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.) Sydney Ludlow, however, is all mine. And so are any other original characters who might crop up.
Timeframe: Chapter 6 is set during the MS scandal, and gives flashbacks to the first campaign.
I dream that I've been given a head wrapped in a white tea towel. I can see the outlines of the nose, the chin, the lips through the white cloth. I could unwrap the cloth to see whose head it is, but I don't want to, because I know that if I do the head will come alive.
The Cats' Eye, Margaret AtwoodChapter Six: Manchester Snows
There is something freeing, she dares herself to think, about the silence of an empty home. She hates herself for these thoughts, but for a brief moment she allows herself a life that does not include worry. For once, she does not think of the medication, the constant fear of kidney failure, or the reality that she never knows if it will be in ten years or tomorrow that ashes will float down the Potomac. But it is only a moment, and then she remembers her place in the world, a world that includes this hateful disease. Her worries now expand past the bedroom door and down the hall, out down the rose garden, into the skies, and land in a small hotel in Manchester. She contemplates resigning, breaking the rules. The phone rings and the voice on the other end seems fine, if a bit lost and lonely. They kiss across the phone lines. She crawls into bed, and cries herself to sleep and dreams of Election Day and what it would be like to see it snow in Manchester.
"Can I pace around the house and tell you why I really don't want you to go, even though I already told you it was a great idea and that you should go and …" Sydney turned and her heart dropped from her chest and into the pit of her stomach. A flash of light, it seemed, revealed to her a version of her girlfriend that only existed in her nightmares – sickly, on the edge of death, not even this miracle cocktail that CJ was finally on could keep her going any longer. She shook her head and took a sip of her jack and coke (was it her fourth?) and it was just CJ, her hair up in a messy ponytail, dressed in her ratty jeans and an old sports bra, throwing necessary items into different suit cases and suits into different garment bags and three pairs of glasses into her purse and Sydney's heart stopped. "CJ, your meds … you … did you make an appointment with your doctor, how are we going to monitor … CJ, honey, please, is it okay that I was lying before? Can you stay home and I'll be your sugar mommy and we can take long vacations in Idaho – I never showed you Shoshone Falls – and we can reclaim our lesbian butchness and get away from high heels and pants suits and we … CJ, this could kill you."
Tiredly, CJ dropped the stack of notes she'd collected on Jed Bartlet onto the couch and moved to wrap her arms around Sydney's waist. For long moments they stood there, holding each other, CJ being strong and allowing Sydney not to be. "We made a promise to ourselves, Syd, a long time ago," she finally dared to whisper. "Not to each other, but to ourselves. If I just let you make the money, where does that leave either of us? I'm going to get sick, it's a part of being sick. It's a part of what I've got. I don't have a choice in the matter. So why don't I live while I'm dying?"
"There's a song in that, you know." Sydney sniffed, trying to find a way to laugh. "Some horrible country song about finding a way to live while you're dying."
"Garth Brooks will find a way to do something with it, I'm sure. Or there's that new guy on the scene, Tim McGraw."
"If it hasn't been already. You know, there's a reason I don't listen to country." Sydney reached for her drink again and watched CJ's mostly bare back as it moved away from her and back to her bags.
"I'll ask around, someone on the campaign is sure to listen to that crap. And, if it the song hasn't been done yet, someone will make it. I'll send the idea in to a PR friend I've got in Nashville."
The laughter started to spill out. "Yes, country music will be happy to start singing about AIDS."
"There's that Reba Macentire song."
"Reba who?" Sydney flashed a grin at CJ and found herself moving across the room to help with the packing. "No, I know about that song." She tossed a blank legal pad onto the "leave behind" pile on the couch – there would be plenty of those where CJ was going. "It made me think of something incredibly morbid …"
"If you're about to ask me what you want my quilt square to look like," CJ leaned over, tears in her eyes, and kissed her girlfriend, "I want you to wait. Something tells me that the best part, the part that I'm going to be remembered for, it's about to come." Over resumes and briefing memos and legal pads and three ring binders, their lips locked again, the fight and the worries fading for just a minute. Sydney pulled back and looked into the blue orbs she'd fallen in love with back when big hair was popular and Madonna was still acting like a virgin.
"You always think the best is right before us," Tears choked Sydney's voice. "I don't want you to go. Not just because I worry that you're going to get sick again or that a bus will crash or that some sniveling aide for the opposition will find out about you and out you, but because I'm going to be in this big house all alone with your car to look after and my roses to think about and I hate being alone. I'm not good at it."
"You love being alone. If we could afford two houses next to each other, you'd be in heaven." The teasing was gentle; a lie to make her partner laugh. Sydney was good at many things, separation wasn't one of them. "Baby, I can't promise that I won't get sick or there won't be a bus accident or that the aforementioned opposition aide won't out me, but that's part of the game. This is politics. I want something real to put on my quilt square."
"I know." She slid her hand down the side of CJ's face. "I know. But you're going away from me and you had a fever last week and your doctor wants you eating only nuts and berries right now and I guarantee that he didn't mean vending machine corn nuts and Capn' Crunch Berry cereal. You're going away from me to what we've dreamed of, together, and they're going to make you hide who you are. You won't get to talk about the things you want to talk about because of what the fields looks like right now. And … God … okay, it's because you could get sick, okay."
"Toby will be there, and I know the two of you. You'll call him after we talk, or before even, just to make sure I'm giving you the whole story. We can only take it one day at a time." Their lips touched again, tenderly, the kiss of two lovers who knew everything about each other and so the closeness always felt new. "Why don't I finish this in the morning."
"CJ Cregg, are you insinuating that I should perhaps take that bra off of you and lead you to our mess of a bedroom?"
CJ laughed and unzipped the sports bra herself, tossing it across the room. It landed on a heap of resumes and business cards. "Well, I took care of the first part." Sydney took her girlfriend's hands, and took care of the second.
Sydney sighed softly as she came into the house. She knew CJ was home, she could see the briefcase by the door, the heels kicked off in that moment of anger, the jacket tossed over the banister rail. The silence of their home didn't fool her for an instant as she walked up the stairs, coming to a stop in the doorway to their bedroom. The lights were off, only the glow from the hall cast any illumination into the room and onto the bed. "You okay?" She bit her lip, a million things racing through her mind. CJ had been sick lately, was this slipup a result of that or just exhaustion? Did CJ want sympathy right now, or a smack across the face? She never knew in these moments, not at first, so she stood back in the doorway, watching, and wanting to end the pain she knew CJ was in right now.
