Summary: Nobody, least of all Jed, is having a very good day. As it always happens, things go from bad to worse in very short order.
Spoilers: Everything. Seriously. We think we’ve managed to drop a hint about all and sundry from seasons one through three, with special emphasis on ‘The Two Bartlets’ and ‘Night Five’. Consider yourself warned.
Rating: PG-13, probably. Some language (but we think you'll agree the characters were entitled at that point <G>), a touch of violence and lots of emotional angst. Sorry, we couldn’t help ourselves.
Characters: Jed, Leo, Abbey - towards the end, and Ron Butterfield. (We like Ron, and if we thought writing this fic, and a possible follow-up had anything to do with AS suddenly resurrecting both him and Fitz for the end of season three, we'd have done it months ago!)
Archive: Sure, just let us know where and drop us a line first. We’ve a very good two part MS WORD file we can send to make things easier on you.
Disclaimer: Of course they’re not ours. We wish! This is just a bit of an exercise in creative mayhem. We promise to put them back when we’re done with them. Really. IF we’re ever done with them <G>.
Feedback: If you must <G>. Any and all comments are not only welcome, but strongly encouraged. Send to:
Authors’ Note: Apologies all around, but we just couldn’t resist <VBEG>. This may be an unlikely scenario but it was a blast to write and, if you're willing to suspend any disbelief, we hope you'll have a lot of fun in the reading too. Hey, if Hollywood can do it, why can't we?
Dedication: To Sheila, who writes such wonderful WW crisis fics, and to Sam, who broke the ice and gave us the courage to try this sort of fic with her amazing 'Not Everything's Black and White' story.
A Frightened Peace
Anne Callanan and Kathleen E. Lehew
"Mr. President, it's time." Face professionally bland, the secret service agent stood by respectfully.
President Josiah Bartlet’s previously relaxed smile faded slightly and he gave the waiting helicopter a sour look. His step faltered a bit as he shoved his hands into his coat pockets and nodded a curt and unenthusiastic acknowledgement to the agent.
The President’s Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, shot a knowing glance at his Commander in Chief and friend. His lips twitched and he was unable to entirely suppress a grin of amusement that was tinged with just a hint of sympathy. He was well aware that the high spirits the President usually exhibited while flying were noticeably subdued during trips on Marine One, or any craft significantly smaller than the majestic 747, Air Force One.
McGarry suspected that a great deal of that exuberance stemmed from the fact that traveling aboard the huge executive aircraft was one of the few times in his life when the President was actually able to relax sufficiently to enjoy the experience of flight. There --apart from the fact that he usually traveled with more than sufficient work to keep his mind fully occupied-- the greater size and the freedom to move around was much more comfortable for him. It enabled him to conquer the latent claustrophobia that the more cramped and confining restrictions of commercial flight had always triggered.
Bartlet had struggled with that fear for as long as McGarry had known him. He’d never been able to find out its origins --but he had his suspicions-- and at times had seen the phobia border on the crippling. It was at such times he was more than impressed with Bartlet’s sheer stubborn strength of mind.
Well aware of what was going through his Chief of Staff’s mind, Bartlet ignored McGarry’s look with studied dignity and faced the patiently waiting agent. "Thanks, Donny." He recovered enough of his composure to grace the young man with a quick smile. “You along for the ride this time?”
“Yes, sir!” Agent Donny Sandler nodded smartly, more than a little pleased that the President had remembered his name correctly.
Bartlet smirked and nudged McGarry with his elbow. "Ron wants him along to hold our hands, eh Leo?"
McGarry rolled his eyes heavenward in exasperation. "Well, thank you for the thought, Mr. President, but I was under the impression we already had that covered ourselves."
He chalked up a mental ‘score!’ as he saw the President’s head jerk back slightly and the narrow-eyed glare scorch him. An expression of mildly guilty amusement was the only satisfaction that Bartlet received in return. Only McGarry, with the confidence of a forty-year friendship of mutual trust and affection, could have gotten away with reminding the leader of the free world of that particular moment of personal embarrassment.
Over a year before, another flight on Marine One had been hit by a considerable amount of turbulence. As always, Bartlet had remained outwardly calm, but his hands had instinctively grasped at the armrests of his seat. He was mortified afterwards to realize that what his left hand had clutched in a convulsive grip was not the chair seat but his Chief of Staff’s arm, which had been lying along the common armrest of their adjoining seats. Fortunately, there had been no bruising, but the sleeve of McGarry’s normally pristine suit had been irreparably creased for the remainder of the trip.
McGarry had been frankly amused by the incident and never passed up the opportunity to remind his friend whenever he got the chance. Emphasizing the end result seemed to distract his friend from the initial causes, exactly what he needed. The phobia McGarry understood, but not the reasons. He had crammed himself into far smaller cockpits than the passenger area of a Sea King helicopter and had certainly encountered far worse turbulence as a fighter pilot in Vietnam. It had been intriguing and more than a little entertaining to see his normally self-confident and mischievous friend's composure momentarily fractured.
Sandler had been waiting patiently, apparently oblivious to this by-play. Now he stepped forward again. "Mr. President, Agent Butterfield would like me to inform you that our departure is scheduled for five minutes' time. He requests that both you and Mr. McGarry take your seats."
"Yeah, yeah" muttered the President, giving the helicopter and the agent a dark look. "C'mon, Leo. You know how upset Ron gets when I throw out his schedule."
"I can't think why," McGarry commented dryly, following his President's rather unenthusiastic progress towards the idling helicopter. "Anyone would think you made a habit of running late. And as for lecturing him on the history of past assassinations, both attempted and actual …” skirting the protocol line, he fought back a grin and finished with perfect deadpan aplomb, “I really don't understand why he isn't more relaxed in your presence."
Bartlet glowered at his friend. "You're very uppity today,” he complained, although a glint of reluctant amusement flickered in his eyes. "Isn't it enough that you’re forcing me to take the weekend off, to say nothing of traveling aboard that …" He waved his hand in the direction of their transport as words failed him.
McGarry’s amusement faded and he regarded the President with genuine concern. "Sir, I am truly sorry about the helicopter, but you know that a motorcade would take too long. And using Air Force One would involve too much manpower for what is supposed to be a quiet and discrete break. And you know that right now you really need this time away. If only to get some rest."
Bartlet muttered something under his breath that was lost in the swish of the rotor blades.
Catching yet another glare, McGarry reflected that the recent sleepless nights he had been suffering from had seriously damaged Bartlet’s normally sunny disposition.
"I said,” the President enunciated with elaborate distinctness, "That I'm sleeping again now."
"Yeah, but only for a couple of hours at a stretch, and never for more than five hours a night" McGarry pointed out reasonably. Weighing his words carefully, he added, "Not only is that barely enough to keep going on your schedule, it's nowhere near enough to make up for all those nights that you missed entirely. And, if you'll excuse my saying so, Mr. President, I'd really rather not have you dropping off in the middle of another security briefing. For some reason, it tends to disconcert your advisors, not to mention what’ll happen if you do it next week with that Russian missile specialist.”
The President growled something unintelligible, although McGarry had a strong suspicion it was neither complementary to his Chief of Staff nor the Russians. Yet another reason to give the man a much needed break. Sleeplessness was one thing, but he didn’t think the Russians or their ambassador would quietly put up with another dressing down like the one he’d given them over their shoddy missile program the previous year.
And with Bartlet in the mood he was in now, McGarry strongly suspected that civilities were going to be strained to the limit. Sighing, he pointed out, “With all due respect, sir, you did start this. You made the offer. The specialist is only…”
“The specialist’s name is Malinoff. Gregori Malinoff.” The tight smile Bartlet gave McGarry offered neither humor nor apology, merely frustrated annoyance at the badgering. “See? I was awake. Where were you?”
“Getting the coffee.”
Bartlet paused for a moment and with hunched shoulders, hands jammed deep into his trouser pockets, studied the tips of his shoes. Though he didn’t answer McGarry’s pointed remark, his face and the far away look in his eyes spoke for him.
A concerned Chief of Staff respectfully observed him for a moment, then leaned in. "Sir" he said quietly and discreetly, "Abbey's worried about you. Hell, I'm worried about you. I don't know what happened that night between you and Toby, and Stanley's been playing the doctor/patient confidentiality card for all it's worth. Maybe it's not important that I know. But this I do know; you need a break. Maybe only for a day or so, but you do need it."
Bartlet glanced up sharply in surprise, and what looked suspiciously like a hint of relief. "Stanley didn't tell you what we discussed? I thought that …"
McGarry shook his head. "He said that the actual cause of the problem was not related in any way to your job and so was none of my damn business. At least unless it actually continued to affect you to the point where you were diminished in your capacity to perform that job. He saw no evidence of that yet and felt that the worst of the sleeplessness would ease soon, if only because you would be too exhausted to resist it. He did say that he felt a few more sessions might be beneficial, but that was entirely up to you."
Bartlet was regarding him oddly. "Toby didn't say anything either?"
McGarry snorted. As if Toby would ever open up on that subject! "Apart from acknowledging that you two have been avoiding each other as much as possible, a not so easy task when you consider he is your communications director, Ziegler has been about as communicative as you'd expect."
"I really thought one of them would have told you. I was waiting for someone to say something." Bartlet shook his head abruptly and turned away.
"Something about what?"
For a brief moment, a look of withdrawal came over the President’s face. Then he laughed shortly, putting the matter aside with sudden good humor. "Nothing. Come on, Leo. I can see Ron from here. He’s just looked at his watch for the third time and glared at me. Do I have any skin left?”
"Are you telling me that you're afraid of your own agent?" McGarry needled good naturedly, making a mental note to find out whatever it was Bartlet seemed so reluctant to reveal at a more opportune moment.
Bartlet regarded his Chief of Staff with open amazement. "Afraid of Ron? Are you insane?" Suddenly that impish grin that McGarry was surprised to realize he had missed in recent times broke out. "Of course I am! Do you know, that man once picked me up and carried me by the scruff of my neck during an emergency evacuation? I make it a basic rule never to annoy people who can do that."
Grinning, McGarry followed the President towards the waiting agents. His amusement bubbled up even further as he watched his friend instinctively duck as he passed under the wash of the blades, which cleared his head by at least six feet. Shaking his head, he wondered idly exactly where that particular habit had originated.
"Ron!" Bartlet enthusiastically greeted the tall, lanky head of his security detail, raising his voice over the roar of the motors. The two members of the accompanying Marine detail saluted the President smartly as he passed.
"Good day, Mr. President." Butterfield allowed his charge to precede him up the steps into the Sea King's passenger area. "You'll be pleased to know that we are proceeding more or less according to schedule. Our ETA at Concord is in approximately three hours time. A secret service detail will be waiting and the motorcade will then take you and Mr. McGarry to the Manchester farm."
