Rating: maybe a PG. Maybe.

Disclaimer: Not mine. Really, not anybody's in particular right now...

Author's notes: Written for the Leo McGarry ficathon at LiveJournal.

These Fragile Times

"Leo? CJ's here."

"Thanks, Margaret." Leo leaned back in his chair, setting his paperwork aside. "Get the door, will you?" She nodded and stood at the threshold, giving CJ one of her encouraging, nervous smiles before pulling the door shut.

CJ swallowed as she stepped into the room all the way, her body language stiff and nervous and guilty and reeking of failure. It should be impossible for someone six feet tall, let alone a woman six feet tall and with CJ's astonishing presence, to reduce their presence so much, but somehow CJ does it as she looks down at her hands, which are in turn clasped around her briefing book. He can see the knuckles turning white from here as she tries to hold onto that symbol of her work, and wonders what will happen if CJ drops it.

"Have a seat, CJ," he advised gently. She flicked a quick, anxious glance at him, as if to ask whether she was still even worthy to be standing in this office, and slipped into a chair, not loosening her hold one bit.

Leo regarded her for a long moment, torn. He'd done this again and again, by asking Toby to get CJ on board, by hiding information from her again and again, and finally by having known about this for over a year and letting her get hit with the full force of it, the backlash of an uncertain and angry nation.

'The President is relieved to be focusing on something that matters.'

He'd seen the tape and watched her crash to pieces after that pained outburst. A bit of him had shattered inside at the expression on her face during the ramp-up, the look of betrayal in her eyes he'd only learned to read after the dozenth time he'd sent her into the briefing room deliberately unaware. And then she'd glanced down at her briefing notes.

She knew she was done. Before she even opened her mouth again, she knew she was done, and burning protectiveness rose up in Leo and it was all he could do not to walk into the next room and punch Jed Bartlet in the face for doing this to them, for knowingly bringing together this team of the best political minds of their generation when the only possible outcome was the destruction of all those promising careers.

Now he wanted to hug her and tell her it would be okay and say all the things he'd only learned to say to Mallory after she was grown, and regardless of how it would look, to let her shed tears on his shoulder, even though he knows CJ will remain staid and professional to the last. And he couldn't, he reminded himself, trying to muster an appropriately pissed expression, feeling his eyes turn demanding.

"Leo?" She paused and looked down, fragility laid bare again, and he almost broke. "We both know what I need to do."

Falling on the sword.

The first line of defense.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, to let this amazing talent and skill go to waste.

Her focus still gave Leo the courage he needed to open his mouth and try to retain a professional, practical, political approach. "Yeah. Listen, if you could wait a bit... until, you know, we're doing a little better..."

CJ nodded at him, understanding swift and tragic. "So it doesn't look so much like I'm leaving a sinking ship. I understand. He's supposed to announce in New Hampshire in about three weeks."

"You want to do it right after that?"

"Week after. Give time for the polls. If there's a bump, that's when I'll leave." Her voice trembled, just a little.

Leo reminded himself he could cry (and he would cry, because tears are forcing their way up even now) for this lost career later, for all their lost careers. There was no way to win this thing... not without turning back the clock so CJ didn't go to pieces at that briefing on the situation in Haiti. They were a team. They couldn't do it missing someone.

But they couldn't do it dragging the deadweight of 'relieved' along, either. "And if there's not a bump?"

"I'll wait another day or two." CJ worked her hands a little bit, looking down. "I don't know if you could use Carol somewhere else..."

"We'll find something for her," Leo soothed. CJ didn't want the fallout to spread past her.

The first line of defense.

They should have backed her up more, made sure she was okay. How many times can they skirt the thin edge of losing someone before it really happens?

"Thanks." CJ nodded roughly. "Uh, Leo, is there anything else I can...?"

"Keep passing off some of the briefings," he directed brusquely.

"That's not what I meant," she said softly, looking at him. Leo looks at her directly, and understands what she was asking, but waits for her to continue anyway. "Is there anything else that needs to be out there in the next few weeks?"

"Maybe." Leo leaned forward and folded his hands on the desk. "You know what you're asking, right?"

