Ash Wednesday

By Chai

Author's Notes: This one's a bit different from anything else I've written, because it's actually fanfic for fanfic: it was posted on JDFF in January 2007 as a response to the "Fantasy Virtual Season Eight" that was being written collaboratively and posted on JDFF by a number of writers after the show wrapped up. I'd been invited to join that group when it started, but had had to decline because of other commitments, not to mention serious doubts that I was in any way capable of writing to deadlines, or to fit in with other people's storylines or interpretations of the characters.

But of course I read the "Fantasy Season 8" stories with interest, and after the episodes involving Josh trying to get Matt to evacuate the area around a Pacific coast volcano, and failing because Matt didn't trust Josh's information, which came through Toby, I couldn't resist the temptation to write this and post it in response, just as if I'd been following a real Season 8 on TV.

So you should think of this as a post-ep for Jo March's "The Canary in the Coal Mine," Mdrgrl's "Layers Upon Lahars," and Jen Wilson's "Consequences." You can find those stories on JDFF, where I believe their numbers are listed in the "Files" section. Please bear in mind that I wasn't writing as a member of the group, and so my story has no claim to a proper place in their series, and doesn't actually fit in with any of the stories that follow Jen's "Consequences," though I tried to make it work with the ones that had come before.

My apologies again to Jo, Mdrgrl and Jen for taking the liberty of borrowing their stories to play with like this, and my thanks to them and to the other FVS8 writers for the inspiration and the fun. More thanks are due to Aim, Caz and Mistletoe for taking the time to read this and make suggestions.

And so, in the hopes that Jo, Mdrgrl and Jen won't mind my quoting from their stories here, I'll begin as both the show and the FVS8 episodes did, with a series of snippets from "Previously on the West Wing" (Fantasy Virtual Season 8):

"Under no circumstances are you to ever discuss anything that happens in this building with Toby Ziegler," Santos finally said. "If I even suspect that's happening, you're out of here. You can pass that message on to Sam Seaborn, to Donna, to anyone here who knows Ziegler."

"Yes, sir."

"Other than that, the government has no right to tell you how to pick your friends. Although I would prefer it if your friendship didn't become public knowledge, at least until Baker is confirmed."

With that, the President stood up and headed for the Oval Office.

"By the way," he added, "if I find out you've been keeping any other information from me, you'll be out of this building in record time." (From "The Canary in the Coal Mine," by Jo March)

oooooo

Everyone stood, thanking the President and wishing him a good night.

"Josh?" he called.

He paused in front of the door leading to his office. "Yes, sir?"

"About earlier..." He took a step closer to his Chief of Staff. "I
came down on you pretty hard."

Josh gulped. He kept his eyes trained on the President.

"I don't think there will ever be a time when I trust Toby Ziegler,"
Santos began. "But I do trust you."

Josh stood a little taller.

"I can't imagine anyone serving as my Chief of Staff more effectively
than you." The President looked him square in the eye. "I wanted you
to know that."

"Thank you, sir." He gave him a tight lipped smile.

Santos walked behind his desk and picked up his suit jacket. "It's
late. You should go home."

"Yes, sir." Josh walked through the connecting door and closed it.
He leaned against it, and sighed.

(From "Layers Upon Lahars," by Mdrgrl)

oooooo

Something caught his eye and he looked over and saw a woman sitting in the corner of the tent crying quietly.

A man was talking to her, and the President found himself watching as the woman clutched a tissue in her hand and nodded at whatever the man was saying.

"Is that woman ok?" he asked Jeff softly as they approached Sam and
Lester.

"Is that woman ok?"

Jeff looked over at the woman for several seconds before answering
very softly. "Her two year-old daughter inhaled ash. She died
yesterday afternoon. That's one of our trauma specialists with her."

The small group of people were stunned into silence at the site
director's words. The president looked down at the ground and closed
his eyes for several long moments before looking at the grief-
stricken woman again. He thought he might be sick, watching the
woman sobbing over her daughter. Immediately and not voluntarily, he
pictured Helen sitting there sobbing over Miranda.

"Mr. President," Sam said softly. "Maybe we should give her some
privacy."

He shook his head but didn't take his eyes off the woman. That pain
in her face; he'd caused that. He'd done that to her. "I have to go
over there."

Sam looked at Lester and shook his head. "Mr. President…"

"I ha…" his voice was choked and he stopped to take a deep
breath. "I have to apologize."

"Sir," Lester said. "That's not your place."

