DISCLAIMER: The television series and its characters do not belong to me.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This installment begins the day after the night at the end of "Full Disclosure" (5.15), and then it jumps into the middle of "Eppur Si Muove" (5.16). I've used actual dialogue from that episode, making my story correspond with what was in the show. I always try to stay within canon, but occasionally, it's nice to demonstrate where everything fits.
SERIES: The eighth part of the Repetition series following Broken Record, Habit, Deja Vu, Deja Vu Again, Consistent, Another, Over, Again, In Addition, After, Say It Again, Come Back and Second Thoughts.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
It had become a morning ritual. C.J. came to the office early, meeting Abbey in the East Wing for coffee before she headed to work. She and Abbey would have half an hour alone, soft kisses replacing the strong richness of caffeine. Even the delicate blue China Abbey used was not enough to distract them from each other.
C.J. enjoyed their time together, yet it always made her day more difficult. Still, she looked forward to seeing Abbey, to touching her and tasting her, but C.J. knew sooner or later Abbey would be bitter rather than sweet, chilly rather than warm.
Glancing at her watch, C.J. sighed as she entered the inner hallways of Abbey's political sanctum. Although she had been waiting for Abbey to turn her away, C.J. usually could not stop herself from arriving earlier than necessary, drinking cold coffee to elude deceit. But today, C.J. was ten minutes late. Ben had called, delaying her departure from her townhouse as C.J. stared at her answering machine, listening to him wish her a good morning. She had not been able to force herself to talk to him, not when she was about to meet Abbey. She wondered if Abbey felt the same about the President before she and Abbey were to rendezvous, if Abbey felt the same ache in her chest, unable to distinguish it from guilt or desire.
Trying to clear her head of such thoughts, C.J. took a deep breath before she knocked on Abbey's office door, opening it before she was granted entrance. She was, after all, accustomed to being an intruder where Abbey Bartlet was concerned.
Abbey was sitting at her desk, her head bent in concentration, paperwork strewn across the wooden surface in organized piles.
"I was wondering what happened to you," she said without looking up. She finished writing something before turning her attention to her guest. "I was getting worried."
"I'm here. I had a late night. Toby and I were working until almost 2 on a release about the administration's 180 on school vouchers." C.J. already regretted the lie.
"I heard. I believe you have Charlie to thank for that," Abbey said as she stood and walked around to the front of her desk. C.J. met her there.
"Remind me to do that," C.J. said, leaning down to kiss Abbey sweetly. "Good morning."
"Good morning." Abbey took C.J.'s hand, leading her to the sofa. "Sit. I'll get you some coffee. You look like you could use it." C.J. obeyed without argument, enjoying the care. "I thought you would call me last night," Abbey said a minute later as she handed C.J. a cup of steaming liquid.
C.J. smiled at the woman now lounging on the sofa next to her.
"Have I become so predictable?"
"I suppose I was just hoping to talk to you."
"You could have called me."
"I didn't want to disturb you."
"It was a bad day," C.J. admitted. "I could have used your voice."
"I suspect you had a friendly voice."
C.J. put her coffee cup down but didn't look at Abbey. "How did you know?"
"You didn't call me."
"Are you okay?" C.J. asked.
Abbey laughed. "I think I'm supposed to be asking you that."
C.J. still refused to look at Abbey. "I talked to John. He assured me the administration would not suffer."
"I made a mistake. It's something I'll always have to live with."
"Regret is an ironic emotion, dependent on too many factors to predict."
"Maybe, but maybe it only depends on the emotion prior to the regret: loneliness, anger, hurt, resentment. Love. There are many things in my life I regret, some painfully so, but there are other things I know I should regret but just can't."
"Like me?" Abbey asked. C.J. laughed.
"Yeah, like you." C.J. reached for Abbey's hand, squeezing it as she met Abbey's eyes.
"Remorse is not the same as regret, C.J."
"Isn't it worse? Either way, the outcome is about the same."
"But the intention is different," Abbey said. "I would hope that would mean something."
"It means everything."
"Not quite everything." C.J. nodded at the hint of bitterness in Abbey's tone. Abbey smiled, slipping her hand from C.J.'s. "Your coffee is cold," she said.
