DISCLAIMER: The television series and its characters do not belong to me.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This installment begins at the very end of "No Exit" (5.20) and carries through to the very end of "A Change Is Gonna Come" (6.7), with snippets from every episode in between, including a few direct quotes from "Birnam Wood," "Liftoff," and "The Dover Test."
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To ceej4[at]yahoo.com
SERIES: Part of the Repetition series
C.J. realized she was in mourning as she watched Donna disappear down the hallway, but she didn't know what to do about it. She had told Donna the truth, the same type of truth Donna had shared with Abbey a year earlier. C.J. had not meant to be so cruel, but her own broken heart forced her emotions too close to the surface when pushed. Donna, as intelligent and patient as she could be, could also be incredibly naïve, much like C.J. had been when she allowed herself to fall in love with someone who could never love her enough.
C.J. returned to her office, wondering not for the first time what Abbey was doing. She could only imagine, having simply heard the First Lady was now volunteering her nights at the free clinic. It was news C.J. had taken with carefully-concealed concern, as both Press Secretary and Abbey's former...something. She had watched Abbey during the dinner, trying desperately not to stare at the other woman, but C.J. had always struggled with keeping her attention on matters at hand whenever Abbey was near. She had almost followed Abbey when the First Lady had left the hall, but one leading lady walking out was suspicious enough. Besides, they had not talked since their breakup. C.J. suspected Abbey was to blame for that, yet she also knew she had not gone out of her way to seek Abbey. It was still too raw, the pain of their entire relationship. C.J. had not yet figured out how to ignore the end of their affair. Hiding it had been easier, which C.J. felt was ironic.
Irony was quickly invading her life.
Glancing around her office, C.J. sighed. She had canceled her plans with Ben because she could. Donna had been right that the press release about the shut down could be handled by any one of C.J.'s deputies. It could even wait until Monday, but her job, like always, gave her the excuse she needed. And so desperately wanted.
Donna wouldn't go out with the reporter because of her feelings for Josh, just as C.J. refused to become serious with Ben because of Abbey. It was their hope for someone else.
C.J. dropped unceremoniously onto her couch and closed her eyes, resting her head against the cushions. She did not look forward to going home alone, but she also knew she could not stay in the office. It held too many memories, especially when she was in this kind of a mood.
She wished she could follow Donna to Gaza but 5,000 miles still seemed too close to Abbey.
Abbey watched Leo walk away. She was rattled even though she had dismissed easily his concerns about the clinic and what C.J.'s reaction would be. Of course, she could not dismiss C.J. so easily. The woman was always there, hovering at the edge of Abbey's every thought. Abbey knew she could blame C.J. for the Xanax, could trace the beginning of her reckless streak to the end of their affair. She chose not to. She recognized in herself the signs of addiction, not to a drug but to a person, and knew she would have to face this particular battle alone. Her knight in shining armor was busy saving the world. Besides, as she heard Jed in the hallway outside the room, she didn't know anymore who she wanted to be her rescuer.
She sighed when she heard his voice but turned with a ready smile to greet him. "Hello, Jed. Another hostage situation ended."
She accepted a kiss on her cheek and smoothed back the hair at his temple.
"Something like that," he said. "Are you heading out?"
"I'm already late."
He just nodded, but she could read the disappointment in his eyes. She recognized it from her own gaze whenever she encountered her reflection.
"Be careful out there tonight. I don't want anything to happen to you."
Too late, she thought. "I'll see you in the morning. Try to get some rest."
He smiled and she patted his chest, just above his heart, before walking out of the room.
The phone rang, and C.J. answered it distractedly, her focus on the brief in her hand and the dozen more littering her desk.
"Not really the most professional way to say hello."
For a long moment, C.J. sat in stunned silence, her heart not allowing words to form. Finally, she said, "Abbey? I...why are you calling? Do you need something?"
"Just to know you're taking care of yourself."
C.J. sighed and closed her eyes. Leaning back in her chair, she rubbed a hand over her forehead. "I'm fine."
"Jed told me you've been looking haggard."
C.J. chuckled. "I haven't been able to sleep."
"Among other things." Another long pause until C.J. repeated her earlier question, "Why are you calling?"
"I told you," Abbey said, sounding exasperated.
"Abbey, please. We haven't spoken in over two months."
"I still care about you. Am I not allowed?"
"You shouldn't be."
"I shouldn't do a lot of things I do. Besides, calling you is the least of my sins. Now, tell me the truth. How are you?"
C.J. smiled despite herself. "I'm doing better now."
"Hey," C.J. said as she came to stand in Toby's doorframe. "I think I'm going to go home."
"You should," he said. "Nothing you can do here tonight. We're just waiting. Always waiting."
C.J. entered the office and sat on the edge of Toby's coffeetable. "You staying?"
"Yes. I'm working on a statement for when this entire idea blows up in our faces."
C.J. shook her head. "You know, as different as you and the President are, you are also very much alike," she said. Toby glared at her.
"You've perked up since yesterday."
"I'm serious, Toby."
"I am, too. What the hell happened to you?"
