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. had gotten very adept at packing quickly, just as she had grown accustomed to allowing other people to rifle through her personal belongings to pack for her. It was just another reason to avoid secrets, not that being in politics wasn't enough. She realized, as she was throwing clothes in her suitcase for her trip to China, that she and Abbey had never written even the simplest form of letter to each other. Even their intimate e-mails were innocent and could be construed as conversation between friends. Phone calls were usually short, and words of love or lust were never exchanged. They had been careful and were still being careful. Despite their resolve to just be friends, the undercurrent of their past relationship still flowed between them. They could not control it, only hope it wasn't as apparent to others as it was to them. Luckily, the friendship they had forged early into the first campaign still offered them cover, and C.J.'s appointment as CoS had also helped. Their frequent contact was dismissed as communication and concern over the President's condition. After all, as the two people who spent the most time with him, it was expected they would be spending time with each other. Still, C.J. was grateful to the harried schedule she kept because it rarely gave her the opportunity to break the promise she had made to Abbey: Friendship only. It was the hardest part of her job, yet there were also perks. Eyeing her phone, C.J. smiled before picking it up and heading to the kitchen for a glass of wine. Mentally calculating the time difference between D.C. and India, she finally decided she didn't care. A friend was allowed to call another friend any time day or night.
"Claudia Jean, I really hope you're bleeding."
C.J. laughed. "Not a drop. I just thought I'd return the favor from your last trip to Camp David."
"I've already apologized for that. You Democrats don't let anything go."
"You've been in India too long. No, wait, not long enough. Shouldn't you have gained spiritual enlightenment by now?"
"No one can have spiritual enlightenment without the occasional hamburger. What are you doing?"
C.J. could hear Abbey sitting up in bed and the click of what she assumed was a lamp.
"Packing. We leave tomorrow at 2:15. Well, we're scheduled to leave at 2:15, but I'm not making any promises." C.J. opened her refrigerator and frowned before closing the door again. She leaned against the counter.
"How long will you be in New Orleans?"
"Only two hours. Again, I'm not making any promises. You know how the President is when he does these meet and greets. We could be a day late. I may have to manhandle him onto the plane."
"If anyone can do it, you can. I believe in you." Abbey yawned, and C.J. felt a momentary pang of guilt at having woken her. It passed when Abbey sighed. "I'm glad you called."
"Even though I woke you?"
"I have to be up in half an hour anyway. I would much rather spend a few minutes with you than wasting away my life sleeping."
"Not having good dreams?"
C.J. retreated to the living room and sat on the sofa, the phone in one hand and her wine in the other.
"Not dreaming at all. This place is overwhelming."
"I've never been."
"It's an experience all its own. It's so bright here. And noisy."
"Have you had a good time?"
"It's been busy, but I have managed some shopping. We went on a tour yesterday, and I saw the Golden Temple. "
"I hope someone is taking pictures. I want to see you riding a camel."
"Ha ha. You think you're so funny."
"You think I'm funny, too. Admit it," C.J. said. "You don't know what you'd without me."
"You're right. I don't."
C.J. could hear the smile in Abbey's voice, and she felt the tension drain from her body. She relaxed into the cushions, content to listen to Abbey for as long as she could, especially with the easy flirtation that existed between them. It was familiar and comforting. It was also dangerous, a combination that only heightened C.J.'s enjoyment and her anguish of the situation. She knew she could not have one emotion without the other.
"You'll be in China before us. You think you can stay out of trouble until we get there?"
"I think I can manage. Have you eaten?"
"Not yet. I'm almost too tired."
"I'll order a salad from the deli across the street."
"You do that. Then, I want you to take a bath and go to bed. You've got a busy week ahead of you."
"But, I'll have you to keep me in line."
"I haven't managed it in the past seven years. I doubt one week in China will make a difference."
"You'd be surprised at what a difference a little time with you makes," C.J. said softly.
Abbey sighed again, only this time sadly. "No, I don't think I would."
"You need to eat something and then get some sleep. You've got a busy day tomorrow, and my day is about to get started."
"I'm sorry I woke you," C.J. said.
"Don't be. I'm glad you did. I'll see you on Thursday?"
"I'll be the one on the fancy plane."
Abbey laughed. "Goodnight, C.J."
C.J. closed her phone and tossed it on the low table in front of her. She stared at it for a long moment before finishing her wine in one gulp. She closed her eyes as she leaned her head on the back of the sofa, her thoughts as dark as the night outside her window.
Pros and cons were running through her mind as she listened to Millie explain the president's condition. Finally, Millie said, "Could we get Abbey on the phone?"
"Yeah," C.J. said as she mentally prepared herself for that conversation.
"Who else should we call?" Toby asked.
Millie shrugged. "Well, for an MS patient, this is the equivalent of a headache. I mean, who would you want us to call if you had a headache?"
"Okay, let's just keep this on the plane for now."
C.J. waited for Toby's nod before she excused herself to an outer cabin. She took a deep breath before dialing Abbey's number.
"Hi. Couldn't wait a few more hours to talk to me?" Abbey said. She sounded happy, and C.J. smiled despite the current situation. "Or, is Jed driving you crazy? Twenty hours on a plane with my husband is enough to make anyone contemplate drastic measures."
