartlet pushed the thought aside. Blame no longer had any place. All that remained was resolution.
If he could find it.
From behind him, he heard the sound of more footsteps, this time approaching. Without looking back, Bartlet sensed someone enter the room, cautiously drawing near. He closed his eyes, grimacing. He’d run out of time, they’d found him.
“Congratulations,” he growled with a sarcastic drawl, angry and determined not to make it easy on whomever it was. Intellectually, he knew it wasn’t the agent’s fault, but he was tired. Sick and tired of the interruptions. “You’ve found me. Do you get a prize?”
Leaning back, he insolently lifted his feet up onto the back of the chair in front and muttered sullenly, “What’s next?”
Whatever else you might say about the place, it was almost impossible to fault the quality of White House hospitality. The Scotch was truly excellent, thus making it an even greater shame that Lord Marbury couldn't indulge to the degree he would have liked. Despite his reputation, he was far too experienced a diplomat to allow himself to actually become drunk at an occasion such as this. Birthday party or no, this room contained almost as many potentially offendable political personages as any world summit. He was the British ambassador after all.
No, pleasantly mellow might be acceptable - more than acceptable from what he could observe - but caution advised against any serious imbibing, especially in the wake of his get-together with Toby Ziegler earlier.
Both of them had rather drowned their sorrows at their mutually distasteful errand, but it had proved a surprisingly pleasant meeting in the end. An understanding, if not a solution, had been reached and Marbury had found himself even enjoying the company of the laconic Communications Director. To his credit, the man had excellent taste in whiskey as well as a keen understanding of literary history.
However, that shared appreciation was the cause of his present relative abstinence. Even if he hadn't been aware of his position, he wouldn’t for the world have risked embarrassing the Bartlets in any way. Both had more than enough to contend with at the moment without also having to deal with old friends creating diplomatic incidents.
Fortunately, years of practice had left him with a higher tolerance to alcohol than most, and an ability to retain a certain dignity of manner and speech even when pretty far along. There was still some leeway for enjoyment.
Marbury brightened at the thought. Besides, he had already put in a considerable amount of work earlier this evening, which surely deserved some reward. Abbey had certainly seemed a little more focused when she had left him. Now it was up to Josiah to work it out for himself when she caught up with him.
Marbury wished the man the best of luck and fervently hoped that he would be able to deliver. Abigail Bartlet was not in a mood to be put off or be deflected by any poorly timed displays of humor. Still, if Bartlet's mood earlier had been any indication, the humor shouldn't be a problem. It had almost been possible to see the black dog crouched on the President's shoulder.
The ambassador sighed heavily at the thought. Josiah had always been a man who felt intensely. Depression did not sit well on him. The quiet, introverted, almost invisible man it produced was a nearly unrecognizable contrast to his normally animated persona. Marbury much preferred the latter. That man was never less than interesting to be around, even electrifying at times. The other personality by contrast was oddly troubling. He had always wondered where his sunny, quick-tempered friend had developed a capacity for such deep melancholy.
Of course, in such a close marriage, any schism was grounds for depression. Normally, the Englishman did not consider himself marriage counselor material, but he had felt unable to simply stand to one side. What were friends for after all if not to meddle, and maybe point out a few uncomfortable truths?
The fact that neither of the First Couple had reappeared in the ballroom was grounds for hope that they had finally managed to find each other and have that talk. Marbury scanned the crowd to confirm their absence, and then looked again.
Something was up.
The other guests didn't seem to have noticed, but Marbury had served as diplomatic representative and trouble-shooter for Her Majesty's government to some of the more tense and trigger-happy areas of the globe, including India. Long exposure had made him sensitive to any change or heightening in the security levels around him, even when the force in question was as discreet as the US Secret Service was being at present.
Still, low-key as it may have been, there was no mistaking those particular symptoms. Every agent in sight was on full alert, eyes darting everywhere and in constant communion with their palm mikes and each other. More were threading their way around and in and out of the room, moving at a purposeful and swift pace. The air of strained concentration was practically visible, once you knew what to look for.
Cautiously, Marbury withdrew behind a convenient potted palm to assess the situation. There was definitely a problem and not a minor one either. It was hard to see what could possibly go wrong at a White House party, but then these agents were at the very top of their field. They did not flap without due cause, and a flap, albeit it a very restrained and controlled one, was unquestionably what Marbury's trained instincts told him he was witnessing now. And the US Secret Service only ever went into a panic over one man.
He rather suspected the conversation between Josiah and Abbey was about to be rudely interrupted. And after all that intricate spadework, too. Damn! What the devil could possibly be wrong?
This required some thought, and a new strategy. If the First Couple had indeed been interrupted he might have to have a plan in place to get them talking again. Marbury regarded the glass in his hand thoughtfully. He might not be drunk, but he had to admit he had some time ago passed the point of razor sharp awareness. Some fresh air might help.
He managed to negotiate the palm successfully, and made his way across to the French windows. A grim-faced agent opened them for him, and giving the man a suitably vacuous smile of thanks Marbury stepped out onto the deserted terrace with a sigh of relief.
Frowning in thought, he meandered across to lean on the railing overlooking the lawn. Looking down, he noticed with a slight spasm of irritation that he wasn't quite as alone as he had hoped.
A lonely figure - female, he noted with profound delight - was sitting hunched on the steps leading down to the lawn; elbows on her knees and chin cradled in her hands. The very picture of dejection. Marbury squinted in the moonlight. The figure shifted slightly and unleashed a deep sigh that seemed to rise from somewhere around her ankles.
The ambassador's eyes widened in recognition. "Ms. Moss, is it not?" he called.
Donna jumped violently, one awkwardly folded leg shooting out and almost tipping her onto the step beneath. "Lord John! I mean, Lord Marbury... I mean, Mr. Ambassador…" Mentally wincing, she settled for, "Good evening, sir. How are you?"
"Very well indeed, thank you." The British ambassador jumped lightly down the steps and settled down beside her. "This evening has turned out to be surprisingly productive. And enjoyable." He smiled encouragingly at her and waved his glass for emphasis. "You on the other hand don't seem to be having quite such a good time, if your demeanor is any indication."
Donna sighed and wrapped her arms around her knees. "I swear, I'm never getting drunk again."
"Oh, don't say that," her companion chided. "Sometimes it's the only thing that makes the occasion bearable. Speaking personally, I've had some of my most interesting and memorable conversations while under the influence."
"Yeah, me too," Donna muttered. She unleashed another gusting sigh. "Right now, the only difference between me and Josh is that I at least admit that I can't hold my drink."
"Say something you shouldn’t have?" Seeing the spasm of anguish cross his companion's face, Marbury leaned towards her sympathetically. "Want to talk about it? I'm actually quite a good listener. And I've always enjoyed our conversations."
Donna looked at him. In her current depressed and still slightly befuddled state, she had a very low resistance to the idea of a sympathetic listener. Besides, he was dreamy. And goodness, that accent…
She blurted it out, "I lost the President."
"You mean you can't contact him? Well, I'm sure if the matter is urgent, one of the agents will tell you where he is."
Donna shook her head despondently. "No, you don't understand. I lost the President. And Ron Butterfield is being really nice about it, but he needs to find him, and Leo's mad and worried, and Josh is going to make my life a living hell for this…"
"I beg your pardon?" Marbury blinked. Somehow he hadn't been expecting that. Although, if true, it would go some way towards explaining the observations that had sent him out on to the terrace in the first place. "If you don't mind my asking, how is it possible …"
"I don't know." Prior to this evening, and the rumors notwithstanding, Donna would have bet it wasn't possible. Just her luck to be the only witness when Bartlet pulled off something she and everyone else could have sworn would be impossible to achieve under the eagle eye of Ron Butterfield and his agents.
