Ms. Walter Goes to Washington. Part 3

 

 

7/2/01 07:00 Main Entrance, White House.

Leila ascended the stairs at an enforced lady like pace. An old ankle injury was giving her hell, it always did when it was cold and it had been unremittingly so for the month since she had moved here. It was so bad this morning that Leila went the comfort route and was wearing Doc Marten boots with an elegant black suit and lent on a walking cane. She was taking a breather on the landing when an unusually blonde, leggy staffer joined her on the landing on her way down to her office.

"Hi." Leila greeted her, not expecting her to stop.

"Hi, so you must be the Aussie nurse. I'm Ainsley Hayes, Associate White House Counsel."

"So you're the Republican lawyer." Leila rejoined lightly, suddenly distracted.

Ainsley followed her gaze, immediately forgiving Leila's inattention.

"Now there's a model of a modern major general." Leila commented appreciatively. A fine looking marine in dress uniform came down the stairs.

"Oh yeah." Ainsley southern drawl particularly expressive. Doing one's duty did have its upside. It was Ainsley's turn to be distracted by his retreating figure. Sam was cute, but this guy... wow! Leila seemed nice for a combat boot wearing unionist, Ainsley decided, and they had that fish out of water thing in common.

Leila's pager, set to vibrate, went off. She read the display. "I'm coming already." She muttered. Aloud she said; "Oh well, nice meeting you Ainsley, see you around."

"No doubt I will." Ainsley continued on her way down the stairs.

Sam caught her just outside her office. "We need to talk." It sounded urgent.

"Sure, what's wrong?" Leila replied, concerned. Sam had girl trouble, or more specifically Donna trouble?

"It's Donna."

"Ah hah." Leila replied. Sam was way too easy to read. "Well spill, already."

"She gave me an ultimatum last night. I have to tell Josh or she'll break it off." Sam sounded forlorn. He had it bad, Leila determined.

"So tell him." It wasn't that Leila couldn't see the difficulties associated with such a confession but she played dumb. He had to work it out for himself, and besides, this could get way too messy to get involved with. Being a sounding board was a role she was used to, but being the bringer of tidings, bad or otherwise... well, messengers had a nasty habit of getting hurt.

"I don't know how." Sam was dangerously close to whining and knew it.

"It seems to me, Sam, that it's only hard if you give credence to the idea that Josh has a thing for Donna and will be understandably upset that he missed out. Or perhaps, it makes you feel insecure that Josh's thing for Donna may, in some way, be reciprocated and that you are just a stand-in cos she can't have the real thing and she knows it."

Sam looked affronted and protested, perhaps a little too much, which confirmed just how close to the bone Leila had cut.

"There is of course option C." Leila said. Sam looked awful and she hated the fact that she was the one to put his predicament into words. So much for letting him work it out for himself, she thought, but, he had the State of the Union to polish and well, she was damn busy herself. The psychotherapy would have to wait till they got out of office.

"Well options A and B kinda suck, so let's hear C." Sam fully acknowledged he was desperate man.

Leila raised her left eyebrow at him, pushed back her chair and rested her foot on a small stool.

"Seeing as nobody else knows you've been seeing Donna- and I'm in awe of that feat- for, what is it? Seven, eight months? It occurs to me that, perhaps, there's a reason why it's been kept a secret, other than, of course, not pissing Josh off.

"Yeah?" Sam was seeing the Promised Land swim before his baby blues.

Leila smiled beneficently at Sam. "Perhaps the spectre of the rather draconian inter office dating policy has kept you from announcing your happiness from the proverbial roof-tops.?"

"But Josh is my best friend..." Sam began, he could hardly believe this could be a water tight way out.

"And in option C, Josh also feels all brotherly towards Donna and so you could well have expected him to act in a protective manner of said sister, to ensure that she doesn't become tabloid fodder. Or, possibly, because he's a sadistic bastard and enjoys making his sister's life a living hell, and I might be projecting there, but either way, you have had more than sufficient motive for keeping your relationship under wraps from Josh. But now you want to come clean, because you and Josh are good friends. And one keeps as few secrets from one's friends as one is able, and though it might mean the end of Donna and you, should this get out, you respect your friendship too much to maintain the deceit."

"You have a devious mind."

"So I've been told. Problem solved?"

"Yep. Thanks. I'd better go write the speech now."

"Good. See ya."

Sam got up from the two seater lounge and left her office. It was good to see Sam had a little more spring in his step. If only all problems were so easy to solve.

Leila had been about to go and find Em when he arrived at her door.

"That's a very dapper suit. You have a lunch date?"

"Yeah. Can I help it if gorgeous men fall over themselves to wine and dine me?"

"Do you come with a Hazardous Ego warning label?"

"No, just Madame's schedule."

"And?...I was hoping for a white coffee with one."

"In your dreams, sweetheart."

"You've been taking lessons from Donna haven't you?"

Leila had been expecting a female, as one does when the file from personnel is marked Emily. So when Emlyn arrived, all 6'4'', Irish complexion, black hair and blue eyes of him, to say she was a little taken aback was a mild understatement. She had, however, regrouped and they had hit it off immediately.