"Neither of you react well to situations where you do not know the outcome," C.J. continued and then reached into her pocket when her phone began ringing. "You don't like chaos." She glanced at the caller ID and abruptly stood up.
"I don't like...C.J., where are you going?"
"I have to take this," she said as she walked out of his office. Flipping the phone open, she said, "C.J. Cregg."
"Better but still not a hello."
"But very professional."
"True. It's late. What are you still doing at work?"
"Work things," C.J. answered just as she arrived at her office. She entered, shutting the door behind her and settling on her couch.
"Still having trouble sleeping?" Abbey asked, tossing the magazine she was reading onto the bed and relaxing into the pillows.
"There's a lot going on. My mind won't shut down. What are you still doing awake?"
"Jed hasn't come to bed. He's as worried as everyone else."
"For different reasons I imagine."
"If this plan of his works, we'll be going to Camp David. Will you be joining us?"
C.J. could almost see Abbey shrug. "I thought it would give us the chance to talk."
"We're talking now."
C.J. laughed at the warning. "Aren't the telephone conversations surreal enough?"
"We can't continue to ignore each other. You have any other ideas?"
"So, we're easing into a face-to-face meeting?"
"Something like that." C.J. could hear the smile in Abbey's voice.
"Did you make it to Camp David okay?"
"Yes," Abbey said, her suitcase open on the bed. "Though I prefer the plane to the helicopter. Are you coming up anytime soon?"
"I don't know. It's up to Leo. I really thought we would be going with the President yesterday, so I don't know what's going on. I was looking forward to dinner tonight. I heard you are having tacos."
"That's later in the week. I should have unpacked last night."
"I thought you had people for that."
"I need people for that." Abbey sat on the bed. "I haven't had my coffee yet."
"I know," C.J. said as she glanced over the phone messages in her hand. "I can tell. Are you involved in any of the meetings today?"
"My main responsibility is to play hostess for the duration. How's Donna?"
"Awake. Doing better. Josh said last night she's getting a bit cranky. He sounded pleased."
"Good. I need to call her mother. Hang on a minute." C.J. could hear a muffled voice in the background before Abbey, exasperated, returned. "I have to go."
"Have a good day."
"Well, if we're going to stay up all night, I'm going to order some coffee and get dressed," Abbey said as she glanced at the staff gathered in the living room of the cabin. After making a stop by the kitchen, she retreated to the bedroom she and her husband shared. She tossed her robe across a chair and ruffled through her bag to find her cell phone. It took four rings for the other person to answer.
"Hey," C.J. said sleepily, a hint of worry around the edges. "You okay?"
"I'm fine. I didn't mean to wake you."
"Yeah, funny thing. I've been sleeping better the past few nights."
"I'll let you get back to it. Goodness knows you need all the sleep you can get."
C.J. laughed, and Abbey could her sitting up in bed. "I can spare a few minutes. What's going on?"
"Someone had an idea, so we're up for the night. I just came in to change. Can't save the world in my pajamas."
"I don't know about that," C.J. said.
"I thought you'd come with Leo."
"Me, too, but I've had to make the press rounds."
"I've been watching. You were good on Taylor Reid. He likes you."
C.J. yawned. "He likes the access I can give him."
"Go back to bed. I'll talk to you tomorrow."
"No, I'm okay."
Abbey laughed. "Get some sleep. At least one of us should tonight."
"Peace and good will," C.J. said around another yawn.
C.J. glanced at Abbey, the first time she had seen her since Leo was found and the news of his condition relied through an intense Q&A in the hallways of the West Wing. She looked tired, but they all did. C.J. wanted to talk to her, but she couldn't force herself to cross the room, not with Toby questioning the President's priorities and with Leo's health being managed by machine. C.J. could not allow Abbey's comfort. It was too soon, and their newly-rediscovered friendship was still too sharp, able to cut C.J. if she got too close. Still, she watched the First Lady as secretly as she could, feeling relief despite her best effort when Abbey smiled briefly at her.
C.J. knew they were all going to need time to recover as she walked out of Leo's hospital room, but with Leo's heart beating on its own, she also knew they were finally on their way to finishing their mission. The President motioned her to walk between him and Abbey, and her arm brushed against Abbey's with every step they took. When they reached the limo, his hand on the small of her back coaxed her to slide in next to Abbey, and she realized she was nervous. She didn't know why and didn't want to think too much about it.
"Claudia Jean," President Bartlet said, startling her. "I need you to give up your life for me."
"Jump off a cliff?" C.J. asked, and Jed chuckled. "Leo is not returning as CoS, so who will be replacing him?"
C.J. looked from President Bartlet to the First Lady and back to the President. "You're kidding? Me? You're kidding. Not me." C.J. heard herself start to ramble, but Abbey's hand on her arm silenced her. The touch, the first in months, distracted her.
"One name, C.J. Yours."
"Are highly capable and invaluable members of our team."
C.J. glanced at Abbey but spoke to Jed. "I'm not qualified."
"You'll be perfect," Abbey said quietly.
"C.J.," President Bartlet said, drawing her attention back to him. "You start tomorrow."
