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In the Spring, Everything is New

Chapter Text

I'm sitting on the couch, with a glass of Chardonnay, a book that I've read 100 times, and my favorite fuzzy blanket. I'm not getting anywhere in the reading, but I'm making quick work of the wine. I'm feeling good right now, but if Josh doesn't doesn't get out here soon, I'm going to be fully juiced.

"Finally! What took you so long?" I question him as he enters the living room. "Is Lulu okay?" After last week's ear infection, I'm still watching her like a hawk.

"She's fine. She's been down a few minutes. I was just laying out your back to school clothes."

"What?"

"I just can't believe it. It's your last semester. You're taking classes on campus. My baby's all grown up." He teases with a twinkle in his eye.

I know that mischievous look. No doubt he's up to something. I hope it's not too over the top.

As I get up off the couch, he grins at me, and follows me into the bedroom. Sure enough, there on the bed is an outfit. White Button down blouse, very short plaid skirt, knee high socks, and black patent leather shoes. My Catholic School Girl Outfit. Well. It has been a while since we played dress up.

"Are you sure Lulu's asleep?"

"Yeah."

. . . .

The next morning, once I've put on jeans, sneakers, and a Georgetown hoodie. I find all the pieces of the school girl outfit and throw them in the hamper. We may not use them very often, but I definitely want them to be clean when the mood strikes.

Josh is sitting at the table drinking coffee, while Lulu is her eating breakfast. She must have woke up a bit earlier than usual. I wonder if the cold is going to end up causing a change in her schedule? Well I guess as long as it's earlier and not later, we'll be okay.

"Awww, you look adorable." Josh coos at me. I just roll my eyes in response. Enough. I lean down and give Lulu a kiss.

"Hey baby doll. Good morning."

"Morning, Mama." She parrots back to me in between shoving blueberries into her face.

Josh stands up, puts his cup in the sink, then comes over and wraps his arms around me, suddenly serious. "I really am proud of you. You know that, right? You've accomplished so much in the last year. This is just the icing on the cake."

"I'm just really glad that Helen's on board with this. I mean, I couldn't ask for a better boss."

"Hey."

"You know what I mean. She's just been so great about the baby, and me finishing school. I mean, being able to work part-time at this level is practically unheard of!"

"You've earned it. You've proven yourself. You are a great Chief of Staff. You delegate well. Your employees respect and admire you. And you finishing your degree is a great human interest story that folds nicely into the "Education President's" message. The stars have aligned, and it couldn't happen to a better person."

"Thanks, honey." Josh's sincere praise and admiration is really all I've ever wanted. Trying to impress him has made me a better person.

As I get Lulu out of her high chair, Josh pours a cup of coffee into his to-go mug. For just a moment, I'm sad that he's not pouring mine. Change is always a little difficult. But I'm really excited about taking classes on campus. It really makes this feel real.

And at least I can still get Lulu ready for the day. "So girly-girl, what color should you wear today?" I ask rhetorically, as I open the drawer to pull out an outfit.

"Blue." She responds without missing a beat. It makes me stop for a moment. Did she really understand my question and give an appropriate response? That doesn't seem likely.

To test her, I pull out two shirts and lay them on the changing table. "Which one do you want?"

"Blue." Lulu says pointing at the correct colored shirt.

"What a clever girl you are!" I tell Lulu before hollering "Josh! C'mere!"

"What?" He asks poking his head in the door.

"Ask Lulu which shirt she wants to wear."

He rolls his eyes at me, but asks her the question anyway.

"Blue" she repeats, starting to squirm.

Josh looks at me in question, wondering why I'm worked up. "We've been working on colors." Then he walks in and holds up the other shirt.

"No, lello, Daddy. Blue." Lulu tells him.

"Yell-ow, Lulu. Yell-ow." Josh patiently repeats the the correct pronunciation.

'Lel-ow." Lulu tries to copy him. I must be standing there with my mouth hanging open because Josh takes Lulu from me and starts to get her dressed in the blue shirt.

"Can you find me some pants and socks? We've got to get going."

"Josh!" I say as I hand him the rest of the outfit. "How many colors does she know?"

"Oh the basics, Red, Blue, Green Yellow, Orange, Purple. That's what's in most of the books."

"Josh. I asked her what color she wanted to wear today and she answered blue before I even showed her any clothes!"

He nods at me like he's waiting for more information.

"Josh. I think Lulu might be advanced."

"Told ya." Is all he says as he picks Lulu up off the changing table. "Is her bag ready? I gotta go."

I hand him the bag, then walk them to the door and give them kisses.

"Mama come?" Lulu asks in confusion.

"Not today, sweetie. Mama has class today. I'll see you when you get home." I tell her, then she and Josh leave.

I head back into Lulu's room and sit down in her big yellow chair. I hadn't really been buying into Josh's belief that Lulu is really smart until now. But I'm starting to get on board. I know she talks better than most 14 month olds, but I just chalk that up to her environment. She's surrounded by verbose people. And some of the route memorization stuff is just probably due to Josh taking the time with her. But still, I'm a little overwhelmed by today's display.

After a few minutes, I head into the kitchen, and pour myself a cup of coffee to drink and a bowl of cereal. It's kind of nice to have the time to just sit her in silence and read the paper and enjoy my breakfast. When I'm done I load the dishwasher. Then wipe the kitchen down, before walking through the house making sure everything's in its place. Josh isn't quite the human whirlwind he was before I trained him, but there usually are a few stray things to put away, and I like to keep the place clean. The every other week maid service works well for us. She takes care of the deep cleaning stuff that I don't have the time for.

I glance at the clock. It's just after 8. I'm not sure what to do with myself until class starts at 9:30. I've got all sorts of nervous energy. Maybe I should go walk around campus again. Make sure I've got the lay of the land so to speak?

I grab my coat and the backpack Josh proudly presented to me the day I registered for my last classes. When I open the door, Jackie looks at her watch. "Leaving early?"

"Yeah. I thought I head over to campus. Maybe stop for Starbucks on the way."

"Okay, let's go."

I'm not thrilled about having any detail at all, but having Jackie with me is a compromise I can live with. I get to drive myself while she rides shotgun. She'll be with me, but she won't be running pre-screens or clearing rooms in advance. She's just there in case someone gets too close. But the University has assured us that not even my professors know that I'm in their class until today, so it shouldn't be an issue.

It feels so good to be driving myself someplace. It's been awhile. Parking is kind of a nightmare, but eventually we find a spot. We swing through the student union and grab coffee. I wish Jackie would take some but by now I know better than to ask while she's on duty.

I chatter at her as we walk through campus but she really doesn't say much. I understand, really but, it would be nice to have a conversation.

We get to class about 20 minutes before it is supposed to start. I'm happy to discover a sitting area nearby, that's already occupied by someone reading what looks to be a class syllabus. Jackie scans the area then takes a spot next to the wall.

"Mind if I sit down?" I ask the back of the head.

"No, go ahead." A nice voice responds distractedly.

I sit and stare at him for a moment. He looks to be in his early twenties. After a minute he looks up.

"Oh. Hi." He seems a little surprised to find someone across from him. He has bright blue eyes and dark hair. He reminds me a little of Sam.

"Hi. What's your next class?" I ask hoping to start a conversation.

"Um, Govt 318- Media and Foreign Policy."

"Me too." I'm excited to already get to meet someone in the class.

"I'm Jordan, by the way." He states, offering his hand.

"Donna." I respond as I shake it.

"Nice to meet you, Donna." He studies me for a minute. "Have we had a class together before?"

"Um, no. I'm a transfer student. And I've been taking online classes. This is actually my first semester on campus."

"Oh." He looks uncertain. "What else do you have?"

"542- Building Democracy after Conflict."

"That's great! I'm in that too."

"Excellent. I'm really looking forward to these classes."

"I'll probably know most everyone in 542. It'll be a lot of seniors. I'll introduce you to everyone. Are you graduating in the spring?"

"Yes. It's only taken me 15 years!" I offer with a shrug.

"Really?" He asks looking at me again. Finally he blurts out, "How old are you?"

"I'm 36."

"NO WAY!"

Well, I gotta say, this is kind of nice. I guess the ponytail, hoodie, jeans and tennies are really doing it for me. Should I tell him I have a one year old?

A few more minutes go by, and another class lets out. People stream through for a few minutes, Jordan waves at several people. And shouts out to a few more. He really does seem to know a lot of people.

Finally the area clears. "We can go in now." He suggests. "Get good seats."

"Good idea." I reply standing up and slinging my new backpack over my shoulder.

As soon as we start forward, Jackie is at my side. Jordan stops. He looks at her, then at me.

"Oh my god. What's your last name?" He asks sheepishly.

"Lyman." I tell him a bit reluctantly. I knew I wasn't going to be able to stay in cognitio, but for a few moments it was nice just to be another student.

"Well. I feel really stupid. A Government Major who didn't recognize the First Lady's Chief of Staff. In my defense, in the pictures I've seen you're usually wearing a suit."

"Hey. It's okay. It was actually really nice. I just want to experience this. I don't really want people to treat me any differently."

"Okay. I can't promise how anyone else will treat you. But to me you're just gonna be Donna. A nice girl I met on the first day of the last semester of school."

"Great! Let's go get seats. Lead the way!"

He grins at me and heads into the lecture hall. I follow, with Jackie on my heels. I'm ready for this adventure, and I've already got a new friend. It's going to be a great semester.

Chapter Text

"It's okay, Lulu." I pat rub her back as we hurry to the car without Donna. I suppose it's not surprising that Lulu is confused. This is the first time we've ever gone to the office without Mama. She and Donna have gone on their own before, and I've gone in without either of them, but it's the first time Lulu and I have been on our own to get to the White House. I wish we had time to stop at District Donuts to commemorate it.

Lulu's little brow is still furrowed as I'm buckling her into the car seat. "Mama come?" She asks me again. I hope she's not going to melt down over this.

"It's Daddy & Lulu day, babycakes. Tuesdays and Thursdays are going to be our special time. Okay?"

"Ah-kay." She parrots and grins at me.

I pull out a book and we work on shapes for the rest of the car ride. When we arrive, I climb out, then pull Lulu out of the car and stand her by the door. "Stay right here." I admonish her as I grab the backpacks.

I take Lulu's hand and start to walk towards the door. Ugh. I didn't realize how slow this would be if she walked. I don't have time for this.

"Hold on, sweetie." I stop her. How does Donna manage all the bags and the baby at the same time?

I slip her backpack over her shoulders, then sling mine over one, and then lean down to pick her up. "Come on, dolly. It's time to go see Nikki."

"Yay, Nikki!" She cheers to my relief. As long as she's happy to see Nikki this morning everything should be fine.

When we get up to our room, Lulu leans away from me as soon as she sees Nicole, who promptly takes her from my arms. They go through their morning ritual as I put Lulu's backpack in it's spot.

"Good morning, Lulu!"

"Morning Nikki!"

"Good morning, Josh. How'd you guys do with the change in routine?" Nicole asks as we walk together down the hall to the game room where they spend most of their time. Helen has it set up as much for Lulu as she does Peter and Miranda.

"So far so good. She was a little confused about why Donna didn't come with us this morning, but she's been fine. I gotta run to senior staff. She's still on the antibiotics for the ear infection. They're in the bag. I'll try to come up at lunch time and see her. I'm going to try to be done at 5, as far as I know Helen can take her if I get caught up in something. You okay to stay late if there's a problem?"

"I'm good. Don't worry about it."

I lean in and give Lulu a peck on the cheek. "Bye, baby doll. See you later. Have fun with Nikki."

"Say bye-bye to Daddy so we can go play." Nicole prompts her.

"Bye-bye Daddy."

Well, I'm glad that went smoothly. Lulu must really be feeling much better. I know that last week there were a few rough mornings.

"How'd it go?" Margaret asks as soon as I walk in the door.

"Good. No tears."

"Outstanding." She hands me the list of the Intel estimates and I quickly glance through the top sheets. I'm much more comfortable with the NSC briefings. They are generally very good at bringing me up to speed.

"Lunch?" Margaret asks when I'm done. We do this every day. She does like her routines as well.

"Turkey sandwich & potato salad. I'd like to eat with Lulu today. Do you think I'll have time?"

"I'll see what I can do."

"Thanks Margaret." As she heads out, my staff starts to file in. They are chattering among themselves. Some sort of good natured banter about football. I take it Sam lost a bet.

"Morning everyone." I get their attention and they quickly settle down. I'm feeling good today. My world is humming along at just the right pace, and it feels like we are on the verge of greatness.

I look to Lou. "Where are we at on the State of the Union?"

"We're in good shape. Can't rush these things you know."

"Less than two weeks to go. Need me to work on something?" Sam offers, and I bite my tongue. He can't help it, he's a speech writer and this is a big deal. At least he's not looking at every little speech anymore.

Lou glances at me for approval, and I give a slight nod. "Sure. The Foreign Policy section could use some work. It feels like it's just falling flat right now."

"Great. Well, I mean it's not great that it's falling flat. In fact, I'm sure it's not really falling flat. It's probably great." Sam stutters, still a little intimidated by Lou.

"Sam." I bring him back with just his name.

"Yeah?"

"Get with Lou after the meeting. If it's not just style, I need to know by lunch."

"Right."

"Amy- where are we on H1-37?"

"I'll have a new whip count by lunch. It's close but I think we are going to pull it off."

"Okay. I need to know if this isn't going to pass. I want to start walking back expectations if we aren't going to have this package to highlight as part of the speech. And it goes without saying, the President wants this to pass. But we aren't going to be held hostage by it. This isn't going to be a pork barrel buffet."

"Got it."

"Jamie, anything from the First Lady's office?"

Jamie looks startled that I called on her, but she's been pretty quiet throughout this meeting. I want to give her a chance to say something. Donna usually chimes in pretty regularly, and not just on FLOTUS stuff. She's a counselor to the President, and not afraid to voice her opinion.

"No. We're good."

I glance at my watch and stand up and move the meeting into the Oval.

"Well, well, the gang's all here." Matt chuckles as Senior staff files through the door behind me.

"Ryan! Welcome to the inner circle." Matt booms to the last person through the door. "Don't you think we should increase the school year to 280 days."

"It doesn't matter what I think, sir." Ryan responds. "I've been looking for an opening on that for 2 years now and I can tell you pretty much no one bites on it. But it gives us good leverage everytime we attach it to a bill. It's a good bargaining chip."

"But what do you think personally?" Matt presses him. It's like the initiation for the new people. And now that Ryan is Amy's deputy it's his turn to face this.

"Well, my parents sent me to year round boarding school in Switzerland and I guess I turned out okay."

"Debatable." I mutter with a smirk towards Ryan, who just grins back at me. We have a much better understanding of each other now. And the fact that he can handle Amy and is willing to, has definitely endeared him to the rest of us.

'Alright. Fair enough." Matt finally gives up harassing Ryan on his pet project. At least I have managed to reign him in on expectations. And Ryan gets a gold star for reinforcing my position.

"Okay, when am I going to see language on Health care?' Matt look to Lou for an answer.

"Just as soon as we're done with it, sir." She answers dryly.

"I want to see some language today. This is too important. I want a strong position in the State of the Union."

"Yes, sir."

"And how are we on H1-37?"

"We're working on it, Sir." Amy reports.

POTUS looks to me and I nod in assurance. They know how important this is to him. He doesn't need to ride them. I've got it covered.

I give him a second to see if he has anything else he wants to go over and then shoo the rest of the staff out of the office.

"Okay then everybody out. Go. Do a job."

Once they are all out the door, Matt grins at me. "How's it going to day?"

'We're good. They are all working hard. We're in good shape for the State of the Union and our legislative agenda for the year."

'Excellent, but I meant you. Daddy-duty this morning right?"

"Yeah, but no big deal. And Donna was up and helped us get ready, anyway. Kinda."

"Well, that explains it."

"What?"

"I saw Lulu before I left the residence this morning. She looked pretty put together. Matching clothes and everything."

"I can get my daughter dresses just fine I'll have you know."

"Matt chuckles " yeah, I know, who'd have thunk it?"

"Alright if you are quite done harassing me, can we move on?"

"Sure, what's next?"

. . . . .

"Margaret?" I call out in a reasonable voice as the INS briefer leaves my office.

"Yeah?" She walks in holding my lunch.

"How far behind am I?'

"Very." She chides me with a look and a tone. Damn it. I really wanted to have lunch with Lulu.

"But, I moved your 11 o'clock to this afternoon. Ryan is here for your 11:45."

Ryan instead of Amy? Well. This I can work with. "Have I told you lately how much I love you, Margaret?" I take the bag from her as I walk by.

"Come on." I tell Ryan as I pass through Margaret's domain. "Walk & Talk."

"Okay." Ryan shrugs, standing up. "Where are we going?"

"I have an important lunch date. Start talking."

"Okay. LaBrant and Rathburn are going to introduce H1-39 next week. Comprehensive immigration reform I'll have most of what we are looking or. Better methodology for processing asylum requests including increased funding for judicial staff, including a pro se legal department to assist people in their requests. Plus it has funding for better, more practical border security. Additional funding for technology, more money for border agents to help maintain an orderly process and additional spending for physical infrastructure as well."

"Bipartisan sponsorship. Outstanding. And what does support look like?'

"The Governors from Texas, Arizona, and California are generally on board. Of course, they are all lobbying for spending in their states."

"Of course."

"But all three are willing to go on record once it's announced."

"So we gonna be able to announce this during the State of THe Union?" I can't help but grin at him.

"Yes."

"Excellent. The President is going to be really pleased. Good job, Ryan."

"It was a team effort."

It's nice of him to say that, but I can't help but wonder why Amy isn't here to take the bow herself. We reach the west stairs to the Resident and Ryan stops.

"Come on. I think there's someone up here you'd like to see, right?"

Ryan just smiles at me and follows me through the door.

"Dad-dee!" Lulu greets me from her high chair as I walk into the kitchen.

"Hi, Sweetheart." I walk over and place a kiss on the top of her head.

"Oh! Hi, Ryan." Nicole offers softly as she notices him standing behind me in the doorway.

"Hi." He offers back, cocking one brow. They are sickeningly sweet in their unspoken adoration of each other.

"Okay. Why don't you two head down to the mess and have some lunch. I'll get Lulu down for her nap."

"Really?" Nicole lights up. "Thanks, Josh. I'll be back in half an hour."

Ryan takes her arm, and escorts her out of the room. Shooting me a grin as they go.

"Well, Miss Lulu. I hope I don't come to regret that. What do you think? Do Ryan and Nikki make a good pair or is this going down in flames?"

Lulu cocks her head at me as she considers my question. "Flames?" She asks.

"That's what I'm afraid of. But let's talk about something else." I sit down and unwrap my sandwich. "So let me tell you about this immigration reform bill."

Once we've finished our lunches, I get Lulu cleaned up and move to our bedroom. I don't get to do this very often in the middle of the day, but sitting with her in the rocking chair, reading a story is the best thing ever.

Even after her eyes are fully closed and she's breathing softly, I just sit there. I know we are doing good things for the country, but nothing is more important than this little human being in my arms. Everything I do, I'm doing it so she has a better world to live in.

Reluctantly, I put her in her crib and quietly close the door. Nicole is sitting in a chair just down the hall reading.

"She asleep?"

"Yes."

"Thanks for letting me go to lunch with Ryan."

"Well, it turns out he's a pretty decent guy. But remember, I'll beat him up if he doesn't treat you right."

"Got it."

"See you later, Nicole."

Chapter Text

"This is Govt 318- Media and Foreign Policy."

A woman who appears to be Josh's age announces as she sweeps into the room dramatically. "I'm Cynthia Brown, and yes, I am the professor."

I guess I can see why she felt the need to tell us that. She's wearing jeans, a sweater over a button down, and some really cute boots. She looks like one of us.

As she reaches the front of the room, she clicks a remote. The lights dim a little and a presentation begins. There are clips of press briefings and news shows covering several decades. After about a half an hour, the last segment shows Walter Cronkite reporting on Vietnam War protests. After that, the screen goes black, then one question appears: Does the media influence foreign policy?

"That's what we'll be discussing this semester."

I can't help but grin all through the rest of the class. This is everything I remember college feeling like. The online classes were good but they just didn't capture this energy. This feeling that we would tackle important issues and discover new things. It feels like the early years with Josh.

I'd sort of forgotten how that felt.

Once I stopped being mad at him, I'd remembered that he'd been a good teacher, but apparently, I hadn't really remembered the feeling. I remember now. I can't wait to get home and tell him.

"Hey," Jordan interrupts my thoughts as we are standing to go, "several of us are heading to the Union for lunch before the next class. You want to join us?"

"Yes! I do." I know I probably sound too eager, but I can't help myself.

As we are leaving the class, Prof. Brown stops me. "Ms. Lyman, a word?"

"I'll meet you at the union." I tell Jordan as I stop.

As soon as everyone leaves, Prof. Brown holds out her hand. "I just wanted to let you know that I'm a big fan of the President and First Lady and I'm really excited to have you in my class." She gushes.

"Oh. Thank you. I really enjoyed the class today. I'm really looking forward to this semester."

"I was just thrilled when I saw your name on the final class list this morning. And then to see you in person. . . . It's just really an honor."

She's making me a little uncomfortable. I'm glad that she's a fan of the President. But I just want to be another student. But I don't want to seem like a snob or something either.

"Well, they are really great people and we all just want to help them make this world a better place. I'm just glad to have some small role."

"You're just an inspiration to young women everywhere! I hope you'll speak up during class and share your insights with everyone!"

"Sure. . . I'll definitely participate. I think this will be a very interesting discussion. Public opinion definitely influences Foreign Policy to some extent, and certainly the media has an influence over the public. Ergo . . ."

"Exactly! I should have you teach this class. You have so much practical experience!"

"Oh no, no, no. I'm really looking forward to your presentation. I'm sure it's much more nuanced than I'm aware of."

I glance at the clock. I really want to go join Jordan and the group. I definitely don't want to be some sort of guest lecturer. I'm just another student. I wonder if I could offer up Josh to save myself if I need to. Or maybe someone in the State Department? I could probably pull some strings.

Professor Brown seems to notice that I'm looking at the time.

"Well anyway, I just wanted to welcome you. If you need anything, please let me know."

"Thank you, Professor."

"Please, call me Cynthia. Most of your classmates will."

"Okay, then. Please call me Donna. See you Thursday?" I offer my hand again and she shakes it, then turns towards her desk. Whew. I'm relieved to get out of here.

I wander around the student union for a few minutes until I find Jordan and a group of twenty-somethings sitting near the coffee shop, laughing and talking loudly. Jordan spots me and waves me over.

When I arrive, the group falls silent. "Hey everybody, this is Donna. She's in Building Democracy with all of us too. And she'll be graduating in the Spring."

"Hi." I offer, feeling a little shy. They're just so young and full of energy. I feel a bit out of place.

"Hi, I'm Maddie." A petite brunette offers. She must be the leader because as soon as she speaks everyone else quickly follows, and I try to remember their names.

"I'm Jill." Striking blue eyes behind black rimmed glasses, nice clothes and a great smile.

"Jess." She's quiet. A very pretty redhead.

"Tom." He's a big, African American dude. I wonder if he ever played football.

"Cassie." She seems perky. I immediately peg her as a former cheerleader.

"I'm Zayna." A beautiful young woman, possibly of middle Eastern descent offers with a smile.

Once the introductions are over, the group falls silent again. They are all looking at Jackie. I guess I should address the elephant in the room.

"Um, this is Jackie. She'll be with me most of the time. I guess you all know that I work for the First Lady, right?"

"Yes. We know. But Jordan said not to mention it." Maddie answers for the group. Smiling at Jordan, who quickly flashes me a grin.

"Well, yeah, I mean, If you have questions, I'll answer them, but mostly, I'd just like to be another student. And I'd really like to be part of a study group if you'll have me. It would be pretty embarrassing if I don't pass these classes."

At that, a few of them laugh. Zayna pipes up, "If I don't pass my father will kill me."

Several students agree with her, then an awkward silence falls over the group again. I'm not sure what to say or whether to sit down. I sort of feel the need to leave.

"I'm going to grab a coffee, anyone want anything?" I ask. Anything to break the quiet.

There are a chorus of "no"s so I pick up my backpack, and walk over to the stand. As soon as I'm a bit away, the chatter starts up again.

After a few minutes, I have my coffee, and I just stand there for a moment. I'm tempted to walk away from the group and find a spot to eat lunch on my own. They seem to already be a group, and I'm not sure I'm going to fit in. But I really do want to make some friends. And I really would like a study group, and this is probably my best chance. If I walk away now, they probably won't be any more welcoming later.

I take a deep breath and head back over. As I drop my backpack and slide into a seat, Cassie tilts her head.

"Is that a Vera Bradley backpack? Hope Garden?"

"Um? Maybe?" I don't want to tell them that I don't really pay attention to such things. Especially if it's something that we might have in common.

"I love Vera!" Zayna chimes in. "That's a great pattern. I love the colors."

"My husband bought it for me."

"Josh Lyman?! He's so cute!" Maddie squeals and then blushes. The other girls sit up a little straighter and nod their affirmance.

I can't believe he still has a fan club. And I've found them. Dear lord. What am I getting myself into.

"Yes, Josh is my husband."

"He's a legend. People call him the king-maker you know." Tom offers while the girls giggle. I'm tempted to tell them he snores. And sometimes he leaves the toilet seat up. But I don't.

"I have heard that. He really is something."

"So, what days should we have study group?" Jordan asks changing the subject. I throw him a grateful look, and he smiles back. He really is a nice guy.

In between eating and joking around, the group makes a general plan to have lunch together on Tuesdays and Thursdays between classes, and then study from 3-5 both days after class. That should work for me. I should still be able to make it home before Josh and start dinner.

Eventually, Jordan stands up. "We should go. We don't want to be late."

Everyone nods seriously and begins to pack up. Within a couple minutes, we arrive at the classroom door. Everyone quiets down and files in quickly finding seats, pulling out notebooks and looking ahead.

The vibe is completely different than the Media class and I suddenly find myself very nervous.

At precisely 1:30, the professor walks into the room. He's closer to my Dad's age. Late sixties I'd guess. Completely bald, but white eyebrows and a short white beard. He's wearing a turtleneck and tweed blazer.

"This is the Building Democracy After Conflict Seminar. This is a 500 level class, therefore all of you should be graduating seniors or working on your Master's. I expect a serious effort from each and everyone of you. This class requires significant individual and group work. If you come to class unprepared, you will be letting not only yourself, but your group down. Make no mistake, there are easier seminars. If you don't like hard work, there's the door."

He looks around the room, making eye contact with each person. It feels like his eyes linger longer on me, and for a moment I'm tempted to bolt. But I breathe through the urge and remind myself that I've never shied away from hard work, and that I earned my place in this class. They don't let just anyone in here.

No one takes his offer, and finally after several awkward minutes, Professor Smythe says, "Okay then, let's get started."

All of the cases we will examine are of efforts at political and economic reconstruction after civil war or international military intervention. We will focus specifically on international efforts to assist—or even manage directly—the process of state reconstruction after conflict and the transition to a new, democratic political system.

As we will see, building democracy in these war-torn and often dysfunctional countries is difficult, but not impossible. We will examine the basic challenges of state-building—security, governance, and economic stabilization—then democracy building: writing a constitution, designing democratic institutions, preparing for and holding elections, and reviving civil society

Typically, international interventions have followed two forms, one in which the United Nations was in the lead, and another in which an international coalition was responsible. In the latter instances, it has typically been the United States that has played the lead role, and thus two of the case study volumes are devoted, respectively, to the UN's role in nation-building and to America's role.

Many international interventions fail, often badly. Sometimes, when they succeed they bring peace but not democracy. The overarching lesson is that the scope of resources, financial, military, diplomatic, administrative, and technical, committed to the task must be commensurate with the difficulty of the challenge and the goals to be achieved.

Many of the interventions accomplished a great deal, even when they did not succeed in building democracy at the outset. But missions that are poorly prepared and coordinated and under-resourced will fail. Unfortunately, there aren't enough resources, nor is there sufficient political will, to enable successful international intervention in all the cases of conflict and humanitarian abuse that cry out for it. This is one of the hardest lessons to absorb.

The challenge is first to comprehend the special circumstances of "post-conflict" and failed states, and the core conditions for success of all international "nation-building" efforts, and then the factors specific to particular types of cases. I hope this seminar will be of particular value to those of you who will deal with the challenges of democratic development and post-conflict reconstruction in the coming years. The fate of the world may well be in your hands.*

When class is over, I feel a little like I've been hit by a truck. That was a ton of information. It's clear that this Professor is full steam ahead. I hope I can handle this.

"Mrs. Lyman, may I speak to you, please?" He asks as the others make their way out the door. If feels a little like deja vu.

"I just want you to know that I'm fully aware of who you are. I don't intend to change my syllabus or my views to accommodate the fact that you are in this class. You'll be treated like everyone else." He states a little forcefully.

I'm taken aback for a moment. It's sort of the exact opposite of my other class. And although Cynthia made me feel a little uncomfortable, at least she wasn't intimidating.

Finally, I find my voice. "I understand. And I really wouldn't want it any other way."

"Good. I'm glad we understand each other. Good Luck, Mrs. Lyman. You're going to need it."

He turns and walks out the room, leaving me standing there. Why would I need luck? Won't hard work be enough?

A moment later, Jordan pokes his head in. "You coming? The rest headed back to the Union, but I waited for you."

"Yes. I"m coming. Thanks."

*Excerpts from Govt 542 Class description archived at georgetown dot edu

Chapter Text

After lunch, Margaret forces me to play catch up, moving people in and out of my office with an efficiency that makes my head start to spin.

"What's next?" I ask as she ushers the Director of the EPA and four underlyings out. Why did he bring four underlyings with him? They all just sat there and didn't say anything. Surely they had more important things to do. What a waste of time!

"They need you in the Situation Room."

"Has something happened?"

"The message I got was: General Alexander wants to brief the Chief of Staff on developments in Kazakhstan before the end of day."

"Okay. I'm heading down there. Have Sam come cover my 5:15 with Rosenthal. Then ask him to wait for me when he's done."

As I'm walking towards the Sit Room I realize I haven't heard from Donna all day. I sort of expected that she'd have an easy first day and that she might even come into the office when she was done. But her last class ended a while ago and I haven't even gotten a text.

It's not that I'm concerned. It just would have been nice to hear from her.

I'm not overly concerned about this briefing either. Back when I was Leo's Deputy I assumed that every summons to the situation room required the President, several hours, and involved preparation for a looming a national emergency. Now I know that the Chief of Staff actually spends more time there than the President. It's a secure location for all manner of briefings. And I'm the gatekeeper for the President, so I am often briefed first. This is probably nothing.

When I walk into the room, the discussion stops. Everyone turns and looks at me as I make my way to the table.

"We are starting to see troop buildup at the Russian border and if we're seeing it you can believe the Chinese are seeing it too." General Alexander announces as soon as I take my seat.

"When did this start?"

"We first started noticing troop movement just after Christmas."

"So basically, as soon as we started pulling out, the Russians started heading back in?"

"Basically."

"Damn it!"

Why didn't we anticipate this? Did we start the withdrawal process too soon? Vinick warned us that a stable neutral democratic government could two to three generations to obtain. General Schultz had claimed we could hold elections in ten months and pull out in eighteen. And that's what we'd tried to do, although really it was a year in before we held the elections and closer to 24 months before we started really reducing our troops. But Matt really wanted to bring most of them home by Christmas. He doesn't want Kazakhstan to dominate his whole first term.

"Is there any possible legitimate reason for this troop movement or is this purely an intimidation tactic? Are the Russians just trying to show the Chinese that Tarimov is their guy and that they still control the region?"

I look around the room making eye contact with each of the generals and advisors to see if anyone has any further insight to offer.

Finally, General Alexander responds, "No that's probably exactly what this is. Show of strength, but as long as they stay on their side of the border, it's not really something that requires immediate military intervention. But I'd wager we'll be seeing more movement from the Chinese shortly. And if the troop levels on both sides continue to rise, we'll be right back where we started from."

"Alright." I scrub my hand through what's left of my hair. "Keep a close watch. Be ready to brief the President and Secretary of State in the morning. Contact me immediately if there is any change overnight."

"Yes, sir." Alexander responds as I quickly stand up and leave the room.

From the Sit Room, I head directly to the Oval. Ronna looks a bit surprised to see me coming through that way.

"Sam's having a meeting in my office. Does he have anyone in there?" I ask tilting my head towards the door.

Ronna gives me an evil grin. "Amy Gardner."

Ah. No wonder why I scheduled my own meeting for this time slot.

"Hey, Jason, wanna switch jobs?" Matt's body man looks up from his computer. He's no Charlie, but Matt doesn't really need him like President Bartlet needed Charlie. This kid actually gets to have a life.

"No thanks." Smart kid.

"Alright, I'm going in."

"Mr. President. Nobody, and I do mean nobody, wants to extend the school day. We've got to focus on things that are moveable."

"Amy, Amy, Amy. You're my director of legislative affairs. You're supposed to be on my side. Right, Josh, tell her." He gives me a grin. "You're on my side, aren't you?"

"I serve at the pleasure of the President."

He looks back at Amy just in time to see her giving me one of her patented glares, which she immediately tries to hide. Matt just chuckles at her. "Oh go on, get out of here." He tells her. "And start thinking outside the box!"

"Thank you, Mr. President." She offers as she scoots out.

"Did you accomplish anything at all in that meeting?" I ask.

"Does annoying Amy Gardner count?"

"Always."

"Then yes. I did." He smirks. "Oh and she brought the latest whip count on H1-33. We're going to be able to talk about health care at the State of the Union."

"Excellent. I need to brief you on Kazakhstan. There's been some Russian troop movement. No encroachment yet, but they are keeping an eye on it. We are planning on a 9am briefing for you and Secretary Vinick unless there are any changes overnight."

"Alright." Matt glances at his watch. "Am I done for the day?"

I glance over at his in-box. He laughs at me. "I did all my homework. I'm going home. You gonna come with me and claim your daughter?"

"Yes I am."

As we head along the colonnade Matt gives me a firm pat on my shoulder. "Good job today. Your team really has meshed well. I feel like we've made some real progress. We have some good things to report to the country, and we have some things still to do. I think that's a good thing."

"I agree."

We find Lulu, Miranda and Helen in the playroom, they each have a dolly wrapped in a blanket. When she sees me, Lulu stands up and toddles over with hers.

"Da-dee!" She grins at me holding up the baby.

As soon as I take it from her, Lulu lifts her arms to me so that I can pick her up too. After I get a hug and a kiss on my cheek, I tilt her in my arms and rock her a bit. "My baby." I coo at her and she giggles.

"Are you ready to go, baby doll? We've got a meeting to get to."

Helen looks up in surprise. "Josh. I can keep her if you have another meeting."

"Oh no, I'm good. I need Lulu's help for this one."

. . . .

"Here, take her." I hold Lulu out to Sam who awkwardly takes her in his arms. They eye each other warily and I have to bite back a laugh. Then I turn to my desk to finish gathering my things to take home.

Sam is the only one in our circle of friends who is still uncomfortable around Lulu. It shows and she can tell.

"Relax, dude. You aren't going to break her. What are you going to do in 4 months? I'm pretty sure Ainsley is going to insist that you occasionally hold your own baby."

"I know. But they're just so small. And fragile. And you can't tell what they are thinking or about to do."

"They aren't that fragile. And newborns are thinking about sleeping, or eating or pooping. That's it."

Sam wrinkles his nose, and Lulu copies him. "Poo-poo?" She asks.

"You have to go Potty?" I ask Lulu. This would be a first. 14 months is kind of young, but half the battle is communication, and she's got that down.

"No." Lulu answers definitively.

"You're potty training?" Sam asks in confusion.

"No. I'm trained thank you very much." I smirk at him and he rolls his eyes.

"You know what I meant."

"No. It's a little early for that. But it doesn't hurt to start talking about it now."

He looks like it's the last thing he wants to talk about and I almost laugh. Oh boy is he in for a rude awakening. In just a few months, the world as he knows it is going to drastically change.

"Alright. Are you done packing your backpack? You want to take her back?"

I pull a book out of Lulu's bag and hand it to him. "Take a seat and read this to her. I want to check with Margaret about tomorrow."

Sam's eyes widen, but he sits in a chair and starts reading "But not the Hippopotamus" by Sandra Boynton, so I step into Margaret's area.

"What'cha need boss?"

"Nothing."

She cocks her head, and then smiles as we hear Sam reading to Lulu.

"A cat and two rats are trying on hats."

"But not the hippopotamus." Lulu chimes in, causing Margaret to grin even bigger. Then she turns to me with a raised eyebrow.

I shrug at her. "Ainsley suggested that perhaps a little forced interaction between the two of them wouldn't be all bad. Sam's a little nervous around children."

We listen a bit longer both still smiling. Sam is holding his own. He's getting into the rhythm of the book, and he's learned to wait for Lulu to respond with her sweet "But not the hippopotamus" after each page.

Eventually I turn back to Margaret and get to business.

"So do I have anything urgent tomorrow? I may end up spending significant time in the Sit Room."

Margaret looks over the schedule. "I'll check with Ginger in the morning. We'll plan on having Sam sit in for most of the meetings just in case you can't make it. She can farm some of his stuff out to the Assistant Deputies."

"Alright, sounds good. Go home."

"I leave when you leave." She deadpans the same answer she always does.

"Alright, well I'm leaving in 15 minutes or less so pack up."

Sam seems pretty invested in the book when I walk back into the room. He's got the dramatic flair going. "Then the animal pack comes scurrying back saying, 'Hey come join the lot of us!' And she just doesn't know, she should stay, should she go?"

"But YES! The Hippopotamus!" He, Lulu and I all call out together.

"But not the Armadillo." Lulu finishes in a sad voice.

"Hey. That really is sad. Why not the Armadillo?" Sam asks. "They came back to include the Hippopotamus. Why couldn't they include the Armadillo too?"

I roll my eyes at him. Maybe he's a little too invested in this book. "I don't know. Maybe they did, Sam. That's just where this story ends."

"Well, Lulu," Sam turns to her with a serious expression. "I hope they included the Armadillo too. Remember, just because someone doesn't look the same is no reason to leave them out. Okay?"

"Okay, Sam." Lulu responds to him with a serious nod. But her serious face is just too cute and Sam ends up smiling at her.

Then, she smiles back flashing her dimples and I see him almost melt.

I'd say "Operation Get Sam Ready" is off to a good start. Ainsley will be pleased. I'll have to schedule more of these end of the day meetings for Sam especially on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Chapter Text

As we are packing up our backpacks, everyone is chatting about their plans for the evening. It's pretty obvious that they all hang out together quite a bit.

"So Donna, wanna join us at The Tombs tonight? It's ladies night and they have karaoke!" Jordan offers enthusiastically.

For a split second, I'm tempted to say yes. They are just so young and fun. I bet it would be a great time. But I can't wait to hug Lulu and tell Josh all about today.

"Thanks, but no. I need to get home." I sling my backpack over my shoulder and turn to the group. "Bye, everyone. See you Thursday."

"Bye Donna!" Maddie calls out, and most of the group echos her.

"See you later," Zanya gives me a quick hug.

"Bye Donna." Jordan waves.

I give Jackie the signal and we head off towards the car. When we arrive at it I see a ticket tucked under the windshield wiper.

"Damn!" I sputter, grabbing it. "No Parking Zone? Jackie do you see a sign?"

"There it is." She points down the street. Sure enough there is a green parking sign, underneath which is a red sign that says no parking, 3:30-6pm.

"Well, shit. A parking ticket. The first day. Josh is never going to let me hear the end of this."

Jackie just smiles at me until I climb into the driver's seat, then she climbs in the car as well. We're home in ten minutes. Maybe I should think about just walking to school. Maybe when it's not so cold.

As we pass the front of the building, I notice that the SUV isn't there, so at least I still beat Josh home. It's only 5:30 so I should have about an hour. But I wouldn't be completely surprised if he came up with an excuse to come home early. He's probably wondering how my first day went. I should have called or texted him at some point, I suppose. But I really wanted to tell him in person.

I pull around the back of the building and into our space. Then Jackie and I get out of the car together.

"Thanks for being with me today, Jackie. I know that school isn't exactly what you signed up for, but I appreciate you being with me."

"Hey, this is a nice change of pace. I'm happy to do it." She smiles at me taking a place standing outside the door as I head inside.

I quickly disarm the security system, then drop my backpack next to the desk, and hang my coat up. I've got just enough time to get dinner together before Josh and Lulu get home.

. . . . .

Just as I'm sliding the salad bowl into the refrigerator, I hear the front door. I'm so glad they're here.

"MAMA?!" Lulu bellows. When I hear Josh's low chuckle, I know he put her up to it.

"Here I am!" I announce hurrying to the door to take her from Josh. "How are you? I missed you today!"

I plant a few kisses on her face, then lean over to give Josh his too. He wraps his arm around my waist and pulls me close.

"You didn't call me today." He whines a little. "I missed you."

"I missed you guys too! Both of my classes went the full time! Then we had lunch and I was just getting to know everyone. And my Democracy class is going to be insane! But they let me in the study group so I should be okay. And then it was 5:30 before I got home. But dinner's almost ready."

Josh's grin just gets bigger as I ramble on. "So a good day?"

"Yeah. It was a good day. But now it's even better. Because we're all together again."

"What's for dinner? It smells wonderful!" Josh inquires as he hangs up his coat, while I unwrap Lulu from her blanket.

"Meatloaf, baked potatoes, peaches, and salad."

"Sounds fantastic."

"I aim to please."

"You always do." He gives me another quick kiss.

"Me too." Lulu demands, and is immediately rewarded with a peck on the cheek from Josh.

Carrying Lulu, I follow Josh into our bedroom. I just want to be together. School was fun, but until now I didn't quite realize how much I missed the routine of going into the office and coming home with them.

I grab one of Lulu's books from the nightstand just before I sit down with her in the chair. I have all these little board books practically memorized so I'm able to read to hear while watching Josh loosen his tie and pull it over his head. I smile to myself as he strips off the dress shirt and puts it in the hamper. As he's removing his pants, he notices that I'm watching him.

The corners of his mouth quirk up, then the dimples pop out. I give him a sly smile that lets him know that he's totally getting lucky tonight and his smile gets even bigger.

The oven timer beeps while he's sliding his sweats on.

"Good timing. Here, Lulu go see Daddy while I finish getting diner ready."

I give Josh another kiss as I hand Lulu off to him. He follows me to the kitchen, and gets the plates out of the cupboard with one hand.

"Not that I'm complaining, but you're very affectionate today."

"Yeah, I don't know what it is. Maybe I'm just really glad not to be a twenty-something. I mean, they're fun to be around, and I was tempted to go to the bar with them, but this just makes me happy. I'm just happy with my life. I love you guys."

"Well we love you too. Don't we Lulu?" He asks for her agreement as he opens the silverware drawer.

"Yes." She agrees happily, giggling as Josh tickles her a little. "Milk, Daddy?"

"In a minute, sweet pea."

Josh settles her into the highchair, then while I put food on our plates, he grabs a sippy cup and pours her some milk.

"Do you want some wine?" He asks as he grabs a lite beer for himself.

"Beer is fine. And can you pull the salad and the fruit out of the fridge while you're at it?"

"Sure thing."

A few minutes later we're all settled in.

"So tell me more about your day. Did you make any friends? Did you find someone to eat lunch with?" He teases a little.

Well I love my Media class! The first half of the class was a presentation of clips of press briefings and new reports. There were a couple of clips of CJ! It was kind of surreal. It seems like it's going to be a fun class. Cynthia- that's the professor- is about your age. She's pretty young and hip."

"I'm young and hip?"

"I didn't say that."

"It was implied."