It did make her wonder, though, on her less politically correct days, whether she had 'Fag Hag' tattooed across her forehead, in a dye that was only visible by impossibly beautiful gay men. Her mother would be pleased if she found a nice- though, really, that wasn't necessary, the important attribute was straight- man. Mum loved John and Kris, Davy's fathers, like the son's in law, they, in effect, were, but she, occasionally got that slightly rabid 'is-more-than-one-grandchild-too-much-to-ask-for?' look.

"...then you've got Josh at 12:30 and I've got a hot date. Senior Staff at 2:30, Gilette at 3:30, Stackhouse at 4:30 and then well, you do whatever it is you do in here until 7:30 when we've got the State of the Union."

"Its called work, Em. Do you have background notes there for Stackhouse?"

"Yep, and what a fun filled afternoon on the hill you have in store."

"Oh joy. So, I'm going to get a cuppa. You want one?"

"That supposed to make me feel bad?"

"No, I offered in the spirit of do unto others, etc, etc."

"OK, thanks."

"Note the 'do unto others' part."

"Noted." Em, smiled, knowing he'd been outfoxed.

Caffeine rations duly distributed, Leila sat down and undertook some last minute cramming for the nurses registration exam. Nobody, bar Emlyn, knew that she was sitting the paper. It was highly unlikely that she would have the chance to practice in D.C. but that wasn't the point. The reasons, not wholly logical, admittedly, had to do with feeling secure and when so much of who she was, was rooted in nursing and health care, well, it seemed to be the right thing to do. Perhaps, also, it would give her credibility- it was unspoken and not unexpected, but the fact that she wasn't wholly one of 'them'- had been making it harder. So if she was grasping at straws, so to speak, grasp she would.

 

12:30 hrs. The Roosevelt Room.

"Josh ready for me, Em?" Leila asked as she walked past her desk, depositing her satchel, coat, hat and gloves in her office.

"Yeah, Donna rang just before you came up. How did the NCLEX go?"

"God knows and he ain't telling. I answered 80 questions before it told me I was finished. It was the weirdest exam I've ever sat. Break the news gently when that envelope arrives."

"When do you get the results?"

"Not for another month, when I do, we're going out drinking- either in jubilation or to drown my sorrows."

"I'll note it in your schedule, shall I send out invites?" Em asked jokingly.

"A 'help Leila mourn her ineptitude party'? Great, do that." Leila responded with a mock groan. "You got my notes?" Leila snapped back into business mode.

Em handed her a folder. "Yep, it's all in there."

"Thanks." Leila said as she went down the hall to the meeting room.

Ainsley sat at the large table, her hands crossed demurely over a legal pad and various documents.

"You here for the Healthcare Bill?" Leila asked, a little taken aback at Ainsley's presence.

"Yeah." Ainsley confirmed.

"Oh. Right then." Leila sat down and lent the cane against the table. Leila and Ainsley chatted amiably for about five minutes until Josh arrived.

"So you two have met?" He asked no one in particular.

"Ya, this morning, as it happens. I was climbing Everest a.k.a. the front stairs. You should really talk to O.S.H.A." Leila said pointedly.

"Donna put you up to this?" Josh said suspiciously.

"Huh?" Leila looked blank.

"So Ainsley's our legal counsel on this." Josh announced, not wholly convinced, but he had the sinking feeling that he was looking like a bit of dick and quickly changed the subject .

"So we ascertained while we waited for you." Leila answered. "Shall we get started?

Why don't you stick the knife in a little a deeper while you're there, Josh thought to himself, but it did bode well for the meeting. Josh was expecting sparks to fly.

"So I think the bill is comprehensive, to be sure, but I don't think it's all that practical. I mean it's all very well to want universal medical coverage, but it's not fair to burden Middle America with yet another tax." Ainsley began. She knew what she had to say wasn't going play well, but heck, she was pretty sure she wasn't there to be a yes man. They could get Sam if they wanted that.

Leila had braced herself for comments like that, Ainsley was a nice person, to be sure, but it was a classic case of same shit, different smell. Conservatives were the same the world over. A paranoid thought crossed her mind. Did Josh choose Ainsley with this in mind? Which, actually, wasn't so dumb, but anyone could do opposition preps, so did it really have to be an actual real life republican?

"OK, putting the Medicare debate aside for a moment." Leila took a deep breath, she really, really wanted to go for it, but it'd only end in tears- hopefully Ainsley's, but it really wasn't nice to make colleagues cry. "Let's talk about the primary health care strategies."

"There's a reason that primary health care is the liberals answer to everything wrong with our health system." Ainsley said. Leila felt her jaw clenching.

"Mm hmm?" Leila murmured.

"Well it assumes that people don't choose poor lifestyles that impact on their health. So by legislating and paying for policies based on that assumption actually disempowers them."

"It suggests nothing of the sort." Leila snorted in disdain. She took another deep breath. "I think that's a very selective interpretation of what primary health care seeks to do. While I wouldn't want to inconvenience you with accuracy, it actually suggests that people make poor health related decisions for a variety of reasons, a lot of them to with poverty and poor education. So instead of funneling money into programs which rely on people getting sick for their existence, and putting money into education programs and environmental safety programs absolutely empowers them. You can't tell me that aiming to keep people healthy rather than curing them when they get sick is disempowering."

"It can still be very easily interpreted to override the right to self-determinism and free choice."

"So, using a typical example, making it a requirement in the building code to put non-slip flooring in public areas, primarily to prevent falls in at-risk groups, for instance, the elderly, also disallows their right to choose to fall. That's a crapulous argument and I'm seriously thinking this is a crapulous waste of my time." This woman was really testing the limits of Leila's patience.