"I should probably go anyway. I'm sure Carol is already waiting for me."
"Yes, time to start your day." C.J. leaned forward and kissed Abbey gently. "You smell good," Abbey said when they parted. C.J. kissed her again, deeper and with more urgency. "You should go."
"I'll talk to you later," C.J. said as she stood.
Abbey nodded, and then she smiled. C.J. hesitated but finally made her way to the door.
"C.J., I'm not jealous of Ben."
C.J. stopped in her tracks, turning abruptly to stare at Abbey. "Where did that come from?"
"I just want you to know that if you want to have a relationship with him, you don't have to worry about my feelings."
"No. Let's not, let's not talk about it. I just wanted you to know."
"I think it's something we do need to talk about."
"It's not," Abbey said, standing and gathering the coffee cups, placing them on a silver tray C.J. recognized as a piece from the Lincoln collection.
"It must be for you to mention it." C.J. moved closer to Abbey, who refused to look at her.
"Go to work, C.J."
"No." C.J. stepped forward, almost flush with Abbey's body, and reached out to pull Abbey against her. She felt Abbey take a deep breath before relaxing in her embrace. C.J. kissed Abbey's temple. "I do worry about your feelings. I can't help it."
"You have to take care of yourself, Claudia Jean. I want you to take care of yourself."
Abbey turned in C.J.'s arms, putting her own arms around C.J.'s neck and pulling C.J. down to meet her lips in a tender kiss. C.J. tasted Abbey's sadness.
"Go to work. Call your ranger. Do your job. See me later."
"In that order?" C.J. asked, humor barely erasing hurt. She smiled, but it did not reach her eyes.
Abbey kissed C.J., sighing against C.J.'s mouth when they parted, but C.J. drew Abbey back in, kissing her deeply before pulling away.
"I'll talk to you later," C.J. said, kissing Abbey on the forehead.
Abbey watched her go, the sounds of the beginning day drifting in from the now-opened door.
C.J. took a deep breath before entering the Mural Room. She and Abbey had not spoken in days. Abbey had called to cancel their early morning coffee for the past three mornings, leaving short messages on C.J.'s cell phone. C.J. tried not to feel paranoid, but she knew her insecurities had already gotten the best of her. She could only hope Ben would understand. She really hoped Abbey would.
"Hello, Mrs. Bartlet," C.J. said as she made her way into the room. Abbey glanced up at her, a smile already in place.
"C.J." C.J. sat down in the chair across from her. "It's good to see you. I've missed you."
C.J. smiled, the expression genuine. "It's good to see you, too."
"I take it I have an image problem," Abbey said before C.J. could say anything else.
C.J., taken aback, just nodded. "Yeah. Yes, you do," she finally said.
"So, what was it? Was it the tube top to meet the Queen of England or the low rise jeans for the North Korean delegation?"
C.J. fought the urge to roll her eyes. She recognized Abbey's mood. "Mrs. Bartlet, the press didn't know what to make of you before the MS became public. You've never been the traditional hat-knitting President's wife."
"Oh, shoot. Was that in the handbook? Maybe just get me a photographer and seven year's worth of yarn."
"Can you tell me why you decided to volunteer at the free clinic?" C.J. asked, trying for a different tact.
"Because, instead of putting out a press release, I decided to roll up my sleeves and help treat children."
"Is there any particular..."
"There are any number of children's health issues I'm concerned with, so I thought it was appropriate to go out and just see what was going on first-hand."
"Great. But until the press understands that, they're going to fill in the blanks with self-aggrandizing, craven, vote-grabbing..."
"Would you like me to do interviews with the press corps?" Abbey asked, sounding placating, which C.J. hated more than the sarcasm.
"God, no! They're the most cynical bastards on the planet. You need to get beyond the Washington echo chamber and speak directly to the people."
"So, what did you have in mind?"
"I checked out the reject list from your invitation file, and there are a few things in here I think you should reconsider: the first of which is Muppets."
C.J. smiled. "Going on Sesame Street would give you an opportunity to reintroduce yourself as the First Lady who is also a working doctor and address the press's questions about your work at the clinic. Give a Muppet a checkup. Get your message out."
