Authors: Anne Callanan and Kathleen E. Lehew
E-mail addresses: Anne - email@example.com
Kathleen - firstname.lastname@example.org
Summary: This is a continuation of the story arc we began in our premiere story, 'A Frightened Peace', and which we attempted to bring to at least a partial conclusion in 'Farther off from Heaven'. As you can see, we were unsuccessful, hence the arc continues on its merry way here. Don't blame us!! None of these characters would cooperate!! It's very frustrating.
Summary/Main: As the threat to his life continues, the President has several decisions to make. The enemy remains elusive, but the battle lines are drawn. Nothing is as it seems or as simple as politics would wish it to be.
Spoilers: Just to be on the safe side, all of the first three seasons – this particular story now takes place after ‘Posse Comitatus’ and during the break between season three and four - and of course the above mentioned stories. It is sort of necessary that you be a little familiar with both. For those who want to check out/refresh their memories of 'A Frightened Peace' and ‘Further off from Heaven’, you can find it on www.fanfiction.net, here at www.therealthing.8k.com, http://westwingstories.com/library/index-02.shtml, http://www.jabbers.cjb.net/, or http://anotherunofficial0.tripod.com/, a great new site you should seriously check out.
Characters/Pairing: Jed and Abbey to be sure. Can't forget those two <G>. Leo and Ron insisted on being included as well. Then there's Fitz, Nancy, Charlie, the WHOLE of the senior staff and... okay. Everybody. Talk about people wanting screen time!!
Category: Drama and - we're baaaack! <VBEG> - Action/Adventure. In our opinion, these people were starting to get just a little too comfortable. They needed to be shaken up a bit.
Rating: PG - 13. Some language, - and not just Jed this time- a few adult/political issues and a bit of graphic violence. Our usual excuse is that nobody told us we couldn't, so we did. As long as that excuse works, we're gonna stick with it. Besides, this is too much fun.
Feedback: PLEASE!! - picture us begging and you'll come pretty close <G>. Honestly, if it weren't for the great encouragement we've received, we wouldn't have known where to go with this. Keep it up and we may actually finish the silly thing <VBEG>. Oh, and the threats? Those ain't half-bad either.
Again, some major kudos and thanks to Sheila for being the best beta reader a couple of fledgling West Wing writers could find. Luckily, the job hasn't slowed her down on her own latest story, so any guilt we've been feeling has happily been dispersed <G>. We now have a clear conscience. Any stubborn mistakes that remain are ours, not hers
Authors' notes: To any lawyer reading this, and we're darn sure there are few, we make no claim of ownership for the characters contained herein. Like many authors who have gone before, we're just borrowing them. With all due respect to Aaron Sorkin, we promise to give them back in time for the season four premiere.
This is getting complicated - not our fault, blame the characters! - but keep in mind this arc began with 'A Frightened Peace', continued with 'Farther off from Heaven' and takes off with a bang here. Revelations are made, yet more clues are presented, and danger surrounds all. Did you honestly think we could keep things simple? HAH!!
As always, we hope you enjoy it.
Okay, Kathleen was stupid enough to leave the dedication to me this time, so I want to dedicate this to her. <G> For being a great friend ever since we first met online through another fandom, for encouraging me to start to write and teaching me how to do it properly. And for seizing on 'A Frightened Peace' and turning it into the totally evil conspiracy fest you've been reading. Thanks for the fun, Kathleen. I was so thrilled when I learned you were a WW fan too.
Falls the Shadow
Anne Callanan and Kathleen E. Lehew
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
Thomas Stearns Eliot: 1888 - 1965
"Why am I just finding out about this?" Seated behind his desk, Josiah Bartlet, President of the United States, calmly raised his hand to forestall the lame excuses he knew were coming. He'd heard it all before and he knew he was going to hear it again. "Humor me," he said softly, leveling the two people seated across from him with an ominously cool stare.
Leo McGarry exchanged a harassed glance with Nancy McNally, the National Security Advisor. Not that he'd really expected it, but he got little support from her, just a helpless shrug. Knowing the President as he did - a forty-year friendship did have certain advantages - he'd known from the start that this was not going to end well.
Hell, it hadn't started well. And McGarry knew it was all going to go steadily downhill from there. He consoled himself with the grim reminder that while this particular day of reckoning had been a long time coming; at least it was finally here. He only wished he had more to give the man. Supposition and vague hints backed up by very few sure facts were all he had.
Still, what little he did have was valid enough to warrant this meeting, despite the lack of certainty. Too much was at stake to risk otherwise. The reticence he felt, an unaccustomed inability to voice opinion or defense to the President's question, was borne as much from fear for his friend as it was from frustrated duty.
Until he could get his bearings, a drawn-out moment of speechless deferral was all McGarry could offer his Commander in Chief. He had few answers to give, only conjecture and more questions. Considering the haggard look in the President's eyes, his features careworn by recent events, he didn't relish the idea of adding to the man's burden.
Following his lead, Nancy held her tongue as well. When it came to handling Josiah Bartlet's sometimes mercurial moods, she'd learned when to speak and when not to. This was not one of those moments where a casual platitude or evasion would serve. Right now, this was McGarry's show, and she didn't envy him at all.
In the strained, unproductive silence that followed, a brief thought occurred to Bartlet as he watched his advisors struggle to find an answer that would satisfy him. Politics, the art of the possible. For the life of him, he couldn't remember where the quote was from. A vague recollection of a Broadway musical, Abbey dragging him kicking and screaming out the White House doors - she never had been impressed with Presidential tantrums - was the best he could do.
Politics was an art. He had no problem agreeing with that observation. It was the possibilities inherent in this conversation that had sent his blood pressure and temper soaring to new, un-dreamed of heights. A pity that possible and politics very rarely went hand in hand with responsibility.
McGarry cleared his throat. "Mr. President... "
One executive brow rose with sardonic inquiry. "Leo?" His voice dripped with angry scorn. Tired and irritable, he wasn't in the mood for excuses.
Unfortunately, excuses were all McGarry had. "It was an election year, Mr. President."
Nancy winced. "Good one, Leo," she whispered to the Chief of Staff, sotto voce. He in turn gave her a narrow eyed frown that clearly indicated he was not at all amused.
Neither was she.
Nancy may not have known the President as long as McGarry, but like many of the other advisors, she'd learned - more often than not the hard way - how not to open a statement to their somewhat prickly Chief Executive. Especially now, with recent events weighing heavily on the man's conscience.
McGarry should have known better. He did know better. Do not open any response to the man's questions, however open-ended, with an evasion. The fact that he'd obviously forgotten one of the most important rules of presidential engagement was a clear indication that his own personal strain was beginning overrule his common sense. It occurred to her that McGarry was riding the edge of control as narrowly as his friend, frustration dulling his instincts. Bartlet, however, was not holding up as well under the strain.
The President did not look well. Shadows darkened his eyes and the lines of care and worry had deepened across his face. He rarely smiled anymore. While Nancy missed his relentless humor, she also understood that he gave too much of himself, accepted too many burdens and received little in return. Too much had happened of late, with no chance to rest or recoup his losses, both mental and physical. Those few moments of peace he'd been allowed had been fleeting.
Nancy scowled. Now this.
"And there's the sound byte," Bartlet was saying, his voice heavy with sarcasm. "An election year. I suppose that grants them absolution? 'Excuse us, but we were too busy trying to keep our jobs we forgot to mention the criminal element running amok in what's left of our government? Oh, and by the way, one of them is trying to kill you. Sorry for the inconvenience.' Russian pragmatism, Leo?"
"The communist, hard line incumbent is about to get his ass kicked by a liberal wild card, the polls have him trailing and losing momentum by the minute." McGarry retained his normal unperturbed, affability. But there was a distinct gleam of annoyance hardening his eyes, a sharp, and cutting edge to his words. "You, a man whose opinion for some bizarre reason beyond my understanding carries a tiny bit of international weight, make no secret of the fact that a reformer in the Kremlin would please you absolutely no end ... "
"So this is my fault?"
"Oh for God's sake!" McGarry rolled his eyes heavenward. "Of course it's your fault! Isn't everything? Inflation, piss-poor education standards, failing social security ... "
"A slashed defense budget," Nancy added with a growled mutter.
"Hey!" Bartlet turned on his National Security Advisor with a scowl. "Four decades of putting up with me cuts him some serious slack. You're relatively new. Behave."
"My apologies, Mr. President."
"Ignore him, Nancy," McGarry told her. "You're a target of convenience."
"That makes me feel so much better."
"Then give me an inconvenient one, Leo," Bartlet demanded in a deceptively sweet tone. To anyone who didn't know him, he presented the image of studied patience.
McGarry was one of the few who understood how deceptive that benign appearance could be. The internal fires were banked for the moment, but he knew with sure certainty that those flames were about to erupt into an all-consuming conflagration. Jed Bartlet was not one to sustain a controlled, slow burn for long. Unfortunately, those same fires tended to burn fiercely for short periods, devouring emotion and intent along with the man's patience.