"Three hours?" Bartlet paused abruptly on the way to his seat, something unreadable flickering in the back of his eyes. "Surely that exceeds the normal flight time?"
"Yes, sir. But Colonel March thought that, as this was a vacation trip, you might like a more scenic route. Accordingly, he has filed a flight vector that will take us slightly further inland, along the east side of the Catskills."
McGarry saw the President swallow a bit convulsively and grimace. He didn’t have to ask why. He raised his eyebrows in silent inquiry to ask if Bartlet wanted him to veto the suggestion.
Bartlet gave his worried friend a quick shake of his head, refusing the offer. "That was very thoughtful of the Colonel, Ron,” he replied instead, surprised that he actually meant it. “Tell him I appreciate the gesture."
"I will, Mr. President. Colonel March's co-pilot for this flight is Captain Johnston. The only passengers are you and Mr. McGarry, accompanied by Agent Sandler and myself and the Marine detail.” Satisfied that this information had been passed on as efficiently as possible, Butterfield turned to the Chief of Staff and said, "Mr. McGarry, I would like to take this time to discuss some of the security details relating to the upcoming campaign schedule, if you can spare me a moment.”
"Sure Ron." McGarry nodded and turned to Bartlet. With sympathy for the man’s predicament, he offered a bit lamely, "Mr. President, Ron and I are just going to sit over here and go over some stuff."
Bartlet, who was buckling himself into his seat, waved him away distractedly. Sandler was just sitting down next to him in the adjoining seat. Taking his glasses from his coat pocket he slipped them on and picked up the book he’d brought along. He doubted he was actually going to be able to read and enjoy it –he never had before, not on Marine One— but it was worth a try.
McGarry shrugged at the somewhat curt dismissal and settled into a seat that would allow him to converse with Butterfield over the noise of the engines. The President may have been on a short vacation, but his Chief of Staff and the head of his security detail never really got that chance. Still, he didn’t begrudge him that, or the answers his friend wouldn’t give up.
The President of the United States would talk when he was ready. He always did and McGarry had the patience to wait.
A considerable time later, McGarry looked up from the schedule he had been going over with Butterfield and glanced at the clock set into the forward bulkhead. They were over halfway into their flight time and rain clouds were plunging the cabin into premature dusk. He reflected ruefully that the Colonel’s well-meant gesture had turned out to be a little pointless. What little he could see of the mountain range through the cabin window was shrouded in a thick mist of rain and dark, low hanging clouds.
Glancing across the cabin at the President, he couldn’t help but smile at the sight. At least Bartlet wasn’t missing much, which all things considered was a bit of a blessing. Drifting in and out of sleep, the President’s chin was resting on his chest, his book precariously balanced on crossed knees. As usual when he wasn’t really paying attention his reading glasses had slid almost to the end of his nose.
McGarry frowned slightly and found himself openly studying the man with some concern. Bartlet looked a little better than he had during that stressful week when they all had begun to fear he would break down under the accumulated weight of the MS disclosure, the censure, the campaign and his wife’s unresolved problems with the Medical Board.
However, McGarry couldn’t help but note that his face still had a few lines too many, and the shadows had not faded from under his eyes. The man still needed to make up a considerable amount of sleep and he’d finally laid down an ultimatum; either Bartlet took a weekend to rest and recuperate or his Chief of Staff --as was his right-- would drastically reduce his schedule. To say that the President’s initial agreement had been unwilling was to put it mildly.
Given no other choice, McGarry had finally wheeled in the big guns and conscripted the First Lady to his cause only to find himself reluctantly co-opted into the weekend vacation as Bartlet flatly refused to go alone and Abbey had several appointments in the capital.
Still, he didn’t regret it. It was worth the price paid to his ego and the layer of skin he’d lost to Abbey’s sharp tongue. Protesting that the President didn’t need a babysitter to his concerned wife hadn’t been one of his most sterling moments. Truthfully, he was relieved. It had been a long time since he and Bartlet had been able to spend some time together. McGarry hadn’t realized till now how much he missed that. He was determined to use the opportunity and see if he could discover just what had been going on with his friend --over and above all the other crises-- in recent days. He had no idea just what wound Toby might have inadvertently opened, but the President’s reaction had been unusually troubled.
Even now, his fitful napping was an indication of just how exhausted he must be. As much as he tried to, Bartlet never slept while flying, as McGarry knew from painful personal experience. Either tension or excitement always guaranteed that he would be wide-awake and talkative throughout any flight. Even on the huge 747 the claustrophobia didn’t help either. The senior staff had quickly learned the necessity of catching a catnap before embarking on long trips with their President.
Suddenly, a muffled boom reverberating from somewhere forward interrupted McGarry’s meditations. A manic thought, ‘Mechanical?” was all he could manage when, almost simultaneously with the ominous noise, he found himself rising bodily into the air as his seat dropped sickeningly away from beneath him. The brief moment of weightlessness ended when his safety belt slammed him back into place with his stomach still churning.
Across the cabin, the President’s book crashed to the floor as he was jerked violently awake. For the moment more surprised than frightened, he stared wordlessly across the aisle at his Chief of Staff.
“What the hell…” McGarry glanced instinctively upwards as old, near forgotten habits enabled him to detect the fearful sound of unevenly beating rotors.
“Ron?” The President’s voice blended authoritative inquiry with ruthlessly controlled fear.
“Please remain as you are, Mr. President, Mr. McGarry.” Butterfield grimly unbuckled and stood up, making his way across the swaying floor towards the cockpit door. He had barely passed McGarry before a second, much louder bang caused the craft to swing and dip violently, sending him stumbling to his knees.
McGarry reached down and managed to snag Butterfield’s arm as the helicopter went into a steep sideways dive. Somehow, he was able to swing the agent around until he was able to grab the arm of his seat and scramble back into it.
“Sandler!” Butterfield bellowed as he struggled to refasten his seatbelt.
McGarry saw Sandler reach out and snatch the glasses from Bartlet’s nose, then twist in his seat and fling his arm across the President’s chest, pinning him against the backrest. Bartlet’s lower face was buried in the crook of the agent’s shoulder, but the Chief of Staff could clearly see his eyes; wide, fixed, almost silver discs in his face.
Clinging desperately to his seat, half-deafened by the high-pitched whine of laboring engines, McGarry risked a glance out his window to see a mountain face approaching with distressing rapidity. For a second, the treetops disappeared only to be replaced by sky as their descent momentarily halted and they began to climb laboriously above the ridge once again. Then the nose of the craft tilted and they plunged past the top of the ridge.
McGarry had a brief, dizzying view of rock and greenery and heard a swishing sound --were they actually scraping the treetops? -- before the whole craft suddenly jarred violently and whipped totally around, throwing everyone against their seat belts. Then came a confusion of whirling sight and tearing metal.
"Mr. McGarry? Mr. McGarry! Can you hear me?"
McGarry roused himself reluctantly from the pleasantly warm cocoon he inhabited. Reality proved to be far less beguiling. He felt chilled and achy all over and there was an uneasily familiar ringing in his ears. For a moment memory failed and panic seized him. What had he been doing to get into this state? Surely, oh God, no… surely he hadn't …not again…
"Ow! Alright, alright!" McGarry jerked upright with a suddenness that turned the ringing in his ears into an outright clamor. Stopping himself just short of swinging, he growled, "I'm up! What the …"
Blinking, his voice trailed off when he recognized his tormentor. Butterfield's suit was torn and smudged and a small trickle of blood was curling down around his nostril from the bridge of his nose. McGarry stared at the agent blankly for a moment, then sucked in a breath in remembrance.
"Sir, are you alright?" Eyes narrowed, Butterfield regarded him intently. "Headache? Any nausea or unsteadiness?"
Trained to quickly assimilate events, he watched as the Chief of Staff gingerly shook his head mutely. Satisfied with his assessment of McGarry’s physical well being, Butterfield winced and rose stiffly to his feet, holding his right arm tightly to his side. "Then I could really use your help here."
"Huh?" With that rather brilliant response and holding his hand tenderly to what felt to be a very respectable knot at the back of his head, McGarry looked around vaguely.
The cabin floor lay at a steep incline and the windows above them were cracked, seeping rainwater down onto the men below. The other side of the helicopter seemed to lie on a bed of rock, with mud oozing into the interior. Broken tree limbs projected through the shattered lower windows into the cabin itself.
Blinking, he noted that the chairs he and Butterfield had been seated in and the area in which they rested had fared pretty well. However, across the cabin …
"God! No!" McGarry abruptly flung himself forward, only to be blocked and held back by Butterfield.
"Take it easy, sir! We can't rush into this!"
"The hell we can't!" McGarry was nearly trembling with shock and anxiety. The fear was lodged in his throat. "The President…is the President alright?"
"I don't know yet, sir. As I said, I need your help."
"You mean he's in there somewhere?" Regarding the scene of devastation in front of him, McGarry was appalled.
The opposite bulkhead appeared to have totally crumpled on impact, folding down over itself and against the adjoining cabin wall. To McGarry’s eyes it appeared as though everything on that side of the cabin had been swept and compressed into a single corner: metal sheeting, reinforcing struts, seats…and their occupants.
A deep and unaccustomed pain settled in his chest. McGarry knew its source. Josiah Bartlet was under that somewhere.
With Butterfield’s help, McGarry climbed unsteadily to his feet. Following Butterfield’s lead, he carefully eased his way across the slanting floor to the jumbled mass on the other side. Dropping to his knees, he tried to see through the tangle of warped metal, hoping to catch a glimpse of a white shirt or familiar thatch of dark hair.
Butterfield leaned over McGarry’s shoulder and directed the beam of a flashlight, recovered from one of the few remaining intact equipment lockers, into one of the gaps along the base of the pile.
"There!" The agent’s hand tightened suddenly on McGarry’s shoulder and he directed the man’s attention towards a small flash of color in the flashlight's beam. Color that transfigured itself into a red tie; the same color tie the President had been wearing that day.
"Mr. President?" McGarry ducked his head from side to side, desperately squinting along the path of the flashlight beam. "Can you hear me?"
"Mr. President? For God's sake, please?” Abandoning the protocol that had ruled him the last three years, he raised his voice and shouted frantically, “Jed?" He reached out impulsively to rip away the barrier separating him from his oldest friend, only to have Butterfield’s cautionary hand come down again on his shoulder.
"Take it easy, sir,” Butterfield warned, a flash of fear momentarily breaking through his usual bland and hard countenance. It was quickly replaced by an expression of grim determination when he said, “We have to proceed with care. That metal is extremely sharp, and we have no gloves or cutting equipment. If you lay your hands open, you won't be of any use to me, or to the President. Until we know their situation, we can't afford to scrabble around in here haphazardly."
