Empty Skies Above
Title: Empty Skies Above
Email address: email@example.com
Fandom: The West Wing
Pairings: Jed Bartlet/Leo McGarry
Date: September 2003
Disclaimers: Not mine, borrowed without permission, am not making any money. Please don't sue. Aaron Sorkin is da man!
Summary: Leo does his job.
Notes: This was written immediately after watching the final episode of the 4th season, '25'. Contains heavy spoilers for that episode and several before that. Consider yourselves warned. Lots of angst here. As if that wasn't clear already... Betaed by Wolfsbride.
Empty Skies Above by Viccy
"Thank you, sir."
The door made a small click as it closed after Leo McGarry. A familiar thing in A world of changes. There had always been just that click when he pushed the door shut behind him. Never a bang, or a squeak of hinges. The maintenance crew did an excellent job in here. It wouldn't be suitable for the door to the Oval Office to be anything but in excellent shape.
Leo closed his eyes. It had been a long day, and it wasn't over yet.
It was fully dark outside now, the moon and the stars hiding behind the clouds. All the lights were on in the West Wing. He could hear the buzz coming from outside his office. Could hear people talking in the office next to his. Unfamiliar voices. Walken's deep voice rumbling as he gave orders to his staff.
Leaning against the door, Leo let the words repeat in his mind. It was almost surreal, shearing through his defenses unlike anything that had happened tonight.
He didn't allow himself to dwell on the other thing. Memories of a smile missing a few teeth would assault him if he did. The ponytails he used to help tie up after being taught how when Mallory had been a child. The eyes so full of mischief, like her father's. Zoey Bartlet had always been the baby of the family, confident that everyone loved her. She had been right.
There was nothing he could do about that right now. He had Fitz and Nancy and the whole Secret Service working on that. Thousands of people who knew what they were doing. His job was to see that everything went smoothly in the West Wing right now.
That would have made him laugh if the situation hadn't been so grave. His job was to serve at the pleasure of the president, but that was a phrase that had never been as meaningless as it was right now. Or maybe it was still full of meaning, but his preception was askew.
The words scribbled ON a small napkin, the beginning of everything. Jed Bartlet smiling at him over family dinner. The campaign and then the inauguration. Four years. Four wonderful, terrible years. His whole life turned upside down because of his work, then his life becoming his work. Losing his marriage, losing his privacy in front of flashlights. And if he could go back four years, knowing what would happen, he'd do it all over again.
Not because he felt it was his civic duty. Not because it was his dream come true to spend twenty hours a day in this office or to be known as one of the most powerful men in the world. But because of one man.
It was ridiculous, really. He knew Jed Bartlet. Had known him for decades. He had no misconceptions about his humanity. God knew he'd seen most of his bad days. He certainly didn't put him on a pedestal.
There was a fire inside him. Something that made people stand up and follow him wherever he led. Leo knew he would probably follow Jed Bartlet to hell if he asked. Maybe even if he didn't ask.
That was why everything felt so unreal right now. Here he was, standing with his back against the door leading to the Oval Office, where the president was sitting, and it all felt wrong. He'd known Glen Walken for years. He might be a hardass, but he would get the job done. He wasn't his president, though.
He was not Jed Bartlet.
The thought brought a smile to Leo's lips. It was the first for hours, but it wasn't a happy expression.
Hiding the bitterness deep inside, Leo schooled his expression to the usual no-nonsense one and then straightened himself. He had reports he should go through. Ordinary day to day things that wouldn't go away even though the world was going crazy around him.
Everyone had told him to go home and get some sleep. He knew that eventually he had to take the advice. He wouldn't probably get to go to his small apartment, but he would sleep for an hour or two somewhere. He'd slept on the couch before, even though lately he'd tried to avoid it if just for the sake of peace. Margaret seemed to love nagging at him if he stayed in the office for the night.
Leaving was out of the question right now. He wasn't tired enough to sleep yet, and he couldn't abandon his office. There were things he needed to think of. Things he would need to discuss with Josh.
And the last thing he wanted was to think about any of those things. Scenarios of the aftermath. What would happen when the kidnappers finally released Zoey. What would happen if they never did. He would have to consider what that meant to his best friend in the whole world, and it made him slightly nauseous.