"Okay. . . . Anyway, she's a big fan of the administration. She knew who I was. It was a little awkward for a minute."

"How do you mean?"

"Well just sort of- I don't know- it was kind of like she was trying to impress me for a minute. Totally the opposite of the other professor- he went out of his way to make sure I didn't expect special treat."

"He obviously doesn't know you."

"Obviously. Anyway, the rest of the class seems pretty intimidated by him too."

"Yeah, there are always a few professors like that. That's how I'd be. Everyone would be scared of me."

"No- you wouldn't. You'd be the cool prof with all the undergrad girls hanging off your every word."

"You think? I'm probably too old for them now."

"Oh no! You're not. In fact your fan club is alive and well."

"Seriously?"

"Oh yeah, my new friend Jordan introduced me to them."

"Really, now."

"Yes, you should have heard them squeal when I mentioned your name. Needless to say, I won't be inviting the study group here."

"You joined their study group?"

"Well, yeah. Jordan seems to know them and they seem to know what's going on so I figure that's the way to go. Plus it's not like I have time to try to go out and find another group."

"Well, I'm glad you met Jordan, then. She seems nice."

"Oh! Jordan is a guy. In fact, he looks like a young Sam. Beautiful blue eyes."

"He's a guy!" Josh squeaks.

And I have to confess that I immensely enjoy the look of surprise on Josh's face and the way his fists immediately clench, I mean who doesn't like just a touch of jealousy from their partner. But even more, I'm pleased by how quickly he relaxes.

"Well, I just assumed, and you know what they say about assuming." He chuckles at himself.

"Yes, but I'll tell you something." As I clear the table, I lean over and whisper in his ear. "I greatly prefer brown eyes, myself."

"All done Mama." Lulu tells me after she swallows her last peach. She really is a good eater. I was afraid she'd inherit Josh's pickiness, but as long as we stick to basics that Josh likes, Lulu mimics him in gobbling it all up.

"Good job, baby girl." I tell her as I get a washcloth for her sticky face and hands.

"Go ahead," Josh offers, "you get her. I'll get the dishes."

"Now there's an offer I can't refuse. Come on, Lulu. Let's go play."

As we make ourselves comfortable on the rug in her room, I hear Josh singing along to the radio as he loads the dishwasher.

. . . . .

Laster, as I sit down next to Josh, the phone rings. Sighing, Josh gets up and looks at the display. But then he grins at me as he picks up the receiver.

"Hey, CJ!"

"Yeah, she's here, but don't you want to talk to me first?"

"No, I'm not in the sisterhood." He rolls his eyes and shakes his head.

"Okay, okay. Here's Donna." He tells her then hands me the phone.

"Hey Ceej"

"Donna, my darling. How are you?"

"I'm good. Today was the first day of my last semester."

"That's great. How many classes do you have this semester?"

"Two. And I'm taking them on campus! I feel like a real college student."

"You are, Donna!"

"Yeah, I am. What's new with you?"

"Well, funny you should ask. I'm calling with some big news. Danny and I got married!"

"What? When?"

"Well we took a page out of your book, and we eloped. We hired a justice of the peace and got married on the Santa Monica Pier about a hour ago."

"Wow! Congratulations!"

Josh raises his eyebrows and I point to my wedding ring. He nods once with a smile on his face.

"We're really happy for you and Danny. I sort of figured you for the all out wedding." I guess I can't really throw stones, after what Josh and I did. And asking why sounds accusatory. I remember what that was like, but I am genuinely curious. Luckily, I don't have to wait long for answers.

"Oh, Donna!" CJ gushes, "we're adopting a baby girl from Uganda. She's the sweetest thing."

"Oh my god, CJ that's fantastic!" I squeal, really getting Josh's attention, so I mouth the word "baby" to him and his jaw literally falls open.

"You know we were over there until last week. And while we were there this little girl, she couldn't have been more than 14 or 15, had a baby and she put her baby girl in my arms and begged me to take her with me. And it broke my heart, Donna."

CJ is holding back sobs and my eyes are filling with tears too. Josh is on high alert and about to pull his hair out from not knowing what's going on.

"Anyway," CJ pulls herself together. "We ended up staying over there for a few extra weeks but we couldn't bring her home with us. However, they are expediting the process- I'm telling you, Donna, I hate it, but money opens a lot of doors. We had to come home and get our house in order. Literally. And we had to get married or Danny couldn't adopt her. We would have liked to invite everyone out here for the wedding, but we know that with the State of the Union coming up, it's just too crazy. And we just wanted to get it done!"

Her last statement has me laughing. "Well I can totally relate to that!"

By now Josh is making crazy hand motions at me, trying to get the details. "Hold on a second, CJ, Josh is gesticulating wildly."

I hold the phone away from my mouth and give him a look. "Yes?" I ask him smugly. I know something he doesn't and it's driving him crazy. I might as well enjoy the moment.

"I. want. to. talk. to . her." Josh says slowly and clearly.

"When I'm done."

"Donnnna," he whines, "she's my friend too."

CJ laughs in my ear, having heard the whole exchange. "You can put me on speaker if you want," she offers. "Unless you'd like to torture the man-child some more."

"Oh I think I've had enough fun for one day." I grin at him as I put the phone between us and press the button.

"Okay, you're on speaker now CJ."

"Hey, pal o'mine! You're going to be an uncle!" CJ announces with a flourish.

Chapter Text

Sam walks into my office from the oval with a brown file folder and a smile on his face.

"Is it done, Sam?"

"Yes."

"Really? Is it really done?"

"Yes."

"And he doesn't want to change anything else?"

"No. It's locked."

At that I stand up and pump my fist in the air.

"Thank God. Let's have a drink!"

"Does Margaret let you drink before noon?"

"No. I think the wives got to her."

"Well duh."

"I guess we'll just have to wait and celebrate tonight, then. Man. I was starting to think you'd end up finishing the speech in the car!"

"It wouldn't be the first time."

"No, I guess not. And at least he didn't decide to cure cancer this week."

Sam chuckles. "No, just vacillating on what to say about Kazakhstan."

"Well, that's on me. We've got to be careful. It's too soon to sound the alarms, but we don't want it to look like we weren't aware of what was happening if it goes south, or worse that we were intentionally misleading the public."

"Josh." Sam interrupts. "I know. We've been over this ad nauseum. It's done. Let it lie."

"You're right." Walking around my desk, I grab him in a hug. I'm so happy this is finished. "So tell me. What are you going to do with the 10 hours you have to spare?"

"Well, I'm going to take this to the teleprompter guys. Then I'm going to call the Secretary of Agriculture and let him/her know he's the designated survivor. Then I'm going to take my wife to lunch and try to convince her to go home and take a nap before we come back here."

"Are you okay with sitting this one out? I could make Lou handle the dial groups instead."

"It's okay, Josh. I think Ainsley's a little relieved not to have to sit through the speech. She's heard most of it anyway. I don't mind being the senior staffer left behind this year."

"Well, I promise, this isn't the reason that I picked you, but I'm glad that Lulu's godparents won't be there . . . since neither Donna or I can skip it."

Sam looks like it can't believe I'd ever skip it. Just wait until next year Sam, you'll see.

"You hated being the one left behind. In fact, you only did it once, and that was by accident. The year you got stuck at National Strategies Group. What was that? His third?"

"Yeah, it was either his second or third. And well, I'm older and wiser now. And you know what? That was a good year. Donna and I got to watch it together. It was nice."

"As I recall, you spent the whole time perplexed as to why Donna was trying to set you up with Joey."

"And as I recall, you were no help in answering that question."

"Way above my pay grade, man." He scoffs at me.

"I suppose so." I can't help but chuckle too. Sam really wasn't any better at understanding the ways of women than I was. Joey told me exactly what Donna was doing and I didn't want to believe her. But hindsight really is twenty-twenty. There's no doubt that Donna loved me even then. And although I was in complete denial, I loved her too.

"All right. Thanks for working your magic on the speech. Now, get out of here. Do what you've got to do, then spend some time with your wife. Rub her belly and say hello to my godson for me."

"When do you rub my pregnant wife's belly?"

"I don't. I just tell you to do it!"

Sam rolls his eyes and walks out the door. As soon as he leaves, I dive back into to a briefing memo. I can breathe a little easier knowing that the speech is locked, but we still have to take this vision and make it a reality. We still have deals to make, and votes to pass, and projects to implement. And I want to be ready to hit the ground running tomorrow.

At 4pm, I head into the oval. "You ready for the briefing?"

"Yes. Let's just hope nothing's changed."

"From your mouth to God's ears."

"Amen." Matt says. standing and heading toward the door. I fall into step beside him.

"You're going to be great tonight. The speech is incredible."

"Unless we get bad news during this briefing."

"We're fine. If the situation in Kazakhstan changes over the course of the next few hours, we've got alternate language ready to go. There's no reason to get stressed. We've got you covered."

"Ten hut!" General Alexander brings the room to standing as we enter. The President doesn't take his seat, so we all remain that way.

"So, what's the news?" POTUS asks, arms folded across his chest.

I know he's not happy about this. Who can blame him? He inherited a military action. He's done everything he can to keep peace in the region, and to promote democracy, but the other players don't seem to be following the playbook. This is not how he wants to spend his Presidency.

"As we suspected, the Chinese have begun to mobilize troops on their side of the border. Neither side has crossed any boundaries yet, but they both know the other side is poised to do so. At this point, I recommend we continue the status quo. No further withdrawal of our own troops, but no announced change in our own policy. I think we need to remain prepared to send troops back to the region, but I don't want to escalate anything. As long as they each stay on their own side of the border, we should just carry on as is."

The President runs his hand over his face. "Okay. But you are preparing for troop deployment if necessary, right?"

"Yes, sir."

"Because this whole situation is one wrong move from exploding in our faces again." POTUS mutters as he turns and stalks out of the room.

I don't say anything as we head toward the residence. I've learned to give him a few minutes to burn off his irritation. Plus I don't like to discuss sensitive matters in the hallway. There aren't supposed to be press in this area, but you just never know which junior staffer is around the corner and liable to talk. We've had a lot less leaks than the Bartlet Administration and I'd like to keep it that way.

Once we enter the Residence, Matt stops on the stairs. He leans against the wall and closes his eyes for a few seconds. I just wait him out. Finally, he opens them.

"You okay?"

"Yes. I'm just frustrated. We've done everything right and it still could go all wrong. We've finally got momentum on the policy agenda that I ran on, the goals I want to accomplish. I don't want to lose that."

"I understand. I'm not going to let that happen. No matter what happens in Kazakhstan. Full steam ahead on our domestic policy."

"Thanks Josh."

"That's what I'm here for."

"What's next?"

"Spend some time with your family. I'm going to kidnap my wife and daughter. We're going to go home and have a family dinner, and change our clothes, and then we'll be back by 7."

. . . . .

As Donna walks into the room, Lulu and I both look up from the book we are reading.

"You look incredible." She takes my breath away. Every. Time.

She grins and spins for me. Then she puts the jacket on over her blue sheath dress. It's perfect. Somehow professional and sexy as hell at the same time. She's also wearing the blue topaz jewelry that I've been giving her for special occasions. She knows it makes me happy to see her decked out in it.

"You guys ready?"

"Yep. Pajamas on. Bag packed. Ready to go."

"Go?" Lulu asks in confusion. She's been pretty oblivious to the fact that we're running about an hour ahead of our normal schedule, but now she's picked up on the fact that this isn't a normal evening.

"We're going back to the White House to see Manda and Nikki!" I tell her enthusiastically.

She was much too little to remember that she spend the last State of the Union in the White House as well. Realistically, I know that nothing is going to happen tonight. But if God forbid it does, I want her in the White House safe and sound and with people that will have every resource to protect her.

"Okay!" She says agreeably.

Once Donna has her coat on, she takes Lulu from me so I can gather the diaper bag and blanket. Then we make our way to the car so we can get on with one of the biggest nights of our careers.

. . . .

"God bless you. And God bless the United States of America!"

I jump to my feet applauding loudly. I glance over to Helen and Donna, grinning wildly at them. The speech was incredible. The room is filled with energy. President Santos shakes hands with Speaker Sellner. Then he shakes hands with Senator Furman. Even as he starts to move towards the exit, it takes quite a while for the applause to die down.

Finally, people are starting to move. Some towards him. Some clapping me on the back, and shouting encouraging words. Others are greeting Helen and Donna and the special guests in our box. It's quite chaotic in here, but Matt is grinning, shaking hands and signing pieces of paper and even a couple of ties.

When he gets to our row, he pauses long enough to take Helen's hand and press a kiss to it before he turns to greet another Senator.

The secret service uses that opportunity to get Helen into the aisle just behind the President, and she's soon in her own bubble of people shaking hands and greeting people with Donna at her side.

I'm so proud of both of them. They've come such a long way. The fluff pieces about the blondes in the East Wing have given way to thoughtful articles extolling their accomplishments. They are wildly popular with the public, among both liberals and conservatives. Donna just seems to know when to showcase the cookie-baking, PTA Mom version and when to bring out the no-nonsense, get things done, make this world a better place, tried and true liberal First Lady. They are our secret weapon.

"Annabeth- you'll see the guests back to the White House?"

She nods and I slip into the aisle and am soon surrounded myself. I can barely register all the faces around us as we press our way towards the doors. I simply smile, shake hands and say "thank you" dozens of times.

It's very similar to our first State of the Union address a year ago, but it's just a little more enjoyable having one under our belt. I know we are going to see a bump in our numbers. I just can't wait to find out how much of a bump. But I know in my heart of hearts, he did well tonight.

. . . .

Once we are tucked into our car, Donna takes my hand. I lean over and give her a quick kiss. I'm so grateful for these small moments to ourselves. There are moments when POTUS and the First Lady need us to ride with them and brief them on the next events, but more often than not, Matt and Helen keep the car rides for themselves, and allow us the same courtesy. It's a moment of heaven.

"Congratulations. He did well." Donna beams at me. God. This is my favorite thing. Impressing her. Making her proud of me. When she looks at me like this, I swear I could slay dragons.

But of course, I have to give credit where it's due.

"Sam did phenomenal."

"How on earth did he have time?"

"Lou and Otto and the rest of the speech writing team did the heavy lifting. Then Sam gave it the polish it needed. The poetry is his. And Matt's. He added quite a bit of his own language. It really came together, didn't it?"

"And who was the architect?" Donna cups my face with her soft hands, and looks into my eyes, never willing to let me give away all the credit. "Whose vision guided the substance? Whose political genius knew what the people needed to hear tonight?" She asks me softly. She's always been my counterbalance. When my ego gets too big, she brings me back. But she's never let me downplay my contributions either. She's never let me wallow in insecurity. She's perfect.

"I drink from the keg of glory, Donna. Bring me the finest muffins and bagels in the land." I offer in a low voice.

Chapter Text

"I drink from the keg of glory, Donna. Bring me the finest muffins and bagels in the land."

Josh answers me, it a quiet, self assured voice. Not the cocky, youthful, exuberant Man-child that he was all those years ago. But I still reward him with a grin and a quick kiss. I love it when he says things that show me that he remembers the early years and the fun that we had.

"How about champagne and crab puffs instead?"

"Sure. Do you think we have time to check on Lulu before the party really gets going?"

" Helen needs to change clothes. I'll check in on Lulu then, but I'm sure she's asleep."

"I know. I just want to be sure she's okay."

God. I love this man. I thought the depth and breadth of my infatuation a decade ago couldn't be matched. But that was based on only a small glimmer of who Josh Lyman really is. A passionate, incredible person, who does everything larger than life, including love beyond measure.

I'm sure there are commentators and political pundits who tonight will assume that Josh is reveling in the glory of the political show he just put on. And to some extent, he'll promote that image later during the reception. Because part of his job requires the swagger. But this right here, this is the true Josh. The one that worried excessively about both of us attending the State of the Union address because of the minute possibility that we could leave our daughter an orphan if the catastrophic happened. The one who is never completely at ease when his loved ones are out of his sight. The one who really would sacrifice everything to protect us from the slightest harm. The one who really doesn't want anything more than just to check in with the nanny and make sure his princess is sleeping peacefully.

"I promise, I'll check. And I'll take a picture to show you. And I suspect that at some point you'll be able to find a few minutes to sneak away and check for yourself."

He gives my hand a squeeze in thanks. Sometimes we really don't need words. A few seconds later and we've arrived at the portico. Matt and Helen are exiting their limo as we climb out of ours. As soon as we reach them, Helen turns to me.

"Do I really have to change my suit?"

"Are you really going to ask me this every year?" I quip back.

Helen rolls her eyes. I swear between Josh and Helen, I'm totally prepared for Lulu's teenage years.

"Come on, let's do it." She says turning toward the Residence.

"You know, Dr. Bartlet just made a joke about it every year. She thought it was kind of dumb tradition too."

"It just feels like we are reinforcing gender stereotypes. It's not like any of the men are changing."

"Well, really, none of the women either. Just you." This observation nets me another, even more pronounced, eye roll.

"Because people care what I'm wearing?!" She offers in a huff.

"Because people are curious about you. The more attention you draw, the more opportunities you have to share your message. Multiple outfits means multiple pictures in the paper, means more exposure to the public."

"Yeah, yeah." She says good-naturedly. I don't know why she makes me have this discussion every time this happens. I've told her repeatedly it's her decision. But I guess if she needs to hear the reasons to reinforce her resolve, then that's what I'm here for.

"I'll just go check on Lulu while you are changing. I'll be right back."

I run up the stairs and open the door to our bedroom silently. Sure enough, my angel is sound asleep on her tummy with her rump in the air. Her eyelashes rest against her cheeks and her auburn curls frame her face. I'm in awe. Josh and I made her. We did good.

I make sure my phone is on silent then snap a quick picture. It's a little dark but it'll have to do. I don't want to use the flash and take the chance of waking her up.

Down the hall, I hear the low sound of the television in the game room. Nicole, Nanny Maria, and Miranda are playing a board game, while Peter is playing a video game.

"Everything okay?" I ask.

"Tia Donna!" Miranda jumps up and gives me a hug. Then she turns on the pout- "I don't get to go to the party!"

Silly child, the pout won't move me, I practically invented it. And even if it did, it's not really my decision. Still I try to comfort her a bit.

"No, but you got to stay up late. Did you watch your Dad's speech?"

"Yes. It was really good. They stood up and clapped a lot."

Helen walks into the room smiling. "Yes they did."

"Mommy! You look so smart and sparkly!" Miranda tells her, making Helen laugh. I knew the suit with the sequin collar was a good idea. Just the right touch of fun to a business event.

"Thank you, baby. Okay, it's time for you to go to bed. Peter, are you going to come down and listen to the toasts?"

"But Mommmy," Miranda starts to whine.

"No buts, Miranda, we've been over this. Peter is 13. He has a later bedtime, so he can come to the party for a few minutes, if he'd like."

Peter thinks it over for a few seconds. "Yes. I'll come down." He finally responds softly. I feel for him. I know he wants to see his Dad, but this job is so hard on the whole family. And he's confided in Josh that whenever his picture is in the paper he gets a lot of harassment from classmates. I'm going to try to find him an unobtrusive spot to observe and I'm going to watch the reporters like a hawk.

"You can come downstairs with me." Nicole offers and Peter's face lights up. "I just have to change first."

Then she looks to me. "If that's still okay with you Donna?"

"It's fine with me. Maria said she'd be happy to listen for Lulu until we get back."

"Yes, ma'am. I have the monitor right here."

"Maria- I've told you a dozen times. Please call me Donna."

"Yes, ma'am."

Helen just giggles. Neither of us have been successful. Maria is just too polite.

"I'll change too!" Peter offers enthusiastically.

Helen and I exchange a glance, both amused by her son. His little crush on me has been replaced by his huge crush on Nicole.

"That's a good idea, Peter. Nice pants and a shirt with a collar is fine. If you'd like to wear a tie, I'm sure Nicole will help you tie it."

Peter grins, and I'm pretty certain that we'll see him with a tie on later. I glance at my watch, then give Helen a little nudge.

"It's time. Are you ready?"

"Sure. Let's go."

When we get to the West Wing Lobby, an usher announces us. I'm still not quite used to all the fanfare and attention, even after almost two years in this position. Josh's head is the only one I want to turn when I walk into the room.

I quickly scan the room, but I'm not surprised that he and Matt aren't here yet. They'll arrive last.

Helen and I use the opportunity to spend a few more minutes with the special guests in the mural room. One of them has really captivated Helen.

"So, you're a teacher in Laredo, Texas. How many students do you have?"

"I have 42 in my third grade class.'

"Wow. That's a lot."

"Yes, we desperately need more teachers. All the students need more class time, more individual help, more resources."

"Well, like Matt said tonight, we are working on it. Education is one of our main priorities. Is there anything specific to your class that we might be able to take care of right away?"

"Well. Most of the class is bilingual. But we do have a number of students that are immigrants or first generation. We could always use more books that have both Spanish and English text. Many of the students take them home and teach their parents English."

Helen turns to be with her eyebrows raised. "On it." I let her know.

. . . .

On our way back through the lobby, we pause for a few minutes to watch Mark Gottfried wrapping up a segment with Amy and the house minority whip. She flashes a grin at me when he flounders under her withering take down.

"Hey Gracie." We hear Sam call out to Ainsley who is off camera getting a bit of make-up for the next segment.

"Hey Sam-" She greets her husband with a big smile.

"Can I talk to you about adrenaline for a second?" If it's possible, her smile gets even bigger. He wraps his arms around her and rubs her belly. "Please don't forget you're a blonde Republican girl and that nobody likes you."

"Gee, I don't know Sam, the size of my belly is fairly strong evidence that somebody likes me."

"Ms. Hayes, can you take your seat? We're on in 30 seconds."

She gives Sam a peck on the cheek and walks away.

"Try to remember you're on our side!" He calls out after her.

"Get me something to eat, would you?"

The Republican talking head rolls his eyes, while Mark just grins. "The two of you crack me up. I take full credit for the State of your union!"

. . . .

"Hey Sam, great speech."

"Donna, Mrs. Santos." Sam blushes a little. I'm not sure if due to the praise, or getting caught flirting with his wife. "I only tweaked it a little."

"You're too modest, Sam." Helen tells him linking an arm through his and moving him towards the Blue room. "I heard Matt's comments about some of the earlier drafts. He didn't settle down until you worked your magic."

"Well, thank you."

"How do the did the instant dial groups look?"

"Good. Really good for some of the health care initiatives and immigration reform. Surprisingly good for some of the education proposals."

"Have you heard from Joey yet? Does she have any early polling numbers for us?"

"Not yet. Which means that you'll probably need to talk your husband off a ledge before too long."

Helen laughs outright at Sam's snark. "Get your wife and baby some food. We've got to go mingle now. Matt and Josh should be here soon."

I feel a swell of pride when the doorman announces Josh and everyone applauds loudly. That's my man. He walks in tall, like he owns the room. When he was young, people who didn't know him accused him of arrogance. I suppose some still do. But I know, that many days "cocky" was a cover for insecure. Today he doesn't look like either. He finally looks like he knows that he earned his spot and that he deserves it.

It's a sexy look.

His eyes find mine and his grin gets bigger. He spends a few seconds greeting people until he reaches my side. Then he takes my hand as they announce "The President of the United States."

The room bursts into raucous celebration. Everyone is jubilant. Tonight is the reward for another year's hard work.

Matt takes Helen's hand and as they make their way to the stage, and Josh takes two champagne flutes from a passing waiter. He hands one to me as we watch Matt start to quiet the crowd.

"Thank you. Thank you, everyone. Tonight's been a good night. We've got another year under our belt. We are making real progress with our domestic agenda, and we have been instrumental in moving the world towards peace and democracy. Everyone here has played a role to some extent, and I'd like to thank you all by name. . . . But we don't have the time for that, and I'd be sure to forget someone. I would, however, like to take the time to give special thanks to my Senior Staff. They know who they are. So to all of you, I say, enjoy tonight, because there is still plenty of work to be done tomorrow. God Bless the United States of America!"

Matt raises his glass and we all follow suit.

"Camelot. For the 21st century." Sam declares from behind us.

Josh and I turn and clink glasses with him and Ainsley before taking another drink. The moment after he swallows the champagne, Josh dives back into work mode.

"What's the word, Sam? How are the early numbers?" 

"I'm sure they aren't any different than what you heard from Joey twenty minutes ago."

Josh just raises his eyebrows at Sam, who then starts to babble. "Surely you don't expect me to believe that you didn't check with Joey about polling immediately upon your arrival?"

"Sam. . ." Josh says his name slowly.

"Yeah, I'll just go check on those numbers." Sam mutters. "Coming cupcake?"

"No, you go ahead. I'm going to find a seat and something to eat."

"I'll go with you." I offer Ainsley, as she looks for a waiter. But before I can follow her, Josh pulls me to the side.

"Did you check on Lulu?"

"Yes."

"You promised me a picture."

"Where's your phone?"

"It's in my office. I just have my Blackberry."

'Well, I texted it to your phone."

"Donnnnaaaa . . ." He whines a bit until I pull out my phone to give him the fix he needs for his addiction. As soon as I flash the screen at him he smiles and relaxes for a minute, but then his brow furrows.

"What's she doing here?" He hisses angrily.

I follow the path of his blazing eyes and see Ryan and Nicole dancing closely, both all smiles.

"Ryan invited her. I said she could come."

Josh immediately heads towards the nearest exit. "You left Lulu alone?!" He accuses.

"Joshua." I grab his arm and halt his progress. "Nanny Maria is up there. She agreed to watch our daughter whom I'm sure is still sound asleep. So take a deep breath and reassure me that you did not just accuse me of neglecting our child."

Josh takes the breath and has the good sense to look very remorseful. "I'm sorry. That came out wrong."

"I know this is hard for you to believe but I really do love her as much as you do."

"I know." He gives me a sincere smile complete with dimples.

"Dance with me?" He offers. At my nod, he leads me to the dance floor where we quickly fall into our rhythm. But as we dance, I have to wonder if anyone, including me, could possibly love Lulu as much as Josh. And could he possibly love another child just as much?

Chapter Text

"Mama! Mama!"

"Yes, darling?"

Donna smiles weakly from the dining room as Lulu interupts her for the third or fourth time in the last 15 minutes. Lulu holds out a strawberry. Donna shoots me a pleading look.

"I'll take it to Mama."

Lulu hands me the strawberry. I quickly trot from the kitchen table to the dining room and hand Donna the snack.

"Thank you." Donna sighs, looking back down at her laptop. Suddenly inspiration strikes me.

"I'll take Lulu out. We'll go somewhere and play for a while. It'll give you a few uninterrupted hours to work on your homework.

"Thank you." Donna breathes in relief. "I probably should have gone to the library when you got home. But she was napping and I was on a roll."

"It's fine. I wish we had an office for you to work in. If she couldn't see you she wouldn't bug you as much. She just wants to be the center of attention."

"I wonder who she gets that from."

"Ha, ha. Anyway, I was thinking . . . "

"Oh no. I see where this is going. The Brownstone is fine for the three of us. We really don't need to look for a house."

I know that this apartment is fine for the three of us. But I'm still hoping it won't always be just the three of us. I understand why Donna decided to stay on the pill. Even though we've decided that we'd eventually like another baby when it comes right down to it, the timing isn't quite right.

It only took a couple months to get pregnant with Lulu, and then Donna was so sick. If that happened again, it would be right in the middle of this last semester of school. I'd never want to hold her back from graduating.

"Daddy!" Lulu calls out, another strawberry in the cubbly little hand extended towards me.

Donna laughs. "Is she eating any of those?"

'Yes about every third one. She's very good at sharing."

"I love you two. But I really would appreciate some alone time. Hopefully I'll get enough done today that we can have a Family Sunday tomorrow."

"I'll work it out, baby. I promise you several uninterrupted hours and then I'll bring you dinner."

"Well, this just keeps getting better."

"And after we put Lulu to bed . . . " I wiggle my eyebrows suggestively.

"Daddy!" Lulu calls out more urgently. She doesn't like being ignored. I place a quick kiss on the top of Donna's head, then hurry back to my princess.

. . . . .

"Ah-kay, we're going now. See you in a few hours."

Donna stands up, stretches, then gives us a hug. Lulu giggles, and Donna holds on a few extra seconds.

"Alright. You got everything you need?" She gives me a once over. "Are you sure about this?"

"Yes, I'm sure. I've got her backpack. I've got a plan. And I've got a car and a driver. I can handle an afternoon with my daughter."

"Okay. Love you. Bye!" Donna quickly accepts my assurances and sits back down at her laptop.

I bend down and give her another kiss. "Bye. Love you."

"Bye-bye, Mama." Lulu parrots.

"Bye-bye, sweet pea."

As soon as the door shuts behind us, I give Lulu a squeeze. "We'll be just fine, won't we baby doll?"

I wrap the blanket around her, and head towards the car. "Are we all set, Kevin?"

"Yes, sir."

"Excellent."

He opens the door, and sit Lulu in her seat, quickly buckling her in tightly, then tucking the blanket around her before climbing over and taking my own seat.

"Hey Steve, you're driving again."

"Yeah, the ankle is all healed."

"Glad to hear it. We've got a full afternoon. First stop is the Gymboree play center over at Logan's Circle. You know where that is?"

"Yeah, we used to take our kids there. The drop-in classes were very convenient. Do they still have a punch card?"

"It's all on computers now."

"Of course."

When we get to Gymboree, I pull Lulu out of her car seat and wrap the blanket around her. In my day we wore coats. Then again, I don't think I rode in a car seat at all. But as long as Lulu is safe, that's all that matters. I can adjust.

Once we're checked-in, I set her down. We've got about ten minutes before the next group starts, but the waiting area is very kid friendly. Lulu toddles over to the shelves and looks at the toys for sale. Their marketing people are pretty genius, putting age appropriate toys at exactly eye-level for the target audience.

Lulu brings back an egg. When she hands it to me it rattles and she smiles. As I start rhythmically shaking it, she dances around the lobby. Oh yes. I'm definitely buying it.

The gym monitors smile at Lulu's antics as they wipe all the equipment down from the previous session. A few more parents arrive, and as the lobby gets a bit crowded, I pick Lulu and hold her. This slot is open for 1-3 year olds and some of these kids are pretty big. Lulu seems to be the smallest one here today.

"Alright! Who's ready for some fun?" A young lady with a name tag identifying herself as Candy opens the gate and everyone files in.

"Over here, friends!" Jackson calls out from the open area. "Let's start with some circle time."

I follow the line of parents, still holding Lulu. I put her down so that I can lower myself to the floor and sit cross-legged. I may be one of the oldest parents here, but I'm still pretty flexible.

Lulu climbs into my lap as soon as I'm situated. Once everyone is seated, Jackson and Candy start lightly patting their hands on their laps. After a few seconds all the kids and parents have joined in.

Once the welcome song is over, Jackson launches right into "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt." Lulu bounces in my lap as I sing along, and I pull the shaker out of my pocket so that she can join in the fun.

None of these kids really seem to know the lyrics but everyone still seems content.

When he's done leading that song, Jackson starts to talk to us in an overly dramatic voice.

"Okay kiddos! We're going to have some free play time. Remember one at a time on the equipment, and Moms and Dads stay within reach of your child."

Duh.

Jackson stands up and the kids start to wander off towards the equipment. I let Lulu take the lead. First she crawls through a tube, then she runs over to the bridge I hold her hand as she walks up the stairs and the down the other side. She turns around to go the other direction, but there is a little boy waiting his turn.

"One way today, Lulu. Let's give him a turn. Do you want to get back in line?"

Lulu runs toward the monkey bars where three kids are waiting. Well, that's not what I meant, but okay.

She stops behind the last little girl, but a few seconds later, she runs back towards the tunnel. I suppose someday we'll have to work on her patience, but right now I'm happy to skip the monkey bars.

Lulu peeks her head out of the end of the tunnel. "Peek-boo, Daddy!" She giggles ducking back into the tunnel so I can't see her.

I play along with this familiar game. "Oh no! Where did Lulu go?"

I hear more giggling. And I get a big smile from a nearby Mom. "Lulu! Where are you?" I call softly.

"I here, Daddy!" She pops back out of the funnel and grabs my leg.

"Oh! There you are!" I squat down so I can hug her close. "I'm so glad you're still here. Do you want to bounce on the ball?"

Her eyes light up and she runs over to it. I scoop her up and sit her on the top of the giant ball holding tightly while I make her bounce and she giggles. Making her happy is the best feeling in the world.

"Alright, friends, it's parachute time!" Candy calls out and we all make our way back over to the mats for more singing.

. . . . .

"Where to now?" Steve asks once we are back in the car.

"The Mall."

Steve looks at me in the rear view mirror. "The National Mall? It's kind of cold for the baby."

Duh.

"Georgetown Mall."

When we pull up in front, I hop out and get the stroller out of the trunk. When it's ready, Kevin opens the car door so I can get Lulu out of her seat and put her into the stroller.

"Let's start at the fountain." I tell Kevin as he takes point. The new guy, Luke, drops in behind me and we are off.

Once we are to the fountain, I get Lulu out of the stroller and sit down on a bench with her. She claps her hands as the water squirts up into the air in time with the music and accompanied by a light show. It really is quite relaxing to just sit and watch for a while.

Lulu snuggles into my arms and we watch the fountain together for almost 20 minutes. The last 5 or so she starts to get squirmy and I know that the moment is about to end.

"Milk, Daddy?"

"Sure, sweet heart. Let's go to Starbucks."

"Bucks? Cookie?" Her face lights up and I wonder for a moment what it says about me as a parent that my one and a half year old knows what Starbucks is and that when she's with me her chances of getting a cookie there are pretty solid.

After I pour the milk into her sippy cup and hand her the cookie, Lulu settles back into he stroller. Pushing the stroller through the mall with one hand, I sip my coffee with the other. All in all this isn't a terrible way to spend a day. I mean, I'd rather have Donna here too, but this is nice. Just hanging out. Like normal people.

"Hold on, Kevin. Let's go in here." Gymboree's new spring line looks really cute.

As soon as I walk into the store, two salesgirls flock over to the stroller and start cooing over Lulu.

"Oh my gosh, she's so adorable."

"You are so cute! Look at you all decked out."

One of the girls gets a gleam in her eye as she looks up from Lulu's outfit and determines that I'm an easy mark. She's still talking to Lulu, but her comments are obviously directed at me.

"Did you bring Daddy shopping today? I bet he likes to see his little princess all dressed up. I've got just the shirt you need."

She pulls out a shirt that is embroidered with the phrase "Daddy's social butterfly." She hands it to me, then quickly adds cute little leggings and matching tennis shoes.

"That is short sleeved, and it's still pretty chilly. We have a matching sweater," she offers, pulling one from the rack and smiling at me like it's a forgone conclusion that I'll be getting the whole outfit.

Of course, she's right. How could I resist? "Barretts?" I ask her and her grin gets even bigger.

"Yes, sure!" She hurries over to a display. "Butterflies or the plaid bows? They both match that line."

"The plaid doesn't really go with the butterfly print on the leggings do they?"

"They're the same color scheme, And we do have a pair of plaid shorts that match the shirt for when it gets warmer."

"Which ones Lulu?" I ask holding them up to her.

"Butterflies." She answers pointing to the orange ones.

"Wow. She's really smart." The sales clerk observes, pulling out another shirt. This one is white and is embroidered with the phrase "Butterfly Kisses."

"It's nice to have a spare shirt that matches the outfit. In case she spills something."

Man, this girl is good. I wonder if she's interested in politics.

"Okay, yes. Both the shirts, the sweater and tennies, the leggings, and give us the shorts too. So she can wear this when it gets warmer. And both sets of barretts."

The clerk rings them up. "That's $165.50 including tax."

I hand my card over to her and she swipes it with a satisfied smile.

"Where do you go to school?"

"The American University."

"Do you work on commission?"

"No."

"So why the upsell?"

Her lips quirk up a little and she gives me a steady look before answering. "It's my job, so I want to do my best. She really is adorable and the cost really isn't an issue, is it Mr. Lyman? No harm, no foul?"

I wonder if she got my last name from the credit card or if she knows who I am. "No harm, no foul." I agree and she smiles. Then I hand her a business card. "If you are interested in an internship, give me a call."

Before she even looks at it, her eyes light up. "Thank you Mr. Lyman." Yeah, I think she knows who I am.

I tuck the bag in the basket under the stroller and leave the store smiling as we head towards our destination.

"Bears, Daddy! Bears!" Lulu squeals as we arrive. Donna always tries to hurry us past this place when she's with us. But she's not here to stop me today.

"What do you think baby doll, should we go inside?"

"YES!"

I get her out of the stroller and leave it just outside the door with Luke. Kevin follows us inside.

"Welcome to Build-A-Bear." A young man greets us. "I'm Bruce. Is this your first time?"

"Yes it is. How does this work?"

"I'll walk you through. First you pick out a furry friend." He points us to a wall and cubbies with what looks like deflated stuffed animals.

"Which one do you want, sweetie?"

"Bear, Daddy." Lulu points to a pink bear hanging on the wall, and Bruce takes one from the cubbie.

"Okay, next, you take a heart from this bin and hold it tight and make a wish."

Lulu takes a fistful of silky red hearts from the bin.

"Can Daddy have one baby girl?" She gives me one, then I hold her hand back over the bin. "Okay, drop the rest."

She gives me a look that clearly conveys that she's not a big fan of this idea. "Come on, sweetie. One per customer. Drop 'em."

I give her hand a little shake while tickling her. Eventually she giggles and drops the hearts. Bruce gives me a grin. Parenting win.

He walks us over to the stuffing machine and hooks the pink bear up to a tube, then hands it to Lulu. She squeals, then laughs when he pushes a foot pedal and stuffing shoots into the bear. He puts his hands over Lulu's and moves the tube around so that the arms, legs and head fill up with stuffing too, then he pulls it off the machine.

"Okay, give it a squeeze and see if it is huggable."

Lulu hugs the bear tightly and a little of the stuffing comes out. "Is that good?" Bruce asks.

Lulu nods emphatically. "Okay. Do you want to add a message. You can say I love you, then she'll be able to play it any time."

"Okay."

Bruce hands me the voice box. I press record, then look into my baby's eyes. "Lulu, I love you so much."

Love you too" Lulu responds, patting my cheek.

"Let's check it." Bruce plays back the message and Lulu grins when she hears my voice. Definitely worth the extra $8.

Bruce puts the voice box and heart into the bear then sews it up. "Okay. Next stop is clothes."

We wander down the row. Lulu doesn't seem particularly interested until we spot a t-shirt with a large butterfly on it.

"Butterfly!"

That's perfect. It even includes denim shorts. I grab the outfit and head towards the counter. The line to check out is next to a whole display of shoes, which immediately captures Lulu's interest.

"Shoes, Daddy."

Sure, why not? After all, she is her mother's daughter. "Which ones do you want, sweetheart?"

Lulu picks up a pair of yellow tennis shoes. When we get to the counter, the cashier rings up the clothes and I hand her the slip for the bear.

"What's her name?" She asks.

"Lulu."

The cashier types it into her computer. "Okay what's your daughter's name?"

"Lulu." I repeat again. I'm a little confused.

"OH! This is for the Adoption Certificate. What's the bear's name?"

"OH! What's the bear's name Lulu?"

"Bear!" Lulu responds. Well, that's not very creative, but I guess we'll work on that later.

"Do you want me to get Bear dressed?" She asks Lulu, who nods.

The cashier makes quick work of it and the bear is dressed in just a couple minutes. "Do you want bows?" She asks Lulu, who nods again.

She pulls out a drawer, grabs 2 yellow bows on rubber bands and slips them over the bear's ears.

"There. All set. That will be $51.50."

I hand my card over. Now I know why Donna doesn't let me come in here. Oh well. From the way Lulu is smiling and hugging her new bear, it's worth it.

Outside the store I put Lulu and her bear back in the stroller and look at my watch. We've still got a little time before we need to think about picking up dinner.

"Let's go to the bookstore, Lulu."

Chapter Text

My phone buzzes with a text from Josh. When I open it, I'm greeted by a photo of a grinning Lulu hugging a light pink bear. Yeah, that's something new. The accompanying message from Josh is: "okay if we come home? Thai for dinner?"

I shoot back a text- "sure, that sounds great." If he's at the mall, which based on the bear, I suspect, that means I've probably got at least 30 minutes. Just enough time to proofread this one more time. Plus if I leave him on his own much longer who knows what else he'll end up buying her. If it ends up being just the bear, I'll count myself lucky. I knew he'd eventually end up at that Build-A-Bear store. It was bound to happen sometime.

. . . .

In conclusion, as demonstrated by President Bartlet's speech to the United Nations on February 23, 2005, the media reaction to the State of the Union appears to have contributed to a subtle shift in Foreign Policy during the Bartlet Administration. Following intense media scrutiny, the subsequent speech did not contain language addressing Taiwanese protests. President Bartlet later attended a summit in China and obtained concessions regarding talks regarding nuclear deregulation in North Korea. Thus, it can be surmised that the media focus contributed to a change in Foreign Policy with demonstrable effect.

Done! And this paper is pretty darn good, it I do says so myself.

And I finished just in time. I can hear Josh and Lulu opening the front door.

"Mama!"

I click print and stand up to stretch. "Hey guys! You're home."

"We're home." Lulu echoes, reaching for me. I quickly take her from Josh, wrapping her in a tight hug.

"I missed you, baby. I love you."

"How about me?" Josh asks eagerly.

"Meh." I offer, shrugging off-handedly.

"You wound me, Donna. How is my fragile ego ever to survive your brutal bluntness?"

"Oh, I'm sorry." I sass back. "I guess I'll have to find a way to redeem myself tonight." I give him a slow wink. "Maybe after Lulu goes to bed."

"Ah-kay." He grins. It's then that I notice that he's got several bags in his right hand.

"Whatcha got there?"

"The food?" He queries back holding up a brown paper bag. As if that's going to distract me from the other bags in his hand. One is adorned with large colorful polka dots and the word Gymboree. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Josh bought our daughter more than just a bear today.

I just raise an eyebrow and wait him out. It's always fun to see if he goes for unrepentant or sheepish when he gets caught spoiling her.

"I bought Lulu a couple of new outfits. She's growing very fast. She needs clothes."

Ah, unrepentant, but trying for nonchalant. Okay then.

"Needs?" I continue to give him the look to watch him squirm.

"Why should the grandparents get all the fun?" He offers as an excuse, still managing to maintain an air of indifference. This is a new tactic for him. I decide to give him a little more rope to see if he'll hang himself. It's fun to tease him.

"I suppose not. What's in the other bag?"

"Books."

"She has a ton of books."

"These are in Spanish." This time he does respond a little sheepishly. I love the soft, contrite side of him just as much as the bold and brazen.

"Alright. I guess she does need clothes, and I can't really argue with books since they're educational. Anything else you need to confess?"

I mean, Lulu is hugging the evidence right now, so he knows he's not going to get away with anything.

Josh shrugs. He sets the shopping bags on the end of the table, and then heads toward the kitchen with the food. Lulu and I follow along behind him.

"Lulu and I had a wonderful day. We went to the drop-in class and exercised, and played music and picked up a egg shaker, and we went to Build-A-Bear in the mall. It was a very good experience." He stresses the word experience to try to earn brownie points.

And while he's talking, he opens the cupboards and gets out the plates, and some silverware, and glasses. Setting the table is a good way to earn brownie points too, and he knows it.

When he finishes, I can't help but giggle a little. If only the Republican Congress could see him now. Josh Lyman has turned into a total marshmallow. I always knew he had it in him.

At my giggling, his dimples pop out and he relaxes as he serves up dinner. He knows he's off the hook and that I'm not really upset.

"Thank you for taking her on such a fun date. It was really helpful to have the time to myself. I finished my paper for my Media class."

