Toby was yelling again.
There wasn't really much happening, at least not in a relative sense. Sam was in a meeting, which lessened the likelihood of him being the target of Toby's momentary irritation, Josh was in with Leo and the president, and CJ herself was not directly in his line of fire--which left visitors and secretaries.
She walked softly to her door and peered out. Carol, with her much appreciated sixth sense, approached. "I think the president asked for a re-write on the gun amendment speech."
CJ had in fact mentioned that this was likely to happen no later than that morning. And although three crises had arisen and been solved in the time lapsed, realistically, that wasn't that long ago. "Toby should have expected that."
Toby was winding down, so CJ moved into the communications bullpen and put herself between Toby and Ginger. "Coffee?"
Toby spun away and stalked to his office, emphatically slamming the door behind him. CJ looked over her shoulder, but Ginger was already back at whatever she'd been doing before Hurricane Toby had come to town. CJ mumbled, "You're a goddess, Ginger," drew a deep breath, and went to let herself into Toby's personal space.
Toby glared at her when she opened the door without permission, closing it quietly behind her. CJ sat herself on the sofa. "How're the kids?"
"I really don't have time-"
"You knew the speech was too inflammatory."
"It's what we should be saying. This is his second term; if things aren't said now they're never going to be."
CJ and Toby had fought this fight too many times for her to count, even if she were to use her toes. "There's a fine line between saying something and having it heard and merely pissing the other side off."
"It's time to be pissing people off-"
Toby's voice was rising again, but CJ's day was going somewhat well and she just wasn't in the mood to have that changed. "What did he say, Toby?"
One of the things that CJ most appreciated about Toby was that he didn't play games. He didn't pretend not to understand people when he did, or hedge questions for the sake of annoying his conversant. "The words 'reactionary' and 'backfire' were mentioned three or four times." Toby rubbed at his forehead. "The kids are sick."
"Both of them?"
"Chicken pox. They're always around each other, it was bound to happen."
"They must be driving Andy crazy."
"She's passing on the favor."
CJ's lips quirked. "That's her prerogative as a mother." She paused. "You should apologize to Ginger."
Ten more minutes and she would be able to enter the Oval, to make sure there was nothing else. Assuming there wasn't, she could put the lid on and actually go home. Before eleven. Miracles truly never ceased in this place. Unwilling to risk her miracle, CJ went.
Feeling relatively well-rested after her morning coffee and paper scan was something of a novel feeling, and CJ took a minute to savor it before stepping in the shower. She popped open the cap of her favorite shampoo. It was indecently expensive and made her feel horrendously epicurean every time her stylist talked her into buying it. Still, it smelled heavenly and left her feeling a bit like a runway model. She massaged the scent of rosemary and mint into her scalp, breathing slowly through her nostrils.
She ducked under the water and, as she did every morning, walked herself mentally through what had to be done. It was the third day in April and what she could remember having scheduled. . .
CJ let her thought pattern taper off. Third day of April. She ran a finger over her hair, pleased at the squeaking sound that announced the absence of residual soap and then let her hand drift down to her breasts. She held up the arm next to the breast opposite the hand she was using to run firm circles over said breast. It had been a while since she'd remembered to do one of these. Generally her time was first of the month every month, as she didn't trust her period to be a regular reminder, not with the stress of her job affecting her cycle more often than not. The last few months, though, had been a bit of a disaster, with several overseas conflicts having to be spun and not just a few partisan skirmishes right over here on these golden shores.
Finished with the first breast, CJ raised her other arm and set to pressing those same circles into the breast not yet checked. She was nearly finished when she felt it. She started the examination again, sure that it was just her imagination. After all, she was feeling a little irresponsible, having forgotten for at least. . .three months? Maybe four. And she would have to look up the last time she'd managed the hours necessary for a mammogram, let alone a routine check up with either her internist or her gynecologist.
The lump was still there. On the third and the fourth try as well. CJ turned off the water and stood shivering for several moments before refocusing enough to reach outside the shower for her towel and wrap herself in its confines. Feet and hair still wet, she dripped water all the way across her bedroom, through her living room and into her kitchen, where she had left her BlackBerry the night before. She scrolled through the numbers in it until she found what she was searching for and hit the "talk" button.
Being 6:15 in the morning, she was patched through to an answering service. "Dr. Ryun's answering service, may I take a message?"
"Yes, hello, my name is CJ Cregg, I'm a patient of Dr. Ryun's, and I-" CJ stopped. "Is there anyway to make sure she calls me as soon as humanly possible?"
"Is this an emergency, ma'am?"
"Not in the way that dialing 911 would help."
"All right, but whatever it is needs immediate attention."
"Is there anything I can tell Dr. Ryun, to give her an idea of what she's calling in regard to?"
CJ couldn't help herself, she asked, "This phone conversation is privileged, yes?"
CJ leaned her forehead up against the kitchen cabinets, the ones holding plates that she hadn't even seen, let alone used, for the better part of six months. "I found a lump this morning. In the shower."
"Ma'am, in that case I'm going to have you make an appointment with me at this time. I'll contact Dr. Ryun as soon as we get off the phone. Do you want me to try her at home?"
"Just have her get hold of me as soon as possible, please." CJ's voice was strained with the effort of not shouting, "for fuck's sake, yes!"
"I will, ma'am. Keep your phone nearby." The receptionist then worked with CJ on scheduling an appointment as soon as the doctor's schedule presented an opening.
"Thank you." CJ hung up. The kitchen tiles were freezing beneath her feet and her stomach was swirling with latent nausea, but movement didn't seem possible right at that moment.
At 6:23, her hair drying in every which direction, her fingers still clutching the towel to her chest, the BlackBerry rang. She pressed talk without even looking at the number, "Hello?"
"CJ. Are you on your way in?" Leo didn't sound happy. That was fine, it fit CJ's mood.
"Um. Yeah. Yes. Give me twenty minutes, all right?"
"Just get here."
"Yes, sir." CJ dropped the towel on the floor and made her way to her closet. For once, it was a relief to have to deal with somebody else's emergency. CJ dried her hair quickly, inhaling the calming scent just a few more times, threw on a suit and took herself and her BlackBerry out the door.
As it turned out, Leo's emergency was actually more a miscommunication of facts from one office to another, one that had CJ running around a bit, but not exactly tamping down on top-level national security type emergencies. After the previous few months, however, CJ couldn't find it in her heart to blame Leo's skittishness. Two months before Eleanor had pulled a surprise engagement to a physician whose main gig was performing abortions. Slightly after that intelligence had spotted four signs that North Korea was planning on testing nuclear weapons, and something that looked like Ebola had broken out in a Kenyan mining town requiring CDC assistance. Leo, of course, had borne the weight of President Bartlet's displeasure at his daughter's choice. CJ counted that responsibility as being a far more heinous job than having to deal with the media's cannibalistic uproar over the whole situation.
She was about to check-in with Toby to get an update on the re-write and the chicken pox when a ringing emanated up from the holster at her waist. CJ unclipped the BlackBerry, checked the number and put it to her ear. "CJ Cregg."
"CJ, this is Dr. Ryun. Sorry it took so long, I was in surgery."
"I understand. Can you give me one moment?" For considerable parts of her formative years, CJ's long legs were the bane of her existence, making her certainly taller than the other girls and often taller than the other boys. Having had no interest in basketball, this had stunted her dating life and not been of much use in other areas. Now, though, as she strode through the hallways to get to her office, able to look focused but not hurried due the length of her stride, CJ blessed genetics. She clicked her office door closed behind her and sat in the nearest chair. "All right, sorry about that. The answering service mentioned that I found a lump?"
"Yes. I've been checking your records, CJ. It's been-"
"A really long time since I've had a mammogram. I know, I checked the same thing when I got into the office this morning. The receptionist scheduled me for tomorrow-"
"Is there any time you can get here today?"
"Yes, seriously, this isn't something you want to wait on."
CJ slipped around her desk to where goldfish were saying funny things to each other on her computer. She tapped at the space key to bring up the screen with her schedule for the day. It was bound to change, they always did, but it would give her a vague idea of any ability to maneuver. "Can you remind me how long it's going to be?"
"The actual procedure's about ten to fifteen minutes, and we'll do a digital so that the images are available immediately."
"How's three this afternoon?"
"I'll make it happen. CJ, you need to know that even with receiving the pictures immediately I might not be able to give you a definite diagnosis this afternoon. We might have to take more pictures or perform a biopsy."
"How likely are either of those eventualities?"
"I won’t know until I see the pictures. For the moment, not that this advice helps even slightly, panicking is the worst thing you can do. Fear lowers our body's resistance to harmful invaders."
"I haven't been doing the self-exam. I. . .well, I don’t know if you watch the news, but things have been a bit out of hand over in just about everyone's corner of the world and it's my job to make sure other people don't panic thereby lowering their body's resistance to harmful invaders, so I haven't been very good at looking after certain aspects of my own health and-"
CJ spun in her chair until she was facing the window. It was pretty outside, mild and colorful in the way that only spring could truly be. "I'm listening."
"I normally wouldn’t even say this to a patient before seeing their pictures, because there's a very good chance that whatever you're feeling is benign. But let's say, worse case scenario, it isn't. Women beat this disease. There are a number of treatments that we can try, and many of them have good success rates. When detected early there's a ninety-five percent chance of a five year survival, and when you hit five years, its enormously likely that it won't return. Those are pretty good odds."
"I'd prefer 100% with no chance of it coming back."
"As it so happens, me too. GW at three, CJ. For now, grab yourself some tea or some water, if you haven't had breakfast pick up an orange or a bran muffin, make sure the country's running well enough to survive an hour or so without you, and I'll see you then."
CJ hung up. The silence of the ended conversation coincided with a knock on her door. She leaned her head into the back of the chair and propelled herself to where she was facing said door. "Come in."
CJ went back to work after the mammogram, of course. Josh caught her in the halls to talk about how they were going to handle press on the new tax increase and asked, "Hot lunch date?"
"I'm a wanted woman." Not wanting Josh to take her up on the offer to continue this line of conversation, CJ said, "I'm going to focus on the increase in funds to law enforcement agencies and family services."
"Pretty much what I was going to suggest."
"I'm always that crucial step ahead of you," CJ informed him.
"That's why we put you in front of the cameras."
"That, and she has better legs," Sam stole Josh from CJ with a wink in CJ's direction. CJ headed straight into her office and buried herself in work until it was time for the briefing. Her stop in the Oval occasioned her finding out that a minor news event involving the DEA would need to be responded to, which forced her to scramble for a slightly new frame on the tax increase.
Leo popped his head in her office at around eleven-thirty. "Why are you still here?"
"Just trying to work ahead on that bi-partisan meeting, I think if I-"
"That meeting's not for another week."
"Well, I know it's not exactly our motto, but it never hurts to be prepared."
"You have relatives visiting you or something?"
CJ tilted her head inquisitively. "I'm sorry?"
"Go home, CJ."
"Yes, soon, I wanted to-"
"It'll be here in the morning. All of it will. Go home and get some rest. Crappy preparation is as good as no preparation."
"I would never-"
"Not intentionally. I'm here to save you from yourself. Go home, that's an order."
CJ obeyed long enough to slip into a pair of jeans and a sweater--the nights were still cool. Then she drove out to the suburbs and rang her ex's doorbell. Nobody answered, so CJ sat on the steps of the two story colonial surrounded by a sea of white picket fences housing friendly dogs. It was two in the morning when a car finally pulled up.
Gina climbed out of the car and onto her stairs to sit next to CJ. They were silent for a bit before CJ asked, "Ellie have a late night?"
"She's been in the lab. Once that girl gets going. . . Babe, why didn't you call me? I would've told you where the spare key is."
"Didn't think about it. Thought for sure Dez would be home soon." Desiree Nieman was Gina's current lover; the two of them gotten together with a year after CJ had broken it off with Gina.
"Dez is out-of-town, kidnapping case that crossed state lines." Dez, being FBI, was also better equipped to deal with the day-in and day-out possibility of fatality in Gina's job, which was the main reason for CJ's decision to change the status of their relationship to friendship. It wasn't always easier to handle the possibility of loss in that capacity but most days it was. CJ knew how to compromise.
"Oh. Has it been on the news?" An interstate Bureau investigation seemed like something CJ would have heard about.
"There are reasons why they want it kept quiet. I probably shouldn't even be telling you she's out of town. But hey, one secret for another. Wanna tell me why you're sitting on my steps at two in the morning?"
CJ looked at her wristwatch. "Two twenty three. You have any tea inside?"
"Not if you want anything fancy, but I can probably rummage up some original Lipton."
"Come on." Gina hauled her up and led her into the house, keeping CJ's hand in one of her own while unlocking the door with the other. Once they were inside, Gina let go, pointing to her couch. "Sit, I'll be back with the tea."
CJ closed her eyes, listened for the soft beep of the microwave. Gina walked back silently and sat down with her knees touching CJ's. She placed the cup on the coffee table. "I put some honey in it."
CJ picked up the cup. "Look, I'm sorry about- I know you don't get a hell of a lot more sleep than I do."
"I get enough. Tell me what's going on."
Because there didn't seem like anything else to do, CJ started from that morning. The thing about Gina was that her occupation had given her an uncanny knack for just watching, listening and waiting. She didn't interrupt or gasp or do anything that would keep CJ from continuing her narrative. She just waited until CJ admitted, "It was inconclusive."
Gina pried the cup from CJ's fingers and set it back on the table, then took CJ's hands into her own. "What does that mean?"
"The lump indicates a definite cancer risk. My doctor did a diagnostic work-up. Made me late back to work. Josh noticed." CJ shook her head, as though to keep everything in order. "If that comes back with the possibility of malignancy, then there's a breast biopsy and then we'll," CJ's jaw shifted slightly, "I'll know if it really is cancer and how far along it is. The doctor wouldn't even talk about treatment options until-"
Uncharacteristically, Gina cut in with a smooth, "Sounds like a good doctor. And it will certainly be a 'we' knowing about this, either Dez or I are gonna be at every appointment from now on, and if we can't be there, we'll expect to see you afterward. I can stop by the West Wing; I know my way, as it so happens."
"Gina, I didn't-"
"Shut up, CJ." Gina said it softly, and handed the tea which had now cooled to drinking temperature back to CJ. "You say one word about inconveniencing us and I'm just gonna step up my level of commitment to you as punishment, since I know nothing else will get near to fracturing your stubbornness."
CJ's lips curled upward. "I just needed someone I could say it aloud to."
"Wait here." Gina got up and walked back into the kitchen. CJ heard another door open, close and then Gina returned. She held out a key. "Put this with yours, yeah? So you can get in if you need to and we're not here."
"That's really not necessary."
CJ exhaled sharply. "Always have to have your way." She wasn't that upset. Gina's fervent loyalty and off-the-cuff way of caring were two of the central reasons she hadn't been able to walk away from her entirely.
Gina twisted her finger in a lock of CJ's hair. "Yeah. That's me."
Dr. Ryun called CJ to schedule the appointment for the biopsy, saying, "I'm sorry to say, but it is necessary."
In between that time and the six hours later that CJ had set the appointment up for, a bill covering stricter laws domestic abuse blew up over a last minute amendment tacked on by a senator from Georgia. The First Lady had all but written the bill and until 2:47 on that Wednesday afternoon it had seemed like it would go through without dissent.
CJ, thinking she should have known better, called the doctor to cancel. Dr. Ryun simply said, "I don’t care if an asteroid is about to hurtle into the pentagon, you'll be here on time and ready to do this procedure. I mean it." She softened then, which was the killing blow. "CJ, the sooner we catch this, if it is indeed breast cancer, the better your chances are. Please, be here."
CJ, like a good girl, promised she would be, turned off the phone, and swore. "Fuck."
Josh flung himself into her office with his customary energy. "No kidding. Do you think we could excise Georgia from the Union?"
"Probably, but it might take longer than we have to get this bill back in the game." CJ leaned back and crossed her legs. "Anything change in the last five minutes?"
"Toby's decided to take up a career as a professional assassin."
"How like him. Much more efficient than excising states."
"I'm running interference for you here."
CJ tilted her head. "He wants to kill me?"
"No, but he wants to yell at you about things you already know, like how we need you to be on target every single second today."
CJ repressed a frown. "And why are you running interference?"
Josh shrugged. "I'm feeling dashing." Whereupon he dashed himself right out of CJ's office.
"Uh huh," CJ said to nobody in particular. She picked her phone up again, and called the doctor back.
"CJ," Dr. Ryun greeted her, clearly not thrilled to be on the phone again. "I actually do have other patients, in case you were wondering."
"I know, I'm sorry. I'm even more sorry for what I'm going to ask you next."
"Is it possible to do the biopsy near here?"
"Here, the White House, here?"
CJ, despite herself, smiled. "The address is-"
"1600 Pennsylvania, oddly enough, I've noticed. And there's a damn good reason you're asking this, right?"
"I honestly can't go very far at this time. I'm not playing at denial and pretending this will go away. Wishing that, maybe. But right now all I'm asking is that you meet me halfway on this, because there's no other way for me to get it done."
A tiny pause, and then, "There's a clinic a few blocks over. Walking distance. I have a friend who has privileges out of there, I'm sure he'd be willing to give me a room for the amount of time that'll take. I'll email you all the specifics. But CJ?"
"Be there on time."
CJ repeated, "Yes, ma'am," hung up, took a deep breath and walked herself down the hall. Toby saw her coming and motioned her on in, only a minute amount of his attention away from the legal pad in front of him. CJ considered working up to what she needed to say but decided blunt honesty would probably save everyone a lot of time. "Someone has to cover for me from about four to four-thirty. Carol, Andrew and Jack are all working on the situation; I trust any one of them to keep you and Sam informed."
"And people in the hallways have been looking at me like I'm insane."
"Margaret looks at everyone like that. Toby, I'm serious."
"You sound as though you are, certainly, but that happens to be an impossibility since it's not humanly possible that you have something more important than this just now!"
"I have. . ." CJ searched for a plausible lie, something that wouldn't occasion Toby's awkward concern and anxiety, cursing herself for not having thought of something before coming down here. She really wasn't in top form.
Toby's head snapped up. "What? Have your ancestors risen from the dead and bid you come? Have you been chosen as noble leader of an island country in the Baltic? What could possibly supersede this?"
The only misdirectives that CJ could come up with were lies of considerable magnitude, and CJ, for that all her job sometimes called for it, wasn't a liar. She made sure to meet his eyes as she said, "My doctor's going to come out to this part of town and perform a biopsy. I'll be within walking distance the whole time, but when I called to cancel she said absolutely not and this was the best I could do."
CJ desperately wanted to walk out in the silence that followed, but she needed to know who would be covering for her and how this would work, so her only option was to stand there looking calm until Toby said, "Shut the door."
"Toby, I just need to-"
"Shut the door, CJ." Toby's voice became incrementally quieter with the second order and CJ knew better than to hesitate. No sooner had the click of the latch sounded than Toby asked, "Biopsy?"
"I'm actually waiting until I have more information to talk about this. If it weren't for the situation I wouldn't be here now."
"Toby. I'm not deceiving anyone, I'm not hiding. I'm just waiting until I know enough to feel comfortable talking about it. Don't put your issues about medical non-disclosure on me."
Toby had the grace to dip his head.
"You want me to talk to Sam?"
"You can tell him I've got you briefing the president at that time."
"He's going to think that's odd."
CJ twisted the doorknob. "Thanks."
Dr. Ryun had told CJ it would take about a week for the results of the biopsy to come back. It took six days, three hours and approximately forty seven minutes. The doctor called her and said, "Generally it's against policy for me to tell you these results over the phone."
CJ closed the door to her office and rubbed at the back of her neck. "I wouldn't imagine that it's generally policy to change the location of the biopsy to an unfamiliar clinic at the last moment, either. I really appreciate your working with me on all of this. I may not have mentioned that before."
"Has anyone ever mentioned that you have a way with words that tends to get you exactly what you want?"
"Well, I haven't been fired yet, so I take that to mean my bosses feel similarly."
"Good point. I don't have that talent and there's no way to make this sound any better. You have breast cancer, CJ. It's early in the second stage, but in pre-menopausal women it can spread pretty quickly."
"But. But that means we caught it fairly early?"
"Yes, and that we have a very good chance of fighting this. However, CJ, I'm not kidding about this, you're going to have to listen to me when I tell you to do things. This is going to have to be more important than your job."
CJ filed that away as a problem to deal with when she was off the phone. "What am I going to need to do?"
"There are three basic stages of treatment. First surgery to remove the lump. There are choices as far as the surgery goes, but that isn't something I'm willing to talk to you over the phone about; too much is involved in the decision. After surgery you're going to need to do a bout of radiation, to kill off whatever the surgery might have missed, followed up by a round of chemo. At the end of all that, we'll assess how you're doing. There's no guarantee that course of action will rid you of the cancer entirely and that we won’t have to pursue further action, but CJ. I want you to listen to me. Tell me you are."
"I'm all ears." The words felt awkward in CJ's mouth. She felt like nothing except her breasts at the moment.
"You're a strong, energetic, otherwise healthy woman. I have every reason to believe that if you are willing to fight this, and if you put forth the attitude that you will beat it, that you can be one of those woman who has the privilege of calling herself a survivor."
When a crisis broke out in the West Wing, CJ had a very specific way of handling things, an order in which she climbed her steps of coping. She applied that system to this moment: facts first. "When do you want me to come in and discuss surgical options?"
"As soon as you can. Tomorrow would be ideal. I wasn't kidding when I said this can spread fast in women your age."
CJ keyed up her computer screen, clicked over to the schedule for tomorrow. It wouldn't go as planned, of course, it never did. She picked the first hour not specifically filled with something. "Eleven?"
"I'll clear it for you. If there's somebody you want to bring, CJ, so that they can help you with the facts, pros and cons, that sort of thing, a second voice never hurts with decisions this big. I generally recommend it, if there's someone you trust."
CJ looked through her window at the bustle of the corridor beyond. "Perhaps. Thank you for the suggestion."
"I'm going to see you at eleven tomorrow, CJ." Dr. Ryun's voice was firm but at the same time probing.
CJ wasn't sure what her doctor wanted to hear. "Yes. Again, thank you for working with me on this."
"Tell me that when you're in remission."
CJ didn't think waiting for things like remission was such a good idea at this moment. All the same, she understood her doctor's point about the power of positive rhetoric. CJ sometimes felt like she'd created that power. "I will."
CJ didn't bring anyone. She'd told a grand total of two people: Gina and Toby. It wasn't a good idea for her and Toby to be out of the office at the same time, and Gina would be on detail by eleven o'clock. Gina, granted, most likely would have said something to Dez, who probably could have gotten an early lunch. Dez, however, wasn't Gina. CJ liked her well enough, but there were some things for which no substitution could really stand.
Dr. Ryun, in the manner that CJ had come to expect from her--indeed, the attitude that had kept CJ as her patient--didn't waste anyone's time. "Right now, I just want us to talk about surgery."
"All right." CJ crossed her legs and set her hands atop them, careful not to clench at her knee.
"I mentioned that you have stage II breast cancer. It's early stage II, meaning that the tumor is a little under 4 centimeters, and so far as we can tell there's no lymph involvement, certainly no metastasization. Do you understand everything I'm telling you so far?"
"I've done some personal research over the past couple of weeks," CJ said by way of affirmation.
"I'm not surprised. All right, have you come across anything called ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS?"
"Where the cancer cells are found in the milk ducts but haven't spread into the fatty breast tissue yet?"
"Right. We found that in the breast without the tumor."
CJ took a breath. "Can they be removed?"
"They can. In this case I'm recommending a modified radical mastectomy on both breasts. A modified looks like this," she pulled an illustration from her desk and laid it atop the surface so that CJ could lean it to see it, "a surgeon will remove the entire breast and the axillary lymph nodes in the underarm, but not the chest wall muscles under the breast."
"I assume that the advantage of doing this is the certainty that we're getting everything before it can spread."
"Precisely. Also, despite the drawbacks to the surgery, which we will need to talk about, I think it provides better peace of mind for patients, and with better peace of mind comes better healing."
"Tell me about the downsides." CJ wanted to shift around. She made herself stay still.
"Psychologically, this surgery is hard on women. Either way, I'm going to press you to see a therapist, as this disease takes a mental toll, but surgery like this can affect the way you understand your body even more than the actual cells that are eating it alive, and that's something to seriously consider. There are certainly risks with double mastectomies, as there are with any major surgery. Should you decide to opt for this I will have you donate blood ahead of time in case of such problems arising. Also, I can't sit here and promise you one hundred percent success. While the average rate of survival for breast cancer stage II is 71%, and even higher, around 88% for those women with tumors smaller than 5 centimeters, I still can't say this is a sure thing. It's not. But I find it to be our best chance. My confidence that you can survive with this procedure is excellent, it just isn't infallible."
CJ already knew most of this. Preparation had given her some small sense of control over the situation, and she was more than willing to take what she could get. "What's the recovery process involve?"
"Once you get out of the surgery, which will take about two hours. You're gonna need to stay overnight. You could have to stay for about three nights, depending on how the healing process is going and what the surgeon and I think. Once you're home, you're going to need a lot of rest, and you're going to be incredibly sore. CJ, I know you live by yourself, but you're going to have to ask people to help you out. Believe me, this is not something you want to be recovering from on your own."
"How long will it take to know the result of the surgery?"
Dr. Ryun shook her head. "I'll know when you wake up. You'll be kept in surgery until I know. You'll need to regain some strength before we can start you on either of the follow-up treatment courses, though. They are incredibly harsh on the body."
"Yeah." CJ attempted a smile. "I read."
"I can give you some time to think about this, discuss it with someone, if that will help, but for your sake we need to move on this pretty soon."
"I appreciate that doctor, but I think I'm going to go with the expert's advice here."
"Double modified radical mastectomy?"
"Would it be possible to think up a code word for it? Something like 'bunny' or 'sundae topping'? Those really sound far less overwhelming."
"You pick a word and tell me what it is. In the meantime, I'll talk with the hospital. I'm going to see if an oncology surgeon I work with, Dr. Henrietta Jameson can take care of this, unless you have someone specific you want?"
"No, I trust your judgment."
"I'm going to try to set this up for early next week, CJ. You need to talk with your boss STAT."
CJ kept her features calm, well aware that an outward semblance of calm was nearly as convincing to the person portraying it as to those she was trying to fool. "Yes, ma'am. Call me when you know."
"Keep your phone on."
CJ laughed at that. "I can't remember the last time I turned it off that didn't involve a plane flight."
"Well then, don't go anywhere."
CJ tapped at the edge of Leo's door after getting out of the final press briefing for the day. "Have a minute?"
Leo motioned her inside. "What's on your mind?"
CJ shut the door behind her, which occasioned an odd look from Leo. She sat down. She'd thought through every possible way to tell her boss about the impending surgery and treatments, nearly practiced the way she had early on in her press secretary career. But this was Leo, not the reporters who, friendly or no, had blood on their tongues. "Earlier this week I was diagnosed with breast cancer."
Leo stilled in that nearly imperceptible way he had at hearing news upon which he'd rather have turned his back. "How are you doing? Is that a stupid question?"
"No, I'm still asking myself that." CJ shifted in her seat. "The thing is, I met with my doctor today. Surgery's going to be necessary, and after that probably radiation and chemo, definitely one or the other. It was fairly obvious from our conversation that there isn't going to be any way for me to keep up the kind of hours that I do at the moment, and I realize that you need a press secretary who can fulfill that commitment."
Leo interrupted her as soon as she took a breath. "If I understand what you're saying, I think you're probably getting ahead of yourself."
Leo shook his head slightly. "How far along is it?"
"Early second stage."
"What does your doctor say the chances are?"
"There were a lot of numbers involved, and I was," CJ gestured a little, trying not to seem desperate, "concerned with other issues. They were good, I caught that."
"Then we're certainly going to want you back here when you've beaten this, and any time we can get you during the fight."
CJ bit the inside of her lip. "Please don't think that I'm unappreciative-"
"Then don't be unappreciative. Take a leave of absence, CJ. It's hardly unprecedented."
"Sir, Josh was shot on the job."
"Thank you for sparing us that sort of drama," Leo said evenly. "When is your surgery?"
"Monday morning. My doctor wanted it sooner, but I didn't. . . I haven't exactly been forthcoming about all of this. I was hoping," CJ huffed, "well." She slid her eyes to the side a bit before refocusing in on Leo. "Would it be possible for me to get five minutes at the end of the senior staff briefing tomorrow morning? I want to tell them myself."
"I insist. And go home, we can work out the details of your leave in the morning."
CJ stood. She hesitated for a second before whispering, "Thanks. Thank you."
"Thank me when I've done something."
"I've been hearing that a lot lately."
"Maybe you should pick up a trendy new skill and listen."
"I'll pencil that in on my list of things to consider."
Leo smiled at her. "If you need anything."
CJ nodded. "I'll just be going then." She could feel Leo's gaze on her as she opened the door and even when she'd walked past it. Leo wasn't much in the habit of paying attention to something once it was out of his immediate arena, there were so many other things that needed attending but CJ's father had always done that, watched her until she'd disappeared from sight. CJ grasped at the feeling and took it all the way home with her.
Leo skipped to the following item on his never-ending mental list. "The secretary of treasury wants a representative appointed for the EU trading summit this summer."
The president looked annoyed. "Isn't that his job?"
Leo didn't deny it. "It was evidently brought up that there might be some favoritism involved given the situation with his son-in-law."
CJ tried to remember what that situation was, but all she could remember was that it had occurred more than two years previous and hadn't been a big domestic issue at the time anyhow. The president inclined his head. "All right, farm it out to whomever you deem suitable."
Leo looked over at Josh, who nodded with only trace amounts of reluctance in the motion. Leo moved on to the next issue. "The CDC releases its annual report today, Toby, I'm going to need you looking into that."
Toby asked, "Mr. President is there any chance of the First Lady also doing a run through and noting anything that she finds unduly alarming?"
The president waved a hand. "Talk with her."
Toby said, "All right," softly.
"Anything else?" The president put his hands on his knees in Bartlet speak for I'm ready to get moving.
"DC annual benefit for the homeless is hoping for a press release from our office. CJ?"
"Did they send us anything in writing?"
Leo nearly cracked a smile. "Do they ever?"
CJ sighed. "I'll call them."
Leo said, "The Ukrainian ambassador-"
"Not now," the president said. "After we deal with their neighbors."
"That's pretty much it, sir," Leo said in that way that translated into, I can take care of the rest by myself, "except that CJ asked for a couple of minutes to talk to all of us."
CJ tucked a strand of hair neatly behind her ear. It was amazing to her that for all the times she had stood in front of a room full of reporters with their claws unsheathed and poised on the brink of bloodletting, having the eyes of these five men on her could make her need to catch her breath for a second. The import of what she was about didn't make things any easier. "I wanted all of you to know that I asked Leo for a leave of absence last evening."
