Falls the Shadow
Anne Callanan and Kathleen E. Lehew
All eyes turned to follow the tall form of Ron Butterfield, Senior Agent in Charge of White House Security and Head of the President's personal detail, as he stalked his way towards the front of the briefing room. None of the agents assembled for the morning orientation said a word. A grim silence descended with only the shuffling of papers and files, the occasional clearing of a throat to breaking the tense atmosphere.
They were all professionals; they didn't need to be told the gravity of what was going to be said today. The previous briefings and current events were still fresh in their minds. This was their job; they lived it every day. Unknown shadows and threats changed nothing. They weren't looking for excuses or the direction the next attack may come from - just solutions. When the attack came, and they all knew it would, they would be ready.
With long, purposeful strides, Butterfield reached the desk. Wordlessly, he turned and leaned back against the edge. Letting his gaze move across the gathered faces, he gave them the moment to collect their thoughts, settle their emotions.
The frustrated anger hovering in the atmosphere was almost palpable.
Butterfield scowled. He understood their rage, the frustration borne of an inability to strike back, to give a name to the shadows haunting them. He shared it, although he knew, as they did, that it was a useless emotional road to take. No amount of fury was going to do any good unless it was focused.
Time to motivate them just a bit more. "The situation is totally unacceptable," he told them in a level, carefully controlled voice.
Nobody disagreed with him. Faces already clouded with uncertainty hardened, welcoming the challenge he offered. The situation they found themselves in, practically under siege, was unprecedented in the long history of the Secret Service. Nobody doubted his or her abilities. The lack of information was the only stumbling block to resolution.
The time for reacting was over.
Sensing their renewed determination, Butterfield nodded, more than satisfied. The NTSB report had shocked them all to the core. How do you fight or protect from what you couldn't even see, let alone comprehend? The deliberate downing of Marine One, followed so soon after by the senseless death of yet another one of their own, had shaken their confidence. They were good people, professionals knocked off their stride by the unknown.
Butterfield's lips tightened. Giving the unknown just a partial recognition had gone a long way towards giving his people some of that lost confidence back. Taking it one step further, he asked curtly, "Carlyle, you have a report?"
Sliding out from behind his chair, Dale Carlyle stood. "Yes, sir. I ran a probability analysis on all White House perimeter breaches going back two years. There is a pattern."
The attention level in the room went up a notch, with all eyes and expectations turning to Carlyle. A slight, grim curve at one corner of his mouth was the only indication of his satisfaction. Catching Butterfield's nod of consent, he continued, "There was nothing out of the ordinary till about seven months ago..."
"Even the break-in regarding the President's daughter?" a single voice from the back interrupted. "She was armed."
"But unbalanced," Butterfield corrected the speaker before Carlyle could. It was a good question, but one of the few they had a concrete answer to. "Continue, Dale."
"Sir." Carlyle flipped through his pages. Finding what he was looking for, he said, "It's not much, but the number of intruders detected on the grounds have nearly doubled in the last few months. What's curious is that the number of detainees has not followed that same curve."
"We're being tested," Butterfield concluded. He waited for someone to try and contradict him.
"Yes, sir." Carlyle nodded. "That was my conclusion as well."
"It's a good one. The stories of the intruders caught have all checked out?"
"To the line. The usual collection of the mentally questionable, the politically motivated and ill-advised college pranks."
A few chuckles greeted the last point ticked off. Pledge week was usually a time of stepped-up security and more than a touch of forbidding amusement. There was nothing quite like scaring the living tar out of a drunken fraternity or sorority pledge caught doing what they would never have contemplated sober.
More than a few heated discussions had erupted over exactly who was going to have the pleasure of calling the kid's parents.
Butterfield let them laugh, then waved them silent and asked, "Nothing at all conclusive on the getaways?"
Carlyle shook his head. "No, sir. Just that statistically there are far too many."
"And too good," someone added. "They're in and out before we can catch them."
"Way too good," another voice muttered.
Where there had been laughter a moment before, only unhappy grumbling existed now. The Secret Service rightly prided itself on its collective skills. They were good and knew it. Someone thumbing their noses at those skills grated, and all they could do at this point was stand around and take it.
"That's enough!" Butterfield snapped, ending the sour mutterings. At this point, it wasn't what he wanted to hear. "What's the status on employee background checks?"
Caro Lindstrom stood. "Slow going, sir," she answered, not exactly keen about passing on what little she and her team had garnered. "There are fourteen-hundred civilian employees in the White House. And keeping this in-house isn't making it any easier."
Caro's eyes narrowed. "I'm not making any. We'll get it done."
Butterfield sighed, rubbing his eyes and giving the young woman, and himself, a moment to settle. It was as close as he'd come to an apology. "Nothing has twigged yet?"
"No, sir. So far, no unusual financial activity or suspicious after hours movements. Nothing. We're almost down to the cleaning staff and nobody has raised any flags."
"Not what I wanted to hear."
"Me neither," Caro muttered, dropping back into her seat and scowling at nobody in particular.
Beginning to wonder why he'd even bothered showing up for this meeting, Butterfield clenched his teeth on the oath he wanted to utter. The whole siege mentality that had set in over his people and the West Wing in general was beginning to affect even him. Weighing the whole structure of events, the dire conclusion was that the still-invisible enemy had intended just that.
Mind games, and they were losing.
"In other words," he snarled, not quite able to keep the fury from his voice, "we're right back where we started."
Nobody had the courage to answer him.
"You’re making me repeat myself. Not what I wanted to hear, people." Banking his irritation, Butterfield told them tightly, "I want any line of inquiry followed, no matter how ridiculous."
"The Russian connection, sir?" someone from the back asked.
"Is being looked into," was all Butterfield would admit to. He wasn't as put out at having Lord John Marbury in the loop as the Chief of Staff was, strongly suspecting that the eccentric British ambassador was one of the few aces they had, but he still didn't like it. "If anything concrete is confirmed, we'll be told."
"What about Columbian?" Caro asked cautiously. "As criminals go, the local drug lords are no happier with the President than the Red Mafia."
Butterfield hesitated for a moment, measuring her and the question before asking, "You have something, Caro?"
"Maybe. The rumors have been flying about a certain... connection between the Old World and the New. Weapons, sir," she clarified at Butterfield's questioning look. "The drug lords want to buy, the Russians, legit or otherwise, want to sell. And the conventional type isn't the only toy on the bargaining table."
"The President's stand on international controls hasn't made him very popular with the arms dealers," Carlyle added. "Conventional or otherwise, these people are not happy having their bank accounts cut into. You can't run drugs without guns."
Scowling at the word conventional and the massive can of worms that opened, Butterfield nodded at Caro and inquired coolly, "You still have connections at the FBI?"
Caro grinned. "The prodigal daughter still has some friends. A few at ATF as well."
"Keep it low-key, but see what you can find out."
Emil Torres, Head of Detail for the First Lady, entered the room. Late, he positioned himself against the back wall and offered an apologetic shrug of his shoulders to Butterfield. His boss merely nodded in return, by silent inference acknowledging the fact that of all the agents present, Torres' particular job was the least predictable. Glancing over the shoulder of one of the juniors, quickly scanning the man's meeting notes, Torres brought himself up to speed.
Scowling, Torres realized that he hadn't missed much and not all that much had changed. Speculation piled on riddles with the life of the President caught smack in the middle. It wasn't good, and from his own perspective, even worse. He had to deal with the First Lady, and that indomitable woman wasn't about to be left in the dark over this.
Honestly, he couldn't really blame her, and more than once he had bent a few rules to keep her in the loop. Quite frankly, and he knew it bordered on the ridiculous, he had come to regard Abigail Bartlet as just one more aspect of the President's personal firewall.
Clearing his throat, Torres caught Butterfield's attention. "The perimeter breaches, sir?" he asked, all too aware he was about to add just one more piece to the already chaotic puzzle.
Butterfield scowled. They'd already covered that point. "You have something to add?"
"Not really. I agree someone's been testing us, looking for holes."
"There may be another point, sir." Eyes narrowing speculatively, Torres watched Butterfield's expression darken, confirming his suspicions. His boss had been thinking the same thing. The verification of his guess didn't give him any sense of achievement. "Whoever they are, they're trying to get in. That much we know. They may be trying to get him out as well."
Butterfield let out a long breath, nodding. Torres had hit on the one other point he'd wanted to bring up. "Elk Horn," he growled.
Quickly assimilating the new theory, more than a few eyes widened at that.
"Yes, sir." Torres frowned, a muscle twitching angrily in his clenched jaw as he thought about the near catastrophic accident that had occurred only a few months before. "We were this close to putting the President on Marine One, removing him from the security of the White House. If he hadn't been so adamant about not going..."
"Can you blame him?" Caro demanded a bit hotly. Like Torres, she was former FBI and more than a little inter-departmental rivalry existed between the two of them. "After what happened? He hasn't used Marine One since the accident, would you?"
Butterfield let his expression set into a mask of stone, revealing nothing and allowing his people to continue with their only halfway correct inferences. An accident of that magnitude would give anyone second thoughts about the dubious safety of air transport. He and Leo McGarry were the only ones who knew that the President's latent claustrophobia added a whole new wrinkle to the human equation.
"Especially after what happened," Torres was saying, a frustrated edge to his voice. He hadn't liked the idea when it had first occurred to him and he liked it even less now. "They brought down Marine One once already. Why not go with an already working scenario and try again? We still don't have any leads as to the inside man who planted the explosives to begin with. The possibility of a repeat is still there."
Butterfield crossed his arms and settled himself more comfortably on the edge of the desk. The debate was getting heated, perhaps more so than he would normally allow. But the speculation and argument allowed them to vent their frustrations and give voice to a few legitimate questions.
For the moment, he was content to let them continue.
"You mean they..." there was a distinct sneer in the speaker's voice, obviously not pleased with the only naming qualifier circumstances allowed, "...orchestrated a nuclear accident in order to get the President out of the White House?"
"Maybe," Torres shrugged. "It's worth thinking about."
"We've covered the bases on that one," Butterfield pointed out, playing devil's advocate. "The heavy haul was stolen; the explosion in the Goldfield tunnel was an accident."
"If we're certain of one thing, sir, it's that we're not the only ones covering all the bases. Like I said, it's worth thinking about."
"I have, Emil," Butterfield acknowledged softly, a dangerous hint of warning in his voice.
Torres nearly flinched at that, but managed to hold his ground. "Yes, sir."
"It's a stretch." Caro was thinking about it as well, and she didn't like it. "If that, then why not make an attempt at the play? ‘Wars of the Roses’ would have been a perfect venue. Or any of his other speaking engagements? There's been more than a few, and all of them open for an attempt. Why not?"
Battlefield smiled grimly at that question. "With the President's own personal security tripled, not to mention extremely on edge? And Governor Ritchie's to boot? I don't think they're that stupid. Success is the game, not a spectacular failure."
"They may have tried," Caro insisted stubbornly, not willing to yield to either Torres or her boss.
Watching the faces of his people, Butterfield could clearly see what they were thinking. The name wasn't said aloud, but it was on everyone's mind. Simon Donovan; one of their own, dead from multiple gunshot wounds trying to stop a petty robbery. Everybody had liked him and his loss was deeply felt. It would have been nice to be able to give that death some meaning.
Unfortunately, he couldn't give them that. "No, this much we're sure of. Simon's death was... a mistake." He couldn't think of any other word. Donovan's fall had hit him nearly as hard as it had C.J. Cregg, but not even for her or his people could he change the sour facts. "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. They," his lip curled beneath his mustache, no happier with the qualifier than anyone else, "had nothing to do with it."
Carlyle nodded his agreement. "Whatever game is being played, it's a lot deeper than using a dime store robbery as a cover."
"Or a stalker," Caro added, eliminating that point before it could be brought up. They had Mr. Vera Wang in custody. A twisted, sick mind; fitting the textbook psychological profile for an inadequate personality perfectly, but nothing more than that.
Butterfield inclined his head in agreement; grateful that his people were starting to focus again, no longer wildly grasping at straws. "Yes, our stalker has nothing to do with this. His interest wasn't in the President." Determined to steer his operatives' attention back to the familiar patterns of their job, he continued, "There will be another meeting this evening, for the purposes of risk-assessment and scenario projection. All available agents to attend. Eagle’s personal security remains at optimum alert, and his personal escort doubled, even in-house. Anything new to report there?"
"He's not very happy about it. Oh sorry, anything new? No." Carlyle's lugubrious tones sent a ripple of amusement through his colleagues. The stories about the President's initial reaction to the increasing of his detail even before the NTSB report had begun to cast its shadow were already bordering on the stuff of legend. Although coming to accept its necessity as the ugly truth continued to unfold, his silent exasperation with the almost total lack of personal space he had experienced ever since was quite obvious to his bodyguards. They secretly sympathized with the man - he hadn't had a private moment in weeks - but there was no way they were letting him out of their sight in these circumstances.
"Uh..." Knowing the man's feelings, and remembering how he had occasionally rebelled against such restriction in the past, Caro had just had a nasty thought. "Any danger of him ditching his detail again, like he did at the First Lady's birthday party?"
Just about everyone present winced, and more than a few hot glances were flung in her direction. Their collective performance on that night - and more than a few would have willingly sacrificed a week's pay to know how it had happened - was not something they wanted their boss to be reminded of.
Glowering briefly, just to let them know he hadn't forgotten, Butterfield vetoed that concern. "He won't do that." His eyes narrowed for a moment. "We had words. Besides…" He smiled almost wolfishly, causing several of his subordinates to grin in response as they imagined the scene, "... with the increased security, he knows that his chances of ditching us undetected are pretty small right now. And he's not prepared to let us know the secret behind that vanishing trick just yet. He knows that once we know, we've pretty much got him where we want him."
The grins became general at that. Butterfield deliberately gave his people their moment of light-heartedness before reminding them of the sober reality behind their gathering. "Also, he's fully aware of the gravity of the situation. The President is a responsible man and a family man. He won't take stupid risks. And he wants answers, people. Answers we should be able to provide."