"Want me to proof read it for you?" He offers eagerly. He's pretty invested in my education. It's sort of sweet.

But I don't know. We talked about most of my classes last semester. He's been really good at giving another perspective, and simplifying the material. He really is a good teacher. But this is the first paper I've written that directly utilizes my White House experience. And it's about a time that wasn't that great for Josh. I don't know if I want him to see it.

"Donna?" He questions when the silence stretches on.

"Not tonight. I want to be done with school for the evening."

"Ah-kay."

He let's it go and we sit down for a family dinner.

. . . .

"Bath time, Miss Lulu!" I announce getting up off the floor. "Time to put your toys away."

Lulu picks up the shape sort and puts it on the shelf. I'm so happy she listens. She's getting really good at instructions. I hope this carries over for when she's older.

Josh puts her new pink bear on top of the bookcase. There's not a lot of room left in here for much else. Even though I'm not really upset, it occurs to me that I do need to curb his shopping or start donating some of her things. I should go through her clothing and box up what we aren't using. And a few of these stuffed animals could go too. But probably not the giant bear. They wrestle with it almost every night.

While they finish picking up, I get a new diaper, a pair of pajamas and a hooded towel out of her closet. Then I head into the bathroom to start running the water.

I start to count slowly in my head. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, . . . sure enough before I get to one, Lulu comes toddling into the room, naked, laughing, with Josh pretending to try to catch her.

He scoops her up and plops her into her bath seat. She squeals and kicks her feet. She does love the water.

But by the time she's completely washed, she's calm and relaxed. I fight back a smirk as I notice Josh subconsciously match Lulu's giant yawn. The sleepy time bath bubbles really do work on Lymans of all sizes.

I give it a few more minutes then I pull Lulu out of the tub and wrap her up in a towel. As I start to leave the bathroom, Josh pulls the plug on the drain.

"You've got this?"

"Yeah, I'll clean up in here. It's your turn for story time. I'll come in for a kiss when I'm done."

It only takes a few minutes to get Lulu into her pajamas and to snuggle into the big yellow chair together.

Once Josh has come in for his good night kiss from Lulu, I pull "Anne of Green Gables" off the table and start reading. We read lots of children's interactive books during the day. Nighttime stories have become more about snuggling then the actual content. But we figure it's never too early to start on the classics.

Lulu's eyes are barely open when I lay her down in the crib.

"Goodnight, Leonora. I love you more than you'll ever know. Sweet dreams."

I close the door gently behind me and walk back into the living room to find Josh. He's standing by the desk reading something. He looks up and smiles at me the way he does when I've done something he's especially proud of.

"Hey, this is really good."

That's when I realize I left my paper on the printer.

"Oh. Um. I wasn't really sure I was going to let you read that."

He looks a bit crestfallen for a moment. "Really? Why not?"

"I don't know. Sometimes I just want to do this myself, without a bunch of input. So I know that I earned this." My tone is a little sharper than I intended.

He immediately sets the paper down on the desk. Darn it. I didn't mean to hurt his feelings.

"Donna, I'm sorry. I should have asked before I read your paper. But you are totally earning this. That paper is really good."

He's really earnest. And his words make me feel really good. But I still don't really want to talk about school work tonight. And I know just how to distract him.

"You're not just saying that to get in my pants?" I offer with a little bat of my eyelashes. Josh responds with a lecherous grin.

"Lulu's asleep?" He asks unnecessarily.

"Yep," I respond, "let 'Lymans after dark' begin!"

"Excellent. I have big plans for 'Lymans after dark.'"

"And exactly what is on the agenda for 'Lymans after-dark' tonight?"

"Well, ice cream, for one."

"I like this so far."

"And I think wine, also. White wine, of course."

"Wine AND ice cream? Keep talking."

"And then a movie in bed. Something we've already seen because I plan to distract you."

"Oh yeah? And exactly how do you plan to do that?"

He looks at me with smoldering eyes.

"Well, I thought I'd start by slowly rubbing my hand up and down your thigh. Then I'd lean close and nibble on your ear. Then I'd kiss my way down your neck . . . "

. . . . .

On Sunday morning, I wake up after 8. It's not as late as we used to sleep in on Sundays, but it is two hours later than weekday mornings. And really, come to think of it, when we were first married we didn't sleep in that late on Sundays . . . we just didn't get out of bed as quickly.

This is what getting old is all about I guess. No more Naked Sundays. Unless I can convince Josh to let Lulu sleepover with Zoey and Charlie. They've been asking. I think they want a trial run on the kid thing. At least we have 'Lymans after dark." I'd say we're not doing too bad, even if we are getting old.

As I finish in the bathroom, I hear Josh and Lulu in the kitchen chatting. And something smells good. I have to say domestic Josh is really working out nicely for me.

Walking into the kitchen, I'm greeted my cheering section.

"Mama! Hi Mama!" Lulu bounces a little in her seat and sticks another strawberry in her mouth.

"Good morning." Josh turns from the stove and gives me big smile.

"Good morning you two."

The two of them continue to grin at me. At moments like this, I feel complete. I don't know what I did to deserve this kind of love, but whatever it was I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

I plant a kiss on Lulu's sticky cheek, then grab Josh from behind.

"Careful, it's hot over here." He warns.

"Sure is." I respond giving him a squeeze and nipping at his earlobe.

He turns his head towards me, so I plant a kiss on his lips. Lulu laughs at the loud smacking noise we make.

"You're frisky this morning." Josh chuckles. "Maybe I should let this bacon burn and carry you back to bed."

"Two problems with that plan. Your back and the baby."

"Yeah. You're right. Bummer. Guess I'll just have to keep cooking instead."

"I like the sound of that. My man, bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan."

"It's turkey bacon."

"Even better." Finally, I let Josh go so he can finish. Besides I'm ready for a cup of coffee. While I'm filling my cup, I watch as Josh turns the french toast, then the bacon. I really couldn't be any more content with my life than I am right now.

After a few minutes Josh serves me a plate with french toast, bacon, and a side of fruit, then joins me with a plate of his own.

"So, Lyman Family Sunday. What should we do today?" He asks as he slides some bites of toast and bacon onto Lulu's tray. While I take a big bite of my food. He really has become quite the cook.

"This is fabulous. With all these calories, I should get out and do some walking today. Do you want to go to one of the museums?"

"Maybe the Museum of American History? They've added that kids area. So we can walk for a while, then give Lulu a chance to stretch her legs. Let's go this morning, then we can be home by nap time."

He wiggles his eyebrows at me and I have to grin at him. I like how he thinks. Of course, I like to tease him even more.

"Oh, you feel like you're gonna need a nap today, old guy?"

"Yes, and I think sassy young ladies should nap too."

"Good plan."

Chapter Text

The shrill beeping of my pager jolts me out of sleep. I grope for it on the nightstand without taking the pillow off my face, but once I see the message, I jerk upright throwing the covers off.

"Josh?" Donna lifts her head and looks at me groggily. "What's wrong?"

"Noth-" I bite back my automatic response. This isn't nothing. They don't page me to the situation room in the middle of the night for nothing.

Our eyes meet for a long moment, then I shrug. "I'm not sure yet, but I have to go in."

She nods once then sits up and watches as I pull on a suit. I forgo the tie, stuffing it in the coat pocket. I can put it on later.

When I'm ready, I walk over to her side of the bed and sit down for a moment. Donna immediately wraps her arms around me. I absorb a little of her strength then place a soft kiss on her lips.

"I love you."

"I love you, too."

"Try to go back to sleep. I'll send a car back for the two of you if I'm not going to be back before it's time for you to leave."

"Okay."

I slip into Lulu's room and watch her sleep for just a moment, then I head out, reminded why I do what I do.

Less than ten minutes have past before I'm sitting in the car speeding towards the White House. Even though I'll be there shortly, I pick up the phone in my car.

"This is Josh Lyman. Alpha, Bravo, 77642, Zulu, Tango. . . . Put me through to the situation room."

. . . . .

When I stride into the room, people glance up, then back to their monitors. They all have concerned looks, some of them might even be called grim, but none of them look scared. I find that comforting.

"Josh." As I take my seat, General Alexander acknowledges me with a brisk nod. As does the National Security Advisor. I like Glenn well enough, but honestly, in moments like this, I miss Nancy McNally.

"General, Glenn." I greet both of them before staring at the large screen before me.

The National Security Advisor starts the briefing. "There's been an incident in Kazakhstan. The continuing protests in Almaty have turned violent again. Tamirov sent in riot police."

"Casualties?"

"Yes, possibly several hundred. Mostly ethnic Chinese."

"This is sounding a lot like how this whole mess started in the first place."

"Yes. It is." Glenn responds.

General Alexander interrupts, "The reason we called you in- is that a large number of Chinese troops have crossed the border into Kazakhstan. At the rate they are moving, they'll reach Almaty in less than five hours."

He points to the screen where I see a group of arrows progressing steadily towards a star with a circle around it.

"What about the Russians?"

"I'm sure they are looking at the same data we are. I expect to see troop movement any minute now."

"How many troops do we have left in Kazakhstan?"

"Less than 5,000. More in Astana than in Almaty. It's not really a peace-keeping force. It's primarily a diplomatic mission. Embassy security. We kept them there to maintain a presence. Not for intimidation."

"Well, yeah, it seems pretty clear that nobody's intimidated by our presence." I quickly retort.

Alexander gives me a disgusted look.

"Sorry. I wasn't disparaging our troops, just pointing out that the size of our presence is no longer motivating the Russians and Chinese to stay in their corners."

He nods in acknowledgement that I have a basic grasp on the situation but otherwise his demeanor remains the same.

"As you know, I didn't want to remove as many troops as quickly as we did. And now, we have a small force standing between two nuclear powers." He looks toward Glenn, who picks up on the conversation.

"We need to decide whether to evacuate completely or send reinforcements. Although, truthfully, I'm not sure that we will have enough time to do either."

I feel my heart drop into my stomach, but I try to remain calm and collected as I respond with the only thing I'm really qualified to say.

"I'll wake up the President."

. . . . .

I walk into the room. Pick up the phone, and dial a number.

"Yes?"

"Mr. President. We have a situation. I'm waiting in your study."

"Do I have time to put on pants?"

"Yes, sir."

I smirk to myself as I wait. I chose wisely. Even being awoken in the middle of the night, Matt is alert and ready. The pants comment was both a touch of humor and completely practical at the same time.

Less than five minutes later, he walks into the study. His shirt is crisp, with the top buttons, open and he's pulling on his suit coat. For some reason, I expected him in old jeans and a hoodie, but I don't have time to think about that now.

"What's up, Josh?" He asks as soon as the door is closed behind him.

"We're needed in the situation room. The Chinese have crossed the border. They're on their way to Almaty. We expect an immediate response from the Russians."

Matt turns and reaches for the door immediately. "Let's go."

As we stride down the hall, I feel an odd mixture of dread, confidence, and pride.

If we don't somehow defuse this situation, World War III really could break out. Two years ago I couldn't comprehend why on earth Jed Bartlet would send troops into Kazakhstan right before the election. I doubted the seriousness of the situation, and I'm ashamed to admit, I wondered more than once if he just liked Arnie Vinick better than my candidate.

But I'm starting to understand, now, what it's like to be responsible for the world. When two countries as large and powerful as Russia and China fight over land, the whole world is in danger. And there's no one else who can stand up to them. I just hope we didn't make a mistake bringing most of our troops home.

As we jog down the stairs, Matt breaks the silence. "Was the Secretary of Defense in the room?"

"No. He was on his way in."

"Good. Wake up Arnie Vinick too. I want him there as well."

"Of course."

I immediately dial the switchboard. "This is Josh Lyman. I need you to page the Secretary of State. Code Alpha. 444-8762. "

Just before we arrive, I ask Matt what's been on my mind ever since my pager went off.

"Is this one of those things that seems worse than it is because of my inexperience with the military?"

Matt gives me a long look. "No- this is one of those things that seems bad because it is. Trust your gut. I do."

. . . . .

"Ten hut."

The entire room snaps to attention as the President walks into the room. Even the non-military personnel stand taller.

"General Alexander. Sit. Rep." POTUS barks, and for some reason it actually seems to put the room at ease. Maybe it's because he speaks their language.

General Alexander runs down the same information he gave me 20 minutes ago. The President listens intently and nods every few seconds. As soon as Alexander is finished, The President turns to his National Security Advisor.

"Glenn, how secure is the US Consulate in Almaty?"

"It's not like it's a military base. It's an office building. Surrounded by a wall." Matt gives Glenn a glare, and he settles down a bit. "It's secure. For now. But if Tamirov's riot police fight back against the Chinese, we aren't in a position to help. And we certainly don't have enough troops to defend the Consulate against a Chinese army determined to take it."

"Are you recommending that we evacuate?" Matt asks evenly.

"Yes. I recommend we close the Consulate and evacuate civilian personnel to the Embassy in Astana. Then from there we can bring them home."

"If we close the Consulate before the Chinese troops even arrive we've conceded any position of authority." General Alexander interrupts.

"Are you suggesting that we DON'T evacuate?" Matt asks in disbelief.

"No. We have to evacuate non-military personnel. But we can't just close down the consulate. We need a base of operations and a presence in the city. We can send reinforcements from the Embassy to the Consulate to maintain security. And in 36 hours we can have more troops on the ground. But you need to give the command to mobilize right now."

I see Matt's spine straighten. He won't let Alexander bully him into a decision before he's ready.

Matt pauses as we hear the door buzzer and we all turn to see who has joined us. Oddly enough, I find myself hoping for Arnie Vinick. There are hundreds of reasons that I'm relieved that he's not the President, but he's been invaluable as a Secretary of State. He's calm, reasonable and articulate. I have a profound respect for him. I have mixed feelings when the Secretary of Defense walks through the door. At least it's not Swain, or for that matter Miles Hutchinson.

Matt greets him. "David, good to see you. Are you up to speed?"

"Yes, I got a briefing over a secured line on my way here."

"Excellent. General Alexander was just explaining why we need to at least maintain the illusion that the consulate's office is up and running."

"Isn't that a question for the State department?" Arnie Vinick asks as he walks through the door.

"Arnie! Glad you could join us. You ready to weigh in on this?" Matt does look pleased to see him, although General Alexander does not.

Arnie nods. "Let's be clear about this- the Chinese crossing the border is an act of war. But it's not our war yet. We need to talk to Tamirov. He's probably already reached out to the Russians. So the questions are- Are we joining them in dispelling the Chinese? Can we somehow still play neutral mediator or has that ship sailed?" He pauses and looks around the room but no one is prepared to answer him, so he continues. "We also need to issue immediate warnings to ex patriots and American tourists changing the threat level. And we ought to at least talk about an evacuation plan for them if it becomes necessary."

Matt nods along as Arnie's speaking. I can see he's already pleased that Vinick's raised several new considerations. The way I see it, there's no real doubt that we have to be involved. The question is how much and how fast. But nobody's asked me yet. And it's a good thing, because I don't know the answers to those questions.

"Alright everyone." The President jumps back in. "We only have a few hours until the Chinese reach Amalty. We don't REALLY know what their intentions are until they arrive. Arnie- I need the State department working on diplomatic solutions. And I want the Ambassador from Kazakhstan in the Oval, ASAP. Glenn- I want multi-tiered evacuation plans on my desk within 30 minutes. General- I want to see a range of military options and timelines. Let's go."

"Yes, sir." As soon as everyone responds, Matt and I turn and leave the room.

"You were pretty quiet in there."

"There were enough ideas being thrown around. I don't need to speak just to hear the sound of my own voice."

"No, but I'd like your input on the options that they end up presenting. Are you ready to do that?"

"I serve at the pleasure of the President."

. . . .

After we watch the Ambassador leave, Matt motions for me to sit back down. "So?"

"We're going to have to send more troops back in. Whether Russia joins forces with Kazakhstan or not, we're going to have to go back."

"Aren't you worried about political ramifications?"

"No. We're gonna get creamed for it politically. But I don't have the luxury of worrying about that right now.  Right now I'm worried about the planet. If we walk away from this our children might not have a future. There's a bigger picture."

"Yes. There is."

"We do this right. The best we can. Hopefully, we keep the middle east from literally exploding. And then we deal with the political fallout when it arrives."

"Okay, then."

"Okay."

. . . .

Matt, Arnie and I sit with grim faces and cups of coffee. None of us has anything to say. Now we wait. Wait to hear if all the civilians are safely in Astana. Wait to hear if the Chinese army opens fire on the Kazakh police. Wait to hear if World War III has begun.

My phone buzzes and as I read the short message the corners of my mouth turn up a little, and I let out a little sigh.

"They're here." I report to Matt and Arnie and watch as they both respond with the same little grimace.  It's not a joyful smile, more like a resigned acceptance.

These jobs of ours are incredible. Unimaginable stress, and inconceivable perks. I'm going to do my best to make sure World War III doesn't start today. But if it does, my wife and daughter are going to be right next to the President's family, safe in a bunker.

Chapter Text

Helen and I are sitting across from each other, not saying much.

A phone call in the middle of the night from Josh telling me to get the baby and the go-bags and that a car was waiting to bring me to him. That'll cause an adrenaline spike.

All Josh had told me was "there's a situation in Kazakhstan. I'll feel better if you are at the White House." And I haven't even seen him yet. To not know what's happening. Well. This is the first time I've ever seriously thought about different jobs.

There was something about the tone of his voice. It didn't even occur to me to question him. He's never done this before- he must have been really worried about our safety to pull us out of bed in the middle of the night.

Helen only had a little more insight. And it was definitely more chilling. Matt had called her to let her know that Lulu and I were on the way, and that there was a possibility that the Secret Service might want to move us all to a more secure location at some point.

More secure than the Residence. There are not many places more secure than the Residence. Once she shared that bit of knowledge there was virtually no chance that either of us would get to sleep. At least the kids are all out cold.

I find myself drifting a little when suddenly a CNN breaking news alert fills the screen. Video shows Chinese troops arriving by the truck-full and disembarking through out Almaty. They take up posts on corners, as tanks arrive to block the streets.

The news channel cuts to older footage of riot police clashing with protesters in another part of the city, as the reporter speculates as to why the soldiers have arrived.

"It's unclear what's happening here. There has been a massive incursion of troops as you can see. They have not opened fire, but they have blocked roads and appear to be setting up a perimeter surrounding the areas where violent protests have been occuring. All is quiet for the moment, but I guess the only way to describe this is- a massive occupying force."

I turn to Helen. "Well. I guess that's why we're here then."

"But that's half a world away." Helen looks perplexed, and I have to say, this does sort of feel like an overreaction on Josh's part. How is a war in central Asia really going to affect us?

. . . . .

The radio silence from the guys has been downright eerie. It's odd being brought here under such tense circumstances, but not seeing anything earth shattering on the news, and not hearing anything further from them.

I don't know whether we should stay in the Residence or go to work.

When nothing more has happened several hours later, Helen and I venture down to the West Wing. Maybe we'll be able to find out whether or not to send the kids to school.

The Oval Office is empty, so we make our way to Josh's office. Margaret is at her desk looking sharp as a tack. I wonder how long she's been here.

She stands when she notices Helen. "Hello, Ma'am."

"Margaret, do you know where Josh is?" I ask, hoping that she's able to tell me.

"The President and Josh are in the Sit Room. I'm not sure when they will be back. Sam will be covering Senior Staff."

"Thanks, Margaret."

"No problem."

"Well, what now?" Helen asks.

"Let's go back to the Residence. We'll ask Ron if the kids should go to school. If we don't hear from the guys, I'll come down for Senior Staff and see if I can get any more info from Sam."

"Um, okay. That sounds like a good plan."

. . . . .

"Okay everybody, settle down. I think most of you have seen or heard the news this morning. China has invaded Kazakhstan. Josh and the President, as well as the Secretary of State, and Joint Chiefs are monitoring the situation very closely. The Consulate in Almaty has been temporarily evacuated and the State Department has issued a warning to all U.S. citizens that the area is considered High Risk." Sam has clearly prepared, and he looks confident at being left in charge.

"At this point all domestic policy is full steam ahead. Keep working on what you're working on- except for Bram, obviously today's briefings are going to be focused on Kazakhstan."

"Are we sending troops back to the region?" Lou asks.

"I don't have the answer to that question yet. At this point the answer to every question is that the President is monitoring the situation closely and urges all parties to negotiate a peaceful solution. You got that Bram?"

"Yes, but I don't know how long that will hold them."

"I know. Hopefully we'll have more to stay by the next briefing. Lou . . . we're gonna need you to work on two speeches."

"One if we send troops back, one if we don't?"

"That's right."

I pipe in- "What about the First Lady's office?"

"What's on her agenda for today?"

"She's suppose to read at a Charter School."

'What time?"

"After lunch."

"Keep it for now. We can re-evaluate an hour before you're supposed to go."

"Okay."

"Alright everyone. Back to work." Sam is cool as a cucumber, and it's reassuring. But I still have questions.

As everyone files out of the room, I linger. "Have you seen him Sam?"

"I got about 10 minutes this morning when I first got here, before they went back into the Sit Room."

"How'd he look?"

"Tired."

. . . . .

I find my staff gathered in the sitting area of the First Lady's office. Everyone looks anxious. Annabeth stands up and speaks for the group as soon as I'm through the door.

"What's happening?"

"I don't have much more than what's being reported on the news. Chinese troops have invaded Almaty. The Consulate's being evacuated. Tourists are urged to leave the area."

"What are we supposed to be doing?"

"Keep doing what you're doing. For now, Mrs. Santos will maintain her schedule. That might change, but I'll let you know. Alright everybody?"

I'm pleased when I get a chorus of yeses.

"Outstanding. I'm heading back up to the Residence. Karen, if Josh calls for me transfer him up there, please."

"Of course."

. . . .

Back upstairs I find Helen with Lulu and Nicole in the kitchen. Lulu is happily chowing down on some fruit, while Helen and Nicole sip out of coffee mugs.

"Thanks for getting her some food. Sorry, Nicole but her schedule could be a little off today."

"No problem. We'll adjust. Won't we darling?"

"Yes, Nikki." Lulu responds with a smile. I don't know how much longer we have of the agreeable stage, but for now I'm enjoying it.

Lulu's face lights up and she stretches her arms out. "Da-dee!"

"Hey princess."

I whirl around at Josh's voice. I'm so glad to see him.

He plants a kiss on the top of Lulu's head, then wraps his arms around me.

"I'm glad you guys are here. It's been a long night."

"Is it over? Are you done?"

Josh gives a little half laugh. "No. Just on a little break."

"Where's Matt?" Helen asks as she glances out into the hall.

"He went to the bedroom to change his shirt."

"Well, excuse me then." Helen offers politely as she slips from the kitchen.

"Nicole, would you give us a few minutes? I'll bring Lulu upstairs when she's done with her breakfast."

"Of course." Nicole stands up and takes her coffee mug as she heads for the back stairs.

"What's going on Josh?!" I ask as soon as she leaves.

He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. "You've seen the news?"

"Yes."

"I really don't have MUCH more information that than. We've evacuated the Consulate. We've been on the phone with Tamirov and the Russians all night. They are still deciding whether to go in and expel the Chinese forcefully. The Chinese insist that they are just there to protect the ethnic Chinese from Tamirov. They are making claims of genocide."

"They are trying to argue that this is like Kundu? That's crazy. How many Chinese have died?"

"A few hundred- but there is no evidence of systematic executions. All the fatalities have been connected with the protests and rioting."

"So what are we going to do?"

"I don't know yet. There's no doubt that China has committed an act of war toward Kazakhstan. And Russia is ready to jump in, which just reinforces China's claim that Tamirov is just a puppet."

"The man's been elected twice! We over saw the last election."

"Yeah, but it wasn't flawless. And the bottom line is we don't want all out war between two nuclear superpowers." Josh scrubs his hands over his face, and I see that he really doesn't know what they should do.

"What are the advisors saying?"

"General Alexander and the Secretary of Defense want to mobilize troops immediately and get back over there. We have taken the first steps to recall some of the troops that were sent home."

Aw man. I feel bad for them. I can't imagine being told your mission was successful and then three months later being told you have to go back.

"But Vinick wants us to exhaust all diplomatic options first. The State Department is trying everything they can think of."

I rub his shoulders. "I know that you and Matt will do the right thing. You'll listen to all of the advice and you'll figure it out."

"I don't know! I mean- we spent the last two years creating a democracy in Kazakhstan. We can't just walk away now. But we can't spend decades over there either. The majority of American people wanted our troops home."

His voice goes up a little at the end and I can feel the stress radiating off him. I hate to ask more of him, but I need to know what to do myself.

"So what about today?"

"What?"

"Sam has everyone maintaining their domestic policy schedules. I assume that applies to the First Lady's office too? We're supposed to go reading today."

"Yeah. Keep your schedule. The Secret Service will bring you back if something drastic happens."

"What about you?"

"What about me?"

"Who's going to take care of you?" I caress his face and he leans into my touch. "Please eat something. And take a nap as soon as you can."

"Okay. I will."

"Your medication is in your go-bag up in our room. You need to take it."

"I promise."

He's being so agreeable, I add one last instruction. "Please stop by the medical bay at some point and have them check your blood pressure."

"Donna. It's not going to show anything different than the machine in my office."

"And how high was it?"

"140 over 83."

He gives me a little smile. We both know that's higher than the doctors would like, but it's not off the charts. He's been doing so well. Exercising, eating so much better, getting a reasonable amount of sleep. But we know with this job, there are going to be high blood pressure days.

. . . . . .

"Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest."

Helen turns turns the book and shows the class the illustration of the old man sitting on the stump.

"And the Boy did."

She turns the page. "And the tree was happy. . . . The end."

She closes the book gently and smiles softly at the class, who are looking at her in awe. She's really good with kids. Things like this are a perfect fit for her.

The teacher comes to the front of the class. "Okay class, what do we say to Mrs. Santos?"

"Thank you!" They all respond in unison.

Helen smiles at them as she stands up. "You're welcome. Thank you all for listening so well. Now be sure to be good for your teacher too."

"We will!" They respond again, remaining in their spots as we head toward the door.

I glance at my watch as we head down the hallway. We've done very well staying on schedule today. Four classroom, four books, and we'll be home before Miranda and Peter.

Ron touches my arm to get my attention, then speaks to me in a low voice. "Donna, the press have gathered outside the school. Will Mrs. Santos be taking questions?"

"No. Absolutely not. Take us straight to the car."

. . . . .

I'm looking ahead to next week, when Josh stops by my office.

"Hey."

"Hey. How're you doing?" I stand up and meet him in the middle of the room, giving him a quick kiss.

"I'm doing okay."

"Did you eat lunch?"

"Yes, and I took my meds. I've been a very good boy."

"I'm glad to hear that. Anything new?"

"Not really anything I can talk about. Donna, I'm gonna have to stay here again tonight, you know."

"I know. I was thinking that maybe Lulu and I should stay too. Even if it's not for security. Just so we can see you for a few minutes. Maybe you can have dinner with us?"

He looks relieved at my suggestion. Like maybe he wanted to ask, but doesn't want to be too overprotective.

"Yeah, that's a good idea. Can you order something for 6:30?"

"Sure. . . . Have you slept at all today?"

"Not yet, but I'm okay."

"Alright." I know he's gone much longer than this before. And I trust him. But, I'm going to be watching.

. . . . .

After dinner Josh and Lulu fall asleep together in the rocking chair. I give them a half an hour before I move her to the crib.

Of course, that wakes Josh up.

"Hey sleepy head."

"Ugh. How long was I out for?"

"Not nearly long enough."

He rolls his eyes at me. I think I might have taught him that move. It makes me grin a little.

"Barely a half an hour. How about you lay down on the bed for a little while?"

"I don't know. It's almost 6am in Kazakhstan. Maybe I should check in."

"Josh. You stayed awake working the US contacts while it was the middle of the night over there. You can't stay up all night again, just because now it's daytime over there. Please, lay down- get a couple hours sleep. If they need you someone will come get you."

"Okay, but you know what would help?"

"What?"

"Someone to hold."

. . . . .

I wake up alone to hear Lulu calling for her Daddy. But she's happy to see me when I get her.

And she's thrilled when Josh joins us as we're finishing breakfast. He looks a little less tired than yesterday. He also apparently took a shower and put on a clean suit. He really is doing a better job of taking care of himself.

"Out Da-dee!" She demands holding up her arms.

"Are you all done?"

"Yes, all done."

Josh looks toward me and I nod. She hasn't eaten quite as much as normal, but I think it's more important for Josh to hold her. For both their sakes.

Josh grabs a cloth and cleans her hands and face before pulling her out of the seat. She snuggles into him and pats him on the back. I see Josh squeeze her a bit, and his shoulders relax a little more. Yes, that's good for both of them.

Josh sits with Lulu in his lap, while I finish eating.

"So, you're dressed for school."

"Yeah, it's Tuesday. Is there any reason I shouldn't go? Nicole will be here."

"No. It should be fine for you to go. We are still at a stalemate. But I'd like you to take a town car okay?"

Chapter Text

As I pull out the blood pressure monitor and hook the cuff on, I breathe deeply, close my eyes, and think happy thoughts. The cherry blossoms are going to peak this week. I imagine Donna and Lulu and I walking through the Tidal Basin. The smell of the trees. Donna smiling at me. Lulu laughing. The three of us just being together enjoying life. I smile softly to myself until the machine beeps.

When I open my eyes, the machine reads 136 over 77. I'm pleased that it's a little lower. Still not quite as low as I'd like it, but I have to be realistic. This is about as good as can be expected under the circumstances. I'm sure it would be higher if I didn't have Donna and Margaret making sure that I consumed more than coffee and Red Bull.

Poor Otto. Margaret nearly disemboweled him when he offered me a Red Bull yesterday. It was kind of fun to watch. Dumb kid, just trying to suck up, and somehow missed the fact that I haven't had a Red Bull in almost two years. And then to do it in front of Margaret!

I'm still chuckling to myself when Sam arrives.

"Hey. Are you doing this meeting or am I?" He asks as he walks in the door.

"Good morning, Josh, is the proper greeting." I chide him teasingly.

He gives me an odd look. "Oh no. You're punch drunk."

"I am not."

"Seriously, man. I don't think you're getting enough sleep. Maybe you should let me take the night shift tonight."

"No Sam." I respond firmly. "We don't need another person running on half empty. And you need to be with Ainsley at home. The baby could arrive anytime! You're going to end up with the night shift soon enough. "

"We still have two weeks!" Sam responds a little desperately. Poor guy. I think he's still a little freaked out about becoming a Dad.

"Human gestation is 38-42 weeks, Sam. You've covered this in class! Ainsley is almost to 38 weeks. The baby could be here any time."

Sam rolls his eyes and smirks at me. "I forgot, I'm talking to Mr. What to Expect himself. Did you memorize that whole book?"

"Not all of it."

Sam just shakes his head. Sure, act like I'm the odd one. Just wait until the kid is here and he's trying to figure out what to do. He'll wish he'd done his homework then.

I'm tempted to harass him a little bit more about how much his life is about to change. But I really do need him in tip top shape to handle the domestic agenda for right now. He's been doing a great job managing everything.

"Anyway- to answer your question. I'm due back in the Situation Room in twenty minutes. I'll start Senior Staff by briefing everyone on Kazakhstan, then you can take over and handle all the domestic policy stuff."

. . . . .

As I leave Senior Staff and head towards the Sit Room, I'm in a pretty good mood. The world didn't end yesterday. My staff is doing a good job under Sam's direction. And I'm holding my own during all these Foreign Policy discussions.

Lou is getting antsy about the speech. I think we all know that we are going to have to send some troops back into Kazakhstan. We just don't know how many, or what their mission is going to be. But we need to figure it out. The President is has to address the country soon.

With the situation at a stalemate, I thought that the news would die down. I mean there's not really much to report. But the story is getting more air time than I'd like. Of course there are plenty of Republican pundits willing to go on air to ask why we pulled out of Kazakhstan when we did. Never mind that they were just as anxious to bring troops home for the holidays. And there are an equal number of talking heads suggesting that we didn't need to be there in the first place, and that it's time to let the region fend for itself.

Why can't they talk about the momentum on our health care, immigration, or education policies and all the progress we've made on the domestic agenda since the State of the Union?!

. . . . .

On the way out of the briefing, I glance at my watch and take a moment to shoot Donna a text while I head back to my office. "Just checking in. How's your day going?"

Sometimes she checks her messages and sends me a text back during her media class. That Professor is pretty lenient. After lunch I know there is no hope of hearing from her until her seminar is over.

As always I remind myself that she has a detail with her. They'll keep her safe. And if I'm feeling especially anxious I could always just have Scott check in with Jackie for a report. I take a deep breath and mentally check my stress level. It's high, but I'm okay. I can want a text from my wife just to hear from her. I'm not overly worried, and I don't need to check with her agents.

I'm just arriving when I feel my pocket buzz.

"I'm good. Love you."

. . . . .

"The speech is done." Lou offers, handing me a folder. "He needs to be in the Oval by 6:45 for make-up and lighting. We go live at 7:05."

"What?"

She gives me a disgusted look. "Do I really need to repeat all that?"

"No, but when did this get finalized? We're not ready to address the nation! We still don't know what we're doing!"

"JOSH!" She practically hisses at me. "This morning you said that POTUS needs to address the country tonight. You weren't wrong about that."

"But we have to have something to tell them!"

"Hence the speech." She responds dryly, tilting her head towards the folder I have a death grip on.

"Sit." I bark at her, leaning back in my seat and beginning to read.

After a few minutes, I look up. "Okay. This is good. It's very reassuring. Good reminder that emerging nations have their little hiccups, and that we are committed to helping that region remain at peace. I like the tone. Very calm, Presidential."

"There's room for you to add a little more detail about what deployments look like, if you are ready to do that. But I don't think being vague hurts us. I'm sure Bram will get those questions during the post-speech press conference. He can always deflect citing security reasons."

"Okay. Good job, Lou."

"Don't second guess yourself, Josh. We really can't let another day go by without him addressing the country. Without his statement, there is a vacuum that's being filled with talking heads spinning it their way."

. . . . .

"Margaret!"

I check my watch again as I approach her desk. I need to hustle. I don't want to be late.

When I walk through the door, she's standing in front of her desk. Holding the bag out to me. Smirking.

Okay, yes, I guess I am rather predictable.

"You know where I'll be."

"Yes, boss."

. . . . .

Lulu is already eating her lunch when I arrive, but it's fine. I don't have very much time. I just want to spend some of it with her.

Nicole stands up and smiles at me as I sit down. "I'll be in the game room if you need me."

"Thanks, Nicole."

I'm glad that she's giving us our space. "So Miss Lulu, what have you been up to this morning?"

She cocks her head and grins back at me. "Green." She says, holding up a grape and offering it to me.

"That's right, baby."

After the last two days, it's nice to focus on the simple stuff.

After lunch, I take Lulu upstairs for her nap. I have just enough time for a story. Donna and Nicole have been reading Anne of Green Gables to her. It's not my favorite, but it's alright.

"Sweet dreams, baby doll." I kiss Lulu, lay her down, and turn on the baby monitor. But she immediately sits up and sticks her lip out into a pout. My heart drops. I'm really bad at this if she puts up a fuss.

"Da-dee?" She whines a little.

Be strong, Josh. Be strong.

"Time for a nap, baby girl. Lay down." I pat her back a little and try to get her back into position.

"No."

Ack! What did she say? What do I do?

"Yes, sweetie. Naptime. I love you."

I turn and hustle out of the room, and try not to focus on the little whiny noise that she's starting to make. I make my way straight to the game room, where I find Nicole sitting next to the monitor, smiling.

She takes one look at my panicked expression and actually giggles.

"You did fine, Josh. Listen. She's not crying."

I listen for a minute, relieved that Lulu is just babbling to herself in a sing-songy voice.

"She's used to getting put down for a nap while she's still awake. She'll talk to herself for ten or fifteen minutes, then she'll settle down."

"What if she doesn't?"

"If she gets upset, I'll go in and comfort her and then we'll try again. It'll be fine."

"Okay." I glance at my watch. I really do have to go. I guess you have to trust the person in the room. "Thanks, Nicole. See you tomorrow."

. . . . .

On the way back to my office, I stop in the Press Briefing Room and stand in the back. Bram is getting hammered with questions about what the President is going to say tonight. Everyone wants details about what the most recent events are going to do to our Kazakhstan policy.

"Bram! Bram! Didn't the President promise to have all troops completely out of Kazakhstan by Memorial Day?"

"No. That's a mischaracterization. The President stated that based on the stability of the region, we would reduce our presence there by Springtime."

"Bram! Was it a mistake to assume the region was stable?"

"The region was stable when we began withdrawing troops, and it was stable this Christmas when the bulk of our soldiers came home. And as of ten minutes ago, there had been no clashes between the Chinese troops and Kazakh citizens."

"You said as of ten minutes ago. . . are you expecting violence? Is that why you are couching your terms? And if you are expecting violence is it a good idea to send troops back to the region?"

Ugh. The questions are getting a little bit away from him.

"Listen, Mark. I'll tell you again. I'm not going to provide any specific information regarding the possibility of troop deployment. It is the express policy of the White House not to provide that information due to security risks. Okay I have time for one more question. You know we have a lot of domestic policy stuff going on. Someone want to ask a question I can actually answer?"

The room chuckles, and finally Chris Seeger raises her hand.

"Yeah, Chris?"

"Any chance the Seaborns are going to have the baby today? I've got 6pm in the pool."

"Well, according to our resident expert, Josh Lyman, the baby could arrive anytime."

The room erupts in laughter at the idea of me being the baby expert. I don't mind at all. Bram goes on-

"But I'm hoping for next week for both personal and professional reasons. I've got April 6 in the pool."

The room chuckles again and Bram leaves the podium.

When he gets back to me, I give him a firm pat on the back. "Good job. You handled that well."

"Any chance I'm going to have anything of substance to offer any time soon?"

"I don't know. I'll be headed back in there shortly. Obviously we hope to have decisions before the speech tonight, but even so it may take awhile before we're fully prepared to answer questions."

. . . . .

I'm already on my way when my blackberry buzzes with an urgent code directing me to the Sit Room STAT. I pick up my pace moving faster through the halls than I usually do. Several staffers with concerned looks move out of my way. It's never a good sign to see the Chief of Staff running in the building.

When I arrive, I find Matt with his arms crossed, glaring at General Alexander.

"How could this happen?! I thought we still had some military personnel at the Consulate's office."

"We do. But it's a small squad. Primarily tasked with guarding the building at this point. All the Consulate staff were evacuated."

As they stare each other down, I take the opportunity to ask. "What happened?"

The President turns to me, "there have been fatalities."

Chapter Text

I sit down in the lecture hall next to Jordan and he gives me a smile.

"I wasn't sure whether or not we'd see you today."

What an odd thing to say. I give him a little shrug. But I'm saved from answering when Cynthia comes to the front of the room and starts the lecture.

Yes, I was a little unsure about leaving Josh today, but he's handling the stress really well. He has a great staff and he's learned to use them. Plus he's physically healthier than he has been in a long time. And he's really taken to yoga and mediation in the last two years. Of course I'll always worry about him, but it was pretty easy to convince myself to come to class today.

Not that I'm going to tell Jordan any of that. Then it occurs to me- he probably just thought that I'd have to be in the White House because of my job. Not for Josh's sake!

Truthfully, the First Lady's office hasn't really had any responsibilities related to Kazakhstan, except, I suppose to repeat any talking points if asked. Helen doesn't have any appearances today, and even if she did, Jamie and Annabeth and the rest of the staff could handle it.

I settle back and try to pay attention to the lecture. I really do like this class.

"Okay, let's watch some of the news reports regarding the developing situation in Kazakhstan. While you are watching, I'd like you to pay attention to the reporter's tone of voice. Take note of what video clips are being played. And especially, be aware of whether or not they are reporting facts or if they are reporting speculation or conclusions."

I find myself sitting up straighter. My pen poised over my notebook as the video begins. I've seen all these reports before, but I'm looking at them with a more critical eye.

The reporter is definitely projecting. He's expressing concern that the situation could escalate to a larger scale conflict with NATO or American involvement. He's speculating that the evacuation of the Consulate's office indicates an unwillingness for the US to defend the Kazakh democracy. But then when he repeats the State Department's warnings to tourists and ex patriots, his tone suggests that the warnings are perfunctory. It's an odd change in tone.

When the video is over, Cynthia opens the class up for discussion. I'm truly surprised how many students express the opinion that the reporter just stated the facts with no spin.

I'm torn. I can't really share my insight. That I know for a fact that there is a serious ongoing discussion about how best to defend Kazakhstan and how many troops to send back into the area. Cynthia looks my way a couple times but I shake my head and keep my hand down.

"All right. Class dismissed. Be sure to pick up your papers on your way out. Remember my office hours are posted if anyone would like to go over my comments in person."

"Well. Moment of Truth." Jordan smirks as we follow the line of students towards the table where the essays are spread out alphabetically. Cynthia's TA is really methodical.

We find our papers, but neither of us turns the page to reveal the grade until we are out of the room. Our little group forms and we all head towards the student union together. I'm dying to see how I did but I'm following everyone's lead.

As we walk to the union, I notice that people are starting to look at their grades. As slyly as possible, they are each taking a quick peek.

I hang back a bit, then flip the cover page. I can't help the grin that quickly spreads across my face, although I try to school my features back to neutral. An A! I can't wait to tell Josh.

In the student union, we disperse for a few minutes as everyone grabs their lunch. I'm pulling out my phone to text Josh as I get in line for the salad bar when a quiet voice stops me.

"Donna. . . can I talk to you a minute?"

I'm a little surprised. Olive is one of the quieter girls. I think she's an underclassmen. She's not in the Building Democracy seminar, but she often follows the group to lunch and she always shows up to the Media study group even though she doesn't say that much.

"Sure."

She looks around, then lowers her voice. "I got a C- on the paper. And I'm worried about the mid-term. I don't think the rest of the study group will let me stay if I'm not doing well. Do you think you could help me?"

Oh man! I have so much on my plate. I don't know how I'm going to fit anything else. But I look into her eyes and I see a young woman struggling with self confidence, but trying to make something of herself, and I can't say no.

We are to the front of the line, so I grab a container and start to fill it with lettuce. Olive doesn't grab one.

"Yes, of course, I'll help. Hey- don't forget to grab a container."

She turns a little red. "Oh, I'm fine. I have some pretzels in my bag."

Now that I think about it, she never gets lunch from the student union. She usually just has a bag of chips while the rest of us eat. I wonder if it's a financial thing? I remember being pretty strapped for cash when I started out at UW. I'd like to help her out, but I don't want to embarrass her.

The cooler at the end of the salad bar contains hard boiled eggs and fruit as well as bottles of juice. Perfect.

"Hey, Olive can you grab me a piece of fruit and an egg?" I ask as I grab 2 bottles of juice.

"What kind of fruit?"

"Surprise me."

Olive grabs an apple. After I pay for everything, I hand her one of the bottles of juice. "Those are for you." I say nodding to the food in her hand. "I'm a Mom. It's my job to make sure people I care about eat healthier. You need more than just pretzels for lunch."

Olive blushes a little. "Thanks Donna."

When we rejoin the group, Olive sits closer to me than normal. I think I have a new friend.

I'm relieved when the group doesn't talk about grades. Of course I'm thrilled about my A, but now that I know that not everyone did well, I don't want to rub it in.

"So, what do you think is REALLY happening in Kazakhstan?" Jill says to the group. Every eye turns towards me, and I feel my mouth go dry.

"Um . . ." I feel my heart rate increase. I finally feel like I sort of fit into this group. I don't want to disappoint them now. I rack my brain for what I can say.

"Well, those news reports definitely didn't just report facts! Did they?"

Jill narrows her eyes, clearly not impressed by my non-answer. But Tom picks up on what I'm saying.

