Christmas morning dawns bright and clear, and cold as hell. As I pull my car into the White House staff parking lot, I kick myself again for turning down Abbey's invitation to stay in the Residence last night. I could have had a nice time with her and Jed and Zoey, and not have had to haul myself out of bed and into the snow this morning.

But no. I wanted to go home to my lonely apartment, call Mallory, miss Jenny, and brood about Josh. You know, your classic Christmas Eve celebration.

At least I know the kid's okay -- if 'okay' is really the word you want to use for someone who's having problems telling up from down and right from left at the moment. But he's not going to do anything stupider than usual any time soon; I suppose that's comforting.

The West Wing is as empty as I've ever seen it when I swing through the foyer and into the bullpen. Only two phones are ringing (who the hell thinks anyone is going to answer on Christmas morning? Who the hell wants to talk to anyone on Christmas morning?), and every single office is empty. It's actually a little eerie; I walk quickly through the halls, heading for my equally empty office.

Except the door to the Oval Office is open.

"Mr. President?"

"Leo!" As I lean through the door, Jed stands up from the couch to greet me, wearing his faded Patriots sweatshirt and the patented Bartlett smile. "You're late, we were expecting you hours ago."

I shrug my coat off as I walk into the room, laying it over the back of the couch. "I don't have children under the age of ten anymore, sir. Sleeping in on Christmas morning is one of the little luxuries of old age, and I decided to enjoy it."

"Old age," Jed snorts, shaking his head as he clears the files he'd been reading off of the cushions. "Don't you start with that old age crap, Leo. If you get old, I get old, and that's just not something I'm going to let happen."

"I'll make sure God gets the memo, Mr. President," I assure him. He laughs and gestures me over to the couch; I settle beside him with a sigh, laying my head on the back of the couch and closing my eyes. It's been a long couple of days. "Zoey have a good Christmas?"

"Seemed to. The necklace went over well; so did the concert tickets."

"Has Ron Butterfield stopped screaming yet? Protecting her at a rock concert is going to be an issue."

"I already talked it over with him and Gina," Jed waves the problem off. "They can manage it."

"Good." A long moment of silence. "Charlie coming over?"

"For dinner. He's bringing Deena; she's very excited about eating in the Residence again."

"She was a sweetheart at Thanksgiving."

"Yes, she was. Abbey got her a very nice sweater set for Christmas; she'll look beautiful."

"That's nice."

Another silence stretches out through the most important office in the country. I know what's coming, as soon as Jed works himself up to it.

"So," he finally asks, "did you talk to Josh last night?"

And there it is.

"I saw him for a few minutes," I respond, still without opening my eyes. "He looked... better. He went to the hospital with Donna to get his hand checked out. I've got a hundred bucks that says she took him home and stayed there last night."

"I don't take sucker bets." Jed shifts next to me, slouching and stretching his legs out over the carpet. "Hiring that girl was the best thing Josh ever did -- for the rest of us."

"Amen. You remember the first time you met her, when she interrupted that meeting at campaign headquarters? All big eyes and stammering and trying not to get in anyone's way--"

"--Until Josh gave her trouble over those polling numbers for... whatever that was, ethanol taxation or something -- and she gave him hell." Jed chuckles at the memory. "Standing right there in front of God and everyone, reading him chapter and verse on why any reasonable person gives their assistant longer than ten minutes to do research before they start yelling."

"Complete with a run-down on the causes and failure of Prohibition, and that weird sidetrack on automatic coffee makers." The vision of Josh's face is still clear, and still priceless. "You know, I was worried about her up until then; I didn't think she could handle Josh."

"Boy, was that the wrong call."

"Everybody's got to be wrong sometime."

Jed laughs with me, but it fades off pretty quickly. I open my eyes to look at him, and find him staring off into space. Oh, hell, I know that expression. That's the 'I'm about to have to deal with a situation I don't want to deal with, and I'm still trying to think of a way to hand it off to Leo' expression. I really hate that one, since Jed's a pretty smart guy and figures out a way to hand whatever it is off about 60 percent of the time.

"So," I ask casually, wanting to get it over with, "what brings you to the Oval Office on one of the few national holidays we can usually enjoy for a couple hours? And why hasn't Abbey dragged you back to the Residence yet?"

