"Yes, Josh. I've always been stuck in four lanes of traffic at half past midnight on Christmas Eve."
"Good, then," Josh said.
"What is up with everybody?"
"What do you mean?"
Donna waved a hand at the traffic. "Why are they all waiting till midnight to go to Grandma's house?"
"So Grandma won't be awake when they get there."
"Oh, you enjoy visiting family for the holidays, do you?"
Josh rolled his eyes and sat back, staring out the window. And when the lights outside started swirling around him, it was easy to close his eyes and forget what strange tricks his mind kept playing on him.
Ding, dong, ding, dong.......
Donna knew not to turn on the radio. She really was tuned to him, but the silence in the car didn't matter. He could hear it. The music. The sirens and screams, and he could see the lights, blue and horrible, and it didn't even matter that his eyes were closed.
"...to cross the road, and nothing ever came of it. Is that fair?"
Josh blinked and looked at Donna. She kept going; it didn't seem to matter that he wasn't answering.
"You sound like you're in the Christmas spirit," Josh said.
"Totally," she muttered, speeding up for a yellow light.
"What are you doing for Christmas?"
Donna glanced from the road to him and back at the road. "For what?"
"For keeping you up this late. I apologize."
"You keep me up this late every night."
"It's Christmas Eve."
"And I've got last-minute shopping to do, so we're fine."
Josh frowned. "How are you going to do last-minute shopping when you -- Aah."
"The gift shop."
"You have friends who will appreciate a teddy bear in a wicker basket for which you paid nothing short of twenty-five bucks?"
Donna shrugged. "I have family that will."
"And anyway, it's not like I've had all the time in the world to go shopping this week. Christmas at the White House is like spring cleaning at my grandfather's cottage."
"You're grandfather lives in a cottage?"
"I thought everybody's grandfather lived in a cottage."
"How is Christmas at the White House like --"
"Because my grandfather has this thing about cleaning up the cottage once a year and only once." Donna checked the mirror and changed lanes.
"That's not fair. We clean up the White House way more often than that."
"That's not what I meant."
"I didn't think it was."
"When my grandfather starts spring cleaning, he plunges in all the way. There are no half-ways where his dust-buster are concerned."
"Really." Josh was amused.
"Haven't you noticed that the White House plunges so deep into Christmas that it's difficult to remember a time when there weren't little twinkly lights flashing in your eyes at all hours of the day?"
Flashing in your eyes as the sirens echo around you, and you can hear people everywhere, shouting, screaming, running, but you are alone, you can't see them and you're completely alone --
"Yeah," Josh said shortly, running a hand across his eyes.
"Okay, then." Donna reluctantly stopped at another traffic light, and brought up something she'd been avoiding.
"Are you going to talk to him?"
"You know who."
"Are you going to say something?"
Josh sighed. "No."
He waved a hand. "It's not that I don't want to."
"It's just --"
"I don't know how much he knows about --"
"I understand," Donna said.
"I - I don't want to risk telling him something that he -- doesn't want to know."
"I mean, I wish -- I wish I could say something. But the sooner the President forgets about that incident, the better."
"Well, he isn't going to forget about it, Josh."
Josh looked at her, but her eyes were glued firmly to the road.
"Why do you say that?"
"Josh, he isn't going to forget it."
"I'm not saying you should do something about it. I'm just telling you -- that isn't something you forget."
Josh shifted uncomfortably. "Why are we still in the car?"
Donna signaled and switched lanes again. "'Cause I missed the turn."
"Do we have to go on around the world now, or --?"
"I'm turning," she said shortly.
For a moment they were silent, and then Josh said, "I really want to say something to him."
"It's a bad idea," Donna told him.
"I really want to say something to him."
"Then you should."
Josh looked at her. "Really?"
"If you think you should do it, then you should."
"The President will be in the office at eight tomorrow."
Josh raised his eyebrows. "On Christmas?"
"A thing with Fitzwallace. He called half an hour ago."
"Is it seriious?"
"Enough to demand attention on Christmas."
"But I'm not going to be working on it?"
"Leo requested that you --"
"Okay." They fell silent again.
