And the Tide Rushes In
Spoilers: This story goes AU somewhere around late season three, but backstory established in the season four episodes "Debate Camp" and "Holy Night" is also fair game.
Disclaimer: The characters and concepts used within belong to Aaron Sorkin; I'm just borrowing for non-profit purposes.
I've been searching for my dreams
A hundred times today
I build them up, you knock them down
Like they were made of clay
- And the Tide Rushes In, The Moody Blues
Faces were graver than usual as the staff gathered together. Katie's question about the president's childhood in the briefing four days ago had been the first rumblings of an avalanche that was still even now cascading around their ears. Here was a well of potential deep enough to fill whole books, let alone newspaper columns - the secret truth about Jed Bartlet's childhood.
Gasp at the dark buried horrors hidden from a nation! Hiss in disgust at the evil patriarch who tried to deny the greatness of a future president! Marvel at the determination and strength of will that brought Josiah Bartlet on the long and rocky road to the White House! And do it all safe in the knowledge that the president was the hero of this story, so it could hardly be called sleaze or muck-raking or scandal-mongering to grope for every last tiny detail about it...
It was the news cycle from hell, and it was going nowhere. It was eating all the column inches typically allotted to the White House, pushing aside or leeching into every positive story the administration wanted to put out. The president was a virtual prisoner of the knowledge that any even remotely public engagement would be used as excuse to get him up to the podium and start asking the wrong kind of questions.
And none of his staff gave a damn about any of that... not while they could see the man himself suffering at the centre of it.
Toby leaned back against the wall of Leo's office, watching the other three as they babbled nervously. CJ's face, freed of the deceptively animated mask she wore in the press room, was creased with frown lines. Josh looked as if he'd been dragged backwards through the White House grounds by his hair a few more times than usual. Sam wore a permanent grimace of concentration, and that ridiculous excuse for a beard he'd been growing had become the source of a new nervous habit, as his fingers worried at his chin in moments of extreme tension.
In other words, pretty well constantly.
"He looks pale."
"I know he looks pale, Sam," CJ grated.
"I'm saying, even paler than-"
"I know how pale he is, Sam."
"I think he's smoking again," Josh interjected worriedly. "CJ, is he smoking again?"
"Oh, how the hell would I know?" she snapped irritably. Predictably, the Deputy Chief of Staff grew prickly in response.
"Well, I'd think you'd-"
"Leave it, Joshua," she warned sharply. Sam stepped in with his hands raised placatingly, and got the force of both their laser glares turned on him for his trouble.
"Okay, can we just take a moment to-?"
Toby never got to find out what trite calming platitude was about to emerge from his deputy's mouth, as Leo chose that moment to finally return.
"Leo, is he-?"
"Did you speak to him, is he-?"
Leo shut them all down with a scowl. "He's the President of the United States, people, not your great aunt Mary who just fell down and broke her hip! Give him some room to breathe. He doesn't need you talking about him behind his back the whole day long!"
They looked appropriately chagrined, and he let up a little, massaging his forehead tiredly. "Seriously, folks, I know you're concerned, but you know how he feels about being in the centre of a goldfish bowl. You're not doing him any good by making him feel like everybody's staring at him all the time."
CJ looked at him worriedly. "Seriously, Leo... how is he doing?" she asked plaintively.
Leo sighed heavily. "CJ..." He broke off, and shrugged helplessly. "I don't know. What do you want from me? I don't know. He's not talking to me any more than he's talking to you about this." He looked up, sweeping his eyes soberly across the rest of the staff. "All I know is that this is hurting him. This is hurting him a lot, and it doesn't look to me like any of us are doing a whole lot that's helping right now."
There was silence, for a moment, and then Leo moved forward to his desk and shuffled the papers there. "Okay," he said, sitting down. "Let's do this."
Jed hesitated outside the door to his Chief of Staff's office. They were all in there, he knew. Talking about... what? Easy question.
Talking about him.
Oh, it would hardly be arrogance to say that they were quite often talking about him, but... not like this. His staff should be talking about things he had done, things he would do, things he ought to do - not things that had happened to him in the dim and distant past. He was the president, not a test subject in some college psychology study! How was what had or hadn't happened in his childhood remotely relevant to what he did today?
Bad enough that his past was being dissected by every idiot out there who could get near a computer keyboard or a microphone. That was infuriating, but he could push it aside, file it away in the part of his brain he kept for the opinionated words of ignorant people.
But this... this was harder. To know that the people he cared about, the people he trusted, were clustering together in corners, eyeing him worriedly, analysing his every move to see if he was on the verge of cracking up.