Jed taps his fingers against the arm of the couch, the quiet crunch of the leather oddly loud in the silent office. "Josh called this morning," he says finally. "I told the switchboard to put him or Donna through to the Residence, just in case.... You know."

"Yeah." I know.

"He asked if he could come over to speak to me for a few minutes."

"Ah." That boy is gonna be the death of me. I know exactly what happened; he woke up this morning clear-headed, probably for the first time in weeks, remembered shouting at the President, and worked himself into a state about it. And probably paced around his apartment agonizing until Donna shoved the phone at him and made him do something constructive, like interrupting the President's Christmas morning. "When's he coming?"

Jed checks his watch. "Should be here any time now."


Jed looks at me. "Do you plan on saying anything useful, something other than 'Ah'?"

I shrug. "Would you rather place bets on whether he shows up with Donna in tow?"

"Holding his leash is more like it," Jed points out, with a fair amount of accuracy. "You do realize that it'll be another month before Donna lets Josh out of her sight for more than five minutes?"

I can only shrug again. "We survived it the last time. If we could find anyone else to tolerate Josh for that long, we could fire her, but I think we're stuck."

"I suppose." He dismisses the conversation, getting up to roam restlessly around the office, hands shoved deep into the pockets of his ancient jeans. He finally winds up at the window behind his desk, staring out at the sun gleaming off of the snow, and probably sending a couple of agents into paranoid fits. The Secret Service really hates those windows, even if they are bullet-proof glass. "Do you think she's doing all right?"

My mind wanders easily after a sleepless night; caught on agents and glass, it takes me a second to trace the conversation back. "Donna?"

"Yes, Donna."

I sigh, something I seem to be doing a lot of lately. That ATVA shrink would have a field day with the two of us, hanging around talking about Donna because we don't want to talk about Josh. "I think she's tired, but everyone is. Comes with the territory."

"That's not what I mean."

"Yeah." I know that's not what he means, I just don't want to think about it. I don't want him to think about it either, but fat chance of that. When Jed decides to worry about someone, he goes all the way. Not unlike a few other people I could name....

I saw Donna's face last night, when we were both waiting in the foyer for Josh to come out. She didn't say anything; she just sat in the chair next to me, her hands clasped in her lap, and a look on her face that was damn near identical to the one she wore for all those hours in the hospital, when she was waiting to see if Josh was going to live or die. Like her life depended on it.

"I worry about her sometimes," I muse out loud, not really talking to Jed anymore. "She's maybe a little too, I don't know... dependent on Josh?"

"I would have said the other way around... but I know what you mean. She's tough, though," Jed adds after some thought.

"Yeah. She's tough." On the outside, anyway. She never wavered during those hellish three months of recovery, never let her efficient assistant/ruthless mama bear routine slip for a second, not in public.

In fact, as far as I know, she only broke down twice. Once, when Sam tried to get past her to see Josh, she apparently started screaming and scared the crap out of both of them. That would be when she started letting Sam take the occasional night shift at Josh's place. I know about it because Sam got worried and told CJ, who told me.

I dealt with it by sending Margaret to talk to Donna, then had to deal with Margaret crying all over me later, since Donna responded by crying all over Margaret.

Funny how anything that happens to anyone in this place, winds up threading its way through to the rest of us. I wonder what Josh's 'universal theory of everything' would say about that.

I wonder what Josh's father would say if he knew what I'd gotten his son into.

"It's been a hell of a year, hasn't it, Leo?" Jed's voice breaks the silence that has grown again.

I can't see Jed's face, only his back; without thinking about it, my eyes find the spot where a bullet ripped through him. "Yes, sir. It certainly has."

"Think this next one will get any better?"

I'd like to be able to reassure him, to make some promises. I got him into this, after all, just like I got Josh into it. But at least I'm not responsible for Donna; she walked in on her own two feet.

Oh hell. I bet if I try, I can blame myself for Donna, too.

"I don't know," I finally answer Jed. "All we can do is face it head-on, and hope for the best."

"I guess you're right."

He doesn't sound convinced. Pulling myself up from the couch and feeling muscles creak and joints pop -- I don't care what the President says, I feel a hell of a lot older now than I did a year ago -- I wander over to join Jed at the window, staring out over the White House lawn.