And the last few months had see far too many of those fires. There wasn't much left within the man to burn and McGarry had no idea how much more the President could take and still stand before the storm. Driven by hard necessity, he'd taken the morally ambiguous path, chosen to damn himself rather than let the innocent continue to suffer.
Posse Comitatus. Bartlet hadn't said the word, but McGarry knew in his heart that in his darkest moments the President thought it, that the perceived evil of his choice had never truly left him. Probably never would. Regardless of what others may have thought or tried to convince him of, he had passed silent judgment and found himself wanting.
Murderer. Shareef was dead. It didn't matter that the President had no other alternative, that for the greater good all the rules of civilized conduct and government were abandoned.
Sighing, the Chief of Staff rubbed his eyes, banking his own irritation and offering the President the only thing he could. "The possibility existed they were about to lose the Kremlin, sir. The Red Mafia is spending money like water, putting their people into the Duma, struggling to maintain a very profitable status quo. Against all odds, they lose. Money doesn't always talk. Then this? In the middle of a hotly contested election, you don't announce to the electorate, Russian or otherwise. 'Oops, sorry, missed that one. While we weren't looking some petty thief... '"
"' ... and his organization have decided a liberal reformer in the Kremlin is not good for business.' Then you come along, after having slapped them down once already about shitty weapons control, happily meet up with the new man in charge, who does agree with you, in Helsinki and actually listen to the visionary bastard ... "
"My fault again, is it?" Bartlet made no attempt to keep the sarcasm from his voice, although a weary amusement flashed in his eyes when he added, "And that sentence structure would earn you a serious scolding from Toby."
"Screw Toby," McGarry muttered, leveling the President with what he hoped was a quelling glare. "Sir, with all due respect, shut up and listen, will you? Just this once?"
Despite herself, Nancy couldn't help but be fascinated by the heated exchange. She'd never seen the like before - certainly not in the Oval Office - and probably never would again. These two men, balanced by a deep friendship and abiding loyalty, were skirting what little remained of the protocol line and executive etiquette like circling predators. With some trepidation, she wondered who would snap - literally and figuratively - first.
If the situation hadn't been so grim, she might have found it a touch amusing. A small part of her already did. As briefings go, this one was shaping up to be a true classic.
At his Chief of Staff's outburst, the President spread his hands in a pacifying gesture, content for the moment to let the man continue. A sharp glance in the National Security Advisor's direction warned her that not only was he aware of how this exchange looked, but also promised in no uncertain terms that any laugh, sarcastic or otherwise, by her at this point would find suitable punishment in future.
Satisfied that at least one of his advisors was towing the line, he turned his attention to the disappointing paperwork laid out across his desk. Bartlet had already read the NSA report, several times in fact, and been given Nancy's dry take on the events and findings that had prompted this meeting. Admiral Fitzwallace as well. Neither one of them had been able to provide any satisfying answers. The facts, what little had been provided, were there, easy to see. What he didn't see was where he, the President of the United States, figured into the state of Russian politics and criminal business practice. It didn't make any sense.
Nancy had been unable to explain it, and for all his diligence, other matters had distracted Fitzwallace. That stalwart was doing his level best to clean up the mess and tie up the loose ends created by a presidentially ordered murder. It wouldn't do to have the damning trail of breadcrumbs lead straight back to the Oval Office.
That left Leo McGarry. As it should be. Bartlet was satisfied to let him fume, to find his own truths amongst the lies. He was good at it, almost too good. It appalled Bartlet sometimes how such a kind, loving man could lower himself to that level, to think himself into the darkness that was not only international politics, but also the world in general. It was a frightening talent, being able to lower oneself into the pit like that.
Bartlet couldn't help but wonder how long Leo could continue to do so and find his way out again.
Rather than let these two men continue to go at it and risk getting sucked in herself, Nancy decided to inject a few pertinent facts into the proceedings. She knew it wouldn't calm either of them, but it would, hopefully, bring them both back to earth. Finger pointing wasn't going to do them all any good.
Flipping through the report on her lap and choosing her words carefully, she began to recite what little was known, "The Quantico labs have confirmed the type and the source for the plastic used to bring down Marine One. Semtex was the base."
McGarry scowled. "Semtex is a Czech specialty, sir," he told the President. "A favorite of terrorists and arms dealers the world over."
"If it's Czech, then where do the Russians figure into this?" Bartlet asked irritably, never comfortable discussing any aspect of military hardware. "Czechoslovakia hasn't been a member of the Warsaw Pact since 1989."
"Up until the late eighties, the Czechoslovak government was in the habit of allegedly... " McGarry almost winced at his poor choice of words, allegedly being one of the more over-used political evasions currently in use and guaranteed to ignite the man's temper. Watching the President for signs of imminent eruption, he continued, "... selling large amounts of Semtex plastic explosive to a number of nations that are known to sponsor terrorist groups, including Libya, Iraq and North Korea."
"Allegedly," Bartlet muttered, not so much because the word irritated him but that he knew his repeating it would irritate Leo. "Don't we know anything for certain? Again, just in case you're not up on recent events, Czechoslovakia hasn't been a country since 1993. Who are we dealing with now? The Czech Republic, or Slovakia?"
"The Czech Republic, sir," Nancy interjected, saving McGarry from a verbal flaying. The President was in an unpredictable mood and they both needed to present a solid front. "There is a tough export control policy in place requiring a case-by-case examination of any arms sales from the Czech Republic by the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Trade and the Interior. But unfortunately, there is also a powerful black market in the country. A good portion of their GNP comes from arms sales, both legitimate and covert. According to the Czech Security Information Service, it is more than possible to still illegally obtain any amount of arms, ammunition, support equipment and any number of plastic explosives of your choice, including Semtex. No questions asked."
"Yes, sir. Their biggest buyer."
"Wonderful." The President tilted his head back and stared at the ceiling. Whatever he'd expected from this meeting, it hadn't been a rundown of the current state of international arms sales. "And we know the Semtex is Russian how?" he asked, hoping for once he'd get a simple answer.
"The base was Semtex, Mr. President," Nancy replied. "Unfortunately it's fairly common on the open market. The stabilizer was a Russian RDX known as Cyclonite. That trace element is unique to a government run arms factory outside Minsk. Unfortunately, that same factory also deals in a thriving civilian trade. Weapons grade isn't their only market."
Bartlet's answering smile bordered on a sneer and contained very little humor. "And Russia's weapons controls are?" That one he already knew the answer to, he just needed to hear his National Security Advisor say it.
Nancy sighed. "Worse than the Czech, sir."
"And the nightmare continues."
"Yes, sir," Nancy agreed, slumping a little in her chair.
"Anything for an easy buck," McGarry snarled, disgusted at the expediency of profit without accountability.
While she agreed with him, Nancy was still irked by his cynical tone. Straightening a bit, she turned a bit of her ire on the Chief of Staff. "Yes, money, Leo. The new god of the Russian Republic. Don't ask who, don't ask why, just collect the cash and lose the records."
Aware that the annoyance he was feeling was rapidly spilling over into an open rage, McGarry forced his jumbled emotions into order. He needed to think right now, not feel. "Agreed. That line of inquiry is a dead end. What passes for their marketing department isn't going to let their customer lists out for open scrutiny, international or otherwise."
Irritated by his mocking tone, Nancy tried to disguise her own frustration and snapped at him, "And still no word on who or how said explosives were placed on Marine One's rotor housing."
"It was an inside job."
"Tell me something I don't know. Money, Leo. Find me the money, and I'll tell you who did it."
Ignoring them for the moment, Bartlet had his reading glasses on and was slowly leafing through his own copy of the report. Frowning, he blinked to bring the blurry lines into focus. Shaking his head, he realized he must be more tired than he thought. No great revelation there. Lack of sleep would do that to a person.
Of course, nothing had changed since the first time he'd read it. No new disclosures leapt from the pages. Oh, he was a bit calmer now, but not by much. There were too many questions without answers. "Tell me about the nuclear problem."
McGarry fielded that one. "That's about the only good news we have. So far, there's been no word on any front indicating a loose nuke or pony bomb on the market. The Russians are desperate, but not that desperate."
"It's only a matter of time, Leo," Nancy interjected sourly. She'd seen too many close calls over the years to give that problem an easy pass. "Remember what happened last year? Forcing the Kremlin to accept UN and US inspectors has curbed the temptation for the moment, but the vultures are still circling. Government and criminal vultures."
"Is it just me," Bartlet asked, giving both his advisors a hooded look, "or are there far too many questions without answers? We do have an intelligence budget, right? Where is it going?"
Neither of his advisors could give him an answer. At this point, the President wasn't surprised. As intelligence briefings go, this one was a true classic. Nothing concrete, no sure bullet points and no answers. Just questions.
"So we come full circle, right back to the Russians." It was a statement requiring no response from his advisors. The headache he'd woken up with this morning clicked over onto the next level. Yet another problem to deal with.
One question, however, refused to be stilled. "Did Chagarin know?" the President asked, looking up from his desk and giving both McGarry and Nancy a veiled warning. He didn't want excuses, not now. "During Helsinki, did he know about the possible threat?"
