A/N: Surprise! It's been over three months since I've updated this story and I'm so sorry. I was doing so well on the frequent updates (well, considering my track record at least) but then life went ahead and made things incredibly difficult and busy. I haven't stopped writing however, this chapter just happens to be difficult and long (just over 8.500 words, not counting this note). I can't promise when the next update'll be, but there'll be one.
Thanks to everyone who kept reviewing and those who sent supportive messages – your effort was not in vain, without you this chapter might never have been finished, but it is and a lot happens in it, so scroll down and enjoy! Please take the time to review, I'm interested in what you think of this story after so long and if this update is a worthy continuation ;)
Also: too everyone a happy, healthy, funky, funny, creative and successful 2010!
Tempus minus four years, ten months and six days
With most of everyone's belongings packed into boxes, the whole floor seemed different. There was still plenty of crap lying around, most of it Toby's and CJ knew Josh's would be too, were it not for always-organized Donna. Not that she gave a damn either way. Her stuff was packed, ready to go and never return. Bye crappy door, bye wobbly desk and if she ever heard Toby bounce balls off the wall of her office again, it'd be way, way too soon.
Sam had spent time he didn't have on a goodbye tour of their headquarters. Personally, CJ couldn't wait to move into the White House. It felt like a fresh start, a chance to forget the hellish weeks and crazy inaugural schedule leading up to today's inauguration.
Just two more hours before the mass exodus to Capitol Hill for the final preparations. Of course, first Toby and Sam had to finish the actual address. She knew Toby's last minute work was good, but this was pushing it.
For her own peace of mind, the press had been denied access to the building. Like hyenas smelling blood, they were eager to get their grubby little hands on the missing pieces of Toby's work. Absent that, any juicy, little tidbit would do and there were too many of those to risk even parking the press in the lobby. The unfortunate consequence was the constant ringing of her phone on a day she couldn't afford to switch it off.
Carol carefully stepped inside the office and held out an innocent looking file. "The results are in," she clarified needlessly.
Doing her best not to show the anxiety she suddenly felt, CJ ignored her phone for the moment, glanced through the numbers and sighed. "Get a copy to Leo, but keep it away from Sam, Toby and the President."
"That bad?" Bless Carol for actually being surprised, CJ thought. Carol turned to leave, but not before informing the almost-Press Secretary of an unwelcome visitor. "Lily Mays called, Mrs. Bartlet is on her way over."
Her expression carefully neutral, CJ nodded and swallowed a sigh. "Let her in when she gets here." She liked the older woman and considered her a friend – perhaps the only friend she had in Washington who wasn't also her colleague for eighteen hours a day – but she just didn't have the time to hold Mrs. Bartlet's hand right now, while Abbey tried to figure out how she fit in her husband's new career. She'd pushed her to hire a Chief of Staff for a reason. Although, really, the Governor's wife wasn't half the basket-case she could've been, considering the circumstances.
At least Abigail left her just enough time to finish a few calls to network directors before showing up, but that hardly put a dent in CJ's list of things to do before the inauguration.
"Mrs. Bartlet." She resisted the urge to comment on the First Lady's attire. Abigail always dressed immaculately and the current combination of faded jeans and a Notre Dame sweatshirt didn't quite fit with her image, least of all on the first day of their administration. "How's Lily Mays working out?"
"Oh, just fine. We're still getting used to each other."
CJ purposely ignored the faint accusation in the woman's words and watched her settle down on the visitor's chair. "Did you settle on an outfit yet?"
"What? You don't think this would be fine?"
"You're kidding right?" The question left her mouth before her brain had a chance to catch up.
Abbey smirked. "It's patriotic and homely. Don't you think it'll portray me more as a housewife than a professional?"
Crap. "You saw the poll results."
"I thought we agreed you wouldn't poll on me anymore."
"We agreed I wouldn't bother you with the results anymore," CJ corrected.
"What's the point of polling then?"
CJ struggled not to smile in victory. "To bother Lily Mays."
Mrs. Bartlet's expression froze for a long second, as if she couldn't decide whether or not to be pissed. And though she certainly was annoyed, judging by the pursed, burgundy-colored lips, she apparently decided to conserve her energy and smile instead. "As long as she doesn't bother me."
It could be her only victory this day, so CJ reached for it with both hands, ostensibly regretful. "I can't promise that, ma'am." Mrs. Bartlet's eyes narrowed. "How did you get a hold of the results anyway?"
"I don't think you deserve an answer to that, Ms. Cregg."
"Fair enough." The answer hardly mattered anyway, but Abbey didn't know that.
