Title: A Meditation On Something Like Regret
Author: A.j.
Fandom: The West Wing.
Characters: Elizabeth Bartlet, Zoey Bartlet.
Spoilers: Season 7, "Internal Displacement", although this is an AU to that episode. Because effing hell.
Notes: Started some time in 2006 and completely forgotten about until tonight. Also, good word, I wish we'd gotten more from the Bartlet sisters, but TWW was not that show, and that's kind of okay.

Summary: There are days Elizabeth wishes she was better than this.

The drive back to the hotel hurts. Physically hurts. By the time she makes it inside the hotel room door, barely aware that her security detail has set itself up by all the main exits, she is crying.

It's a strange reaction for her. She's so used to not doing it. So used to just putting on the face.

She's tired of putting on the face.

She's tired of a lot of things.

Elizabeth packs efficiently. Forty-two years of travel and quick trips and twenty years of motherhood have forged the talent to keen point.

She is ready for the trip home twenty minutes after she walks through her hotel room door.

The road north into Massachusetts is clear. She lets Sullivan, the most senior agent in her detail, take the wheel. Doug had flown home the day before, a cloud of determination and fear clinging to him like a second skin. He had public appearances to make and made no comment when she'd quietly told him she was staying on another day.

She wonders if he knew what she was going to try and do. Possibly.

They don't talk much anymore.

The rain starts as soon as they hit the state line. It isn't a hard rain. No, it's spring. The hard rains generally hit in fall or summer, all kinetic fire. This is just constant and gentle. She leans her head sideways to stare out at the passing scenery, hypnotized by it and the swish of the windshield wipers.

She had not been pregnant when she married Doug. As much speculation as there'd been in the local press given that Annie arrived six weeks early, it hadn't been true.

No, when she was slipping on the white satin gloves she and her mother had purchased two weeks prior, in the middle of a blazing row, her womb had been empty. She'd married Doug just for Doug.

That's what she'd told herself. That's what she'd told everyone.

She's not surprised that no one ever believed her.

She'd started dating Doug her junior year of college. He'd been her third serious boyfriend, and the only one who'd lasted through the meeting with her family. She'd thought he'd hung the moon that night, cuddled up next to him on the porch swing. He'd managed to make it through a Bartlet interrogative dinner mostly intact. No, her parents hadn't liked him, but that had been fine. Her parents never liked any of the men she dated.

When her mother had drawn her aside, the next time she'd been home, to ask if she'd lost her damn mind, she'd just smiled. When her father had yelled to the heavens that she was wasting her time on that jackass of an idiot, she'd just smiled.

When he'd proposed, just after graduation, she'd said yes.

The trees along the road blur wetly in her field of vision. The mile markers slide by, one by one, and next to her, she can hear Sullivan breathe in the still air of the car.

Doug had been her rebellion.

To his credit, Sullivan says nothing when she starts to laugh.

Zoey had started visiting her often after her kidnapping. She hadn't minded. Had been glad that her younger sister had been reaching out in a way. To her.

She'd been in high school when her mother had sat everyone down at the table and told them that they were getting another sibling. She'd been surprised, although not very. Her parents had never been like normal parents. Her mom was a doctor – a surgeon – and her dad was a Congressman. Lofty positions both. They'd also been affectionate with each other. Very affectionate.

No, Zoey had not been much of a surprise. But she'd been very, very young when Liz had left for college. A little girl in pigtails and riding boots who'd dogged her footsteps and stood solemnly at the bottom of the stairs while Liz had loaded bags into the back of her brand new beat up Chevy for the long trip to NHU.

And as much as they'd been sisters, they'd never really been friends. There was too much distance between them. But after the kidnapping...

Everything had been different after the kidnapping. Zoey had been different.

They'd become friends.

It'd started slowly. Zoey coming to dinner here and there. Driving down from the farm, with her security detail, to spend time and just be.

And they'd actually started to talk. To become something like sisters.

It's only in her darkest most private moments that Elizabeth lets herself acknowledge why. Because it's too petty and downright mean to ever cop to in the light of day.

Zoey is waiting at the door when she finally makes it home. Her sister's normally expressive face is blank in the backlighting of the front door, and for an instant Liz stills on the walkway.

"Is everything okay?"

Zoey just shakes her head and shrugs. "Gus is fine. He's over at a friend's house until eight."


"Doug left an hour ago."

She hates it a little that she's glad. A lot, really. Because it feels like failure and cowardice, and that hits closer to home than any damn newspaper article ever could.


It takes a lot to get her feet moving. Up the stairs of the home she and Doug created and in out of the rain. She's proud that she doesn't flinch at the brush of Zoey's hand against her shoulder.

She does stop though, waiting for what's next. As always, Zoey surprises her.

"C'mon. There's a bottle of wine in the living room."

And honestly, that sounds like the best idea anyone's had all day.

Zoey's lap is comfortable. It's not something she ever knew about her sister, but with three glasses of wine in an empty stomach, it is the only thing that registers with any bit of clarity.

"You have a comfortable lap."

Because she's an honest drunk.

"Mmm." Zoey's hands are working rhythmically through her hair, nails occasionally scratching at her scalp. Wiggle, tense, wiggle, tense. The strangeness of this physical comfort is outweighed only by the fact that she needs it. Somewhere, somehow, Zoey became safe in a way that no one else ever has been. Elizabeth knows Zoey understands and right now, that's the only thing she can tolerate.

In the distance, Elizabeth can hear Sullivan and Parker in the kitchen; dishes scraping together in the sink. How strange it is to have them in her home and in her life. Strangers that she doesn't really know outside the basics who know her and her family better than anyone else. Who know their moves and keep their secrets, even from each other.

Secrets. What a melodramatic word.

"You need to leave him, Liz. He doesn't deserve you." Zoey's voice is soft, much like the hand that is slowly stroking through Liz's hair. "He never did."

Liz says nothing, turning her face into the bright fabric of her sister's skirt.

How tired she is of hearing that.

It's not until they tell their children that she makes the decision to leave him.

And in that instant, she realizes just what she's given away to be right. To be smarter than her parents. To show them.

It's the pain in her children's faces. The shock. The anger.

And then Annie turns to her, face an open book, and asks, "What do you need?"

Liz decides then. With the turn of her daughter's head and just that look, her decision is made. She has raised her children to be strong. To be smart and independent and to want to protect those they love. It is the example she has set.

The expectation in Annie's eyes... the assumption that Liz will protect herself just as she would protect her children... It hurts much more than any look of disappointment ever could.

She asks Doug for an annulment as soon as the children have gone up to their rooms. Eyes wide with surprise, he stumbles a bit at her words. She knows then that this is the right decision. That Annie and Chelsea and Zoey and ultimately her parents are right.

It's time she stopped running from what she is. She is a Bartlet.

He doesn't deserve her. He never did.

Two years later, when the papers come, she signs the annulment. Her hands do not shake.