Lifeline: 5. Chapter Five


Wednesday Early Morning


“Whose blood, Leo?” Jed asked, gazing at his friend intently.


“It doesn’t matter. It was a long time ago.” Leo stood there, looking gaunt and haggard. The angry light in his eyes had faded to be replaced by those shadows again, and his jaw was clamped shut.


“Whose blood?” Jed asked again. “Not…” He hesitated, unsure that he wanted to hear the answer to the question on his lips. “Not yours?”


“No. Not my blood.” Leo picked up his tie and tried to knot it, but his hands were shaking the way they only did when he was under emotional stress. Jed continued gazing at him, noticing everything but not offering to help. Leo gave up with the tie and left it hanging around loose around his neck.


“Leo,” Jed pressed.


“Franco Morelli,” Leo snapped. “It’s his blood.” He found his jacket and shouldered himself into it.


“Morelli?” Jed frowned. “He was the kid you got shot down trying to save?”


Leo’s entire body was stiff with tension as he looked around for his jacket.


“They gave you the Silver Star for that,” Jed murmured softly. “And the Distinguished Flying Cross. I was so proud of you – when I eventually found out, which wasn’t until several months later,” he chided softly. He remembered meeting Leo at their June 17th anniversary back in 1970, and his friend hadn’t said a word to him then about Franco Morelli; he had mentioned being shot down – he hadn’t been able to hide the physical evidence of the shrapnel wound on his shoulder apart from anything else – but he hadn’t told Jed that he had gotten that wound while trying to rescue a fellow pilot. Jed knew Morelli had died, and he had often felt that Leo blamed himself for that, although he wasn’t sure why.


“Yeah,” Leo shrugged, as if none of this conversation had any importance to him. “Keep the damn letter, Jed, if you want it,” he said and then he stepped away sharply, wrenched open the door, and disappeared out into the hallway without saying another word. Jed would have raced after him except for the fact he was only dressed in his bathrobe while Leo had the advantage of being fully dressed, if dishevelled. He glanced back at the letter with a frown. He didn’t care about the letter – he cared about Leo – but somehow he had the feeling that this letter was the key to whatever was bothering Leo. He opened it carefully, taking care not to tear the fragile paper, and began to read.


The letter made him smile in places as he remembered his intense joy at the birth of his first child but he was none the wiser when he’d finished it. What was there about this letter that had caused Leo to keep it all this time, and why had he dug it out now, and why, particularly, did it seem to be so important to him at the moment? Jed lay on the bed for a long time, the letter loosely clutched in his hand, thinking it through. He remembered their June 17th anniversary in 1970. Leo had acted strangely all evening – Jed sat up straight as he suddenly realized that *this* was the memory that had been tantalizing him so much earlier. On that June 17th anniversary Leo had been like a stranger; eager for sex, unwilling to talk – much like he had been last night. He’d had a nightmare, even been violently sick – and eventually he had started to talk – about how he’d lost faith, about being shot down…was there something else? Something he hadn’t told Jed at the time? Something that, for some reason, was coming back to haunt him now?


Jed got up, swiftly took a shower and got dressed, and then, tucking the letter carefully into his pocket, he walked down to the West Wing. It was so early that the place was deserted. He found Leo sitting in his office, gazing absently at the folded flag in the glass ceremonial case on the shelf beside him.


“Hey.” Jed stepped quietly into the room. “Isn’t that the flag that was on Lieutenant Morelli’s casket when they buried him at Arlington?” He asked softly.


“Yeah.” Leo nodded. “Well, they didn’t bury him – just an empty casket – but…” He trailed off absently.


“His folks gave you the flag?” Jed asked – he knew this story but he wanted Leo to talk about it all the same.


“Yeah. I went to see them. Spent some time with them. Went to his funeral…his mom took a liking to me. I have no idea why. Boy, that woman made the best gnocchi I’ve ever tasted.” His lips twisted into a gentle smile of memory, which slowly faded. “She died a few years back – his dad died years before her – and…she wrote to me a month or so before she died and sent me the flag – she knew she was dying and she said she wanted me to have it because she knew I’d take good care of it when she was gone.” He gazed at the flag absently. “He was just a kid, Jed.”