"It doesn't seem like there are a lot of facts to report yet. The Chinese have invaded. We don't really know why. There don't seem to be any official statements from anyone."

"The State Department did increase the threat level and the evacuated the Consulate's office." Zayna offers. "Those are facts."

"But the news media has already started spinning what those facts imply. We haven't heard any official statement from the President regarding the United States' position. It's been 2 days!" Jill exclaims.

All eyes turn back to me.

"Bram Howard has been giving regular briefings. It's been less than 48 hours. I'm sure the White House, the Joint Chiefs, and the State Department are all working diligently and will have something more to say soon."

Jill looks disappointed not to be getting anything more than what Bram has said all along.

"I just hope someone over there knows what they're doing." Tom mutters.

"Hey anybody want to set an extra study time for the Media & Foreign Policy Midterm?" Jordan interjects and I'm really grateful.

And when it's time to head to the Building Democracy Seminar, I've never been more relieved.

. . . . .

The group is in the middle of a robust discussion when the classroom door opens. We all freeze. As we watch, the TA walks up to Professor Smythe and hands him a note. This is completely unprecedented. We all wait for the Prof to tear the guy's head off, but he just scowls like normal.

After he reads the note, he strokes his beard and growls "thanks" to the TA, who quickly leaves.

He turns back to the class with a hard look in his eyes.

"My TA interrupted us because this news relates directly to what this class has been discussing- how a lack of understanding of the nature of building democracies can lead to disaster. The news is reporting that two American tourists have been killed in Almaty. Two more are in critical condition. "

Oh my god. I've got to get back to the White House. Matt and Josh are going to be devastated.

I start to rise. But Professor Smythe glares at me, and I feel myself sink back into my chair. There's only twenty minutes left of class. I guess I'll have to wait.

. . . . .

When class is finally over, I stand up and practically bolt from the room, Jackie hot on my heels. I need to find a quiet place to call Josh.

But the campus is buzzing. I'm sure not all the groups of students are talking about the fatalities but at least some of them are. I hear the word Kazakhstan more than once.

I end up in a little green area on the other side of the building.

Josh's phone rings until it goes to voicemail. He's notorious for not checking his messages on his personal phone but I leave one anyway.

"I just heard the news. I love you. I'll be there as soon as I can."

After I hang up, I send a text message as well. The odds are at least a little better that he'll see that.

I'm not quite sure what to do. Really, there's probably not much I can do at the White House, except for comfort Josh once he finally comes up for air. Matt and Helen could probably use some support too.

I had planned to attend my study group like normal, then be back at the White House by 5:30. Now I'm not sure. And given how the lunch group went, I'm not sure I even want to go.

On the other hand, we have group projects that HAVE to be completed, and mid-terms to study for. I don't want to fall behind. And I don't want to go back to running from difficult things.

So I send Josh another message, and this time I copy Helen. I have study group until 5. Text me if you want me to come back early.

Then I square my shoulders and head toward the library. Guess I'm about to find out just how part of the group I really am.

. . . . .

As I enter the library, I take a deep breath and square my shoulders. You can handle this Donna.

Jill gives me the evil eye as I sit down in the study room. "It was a family!" She hisses. "Tourists on a holiday."

I feel a little queasy. I don't even know what to say.

Surprisingly, it's Tom who comes to my defense. "Lay off, Jill. It's not like Donna killed them. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time."

That comment spurs me to action. "I know something about that, you know, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Parts of this world are really dangerous, and people do get hurt, even killed every day. But I know the people in the Santos Administration! I know they are doing their best to make this world better. And I know that this tragedy is tearing them apart."

Then I stand up. "And I know I should be there with them. Jordan, can you email me and let me know what else you need me to do for the group presentation? I'll see you all on Thursday."

And with that, I walk out.

Chapter Text

A chill seeps into my bones as I listen to the report.

A family on holiday. Parents and their teenage boys. Mother and 17 year old son killed. Father and 14 year old both critically wounded. Dad shot in the chest. Not expected to survive.

Shot in the chest. Shot in the chest. Shot in the chest. The phrase echoes around in my brain for a minute before I grab ahold of it and shove it down. I take a moment to visualize the phrase and imagine my foot holding it to the ground.

Then I check my breathing. It's a little fast. I take a deep breath and hold it. Then let it out slowly.

I check my body. It's tense. I contemplate whether or not I need to place myself against a wall. I'd prefer not to, but I will if necessary.

Another deep breath. No. I'm fine. I can handle this.

A family on holiday. Who the hell takes a vacation in Kazakhstan?!

I keep my breathing regulated while General Alexander finishes delivering the news. From what they can piece together from Social Media and surveillance footage, the boys had been at a disco. Their parents had arrived to pick them up around 10pm. The cab driver had gotten skittish and left before they all came out of the club. The family had decided to walk back to their hotel. They'd taken a wrong turn and ended up in the middle of the riot zone after curfew hours. Neither the Chinese military nor the Kazakh police will admit that they were the ones who shot them. It's still not entirely clear what happened.

The next hour is intense as POTUS and I are presented with a complex plan for military action. We ask questions but at this point the answers are for our edification not to help us reach a decision. There isn't really anything left to decide. We've got to go back in and we have to trust the experts who have crafted this plan.

When the presentation is over POTUS looks at me and I nod once. Decisively. We've talked about this. He has to do it.

The President looks around the table then stands up. The rest of us immediately follow.

"Operation Defend Democracy is a go." He announces grimly, then walks out. I quickly join him, glancing at my watch as we leave the sit room.

It's 5:15. Donna should be back by now. But I need to talk to Lou and Sam before tonight's address.

"Josh-" Matt interrupts my thoughts, "have them bring the speech to the residence. We'll look at it there." Sometimes I wonder if he can read my mind too. That's a frightening thought. Or maybe Sam is right and I just have a pretty bad poker face.

Matt strides toward the mansion while I turn and head towards communications. I'm relieved to find Lou, Sam and Otto all in her office. The television is on low in the background as they talk over each other. CNN is already reporting "the loss of an American family" in Kazakhstan even though we haven't released any details.

I give a short whistle that gets their attention. "We don't need arguing right now." I admonish them. "We need to land on our message very quickly. What have you got for me given the latest development?"

Lou picks up her notebook. "We have to mention the casualties."

"We shouldn't call them that." Sam interjects- "we're not at war."

"Fatalities." Lou corrects.

But Sam frowns, "that's not much better."

I agree with him.

"Victims?" Otto offers. "They were victims of the violence and unrest in Almaty. The President is sending troops to restore peace to the region."

"No." I answer swiftly. "That makes it sound like we are sending troops in direct response to these deaths and that we are taking military control of the region. That's NOT the case. Plus the President isn't going to want to politicize this."

"Josh!" Lou responds as swiftly, "you and I both know that he doesn't get to decide that. They're going to." She points to the television where the political talk show host repeats that an American family was attacked while on holiday and that they had nowhere to turn because the Consulate's office was closed.

Yeah, this tragedy is going to be politicized. All we can do is try to spin it our way as much as possible. God, I hate this.

I take the folder from Lou and take a deep breath and try to channel Matt, and what he'll want to say. It needs to be something he's willing to say, but we have to try to keep him from falling into a quagmire.

"My heart goes out to the friends and family of the Americans who were victims of the violence and unrest in Almaty last evening." Otto starts typing while I speak. "Tragedy has taken its toll once again. And although at times like this we want to shake our fists at heaven and ask why, we must resolve to strive for peace. To reach out to our neighbors, both near and far, to let them know that we care- that we will stand by them during hard times. That they can count on our support."

I look down at Lou's folder and segue into the prepared speech.

"Tonight I announce that we will re-deploy troops to Kazakhstan. While our State department continues to assist the Kazakh government in negotiations with China towards a peaceful withdrawal of Chinese troops from Kazakhstan, we will send our soldiers for support if a forcible eviction of the invaders is required. We will not sit by while a young democracy is threatened. It is our fervent hope that all sides will quickly reach an accord."

I look to Lou and Sam for their thoughts as Otto finishes the transcription.

"Yeah." Lou says half-heartedly.

"Yeah." Sam agrees.

None of us love it, but we are out of time. This gets the job done. And we all know that Matt could end up chucking the whole thing and speaking from his heart anyway.

"Ahkay. Give that a quick polish. Then bring it to the residence. I want it in POTUS' hands within 15 minutes. The more time he has to tweak it himself, the less likely he is to go off script."

. . . . .

Once I'm in the residence I take the east stairs to the third floor. If Donna and Lulu are there I'd like a few minutes to say "hello" and get a little love. Given that it's a school day for Donna I might get lucky. But it wouldn't surprise me if she's with Helen. They tend to stay together whenever anything keeps Matt and I in the office after hours. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between her Staffing the First Lady and their friendship. Not that it's a bad thing.

I'm pleasantly surprised to find Donna, Nicole and Lulu on their own in the game room. But I guess it makes sense that with his fifteen minute head start, Matt already claimed his family for some togetherness while they can sneak it in.

"Josh!"

"Da-dee!"

Being greeted so enthusiastically by my loves brings a smile to my face no matter how much stress I'm feeling.

Donna gets up off the floor and quickly embraces me, while Lulu follows her over.

"Up, Da-dee!" she demands holding her arms towards me. As I scoop her up, Nicole slips out the door into the hallway. The three of us stand there hugging for a few moments until Lulu starts to wiggle to get back down.

"I've only got 5 minutes."

"I know." Donna responds. "You need to finish prepping him for the speech. Helen and I will join you in the oval. Nanny Maria and Nicole are going to give the kids their dinner." She looks me over for signs of wear and tear. "Have you eaten?"

"I had lunch with Lulu. Even though it feels like a long time, it really wasn't. "The day didn't really start to fall apart until around 1:30. That's when we first got the news. I've been in meetings non-stop since."

"Wow. The media was already reporting the situation by 2:30. I heard about it during the seminar." Donna gives me another squeeze. "How are you doing? How's he?"

I give a small, mirthless laugh. "Well, neither of us had a breakdown, but Dammit! American casualties, while the Consulate was closed! After we raised the travel warning levels? It sure seems like we feel asleep at the switch doesn't it?!"

Lulu pops her head up and frowns at my tone of voice and volume so I try to take it down a notch.

"It was a family, Donna. On vacation." My voice breaks a little at the end.

"I know." She responds in a soothing voice, while caressing my cheek. "You made the best decisions that you could with the facts that you had. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's not your fault."

"But maybe . . . "

"No, Josh. Other people might, aw hell, we both know that other people will play the 'what if' guessing game, but you can't. You can have empathy for the family but you can't feel guilty. It's impossible to know in advance the outcome of every choice that you make and he needs you to be strong and confident in your choices once they are made. You made the best decisions that you could with the information that you had. That's it."

"Ahkay." I'm able to smile are her for real. She always knows what to say. And I really do feel better just knowing that she's in my corner.

"Okay. You have to get to the President."

"Yes."

"I'll get changed and meet you down there."

. . . . .

The President looks calm, cool, and collected as he gives his address to the country. Donna and Helen are huddled together on the other side of the camera giving Matt encouraging nods.

Sam, Lou and I listen intently from our side, relieved as he sticks to the script. He made his little changes earlier but we all agreed that it sends the right tone. Sympathetic to the fact that American lives were lost. A commitment to world peace. A resolve to do what's right, even if it's not easy.

I know he's not thrilled to be sending troops back. He doesn't want to spend his whole Presidency trying to create a democracy in a former Soviet Republic in central Asia. We were only supposed to be a security guard until the new government was up and running, with our troops a deterrent from violence. He relied on advisors who assured him that we didn't need to spend 5 years there, and that pulling out after two wouldn't destabilize the region.

It doesn't feel like they were right, but the nagging questions remain. Are we justified going back in? How fast and how far do things have to escalate before we are? And what price will we pay politically for either waiting or rushing?

These aren't easy questions.

Every talk show seems to think they already have the answers. But they don't face any consequences for being wrong.

"Good night, and God Bless America." POTUS continues to stare resolutely into the camera until someone shouts "And we're clear."

Then he stands and walks towards my office. The rest of us follow. Once the door is closed, he looks at us.

"Well?"

"Very good." I tell him, with nods from the rest of the staff. Donna and Helen join us.

"Great job, honey." Helen reassures him with a gentle pat to his lapel.

The President looks around the room. "Okay. I know you are all going to be tempted to stay here to try to gauge public reaction. Don't. Go home."

Everyone looks at me. I almost chuckle. Like I'm going to undermine the President's direct order? In front of him?

"Bram. Go down and do a short Q&A with the press, then head home. Joey's doing polling. It's going to take at least 36 hours before we get results. I'm sure we'll get some early numbers in the morning. Let's all get a good night's sleep and meet at the normal time for Senior Staff."

Everyone disperses until it's just Matt, Helen, Donna & I in my office.

"That goes for you two, also." Matt instructs. "I know you've slept here the last two nights. Take Lulu home. Sleep in your own bed."

I'm torn about whether to object. On one hand, it's so much easier if I'm already here if something happens. On the other, if I buy into that argument we'd never leave. And we really do need some family time.

"Yes, sir."

. . . . .

As we walk through our door, I feel an immediate sense of relief. I know I've been tense the last few days. I just didn't realize exactly how much I missed home, and how much of a difference just being here would make.

Lulu's eyes flutter open for a second as I start to lay her down in the crib, so I change course and sit in the yellow chair and just hold her. Her breathing evens back out and I can tell she's completely gone now. She'll be out for the night.

We are so lucky to have Nicole. By the time we came back upstairs, she was just getting Lulu out of the bath and into pajamas. We had a little cuddle time in the COS room before we loaded her into the car to come back home. And now her schedule really isn't even out of whack.

I should put her to bed, but a few more minutes won't hurt her, and holding her is exactly what I need.

Eventually Donna pokes her head in the door. "Dinner will be here in 10 minutes, if you want to change."

I do. I haven't hardly been out of a suit in the last 3 days. Not this suit. The days of spending several days in the same suit ended the day I got married. I grin to myself as a remember a time at the beginning of the Bartlet Administration where Donna had to trick me into changing my shirt. I don't know why I was so stubborn. Clean clothes feel nice.

I'm tempted to take a shower before I throw on some sweats, but Donna mentioned a bath after dinner and that sounds much nicer.

As I come back out through the living room, I see Donna at the door with the delivery guy who looks a little flustered.

"Sorry for the inconvenience." She tells him as she hands him what I assume is a suitably large tip. She's always very generous with them. Especially the new ones who have their first experience with our detail.

And I'm sure it was an experience. The detail is on high alert again. The circumstances of the last few days automatically bumped me back up a level. It wasn't as noticeable while I was in the White House, but now, we're both feeling it. We're going to need to sit down with Ron tomorrow and talk about Donna's detail for school. She didn't fight me on taking an SUV today instead of driving herself. I hope she's willing to agree to make that the norm for the rest of the semester.

She turns back to me with the bags and smiles. God, she looks amazing. Hair in a ponytail, black yoga pants and my old Yale t-shirt. I'm pretty sure she's not wearing a bra. I plan to find out while we snuggle on the couch as we eat.

As Donna pulls out the cartons and chopsticks, I turn on the T.V. CNN is analyzing the President's address.

"Nope." Donna exclaims, taking the remote from me. "Pick a movie or a sitcom. We are going to relax and enjoy each other's company and spend at least one full hour not thinking about work."

"One hour, huh?"

"At least. But I think I can get you to go longer, because once dinner is finished, I'm going to get naked."

"Yeah. That outta do it." It's good to be home.

Chapter Text

It feels like we've been holding our breath for the last two weeks. Like we are walking a tightrope, waiting to see which way the wind will blow, and whether it will end in disaster.

We have 6,000 troops deployed. Just one ready division, as opposed to the two President Bartlet send two and a half years ago. But the Consulate's office is back up and running, and it's fully secured.

Our Embassy in Astana is fully secured as well.

Kazakhstan officially requested our assistance, as well as Russia's. So our troops, along with theirs are on standby. It's a different situation than it was before. But we are still at a stalemate with China, who is still telling the world that the ethnic Chinese in the region are being targeted and abused by the Kazakh government.

But between the Chinese Military and the Kazakh riot police, the protests have quieted down.

So we wait. We see if the statesmen, diplomats, and NATO can reach a resolution that all sides can agree upon.

The mood on Campus is comparable. Tensions simmer but haven't boiled over. There have been protestors on both sides of the argument. At first, the loudest group were those protesting sending troops back to Kazakhstan. Anti-war groups.

But there have been smaller groups, counter-protesting. Some signs support the Administration and support the Kazakhstan democracy. And others supporting China or human rights in general.

Unfortunately for me, all the groups like to bring their cause to the front of the political science building, and I have to walk through them. Even more unfortunate, the media has been covering the protests and has caught me on film, along with my detail more than once.

I'm still traveling in an SUV with a driver. I miss driving myself, but Josh insists. And Jackie seems to prefer it too.

The worst thing of all is that the Building Democracy seminar seems to revolve around the situation in Kazakhstan. Each lecture involves a tirade against the Administration as Professor Smythe gives example after example of how we've screw up. I'm probably just being paranoid, but it feels like I get called out more than anyone else, being asked to share and justify my positions, which rarely seem to be correct.

And now we're about to get our mid-term paper back. I feel sick. Call it intuition, but based on the last couple classes, I'm not expecting to do well.

Jordan smiles reassuringly at me as Professor Smythe places the papers face down in front of each of us as the class ends. No one moves to look at them.

"Some of you will want to take me up on my very generous offer to allow you to rewrite your paper. If you do make an appointment during my office hours so that we can discuss your options and how to improve."

After he leaves the room, people start to look. As I slowly lift the top, I feel like I've been punched in the stomach. D I've never received a D before. I didn't expect to change his mind, but I'd honestly hoped that even though my views are different than Professor Smythe's, maybe my writing and analysis would be good enough to get an A.

My eyes burn as I hold back the tears. I don't want to cry in front of my classmates. I take a deep breath and look around the room. Most faces are grim. I wonder if we all did poorly? But a couple people smile at each other as we all put the papers away and pack up to leave the class. So I guess not.

Other than the protesters shouting, it's a pretty quiet walk to the library.

I'm glad it's just Jordan, Zayna, Maddie and me today. The three of them have been pretty understanding over the last couple weeks. We have our group presentation on Thursday. And I thought we were ready, but now I'm worried.

I'd better be honest with them. I don't want to hurt their grades.

"Guys, I don't know what to say. I'm going to have to re-write the paper."

"Oh no! I can't believe that!" Maddie cries out. "You're one of the brightest in the class."

"Apparently not." I respond wryly. Sarcasm is my best line of defense here. "How did you guys do? Am I the only weak link?"

"I got a B+" Maddie offers.

"I got an A." Zayna admits quietly.

"Me too." Jordan shares.

"Damn. I really am the weak link."

"Can I see your paper? Zayna asks hesitantly.

"Sure, why not?"

Jordan leans over her shoulder and they read it together. After a few minutes they look up at me.

"It's really well written." Zayna begins, "But there's one major problem. You're too positive about the Administration."

Maddie chimes in- "He probably won't admit it to you, but he was really pro-Vinick. He said Santos didn't have a chance. Then after the election he railed about how lucky Santos had gotten, that if it wasn't for San Andreas, he wouldn't be President."

"Yeah." Jordan agrees, nodding emphatically. "By now you have to have figured out that he's not a fan."

"Well, yeah, but my paper reflects a clear understand of the principles we learned and gives appropriate examples, doesn't it?"

Jordan and Maddie exchange a look, then she speaks. "Yeah, but it doesn't matter, you've got to parrot his position. Or at least avoid taking the opposite approach. You've taken things he gave as examples of what not to do and spun them into positives."

I feel myself blushing. Maybe I did. Maybe I'm still in spokesperson mode instead of student mode.

"Are you going to meet with Professor Smythe before you rewrite it?" Maddie asks.

"Yeah, I'd better. I mean if I'm going to spend the time re-writing I want to make sure I actually get a better grade."

"Just do whatever he says. If you suck up to him, you'll be fine." Zayna suggests.

"We're going to rock this group presentation. I'm glad we drew a country that's not in flux to present. There's really no controversy." Jordan smiles encouragingly at me. "You've been great. You have a great speaking style. No worries."

"Okay. I just don't want to let you guys down."

"You won't. Let's go through the powerpoint presentation again."

. . . . .

As Jackie walks me briskly to the SUV waiting outside the library, I can't help but notice that a small crowd of protesters have gathered here too.

Once we pull away, I pull out my phone and text Ainsley.

"Still on for dinner? Leaving school now."

"YES! Can you stop at District Doughnut on the way over? Raspberry PB&J."

"Sure."

Poor Ainsley. 4 days overdue. She's pretty miserable. I'll get a whole dozen.

. . . .

Ainsley makes gimmie hands as soon as I walk in the door, so I stop, let her flip open the box and retrieve her doughnut. It's just easier that way.

I take the rest to the kitchen and set them on the counter. I start to walk away then turn around. What the hell? It's been a rough day. I take a Cherry Blossom and grab a couple of napkins and make my way back to the living room.

Ainsley is settled into her chair with her feet up on the ottoman blissfully devouring her snack.

"So appointment yesterday? Did your doctor schedule an induction?"

"Yes. Friday, if nothing happens before then."

"Any progress?"

"Not really. He seems really content to just hang out and kick my spleen. His heart rate is great. My fluid level is good. No Braxton-Hicks contractions and I'm completely closed. So . . . ."

"So, it's just a waiting game."

"Yes." Ainsley sighs. "Can we talk about something else? I feel like this pregnancy is my whole world right now. I knew it was a mistake to go on maternity leave."

I want to laugh at her- it's only been two days. But I remember the last week felt like it was a million years.

"Sure, Ains, what do you want to talk about?"

"How'd the egg roll go yesterday?"

"Fantastic. It's so much easier with a deputy. And Lulu had a great time, this was the first year she really knew what was going on. She loved the egg hunt, and meeting all the characters. And story-time. Of course, Josh was still her favorite reader."

"What did he read this year?"

"Where the Wild Things Are."

"Oh that's a good one."

"Well he got a little too into the voices and a little boy started to cry. But Lulu got down and went over to him and gave him a hug. It was so sweet. The White House Photographer caught the whole thing! The photos are adorable."

"Oh my goodness. I'm surprised it wasn't in the paper this morning!"

"We won't release them. We gave the Press a couple with the first family, but that's it. And the Press pool has been really good about not using shots that haven't been approved. I may not agree with all the reporting, but they've been totally cooperative when it comes to the White House children."

"I'm glad for that." Ainsley looks relieved. She should be. Her kid is about to be in that group. "So," she continues, "did Josh's Mom head home?"

"Yes, she came in Thursday and left yesterday. She had a great time at the Egg Roll with Lulu. I'm glad she could stay for it."

"What about your parents?"

"Ugh. Mom's pretty annoyed with me. When I told her we weren't going to make it to Wisconsin, she about flipped her lid. Last year she was mad enough that we left early Sunday, so I got a lecture on the importance of family."

"I'm sorry. It's kind of my fault that you couldn't go."

"Totally not your fault. Neither of us wanted the possibility of Sam being stuck in the sit room or staffing the President if you went into Labor. Besides, Passover and Easter coincide. It was really nice for Sylvia to spend the whole weekend here with us. We're all she's got. My Mom and Dad have 7 other grandchildren."

"Do you miss your family? Is it hard for Lulu with them not being close by?"

"I don't know. I mean things with my parents are always tense. I'm usually really glad to come back home or have them head home after a visit. I guess I wouldn't mind seeing my siblings more, now that they finally treat me like an adult. And I guess I wish Lulu got to spend more time with her cousins. That's why I can't wait for your little guy to arrive! They can be buddies. It will be like having a cousin close by. And if Zoey and Charlie get on it right away . . . ."

Ainsley snorts at that. Zoey's got baby fever, bad! But Abbey really wants her to wait until AFTER the wedding this summer. And Charlie would like to be done with law school. But Zoey'll be done with her Master's soon and she doesn't really seem all that interested in actually getting a job, so I think we'll hear a baby announcement from them sooner, rather than later.

"Anyway, I talked to my Mom and Dad on Sunday. You know, to wish them a Happy Easter. Mom was ticked that we hadn't taken Lulu to church. Said we are quote- neglecting her religious education."

"You guys went to temple on Saturday, didn't you?

"Yes. It was really lovely. The congregation is so nice and welcoming. I really enjoyed it. And Sylvia was over the moon to have her whole family there for Passover."

"Well there you go."

"Well, yeah, but when my Mom realized we took Lulu to temple she got all snarky with me. She thinks that we are giving Lulu more exposure to her Jewish heritage than the Christian faith."

"How did Josh take that?"

"I didn't tell him. He's got enough on his plate right now. He doesn't like causing tension between me and my parents, and he'd feel guilty- but it's not his fault. We already said we'll raise the kids knowing both faiths and let them decide. We did spend Christmas with them. My parents are just being ridiculous."

"Did you tell your Mom that?"

"Yeah. I told her that if she didn't knock it off, I was going to convert."

"You DIDN'T!"

"Okay, no- I didn't. But I was tempted to!"

"Would you?"

"Convert? I'll admit, I have thought about it. Just so we'd all be the same. It might be easier on the kids. I asked Sylvia what it would take and you know what she said? "Love doesn't ask someone to change who they are."

"You sure did luck out in the Mother-in-law department."

"Oh! I know! Speaking of which, when is Sam's mom coming into town?"

"Too soon." Ainsley sighs. "We managed to convince her to wait until the baby arrived, but now that she knows about the induction, she's scheduled a flight for Thursday."

"Is she still nagging you about baby names?"

"Yes. Between her and my mother I never get a break. It's a good thing they don't agree or I'd have no chance of deciding for myself."

"I can't believe she wants you to name the baby after Sam's Dad. Given that they're divorced, it's really odd."

"Yeah, and she doesn't seem to believe me that it really is Sam who is completely opposed to that idea."

"Well you could use Norman for a middle name, right? I mean, it's Sam's middle name too."

"But he hates it. The last time they were on the phone, Sam told her if she didn't stop bugging him we'd give the baby MY last name!"

I can't help the giggling. Sam looks harmless, but you really don't want to get on his bad side. "How'd she take it?"

"Well at first she laughed too. But then Sam said since we're all good liberals, maybe he'd change his last name too. Then she got real quiet and said she was sure whatever we picked would be perfectly wonderful."

"Go Sam!" Ainsley grins at me. And I'm struck again at how happy I am that she and Sam found each other in California. "So, what about your parents?" I'm trying to soften Ainsley up. Hopefully she'll spill the beans about whether or not they've picked a name.

"Well, of course, they want a good Southern name. And they think it's about time I took my husband's last name like a good wife."

I snort at that suggestion, and Ainsley gives me an evil grin. "You know, every time they say shit like that, it just makes me glad that I didn't."

"We'll make a feminist out of you eventually, Ainsley."

Ainsley rolls her eyes. "Well according to my parents, you already have!"

"So . . . what's a good Southern name? Have you thought of one yet?"

"Donna! There are lots of good Southern names."

"Bubba?"

'Very funny."

Ainsley pauses a minute. "Actually, it is very funny. Go write it on the list on the fridge for me would you? It'll be fun to watch Sam's head spin around when he sees it."

Chapter Text

As Steve pulls up in front of Sam’s townhouse, I’m glad to see that Donna’s detail is already onsite.  I’m glad she came straight to Ainsley’s and didn’t stay longer at school. The protests on campus are starting to make me nervous.

 

I reach over and unbuckle Lulu, then hoist her backpack over my arm.  Since Donna’s detail already cleared Sam’s we shouldn’t have to wait too long.  I sit Lulu on my lap and together we watch Phil speaking into his wrist while he looks around.

 

Lulu smiles at him.  She’s getting really good at being patient.  I guess so am I. Eventually, Kevin opens the door.  “We’re all clear.”

 

I follow him up the steps and Phil drops in behind us.  

 

“Good evening, Mr. Lyman.  Miss Lulu.” Jackie greets us at the door.

 

“Mama!” Lulu yells as we enter, stretching her arms towards Donna, who happily scoops her up.

 

“Hey sweet pea.  Did you have a good day with Nikki?”

 

“Yes.  We picked flowers.”

 

Donna looks at me in confusion.

 

“Apparently they spent some time in the Rose Garden today.”

 

“Oh.  I hope they had permission to pick flowers.”  

 

“18 U.S.C. 1361 prohibits the destruction of government property!” Ainsley calls out from the living room.  “You could be looking at a fine of $250,000 and/or ten years in prison.”

 

“Are you serious?”

 

Ainsley shrugs.  “It depends on the value of the flowers they took.  If its less than $100 worth then is only a fine of up to $100,000 and one year in jail.”

 

“You’ve got to be kidding!  She’s a baby!”

 

Ainsley finally bursts out laughing.  “You’re so gullible, Josh.”

 

Donna joins her.  “Are you sure you went to law school?”  She teases.

 

“We didn’t have to memorize the whole US Code, Donna!”

 

“It’s a specific intent crime Josh."  Ainsley offers with a straight face. " Lulu’s off the hook, even if she didn’t have permission.”

 

“I knew Lulu couldn’t be prosecuted.” I grumble, “I was worried about Nicole.”

 

With that comment Donna stops laughing and gives me a quick hug and kiss on the cheek.  “You’re a good man, Joshua.”

 

“Where’s Sam?  I’m hungry.” Ainsley complains.

 

I’m about to assure her that he can’t be that far behind me when the door bursts open.

 

“Honey, I’m home!” Sam’s good natured smile fills the room as he walks in the door loaded down with take-out bags.

 

“Excellent. I’m starving.”  Ainsley heaves herself out of her chair and makes her way towards the dining area.  “What did you bring me?”

 

“Spicy Chicken Wings, Eggplant Parmesan, Cajun French Fries, Licorice, and Pineapple Juice.”

 

“What the hell kind of dinner is that?”  I complain. I’m wishing I’d asked Sam what we were having before I agreed to come over tonight.

 

“That’s what the super pregnant lady is having in hopes of getting labor started, Josh.” Sam explains patiently while Ainsley munches on some fries.

 

“The rest of us are having Pizza.  It’ll be here in a minute.”

 

“Oooooh . . . . . pizza.”  Ainsley squeals and makes eyes at Sam.

 

“Yes, Cupcake. You can have pizza too.”  He immediately indulges her. Smart man.

 

. . . . .

 

I am truly amazed by the amount of food Ainsley can eat.  And I can’t help but sort of cringe. I’m not sure she’s going to WANT to go into labor with that much food in her stomach.  I still remember how much Donna threw up when Lulu was born. But I’m keeping my comments to myself. I could barely say the right thing to my own wife the last week of her pregnancy.  I’m certainly not going to try with someone else’s.

 

After the table is cleared, Sam looks at Ainsley expectantly for a few minutes.  

 

Everyone just seems to hold their breath.  It's the waiting game, we're all just watching to see if it worked.

 

After a few moments, Donna announces . . .  “I have an idea! Do either of you know how to play Euchre?”

 

Sam and Ainsley both shake their heads no.  Obviously, they don’t have midwestern relatives.  I’m not very good, but I’ve been indoctrinated on family trips.  As long as Donna is my partner, I can hold my own.

 

“We’ll teach you!  Sam, you and Josh can be partners.  Ainsley, do you have a deck of cards?  Josh, get Lulu cleaned up and set up with some toys.  I’ll bet we can get a quick game in.”

 

I immediately get Lulu out of the high chair that’s clipped to the table and head towards the sink to watch her hands.  As far as I’m concerned, Donna’s in charge now. Over the last decade I’ve learned that when she uses that tone of voice, it’s easier just to do what she says.

 

But Sam and Ainsley are just staring at her a bit dumbfounded.  After a couple seconds, Ainsley answers Donna, “well yeah, but why?”

 

“Because do you know how many of my friends went into labor after playing Euchre?  It’s not a small number. All 3 of my brother’s children and both of my sister’s were born after a night of cards.”

 

“Oh!” Ainsley brightens up immediately.  “Well then, I’ll go get them.”

 

While she’s out of the room, Sam sides up to me.  “Does this really work?”

 

I just shrug my shoulders at him.  I suspect that the number of births that follow card games is directly related to the amount of cards those people play.  I think Donna’s brother and sister play cards every weekend. It was statistically probable that their children would be born after a game.  But again, I’m smart enough to keep my mouth firmly closed.

 

“Well are you at least a good player?” Sam asks at my silence.

 

At that I chuckle.  “It doesn’t matter, Sam! It’ll be way better for us if the girls win anyway!”

 

He nods slowly, seeing the wisdom of my answer.

 

“Besides,” I tell him, “you know what really causes labor?  Sex. Lots of Sex. Google it. Then tell Ainsley and get busy as soon as we get out of here.  Now let’s hurry up and get this game out of the way so I can take my family home.”

 

“Hey Sam!” Ainsley calls from the other room.  “Can you grab a bottle of water from the fridge for me?”

 

As Sam rushes to comply with her request, I notice the list on the refrigerator.

 

“Hey.  You’ve narrowed down your list.  What are your top choices?”

 

Once Sam grabs the bottle.  He closes the door and reads the list to me.

 

“Josiah,”

 

“That’s nice, honoring President Bartlet. Donna really likes one that too. If we ever have a boy.”

 

“Earle,”

 

“After Ainsley Father?”  That surprises me. Sam just tolerates his in-laws. I can’t believe he’d want to name his Son after his Father-in-law.

 

“It’s on the list to please her Mother.  Neither of us takes it seriously.”

 

“That’s a relief.”

 

“Leo,”  Sam offers a little tentatively, looking at me for approval.

 

I give him a big smile.  “That’s great.”

 

“You don’t mind?”

 

“Of course not.  Why would I mind?”

 

“Well, Leo was like a father to you.  And Donna said someday Leonora might want to be called Leo.”

 

“Sam, he meant a lot to all of us.  We owe him so much. If you want to honor him too, of course it wouldn’t bother me.  And as for Lulu, I’m never going to stop calling her that, so I’m not worried about it.”

 

“Thanks, man.”

 

“What’s the last name on the list?”

 

Sam looks confused, so I point.  “There’s one more there.”

 

He reads it, then gets an odd look on his face.

 

“AINSLEY!!!”

 

At Sam’s shout, giggles erupt from the other room.  I move closer to the refrigerator to appease my curiosity.

 

“Bubba?”

 

“Bubba is not on the list.”  Sam insists.

 

“Sure it is, man.  It’s right there.” I point for good measure.  Ummm. That looks like Donna’s writing. I decide not to mention that, but clearly my wife is involved in some sort of harassment of Sam.  I’m 100% on board with that.

 

Sam stalks towards his wife while Donna shuffles the deck and gives me a wink.  This ought to be interesting.

 

Sam stops short and thrusts the water bottle at his wife while glowering at her.  But she smiles sweetly at him and bats her eyes. They are obviously playing a little game. It’s kind of fun to watch, but it also just makes me want to get out of here.

 

Sam changes tactics and switches to a sickly sweet voice.

 

“Ainsley, darling, would you mind telling me why there’s another name on our list?”

 

“Sure, honeybunch, Donna and I were talking about good Southern names when it hit me.  Bubba’s an absolutely classic.”

 

Sam groans out loud, while Donna’s eyes absolutely sparkle with amusement.  We really have to get this card game over so I can get her home and get her into bed.

 

Lulu toddles up to Ainsley.

 

“Bubba?”  She asks tilting her head adorably.

 

“Yes, sweet pea.  Aunt Ainsley has baby Bubba in her belly.  You’ll get to meet him soon.” Donna giggles.

 

“Baby Bubba?”  Lulu repeats causing another round of giggles from the ladies.

 

“Oh no. Not you too, Lulu.” Sam sighs, but then he holds his arms out and Lulu comes to him.  This is a bit unusual. He scoops her up and sets her on his lap. “Let’s get this show on the road, kiddo. Deal the cards Donna.”

 

30 minutes later, Sam and I have almost lost.  He’s not even really trying. He has Lulu point to the card he should play.  He’s reneged more times than I can count, and the girls aren’t giving him a free pass anymore.

 

“Sam!  That’s the left bower, not a diamond!”  I remind him in exasperation.

 

“Hey. No table talk.”  Ainsley admonishes me sternly, waggling her finger at me.   She’s really gotten into this. She’s also gotten up to go to the bathroom about 6 times.  If it weren’t for the potty breaks, this game would be long over.

 

Lulu yawns, and I decide it’s time for drastic measures. I order Donna to pick up the Jack of spades then I go alone.  I’ve got nothing. But the girls only need two points to win. Hopefully I’ll get set and we can go home. Donna narrows her eyes in a way that let’s me know she’s totally on to me, but I don’t care.  I offer her a boyish grin, then lead the 9 of clubs.

 

Sure enough a minute later the game is over.

 

“I don’t think I quite understood the strategy of that, Josh.” Ainsley starts, while Donna just slowly shakes her head.  I take the opportunity to stand up.

 

“Congratulations, ladies!  Now, I think it’s time for the Lymans to head home.  I think it’s bedtime.”

 

I grin at Sam and he gives me a thumbs up behind Ainsley’s back.

 

. . . . .

 

The next morning my phone rings just before senior staff.

 

“Josh! It’s me! Sam!”

 

“Yes, Sam. I recognize your voice.  And your phone number. And I have caller-id.”

 

“We’re on the way to the hospital!  I’m not coming in! We’re having the baby!”

 

Sam sounds as excited and as freaked out as I’ve ever heard him.  And I get it. He doesn’t even know how much his life is about to change.

 

“Congratulations, man.  Keep us posted, okay?”

 

“I will!”

 

I hang up and turn to Donna.  I’m sure she hear Sam through the speaker.

 

“I wonder which one worked: the spicy food, the cards, or sex?”

 

“The cards,” she answers, “definitely the cards.”

 

. . . . .

 

At 3pm, Margaret walks in.

 

“The baby?”  I ask anxiously.  It’s been like 8 hours.  I thought we’d have heard something by now.

 

“No.  But Ron’s here to see you.”

 

“Alright.  Send him in.”

 

“Hey Josh, how are you doing?”

 

“We’re good.  We’re just waiting on the Seaborn baby.”

 

Ron gives me a little smile.  “Josh, has Donna talked to you about the protests on Campus?”

 

“Not really.  She said there are a few groups.  She pretty much keeps her head down and tries not to engage.”

 

“Yes, Jackie said Donna is doing everything right.  But Jackie said that sometimes they’re a little pushy.  I think we need to talk about having two agents on Donna when she’s on campus.”

 

“Oh man.  She’s not going to like that.  She just really wanted to blend in.  To be another student.”

 

“I know, but that ship has long since sailed.  I’m giving you the heads up because you are the Chief of Staff, not because you’re her husband.  Do you want to talk to her, or do you want me to?”

 

“I’ll do it.”

 

“Okay.  I’ll make the arrangements.”

 

. . . . .

 

As soon as Donna finishes her four o’clock staff meeting she checks in with me.

 

“Any news?”

 

“Not yet.”

 

“Damn.”

 

“Patience grasshopper.  You know this can take a long time.”  I can’t believe I’m the one chiding Donna about patience.  How the tides have turned.

 

. . . . . .

 

At 6 o’clock we are on our way home.

 

“Do you think that we should call them?”  Donna asks nervously.

 

“No.  Sam will call when he can.  Let’s just hope for the best.”

 

I’ve never really been on this side of the equation before, waiting anxiously for a baby that wasn’t mine.  With Finn and Julie we didn’t know they’d gone into labor, we just got a call when Kate had arrived. I wonder if this is how our friends felt when they were waiting to hear about Lulu.

 

. . . . . .

 

“Ron Butterfield stopped by today.”  I mention casually, halfway through dinner.

 

“He did?  What’s up?”

 

I’m glad Donna’s guard didn’t immediately go up.  She’s not going to love this, but I hope she just accepts that when it comes to protection, we do what Ron says.

 

“He’s putting another agent on your school detail.”

 

Her shoulders droop a little but she nods.  I’m surprised at her quick agreement, and it freaks me out a little.

 

“Donna? How bad are these protests?  Is it dangerous for you to be there?”

 

“No! It’s not dangerous.  They’re just college kids expressing themselves.  But you know what it’s like to walk down a sidewalk with people shouting at you.  It can be a little intimidating. I feel bad for Jackie too. If Ron says we need another agent, I understand.”

 

“Okay.”  

 

I’m glad Donna agreed, and I’m glad there are only a few more weeks of school.  She’s handled this so well. I know it wasn’t exactly the experience she was hoping for, but she’s wonder woman! Juggling school, work and our family.

 

. . . . . .

 

Finally, just after we get Lulu in bed, my phone rings.

 

“Josh!  It’s Sam.”

 

“Yes, Sam.”

 

“He’s here! The baby’s here.  My son . . .” Sam is crying and it’s hard to understand him.  My stomach drops and I meet Donna’s eyes.

 

“Put it on speaker.” Donna takes the phone and hits the button.

 

“IS everyone okay, Sam?”

 

He’s like a brother to me.  I can’t stand the thought of something happening to his family. I feel my heart speed up while Sam draws in a big shaky breath.

 

“He’s perfect Josh.”

 

“How’s Ainsley?” Donna asks.

 

“They had to do a C-section, but she’s okay.”

 

I let out a relieved breath and Donna squeezes my hand.  “What are his stats?” She inquires.

 

“8 pounds, 15 oz. 22 inches!”

 

“Did you pick a name?”

 

“Yes,” Sam announces, and I can hear the pride in his voice--”Bartlet Hayes Seaborn.”

Chapter Text

As I climb out of the SUV I straighten my suit. It's not what I'd normally wear to school but this isn't a normal day. I'd be lying if I didn't say that I feel better wearing it. Josh always says that a suit can be like armor. You put it on and do what you've got to do and then at the end of the day, you take it off and put on something comfortable and get to be yourself with your family and friends.

I'm really looking forward to the end of the day.

. . . . . .

I take a deep breath just before I knock on the door. Gearing up for battle.

When I'm bid to enter, I open the door and walk through it. No going back now.

"Ah. Mrs. Lyman," he greets me with a smile. But the look in his eyes and his tone of voice set me on edge. "I'm glad you're taking this opportunity. It really would be quite embarrassing for the administration if you failed this class, wouldn't it?"

I feel myself blushing, I hate that it's my reaction to confrontation, but I can't help it. Of course, it would be incredibly embarrassing if I failed this class. He knows that. I don't think I'd lose my job or anything, but I'd rather not find out. So I take another deep breath and try to sound confident, calm, and collected, and also shift the focus back where it belongs.

"Yes, I admit it would be embarrassing, but mostly for me. This grade reflects on my abilities, so I'd like to discuss that with you. Quite franking, I was surprised by a D. I don't think that reflects the work I put into this paper or the understanding of the material that I demonstrated."

His eyes narrow as I challenge him. Apparently he thought I was just going to cower and beg. But I really don't do that anymore.

"Well, the examples you used in your paper lead me to believe that you do not understand the material! Your attendance has been exemplary, so either you are not paying attention or you are not retaining the points that I've made. You've taken the examples that I've given in class and used them inapposite."

He pauses a moment, so I start to explain- "I was trying to show how perspective can influence perception. In quite a few of the situations, I thought I could provide some insight that would clarify the administration's motivation and basis . . ."

Professor Smythe's lips are pursed and his eyes are stormy as he cuts me off. "Are you implying that I don't have a full understanding of the complexities of this material?!" He thunders. "I've been teaching for over 20 years! I have a PhD. I'M A TENURED PROFESSOR!"

I'm trying not to shake as I answer, but I've never responded well to being screamed at.

"No Professor, of course not! But I didn't think you wanted us to just regurgitate the examples you gave in class to explain the material. This is an advanced seminar. I thought you would want us to demonstrate our ability to apply the principles to different factual patterns."