Nobody needed to point out that a meeting was going to take place in the Oval that very morning. More information might be forthcoming, but would it be of any more use than what little they already had? More than one of the agents present cast their eyes down, unable to meet the searching gaze of their Chief.
Yet another sign Butterfield didn't like. "Eyes up and listen to me, people!" he snapped. When he was certain he had their attention, he tempered his voice just a little, but there was still a demanding edge to it. "We do our jobs. We don't need to know who, we don't need to know why or what..."
Caro Lindstrom laughed shortly, shaking her head.
Butterfield actually smiled. "Your FBI is showing, Caro."
Swallowing another laugh, she replied evenly, "Sorry, sir. Won't happen again."
Torres snorted, earning a dark look from his former FBI compatriot.
"No. That's good. As long as it doesn't get in the way of your primary job." Butterfield held Caro's gaze, then one by one made slow eye contact with everyone in the room. His next words were clipped and to the point. "The President's life is our job. Let them come. We stop them. Understood?"
A chorus of determined agreement greeted that challenge.
Butterfield nodded. For now, it would have to do.
Bartlet led the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs towards the Oval Office at a brisk pace. "I don't care whether it's feasible or not, Fitz," he snapped over his shoulder. "The Intelligence budget has to be good for something. I want detailed information on any possible suspects in the Marine One investigation, as well as the likely players in the field of black market weapons and nuclear armament sales. And I want it yesterday."
Admiral Percy Fitzwallace found himself struggling to keep up with the shorter man. Not for the first time, he wondered how a President who had never served a day in uniform could still march at a pace that left professional combatants in despair. At least when he'd been obliged to carry a cane for a few days after the accident… "Sir, I agree with you. We need the information. But our Russian advisors would like to remind you that the troublesome state of that country's governmental, military and law enforcement bureaucracies…"
"I don't care, Fitz. I've heard it all before." Bartlet blew through reception, raising more than a few curious eyebrows, and opened the door to the Oval Office.
Charlie Young rose hastily from behind his desk and followed them inside. He still didn't understand why, but the President wanted him in on this meeting, maybe for moral support. He wasn't quite comfortable with that. Still, it wasn't his place to question an executive order.
"I refuse to believe that the Russian Mafia, or lone criminal masterminds for that matter, are capable of better intelligence gathering than the US military, sit down everybody," he growled irritably to his already assembled senior staff. "I'll start our meeting in a minute, wherein I have no doubt the Russian situation will arise."
McGarry moved to join Fitzwallace in the center of the office, while the staff resumed their seats on the sofas to each side. "Is this about the latest intelligence reports on our most likely suspects?" He directed the question towards the President, who had halted his own progress behind his desk.
Dropping a folder onto his blotter, Bartlet remarked acidly, "You could say that. But to me, an intelligence report implies the actual imparting of information. Not taking three pages of verbiage to say 'Sorry, we don't know where this guy is, who he is or what he may be up to.'" He snorted. "In fact, they still can't conclusively link him, if there is a him, or anyone else to the Marine One incident."
McGarry spared a brief glance for his unusually silent and tense colleagues. The incident had been consuming a generous proportion of their attention ever since that nightmare had first been revealed, to say nothing of the truly horrific future possibilities he had spelled out for them only last night. He turned back to the President's military advisor. "You mean to say there's still nothing?"
Fitzwallace shrugged, uncomfortably aware that he was being put on the spot and in direct line of fire of the President's ire. It couldn't be helped. "I wouldn't go quite that far, Leo. It's true that we have no concrete information on who our suspect may be, but we do have reason to believe that he is in this country, and that he is running active lines of communication with the Russian Mafia both here and back home. To what purpose, we can make an educated guess. And we don't like the answers, especially in view of the President's ultimatum to the Russian government about the inspection teams and their lousy safeguards on nuclear sites and disposal facilities."
"Nobody likes having their profits cut into," McGarry growled. "How certain are we that this is being handled locally?"
Fitzwallace sighed heavily. "Not very. The only thing we are sure of is that whatever money has been spent hasn't come from the standard overseas accounts. There has been no unusual activity on any of the accounts, and taking out the President of the United States would cost. Someone's being paid, but for whatever it's worth..."
"Which ain't much."
"... the paymaster is here," Fitzwallace finished, ignoring McGarry's snide commentary. He was getting used to it.
This particular revelation did very little to improve the President's already foul mood.
"Apparently it's official. The Russian Mafia have now added me to that long list of people they would like to see permanently retired from public life," Bartlet commented dryly, settling wearily into the chair behind his desk. Rubbing his eyes, which for some reason even a partial night's sleep hadn't induced to cooperate, he glanced up at the blurred faces staring at him expectantly.
Expecting what? He didn't have the answers any more than his advisor's did, and wasn't any happier with the gaping holes left over. Blinking, he noted curiously that Toby and Leo, usually presenting a united, centered front at meetings like this, had placed themselves on opposite sides of his desk. Any other time and Bartlet would have thought it a flanking maneuver, but with both men studiously avoiding direct eye contact with each other - and failing miserably at the attempt to not look like they were doing so - the conclusion was obvious.
Apparently, he wasn't the only one to have noticed either. Everyone was uncharacteristically silent. Sam looked like he wanted to find a hole to crawl into. Josh had stationed himself as far away from the two men as possible - probably for a quick escape if needed - and C.J. had that expression on her face like she wanted to bang heads together.
The President was tempted to let her. As if he didn't already have enough problems. What the hell was going on there?
Bartlet sighed, settling back in his chair. Young stepped discreetly closer, not crowding him, but within easy range should the man require anything.
The Chief of Staff had stiffened at the President's last statement. He swung back to Fitzwallace. "What does he mean? Did some new information emerge at the briefing?"
"No more than you already know, Leo." The Admiral glowered, starting to feel just a little picked on. "The intelligence reports turned up very little. But they did pass on persistent rumors that the organized crime groups we have focused our attention on within Russia are extremely unhappy about the pressure the President has brought to bear about the lax controls in the arms and nuclear sectors. And that they may have conveyed this unhappiness to our suspect's organization, with the suggestion that certain steps be considered."
McGarry froze in shock. It wasn't any different from what he and Nancy had told the President last night. Or what he'd already passed on to the senior staff. But somehow, having Fitz confirm it gave the nightmare a harsher reality. He winced when he heard Toby Ziegler's voice rise in angry disbelief, finally giving into the fury that had been deflected by other issues, however debatable, brought up last night.
"Are you trying to tell us that a criminal organization has decided to place a contract on the President of the United States?" The Communications Director's voice was almost trembling with barely suppressed outrage. Of all the staffers, Ziegler knew he had what might have politely been termed the stormiest professional relationship with Josiah Bartlet, but for all that he was fiercely protective of the office of the President, and equally loyal to the man who held it.
Those same emotions were reflected in the faces of the rest of the senior staff.
Fitzwallace shook his head curtly. "We have no proof of any such communication, but our agents and sources say that there is considerable agitation in the Russian underworld, and a strong rumor to that effect persists. Something has gone down. I don't think we can afford to ignore…"
"Ignore?!" Ziegler's volume rose to a dangerously high level.
McGarry winced again. "Calm down, Toby", he advised, for the first time that morning making eye contact with the Communications Director.
The exchange did not go unnoticed by the President, who was beginning to wonder if he was actually going to have to play referee on top of everything else. The tension between the two men was thick and heavy.
"I am calm!" Ziegler stopped, casting his eyes down and forcing himself to take several deep breaths. "Leo, this is beyond serious. We're talking about the office of President of the United States. That these... people could even consider a course of action like this… the ramifications are horrific. Democracy and government just doesn't operate like this. Can't operate like this."
"Sometimes it does." The President's voice was so low as to be almost inaudible, but it froze everyone in place. He looked up to meet their uncomfortable gaze and couldn't help a twisted smile when they looked away. The unspoken subject, the non-secret that no one dared raise although everyone knew what had really happened with Shareef. He trusted them all - but how did they regard him now, knowing what they did?
"Do you believe in karma, Toby?" he asked quietly, not really knowing what he expected in response.
McGarry glanced away quickly.
Ziegler cleared his throat and fixed his gaze on his shoes. "Mr. President…"
"Never mind." Bartlet waved him away, feeling a little guilty. It had been an unfair question, but the weariness that still weighed on him, despite the respite of last night, seemed to turn his thoughts down such dark paths with greater and greater ease these days. He sighed gently; wishing he could banish the near constant fatigue that seemed to bleed away all energy and leave him feeling burdened down in both body and spirit.
Making an effort to shake the malaise, he pulled his chair closer to his desk and held out his hand. On cue, as always, Charlie handed him the day’s schedule and stepped back again, granting him some personal space. Putting on his glasses, Bartlet flipped the folder open. Then he paused, his attention caught by an item on his desk. Puzzled, he leaned closer.
It was a chess piece, more specifically, a bishop, resting neatly on a white envelope that had been placed slightly off-center on his blotter.
Bartlet felt his mood lighten somewhat and he essayed a slight chuckle. "Looking for a rematch, Toby?" he asked, a smile indicating his approval of the gesture and its timing.
Ziegler blinked. "Sir?"
"Another chess match?" Bartlet pointed to the piece in front of him. "Aren't you tired of getting beaten?"
"Not guilty, sir." Ziegler's mind was plainly on other things, and he forced himself to concentrate on this new topic. "I didn't leave it there. And you don't beat me that often," he added with an indignant huff.
"You keep that thought, Toby." He turned to the other likely suspect. "Sam?"
"Not guilty either, Mr. President. Unlike Toby, I do get tired of being beaten. Especially when it's not so much a defeat as an outright massacre."
Bartlet couldn't help a short laugh at that. He had been showing off to the young man just a little. But it had been a good evening. One of the few good ones he could remember in recent times. "Charlie? Do you know who left this?"
"No, Mr. President." Young stepped forward again, exchanging a puzzled glance with McGarry. The preparations for the morning had been hectic, and without a senior secretary in the outer office to help with the chaos, more than a few things were being missed. He didn't like it. "It wasn't here when I left last night, and this is the first Oval meeting of the day."
"Hmmm." Distractedly, Bartlet turned his attention back to the piece. It really was a lovely thing, incredibly detailed and intricately molded. He reached out and picked it up, raising it to examine the fine detail on the surface. His fingers recognized the smooth warmth of ivory and the yellowed patina of the obviously hand-carved material indicated a great age. This was no store bought gift.
"Is anybody going to 'fess up?" he asked, taking his glasses off and rolling the piece speculatively between his fingers.
He laughed heartily at the guilty looks they exchanged. Only this group of people would feel at fault for leaving an anonymous gift. Where was the protocol for that? The gesture touched him deeply, and the symbolism, while curious, indicated a familiarity he found comforting. Sometimes, it was the little things that made a difference.
McGarry, dismissing the incident and the mystery, turned back towards the assembled staffers. He wasn't in the mood for games. Getting back to the business at hand, he said curtly, "Okay, you all know why we're here… " He broke off abruptly, staggering a bit as Fitzwallace suddenly pushed past him.
"Mr. President, put it down!"
"What?" Startled at the uncharacteristically commanding outburst, Bartlet looked up from his examination. Instinctively, he began to release his hold on the chess piece, dropping it from suddenly stiff fingers. "Fitz? Why on earth… "
"So..." Leo's morning schedule in hand, Margaret let the rather loaded beginning to her question trail off and perched herself on the edge of Donna's desk. "Is the pizza embargo still on?"
Donna looked up from her work, wrinkling her nose with profound disgust. "You mean the command from on high that I never bring the substance into any part of the White House ever again?" When Margaret nodded, she picked up her phone and waved it like a club. "Josh is still on the warpath. He even worked up enough technical skill to wipe out all my speed dial sets."
Slamming the phone back into its cradle, Donna pouted just a little. "Is that fair? I mean, how am I supposed to survive this... zoo without pizza?"
"Well, he's probably afraid..."
"I know what he's afraid of." Donna glared at Margaret; not at all happy she was still paying for her mistakes. She should have known better. Josh was like a dog with a juicy bone over her culinary indiscretion with the President. "It was an executive order!"
"You keep saying that."
"C.J. ordered pizza," Margaret offered helpfully. "He hasn't banned it entirely."
"Like Josh would even think about telling her what she can or can't do."
"That's true," Margaret agreed sagely. "He does have some survival instincts. Leo's enjoying the show, though."
She didn't bother to point out that her boss showed no inclination towards stopping the ongoing battle of wills either. He was having too much fun. Donna didn't need to hear that, though. Telling her about the full extent of executive amusement being found at her expense would only make matters worse.
Donna scowled. "He would." She hadn't got any support from that quarter. Luckily, the First Lady seemed to have taken the whole incident with totally unexpected good humor. It was about the only thing she felt safe on.
Josh on the other hand was becoming a royal pain in the nether regions. "I'm going to have to do something about this," she declared ominously.
"It's about time."
Smiling sweetly up at her, Donna asked, "You wanna help?"
Blinking her eyes innocently and smiling just as sweetly in return, Margaret replied, "May I?"
"I wouldn't think of leaving you out..."
She never got any further. The echoing noise, loud, sharp and totally out of place, snapped through the bullpen like a gunshot. Minds and bodies reacted like it was a gunshot. Margaret jumped off the edge of the desk and Donna was already out of her seat. Both women had a moment to exchanged frightened looks before a voice boomed out.
"Everyone, stay where you are!"
The Secret Service Agents, always so unobtrusive and invisible, swarmed through the bullpen, weapons out and ready. A few stationed themselves at all the exits, glaring forbiddingly at the people milling uncertainly within.
Security crashes they were used to; the staff knew how to handle them. They didn't need to be told that this was horribly different.
Donna watched with growing fear as a larger group of agents stampeded - it was the only way her shocked mind could describe it - through the room, dodging around the desks and out the other side. Headed towards where?
Her breath caught in her throat. "The Oval," she gasped.
Clutching her file folder like a shield, all Margaret could do was nod dumbly.
Everybody jumped violently at the sudden explosion, and then swung about in alarm, as almost simultaneously there came an abrupt, shocked cry from the President, echoed by a gasp from Young.
