"...and so, with pride and purpose, I hereby announce my candidacy for the Presidency of the United States!"
The crowd went wild, as every single person standing behind the President knew it would. It was a best-seller, the book they were writing; it was scorching the presses; it was flying off the stands.
And anyway, people cheered when the President spoke. It didn't matter how grim a situation had been framed, and it had never mattered how pissed people were, coming into an event; balloons and white plastic chairs and high schoolers weilding brass instruments induced cheering.
And maybe cheerfulness, too. Abbey Bartlet, hovering in the doorway, watched her husband shaking hands with people, and compared him to his staff, who were exchanging pats on the back. Smiles all around. Even from CJ, who hadn't done a lot of smiling lately. Even from Josh, who had unexpectedly become the brooding silent type. Even from Sam, who was so disappointed in the President he had taken to wearing leather and cursing a lot. Even from Toby, who never, ever smiled.
Abbey watched them after the speech, and she watched them later, outside, at a picnic on the lawn. Plenty of staffers and guests were in attendance, but one group seemed to want to stay together -- CJ, Josh, Toby, Sam and Donna -- they mingled as much as they had to, but they always found each other.
"I'll be right back," Abbey murmured to Liz.
Abbey patted Annie's arm and left her family for a moment. She didn't have to do this, and she knew it; that was why it was okay.
"I brought you some cider."
Slowly, before she even turned around, CJ started to smile.
"Thank you, ma'am," she said, and that was all, even though she was exploding with things to say.
Abbey smiled and nodded in return, and then flitted off to compliment somebody's outfit. She found her husband and put her arms around his neck from behind. The photo ops were just rolling in, this evening. Everyone was smiling, either for the camera or for real.
"I need to get back to Washington. I haven't taken a deep breath in several days." Toby's growl was sunlight-induced, but not entirely convincing.
"You've taken several," CJ accused.
"He has," Sam agreed conspiratorially. "He's been using them to laugh."
"Out loud," Josh added, mildly amazed.
"Often," Donna added.
Toby attempted to fix them all with a glare, but he was actually still grinning. "It's light-headedness," he justified. "I'm light-headed from all the, you know -- cattle and whatnot." He waved a hand toward distant fields.
CJ and Josh grinned at one another while Sam scratched his chin and smiled. He seemed to be considering something.
"I'm sure they're light-headed from you, too, Toby," Sam finally snickered, and CJ and Josh had to hold onto one another to keep from falling down. Everything was funnier today than it would have been under normal conditions. Maybe it was the sleep deprivation, or maybe it really did have something to do with the fresh air, but they were laughing longer and at less than they usually did.
Hell, maybe it was just the music and balloons. They used to laugh like this during the first campaign. A couple of times, in Illinios and Nebraska, CJ and Josh had just about had to be separated. They would get started on an inside joke, and if their eyes met at any time in the following month and a half, it would get them started again.
Toby was worse, just because it was so funny to see him amused. He didn't laugh much, so when he did, he got the others going. Oh, if Toby was laughing, it just had to be funny. All he had to do to demolish the rest of them was to crack a smile, excluding, of course, his I-hate-everything-about-the-universe smile, which was never particularly funny.
At the moment it was a true campaign smile, and it had spread to Sam, as well. Sam's laughter was a shade more controlled. Which was to say, he was better able than the rest of them to maintain a straight face when he had to. As he did now, snapping to attention to speak calmly with the First Lady while CJ and Josh were still gasping for breath.
Donna, unbelievably, was straight-faced. But for the twitching muscles around her mouth and the fact that she appeared to be holding her breath, you would think she hadn't a sense of humor at all, instead of just that she was stubborn.
"Well, I, for one, am enjoying the country," CJ told Toby when she could breathe again.
"Yes indeed, nature woman. I can tell by the way you've been careful to stay in the house, or in the car, the entire time we've been in New England."
CJ drew herself up to her full height, which, in heels, was quite impressive. "Is that a challenge, cattle man?"
"No?" Toby was dangerously close to laughing.
"Because if that was a challenge, well, it just so happens I can prove it."
"You can prove ... what?"
"That I am nature woman."
That was it for Josh. He had to sit down on the grass.
"You're going to ..." Toby asked hopefully.
"Hike," CJ boasted.
This was cause enough for even Sam to laugh out loud. He looked over his shoulder at his friends, and Abbey let him go, smiling herself.
"Where, from the porch to the motorcade?" Sam teased CJ.
"I believe it's Toby you're thinking of, there, Samuel."
Josh raised his eyebrows. "And I believe that was a challenge," he announced.
"It was." CJ flicked her eyes to Josh, who had never looked so gleeful, and back to Toby.
"Well, then, the two of you are going to have to settle this with a good old fashioned --"
"CJ." Leo's ill-timed approach made Josh groan mid-sentence. Donna shoved him.
CJ struggled for composure and managed to turn a straight face toward her boss. "Hey, Leo."
"Walk with me, would you?"
"Aww, man!" Josh whined. "Leo, they were just about to hike race!"
