Author's Note: Switching viewpoints throughout. ~Cara
Where the hell is the question list?
I know he told me that there would be a question list.
I've been a political operative since elementary school practically and I can't find a damn list of questions for a debate?
This is not happening.
We're at some godforsaken hole in the middle of Michigan State University. There's barely enough seating for the smallish crowd that's bothered to show up, and I can't find the prepared list of questions or anything.
Reminds me of Rosslyn.
"C.J.!" I call, halfway across the cluttered area we've been assigned. "Where the hell is the list of questions?"
Secretly, though I'd never admit it, I envy her calm. We're running around insanely and she's sitting there looking as relaxed as ever. Probably she isn't inside, but outwardly she's coolness itself. "Toby, I told you before. There isn't a list of prepared stuff this time."
I'm certain my eyes bug wide. "No prepared anything?" I say in a measured tone.
I stand stock still, trying to find out what to do next. Finally, uncharacteristically, I decide. There's not a lot we can do. There isn't a lot we've been able to do through this whole damn campaign. Why should tonight be any different?
Well, tonight will be different.
Tonight we're going to win.
I'm certain Toby thought I was cool, but inside I'm shaking. Oh, dammit. Now my hands have started to shake as well. I am just not handling this well.
I just keep remembering what happened last time we did an auditorium-type setting.
Shit, there's even a rope line outside.
Enough, I tell myself, Miss Rational taking over. That was in the past. They're gone now.
I walk to the press area, making my last few rounds before the debate begins. Senator Cooper's minions are careful not to mix with the "Democratic" press. Most of all, they keep their distance from Danny Concannon. Our Democratic bulldog.
I'd never admit this to his face, but thank God for him. Time after time, when we didn't think we had a single friend in the press, he'd always defend us. There's been too many times to count so I'll just thank God for him again, and shoot him a quick smile as he tries to keep his notes away from the hands of a house-cleaning Republican.
Suddenly I'm startled by a voice from behind me. "He's done good work, hasn't he, C.J.?"
I smile at Leo. "Yeah." My tone is a bit soft, but it sounds normal, at least to my ears. "He's done good."
He's sort of trying to gage my reaction. "So... you nervous?"
"About the debate?" I breathe deeply. "Not really." The look on Leo's face brands me a liar, though, and I'm forced to tell him. "I... it's just that I remember what happened last time we did an auditorium-type thing."
Leo nods grimly. "I understand." Father confessor is really not a role he does well, but every so often I think he surprises himself. "Just... don't think about it." It's a weak argument, but he's entitled to win with the weakest. The man is a survivor.
"Yeah." I smile. "Hey, I gotta go brief the press one last time before the debate starts."
"See you later."
I watch her as she walks away. I'm so proud of her for getting through all this. Hell, I'm proud of them all.
We didn't get to where we are by rolling over and playing dead. We got back here and I say back for reasons that I hope will be readily apparent by good, simple, honest legwork. We ignored that Republican bastard's mudslinging ads. So, apparently, did the American people. It was at that point that we started to pull even. It is now a dead fifty-fifty tie. And we are at Super Tuesday next week.
Jed will be all right. I only wish Abbey were here to see this.
He hasn't even talked to me about the whole thing, but I know damn well what it's about. Abbey's off somewhere nursing her pride and she'll be back soon. I know she wasn't happy about his deciding to run again, but she needs to get over it. Jed knows his own body best, and besides: he can do great things if he puts his mind to it.
For example. I don't think I've ever been as surprised as I was at that press conference. I knew he was going to run, but when he stuck his hands in his pockets and smiled I knew that it would all be all right. It takes a gifted speaker to continually blow your audience out of the water with what they already know.
I'm interrupted down this path by Sam. "Leo, do you know where the President is?"
"Donna gave me the mail, and there's a letter for him. A personal letter."
"Really?" My brow furrows; of all the times to send a personal letter, who knew he'd be here at the Breslin Center?