The president's head shot to Lester. "Of course it's my place. It's
my fault."

"Mr. President," Sam said gently. "If you go over there and that
woman blames you…"

"What?" the president snapped. "It'll look bad I don't care. I… she
deserves... something. My apology at the very least." It wouldn't be
enough; it wouldn't ever be enough, but she deserved it nonetheless.

"And if she screams? Calls you a murderer?" Sam said a bit more
sternly.

"Then she screams and calls me a murderer."

"And if she hits you? And the secret service pulls her off you and
shoves her face into the ground and arrests her?"

The president shook his head. "She needs…"

"You. You need to apologize. She needs to be left alone to grieve in
peace without having to face anyone who's going to cause her more
pain. Whose needs are more important right now, sir?"

(From "Consequences" by Jen Wilson.)

oooooo

Ash Wednesday

Matthew Santos stood in front of the long French doors at the end of the Oval Office, looking out at the colonnade and the garden beyond. The sky was grey and heavy with clouds; there was a chill in the air that he could feel through the panes of glass, even with the doors closed. Some thin, yellow stalks of forsythia were doing their best to brighten the scene, and a few crocuses and daffodils were scattered across the lawn, but otherwise Washington's famous floral show was nowhere to be seen. And it was almost Easter. Spring was late that year, thanks in part, at least, to the eruption of Mt. St. Helen's a couple of weeks ago, bringing clouds of ash that had darkened the sky and led, according to the guys at the National Weather Bureau, to all the rain they'd been having all across the country ever since. Days and days and days of it. The cherry blossoms were due to put in an appearance, but if they ever did manage to struggle out of their buds they were going to be blown from their branches and battered to the ground by the driving rain before the annual festival could ever get underway. The rain seemed to have paused for the moment, but from the look of the sky, there would be more that afternoon. The weather was getting on people's nerves; everyone seemed unsettled, edgy, down—Matt himself most of all. He felt personally responsible. Which was ridiculous, he knew: he didn't make the weather. He hadn't made that volcano erupt. He had just . . . .

"Mr. President?"

Matt shook his head and looked away from the scene outside to his Chief of Staff, who was walking into his office with a handful of files. There was a tightness in Josh's face that Matt had been aware of for quite a while now—for the past two weeks, in fact. It bothered him, but he didn't know what to do about it.

"Yes, Josh?"

Matt made an effort to put his depression aside and try to sound jovial, welcoming. As efforts like that usually do, it came out sounding false. Matt saw Josh Lyman's face tighten a little more, the wariness in his eyes increase.

"We need to look at these files on the education bill, sir."

"Of course." Matt took a deep breath. "Josh—"

"Yes, sir?"

Matt hesitated. This sort of thing wasn't his strong suit at all.

"Is everything okay?"

Josh eyed him strangely.

"I haven't heard anything about Kazakhstan since your briefing this morning, sir, but as far as I know there haven't been any changes. Your numbers have been going up steadily since the Vice President was confirmed. We're facing some challenges on the education bill, but we're going to get it. We need to discuss our response to Kervil, Samson, and Dean; that's what I've got here."

Matt dropped his eyes from his C.o.S.'s face to the folder in his hand. That wasn't what he'd meant, but he hadn't liked asking the question in the first place. This sort of thing made him feel like those parachute exercises where you were supposed to be doing a jump over enemy territory in thick fog with no idea what was waiting down below. Freefall in thick, cold, fog, icy little water particles clustered around bits of dust, bits of ash . . . .

"Right," he said, sighing and taking the folder from Josh's hand. But all the while they were talking, he was aware at the edges of his thought of the tautness in the other man's face and in his voice. It felt like an accusation. A hesitation, anyway, an unvoiced doubt of Matt's ability to do the job Josh had told him he should do. It irritated and frustrated him, making him feel even more tense than he did already. Of course he could do this job. If he hadn't believed that, he wouldn't have taken Josh up on his wild proposal two Christmases ago. But if Josh had stopped believing it. . . . He brushed the thought away. He couldn't afford to go there, couldn't afford to be distracted by thoughts like that: the only way to do this job was just to do it. He couldn't afford to worry about what his Chief of Staff was or wasn't thinking about him, what Josh Lyman might or might not do.

But later that evening, when he was sitting with Helen after the children were in bed, he found himself thinking about his Chief of Staff again. He didn't even realize he was doing it until he heard Helen's voice saying,

"I've asked you the same question three times now, Matt—what's wrong?"

