There was a loaded moment before the former President answered. "Be right down!"
C.J. relaxed, but only a bit. "He sounds fine."
"Yes." Abbey smiled gamely. "He has his good and bad days. This, apparently, is a good one."
After a while, a series of slow thumps were heard on the stairs, and Josiah "Jed" Bartlet walked into the room on a silver-topped cane. "C.J.! Sam!" he said in a hearty voice. "It's great to see you!"
"Likewise." Sam shook his hand and C.J. gave Bartlet a resounding hug. But each had to swallow exclamations of dismay.
How thin he looked! While his voice was steady, his frame had wizened, and his hands trembled just a bit. To the outsider this gave Bartlet an elfin appearance. But to those who knew him well it was frightening how he had aged in just two years.
Sam recovered first. "So, how are you, sir?"
Bartlet waved a careless hand. "Aw, hell, Sam, I'm not the President anymore. Call me Jed." His tone turned mocking. "Pretty nice for associate law professors to call Presidents by their first names." He paused. "I heard about the case. Congratulations."
"Thank you." Sam had served as associate counsel for one of his old friends as they argued a case before the Supreme Court.
"And Claudia Jean." Bartlet's tone was something special. "How are you?"
"Just fine." C.J. smiled, pointing to her daughter. "You remember Alyssa, I presume?"
"How could I forget?" Bartlet, with surprising quickness, tickled the little girl. "How is my Alyssa?"
She squealed. "Good!"
"That's fine!" Bartlet turned toward his wife. "Well, what are you waiting for, woman?" he asked, smiling.
"Nothing." Abbey responded. "Go ahead and call them."
"Fine." Bartlet cleared his throat, then finally bellowed, "Let's eat!"
Dinner was good. Abbey had done a gigantic pot roast, and everyone ate while catching up on each other. They learned, for example, that Ainsley Hayes was now clerking for Justice Andrea Davies, who was much to their surprise a moderate. Ellie Bartlet had finished medical school and set up a practice in Boston. And Joey Lucas had married, to another deaf person. She was still a pollster, attached to the House of Representatives.
After dinner, Mallory stood and excused herself. "I have to be leaving now. My plane leaves at eight a.m. and I need sleep." Hugs were exchanged all around, with Mallory promising C.J. information about her latest boyfriend.
The McGarrys followed suit soon after. Surprisingly it was Eleanor who cited work-related problems, instead of Leo. "That's not supposed to happen!" cracked Jed, to incipient laughter.
After Mallory, Leo and Eleanor left, the Lymans, Bartlets and Seaborns settled down in the living room. Bartlet embroiled C.J., Josh and Abbey into a drawn-out dispute over the latest Senate health care bill. The kids played on the floor, while Donna and Sam watched fondly.
Sam rubbed Donna's back in a series of small circles. "How are you?"
"I'm fine." Donna caught his hand, cradling it. "I think for the first time, I'm really, honestly happy." She turned a tender smile on her kids and Alyssa.
"I'm glad." Sam grinned. "I'm happy too. Really."
There was a hanging note in his voice and Donna picked it up. "But?..." she prompted.
"But..." Sam broke off, impish smile on his face. "Honestly? I miss the White House."
"Really." Donna laughed just a bit. "It's funny you should say that, because I know for a fact that Josh is bored."
"Oh, he's happy." Donna was quick to clarify. "He loves me, he loves the kids and he likes his job." Josh had decided to try his hand at fiction writing, and his first book had sold very well. "But there's just something that tells me he's bored."
Sam was about to say more, but Jed interrupted. "So, everyone, tell me. Out of curiosity. What do you all think you'll be doing in a year?"
Josh was first to respond. "I'll probably be writing again. My publisher is hounding me day and night."
"I'll keep up my business and watch the kids." Donna answered. "I hope you'll try some of my things, sir." Donna had started a small baked goods company which turned a modest profit.
"I'd enjoy that, Donna." Bartlet laughed and was suddenly racked with coughing. Abbey handed her husband a glass of water, but C.J. saw how stricken she looked.
Finally, it passed. "Sam," Bartlet said, keeping his voice quieter, "what about you?"
Sam paused idly as Alyssa climbed onto his lap. "Well, I'll probably try to get tenure at Georgetown. Some of my articles were very well received."
Bartlet smiled. "What about you, Claudia Jean?"
C.J. lifted her eyes from the carpet. "Honestly, I have no idea."
"No idea?" Abbey echoed.
"None." C.J. shrugged. "Don't like my job that much." C.J. worked at Lennox Chase, Mandy Hampton's old firm. "I've got a two-year old to raise. I'll probably just stay home."
Sam kept his face a blank slate as C.J. spoke. Why, oh why, did she keep doing this? She was miserable; anyone with half a brain could see it. But why didn't she do anything? There were openings if one knew where to look. Waiting for the right time? Sam simply didn't know.
Bartlet's gaze was fixed on something across the room. He said thickly, "Not our Claudia Jean."
Abbey never took her eyes off her husband as she tried to change the subject. "I hate to ask this, but who do you think will run against President Stewart in this election?" Joseph Stewart was Bartlet's Republican successor. Among his own party mates, Stewart was called a reformer. Among Democrats, he was called a Nazi.
Loud groans were heard from Josh, Sam and C.J. "Probably, though I don't want to think about it," Josh responded, "it'll be Hoynes."
"Hoynes will run?" Abbey asked. "Really?"
C.J. nodded. "Losing in '02 doesn't matter. A grand jury doesn't matter." Her voice became very bitter. "It wasn't his scandal."
Silence fell as the room contemplated what would be worse: a Hoynes presidency or another Stewart presidency.
Finally, noise came from little Becky Lyman. "Mama. Tired."
Donna laughed. "Okay." She picked up Becky and said, "Come on, Josh, we'd better go. These two are going to drop."
"Okay." Josh picked up Jake and turned to Abbey. "It's been great," he said. "We've got to do this again soon."
"Come anytime," Abbey said with a flash of desperation. "We'll be here."
Everyone said their collective goodbyes. Donna kissed Sam. C.J. and Josh promised to better stay in touch. The children were kissed and cooed over. Finally, the Lymans took their leave.