Both advisors stared at each other over a sudden, ringing silence. That was the question they'd both been dreading. So much good had come from that meeting. Two men had agreed to bring the world back from the brink of nuclear annihilation. Nothing truly concrete had been set, no words on paper to lock it down. But it had been a bright beginning. Now this.
Unfortunately, Nancy had the answer. "Yes, sir. He knew."
Finally said aloud, McGarry felt an odd disappointment at her words, a sorrow that seemed to weigh him down. Not for the world or the petty politicians left out in the cold, but for his friend. The President had so wanted something good to come from that meeting. Afterwards, he'd been able to believe he'd actually been able to accomplish something, to take a stand on an issue that would affect the world and leave a lasting mark on history.
Bartlet's mood had improved considerably after that. Then came Shareef, followed by the senseless death of Secret Service Agent Simon Donovan. His friend had seen too much, been witness to too many petty scenes and had his moral certainties nibbled at by lesser souls. The knowledge of what it had cost the President twisted in McGarry's heart. Just once, he would have liked to see something turn out the way it should. Just for him.
He should have known better.
"How do we know for sure Chagarin was aware of the situation?" the President was asking, snapping McGarry out of his dark musings. He couldn't help but note the faint thread of hope in the man's voice.
Nancy smiled thinly and shot a sidelong glance at the Chief of Staff. McGarry hadn't liked this one bit when he'd found out. Time wasn't going to make it go down any easier. "We sicced Lord Marbury on the Russian ambassador."
Far from disappointing her, McGarry performed to standards. His snort of disgust was loud, heartfelt and nearly rattled the windows.
A reluctant smile pulled at one corner of Bartlet's mouth and he shook his head with amused wonder at McGarry's reaction to the British ambassador's name. Uttering it in his presence never failed to illicit some sort of exasperated response from the Chief of Staff.
"Be fair, Leo," Bartlet consoled him. "The man is good at his job. Besides, thanks to recent events, he was already in the loop."
"The man is a menace," McGarry responded with a curled lip. "And considering we're trying to keep this in house, away from the press, the gossip and several dozen international intelligence agencies that leak like a sieve, he shouldn't be in the loop in the first place."
"He can be trusted."
"So you say."
"So I know." With that, the President closed the book on any further arguments. One of these days he was going to have to lock the two of them in a very small closet and let them work out their issues. The entertainment value alone would be worth the effort.
Wisely, McGarry refrained from making any further comment.
Nancy relaxed a bit at the camaraderie displayed by the two men. It was still far from perfect, but the strained atmosphere of earlier had lessened considerably. She could work now. "Ambassador Koslowski was less than circumspect in Marbury's company."
"In other words, he smiled at her like a loon and she caved," McGarry commented dryly.
Bartlet grinned. "He has that affect on women."
"Not to mention your staff." McGarry put the emphasis on your, disavowing any claim or responsibility for the individuals in question. It hadn't taken long for the British Ambassador to wrap the majority of the senior staff around his finger. As far as he was concerned, neither the senior staff, their assistants or anyone else working in the West Wing were going to be allowed in the same room with that man again.
For an instant, McGarry's gaze sharpened and he measured the President with a shrewd, appraising stare. Mind you, certain other people shouldn't be allowed either, but for the moment he had no control over that, or the inexplicable disappearing act the President had pulled at his wife’s birthday party that had brought about the revelations to Marbury in the first place. As much as he hated to admit it, McGarry had to give credit where credit was due, to both the Ambassador and the senior staff. The best and the brightest.
His scowl deepened into an accusing glare, now giving Bartlet his full attention. Oh, they’d found him eventually. But the damage had already been done.
The President caught the look and the meaning behind it. "Don't go there, Leo," he cautioned sternly, all too aware of the lecture he was about to receive if he didn't put an end to it right now.
He'd already caught a small part of it from his over-protective Chief of Staff, often and usually when he least expected or wanted to hear it. He'd caught the other part from his equally smothering senior bodyguard. Ron Butterfield may have been a man of few words, but those few had been quite a mouthful.
Abbey had let him have it as well, although that particular set-down had been far more entertaining, if not the reforming influence his wife had hoped it would be. At least he was winning points on that front.
Bartlet sighed, weary of the argument. It wasn't going to change anything and some good had come of that evening's escapades. It had been his wife's birthday party, and he didn't want or need to be reminded how quickly the shadow of current events had nearly destroyed it and the precious peace he'd managed to find.
Easily changing the subject, the President turned to his National Security advisor and demanded curtly, "Long story short, Nancy."
"According to Lord John... "
"You know," Nancy made no effort to hide her irritation at the peanut gallery comments as she confronted the scowling Chief of Staff. "You're gonna blow an adenoid if you keep that up."
"He's been warned," Bartlet couldn't resist adding. "Many times."
McGarry's eyes flashed in a familiar display of annoyance. "Happy as I am to provide the both of you with ammunition for the ridicule neither of you seem to be able to contain, I would like to know what Lord Fauntleroy found out."
"There's that questionable sentence structure again," Bartlet muttered.
Eyes narrowed, McGarry somehow managed not to offer the President a few more words of questionable merit.
"Not much," Nancy responded, shaking her head and feeling like a referee in a sand box scuffle. "Nadia caught on pretty quick and clammed up. Even Marbury's charms couldn't shake much loose after the first few minutes."
"Why am I not surprised?" McGarry sneered.
"Leo," Bartlet cautioned his friend in a low voice. "Not now."
"My apologies, sir." If asked, McGarry couldn't say exactly what it was about Marbury that set him off, but it never failed to do so. Schooling his features into a somewhat more receptive cast, he asked Nancy a bit more reasonably, "So what exactly did he manage to pry out of Nadia?"
Nancy eyed him warily. "You sure?"
"You're not helping," McGarry accused her with a besieged glower. A quick glance at Bartlet only confirmed the observation. He had taken his reading glasses off and was absently twisting them in one hand. The other hand was tapping out a staccato rhythm on the arm of his chair.
Whatever release the humor had allowed was fading rapidly. The internal fires were getting hotter, burning higher. McGarry gave his companion advisor a subtle warning, tilting his chin towards Bartlet.
Nancy caught the warning, giving the President an appraising glance of her own. The man wasn't going to like this. "Chagarin knew, of that much we're now certain. But he was caught between a questionable reactor sale to Iraq, his own Duma, and the need to open an honest dialog with you. With most of his advisors already in the Mafia pockets, who does he trust to send the message?"
"Another excuse?" Bartlet growled, suppressing the majority of his anger under the mask of executive indifference. "He managed to get the nuclear sound byte through. Why not this?"
McGarry already knew the answer to that one. "Because if he did, he had no guarantee you'd even show up at Helsinki. He couldn't risk that."
"I would have shown."
"He didn't know that," McGarry pointed out as reasonably as he could. "A Russian national tried to kill you, came damn close to succeeding. Would you have believed him if he had told you that neither he nor his government were involved? Another president wouldn't have."
"I might have. But thanks to stubborn Russian reticence, we may never know." Rubbing eyes burned dry from lack of sleep, Bartlet tried to recall the last time he'd beat the four-hour mark and managed to make it through the night. The fact that he couldn't remember was enough of a clue that it had been far too long.
Blinking away some of the grit and forcing fatigued optic muscles to focus on his Chief of Staff; he realized tiredly that only one question remained to be asked. "Why me?" Bartlet had a nasty suspicion he wasn't going to like the answer.
McGarry looked at Nancy and nodded, passing her the ball. This answer belonged to her. He already had a glimmering of the final result, but she'd been the one to put the first pieces of the puzzle together.
Even if she did have to ask Marbury for help. That just added insult to injury.
Nancy paused for a moment and weighed the question. There was no easy answer and she wasn't a politician. She didn't play the game, couldn't dance with the diplomats with any degree of skill or balance. She was far too blunt. But she was good at putting the pieces together after the fact, creating a coherent picture from seemingly unrelated people and events.
This picture was an ugly one. "Chagarin needs you, sir."
Bartlet was honestly confused. "Me?"
"He wants to tear his government apart, rebuild it from the foundations up. With half the Russian governing body in some criminal's pocket, the military selling itself and its weapons to the highest bidder, and a raging criminal element wanting to keep it that way, he can't do that without support. Your support. Helsinki was only the beginning. Without you in his corner, he can't do it, Mr. President."
"Mr. President." Bartlet laughed mirthlessly. "He may not have me in a year."
That was a possibility McGarry didn't even want to consider. Something had happened that night at the theater. He knew the President had met with Governor Ritchie, and that more than a few hot words had been passed. Exactly what, his friend had yet to tell him. The President had come away from that meeting more grimly determined, but with a much darker, almost Machiavellian outlook on the future.
McGarry wasn't sure that added darkness was a plus. "He doesn't need a year, sir. Whatever support you give him now is enough. If," he put a heavy emphasis on the all-important if, "you lose next year, whatever President-elect who's sucker enough to take the oath of office ... "
Bartlet shot his friend a dubious look, unable to stifle a self-mocking smile, "Thank you for that, Leo. This job was your idea."
Nancy shook her head, chuckling softly.
McGarry ignored them both and continued, "Whoever takes that oath is going to have no choice but to follow through with what you've begun. International, public and moral pressure will force him to."