He looked up at her, surprised.

"I'm sorry," he said. "Were you talking to me?"

"Yes, Matthew," she answered, with exaggerated patience. "Strange though it might seem, I was talking to you. For the last five minutes or so, but you're obviously somewhere else tonight. What's wrong? I thought we were actually crisis-free for the moment, and could have a nice evening together." There was a bit of an edge to her voice. Matt winced inside, and bit his lip.

"I'm sorry," he said again. "You're right, that's what we should be doing. Come here and tell me what you were talking about again."

Helen walked over to the sofa he was sitting on and sat down beside him.

"What's wrong?" she asked again, her voice a little softer this time. "Something's bothering you. Something's been bothering you for days now. You've been off in your own thoughts every evening. And I know you're not sleeping very well."

Matt looked sideways at her. Her makeup had worn off hours ago; she was wearing track pants and an old sweatshirt that had been pink once but was more grey than anything else now. Her hair was tucked behind her ears, mussy and a little frizzy at the end of the day, but it looked like gold and shimmered like spun silk in the lamplight. She took his breath away; she always did. He didn't know what he'd do if she wasn't here for him. And she hadn't wanted this; he knew she still didn't want it, was just putting up with it because he hadn't left her any real choice. He couldn't come whining to her now about the consequences of his decisions. But she wasn't going to take silence for an answer, either. He sighed and put his arm around her shoulders.

"I'm worried about Josh," he admitted. That was part of it, the least difficult part to talk about, though even this wasn't something he found easy to admit to, or put into words.

"What's wrong?"

"I don't know, exactly," Matt answered slowly. "But there's something, I can tell. He's been acting differently around me for the past couple of weeks: tense, distant. He's angry with me, I suppose."

"Angry? With you? Why would Josh be angry with you?"

"For not listening to him, I guess, about Kaplan and the volcano. And maybe for telling him off the way I did about Toby Ziegler."

"I thought you'd apologized."

"I did. I told him I trust him, that I want him to go on as my C.o.S., I think he's the best man for the job. And he is. I can't think of anyone else who could do this as well as he can. I'd be pretty lost if he quit right now, Helen. I can't afford it; I don't know what I'd do."

There it was, the thought he hadn't been able to push away: what he would do if Josh decided he'd made the wrong choice and couldn't work for Matt anymore. If he quit. Matt had come down pretty heavily on him over that business with Toby Ziegler, but in spite of what he'd said, he'd realized over the past couple of weeks that there simply wasn't anyone else he could trust to guide him through the byways and pitfalls of this impossible job: not now, certainly, not yet. There'd be plenty of candidates for the position, of course, many of them older and more experienced in certain ways than Josh was, but Josh was the only one with seven years in the White House as Leo McGarry's right-hand-man, the only one who'd spent seven years negotiating for the executive branch with the legislative one, the only one who'd put in a decade and a half working the floors of the House and the Senate before that, the only one with the political brilliance to have been catapulted into a job like White House Deputy Chief of Staff at the age of—what? thirty-seven? thirty-eight? A position most men would count themselves lucky to get twenty years later, and would consider their crowning achievement, the capstone of their careers. And now, in his mid-forties, Josh was the President's Chief of Staff, and the only man Matt—whose own meteoric rise still left him feeling stunned and staggering—could picture in that job. Leo had told him Josh was the right man for it, and Matt, for all his doubts and hesitations, had believed him. He still believed him. There was nobody else who could do the job; nobody else Matt wanted to do it. . . .

"Why would he quit?"

"If he's angry enough, or fed up enough, he might. That was quite the public-relations disaster I created there, on top of all the other kinds of disaster that happened that day. And I spoke to him pretty harshly before that."

"Matt, I've never liked Josh much, you know that, but I'll say this for him—he's a professional. He takes his job seriously; you know he does. He's got to be used to dealing with public-relations problems: look at what happened with President Bartlet when the story about his MS came out, and how they turned that around. Josh didn't quit then; I don't know why he'd quit now. I'm sure it's not the first time he's been told off, or hasn't been listened to. If he's angry, he'll get over it. You've apologized; that should be an end of it. Let it go."

"I know," Matt said, "I know. I've been telling myself that all day, all week, ever since—ever since that eruption, really. It's just that there's something wrong. I can tell. He seems—closed-off, I guess, now. Unreachable. He's polite, and professional, and he's doing his job and doing it well. But I need more than that from him, Helen. I'm just realizing how much I need from the person in that office. Leo McGarry was Jed Bartlet's best friend; Bartlet could lean on him in ways I can't with Josh, because he knew him, he trusted him."

