I made the decision to insert the ending of this story in the middle of the episode A Change Is Gonna Come because there is one prop in there that I need. I also pulled some dialogue from the episode.
Hallway outside the White House Briefing Room
Late afternoon of July 29th
"Nicely done," Toby said as they stepped into the hallway.
"Nice to be able to keep a promise once in a while."
"Relieved it's over?"
"It'll be over when they're back on US soil. What I am relieved about is that, for a change, nobody is hounding us for classified information."
"You gonna tell me about that?"
"Need to know." She smiled and patted his arm just as their paths were about to diverge. "You get points for trying, though," she threw over her shoulder as she turned into her office.
The Oval Office
Afternoon of August 4th
"How long before they land?"
CJ checked at her watch. "They landed forty-six minutes ago, Sir."
"I'm glued to the screen, Mr. President. They haven't come out yet," she said from her desk.
The President turned back to CJ.
"Let the media circus die down, let them do the morning shows and settle in, and then let's do something in the Mural Room."
"Staff and press corps?"
"Yeah. Followed by a private dinner in the residence. Abbey is desperate to see him. You'll join us?"
"Of course, Sir."
"Josh, too. They go way back."
"Mr. President .."
CJ's heart beat in double time as she followed him into Debbie's office.
She looked left to find Kate Harper in the doorway.
"Got a moment?"
CJ hesitated, and then realized that there would be replays throughout the day on the major networks, and that she'd be better off watching in the privacy of her own office anyway.
"He's lost a lot of weight," she heard Debbie say to the President as she exited into the hallway and fell into step with Kate.
"Margaret?" she called when he got back to her office.
Her assistant appeared in the doorway between their offices.
"Please tell Toby and Carol that I'd like to see them."
Margaret hesitated, almost as though there was something she wanted to say.
She tapped on the door a short while later.
She stepped aside to let them into the room, but didn't leave.
Toby cleared his throat before saying,"you wanted to see us?"
"The President wants to host a reception for Skye and Danny in a few weeks. Staff and Press in the Mural, followed by a private dinner up i-."
"I'll put Annabeth on it."
"And I'll coordinate with the Press Corps."
The rapid fire responses made her antennae twitch.
It took her a moment to realize that Carol's demeanour was suspiciously like Margaret's.
"Will that be all?" Toby asked awkwardly.
He was gone the next moment, and CJ found herself looking between the two other women in the room.
"I'm sorry .. am I missing something here? " she asked.
Margaret chewed her lower lip for a moment and looked at Carol.
"Today would be nice."
Her patience started to fray at the edges.
"I gave the recording to Margaret," Carol said quietly.
"The recording of .."
"It's on your desk," Margaret said before disappearing into her office and closing the door behind her.
CJ looked at Carol for further clarification, but Carol was no longer meeting her eyes.
"Is this the tape?"
She made quick work of playing it, and her breath caught when she caught sight of Skye Sinclair and Danny step into view.
He really had lost a lot of weight.
She felt Carol tense beside her, and suddenly she saw it.
The look of adoration that Skye gave Danny, and the way she slipped her hand into his as he shielded her from the onslaught of photographic light bulbs and the reporters crowding them.
The emotional shutters came down with such force that they almost threw her off balance.
"And now we know," was all she said as she ejected the tape.
"Got another moment?"
Kate Harper was in the doorway.
"Of course. Thank you, Carol. I won't be needing a copy of this," she added as she handed the tape back to her.
"I finished the report on the debrief," Kate said when her former assistant was gone and CJ had invited her to sit.
It was clear from the tone of her voice that she had something to share.
"It sounds as though there was more in it than you were expecting," CJ said warily as she settled behind her desk.
Kate looked her straight in the eye.
The Mural Room
Wednesday, September 7th
The atmosphere at the reception was jubilant, but CJ found it nothing short of stultifying.
"You okay?" Josh asked as he held out a glass of champagne.
CJ debated telling him the truth and decided against it.
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"You know you're gonna have to say hello to her at some point, right?" he asked.
