Madam President

Madam President

Chapter V

May 2021

 

Monday, May 3rd

 

Dev was whistling as she tucked a newspaper under her arm and gathered up two steaming coffee mugs. She strode out of her office with Liza trailing behind her. "I just need ten minutes alone, Liza."

"Can you live with five?"

"Iíll settle for seven."

"Deal."

David met her in the hall. "Madam President?"

"Not now, David. I have a very important meeting."

Rust-colored brows furrowed. "With whom?" Davidís mind raced. Had he missed an appointment?

Dev flashed him a grin.

The tall man rolled his eyes. "Never mind. That silly smile says it all. How long will you be, Madam President? You have a meeting with the Secretary of Health andÖ"

"Yeah, I know. Liza has granted me a seven minute parole from my duties as President. Go talk to Jane. Sheís got the job until I get back."

David shook his head. "Have a good time."

"I intend to." She smirked. Boy, I hope Laurenís in a good mood. She sounded like it when I asked her to meet me.

Dev walked quickly to her destination, waving off the small tribe that was following her. She pushed the door to her destination open with her hip and drew in an appreciative breath. The earliest of the spring roses were blooming in the Rose Garden, and their sweet aroma wafted over Dev.

Lauren was sitting on a bench with her arms across the back and her face turned towards the warm spring sunlight. Though Dev could see only her profile, she could tell that Laurenís eyes were closed but she was awake. She looked contented and happy. A grin tugged at Devís lips at the sight.

"Morning, Mighty Mouse." Dev couldnít resist teasing the writer with her Secret Service name. She got a different reaction every time she used it.

Laurenís body remained perfectly still as she continued to soak in the morning sun and Devís good-natured taunt. "Itís amazing. I hear the words, but I know no one is talking to me," she drawled calmly. "Because there is no one here by that ridiculous name."

Dev chuckled and took a seat next to Lauren, nudging her over on the bench. "Do you luuuvv me, Lauren?" she asked in a playful voice. When a single, questioning, gray eyeball slowly opened and rolled in her direction, the President offered the blonde woman a cup of steaming coffee, which just happened to be in Laurenís very own red mug. It was prepared with two sugars and cream, just the way she liked it.

Lauren smiled coyly as she took the warm mug. "Thanks. And I love anyone who brings me coffee the way I like it."

Dev grabbed the neatly folded paper from under her arm and made a show of looking at it. "Huh." She set her mug on the bench and scratched her chin. "Looks like theyíre right then. You are cheap and easy." She handed the paper to the writer. "And cheating on me." Dev pulled a nonexistent knife from her chest. "Why am I always the last to know?" she moaned piteously.

Lauren reached for the paper. Using her hand to block the sun, she scanned the spot where Dev was pointing, which was the social column. "White House live-in, Lauren Strayer, was caught rendezvousing with her new love at Been Giís last month." Her eyes scanned the rest of the short article, stopping on the small, unflattering photograph of her getting into Caseyís car. Lauren wrinkled her nose. "God, I have no taste whatsoever. Iím cheating on you with a morgue attendant named ĎLaceyí."

"It would appear so. Yes." Dev braced herself for the pending explosion. But it never came.

"Oh, well," Lauren casually tossed the paper aside and took a sip of coffee, hiding her smile behind the rim of the cup, "if youíd keep your woman satisfied, I wouldnít be forced to look elsewhere for romance."

"Ouch!" Dev clutched her heart. "And just so cold about it, too. Gee, I have all the popularity of the plague. I canít catch a damned break. My live-in lover and my date threw me over for this Casey/Lacey woman. Who knew the morgue had such appeal?" Dev shook her head, sending her dark hair spilling over one shoulder. "Maybe I should try the other team. Iím batting zero with my own."

Lauren burst out laughing. She bumped shoulders with the older woman. "Donít tell me something in the press finally got to you? Theyíve been writing about us for months. And the other team has its faults, too. Trust me."

"I just didnít want you to see this and explode," Dev explained sincerely. "Itís just another attempt to get a reaction out of us." She leaned back and tried to act nonchalant about putting her arm over the back of the bench and dropping it down to rest lightly on Laurenís shoulders. I am sooooo pathetic.

Lauren jerked away at the feeling of Devís arm on her shoulder. "What is it? A bug?" She began slapping where Devís arm had been, her eyes searching her pale green blouse.

Dev threw her head back and laughed. "Might as well have been, the way my luck is running lately." She sighed and this time, decisively wrapped her arm around Laurenís shoulders, pulling the younger woman closer to her. "No, it wasnít a bug." She grinned devilishly and added a belated, "Mighty Mouse." I should just gather up my courage and ask her out. Whatís the worst she can say Ė no? That wouldnít be a big surprise either. Iíve got nothing to lose. "UhÖ Lauren?"

Lauren blushed when she realized what Dev had tried to do and what her response had been. Sorry, Devlyn. And Iím glad it wasnít a bug. She happily snuggled closer. Is she going to? Oh, my God. Lauren crossed her fingers and toes. "Yes, Devlyn?" Ask me before I die!

"I was wonderingÖ I meanÖ ummÖ" I am six feet of pure, unadulterated chicken shit. Good thing I donít run the government the way I run my love life. If I had a love life, that is.