“So were you,” Jed pointed out quietly.


“No – sometimes I think I was born old. He was a *kid*. Full of piss and vinegar. You know, sometimes…sometimes it’s hard to know what to do…what the right thing is,” he mused softly.


“About what?” Jed asked, holding his breath. Leo thought about it for a moment, and then shook his head.


“Nothing. I was just…it was a long time ago, Jed.”


“Yeah, but he was important to you – important enough for you to get shot down trying to save his life. You never told me much about that – hell, I don’t think you’d have told me at all if it wasn’t for that shrapnel wound on your shoulder.”


Leo shrugged, and fingered his shoulder absently.


“Were you worried that he suffered?” Jed asked. “He ejected, right? And you found his body when you bailed out? That’s how you knew he was dead?”


Leo gazed at him blankly.


“Leo?” Jed pressed gently.


“What? Oh. Yeah.” Leo nodded. “Yeah, he bailed out.”


“Do you think he was already half dead when he ejected, or was there a problem with his chute, or the landing itself?” Jed asked, unwilling to let this drop, sure that it was important in some way.


“He…he was in a pretty bad way when he hit the ground,” Leo replied.


“Leo…was he alive when you found him?” Jed asked. “Is that what’s been preying on your mind? Did you…” A terrible thought came into his mind. “Did you have to shoot him, Leo? Was he so badly hurt that you had to do that to put him out of his pain, and to prevent him being found by the VC?”


“What?” Leo looked up, a shocked expression in his eyes, and Jed wondered if maybe he’d gotten it all wrong but he didn’t know what else could account for the way Leo was behaving so he pressed on.


“Leo, did you kill Lieutenant Morelli?” He asked.


Leo shook his head. “No, Jed,” he replied firmly. “Although sometimes I think I as good as killed him,” he murmured.




“Jed, I’m sorry about earlier. I’ve just been feeling sick the past day or so and that’s made me bad tempered – well, more bad tempered than usual anyway.” He grinned at Jed, as if defying him to make the joke before he did. “I have a pile of work to get through and I’d like to get on with it, if you don’t mind, Mr. President,” he said formally, signalling that, as far as he was concerned, this conversation was at an end. Jed gave a deep, heartfelt sigh. He felt he’d been close, but when Leo’s shields went up he knew from experience that it was virtually impossible to penetrate them; he’d never known a more obstinate person in his entire life.


“Okay,” Jed said softly. “But if you want to talk, Leo, I’m right next door.”


“Sure. Fine.” Leo smiled at him absently.


“Here.” Jed stepped over to where Leo was sitting, and took hold of his tie. “You can’t sit here all day with this undone,” he commented, tying it into a knot with practiced ease. “Margaret would think there was something wrong if you did,” he said, in a tight kind of voice.


“Margaret worries too much,” Leo said, drawing away from Jed’s hands as he finished with the tie.


“She’s not the only one,” Jed said meaningfully. Leo refused to rise to that particular bait and instead glanced at his work with a distracted frown. Jed stood there for a moment, hoping for something more, but when it became clear that more was not going to be forthcoming he finally turned and went back to his own office. He hadn’t given up though – something was clearly going on with Leo right now, and he wasn’t going to rest until he had found out what exactly it was.


Leo remained on a short fuse for the rest of the day, which was unusual for the usually even tempered, unflappable chief of staff. He did have a tendency towards irascibility but it was always leavened by his sense of humour, which was never far beneath the surface. Now, it was buried deep, and he seemed distracted. He did his work as efficiently as ever, but Jed noticed that he often seemed absent minded – something that the Leo he had known for 40 years had never been; Leo had always been sharp, someone who knew exactly what was going on, but now his attention seemed to be elsewhere. His behaviour towards Jed was particularly baffling; he seemed to want to spend time with the President, making excuses to enter his office, even to just put his head around the door and say “hey”, but invariably didn’t seem to have much else to say beyond that. Jed was becoming worn out with the situation by the end of the day, and decided that if it went on for much longer he’d take Leo into a room at the Residence, lock the door, and not let him out again until he had found out what the hell was going on.