Now regretting those last two drinks, Marbury struggled to come to grips with the situation. "You mean, nobody knows where he is? At all?" When Donna nodded, he muttered, "Oh, dear." Trying to bring his own slightly intoxicated senses to bear, he asked carefully, "But you say that you lost him?"
"I didn't exactly lose him …"
Donna jumped again, this time clutching at her companion's arm to save herself as the voice boomed out from overhead, its tones suspiciously slurred.
"Ms. Cregg!" Marbury disentangled his arm and managed to unfold his lanky limbs with a degree of grace. He greeted the newcomer gallantly, "My dear lady! You look even more glowing than usual tonight."
"Positively alight," Toby Ziegler remarked dryly, blowing gently on the end of his cigar and placing his other hand under the Press Secretary's elbow to help her negotiate the steps. "We thought some fresh air might help. Might help both of us," he amended hastily as CJ glared at him.
CJ drew her arm away with exaggerated and careful dignity. "I am no more drunk than you are," she declaimed and deliberately turned to bestow a smile on the ambassador. "Lord Marbury, how nice to see you. It's always a sincere pleasure to meet with a true gentleman."
Behind her, Ziegler rolled his eyes. "CJ, I'm going to do you the credit of assuming you'd never perpetrate a sentence structure like that while sober."
"Toby, you're as much of a pain in the ass drunk as sober," his colleague said heatedly.
"At least I have an excuse!"
"The First Lady made you?"
"Yes! I mean, she said we were going to go get drunk. That's practically the same as an executive order!"
"Tell me about it," Donna sighed dejectedly. "I actually was under executive order. At least, I think it counts as an executive order. If he gives it, it has to be, right?"
"The President ordered you to come get drunk with us?" CJ asked confusedly. There was no mistaking who Donna meant by he, just the how and the why.
"No! That was the First Lady. I mean later."
"The President ordered you to come get drunk with him afterwards?" Ziegler's eyebrows arched.
Marbury tried to be helpful. "Donna is afraid that she is responsible for having lost the President."
"I'm sorry?" CJ and Ziegler spoke in perfect tandem, then turned to glare at one another.
Donna was starting to feel that she would be repeating the story of this night's events for the rest of her natural life. At least the constant repetition was starting to sober her up. A little. "When I say I lost him, I mean…"
Donna moaned and let her forehead thump against her up drawn knees as Sam Seaborn emerged into the light at the foot of the steps. This time it was CJ who jumped and nearly went over backwards, before Ziegler made a grab for her arm.
"Sam?" Holding onto a still wobbly CJ, the Communications Director squinted down at his deputy. "What are you doing out here? Clearing your head as well?"
"Oh, I haven't been drinking. I was just working on the first draft of the President's opening speech for the nuclear disarmament conference and decided to stretch my legs."
Seaborn mounted the steps, apparently unable to resist the pull of gravitational attraction that a huddle of any of the senior staff always seemed to generate. "Say, does anyone know what's going on? The agents seem very jumpy tonight. I've been challenged five times so far."
"I'm not sure," Ziegler answered dryly. "But if Donna has indeed managed to lose the President, I can well imagine a certain level of agitation."
"You lost the President?" Seaborn regarded the huddled lump of human misery before him in surprise. "Really? I mean, really, really lost him? How’d you do that? And what were you doing with him in the first place?"
"It wasn't exactly my fault!" Donna defended herself. "I mean, I couldn't help him overhearing me, and it is his house so I couldn't really say no. And he was the one who wanted to go somewhere private, and I thought Ainsley's office would be isolated enough. But he lost the agents, not me. I don't know how he did that." She sighed, dropping her head back onto her knees. “And he did seem to enjoy it…"
"Uh, Donna…" Sobering rapidly, and thanking a for once benign fate that no members of the press corps were anywhere within earshot, CJ tried to interrupt. "Please tell me what you're talking about, and let it not be what it sounds like."
"What?" Donna blinked in confusion and looked up at the faces surrounding her.
Marbury merely looked slightly bemused. Ziegler's expression could be best described as inscrutable, but he was giving his cigar tip an undue amount of attention. CJ seemed to have achieved spontaneous sobriety and to be finding it an unpleasant experience, while Seaborn's features showed a slowly dawning horror… and betrayal. Puzzled she stared at him. She hadn't seen that particular expression on his face since he found out his father...
"Oh!" As the sudden realization swept over her, she blushed right up to the roots of her hair. Embarrassed and enraged that they could even think that of her, of either of them, she blurted out, "For heaven's sake, guys! It was a pizza!"
"A... pizza?" Ziegler repeated carefully, taking a deep, calming drag on his cigar.
CJ huffed out an equally deep breath of relief.
Marbury continued to give the conversation his confused attention, apparently in hopes that a coherent explanation had to emerge soon. He was fairly certain the law of averages was on his side.
Seaborn simply stood there, blinking and staring.
"Yes!" Irritation was lending brevity to Donna's narrative style. "A pizza! I got a craving. I ordered one. The President heard me and voted himself in. I couldn't exactly refuse and I don’t have veto power. Besides, he looked like he needed cheering up. We needed somewhere private for him, so I suggested Ainsley's office. He managed to ditch his detail - don't ask me how - and we ate and talked and drank. Well, I drank," she amended ruefully. "He didn't really. He was driving. But we talked. It was actually rather nice," she concluded wistfully.
And it had been, until she had put her foot in it again. Not that he seemed to have held it against her. Still, she doubted he would be inviting her to a tête-à-tête again anytime soon. Which was a pity. Donna had truly enjoyed the experience once the initial panic had subsided. Her partner in crime had proved very pleasant company, an entertaining conversationalist and a kindly, even charming companion. Still, he had landed her in this present mess.
"You gave the President pizza?" Seaborn's mood had lightened wonderfully during the course of these revelations, and he now seemed to find them vastly amusing. "Donna, do you have a death wish? You know Mrs. Bartlet won't allow him anything like that. Remember that dressing-down Agent Wilkes got when the President persuaded him to sneak him a hamburger?"
"It was an executive order!" The response was practically a wail. Nobody in the White House, including the President, fancied being on the receiving end of the First Lady's wrath, especially on the subject of the Chief Executive's health.
"That's what Agent Wilkes said." Seaborn was enjoying himself far too much. He had been on the receiving end of Abigail Bartlet's wrath on more than one occasion, and didn't see why anyone else should be spared the experience. "Cholesterol, Donna. Something the First Lady firmly believes the President should have no contact with whatever, despite his best efforts to thwart her. And you know how she feels about being thwarted."
“Agent Wilkes sure as hell found out,” CJ said, shaking her head sadly at the memory. “He got thwarted but good. The poor guy.”
Donna moaned again, desperately wishing herself somewhere, anywhere, but here.
"Sam," Ziegler interrupted. "Much as I hate to interrupt you when you're torturing Donna, I would still like to know what all this has to do with her losing the President." He glanced down at the pitifully miserable young woman. "From the level of security alertness Sam has observed, I take it he really is missing?"
"Yes." Dejection was evident in every line of Donna's body. "I left him in Ainsley's office, but when Ron Butterfield sent someone to check, he was gone. And nobody else has seen him since."
Ziegler scowled at that revelation, chewing unhappily on his cigar.
"Don’t worry, Toby." Seaborn waved a dismissive hand. "It's not like he hasn't shaken his detail before. Besides, he's still in the White House. What could happen?"
"Very little, to be sure." Marbury rose to his feet and shook the creases out of his trousers. "Nevertheless, I detected a considerable level of agitation among the agents before I came out here. Above and beyond what I might expect if the President had merely slipped away for a few minutes during a social event. They seemed positively harried."
"Leo's pretty frantic too," Donna said anxiously. "Not just annoyed - downright angry and anxious. And Ron as well. He was very sweet to me, but he was really serious about how important it was to find the President quickly."
Ziegler almost bit through what was left of his cigar. “Ron Butterfield was... sweet?”
“That’s... spooky,” CJ observed with a dramatic shiver.
