"Margaret!" CJ shouted from inside her office. "Is my flight still on time?"
"It was the last time I checked." Margaret answered, stepping inside the room. "You have to leave now or you'll be late."
"I'm going." She said, grabbing her coat and purse from the closet. "Did you put everything in my case for me to review?" CJ asked while she picked it up.
"Yes! Don't worry. Just go!" Margaret exclaimed a bit exasperated, handing CJ her suitcase.
"Ok. I'll see you on Monday." CJ said, quickly leaving her office.
She walked the West Wing's corridors towards the exit where a car was waiting to take her to the airport. When she approached the door, two officers opened it for her. One of her agents took her suitcase and opened the car's door. She was about to get into the car when the sound of her name being yelled made her halt. She turned around and saw Charlie and Kate running in her direction. They stopped in front of her, breathing hard, and began to talk but CJ quickly raised her hand to interrupt them.
"Don't. I have a seat on the next flight to Dayton with my name on it."
"We may have a situation." Kate explained.
"May? You want me to cancel my trip on a possibility?" CJ asked, pissed. "I'll be back on Sunday. Can't it wait? If I'm needed, I can be back in three hours."
"The President's waiting for you." Charlie told her.
Without another word, CJ slammed the car's door closed and returned inside the West Wing.
Fifteen minutes after the meeting finished, two hours since it had began, President Bartlet walked to CJ's office through the connecting door at the Oval Office but he found the room empty. Surprised, he went to the outer office.
"Where's CJ?" Bartlet asked Margaret.
"She went to take a walk, sir. She said she needed fresh air." Margaret answered while getting up from her chair. "Do you want me to go get her, sir?"
"No, thanks Margaret. I'll go outside and see if I can find her." He began to walk away but he suddenly stopped and turned around. "Is she alright?" He questioned with concern.
Margaret was surprised with his question and hesitated before inquiring. "Sir?"
Bartlet smiled kindly at her. "She's been ... I don't know." He stopped to clear his thoughts. "She's been in an strange mood these past few weeks, since the election." He finished not knowing how to phrase it better.
"I think she feels lonely, Mr. President." Margaret stated, the words leaving her mouth before she could ever think about it.
The President looked at her, his eyes wide open, not expecting that answer. "Lonely?"
"If you think about it, sir, of your original Senior Staff, she's the only one who's still here."
Startled at her words, he stood there for a few seconds, thinking about what Margaret had just told him and mentally kicking himself for not realizing it before. Giving her an small smile, he turned around, facing the door. "Thank you, Margaret." He said while leaving the outer office and going to look for his Chief of Staff.
He found her, after a few minutes wandering around the place and finally asking for her location to one of his agents, just outside her office's window leaning against a column, her coat and scarf neatly in place, and smoking a cigarette.
"I thought you stopped smoking after we won the first time." He said, going to stand next to her.
"Well, I decided to start again." CJ dryly replied.
"What's wrong, Claudia?" Jed asked her, concerned.
"Nobody calls me Claudia."
Startled, he took a few steps, stood in front of her and looked directly at her eyes. "I'm aware of that." He said. "Let me ask again. What's wrong?"
"Nothing." She quickly answered before taking a drag and exhaling the smoke.
"Claudia Jean." Jed warned her.
"I'm just having a bad day, sir." She said trying to sound apologizing, her voice low enough that he almost didn't hear her.
"You seem to be having a lot of those lately." He stated, surprising her. "They don't affect you performance but ..." He hesitated for a moment. "You never joke anymore, CJ. You used to mock me and everybody else."
"Things change, sir." She said, sadly.
"And there's nobody else here."
"I'm not good enough?" Jed joked, trying to lighten the mood, but CJ didn't answer, she just took another drag from her cigarette. "What can I do?" The President asked, serious again, concern showing all over his voice.
"Nothing." CJ replied, coldly. "It'll pass."
"Claudia." He said, provoking her. "Tell me the truth."
