She answered the phone somewhat tentatively when it rang; yesterday's blaze of fiery courage had fizzled away after sleeping on it, to be replaced by the usual paranoia. What if the newspapers started cutting up her words? What if the press office was going to be angry at her for calling up reporters on her own time? What if she'd sounded too... pretentious, stupid, naïve, inarticulate, snobbish, immature, dumb, insecure, childish, scatterbrained, pathetic...?
"Hello?" she asked hesitantly.
Some of the tautness in her stomach eased. "Mom!" She didn't sound mad.
"How are you feeling, honey?"
"Nervous," she admitted. She could talk to her mother in some strange way, an ability to communicate that she'd never quite had with her friends or her sisters or even her therapist - never mind with her dad.
Her mother's tones were kind and comforting. "That was a brave thing you did, Eleanor. Your father's very proud of you this morning. You made him very happy."
"That makes a change," she noted wryly.
A warning note entered her mother's voice. "Eleanor..."
"No, mom, I- I've been so childish for so long about dad. Having all these stupid fights for no reason, always acting like he was never there for me when I knew he really was... I must have really hurt him."
"Oh, honey," her mother sighed lovingly. "Don't start blaming yourself for things you can't control. Your father had a hard start in life, and it left some bruises on him; you can't try to take responsibility for the things that scarred him forty years ago."
"I wish I'd known," she mumbled quietly.
"I know, I know. But it wouldn't have changed anything and it couldn't have stopped this, so don't you go beating yourself up over it. Your father's a strong man; he's been through some dark times, and he'll come through this."
"You think?" Ellie wondered tentatively.
Her mother's certainty made her feel stronger.
"Toby." The president smiled at his most ornery advisor as he shuffled in. Toby had been avoiding him this week, probably on the - not unreasonable - assumption that if they were in the same room together, he would sooner or later end up saying something less than sensitive. It wasn't that Toby set out to offend, just that in his world, tact and careful dancing around awkward issues were things that happened to other people.
It was a bluntness that could bruise; but was also, in its own way, more refreshing than unrequested sympathies.
"Mr. President." He sat down.
"You and CJ got that statement together for me?"
"Mostly, sir," he agreed neutrally. They both knew that in the end, it was going to be Jed himself who dictated what was and wasn't said out in that pressroom. He had that much control... but it wasn't total. The press could be restricted and ordered as the White House liked, but if an out-of-line question was loosed anyway, and it struck home, the world was going to see it.
But he was ready to do this.
He had to be.
There was silence for a moment and it hung between them, because Toby was a man who knew as he did that a good silence filled a space as well as any words, and sometimes better. Jed thought about his father, and all the ways things could have gone differently than they did.
Even now, there was no hatred in him, and the anger only felt more like frustration. You could articulate a catalogue of abuses, small and large, but the fact that the accounts were real didn't make them complete. On the outside, you could separate out the bad times cleanly, and say; 'This is what this is'. On the inside... the times in between mattered too. You couldn't sum a life, a relationship, a human being, in tally marks of good and evil.
His father had been a man who had done things the wrong way... but whether, underneath that, he had or hadn't been a good man was not for Jed to say. He only knew what he knew, and for good or ill, he had loved his father, and still did. A part of him still ached with the belief that some way, some how, things could have gone differently. And maybe it was wrong... but it would always be there.
He glanced up at Toby. "Did you ever think about being a father, Toby?"
Surprisingly, his advisor stayed looking at the floor, and spoke quietly. "Yes, sir."
"You and Andy talked about having kids?"
"Why didn't you?" It was a personal question, but meant in honest curiosity. He'd been thinking on this a lot lately; what made a person decide to become a parent, and how could you know that you were ready, or that you weren't? Had his father been caught off-guard and off-balance by a child he'd never understood how to deal with... or had he thought all along that he was doing right, raising his son as men were supposed to raise their sons?
It was a question he could never know the answer to, but he was doomed to chase it forever all the same. He wouldn't, couldn't believe that his father had been a bad man at his core... so where had it gone wrong? It was the wondering that haunted him.
Toby sighed very quietly, a melancholy whisper of sound. "We tried. It didn't... we couldn't. The babies never... well, they never turned into babies."
Jed's heart had always broken more easily for others than for himself - and the measured, collected solemnity of Toby's words was a harder punch than any blast of grief-stricken histrionics.
"Oh, Toby..." he breathed in fractured dismay. "You never said a word." It was a twist to the gut to be so sharply reminded that his own old pains were only one small part of the tapestry of silent grief that underwove all human dealing. Everybody had scars under the surface that they didn't like to show.
"It's not... a thing you say," he said softly, with a small, tight smile behind his beard.
"You shouldn't have to..." Jed shook his head "You shouldn't have to go through that sort of thing alone. You should have come to us, Toby - why didn't you come to us?"
"And you would have done what?" he asked. Not in sarcasm, just in weary honesty.
"We would have known," he said simply.
It honestly wouldn't have occurred to him to think of his words as at all hypocritical. It just wasn't in his nature to view himself through those eyes.
Toby shook his head mutely, somewhere else across time and space. "We didn't... There wasn't a time to... It was hard on Andy," he finished. As if this was the be-all and end-all of the repercussions, the sole fact of importance.