“Whoa,” was all Seaborn had to offer.
Marbury glanced quickly between their stunned faces and decided, quite sagely he thought, that one of the signs of the approaching apocalypse had come about.
"I saw Nancy McNally talking to Leo at one point," CJ said abruptly, still trying to wrap her inebriated mind around the concept of a sweet Butterfield. "She didn't look very happy either. Situation Room, do you think?"
"No." Marbury shook his head. "Speaking as one who has witnessed more than his fair share of security measures, I'd say this is slightly more serious. The emphasis seems to be not only on locating the President, but actually securing him."
"He's right." Seaborn's manner had grown serious. "I noticed the activity when I was out walking. It's low-key, but pretty intense. I thought someone had hopped the fence at first, but I don’t think it's that. They usually have that kind of situation under control in minutes, and if not...” His voice trailed off and he shrugged helplessly, “Well then, there's nothing low-key about any Secret Service activity. It's not that, but it is something."
"Like what?" CJ was becoming exasperated, and more than a little anxious. If this activity were noticed by any of the guests, she would be facing a rabid press corps before morning.
Ziegler, who had been standing in a grimly contemplative silence, stirred. "I've just had an unpleasant thought," he said quietly. "Isn't the NTSB report due about now?"
"On Marine One? Yes, but..." Seaborn broke off and regarded his boss with disbelief. "Oh, no. You can't be serious!" When Ziegler made no move to disclaim, the younger man burst out passionately, "It isn't possible!"
"What?" Donna's alarm peaked as Marbury shook his head in dismay and CJ paled and sank down beside her on the steps.
Clearly distressed, Ziegler rubbed his forehead and then ran his hand across his beard. "The only reason I can think of for this kind of security is if the accident report... wasn't." At Donna's blank look he forced himself to put the unthinkable into words. "The crashing of Marine One may not have been an accident."
Donna froze with shock. "You don't really believe that?" When Ziegler shrugged helplessly, she appealed to the others. "That can't be it! That would mean that someone was trying to...” She trailed off.
It was at that point Donnatella Moss got sober real quick. "And I've lost the President!" she wailed.
Everybody, including Marbury, winced at the sound.
"Don't worry, Donna, that's not the explanation." Seaborn's declaration was equal parts belief and an unwillingness to even entertain the dreadful possibility. "You'll see. It's probably just a crisis in the Situation Room, as CJ said. They'll have found the President by now and everything will be back to normal."
"I suppose we'll just have to wait until someone decides to brief us on what the exact problem is." The Press Secretary rose to her feet reluctantly. Her mission now, besides figuring out what to tell the press when the time came, was finding some coffee.
Lots of coffee.
Ziegler scowled at the end of his cigar, which had perversely decided to go out. “We may never know exactly what. We’re none of us exactly in the loop.”
“Josh is,” Donna muttered gloomily.
“Like that’s going to help us.” CJ patted the woman sympathetically on the shoulder. Some things in life simply weren’t meant to be endured.
"Or we can try to find out."
Everybody turned to Marbury, equally stunned by his confident declaration.
The British ambassador beamed at his gaping companions. Springing to the top of the steps, he pivoted dramatically to face them. "I've always found that when you wish to discover the exact state of play it pays to go direct to the horse's mouth. Tell me, does anyone know where I can find Agent Butterfield?"
“What’s next?” The question was asked in a sweetly courteous yet somehow patronizing tone. There was a familiar challenge in it as well. “That all depends, Jethro. What’s my prize?”
“Abbey!” Startled, Bartlet jerked round in his seat. Both feet slipped off the back of the chair in front of him. One foot safely hit the floor with a loud thump. Not quite so lucky, his right ankle slipped into the gap between the chair backs. Twisted by his incautious action, half-healed muscles set about protesting violently.
Lurching forward and grabbing at his trapped leg, Bartlet sucked in his breath and couldn’t quite stifle a grunt of pain. Hell, at this point he felt more than entitled to a bit of vocal drama. He couldn’t help but sourly regard the whole farce as the perfect accompaniment to the truly lousy luck he’d had all evening.
“For Heaven’s sake, Jed!” Abbey hurried to his aid and firmly pushed him back into the chair before he could do any more damage. And she knew he would, too. Some things in life were a predetermined certainty. “Hold still!”
“Yes, ma’am,” Bartlet acquiesced meekly through clenched teeth. Meek seemed a good attitude choice at this point. There was an odd glint in her eye and he couldn’t quite figure if his wife was in ‘doctor’ mode or ‘slap my husband around and knock him silly’ mode.
Carefully lifting his leg and ankle from between the gap, Abbey gently lowered it to the floor. Crouching down, she looked up into his face. His eyes were tightly closed and a muscle was twitching in his rigid jaw. One hand was convulsively clenching and unclenching as it lay on the affected limb. Concern and aggravation fought with the surge of overwhelming affection that engulfed her. The klutz had managed to do another number on his leg.
She laid her hand on his, trying to calm him. “Jed?”
He shook his head, unable to answer.
“Talk to me.”
“Cramp,” Bartlet barely managed to get it out.
Abbey couldn’t help the sigh of affectionate exasperation that escaped her lips. With sure hands, she began to massage his upper thigh, felt his muscles tense expectantly under her touch. What else could she have expected? He’d done it again, innocently finding his way out of the doghouse.
“I swear to God, you do this on purpose,” she muttered fondly, more than a bit of accusation in her tone.
“Oh, yeah. Sure, why not? All part of my Machiavellian plan. Break a few bones, lose some blood, cripple myself,” Bartlet responded, voice heavy with sarcasm. The cramp was receding, giving him some respite. Opening his eyes, a perverse twinge of guilt made him ask, “What do I get if I jump off a cliff?”
“You go splat.” Abbey glared up at him. “And that’s not funny.”
“Not even close.”
“And I try so hard.”
“Try harder.” Given the surly mood he was clearly in, she knew that if given half a chance, he would. She could hear his uneven breathing beginning to settle and the powerful muscle under her hands relax. Finishing her ministrations, she accused a bit hotly, “I told you to stay off it as much as possible tonight, not play tag with your detail.”
It didn’t take three decades of marriage to recognize the flicker of adolescent guilt she saw as he averted his eyes. Glancing up at the two men of her own detail hovering uneasily in the background, she shook her head and murmured softly, “Your timing sucks, Jed.” So much for their quiet, stolen moment. No doubt, they’d already tattled to Butterfield, he in turn to McGarry, and when the irate Chief of Staff came running...
The resulting mental picture was not a pretty one.
Abbey scowled fiercely when her husband had the audacity to laugh. “It’s not funny!” She slapped at his arm. “Why am I not surprised you didn’t listen to me?”
“Do I ever listen?” A wry smile twisted his lips at her protest and the halfhearted wallop. It hadn’t been up to her usual standards, but it was a start. Leaning his head back, he closed his eyes and tentatively asked, “Why do you even bother?”
“An over developed sense of responsibility, I suppose.” The question troubled her deeply. This despondency was so unlike him. She studied his face, the exhaustion clearly painted in tense lines across his features. The accident, the India trip, and then China; he was only human. And as much as he would deny it, he had his limits. “When was the last time you sat down and relaxed?”
Bartlet snorted derisively. “Super Tuesday.”
“No.” Abbey shook her head at the childish disappointment in his voice. And he was trying so hard. Gesturing to her two chaperons, she told him gently, “We need to get you to bed.”
“We?” Bartlet opened his eyes and tilted his head back. Seeing her shadows approaching, albeit somewhat cautiously, he scowled darkly. “Oh, yeah. We.” A stubborn look set on his face and he muttered petulantly, “I’m not going to bed.”
“Yes, you are.”
“Are we gonna make me?”
“Are you up for a fight?”
