Chapter Eight: "And Some Have To Live With The Scars"
She blinks. She realizes in some part of her brain that she has no tears left. That she's been sobbing into his chest for at least five minutes. She takes a deep breath and looks at him. Looks in his eyes. And suddenly she's more afraid than she has been all night. Because he looks... sad. That's not really it. Maybe guilty, or disappointed. Or both. But he looks like someone she barely knows. Her throat is dry and her voice raspy when she finally scratches out his name.
"Oh CJ. How are you? Are you okay?"
She nods her head and tries to ignore the pounding she feels. She squints a little and steps back to really look at him. Defeated. That's the word she's been searching for. He looks defeated.
"How's your hand?"
"It's fine. It's nothing."
His eyes are roaming over her body. He has to be sure that she's really all right. He can't believe that he hadn't thought about her once since the shooting began. Until it would have been too late for him to do anything. He feels sick to his stomach. And he catalogues the things about her that just aren't right. The fear in her eyes scares him the most. But, he has to be sure she's physically okay before he can deal with that.
"You scratched your neck. What happened CJ?"
"I... I'm not sure. I got pushed down."
She reaches for her neck, the stinging sensation she's felt finally making sense. Her fingers claw frantically at her neck and her eyes go wide.
"My necklace is gone. It must have come off when I went down. I'm sorry. I didn't... ."
"Shh. It's okay. It's just a necklace. It's you I care about. Did you hit your head?"
"Yeah. But, it's fine. I'm fine."
He doesn't know how to ask. He's almost certain that it's not hers. But he needs to know for sure. And he's worried about adding to her fear and pain.
"CJ, did you cut yourself maybe?"
"Honey, you have... on your hands... ."
She puts her hands in front of her. She turns them over and takes another deep breath as she sees the blood stains that have made grotesque patterns.
Her voice hitches and he grabs her again. Holds her tight, ignoring the pain in his hand that's starting to gain momentum. He has failed. He knows that with every fiber of his being. He has let them all down. And he feels almost helpless to do anything but hold her.
"I know. I heard. But, he'll be fine. He's strong. And stubborn. He's gonna be just fine."
She knows that he's just trying to make her feel better. That he has no idea how bad it is. And she loves him all the more for it. She steps back again and is almost overwhelmed by the feeling of despair she sees in his face, even through the concerted effort he's making to hide it.
He knows what she's going to say. What she's going to ask. And he doesn't want to have this conversation. Doesn't want to have to tell her that this is his fault. That he failed. Miserably. That the President and Josh are in surgery right now because he didn't do his job. That it should have been him.
"CJ, you should wash your hands."
"Ron, tell me. I can see... ."
"No. Just, no. I have to check in and I'm sure that you want to go see how they're doing."
"Ron, you're scaring me. Please. Talk to me."
"What do you want me to say CJ? What? That I'm sorry. Do you want an apology? Or do you want me to explain all the ways that I fucked up tonight? That if I had done my job right, that none of this would have happened. That the President wouldn't be in surgery. That you wouldn't have been scared to death, pushed onto the ground hard enough to rip off your necklace if I had done my job. That your hands wouldn't be covered in Josh Lyman's blood if I had just done what I'm supposed to do. Is that what you want?"
His anger and his raised voice had startled her. Her eyes are focused on him now, taking deep breaths. Obviously trying to calm himself down. She grabs his arms and holds them tight.
"Look at me. Ron, you look at me."
Slowly he raises his face to look in her eyes.
"It was an act of madmen, Ron. You couldn't have done anymore than you did. You couldn't have stopped this. It was an act of madmen."
His voice is so low that she barely catches his reply.
"I could have taken the bullet."
"No. Ron... ."
"That's my job, CJ. I take a bullet for the President. And I didn't."
She lets go of his arms. She steps away from him quickly. She wants to pace, but there isn't enough room. She wants to run. But she has nowhere to go. And it's like another blow that she realizes he's right. That he was supposed to have taken the bullet. And she has to leave. Right now.
"I have to... ."
"I know. Go CJ. It's okay."
