Light My Candle
Shauna Kayleen Brock
Pairing: CJ/OFC (Sydney Ludlow)
Disclaimer: CJ Cregg is, unfortunately, not mine. If she were, I wouldn't owe what I owe, and I would also be living in LA, writing for the West Wing. So, no, I don't make any money off of her or any of the other characters that were created by Aaron Sorkin (or later on, John Wells, et al.) Melissa, Lila, and Sydney Ludlow, however, are all mine. And so are any other original characters.
Author's note: This is what happens when a plot bunny gets into your head and won't let go.
Timeframe: Covers the whole series, but chapter one is set in season one.Chapter 1: Revelations
Thanksgiving 1999 Washington DC
He frowned as he approached her office. He'd heard her coughing from across the bullpen, but thought it was just something stuck in her throat. No, this was something serious. "CJ?" Carol wasn't at her desk so he just opened the door. "CJ?"
She looked at him, the blur she'd come over the years to know as Toby. At the distance he was standing, without her glasses on, he was one of the more recognizable blobs. She could tell the way he held himself, and the way the light moved around him. Even through the tears in her eyes, she could tell it was him but when she opened her mouth to say something, all she could do was cough.
"God, CJ." For a split second, Toby felt his knees go weak. "Why the hell didn't you say anything? You shouldn't be here if you're this sick." He, somehow, managed to get over to her side. For as pale as she was, when he touched her his hand burned. "God …" his stomach did flip-flops. No … not now. Not after she's worked so hard to get here. Don't let this be happening to her. "How long have you been feeling this way?" She had a bottle of water on her desk and he wrapped her hands around it and forced a few sips of the lukewarm liquid down her throat.
"I was …" she coughed again, her entire body shuddering with the force of the movement. Toby was nearing panic mode, this could turn into pneumonia so easily. "I was weak this morning …" another series of coughs, "and last night, too." Another. "But this came on," her teeth rattled a bit, "suddenly."
"I'm calling Sydney, and she's coming to get you and you are going home. God help us, but I'll let Josh do the briefings before you do anything else …"
"It's Thanksgiving, Toby." She let loose another series of coughs.
"And that's why you're going home. I'll make Sam do all of what you need to do." He picked up her cell phone and hit the familiar numbers to connect to Sydney's cell. CJ needed to be at her doctor's, most likely in the hospital, and they had to manage this discreetly. "Syd?"
"Toby?" Why on Earth was Toby calling from CJ's cell phone? Unless. "Oh, God, what's wrong?"
"Get here." Toby barely managed to squeak out. "Get here and meet me out front. And then get her to the hospital. Syd, it's bad."
"I'm on my way and I'll call her doctor from the car. Fifteen minutes."
"Yeah." Toby took a deep breath and disconnected the phone. "Come on, Ceej, you're going home." He knew full well that CJ really needed to head to the hospital. As he stood, he saw Carol come back to her desk and he beckoned the assistant into the office. Together the two worked to get the barely conscious press secretary to the driveway so that Sydney could take over. It wasn't until the blue Mazda had raced off in the direction of George Washington Memorial Hospital and Carol was back in the press office briefing Henry on the day's events and going over the last minute Thanksgiving stuff with Sam, that he turned and headed to Leo's office. As he walked, he prayed that Leo would buy that it was just the flu. It wasn't his place to reveal anything – especially if this was really nothing. For all he knew, it was just the flu.
Margaret wasn't at her desk, so he grabbed one of the lollipops from the jar on her desk and poked his head into Leo's office. The older man sat, reading, the early morning sun streaming in through the windows and bathing him in a light that made him seem angelic. The world, in these few minutes, did not rest on his aging shoulders. Toby knew that Leo was actually younger than the president, but he seemed so much older, so much more weathered. "Hey, Leo?"
"Yeah." Grateful for the interruption, Leo looked up and waved Toby into the office. "Hey, where's CJ? She was supposed to go over the last of the Thanksgiving stuff with the president. It's not like her to run late."
"That's what I'm here about. Carol is updating Sam on everything so that he can go over it with you guys. I sent CJ home."
That got Leo's full attention. "Why?"
"Because she's got what looks to be a fever of at least a hundred and two and I found her coughing her internal organs into her waste basket." He shivered, thinking of the images.
"Is an agent driving her?"
"I called Sydney."