We spot them outside at about the same time; theyıre walking up the long path from the Southwest Gate, rather than the shorter route from the staff parking lot, which means they didnıt drive here. Probably something to do with Josh's hand, and the sleep I'm sure Donna didn't get last night.

Donna walks on Josh's right side; her arm is through his, and I'm honestly not sure which of them is holding the other one up. Judging from how much Donna's gesturing with her other hand, she's talking to Josh all the way, probably trying to distract him from his upcoming Presidential apology. Doesn't look like she's having a whole lotta luck, but you've got to give her credit for trying.

Jed watches them, his face sober. "Some American Indian tribes used to have a custom," he says absently, more to himself than to me. "They would go riding through other camps, waving around these sticks and trying to hit anyone in their paths. The more people they managed to make contact with, the more points they scored and the more honor they received. It came to be called 'counting coup'; they thought it was a lot of fun. But I bet it wasn't as much fun for the people they were raiding, the ones who got knocked down as they rode through."

His voice trails off and I wait, as Josh turns to Donna and says something that makes her stop walking. Her arm in his forces him to stop, too, and they stand there for a minute, talking very seriously. Then Josh leans against her, pulling her into a tight hug that she returns. I donıt know which of them is comforting the other one.

"I feel like those damn shooters are still counting coup against us," Jed says quietly, his eyes never leaving the pair on the sidewalk outside. "And every time I turn around, they've managed to knock another one of us down. Josh, Toby, Charlie, Donna, Zoey...."

His eyes close wearily and he shakes his head, leaning it against the cold glass. "What happens when one of us doesn't get back up?"

I let one hand rest wordlessly on his shoulder, rubbing my eyes with the other. By the time I open them again, the kids have finally realized that it's too cold outside for emotional breakdowns, and are wandering back up towards the south entrance.

As I watch, Donna half-turns to say something to Josh. Theyıre close enough now that I can see her teasing smile; even better, I can see the reluctant grin that tugs at Josh's face in return. I tap Jed's shoulder, making him look up and out again.

"That's what happens," I tell him, gesturing at the pair as Donna catches Josh's hand and literally tows him, chuckling, towards the door and out of view. "One of us falls down, the rest of us gang up on him and drag him back up."

When Jed turns his head to look at me, his expression is lighter, not quite as old. "Whether he wants to come or not?" he asks with a pointed half-smile

"Damn straight," I nod back, grinning. He laughs and clasps my shoulder, and we turn back from the window. ³Well, Mr. President, ready to deal with a guilt-stricken Deputy Chief of Staff?"

"Oh, God, no," Jed groans, only half-serious. "Anything but that."

"Tell you what: you handle Josh. I'll drag Donna to the Residence and Abbey'll make her get some sleep."

"Deal." We formally shake on it, then he points one admonishing finger at me. "But don't think I didn't notice you're going to turn your part of the deal over to my wife."

I just smile in response as Josh and Donna's voices begin echoing down the halls outside the office. The conversation seems to involve who was responsible for leaving the headlights on the previous night -- why they didn't drive is now explained -- and who's going start the coffee in the bullpen so it'll be ready when everyone else shows up.

Which everyone else will, all of them with a damn fine reason for being at work that doesn't involve checking up on Josh. And I'll have to pretend to believe them or risk scarring their psyches, or some kind of crap like that. But I guess there are worse jobs....

"The hell with counting coup," I throw over my shoulder to Jed, as I head out to intercept the Bickering Wallendas. "We're all still here and we're all still standing; we win by default."

Try and beat that with a stick.


I wasn't going to do this. I didn't need to be writing West Wing fic (I had quite enough other stories out there I was supposed to be working on, thank you), and goodness knows the world doesn't need more post-'Noel' angst. But what are you going to do when Leo decides to tell you something? It's not like he'll go away.... :P I also had something very different planned for the Josh/Donna portion of the evening, but Leo has no patience with melodrama. < pout > I hate it when he's right.

I owe a big thank you to my beta readers -- Christina, Mary Beth, Celli, Jennifer and Diane, who held my hand through the attack of "first time in this fandom" nerves and assured me over and over that it really was okay.

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the west wing | seanachais | neon hummingbird