"You saw it, hmm?" CJ just stared up at the ceiling.
At the dejected tone in CJ's voice, Sydney knew that her job was to be rational; to pull her back from the cliff she was teetering on. "Find me someone in America who didn't, or who hasn't by now. That was a pretty big fuck up, Babe. I'm actually impressed."
"I banged my hand up pretty good." CJ didn't bother to look to the door – the darkness of the ceiling comforted her more than her girlfriend's dry wit. She knew what Sydney was doing, and she didn't want to let it make her feel better. And her hand hurt. Badly. Bad enough for her to actually say something. This on top of how she'd been feeling – could she tell Sydney the truth, that she thought this was because she was sick, sick in a way she'd never been before?
"Slamming it into something?"
"Yeah." Normally, she'd chuckle humorlessly at this point and they'd laugh about her temper. Tonight, though, she couldn't laugh at herself. Tonight she was preparing to update her resume. "I fucked up, Sydney. God, I fucked up."
"Yeah, you did." Sydney sighed and moved across the dark room to sit on the bed. "Did you put anything on your hand yet?"
"Do you need to?"
"It's sore, I don't know. I really don't care at this point." She finally turned to look at Sydney, glad she could only see the silhouette of her girlfriend's body. She didn't know if she could look into her eyes right now.
"How long am I supposed to let you feel sorry for yourself?" Sydney gently took CJ's hand and inspected it. Even in the dark she could see the bruises and the cut on her palm that looked like it hadn't scabbed over very well. A chill passed through her body and she didn't dare to glance up – knowing she'd see the familiar shadow in the doorway. Sydney wasn't religious or superstitious, but she'd come to know Lila's presence. She knew the ghost was protecting CJ.
"I single-handedly gutted our bounce back from the MS announcement, Sydney."
"They ramped you up to it. I think the press had some say in it."
"But I'm the spokesperson for the Administration, Sydney. I'm the one it comes back to. It's my job to not get ramped up."
"True." Sydney got up to turn on the light and see about tending to CJ's injured hand. "You can't let that cut fester," she said when she took in the red welt and the pus around the edges of the wedged splinter.
"I washed my hands."
"It already looks infected, Ceejie. Let me do this for you, okay?" Grudgingly, CJ pulled herself off the bed and moved through the now bright bedroom and into their blue bathroom. Gingerly, she took a seat on the edge of the bathtub. Surprisingly, moving was easier than fighting. "What did Leo say?"
"I've never felt so small in my entire life. When he benched me for the final press conference … I almost resigned right then and there." She tried to fight the tears that had been advancing all day. "What was I thinking, Sydney? God, what was I thinking?"
"You weren't. You haven't slept in days, Baby. And it doesn't matter if everyone else is tired too, when you don't sleep, it affects you more." She squirted alcohol onto the cut on CJ's hand, flushing out the old scab and letting the infected blood run for a second. When she was satisfied, she bandaged CJ's sliced palm carefully. "That should heal by tomorrow morning and you won't have to go in with a full bandage, probably a band aid." After peeling off the rubber gloves and washing her own hands she turned back to CJ and kissed her gently. "What else did Leo say, besides that he was benching you for the press conference?"
CJ followed her back into the bedroom, finally alive enough to shed her clothes. "We uh …" she sighed and collapsed into a chair, her blouse half buttoned and her skirt pooling around her ankles. "He yelled at me, called me unprofessional, and we danced around resignation but neither of us said the word yet."
Sydney nodded. She wanted to be horrified, but in Washington, resignation was the nature of the beast. As it was, CJ was going to be the scapegoat in all of this MS mess anyway. "Just see how it goes, honey. One day at a time."
"Seems to be a part of everything for us." CJ finished discarding her clothes and curled up on the bed. "I'm sorry, God." She snuggled her teddy bear, Pokey (given to her by Toby as a substitute for when he couldn't be there) and gave her full attention to Sydney, "I really didn't mean to mope like that." Sanity started to return. "How was your day?"
"Better than yours." Sydney stretched out next to her and gently traced her fingers along the expanse of flesh between the purple bikini panties and the camisole that CJ was wearing. The smooth skin was clammy and little pools of sweat had formed in the pockets of her spine. Running her hand up the protruding vertebrae, she realized suddenly how think CJ was – as if over night the other woman had lost weight that she didn't have to loose. Opening her mouth to ask how CJ was doing, Sydney stopped herself, thinking better of it. In this kind of mood, CJ probably didn't know how she felt. She'd just keep an eye on her. "We're making headway with a couple of cases, but suddenly, our legislative agenda was cleared. The House and Senate both cancelled all upcoming hearings and testimonies." She tried to laugh, "I'm not sure why."
CJ almost smiled and looked over her shoulder at her partner, "Sorry for clearing up all that time for you. Really, we didn't intend to."
Sydney laughed and bent to kiss her. "Get some sleep, Sweetheart."
But CJ rolled over, needing to be reassured, needing to feel alive, needing to feel something more than sick. Rest would come through feeling better, and there was only one way, right now, she could feel better. Her lips captured Sydney's, her tongue forced its way inside her girlfriend's mouth, and she trapped the other woman's hands above her head even while their legs entwined.
"So you're CJ Cregg, hmm?" Leo looked up at her and then back to her resume and business card. "I read your book. Good work. Written anything else?"
"Nothing that grabbed the attention of the morning talk shows."
"Columns here and there?"
"A few." She shrugged, feeling completely at ease with her new boss and yet unsure of herself. Something told her she was supposed to feel this disarmed, and she knew Leo McGarry was quite the charmer.
"You've been doing PR work in Hollywood." He set the resume down and looked at her over his glasses, challenging her. "You realize that a Hollywood resume is exactly what this campaign doesn't need. We're already a young staff and Democrats get the "Hollywood" card thrown at them all the time. We're in a race for our lives."
"We're young. We're Democrats. Some of us are rich and connected to Hollywood, some of us are wealthy and connected inside the Beltway and some of us are poor and have never won an election in our lives. We're Democrats. If you want a staff of people who all act and think the same way, who refuse to pretend that they aren't connected to Hollywood but will still take checks from men like Selick and Heston, then you can sign onto a Republican ticket. I hear it's pretty strong this year. You still hired me. I'm young and rich and Hollywood. It's what you want." CJ leaned back in the chair and looked at her new boss, accepting the challenge and proving that she was up to it. Now it was his turn to prove himself to her.
