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"This must be a joke," Josh said. "It must be."
He had been repeating the same phrase for almost twenty minutes. When he had walked into CJ's office with a brown envelope and dropped the contents on her desk, he'd had a wry grin on his face. But now, after being told the contents pictures he had felt for sure had been falsified were real, the smile had faded to a ghostly frown.
"It was West Virginia in the fall," CJ says then, stopping Josh in his quiet rant, losing herself to her memories.
She had not wanted to talk at all, but once she started, the words tumbled from her mouth without much thought.
"We were late, as usual, so we were driving in the dark on the campaign bus, all of us too wound up to sleep. It was still early in the campaign, before Donna and ID badges and Bartlet for America t-shirts. Those were the days when it wasn't unusual for us to spend the night traveling or to be six to a hotel room, back when no one knew the staff and no one outside New Hampshire knew the governor or his wife. We could get away with a lot, still had the excuse of being young and inexperienced, and I was neither but pretended I was."
"We stopped in a small town in West Virginia. Littleton, the smallest town in the state, with a population of just 207 people. The president, who was not the president at the time but we all knew he would be, wanted to stop, so we stopped. I don't even know who allowed that to happen or why, but we stopped at this little out of the way place. I'm sure it was the promise of coffee which lured us all out, but there we were. I remember very plainly Abbey being with us. She normally wasn't on the bus, not back then, but she was with us that night. I had stayed away from her during most of the trip. I..."
CJ's voice trailed off, a hush settling around the office that even the hustle and bustle outside the wooden door could not break.
"CJ," Josh ventured. "I remember how the two of you used to talk, how you'd fill up the hours spent on planes and in hotel rooms with conversation. There was a lot of laughter."
"And tears. You guys never saw the tears."
"We were together too much. We were all the other had. For so long...We tried to change her, Josh, without ever getting to know her."
"But you knew her."
CJ nodded. "And she knew me."
"We weren't ready to step onto the campaign trail again so soon. Not after all the hours we had just put in and all the hours we knew were ahead of us. So when everyone else followed the governor into the cafe, we took a walk. There was no way we could have known there would be reporters. We were in the middle of nowhere, falling fast into the comfort of each other's presence and...something else we could not control."
"It just happened, Josh." Her voice was sharp, defensive, and he bit back his reply. "It was what it was, and though it wasn't love then, it was the closest I could get, and I wanted to regret it, but I couldn't. I still can't."
There was a long moment of silence, the air stale with unasked questions. Josh was staring at her, and CJ stared back defiantly. Finally, he sighed and looked away.
"You said then."
"You said 'It wasn't love then.' Is it now?"
She hesitated, not from lack of answer, he could tell, but she was studying him, wondering what to share, what his reactions would be, how much more of herself to reveal.
"CJ," he said. "Do you love her?"
His voice was harsher than he intended, and he saw a flash of annoyance in her gaze.
"Yes," she said. Simple and truthful. He wanted to repent for asking, felt his chest tightening at the strength in her response, but again, he just stared at her. He realized he should have been surprised by her answer, definitely more angry, but there was something too raw in her eyes, some form of honest emotion he envied rather than resented.
"Was there." His voice cracked. "Did the two of you."
He stopped, the appropriate words leaving him. Her response almost made him cry, from sadness or relief he wasn't sure.
"There was only that one kiss. There's never been another."
He nodded. He wanted to lecture her, to be upset over this new discovery, but he only sat quietly.
"He must never know," CJ said. "It would..." She diverted her attention, and Josh followed her gaze to her hands folded in her lap. "No good could come from it."
He cleared his throat, which had suddenly begun to hurt.
"My friend said these were the only copies. He, uh, he said the negatives had already been destroyed."
"Why would he not go public?"
"He's a good guy. He knew those..." He motioned to the photographs, of two women standing huddled together on a bridge in the dark West Virginian night, soft smiles on their faces in one picture, their lips touching gently in another. "...he knew they would destroy the president."
"Then why do you have them?"
"The note said he didn't want to be the only person witness to such tragedy."
It had been a cryptic message, but now Josh understood. He stood to go, his heart too heavy to add anymore to it by staying. He stopped at the door and turned to offer his friend a reprieve.
"Or," he said. "Or maybe he saw then what I see now."
CJ smiled, a soft, shy smile he had never seen before, but her attention was not on him. She was staring at the photographs on her desk. She traced the faces half hidden in shadows before picking the pictures up and sighing. He left her to her memories and to the low sound of the shredder.
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