Christmas music...drifting snow...glowing candles...Washington was enveloped in the timeless signs of the glory and wonder of the holiday season. A lone figure stood at a window and wondered why the magic could no longer touch him.
As the melodious voices of the Whiffenpoofs rang through the halls, Jed remembered other years when, as a child, the anticipation of Christmas had been an agony of waiting. When would the big day arrive? For a young boy, intent on the magic of the holiday, the days of December crept slower than those of any other month.
Then he had watched with delight as his own children experienced the same impatience. Marveling at the wonder in their eyes, he had waited to see it each year. Now, he wished he had cherished those times of innocence and guarded them more closely.
For him, innocence was gone.
The music echoed around him...
"A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder beams a new and glorius morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!"
If only the beautiful words could be true...
Jed wanted to fall on his knees and ask for absolution, but, at this point, he didn't believe anything could remove his guilt. Struggling under the heavy weight of his crime, he knew that hope and rejoicing were vain wishes this year. His sins were too grievous.
Priest... President... Liar... Murderer...
For a while he had managed to forget.
He couldn't say when it had started or, rather, when it had resurfaced. Back in May...right after the incident...it had been bad then. Night after night spent in sleepless torment, and, when sleep finally did overtake his weary brain, his conscience battled back with the dreams.
Bursts of gunfire echoed across the deserted Bermuda shore as men died, falling mutely to the ground while music swelled in the background. And the blood...the red stain was everywhere. But, unlike Lady Macbeth, it wasn't on his hands. It was in his heart.
But that had passed. Like every sin, if you try hard enough to put it out of your mind, it can eventually be dismissed. In the early days, he could push it away for only a few minutes, but, as time went by, the images faded, returning only briefly to haunt him. He brushed them away. What was done was done.
With the campaign and the election, he was so overwhelmed with other issues that his crime was finally condemned to a seldom visited corner of his mind. Abdul Shareef had been an evil man, capable of untold terror. The world was better off without him. Jed knew that didn't excuse his actions, or even justify them. It simply allowed him to live a sane existence.
When had it started again?
When had his conscience revived?
It had been a sunny December day, the bright light pouring in the windows of the Oval Office. Nancy or Fitz had been briefing him and surely it had been something important, but not about the Middle East. Possibly China. He should have been listening. But he had spaced out, unable to hear his advisors because the music in his head was so loud.
The finale of "The Wars of the Roses" played over and over in his mind. Strong voices sang about a country that, having been victorious in war, shall be made glorious in peace. Red pennants on the stage became red cloths soaked in blood, the blood of an enemy, but still the blood of a fellow human being.
He had almost told Zoey. Was he mad?
That wasn't the sort of thing he could tell his daughter. Unlike grief, which becomes halved when shared, this was sin, and the guilt could only be redoubled by telling. How could he have even contemplated abusing her innocence in that way?
Jed suspected that he only wanted positive reinforcement of his actions. And who better to give it than his daughter, who loved him and trusted him completely? But he wasn't sure what he would have seen in her eyes if he had actually confessed. Perhaps disappointment? Pain? Revulsion?
He had wanted to tell Stanley Keyworth even before it had happened. He had hinted about the possibility of breaking a law. Doing something wrong to promote the greater good. Jed had hoped it wouldn't be necessary, but, once the act was committed, he hoped it could be forgotten.
He had broken the law. He wasn't going to get away with it. Danny Concannon was already pursuing the trail they had thought to be nonexistent. The sin would be uncovered. It was only a matter of time.
Stanley was right. The airplane represented death.
Jed sat down on the edge of the bed and started to take off his shoes. Even though it was late, voices and laughter still carried through the rooms of the old farmhouse. He listened to Ellie's voice raised in a tuneless rendition of "I Saw Momma Kissing Santa Claus" and smiled. For the first time in many days, he felt calm, peaceful, almost happy.
This was home. Here he could push the torment of the outside world away. Awasiwi Odenak - even the name was soothing. The cadence of the old Indian words was about as far away from Qumari intrigue as one could get.
He glanced up as Abbey came in and closed the door.
"Hey, Mrs. Claus...are you happy to be home?"
"Of course," Abbey sighed as she kicked off her high heels. "But that term of address...I already acknowledge that you're my Commander in Chief. Now you want to be Santa Claus too?"
He grinned. "Yep."
"Well, you're gonna have to work on the jolly thing, because, just lately, you haven't been."
Abbey started to cross the room and he reached out and grabbed her. "I've just been waiting for the right elf to come along." He wiggled his eyebrows. "I'm gonna be so jolly that you..."
She slapped his hands away. "Mind your manners, Santa. We have to behave. We have French aristocracy under our roof."
Jed pulled her down to sit beside him on the bed. "I don't like him."
Abbey smiled and shook her head slightly. "I would have been amazed if you had."
"He's too..." Jed wasn't sure what Jean Paul was, but whatever it was, it was too much.
"Yeah, I know," Abbey replied.
"But there's nothing we can do."
Abbey felt a little sorry for him; he always had such trouble letting his girls go. "Zoey said you were going to make him sleep in the root cellar. Do we even have one?"
"Yeah, underneath the sun porch."
Abbey lifted an eyebrow. "Have you stashed anybody else down there?"