"'Hike race'?" CJ squeaked, composure cracking, and Leo looked from CJ to Josh in dismay.
"Oh, Lord, the two of you aren't starting this again, are you?"
"It's T- Toby's fault," CJ gasped. "He keeps l- He keeps laughing! I think it's," she swallowed, got a grip, and continued, "good for him. We ought to make it a campaign promise: We pledge to forcibly drag our communications director out of doors at least once a week, to make him stop growling at people."
"CJ --" Leo rolled his eyes. He didn't let on how relieved he was to be hearing her say 'we' and 'our' and 'us' again. She was back on board, and he wasn't sure when it had happened, but it was a huge weight off his shoulders.
"Fine, fine," CJ said. Wiping her eyes, and a little reluctantly, she left the boys to their merrymaking and followed Leo across the farmhouse lawn. "What's up?"
Leo walked until they were on the edge of the crowd, and then turned to face her. "I want to apologize," he said straight away, catching her utterly off guard.
"Well ... okay," she managed to sputter.
"For, you know," Leo said. "If I've acted like a whatever, blah blah blah."
"Hmm. Well." CJ nodded once, fighting a grin. "I'm touched."
Leo nodded too, and then smiled. "That's all. Well, okay. Go hike race."
CJ grinned broadly. She stood there a moment, allowing the magnitude of what had just happened to sink in. Then she said, "Thanks, Leo," and she meant it.
He nodded, embarrassed, and followed her back into the crowd, but not all the way. He stopped by one of the picnic tables, listening to CJ's laughter as she met Josh's gaze again. Leo hadn't seen any of them laugh like this since before those awful meetings he'd had with them, telling them about the MS.
He hadn't been laughing either; in fact, he hadn't even been marginally civil to anyone since Toby had come to him with Hoynes' Killington camping schedule. He'd been dreading that day for so long that he forgot to prepare for it, and so when it came, he was completely knocked down.
He wasn't going to apologize to them all. They were grown-ups and most of them had been so grumpy themselves that they had never even noticed his foul mood. But CJ'd got the worst of it, and she had most definitely noticed. He had owed her that apology.
Leo plucked a cucumber slice from the array of food on the table and wandered away. He liked the atmosphere of the lawn, which was mostly peopled with political types. He heard among them arguments, the fun kind that generally went nowhere at all. The band had longsince gone, but there was a CD player and a kick-ass set of speakers you wouldn't find on a regular New England farm. Zoey and Annie had taken over the task of DJing, which was unfortunate, since Annie had recently got very into country.
It was worth it, though, a moment later, to see Abbey Bartlet burst into a rendition of 'Don't Be Stupid (You Know I Love You)' and direct it to her husband. They danced, too, and Leo was pretty sure Jed would be teasing Abbey for a while about the fact that she knew the words.
Beyond them Leo could see the staff, also watching the President, still laughing over something. CJ, apparently, had swapped her heels for ill-fitting hiking boots. Leo suddenly found himself grinning along with the rest of his staff. He walked closer. This was a conversation he didn't want to miss.
"It's all right," CJ was saying. "If you're scared. I understand."
"I'm not scared," Toby assured her. "I'm sane."
"Scared chicken? It's perfectly understandable."
Toby raised his hands in defeat. "I don't know how to hike, okay? I've never ... hiked."
"And I don't know how to play pool, Tobus, so let's hike for money. Come on."
Josh and Sam were actually laughing so hard at this point that it was difficult to breathe. Donna, who had a little more self-control, was wiping tears from the corners of her eyes. She didn't know what it was, exactly, that was making her laugh this hard. Lack of sleep, or lack of food, or maybe it was the image of Toby in hiking boots. Oh, God. It was most definitely the image of Toby in hiking boots.
"Just a mile," CJ said. "Come on, Toby. One little mile. To prove you're a man."
Josh raised his hand. "Well ... technically, you're not a man, CJ."
"Technically?" CJ's eyes widened. Leo groaned. From now until eternity, whenever Josh or CJ heard the word 'technically' they were going to crack up.
Josh controlled his laughter long enough to finish the question. "So, what are you trying to prove?"
CJ shrugged. "That I am nature woman."
Josh fell down.
"Oh, go on, Toby, it'll be good for you," Leo goaded.
"All right," Toby said, holding up his hands. "All right. Twenty bucks." And he took out his wallet.
"I'm coming with," Josh announced.
"Me too," Donna answered.
"Wouldn't miss it," Sam said, and the five of them set off, barely able to walk for all the laughter and cider and food. Behind them Leo and Bruno struck up a mildly confrontational discussion. Zoey and Charlie were dancing beside the President and Dr. Bartlet, and Liz, Ellie, and Annie were all dancing together in a group.
Past them, and even past a stack of magic markered signs, and balloons that were sagging as they lost their air, were fences spilling away across the countryside. Cattle grazed sleepily under the floodlights, and past the cattle, past New England, past the entire east coast and beyond, people were going about their lives just waiting for the chance to vote for President Bartlet again.