The car stopped and the door opened, the President getting out without waiting for her response. The hand resting on her arm disappeared, and C.J. watched the First Lady get out to vanish behind White House doors.
C.J. entered Leo's room quietly in an effort not to wake him. She pulled over a chair to sit next to him and the tears came unbidden.
"I...I don't think this is gonna work out," she told his sleeping form. "I can't do this."
She wiped angrily at her tears before taking a deep breath. She grasped Leo's hand gently and then stood to leave. As she pushed open his hospital room door, she felt a tug from the other side. Then, there was Abbey.
"Hey, Abbey, I was..." She tried to hide the remnants of her breakdown, but Abbey reached out, her fingers bringing C.J.'s face around to hers. Her smile was soft.
"You can do this job, C.J." She released her hold. "Just take a step back and reevaluate. Start small. They believe in you and so do I." Abbey's smile shifted to a smirk. "And if anyone gives you any problems, you can always whack them with your purse."
C.J.'s laugh was surprising and loud.
"The Hubbert Peak"
C.J. turned the cell phone over in hands a few times. She wondered if her hesitation was the same Abbey had experienced before that first call a month earlier. C.J. remembered Abbey's confidence during their conversation, but the First Lady had later confessed to being afraid of C.J.'s reaction. Sighing, C.J. decided that level of honesty deserved to be reciprocated.
"I was wondering if I would hear from you tonight."
"I just lost a game of chess to the President and I'm about to lose a veto. Got any good news?" C.J. asked as she settled on her couch, a briefing book open across her lap.
"Zoey and Charlie have a date tomorrow night."
"So, he finally made his move? Good for him."
"I hear you made him an offer. I'm glad he'll still be in residence. How was the game?"
"He wasn't impressed with my cheer."
"I can't imagine why. Did it rhyme?"
"That's where you went wrong."
"I'll keep that in mind for next time."
"The outfit wouldn't hurt, either."
"Only for you." As soon as the words were out of her mouth, C.J. wished she could take them back. The silence that followed was long and uncomfortable. "I'm sorry," she said finally. "It's hard, sometimes, to remember where that line is."
"It's hard to remember there is a line. It's okay, C.J. I forget, too."
C.J. thought about all the phone calls between them during the last month. "I know," she said. "What do we do?"
"We can be friends. We'll find a way."
For the first time in their history, C.J. didn't believe her.
"The Dover Test"
C.J. watched President Bartlet as he prayed with one of the soldiers. She listened to the words until they began choking her. With no warning, she turned and walked out of the room, the walls suffocating her.
She was betraying him. Even though she and Abbey had ended their affair, they were still deceiving him emotionally if not physically. Sitting on a nearby bench, she glanced up when she saw Toby approach.
"I needed some air," she said and then paused. "It ain't no photo op. You knew that," she continued by way of explanation.
"Now Annabeth knows that, too."
C.J. shook her head. "You think I'm micro-managing."
"I don't want to let the President down."
"Me neither." Toby stopped. "How old do you think those guys are in there? 20, 22?"
"We're not going to let the President down," Toby said before making his way back inside.
C.J. watched him go, but his words haunted her: We're not going to let the President down. What Toby didn't know was she already had.
"A Change Is Gonna Come"
C.J. walked into her office after saying goodnight to the President, his doubts about his presidency rattling in her head. She couldn't handle his guilt tonight. She was barely managing her own.
When her phone rang, she stared at the caller ID, the name taunting her with its ramifications. Abigail. Sighing, C.J. put her phone in her desk drawer, but its echo drowned out any of her other thoughts.
C.J. watched Abbey and the President as they listened to James Taylor. She saw when he reached for her hand, as they whispered to each other under the words of Sam Cooke. She finished Toby's drink before excusing herself, returning to her office and her work.
"You're going to wrinkle your dress."
"Geez," C.J. said, startled. She glanced at Abbey but then turned back to briefing book. "What are you doing here? The concert isn't over yet."
Abbey came into the room, the swish of her evening gown causing C.J. to close her eyes. "Brief intermission of sorts. You haven't returned any of my calls."
"I've been busy. The world was coming to an end."
"Abbey." C.J. threw her pen onto her desk and finally turned to the First Lady.
"You've been avoiding me."
C.J. leaned back in her chair. "Yes."
"Want to tell me why?" Abbey asked as she sat in the chair across from C.J.
"What are we doing?"
"We're being the people we should have always been."
"You really think we can do this?"
"We're his support system, C.J. He can have thousands of others willing to do his bidding, but you and I are his right and left. We can disagree, but we have to communicate. So, ignoring each other is not an option. Besides, I've missed you."
"That's the problem," C.J. said. "I still miss you."
Abbey nodded, and C.J. watched as she stood to make her way to the door, stopping before crossing the threshold to look at C.J. "I leave for India in two days. I'll talk to you before I go?"
C.J. turned back to her work. "Call me tomorrow? I'll you about Charlie's adventures with Bernard."
As Abbey walked out, C.J. could hear James Taylor's smooth baritone singing "Bring It on Home to Me."
'If you ever change your mind
About leaving, leaving me behind'
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