Heart in his throat, McGarry hurled himself around the edge of the desk, Fitzwallace on his heels. He reached for the President. "Sir? Are you all right?"
Bartlet had flung himself back into his chair with his hands to his face. To McGarry's horror he saw that the collar and front of the man's shirt was stained with blood, and more trickled slowly from between the fingers covering his face. He couldn't tell whether the blood on the President's left hand had come from the wounds on his face, or the damage it had taken from the initial explosion.
Muffled gasps of horror from the staffers were drowned out by the sound of all four doors into the Oval Office crashing open, causing its already unnerved occupants to startle anew, as about half a dozen Secret Service agents poured into the room, weapons at the ready.
McGarry and Fitzwallace, both combat veterans, managed to ignore the influx and the babble of shouted instructions and reports, bending their attention to their Chief Executive, who was breathing heavily with his hands still raised before him.
McGarry gently reached for his wrists, only to have the man pull abruptly away from him with a small grunt of pain. "Please sir, I need to see." Bartlet seemed to relax a bit at the sound of his voice, and he asked, "How badly are you injured?"
"God, Leo. It hurts." The President's voice was tight with strain and his breathing was ragged. He slowly lowered his hands, blinking and squinting as tiny rivulets of blood ran down his cheeks and into his eyes from numerous small cuts and gashes on his forehead and face.
McGarry pulled out a handkerchief and gently began to run it over Bartlet's face, only to stop abruptly at a sharp, indrawn hiss of pain from his friend. He nearly jumped when Fitzwallace's hand came down on his wrist.
"Hold it, Leo. Those are shrapnel wounds. There could still be fragments embedded in some of the cuts. Wait for a medic."
Galvanized, the Chief of Staff swung around. "Charlie! Get an ambulance…" He broke off abruptly. "Oh, hell! Charlie, you all right?"
"Charlie?" The President's voice pitched high with alarm. He squinted around for his aide, obviously half-blind from the blood still running over his brow and into his eyes. "Are you hurt?" He attempted to rise, but was easily thwarted by Fitzwallace's firm hand pressing him back into his chair.
"I'm fine, Mr. President." The young man's voice was shaky and he held a handkerchief to his face. "Something just caught me on the cheek is all. It's nothing."
Obeying the unspoken appeal and knowing if he didn't give Bartlet a satisfactory report they were going to have a very uncooperative Chief Executive on their hands, McGarry stepped forward and critically examined the cut on Young's cheek. "He's telling you the truth, sir. A shallow cut on his cheek. Probably stings a bit, but I don't think it'll even need stitches."
Satisfied, McGarry nodded to a pale and trembling C.J., who gently took Young by the arm and steered him to a place beside her on the sofa.
"Good." The word sighed out gently on a long breath of relief as the President sagged back into his chair, cautiously cradling his bloodied left hand against his chest. Two agents had moved in behind his chair, weapons still drawn but no longer raised; the remainder took up station by the wide open doors.
Ziegler shouldered his way past the agents at the desk. "Leo? The ambulance…"
One of the agents looked up from where he had been communing with his palm mike. "An ambulance has been requested, Mr. Ziegler. The call is going out from the main switchboard now."
"Good!" McGarry swung back to his friend and crouched down beside him. Bartlet was pale and trembling slightly, but his eyes seemed mercifully undamaged, although his face and even one of his eyelids were peppered with abrasions. But his hand...
McGarry took one look and winced. Bartlet's left hand, the one that had been holding the bishop, was coated in blood, the flesh torn and splinters of the ivory still projecting from some of the wounds. "What happened?" The question was knee-jerk. He'd seen it all, heard the explosion and could see the results.
He just wanted to hear his friend's voice.
"I'm not sure." The President's voice was still rough, and he couldn't seem to stop blinking. He took a deep, calming breath. "The chess piece. I think it exploded. I guess I was lucky; it might have still been in my hand, but I'd just begun to drop it." Twisting his head slightly, he regarded Fitzwallace, blinking against the stinging blood running into his eyes. "You knew?"
The Admiral shook his head grimly, still keeping one hand on his Commander in Chief's shoulder. "No, sir. I didn't. But in view of recent events, when something unexplained is found in the Oval Office, I'm going to err on the side of paranoia." He regarded the bloody visage of the man before him with regret. "It's a pity my paranoia didn't kick in a little sooner."
Bartlet drew in another shaky breath and accepted the handkerchief that Fitzwallace held out to him with his good hand, mopping gingerly at his eyes. Not a good idea. Wincing at the stinging pain, he looked up at the ring of somewhat blurry faces circling him, both staffers and agents.
"You managed fine. Thank you, Fitz."
"Sir." Fitzwallace shrugged, obviously uncomfortable with the praise and the thanks, however heartfelt. Turning to the Chief of Staff, he tried to get the man's attention. "Leo."
McGarry didn't seem to have heard him. Still at the President's side, his entire concentration was focused on the injured man.
"Leo!" Louder this time, earning a blinking, dazed response. "I have to tell the NSA, now, before she implodes."
McGarry's only response was a distracted nod.
At a bit of a loss, Fitzwallace silently entreated the President for permission to leave.
"Go," Bartlet told him shakily. "The last thing we need is Nancy going off. And gather the Joint Chiefs, Mr. Chairman. We don't need them going off as well."
Fitzwallace had no problem agreeing with that assessment. Without another word, he strode purposefully towards the nearest exit. Not exactly keen on being trampled in his wake, the agent on guard quietly stepped out of his way.
The agent who had reassured Ziegler about the ambulance came around to stand by Bartlet's side. "Sir, we need to get you out of here and secured back in the Residence until we can confirm what happened here, and how."
On the President's other side, McGarry protested vigorously. "We're not moving the President until he's been checked out by a doctor. His eyes may need washing out. Those cuts have to be tended to. And that hand is going to need stitches, at the very least." Looking down at his clearly shaken friend, and aware of the man's air of dazed disorientation, he ordered, "Direct them to send a doctor to the Oval Office. We'll meet the ambulance at the Residence, if he says the President can safely go that far."
McGarry swung around as the order was grated out in a panting but firm voice. Judging by his breathless state, Ron Butterfield had sprinted the entire distance from the security central command room. He'd made good time too. Or perhaps he hadn't had so far to come. In recent weeks, the Security Chief was rarely to be found far from his main responsibility. Judging by the emotions currently tightening his features into grim lines, the Chief of Staff had a feeling that the President would be chafing under an even shorter leash in future.
"No ambulance," Butterfield snapped the order at his subordinate who, after pausing to blink briefly, hastily turned away to address his palm mike again.
"No ambulance?" Lyman's protest was almost a squeak of disbelief. "What the hell..."
Butterfield nailed him with a glare. "There is a perfectly adequate operating theater in the basement, fully stocked and ready for emergencies. If it's needed, we go there." Sweeping the room with his eyes and letting all present see the rage smoldering in their depths, he reiterated, "No ambulance."
"But... the President!" Seaborn stepped forward impulsively. "He needs a doctor."
Barely sparing the young man a glance, the Security Chief brushed past McGarry to drop into a crouch beside the President's chair. "And he'll get one," he shot over his shoulder. Turning back, he softened his tones and addressed his charge gently. "Sir? I'm sorry to ask this of you, but do you feel up to moving? We need to get you to the Residence. You can't stay here."
Bartlet regarded his bodyguard as best he could through eyelashes encrusted with blood. The reminder of the medical facilities in the basement had done little to calm his already shredded nerves. Only to be used in emergencies. He supposed this counted. Still, he had to ask, "Not the hospital, Ron?"
"No, sir. Not unless the doctor deems it absolutely necessary. Admiral Hackett is on his way to the Residence now. He'll be waiting for us." Butterfield regarded his protectee anxiously, trying to gauge the man's physical condition, and his ability to absorb what was being told to him. "I can't allow you to leave the White House in these circumstances, sir. We're in total lockdown. Nothing's going in or out. You'll be safer and better protected in the Residence."
"Afraid they'll try again?" Bartlet half-joked, shifting awkwardly in his chair.
The President looked up sharply at that flat declaration. He studied the agent's grim visage for a moment before dropping his gaze. His shoulders slumped and he unleashed a low sigh. "Okay."
Butterfield glanced around swiftly to check if anyone else was going to waste his precious time with fruitless protests. It looked like he didn't have to worry. Lyman and Seaborn were standing together wearing stunned expressions. On the sofa, C.J. Cregg was gently patting at the no longer bleeding cut on Young's face, but her shoulders were tense and her face drawn into strained lines. He let his gaze rest on her for a brief moment.
C.J. looked up, catching Butterfield's searching glance, the unasked question he wouldn't dare voice. She was on the verge of giving him an answer, and then bit back the words. All she gave him was a quick nod, then returned her attention back to Charlie.
Butterfield's jaw tightened at the brief, haunted expression in her eyes. Too much violence following too soon after Donovan, and again someone she cared for was the target. But she could handle it. Of that he was certain.
McGarry and Ziegler were standing next to the desk, perfect studies in grimness. Butterfield allowed himself to relax just a bit, if not completely. If anyone fully grasped the implications both of this incident and of his exchange with the President, he would have expected it to be these two men. McGarry still looked like he wanted to protest, but he was holding himself in check and the normally cool Communications Director appeared shaken to the core. They could consider the consequences of this later. Right now, he had more immediate concerns.
Carefully touching his President's upper arm, painfully conscious of the subtle tremors vibrating through the limb beneath his hand, he asked quietly, "Sir? Can you stand?"
"I think so." Bartlet mopped again at his eyes with Fitzwallace's now ruined handkerchief. He made a mental note to replace it. At least only the deeper facial cuts were still bleeding, but it was amazing how irritatingly uncomfortable drying blood could feel. He awkwardly hitched himself forward in his chair in a struggle to rise, only to drop back with a hiss of pain. "Damn! My hand..."
"Sit still a minute, sir." Butterfield gently took the injured limb and laid it back against the President's chest. Holding it there, he fumbled one-handed to loosen his own tie. "Can anyone..."
Ziegler stepped up quickly beside him, his own tie dangling from his outstretched hand.
The Security Chief took it with a quick nod of thanks, and swiftly wrapped it over the President's left arm and shoulder, across his back and up under his right arm, lightly pinning his damaged hand in place against his chest. Stepping back, he slid a hand under the man's undamaged arm and carefully eased the President out of his chair.
Leaning heavily on his tall bodyguard's arm, Bartlet stood swaying slightly, waiting desperately for the room to swing back into focus and willing his legs not to fold under him. Following Butterfield's gentle pressure, he turned towards the door onto the portico, only to wobble violently for a moment. He steadied himself and smiled reassuringly at McGarry and Ziegler, who had both lunged forward to catch him. "It's okay, fellas."
Ziegler looked skeptical, but stepped back in acknowledgement of the President's unspoken wishes. McGarry wasn't so easily pacified however, and carefully grasped Bartlet's free arm, mindful of the injured hand. Security lock-down and Butterfield's fears be damned, it was on his tongue to demand that the President be removed to a hospital.
Butterfield sensed this, and catching the Chief of Staff's eye over Bartlet's shoulder, he said softly, "Leo, he cannot leave the White House."
McGarry's only response was to glare accusingly at the agent.
Bartlet stiffened at that ominous declaration. He hadn't missed the hidden meaning, even if his overwhelmed Chief of Staff had. Leaning a little more on to his friend's arm, he said, "Listen to him, Leo."
McGarry didn't want to, but had to admit that he was outnumbered. Taking a firmer hold on the President's arm, he shook his head with frustration, duty fighting a losing battle with his concern.
His old friend sighed in exasperation at the added support, but wasn't really in a position to protest. And he was forced to grudgingly admit, if only to himself, that he needed the support. Smiling at his Chief of Staff, the President asked, "Shall we go? I'm sure Hackett's at the Residence by now, which means Abbey knows what's happened. And if we dawdle in the circumstances..."
Even Butterfield winced at the mental images this conjured up. Carefully, he and McGarry began to move the President towards the door, the other agents closing in around on all sides.
With evident reluctance, C.J. stood up from the sofa and stepped forward. "Leo..."
"Not now, C.J.," McGarry snapped, tension and worry simmering dangerously close to the surface.
"Yes, now." The Press Secretary's tone was apologetic, but unyielding. "Please, Leo. It's important."
The Chief of Staff locked gazes with her for an instance, his angry and anxious, hers concerned but remaining implacable. Finally he sighed and pressed his friend's arm gently. "Sir, I'm sorry. I'll catch you up in just a moment. Toby, would you…?"
The Communications Director stepped forward swiftly and slid his own hand under the President's arm, and was rewarded with a slightly twisted, ironic smile from the man. The group passed slowly out through the portico doors and along the walk towards the Residence. A phalanx of agents converged on the slow moving trio, blocking them from view and harm.
McGarry watched them go with a strained expression before turning back to the remaining staffers. "Charlie, go after them. You need someone to have a look at that cut. Now," he snapped at C.J. as the young man hastened out. "Make it fast."
C.J. exchanged worried glances with Seaborn and Lyman. "The press, Leo. What are we going to do? You stressed last night how important it was to keep this whole mess in-house, but after today... we can't keep this quiet. There was an explosion in the Oval Office for heaven's sake!"
"To say nothing of the fact that anyone who so much as catches a glimpse of the President over the next few days is going to have more questions than we can handle," Seaborn pointed out. "No matter how good a repair job Hackett does, he can't conceal those cuts, and that hand looks to be an awful mess. We can't brush this away, Leo. His riding his bike into a tree was a front page story!"
"And then there's the whole security alert," Lyman chimed in. "We're in lockdown, and agents are on high alert all over the White House. To say nothing of the fact that someone must have heard the explosion. And a call for an ambulance went out from the Oval office. Any reporter with a police scanner could have picked that up once it passed the switchboard."
"Oh, God!" C.J. sank back onto the sofa with a groan. "The Press Room is probably filling up right now. Leo, I'm good but there's no way that I can spin this! We've got to come up with something, and fast!"
McGarry ran a hand over the back of his head distractedly. "I know, I know. Look C.J., let's just find out what the damage is and then we'll see. In the meantime, the three of you get together and come up with some options for me."