The older woman's stern expression softened, then took on a Cheshire cat quality that put the Press Secretary on edge. "How is your ankle, Claudia Jean? Any new accidents?" Blushing, CJ shook her head. She really just wanted to forget that whole incident. Abigail grinned and motioned for the younger woman to lift up her leg. "Let me have a look."
"Really, it's fine," she protested, "just a little sore when I first get up."
But of course Doctor Bartlet wasn't having it and soon CJ had her left foot propped up on the desk, sans shoe. "You'll be on your feet a lot today, just let me check." Having no other choice but to give in, CJ leant back in her chair and watched the bandage she so painstakingly redid after her four a.m. shower quickly come undone. Abbey chuckled, "didn't you ever take first aid classes in school?"
She didn't answer and flinched when the First Lady started to test the swollen area around the joint. It didn't hurt as much as it had a few days ago, but pleasant it was not.
"It's almost better," the Doctor declared, "just resist falling off any stages for a while."
"I found my glasses, but thank you." CJ kept very still while Abbey redid the bandage, winching at the tightness around her sensitive ankle.
"So you're sticking to that story, hmm?" The mischievous tone in Abbey's voice raised red flags.
"I'm blind as a bat without my glasses, Toby'll vouch for that."
"Really? It had nothing to do with a certain red-haired reporter?"
"Really." She could tell her visitor didn't buy it, but it was the truth. The last thing on her mind right now was a relationship of any kind, with anyone. The jokes were getting old and unfortunately Mrs. Bartlet seemed to have made it her mission to hook CJ up.
"I'm not buying it, Claudia Jean." CJ grinned, mostly to herself for predicting the other woman's response. Abbey opened her mouth to add to her statement, or possibly scold the Press Secretary for not taking her boss' wife seriously.
CJ'd never know – or care, really – because Josh suddenly barged into the office. The wild look in his brown eyes spelled bad news and she felt her heart rate go up. "Did you see these?!"
Forcing calm, she slowly put her foot back on the ground and looked up at him. "See what?"
"These!" He tapped angrily on the folder in his hand.
"I left my spyglasses in the Batcave this morning, Josh."
His eyes spelled murder and she could almost see his muscles vibrating from the tension he exuded. "The poll results, CJ! The crappy poll results!"
"Have you seen them?! Twenty-one percent thinks he'll—"
"Forget the results Josh," she cut him off. Panic wouldn't get them anywhere and the results really did not matter. He sputtered. "It's just a poll Josh, we won the election with forty-eight percent."
"Exactly! So why is only twenty-one percent saying he'll be a good president?!" He shook the folder vigorously and loomed over CJ. "I'll tell you why, Claudia Jean; because this is a crappy poll!"
"God Joshua, relax will you!" She rose from her chair and rounded her desk, slowly advanced on him while venting her frustration. "We got elected, we're moving to the White House and if you pull your head from your ass and start working, maybe we'll actually make it through today!"
Meekly he glanced up from the floor, the file still in his hand. "But the poll—"
"Forget the damn poll!" Seeing the shock in his face, and noticing a similar expression on the First Lady, CJ dropped her voice and ducked her head. "Look, we'll do better, so just keep these results from the others, okay?" He nodded, now calm and a little sad, but the look in his eyes worried her. "Josh, I don't want Toby to see the results, okay?"
"Okay." She watched him weasel his way to the door, his eyes still on hers, as if he kept an eye on her in case she suddenly decided to pounce on him. That look in his eyes was still there and when he lingered in the door opening, she knew something was wrong. "Josh?"
He smiled one of his charming, self-decapitating smiles, showing off his dimples. But CJ had worked hard on her immunity to that grin and braced herself. "You mean you don't want him to see the actual numbers, right?"
"Josh," her voice rose a pitch, but she quickly brought it back under control, "are we having a problem?"
"No, no, not at all," he was quick to assure her. Somehow, she didn't feel very assured. "Except that," he glanced into the hallway, figuring out his escape route if he had any sense left. Every muscle in her body was wound tight. "I dropped a copy by Toby before coming here." CJ struggled to react to his rushed words. This shouldn't really come as a surprise. Josh slowly inched his way into the hall. "I'll just, uhm, go stop… Donna?"
"Why? What is Donna doing?" Her voice sounded remarkably calm to her own ears, especially considering the many scenarios of killing Joshua Lyman that were running as an illegal snuff film her head.
Josh ducked his head, his eyes wide. "She's…, uhm, bringing a copy to the President."
Tongue-tied because she couldn't decide how to start her rant – there were so many great kick-offs –she watched him dash away. However she would kill him – it'd be slow. Very, very slow. And it would involve some kind of electronic instrument.