Dev cleared her throat and lifted her chin. It was now or never. "Okay. What I wanted to know was-"

Liza opened the door to the rose garden looking slightly harried. She winced, clearly seeing she was interrupting something. "Iím sorry, Madam PresidentÖ"

Lauren nearly groaned with disappointment, letting off a string of curse words in her mind.

Devís mouth clicked shut, and her head dropped forward. That was not seven minutes!

"There is an emergency phone call for Ms. Strayer."

 

Friday, May 7th

 

The loudspeaker crackled, and the school auditorium was alight with excitement, when the school principal nervously announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, students, staff and faculty of Jefferson High School, the President of the United States!"

The high school band fired up ĎHail to the Chiefí, and Dev grinned at Liza as she stuck her notes in her jacket pocket. She tilted her head toward the drums. "Hey, theyíre not bad."

"No, Madam President. And they were very honored that you picked them to play for you."

Dev buttoned her jacket. "Well, for some of these kids itís a big deal." She shrugged. "Guess Iíd better get out there, huh?"

This was another of Devís many Community Visits. Her goal was to do at least one a month. They were already wildly popular, and requests from communities across the nation had come pouring in. Thus far, however, none of the visits had taken her too far from Washington. But she had plans to change that once sheíd made a complete transition into office and things settled down.

These visits were held in high schools or community centers and were open to the public, but, at Devís request, not televised. She wanted the most intimate setting and feeling possible, and she believed this was her chance to give something back and stay connected to the people.

"Bzzzz...." Liza sounded off like a cattle prod in action, just as Jane had taught her.

Dev laughed. "Iím ready. Iím ready. Thereís nothing after this, is there, Liza? I want to try and get home early tonight."

"No, Madam President." Pushing a few buttons, the tall assistant checked her electronic organizer and nodded. "This is it."

Dev leaned over to her assistant. "Donít suppose youíve heard from Ms. Strayer."

"Iím sorry, Madam President. I havenít. I could call and have someone...?"

Devís eyes strayed to her Secret Service agent, who was about to give her the cue to walk onto the stage. "No. Thatís okay. Sheíll call if she needs something." Like me, for instance. Dev inwardly cursed the cabinet meeting that morning that had kept her from flying out to Tennessee to check on Lauren herself.

Receiving a short nod from the dark-suited agent, the President strolled onto the stage of the high school auditorium. She smiled and waved to the crowd as a thousand cameras clicked furiously, their flickering flashes illuminating the room. Dev had learned to give everyone a moment or two before she tried to speak. This time she walked back and forth across the stage, waving and making eye contact with as many people as she could.

The last time she had done one of these Community Visits, sheíd gone down into the audience, causing the Secret Service, and David, to go nuts. But after her Chief of Staff had lectured her incessantly, she did promise to be good.

Once the audience settled down, she took a seat in a high back, bar-like chair. She smiled at the crowd and said, "Hi."

The auditorium exploded into applause.

* * *

Lauren shifted in her chair as she watched her mother sleep. Dark circles ringed the older womanís eyes, and her fair hair looked thin and lifeless. They were in Nashvilleís St. Andrews hospital, in the same wing where Lauren had visited her mother on several other occasions. The very hallways stirred up dark memories sheíd rather forget, and, at this moment, the writer was wishing herself anyplace but here.

Earlier in the week, Howard Strayer had called and calmly explained to his daughter that Annaís depression had taken a turn for the worseÖ that her mother had steadily been going down hill since Christmas, really. And that she had tried to take her own life.

Laurenís mother had gone grocery shopping and fed the cat before stripping naked and climbing into the cold, empty bathtub. Howard wasnít sure why, but for whatever reason, she didnít bother to fill it with any water. Using his razor sharp, fish scaling knife, she had slit both her wrists to the bone and closed her eyes, patiently waiting to die.

Anna had burst into uncontrollable, gut-wrenching sobs when Howard had come home in search of an aspirin and found her still alive, bleeding profusely.

Lauren stared bleakly at her motherís ghostly white figure. The sight of her, combined with the antiseptic smell of the hospital, and the stomach churning tension of the last day, made her shiver. But Lauren couldnít honestly say she was surprised by the suicide attempt. The older woman had fought nearly debilitating bouts of depression all of her adult life. This was the third suicide attempt that Lauren could remember, the other two haunting her otherwise unremarkable childhood like annoying, out of place specters.

When Lauren was eight sheíd walked in on her mother trying to cut her wrists. The woman was weeping and fumbling helplessly with a safety razor, whose blades sheíd somehow popped free of their plastic casing. Lauren had tried to calm her, but in the end was forced to wait until her mother actually passed out before she could get near enough to her to help.

On her second attempt Anna Strayer tried sleeping pills, but ended up vomiting before they could do much damage. The result was a killer headache and six months of institutionalization, at the end of which, she was functional. She was sent home with an armload of anti-depressant drugs and, ironically, a prescription for sleeping pillsÖ in the event that her insomnia should make a reappearance.

But those days seemed far away, even as the pain from this most recent attempt came in fresh waves. Howard had gone to the cafeteria for a much needed cup of coffee, leaving Lauren alone in the room with her mother.

Spring sunshine poured in through the sparkling clean windows, warming the room that was painted in soothing tones of green. The writerís eyelids felt heavy, but she knew she was too wired to sleep. Instead, she sat quietly, watching over the person who was supposed to watch over her.

