Author's Notes: This was originally written for the LJ community, Sorkin Fest. My prompt was #88, "Lost on the Campaign Trail." The fic takes place pre-series. Special thanks to my beta, Olly, for her help.

Disclaimer: I don't own the show.

Passing Afternoon
By Duckie Nicks

"For the record, this is all your fault," she snapped, wiping a bead of sweat off of her reddening forehead.

Danny shifted uncomfortably on the trunk of the car. Between them were his now-out-of-service cell phone and her suit jacket. But what the reporter really would have liked right about now (aside from the obvious air conditioning) was a nice thick brick wall between them. Or, in the very least, a decent set of earplugs. "Well, jeez, CJ, that's nice. But I'm pretty sure logic would say otherwise."

CJ hopped off the car and began to walk around the Honda, which had died somewhere in the middle of backwoods South Carolina, despite promises from the rental car place to the contrary. And it was almost amusing to watch her frantic energy. Or at least Danny thought it would have been if they weren't outside in the Indian summer heat.

"So this is my fault?"

He held his hands up in front of him. "Whoa, girl, I'm not saying that." Deciding the metal trunk he was sitting on wouldn't help him keep cool, Danny joined CJ in standing. More calmly, the redhead told her, "There's no way you could have known that you'd draw the short end of the straw and get stuck on the press bus. And you couldn't have predicted that the bus would break down, though I suppose if your name was Murphy, you could have predicted that our rental car would die."

But it was obvious to him that it didn't matter what he said, because she was too busy looking down at her watch. "Danny, if your press buddies don't get here soon, we're going to miss the Governor speak."

His brow furrowed, Danny looked down at his own watch. Though his eyes were starting to sting with sweat, he noticed where the small hand was located. "You need to fix your watch. We're in eastern time now."

"No," she started to argue, though whatever she wanted to say died on her thin lips. "I know where we are," CJ added defensively. "We're in South Carolina. Stuck in South Carolina."

"Yeah," he agreed, nodding his head. "But I'm pretty sure South Carolina is where South Carolina has always been – on the east coast and not somewhere near Illinois." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he regretted it. Because while he'd meant it to be a joke, there was something about the tone of his voice – the biting sarcasm of it – that wouldn't go over well with CJ.

And it didn't.

Fixing her watch angrily, she practically snapped, "God, Danny, what do you want from me?"

"I don't know… you could relax and wait."

"I'm serious," she said tiredly.

"Me too." He leaned against the back of the car and patted the dark trunk next to him. "Relax."

Her voice had a nasally quality, as she argued, "But we're missing the –"

"Yeah," he said. "And there's nothing we can do about it 'til someone comes and helps us. So I say –"

"Well some of us don't have the advantage of being Abbey Bartlet's official biographer," she interrupted, her eyes narrowing on him. Or maybe she was just squinting cause of the heat.

Whatever – didn't matter.

He scoffed at the implication anyway. "You don't think my paper's gonna care that I missed the speech?"

CJ shrugged, still maintaining her distance from him for reasons he couldn't quite understand. "I think your paper isn't going to fire a man who's on the short list for a Pulitzer."

His bleary eyes narrowed on her. "You said you hadn't been paying attention to the press for –"

"Well, I lied," she said, irritation creeping into her exasperated voice.

"Why?"

She didn't answer him at first, didn't react much at all, except to briefly pull her tawny curls off her neck. And maybe it was just the heat, but Danny couldn't help but be entranced by the action.

He'd always… liked CJ, he supposed. But God, he did not understand her. She was smart, funny, accessible, but sometime he would look at her and wonder if they were even the same species. And, looking her over now, Danny tried to find some telltale sign, something that would help him get to understand her better.

Unfortunately, though, his light eyes learned nothing, and all he could do was ask her again. "Why, CJ?"

"Because, Danny."

The redhead couldn't stop the smile from spreading across his face. "That explains so much. Thanks for that. You've really enlightened me, you know."

"Shut up."

"Okay." He stopped talking then and leaned further back against the heated metal. It was uncomfortable, sure, but Danny had resigned himself to their current weather. And the only thing to do, he thought, was to pretend that it didn't bother him, rather than focus on just how oppressive the heat was.

CJ would talk; he was sure of it. Because as much as he didn't get her, he was a reporter (and a pretty good one at that). And in order to be decent at that at all, a person had to recognize when someone else wanted to talk.

Or maybe that was the wrong way to put it, he thought, because the tall woman pacing in front of him didn't exactly seem all that interested in chatting. But… something was on her mind. CJ had told him to shut up, but there was something about her frenetic energy that tipped him off. She pulled her curls back off of her neck again, and he wondered lazily what she would look like without the perm.

