A Frightened Peace
Anne Callanan and Kathleen E. Lehew
McGarry inclined his head in acknowledgement of both the request and the unspoken regret that Bartlet himself could offer no constructive assistance. With a quick smile to his friend, who was attempting to settle himself securely against the wall, he cautiously followed the agent towards the hatch.
The last slide had caused the cabin to roll slightly, so the hatch was no longer set at quite so precipitous an angle. However both men were still obliged to brace themselves with one hand in order to avoid sliding back down the angle of the floor while they battered at the warped hatchway.
McGarry was making way for a particularly heartfelt assault by Butterfield on the hatch when overhead a familiar, booming roar that momentarily overrode the ever-present thunder suddenly drew his attention. His hand closed excitedly on his companion's arm, interrupting the next enthusiastic shoulder charge. "Listen."
Startled, Butterfield did just that, grateful for the brief reprieve and using it to wait for the now ever present stitch in his side to abate. Straining, for a moment all he could hear was the steady fury of the storm. Then, there it was, utterly unmistakable. Feeling an almost unbearable weight begin to ease from his shoulders, he shared an unbridled smile of sheer relief with the Chief of Staff. He then turned to share the good news with the man lying on the other side of the cabin and frowned at what he saw.
Bartlet had his head back against the bulkhead, eyes closed. One hand rested lightly on his wounded leg, the other lay limply at his side. He was asleep, or as close as Butterfield was going to allow him.
"Huh?" The response was drowsy. Damp, chilled clothing, wounds and aftermath from the emotional release of earlier were making it harder and harder for Bartlet to accede to his companion’s wishes and stay alert. "What is it?"
"Jets." Butterfield waited until he was sure he had the man's full attention before continuing. "There are fighter jets circling our position. We've been spotted. The medivac helicopters have a location to home in on now. Help will be here very soon."
The news took a moment to sink into Bartlet's exhausted and stressed mind, and then he looked up, almost afraid to hope. The beaming grin on McGarry's face was worth more than any number of spoken reassurances, and he offered up a tentative smile in return.
The brief moment of relief was broken when McGarry's face abruptly seemed to dip in his field of vision. Bartlet essayed a grunt of protest as his head bounced against the bulkhead behind him and he suddenly found himself almost fully reclining and beginning to slide down an ever-growing slope in the floor.
Above him, McGarry and Butterfield grabbed hastily for handholds in order to prevent themselves from sliding gracelessly down the steep gradient as the cabin rolled again, pitching up the angle of the floor even further.
Hanging on for dear life, McGarry heard a sudden pop and crackling, and then a muffled exclamation of pained exasperation from Butterfield. Twisting his head, he saw wisps of smoke issuing from around the edges of a panel on the far bulkhead a few yards from where Bartlet lay.
"That last roll must have pulled loose some wiring, one of the batteries must still be hot." The secret service agent was releasing a fire extinguisher from its housing next to the hatchway with unhurried efficiency. "I'd better get it out before any sparks have the opportunity to fan into flame…" He turned and blinked, unexpectedly finding himself addressing an empty space.
At the word sparks the Chief of Staff had given a panic-stricken gasp and released his handhold to slide in ungainly haste down the incline, fetching up almost on top of the startled President. Attempting the difficult task of interposing his body between Bartlet and the panel while simultaneously dragging his protesting victim further away, he yelled over his shoulder to the bemused agent, "Put it out! For God's sake, get it out now!"
Confused, but responding to the unmistakable sense of urgency in his voice, Butterfield began his own equally rapid but rather more controlled descent of the incline. Reaching the panel, he unleashed the extinguisher over it, and then paused to rip it away one-handed before directing the remaining contents of the cylinder into the circuitry behind to ensure that no danger remained. Putting down the empty extinguisher, he turned to face the two men.
McGarry, finding it difficult to drag the nearly limp body of a full-grown man at any speed, had abandoned the attempt and instead flattened himself over the form beneath him to shield it. Judging from the general tone of the muffled remarks issuing from under him, the President was less than happy about this quixotic gesture.
"Leo, get the hell off of me! Now!" A lucky thrust with an elbow, and a slightly winded grunt from McGarry granted Bartlet his wish and his self-appointed protector lifted his weight off him. Rolling over awkwardly, and uncertain as to whether to clutch at his abused ribs or his leg --to which McGarry in the course of his frantic lunge had administered a fairly hefty kick-- the President glowered up at his friend.
"What," he inquired with strained patience, "did you think you were doing?"
McGarry returned the look with heat, riding his own adrenaline high. "Didn't you hear Ron?" he hissed. "Or have you forgotten what effect a spark could have in here right now? And what about you? You were only a few feet away and your clothes are soaked in the stuff!"
He almost bit through his tongue as he watched Bartlet's features freeze and heard his friend draw in a short choking breath. Impulsively, he reached out to rest a hand on the President's upper arm, squeezing it gently in regret. Always the one to remind the senior staff when to think before speaking, McGarry found himself in the unenviable position of having failed to do just that.
"Mr. President, I'm sorry. That was thoughtless…”
McGarry's apology was curtailed by the sound of an ominously clearing throat behind him. He could have sworn it sounded like a growl. He turned and found himself almost skewered by the glare the secret service agent was directing at him. He had sometimes wondered what it would take to make the unflappable Butterfield lose it. Wincing, he now came to the conclusion that some questions were better left unanswered, especially when you yourself were the unwitting catalyst.
"Mr. McGarry.” Butterfield's tone was flat, but his eyes burned with the fury of a man who had had one too many curve balls flung at him by a malicious fate this day. "Would there by any chance be some details you need to fill me in on?"
The Chief of Staff couldn't help himself; he actually gulped before summoning up his voice to respond. "Earlier, just before we had to pull the President out …” he paused, then took a deep breath and completed his explanation in a rush. "I realized that his clothes were soaked in aviation fuel as well as rainwater. One of the fuel tanks is leaking into the cabin."
Offering a tentative smile of any kind at this point would have been only one more nail in his coffin, so McGarry didn’t even bother to try. He was starting to have just a bit more sympathy for the President and his caution around this man.
"So." Butterfield's voice was beginning to rise, the volume slowly increasing with each carefully uttered syllable. "You knew that we had highly flammable fuel leaking into an unstable area where grating metal or damaged wiring could ignite a spark that might start an inferno, and you didn't see fit to mention this fact to me?
McGarry flinched back from the sheer volume of that last outraged bellow, banging his head a good one against the bulkhead in the process. Wincing and at a complete loss for words, he stared up at Butterfield helplessly. To try to explain that he had felt it would change nothing, or that there had simply been no time as they lurched from one crisis to the next, sounded rather feeble in the face of such incandescent fury.
He felt an elbow digging into his ribs, then the unmistakable voice of his friend and President accusing him, “Way to piss him off, Leo.”
If McGarry had felt it safe to take his eyes off the still glowering Butterfield, he’d have given Bartlet a good fielding return. Right now, self preservation dictated he keep his attention focused on the bloodied man towering over him.
As much as he was enjoying watching McGarry squirm, the President decided --rather wisely he thought-- to break the deadlock. Slightly startled himself by his security chief's blow-up, he raised a calming hand, catching the man's attention.
Butterfield whipped his head around, and then hastily modified his glare when he met the tolerant eye of his chief executive.
"Don't blame Leo, Ron. He didn't intend to keep anything important from you." Bartlet tapped the other man's knee to emphasize his point. "A lot of stuff happened very fast. And, well, I haven't exactly been making things any easier for either of you." He waited until he saw the agent's shoulders sag slightly and the anger fade from his features, then continued. "But I would suggest that your point about our not being able to afford to simply sit and wait for rescue is well taken. We have more to worry about now than a very short, unscheduled flight if this heap of junk decides to shift again."
This timely reminder galvanized Butterfield into action. With a final, accusing glare at McGarry, he turned to scramble back up towards the hatch without even his usual courteous acknowledgement of his charge's edicts.
McGarry began to follow, then halted in his tracks at the sound of the President's voice. He saw Butterfield also turn to listen.
"One last point, fellas," Bartlet's voice was low and his gaze intense. "I don't want any pointless heroics. I know our chances are a lot better now you got me out from under that crap, but I'm still not going anywhere fast. You will be closer to the hatch and mobile. If our luck runs out and we take fire…” he closed his eyes and swallowed convulsively at the possibility. A deep breath and he continued, “…we're going to go up like a Molotov cocktail. I don’t want you to risk yourselves needlessly. Get out. Fast."