"I hired you because Toby Zeigler swears you are the woman for the job." Leo suppressed a smile – he already liked this woman but didn't want to let on. "And I believe him. Your skills at managing a Press Office are well known and any Democrat would want you on their team. Why did you choose this one? John Hoynes would be chomping at the bit to hire you."
With very practiced effort, CJ formed a smile to her lips. She didn't need to bring her own issues with John Hoynes and the man's libido into her very first conversation with Leo McGarry. "Toby came to me first. Anyway, I've been crazy about Jed Bartlet since he was Congressman and I was at EMILY's List. His record on women's rights is fantastic, as well as his work with kids in poverty."
"What's your big issue? We all have one that it all boils down to, what is yours?" Leo looked at her carefully.
"Gay rights." The conviction in her voice pushed Leo back from his desk. "There is an entire population of Americans who are treated as second class citizens. They live in a world where "separate but equal" is a dream to achieve not to obliterate. There's an entire population who are forced to live their lives in secrecy because they could be fired just for being who they were born to be. If that doesn't go against everything this country stands for, I don't know what does." She looked at him for a long moment, wondering if it was right to out herself, to warn her boss that her sexuality could become an issue in the campaign. "I'm one of those people, Leo," the volume of her voice lowered, but the conviction only grew stronger. "And if you have a problem with that now, or think it will become a problem if it gets out in the future, let me know now and I'll walk away and I'll respect you. But don't bring me on only to dump me when things get sticky. If I start, I take it to the end. Wherever that may be."
It took a long moment for Leo to respond. He had been ready for just about anything else that would have come out of her mouth, but this one threw him for a loop. "At the risk of opening up doors that shouldn't be opened, are you in a relationship?"
"Yes." CJ tried to not wring her hands together. She wanted this job. It was bad enough she was a lesbian, but people were fired for having what flowed through her veins.
"All right." He leaned forward, "CJ, you were brought onto this campaign for a reason. And, if a Democratic candidate can't defend having a lesbian on his staff, then we're in the wrong business. But I'm going to have to …" he sighed, and realized he was about to impose the very rules on her that she'd just spoken against. Luckily, CJ opened her mouth and started talking – saving him the trouble.
"You're going to have to ask that I don't speak of my relationship in any kind of public setting and that my sexuality be kept to myself. You would prefer that my partner, her name is Sydney by the way, you would prefer that if she comes to visit or chooses to participate in the campaign in any way, that we do not make any reference to the fact that we are together. If the press gets wind of anything, there will be an official no comment statement released. My financial disclosure form will be reviewed by campaign counsel and worded so that nothing is made obvious."
Leo was impressed, and heartbroken, by her ability to look him in the eye while she outlined how her very life was to be marginalized by him. Her voice remained constant, her gaze never wavered, and when she finished speaking, he believed that she believed it was the best thing for the campaign. "Yeah, okay." CJ's professional smile knifed him. "You know …"
"But it's not different right now, and not yet." She took a breath, glad that he hadn't fired her. "So, what's first for me? We've talked enough about how I want the world to change." She held out her hand for the file she knew was waiting for her.
With a nod, Leo handed it over. "All right, get a handle on this, check in with Toby and Josh, and we'll check back in with each other tonight."
"You're meeting with Brian today?" Sydney looked up from her questions to see CJ down her morning pills with a struggle. Suddenly, the world at large didn't seem so important. "Hon, are you in pain this morning?" She frowned, wondering if the cut on CJ's hand had yet to heal. Her girlfriend's skin looked clammy, she was pale – why had she just kept her mouth shut, why hadn't she demanded CJ see a doctor a week ago? Two days ago?
"I'm fine." The thick, pink, sugar coated pill left a bad taste down the length of her throat as she forced it into her stomach. The medication exploded upon impact, heading for her kidneys, fighting to keep her damaged one in play for one more day. CJ knew she was playing Russian roulette, not going ahead and just having the damaged one removed, but it was too much of a risk to her body to do anything to change the way her immune system worked. She'd weighed the options and until her damaged kidney was in full failure (and it kept hanging on, year after year) she wasn't going to remove it. The consequence, though, was the pill she swallowed three times a day in order to protect both her body and the one kidney from the other kidney. In this moment she thanked God that it was the only pill (outside her vitamins) she was forced to take. But her hands were shaking and something told her the vacation from alarm reminders and endless med counting was about to end.
"Liar." But the word wasn't meant to incite, only to show that Sydney knew better.
"Yeah, I'm in pain, but I'll be okay. I'm just tired, really. I haven't slept since this whole mess began and I'm starting to feel it."
"That you're actually admitting something like that to me makes me worry." Sydney poured her coffee, carefully, her shaking hands threatened to spill the burning liquid all over her. CJ never admitted that she was feeling sick – until she was passed out on the floor, or confined to bed, forcing pain pills being down her throat with yogurt or ice cream. "You should make an appointment with Roger."
"CJ, your skin is clammy, yet you're sweating. You can't swallow a thing. I'm betting your blood pressure is back up around the stratosphere again, and you're about to head into a full-blown re-election campaign. You haven't eaten in three days, and don't hold up the plate you are pretending to work on. Call Roger. At least get in before you head out on the trail."
"If I go anywhere..." CJ started, but sighed, the breath leaving her body strangely drained and she couldn't remember the rest of the thought. A tick started behind her lungs and she began to cough, her tired, thin frame rattling with the force she expelled. Sydney didn't register the coffee burning her own hand or the smashing of the mug (one of her favorites – Hogan had given it to her for Christmas last year) to the floor as she raced over, one hand going helplessly to CJ's back, the other trying in vain to still CJ's movements. Later she would spend an hour picking ceramic shards from the bottom of her foot, but now she only heard the soft, struggled, "I'm okay …" that came from CJ's throat a good three minutes later. "I'm okay. I need some water."