Leo nodded. "I hope she's going to the doctor."
"She will be, trust me." Toby almost let it slip, almost. But it wasn't his place. "She may be out for a couple of days."
"It's Thanksgiving. Henry and Sam can handle things and if we keep Josh out of the briefing room, everything will be fine."
"Yeah." Toby scuffed his shoes.
"Is that it?"
"Yeah." The second scuff of his shoes and his hasty exit from the office drowned the word out. CJ needed to tell Leo. He knew why she hadn't, but people needed to know. Especially if things had escalated today. But it wasn't his call, so instead he headed down to check on Carol – who had looked as shaken as he felt.
Toby hated hospitals. They reminded him of death and miscarriage and the end of his marriage to Andi. The halls echoed with the voices of the dead and the songs of the dying. He never saw healing in hospitals.
She was the first thing he saw as he stepped off the elevator. Curled up at the end of a tattered vinyl sofa, Sydney Ludlow's head was bowed in either exhaustion or prayer, or both. He'd never known Sydney to pray, but then again, now might be as good a time as any to start. Her dark hair, still long after all these years, remained in a messy ponytail and the tendrils fell over her shoulders like black vines. She looked up as the elevator doors closed behind him, and he saw, for the first time in ten years of knowing her, true fear in those gray eyes. "What's the news?" He could barely choke out the words.
"It's the flu." Sydney felt a loose, dry chuckle coming from her throat. "It actually is the fucking flu. They admitted her for tests and so they could pump her full of antibodies that won't do any real good. But they think they caught it before it … developed." Her voice caught. In fourteen years, she'd never once been able to bring herself to say the words, almost as if saying them could actually bring the curse to the house. "She's asleep right now, the drugs knocked her out."
"How is her cell count?" He looked down the hall, as if maybe he could see through the walls and find the room where his best friend slept.
"Low, but not drastic. She's still …" Sydney sighed. "We're lucky that she's as healthy as she is … as she can be. They don't think it's going to … develop …" Her hands gripped CJ's leather coat tightly. Fourteen years of dodging a bullet they never should have had to doge in the first place. Fourteen years of outrunning the virus that ran through CJ's bloodstream, a virus given to her by a little tweaker who had needed money for his drugs and given blood. She wanted to have the same compassion CJ did for whomever had been the donor – by now they were most likely dead, but all Sydney hoped was that they were burning in hell. Luck couldn't last forever and CJ was eventually going to get sicker; she stopped herself - she couldn't think that now, right when CJ had finally been able to grasp the star she'd been reaching for her entire life, that right now God would be so cruel as to push the viral load up and the t-cell count down and force CJ past the point where HIV became AIDS. No, it was the flu. That's all it was. God wouldn't be this cruel. He couldn't.
Toby moved the cement blocks that his feet had become and settled next to Sydney on the cracked vinyl couch. He took her hand in his, still amazed at how delicate a woman she was, and stared at her dark red fingernails. There was one small chip in the nail on her right finger; the white of her nail forced its way through, defiant to the polish that had been forced upon it. Below the chip, below the knuckles, the silver and gold band Sydney had been wearing for thirteen years seemed dull and resigned. He told himself it was the fluorescent light, nothing more. The nail was what he needed to focus on, the defiance, the fight. CJ was going to be fine.
1983 Dayton, Ohio
She gasped as the soft mouth found her breast. The inexperienced tongue nudged at the nipple, goading it into a tight peak as the lips grew bolder. Their half-naked bodies rolled battled for dominance, the two young girls daring to cross the line that, until now, they'd never passed. Until this point, it had been shy kisses stolen after study sessions and when CJ dropped Melissa off after basketball games. Until now, they'd never been alone long enough to let it get this far. But now, CJ's father was out with his latest fling, and her brothers were both still off at school, and they had the house to themselves for a few hours at least.
This was their little secret. They didn't dare to tell their parents about what was happening, what had been happening since the middle of their junior year. This kind of thing was what got the family shut out from all aspects of the community. No one talked about the gay children. Especially the children. So, right now, it was two young women, sliding out of clothes and coaxing each other toward orgasm as they lost their virginity in a way that the straight girls would never understand. Right now, it was three weeks to graduation and CJ was going to Berkley and Melissa to Yale and they knew they'd never see each other again. So right now, Blister in the Sun played in the background, and somewhere a dog started barking, and the cat was pacing. And neither girl heard the door open downstairs.