Of course, as often happens in life, another disaster closely followed the first. Before CJ had a chance to calm herself and set up a plan of action, Toby Ziegler burst through the door opening, his jaw set. "These people do realize we already won the election, don't they?! Forty-eight percent of them voted for us!"
CJ pinched the bridge of her nose to try and ward off the headache that announced itself between the lines of Toby's tirade. When he finally paused to take a breath, she took the opportunity to hijack his rant. "We haven't done anything yet, Toby. Between the Philippines-fiasco, the recent abortion mess and Josh's blow-out with Hoynes, it's hardly a surprise people aren't all that confident. Our numbers were never good to begin with."
The Communications Director licked his lips, visibly struggling to give voice to his thoughts. CJ knew him well enough to brace for the inevitable outburst, but the look of betrayal in his eyes caught her off guard. "That's your answer?! 'Our numbers were never great, so why be upset when they get worse'?! That's exactly the kind of irresponsible and lazy way of thinking that's sending this country straight down to hell!"
Done with his shouting and, well, pretty much everything else, CJ took a deep breath and moved to shut Ziegler up. "Toby, for the love of everything that's good and alive in this world, please just finish the damn speech before I blow a gasket and take out you, Josh and anyone else who might cross my path in a murderous rampage!"
But Toby didn't back down and stepped closer. She wanted to mock him for having to look up at her, but held back as his voice grated on her headache. "Yeah, a speech will magically fix all our problems!"
"Not by a long shot Pokey, but it'll fix today's and that good enough for me. I want it in the President-Elect's hands when he leaves his office."
Toby glowered, almost to the point of blowing steam out of his ears and nostrils, but stalked off without saying another word.
"Are the results really that bad?" Abigail questioned softly when peace returned.
"No," CJ lied and tried not to show she'd completely forgotten the other woman's presence. "They really don't matter; the inauguration itself will gain us points."
"Because my husband looks dashing in his new suit?"
Appreciating the injection of humor, CJ grinned while collecting the last of her unpacked belongings. "Something like that. I'd better go talk to your husband."
Abbey nodded and rose from her chair."I'll join you."
Now that they were both on their feet, CJ noticed the height difference seemed larger than usual. Glancing down, she saw not trademark stiletto's on the First Lady's feet, but fluffy, pink slippers.
"Lead the way, Claudia Jean."
The loud thud of something hitting the other side of her office wall, halted her answer. Her fingers cramped into a choke-like hold involuntarily and a chill of frustration ran up her spine. CJ shuddered and released a long breath, tenaciously holding on to the last threads of calm. "Yes ma'am."
Aware of the Doctor's scrutinizing gaze, CJ consciously tried not to limp. Of course, paying that much attention to putting one foot in front of the other felt unnatural and she was certain she only succeeded in exaggerating any possible limp.
So engrossed in her own footwork, she didn't realize they were being tailed until they reached Leo's office and she caught a glimpse of red from the corner of her eyes. "Danny!"
The White House reporter smiled brightly. "CJ."
"You are not supposed to be here."
Danny grinned proudly. "Carol let me in, she likes me."
"If she keeps that up, I won't like her anymore."
"C'mon," he cocked his head and exuded a confidence that right now, just played on her already irritated mood. "You know you like me too."
She glared in Abbey's direction, aware of the smirk on the other woman's lips, before replying to Danny, "I like seeing you leave."
He held up his hands in surrender, not immune to the threat in her voice. "I just want the final draft."
"You'll have it before two, I promise."
Almost she had him, he already started to back away when his eyes lit up. "The address starts at noon!"
"Can't get anything past you, can I, Danny-boy?"
"What's the hold-up anyway? This is last minute work CJ, if we don't have the final draft soon, we'll have to write about how the staff prepared for the inauguration and you don't want that."
She really didn't want that. With a sigh she adopted a more personable attitude. "Toby's just twiddling with the opening paragraphs. You'll have the final draft before we reach the Hill."
"I have to say CJ, this doesn't look very professional."
"Well, there's a reason we didn't want you around," she admitted easily; opting for humor rather than defense. Hopefully he wouldn't realize just how honest that answer was.
But as always, Danny had something up his sleeve. "Care to comment on the latest poll results?"
"CAROL!" Within seconds, the brunette appeared a few feet away. "Get him out of here, call security if need be." Both Danny and Carol protested against the drastic measure, but they just couldn't risk press lurking in the halls this day, even if it was Danny, so she waved them off.
The journalist winked at her and nodded in Carol's direction. "She likes me."
"And stop liking him!" CJ watched the two of them disappear down the hall, very much aware Carol gave no notice to her latest order, and made a mental note to speak to her staff about the incident. Right now, there was a slightly more pressing matter waiting for her.
Abbey nudged her side when they continued their path. "He likes you."