He couldn't afford that right now, though. He never could. His job was to be a rock when all the others had their personal crises around him. Even though he hadn't heard the phrase yet, he could bet people had been telling each other that 'Leo knows what to do'. That was his duty tonight and tomorrow. Every tomorrow. He was the one everyone needed, and he was not going to let anyone down. Ever again.
Opening his eyes again, he stood there just for a second longer. Then he slowly walked to his desk.
There were small piles of folders on his desk, but he didn't pick up any of them. Instead he stared at his reading glasses that lay on top of a document signed classified.
He needed to just sit here for a moment before going to work. Tonight had been stressful, both to his mind and body. The news Ron had told him had made him to hurry to Jed before anyone else could tell him, even though he knew no one would. It was his job. Once again.
It never got any worse than that. To be the one telling his best friend that something bad had happened. That they would be needed in the situation room to decide over the lives and deaths of hundreds, maybe thousands. That someone they both loved dearly had died. That his daughter had been taken by unknown kidnappers.
Staying calm and watching Jed crumble slowly was the most awful thing. Offering comfort when nothing he could say would make any difference. Seeing the pain radiate from his whole body and not being able to help.
Leo took a deep breath and raised his gaze from his glasses. Only to meet tired blue eyes from across the room.
He was too exhausted to even jump, even though his heart did leap in his chest. "Mr President." Just how long had he been standng there? Long enough to see him let go of the control for a moment, that was certain. "I thought you'd gone to bed already."
Ignoring the slight reproach in his friend's voice, Jed shook his head. "I can't sleep now." His voice was tired.
"How is Abbey doing?" The moment was so quiet, so intimate, Leo forced himself to ask the question. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this drained. It was a bad time to not remember.
Jed's lips curved to a slight moue. "She's asleep. They gave her something." He didn't know what it was, but it seemed to work. She'd been unconsious the last he'd seen her, curled into a small ball on their bed. "Amy is sitting with her."
"You should take something as well." Leo knew he was wasting his breath. "Tomorrow won't be easy."
Both were quiet for a moment, contemplating the understatement. It would be hell for both of them. Leo would have to make sure everything worked, when most people would want to either hide or gawk under the rule of the acting president. Jed would have to sit by and watch others work while he couldn't do anything. He'd have to deal with what he was told. Handing over the power meant he couldn't even follow what was happening, not in his office and not in the Situation Room.
"I know," Jed said quietly. "It's never easy, is it? And there are always people around trying to make it easier, but nothing seems to work anymore. I can't think of anything that will." His gaze turned hazy. "And I've been thinking for hours. I thought I could get a shot of that special something and then sleep, but that would... I don't want to do that. Then I thought I could call someone. Father Cavanaugh would take my call even though the last I heard he's been ill, and the Pope..."
Leo had to squeeze his hand into a fist at the broken laughter that followed.
"I have to keep reminding myself that I can't. I cannot just pick up the phone and call anyone I want to just because... I don't have the right to ask for that anymore." There was a bitter undertone in the words, self mockery for such thoughts when everything was already in hell.
"You do have the right, sir. You have the right of a father who is scared right now. No one can blame you for wanting comfort. No one, including you." It had taken Leo years to get to really understand his friend. Sometimes he wondered if Jed even understood himself. Even now, he was trying to keep a hold on everything, even though his whole world was crumbling down. He repeated, "You have the right. If you want to make a call, you can make it from here."
The gentle voice made Jed's mask crack for a moment. He swallowed to regain control. "Thank you. Do you mind if I just sit here for a moment instead?" He gestured at the couch.
"You can stay here for as long as you want to," Leo said solemnly. He would do anything he could for his friend now, even if that meant just sitting here. Comfort didn't always mean talking. He'd never really been good with words in these situations; too honest to be bothered with platitudes that sounded forced anyway.
He doubted Jed was looking for someone to talk to. He probably just wanted to be with someone.
"Thank you." The words were laden with honest gratitude, even though Jed hadn't even imagined Leo telling him he couldn't stay. "Go ahead." He motioned at the files on the desk. "Don't mind me."
He didn't want to be in Leo's way. All he wanted was some peace and quiet, and sadly, he couldn't find that in the residence. Everything there reminded him of the things that had gone so wrong. Absurdly, he felt safe here.
Forcing himself to actually pick up his glasses and put them on, Leo turned his attention from his friend to his files. His gaze skimmed over the words that didn't seem to make any sense. The lines of black ink seemed to dance in front of him as his mind wandered.