"Daddy?" CJ dared to come out of her room for the first time all weekend. Wrapping her arms around her body, she padded down the hallway and down the stairs and into the living room, where her father sat, watching the news, and ignoring her. She tucked one of her many unruly curls back behind her ear and leaned in the doorway, waiting. She knew he'd heard her come down, and that he was ignoring her. But she was as stubborn as he was – it was one of the many things she'd inherited from her father. "Daddy?" She asked again, her voice cutting over the voice of Dan Rather on the TV.
"An outbreak seems to be sweeping the nation. Doctor's don't know how to define it, but so far it seems to be limited to young, homosexual men. All the doctors have been able to figure out so far is that it is concentrated in cities such as San Francisco and New York and that it is always fatal."
Tal Cregg looked up, finally, at his only daughter. She was the spitting image of her mother; tall, long legs, dark blonde hair with curls that seemed to have a mind of their own, and perfect, expressive, blue eyes. But now, since the other night, he'd been cut off from that expression. The look Claudia gave him now was full of hurt and confusion, but he could see the wall that she kept up, a wall he'd never been privy to until now. He wasn't sure what hurt him most, that she hadn't told him that she thought she was a lesbian, or that she was one. Finding her like that, naked, wrapped in the arms of that cheerleader from down the street. He'd always just thought that Melissa was her best friend. What else didn't he know about his daughter? Was she doing drugs? Was she … god, what else didn't he know? This revelation would have killed Elizabeth had she still been alive – and as it was, he was sure that his beloved late wife was spinning in her grave. He muted the TV and sighed. "Sit down, Claudia."
She moved over, slowly, and sat on the couch, across from her father's stern, green eyes. He didn't say anything for a long time, just looked at her in confusion. "Daddy?" She asked, finally, when the silence grew to be too much.
"Is this you, Claudia Jean?" He asked, gesturing to her ratty school sweatshirt and tattered jeans. "It's the same outfit you wore to school on Friday morning, but everything has changed."
"Not really …" the words came out in a rush. "Daddy, this is still me! It's always been me. And who I want to …"
"No! No. I'm not going to listen to that, not yet. What about what the Church says, Claudia Jean?"
"Daddy, the church isn't always right. It isn't."
"Why didn't you come to me before? So that we could stop this—"
"Stop what, Dad?" She sighed and ran her hands through her hair. "Dad, say it out loud."
"I can't yet."
"I can. I'm a lesbian, Dad. I like women."
"How did you even learn about –"
"There are books, Dad, and histories. And just because no one in Dayton, Ohio talks about it …" she sighed. "Dad, why did you think I chose Berkley?"
"To satisfy the radical part of your system."
She wanted to slug him, to hug him, and to get up and storm out and never come back. Her father had always promised that he'd be there for her, and this was his reaction? "Dad, are you angry because of who and what I am, or because I didn't tell you?"
"I'm not sure." He answered, honestly. "But I don't like that you took advantage of the trust I gave you and … did … what you did … with …"
CJ almost chuckled. The great part about living in a world where people were so worried about the teenagers getting pregnant, was that the gay ones got away with whatever they wanted to do.
"Has it been difficult?" He looked at her, still loving her, wanting to understand, and hoping it was just a phase.
She shrugged a bit. "Yes and no. One of the teachers at school … she is … I already trusted her and so I went to her and told her when I started feeling … funny … and she has been there for me. And no, I'm not telling you who. No one knows she is, and if they did know, she'd be fired. So no. I'm protecting her, the same way she protected me."
"How long have you known?"
"I came out to myself about two years ago. Around the same time that Melissa and I …"
"It's been going on for that long?"
"Yes." She sighed softly. "I drove her home after a game last year and … well …"
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Because I knew you'd react like you did … I had enough issues … it's not easy coping with this, Daddy. But I'm finally comfortable with myself … I'm in a place where I can accept that I like women, only women, and I'm fine with that."
Silence settled into the room.
"Go back up to your room, Claudia Jean. I need … I need to be alone right now."
CJ sighed and did as he asked but when she got up there, she put in her Violent Femmes tape and turned it up, so to cover the sounds of her sneaking out and sliding down the tree in the back yard. Melissa's house wasn't far from hers so she took of at a run, needing her girlfriend more than she needed to obey her father.