"But that's NOT what you did, is it? You took the same scenarios I gave as examples, but argued that I had misinterpreted them. What makes you think you're qualified to do that, Mrs. Lyman?" His eyes narrow as I sense him moving in for the kill.

"How long have you been in your current position? Two years? And what did you do before that?" He sneers the last question and pauses, waiting for me to admit that I was no one of consequence.

I try to hold my chin up as I answer. "I was the spokesperson for Santos for A Brighter America."

He rolls his eyes. "And remind me, what was your position in the Bartlet Administration?"

"I was the Senior Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Staff."

"Oh yes, Josh Lyman. Who is now your husband, correct?"

I can't help but drop my eyes from his fierce gaze as I quietly answer- "yes."

"He wasn't exactly known for his foreign policy expertise, was he? Even if you could have picked something up from typing his memos."

I remain silent as I realize that I'm not going to win this battle. Any attempt to explain that Josh was a valued senior advisor in all areas will just fall on deaf ears, and even if I could convince him that Josh was actively involved in foreign policy, he's still right. I didn't pick that much up from the typing. That's why I'm here.

As Professor Smythe recognizes my silence and posture for the concession it is, a small smirk plays on his lips and his tone is almost kind as he continues. "So perhaps it was a mistake for you to stretch yourself. What you call regurgitation, I call a demonstration that you've learned something in this class. Are you ready to listen to me and rewrite the paper in a manner that reflects an understanding of my teaching?"

"Yes, sir."

Professor Smythe spends the next 15 minutes pointing out the examples I've used and reminding me of his opinion. He's using one of the most condescending tones of voice I've heard in a long time. But I bite my tongue as he patronizingly outlines his expectations for the re-write and informs me that the best I can do is raise my grade to a B.

When I leave I feel like I've been beaten down. Jackie keeps giving me concerned looks as we walk toward the lecture hall. I'm about 30 minutes early for my Media class. so I find a seat in the lobby. Phil and Jackie take their places standing on either side of the row of chairs and facing in opposite directions, pretty much guaranteeing that I won't be disturbed.

As I sit there, I read through my paper again. Damn it. It's good. Why am I contemplating re-doing it? Why does Professor Smythe make me feel like I'm 18 years old again?

I stop and close my eyes for a minute and try to remind myself of who I am now. I can almost hear Abbey Barlet's voice in my head. When she was mentoring me, one of the first things she told me was her favorite quote from Eleanor Roosevelt- "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."

She warned me that political opponents would try to use my history to undermine my position as Mrs. Santos' Chief of Staff. Abbey suggested that sometimes it would be fortuitous to let them think they had succeeded, then out flank them.

It occurs to me that this isn't that much different. I just need to focus on my ultimate goal and consider all possible paths to reach it.

I need to pass this class or I'll have to delay graduation and take a different seminar next semester. This paper is worth 25% of my grade. The Group Presentation later today is worth 25%, Attendance/Participation is worth 10% and the Final Paper is worth 40%.

I think we'll be okay on the group project. We've worked hard on it and it doesn't involve any controversial ideas or anything that has happened during the last two administrations. I haven't missed a single class so should be fine on attendance.

The Final Paper is an unknown. Clearly I can't take the same tactic as I took in this paper. And it would be really nice to know that it's possible for me to write something for Professor Smythe that will meet his standards. If I can't, then it might be better to withdraw rather than fail.

The idea of either withdrawing or failure makes me feel sick to my stomach.

If I don't rewrite this paper, and I don't do well on the Final, I suppose I could try to fight Professor Smythe for a passing grade. I could stick to my guns, I know that I know the material and that the paper as it is demonstrates that! If Smythe doesn't listen, I could appeal to the Department Head. But there is a lot of risk in media attention if I have to do that. And there is no guarantee of a successful outcome.

Another scenario is that he might just barely pass me, hoping that it will be enough to keep me quiet. He's right, it probably would. But it would still be embarrassing, and I'd rather not ruin my GPA.

If I can bring the grade on this paper up to at least a C+, I'll have not only a much better chance of passing, but of passing with a decent grade. I can give Smythe exactly what he wants and no one even has to know. It's a compromise.

I read through the paper again, looking at where I need to make changes and making notes. It stinks to be critical of policies and actions that I know that the President agonized over, but I'll just have to hold my nose.

. . . . .

"Hey Donna!" Olive's voice breaks into my thoughts.

I look up and give her a smile. It feels fake but there is no reason to share my discontent with anyone else. Then Olive grins back at me and I feel better. There's just something about her that calls to me. She's a little lost, but she's got some dreams and she's got potential. I just want to help her.

"Did you get your paper back?"

"Yes!" She grins even wider and hands it to me. B+

"Congratulations!"

"Donna, I can't thank you enough. Without your help in this class, I don't think I'd be passing. I really appreciate it."

"I'm happy to help but this was your hard work. You earned this." I tell her, handing the paper back.

As she takes it, her sleeve slides back a little, and I notice some bruising on her forearm. My heart drops, because I know exactly what causes bruises like that. Someone grabbed her. Hard.

"Hey. What's that?" I ask pointing.

She blushes and pulls her sleeve down. "Nothing." She answers softly.

I hold her eye a moment, trying to decide how to handle it, but we are interrupted by the rest of the group arriving for class, and we are swept into the lecture hall with the crowd.

Damn.

. . . . .

As Media ends, Jordan motions to Maddie, Zayna & I as the others start to file down the stairs.

"One last run through during lunch?" He asks. The three of us all nod at his suggestion. I really want to talk to Olive, but I need to do this right now. She doesn't seem to be waiting on me anyway, I note, as she slips out the door.

Bidding farewell to the others, we head towards a study room. I wish we could just set up in our classroom, but there's another class going on in there. As we walk towards the library, I notice something about the protests. There seem to be less people in the groups, but the ones left are louder, calling people out as they walk by, taunting and challenging anyone who will engage in debate. I feel Jackie and Phil press in towards me as we pass the group.

"Hey Administration! How many kids are you sending to die this week?" An angry young man screams at me, his face red, spit flying from his mouth. He seems to know who I am. I guess the detail is a pretty big clue.

Jordan slows down and looks like he wants to respond.

"Keep walking," Phil instructs in a low voice.

I'm relieved when Jordan complies although he really doesn't look that happy about it. We walk the rest of the way to the library in silence. When we get there, we immediately switch gears and focus on the task to come.

If I do say so myself, we have an excellent presentation ready to go. Our powerpoint slides are dynamic, and we've done a great job moving from speaker to speaker. Our run through is flawless. We're as ready as we can be.

. . . .

I feel like a Mama Bear as I look over the group before we walk into the room. They've all changed into suits and they all look ready for battle.

"All right guys. Let's eat 'em up."

Jordan grins at me. "Let's go."

At the conclusion of our presentation, we get a standing ovation. Even Professor Smythe has a smile on his face as he applauds.

I feel like I'm floating. The four of us exchange coy glances and try to stay cool, but if they are feeling like I am, I'm sure they just want to shout for joy too. We nailed it. We absolutely nailed it.

As soon as we get out the door, Jordan whoops and grabs me and spins me around. Maddie and Zayna are hugging too. We change partners and hug again.

"We did it. We really did it." Maddie repeats.

"That was awesome!" Zayna responds excitedly.

. . . .

When I get home I head straight for my bedroom, peeling off my suit as I go. I root through my drawers looking for jeans and a comfortable shirt. I settle on a soft twin set. It's not pajamas but it will have to do. I flop into the chair and breath deeply.

Following the high from the presentation, I ditched the study group and went to the library and banged out a new draft of my paper. It's not what I want to write, but I am confident that when it's done it will be what Professor Smythe wants and right now that's all that matters. I just need to get through this.

I need to figure out what to do about Olive too. Alarm bells are ringing in my head as I think about the bruises and the way that she responded to my question. If it was really nothing, that's not how she would have reacted. Who grabbed her? When did it happen? Was it the first time? How do I get her to open up?

I sit for a few minutes contemplating all that I have on my plate, but then my eye catches the clock in the room. Ugh. I should get up and make something for dinner. Josh and Lulu will be home anytime.

Sure enough, just as I'm standing up, I hear the front door open, then the patter of Lulu's feet running down the hallway. "Mama! Mama!"

It's the sweetest sound on earth and it's exactly what I need right now.

"Sweet pea!" I call out to her as I step out of the bedroom and crouch down. She barrels into my arms and I hug her close.

"Did you have a good day?"

"Yes, Mama! We got flowers!"

"Another day in the Rose Garden?" I ask Josh as Lulu and I step into the living room.

"Not exactly." He answers with a smile, holding out a bouquet of lilies and irises. "Happy Anniversary."

His eyes are sparkling and his grin gets bigger, as I roll my eyes and say my part- "it's not our Anniversary. This is April, and you're . . ."

He shuts me up with a kiss, while Lulu giggles, half squished between us. How could I ever doubt his love? Thank God I came back to work for him all those Aprils ago.

After a moment, Josh lets me go.  "How 'bout I take my favorite girls out to dinner, then we can go see the baby?"

"That sounds perfect."

"Great.  Let me just go change into something more comfortable."

Chapter Text

'm humming to myself as I change into jeans and a sweater. It's great that Donna hadn't started dinner yet. I should have thought about taking her out to eat in advance and made reservations, but I'm sure we'll be able to get in somewhere. We can go get something to eat and then we can go see the Seaborns. Life is good.

When I come back into the living room, Donna is smiling to herself as she puts the flowers, now in the Bartlet vase, on the dining table. I wrap my arms around her and kiss the side of her neck.

"I know that you've always thought I was just harassing you about this anniversary, but honestly it's one of the best things that ever happened to me. We wouldn't be here now, if you hadn't come back then."

She turns and smiles softly at me. "Oh, I'm not so sure about that."

I cock my head a little and study her face. I'm not following. But the way she's looking at me as she runs her hand down my cheek. I'm ready to be enlightened.

"I don't know where we'd be, but I think that somehow we'd be together. We're soulmates, Josh. If I hadn't come back that April, I think we'd have taken a different path, but somehow we'd have ended up together."

I sort of feel the wind knocked out of me at that thought. She so sure of us. It's incredible. I don't doubt us. I don't have as much faith in my own ability not to screw things up, but when I look into her eyes, I see enough for both of us. Yeah. Inevitable.

It feels like a few minutes have passed when I finally find my voice. "Well, I'm still glad you came back. Because even though it's been a little bumpy at times, I like the path that were on."

"Me too."

I lean down and place my lips gently on hers.

"Daddy!" Lulu calls from across the room, holding out her pink bear towards me. I cross the room in three strides, scooping her and the bear into my arms, causing peals of giggles from her little body.

Yeah. I like the path we're on.

"Clyde's?" Donna asks picking up the phone. "I'll see if they can get us in."

"Yeah, that's good."

"If they can't do you just want to do carry out? Sorry dinner's not ready. I had a bit of a day."

"Either's fine with me. What happened?"

Donna holds her finger up. "Hi, this is Donna Lyman. I just wondered if you'd be able to seat us in about 15 minutes? . . . . Yes, we'll have the detail. . . . . Okay, perfect. Thanks."

"Yeah?"

"Yep. It was Cassie. She said they can get us right in."

"Excellent."

"Here. Let me get her a new diaper, while you put your shoes on."

Donna takes Lulu and heads off to the nursery to get her ready. While she does that, I open the front door.

"Phil. We're going to Clyde's before we head to the hospital. We'll be ready in about 10 minutes."

"Yes, sir."

As I shut the door, I hear him informing the rest of the detail to get ready to move.

After I slip on some casual shoes, I grab a clean sippy cup from the kitchen and check the diaper bag just to make sure we're fully stocked. Books and Cheerios to entertain us while we wait for the food. Bib. Extra outfit. Diapers. Wipes. I'd say we're good to go.

I've just finished rinsing out the sippy cup Lulu used on the way home and putting in it the dishwasher when Donna comes back out with Lulu toddling behind her. Donna's got a gift bag in her hand.

"Me see, Mama." Lulu's calling out to her.

"I just showed you, pumpkin. It's a gift for the baby."

"Mine?"

"No, sweetie. This is for Baby Bartlet."

"Ready?" I ask Donna as I scoop Lulu up, tickling her.

"Yep, let's go."

. . . . . .

"She'll have the kids chicken. What's today's vegetable?"

"Baby carrots, sugar snap peas, or collard greens."

"She'll have carrots." Donna instructs the waitress, while also giving me the evil eye for making a face at peas and greens. "I'll have the Veggie Burger, mixed greens salad, raspberry vinaigrette on the side, please."

The waitress turns to me.

"I'll have the Sliders with fries." Donna raises one eyebrow at me. "And also a side salad, do you have low fat ranch dressing?" That earns me a smile from Donna. The key to a happy marriage. Compromise.

"Yes."

"Ahkay, that please."

"Would you like another Sam Adams?"

"Uh, sure. With my dinner please."

"Another water, ma'am?"

Donna makes a face at the ma'am, but nods.

"So how'd your presentation go?" I ask her as soon as the waitress leaves. I'm relieved when her face lights up.

"We knocked it out of the park! We got a standing ovation. Professor Smythe even smiled at us!"

"Fantastic! See all that worry for nothing. I knew you'd do great."

"Yeah." She responds, but something passes over her face and pings my radar. But our salads arrive before I can ask if there's something else.

I'm halfway through my salad when Lulu demands "Daddy! More Ohs."

"Leonora, how do you ask?" Donna gently chides her.

"Peas, Daddy. Ohs?" Lulu asks holding her hand toward me.

"Good girl." I praise her as I hand her a few, and pour some more on her tray. She really is a good child. She just gets a bit over exuberant at times and has to be reminded. My mother says it just proves that she's definitely my daughter.

I'm relieved when our food arrives before Lulu needs another round of cheerios. Donna doesn't like her to fill up on cereal right before dinner. Not that she'll eat a whole piece of chicken anyway.

Donna cuts up half of it, and cuts the carrots into bite size pieces. Lulu immediately shoves a piece of chicken in her mouth.

Glancing at my watch I see that we are a little bit late on dinner, but not really that much. I wonder why she's so hungry? Maybe a growth spurt is coming.

While I pay the check, Donna takes Lulu to the bathroom to clean her up. By the time they're done we are ready to go.

It's less than five minutes to the hospital, but Lulu and I manage to read Touch and Feel Shapes.

At the hospital, our detail pulls up to the front door. Kevin walks in and does a quick visual sweep of the lobby area, while the other agents surround the vehicle. A few minutes later, we're heading into the hospital in diamond formation, as Kevin leads the way towards the maternity ward.

"Hey guys." Ainsley greets us from the bed, a little bundle wrapped in blue in her arms.

"Josh! Donna!" Sam greets us enthusiastically.

"And me!" Lulu announces, bringing a smile to his face.

"Yes, and you Miss Lulu. Would you like to meet the baby?"

At Lulu's suddenly shy nod, Sam takes her from me and carries her over to the edge of the bed. Ainsley adjusts her arms and tilts the baby toward them.

"Lulu, this is Bartlet."

"Baby." Lulu responds with a smile.

"Yes, Baby Bartlet." Sam encourages her.

"Baby. . . Bubba!" Lulu exclaims, apparently remembering the conversation from two nights ago.

"Oh no." Sam groans, while Ainsley just giggles. Sam's reaction makes Donna and I laugh as well. Our happiness is all Lulu needs to keep going.

"Baby Bubba. Baby Bubba. Baby Bubba." She babbles.

Finally Donna takes pity on Sam. "Lulu why don't you give Aunt Ainsley the present?"

"Do you want to hold him, Donna?" Ainsley offers.

"Yes, please!" Donna exclaims while handing the gift bag to me, and hurrying to the sink to wash her hands.

As soon as Donna claims the baby and sits down, Lulu's eyes narrow watching Donna closely as she coos at Bartlet. I sense a little jealousy.

"Here, Lulu, give this to Aunt Ainsley." I offer the bag as enticement, hoping that a meltdown isn' immentent.

Lulu takes the bag from me and relays it to Ainsley who sets it between them on the bed. "Can you help me take the tissue paper out?" She asks Lulu, who happily complies.

Together they pull out a cutie little one piece outfit that looks like a baseball jersey emblazoned with the words "All Star" across the front. Next is the matching blanket and bib. Then socks and little shoes that look like high tops. And last of course is a baseball cap.

It's not Mets stuff, but it's cute. Not as cute as the girls stuff at Gymboree, but it was interesting looking at the boys side. And at least I stopped Donna from getting a whole bunch of stuff with tiny elephants on it! I mean, we're going to have to watch Bartlet pretty closely since half of his DNA is republican, but I think that between Sam and I we can keep him on the right track.

"Bartlet, huh?" I nudge Sam, "when did you guys decide on that?"

"Last night. We were leaning pretty heavily towards Josiah coming in. But when he got here he just didn't look like a Joey to us. We tried to think of other nicknames because we really wanted to honor President Bartlet since he brought us together. Then all of a sudden, it hit us. Bartlet's a great name. We say that way more than Josiah anyway.."

"Well, I think it's a great choice."

"Me too." Donna chimes in. "And now I don't have to cross Josiah off my boys list."

Lulu is starting to squirm in Sam's arms, so I reach into her bag and pull out a couple of board books and hand them over to him. As soon as I do, she settles back against him so she can see the pages.

"Josh, do you want to hold Bartlet?" Donna asks and I'm struck by a moment of uncertainty. I've never been a baby person. I mean, sure, I'm fine with Lulu and Kate. And of course, Marco, but he was older when I got to know him.

Donna gives me a reassuring smile, so I wash my hands and sit down next to her on the bench by the window. She transfers him over to me and I find myself staring into his eyes.

"Well, hello, there." I murmur to him. "I guess I'm Uncle Josh."

Sam chuckles at that. "Yes, I guess we all have been sucked into Donna's midwestern extended family titles, haven't we?"

"Come on, Uncle Sam, you know you love it." Donna teases.

"Yeah, I do." He admits, planting a kiss on the top of Lulu's head.

"Anyway," Ainsley pipes up. "We want you guys to be Bartlet's godparents. You know, and raise him if something should happen to us."

"We'd love to!" Donna beams. "But what about your siblings, Ainsley?"

"We're asking you for the same reason you asked us. Family is too far away. Bartlet is going to know you guys better, and be more comfortable with you anyway."

"Plus, we know you'll raise him as a democrat!" Sam chimes in.

Donna and I both look at Ainsley in surprise, but she nods. "You too are some of the most kind-hearted, loving people I've met. I may not agree with ALL your politics, but I'd rather you raise him than my family."

"Okay, then, we'd be honored." I look down at the sweet little bundle in my arms. "Welcome to the family, Bartlet."

Lulu let's out a big yawn and Donna stands up. I recognize both as signals that we should get going.

"Trade me kids, Sam?"

"Let me wash my hands first." He stands up then sets Lulu back down on the chair. "Ten years ago, did you think we'd end up here?" He asks as he scrubs.

"Not really." I admit. "But I'm sure glad we did."

Once his hands are clean, he takes his Son from me. When he looks back up at me, I see in his eyes that he's going to be just fine. He part of the brotherhood of fatherhood.

"Welcome to the club, Sam." I offer, with a slight slap on his shoulder. "We've got jackets."

Sam grins. "One of these days I'm actually going to get one of these jackets you keep talking about."

"Ready, babydoll?" I ask Lulu, bending down to pick her up. She nods and snuggles into my shoulder. Good thing we're only a few minutes from home. I think we can keep her awake long enough for a quick bath before bed.

Donna gives Ainsley's hand one last squeeze. "Seriously, call me if you need anything, and listen to your body. If something doesn't feel right call the nurse."

"Thanks, Donna."

. . . . .

"She's out." I announce walking into our bedroom. "New record."

"I'm not surprised!" Donna calls out from the bathroom. "She was barely awake while you were playing patty cake in the car. And twice I thought she was going to fall asleep in the bathtub!"

"I know." I chuckle as I take off my jeans and lay them over the chair. Usually they're a little wet from Lulu's splashing, but not today.

Just as I pull off my t-shirt and toss it in the hamper, Donna comes out of the bathroom. She's wearing a sheer negligee and lace panties. I feel like a cartoon character whose eyes are bugging out of their head, and whose tongue is rolling out of their mouth and onto the floor. My wife is gorgeous. I feel drawn to her. Like a magnet.

"So, I was thinking . . ." she says as she drapes herself across our bed, "that we could start trying for number 2."

Chapter Text

As I hit save one more time and close my computer, I can't help the grin that spreads across my face. Done. At times I've wanted to pull my hair out. 30 pages is by far the most I've ever written. Add the stress that it's for Professor Smythe, and the fact that if I fail this paper I won't graduate, and it's a recipe for testing my perseverance. But it's done.

Jordan's notes were helpful. Swapping papers was a good idea. He's pretty sure I'll do well on it, and that's very reassuring.

I can't believe in less than two weeks I'll be a college graduate! Part of me wants to squeal! But the mature part just holds it in, while I keep grinning to myself.

Since we aced the group project, and I brought my midterm paper up to a B, if I get at least an 88% on this I'll end up with an A- in the class. My 4.0 would be gone, but I can live with it. And if I get a 97%, I'll keep my perfect GPA.

I'm a little superstitious even considering the possibility. I wonder if I should go outside, turn around and swear?

Now that I'm at this point, I'm glad that I rewrote the mid-term paper. Even though I think my original was actually better.

Jordan was right. Just following Professor Smythe's suggestions was all I needed to do. And now that I've submitted, he's given me good grades. I'd hate to think what would have happened if I didn't.

I'm glad Josh stopped asking to read my papers after I chewed him out for reading the media paper that I'd left on the printer. I just don't think he gets how much I need to do this myself.

I know I don't have to prove anything to him. It's myself I have to convince.

. . . . .

"Okay, Olive, let's go over these one more time." I suggest, pulling out the flashcards. She groans good naturedly but sits up, ready to go.

"Mass Media & Public Engagement."

"The average citizen uses media to stay clued in on the topics which they deem to be personally important. Studies show a direct correlation between the amount of news media a person consumes and the degree to which they feel well informed. Moreover, the ability for people to stay informed whether for the good or bad, helps the general public feel secure."

"Good. Mass Media Interpretation."

She takes a deep breath. "The media not only reports the news but typically puts it into context for the average viewer. By suggesting the causes/relationships of events the media tends to shape opinions without expressly telling the audience what is right/ wrong or important/unimportant."

"Very good."

"Mass Media Socialization/ Normalization."

"The media establishes value sets and behavior models of what is or isn't acceptable behavior. Though some tend to be obvious ideas, for example, murder is wrong, In politics, sometimes they vary from source to source."

"More, try to give me an example."

"Um… well, the coverage on CNN about an abortion bill would be a lot different than the coverage on Fox. This can turn into an echo chamber for people who only rely on a single news source. They only hear one set of talking points, which they then assume must be correct."

"Okay that's good. I think you've got it."

"Thanks for helping me, Donna."

"It's a good review for me too. You just need to trust yourself when it comes to the Final. You've got good instincts. You'll be fine."

Olive blushes a little but then looks down. "I'm thinking about dropping out after this semester."

My heart drops, but I try to remain calm. "Oh? Why would you do that?"

"Well, Nick's graduating, and he's going to grad school at Michigan. He was thinking that we could move together. I could work for awhile then, maybe transfer, if my grades are good enough."

Oh man. Her story sounds so familiar. I can't believe all these years later stuff like this is still happening.

"Olive, we never really talked about it, but is Nick the one who left his fingerprints all over your wrist?"

"Just that once!"

I give her a long even look. I find that very unlikely, but I'm not going to accuse her of lying to me. Turns out I don't have to.

"Well, maybe more than once. But he's never hit me!"

"But he's grabbed you hard enough to leave bruises. . . . More than once."

She nods slowly.

"And he'd like you to drop out of school and move across the country with him? And work while he finishes school?"

She nods again.

Before I can say anything else, the front door opens. "Mama! We home!" Lulu announces.

Josh sets her down and she runs over to the couch where I scoop her up for snuggles.

"Hi, I'm Josh." Josh walks over and sticks his hand out, and blushing furiously, Olive shakes it.

"I'm Olive. I'm in Donna's media class. I'll get my stuff and get out of here. Sorry our study session went so long."

"Oh no worries. Why don't you stay for dinner?" He turns to look at me. "Breakfast for dinner?"

"Yes, that would be great."

I turn back to Olive. "Let's move to Lulu's room. She can play while we finish our conversation."

Olive looks between Josh and I uncertainly but he just gives her a grin and heads to the kitchen.

"Come on," I say standing up with Lulu, "this way."

"Okay." Olive says softly as she follows me, looking back towards the kitchen once more. Then she hangs by the doorway, while I plop Lulu onto the changing table.

"JOSH! Does Lulu need a diaper change?"

"NO! I change her right before we left."

"Okay sweet cheeks, let's play." I tickle Lulu as I take her off the changing table, then I dropped down to the floor and sit cross-legged.

Come on, Olive, take a sit."

She obeys, then looks back toward the door. "He cooks?"

"Just the basics, but it's edible. Actually, I'm not being fair. He's a pretty good cook."

"And he changes diapers?"

"Well, yeah."

"But he's so important."

"Olive. He's her Father. That's his most important job."

She doesn't look convinced.

"Can't picture Nick in the kitchen or changing a baby's diaper?"

Olive shakes her head slowly. "No. Not really."

I take her hand and give it a little squeeze. "Do you know why I'm just now finishing my degree?"

"No, why?"

"When I was about your age I dropped out, to put my boyfriend through med school."

Her lips form a little "o" but she stays silent.

"I was supposed to have my turn when he was done. But after a little while he didn't particularly like that idea anymore. He realized he liked having a little woman at home, cooking and cleaning, and . . . taking care of his other needs."

Olive is nodding. "That's how you recognized the bruises?"

"Yes. That's how." I pause for a second, as Lulu hands me a piece of her puzzle so I can put it in place. Once I do she grins at me, her dimples popping out. I automatically smile back, even as I keep talking to Olive.

"Don't sell yourself short, Olive. Even if what you really want is to have a husband and a family, it's worth waiting for a good one."

Olive doesn't really answer, but I can sort of see the wheels are turning while we play with Lulu.

After a bit, Josh yells from the kitchen, "Ladies! Dinner is served!"

"Daddy!" Lulu calls him as she runs from the room to find him.

I smile at Olive as I stand up. I really hope she heard what I said.

. . . . . .

"Ready to shop 'til you drop?" Zoey greets me excitedly as soon as I get in the sedan on Saturday afternoon.

"Um."

"Come on, Donna! Show a little more enthusiasm! It's time to celebrate!"

"Not yet. It's not."

"Donna! We're graduating in ONE week. It's time for some fun."

"I thought we were just picking up our caps and gowns."

"Nope. You need a new dress and new shoes for graduation. And after that we're getting massages."

"But I told Josh I wouldn't be gone long."

"I conspired with him. He wants you to have a girls day out. He's not expecting you back anytime soon."

"What if he gets called into work?"

"Charlie's on stand-by for babysitting."

"You really have thought of everything?"

"Yep."

Zoey Bartlet is a force of nature when she wants to be. Who am I to disagree?

When we arrive on campus, Zoey links her arm through mine as we head into the book store. The agents clear the way for us, and after speaking to the store manager, we get our graduation supplies and get out in just a few minutes.

I'm still uncomfortable with the special treatment, but Zoey just smiles brightly and waves at the students who stare at us. I guess she's used to it.

With the gowns in the trunk, we're quickly on our way to the next stop.

"So how's the wedding prep going? Do you need any help addressing invitations or anything?"

"I'm good! We hired a calligrapher. No way was I doing them myself."

"Are there a lot?"

"No. Thank goodness. Ellie is so jealous, I get to have the outdoor wedding at the farm that she wanted. And I don't have to invite a bunch of dignitaries."

"Well, that's good."

"Yeah, I think Dad would have liked another White House wedding. Or at least some fancy venue, but I'm really happy it's at the farm. It's so much easier."

"You've got a rain contingency plan?"

"Yeah. We are having the reception in a new barn. It will already be decorated. If we need to, we can hold the ceremony there."

"Well, that sounds really nice."

"I think so. I don't want a ton of fanfare, but I do want good pictures and a party with our close friends and family."

As we pull up in front of the Mall, Zoey's grin gets even bigger. "Now, let's go shopping!"

. . . . . .

"Wow, you're quick!" Zoey comments as I finish paying for my shoes. "I think you might even be faster than Ellie."

"I didn't really need anything, but these are cute."

"And they match the dress perfectly!"

"No one is going to see the dress under the gown anyway!"

"You'd be surprised." Zoey comments mysteriously. "But even so, at least you've got some totally rockin' shoes! Everyone will see those!"

"Yes. I can't believe I'm about to graduate."

Zoey gets serious for a minute. "You know Donna, you really are an inspiration. I'm really proud of you."

"Aw, thanks, Zoey!"

"And now we've got almost two hours until our massage appointment! If you're sure you don't want to shop any more, we can head over to the Spa. They have a VIP lounge we can relax in and they'll serve us wine!"

"I'm in."

. . . . . .

"So, you have about 90 minutes before your massages," the receptionist states after she checks us in. "I can have an attendant take you to the VIP lounge, or if you prefer, I can schedule you for another service, perhaps a mani/pedi or a hair appointment?"

"I could use a trim." Zoey announces, seriously, but all the while smiling. I just think she likes to be pampered.

I grab a lock of my own hair and look at the ends. It has been a while. I could probably stand a trim too.

"Okay, yeah, it wouldn't hurt."

The receptionists beams at us. "Great! I'll have Terri show you to the lounge and then it'll be about 10 minutes."

I'm a bit surprised that we can get last minute appointments at a place like this. But I think that Zoey has gotten us the VIP treatment. I know that Josh is on VIP lists at all the local restaurants. We really never have to wait.

Once we are changed into plush robes and given crystal goblets with a sweet Riesling, we are taken into the hair salon.

"Hi, Mrs. Lyman, I'm Kat." My stylist announces as I sit down.

"Please, call me Donna."

"Okay, Donna. So what are you thinking?"

"Oh, probably just a trim."

'Really? You know what? You'd look super cute with a bob. Have you ever tried one?"

"No. Sometimes I've gone shoulder length. It's pretty long right now. And I did get bangs once, but I don't want to do that again!"

"Well your hair is gorgeous. The color is wonderful and it's a very nice thickness and texture. We could do a bit of an undercut, no bangs, the hair would frame your face nicely. What do you say? Do you want to be bold and cut it off?"

I think it over for a minute. I used to think about going short. Many years ago. But my Dad always said he liked little girls with long hair. And Dr. Freeride practically forbid it, just like the tattoo I wanted.

I wonder if that's why I've never been brave enough to REALLY cut my hair- is it left over fear from that stage? Well, I know I'm not that girl any more.

"Okay! You know what? Let's do it!" As soon as I agree, Kat's face lights up.

. . . . . .

I'm feeling a touch nervous as I get out of the sedan. Even though Zoey has assured me that my hair looks great numerous times, I can't help but wonder what Josh will think.

Zoey follows me out of the car, to my surprise. At my puzzled look, she gives me another one of her knowing grins.

"Charlie and I are babysitting tonight so you and Josh can go out and celebrate."

"He planned this whole thing?"

"Well, not the haircuts, but yeah."

He's so sweet when he's been sneaky. I bet he gave it a code name and everything.

I take a deep breath as we reach the front door. Well, here it goes. I open the door and walk in with my head held high. As I carry my new dress and shoes through the kitchen to our bedroom, I hear Josh and Charlie playing with Lulu in her room. They are taking in high silly voices. I can't wait to see what they are doing.

As I enter the room I notice a circle of stuffed animals on the floor. Josh and Charlie each have one in their hands. But I don't take the time to examine the setup in detail. I want to keep my eyes on Josh's face.

When he looks up, his eyes go wide and his mouth falls open. He quickly morphs it into a smile of sorts. The expression reminds me of the time Joey Lucas showed up pregnant.

Ouch.

"You got your haircut!" I can tell he's trying to be enthusiastic as he states the obvious. "It looks great!"

"Thanks." I answer automatically, trying to tamp down my disappointment. I can tell when Josh is giving a PC answer. Saying it looks great is NOT the same thing as saying that he likes it.

Honestly, I don't want to care what he thinks. But I do. I want him to find me attractive.

Josh studies me for a minute, then he stands up.

"C'mere." He reaches out and pulls me to him, then he runs his hand over the back of my head as he pulls me even closer.

"You look great." he whispers in my ear. "Really sophisticated. I love it."

I look in his eyes and I can tell he is being sincere. The moment of shock is over and he really does like what he sees.

I really don't need his approval. I like the haircut and that would be enough. But it does feel good to know that he likes it too.

Chapter Text

"Triangle, Mama." Lulu announces holding the blue shape up as Donna walks by her with our coffee refills.

"Yes, babydoll." Donna smiles. Once she has Donna's approval, Lulu drops the piece through the correct hole. She's been totally into the shape sorter lately. My guess is we've got about 10 more minutes before she moves on to something else.

Donna hands me my coffee then joins me on the couch as I turn on "Face the Nation." It's Ryan's first time, but he's been fully prepped. He knows our education plan, and he's pretty quick on his feet. I think it'll be a good show for us.

As usual, I'm only half listening as the show starts. Donna will bring me up to speed if I miss something important. The Sunday shows are really more her thing anyway. I'd rather get through my reading so that we can go to the park later.

"He's doing really well!" She announces like a proud Mom. She's always had a soft spot for Ryan. And now that he and Nicole are getting pretty serious, Donna is even more doting. Before this term is over, I think the kid is going to end up part of my extended family. How on earth did I get here?

During a commercial break, she flips over to "Meet the Press" where Bram is facing off with a Freshman Representative from Montana. I'm sure Bram will wipe the floor with him, but I stop reading for a second and look up.

"Not everyone in your White House agrees with the President's approach, though, do they?" Congressman Ernst hurls at Bram, who looks momentarily confused.

"The President's advisors always bring several options to the table when he is determining a course of action. Of course different scenarios are discussed." Bram responds calmly. But my senses are on high alert. This smells like a trap.

"That's not what I'm talking about. I've always suspected the Santos administration was full of discord, and now we have the proof. This paper, written by one of his closest advisors, outlines with specific examples, the President's dismal progress in Kazakhstan."

Donna and I both lean forward subconsciously as Bram sputters, "What on earth are you talking about?"

Yeah, I'd really like to know that too.

Rep. Ernst holds up a paper triumphantly. "Kazakhstan in Crisis: A Year in Review, by Donnatella Moss Lyman, Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the First Lady."

"Oh god," Donna moans next to me, while on the screen Rep. Ernst flips the paper open.

"And I quote, In bowing to public pressure and pulling peace-keeping troops out Kazakhstan before Christmas, the Santo Administration showed its lack of commitment to the fledgling democracy. Withdrawal of US troops contributed to the lack of stability in the Almaty region, which played a crucial factor in the rioting there. Ultimately, this lead to the deaths of hundreds of ethnic Chinese and an American family."

"WHAT THE HELL?!" I shout at the television, startling Lulu who takes one look at my face, and bursts into tears.

Her tears are like a bucket of cold water on my white hot anger. An instinct to comfort and protect takes its place and I suddenly feel oddly calm.

Donna and I stand up simultaneously, but as I move towards Lulu, Donna flops back onto the couch.

"Shhh… It's okay, baby." I croon, as I pick Lulu up, rubbing her back, to soothe her.

As I turn back toward Donna, I get the first glimpse at her face. Her eyes are filled with tears too. And she's biting her lip.

On the television, the commentator announces a commercial break, and my phone immediately starts vibrating in my pocket. In the kitchen, I hear Donna's ringing as well.

I pull mine out and look at it. "It's Lou."

"Yeah, I would imagine so." Donna responds dully, dropping her head into her hands.

My phone continues to buzz while I debate my options. Information. I need information. That's probably what Lou wants too.

I take a deep breath, fighting against a drive to get results at any cost.

Slipping my phone back into my pocket, I pick up the remote and put the program on mute. Then I sit back down next to Donna, with Lulu on my lap.

"Lucy, you have some 'splaining to do." I tell Donna in my best Ricky Ricardo voice.

She gives me half a smile that rewards my effort at remaining calm.

"Was that quote accurate?" I ask her, seriously. If it is, we've got a problem.

"Yeah. It's taken out of context, but it sounds correct."

A jolt of betrayal shoots through me. What the hell was Donna thinking? She's never been anything but completely supportive of us. If she didn't agree with our approach, then why didn't she say something? She is a trusted advisor. We would have at least listened.

Then it hits me. Duh. "What's the paper? Something for school, I presume."

"It's from the midterm for the Building Democracy Seminar. The Prof has been railing against the administration all term. For the mid-term we had to write a 6-8 page paper analyzing the issues covered by the first half of the class, using specific examples." She pauses, her face turning red, "I got a D on my first draft so he let me rewrite it to demonstrate that I understood the material as presented."

Donna got a D? That's crazy. Something's not right here.

"Material as presented . . . that sounds like code for I want you to write a paper that reflects my views not yours."

"Pretty much." Donna agrees miserably.

What's left of my anger at her drops to irritation. This isn't her fault. She got duped. I wrap one arm around her and squeeze her close to me. Lulu giggles, reassured that the world is not ending, and uses the opportunity to crawl into Donna's lap.

"Do you have your first draft? Did he give you notes?"

"Yeah."

"Do you have the final graded version too?"

"Yes. I have them both."

"Can I read them? I need to know what we're dealing with here."

"I can't believe you are being so calm about this." Donna stands up with the baby and heads over toward the office corner where her backpack is resting against the wall.

"I am scoring major husband point right now, aren't I?" I call out as she retrieves the folder and heads back to me. But her face crumples a little as she sits back down.

"Yes, but I'm a little scared about how the Chief of Staff is going to react when he reads this."

A streak of pain shoots through my core. Knowing her past, my heart breaks any time she express fear about my reaction to something. If I could only take back every time I bellowed her name, I would. I can't fix her past. But I can remind her of the present.

"Hey. . . " I take her hand again. "Whether we are here in this living room or in the Oval Office, I'm your husband first and foremost. No matter what, I love you. Okay? I need you to always know that without a doubt."

"I know. But I think you are about to be very unhappy with me."

This is the part that gets me! Why the hell would she keep this a secret if she knew it would piss me off? She should have told me so I could have fixed it.

She hands me the folder when her phone starts ringing again,"I'd better check that. It could be the First Lady." She stands up to go retrieve her phone, taking Lulu with her. But Lulu has had enough.

"Down, Mama." She demands. When Donna sets her on the floor among her toys without correcting Lulu's failure to say please, I know that she isn't as calm as she appears either.

She is an intelligent, capable woman who has proven that she can handle whatever life throws at her. She's become a political force to be reckoned with. But here at home, I still see bits of her insecurities show through and they bring something out in me. I want to defend her at all costs.

God, I love her so much it practically hurts.

I breathe in through my nose as I open the folder and look at the two papers, unsure of which to read first. I'd like to read Donna's first version, without Professor Asshole's notes. I wonder if there is a copy in here. After flipping back a few pages, I find it.

Damn. This is good. She uses four examples to show how the Santos Administration encouraged the Kazakh government's democratic efforts during while it was experiencing political and economic reconstruction.

She's been a little prickly about my involvement in her classes this semester, so I learned not to offer much help. But I wonder why she didn't show this to me before she turned it in? It's brilliant. I'm so proud of her.

As I set the paper back down, my eyes fall to the copy with the bright red D scrawled in the corner. I feel my blood begin to boil again. There is no way the paper I just read deserved a D. It was well thought out, well organized, and well written. Someone messed with my wife. And he's going to have to answer to me.

I pick up the graded paper up start reading the notes. "Were you paying attention in class at all? Infrastructure is vital. It has to be a first priority. If an emerging state doesn't acknowledge that, it is doomed." Later, "NO! You missed the point completely. Turning control over to the Water Authority too soon was a mistake. It will be corrupt within a year."

In each example, Donna explain how the administration's action or inaction was designed to allow the Kazakh government to direct itself and determine its own destiny. Each of the notes berated her for her optimism and positivity and insisted that the administration's policies doomed the emerging democracy to failure.

I'd like to punch him in the face.

But if I'm honest, his political positions are not completely out of left field. They certainly represent a more cautious, hands on approach, that requires supporting countries to commit long term and remain in a region for decades. There were those that had advised Matt to follow that course. I was not one of them.

Matt didn't start that war. And he didn't want his entire legacy to be tied up with whether or not Kazakhstan could maintain a democracy. We have a domestic agenda that is our first priority.

I can hear Donna on the phone in the other room, and Lulu is still content on the floor, so I pick up the last version. It has a B in the corner. As I read through, I see that Donna has just altered her conclusions for each example. She now parrots the notes that Professor Douchebag had left for her.

It's still well written. It makes his points better than his notes. She should have got an A.

The talking heads are going to have a field day using it to beat us up. But we'll face it together.

When she comes back into the room, Donna seems surprised to see me on the floor playing contently with Lulu.

"Did-did you read it?"

"Yeah."

"Well?"

"I liked the first version better."

"Josh!" She screeches my name in frustration, causing Lulu to look at me curiously. But once I give Lulu a grin, she relaxes again.

"What do you want, Donna?" I ask her in an even tone. "Do you want me to yell at you? To rant and rave and ask how you could do this to our President? To us? To everything we're working for?"

"I don't know. . . . Yes? Lou's pretty pissed at me. And I feel so guilty."

"That was Lou? She yelled at you?"

"Yeah. She wants you to call her back when you're done with me."

I feel my calm demeanor slipping a bit more. It would be so easy to be full out pissed off at everything. Lou shouldn't be calling my wife at home to yell at her. This isn't Donna's fault. We need to save our anger for the right targets.

"I don't want to yell at you, Donna. Why do you feel guilty?"

"I wrote a paper critical of the administration."

"Yeah, so, Ainsley wrote a bunch of them and we still gave her a job."

"But she's a Republican!"

"I know. . . . remind me again why we're friends with her?" I ask light-heartedly, trying to remind her that we love Ainsley because of who she is, in spite of some of her mixed-up opinions.

While Donna stands there looking at me like I've got two heads, I go on.

"When he hired Ainsley, President Bartlet said he likes smart people that disagree with him. Matt feels the same way. He's not going to stop liking you just because you disagree with him."

"BUT I DON'T DISAGREE WITH HIM!" Donna shouts, causing Lulu to furrow her brow and pout again. I pick the baby up and put her on my lap handing her a stuffed animal to hold.

It's time to get a little tough with her Mommy.

"Then why'd you write that paper?"

I already know the answer. And Donna already knows the answer. But we need to walk through this process together. She is going to have to answer these questions for other people sooner or later. And they aren't going to be gentle when they ask them.

"Because the Professor is a jerk and I didn't want to fail the class."

Not exactly the answer I was looking for. I want her to put on her armor and give me the politician's answer, but the wounded girl is still coming through.

"I caved to the pressure. I should have stood up for my beliefs."

"Donna." I say her name firmly before she can spiral any more. "It wasn't an op-ed. It was a required paper. We can release the draft with his comments to show what happened and reiterated that the paper doesn't reflect the views of this administration or Donna Lyman personally."

"But then everyone will know I got a D on it the first time." She answers morosely.

Ah. My perfectionist, straight A wife. That's what's really bothering her. I'm sure that's why she didn't tell me about the D. She was embarrassed.

And obviously she's not ready to be an operative yet. She still needs some loving support.

"Oh, Donna. I love you so much." I shift Lulu on my lap to make room and motion Donna to join us. "C'mere." Donna rolls her eyes, but sits next to Lulu so I can wrap my arms around both of them. "You impress the hell out of me all the time. It was one bad grade. You don't have to prove anything to me."