"Leo!" For the first time some of the emotion she'd been holding in check broke through C.J.'s control.
"Later!" McGarry's patience was close to snapping; his entire anxious attention focused on the man currently being shepherded towards the Residence. "We'll discuss it as soon as Toby and I get back from the Residence. Be in my office in one hour. And C.J.? Hold the press off until then. I don't care how."
The three youngest members of the senior staff watched in dismay as the Chief of Staff abandoned them and departed through the portico door at a pace just short of a run. Glancing back and forth, each waited for the other to say something first.
The Press Secretary to the White House sighed heavily, turning a grim look on the two spin-doctors she had left. Josh had his crushed puppy look going full force and Sam was standing at near-perfect military parade rest. The sight was depressing.
"Come on boys, you heard him. Time to earn our government paychecks. We've got to come up with something in the next five minutes that the press won't immediately laugh back in our faces." She watched them shift uneasily and couldn't resist adding, perhaps just a bit maliciously, "And not to put any pressure on you or anything, but if you don't produce something good for me to take out there, I quit. For real this time. You can take on the White House press corps all by yourselves."
Abbey settled back into her chair with a slight groan and wondered if she would ever fully be able to relax again. Her muscles seemed stiff and unnatural, and she felt as if she hadn't properly taken a deep breath since she and Jed had talked last evening. Of course, it wasn't every day you had to deal with the fact that not only had an attempt been made on your husband's life, but that the same threat continued to shadow him even now.
Someone wanted Jed dead, and it seemed as if they would not stop until they had achieved their objective. The very thought caused fear to surge within her, turning her limbs to water.
Oh, he was one of the best-guarded men in the world, but they had tried already, and come so close to succeeding. And all it would take was one sufficiently determined and reckless person in a crowd. The President couldn't govern from an isolated fortress. Nor would Jed's own personality permit it. Both of them had discussed the possibility of assassination before, acknowledged that the Secret Service took excellent care, and that all else was left in the hands of God. There was nothing they could do about it but trust in those hands, and in their protectors.
Abbey scowled to herself in firm resolve. She might not be able to protect Jed against that particular threat, but she could and would do everything possible to ensure that her stubborn husband did not leave himself open to attack on another front. Leo's concern the night before, coming on top of her own observations, had only reinforced her determination to try to get her husband to slow down before he drove himself into the ground.
Leo would help, she knew. Charlie too, along with the entire senior staff. All she had to do was ask. And she was going to need all the allies she could muster. Even last night's ultimatum had proved considerably less successful than she had hoped. Leo had been right; one single night of rest wasn't going to solve the increasingly visible problem of Jed's ongoing exhaustion, but it would have helped.
Would have... if he had only obeyed her. She had returned to their bedroom well after midnight - her talk with Leo and pondering on the threat had left her unsettled and wandering the corridors for some time - only to find Jed dozing, propped up in bed, telephone on the mattress beside him and the bedspread strewn with files.
Silently raging against his obduracy, she had managed to settle her weary husband back under the covers and had joined him, gently stroking his hair until he finally slept. But he had risen even earlier than usual, muttering something about a staff meeting in the Oval, to be preceded by a briefing with Fitzwallace.
Tonight he would sleep through the night. Abbey was determined on that, even if she had to ask Admiral Hackett to consider prescribing something, and unplug the wretched telephone. Jed had never been the best of sleepers, but this broken napping was taking its toll. Well, tonight she would see that he slept. After that...
Maybe she could persuade Leo to clear Jed's schedule for a few days, get him up to the farm. He could usually relax there. It was his home, the one place where he could pretend for a little while that he didn't have to make life-affecting decisions for millions of people on a daily basis.
The First Lady's reflections were interrupted by the bedroom door being abruptly flung open and the two agents who had been on duty outside bursting through. She looked up, startled, then paled. There were no prizes for guessing the reason for the intrusion. A security alert. Jed...
"I'm sorry, ma'am." Agent Daniels was tense. "We have notification of a security breach and orders to secure your safety. Could you remain here, please?"
Abbey nodded, heart pounding but outwardly calm. She and Jed were becoming as accustomed as it was possible to get to such violent interruptions. There seemed to have been a great many in recent weeks. All quickly and unthreateningly resolved, but bad for the nerves all the same. She sat quietly. No point badgering for details. These two probably hadn't any concrete information yet. They would let her know as soon as they did.
A couple of minutes of strained and mutually uncomfortable silence were finally broken by the hasty arrival of her Head of Detail. Abbey greeted him with relief. "Emil, what's happening?"
Agent Torres' expression suggested that in no way was he looking forward to answering that question. "Ma'am, I'm afraid that reports indicate there was some kind of explosion in the Oval Office within the last few minutes."
Watching the face of the woman before him blanch in shock, he hastened to add, "It was a small explosion, and there have been no fatalities, or critical injuries."
The First Lady gave a little gasp of relief. "No injuries? Jed's all right?"
Torres winced slightly. "Not exactly, ma'am. There were no critical injuries."
"What do you mean?" Relief had vanished again, and Abbey was on her feet and practically in the unfortunate agent's face. "Jed's hurt? Is he hurt? How bad is it?"
Helplessly wishing that one of his colleagues would have pity and pass on those answers, Agent Torres struggled to make sense of the din on his radio. "Ma'am, I'm afraid the President was hurt. I don't know the extent of his injuries at the moment, but I can tell you he is conscious..."
"You don't know..." Fear and anger blended themselves in Abbey's tones. Determinedly, she moved forward, forcing the agent into instinctive retreat. "I'm going down there."
Agent Torres closed his eyes and briefly meditated on the Four Last Things before moving to block the First Lady's progress. "Ma'am, I'm very sorry but my orders are explicit. I cannot let you go into a danger zone. Please. Wait here."
Usually, Abbey yielded to Secret Service requests with the minimum of protest. They were just doing their job after all, and both she and Jed were always only too painfully aware what that job might one day require of the men and women who undertook to guard the lives of America's First Couple. Plus, she felt that making their lives as easy as possible was the least she could do to make up for the occasional juvenile stunts Jed pulled on his own detail.
But not now, not in these circumstances and after the revelations of recent days. "Emil..."
"Please, ma'am." The agent's tone was sympathetic, but inflexible.
Abbey glared at him for an instance, tears of frustration and fear welling in her eyes, before abruptly turning away to perch rigidly on the edge of her armchair.
Torres fidgeted uncomfortably, before whipping his hand up to his earpiece. Finally, some news he could give to the anxious woman. "Ma'am?"
Abbey's head snapped up hopefully. "Yes, Emil?"
"Ma'am, Agent Butterfield is escorting the President to the Residence. The President is ambulatory, but has sustained injuries to the face and one hand." Torres frowned as he concentrated on the voice in his ear. "Admiral Hackett has been summoned, and is entering the Residence as we speak. He should be here..."
"Now," Abbey interrupted him, rising to greet the tall, uniformed medic who had just come through the door. "Robert, it's good to see you."
"Ma'am," The naval doctor nodded briskly and courteously to the First Lady.
Now back on rotation as attending physician to the President, Robert Hackett felt that he had forged a mutually respectful relationship with Josiah Bartlet's wife and doctor. Honestly regarding himself as an essentially good humored and intelligent man, his matter-of-fact attitude had helped smooth over any awkwardness between him and his patient over the former's non-disclosure of his medical condition when Hackett had first been obliged to attend on an executive collapse.
Likewise, his innate professionalism had recognized the medical skills of the First Lady, and he hadn't permitted her problems with the medical boards to alter his attitude towards her as a fellow physician in any way.
Now was not the time for social niceties, however. Dumping his satchel and medical tray on the table top, he stripped off his overcoat, demanding of Torres, "Any news yet on the President's arrival?"
Torres again pressed a finger to his earpiece. "The President has just entered the Residence, Admiral. He has a full security detail, and is being assisted by Agent Butterfield and Mr. Ziegler."
"Well, at least he's still on his feet." Dissatisfaction evident in every gesture, Hackett snapped on a pair of surgical gloves and began to unpack dressings and instruments from his bag. "I still think I should have seen him before he was moved..."
"Yes, yes." Hackett waved down the agent impatiently. "I do know how these things work. And I trust Ron Butterfield's judgment. He wouldn't have moved the President, however precarious the situation, if he thought it would be dangerous for him. I'm just saying that, from a medical standpoint, the position is less than ideal."
Abbey cleared her throat awkwardly. In the wake of recent events, she had sometimes felt quite tentative about offering any opinions or advice on her husband's health to his attending physicians. But concern and fear overcame her hesitancy, and Hackett had gone out of his way in recent times to let her know that he still considered her a valued colleague, especially for filling in any blanks his occasionally less-than-cooperative and always reluctant patient might leave him with. "Robert? Will you be treating Jed here? You won't be taking him to Bethesda?"
"No, ma'am. Not unless the nature of his injuries makes in-house treatment seem an unacceptable risk." The Head of White House security had also been insistent that only the Admiral attend, no assisting medics till all security checks had been seen to. His paranoia seemed a bit excessive and Hackett had nearly balked at that, but given what he'd been told of the injuries and knowing the First Lady would certainly be present, reluctantly agreed. For now. "Ron is particularly anxious that the President remain at a secure location, considering the circumstances."
"Yes." Abbey nodded, the panic once again beginning to rise. Ever since the NTSB report, the circumstances had seemed to ensure that Jed's always-precious freedom would be even further circumscribed. Just one more factor to wear on his temper and nerves.
Much as her professional instincts might balk at the idea of Jed not receiving the full attention of a hospital staff - even with the miniature hospital in the basement - she could understand Ron's caution. Right now though, she wanted nothing more than to have her husband there in front of her, so she could wrap him in her arms and shield him from those who sought to hurt him.
She didn't have long to wait. Within the minute, there was an audible flurry from the corridor, and the doors opened to admit a strained and silent Charlie Young. Abbey rose, alarmed by the sight of the thin laceration on the aide's face. "Charlie, are you all right?"
The young man scarcely glanced at her. "Yes, ma'am." He stepped aside to allow the group behind him to enter.
Immediately, and rather shamefully, all thoughts of the President's body-man were dashed from Abbey's mind, and she stepped forward, hands impulsively extended, to meet her husband. Relief at having him here at last warred with shock over his appearance, and the now ever-present dread surged anew.
Jed Bartlet entered his bedroom unsteadily, supported on one side by the stern Butterfield. Toby Ziegler cautiously grasped his left elbow, trying to exert enough pressure to hold the man erect while avoiding jolting the hand bound against his chest.
The President's face was masked in blood, still trickling down to be absorbed by his collar. The front of his shirt was also soaked crimson at the spot where his mangled hand rested. Aware of the dramatic picture he presented he looked up, blinking through blood-sticky lashes, to meet his wife's horrified regard.
An attempt to smile reassuringly was aborted with a wince as cut lips protested. "Hi, Abbey. I seem have got a bit of a hangnail here..." Awkwardly, he indicated his torn hand. "Think you could take a look?"
Oops. Clearly humor had been the wrong note to strike. Bartlet watched with some apprehension as his wife's expression darkened with irritation. On the plus side, he had achieved his objective of reassuring her panic. It was just a pity he hadn't been able to manage a more positive mood swing. 'Pissed Abbey' wasn't really much better than 'panicked Abbey', not from his front row target position. Still, being wounded had to offer some protection, right?
Apparently it did, for Abbey managed to close her lips over the exasperated retort struggling to escape them. A suspicious curve formed at one corner of her mouth. The vexation briefly smothered her anxiety, enabling her to fall back into the old, familiar patterns.
Darting into the bathroom, she emerged with two large bath towels. "Toby, Ron. Bring him over here," she directed briskly, spreading the towels over the pillows and eiderdown of the bed. "That's right, lay him back. Carefully," she added sternly as the two men eased their President into a sitting position on the bed.
Butterfield gently supported the man's head back onto the pillow as Ziegler lifted his legs onto the mattress. Both men then withdrew slightly, to join Young in anxious and useless vigil at the foot of the bed.
Abbey bent over her husband, brushing the slightly damp hair back from his forehead and attempting to assess the damage to his face and neck. It looked messy, but not as bad as she had feared. His hand though… she swallowed hard, how had he managed to avoid losing any fingers?
Yet, somehow he had. The flesh was torn and practically flayed on his palm, but the hand itself seemed basically intact. She reached to loosen the tie holding it in place - then froze. With a mixture of apology, discomfiture and frustration, she turned to the uniformed man hovering behind her. "I beg your pardon, Robert. I didn't mean to keep you from your patient." God, but that was hard to say!
Since her decision to give up her license, she had had to curb her automatic reflexes towards her husband, knowing that she could not be a doctor to him now. The trouble was that she had been both wife and doctor to Jed for most of their married lives. The two roles were so intertwined that she wasn't sure it was possible to separate them.
For now at least though, she wasn't going to have to. The observant Hackett held out a pair of latex gloves, setting a medical swab, a bottle of sterile water and a small pair of tweezers on the bed beside her. When she looked up at him, startled and grateful, he smiled sympathetically.
"Dr. Bartlet, perhaps you would start working on the President's face? I'll tend to his hand." Bending his head towards hers, he murmured quietly, "I think he would appreciate your attention, ma'am."
'So would I.' Gratefully, Abbey snapped on the gloves and leaned over her husband's head, using the swab and water to gently wipe away the blood still trickling from the deeper facial wounds and delicately extracting tiny fragments of debris with the tweezers.
Clinically, she began to assess the damage. The wounds were clearing out fairly well. At least two were going to require one or two stitches, but fortunately the shrapnel pieces had been so small that for the most part the damage was a matter of depth rather than surface area. A fairly copious quantity of sticking plaster should take care of the rest. Jed would find shaving interesting for some time to come, though. And C.J. was going to have a fit when she saw the damage. Abbey wagered that the White House press corps would find presidential photo opportunities severely curtailed in the immediate future.
Hackett had seized a pillow and was using it to raise the President's hand as he delicately maneuvered the fingers and inspected the deeply impacted fragments among the ripped flesh of the man's palm. From the way Jed was subtly flinching, Abbey knew the exploration was far from painless, and it was going to get worse before it got better.