"Could we go the rest of the day without mentioning my social life?"
The lines around Abbey's eyes deepened when she laughed, "my dear, you have no social life."
"I'm just vocationally challenged," CJ defended herself meekly.
To her relief, they finally reached the ante-office where Mrs. Landingham looked up from her desk. "Ms. Cregg, Mrs. Bartlet."
"I need to see the President-Elect, Mrs. Landingham."
The secretary looked at her with an 'is that so' expression, for which CJ really didn't have the time. "Is he expecting you?"
"Yes." The lie would probably take her off the cookie-list for a few weeks, but she could live with that.
"Let me check."
Going against every rule the secretary so painstakingly – and at times sadistically – implemented during the campaign, CJ didn't wait for the okay and charged straight ahead. She heard Mrs. Landigham say something about cookies to Abigail, but her focus was already on the last obstacle in front of her.
She yanked the handle of the door and came face to face with a surprised President-Elect, a familiar, but mercifully closed dossier in his hand. "Where's the fire?"
She followed his gaze as it moved to a point just over her left shoulder and jumped when she saw Mrs. Landingham – arms crossed. "Sorry Mr. President-Elect. This one forgot her manners."
But Bartlet's attention had already moved to his third visitor. "That's alright Mrs. Landingham," he said absently as his wife stepped around the two other women. He whistled appreciatively. "Great outfit."
"You like?" Abbey twirled for him. Judging by the look in his eyes, the clothes didn't interest him all that much. CJ instantly recoiled from that thought, for some reason flashing back to when her teenage-self walking in on her father and first – or second? – stepmom doing the nasty.
"Much," Jed smarted, "that's my sweatshirt."
"I'd like it back now."
Not at all thrown by her defiance – at least not in any way obvious to CJ – Jed advanced on his wife. "Then I'll take it back."
"Ha! You and what army, grandpa?"
There was a beat, the kind that signaled the smug line of his mouth was justified, before he answered; "the 82nd airborne."
Slightly uncomfortable, CJ considered sneaking back out into the ante-office until the First Couple was done playing games. That, however, meant she'd have to face Mrs. Landingham – who had managed to leave without alerting anyone. The choice really wasn't that difficult. She'd take raunchy Bartlets over a pissed Mrs. L. anytime. She was so caught up in her dilemma, she didn't realize Abbey was talking to her. "CJ, can he do that?"
"Oh," she physically backed away, "don't pull me into this."
Apparently her impression of Switzerland bolstered the President. He spread his arms, the file still closed and all but forgotten as he bowed. "You're married to Potus now, baby." Abbey cocked an eyebrow at her husband's frivolous advances. "Get used to it."
"I'm still going home with someone else tonight," she promised her husband.
Bartlet shrugged unperturbed, "I hear the President of this country is a brilliant, handsome man you can't possible deny."
"Is that so?"
"hmm… so obviously I can't stop you from cheating with him, seeing how he's just so good looking and smart."
"So you're saying it's okay if I cheat on you?" CJ noticed the change in tone and suddenly worried her boss would take things a little too far. A lover's spat was the last thing she needed this day.
Jed, however, seemed oblivious to any changes in his wife's attitude. "Of course. You'd only cheat on me with the President, anyway."
Abbey crossed her arms and squared her shoulders. "In your dreams, boyfriend. If I want to cheat, I'll cheat with anyone I damn well please." Oh this could turn so very bad.
"Sounds like you've got someone in mind."
"That must drive you crazy."
"A little," the President-Elect admitted lightly. "Who is this man? I'll send the 82nd airborne after him."
"Maybe it's a woman," Abbey grinned triumphantly, "maybe it's CJ."
"Aw, what does she have that I don't?"
"Apart from the obvious? About five inches." To his credit, Jed appeared more disturbed by the thinly veiled attack on his height, than anything else the First Lady just insinuated.
"I'm not getting pulled into this either," CJ stated when the First Couple looked expectantly in her direction. "Maybe I'll just wait outside," she mused. Surely she could take Mrs. Landingham. Mrs. Bartlet interrupted before she reached the door, the affection in her voice barely controlled. CJ couldn't help but feel a little envious of the bond between these two brilliant minds. "That's okay, CJ. I'm leaving before he gets any fresh ideas."
"I'll show you fresh," Jed mumbled and pulled his wife close for a full on kiss that left the couple a little breathless and CJ staring at her hands. At least it didn't look like she'd have to worry about marital fall-outs.
Just when she thought it was safe to look up again, the President-Elect grabbed a handful of his wife's ass. Abbey just rolled her eyes and winked at the slightly uncomfortable Press Secretary, putting an extra bounce in her step on her way to the exit.
"Still thinking about cheating?"