She wants to say something. Anything that doesn't make this feel like the end. But, she's not sure that it isn't. That maybe this is it. So she stares at him for a few seconds. And then she turns away and walks quickly down the hall. She scans the doors on either side and curses the fact that she can't find a bathroom. She stops a nurse and gets directions. She's almost running by the time she finds it. She slams into the sink and turns the water on full blast. She starts scrubbing her hands, over and over, completely ignoring the now scalding water coming from the tap. And the tears she thought were gone are back. And she feels like her life has fallen apart.
He watches her go. Knows that he should have said something reassuring. Something to make her feel better. But, he's always been honest with her. Always. And so he knows that there was nothing he could have said. The pain in his hand seems to have radiated out. And now he feels an aching in his chest. He can't do anything for her now. She'll have to come to terms with this. Or not. And he'll have to abide with her decision. But he can't be distracted by that right now. He has a job to do. Even if he hadn't done it earlier, he would do it now. And so he heads out to check in with his agents.
She's sitting in the room the hospital administrator had set up for the staff. It's quiet in here. Nobody speaks, but the clock seems to be getting a lot of attention. She feels drained. Way beyond the point of exhaustion. She's worried about the President, about Josh. And she can't stop the image she has in her head of Ron jumping in front of a bullet. She knew that was part of his job. Somewhere deep she had hidden that away. It was easy to forget. Easy to ignore. Until tonight. Now, she can't stop thinking that it could have been him in there, fighting for his life. If Ron had it his way, he would be. And that's the thought that won't let go. That's the thought that has her heart in a vice grip.
The First Lady had told them that the President would be fine. And, she'd explained in great detail what was going on with Josh. Too much detail, as far as CJ was concerned. Except that she knows she'll need to be telling the press the very same information. And soon. Her headache has settled into a bearable, dull pain. She can't look at Toby. His eyes have been asking her questions since she came in here with her hands still pink from the hot water. But, she doesn't have any answers. And she's not ready to start asking the questions of herself.
The Administrator is back. He's telling them to go home. And she could laugh at the absurdity of his statement. And then Donna walks in. She's babbling and CJ can't do it. She can't be the one. She's more grateful than she can believe that Toby tells her. She tries, by squeezing Donna's arm. But, it's too much. She can so easily imagine being in the same place. And she's decided it's time to go back to work. Anything to distract her from this.
He's talked to almost all the agents that were on scene. He's been getting reports from the Watch Officer. They're getting the identities of the shooters now. And he knows the manhunt is on. He'd made sure that every base was covered. Including having the Watch Officer get a statement for CJ's office to release that he was off the protection detail. And he is. Technically. But, he's still the head of the President's detail. So he's still doing the administrative stuff. And, it's not like he would be the one standing outside the operating room anyway.
He knows that he'll have to head over to the White House soon. He has to start signing the reports. And he wants to talk to the agents who got the shooters in person. He's proud of them. And he's been trying to keep the feeling of jealousy at bay. He knows it's ridiculous. It's not his job to shoot in those scenarios. It's his job to get Eagle in the car. And he'd partially succeeded. But the guilt still has a pretty firm hold over him.
He sees Gina standing in the hallway when he comes inside from talking to the perimeter agents. She looks just about as bad as he feels. He knows that this is the part of his job where he's the least adept. He thinks briefly that CJ would know how to talk to Gina. To help her feel better. She'd tried to tell him as much not twenty minutes ago. But, he can't afford to think about CJ in any way right now. His guilt about not thinking of her is the weight he feels tightly in his chest. So, he tells Gina that she'd done her job well. Bookbag was put in the car. And she's safe. She's not to blame. He dodges her questions about his own feelings of responsibility. And he tells her that she did good. He smiles at her before he leaves for the White House. But he's sure she saw it as the empty gesture he felt it was.
As she walks away from Danny towards Leo's office she thinks that she's never felt this unsure after a briefing. Maybe, during the campaign. Maybe after the first time she had briefed the press on behalf of Governor Bartlet. But not since she came here. Not since this has been her job. She has no idea what to say to the reporters. She can't really remember any of it. And the details she's been given are sketchy at best. She had almost lost her train of thought when she saw the post-it from Carol that Ron had been taken off active duty because of his hand. She's sure her heart had actually stopped for a moment there. She can't think about that now. She has to focus. She slips into the meeting with Nancy, Leo and Toby.