"Shall we leave the right to choose well enough alone, Ainsley, cos I'm pretty sure you have a pretty selective definition when that doctrine is appropriate." Josh put in, his tone mildly sarcastic.

Ainsley glared at him. "Where do you get off assuming what my beliefs are?"

"It's a fairly safe bet given your op-ed piece entitled 'The Abortion of Family Values; a Bartlet Debacle."

"Oh for heaven's sake, let's move on here." Leila revised her paranoia to mild irritation. If he did this on purpose, then Josh was copping it sweet too. "I don't want to debate ideology with you on the government's time, I need you to give me your legal opinion on the content."

"Ideology is exactly what this is based on, not workable solutions." Ainsley responded equally bluntly.

"Ainsley, she has a Ph.D. in public health, frankly, she knows what she's talking about. The president tends to like that in his appointees. That's why he hired you as a lawyer, or so I'm led to believe." Josh weighed in with customary tact and diplomacy.

Ainsley snapped. "Yeah, from which red brick antipodean two bit college?"

Leila exhaled loudly. Where in hell did that come from? "Honey, if you're going to go all condescending on me, check your facts. I had a Rhode's scholarship to Oxford and having said that, don't go interpreting my even responding to your insinuation as needing to defend my academic merit or that of the Australian tertiary sector. Just don't come with the Ivy League snobbery. OK?"

Ainsley had the decency to look mortified. She regrouped. "OK, that was out of line and I apologise, but in this country you can't go making sweeping legislation that will, effectively, limit a citizen's freedom. It's interventionist and patently unconstitutional. You want my legal opinion and there you have it. Maybe in Australia it'd be ok, but not here."

"OK, Ainsley, I believe that will be all." Josh summarily dismissed her, looking apologetically at Leila.

Ainsley left, she had never even uttered 'fuck you' in her life, but her body language screamed it with all its might.

Josh began to say something, but Leila waved it away. That last quip had really hurt and she was too proud to show just how much. "Don't worry. She's the not the first person to question my appointment and she won't be the last, yeah, it was bitchy but if it's what she believes... It's a free country." Leila said, the irony not lost on her.

"Sometimes, I wish this were a dictatorship, then we could lock up the entire Republican Party and lose the key." Josh offered.

Leila had been gathering her papers into the folder and looked up at him. "I'd be happy with a majority in both houses."

Josh laughed and continued to watch her. He felt pleasantly unsettled by her. He recognised in her, what some might call arrogance, but only because she was a woman, in a man it would be termed guts and determination. He had begun to have an inkling of just how much strength it had taken to come here. It was a big ask of anyone to join as closely a knit team, as they were, mid stream. And when it was compounded by an almost 10000 mile move to a different political system, the fact that she had got as much done as she had... well Josh was in awe, and even he admitted that that didn't happen as often as it was indicated.

When Leila looked up again, Josh was still staring at her. She raised one eyebrow, bemused by his intense expression. In fact, she also felt unsettled. "After the State of the Union, I think we need to talk. Maybe over dinner or something?"

"Sure." She's asking me out? Cool. Josh was definitely OK with that idea. He had been kicking himself since Thanksgiving and his ill-advised invitation. He was still unsure exactly how ill-advised it had been and had been looking for an opportunity to kick it around with Sam, but Sam had been really unapproachable and things had been even more hectic than usual, so he hadn't pursued it with much alacrity.

"'Kay, we'll sort details out later." Leila looked relieved. She had chosen the wrong taxi driver to piss off that night. He had treated her to some hair raising driving when she changed her mind the first time. But when she had changed it back again, he kicked her out in the middle of God knows which part of D.C., stopping barely long enough to let her get her luggage from the boot. At least he hadn't asked her for the fare. She had taken it as an omen and had left the whole issue well enough alone, but if Josh kept looking at her like that, she was going to have unearth a girl's best friend or bring whatever it was they had going on to a head.

 

18:30, The West Wing.

Leila strode angrily through the operations bullpen, the staccato tapping of her cane on the floorboards giving further expression to her frustration.

Josh watched her through his window, she looked liked she was ready to maim small animals and after this afternoon's contretemps with Ainsley... He managed to intercept Leila just before she reached her office.

"How did the meeting with Stackhouse go?" he asked casually.

"You know that fair-minded, it's a free country bullshit I spun about Ainsley? You can start locking 'em all up."

"Not well then." Josh said, stifling the urge to laugh. It wasn't that Leila tried to hide the fact that she was Australian, but her manner and accent were fairly neutral when her temper was under control. When provoked however, her mastery over Australian slang and invective would make Paul Keating proud. Josh had met the ex-Prime Minister during trade negotiations when he was chief of staff for Hoynes. Canberra must be a pretty colorful place to work if Keating and now Leila were anything to go by, he thought.

"Stackhouse is a patronising, rude, obstructive, abstruse, vaguely sleazy old man. Death is too good for him. Can we have his viagra prescription revoked instead?"

"Prob'ly not" Josh replied, deadpan. "What did he do?"