Seeing the two incredulous faces regarding him, his voice gained a distinct edge. "Do you understand me?"
Butterfield regained his voice first. "Sir, I took an oath …"
"And I'm giving you an order!" Bartlet snapped. "As your President, I am directly ordering you both to take no unnecessary risks to your lives." He glared as he saw his two companions exchange decidedly mutinous looks. "Tell me you understand that order."
McGarry snorted. "You have an interesting definition of unnecessary risk. No." He held up a hand at his friend's attempt to interrupt. "Our oaths of loyalty and our duty aside, what the hell makes you think we would ever obey an order like that?" He regarded his friend's averted head and softened his voice. "Jed, we've been friends for more than half our lives. You're closer to me than a brother. I know you wouldn't leave me, as surely as I know you never really expected me to obey you."
Bartlet tilted his head to look up at his Chief of Staff. "I know, I know", he sighed. "But I had to try, Leo. I don't want to be the cause of anything happening to you."
McGarry looked up at Butterfield and jerked his head slightly. The agent took the hint and silently moved to resume his attack on the hatch. Urgent as that task was, this was a conversation McGarry was determined not to leave unfinished. There had already been too many such conversations in recent times. He’d never had the chance to finish them and this time he wasn’t about to lose the momentum.
He settled down awkwardly next to where Bartlet lay slumped against the angle of the bulkhead wall, his injured leg stretched out in front of him, and an arm gently cradling his ribs. The end of the temporary bandage on the President's head had come adrift of the tiepin during their recent scramble, and McGarry attempted clumsily to secure the frayed end back in place. He sat back on his heels, shaking his head in disgust at his efforts.
Bartlet gave him a quick grin. "Cheer up, Leo. You were never Boy Scout material anyway."
"You on the other hand I'll just bet were a natural," McGarry countered sourly. He regarded his old friend gravely. "Sir, why did you even bring it up? You know we wouldn't leave you here."
Cold, wet and exhausted, Bartlet gave him a weary look. "I know, Leo. That was never my fear. I just didn't want to lose you." He closed his eyes and turned his face away. "Sometimes lately I think that I've done nothing but endanger or lose all those things that really matter to me since I took this office. Oh, don't get me wrong; I'm grateful for all the opportunities it's granted me. But it's taken its dues...”
And whose fault was that? McGarry’s stomach knotted, guilt raising its ugly head. He’d convinced Bartlet to run, to take on the job and pay those dues. “Jed…”
“Let me finish, Leo.” There was steel in his voice.
McGarry almost rebelled, but something told him to simply listen. Jed Bartlet didn’t need an advisor; he needed a friend, someone to talk to, one man to another. Sadly, he realized it had been a long time since they’d just sat and talked.
Bartlet had settled back against the bulkhead, his gaze turning inwards. "I put Zoey and Charlie at risk because of who I am. We nearly lost Josh that night. They tried to ruin you because you were my closest advisor.” A choking, bitter grunt that never quite made it to a laugh, “I did lose Dolores. And now with the MS, we don't know what kind of fall out everyone may experience."
Sighing, he looked up and the last traces of resistance vanished. His eyes were anguished. "I'm not even sure that it won’t cost me Abbey, and that's not just whining on my part Leo. That prospect frightens me more than anything else."
McGarry struggled to find a response. "Surely you don't really believe that all those things are your fault?" Even as he said them, he knew the words were empty and of little comfort.
He should have known Bartlet would find something to latch on to, a thread of dark humor directed at himself.
The President smiled crookedly. "Nah. I've got a pretty healthy ego, Leo, but it's not that inflated. Intellectually, I know most of those things were outside my control, or else the result of the actions of others. Except for Abbey. That I really have handled badly. And that scares me. I was stupid, and stubborn. Yes, I know", slightly annoyed at his friend's quiet snigger. "Nothing exactly new about that revelation. It's just that lately I've become so tired of it all."
"Sir, you've been fighting a great many battles on a variety of fronts recently. It's natural to be tired, especially when you also haven't been sleeping. And depressed.” McGarry sobered. It was pointless to try and deny the harsh truths Bartlet had uttered. It was an argument his years of friendship assured him he would lose. There was a future though. “But it's going to pass. I'm certain of that. The staff may have been shocked and disappointed, but they still have faith in you. They put their trust and their support behind you. And deep down you know that Abbey does too."
Bartlet gave him a grateful smile, and grimaced slightly as he tried to shift position.
McGarry leaned forward to ease his friend upright. As he drew back he again caught that faint but now utterly unmistakable smell on the man's wet clothing and it reminded him both of the continuing precariousness of their position, and of another more personal concern. He eyed the President uneasily, unsure of whether or not to broach the subject.
"Sir? How are you doing? I mean, I know we got you out of that rubble, but we're still not free, and I happen to know that claustrophobia isn't your only problem." Watching the muscles of his friend's jaw tense and the lines of strain in his face deepen, McGarry regretted bringing it up. Leaning forward, he laid a hand on the injured man's arm in an effort to provide a reassuring presence.
To his surprise, he felt the tendons under his hand relax slightly, and Bartlet gave a short laugh. It was a dry, cynical sound McGarry couldn’t quite place.
"You mean the fuel danger? As in poof?" Snapping his fingers on the last word, he shook his head in gentle amusement at his friend's worried nod. "Leo, can I be honest with you? Right now, I'm simply don't have the energy to support more than one phobia at a time."
The worry on McGarry's features faded, but only slightly. "You feeling okay?" he inquired anxiously. "Not going to have another attack?"
The President let his head fall back with a weary sigh, and smiled tightly at his companion. "No, I don't think so. Oh it's still there, Leo, scratching away at the back of my mind, but I think I've managed, if not to control it, to at least achieve a sort of …” he paused to grope for the right words. "…frightened peace."
Seeing his friend's puzzled and not overly reassured expression, he quoted in a low voice, "So shaken as we are, so wan with care; Find we a time for frightened peace."
McGarry's face cleared and he nodded, understanding the sentiment even if he couldn't quite place the quote. He gave Bartlet's shoulder a quick squeeze. "You gonna be okay now? Only I really should help …"
"Go", Bartlet interrupted him, jerking his head in the direction of the hatch, where Butterfield seemed to finally be making some progress. Judging by the satisfied sound of the occasional muttered exclamation that drifted down towards them, the agent was taking out a few of his repressed aggressions on the unyielding metal.
Oddly loath to leave his friend, McGarry gave the supine man's shoulder one last pat, and then turned away to negotiate the slope behind him. Slipping, sliding and uttering muffled curses, the Chief of Staff managed to scramble up to Butterfield's side.
"How's it coming?" He demanded breathlessly, anchoring himself in position next to the hatchway.
The agent spared him a brief glance of cautious satisfaction. "Not so bad. I've managed to make some real progress here. With luck, another couple of minutes should see the hatch clear." He paused momentarily, hanging on as the wreck rocked slightly, before continuing grimly and with more than a touch of exasperated disgust, "And not a moment too soon, I'd say. I think our time is running out."
Senses straining nervously as he attempted to gauge the ferocity of the storm and the instability of their position, McGarry could only agree. Leaning back slightly to allow Butterfield space to wield the metal bar he was using to lever away the hatch, he glanced back down towards the President. Worry clouded his eyes at what he saw.
Bartlet's eyes were closed. Apparently he had finally lost the battle with exhaustion and fallen into a light doze. Deciding that a few moments respite from tension could not hurt, McGarry didn't attempt to wake him.
He gazed across the cabin at his friend, taking the opportunity to really study him for the first time since this nightmare had begun. Taking in the pale, bruised face, bloodstained head bandage and injured leg, he felt a sick fear begin to form in the pit of his stomach. Looking at the steep slope that separated them, and remembering his own difficulty in traversing it, the apprehension rose into his throat.
McGarry's voice sounded strained and Butterfield turned to regard him with curiosity, and some small degree of impatience. The bottom corner of the hatch had finally yielded to his ministrations and come away from its housing. The agent was convinced that just a few more wrenches on his improvised lever would see the entire thing fall away, leaving their exit clear. Given his own waning strength and energy, he was naturally reluctant to defer that moment, however briefly. But the other man's expression held his attention and he waited for him to continue.
When the man remained silent, he prompted somewhat impatiently, "Mr. McGarry?"
