This week. Of all the weeks to have her most trusted interpreter take leave of her. Kenny was a friend, as well, and this would have been a good week to have friends nearby.
She was fingerspelling almost unconsciously into the armrest. "M - S. M - S. M - S." A mantra. "M - S. M - S." As if her saying it again and again could make it lose its meaning.
Oh, if only it would lose its meaning.
She was frightened. Josiah Bartlet was a good President and an extraordinary person. And he was sick. Seriously, and without a cure. It felt like a dream, and it was frightening.
But there was something else, too. She was angry. Furious. She had voted for this man, and to not know ...
I would have voted for him anyway, she signed in her head. Except ... he wouldn't have been on the ticket at all.
Outrage. That was the word. At the President, and at the universe, and at whatever stood between them.
The plane touched down. It was time to get on the phone and find out what hit the rest of the population harder -- the fear or the anger.
Jed Bartlet sat in the Oval Office for a long time after he told Sam. He could be sleeping; it was late enough. Or he could be working on any number of things. But he simply sat.
Sam had asked how he was feeling straight away. Toby hadn't ever asked. Josh had asked right away, and it had occurred to CJ halfway through their conversation.
But Sam's reaction had been different from the others, from Toby's and CJ's outrage, from Josh's stoic denial that this might be an insurmountable problem. It had had those elements, but there was something else, too, and it was that something else that had kept Jed Bartlet sitting in his office all these hours.
He was afraid he might wake up tomorrow and find his staff smaller than it was today. So he wouldn't go to sleep. That was all. He just wouldn't go to sleep tonight.
CJ walked slowly, and the wind was strong. There were leaves caught in it, and she thought she heard someone singing, but it may have been glass breaking. Tires hummed on dry pavement and she wished it had rained tonight. Rain would suit. Her face would be wet right now, and it wouldn't be like she was crying or anything.
She was a block from home, but when she got there she didn't go inside. She sat on the steps instead, and waited for Josh to catch up to her. No stealth, this man; it took him thirteen steps to decide to follow her home and another three to have her attention.
Not that much of anything had her full attention tonight. It was one of those nights she couldn't turn on the TV, because she would only flip the channels furiously, compulsively, until she hurled the remote control across the room in defeat. Couldn't read a book, because she would turn the pages without reading, as though getting through it would change the fact that she couldn't control the outcome.
Wordlessly she patted the cold stone step beside her when Josh approached. He sat down, slightly winded from jogging, and maybe from holding his breath so much today.
"What did we do?" CJ asked him.
"Our jobs," he said without looking at her. "That's all, CJ."
"And how is the American public going to feel about that?"
Josh shrugged. "If I admitted I was lying to you right now, how would you feel?"
She stared at him for a moment, and then broke eye contact. "If somebody says to you, 'I'm lying,' are they lying at that moment, or telling the truth?"
"I can't answer you."
He shrugged. "I'm not lying to you right now."
"I wouldn't be angry if you were."
She waved a hand recklessly. "I've been lying for a couple of years now, Josh. No shame in it."
"Join the party. And by that I mean the Democratic party. At the end of the day it's just politics. And, you know, people's lives, but that part is very much beside the point."
"You think Republicans lie less than us?" Josh scoffed. And when she didn't answer, he got a little more serious. "You haven't done anything wrong," he said. "You haven't done anything the rest of us didn't do."
"Do you think those statements are equivalent?" she demanded.
He didn't answer that, and they sat silently on the steps outside her home.
"CJ," he said after a moment.
"Go home, Josh."
"No, hang on."
"Why did you follow me?"
"I --" He stopped.
"We said good night," she said.
"We said 'see you tomorrow'."
"So?" She raised her eyes to his, and shivered a little in the wind.
Josh cleared his throat silently and shifted his gaze away from her, then back again. "I was afraid you were lying," he explained.
She put her head down on her knees, and then she stood, and went into her home, and left her friend sitting outside on the doorstep. He ran both hands through his unruly hair and wondered how long he should wait before giving up the hope that she would come back out tonight.
Cars drove past. They had drivers. Passengers. People. In this country. People in this country were crazy angry at big tobacco. Big tobacco perpetrated a fraud against the people in this country. The President perpetrated a fraud against the people in this country. The people on the President's staff were accomplices. Josh was tired, and the day had been long, but he had enough of his wits about him to acknowledge it was bad when the President's staff were accomplices in something.
Someone hit him from behind. "Come with me."
Where're we going?"
CJ threw her hands in the air, an exaggerated shrug. "Let's find out!"