Sam nods solemnly and immediately answers my question. "I think it's from the First Lady."
"Oh." That word somehow explains everything, and I rack my brain to think where he might be. "Find Josh, and you'll find the President."
"Okay." Sam turns back to me as he leaves. "Leo, one more thing: Mallory's here."
"Mallory?" My face splits into a grin. I'll be spending the rest of my life repaying the wrongs I did her and her mother, but at least with Mal it's starting to become a very pleasant thing.
Leaving Sam behind, I go look for my daughter.
Clutching the letter I look around for my best friend. This has got to be hard on him. I mean, C.J. told me how much this reminded her of Rosslyn. If I were Josh I'd be a nervous wreck.
But he's much stronger than I am. The fact that he's here at all testifies to that.
We've all been through a hell of a lot on this campaign. We've been booed, humiliated, spat at, and all manner of downers. There have been days I've gone to bed not caring if I woke up and went to work the next day.
But now I've got reason to care again. We're back up there. The last poll I saw put us at a dead fifty-fifty split with Senator Cooper. Ironically, they say that the mudslinging and cheap stuff the Majority Leader tried actually gave us points.
America's tired of a character debate. Look at Shepherd. He was a good man hurt by a vicious opponent. And he won the White House again. Hell, maybe that approach will work for us.
I turn the corner and run headlong into Josh. "Ow."
Josh rubs a spot on his forehead. "Can I help you, Sam?"
I hand him the letter. "It's for the President."
Josh takes it, looking at the careful script. "It's from the First Lady."
"Yeah." I let the words reverberate in the air. We knew something was up; we just didn't know what. "He ready?" I ask, in an effort to change the subject.
"Yeah." Josh is rather distracted, though.
I lead the discussion. "Will you go find him?"
"Sure." Josh takes the letter. "Hey, Sam?"
I stare right back at him. "I'll be a whole lot better when Bartlet mops the floor with this guy."
Josh allows a flickering, anti-Rosslyn smile to pass his face. "Me too."
I walk away no longer worried. If is Josh is okay, we'll be all right too.
Here we are. The last televised debate before Super Tuesday, and I'm scared.
Yeah, you heard right. I, Josh Lyman, am frightened.
But ah, you see, I have every right to be nervous. This is possibly the most important debate of my political career and I'm worried, frankly, that the candidate will blow it.
It's not that I don't have faith in the President. He's spoken so many times. He's tried so hard for everything. But there's... something missing. I can't quite put my finger on it. He's not the man he used to be.
Maybe I'm just talking nuts. Who knows?
He's here right now. "Sir, you have a personal letter." I hand it to him.
"Thank you, Josh." Bartlet opens the letter and immediately his features are ripped into fear.
"Mr President?" I say. "Is everything all right?"
He turns to me, and for the first time I see the worry writ large upon his face. Slowly the President extends a hand to me, in which I see a folded sheet of paper. "It's a letter from Abbey."
Finally, we hear from the First Lady. No one except the President and C.J. have known fully where she is, and C.J. isn't telling. She's made a few appearances she's had to but then she's just left again. Frankly I'm surprised that as few people have wind of it as they do. The speculation has run wild, but I've got a hunch that it's just old-fashioned marital discord. I know she was less than enthused with his decision to run again.
But why does he look so frightened?
"Is everything all right, Mr. President?"
He's calmed down. "Everything's fine," he says in an odd tone of voice. Proffering the paper, he says, "Read that, Josh; I'd like you to."
"Okay." I take the note and read the words that burn themselves into me.
* * * *
I enjoyed your speech in South Carolina. It sounds to me like you're finally getting the maturity your office commands.
I will be at the Breslin Center to watch and pose should the cameras find that necessary. Then we'll talk.
* * * *
I'm stunned by what I read. More than any speech, more than anything we've done.
There is hope.
I nod to the President and say one thing. "Good luck, sir."
And he'll win.
I know it.