Out of the corner of her eye, CJ saw Carol hug Danny and take a seat on a couch next to him. Skye Sinclair was off to the side, talking to Katie Witt and Mark O'Donnell.
"Let's do it now," she said. "Why don't you introduce me? Actually that's okay, I'll introduce myself."
"Chief of Staff, incoming" Mark whispered to Skye as he and Katie widened the circle to make room for her.
"CJ Cregg," she said as she extended her hand. "It's so nice to meet you."
Something CJ couldn't put her finger on flashed across the photojournalist's face for an instant - but she held eye contact.
"Heard you broke out the good stuff at my party," Danny was saying to Carol across the room.
"That stuff is lethal."
"Only the best for you, Carol."
"It's so good to see you .."
She watched his eyes scan the room until they settled on one spot, and as she'd watched him track CJ's movements since her arrival at the reception, she knew the Chief of Staff must have moved again.
"What happens next. Will you come back?"
Danny deliberated about how honest he could or should be, and decided that he could confide in the woman before him.
"I've been told to expect some form of post-traumatic stress," he said slowly "and that working in a volatile environment like the White House is not ideal."
"What will you do?"
"We're coming into an election year. Primaries, Super Tuesday, national conventions," he said with a shrug. There's always a need for reporters on the campaign trail."
"How is she, Carol?"
"She's .. good," Carol said guardedly. "Growing into her new job."
"She's gonna be great at it."
"Yes she is."
"I need some time with her."
"It's not that simple any more, Danny."
"Margaret is a formidable gatekeeper."
"Believe me, I know."
"So. Skye, huh?"
Danny gave her a weak smile.
"It's easy to confuse one thing with another when you're stuck in close proximity."
"I'm not following."
"She had a bad case of dysentery early on," he explained. "I looked after her, she got better. Things settled into a rhythm of sorts. And then .."
"And then .."
"And then one afternoon we .. saw things that nobody should have to watch another human being endure."
Carol instinctively reached for his hand.
"I got sick the very next day. Was out of it for a week. Excruciating pain, high fever, the works. It was touch and go there for a while. She didn't think I was going to make it. Slipped into the role of caretaker and wouldn't relinquish it, even when the danger was long past. I was too concerned about her mental health to crush her with the truth. It seemed unnecessarily cruel at the time .. and I'll be honest there were days I wasn't sure we'd make it back at all."
"How's she doing now?"
"In therapy.' He looked around the room again. "It took her weeks to stop asking me who CJ was."
Carol looked around and lowered her voice.
"You told her about CJ?"
"Not intentionally. I was pretty delirious for a few days. She isn't into politics, didn't make the connection, but I think she just figured it out," he said with a nod of his head in Skye's general direction.
Carol looked over her shoulder and saw CJ in conversation with the journalists.
"I really need to see her, Carol."
She took a deep breath as she assessed the new information.
"Give her a few weeks, send some pink roses. I'll see what I can do."
"No guarantees. And I have to run it by Margaret."
"I hear you're invited up to the residence for dinner?"
"Yeah." He looked at his watch. "The summons to the Oval will come any time now."
"The President and the First Lady were pretty worried."
"Of course they were," he said with a sardonic laugh, "Who's gonna write about their legacy if I'm not around?"
He got distracted again, and Carol squeezed his hand reassuringly.
CJ walked purposefully toward a group of people gathered around a high top table.
"Yes?" her assistant said as she stepped towards her.
"In about fifteen minutes Debbie is going to invite Danny Concannon, Josh, and I into the Oval Office. I need you to wait three minutes and then come and get me."
There was a hint of sadness in Margaret's eyes, but she understood immediately.
The first flowers arrived towards the middle of September.
CJ walked into her office and stopped short at the sight of the pink roses on the table.
"Who are the flowers from, Margaret?" she said as she looked for a card among the pink roses.
"Carol brought them."
"Carol brought me flowers? That's so sweet."
There was a repeat performance in the second week of October.
"Margaret, remind me to thank Carol for the flowers."
The third time she found roses in her office, on October 27th, CJ made a beeline for Margaret's desk.