"His opening remarks were something along the lines of 'hasn't nursing come a long way since scrubbing bed pans.' I laughed that off, but it went down hill from there. His office called me, he wanted to see me, so I'm doing him the favour, right? But he didn't have anything to say to me, I asked him directly, did he represent any special interest group I'd overlooked. And believe me I'd started subtle. But he gave me absolutely fuckin' nothing. NOTHING, nada, zip- you get the picture? Anyway, then he got all patrician on me and felt it his duty to explain factionalism to me, not DNC factions, which, granted, would have been interesting, if besides the point. No, it was the concept and minutiae of factions and their relevance to politics. I snapped Josh, truly, I thought I could hold it together till I got out of there, but I just couldn't bear it. I ended up telling him that I had cut my teeth in the Australian Labor Movement which made the DNC look like a bunch of old women at a senior citizen's meeting discussing whether to put jam as well as cream in the Lamingtons for their next fundraiser. So if he didn't have anything constructive to add, he could bloody well stop wasting my bloody time."

Josh couldn't help it. He giggled, which Leila found vaguely disconcerting.

"What?" Her left eyebrow rose imperiously and she unconsciously punctuated her question by banging her cane against the chair.

"We're a bunch of old women?" He asked mimicking Leila's accent.

"The operative word in the sentence being like. And it was a favourable comparison, believe me. So can I fix this?" Leila had been momentarily diverted by Josh's appalling attempt at her accent, but she was currently consumed by a cold sweat.

"Don't worry about it. Even the President thinks he's an old S.O.B. Frankly, he's had it coming, like, forever. It's not a thing."

" Shit. I knew it. It's a thing. It's a thing cos you think we shouldn't even tell the others." Leila's biliousness turned into full blown nausea.

"It's certainly not a thing worthy of it's own conspiracy theory. If telling congressmen to stop wasting time is a thing then I'd have been out of a job 10 years ago." He had been about to suggest that Stackhouse had probably gotten his kicks out of going a few rounds with her. Hell, I know I would have. This somewhat inappropriate train of thought was cut short by Leila's cell phone ringing.

Leila answered the phone, having looked at the display and not recognising the number.

"Good luck with the polling" She mouthed, covering the mouthpiece with her fingers.

"Thanks" he'd responded and had been walking off, when Leila waved wildly at him. He doubled back, his brow furrowed.

Leila wasn't saying much to the caller apart from periodically saying uh huh, the inflection determining it's meaning. She reached for a pad of Post-it notes and scrawled a message to Josh.

Josh read the note and blanched. 'Whose Lillienfeld, when he's home?' she had written.

Leila determined that he wasn't on good terms with the White House from Josh's pallor and if it was possible, became even less communicative with the caller. She had been flicking a pen in her hand as the caller continued talking. She suddenly dropped the pen and simultaneously cut him off.

"Look, I'm sorry, but we're all rather busy tonight, it being the State of the Union and all. So, yeah, It's highly unlikely that I'll be able to meet to get those documents. You want me to see them, you get them over here and we'll take it from there. Kay? We have a country to run and I'd rather not get involved in some arcane X-files plot. Seven o'clock it is. Goodbye."

She looked up at Josh, they had both moved into her office and Josh was sitting across the desk from her, back lit by the lights from the bullpen. "What a weirdo. I'm not joking, he wanted to meet me at the pool. What were you saying about conspiracy theories?"

"Tell me what he said, exactly." Josh smelled a crisis on the horizon. Why couldn't things happen consecutively rather than simultaneously. There must be some law of physics that should prevent these things from happening.

"Only what I told you, and variations on the theme of 'I have information that you need to see.' He sounded concerned, but fake, you know, like he was enjoying the fact that I should be concerned. So what's his deal?"

"He's no friend of the Bartlet administration..."

"Hang on, he's that guy that went for Leo, isn't he?" Leila had been wracking her brains as to why the name sounded familiar.

"Uh huh." Josh sounded worried.

"OK, we'll deal with this after we see what these documents are. I saw Leo on my way through and they're doing last minute changes. And he so doesn't need this right now."

"Leo doesn't need what right now?" Leo had been walking past her office on the way to see how Sam was doing in negotiating the Blue Ribbon thing.

"Umm." Leila's throat had gone dry.

Josh cut in, helpfully he thought. "She gave Stackhouse the rounds of the table. I would have paid good money..." Leila cleared her throat meaningfully.

"I was abominably rude and I was about to write a short note. I just meant it was nothing I couldn't handle" Leila prevaricated.

"'Kay." Leo wasn't terribly worried. "Whatever." He looked again at Leila's stricken face. "What else do I need to know?" he asked testily.

"I just got off the phone with Lillienfeld. He has some papers he wants me to see." She couldn't lie to a direct question. Obfuscate may be, but out and out lie? Nup, never had been able to.

"'Kay. We'll worry about that when we know what they are." Leo's sang-froid went someway to easing the gnawing dread she felt but she was getting serious vibes off Josh. He was most the comprehensively spooked she had ever seen him.

Leo walked off and Josh said he had to take off too.

"Don't worry, we'll handle this." Josh said, as much to convince himself as to comfort her. He had put his hand on her upper arm and well after he had left, Leila still felt the imprint.

 

20:55, The Office of the Assistant to the President for Health Policy.

Leila was sitting crossed legged on her settee in front of the TV, her brow furrowed in disbelief. She wanted to die. The manilla folder, couriered over to her office in exactly thirty minutes from when she had hung up, sat in her lap. She had skimmed over it and thrown it across the room several times while she had waited for the speech to begin.