"No," the President said at the exact same moment as Toby. The president's was imperious and in his normal vein, Toby's was slightly panicked. She was pretty sure she was the only one who noticed that last part.
CJ overrode both men. "Because I have breast cancer. And I'll need a while for treatment."
"Breast cancer?" Sam asked the question as though he'd never heard of the words.
Josh mouthed the words. CJ couldn't determine if he was silently providing an echo to Sam or just trying to get the taste of the words out of his mouth. She certainly knew that feeling.
Ridiculously, she felt like explaining it to them as though they were three year olds. The crestfallen look on Sam's face, the slide of Josh's eyes away from her, the blank, hidden expression of Toby, and President Bartlet's mouth tightening with irrational anger stopped her. "I was diagnosed late last week. I'll be going in for surgery on Monday."
"Lumpectomy?" The president asked, his tone tight and under control, but just barely.
"Double modified radical mastectomy."
Josh looked ill. CJ wondered if maybe she should get the wastebasket. He took a deep breath, moved slightly closer to Sam without really moving at all. CJ knew that if the two of them weren't in one of their on-again phases--a nice term for two people who only slept together when driven there by stress due to the possible consequences of an actual relationship--they would be soon. She would have to remind them not to get caught. It really wouldn't do to have that story break while she was out.
"I should have Ellie explain that to me, right?"
"Are you using me as an excuse to talk to your daughter, Mr. President?"
"You have a problem with that, Ms. Cregg?" The president arched an eyebrow.
CJ, to her surprise, said, "Something good should come out of this."
"You will," the president ordered. "You'll come out of it."
She'd never seen the senior staff so desperate to believe the words of their (almost always) fearless leader.
Sam was waiting outside CJ's office when her staff filed out. He popped his head inside the doorframe. "May I come in?"
"Shut the door behind you."
Sam did so. "You haven't told them?"
"Actually, I've had enough excitement for one morning."
Sam sat on her couch. "What I wanted to talk to you about," Sam made a face, "is going to sound presumptuous any way I phrase it."
"How many ways have you tried?"
Sam looked guilty. CJ let him off the hook. "What is it?"
"I'm concerned about the fact that you live by yourself."
As it had once or twice before, Sam's earnestness obliterated any ability she had to be flippant in response to his comment. "It's not ideal, I'll admit."
"Josh suggested we get you a dog."
"One of those über-canines that, you know, dress themselves while saving children from volcanic eruptions."
"Despite his position as part of the president's senior staff, Sam, this is among the reasons that Josh Lyman isn't exactly the first person I turn to in times of emotional crisis. His judgment tends to go through a period of impairment."
"That was actually one of his better suggestions."
"Was Toby in on this conversation?"
"It nearly came to physical blows."
"The mental image I've just conjured up is one that will bring me happiness for the days to come."
"My suggestion was that we should help. I think we should help."
CJ wasn't entirely sure where the lump in her throat came from, but it was decidedly inconvenient. "Clearly you haven't checked the schedules of you and the people you work around of late." She stood up and came to sit on the couch with him. "Sam, I've talked to Gina and Dez, they're going to-"
"Drop in on their lunch breaks?"
"I didn't mean it like that."
"Refer to my above statement. You work no less than either of them."
"But there are three of us who are willing to go to our boss and ask if there's anyway that we can work out a schedule so that somebody can be with you at all times in the immediate aftermath and on call for the rest of the time. If Gina and Dez could help out that makes five of us. And once you tell Donna and Carol I'm willing to bet that number jumps to seven. Practically a legion."
"Don't repeat that allusion in front of the president."
"Unlike Josh, I learn from my mistakes."
CJ made a sound of amusement.
When it became clear that she wasn't going to say anything, Sam pleaded softly. "Let us help, CJ. You know how it is in here, day after day. You come to work in the morning hoping that something helpful will get accomplished and it most likely doesn't. Even if does, it doesn't turn out the way you would have liked. Even if it turns out the way you would have liked it's for the benefit of thousands of people whom you'll never meet."
"I'm not public education or the environment," CJ reminded him, gently, given the context. Also given that she was mentally struggling with the impulse to sniffle a little bit at Sam's sweetness, or, alternatively, growl something about being a grown woman who could take care of herself. Realistically she knew that Sam didn't doubt this last, nor more than she or any other staffer did. She also knew that recuperation from major surgery was hard even on the most hearty of individuals. Which didn't make her feel any less frustrated than she had when President Bartlet had pushed the issue of her having a Secret Service detail.
"You're more important to me," Sam said. There wasn't enough time between words for him to have thought through the response, but he didn't blush after saying it, just met her eyes evenly.
CJ knew this wasn't exactly true, that if the sacrifice of her person would have meant a solution to the health insurance crisis or a path to world peace that Sam would hand her over. He wouldn't enjoy it, but he'd do it. Then again, she'd probably hand herself over, shoe collection and all, if it came to that. "You can't let this take away from the job. Things are going to be crazy enough around here without me to rule with calm and equanimity."
Sam, knowing he'd gotten his way, grinned. "Yes, ma'am."
"And it's on a volunteer basis only. No approaching Donna and Carol once the word is out."
Sam put a hand to his heart. "Scouts honor."
"The Boy Scouts are evil."
"They weren't when I was a kid."
"Evil doesn't spring wholly formed, Samuel, it ferments."
"Maybe I just didn't notice the evil."
"You have to be on the lookout," CJ said knowingly, tapping at the corner of her eye.
Sam's eyes strayed to CJ's breasts before immediately flitting back up to her face. CJ gave one final tap.
Dez was in CJ's kitchen, rifling through her cabinets when CJ came home. Seated on her knees atop CJ's counters so that she could reach, Dez craned her neck back to peer out from behind the cabinet in which her head was immersed. "I could have sworn you had crackers somewhere in this place."
CJ resisted the urge to support Dez from the back. Just barely five feet or no, Dez was a highly trained and thoroughly capable Bureau agent; she wasn't going to fall to her death in the middle of CJ's kitchen. "One cabinet to the right," CJ said, hoping both that she was correct and that the crackers were still in edible condition. She was going to need to find a grocery delivery service. "Gina give you the key?"
"We made a copy. I said we should probably ask before we did that, but Gina ignored me."
"Don't worry, I'll make it clear I'm not paying her for the copy."
"Oh man. Yeah, you're probably going to have to."
"I should actually make more. I don't know if Sam contacted either of you."
"Gina called and said something about a care schedule?" Dez hopped down, crackers in hand. "But I think it was Josh who called her, in a particularly Josh-state of existence, so she suggested talking to you about what was actually going on."
"Sam had this idea about making sure that someone was either with me or on call around the clock until I was well enough to. . ." CJ watched as Dez unscrewed the lid to her previously unopened peanut butter jar without any sign that it was even sealed. She determinedly did not think about the ways in which that worked as a metaphor for her life right at this moment. Even more determinedly she did not grit her teeth while saying, "Be independent again."
Dez noticed her watching. "You want some? Who's putting the schedule together? Sam. I don't envy him trying to coordinate the what, four of us?"
"Five, so far. Toby's on board. No, I'm not hungry. Thanks."
"I haven't really told very many people. Sam thinks there are a few who'd be willing to pitch in once they know."
Dez found a butter knife and took to spreading peanut butter over the crackers. Her eyes, a particularly light brown that CJ sometimes found unnerving, were focused on CJ. "You don't want to tell people?"
"It's not that. I mean, certainly, once I'm feeling well enough," CJ repeated the words silently to herself for emphasis, "I'm in the perfect position to pitch in on education efforts-"
"So it's easier to tell the world about it, knowing that it will be taken as an object lesson, than it is to tell other people who they know care about you to do things like make sure you have access to water and medication in the days after you have a surgery that represents a serious trauma to your system?" Dez didn't ask the question judgmentally. She asked like she already knew the answer.
"You've dealt with this before?"
"My mom died of lupus. She never wanted to ask for help either." Dez licked a swath of peanut butter from the webbing beneath her thumb and her pointer finger. "I wish she had, CJ. It would have meant more time with her."
"Even if you didn't have the time?" CJ fought to keep her eyes open and dry against the backwash of grief that thinking of her father always brought.
"She raised me by herself after my father was killed in action, CJ. What's more important than that?"
"I can't actually say that in relation to any of you." CJ stole one of Dez's already spread crackers.
"No, I guess not. Still, Gina swears that the only way she got through the aftermath of Rosslyn was that she knew she could call you at any time, day or night. Our relationship wouldn't have gotten past the first week if you hadn't talked her into giving it a chance. I bet Sam, Josh and Toby have their reasons as well. They seem mildly human."
"Most of the time," CJ agreed.
"Look, speaking of the triumphant trio, can I ask a personal question?"
"Off the record?"
"Do I look like a reporter?"
Even at her near midget stance, Dez was certainly pretty enough to be one. Her hair, which she kept pinned up, was shoulderblade length, solidly brown, curly and healthy. Her skin had a warm caramel tone that CJ suspected was the result of a Latina-Caucasian parentage, and her facial features were pert and friendly, the sort of face one would see on a local five o'clock news anchor. CJ didn't mention any of this. "Informants are often harder to pick out."
"Your confidence in me is astounding." Dez rolled her eyes at the cracker box, as though it had been the offender. "Yes, off the record."
"Sam and Josh. Are they?"
"Are you going to throw that box at me if I tell you it's complicated?" CJ had reason to know that Dez could throw really hard. Harder than Gina. She would never tell Gina that.
"They're part of the Bartlet administration, you expected that I would think it could be any other way? What does complicated mean?"
"Complicated means that they have an extremely ill-organized system of falling discreetly into bed with each other whenever things heat up and they need the release."
"So it's just sex."
"No, if it were just sex, it would be better organized."
"I don’t understand."
"I wouldn't really expect you to." CJ shook her head slightly. "It's just that neither Sam nor Josh tends to think at their best when there're emotion involved. Donna once told me something she'd said to Josh about the fact that one of these days he was going to have to realize that bumping into women and hoping they'd take pity on him wasn't always going to work."
CJ smiled a bit, because that was most certainly true. "Josh responded by saying that it had up till then, and really, that explains Joshua Lyman and his relationship to romantic attachment near to perfectly. And Sam, even when he's fighting with Josh, has a bizarre hero-worship complex that I think comes from Josh being the older of the two, but there could be history I don't know about." In fact, there probably was. There were some things that were between the two of them, though, and CJ could respect that. At least until it landed President Bartlet in trouble.
"The problem is," CJ continued, "I think the two of them might be validly in love, but given the restrictions that working for the president's administration puts on that, and the fact that neither of them much know how to handle an attachment that doesn't at heart have political motivation stamped all over it, well. Ill-organized sexual liaisons are what we're left with."
"The president wouldn't support them if the media found out they were carrying on a relationship?" Dez asked.
"The president's not a hypocrite. He'd support them, but it would be a mess, and not something that any newly-founded or even long-together couple could easily survive. It'd make my life a living hell, that’s for sure."
"That's the one thing I think Gina doesn't miss about you."
"Trust me, there are a lot of things Gina doesn't miss about me, but yes, I'm sure the sneaking around wasn't a picnic. I wasn't terribly fond of it either. Sometimes I think I shouldn't have been quite so good at it, that if all hell had broken loose over me that I could have cleaned up what would have been my own mess and Josh and Sam could both smile a little more often."
Dez screwed the lid back on the peanut butter jar. "You did what you thought was best. Hindsight is what it fucking is, but we don’t get that on the first run, y'know?"
"Do I ever," CJ said. "Do I ever."
Sam's prediction about Donna and Carol rallying to the cause turned out to be dead on, which surprised nobody. After CJ returned from an intentionally casual lunch wherein she'd informed the two women of her condition, CJ told Carol, "I need some basic numbers. How many women in the US are diagnosed a year, how many can afford treatment, anything you see that you think would be a good thing for the general public to know."
"You're going to make an announcement to the press corps?"
CJ rifled through a new batch of papers that had magically appeared on her desk while she was away. "Mm. Something Dez said. It won't be much, just an opening volley, I'll concern myself with an actual education campaign when I'm back, that way I have something to think about it while I'm laying around in a proto-gimp state. But for now I'm going to make an announcement, which, among other things, saves the person giving the first press-conference after I leave from having to do so."
"Always thinking of others."
"And their way of saying things about me in an unflattering light."
Carol smiled. "I'll get you those numbers."
CJ's computer alerted her to new incoming mail about a half an hour later, while she was looking over all the reports on guerilla movement in Laos. She glanced over, grateful for the break from trying to understand precisely who was on which side and over what principles the fighting had sprung. The email had an attachment, and at the top a quick note from Carol, "I summarized most of what the NCI had to say on the matter."
CJ scanned over the numbers. She took mental notes of what she planned on including and what wasn't terribly essential when a soft knock sounded on the frame of her door. She glanced up to see Toby standing there. "Misery, as it turns out, doesn't love company. In fact, I'm not even sure the two like seeing each other. It's more of a twice a year, Christmas and Easter relationship wherein one drives the other quickly to madness and if they're both to survive the only solution is to get themselves to the nearest Cineplex and pray there's a movie that both are willing to sit through."
Toby popped a sunflower seed in his mouth and chewed at it slowly. "All right. May I come in?"
"If you start being polite at this moment, Toby Ziegler, our friendship is completely over."
Toby took a step inside and sat on her couch. "Noted. You're working on something?"
"Not something for the office. I was going to announce this evening, give the press a little bit of time to expect someone new during the time that I'll be out so I wanted some numbers and PSA material to give the statement a little oomph. Also, I think it might sound lame just to say it without anything else."
"Lame," Toby repeated, not a general tactic unless he was about to yell. CJ wasn't always brilliant at reading him, but this didn't seem to be one of those times.
"How are the twins?"
"They both have cool kid scars to show off to their posse."
It took everything CJ had to keep a straight face at the words "cool kid" coming out of Toby's mouth. "Fourteen month olds have posses now?"
"It's a different world, Claudia Jean."
"Tell me about it."
Toby declined to do so. "You've seen the reports on Laos?"
"Are we actually talking about that?"
"Not unless forced to, but I wanted you to have the information in case that happened."
"Is Gina going with you? For the surgery?"
"Ellie has work at that time, and with the lab being built the way it is Gina doesn't feel comfortable staffing her with someone else."
CJ couldn't remember if she was allowed to mention that Dez would be out of town again. "Indisposed."
"Over my dead body. Carol has to be here if I'm not. You have no idea, she's going to be your rock of the mighty and everlasting Gibraltar."
Toby looked discomfited and CJ figured maybe she should have used a different figure of speech. He asked, "Will you let me send Sam, then?"
"You can honestly spare him?"
"I can. And there are things he can be working on while he waits."
"And you'll be able to handle a panicky Josh with no Sam to counterbalance things?"
"That's what we have Leo for."
"Evil is a good look on you, Ziegler."
Toby smirked. He popped another sunflower seed in his mouth. "How much company does misery have, exactly?"
CJ looked down at the notes she had been taking on and off throughout their conversation, organizing the barebones of information that Carol had emailed. "Too damn much."
CJ knew when she was on and when she just wasn't. Most days she settled somewhere in between, leaning toward the on side. Today she was clearly mucking about in the not category. The reporters were actually looking anxious to just get out of there and try and salvage what they could of the pitiful lack of story seed she'd given them when she said, "One more thing this evening before you all disperse to the four ends of the earth. Or at least, the White House."
Hope sprang eternal on not a few faces, although the more experienced reporters seemed to realize she wouldn't have waited this long to deal with an international crisis of any sort. CJ brushed her eyes over the piece of paper in front of her. "According to the National Cancer Institute, breast cancer is the most common non-skin cancer. It is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women. In addition, every year a small number of men are diagnosed with breast cancer. In women aged forty to forty-nine, one out of every sixty-eight women is diagnosed with breast cancer per year. Although it galls me to admit even a range of my own age to you people, I am, as of right now, that one out of sixty-eight. I will be taking some time off for treatment, so you can expect someone else to be giving briefings, most likely Toby Ziegler with help from my assistant, Carol Fitzpatrick. Play nice." CJ wagged her finger at them, like naughty schoolchildren on an eerily silent playground.
Finally, Steve asked, "Are you taking questions?"
CJ hadn't planned on it, in fact, in her mental envisioning of this process she had already said goodnight and walked herself right the hell out of Dodge, but as she was still standing there, and as several of the reporters looked as though she'd shot their puppy, she said, "I suppose that depends on the nature of the question."
Steve was brave enough to follow up. "How long do you expect to be out?"
"It's unclear at this time. I will be having surgery next week, which will necessitate a healing period of at least a week once out of the hospital. From there my physician and I will consult about whether radiation and chemo are necessary. If they are I'm hoping to be around part time, but my doctor has made it very clear that overtaxing myself is a good way to make this a death sentence."
There was silence for a bit after that, which CJ thought was sweet, given the number of heinously intrusive questions people could have been asking. Mark finally spoke up. "How are you feeling?"
"Fine, actually, thanks for asking." CJ smiled wryly.
Chris asked, "Are you scared?"
CJ glanced over the faces of people she knew well, those that she was just getting used to. A room full of reporters meant nothing was off the record. She could refuse to answer, certainly, but Chris was still looking at her the way she used to look at her dad when asking him things like why her dog Avonlea had to die, or if she was very smart at all, or if that was just something all parents told their children. "Terrified. What woman isn't?"
Chris kept eye contact, which was something CJ respected, particularly as most of the men were doing anything but. Finally, Danny said, "You'll be missed."
Over the murmur of assent, CJ tilted her head. "All right. Go home, hug your family. Get out."
She stepped off the podium and walked out of sight of the cameras. It wasn't home. Not exactly.
CJ's doorbell rang at five thirty in the morning on the day of her surgery. She didn't have to be at the hospital until eight and although she needed to shower, that meant she could sleep in until seven. Sam was driving her, so he'd call if the morning traffic reports indicated a change in that. Or maybe, she mused, pulling herself out of bed, he'd just come over and get her.
Only it wasn't Sam at the door. CJ stood back to let her visitor inside. "Hey Josh."
Josh, unsurprisingly, hadn't spoken a non-job related word to her since her announcement. He stepped in the apartment, closing the door behind him. "You were sleeping."
"It's something we humans do on occasion."
"They mentioned when they put the bionic parts in that I might be different from the other boys and girls."
CJ sighed. "It's five-thirty in the morning. I'm scheduled to have considerable parts of myself removed in less than four hours, and you haven't spoken to me for the better part of a week. What are you doing here?"
"I deserved that," Josh graciously admitted.
CJ knew it was her turn. She didn't take it. Josh deflated a bit. "You're. . .one of the first things they tell you is that you have to be brave for the person."
"The doctors, the nursing staff, whoever's around. Be brave." Josh laughed at something that clearly wasn't funny. "I was very brave, CJ. So brave that when my father died I was half a country away."
CJ held out her hand. "C'mon."
"Where're we going?" But he took her hand without waiting for an answer.
CJ lead them into her bedroom where she curled back up under the covers. She left Josh to do as he would and eventually, he sat at her side. When she felt the depression, she said, "You don't have to be brave for me."
Josh voice sounded impossibly young as he said, "I want to be."
"I don't need brave, Josh. I need here. I need honest."
"Sam asked if I wanted to be the one to go to the hospital and I said no."
"You're bad with hospitals," CJ agreed.
"I went for Donna."
"It was spur of the moment panic."
"This is drawn-out panic."
"You gonna come visit me while I'm laid up, on drugs and susceptible to just about anything you and Toby dream up?"
"Every day," Josh said, and the earnestness in him was out of place, like maybe if she looked up it would be Sam sitting next to her, not Josh. Only it was Josh.
"Sweetie," CJ twisted a bit so as to obtain eye-contact, "I'm going to be fine." Given the fact that this had been her mantra every moment since finding the lump, she was good at saying it with a forceful certainty.
"You have to. Charlie's life would be far too easy without you around, for one. And Toby has no grace and even less tact. And the entire administration's sex appeal will disappear."
"That last one's a pretty sure bet anyhow."
Josh flinched. Said, "Never."
CJ smiled. "You really are very sweet sometimes, you know?"
"A pretty girl told me that once."
"Did you believe her?"
Josh hesitated. "I wanted to."
"Still want to?"
CJ levered herself up so that she could kiss his forehead. "Thanks for coming."
"Sorry it took me so long."
CJ forgave him.
The nurses allowed Sam to stay with CJ the last few minutes before the anesthesia was added into her IV, sending her off into less worrisome places for the duration of the surgery. Sam kept his fingers lightly on her head, and struggled rather obviously for stillness until she said, "May I ask something personal?"
"Is it about Josh?"
CJ thought about teasing him for jumping to conclusions. "No, I thought I'd save that for afterward, when I really need a pick-me-up."
Sam frowned a little in the way he did when he was considering all the consequences of something. "You may ask."
"Is Norman a family name? Because if we're being honest here, and I feel that I have a right to be just at this moment, it's sort of dorky."
"And Samuel isn't?"
"Norman has one up on it."
Sam's face acknowledged this with a slight shift of muscles. "And that's personal?"
"Middle names can be sticky. In the world of junior high playgrounds, they can be downright explosive."
"Good thing we're not twelve anymore."
"And yet you still seem less than thrilled over the idea of telling me."
Sam shrugged. "My mom's a World War II history buff. She wanted to name me Normandy but my father felt that was too frufru."
"Do you really want me to use the synonym girly?"
"Is girly truly synonymous with frufru?"
"I'll check Roget's when I get back to the office."
"The other kids beat you up anyway, didn't they? I mean, despite the lack of frufru?"
"It was a private school. I was best friends with a guy named Hareton Tilbank Vandermeer the Fourth, which, just in case you aren't clear on these things, means he was actually fifth, since junior traditionally comes before second."
"Tell me he at least took a pounding every once in a while. Just for the sake of school pride."
"We called him Van. And he was roughly the size of a cargo train."
"The truth comes out, he protected you from the bullies."
"There was an incident once. Gym shorts were involved."
"I'll take the fifth on that one."
"This conversation took a turn toward the self-incriminating?"
"It was getting there. Slowly, but nonetheless surely." Sam looked up as a woman entered the room.
CJ said, "Hey doc."
Dr. Ryun smiled. "They give you a little of the happy juice ahead of time?"
"Smidge," CJ said.
The doctor stood by CJ, put a hand on her shoulder. "You ready?"
CJ made a face. "Got all dressed for it, didn't I? Let's do this."
The doctor nodded. "All right. Here we go."
CJ didn't feel a thing when she came to. Of course, in those first few moments she didn't remember a thing either, so that didn't strike her as odd. What did send off bells was the fact that Gina seemed to be at her side, smiling a little and smoothing back hairs from CJ's forehead. CJ was pretty sure she and Gina had broken up quite some time ago. When she tried to express that sentiment, however, nothing came out.
Gina said, "Hey, dopey. Want some ice chips?"
That sounded heavenly. CJ tried nodding, but settled for a blink. Evidently it was enough, as Gina placed a sliver of ice on her lips. She set to talking with a cool, even tone. "Sam didn't want to leave, but they needed him. Toby was actually here for a bit. You woke up twice, but the doctor didn't think you'd remember. I'm guessing she was right." Gina fed her another chip. "Everything supposedly went well."
Slowly things began to slide into place in CJ's mind. When she had remembered most of where she was and why she was there, the beauty of not feeling anything became a little more apparent. "Good stuff," she managed to slur.
"Yeah," Gina agreed with an amused smile. "Speaking of which, they brought you Jell-o, but it was lime so I had them take it back, because I know all about your irrational prejudices against anything lime."
"Not. . .irrational." Speaking was taking an inordinate amount of effort. But Gina gave her another ice chip for her efforts.
"They promised me cherry, or orange. You hungry? I can-" Gina motioned over her shoulder with her head.
CJ couldn't feel her stomach. "No. El. . .lie?"
"Went home early tonight so that I could get in to see you. She said to send her best wishes and she's going to try and visit sometime later this week. For a doctor she's not the greatest when people she knows get sick."
"Out of town, remember?"
CJ hadn't. Gina didn't seem too concerned. "Anyhow, honestly, they were kind of uptight about letting me in here and I'm on the list. They wouldn't let me in at the same time as Sam or Toby. One person at a time, and we're not to keep you awake."
CJ struggled to keep her eyes open. Gina rattled the cup of ice to help out, and popped another chip between CJ's lips. "I'm a bad influence. Just one more, then you can sleep."
CJ dutifully sucked at the block until the last of the unfrozen liquid slid down her throat.
Sam was by her bedside when she woke up next. The smile that broke out on his face when she opened her eyes was so bright she nearly closed them again to protect her vision. Instead she whispered, "Morning?"
Sam nodded. "Around eight. Want some water?"
"Drugs?" CJ asked.
Sam reached out and took her right hand. "You have a button, see-" he depressed her pointer finger into something. "Should kick in soon, give it a second."
CJ waited for the pain medication to take away some of the blinding pain centered in her chest. When it did, she took a tentative breath. The corner of her eye caught on a burst of color that when she allowed her head to droop lazily toward the window turned out to be the most ridiculously overdone bouquet of wild and tropical flowers CJ had ever seen sitting unassumingly on her windowsill. Sam said, "Josh sent those. He's overcompensating."
CJ smiled, or at least she was pretty sure she did. The now full-blown high was disrupting several basic nervous functions. She managed to say, "Personal question."
"This is why we call you cruel behind your back. Because you wait for these moments and then challenge us to say no to you."
CJ just waited. Sam sighed. "All right, ask."
"Over. . .ten years. Yes?"
"That Josh and I have been. . .? On and off. You know the way we are."
"Love. . .him?"
Sam smiled the way he did when he was disappointed in something. "I try not to think about it too much."
"Career. . .more important?"
"Yes. At the very least the president's ability to get things done without being derailed by yet another scandal is. And there's always what will happen, what I might want, what he might want. Things that making any sort of rash decision would preclude from occurring."
CJ looked at him as searchingly as she could manage, knowing that she probably appeared rather dopey. "Laurie?"
"That was different. It was about larger issues."
CJ thought she might have gone cross-eyed at that logic for a moment. She tried her best to shake her head. "This. . .isn't?"
"And Laurie was on board with being upfront." Sam tilted his head to one side. "It's possible we work best this way, anyhow."
"Liar," CJ said. "Liar who. . .lies to. . .sick women."
"Manipulative. . .manipulator."
"All those. . .hours speechwriting." CJ closed her eyes. "Going. . .to good use."
Sam huffed with something that was probably amusement. "Sleep, CJ."
"Think. . ." but she was too far gone to finish the sentence.
Dr. Ryun asked, "You have a ride home?"
"She has me," Donna answered from where she was standing quietly in the corner, making it possible for the doctor to do her work. Donna, for all her quirks, knew about staying out of the way.
"All right, why don't you go get your car and bring it to the front entrance? I'll bring her out."
When Donna was out the door, CJ rolled her head toward the doctor. "I feel like someone dragged me through three states behind the Mack truck before running me over with it."
Ryun put her hand on CJ's shoulder. "I know, this part takes time. Not that this is going to help, but you're doing really well."
"And," CJ squinted, "we got it, yes?"
"It's looking like it. You're still on too much pain medication for me to feel entirely comfortable discussing what's next with you, though. Wait a week for that. I've written out instructions of how to decrease the dosage. And if you think you hurt now, just wait."
"Glad I have something to look forward to."
"You seem like the type who prefers honesty."
"Often in spite of myself. You're going to have to help me get into an upright position."
"I was waiting for the chair." As she said it, one of the nurses with a wheelchair came into CJ's room. She and the doctor helped CJ into a pair of sweats and then transferred her into the chair. The nurse picked up CJ's bag and walked alongside her while Dr. Ryun wheeled her to the exit.
From there Donna helped to pour her into the car. CJ said, "I'll get the belt," as Donna reached for it.
Donna said, "I know moving your arms around in that way sounds like a lot of fun right now, but trust me, you're deluding yourself. I'll be very careful." She was too, making sure to tuck the seatbelt's shoulder strap against the seat so as to preclude it from brushing up against CJ's forming scars. She drove carefully, too, with slow approaches to traffic lights and mincing moves over the speed bumps in the parking lot adjacent to CJ's apartment complex.
Donna parked directly in front and came around to help CJ out. When CJ was standing, she said, "You're in the fire lane."
"I'll send the ticket to you."
The elevator jolted CJ more than the car ride. By the time Donna moved her into her apartment and settled her on the bed she was biting her lips to stop involuntary tears from falling. Donna promised, "I'm gonna move my car and grab your stuff, then I'll be right back."
CJ closed her eyes. "Call the office, tell them I'm home."
"Sure. You want some water? Tea? I'd offer Stoli but I don't think Josh would let me come back."
"You shouldn't let him tell you what to do."
"He's actually my boss," Donna pointed out, somewhat sagely.
"Hm. Water would be nice."
"Okay, I'll go pour some of that quickly and then I really am going to go move my car, just in case there's a fire and we need one of those nice trucks they send out."
"Thoughtful of you."
Donna soothed a hand over CJ's hair. "That's me."
CJ woke up to another full glass of water and Gina seated next to her bed, legs extending onto the bed, crossed and no less enticing for being covered in denim. CJ shook the thought away, mildly amused. "Morning."
Gina threw aside the "Newsweek" she'd been perusing. "Hardly. Do you actually read those?"
"That's what they pay me for."
Gina didn't argue, not like she had back when she'd had the right by way of significant otherhood. "Your doctor called to check up." Then with a mischievous smile, "Striking woman."
One of the first things that CJ had fallen for in Gina was her tendency to see things that most people didn't, a side effect of being trained to constantly catch the madperson in a crowd. However, "She's roughly twenty years older than you. And married. With grandchildren. Besides which, do you really want to find out who would win in a knock-down between you and Dez?"
"Actually, I just think you're sexy when you're exasperated."
"You always were slightly wanton and less slightly incorrigible."
"It's a combination that's hard to resist." A knock at the door corresponded with the last of Gina's comeback, and she slid her legs to the floor to get up. "You expecting somebody?"
"Your shift's not up?"
"Not for another four hours."
"There's a peephole."
CJ didn't miss the way that Gina's right arm swung slightly behind her, ready to reach for the gun holstered at her back. CJ seriously doubted that the person at the door represented a threat, but Gina in full-alert mode was something she enjoyed watching too much to mention this small fact. After a moment there was the sound of Gina unlocking the deadbolt and letting the visitor inside. Absently CJ listened to the murmur of voices exchanging greetings, thrown by the fact that the voice wasn't one of the ones on normal rotation.
A second later Leo showed up at the door to her bedroom, a small bouquet of lilies held in his right hand. CJ said, "Not that I don't appreciate it, but it's nearly two in the morning."
"My job has demanding hours."
CJ smiled. Laughing still hurt enough to steer her clear of indulging unless really necessary. "There's a chair over here, if you were thinking about staying for a bit."
Gina swooped by at that moment, taking the lilies from Leo. "I'll find a vase."
"They're still were I used to keep them," CJ told her.