"Even Ritchie," Bartlet muttered sourly. It was true. He could see that now. Chagarin was in a corner and taking the only way out he could. In a way, they both were. That sudden insight gave him little comfort.
"Even Ritchie," McGarry agreed, wondering at the hidden meaning behind the President's low-voiced comment. Why him? Ritchie was no more a shoo-in than his opponent was. "Chagarin needs the support of an American President to reshape his world. He has you; the one man luck or blind fate has given him to at least have a slim chance of succeeding. Your support. He couldn't risk losing it."
"They kill you," Nancy added softly, watching for the executive reaction, "and it ends before it has even begun. The criminal element wins and they get to keep their profit margins. If they can get at you, nobody is safe."
"Nobody laid claim to Marine One," Bartlet pointed out, not quiet ready to buy into his advisors’ somewhat elaborate speculation.
"You didn't die," McGarry replied sharply, unsure of whether the surge of anger he felt was directed at the still faceless assassins or the apparent indifference of their target. "Why brag at a failure? This isn't a terrorist act. This is strictly for profit. They don't want your fear, they want your death."
The President's reaction wasn't quite what McGarry had expected.
"Business as usual," the President muttered, slipping his glasses into his coat pocket and closing the file on the desk in front of him. It was a signal he was about to call the meeting closed. "A hope for future gain, regardless of cost, is no excuse. People died," he said wearily, still struggling to come to terms with the revelations.
"It's their excuse," McGarry pointed out, not quite as ready as his Commander in Chief to call the issue closed.
"It's a poor one."
"It's the only one he has, Mr. President," Nancy told him, willing him to understand. "Can you blame him? Hard line communists, criminals and a government unraveling at the seams. He's riding a thin line. You listened to him, and now we're stuck with it."
"I'm stuck with it." Bartlet rose from his chair, the final signal that the meeting was indeed over. For now. "I want names. I realize keeping this in-house puts you all under considerable constraint, but it can't be helped."
McGarry and Nancy respectfully stood as well, exchanging troubled glances.
Rubbing his eyes, Bartlet hoped his voice didn't sound as hollow to his advisors as it did in his own ears. Truthfully, he felt as hollow and listless as his voice sounded. "Use whatever avenues of inquiry that you feel safe exploring." He gave McGarry a hard look, warning him, "And I do mean any avenue."
McGarry took the rebuke on the chin and didn't bother arguing with him. There would have been no point. He may not like it, but Marbury would remain in the loop. "Sir... "
Waving him off with a curt gesture and making his way towards the doors leading to the portico, Bartlet gave both his advisors an ultimatum. "Names, Leo. It's an odd conceit, but I find that when I'm someone's target, one they would like to see six feet under, I find that they as a naming qualifier is somewhat... unsatisfactory."
"In the meanwhile, sir?" Nancy asked, giving Leo a questioning look. This wasn't ending the way she had envisioned. Unsatisfactory didn't even begin to cover it.
Opening the glass doors, Bartlet paused and turned. Giving her a curiously sad smile, he said, "In the meanwhile, I get to tell my wife. That should be fun, don't you think?"
McGarry winced. "Sir, I don't think... "
"Tell the staff, Leo," Bartlet interrupted, ignoring his friend's attempt to caution him about the wisdom of telling Abbey the whole truth. He wasn't about to listen. As ugly as this truth was, he was done keeping things from her.
God knows she'd more than earned his candor. Telling her would be suitable punishment for whatever transgressions he had left. He'd forgotten exactly where he was on the list. "Charlie!" The President's bellow was directed towards the closed office door where he knew his body-man was hovering just outside.
Lately, all any of his staff seemed to be doing was hover. It was starting to get on his already frayed nerves.
The door opened and, hands shoved into his pockets, Charles Young reluctantly stepped into view. Pausing just inside the entrance, he spared a quick glance for McGarry and Nancy, and then turned his attention to the President. "Sir?"
"Cancel any meetings I may have left for the day, Charlie."
"Tomorrow morning, Leo. Eight A.M. I want the senior staff here, prepared and ready to listen." Bartlet turned back to his aide and one corner of his mouth pulled into a slight smile. For such a good poker player, the young man's guilt was clearly evident. "You too, Charlie. Just reward for... eavesdropping?"
The flustered aide wasn't given a chance to stammer out an apology or excuse. With that enigmatic statement, the President turned on his heel and strode with stiff dignity out the doors. Once outside, an agent quietly pulled the doors closed behind him and two others stepped forward to follow discretely behind as he made his way towards the Residence.
Yet another moved up alongside, keeping himself between the President and the portico's outer railings. Butterfield's security measures had hit an all-time high since the party. Bartlet felt he could barely turn around now without barking an elbow on a solidly built agent. He was only surprised his staff hadn't come right out and asked what was going on.
Through the French windows, Young watched him pass down the portico and out of sight. Confused, and more than a little troubled, he turned to the Chief of Staff and tentatively asked, "Leo?"
"Clear his schedule as much as you can for the next few days."
"Already done," Young responded confidently, a look of implacable determination on his face. Running pass interference for the President was his job, and he was damned good at it. As keeper of the schedule, he had to be. "Should I be there?" he asked, somewhat more cautiously. Senior staff meetings weren't part of his job description.
Catching some of his reticence, understanding its source, McGarry told him, "He said to be there, Charlie."
"I happen to agree. Thirty minutes, my office. Be there."
Though Young didn't answer, his face spoke for him. He may not have been staff or an advisor, but he still cared. Deceptively composed, there was still a hint of gratitude in his expression when he nodded curtly to both McGarry and Nancy, then left without a word.
Watching him leave, Nancy let out her breath and stopped herself just short of swearing. "That whole thing didn't go well."
McGarry's brows rose and with ill-concealed sarcasm said, "You think?"
"Did that help?"
"Didn't think so," Nancy sighed. Considering the source of the order, the next question was rhetorical. But knowing McGarry as she did, she had to ask, "You really gonna tell the staff? Everything?"
"I've been ordered to." McGarry's voice clearly indicated he wasn't happy about it. On the one hand, they deserved to know, even Charlie. On the other, he knew what was going to happen when they found out. Given recent events, even deaths, there was a lot of repressed aggression floating around the West Wing.
Oh, Leo McGarry knew all too well what their reactions were going to be.
So did Nancy. "I'll duck the shrapnel. You might want to find a nice, out-of-the-way soundproofed room."
"Like that's going to help," McGarry muttered darkly.
Abbey was nearly overwhelmed by the bleak suffering on his face, the careworn exhaustion that had turned familiar laugh lines into worried furrows. She studied his profile as he paced in front of her, shrugging out of his jacket and quartering their bedroom like a condemned inmate awaiting execution as he spoke. Even his voice seemed lost. She no longer really heard the words, her alarm growing at what her eyes were telling her.
Initially, she'd been so caught up in her own emotional turmoil as she listened to him speak that she hadn't seen the signs, what he was doing to himself. Maybe she hadn't wanted to see it. It had been too easy to lose herself in the anger, to see only the possibilities of what might have happened and the politically expedient lies that had left them vulnerable to so much more.
Somebody, a criminal, had tried to kill her husband. For whatever spurious, bureaucratic or profit motivated reason, they wanted him dead.
If she had understood Jed correctly, they probably still did. That frightened her, terrified her more than it had the first time she'd been party to the information. That night, when she'd found out in the pressroom corridor, Abbey had never thought to be so primitively afraid ever again. She'd been wrong. Even that moment could not compare to what she was now feeling.
Another fear had been added to the rest, supplanting the new and replacing it with one far older and sickeningly familiar. That it was borne of love did little to relieve the ache in her heart. Watching him pace, vaguely hearing his tiredly issued words, Abbey realized that they, whoever they eventually turned out to be, didn't need to try and kill the man she loved.
He was doing it all by himself.
The harder she tried to deny the truth, the more it persisted. He had lost weight, a health issue whose merits Abbey had long argued to no avail; he never listened. Well, she had finally won that marital dispute, but not in the way she had envisioned or hoped for. He wasn't sleeping either. His appearance, tired and haggard, was testament to that. From the tense line of his shoulders, a slight hitch in his stride, she could see that his back was acting up as well.
Abbey couldn't stop the clinical analysis of what else might be acting up if he didn't slow down, if he didn't stop doing this to himself.
Closing her eyes, she turned her back to him, deafening herself to the steady drone of his voice and fighting her own internal battle with personal restraint. Abbey wanted to scream at him, to shout down his stubborn persistence. One simple word. Stop.
But she couldn't. Listening to the advice of others and the voice of her own conscience, she'd given him her permission to carry on, to travel his chosen path with her devotion and support. She loved him and could do no less.
That same love allowed for a great many things, but not this. If he wouldn't relent, then neither would she.
Her husband, saying her name so closely behind her, sent a ripple of awareness through her. For a moment, Abbey couldn't place the odd tremor she detected in the usually rich and confident timbre of his voice. When she finally placed it, she almost laughed, although the humor was bitter. Caution. Jed wasn't sure how she was going to respond to this news. He was waiting for the fireworks.