Lauren felt chiefly sad. But there was also anger and a crushing guilt, because a big part of her wondered if her mother wouldnít be better off finding the peace in oblivion she so obviously craved. Was it selfish to force her to continue when she so clearly didnít want to? This was no cry for help. Howard was supposed to be gone for the morning, and, unlike Annaís other attempts, this couldnít be painted as half-hearted. She had wanted to die. It was as simple and as complicated as that. Who were the doctors, or Lauren herself, or her father, to tell her that she couldnít?

Anna stirred, slowly turning her head toward Lauren and opening her eyes for the first time since the day before. "Hi, honey," she said softly, when her gaze landed on her daughter. Annaís expression was the very picture of despair, and Lauren watched in agony as her motherís face contorted with pain as she took in her surroundings, realizing what had happened, and what the likely outcome would be.

"Hi, Mama," Lauren croaked weakly. Her chin quivered slightly, but she took a calming breath and slowly made her way to her motherís bedside. What could she say? ĎIím glad youíre alive, even though I know that youíre not. Daddy and the doctors saved you, only so you can spend God knows how long back in the institution or spaced out on drugsí?

Anna tried to lift her arms. She looked with wide, dazed eyes at the strong bindings that strapped her to the bed. "I canít do anything right, can I?" she whispered brokenly, then turned away from Lauren, wallowing in just one more failure.

A soft knock on the door caused Laurenís bowed head to swing around.

Anna Strayer tried to sit up, confusion written all over her face. A low keening sound suddenly erupted from her throat. Why wouldnít everyone leave her alone?!

"ShhÖ rest now, Mama," Lauren said quietly, doing her best to block out the almost inhuman noise that was hurting her ears and shredding her heart. She tenderly straightened her motherís covers, intentionally keeping her eyes away from the wide leather straps that tightly held her arms and legs to the bed, and the stark white bandages that wrapped her wrists. "Iíll go see who it is."

Lauren bent and placed an awkward kiss on her motherís cheek, then headed for the door, which was already being pushed open by a heavy-set black nurse. "Yes?" Lauren asked, wondering why sheíd bothered to knock.

"Ms. Strayer?" The womanís voice was deep, her thick accent drawing out each word and adding syllables where there were none.

"Yes."

"You have a phone call, maíam. Itís from the White House," the nurse said, awe reflected in her warm chocolate eyes. "The doctor said you could take it in the conference room, even though itís for staff only. You need to come now. Itís urgent, maíam."

Lauren nodded slowly, another kernel of worry blossoming in her belly. What now? "One second." She turned back to her mother. "I need to take this call for work, Mama. Iíll be right back."

For a moment she thought her mother hadnít heard her. But then Lauren noticed that the gray eyes, whose color so closely matched her own, were vacant and unseeing, staring off into space. She was awake but somewhere else. Lauren had tried to understandÖ tried to figure out where her mother went when she just disappeared inside herself. Tried to reach her and begged her to come homeÖ

It wasnít until she was a teenager that Lauren fully grasped that that far away place would forever be Anna Strayerís alone. Despite her best efforts, in her heart she fully believed that there was no bringing her mother back, no helping her find her way home. Ever.

With a soundless sigh, Lauren stepped out into the hall with the nurse. "Letís go."

At the end of the hallway was a small room with a round table and six chairs, a coffee maker, and a phone with video link. That was all.

"You can take the call in here, maíam. When I get back to the nurseís station Iíll tell the operator to transfer it."

"Do you-"

"Iím sorry," she nurse said sincerely. "I donít know anything more." She shut the door quietly, and Lauren wrung her hands for the thirty seconds it took for the video link to fire into life.

An image of Jane, from the shoulders up, appeared above the phone and across the small table from Lauren. The older womanís eyes were teary, and lines of worry cut deeply into her forehead. "Lauren?"

Lauren paled at the expression on Janeís face. She licked her lips. "Yes?"

"Iím sorry to have to be..." Jane paused for a moment to collect herself, and Lauren felt her anxiety ratchet higher. Whatever it was, it was bad. Very bad. "Itís DevÖ thereís been an accident. UmmÖ no, thatís not right," Jane corrected herself quickly. "Sheís been shot, Lauren."

Lauren blinked, staring stupidly at Janeís image, the secretaryís words not quite penetrating her brain. "WhÖ what?"

"Devlynís been shot, Lauren." This time Janeís voice was firm. "About twenty minutes ago. David asked me to call you."

Lauren swallowed around an enormous lump in her throat. Devlynís been shot? Someone shot her? Jesus. She felt sick. "Is she... is she?" The blonde woman choked out the words.

Jane shook her head. "Not at last report, dear. But we donít know how bad it is yet."

Laurenís eyes fluttered closed. "Oh, thank God," she muttered softly, her stomach still roiling. "Thank God." She let out a shuddering breath and scrubbed her face with slightly shaking hands. "What happened?"

"She had a speech at a local high school today. When she was leaving the stage someone opened fire. Weíre still putting all the information together." Tears leaked from Janeís eyes and trickled down her round cheeks. "David wanted me to call you. He didnít want you to think... well, he wanted to make sure you didnít just hear it on the news."

"SoÖ so, the kids were at home. They didnít see. Theyíre okay, right?" Lauren asked in a rush, her mind desperately trying to process what she was being told. I need to get back there. I need...