Her chin lifts, just a little, and a faint hope glimmers in Leo's heart, that this won't totally destroy her. "I serve at the pleasure of the President, Leo, and that includes doing whatever he needs me to do. Anything," she emphasized, "he needs me to do for him or for the administration."

He can't bring himself to throw back at her that she should have thought about that before using the word 'relieved' in a room full of reporters. In the face of such clear loyalty for Jed Bartlet in spite all the pain and betrayal and anger lurking underneath, he can only nod, and tell her he'd let her know what it was.

One year earlier.

Leo finished yelling at Margaret about the President's signature and turned to CJ, waiting with an odd patience and looking almost perfectly poised, but a little uncertain, a little troubled.

"Who thought it was a good idea for me to do the morning shows?"

"I did."

"Why?" One eyebrow lifted in curious demand.

She lied to the press earlier today, except it was actually yesterday, but they haven't slept again yet, so... "It's time for us to start climbing out from behind the bushes," he tells her in some exasperation. She could lie to the press corps about the pilot, but she can't figure out why she, the White House Press Secretary, needs to appear on some morning shows?

What happened to her out there?

"I don't think it's a good idea." And now he sees what they can't afford right now.

He didn't, thank God, see Josh on the pavement, bleeding. He didn't know until he saw the gurney roll in at GW and heard CJ call "It's Josh!" at him. He hadn't had Josh's blood slicking his fingers, and he'd had someone to look after him, someone paid to take a literal bullet for him, just as they would all take a metaphorical one for the President.

CJ hadn't really escaped death by any more of a margin than Josh had; it was just a different way, the kind that could well result in the expression he was seeing now degenerating into a Press Secretary who can't do the job.

Leo knows what needs to happen without CJ elaborating any more, but he needs to hear her reasons, needs to know if she can answer this question without collapsing into a bundle of shell-shocked nerves. For a brief, brief second, he wants to tell her to take the time to recover from whatever the hell happened to her last night, but he can't.

He's worked with strategists younger than these people he pulled together for 1998. Why do they matter so much? Why does he keep giving them chances, even as he demands more of them than before? He can't decide, as he regards the picture of grace falling apart in front of him.

"Why not?" Leo wants to know.

"I just don't think it's appropriate, while Josh is still..." she hesitates, and the memory of gunshots and shouting swallows her eyes, and Leo wonders how much understanding and sympathy is reflected in his own.

He doesn't have time for all of this, dammit. He can't afford to stop and make sure people are okay; they have to be, or they need to get out.

So he's surprised to hear himself inquire "What?" gently, as if asking a young girl, like Mallory was once, why she's come home from school pouting and sniffling and looking dejected.

CJ visibly tries to pull herself together. "Nothing," she denies, but there's an odd attempt at a smile, and he returns it with a skeptical look, trying to ask if she's really okay. "I'd just rather not do it, that's all."

Leo gave it some consideration. "Have Sam do it."

That smile again, nervous and fearful and showing what a fragile shell is protecting the nation from chaos right now. "Okay. Thanks." He can't see where she bumped her head, but the scratch on her neck is all too visible as she goes by, and Leo wants to tell her to get it checked out, see if she's okay.

But Leo knows that in this moment, for all his greater experience and authority, he's not the one holding things together. He's too much behind the scenes. No, right now CJ's the one with that unenviable and irreplaceable task, and an odd pain tugs at Leo as he stands there, wondering how strong that shell of CJ's is, and whether she'll remember to take it down and take a little time for herself. If she doesn't, she could well fly apart, quietly because she's CJ, but they could still lose her. And he doesn't want to. Oh, he doesn't want to lose CJ, because there is nothing in the world that could console him if that happens.

Four years later.

CJ's literally too tired to sit down. She's standing in a little sterile room with brimming tears, and wondering if this is when some part of her mind suddenly decided to cry for her father, for what's happening to him, or if it's just the almost unbelievable stress of her first day as Chief of Staff.

No wonder the President asked her to jump off a cliff, and no wonder he had that look in his eyes.