In a heartbreaking way, she couldn't blame him. His wary reaction was her own fault; she had taught him that lesson. In three decades of marriage she'd managed to give him more pyrotechnics in the last three years than she had over the preceding thirty-one. Given her recent track record, how did she expect him to behave?
It all added up to just one more thing he had to worry about, one more burden he didn't need.
Not this time. Abbey shook her head and swore softly, "Damn it, Jed."
She heard him stop pacing, exactly what she'd intended. With her back to him, she knew he couldn't see the grim satisfaction that flashed in her eyes and tightened the line of her mouth. Good! Intentionally or not, over the last year Jed had become very good at pushing her buttons. At this point, Abbey wasn't above pushing a few of his for once.
All in a good cause, of course.
"Damned is relative, Abbey." Bartlet heard the cynicism spill over into his voice. He couldn't help it. Lately, he'd found himself simply waiting for the inevitable and right now was strangely disappointed his wife wasn't performing in the way he'd anticipated.
Shoving his hands into his pockets, he shrugged and said, "I was expecting..."
Abbey didn't let him finish.
In one motion, she turned and flung herself at him, felt him pull his hands from his pockets and stagger a bit at the unexpected impact. Unexpected. That was good. She wanted him off balance. Abbey sensed his confusion as she wrapped her arms around him and held him close, his response hesitant as he returned her embrace.
The touch of his hand on her back was tentative, almost unbearable in its uncertain exploration. Abbey didn't have to glance at his face to see the look of overworked depression that passed over his features. She knew he was taking what he felt he could get, what little solace a brief moment of peace could give him. And somewhere, somehow, he had convinced himself he didn't deserve it.
Too much given for too little in return. He did deserve some peace. Holding him tighter, Abbey wanted to tell him that, but realized sadly that the one constant in their marriage would tragically close him to the validity of any argument she might throw at him.
He wouldn't listen.
Caught between the desire to both slap him silly for his stubborn stupidity and the need to take him away from all this, Abbey dropped her chin on to his chest with a long-suffering sigh and murmured, "Was this what you expected?"
Bartlet hesitated, torn by conflicting emotions and expectations. "It was way down on the bottom of the list," he finally admitted.
"It shouldn't have been."
"Aren't you the one who's always telling me I've never been very good at prioritizing?"
Abbey had told him a great many things over the years. This time, all she said was, "Jed, just shut up."
Bartlet chuckled softly at the irony. "That's twice in one day the President of the United States has been told to shut up." For the first time he felt some of the numb detachment that had been weighing him down disappear.
"Only twice?" Abbey reached up and brushed her hand lightly across his cheek, trailing her fingers along the line of his jaw. His skin, cool and dry to the touch, gave no hint of anything other than his need to shave. He hadn't driven himself that far down. Perhaps her initial fears had been premature. For the moment, exhaustion seemed to be his only complaint.
Abbey lifted her chin and boldly met her husband's tired, questioning gaze. She could fix that.
Backing out of his arms, Abbey took both his hands. Giving them a gentle squeeze, she smiled and pulled him along firmly. "You're slipping. So who had the honors this time?"
He took a hesitant step forward, following her lead. "Leo."
"Good for Leo."
"I think Nancy wanted to, but she couldn't quite overcome her sense of self-preservation." Another suspicious step as she tugged again at his hands.
"So who did she take it out on?"
"Good for Nancy," Abbey laughed, pleased that her reaction seemed to amuse him, however briefly. "Leo needs to be taken down a peg or two every now and then."
Bartlet tilted his head, looking at her uncertainly. "Not unlike me?"
"No, Jed." Abbey held on to his hands as he tried to pull free, taking another step back and forcing him to follow. "Not like you."
This time, Bartlet planted his feet and refused to be led any further. "Abbey," he warned, glancing over her shoulder at the bed now only a few steps behind her. He smiled at her duplicity. She could be sneaky when she needed to be. It was one of her more endearing traits. "You're not going to win this one. We need to talk."
"You and your words. Is there anything more to say?" She looked into his eyes; tired, withdrawn and worried, she wondered when they had started to look so old. Abbey sighed, clasping his hands tighter and, keeping her tones as reasonable as possible, asked, "Will more words change anything?"
Pride kept him from arguing with her. Obstinacy made him ask, "So you were listening?"
"I wasn't sure."
Abbey shrugged. "So I didn't follow the script."
"There's a script?" One corner of his mouth pulled into a tight smile. "Are we reading the same one?"
"Not even on the same page." Rewarding him with a larger smile of her own, Abbey pulled him closer, watched him with concern as he stumbled a little. "Or I wouldn't be able to do this..."
In one smooth motion, she spun him round in a clean one-eighty. Knowing him as she did, the initial subterfuge and trip shouldn't have been that easy. Abbey heard him grunt in surprise and both felt and saw his right leg go out from under him as he lost his balance. With another dramatic grunt - a bit overdone she thought - he landed on the bed and fell back on his outstretched arms.
With both hands on her hips, Abbey braced herself for his reaction. If she had to tackle him to keep him there, she would. Still, that tumble had been way too easy. Either he had been expecting it and gave in without a fight, or he was so close to the edge he hadn't even seen it coming. Of the two choices, she knew which one she'd prefer.
Bemused, the President stared up at his glowering wife. "That was pretty good," he admitted, teasing her affectionately, "for a girl."
"You're making points, sunshine." Abbey had been hoping for something a bit more colorful. A snarled expletive or two wouldn't have disappointed her. Eyes narrowing suspiciously, she straight out demanded of him, "Is your leg bothering you?"
"If I lie, what'll you do to me?"
"Use your imagination."
"Sorry. I'm trying, but nothing's coming." With a heavy sigh, Bartlet fell back on the bed. Listlessly, he reached up to loosen his tie, then gave up on the knot and let his hand fall across his chest. Closing his eyes, he muttered, "I'm just too damn tired."
"Finally, an admission of mortality." The triumph in her voice was equally mixed with concerned relief. With practiced ease, she lifted his legs and swung them up on to the bed. After removing his shoes, Abbey settled down next to him, taking his limp hand and holding it tightly. "Does this mean I win?"
Bartlet's short laugh came out more like a defeated groan. "Just this once. Gonna mark the calendar?"
"Don't be a smart ass." Turning his hand over, she trailed her fingers along the underside of his wrist, pausing when she felt the fluttering of his pulse. "Just admit defeat like the big, brave man I know you are; with a minimum of fuss, no whining and just this once, please God, no tantrums."
Truthfully, Abbey would have been more than pleased to see him have the energy to even throw a tantrum, let alone whine. Fingers still on his wrist, she watched him intently.
"I don't throw tantrums," Bartlet growled with suitably wounded dignity. Conscious of where she was touching him, one eye opened and regarded her suspiciously. "Abbey?"
"You're not exactly being subtle."
"About what?" Abbey blinked at him guilelessly, hand and fingers still on his wrist.
"You're usually better at the innocent act, too." The other eye opened and he managed an indulgent smile. "So how's my pulse?"
Abbey sighed and laid his hand back down, patting him on the shoulder with sweet nonchalance. "Normal," she admitted thankfully. With another worry ticked off the list, she felt it safe to relax her guard just a little. But only a little.
"You mean I still have one?" An arched eyebrow indicated his genuine surprise. "Imagine that."
"Yeah, imagine that." Abbey didn't smile at his weak humor, weak being the operative word. He was usually much better with his evasions. A scowl of fond exasperation was all he received for his efforts. "Your leg, Jed?" she patiently asked again. "Is it bothering you?"
"A little," Bartlet admitted irritably. At this point, there was no use in trying to hide it.
"And your back?"
"Are you keeping a list?"
"Do I need a list?" He was getting petulant. Even running on fumes, she could count on his emotional consistency. He hadn't given up yet.
Tenderly brushing away a lock of hair that had fallen across his forehead, wondering when so much more gray had been added to the mix, Abbey reminded him gently, "You know, limping, however slightly, all day then sitting up reading all night is no good for it."
"Good for what?"
"Your back." Abbey resisted the urge to wallop him.
Hitching himself up on one elbow, Bartlet glared at his wife. "Abbey..."
Not impressed at all with his dirty look, Abbey pushed him back down. "Shut up, Jed."
Giving in to the inevitable - and wondering where the Secret Service was when he really needed them - Bartlet muttered a bit sullenly, "That's three."
"Now who's keeping a list?"
"There's hope for me yet." Closing his eyes and counting the aches and pains, Bartlet figured that hope was a long shot at best.
"That," Abbey proclaimed in arch tones, adjusting the pillow behind his head then reaching to finish the job he had begun with his tie and slipping it from around his neck, "is highly debatable."
"Seriously, Abbey, we need to talk."
"No, Jed." Abbey shook her head, cupping his face with one hand and running her finger along his jaw. "We don't. Words won't change anything."
"It might," Bartlet insisted stubbornly.
That stubborn streak was one of the reasons she loved him so much. "Will it be any different in the morning?"
"Will a good night's sleep make any difference?"
"Possibly." The last traces of obstinate resistance faded and he let the final tides of exhaustion carry him away. "Don't you hate always being right?"