The Chief of Staff swallowed; feeling a childish reluctance to voice his fear, as if articulating it would somehow give it life. "The President." He gestured down towards the fitfully sleeping man. "He pegged the situation pretty good earlier, you know. About not being very mobile. Ron, what exactly are we going to do when that hatch finally opens? There's no way he can manage that climb by himself, we can barely make it on our own. And you…”
Butterfield’s eyes narrowed, tightening his grip around the bar in his hands and daring McGarry to finish his thought.
Not about to let him dodge the issue this time, McGarry’s answering gaze hardened in return. “Don’t tell me it’s nothing. I’ve seen you. You’re hurt.”
“It doesn’t matter. I don’t matter.”
“He’d argue that one with you,” McGarry pointed that truth out calmly, blithely ignoring the warning threat barely hidden in the agent’s angry tone and gaze. “What is it? Broken ribs?”
“And I’m supposed to believe you?”
“I’ll manage.” Despite his well-trained reserve, more than a hint of exasperation tinged Butterfield’s voice. Turning back to the hatch, he shoved his improvised lever into the widening crack. “It’s what I do.”
“You can’t lift, and I certainly can’t do it alone.”
A grunt as he pulled angrily on the lever, equal parts pain and frustration, was the agent’s only response. The ensuing silence clearly forbade any more questions.
McGarry knew how to take a hint. “Fine,” he muttered, finding very little reassurance in Butterfield’s stoic attitude. It was starting to get on his nerves and wasn’t helping to calm the growing anxiety in the pit of his stomach. The nightmare just kept getting worse.
“Then how are we going to get him up here?" he demanded hotly.
When his companion did not immediately rush in with the rebuttal he had hoped for, McGarry felt the dread climb even higher. Defying both executive authority and his friend's wrath had been one thing, a danger he could face with equanimity. But the idea that, after all that had happened, they might still fail at the final, literally insurmountable obstacle, left him cold with fear.
"We'll manage." Emphasizing the plural, Butterfield's voice was low, fearful of disturbing the dozing subject of their council. Acknowledging McGarry’s concerns as much as he dared, he continued, “There are still blankets in the lockers by our seats. We can construct some kind of rope to help him up."
Gripping the bar in his hand tighter, his voice hardened. "I just know that I intend to get him out of here. I'm not leaving without him."
McGarry regarded him intently, startled and considerably touched by the passionate tone of that pledge. The security chief's expression was a study in unyielding determination. The Chief of Staff felt the tension in his stomach un-knot a little and he closed his hand briefly on the other's forearm in a gesture of appreciation and unspoken agreement.
Butterfield grunted noncommittally, turning his attention back to the hatchway and thrusting the lever into the newly created gap. Metal groaned in protest. He did it again and the hatch shifted slightly. Drawing in a deep breath, he ignored the pain in his abused side and threw his full weight behind the lever. With a suddenness that catapulted him into McGarry's outstretched arm and nearly sending them both crashing down the precipitous slope, the hatch tore away and dropped from sight.
Steadying themselves, the two men instinctively swung back to avoid the rain sheeting in through the exposed hatchway. The sounds of the storm were now magnified, mingling with the distant roar of fighter planes still circling their position to direct the expected rescue teams.
Sharing a grin of pure triumph with McGarry, Butterfield grimaced and heaved himself up slightly over the exposed rim to peer through the hatchway at their surroundings.
Raising a hand to shield his eyes from the rain sheeting in through the hatchway, McGarry heard the sound of a barely stifled curse that bordered on the obscene drifting back down. It reminded him that there was still very little about their plight to encourage complacency.
"How's our situation?" he inquired, dread and hope at the possible answer warring for the dominant position in his emotions.
"Not good.” Butterfield eased himself back inside the cabin, features once again returned to their seemingly standard level of austerity. “The drop is there, just as we surmised, and it's a beauty." Eyes darting around the remains of the cabin, making note of whatever was available, he calculated their options swiftly. "The rain has softened the ground and we're on a steep slope. I could see patches of soil and trees sliding gradually even during that brief glance. One such slide hits us and over we go."
Coming to a decision, he scrambled down and across the surviving seats and began to root in the lockers. "Those rescue teams have to be only minutes away but I'm not waiting for them."
Emptying the lockers of their remaining blankets and producing a small pocket-knife he looked up at McGarry. "We're going to secure a make-shift rope and use it to help the President reach the exit."
Apprehension, now a familiar though unwelcome acquaintance, raised its head again. McGarry swallowed, then once again carefully made his way down to his dozing friend. Reaching his destination, he gently shook one executive shoulder. "Mr. President?"
Forewarned by the memory of his earlier efforts at waking this man, McGarry was able to duck a wildly brandishing arm. He reflected that he would have to see if it were possible to award Charlie danger money for certain unforeseen hazards that his job as body man to Josiah Bartlet seemed to attract.
"Wakey, wakey sir. Time to go."
Shivering slightly, Bartlet focused groggily on his right hand man. "Go? You got the hatchway open?"
"Yes, sir. And Ron is of the opinion that the sooner we evacuate you the better. I tend to agree with him on that point. Our present position is insecure, to put it kindly."
"Evacuate me?" Bartlet grimaced as he stiffly attempted to sit upright. One hand clutching at his injured leg, he said dryly, "Leo, I hate to rain on your parade but how are you planning on getting me from here to there? Bear in mind that I saw your own progress, and mine will be even less agile."
"Not to worry." McGarry called on his considerable political prowess to project an air of confident unconcern. "Ron's got it under control." He hoped Butterfield had it under control. Never one to feel comfortable in situations out of his power, he was putting his faith in the secret service agent’s level-headed determination.
“I’m not blind, Leo,” Bartlet’s voice was calm, his gaze steady on his friend’s troubled features. “Ron’s hurt. He’s not going to be dragging me around by the scruff of my neck this time. And you…”
“What about me?”
“Done a lot of bench presses lately?”
“No more than you. God, we’re a pair.” A sad smile pulled at the corner of his lips and despite the situation there was a trace of laughter in McGarry’s voice, mingled with the ever-present worry and fear. “Trust Ron, sir. He’s got it covered.”
He turned his head at a soft thud, to see a bulky, crude rope stretching down from the hatchway across the steeply inclining cabin floor to within a few feet of their position. Turning back, he met the President's incredulously raised eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders helplessly. "Well, sir, if you have any better ideas, we're more than happy to take them into committee."
From somewhere up above, a snort and a growled, single worded expletive voiced one man’s exasperated opinion of the whole democratic process.
"Nah." Bartlet sighed, managing a tight-lipped smile. "I don't have time for you to argue my proposal and tear it apart before submitting the remains to a vote." He struggled into a sitting position. "How are we going to do this?"
Carefully negotiating the debris, Butterfield slithered down beside them. Breathing heavily past the stitch in his side and apology darkening his eyes, he said, "Mr. President, I'm afraid that there's no way we can navigate the slope ourselves and still take your weight. Hence the rope.”
His explanation was clear and succinct, if delivered a bit dryly. He knew it was out of character for him, but somehow being confined with these two men had removed a few of the professional barriers he’d taken great pains to erect. “I'm going to give you a leg up until you can reach the end, then I'm afraid that you're going to have to pull yourself up along the floor hand over hand."
The President looked at McGarry reproachfully. "That's your plan?"
McGarry shrugged helplessly and pointed an accusing finger at Butterfield. “His plan. I’m just a passenger here.”
Watching the play of emotions flash across Butterfield’s face, Bartlet realized he had very little choice in the matter. It was the best they could come up with. Still, he managed a cranky growl, “I’m too old for this.”
McGarry’s brows rose dubiously. “You’re too old?”
Not even bothering to dignify that with an answer, Bartlet sighed and shook his head, then extended his hands to both men to help him upright. "Well, let's get it over with."
"Mr. President." Butterfield carefully leaned his charge forward until he was lying against the steep angle of the floor. He gestured to McGarry, who hastily scrambled up to reach the end of the rope, and watched as he braced himself there in readiness.
Sparing one last look of concern for his charge, he asked, "Now, sir?"
At Bartlet's affirmative nod, he gritted his teeth and stooped, linking his fingers under the man's undamaged leg. As torn muscles protested violently, Butterfield stifled a cry of pain and boosted him up across the steep angle of the floor towards the waiting Chief of Staff.
Bartlet let out an agonized grunt as his chest protested being dragged over the rough surface, and his injured leg dangled limply behind him. Straining upwards, he reached for McGarry's outstretched hand.