"No Meet the Press?"
C.J. sighed. They were back to sarcasm. "Mrs. Bartlet..."
"You don't think I could take Russert?"
"Why should you? Only five people are watching and it's the toughest interview on the planet. I want you on the Surgery channel, women's health magazines, the Today Show. Mrs. Russell's ratings bumped considerably when she did her cooking segment. Her chili was so good they're having her back for Christmas."
"C.J., you're trying to raise my competitive hackles."
"Mrs. Bartlet, if I were trying to raise your competitive hackles, I'd make you watch Diane Sawyer's duet with Cookie Monster."
"At least they're cute. Well, most of them. And we can get you on the air very quickly."
"Am I causing that much trouble?"
C.J. smiled again, unable to resist the teasing lilt in Abbey's voice. "You do know a thing or two about getting into trouble."
"I suppose. You're wearing a different perfume. Obsession?"
C.J. diverted her gaze. "Yeah. I, uh, I thought I should try something new."
Abbey nodded. "Good idea." Abbey stood, and C.J. hastened to do the same. "I should go. I have to have my schedule re-arranged."
C.J. nodded to Abbey's back as the First Lady made her way out of the room.
C.J. walked into her office to find Abbey waiting for her. She silently cursed her assistant for the lack of warning, yet she was happy to see Abbey because she was always happy to see Abbey.
"There's a whole new world of Sesame Street since my girls were little. Gordon and Susan have gotten married. Maria has a daughter that's almost grown," Abbey said.
C.J. smiled. "What about Bob?"
Abbey smirked but not at C.J. "Bob is still there; he looks fantastic. You have a handsome man in your doorway."
C.J. turned to see Ben, and her frustration at Carol grew. "Carol."
Carol appeared next to Ben. "He really needed to talk to you."
C.J. felt herself flushing as Abbey walked around her to introduce herself to Ben.
"Hello. I'm Abbey Bartlet."
"Ben Dryer, ma'am."
"Yes. But who are you to our C.J.?"
C.J. was speechless, holding her breath as she waited for Ben's answer.
"That's an excellent question, Mrs. Bartlet."
"Would you excuse us a moment?" C.J. finally said, not sparing a glance at Abbey.
"Nice to meet you," Abbey said.
"Whatever this is, it isn't a good time," C.J. told Ben as they walked out of her office. She knew she sounded exasperated.
"What...what does that mean, 'You're in'?"
C.J. glanced through the window at Abbey and then sighed. "You... me... together."
"We haven't seen each other in six years. We haven't slept together in fifteen. So, what, are we engaged? I have a daughter. I have an ex-wife. I have and ex-wife's mother that I have to take care of. What, are we gonna have kids? Because we should probably get cracking."
"Yeah," he said. C.J. suddenly understood the difference between remorse and regret, and she truly regretted what she had done to Ben. Before she had time to even think of an explanation, Toby walked up.
"Excuse me. Hi. Hi. Sorry," Toby said as he pulled C.J. aside. She watched Ben walk away. She couldn't blame him.
"I just got off the phone with Mack McCall of the Traditional Values Alliance. The $2 million earmarked for AIDS research is actually a 'pseudo-scientific slush-fund for the President's daughter.'"
"She doesn't work in HIV. They're kooks," C.J. said, her frustration becoming evident on her face.
"With a press conference that's gonna get coverage on national TV."
"Oh my God," C.J. said. She had been too distracted to do her job.
"And where is Ellie? The press is gonna be all over her."
"We've got about thirty minutes to keep her under wraps," C.J. answered.
As Toby picked up a nearby phone, C.J. walked to Carol's office.
"Carol, get me the Washington bureau chief."
"C.J.?" Carol said. She was watching the television. C.J. looked at the screen to see Ellie Bartlet.
"Toby," C.J. said, pointing to the TV. C.J. couldn't look at the First Lady; instead, she turned her attention back to the reporters bombarding the middle presidential daughter.
"Are you going to talk to her?" Carol asked. C.J. glanced at her assistant before nodding.
"Yeah," she said as she slowly made her way to her office. Abbey was still watching the televised coverage and didn't flinch when C.J. closed the door.