She turned, a huge grin coming to her face as she watched Melissa bound up the driveway. After graduation, Melissa had cut off her perfect blonde curls and invested in more t-shirts than button down blouses. Gone was the perky, pesky cheerleader and in her place was a woman who was going to break down every single barrier at Yale. CJ wished she had half the guts of her now ex-girlfriend. Instead, she was off to Berkley to be with people like her – and to hopefully find a way to disappear. Maybe then she'd be able to get over loosing Melissa to an Ivy League school that was all the way on the other coast. And yet, she knew that staying in the middle, here in Dayton, just wasn't part of the equation.
Melissa raced up to CJ and stopped about three paces back. Her own parent's still didn't know about the year and a half she'd spent in love with this girl, and she knew that CJ's father was still getting used to having caught his daughter naked, in bed, with another girl. She wanted to reach up and brush CJ's hair back and kiss her again, but they'd done all of that last night when they'd made love one last time before backing off into their mutual corners. This wasn't meant to go anywhere beyond high school, and they both thought they were so much more adult than they really were. Melissa wished she had half the guts of her now ex-girlfriend. She was headed off to Berkley and she was going to change the world and make it okay for two girls to kiss and cuddle. CJ had been accepted into Yale, they could have been together, but no, the only school on her mind had been the one in San Francisco, so now they were leaving the middle ground of Dayton and off to break the glass ceilings. Melissa had a feeling that it would be CJ who managed to do that.
"Just …" she choked as she hugged CJ tightly. The girls wore matching anklets, rainbow beads braided into a rope of hemp. Melissa had bestowed the present on CJ two nights ago, while they were busy pretending that all of this wasn't about to end. "Just, be careful out there. And do good. And fall in love. And just … go and shine, okay?"
"You too." CJ wanted to kiss her one last time, but knew that the neighbors could see them and that her father was watching from the foyer. "Keep in touch. You've got my address at school."
"And you've got mine."
The girls hugged again, shared a kiss on the cheek, and then Melissa was gone, back up the street to her own waiting car. CJ shouldered her backpack and then climbed into the car next to her silent father.
If there was something that was going to take any getting used to, it was dorm life. After sharing a house with her two older brothers, she thought could handle anything. But still, having a roommate was a new experience. Especially this roommate.
CJ liked punk and rock and even some of the new pop music didn't get on her nerves too much, but this girl was stuck back in the world of disco. If the KC and the Sunshine band posters weren't enough, the psychedelic bedspread finished off the look. Compared to her, CJ's purple and black bed spread, her black beaded curtain, and the colored scarves she draped over her lampshades seemed downright matronly. But at least they had matching lava lamps. And Christie didn't seem too put off by the small rainbow triangle sticker that CJ had set in their shared mirror.
The differences ran deeper than decorative and music choices. Both of them resided in the honors' dorm, but where CJ's classes ran the gamut of upper-class history and English classes, and even her math class was geared toward juniors, Christie's focus was elsewhere and CJ rarely saw her crack a book. Their only shared interests were Virginia Woolf, opium incense, Quaaludes, and pot.
At first, school was too much to even think about finding someone post-Melissa, let alone think about Melissa. Letters came sparingly, from both of them, and eventually tapered off to the occasional holiday card. But when Melissa sent her a picture of her and a tall redhead curled up together under an oak tree, CJ knew it was time to live again. If Melissa could find the time to date someone and still be doing well at Yale, CJ could do it too.
"Who's that?" Christie poked her head over CJ's shoulder, looking at the two women.
"Just …" she sighed. "My ex."
"Which one, the blonde?"
"Yeah." CJ looked at her roommate. "How did you?"
"Well, if the frigging rainbow sticker didn't give it away, the clippings you keep of all the stories about that weird virus did. Aren't you worried that you'll get this gay cancer?"
CJ blinked and pulled back, moving to go sit on her bed rather than in her desk chair where Christie suddenly seemed threatening. "I don't think it's only going after the gay community and anyway, right now … it's only affecting guys. I think. They aren't sure about much right now."
Christie scoffed. "Look you should get it by now that I don't care, just don't bring that disease into this room. Okay."