At that plaintive question, Abbey had to fight the urge to gather him into her arms. "No," she whispered, watching the tense lines of his face ease as he slipped away.
It might have been a laugh, or it might have been a sigh of weary agreement, Abbey wasn't sure. He was asleep between one breath and the next. Watching him sleep and listening to his breathing slow and deepen, it occurred to her that either one suited her purposes just fine. She'd won this argument. Her victory felt hollow at best, a battle postponed. When the sun rose, it would all start again.
"We'll talk in the morning."
She knew he hadn't heard her, that he was already deeply asleep. But somehow saying them relieved the odd twinge of guilt that accompanied the thought and words, the sound and sentiment so much like the excuses they'd both used during those long, angry months. Abbey brushed the feeling aside.
This time it was different. Darker, meaner and not of their choosing. Abbey couldn't quite stop the dull ache of foreboding thinking of the possible future forced on her. This was her husband, half her soul, and somebody wanted to kill him. But this time, they would face it together.
In the morning.
Careful not to wake him, she took the phone off the hook and slid off the edge of the bed. Turning the lights off as she went, Abbey quietly made her way across the room. Grasping the door handle, she paused and turned, giving the sleeping form of her husband a long, searching look. Searching for what, she wasn't sure. Her course determined, she opened the door and confronted the agent standing outside.
"Vaughn, isn't it?" she asked him softly, carefully pulling the door shut behind her.
"I’ve taken the phone off the hook. Nobody wakes him, Henry." That was his first name. It pleased Abbey no end that she could keep far better track of names than Jed. Drove him nuts. "Three people, mister. Myself, Leo McGarry or Charles Young. Anybody else tries to get in..."
Vaughn's mouth twitched. "Shoot them?"
Abbey blinked at that. For some reason she couldn't quite fathom, that particular Secret Service solution had become the quip of choice. She didn't necessarily disagree with the sentiment. "If you'd like. Far be it from me to deny you some fun. Just don't mess up the carpets."
This time the twitch made its way to a half smile. "I understand, ma'am."
"Yeah, I guess you do." That truly surprised Abbey. He did understand. Touching his arm gratefully, she said, "Thank you."
Vaughn merely nodded.
"Oh," Abbey paused before leaving, another name occurring to her. All things considered, having Ron Butterfield bouncing off the walls wouldn't do at all, especially with the phone off the hook. "You might want to add your boss to the list."
"I had considered it, ma'am." Vaughn had already determined to give his boss a heads-up as soon as the First Lady was out of earshot.
"We try, ma'am."
Abbey nodded, satisfied that at least for now some things had been taken care of. Not stopping to explain herself further, she left the agent to his job. Jed was safe until the sun came up. Then they would talk. Maybe amongst the words, she and her husband would be able to find some peace.
Maybe Jed could find some peace. Sadly, she doubted it. It wasn't in his nature to accept responsibility without guilt. No amount of words was going to change that.
In the meanwhile, she and Leo McGarry were going to have their words. The night was still young and she knew there were more than a few things Jed's oldest friend could tell her that her husband would not.
If it took all night, Abigail Bartlet was going to have her answers.
Nancy McNally would have been disappointed. Truth to tell, McGarry was as well. No emotional outbursts, no arguments or demands, and no verbal shrapnel whatsoever. The senior staff, including a reluctant Charlie, had simply sat, stood or slouched their way through his clipped briefing. Sam Seaborn had done a particularly good job holding up the inner office wall.
McGarry was forced to conclude that what little information he was able to give them was either far too much, or incredibly too little. They'd already known that the crashing of Marine One had not been an accident. That revelation had been one of the lesser disasters resulting from the First Lady's birthday party. He supposed he should be grateful their reactions weren't bordering on the atmospherically ballistic.
Small favors. He would have preferred just a few digressions into emotional venting, for their sake as well as his own. The Chief of Staff waited a few more beats, giving them time to truly digest the information, before asking, "Are there any questions?"
Silence greeted that inquiry. McGarry watched them all carefully for a moment, waiting for something else, but it never came. It had all been too much. They were political games players, experts at the murky world of party and governmental manipulation. Criminal behavior with little motivation other than a strict eye to a questionable profit margin didn't come anywhere near their normal operational territories.
McGarry scowled. Unfortunately, they were going to have to learn. "That'll be all then, people. The Oval, eight AM tomorrow."
Slowly, as if in a dream, they began to file out. McGarry sighed. Shell-shocked was the only explanation he could come up with. He'd never seen them react like this before, and the foreboding it gave him now did little to relieve his own deep held concerns. He needed these people sharp, not dulled by events.
"C.J.," he called.
The Press Secretary paused, stepping back as Josh Lyman passed her.
Toby Ziegler hung back a little, expectantly watching her with concern as she turned towards McGarry. The look she gave the Chief of Staff was neither questioning nor challenging. Without a word, brushing a lock of hair out of her eyes, she just waited.
"You okay?" McGarry asked, all too aware that C.J. and recent death brought a whole new perspective to current revelations. He needed her focused.
"I'm fine, Leo," C.J. replied in a carefully neutral voice.
Ziegler looked down, shuffling his feet.
McGarry weighed that answer carefully for a moment, and then nodded. Everyone had been walking on eggshells around her since Donovan's death, and she hadn't been any more open about it to them or the President. The only person she seemed to have confided in was Ron Butterfield. Despite their own understanding, McGarry had got nothing from that man. Perhaps that was as it should be.
Satisfied, McGarry let it go. C.J. Cregg was made of far sterner stuff. She didn't need sympathy from her boss or friends. Maybe later, but not now. "Okay," he told her, almost smiling at her barely veiled relief at being let off the hook. "Keep an ear open for rumors. Anyone in the press corps starts sniffing, I want..."
C.J. rolled her eyes. "I know the drill, Leo."
"Yeah," McGarry smiled softly. Maybe she needed this, something to keep her mind occupied. He pitied the unfortunate reporter who crossed her. "You do."
"He noticed," C.J. muttered, brushing past Ziegler with a tight smile. "Be still my beating heart."
One corner of Ziegler's mouth twisted at that, but his expression lightened. Of all the staffers, he knew her best. For the first time, he realized she really was okay. He was proud of her for that. Of all the revelations tonight, that at least lightened his soul a bit. With a curt nod to McGarry, he started to leave.
"Toby," McGarry called, his tone and expression suddenly hardening. "Stay."
Following close behind C.J., Ziegler blinked and turned with a start at the sound of McGarry's voice. Not unused to being singled out, the request still made him nervous. There was a distinct edge to the man's clipped words and he couldn't help but irritably note that his name and the command, spoken as they were, came insulting close to sounding like an order to a unruly dog.
Shaking his head reassuringly at Seaborn's questioning look, touched at the somewhat misplaced protective instinct being displayed, he gestured that the younger man should leave. Hiding his own apprehension behind his usual indifferent mask and shoving his hands into his pockets, he confronted the Chief of Staff.
"Close the door."
There was that tone of resolute command again. Ziegler sighed heavily, not unaware that the sound only reinforced the mental image of a reluctant canine obeying its cruel, unfeeling master. Ruefully, he realized that something about the ridiculous picture appealed to him. Reluctantly following the order, he also knew that closing the door did not bode well for what was coming next. His misgivings were increasing by the second. McGarry wanted something and he had a nasty suspicion he knew what it was.
The problem was that Ziegler couldn't give it to him. It was common if unspoken knowledge that earlier in the year he and the President had had an... altercation. That was the only polite way to put it. Leo had asked him what had happened only once and been denied, however evasive or docile that rejection may have been.
Ziegler grimaced. He was going to have to do something about the canine metaphors bouncing through his head. It simply wouldn't do and right now he needed to be anything but compliant. At the time, he'd been shocked to learn that the President had told his oldest and most trusted friend nothing, that the quarrel, which had nearly come to open blows, remained a closely held secret between the Communications Director and his Commander-in-Chief.
The implied faith and trust placed in him had been nearly overwhelming and Ziegler wasn't about to betray it, no matter how much the President's friend poked and prodded at the source.
McGarry searched Ziegler's face, watching the man with a keenly observant eye and searching for some small clue. The man knew why he was here, but if the Chief of Staff had hoped he would volunteer the confidence, he'd been sadly mistaken. It was a waste of time. Of all the senior staffers, this man alone could hide behind a mask constructed of equal parts grouchy belligerence and cool indifference.
This wasn't going to be easy. He gestured towards a chair. "Sit down, Toby."
"I don't think so, Leo."
McGarry briefly debated whether or not to make the request an order. Watching Ziegler stand at defiant attention, combined with his carefully blank demeanor cautioned him that any further orders at this point weren't going to be received in a civil manner. And right now he didn't need to get in another useless and empty battle of words.
It was solutions McGarry needed, not more questions.
Shuffling his feet, a bit of tense agitation breaking through his deliberately constructed facade, Ziegler waited.
Damn! He really wasn't going to make this easy. McGarry took a deep, calming breath. This was something he had no right prying into, but circumstances left him little choice. "I think you know what I want to ask."
