"Hey, sweetheart." Abbey smiled as her daughter came over to join her. "Shouldn't you be with Charlie?"
Zoey rolled her eyes exaggeratedly. "We got engaged, mom, not superglued together. Besides, it's not like we're used to spending every last second of the day together."
"All the more reason to make the most of it while you can," Abbey advised. Trite, motherly advice, but true all the same. She hadn't really realised quite how ever-present her husband had been until his job had stopped him being so.
Zoey sat down beside her and gave her a worried look. "Mom, is something wrong?" she asked tentatively. "You seem a little... I don't know."
"Mother's prerogative, honey." She gave her daughter a quick squeeze. "You all grow up so fast - sometimes it doesn't seem real."
"Mom." Zoey gave a long-suffering sigh, but then grew more serious. "It is happening fast," she admitted. "Everything's changing. It's a little bit scary." She hesitated, her eyes seeking out Charlie across the room and a grin crossing her face as she found him. "It's good... but it's still a little scary."
"I know," Abbey agreed, wishing that all changes they were facing could be as good and clean as a long-overdue engagement. "But we're family. Whatever's coming up, we're all in this together."
"Yeah." Zoey beamed. "And now Charlie's part of the family too."
She hopped down from her seat and scurried across to join him. Abbey watched fondly as Charlie absently slipped his arm around her and she pillowed her head against his shoulder.
Deciding she'd stood alone for long enough, she went searching for Jed.
"Hey." Donna gave Josh a quick smile.
"Hi. Did you meet Steve?"
Josh took a sip of his drink. "He seems nice," he said thoughtfully.
"He does." She eyed him cautiously. "But I'm surprised you're not bouncing off the walls worrying about media attention."
"Yeah." Josh gave her a half-smile. "But no. It's... it's good. We should all have more than politics."
"Really? Wow." Donna blinked. Josh smiled.
"Yeah, I know. Shock, horror, check my coffee for hallucinatory drugs."
"Check your coffee for caffeine," Donna corrected, "I think somebody's switched you to decaf while you weren't looking."
"I'm... reassessing my priorities," he said thoughtfully.
"Didn't know you had any."
"Neither did I. I'm just full of surprises."
"You really are," she said sincerely. "Josh." She called him back as he turned away.
"The new you?" She smiled. "He seems pretty nice, too."
Josh flashed her a quick, dimpled grin of acknowledgement.
CJ gave Toby a smile, and tilted her wine glass in his direction. "I hear congratulations are in order."
"Baby steps." Toby refused to be openly cheered by being given the green light, but CJ could see the fire of determination smouldering underneath. Keeping to safe ground had never been the Ziegler MO. Sex-Ed was a subject that had to be approached with kid gloves and careful steps if you didn't want to offend anybody; Toby was about to stomp out there and kick up a storm that no amount of public relations and feather-smoothing would gloss over.
She was rather looking forward to it.
CJ looked across the room, and saw Sam smiling over something with his... well, boyfriend. Whoa, mental adjustment. The two young men stood un-selfconsciously close together, Steve casually snagging the speechwriter's sleeve as he made some point or other.
She nudged Toby. "Look at them. Aren't they cute?"
Toby refused to be drawn into commenting on their cuteness. But she was sure he was with her in spirit.
"I wonder if it'll last?" she reflected sombrely. The press secretary in her was half-hoping that it would fizzle out and be gone before it could ever hit the nation's consciousness, but the friend in her was stronger.
Toby shrugged. "Maybe. He's Sam. He's the least screwed up out of any of us."
CJ let that pass, partly because a few glasses of red wine went a long way towards making her mellow, but mostly because she suspected he had a point.
A few glasses of red wine also made her go embarrassingly fuzzy and emotional. "They're gonna have a tough time of it when it hits the papers," she said sadly.
"When that fight comes, we'll fight it," said Toby, eyes still on the two men. CJ gave him a knowing smile.
"You just adore that boy, don't you?"
He gave her an inscrutable look. "I think you should probably stop drinking that wine now."
"You do! Admit it."
"I admit nothing," he said calmly over his shoulder, as he walked away.
"I'll tell him!" she threatened.
"I'll categorically deny it!" he called back.
But she still saw the tiny hint of a smile that flickered behind his beard before he turned away.
Not basking in the same alcohol and/or engagement induced glow that the rest of the party was sharing, it didn't take Leo long to notice that the president had disappeared. Instinct guided him outside to where his old friend sat quietly smoking.
"You left the party," he noted, taking a seat beside him.
"They won't let me smoke inside."
Leo knew full-well that it was reasons for sneaking out that made Jed take a smoke, not the other way round, but he didn't call him on it. "Zoey looks happy," he observed.
"Yeah. That won't last." Jed tapped ash from the end of his cigarette, and Leo questioned him with a look. "Tomorrow morning, Charlie takes up his new posting in Reykjavik."
Leo just smiled.
"Did you meet Steve?" he asked after a moment.
"I did." He took a reflective puff of his cigarette. "Nice kid. Little jumpy."
"Can't imagine why," said Leo dryly.
The president looked at him, and his eyes were troubled. "You realise that sooner or later, this is going to come out?"
"You can take that to the bank."
"And I could possibly have phrased that in a different way."
"Yeah." Leo cracked a grin. "It's just as well you don't have the kind of job where a lot of people listen to you."
The president didn't smile back, just studied the lit end of his cigarette. "When it does... See if we can get the Secret Service to do their thing with his mail, okay? I don't want him to have to see that stuff."
"Sure." Leo hesitated. "You know, I'm not entirely sure that's technically legal."
"Withholding his mail?"
"We're not withholding it. He comes up to me and says 'please Mr. President, can I have my hate mail back?', he can have it."
They both fell into silence, watching weak puffs of smoke coil up to disappear into the night air. Jed continued to look at the ground.
After a time, he spoke. "I called Abbey home to tell her I want to see a doctor. I think my MS may be progressing."
Later, there would be time for thoughts of presidents and the intricacies of government, of procedures and publicity. But in this moment, there was time for only one thought, as simple as it was heartfelt.
"Oh, Jed." Leo McGarry, not the most casually demonstrative of men, moved forward without a second's thought to capture his long-time friend in a fierce embrace. "Oh, Jed, I'm so sorry."
The president gave him a bittersweet smile and stood up, grinding the cigarette beneath his heel. "What's coming is coming, Leo. I've got my family, I've got my friends. We'll face it."
Side by side, the two old friends walked back into the White House to rejoin the celebrations.