"What would you say?" Donna finally asked as she pulled into the hospital entrance.
"I would apologize. I don't know."
"If he has forgotten it --" Donna started to say, but Josh shook his head.
"He hasn't," Josh admitted. "He won't."
They entered the hospital together, and came out an hour later with an assortment of wicker baskets and stuffed animals. Donna took Josh home, but he was not surprised when she met him at his office door the next morning.
"Are you going to do it?" Donna asked.
"I need to talk to CJ," he replied.
Ten minutes later Josh was waiting outside the Oval Office. Through it's open door, he was able to hear what was going on inside. At least he should have been able, except the ringing in his ears was too loud.
He remembered being this nervous waiting to see the President once before. Another time he could be fired at any moment. That was the time he'd gotten smart with someone on television. This time, he had shouted at the President. This was ten, twenty, a hundred times worse. He closed his eyes.
"I'd look good in a top hat, Charlie," Bartlet was saying.
"Yes, sir." Charlie continued to arrange the papers he was stacking on the President's desk.
"I'm not saying I'm bringing them back."
"I'm just saying I'd look fashionable if I did."
"You look damn fashionable in a white tie, Mr. President."
"You bet I do." Bartlet ignored the undertone of sarcasm which, come to think of it, was all but undetectable in Charlie's voice.
"Mr. President?" This was CJ.
"CJ! Merry Christmas!"
"Merry Christmas, sir."
"You know what I'm looking forward to?"
"The Fourth of July?"
Bartlet pretended to reflect for a moment. "Am I really that transparent?"
"You're looking forward to getting the heck out of here?"
"There you go. Why are you here?"
"As long as you're in the building, the press is in the building, Mr. President."
"That's grim," Bartlet said. "Well, I'll only be in this end of the building for half an hour, and then you can get back to doing whatever it is you people do on the holidays."
"You're wondering what the staff does on the holidays?"
"So, Charlie," the President said. "What am I doing here?"
"You've got Admiral Fitzwallace at eight."
"Apparently it couldn't wait, sir."
"Okay. But if it really couldn't wait, I'd be in a different room right now."
"So that's the first thing I'm doing?"
"Excuse me, sir?"
Bartlet sat at his desk and put on his glasses. "Fitzwallace. That's the first thing on my list?"
"That's the only thing on your list, sir."
"Oh, I like the sound of that."
"This is so strange."
Charlie waited. "Sir?"
Bartlet looked up at him, then waved a hand. "Aah. It's unusual for me to have a free moment at the beginning of the day."
CJ half-raised a hand. "Actually, sir, that was my idea."
"What was your idea?" Bartlet was studying the papers again.
"The free moment at the beginning of the day."
"You scheduled me a moment?"
"No, sir. I scheduled Josh a moment."
Bartlet looked up again, somewhat startled, and then turned back to his desk-full of papers. "Send him in," he said after a moment, and in a very different voice.
"Thank you, Mr. President."
"Thank you." Bartlet nodded, and CJ and Charlie left together. A moment later, so unlike himself that Bartlet had to look twice, Josh walked slowly through the door.
"Hello there, Josh," said the President.
"Good morning, sir," said Josh.
For a moment, that was it. The President studied Josh silently while Josh examined the bandage on his hand.
"Josh," the President repeated after a moment, and Josh took two steps forward.
"Mr. President ..." he said, and they fell silent once again.
I'm sorry, Josh wanted to say. That was all, but he couldn't; maybe this was a bad idea; maybe he shouldn't bring it up at all. What if the President didn't know about the therapist? What if he didn't know about the sirens?
"I have to see Fitzwallace at eight," Bartlet said conversationally.
"Pardon me, sir. I won't take up your time --"
"No, no." Bartlet waved a hand. "Please do. I like Fitz, don't get me wrong. He's a good guy."
Bartlet grinned halfway. "It's Christmas and it's morning and I'd rather be somewhere else right now."
Josh laughed, and somehow that made it easier for him to take the last few steps toward the President's desk.
"Have a seat, Josh," Bartlet suggested, and Josh did.
When the silence grew, the President filled it. "I'd look good in a top hat," he said.
This startled Josh enough to get his attention. "Excuse me, sir?"