"I thought you'd told Josh you trusted him."

"I do. I do trust him. I think."

"You 'think'?"

"I wish I knew him better, Helen. It's one thing to trust somebody because you know his record and the people who recommended him, and another to trust him because you know him. I don't have a friend like Leo McGarry who could do this; I wish I did, but I don't. There isn't anyone else I'd rather have beside me while I do this than Josh. But I don't know who he really is. And I'm not sure he knows who I really am, either."

Helen sighed. She wanted to ask Matt why he hadn't thought about this months ago and done something about it then, before taking office, but she knew that was pointless. Men never saw the importance of personal relations the way women did. That Matt was seeing it at all, now, was something of a miracle, but then Matt was really a highly intelligent man, though his straightforwardness and single-mindedness sometimes seemed to blind him to things that, to her, were quite obvious.

"Then you'll have to get to know him better, Matt, that's all."

"I thought I would. I thought I was. During the transition, after he took that vacation, he seemed like a different man. More relaxed, more open, smiling, talking about things besides the job—about restaurants he wanted to take Donna to, concerts he was getting tickets to go to with Donna, pictures of Donna and the places they went to that week they went off together. Do you know, before that, I'd thought he might be gay?"

"I'd wondered about that, too. I knew he'd dated Amy Gardner, but . . . ."

"You thought she was his beard."

"I thought they were each others' beards. But it turned out it was Donna he wanted all that time."

"I really felt like I was starting to know him, to understand what made him tick."

"And don't you still? He's still with Donna; that hasn't changed."

"No, but he's changed, and I don't know why."

"Have you asked him?"

"I—" Matt sighed. Helen raised an eyebrow. He moved his arm out from behind her shoulders and shifted his position on the couch, trying to get comfortable. He ended up bent over, his head in his hands, running his fingers through his hair.

"Have you asked him, Matt?"

"Yeah," Matt said, and then quickly, "or no." He laughed, then, and shook his head. "I've tried to get it out of him, Helen but—I can't just ask Josh Lyman outright if he's upset with me, it's impossible. I'd sound like some junior-high-school girl who's had a spat with her friend, not the President, the Commander in Chief! But I can feel the tension radiating off him; I know something's wrong. Something's gotten to him, something that's affecting the way he acts around me, and until I know what it is, I won't know where I am with him."

Helen sighed again. "Matt, you are the President. Josh works for you. If his attitude is bothering you, you just have to tell him. It's up to him to change it, to be the way you need him to be."

"It's not that simple, Helen. I need him in that job. I'm only just realizing how much I need him in that job. I can't afford to do something that might make things worse. I need to find a way to deal with this without pushing Josh too far. I can't have him quit on me, Helen; I just can't."

He heard his own voice letting Josh know the circumstances under which Matt wouldn't just accept his resignation but would kick him out the door, and winced. But he'd had to say that; he'd had to. He couldn't have Josh talking about White House business with Toby Ziegler. Toby Ziegler . . . .

"Maybe it has nothing to do with you, Matt. Josh has never been the most open guy in the world, has he? Maybe something's wrong at home, or with his family."

"Does Donna seem worried about anything?"

Helen thought for a minute, her brow creasing.

"I hadn't thought about it before, Matt, but you know, she might be. She's been quieter lately, a bit distant. Not a lot. She was joking and laughing with Annabeth and me just this morning. But later, at the end of the day, she did seem—preoccupied. She's seemed that way quite often recently."

"Can you try to find out what's going on?"

"She might not want to tell me, you know, Matt. She's a private sort of person; I wouldn't want to pry."

"But you'll try?"

Helen sighed. This could be awkward. But still, if Matt was really worried . . . .

"I'll try. And now come over here and let me give you a backrub; you need to relax and forget about all this nonsense for a while."

"Mmmmmm."

"Mmmmmm?"

"Mmmmmm. Ohhhhhh. Mmmmmmmmmmmmm."

"You like that, don't you?"

"You know I do, you vixen. You're trying to get out of giving me that backrub, aren't you?"

"Wouldn't you rather have this instead?"

"Mmmmmmm. Ohhhhhh. Mmmmmmhmmmmm . . . ."