"Every minute of every day," Abbey promised as she slipped through the door.
"Just checking." Energized by the exchange, Jed Bartlet waved at the only woman in his staff. "So what can I do for you, Claudia Jean?"
"I'd like that file back, sir."
"This one?" He pulled his glasses down and studied the title page. "I haven't read it yet."
She resisted the urge to shuffle her feet. "That's why I'd like it back."
"Are there mistakes in it?" His tone was light, but she knew better than to think he didn't care.
She also knew lying wouldn't get her anywhere, but that didn't mean she had to give up the truth that easily. "No, sir."
"Is it an accidental copy of last week's results?" Again she shook her head, her eyes on the prize. "Or," the infliction behind that one syllable spelled 'game over' loud and clear, "are they just that bad?" When she didn't respond he snorted and turned to study the painting on the left wall. "I can handle low approval ratings on the morning of my inauguration just fine, Claudia Jean."
Maybe so, but it hadn't escaped her that he'd had the file in his hands for a good ten minutes now and he still hadn't opened it. "Good or bad, Mr. President, these results honestly don't matter. You have to trust me."
His reaction was immediate; his shoulders slumped and the jovial attitude disappeared. CJ regretted her words, she hadn't meant to dredge up old mistakes, she just really needed that file back. When he held the file out to her, she almost didn't take it, but decided not to risk him changing his mind.
Now that it was safely out of his hands, she relaxed a little and accepted his invitation to sit.
"I never apologized."
She brushed off his apology. "We disagreed, I imagine that will happen again at some point."
When he frowned, she grinned. He hated disagreeing with his staff almost as much as he hated being wrong. "The DNC Chair yelled at me for a good ten minutes." His expression turned boyish, "I told him he can't do that anymore when I'm President."
"Or you'll send the 82nd airborne after him?"
There was a hint of surprise in his eyes before he grinned. "I guess that threat is wearing thin, fast."
"Nah, but it sounds like the 82nd guys are going to be pretty busy the next eight years."
"You seem pretty sure about that second term."
"There's no point giving up on another term beforehand." Uncomfortable under his piercing eyes, she crossed her legs and studied the lines on his forehead. He didn't look older than when she first met him, when would that change? Presidency usually wasn't all that kind to the aging process. With her – just – thirty-seven years, she was one of the youngest staffers traipsing these hallways and when all was said and done, she'd be forty-five and in desperate need of a long, long vacation.
"Anyway." She dropped her eyes to his when he spoke again, unsure if she wanted to know what thoughts caused the disappointed expression now on his face. With his thin lips pursed like that, he looked more like a disciplined schoolboy, than a fearsome leader. "Turns out Davids wasn't all that surprised by my, shall we say 'error of judgment'; he was stunned no one on my staff stopped me."
It took a lot more willpower not to react that she would've liked, but the incident was still fresh in her mind. She'd argued her case flawlessly, strengthened in the knowledge it was the only answer to the abortion debate that wouldn't alienate half the country, only to have the whole staff turn against her. She'd lost arguments before, but this one really cut close to her heart. To make matters worse; she'd spent the better part of the last three weeks fixing a mistake that could've been prevented.
Bartlet looked at her guiltily. "I should've listened to you."
"I'm your PR-advisor," she shrugged and deflated. Playing 'what if's' would not help this President. "You didn't hire me to comment on, or suggest policy."
"Maybe we should change your job-description."
Grateful for the consideration, she matched his smile. "If the last few months are any indication, I'll have my hands full with my job as it is."
A shadow of doubt crossed his face. "There'll be sacrifices."
"Yes, but there'll be victories."
His nod was pensive, not at all convinced and she realized he'd locked his fingers together as if in prayer. A change of subject wouldn't be a bad idea, CJ figured. "Which Bible did you settle on?"
"Our family Bible." He waved the worn, leather book through the air for a moment, before holding it out to her.
"Good choice." It was hard to truly grasp the age of this bundle of paper. Sure, two hundred years sounded old, but what did she have to compare it with?
"Let's hope so," she was forming a list of reasons supporting his choice in her head when he continued, "we let Liz hold it during Zoey's baptism. God knows how she got hold of a pen."
Curiosity piqued, CJ leafed carefully through the thin pages until she reached Genesis 21, where young Elizabeth Bartlet had scribbled her name, a heart with an arrow through it, and 'Jimmy' in the margin. The sharp tip of the pen punctured the paper, the little holes pricking her fingertips.
"At least she picked an altar-boy," Jed acquiesced with obvious affection.
The laughter died in CJ's throat when she realized how long it'd been since she held a Bible and she closed the book abruptly.