"Okay." Josh took quick steps to catch up to her. She was striding long, and her hair was bouncing in a defiant rhythm.
"Walk me somewhere," she demanded.
"Well, where –"
"And explain to me what we're doing next, 'cause I ..." She stopped.
"Because you're thinking about leaving and you want to weigh every--"
"Because I'm curious."
"You know --" She laughed fiercely. She had this laugh, like a language all its own, that could convey anything. "There was this time, when I was a little kid, that I thought lying was wrong no matter what."
He was running to keep up again.
"It's called pre-conventional. The stage in a child's development when she believes moral rules are inflexible the world over. That they're golden."
"So it's the lying?"
"That bothers me most?"
"It's not the lying."
"Then it's his health?" he asked. "You're worried about him?"
"And that's the part that bothers you most?"
"Well, then, what is it?"
"Okay. It's the lying," she confirmed.
They walked silently. Josh thought about CJ's voice, and how he wanted it to sound normal instead of so bitter the next time she spoke. He wondered why he was so calm. He wondered if this numbness could be defined as calm. He was fingerspelling "M - S" again and again into his hand.
"It's which part of the lying that bothers you most?"
She laughed. "There has to be a certain part of the fraud that he --"
"It's at him, then?"
"What's at him?"
"Your --" Josh cleared his throat. "Anger. You're mad at the President?"
"Because I thought maybe you were mad at ... I don't know who I thought you were mad at. I ..." He waved a hand.
"I'm mad at the President," she said. "I'm mad at Leo. I'm mad at Mrs. Bartlet. I'm mad at Toby. I'm mad at the anesthesiologist, and Zoey and Ellie and Liz and the joint chiefs."
Josh didn't want to voice his fear, so he edged close to it. "How mad?"
"I'm scared to death of the morning briefing," she ignored his question.
Josh shrugged. "Why are you --"
"Because they're ... the press knows things."
"They don't know this."
"We've kept this from everyone who might ever have a reason to tell the press?"
"We've kept this from each other," Josh said. "We've kept this from Sam. You think the press has been able to find out?"
"Didn't it cross anybody's mind that the anesthesiologist might be a Republican? It's not, you know, beyond the realm of possibility that somebody knows this, and is waiting for the right moment to call Danny!"
"And even if they don't! This is ridiculous! I'm scared to death to step in front of the gaggle!"
"Because, Josh, the President sneezes during a press conference and Arthur launches into 20 questiosns on cold and flu season. Katie Drake wants confirmation if she thinks the President took a cough drop this morning! You think I want to stand in front of these people right now?"
"They don't know yet," Josh repeated. "And when they do, we'll be ready for it."
"That's not what I'm afraid of."
"What do you mean?"
"That's not what I'm afraid of, when they know. What I'm afraid of is the coming week, when they don't. The President has staff meetings, Josh. He has press conferences. He has a couple of addresses."
"What are you getting at?"
"What if he sneezes?"
Josh stopped walking, and when he started again, his pace was slow.
"And Arthur doesn't ask if the President has the flu," CJ finished voicing her fear. "He asks if the President's sick."
They walked almost a block in absolute silence before Josh spoke.
"Where're we going?" he asked again, because it was obvious they were going back to work.
"I want to talk to Toby and Sam," she said.
"You can talk to them tomorrow."
"I don't want to talk to them tomorrow."
"I mean," she said, "sure, I'll talk to them tomorrow."
"I want to talk to them tonight."
Josh picked up the pace. He was falling behind her again.
The White House was breathtaking at this hour, at this angle. They both found it unfamiliar; neither one would have said it aloud. They entered the building side by side and walked straight to Toby's office. It was empty. So Josh took a seat on the edge of the desk, and CJ stood nervously in the center of the room.
They didn't speak. In the distance they could hear footsteps. Soft voices. Soft, distressed voices from Toby and Sam. CJ and Josh maintained eye contact until their colleagues arrived in the doorway.
"Well," Toby said. "This was ... predictable." He welcomed them back by not welcoming them. "And what can I do for such a mirthful pair?"
Sam was standing behind Toby, looking very much like someone had just run over his dog.
"We just came back to talk," Josh said.
"Well, aren't I lucky," Toby answered, circling his desk to take a seat.
Josh didn't seem to know he was going to continue until he had spoken. "And CJ's thinking about quitting, " he announced.
They all turned to stare at CJ, but she was shaking her head, just a little.
"I'm not," she assured them.
"You said --"
"It was a slip."
CJ sunk into a chair. "It was a slip."
Josh shrugged. "Okay. It was a slip. Brought on by what you were thinking, right?"