"You say that like we needed vases a lot." She disappeared again, and Leo walked into the room, sitting in the proffered chair.
"The president sends his well-wishes."
"Thank him for me. You look exhausted."
"We've got someone out at work."
"How's Toby holding up? He's on the CJ Schedule--yes, I know what it's called--but well, he's also Toby, and so feels that if he has information, by rights, it should be withheld from me."
"He's fine," Leo said.
"Your years in politics have yet to lend you a way with dissembling."
"Only in the case of pretty women," Leo told her, a tired smile chasing his words.
"Toby misses you. We all miss you."
"The office is floundering without my desperately needed sex-appeal?"
"Well, that and the women's constituency seems to think this is some sort of conspiracy on our part."
"Please tell me that was you being inordinately dry, though ordinately funny."
"For the most part."
"Pretty much my exact reaction."
CJ sighed. "This is going to be a bit of a non-sequitur."
"These days, anything's better than talking about the women's constituency."
"It's a bit personal, actually." CJ knew that if she'd been standing, been dressed in her daily suits that she would have used her hands to make herself seem a bit more delicate, the conditioning of being a woman in a man's world. Now, though she could feel a slight flush on her cheeks, she stayed still.
Leo looked around the room pointedly, but didn't say anything. CJ acknowledged this by hitching up one side of her mouth. "Do you go to church?"
Leo's expression was curious, but all he said was, "Occasionally. When the itch hits."
"I just. . .thought about maybe picking that up again. I haven't really decided, but I figured you probably go somewhere that people won't follow you."
"I drive into Virginia."
"But it's worth the cost of the tank?"
"And the time invested." Leo was silent for a moment before he offered, "If you want, when you're better-"
CJ gave him an appreciative glance. "Maybe. If I'm still feeling. . .the itch."
There was a knock at the door and CJ moved her eyes to where Gina had come in, the flowers arranged in a vase in one hand, and a glass of water in another. "Sorry to interrupt. You thirsty?"
"I could go for that glass with which you've come to tempt me."
Leo stood. "Sorry I couldn't stay for long, tomorrow's-"
"Fast approaching," CJ finished understandingly. "I appreciate your stopping by. Go. Say hi to everyone."
Gina put the glass of water into CJ's hands and went to let Leo out into the night.
CJ was getting used to the ritual of waking, one in which the decidedly sharp teeth of agony nipped into her chest and dragged her from the grip of repose. This time, however, the teeth were accompanied by a hand at her shoulder. That was new.
CJ took the necessary moment to adjust to the pain enough for coherency to come of its own accord and opened her eyes. Above her, Sam was swaying a bit, looking intolerably apologetic and holding out a phone. "It's your doctor. She said it was all right to see if I could wake you."
CJ took the phone. "Thanks." Into the receiver she said, "Hello?"
"How are you feeling, CJ?"
"Like somebody removed large parts of my body. You?"
Ryun clucked a bit in what CJ imagined was a sympathetic manner. "I called to tell you what we've gathered on the results of the surgery."
"We got the tumor."
"That sounds good."
"It is. All the same, as your primary care physician on this, I am going to recommend both a course of radiation and chemo, because while the tumor is certainly gone, I'm still seeing signs of cancerous cells, and I want to eliminate anything that's even pretending to be harmful for your system. I don't know that anybody's mentioned this to you lately, but medical science is actually trickier than it looks. I prefer to leave all my bases covered."
"There's something oddly reassuring about that."
"Both radiation and chemo have serious side effects, not the least of which are extreme nausea, hair loss, bloating, and weakness. You should know that you're agreeing to a process that's hard on even the parts of your body that aren't supporting what we're trying to root out."
"I've read the literature you gave me. It mentioned that I might be able to accomplish things so long as I didn't overdo it."
"I feel like placing the power to do anything in your hands is a slippery slope, Claudia Jean. I don't want to have put your body through a traumatic surgery and sent you into a cycle of a pretty harsh medical treatment just to not have it work because you won't allow yourself the rest necessary."
"I thought I might just have some of my work brought to me. Just to help the others keep up. It's hard on them, having me out of the office."
"It'll be harder on them if you don't come back. I'm not saying this to be mean. I'm saying it to scare you into listening to me. However, as I don't want you to allow fright to lower your immunities and thereby create the opposite effect of what I'm going for, I also want you to see a psychologist. I can give you recommendations if you prefer, I know plenty of people who work specifically with women fighting cancer if that's something you think you'd find helpful."
"Any of them practice out of the hospital?"
"Would it be possible to meet with him or her before receiving treatments?"
"Her. We can probably work something out."
"You have a very nice young man answering your phone, CJ."
"May I go back to sleep now?"
"No, I want you to eat something and stay awake for a bit. Talk to your houseguest, read a book. You need to start building your energy back up. Trust me, you're going to need it."
"I've been doing the arm exercises," CJ protested. When Ryun didn't say anything she submitted to her obviously superior knowledge of how these things were supposed to work. "Yes, ma'am."
"Good girl," Ryun said approvingly, and hung up.
"What the hell are you doing?" Sam and Toby asked in unison as CJ shuffled into her kitchen at a pace that would have made snails scoff. She thought about telling them that they did that talking-together thing a lot of late, but decided to save it for a moment when it would truly annoy both of them.
"Last I checked it was called walking. Although, that might be a delusion of grandeur. Did I plan a party and forget to invite myself?"
Sam, Josh, Donna and Dez all had the good grace to look mildly abashed. Toby and Gina didn't bother. CJ seated herself gingerly in the nearest chair, biting her lip as even the minor impact jarred parts that were barely fine whilst not being thrown around and bumped into. Toby said, "Maybe you shouldn’t be up."
CJ waved a hand, still trying to get the pain under control. "My doctor has had me moving since the second day after the surgery. They actually prefer that you start that day, but I was a little loopy, if you'll recall. Movement supposedly makes things heal up quicker. And as I've been taking trips to the bathroom for several days under the supervision of the respectively gathered guests and a few others, I figured that meant it was time for a marathon walk to the kitchen. Plus, I heard sounds."
"Yeah, well, tell someone when you're ready to go back." Josh had moved to the chair by her side. He was very conspicuously not touching her, instead just watching her every move, as though one might cause her to fall into pieces on the floor and he didn't want to get stuck with sweeping up duty.
"I think you'll notice," CJ told him dryly. He didn't stop watching her. She didn't push the issue. As promised, he'd been to see her every day since the surgery if only for a couple minutes. He only stayed around when Sam was there as well. She could accept that whatever his issues were, he was trying his best not to let them affect her, which was really all she ever asked for where Josh was concerned. Anything else would have been unrealistic.
CJ looked over at Dez. "Got your perp yet?"
Dez winced. "We had to call in a profiler."
Sam poured himself a cup of coffee. "You don't like profilers?"
"They can be a little high maintenance," was all Dez said, but she slumped back into Gina, who slipped a hand beneath the hem of Dez's shirt to rub little patterns on her stomach. CJ tried not to stare jealously. She wasn't really, not of Gina and Dez. Just the touching between them. Had Josh and Sam been the type to touch in front of her she would have been avoiding eye contact in the same way. Hell, had Toby been the type to touch in front of her she would have done the same. Not that people had ever been in the habit of touching CJ constantly to begin with, and not that she had wanted to encourage that. It was difficult enough balancing sex appeal and power in a female package without having other people's handprints all over her.
That said, since the surgery touching had come to an absolute halt, even with Gina, who generally felt that CJ's body was just an extension of hers or Dez's. Gina believed that friendship came with certain privileges, and CJ had never cared to dissuade her, not when Gina knew perfectly well what was appropriate and what just wasn't. CJ missed her proprietary ways. She missed the comfort of fingers that weren’t her own. Forcefully, she pulled her eyes away from Gina and Dez and over to Donna. "So, wanna give me an update?"
Josh gasped in maligned shock. Donna grinned. "Orinson swung over on campaign finance, Toby and Sam have been arguing over what to do with the summer interns and Leo's head is still in the Middle-East."
While Donna was talking CJ carefully reached over as far as she could without serious consequences and took Josh's hand. Although he frowned at her in false condemnation, he took it in his own and squeezed a bit. "Who's winning the summer intern fight?"
"I am," Toby and Sam told her.
She raised her eyebrows. Toby ran a hand over his forehead. Sam looked inexplicably cheered. She glanced at the clock on her stove. 2:13. "Don't you people have a country to run in the morning?"
"Not me," Dez said. Gina for her part, told CJ, "I just have to keep it safe for the proper functioning of its commander-in-chief." And while CJ knew that Gina considered Ellie a walk in the park next to Zoe, that "just" still covered a lot of territory.
CJ shook her head at the two women. "You know, I can probably make it a night without anyone staying."
"I'm-" Donna started, but Josh broke in, "Yes, but do you have any idea how slowly Leo would kill me if it turned out you couldn't? I'm on for tonight."
"Right, okay. I'm going home then," Donna said, less flustered than she would have been without years of Josh-reading-experience under her belt, but still just a fraction off-kilter.
CJ waved slightly with her free hand. "Go get some sleep. All of you. Shoo. And honestly, I can get around now, I'm good to be left alone for hours upon hours at a time. I'll call somebody when I get my radiation schedule. Dr. Ryun talked about starting some time next week, when I'm more up for travel."
"Call Gina or me, we're organizing," Sam said, pushing himself from where he'd been leaning against her counter.
"All right," CJ agreed.
Gina stooped down to kiss the top of her head and whisper, "Sleep tight," as she passed by, Dez pushing her out the door. Toby was the last to file out of the room, his eyes lingering on Josh for a second longer than probably necessary.
Josh stood, extricating his fingers from CJ's and followed the others to the door. "I'm just gonna lock up." When he came back, he stood before her, obviously unsure of where it was all right to lay his hands. "Let's get you back to bed, yeah?"
CJ gave him her hands.
The first time CJ did things that she'd done every day of her life until this point were to be the worst. Not that the second time was terribly easier, or even the third or fourth, but the first time often took her breath away. Her breath, along with certain other things she'd always known about herself. She knew then, how much she'd have to relearn.
She made sure Gina was there the first time she took a shower. Her legs were still a bit wobbly when needed to support her for extended periods of time and it seemed for the best that somebody who already knew her parts be there just in case wobbly turned into non-functioning.
She didn’t look down when she slipped her nightgown over her shoulders and let it fall to the floor, turned the water to slightly past warm and stepped under the spray. She closed her eyes at the feel of water on her scalp and kept them closed through her ritual of rosemary and mint, suds and scrubbing. She opened them to grab her washcloth and shower gel but still resisted looking down.
The nurses told her they'd removed the bandages hours after the surgery to check that everything was healing all right. CJ didn't remember that. She remembered the final removal, before she'd left the hospital, but she hadn't looked then, despite the nurse's suggestion that it might be easier sooner rather than later. CJ needed privacy for that, though.
So when she went to bring the washcloth gently against the healing, if still tender, area, CJ took a deep breath, and looked down.
It was disorienting, not knowing her own body. For several moments she just stared, trying to remember if she had ever looked like this, but if she had, it was a time before her brain had deemed important. Her throat blocked up, sticky and useless. CJ said softly, "It's just you, it's just different, it's just. . ."
CJ pressed the washcloth gently to the area and told herself that she was crying tears of pain even though the sensation was more discomfort than anything. Certainly not enough to induce her to tears. CJ had fallen out of a treehouse as a child and scrambled on back up the tree. But now it was easier to believe that she wasn't crying over something she couldn't get back, easier to believe that the pain that would go away was bringing on this momentary saline crisis.
She must have taken a long time, longer even than it had felt in that eternity of finding herself anew, because the door cracked and Gina called, "Babe?"
"Sorry," CJ said, reigning her voice in to sound as calm as possible. It was something she was good at, hiding the emotion in her voice. Gina wasn't the press, certainly, and she wasn't protecting anyone but herself, but still, some habits just are. "Just a little sore in places."
"You need anything?"
CJ gritted her teeth against the answer that her mind wanted to give, but her mind was stronger than her jaw in this particular instance, the washcloth still heavy against the opposite side of CJ's torso from where it had begun. "Gina?"
"Yeah, I'm here."
"Would Dez take it wrong if you held me tonight?"
Gina was silent for a moment. "What kind of girl do you think I'm dating, exactly?"
CJ moved the cloth to her stomach, thighs, the calves were a little bit harder, but she managed. "I didn't mean it like that."
"You coming out soon?"
"In a minute." CJ let the water do its work in washing the soap from her epidermal layer. "Gina?"
"Can you, uh, give me a moment?"
"To get out?"
"To get dressed."
"CJ, if you think-"
"Right now it's less about thought and more about emotion. And I really, really need you to go into the other room."
"All right. But this is only a temporary reprieve."
"I'll take it," CJ said. When she heard the door click shut, she turned off the water and stepped out into the bathroom's slightly cooler air.
CJ walked into the kitchen, fully dressed, to find Sam sitting with a newspaper, a cup of coffee and a glass of orange juice. He pushed the latter toward her. "I made you orange juice."
She blinked. "You made it?"
"Well," Sam said, rather defensively given the question, "I poured it from the carton into the glass."
"You shake it first?"
Sam pointed resolutely at the glass. "There's froth at the top. You think that just came out of nowhere?"
CJ swiped the glass and took a sip. She took another one, trying to get past the harsh mix of mint and citrus from having just brushed her teeth. Sam asked, "You wanna sit a while? We have ten minutes before we need to leave."
CJ took a third sip, a fourth. Sam asked, "CJ?"
"Hm?" She looked over at him. He didn't appear to be at his most happy-go-lucky.
"Are you nervous?"
Sam's face changed slightly, became a hint sharper. "About the radiation. I've heard it can be like a getting a sunburn. Not that I can imagine being thrilled about a treatment that is in itself quite toxic, but-" Sam stopped with a wince. "Yeah, I'm not helping here."
"I'm fine, Sam. Not particularly nervous."
"I probably would be. I think I am, actually."
CJ wasn't sure why she said what she said next. Maybe because he seemed so eager to make her feel better, or maybe just because he was the person there and she needed to say it to someone. "I laid out a bra."
"I. . .lay out my clothes for the next day, in the evening, it's habit. I mean, every once in a while something happens, bombings, last minute senate crises, that sort of thing and I either spend the night at the office making it a moot point, or I fall into bed before the niceties can be attended to, but mostly, ever since I was in grade school, that was how my mom taught me to do things. It's sometimes a pain, I mean, there's always the possibility that you'll wake up wanting to wear something different than you thought you would the night before, and then you have to put everything back and get the other outfit, or just leave the stuff for the next day and pull out what you want right then, but mostly it's a good thing. Means I don't have to make decisions that pertain to small things before I go in and make all sorts of big decisions at the office."
"And you laid out a bra," Sam said, comprehension evident in his voice. "From habit."
CJ nodded. "Habit." She smiled the bitter smile she reserved for when she'd much rather be crying. "Bruno Gianelli was being Bruno one time-"
CJ dipped her head in acknowledgment. "I'd done something. . ." she snapped her fingers, "gotten that meeting with Campos."
Sam grimaced. "Yeah. I remember that one."
CJ tilted her head. "He came to us."
"All right, well, I'd maneuvered things, and Bruno said, 'Man, you have a killer body, you know that?' And I said, 'In fact, I do.'"
"He wasn't talking about your body, CJ."
"Since he was actually talking about my intelligence and Machiavellian machinations, do you think we can safely assume that I already knew that, Sam?"
Sam looked down at the table. CJ sighed. "I'm sorry, I shouldn’t have-"
"I still think you're breathtaking."
CJ might have expected this had he not stumbled over the words, sounding more like a schoolboy trying to get close to some goddess on the playground than the White House's Deputy of Communications. Sam was sweet, he said things that he knew would make people feel better, and though it was rare that he was particularly insightful on that level, when he was, he was. But he had sounded like a schoolboy. "Sam."
He looked up at her and nodded seriously at her glass. "Finish your orange juice. Can't have you catching a cold."
CJ took another sip. It wasn't quite so bitter this time.
Dr. Ryun had arranged for CJ to see a Dr. Renanda Livston for therapy twice a week before radiation at least for the seven straight weeks that the radiation treatment would run. Ryun had warned her, "Your wit is certainly one of the things I treasure in you, but every once in awhile, you might want to think about telling Dr. Livston a truth or two."
CJ, who had actually been to a therapist during a particularly bad period of unemployment in her late twenties, said, "I know how it works," but had ended up promising anyway when the older woman just looked at her impassively in a fair imitation of Abigail Bartlet.
Dr. Livston was younger than CJ but almost as tall, with short red curls and sharp, but not unfriendly features. She held out a hand that was tattooed with the word 'survivor.' "Renanda, please."
"CJ," CJ shook the hand. "You don't like your title?"
"Oh I do. I worked my ass off for it. But I always found the presumption that people are supposed to talk to someone whom they can't call by her first name a bit odd."
CJ took the seat that Renanda had indicated while speaking, and Renanda sat down across from her. "How are you feeling?"
"My chest burns like hell, the chest itself is a wasteland where it was once part of my body, I feel like I don't know how to move anymore, I miss my job, I miss being the girl that people went to instead of the girl that people check up on and I could use a comfort fuck so badly I'd gnaw my arm off if it would get me anywhere." In the short silence that followed this declaration, CJ admitted, "I told Dr. Ryun I'd be honest."
Renanda nodded. "Excellent. So, you're feeling shitty?"
CJ put her palms to her eyes and let herself rest there for a moment before looking up. "My friends have been. . .fantastic, amazing, if you can figure out a few more adjectives for above and beyond the call of duty, that would be them."
"And they're driving you crazy?"
"Not by being around. I think I'd go crazy if they didn't drop by. Being away from everything, not having any control. . . I need them to come around, to bring me the stuff they do smuggle over my way, talk to me, ask my advice, sometimes, in rare brilliant moments, forget what's going on and argue with me. But I'm used." CJ stopped. "You have to understand, I'm not supposed to talk about this stuff."
"No, I can't imagine you are. But let's just assume between the two of us that you're talking about the fact that you are the only woman in the history of this country to spend two terms as the media face of the presidential administration, which places you in the unique position of being an enormously effective and powerful woman, one who is, at the moment, completely out of the loop and probably too tired to be anything else, and your friends coming around and making you toast just makes this all the more apparent."
CJ blinked. "You like my work by any chance?"
"My daughter wants to be you when she grows up and I'm not discouraging her. Your friends just want you back on that podium and they'll do anything to get you there. If you told them you needed them to sit back and twiddle their thumbs, they sound like they'd do it."
CJ stared for a bit, her mouth slightly open. Then she started to laugh. It felt good, even with the tight heat of her burnt scar tissue clutching at her torso. It felt familiar, too, like her laughter in the wake of the MS scandal breaking, laughter that signified that horrific or no, things would change, for better or worse. When she calmed down she put out a hand, palm first. "It just occurred to me that for the first time in about twenty years, I'm being passive."
Renanda smiled. "It happens. Life-threatening illnesses have a way of throwing people out of whack. And they're your friends; it’s natural to want to let them do as they will. You should laugh more, if the possibility arrives. It's good for you."
"So I hear." CJ leaned back against the couch. "Can I ask you a personal question?"
"Asking's pretty much allowed."
"The tattoo on your hand-"
"I got it when I was eighteen. Survivor of childhood cancer. I thought about getting it removed when I got into med school but then I got myself out of an abusive relationship and figured maybe I should keep it as a reminder."
"That was bracingly honest."
"It fosters good will."
"Yeah," CJ said, "Yeah, so I hear."
The third time Toby had an argument with her without once raising his voice, CJ took Renanda's advice in the rather unplanned form of just snapping, "For fuck's sake, stop treating me like I'm halfway dead." In the breath after the one that had conveyed the sentiment, CJ thought about how it had sounded. "I'm getting a glass of water, would you like something?"
"For you not to have breast cancer," Toby answered.
"See, that was good."
Toby threw a hand up in the air. "I haven't got any idea of how to do this, CJ. Of course I don’t think you're going to die. I'm pretty sure if the grim reaper himself showed up at your place and said, 'it's time,' you'd say, 'surely you have a moment for a cup of coffee' and then seduce him and send him off while he was still too addled by your feminine wiles and superior wit. But every time I step one toe into the world of research to understand what it is you're going through there are all these things that tell me that perhaps I should be careful, perhaps I shouldn't let my last moments with you be an argument over the insanely stupid tax proposal that Hampstead's come up with, maybe I could walk out of here and the last thing I'd have ever done was yell at you about a piece of legislation that wasn't even yet passed!"
CJ took a moment to let him calm down. There were two ways to talk with an emotional Toby, one was to yell until he listened, useful for when a deadline existed. The other was to practice patience. "You shouldn’t believe everything you read."
"I had a guy from the New England Journal of Medicine send me stuff."
"Don’t name drop with me."
"How do I look to you?"
"Like you should be at the office, slacker."
CJ wished that were true. She looked at herself in the mirror. Every morning. Nude. It was one of Renanda's suggestions. CJ still wanted a drink or four after doing it, so she had a feeling the positive effects hadn't yet begun. Then again, she couldn't quite say the words, "This is me, I'm beautiful," aloud yet, which was also part of the suggestion. Renanda had told her she didn't have to believe it, just to say it. But even saying it was impossible, the sound just became stuck in her throat and came out as garbled nonsense. She did her best to say it in her head, and that was all she could manage for the time being.
Carol had begun bringing her things to work on, endless piles of things that she became exhausted not even halfway through and struggled to stay awake just a little more until one of the crew came over to find her asleep underneath her coffee table with a mound of papers playing pillow. Admittedly, that had only happened once, but that had been because Donna had looked so overwhelmed by the idea of sorting out everything that CJ had scrambled during her impromptu nap that CJ had made herself at least clear the couch of all business matters before dropping into a nap ever since.
Toby asked, "CJ?"
CJ mentally shook herself. "Yeah, nothing a few pounds of makeup wouldn't take care of on camera."
"I've been doing a good chunk of the briefings. Trust me nobody's going to complain."
Toby grimaced. "A man who only managed to get elected by the slim margin of not being the candidate caught with an illegal porno collection the size of the Taj Mahal."
"And arranged in a suitable image of it as well."
Toby smirked. "Yet you still don't believe this is an argument I should even be introducing?"
"The cut, even does it pass, which I find unlikely, given Hampstead's opposition in the north, gets overturned by way of federal budget in less than a year's time, you know it does. You're just spinning your wheels on this. What the hell are you avoiding? And why? The Toby I know isn't an avoider."
Toby ran a hand over the top of his head, back over the nape of his neck. "ACLU's gearing up pretty heavily to overturn some of the marriage amendments. States where they think they have a prayer."
"The Post had something on that. The president has to stay out of it."
"Of course he does."
"Sam's been on edge."
CJ narrowed her eyes. "Everyone's been on edge, Toby."
"Don’t play stupid."
"The closet's feeling a bit confining at the moment, I understand. I'm just saying he'll get over it."
"Josh is- At first I thought it was just you, the way he was acting."
"Josh would rather become a Republican than threaten the president's position or his own."
"Except that he seems to be considering it. For which I personally blame you. I have a list of things I blame you for of late, including my taking up membership at a second shul which actually has Saturday night services so that I can say the mishaberach easily and without the hassle of going into work late. Donna's fundraising like a madwoman for the three-day Breast Cancer walk. The women's constituency suddenly believing that we'll bend to them like the willow to the wind in all and sundry manners. Most annoyingly, Josh's sudden conviction that we should live every day to its fullest."
"Josh Lyman said that?"
"I'm paraphrasing." Toby caved under CJ's stare. "I'm perhaps putting words in his mouth. I'm a speechwriter."
"Not a bad one."
"Should I put that on the list, too?"
"Donna hasn’t asked me for money."
"If you could forego mentioning that you already know about her efforts, I'm pretty sure she wanted to say something herself."
"Way to go."
"You push me past my limits."
"I see that."
"What do I do about Sam?"
"Hope that some serious environmental issue comes along and sic him on it to distract him."
"Remind him of the president's vulnerability without a fulltime press secretary, and by extension, Leo's."
"And if all that fails?"
"We back them the hell up."
"Yeah," Toby looked away, "I'm glad that's something on which we agree."
CJ ended up in therapy of some sort three times a week after Renanda suggested that she join group therapy for women either fighting cancer or in the immediate aftermath of that step of surviving it. After her first session, one of the women called out to her as they were leaving the room. "CJ!"
CJ turned. She did a quick memory check and said, "Alexis, was there something I could do for you?"
Alexis was in her thirties and going up against cervical cancer for a second time. Her ears were pierced more than anyone CJ had ever met and other than those three facts, CJ didn't know much else about her. She said, "Nah, but Janie and I always ask the newbies if they wanna join us for lunch afterward. Most people accept one time and then stop coming, but we keep trying."
Janie was about ten years older than CJ and had just gone into remission from skin cancer. CJ couldn't imagine what the two women had in common. Janie reminded her of an up-with-the-times Mrs. Cleaver and Alexis of a punk-rocker who'd squandered her ambitions. But after a considerable fight with Gina and Sam she had the freedom of the road again so long as she promised to call if she needed anything. CJ had a feeling that freedom would be a goner when chemo rolled around and hell if she was going to waste a minute of it. "Sure, where are we going?"
"Café down the road. Janie knows the owners, her husband's in the restaurant business."
"Great, I'll follow you."
CJ parked a block over and walked. Minor exertions were still on the annoying side of exhausting, but she saw no way to lessen that fact other than to keep trying. When she got there, Janie just took her hand, squeezed and said, "Glad you could join us."
Her fingers tingling with the dry warmth of Janie's (at least momentarily) cancer-free skin, she smiled. "Me as well, I appreciate the invitation."
Evidently they had a regular table and a regular waiter, who flirted with Alexis shamelessly. Janie, as it turned out, was a flautist who played with the DC symphony and was aching to get back to regular rehearsals, which she would be doing come late summer.
Alexis, on the other hand, turned all of CJ's assumptions directly inside out. "I was an economist, actually worked at the federal reserve." She dug into her carrot soufflé. "Then the cancer hit and the work was killing me. I'd been a gymnast all through college, that's how I'd actually paid my way, and my therapist recommended I start yoga as a way to help my body retain musculature and also to help with the stress. Anyway, the girl I was taking from needed instructors and I said I was willing to learn and so I've been doing that ever since. You should come CJ, it's really. . . I'm not sure I would still be alive if it weren't for the stuff."
Janie nodded. "She's converted even me, and I was so deeply entrenched in the camp of disbelief that it took a shovel to pull me out. You should also get yourself a massage therapist if you can. Even just once a week. I know you've probably heard this from everyone and their grandmother's dog, but relaxation really is key to survival."
CJ had, but she wasn't exactly turning down free advice these days. "You know anybody that you'd suggest? I'd prefer someone who could come to my apartment."
Alexis said, "I'll tell you what, I'll give you some names before we leave if you'll give Gary your autograph."
"Gary your boyfriend?"
Alexis laughed. "He wishes. No, it's the waiter. He's a law student out of George Washington who's putting himself through school on tables and internships, and he's been eyeing you with a barely concealed desperation since he walked up to the table."
CJ had noticed but misread it as his annoyance at there being yet another obstacle to Alexis being alone. "Sure, I can do that."
Janie rolled her eyes in the most polite gesture of rudeness CJ had ever seen. "Alexis May Dannon, you know better than to give help conditionally."
Alexis grinned. "Yes, mom."
CJ said, "Also, you could have just asked."
Alexis faced her. "You know, of course, that I wouldn't have withheld that sort of thing, had you said no."
"I pretty much caught on to that," CJ admitted, "I just wanted to clear that up. I mean, being asked for my autograph isn't an everyday occurrence or anything, but it's happened and I know how to refuse if I need to."
"If she hasn't scared you off," Janie nodded at everything CJ had just said, "you're welcome to join us after group next week."
CJ had nearly forgotten that friendship could be offered so easily. "I'd like that."
Late one night, Sam walked in on CJ snacking and putting together notes for Toby. He sat down across from CJ, stole one of her apple slices and said, "Evening."
There was too much to say in CJ's head, so she scolded him. "Get your own apple."
Sam stood. "I'll go you one better and make you monkey bread."
"And who would have purchased the items necessary to make monkey bread and stored them in my kitchen?"
"Donna," Sam said quickly.
"At whose request?"
Sam rustled through her refrigerator and then pulled back with his desired gains. "Donna's a big girl."
"Who has been nearly psychotic about respecting the fact that my doctors don't want me eating a lot of processed sugars and the fact that my figure could probably do without it at the moment."
Sam scowled. "Your figure's fine. And besides, you're going to become a yoga goddess, right?"
"More like yoga grunt. Who told Donna?"
Sam stopped in his busy efforts to put together the treat. "Josh and I made up a list of things we thought would make you, y'know. Smile. If you really don’t want it-"
"Make the bread."
"No, I mean-"
"Make the damned bread, Sam, before I come over there and make it myself."
Sam popped the Pillsbury can with a quick twist. "There was that story you told. The one from that summer camp that you hated, and I quote, 'more than Prometheus hated the crows picking the flesh from his loins.' That was pretty poetic."
"You decided to make me a treat from a camp that made me think I'd prefer being eaten by birds while alive?"
"When you say it like that, see, it sounds stupid. But neither Josh nor I are stupid people, so I'm suspecting that the combining of our intellects did not end in that result. You said it was the only thing that comforted you while you were away from home."
"You and Josh set the White House on fire whilst combining your superior intellects."
"That was one time."
"You needed to do it more than once?"
Sam dumped about half a container of cinnamon on the sticky, uncooked dough. "I can take your portion to Josh, you know, he'll appreciate it."
"Not half as much as I will." CJ waited until Sam's head came up to smile. "See?" She pointed at her face. "Smiling."
But Sam was--perhaps rightly--suspicious at this time. "You aren't just being nice?"
"You're here at nearly midnight after what I imagine was at least eighteen hours at the office, making me a treat from my childhood because of a story I told you, what, four years ago? It seems to me I'm not the one being nice in the room."
Sam opened up the sugar. "I slept at work last night."
"I thought you might've."
"Sorry. There's a thing, a lawsuit. Toxic waste and families. Stuff from which those movies with swelling scores and child actors with big eyes are made, only right now the kids are real and the company's winning."
"Not to sound unsympathetic, but how exactly is that our issue?"
"There's a problem with the EPA's involvement, so Toby's had me talking to them."
"The kids are real, huh?" CJ asked softly. Sam nodded, his head looking awfully heavy on his shoulders. She said, "Not like those wind up ones they put in the movies."
Sam threw the nearest thing he could find at her, a pasta fork. She caught it with ease and laughed. Sam shoved the bread into the oven in a couple of jerky moves, successfully burning himself and exclaiming, "Ouch!"
CJ got up then, opened her freezer and cracked a couple of ice cubes out of the tray before applying them directly to Sam's hand. "Always graceful, aren't you?"
Sam pouted. "That was completely your fault."