“Ahhh. And there it is. The sound byte and magic word. Fight.” Leaning forward, he turned in his chair and stopped both men in their tracks with a cold, hard eyed stare. Satisfied they had got the first part of his message, he gave them the second part and commanded softly, “Get out.”
Unsure and brought to a totally unexpected crossroads, the two men exchanged uneasy glances. Bartlet could see them mentally reviewing their operations manual. Shuffling his feet, one man began to lift his hand, clearly intent on getting a higher ruling.
“No, no. Don’t do that,” Bartlet stopped him, smiling benignly like he was dealing with a temperamental child. Two of them, in fact. “Don’t check with Butterfield, don’t look at each other. Look at me. I’m making the rather broad assumption here that you know who I am?”
In stunned unison, both men nodded.
“Very good, boys. I had begun to wonder. Now, I will repeat this only once, so listen carefully and take whatever notes you feel necessary.” His velvet tones, edged with steel, rose in volume and he roared, “Get out!”
Watching them trip over themselves in their haste to escape, the President of the United States couldn’t help but feel a touch of vindictive satisfaction. They may have only been doing their jobs, but he’d just got a bit of his own back and it felt good.
“There,” he said, turning to his wife and giving her a supremely smug look. “We are gone. Fight's over before it’s even begun.”
“You’re a bully, Jed.”
“I’m the President.”
“Do you think I actually need to be reminded?” There was acid in her voice for a moment. Then Abbey looked at him again, seeing the exhaustion both mental and physical. Now was not the time. She softened her voice. “You need to rest.”
“Practicing medicine without a license?” It was out of his mouth before he could stop it. Wincing, he muttered, “Shit.”
“Nice one, jackass.”
One corner of his mouth twisted upwards, hinting at a bit of self-mockery. “At least I’m a jackass again.”
Abbey smiled sadly in return, alarmed though by the weary melancholy she heard in his voice. It was so wrong. He was slipping away from her again. Reaching up, she brushed her hand across his cheek. “Did you ever stop?” she asked lightly, trying to bring him back.
“I honestly can’t remember anymore.” Capturing her hand, he pulled her to her feet. “Sit down, Abbey.”
“Jed, this is not the time or the place,” she protested, resisting his pull. She wanted so much to talk to him, but was suddenly afraid. For the first time, she couldn’t place his mood, where he was coming from. She knew what she wanted from him, what she wanted to hear. It was the cost that now worried her.
And he looked so very tired. “Your timing, as always, leaves a great deal to be desired.”
“So what else is new?” He pulled her roughly into the chair next to him, remotely satisfied at the shocked look on her face his uncharacteristic action caused. “I’ve been waiting for the right time. We’ve been waiting. Hell, the entire White House has been waiting for the right time.” He smiled sadly at the irony and continued with heavy sarcasm, “The White House. That should have been our first clue. It’ll never come. There’ll never be a right time and we haven’t exactly been subtle choosing what few battlegrounds we’ve been allowed.”
“You can’t have a good fight with an audience.” It was an ugly truth, but a grim truth nevertheless. The price paid for public service and, as much as she hated to admit it, nobody’s fault. Thinking about what happened upstairs with the girls, Abbey further acknowledged a bit guiltily, “And some of us have been less subtle than others.”
“Now there’s a sound byte,” Abbey snapped, finding that a small spark of her anger remained. He had brought them to this state. Thinking and listening were two things he hadn’t been doing well of late. She tried to pull her hand away, but he wouldn’t let her. “When exactly did that epiphany occur to you?”
“Abbey, don’t. My words this time, please?” Bartlet tightened his hold on her hand. She was about to go over the edge and he didn’t want that. Not that he didn’t deserve a good tongue lashing, but he needed her listening, not ranting. “I don’t want to fight. God knows I don’t deserve it, but right now, here at this moment, I would very much like to be a little closer to Heaven. Is that too much to ask?”
“Heaven?” Abbey whispered, realizing that his last plea had not been to her, but to the one person who always listened. He never begged the Divine. This had gone too far. “Jed...”
“Are you still mad at me?”
Only the truth now. Abbey nodded. “Yes.”
“Proof of my consistency. I’m nothing if not reliably myopic.”
Abbey rolled her eyes. “Little words, Jed.”
“I like big words.” He laughed at her reaction. An exasperated Abbey was a far more delightful prospect than an angry one. On safer ground, he paused for a moment, then continued slowly, searching for the one thing that had eluded him for so long. “That’s my problem. I keep looking for the big words when little ones would so easily serve. One little word in particular.” Bartlet lowered his voice, almost afraid to ask, “Why, Abbey? Why did you do it?”
“It was my choice.” She wasn’t expecting this, had come prepared to drag him kicking and screaming into the verbal arena. It left her feeling vulnerable and she didn’t like it. Abbey saw his face crumple at that answer and was forced to admit she was doing what she’d been so long accusing him of. Taking the easy way out.
It wasn’t fair to either of them, not now when they had come so far. “No, that was too easy. You deserve better.”
Bartlet laughed ruefully. “I do?”
“Sometimes.” Abbey realized then that a line had been crossed, both for her and for him. Comfortable now, she teased, “A reward for your dogged consistency.”
He laughed outright at that. It was a wonderful sound, rich and free; too long missing from her world. His arm slipped around the back of her chair, coming down lightly to pull her closer. Released from anger and recrimination, Abbey leaned into his embrace. Feeling him relax, she repeated his question, “Why, Jed?”
“It’s a little word.”
“Because I was proud of you,” she said hesitantly, dropping her chin to his chest, listening to his heartbeat. The strong beat gave her the courage to continue. “Because when all is said and done, it was my choice. It always has been. Nothing I do or say is going to change that, and I wouldn’t want it to.”
Bartlet brought his other arm around to encircle her, drawing her closer. “No?” he whispered into her hair. He’d been afraid to ask that question. Now he found himself dreading the answer.
This time Abbey’s wallop had a bit more force behind it. Pounding his chest, she berated him, “You’re a complete idiot if you thought I would.”
“Hmmm.” Relaxing further, conscious of a sense of place and satisfaction he’d long been missing, Bartlet observed dryly, “My polls are improving. I’ve been downgraded from jackass to idiot.”
Blinking, surprised at the fierceness of her tone, he asked somewhat incredulously, “That’s something to be proud of?”
“Don’t you ever doubt it.” But he did. She could hear it in his voice. Her husband was still waiting, still wanting more. “Why isn’t such a little word, Jed. There’s a lifetime of answers.”
“Or a lifetime of excuses.”
“Excuses?” Abbey smiled at that. She couldn’t help it. Marbury had been right. She was as human as the next person. He’d left himself wide open. Slyly and without rancor she said, “I love you very much.”
Abbey felt him stiffen, attempt to pull away and for a moment she felt she’d gone too far. Words could be weapons and she hadn’t meant those particular words to leave him cut and bleeding. She wrapped her arms around him tighter, holding him close. He wasn’t going to get away, not this time.
Bartlet was silent for a long while, then asked quietly, fearfully, “Is that enough?”
“It was enough...” She reached up and framed his face with gentle, loving hands. “...that thirty-four years ago I said yes.”
“For better or for worse?” He said the words tentatively, as if testing the very idea that he could have been worth the effort.
“Never for worse.”
His searching gaze met hers and his heart turned over. His breath caught in his throat. It was there, in her eyes. Small words, Jed. Small and simple. With that realization went the burden, and the guilt.
Hand behind her head, Bartlet pulled her closer. She didn’t resist. Unsure, he pressed his lips to hers, caressing rather than demanding. The moment was brief, but telling. Drawing back, he brushed his thumb across her cheek, capturing the single, precious tear that had fallen. It wasn’t the first, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Of that, he knew his consistency was assured.
There was only one last thing left to do.
Abbey didn’t know how long she’d been waiting for those simple words. Months? Years? It no longer mattered. He’d said them, and she hadn’t had to pry them out of him with a surgeon’s skill. Not only had he said them, but he’d meant them. Heart and soul, she could see it in his eyes.