"I'm calling Roger." When she heard no argument from her girlfriend, Sydney's instincts took over. A fresh bottle of water from the fridge appeared before CJ, and before the next round of inevitable coughing could begin, Sydney picked up the phone, hitting the button programmed to send the number straight to Roger's pager. Keeping one arm crossed protectively in front of her, holding her satin robe closed, shielding herself from the world at large, Sydney watched CJ lean forward, her arms in front of her on the table, her head on her arms. Each breath was an obvious effort, and sweat seeped through along her spine, soaking through her light blue kimono. After punching in their number, followed by a 911, Sydney moved back over to CJ's side, gently stroking the sweat soaked hair back from her face. "It's going to be okay, Baby."
"I have to get ready for work, Syd. I can't be late. After what's happened this week… I can't be seen to be hiding." Each word, each breath, took enormous effort.
"I know." And she did. This was the nightmare scenario, this was what they planned for. All they could do was keep moving forward. "I'll set up the appointment time with Roger, and call Carol. We'll work around your schedule. Go on upstairs … do you need help?"
"I think I've got it." The kiss they shared was brief, but tender. Another I Love You. Each step away from the table proved shakier than the last, and Sydney listened for signs of CJ's collapse on the stairs, or the lack of movement from the room just above the kitchen. But twenty minutes later (Roger still hadn't returned and Sydney had placed another call), CJ came into the kitchen again, dressed in a cool linen suit with cotton camisole, and even her four-inch heels. She grabbed the keys to the mustang – a car she rarely drove in the city any longer – and shouldered her bag. "Call me," her voice betrayed her exhaustion. "I'll make my schedule work."
"What if this is for real this time, CJ?" Their lips touched again, their hands linked – Sydney's soft and warm, CJ chapped and clammy.
"Then it's for real. I've got AIDS, the President has MS, and God willing, we're going to win re-election. But right now, there's the aftermath of a crisis in Haiti that is bigger than me, it's bigger than the President, and I have to get in there and help fix it. There's the re-election campaign to plan for, there's the tobacco fallout, and there's even something going on with cows in Brazil. I think. If this is for real it's for real. We knew the ride couldn't last forever."
"You look awful …" their fingers linked tighter.
"I mean …"
"I know what you mean." Again, the touch of lips, chapped and smooth. "Call me when Roger calls back. No, call Carol first. She'll have my schedule for today. Then talk to me."
"Do you want to wait, I can drive you …"
"I'm feeling better, Syd. It was probably a false alarm."
"Let me see your hand."
Gently, she took CJ's palm and turned it over – the cut had yet to heal. What was then a small splinter continued to be red and infected. "It's not a false alarm. If you were healthy, this would have healed up by now." Gently, she touched her lips to the welt. Smooth. Rough. "I'll call soon. I love you." Suddenly the words seemed even more important and she wondered how many times they'd said them to each other, and if it was enough. Did CJ know that she'd be here through anything, and everything that was about to come their way? She blinked and she was back in a messy living room, boxes and notebooks and piles of files surrounding them and CJ in her rattiest jeans and a sports bra, telling her she'd be okay.
"I'm okay, Sydney. I love you, too." Lips touched lips again. The present. And CJ was gone, leaving Sydney with a silent house and a ticking clock.
"How is she?" Weaving between piles of her own notebooks, blue binders and bright yellow legal pads, Sydney sought comfort on the deck, deciding to watch the sun set in the direction of the ocean. She loved Beverly Hills, but wondered if she would love Santa Monica more.
"She's saving our asses, that's how she is." Toby found himself pacing as far as the cord on the hotel phone would allow. "She's tough and she's witty and she's got Josh and Sam falling all over her. She's CJ, Sydney. That's how she is."
"You know what I mean."
"And I just gave you the answer. If she is sick, she won't tell me." He hedged carefully. "I share a room with her and I can't tell – and by the way, everyone on the campaign thinks we're sleeping together."
The image of Toby Zeigler being the one to bring CJ into the culture of women-who-have-slept-with-men was enough to elicit fits of giggles nowhere near appropriate for the Director of California's ACLU. Through her laughter, she wondered if Toby knew that CJ had broken her own hymen with a thick vibrator and that the very idea of a man being the one attached to a penis was enough to dry her up for days. She also knew, as her giggles died down, that at night, when CJ was scared, she would crawl into bed next to the man she'd designated her "pokey bear" and Toby would hold her and keep her secrets as the façade of strength faded away. "How is she?" Sydney repeated the question, knowing this time, she would get the truth.
"Is it normal for her to get cold sweats at night?" Toby touched a hand to his bald head, looking across the room at CJ's black toiletries and cosmetics bag, guarded by the stuffed bear he'd bought for her when she joined the campaign. Pokey. She'd named the damned bear Pokey. It touched him.
"Then yeah, she's okay." He paused again, "You never told me she had a kidney problem."
Sydney paused, amazed that in everything else Toby knew about CJ, he didn't know about her kidneys. "The car accident." She recovered quickly. "It damaged both kidneys, one pretty extensively. It's a gamble – they want to take the damaged kidney out, but they aren't sure how it will affect the rest of her immune system. So, because it's not bad enough to remove yet, we wait. The other one healed up pretty well, it keeps everything functioning." Her thoughts changed and she wanted her girlfriend home, in her arms, where she could be the one worrying about cold sweats and aching kidneys. "She's okay, Toby?"
"I think so. She takes her medication. She stands up to Leo but she's scared to stand up to the Governor, but we're all scared to stand up to the Governor." Toby paused a moment, listening to the talk from the hall outside – it was loud compared to Sydney's quiet breathing. "How are you, Syd?"
She paused, much like he tended to.
The last of the sun's rays disappeared, the blackness of night encroaching on the twilight blue. "I'm surviving. Is it wrong and cheesy to say I'm not complete without her here? Am I wrong to be angry that she's out doing what she wants to do, even if it could kill her?"
"Campaigning won't kill her, Sydney." Toby lied, but not well.
"Damnit, Toby!" But the outburst ended before she was finished with the words. "I'm fine. I'm busy. We've got a case that is moving toward the Supreme Court."
"It's not luck that wins in court, Toby. It's justice."
"I love that you still believe that, Sydney. There's hope for justice after all." He looked over, the latch on the door turned and he held out the phone. "CJ, it's your better half."
Sydney's call of "Good-bye, Toby" could be heard by both of them as CJ took the phone and shooed Toby from the hotel room. Sydney could hear him complain that he wanted to be there for the inevitable phone sex, and she continued to giggle, even after her girlfriend was alone.