Feeling Butterfield’s hand tighten briefly on his shoulder, McGarry nodded stiffly, firmly beating down the panic rising in his throat. Working carefully, forcing himself to keep an even pace, he cautiously began to remove items from the barrier. The sound of rain and dripping water joining the creak of broken metal as he and the agent worked.
He clenched his teeth in frustrated anger when thunder, far in the distance, began to rumble an ominous accompaniment to their careful work. Forcing himself to remain calm, McGarry knew what that sound meant. Their problems were about to get worse.
As if they already didn’t have enough to deal with.
The bulkhead had folded over to produce a tent-like effect but the upper edge had stopped its descent a little short of the floor, at one point by as much as two feet. It left what looked like a possible access point to the debris-filled area beneath.
It was at this point that the two men began to work more rapidly, in hopes of finding that the 'tent' had created sufficient space to protect the missing men --one man in particular--from being crushed.
As they worked, Butterfield kept up a running commentary. To hear the sound of his own voice, for his own benefit or his companion’s, McGarry wasn’t quite sure. He suspected a bit of both. In a strange way, the normally taciturn agent’s need provided a bit of reassuring comfort. Wincing as the jagged edge of metal sliced into his fingers, he listened.
"As nearly as I've been able to determine since regaining consciousness, our tail section more or less folded over, causing the inner bulkhead to collapse.” Pausing to catch his breath, Butterfield waved a tired hand in illustration.
The secret service agent’s expression stilled and, although McGarry had thought it a physical and emotional impossibility, grew even more serious. Hope and fear warred for dominance as he listened to the following words.
"I was unable to raise a response from either President Bartlet or Agent Sandler." Butterfield swallowed uncomfortably and continued. "The door to the cockpit is badly warped in the frame and impassable, but I was able to see through a space at the top of the frame. I'm afraid I have to report that it looks as though neither Colonel March nor Captain Johnston survived impact."
McGarry closed his eyes momentarily, hands painfully gripping a torn bit of wreckage. Taking a steadying breath, he asked, "Are you sure? I mean…you weren't able to get in to check."
Butterfield said nothing, but regarded him steadily.
McGarry looked away, for the moment unable to face the dire certainty in the agent’s gaze. "Of course you're sure", he muttered. "Sorry, stupid question." He took a deep breath and determinedly bent to his task. "So it's just us? What about the Marine detail?"
Butterfield looked back at the remains of the rear cockpit, the tangled mess of metal and bulkhead blocking the way to the far end of the passenger area. Again, he didn’t need to say anything. His eyes, bleak and tired, said it all.
McGarry closed his eyes and whispered a short prayer for all the dead. “So it is just us?”
"For the moment, yes sir." Butterfield pulled away yet another jagged section of metal and carefully laid it aside. Grunting with the effort, he continued, "Because I can't reach the cockpit, I'm unable to access the radio. But this is Marine One. Intelligence and the US Navy always have an exact pinpoint on her location whenever she’s in the air. I'm pretty sure that we came down on the other side of the ridge to that displayed on our flight plan. Given the scale of the assistance that will be mobilized on our behalf, I don't anticipate there's much chance of their missing us. We will be located very soon. Any delay after that will depend on the nature of the terrain, and ease of access to our location."
The worsening storm, as if to add it’s own terrible voice to the play, chose that moment to rumble its presence. Both men started involuntarily at the sound, exchanging worried glances.
“Or the storm,” McGarry spat out, frustrated and angry at circumstance.
“That too, sir.” Settling back for a moment, Butterfield slipped his hand under his jacket and closed his eyes.
"So, help's on the way even now, but we still don't know just when it'll get here", the Chief of Staff summarized grimly, pulling away another sheet of metal, all the while hoping to catch a glimpse of Bartlet or Sandler. "We're perfectly well able to wait and those poor devils in the cockpit don't care anymore. But we have no idea how long these two may be able to afford to wait until we get to them."
Butterfield’s lack of response signaled his fear that such a concern might well be moot when they finally reached their targets. He continued to work in grim silence, pausing every now and then to add his voice to McGarry’s and call out to the trapped men.
Getting a good grip on the edge of one over turned seat, Butterfield pulled then nearly doubled over, grunting as he pressed a hand to his side.
“Hey!” Concerned, McGarry reached out and grasped the agent by the arm. “You alright?”
Shrugging off the hand, Butterfield hitched in a quick breath, grabbed another bit of debris and stated flatly, “It’s nothing.”
“I said,” he leveled McGarry with a narrow eyed glare that dared him to push the issue further, “It’s nothing.”
McGarry watched for a moment as Butterfield struggled with a torn bit of seat cushion, favoring his right side as he tossed it aside with a barely contained grunt. The man was in pain. How much or how badly, he knew if he asked he’d get the same response. Nothing. He wasn’t a doctor, but a mad list of possibilities ran through his mind. Ribs, internal injuries, nothing good came to mind.
Somehow, McGarry didn’t think their luck would hold that it was just a bad bruise, but he could hope. Without Butterfield, their chances of survival were markedly reduced.
Suddenly, Butterfield paused. Eyes narrowing, he leaned in closer and cocked his head to one side, listening intently.
McGarry looked at him, startled and alarmed. "What?"
The agent threw up a hand for silence, but McGarry had already heard a muffled groan sounding from behind the barrier. Hope sprang in his chest, almost suffocating him and his concerns for the agent were replaced with another. "Jed?"
The groan repeated and McGarry winced at the confusion evident in the sound, the bewildered fear in the broken cough that accompanied it. There was silence for a moment, only the sound of breathing and dripping water. Then he heard an abrupt gasp, followed by the sound of frenzied scrabbling as if someone were clawing frantically at something with their bare hands.
"Jed?" Leo was rewarded with even more panicked scratching and shallow, panting breathing. "Jed! Damn it!"
For the first time, Butterfield wore an expression of open alarm. "What's happening? Do you know what's wrong?"
"Not for certain, no!” McGarry nearly snarled his response to the agent’s concern. “But I'll bet you dollars to donuts it's that damned claustrophobia kicking in again, admittedly with good cause. It sounds as if he's having a panic attack." He raised his voice again. "JED! Listen to me! Calm down, you'll only hurt yourself or hyperventilate and pass out or something. And you know I'll never let you live that down! We're right here. We're coming for you and we'll have you out in no time. Now listen to me and stay still!"
He strained anxiously for a response, anything that would let him know he’d gotten through to the trapped man. The scrabbling noises slowed until only the sound of heavy breathing remained.
Finally, forced out between gulping breaths, a shaky voice called out, "Leo?"
McGarry went limp with relief and he saw a huge, uncharacteristic grin split the face of the taciturn security chief. He could feel a similar smile cracking the tense muscles of his own face. "Yeah, Mr. President. I'm here. How are you doin'?"
An explosive snort of shaky amusement rewarded him. "Leo, would you really like to know what I think of that question right now?"
"Normally, I think you’d know my answer, Mr. President. But right now, I'd welcome a lecture on the inappropriateness of my semantic choices."
McGarry almost grinned at the surprise of the involuntary response. "Yes, sir. Because a lecture right now would reassure me that you've got the whole breathing thing back under control."
He was rewarded with a hoarse laugh, more a cough but still filled with sarcastic humor. Even the crack of thunder, now nearly overhead, failed to still his joy at the sound. Things just might work out.
McGarry gave the man a moment to catch his breath, listening to the breathing in question and waiting for it to calm further. Careful not to set off another panic attack, he inquired gently, "Mr. President? You okay now?"
A few more deep breaths, then "Yeah…yeah, Leo. I'm okay."
"Good.” He exchanged a relieved glance with Butterfield before asking, “What can you tell us about your situation?"
McGarry could hear the President struggling to control his incipient panic. Never more than at this moment, he marveled at the man’s self control.
"Well, I can't really move…my right leg hurts…and there's something pressing down on my chest and head.” A creak of metal and a muffled grunt as Bartlett shifted as best he could under the weight pinning him down. “Feels like it might be a seat or something."
"Okay." McGarry actually felt himself relax just a bit. It wasn’t much, but things were looking up. Gesturing to Butterfield, he started once again to shift the rest of the wreckage and to work on clearing the gap.
At the hesitant, still slightly breathless call, McGarry paused again. "Yes, Mr. President?"
"You, ah…you couldn't hurry, could you? Only, I'm not sure how long I can stay on top of … you know?"
McGarry softened his voice sympathetically. "I know, sir. You're doing fine. If it starts to get too much, call out to us, talk to us. We're coming. We'll be with you real soon."
"Thanks, Leo". A pause, then the voice returned with a definite quaver in it. "Ron?"
"Yes, Mr. President?" Butterfield leaned towards the voice.
"Are the pilots alright?"
Butterfield sat back on his heels and glanced at the Chief of Staff. He watched him struggle for a moment with the decision and hesitate, then grimly nod his assent for the agent to answer the question honestly. Equally grim, knowing full well how the truth would affect the man trapped under the wreckage, he leaned forward again and answered, "I'm very sorry, Mr. President. I'm afraid that they didn't make it."
There was a short silence. "You and Leo alright?"
Butterfield almost smiled, although his hand strayed to his side and a slightly guilty look shadowed his eyes. "Yes, Mr. President. Nothing some aspirin and a new suit wouldn't cure."
"I'm glad to hear that, Ron. Keep an eye on Leo, won't you? He's not very good at taking care of himself."
McGarry shot a look of long suffering exasperation at the pile.
"I will, sir." This time the agent did smile, if only a little.
"Ron?" Slightly more hesitantly.
"Agent Sandler …" Bartlet’s voice tailed off momentarily, "I'm sorry."
Butterfield’s eyes closed. "So am I, sir."
McGarry had no problems following that bit of dialog and what it meant. Upset, he spoke impulsively. "Are you certain, sir? I mean, you're not really in a good position to judge." Almost immediately, he kicked himself. Not again.
"I'm pretty sure, Leo.” Bartlet’s voice shook slightly. A long pause, then, “I can just feel his head when I stretch down my hand, and it's …” the words seem to catch in his throat.
The words may have remained unspoken, but not the terrible meaning. Exchanging a horror-stricken look with Butterfield, McGarry could hear the President’s breathing starting to stress again. "God, I'm sorry!” Redoubling his efforts to shift the twisted metal blocking the way, he said, “Mr. President, please listen. Concentrate on my voice. Concentrate on breathing slowly. We're nearly there."
The two men intensified their efforts, McGarry all the time keeping up a flow of inconsequential conversation, demanding responses from his trapped friend. Finally, he watched as, with a grunt that was both triumph and pain, Butterfield managed to haul loose a sizeable remnant of storage locker that had been blocking the gap. Dropping to his knees, McGarry wriggled under the overhang into the small space thus provided.