By the following day, Jed found that the strain of presiding over an increasingly jittery West Wing was beginning to take its toll. He hadn’t realized before just how much Leo was at the centre of the smooth operation of the place. Leo had a gift, a knack, for getting the best out of people; everyone wanted to do their best for Leo, starting at the very top with the President himself, as Jed knew all too well. Jed had always been aware that whenever he did anything, from taking his college exams to winning a Nobel prize, he wanted Leo to be proud of him – and, he had to admit, he’d been a little jealous on first assuming the Presidency to find that he wasn’t alone in that. There was something about Leo’s personality; his loyalty, his dedication, and his way of managing his staff, that made *everyone* want him to be proud of them. Some members of staff clearly felt it more than others, with Josh the front runner in the ‘wanting to impress Leo’ stakes, and that had helped make the West Wing such an efficient, orderly and generally pretty happy place to work. It shocked Jed how quickly that veneer of happiness and efficiency fell apart without Leo’s expert hand guiding them all along. He hadn’t realized how absolutely central Leo’s personality was to the smooth running of the West Wing. Now, with Leo snapping at everyone except the President himself, the place had become severely unsettled in less than 2 days. Josh was trying desperately to over-compensate by working all hours and being perfect, and was so wound up by the effort that he’d started taking it out on Donna, who, in turn, had taken to gossiping with Margaret in the hallways to relieve the tension. Toby had barricaded himself in his office, Will had been found talking to himself on more than one occasion, and CJ and Charlie seemed to be constantly bickering with each other. Jed felt as if everyone’s nerves had been stretched to breaking point and if something didn’t happen soon to clear the air and return things to normal, then he suspected he’d be the one to snap first. He had enough on his plate with his presidential duties, which Leo had always made much easier for him by his constant and supportive presence. Now, he had to deal not only with his own workload without Leo’s usual active but unobtrusive help, but also with a slowly imploding West Wing, and Jed knew his own temper well enough to worry that at some point he’d just blow a fuse and the whole place would go up in smoke. He didn’t want that to happen as he was pretty sure there would be innocent casualties in the fall out, but something had to give – and soon.


Matters weren’t helped by the logjam of appointments that built up during Friday, a news story that CJ was having trouble squashing, and a political upset on the hill that required Josh to disappear every five minutes and Leo to take increasingly frantic phone calls from him – something that didn’t do anybody’s nerves any good in their current state.


Jed felt he was close to exploding by the time he saw the Vietnamese ambassador again late on Friday afternoon – having kept the man waiting for an hour after his scheduled appointment time. Usually Leo was an unflappable presence by his side, ready and willing to soothe his irritations with a light hearted comment or some calming advice, but at the moment Leo was like a cat in a room full of rocking chairs so Jed had nowhere to go with his bad mood and no Leo to gently cajole him out of it; instead his Chief of Staff seemed sunk in a mood of distracted annoyance. Jed asked him a question about the forthcoming meeting three times before Leo even seemed to hear it, by which time it was too late as Ambassador Thuan was being shown through the door. Jed shook the man’s hand and frowned at Leo, who remained seated on the couch, and made no move to greet the Ambassador. Jed was not, by this point, very surprised; Leo’s distraction had reached the stage where the only thing he could say for certain was that Leo hadn’t – thus far – snapped at *him*, his best friend, lover and President, but anyone else seemed to be fair game, as the West Wing staff had found to their cost over the past few days.


Thuan seemed not to notice Leo’s lack of manners – he sat down on the couch, while Jed took his own seat in the armchair facing him.