He watches the briefing from his office. He knows that there are about a million other things he can be doing right now. But, he'd had to see it. Had to see her. He wishes he could help her. Hold her right now and make her feel safe. She seemed so small on his screen. And that almost broke his heart. The knock on his door finally gets his attention and he stands as the other agent comes in.
"Thanks for coming."
"I was hoping to talk to you earlier. But... ."
"I was doing my report."
"Yeah. Listen, you did good out there tonight, Simon."
"I just did my job."
"You got one of them."
"Kids. They were kids."
"How's your hand, Ron?"
"It's fine. I just wanted to tell you that I'm proud of you."
"Thanks. That means a lot coming from you. You know you did a good job too, right?"
"Don't you have something you need to be doing?"
He watches as the other agent starts to leave. Sees him stop. Dreads another attempt to make him feel better about this.
"This was a helluva night, Ron. I'm glad I was on your team."
"Thanks. Now get the hell out of here Donovan."
He would smile at the mock salute. But that would take too much energy. He wonders briefly if he needs someone to talk to CJ's office about the canopy. Decides it can wait and gets back on the phone. He has a third suspect to find.
She's walking with Toby when he mentions the scratch on her neck. She tries to deflect it. Mentions the question she got about the canopy. And almost chokes when she says that she doesn't think they'll have to answer it. Toby tells her that he'll see her at the hospital. She starts to walk away, but Toby stops her. Moves her out of the middle of the corridor and forces her to look in his face.
"I don't want to talk about Toby. Just let it go."
She shakes her head. She refuses to cry. She can't afford it right now.
"He hurt his hand."
"Where is he?"
"I don't know."
"Toby, don't. Leave it."
"I don't think I will."
"CJ, what happened. You look awful."
"Well thanks so much for that."
"More than you should. You look like your whole world has collapsed."
"Maybe you hadn't noticed Toby, but we were shot at. The President was shot. Josh was shot. Things are a little bit off right now."
"Ron was shot."
"But you didn't say it. Can you say it?"
"Toby, I swear to God. Drop it right now."
"Okay. But I have never seen you as happy as you have been this past year. Not even when you were with me. And I think my admitting that should, you know, earn me some points. But it's true. And you should think about that before you get scared and run from him. That's all I'm saying."
She watches as Toby walks away. She knows that he's right. Knows that she has always run when things got too hard or too complicated. And she knows that's all she wants to do now. Run away. She just isn't sure she has the strength for this. Ron's job is to take the bullet. His job description includes getting killed. And if it hurts this much now, what would it be like later. If she lost him after a few years. She's not sure she could make it through that. And she's not at all sure that she even wants to try.
They have been in the same building together for at least an hour. He knows that she's gotten questions about the tent. And he knows why she hasn't asked him about it. She's afraid of him. He understands that it's really CJ's fear of losing him that is keeping her at bay. But Ron can't make himself go to the next step. That her fear will push her away forever. He's not sure he can live that. He knows that he's not sure he has a choice.
His phone rings. He answers and hears some of the best news he's heard all night. He hangs up and is out of his chair immediately. He's moving out the door and he's left his thoughts about the woman he loves behind. He had a job to do.
She is sitting in her office. The televisions are on, and for once they're all showing the same thing. There's only one story dominating this news cycle. She regrets ever wishing that she didn't have to compete for air time. She's called the hospital. Knows that Josh is still in surgery, knows the President is recovering. She wonders if they will ever be able to do that. If any of them will really recover from this. And her thoughts stray to Ron. She's never really loved someone like this. And the terror she feels at losing him is suffocating her. She reaches up to her neck and feels the sting of the scratch where her necklace used to be. His gift to her. Vaguely, she can hear her name on one of the television sets, but her focus is lost in thoughts of losing him.
"Press Secretary C.J. Cregg has appeared at her briefing to be shaken and distraught... ."
They have him. They got the son of a bitch. He wants nothing more then to go in there and pummel his sorry ass. But, Ron knows that would be at best unprofessional. And that's not who he is, really. Technically, he shouldn't be here. He's the head of the President's security detail. But, he knows people and he has been allowed to watch the interrogation.