After the media blitz following her appointment and various conversations she had had with Sam and Toby in the intervening months, she had expected more. Definitely more than the big fat nothing she was getting from the TV. School uniforms? If that wasn't a non-sequiter pas excellence, she didn't know what was.

The inevitable phone call from Gilette was moments away. Toby can handle that. His mess, he can clean it up, Leila thought mutinously.

The phone rang on cue. She reached across her desk to get the handset without looking.

"Seth. Before you start a pissing contest with me on how furious you are, I have you beat." Leila said wearily.

"..."

"Yeah, well I'd thought I'd been consulted too."

"..."

"Oh for God's sake, yell at Toby, for all the good it'll do."

"..."

You, me, the first lady. Leila thought to herself. "Look, I've had a day. So, please vent to someone who had something to do with it. I'm just the health advisor here." Leila said bitterly.

"..."

"Why? He'll say something about brevity, would be my guess."

"..."

"Yeah, I'll see you over here at the shindig... Later." Leila rubbed at her eyes. They felt hot and dry. She hung up the phone and changed her contacts for glasses, and went over to the gathering.

Dr. Bartlett arrived soon after and Leila greeted her. "Dr. Bartlett." Nodding her head slightly.

"Dr. Walter." Abby acknowledged the respect shown to her. When exactly had she decided that the public would prefer the demure 'Mrs.'? It rankled with Abby that she had given up the hard earned title with such little thought.

Leila judged the first lady's reaction to be along much the same lines as her's. It was a relief, anyway, that it wasn't just her and that nutbag Gilette.

"He'll feel my wrath, don't you worry." Abby said portentously, further reassuring her.

A waiter hovered nearby and Leila took a flute of champagne. She didn't feel like celebrating but it did have that numbing quality going for it. She sipped quickly and checked her watch, determining how soon she could politely leave.

Sam and Toby arrived to a hail of applause, which, she readily acknowledged, was deserved. They really had blown the doors off congress. All in all, it was a good night for the Bartlet administration and that was reason enough to rise above it.

Leila wandered off to find Emlyn and tell him he could head off, if he felt like it and found herself watching the live broadcast of Capital Beat.

Mark Goddfried was such a smarmy git, she decided. Perhaps the heavy TV makeup didn't help, but it begged belief that he was an arbiter of political thought in this country. They called them Pelaco professionals, back home, after the ubiquitous brand of business shirt. Mark was probably wearing a more up-market brand- Yves St. Laurent or maybe Ralph Lauren. Yeah, that was more likely.

Ainsley walked up looking apprehensive. "Hey." Leila said grabbing her attention. "Good luck, you'll knock them dead." Ainsley's face registered her surprise.

"Thanks. I hope so." She said, genuinely, Leila thought.

Leila stuck around for Ainsley's interview and although she disagreed, in principal, with Ainsley's argument, she felt a certain respect for the guts it took to question the validity of the President's comments on school uniform. Sam was gonna just love this, and as anticipated, Sam made a dramatic entrance, coming close to stage diving the temporary TV set. Go get 'em Ainsley, Leila barracked in her head.

Ainsley and Sam walked quickly past Leila's spot and she gave Ainsley a comradely thumb's up.

Ainsley acknowledged the supportive gesture with a bemused smile. She wasn't entirely sure what Leila had been supportive about. But, hey, after the meeting this afternoon, where on reflection, Ainsley had so totally crossed the line, it made her cringe, the fact that Leila was even civil was a small miracle.

~*~

CJ had been woman on a mission all night. The thing with the cop had been a nightmare from which she wished fervently to wake from and soon. Leila's withdrawn figure brought her up short, shocking her with the level of despair displayed on her face.

"Hey." CJ said, waving a hand in front of Leila's face. "Anything I need to know?" CJ's abrupt question retrieved Leila from the depths of her introspection.

"Huh?. Oh hi CJ." Leila smiled wanly.

"So?"

"Yeah. There is. If you get a sec, drop by my office and I'll show you."

"Anything else?"

"Nope." She was dying to have a good old therapeutic bitch, but here and now wasn't appropriate. Unity, or the appearance of it, was everything. Even if she wanted to scream and shout, she wouldn't and not only because it wasn't done, but because she knew her anger wasn't entirely fueled by the address.

"Kay. I'll see you later." She hadn't seen Leila this dejected and turned back to reassure herself that it had actually been Leila with whom she had just shared that cryptic exchange.

Leila went back to the party to get a drink from the bar to take back to her office. She bumped into Toby who regarded her warily.

She shook her head and said at a volume inaudible to all but her intended recipient but with no less intensity than a full throated roar. "Not. Happy. Toby." She practically spat as she walked away.

Sitting at her desk, sipping the neat scotch and enjoying the abrasive heat trickling down her throat, she finally made herself read, carefully, this time the Lillienfeld file. More accurately, it was her fathers DOD file. For a subject that Leila ostensibly knew nothing about, the file offered little actual enlightenment. One didn't actively suppress information if there wasn't something worth suppressing, Leila had realised early on in life. Leila had been able to surmise much of what had happened to her father in Vietnam by the way he reacted to various things. Like hostage crises- which one would assume, having been a hostage himself, would make him feel special empathy for the victims. But he never expressed anything beyond what could be considered normal and had once even commented that the hostages had brought it upon themselves. The file brought such disparate thoughts and made them into a coherent whole.