“I’m sorry I had to cut our meeting short a few days ago, Ambassador,” he began. “Perhaps we should start again where we left off?”


“Certainly, sir.” The Ambassador bowed his head politely.


“Or perhaps we should cut to the chase,” Leo said, leaning forward. “Which is – what do you want from us?”


“Want from you?” Thuan glanced from Leo to Jed, a puzzled frown creasing his features.


“Yeah. What do you want from us in return for your help in dealing with increased narcotic cargoes being shipped into the US from Vietnam in consignments of innocent everyday goods, like sneakers, and baby clothes?”


“It’s a problem that has become much worse in recent years.” Thuan nodded. His hands were crossed in his lap, and he looked perfectly relaxed – but Jed sensed that same sharpness from the man that he’d noticed on their first meeting.


“Mainly because the Vietnamese government hasn’t shown much interest in dealing with the problem,” Leo snapped.


“We have very severe penalties for drug trafficking,” Thuan responded, with a raised eyebrow.


“Penalties that aren’t much use if you don’t actually arrest anyone,” Leo pointed out. Jed frowned; this hadn’t been in his briefing notes and he sensed the tension in the room rising at an exponential rate.


“Let’s take a step back here,” Jed said, interjecting smoothly. Thuan leaned back in his seat and gave Leo a coolly assessing stare. Leo returned it, his blue eyes blazing in a way that was entirely uncharacteristic. He remained leaning forward in his seat, his stance combative. “Ambassador, we’re not denying that this is a huge problem for us,” Jed continued. “Not only from a drug interdiction standpoint but also from a homeland security consideration – if these people can smuggle in heroin, there’s no telling what else they might be able to smuggle in, and we can’t search every single container.”


“Of course not, sir.” Thuan shook his head. “And perhaps, as Mr. McGarry is pointing fingers, I should remind him that the flow of heroin to the US shot up immediately after the US normalized relations with Vietnam after the war.” He gave a small, tight smile. “Several US companies set up operations in Vietnam virtually the very next day. The problem started then. I believe the US companies were attracted by the cheap labour in our country – there were no inconvenient little matters such as child labour laws, or workman’s compensation, or safety regulations after all.” He gave another taut smile. “So, for the US…” He shot Leo a vicious glare, “to question our commitment in dealing with this issue, seems…disingenuous bearing in mind the greed of your own companies and how that has contributed to the problem.”


Jed took a deep breath, and nodded; the ambassador clearly wasn’t pulling any punches but then neither had Leo, and he could respect that on both sides.


“It isn’t our job to make the labour laws in your country, – that’s the responsibility of the Vietnamese government,” Leo snapped. “So, I’ll ask you again – what do you want?” Leo had a grim, confrontational look on his face.


“Mr. McGarry?” Thuan remained as coolly self-possessed as ever, but Leo was starting to look like a dog with a bone – an extremely angry dog.


“There’s nothing for you to gain by tackling heroin smuggling. It isn’t your kids it’s killing – it’s ours. So what do you want from us in exchange for you to start acting like a responsible government and crack down on the people growing and exporting this stuff?” Leo got to his feet.


“Leo!” Jed interrupted, seriously alarmed both by where this was going and Leo’s increasingly hostile tone.


“No…sir,” Thuan raised his hand. “Mr McGarry’s point is perfectly valid. Obviously, we do require monetary assistance from the US government, but that is simply to give us the resources to do exactly what Mr. McGarry is asking. I must, however, refute his point that we do not care. I can assure you that the Vietnamese government cares very deeply about the growth in this trade, and the people it kills and the lives it ruins – whatever their nationality.”


“Yeah. Right.” Leo snorted. Jed turned to gaze at him, astonished. “Are you seriously telling me that you give a damn about the life of one single American kid being lost or ruined, Ambassador? Life’s cheap – it’s expendable, and an American life means less to you than…”


“Leo!” Jed cut in, seriously shocked. He got to his feet, put a hand on Leo’s shoulder, and swung him firmly in the direction of the next door office. “Excuse me, Ambassador,” he said, as he propelled Leo out of the room, shutting the door firmly behind them. “What the hell was that about?” Jed hissed, the moment they were alone. “Did you have a diplomacy bypass? Christ, what’s wrong with you, Leo? Whatever it is, get a grip, and fast – or I’m going to call in Stanley.”