Butterfield passed him the flashlight and he quickly examined his surroundings. He was relieved to find that here, near where the bulkhead folded towards the cabin wall, it was possible to stand almost upright. The area around him was a jumbled mass of cabin fittings and structural materials. The space narrowed sharply as he played the torch further along, creating an eerie, cone-like effect. However, at this point the mass did not rise to meet the metal wall curving above, leading him to hope that it would indeed be possible for them to free the trapped man themselves.
A faint, odd smell tickled McGarry’s nose and his memory. It was barely there, shifting and fading as he moved his head. He couldn’t place it and felt somewhere deep down that he should.
A weak, broken cough issued from beneath the wreckage.
"Mr. President?" Heart in his throat, McGarry angled the light and peered in the direction the voice had seemed to come from.
"Here…I'm here!" Bartlet's voice sounded muffled, hope fighting with the panic riding just below the surface. A section of the pile shifted slightly, as if the man beneath had heaved upwards with all his strength.
McGarry abandoned caution and advanced the necessary step or two hastily. Behind him he heard Butterfield grunt as he squeezed his long frame into the gap they had created. Taking a deep breath and eyeing the twisted debris in front of him, the President’s Chief of Staff noted grimly that he and the secret service agent had their jobs cut out for them. This was not going to be easy.
Nearly laughing at the thought, McGarry choked it back. As if anything he’d done or contemplated in the White House these last three years could be considered easy. It all amounted to a warped game of mission impossible and somehow he’d always managed to find a way to win. Grimly, he set himself the task of figuring a way out of this one.
Losing was not an option.
As if the elements were laughing at him, a peel of thunder rolled almost directly overhead. Looking up, he listened as the rain beating down on the outer bulkhead increased its tempo, starting to come down in sheets.
Anxiety and fear for his friend cooled his thoughts, though he found it impossible to steady his erratic pulse. Playing the light along the wreckage, he noted that several rather heavy sections of metal, including the remains of yet another locker lay on top of and almost entirely concealing what did indeed appear to be one of the helicopter's passenger seats.
McGarry’s lips tightened. Somewhere beneath that chaos was his friend. He called out, "Mr. President?"
The tense lines of his face relaxed and McGarry felt the knot in his stomach release. Bartlet's voice now seemed to rise from directly beneath the remains of the seat. Kneeling down, he put his hand on the back of the seat, willing the man trapped beneath to feel his presence. He called again, “Mr. President…”
“Leo?” Bartlet’s voice was deceptively calm, a faint tremor of mocking humor covering the thread of panic still fighting for dominance. “I warn you; the next words you utter had better not be 'are you there?' Could you please see about getting me out of here? Now?"
Swallowing hard, McGarry found his voice and replied thickly and with pride, "You know our staff motto, sir. We serve at the pleasure of the President. Be right with you.” He glanced up and exchanged a determined look with the waiting agent. Giving the man a curt nod, he said, “Ron? Can you squeeze in here beside me; I'm going to need a hand."
Butterfield eased alongside McGarry and the two of them once again began to slowly and methodically lift away metal fragments, awkwardly moving the pieces behind them and to one side.
Gingerly handling the jagged edges, McGarry was conscious of a sense of profound gratitude that Bartlet had been shielded by the padding of the chair. If not, he might well have been cut to ribbons.
Eventually, they had cleared enough to be able to get a good grip on the leather back of the upended seat. Satisfied at their progress, McGarry paused and called out hopefully, "Mr. President?"
"Yeah?" The note of stress had returned to Bartlet's voice. With the prospect of freedom so close to hand, he was having a hard time trying to control his emotions and desist from attempting to fight his way through the last of the barrier separating him from his rescuers.
"We've reached the seat you say is weighing down on you. We're about to attempt to lift it off."
"Good. Fine. Whatever. Just get it off me, Leo. It feels like forever since I've been able to take a deep breath."
"That's not such an unusual feeling for you, surely?" McGarry couldn’t help but smile as he said that.
The somewhat peevish response from the President of the United States didn’t disappoint him in the least.
"Leo, if this is your way of bringing up Toby's criticism of my delivery of that speech to the DC Law Society last month, that was not my fault! You know Sam loves long sentences. He calls it imagery."
"I think Toby called it 'forgetting to inhale', sir."
A brief grunt, somewhat resembling what McGarry might have called a laugh, issued from the granite-faced agent trying to get a good grip on the back of the passenger seat. A quick glance reassured the Chief of Staff that no, the laws of the universe had not been suspended and Butterfield was as stoically reserved as ever.
"Leo." The mild humor had leached from the President's voice again.
“Yes, sir?” McGarry turned his attention back to the job at hand.
"I want you to know that I appreciate the distraction and all, but I really need you to get me out of here. Please?"
"We're just maneuvering for a good angle," McGarry spoke reassuringly. "We don't want to jolt you when we lift it away, or have anything else fall down on top of you." He looked across at Butterfield, who nodded, and gripped his side of the seat firmly. "Ready?
Making sure his own grip was secure, Butterfield nodded again.
The two men heaved at the seat. For a brief, terrible moment, it stuck awkwardly in place, and then it abruptly yielded to their frantic tugging. They swiftly manhandled it to one side and then waited to see if their actions had caused a dangerous shift in the remaining wreckage. The sound of their heavy breathing, the constant drip of water, were the only things to be heard.
When nothing happened, McGarry breathed a sigh of relief. And for once the storm left out its mocking comments. Dragging out his flashlight, he shone it down into the dark space they had created at their feet.
President Bartlet blinked dazedly in the sudden blinding light, one hand coming up to cover his eyes. His face was dusty and had a deep bruise on one cheekbone. Another bruise darkened the line of his jaw. Blood coated the side of his head and matted his hair from a deep scalp wound just above his hairline, which was still bleeding profusely. His chest heaved convulsively as he struggled to bring his breathing under control.
Butterfield dropped to a crouch beside his charge, wadding a handkerchief against the head wound in an effort to stop the bleeding.
McGarry carefully lowered himself down on the other side and placed a reassuring hand on his friend's shoulder. Afraid of what he might see, he played the flashlight down over the President's body.
Bartlet's torso was visible to just below his chest. At that point his body disappeared beneath a heavy steel girder, clearly what was left of one of the bulkhead's main supports. To McGarry’s vast relief, the weight of the girder was held off the President's midsection by the debris on either side. One of Bartlet's arms was free and now lay across his chest, fingers nervously clenching and unclenching. The other arm disappeared beneath the girder. The trapped man had plainly been unable to withdraw it because of the awkward angle at which he lay among the rubble.
McGarry scowled as he looked at the point where that arm vanished beneath the debris. Somewhere under that pile, just within reach of Bartlet’s fingertips lay…he pushed the mental picture firmly from his mind, swallowing his deep regret for the young agent dead beneath the rubble.
Kneeling down, he gently touched his friend's shoulder. He nearly swore out loud when Bartlet turned a strained and slightly dazed face towards him.
"Sir?" he asked softly.
Shifting as best he could under the weight pinning him down, Bartlet coughed and grimaced slightly. "Think…I may have bruised my ribs," he explained. Catching his breath, he summoned up a weak smile. "Thanks, Leo. I was starting to feel a little confined, and you know how much I like to have room in which to expand my considerable personality."
McGarry smiled down at him. The humor, however weakly given, was a good sign. "We'll see if we can't find you a little more room, Mr. President." He looked inquiringly at Butterfield.
Butterfield looked up from his rudimentary first aid. The handkerchief was already soaked crimson. Catching the Chief of Staff’s alarmed expression, he nodded reassuringly. "It's not as bad as it looks, Mr. McGarry. Head wounds always bleed a lot. It needs stitches and if I can't stop it, the blood loss may make him nauseous and light-headed, but it's not exactly life-threatening."
The agent shifted his position slightly to better view his President's situation. His eyes narrowed and his mouth thinned into a bleak line.
From the look on the man’s face, McGarry knew he didn’t like what he saw.
"There's no way we can move that girder, or access under it,” Butterfield was saying, giving the remaining wreckage pinning his charge a supremely sour look, as if it had dared to offend him somehow. Shaking his head, he asked, “Mr. President, do you feel any weight on your legs? If the girder has created a pocket of space for your body, and nothing is pressing down on you, we may be able to drag you back out from beneath it."
Closing his eyes, Bartlet grimaced again and frowned in concentration. "My left leg is fine…can even move it a little. Just feels like the time that Michigan linebacker stomped on it at that college game. My right leg…I don’t know. It hurts pretty badly, and there seems to be some kind of pressure…" His voice trailed off and he paused. Uncertainty clouding his voice, he finally answered, "No, I don't think there's anything heavy lying on it though."
McGarry regarded him with some concern and more than a little suspicion. He hadn’t missed the hesitation and what it meant. He knew Josiah Bartlet far too well. He was a terrible liar. "Sir, are you sure? I mean, I know you want to get out of this, but we can't afford to take chances…"
"I do want out of this!" Bartlet interrupted vehemently, his voice laced with a desperate determination.
Although his expression changed very little, Butterfield looked on helplessly and waited, watching the two men. The President’s breathing had started to become labored again and he saw the Chief of Staff squeeze the man’s shoulder reassuringly. This call was out of his hands.
Stopping just short of pleading, Bartlet took a deep, gasping breath and said softly, "Leo? I need to get out of this. Just … try."
"Okay, okay. We'll try. Please, sir, relax.” McGarry patted his arm helplessly. There wasn’t much more he could do. “You won't do yourself or us any good if you tense up or pass out. Now, slow breaths, remember? Get it back under control and then we'll try."
He held his friend's hand, feeling the fingers cold in his grasp as Bartlet fought valiantly to get the panic back under control. His clothes were slightly damp. Rainwater was trickling in beneath him from the cracks in the fuselage and dripping off the twisted girders. That wasn’t going to help if he started to slip into shock.
And that smell. There it was again. McGarry turned his head, trying to capture it and the memory. He was so close. He started as a particularly nasty peal of thunder cracked overhead, chasing away the memory he was so close to catching.
Turning his attention back to the President, McGarry watched in powerless silence as Bartlett slowly calmed and regained his control. He mentally cursed the phobia that was making things so much harder for his friend.
When he was sure Bartlet was as calm as he could get under the circumstances, he nodded to Butterfield and they both eased up to slide their hands under the President's arms.
Keeping his voice as even as he could, McGarry said, "Sir, we're going to try to draw you straight back and out from under the girder. There's just enough room behind you. You ready?"
Swallowing hard, Bartlet nodded his assent and braced his free hand on McGarry’s upper arm. He felt Butterfield’s hand slide beneath his armpit on the other side and lift him slightly. He winced at the sudden pain the movement caused. Tensing in anticipation, he looked up just as the agent signed his readiness to McGarry.
Lips pressed tightly shut so no sound could escape, he braced himself as the two men pulled and together drew back on his arms.