Looking up at him, she forced a smile. "My dad went to church mostly because it was important to mom. He spent most of the service scribbling numbers and calculations in the margins. Calculating the exact number of kids Abraham and Sarah had, how many years supposedly passed between one passage and the next, things like that." The corners of her mouth pulled up with the memories. "I probably solved more equations than I said prayers. After she…" the word stuck in her throat, her eyes glued to the holy book in her hand, its worn leather rough under her fingertips, "died, we still went, but we never prayed." She knew her father still had that bible and hated that she had to wonder how much longer he'd be able to make sense of the math. Jed – the President – looked at her with sympathy she found hard to take. She didn't often think back to her childhood and spoke of it even less.
He took the Bible from her when she held it out. "Do you believe in God, Claudia Jean?"
He studied her as if they'd never met. Some press secretary she was, blurting out answers like that. She couldn't read him well enough to figure out if she needed to elaborate or not, so she said nothing and matched his studious gaze instead. "My family has always had a close relationship with God," he no longer looked at her, though his eyes were still trained on her face. CJ sat unmoving, unsure of what was to come. "Perhaps, because we were never close with each other."The admission hung between them for a pregnant moment. She didn't know what to say next, but he let her off the hook. Whether for her benefit or his, she wasn't sure. "Anyway, don't we have to leave soon?"
CJ checked her watch and used that moment to collect herself. The Governor – President, didn't usually share personal thoughts with her. Then again, she couldn't blame him for being a little emotional on this day. "We have a few minutes." And it looked like Toby could use them, damn him. "Did you read Hoynes' speech?"
"Yes. Curiously, I haven't read my own."
"I'm sure Toby's almost finished." Her heart skipped a beat when his words sank in. "You did read the finished paragraphs, didn't you? He's only working on the opening, the rest has been done for a while. You did read it, didn't you? Sir?"
"Of course," he waved her off, "not that it's any good without, you know, a genesis."
"He'll be here," she sounded much more convinced than she felt, "I threatened his future offspring."
"Assuming he'll have any." A knock on the door interrupted her comeback. "I thought you picked the red suit?" Jed questioned his wife as she appeared, dressed in a simple, black ensemble and almost drowning in a heavy winter coat.
"Burgundy, and I'll change on the Hill. Don't want to get my clothes wrinkled in the car."
"Is that why you told me I didn't have change before leaving?"
Abbey smiled cruelly. "Yes. There's a suit waiting for you on the Hill."
He sighed dramatically. "Well, let's go." Abbey handed him his jacket and watched as he flipped it over his head and slid his arms through the sleeves.
"But sir, the speech…"
"I said 'let's go', CJ." Obediently she fell into step behind them, cursing Toby under her breath.
"Jed, your coat," Abbey admonished when they passed the coat rack next to Mrs. Landingham's desk. "It's forty degrees out there."
"Until 1933 the Presidential inaugurations were held in March." CJ swallowed a groan. She knew that tone, that type of fact and searched the corridors for Toby as much as an escape route. "Better weather you may think, but the Inauguration of William Taft was moved inside due to low temperatures."
"Fascinating," Abbey commented dryly.
"He was a wuss," the almost-President continued unfazed, "Reagan held his second inauguration inside as well; also a wuss. In New Hampshire forty degrees is balmy, tropical."
"In New Hampshire you don't have to stand outside for three hours."
"We could go to New York," he reached for his wife's hand as they approached the backdoor, "Washington held his first address at the Federal Hall."
"I'm sure those ten degrees will make all the difference," Abbey deadpanned. The Secret Service detail surrounding them shifted in format.
CJ couldn't help but feel a little like an inmate, rather than a protectee and hunched her shoulders to avoid bumping into any of the severe-faced, black coated, lethal agents. "Didn't one of Franklin Roosevelt's inaugurations take place at the White House?" She cursed her mouth and for a second had idle hope her words fell on deaf ears. Then Bartlet swiveled around, index finger in the air.
"Why yes, his fourth if I remember correctly. Nineteen-forty-five. You know, to this day there are different theories about why the inauguration took place in the White House." Abbey looked over her shoulder and rolled her eyes, her husband happily chatting while they moved to the car, veiled by a dozen or so agents. "The official reason was of course 'the expense and impropriety of festivity during the height of war', but other theories suggest FDR's poor health caused the change in venue."
"He did die a few months later," the First Lady pointed out as she stepped into the gleaming black limo.
Jed looked at her thoughtfully. "Yeah, so that didn't help."
"I'll see you on the Hill-"
"Ride with us, Claudia-Jean."
The plea in Mrs. Bartlet's voice almost made her laugh. She shook her head, "someone has to make sure the boys get there in one piece." Except for Toby, she could live with Toby arriving in two – or three – pieces.
