Title: Not Forgotten

 

Rating: R (just being cautious because it's kinda angsty)

 

Category: angst/drama

 

Spoilers: Noel

 

Summary: You don't have to be certain to be right, and you don't have to know someone for them to touch your life.

 

Archive: Let me know...

 

Disclaimer: The West Wing is *absolutely* not mine, so don't sue.

 

Author's Note: This takes place about a year after Noel, created from an integral part of that episode. (I did, however, have to invent and/or alter a few *really*, *really* minor details...just thought you should know.) Consider this a present – albeit not an overly cheerful one. Merry Christmas!

 

 

He wasn't sure what exactly he was thinking when he started the drive there...or why, when the idea first flitted through his head several weeks before, he had been unable to shake it. He wasn't sure what to say to this man, this brave, noble man who had given his devotion, his courage, and in essence his life for his country. He wasn't sure why others couldn't see past the fractures and recognize that about him, like he could. He wasn't sure where, exactly, they had failed, but he knew that they had – and he was sorry. He wasn't sure what excuse he had given his friends when they asked where he was going, and he wasn't sure why he felt he had needed an excuse.

He was sure, as he returned home amidst a gently falling snow, that he had made the right decision, that he was right not to ignore whatever impulse first brought the thought to him. He was sure that the words he had spoken were not perfect, but they were true and they were heartfelt. He was sure that to everyone who mattered, the faults did not. He was sure that things happened, and they didn't always make sense, and there was no use in trying to find it – and he was sorry. He was sure that no excuse had been needed, and that they would have understood.

*****

Josh approached the grave slowly, inhaling the cold, crisp air which promised later snow and looking carefully around him. There was only one other person in the cemetery, an elderly man who was no doubt visiting his wife. He had noted the man's car, an old blue Volvo, when he pulled up behind it along the fence just outside the open gates. The drive had taken three hours, but seemed like much less. Perhaps it was the lack of traffic on the way, it still being relatively early on a Sunday morning. Josh had been tempted to stop for a cup of coffee as he passed through the main streets of the town, but there was a singularity of purpose to his visit, and he had not. Now he was here, and he felt slightly vulnerable, as if he could no longer pretend that he had any other intent than coming to do this when he got up this morning, when he started his car, when he turned off the highway at the exit for this town. He shook the feeling from him, tired of trying to convince himself that this had been a foolish idea which didn't affect him. The thought had, in fact, been magnetic, and Josh knew that this was important even if he never understood why.

His breath caught when he actually saw it, just a name and dates carved into the now snow-covered marble surface. He knew so much more about the man, so much more...and yet nothing at all. Kneeling before the headstone, Josh reached out a gloved hand and brushed the light snow from a small ledge near the base, and carefully placed a single yellow rose there before he stood again. He stood there, suddenly nervous, unsure of what to say or do. He bowed his head, and when he looked up again he was surprised to feel the tears streaking down his cheeks. Wiping them away, he sighed, thinking back to last year, when he first found out about this man.

He had been hurting then, hurting and he didn't know it, didn't want to know it. All he knew was that they couldn't find out. He lived in fear of the pain, in fear of the nightmares, in fear that they would realize they had made a mistake in finding him, in helping him, in letting him live. He had to be fine, he wasn't allowed to hurt, wasn't allowed to tell them that he couldn't feel anymore. He had clung, desperately, to the one thing that he could do. His job. He would show them that he knew what he was doing, that he could bully and cajole and deal and advise and strategize and solve all of their problems. He had to. He had to, otherwise...otherwise they would see that he was lying, that he was broken, that he didn't deserve them as friends, as co-workers, as family. They would kill him, then. They would sit there and they would smile sweetly as they told him they were sorry, but he didn't belong and they had taken the liberty of cleaning out his office. And then he wouldn't be able to help them, he wouldn't be able to save them. He would have failed. Just like he did before. He wasn't deserving, and he knew it, and they couldn't find out. He had to save them. He had to. They just had to listen to him...