She went onto a second run through, this time weighing up the political implications. A sickening thought occurred to her. This wasn't really aimed at her, it was Leo. Leo had served with her father and could, without stretching the realms of credibility too far, probably be implicated in this. She could picture the headlines. 'White House C.O.S. Implicated In War Crimes Scandal'. This was possibly the strongest indication yet that she had become part of the Beltway landscape, she mused ruefully.

So what was going to happen next? What did it signify that Lillienfeld hadn't ambushed them with this in the media. Leila could hardly credit that he was obeying some gentlemanly code. She hadn't followed the story about Leo's drinking too closely, but from the snippets she couldn't avoid, she remembered that honour wasn't a word that sprang to mind when it came to describing those that attempted to discredit him. It was, to quote an ex-prime minister, probably Keating, 'like de ja'vue all over again.'

"That's not enough light to read by. You'll go blind." Abby had been on her way back to the residence when she realised that she hadn't seen Leila leave the party and that there had been more to Leila's mood than could be explained by the address. And because of the address, Abby knew she needed Leila, more than ever, to keep pushing to get this done.

Leila looked up, preoccupied, but touched to see the first lady.

"Yes Doctor." Leila said in mock submission.

"Thank you Sister. You know, I always pictured nuns going to a play when English texts and so forth talked about Theatre Sisters."

"But there's no poetry in 'OR Nurse'. It's like casualty as opposed to ER. Orwell would have a field day with all the abbreviations and acronyms in our culture." Leila said, wondering if the FLOTUS really wanted to hear Leila's theory about semantics. Probably not.

"I suppose. So what made you quit nursing for politics?" Abby asked. She didn't really want a post-mortem of the speech and she couldn't talk about Jed's M.S., of course, but she needed to be with someone and not have to be the first lady and she was monumentally pissed with Jed. Leila, she felt, saw her as more than just her boss's wife.

"Cos I like stirring the pot." Leila replied tongue-in-cheek, but saw that Abby really wanted to know. "Nah, really, even as a student I saw that nurses needed advocates just as much as their patients. Nursing the nurses, I guess. And I got as much fulfillment out of making it easier to nurse as I did actually nursing and there was the added benefit of no actual contact with bodily fluids. How about you, do you miss it?"

"Medicine? Sure, but I don't resent giving up the day to day practice, but I do miss the rush."

"Yeah, it's so immediate, hyper-real, I think the post-modernists call it. I always felt a little guilty about getting off on the high that comes after saving a life or delivering a baby. It's vicarious I think... and seeing them go home. That I loved." Leila reflected.

"And here we sit and the closest we get to our 'patients' is through the media or the occasional meet and greet. Tell me again why we aren't, you know, being doctors and nurses?" Abby asked wryly.

"Cos hospital politics is way more cut throat than this. Some of the stuff I've seen go down makes the Kennedy assassination look like a bad day at the office.

"Too true. So are you OK? You disappeared before we had a chance to properly schmooze."

"I feel better now. Those things make me realise how little history I have here and, yeah, some other stuff is getting to me. I really appreciate you coming through to see me, Dr. Bartlet."

"Leo would probably have a seizure, but could you call me Abby, please? Abby sounded surprisingly vulnerable. Just as Abby knew that something had been up with Leila, Leila also realised that Abby was facing a hell all of her own. However, calling her Abby didn't change the fact that she was the First Lady and if she wasn't going to elaborate, it wasn't Leila's place to probe.

"How bout when it's just you and me? It would save some explaining."

"I can live with that. I better let you get home, it's gone midnight. Go. Sleep. It will all still be here in the morning." Abby said in a quintessential doctor knows best tone.

"And that's supposed to make me feel better? Thanks Abby. You'll sleep too? You're off to Philly tomorrow, aren't you?"

"Chicago, but not till the afternoon, so I can sleep till a decent hour." Abby got up, feeling a little lighter. She had turned out into the corridor and saw CJ coming down from the communications bullpen.

"Good evening, Ma'am. Is Leila still in her office?"

"Yeah, don't be too late, you need some sleep, CJ."

"Thank you, Ma'am, I'll be turning in very shortly." CJ was achingly tired and surviving on a mixture of adrenaline and champagne.

CJ went straight into Leila's office. "Hi, so what is that you want me to see?"

Leila handed the file over wordlessly. CJ read the label looking perplexed. She sat down on the settee and opened it, skimming through it and realising its significance, began again, paying more attention.

The silence was deafening and Leila, having long since finished her scotch, interrupted CJ asking her if she would like a drink from the mess.

CJ rubbed her forehead distractedly. "Yeah, I think I'd better. Thanks, a beer or something would be great."

"Kay, I'll be right back."

Leila returned, holding a beer by the bottle neck and a pack of Doritos in one hand and another Scotch on ice in the other.

"Have you spoken to your Dad yet?"

"No, I have no idea how to even begin that conversation and because I really don't know why I got this. It occurred to me that it's not me he wants to get at necessarily. I think it's Leo and I thought as few people that know the less chance there is of it being leaked."

"Get at Leo, how?" CJ was missing the vital link. Leila realised that when they had had the skeleton conversation, she hadn't really mentioned her parents. That had been Leo, so she filled in the blanks."

"It's a small world, ain't it." CJ commented drolly.