She lets me hold her a bit. In fact, long enough that my legs are starting to hurt. This might not have been a good idea.

Finally she gets up. Thank God. She moves to a chair and looks at me seriously.

"I appreciate what you're saying. But I feel like there are people I have to prove myself to. One of those people is me. I needed to finish this degree. I needed to do it for myself. And I want to know that I did it. That I didn't get anything because of my position or that someone held my hand every step of the way."

"So that's why you didn't want me to read your papers this semester?"

"Yeah. You have really good ideas. And I appreciated your help when I was getting back into the swing of things. But I just needed to finish this on my own."

"That makes sense."

"It bit me in the butt, didn't it?" Her voice is getting stronger. I'm seeing more of her irritation and less vulnerability. "I should have talked to you before I re-wrote that paper. You probably would have told me not to, right?"

"I don't know. My first instinct after seeing that D was to pay an office call to Professor Trying to Compensate for a Tiny Penis."

"JOSH! Not in front of the baby!"

"Sorry." For once I hope Lulu doesn't pick up a new word.

But then Donna laughs. "That might be your best nickname ever."

"Thanks. But seriously. I don't know what I would have recommended. Tenured professors DO have a lot of leeway. I'm not sure that it would have been worth a fight over the D. And if he was trying to make trouble for the administration that might have been playing right into his hand."

Donna leans forward as she reveals more about what happened. "I did meet with him and try to get my grade raised before I rewrote it. I wouldn't have been happy, but I could have lived with a C. I would have felt more comfortable that I could pass the class. And I also thought about withdrawing, but then I wouldn't graduate. I didn't want to have to go another semester."

"I don't blame you."

"Rewriting the paper seemed like the safest course. I didn't think anyone but the Professor would ever read it."

"Which raises a really good point. How DID Rep. Ernst get ahold of your paper?"

Donna just shrugs and I feel my blood pressure go up. I'm really not mad at Donna, but I am upset. Someone leaked this paper. They specifically targeted my wife and caused her stress while trying to embarass my President.

I'm going to find out who it was, and once I do, they are going to wish they'd never heard of Bartlet's Bulldog.

Chapter Text

Josh has been in strangely good humor over this whole situation. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.  

 

But he’s whistling as we make our way towards the Oval Office.  The rest of the gang is already there when we arrive. That’s the difference between having kids and not.  We had to wait for Zoey to get to our place before we could leave.

 

The minute we walk into the room the conversation stops and all eyes turn to me.

 

“I’ve filled everyone in with what you told me on the phone.”  Lou announces. “Of course none of us could believe you’d actually write something like that! How could you, Donna?”

 

“I didn’t want to believe it.” Bram chimes in.  “I almost went on air and denounced it as fake! Thank God all I did was deny any knowledge of the paper and assert that if those were your views that obviously you didn’t speak for the White House!”

 

“She doesn’t speak for the White House.” Lou insists.  “And I still want to know how the hell this happened Donna! Why did you ever write something like that.”

 

“She was blackmailed.” Josh breaks in.  “The Professor forced her to write his views and she didn’t think about the implications if the paper got leaked.”

 

He squeezes my hand in sympathy, but I want to tear it away from him.  How dare he! He’s making me sound like an idiot.

 

“Enough!”  The President’s boom silences everyone else.  Even Josh.

 

“Donna, can you tell us what happened?”  Matt sounds irritated. I feel nauseous.

 

“My advanced seminar is called Building Democracy After Conflict.  We’ve spent quite a bit of time discussing Kazakhstan and the administration’s policies and actions.  For the mid-term we had to take examples and discuss them to show an understanding of the materials that had been presented.”

 

“Donna wrote a brilliant paper.”  Josh interrupts. Bram’s mouth falls open and Lou scoffs out loud.  “Not the one quoted.” Josh corrects. “The first paper she wrote affirmed our stances and actions.”

 

“I don’t understand.”  Bram admits.

 

“The Professor gave me a very low grade on it.  He said it didn’t reflect the material as presented.  He offered me the opportunity to rewrite the paper and I took it.”

 

“Basically he blackmailed her into writing a negative editorial by holding her grade, and the possibility of graduation over her head.”

 

“Do you have any proof of that?”  Lou asks me. But before I can answer, Josh jumps in again.

 

“Yes! She has the original paper with the professors comments.  The final version basically just adopts all of his viewpoints.”

 

“We could release both. Maybe we can find a friendly reporter to write a side-by-side analysis to show that the second paper isn’t really Donna’s original thought.”

 

I feel my cheeks burning with embarrassment.  Not only do they want to show the world how Professor Smythe degraded me, but they also want to argue that the finished paper isn’t really my own work?  That makes it sound like I cheated.

 

I’m feeling more and more humiliated as they banter back and forth with ideas about how to rectify this situation.  

 

At one point Josh wonders if we should call Ainsley and find out if the White House has a cause of action against Georgetown.

 

When Josh agrees with Lou’s suggestion that they proof and approve my final paper before I turn it in, I have to stop myself from screaming.

 

I can’t hold back anymore.

 

“I’m sorry, Mr. President.  You can have my resignation or you can fire me.  But I don’t think the White House should jump into this.  I’m not comfortable allowing my first draft with the Professor’s comments to be made public.  That paper was written in good faith for a specific class, it was not intended to reflect administration views nor was it for publication.  The Professor’s comments were for my eyes only. It was an exercise for my educational enrichment. And I won’t breach that confidence.”

 

“But . . .”

 

“Hush.”  The President cuts Josh off before he can say anything else. Then he looks me in the eye.  “Donna, if you disagree with my policies will you tell me to my face?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Would you ever write an anonymous op-ed while working for my administration?”

 

“Absolutely not.”

 

“Then I do not accept your resignation, and I’m sure as hell not going to fire you.  Bram will cover this at tomorrow’s briefing. He’ll say that the paper was an educational exercise that was not meant for publication.  He’ll say that Donnatella Moss Lyman continues to be a trusted member of the Santos administration, and that the President congratulates her on her upcoming matriculation from Georgetown College and looks forward to speaking at the commencement exercises next week.”

 

Matt pauses and gives everyone in the room a meaningful look.  “And that’s all he’ll say.”

 

I want to hug him.  But I settle for giving him a small smile. “Thank you, Mr. President.”

 

Matt returns my smile, then turns back to the others.

 

“Lou, Bram, either get to work on my commencement speech or go home.  Donna, come with me to the residence. Helen wants to give you a hug. Josh, I guess you can come too.”

 

As the three of us head toward the Residence, Matt takes the opportunity to reassure me again.

 

“This really isn’t a big deal, Donna.  I think Lou and Josh are making a mountain out of a molehill.”

 

“I hope you’re right, sir. I just want this to blow over quickly.”

 

Josh doesn’t say anything but his facial expression is pretty stormy.  I still can’t quite figure out if he angry with me or someone else. Probably both.  All morning he’s claimed that he’s not mad at me, but he basically cut me out of the conversation in the Oval Office. That’s usually a pretty good sign that he’s pissed.

 

Helen is waiting by the door when we arrive.  I’m actually surprised that she didn’t join us in the Oval for the meeting.  Obviously my continued employment directly concerns her. If the meeting had been about anyone else on her staff, I would have been her representative. But since I was the one facing the firing squad, I was probably conflicted.

 

“Oh, Donna!” She greets me with the hug that the President promised.

 

“I’m sorry for all this trouble, Ma’am.”

 

“Donna!” Helen chides, “where are we?”

 

“The Residence.” I answer softly, quickly surmising where this is heading, but Helen launches into her spiel.

 

“I specifically waited to see you until we we’re up here so it would be clear.  I’m not your boss. You need a friend.”

 

“Thanks, Helen. I’m still sorry.  This shouldn’t have happened.”

 

“No, it shouldn’t but that’s because your work product for school shouldn’t have been released!  This is a total breach of confidentiality.”

 

“You’re right! It shouldn’t have been released!  And you’d better believe I’m going to get to the bottom of it.  This professor isn’t going to know what hit him. And he’d just better be glad that I’m not going to actually hit him!” Josh rants, pacing around the room.

 

“Down, boy.” Matt laughs.  “While I totally agree with your sentiment as a husband, you know you can’t do that.  We need to let this die down.”

 

Josh clenches his jaw.  Then he bites out-- “unfortunately, I think we’re being too optimistic thinking that this is going to go away quickly.”

 

“You think?”

 

“Yeah, I do. No honor among thieves.  And I’m concerned that were going to get hit from both sides.  This is the type of political situation where people jockey for position and influence.”

 

“Yeah, but surely they won’t fight us publicly?” Helen asks.

 

Josh just rolls his eyes.  “Let’s turn on the news and just see, shall we?”

 

He turns on MSNBC where a round table is discussing “The Paper” as it’s been deemed.

 

“Still no word from the White House on the status of Donna Lyman.  If this paper is authentic, she’s given the Santos White House quite a black eye.”

 

“Of course, Mrs. Lyman has powerful friends in Washington- including her husband, Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman.  Certainly her job isn’t in jeopardy, is it?”

 

“I don’t know.  There have always been those uncomfortable with the degree of friendship between the Santoses and the Lymans.  This might just serve a fodder for those who want to break that up.”

 

The four of us exchange uncomfortable glances as the participants continue their bantering back and forth.

 

“Well, at this point we don’t have verification that the Paper is authentic.”

 

“No, we contacted Georgetown but they declined to comment, citing Ms. Lyman’s right to privacy.”

 

Josh lets out a small bark of laughter.  “It’s a little late for that.” He mutters.

 

“Does she really have a right to privacy?” A young commentator volleys back.  “She’s a public figure.”

 

‘Well,” one of the other talking heads responds, “I for one certainly call on the White House to either confirm or deny the authenticity of the Paper, and while they’re at it, answer whether Ms. Lyman’s employment is under review.”

 

“It’s not!” Helen cries out at the television.

 

“I assume we reached out to the White House?”  One of the hosts asks the table.

 

“Yes, we’re told it will be addressed in the morning briefing.”

 

With that they cut to commercial. “Well, those were our ‘friends’, Josh says grimly.  “Shall we see what our enemies are saying?”

 

He flips over to Fox and Friends, where Carlton Tracker is speaking directly to the screen.

 

“And I call on Congress to open an investigation into whether Mrs. Lyman has defrauded the government by failing to meet the terms of her employment.  If she’s attending school why is she drawing a full salary? Maybe it’s time for Mrs. Lyman to stay home and raise their child. She’s already trying to turn the White House into a daycare center, and with the new Seaborn baby, I suspect it’s about to get worse.  How many children are running around the East Wing and how is any work getting done? The nepotism of the Santos Administration is out of control! It’s time for Congressional oversight.”

 

As the show goes to commercial, Josh turns to look at us.  “You were saying?”

 

Matt looks him in the eye.  “Right. Consider yourself off the leash.  They don’t get to attack our wives.”

 

Josh nods, then pulls out his phone.  “Lou-- yeah, I saw it. Coordinate with Annabeth.  I want a full list of the Sunday shows and the positions that each participant took. . . . No, we’re not going to release a statement any earlier.  We don’t want to look like we’re scared. . . . No. We’re not scared.”

 

Josh listens for a while, and then continues.  “Yeah, we’ll need to prep Bram on the answer to the employment question. . . . She’s not in the office Tuesday & Thursdays.  On Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays she’s in the office 7:30 to 5:30. That’s 30 hours a week. The other ten hours a week are covered by annual leave. . . . . No, we aren’t going to get that far into the weeds in our written statement, but I want Bram to be prepared for the questions he’s sure to get asked. . . .  Yeah, I’ll talk to her again about releasing both drafts of the paper. . . . I know. . . . I don’t know why she’s being so stubborn.”

 

At the last comment Matt rolls his eyes and Helen gasps out loud.  I’m just seeing red. I’m so sick of him talking about me instead of to me.

 

. . . . . . .

 

I’ve barely said two words to Josh since we left the White House.  I’m just so furious with him, I’m afraid to let myself go.

 

Josh on the other hand, has been rambling on and on about his plans.  He’s going to crush everyone that calls for my termination. He’s going to make sure we’re vindicated.  He’s going to make my professor cry like a little girl.

 

I wish he would just shut the hell up.

 

As we walk into the house, he finally seems to notice the distinct chill coming from my direction.

 

“What’s the matter?  Are you worried? Don’t be worried. I’m on top of this.”

 

“I’m not worried. I’m pissed.”

 

“Yeah, me too, but I’m going to make your professor sorry he ever heard your name.”

 

“HE’S not the only one I’m pissed at.”

 

Josh looks incredulous as he comes to realize my pointed look is directed at him.

 

“What’d I do?” He asks stupidly.

 

But Zoey is coming out of Lulu’s room. “I don’t want to talk about it right now.” I respond crisply as I force a smile for Zoey.

 

“Thanks for watching her.”

 

“No problem. We had a great time.”  Zoey pauses for a minute as she hands Lulu off to Josh, who takes the baby toward the kitchen.  “I turned the ringer off your home phone. I figured anyone you really wanted would call your cell.”

 

“Yeah. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to talk to anyone right now.”

 

Zoey gives me a sympathetic smile.  “I understand.”

 

She probably does understand.  Some of the less reputable papers used to publish her grades.  And they were always trying to get a quote from her. At least now they mostly leave her alone.

 

“I’m going to head home.  See you next week.”

 

Josh pops out of the kitchen.  “Bye Zoey, thanks again.”

 

“Sure thing.  Bye, Josh. Bye, Lulu.”

 

“Bu-bye, Aunt Zoey.” Lulu responds happily.  At least she had a good day!

 

. . . .

 

After Zoey leaves and we get Lulu down for the night, I head to our bedroom to put some pajamas on.  I just want this day to be over.

 

When Josh follows me, I find myself even more irritated.  Doesn’t he have a briefing memo to read or something? God, I just need five minutes to myself!

 

He sits on the bed to watch me change, so I glare at him and take my clothes to the bathroom.  

 

As I come back out, Josh rounds on me.

 

“What the hell is the matter with you? You’ve been giving me the cold shoulder all night.  I’m trying to fix this!”

 

“Exactly!” I whisper shout so that don’t wake up Lulu. “YOU’RE fixing it! You aren’t asking me what I want to do.  You made snide comments about me to Lou. And you’ve been patronizing and condescending ALL DAY!”

 

“You’ve got to be kidding me!  I’ve held my temper all day and now YOU’RE mad at ME?!”  Josh’s eyes blaze. “You’ve got me walking a tightrope here.  Trying to protect the President and trying to defend you at the same time.  AND YOUR REFUSAL TO RELEASE THE COMMENTS ISN’T HELPING!”

 

“You want my help?” I hiss at him.  “Could have fooled me! You barely let me get a word in edgewise in the Oval Office!  You and Lou making decisions without even ASKING about what I want.”

 

“What do you want, Donna?” He asks me in a rock hard voice.

 

“Just leave me alone!” I answer just as hard.

 

“FINE! I’ll just sleep on the couch.” Josh grabs his pillow and storms out of the bedroom.

 

As I watch him stomp down the hall, a pain shoots through my stomach and I can’t stop a sob from ripping out of my chest.

 

Chapter Text

As I get to the den, I take my pillow and hurl it against the wall. It knocks three books off the shelf. They crash to the floor with a satisfying noise. I'd like to tear this room apart.

Instead, I back myself up against the wall.

I'm so angry I'm shaking. Donna's pissed at me?! She's pissed at me?! I'm on her side! I did everything I could to make sure she knows that none of this is her fault!

But damn it! If she'd just shown me that graded paper, we could have gotten ahead of this.

I press my back harder against the wall and breath in deeply. It helps. Deep breath in. Release it slowly. Again. Take stock.

Am I mad at Donna?

Okay, maybe a little. I'm a little hurt that she's shut me out of this semester. It bugs me that she didn't come to me and tell me about the grade or ask my advice on how to handle it.

Yes, things were pretty crazy at work during that time. But I vowed to always make time for her. And I think I've lived up to that.

And now she's mad at me about how I've handled this? I think I've handled it pretty damn well. I didn't yell at her or tell her that I'm a little ticked. I made sure that Lou and Bram didn't either. I told them . . .

I told them . . .

I told them . . .

I let the scene play in my head. Lou and Bram ranting and raving, and I'm pretty much in there. And Donna's quiet. Until she finally speaks up.

And when she does, I couldn't be more proud of her. She was calm and collected as she addressed the President. My heart had dropped when she offered her resignation. But I knew Matt wouldn't take it. Not over something like this.

This really wasn't her fault. She made a choice to re-write the paper. It was a legitimate choice. I mean I'd have wanted to tear the professor's head off, and I might have had a hard time resisting the urge to call the Dean of the Department, but if I'm honest, any hint that I was peddling my influence over there might have given the administration more of a black eye than this paper does, so at the end of the day, I might have just given her the go-ahead to rewrite it.

Shit.

She didn't need my go-ahead. She made a decision. A decision she was fully capable of making on her own. And a decision that just might have been the best course at the time.

Kind of like not spending money in Illinois. It was the right decision at the time, just because it ended up having consequences doesn't mean it was wrong when I made it. I remember how I felt when everyone took shots at me, even though they'd probably have made the same decision in the moment. Damn it. I bet Donna's feeling a lot like that.

Lou, Bram and I have been second guessing her with the benefit of hindsight, AND we pretty much cut her out of the conversation, except to call her on the carpet to explain herself. Not that we really let her get a word in.

Shit.

Now what? I'm tempted to hide here in the den. To sleep on the couch as punishment for having a reptilian brain. Then I could get up early and go buy Donna some flowers. Really nice flowers.

But one of the things we agreed on in Hawaii was that we were going to do a better job of talking to each other. Of not leaving things unsaid and just hoping that they work themselves out someday.

It's time to man up.

As I open the bedroom door, I hear Donna's soft crying. I'm an Ass.

I sit down on her side of the bed without saying anything. And then I rub her back for a minute. She doesn't roll away. And the crying stops. So I take that as a good sign.

"Donna . . . . I'm sorry. God, I hate fighting with you. I didn't mean to make you feel small or that I don't think you're good enough to handle this. I know sometimes I'm a Neanderthal, but I'm trying to be a better man. For you . . . and for Lulu. Please just don't give up on me."

Donna rolls onto her back and looks at me. Her eyes are red-rimmed and puffy. I feel terrible.

But then she gives me the tiniest smile and she sits up and pushes herself back against the headboard.

"I'm sorry too. I just feel horrible about all this and I took it out on you. I know you were just in work mode in the Oval Office. Nothing you said was really that bad. And really, as Chief of Staff, this is your problem now too."

It's nice of her to say that. But obviously, I didn't handle it as well as I could have if at the end of the night she's unhappy and crying alone in our room.

"I jumped in to try to fix it without really listening to you. And I shouldn't do that. You have really good ideas and you're a really good problem solver. It was stupid not to give you a chance to be heard."

Donna's lip quivers a bit, and for a second I wonder if she's going to cry again. But she takes a deep breath.

"I want to believe it when you tell me that I deserve this job and that I can handle it, but sometimes I do feel overwhelmed. And then when it doesn't seem like you want me to talk, it's hard to ignore the voices in my head that say I don't belong in the room."

"Oh my god, Donna! YOU belong in the room. You really do. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed too! It's part of the job. And you really are phenomenal. My desire to defend you isn't because I don't think you can handle this . . . I just don't want you to have to. I want that to be MY job. It probably is left over cave-man. I don't know if I can get rid of it completely. And honestly- I'm not sure I want to. God, I just don't want anything bad to ever happen to you."

A few tears slip silently down her cheeks and I'm not sure whether I said the right thing or not. Sometimes my mouth does get away from me.

But after a few sniffles, Donna reaches over and interlaces our fingers. "I don't want you to sleep on the couch."

"Thank God. I don't want to sleep there either."

She pulls the covers back on my side of the bed, so I get up and strip out of my clothes, then climb in next to her. She rolls over and wraps her arm around my waist and puts her head on my chest.

After a few minutes of stroking her hair, Donna's breathing evens out. She won't sleep like this for long, but I'll take every minute I can get.

I'm not that tired. And I need to devise a strategy. And in the morning, I need to find out what Donna wants to do.

. . . . .

"That's him?" Phil asks from the front seat.

"Yeah."

"So what's the plan?"

"When he comes out I'm going to talk to him. You just stand there."

"Can I reach for my weapon?" Phil asks with a little smirk. He loves Donna. I have no doubt that not only would he die for her, he'd kill for her too. He could probably make it look like an accident.

"Do what you gotta do, Phil."

We wait a few minutes in silence until we see Professor Smythe accept his drink from the barista and make his way back to the door. By the time he exits, we are standing on the sidewalk waiting.

"Mr. Lyman!" He jumps a bit when he recognizes me, sloshing his coffee on the front of his shirt. "I guess I'm not that surprised to see you, but how did you know I was here?"

"I have ways." I give him a glare until he starts to squirm.

"Did you need something?'

"Oh, I imagine you know exactly why I'm here. I'd like to discuss the school's privacy policy."

"Well," the professor responds glibly, "under the policy I can't really discuss a student with anyone unless the student has signed a waiver. So, I really have nothing to say to you."

I take two steps toward him, destroying the illusion that I'll respect his personal space. I recognize the look in his eyes. He'd like to back up but now there is an agent directly behind him. I can see the beads of sweat popping out on his forehead as he swallows hard.

"We both know that I'm not a typical meddling relative. Don't we?"

"AH, yes." He stammers.

"And you've already violated Donna's privacy so let's cut to the chase. Donna has decided NOT to release the comments that you wrote on her paper. If I had my way, everyone would know exactly what a bully you are. But my wife is kindness personified. I'm telling you now, if those comments get leaked, you aren't going to like my reaction." I take another step forward and he shrinks back as far as he can. "Is that clear?!" I thunder at him.

"YES!" He cries out. I start to walk away when he calls after me. "It wasn't me."

"What?" I spin around and glare at him over my sunglasses, practically daring him to feed me a line.

"I didn't leak the paper."

I stare at him trying to decide if he's believable. He swallows hard. "It was my TA. I reported him to the Dean. Georgetown is conducting an investigation. I'm sure they'll contact you once it's complete."

"Why should I believe you?"

He shrugs. "It doesn't really matter if you believe me. The Dean does. The only people that had access to that Paper was myself, my TA, your wife, and whomever she gave a copy to. So unless she leaked it, it had to be the TA."

While I'm standing there contemplating the possibilities, the Professor regains some of his swagger. "You know, you might think I'm an asshole, but I get good reviews. I run a high level seminar. I'm tenured. And I'm frequently published. Every semester some cocky undergrad thinks they know more than I do, and every single one of them ends up coming around. And when they end up doing well in my class, they feel accomplished. And in the end they leave glowing reviews about how challenged they were and how much they learned. I've got no reason to leak your wife's paper. There was nothing special about her."

As I charge forward ready to take him down, Phil grabs my arm. He doesn't say anything until I get control of my temper.

The Professor stands there a little smirk on his face. But I see the fear in his eyes. I take a deep breath and straighten my tie.

"You know," I offer casually, "the District's not that big of a place. A person's status can change in an instant."

With that I walk away. I can't say anything more. But I will be making some calls. I don't think Professor Smythe will be fielding nearly as many speaking engagements, and I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up teaching Government 101.

. . . . . .

"Hey!" Donna comes out of the bedroom and points a finger at me accusingly. "I've got a bone to pick with you."

Dang. I thought we'd mostly resolved this last night. I really don't want to fight about it anymore.

"Yeah?" I respond warily.

"You let me fall asleep before we had make-up sex!"

She breaks into a grin and I feel much better.

"Sorry." I offer sincerely. I'm not really responding to her joke and I hope she knows that. I really didn't mean to patronize her yesterday. I'm trying to be better. I hold out my arm and she molds herself into my side.

"Me too." She answers with a soft smile and I can see that she's on the same page as me.

Whew. I think this fight is over. Well, the fight between me and Donna. Now it's us against the world again.

She heads into Lulu's room to get her up, while I pop a couple frozen waffles in to the toaster and finish getting our coffee ready to go.

When she comes back out, both my girls are ready to go. I guess I'll fess up.

"Hey, Donna, do you want to hear the dream I had last night?"

I'm a little worried that it just proves that I really am a cave-man in spite of talking things out and realizing that I needed to respect Donna as person and her ability to handle things, when the next thing that happened is that I had a vivid dream about confronting her professor and defending her honor.

But Donna mostly smiles through the whole story.

By the time we slide into the towncar, I'm done telling her all about it.

"How'd that dream make you feel?" She inquires.

I decide to be honest. "Really good. The only thing that would have made it better is if I'd actually punched him."

She raises an eyebrow. But I just shrug sheepishly, yes, I'm a pacifist, but this is my family.

She gives me a steady look. "Do I have to tell you what a monumentally bad idea it would be for you to confront the professor?"

"No, I thought about it while I was running this morning. I'm way too high profile. The likelihood of being seen and recognized is just too great. And the last thing this office needs is for someone to bring assault charges against me."

"Right."

"And as much as I'd like to come to your rescue, you don't really need me to. You dealt with the problem with the professor and you're graduating summa cum laude. You handled it perfectly fine."

Donna actually looks surprised at that. "Not really, look at the mess I caused."

"No, Donna, you didn't cause this mess. You didn't publish that paper. This is just one of those things. We'll have Bram read a statement and eventually this will die down."

"But yesterday, you said it was going to be a huge thing."

"Oh it is. For a little while. But I thought it over and really the less reaction from the White House the better."

"I'd like to read the statement."

My gut reaction is to say no. I don't want her to have to face the Press. To have pundits dissecting her every word and talking about her on TV.

But she looks so sure of herself. And she's proven that she's a great spokesperson.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. It will be much more powerful coming from me. I'd say exactly what I told the President."

"Show me."

"Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen. I'd like to read a statement. I will not be taking any questions. I met with the President yesterday regarding the Paper I wrote for my Building Democracy After Conflict Seminar. That paper was written in good faith for a specific class, it was not intended to reflect administration views nor was it for publication. In fact,the Paper does not reflect my own personal views. It was written as an educational exercise to explore an alternative view. The President accepted my explanation and as far as he's concerned the matter is over."

I think about it for a minute. I'm not sure it says everything we want but it covers the basics. And maybe it could use a touch more polish but there is something to be said for sincerity. And putting Donna up there shows we aren't running scared. But I just don't know.

"I appreciate that you want to do it. But I'm not sure. It's a lot more personal if you deliver the statement and I don't know if that's the best route. Let's talk it over during Senior Staff, okay?"

Donna frowns a little.

"Hey. I'm sure you'd do a great job. But I really don't know if it's the tactic to take. I promise, you'll get your say during the meeting. I'll be better than I was yesterday."

"Okay."

"And I need you to look at this from the administration view, okay. The decision about whether to have you or Bram read it needs to be what's best for the administration. You are a player in this party. Are you okay putting the party first right now?"

"Yeah, I am."

"Good. I got your back."

Chapter Text

When the car arrives at the portico, I feel like I’m ready to face this day.  Josh seems much more willing to listen to my suggestions and let me be part of the solution.  And he’s right. I need to think about what’s best for the administration. I don’t need personal vindication.

 

Josh gives Lulu a kiss goodbye and heads towards his office, while I head up to the residence to drop her off.

 

I really do need to put my own Chief of Staff hat on.  The First Lady’s office has been accused of being in disarray.  I need to sit down with Helen and figure out how we are going to address the daycare question.

 

Maybe the answer is to go all in and own it.  Maybe we should consider opening a White House daycare.  I wonder how many people would use it. I know there are people in the West Wing and the OEOB who have kids.

 

. . . . .

 

Once I drop Lulu off, I head back towards Josh’s office for Senior Staff. I’m running ahead, so maybe I’ll run the daycare idea by him before I talk to Helen about it.

 

When I get to his office Margaret isn’t at her desk, but Josh’s door is partially open, so I start to walk in.

 

Margaret is standing in front of Josh’s desk. Neither of them notices me.

 

“I just want you to know, I have some contacts too.  They’re pretty good ones.”

 

“You do?” He asks stupidly.

 

“Yeah.”  Margaret nods her head sagely.  I can’t wait to hear this.

 

“Okay, what do you suggest?”

 

She leans in and speaks softly. But her whisper is still pretty loud.

 

“I know people who know how to take care of people.”  She straightens up and runs her hand across her throat in a slashing motion.

 

“You think I should take a hit out on Donna’s professor?” Josh responds, incredulously.

 

“Shhh!!!”  Margaret responds.  “I think you’re meant not to ask how they take care of it.”

 

“I think it’s best if you go back to work now.”

 

She nods again.  “I’m just saying, Donna is one of us, and if you hurt one of us, well then  . . . .” She turns towards the door but stops when she sees me.

 

But I give her a big grin.  “Thanks, Margaret.”

 

“Anytime, Donna.”

 

I head over towards the couch and claim my favorite spot.  “And here, I thought you were bad!”

 

Josh grins as he shrugs his shoulders.  “I’m never quite sure whether to take her seriously.”

 

“Well, in this case, let’s go with no.”

 

“Yeah, no kidding.”

 

“Hey, I had an idea that I want to run past you.  I haven’t talked to Helen yet, but I wanted to know what you think.”

 

Josh moves over to the sitting area and takes the chair across from me and leans forward.  “Sure. What’cha got?”

 

“So I was thinking about the East Wing daycare accusation, and I thought, you know what?  Why not? Maybe we should actually open a daycare.”

 

“Are you asking me as Lulu’s Dad or as Chief of Staff?”

 

“Both?”

 

“As Lulu’s Dad, I’m wondering why we’d want to change anything.  Our situation is great. Nicole is like family. And when she’s off duty, Helen and Maria seem to have things covered. Why mess with a good thing?”

 

“Well, it’s working now, but if we have another baby it might not be ideal anymore.  And I am thinking about Bartlet too. Ainsley’s still deciding what to do when her maternity leave is over.”

 

“Okay, let me switch gears a minute. As Chief of Staff, I don’t see any problem with the First Lady’s office looking into the logistics of having an on site daycare.  Obviously there’s no room in the West Wing. You could look at the OEOB or the East Wing for space. You’ll also want to check with Ron and the park police about security issues, and I think you might want to talk to the office of personnel or some other department you can actually run it through for budgeting purposes.”

 

“Yeah, I started thinking along those lines too.  So as COS you’re okay with me talking to Mrs. Santos about this?”

 

“Yes, but as Lulu’s Dad, I’m still not convinced I’d want to use it, okay? So if you are going to do this, it needs to be a FLOTUS initiative not something for us personally.  I don’t want to change what’s best for Lulu to appease some Republican talking heads.”

 

“Of course!”

 

There’s a light rapping on the door, then Margaret pokes her head in.  “You guys ready for Senior Staff?”

 

“Yep,” Josh responds.  “Send ‘em in.”

 

He moves back to his desk while everyone files into the room.  My stomach flutters a little. I hate that I’m personally on the agenda.

 

“Okay,” Josh begins once everyone’s settled. “First up, we need to talk about the morning briefing and how to handle the Donna situation.”

 

Inwardly I cringe a little, at “the Donna situation” but outwardly I keep my cool.  Josh is being professional. I’m not going to overreact today.

 

“The President, Lou, Bram and I met Sunday evening.  The President wants to issue a short statement in support of Donna.  The question is-- should we have Donna read the statement or have Bram do it?”

 

“Donna shouldn’t really read a statement in support of herself.  That’s just weird.” Ryan offers. Then he gives me a half little grimace smile.  “Sorry Donna, nothing personal.”

 

“It’s okay.  But don’t you think that people want to hear me explain what happened?”

 

“Who cares?”

 

Excuse me?!” Josh gives Ryan a glare, which doesn’t affect Ryan at all.

 

‘Who cares if people want to hear Donna explain.  The explanation isn’t glamorous, so if she makes a statement they are going to hound her for something more.  Then if she doesn’t answer the questions, she’s hiding something. It just perpetuates the problem. If Bram reads a simple statement and answers the questions that we know were likely to get, it’s over a lot faster.  We address it but we downplay it. We need to treat it like it’s not a big deal.”

 

I really want to have my say.  But what Ryan says makes sense.

 

“I agree with Ryan.” Sam weighs in.  “I’ll tell you, last night I was just spitting mad.  I hate seeing them attack one of us like that, but if we come out swinging we’re just going to keep the fight going.”

 

“Out of curiosity, what were you thinking when you wanted to come out swinging?”  Josh asks.

 

“A lawsuit. Leaking that paper was a clear violation of Donna’s privacy.  Ainsley and I sat around trying to think of all the possible causes of action. To be honest, it’s kind of a gray area. In Gonzaga University v. Doe, the Supreme Court ruled that individuals do not have the right to sue under FERPA. But depending on whether Donna signed any releases unknowingly when she enrolled, she might have a copyright infringement claim.  And she might have a breach of contract claim, again depending on whether her enrollment forms give her an expectation of privacy in her work product.  She might also have some sort of conflict resolution process through the school itself. It seems pretty likely that the professor violated school policy.”

 

If he’s the one that leaked it.” Josh mutters.

 

“Do we have reason to think it wasn’t the professor?” Lou chimes in.

 

“I guess it could have been a TA.” I suggest. I think Josh is thinking about his dream,  and now so am I. “And I did show it to one of my classmates, but I really don’t think he’d have leaked it. He’s a friend and he knew I wasn’t thrilled with rewriting it to begin with.”

 

“Could he have made a copy?” Sam asks.

 

I close my eyes and try to think if it’s even possible.  “I don’t know, Sam. We were in the student union. I might have gone to get coffee while he was reading it, but I doubt he had time to find a copy machine while I was gone.  And I really don’t think he’d do this.”

 

“He could have taken pictures with his phone.”  Ryan offers.

 

I’m a little annoyed that suddenly they are trying to pin the leak on Jordan.

 

“I really don’t think he would.”

 

“Donna,” Sam offers gently, “he probably didn’t, but it’s going to be hard to prove who did.  And if there is someone else to try to blame, then it gets even harder.”

 

“Well, I don’t want to sue anyone, anyway.  I don’t want to throw any accusations around, and I certainly don’t want to go blaming my friends.”

 

“Okay, let’s get back on track here.” Josh pipes up.  “As far as the paper goes, we’re just going to issue a statement.  Bram, you haven’t weighed in on who should give it.”

 

“I’m sorry, Donna.  I think I should do it.  I agree with Ryan, we want to downplay this.  If you go in there, the reporters are going to hammer you with all sorts of other questions.”  He turns to look at Josh. “Honestly, I’m less worried about the paper than I am about the accusation that Donna’s not working enough hours.  We really don’t want footage of them beating you up about that, even if you stay calm, cool and collected.”

 

“Well, that accusation is just ridiculous! Clearly no one who’s ever worked in the White House would make that suggestion.”  Sam looks furious as he takes his glasses off and cleans the lens.

 

“I talked to Ainsley about my schedule before I started this semester.  She said since I’m not under the leave act it didn’t really matter as long as the First Lady approved.”

 

“It doesn’t.” Sam agrees.  “But it really is better if we can explain how it works. Just for the average citizen.”

 

“She’s in the office 30 hours a week.  So we only need to account for 10 hours a week for 16 weeks. So 160 hours. If she was under the leave act she’d accumulate 8 hours of annual leave per pay period plus she could roll over 240 hours of annual leave from year to year. So she had more than enough leave to cover the time she’s spent out of the office.” Josh looks at Bram.  “The short answer is that the time Donna’s been out of the office has been covered by annual leave. Don’t let them drag you too far into the weeds. If someone asks if she’s under the leave act, tell them no, but it’s a useful guide. We aren’t going to offer any calendars to prove anything at this point, but I’ve checked our vacation schedules and we’re fine. If we were subpoenaed we’d be able to show that she didn’t defraud the government.”

 

“Don’t offer that!” Lou exclaims.  “We don’t want to plant the idea of a Congressional investigation in anyone’s mind.”

 

“She’s right.” Josh agrees.

 

“But what if they ask?”  Bram pushes back.

 

“If they ask say: ‘Anyone who knows Donna Lyman knows the kind of hours she’s put in over the last decade.  The White House doesn’t anticipate a Congressional investigation because the majority of Congresspeople know that the idea is ludicrous.  But if someone did subpoena the Lyman’s calendars it would prove that they have been faithful federal servants.”

 

While I’m talking, Josh smiles at me.  On this I have nothing to feel guilty about.

 

“That’s good, Donna.” Lou offers.

 

“Okay, I agree.  It’s better for Bram to give the statement.  I just really want this to die down as quick as possible.  And I’m sorry, everyone, for the trouble.”

 

“It’s not your fault, Donna.”  Lou offers, “Sorry for overreacting yesterday.  It makes sense that you might have to write an opposing view for school.  I’m just really sorry that it got leaked.”

 

“Yeah, me too.”  Bram adds. “But don’t worry, I’ve got your back in there.”

 

. . . . . .

 

Later, Josh and I watch the press briefing on the TV in his office. I had planned to just watch from mine, but he asked me to come back for it, and while he asked nicely, it seemed like a request from the Chief of Staff not my husband.

 

We’re in front of his desk, leaning against it, and once Bram’s done with the prepared statement and the questions start, Josh reaches over and takes my hand.

 

Huh.  Maybe it was my husband who was asking.

 

All in all it goes pretty well.  There are a few pointed questions but nothing outrageous.  As expected the focus seems to be regarding the accusation that I’m being paid for hours I’m not working.  The Reporters certainly don’t seem to be trying to bait Bram into saying something inflammatory. But this is the White House Press Corps.  They know the kind of hours I’ve put in over the years. On this, at least, they seem to be mostly on my side.

 

When the briefing is over, Josh clicks the TV off.

 

“So,” I ask as I turn towards him, “do you think there will be an investigation?”

 

“No.  But you gotta let me do my thing.  This isn’t me jumping in and shutting you out.  This is me doing my job to avoid a Congressional investigation into the White House.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Josh opens his mouth then closes it quickly.  He seems a little surprised at my quick acquiescence.  But I’ve had some time to think, and while the Sunday Staff Meeting was kind of condescending, I over reacted. Josh wasn’t being that way intentionally.  Neither were Lou and Bram. They were just problem solving. I’ve seen them act that way plenty of times. It just felt personal to me, because, well, this time it is.

 

“Okay,” Josh grins happy to have my agreement.  “What about your final paper?”

 

I feel my eyes narrow a bit.  “What about it?”

 

“Lou really thinks one of us should review it.”

 

“No.”

 

His jaw snaps shut and I see the muscle tic.  I wonder if we are going to have another fight.  I really don’t want that, but I’m going to stand my ground here.

 

“Josh.” I try to keep my voice neutral.  “The final paper has nothing to do with the administration.  There is nothing that can hurt us. I promise.” I look into his eyes.  

 

He stares back into my eyes and I can see him weighing his decision.

 

“Do you trust me?”  I finally ask. Those seem to be the magic words because he lets out a breath.

 

“I do trust you.  Donna, if this was anyone else, . . . . “

 

I feel a little bad about that, because most of the time I don’t want special treatment.  But right now I need to know that he trusts me. Just like I’m going to trust him to handle his end of this mess.

 

“I know.  Thanks.”

 

“I really wish you would show it to me though.  I love reading your work. I just want to be a part of this.”

 

“I’ll show it to you once it’s graded.  I have to turn it in tomorrow, and it’s done.  I don’t want to do school work tonight.” I drop my voice to a whisper.  “Besides, you still owe me make-up sex.”

 

At that a grin breaks out on his face and his dimples pop out.

 

“Okay.  I need to get back to work.  I don’t want to give them any proof that I’m a slacker.”

 

Josh leans over and plants a soft kiss on my lips.  “No one who knows you would ever think you are a slacker, Wonder Woman.”

 

. . . . .

 

When I get back to my office, Karen hands me a stack of pink slips.  I flip through them as I head towards my door. I smile as I see one.  She doesn’t usually call me at work.

 

“Get CJ Cregg-Concannon back for me, please, Karen.”

 

By the time I’m settled in the intercom is buzzing.

 

“Ms. Cregg-Concannon on line one.” Karen announces.

 

“Hey CJ!” I greet her.  “How are you? More importantly, where are you?”

 

“We’re back in Santa Monica.  All three of us.”

 

“The adoption is final?”

 

“Yes.  She’s officially ours.”

 

“I need pictures! And what’s her name?”

 

“Check your email.  I’m sending pictures as we speak.  Her name is Hope Cregg Concannon.”

 

“Does she have a middle name?”

 

“Well, we decided to do what you did with Lulu.  Cregg hyphen Concannon is quite a mouthful. So her middle name is Cregg.  Last name Concannon.”

 

“I started a trend.”

 

“Yes,” CJ laughs.  “Spanky sent a birth announcement.  Bartlet Hayes Seaborn sounds very Presidential.”

 

“That’s what Josh said.  Except he said it sounds Vice -Presidential and that he’d be a good running mate for Lulu.”

 

“That sounds like Josh.  I wouldn’t put it past him, either.  He is a master politician.”

 

“Yeah.”  He really is.  I have to trust him to handle this.  I’m just glad he’s trusting me too.

 

CJ must hear the change in my tone, because hers changes too.  “So, how are things going there?”

 

“Did you catch last night’s talk shows?”

 

“Yes. I did.”

 

“Well then, you probably have a good idea what’s going on.”

 

“I also watched Bram’s briefing on CSPAN this morning.”

 

“Yeah?  What did you think?”

 

“I think you are handling it right, by trying to downplay it, at least publicly.”

 

“Publicly?”

 

“Well, if I know your husband, and I do, he’s going to handle this in his own way behind the scenes.”

 

“Yeah.  He is.”

 

“Good.”

Chapter Text

The day seems to rush by, filled with the everyday things that need to get done around here.  Meetings and memos. Strategy sessions and whip counts. It’s late afternoon before I have a chance to make the call I’ve wanted to make all day.

 

I start to dial, then change my mind.  Sure, there’s going to be a record of this call either way.  But maybe it’s better if it doesn’t come from the White House.

 

Instead, I pull my cell out of my pocket and dial the number from memory.  I’m sure Donna would be surprised to see that I still know it, but some things you just don’t forget.

 

“Debevoise and Plimpton.  How may I direct your call?”

 

“Joe Quincy, Please.”

 

“Who may I say is calling?”

 

“Tell him it’s an old friend from home.”

 

I’m not sure whether she’ll put the call through this way, or if Joe will accept it.  But I’m hoping he remembers the code. After a long pause the receptionist says “Just a moment”  and I’m treated to some hold music.

 

When the music clicks off Joe’s voice greets me. “Is there a reason you didn’t give your name?”

 

“Do you know who this is?”

 

“I have an idea.”

 

“Based on? . . . “

 

“Based on the fact that I watch the news shows and I know that someone’s been in the spotlight and there are people who have an interest in looking out for her without drawing a lot of attention to themselves.”

 

“Are you one of those people?”

 

“Yeah.  But I don’t suppose it matters that much if I draw attention to myself.”

 

“Are you still a Republican?”

 

“Yeah.” He drawls.  Ah well, one of these days we’ll flip him.  “What do you need?”

 

“Mostly just intel.  Do you still have some connections?  I’d just like to know if they are planning on hitting us, and if so, on which front.  And if you happened to be able to discover who leaked the paper to begin with that would be icing on the cake.”

 

“You know that you can’t really do anything with that information don’t you?  You cannot confront someone in person over this.”

 

“Yeah, I know.”

 

“Listen to me, as your lawyer, and as a friend.”

 

“I know.  Really.”

 

“If you want retribution, you have to keep it professional.  Do you want me to start thinking about legal strategies?”

 

“Not yet.  Right now I’m focused on the political aspects.”

 

“Alright, I’ll ask around and give you a call.”

 

“On my cell, please.”