"You were there too, Toby," Jed reminded him gently.
"It was... a hard time," he said neutrally, and it was difficult to tell that if this was agreement, argument, or just a simple statement of fact.
Jed sighed, and reached out to take his sleeve in muted sympathy. "You could have come to us, Toby," he said softly. "You know that. Everybody has their hard times, and there's no shame in admitting that."
He was silent for a beat, and then he repeated, quietly, reflectively, "There's no shame in admitting that."
Abbey watched her husband take the podium with her heart wrapped in a familiar web of pride mixed with fear and anticipation. Beside her, Zoey clutched Charlie's hand tensely. The press were remarkably controlled, but their collective gaze was sharp and intense, prepared to catch the slightest falter or stumble.
Please, God, just don't let him stumble.
He smiled, and it was the slightly melancholy smile, not the brilliant beam he usually showed the press. She could never say she liked that smile, knowing there was such a thread of sadness underneath it, but it laid a fragile beauty on him, an echo of the solemnly earnest young student she'd long ago first known.
When he spoke, his voice was as firm and as steady as it had always been, and even after all this time, she found his strength could still amaze her.
"Good morning." He swept his gaze over the assembled press and found, from somewhere, a flicker of wry amusement. "I'm sure you've got a lot of questions you want to ask me, most of which I will not be answering, but let's see if I can get through this first, if I may." He had the prepared statement printed out in front of him, but she could see his occasional glances were little more than casual reassurance - he was in control, and comfortable with his words.
"There's been a lot of nonsense about me in the papers lately..." he took a breath- "and, admittedly, some truth as well. I appreciate that, as the president, the details of my life carry some interest for the people of America, and that I don't have as much privacy as I would like about my past and my family... but my childhood is my own, and I see no need to dwell on it. I'm touched by the people's concern-" funny how, in that simple and commendable statement, some of the press could still find enough guilt to drop their eyes- "but it's unwarranted. I am... as strong as I've ever been."
He gripped the edge of the podium for emphasis. Watching him, Abbey realised like a great weight being lifted from her heart that she believed him. It was only now, seeing him up there in his element and bending the world around him to the force of his charisma, that she truly knew that he was going to be all right.
He was her husband, he was Jed Bartlet, he was the President of the United States of America, and he could do anything he wanted. Whatever life threw at him, he would overcome it.
He nodded slowly at the reporters. "My father was... my father. I'm not sure what else you think I'm going to add to that, or should be able to. He was my father, and whatever did or didn't happen so long ago is between him and me. And forgive me, but I intend to have it stay there. My childhood shaped me, and I won't pretend that it isn't a part of who I am today... but I think the time for discussing its ins and outs is long past. You want to know more? Read a biography."
There was a ripple through the room at that, not so much quite amusement as a startled titter. She wondered if it was only in her imagination that she read an echo of her own relief to hear him joking.
Jed smiled, and the light in his eyes - that wonderful, beautiful light - was back. "This is not a place for dwelling on the past. We are not a people who are locked in the past. America is young and strong and vibrant, and we look to the future. We are not an old, decaying empire resting on its laurels and polishing the remains of ancient victories - our day of destiny is still ahead, and we're walking towards it with open arms. So we've come through dark and dangerous places - so what? We're American. And the American dream is about making it better."
If this had been a partisan crowd, they would be on their feet and cheering. Instead, they were seasoned political journalists and they were straightening in their seats and drinking it in, feeling the power of his words as only fellow wordsmiths could. Abbey felt her skin tingling, not just for the man she married but for something larger; for what he was and what he represented, in this time, in this place.
"I didn't become President of the United States because I wanted to fix my father, because I wanted to spite the past, because I wanted to be more or different than what I used to be - I became the president because there's so much future out there." He flung a hand out, alive with the passion of his words.
"So much future, and so many ways to grasp it, to make it better. So many ways we haven't begun to imagine yet, and we never will, if we keep looking backwards. Forget the past- we've got our eyes on the horizon, because that's where our destiny is. Where we came from isn't important, only where we're going, and why we want to. The world of the past we carry with us, for better or worst, but the world of the future is ours to shape. Our fathers made this world for us; now we get to make the one we pass on to our children."
He held out an open palm to Charlie and Zoey, and the young couple stepped forward hesitantly, both beaming. "Today, I have the great pleasure to announce that I'm soon to be a grandfather for the second time. And I'd just like to say... my presidency is not about my father. It's about my children, and my children's children, and giving them the future they deserve. Charlie and Zoey, ladies and gentlemen, give them your congratulations."
In the shelter of the swell of applause that the press were perhaps grateful for a good excuse to give, he stepped down from the podium, and moved to join his wife. Abbey pressed a kiss to his lips without a single thought of their audience, and smiled up at him.
"You did good, honey," she said, letting her tone say all the things that the words didn't begin to.
The little grin that appeared on his lips blossomed into a full blown smile. "I know," he agreed, and kissed her back.
Around them, cameras flashed, capturing the scene for posterity. A president, a First Lady, a pair of young parents-to-be, but more than that...