Both men stopped abruptly, shocked as a sharp cry burst from the President. McGarry winced as the man’s fingers closed convulsively on his arm. Panicked, he looked down. Bartlet’s eyes were closed and his lips drawn back over his teeth in a grimace of pain. His body held rigid, and then suddenly deflated as the worst of the throe passed.
"What happened?" McGarry heard his own voice, high with fear.
The President shook his head, unable to answer.
Grim faced, Butterfield seized the flashlight and ran its beam over the President's body, looking for injury. He almost snarled his frustration when he failed to see anything obvious.
Finally the pain subsided enough to allow Bartlet to speak. "My leg!" He gritted out between his teeth, perspiration gleaming wetly on his face.
Butterfield crouched down further, his head nearly resting on the President’s chest and shone the flashlight into the tiny space between the man’s body and the girder. He stayed in position for some moments, carefully peering into the limited field of vision. Finally he drew back, shaking his head in angry self-disgust.
"What is it?" McGarry had eased an arm under his friend’s head and was cushioning it in the crook of his elbow. It was a useless question and from the look on Butterfield’s face, one he really didn’t want the answer to.
Bartlet lay still with eyes closed and face pale, his breathing punctuated by short gasps. Occasionally his throat moved as he swallowed convulsively against the bile rising in it as the pain in his leg burned and clawed at him.
"I should have checked before we tried anything." Butterfield shook his head, for the moment unable to answer further.
The agent was as angry as the Chief of Staff had ever seen him. That anger was no less intimidating for being directed at himself. McGarry could also see the pain hovering behind his eyes as he explained further. More problems added to the growing list.
"It's barely visible, but it looks as if one of the metal spars from the interior wall has embedded itself deep into his leg just above the knee. I can see blood welling up around the shaft, so we must have aggravated the hell out of the injury when we tried to pull him out of there."
Shocked, McGarry looked down at his friend. "We can't get him out?"
Butterfield shook his head. "I definitely wouldn't like to try it. There's no way we can reach the spar and we have no means to cut or extract it. We try to just haul him out, no telling what damage we could do. As it is, we may have already done more than enough harm. I just hope the bleeding slows, and that we didn't tear a major vein."
"And if we did?" McGarry already knew the answer, but had to ask.
"Then you had better hope that help comes very soon, Mr. McGarry." Butterfield was painfully blunt, his professional mask once again in place, his own pain and discomfort disguised by the concern for his charge. "At the moment I can't even reach the wound to try to place any kind of effective compress on it to slow the bleeding."
McGarry sat in stunned silence as the wind whistled noisily around the wreck, driving rain into the cramped interior. He looked down abruptly as the President stirred in his arms. Bartlet’s eyes fluttered open and the Chief of Staff winced to see them dull with pain. This shouldn’t be happening. It tore at his heart when the man smiled weakly up at him.
"Guess I called that badly, huh Leo?" Bartlet’s voice was thin, a weak shadow of the vibrant instrument that could weave spells with words. "I'm…sorry, old friend. I had a feeling something was wrong, but I wanted out so much, I just hoped it wasn't anything major."
McGarry tightened his arm around his friend reassuringly, felt the cold hand grip that arm tightly in return. "It's okay, sir. We'll deal with it. Don’t we always?"
Butterfield looked away.
"You'll have to be the one Leo…you and Ron. I'm afraid I'm not going to be much help." Bartlet laughed weakly and he flashed a pale imitation of that impish grin. "The worst I have to worry about is maybe not making it. You on the other hand will be stuck with the joyful task of explaining to my loving spitfire of a wife just why you allowed her jackass of a husband to talk you into trying to haul him out of wreckage with a spar of metal through his leg."
McGarry froze, the implication of those words washing over him in an icy wave of powerless terror. If Bartlet himself honestly did not expect to come through this ordeal …he forced the thought away from him with violent anger. Damn it, no! He had faced the possibility of losing his friend too often since he had taken office. First the stunning news that his friend was suffering from a chronic disease that might one day rob him of his tremendous vitality and that alert intelligence, perhaps even his very life.
Then that dreadful night at Rossyln, the first panic and the false relief when he heard the President was on his way back to the White House. Fleeting release only, to be followed by that terrifying moment in the car when the agent told him he was sorry, but they had orders to divert instead to GW Hospital. The mad dash down the corridors to finally burst through the exam room doors and see…
He closed his eyes and swallowed, then looked down again at his President. Bartlet's face had a grayish tinge, and the hand that once again rested inside McGarry’s was cold and clammy. However, those pain-drawn features continued to gaze up at him quizzically and the blue eyes still retained their usual sparkle of intelligence, mingled with a faintly self-depreciating humor.
McGarry’s face felt stiff, but he forced the muscles into a smile. "Yeah, right! Don’t think you're going to get away with landing me with that task. This one you’re going to have to explain for yourself."
Bartlet's lips quirked up on one side. "Are you telling me,” he teased gently, "that the man who told a House Disciplinary Committee that it was his job to take a bullet for the President…oh, yes." At Leo's abashed look he tightened his grip momentarily in unspoken gratitude. "I heard about that…is still afraid to face the President's wife?"
McGarry swallowed and spoke with deliberate lightness. "Sir, with all due respect, a bullet can only kill me. The First Lady tends to maul her victims rather badly, especially those who have been careless enough to damage her husband in any way. I'd much rather die with all my limbs intact."
He was rewarded with a low snort of laughter and a faint murmur of, "Chicken!" before the President's eyes closed and his head rolled to one side to rest against the Chief of Staff’s chest.
Alarmed, McGarry looked up at Butterfield, who had remained silent throughout the exchange.
The agent leaned forward to touch his fingers lightly beneath the President's jaw. McGarry's eyes widened at the gesture and he sucked in a breath of relief when Butterfield pulled back and reassured his anxious audience with a slight nod.
"It's alright, Mr. McGarry, he's just passed out for the moment." Butterfield began efficiently ripping a long strip from the lining of his jacket. "We'll need to wake him again in a minute. Between the leg injury, the bleeding and the wound to his head it would be dangerous to allow him to sleep. He's already in danger of slipping into shock and we have no means of determining whether or not he may have a concussion."
"Oh God,” McGarry swore softly. A curse or a prayer, he wasn’t sure. A wave of apprehension, sheer dread, swept through him and he snapped, “Wake him, now!"
"In a moment, sir. I want to take advantage of the circumstance. This might hurt him otherwise." Butterfield understood McGarry’s fear, shared it. But he couldn’t afford to let it rule him or his actions. He held out his hand. "Can I have your handkerchief?"
"Huh?" McGarry blinked and gave the man a blank look, totally caught up in the feeling of the weight lying against him.
"Your handkerchief,” Butterfield repeated patiently. "I want to put a compress on his head wound. See if I can halt the bleeding there at least, given that we can't do much about his leg."
"Oh!" Flushing at his own stupidity, McGarry balanced Bartlet's head as well as he could while digging through his coat pocket. He became aware of an oddly warm, clammy patch on his shirtfront that cooled rapidly as he shifted position. He swallowed convulsively when he realized that the blood still streaming from the injured man's head had soaked right through the lining of his jacket.
Gritting his teeth, he silently handed the handkerchief to Butterfield and watched as the other man added it to his own soaked linen, pressing both down firmly on the wound, and started to wind the strip of jacket lining tightly over them and around the President's head.
"Ow!" Bartlet was awake now, startled by the manhandling and managing to throw a pretty good elbow into McGarry’s stomach.
Grunting and catching the flailing arm, McGarry pressed down gently on his friend's chest to prevent him moving suddenly. He’d wanted the man awake, but not like this. “Sir…”
"Damn it, that hurts!"
"Sorry, Mr. President,” Butterfield did not pause in his task. Truthfully, he was rather pleased Bartlet had the strength to grouse and complain. "Almost done." He reached down and snagged the pin from Bartlet's tie, using it to secure the rough bandage in place.
"Careful with that", the President growled irritably. "Abbey gave me that for our anniversary three years ago and I copped hell when I mislaid it for a week."
"I remember the search, sir." Butterfield's voice may have contained just a trace of ironic amusement. "I'm sure the First Lady would understand in the circumstances and approve."
"Whatever. Just so long as you know you'll be the one doing the explaining this time." The President's voice trailed off and his head began to loll back against McGarry’s chest again.
"Mr. President?” Worry clouding his voice, Butterfield tried to regain the man’s attention. “I'm sorry sir, but you can't fall asleep."
The only reply the agent received was a slightly peevish mumble.
"Mr. President?" McGarry tapped his friend's cheek gently, this time easily evading the feeble swatting motion that Bartlet made in response.
"Leave me 'lone…tired."
McGarry sighed heavily. "I know sir, but we really need you to stay awake until help gets here. You could have a concussion and we have no idea how badly your leg may be wounded. How does it feel?"
"Hmmm?" Bartlet roused himself with an effort. He shifted slightly, before freezing with a stifled groan.
McGarry tightened his arms around him instinctively, felt the man’s muscles tense, then relax. But only a little. “Sir?” He prodded, trying again for an answer.
"It hurts, Leo…a lot. And it's cold. My foot seems numb, can hardly feel it. In fact,” Bartlet’s whole body suddenly shook in an involuntary shiver, "I feel pretty cold all over."
McGarry shivered slightly in sympathy and suddenly became aware once again of the sound of wind and rain playing through the cracks in the damaged fuselage. If at all possible, the storm had become worse. The constant drip of water around them, the frequent and alarmingly close rumbles of thunder were testament to that unwelcome fact.
Gritting his teeth to stifle a grunt of pain, Butterfield rose abruptly to his feet. "I'm going to see if I can find blankets in the lockers remaining in the cabin. I'll be back in a moment. Please keep him talking, Mr. McGarry." He twisted around and ducked under the cleared area of overhang.
McGarry watched him leave, then looked down at the man resting against his arm and sighed. Bartlet’s eyes had already closed again and his breathing had softened as he hovered precariously close to sleep. He gently joggled the arm on which his friend's head was laying.
Forcing himself to keep the alarm out of his voice, he said loudly, "Hey!"
Bartlet’s eyes snapped open and he snarled angrily, "What!"
For a moment, the full force of the President’s formidable temper left McGarry speechless. Then he grinned and said, "You know, I'm getting a whole new appreciation for Charlie's hatred of waking you up in the mornings."
"Ha, funny." Bartlet countered with a cynical curl of his lip. Shifting as much as he was able, he thrust his free hand impatiently against the heavy girder imprisoning him.
"Careful.” McGarry gently captured the wavering hand. “You'll cut yourself and you can't afford to lose any more blood."
McGarry was dismayed at the weary, pain-laced tone of the President's voice. Underneath that was a hint of something he’d never heard before. Resignation. That more than anything sent a chill up his spine.
"I feel like it's weighing down on me, Leo. Like I can't fill my lungs."