Holding the wounded hand firmly by the wrist, Hackett regarded his patient intently. "Mr. President?"
Bartlet blinked slowly, turning his gaze to the medic.
"Before we go any further..."
"We?" the President replied dryly, an arched eyebrow indicating the inevitable sarcastic mood swing. "There's a we here?"
"Jed," Abbey warned him softly. "The sooner you cooperate, the sooner we can get this over with."
Bartlet made no attempt to hide his annoyance and merely grunted.
Rolling her eyes, more than a bit pleased he still had the capacity to be grouchy and contrary, Abbey gently turned his head to one side. "Good boy," she murmured fondly. The glare he shot her from lidded eyes pleased her even more.
Hackett, well used to this, took tighter hold of the man's wrist. "This is going to hurt, sir, but I need you to move your fingers."
Squeezing his eyes shut, Bartlet complied, moving the fingers as best he could till the pain became too much. Letting out a gust of breath that bordered on a groan, he let the hand relax, swallowing against the rising nausea in his stomach.
"Sir, please," Hackett encouraged him. "Full extension, force yourself."
Bartlett was about to protest the impossibility when he felt his wife's fingers brush his cheek, then settle lightly on his shoulder. Meeting her anxious gaze, he gritted his teeth and fully extended the fingers. He shut his eyes again when the pain, which had nearly become background tolerable, surged to new, exquisite heights.
Watching carefully, Hackett told him firmly, "Make a fist, as tight as you can."
Oddly, that was actually easier than the first. Making a fist, the President could feel the torn flesh of his palm, the sticky feel of still-weeping blood. A spasm threatened to tear his wrist out of the medic's grasp, but Hackett kept hold. He felt Abbey's hand tighten on his shoulder. Somehow, that made it more bearable.
"Okay," Hackett said, keeping his tone matter-of-fact. "You can relax now."
One eye opened and Bartlet gave his attending physician an incredulous glare. "You've got to be kidding."
"Jed, behave." Abbey then gave her attention to Hackett, who was laying out a syringe and bottle. "No tendon damage?" she asked.
"I think we got lucky there," Hackett replied, upending the bottle and inserting the syringe. "He has full extension and retraction..."
Bartlet snorted. "We," he grumbled. "I still don't see any we here."
"... I'd still prefer some x-rays," Hackett continued, ignoring the grousing from the patient. Finishing filling the syringe, he gave Abbey his full attention. "Under the circumstances, given Ron's objections to removing him from the Residence, I feel safe administering a local, then cleaning this and closing it as best we can. Do you concur, Dr. Bartlet?"
For a moment, Abbey was too stunned to reply. He was asking? "I do," she replied, finding her voice. His question was more than a gesture; it was a sincere acknowledgment of a trusted colleague. So much for a piece of paper.
Aware of her unspoken thanks, Hackett smiled at her, then his expression grew serious. "Mr. President?"
"Don't tell me, it's going to hurt, right?"
"Probably." Hackett turned the President's hand over and positioned the needle at the base of his wrist. "I'm administering a local anesthetic. In a few minutes, you won't feel a thing."
"In the meanwhile?" Bartlet asked skeptically.
Hackett didn't bother to answer and inserted the needle, slowly depressing the plunger. Stopping, he pulled back on the needle slightly and maneuvered it into another position before beginning another injection. Under his hand, he felt the muscles of Bartlet's arm tense.
Starting to repeat the process, he paused briefly when a choked voice asked, "You're gonna pull that out eventually, right?"
"Eventually, Mr. President," Hackett consoled him. This was the worst part and thankfully, considering what his patient had already been through, soon over. The last of the local injected, he removed the needle and gently laid the hand back on the pillow. "Done."
The President wasn't the only one to relax at that declaration. At the foot of the bed, Butterfield and Young, an unwilling audience at best, let out a collective breath that was nearly as loud as the patient's own relieved sigh. Realizing their tandem performance, the short, embarrassed glaring contest was won by the scowling Secret Service agent.
Ziegler, a past champion at the stare-down, chose to let the two amateurs go at it. His own sigh of relief was no less an emotional relief than theirs. For him, at this moment, it was enough.
Witnessing this, Abbey's short laugh contained only a hint of hysteria. At this point, she figured just a touch of emotional instability had been well earned. Her expression softened when she looked down at her husband.
Despite the ordeal of the local being over, he had sunk his teeth into his lower lip, apparently headless of the fact that this was causing the cuts there to bleed anew. His occasional screwing up of his eyes in pain was frustrating her continued attempts to clean them of the blood that had dried on the lids.
Looking closer at his left eyelid, Abbey couldn't help but feel that whatever angels of good fortune habitually hovered over her husband were working overtime on his behalf of late. Jed's eyes seemed amazingly untouched, but judging by the cuts and scratches on that eyelid in particular he had, quite literally, blinked at exactly the right moment.
Gently lifting Bartlet's hand and laying out a fresh towel, Hackett scowled at the mess he had to deal with. He'd seen worse, but it still wasn't pretty. Opening a bottle of saline solution, he asked, "What exactly happened, Mr. President?"
"That's what I'd like to know." A somewhat breathless McGarry barreled through the door, joining the other three men at the foot of the bed. "Abbey, sir, I'm sorry. C.J. needed a moment."
"I'll bet she did," Bartlet grumbled from the bed, wincing as Hackett poured the saline over his palm. It didn't hurt as much as he'd feared. The local must have started kicking in. An odd, creeping numbness seemed to be spreading slowly up his hand. "Spinning this is gonna be fun. How far did the commotion carry anyway?"
The Chief of Staff shrugged in no small dismay. "If the crowd I glimpsed outside reception was any indication, at least as far as the Communications bullpen." He shook his head, determined to keep the President's questions at this point to the bare minimum. "Never mind that, sir. We'll worry about it later."
"Yeah, 'cause the press are always really patient and understanding about waiting for their explanations and daily feedings." Bartlet's mouth twisted and he squirmed slightly as Hackett delicately withdrew a fragment from a particularly deep incision. "They're not stupid, Leo. I'm sure the rumor mill has already kicked in. We certainly can't tell them what really happened. Although that shouldn't be too hard, because I sure as hell don't know what did happen exactly."
"Ron?" McGarry swung around to his sometime associate and partner in presidential baby-sitting. "How soon..."
"I'll have a preliminary report for you within twenty minutes." The Security Chief's finger seemed to be permanently jammed to his earpiece and he looked up with a scowl of concentration. "Mr. President, if you'll excuse me?"
"Go." Bartlet waved his free hand to give permission. "Oh, and don't forget to..."
"... keep Admiral Fitzwallace and the NSA informed," Butterfield completed briskly. "Yes, sir." The senior agent quickly strode out of the room, gathering his subordinates as he went and issuing instructions for a full detail to be posted right outside the bedroom doors.
Relieved that he had lost at least part of the audience for his present incapacitated state, the President returned his attention to his Communications Director. "Toby, any ideas on how we should handle this?"
Ziegler cleared his throat uncomfortably; awkward at witnessing the frantic first aid currently being carried out on his Chief Executive. "Frankly, sir, no. It's a PR nightmare. Unlike the NTSB report, we can't keep this under wraps. And we certainly can't tell the truth. We've got to come up with a plausible story to account for..."
"... this?" Bartlet's gesture encompassed both his face and arm. "Yeah, it's pretty visible damage."
"And rather extensive." McGarry was feeling a little punchy with shock-induced adrenaline. "We might be able to conceal the hand, but the face..."
"Conceal the hand?" Ziegler was openly skeptical, not to mention dumbfounded at the simplistic suggestion. If only... "Leo, the President is one of the most photographed and observed people in the world. How on earth could we conceal that he doesn't have the use of his left hand?"
"I don't know. In his pocket maybe?" Shock was definitely setting in; the Chief of Staff was never this scattered. Seeing his friend on the hospital gurney after Rosslyn had been bad enough, but this? "Or maybe, you know..." thrusting his own hand into the breast of his jacket.
The President stared at his Chief of Staff incredulously. "Do I look like Napoleon to you, Leo?"
"Well, the height..."
"Leo!" The White House Chief of Staff wasn't the only one starting to feel a little punchy.
"Jed, shut up a minute, will you?" demanded his exasperated wife, who had been endeavoring to assess a particularly deep cut just under his chin.
Her husband complied meekly. Besides, he was starting to feel increasingly woozy, the old familiar fatigue washing over him in gentle waves. Maybe it was the absence of pain from his hand; he couldn't be sure. The effort to focus both his attention and his eyes on his two advisors was becoming increasingly wearisome.
He was jerked back to full attention as Hackett, having finally finished his probing, briskly swabbed at the open wound that was his palm with the practiced heavy-handedness characteristic of the professional medic. It didn't exactly hurt, but Bartlet still flinched with sufficient vim to yank his chin out of Abbey's equally firm grasp. Hackett tightened the grip on his wrist as well.
Dazedly, he wondered how many of the bruises that would undoubtedly be appearing on the morrow would be able to be laid down to the explosion, and how many might be traced to his two overly conscientious physicians.
"Jed, stop wriggling." Abbey was in full doctor mode. Not that he didn't enjoy the attention, but her husband usually preferred to deflect her focus away from his health as rapidly as possible, generally to more... recreational pursuits. He hated having his physical condition at the center of attention. He couldn't avoid it this time, though.
Although, observing the increasing glaze to his eyes, she rather doubted that he had the energy to attempt to distract her just now.
"Robert..." She recaptured her errant spouse's chin and tilted his head back. "... there's this cut here, just below the jaw line, and another at his left eyebrow that need a couple of stitches. Other than that, I don't think any of the other puncture wounds are sufficiently deep to warrant stitching."
"I agree." Hackett squinted at the underside of the President's chin as the First Lady angled their patient's head. "We'll dress some of the deeper wounds, but I think the rest should be disinfected and left open to breathe."
Not at all happy about being on display, or being talked over like he wasn't there, Bartlet still managed to hold his tongue. From the look in his wife's eye, he knew she was waiting for him to start something and right now, as much as he loved her, he didn't feel like giving her the satisfaction of being right. Not this time. Perversely it seemed, while his hand had gone blessedly numb, the all-consuming ache seemed to have migrated to the rest of his body.
Hackett had turned his attention to a more serious concern, drawing Abbey's attention to her husband's hand. "It's hard to see, but there is a severe laceration in the center of the palm. Only the one, mind you, but it's going to be difficult to stitch because of the explosive damage. Fortunately, as we've already seen, none of the major tendons or muscles have been compromised, but the skin and subcutaneous tissues of the palm and fingers have been pretty much flayed. There is some second degree charring as well, from the heat of detonation."
Oblivious to the empathic wincing of both McGarry and Ziegler at his action, he carefully manipulated the hand and fingers in illustration for his equally engrossed, though obviously still worried colleague. Young, who had retreated behind the First Lady to hold the small bowl into which she and Hackett had been depositing the foreign materials extracted from the wounds, visibly tightened his grip on the rim.
Not even three local anesthetics were going to stand up to that. Bartlet pulled his hand away with a tortured hiss and glared balefully at his physicians through pain-filmed eyes. Much to his annoyance, they didn't even glance his way. So much for being the leader of the free world.
Instead, Abbey effectively interrupted the composition of a rather superior biting comment about whether they'd be happier if he just left them his hand and quit the room - because they certainly didn't seem to need him - by applying what had to be the most vicious antiseptic in the pharmacopoeia to the first of his facial abrasions.
He was damn sure she had planned it that way, too.
Hackett in turn was threading a long, curved silver needle. The sight of it caused McGarry to gulp quietly, and the visibly edgy Ziegler eyed the rapidly greening Chief of Staff askance. An uneasy silence reigned for some minutes, broken only by the occasional low grunt of protest from the President as the two doctors worked on his facial injuries.
Eventually, both drew back, satisfied with their immediate efforts. Surgical dressing adorned the President's face at several points, and Hackett's neat stitching was almost invisible under the hair of his eyebrow, and more or less concealed under the point of his chin. The other cuts and scratches stood out in vivid red relief against the clammy paleness of his skin, and his left eyelid was slightly swollen and puffy, his lips lacerated and raw.
It wasn't a sight to gladden C.J. Cregg's heart (her personal sentiments aside, of course), but both medical experts knew how much more serious it could have been. The damage was really only cosmetic after all.
Unfortunately, the same couldn't be so easily said for Bartlet's left hand. Hackett frowned down at the maimed palm as he threaded a fresh needle. "I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to make such a tidy job of the stitching here," he commented to his colleague. "There's practically no skin left, and the subcutaneous tissue is pretty much pulped in places. It's going to be difficult to anchor the stitches in places. We're just going to have to forget about appearances and settle for closing it as best we can."
"Yes." Abbey nodded her agreement. "And stabilize the hand, of course."
"Stabilize it?" Bartlet regarded them suspiciously. "What's that going to involve?" His lips tightened slightly in irritation as once again his question passed right by the engrossed doctors.
Noticing this, Ziegler stepped forward, coughing apologetically and selflessly entering the lion's den. "Excuse me, ma'am?"
Abbey looked up from her work, giving the Communications Director her somewhat irritated attention. "Yes, Toby?"
"The President just wondered... that is... what will stabilizing his hand involve?"
Bartlet shot his Communications Director a glance of mingled surprise and gratitude, causing Ziegler to color slightly and step back beside McGarry. Observing the way each man surreptitiously glanced at the other, then snapped away as if afraid to make eye contact, he wondered once again just what the hell was going on with those two.
Abbey was answering Ziegler. "We're not going to splint his hand, Toby or put it in a sling..."
"That'll cheer C.J. up," the President interjected, trying vainly to gain some control of the proceedings.
"... but we are going to have to immobilize it as much as possible." Abbey steamrolled over her husband's attempt to impose himself effortlessly and with practiced ease. "Otherwise, there's a risk he could tear the stitches or reopen the wound. So, it'll be heavily bandaged. He'll also have to try to keep the hand elevated as much as possible."
"Anything else he should know?" Bartlet was getting increasingly testy. This was one reason he disliked attending doctors. Even the best of them, his wife included, tended to forget the person and see only the problem. And he hated being defined that way.