Ziegler shrugged, uncomfortably looking everywhere but directly into McGarry's eyes. "Leo... "
"Relax, Toby, I'm not going to."
Unbending just a bit, but still wary, Ziegler waited in silence for the rest. McGarry wasn't going to leave it at that.
"What went on between you and the President that night is your business. I could pry it out of you if I had to, but I don't have that right."
"You could try."
"Yeah," McGarry admitted with a rueful smile. "And we both know how far I'd get."
"Then why start?" Ziegler demanded bluntly. He never had been one for beating around the proverbial bush.
"I'm not." McGarry's eyes narrowed, his expression clouding with barely contained anger. It was late, he was tired and he wasn't in the mood for Toby's usual word games. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out that you crossed a line with him. I don't know what it is about you and boundaries, but there's just something about a line that you just can't resist stepping over. Do you drive with the same disregard for traffic barriers as you have for personal ones? Because I know it was personal, Toby. You hurt him."
A brief spark of uncertainty flashed in Ziegler's eyes. "He still hasn't told you?"
"You know he hasn't. And Dr. Keyworth hasn't been any more forthcoming either."
"No," Ziegler winced at the trauma therapist's name. "He wouldn't." The President's easily delivered jokes about accountability aside, that whole fiasco and its resulting mental turmoil had been his fault. He couldn't hide from that.
Remaining silent, volunteering nothing more, Ziegler continued to wait.
McGarry bit back a curse. For a speechwriter, a master of the written and spoken word, Ziegler was being unusually tight with the verbiage. He couldn't really blame him. Letting him off the hook, he told him, "I'm not asking, Toby. It's over and done with. You've both mended your fences."
"We have." Ziegler’s thoughts flashed back to the chess set, a gift he fully intended to treasure for the rest of his life. Apology and acknowledgment of sincerity without wasted speech. Even so, he hadn't been able to stop what happened next, the wounds he had reopened.
It was that damned need of his to communicate his point, especially when it was just. He should have realized the man wasn't ready to acknowledge it, couldn't even see the rightness of it yet. All Ziegler had achieved was to aggravate a still raw hurt, the very last thing he had wanted to do.
Perhaps looking for absolution, however oblique, he offered McGarry this excuse. "I can't change who I am, Leo. I can't pick and choose the truth, or change how it affects what we laughingly refer to as reality. It just... is."
"Truth," McGarry snorted with profound disgust. He'd had his fill of questionable veracity these last few months. "That's weak."
It was weak, he couldn't argue with that and wasn't about to. Toby shrugged, wrinkled his nose with a scowl and bowed his head; combining four of his usual conversational warnings signs into one complete gesture.
Choosing to ignore the far from subtle hints that he was trespassing, McGarry persisted. "I only need to know one thing. You can answer as you see fit, offer whatever truth you feel necessary. Or not answer at all. It's entirely up to you."
"But will you respect me in the morning?"
McGarry stopped the interrogation for a moment, leaning back in his chair and regarding Ziegler with a new understanding. Considering the topic of conversation, the Communications Director's uncharacteristically off-color humor was a clear indication that he was close, skirting the edge of a pain-filled issue he so wanted to get to the bottom of.
Taking into account what little he already knew, the scarce clues provided by Toby, Dr. Keyworth and even the phobia and fear-induced revelations of the President himself, McGarry strongly suspected that if he pushed the man fidgeting in front of him just a little harder, he'd have his answers.
But he couldn't do that.
Pinching the bridge of his nose and letting out a slow breath, McGarry had to content himself with one question. "Will what happened that night, in any way, have an effect on him now? The President is bearing a heavy enough load as it is without the fallout from whatever you began taking him further into his head."
Struggling with his conscience, the only answer Ziegler could give the President's deeply troubled friend was, "It... might."
"It might." It wasn't enough, but pushing for anything more would not only be a violation of a lifelong friendship, but the respect he'd earned and given in return to Toby Ziegler. "That doesn't help me, Toby," McGarry snapped shortly. "Or him."
"I know." An empty concession, but it was all he could give. Even now, no matter how much he might want to, or how much masterful persuasion was brought to bear, Ziegler would not break the trust that had been placed in him. If it cost him Leo McGarry's regard, then so be it.
The thought had barely crossed his mind before another followed. Trapped between the concerns of one man and the welfare of another, he could offer them both this. The rest was up to McGarry. "You could help him, Leo."
McGarry leaned back in his chair and stared at him silently, expectantly. If he had expected a simple yes or no from Ziegler, he'd sadly underestimated him. He should have known better.
"Be his friend, Leo," Ziegler blurted out, scarcely aware of his own voice. He was doing it again, sticking his analytical nose in where it didn't belong. One of these days it was going to get bitten off. Then again, if it made a difference, maybe it did belong there. "Just for once, stop being the Chief of Staff and be his friend. You've had this protocol bug up your ass for the past three years. How many times have you called him by name? Once? Twice?"
"Traffic barriers, Toby." McGarry cautioned the man softly with a black look. Eyes narrowed, the frustrated rage that had been simmering just below the surface was ready to boil over. "You're crossing that line again."
"I told you, I can't change." Ziegler shrugged dismissively, ignoring the barely veiled reprimand. Hell, when it came to dirty looks, he'd learned how to dodge more than his fair share, even from Leo. "But you can. For him."
"Toby ... "
"He's a person, Leo!" Ziegler snapped, starting to get upset himself. Despite his growing anger, he still managed to keep his volume levels relatively civil. "Professor, Governor, President. Those are just titles. Josiah Bartlet is much more than that; he’s flesh and blood. You've let the job and the disease take that away from him."
"Bullshit! I've done nothing of the kind!" McGarry denied the charge vehemently, although the small, mocking voice of his conscience insisted it was painfully close to the truth. How many times, in the privacy of his own mind, had he whispered the name Jed, only to have multiple sclerosis follow persistently behind?
President. Multiple Sclerosis. Somewhere between the two was his friend. Where, between the office, the daily battles to keep it and the disease, did Jed fit in? Was it all in a name?
McGarry's temper began to rise in response to the questions. And why did it have to be Toby who forced him to ask them in the first place?
So furious at the man's presumption that he could hardly speak, McGarry glared up at his accuser. He had begun this and for his reward he was reluctantly being taken down the same road as his friend. Only the destinations appeared to be different.
Or were they? Yet another unanswerable question.
He was starting to get a small glimmer of what the President had had to deal with that night; the sharp, relentless mind behind Ziegler's dogged persistence. And as much as he wanted to deny it, he couldn't. In the halls of ultimate power, the codes of behavior dictated by protocol created a barrier to friendship that could not, should not, be breached.
McGarry had tried to overcome that barrier, had attempted to balance friendship with duty. He thought for the most part that he had succeeded.
Perhaps his failure was at this moment staring him in the face.
"He's the President, Toby," McGarry snarled in return, not quite ready to admit defeat.
"He's a man. And somebody is trying to kill him."
"Don't you think I know that?"
"He's your friend." The solution had finally occurred to Ziegler. It was so easy, so simple. He could only hope Leo McGarry would understand. "He's got people to protect him. Right now he needs someone to listen. Give him his name back, Leo. Say it and mean it. That's all he needs."
"I can't, not now," McGarry said in a dull, troubled voice. His anger had faded somewhat, replaced by a deep regret he couldn't quite place. Damning Ziegler's observation skills and his timing, he growled more forcefully, "He needs to be reminded who he is, especially now."
With an odd twinge of disappointment, Ziegler shrugged sadly and said, "Then you've already damned him." He'd tried. If it cost him his job, then so be it. It wouldn't be the first time.
"There's that line again."
"Your line, Leo. You drew it."
A heavy silence settled over the office, loaded with unspoken possibilities as the Chief of Staff stared at the man who waited with willful composure in front of him. Ziegler blinked at him, waiting for the executioner's stroke, or what? McGarry couldn't say. The man had never been an easy read even at the best of times.
A tentative knock at the door broke the tense standoff.
"Come!" McGarry barked, rubbing his eyes and for the moment shoving Ziegler and his absurd ideas to the back of his mind. Maybe where they belonged. He wasn't sure of himself or where he stood anymore.
Margaret poked her head in. "Leo?"
"What are you still doing here?"
Ignoring his snippy attitude - a skill she practiced daily - Margaret responded coolly, "I work here, remember?"
"Have you ever let me forget?" McGarry drawled irritably. Margaret and Toby at the same time was a prospect he didn't want to contemplate. "What is it?"
"The First Lady would like to speak with you."
Toby Ziegler practically jumped out of his skin.
McGarry blinked stupidly for a few minutes, then asked, admittedly a bit lamely, "She's here?"
"In the flesh, Leo," Abbey marched into the room. She smiled at McGarry's secretary and said, "Thank you, Margaret. I can take it from here."
"Ma'am," Margaret acknowledged with a slight nod. Giving her flustered boss a somewhat superior smirk - one she knew she was going to pay for later - she left.
Ziegler took a few cautious steps back, admittedly away from the door and escape, but further away from the First Lady.
Seeing this, Abbey reassured him with a gentle though tired smile, "Relax, Toby. I don't bite."