Closing his eyes briefly, McGarry tried to ignore the dull ache of foreboding those exhausted words produced. Bartlet was riding the ragged edge and there was nothing he could do to help. How did you cope with an irrational yet very real fear, especially under these circumstances?
He had always admired his friend's strength of will, but never more so than now. He knew it was taking every shred of Josiah Bartlet’s self control to prevent himself from trying to rip that metal spar right out of his leg in a frantic struggle for freedom from his coffin-like confinement. Even now, he could feel the man’s chest laboring slightly under his hand and hear the uneven breathing. With frightful certainty he knew that the rigid tension of his friend's muscles came almost as much from that effort for control as from the terrible pain emanating from his leg.
"I'm sorry." He gave his friend's hand a gentle little shake. "You're doing really well. I'm proud of you. Just try to hang on a little longer. Help will be here soon."
He silently prayed those words were true.
Bartlet nodded weakly, for one of the few times in his life without words. A heavy, tense silence fell for a moment, only to be broken when the wind howled mournfully through a crack in the fuselage. He nearly smiled at nature’s rather snide commentary on the whole proceedings.
"You know," McGarry tried for a light tone, "When we get back I'm probably gonna kill Jonathan."
Bartlet twisted his head slightly to regard his chief of staff with puzzled surprise. "Jonathan …as in my brother? Why?"
"For the steamer trunk." At Bartlet’s blank expression, McGarry continued, still trying to keep his words and mood easy, "That comment you made, about Jon locking you in one when you were kids. I asked Abbey if you had told her about it, thought it was funny, he being your kid brother and all. She told me you’d said that you actually passed out.”
McGarry paused for a moment, unsure as to whether he had the right to continue. Another time, another place and he would simply ask. But this was the President of the United States. How far do you push?
Thunder roared outside and made the decision for him. He had to know. “Wasn't that what started the claustrophobia? You've had it for as long as I've known you."
"It wasn't Jon's fault, he didn't know it would affect me like that. Besides, he was only a kid. He was just imitating…" Bartlet broke off abruptly.
McGarry regarded him sharply and with some surprise. "Imitating who?"
He was stunned by the expression he saw steal over his friend's face just before it went carefully blank. It was a chaotic mixture of anger, sadness and remembered fear and shame.
"Nothing." Bartlet shifted and grimaced slightly. His voice became deceptively light. "Practicing psychotherapy without a license, Leo? For shame. Seems to be becoming a bad habit for everybody lately."
McGarry frowned, a sudden sense of revelation overcoming him. "Was that what Toby did that night, Jed?” For a brief moment he once again forgot protocol, the rigid and unbending rules he’d lived by for three years. This was his friend and he was in pain. “Try to play mind games? What on earth did he say? Because I've never seen you…"
"Leo!" Weak though the voice was, there was no mistaking the tone, the sudden anger that flashed and clouded his eyes. Thunder chose that moment to rumble a spiteful accompaniment overhead and Bartlet let out a short, bitter laugh. “Thanks for the assist,” he muttered ironically, feeling a bit put out that the director of this whole piece felt it necessary to add his two cents in.
The Chief of Staff practically ground to a halt. Forty-year old friendship or not, and despite Bartlet's normally open nature, he was plainly walking a line that his instinct told him Toby had stomped all over with trademark Ziegler doggedness in pursuit of an ideal.
"Jed, please." McGarry pressed forward, trying to force the issue. He could be as dogged as Toby on any day and he sensed he was hovering on the edge of discovering just what had wounded Bartlet so deeply that night.
It had troubled him more profoundly than he could easily express to watch his friend over the course of that week. In fact, he had been the direct instigator of Dr. Stanley Keyworth's involvement in the whole affair and had been frustrated beyond belief by that gentleman's refusal to be forthcoming about matters.
Bartlet's lips twisted and he opened his mouth to utter a curt response when he was interrupted by the sound of Butterfield endeavoring to worm his way back into the small space with a couple of blankets in tow.
Bartlet turned his head away as the agent approached, closing his eyes and feigning sleep.
It was a poor ruse and McGarry knew at that point the conversation, unsatisfactory as it had been, was officially over. He sat there for a moment, shoulders slumped and with a worried expression on his face he made no attempt to hide. Wearied by events and indecision, he reluctantly let it go, for now at any rate.
There would be another time.
“Here,” Butterfield handed him the blankets. Uncertainty crept into his expression as he looked down at his sleeping charge. He wasn’t fooled by the act any more than McGarry was. He hesitated; measuring the situation for a moment, then asked quietly, “Can you handle things here, sir?”
“Why?” Accepting the blankets and shaking one of them out, McGarry gave the waiting agent a curious look. “Is there a problem?”
The corner of Butterfield’s mouth twisted slightly in what might have been described by someone who didn’t know him as a mocking –albeit only slightly—smile.
“Okay, okay,” McGarry growled, glad of the semidarkness that hid his embarrassed wince. “Is there another problem I should know about? ‘Cause I’ll tell you right now my plate is a little full.”
A snort and a low chuckle of familiar though tired executive amusement greeted that rather loaded statement.
Eyes narrowed with profound and long-suffering irritation, McGarry looked down and gave his friend a supremely sour look. “No comments from the peanut gallery.”
One Presidential eye opened. “Peanut gallery?”
“Yeah. As in annoying, sir.”
Butterfield shifted, becoming more uncomfortable by the minute. Most of the secret service had that reaction when these two started going at it. As the senior agent was doing now, most only half listened to the absurd byplay, wondering exactly where or when it would leave off and things could get back to normal.
‘Back to normal?’ He nearly did smile openly at that thought. Having served under two previous sitting Presidents, Butterfield and his staff had quickly come to the realization that nothing in the Bartlet administration could be considered normal.
Truthfully, most found it a refreshing, if slightly disconcerting, breath of fresh air.
Still, there was a time and place for everything and the President’s senior agent had a job to do. “Mr. McGarry?”
“I’m going to head forward. One of the hatches is clear of debris and I might be able to get it open.”
McGarry nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Caught up in the nightmare, he’d forgotten about that possibility. His fingers clutched the blanket in his hand, twisting the heavy cloth. They might be able to get one of the hatches open. But then what? What choices did they have?
Two of them could leave and find relative safety. One couldn’t. And McGarry knew with the certainty of over forty years friendship what the man who couldn’t leave would order them to do.
One thing was certain. There was always a first time and McGarry had always wondered what it would be like to defy a direct executive order.
Not waiting for an answer, some of the same thoughts chasing each other through his own mind, Butterfield crouched low and began to scramble back through the opening.
“Ron?” McGarry called softly.
Pausing, Butterfield turned back. “Sir?”
Caught off guard by the question, knowing what the Chief of Staff wanted to hear in reply, Butterfield hesitated. What to tell him? The storm was still raging outside, thunder and lightning contemptuously joining the howling wind in an insane mockery of circumstance. He tried weighing the whole structure of events, to find something that would satisfy McGarry and not cause the trapped man any more anxiety or pain.
Reluctantly, he realized that a loaded silence was the only answer he could give.
“I understand,” McGarry said softly, accepting the unspoken answer and what he felt was the inevitable. Had he truly expected anything to go right?
Unfortunately, it wasn’t an answer that Bartlet found in any way satisfying. “Answer him, Ron.”
Bartlet opened his eyes and drilled the agent with a demanding glare. “Answer him!” he snapped, for the moment frustrated anger driving away the pain and demons haunting him.
Thunder and lightning flashed overhead and the President bit back a curse. He was starting to get just a little tired of the ridicule being tossed at him like so much cheap stage decoration. A tiny, self-depreciating smile and he had to candidly admit that by now he should be used to it.
Under Bartlet’s steady and unwavering scrutiny, Butterfield had no choice but to answer. “Under normal circumstances, given the location of several air bases…”
“Cut to the chase.”
“Ten, maybe fifteen minutes at the most.”
Butterfield sighed heavily, though his expression remained as stoically blank as ever. “The storm, sir. Even with the locator beacons, any rescue crew is going to have to be able to see the wreck.”
“And they can’t see us.” Assailed by a terrible sense of bitterness, Bartlet gave a choked, desperate laugh. What else was there left to do? “Thank you, Ron.”
The determination he heard in Butterfield’s voice gave Bartlet a strange, numbed comfort. He’d always been amazed at the man’s air of calm and self-confidence. Some things in this world never changed, or allowed to the world to change them.
Inclining his head towards the narrow opening leading forward, the President of the United States told his senior agent, “Go.”
Determined not to fail, Butterfield nodded and without further word scrambled through the gap.
Watching him go, McGarry felt a bit of that same resolve. This wasn’t over yet. Draping one of the blankets over his friend, he said firmly, “They’ll see us.”
“Always the optimist, Leo.”
“Me? An optimist?” McGarry’s brows rose with open amazement, caught off guard by the absurdity of that statement. “You really did bang your head a good one, didn’t you?”
“One of us has to be.”
McGarry’s mouth snapped shut, stunned by the obvious resignation, the glaring lack of humor in Bartlet’s voice that had been there only moments before. Not for the first time, he realized that the complex man he dared to call friend was an ever changing and uncategorized mystery. He’d always wondered how much of the man’s cutting wit was simply a personal shield, or his way of shielding others.
Unable to form a reply, McGarry chose to ignore whatever was being implied and leaned over the prone man to tuck one of the blankets around his shoulders as best he could, the other behind his head for support. It wouldn’t help much, not in the position he was in, but the comfort would be as much psychological as it was physical. He cringed when his hand came away wet from under Bartlet’s shoulders, felt the cold, soaked fibers of his suit jacket heavy with moisture.
Holding his hand up to his eyes, something else struck him. Bringing his fingers closer to his face and wrinkling his nose, he caught it again. That smell. Faint and familiar, it once again began to clutch at some half forgotten memory.
A shadow of annoyance crossed the President’s face when he got no response. “Leo…”
“Sir, please…” McGarry’s voice trailed off, trying desperately to put the odor in its proper place. It was important. Once, long ago, he’d known it. It was thin, heavily diluted with rainwater, but he knew it…
Unused to being told to shush, however indirectly, Bartlet opened his mouth to issue as scathing a rebuff as he could manage under the circumstances. Then the look on McGarry’s face registered, the absolute concentration. Lifting his head from the rough pillow, he reached out with his free hand and grabbed his friend's, felt the muscles of the man’s forearm tighten beneath the sleeve of his coat.
“What is it?”
For a brief moment, he saw McGarry close his eyes. Then he opened them and the flash of near panic he saw for a moment in their depths had Bartlet wishing he hadn’t asked.
McGarry let out his breath and swore, “Aw, shit.”
A long, brittle silence stretched between the two men, far too long for Bartlet’s tastes. Blinking slowly in the near darkness, he let the moment draw out a beat longer, as much as he dared, then asked quietly, “Is it a secret? Or do I have to guess?”