"What's going on?"
"What do you mean?"
"Nothing happens round here without you knowing about it."
She stared her down until Margaret blurted, "Danny Concannon."
"The roses .. they're from Danny Concannon."
CJ took a deep breath.
"Page Carol. Ask her to come by after the briefing."
She wasn't ready to see him or talk to him, she explained to Carol.
He was still a reporter, and the conflict of interest which had seemed so impossibly huge when she'd been Press Secretary paled in significance to what it was now.
The arrangements stopped - but a single rose started to make an appearance instead. On days when she least expected it, but always when she needed it the most.
A reminder, in the midst of the revolving door of crises which dominated her life, that there was still something which was uniquely hers. Something which was not on public display to be dissected, analyzed, or shared.
Eventually she agreed to a phone conversation in mid-December.
She still couldn't afford the distraction, was still extraordinarily conflicted. But the roses had become a touchstone and she wanted to at least be able to say thank you in person.
She wouldn't allow herself to acknowledge that she really needed to hear his voice. It was simpler to tell herself that she wanted to be sure he was getting whatever he needed from friends and family.
The wheels came off the bus the week President Bartlet accepted a flag representing the Taiwanese Independence Movement from the Taiwanese delegation.
Friday, December 16th
Things had become so complicated that she almost broke down the moment she found Leo in her office.
She looked at the visual aide that he had constructed using a wine glass, forks, a toothpick and a flag, and focused on the lesson he was trying to impart.
"China, the US, the situation," he added as he struck a match and lit the toothpick anchoring two forks together. "Really, any situation having to do with Taiwan."
"Hmmm .." CJ said as the flame petered out before it reached the rim.
"That," Leo said as he pointed to the smouldering toothpick. "That's you. That's your job."
She felt herself becoming emotional as she leaned towards him.
"You really got a lot of time on your hands now, huh?"
"You have no idea," Leo said with a smile. "But once in a while, on certain days when they take down the flag out that window at sunset, you know you did something. And that ain't all bad."
CJ smiled ruefully at him.
Grateful, but cognizant that he'd added one more just layer of isolation to her job.
When lunch was over she felt him watching her as she picked up the rose lying by her plate and carried it over to the desk.
"The journalists settling back in okay?" he asked, in what she immediately identified as contrived nonchalance.
"I believe so," she said as she dropped some food into the fishbowl.
"That from Danny?" he asked.
"The flower. But I see the goldfish is still with you .."
"Gail. Her name is Gail," she said softly, opting to ignore the first question.
He watched her for a beat longer than was necessary. Opened his mouth to speak, but then seemed to think better of it.
"Well .. this was great. I'm gonna get goin'. Got a meeting with the President soon."
CJ came round the desk and hugged him.
"Thank you, Leo."
"You're doing great, CJ. You know where to find me if you need me."
She hugged him a little tighter and then let him go.
He had just about crossed the threshold into the hallway when he turned around.
"Yes Leo .."
His hesitation hung heavy in the air between them, and she braced herself for what she knew was coming.
"This job killed my marriage. It derailed my relationship with Jordan. There will be times you will find it hard to live with yourself and there will be nobody you can talk to about it. It will take everyone you love, chew them up and spit them out, and it will always need to take precedence."
They looked up to see Margaret in the doorway to her office.
"Danny Concannon on line one."
CJ looked up at Leo, who lingered one more moment in the doorway before giving her a grim smile and turning away.
Her hand hovered over the receiver for a brief moment, and then she balled her hand into a fist and sat down behind her desk.
"Tell him I'm busy. And Margaret?"
"Tell Carol to stop the flowers."
I don't know about the rest of you, but I found the changes in CJ during her tenure as Chief of Staff pretty heartbreaking. Unavoidable perhaps, but heartbreaking nonetheless.
This story will have a sequel at some point - wherein we will revisit this scenario in a post-Bartlet administration setting. It will be angsty, also, but CJ will be free to react however she wishes because she will be in an established relationship by then and no longer Chief of Staff.