 

“Josh. I’m your lawyer, it’s not really that big of a deal if phone records show you called me.”

 

“I know.”

 

“Then why all the cloak and dagger?”

 

“I don’t know. It’s just kind of fun.”

 

“You’re kind of strange.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

. . . .

 

My next call is to Matt Skinner.  It’s hard to say what information has come his way.  He’s a moderate Republican and most likely any attack on this front will come from the far right.  Plus people know that he and I go way back. But if he’s hearing a lot of buzz it could be an indication that we really do have something to worry about.

 

I give his assistant my name and I’m put through immediately.

 

“Hey Josh-- I’ve been expecting your call.”

 

“What are you hearing?”

 

“Not a lot.  I did take the liberty of asking around a bit.  It sounds like Congressman Ernst didn’t really run this by leadership.”

 

“Okay, what’s the general reaction to his blather?”

 

“I’m hearing a few murmurings of a call for a Congressional investigation, but it’s the usual suspects who’d open an investigation every other week if we let them.”

 

“And what kind of buzz is it generating?  Does it seem like there’s any legitimate interest?”

 

“Not really.  It’s mostly neutral.”

 

“Alright.  Will you let me know if it starts to gain any traction at all?  You know Donna. You know the hours she’s put in over the years.  She’s not scamming the government. If we need to talk to a few people, show some calendars or time sheets, we’d be happy to take some low key meetings.  But if this becomes a thing everybody on your side better make sure their house is in order too. You hear what I’m saying?”

 

“You don’t have to issue threats, Josh.  I’m still a friend. I’ve got Donna’s back.”

 

“Thanks.”

. . . . . .

 

I push back from my chair and look at the ceiling contemplating what other bells to ring.  I don’t necessarily want to stir anything up on our side of the aisle yet, but it wouldn’t be bad to have the temperature of the room.  I guess the fact that I haven’t got an irate call from leadership yet could be telling. Problem is, I’m not completely sure that means they are on our side exactly.  I don’t want any backroom deals that offer up a jab at the White House in exchange for a compromise somewhere else. I need to stay in the loop.

 

I hit the intercom.

 

“Margaret, get me Speaker Sellner, please.”

 

It takes a couple minutes before Margaret buzzes back that he’s on the line.  But I’m relieved that he has taken my call. That’s most like good news. There’s no guarantee he will see things our way but the man does seem to listen.

 

“Josh.”

 

“Mr. Speaker.”

 

“How are you doing over there?”

 

“Well, less than thrilled about the Sunday news shows obviously.”

 

“Well, swipes like that are inevitable, especially something as juicy as your wife voicing an opinion at odds with the administration.”

 

“It was for school.”

 

“I know.  I saw the briefing.  I think you guys are playing that just right.  The opinions expressed in that paper are one view.  The President listens to many options before making a decision.  I’m sure that will fade fairly quickly. It’s really a non-starter.”

 

“I agree.”

 

“What I’m more concerned about is the accusation that she’s been falsifying time records.”

 

“That’s a non-starter too.  Donna, like all senior staff, and dare I say most congressional aides, isn’t under the leave act.  It’s a salaried position.”

 

“But if she’s only working 30 hours a week. . . .”

 

“For 16 weeks, she’s only been in the office for 30 hours a week.  You and I both know that a lot of work gets done outside of the office. And prior to that she was usually in the office 50 or more.”

 

“It’s still an accusation.”

 

“I know that.  I’m telling you, Mr. Speaker.  I don’t want this to become a thing.  But if it does, I’m taking the gloves off.  Anyone who tries to make an issue out of Donna’s work ethic better be prepared to face the full strength of this office.”

 

“Josh. . . .”

 

“We may not see eye to eye on every policy issue, Mr. Speaker, but I can tell you that we run a tight ship here.  There’s absolutely no basis for any accusations of ethical issues.”

 

“I believe you, Josh. I don’t know which way the wind is blowing quite yet, but I have no interest in investigating petty matters.  And this is my house.”

 

“Thank you, Mr. Speaker.”

 

. . . . . .

 

I take a deep breath and let it out slowly.  Then I pick up the phone and dial Amy’s extension.  This one is touchy. Not because of Amy and my history.  In fact, Amy and Donna are quite friendly with each other.  And Amy and I have always been alright as long as we have the same mission.  So far,she’s managed to keep her eyes on White House goals, but I have frequently wondered if the other shoe was about to drop.  And this time, I’m actually going to ask her to drop it.

 

“Hey, J.”

 

“Hey, Amy. Missed you in Senior Staff this morning.”

 

“I was busy running this whip count.  I sent my deputy. Didn’t he cover all our bases?”

 

“Yeah.  He did fine.  But I’d have liked to have heard your perspective on the briefing.”

 

“Really? You wanted my thoughts on a Donna thing?  I’d have thought you’d have wanted me to stay far, far away from that.  That’s part of the reason I sent Ryan.”

 

Amy has a legitimate point.  Even though she and Donna have been fairly friendly, I’ve really tried to keep everything between Amy and I completely professional.

 

“Amy. . . . you know that this allegation that she’s not pulling her weight is total B.S., right?”

 

“Of course, J.”

 

“And the suggestion that she quit her job and stay home with Lulu didn’t raise your hackles?”

 

“A junior representative from Montana?   You just know he’s going to say something crazy like that.  He’s trying to get the attention of his party leadership. My hackles were up before he even started speaking.”

 

“Yeah, well, I just wanted to say that if some of your old friends at the WLC wanted to prep for an offensive, that’d be alright with me.”

 

“Well,” Amy drawls sarcastically, “thank you for your permission.”

 

I ignore the tone. Now that I’m a little wiser I recognize that once I’ve already stuck my foot in my mouth with Amy, it’s better just to move on. “So you’ll do it?”

 

“Already done, my friend.  Already done.”

 

. . . . . .

 

Well, I’ve done about all I can do on that front for today.  I’ve dug a few fire trenches and now we just have to see if they hold.

 

I’m still fighting the urge to call the University.  I know the Dean of the Department would take my call without a doubt.  Even if President Santos wasn’t the commencement speaker on Saturday.

 

I know that I can’t really confront Professor Tightass face to face, even though I really want to.  If I did, my dream might end up a little too close to reality. I probably would end up taking a swing at him with little provocation and that just can’t happen, no matter how much I’d like it to break his nose.

 

But I could get the wheels of justice turning over there at the University.  An internal investigation into who leaked the paper and while they’re at it, a careful examination of Professor Overcompensating’s teaching methods.  An advanced seminar should be encouraging independent thought, not looking for students to parrot the instructor.

 

I pick the phone up.  Then set it back down in it’s cradle.  I have to let Donna handle this the way she sees fit.  This part of the problem belongs to her.

 

. . . . .

 

At 5:45, I realize I have one more phone call to make before I pick up my girls.  I’ll use my cell phone for this one too. Number 2 on speed dial.

 

She answers on the third ring. “Hello?”

 

“Hi Ma.”

 

“Joshua.  Is everything okay?”

 

“Yes, I’m just checking in.  Are you all set for Wednesday?”

 

“Yes. My flight will arrive at 12:15. But I can just get a cab to the apartment.”

 

“I had Margaret clear my lunch.  So unless there is an emergency, Donna and I will pick you up.”

 

“What about her parents?”

 

“I think they are getting in Thursday morning.  So you’ll have Lulu to yourself for a little while at least.”

 

“Be nice, Josh.”

 

“Yes, Ma’am.”

 

“Are you all set for the party?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Did you pick up her present yet?”

 

“Yes.  Are you bringing the thing?”

 

“Yes.  Are you sure she’s going to like it?”

 

“Ma.  She’s going to bawl like a baby.  It’s perfect.”

 

My Mother chuckles softly at that.  “If she does, she won’t be the only one.  But will her parents be okay with it?”

 

“You know what? I don’t care. They had her whole life to make her feel special and if they didn’t succeed, well that’s on them.  It’s our turn now, and I, for one, am certainly not going to hold back out of a fear of offending the Mosses’ sensibilities!”

 

“Joshua!”

 

“Yes Ma’am?”

 

“I said be nice.”

 

“Sorry, I used up all my nice already today.”

 

Mom laughs again, so I know I’m forgiven.

 

“You don’t have to give it to her in front of them if you don’t want to.  Actually she might appreciate the privacy. I’d say play it by ear, you just never really know what kind of mood Lottie is going to be in.”

 

“Alright that sounds like a plan.  Now, isn’t it time for you to get the girls?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Okay, then you’d better get going, darling.  Give them extra kisses for me and tell them I’ll see them the day after tomorrow.”

 

“Love you, Mom.”

 

“Love you, too.”

 

Chapter Text

I wake up with a big smile on my face. It's the last day of school. I have a final exam in Media and Government, and I have to turn in my final paper for Building Democracy and that's it. Lunch with my friends and then nothing. An easy day. I'll probably head to the East Wing, do a little bit of work, then bring Lulu home for some girl time before the family descends on us.

I hear Josh out in the kitchen. Getting ready for the day. He's really been amazing. Who would have thought that Josh Lyman could function as practically a single Dad. He's fantastic. He gets Lulu ready, he makes her breakfast, he gives me time to study, all while balancing one of the most demanding jobs in the world.

But as much as I appreciate him, I can't wait to get back to normal. This degree has been worth it, but it hasn't been easy.

"Da-dee!" I hear Lulu bellow from her room. She does have his lungs. And then I hear Josh hustling to get her. She also has him wrapped around her cute little finger.

I climb out of bed and grab Josh's t-shirt and boxers off the floor. They'll do for now. By the time I'm done brushing my teeth and make my way to the kitchen, Josh is serving Lulu her breakfast.

"Mama!"

"Hi, pumpkin. What are you eating?"

"Booberries"

"Blue, Lulu, Blueberries." Josh emphasizes the correct pronunciation from the sink without turning around.

"Booberries, Da-dee." Lulu repeats grinning at his back as she shoves another handful in her mouth.

"One at a time, sweet pea." I gently remind her. Luckily, a handful is only three berries, so she's not going to choke or anything, but still, good manners start now.

Josh turns around with a little plastic plate with bite size pieces of waffle on it. He stops, looks me up and down, then lets out a low whistle. "Nice."

He sets the plate on Lulu's tray, then grabs my wrist and pulls me up tight to his body. "Really nice." He breathes into my ear, as he wraps his arms around me and gropes my ass.

"Mmmmm. This is a nice way to start the day. Do you wanna play hookie?" I ask him in a sultry tone.

"Oh, no, little girl. You have a test today. Don't you?" He teases me even as he leans down to capture my lips in a long kiss.

Lulu giggles as we make out for a few moments before I reluctantly pull away.

"Yeah, I guess I'd better go take that test." I put a little fake pout on, which Lulu quickly copies.

"You can't fool me, you big nerd." Josh laughs. "You're looking forward to this final exam."

He's right. I am. I can't help it. I know I'm going to ace it. I've been looking forward to this moment for over a year. I'm looking forward to graduation on Saturday, and this test is the last step in reaching my dream.

"All done, Da-dee." Lulu announces holding up her sticky fingers. Josh grabs a washcloth, then wipes Lulu down. When he's finished he lobs it back into the sink, and unbuckles her, lifting her out of the seat. Lulu immediately reaches for me.

"Good morning, baby." I tell her as I hug her close. Should we go get you dressed?"

"I can get her." Josh offers.

"It's okay. I've got time before I need to get ready."

While I'm getting Lulu dressed, I hear Josh puttering around the house and it makes me smile. I just love this life we have. And anyone who tries to take it away from us is in for a fight.

By the time Lulu and I come back out of her room, Josh has their backpacks by the door. Plus he's left a yogurt and cup of coffee at the table for me.

He gives me a quick kiss as he takes her from me. "I know I don't need to say 'good luck.' You've totally got this. You're going to knock it out of the park."

"Thanks, babe. Love you."

"Love you too."

"Bye Mama! Love you!" Lulu announces over his shoulder as they head toward the front door.

I grab my flashcards and sit down at the table. A little quick review never hurts.

. . . . . .

Jackie quizzes me in the car on the way to school. "You're totally ready for this." She tells me with a grin. I know am I. It feels good.

Jackie and Scott take me through the back and straight into class. The protests have mostly died down, but there are still a few rabble rousers and today especially, I don't want to engage with any of them before class. I just want to keep my mind on the task in front of me.

We are about ten minutes early, so I flip through my flashcards one more time. Most of the class is here doing the same, but Olive's seat is empty. As the clock ticks closer to 10, I find myself getting more and more nervous. Where is she?

At two minutes til, the door opens and she slips in, with the proctor right behind her. I'm relieved to see her, until she walks up the steps to take her seat.

As she sits down, I notice that one side of her face is bright red. Her lip is split and she's been crying.

Just as I hiss, "Olive…" the proctor begins passing out the exams, face down on our desks.

Olive mouths, "I'm okay." Then pulls her pencils and scan-tron out of her bag.

The proctor gives us both a look as he walks to the front of the room.

"Alright everyone. This is Govt. 318, "Media and Foreign Policy" you have two hours. You should all be familiar with the student code of conduct, but I'll remind you that Georgetown has a zero tolerance policy for cheating. If I see you cheating you will be asked to leave the room and I will bring a disciplinary action and you may be kicked out of school. Good luck, everyone. You may turn your papers over."

For a few moments I just start at the back of the test. What should I do? Without moving my head, I try to sneak a peek at Olive. She's got her head down and she's reading the first question with a furrowed brow. I really want to know what happened, and if she's really okay. But I guess I should follow her lead and focus on this test right now. After all, from all appearances, she's making a supreme effort. I should too.

By question 6, I notice something. Each of my answers has a little faint dot next to it on the exam sheet. That's really odd.

Question 7: The process by which media not only reports the news, but puts it into context for the average viewer is called:

A. Socialization

B. Normalization

.C. Interpretation

D. Engagement

Yep. Interpretation has a dot next to it. I look up. The proctor is reading a magazine, so I look around the room. Jordan is looking right at me. "What the hell?" He mouths at me.

I notice that most of our study group is looking around at each other. We've all reached the same conclusion. This is the answer key. Holy crap.

Well, everyone might hate me, but there is only one thing to do. I get up and walk up to the proctor.

"Excuse me."

He looks up in surprise. "Is there a problem?"

"Yeah, I think so." I show him the test. "I think this is the answer key."

"Holy crap." He stands up suddenly and looks around the room. Lots of people are looking up and there is a buzz starting to generate. He looks back at me kind of helplessly.

"Do you have the professor's phone number?" I ask him.

"Yes."

"Tell everyone to maintain test conditions. Then call the professor and ask her what to do."

"Good idea."

As I head back to my seat he makes the announcement. The room quiets down but only a few people seem to be working on the exam. A couple are frantically filling in their scan-tron.

Olive isn't making eye contact with me.

A few minutes later, Cynthia walks into the room.

"Attention class- as you have undoubtedly all discovered by now, the answer key was inadvertently printed and distributed rather than the Final Exam. Therefore, the multiple choice portion of the exam will not be graded."

There are a few groans from around the room. But I hear at least one soft "yes!" from the back.

Cynthia continues, "Therefore, the entire final exam grade will consist of the short answer questions and instead of choosing one of the three, you will need to provide answers for all three."

At that there are a few more groans and Cynthia holds up her hand. "Also, you will be given 24 hours to decide whether to designate this class as pass/fail rather than graded. If you designate the class as pass/fail and you were passing prior to the final exam, your exam will not be graded and you will pass the class. If you'd like that option you may designate it on your exam and turn it in now. I'll give ten minutes for everyone who wants to leave to do so now, then for those that choose to stay you'll have the full two hours to complete the exam."

Immediately most of the class, including Olive, start to pack up their things.

I'm a little torn. I want the A. I'm confident that if I write the short answers that I'll ace this exam. But I really don't want to let Olive slip away without talking to her.

And that's more important than this grade.

I quickly write Pass/Fail on the front of my bluebook and join the line of people turning it in.

Cynthia looks a little surprised. "You're almost certain to get an A if you take this, you know?" She whispers as I hand it to her.

"I know. And thank you. I've really enjoyed this class, but there's someone I need to talk to right now. And I don't want to miss the opportunity."

As soon as I get out of the lecture hall I look around the lobby area desperately.

"Hey Donna!" Jordan calls out. "We're all heading over to see if we can turn in our Democracy papers early, then heading over to the Tombs. Come with us!"

"I'll try to catch up with you later. I need to do something first." I tell him as I continue to scan the area.

"Okay!" He answers back and the group heads off.

Once they are out of the way, I can see Olive, huddled in a chair in the corner, looking out the window. Thank god she waited.

"Olive!" I call out to her as I hurry over and take the seat across from her.
"What happened?"

She sniffles a little. "I told Nick I wasn't going to move to Ann Arbor with him."

"And he hit you?"

Olive nods. "I told him I didn't want to drop out of school, that I wanted to finish my degree. At first he was still kind of agreeable, saying that of course, I could transfer. When I told him that I didn't know if I'd be able to get the transfer done by fall and I didn't want to lose any time. He started trying to talk me into it, saying that it wouldn't matter. So then I told him about your story. He was furious! He screamed at me. 'You think I'm abusive? I'll show you abusive.' That's when he backhanded me."

"Oh god, Olive, I'm so sorry."

"Then he started trying to apologize, but he kept saying it was my fault for accusing him. At first when I said I had to leave to get to the exam, it didn't seem like he was going to let me. But then I begged him. I said that if I didn't pass all my classes there was no way I'd be able to transfer. So he let me go, but he told me to, and I quote, 'stay away from that bitch who is filling your head with nonsense. Otherwise, I'll have to take care of her myself."

As soon as Olive says that, Jackie moves in closer to me. She looks straight at Olive. "What's his name and address?"

Olive gapes at her for a second before rattling it off. I've always wondered if my detail could hear certain conversations, I guess now I have the answer.

Jackie turns from us and relays the information into her wrist.

"Wha-what's she going to do?" Olive asks.

"Hmm. I don't know. That was a pretty vague threat. But given the state of your face, they aren't going to ignore it completely."

Jackie turning back towards us and addresses Olive again. "We'd like you to come to the White House and give a statement."

"I think you should press charges against him." I offer to which Jackie quickly nods her agreement.

"I don't know " Olive hesitates. ". . . Do you know who his Father is?"

"Aww, crap. Nick Malken?"

"Yeah."

"His father is the senior Senator from Virginia?"

"Yeah."

"Crap." We sit there silently for a few seconds. Damn it. I still think she should press charges. But admittedly, it might not do any good.

"I don't really want to go back to the apartment." Olive whispers.

"No, I don't think you should. I really think we should go to the White House. I want to see what Josh thinks about this. Do you have any other finals?"

"No. That was my last one."

"Okay. Come with me. I have to go turn in my final paper before we go."

Professor Smythe isn't in his office when I get there, but the Department receptionist is logging in seminar papers. I watch her check mine in and then I turn to leave.

"Hold on a minute. Do you know if Professor Smythe is having office hours this week?"

She checks the schedule. "Yes. He has office hours scheduled from 9-11 on Thursday morning."

"Can I make an appointment?"

"You don't need to. You can just drop in."

"Okay, thanks."

. . . . .

Olive looks a little in awe as we slide into the back of the SUV.

"It has lights and a siren." I tell her with a grin.

"Have you used them?"

"Yeah, when Lulu was born. On the way to the hospital."

"That is so cool."

"Yeah. It really kind of is."

When we pull up in front of the West Wing, Olive's eyes get even bigger. We climb out of the vehicle and Jackie takes charge.

"Right this way." She directs us away from the lobby towards the secret service entrance

"Don't I have to sign her in?"

"No. You are both coming with me. We're going downstairs to give Ron a statement so he can access the threat."

Halfway there I pull out my phone. "I'd better give Josh a heads up." I mutter.

But then we turn the corner, and I see him standing outside of Ron's office with his back against the wall.

"Oh," Jackie quips, "he already knows."

Chapter Text

"Josh!"

As soon as I can see her, I can breathe again. I know it's irrational. I know it was just a vague threat. I know I'm over-reacting. But that doesn't mean I can stop the worry from circulating in my brain.

I've learned to manage it better, but making it stop? I don't think that will ever happen.

When she's close enough, I carefully look her over from head to toe. Just to be sure. Then I look deep into her eyes. There I find understanding and a bit of indulgence. She knows this is hard for me. I just worry.

She's looking right back into my eyes. "Joshua. I'm fine." Her eyes flick over to Olive and mine follow.

The calmness that I had just started to feel vanishes as I see her face. There is a bruise on her cheekbone and a scab on her lip. She looks so small. She's only a couple years older than Anna for God's sake.

"What the hell happened?" I try to keep the vitriol out of my tone. Of course, I'm furious, but I don't want to scare Olive.

"We'd like to take her statement first, Mr. Lyman." Jackie inserts, opening the door and steering Olive through it.

"Of course." I mutter following the ladies into the office.

"Right in here." Jackie opens a door to a small room, shaking her head at us to indicate that we shouldn't follow. Olive looks back at Donna uncertainly.

"It's okay." Donna offers soothingly. "I'll be right out here. Just tell Jackie what happened. Answer all her questions. You didn't do anything wrong. We just need some more information to help you."

I think Donna's being a little unrealistic about Jackie's motives, but I'm not going to mention it now. Jackie might feel sorry for Olive, but her job is to protect Donna. Jackie's only concern at this moment is getting all the relevant information so she can do a threat assessment. Helping Olive is probably the last thing on her mind.

But I know Donna. I have no doubt that Donna is more concerned about Olive than she is herself. I'm concerned with Olive's safety for two reasons. First, Olive is a person and no one should be abused. And second, I need to keep Olive safe because Donna's not going to walk away from this situation. Therefore the two are intertwined.

As the door closes, I steer Donna over to some chairs on the far side of the room.

"Tell me what you know."

"I noticed bruises on her wrists a few weeks ago. Damn it, I should have done more to get her out of the situation then. But she claimed he'd never hit her so I let it go."

"Hey, it's not your fault. She made a choice to stay with him then. We'll do everything we can now that she's ready."

"It is my fault! He wanted her to move to Michigan with him. When she told me she was considering it, I told her about Dr. Freeride. Then when Olive told him no, that's when he smacked her around."

"Still not your fault. What would it be better if you hadn't told her your story and she moved with him?"

"No. Of course not."

"Who is he?"

"Yeah, about that. You're really not going to like this. . . . "He's Senator Malken's youngest."

"Nick?"

"Yeah."

"Crap."

"Yeah."

I close my eyes and pinch the bridge of my nose. I need to think about this. If Olive is to be believed, and I do believe her, it's pretty obviously assault and battery. The problem is there is no guarantee that she'll be believed. Victims, especially women, face this dilemma all the time. It's he said/she said. He could claim that it wasn't him. Or he could claim self-defense. And he comes from a powerful family. He'll have a pile of lawyers ready to intimidate her and try to keep her from talking. If we take them on it's going to be a monumental task. But if she wants to, I'll join the fight.

"Josh," Donna places her hand on my arm, "we have to stand by her. We can't just think about what's best politically in a case like this."

"Donna- it's not going to be easy."

"I know. But do you remember what you told me when Donovan Morrisey died? I said I needed to get tougher. To learn how to not let things get to me."

My mouth quirks up a bit. Of course I remember. I remember wanting to comfort her, to hold her, to love her.

"I said, 'I hope not.' I didn't want you to lose your humanity to the job. And you haven't. You've become an incredible political operative, but you haven't lost your humanity."

Donna beams at me like I've just paid her the highest compliment in the world. And when she looks at me like that, I'll take on any quest. I'll slay any dragon. But I still have to point something out.

"The thing is . . . . she might not want this fight. As much as I thirst for justice in a situation like this, it's just as important to consider Olive's feelings. What would she view as a win? We can't make her a poster child for AVAWA. For her, it's personal. I know you know that."

Before Donna can respond, the door opens and Olive comes out, followed by Jackie and Ron.

Olive walks over and gives us a tentative smile.

"Josh, Donna," Ron calls out, "can I talk to you for a minute?"

"Have a seat, Olive. We'll be as quick as we can." Donna informs her. "You're safe here. Jackie will be out here too."

Olive nods and sits to wait, while Donna and I head in to discuss this with Ron.

"So," Ron begins as soon as we've all taken our seats. "From what Olive's said, it sounds like Nick Malken is a real jerk, but I don't see him as a serious threat."

"Ron. You saw her face." Donna protests. I'm not happy either. This guy beat up a woman, and he made a threat against my wife. I take that pretty damn seriously.

"Well, yes," Ron agrees, "Olive needs to leave him. But from what she's told me, I don't think he's the type to actually stop her from going. And the threat he made against you was very vague."

"What exactly did he say?" I bite out, glaring at Ron, so that he's fully aware that I'm not pleased with his assessment so far.

"He told Olive to stay away from Donna or he'd take care of her. It's just too vague for any real action."

"So you can't do anything? Come on, Ron." Donna's becoming a bit irritated as well.

"Well, I don't see any need to increase your protection. We will put him on a watch list. Your detail will know what he looks like and certainly won't let him get near you. If he makes any further comments or threats then we can open a case against him."

"I don't know." I protest some more. . . . "what about graduation? Donna's giving a speech during Tropaia on Friday night. And with Commencement on Saturday- they'll be so many people there."

"Security is going to be tight already. Since he's on the watch list, he won't be allowed to attend the Commencement exercises."

"Could you haul him in for questioning or something?" I make one last attempt to get something more from Ron. If he says no, I'm going to seriously consider taking matters into my own hands.

Ron gets a slight smirk. "Yes. I suppose we can pay him a visit. Ask him a few questions and impress upon him the need to stay away from Donna."

"And Olive!" Donna pipes up.

"And suggest he stay away from Olive." Ron agrees. "But Olive is outside of my jurisdiction. She's going to have to go to court for a restraining order and she's pretty reluctant to press charges."

"I'll talk to her." Donna insists.

I'm going to have Donna's back on this. Olive should press charges. The little scum shouldn't get off scot free just because of who his father is.

"Do you need anything else from us, Ron?" I ask a little tight lipped. I'm sure he's just following protocol but I don't have to be happy about. I'd like this guy to spend some time locked in a small room or something.

"No, that's it." He looks between the two of us. "I shouldn't have to say this, but, don't take matters into your own hands Josh. Trust your detail. They will keep Donna safe. Let the process work."

"Alright."

"If he makes any other threats, let me know."

"I will." Donna assures him as she stands up to leave. I join her, putting my hand on her back as I guide her out the door.

Olive stands up as soon as we enter the lobby. Seeing her face reignites my anger.

"Alright, let's go, my detail will drive us to the police station." As I gesture towards the door, I pull out my phone. I'll have to call Margaret and have her cancel or shift my afternoon meetings.

But Olive is just standing there, shaking her head.

"Let's go up to my office and talk about it." Donna suggests softly.

Part of me really wants to push Olive, but I know I have to trust Donna. Unfortunately, she knows exactly what Olive is going through. And I know that pushing Olive to press charges if she's not ready for the legal battle could just end up backfiring. If the charges get dropped, Nick could feel even more powerful. It might be better to use the leverage we have. Let the Secret Service instill a bit a fear in him. Hopefully that'll be enough to convince him to leave well enough alone.

Olive responds affirmatively and the two of them head for the door. I don't think I should go with them. Donna may have more luck with Olive if it's one on one.

"Hey." I call out to Donna. "I'm going to get back to work. Please don't leave here without talking to me. I'll remind Margaret to put you through no matter what."

"Okay." Donna agrees. I give her a quick kiss and let her go.

On my way back to the office, I start switching back into work mode. I've got a million little-big things to do, and I'd still like to pick up my Mom from the airport tomorrow. Plus if I can, I'd like to clear a half day on Thursday too. I know Donna's parents want to take Lulu to the zoo. And there's no way in hell that I'm letting them go anywhere without me now.

. . . . . . .

The afternoon goes by in a blur. Thank god for Margaret to keep me on track and moving in the right direction.

When I finally look up, it's almost 7:30. I'm kind of shocked. I don't normally stay in the office this late working on mundane stuff. Typically Donna stops me around 6. Damn it. I expected to hear from her at some point today.

I get up and stride over to the door and throw it open. Margaret blinks at me owlishly.

"What the hell, Margaret?" I growl at her.

"Don't take that tone with me." She snips back. "I talked to Donna. She said she and Olive are fine. They are in her office. She told me to let you work as long as you were being productive and to give you this message when you came up for air."

She pulls out an envelope and hands it to me with a raised eyebrow and a pointed look.

"Sorry, Margaret." I mumble sheepishly. "You can go now."

"I leave when you leave."

"Get your things ready." I tell her as I turn and walk back into my office. I sit down and open Donna's note. I still get a little thrill when I see her name and title embossed on the top of the crisp card.

And I still grin at her chicken scratch.

Josh,

I know you want to be able to take some extra time off this week so I told Margaret to let you work as long as possible. Lulu, Olive and I are hanging out in my office. Give me a call when you get this. I want to talk to you privately. If you don't call before 6:30 I'll send an intern out for food.

Love,

Donna

I grab my cell phone and hit 1 on my contacts list. Donna answers before the second ring.

"Hi."

"Hey. I'm sorry it's so late. I was focused and lost track of the time."

"It's okay, I was going to check in with you in another half hour. Did you get lots done?"

"Yeah, unless there is an emergency, I should be fine to pick Mom up tomorrow."

I hear a door close as Donna drops her voice. "Hey, I want to talk to you about Olive. I couldn't convince her to press charges. She doesn't want the attention it will bring. She's pretty convinced that he'd get off anyway."

I can't help the deep sigh that escapes. Unfortunately, she's probably right.

"So here's the thing, I already contacted Nick, and made arrangements for tomorrow. But Olive needs a place to sleep tonight. Can we keep her?"

"YOU WHAT?!" I feel like my head is about to explode. Donna contacted him? What the hell?

"Calm down, Josh." Donna instructs me in her "I'm not putting up with shit from you" tone of voice. "I had a conversation with Ron first. He said it was fine. His office had already called and make an appointment to speak with Nick tomorrow. Ron said he was very cooperative, so we made a plan. Olive and I called him from Ron's office. When Nick answered I informed him that he was on speaker and the call was being recorded. He was as sweet as pie after that. So, while he's being interviewed by the secret service, my detail will take Olive and I to his apartment to gather her things. I told him as long as this goes smoothly and he leaves her alone, Olive won't be pressing charges. He politely agreed with our plan."

"Of course he was polite! He knew he was being recorded."

"I know, but she needs to get her stuff and this is a good way to do it. So, can we keep her tonight?"

"She's not a stray puppy, you know."

"I know. But I want to help her out."

"We could pay for a hotel for her."

"Josh. You don't know what it's like. Too feel all alone. Scared. Not sure who to trust. Not sure how people will react. I just want her to see that people care. For her to be around people who care. Plus, at our house she's under guard. Please."

When she puts it like that, how can I possibly resist? Good grief, at this point if she asked to adopt Olive, I wouldn't be able to say no.

"Okay. For tonight. I'm on my way up to your office now, and we'll figure out what to do next together, alright?"

"Okay." She responds happily. Seriously, if Donna or Lulu ever want a puppy, I'm toast.

I grab my backpack and head out. I don't even bother adding any briefing memos. I'm sure Margaret's already put something in there for my evening reading pleasure. As I breeze past her desk, I give her a little wave. I'm glad to see she's got her purse out.

"Bye, Margaret, go home."

She gives me a sassy little salute. "'Night, boss."

Chapter Text

"I really like your house. Thanks again for letting me stay here." Olive offers as I pull out the sofa bed in the den and make up it for her.

"It's no problem. This is where Josh's Mom stays when she visits."

"Where does she live?"

"She's in Florida now. She has a condo in a retirement community. She says the warm weather is good for her bones."

"Do you get to see her very often? I bet you're pretty busy."

"She comes to see us quite a bit, almost every month."

"Really? Does it bother you having your mother-in-law here that often?"

"Oh no! Not at all! She's an amazing lady. She usually comes in on a Friday around lunch time. And she'll have dinner ready for us when we get home. Then sometimes we'll go to temple with her on Saturday. Really the only time Josh practices his faith is when his Mom is here. But I'm glad that Lulu is getting to see it. Josh usually puts some time in at work on Saturday while his Mom, Lulu and I go shopping. We all spend the day together on Sunday, then she gets a car back to the airport on Monday morning."

"What about your parents?"

Ugh. I don't really want to talk about them. This is such a sore point for me. While Sylvia can't hardly stand to go 4 weeks without seeing Lulu. My parents don't seem to care at all. We haven't seen them since Christmas. I think they are still punishing us for not coming there at Easter. But I'm not one to air our dirty laundry.

"We don't see them as much."

"Oh. That's too bad."

" Well, they live in Wisconsin, and they have quite a few other grandchildren. . . . So what about you? Are you excited to go home for the summer?"

"I guess. I wasn't going to. I was planning on staying here with Nick. He told me he'd get me an internship in his Dad's office. But since I no longer have a place to live and no longer have a job lined up, going back home is really the only option."

"Olive, I'm sorry, but I can't just give you an internship in my office. You know that right? I mean, there is an application process and we have all our interns for both summer and fall already lined up."

"Oh! I didn't mean . . . " she blushes and trails off without finishing her sentence.

I don't know if she was hinting or not. My instinct is to try to help her, but we have processes in place for a reason. And I can't just circumvent them because I feel sorry for someone. Sometimes you really do have to hold things at arm's length.

"I know. I'm just letting you know. It's not just up to me anyway. But you should apply next time. It would be a good experience to work in the White House, or in Congress, for that matter."

"I know. But I could only afford the internship because I didn't have to pay rent. Now I really do need to go get a paying job. At least living with my parents this summer, I'll be able to save up more money. Not working this year probably wasn't the best idea. My parents don't have a lot of money. I'm paying for school myself and I'm trying not to take out more loans than I have to."

"Believe me. I understand. So, when will they be here to get you tomorrow?"

Olive's eyes fill with tears. "They're not. It's too last minute for them to get off work. I'm just going to take Greyhound. I need to check the schedule."

Maybe I should have listened in on her phone call to her parents. I'm starting to wonder what exactly the plan is here. How much stuff does she have at Nick's and how is she going to take it on a bus? And exactly how long of a bus ride is this? I rack my brain, do I know where she's from?

"Olive, I don't mean to pry. But what exactly is the plan for tomorrow? We'll have about 2 hours to get your stuff from Nick's apartment. But how is that going to work? And how long of a bus ride is it? Where do your parents live?"

They live in Bloomington, Illinois. I'm not sure how long the bus takes, I've never done it. I need to find out how many bags I can take with me. I don't have that much. Nick's apartment was already furnished so I didn't have to bring any furniture or anything. I've just got clothes, my bathroom stuff and some books. But my laptop is at Nick's too."

"Alright. Let me get mine and we'll figure this out."

I leave Olive sitting on the bed and I shut the door behind me as I go. I find Josh in our bed doing some reading.

"Lulu's asleep?"

"Yep. Out like a light. How's it going in the den?"

"Not so great. A few more tears. I gave her privacy when she called her parents so I didn't really know how that call went. But now I'm discovering that she doesn't really have a good plan for how to get home with her things."

"Her parents aren't coming to get her?"

"No. She had originally planned to stay here for the summer."

Josh is already shaking his head no, before I even suggest anything. "She can't stay here Donna. All the family is coming in. You know how much Mom loves to be here with Lulu. And I'm sure your parents will end up spending some time here too. And we have a lot going on the rest of the summer and we don't really know her all that well. She can't just move in here."

"I know. That's not what I was going to suggest."

He looks relieved. "Okay, then, whatcha' got?"

"She's planning on taking the bus home. I don't really like that idea. I wouldn't want Anna on a bus by herself for that long, would you?"

Josh immediately shakes his head no. He's progressive on the important stuff, but he's still a protective dude. I knew he wouldn't like that idea. So I hit him with my idea. "Could we spring for plane tickets? And maybe suitcases? I don't know how much stuff she needs to take home. But it's nothing big. She doesn't have furniture."

I'm never really sure when it comes to spending money. I'm making more than I ever thought I would, but try not to spend too much. Josh is always quicker to spend than I am. But he's by no means a spendthrift. He doesn't buy things that often, but when he indulges he buys quality. He's not necessarily price conscious. He's surprisingly good at taking care of all the bills, so I leave that to him. Honestly, I'm kind of happily in the dark about finances. We've never really had a disagreement over money. But I'm just not sure how he'll feel about something like this.

"Sure. It'll only be a couple hundred bucks. It's really not a big deal, Donna. If she has too much to take on a plane, just have some of it shipped."

"Oh, okay. That's a good idea." Leaning over, I give him a quick kiss. "I love you."

"Love you too."

As I head back to the den, I feel more empowered. It's really nice to have the financial resources to help someone. And I'm pretty pumped that Josh is pretty much letting me handle this on my own. He may still have his knee jerk reaction about taking charge but he's getting good at backing off and letting me run with my ideas. But it's still nice to know that he's got my back if I need it.

I'm smiling when I get back to the den. "Okay, Olive. Let's make a plan."

. . . . .

After Josh and Lulu head to the office, Olive helps me clean up around the house, then we head to the store to look for luggage.

As she examines each set, I see her flipping over the tags, and I notice each grimace. She reminds me so much of myself when I was her age. If I can make this just a little easier on her, I'm happy to do it.

"Olive, don't worry about the price. Josh and I really don't want you to pay us back. Let us just do something nice for you, okay?"

"Alright." She finally agrees. We settle on a nice swissgear three piece set. Two suitcases she can check and a carry on. I know she has a Vera Bradley backpack. Hopefully she has some other duffles or bins or something.

"Hey," I ask her as we are checking out, "how'd you get your stuff here to begin with?"

"My parents drove me down here. They would have come to get me if I'd asked sooner. They're good people. They just didn't expect me back home this year. They're glad I'm coming. . . . I don't think they were really thrilled with me living with Nick this year. But they understood that I wanted to save the money. Living in the dorms is expensive. I lived there my freshman year. Nick and I started dating towards the end of the year and he didn't want me to go home last summer, so I moved in with him."

"How'd you move your stuff from the dorm to his house?"

"I had a couple plastic bins and a large duffle bag. And I moved some of it in garbage bags."

"I'm just wondering if we should pick up some boxes just in case we end up having to ship anything."

"I don't think so. Anything that doesn't fit, I'll just donate to the Thrift Store."

Olive is pretty quiet on the ride over to Nick's apartment. By the time we get there, she's pale and shaking a little.

"Don't be scared. Jackie and Phil are going to be with us. They won't let anything happen to you."

She gives me a timid smile as I squeeze her hand. Phil turns to us.

"Just a minute while I go clear the house."

We watch from the car as 3 agents from the chase car join him. Phil knocks on the door and has a quick conversation with the older man who answers it, then the four agents disappear inside. About 10 minutes later, Jackie informs us that we can go in. And Scott opens my door. It's not lost on me that most of the agents with us today are from Josh's personal detail. Clearly he told Ron who he wanted with me today. The guys he trusts the most. That makes me a little nervous. Who is with him and Lulu to pick up Sylvia?

Olive and I grab the suitcases out of the back of the SUV and head toward the door with Scott and Jackie flanking us. When we walk into the house we find Phil standing guard while the other agent, whom I don't know is sitting across from Nick.

"Baby, this has all been a misunderstanding." Nick addresses Olive in a sappy sweet voice, that I immediately recognize as fake. "You don't need to move out. I still love you."

Olive stiffens and looks at me for help. "Come on, Olive lead the way. We can talk while we pack."

I follow Olive down a hall while Jackie and Scott follow me. Jackie follows us into a bedroom, while Scott stations himself outside the door.

"They're doing the interview here?" I ask her. I thought they were taking him to an interrogation room somewhere or something.

"Yes." Jackie answers in a low voice. "It would have been a stretch for us to bring him in. He agreed to answer questions, with his lawyer present, voluntarily but only if we met him here. That's why we brought extra agents. Ron wouldn't have agreed to this if he didn't think it was safe. Both he and the lawyer have been patted down and wanded. Phil and Scott won't let him anywhere near you. And David will keep questioning him as long as we need, but let's try to be quick, okay?"

"Maybe I shouldn't . . ." Olive begins hesitantly. "I mean, he seems like he's really sorry."

Oh no! I know exactly what's going through her mind right now. The fear of the unknown. The fear of missing out. The doubt. The worry that you'll never love anyone as much as this man.

I take her by the shoulders and move her so that she's looking into the vanity mirror. "He should be sorry. He did that to your face. That's not love. That's abuse. And he's not sorry that he did that to you. He's sorry that he's being called on the carpet for it." I make sure I'm looking into her eyes.

"Olive, hitting you once was too often, but I promise you, if you don't leave now, it's going to happen again."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. Real men don't hit women. No matter what. Not even once. And you deserve a real man."

She nods her head slowly even while her eyes fill with tears. Then she breathes in and let's it out slowly. "Okay. The stuff in that dresser is mine." She says pointing.

I plop the bigger suitcases on the bed and open them. Then I open the bottom drawer of the dresser and start packing all her jeans and leggings. The next drawer up is hoodies and sweaters. Those two drawers completely fill the first suitcase. Next is tops. I pack all of them into the second suitcase. While I'm doing that, Olive is taking stuff out of the closet and removing hangers. As Olive folds the dresses and skirts I add them to the mix.

"Oh! Before we get too far. We should probably put whatever you are going to wear tomorrow in the carry-on."

Olive looks through the packed stuff and pulls out a pair of jeans and a top, along with a cardigan, then she grabs some underwear and puts it all into the smallest suitcase. I start tucking her socks, underwear and bras into all the crevices of the bigger suitcases. The next drawer has negligees. A lot of them. Olive blushes, but I just start packing them.

The dresser and closet are empty and the suitcases are pretty full.

"What else do you have?"

"This bin is summer stuff. Plus I have all my make-up and hair stuff in the bathroom. And I have my laptop and some school stuff."

"Okay bathroom stuff first."

Olive disappears into the en suite for a few minutes, then she brings me a small bin of stuff. She adds a small make up bag to the carry-on. I move a stack of tops out of the suitcase and add the small bin. Then I put some of the tops back onto each pile. Then I tuck blow-dryer and curling iron in between some of the clothes.

"Let's see if we can close this."

Thank goodness it's expandable, it just fits. I cram the most of the summer stuff into the carry-on, and again, we just manage to get it closed.

Olive pulls out a duffle bag that matches her backpack and shoves the rest of the summer stuff into it.

"Where are your laptop and school stuff?"

Olive makes a face. "Out in the living room."

"Okay, look around here. Is there anything else?"

She looks in the bathroom. Then she opens all the drawers. And looks in the closet one last time.

"Nope. This is it, Just what's here."

"Okay. Let's roll the suit cases out there."

Olive puts the duffle over one shoulder. Then she grabs a suitcase handle. I grab the other two and follow Jackie down the hall.

When we enter the living room, Nick stands up. Scott, Phil and Jackie all take a step towards him, separating him from us.

"I'm not going to do anything." He whines. "Olive. . .?"

"It's over Nick. Let me just get my stuff and I'm out of here." She answers in a much stronger voice than I was expecting.

"Fine." He answers in a hard voice that doesn't surprise me at all. Dr. Freeride would do that too. His mood and tone of voice would change without any warning.

"Go home, little girl." He growls at her. " You aren't nearly as grown up as you thought you were."

Olive ignores him, moving over to the desk, and opening a drawer adding the contents to her duffle bag and zipping it shut. She pulls out some notebooks out of the next drawer and puts them in her backpack. Finally, she adds what looks to be a thesaurus, some pens, and a calculator. She zips it shut, then puts it on then, puts the duffle bag and laptop bag over her shoulder.

"Okay, I'm all set." She avoids looking at Nick, and stares at me.