Also, the nervous energy of earlier had given way to a cranky tiredness. Much more of this attention and prodding and he feared his temper really would snap. Right now, he just wanted them all to go away and leave him in peace to regroup and gather what was left of his rapidly waning resources.
Although the searing, burning pain in his hand had mercifully dulled, he wasn't sure if the uneasy hollow numbness that replaced it was much of an improvement. And he was becoming increasingly aware of the raw tenderness of his face. "You could just tell me, you know. I am still here."
"Funny, Jed." Abbey wasn't going to snap out of professional mode so easily. She couldn't afford to. It was the only thing that had kept her hands from shaking as she tended her husband and reflected on what had happened, what could have happened. "Robert? Do we have enough bandages here? We're going to need to wrap the wrist and lower forearm as well in order to give enough support."
Hackett looked up briefly from lining up the needle to make its first incursion into the President's palm. "No, I'm going to need at least another couple of rolls, and some more Hibitane as well."
"What's Hibitane?" McGarry's question was inspired less by curiosity and more by a need to distract himself from Hackett's preparations.
"Prevents infection." The First Lady explained briskly. "Especially effective on open wounds that are still bleeding. I'll go get what we need from medical supplies myself, Robert. Quicker than writing the details down for one of the agents or the stewards." And, to be fair, Hackett was the attending physician. It made more sense for her to go. "Charlie? Come help me?"
"Yes, ma'am." Young was only too thankful to be able to do something practical to help at last. The need to do something, anything, was overwhelming. He rather suspected this same need to keep busy was part of the reason behind the First Lady's proposed excursion. He didn't blame her, could hardly stand still himself. He followed her towards the door.
"Abbey?" The President's voice sounded slightly strained. "While you're getting that stuff, have a look at Charlie's cheek, will you?"
Young half-turned, startled and touched that the man could remember the relatively insignificant cut his aide had acquired, considering his own condition. "Sir, that's not necessary. Really, I'm fine."
Abbey patted the young man affectionately on the arm. "Don't worry, Jed. I'll look after him." Linking her arm through his, she steered Young through the bedroom doors and past the bevy of agents grimly congregated outside, her own detail falling in behind her.
Now the only remaining members of the original audience, McGarry and Ziegler fidgeted uncomfortably beside each other, a subtle tension still charging the air around them. Still shocked by events and unable to settle, McGarry drifted around the foot of the bed, finally coming up behind Hackett and leaning in to observe the treatment of the President's hand.
Almost immediately, he wished he hadn't. Leo McGarry had a pretty strong stomach but not, he was discovering, where injury to those he cared about was concerned. Still able to taste the metallic bile of the fear he had felt for his friend's condition in the instant aftermath of the explosion, he felt his insides twist anew at the sight of the damage the explosive had wrought. Hackett had been kind when he described the flesh as pulped. To McGarry it looked rather as if someone had taken a meat hammer to a side of uncooked beef. Somehow, watching the contrasting gleam of silver as the needle wove its way amongst the damage only made it worse.
One thing was for sure; he was never going to be able to order his steak rare again.
No sooner had that evil little image popped into his brain, than he found himself desperately trying to banish it again. Too late. Swallowing with difficulty against an ominously tightening throat, the Chief of Staff uttered a muffled, "Excuse me," before withdrawing with as much dignity as haste would permit to the adjoining bathroom, closing the door firmly behind him.
The absorbed Hackett didn't even look up from his delicate work. Ziegler regarded the closed door with rueful sympathy, then caught the appraising eye of his Chief Executive. Warily, he approached the bed in his turn. "How are you doing, Mr. President?"
"Slightly better than Leo right at this moment, it would appear." Frankly, Bartlet was feeling strangely detached from events right now. Everything seemed both remote and oddly attenuated.
Fascinated, he watched the dip and rise of the needle as it penetrated his flesh. The lack of sensation made the experience even more surreal. However, it wasn't exactly an attractive sight. As the needle made its passage through a particularly ragged section of flesh he suddenly envied Leo his mobility. Well, that particular option was closed to him right now, so time to take alternative measures. "Admiral, mind if I have a cigarette?"
His concentration finally broken, Hackett looked up and cocked an incredulous eyebrow. "Are you serious, Mr. President?"
"Never more so. Come on," the President wheedled in his best 'see how pitiful I am' tone of voice. It never worked on Abbey, but he had high hopes Hackett was a bit more susceptible. "I just want something to relax my nerves... and my stomach," he added as his physician began to shake his head. "Look, I'll lay it out for you. Either let me have a cigarette to keep my mind off what you're doing or risk me messing up your nice uniform."
That gave Hackett serious pause. No military man liked the idea of his Class A's sustaining that kind of damage. Besides, with a local already administered it wasn't as if he could actually give the man anything for nausea. And if it helped relax him... "Very well, Mr. President. But just the one, mind you. So you'd better make it last until I'm finished here."
Bartlet visibly perked up at this first success over his medical advisors. "Top drawer," he waved to Ziegler, who recovered the packet from the bed stand and shook one out for him.
With a slightly shaky hand, the Communications Director presented his lighter, embarrassed that the President had to reach up with his good hand to assist in the last ritual of lighting up.
Bartlet drew on the cigarette gratefully. It wasn't at all good for him, he wasn't about to argue with that, but it did help. And right now, he didn't really care.
"Have one yourself, Toby," he offered graciously. The man looked like he could use some relief as well.
"Yeah, I think I will." Ziegler was very aware of the therapeutic properties of nicotine for the addict. He drew out his cigar case. "Would you mind if I smoked my own?"
"Not at all." Bartlet blithely ignored Hackett's pointed eye rolling. He grinned, taking another drag off his cigarette. "Even better actually. Your cigar should more than drown out the smell of my cigarette for Abbey's return. Oh, for Heaven's sake, Toby!" he exclaimed with some exasperation as Ziegler paused in terrified mid-puff. "I'm kidding!"
Ziegler stroked his beard dubiously, but settled gingerly on the right side of the bed, looking across his President's chest to where the man's hand still lay propped on the pillow. "Are you in a lot of pain right now, sir?"
"Not too bad right now, thanks, Toby." Bartlet cautiously wiggled a finger and grimaced slightly. "Mind you, I'm not looking forward to the anesthetic wearing off."
"Done!" Hackett snipped the last thread and laid the hand down gingerly. "About a dozen stitches, Mr. President. Not bad for a relatively small area, but the wound was quite deep. Now hold still because we still need to wrap it." He rose, gathering his paraphernalia. "I'm just going to wash up... and check on Mr. McGarry," he added as a muttered afterthought before vanishing into the bathroom.
Left alone, the President and his Communications Director puffed away peacefully for a couple of minutes. Then Bartlet glanced at his companion. "Want to tell me what's going on?"
"You and Leo." Bartlet noticed the sudden interest Ziegler exhibited in the tip of his cigar. Yep, he'd definitely called that one right. "Something's happened between you two, and it had to have been last night because there was no sign of it yesterday. Now, everyone knows that you and I blow up at each other on a regular basis. They can tell time by it. You and Leo? Not so much. So what happened? Something come up at the staff briefing?"
"Not at the briefing, but afterwards." Ziegler shifted uncomfortably. "Sir, really..."
"Anything I should know about?" Toby's inability to meet his gaze was a dead giveaway. Bartlet grimaced. "It was about me, wasn't it? Toby, if you're still concerned about my ability to carry out my duties properly in the wake of recent revelations..."
"I'm not!" Ziegler's response was passionate in its sincerity. "Please, sir, no matter what I may have said in the past, don't ever think I have anything but the greatest confidence in you. No, Leo... simply wanted an answer that wasn't mine to give."
"Then who’s...?" Bartlet's eyes narrowed. "Mine? Toby, what did Leo want to know?"
"Sir, he wasn't attempting to pry. You know Leo; he's incapable of taking advantage of a friendship." He paused briefly as Bartlet nodded glumly. "But he was worried about you. And," a deep drag on his cigar for confidence, "angry with me."
"Was this about our... talk?" It was the first time either had referred to that night since their peacemaking chess match.
"Yes, sir. In a roundabout sort of way. He was concerned that it might be still affecting you." Ziegler looked down guiltily. "He felt you already had more than enough to cope with right now."
"And of course, you didn't tell him." Bartlet glanced at the closed bathroom door; a short, bitter laugh escaping his bruised and cut lips. "Poor Leo. He's not used to the word no."
"A common affliction in this building," Ziegler muttered, not too unkindly.
"It's more than that though, isn't it? Leo wouldn't expect you to break a confidence. He's upset about something else."
"I... may have crossed a line." Ziegler was still refusing to meet his President's eye. His head snapped up though when Bartlet gave a low, heartily amused chuckle. He hadn't expected that.
"You, Toby? Crossing lines? You amaze me." Bartlet grinned at his discomfited advisor. "Nice to know that even Leo isn't immune."
"Yes, sir." Ziegler sheepishly took another drag on his cigar. Deciding to seize the moment, and scarcely able to fathom why this issue was so important to him, he asked, "Was he right to worry, sir?"
Bartlet's amused expression abruptly shuttered. Lowering his voice and glancing at the bathroom door to make sure they weren't interrupted, he said, "I'm fine, Toby. Really. And I'd rather not discuss it, if you don't mind. God damn it!" The exclamation was part angry exasperation, part curiosity. "Why is it so important to you anyway? I've told you already, it wasn't exactly a Dickens novel. Many people would even say it was just the way things were back then. What do you want from me?"
Ziegler regarded his companion sadly. "To maybe acknowledge that it wasn't all right, that it wasn't fine," he said quietly. "To realize, as I do, that you deserved better. All children do."
Bartlet met his gaze, startled and visibly at a loss for words. Toby was doing it again, and damned if he could figure out how.
The opening of the bedroom doors broke the silence. Abigail Bartlet swept through, a medical tray loaded with fresh bandages in one hand. Halting abruptly, she glared through a cloud of smoke at the two men seated on the bed before advancing purposely, dropping the tray on the end of the bed as she passed.
"Hi, Abbey." Bartlet was grateful for the interruption. "Did you get…" He broke off abruptly as his wife angrily snatched the cigarette from his fingers.
Leaning across her husband, Abbey plucked the cigar from the bewildered Ziegler's mouth with an audible pop, then wheeled about to march purposely into the bathroom, passing a surprised Hackett and McGarry - who had been leaning on the countertop inside - engaged in intense discussion.
Bartlet and Ziegler gazed after her blankly, then turned slowly comprehending gazes on each other as the fanfare of flushing water clearly sounded through the open door. The Communications Director's mouth was the first to twitch, and then the President threw back his head in a full-throated laugh as his companion in crime joined in.
"Toby my boy, we are in deep trouble," Bartlet gasped, wiping his eyes with his good hand and grimacing slightly at the stinging sensation the incautious gesture induced.
Ziegler struggled to contain his chuckles - he did after all have a reputation to maintain - almost giddy with pleasure at being able to share this moment with a man he regarded as a friend. "Hey, I'm not the patient here. You can fight this battle yourself, old man."
Watching from his vantage point just inside the bathroom door, McGarry was prey to a strange mix of emotions. He was glad to see Jed being able to snatch such moments of camaraderie with his staff; he hadn't had very many moments just to be with a friend since taking office. But Toby's words of the previous evening continued to resound in his head.
He was Jed's oldest friend. He truly loved the man. Had he failed in that friendship, if not in work and duty? When had the job become all they talked about, all he talked about? When had he made Jed come to feel that he could more easily confide in Toby instead? Seeing the two men laughing on the bed, he suddenly felt cut off from the man who meant so much to him.
McGarry wasn't given much time to dwell on such depressing thoughts though as Abbey, a gleam in her eye and clearly on the warpath, brushed by him. He exchanged an equitable roll of the eyes with Hackett as he and the medic followed the First Lady back into the main bedroom to watch the show.
Hands on her hips, Abbey Bartlet glared down at the two culprits, who were sobering rapidly and eyeing her with apprehension. Good! "Toby," she said quietly. "I'll need you to stand back, please."
Hardly able to believe his good fortune at escaping so easily, Ziegler hastened to get clear of the danger zone.
Bartlet shot a betrayed glance at his retreating back. "Chicken!" he hissed.
"Pumpkin?" Abbey said sweetly. Sure that she had his full nervous attention, she gave him a warning glance. "We'll discuss it all later. Right now, we need to finish with your hand."
Bartlet sighed resignedly as Hackett once again seated himself on the edge of the bed and delicately lifted his hand from its resting place, allowing the First Lady to spread yet another fresh towel beneath. The laundry bills after this little incident were going to be murder. At least the stitching of the main wound had slowed the bleeding to a trickle.
Glancing around, he suddenly demanded, "Where's Charlie?"
"I sent him to lie down." Abbey was handing Hackett the Hibitane and a roll of surgical gauze. "The cut wasn't serious, but he was suffering from mild shock. A few hours rest and he'll be fine."
"Good." Bartlet shifted slightly on the bed and winced. "Ow!"
"Sorry, Mr. President." Hackett had thickly layered his palm and fingers with the cream and gaze and was beginning to wrap the first of what looked to be several excessively long bandages around the hand and wrist.
"No, it's not you." Bartlet grimaced as he tugged gently at his blood-stiffened shirtfront. "Now it's drying, my shirt is starting to stick to my chest. Can I change?" On Abbey's nod, he gestured towards the bureau. "Leo, toss me a shirt out of the second drawer, will you?"
"Not a shirt, Leo, and not the sweats either,” his wife interrupted briskly. “Get his pajamas from the drawer above.” Glaring at her patient, she asked, "A shirt? Where do you think you're going, mister? You're donning pajamas and getting into bed right now."
"I am in bed," Bartlet groused. Who cared if he sounded petulant? He was feeling petulant and felt like reveling in it.
"And staying there. Do I make myself clear?"
Glowering slightly, but admitting to himself that he really didn't feel up to doing anything else anyway, Bartlet began to carefully and awkwardly unbutton his shirt. McGarry hurried to his assistance, pajamas clutched in one hand.