"Scary. So what do we do?" Leila asked, crunching on Doritos.

"Leo and the President are in the situation room at the moment and he knows that Lillienfeld was in contact with you, right? So leave a message that it's arrived and then he can take it from there." CJ yawned.

 

05:00, 8/2/01

Leila hadn't gone home at all having chosen to stew over the file instead, despite having given assurances to both CJ and Abby that she'd go home and get some sleep. She finally did fall asleep, though, at about two am curled up on her couch. It was Leo that had woken her, having found her with the file resting on her chest and her glasses still in place. Leila had sat bolt upright, surprised and disoriented, the file went flying for the umpteenth time since she'd received it. It was still quite dark out and she'd originally thought that Leo had popped in to pick it up on his way home.

"Sorry Leo, I was going to drop it off in the morning."

"It's five am. You haven't been home, have you?"

"Oh shit." Leila looked at her watch groggily for confirmation.

"So I guess that's the Lillienfeld file?" Leo looked at the paper strewn on the floor.

"Ya." She lent down to the floor and picked it up, pushing her glasses back up her nose as they threatened to fall.

"I don't know which particular bug is up his arse, but he really hates us. I mean, this is just petty bullshit from what I can tell, but it doesn't look good."

Leo's Zen like approach to managing day to day White House business, if it could ever be called just day to day, was wearing pretty thin and, he ruefully observed, alcoholism almost seemed like a valid coping mechanism. He sighed. "Shit happens, I'm just sorry he's dragged you into this."

"About that Leo, if me going away is what it will take to make this go away..."

Leo interrupted. "Don't even say it. There's a thing with Colombia at the moment, but we'll try and work something out this afternoon. So Josh knows, who else?"

"Just CJ. Toby, Sam and I didn't speak much last night."

"Kay." Leo was pleased at the restraint Leila was showing in regards to last night's speech. He'd have been a little pissed if it were him, and if she was, she was doing a good job of getting through it without breaking the White House. "Go home, have a shower and a decent breakfast. I'll see you at Staff at 10."

"OK. It's gonna be okay, isn't it?"

"We'll battle through, don't worry about it."

Leila followed his advice but standing in the car park, she acknowledged just how tired she really was. She came to the decision that she valued her life and her vintage aquamarine MG Midget too much to handle driving on the right hand side of the road as fatigued as she was. Besides, the two stops on the metro would be quicker in peak hour than driving back.

 

07:30, Operations Bullpen.

Emlyn was collating notes on a diabetes and obesity program when he got a phonecall from Donna to give him a 30 second headsup that Josh was on the warpath.

"Thanks, I'd tell her but she's not due in until ten."

"Well batten down the hatches, you're going to bear the brunt of it."

"Donna, you're a masochist, you know that, right?"

"You could always offer to swap, come get some good karma in the Lyman section of purgatory."

Emlyn laughed and looked over towards her. "I'd better go, he's coming." Without missing a beat, he turned to Josh before he'd even opened his mouth, "She's not in till ten. Leo sent her home at five, practically comatose. Something, needless to say, is up, isn't it?"

Josh ignored Em's enquiry. "She was here till five?" He gauged the potential damage the file held by Leila's behaviour to be pretty much off the scale. He really didn't need this. No polling data, Donna's Joey initiative and now Peter Lillienfeld had chosen to crawl back out from under his rock. "Did she take her cell?" Josh's asked abruptly.

"Nope, it's sitting in it's charger, right next to her briefcase. By the looks of it, she only took her wallet and keys. What has Lillienfeld done?" Em asked again.

"I'm not entirely sure, to tell the truth. Let Donna know when she gets in, 'kay?"

"Yeah." Josh hit the partition in frustration as he walked out to get Sam and breakfast with the POTUS.

Josh used the walk to the residence to vent his frustration and confusion about the Joey intiative. He thought he saw Sam flinch when he admitted that he actually went out of his way to sabotage Donna's dates, and put it down to the fact that, if he were honest with himself, it was pretty cringe-worthy behaviour. It was a fair cop.

Sam realised, as the opportunity slipped away, that it had been as good as time as any to bring up him and Donna. He didn't mind overly, though, he was more than happy to procrastinate on this particular project.

Leo pulled Josh aside as came out of the breakfast meeting and gave him a rundown. "Find out what you can. We should probably talk to Mr. Walter, but talk to Leila first. Reading between the lines, I think things are pretty strained and this is probably gonna make it a thousand times more so. Tread carefully, Josh." Leo warned him.

"Got it, Leo, you'd tell me if there was anything to this, wouldn't you?"

"What do you think?" Leo responded sharply.

Josh regarded Leo carefully before replying. He had an enormous amount of respect the man he regarded as his mentor, but war, any war but especially a jungle war, could get horribly complicated. Leila, they could easily get out of trouble. If JFK got to be president after his father's efforts at appeasing Hitler, then... well, Leila was home free. But Leo had him worried.

"Yeah." Was all Josh could come up with. He turned and left quietly.

Leila was back in the West Wing by eight. You didn't have an army nurse for a mother without learning to be efficient and hanging round her empty apartment did nothing for her state of mind, so she decided to keep out of the way and hopefully Leo wouldn't get wind of her early arrival.

She slunk back into her office, and even Emlyn, who's desk faced her door missed her entrance and got a shock when he went in for a file and found her sitting low behind her laptop.