"Aw," CJ laughed again, "poor Sam. Want me to kiss it and make it better?"
"I definitely think you owe me that much."
CJ brought their hands up together so that the swiftly melting ice never left the surface of the burn, she moved it just enough to allow for her lips to press at the skin that still radiated heat underneath the shock of healing chill.
Gina came over in the afternoon one day, just as Shen, CJ's massage therapist was leaving. Shen had finished her massage an hour earlier, but they had been discussing other types of touch healing, particularly for the time while she was in chemo. Since Shen had experience with oncology patients, so she trusted his advice. They had scaled back the soft-tissue massage to Reiki. Shen said, "You won't think you want it, but you need touch possibly more than anything else in the world while you're on the chemo."
CJ, who practically curled her whole being into his hands the minute he showed every four days, wasn't going to argue. "All right, I have a couple of weeks before I have to decide, and you seem like the kind of person who can play things by ear."
Ellie's blond curls had popped around the hallway door and into the living room at that moment. Out of the corner of her eye, CJ thought it was Donna and she mistook the dark brunette as Carol for all of a moment. Then she realized it wasn't even five and Carol was quite a bit taller than the woman standing in her doorway.
Shen stated the obvious. "You have visitors."
CJ went to stand, having now realized that the president's daughter was standing in her living room, but Ellie walked around to her and sat on the couch before she could get up. From behind them, Gina said, "I'll let your guest out?"
Shen stood. "Thanks. I'll see you in a few, CJ."
"Thanks, Shen. I feel like a pampered trophy wife."
"What does that feel like, exactly?" Shen wanted to know.
"Like it should come with a bottle of bubbly and some fairly expensive jewels, but I'll settle."
"All right," Shen laughed, and followed Gina to the door.
"Massage therapist?" Ellie asked.
"He calls himself a touch therapist."
"You got his name from a doctor, right?"
"Okay. I've just. . .massage can be fantastic but I've also heard my share of horror stories about practitioners who didn't know how to deal with the differing needs of an oncology-affected client."
"I should trust you to take care of yourself." Ellie's skin flushed a bit. "Don't tell him I said this but sometimes I think I have more than my fair share of dad in me."
"You honestly think the two of you would have such a hard time getting along if you didn't?"
"No, but it makes him all too happy to hear me admit it."
"Right, and there's no reason to be keeping the leader of the free world and commander of its most powerful military happy."
"Maybe if you’re his press secretary, sure, but I'm his daughter."
CJ smiled in acknowledgment. "How's work?"
"We're working on an experiment in blood-bourne virus killers and not coming up with any of the results we were either expecting or hoping for."
"On the upside, I'm about to be married to a really fantastic guy."
"I noticed that one."
"Thought you might've. Thanks for taking the heat. Not that I would've left him if you hadn't, because I'm validly in love with him and think it's probably a good idea for us to combine our DNA in the creation of progeny at some unforeseen point in the future, but it made it easier that you were willing to stand up there and support us."
"I don't exactly make those calls, you know, Ellie."
"Nah, my mom does." Ellie smirked knowingly.
Amused, CJ conceded. "Thanks for coming by today. I have ginger snaps in the kitchen, assuming your secret service agent hasn't eaten them all."
"That's actually rather enticing. Said agent's been. . . I should've come earlier, CJ."
"Being as how we aren't particularly close, may I ask why you feel that way?"
"Because I didn't come not out of the sense that I didn't particularly want to see you, ask how you were as because despite my working with potentially fatal illnesses in a laboratory capacity, they scare the crap out of me. Particularly the ones that are so imminently. . . We're both women, CJ."
CJ leaned over and kissed Ellie's cheek. When she leaned back, Ellie was looking at her in slight confusion. "Did I somehow deserve that?"
"It's just that you're the first woman to look me in the eye and admit that I represent something you don't want to deal with. I appreciate your balls, Eleanor."
"So if I brought it up, you'd still be willing to share your ginger snaps?"
"I might even have some lemonade."
"It's almost like Christmas."
"Without the ham and cranberry sauce."
Ellie shrugged. "I came over on short notice."
CJ woke up to a noise in her apartment. She was exhausted, her chest burning and tight from the day's batch of radiation. Her energy levels were suffering from a bought of frustration that bordered on depression after watching Toby brief the press that evening. It was clearly 4:19 according to the sizeable LED display on her alarm clock. She turned over gingerly, thinking it must have been the wind, or a mouse, or something else that could damn well wait until morning. Only as she settled she heard something again. Something that sounded suspiciously like Sam whispering, "It's okay, really."
Since Sam had certainly not been in her apartment when she'd fallen comatose at seven-thirty that evening, and neither had anyone else whom Sam might be comforting, CJ decided this couldn't exactly wait till morning, and dragged her protesting body out of bed. She made her way softly to the living room where she flipped on the lights and sent the body of one Samuel Seaborn flying in one direction, and one Joshua Lyman in the direct opposite.
Josh, when he'd landed on his feet, blinked at her. "This isn't what it looks like."
"That always plays well when I say it, Joshua. Besides, other than you and Sam possibly using my place as a way to cover up your sexual relations, I'm not exactly sure what this looks like, and I'm choosing to believe you would have at least asked before taking out a non-paying lease on my apartment."
"We would have," Sam assured her quickly. "Asked."
Since Sam looked all right, mostly just a little shaken by CJ's sudden interference, CJ switched her assessing glance over to Josh, who, sure enough, was practically trying to crawl into her corner all the while doing his best to look nonchalant. "So what is it, if it's not what it looks like?"
Josh fidgeted. Sam watched him. CJ sighed. "I'm going to have a glass of water. You guys want something?"
Josh and Sam shared a look. Josh said, "Water sounds good."
"Yeah," CJ said, "Okay," and moved toward her kitchen.
Sam pulled up behind her. "You feeling all right?"
"It's four thirty in the morning, Sam. I'm exhausted." This was vaguely unfair, she realized, as Sam most likely had not fallen asleep at seven-thirty, had he fallen asleep at all this evening, but Sam also wasn't getting radiation pumped into his chest every single day of the week to kill cells that in return were trying their goshdarn hardest to kill him, so her ability to feel unjustified in her anger was small.
"We had to come," he apologized softly. "We never meant to wake you."
"And I can certainly see how that does me a world of good." CJ took three glasses from her cabinets and set them down on the counter more harshly than was probably wise.
Sam hastily intervened, his hands catching hers, drawing her away from the counter. "Let me, all right?"
"I'm sorry, CJ." Josh looked miserable.
CJ sat in the closest chair. "Tell me what this is about."
"I. . ." Josh sank into a chair as well. "I had this nightmare. It was." He stopped, looked to the side, shuddered. "I was going to just call. So that I could hear your voice. But I really didn't want to wake you, and Sam has a key, so I called him instead and he brought me over. The plan was just to check and then go, really."
Sam handed a water glass down to her. "It's my fault we stayed."
"He was looking after me," Josh said softly.
At that, CJ couldn't hold on to her annoyance. She wanted to. Her eyes were heavy and she was nearly desperate to get at the cooling cream in her bathroom that the doctors had said she could use whenever the burning sensation became particularly intense, but Sam was frowning in concern and Josh had his head in his hands and she said, "I've never seen you two touch before."
Sam's eyebrows drew together. "Yes you have."
"No, I meant-"
"That she's never seen us be us," Josh finished for her. "Because we aren't. Not where others can see."
Both men's body posture had tightened, as though expecting some sort of judgment passed down on high. CJ thought about letting it go, but there were things she wanted to say, just in case. She never finished the "just in case" clause, not even in her head. "The two of you saw Gina and I. I mean, occasionally-"
"We were caught once," Josh said. "Years. . .years ago. The first time around. It was-"
"Humiliating," Sam said, evidently feeling that Josh shouldn't be the one to do all the work. "Awful. The end of that particular 'on again.'"
CJ felt sick in places she had no business feeling sick. "I shouldn't have-"
Josh smiled, though. "We probably shouldn't have broken into your home at four in the morning."
"Next time," CJ said, "just call. You can come over after if you have to, but. I live by myself."
"CJ." Josh tilted his head to the side. "Toby and I were talking about these latest ACLU cases, the ones we've been purposefully distracting Sam from."
Sam's eyes widened. "Am I the only one who got the honesty gene in this entire administration?"
"Yes," CJ and Josh answered as one. Sam made a noise of discontent, but let Josh finish his thought.
"Toby screamed at me a whole bunch about my apparent attitude."
"I think he misses me," CJ said as innocently as possible.
"He didn't threaten me with Leo or the president's approval." Josh looked straight at her for the first time since she'd turned the lights on. "Why wouldn't he do that?"
Sam shook his head. "Leo and the president know about us, Josh. Hell, your dad probably told Leo. And once Leo knows. . ."
"I never told my dad, Sam."
Sam just looked at Josh.
"Yeah," Josh said, "Okay. But Toby still could have used it. I would've-"
CJ cut in, "Probably because Toby and I came to the conclusion that the decision was yours to make. The two of you."
It was silent for a bit after that. Finally, Josh stood up and walked to where Sam was leaning against the counters. He kissed him softly and rested his forehead against Sam's. "You wanna drop me off at the office? I don't think I can sleep anymore anyway, and there's always Toby's couch if I change my mind."
Sam brought his hand up, wrapped it around the back of Josh's neck. CJ watched.
CJ had always wondered if western society's fear of expressing emotion had driven everyone crazy in the same way that repressing sexuality had landed most of Victorian England with a one way ticket to insanityville. She had learned at a very early age that a woman couldn't cry in front of others, not if she wanted to be taken seriously, but had never really understood the "why" behind that unspoken rule. Crying was so natural that the body tended to use it as a response for everything from physical and emotional pain to extreme fear, joy, frustration and surprise. Tears were, CJ could only conclude, as natural as breathing.
It didn't bother CJ then when Donna walked in on her sobbing. No, particularly not Donna who just made a small sound with her teeth, said, "Oh, sweetie," and came to hold CJ until she was done.
What bothered CJ was that now Donna had seen what only she had seen, what she hadn't even allowed Gina to view, not Gina who knew every inch of CJ, some inches better than CJ herself knew them. But Donna just took the tube of cooling cream and asked, "You want me to finish, or would you rather?"
The kindness of it, the evenness of her voice, started CJ off again, since she could barely look at her own chest, and here Donna was acting as though there wasn't a thing wrong. CJ had talked to Renanda about this, of course, about her intense fear of putting on one of her work shirts and not looking the same, her fear of people who had known her before looking without wanting to make it seem like they were looking. They had talked about how it didn't feel the same to walk anymore, to turn around, to move at all. CJ had cried in front of Renanda, too, but she hadn't taken off her shirt.
CJ took the cream from Donna; she couldn't take someone else touching the scars, the smooth expanses of skin interrupted only by the too-slick pink patches of what had just once been her chest. It still was, CJ knew, and in time she imagined she would understand it as she had once understood the one that came before it. After all, at twelve she'd been no less scared in her own way, when suddenly things like playing catch with her father had taken on whole new threats in the face of a puberty well past the threatening stage. This was no different, CJ supposed, but there were those puffy lines where scalpels had driven into her, opened her, taken parts of her away and somehow, it seemed different.
She took the tube back from Donna and finished applying it. The burns were more insistent as the radiation continued and some days CJ really just wanted to submerge her chest in ice and stay there until frostbite took over and she lost the whole damn thing.
Donna grabbed her a shirt and held it out to her. CJ took it gratefully, and pulled it over her head. She rested her hands on her knees and looked up at Donna, who was brave enough to return the look. She told CJ, "Sam's the only person Josh will take his shirt off in front of, the big sissy. And his is just a scar."
CJ laughed a little at that, not because it was funny. It wasn't. Not when CJ still remembered Toby's hands leaking blood that wasn't his own, Sam wheeling around desperately so as to keep going while they waited and waited and waited for somebody to tell them that Josh was going to keep breathing, keep being Josh. But Donna had a point, and CJ could appreciate that. "I made a friend in therapy. Her name is Alexis, and she's had cancer of the cervix twice. They didn't remove everything the first time because they thought they could get it without doing so, and they were wrong. At this point, they've taken just about everything that reproductively makes her sexually a female out of her body. She says that she's glad she doesn't have to see what's gone every day, but that doesn't make it any more present than if she could.
"So I go away from her thinking that I'm pretty lucky and all, because this could be my reproductive system. Worse, it could be my lungs or my brain. And I damn well know that Alexis's sexual organs and my breasts have nothing to do with what makes us women. Maybe according to society's perceptions, but not by choice and not by action. I know that. But I've stood by my body my whole life. My body and the bodies of others like me. And now my body-" CJ bit herself off, too tired to cry again.
"Has betrayed you," Donna finished softly. CJ nodded. Donna came and sat on the bed next to her.
CJ gave her a wry smile. "Got the short end of the stick, dropping by right this moment."
Donna shook her head. "Only if you won't let me order out. I'm starving."
"The prospect of food does supply a welcome diversion."
"Also, I brought a selection of Astaire/Roger's movies."
"I always suspected you were a big dance geek."
"You're lucky I'm not making you watch 'Strictly Ballroom.'"
"I didn't say anything about not also being a big dance geek."
Donna smiled. "Mexican?"
"There are, like, four menus on my refrigerator door. Go to town."
Donna slipped out of the room and CJ tipped onto her side, lying down for a moment. She brought her hands to her chest and laid them there lightly, not wanting to apply too much pressure to the burns. She took a breath. Her chest expanded.
That was familiar.
CJ began returning to the office on a severely limited schedule in the last weeks of radiation. The more she didn't want to go in the more she forced the issue, knowing that forward movement, that still being involved, that fighting torpor and the inclination to lay around and do nothing, was as important as showing up for the different therapies.
The first morning she'd come back the president had called her into his office. He'd hugged her as though she might snap in his arms. She'd wanted to say, "I'm fine," or, "I can take anything you can dish out, Mr. President," but really, the simple motion prodded at the burnt and tender center of her chest, and she couldn't take anymore. At least, she didn't want to.
She could get herself into work, she could even play at fixing-up-this-moment's-crisis as well as she had before her body had decided to stage a mutiny, but she could not for the life of her get on that podium. When Leo had suggested maybe she fill in for a few briefings, she had said, "Leo, I can't," so simply and so intently that he'd merely nodded, and declined to press the issue any further.
Not even after Danny came by, goldfish treats in hand and a casual, "You have to save us all from Toby, CJ," could she do that. Not even after he'd flirted with her for several minutes, like nothing had changed, not even then could she face the lights and the stares and the reality that her newly mutilated form would be broadcast across the nation, across the world.
Alexis took her out for bubble tea after a particularly grueling yoga session and asked her, without shame, "Is there someone you can have sex with, without a lot of strings?"
CJ nearly choked on her tapioca. "Excuse me?"
"The way you move in yoga, you haven't learned how to deal with your body yet."
"It's that obvious?" CJ, who'd made a career out of confidence, true or otherwise, was more than a little horrified to learn this.
"No, not really. I'm a yoga instructor and a cancer patient. I know what it feels like. I know what it looks like."
"And your suggestion is casual sex?"
"No," Alexis shook her head. "If you had a significant other that would make this easier, but you don't, and now probably isn't the best time for you to be getting yourself involved in something like that. But, well, the first time I went through this, when I had finally healed up, I was with a guy at the time. And just knowing I was still desirable, that I could still be me in a sexual capacity. . .sex isn't supposed to matter all that much in our society, it's supposed to be the superficial part of a relationship, all that stuff they tell you, but we both know it's a lie. Knowing yourself sexually, having faith in yourself that way, it's ridiculously basic. I have other suggestions for you, whole bunches of them, but that's one that almost never fails. I mean, it has to be about you, it can't be about what the other person cares for or finds hot or any of that. You have to find a partner who will allow the sexual experience to be entirely for you and about you for a bit. If you can."
What she was saying made sense but CJ wasn't sure she was ready to share her body, sexually or no. "I don't know that I can. I mean, my social circle isn't exactly huge and there's complications of media exposure-"
"You should also try going shopping."
"Find yourself clothes you like that work with what you look like now. They're out there. And just knowing they are will make you feel infinitely better. My friend Neely actually switched professions into clothing design after surviving breast cancer because the act of dressing herself in something that made her smile at the mirror again was such a miracle for her. She custom designs for survivors. She's out of Boston but I bet she'd come visit me if I asked. Or you could take a trip. A vacation in between radiation and chemo's not a bad idea so long as you don't overdo it. Also, I'd take someone with you. I'd go, but-" Alexis didn't say anything, just ran a hand over her newly shaved head. Alexis didn't like waiting for the chemo to do its job on her, so she took care of things in one go. CJ actually thought the look was rather striking on her. She didn't think she'd get so lucky herself should her hair fall out. CJ put off thinking about that. One thing at a time.
"Maybe," she said.
"A new hobby's also good. I took up yoga, in case you hadn't noticed. And I'm also getting Janie to teach me the flute, which is sort of hysterical, but fun. You need something you can turn to that doesn't involve expectations. Something that's just time consuming and completely about your pleasure."
"Like horseshoe throwing."
Alexis didn't even blink. "Whatever blows your skirt up, babe."
CJ sucked another oversized tapioca ball through the jumbo straw the drink came with and considered. "I wouldn't know where to begin."
"Yeah," Alexis said, "I know."
CJ thought it was nice not to have to feel frustration at somebody's well-meaning empathy. She said, "You look. . .enticing without hair."
Alexis smiled in a vaguely seductive manner. "I know that, too."
CJ thought Alexis might have a point about all of this. An important one.
The dank heat that came with late June would have been oppressive in a normal year. This was not a normal year. The burning from the radiation combined with the swampy heaviness and most of the time it was all CJ could do to make sure that one breath followed another.
There were days when CJ felt relatively human. On those days she would go into work for several hours before the radiation (not after, that just wasn't an option). Or she would manage a full yoga session without being tempted to fall asleep right on the mat or cry.
For each of those "good" days there were always three or four when depression and pain and the desire to stay in bed and play dead until the world decided to get off her case was the theme of that given twenty-four hour cycle.
She talked with Renanda about the bad days. Janie and Dr. Ryun and Alexis and Gina would also listen to CJ without interrupting, and touch her without hesitating. Renanda eventually told her, "Yes, of course we tell people to be as active as they can, but CJ, your definition of activity and that of the large majority of the people in the western hemisphere, possibly even the eastern one, is drastically different."
Dr. Ryun, in her own, separate conversation, agreed. "It's fantastic that you're back at work, it makes you more focused, which is good. But we're pumping intense doses of radiation directly into your chest. You have to give your body the chance to process that, with rest and the understanding that you're, you know, human and thereby fallible."
Alexis said, "Jesus, before this, did you ever sleep?"
Janie brought her gifts of green teas and hugs that felt a bit like CJ's mother's had, which CJ appreciated far more than the tea. At the office Leo demanded things of her like he always had and then sent her home when he deemed it necessary that she go, whether they were done or not.
Mostly at home she would sleep. Sometimes Gina would come over and sleep next to her, Dez making the obligatory comment about CJ stealing her girlfriend, and Gina making her own obligatory comeback about the eternal hotness of CJ. CJ appreciated the sentiment, even if the words had ceased to penetrate.
When she wasn't sleeping she was often busy trying to ignore the heat that was beginning to feel like the core of her, like the only part that mattered. It was often worst in the afternoons an hour or so after treatment, when her body was desperate to expel itself of the poison with which she'd just laid still and allowed it to be dosed.
Afternoons weren't a time when most people dropped by, so she was usually left to herself for the worst of the reactionary illness except for the times when Sam or Toby or Donna waited to take their lunch break until late afternoon so that they could drop in and check on her. She didn't like them seeing her at those times, pale and weak and miserable, but Sam's cool hands would spread over her lower back, Donna would patiently hold a cool wet rag to the back of her neck, Toby would supply her with a misting glass of ice water. All these things became comforts that kept her sane in the worst moments, when she forgot to remind herself that she could do this, that this would end, that she was better than this, that she was stronger.
Josh often dropped by in the late evenings and early mornings, even though she was in and out of the office, and he could see her most days without going out of his way. She didn't generally wake up when he came in, Sam having finally copied a key for him, but he always left a note, something like, "Gorgeous, you were out of milk, I brought some. Organic, because you're crazy like that, and I'm a considerate guy," or, "You shouldn't give strangers the key to your house."
CJ thought the second was valid advice, but she was beginning to think Josh wasn't quite so strange nor as much a stranger as she had always somewhat thought he might be, even despite all the shared trials and tribulations.
She did wake up one morning. Josh looked caught, like maybe he'd been doing something he shouldn't have been, but he said, "Sorry," and despite being exhausted, as she always was these days, she said, "You bring me breakfast?"
"I could- There's a-" Josh was making motions that CJ translated as him suggesting that he could acquire breakfast for them.
CJ yawned. "Bagels. Cinnamon raisin."
Josh smiled in amusement. "Sure, princess." But he leaned over and kissed her forehead before leaving, and he returned with brown sugar cream cheese for spread.
CJ slept through her alarm. Not that this had never happened before. But usually when it did she woke up to the phone call that meant Leo or Toby or Josh was calling her. She slept through that, too.
And the phone call from the tech at the radiation center asking where she was, it wasn't like her to be late.
Said tech called the next person on her list of kin. That was Sam at the moment, since he was the most likely to be able to extricate himself from the office in case of emergency. CJ slept through the round of phone calls that initiated as well, and through Sam rushing into her apartment, breathless from his sprint up the stairs when the elevator wouldn't arrive quickly enough for him.
She didn't sleep through his putting his hand over her neck, checking desperately for a pulse, unable to tell if she was breathing under her thick comforter. She awoke in a panic-drenched fog of exhaustion and immediately attempted to get Sam's hand off of her by any means necessary.
"CJ, CJ, stop!"
Some of the panic receded as CJ recognized the voice, even if she couldn't immediately connect it up with anyone. She blinked a few times trying to come into complete consciousness. Finally, she asked, "Sam?"
She looked over at her alarm clock and it took her less than a minute to say, "Oh shit, Sam!"
"I just left an office full of people making plans to plant a life-signs monitoring chip in you that can be checked by way of the situation room." Sam sunk into the chair next to her bed.
CJ reached over and examined her alarm clock. "I think I slept through my alarm clock."
"And my call. Then Leo's a bit later. Oh, and I think Toby's. The tech from the clinic. You should have plenty of loving messages."
"I have to get to the clinic."
"I know, I'm taking you."
"Because if I let you out of my sight right now, the only thing I'll have time to explain to the president before he has his secret service agents tie me to the Oval desk and torture me to death is why I'm having an utter nervous breakdown."
"That desk is an antique, the president would never let your blood ruin the varnish."
"There's still the nervous breakdown to consider."
CJ didn't really feel all that much like driving anyway. "Look away." She couldn't handle sleeping in the nude at the moment, but her pajamas were light and open in deference to the sensitivity of her skin.
Sam turned his head.
"Sorry," CJ said over the rustle of twisting and tangling herself into a loose dress.
"No," Sam said, "Don't."
"Well, at least relay it to Josh."
"We didn't mention this latest development to him."
"We had to check and see if she knew where you were."
"You can look." CJ walked back over to her bed and grabbed her BlackBerry. She pressed the number two and waited for it to ring.
"I slept through my alarm clock."
"And the calls of hundreds of desperate men."
"That used to be what I called a good day."
"You're a bloodthirsty one."
"Dez and you still gonna drop by tonight?"
"At this point I'd really like to see the tactic you'd take to even try and keep us away."
"Sam's going to take me to the clinic."
"Read him the riot act about getting you home safely."
CJ looked over at Sam's pale face, his eyes just a shade pale of goth-boy black. "I think he's internalized it."
Sam's gaze snapped to hers. He tried for a self-deprecating smile. CJ said, "I'll see you," and ended the call.
Sam said, "We've gotta go."
CJ said, "It can wait a few more minutes," and gave Sam a hug. He wasn't all that willing to let go when she decided the few minutes were up.
"Alexis thinks I need a new hobby." CJ hadn't told Dez and Gina what else Alexis thought she needed, nor did she plan on doing so. The two of them would conspire to find her a match, and the last thing CJ needed at the moment was the threat of blind dates. "Something relaxing and enjoyable."
"So no extreme sports," Dez said.
"I think we can safely take out sports of any kind," CJ said, struggling to keep a yawn at bay until she was finished speaking.
"Isn't yoga a hobby?" Gina asked.
"Technically, yeah," CJ said, " But I think it only counts that way if you're really into it, as opposed to learning it for the possible health advantages."
"You have to be really into this hobby, then?" Gina extended her legs from the floor to reach over onto the coffee table from the couch. CJ did her best not to be distracted. Dez, bless her, didn't even try. Gina looked pretty exhausted herself, tipping her head back onto the back of the couch and closing her eyes. "It's just that you've always been so work-oriented."
"Diplomatic," CJ said with a hint of an edge to her voice.
"I didn't come over here to have a fight," Gina said without opening her eyes. "It's not like Dez or I hold down nine to fives. I just don't even know where to begin, is what I'm getting at."
"Me neither," CJ admitted. "My hobby is spin."
"Maybe you should write," Dez said. "A different type of spin."
"I think the idea of the hobby might be to get away from my day job."
Dez smiled. "Probably."
Gina straightened up. "The problem with you is that you're an impatient fucker."
"Thank you, my love," CJ deadpanned.
"No, I'm serious. You're awful in the kitchen because you can never wait for anything to finish cooking or baking or even cooling. You like what you do because it has you constantly moving, constantly thinking. Even reading, which you like, is sometimes a challenge because your eyes can't process information fast enough for you."
"Believe it or not, I think I'm slowing down." Sometimes of late CJ felt like even her heartbeat was slowing down, unwilling to keep up the work it had always done so silently and without complaint.
"Gina might be onto something, though," Dez said, earning a sarcastic, "Thanks," from Gina, which both Dez and CJ ignored. "What you need is something where you can see immediate results. Or something that presents a compelling reason for you to continue."
"You sound like you have something in mind. I'm all up for suggestions," CJ said, just in case that wasn't exactly clear from the conversation they'd been having all this time.
"Doesn't your sister-in-law do all kinds of crazy Martha Stewart things?" Gina asked Dez.
"First of all, fuck you. I like my sister-in-law. And secondly, she's an art teacher for a high school. It's hard to get kids interested in-" Dez caught Gina's eye. "Oh."
"I was just thinking she might have some useful advice. I like your sister-in-law, too. I like your whole family, despite the fact that there are way too many of you."
Dez snorted. "Says the girl with four older brothers."
CJ smiled. "She had to get the attitude from somewhere. And exactly how many siblings do you have?"
"I only have two blood siblings. An older sister and a younger brother." Dez's answer clearly left something out.
CJ prompted whatever it was with a, "But?"
Dez wobbled her head a bit. "But my parents were foster parents. We took in six kids over the course of my living at home, and another one after I left for college. I'm only on close terms with four of them. Two kinda just disappeared into the ether, and I never really knew the one that came after I was gone."
"Yeah." CJ had heard. "Wow."
"When two Catholic girls think you have a big family, it's a bad sign," Gina said.
"Lapsed Catholics, and you think the good Samaritan thing is a) genetic and b) hot, so don't start." Dez looked over at CJ. "Anyway, I'll talk with Suze, my in-law, see if she has any suggestions."
"And possibly books or step-by-step tapes on how to get started," CJ said.
"Eh, she teaches in Baltimore, I'll cajole her into coming up. I haven't seen Jaime in forever, and we live too close for that kind of shit."
Dez stood up. "Shut it, miss. You're talking to someone who knows all-too-well that family has nothing to do with bloodlines."
Gina got to her feet as well. "Besides, after today neither of us feels much like letting you out of our sight, ever. This just gives us more control."
"Thank you for that, Big Brother."
Gina grinned. "We'll just let ourselves out, shall we?"
Despite knowing that the chemo would invariably follow on the radiation and that the former was in fact harder on the body than the latter, CJ couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief when Dr. Ryun showed her a whole bunch of pictures of her insides and pointed at things and said what basically amounted to, "Flooding your chest with massive amounts of a radioactive substance did what we were hoping it was going to. Yay."
CJ looked and looked at the pictures and tried not to feel disturbed by the fact that the ones she remembered from before all seemed awfully similar to this batch. "We're still going through with the chemo."
"Yes. I think your chances of survival are excellent at this point, but I really don't want to screw my predictive abilities or you by risking anything."
"I can see how both might put a damper on things."
"The idea of chemo makes you nervous, doesn't it?"
"That and the books you've recommended and the girls in my group who have gone or are going through it."
"It's tough," Ryun said with neither preamble nor a softening tone. "You're tougher."
CJ, who wasn't feeling very tough, left to go to her yoga class. She was late but Alexis just pointed to the empty mat next to herself and mouthed, "I saved you a place."
At the end of the class, when CJ was blessedly sweaty and sore and all wrung out, Alexis asked, "What'd the doctor say?"
"That the radiation did its job."
Alexis surprised CJ then by turning into an impulsive hug. Alexis didn't generally touch where she wasn't invited, and CJ wondered if she had somewhere along the way issued an unvoiced invitation. She sort of hoped she had, Alexis had a touch that was firm but not invasive, warming but not smothering. "That's fantastic, CJ."
"Moving forward to the chemo."
"Yeah girl, I hear you." Alexis was still in her latest round of chemo. It was an experimental type and one that took longer but supposedly showed better results in the end. CJ felt stupid for even thinking about complaining to her, until she said, "Anytime you wanna bitch, you have my number."
"Listen, the brother of a good friend mine, and his wife, are going to be in town next weekend. Jaime, that's the brother, he's a nutritionist who evidently cooks better than Godiva makes chocolate, so he's going to make some friends of mine dinner at my place. It's like the lazy person's way to have a dinner party. You wanna join?"
"I never really got out of the habit of turning down free food. Sure, sounds nice."
"His wife is going to see if we can find me a hobby. She's an arts & crafts goddess, or something."
"Are their children bizarre Home Ec protégés?"
"Would you believe me if I told you that they foster kids?"
"And nobody's made a made-for-PAX-TV special about them?"
CJ shook her head. "I assure you, I'm as boggled by it as you are."
"You want me to bring anything?"
"If I think of something I'll call."
"The chemo. . .you just have to keep knowing that it will end. And listening to your body. It only lies occasionally, and it's usually bad enough at it that you'll notice."
"And ask for help when you need it."
"I'm getting good at that."
"It’s a life skill."
CJ grimaced. She'd fought long and hard for the sort of independence she'd had before all of this, the kind she was hoping to regain. "So they tell me."
"Yeah," Alexis said.
Physically, Jaime was a slightly taller, male version of Dez. Where she was brash, however, he was quiet, and where she was aggressive, he was laid back. The two were obviously thrilled to see each other, but CJ could tell that Dez had been the type of older sister who constantly bossed Jaime around, and Jaime had been the type of younger brother who had sat back and taken it.