Holding the makeshift rope, McGarry stretched down with his free hand and succeeded in closing his fingers on his friend's wrist. Hauling back with all his strength, he managed to drag the President up the few feet necessary to allow him to seize the rope in both hands. Panting slightly, he checked his friend's grip was secure before releasing him.
Bartlet's hands were white on the rope, and his head rested on his outstretched arms. He raised it slightly to give his Chief of Staff a tight smile. "Yeah, Leo. Let's get out of here."
The President took a deep breath and grasped the rope tightly as Butterfield clambered up and across the debris on his other side. The agent’s presence alongside, with McGarry above, was all the incentive he needed. Slowly and painfully, he commenced hauling himself upward hand over hand, his right leg trailing uselessly. The not so idle thought occurred to him that if he’d got out from behind a desk a bit more often this whole thing might not seem so impossible.
The two men on either side of him could offer little more than moral support. Any attempt to allow him to rest by taking his full weight risked sending them tumbling back down the slope. Breathing heavily, the exertion bringing an unnatural flush to his pale face and causing his head wound to pound in time with his heart, Bartlet struggled upwards in unrelenting silence.
"Just a few more feet, sir." McGarry spoke encouragingly, shooting a nervous glance at Butterfield.
The President gave no sign of having heard him, eyes unfocused and face strained as he concentrated all his energy on the task of placing one hand over the other. Suddenly, the tension on his limbs was relieved as strong arms encircled his shoulders and pulled him up the last couple of feet to the sill of the hatchway.
He felt the rain and wind on his face and dimly, through the blood pounding in his ears he heard Butterfield murmur reassuringly "I've got you, sir. Well done."
Feeling driving rainwater mingling with the perspiration on his cheeks, Bartlet sagged back weakly against the chest of his security chief, who was holding him firmly on the lip of the sill. He opened his eyes to meet McGarry's anxious gaze and saw the other man's expression lighten in relief. Summoning up his energy, he gave him a weak nod.
Bartlet was surprised to see the man’s eyes widen and the color drain from his face, until he realized his friend's gaze was directed over his shoulder.
"Uh, Ron …" Unable to clearly verbalize his emotions, McGarry waved a frantic hand.
Wincing at the sudden movement, the secret service agent twisted to look over his shoulder at the hillside behind him. What he saw caused him to utter a heartfelt, “Shit!” Turning swiftly back to the man in his arms and grunting as he hauled him to his feet, he said briskly, "Mr. President, we're going to have to get out right now."
"What?" Bartlet found himself already being manhandled into position on the edge of the sill. Looking down at the drop of over ten feet to the hillside below the hatchway he balked. He still hadn’t looked over his shoulder, although from the looks on McGarry and Butterfield’s faces the following question just begged to be asked, "Why?"
Without preamble, McGarry grabbed Bartlet's other arm. "The hillside above us is sliding," he snapped. “Once it hits the wreck, we're going to be pushed over that!"
Bartlet followed the pointing finger forward past the wrecked nose of the helicopter and gulped. "Fair point." He looked to the two men positioned on either side of him in the hatchway and asked --though he had a fairly nasty suspicion what the answer would be--, "What's the plan?"
Butterfield looked over his charge's head at the Chief of Staff. "Jump?"
The Chief of Staff was just as terse. "Jump!"
Ignoring the startled gasp of the man between them, they launched themselves forward into space, dropping heavily onto the soft earth below.
McGarry landed with a thud, the breath whooshing out of him. Rolling over clumsily, he saw that Butterfield had already gained his feet and was struggling to lift Bartlet. Stumbling upright, he slipped a hand under the dazed man's other arm and helped Butterfield drag him, tripping and floundering across the loose soil, trying desperately to get clear of the disaster bearing down on them.
"There!" Butterfield indicated a raised rock outcrop that seemed to offer the possibility of a sanctuary.
Both men redoubled their efforts, the earth beneath them slowly starting to move now, tugging hungrily at their feet. The distant roar of the jet fighters still circling high above lent an oddly mocking note to the scene. Help was so near, yet still useless.
Reaching the base of the low outcrop, both men began to mount it rapidly, hastily dragging the body between them, forcing themselves to ignore the President's pained exclamation as his leg banged excruciatingly against the rough surface. Driven on by the increasingly loud rumbling, they finally gained the top and threw themselves flat, Butterfield stretching his long form over the body of the President.
Pressed flat against the rock by his security chief's weight, Bartlet managed to twist his head around to regard the scene before him with horrified awe. He felt the stone beneath him tremble as the tons of mud, earth and vegetation swept past, catching the remains of the downed helicopter with its ill-fated passengers and carrying it along effortlessly, until it disappeared over the lip of the cliff and vanished from sight.
Turning his head slightly, he caught a glimpse of his Chief of Staff's shocked face, wincing as it was suddenly illuminated by a sheet of flame that roared up momentarily above the cliff edge, before abruptly dying back down. He could hear the distant crackle of fire as the aviation fuel finally ignited the wreck, and closed his eyes in silent prayer for the souls of the men whose bodies lay immolated within.
Finally, the rumbling died away and Butterfield lifted his body carefully off the President. "Everybody alright?"
Rainwater running down his face and soaking into his suit, McGarry could only offer a stunned nod, his eyes still fixed on that point where the remains of Marine One had disappeared. He was roused from his trance by an agonized hiss and looked down to see Bartlet clutching his injured leg in both hands as he attempted to gain a sitting position.
Pain aside, the President appeared to have recovered his equanimity. "Well, that was bracing! Think those guys…" he indicated the jet fighters with an upward jerk of his thumb, "…realize we got out? If not, they must be having kittens about now."
"That reminds me …” Butterfield reached into his pocket and stupefied his companions by producing a flare gun. "Grabbed it from a locker when I was getting the blankets," he explained calmly, releasing the flare up into the sky and bathing them all in a red light.
"You okay, Leo?" Bartlet studied his friend. It was difficult to be sure in the fast fading glow of the flare, but he thought that McGarry seemed to be regaining his color and balance. He felt immeasurably relieved by the man's firm nod and promptly attempted to lighten the moment. "See? I told you everything would be fine. In fact I think we cheated ourselves of a really good last-minute escape story."
McGarry regarded his old friend with disbelief. "What?" he asked weakly.
"Yeah. We allowed the drama to dissipate by giving ourselves such a wide escape margin," Bartlet continued blithely. "I estimate we had, oh, a good minute and a half before the slide hit. We lost the tension."
Grinning he enjoyed McGarry's expression, which seemed to indicate that right now his friend's emotions were, perhaps fortunately, too deep for words. His teasing mood was cut short however by an abrupt yelp of anguish as Butterfield pulled the belt around his wounded thigh even tighter. "Christ! Ron!"
"Sorry, Mr. President." Butterfield's face was creased with concern as he tried to adjust the blanket compress, which was now sodden with both rainwater and fresh blood from the rough handling of the last few minutes. Looking up into Bartlet's ashen face and seeing the convulsive bobbing of his throat as he fought down a sudden wave of nausea, the agent's attention was abruptly tugged away.
"Ron?" Worriedly, McGarry glanced from the President's drawn features to the security chief's face. His dismay mounted when Butterfield momentarily closed his eyes, then receded again when they reopened to reveal unveiled relief. Glancing upwards, he suddenly detected what Butterfield had already heard and almost collapsed as the weight of responsibility finally lifted. The noise of rotor blades was all too familiar.
The medivac choppers had found them at last.
"Mr. President?" He touched the shoulder of the man whose forehead was now resting on one drawn up knee. "Help's finally arrived."
"You're kidding me," came Bartlet's weary response. Lifting his head, he opened his eyes and winced as they were seared by the searchlight of the helicopter that suddenly dropped over the top of the ridge to hover overhead. "No, I guess you're not. Any chance we can get them to dim that light a bit?"
McGarry laughed, giddy with relief. "It hardly seems polite under the circumstances. After all, they're here to rescue us."
"Speak for yourself," the President grumbled. "As far as I can see, nine-tenths of any rescuing in this mission has already been taken care of. Remind me to compliment them on their sense of timing, by the way."
"Oh, no!" McGarry spoke firmly, looking up and squinting against the offending glare as a rescue cradle with men on the towline began a swaying descent towards their position. "I've had a long, hard day and I'm not letting you give them any excuse to toss us overboard before we get back to civilization."
Bartlet gave a weak snort, and then impulsively reached out to seize Butterfield and McGarry's hands in his chilled grasp. "Fellas, I want to say thank you. Thank you both … for everything." He gazed at them intensely, trying to convey his wordless gratitude for the risks they had taken on his behalf, and much more besides.