"You wanna know the truth, sir?" She asked, laughing ironically. "The truth is that I'm angry, I'm tired. I feel lonely, I feel cheated. I put my life on hold for whole eight years and what do I get back? My father doesn't remember me, I rarely speak to my brothers." Tears began to fall down her face. "My colleagues, my friends, left me alone to hold and solve this goddamned mess. Josh? With Santos. Sam? Lost somewhere in California. And let's not talk about Toby." She told him, waving her hand. "One of my mentors had a heart attack and decided that ... Hey! Let's leave my job to CJ, without a single pointer, without anybody's help. And then, on one of the most important days of his life, what does he do? He has another heart attack and dies! It's ironic!" She exclaimed, sadly laughing through more tears before continuing. "One of my most valued friends, the one I went when I needed advice or when I was down and needed some cheering up or when I just simply needed to talk to somebody, now she doesn't even speak to me! She blames me for some things that are totally not my fault, I can't do anything about them, but it's easier to blame the outsider. And the only thing that brightens my days, the person who helps me lighten the burden and makes me feel wanted and loved and appreciated ... And after waiting for eight years, EIGHT YEARS, to be with him, the only thing I do is push him away. And you know why? Because it's what I've been doing for years, it's what you all asked me to do, and it's difficult to change, I'm scared that maybe it won't work out and I'll be left alone all over again, as always." CJ took a deep breath. "Sometimes, I don't even remember why the hell I'm still here. My work here is done and I don't know what the hell I'm going to do next." She said, ending her speech, before throwing her consumed cigarette to the floor and stubbing it out with her foot.
After a few seconds deep in thought, the President grabbed CJ's hand and pulled. "Come with me." He said, insistent, beginning to walk towards the garden.
"What? Where?" CJ asked, confused, while she unwillingly followed her boss.
He took her to a nearby bench and made her sit down. "Wait here. I'll be back in a minute."
"Mr. President, I have work to do." She complained.
"You and I. We both have work to do but it can wait for a few minutes." He told CJ. "Don't move or I'll order an agent to chain you to the bench."
"Yes, sir." CJ murmured, defeated, leaning back on her seat and stretching her legs.
Bartlet returned two minutes later carrying two glasses and an ashtray. He sat down next to CJ and handed her the glass. She nodded in thanks and drank a big gulp, the transparent liquid burning her throat and making her cough.
"What the hell is this?" CJ asked with an scratchy voice.
"I'm not sure. I found it hidden under Debbie's desk." Jed answered before taking an small sip. "Can I ask you something?"
"I know it's not my business but ... Well, I'm curious." He told her.
"I don't mind, sir." CJ said.
"Are you dating someone?"
"I am." She simply replied even though she knew that he was expecting more than that plain answer.
"For how long?" He asked, trying to get more information. He understood that CJ was going to make him work hard to obtain it.
"A month and a half."
"Are you gonna tell me who he is?"
"Maybe." CJ teased him with an small grin.
"See? The old CJ is slowly coming back." Jed exclaimed, happy to see her smile. "Well? Do I have to guess?"
"I think you know pretty well who he is, sir." She said, looking him. "You're going to make me say the name." She realized, her eyes wide open.
"Mr. President, I'm dating Danny Concannon."
"I think it's great, CJ." He told her.
"I sense a but coming." She said, serious.
"You know what I think about it."
"I'm not breaking up with him." CJ stated firmly.
"I'm not asking you to."
"Then?" She asked, slightly annoyed. "I'm not the Press Secretary and he's not a White House Reporter: the conflict of interests doesn't exist anymore."
"He's still a reporter and you still work at the White House." He explained.
"Sir, the last thing I think about when I'm with Danny is work." She told him, without thinking. Then, she realized the double meaning of her words and quickly tried to clarify them. "I didn't mean it like it sounded. I mean, I-"
"I know what you mean." He reassured her. "Just be careful." Jed said in a fatherly tone.
"I always am."
They both used the silence between them to take a sip of their drinks. After setting his empty glass on the ground, he turned to took al her. "How's your father?"
"He has good days and bad days. Lately, there are more bad days than good ones." She sadly explained.
"I'm sorry you had to cancel your trip. I know it's been a while since you last saw him."
"How long has it been since you've talked to your brothers?"