“Stanley? Oh for god’s sake!” Leo exploded. “The man will start to wonder whether every single person in the West Wing is nuttier than a fruitcake. First Josh, then you, now me – is there anyone in the White House who won’t have needed his professional services by the time this Administration is over?”


“Think about it,” Jed said firmly, standing his ground. “Because I’ve had enough of this. You either talk to Stanley or you talk to me, but one way or another you deal with whatever the hell is going on in your head right now because we aren’t going to continue like this.”


Leo glared at him; he was pale but his blue eyes were burning furiously, and his entire body looked so tense that Jed knew that if anyone so much as nudged him right now, he’d go off like a firework.


“Leo – does this have anything to do with the fact that this guy’s Vietnamese?” He asked. Leo’s eyes flashed.


“For Christ sake!” he snapped. “Thuan isn’t the first Vietnamese ambassador I’ve talked to. He isn’t even the first Vietnamese person I’ve seen since I came home from Vietnam 3 whole goddamn decades ago.” His voice was dripping with sarcasm. “I have Vietnamese friends, I enjoy Vietnamese food, it’s ridiculous to even suggest…”


“Then what is it? Is it the drug issue that’s bothering you?” Jed interrupted.


“Doesn’t it bother you?” Leo flung back.


“Yes, but I’m not behaving as if I’m losing my mind!” Jed snapped. He paused, and took a deep breath, and then decided on a direct approach. “Leo – tell me what’s wrong,” he said.


“Nothing’s wrong,” Leo replied automatically, the shutters coming down as Jed had both feared and suspected they would.


“Oh goddamn it, Leo, stop being such an obstinate idiot for one moment in your life!” Jed hissed. “I *know* you remember. I know something’s wrong. Damn it, I don’t have time to go into this right now – I need to get back to the ambassador. Just think about what I said about seeing Stanley because I’m not dropping this, Leo. This is *not* going to go away.” And he turned on his heel and returned to his meeting with Thuan.


Jed managed to smooth over the situation with the ambassador; the man was smart and perceptive, and used Leo’s outburst to his advantage but Jed couldn’t blame him for that. Jed gave the man as much time as he could spare as a matter of courtesy after the way Leo had spoken to him, and that meant that he was even further behind by the time Thuan left. He had wanted to have a private word with Leo, to see whether his friend had had time to reconsider and was now prepared to finally tell him what was bothering him, but when he opened the door he found the entire senior staff standing outside, waiting for their meeting with him which was scheduled next, and he realized that his conversation with Leo would have to wait.


The staff all filed into the Oval Office and Jed bit back a sigh of exasperation as Leo joined them without so much as a glance in his direction. He was feeling increasingly bad tempered and hot under the collar, and he hoped this meeting wouldn’t drag on too long or he was pretty sure that someone would bear the brunt of his bad mood and feel the sting of his tongue.


“Let’s keep this short,” he said in a peremptory tone, glancing at them over the top of his glasses. “I have something that demands my urgent attention.” He gave Leo a meaningful look but his friend just gave him a hard stare in return. Jed glared at him, and Josh shifted anxiously, picking up on the tension between them. He wasn’t alone; CJ cleared her throat, sounding equally anxious, and Toby was gazing at them watchfully, those dark eyes of his missing nothing.


“Sir…” CJ began.


“Yes. CJ.” Jed gestured to her. “How did the press briefing go?”


CJ made a face. “Not very well, sir.”


Jed sighed, trying his best to keep his lid on his temper. This wasn’t CJ’s fault. “Okay. Not the news I wanted to hear right now. All right, go ahead. Tell me where we’re at. Is it hot in here or is just me?” He undid his shirt sleeves and rolled them up to his elbows, utterly exasperated by just about everything in his life at this moment in time.