"You doing okay?" CJ's voice came through the line, concerned more for her girlfriend's sanity, "How's the case coming?"
"You called for me?" Toby stepped into Leo's office and closed the door behind him.
"I need your help."
"Not unusual." Toby sank into one of Leo's chairs, wondering, as always, how something that looked so uncomfortable could be anything but. "What is it?"
"CJ and I talked about an hour ago." Leo frowned over his glasses before taking them off. "She's offered to tender her resignation."
It was rare to actually feel the frown lines cross his brow, but in this moment, Toby did. There was only one reason CJ would offer to step away from the Administration, if she thought her presence would hurt them. "There's more to it than Haiti, she's recovering from that. It was a stupid move to bench her, but …" He through Leo at an invisible enemy that raced through CJ's blood stream. Didn't CJ know they'd be behind her?
"We can revisit that argument at a different time. Right now, I want you to talk her out of resigning."
"It's more than Haiti." Toby repeated. Something heavy settled onto him. "It's more than Haiti."
"Yeah." The men stared at each other and Leo nodded, accepting Toby's silent reasoning.
"She can't resign, Leo. She can't. Her health will get out and can you imagine the image that would send, that red flag of surrender to the press and the public that anyone with a degenerative illness doesn't deserve to serve the American People? She can't resign, and she can't go public because if she does, it's another endless round of "what are they hiding now". What's next, Sam's a cross-dresser and you have an illegitimate family back in Vietnam?"
"She can't resign!" He rubbed his forehead. "She can't. We'll deal with the inevitable leak when it happens, but she can't walk away now."
"And I brought you in here to tell you that. I also brought you in here to say that she's still going to bring it to the President and after the speech in New Hampshire, provided he accepts, she's leaving. We can't let that happen. We can't take the heat and I don't want to loose her. You need to talk to her. She won't listen to me."
"It's something more. It's … it." Toby paused, his hand on the cold doorknob as he felt his body flush with hot panic. The two men looked at each other, a silent understanding between them – this was more than Haiti. CJ would never walk away during a crisis.
CJ paced, keeping an eye on the door and an ear out for her pager. Toby would be wondering where she was. "Yes, my doctor should have faxed over a prescription earlier today… Cregg. Claudia Jean Cregg." She collapsed onto the bed, staring at the clock; she had to take her pills in an hour. "What do you mean it hasn't been filled!"
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but for a refill like this, we need an actual prescription; we cannot accept a faxed one."
"My doctor called you! He confirmed it!"
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but as a rule we don't fill prescriptions of this nature. You have to understand we don't get much requests for medication like this in these parts."
CJ swallowed the immediate response to the man's idiocy. "What would it take for me to be able to get my AZT filled?"
"Ma'am, we'll need a live scrip. I'm sorry. And you'll need to have it here soon, we close in two hours." The line went dead and CJ turned back to her bag, immediately digging through every paper, every bottle, every corner, searching for something, anything. She needed her pills.
"Damnit." Finally, giving in, she grabbed her empty bottle of AZT and raced for the Governor and Abbey's room, cursing herself for not having the foresight to get her doctor to send her a couple of spare prescriptions. Every other pharmacy had accepted the faxes. Please, God, let her be alone in there. She knocked, heard movement, and after a moment, Abbey's smiling face appeared. "Hello, Ma'am." CJ shifted uncomfortably.
"CJ! This is a nice surprise. I thought you'd be down with everyone planning out the events for tomorrow."
"I should be, but I had some personal business to take care of and as it turns out …" She trailed off, her eyes focusing everywhere but on those of the future (she felt) First Lady.
The doctor in Abbey kicked in and she stepped back, allowing CJ into the room and even glancing around after she was through to make sure no one had seen her enter. "What is it, CJ?" A million different reasons for why CJ was on her doorstep flew through her mind, but none of them, she knew, were accurate. "Are you feeling all right?" She knew that CJ had been fighting a cold, she'd brought orange juice in herself the other day; Toby had mentioned a high fever.
"I …" there was no good way to do this. "I really need a favor, and you need to know that I would never take advantage of you but the pharmacy won't accept the faxed scrip from my doctor and if I don't take my meds in an hour, my system is going to go completely wonky."
"What are you talking about, CJ?"
She closed her eyes, said a quick prayer, and handed over the empty AZT bottle. "With this bug I'm fighting, I can't afford to even be late for a single dose."
It took Abbey a long minute to process what she was reading. She read the prescription on the bottle once, then twice, and after the third time, while still trying to grasp the concept, she lost her grip on the small plastic bottle. "What do you mean they won't fill this?" She looked up at CJ. "This is a life saving …"
"If they have, they won't tell me. I'm down to my last thread, Abbey. By this point, I'm used to being pushed around and the jerk probably thinks ... oh who cares what he thinks other than he thinks he can push me around. I don't care. I have to take my pills. I'll fight the good fight against discrimination once my t-cells are measurable again."
Abbey opened her mouth to ask all the questions running through her mind, but the look in CJ's eyes stopped her. "All right," when she reached for the bottle again, she was able to hold on, and a few seconds and pen strokes later CJ had authorization for enough AZT to last a month. "When you get back here, take your meds and then come see me. I don't care what meetings you end up blowing off, I want to know your health, how you got this, all of it. If you're going to be on this campaign, I am personally going to keep an eye on you. You need a doctor looking after you, CJ."
CJ opened her mouth to argue, but that could come later. "Of course, Ma'am. We'll talk when I get back." Before Abbey could get another word out, CJ raced toward the pharmacy.
"You know what gets me the most?" Sydney came out of the kitchen, two steaming plates in her hands. CJ poured wine, trying to show some interest in the late dinner. It wasn't much, just spaghetti, but her stomach had been on edge all day, and her appointment with Roger hadn't exactly left her feeling like the super woman she knew she was supposed to be.
"What?" She kissed Sydney's cheek before settling down at the table, trying some sense of normalcy. Sydney did her best to ignore the pills CJ popped into her mouth, and CJ tried to swallow them without screaming in pain.
"That you can't talk to me until this is all over."
"That's not completely true. We're talking now. I just can't talk to you about anything related to well … work." She gave half a smile, desperately trying for the cheeky grin. Sydney only graced her with a frustrated look. "Honey, I don't want you getting hauled in front of the committee and the grand jury … Brian thinks it's best."