This reminded him of the past. An awful parody of nights when he had been too lost to go home, too drunk to even know his own name. He had always known where to go, though. Had known exactly whom to call.
Jed had always been there. With curt words that were never unkind even in their harshness. With a hand to help him out of the gutter. The nights he'd spent sleeping on various couches with his friend watching over him were innumerable, blurring into one clear memory of safety and shame.
He hoped this would bring some comfort to his friend. Some sense of peace.
Recently, there had been so little peace in their world. There had been the turmoil of re-election. The inquiries. Crises both domestic and foreign. Supremicists bombing innocents. Qumar. Cleansings in Kundu. He'd been the rock. Driving the president to make hard decisions that undoubtedly haunted his dreams.
It was what he did. His place in the universe. He couldn't imagine being anywhere else. Couldn't imagine doing anything but this.
A soft sigh made him look up. Seeing Jed leaning his head back on the backrest, his eyes closed, he muttered, "Just lie down, sir. It will be more comfortable." The couch was as familiar to him now as any bed. Not as good a resting place as the old king sized bed in his old town house, but definitely better than most of the beds in hotels he'd stayed in.
"Are you sure I'm not disturbing you?" Jed's voice was so tired. Pleading somehow. As if all he wanted to ask was not to be sent away, but his pride couldn't let him say it out loud.
Leo had to swallow before saying, "You never disturb me, Mr. President. You know that." It came out more solemnly than he'd intended, but it was the simple truth. The terrifying truth.
"Leo... I'm not." Instead of lying down, Jed sat there, looking at his friend. His expression wasn't easy to decipher, his blue eyes full of pain and longing. It was worlds apart from his usual confidence. He glanced at the doorway, as if he could see through the solid wood into the Oval Office and the man now working there. "He is."
The distance Leo kept between them had never felt so short, so fragile. The weariness in his friend's voice made him want to go to him. Offer some kind of consolation. Make some gesture that would not be mistaken for anything it wasn't. Maybe a hand on Jed's shoulder. Meaningless words that would only shatter the peace between them.
He didn't move, his hands squeezing the folder tight. There had been moments like this, when all the reasons for his silence had felt ridiculous, when the madness inside of him had told him to simply reach out and take what he had wanted for decades. It was so tempting, like the siren call of good bourbon, promising him oblivion and ecstasy, for just a moment.
That moment would destroy them both. It would be heaven, but as false as the heaven found in a bottle. A relief that would cost them decades of friendship. For something that was essentially trivial.
"No, sir. You are. Even if he's the one sitting behind the desk and giving the orders, you still are the president." Leo smiled an unhappy smile. There were so many things that his friend was. A husband, a father. The most powerful man in the world and yet only a man. His best friend. Whatever else there could have been had melted away from reality into the land of unfulfilled dreams ages ago.
Jed nodded. "Yeah." He sounded reluctant to agree, but had no choice. "I guess you're right." He didn't say anything about the conflict of interests, the way he was placing Leo between a rock and a hard place. If he lost his sanity the next few days and tried to take back his position as the leader of the country, Leo would do what was best for them all. Even if that meant ordering him out of the White House.
That would be the Chief of Staff sending him away. Not Leo trying to be a friend.
"I'm always right." Hiding a multitude of emotions behind the weak joke, Leo returned his attention to the report, knowing they were too close to all the things they never talked about. He would do what was right, even if it broke his heart. It wouldn't be the first time.
There was a silence, then a soft rustling sound as Jed took off his shoes and lay down on the couch.
Leo forced himself to concentrate on the report, knowing he would have to be able to brief Walken the next morning. The world didn't stop turning even when his universe seemed to go off kilter.
The next days would be difficult. Not everyone would be able to adjust to the change of power. There would be complaints. People would be confused, even scared. God knew how this would affect the markets. There would probably be total panic.
He had confidence in his people. There was a lot of mischief going on in the West Wing, games and even petty jealousies that manifested in various practical jokes. They knew when to stop fooling around, though. Everyone stood behind the president, a united front. The old slogan of serious times needing serious people would never be more true than right now.
It would be important to make sure everything went on as normal. People would have to adjust to the new situation. In the end, it would be his job to see to it that things went smoothly. He had been in politics for too long to let a thing like this to affect his work.
But there would be no fire in it. No joy in performing his duty.