“Well, I did my best to deflect them, but they did have several very pertinent questions, sir.” CJ glanced at her notes, and then back up again. “Not least Katie and Danny, who both wanted to know…my god, sir, what happened to your arm?” She broke off, pointing at Jed’s wrist. Jed glanced down and saw the violent purple bruise there, a legacy of his wrestling match with Leo a couple of nights previously. He could have kicked himself for rolling up his sleeves – he had noticed the bruise but barely paid it any attention, and now he felt an old sensation of shame that he could trace all the way back to his childhood, when he’d tried to hide the evidence of the many bruises he’d sustained at his father’s hands.


“It’s nothing…I just caught it in the shower door,” he muttered, which was the most convincing thing he could come up with on the spur of the moment, but he felt another wave of shame as the ease with which he told the lie reminded him of how he’d covered up those childhood beatings with similar excuses. He glanced hurriedly at Leo to find his friend’s eyes transfixed in shock on the bruise. Leo’s gaze travelled up Jed’s arm and into his eyes, and Jed knew that Leo was remembering those bruises his father had given him too – and how Jed had tried to hide them.


“It looks nasty – you should put something on it,” CJ was saying, but Jed took no notice because at that moment Leo got to his feet, muttered an excuse, and then left the room. Jed was torn between going after him and staying to finish the meeting, but decided, regretfully, on the latter course of action. He still had a job to do, and his last meeting with Leo hadn’t gone so well. He was in no mood to confront a Leo who was not only struggling with some pretty powerful demons right now, but who was also guilt stricken about hurting him.


“Sir…?” CJ asked. “Have you been feeling okay recently? I mean…I wasn’t sure if…”


Jed dragged himself back to the meeting and realised, with some annoyance, that she had completely misinterpreted his admittedly lame explanation about the shower door.


“I’m fine, CJ, and no, I haven’t been having any MS episodes. I was just clumsy that’s all,” he retorted, more angrily than he’d intended. “Now, can we *please* move on?” He said impatiently, casting one last glance in the direction in which Leo had disappeared. He was aware, out of the corner of his eye, of Toby watching him, and that did nothing to improve his temper. He felt very self conscious about the fact that Toby knew about his relationship with Leo – the last thing he wanted was for Toby to conclude that neither of them were able to do their jobs because their personal lives were getting in the way.


The meeting lasted for one long interminable hour, and by the time it was over Jed was about ready to resign as President and go and live on a desert island. He was very much aware that even though the meeting was over, his showdown with Leo was not – and the knowledge that he had that to look forward to didn’t exactly put a spring in his step. He walked wearily over to the interconnecting doors between their offices and opened them, only to find that Leo wasn’t at his desk.


“Margaret – where’s Leo?” Jed glanced into the outer office where Leo’s secretary was sitting. She glanced up at him, a scared look in her big eyes.


“Sir, I don’t know.” She shook her head. “He came out of the Oval Office about an hour ago and just took off – I asked him where he was going but he ignored me. I reminded him that he has a meeting at 7 but he didn’t seem to hear me – and now I don’t know what to do.”


“Cancel the meeting,” Jed said grimly.


“But, sir, it’s with…”


“I said, cancel it,” Jed told her. “Leo won’t be back this evening.”


“How do you know that, sir?” Margaret asked looking puzzled.


“Because he’s either taken off god knows where, or he’s going to be spending the evening talking to me,” Jed said grimly. “Either way, he won’t be attending any damn meeting.”


“What do you mean…taken off?” Margaret asked nervously. “Where would he go?”


Jed swallowed down what was left of his temper, as another, more worrying thought came into his head and he realised that with Leo in his current state of mind, he couldn’t predict what the hell his Chief of Staff would do or where he would go. “I don’t know,” he murmured, shaking his head. “I really don’t know.”





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