"Which is why he's our lawyer and not me." Sydney reached across the table to take CJ's hand. Her next words were lost in the flinch of CJ's fingers and the clammy touch of her skin. "You're sick." A week ago, the words coming from her mouth had been panic, worry that something terrible was on the horizon. Today it was just the truth, the God-Awful, painful more real than anything they'd ever experienced truth. "Do you want to skip dinner and just go to bed?" No. She pulled the words back in, "Eat a few bites, and then you can go to bed. Why don't I get you some orange juice?" She was out of her chair and around the table before CJ could take a second breath and call her name. She found security in the open door of the refrigerator, the sound of pouring juice, her reflection in the glass. "God, you're sick." Had she said the words out loud? Were there tears behind them? She turned and saw her girlfriend, years younger and a continent away, teasing her with a fallen sports bra and jeans ripped in all the wrong places. The juice glass started to shake and Roger's words from only a few hours ago threw her back, full force and she blinked to see CJ standing there, twenty again, her long hair curling out of control and her blue eyes shining. Young, healthy, full of promise and vigor and the best jump shot Berkeley could have had – if she hadn't been injured in that final game at Dayton. But somehow it was CJ, her CJ, tired and sick, who caught her. Caught the glass before it slipped out of her hand and scuffed the tile in the same place as the coffee mug from … had it been a week, less than a week, ago when she'd scalded herself with the hot liquid while she raced to CJ's side? Now CJ took the cold glass from her and their arms wound tightly around each other. "You're sick," she whispered into CJ's ear. "God … it's happened." She was supposed to be the rock in this moment, but it was CJ who held her up, held them both up. Sydney felt hot tears on her neck and wasn't sure if they were hers, or CJ's.
"I'm fine, Syd." She wasn't fine and she knew it. The room was starting to spin.
Holding on, clinging to her because if she let go the world would sweep CJ away and she'd be left alone in a house where the music would be drowned out by the ringing of an alarm clock telling her that her time was up, Sydney planted a kiss to CJ's clammy skin. Even as she pulled her head back to look into her partner's tired eyes, she refused to let go of her hands. They kissed, smooth lips against each other, and Sydney tasted life. "You're sick." She repeated as they separated, but the desperation was gone from the moment. "We knew it would happen eventually. You up to eating?"
"I can try." CJ answered honestly. "These new pills make me a bit woozy."
"You shouldn't go to New Hampshire tomorrow."
"Are you resigning?"
"I don't know yet."
"Fair enough." Their hands separated. "Come eat."
"It's been … twelve years now." CJ curled up on the couch in the Bartlet's suite, sipping at coffee she couldn't really taste.
"Wow …" Abbey shook her head. "How?"
"Blood transfusion. There are times I wish I could tell people that in my misbegotten youth I did drugs with needles or had sex with dangerous men, but I was in a car accident. Actually, I was leaving the funeral of a friend who had just died of AIDS."
"Unfortunate." CJ sighed softly. "Five years later I got a letter telling me that I might be sick and lo and behold, I was. I'm lucky. I respond well to the drugs and I'm pretty healthy overall. I have kidney problems as a result of the accident and the drugs, but right now staying on the medication is better for me than not. When they perfected the cocktail last year, I went on it and it's really helped."
"And you deal with this alone?" Abbey wanted to put her arms around the younger woman and hold her.
"No," CJ smiled. Hell, if she was admitting this she could talk about Sydney. "My partner and I have been together for thirteen years. We met at Berkeley, she's now a lawyer for the ACLU."
Abbey started to laugh. "CJ, I had no idea."
"I blend well."
"You do." She took another sip of her coffee. "Thirteen years, hmm?"
"How does she handle you being on the campaign trail?"
"Not well. She hides what she's going through pretty well, but I know she's upset."
For an instant, Abbey contemplated bringing CJ into the circle of knowledge about Jed. But not even Leo knew yet, and it wasn't fair to breach that level of friendship. "Being the loved one in that situation is never easy."
CJ gave her a bit of a smile. "No, it's not."
"I need the name and number of your doctor so I can call him and let him know that I filled the scrip for you. I also want your permission to talk to him about your condition so that I can keep an eye on you."
"I won't go overboard, CJ. You should know that by now. But there isn't any reason for you to have to be sick by yourself. If something goes wrong, you need to be able to come to me."
She sighed softly. "All right. You have a point and I know it will make Sydney feel better."
"Sydney? That's your partner's name?"
"Yeah. Sydney Ludlow. She's from this Mormon family in Idaho – the family business is potato farming. They don't like me much."
Abbey cracked up. "No, I can imagine not."
CJ giggled and took another sip of the tasteless coffee. Part of her hoped that it wasn't her taste buds, that the coffee was indeed lackluster, but it wasn't the case. She could smell the aroma – weak as it was. She wondered if she would ever be able to taste food again – if eating from now on would be limited to food items she dreamed of – that way she at least would know, somewhere, what it was she tasted. She had memories of the sensations of salmon and the sweetness of sugar. Now, it was simply hot or cold. The guys teased her about her salad diet, only Toby knew it was because she knew she wasn't missing much by only eating lettuce.
Abbey watched her sip at the coffee, "Can't taste it, can you?"
She swallowed and looked into the dark liquid, "No. But I remember it."
Abbey tried to smile, but her thoughts moved to the small black bag in her suitcase, filled with illegal prescriptions of beta-seron, the syringes, the vials. She wondered if this was the right thing to do, if getting the right man elected President was worth so many casualties. But two hundred years ago, her husband's ancestor had signed the Declaration of Independence and that act of courage, of risking causality, had led them to this moment, here in this hotel. The right choices always involved death – somewhere. "It's bitter," she said, waving to the dark liquid inside the cheap plastic hotel mug. "It's bitter, and it's weak and it tastes like the minerals that seem to be found in all tap water today. You aren't missing much."
"I like bitter coffee," CJ traced her finger around the rim. "Sweet coffee is too much like dessert, it makes me sleepy and comfortable. Bitter coffee serves the purpose of the caffeine and adds to staying awake."
Abbey laughed while CJ smiled.