McGarry felt as if a hand had closed around his throat. For a brief moment, he considered not telling the President, of hollering instead for Butterfield. But what good would it do? Neither the lie nor the secret service agent’s presence would change anything.
“It’s fuel, sir,” he answered with a calm detachment that left him wondering as to its source. “Aviation fuel. One of the tanks has ruptured. It’s leaking into the cabin.”
The President’s reaction to that revelation wasn’t exactly what McGarry had expected.
There was nothing hysterical about it, nothing bitter or cynical. For a confused moment McGarry couldn’t place it or the reason, but when he did he couldn’t help but laugh himself. It was a joke, a cruel, unending, twisted and mean play on fate, but still a joke and they both had finally caught the punch line.
Wincing as his laughter broke off into a rough cough, Bartlet let his head fall back against the makeshift pillow. Sighing wearily, he offered his companion a tired smile. "It's all getting a bit ridiculous, isn't it, Leo?"
Truthfully, McGarry felt like hitting something. Ridiculous or not and in spite of himself, he chuckled and replied dryly, “I’m not about to argue with you, sir.”
“Is it bad?”
“It could be worse.”
The President blinked slowly, then asked very carefully, “How?”
“Do you want me to tempt fate and ask?”
“Given my track record the last few years?” Bartlet’s mouth twisted wryly, “That would be pushing it.”
Settling back against what remained of the bulkhead, McGarry put his arm around his old friend’s shoulders and gave a gentle snort of sympathetic agreement. “There’s not much we can do about it.”
“Is that supposed to cheer me up?”
A short brittle laugh. “No.”
"Not much longer now, sir. The rescue teams must be nearly here by now. Ron was right, if it weren't for the storm they probably would be here already, but all this heavy rain must be playing hell with visibility and flying conditions."
Bartlet’s mouth pulled into a sour grin. “This is wisdom from a man who hasn’t flown a plane in nearly thirty years?”
McGarry ignored the somewhat cynical presidential teasing with as much dignity as he could muster under the circumstances. He cocked his head slightly as the ever-present background creaking of the wreck suddenly increased in intensity. "Wind seems to be picking up, too."
Prepared to accept being forced to stay awake but not to do it meekly, Bartlet started to offer a reply when the wreck resettled itself with a sudden lurch. Clutching helplessly at the girder laying across his chest, he felt something move, tear at the leg he’d thought too cold and numb to feel anything anymore. Bile rose in his throat at the agony and he arched his back, mouth opening in a wordless cry of pain.
McGarry clutched at him in panic, trying to hold him still, prevent him from damaging himself further. For God's sake, what now? "What is it?"
The President subsided with a low hiss of pain. Through tortured gasps for precious air, he managed, "My leg…something's happening to my leg…" his voice broke off in mid-sentence and he arched up again in a spasm of agony.
"Ron!” McGarry bellowed, holding tight to Bartlet’s tense shoulders. He could barely hear his own voice over the sounds of the storm and the man’s tortured breathing. The roar of adrenaline in his ears nearly drowned out everything but the hammering beat of his own heart.
Butterfield slid under the overhang and hastily scrambled across the debris, adrenaline rendering him indifferent to the stabbing pain in his side and the new cuts as the sharp metal sliced through his hands and knees. Dropping down beside the Chief of Staff, he demanded breathlessly, "What?"
"Leg". McGarry was equally succinct, battered by the intense emotions this new crisis had engendered.
Butterfield seized the flashlight and directed its beam into the narrow gap between the girder and the President's body. The wind's howling seemed to increase its derision and the creaking of torn metal added a counterpoint that almost drowned out the sound of the agent's hissed intake of breath.
"What's happening?" McGarry supported his friend's head, reaching his hand around to press the palm against the President's forehead in a hopeless attempt at comfort. The fingers of his other hand were being crushed between Bartlet's own as the man tried to ride out another wave of agony.
Butterfield sank back and rested his hand supportively on his charge's shoulder, squeezing lightly in empathy. He briefly met the President's pain-glazed eyes in mute sympathy and apology for his inability to do his job and protect this man from harm. He was rewarded with a faint smile of understanding before the President's eyes once again slid closed and he seemed to deflate, panting and exhausted.
Butterfield looked up to meet a gaze of helpless entreaty that mirrored his own emotions. His expression darkened further and he said, "Wind and rain are giving us another problem besides merely delaying rescue. Add in mud and torn up trees, a position on a steep mountain ridge and it doesn't give us anything good." He waited for realization to dawn in the other man's eyes, and nodded curtly. "The wreck is shifting."
McGarry shook his head in numbed disbelief. This was just too much. Maybe the President really had been right about a divine Providence being out to get him. Events certainly seemed to be stacking up that way. "And when the wreckage moves…"
"…the spar is moving around in the wound, tearing it up." Butterfield finished the thought. "Mr. McGarry, it is further aggravating his injury, to say nothing of being painful beyond belief. Add in the fact that we have a dangerous drop below the wreck site…”
McGarry’s head snapped up, giving the agent an incredulous look. “A drop? You’ve seen this?”
“No, sir. But…”
“Leave him be, Leo,” a weak though still forceful voice grated out. Bartlet swallowed, then managed to offer with a hint of sarcastic humor. “He’s learning his lessons.”
McGarry blinked. “Sir?”
“What else would there be below the wreck?”
“What else,” McGarry sighed. The logic, however twisted, was inescapable. Despite his fears, he felt an awful joy at those words. If Bartlet could still manage to point out the ridiculous, then all wasn’t completely lost. “Good point, Mr. President.”
Butterfield’s logic hadn’t been quite that attuned to the unreasonable demands of fickle and spiteful fate, but rather to his last view of the ridge before they went down. But still, either point had been well made, if the one was being somewhat paranoid. What else could they have expected?
He wondered briefly if that sort of thinking was contagious, before calmly pointing out the inevitable. “Mr. President, Mr. McGarry, we may not have the luxury of waiting here for rescue.”
That statement’s meaning wasn’t lost on McGarry, or the implications. "You mean, just pull him out?" He shook his head in protest. "That's insane! What if we can't stop the bleeding? And do you know how much that's going to hurt him?"
As if to underscore the irony of that concern the wreck shifted again and Bartlet suddenly let out another sharp cry, twisting helplessly under McGarry’s hands. The Chief of Staff watched as Butterfield added his support and tried to hold the President still. Dreadfully aware that it made little difference, he gave what small comfort he could, praying it would end quickly. Finally, and to his unspoken relief, he felt the man relax slightly, a sheen of perspiration breaking out anew on his pale features.
Bartlet licked dry lips and forced his eyes open to meet the worried gaze of the two men leaning over him, whose features evinced their own peculiar brand of agony. He smiled unconvincingly and said, "Things just keep getting more and more interesting, don't they Leo?"
The wreckage creaked again, and Bartlet tensed, drawing in his breath with a hiss in anticipation of yet another session of that hideous tearing, burning sensation. He relaxed slightly when this time it did not materialize. "So…what's next? Are you…" he closed his eyes and swallowed painfully at the prospect, "…going to haul me out of here?" He smiled faintly up at his Chief of Staff. "You know…I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm not sure I exactly relish the idea, even for the prospect of getting out of this box."
"It's just a last resort, Mr. President." Butterfield spoke reassuringly; amazed that even now the man could find something to joke about. “Hopefully, the debris will stop moving and we can wait for the professionals to do it properly, and more comfortably for you."
"But you're afraid that may not be possible."
It was a statement, not a question. Bartlet watched as both men exchanged troubled glances, blinking slowly and unable to offer any kind of hopeful rebuttal. The President's mouth curled wryly at the somewhat comic sight. "No positive thoughts? Oh, fellas! And after this truly impressive streak of luck we've been enjoying so far?"
McGarry regarded the trapped man with a touch of incredulity. He would never, never be fully prepared for the odd ways and times Josiah Bartlet’s sense of humor chose to manifest itself. Still, he gladly seized on the momentary lessening of tension to offer his friend a genuine smile and a squeeze to the hand that had finally relaxed enough to release its crushing hold on his fingers.
Suddenly, the wind rose to a positive howl and the whole wreck creaked ominously. All three men tensed in agonized anticipation.
McGarry gasped in shock as he felt the entire cabin jerk and move slightly, before coming again to rest.
His attention was wrenched back to his immediate surroundings by the screeching, groaning sound of shifting metal, followed by a cry of helpless rage from Butterfield and a frightened gasp of pain from Bartlet.
McGarry saw to his horror that the debris on which the girder had been resting its full weight had moved and slid, causing the heavy metal bar to come down against the President's chest. Bartlet was breathing in short gasping pants, restricted by the weight bearing down on him, and his eyes were wide with unshielded fear.
Butterfield had his hands under the bar and was struggling valiantly to lift some of its weight off the man beneath. McGarry flung himself forward to join efforts with the agent, but it was like trying to hold back an entire mountain face.
The two men struggled in frantic silence, aware of the increasingly desperate and shallow breathing of the man at their feet, whose free hand pushed hopelessly at the weight pinning him down.
"Ron!" McGarry blinked some of the perspiration from his eyes. The moisture felt cold on his skin. "What can we do? He'll be crushed!"
Butterfield's lips were drawn back from his teeth in rage and physical effort. He snatched a second to shake his head in despair.
No! The word screamed inside McGarry's disbelieving mind. He looked down at his friend. Bartlet's respiration was growing ever more painful and strained. His eyes were slits, and his hand now simply rested on the girder, bracing against it as if somehow attempting to banish its reality.
McGarry glanced up in terror as he felt the cabin shudder and jerk again. He forced himself to look back down, sickly certain that he would see the girder had settled even further, crushing his friend's chest.
Instead, he found himself gaping stupefied at the sight before him. Somehow, with the second shift, something in the tangled mass before him must have weighed down on one end of the girder, see-sawing it up into the air. It still partly pressed down on Bartlet's side, but was now clear of his chest and torso.
"Hurry!" Butterfield had dropped down to a crouch and slid his hand under the President's arm. "Before it moves again!"
McGarry seized the man's other arm, but felt impelled to voice an objection. "But … his leg."
"The lesser of two evils! If that girder comes down on him again, we won't have to worry about the leg. Now, move!" Butterfield was at his most pragmatic, focused on removing his charge from the greater danger.
Following the agent’s lead, McGarry gritted his teeth and hauled back on the President's arm. He heard Bartlet give out a bellowing cry of agony, then his head fell back and he went limp in McGarry's hands.
Both men hauled him backwards frantically, finally clearing his body of the beam. They dragged him back towards the entrance and Butterfield slipped under the overhang, reaching back to drag the limp body through the opening and out into the cabin.
McGarry scrambled hastily out behind.
Butterfield eased the body into the angle formed by the cabin wall and the floor. Bartlet was still and ashen and his leg was a bloody mess of torn material and flesh. Grimly, the agent began to rip away the damaged trouser leg in an attempt to put pressure on the wound underneath.