"More than a year, they both called to congratulate me after you made me Chief of Staff. It's been three years since we've been together in the same room." She breathed deeply and continued. "Dad's illness ... It has drifted us apart. We used to be pretty close but we had different opinions about what to do after he began having difficulties living on his own. Molly, my step-mother, was there for him but it wasn't enough. My brothers wanted to hire someone to stay 24/7 with him at the house, I thought he'd be better at a nursing home were there would be people trained to deal with his health issues. We had a big fight about it, we yelled at each other and said some hurtful things. Did you know that I even offered to leave my job and move to Dayton to take care of him? However, at the end, Dad spoke up and decided to take my advice and that pissed my brothers off. Now, they avoid me and I do the same with them." She took another sip. "I miss them."
The President took her hand and squeezed it not knowing how to express his feelings with words. He understood CJ's position, he had a similar problem with his own brother and they were still suffering its consequences, their relationship was going to be affected by it for life.
Noticing that both their glasses were empty, he grabbed CJ's one. "Do you want a refill?" Jed asked.
"It would be nice, sir."
"I'll be back in a moment." He said while standing up.
He returned a minute later holding the two glasses and the half-empty bottle. He sat down again and refilled both glasses before leaving the bottle on the ground between them. They spent some time talking about trivial things and then moved to talk about some work issues. Between sentences, they continued sipping calmly their drinks.
The talk was good for CJ, she needed some cheering up and, without completely knowing it, Jed Bartlet was helping her improve her spirit a little. However, there were a few things still troubling her and, After a few seconds in silence, when CJ looked down at her half-filled glass, the President noticed the change in her mood and quickly asked: "What's on your mind?"
"Sometimes, I think you gave me this position because there wasn't anyone else." She answered bluntly, knowing that it was better to speak the truth than trying to hide it from him.
"You're an excellent Chief of Staff, Claudia Jean. Don't second-guess yourself." He assured her. "When they told me that Leo couldn't return, you were the first I thought about. Then, I talked to him and he only had a name in mind: yours. You've been doing a wonderful job. I know it wasn't easy at first yet you exceeded everyone's expectations." The President took a deep breath. "You have an unique way of doing things that has helped us a lot of times, then when you were the Press Secretary and now that you're the Chief of Staff. You've set a very high standard, Josh will have a difficult time filling up your shoes."
"I don't think he'll look great in heels, sir." She joked, wanting to lighten the conversation.
"I'd like to see it trying to walk with them." He replied, grinning.
"I need you, Claudia." He told her while grabbing her hand and squeezing it lightly.
"Thank you, sir." She said, touched.
A Secret Service Agent approached them and interrupted their moment.
"Excuse me, Mr. President." He said.
"Mr. Concannon is here and he's asking for Ms. Cregg."
"Tell him to join us." Jed told him, smiling.
With a nod, the agent left them alone. CJ looked at her boss and gave him a surprised look. "Sir?" She asked him, suspicious.
"I just want to say hello. It's been a while." He explained.
They both stood up when Danny arrived. Both men quickly shook hands while CJ stood there, not knowing what to do or how to act. Danny just kissed her cheek and remained standing next to her.
"What are you doing here?" CJ asked him, surprised that he was there.
"Margaret called." He simply said.
Looking at the bench where they were sitting just a few seconds ago, Danny saw the two glasses, the bottle and the ashtray. "Were you having a party?" He asked, teasing them.
"We were just talking." CJ explained.
"Danny." Jed said.
"Yes, Mr. President?" Danny replied, unsure.
"Are you taking good care of her?" Bartlet asked, his fatherly tone present on his voice again.
"I am, when she lets me, sir." Danny answered.
"See that you do or we'll have a serious talk." He said trying to scare him a bit.
"Now Claudia Jean, pick up your things and go have dinner somewhere nice. With a little luck, I won’t see you until Monday."
The next monday, after spending a wonderful weekend with Danny, when CJ sat down at her desk she found a white envelope with her name on it. Curious, she opened it. Inside, she found two first class tickets for a round trip flight to Dayton for the following weekend. She left them on the desk, amazed, and picked up the note that was inside the envelope with them.
I'll make sure that you have some time off next weekend and I promise that I won't call you back to DC unless the world is about to end.
Take Danny with you and enjoy some time with your Dad and your brothers (they'll be there as well, they told me so when I called them). I hope you don't mind.