It was also clear that despite this dynamic, Dez admired the hell out of Jaime and Jaime had what could only be called a worship complex in regard to Dez. Gina and Dez brought Jaime and Suze over earlier in the day so that Jaime could survey the kitchen and figure out what he would need, run out and procure it, come back and make dinner before the other guests arrived. Meanwhile Suze and CJ chatted with each other, Suze bringing up ideas for all sorts of projects that might engage CJ and CJ trying to figure out if any of them seemed like something in which she could actually involve herself.
Alexis showed a little bit early, Carol showed up with relative promptness, Toby showed up late with Sam, and Josh showed up even later. Not that CJ had really expected anything different. Carol brought flowers, which Suze arranged with an ease and talent that mesmerized CJ. Of course, CJ would admit to being easily mesmerized of late, her body still trying to process and recover from the nearly two month experience of being radiated every single day.
When he finally got her alone for a moment, Toby asked, "Did you not invite Donna?"
CJ looked furtively around herself. "She has a date."
"Why are we whispering?"
"Because I promised to sort of let Josh assume she would be here so that he wouldn't do that date-sabotaging thing that he does."
"He's going to notice she's not here."
"Yes, but that's all right, because she's safely on her date, and if he tries to think up an emergency from here, we'll all be able to mock him for his lies. Loudly, and in front of virtual strangers."
"Did you think this master plan up all by yourself?"
"I did," CJ told him, straightening her back up into a rather regal pose.
"You cut Sam in on execution, though, didn't you?"
"It was necessary. There had to be a united front."
Toby let a small huff of laughter past his lips. "I hear you're taking up basket-weaving."
"Jewelry making, I'll have you know. I will be a well adorned woman when I return full time." Not that it would cover what was missing.
"You're a well adorned woman now, CJ," Toby said softly. CJ wondered whether he'd read her mind, or if their minds had just been in similar places.
Before she knew what she was saying she told him, "Alexis said that the way to help that insecurity is to-" she couldn't look at him as she cut herself off.
After a minute he said, "I'd imagine that helps."
"It's not a good idea for me, of course. To have to find someone and then make sure it didn't leak." CJ shook her head.
Toby opened his mouth to say something when Gina approached. "You two keeping secrets?"
CJ shared a look with Toby before turning her gaze to Gina. "From you?"
Gina's eyes flickered but all she said was, "That's what I thought."
Dez and Gina packed Jaime and Suze into the car when CJ turned down the air-conditioning. CJ hadn't exactly meant it as a sign, but she didn't mind that it had been taken that way. Jaime hugged CJ with an extraordinary lack of fear or sense of boundaries and reminded her where all the leftovers were. Suze kissed her cheek and said, "Don't let the threading process piss you off. Remember that you're smarter than both the metal and the beads and anything else you might be working with."
Alexis had nearly fallen asleep on the couch so Toby decided to follow her home to make sure she arrived safely. Carol had checked out at that point with a conspiratorial, "I wanna hear about Donna's date."
Somehow, after all that, Sam and Josh were still on CJ's couch, looking perfectly content to be right where they were.
They were holding hands, even as they sat practically on opposite ends of the couch. CJ wasn't entirely sure what that was about until Josh stood up, paced for a few seconds, and then purposefully made himself sit down. Sam took his hand back and looked at CJ apologetically.
CJ asked, "Did you ever talk with your dad about what was going on?" CJ knew that talking with a parent about these things was a double edged sword. She and Josh were the type of people who never wanted to be left out of the loop, never wanted things going on around them that they couldn't explain to others. But with a parent, when the child wasn't there to see it with her own eyes, sometimes the knowing was just a form of specialized torture.
Josh ran his free hand through his hair. "There's a pre-chemo appointment, with an oncologist. That's first, right?"
"Yeah, that's what I have tomorrow."
"And they'll check you out and figure out what sort of drug is going to be best, for how long, the specifics."
CJ nodded. Sam asked, "Will that be better? At least knowing?"
CJ closed her eyes. "I hope so."
"Do you need someone to go with you?" Sam asked.
"Not for this, no." CJ smiled tightly. "I can continue being a big kid for just a bit longer."
"And I was so enjoying my peek into the parental sphere," Sam said.
There was a silence that wasn't so much awkward as full for a few moments before Josh asked, "So who was the guy?"
"Guy?" CJ and Sam said.
"Donna's guy. The one she skipped this shindig to flirt up."
"Joshua Lyman, if Donna's skipping my shindigs for men, then things have progressed slightly past the flirting up stage, wouldn't you say?"
"Is it another Republican?"
Sam unsuccessfully hid a snicker. Exasperated, CJ said, "She's your aide, Josh, not your holdover in case things with Sam go permanently sour."
One glance at Josh's eyes told CJ she'd fouled that one more completely than suggesting the president might be relieved at sending troops into Haiti. It was every bit as evident that Josh was attempting to shutter the pain of her misconception behind something glib, or at the very least biting, but what he finally stuttered was, "Sis-" a twist of his neck, "sister."
Even Sam, who well knew how easy it was for CJ to have made that mistake was looking at her with disappointment written all over his face. CJ sighed. "Josh."
"Nah. I. . .yeah, okay."
"He's not a Republican," CJ gave him. As peace offerings went, it was weak, but CJ didn't have much to work with, not given the enormity of her gaff. "Well, at least I don't think."
Josh's frown deepened. "Don't think?"
"It's not like everyone goes around with it tattooed on their forehead," CJ told him gently, just in case she was breaking more bad news to him in the space of not two minutes.
"But doesn't he-" It took a second, but Josh caught on. "He's not in politics."
"Actually, he's my oncologist," CJ said this quickly.
Both Sam and Josh's eyes went wide. Sam was the first to break. "Seriously?"
CJ shrugged. "She met him at one of my radiation sessions." Donna had taken her to quite a few in the beginning. "And then he started showing up at sessions that he wasn't necessarily supposed to be there for, and I suggested that perhaps he should just ask her out and he did."
Sam made an approving face. "He was cute."
Josh kicked his shin. Sam didn't give in but he conceded, "Older than her."
"By four years." CJ laughed. "I don't know if you've noticed, but Donna's thirty-six."
"Four years is-" Josh started but CJ headed him off with, "One more year than you've got on Sam."
"Did someone hit you with the cruelty stick this evening?" Josh asked, but he was clearly not truly upset.
CJ fixed him with a Look, which she softened almost immediately. "Your being protective of her isn't something I feel the need to discourage, exactly, but she's an intelligent and self-sufficient woman, Josh, truly she is. And my oncologist is a nice guy."
"What's a nice guy doing unmarried at forty?"
"Well, not that this is any of your business, or mine for that matter, so I'd prefer if you didn't mention to Donna that I told stuff she wasn't necessarily supposed to tell me, but the reason he went in for more schooling and switched specialties from anesthesiology to oncology about five years back was because his wife died of lymphoma. And also, who are you to assume that marriage is every straight male's priority?"
Sam grinned at that but Josh was too focused to be derailed by her leftist outrage. "He have kids?"
"Two boys, one five, one seven."
"That's a lot of responsibility," Josh said softly.
CJ matched his tone. "Josh. It was a second date. We don't even know if it went well."
"Second?" Josh raised an eyebrow. CJ held his gaze. Sam squeezed Josh's hand. Josh tightened his own grip in response. "What's his name? Tell me he at least has a funny name."
"Dr. Jason Olin."
"So I have nothing to work with," Josh said.
"Not really," CJ confirmed.
Josh dropped his head back and banged it against the couch a few times. Sam, like a good boyfriend, let go of his hand and patted his knee in gentle sympathy. While Josh wasn't looking, he shared a covert smile with CJ. CJ had to swallow her laughter.
Dr. Jason Olin handed CJ a sheet of paper with enough acronyms on it to make even the federal government jealous. "How are you feeling?"
"Like I'm ready for people to stop prodding at me. You?"
"As it so happens, ready to stop prodding people."
CJ made a face at him. "As you sent your minions to do the prodding, that does me very little good now."
"Well, I've tired of vicarious prodding as well."
CJ looked down at the sheet. "But only for today."
"Oncology isn't really the field to go into if you're only wanting to do what feels good that day."
"I see your point."
"What you have there in front of you are the definitions of the many, many types of chemo treatments. Chemo is a systemic therapy. What that means is that basically, we're making extra sure that anything that might still be hiding in your body trying to wait out the treatments we've already given you is found and killed. There are several types of chemo, all involving different sorts of chemicals in different combinations. That's what the definitions are for.
"I am going to recommend in your case, since the cancer is not metastatic and this combination consistently ranks in the 35 to 60 percent range of success--the highest range we have in chemo treatments at the moment--an AT treatment, which means six rounds of Adriamycin and two rounds of Taxol. While there will be side effects, I'm going to give you some more reading so that you can know what you might expect. Taxol is a gentler drug than some of the others, so that should cut down on effects. You should know that side effects vary in women, some women have a horrible time on the chemo, others are relatively unaffected. It really just depends on your body, and we won't know until we start.
"If, of course, the effects are too much, then you'll need to talk to me. There are other drugs I can put you on that won’t effect the chemo's process negatively but will cut down on whatever problems you might experience, that sort of thing. This doesn't have to be torture. I'm going to try my best to make sure it isn't."
"Can I borrow a pen?"
"I'm sorry- Oh, sure." Olin unhooked a pen from his pocket and handed it to her.
She circled the drugs he'd told her about, along with the descriptions of their courses.
"Do you have any questions?"
"I'm sure I will when I've had some time to think about it." CJ had found throughout this process that her habit of always responding to questions left her somewhat unsure of how to ask them in the immediate aftermath of being given information.
"You have my card."
He laughed. "That, too."
"It went well?" she asked.
"Good, I wasn't really looking forward to having to switch oncologists at this point."
"No, I can see where that would have been a problem for you."
"Screw with her and I'll sue the hell out of you for malpractice."
"I haven't malpracticed."
"I'm Press Secretary to the President of the United States, do you honestly think I couldn't make it look good?"
"You're a heady and terrifying woman, CJ Cregg."
"Save it for Donna."
"Yes, ma'am. I'll do that. You read all the information I'm sending you home with."
"You have a deal."
Olin snorted. "Can't wait to hear from you."
CJ smiled. "I'll bet."
CJ had the foresight and good sense not to promise her presence in the office on her first day of chemo treatments.
As predicted, it was a wise decision. She was much more fond of her own private toilet as a place to camp out than the public ones in the West Wing.
Donna had taken her in for the treatment, which she was taking by IV. Donna told her about her fight with Josh for permission to take CJ now that the proverbial cat was out of its equally proverbial bag. CJ, thinking that the actual chemo was much easier to handle than the in-clinic radiation treatments, had laughed and apologized.
Donna said, "I think whatever you said made him see a small amount of sense. I mean, it's Josh, nobody's expecting miracles, but-"
CJ smiled. "Small leaps of faith are accepted?"
Donna returned the smile, and flirted with CJ's doctor when he came in to take the IV out and make sure everything had gone well. He flirted back a bit before telling CJ, "I won't be at most of these sessions, the nurses here will be the ones administering the doses, but if something goes wrong, here or at home, I expect to hear from you."
CJ reassured him that she was keeping his phone number in her BlackBerry and let Donna flirt a bit more before reminding her that Josh actually did need her at the office, whatever other reasons he might have given for not wanting her to go. Donna had said, "I organized Carol, Ginger and Bonnie to make sure he didn't topple any world-regimes. There were shifts."
"Clever of you," CJ had to give her.
When Donna dropped CJ off at her apartment she wasn't feeling all that terrible, so she called in and had Carol fax her over whatever could be worked on remotely. The nausea kicked in a couple of hours later, and once the vomiting started, it didn't much stop.
Josh must have come over while running out for dinner because he found her there, hunched over the bowl. She was pretty sure she hadn't vomited in a while but she had neither the nerve nor the energy to drag herself to her bed and die quietly. Josh sat down next to her and pushed the hair that had fallen over her face out of the way. She mumbled, "Not at my most glamorous."
"You've seen me with parts falling out, I figure this is karma's way of balancing the scales."
CJ managed to push herself away from the toilet, far enough so that she could lean her back up against the wall and sit straight. "Do you think you could get me a glass of water?"
Josh stepped over her and disappeared into unseen parts of her apartment for a bit before returning with the requested glass. He set it beside the sink and knelt down, placing his hands inside her underarms. "On the count of three, okay?"
"I'm not sure I can count that high at the moment."
"I'll do all the work."
He did too, from the counting, to lifting her up smoothly, to getting her over the sink so that she could rinse her mouth before taking cautious sips. A few sips in, he took the glass back from her and dragged one of her arms over his shoulders. "We're gonna take this party to the bedroom."
"If I'd only known before you started bedding my favorite White House Deputy Communications Director."
"Was that a long competition for favorite?"
"The talent section was particularly grueling." Walking felt odd, not like something she'd been doing the large majority of her life. Soon enough, however, Josh was depositing her in the bed and handing the water back to her.
"Is someone coming tonight?"
"Gina or Dez might drop by after work."
"I'm gonna call them."
"See if you can sleep for a bit, okay? And when you wake up, see if you can get your own water but if you can't, call someone. Sam can get away tonight. Hell, Toby can actually get away tonight, if you can believe that. The world stopped spinning today but I thought I'd wait until you were feeling better to tell you."
"We're not covering that?"
"The people at Fox News had it taken care of. Revelations on hand and everything."
"Sweet of them to handle things like that."
"The assistants sent flowers."
CJ laughed. "Listen, there's stuff on the kitchen table. Carol'll know what to do with it."
"Okay. You're going to be-"
"Yeah, think of me as having the stomach flu."
"I'm not entirely sure my brain is going to work with me on that."
"Try it out anyhow."
Josh gave her one last assessing glance and then turned to leave. She called after him. "Joshua?"
He spun back toward her, eyes slightly widened. "CJ?"
His responsive smile was lopsided. "Yeah."
The first clump of hair was panic-inducing. It shouldn't have been, CJ had read plenty of things, had several talks with Alexis and Janie, no, it should have been something she took in stride, but rather she stood in the shower working to breathe between sobs while the water slowly turned frigid. When she finally managed to get herself out, her fingertips were blue, and still covered in hair.
She washed her hands and dried her hair. She could still tell where there was a clump missing. Logically, rationally, she knew that nobody else would probably be able to do so. When she styled it she could lay other pieces over the area and cover it reasonably.
But she knew. And before long she had no doubt that there would be no way of covering that which was gone, that which was gone would overtake what was still there. She fought to keep her hands still, not to tear at the hair in a fit of anger, or just at being at a loss for what else to do.
She sat down on her floor, exactly where she was, and went through some of the breathing exercises she'd learned through yoga. She forced herself through them until she started to actually calm, to flow into a space where she wasn't thinking about the continual stripping of self that she hadn't expected to be so violent nor so throwing.
When she was finished, she dressed herself. Group therapy was in a couple of hours, so she held off on calling Renanda or Alexis. She couldn't help dropping a call to Gina to say, "Good morning."
"You sound like you need some coffee."
"You're not sick?"
"Not. . .no, my stomach's staying where the lord intended it to stay."
"Now you're claiming divine comprehension?"
"You'd be amazed what a life-threatening illness will do for you."
"Seriously, you all right?"
"I'm fine, really. Just a little co-dependent this morning, evidently."
"Which is not your normal deal. See why I find this worrying?"
"The stuff Olin's giving me for the nausea, it's pretty intense."
"The nausea it has to combat is pretty intense."
"CJ, I have to-"
"Yeah, I'll talk with you later."
"You're sure you're all right?"
CJ knew that day was actually one of the rare times that Margaret was supposed to be picking her up for chemo. The medication for the nausea caused too much drowsiness for her to be trusted with heavy machinery of any sort, and Margaret, CJ knew, had gotten in on the schedule as a sort of messenger from Leo. It was his way of providing involvement despite his inability to get away from the office. It was Toby, however, who showed instead. Of course.
CJ pretended to sleep on the way there and insisted when they left that he take her to the office. He said, "You can't stay awake for longer than two minutes at a time. That was me being generous."
CJ said, "Heavy machinery and state secrets aren't exactly the same thing. I want to go in, Toby."
He took her, despite the look in his eyes that said he knew better. She spent the next three hours sleeping on the couch in her office, but on the upside, she thought upon waking, sleeping was better than vomiting. She actually managed an hour of solid work before falling asleep at her desk again. Carol found her there, said, "Let me take you home."
CJ noticed the locks of hair that she left on her desk when she stood up. There were more laying strewn on her couch. Carol's eyes strayed to follow CJ's but she didn't say anything. For that, CJ didn't snap or snarl or do any of the things she wanted to do. She collected her things, and let Carol take her home without a fight.
Gina came over around eleven. CJ was actually awake, the meds having worn off. She said, "I need you to do something for me."
Gina looked as though she was about to say something flippant, but one look at CJ straightened her forming smile out. "Anything."
CJ took Gina into her bathroom where she'd laid out scissors and a razor with shaving cream. "While the thought of taking a razor to myself in sheer anger has some appeal I think I'd regret it later when my head was stinging."
Gina didn't move from her spot in the doorway. "CJ, are you sure-"
"I can't do this a little bit at a time." CJ sat down on the edge of her tub. "I thought, I mean it's just hair, it'll grow back and I thought it wouldn't be nearly as big a thing as my chest, but it's. . .cumulative."
Gina came and sat next to her, tucking an arm behind CJ's back and pulling her close. CJ laughed a bit into her shoulder. "I feel like one of those women I promised myself I'd never become the first time I watched a soap opera when I was like, I don't even know, ten."
"You've been dating your brother's wife's brother who's recently back from the dead and two timing him with your female transsexual boss?"
"That's a little cutting edge for daytime TV, actually."
"Not that I watch that many soaps but you're not ringing any bells in that direction for me."
CJ pulled herself back a little so that she could look at Gina. "You want honesty?"
"If you. . .yeah."
"There hasn't been a day since the surgery that someone hasn't come by to check on me, even if I didn't need help and there hasn't been a day when I haven't wanted to be checked on. I liked it when I could finally manage to get myself to radiation, it felt like I had more of me inside me, but I was so relieved when all of you kept to a schedule, kept seeking me out.
"Being alone right now feels horrible in ways that I've never known it to. I'm terrified of going into work, the way people look at me and it feels like a mirror of the way I look at myself right now. I haven't had a problem with myself since I survived puberty, at least not that way. When society laughingly tells larger women that they're beautiful, I've always believed that. I see difference in women to be a drawing factor and I have quite a bit of difference inside me. But every time I look at myself now it's not just what's missing, a daunting factor in and of itself.
"It's as though I'm seeing the cancer on me, seeing a dependence and a weakness that has never been part of myself. It makes me nauseated. When I look at myself, I'm-" CJ stopped, pressing her lips tightly together, shrugging slightly.
Gina swept a gentle hand through CJ's hair, and even this brought with it strands. The red of it shimmered as it fell to the floor. "I could say a million things right now and not one of them would change how you feel. So I'm just going to say this: you're still the strongest person I know. You're still stunning. You're still you. And you're going to see that."
CJ tilted her head and rested it on Gina's shoulder. Gina tightened her grip around CJ's waist. "You still want me to help you with your hair?"
"The thinning look isn't really me."
"At the risk of being a horrible friend, I have to tell you that I'm not sure the bald one is going to be either."
"I know, but at least it's my choice."
"I'm just going to stay here for a second, though."
"Yeah," Gina said. "I think that's a good idea."
CJ made it into the office by six-thirty two days later and joined the rest of the senior staff for the morning briefing. Although everyone from Toby to the intern who had joined CJ's staff while she was away had looked several times at her head, CJ had taken the high road and refused to say a word about her choice. She didn't regret it, not when handing the razor over to Gina had allowed her a type of certainty about the outcome of things that she hadn't even gotten glimpses of since her diagnosis. Occasionally, though, she would shut herself in her office and play a round of computer games in which she blew things up. Lots of things. Big things.
President Bartlet asked her to stay for a few minutes after the meeting and he was the president, so CJ stayed. He rifled through his desk as she stood where she had stopped walking to the door, facing him expectantly. "I have something for you," he said.
"If it's a puppy, Mr. President, Josh already offered one and I refused."
"I haven't gone to keeping puppies in my desk, CJ. I know," he looked up at her for a second before returning to his search, "I know what you all think, the absent-minded professor. I have ears in the walls, you know. But I'm not that far gone."
CJ looked down and twisted her lips upward. "Yes, sir."
"Aha!" President Bartlet strode from behind his desk, something crunched up in his hand. "You may be familiar with this."
He reached up and fitted the something--an indeed familiar Notre Dame baseball cap--over her scalp. CJ reached up and ran a finger over the lip. "Not very professional looking, sir."
"No, but smart. Classy." He smiled at her, the type of smile he always had when he wished he could legislate happiness, or, barring that, at least some world peace.
CJ pulled the cap down tighter so that it fit against her ears. "Certainly."
"Off you go then. I'm pretty sure I pay you for something."
"You mean, other than an object for your mockery and flights of fancy?"
"The words 'gross insubordination' mean anything to you?"
"I know the first one, care to explain the second?"
"Out, Ms. Cregg."
"I serve at the pleasure of the president."
"Yeah, you do."
CJ turned when she reached the door and said, softly, "Thank you, Mr. President."
President Bartlet nodded, lips tight, and waved her away.
CJ appreciated the cap, both for its attempt to cover the problem and for the emotions behind that attempt, the president's careful but not too careful concern for her. It was Josh, though, who found a way not just to cover the problem but to very nearly fix it.
It was a sign of some sort, CJ was sure, that she was less shocked than she probably should have been. Surprised, yes. Shocked, not entirely.
He brought the box to her at home, despite the fact that they'd been at work together practically all day. She'd still slept on her couch for some of it but she'd been there, perfectly available for gift giving. When she let him into the apartment, though, he held out the box like an offering before stepping inside and said, "Happy birthday."
"You're a few months late," she said.
"Or several months early. Since when are you a glass-half-empty girl?"
CJ gave him a look of slight indulgence and carried the box into her living room. She set it down and before she had turned to go to the kitchen for a knife, Josh was handing her his keys. She took them with a, "Thanks," and undid the tape on each side of the package with clean swipes.
She lifted out the Styrofoam head with a wig that was rich and full if just a tone deeper than her natural hair color. It was an inch or so too short. CJ didn't care. Rather, she experienced the rare feeling of not having a clue of what to say or how to express what she was feeling. She wasn't even entirely sure she knew what she was feeling. She settled for the comfort of satisfying her curiosity. "Where do you even get a wig like this?"
"It might not be perfect. I didn't know your exact head size--they ask for all kinds of inches and stuff, and there were about eighty different colors to choose from all with names like 'strawberry marshmallow' and 'roan prick'-"
"You're making that one up."
"Yes, but the strawberry one was entirely above board."
CJ smiled. "Josh, it's. . . I was talking with Janie about how to get one, but-"
"Can I see it on you?"
"Yeah, in a minute, I'm serious, I really wanna know how you found a place that custom makes wigs."
"All right, but I'm warning you, my seeming magical abilities are about to disappear in front of your eyes."
"The only thing that would be magical is if I actually thought you had magical abilities."
The edge of Josh's mouth quirked. "My mom's active in Hadassah along with some very cool Gen X frum chicks."
"I understood almost all the words in that sentence."
"Observant Jewish women."
"Still not following."
"They aren't allowed to show their real hair after being married."
"So what you're telling me is that instead of showing off their actual hair they go and get expensive classy wigs to wear in place of it?"
"That's observant Judaism for you."
"I'm going to be needing to kiss your mom and these frummy girls some day."
"They get kisses?"
CJ took Josh's face in both her hands and planted a kiss squarely on his lips. Then she pulled back and said, "You mentioned wanting to see me in it?"
Josh blinked. "Yeah, I mentioned that."
CJ removed the wig from the model head and moved into her bathroom so as to have the benefit of the mirror. She settled the wig atop her head, fitting it smoothly into place. There had been directions in the box for how to make sure it stayed on, how to take care of it, all the mundane details that she would need to know no later than tomorrow morning, but for the moment she just took a minute to look at herself, surprisingly familiar, for all that the familiarity wasn't truly part of her. She couldn't help that she was almost crying when she turned herself to the side so that Josh could see. She simply couldn't.
He said, "We can exchange it, they have a guarantee."
She shook her head mutely. He seemed to understand because he said, "Good. I really like it on you."
CJ had gotten a lot of supportive emails since announcing her diagnosis. Many were from fans; some from men and women suffering from cancer; survivors; people in the media who respected her and the job she did; all sorts of things. Several of them caught her eye for one reason or another. There was one written by the sixteen year old girl in Huntsville, Alabama who wanted to go into media because of CJ. Another one came from a father who had lost his twenty seven year old daughter to breast cancer. Most recently there was the one from the Q-te Grrrls of Nevada, who had written as a group to inform CJ that, "We miss your press conferences. Mr. Ziegler might be brilliant in his own right, but he's not exactly pin-up material, now is he?"
CJ's first response had been the desire to pitch the note, as none of the Grrrls had seen her in her most recent incarnation. Of course just as she was tossing it, Sam had walked in and intercepted, probably connecting the look of bemusement on her face with the corresponding action. "May I?" he asked, even as he unrumpled the paper.
CJ waved a hand. "But I swear, if there are whisperings about this." She left the threat purposely vague. She wasn't feeling very intimidating. She was feeling like she wanted a nap, and for her body to stop swelling like some sort of deformed latex balloon animal.
Sam read the note. "They're right, you know."
"That I was the hottest thing ever to happen to politics and a camera? And that Toby, sadly, will never be? Of course they are."
"No, that you should get back on the podium."
Sam made a small abortive gesture with his hand. "The wig turned out well. I knew he was going to get it for you. He asked me if I thought it was a good idea. And I did because I knew you'd feel it was the thought that counted, but I really thought he'd find something awful. I mean, him being Josh and all."
"If it were just the hair-"
"I know," he cut her off. "But that's why you should do it. Because it's not actually about any of that. It's about the way you know what to answer and what not to answer, the way you make people laugh, the tone of your voice, the way you hold yourself. It's not about your breasts."
Sam sounded so angry at the last that CJ merely blinked at him. He took a step backward. "Sorry, I just. I don't understand. I've been trying. Thinking what it would be like if somebody took my testicles from me, and I can't, there's no way for me to imagine the things that are happening to you, particularly not in a world that understands gender in specifically physical terms and women even more rigidly. But every time I think about how hurt you are, how much deeper this runs than invasive cells I just want-"
Sam gave her a sheepish smile. "I've been at the gym a lot lately."
"Is Josh properly appreciative of that?"
Sam's bark of laughter was sudden and sharp. They shared a conspiratorial glance. He tossed the note back at her. "Anyway, I think you should keep that."
CJ intended to wait until he was out of sight to thoroughly dispose of it. Somehow, though, when he had faded from her view, she found herself tucking the note in with the others she had kept. The waste basket would still be there if she changed her mind later.
"Do you watch your press briefings? Afterward?" Renanda asked.
"Generally only when I've thoroughly fucked up."
"Why only then?"
"Helps me visualize the problem, which in turn helps me figure out how to fix it. Granted, most problems can't wait that long. I either fix them in the second after I make them, or it's going to be me and a whole bunch of others fixing it. So no, not usually."
Renanda leaned back in her chair. She finally lifted her eyebrows and let go of a long stream of air. "That's a lot of responsibility."
"At the risk of sounding blithe, I like responsibility. And just out of curiosity, don't you have to fix your own professional mistakes rather quickly? I mean, you are handling the mental component of people's lives."
"I suppose I don't think of it that way."
"What other way is there to think of it? When I'm on that podium, it's not just me looking out at the camera, it's the president, and Leo McGarrey, Josh Lyman, Sam Seaborn, Toby Ziegler, and you may or may not have noticed, but all those people are pretty important to me. Are you clients not important to you? Are they not people that you validly care about and need, on the deepest level of your being, to protect?"
"Well, no, I don't think my relationships with my clients are like that, but that wasn't what I meant."
"All right then."
"I meant that when I go to work I see myself as an interested, but not immersed third party. Someone who wants to help, but knows she isn't perfect. Of course there are times when I mess up, and when I realize that I have I find a way to fix it as much as possible. Some times the only way to fix it is to give the client over to another doctor, which is wrenching, let me tell you. But being responsible means accepting responsibility, as I think you well know. The thing is, sometimes I wonder if you know that in your case, the responsibility is a bit widespread. If you are responsible, shall we say, for not disappointing your coworkers and office superiors, then they are equally responsible for not disappointing you."
"Knowing the small amount that I know about this presidency as a member of the American public, I somehow doubt that, but all right, moving on. Then you're afraid of disappointing them, and what's worse, you've only ever truly seen yourself in moments of disappointing them. So right now, every time you look in the mirror and see someone who disappoints you, it's that same woman who messed up in front of the cameras."
CJ blinked. "It wasn't ever how I looked that was upsetting."
"The brain doesn't necessarily differentiate cause, CJ. Emotion can at times be far stronger than logic, particularly in moments of sustained distress."
CJ pressed two fingers to the bridge of her nose. "How to force logic to the front, then?"
Renanda was quiet for a bit, although CJ wasn't sure if that was because she was thinking, or merely allowing CJ some space. Finally she asked, "Is there something smaller that's got you completely freaked? Something you can try as a mid-step?"
CJ thought. "Not really. Reporters sense blood in the water. Even the ones who like you do."
"I didn't necessarily mean in your job."
"I know you probably hear this often without people really understanding what it means, but my job is my life. I spend more time at the office than I generally spend breathing."
Renanda chuckled. "Maybe that's something we should talk about."
"I don't know that you'd say that if you knew me under different circumstances. Most days I love what I do. Most days, it's better than oxygen."
"And when it's not one of those most days?"
CJ met Renanda's eyes. "I get through it. We get through it. And hope that the next day is one of the most days."
Renanda waited a second before nodding. "All right, well, I'm sending you home with homework."
"May I ask how you grade first?"
Renanda ignored her. "Think about the things you can do that are halfway steps. Come back with suggestions."
"How many to get an A?"
Renanda smiled. "Time's up."
CJ would take the wire and beads that were slowly becoming a necklace to her chemo appointments. Then, instead of having to think about the IV and what poured into her body through it, she could think, "Blue, blue, black, blue," stringing the beads into their appropriate places. She was less concerned with the final outcome than she would have imagined. Really, she just liked the sensible nature of it. She found the repeating patterns that didn't change to be reassuring. She enjoyed the smooth slide of the bead onto the wire. There was an ease to the venture that she had avoided most of her life exchange for jobs that were ever changing, friendships and partnerships that very rarely slid anywhere.
She sometimes saw the patterns in her sleep, when she napped the drugs off later in her offices. CJ wondered if maybe that meant something but she was too tired to really think it through. There were more important things not three feet away, lying on her desk.