"The children are safe with Emma and Amy. They havenít been told yet. We didnít want to tell them until we had some real news." Jane hesitated, knowing she was putting Lauren in a terrible spot just by mentioning it. But she needed to. "Should I tell David youíll be coming back? Or..."

"No! Iíll be there just as soon as I can." There wasnít a secondís hesitation. She could tell her father on the way out of the hospital. "Where is she?"

"David will send someone to meet you at the airport. Theyíll take you to her then. Her location is classified. Theyíll be doing a press announcement in about five minutes."

"Classified? Shit! Fine. I guess Iíll come into Dulles. Iím not sure when." Lauren rubbed her temples. "And Iím not sure what airline. Maybe I can book a private plane or..." She was starting to panic.

"Lauren, calm down, dear. Iíll make all the calls. Just go to the airport. Weíll get you to her no matter what. Iíll call you on your cell phone and let you know where to go."

Lauren nodded furiously. "Okay, okay. Iím leaving right now." She jumped to her feet, swaying a little as her knees threatened to give way. Lauren was on her way out of the room before she realized she hadnít said goodbye. She turned back to Jane. "You tell Devlyn... well... just... you tell her not to do something stupid like die, okay? Iíll be there as soon as I can, Jane." Without waiting for a reply, Lauren ran out of the room, leaving Jane to hear the fading sound of her pounding footsteps as they echoed down the hospital hall.

* * *

David stood at the front of the limousine, pushing his hands in and out of his pants pockets over and over again as the private jet heíd arranged to pick up Lauren taxied to a stop. Sheíd made it from the hospital in Nashville back to Washington D.C. in just a little more than three hours. The jet door burst open and Lauren jumped out, toting a small carry-on bag. She broke into a dead run for the thirty or so yards it took to reach the Chief of Staff.

She was panting by the time she reached David and skidded to a stop. Please donít let me be too late. No, David wouldnít be here if she were... "David! IsÖ"

He waved her off, indicating the press hounds that were waiting nearby, their cameras snapping away and tape recorders waiting to pick up any part of the conversation. The world had simply imploded since the announcement had been made. The Press was everywhere, dogging every move every White House staffer made. Looking for hidden meanings behind every activity or decision.

David pulled open the limo door and hustled Lauren inside the car. The door had barely slammed shut when the car jerked forward, a police escort clearing their path.

He took a seat across from her. The first words out of Davidís mouth once they were alone were, "Sheís alive."

Lauren let out a shuddering breath and said another prayer. But before she could even savor a moment of relief, a wave of anger assailed her, overwhelming her and guiding her action. She leaned forward and poked David in the chest with a furious finger. "Where was all her security, David?!" The volume of her voice increased with every word. "They were supposed to protect her!"

Guilt clouded his eyes. "Lauren, she was shot leaving the stage. They reacted quickly, exactly the way theyíre trained to. They got her out of there and to the hospital. They caught the assassin." His jaw clenched. "You know as well as I do, if someone is determined enough, nothing will stop him!"

Lauren lowered her hand, but her posture remained challenging. "Those sound like nothing but excuses to me. If they were doing their job, they would have gotten the assassin before she was shot!" She slumped back in her seat with her arms crossed. Lauren knew she was being unreasonable. That she was lashing out at someone who didnít deserve it. But she was furious, and she felt like she was losing the tenuous control she had of her emotions. It was too much at the same time. Her mother. Dev.

David took a chance and moved next to Lauren who remained deathly still. He could see she was trembling slightly, and he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her against his shoulder. "Have you cried yet?"

Lauren violently tried to shove him away, unable to stand the closeness, not wanting to let go of the fraying emotional thread she was clinging to. But David didnít move. He was as solid as a rock. Laurenís pushing soon gave way to weak pawing, punctuated by ragged, pained breaths as the writer fought more with herself than David. "IÖ donítÖ needÖ toÖ " She tried to grind out the words between clenched teeth, but her speech was interrupted by her quivering chin and by broken sniffles she foggily realized were her own. She felt long arms tighten around her, and she sank into their warmth and comfort. Another sniffle and the dam simply broke. Lauren buried her face in Davidís chest and began to cry in earnest. For everything.

"Thatís it. Get it all out. Itís okay," he soothed softly, knowing damn well that heíd be doing the same thing in his wifeís arms tonight. "Get it out before we get to the hospital."

They traveled several miles before the hot tears began to slow, and Lauren began to hiccup.

David blew out a deep breath. "Iím gonna tell you something sheíll kill me for later, but you need to know. In the ambulance, it was you she was calling for."

"RealÖ really?" Lauren sniffed, wiping her eyes with the clean, white handkerchief David pressed into her hand.

He nodded, backing off a little to give Lauren some breathing room so that she could compose herself. "Really. She wanted you. She only relaxed after we all assured her you were on your way back."

Lauren wiped her face one more time and expelled a shaky sigh. God, I needed that. "Thank you, David." Her eyes conveyed her true regret, and she reached out and squeezed his forearm gently. "Iím so sorry. I shouldnít have said those things, especially to you."

He laughed. "What do you think the first thing I said was? Only I wasnít very nice about it." He rolled his neck and shoulders, popping the joints. "Itís been a long day. Okay, do you want me to fill you in before we get there, or do you need more time to just let it all soak in?"