She wasn't supposed to pick at scabs, but she was and she did. She also wasn't supposed to yell at her boss, and she had. And, apparently, she wasn't supposed to resign, as was evidenced today in that barn. Fuck. A barn. She supposed there was a story to be told – the President of the United States begging her to remain while he stood at a music stand in his barn on a farm in New Hampshire, but right now all she could think of was the barn and the pitchfork in her line of sight, and how he'd lectured her and she'd yelled at him. He'd still asked for her help, told her he needed her. Would he still need her when she came clean to him or would he think she'd been right in the first place? Was it smart to stay on? Her health status would come out, it would be leaked, and suddenly it would be story after story of the Bartlet Cover-ups. She needed to get out before it looked like she left because she was sick.
The new medication made her airsick. An unfortunate side effect she'd discovered on the first flight, but so far no one's shoes had been graced with her attempts at eating. So far no one had noticed that last night she barely sipped at her wine and her meals went mostly untouched. No, that wasn't quite true. Toby had noticed. She didn't know how he did it, and as always she chalked it up to Toby being Toby. He could read her mind and he knew everything about her – well, almost everything. She was sure that he didn't know (unless Sydney had told him) that she'd never been with a man. She'd never experienced that – and she didn't want to. Yet, there were times she wondered, contemplated what it would be like to feel Toby's passion from inside her body, not just have it hurled at her with his words, but they were the thoughts of a condemned and curious woman, not someone who was turned on by the thought of a naked man. Suddenly she wanted Pokey, but he was stuffed into her suitcase, deep in the belly of the plane, cold and alone. Maybe it would be better to leave him with Sydney when she traveled.
Any other day, flying back to DC would fill her with excitement and a joy she'd never been able to fully explain. The pulse of the town energized her and more than once she thought beyond her years as Press Secretary and wondered what else her Doctorate could provide. Already she served closer to the President than most people in her position, and already she'd broken barriers in Washington. When she visited the club and sat with the crusty old men who had all once stood behind the podium, she reveled in their respect for her and her abilities to work the press and also be at the President's side. She didn't tell them that the secret wasn't relying on the hierarchy to give her information; it was knowing when to excuse herself from the meeting. She didn't tell them that her code word clearance was higher than all of theirs had ever been – it didn't matter, she still didn't really understand foreign policy. But today, the trip back toward Andrews only left her wondering if keeping her job really was the best thing. Did the President really need her?
Did a job wait for her after Press Secretary? For a while, those four weeks between screwing up and then being told she was needed this afternoon, she'd toyed with accepting one of the constant job offers. EMILY's list wanted her back, Chief of Staff to the Minority Leader in the House, lobbying for this cause or that cause, News Director for any station she wanted. But none of it was what she wanted – she wanted to be here, right now, on this plane, working with a man she believed in. She was angrier than the rest of the staff, she had a right to be – but she also understood the President's secrecy more than any of them ever would. Politics was perception, and the people perceive what they want. She started to laugh.
"What?" Toby leaned closer, glad to hear the sound coming from his best friend.
"Don't you think it's funny, that this crew got him elected? Putting aside the President's MS – Leo's got drug and alcohol problems, you're an angry drunk, Josh can't see past his teenage arrogance, Sam can't see to not trip over his feet, and I'm dying of AIDS." Her laughter continued, soft, ironic. "In a world where politics is perception, we've managed to get the people to perceive a hell of a lot."
Toby also started to chuckle, wondering if he could come up with a good way to insult Josh in this moment. It failed him. Instead, he took her hand and turned it over, looking at the angry and as yet fully healed scratch on her palm. The scab was gone – now just an angry red welt. "Full blown." It wasn't a question, but a statement of angry and disastrous proportions.
"I'm going to die." She leaned her head on his shoulder, the real Pokey as comforting as the stuffed one. "But so are you. You smoke those cigars and you drink too much."
"They never know. I'll have this for years, Toby. Years and years, or I'll die tomorrow. Don't worry, I've got my "incase I get hit by a bus" file. Carol knows where it is."
That struck him as funny and something told him to remember that file, even though he knew he would forget. But he laughed, hard and full, he laughed in the face of death and CJ joined him. She was right, he drank too much.
Never in her life had she been so happy to be in California. While the rest of the crew settled at the hotel, she took full advantage of the extra couple of hours, snagged a cab, and held on as the man from Mexico City careened up the hills to the familiar Beverly Hills street, the one so near the entrance to Bel Aire. Out in front, washed and waxed, were two babies. One, a 1965 mustang convertible, the other a six foot tall Goddess with black hair and green eyes.
Sydney looked up from the rose bush as the cab pulled into the driveway. Her heart jumped into her throat, she didn't dare to think that maybe, just maybe … oh God, it was her. "Ceej!" The gardening gloves came off and before CJ was even completely out of the car, she had her arms around her girlfriend. "Oh God, you're in town early."
"Yeah. Thought I'd come up and surprise you." Before she could get any other words out, Sydney's tongue invaded her mouth and only sheer force of will kept them from ripping each other's clothes off right there on the front lawn.
The door banged shut behind them, threatened to bounce back open, and CJ somehow managed to lock it before Sydney divested her of her blouse and her jeans. "How do you do that?" She laughed as she stepped out of the confining denim and moved toward the stairs that led to their bedroom.
"Manage to get me naked so quickly." CJ giggled as Sydney threw her onto the bed.
"Practice. Want. Need. Desire."
"Okay, Counselor, you don't need to charge by the word with me." Their lips touched, smooth, perfect. Skin on skin, breast to breast, long legs twining together as soft fingers touched and explored. Years together had led only to knowledge and further exploration – boredom in bed was for the boring. Even the well known touches – the tongue on the inside of CJ's thigh, the fingertip against the small of Sydney's back – the comfort in the touch only led to heightened pleasure; there was trust there, and love. And the knowledge only made the climax even stronger as Sydney cried CJ's name while she trembled around experienced fingers, and CJ whimpered as their bodies rocked together, sweaty, each move of her clit against Sydney's driving her higher until she followed Sydney over the cliffs headfirst into the soothing water of afterglow. All was perfect and CJ found herself drifting to sleep, cocooned in the warm arms of her girlfriend, when reality shattered their bubble.
Her pager shrilled.
"Ugh..." CJ rolled away from the comfortable pillow of Sydney's breasts and reached for her pager.
Sydney just chuckled as she ran her fingers through CJ's tangled hair. Two months of not touching each other and almost no privacy even for phone sex (Toby's presence in the room with CJ tended to be a downer for the two lesbians) had left both of them wanting. "Tell your boyfriend that you're naked and busy." She moaned as CJ reached for the bedside phone to return the page.