At first, CJ was offended, but she knew, somehow, that she shouldn't be. Christie didn't know more than anyone else did about this thing, and it just made it all the harder to be herself. Her father was on her case about it and her brothers still didn't know the truth … how could she ever be honest if all they thought is that she was going to get this awful thing, and die. "Yeah, whatever."
"Hey, look, I didn't mean to offend you or anything, I just don't want to get sick. If only gay people are getting it, then that means you could get it. Just, keep it outside, okay?"
"Yeah. Whatever." CJ rolled her eyes, grabbed her books, and headed down to the library. It was better than sitting there and being accidentally insulted. Christie didn't know any better, she knew that, but all it did was bring up her own fears. No one knew what was going on, and everyone was scared.
"Ceej!" The skinny blonde grinned as she walked into the center. "How are you?"
"Hey, Lila." CJ hugged the drag queen and brushed her hair back over her shoulder, taking a moment to finger the wig. "I like this."
"Thanks, it's new." Lila kissed her cheek. "What's up?"
"I had a free afternoon and thought I'd drop in and see if you guys needed any help."
"Hell yes." Lila laughed and took her hand, leading her into the main area where scattered people sat reading, sipping coffee, and in the corner someone was setting up a flip chart. "We're having a meeting here later, talking about the thing."
"I saw the news report last night …" she brushed her own hair back into a ponytail. "Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome?"
"Yeah." Lila sighed and leaned against the counter. "And all it's done is make people even more scared. They've got a name for it now …"
"Hey, that can be a good thing, you know. Now maybe they can start figuring more out." She put a hand on Lila's arm. "You doing okay? You look a little pale today, honey."
"Yeah, sweetheart. I'm fine. Just tired and scared. I mean, we've all started looking around at each other wondering who is next and who has it and if just touching each other is going to make us all sick, you know?"
"Yeah." CJ sighed. "My roommate the other day told me she didn't care if I was gay or not, she just didn't want me to bring the gay cancer back into our dorm room."
"Bitch." Lila tried to smile, but it was something they were all hearing lately.
"Yeah. Whatever. Come on, what do you need me to do?" CJ smiled at her best friend. "If we're going to have people in here asking questions, we'll need to make sure they have enough fresh coffee."
"I love you, baby."
"You too." CJ kissed Lila's cheek and then scooted around behind the counter, hunting for the coffee supplies.
"Hey," Lila's voice caught CJ's attention again and she turned around, her hands full of coffee filters, and found a smile coming to her face. "You're new here."
"Yeah. Just arrived, in time for the summer session." The girl flashed Lila a bright smile. "I'm Sydney Ludlow."
"Well, girl, welcome. I'm Lila, just Lila. I do all of the volunteer coordination here at the center. And this here is the world's sorriest lesbo, Claudia Jean. We just call her Ceej."
"Hey." CJ set the filters down and took Sydney's hand in her own. "Welcome to San Francisco."
"I'm glad to be here." Sydney still hadn't let go of CJ's hand.
"Where'd you come from? Well …" CJ blushed as she tripped over her words. And then rolled her eyes when Lila started making googly eyes in Sydney's direction.
Sydney just laughed. "I'm from Boise, actually. Did the first couple of years of my undergrad at the University of Utah before I decided to get the hell to a place where I could be me."
"I understand that. I'm from Dayton …" CJ suddenly realized that their hands were still joined and gently tugged back, before Lila's snickering got any louder.
"Yeah." Sydney blushed a little bit. "I just wanted to check out the center here, you know. See what it's all about."
"It's a good place, especially just for having that safe space, you know."
Lila cleared her throat, reaching around CJ to get the coffee filters herself. "Ceej, why don't you show Miss Sydney Ludlow around? I'll get the coffee going. We're gonna get started here in about twenty minutes or so."
"Thanks. Come on," CJ fidgeted a little bit with her ponytail before stepping out from behind the counter. "Let me show you the rest of the space."
Sydney just smiled at the girl who stepped out from behind the counter. Not much younger than herself, CJ's shoulder length perm could barely be contained in the rubber band she wore, and it just added to the sense of contained chaos within her. Bright blue eyes shone with a sparkle for life, but carried the same wall that every one else in their community seemed to have built a long time ago.
CJ reached out to touch Sydney's arm and flashed her a smile. Somehow, Sydney had been given a set of perfect gray eyes that stood out like a storm against the black of her hair. Her skin was pale, but not overly so, and she stood almost as tall as CJ herself.