"Here, Jed. Let me help." The words were impulsively spoken, and McGarry didn't even notice Ziegler's glance of surprised approval.
Abbey noticed as well, giving McGarry an astonished look of her own, quickly masked. When was the last time she'd heard Leo call Jed by name, to his face? A quiet evening, the last for many years to come, before the Illinois primary was the vague memory. She wasn't sure, but she could have sworn there was a flash of smug satisfaction on Toby's face before his features once again settled into his usual bellicose facade. Interesting.
Fighting the last of his shirt buttons with an irritated grunt, Bartlet didn't seem to notice.
Grasping the cuff of his friend's sleeve, McGarry eased the bloodied shirt off the man's right arm and shoulders as the President leaned forward to assist him. The left sleeve had been partly shredded by the blast, and Hackett paused in his wrapping of the hand long enough to slide the shirt down and off. McGarry turned back to the President again, holding the opened pajama top and bending over his friend.
"Just lean forward again and I can drape this over your shoulders until the Admiral's done..." McGarry's voice trailed off as Bartlet compliantly stretched forward, exposing the expanse of his back to his friend's eyes.
There, on the right side, just below the ribcage. A puckered, slightly jagged scar; a tear. An exit wound. McGarry clutched the cloth in his hands, unable for a second to move or even breathe. He'd seen it before, knew what it looked like. But right here and now, in these circumstances, it was a reminder he could have well done without.
The memories returned, images crashing against his consciousness like an oncoming wave. Sensory overload. He tried, God how he tried, but he couldn't stop them. Blood and tears. Too much blood. A cynical inner voice echoed the words Bartlett had spoken only the night before. The teasing words of a beloved friend and colleague, but now colored the bright crimson of violence.
'Thank you for that, Leo,' the President had said, a slight smile taking the sting from his words. 'This job was your idea.'
His idea. Lift houses, take on the world. McGarry had convinced him to fight for and accept this job: to willingly sacrifice so much and maybe, just maybe, make a difference and put a lasting mark on history. It was only a job, difficult, maddening and frustrating to the extreme, but still just a job.
It wasn't supposed to kill him.
With a muffled curse, McGarry thrust the top into Abbey's stunned hands and practically leapt away from the bed. Taking deep, unsteady breaths, he bolted for the bedroom door, blinded by memories that wouldn't be denied. He couldn't stay here. Not now.
Nearly up-ended by the man's sudden action, Hackett made a grab for the medical tray before it could slide to the floor. Scowling, he turned to offer his unbridled opinion to the Chief of Staff, but paused when he saw the troubled look on Ziegler's face as he watched McGarry's uncharacteristically emotional and hasty retreat. He didn't need to have it spelled out. Embarrassed at being witness, he glanced away, concentrating his whole attention on unrolling a length of bandage.
Ziegler shuffled his feet, staring uneasily at the toes of his shoes.
Confused, Abbey watched McGarry bolt for the door. Clutching the shirt tightly in her hands, she called out worriedly, "Leo...?"
She jumped as the bedroom door slammed shut, then turned a questioning glance on her husband. Abbey almost broke down at the expression of raw grief on his face and she suddenly understood. Last night, she had so wanted to lay blame, not truly realizing the depths Leo McGarry had plumbed upbraiding himself.
The blame her husband was also claiming for his own.
A new helpless anguish seared her heart, and she reached out to her husband, brushing her fingers across his forehead. "Jed?" she asked, feeling him shudder as he drew a sharp breath.
"Damn!" Bartlet muttered, letting his head fell back against the pillow. He didn't need to ask, he knew. "Let him go, Abbey," he said softly. At her openly skeptical look, he managed a dry laugh. "He'll be okay. It's not like I can follow him, is it? Leo'll work it out. He always does."
Abbey wasn't so sure about that. Jed so wanted to follow but couldn't, she understood that as well. He didn't like feeling helpless or cornered. It didn't matter that circumstances - she was beginning to hate that word - were in control, not him. She watched him stare at the closed door, silent and defeated. In every respect, they were so much alike. The thought, although not new, still managed to frighten her, especially now.
The words she had spoken to Leo last night came to mind, and with loving sincerity, she gave them to her husband. "It's not your fault, Jed. Anymore than it's his."
"I wish I could believe that."
"Believe it." Despite the audience, she leaned forward and, mindful of the cuts, brushed her lips tenderly across his. Sure she had his attention, she cocked her head, smiled and told him, "Not everything requires blame, Jed. You'd think we'd all have learned that by now."
The President's dry chuckle held only a hint of bitter regret. "Yeah, you'd think."
Finishing what McGarry had begun, Abbey draped the pajama top across her husband's shoulders. "Since when do we bother to think around here?"
Bartlett didn't bother to dignify that with an answer.
Ziegler cleared his throat. "Sir?"
"No, Toby." Catching the man's wary glance towards the door, it wasn't hard to deduce his intent. "All things considered, you're the last person he needs in his corner right now. A train wreck comes to mind."
Ziegler had the presence of mind to look slightly affronted at that, but ruefully acknowledged the point with a nod and a scowl. God knows how many traffic barriers he'd manage to cross if he did go out there.
Seeing the man's understanding, however reluctant - Toby honestly did want to help - Bartlet nodded in return. "He just needs to find his bearings."
"In the meanwhile, Mr. President," Hackett interjected a touch impatiently, holding up a roll of fresh bandages. "We're not quite finished here."
The President's muttered comment violated several local - if a bit antiquated - obscenity laws and would have got him tossed out of the House on his ear. It did earn him a playful though gentle slap on the arm from his wife. Despite his growing fatigue, he brightened a bit at that.
Hell, maybe this whole day wasn't a total bust.
Feeling guilty and shamed that he hadn't been able to remain in the room and watch them put his friend back together, McGarry pulled one of the hallway chairs away from the wall and literally fell onto it with a grunt. With the initial adrenaline rush burned off by a brisk run through the mansion and what he had witnessed inside, emotionally and physically, he was made acutely aware that he wasn't exactly a kid anymore. With an exhausted sigh he hunched over, arms resting on his thighs and leaning his head forward between his knees. It seemed to help settle the nausea twisting his stomach.
"You look green."
"Agent Butterfield." Lifting his head, McGarry found the strength of mind to offer his tormentor a truly venomous glare. "Your sympathy is overwhelming."
Butterfield shrugged. Despite his flat words, it wasn't sympathy McGarry was looking for, and more than most the agent understood what the man was going through. Inclining his head towards the closed door, he asked, "Is he going to be okay?"
McGarry could only nod tiredly, bringing up his hands to hold a head that suddenly seemed far to heavy to support itself.
"You gonna be okay?" It was a blunt question, but needed to be asked.
"Do I have any choice?" McGarry shot the agent a dark look, his mouth twisting angrily. More than a hint of helpless rage entered his voice. "This shouldn't have happened, Ron."
"No, it shouldn't have."
McGarry blinked at the empty response, realizing then how the normally emotionless agent had interpreted his tone. He nearly cursed out loud at his carelessness. Ron was giving himself enough of a beating without the need for spectators, however emotionally involved, joining in the fun. Failure was not an option and Butterfield fully expected to be charged with it. The Chief of Staff knew as well that any denial of that false accusation on his part wouldn't be accepted.
But he could give him this, and mean it. "Any resignations placed on the President's desk, or mine, will be torn up and tossed into the waste bin where they belong. Is that understood?"
Butterfield's mouth tightened, but he nodded, for the moment accepting the absolution.
"He's alive, Ron." Dear God, those words were torn from the depths of his soul. Jed was alive. For now, it was the only thing keeping him sane.
"They didn't want him dead, Leo." Butterfield lifted a sheet of paper in his hand, staring at it. Another string of words, another useless report. Well, not quite useless. "Killing him at this point wasn't part of their game plan."
"They," McGarry's lip curled with disgust, "came awfully close."
This was not what Butterfield wanted to hear from McGarry. He needed to bring the man out of his slump, invigorate his mind and force him to see beyond his injured friend. And right now, he knew it wasn't just the life of the President that was tearing him apart, but Josiah Bartlet's.
"Think about it, Leo. There's no way they could have smuggled enough explosives into the White House to kill him outright. Somebody in security was asleep at the wheel, yes, I admit that." And he was going to find out exactly who had dropped the ball on this one. Heads were going to roll. "They want him out, Leo. Out of the White House, out of the security perimeter and out into the questionable playing field of the real world."
McGarry's short laugh contained very little humor. "The real world, Ron?" Thinking about it, he decided it wasn't so bad a choice of words. The last three years had gone by like a Burroughs-inspired nightmare. Still, some of the deeply simmering rage boiled off at that statement, and the last few accusations he wanted to level at the Security Chief.
Ron had ably hit on the answer to the next question he'd wanted to ask. So they wanted him out, did they? He wasn't quite ready to accept the implications. "That's why you kept him here, no ambulance or hospital?" At Ron's stiff nod, he scowled. "It doesn't wash. They have to know there's a fully-stocked operating theater in the basement that can handle..."
"Not if the explosion took his hand off," Ron broke in, interrupting him with a vehement shake of his head. "Even with the equipment downstairs, nobody, not even Admiral Hackett could have handled that."
"Or the First Lady," McGarry added in a harsh whisper, the dawning realization choking him. His heart gave a sickening lurch.
"Or Dr. Bartlet. At that point, removing the President to Bethesda or GW would have been our only choice. He's out, and they take him out in a spectacularly public manner. It's what they planned with Marine One, but we didn't give it to them."
"Luck," McGarry snarled, still not quite hearing him. "It was sheer, be-damned luck Fitz' paranoia got the better of him." Straightening in his chair, not quite able to banish the horrific images, the sound of the explosion from his mind and what might have happened, the Chief of Staff gave Butterfield a narrow eyed glare tinged with growing ice. "He dropped it, Ron. He dropped it! If he hadn't..."
McGarry swung his arm back angrily, slamming a clenched fist into the wall behind him. Sent askew by the impact, a painting crashed to the floor with the shattering of glass. Already jumpy, the agents stationed down the hall had their guns out, searching, then saw the source of the commotion and relaxed. But not by much.
The only one who didn't react was Butterfield. Stoically, he watched the Chief of Staff with a calculating air colored by grim satisfaction. He'd been expecting it, hoping for this reaction from Leo McGarry. Rage was better than fear. A mind fueled by righteous anger was sharper than one muddled by shock. Good! He was thinking again.
"Little moves, Leo." He held out the paper to McGarry, offering a bit more fuel for the rage. "Little moves in a very broad game."
"What's this?" McGarry accepted the sheet, pulling his reading glasses from his pocket and putting them on.
"A transcript of what was left of the letter that accompanied the... gift." Butterfield sneered on the last word. "It was pretty chewed up by the shrapnel, but I'm fairly certain that's the whole of it. The original is already on its way to the Quantico labs. The Oval's been roped off; my people are going through the debris." A thin, humorless smile tightened his lips. "The President won't be using his office for awhile."
"Like we needed one more excuse to keep him in bed."
"One would think the First Lady would have that problem safely in hand."
McGarry snorted. The First Lady, Charlie, himself, Toby, the rest of the senior staff and - if their stubborn Commander-in-Chief managed to get by that stalwart crew - Ron Butterfield. Jed didn't stand a chance.
McGarry blinked at that thought, surprised and strangely pleased. Pissed, too. He'd done it again, even if it was in the privacy of his own thoughts. Jed. He didn't like the implications one bit. Even entertaining the thought that Toby was right burned like a rapidly spreading rash. But he was quickly coming to the reluctant conclusion that the belligerent yet scathingly observant Communications Director had a point.
He did have a protocol bug up his ass. The problem was that removing it could have waited for somewhat less dire circumstances.
Sighing, he turned back to the paper in his hand and began to read. It didn't take him long; the note was brief and succinct. Short on words but full of a frighteningly subtle familiarity with the subject at hand and coldly malicious intent.
With barely bridled anger in his voice, McGarry read aloud, "Castle takes Bishop." He looked up at Butterfield. "A chess metaphor? The President is not going to like this."
Butterfield grunted his agreement, then said, "We've been flanked. On all sides. They know us, and they know him. Mind games, Leo. And we're losing."
Not what McGarry wanted to hear. "Was the original handwritten?"
"No. Typed and copied."
"You're not going to get much of a profile from that." He handed the transcript back to Butterfield, thankful to have it out of his hands. "Other than an arrogant boast, we still have nothing."
"We have enough." Butterfield accepted the sheet from McGarry, resisting the urge to crumple it in his hand. The unknown author had tried to hide behind the brevity of the message, but he'd slipped. It was the first step in bringing him down. "That arrogance gives him away. He isn't a kid; late twenties, maybe early thirties. Old enough to have learned patience, young enough to still have the invulnerability of youth. He likes games, and that patience allows him to calculate and to play them. Given what we know about the Red Mafia and how they operate, he's most likely a sociopath, not inhibited by moral or societal restrictions."
"And this is different from our own home-grown Mafia how?"
"Leo, the Red Mafia makes the old Sicilian mob look like a kindergarten bully with a sugar rush. Think modern Cossack and you'll come close. These people think in terms of conquest as well as profit. Loyalty is earned by the blood of your victims, the more the better. And our man has moved up its ranks at a relatively young age. I imagine he's taken out his... competition and made a name for himself. He hasn't lost, not yet. Arrogance fueled by success, pure and simple."
"Games," McGarry muttered, impatiently pulling his drifting thoughts together. Games he could understand. It was the playing field that left him guessing. Still, it was a beginning. "He's arrogant enough to take on the President of the United States."
"Exactly. For the Russians, it's a win-win scenario. Our man fails, they try something else. He may be an up and comer, but his loss won't cripple them. Payment in blood if he wins, blood if he loses. Soldiers are expendable. There's always more."
"More blood," McGarry whispered, closing his eyes against the intruding memory. Jed's blood. Opening his eyes, pushing the thoughts deep down where he could deal with them later, he speculated, "He wins, and the Cossacks get what they want. The ultimate protection racket, only on a global scale. Will the behavioral science back you up on this?" An inspiration, a long shot at best, had occurred to him and he needed to be sure. Arrogant youth may have had its advantages, but age and guile had its own slow points to balance the disadvantage.