Lauren shook her head. "No. Tell me now so I donít fall apart at the hospital." She turned a watery smile on David. "Instead, Iíll just fall apart... again... here with you if I need to."

He gave her a reassuring smile. "Thatís what Iím here for. Iíve got broad shoulders." David placed his hand over the one Lauren had resting on his arm. "There were four shots, and Devlyn was hit three times. Once in the hip, once in the shoulder, and one grazed her head." He stopped when he saw the color drain from Laurenís face. Poor kid. Itís been a helluva couple of days for her.

Laurenís eyes widened, and she swallowed against a wave of nausea. "Three times? My God," she breathed. Lauren shivered and wrapped her arms around herself in mute comfort. She pinned David with shiny, determined eyes. "Is she going to be okay?"

David nodded. "With rest and lots of help from her friends, yeah, sheís gonna be fine. She got out of a couple of minor surgeries to repair the damage about an hour ago. They went very well. Dev is a strong woman." He wrapped his arms around Lauren, and she didnít resist his reassuring touch. "When you see the video itíll seem worse than it really is; scalp wounds like to bleed a lot. The shoulder wound was clean and the bullet traveled clear through. The bullet had to be removed from her hip. Sheís going to need a lot of TLC and therapy to get back on her feet. And if her bout with food poisoning was anything to go by, boy, is she gonna be grumpy. Sheís not accustomed to being inactive, and I would imagine we are going to have our hands full."

Lauren wiped her eyes with the back of her hands. "As long as sheís okay. She can be as grumpy as she wants."

Davidís laughter rang out for the first time all day. "You and I are talking about the same Devlyn Marlowe, arenít we? You know how she gets. You think youíre ready for that?"

Lauren laughed along with the Chief of Staff. "Umm... well, it sounded good at the time. But youíre right, this is Devlyn weíre talking about. So nobody is ready for that."

David lowered his head to give her a very serious look. "She cares for you, Lauren." There was more to it and he knew it. So a second later he added, "A lot. Sheís going to need you now. Need your friendship." He searched to gauge her a reaction.

Gray eyes brimmed with tears again. She straightened Davidís wrinkled suit coat and smiled warmly at the man she had coming to regard as a friend. "Donít you worry, David. Sheís got that." And a lot more.

* * *

Devís nose began to twitch as a familiar fragrance washed over her senses. It was so faint that it was barely detectable, but it was an aroma easily recognizable even in her drug-induced stupor. Laurenís perfume. Dev forced open impossibly heavy eyelids, blinking with exaggerated slowness. "IsÖ sheÖ?" Her voice was scratchy, and her tongue felt thick and unresponsive. She licked dry lips to moisten them. "Is Lauren home yet?" She tried to look around the quiet room, but her mind was in a murky haze brought on by painkillers and the lingering effects of anesthesia.

Dev felt the bed move slightly and the heat of another human being press up against her. Her cool, limp hand was lifted and cradled by two, smaller, warmer ones. "Hiya, Wonder Woman," a soft, southern voice burred. "I canít leave you alone for a minute, can I?"

Devlyn tried to wrestle the silly grin off her face as she blearily focused on Lauren. "Hey, Mighty Mouse. Know what?"

Lauren ran her fingertips down Devís cheek. Sheís okay. Sheís here. "What, Devlyn?"

"Morphine is my friend. And I luvvv your accent. Did you know that it slips out more when youíre not thinking? Itís so sweet." She giggled, for some reason finding that incredibly humorous. "Thereís just so much about youÖ" Her rambling paused when her eyes began slipping closed.

Tears filled Laurenís eyes again, even as she blushed. "Thanks," she chuckled weakly. Her fingertips gently moved up to trace the bandage circling Devlynís head. How that must have felt. The dilated eyes that tried so valiantly to maintain contact with hers were confused, but hopeful. They held none of the soul weary despair of her motherís, and Lauren was able to draw a sharp contrast between the two hospital room scenes, having been in this same position only hours before.

The Presidentís eyes opened, rolling up slightly to track Laurenís hand. "Donít worry, sweetheart, itís too tough to do any real damage." She licked her lips again and tried to knock on her own head, to demonstrate its hardness, but her hand fell limply to the bed after valiantly lifting a few inches. Which was okay, Dev decided, because she had already forgotten why she was raising it. She let out another small laugh and then began to mumble just loud enough for every one to hear. "Have I mentioned lately how beautiful I think you are?" A dreamy expression crossed her face.

Laurenís eyes flickered around the room, lighting on indulgent, smiling faces. Her blush deepened. "Oh, God," she muttered, raising her hands to her cheeks to feel their flaming heat. "Devlyn, umÖ you know weíre not alone right now, right?" she asked in a low voice. But even in the midst of her embarrassment, a smile formed unbidden on Laurenís lips. Sweetheart? She thinks Iím beautiful? She nearly swooned.

Dev still couldnít focus her eyes clearly, but she could hear the smile in Laurenís voice. "Yeah, so? Iím never alone. Thatís part of my problem." She took a deep breath. "Do you have any idea how nervous you make me? I babble like an idiot when Iím around you."

"No, you donít," Lauren lied. Her tone was mildly scolding, but there was a playful edge there as well. "Youíre perfectly charming, and you know it."

David, Jane and several Secret Service agents politely turned away from the womenís conversation, feeling very much like they were intruding on a private moment.