Her husband was watching her intently, waiting. Abbey almost laughed. There he was again; the rumpled black tux, bow tie askew, blue eyes troubled and unsure. The little boy lost was back again. How could she resist him?
Why bother even trying? Besides, he deserved a suitable reward for improving his communication skills.
As though his words had released her, which in truth they had, Abbey buried herself deeper into his embrace. She could feel his breath; felt the warmth of it on her cheek as he held her closer. Slipping her arms beneath his jacket and around his back, she turned her face to his.
Capturing his mouth, she kissed him; long and slow, challenging him with every movement. The man didn’t disappoint her. He never did, at least not for long.
Dimly, somewhere in the back of her mind, it occurred to Abbey that they might have an audience. The thought was a brief one, driven out by the feel of his hands moving gently down her back, eagerly accepting her invitation.
Let them watch.
She and her husband had earned this.
The agent in question nearly groaned aloud as the elegantly tipsy voice boomed exuberantly across the crowded ballroom. Spying the British ambassador weaving his way across the floor, Butterfield braced himself. Of all the people he wanted to see or find tonight, Lord John Marbury was not one of them.
A few nearby guests turned to give the agent openly curious stares. He made the half-hearted effort to smile reassuringly in return. From their startled reactions and the scurrying as they hastily retreated to a much safer distance, Butterfield concluded that baring your teeth in an angry grimace bore little resemblance to the non-threatening social variety.
“Agent Butterfield!” Marbury neglected to reduce his volume as he drew to a halt, full glass in hand and beaming with happy inquiry at the stoic agent. “Just the man I wanted to see. May I call you Ron?”
“No, you may not.”
“Indeed.” One eyebrow rose gracefully at the flatly delivered denial, but Marbury refused to be daunted. “How disappointing. Then perhaps you can help me. I seem to have misplaced Abbey.”
His carefully constructed facade cracked and Butterfield’s only response was to wince at the word misplaced. Listening to the disappointing chatter coming over his earpiece, he decided the next meeting of the team leaders was going to include a very precise lecture on how to keep your eyes open.
The other eyebrow rose to join its twin at the agent’s telling reaction and Marbury murmured, “Interesting.” Glancing around the ballroom, carefully noting what so many had clearly missed and taking a healthy swallow of the truly superior scotch, he declared casually, “He seems to be keeping you busy tonight.”
Eyes narrowing suspiciously, Butterfield inquired coolly, “He, Mr. Ambassador?”
“Generally speaking of course. I can well imagine you’re always busy, as it were.”
Raising his hand to adjust his earpiece, Butterfield solemnly inclined his head and quietly acknowledged the vacuously given point. With no encouraging reports coming in, busy was an understatement. The man had absolutely no idea.
“And?” Marbury insisted.
Drawing a deep breath, Butterfield began to recite, “The Secret Service does not...”
“Yes, yes,” Marbury interrupted with an effortless smile, airily waving his hand at the standard response. Truthfully, he’d expected no less. Still, even the agent’s ambiguous reply provided some little satisfaction. “About Mrs. Bartlet...”
“No,” Butterfield stated firmly, baring his teeth again and surreptitiously glancing around for an escape route. “The Secret Service is also not a paging service. Our protectees deserve their privacy.”
“My assurances that I have no intention of invading the First Lady’s privacy,” Marbury pledged with easy grace, completely oblivious to the curiously predatory grimace fixed on Butterfield’s face. “I had been having a rather lovely conversation with her earlier and merely wanted to conclude it on a somewhat more... encouraging note. Can you help?”
Encouraging this man in any endeavor was not very high on Butterfield’s priority list. “No,” he repeated, injecting a hint of warning into his voice.
Marbury’s face fell. “No?”
“My apologies, sir,” Butterfield replied blandly. It never hurt to at least try and be polite.
“Really?” Marbury asked dubiously. He’d finally noticed the somewhat constricted expression on the agent’s face, the focused gleam in his eyes as he listened to his transceiver. Honesty forced him to admit the man looked like he wanted to bite somebody.
For safety’s sake, Marbury took a cautious half-step backwards.
Butterfield didn’t miss the action and his answering smile contained just a hint of vindictive pleasure. “Of course.”
Heroically downing the rest of the scotch, Marbury bravely, admittedly somewhat foolishly, pressed onward, “Should I be lucky enough to locate the First Lady in this crush...” He let the rest of the sentence trail off, watching the agent expectantly.
“Give her my regards,” Butterfield muttered absently, listening to a report coming in. The lines of concentration deepened along his brow. One corner of his mouth twisted upwards with satisfaction. Finally!
Marbury noted the slight change in the agent’s demeanor. “And should you locate her first?” he asked, satisfied that his conclusions were accurate. A lifetime of diplomatic service did provide one with certain observational skills.
“I’ll pass on your message,” Butterfield replied, forcing his features into what he hoped was a sincere expression of impatient yet polite dismissal. According the latest chatter, one team had found the President. This whole ridiculous mess was about to be put to rest. “If you’ll excuse me, Mr. Ambassador?”
“My apologies.” Marbury bowed gracefully, mouth curving into a knowing smile. “I’ve kept you from your duties.”
“Not at all.” He was surprised at how easily that came out through clenched teeth.
Butterfield shuddered. “God, I hope not.”
“Good luck with tonight’s endeavors, Agent Butterfield,” Marbury offered gravely, all trace of humor and absentminded frivolity gone from his voice. “All of them.”
About to leave, Butterfield stopped in midstride and abruptly turned back to face the ambassador. There was yet a faint glint of mischievous humor in the man’s eyes, but now combined with a shrewd gleam no amount of alcohol or ingenuous play-acting could disguise.
For the first time, Ron Butterfield realized what a formidable opponent this man could be. “And you with yours, Mr. Ambassador.”
“Me?” Marbury waved him off with a giddy laugh. “Off with you! What possible plans could I have other than to enjoy this...amusingly entertaining assemblage of ne’er-do-wells and vain hangers-on?”
Butterfield couldn’t have put it better himself. “No doubt you’ll let me know, should the occasion arise.”
Marbury inclined his head. “No doubt.”
The British Ambassador watched Butterfield leave, grabbing one of the wandering floor agents by the startled man’s elbow on his way out. Letting his gaze drift aimlessly around the ballroom, noting the gaiety and joy still ringing through the milling crowds, Marbury’s expressive face stilled and grew somber. The happy fools had absolutely no idea of the events taking place around them. Why should they? Their lives weren’t affected in any way, so why worry?
Eat, drink and be merry. The world will find its own way.
It wasn’t a very gracious thought, hardly diplomatic, but then he wasn’t feeling very diplomatic at the moment. Were this his house, they’d all be out on their asses right now.
“Good luck, Josiah,” he muttered, staring sadly into his glass.
It was empty again.
“Mr. President,” Marbury sighed heavily, making his determined way back towards the bar. “Your timing does indeed suck.”
Sure of himself and his place in the universe, Ron Butterfield pounded down the corridor towards the pressroom. Considering how his luck had gone so far this evening, he couldn’t quite believe it.
Damn! They’d found him!
There were no guests in this part of the Wing, but a few members of the late night cleaning crew jumped in astonishment and flattened themselves against the walls as he raced by, three other agents struggling gamely to keep up with their boss’s long-legged run. Seeing the Chief of Security in such an uncharacteristic state of emotional uproar was well worth a few colorful exclamations and unashamedly open-mouthed wonder.
Not that there was ever truly a lack of it, but gossip and speculating about the whys for this little show was going to keep everyone entertained for weeks.
Scowling, Butterfield felt their curious stares and realized he was going to be doing a lot of explaining tomorrow. Probably for a much longer time to come. One night of mistakes was going to keep the White House rumor mill running on more than fumes for an interminable decade or two. Oddly enough, that didn’t concern him at the moment; although he knew it was going to drive his blood pressure through the roof before it had all run its course. Only one thing concerned him at this particular moment.