"He's taking drastic measures himself right now. He'll do anything to get a little attention," C.J. said, attempting to keep her tone light.
"C.J., what's wrong?"
C.J. sighed. "Abbey."
"C.J., what? I know you're trying to find a way to tell me something. Just tell me."
"He's had a MS episode." C.J. heard the sharp intake of breath, and she hastened to reassure her. "He's okay. It's just his hands. Millie says he should be fine but that he needs to rest, which is what he'll be doing as soon as they get him comfortable in his cabin."
"He's been teasing me."
Abbey's laugh was relieved. "Thank God. He's resting?"
"Yes, and Millie ordered him straight to bed. She can answer your medical questions, but I wanted to be the one to tell you. I Abbey, I wanted to talk to you first. He's really okay."
"Are you continuing to China?"
The question surprised C.J. "As of right now, there's no reason not to. Millie compared it to a headache."
"And so it is. I need to speak to her."
"He's important to me, too." C.J. sighed. "I'll get Millie."
C.J. was talking to Millie when she heard Abbey's voice in the corridor outside the plane's conference room. She stiffened when Abbey walked in, their eyes meeting briefly before Abbey began asking questions she couldn't answer. It wasn't until Curtis picked up President Bartlet and started down the passageway that she and Abbey shared another look. It was then when C.J. realized the next few days were going to be even harder than she thought.
C.J. glanced up from the makeshift desk in her room to see Abbey standing in her doorway.
"Is he okay?"
Abbey shrugged but stepped further into the room, both of them acutely aware of the people milling about in the hotel hallways. They could speak freely here about business matters, including the president's health, but they held secrets more damaging than warheads, a knowledge that forced privacy in even their semi-private interactions.
"He's resting. It's really all that he can do right now."
"How long?" C.J. asked.
"As long as it takes."
C.J. nodded and then relaxed into the cushions of the sofa, fatigue and concern clearly etched across her features. She had yet to meet Abbey's eyes.
"Jed tells me an asteroid is headed for Earth."
"Ironically, not the most important thing happening today," C.J. said with a humorless chuckle.
"Do you think he should stay?"
C.J. closed her eyes and sighed. "You're not going to like my answer."
"Well, then I guess you have to find a way to make it work."
Her tone was cold, unflinching, and C.J. felt herself wilt at the lack of warmth. She wanted to yell her indignation or sob her apologizes. Instead, she said, "It's my job."
She heard rather than saw Abbey leave.
Abbey entered the Great Hall and made her way to where C.J. and Toby were standing. Toby saw her first, but she knew from the way C.J.'s shoulders tensed that the other woman knew she was there. They both turned to her at the same time.
"How long has it been?" she asked.
Toby glanced at his watch. "One hour and thirty-seven minutes."
She nodded and placed her hand on C.J.'s arm, and Toby excused himself immediately. C.J. held herself perfectly still, Abbey's touch heavy enough to keep her in place.
"He makes your job more difficult than it has to be," Abbey said, letting C.J. go in more ways than one. "I know that."
"You have to pull him. This is not a good idea," Millie said as she joined them.
"If he's having trouble, he'll say something." C.J.'s conviction was clear, and Abbey was once again reminded of why C.J. had her position.
"It's been an hour and forty minutes," Millie pushed.
There was a hint of defeat as C.J. said, "I know."
"I mean, there's a cost at this stage in his disease."
"The President's made his choice, Millie. He'll come out when he wants to come out," Abbey said, her protectiveness of C.J. obvious, surprising all three women.
The door in which the men had disappeared behind almost two hours before opened, and Curtis emerged pushing President Bartlet's wheelchair, Lian and the interpreters following.
"Here they come," C.J. said, her voice a little unsteady.
The banter the group shared as they returned to Air Force One calmed C.J., and by the time they had boarded the plane, she was practically giddy with the results of their day. She stole a glance at Abbey and remembered the steel edge to her voice when she supported C.J.'s refusal to end the President's private meeting with Lian. Whether it was out of loyalty to her husband or to C.J., C.J. wasn't sure, but it didn't matter. Abbey had apologized in her own way for the muted argument they'd had earlier, and C.J. felt buoyed by the knowledge.
She felt included again.
As the First Couple entered their private cabin, C.J. sat down in a nearby seat and picked up the phone, barely giving the person on the other end time to answer.
"Leo, you're never going to believe this. The world is safe. Jed Bartlet just arranged a North Korea summit for April. Two days of talks in Beijing with North Korea, South Korea..."
"Japan," Toby added.
"Japan. China's agreed to get aggressive with North Korea if the inspections fall apart." C.J. chuckled as she glanced up to see Millie walk by. "We had none of this. We were bailing on the whole idea.
C.J. watched as Millie and Dr. Strenlowe made their way into the president's cabin.
"Leo, let me call you back," she said, not waiting for a response before hanging up the phone. She felt Toby join her as she stood to make her way to the cabin, and she barely acknowledged the SSA guarding the door. Catching a glimpse of an aide moving an IV poll, C.J. stared at the empty wheelchair and then moved toward the cabin.
But, Abbey closed the door.
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