I look past Nick at his attorney. "As long as this ends today, Olive has decided not to press charges. I hope you let your client know that if it were me, I wouldn't be so inclined. I strongly recommend anger management classes."

Nick sneers at me while I'm talking but he doesn't say anything directly to me. I think the agents must have impressed upon him what a monumentally bad idea that would be.

I look back at Olive. "Come on, Olive, let's go."

Phil leads the way, opening the back hatch and helping us get everything inside. "Nicely done, ladies." He offers sincerely. "Now please get in the car. So I can let Josh know that we are all okay."

Once we're on our way, I look at my watch. Not quite 3pm. It's a little early for Olive to check into the hotel, but I think it's a good idea, and I'm sure they'll accommodate me. Then we can rearrange her stuff. If she checks all three suitcases, she can carry on the duffle, back-pack and laptop. It may cost a little extra but it will be worth it. I also want to make sure someone is going to be there to pick her up.

I'm sure Mom won't mind if I spend a little more time getting Olive set for her early morning flight. She's got some experience taking someone under her wing.

Chapter Text

“Bye Margaret!” I hollar towards the door that leads to her area as I head for the other door.  I considered just slipping out without telling her, but that would be rude.  Margaret doesn’t like it when I’m rude.

 

I hope she ends up taking the rest of the day off too. She works really hard, usually 10-12 hour days.  She deserves any extra half day off every once in a while.  

 

I’ve been thinking about this ever since the whole Donna debacle.  All of us on Senior Staff are salaried.  We really aren’t subject to the leave act.  We put in 10-12 hour days 5 days a week, and usually time on the weekends too. We rarely take vacations. So when we scrape out time to take a half day off no one really blinks.  That’s why the Donna thing died down fairly quickly.  A few well placed phone calls and the Republician leadership called off the dogs.  They knew that they weren’t going to make much hay out of that argument in the long run.

 

But the Assistants work just as hard as we do.  They are under the leave act even though they rarely get, or take the time off. And they can only roll-over a small amount of unused vacation time from year to year.  Not that it matters because they don’t seem to ever take it.  I wonder if there is a way to pay them for that unused vacation time?  I think I’ll have Ainsley look into it.

 

A few minutes later, the car pulls up in front of the Brownstone. I glance at my watch. Almost 2. Time to stop thinking about work.  

 

“Uncle Josh!”  Carly exclaims as soon as I walk in the door.

“Da-dee!” Lulu parrots from her spot on the floor even as she pushes herself up and toddles to me. 

 

“Hey short-stuff.  I didn’t know you were coming!”  I tell Carly as I swing Lulu up into my arms.

 

Carly ambles over and gives me a hug too.  Man, she’s getting tall.

 

“I just finally talked Mom and Dad into it yesterday.  I have all A’s. I can afford a couple days off school.  And we hardly ever get to see you guys.”

 

“Yeah, I know.  Sorry about Easter, squirt.  But I’m glad you’re here now.”

 

“Hey, man.” I grin at Conor, giving him a fist bump.  He smiles a little as he greets me back.

 

“Jim, Lottie, it’s nice to see you.”  I acknowledge Donna’s parents as I walk over to Mom and plant a kiss on her cheek.  “How’re we doing?”  I ask Donna as I perch on the arm of the couch.

 

Lulu wiggles so I let her back down to go play with Carly.

 

Donna raises an eyebrow that let’s me know that what she’s about to tell me isn’t all she’d like to tell me.

 

“We’re doing fine.  Just discussing the trip to the Zoo.”

 

“Okay, what’s the plan?”

 

“Well, Mom and Dad just got here, but they say they’re ready to go.  I told them we could wait if they’d like.”

 

“It’ll be good to go walk around.  Stretch our legs a bit.”  Lottie insists.

 

I’ll bet.  I’ll never understand why they voluntarily drive from Madison to DC, but I’m not going to have this argument every time they visit.  At least this way Carly got to come along at the last minute. I guess if they’d had plane tickets that wouldn’t have been possible.

 

“All right.  Let me just change my clothes and we can head over there.”

 

Donna follows me into the bedroom and closes the door behind her.

 

“I thought they weren’t going to be here until 3?”  

 

That’s part of the reason I worked so hard to get out of the office before 2.  I wanted another hour with it being just Mom, Donna, Lulu and I.

 

“Yeah, that’s what I thought too! But they were here when I got back from campus, and my Mom woke Lulu up early from her nap.  I don’t think your Mom is too happy about that.  I think they picked Carly up early from school and got on the road earlier than planned yesterday.  Plus Conor said they got on the road at 6 this morning.”

 

“Why’d you go over to campus? I thought you were done.”

Donna gets a little glint in her eye.  “I decided to visit Professor Smythe during his office hours.  Your Mom said she’d watch Lulu and since it was nap time, I figured I could get it done before my parents got here.”

 

“How’d it go?”

 

“He denied leaking the paper.  He said he had no idea how it could have happened.  He also said if it had been him he would have leaked the graded version with his comments.”

 

“How’d he know which version got leaked?”

 

“Exactly.  I pointed that out and he got pale, then stammered out that he just assumed it wasn’t the graded version because they didn’t talk about the grade on the television.”

 

“It was him, Donna.  You know it was.”

 

“Yes. I know.”

 

“What did you do?”

 

“I just let him hang there a minute while I stared him down.  I didn’t work for you for all those years without learning how to stare someone down.  He actually started to sweat!”

 

“That’s my girl.”

 

“Then I said, ‘Oh well! No lasting damage.  The President and reasonable people understand that there are multiple approaches to any situation and good leaders consider all the possibilities.  That’s what’s so great about academia- an opportunity to consider all possibilities without any of the pressure that comes with actually having to make life or death decisions.’”

 

“Nice.  A total put down clothed in a compliment.”

 

“I learned from the master.”

 

I grab her around the waist and pull her close.  “I like it when you call me master.”  I whisper huskily in her ear.

 

She giggles a little and pinches my butt.  “I know.  Now finished getting ready.”

 

“So was that it?”  I ask as I pull on my jeans.

 

“Yeah.  I thanked him for a good class and then I left.  I know you had visions of punching him out, but really, not my style.  And what good would it have done?  It would just cause more negative press.  The high road is better.”

 

She’s right.  In this case it is.  But that doesn’t mean that I’m not keeping my eye on that Professor.  I have no doubt that there will be another chance to bring him down. One that doesn’t involve Donna.

 

After I finish tying my shoes, Donna takes my hand and pulls me up to standing.  As she does she fingers the japamala beads at my wrist.  She looks into my eyes and gives me a sad little smile.  She didn’t say anything when I started wearing them again, but I guess we’re going to talk about it now.

 

“I’m fine.  Really, you don’t have to worry about me.”  She soothes.

 

Ah. So she noticed. It wasn’t the latest crisis in Kazakhstan that had me pulling them out.  It was the attacks on Donna.  I can’t help it.  I’m going to worry.  Especially if there is a threat, no matter how vague.

 

“It’s pretty much over now.  Isn’t it? You could probably put them away.”  She offers stroking my cheek.  Her touch is comforting. It keeps me grounded even better than the beads.  But they do help.  I think I’ll wear them a few more days.

 

“Maybe after your parents go home.”  I answer with a grin.

 

“Maybe you should get me a bracelet too.”  Donna grumbles.

 

. . . . . . 

 

When Donna and her parents get out of the car at the zoo, I can tell that she’s stressed.  Maybe I really do need to get some beads for her.  I feel bad leaving her to their mercies, but it made more sense for Mom, Conor and Carly to ride with me, while Lulu and her parents rode with Donna.  Maybe we’ll switch things up on the way back.

 

“Okay, Mr. & Mrs. Lyman, right this way.” 

 

Donna rolls her eyes as Kevin addresses us formally.  She much prefers that they use our first name and think of us as friends.  The formality doesn’t bother me.  And the only thing I really want them to think about is keeping us safe.

 

We follow Kevin to a side gate where a lady greets us.  “Hi I’m Pam. I’m the Associate Director of Communications, I’ll be your tour guide today.  We are really glad you could join us so you can see what great work the zoo is doing!”  

 

Dang. I can already tell this is going to be a working visit. I knew the secret service contacted the head of the zoo police to arrange more security.  The administration must have decided that it was an opportunity to have my ear for a couple hours and plead their case for funding.  I’m quite sure the Associate Director of Communications doesn’t normally give tours.

 

“Is this your first visit to the zoo?”  Pam asks our group.

 

“Yes.” Lottie announces, “we’re from Wisconsin.  But the only way we can see our daughter is to come here to visit.  She’s been living here a long time now.”

 

“And you’ve never been to the zoo before Mrs. Lyman?”  Pam looks at Donna a little accusatory and Donna blushes.

 

“Well, no, we’ve been pretty busy.  And Leonora’s not even two yet.”

 

“Well, the zoo is for all ages!” Pam chirps. “We’ll start with the Cheetah Conservation Station.”  

 

As we head towards the exhibit, Pam starts spouting off facts. “A cheetah's slender body is built for speed. Accelerating from zero to 45 in just 2.5 seconds, it is the fastest land mammal and can reach top speeds of 60 to 70 mph. Cheetahs inhabit the African savanna but are vulnerable to extinction due to loss of habitat and limited genetic diversity.”

 

“Kitty!” Lulu announces as I pick her up to show her the big cats. “Meow.”

 

“No, Lulu,” Lottie says. “Roar.  Like a lion.”

 

“Actually, Lulu is right.” Pam announces to the group.  “Cheetahs don’t roar.  They do purr and meow.  Only 4 of the big cats roar.  Does anyone know which four?”

 

“Lion roar.” Lulu announces.

 

“That’s right.”

 

“Um, Tiger?” Carly pipes up.

 

“Yes.  Two more.” Pam looks at Conor.

 

“Leopard?”  

 

“Good job.”  Pam praises him.  “Anyone know the last one?”

 

I rack my brain, in case she calls on me.  But as always Donna saves me.  “Jaguar.”  She announces with certainty.

 

“Very good. Mrs. Lyman.”

 

“Please, call me Donna.”

 

“Okay, let’s move on to the Panda House.”  As we walk Pam fills us in on the history of the Giant Pandas at the Zoo.  

 

“At dinner in Beijing in Feb. 1972, the First Lady mentioned her fondness for giant pandas to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Eager for better relations with the U.S., the Chinese Premier gave two giant pandas Ling-Ling (a female) and Hsing-Hsing (a male) to the Smithsonian's National Zoo. Over the next 20 years, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing produced five cubs. Sadly, none of the offspring survived for more than a few days.  Ling-Ling died in 1992. In 1999, Hsing-Hsing died.  The zoo was without Pandas for over a year.”

 

“This I knew.” I mumble to Conor.  Mandy harped about those Pandas for quite awhile.

 

“After much negotiation, China agreed to loan us two Pandas for 10 years.”

 

“Yeah, they loaned us the Pandas in exchange for $10 Million dollars.”  I grumble.  I still think it was a waste of money.  But Mandy was right.  The President’s approval ratings did go up a bit when we got the Pandas.

 

“Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 6, 2000.  They haven’t produced any cubs yet.”

 

There’s a long line when we arrive at the Panda house, but Pam leads us around to a side entrance for employees.  We leave Lulu’s stroller there and follow her inside.

 

“Bear, Da-dee!” Lulu shouts.  “Rooooaaaar!”

 

“Actually, Panda’s don’t roar either.  They are pretty quiet, except for when mating.  They make chirping and barking sounds.”

 

One of the bears ambles over and sits down, picking up a piece of bamboo with its front paws.  As it crunches on the stalk, the entire room lets out a soft “Awwww.”  It is pretty cute.

 

Lulu is captivated.  “Hi Bear.  Hi.” She repeats several times.

 

As we walk past the American Bison, Pam is chatting with Jim so I fall back a little to walk with Mom.  At that point, I can overhear some of Donna’s conversation with her Mom.

 

“I’m just saying.  Those reporters weren’t all wrong, Donna!  If you stayed home with Lulu you’d be able to bring her to the zoo without all this hoopla.  And you’d have time to have another baby.  Motherhood is a noble calling, you know.”




I glance back and see Donna rub her temple.  I’m sure she’s getting a headache. I know I am. Lottie’s been snippy ever since she got corrected at the Cheetah exhibit.  Her tone of voice is just grating on the nerves.

 

“Mom.  Lulu isn’t deprived just because this is her first visit to the zoo.   If anything, she’s lucky.  She doesn’t even have to wait in line!  And this hoopla keeps her safe.”

 

“Well, if the two of you had regular jobs, she wouldn’t need protection, now, would she?”

 

Luckily we arrive at the Elephant Outpost before Donna has to respond to her Mom.   I take Donna’s hand and slip my beads over on to her wrist.  She needs them more than I do.

 

After the elephants, Lulu falls asleep on the walk towards the next exhibit.  She completely misses the wallabies and small mammals.

 

Conor is quite fascinated by the Gorilla exhibit.  “Makes you wonder about Planet of the Apes, doesn’t it, Uncle Josh?”  He asks.

 

“Hogwash!” Jim grouses.  “Thinking that people evolved from that! Or that apes are smart enough to take over the world. You were raised better than that, Conor.”

 

“It’s just a movie, Grandpa.”  Conor answers, then quickly moves to the other side of the group away from Jim.

 

Conor is pretty smart.  When it comes to dealing with Jim and Lottie, it’s best to just try to avoid confrontation.

 

I firmly decline Pam’s invitation to tour the reptile house but I encourage the rest of the group to go ahead.  Conor and Carly follow her enthusiastically.  Carly takes my Mom’s hand.

 

“You’ll come too, won’t you, Bubbe?”  

 

“Of course, my darling.” Mom answers. 

 

I think it’s sweet that Carly calls my Mom the yiddish word for Grandmother.  And my Mom certainly seems to enjoy it as well.  But I can practically see Lottie’s hackles rise, and she and Jim quickly join the group heading inside.

 

Donna starts to follow, but when they get to the door, she demurs at the last minute.

 

“I think our agents would prefer that Josh and I stay together.  You all go ahead.” She calls after them, then turns and walks back towards me and Lulu, with her two agents following her.

 

Jackie has a big smile on her face as they join us. She's probably glad to get a break from Lottie too.  Donna sits down on the bench next to me, while the agents take up spots around us.

 

Ah.  Alone at last.

 

I wrap my arm around Donna’s back and she drops her head to my shoulder.

 

“How ya doin’?”  I ask as I gently stroke her hair.

 

“She’s exhausting.  The whole way here all she talked about was everyone else.  How amazing Kate’s second birthday party was; all the things Marco learned in Kindergarten; Bob got a promotion; Anna and Aiden are perfect.  Bella’s mother of the year.  And worst of all, how disappointed they are that my graduation is THIS weekend, because Liam and Aiden are in an All-star Tournament.  Apparently it was hard to decide which event to attend.”

 

“Oh my god.  Don’t they play baseball like EVERY weekend?”

 

“Pretty much.  I mentioned that to Mom. . . .  That they’ve seen a lot of baseball, and I’m only graduating once.  She said, and I quote, ‘It’s an important game, and they’re kids.  It’s not their fault that it took you 15 years to graduate from college.”

 

“Aw, baby, don’t let her get to you.  What you’ve done is incredible.  You are a role model of perseverance and dedication.  I’m so incredibly proud of you.”

 

“Thanks.” Donna answers quietly.  

 

I know that she’d really like her parents’ approval.  She’s not willing to compromise her beliefs or ideology for it but deep down she’d like to have it.  And maybe deep down they are proud of her.  They just have a terrible way of showing it.  I’d like to biff them upside the head.  It makes me so glad that Mom has adopted Donna as her own and that she did even before I got a clue.  At least Donna has no doubt about our love.

 

We sit peacefully in the shade.  This is nice.  Just the three of us.  It’s a beautiful day and I’m glad to have this moment.

 

Unfortunately, it doesn’t last that long before the group rejoins us.  Donna stands up and plasters a grin on her face.

 

“Come on, old man, let's go see the big cats.” She teases as she tugs on my arm.

 

The next hour goes by in a lovely blur.  Lulu wakes up in time to roar with the Lions and Tigers and pet some bunnies at the Kid’s Farm.  At Lottie’s insistence, we all ride the carousel, and I have to admit, she got some great pictures.

 

Then Grandpa Moss bought Lulu a stuffed panda at the gift shop that she hugged through out dinner at Old Ebbitt’s and the whole way home.  All in all, not a bad day.  But at the end of it, I’m glad that the Mosses are heading off to a hotel while the Lymans settle in for a quiet evening.

Chapter Text

"Where's my sweet granddaughter?" Mom asks as soon as she walks through the door.  

 

“Right here, Grandma!” Carly snarks as she and Conor make a bee-line for the den.

 

“You know I meant Lulu!” Mom responds.

 

Gee, Mom it’s nice to see you too, I think, but I keep it to myself, rolling the beads across my wrist.

 

"I told you, she's not going to this ceremony.  Josh and his Mom are taking her over to Blair House so Grandpa Jed and Grandma Abbey can watch her."

 

"I didn't think you were serious!  I'm sure President Bartlet has better things to do than watch your kid.  And I'm sure he doesn't appreciate those ridiculous names!"

 

I take a deep breath.  I absolutely refuse to fight with her.  I respond as calmly as I can, "on the contrary, Mother.  Grandpa Jed and Grandma Abbey are THRILLED to get some one on one time with their adopted granddaughter.  They made Josh promise not to tell Zoey and Charlie where Lulu was staying until after the ceremony because they don't want to share.  And THEY picked out their own names. They love Lulu like their own, and a child can never have too much love."

 

Mom scoffs and rolls her eyes, but doesn't say anything else, so I consider it a win.

 

"Can I get you a glass of wine?"  I offer. I hope she says yes. I’m ready for a glass myself.  It would be nice to take the edge off.

 

“Josh has a red out on the counter and some white chilling in the fridge.  He's also got a bottle of Dom, but I think that's for tomorrow.”

 

“Yes!” Dad quickly interjects. “We’d love a glass.  Thanks, Donna.”

 

It’s nice when Dad decides to intervene.  His word has always been final, but he often just defers to Mom.

 

I give him a grateful smile and he responds by hugging me.  “Thanks for inviting us. I’m really happy for you.”

 

Mom follows me into the kitchen as I pull three glasses off the shelf.  As I turn to get the bottle opener, I bump into her. I tense waiting for her to say something critical but she just looks around as I open the bottles and pour the wine.

 

I hand her a glass and she takes a long drink.

 

“You know, this is a nice apartment.”  Mom offers, gesturing to the built-in that separates the kitchen from the dining room.  Maybe she’s finally mellowing out a bit.

 

“Thanks.”   I respond as I put the white back in the refrigerator.

 

But as I grab Dad’s glass and start to leave, the other shoe drops.

 

“Seriously, Donna. I’m sure it would sell quickly.  I don’t know why you’re still living in this tiny condo.  It’s kind of ridiculous. If you can really afford it, why don’t you buy a house?”

 

There it is.  Really. She just can’t go even ten minutes without finding fault in something I’m doing.  Part of me wonders if I should just ignore her, but I know that it’ll just fester if I do.  I need to nip this in the bud, otherwise she’s going to involve Josh in this debate. And he’s already starting to think along those lines. I’m the one that’s content where we are.

 

“Mom.  I told you this before.  We like this condo. It’s not too small.  It’s cozy. Our lives are crazy busy right now.  I don’t want to add house hunting to it. Maybe after the re-election.”

 

“Well, I guess it makes sense to wait.  I mean, Santos might not even get re-elected with the mess in Kazakhstan.  And you certainly didn’t help there, did you? I’m sort of surprised you still have a job.  But if he loses, you’ll both be out of work.”

 

“Mom!” I try to cut her off but she’s on a roll.

 

“What are you going to do if he loses? Would you still live in DC?  Would you be able to afford another baby?”

 

“First of all, he’s NOT going to lose.  Josh and I will make sure of that. Second, Josh and I are both highly marketable.  We won’t have any problem finding jobs once our time in the White House is over. Third, we’ll buy a house and have another baby when we are ready and not a minute sooner.  So get off my back!”

 

I walk out of the kitchen and hand Dad his glass.  “I’ll be in my room getting ready.” I tell him before I turn and walk past my mother without saying another word.

. . . . 

 

I’m almost ready when Sylvia taps lightly on the door frame.

 

“Before we go, I have something for you.”  She holds out a flat rectangle box that’s beautifully wrapped in shiny blue paper with a silver bow.  Georgetown colors.

 

“Oh, Mom! You didn’t need to get me anything.  I’m just glad you’re here.”

 

“Well, really, I didn’t.  But I want you to have this.”

 

I take the gift from her, a little puzzled at her cryptic comment.  Also wondering why she’s doing this now. Technically graduation isn’t until tomorrow.

 

But as I open the paper, it dawns on me.  This is probably a necklace and she wants me to wear it.  And Josh probably already got me something for tomorrow. I cannot seem to convince him that I have plenty of jewelry now.

 

When I finish unwrapping the paper, I’m unsuprised by a black velvet box, which I quickly flip open.  Inside I find a gorgeous strand of pearls.

 

There is no doubt in my mind that they are genuine.  And from the design of the clasp, it appears to me that they are very old.

 

I look up at Sylvia, unsure of what to say. I’ve never seen her wear pearls.

 

“These are yours?”  

 

“Yes.  My Mother gave them to me when I graduated from high school.  Before that they were her Mother’s. I would have given them to Joanie.”

 

“They’re beautiful.” Touching them gently, I discover they feel like silk. “Don’t you want to save them for Lulu?”

 

“No.  They are passed from mother to daughter.  I’m giving them to you. You are the daughter of my heart.  You have been for the last decade. I would have given them to you even if you hadn’t married my son.  But I’m tremendously glad you did. And I can never tell you how much it means to me that my family line will continue through you.”  Sylvia takes a deep breath. “I love you, Donnatella. And I am so very proud of you.”

 

Sylvia’s not prone to emotional outbursts, but her voice breaks and her eyes fill with tears that don’t fall.  I wrap her in a gentle hug. I’m moved almost beyond words.

 

“I love you too, Mom.  Thank you for letting me into your family.  Thank you for believing in me, and for believing in me and Josh.  I’ll be honored to give these to your granddaughter when she graduates.”

 

“You’ll blink and it’ll be here.  Enjoy every moment in the meantime.” Mom offers as she gives me a little squeeze and lets me go.

 

“Help me put them on?”  I ask, moving to the chair and sitting down so she can reach my neck.

 

When she’s done fastening them, Mom whispers something in Hebrew and pats my head once before slipping out the door.  A blessing, I’m sure. And I know beyond a doubt. I am blessed.

 

I have just enough time to touch up my makeup before we need to leave.

 

When I come into the living room wearing my cap and gown everyone applauds.

 

“Oh, Donna!” My Mom gushes.  “Come stand in front of the fireplace, I want to get pictures.”

 

“Just a couple.  I can’t be late.”  I tell her even as I follow her directions.

 

After she snaps a couple she directs Josh to join me.  He complies with a little smirk, wrapping his arm around my waist and grinning at her.

 

“Okay, turn and face each other.” Mom directs.  

 

Josh fingers the pearls as he looks at me.  “Beautiful.”

 

“Yes, they are.”

 

“I meant you.”

 

“Aww, that’s so sweet.” Carly croons.

 

“Jim and Lottie, why don’t you get in there too?” Mom suggests.  “I’ll take the picture.

 

As Mom is joining us she notices the pearls.  “Are those new, Donna? Are they from Josh?” She asks as she and Dad stand on the opposite side from him.

 

“Yes!” I answer beaming at Sylvia. “Mom just gave them to me.  They’ve been passed down for generations. Someday I’ll pass them to Lulu.”

 

“Isn’t that nice?” My Mother responds flatly. She pastes on a smile as Sylvia snaps the photo, then quickly moves away.  “Well, I guess we should get going. LIke you said, you shouldn’t be late.”

 

. . . . . 

 

It only takes a few minutes to arrive at Gaston Hall.  I’m especially grateful that we don’t have to worry about parking.  After we climb out of the vehicles, Josh grabs my hand.

 

When we reach the door where we’ll part ways, he gives me a girn.  “I’ll be in the front row, cheering.”

 

“Please don’t embarrass me.”  I'm already concerned about my Dad hooting and hollering.

 

Josh’s eyes soften. “Never.  I’m so incredibly proud of you  This is going to be the greatest speech I’ve ever heard.”

 

“Not likely.”  I really should have asked Sam to write it for me.  I don’t know why I felt like I had to do this myself.

 

But Josh is nodding his encouragement.  “Are you speaking from the heart?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Then it will be.  I love you. Now go, eat ‘em up.”

 

. . . . .

 

“And now, I’m pleased to introduce the recipient of the Louis McCahill Award.  This award is presented each year to a student who has demonstrated perseverance and determination of a high order in pursuing his or her educational objectives. To many of you, she’s a familiar face.  Donnatella Moss Lyman is the Chief of Staff to First Lady Helen Santos. And while you may recognize her from your television and news articles, most of you probably don’t know her backstory.  Donna began her education at the University of Wisconsin in 1990. Unfortunately due to personal reasons, she did not finish her degree. In 1998, she left an abusive relationship and joined the Bartlet for America campaign as an unpaid volunteer.  Due to her perseverance and determination, she landed a job in the White House where she worked for 7 years until she became a spokesperson, first for the Russell campaign, and then the Santos campaign. Again proving herself valuable, Donna ended up in the position she now holds.  But Donna felt she was missing something. She wanted to finish the degree she started all those years ago. Eighteen months ago, she became a Hoya. She has shown the same dedication and perseverance to her studies here, maintaining a 4.0 GPA while continuing to serve our country. Georgetown College is pleased to present this year’s Louis McCahill Award to Donnatella Moss Lyman.”

 

Josh jumps to his feet applauding loudly, but quickly takes his seat as I give him a look.  I guess I don’t have to worry about my parents. They are both clapping but looking at me in disbelief .  I guess I’m going to have to finally be honest with them about Dr. Freeride once this ceremony is over.  Then again, maybe not, they’ve never bothered to ask before, they might just avoid the topic forever.

 

I take a deep breath as I the Dean places the medal around my neck, then smile at the crowd as I reach the podium.

 

“Thank you, Dean Lawton, for this award. I also want to thank my incredible husband, Joshua Lyman for his support these last 18 months, as well as the President, First Lady and entire White House Staff.  I am truly humbled to receive this accolade , and I know I couldn’t have done this without all of their encouragement. I also know there are students all across this campus who exemplify the characteristics for which you honor me today.  I am but just one. A friend of mine once said “Education is the Silver Bullet. Education is everything.” I couldn’t agree more. I had the benefit of an outstanding secondary education at Madison West High School.  Teachers like Molly Morello, who went above and beyond to insure that their students were given every opportunity to succeed. Unfortunately, not every student in America has the educational experience that I had, and for them getting into college is a monumental task.  Their lack of education creates obstacles for the rest of their lives, and we as a society miss out on their potential. We miss out on doctors, and inventors, and yes, even politicians, who might change the world. I know what it’s like to have your career potentially limited by the lack of a degree.  And while there are those who overcome those hurdles, that is the exception, not the rule. That’s why I pledge to do everything in my power to make our public education excellent  for everyone, in every state, in every school district.  For each student from preschool through college. Every student who has a desire to learn should be afforded the opportunity to thrive.  That’s what makes this country great. I appreciate my second chance and I will not waste it.”

 

As I step back I see Josh leap to his feet again.  This time he’s joined by the rest of the auditorium.  It’s an incredible feeling.

 

. . . . . .

 

Once the ceremony is over, I’m mobbed by my family.

 

“You were amazing.” Zoey announces.  Charlie pats me on the back and nods.

 

“Great speech, Aunt Donna.” Conor offers.

 

“Yeah, you were really good.” Carly agrees.

 

Josh just beams at me.  It’s rare to see him speechless.  Both Moms also congratulate me on both the award and the speech itself.  I feel like I’m floating.

 

My Dad waits until everyone else has had their say, lingering back.  But then as we start to leave he grabs my arm and pulls me into a tight hug.

 

“You know, I never did like him very much.” He says gruffly into my ear.  “And if I’d known, I’d have killed him. And your brothers would have helped me dispose of the body.”

 

“I know, Daddy.”  I reassure him. “It doesn’t matter now.”

 

He gives me another squeeze then pulls back, “it still matters.” He insists, then he looks over at Josh.  “But you’re doing just fine.”

 

. . . . .

 

Following the Tropaia, there is a reception at the ICC Galleria.  My Mom is in heaven with her camera, getting pictures of me with the Dean, and the other award winners, and anyone else who comes up to shake my hand.

 

Zoey and Charlie make faces at me behind her back until she turns and gives them the stink-eye. But she’s in a good mood, so she just forces them into a group shot.

 

It’s all a little embarrassing, but honestly it feels kind of nice.  I don’t remember the last time I was the center of her attention in a good way.

 

And I have to admit, it’s nice to get some pictures of my study group. Those of us graduating all received our honors cords.  It was really sweet of the undergrads to come out and cheer for us, even if half of them are making eyes at Josh.

 

But by the time the reception is over, I’m ready to go get my baby and go home, so I turn down their invitation to continue the celebration out at a bar.  I’m just not in my twenties anymore. 

 

In the car, Carly snuggles next to me.

 

“Aunt Donna?”

 

“Yes, Carly?”

 

“What does Tropaia mean?”

 

“It’s ancient Greek.  I refers to a monument constructed to celebrate a military victory.  Basically, it means trophy.”

 

“Oh! So it’s just a fancy way of saying “award?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Oh, well anyway.  It was nice. You’re really smart.  I want to be just like you when I grow up.”

 

Carly grins at me and I realize, that right there, is the tropaia.

 

Chapter Text

Once we are secure in a holding room, I gather the family.

 

“Remember to stay together after the ceremony.  My detail will lead us back here to meet back up with Donna.  If you get separated come back to this building and explain who you are.  Do not follow the crowd out to Copley Lawn. We’ll never find you there!”

 

As I’m finishing the explanation, the door opens again and Jed, Abbey, Charlie and Zoey sweep into the room.

 

“Joshua.” Abbey gives me a hug, then turns towards Mom and hugs her too.   Zoey and Charlie gravitate to Helen, who along with Peter and Miranda are chatting with Conor and Carly.  

 

Once he’s greeted Helen, Jed tries to make small talk with Donna’s parents.  It’s kind of amusing to watch.

 

“Hi! You must be Mr. and Mrs. Moss.  I’m Jed Bartlet. We talked on the phone once.”

 

Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Donna’s Mom speechless, but there it is.  She’s sort of gaping like a fish out of water. But Jed persists.

 

“I believe you met Abbey at the baby shower, correct?”

 

Lottie nods mutely.  Finally, Jim finds his tongue and reaches out his hand.

 

“It’s an honor, sir.  You certainly didn’t need to come.”

 

“Pssssh.” Jed scoffs at him.  “Two of my children graduating in the same weekend? Where else would I be?”

 

Lottie finally comes to. “Oh?  You have another daughter graduating besides Zoey?” She asks Abbey.

 

“He means Donna, of course.”  Abbey offers just a touch snidely.  “I hope you don’t mind too much, but we’ve adopted her as our own.  She’s such a lovely girl. Brilliant. Kind. Selfless. You must be so incredibly proud.”

 

Abbey stares Lottie right in the eye, challenging her to disagree.  Abbey knows that Donna and Lottie have had a rocky relationship and that Donna thinks that her parents are mostly disappointed in her.  So Abbey is using this moment to let Lottie know that if she doesn’t step up there are other women who will. I could kiss her!

 

Lottie’s face turns a little red.  “Of course we’re proud of her. She took a long road but she got here.  She’s married and has a beautiful daughter.”

 

Abbey’s eyes narrow just a little.

 

That’s when Helen takes over.  “And she’s getting a degree while running the First Lady’s office like a swiss watch.  Honestly, I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

 

First Ladies.  They get the job done.

 

“Excuse me,” Phil interrupts the conversation and I find myself a little disappointed.  I was enjoying watching Lottie get a bit of a comeuppance. “We’re ready for you to take your seats.  The processional will begin as soon as you’re seated.”

 

Our details get us arranged and we follow them dutifully.  When we get to our seats I’m happy to see that the Seaborns are already ensconced there.  They don’t need a detail, but I insisted that they be placed with us in the VIP section.

 

Sure enough once we are seated the music begins. I’m on the edge of my seat as the processional begins filing in, scanning the group. 

 

It takes a couple minutes before she comes into view.  For a moment, I doubted myself, wondering if I’d be able to spot her in the sea of black gowns.  But the minute I see her, my heart leaps inside my chest. My angel, in the midst of mere mortals.

 

“Mama!”  Lulu calls out, also apparently having no difficulty finding her mother.  Donna turns towards us with a beaming smile and gives a small wave. She’s radiant.

 

With Lulu squirming in her lap, Lottie shifts like she’s going to leave.  We decided if Lulu was disruptive that someone would take her out, but she hasn’t been naughty.  Several people have called out to loved ones or whispered loudly amongst themselves.

 

Even though Lulu won’t remember this, I want her here.  I know Donna wants her here. And even though she won’t admit it, Donna really wants her parents to see her graduate.  

 

After a few years of marriage, I’m finally starting to understand the dynamic between Donna and her family.  Donna craves their approval, but she also marches to the beat of her own drum. So while she’ll probably never cut them out of her life, no matter how many times they hurt her, she also won’t compromise who she is for them.

 

I guess my job is to help her navigate that space in between.  To stand up for her when she needs it, to listen to her vent when she needs that, and to try to play nice with her parents as much as I’m capable.  For this moment, that means letting Lottie hold Lulu, but not letting her leave the ceremony unless I think it’s absolutely necessary.

 

“She’s okay, Lottie.” I whisper fiercely.  “I can take her if you need me to.”

 

Lulu stretches towards me and Lottie give me a little glare.  But she helps Lulu stand in front of the seat so she can make her way down the row.  Lulu takes a few steps towards me but decides Grandpa Jed is a better choice when he shows her a butterscotch candy.  She climbs happily into his lap, leans her head back on his shoulder and concentrates on unwrapping her treasure.

 

Jed gives me a sly grin.  Such a grandpa move. I can’t compete with the candy.  I just hope he watches her carefully with it.

 

After they take their seats, Donna leans over to a young man and whispers something to him.  That must be in the infamous Jordan. He does look like a young Sam.    

 

A few years ago, I’d have been turning green to see her conspiring with someone like that.  If I’m honest with myself, I still feel a twinge of jealousy. But now it fades quickly. I know that I have her heart.  I’m secure in her love.

 

Once all the graduates are settled, the President is introduced and a fanfare plays while he and the Dean make their way onto the stage.

 

Everyone stands and applauds. Matt looks out over the crowd and makes a little motion with his hands.  Everyone sits down and a quiet falls over the lawn. Miranda and Peter both sit up a little taller in their chairs.  Truthfully, they don’t get many opportunities to see their father at work. Especially doing something that they can relate to.  I’m glad they are here.

 

“In the Spring, everything is new.”  Matt’s voice rings out and I feel my grin grow even wider.  That line always strikes something in me.

 

“New direction, new course, new opportunities, new challenges.  You are standing at the edge of this new-ness. And to be honest, some of you might be nervous about the challenges you face.  That’s okay. Some of you might be weary. Perhaps it took almost everything you had to get to this point. That’s okay too.” Matt pauses and looks around.

 

“Some of you are triumphant.  You have conquered this stage and you are confident in the face of the challenges to come.”  Someone in the back hoots. Matt grins at them. “We celebrate with you!”

 

“Whatever place you are currently in, I ask you to look around, to acknowledge that your friends, family and colleagues might be in different phases.  I ask you to consider how you can help them, and I ask you to consider how they can help you. Because all of this, this whole great big world, is just a little easier to navigate if we help each other along the way.”

 

As Matt continues with his speech, I find myself contemplating the people sitting in this section with me. Carly and Conor down at the end next to Peter and Miranda, all four of them absorbing every word.  Eyes shining, contemplating their own futures. I hope they know I would do absolutely anything for them. I want to give them a world worthy of their potential.  

 

Helen and Mom and Abbey.  Three women that I respect beyond measure.  They’ve all poured themselves into Donna and helped her grow into an amazing woman and a political force to be reckoned with.  Not only have they been examples and mentors, they’ve loved her, filling in the holes, and giving her confidence and reassurance.  I couldn’t begin to thank them for all they’ve done.

 

Lottie and Jim.  I might have my disagreements with them, but they are the reason Donna exists.  I can’t help but at least appreciate that.

 

Charlie and Zoey.  The closest thing we have to younger siblings.  They’ve become a doting aunt and uncle to Lulu. I can’t wait to stand next to them when they tie the knot in a few months.

 

Jed and Lulu. My mentor and my purpose. They both guide me in so many ways.

 

Sam and Ainsley.  Our best friends. Matt is right. This world is easier if you’re surrounded by people you love to help navigate through it.  

 

And finally, Bartlet, sleeping peacefully in his mother’s arms.  The biggest reminder that everything is new.

 

This is my tribe. These are my people.  Together we’ll navigate this time. This camelot for the 21st century.  We’ll raise our children and we’ll make the world a better place for them.

 

After another round of applause, I realize Matt’s wrapping up. I missed most of his speech.  Not that it matters, I’ve already read it. And as always, he was spot on in the delivery.

 

Once he's finished, Matt takes his seat and the Dean comes forward to begin to hand out diplomas.

 

I know this part will be slow and painful. I remember anxiously waiting my turn both times I graduated. I wonder if Donna feels that too.  I’m glad she's near the front. I just hope the kids make it through.

 

As her row gets up to join the line to cross the stage my heart begins to pound.  I feel my chest begin to swell as I watch her inch closer and closer to the announcer.

 

And then the moment arrives.

 

“Donnatella Moss Lyman, Summa Cum Laude.” The announcer calls out in a loud voice.

 

I hear Donna’s Mom’s camera clicking away.  And I think Jim, Sam and Conor all let out whoops.  

 

But I’m breathless. I feel tears pricking the backs of my eyes and I blink furiously.  I don’t want to cry.

 

I’m just so damn proud of her.  I knew she would do this someday.  That bold, yet insecure young woman sitting across from me asking why a political campaign couldn’t be her opportunity to start over.  In that moment, I just knew that if I gave her a chance she’d do something great. And she has.

 

She’s helped me elect Presidents.  She’s helped me pass legislation. She’s given me the greatest miracle.

 

She’s stood up to me.  And pushed me. And loved me.  Through the best and worst times of my life, she’s been my beacon of hope. Because I knew that one day she’d do something even bigger.  And I want to be there to see it.

 

As I watch her accept her diploma and shake the President’s hand, it occurs to me, I could be watching two Presidents right now.

 

My hands ache and I look down, realizing I’ve been clapping frantically this whole time.  I let out a loud whistle before she leaves the stage and she turns and looks right at me, cheeks a little flushed, eyes bright.

 

That’s my wife. She’s going to save the world.

 

. . . . . . 

 

I feel a lump in my throat as I make eye contact with Donna in the mirror.  She’s glowing with happiness. And I’m struck once again with how incredibly lucky I am.

 

“Ready?” 

 

“Mmm hmmm.  Is Lulu already?”

 

“Yes, and she looks pretty cute, but she doesn’t hold a candle to you.”

 

Donna just grins at me for a second.   Then she stands up and turns around. “You’re not so bad yourself.”  She offers even as her hands are reaching up to adjust my tie. When she’s done, she looks directly into my eyes.

 

“Thank you.”

 

“For what?”  I haven’t even given her a gift yet. I decided to wait until dinner.

 

“For what? Josh!  You’ve been incredible.  You’ve really stepped up around here.  Getting Lulu ready and out the door on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Taking her out on playdates so I can study. Knowing when to order in and when to throw something together for dinner.  You’re just amazing. I couldn’t have accomplished this without you by my side. So thank you. For everything.”

 

“Hey, I didn’t do anything special.  Just being a parent and a partner. You did this. You juggled all those things and graduated with a 4.0.  I’m so proud of you.”

 

Before she can argue with me any more, I lean down and capture her lips in a long kiss.  She’s totally responsive and by the time Mom knocks on the door we’ve both lost track of what we were talking about before.

 

“Darlings?”  Mom calls out.  “It’s about time to go . . . . unless you are making another grandchild for me.”

 

“MOM! We’ll be out in a minute.” Sometimes I can’t believe her.  But Donna just giggles. Somehow she doesn’t mind when it’s my Mom harassing us.

 

We’ll leave the private celebration for later.  Now is the time to party. We leave the room hand in hand.  

 

Donna’s family is waiting for us in the living room.  They applaud when we walk out. God. Do they really think we were making love in there while they waited?  I really should have just sent a cab to take them to the restaurant.  

 

At least we got a few hours apart while Lulu napped.  I was really relieved when Lottie had declared that they were going back to their hotel after the ceremony.  Conor seemed fine with that idea and Carly only pouted until Helen invited her back to the White House to spend the day with Miranda and Peter.

 

“All set?”

 

Everyone nods and we head out to the cars.  I’m really excited about this. I wanted to have a party and invite everyone we know, but Donna insisted on something a little less extravagant.  She was worried about making the news again. Even though I want everyone to know how amazing she is, I can understand where she’s coming from. Things have finally died down.

 

I think I found a compromise.  Sort of. Dinner at Old Ebbitt’s. For 30 of our closest friends.

 

When we enter The Cabinet Room, everyone bursts into applause.  Donna blushes but she grins at them. I think she’s getting use to the accolades.

 

It’s everything I wanted.  Their party planner has filled the place with flowers and light.  With the tulle and twinkle lights, the room isn’t as dark as it usually is and it smells fantastic.  White Roses and Blue Delphiniums decorate the tables which have been arranged on one side of the room.  The other side includes a dance floor and a DJ. We’re going to have fun tonight.

 

Donna mingles with everyone as the wait staff sets out the buffet.  

 

Toby and Andy hug her briefly and Donna leans down to say something to Molly before she and Huck run off to join Miranda and Carly.  

 

Ryan and Nicole are chatting with Amy and Landon and Bram and Karen. Donna makes her way to them and says hello.  

The waiter is handing out the champagne to everyone.  They even have pink sparkling juice for the kids.

 

Once everyone has a glass, I tap mine lightly with a spoon.  At the tinkling everyone stops and looks at me, but I only have eyes for Donna.

 

She grins and bobs her head to encourage me to say something now that I have everyone’s attention.

 

“Thank you all for being here to celebrate with us.  Donna has done a remarkable thing. Sure lots of people graduate college.  But not many of them do it while being a perfect wife and mother and having one of the most demanding jobs in the country.  And not many of them do it with a 4.0. I’m just so incredibly proud of her. And I think we all know that I’d be nothing without her.”

 

“That’s right!” Toby calls out.

 

“That’s right!”  I answer. “I thought about buying her a house or a fancy sports car to show her how I feel, but I learned from a friend that you shouldn’t make major life purchase without talking to your significant other, no matter how romantic you think the gesture is.”  

 

Toby cringes as Andy hits his arm.  Donna rolls her eyes at me.

 

“But after some negotiation, she agreed to let me throw this party.”

 

“You said it would just be dinner!” Donna shouts.

 

“It is.  We’re having dinner.  Look, food’s right there.” I point.

 

“And it’s getting cold.”  Jed grumbles and I see Abbey give his arm a little pinch.

 

“Okay, okay.”  This is getting out of hand.  Time to wrap it up. “Anyway, I just want to say . . .”

I look back at Donna and speak directly to her.  “Donna, I love you more than life itself. You are simply amazing.”

 

Then I look around the room at our tribe and lift my glass.   “ . . . To Donna!” 

 

“To Donna!” They cheer.

 

I lock eyes with Donna as I take a long drink. Oh yes, it’s spring, and everything is new.