"What are you majoring in?" Sydney asked as the door to the main part of the center closed behind them.
"Women's studies and communication."
"Yeah." CJ shrugged. "Keeps me busy. What about you?" She led Sydney up the rickety staircase that led to the event rooms on the second floor.
"Political science. I'm pre-law."
"I love political science. It's actually … if I can make it work, going to be a minor for me."
"Not so bad yourself."
"What's your minor?" CJ flipped the lights on to reveal a maze of different rooms, each decorated in a multitude of colors.
"English. I am hopelessly addicted to authors from the 1920's and 30's."
"Yeah, me too, actually. I've read Mrs. Dalloway about five hundred times." CJ leaned back against one of the wall partitions, watching Sydney carefully.
"Me too." Sydney turned, looking through some of the fliers they'd crammed up here. "This is a nice space." She wanted to hit on CJ, but wasn't quite sure how to start. "What year are you?"
"Well, technically, first year. But I came into Berkeley with a lot of college classes under my belt already, so I'll be a junior next year. Like it really matters – since I'm doubling it, it will still take an extra year." She shut herself up, realizing that she was rambling.
Sydney just laughed. "You taking summer school?"
"I was going to, but instead I'm interning here over the summer. I'm going to be doing the center's press releases and stuff."
"That's great." Sydney smiled again and then turned back to the fliers. It was easier.
"You said you did your first couple of years ..?"
"Yeah, like you, I ended up doing a lot of college stuff in high school. I'll be finishing up a few classes this summer and then next semester, you know, things that didn't transfer and then I'm doing Berkley's law program."
"That's great." CJ started to take a step forward and then stopped.
"What's that thing you guys were setting up for downstairs?"
"Just an info meeting on this … thing … that's going through the community."
"Yeah. Scary, isn't it?"
"Yeah." CJ sighed.
"So," Sydney took a breath, "would your girlfriend get pissed if I asked you out for a drink or something sometime?"
"Well, since I don't have a girlfriend right now, I think you'll be in the clear."
Sydney just smiled. "Good. Now, why don't we go downstairs and sit in on that meeting, okay?"
"Yeah." CJ smiled, and when Sydney reached for her hand, she didn't pull back.
"Oh man … right there … yeah … harder … press … ow … no … don't' stop … yeah …" CJ's moans dissolved into low and incoherent mumblings as Sydney worked her hands into the tense muscles of her back.
"Geez, girl," Sydney leaned over to kiss one of the knots she was working on. "What in the name of God did you do to yourself?"
"I fell." She laughed. "Final game of the season, senior year, and I went up for a shot and this bitch from Dayton Central came out of no where and took my legs right out from under me. Made the shot though and the free throw before limping off the court in disgrace. The scouts who were there to review my basketball scholarship …" she laughed. "Well, they were nice enough to check in with me, but my game playing days were over for a while. Every so often, my back still acts up."
Sydney smiled. This was their fourth date, a weekend long excursion in tents out to the redwood forest. Currently there were still two sleeping bags, but right now CJ was topless and there was oil spread all over her back, and Sydney just wanted her to roll over. "You still play?"
"Whenever I can get my hands on a basketball." CJ now did roll over, leaving the loose bra behind. "Do you play?"
"I can dribble … you'd totally kick my ass."
"Of course I would." Smiling, CJ reached up and tucked a lock of Sydney's hair behind her ear. Her fingers slid back further, behind Sydney's head and she lowered the other woman down on top of her. The kiss started slow, but quickly turned passionate, two tongues dancing, four hands roaming. That night, the two sleeping bags became one.
"Lila?" CJ hurried through the Center, worried. Lila was never late, and never left the main room unlocked. "Lila!" She winced at how shrill her voice sounded in the emptiness of the room, and it made her worry even more. Something was really wrong.
She raced toward the voice of her girlfriend, hearing the fear in Sydney's tone. She found her bent over Lila's shivering body.
"Call 911, Ceej. Now. Hurry!" Gently she brushed the blonde wig out of Lila's eyes. Why hadn't she told anyone she was sick? Somewhere in the background she could hear CJ talking to the faceless voice of the 911 attendant, but how fast would an ambulance respond to a catastrophe in the gay ghetto? San Francisco was progressive, but since this health crisis started, even the most progressive town in the country seemed to be shutting it's open doors. "Hold on, Honey," she whispered softly. "Hold on."