"First of all, ew. Second of all, shut up." CJ gasped as Sydney leaned over to latch her lips around a nipple. "What do you want, Toby?" She asked when she heard his gruff voice on the other end of the line. Sydney continued to tease her nipple into a peak, twisting the sensitive tissue in her fingers before lathing it with her tongue.
"We're meeting about the speech over dinner. I'd get back here if I were you."
"I'm kind of naked here, Toby." She didn't bother to hide her moan when Sydney slipped her fingers between her wet folds. "When do I definitely need to be back there?"
"If you get back here by five, I won't out you. You walk in the door at five oh five and I'm giving Josh fantasies to fill his lonely nights with." He chuckled. "You know, it's time you told everyone about my competition. I'd like to no longer be looked at as the guy who is cheating on his wife."
"Yeah..." she whimpered. "I'll think about it."
"You have an hour, CJ."
CJ hung up on him and opened her legs more to Sydney's fingers. A perfectly manicured nail scraped against her sensitive clit and she gasped. "God, are you trying to kill me?" The words were out before she could stop them, and she felt Sydney still for a brief moment. Their rule was they never joked about death.
"I should let you shower." Sydney moved from playful to needy, holding and nuzzling CJ's still sweaty body. Had they overdone it? How was she feeling? Was it good for her heart to be racing like that?
"No, you shouldn't and I'm sorry about the crack. Syd, I'm fine. Really. Couldn't you tell?"
This actually coaxed a laugh from the other woman. "Yeah. I could." The kiss this time was slower, teasing, gentle. "So do they all know yet?"
"No. But Toby's threatened to out me if I'm late."
"Then you shouldn't be late."
"Maybe I should be." Their lips touched again. "Right now, I have more important things to think about."
"Remember that night in California?" Sydney handed over the glass of Chardonnay – fresh from the Cregg Vineyard – and curled up next to CJ on their over-stuffed couch.
"Hon, we lived in California for years. Want to narrow it down?" Her ten PM pills went down with a sip of the smooth white wine and she curled her stiff and tired body against Sydney's, not even bothering to conceal the sigh of contentment and security that escaped her entire being as Sydney slipped an arm around her.
"You were campaigning the first time, you were home after two months. You'd been sick on the trail and hadn't told me, but I knew anyway cause I was getting these stealth updates from Toby."
"Stealth updates I knew about."
"That doesn't matter. You'd been sick but you came home healthy. The meds kicked in, and your inner strength kicked in. It'll kick in again."
"How do you know what I'm going to tell you even before I open my mouth?"
"I know you. You walked in the door tonight and I could tell just by looking at you that you aren't going to resign and I'm betting the President begged you to stay." Her long fingers worked their way through CJ's hair. "You're sick, but you came back healthy. I thought about begging you to resign anyway, but it would only kill you faster."
"I'm sick now. And I still haven't made up my mind about resigning. I might have to anyway. This is going to get leaked."
"You have to tell the President. And Jed Bartlet will stand behind you. You should know that by now."
"I still have to tell Josh."
"That seems to be the hardest thing. Telling Josh anything, actually."
"This is going to kill him." CJ closed her eyes before taking another sip from the glass in her hands. She could feel the liquid flow down her throat, stinging at the sores in her esophagus, and settling into her stomach. If she concentrated, she could pretend she felt her liver going to work against the drink in her system. It was her favorite game – to see which of her internal organs she could feel as they did their job all the while her white blood cells attacked the organs – a real life game of Risk that she was, at the moment, losing. "No, Josh can come later. I have to tell the President."
"How do you think he's going to react?" Sydney pressed a kiss to CJ's slightly fevered forehead.
"Jed Bartlet is an unknown in many things, Sydney. But I know him well enough to know that it will break his heart. He's going to be confused and scared and wonder for a minute if he can get it by standing next to me."
"And then he'll get over it and hug you and tell you that the White House is behind you and that you don't have to resign?"
"I'm behind you, Baby. And so is the White House." Sydney sipped her own glass – jack and coke (her first tonight) and pulled CJ tighter against her body. "Are you sure you want to do this? To risk everything by risking yourself on long flights and longer days and trips to disease ridden countries?"
"To not risk it would be to loose everything, Sydney."
"Promise me you'll pace yourself."
"Promise me that you'll take your meds on time."
"Promise me that you'll represent the White House with honor and dignity."
"Then we're good." They kissed. Smooth lips touched up with cherry Chap Stick brushed against each other, soft, gentle. Tongues danced and hands set aside drinks and pushed away clothing.
"Sir …" CJ found herself walking into the room on her own power, despite the fact that it had been Toby's hands pushing her into the outer office. "Sir, I need to talk to you about something."
Jed Bartlet looked up into the face of his embattled Press Secretary and frowned. She was a senior counselor (something rare for a Press Secretary), a friend, a daughter, and a damned good poker player. But tonight her poker face was down and he could tell something was wrong. "CJ?" He gestured to one of the chairs, "What is it?" He walked to sit across from her, his speech about needing her to remain on as his Press Secretary on his lips – but the face she gave him told him this was something different, and he just gestured for her to continue.
He remembered seeing her mouth open and watching her lips move, but when asked years later, he would admit he could not remember hearing the actual words, only that they landed, hard, a sucker punch to the kidneys, leaving him gasping for breath as a wind seemed to pick up and race through the Oval Office. He turned for a minute, expecting to see the doors to the portico blow open and Mrs. Landingham standing there. Only to himself would he ever admit that he had seen a different shadow – man or woman he couldn't tell – but the gaze of the apparition was loving, and directed to CJ.
The wind rushed past his ears and in this moment he knew how Toby had felt and why the other man had railed against him and a part of him wanted to rail against CJ. He understood the disappointment in Sam's eyes, the loss in Josh's and why Leo had demanded that CJ be told alone. He wanted to yell at her, to hold her, to comfort this surrogate daughter; he paced instead. So many questions, he wanted to know why she hadn't told him, how it had happened, but none of that mattered. He remembered what he'd screamed at Toby and so he turned and faced her, looking into the blue eyes he loved. "How are you feeling, CJ?"
"I'll be fine, Sir. Really. Thanks for asking."
To Be Continued in The Hard Part – it's always Telling Josh.
Story Copyright May 2006