As the window rolled up, she just caught Bartlet's citation of Roosevelt's address, "We have learned that we must live as men, not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger."
"Please God," she muttered on her way to Toby's office, "don't let him improvise." The sea of interns and high-level assistants still crowding the halls parted before her like the red sea. Just to be sure, she checked her mirror image for any steam coming out of her ears before charging ahead. Heads were going to roll and she didn't care if she ended up on the CIA's most wanted list by noon.
Josh fell into step behind her, about halfway to her destination. He babbled something about screwing up earlier, but she easily tuned him out. Having reached the communications office, she pushed the door open without knocking. Toby looked infuriatingly unsurprised and tried a calm preemptive strike. "CJ…"
"I don't want to hear it Ziegler." She yanked his coat from the rack and threw it against his chest. The keys apparently in one of the pockets providing satisfying sound-effects when they hit him. "The President is on his way to the Capitol, without the finished address and he was quoting FDR."
Sam shrank back behind his desk when she turned to glare at him. "Does it matter?"
"Well, if it was the thirty-three—"
Appeased for now, she moved back to Toby. "I don't care how bad it is, you're going to print what you have and let Carol distribute it to the press."
"That's really not—"
"I swear Pokey, one more word and I'll behead you right now. Sure, I'd prefer to wait until after the inauguration, with the bad press and all, but you've pushed just enough buttons." When he remained silent, she continued somewhat triumphantly. "Then we are going to the Hill and if you're lucky, I won't toss you into the Potomac on the way. Got it?"
"Yeah," he answered, seemingly unaffected by her tirade, "but I really think—"
"Move it." CJ watched as the two men slowly got up and started to file out of the office. She followed closely as if she could somehow herd everything into its proper space and time again. Arms crossed she oversaw Toby handing a floppy to a confused Carol and left her assistant with strict instructions. No one spoke when they headed to their cars, even Josh kept his mouth shut for once.
Ninety minutes later, she realized that somehow she'd made it without killing anyone or exploding. She hadn't spoken with Toby or Sam since leaving their office and she felt perfectly fine leaving it that way for a long, long time. Or, at least for five more minutes. The last staff meeting before the official transition was one she couldn't easily avoid.
Her last briefing just behind her, it suddenly hit her that the real game was only just beginning. Her next briefing she'd be standing in front of the White House seal, in the actual White House as the actual, official White House Press Secretary.
The painful throbbing in her ankle shook her from the paralyzing fear that momentarily overcame her. She'd been so busy with the preparations, fixing mistakes and keeping the guys in line that she hadn't really thought about what was next. After she took a deep breath, she addressed the two stiff guards at either side of the door. "Is anyone in yet?"
The blond one only shook his head.
"Think it's okay if I go in?" The other agent opened the door without a word. "Friendly," she murmured nervously.
Over the course of the campaign, she'd been to the Hill more times than she could count, but she didn't recognize the room. It wasn't lavish, or as stately as the rest of the building seemed to be. Instead, it felt almost homely as she dropped herself in what turned out to be a plush couch with poor springs. She sank just a little too far into the worn upholstery to be comfortable and when the door opened to admit the President-Elect and his wife, she struggled to stand. The ankle didn't help, causing her to stumble and draw a worried glance from the Doctor. From behind her, Mrs. Landingham gave her the evil eye.
Oblivious to her flailing, Bartlet greeted her with grand gestures. "CJ! Oh don't get up, we don't have much time. At least that's what Leo keeps saying, you'd think he's about to become a father again, the way that man is running around the place."
"Leo?" Leo? Leo was unflappable. Nothing ever fazed that man and occasionally she hated him for it. Okay, most of the time she hated him for it.
But Bartlet didn't hear her. "Did you know that when preparing for his third inauguration FDR—"
"Sir, the address, we have to—" Toby skitted to a halt when he saw her, his face scrunching up. She'd never admit to being grateful for his crude interruption. "CJ."
No one had a chance to recover before the arrival of the wonder boys in rapt discussion with one another. CJ was sure Sam and Josh could've gone six rounds without noticing anyone else's presence and Toby, for once, seemed at loss on how to interrupt them.
Leo's arrival did the trick. He walked casually into the room, then paused, confusion crinkling the lines on his forehead. "You're all here."
Pulled from their little world, Josh and Sam replied in unison, "you told us to be."
"Yeah, but I didn't expect any of you to be on time." Grumbling aside, there was a light in his eyes that made him look ten years younger. If Leo felt confident, CJ decided, then so did she. At least until her President had to address his people.
