Yeah, I know.
Elizabeth managed to get about three hours of sleep before her alarm clock went off. She groaned as she opened her eyes and sat up, flicking the lamp on. Her eyes drifted over to the half-full suitcase sitting on the floor by the window, and she forced herself out of bed to finish packing. She was in the kitchen sipping her coffee when Alison came down the stairs, followed closely by Jason.
"T-minus one day till the Epic Laffy String War!" she announced, her eyes dancing excitedly over the collection of aerosol cans waiting on the counter.
Elizabeth set her mug down. "About that."
"I hate to spring this on you, but this little work trip came up, and I'm going to have to be out of town for a few days." Alison's face fell. "I'm sorry," said Elizabeth. "Unfortunately, I couldn't get Alyssa to come on such short notice, so Henry's daughter is going to stay with you guys."
Jason frowned. "Henry, from your staff? His daughter?
"Yeah. I've met her a couple of times, and she's really very sweet. It was the best I could do."
"Where are you going?" Alison asked.
"I can't say," she said, trying for casual, but she saw the concerned look pass between their faces. "But I'll call tomorrow morning," she assured them. Her phone buzzed, and she looked down at the screen. "She's here," she said, heading to the front door.
She opened the door and Stevie was standing there with a suitcase in her hand and a smile on her face. "Hey, come in," said Elizabeth, opening the door and ushering her into the foyer. "Thank you so much for doing this, especially on such short notice."
"No problem, Madam Secretary."
"Just so you know," she leaned in to whisper, "it's Alison's birthday tomorrow. She'll be 16."
Stevie nodded, following her into the kitchen. "I know." she whispered conspiratorially. "It was in Blake's email."
Alison and Jason both looked up when they came in. "Uh, this is Alison and Jason," said Elizabeth. "And this is Stephanie McCord."
"Nice to meet you," said Alison.
"Hey," said Jason with a little wave.
"So Blake sent you all the information?" asked Elizabeth.
"Oh, yes. His email was very...comprehensive."
"Good. Well, if you need to get in touch with me, use this phone," she said, gesturing to the landline on the counter. "It's a secure line."
"Got it. I think we're all set."
"Okay," said Elizabeth, knowing she was running out of things to delay her leaving. She rounded the kitchen island to give her son a warm hug. "Please be nice to your sister on her birthday. And please be nice to Stephanie too. She graciously agreed to do this about an hour ago." She pulled back to look him in the face. "I love you."
"Love you too."
She released him and gave an even tighter squeeze to Ali. "Noodle, I am so bummed about ditching you on your sweet sixteen. I feel awful."
"It's fine," said Alison into her shoulder, arms wrapped tightly around her. "Just come back fast, okay?"
"As fast as I can. Love you," she said, dropping a kiss on the top of her head.
"Love you too."
Elizabeth looked at the time on her phone, and knew she needed to go. "Stephanie," she said, heading out the door, "you're a lifesaver. When I get back, I swear to god, I'm naming you an ambassador to somewhere."
"I vote the Bahamas," Stevie said with a laugh. "Have a good trip."
"Thanks. I love you guys," she said to her kids, inching toward the door. "I'll see you in a few days."
Stevie watched her leave, and then turned to Ali. "You were pretty chill with your mom about her leaving on your birthday," she said, reading her face. Alison looked up at her with a sideways smile. "Are you really just...okay with it?"
"Not really," Ali admitted. "It sucks. But," she shrugged, "I don't want to make her feel bad."
"I get that. But I think it wouldn't hurt to be honest with her."
"She has a lot bigger things to worry about than me being disappointed," she said simply.
Stevie nodded. "Well, I, for one, am sorry that she won't be there."
Stevie winced. "Uhh, actually, it's Stevie. No one really calls me Stephanie."
Alison frowned. "My mom calls you Stephanie. You should tell her."
"I don't know. I feel like it would be awkward, and I don't want her to feel bad. Plus, I mean, she's the Secretary of State. She has…"
"A lot bigger things to worry about?" Alison finished, grinning.
When Alison woke on Sunday morning, it took her a moment to realize what day it was. When she did, she practically leaped out of bed to put on the special birthday outfit she'd laid out the night before. A short while later, she came down the stairs to the kitchen, finding Stevie and Jason hard at work.
"Happy birthday!" Stevie shouted excitedly as soon as she saw her.
"Thank you," said Alison, looking around the kitchen. Stevie was stirring what looked like pancake batter, and Jason was cracking eggs into a pan. "Aww, you guys are making me breakfast?"
Stevie grinned. "My dad always makes me pancakes on my birthday," she said with a shrug. "To me, it wouldn't be a birthday without it."
Alison looked over at Jason. "You got him to help?"
Jason pointed a spatula at her. "Hey, I was given specific instructions to be nice to you." His face softened a bit. "Happy birthday, Ali."