Jed grinned. "You'd be surprised."
His grin stayed in place, but his thoughts immediately swung off in a different direction. Abbey would be surprised by a great many things. Even though she knew what had happened to Shareef, he had let her assume that it had become a memory for him, that he had dealt with it and moved on. She would be surprised at the level of his guilt and turmoil. She would be hurt, because he was hurting. He couldn't let that happen.
He maintained his teasing tone, "But I'll let 'em out for Christmas. Okay?"
"Yeah." She stood up. "I'm going to take a shower."
Jed watched her go into the bathroom, then stood up and removed his own clothes. He was so tired. He left his shirt and pants in an untidy heap in the wing chair across the room and, suddenly chilly in his boxers and T-shirt, climbed into bed. As the warmth of the blankets enveloped him, he let his eyes close. The drowsiness was hard to resist.
Maybe he shouldn't have had those two drinks on the plane, and the two more...or was it three?...once they got home. And the sound of the shower in the bathroom was almost hypnotic. He could hear the water cascading off the tiles, the soothing splash...
"You asleep?" Abbey asked quietly as she slipped under the covers next to him.
"No," he lied, his voice an indistinct mumble as he sought to open his eyes.
"Good." She cuddled up close and he could smell the mingled scents of soap and toothpaste. Her arms crept around him as she pressed her lips gently against his. "Your elf is here, Santa, and she's feeling pretty festive."
"Ummm...that's nice. Give me just a minute." Jed was trying hard to open his eyes, to leave the fantasy of sleep and return to the very interesting reality of the waking world.
But they were kissing. He didn't have to open his eyes for that, did he? Everyone knew you were supposed to shut your eyes while kissing. More romantic that way.
Jed let his hands wander over Abbey's body, her skin still warm from the shower. Down her thigh, than back up, sliding under her satin nightshirt, over her stomach, and up to her breasts. They were still warm, too. Nice...
Abbey sighed softly as he started to run a teasing thumb over the peak of one breast. Jed's other arm was pulling her hips closer to his. Nice, very nice...
She lay there quietly for a moment, enjoying the sensations of warmth and love. She tried to arch closer, then suddenly realized that Jed's fingers were slipping away from her breast and his other hand was getting heavier and heavier on her hip. And his breathing was far too regular for a man anticipating an episode of conjugal bliss.
He was asleep. There would be no spreading of Christmas cheer tonight.
Abbey let her momentary exasperation slip away. They were both tired, and she was simply glad that he was resting. There had been far too many nights lately when she had gone to bed alone while he worked late in the Oval Office or worried away over something in his study.
She snuggled closer. They could both use a good night's sleep.
It was a beautiful peaceful day, extraordinarily mild for late December. Jed stood in the open field, the sun warm on his shoulders, and looked into the limitless blue sky. He hadn't felt like this in a long time, completely peaceful and calm.
The roar of jet engines broke the silence around him, and, as he turned, he saw something that he hadn't noticed before. Across the otherwise still landscape was an airfield, and speeding down the runway was a huge silver airplane. He blinked.
Air Force One. Where was it going and why was it leaving without him?
He watched as the aircraft lifted from the tarmac and sailed into the sky, the sunlight glinting off the wings. It rose effortlessly into the blue and, even though he was slightly perplexed about its departure, he wasn't concerned enough to move from his spot in the field. The world, for today, could go on without him.
He watched as the plane, which had been speeding away from him, banked and began to turn back. As always, Jed marveled over the intricacies of flight. How could something so heavy, so cumbersome, move as if it were lighter than air and maneuver so smoothly? But suddenly it wasn't lighter than air. The nose was dipping, and, despite the continued throb of the engines, the plane was losing altitude. A red haze rose up from the horizon, seeming to reach for the gleaming silver bird. The plane was going down. Jed knew that with absolute certainty.
The plane was nearing the field again, falling precariously close to the earth. Jed began to run toward it. There were people on board...people he loved. Somehow he had to stop the plane's descent and send it soaring back into the sky.
"It's not their fault. It's mine!" he screamed, running harder.
Suddenly, a man appeared, blocking his path. Abdul Shareef stood silently, blood pouring from a gaping wound in his chest. Jed didn't even break stride as he pushed the man out of his way. Although he hadn't been able to bring himself to shake the man's hand in the Oval Office, he now had no problem thrusting his hands against the blood-soaked shirt and shoving with all his might.
The man toppled and Jed rushed on. Air Force One had skimmed past him now, dipping toward the horizon. He had to get there...
The red haze billowed upward and the sun seemed to dim. With his heart pounding and his breath coming in painful bursts, Jed continued to run, but he couldn't get close to the plane. It descended below the crest of the next hill, and he stopped, bracing for the explosion he knew was imminent.
He was met by only silence.
Jed waited, dropping to his knees in agony. Still there was no sound. The plane was gone... The people he loved were gone...
He stared at the blood on his hands. Airplanes represent death.
Priest... President.... Liar... Murderer...
Jed awoke slowly. In the dim room, he could pick out familiar objects and he could feel Abbey's warmth next to him. He knew that Air Force One was parked safely on the runway in Manchester, guarded and secure.
But the overwhelming feeling of impending disaster clung to him.
Something was about to happen.
And there was nothing to do but wait.