"How are you feeling, Devlyn?" Pale brows drew together at the sight of Devís multiple IVs, and the machines monitoring her heart rate, blood gases, breathing, and a host of other things Lauren didnít pretend to understand. She had mentally prepared herself the best that she could. But it was still so hard, seeing someone she cared about hurt.

When the President didnít answer she continued, "You scared the crap out of me again, ya know?" Lauren cocked her head to the side and smiled at her friendís vain attempts to keep her eyes pried open. This was second time sheíd seen Dev flanked by hospital equipment. "Thatís becoming a habit I donít much care for. We need to work on that."

"Didnít mean toÖ" Dev wanted to apologize for scaring Lauren. She didnít want to do anything that would upset the young woman, but words began to go fuzzy in her mind. She grumbled like a petulant child trying to fight the irresistible call of sleep. Her mind began to drift helplessly, but she felt better with the warm body perched on her bed.

Lauren patted Devís chest comfortingly, careful to avoid her heavily bandaged shoulder. She leaned close to Devís ear and placed a gentle kiss on her cheek before crooning softly, "Sweet dreams, darliní. Iíll be here when you wake up."

 

Monday, May 10th

 

The agent outside Devís hospital room door gave Lauren a small, slightly irritated smile as he went in search of some caffeine. His replacement was already standing in place, alongside the Presidentís door. When Lauren entered Devís room, she was greeted by the sound of frustrated voices.

"I donít want to wait!" Dev rasped.

Lauren could hear the taller woman fighting to catch her breath, even before she could see her. "I want to see it now, David!"

"Madam PresidentÖ"

"Cut the Madam President bullshit, David. Order in the video link before I have to call someone else in here to do it!"

"ButÖ" David tried again.

Lauren stepped around the Chief of Staff to see Dev struggling with her IV tubing and a host of wires as she futilely tried to get more upright.

"Jesus, Devlyn." Lauren rushed to her side. "Are you crazy? Youíre going to tear your stitches!"

Dev seemed to calm almost as soon as soon as she saw Lauren. "Help me, then."

Lauren immediately reached out to take Devís hand. "I donít understand. Whatís the matter?" She set to untangling Devís IV tubing, cursing mildly at the mess the President had made. Why didnít she call a nurse if she wanted to sit up? Or ask David? Lauren fished around for the bed controls, which ended up being on a detachable panel on the side of Devís railing.

"I want to see the video of the shooting." Devlyn was breathing hard and shooting daggers at David. "But some people donít think Iím ready."

Lauren pressed a button and slowly raised the back of the bed until Dev nodded. "ĎSome peopleí are probably right, Devlyn. The tape isnít going anywhere. Itís been less than two days."

Dev turned her stare on Lauren, whose cheeks were tinged pink from the cool, spring air and whose hair smelled like flowers. "Oh, donít you go rebel on me too! I am still in charge around here!"

Lauren flashed a look at Dev that was part irritation and part trepidation. "Youíre going to insist on doing this, arenít you?"

"I shouldnít have to insist, I should only have to ask." She glared at David again, who threw his hands into the air disgustedly.

"Then Iím staying too," Lauren insisted, her tone making it clear she that she wouldnít be dissuaded. Every single cell in her body told her that she did not want to see the tape of Dev being shot. But if Dev ever needed a friend to stand by her... this was the moment. And Lauren swore to herself she wouldnít fail her. But please donít let it be too horrible. She took a deep breath. How could it not be horrible? Somebody shot her three times!

"Fine! I give up." David picked up the phone and made the call.

Dev glanced at Lauren, giving her hand a little tug, and bringing her down to sit on the edge of the bed. "I donít want you to see this." I donít ever want to see you sad.

A tiny crease appeared on Devís forehead, and the writer had the strongest urge to smooth it away. Laurenís determined gaze softened as she looked into Devís eyes. "And I feel exactly the same way about your seeing it."

"Yeah, but I need to see it. If for nothing else, so Iíll know what not to do next time." Devlyn chuckled humorouslessly, wincing as a burning bolt of pain shot through her shoulder and hip. "I guess not getting hit would be a step in the right direction."

Davidís gaze dropped to his shoes. Though intellectually he knew he had done everything he could to keep this from happening, he still felt like heíd let down Dev and her kids. He sighed... and Lauren and the entire damned nation.

Lauren squeezed Devís hand. "You know Iíll have to see it eventually. Letís get it over with together." She needs you to be strong. Donít get sick or start crying like some pathetic baby again.

In only a few moments everything was ready, and Dev had ordered the room cleared of everyone but Lauren. She leaned a little closer to the writer. "You ready?" The younger womanís nod seemed hesitant, and Dev briefly considered simply calling the whole thing off, and waiting to view the tape after Lauren had gone home for the day. But Lauren was right. She would have to see it eventually for the book anyway. And at least now theyíd be together. "Um... Lauren, this is a combination of several tapes that were running at the same time and have been put together for the best angles. These werenít made for television. The Secret Service films all my public appearances for security reasons. But what happened, the shooting part, is unedited. You know that, right?"

Lauren kept her voice even and her eyes focused straight ahead, though her voice was slightly strained. "I know."

Dev gave a short nod. "Start video."