"I'm not going anywhere, Josh."
"Well, we may all be going somewhere, CJ," Toby said, "if we don't come up with a workable strategy."
"He's gonna go on TV and say he lied! Toby! What kind of strategy did you have in mind?"
"A strategy that will allow us to frame this whole thing so that what people notice isn't that the President lied. It's that he's telling the truth now, and he's doing it clearly and eloquently and you know, everything that means his mind is working as it should."
CJ chuckled. Josh looked from her to Toby. Toby was gazing absently at Sam, who was staring blindly at nothing in particular.
"Why are you laughing?" Toby asked CJ without taking his eyes off Sam.
CJ didn't answer, so Josh explained, "We're falling off a cliff, and the, I don't know, the something, we shouldn't be worried about drowning."
"Butch and Sundance," Sam said, very quietly.
There would have been silence, but they could hear CJ's breath catching with the rhythm of the laughter that was dying in her throat. Josh shifted from the desk to a chair, leaving nothing between CJ and Sam.
CJ looked at Sam, and then really looked at him, and stood, uncertain. "Sam?" she said. He looked at her slowly. It was the lying that bothered him most.
"Yeah," Sam answered.
"Okay," CJ said. "Okay. Let's do this, then." And the strategy session began.
"What are our goals?" Josh asked.
"Who do we tell, when do we tell them?" CJ said.
"What do we say to them?" Toby added. "Who finds out from us, who finds out from Cokie Roberts?"
"If the polling indicates we've got support," Josh said, "how do we proceed without the appearance of being directed by the poll?"
"If the polling indicates support," CJ added, "how do we proceed without weakening trust?"
"If the polling indicates we do not have support, what can be done to build it?" Toby said.
"If the polling indicates we have support," Sam said quietly, "this country is crazier than I thought."
"Sam?" CJ asked.
Sam let out a sigh. "We need some idea of where the press is going to go with it. CJ, what can you give us?"
"Well, the four of us were totally split," CJ reminded them. "I'll have to do some digging. Give me 20 minutes?"
"You know where to find us," Toby agreed.
"Yeah." CJ left them.
"We tell the assistants first," Josh said as the door closed behind her. "Donna, Kathy, Carole, Ginger, and Bonnie. And Margaret. Does Mrs. Landingham know?"
"Well, we tell her first."
"Leo's going to be okay with this?" Sam asked.
"I'll see him," Toby said, and stood. "Josh, while I'm gone --"
"We'll be, you know, strategizing," Josh agreed with a wave, and Toby left them.
"Josh," Sam said. "You know, I don't know how much ..." He stopped.
"...help I'll be," Sam said. "I've really never done anything like this."
"We've been through crises galore," Josh said without glancing up. "You'll be fine."
"Sure," Sam said.
"It's just ..." Sam let his voice trail off.
"Sam?" Josh prompted.
Josh looked up suddenly. "It's the lying that bothers you?" he guessed.
"It really is," Sam said.
"You didn't suspect this, did you?" Josh asked.
Sam laughed. "That the President has a serious and degenerative disease? No, Josh, I gotta tell you, I really didn't."
Sam frowned. "You did?"
Josh sighed. "I meant ... You didn't suspect there was a chance there might be something about the President we couldn't know."
Sam shook his head, but it was not entirely a 'no.'
"You know when Leo found out?" Josh asked.
"Yeah, after the President had an attack last year."
"He collapsed," Josh said. "He broke that thing."
"That Steuben glass pitcher," Sam said. "Broke it good."
The door opened, and Toby joined them. "We've got the green light from Leo to tell the assistants," he said. "Just Donna, Margaret, and Mrs. Landingham. Not the rest of them yet."
"It's going to be on CNN in six days," Josh said. "Why are we waiting?"
Toby locked eyes with Josh. "We're going to ... need all the help we can get," he said by way of vague explanation.
"And we don't want to lose anyone," Josh finished for him, his gaze resting briefly on Sam.
Toby nodded, and then wordlessly left them again. He found his way to CJ's office. She was sitting at her desk, squinting in the lamplight.
"You know, you could turn on the overhead light," he suggested.
"I choose not to."
"Because you like the atmosphere of dark mystery while you search for answers?"
"Was Josh right?"
"Are you thinking about leaving?"
She looked up and met his gaze. "No."
They were silent, and then Toby persisted, "You thought about it?"
"Don't worry about it," she evaded the question.
"Because I gave up the idea of leaving the instant I saw Sam's face," CJ said, admitting without saying it outright that she had considered leaving.