Seeing that understanding in McGarry’s answering smile and an almost smile from Butterfield --which was more than he had expected--, he gripped their hands tightly before sinking back and allowing the exhaustion he’d been fighting for so long finally have its way.
Closing his eyes, he muttered tiredly, “Leo?”
Just as worn-out and exhausted, McGarry allowed himself a moments peace before answering, “Yeah?”
“Can I sleep now?”
McGarry’s face broke into a sudden, relieved smile. It was over. Settling back, fully prepared to let the arriving rescue team to take them all in charge, he shared a long, sympathetic look with Butterfield and answered tiredly, “Knock yourself out, Mr. President.”
Shaking his head at the sight, Ron Butterfield sighed heavily and started to get up to lend a hand to the descending rescuers. Staggering, he slipped back to his knees and bit back a curse at the near forgotten pain that coursed through his side. The adrenaline was wearing off. Gritting his teeth, he started to get back up, and then paused. Hand pressed to his side, he looked down at the two filthy and exhausted men and weighed his options. He was missing something here.
He thought about it for a moment, and then muttered, “Aw, hell.”
Joining the President and his Chief of Staff he lay back down and waited. He figured he’d earned this moment. Let someone else do the work for once.
Abigail Bartlet didn’t know what to feel, couldn’t pick one emotion from the muddled confusion that twisted through her mind. It was the only coherent thought she could manage. She wasn’t even sure she hadn’t said it out loud. A quick glance at the blank face of the agent sitting next to her was reassurance enough that she hadn’t.
Small relief there, especially now.
But then, would there be a reaction? The secret service were used to that particular word. Used to her using it at any rate. As much as they might want to, nobody else would dare. She almost smiled at that thought. Nobody commented, nobody reacted; at least not after the first time. By now, they’d probably lost count of the times that word had echoed down the halls of the White House.
Watching the buildings flash by, the faces of the curious as the heavily guarded motorcade sped down the street, Abigail Bartlet wondered, not for the first time and certainly not the last, what the hell she was doing here.
It was all his fault. She wanted to be angry. She wanted to rail and spit against his stubborn pride, his refusal to face the obvious. It had been so easy to hold on to the rage these last months, seemingly the only thing that had kept her going. The whole thing was starting to get ugly. Injured pride, betrayal; in the end it all amounted to the same thing.
It was all his fault.
She found the anger, held on to it. For a moment, it felt good and solid; the warm glow of a weakened ember. Not much, but it was enough.
‘Mrs. Bartlet, your husband has been shot.”
Abbey closed her eyes, refusing the memory. It came anyway. She never could stop it. Was that when it had begun? The doubts? The hidden fears? She’d thought the MS enough of an enemy, had never counted on the vicious, hate filled human variety. Oddly, at the time she’d been ridiculously grateful and touched the grim agent had said, ‘Your husband.’
Not the President.
She lost the anger. And in its place? She wasn’t quite sure.
‘Mrs. Bartlet, there’s been an accident. Marine One is down.’
Abbey swallowed hard and tried to bite back the tears. Like most things she’d done lately, she failed miserably. She felt the tracks as the tears slowly found their way down her cheeks. Wiping them away, she found a bit of the spark again, the anger.
And whose fault was that? That she was crying again? He knew she was pissed, and who she was pissed at. She had every reason to be. He deserved it. The fact that he had absolutely no idea why had little bearing on her targeting. Yes, it had been her choice. He hadn’t asked, he never did. He didn’t have to. All she’d had to do was look in his eyes and the decision was made. It was that simple.
She loved him. She was pissed at him. He deserved it.
It was all his fault and he still hadn’t figured out why. It always came back to that. He didn’t even have the decency to ask. One small, insignificant seeming question and he failed to appreciate its importance. Where was his head? Up his ass? What was it about him that he refused to acknowledge the inevitable? He wasn’t immortal. She knew that, he knew that. It wasn’t the deal; it wasn’t his careful distortion of the truth. Just one little word was all she asked.
Why, Abbey? It was so simple a question, yet so far away. Why are you angry?
And what does he do in return? Like a little boy with a skinned knee, he finds his way out of the doghouse. How could she fight that? In so many infuriating ways, he was a little boy and he was all hers.
A lost little boy.
A hesitant voice wakened her from the memories. Blinking slowly to erase the tears, she allowed herself to be dragged back to the present. The armored limo had pulled into the turnaround of the hospital emergency entrance.
“We’re here, ma’am.”
Reporters were already swarming, camera lights flashing like so many agitated fireflies. It hadn’t taken them long to gather. Like sharks around a thrashing carcass, they’d been drawn to the scent of blood in the water. Abbey recalled a moment when CJ Cregg had explained the phenomenon to her, the seeming paranormal ability of the creatures to latch on to a story and collect like scavengers.
At the time Abbey had preferred her own analogy. Like locusts they were; insects. They didn’t care, how could they? What did any of them know about sacrifice? All they cared about was the moment. Her breath burned hot in her throat, a protective fury choking away her doubts and fears. For the moment her anger found another target, multiple targets. Insects.
And right now she was more than ready to stomp on a few of them.
The secret service detail must have sensed some of what was going through her mind. Avoiding bloodshed being one of the prime tenets of their job, they put themselves --more so than usual-- between her and the reporters as she got out of the limo. A few pointed and ferocious glares, the casual flip of a jacket to reveal fully loaded firearms, and the reporters got the message.
Not today. Leave her alone.
Even scavengers have a strong sense of self-preservation. They weren’t entirely stupid. The cameras still flashed, the questions were still shouted. But from a safe distance.
As the limo door was opened for her, Abbey saw an agent making his way through the cordon. She recognized one of Butterfield’s senior men, couldn’t remember his name. There were so many of them. He was assigned to the President’s personal detail.
She remembered his name now. Carlyle. Not bothering with preamble, ignoring the crowds being held back with as much dignity as she could muster, she demanded curtly, “How is he?”
Carlyle didn’t even blink at her tone. After three years, he and the others knew her moods, the pressure points that could set the First Lady off. While they may have presented the image of emotionless practicality, the secret service knew and understood her reasons. Josiah Bartlet may have been the President of the United States and their charge to protect, but he was first and foremost her husband.
They respected her for that, gave her room to maneuver.
Taking her arm and leading her towards the entrance, Carlyle responded with unruffled alacrity, “He’s in recovery, ma’am.”
Abbey’s hurried steps faltered for a moment as the words registered. “Recovery? Already?” How many hours had it been? Since the horrible news was delivered, the insane flight. There’d been no further word, good or otherwise. Hope, something she hadn’t dared allow herself to feel, flickered and began to grow. “Then his injuries…”
She couldn’t finish the sentence.
“Were relatively minor,” the agent finished the sentence, nodding curtly to his two compatriots as they opened the hospital doors for them. Allowing her to precede him inside, he added with uncharacteristic sentiment, “A miracle.”
“A miracle,” Abbey muttered. But not the miracle she wanted or prayed for. And she knew he hadn’t prayed for it either. It wasn’t his way.
But it was hers. She couldn’t change that. Wouldn’t change that.
The hospital corridors had been cleared. Only a few doctors and nurses remained to watch the grim progress of one worried, terrified wife and her forbidding entourage. Some offered a smile of reassurance as she passed, support and understanding. Others looked away, eyes laden with accusation and veiled contempt.
Abbey’s lips tightened. And so it begins. Or rather, it continued. She’d broken the rules. Hell, she’d stomped all over them. Her choice and they knew it. The reasons didn’t matter, nor that any of them would have made the same decision in her place. Hypocrisy. Some condemned. Some forgave.
She didn’t want their condemnation or their forgiveness.
She wanted her husband.
At the end of the corridor she spotted them. Two more dark clad secret service agents waiting outside a closed door, guarding the life of the man within. He was their charge, their job. Her husband. Abbey’s heartbeat sped up, as did her pace.
The door opened and a short, white clad man with a clipboard in hand stepped out. Closing the door behind him, he started to say something to one of the agents, then turned and saw the First Lady’s approach. His expression changed, sliding into a smug disapproval that bordered on the self-righteous.
One of the attending agents curled his lip at the man’s back, exchanging a slight roll of the eyes with Carlyle. With a quick jerk of his head, the man indicated the Doctor with nearly open scorn.
Eyes narrowing slightly, Carlyle took up position beside the First Lady. Instinct told him this was not going to be pretty.
