DISCLAIMER: The West Wing and all its characters belong to NBC, no infringement intended.
SPOILERS: For Manchester 1 & 2, both episodes you need to have a passing familiarity with in order to understand some of my dialog.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Stopping on the steps of the Bartlet farmhouse, C.J. took a moment to admire the scenery. It had been almost two years since she had last stood on that exact spot, but the sky was still as blue and the grass still as green as she remembered. It was a memory she tried to hold onto instead of the reason she had made the trip 23 months earlier. Still, a funeral was never really something a person could forget, especially when it meant you had to say goodbye to someone you loved and respected. C.J. sighed. She suddenly wished she was anywhere else in the world, and she thought momentarily of just leaving. But, she couldn't do that. Her presence had been requested, and if it was one thing people knew of her, she never let down a Bartlet.
Taking one last look at the view, she finally made her way onto the porch, the front door opening before she had the chance to knock.
"Claudia Jean." The voice was as soft and deep as ever, and she smiled despite herself.
"Good afternoon, Mr. President," she answered.
He opened the door wider, and she stepped inside. "I hope your flight was uneventful," he said as he closed the door and walked passed her down the hall.
"It was. It was even on time." She followed him without an invitation, recognizing the familiar severity in his eyes. This was not a social call, a point made clearer as she noticed the lack of household staff and Secret Service agents.
They ended up in the study, and he took a seat behind the large desk, motioning for her to sit as well. She practically sank into the leather chair in front of the desk, feeling for the entire world like she was in the principal's office.
She was about to make a joke on just that when he handed her a letter, and she looked with confusion at the paper in her hands until recognition finally hit her, the color draining from her face and her posture stiffing. Quickly reading the words she had written almost ten years earlier, she could only concentrate on trying to remember to breath, her soft inhale and exhale the only sound in the room.
"When did it start?" he asked.
The break in the silence surprised C.J., and she glanced at the president as if she'd forgotten he was even in the room.
"When did it start?"
"Sir, I don't think..."
"I want to know."
She nodded, fighting to keep her emotions in check. It took her a long moment, but then she said, "Manchester. When we were in New Hampshire to kick off your reelection campaign. The two of you, uh, you weren't..."
"Getting along, I know. She was angry with me."
"Yes, sir. She was angry with all of us. I had to go to her with unnamed sources for an article and she jumped all over me."
"So I heard."
"Sir," she said exasperated. He was going to make this as difficult as possible.
"She came to me later to apologize. She was angry and hurt and..." She wavered but then added, "sad. I understood how she felt."
"I told you not to play marriage counselor."
"I wasn't trying to fix your marriage," she said with a scoff. "I was trying to be a friend. To both of you."
"So you slept with my wife?"
C.J. sighed. "She came to me to apologize. We talked. We drank. We cried. We even laughed." Her voice grew wistful. "It had been so long."
Once again, silence settled around them.
"Was it that bad, C.J.?" he asked.
She finally looked him in the eye. "Yes, sir, it was. You had let us all down. The staff...." She shook her head. "We were all scared and upset, but I think Abbey and I felt it more than anyone else. So, for a little while that night, we just wanted to be us. To be normal and to forget..."
"No offense, sir, but yes." She met his gaze again. "We wanted to forget you. With her, it was so easy. I just...I lost myself."
"You say it started in Manchester. Are you sure it didn't start before?"
"Sir? No, sir, it didn't."
"When you talk about her, you sound like me when I talk about her."
A ghost of smile appeared. "We became close on the campaign trail, all of us, but Abbey and I were the only women. Two successful, highlighted women on a bus or in a hotel or on a plane with only each other."
"You were never alone."
"Yes, sir, we were."
"She wanted to bench you on the Haiti thing."
"I know. She told me."
"She was angry with you about something before Manchester."
"Yes, sir." She took a deep breath. "She came to me after the MS disclosure."
"She told me." He chuckled. "I caught it that time."
"I know. I'm sorry."