"Sam's taking it hard," Toby said.
"What's not to take hard?" CJ asked.
"That he's coming forward with it himself," Toby answered calmly. "And that he is as healthy as we can expect."
They sat in silence for just a moment before Sam arrived at the office door. "Hey, CJ."
She looked up, drying eyes that she hadn't known were wet. "Yeah."
"Leo's out of the building. Said to tell you your 11 a.m. is cancelled."
"Because the President might sneeze before 11?"
Sam shrugged, played his fingers along the edge of the doorframe, and didn't look at her.
"We'll be fine, Sam," CJ said.
"We'll be fine, okay?"
"Yeah." He was heartbroken. This wasn't about their futures.
"I'm going to find Josh," Toby said, for some reason seeming to think CJ could help Sam, and he left them alone.
The fish on the desk was too silent. If there had been a cat or a dog or a ferret in the room, there would have been some noise other than both their breaths and Sam's fingers tapping at the doorframe.
"I wanted to walk out, too, Sam," CJ said, and he looked up quickly.
"How did you know?"
She laughed. "You don't have a poker face."
He cleared his throat. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Neither am I."
She smiled at him. "You know why we're not going anywhere?"
"Because paychecks are a necessity in the scheme of things?"
"Because we support President Bartlet."
Sam's face changed again, and CJ knew she had it.
"He's a good man, Sam. This doesn't make him any less of a good man."
"It makes him less ..." Sam's voice wavered, and he clenched his jaw. "... of a President."
CJ shrugged. "He still cares about the same things. He still wants to help the same people."
"Then what --"
"Because he might not be able."
"Well, Republicans will attempt to see to that, whether or not they have ammunition like this."
"I don't mean politically."
CJ let out a long, quiet breath. "I know," she admitted.
"I'm scared for his health."
"We all are, Sam."
"But that's not what I'm angry about."
CJ looked away. "It was absolutely his business."
Sam shook his head. "Loss of cognitive function?" he said. "Failure to reason? It was absolutely the business of the people who voted for him."
CJ sighed, and brushed back a strand of hair. She cleared her throat and looked up at Sam. "So he isn't perfect," she said at last.
"And we knew that."
"He loses his temper."
"He ... loses his temper," she repeated when she couldn't think of anything else, and Sam smiled a little for the first time that night.
"And he wanted to keep his condition private," Sam allowed. "And that isn't so bad. I know."
"Then what's the matter?"
"Any number of things."
Now she was tapping her fingers along the desk. "Starting with ...?"
Sam looked at her. "There's nothing we can do about it anyway."
"Starting with you wanted to believe our administration was closer to perfect, morally, than any other administration has ever been?"
"I did believe it."
"And I do believe it, Sam."
"Well, then you're insane."
She shrugged lightly. "Probably."
"He's sick, CJ."
"That part has nothing to do with morals."
"Yeah, but he didn't tell anyone."
"He told many people, and they all had a hand in keeping his secret. Just as we all had a hand in it. The man's going to have enough problems without taking all the blame."
Sam stared at her for a moment before he broke eye contact. "Okay."
"Okay." Sam started to walk away.
"Hey, Sam?" she called behind him. He turned to face her.
"Did you know Josh thinks we're due a Chinese satellite the size of a garbage truck hitting a person?"
Sam frowned, and then he laughed suddenly, but his laugh was sincere, not like the way she'd been laughing. "Can you believe they trust people like us with a country?" he asked, and left her office without waiting for an answer.
"Tell Josh we've been dodging satellites too long," she called after him. "We're going to catch this one."
"I hear you," Josh said, appearing behind Sam. "Hey, Sam, Toby needs you to --" He pointed back the way he'd come.
"Yeah," Sam said. Both men looked at CJ.
"I'll be right here in my office when you're done," she said the familiar line, and Josh grinned, and Sam nodded, and they continued on their way.
Joey Lucas sat at a desk in a call center, tapping a pen on her notebook. Early numbers indicated that the governor of Michigan had a strong fan base. Not strong enough for a President, but strong. She should call Josh with this, and tell him ... what? She should call him and tell him the country liked beets a lot.
And she would, in a while. But it was comforting to sit here. So comforting that she didn't even notice her hand was compulsively moving again. "M - S. M - S. M - S. M - S."
Early numbers indicated strong support for the governor of Michigan. Not strong enough, but strong.
Jed Bartlet sat in the Oval Office for a long time after he told Sam. He could be sleeping; it was late enough. Or he could be working on any number of things. But he simply sat, and waited for the sky to fall.