The anger surges up along his spine. He will never understand the ignorance that seems so easily accepted by some. He clears his throat once more to push the bile back down. He shakes his head. He's heard enough. He thanks his friend and heads for the hospital. He has to update the President. Though, this is one time he wishes it were up to somebody else. He is disgusted.
In the car, he thinks about what CJ would say about this. Her words play over and over through his head. "It was an act of madmen." Hearing this kid, Carl Leroy, talk about white pride and helping Zoey Bartlet, Ron can't help but think she might be right. No one in their right mind would be able to do something like this. They have to have been mad. It doesn't stop his guilt from keeping a tight hold. But, it is making it easier to breathe.
She feels stronger. She thinks she was more put together for this briefing. She's tired of the looks the press corps has been giving her. She doesn't need their concern. She's capable of taking care of herself, thank you very much. And when she's not, well she has... . She stops mid-thought. She realizes that she has finally let herself count on someone. She has shown vulnerability to him. And he stayed. Her eyes water and she shakes her head. She'll get used to being alone again.
She hates this, having to ask Toby to get the Secret Service to make their "no comment". She's glad that Sam doesn't question why she's not talking to Ron about it. That's what she would normally do. But, she can't bear to see him yet. She doesn't think she could get through the conversation they'll have to have. So, she pushes it off on Toby. Thankful that he understands. She wonders briefly if maybe Sam does too.
It's not yet been half an hour when she sees Sam back in the White House. She can't believe how well he's holding up. Josh is his best friend. And she knows that Sam has a harder time pushing his feelings aside than the rest of them. She's a bit disappointed that he doesn't know who pushed her down. The desire to get her necklace back has been growing steadily. If she gave thought to it, which she won't, she would know that she's fixated on the necklace because at the end of the day she'll want something tangible of his to keep. After he is gone.
She's embarrassed. She knows that her excuses to Carol for not doing the morning shows were transparent. She knows that her reasons were feeble. But she can't admit to any of them that she has no idea what happened. That the entire night for her consists of noise and pain, and seeing Josh, and then Ron. And she's not sure why that bothers her so much. Except she thinks this would be a hell of a time to come clean about her relationship with Ron. Just before it ends. And she can't do it.
He's standing in the hospital room watching the understanding wash over the President and his wife. His daughter. He would like to be anywhere but here. And he would like for people to stop thanking him. He had used all of his skills to keep the bitterness out of his voice when Zoey had thanked him for saving her father's life. He couldn't tell her that he hadn't done enough. He hopes now that his curt nod was put down to tiredness and stress.
He thought that explaining things to the President would be hard. He had no idea what hard was until Charlie came in. He admires that young man. He's not sure that he would be able to hear the news so calmly. Ron is fairly sure that Charlie will be taking the blame for this in some circles. And that Charlie himself will feel responsible. But, Ron knows that it's not his fault. And suddenly, he understands. He knows exactly what CJ had meant. He is no more responsible than Charlie or Gina. It was an act of madmen. And everyone left in the wake could only do as much as they could. And there is nothing more that he wants than to tell CJ. He has to see her. He has to tell her that he gets it.
He's on his way to the White House. He knows that it will be difficult. He knows that CJ is scared. And she is stubborn. But, he will make her understand. He will make her listen. He's not going to let go of her without a fight. And if this night has proven anything, it has proven that they can all fight. He takes a deep breath as the car pulls into the lot. He is determined to not let go of her.
She is back in her office when he appears at her door. She watches Carol leave her desk. She puts the papers she was holding on the desk. And finally looks up.
"I can't do this right now. I have... there are things I need to get ready before I brief again."
"CJ, I love you."
"Don't. Don't do this."
"I know you're scared. I know how hard it is for you to let someone in. And I know that you can't stand what you're feeling right now."
"I swear to God, Ron. If you don't... ."
"Okay. But, I had to tell you that you were right. You were absolutely right."
She blinks for the third time. Pushing the tears back with sheer willpower, she looks him in the eye. She doesn't miss the determination she sees.