1999 Washington DC
"I'm right here," Sydney smiled gently as CJ's foggy eyes cleared and focused. She'd been asleep for almost 36 full hours, and the sleep seemed to have done its job. The fever was down to almost acceptable levels.
"Hey." CJ coughed again, but less this time. Her weak fingers squeezed Sydney's. "How long have I been out?" She didn't like that Sydney's face was covered with a mask.
"A day and a half. Don't worry, you're all covered at work and Toby's threatening to revoke your credentials until you're one hundred percent better. I can take you home in the morning. It was supposed to be today, but you've been sleeping."
"I want to go home." CJ hated hospitals, they told stories of death.
"I know, honey. But you also need to talk to your doctor and they need to do another antibody test." She brushed a lock of CJ's hair back from her forehead. Sydney hated hospitals – one had killed the woman she loved more than life itself.
"Did they intubate? My throat is killing me."
Sydney pulled herself away long enough to get the almost melted cup of ice chips. "Here, this will help. And no, they didn't need to. Almost, but you managed to start breathing better. You're loaded up on a bunch of new meds, though. I think Dr. Johnson is going to change your regimen again."
"Yeah." She took the ice chips gratefully; the cool water sliding down her throat was as heavenly as anything she'd ever felt before. "Is this out all over the place?"
"No. And Henry is doing a wonderful job covering your butt." The cup of chips made a sloshing sound as Sydney set them back on the table. "I should call for the nurse." She wanted CJ out of here before the germs that floated full tilt around hospitals made their way into her weak system. Everyone on this floor was masked – the majority of the patients were actually ones with some form of weakened immune system – but that hardly made Sydney feel better. At least the germs at home were ones that CJ's system was used to fighting. Reaching past CJ's shoulder, she pressed the call button and informed the rather blasé night nurse that CJ was awake.
1985 Berkeley, California
Sydney didn't even bother to try to stop the bitter tears that ran down her face as they watched the coffin being lowered into the ground. The cemetery was filled with people – young kids whose lives had been touched by Lila, college kids who had found an eternal confidant in the confident drag queen, older citizens – some gay, some not – whom had all been blessed to have this angel in their presence. But it was CJ who seemed to be taking the news hardest of all. She stepped forward first, her knees barely supporting her as she tossed a yellow rose – Lila's favorite – down onto the casket that now rested six feet in the earth. And she stayed there, crying silently, while each person flowed past to do the same. Only at the end, when the last mourner had gone, did she allow herself to step back.
"I don't want to leave her," CJ choked out. "She hates being alone."
"Hey," Sydney choked on her own tears, "Lila's not alone. Heaven's been awful crowded lately. She's happy now, honey. She's free of that body that wasn't hers – that body that was full of a disease she never should have had. She's not alone, baby. So many people met her, and they all have the same story to tell. She's not alone, baby." It was starting to rain, the pelting San Francisco rain that came in force off of the bay, and both of them were drenched by the time they made it back to the car. The windows of the Pontiac fogged for a minute before clearing and Sydney waited until she could see before pulling down the winding road of the cemetery. Peering through the rain, she contemplated waiting out the force of the storm, but she couldn't' stay here anymore. The body they had left behind was just a body, just a shell, one of so many they'd buried in the past two years. Lila was just the latest, and she was hardly the last. Forcing the tears back, she took a minute to clear her vision again before pulling out onto the street. Too late, she saw the other car hydroplane and start spinning. She didn't have time to move out of the way.
1999 Washington, DC
He'd never felt nervous before, visiting the home of one of the team he worked for. Hell, he'd been to CJ and Sydney's before many times – after Jenny had left him he'd practically lived here on the weekends. Sydney made the world's best beef stroganoff. But today it was different.
He stared openly at the woman who answered the door. Her thin, birdlike face was covered with a blue surgical mask and her long hair was pulled back into a tight French braid. "Sydney?" Something wasn't right. "Is this a bad time?"
"No. I just need you to wipe your hands off first." She handed him a small packet of sterile wipes. Without asking why, he did as she asked, and then took the mask she handed him.