At five Donna would drag her down to the mess, where someone on the staff had read an article proclaiming raspberry herbal tea to be beneficial for cancer patients. Donna would pour them each a cup and fill CJ in on any office gossip she might have missed. CJ was generally too busy paying attention to nation-wide gossip. The type she was actually paid to know.
Late into this new pattern of theirs, CJ, wanting to have something to add, said, "My oncologist is thinking of bearing your children."
"That will be awkward, no? My boss is thinking of bearing yours."
CJ was never sure which one of them realized Donna had said it first. CJ thought she had but she couldn't absolutely say, not when she remembered so strongly the look of panic in Donna's eyes and her quick attempt to cover it with mirth, and a small laugh. "Can you imagine? Josh pregnant? I shudder to think." She shuddered for emphasis.
Only, it was CJ's responsibility to read the signs, to hear the slight intonations, to know when things were true and things were false and things were something eerily in between. CJ knew Donna better than she knew most people. Donna's eyes still had a soft tinge of regret in them, the way they did whenever she involuntarily betrayed Josh--and CJ had never known Donna's betrayals to be voluntary, not even when Donna probably would have said they were. Little sister. CJ should have known. CJ smiled offhandedly, a flash of teeth. "The president would hunt me down and kill me for subjecting us to such horrors."
"He might even change the gun laws just for the occasion."
"I could single-handedly be responsible for turning President Josiah Bartlet Republican."
"I suppose there are worse things."
"You, ma petite tra^itre, have a soft spot for Republicans."
"Nice ones, yeah," Donna felt it was only fair to point out. She widened her eyes a bit in that way that made her still look fresh out of college.
CJ smirked. "Good looking doesn't hurt either."
Donna grinned conspiratorially. "No, no it doesn't."
"I should warn you, I'm pretty sure my oncologist is an independent."
"Well so far all of my Republican and Democratic relationships have ended badly. Independents, on the other hand, have a clean slate."
"That's practically a good omen."
"Don't get all excited over there."
"I think they might have slipped some extra caffeine in the tea."
Donna giggled a bit, as though nothing had happened. CJ kept up the pretense.
CJ went into her kitchen looking for breakfast, and instead found Sam. Who, admittedly, had brought breakfast. She picked up a suspiciously colored muffin and surveyed it. Sam said, "Orange cranberry. I was feeling adventurous. There's lemon, if you're not."
CJ shrugged, unwrapped the muffin and took a bite. "Adventurous it is."
Sam smiled and pushed a cup of tea toward her. "Green, with a little honey."
CJ sat down. "You wanna tell me what has you kissing ass so early in the morning, Samuel?"
"There's probably going to be a picture of Josh and me kissing on the front page of the Post today. Paparazzi out my window, and I thought we were out of the view, but-"
CJ nearly threw up what she'd eaten of the muffin. Sam smirked. Immediately, nausea transformed into the overwhelming urge to throw the muffin at Sam. "I would nail you with this breakfast starch but I'm hungry and enjoying it too much to waste it on you."
"I've never kissed Josh in a room with a window and I don't plan on starting now. And you should stop assuming that I'm in trouble because I'm being nice to you. That's your style, not mine."
"Watch it." CJ took another bite and considered Sam. "Donna said something to you, didn't she?"
"About the man I'm sleeping with and his mild obsession with you."
"The man you're sleeping with's name is Josh and he's not some bint you picked up at a bar, for fuck's sake. And what the hell was Donna telling you for?"
"She felt bad. Like she might have screwed things up."
"I've been the other woman once in my life and it won't happen again. Even if it were going to, honestly, Sam, do you think I would go around your back? How can you think that I would be able to manage that without getting caught, or that I would have the complete lack of moral awareness necessary to make that decision? I won't even go into your lack of faith in Josh."
"You really like me this morning, don't you?"
"What did you expect?"
"That you would possibly listen to what I had to say."
CJ took another bite, using the time it took her to chew to calm down a bit. "All right. Talk."
Sam took a deep breath. "It's not just Josh, CJ. I thought that was obvious."
CJ sipped at her tea. "Whatever are you on about?"
"Early in the first campaign," Sam smiled a little bit, "around the time you threw that basketball out the window and then we had to find it in the snow, well, I wanted to see if you were interested. But we were working together on a presidential campaign and things were more than crazy enough, not to mention I had a brilliant record of screwing relationships up fantastically and Josh and I were sort of in an on phase. So it was just bad timing. And then, by the time it wasn't enormously bad timing you were doing things like putting on Donna Karen and Vera Wang dresses and you didn't look like someone I had even a ghost of a chance with. So I consoled myself that we were friends and probably slept with Josh more than I should have, but he's done the same with me before, so I don't feel too terrible."
CJ kept sipping, evenly, so as to control her breathing. "But you and Josh-"
"Are in a sort of love. It's just not a very exclusive sort. And it has to be a forgiving sort. If it wasn't, it wouldn't keep occurring."
"I'm not sure it goes away."
Sam's smile was a bit melancholy. "That's something else entirely."
CJ set the teacup down and rubbed at the muscles in the back of her neck. Sam, not one to let much of anything go, stood up and positioned himself behind her so as to gently massage at the area. She said, "You're offering to let me in on this."
"We're offering you whatever you want."
"Why isn't he here?"
"Sadly, of the two of us, I'm the one who handles rejection like a mature adult."
CJ chuckled. She relaxed into his hands, large and warm over the skin of her neck.
"I. . .have to think about it."
"Whatever you want," Sam said again, although CJ thought she heard just a bit more emphasis placed on it this second time.
"If I were to say no, I would say no."
"I'll do my best to convince him of that."
"It's just occurred to me how ridiculously good your cock-sucking abilities must be."
"Among other things," Sam agreed complacently.
CJ picked up the muffin and took another bite. Sam kept his hands where they were.
CJ was in the middle of her living room floor, legs crossed into pretzel position, beads surrounding her in every direction when Gina came over that night. She looked up and asked, "Where's Dez?"
"Sleeping. She needed to sleep."
Gina leaped over a particularly large village of gold-tinted beads onto the couch. "I needed to see you more. That message you left was a bit cryptic."
Also, it was late summer. Gina never slept well from May on through September. CJ thought the heat reminded her of Roslyn. She'd never asked. "You could have called. As far as I know my lines aren't tapped by my political enemies and even if they are, I could spin the invasion of privacy thing."
"You are gifted with the spin."
"And fantastic in bed."
"Certainly that as well."
"Josh and Sam want to find out. About that."
Gina blinked. "First hand?"
"No, they want me to set up a meeting with you. There's this bar Sam likes-"
"All right, it was a stupid question." Gina stretched out, lying all the way across the couch, her cheek pillowed on one arm. "How many necklaces are you making?"
"I couldn't sleep."
"That's. . ."
"Nearly unbelievable. I thought about going back into the office, but I was afraid I'd get there and be too exhausted to drive myself home, so I took care of the stuff I'd brought home, thinking that would tire me out sufficiently but it didn't."
"How're you feeling?"
"Nauseated, wiped. I'm so bloated from the chemo that I feel like I'm roughly the size of King Kong. In other words, thoroughly unprepared to deal with offers that less than a year ago I would have eagerly taken with the full awareness that I shouldn't."
"Is it about the risk of exposure?"
"That's a good chunk of it. That's what it would have been about before all of this."
CJ looked up from where she was threading a metal strand through one of the beads. She met Gina's eyes. "Like you only worse. A sexual threesome at the top levels of the presidency with two men? Yeah, I see that one going over well."
"I thought we agreed you could spin anything."
"Anything as a term is actually more limited than most people think."
Gina twisted the edges of her mouth at that, but didn't respond. "What's the other thing?"
CJ held the metal line up a bit so that the four beads she'd placed on it would slide down slightly. She watched their progression. "I was thinking I might like to start over with someone who didn't matter quite so much."
After a while Gina admitted, "I don't understand."
"This isn't just about my body, this cancer thing." CJ looked up again. "I'm having to do a little inner rebuilding."
"That's about you, though, not them."
"Things being about me are about them. It's like. . .it's like Mexico."
Gina waited for a second. Shook her head. "Nope, you're gonna have to take me there."
"Every once in a while, the US has to bail Mexico, and a few other countries, out of financial disaster. Now, one could argue, and probably would argue were one me, that we just plain owe it to a lot of these countries, particularly Mexico, given our rather empirical past in regard to them. However, if you're Josh, you argue that we do this because if your neighbor's house is on fire, you run the risk of catching a stray spark and igniting yourself. The neighbor thing, obviously, is metaphorical. In this day and age, it doesn't matter if the fire's two blocks over, the wind's going to bring it right to your door. That's how it is. Not just with countries. Somewhere along the way we all ended up being responsible to and for each other."
"But there are times when we have to be responsible to ourselves first."
"Those times being all the time," CJ agreed. "But this offer isn't about me. It's about the three of us. So my choice is to keep things about me for the time being, or to make this particular part of my life about myself and them. The logical part of me, the part that got me out of Dayton and to New York and into the press secretary job, that part says I keep things about me."
"And the part that fell in love with me?" Gina asked.
"That's where things get complicated."
"What do you need?"
CJ thought about what she was fighting for in the first place. "Time."
"Take it," Gina said. Carefully she slid off the couch to tiptoe through the maze of not-yet-jewelry. She sat facing CJ, their knees touching. "Take it."
"He in?" CJ asked Donna.
Donna looked up from her computer, tucked a hair behind her ear. "Yeah, and. . .just off the phone."
CJ knocked on the door. Josh called, "Come in."
CJ stepped in. "Want me to close the door?"
"What? Oh, no, it was just-" Josh made a vague motion at the phone. CJ understood.
"I'm going to close it anyway."
Josh tilted his head back and opened his mouth, letting it hang for a bit. "'Kay."
CJ closed the door and sat down. "Toby and I were talking awhile back. DoMA. He said-"
"I can imagine."
"Didn't fit in with my vision of you."
Josh smirked. "Me having a social conscience?"
"You putting your love life over your career. Sure as hell never happened with Amy so far as any of us could tell, and she was rather acceptable, wasn't she?"
Josh nodded his head slightly, his body moving just a bit with it. "She was. What she wasn't, was Sam."
"Quite the statement."
Josh didn't say anything. He didn't look away, either. She asked, "Do you still want to?"
"I want him to be president some day. I find the two to be mutually exclusive."
"And you think president is more important?"
"Who has more power, CJ? Deputy Communications Director? Or President? Who affects policy more? Who gets to come out after his term, or perhaps even in his second term, and perhaps change the way at least a few people see things? I'm not completely without vision."
CJ knew this. "It's just that most of the time your big picture is subtly different from mine."
"Well, that's because you have a heart. I asked for one but they were fresh out."
"Why do you ask?"
"Because resilient as it is, this administration can only handle so much scandal at once. And then, only certain types of scandal."
"While I realize that Sam and I coming out together would be a little racy, don’t you think you’re being a bit melodramatic?"
"Two gay staffers is one thing. A threesome with a gay tinge to it, that's something entirely else, Joshua."
"And three-" Josh blinked. "Sam talked to you." Under his breath he muttered, "Asshole."
"You ready to be rebuilding your glass house, there?"
"CJ, telling you was never-"
"For Sam it was."
"Sam doesn't always-"
"I know Sam, Josh."
Josh asked softly, "I don't suppose you could just forget-"
"I don't want to. Not yet. When I make up my mind about what I want, then maybe. But no matter what happens, Josh, I wanted to say thank you."
Josh opened his mouth. Shut it. Nodded.
CJ got up and went back to her office. She wasn't much the type to put her love life ahead of her career either.
Autumn brought the conclusion of CJ's chemo course. The last dose was by far the worst, which she hadn't really been expecting. She'd gotten used to the inconveniences of the medications which left her useless with exhaustion, and even with looking at herself and trying to roll with the constantly changing landscape of her body and face. The final dose came with a return of vomiting, as it overpowered the medication.
Margaret had come out to take her to her appointment. CJ was surprised, and didn't bother to hide it. "Things unusually crazy?"
Margaret smiled. "Leo sent me."
CJ nodded in acceptance. Even having once told Leo in no uncertain terms that she wasn't his daughter, she hadn't had the heart nor the energy to reiterate the sentiment since her diagnosis. Leo was taking her silence as carte blanche to indulge his paternal whims, and while that didn't mean much was altered from the norm, gestures like sending Margaret to her last appointment had peppered her existence over the months of treatment. When she was at her most self-truthful, she knew that Leo's attentions soothed wounds that weren't entirely healed. Forcefully she didn't allow herself to think of her father, of him not knowing not remembering not. . .living. "Sorry to have pulled you out of the office."
"CJ," Margaret said, with that slight tilt to her voice that marked her disapproval clearly without being technically insubordinate.
Margaret took her to the appointment and then back to the office. CJ immediately went to go nap on her couch, expecting to wake up later and maybe get some work done. Maybe. She could sometimes.
She did wake up. Only instead of waking to either a slight intention to do work or to hitch a ride home for more sleep, she woke to the intense need to dive for her waste basket and lose everything she'd ever ever eaten into its hold.
Toby found her there, waste basket nearly overflowing and swore quietly, but with what CJ felt was an adequate amount of feeling. He called for Carol and barked, "Stay with her."
Carol took advantage of a small pause in the proceedings to change linings. CJ choked out, "Thanks," and went back to concentrating on her breathing. When the retching began again it was largely just bile and air. CJ wanted water, but the effort it would have taken to request it was too much to consider at the time. Toby, luckily, was having an on day and thought to bring one back, along with Abbey.
Abbey made a small noise in the back of her throat. "Poor thing."
CJ took a few cautious sips and didn't even mind when they came up, just that there was something other than her stomach doing so. Abbey and Toby were talking in the background, and Carol was rustling around behind CJ. Abbey said, "Claudia Jean, let me know you're listening."
"Yes ma'am," CJ found the breath to say.
"I can’t really give you anything for this, because nothing's going to mix well with all the drugs already in your system. So we're going to wait for this to calm down a little and then move you to the residence so that you can feel miserable in private, all right?"
CJ pressed her cheek to the cool wood of her desk. "Yes ma'am."
CJ couldn't have said how long it was before she managed to stand with the help of Toby and Carol. Abbey took over for Carol, despite the unsure looks of CJ's assistant. CJ nodded but she wasn't sure Carol got the message. She was too worn out to ask. Later CJ was sure she would feel the full breadth of embarrassment due being escorted through the West Wing by the first lady, but for the moment, all she felt was desperate to get to a place with a toilet and a bed.
Abbey propped CJ up against a wall and held her there while ushering Toby out. She sat CJ in a chair. "You think you're going to need the toilet again?"
CJ rasped, "Not just now."
"You want to take your jacket and your shoes off?"
CJ said honestly, "That sounds like a lot of work."
Abbey smiled gently. "I imagine. I'll help."
"Can barely talk, which is usually what the federal government pays you for, so my faith in your motor skills is less than entire."
"Excellent point, ma'am."
"How much more of this, CJ?"
CJ shook her head slightly and then regretted it, as nausea rose up again. "Last. Bathroom, please."
Abbey bent down and slipped off CJ's pumps. "Come on." She stood and raised CJ up. "A receptacle that flushes."
"My definition of heaven."
"You're a classy gal, Ms. Cregg."
CJ wanted to say something, but opening her mouth seemed like a bad idea, so she just stayed as upright as possible and kept her eyes straight ahead.
She awoke to the sound of Leo and the president discussing something and thought for a moment that she was still asleep. It wasn't unusual for her to hear their voices in her non-waking hours, particularly not when stressed out. Then the events of the day came back to her with a sort of squishing sound against the liquid barrier to her brain and CJ thought, kill me now.
She evidently said this thought aloud, as the president responded, "Now, Claudia Jean, don't you think that would be a little counter-productive, given everything you've just gone through for the sake of continued survival?"
"Yes, thank you for pointing that out, sir." CJ slowly raised herself to a sitting position. "This is a much nicer bed than the one in my guest room."
"Your tax dollars at work." President Bartlet smiled at her, his full smile, the one that said he would rather be smiling than thinking about things he should probably be thinking about.
CJ ran a hand over her head and winced as she noticed that Abbey must have removed her wig. Sure enough, it was on a night stand by the bed. "Has something happened? Do you need me?"
"It's two in the morning, CJ, and the world is relatively calm," Leo said.
"Two in the-" CJ glanced at a clock alongside the bed to verify this. Unsurprisingly, Leo wasn't lying to her.
"And yet, incredibly, every single member of the senior staff seems to have found something extra to keep them around. At last check, Josh was actually working on radically modifying the language in government manuals." Leo looked amused.
"It was only a matter of time before Donna won that round," CJ said.
Leo shuffled some papers in front of him. "A matter of time, a relatively dull day and everybody's favorite press secretary deciding she would go to any length to spend a night in the residence. Really, CJ, next time just ask."
"I'll keep those instructions in mind," CJ assured him.
"Abbey wanted me to find her when you woke up." The president stood, stretching his legs and looking at CJ in what she was sure he found to be a surreptitious manner. CJ had been around him long enough to know that subtle was very rarely his style and that, just like Abbey, only did what he asked of her when she damn well wanted to. And, despite lip-service to being at Abbey's beck and call, he only did what she asked of him when the reverse was true.
"Sorry about this, sir," CJ said, sure and entirely unsure for what she was apologizing all at once.
"It's a bed, CJ," he said.
But she certainly hadn't been apologizing for that, and when she caught his eye, she knew they both knew it. He left the room, leaving Leo to look after him and sigh softly. He turned his gaze to CJ. "You scared him."
CJ pressed her lips together. Leo was smart enough to connect the dots. A moment later he said, "Ah. It's still a stupid thing to apologize for."
"The entire senior staff is going to be exhausted tomorrow, when things might happen that actually need us to pay them attention." CJ didn't say that they'd all been exhausted for months, working the extra hours it took to always check up on her, always make sure they'd spent some time with her. That was their decision and she knew it. Not that staying tonight wasn't, but apologizing made her feel better on some instinctive level so she let herself get away with it.
Leo's smile was soft. "We've been through worse."
CJ couldn't deny that. "Thank you. For sending Margaret. I'd meant to say something this afternoon but time flies."
"Even when you're not having fun, evidently."
CJ tipped her head in acknowledgment. Leo asked, "You're done, then?"
"I'll know when I talk with my doctor, but supposedly, yes."
Abbey came in then, the president trailing in her wake as he did only when she was in full doctor mode. CJ braced herself. Leo said, "Talk to your doctor," and ducked out while the ducking was still good.
CJ didn't come into work for a few days after that. As it turned out, the chemo had only been a small part of her adventure that day. Her body, low on white blood cells, had picked up a nasty flu virus somewhere. CJ spent her days warding off the heat of fevers with extreme air-conditioning and then diving under covers when the chills came.
Josh's mom sent soup from Florida. When CJ tried asking Josh how this worked his face went blank and he said, "You’re not allowed to know unless you're Jewish."
"And a mom?" CJ asked.
"And a mom," Josh confirmed.
Not that CJ could make soup if there wasn't a can involved, and not that she would ever need the skill of shipping it up the eastern coast of the United States, but she made a mental note to ask Mrs. Lyman. There were some things that were just too trivial to miss.
Ryun threatened to put her in the hospital if the on again off again vomiting lasted any longer than five days, making CJ relieved when it stopped late on the fourth. She was pretty tired of hospitals. She called the doctor and said, "I'm not puking. How's the rest of me doing?"
"I'm really supposed to-"
CJ's stomach twisted. "Do this in the office, I know. But are you really going to make me wait?"
"You're right. The rest of you is cancer free, CJ."
CJ tried to dance a little bit, but her body just wasn't up for it. The weakness was enough to make her focus. "All right, now tell me what that means."
"It means that for now, we've eradicated anything that was causing or thinking about causing the cancer."
"Cancer is a bit like a bad penny. You're seeing Olin, right?"
"You'll need to keep seeing him. He'll talk to you about how regularly, that sort of thing, but if this pops up again, just like this time, the earlier we catch it, the better."
"But this is good news, right?"
"It's fantastic news, CJ," Ryun said softly. "It's practically a life sentence."
It took CJ a second to figure the terminology out. "As opposed to a death one?"
"I can go back to work full time?"
"Take it easy on yourself, I would say work your way up to where you were before, but yes."
"I can tell my family and friends?"
"You should tell them."
CJ felt the smile that found her lips, felt it curl up without any effort on her part. It felt odd after all these months of working for one. She still recognized it for what it was. "Thanks, doc."
"One of the best parts of my job."
"I can imagine," CJ said, even though she only vaguely could.
"Go drink some more fluids."
"I'm going." CJ hung up the phone and smiled at the walls of her apartment for a small while before picking up the glass by her bed and finishing it off.
Gina and Dez organized a Sunday brunch to celebrate. CJ knew that the day was chosen both because it was Gina's singular day off of the week, and because mimosa's were the only thing Gina could make without causing significant damage to her surroundings. She also knew that Gina and Dez ,who paid attention to these sorts of things, had noticed Sunday being the day that CJ's brothers stopped by her place every week to check up on their little sister.
Junior, the eldest, still believed unfailingly in a higher power, and came to see her after church every week. Matt, who only believed when the weather was nasty, came by either after church or before his golf game. Stretching from eleven in the morning until one in the afternoon, the brunch allowed plenty of time for both brothers to make the obligatory drop in, perhaps eat some of Dez's quiche, make sure their baby sister was all right, and continue on with their lives. It was how CJ best functioned with her brothers, and she appreciated that Gina remembered and catered to that.
It wasn't a surprise then that Matt showed, and showed early so much as that Hogan was at his side. She was looking all second year co-ed, with hair streaked electric blue and jeans that were more patch than denim. Hogan, who had called every other day to make sure CJ was doing all right. Hogan, who'd broken up with the boy she was dating because he hadn't known how to talk to her about the situation. Hogan, who had only been able to make it back from her summer internship once since this all started, and who was now back at Amherst for fall semester. Not that CJ was complaining. Her niece had a way of making their time together, any time, count.
Hogan hugged her tightly without the trepidation that she'd had the first time, fear that squeezing might cause something to pull or dislodge. "That wig is really hot."
CJ laughed. "Don't you have papers or something?"
"Your spin boys seemed to think this was more important."
"My spin boys," CJ said.
"Sam, Josh and Toby worked it all out with Dad. Sam told me that was your name for them. This was a very big secret according to him. Were you surprised?" Hogan grinned.
"You aren't seriously skipping anything, are you?"
Hogan rolled her eyes. "Aunt CJ."
CJ smiled. "Very surprised. And thrilled."
"Wait, I have something for you." Hogan disappeared into the front hall and reappeared with a box. "Open it."
CJ slit the pieces of tape that kept the top of box attached to the bottom. Inside was a t-shirt with the logo, "I only sleep with progressives."
CJ burst out in laughter. "Indeed I do."
"I wanted it for myself, but I knew in my heart of hearts that it would be hotter on you."
"Yeah," CJ said, with only a small amount of doubt, because Hogan wasn't the person who needed to be dealing with her self-image issues.
Hogan eyed her critically. "Was there a question mark somewhere in that 'yeah?'"
"There was," Spin Boy number two, sometimes colloquially known as Josh, appeared from behind her to confirm. He peered over her shoulder. "I'm progressive."
"You're faux-progressive," CJ informed him.
"Is that good for faux-sex?"
"Josh, this is my niece Hogan."
Josh offered his hand without any sign of shame. "Nice to finally meet you." To CJ, "We've spoken. There was planning involved in this, long hard planning. I planned things for you."
"You and Sam and Donna and Toby and Matt and Hogan."
"Why doesn't Team Josh go get me a mimosa?"
Josh sighed his very most put-upon sigh and wandered off to fulfill CJ's wishes. Hogan looked at CJ from under her lashes for a moment before smiling and asking, "When am I gonna see you on TV again? I miss gathering my friends and making them learn things on C-SPAN."
Alexis was experiencing complications and was back in chemo. She had dragged herself out to the party, though, and as such was pretty insistent about being allowed to go shopping with CJ and Hogan. She promised, "I'll just sit there most of the time."
CJ, knowing the type of agency that cancer slowly stole from a person, wasn't going to be the woman to say no. So it was that the three of them went shopping after the party to buy CJ a new suit. She had plenty of suits, and they all fit quite nicely even with the change in cosmetic stature but going back to work full time meant that Hogan would be able to torture her friends with C-SPAN again imminently and for that CJ needed, among other things, a new suit.
When she could barely keep her eyes open any longer she settled on a deep purple Kaspar. The purple was actually so dark that if one just glanced it gave the appearance of being black, which was what CJ enjoyed about it. It was different but not flamboyant. The suit was a two piece, the top an asymmetrical cut with a tie and the waist and the skirt a natural line cut.
CJ said, "If someone had ever told me I'd be drawing attention to my waist and my legs in an attempt to distract from my chest in my forties, I would have asked them if they'd had their medication that day."
Alexis fingered a tailored denim jacket. "If I had legs like yours, I wouldn't even bother with pants. Underwear all the way."
Hogan laughed. CJ asked, "You think the studio'd let you get away with it?"
"Are you kidding? They'd be using me in advertisements."
"Too bad my legs will be behind a podium most of the time."
"But for the best, seeing as how people really should be concentrating on oh, I dunno, what's happening at the White House?" Hogan picked a lip gloss from the container of them near the register and held it against the skin of her hand. Shaking her head slightly, she returned it to the container.
"In a perfect world," CJ said. Hogan had a point, however. CJ couldn't help wondering if maybe she was thinking about this all the wrong way. Of course how she presented herself was important to the administration. That was, after all, what her whole fight with Sherrie Wexler had been about: What was an appropriate outfit in which to announce the deaths of two American children, and what wasn't? CJ glanced over at the suit the sales lady was zipping up into a protective cover. Perfectly appropriate.
Her role, though, was about far more than how she looked. It was about the ways in which she kept her notes, her statements of clarification and her answers to probing questions. CJ was a broker of information, communication, and the way she looked while doing it was only a small part of a much larger tale. The rest of her parts, CJ knew, even while a little battered were still intact. If anything, they were stronger, more aggressive, more assured.
She had fought scarier things than reporters now. She had survived worse disasters than an incorrect phrase, a wrongly placed smile.
CJ signed the credit card receipt and took the bag with a murmured, "thank you," from the sales clerk when she handed it over. Alexis, who had driven them out to the stores, drove CJ home, and Hogan asked, "All right if I stay with you? Just for tonight, I'm headed back tomorrow afternoon anyway."
CJ had been planning to offer, so it made it easier that Hogan asked and the two of them could skip straight to making hot chocolate prepared with an indecent amount of tiny marshmallows and watch "Singin' in the Rain" together without any work on CJ's part. CJ fell asleep while the movie was still playing but when her alarm went off in the morning she was somehow in her bed, under the covers, safe and next to Hogan.
Hogan rolled over and muttered a bleary, "Aunt CJ?"
CJ whispered, "What time's your flight?"
"Uh. . .two."
CJ reset the alarm for ten o'clock to give her enough time to shower, eat and catch a cab back to her father's before needing to get to the airport. She kissed Hogan's forehead. "I'm glad you came."
Hogan said, "I'm glad you stayed," and fell back asleep.
CJ's desk was obscured by the enormous vase of flowers for which someone had pushed aside important and unimportant documents to make room. There was a small card, one of the tags that came free at the florist's shop, and CJ plucked it from its plastic triton.
Welcome back, CJ. We missed you. Paid for by everyone. Thought up by Charlie.
CJ straightened her desk a bit, moving the flowers so that it wouldn't be impossible to hold her morning briefing and then headed up to the oval. She was running early for senior staff so she loitered at Charlie's desk and said, "I was actually here for much of the time that I was gone. It was sort of hard to miss me, don't you think?"
"Well, you were with yourself the whole time, so I see how you could take that view, but the rest of us would probably be forced to disagree."
Toby chose this moment to come up behind her and ask Charlie, "Who's doing the forcing, Passive Construction Boy?"
"With my trusty sidekick, Prepositionally Ended Sentence Boy."
CJ snickered and leaned over the desk to kiss Charlie on the cheek. "Thank you for my flowers."
Charlie let this pass with his customary dignified silence but when she walked past him to enter the oval he said, "It's good to know you're back. Really back."
Debbie made a sound of agreement, tactfully not looking up from whatever she was doing. CJ nodded at Charlie and stepped into the Oval, where the president grinned at her. "Claudia Jean!"
"Mr. President," she said.
"Glad you're back."
"I was at a senior staff meeting three days ago, sir."
"Are you attempting to destroy the jubilant atmosphere I'm creating, Ms. Cregg?"
"Wouldn't dream of it, sir."
"No, I didn't imagine you would."
CJ took a seat on the couch, Toby falling in on the cushion one over from hers. He caught her eyes out of the corner of his and smiled softly, never once looking up from whatever he was considering in his lap. She quirked her lips in return.
Josh bounded in at full tilt somehow managing, as he always did, to stop before colliding with the furniture. It was a nearer thing with Leo and the furniture, as he wandered in from his office while still reading something rather than paying attention to his direction. Leo being Leo, however, and having extra-sensory radar about these things, stopped just as he was nearing his seat. He looked up then and smiled at CJ. "That's a nice suit. Is it new?"
"Yes, thank you."
"It's not black is it, it looks-"
"Purple," CJ confirmed.
"Purple," Leo echoed, seeming a little bit impressed by the things clothiers could do with colors these days. "Well, it looks good on you. Thank god we have someone who can properly distract the reporters back with us."
"And failing that, charm them with her impeccable wit," Sam said as he slid onto the couch across from her.
"I think that's everyone," the president said, as though the members of his staff changed too constantly for him to remember all of its members. "What have we got?"
Leo started his list. CJ could tell it was going to be long. Despite the fact that long lists often meant the world was spinning ever faster into chaos and despair, CJ smiled. The middle of despair was a bit like the eye of a storm: the only place to be in times of danger and tragedy.
There was a "We Missed You, CJ!" banner hanging directly in her line of vision when she mounted the podium. CJ had announced the deaths of countless people, the miraculous re-election of her boss and policy which she absolutely abhorred from that spot with less emotion than it took her to say, "Good morning, everyone."
Though her body was not the same body she had left this spot with, her mind knew it perfectly well, her fingers finding the right Post-It Notes announcing changes in the president's publicized schedule and the vote that was to take place in congress later in the day and the FBI fuck up that wasn't exactly unfixable, just not terribly fun to fix. As expected, the media had a field day with that. CJ nearly didn't begrudge them it, all things considered.
She buried the announcement about the North Korean ambassador canceling his visit, and Danny of course unearthed it, not even bothering to sheath his claws once the dirt had flown. The worst part about it, the very worst part, was that CJ had known that he would, had known and had called on him anyway. This was partly because going into her seventh year in this job she still somehow maintained her belief in free speech and the separation between media and government. Partly it was because she knew Danny would smile at her and possibly ask, "How are you?" and wait for her to answer, "I'm feeling excellent, thank you," before asking, "Does the cancellation of this trip have anything to do with the president's statement to the UN last week regarding nuclear proliferation?"