The Cossack was about to learn the true meaning of the word nasty.
"Yes." Head to one side, Butterfield regarded the Chief of Staff curiously, expectantly. The man had lost the air of desperation and confusion that had been consuming him. He was on to something. "You've got an idea?"
"I may," McGarry replied, a grim smile pulling at one corner of his mouth. No longer trapped by his emotions, galvanized by the challenge, he took it one step further. "He's got an ego, and he's young enough to still squirm when it's bruised. Let's play with that. Dent his sensibilities and he may start making mistakes."
"Time to go on the offensive?"
"Oh, I plan to be very offensive. C.J.'s going to enjoy this."
Seeing the gleam in McGarry's eyes, an equally predatory one entered Butterfield's. Baring his teeth in an anticipatory grin, the senior agent had no doubts that he was going to enjoy this as well. C.J. Cregg wasn't the only one who loved a good, down and dirty fight.
At long last, the next move belonged to them.
After observing the two doctors quietly for a few minutes, Ziegler could not help remarking dryly, "Well, we're not going to be able to hide that."
The President grunted in ironic agreement. Hackett and Abbey had swathed his damaged hand in layer after layer of gauze and bandaging. His lower arm was almost as thickly wrapped, leaving him totally unable to bend or flex his wrist. "Admiral? You nearly done? As it is, I'll barely be able to get this hand through a shirtsleeve. Any more and the press are going to ask if I'm taking this whole 'sparring with Congress' metaphor a bit too literally."
Hackett regarded his patient good-humouredly. The man did have a point after all. The wrapping encasing his hand might not be as bulky as a boxing glove, but it wasn't all that far off. "Almost done, sir," he reassured him with a smile, adding yet another layer to the already thick wrappings. "I know it's a bit unwieldy, but if we give your hand enough support and protection now, I won't have to come back and do this all over again because you managed to tear your stitches out. It's quite easily done, you know. Especially on such a flexible area of the body. There!" He held down the end of the final bandage to allow the First Lady to tape it securely in place. "Done. How does that feel?"
Bartlet regarded his mummified appendage without enthusiasm. "Like it doesn't really belong to me. When will the locals wear off?"
"Don't be in too much of a hurry for that to happen, sir," Admiral Hackett warned him. "With a dozen stitches and all that damaged tissue and impact trauma, it's going to hurt like blazes. And trust me, that bandaging won't seem so thick if you bump it off anything. We'll need to keep an eye on you as well to make sure you don't develop an infection. There was a lot of foreign matter in those lacerations."
Bartlet made a face, distinctly under-whelmed at the idea of remaining under close medical scrutiny.
"Remember to keep it elevated, Jed." Abbey was beginning to clear up the debris of their efforts at repairing the President. "It'll help with the pain and reduce swelling."
"Yes, ma'am," replied her husband glumly. Watching his two physicians withdraw into a huddle on the far side of the room, he scowled. Why did doctors have to be so pathologically secretive around their patients? He shifted uncomfortably, wincing.
"Sir, are you okay?" Ziegler, at least, hadn't abandoned him.
"I'm fine, Toby." Bartlet shifted again wearily. "Guess I've been lying too long in the one position, though. I need to stretch my legs. Give me a hand up."
"Sir?" Ziegler's tone was alarmed, and he shot a furtive glance at the two medics conferring near the door. "I'm not sure that's a good idea..."
Bartlet sighed heavily. He was getting very sick of being told that, and he had a presentiment he was going to hear more rather than less of such sentiments in the following days. "No doubt, Toby. But if my wife gets her way, I'm going to be tied to this bed at least until tomorrow morning. In which case..." He tugged at his open pajama front. "… I'd like to at least finish changing and wash some of this blood off my chest. Now, give me a hand."
Ziegler stood irresolute, caught between the rock that was his President and the hard place that would be the First Lady's retribution. Sympathy for the man's point of view swayed him, and he took the extended right hand, helping his Chief Executive rise to a sitting position.
Bartlet swung his legs down off the bed and sat quietly on the edge for a moment, waiting out the wave of fatigue and slight dizziness. Taking a deep breath, he looked up at his worried companion and, summoning his resolve, extended his hand again. "Once more Toby, if you wouldn't mind. Then do me a favor and fish out some bottoms from the drawer behind you. It'll make Abbey happy. I'm going to get a wash cloth."
"I'll get that." This time Ziegler's tone brooked no argument as he helped his President stand, continuing to support most of his weight. Feeling the man steady, taking a bit more of his own weight, he inquired with some concern, "Can you manage, sir?"
"I think so..." Bartlet cautiously loosened his grip. "Yeah, I can make it."
Abbey glanced up from her discussion with Hackett, noticing that her husband was standing. "Where do you think you're going?"
"The bathroom," Bartlet snapped with an annoyed frown. It was starting already. She didn't need to know everything, and besides, he was going to the bathroom, eventually.
Abbey considered him carefully for a moment, and then exchanged a questioning look with her husband's attending physician. Hackett took only a moment to give her a quick nod of permission, and she said, "Fine, Jed. Just be careful, all right?"
The President's only response to their condescendingly given permission was a grunt. For the moment, words escaped him, but he was fairly certain both his wife and Hackett were going to be giving him plenty of inspiration for more colorful responses in the days to come.
Shrugging off Ziegler's support and cradling his left hand, Bartlet started to take a tentative step towards the bureau, then another. A bit more confident, he called back over his shoulder, "Toby..."
His voice choked off abruptly.
Ziegler, who had started to turn away, whirled back just in time to grab the President's arm as he wobbled. Alarmed, he barely had time to absorb the man's shocked expression before Bartlet's legs buckled and he dropped heavily ground-ward.
Ziegler grabbed frantically for the other arm, managing to slide his hand under Bartlet's armpit, but he couldn't arrest the fall of the sheer dead weight in his grasp. The man's knees hit the floor with a thud, and Ziegler found himself driven down to one knee as he attempted to prevent the President's upper body from striking the floor as well.
The Communications Director heard a cry from Abbey, followed instantly by a crashing and muffled cursing from Hackett as the latter upset a small table in his efforts to reach the two men as fast as possible. Looking down at the man in his arms, he felt his sense of dread begin to grow.
The President's expression was blank; he seemed stunned. But his eyes revealed to his senior advisor a dreadful mixture of fear, anguish and dull defeat. Even as Abbey and Hackett reached them, Ziegler found himself responding to the message in those eyes in the only way he could think of.
The bellow had hardly left Ziegler's throat before the bedroom doors once again crashed open as McGarry and Butterfield hurled through them, to be quickly followed by the agents stationed in the hallway. It was a good guess Hackett's encounter with the table had already given them a heads-up that the excitement wasn't quite over.
The President's friend led the charge towards their group even as the Admiral slid his arm under Bartlet's shoulders in an attempt to ease some of his weight off the Communications Director.
"Jed?" McGarry practically skidded to his knees alongside Abbey as she knelt in front of her husband.
Cupping her husband’s face in her hands, Abbey tried to force him to look at her. Despite her best efforts, he was refusing to meet her gaze, closing his eyes and jerking his head back out of her grasp.
McGarry didn't fare any better. "Jed? Talk to me, damn it!" he called again. No more than the curse, even hearing the sound of the man's own name received no response. Frustrated, he turned to the woman beside him. What he saw frightened him as nothing previously. "Abbey?"
The lines of Abigail Bartlet's face were tightened by an old, familiar fear. She shook her head, reluctant yet to give it a voice. "We need to get him back on the bed."
"Oh, right." McGarry nodded to Ziegler and reached out for his friend. "Okay, let's..."
"Permit me, ma'am."
McGarry blinked in astonishment. Even as he spoke, Ron Butterfield had stepped forward, displacing Hackett, and crouched down to slide his arms under the President's back and legs, rising with the man cradled in his arms and carrying him towards the bed.
Even allowing for the disparity in height between the lanky Security Chief and his more compactly built Commander in Chief, it was an impressive performance. Sneaking a sideways look, McGarry was relieved to see the Communications Director was taken aback as well.
Professional reflexes have their uses. Both Abbey and Hackett shook off the sight as if seeing the President carried like a child was a normal occurrence and hurried after Butterfield, who was even now gently depositing his burden on the bed.
The experience seemed to have shaken Bartlet out of his temporary fugue, and the eyebrow that he cocked at his Secret Service agent conveyed both wry amusement and more than a touch of affronted dignity. "Thanks for the ride, Ron. Let's not do it again soon, okay?"
"Mr. President." Butterfield offered as a murmured apology and stepped back, letting the doctors swoop in on his protectee. His ferocious expression suggested he considered this particular withdrawal to be a dereliction of duty.
"Mr. President?" Hackett's own features were carved with the same grim realization as the First Lady's. "Talk to us."
"It's nothing, I just got dizzy." As he had expected, Bartlet found his protestations ignored as Hackett applied a stethoscope to his chest, even as Abbey strapped a pressure cuff to his upper arm and clamped a finger on his wrist. Sighing, he tried another approach. "I guess everything just caught up with me."
"Mr. President..." Hackett began, his tone disapproving.
He was interrupted by the First Lady.
"Don't get cute, Jed!" Abbey snapped with real heat. Her stubborn husband wasn't the only one on whom events were catching up. Addressing her colleague, she asked "Pupils?"
Hackett whipped out a penlight and, ignoring the patient's attempt at protest, shone it into the President's eyes. "Pupil response is abnormal." His tone was bleak.
"Abnormal?" McGarry's alarm spiked. "What does that mean?"
Abbey closed her eyes briefly, then squarely met her husband's headstrong gaze, able to read the frustration contained in the blue eyes. "Jed? Please, talk to me."
"It's okay, Abbey."
Abbey's mouth tightened in anger and she stood back from the bed, forcing McGarry and Ziegler to scramble out of her way. "Oh, it's okay is it? Don't be a jackass, Jed! All right, then..." she said, directing the full force of her exasperation and helpless fury at him, "... stand up."
Her husband continued to regard her mutinously.
Hands on hips, she challenged him again. "Prove it, buster. Stand up and take a walk."
Eyes narrowed, Bartlet seemed to consider calling her bluff. Suddenly, he startled his anxiously watching companions by slamming his fist down on his leg with such force that they all winced at the impact.
"Not now! Damn it all to hell, not this. I don't have time for this now!" Drained by the explosion, the pain, he let his head fall back against the pillow.
Abbey's features softened, and she moved to sit beside him, quietly threading her fingers around his undamaged hand. Not now. Dear God, but she couldn't help but agree with him.
"Mr. President?" Hackett's tone was sympathetic but insistent.
Eyes closed, Bartlet tightened his grip on his wife's hand and began to wearily rhyme off the familiar catalogue. "Dizziness, difficulty in focusing my eyes, tingling and some numbness of my legs, particularly the left. My right leg is aching too, but I think that's the torn muscles cramping again, not this." He sighed heavily. What was the point in fighting it? "And I feel incredibly... tired."
"Oh, God." McGarry's prayer was heartfelt.
Ziegler turned away, running a hand agitatedly over his head.
Turning to the hovering agents behind him, Butterfield inclined his head towards the door, silently ordering them to withdraw. Holstering their weapons, they began to file out, followed closely by their Chief.
Before pulling the door closed behind him, Butterfield raised his eyes to find McGarry watching him, eyes colored with concern and helpless fury. For a long moment, he looked back at the Chief of Staff, and then nodded.
This was far from over.
McGarry turned back to the scene being played out on the bed. Hardening his resolve, he forced himself to listen.
"Thank you, Mr. President," Hackett was saying, letting his shoulders slump. Looking down at the man lying before him, he smiled encouragingly. "Get some rest, sir. As soon as the locals have worn off completely, we'll run some tests. Find out for sure if it's a relapse, and how severe. In the meantime, try not to worry."
Bartlet snorted, but nodded his appreciation. "Thank you, Admiral."
Abbey nearly gave in to her grief at the defeat in his voice, the dull hopelessness glazing his eyes. "Jed, don't..." 'Give in,' she was about to say, but choked on the words. She touched his cheek, the torn skin cold beneath her fingertips. He didn't respond.
Don’t give in.
He already had.
Clearing his throat, uncomfortably aware of the hidden meaning behind the words and gestures, Hackett stood up and turned away. Startled, he found himself accosted by a clearly agitated and concerned Chief of Staff.
"Is it the MS?" McGarry demanded harshly. "Has he had a relapse?"
The naval doctor studied both McGarry and Ziegler, then signaled with his eyes that they withdraw to the far corner of the room. "Yes, I'd say he has. Just how severe, we'll find out over the next few hours or days."
McGarry bit his lip, stifling a curse. "How long before he recovers?"
"Hard to tell. Hours, days, weeks. We'll have a better idea after we run some tests." Hackett regarded the Chief of Staff curiously. His tone became darker and he warned, "Mr. McGarry, you do know that it can be a question of if as much as when the President recovers, don't you?"
"If?" Ziegler spoke sharply. "But he has relapsing/remitting MS. That means that he always recovers from attacks, doesn't it?"
"So far he always has. But MS is a very unpredictable disease. We really know very little about it." Hackett spoke with quiet intensity, trying to make his companions understand. "The President has been fortunate to experience full remission after attacks, but MS sufferers do not always recover fully from each new episode. Sometimes the symptoms, or a less severe variation of one or more of them, can remain. And we have no idea yet just how severe this present relapse is."
McGarry felt his heart sinking. He remembered the words, spoken over and over again both before Congressional committees and reporters. Fever and stress can sometimes trigger an attack.
Stress. Far too much stress in a relatively short period of time. Had it been planned that way? He wasn’t sure of anything at this point. Rubbing his eyes, McGarry asked, "What's your own feeling, Admiral?"
Hackett shrugged helplessly. "I really don't like to say. With some luck, good care and a chance to relax and recoup after all he's been through..."
McGarry gave a choked laugh. "Chance would be a fine thing!" He smiled bitterly at his companion's quizzical expression. "Take my word for it, Admiral. This whole mess has barely gotten started."