On familiar ground, Abbey reached out her hand, gesturing for the records. “Doctor…?”
Flipping the clipboard under his arm, the man countered icily, “Mrs. Bartlet.”
The insult was painfully obvious. Blinking slowly, she drew her hand back. There was no mistaking the disdain in his voice. Truthfully, Abbey was getting used to it. She wasn’t allowed to make a mistake, to be human. The medical board meetings, people she had thought friends as well as colleagues, in most cases it was all the same. Even the hypocrisy didn’t surprise her anymore. It may no longer have surprised her, but it still hurt, still angered.
Assuming the appearance of indifference, she tried again. “Doctor…?”
“Kipper.” Drawing himself up, posturing, he added with no little pride, “I’m the President’s attending physician.”
“And I’m his wife,” she nearly snapped. Smoked fish. Abbey didn’t have the strength to laugh. “Doctor Kipper, I would like to see my husband.”
Not the President, her husband, the father of her children. The man, not the position. Why couldn’t anyone see that? She didn’t want to play this game. Rubbing her eyes, she tried to fight the headache, find some sense of peace. How long had it been?
How much longer would it go on?
“He is in recovery, Mrs. Bartlet.” Cold eyes sniped at her, enjoying the game, the sense of perceived moral and professional superiority. “There are rules. For the moment, I don’t want him disturbed. When he is transferred to a room, you can see him.”
“You do remember rules, don’t you, Mrs. Bartlet?” He was obviously taking great pleasure in this, himself, and the momentary sense of power. That it was two-faced never occurred to him.
She was so furious at his tone she could hardly speak.
The agents shifted uncomfortably, trading uncertain looks. This was not part of the training manual. Within the rules of engagement, the attending physician had call. Still, this was the First Lady, Abigail Bartlet. The Terror of the White House and, truth be told, the most entertainment any of them had had in years. Her victim count was a point of pride for most of them. In many ways, she made their jobs easier.
Josiah Bartlet might have had the most efficient bodyguards in the world to look to his safety, but not one of them had reckoned with the formidable force that was a wife bent on protecting her husband against all comers, be they abstract or tangible enemies.
They liked her.
Watching carefully, eagerly, they waited for the explosion.
It never came.
There was no mistaking the condescension in the Doctor’s attitude. Abbey stiffened, momentarily disconcerted and for the first time in years unsure of her place or power. Where before embarrassment would have turned to raw, righteous fury, now all she could find was indecision. Another wall had been placed in front of her.
She was tired of climbing them alone.
“…given the general rundown condition of the President’s health,” Kipper was saying, his tone scornful and self satisfied, “I wouldn’t hesitate to say someone had dropped the ball. His blood pressure is high, more than likely brought on by long-term exhaustion and general neglect…”
Three pairs of eyes narrowed dangerously. This had gone on long enough. Rules or no rules, the secret service did have options. Besides, the First Lady had taught them a few tricks over recent years. They had all been quick learners, survival of the fittest.
Intent on his lecture and posturing, Kipper didn’t notice one of the agents behind him lift his hand to his mouth. He didn’t hear him speak quietly and hotly into the transceiver strapped to his wrist and palm. Nor did he even see or register the cool glance and the nod of approval Carlyle exchanged with him.
He also completely missed the anticipation, the sly and predatory gleams that appeared in their eyes.
Smirking, he was too busy playing the self-righteous fool.
Abbey listened to him drone on and on. There was no end in sight. Another time, another place and she would have enjoyed surgically removing the arrogant smirk that spread like oil across his face. Right now, she only wanted one thing.
“I want to see my husband.”
Another arrogant smirk. “You can see the President…’
Abbey’s relief was nearly unbearable. There was no mistaking the voice of Jed’s oldest friend. There had been times when she hated it, blamed him as much as her husband. What it lacked in sheer volume, it more than made up for in low, grating and supremely perilous hidden nuances. She didn’t have to look; closed her eyes when she felt a gentle hand touch her elbow and squeeze it reassuringly.
Carlyle stepped back as two others joined him and flanked the First Lady on either side. McGarry and Butterfield, bruised, battered and bandaged, leveled the pompous little man with glares of cool contempt.
The cavalry had arrived.
Awkwardly, Kipper cleared his throat. Attempting to regain some of his momentum, he tried, “Mr. McGarry...”
He broke off as two other dark clad figures joined the group. Nodding to Butterfield, they stepped around Abbey and took up position on either side of the rapidly deflating Doctor. Hard eyed, uncompromising, they began to stare at their now visibly fidgeting victim.
Victim. The First Lady had taught them the true, wonderful meaning of that word.
It was a show of support Abbey had not expected. Something cautioned her not to ask why, but to accept it as the gift it was meant to be. Hypocrisy, doubts and fears had no place here, they wouldn’t allow it.
For the first time today, Abigail Bartlet smiled and meant it. Abandoning all pretence, defiance in her tone as well as challenge, she said sweetly, “Doctor Kipper?”
Only those who knew no better would have said the surrounding agents smiled at that familiar, melodically cutting tone. Their lips did twitch and satisfaction gleamed briefly in their eyes, then shuttered, hidden by hard, cold expressions.
The Terror was back. Life was good.
Kipper missed the whole thing completely. “Mrs. Bartlet, my patient…”
“My husband.” Abbey smiled at that.
So did McGarry. “Let her in.”
Literally jumping at the sound of his voice, Kipper sputtered, “Mr. McGarry, there are rules…”
“So break ‘em. My call.”
“My call.” Butterfield’s dangerously impersonal tone broke in.
McGarry blinked up at Butterfield, then grinned even wider. Pointing with open, childish glee at the glowering senior agent, he said, “His call.”
Drawing himself up, puffing further if that were at all possible. “My patient.”
McGarry shrugged and said casually, “Sue me.”
There was nothing else Kipper could do. It had finally dawned on him that he was outnumbered. “I will take this up with the administrator. You can count on that!”
As parting shots go, it was pretty weak. McGarry had heard far better in his time. Hell, the man wouldn’t last more than a few seconds with Toby, let alone a group of irritable, well armed bodyguards. Not to mention two men who’d had the whole nine yards tossed at them that day and really weren’t in the mood to play.
Shrugging, he said, “Knock yourself out.”
“Yeah, knock yourself out.” Pushed to his limits and perhaps, just this once, giving into a touch of personal exasperation, Butterfield’s lip curled under his moustache. His voice hardened and while very quiet had an ominous quality to it that even the least intelligent of creatures couldn’t miss. “I would really like you to try.”
Almost visibly swelling with outraged pride, and perhaps just a touch of trepidation, the Doctor wheeled to stalk away. As he brushed past her, Abbey neatly whipped the medical chart bearing her husband's notes from under his arm.
Already enraged, this further affront to his claim to supreme authority incensed Kipper beyond caution. Whirling, he extended his arm as if to seize back the chart from the First Lady's grasp.
A low, rumbling, yet unmistakably menacing sound caused him to freeze in mid-motion, arm outstretched. Almost visibly paling, his eyes darted to gaze at the tall security chief with open alarm. Had the man actually growled? Swallowing convulsively, he was not at all reassured by the faces of the others. The agents seemed to be regarding their boss with as much surprise as their professionalism would permit them to show.
Leo McGarry and Abigail Bartlet, denied the benefit of such training, were not so discrete. Their expressions were almost comically dumfounded.
Butterfield ignored them all, his gimlet like eyes threatening to drill holes clean through the offending party, who was practically twitching under the force of that glare.
Cleanly routed, Kipper let out a long, audible breath, then marched off.
As the still sputtering little man stomped down the corridor, Abbey turned and gave both McGarry and Butterfield a long look, a speculative gleam in her eye. Something had happened here, changing the rules. She didn’t know exactly what, or even why.
Butterfield shifted uncomfortably under her gaze, reaching up to absently scratch at the ridiculous looking bandage covering the bridge of his nose. Looking at him closely for the first time, it occurred to Abbey that the man had probably just barely escaped from some doctor’s care. A hospital smock was hastily tucked into a pair of dirty trousers and he was barefoot. She half expected to see a brigade of outraged nurses charging around the corner any moment now in hot pursuit.
Not for the first time, she wondered exactly how far this man would go to protect her husband. Obviously, his own care and comfort wasn’t part of the equation.
It was a very humbling thought.
And Leo McGarry wasn’t much better. Clearing his throat, he was looking down at the tops of his once immaculate but now muddy and scuffed shoes, shuffling his feet. Obviously he hadn’t been cornered by any doctors yet, but she was sure he was on somebody’s list.