"I don't think this is gonna work," she whispered in a choked voice, looking down at the man who came before her, predecessor and mentor and boss and so much more, because that was how they endured. Look what happened whenever they weren't working as a team.

"I just don't see how..." CJ trailed off and blinked several times.

"Sure it will," came an exhausted, rough reply in a voice she would have recognized anywhere.

"I didn't mean to wake you-" she started, with an embarrassed look.

"It's okay," he assures indistinctly. One hand lifts, turns over, and curls the fingers, and CJ moved swiftly to sit by the bed, taking Leo's hand gently, as if afraid he'll break under this slight strain. His hand tightens ever so faintly and briefly, and CJ can feel the willpower that fueled Jed Bartlet's run for President thrumming under her fingers.

It's as if Leo transfers some of his will to her in that instant. He can't give her his knowledge of how to be Chief of Staff, but he can remind her, in that odd way, of what they're doing here, and that Jed Bartlet still has something left in him.

His other hand gestured weakly toward the oxygen mask. "Can you..."

CJ lets go his hand and moves her hands to hover over the device, then hesitates, one finger running gently along an age line in Leo's cheek. "Is that safe?"

Leo doesn't quite have the energy to roll his eyes in response, but he summons enough to produce one of the 'I know what I'm doing' looks, and CJ moved the device aside a little bit. His breathing becomes disconcertingly loud.

"I didn't want to do this to you."

CJ blinked, not sure she heard right. "What do you mean?"

"You've realized today what you've agreed to take on," Leo rasped. "I'm sorry."

She shook her head with an expression of gentle and bemused denial, as though she hasn't gone insane from the work at least four times today. "Don't worry about it, Leo..."

"You've lost a lot for the President-"

"-and gained so much. Leo..." Her tone is liquid, half-pleading.

"You can't always be human in this job," he tells her after a pause. He shouldn't be talking this much, but CJ needs to know this.

"How is this different?"

"It's more," he advised, hazel eyes flickering brightly with something CJ can't figure out. There is a long pause while CJ stares at him in incomprehension and Leo tries to get a little more breath back. "President isn't the only one who thinks of you like a daughter."

CJ's hand had been resting lightly on the bed near his; now she reached for it with surety as her lips parted in beautiful and proud surprise, tears fully giving way to gravity. This causes her to duck her head a little, the gesture almost shy, before she can meet his eyes again, asking if he's serious. In response, his head tilts a little on the pillow, eyes gentle, and CJ finds herself shaking even more.

"And you couldn't have told me that while you were Chief of Staff," she half-asked a little later, still struggling to not let her emotions spill.

"No." He peered at her with that quizzical gaze, waiting for a nod of comprehension to meet him. It does, accompanied by a slight straightening of posture, a renewal of energy and purpose. Gently, she puts the oxygen mask back on, then cups her hands around his face and gently kisses his forehead.

"Thanks, Leo."

Later, at last near the end of her workday, CJ swings around in the chair she'll refuse to replace and catches sight of a small square frame, reflecting light almost hiding what's treasured within, but a bit of wrinkled white peeks out with dark pen. Slowly, she stands and comes over until she's right in front of it, then slowly reaches down, fingers caressing the glass and then running along the edges. Finally, she picks it up and holds it gently until she can see what's imprisoned and preserved within, the idealistic energy and belief that goes with the man whose life is truly politics, the passionate stroke of ink that started all of this and brought them here. Brought her here, ultimately, and Leo to bypass surgery.

She can hear him.

'We won't be frightened by issues ... we're going to raise the level of public debate in this country...'

'Act as if ye have faith and faith shall be given to ye.'

'Andrew Jackson, in the main foyer of the White House...'

'Four more years, CJ.'

'President isn't the only one who thinks of you like a daughter.'

For a while, CJ will come into her office in the morning and go to this small, powerful frame with its three simple words on a napkin, and touch it lightly or just look at it, letting the knowledge that Leo's seen the worst price for doing this work for the country and the President, and would gladly do it again, drive her onward when otherwise she might have quit.

After all, letting the potential inspire the future is what daughters do for their fathers.