They’d found him!
Not that he ever thought he’d be using that phrase when applied to the President of the United States and the man he was supposed to be keeping out of harm's way. The logical comeback to the phrase was ‘How’d you lose him in the first place?’ A question he had no satisfactory answer to.
Three presidents. Butterfield had served under three sitting presidents and this man, this economist, was the first one who seemed to take a devilish delight in going out of his way to make his chief bodyguard’s life more interesting.
Interesting being of course one of the most glaring understatements he’d ever contemplated.
They’d found him!
Having found him, Butterfield wasn’t exactly sure what they were going to do with him once they had him safely in hand. One didn’t exactly lecture the leader of the free world like a recalcitrant child, but he was sure as hell tempted. Right now, that temptation was very close to winning the battle with his hard-fought common sense.
The two men he’d assigned to the First Lady’s detail looked up, boundless relief at his approach settling across their features like a heavy shroud. It was a very bad sign. Butterfield drew to an abrupt halt, the three men trailing in his wake almost plowing into his back. His own relief had instantly turned to suspicion.
What were they doing outside the pressroom if he was inside? A silly question, but Butterfield had the sinking feeling it was only the beginning.
Pausing for a deep breath and a moment to fight for his self-control, Butterfield demanded with a hooded glare for each man, “Where is he? Torres?”
Having lost his claim to safety and anonymity, Emil Torres, eleven year veteran of the FBI, treasury agent for three and now lead agent for the First Lady’s detail, swallowed and stepped forward. “Eagle is inside, sir.”
“Why are you outside?”
The Secret Service prided itself on a long tradition of being succinct, straightforward and economical to the extreme with words. Torres was no exception. “Eagle ordered us to, sir.”
“Eagle,” Butterfield ripped the words out, fixing each man in turn with an incredulous, yet still dangerous, frown, “ordered you?”
“Yes, sir.” Simple answers. Torres was rather proud of himself.
Torres' partner nodded his agreement, perhaps a bit too quickly and eagerly. He nearly cringed when Butterfield turned his angry gaze in his direction. He hadn’t meant to draw that kind of attention to himself. Clearing his throat, he looked away. Basic rule of survival was never make eye contact with the predator. And right now his boss definitely fell into the ravenous hunter category.
The three agents who had followed Butterfield on his mad dash through the West Wing stepped back as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. This was not going to be pretty.
Butterfield squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. He had a headache. Along with the ulcer, he now had a headache. “Since when do we disregard our duties at the orders of the man we are supposed to protect?”
Torres winced. That hurt. “He yelled, sir.”
Rolling his eyes heavenward, perhaps searching for some divine intervention, Butterfield pointed out, “Lately, the man has always been yelling. Where have you been?” Considering the strain he’d been under, Butterfield couldn’t help but admire the President’s restraint. Yelling was the least of what he could be doing.
Praying for a bit of that same restraint, Butterfield listened to Torres begin his justifications. However the man phrased it, he was sure it would all still amount to poor excuses.
“No, sir. He didn’t just yell,” Torres was saying, the lines of concentration deepening along his brow as he searched for the correct word. He couldn’t find it. Emphasis was all he could come up with. “Eagle yelled, sir.”
Butterfield stared at the man, momentarily at a loss for words, then snapped out, “I don’t care if he yelled till he was blue in the face! You have a job! Consider yourself on report!”
Rapidly reaching the end of what little was left of his tether, Butterfield started to enter the pressroom.
A horrified look on his face, Torres stopped him. “Sir!”
“What!” Butterfield ground out; promising silently that the next meeting of the team leaders was going to be extremely vocal and entertaining. “Agent Torres, you have some objection to my going in there?”
“You don’t want to go in there, sir.”
The Chief of White House security’s mustache twitched and his brows rose. “Why?”
“His wife’s in there,” Torres told him helpfully. It should have been enough.
“I had gathered that,” Butterfield replied dryly. “You are head of detail for the First Lady, after all.”
Butterfield didn’t wait to hear any more excuses and angrily marched his way into the pressroom. It only took a second - he’d always been a quick study, it was a talent he was rather proud of - before he whipped around and left again in as quick a one-eighty as he’d ever pulled in his life.
Letting out a very long breath and offering a fidgeting Torres an apologetic grimace, he said, “You were right, Agent Torres. I did not want to go in there.”
Torres fidgeted a bit more, then said, “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. I tried to warn you.”
“Yes, you did.”
A little spark of hope leapt into Torres’ eyes. “The report, sir?”
“Forget it,” Butterfield impatiently waved him off. “Eagle would have killed you.”
A relieved breath gusted from his mouth and Torres nodded. “Either Eagle or the First Lady.”
“Most likely the First Lady,” Butterfield replied, smiling thinly and acknowledging the man’s point. Certain deaths weren’t worth the price paid to protocol. “You and your partner, take the other entrance. Nobody gets in there. You,” he jabbed an adamant finger at the closest member of the remaining pack, making him the leader, “Cover every other exit and the observation window. Call in as many warm bodies as you need. Anyone wants to take a peek, shoot them.”
Trying to figure out if he was serious or not, the men scrambled to obey. Considering his mood, nobody was taking any long bets. Explanations or excuses would come later. If anything, CJ Cregg could come up with a good story if they did have to shoot someone.
She always managed to spin something when needed. Flamingo was good at that sort of thing.
That left Butterfield alone, a situation he was not at all unhappy with. Alone was good. He could steam alone. Swear alone. Think the unthinkable alone. Contemplate his mortality alone. Alone, he could figure out what the hell he was going to tell Leo McGarry when he showed up.
Life couldn’t possibly get much better than this, of that he was dourly certain.
Glancing at his watch, Butterfield counted down the seconds. The Chief of Staff should be showing up right about... “Now,” he said with a bit of smug satisfaction. At least something was going right tonight.
Leo McGarry pounded around the corner, the NTSB report folder clutched in his hand and only slightly out of breath.
“Where’s Lyman?” Butterfield asked, noting the Deputy Chief of Staff’s absence.
“Ran into a door.”
“That wouldn’t happen if he learned to open them.”
“I hear Donna’s been trying to train him.” McGarry glanced past the agent’s shoulder at the pressroom entrance. “Is he in there?”
McGarry waited, impatience evident in stance and expression. Butterfield continued to stand there, blocking the way with an unreadable look on his face. “Well?” the Chief of Staff demanded.
Blandly, giving no hints at all, Butterfield replied, “You do not want to go in there.”
“Like hell I don’t!”
“Like hell you won’t,” Butterfield emphasized the negative, his thin smile in no way indicating compliance with McGarry’s charge.
Frowning fiercely, having reached the end of his tether a long time ago, McGarry ignored the warning and attempted to shoulder his way past the towering agent, only to find himself grabbed by the scruff of his neck and unceremoniously hauled back. Lifted off his feet, all he could manage was a short grunt of surprise and an oddly poignant thought.
‘So this is what it feels like.’
Setting the Chief of Staff back on his feet, Butterfield benevolently straightened the man’s rumpled tux lapels and said again, a bit more firmly, “You are not going in there.”
“No.” McGarry attempted to recapture a bit of his lost dignity, brushing at a bit of invisible lint on his coat sleeve. “You’ve made your point. I am not going in there. After all this, may I ask why?”
“His wife’s in there with him.”
Realization dawned on McGarry’s face. “Ahhh.”
Butterfield nodded. “Yep.”
“In the pressroom?”
“Great.” McGarry impatiently surveyed the entrance to the pressroom, chewing on his bottom lip before asking, “How long do you figure?”
“As long as it takes,” Butterfield replied evenly, following the Chief of Staff’s gaze and giving the entrance a narrow look of his own. “You know as well as I do that this has been too long in coming. The report can wait. It’s not going anywhere.”