The smell of bleach and other cleaners greeted his covered nose as they moved inside. Sydney and CJ were hardly slobs, but the place had always seemed lived in. Today, not a blanket or book was out of place. Everything was as sterile as possible. His heart rate ticked up a notch. "Sydney, Toby told me that CJ was okay. This doesn't seem okay."
With a sigh, the woman shook her head, passing off the burden of responsibility to the woman behind door number two. The guest room door was shut tightly against the possibility of contaminants, and behind it, CJ waited. Both of them hated it, but it was all doctors' orders until CJ was completely better. Her immune system had taken a beating, but was hardly loosing the battle, and the doctors wanted to keep it that way. Sydney just knocked on the door and cracked it. "Babe?"
"Yeah." CJ stopped pacing and turned to face Leo as he came in. Like him, she was masked, and the mask only seemed to highlight how sick she still was. For a moment, her eyes looked past him and into the gentle support her girlfriend was sending her. But CJ had to do this alone, even if Sydney was going to be waiting on the other side of the door. "Hey, Leo. Sorry about all this production … and about this week. I really …" she sank onto the bed, her knees giving out. "Believe me, I didn't plan this."
"This is a big production for just a bout of the flu, CJ." Leo's eyes showed he was frowning. "What's going on?"
"Leo …" she couldn't look at him, not yet. "There's something I need to talk to you about, something I should have disclosed when I first came to work for you, but when you deal with this every day you learn to not say anything because if you do, you'll just get pushed aside and I couldn't take that, I wanted the job so badly."
"CJ?" Leo reached out and took one of her hands. "What's going on?" He watched her take the deep, steadying breath that all of humanity seemed to take when they were ready to announce that their world was ending. He'd taken the breath when Jenny had left, and when he'd walked in the door at Sierra Tucson.
"Leo …" she looked into his gentle eyes, "I'm HIV positive. I have been since 1985, since a blood transfusion after a car accident. I've been on the cocktail since it became available, I remain healthy – my viral load is almost negligible. This is just what it looked like, the flu, but I need to be careful until I recover completely. Being sick for me …" She stopped rambling when the tears welled up in his eyes.
"CJ …" Leo took in a shaky breath, trying to find a way to start fully breathing again. He'd never known, never guessed. She was so vibrant, so full of life. He'd never have guessed even for a minute that she was sick. She had willingly, so willingly climbed into the mud with them and come out the other side cleaner than all of them, and every day she stood up at the podium and risked her neck for them, and never had she mentioned this. He wanted to hug her, to rock her and tell her it was going to be okay and that she should have told him up front but that he'd never have turned her away. And so he did, father to daughter, and held her gently for a long while. Only when his face was buried against her shoulder did he let the tears come and only then for a brief moment.
CJ waited until he'd pulled back before handing him a tissue with which to dry his eyes. "Really, I'm okay. And all of this production comes down on Friday and hopefully my life will return to normal."
"I get a new blood test back." CJ shrugged. "This one was scary because it came on so quickly. I felt woozy the night before I went into the hospital … it just happened so fast."
"Yeah." He sighed and took her hands. "Is there anything I can do?"
"Just don't fire me." She tried to smile, but it really worried her. Could the administration risk having someone who was this vulnerable up there at the podium?
"CJ, as long as I have a job, you have a job. And you don't have to disclose this to anyone you don't feel comfortable telling … come to think of it, who knows?"
"Carol, Toby, you, and the First Lady."
"How does Abbey know?" Leo had an idea, but he wanted to ask anyway.
"I ran out of a scrip while we were on the road … I needed it filled and it was by doctor's authorization only, so I had to tell her. I knew she'd be discreet."
"She definitely has been." Leo let a long sigh escape from his body. "CJ, I'm … I'm sorry."
She wanted to give the standard brave answer and tell him not to be, but she was sorry too. Some kid had cut short her life, and he'd never intended to do it. She wasn't the only one of her generation to have this disease through no fault of her own. All she could do was live with it. "Yeah, well …" she was almost smiling, even if the mask concealed it. "I am too."
"Take it easy." He took her hand. "And if you're ever sick, or needing a break … don't put the administration above your health. I mean it. This job isn't worth loosing you." His voice broke again and he took her back into his arms. Looking into those compassionate blue eyes was killing him – and he knew it was wrong, but he hoped whoever had donated that blood all those years ago was now burning in hell. It wasn't fair that CJ had this, it just wasn't fair.
To Be Continued …