Leo lifted his gaze from the report, looking at his friend who was now lying on the couch, breathing evenly. He hoped Jed could indeed get some sleep here. Any rest would be good. The stress and insomnia could be the cause of another attack. That would be devastating right now, the images of him lying in a hospital bed would undoubtedly spread across the world in hours.
That would ruin his presidency. It would be a sign to every other terrosist group that such horrendous crimes would indeed be worth executing. He could not allow that to happen.
Intertwined with the political ramifications was the ever present worry for his friend.
It made him push back a little and then get up and walk to the cabinet. Margaret stored a blanket here, so that he could sleep comfortably on the couch when he was too tired to go home. It would come in handy right now.
He moved around as quietly as possibly. Nothing would probably wake Jed up, but he wasn't taking any risks. It was quiet in the room, the twin door separating his office from the Oval Office muffling any possible sounds coming from Walken and his people.
No. Not really. Never his president. Their country would still be the greatest nation even with that man leading them. Leo would have no part of that, not in the long run. He would rather retire, even if he wasn't replaced by someone more suitable for the next guy. Serving the president was astonishingly personal. He doubted he could ever find such respect and dedication towards another man.
However he tried to think about it professionally, it always came to that. Respect. Dedication. Admiration.
Smiling slightly at his sleeping friend, Leo leaned down to put the blanket over him. He was glad Jed was finally getting some rest. This day had been full of sadness and no one knew about tomorrow.
The only thing he did know was that he'd stand by his friend no matter what happened.
After covering Jed with the blanket, he stood there, staring at him. His hand still rested on the blanket, but he made no movement to take it away yet. During the first campaign, he used to do this all the time. They'd stay in some hotel for the night, all of them, and Jed would fall asleep on a couch. Abbey had smiled at him and left him there to sleep, saying he'd just be too grouchy if they woke him up.
It had never seemed to bother Jed that there was a small lamp on and that people would still work in the room. Most people hadn't felt comfortable enough to stay there, but Leo had loved those moments, when he'd shared something with Jed.
He let out a soft sigh. Those had been foolish thoughts, almost surpassing those he'd had when he'd watched the world from the bottom of a glass.
Still some of them lingered. Showing themselves in small moments, when he allowed himself to relax a little, or when the day had been hard and they both needed to be honest with themselves. Appearing in the smiles or the touches, or in comfortable silences. They never lasted more than seconds, and neither acknowledged them except with knowing glances.
There had been a time, when he had wondered if there could be more, but that time had passed long ago.
His world didn't have a place for that. Neither did Jed's. He was the Chief of Staff, and people looked up to him, expected him to do his work no matter what. Jed needed him to be the constant figure in his life. His friend, his confidant. That would not work if he was something closer. He doubted he would have the strength to do what was required of him if he indulged that need.
Most of the time, Jed needed him to be there, to listen. But there were occasions when he had to guide, to steer his friend to the right direction. He also needed to be there when they made hard decisions. The one about Shareef had been the toughest one yet and he knew it had almost crushed Jed.
That decision would have been impossible if he'd had to consider hurting the feelings of a loved one as well as a friend. It was a fine line, but he needed to hold that. Even if on some level it was purely an illusion.
It made him wonder if that was why he'd been so furious about the whole thing with John. They were both alcoholics, but he'd thought John would be stronger than this. He'd ruined his career and shamed his whole family because of his affair.
Leo was not going to make the same mistake, or allow Jed to do so.
He looked at his hand that still rested on Jed's shoulder and wondered if he was really deluding himself. He doubted any physical act would ever deepen their relationship. It would simply add to it. He had never in his life loved anyone like he loved Jed Bartlet and he did know his friend loved him.
That was enough. Maybe it was all they would ever have, this knowledge of a bond between them. Maybe things would change one day, but not as long as he was working in this office. Not as long as his friend was a man of principles and faith. Not as long as they both could admire and trust each other.
Never was a word Leo didn't want to use very often. But he had to admit that it fit his thoughts here perfectly.
Not really knowing what was encouraging him, Leo leaned down again and placed his lips on Jed's forehead. The touch was a soft one, not even a proper kiss. Then it was gone. "Good night," he whispered, knowing his friend wouldn't hear that, but needing to say it anyway.
He turned back to his desk, not seeing the clear blue eyes open nor hearing the soft reply. His mind was already back at the reports.
"Good night, Leo."
And yes, I did use a quote from 'The American President'. All hail Sorkin!
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