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"It wasn't my fault, CJ. It wasn't Gina's. It wasn't Charlie's. You were right. And I had to let you know that."
"Well, I... good. I have to... do this... uh, thing. Now."
"I'm not giving up on you, CJ. I refuse to let this end."
"You know, I don't think this is something that you can just decide on your own. I think I have some say about this. And I'm not discussing it now. So, you need to leave. Don't you have something you could be doing now?'
He doesn't flinch at the hostility in her voice. He can see her muscles coiling for a battle. And he knows that she's not ready for this. But, he knows that it's a start. And he feels a small ray of hope that he may yet still have a chance. He nods and starts to leave. His back is to her.
"I love you, CJ. And, I'm not giving up."
She watches him walk away. She tries to stop the shaking of her hands. But, she finally gives in and slumps on her couch. Sam will be on the morning shows soon. So, she can afford a few minutes. She takes several deep breaths. She refuses to cry. She's aware that she might possibly be making the worst mistake of her life. But, she doesn't seem able to stop herself.
She has her necklace back. It's in her pocket. She can feel the weight of it in her heart. She thinks that perhaps it may symbolic of all this. The necklace is beautiful, but too fragile. It's the second time that the clasp has broken. She wonders if it can even be repaired again. She doubts it.
She shakes her head and steps into the briefing room again. She has a ballistics report to give.
He sees Toby and can't help but wonder how they all keep going. He knows that none of them have slept. And that none of them have been immune to the pain and anxiety of the last twelve hours. And he had heard about Toby, covered in Josh's blood. He's pretty sure he knows why Toby has come to see him. He barks one more order at the local police and heads over to Toby.
He thinks it's almost fitting that he is the one trying to assuage Toby's guilt. He thinks CJ would find this amusing. If it weren't so damn sad.
"Lemme go over there and tell 'em it was my fault."
"It wasn't your fault."
"It wasn't your fault. It wasn't Gina's fault. It wasn't Charlie's fault."
And for the first time since he accepted her words, he really understands that it wasn't his own fault either. That he really had done everything he could do. And the guilt over that seems like an almost physical presence as it leaves him.
"It wasn't anybody's fault, Toby. It was an act of madmen. You think a tent was gonna stop 'em?"
He can see Toby slowly absorbing his words. And he can still hear CJ's voice in his head.
"It was an act of madmen. Anyway, the Secret Service doesn't comment on procedure."
He has started to walk away when Toby's voice causes him to turn. He sees Toby making an awkward gesture and he goes to the bench, but does not sit.
"Listen, ah... Ron. Don't... don't give up on her. She's scared. And when she's scared, she runs. Just... uh... just don't let her."
He walks back to the hospital. His desire to hold her in his arms is overwhelming. But he'll just have to give her a little space. Not enough that she can get out of his reach. He'll give her an hour or so more. And then he'll go back to the White House. He'll make her see that they are better together than they ever were, or could be, apart.
"I wanted to mention something."
She looks down at her notes and sees the names on the post-it.
"This is our fifth press briefing since midnight, and obviously there's one story that's gonna be dominating the news around the world for the next few days."
She takes a breath and steadies herself. She can do this.
"And it would be easy to think that President Bartlet, Joshua Lyman... ."
She can't do it. She can't say his name. Twelve hours later and the fear that gripped her in the hospital as she stood before the curtain blocking him from her view, still has hold of her.
"...and Stephanie Abbott were the only people who were victims of a gun crime last night. They weren't. Mark Davis and Sheila Evans of Philadelphia were killed by a gun last night. He was a biology teacher and she was a nursing student. Tina Bishop and Belinda Larkin were killed with a gun last night. They were twelve. There were thirty-six homicides last night. Four hundred and eighty sexual assaults, three thousand, four hundred and eleven robberies, three thousand six hundred and eighty-five aggravated assaults. All at gun point. And if anyone thinks those crimes could've been prevented if the victims themselves had been carrying guns, I'd only remind you that the President of the United States was shot last night... ."
Her back straightens and she feels her shoulders square of their own volition. She couldn't say his name. She couldn't say out loud that he had been hurt. But, she can do this. She can speak of him with the pride she's been trying to hide for months now.