"Do you prefer chocolate chips or blueberries? You guys have both."
"Chocolate chips," Alison said eagerly.
"Maybe Mom should go out of town more often," Jason said, but the words fell a little flat. "Sorry, I didn't mean-I just-"
"It's okay, Jason." She looked at Stevie. "He just means that Mom can't cook."
Stevie nodded. "Got it," she said, looking around the kitchen. "Got another spatula?"
Alison opened the drawer closest to her and pulled one out. "Here you go."
"Thanks," Stevie said. She started scooping batter onto the griddle. "So does this kind of thing happen a lot? Spontaneous, undisclosed trips?"
"Not really," said Alison.
"Yes," said Jason simultaneously.
"Well, yes to the spontaneous part," Ali admitted. "But they're not usually secret. This is only the second time, and the other ended up being to Turkey last week. Do you think they're connected?"
"Definitely," said Jason. "Probably has to do with that rogue CIA operation."
Alison rolled her eyes. "Ignore the conspiracy theoris.t"
Jason was forming a response, but the phone rang on the countertop, and they all looked over at it.
"That'll be Mom," said Alison, picking it up. "Hello?"
"Hey!" said Elizabeth on the other end. "Happy Birthday, Noodle. I miss you so much I can't stand it."
"Thanks, Mom. Where are you?"
Elizabeth smirked to herself—Ali was most certainly her daughter. "Not with you, which is such a bummer."
"What are you looking at?"
Alison smiled. "Ah, so you're somewhere with rooms, are you?"
"Really narrows it down, huh?"
"What do you see outside of your window?"
Elizabeth walked over to the window, looking through the sheer lace curtains. "A street...trees. Oh, darn, I've said too much. How's it going with Stephanie and Jason?"
"Stevie and Jason are good," said Alison, a subtle nudge on the name. "Stevie is making me pancakes, and Jason's frying eggs."
"That's so sweet. I wish I were there. And not just for the pancakes. Is it alright if I talk to Stephanie?" Apparently, the nudge hadn't worked.
"Sure. Love you."
"I love you too, to the moon."
The next voice Elizabeth heard was Stevie's. "Hey, Madam Secretary."
"Hey. How's it going? The kids okay?"
"They're great," Stevie assured her. "Everything okay over there?"
Elizabeth's eyes fell to the door, outside of which she knew Javani was on the phone with his President. "That remains to be seen. Well, I should probably go, if you're all good. Tell Jason I love him?"
"Your mom loves you," said Stevie.
Elizabeth faintly heard Jason say, "love you, too, Mom."
"He loves you too. Goodbye, Madam Secretary."
Elizabeth ended the call and went back into Zahed's den, where he was still on the phone, speaking in Persian.
He hung up shortly and turned to look at her. "That was President Shiraz. I gave him the information you provided. He's already passed it along to a special army unit, extremely loyal to us."
Elizabeth sighed in relief, sitting down on the seat by the window. "I am very glad to hear that."
"How's your daughter?"
"Too old. But if I had to miss her birthday, there's nowhere else I'd rather be."
"You know, you coming here...Shiraz, Ayatollah Ruhmeini, the other Ayatollahs, we're impressed. Especially me."
"Well, you took the first step coming to see me in D.C.," she said, standing up and taking a step toward him. She smiled. "The thought wouldn't have crossed my mind if you hadn't done that."
"Elizabeth Adams, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
Abdol came in from the kitchen. "Father, I can't figure out this algebra problem."
"Oh, been there," said Elizabeth. Distantly, she heard a ringing, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Fred pull a phone out and answer it.
"Try again," said Zahed. "If you are still having trouble, I'll help you after I'm done-"
Without no warning, Elizabeth was on the floor. Retroactively, she registered the sound of glass breaking, of the explosion, of gunshots. The window behind her had shattered. Instinctively, she tried to push herself up. Someone was shouting. Something hit her from behind, forced her straight back down. "Madam Secretary, Madam Sec-"
It was Fred. He was on top of her. Looking around wildly, her eyes fell to Javani, who was on the ground a few feet away, and then to Abdol, crouched behind the sofa. The gunshots hadn't stopped.
Javani pushed himself up onto his hands and knees, reaching for his son. "Abdol, get down!" he shouted, and then he was hit. She watched, helpless, as he sank to the ground.
Abdol screamed, unintelligibly, and it was suddenly the only sound she could hear. Elizabeth pushed desperately against the ground and the weight on top of her, trying to get to him. "Abdol, stay down," she shouted, trying to raise her weak voice above the deafening screams and continuing gunshots. She kept fighting to move an inch, but it was hopeless. Fred had her trapped. She dared to look over at his face, pressed against the carpet, eyes lifeless.
Abdol kept screaming, and Elizabeth lay there on the ground, powerless to help him.