Lauren found herself taking in a deep breath and holding it when the image came to life in front of them. She smiled at Dev, standing on stage in her dark slacks, tan shirt and camelhair jacketówhich was a few shades darker than the shirt. The applause in the auditorium died down, and Dev perched on a chair to address the students.

"Who called you and told you what had happened?" the dark-haired woman asked quietly, her mouth near Laurenís ear, but her eyes on the unfolding scene.

Lauren licked her lips, remembering Janeís pale face and shaky voice. "Umm... Jane," she replied softly. "Jane called me."

The President nodded. "She was a good choice for the job. Jane always holds together, no matter what." Dev briefly remembered getting word about Samanthaís accident. It was Jane who had broken the news.

Lauren nodded, her attention split between Devís real life voice, burring quietly in her ear, and the image of Devlyn at the foot of the bed. "She was great."

Devís grip on Laurenís hand tightened as the video continued to play. With a start she realized she could be hurting the smaller woman, though Lauren hadnít mentioned it. She loosened her grip and patted the slender hand before regretfully resting her palm on her thigh. Dev immediately felt the loss and balled her hand into a fist.

Lauren had been so busy over the past couple of days she hadnít spent a lot of time thinking about the exact circumstances of the shooting. Sheíd spent countless hours at the hospital. And, at Devís request, made sure the children knew what had happened, but werenít scared out of their wits. Though she wasnít convinced she had been completely successful on that front. The kids had already lost one mother. The looks on their little faces when Lauren told them Devlyn was in the hospital nearly broke her heart. Thank God for Emma, who immediately stepped in to help when Lauren began to flounder.

Lauren watched the video with intent eyes, scanning the shots of the crowd for the crazy boy who had tried to kill Dev. But no one looked out of place. Everyone seemed happy and excited that the President had made time for them in her busy schedule.

"Where is he?" Lauren whispered to herself, frustrated that she couldnít spot him right away. A killer should be immediately recognizable, shouldnít he? He should... well... look guilty, sinister, something. Lauren knew it was a ridiculously naive thought. But she couldnít help but think it easier. It would make things so much easier. "I always foreshadow in my books," she mumbled.

Dev turned away from the playback. "What? Pause video," she ordered in a louder voice. "What did you say?"

Lauren frowned. "I donít see him anywhere. The camera is panning the audience, but I canít spot him."

"Well, if heíd been that easy to spot Iím sure the Secret Service would have picked him up before he got off four shots. I donít know for sure which one he was either. But the shots came from the center of the audience just as the crowd began to applaud when I was about to get off stage." Dev waved a hand in the direction of her frozen image. "Letís skip all the boring stuff about how my DNA Registration legislation could help capture criminals on the loose." She chuckled, "Funny that in this case it wouldnít have mattered either way. The shooter had never even had as much as a speeding ticket."

Lauren smiled weakly, not quite able to enjoy the irony that Dev seemed to. She could feel her stomach turning into a solid knot of tension and her palms growing sweaty. Her heart rate picked up in anticipation of what was to come, and she unconsciously leaned closer to Devlyn, reassuring herself that she was here. That she was alive.

"Video playback advance." Devís eyes scanned the events as they flew by at five times their normal speed. She moved her hand slowly, letting it come to rest on Laurenís arm, stroking gently. "Halt. Regular play."

They watched together as Dev made a few parting comments and cracked a joke that had the students laughing and clapping. Then she gave a short wave and turned to leave. The band hadnít even cued up again before a well-dressed teenager, who had only seconds before been smiling and applauding like everyone else in the audience, stood and yanked a gun from the back waist band of his pants. He held it straight out and screamed, "Die, bitch!" as he pulled the trigger four times, with a brief pause between the third and fourth shots.

Dev flinched when the shots rang out. She watched with an odd sense of detachment as her body recoiled and blood began pouring from her shoulder, hip and face. The last shot, the one that hit her head, dropped her instantly.

Laurenís entire body jerked with the loud crack of the pistol. Her stomach lurched, and her heart jumped to her throat, the raw pain of the moment shocking her for several dazed seconds. She had known it was coming. But that still hadnít prepared her for witnessing Devís body recoiling violently, then crumpling to the ground from the vicious impact of the shots. "God, Devlyn." Lauren whispered. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut just as a warm arm wrapped around her shoulder and pulled her close.

Suddenly, the camera angle changed, and the image of Dev on the stage was magnified to a close up. The sound quality was slightly worse because the background noise had risen to a dull roar, but it was still focused, allowing the viewer to hear every raspy, ragged breath Dev took.

"GodÖ" Dev groaned, reaching up and smearing away the blood that was dripping into her eyes.

Three agents immediately descended upon her, using their bodies to shield her as several more Secret Service members tackled the boy in the audience and disarmed him. The camera angle shifted again, this time to an overhead shot. Michael Oaks was the first member of the Presidentís staff to reach her side.

"They got the shooter. The Chief of Staff and Vice President Vincent are being notified, Madam President," Michael explained worriedly as an agent pressed his suit coat jacket into Devís shoulder to stop the bleeding. Dev gasped.

Lauren sucked in a quick breath in response to seeing Devís pain.

"The kidsÖ?" Dev winced as two men rolled her onto a backboard.

Michael looked out into the audience, which was being herded out of the auditorium like spooked cattle. "Theyíre fine, Madam President. No one else in the auditorium was hit."

"My children?" Devís eyes closed as she struggled to move her left arm, but found it impossible.