He waved it off. "Why was she angry with you?"
"Because after 18-hour days with Oliver Babish, she had no time to be angry with everyone else."
"And me," C.J. reminded him.
"Until she cut me a new one for not waiting for her when we told you about the MS, I didn't realize how close the two of you were."
"She thought." C.J. shook her head. "She didn't understand why I wasn't given the security of having at least one of you there with me."
"Preferably her?" he asked.
She shrugged. "We had time on buses, planes, and in hotels. She knew how important it was for me to be included and how hard I struggled when I wasn't."
"We argued the next day. You and I."
"I was angry at you for the MS and for Haiti and because of her because of what we had done but I was angrier at myself. You just got in the way."
"I pushed you that day, treated you like a punching bag for the issues."
"I like to think of it as the day you apologized."
"The truth is, C.J., I knew you and Abbey had spent the night together. Of course, I thought you were just talking. I was angry with you because you had done what I wanted to do. You had made her feel better. Little did I know how good you actually made her feel."
"I get to be angry now, C.J. I get to feel that way now."
"Yes, sir, you do."
Tension made the room warmer, and C.J. swallowed the heat, felt it burning her throat just as it burned her skin. In the quiet that ensued, she glanced again at the letter still in her hands, crumpled from her grasp. Standing, she placed the paper on the desk, flattening it before turning to leave. His voice stopped her, and she looked at him, smaller than what she always remembered.
"On the ride to the speech, she extended an olive branch. She told me she was going to vote for me. She didn't seem guilty."
"Neither of us did."
"So, no regret?"
"While I regret what happened, at the same time, I can't regret it. She was your wife, so I regret I hurt you, but I...As much as I loved you, I was in love with her."
He nodded. "Did it happen again? After Manchester?"
Once again, he grew still and silent, but she waited. She knew he had something else to say. He surprised her by asking, "C.J., why did you write that letter?"
"Because I couldn't tell her I didn't love her. She would have known I was lying. But I also couldn't tell her I did love her because she would have felt responsible for my feelings." C.J. glanced out the window at the darkening day. "She did feel guilty, and she did regret what had happened. I needed to help her through it, but I knew I couldn't do that in person." She shrugged. "So, even though I knew it was a bad idea, I wrote the letter, telling her I understood and that it was okay. We would be okay." C.J. finally looked at him. "That she and her husband would be okay."
"And we were."
"Yeah," C.J. said with a smile. "You were."
"I never would have known if I hadn't found that letter while cleaning out some of her old papers. She had put it in the back of an old medical journal, knowing it was some place I would never look."
"I just assumed she destroyed it."
He stood and came around the desk to stand in front of her, his hand resting on her arm.
"I've learned, C.J., that the woman I thought I knew better than anyone else in the world was pretty good at keeping secrets." She wanted to apologize, but the gentle squeeze of his fingers kept her quiet. He guided her to the door, but before opening it, he pulled an envelope out of his back pocket. "I think she would want you to have this. I found it with your letter."
She took the envelope, instantly recognizing Abbey's handwriting on the front, and met his gaze with confusion in her own.
"You didn't read it," she said.
"No. There are some secrets I don't want to know."
He opened the door, but she hesitated. "Sir, I..."
"I know, C.J. I don't understand it, but I know. Just...I can't forgive you right now. Just give me time."
She nodded. "Goodbye, Mr. President."
"Have a nice flight home, C.J."
She wanted to stop him as he moved to close the door. She wanted to take a moment to share memories with him of the woman they both adored, but she realized with the soft click of the lock that this place of grief was no more hers than Abbey had been.
Instead, she turned her attention to the early dusk, the colors of the sun bright and fading, casting shadows over everything it touched. She held Abbey's letter lightly in her hand, undecided if she would read it or not.
Maybe the president was right. Maybe some secrets should remain hidden, buried with people who could never say them out loud. Or, C.J. thought as she made her way to her car, maybe some secrets were too dangerous to exist at all.
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