McGarry stiffened at those quietly delivered words, momentarily affronted at the agent’s audacity, then embarrassed. Those words should have been his. Never more so than now, he was all too aware of the stark line between his job and his lifelong friendship. For a brief, terrible moment, the job had been all. He’d forgotten what his friend had been through these last, long months. The personal sacrifice and heartache the man had been through.
Some things were worth the sacrifice. But not this. Jed and Abbey deserved this moment, however brief. McGarry nodded. “It can wait.”
The mean play would begin again soon enough.
Butterfield shrugged, uncomfortable with McGarry’s scrutiny and what he knew the man was thinking. The call wasn’t one even the Chief of White House Security had the right to make. Strict rules and even stricter training dictated that the President be secured immediately. No questions or excuses. Family and personal issues were never part of the equation. He’d broken the rules.
Butterfield hardened his eyes and looked away.
McGarry saw the action, realized with a wry understanding what the man was trying to hide, the unfeeling facade he was struggling to maintain. He wasn’t fooled. He now knew Ron Butterfield better than that. The man had depths he couldn’t allow to surface. McGarry had seen through the cracks, though, but he didn’t say anything. Allowing Butterfield the disguise was no great problem and a small way of saying thank you.
McGarry stifled a smile. Any thanks and the man would only throw the words right back at the giver. It was his job, nothing more. He didn’t believe that anymore than Butterfield did. It would, however, remain their secret.
Stepping across the hallway, McGarry leaned up against the opposite wall, absently twitching the report in his fingers. There was nothing for it now but to wait. Glancing at his watch, he couldn’t help the low growl of irritation.
Feeling Butterfield’s amused gaze, he turned a sour look on the agent and told him in no uncertain terms, “I want to hear no comments about timing.”
“Would I dare?” The agent shrugged dismissively and replied coolly, “Personally, I’ve had enough of those tonight to last a lifetime.”
“You were thinking it.”
“A very little thought,” Butterfield admitted with an equally little, tight smile twisting one corner of his mouth. McGarry was the only person he would allow himself to break that personally strict decorum for. Just a tiny bit.
The agent’s head snapped round as the familiar sound of running footsteps echoed down the corridor. His smile, however small, disappeared and he muttered pointedly, “Speaking of timing.”
McGarry’s sigh contained equal parts resignation and fond annoyance. There was only one person it could be. The young man was the best at his job, top of his field in fact. But he could be a trial at times. ‘Most of the time,’ McGarry admitted silently with rueful affection.
And he would never change a thing, nor would he tell his deputy that. Aloud, he said, “Josh must have won his battle with the door.”
“I’ll have to see about fixing that.”
“Josh or the door?”
Butterfield never got the chance to answer.
“Leo!” The voice raced loudly down the corridor, bouncing off the walls and soon to be followed by its owner, who skidded to a nearly breathless halt in front of the Chief of Staff. “Is he in there?” Lyman gasped.
“Not for long if he heard you bellow like that,” McGarry grumbled, giving the pressroom entrance an anxious look. He could think of better ways for the couple inside to get a wake-up call. “In fact, I think most of the West Wing heard you.”
Professional facade back in place, Butterfield merely grunted his disapproval.
“Then what are we waiting for?” Lyman demanded, doing his best to ignore the glowering senior agent. It wasn’t easy. Intimidation was the man’s stock in trade and right now he was doing his level best to glare the Deputy Chief of Staff into submission.
“His wife is in there with him,” McGarry told him patiently.
McGarry sighed. He was going to have to have a long talk with Donna. This boy needed to be educated. “Think, Josh. Please?”
This time Butterfield’s grunt sounded suspiciously like a laugh. Lyman glared at him, then turned a somewhat more thoughtful look to the pressroom entrance. Maybe he had overindulged in the wine just a bit tonight. The answer eluded him for a few beats. Then it hit him.
“Uhhh, Mrs. Bartlet?” he asked cautiously.
“Yes, Josh.” McGarry nodded wisely, satisfied his deputy was on the right track. When it came to relationships, he’d learned the younger man was woefully ignorant of the more subtle aspects of family life.
“In the pressroom?”
He was a quick study too. McGarry nodded again.
Rolling his eyes, McGarry couldn’t help but laugh at that guileless remark. The boy was a treasure, in more ways than one. “How the hell did you ever graduate high school?”
“Got lucky, I guess,” Lyman admitted with a knowing smile, shoving his hands into his pockets. “How long do we wait?”
McGarry shook his head at the impatience of youth. “As long as we have to.”
Unfortunately, waiting calmly was not something Joshua Lyman was very good at. Not when the news was as important as this. He didn’t have the patience yet to dampen the frustrated energy firing his nerves.
Pacing, chafing at the interminable wait, only minutes passed before he gave both McGarry and Butterfield his ultimatum, “He needs to be told!”
The older men ignored him, McGarry simply shaking his head and Butterfield crossing his arms and scowling.
"What's taking so long?" Lyman fidgeted; apparently oblivious to the slightly incredulous look Butterfield shot at the Chief of Staff, who responded with yet another elaborate rolling of his eyes.
"The First Couple have a lot to talk about." McGarry was rather proud of the admittedly somewhat strained patience of his reply. Mind you, if Josh had snickered at his accidental innuendo he was going to clip his ear, Deputy Chief of Staff or no. That restrained remnant of his composure was rapidly fading fast.
His colleague failed to recognize the warning signs. Patience wasn't exactly one of his strengths. Cracking at last, Lyman took two swift paces towards the entrance, as if intent on shouldering Butterfield aside and bursting through.
He practically skid to a halt as Butterfield moved quietly and implacably into his path, staring down impassively at the younger man and seemingly about as moveable as the Rock of Gibraltar. Frustrated, Lyman whirled around and appealed to his boss. "Leo, we have to tell him! Now! Don't you understand? The implications…"
"Don't lecture me on the implications, Joshua!" McGarry's façade cracked at last, and all the tension, stress and fear came boiling up. "I understand them just fine! Quite apart from anything else, I was there. Remember? I know what this report,” he waved the manila folder in his hand like a damning flag, “means for us, for the country and for this administration."
McGarry paused for breath, suddenly emotionally and physically exhausted. Quietly, sadly, he indicated the doorway and whispered, "For them."
‘And for you.’ Chastised, and a little guilty, Lyman completed the thought. He knew how devoted Leo McGarry was to the President, how much their friendship - that sometimes almost seemed a symbiosis as they worked in tandem, whole conversations being conveyed by a glance or the tilt of a head - meant to both men.
Josiah Bartlet was truly close to only a few people, and Leo McGarry occupied a privileged place in that select pantheon. These two men shared a history that predated the births of most of the President's senior staff. What would it be like to lose a friend of such old and close standing? Especially in such a way as this. Lyman devoutly hoped neither he nor McGarry would ever have to find out.
Ron Butterfield shot a brief, telling glance at the Chief of Staff. He knew what the other man was thinking. ‘Let them have this moment. There's been few enough lately, and they're going to need it.’ The agent heaved an inward sigh. They certainly would, especially knowing what the future would bring.
The scene he had caught a mercifully brief glimpse of had been both embarrassingly private and delightfully heart-warming. Normally, Butterfield never gave a thought to the personal lives of those he was sworn to protect. He couldn't afford to. But the Bartlets had breached his professional shell. He cared. Enough to ensure that they had at least a few moments respite before he once again shredded the cocoon of happiness they were trying so hard to restore.
Hearing footsteps coming up behind him, he braced himself and turned. And almost swore. This news would never have been easy to deliver, under any circumstances. But with both the President and his wife radiating that familiar glow of relaxation and contentment in each other's company that the entire White House had always observed - and missed in recent months - being the cause of shattering it seemed incredibly unfair. Could the timing have possibly been any worse? He didn't envy McGarry.
