The press room air was thick and the reporters' eyes bright with the promise of story. Nonetheless, CJ strode up to the podium with her customary unhesitancy.
"Good afternoon. The investigation into the death of US Ambassador Nathan Williamson in Phnom Penh has come to a critical juncture. Local police have arrested a young man found in possession of a gun linked by ballistic evidence to the ambassador's murder. The suspect denies shooting the ambassador, but has an arrest record that includes assault, robbery and drug-related offences, and has spent time in jail for holding up tourists at gunpoint. The local authorities are treating it as a non-political crime."
A forest of hands. She picked one who'd have the decency not to skip to the subject du jour just yet. "Derrick?"
"Have the local police released a name?"
Oh, if only she had a few more morsels of information to parcel out and keep the journalists interested. "We'll have more details on that for you later today." Still, maybe it was best not to prolong the inevitable. She picked out the hand that would start the ball rolling. "Katie."
Katie glanced down at her notebook automatically, for all that CJ knew she'd had this particular sequence of questions polished and memorised for upwards of twenty-four hours - hell, she'd probably been honing it for weeks before the press secretary had signed off on it the day before.
"CJ; has the president read the Michael Rogers biography Jed: Portrait of a Future President?"
"He has, yes."
This alone caused a sudden halting of scratching pens across the room. If this had been a standard case of kiss-and-tell claptrap, there was no way the president would have been given it to so much as glance at, and everybody knew it.
Katie followed up with the stinger. "Does the president intend to take issue with the book's insinuation that he suffered what amounts to persistent child abuse at the hands of his father, John Bartlet senior?"
Oh, for the chance to slap that down with a 'that's ridiculous'.
A breath. "The president has no plans to take issue with Michael Rogers over the content of his book."
Silence. For such a short beat that the casual observer would never have noticed it at all, but CJ could no more have missed it than an irregularity in her own heartbeat. A skip in the press room's rhythm - the journalistic beast had been surprised.
And then the roaring resumed.
The seasoned reporter gave her an almost disbelieving look. "CJ, the president has confirmed that his father used to physically and emotionally abuse him?"
"The president has stated he has no quibble with the factual content of Michael Rogers's book," she corrected sharply. "Such as it is," she added, with a twist of bitterness. In truth, the biography had been extremely coy about coming out with anything concrete, but just the fact that nobody was suiting up to dispute its clear insinuations spoke volumes.
"But the president feels he suffered abuse?" Chris persisted.
"I really wouldn't presume to be able to speak for him on such a delicate matter," CJ said icily. An evasion of the question, but a damn honest one at that, and it was as well for the press corps that they had the smarts not to push it any further.
"Does the president feel his past has influenced this administration's stance on domestic violence initiatives?"
"I think the president - and any other right-minded human being - would take offence at the implication that domestic violence is something you need to have experienced personally to feel strongly about, Sandy..."
And so it continued.
He watched the briefing with the sound muted - not turned off, because that would be silly, but... muted. Enough so that the words were there on the edge of hearing, but they blurred into each other and you couldn't really pick them out unless you concentrated.
He wasn't concentrating. Not on that, anyway. He was watching CJ, every inch the professional, coolly dispensing information and fielding questions. As if this was politics. As if this was something that belonged in the White House press room.
As if this wasn't his life, his family they were tearing apart and holding up to the light down there. He'd drawn firm lines around his children, protected them from that media invasion - why couldn't they let him do the same for his father? The man was decades in his grave - let the dead lie in peace, whatever their sins.
The door creaked open, but he didn't look up; even if he hadn't been the only one who ever came through that way, Jed would have known it was Leo. He quietly crossed the carpet to stand behind Jed's chair.
He gave a half shrug. Non-committal. Whatever.
"We got news back on Cambodia."
"Yeah?" Jed did look up now. He'd been vaguely aware of a reference to the Cambodia situation at the start of the briefing, but he hadn't been paying attention. They had news? The smile on Leo's face made him automatically start to grin in response.
"They caught the guy. Ballistics data nailed him."
Jed peered at him, almost disbelieving. "And he's-?"
Leo's smile broadened. "Completely apolitical. This was a random killing - we're out of the woods. The guy'll go to trial, we'll replace the ambassador... it's not gonna be an international incident."
It was altogether too regrettable an affair to say he was pleased, but it was definitely a relief. He settled back in his chair with a sigh of lifted pressure. "Good..." He nodded slowly to himself. "Good."
Jed turned his attention back to the TV as Leo fell silent. He glimpsed his senior staff lurking at the edge of the press room. All intent, focused on the briefing; he should have resented it, but in some strange way it was reassuring.
He smiled to himself as the camera caught Sam absently raising a hand to rub his new goatee, and looked up at his Chief of Staff.
"Leo, do you think I should grow a beard?" he asked, almost surprised at how easily the playful tone still came to him.
He smirked. "I'll assume that was a 'good idea, sir'."
"That was a 'nothing in hell I could possibly say in reaction to that statement would be permissible within the bounds of the Oval Office, sir'. Sir."
"You don't think I'd look good with a beard?" he asked, raising his eyebrows in pretended injury.
Leo gave him a dry look. "I think you'd look like you forgot to shave," he pointed out.
"For a while, and then I'd look like I had a beard."
"And in the meantime, you'd look like you're the leader of the free world, and you forgot to shave."
"I always look like I'm the leader of the free world, Leo, I have a natural air of gravitas and dignity."
"Certainly nothing says dignity like the 'I've passed puberty, and gosh darn I'm gonna prove it' look."
"Lots of dignified people have beards," Jed said sternly. "Toby has a beard; you're not so quick to mock him now for it, are you?"
"Frankly, sir, I think nobody wants to take a chance on finding out what's underneath."
Jed chuckled, and the sound felt almost unfamiliar to him. This had been hanging over his head for so long... Despite everything, it was almost a relief to get it out in the open.
Leo glanced sideways at him. "You okay?"
"And in the real world?"
He shrugged the pointed question away. "Zoey came by earlier."
"I saw," he nodded.
Jed looked up at him. "She and Charlie are having a baby."
A delighted smile spread across Leo's face. "No," he said wonderingly.
"So I'm told," Jed shrugged. "Let's not get into the technicalities of it."
Leo snickered. It was all right for him - wait until Mallory started popping out kids, he'd soon change his tune. When you were the father of daughters, you had to learn to believe in immaculate conceptions to keep your sanity.
"Another Bartlet grandbaby on its way," Jed mused to himself.
"The world trembles in terror," Leo said dryly. Jed shot him a look.
"There goes your chance of being godfather."
"I think that's traditionally down to, you know, the actual parents."
"Hey! That's my baby girl you're talking about."
Leo rolled his eyes. "I think when your children start producing more children, it's time to accept they've grown up."
"It's never time to accept that," Jed pouted, folding his arms. Leo just laughed. Traitor.
"Are you going to kidnap this grandchild and refuse to let it go like you did the last one?"
Leo shook his head. "If Charlie survives having you for a father-in-law, it'll be a miracle and a half."
Jed looked up at him with a quietly sad smile. "It's family, Leo," he reminded him. "And it doesn't matter what you go through - family's always gonna be family."
"Yeah," said Leo softly. "Yeah."
He laid a hand on his old friend's shoulder, and Jed leaned forward to turn up the sound on the rest of the briefing.