"...while surrounded by the best trained armed guards in the history of the world."
She sees Danny and Leo leave. She finishes the rest of the briefing and feels lighter than she has in hours. She did something for him, however small. And Josh is coming off bypass. She stops quickly by her office and grabs her purse. She's going to the hospital. And maybe, just maybe this day will turn around.
She turns the corner and sees him. He watches her eyes widen. They both know that this it. They have to talk about this and he won't let her hide from him again. Toby squeezes her shoulder has he continues on. Ron nods in reply to his "hello". She knows that she can't run from this conversation anymore, but she's damned if they're going to do it in the hallway of GW. He follows her eyes as they search for a room. He trails behind her as they come to the room the staff has being using to keep in touch with the White House. They both watch as Sam silently leaves them alone and closes the door.
"Ron, I don't... ."
"CJ, look at me. Look at me and tell me this... us, that we're not worth fighting for. Tell me that we're not worth it."
"Well, let's not beat around the bush, shall we?"
The small laugh they share seems to air out the room considerably. And her sigh is not mournful, for a change.
"CJ, I love you. And I know you love me."
Her voice is small and his heart constricts.
"I do love you, Ron. I do. But... ."
"No. No 'buts'. That's all we need. We love each other. How can you let go of that?"
"I was terrified. Okay? I was scared to death when Leo told me. I thought for sure you were dead. Even when he said that it was just your hand. And I had to force myself to walk down that hall. I don't know if I could do that again."
"I would tell you that you won't ever have to. But, we both know that I would be lying. I have no idea what will happen. And neither of us has any control. But, you were right, it was an act of madmen. Are you going to let them win?"
She shrugs. She doesn't have the energy for this. She doesn't want to tell him that it's over. But she doesn't want to be this afraid again. It's not fair to him. She sits in one of the chairs. She eyes him wearily as he crouches before her.
"You wanna know what the worst part of this thing was for me? The thing that I've been holding onto all night?"
He doesn't wait for a reply. He knows that she's shutting him out. And so he continues on before she's tuned him out completely.
"It was you, CJ. You were the worst thing. Not because I was afraid for you. But, because I forgot about you."
She lowers her chin and looks at him.
"I was so caught up doing my job that I never once considered what you were going through. It wasn't until we got here and I was going in for an x-ray that I remembered to see if you were even alive."
"You were doing your job. And, you did it well."
"But what does that say about me? Or how much I love you? And I've been feeling guilty about it. Just like you've been feeling guilty for worrying about me."
"I didn't... . Why would... ?"
"You know I'm right. This hasn't been all about your fear of losing me, and you know it. You've been afraid of needing me. And you've been afraid of what I would do if I found out. Just like I was sure that if you knew I hadn't thought about you when the bullets started flying, that you would leave me. But we're wrong. Both of us."
She looks away from him and considers his words. She knows that he's right, That they have both been so consumed with second guessing what the other might do, that they forgot this isn't who they are.
"I'm still scared."
"And, I'm still so incredibly mortified at the thought of what could have happened to you."
His knees are starting to protest. But he refuses to lose this connection with her. He has bared his soul, and he needs her to soothe it.
She knows that she has never been this vulnerable with anyone in her life. And she knows that's because it's never been worth it before.
"I don't know if I can do this Ron."
He exhales and stands. He doesn't know what else to do. He feels more defeated than he did when he realized that the President had been shot. He turns and is surprised by the hand on his thigh, stopping him.
"But, I'm willing to try."
He turns and grabs her out of the chair. Their kiss is hungry, but not from passion. It is need and want and reassurance. It's about their flaws and their fears. It's about the future they know is fragile, and the love that they have both finally realized is resilient enough for both their mistakes. He holds her tighter than he ever has before. She leans on him more than she's ever let herself before. Finally, she steps back. The corner of her mouth upturned slightly. He laughs at her and takes her hand.
She has another briefing soon where she'll be able to say that Josh has come through the surgery. He has a new rotation to put together and a "no comment" to give the press. And they have the foundation of this life together to shore up. There are cracks to mend. But it seems pretty solid from where they're standing. And they think it just might survive whatever storms may come their way. Together, they leave the room.