And then he had found this man. They gave him the assignment, and he got the file, and he read. Lt. Robert Cano, 27th fighter wing division, currently stationed at Cannon AFB in New Mexico. He flipped a few pages and then stopped short, breath catching and a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. Shot down. He had been shot down while flying over Bosnia. He was injured, and alone, and he had to make his way to safety before being rescued almost fourteen hours after he fell from the sky. And then he returned to active duty shortly after being discharged from the hospital. He was an excellent pilot, spotless record, numerous commendations, Purple Heart. Josh knew where he had grown up, where he had trained, his call sign, the planes he had flown, the name of his wife. And his birthday. Josh's birthday. It seemed important somehow, significant, but no one else seemed to notice, or care. Josh told them. He told Donna, he told Sam. They had other things to occupy themselves with. He tried to bury it, to concentrate on other things, but he knew that there was something they just weren't seeing.

Then it was over. Robert Cano crashed his multi-million dollar Falcon into the Sierra Madres mountains, and they said it was over. It wasn't. Josh knew it wasn't, knew there was more, but they said that it was time to move on. Later in the day, he would search his desk for the file, growing more and more desperate as his efforts proved futile. He yelled for Donna, trying to hide the anxiety in his voice. She said that she returned the file, since he didn't need it anymore. He did, he did need it, couldn't she see that? He demanded that she get it back, and she looked confused but said nothing about it. He read the file again, and again, and again. Surely they were missing something. A perfectly healthy Air Force pilot doesn't crash his plane into the side of a mountain. There had to be something wrong, something they overlooked, some reason behind it all. He couldn't see it. It was important, though, there was something there that they needed to know but didn't, a reason, an explanation, an excuse. An excuse...

Because it wasn't right to have those thoughts. It wasn't right. And he knew it. It wasn't their fault...he told them that, hated the guilty looks in their eyes and the cautious way they were around him...it wasn't their fault, it was his. He needed to protect them, he needed to save them. If he had to push them away to do it, he would. It didn't matter if his heart was broken, it would still beat. The rhythm had been interrupted once already, the soul at least twice. He couldn't be helpless, though. He couldn't burden them with his problems, with his faults. It would all be okay, all of it, if they would just listen to him. He couldn't help but listen. It was all he heard. The noise. The terrible, deafening noise. The desperate need to get to them, to save them. The confusion, the panic, the pain. Surrounding him. Overwhelming him. Suffocating him. Knowing that...the...but they couldn't know that, not about then and not about now. He had a duty to them, and while they might have every right to hate him, to shut him out and ignore him, he couldn't let them know because then they would and he would have failed. Again. Always.

Josh sighed. At the time...he didn't even remember thinking those things, didn't remember many things clearly. It was only after that he realized just how far things had gone, and just how close. Later, he knew and accepted that he would probably never remember it all, because he had done as well or better at hiding it from himself than he did at hiding it from others. *It wasn't the plane.* Robert Cano's last words. He had known that something was wrong and wanted to tell them that the failure lay with him. Josh hadn't known, not when he yelled at the President, not even when he punched his hand through the window. Robert had known, but they hadn't saved him. They didn't see, they didn't know...and they lost him.

"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm sorry that we failed you. I'm sorry that they didn't notice. I noticed. I knew. I couldn't see it in myself, but I saw something in you. It's not...it's not that they didn't try, it's not that they didn't care. You changed, after you were shot down you changed, and they didn't know...you didn't know. You were trained for it, you were expected to handle it, and you did, for a while. But then something happened, something happened and you realized it. You couldn't sleep, you couldn't concentrate, you couldn't remember what you were saying in the middle of a sentence, you couldn't stop the nightmares or the memories or the fear. You couldn't feel. There was nothing but *that.* And you couldn't ask for help. You could have, though, you should have. They would have understood, they would have helped you. You didn't have to do what you did..."

Josh paused, taking in a shaky breath before continuing. "I understand, though. I understand, and I don't think less of you for it. You are brave, and you are honorable, and I thank you for your sacrifices. You protected us, and we should have protected you. I'm sorry. They...we...didn't see it until it was too late, didn't know and so did nothing. There isn't an excuse, there isn't even a reason. I'm sorry."

Josh stopped talking, allowing silence to fall around him, filling his ears, watching the wisps of his breath in the icy cold. He slowly pulled a glove from his fingers, shoving his hand in his coat pocket and retrieving the small stone he found there. It felt cool against his recently-warm fingers, smooth yet slightly rough, and he rolled it absently in his palm for a moment before stooping and placing it beside the bloom of the rose. He stood back, then, staring in front of him, no longer speaking his words aloud.