Abbey nearly laughed at the sight. It was so very obvious and touching. They were all little boys. And somewhere along the line, she had become the den mother. She was amazed at the unexpected warmth that thought gave her.
“Thank you,” she said simply. No other words were needed.
Smiling, McGarry inclined his head. “Abbey.”
Butterfield, once again the image of emotionless practicality, replied, “Ma’am.”
Hand on the door, she paused and said with obvious relish, “You two make a good team. You should take it on the road.”
With that parting shot, she went inside.
Both men stared at the door as it closed behind her.
“A good team?” McGarry gave Butterfield a sidelong glance of utter shock and disbelief. “Us?”
Butterfield’s mouth was hanging open, and then snapped shut with an audible click. “Is she serious?”
Both men stared at each other wordlessly, contemplating the loaded possibilities. Then, together they shook their heads and muttered in chorus, “Nah.”
Carlyle and the others didn’t quite snicker, but they came close.
Studiously ignoring the knowing looks his men were giving him, and McGarry’s grin, Butterfield snapped, “Carlyle.”
“Go with him,” he inclined his head in the direction Kipper had taken. “Inform the hospital administrator I want Doctor Snotty taken off the President’s case. No arguments. My call.”
Carlyle’s lips twitched. “Reason, sir?”
One corner of his mouth twisted upwards and Butterfield replied blandly, “I don’t like him.”
McGarry snorted, swallowing and nearly choking on a laugh.
Butterfield glared at him.
Face brightening at the order, Carlyle dashed off down the corridor, in search of another victim. Not for the first time, he realized this job came with some major perks.
Watching him leave, Butterfield turned and regarded the closed recovery room door. His expression, still not quite back under steely control, stilled and grew almost somber.
Following his gaze, McGarry was uncannily aware of what was going through the agent’s mind. “She’ll be okay,” he said. “They both will.”
For an instant, a strange wistfulness stole into McGarry’s expression. He’d missed the boat on this one, but Jed and Abbey Bartlet hadn’t. The answer was easy. “Thirty odd years of marriage and you don’t think they’ve had fights before?”
“Ever gone on this long?”
McGarry weighed the agent with a critical gaze. Something was off here. “You usually don’t ask these questions.”
Butterfield shrugged, a momentary look of discomfort crossing his face. With the Chief of Staff in tow, he turned and began making his way down the corridor. “They usually don’t have much bearing.”
“It wouldn’t, would it?” Sadly, McGarry thought he understood. “You’ve got a job to do, no matter what.”
“Most of the time.”
Hearing something in his voice, recognizing it, McGarry smiled. He understood now. “You like them.”
Uncomfortable, but still managing to keep his expression under stern control, Butterfield growled, “Don’t let it get around.”
“I can keep a secret.”
McGarry dropped back for a moment, and then picked up his pace. Grinning, he needled, “Doctor Snotty?”
“Yeah.” This time, Butterfield did smile. It was a genuine, face splitting, muscle-cracking grin of pure, evil amusement. “Wanna make something of it?”
“Do I look crazy?”
Abbey barely registered the soft click of the door as it closed behind her. Tightly clenching the clipboard in white knuckled hands, her attention was fully focused on the man lying quiet and still on the bed. His eyes were closed. The beeping of the monitor, insistently registering his heartbeat, broke the silence. Clinically, she found herself counting them. The rhythm was even and steady, a hypnotic cadence reflecting the continuing life and well being of Josiah Bartlet, President of the United States.
Abigail Bartlet’s husband. Right now, everyone else could go screw themselves.
Glancing around, she noted that no one else was in the room. She was grateful for that. She didn’t have the energy, let alone the will, left to send someone else packing, be they nurses or secret service. Right now she didn’t want an audience, sympathetic or otherwise.
Slipping her glasses on, a wave of apprehension coursed through her as she began to leaf through the charts on the clipboard. Carlyle had said his injuries were minor, that it was a miracle. It was a confidence she would have to see to believe.
Her mouth tightened as she read, a tensing of her jaw that those who knew her would have understood indicated deep frustrated annoyance and relief. An unusual combination of emotions usually reserved for and applied to only one man and his antics. Somehow, saying yes when he’d asked her to marry him all those years ago had not included a lifetime of hauling him out from in front of onrushing trains. Half the time, she didn’t know whether to cry or box his ears. Flipping through the pages, Abbey chalked up Jed’s latest score. Reading, she found a small measure of her serenity restored.
He had been lucky. The whole thing read like a bad EMT report after a particularly vicious football game. Concussion, blood loss, bruises and contusions. Unconsciously, her brow furrowed as she read further. Somehow, he’d managed to do a real number on his right leg, twenty-seven stitches but minimal muscle damage. He was going to have one hell of a scar. Given half a chance, he’d be able to walk out of the hospital in a few days.
Not at all amused by that thought and knowing he’d do just that if given half a chance, she flipped the last page back and found herself staring at him again, taking the moment and simply rejoicing in the fact that once again, through no action of his own, he’d managed to dodge another bullet. He attracted trouble like a magnet.
Luck? Somehow, she knew luck had very little to do with his latest escape. More shaken than she cared to admit or show, even to herself, she searched half-heartedly for some meaning behind it all. Danger until Rossyln had been an abstract, something that existed only in the history books, threatened other presidents. Now this.
She couldn’t help the sad smile that pulled gently at the corners of her lips. Her beloved klutz had somehow managed to stumble once again into those dry historical passages.
Josiah Bartlet: Crashed Marine One, insurance report pending.
“Jackass,” she muttered, shaking her head sadly. A familiar surge of nearly overwhelming affection drove everything else from her mind. The feeling always thrilled and frightened her.
“I heard that.”
Smiling, she wasn’t surprised that he had. His eyes remained closed as she approached the bed. Saying nothing, she reached out and brushed a lock of hair from his forehead, noting the stitched wound just above the hairline. How many stitches? She remembered. Four. Another injury.
Abbey’s smile, along with her relief, faltered. When he opened his eyes to look at her, it was nearly her undoing. He could be economical with the truth and his actions, but not when he looked at her like that. Clear blue and full of life, sorrow and a passionate intensity that took her breath away, she had never been able to deny him or those eyes anything. At least, not for long.
Her lips trembled with the sudden need to smile, to give him a small measure of absolution. But she wasn’t about to give him that. Not yet.
Still, Bartlet sensed her yielding the high ground. Tired amusement had replaced the worry and anger in her eyes. That was always a good indication, a sure sign he no longer needed to find excuses or a place to hide. Why? He’d never been able to figure that one out; wasn’t sure he really wanted to. Escaping, the doghouse door slammed shut behind him.
Safely away and almost able to hear it slam, he managed a weak, protesting grin. “This wasn’t my fault.”
Abbey sighed. “It never is.”
“Meaning,” Abbey dropped the clip board on the nightstand and took his hand, lacing her fingers through his and squeezing gently, “This is one hell of a way to try and get out of dancing with me at my birthday party.”
“I like to dance.”
“Not in front of an audience you don’t.”
He couldn’t argue with that. He did like to dance, but only with her. Being schlepped off from one head of state’s wife to another in an endless round of ridiculously polite niceties never improved his mood or his skills on the dance floor. More than one toe had meet with an unhappy end under his irritated feet. It was a sentimental bias he had absolutely no intention of changing.
And then there was that whole audience thing. The problem was that dancing with Abbey inevitably led to other things best left to the privacy provided by a locked door, a cordon of heavily armed secret service agents and a gloriously missing weekend. Something neither of them had had time for lately.
Come to think of it, they could skip the dancing altogether. It wasn’t completely out of the question. Grimacing, he shifted on the bed as best he could, finding it impossible to settle in any comfortable position. He hated hospitals. He hated the drugs. He hated feeling goofy. Then again, goofy had its uses.
His mischievous gaze returned to hers. “You know, they managed to do it again.”
Recognizing the devil that had popped up and immediately suspicious, Abbey asked carefully, “What do you mean?”
“They got my pants off before you could.”
Abbey stared at him for a moment, openly incredulous and at a complete loss for words. Then her sense of humor took over and she burst out laughing. She could hear a touch of hysteria in the sound, but then she was entitled. Bad jokes or not, he always managed to make her laugh.
Feeling his fingers tighten around hers she leaned over and, voice shakier than she would have liked, murmured, “A wasted effort.”