"Mr President?" Lyman stepped forward with an air of mild alarm. "Are you all right, sir?"
"Fine, Josh. Just fine." Bartlet waved him away casually. His bow tie was partly undone; his hair tousled and there was no mistaking the air of satisfaction he fairly exuded. Nonetheless, his eyes were slightly narrowed with strain and he was definitely favouring his right leg, trying not to lean on his wife for support, even as she rolled her eyes at his insouciance.
"Yeah, Josh, everything's peachy." Abbey firmly steered her husband towards the three men. "If you don’t count some stupid skulking around this evening that almost led to his being stuck with having to rest that leg for another week.”
Puzzled, she was almost distracted from her present mission by the sight of both McGarry and Butterfield wincing in guilty unison. One of these days she was going to get to the bottom of that almost Pavlovian reaction to any mention of Jed's recent injury. The mystery, however, could wait for another day. She didn’t want to be reminded about the accident and was determined that this day would end on a happier note.
"Jed, apologise to the nice agent for giving him the run-around this evening. Then we're getting you into bed. Not like that,” she whacked her husband's arm as he gave her a broad grin. "You need to get some sleep, and to get off that leg."
McGarry cleared his throat. There would be no better time for this. "Mr. President..."
"Not now, Leo." Abbey fixed her husband's old friend with her best quelling glare. It had been known to work on him in the past. From the stubborn set of his jaw, and what she could have sworn was honest grief at the intrusion in his eyes, she knew it wasn’t going to work this time. Still, she had to try. "Unless there's a major crisis, the President is going to get some much needed rest."
"Leo?" Bartlet was well attuned to McGarry's moods, and something told him the man's clear lack of relish for his role as messenger extended far beyond merely intruding into any possible family time. "What's up?"
McGarry exchanged an agonised look with Lyman, then stepped forward and reluctantly extended the manila folder, one crumpled corner of which bore silent witness to a violently felt emotion.
Bartlet gazed at it, then looked up to meet his friend's eyes. Regarding the other man steadily, he straightened his shoulders and stepped deliberately away from his wife’s side. Slowly, he extended his hand and took the folder. His mouth tightened into a hard line as he saw the title and he flipped the file open with stiff, jerky motions.
Abbey's objections, both to his leaving her side and the untimely interruption, died in her throat as she felt the disquiet and apprehension radiating from her companions as they watched the President slowly leaf through the report. She looked questioningly at McGarry, but he was unable to meet her gaze, his features set in lines of misery. Lyman was positively flustered and Butterfield looked both angry and regretful. She turned towards her husband.
Leaning one shoulder against the wall for support, Jed had been gently kneading his bad leg while reading, but the action finally slowed, then stopped as the fingers of the hand holding the report tightened convulsively, creasing the paper trapped between them. His expression was darkening in anger, and something else Abbey couldn’t quite place. She knew every line of her husband’s expressive face, his highs and lows. The emotions passed so quickly, leading one to the next so quickly, she was left to guess.
Was that sorrow, grief, possibly even guilt? She was sure she recognized that last emotion; it was one he seemed to have worn a lot in recent days and hours. She had hoped to see the last of it. Candidly, she had to admit she should have known better.
Seeking enlightenment, she craned her neck slightly in an effort to see and caught the bold lettering NTSB on the front of the folder. It had finally come. A small sliver of ice seemed to work its unexpected way down her spine, and she drew closer to her husband.
Bartlet could barely make out the words through the maelstrom of emotions that seemed to cloud his vision. One phrase did cut through the mental fog with brutal clarity. Not an accident. Not an accident. Murder. Oh, you could argue that technically it was a murder attempt; after all, the chief target had escaped. That was what mattered as far as the world was concerned.
The hell it was! Righteous anger, colored by guilt, surged to the forefront of Bartlet’s mind. As if it didn't matter that five young men had died, another good man had been slightly injured, and his oldest friend put at risk. Five people were dead. He kept coming back to that, as if the numbers would lend the harsh reality a colder, more manageable cast and give meaning to his anger. Two of them had been married. One had a young child. All dead. And why? They were killed simply because they were considered insignificant by someone seeking a bigger goal, his death. The President’s death, because ending that man’s life was considered a sufficiently worthwhile goal to make some collateral damage seem unimportant.
Bartlet squeezed his eyes shut as the memories once again rose up and submerged him. His right hand clutched at the material of his trousers where they concealed the injury. A brief, violent shiver ripped through his body at the recollection of cold, pain and that hideous feeling of being closed in, of those dreadful moments on first waking to total darkness and finding himself unable to move, to breathe. Even with closed eyes he recognized the gentle touch to his elbow. Abbey, concerned, was letting him know he wasn't alone.
But he hadn't been alone in that darkness either. It would have been almost preferable if he had. He felt his fingers flex unconsciously at the memory. Agent Donny Sandler had fulfilled the ultimate duty of a presidential bodyguard, and had paid the ultimate price. He left behind a wife and a two-year old daughter. He had shown the President her photograph once during a long flight, proud as only a young father could be.
She would never really know her father now, because his life had been considered less important than that of the man occupying the Oval Office, considered so by the world, the Secret Service, the perpetrator of that disaster and by her father himself. By everyone in fact but the man whom he had sworn to protect. Bartlet wondered if anyone who had not had another sacrifice their life for them could even begin to understand the crushing weight of responsibility the act bequeathed.
His fingers flexed again as the memories rushed him onwards. It had been impossible for him to do anything to help the young agent. Buried under the debris, he had barely been able to stretch his hand far enough to touch the other's head. That had been enough. Bartlet shuddered and involuntarily rubbed the fingertips of his right hand vigorously against the material of his trouser, feeling the scar he would carry for the rest of his life underneath.
As a cruel reminder, it would never leave him.
Several times since the accident, nightmare recollections had found him standing in pajamas and barefoot in his bathroom, violently scrubbing at the flesh and fingers of that hand; a frantic effort to wash away the feeling of blood and… other things that had encrusted themselves under his nails. In an effort to banish the sensation - still so fresh to the memory he could practically feel it now - he instinctively stretched that hand out, reaching for the one thing that could always anchor him, call him back from the dark places his thoughts carried him to.
Abbey took his hand and curled her fingers around his gratefully. Right now, she badly needed the reassurance of the contact as much as he did, to feel his flesh warm under hers, to know that he was here with her and safe. To be reassured that he would continue to stay that way. But she knew that there was no such reassurance. That had been lost almost ten years ago. In a way, this was just one more threat, one she couldn’t recognize or fight.
She didn't want to lose him. She never had; that had partly been the cause of all the tension between them since the whole re-election issue had been broached. But she particularly didn't want to lose him now. Not now when they had finally been able to set the worst of the hurt and the anger aside, to see how the other had felt.
This evening had been painful in so many ways, but cathartic too. And the note of reconciliation they had managed to achieve had meant so much. Abbey knew their marriage was rightly famous for its impressive arguments, but it was an abidingly close one. So close it both thrilled and frightened her. The existence of the recent emotional wedge had eaten away at both of them, and its final erosion had caused her to feel as if an invisible but almost crippling burden had at last been lifted from her. She knew Jed had felt the same.
It was so unfair! After all that had happened, didn’t they deserve to have the evening end as they had hoped for only moments before? Not for this newfound contentment to be shattered, and especially not in such a fashion as this.
Her husband was entertaining similar thoughts. Abbey didn’t have to look into his eyes to know. She could feel the emotion in his hand, traveling through their touch into her. She took it in, held on to it and shared the new burden.
She wasn’t about to let go, ever.
Clutching her hand gently, carefully, like the lifeline it currently was, Bartlet finally looked up to meet the anxious regard of his Chief of Staff. He took a deep, steadying breath and delivered the only verdict he could in the circumstances. "Leo?"
"Yes, Mr. President?"
"Your timing sucks."