He feels guilty, in a way, that he cannot separate Robert Cano from himself as he was that Christmas, that neither of them exists in their own rights. They couldn't be more different, and yet their lives had intertwined for a few brief hours – though Josh was the only one who knew it, who felt it. It ran deeply, though, because Josh read many files on many people – some might even have his birthday, too – but he never felt like he had then, the subconscious desperation, the suffocating sense of failure. Of course, he was having a bit of a mental breakdown at the time.... But Josh had lived, and while normal remained a relative term, he was definitely better.

 

He would always carry burdens, would always be, as Leo called him, a compulsive fixer. It was a part of who he was. He needed – he *needed* – to set things right, to protect the people he loved, to save them, to fight for what and whom he believed in. And he might try to hide it, might be all bragging and sarcasm and ego, but that wasn't who he really was and the people that mattered knew that. Some people said he had something to prove, and he does, in a way. He needs to be worthy. He needs to be good. He needs to stop the nagging fear that if he doesn't do everything just right, it will all disappear and he will be responsible. He asked for popcorn and he lost his sister. His heart leapt for joy when they took Illinois, unaware that at that moment his mother was weeping for the loss of another piece of her heart. He helped elect a good man, the Real Thing, and he hired a young man that became a part of them, and they were shot at. He was shot. He couldn't save them, couldn't be with them. And they were not with him. He doesn't blame them, though. He doesn't wish that it had happened to one of them instead of him, doesn't want them to feel guilty because he was behind them and they didn't notice. He was alone, and it was him, and there was no reason for it.

Robert Cano was shot down over Bosnia. He was doing his job, following orders, and they shot him down for it. He was alone, too. And when he got back, when he had recovered and was able to return to work, he continued to do his job. But something was different. It was small, at first, minor mood swings or memory lapses or daydreams that weren't daydreams but rather fragments of nightmares, brought on by things that he had up until then considered normal. It started that way with Josh, too. Then things got worse, and more frequent, and he had to push them away so they wouldn't notice. Josh had done that, sudden flares of temper and bitter words which he would have regretted if only he remembered saying them. And then there was a trigger, a sound or a smell or a feeling, and he was back there. The shock of the impact, controls beeping insistently, flames around him, spiraling downwards and unable to stop it, unable to call for help. The cheers of the crowd turn to screams as gunfire echoes loudly, a searing pain, cry muffled by the pounding of his heart, the world fading and swirling around as the concrete reaches out to break his fall and he can think only of the pain of holding in the blood.

He doesn't know what was in Lt. Cano's head, though. He's not sure what was in his own when he punched his hand through the window, only that he heard the sirens everywhere and he needed it to stop. He didn't feel it, watched with a mix of disinterest and amazement as the blood pooled in his palm. He still had a small scar there, a reminder of how close he came and how much he owed to his friends. He wants to know if anyone sensed it, if they knew that Cano had lost a piece of himself when he was shot down, if they blamed him for not trusting in them or themselves for not seeing and helping him, but Josh knew – or thought he knew – some of the answers. He is also fairly sure that there was no blame, only sorrow. If Josh had had an F-16 instead of a window, he might have done the same. The difference, though, was the Robert Cano had acknowledged something was wrong. Perhaps that was what had bothered him so much, the fact that his "perfectly healthy" Air Force pilot, the man with his birthday, had told them that it was his fault. An apology of sorts. An admission. But Josh couldn't see the failure, couldn't see why this would have happened or why everyone else accepted it without question and moved on. It bothered him. It haunted him. And three weeks later when Josh couldn't tread water any longer and allowed himself to drown, he found his answer. Not immediately, of course, and not without help.

He has reached a point of understanding, and it brought him, eventually, here. It had been almost a year, and he felt he owed it to Robert Cano to visit where he is sure that others have stayed away out of fear, or anger, or misplaced guilt. The journey was as much for himself, a sort of reassurance as well as a thank you, an apology, a promise.

Josh noticed, absently, as snow began to fall around him. He turned away then, retracing his earlier path. He was done now, and at the end of a three hour drive back to DC there would be a holiday dinner at the Residence with Sam, CJ, Toby, Donna, Leo and Mallory, Charlie and Deena, the President, First Lady, Zoe. He would tease them, and they would tease back, they would groan and roll their eyes as the President launched into a lecture on the history of something but listen with rapt attention as he gave a speech before the meal, and they would talk, and they would laugh together, a family that he loved deeply and would do anything for, and one that would do the same for him.

 

 

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