"A top hat. Wilson wore on. Why shouldn't I?"
"'Cause -- the nation shudders to think of this office as the center ring at Barnum, Mr. President."
As soon as he spoke, Josh's eyes fell to his hand again. Dammit. What had Donna told him? No cute remarks. No jokes. Nothing at all that might sound like he was disagreeing with the man who ought to fire him at any moment. And here he was making fun of --
But the President was laughing. And the laughter, again, made it easier to move.
"I want to apologize," Josh said.
"There's no need," Bartlet answered smoothly.
"There is. Mr. President."
"No, Josh. There isn't." Bartlet took off his glasses. "I hope you don't mind, and I hope you realize, that Leo told me about your meeting yesterday."
"Not too much," Bartlet amended. "Just the things I ought to know."
"The rest of it is not my business," the President said.
"Sure it is," Josh answered.
"No, Josh. It isn't."
"I work for you."
"And when you stop working for me, it will become my business. But you show up, you do a good job, and you go home again. That's all you have to tell me."
"I appreciate that, sir."
Bartlet nodded. "You know, I look good in a white tie, but I'd look better in a top hat."
"Absolutely." Bartlet nodded. "A top hat, a black jacket with tails. And a long-stemmed rose."
"Or a long-stemmed wine glass," Josh suggested out of the blue. "You could be one of those film stars. Or comedians. I think they both carried wine glasses at one time or another. And cigarette holders."
"Good thinking." Bartlet pointed at him. "The rose for my love, the wine for myself, and the cigarette holder for my nicotine addiction. And speaking of all that, where is my love? I was hoping she would escort me."
"My guess is, she's comfortably awaiting you in the residence."
"You're probably right."
"Zoey come in?"
"She got in last night."
"You get her something good?"
"I'll bet it's a book."
"What happened, Josh?"
The question fit so comfortably into the room that Josh had trouble making sense of it, let alone formulating an answer. And at last he said the only thing he could think of -- the honest truth. "I keep hearing sirens."
"I'm not crazy," Josh hastened to add, feeling himself getting in too deep. "I swear it. I'm just -- I'm just tired. We all are. It's part of the job."
"And that's that. I keep hearing sirens, and I ... might have been a little crazy for a little while, but now I'm not."
It was a big admission for someone who was talking to the leader of the free world. But President Bartlet did not react the way most leaders would react. "I think we all are," Bartlet said, informal with the staff indeed. "I think that's what they pay us for."
"I'm so sorry, Mr. President," Josh said at last.
"There's no need to apologize," Bartlet repeated.
"No, sir, I -- there is, and I am -- I'm sorry, sir. I am monumentally sorry for having --"
"--a bad day?"
Josh looked up suddenly, and his voice was quiet when he continued. "For having shouted at you like that."
"It's all right, Josh."
"No, it isn't."
"You followed me into an airport." Bartlet looked up in surprise, and Josh kept going. "You followed me into an airport when you were supposed to be on your way to the sunshine state. And you offered to go with me. And you run the country with a -- a, I don't know, a kind of --" Josh searched for the words; Bartlet waited. "A grace, of sorts, and you are an extraordinary President, and I --" He stopped again.
"Florida is the sunshine state," Bartlet said after a moment. Only his voice echoed the sentiment he felt.
"Florida is the sunshine state. I believe that night I was on my way to California."
Josh stared at him for a moment.
"You lost your temper, Josh. You shouted. Let's not do this like you pulled a gun."
"I did," Josh said, his voice so quiet it could have been mistaken for the distant music from the lobby. "I did pull a gun."
"No you didn't, Josh."
"I shouted in the Oval Office. I shouted at the President."
"And now you're disagreeing with the President. Big deal." Bartlet shrugged. "People do it all the time, Josh. It's not the end of the world."
"Sir --" Josh laughed as he looked at President Bartlet in amazement. "It never quite reaches you, does it, just what an extraordinary office this is."
"Sure it does," said Bartlet. "It's got all this nice blue carpet. I don't know how they keep the carpet so blue. And it's a perfect oval. The room, not the carpet. Although I guess if the room is oval and the carpet is perfect, the carpet would just about have to be oval, wouldn't it?"