But he was getting off track, he thought, returning to the matter at hand. Something was gnawing at her, but Danny didn't press the issue. Instead, he listened to his instinct and remained quiet.

"I didn't read your reviews," she finally said. And before he could say anything, she added, "Unless it was to learn which one of your rabble rousing colleagues called Mrs. Bartlet 'Medea Reincarnate,' intent on destroying families."

"You guys really think that calling her Mrs. Bartlet is gonna make voters forget that she's a doctor?" he asked incredulously.

Her voice taking on the same quality, she asked, "You think a car ride together is gonna really make me forget what you've been saying around town about me?"

And there it is, he thought.

"You heard that then?"

"Kind of hard to miss it: 'Official Bartlet biographer and longtime White House correspondent thinks CJ Cregg would be a weak press secretary.'" CJ's words were careful, but there was no missing the anger in her voice, nor the sadness that seemed to linger underneath it all. "Kind of hard to miss," she repeated to no one.

He sighed loudly. The truth was more complicated than she thought it was, and he wanted to explain it to her. But part of him was reluctant to do so, because she would resent him for it. And, though it was probably stupid to want it, Danny really did want her to like him.

Still… as a reporter, he hated misquotes, and he couldn't let the comment slide. "I said you were too nice, not weak," he corrected.

"Same thing," she practically hissed, the expanse of her neck beginning to turn pink.

"No, it's not. I'll consult my thesaurus if you'd like, but I'm pretty sure nice and weak –"

"Too nice, Danny. Not just nice."

"Fine. Too nice," he emphasized for her benefit. 'But that's not the –"

"You think your exact words matter to Leo McGarry? To the Governor?" She shook her head, answering her own question. "The people who pay me aren't going to parse out each and every word. They don't care. And if they think I'm weak –"

"I'm thinkin' a geek like Jed Bartlet probably is gonna do that." But before CJ could say anymore, Danny waved her off. "And he's going to care, but he'll keep you on board anyway. You wanna know why?"

"You don't know that," she stressed.

"Yeah, I do," he told her immediately and then repeated, "You wanna know why?" His fingers gripped the lip of the trunk tightly, because, as much as he wanted to relax, Danny understood they were on the cusp of a real fight. And he couldn't stop him body from tensing at that.

Her thin lips contorted into something that was half-sneer, half-frown. But CJ conceded nonetheless. "Sure. Tell me."

"They know you're nice," he told her, wiping sweat off of his forehead. "And they're old school enough to believe that that's not a good thing, but they'll get over it. Because part of them understands that they need to play nice with the press, even if they don't like it."

"Yeah," she agreed. "I know that."

"That's not gonna be your problem," Danny said confidently.

She shot him a dark look with her green eyes. "Then what is my problem?"

"You got two scenarios. The first – you get too comfortable with the press; you say something you shouldn't, and we get a hold of it."

"That's true for anyone," CJ defended, folding her arms across her chest.

"Yeah, but I'm willing to bet it'll be you who does it. Not Toby Ziegler." He pushed away from the car then, moving closer to her. "Leo might forgive that once, but soon enough you'll be a liability. They'll stop telling you things, because they won't believe you can keep quiet about it. They'll cut you off at the knees." CJ opened her mouth to say something, but he cut her off. "The second scenario is you guys get blind-sighted by something, and they blame you for it anyway."

"You're wrong," she said stubbornly, despite probably knowing that he was, actually, right. But before he could say anymore, a car – filled with a couple of Danny's colleagues from the press pool – pulled up. Immediately CJ grabbed her coat and started towards the red Taurus waiting for them. Her low heels scuffing against the ground, she turned to the redhead once more and told him, "I know what I'm getting into, Danny. I'm not naïve, and I know how to handle myself."

The "I don't want you to get hurt, CJ" he uttered surprised even him. He hadn't expected to say it, didn't understand where it came from. But as soon as the words had been said, Danny could recognize the truth in them.

She was his age, but, looking at her now, her hair whipping in a sudden wind, she looked so young. And that would probably help him do his job – because he'd be able to take her on. But it filled his heart with dread, knowing what this would do to her.

Wrenching one of the car doors open to get in, she looked at him sharply. "I plan to be standing when this is over. Don't worry about me."

Danny collected his own things from the trunk of the car. His cell phone warm in his hands, he sadly walked away from the rental.

CJ sat down, the conversation over, slamming the door shut behind her. His admittance – "But I do worry about you" – swallowed up by the sound.

End (1/1)