And really, what else would his cancellation of the trip have to do with? She coud have been frustrated with Toby. Toby hadn't talked the president into keeping his mouth shut until the ambassador had come and gone. Toby, however, was right on this issue. What needed to be said needed to be, well, said, and there hadn't been a better time for it.
"The president's remarks addressed an issue, not a nation, Danny. Katie?"
After the briefing, when CJ was doing her best to fly through the halls at her normal pace, with her head held high and her eyes ahead as she remembered doing every other time, it wouldn't quite work, not with her eyes wanting to avoid every TV set, just in case she was being replayed, every worker with whom she was only mildly familiar, just in case they stared. Carol was at her side, steady and helpful, bringing her up to date on what had happened since she'd stepped on the podium and complimenting her response to Danny.
She wasn't surprised when Danny found his way to her office with a bag of fish food and a wry smile. "You're as slippery as you ever were, Ms. Cregg."
"What have I told you about talk like that in the work place?"
"It drives you wild?"
CJ laughed a bit. "Not in the way you're hoping."
"I brought you pet supplies."
"You're a prince among men, I've always said this."
"Yes, I remember."
"Did you need something?"
"You should watch the briefing. You looked incredible up there."
"It was like the world had righted itself."
CJ blinked. Danny smiled, a small, bemused twist of the lips. "I'm a better writer than conversationalist."
"But decent at the latter, so you've said before."
"Watch the tape, CJ." Danny set the fish food on her desk and wandered out of her office. CJ was left to say, "Thanks for the gift," to a room that housed only herself.
She woke up to Sam's hand on her shoulder. Her position on the couch was terribly familiar, even if she couldn't quite remember how she'd gotten there. "What's the time?"
"It's possible that I've been sleeping for an hour." Since ten thirty was the last time she remembered looking at the clock but she was nearly positive she'd still been at her desk at that point.
"Toby thought I could get you home."
"I'd just sound stupid if I protested being fine, right?"
"I would phrase it more delicately, if that helped."
"Not enormously, no."
"I didn't think so." Sam smiled. "C'mon. I'll treat you to a milkshake."
"There's a good 24 hour diner place on the way to your apartment."
"I've never noticed."
"I've become intimately acquainted with the route."
One of CJ's favorite things about Sam, and if she was being honest she had quite a few, was that he noticed small things. He cared about small things, even when they weren't terribly important or most other people would consider them uninteresting. "You're on."
CJ dragged herself off the couch. "I still have-"
"I know. Toby and I are going to take care of it, and what we can't will still be here in the morning."
"Along with the rest of the world, just waiting to cause more trouble."
"You're catching on, my friend. Aren't you glad you do what you do?"
CJ thought about the tape from the evening's briefing. She hadn't been able to watch the morning one, despite Danny's advice, or even the one o'clock round, but she'd talked herself into a TiVo viewing of the final one for the day. She'd looked. . .right. She'd searched for a better, more worthy word for her podium presence, but what it came down to was that she fit with that podium, regardless of whether she felt like she fit into her skin or not. "Aren't you?" she asked.
Sam grinned. "You have anything you want to take with you?"
CJ doubted she'd be able to get anything done between going home and coming back. It was bedtime and that's all there was to it. Dr. Ryun and Olin and Renanda had all warned her that it would be some time before she was back to her normal energy levels. "Nah, just my coat."
Sam unhooked it from the rack and held it up, allowing her to slip inside. When she was inside, he kept his fingers curled around the collar, knuckles brushing at the back of her neck.
"Sam?" she aked.
"Sorry," he said, extricating his hands. "Lost my train of thought."
"I'm owed a milkshake, that find it for you?"
Sam chuckled. "Are you going to turn around and whack me if I tell you that you had a great first day back?"
"Afraid of being hit by a girl?"
"You're no girl, CJ Cregg."
"A woman, then?"
"I won't hit you."
"You had a great first day. Stupendous, even."
CJ turned around and kissed him chastely on the lips. Sam blinked. CJ strode off. "There are only so many hours of the night left, Samuel, and someone promised to get me home safely."
The strawberry milkshake was made from real strawberries and quality ice cream. CJ asked, "Where exactly do you get real strawberries from, this time of year?"
Sam sucked at his vanilla shake through a straw while putting his free hand to his chest.
"The strawberries come from you? Some sort of internal strawberry field that you've never seen fit to mention? Josh is a luckier boy than anyone thought."
Sam choked a little, which served him right. "California, CJ. The strawberries come from California."
"See, if you'd just taken your mouth away from your boring flavored milkshake for a half a second, your windpipes would be entirely clear at this moment."
"Vanilla isn't boring, it's classic."
"I suppose that's what you tell all the girls."
"I have found myself pointing that out once or twice before."
CJ laughed. "Does it ever get you anywhere?"
"Not generally, no."
"I don’t know, I think the doe-eyed classic routine might work on me."
"I could try it."
"We're a little bit past that, don't you think?"
Sam shrugged. "Is that why you won't? I mean, with Josh and me? Because we’re vanilla?"
"Are you serious with this?"
Sam played a bit with the straw that he was now ignoring for the conversation. "You have this. . . You exude casual and experienced knowledge. About that. I figured maybe the thought of us bored you."
"Because having a threesome with one woman and two men is what people think when they think 'vanilla.'"
Sam huffed at that. "I think the question's still pertinent."
"No, your sexual imagination has nothing to do with the fact that I haven't taken the two of you up on your offer."
Sam took another slow sip. "When. After Rosslyn. It took me forever to get him to make love without the lights off after that. He wouldn't let me touch the scar, not for
. . .not until recently. I wanted to. I thought it would reassure me that he was still whole, still with me. I thought it was a sign of his loyalty, his courage, the things about him that keep me coming back even when I shouldn't. But he thinks it's ugly. He thinks it's about not being careful enough, not being strong enough to survive without trauma, not being," Sam pressed his lips together, "Not being the president or Leo or all the people that he wants to be but will never let himself see how similar to them he is."
"I didn't get shot, Sam."
"Trauma is trauma, CJ. And scars are scars. I know what it looks like when somebody is hiding."
CJ inclined her head but said, "It's not just that. It's not just," she put her hands to where her breasts should have been, "these, or the lack of these."
Sam nodded. "Okay."
CJ couldn't quite believe she was getting off the hook so easily. "Okay?"
"You're a woman who knows when to talk. I'm going to be the guy who knows when to listen."
"Josh is going to need to be that guy, too."
"For you I think Josh could fly. Listening's only slightly more difficult, don’t you think?"
CJ finished off the last of her milkshake. "Thanks for the midnight snack."
Sam smiled, slow and with the burn of true contentedness. "You're welcome."
"The world is thrilled to have you back, my little prime time goddess," Gina said from the doorway of CJ's office.
CJ looked up, smiling. "Don’t you have a job to do? I thought I heard something about National Security."
"Unlike you, I'm actually allowed to go home from my job."
"That's just because you have to pay attention at yours."
Gina stepped inside and closed the door behind her. CJ eyed the door. "Tell me you're not going to tell me things that will mean I have to be here even later tonight and earlier tomorrow."
"Actually, I wanted to talk about you, and since--as you just so succinctly pointed out--you're a hard one to catch at home, I came here."
"I know you miss the sex, honey-"
"Oh shut up."
CJ made a motion for zipping her lips. Gina sighed. "How are you?"
CJ thought about being glib but Gina looked worn down and like she should be making her commute out to the suburbs so that she could sleep for a bit, rather than checking up on a woman who had never quite lived up to the expectations that CJ knew Gina had had for them. "Tired, mostly. A lot of tired. But glad to be back. That was the worst of it. Not being in the loop, not knowing things. I am a woman who likes to know things."
"You are," Gina said. "You're getting enough sleep, though, right?"
"Mostly. I catch up on weekends."
"You work weekends."
"But I work later on weekends."
"I need to be selfish here, for a moment or so."
CJ put down the pen with which she'd still been making the odd note. "I suppose you've earned that right." Ten or so times over.
"Dez and I both have nightmares about having to do this again. Full blown terror, like. Like after Rosslyn."
CJ was pretty sure she was one of the only people in this world who knew how badly Gina had slept in the months following the shootings, how she'd barely been able to close her eyes without seeing visions of Zoe shot, the president killed. CJ shot. CJ killed. CJ stood up and walked around her desk to where Gina was standing. She brought her arms up and Gina placed herself in them. Gina said, "I don't want promises, because I know, all right? I mean, I'm good with possible versus impossible."
"I just have to be here, Gina. I have to do what I do. I have to live my life. This has to have been worth it."
"I'm still. . .fighting."
"I know." Gina took a deep breath and stepped back so that she could look CJ in the eyes. "Josh and Sam. I was wondering-"
"Their offer's still on the table."
"And you're still-"
"Figuring things out."
"They won't consume you. They're not- Nothing's that overwhelming, CJ."
"That's not. That's not it."
"I've never thought that I might want more than I could have. At least not about this sort of thing."
Gina's face was impassive. "Are you serious?"
"I swear to all things holy, Gina Toscano, if you laugh-"
Gina laughed. "The past year has immeasurably fucked with your brain, my friend."
CJ was not one to mutter empty threats so she reached out and tickled at the one spot where Gina could be guaranteed to shriek. She did so, as expected, and CJ felt a sort of comfort in the fact that she not only knew Gina well enough to find the spot, but that Gina loved her enough to let her get at it. CJ may have been slightly larger than Gina but when push came to shove, it was Gina who threw herself in front of bullets for a reason. CJ pulled her hand back. "Maybe."
"Yeah, maybe," Gina said forcefully, catching her breath. "I'm going home now."
"Get some sleep," CJ told her.
"Practice what you preach," Gina grumbled, but before she opened the door, she leaned in to kiss CJ on the cheek, her lips lingering just long enough to imprint warmth over bones that were just a bit more exposed than normal in the aftermath of the all the nausea and now-finished bloating. CJ put a hand over the spot, sealing in the heat.
CJ put on her Sunday best and met Leo at his car, which was parked at the door to her building. She slid inside. "Thanks for the ride."
"Been a while since I've had someone go with me," he said, and she couldn't determine if he was thinking about Mallory or if he meant her to take the statement at face value.
"How often do you go?" she asked.
"Often enough that I never miss it." The corners of his mouth curled up. CJ chuckled.
The ride to the church was long but the relative lightness of Sunday traffic made it bearable. The church itself was no less than CJ had expected it to be, hewn of stone, austere, most likely older than the Cregg family name. Leo had an appreciation for things that stood the test of time, one that CJ was coming to understand.
The service, too, was heavily traditional. CJ couldn't remember most of the Latin she'd learned in Sunday school, even as a child she'd had a somewhat tenuous grip on it, between her own apathy and that of her parents. Now, though, there was something grounding in listening to words that thousands were saying around the country, millions around the world. Words that had been said the Sunday before, and the Sunday a year ago, and a Sunday sometime back before this country had seen European influence.
CJ didn't listen to the sermon. She trusted Leo not to take her somewhere that would have her hanging from the balconies in protest. But there was also, she knew, wisdom in knowing when to stay away from a possible point of contention, and the sermons in the church that CJ had attended as a child had always been that point.
She took communion. The doctrine of transubstantiation wasn't something that worked for her so far as religious beliefs went, but the tangible tradition of receiving the wafer, of the priest's fingers giving it over, of flesh upon flesh upon flesh was perhaps more what she had come for. More than even the sound of Latin, the cool wash of white stone, the drag of her confirmation cross in the hollow of her throat.
She was silent for a good part of the ride home until Leo asked, "Was it what you needed?"
She thought about it. She wasn't ready to answer so she said, "For someone who doesn't go very often, there seemed to be a lot of people who knew you."
"My attendance has picked up somewhat."
The answer was riddled with things unspoken. "Oh."
"Seemed like it couldn't hurt. Having G-d on our side."
"There's been a lot of times-"
"There wasn't time with Zoe. There was with you."
"I know you don't like it, the way we protect you. I know it makes you feel disempowered, like less of a woman, and so we don’t mention it often, I certainly try not to. But it's not because you're a woman. It's because you're you and sometimes we can. We do the same thing to Sam, to Josh. Hell, you do the same thing with them. I've even seen us try it with the president. That tends to go balls up, but all the same, it's not about gender. It's about what's possible and what isn't. Lord knows there's far too much that isn't."
Far, far too much. "All right."
"You're not just saying that?"
"At the risk of disempowering myself, every once in a while, it's nice to have someone in your corner for more reasons than the fact that you control what's on the face of every newspaper and the leading story on every six o'clock news report. I have a family and I don't need a surrogate one, but having you and Toby and Josh and Sam as friends? I would have to be an absolute moron to give that up, even in the name of independence."
"I was going to quote Donne to you, but I feel we've had a nice morning. No reason to ruin that."
"Generous of you."
Leo smirked. "Back home, or to the office?"
"There's a difference?" CJ asked.
"Only in décor."
"In that case, office."
The bracelet wasn't visible, not with the coat of her suit on, which it was for most of the day. But when CJ laid the coat aside--her office being a bit warm with stark midday sun falling in the window--the blue of the beads gleamed lightly against her skin. She liked the feel of it on her wrist, the fulfilled circle, artwork of her own, a completion in itself. It didn't look professional so she hid it under the cuffs of her Donna Karan but in the privacy of the space behind her desk CJ allowed the flash of blue.
Josh touched it. Reached out and swept a finger over the glass beads, asked, "Hey, you make that?"
He never would have done it before. He might've asked her if she'd made it, might have made fun of it, but he never would have let his fingers anywhere near her wrist.
The touch didn't even mean anything other than I've gotten used to touch meaning something to you, even if CJ had never actually mentioned that, either to him or Sam. She'd said it to Gina, probably, and Gina might have said something but CJ doubted it. The touch, this touch, certainly didn't fall under that of the invitation or the concerned or anything more deep than "there is your skin and here is mine, and the meeting of the two is inconsequential."
Only it wasn't.
CJ looked at the bracelet, the point of intervention between her wrist and his fingers. "Yeah." She looked up at Josh. "You like it?"
"Blue's a good color on you."
CJ already knew this. She also suddenly knew things she hadn't known, not for months. Maybe not ever. Things about what that touch meant. "Sam treated me to a milkshake, what are you going to do?"
Josh laughed. "What?"
"Sam and I aren't competing, we're a team."
"I should tell Sam you're not pulling your weight."
"I didn't think you wanted-"
"What are you going to do, Joshua?"
It didn't pass CJ's attention that when she had settled that he would be doing something should he want any more of her time, Josh didn't hesitate. "Take you for lunch."
"That dim sum place you like."
"Classy," CJ nodded approvingly, "well thought out."
"I'm a strategist," Josh reminded her.
"Sometimes even a good one."
"There will be plenty of time to insult me at the restaurant."
"Rest assured, I shan't waste a moment of it."
Josh rocked back on his feet. "Blue really does-" he shook his head slightly, gazing off to the side.
CJ jiggled her wrist slightly. The beads reflected her own warmth in their slide against her skin.
Sam brought CJ newspaper articles that he thought would interest her from random, small town newspapers. CJ wondered where it was that he got the time to read extra newspapers. Perhaps that was why he sometimes disappeared when he should have been eating or seeing to some other essential human need. Most of them were about women, the first women ever to run for local positions in that town, the woman who was organizing a yearly bike ride to raise money for Lupus, the high school girl who won state in tennis despite her school being ranked dead last. There was no true rhyme or reason to the articles except that they all told success stories. They were all about fighters. CJ wouldn't exactly have called Sam a romantic, but she couldn't deny he was sweet. Didn't even particularly want to deny it.
Josh was a little more direct. It never ceased to surprise CJ that someone who could be so ruthlessly subtle when it came to politics had not a whit of subtlety in him when it came to other human beings. She remembered, vaguely, a time before she had cared for Josh, when that particular characteristic seemed something she would have to put up with for however long they both worked for then-Governor Bartlet. She wasn't terribly surprised it had become one of the central pieces of her love for him, she'd done the same thing with Toby. CJ was absolutely awful at not forgiving the people she loved their weaknesses. At not embracing those weaknesses.
Her weakness, quite obviously, was for the human in people.
Josh closed the door to her office and said, "The NCI is having a gala."
"Yes, they do that. Once a year. I've been asked to attend."
"Oh good, because I bought us tickets."
CJ looked up from her work. "You bought us tickets."
"That's why they call it a fundraiser."
"I had this planned a little better," Josh said slowly. "You're not working with my plan."
CJ wasn't terribly concerned with his plan. "Did you buy Sam a ticket?"
"He's buying his own and meeting us there. We fought over the honor of escorting you and I won."
"How did you win?"
"The same way I always win."
"You bought him off?"
"There were promises of a sexual nature involved but until you agree to join in with us those details shall remain unavailable to you." Josh sniffed in apparent indignation.
"You both could have escorted me. It can't seem romantic anyway. It would have been fine for me to walk in the room on the arm of two men."
"Just because something can't look one way doesn’t mean that it isn't. I bought you a ticket to the largest fundraiser for cancer of the year, a fundraiser at which you will be compelled to wear a pretty dress and do your hair beforehand. There's romance in there somewhere, I just know it."
Both of Josh's eyebrows flew up. "Sorry?"
"Afterward. You know, when I take off that pretty dress." She was silent for a bit to let that settle. "And if we're going for a 'just because something doesn't look one way' philosophy, I should still have Sam on my other arm."
"He really wants what I offered in trade."
"And you're not willing to give it to him for free?" CJ locked eyes with Josh.
"And give up my bargaining power? How do you expect me to have any rights in that relationship without a little something in my corner?"
"Because it's Sam."
"Yeah," Josh's lips quirked. "There's that."
She shook her head, ducking before her mental smile could catch up with her lips. She figured he noticed anyway. Josh was forever noticing things.
The smart thing to do, CJ knew, was to have one of her formals taken in by someone who knew what they were doing, someone who would make the dress look as though it had always fit that way. The idea of letting someone she didn't know put their hands anywhere near her chest made her sick.
She'd thought, and thought, and thought some more about the prosthetics that Dr. Ryun had told her about. It made perfect sense to get them. That would fix her clothing problem and her body-image problem all at once. CJ was a sensible person.
All her sense couldn't make her have the surgery. She had a million reasons for her inability. Some were good, like not wanting to go under the knife again, for anything. Some were soul-deep and unshakable, like the feeling that it still wouldn't be her under her button down tops. She'd rather be incomplete and purely CJ than complete and only marginally CJ. Some were completely irrational, like the fear of having breasts there for the cancer to invade again. She knew the cancer couldn't touch the artificial material of the prosthetics, but that didn't change the terror that came even at the idea.
Finally she'd decided that a new wardrobe was less costly than what self-knowledge she had left. She told Dr. Ryun, "Maybe later," and meant, "Probably not ever."
As a result of all this, CJ decided that buying a new formal might be symbolic and necessary in its own right. Soon enough she would do things like allowing tailors their freedoms with her mutilations and learning that it was just another truth of herself. For the moment, though, she needed her own private dressing room and a pattern made to fit the new her without pins and scissors and ripped seams involved.
The search wasn't as easy as the one for a new suit. Suits were made to have a sort of androgyny to them, a recognition of the workplace as somewhere wherein a woman wasn't meant to be "womanly." Formals, on the other hand, formals were meant for girls who expected to receive corsages, women who were escorted down stairs. CJ often chose formals that showed the clean line of her shoulders, the muscle in her back, that declared her in charge despite the length of her skirt.
This realization brought her to the dress she finally bought. It wasn't Vera Wang, never Vera Wang, nor Donna Karan, which carried its own memories. Instead it was a McClintock, and almost violently feminine. The skirt was flouncy and would swirl around her when she walked, the top plain in front but non-existent in the back. Rather there was silk lacing in the back, the most interesting feature of the dress and one that would draw people's attention to it. Strap over strap over strap of coral ribbon, matching the vibrant pink-orange of the dress. The dress complimented the wig--she was waiting for her hair to grow past her ears--perfectly, called attention to her legs, arms and back and moved with her instead of against her. The dress, as it was, was kinder to her body than CJ had been for months.
CJ took the dress home, tried it on in front of her own mirror, and then took it off. She didn't allow herself to rush into another set of clothing as she was used to doing at this point. She faced the mirror, faced it with her eyes open, faced until she said aloud, "This is still you. You're still taller than most men, and that still makes you a little uncomfortable, even though you know it shouldn't." She waited to hear the words, waited for them to settle inside her head.
"You're still a self-defined feminist, a closeted bisexual and a horrible cook." This took longer to understand, as at least two of those identity foci were self-defined and therefore needed a bit of processing.
"You're still the person who graduated in the top ten percent of her class at Berkeley, who hates pretzels but loves goldfish and who was fired from her previous job for bad reasons." She breathed after this statement, slowly and with a determined pattern.
"You're still apathetic toward cats, exasperated by your brothers and you're still the best aunt ever." There was no denying that last one, although she thought she might be a little more antipathetic toward cats than anything else. They just weren't that exciting when it came right down to it.
"You're still Claudia Jean Cregg. You still have opinions that would make everyone's life easier if they disappeared. You still love your job most days, think your apartment could do with better plumbing and wonder if the girl in the donut shop would think about having a quickie some morning."
"You're still you."
Then, when that started to sound wrong, she tried, "I'm still me."
She had started crying at some point. She thought it might have been about the cat, but she wasn't sure. Nothing seem to be about anything at this point, not even the scars on her chest. Not even the fact that she was standing there, when she could not have been.
CJ had never been one to be comfortable in her assumptions about the world. She'd seen too much of what that lead to, of arrogance and cruelty. She was learning though, that she'd leaned more on the understandings of the world around her than she would prefer to believe. That there were certain definitions that she was sure how to rework, certain binaries that seemed unwilling to split down even further until their dual nature disappeared.
Somewhere in the midst of the tears she decided that she believed most of the things she had just told herself anyway. She believed that she hated pretzels and that she felt a little insecure about her height. She believed that she was still, somewhere inside, still herself.
And that was all she needed. At least to start with. She put the dress back on one more time. She was going to need new shoes for it, nothing she had would match. Perhaps a new color lipstick. Something that would make people want to kiss her. She could try it out on Gina and Dez.
She swished her hips, watching the effect on the skirt. It was a bit mesmerizing, a bit gorgeous, a bit intriguing. She soothed her hands over the material, settling it. "Okay."
"Where'd you learn to dance?" CJ asked, trying to remember if she already knew. She couldn't seem to find any information on Sam Seaborn's ballroom abilities floating around in her brain but that seemed like something she might have jettisoned for a more important tidbit. Nonetheless, unlike Josh, who had trod upon her mildly expensive footwear no less than three times that evening already, Sam knew the steps, the beats they fell on and even the direction in which to steer them.
She hadn't been able to refuse Josh a dance any of the times he'd requested one. He didn't seem to be asking for dances but something larger, and it wasn't until they were on the floor that she remembered her feet didn't know the difference.
"I took a deb to the Starlight Ball."
CJ laughed. "You went to a deb ball."
"But not as a deb."
"Escorts are even less happening, Samuel."
Sam smiled softly. "The girl was. . ."
"If you tell me she was some ugly kid who couldn't find an escort-"
"I was going to use the words awkward and badly-socialized."
CJ laughed harder.
"You realize I was rather awkward and badly-socialized myself at the time."
"And hanging out with Van."
"Yeah, which worked out, because he had a cousin who needed escorting."
"I'm perhaps less shocked than one would imagine at this moment."
"I can step on your toes and make it look like an accident."
"Can you bring me closer?"
Sam spun her a bit and when she came back to facing him, somehow, their arms had less tension than before and were resting in different places. "That what you were hoping for?"
"Josh wants to take me home tonight. Carnally."
"He's not the only one."
"I can't," CJ said and didn't follow it with an apology because it was her right to say no, to not let either of them take this dress off of her, even if that had sort of been the unspoken plan, at least so she'd thought.
"Then we won't," Sam said.
"It's not right."
"Tell him what you told me, CJ. He- Just tell him the same thing."
"And you'll. . .?"
CJ wanted to kiss Sam, a slow, thankful kiss. A kiss that meant friendship and comfort and trust. There were dancing couples all around, dancing couples that she hadn't once run into with him, and when Sam went to dip her, for the first time all evening, she let herself drop.
They lost a welfare vote.
CJ was pretty sure Josh hadn't even eaten in the last four days before the vote, let alone slept. She'd glanced from the outside of glass doors as he met with congressman after congressman, aide after aide. She'd caught him in the lobby a few times as he'd walked in from the Hill, shoulders purposefully thrown back so that nobody would see that things weren't going well. Nobody who wasn't her, Sam, Toby, Donna or Leo.
In the end all his efforts didn't matter. Leo shook his head, said, "It was going to go this way no matter what," with a heavy look at the president, and CJ wondered if he'd been venting his frustrations on Josh again. Ellie's wedding was in a few weeks.
Josh said, "I already put in a call to Merkwood to see about a possible redraft. We'll get it next time." He didn't sound like he believed it but then, he didn't sound like he believed his name was Josh.
"Yeah, all right," the president said, in clear dismissal. The senior staff filed out of the room, sans Leo. Josh kept straight on walking. CJ hung back, hoping that Sam would slow as well. He did.
She asked, "Can you get him to go home?"
Sam kept looking after him, even though Josh had long disappeared around a corner. "Not when he's like this. Lately he hasn't. . .this is longer than usual."
"Longer than- Oh." CJ started walking. Sam followed. When they reached her office she shut the door behind them. "You think he wants to end it?"
"I think he doesn’t know any other way for things to be. We always end so that we can start up again when we need to. But this time. . .I don't know. I'm not ready for it to end. We're always both ready. There are fights and things that shouldn't get said are screamed and sometimes we steal each other's clothing even though it doesn't really fit."
"But not this time."
"He hasn't even nabbed a tie." Sam sat down on CJ's couch. "It's like he's trying to make things the way they always are but without any of the always."
"I thought you were. . . I thought I was a team pursuit."
Sam was silent for a moment before a look of comprehension stole over his face. He rubbed at his eyes with his palms for a moment. "I've been tired, I think."
"Just, Josh. . .the welfare thing."
"Didn't happen. He'll make something else happen. This is the way we do things, you know that."
"No, but, he wanted it. I mean, really wanted it. Personally wanted it. Unions and welfare and the occasional gay rights initiative, those are Josh's things, the things he doesn’t talk about because he wants them so badly."
"I'm not following."
"Most of the things Josh wants, he never gets. Even with me it's an. . .I flake out halfway through."
"He's pretty good at the flaking himself."
"Yeah, but if I were willing to hold on, he'd stop. His is defensive, mine is offensive."
"He thinks I'm leading you on."
Sam gave her a disparaging look. "He thinks this is a moment of weakness for you and that you'll recover."
CJ walked to her door. Sam asked. "What are you doing?"
"I'm going to have Leo and Donna make a tag team effort to send Josh home."
"Because I think that's where he'll be most comfortable when you and I join him later on this evening."
CJ had dialed down the heat in her apartment for while she was at work. The DC winters were nothing compared to the Ohio ones of her childhood, but CJ still knew it was just this side of too chilly for someone to be hanging out in her apartment without turning the thermostat back up. She knocked it up a few degrees and hung her coat in the hall closet.
Yet, sure enough, CJ found Josh in the kitchen. There was a cooled cup coffee to one side of him, and he had a cellphone to his ear. Pieces of paper were laid out in every space available to him. She sat down opposite him and waited for him to acknowledge her with a small, mouthed, "hi."
She mouthed, "hi," back.
He said, "Then talk about what you want. I'm listening, aren't I?" and even though she was sitting right there, CJ knew he wasn't talking to her.
There was some more silence before Josh said, "If I can get you Seeger do we have ourselves a deal?"
Josh's eyes fluttered closed. "All right, I'll talk with you in the morning," pause, "Later this morning, then." He flipped the phone closed. "Donna brought me here. I didn't actually notice it wasn't my place until I went to make coffee."
"The wrong key problem didn't give it away?"
"Donna opened the door for me."
CJ did her best not to smile. "I told her to bring you here."
"I'm kind of busy."
"Busier than you need to be."
"CJ, we lost a vote that would have provided-"
"Yeah, I had to spin that this evening. I do actually understand what we do."
Josh sighed and scrubbed a hand over his eyes. "Why am I here?"
CJ waited to make sure he knew she had thought about the answer. She had. She had ever since the Charity Ball. The months and months of bodily trauma and slow recovery had shaken her faith in her intuition but not killed it completely. She knew how to trust her inner monitor telling her when the time for things was right.
The Charity Ball, as much as she had enjoyed it, had been about her needing Josh and Sam. She didn't doubt the need was reciprocal, but every once in a while proof was necessary. Need was too complicated a word to be playing fast and loose with. Now that she had her proof, she said, "Because I want you here."
"Okay, well, I'm going to be up for a couple of hours-"
CJ pushed aside some papers and sat on the table directly in front of Josh's gaze, stopping him in mid-sentence and forcing him to relocate his eyes. "I imagine there are still better ways of getting you to shut up but we have to wait for Sam before we try those."
"Sam and I-"
"You and Sam are just fine. Or rather, Sam is and he's waiting patiently for you to be. It's not very nice of you to scare him. He scares easier than you or me."
"You'd be surprised."
"No, not with this sort of thing."
Josh blinked. "Okay. Just. Why now?"
"Because I. . .didn't see that it wasn't just me needing things." CJ couldn't tell him about the mental processes behind that simple statement of facts. Not yet. Maybe one of these days when she knew the final outcome of this situation she was getting herself into. Maybe.
"You should get your money back on that whole women's intuition thing."
"I never bothered buying in." Not to women's intuition, anyway. The non-gendered sort had served her just fine.
Josh laughed slightly. He asked, "We really have to wait for Sam?"
CJ twisted her finger in one of his close-cropped curls. "Just a little bit longer now."
When Sam arrived, CJ whispered to Josh, "Kiss him. I like-"
"To watch?" Josh finished for her.
"The two of you," she said.
Josh just angled his head up slightly and Sam came to him, leaning down far enough for their lips to touch. Even watching, CJ was never sure how it was that Josh rose to his feet. It was as though Sam's mouth guided him there but CJ was positive that wasn't physically viable. Sam didn't touch Josh anywhere else though, not until CJ plead, "Touch. Touch him," not knowing of whom she was asking this deed.
They obviously weren't sure either, as Sam's hands settled steadily at Josh's back, Josh's frantically at Sam's hips. Somehow that was exactly what CJ had wanted. Them.
Sam's lips wandered off of Josh's, down over the stark bone of his jaw, downwards toward his adam's apple. Josh made a small sound that practically seemed to emanate straight from his throat into Sam's mouth. The sound moved CJ, literally, from where she had been watching to Josh's back. She raked her fingers at the spot where his curls met his neck, pushing away at the hair so as to place a gentle bite right at that juncture. Josh made little breathy, whimpering sounds.