For the first time that night, Ziegler managed to hold his tongue and not give voice to the dubious observations darting through his over-worked mind.
Sensing a bit of his dilemma, McGarry inclined his head towards the door and said, "We're done for the night, Toby."
"Are we, Leo?"
"Yeah," Ziegler muttered. They were done, for the moment. Nodding politely to Abbey, he said, "Ma'am."
Then he stiffly withdrew, pulling the door shut behind him. Scowling at the door, McGarry could have sworn the man had left some of his perpetual gloom hanging in the office atmosphere. He briefly considered whether fumigating would help.
"Problems?" Abbey asked, dropping gracefully on to the couch. Pulling up her knees, she regarded her husband's oldest friend curiously. She watched him as he rose stiffly from his chair and came round the side of his desk.
He looked tired. Between herself, Leo, what she'd seen of the staff and her husband, she wondered if anybody in the West Wing was getting any sleep.
"It's just Toby," he told her, pulling one of the staff chairs around. He didn't sit, merely leaned his arms across the back and looked down at her. "One of life's more reliable inevitabilities."
"That's enough, I suppose."
"Yeah," McGarry muttered darkly. "More than enough."
His voice and bearing seemed so resigned, drained and exhausted. Whatever road current events had taken Jed down; she could see that Leo wasn't that far behind him. She'd come here looking for a confrontation, someone to blame and take her anger out on; a good verbal beating to relieve some of her frustrated anxiety. Given that Jed had escaped that fate, his Chief of Staff had seemed the most convenient target.
Knowing Leo as she did, it shouldn't have surprised her to learn that he was doing a good job beating himself up over events he had no control over. Both men were frighteningly similar in their ability to lay personal blame where it wasn't warranted. The thought was not a very satisfying one. "It's not your fault, Leo," she told him softly, finding that her own fury had disappeared with the admission.
McGarry dropped his head and looked away. The absolution should have helped, but it didn't. "He told you."
Abbey nodded. "He told me."
"I'm sorry... "
"You're not listening, Leo." Abbey rolled her eyes, and then regarded him with a fond smile. "You've been his friend for over forty years... "
"No," McGarry interrupted, shaking his head. "I've known him for over forty years. The friendship, well... " he laughed shortly, a doubtful line tightening his jaw. "That defies explanation."
"No it doesn't."
"Are you being nice to me?" He regarded her suspiciously.
"Because right now experience has taught me that I should be the last person on earth you'd want to be nice to."
Abbey was too surprised at his admission to do more than nod. Had she been that obvious? "He doesn't blame you, Leo." She sighed, making a mental note not to be quite so predictable in future. "Why should I?"
"Your targeting is off."
"Do you want me to flay you alive?"
He presented such an appealing picture of guilt and wide-eyed, pleading innocence that Abbey couldn't help but laugh. Somehow, it felt good. Patting her hand on the cushion next to her, she said, "Sit down, Leo."
McGarry dropped down next to her with a heavy sigh. Feeling empty and drained, he waited for the next unavoidable question. The First Lady may no longer have been looking for a fight, but she still wanted answers.
"What didn't he tell me, Leo?"
"Knowing Jed, he didn't leave anything out." There, he'd said his name; out loud and not hidden in the recesses of his deepest thoughts. It was a start, but he wasn't sure it changed anything. "I imagine he was waiting for you to offer up a piece of your mind."
Abbey's face colored at that. Another example of being far too predictable. There was a time, before the White House, when her first thoughts would not have centered on blame or where the next fight was going to originate. When had she started looking at everyone around her as a potential antagonist, especially her husband?
Seeing her reaction, McGarry asked uneasily, "Did you?"
"If I hadn't thought a slight breeze might knock him over, I might have," Abbey admitted, frowning at the memory.
"How is he?"
It was the question McGarry had been afraid to ask her. They'd been here before, that night two years ago when she had first broken down and told him about the multiple sclerosis. With a sinking heart, he wondered darkly what she would tell him this time.
McGarry looked away, but not before Abbey caught a glimpse of the worry shadowing his eyes, the depths of his concern for her husband's welfare. In that moment, she loved him for it. "He's fine, Leo," she reassured him, patting his hand gently. "Nothing a good night's sleep won't take care of."
"One night," McGarry muttered angrily, frustrated by the useless gesture one night of peace was going to give his friend. "Is it enough?"
"We're going to have to work on that."
McGarry didn't want to ask this next question. It only reinforced Toby's accusations, trapping him between his duty and a friendship he treasured. Still, he had to ask. "What about the... multiple sclerosis?"
Abbey blinked at that, momentarily at a loss for words. Leo, the staff and practically everyone in the West Wing rarely referred to the disease by its full name. It had simply become MS, or the thing. As if by contracting, lessening the syllable count, the hidden monster could be reduced and defeated.
If only it were that easy. "I'd be a great deal happier if he averaged more than four hours sleep a night. Between the work load and the stress, his atrocious sleeping habits aren't helping."
"No," Abbey cut him off, perhaps a bit more harshly than she'd intended. She just didn't want the possibility voiced. "It's not." But she had to guard against that possibility as well, however much she might wish to forget it for at least a little while. And the man beside her would fight that intangible enemy with as much determination as she ever could. "I won't lie to you, Leo. He's pretty strung out, both physically and emotionally. He's got to sleep, get some real rest, or we really will have to worry. But he's not slipped that far yet."
"Sleep." McGarry visibly relaxed. "Jed's not going to take any hints in that department with anything even remotely resembling a civil or borderline polite attitude."
Abbey regarded him curiously. That was twice in one conversation Leo had referred to her husband by his first name, not as the President. Even when she'd first told him about the multiple sclerosis he hadn't broken down and given Jed his name. Protocol and duty had denied them both that one small piece of friendship. She fought back a sudden wave of terror at the thought that events had brought Leo to this.
"He's asleep now," she told him.
"Did he go down without a fight?"
"Down being the operative word." Abbey almost winced at the word fight, but managed to school her features into a semblance of neutrality. "I threw him into bed."
"At least he's consistent."
"No, Leo," Abbey corrected him, the memory bringing a wry, affectionate smile to her face. "I threw him into bed."
Realization dawned on McGarry's face and he chuckled softly at the mental image her words conjured up. "Hail to the First Lady," he told her with all sincerity.
"You bet your ass."
"It shouldn't have been that easy."
Leo McGarry was one of the few people Abbey knew who could make that observation about her husband and truly understand the depth of meaning behind it. Still, it hadn't been all that easy. "He's asleep. That's all that matters right now. I've set the guard dogs. So unless the world decides it's going to spontaneously explode between now and when he wakes up, nobody not on my list disturbs him till the sun clears the horizon tomorrow morning."
"Short list, is it?"
Abbey's face hardened. "Very exclusive."
"Am I on it?"
Squeezing his hand gently was all the answer Abbey felt he needed.
McGarry didn't quite know why, but that gesture pleased him. "It won't be me," he told her, recovering his voice. More so than anyone else in the West Wing, he didn't like being at odds with his friend's wife.
"No," she gave him a grateful smile. "It won't. You're a good friend, Leo."
He asked the question with such harsh undertones of accusation, directed at himself, that for a moment Abbey was taken completely unaware and left speechless. It was the anguish, the doubt and disappointment clearly etched on his features that frightened her most. This man, always so sure of his place and power, wanted the same reassurances she had been looking for from him.
He wanted answers.
Abbey gave him the only one she could. "Yes, you have. Don't ever doubt that, Leo."
McGarry blinked mutely at the ferocity of her response. He hadn't expected that: a small part of him wanting her to deny him, to leave him to his self-imposed fears. Not sure exactly what he could do, whether friendship or duty could be balanced, he'd perhaps wanted her condemnation.
He should have known better. "I think we all need to get some sleep."
Abbey shook her head with mock disapproval. "If it were only that simple."
"It's a start." McGarry lifted her hand, holding it tightly between both of his. When she finally looked up, he smiled. "Between the two of us, I'm pretty sure we can keep him from imploding. Just... " He released her hand and leaned back against the cushions, letting the day's accumulated exhaustion wash over him. "... keep Toby away from me, okay?"
"Deal." Abbey regarded him intensely, weighing her current suspicions against what had happened nearly a year ago. It hadn't taken a genius to know that Toby Ziegler, with his innate talent for stomping all over personal boundaries, had given her husband a heavy load of grief.
Neither man had given any clue as to what it was, and at the time Abbey had been consumed by other concerns. Misdirected anger had a way of drowning even the most glaring marital problems beneath the accumulation of legal and political barriers.
Apparently, Leo wasn't any safer from the Communications Director's ill-advised barbs than Jed was. "Get some sleep, Leo," was all she said, uncurling her legs and rising from the couch. Looking down at him, she smiled gently and reminded him, "We're all going to need it."
McGarry's huff was part laugh, part disbelieving snort.
Abbey's smile faded. For the first time she voiced her fears aloud. "Somebody is trying to kill him, Leo."
Looking up at her, McGarry nearly choked at the stark fear he saw in her eyes, the welling tears she refused to let fall. "I know."
The End, part one