"The position, Mr. President."
"I'm aware of my position."
"Of course, sir. But what I meant to say was --"
"I won't be party to a guilt trip," the President said.
"You're asking for forgiveness, and that's fine. You've got it. But I'm not going to watch you relive this."
Josh closed his eyes. The President was referring to that day in the Oval Office. But what came into Josh's mind at the word "relive" was the shooting. The sirens. The screams.
Music drifted from somewhere. Was it really from the lobby? Could he possibly hear that from here? Were they even still playing today?
"It's Charlie," The President explained as though reading his mind. "He's got the radio on. Trying to put Mrs. Landingham in a Christmas spirit, I guess. Or maybe me."
"It's sirens," whispered Josh, and Bartlet let that go, if he heard it at all. Then Josh said aloud, "Mrs. Landingham is here?"
"You didn't see her on the way in?"
"I guess I didn't think about it."
"You're here. CJ's here, and Charlie, and I think I heard Donna's voice out there. Plus half the White House Press Corps."
"Yeah, but -- Well, yeah."
"So," Bartlet said. "Is it working?"
"You're asking me if Mrs. Landingham is in a Christmas spirit?"
Bartlet smiled. "I'm asking you if you're anywhere near it."
Josh smiled ruefully and shook his head. Bartlet nodded. "Neither am I. I just tell CJ that I am because it looks better to the press."
"She'd tell them that anyway," Josh said.
"That's why I hired her," The President agreed.
"It's all right, Josh," Bartlet said in the voice he had used in that airport more than a year ago. Josh looked at him and nodded slowly.
"Thank you, sir."
There was a knock at the door. "Mr. President?" Charlie said.
"Yes, Charlie?" Bartlet acknowledged him, but he didn't take his eyes off Josh.
"Put him in the Chief of Staff's office. I'll be right over," Bartlet said, and Josh stood.
"Thank you, sir," he said again, in a very quiet voice.
"Josh," Bartlet called him back. "We organize. We prioritize. It's what we do. That isn't why you're going through what you're going through, but it's what we get paid for nonetheless. It's Christmas. And at least fifteen people who wouldn't otherwise be here are here for no other reason than because Fitzwallace has something to tell me he doesn't want to tell me on the phone. You can't convince me this place isn't a circus, Josh." He looked around his office with something of a smile. "But you also can't convince me it's not worth it."
"You look good in a top hat, Mr. President," Josh said.
Bartlet smiled and nodded to the door. Josh left the office.
Donna was waiting outside his own office, and Josh met her with an apologetic smile, but she didn't seem to realize he was using up her Christmas.
"So?" she asked.
"How'd it go?"
"Just to be clear about this, do you ever do things when I'm not in sight? Or do you just stand in the door of my office, awaiting my return?"
"Little of both."
"How'd it go?"
"How'd what go?"
"Well, we still work here, if that's what you're asking."
Donna hid her relief. "Did you apologize?"
Josh met her gaze. "Yes, I did."
"Did he accept it?"
"Yes, he did."
"Do you feel better?"
"Yes, I do."
"Well -- all right, then."
Josh watched her walk away, and when she was almost out of sight, he gathered the nerve to call her back. "Hey. Donna."
"I mean for coming in today. And also for -- figuring out -- you know."
"You're welcome, Josh." Donna smiled at him a little. He had forgotten to get her a Christmas present.
"I'm afraid of music," he said, and it didn't matter so much that she didn't have a clue what he was talking about. "I'm afraid of the strangest things." There was a silence, and then, louder and in a voice much closer to his own, Josh said, "Hey, Donna, do you have another minute? I need you to help me do something weird and unusual."
"Well, that's something I don't get to do often enough," she deadpanned.
"Just help me, would you?"
"It's what they pay me for. What do you want?"
Half an hour later, the President entered his office after his meeting with Fitzwallace. He stopped with one foot in the door, and when he understood, he started to laugh, suddenly in the Christmas spirit all the way. The Christmas tree in the corner had been completed with a top hat on its highest bough. On his desk were a cigarette holder and a glass of wine.
20 December 2000