“Hmm.” The response was distant and fading. “Am I going to be punished?”
Abbey could have provided more than a few answers to that question, but his tone, the quiet yet somehow forced desperation left her wondering if he was baiting her, teasing. It would be just like him.
She couldn’t help the sad smile as she asked, “For what?” As if he didn’t already know. But that was for later.
“Crashing Marine One,” came the drowsy response.
“Were you driving?”
Considering his past track record, it was a fair question. One corner of Bartlet’s mouth twisted wryly. “No.”
“Then that’s the Navy’s problem, not mine.”
“And your problem would be?”
This time Abbey did hear it, the worried question and underlying fear. He was watching her intently, fighting the drugs threatening to drag him under and waiting for an answer he dreaded. Falling back on her earlier equation, she decided boxing his ears for even thinking of the possibility wouldn’t be fair. She was better at fights than he was. Her feelings for him had very little to do with sound reasoning and everything to do with what was simply good and right.
Besides, she never could resist the little boy lost look he could get on his face. It got her every time. That she had long ago concluded was a truly unfair advantage. It didn’t help that he had absolutely no idea he was doing it and what it did to her.
What was Abigail Bartlet’s problem? The list was truly endless, but only one person occupied the top slot.
“You are,” she answered softly, and not regretting one moment.
Abbey leaned forward and pressed her lips to his, feather light and caressing rather than demanding. His response was slow, almost shocked and without the passionate hunger she’d long ago learned to expect from him. He was surprised.
Pulling away, Abbey smiled and realized it was nice to know she could still take the wind out of his sails every now and then. Whatever the future may hold, they always had that at least.
For now, it was enough.
Frowning, she noticed that his eyes had closed. Not exactly the best response to one of her kisses, but she allowed that he’d had a pretty rough day. Finding her smile again, she admitted candidly that they both had. And it wasn’t over yet. Resolutions were never that easy.
Abbey could see a muscle twitching in his jaw as he clenched his teeth. She reached out to brush her thumb gently across the darkening bruise on his cheek. Poor comfort. It broke her heart to see the pain etched in merciless lines across his face.
This shouldn’t have happened. They deserved better.
He deserved better.
In her mind’s eye, Abbey returned to another hospital room, another bitter event that had torn out the supports of their lives. Too many hospitals. Too many questions without answers, leaving the future a blank, terrifying slate with no hint of what may yet come. Fate had already conspired to take him away from her.
Her vision blurred, reliving the grief and pain of that older scene and adding it to the present. It was senselessly and sickeningly familiar. One hot tear trailed down her cheek. For the moment, it was all she would allow.
It was all she would show him. He didn’t need her tears, not now. Neither did he need her anger. Later perhaps, but not now.
Trailing her fingers along his jaw, Abbey could sense he was close to slipping beneath the last layer of consciousness. Drugs, exhaustion, it didn’t matter. Doctor Bartlet knew sleep was the best medicine for him now. Abigail, wife and mother of his children, was unwilling to let him go quite so soon.
Just a few more minutes were all she wanted.
Drawn back from the brink, he blinked up at her. “It’s okay.”
“Sure?” Bartlet managed a short laugh, which trailed off into a drawn out hiss of pain. He felt Abbey lay a worried hand on his chest. “Nah, but I think I’m getting used to it.”
“One hell of a desk job?” It was a bad joke, but all she could manage. She never could play the game as well as he could.
“I think…” he paused, trying to keep his thoughts centered. It was becoming increasingly difficult. “…I’m going to have to reread the manual.”
“We both will.” She could see he could barely keep his eyes open. Abbey knew it was time to let him go, to sleep and recover. Reluctantly, she let go his hand and gently laid it on the bed. “Get some sleep.”
“Not now.” She knew what he wanted say, what he wanted to finish and silently cursed his timing. He always had been lousy at choosing battlefields. “Later.”
His eyes drifted shut, giving in to the exhaustion. “Really?”
“Okay.” The last was a barely audible mumble.
Abbey stood there and listened to his breathing as it settled into the slow rhythms of sleep. She wondered briefly if she should feel some guilt over the relief she felt, that the whole ugly mess was being postponed once more. And this time it was her decision, not his.
How long could they wait? How long could she? The questions hammered at her. She wasn’t really sure what she wanted of him anymore. Apology? Admittance? The horrible thought occurred to her that maybe, just maybe, she’d left him no alternatives. She’d backed him into a corner of her own choosing.
A cynical inner voice sliced through her wandering thoughts. Her own words returned to haunt her.
‘Not now. Later.’
Perhaps they were both guilty.
It was something to think about.
“You know I’m right.”
“I know nothing of the kind.” He stopped just short of smirking condescendingly at her. She wasn’t new to the job, just new to the NTSB and his team. She was young but good; he wouldn’t have assigned her to this investigation if she weren’t.
Still, her conclusions, despite the conviction in her voice, were far too preliminary. He had to point out the obvious. “You’re guessing.”
“No, I’m not.” Raising a hand to shield her eyes from the glare of an early morning sun, she watched as a group of investigators, hands and feet carefully encased in protective latex, painstakingly removed the bits and pieces of Marine One from the clinging mud. “It shouldn’t have failed…”
“Well, obviously it did.”
She didn’t fail to catch the note of cool disapproval in his voice. The rebuke was obvious. Junior investigators did not voice opinions to seniors unless asked. Snorting derisively, she ignored the warning and replied with equal parts sarcasm, “Gonna scream ‘pilot error’ now?”
“That would go over big with the press, wouldn’t it?”
“Try the President. The man’s not going to buy that excuse without proof.”
“And you have proof it’s not?” He had to ask it. She was good at her job, he wouldn’t have asked for her on site if she weren’t. As certain as he was that she was wrong, something in her voice gave him pause. “Spill it. What have you got?”
“It shouldn’t have failed.” Her reply lacked any ring of finality, any force of truth. The conviction was there, but no proof.
“So you say.” This was getting them nowhere and he started to turn away.
“So I know!”
“There was a storm! Lightning, high winds…”
“Pilot error?” she prodded in a nasty tone.
Eyes narrowing dangerously, he glared at her. Good or not, she was pushing it. “Maybe. The lab will…”
“The lab will take weeks! Maybe months! You know it, I know it. In the meanwhile, that…” she pointed to what little remained of Marine One at the bottom of the ridge, “…is all that remains of one of the most secure aircraft in the world! The thing was degaussed and grounded three ways to Sunday! Backup systems, redundancies you wouldn’t believe and pilots who don’t…”
Her enthusiasm was laudable, but he knew if he didn’t stop this now he wouldn’t be able to later. Trying to interrupt, he said, “Listen…”
She wasn’t about to let him stop her and finished with a triumphant note, “…pilots who don’t make mistakes! Redundancy, damn it!”
“Your point?” he sighed with profound exasperation. Youth had its advantages, but this?
“The one part…”
“Here it comes.” He rolled his eyes and threw his hands into the air in disgust.
“The one part that can’t be duplicated, can’t be backed up…” Pausing, she took a deep breath and turned the full force of her gaze and certainty on him. She knew what had happened, why didn’t he? Willing him to listen, she finished, “…fails. There’s only one main rotor housing, one bolt. What are the odds?”
Sighing, he rubbed his eyes. “You have no proof.”
“They heard an explosion.”
“They heard a bang.” He corrected her testily
This time it was her turn to throw up her arms in disgust. “What is it with you?”
Truthfully, at this point he had no idea. “I’ll wait for the lab reports,” he told her, wondering at the bitter cynicism he could hear echoing in his voice. Where had that come from? Was she getting to him?
She came to a decision. “I’m not. It’s going in my report.”
“It’s your head.”
“Better mine than the President’s.”
He looked at her, eyes narrowed. “You’re gonna say it, aren’t you?”
She took a deep breath to steady her nerves. Standing up to him wasn’t easy, but she knew her instincts were right. Without a hint of boastfulness, she said, “The lab reports will confirm it. In the meanwhile the President, the NSA, the CIA, the FBI and God knows whatever alphabet I’ve forgotten to mention has to be told now.”
“Say it.” There was a thread of warning in his voice, although deep down he was beginning to wonder. He turned away before she could answer, resigned to the fact that maybe she was right and that maybe he was getting too old for this.
And if she was right, he didn’t want to contemplate what it meant, the awful possibilities. He still needed to hear the words though. “Get it over with,” he called back over his shoulder.
Her words didn’t disappoint him.
“It was sabotage.”