Why would they think that? Couldn't they see that this was all just smoke and shadows, a warped and exaggerated reconstruction of events long buried and forgotten? They hadn't thought he was some desperately fragile creature on the edge of collapse before - so why did they suddenly have to look at him differently now?
He could have gone in, and no one would have said anything to him - but he would have felt their worried gazes on him every time he turned around, and that was even worse. He left the Oval Office, heading out into the reception area. Charlie was gone from his desk, on some errand or other, and Jed was glad; one less person to gaze at him with that stomach-churning mix of pity and concern.
He wandered through the West Wing, for that was most likely to be deserted on a Sunday when the senior staff were still clustered in Leo's office. Even now, the solitude was not complete; interns and aides gaped or snapped to attention, startled by his presence passing through them. And, of course, there were the silent dark shadows that flanked him everywhere. At least the Secret Service knew how to maintain an impassive expression. They were trained to spot clear and present danger - surely they at least understood that these whispers from the past couldn't hurt him.
It wasn't the voice out of silence that startled him so much as its perky, friendly tone. He'd almost forgotten what it was like to be approached any way but tentatively. He turned, a small smile touching his lips almost automatically. "Donna!"
She smiled at him pleasantly and, so far as he could tell, completely guilelessly. "Good afternoon, Mr. President. Were you looking for-?"
"Oh, no, I was just..." He gestured vaguely.
"Okay," she accepted lightly. Not pouting with worry at the idea of the president wandering the halls for no reason, or scrutinising him closely for the first signs of cracking up. "Oh!" she recalled suddenly. "I meant to say... congratulations. On Zoey and Charlie's baby. You must be looking forward to being a grandpa again."
A genuine smile visited him now, and he was surprised to find it could still feel natural. "Well, thank you, Donna. I am indeed."
She beamed back. After a moment, he realised she was probably lurking around purely out of politeness.
"I'm sorry, am I keeping you from-?"
"Oh, no, no," she explained quickly. "Josh just called me in to pull some stats for him on the USFA. I'm pretty much..." She gestured lightly, and grinned. "At a loose end."
He smiled back. "Oddly enough, I am too."
"Well that... doesn't sound like it happens very often, Mr. President," she observed.
"No. It doesn't."
"Sir... if you don't mind me asking," she began suddenly, and his muscles suddenly grew taut. "Have Charlie and Zoey said anything about picking out baby names yet? Only there's this pool Ed and Larry are starting, and..."
He laughed, and the some of the tension bled out of him. A normal conversation! He'd forgotten that sometimes people had those. "Well, they haven't said anything to Abbey and I just yet," he told her, leaning back against the wall. "But I have to say, I've got a few ideas myself that I might just be advancing..."
As he settled himself for a few moments' chat about matters completely inconsequential, Jed found he was already feeling better than he had in days.
Carol offered her boss a sympathetic smile as she returned to her office, muttering tiredly to herself.
"Hey, Carol." She paused. "Did Melissa Berrington get struck by lightning yet?"
She grinned tentatively and shook her head.
CJ sighed heavily. "The powers that be just aren't on the ball with the smiting these days." She glanced at her assistant. "Has she said anything else I should know about?"
"Not since the 'heroic image' thing," Carol supplied.
CJ scowled. "I swear, if I could get my hands on that woman..." She shook her head and sighed heavily.
The Republican pundit appeared to have taken great delight in composing her column suggesting that 'the Bartlet revelation' was an artfully engineered attempt to build on the president's 'heroic image'. For reasons past understanding, she chose to believe - or just to claim - that the president's closest advisors had deliberately dropped or even wholly invented this bombshell in order to build public sympathy. Apparently the fact that Jed Bartlet had swept in out of nowhere to win the candidacy and then the presidency - and then faced down an assassination attempt and the revelation of his chronic disease to retain it - was a sign that his people were trying to present him as some sort of mythical hero.
It was preposterous, not least because, well, how did you engineer a myth out of events that everyone knew had actually happened? But people were reading it, people were discussing it, and no matter how crackpot a theory you were trying to sell, somebody out there was willing to listen and believe it.
Even more dangerous, harder to track down and refute, were the internet rumours that could be started up by anybody with a modem and a yen for making trouble. This was all a smokescreen for some terrible thing the president had done in his past. The president's troubles with his father were because he was the illegitimate child of another man. This news had been deliberately leaked to take attention away from whatever conspiracy the government was up to this week.
These kind of rumours were like smoke; insubstantial, but impossible to catch or contain and spreading everywhere - reaching out to a whole host of people who might or might not believe them, but would definitely pass them on.
CJ sighed, and massaged her forehead for a few moments. She sat back in her chair, and looked up at her assistant.
"Okay, Carol. Hit me with the latest."