"Did you know?"
"We suspected but were trying to head it off before it reached this point."
"How could you not tell me? Warn me? Damn it, C.J.!" The anger radiating from the First Lady penetrated C.J.'s calm.
"How dare you ask me that. How dare you expect me to ask you if I can do my job. I don't work for you. My job is to protect and assist the President and his family so that he can run the country. It's not to keep you informed about what's happening with your daughters!" At Abbey's shocked silence, C.J. shook her head and sighed, the fury draining from her body. "I...I'm sorry. I don't know how to talk to you anymore. I don't know where we stand with each other. One minute, we're making plans for your image, talking about Sesame Street, joking over the new man in my life, and the next your tongue is down my throat and my hands are under your blouse."
Abbey's gaze drifted from C.J.'s, and then she laughed, the sound surprising and comforting. The lanky press secretary let out the breath she had been holding as the tension seeped from the room.
"I'm fairly certain I would remember your hands underneath my blouse, C.J. Are you sure you're just not projecting your wants?"
"I hope it's more like foreshadowing."
"Your ranger is quite handsome."
"I have to go call my daughter."
"You should do that. I have to..." C.J. let the sentence trail off, never wanting to mention the President when she and Abbey had been flirting.
"Yeah," Abbey responded, sure of what the other woman meant.
"Yeah." C.J. paused with her hand on the doorknob and turned back to the First Lady. "I'll talk to you in a little while."
C.J. glanced up when the portico doors opened, her breath catching just as it always did when Abbey walked in. She diverted her eyes, not wanting to look at the President, his wife, or their daughter. It was times like now, she thought, that were the hardest. As the senior staff was dismissed, C.J. spared one last glance at the presidential family. She rushed to catch up to Toby, angry at herself, angrier at Abbey.
"What? I didn't support you?" Toby asked as C.J. pushed past him.
"No, I'm just tired. I thought I'd have somewhere to go tonight other than my office." Another lie. She added, "I wore perfume."
"What happened with Ben?"
C.J. was surprised, her anger at herself growing as she remembered she had forgotten Ben. "I wrecked it," she said, not sure what she meant. Or who she meant it about.
"Wow. Is that a record?"
"Did you like him?"
"Yeah," C.J. answered distractedly.
"Really?" Toby said.
C.J. tried to sound more convincing. "Yeah."
"Go fix it."
"It's all I've got."
As he walked away, C.J. continued to her office, her anger returning until she reached her door, slamming it behind her. The harsh sound echoed in the small space, and C.J. stared at the door as if it was the cause of her frustration. Finally, she collapsed on her couch and pulled out her cell phone. Her intention was to call Ben, but as she began to dial, she realized she was calling Abbey instead. She closed her phone abruptly, not allowing it to ring, and put it on the cushion next to her. For the first time in a long while, she felt totally alone.
C.J. was amazed she was enjoying herself. After two days of Big Bird/tall jokes, she was dreading the day the Muppets actually appeared in the East Wing. But as C.J. watched Abbey as the First Lady gave Elmo a checkup, telling the red, furry Muppet he had to get a shot, explaining with infinitive patience and wisdom the importance of the activity, C.J.'s frustration melted, evaporating with every kind smile and gentle word shared between the two. She was watching closely. C.J. had gotten to the makeshift set late after an impromptu meeting with Toby, which meant she had not had time to talk to Abbey before the other woman went on camera. Since Abbey had made changes to the script, C.J. was uncertain what she could expect, knowing the First Lady had a mind of her own when it came to her image or anything else of hers.
It occurred to C.J. that this was probably the way Abbey had treated her daughters when they were young and sick, just as any good mother would do. As C.J. thought about it, she realized Abbey had probably always been a great mother and wife. Always until she met C.J., until C.J. had become something more.
When Abbey tickled Elmo on the bottom of his foot, C.J. excused herself to make a phone call.
Later, when several staff members gathered in the Mural Room to watch the finished tape of Abbey's show, C.J. made her way to stand by Abbey's side.
"You did well," C.J. said, not looking at Abbey, gliding into a dangerous conversation on a safe topic.