"What are you doing back?" Emlyn asked.

"Sshhh. I'm not here yet." Leila put her index finger to her lips.

"What's going on? It helps if I know these things, how can I be Man Friday if I'm not up to speed?" Em whispered.

Leila smiled. "Lillienfeld is screwing with the wrong girl. I guess he must have overlooked the fuck with my family, deal with the mega bitch of death memo I sent around last November."

"Shall I send him a copy?" Emlyn asked drily.

"Nah I'm hoping to find a nice jagged stone that'll shatter that man's glass house for good. He's gonna go down and it's gonna be slow and painful." Leila's whispers were more along the lines of hissing.

"Fair enough. So you want a coffee?" Emlyn continued whispering, even though the door was closed.

"What, do I look like I'm about to go to the chair?"

"It's just that when you get all nasty and venomous like that. I kinda reckon placating you is my best bet, so if, you know, I ever piss you off, you can remember the nice things I've done and be merciful."

Leila's eyebrow was desperately trying to make contact with her hairline, and one of these days it just might, Emlyn decided. She had a very flexible forehead. "Thanks, I wouldn't mind, actually." Leila replied gratefully. Emlyn really was a great guy. She kinda hoped he wouldn't be around for long, he could go far on charm alone, and with brains to boot... she'd miss him though.

Em was coming back with two cups of coffee when Josh intercepted him. "So she's back?"

"Errrmm" Emlyn hesitated. "This is for Donna actually. I was going that way and thought I'd get her one while I was there... spirit of co-operation and so forth."

"Donna's got a full mug on her desk." Josh tried to intimidate him.

Donna had been watching the interaction with interest. "Since when have you been so observant?" Donna scoffed. Josh just glared at her.

"So why is she avoiding me?" Emlyn had been slowly walking backwards, never breaking eye contact with him. That's what you did when you got trapped by a wild bear, wasn't it? The place was turning into a zoo.

"It's not personal, she just wants some time alone." Emlyn felt he should try for the protector role.

"'Kay." Josh feinted towards his office and darted past him. Emlyn really chucked the game then, he upbraided himself.

"So why won't you talk to me." He asked as plonked himself down on her couch.

"Leo's given me until ten to get my act together, which I probably should have done at home, but I'm here cos home is lonely, and I'm trying to work out what makes this arsehole tick and give my life some chance of being worth living. And I kinda wanted some time to have a think before I faced everybody." It probably wasn't a good idea to scream at Josh that he was the epitome of egocentrism and to get the hell out of her office. "So how's the polling going?" Leila asked. He was going anywhere, by the looks of it, so she changed the subject.

"I dunno. There was a blackout and Donna's on a mission to set me up with Joey, which is disturbing all by itself."

"Why? Cos you have a thing for Donna?" Leila jumped right in, he'd bought it up, so why not? A little light relief from Lillienfeld had to be a good thing.

Josh stared at Leila. "No. I don't have a thing for Donna. Donna and I do not have a thing. She's as a good a friend as I'm ever likely to find, but it's purely platonic."

"She's a very attractive woman." Leila said, stirring him.

"What? Are you channeling Donna?" Josh's forehead wrinkled in disbelief.

"Nah, I was trying for Devil's advocate,"

"I just wanna know why you people are so concerned with my love life. Yes Donna is attractive, empirically speaking. I'm not blind. But for crying out loud... Why?"

"Cos we care, Josh." Leila said sarcastically. "Anyway you bought it up." Leila took pleasure in the victory, it was probably the only thing she had to feel even slightly victorious about today.

Josh was at a loss looking for a snappy comeback and Leila filled the break in conversation.

"Josh, I'm sorry I brought this down on us." She looked him in the eye. Politics was never smooth, but leaving yourself open like this, that was stupidity. She hadn't cried yet, the anger had been to consuming. That had begun to lift, however, and had been replaced by a resolute desire to quash this and an equally powerful sense of despair at her, admittedly, unwitting part in this. And tears were definitely threatening.

"You didn't, Lillienfeld did, and he's hoping we're in a blind panic, so we'll do something stupid to cover our ass. You've been nothing if not aboveboard and from what Leo says there's nothing substantial in the file. It can be spun, but hey, streaks on toilet paper can be spun in this town. He knows that, he knows we know that and he also knows that we know that he knows we know."

"Shit Josh, that was worthy of Sir Humphrey himself." Leila smiled.

"I try." Josh said smugly.

"So how are we gonna spin this?" Leila asked, sighing, judging accurately, that Josh had been fairly optimistic in his interpretation of their predicament.

"Don't sweat it, we'll work something out. So how does Friday sound for dinner?" Josh thought he'd just casually throw that into conversation. Suave and understated.

"Fine, that's my cooking night, so my place?"

"You cook?"

"Among my many talents, is cooking, yes." I'm beginning to sound like Yoda. God help me, Leila thought. Very bloody smooth, invite him to your home and end up sounding like a puppet. Great.

"It's a date." Oh my. Josh thought. What am I? A preppy school girl? It's a date? Yuck. YUCK. His forehead crinkled and he looked sheepishly at Leila.

"OK." Leila, to his relief, hadn't given him an overly derisive comeback, in fact, Josh decided, she hadn't been even slightly sarcastic. He was a happy man. Relatively speaking of course.

 

 

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