CJ met Sam's eyes over Josh's shoulder. Sam smiled. "He likes that."
CJ nudged at Josh with her hips. "Come on. Some of us are too old to be having sex with two other people under the kitchen table and on a tile floor."
Sam led them with an all-too-easy saunter into her bedroom. She let it go. She could always come back to it if the sex wasn't as good as she was full well expecting it to be. She closed the bedroom door behind them, checked quickly to make sure she'd closed all the blinds, and reached out to pluck at the top button on Sam's shirt. "I want this gone."
Sam humored her. He undressed at a pace that was neither innately sexy nor hurried, the same way he walked, talked and did nearly everything now that CJ had started to notice. And what his undressing revealed was the closest thing to perfection CJ was pretty sure she would ever see. She asked Josh, "How do you. . .?"
"I try not to believe too much," Josh said. CJ knew, somehow, it wasn't the right answer.
She said, "I want to see you too."
"All right. But you'll have to follow soon after," he said. She nodded her head. She still wanted what she wanted. She would know if the price was too high soon enough.
Josh started at his feet. His shoes, socks, pants, underpants and only then the shirts, the undershirt coming off of him as slowly as though he were peeling a scab and trying to make it hurt as little as possible. CJ took the shirt from his hand, unclenching his fist, watching as blood returned to the knuckles. Sam approached him from behind, wrapping his arms over Josh's midsection, licking once at the spot where Josh's jaw and earlobe met. Josh sucked in a breath and tilted his head back slightly. CJ barely managed not to do the same.
She said, "One moment," and took one. She slipped into her bathroom to place her wig neatly on its holder and to say, "Claudia Jean," to her mirror. The mirror seemed to know what it meant. CJ wasn't so sure she did.
When she came back Josh said, "Please," and that was all it took. She unbuttoned and pulled herself out of the trappings of Press Secretary to the President of the United States and was nobody more than Miss Claudia Jean Cregg, the person she had always found to be enough. The person whom Josh and Sam were looking at as though she were more than enough.
Sam said, "Come here," and she did without thinking about it. Josh reached out with both hands and pulled her in until the knuckles of Sam's fingers were brushing at her abdomen, the palms of Josh's hands locking at the small of her back. Josh whispered, "Still the sexiest woman I know."
"Since when have I ever been that, Josh?" CJ laughed sardonically.
"Trust me, there are some things you're better off not knowing."
Sam silenced any protest she might have had--and she would have had protests--by sliding the fingers of one hand down and slipping them gently over her clitoris. She moaned. "Not fair."
"I don't know," Sam said, "this might be love."
It might have been, too, except that CJ couldn't think about it, not with Sam stroking at her and Josh, their bodies tight against each other. She couldn't even think about how her body was moving when Sam tugged them all onto bed. He laid Josh out on his back, and asked CJ, "Sixty-nine?"
CJ, who liked the sound of a guy receiving good head, and liked that sound echoing against her even better, said, "Yeah."
Sam said, "Just not too far."
CJ would go as far as she damn well-pleased but Sam gave her incentive to listen in the form of a warm tongue tracing her vertebrae from the nape of her neck to the tip of her tailbone. When he continued the track to meet Josh's tongue she came so hard it was a miracle she didn't do Josh harm, but Sam just rolled her gently off of him and kissed softly at her scars. She found that in the wash of aftermath the touch wasn't too intense, the intent imminently bearable. Josh snuck in his own kisses. CJ said, "On my lips."
Which was how she felt rather than heard Josh's low groan when Sam finally sank into him. There had been panting before that, his short hot breaths swallowed by her as though they were her own, there for the reclaiming. And then, as she waited for Sam to move she found Josh's cock with one of her hands and urged it inside her. Josh slid in, his arms falling from her neck to her shoulderblades, where he clenched tightly, tightly, and the slight pain was nice, like a reminder of something CJ didn't need to know, just remember.
Sam moved then, Sam and the three of them. Back and forth, in and out, it was slow but not too slow, excruciating but only just.
Josh came first. Sam waited until the tension of the orgasm drained from Josh's muscles and pulled Josh from CJ, then himself from Josh. He changed condoms so quickly that CJ was impressed despite both her experience and her now building need for a second orgasm. He pulled her over Josh and onto himself, now lying on his back, partly propped up by her headboard and pillows. She waited until her thighs rested heavily on his to say, "Yes," and move as she so wished.
Her glance flickered to where Josh was watching them, lazily entranced. Sam reached out and cupped Josh's cheek. Josh nuzzled into the touch, not once moving his eyes. Sam used his other hand to turn CJ's face to him. "Hey."
CJ rolled her hips forward. Sam's eyes fell straight to the back of his head. After that, it didn't take long.
For either of them.
When Josh came back from cleaning himself up in the bathroom, he pressed a wet washcloth into CJ's hand, as though the intimacy of touching her outside the act might be off limits. Despite this, she really did prefer to wipe herself down, the hyper-sensitivity of her nerves post orgasm only responding well to her own knowing touch. Josh took care of Sam but the way Sam turned and rolled and then laid still when Josh wanted suggested there was years of practice involved in that. CJ wondered if Josh was always the one to get up, or if sometimes Sam had to nudge Josh's hipbone with a warm face-towel, had to murmur, "C'mon, sticky is gross."
When Josh finished CJ took the rag from him and rolled over Sam to saunter toward where she kept her laundry basket. She didn't bother to pretend she wasn't enjoying the slow burning heat of both Josh and Sam's smug gazing after her nude form.
She made her way back within touching range and Josh stood to plant a kiss on her shoulder. "We should go."
"Walk out to our cars like normal working people and innocently part ways."
"Okay," Josh said.
"Okay," Sam said.
"Lock the door on your way out," CJ said, and then kissed both of them lightly. "I'll see you in like, an hour and a half."
"Get some quality sleep," Sam said.
"Ha." CJ made a face at him and a shooing motion with her hands. Amazingly, they both followed the non-verbal command. Softly she called, "Are you always this docile after getting laid?"
The two looked at each other, replying in time, "Pretty much, yeah."
Josh asked, "You're not planning on selling that information to the Russians, right?"
"The Cold War's over," Sam pointed out.
"The Republicans, then," Josh modified. Sam looked vaguely horrified at the notion.
"Why? I'd just have to spin it."
"Good point," Josh said, evidently reassured, and opened her door to usher himself out. When the door had closed behind Sam and there was the satisfying click of the deadbolt falling into place, CJ turned to tear all the sheets off her bed and stuff them in the basket atop the washrags. She would have to do laundry sometime this week. Maybe at Gina's, where nobody could go through her stuff while she wasn't looking. Not that it had happened often, or even more than once really, but once had been enough.
CJ threw on a fresh set of sheets before jumping into the shower to rinse herself off. A washrag was all well and good if someone was merely going to settle into satisfied sleep but for anything else it was only a preliminary measure.
CJ stood in front of the mirror after toweling herself off--as was her tradition these days--prepared to talk to herself about how she was okay with this body, good with it even, and found that all she could think was, "Wow." Granted, she was tired, nearing debilitating exhaustion even. The last week and a half or so hadn't been easy. But of all the times she'd had sex, from the awful to the bad to the just all right to the pretty good to the utterly fantastic this had been the first that ever made her think maybe she was more than she'd thought she was before.
It was a giddy feeling, or it would have been had she the energy for giddiness. Instead she just repeated the word, "Wow," aloud, scribbled a note to herself to call Alexis sometime the next day and fell into bed for some short--but as Sam would have it, quality--sleep.
Josh brought donuts into work the next morning, a whole box which he laid out in the bullpen and gave over to the ravenous hordes of underfed federal employees. Donna eyed first him and then CJ suspiciously but took a donut all the same. CJ split hers with Josh and then wandered off to actually accomplish things before she could think about how flaked sugar would taste on Josh's tongue. It was tasty enough on hers.
When she'd made it through senior staff and the press briefing followed by the briefing for her staff, she closed the door to her office and dialed out to Alexis. Alexis picked up with a, "Yup."
"How're you feeling?"
"If it isn't the press secretary to the president of the United States of America calling me on my own little cell phone."
"I wasn't turning away your calls was I?"
"Relax, I'm kidding. And I'm fine. Tired but fine."
"You're almost done, right?"
"Yeah." Alexis sounded a little hesitant. "They're saying it looks good."
CJ thought about pressing but didn't. Alexis would tell her what was going on when she was ready. "I'll keep my toes crossed."
"Is that somehow luckier?"
"I like to think the extra effort gets counted on the karmic scale."
"Solid logic. You really call just to see how I was feeling?"
"It was something I'd been thinking about."
"I also wanted to tell you that you were right."
"I generally am but what in particular was I right about this time?"
"The finding someone to have sex with thing."
"Ah. It helped?"
"It's helping. More of a process."
"I thought maybe you could give me the name of that friend of yours, the clothes designer."
"I've seen the new stuff you have. It's nice, very classy. You."
"I just want to support her and keep doing things for myself that help. I'm still seeing Renanda once a week, still going to group. I asked Renanda if I'd stalled but she didn't seem to think so."
"I've been with my therapist for three years now. Since first diagnosis. And I think I'll probably be with her until I die of old age or she retires."
"Yeah, well, fighting for your life is a big thing. I think someone forgot to give you the memo."
"It may just have gotten lost. There's a lot of paper flying around here."
"In that case, I'll email you my friend's info."
"I appreciate that."
"Was it Gina?" Alexis asked, her tone only slightly mischievous.
"Was it- Oh. Gina's practically married."
"No, it wasn't Gina."
"All right, all right. You're gonna make class this weekend, yeah?"
"The First Lady won't let me walk in the building at times when she knows I'm supposed to be at yoga, therapy or massage."
"I knew I voted for her husband for a reason."
"We aren't proud," CJ said. "I'll see you in class."
"I'm glad. . . I'm just glad."
Josh brought CJ lunch. Chicken and dumplings from the diner that you actually had to drive to, because it was just far enough that walking was impractical, even more so than a noon-time drive. He said, "Can I stay?"
She said, "You weren't planning to?"
He sat down. "You might've had to do something. Work, or something."
"I'll work while you talk. It's never failed me before."
Josh popped a dumpling in his mouth. "Ha."
She asked, "What are you doing?"
"Bringing you lunch?"
"From the place," CJ said.
"You like it. I've heard you talk about the dumplings."
"There are certain things you do, CJ. When you can't do other things."
CJ knew this but Josh had to be among the last people she'd expected to know. Not when she'd had to train him in the basics of consideration for Donna, who worked in a position that had a national holiday built in for purposes of appreciating showing. "Are there?"
"There are," he said.
CJ stood up and went to go close her door. She said, still facing the door, "He doesn't want things. He just wants you not to run."
"In fairness to myself, he's done a considerable amount of the running over the years."
"But he's not now so that's. . .that's where we are. And when he is, then." CJ shook her head once. "Then maybe he'll be in here, bringing me pancakes."
"And you?" Josh asked.
She turned back to him. "Me?"
"What do you want?"
CJ said the first thing that came to mind which was, "You to stay with him."
"I meant out of us. Hypothetically, let's say I'm going to extend my general craziness longer and do this thing that we're doing because it makes him happy and it makes me. . . me, let's say all of that. What do you want?"
"What, you always know the day after you have sex for the first time?"
Josh's eyes flashed blank for a second. CJ said, "That wasn't what I meant. You just haven't given me any time here."
"You know what they say about striking and, er, hot anvils. Or something."
"I feel like a woman reborn in the wash of your metaphors, Joshua."
Josh laughed slightly before sobering. "When Sam walks out, he always come back. The women. . .that's more of a toss up."
"That's not what I want," CJ said.
Josh looked at her for a long time, as though her face or body might tell him something her mouth wouldn't. "Okay."
"Spend some time with Sam tonight," she told him.
"Eat your dumplings," was his idea of a reciprocal comeback.
CJ sat back down at her desk and took his advice, cutting one down to a bite size piece. "I love these things."
Josh smiled down into his container. "I know."
CJ popped the sampling into her mouth.
CJ let herself into Gina's house and called, "Anyone home?"
Dez's head popped out from the kitchen. "We're both in here. C'mon in."
When she got there, both women were standing at the counter, facing each other while munching on take out. Dez offered, "You want some?"
CJ shook her head. "I ate earlier."
"There's always enough room for shrimp scampi," Gina told her, popping said item into her mouth.
"Says the girl who gets to the gym every day as part of her job. And sleeps with a woman who does the same."
"I don't recall having any issues with your less-toned physique," Gina said, and held out a piece of shrimp. Which CJ took.
Dez wiped her fingers off on a nearby napkin and leaned over to peck Gina on the mouth. "I gotta run."
"Yeah," Gina said.
CJ asked, "Was it something I said?"
"Ha ha, Miss Cregg." Dez rolled her eyes. "Case. I wasn't even supposed to be gone this long. Sorry I can't stay and chat but you two have a good time without me." She disappeared past the kitchen but popped back in for a, "Not too good a time, mind you," and then was gone.
Gina smiled after her. "More shrimp?"
"I really am full," CJ said, a tad regretfully.
Gina closed the food boxes and stuck them in the refrigerator. "Coffee?"
"That, I'll take you up on."
Gina set some to making and then leaned up against the counter behind her, looking at CJ. "You're off early."
CJ shook her head. "I'm going back."
"You drove out here, but you're going back? My super sharp secret service mind is telling me that you didn't drop by for a casual hello."
Gina was trying to sound casual but there was such a strong hint of trepidation in her undertones that CJ said, "I should've just called. It's really not that big a thing."
Gina turned to the coffee machine in an action that CJ knew was designed to hide relief. "You slept with them, didn't you?"
CJ thought maybe she should be surprised, either by Gina's sudden change of topics or by her insight but she wasn't. Gina knew her and she knew Gina and sometimes that was all that mattered. "Have the just-got-well-laid aura, do I?"
"A little." Gina poured a cup of coffee. She turned to hand it to CJ and smirked. "A lot."
"I'm pretty sure nobody else has noticed." CJ opened the refrigerator and found the cream. She poured herself some and offered it to Gina, who declined.
"I'm observant and knowing. Part of my job. Like the gym thing."
"And also, seemingly not thrown by this latest development."
"You were thinking about it. Aloud, even. To me."
"Mm." CJ took a sip of coffee.
Gina followed suit, peering at CJ over her cup. "You're not the type of person who needs to be told you made a good decision."
"But every once in a while the necessity of being told I haven't made a bad one does arise."
Gina evidently couldn't resist asking, "Who told you that after we broke up?"
"Hysterically, that would have been Josh."
"Yeah, he's pretty good about being there when he figures out he needs to be," Gina said softly.
"It's that figuring out thing."
"Sam's got patience enough for the three of you."
Gina just looked at CJ. CJ relented. "All right, this wasn't exactly a quickie."
"And you're sharp and insightful yourself."
CJ smiled softly. "Still, everyone has her moments."
"Sure. And it's been a hard year."
"Something like that."
"You want me to say the words?"
"I'm not going to turn down the offer."
"You aren't making a bad decision."
"Thanks," CJ said. "For the coffee."
Gina laughed. "Another before you return to wreak chaos and havoc upon our nation's media?"
CJ held out her cup.
CJ had bought herself a book on working with Precious Metal Clay in the vague hope that, someday, she would graduate into that sort of thing, a promise to herself while she was still undergoing the chemo. After the chemo there had of course been work, and sleep, and work, but she found the book while looking for a particular jacket of hers one day after yoga. She flipped through the pages, perusing through the simpler designs. She said aloud, "You should keep your promises to yourself, Claudia Jean," and looked behind her to see if the president had somehow sneaked into her apartment. He hadn't.
Her own jewelry collection was growing at a slow, but steady pace. For as long as it had taken her to get used to the intricacies of the beading process, now that she knew how to do what she wanted, doing it was as easy as reading. She would often take her latest project to work and siphon off stress by slipping beads into their patterns while reading reports, listening to her staff, anything that didn't require hands on action.
The week before she'd given Dez an anklet for those times when she wore sundresses. Gina had a thing for ankles.
She was making Gina a belt, which was about the only type of ornamentation Gina would wear. It was work-intensive but CJ was happy with the results so far. She'd managed to find blue beads in the exact shade of Gina's favorite color. The color also matched well with Gina's hair. Dez had a thing for Gina's hair.
Donna had chatted with her about the possibility of earrings and CJ had determinedly not asked if her oncologist had a thing for ears. Nevertheless, she suspected.
She was used to beads. Even new beads had come to feel familiar in her hand, like comfort of an unnamed sort. PMC was something different.
Something different, she considered, might be exactly what she needed.
It was a while before she had time to go out and actually buy the PMC, particularly as she expected to have to chat with the store clerks about what she needed, what she would want, see if she could find out any helpful hints that a book wouldn't tell her. She called up Suze who said, "Just don't start too big. Cuffs are the place to start. Maybe with something attached to the surface but no designs or anything like that. That's the sort of thing you have to be confident in the craft to try. Also, you found someplace with a kiln, right?"
"Yeah," CJ said. That had taken a while. Janie had finally spoken to a friend of hers who worked professionally in pottery. The woman was willing to put CJ's stuff in the kiln, but she would be the one to handle that leg of the process. CJ was just fine with that. It seemed like the sort of complication she didn't really need. "So, baby steps."
"I know you're capable of them," Suze told her.
CJ was, too. She hadn't known that a year ago, not when she'd spent her life taking three strides for every one most other people made. That was the way of the world, at least the world she ran in. It had been a little bit surprising to find that she could step out of that world at moments. To draw back from it and slow to a pace that she'd never known but was, in some way, her own.
It didn't take as much patience as she remembered to sit still on Sunday morning and listen to hymns. She and Leo weren't regulars by any means, but their trips out to Virginia were far more regular than her practice of worship had been before the cancer.
Toby had noticed the changes in her: her stepped up church attendance; her shifting liaisons with his deputy and Josh. He hadn't said anything, but she knew he'd noticed. Toby who had known her before any of the others, who had come and kept her and sometimes held onto her even when she hadn't been able to see or even feel his grip. Toby who would come into her office in the mornings and ask, "How are you?" sometimes, and when she would answer, "Fine," say, "Yeah."
Toby, who brought her dinner a week after she'd slept with Sam and Josh for the first and only time so far. Who sat down in her office with his own dinner and asked, "Is this going to be a thing?"
CJ could handle Toby's disapproval, just as she could handle the president's or Leo's. It wasn't something she enjoyed but life was full of situations that were less than picnic-y and CJ had a fair amount of experience at weathering them. Still, his approval was far preferable. "Hypothetically, for thirty seconds, let's take the president out of this."
"It suddenly isn't my business anymore."
"Last I checked you were still one of my oldest and closest friends. And lord knows we all interfered until we couldn't interfere anymore with Andy."
"Only where you couldn't be seen."
"I'm pretty visible from all sides concerned here."
"Yeah. I'm still in the thirty seconds."
"Sam has written as though the hand of G-d were guiding him and Josh is nearly to fixing the disaster that was last week. You are. . .you, CJ. I would use metaphor except that I'm not Sam and I could use fancy language but you're not foreign policy. You know who you are when I look at you, and you know who you are when they look at you, and there isn't a person in the world that I would ask you to change that for, but Bartlet's not a person, he's an office."
"So you disapprove on a professional level."
"I think it's going to become a thing."
"Not if I have anything to say about it, which I flatter myself I do."
"You of all people know it doesn't work that way."
"I, of all people, know you have to make it work the way you want it to." CJ pressed her lips together. "I need you to have a smidgen of faith in me."
"Smidgen." CJ stood her ground.
"I'll see if I can rustle one of those up."
CJ poked at her dinner with her fork and gave Toby a slanted smile. "Sometimes, Leo hides them in his office."
"I'll be sure to look there." Toby smiled slightly, like he was trying not to. She knew he wasn't. The smile faded as he asked, "Did it- Was it as helpful as Alexis thought it might be?"
The heat of Josh and Sam's mouths was still licking pleasantly at her chest, the weight of their hands still balancing her, the regard of their eyes still following her, keeping her safe and she said, "It helped."
CJ slipped into Sam's office and shut the door. "Josh is avoiding me."
Sam looked up from his computer. "I think you might have things a bit mixed up."
"Mixed up," CJ repeated, the expectation of an explanation to follow clear in her echo.
"Because you've clearly been avoiding us. Which I told Josh to respect for a bit."
"I've been doing no such- Oh." CJ walked further into the office and sat down. "You're right, this is my fault, but not in the way you were obviously thinking."
"I wasn't assigning blame. I just thought that if I'd had the year you'd just had I'd want time to think things through."
"I do actually realize this hasn't been a day at the beach for any of you."
"And yet, I still wouldn't have traded places. At least not for myself."
CJ waited a second to take back the breath that Sam had so deftly stolen from her. When she'd recovered it she said, "Alexis is in her last few bouts of chemo. This is the second time, I don't know if I-" Sam nodded so she continued, "anyway they thought it was looking good but there are complications. I've been helping take care of her. She doesn't have family here and she's not with anyone so it's just her and some friends who are willing to step up. That's where I've been when I haven't been here this last week. I actually told Leo. I just assumed. . ." CJ looked up at him. "I'm sorry."
Sam asked, "How's Alexis? Mentally."
"Braver than I'm ever going to be."
"Well, I suppose we can argue over that later. Is there anything I can do to help?"
"You just spent a year suspending much of your own life for me. I think it's high time you got back to living it, don't you?"
"I think the ways I formerly defined the term 'living my life' changed over the last year."
"That's my right, CJ, to make that decision. Josh worries about the president and he worries about my chances for public office and of course I worry about those things too. I have ambitions and concerns just the same as anybody else on this staff. But I know right from wrong."
CJ rolled her neck a bit. "I'm not-"
Sam gave a small shake of his head. "Josh once told me that in a meeting between him and Matt Skinner, Josh went a little, well, Josh-like and finally just asked how Matt could be Republican. And Matt said because being homosexual wasn't the only thing he was, because it didn't define him wholly as a person. In the same way, what I do for a living can't define me wholly as a person. Not even if I wanted to, could it."
CJ could hear how very much he had wanted it to at times.
Sam was still speaking, though. "I'm more than that, you're more than that, even Josh, who sometimes puts up a damned good front, is more than that. I can't write without being who I am in all my other aspects, things just won't add up. And I can't be who I am in all my other aspects without writing.
"There are risks that have to be taken, CJ, and I'm pretty sure that I always knew Josh was going to be one of them. You, admittedly, were a bit of a surprise."
CJ just bet she had been.
Sam tilted his head. "I'm not exactly sure why, because I remember thinking way back when the president wasn't the president and he couldn't remember our names, I remember thinking then that I wanted to touch you in ways that I couldn't want. Wanted to listen to you until you were hoarse. Wanted to laugh with you for the sake of laughing. There was that so I'm not sure why I'm surprised but I am. Which is all right, because I like surprises."
CJ bit at the inside corner of her lip. "You could tell Josh to let me catch up with him. I'll explain the rest."
"I'm going to check up on Alexis this evening but then I'm coming back for poker."
"Yes, I have my manliness to win back this week, I believe."
"You and me both. Debbie has a way, doesn't she?"
"I rue the day I helped the president along in his decision to hire her."
"As long as you realize the error of your ways." CJ stood to leave.
When her hand was on the door Sam asked her, "Was I a surprise?"
"Yes," she said without looking over her shoulder. "But you shouldn't have been."
Sam did not win his manliness back. CJ let him follow her home anyway, after he'd wrung a promise out of Josh to meet them. When she closed the door and slid the deadbolt into place she said, "We should switch up our meeting place."
"All right, but I feel it only fair to warn you that your apartment smells better than either his or mine."
"Your dry cleaning place stop accepting your business?"
Sam ignored her, asking instead. "Josh didn't own a cat that you knew of, did he?"
CJ slapped at his arm. "If he had, you wouldn't still be smelling it."
Sam laughed. "You probably have a point."
"I generally do. You should get used to it."
"You've been lobbying for that for how long?"
Josh's timely knock on her door saved her from having to answer and when she answered she said, "Hello," with more warmth than really strictly necessary.
He blinked and stepped cautiously inside her apartment, careful not to touch her at any time. "Hello."
Sam piped up with his very own, "Hello," which turned CJ and Josh's attention toward him. Not sure what to do with it once he had it, he smiled. "Hi."
Josh sat down on CJ's sofa and waited for Sam to come to him. Sam did as he was expected to. CJ settled on the end that they weren't occupying and draped herself over both men. Long legs were good for many things but until lately she hadn't known this was one of the best. Josh removed her shoes and dropped them to the floor. Sam soothed a hand over the length of her calf before looking at her imploringly. After a bit CJ gave and twisted her body up so as to push her nylons down to her knees. Sam and Josh took care of the rest.
Josh placed a hand each around her feet, palm to arch. "How's Alexis?"
CJ let her head droop to the side where it was caught by the high back of the couch. "They're saying this last round is going to be the final one. Which, considering how long she's been in this particular treatment is some fantastically good news."
Josh just waited, Sam waiting by him, and CJ figured that was fair. "They don't know if it worked. It could be a couple of weeks before they can tell."
Josh squeezed her feet. Sam's hands slid to where CJ's stomach sloped into her breasts. He didn't move any further. She said, "Thanks."
"We could stay for a bit," Sam said. "While you fall asleep."
CJ had lots of practice at falling asleep all by herself. More than she had with anything else, truth be told. She looked at Sam, the way he had his eyes on hers, more than willing to be told no to his face. Behind him, Josh was hiding while trying not to look like it, as brave as Sam in none of the same ways.
She flexed her feet. "I'd like that."
CJ didn't attach anything to the cuffs. She thought about it. Alexis had suggested a rounded stone that she felt fit with each of the guys. Of course, Alexis assumed these were gifts of friendship and while they were, they also. . .weren't. Even so, CJ's instincts had suggested that just wasn't right and Suze was always pressing her to trust her instincts when it came to things she was making, so she did.
One end of the cuff ended in a curve suggesting of a C and the other end that of a J. They weren't explicit enough that anyone who just glanced or examined them without knowing what they were looking at would see anything amiss. They were explicit enough for Josh and Sam to see a sign of her every time they looked at their wrists while wearing the cuffs.
She put each of them in brown paper lunch bags, tied the bags with strings and wrote on the bags, "For one of my favorite guys."
Josh came by her office at lunchtime whistling "Climb Every Mountain." "Good afternoon, Maria."
"Julie Andrews was my very first crush I'll have you know."
"And you tell people this?"
Josh undid the button on his right sleeve and CJ saw a flash of silver. Just as quickly he redid the button. "You really made it?"
"With my very own two hands."
"And one for Sam."
"I don't really wear jewelry."
"No," CJ agreed.
"It's pretty masculine, though."
"If I wanted to date someone culturally feminine, I would date someone culturally feminine."
"Not really your thing, huh?"
"How could you tell?"
"Well, I've never whipped out the tape measure but I'm willing to bet Gina-"
"I'll tell her you were talking trash about her."
"She won't believe I'm that stupid."
CJ raised an eyebrow.
"Have I mentioned that you have a look of ageless grace reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn today? And that I really like this bracelet thing you seem to have forged for me?"
"I prefer Lauren Bacall."
Josh laughed a bit at that. "You would."
"If the cuff isn't your thing-"
"It wasn't. Until, y'know, there was a brown paper bag tied up with string waiting in my office. From you."
CJ's glance strayed to his wrist and then back up to his eyes. "That was pretty declarative, as things go. With you."
"Yeah," he said.
"Okay," she said.
Donna moved into Dr. Olin's place and a good half the West Wing received invitations to her change of address party, the president included. Donna confided, "That wasn't exactly my idea. Jason's. . .well, a lot like me."
"Occasionally unwarrantedly brash and generally rewarded for it?" CJ asked.
"I feel like maybe I shouldn't be telling you this."
"I feel like maybe I should remind you that, hopefully, he'll never be my physician again."
"How many people did you invite to this soiree?"
Donna smiled. "There won't be people suffocating in the bathroom."
"Yeah, because I'm pretty sure that's high on Miss Manner's list of no-no's concerning hosting an event."
Donna had been right, though, nobody was forced into uncomfortable corners and there was even enough alcohol to keep the spirits flowing throughout the night until most of the party-goers had cleared out. Leo left as the party was dwindling. CJ thought his eyes rested on Josh and Sam a bit before leaving. She thought that he and Toby might have had a few words, but if they did nothing came of it. Toby just congratulated Donna, reclaimed Molly and Huck from Jason's children and told CJ, "I'll see you in the morning."
"Later in the morning," she clarified, because the next morning was Saturday and CJ had yoga.
"Breathe a little for me," he said.
She kissed the top of Huck and Molly's heads. "You could try it for yourself. Breathing."
"I'd die from too much exposure to oxygen."
Behind her, Sam laughed softly, waving a bit at Molly and Huck. His shirtsleeves were rolled up and the cuff was on full display. He hadn't said anything about it to her but the first time he'd slid two fingers inside her after she'd given it to him the metal had glided against the inner part of her thigh, warmed from him. For someone who used words so very much, Sam knew when there were better ways to express how he felt. He said, "I'm going to go rescue Jason from Josh."
"Again?" CJ asked, as they'd had to pull Josh off at least twice before in the evening. Even Donna was ceasing to find it endearing. Not that she was going to admit this to anybody, but being the younger sister of two older male siblings, CJ still did.
"I think it might be time to just take him off the premises for good."
"How much did you have to drink?"
"I had better plans," Sam said.
"How much did he have to drink?"
"Enough that it won't look odd if I take him back to my place."
"Did you plan this?"
"We're thinkers." Sam paused. "We didn't know. . . We thought you might see Donna and the house and-"
"I'm not Donna."
"I'm not either and I wouldn't mind a little bit of Camelot one of these days."
"Things always change, Sam. Maybe one of these days. Not tonight. Not tomorrow night, I'm pretty sure."
Josh, miraculously, had come away from Jason of his own accord. "What's not happening tomorrow night?"
CJ glanced back at Donna who was scooping Jason's youngest into her arms and blowing raspberries on his stomach. The child was giggling and it was only by chance that Donna glanced up and saw CJ standing there, Josh and Sam to each side. Donna's smile widened just a little bit. She mouthed, "Go home," before yelling, "Thanks for coming! Jason's inside, I'll tell him you said goodbye."
"I'll see you on Monday," Josh called back.
Donna rolled her eyes. "Or the first time you call in a panic."
Sam smiled and waved. "Night!"
Jason's kid, still upside down, yelled, "Night night!"
CJ opened the gate to the backyard and let the three of them out. Jason hadn't cut the grass in a while and it was brushing at her feet over the tops of her backless sandals. The early spring moon was barely visible behind the pollution and she had to squint to see Josh and Sam away from the lights of the backyard. She stopped trying. She could still see them.
"I'll meet you there," she said softly.
Sam and Josh both smiled, wide swathes of joy under the descended summer night. CJ waited a moment before walking away.