"If there's any kind of firestorm, I promise I'll handle it."
C.J. felt relieved at the statement, closing her eyes briefly with the idea of Abbey's protection.
"I know," C.J. said, almost sighing the words.
"Your handsome man's back."
C.J. hestiated, not wanting to leave Abbey, but she knew she had no choice. She walked slowly over to Ben. She was, after all, the reason he was here.
"Thank you for coming back," she said.
"Thank you for calling."
Out of the corner of her eye, C.J. saw Ellie stick her head into the room.
"C.J., can you help me with something?" Ellie asked.
Ben sighed, and C.J. kissed him on the cheek without a word. She was too afraid her relief could be heard if she said anything at all. Silently, she followed Ellie out of the room.
C.J. was exhausted. She made her way to her office, wondering for the hundredth time that day why she spent so many late hours in this building. As she approached her hallway, she heard the sound of her television before she saw the woman watching it. C.J. paused next to Carol's desk.
"She did well," Abbey said, her eyes never leaving her daughter.
"She did," C.J. readily agreed. She remained standing close to the door, not taking the liberty to enter any further into the room.
"You did a nice job helping her. Better than anyone else could have."
"She's bright. She just gets a little nervous. I'm sure anyone could have coached her."
Abbey shook her head. "Zoey adores Josh and Liz enjoys sparring with Toby," Abbey continued, "but Ellie likes you." She turned off the television and twisted to look at the press secretary. "It's a compliment. She doesn't like many people."
"What about you?" Abbey smiled, sad but charming, and C.J. took a step toward her, finally entering her office, shutting the door behind her. "Do you like me?"
"More than I should. Sometimes more than I think is possible."
Abbey stood up and came to stand in front of C.J., but something in her posture froze C.J. in place.
"This isn't good news, is it?"
The First Lady touched C.J.'s cheek.
"I was never unfaithful to my husband until I met you. I never wanted to be, and even after all this time, I'm still confused about why I..." Abbey pulled her hand away and took a step back. "I think it's time for me to go."
"Go? Go where? You work and live less than three minutes from where I spend the majority of my time. You can't just go, Abbey. You can't just decide to walk away without an explanation and expect never to see me again."
"I would think you know the explanation."
"Is it Ben?"
"It's not Ben."
"Because if it's Ben, I can tell him we can't see each other anymore."
"C.J., it's not Ben."
"I don't love him. I don't even really enjoy his company. We don't have that much in common. He's a good man, with a good heart, and he is good looking, but..."
"Ben is not the problem, C.J."
"Then what is?"
C.J. froze, fear making her immobile. She felt the color draining from her face and knew she needed to take a breath before she collapsed.
"C.J., he doesn't know."
C.J. felt herself nod, meeting Abbey's eyes with a silent and shared gratefulness.
"We know," C.J. said, understanding coming as the silence continued. She sighed, and then she sat on the couch, less gracefully than she could have. She couldn't force herself to care. "I told Ben yesterday that we could have a relationship. In between trying to protect Ellie and you and the President, I told a man I haven't seen in six years that I was available for a serious relationship. I spent a total of ten minutes with him in two days, and even then, I was thinking of you. But, I knew. I knew when you walked in with Ellie yesterday that we had to stop this. It was hard to look at you, but it was harder to look at him."
Abbey just nodded. "I know," she said. "I have to do it every day, and I..." She cleared her throat, trying desperately not to cry. "And I just can't..."
"I know. It's...I know."
They stared at each other for a long moment before Abbey smiled and walked away.
"Abbey." Abbey stopped in the doorway and turned to face C.J. "You love the attention, and you're good at focusing that power where it needs to be. I'm glad you're starting to do that again, but you should also remember that no matter how popular you are you are not infallible. Just as you should not imitate someone you are not, you should also not try to overdo your statement of freedom. Be careful." C.J. finally looked up at Abbey. "Please."
"Take care of yourself, Claudia Jean."
"I will if you will, Abigail." Abbey ghosted a smile and then nodded before leaving C.J.'s office. C.J. stayed where she was, not bothering to get up. "Talk to you later," she said to the now-empty room.
Sequel To Come
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