"Compress…I need something to form a compress on the wound." Butterfield peeled back the sides of the rip in the material and carefully probed the damaged flesh underneath.
At the touch, the President tensed, his eyes fluttering open, and groaned.
McGarry looked around blankly, then dived back under the overhang to snag one of the blankets he had wrapped around Bartlet. Using the jagged edge of a piece of metal he started a tear and awkwardly ripped away a long strip of the thick material and handed it to Butterfield, who then began to wrap it swiftly around the President's thigh.
"How bad does it look?" McGarry was almost afraid to ask. He swallowed his nausea at the memory of what they had just done to his friend, and the tortured sound of Bartlet’s cry.
Butterfield was unbuckling his trouser belt and sliding it out of the loops. Incredibly, the grimness of his features had eased slightly. He looked up at the Chief of Staff and actually gave him a small smile of reassurance.
"Unbelievable as it may be, I don't think it's critical. The bleeding's fairly heavy, but not excessive. I think I can slow it. The wound's pretty torn up, but doesn't look to be as deep as we feared. No major veins seem to be severed. There's a fair amount of muscle damage; I don't know what the prognosis will be there. At least he isn't in immediate danger of bleeding out." Butterfield paused to loop the belt over the blanket compress and, with a quick jerk, pull it tight. "Still very painful though."
A sharp yelp of protest from the President as the belt tightened seemed to lend credence to that particular diagnosis.
"Sir?" McGarry leaned forward, feeling the first real sense of hope in a long time. The President was free of the debris, if not the wreck itself, and they were now in a position to do something, however little, about his injury. Surely things were looking up?
Seeing the baleful expression just visible in his chief executive's blearily cracked eye, he wondered if he would shortly have to revise the injury count. Bartlet was still woozy and disoriented from cold and pain, but there was no mistaking that glint. His oldest friend was fighting mad.
"That's it! That is absolutely it!" Bartlet angrily tried to hike himself up a little along the wall he was resting against, only to stop short with a groan as he jarred his leg. He paused for an instant to catch a pained breath, then let fly with all the pent-up fury, hurt and fear engendered by this ordeal.
Caught off guard by the strength and sheer ferocity of Bartlet’s outburst, McGarry drew back in stunned surprise. To say that his old friend’s reactions to any given situation were –at the very least—unpredictable was an understatement. But this? He could only stare wordlessly at the clearly enraged man, astonished and more than a bit uneasy. What followed next bordered on revelation.
The President of the United States was just getting started.
"I don't know what the hell I've done to piss You off recently, You malicious thug, but I can't think of anything worth a vengeance on this scale!"
There was no mistaking the target of Bartlet's diatribe. The very elements seemed to calm momentarily as if impressed, despite themselves, at this mortal's challenge to Providence.
"So I kept the MS a secret. I never deliberately set out to lie, never intended to hurt anyone. I just wanted some privacy, to avoid having people look at me and see the condition, not the man. Wanted to deny its existence. Was that hubris? If so, I've been paying for it ever since, and not just me but every one I care about.” Never one to keep his hands still when on a righteous roll, Bartlet’s left hand came down on the cabin floor with a resounding smack. “Isn't that enough for You?"
McGarry winced at the sound and shot an alarmed glance at Butterfield, whose attention seemed fully engaged in further tightening the bloodstained lining that was covering the President's head wound. He couldn’t help but note that the agent was carefully avoiding direct eye contact with his charge. They both were.
Finding himself in a situation with no precedent, the Chief of Staff could only listen. On the one hand the evidence of mental awareness and energy on the President’s part relieved him. On the other, the display of uncharacteristically raw, naked emotion was disturbing. Bartlet was obviously running on sheer nerves and adrenaline brought on by pain and fear. It was sustaining him for the moment, but McGarry dreaded the crash that would surely follow.
"All my life I've respected Your name, honored Your teachings," Bartlet continued to rant, although his voice was hoarse and his energy visibly beginning to flag. "I've kept Your Commandments; hell, yes, even the fourth and even You have to acknowledge that one wasn't easy."
The President’s oldest friend stirred in uneasy surprise. McGarry felt more and more that he was eavesdropping on a conversation of which he had no part. Clearly dazed and in discomfort, Bartlet was being unusually unguarded in his speech, and the implications he was garnering from this catharsis both confused and distressed McGarry. Adding it to the small store of impressions he had already gathered, he was getting a faint picture whose outline left him oddly reluctant to strain for detail.
He wasn’t even sure he should stop it. And if so, how?
Without looking up, Butterfield skillfully ducked one waving presidential hand and brought the tirade and McGarry's clear indecision to an end by bringing his own hand down gently on Bartlet’s shoulder. For the first time making eye contact, he waited for the man to take a deep breath and calm down.
Blinking slowly, the President took that deep breath, added a few more for good measure and nodded.
McGarry relaxed as well.
Satisfied that his charge had replenished his oxygen supply, if not his emotional balance, Butterfield stopped just short of pleading and said, "Please, sir, take it easy. Try to relax. We need you alert but getting worked up will only tire you out, to say nothing of causing your injuries to bleed more." As if in illustration, he gently dabbed with his fingertips at a small trickle of blood that had escaped from under the sodden compress on the President's head to run down his temple.
Seeing the blood --his blood-- on the agent’s fingertips, reality reared its ugly head and the small world he was trapped in began to close around him. Bartlet drew another ragged gasp, grimacing and wrapping his arms around his chest. The girder might not have crushed him, but it had left a more than adequate reminder of how closely he had approached that fate. Even now the sharp pain across his ribs and sternum offered an almost tangible recollection of its presence, and filling his lungs was almost as difficult as when he had lain imprisoned beneath it.
Fury dying as the adrenaline in his system leveled off, Bartlet let his head fall back against the cabin wall and sighed wearily. Without the rage pumping through his veins, he was becoming more aware of the blinding throbbing in head and leg, and the dull ache that assailed him all over. He regarded his Chief of Staff tiredly.
"I swear to God, Leo, I am never taking a vacation again. I don't care if I have to run the rest of this administration sleepwalking.” Acknowledging the absurd, a glint of dark humor flickered in his eyes. The accompanying laugh had a sharp edge to it. “Hell, why not? The opposition claims that I do it with my brains dribbling out my ears."
McGarry winced at that off the cuff statement. That was one topic wherein he had never been able to find any humor, not even of the black nature his friend sometimes indulged in at his own expense. It was far too easy to visualize that possibility, the loss of a friend not through a clean ending but gradual mental degradation.
It hadn’t happened yet, might never happen, but just the very thought gnawed away at his spirit.
The President easily read the unhappiness on the features that were as familiar to him as his own. Reading his mind was just as easy. McGarry had proved even more reluctant to accept the possibility of that grim future than Bartlet himself, and he felt a twinge of guilt for having brought it up, however casually. Drawing on his rapidly depleting inner reserves, he offered his friend a whimsical smile.
"Cheer up, Leo. You guys got me out of that makeshift coffin, and with my leg still relatively intact." He brought his hand down on the limb, and then hissed as the incautious gesture reminded him that the crucial qualifier had been relatively. "Assuming my little attack of snippiness just now didn't totally queer our pitch with fate, we're over the worst."
McGarry couldn't help but grin in reply. "Snippiness?" He arched an eyebrow in amused query.
Bartlet smirked. "That's how Mrs. Landingham would dignify even the most righteous ranting on my part." His smile faded as he reflected on the memory of his deceased secretary, who had known him even longer than his Chief of Staff and had done so much to influence the man he had become. "I think it was her way of reminding me that there is a fine line between constructive anger and self-indulgent rage."
McGarry sobered in turn. Of all the bad tidings he had been forced to bear to his friend in recent months, the news of that indomitable old lady's death, that grand dame, had been the worst. He was pulled from those dark memories by the sound of Butterfield patiently clearing his throat.
"Yes Ron?" The President peered up from under the makeshift bandage crossing his brow. The usually expressionless agent had a surprisingly puzzled look on his face.
“Sir…” Butterfield paused, clearly at a loss as how to express himself. Finally, he asked with perfect deadpan composure, “Queer our pitch?”
McGarry’s mouth twitched with ill concealed disgust at the question and he shot the President one of the dirtiest looks he’d thrown the man in three years. “He’s been hanging around Marbury again.”
“Oh my God.” For a brief moment a look of absolute horror crossed Butterfield’s face, to be quickly replaced with one of calculating resolve. “Not on my watch,” he growled under his breath.
Neither Bartlet –who was laughing as best he could with bruised ribs, nor McGarry –who, by the look of loathing on his face Butterfield figured had just come to the realization that he had clearly understood the euphemism, heard his ill advised grumbled oath.
A situation the stoic agent considered all well and good. He did have a reputation to maintain after all and eccentric ambassadors were not going to ruin it. Not if he had anything to do about it.
Getting back to the business at hand, he said, "Mr. President, if you have no objection, I'd like to ask for Mr. McGarry's assistance in forcing the forward hatch." Once again professional to the core, the agent had been assessing both the storm levels and the slight rocking of the wreck and was not happy with his conclusions. "Now that you’re free of the debris, I think we should seriously address the question of evacuating the craft."
McGarry looked up in sudden trepidation as the wind's howling increased, amazed that he had managed to forget even for an instant those heart stopping shifts from earlier. He scrambled to his feet with alacrity. "Ron's right, sir. Now that we can move you we need to get you out of here while our luck continues to…"
He broke off abruptly and fell to his knees as the cabin shuddered and bucked beneath him. Cursing, he grabbed what was left of a nearby seat as the wreck started to roll, then slide at a sickening angle. He heard the sound of branches snapping, rocks scraping against the battered fuselage.
Butterfield seized the President's shoulders and pressed him back against the wall, leaning over him protectively. For a few seemingly endless seconds, the wreckage continued to slide sickeningly downward and he gritted his teeth in agonized anticipation. Not on my watch! He held on to that thought, determined to do his duty.
All the while, the thunder raged outside. The lightening danced and rain beat against the wreck.
Their progress finally halted an eternity later. The remains of the craft continued to creak and sway gently but for that instant final disaster seemed to have been postponed. Although it was several long moments before any of those inside dared to move.
Finally, Butterfield gingerly eased himself off the President and looked down at his main responsibility in concern.
Bartlet's eyes were closed, his mouth drawn into tense lines. His face appeared even paler, if that were possible, and he seemed to be holding his breath. Feeling the weight lift off him and realizing that their motion had stopped, he cautiously opened his eyes and exhaled explosively.
The President gestured to his security chief. "Ron? Forcing that hatch is sounding more and more like a plan I can get on side with. What say you go see what you can do? Leo," he turned his head towards McGarry. "Do you feel up to giving him a hand?"
To be continued…