"Theyíre fine too. The nest has been notified, and all security precautions are being taken."

Devlyn opened her eyes and focused on one of the agents who was pressing a thick pile of bandages against her hip. "Bad?"

"No, Madam President." He leaned over and whispered to her, "This is nothing for Wonder Woman."

Dev blinked, and they were moving. Her confusion was evident, and she looked as though she was going into shock. "Mighty MouseÖ"

Lauren burst into tears at the sound of her Secret Service name.

"Itís okay," Dev whispered. "It all turned out all right." The Presidentís men had done everything right. They had covered her and gotten her out of there more quickly than she remembered. Although, to be honest, she couldnít remember much, beyond a searing pain in her hip and shoulder and the smell of her own blood.

Then the video simply stopped after Devís gurney was wheeled away, freezing on a shot of the bloodstained stage. Devís gaze dropped to her lap, and she concentrated on that day. "That boy. I remember him. He, he kept smiling at meÖ"

"You remember him?" Lauren turned in her friendís loose embrace so that she could see Devís face. The President had watched with little more than a flinch, though Lauren didnít miss that her face was slightly paler than when the tape began. "Out of that entire crowd?"

"Yeah. He was right there. Smiling at me. Listening to me. Watching me." Dev shook her head. "Hell, I thought he was interested in what I had to say."

Laurenís anger mounted as she imagined the teenager biding his time, waiting to murder Dev, smiling as she tried to connect with him, just knowing that he was going to kill her. Little bastard! She turned away from Dev and was struck again by the image of the bloodstained stage. "Jesus..." She pointed at the image. "Can you...?"

"Iím sorry. Image off." Dev looked to Lauren, who looked like she was going to throw up. "Are you all right?"

Tears filled the blondeís eyes again. "I... I..."

"Hey," Dev said softly as she reached out and cupped Laurenís cheek in her palm. "Iím okay. I might leak when I drink now, but Iím okay," she joked.

This time Lauren did laugh through her tears. "Okay," she sniffed. "Youíre right. Iím sorry for being a baby."

"Donít be sorry." God, Dev. You havenít even asked about her mother. What kind of a lousy friend are you? "Howís your mom?" She felt Lauren stiffen. "Do you need to go back to Tennessee to be with her?" Her heart went out to the younger woman.

Lauren pulled away a little, suddenly uncomfortable. "What, um... what exactly do you know about my mom?" She eyed Dev warily.

"I know what happened, Lauren. And I understand if you donít want to talk with me about it. I mean, Iím not family." Sheís been here for me these last few days when her heart is probably back in Tennessee. "If you want to talk, Iím here, okay?"

Lauren nodded, but continued to pull away. She wasnít ready for this discussion. Especially not now. Not after everything that had just happened with Dev. Lauren felt like she was on an emotional roller coaster, and, while a big part of her wanted to talk about it with someone, she just wasnít ready.

The blonde womanís father hadnít understood her leaving Anna to come back to Washington D.C. Sheíd tried to explain that Devlyn wasnít just part of her job, that she was a good friend, but that hadnít worked either. Theyíd had a horrible argument in the hospital, and, despite the fact that she wasnít close to either of her parents, her fatherís parting words had hurt her more than sheíd thought possible.

The writer grabbed a tissue from the stand next to Devís hospital bed. "I donít need to go back." She wiped her eyes. "Thereís nothing I can do back home." Dev remained silent, but Lauren could tell she wanted to know more, and her chest constricted at the prospect. The room began to close in on her. Air. Thatís what she needed. Clean air, without the scent of disinfectant. She needed to be out of the hospital.

Lauren nearly jumped from the bed, startling Dev in the process. "I... um... Iím going to tell David weíre finished here." And without looking back she bolted across the room and flew out the door.

"Lauren! Wait!" Dev cursed inwardly when the shorter woman disappeared out the door. She wanted to follow her and try to apologize for upsetting her. She wanted to hold her and tell her everything would be all right.

Dev groaned as she pushed herself forward, and a jolt of pain shot through her hip. She dislodged her heart monitor in the process, and the room was suddenly pierced with a shrill beeping noise as an alarm sounded.

Several doctors burst through the door with David right along side them. His eyes shut in pure relief when he saw that Dev was all right. "Oh, no you donít!"

"David," Dev grunted as she swung one leg off the bed. Another blast of pain made her feel lightheaded.

Jane joined David at Devís bedside and after several moments she and David were finally wave off the panicky medical staff. "You canít get up, Dev!"

"LaurenÖ"

"Lauren is a big girl." David eased the President onto her back and carefully repositioned the leg she still had hanging off the bed. "Sheíll be back, Dev."

Dev had asked David to keep tabs on Laurenís mother. Apparently, everyone in the hospital had been talking about the very public argument between Lauren and her father. The old man had yelled at Lauren as sheíd left the hospital. Screaming for everyone to hear that if some woman sheíd barely known for a few months was more important than her own damned mother, that she didnít need to bother coming back home... ever.

David let out an unhappy breath. "Dev, sheís been through more than you know. Give her some space."

Dev settled back into her bed with an angry sigh. "Sheís going to be okay, because Iím going to make sure of it." She looked up at her Chief of Staff, determination glinting harshly in pale blue eyes. "Sit down, David. I think youíve got something to tell me."

Chapter 6

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