Their White House bed was too strong to break. For an hour, Matt was almost able to forget about Josh Lyman, about volcanoes, about being President of the United States. Afterwards, sweaty and exhausted, he fell asleep with Helen in his arms. But in the middle of the night he woke again. After lying sleepless for a while he slipped out of bed, dressed himself in his bathrobe and boxers, and made his way down the hall to the rooms where Peter and Miranda slept. Peter had kicked the covers off, as usual; Matt pulled them back on again, tousled the boy's hair, kissed his cheek. Miranda was lying huddled around her beloved old stuffed bear, the tattered baby blanket she still slept with wrapped around her neck and clutched in her hand. She slept that way, she'd told them once, in case of fire: if she had to leave her bedroom quickly, she'd still have Blankie and Raggedy Old Pooh safe with her. Matt straightened the covers around her, kissed her, stroked her hair. He stood beside her a long time, watching her chest moving up and down in the light from the open door and the hall.

He could hear the rain starting up outside again, pattering against the windows, running down the glass. Little drops of ash and water. He thought about the clouds of it, moving overhead. And he thought about that Wednesday morning a month ago when he had knelt before the priest in church and prayed, as he always did now, for the wisdom and humility and courage to lead his country well. About the way the priest had dedicated the mass for him, and led the congregation in prayers asking for the guidance and protection of all the saints for their new President as he carried out the awesome responsibilities with which he had been entrusted by God Himself. About the way the music had soared, and the sudden, unexpected sense of possibility and conviction that had surged through him as the priest's thumb moved across his forehead in that crumbling, pasty mix of oil and ash.

oooooo

"Josh," Donna said sleepily, from the door to the living room, "it's after eleven. Come to bed."

Josh looked up from the papers he had spread out over the coffee-table, and blinked. "It's eleven o'clock already?" he asked.

"It's ten after eleven, actually." Donna's voice was patient. She knew she was going to win this one; they had an agreement, and so far he'd been good about it. She was also wearing her blue silk bathrobe, which was open down the front, and nothing else.

"You let me miss ten minutes?" Josh put the papers he was holding down, and stood up. He was moving stiffly; she saw him wince a little. He'd been sitting in the same place, working, since they'd finished dinner.

"I was being generous."

"You were being cruel."

"I was being thoughtful. You seemed so preoccupied; you haven't moved out of that seat for hours. I didn't want to interrupt you if you just needed a little more time."

Josh looked back at the coffeetable and shook his head.

"I need a lot more time," he said, rubbing a hand through his hair. "I need another lifetime to deal with all this. But," and he looked back at her and quirked the corner of his mouth up in a smile, "I need time with you more."

Donna felt her heart melt. Even after four months, she wasn't really used to being like this with Josh yet. To Josh being like this with her. She smiled, tenderly.

"Come on, then. You've missed ten minutes already."

"I'll have to do more to make up for them, then."

"You did quite a lot last night."

"I'll do more tonight. I'll work faster, harder—"

"Faster isn't necessarily better, Josh—or harder."

"I'll make it better. You'll see."

It certainly wasn't worse. There were advantages, Donna sometimes thought, to having an overachieving workaholic as your lover, advantages that didn't exactly outweigh the disadvantages, but unquestionably helped to compensate for them. An hour later she was thoroughly sated, and Josh was asleep in her arms. If she wanted him to, he'd usually make the effort to stay awake and talk to her, but tonight she hadn't even tried for that. He needed the rest, and she needed to see him get it. She knew it wouldn't last long.

It didn't. Twice in the next two hours she woke to feel him turning restlessly beside her; once she heard him muttering something in his sleep. About three in the morning she woke again to find the room quiet—too quiet. She felt beside her: the bed was empty, he was gone. It had been the same last night, and the night before that, and the night before that—the same for the past two weeks, since the eruption. Sometimes she didn't do anything, and tried to go back to sleep. Sometimes she got up and went to talk to him. Tonight she got up. He was in the living room, not working at the stack of papers on the coffee-table but standing in the window, looking out. The streetlight outside was filling the night with a pale grey light that made the houses look, Donna thought, as if they were covered with something soft and dusty, like ash. She crossed the room and put a hand on his back.

"I'm sorry," he said, quietly. "I didn't mean to wake you."

"I know," she said, rubbing his back gently. "It's okay."

He hunched his shoulders a little, and she started to rub them, trying to work the tension she could feel in his muscles out of them.

"It's not your fault, Josh."

"I know."

She wasn't sure whether that was the truth or not, but she knew it was all she was going to get from him. After a while, Josh followed her back to bed. After a while, he fell asleep again. After a while, she did too.

oooooo