The conversations around her picked up again, but running on just a liter of coffee and no sleep for thirty-six hours, CJ couldn't be bothered to keep track. It's not like they were saying anything of interest. What was a note of interest was their impending to switch to, well, reality and now that she had a moment to think about it, it was a rather daunting prospect. She'd done a good job in forgetting that she was here but for the grace of Toby and she still wasn't wholly convinced Leo didn't have a back-up ready in case she cracked under the pressure.
Not gonna happen. They weren't going to screw this up. She wouldn't screw up.
Something Toby said pulled her out of her inner dialogue. Standing opposed to Bartlet, half obscuring the President-Elect from her view, the speechwriter threw his hands in the air and exclaimed "there's time! If you'd just read through the first para—"
"No." Their boss crossed his arms and pursed his lips. "It's too late, Toby. I'll adlib."
Blood pressure rising, CJ glanced at her other colleagues, only to find them too immersed in their own conversations to hear the early signs of the apocalypse.
"It'll be fun!" Jed added joyfully. Successfully extinguishing any hope she had left for an inauguration that would go down in history as anything other than disastrous. Why did no one else seem to care? Toby grunted defeat – never a good sign – and gave up.
She caught Abbey's eye over Leo's shoulder when she finally made it out of the couch, only to stumble and almost fall back. Cat-like she twisted her body just enough to shift her centre of gravity and stayed upright. The Doctor smiled thinly, CJ smirked. She wasn't going to fall down, not today.
Anyway, she was actually moving with a purpose and took a tentative step towards the man of the hour. If she could just talk some sense into him. Glancing through Toby's latest paragraphs wouldn't take that long, there was still time.
"Okay, listen up!" Leo's stern exclamation effectively halted her steps and all conversation in the room. "We have to be out in thirty minutes. Josh, I want you to go over the security protocols one last time with agent Butterfield and major Strasser. Toby, Sam, you'll have fifteen minutes with the President-Elect," he looked sternly at the two men and tilted his head to include Bartlet, "it'd be nice if you could all manage to not make mistakes today." It'd be funny, were it not crucial. "CJ, babysit the press, don't let them go where they're not supposed to. Oh, and stop by Hoynes and his cronies, will you?"
They all murmured acknowledgements and started to file out of the room, when Bartlet called them back. "Hold a sec, I have something to say before I will become, well, the guy with his finger on the nuclear button – and we'll find out soon enough if that's a good thing, or not. A word of thanks." The very real trepidation in the President-Elect's voice undercut the questionable joke.
Suddenly ashamed to have been close to freaking out, CJ realized the real weight of this transfer lay on Bartlet's shoulders, not hers. He was holding up pretty well though and seemed relaxed, if a little emotional.
They gathered around their leader, who took a few seconds to make eye contact with every member of his staff before speaking. "We wouldn't be standing here if not for your continuing passion and persistence. Leo's unfaltering belief convinced me to run. Josh, your energy is a little nutty, but you get the job done and Sam, I ran for people like you, who believe that if we just try hard enough, we will make a difference. Compromises are inevitable and so are mistakes and we wouldn't cope half as elegantly without you Claudia Jean. Nothing I could say would have as much impact if not for Toby's words. I know I wasn't very nice to you when we started this journey," he admitted sheepishly, "but here we are, ready to take – err, change the country. Thank you."
No one knew quite what to say to the heartfelt speech, until Leo straightened his back and pulled his face into a smile. "I serve at the pleasure of President Josiah Bartlet."
CJ felt tears stinging in the corners of her eyes as she repeated with the others, "I serve at the pleasure of President Josiah Bartlet."
"Okay," Jed nodded and broke the sudden awkward silence, "let's get it over with." He grabbed hold of his wife with one hand and held Mrs. Landingham's hand with the other, quietly and privately thanking the older women like he'd just thanked the rest of his staff. CJ didn't know much of their past, but it had always been clear they'd known each other for a long, long time.
It felt weird to split up and complete the last moments of this journey separately. Of course they all had their responsibilities, but they were a team. At least they could stick together for a little while longer, heading down the long hallway.
"I watched the briefing." Toby spoke quietly from behind her, the way he usually did when he realized he treaded on thin ice with her. CJ judged it better not to halt her steps and look at him, or reply. Instead she kept her eyes focused on the President-Elect's back. "He'll be okay."
Easy for him to say. If Bartlet flunked – and that was a fifty-fifty chance, taking overall performance into account – Toby wasn't the one who had to fix it on international television. "It didn't sound like you read the final draft," he continued his train of thought.
The muscles in her back tensed and against her better judgment, she turned. "At what point, during the last four hours do you think I've had time to read it Toby?"
He just shrugged, a sliver of accusation in his beady little eyes.
"Between hourly briefings, staff, babysitting Josh, sucking up to network bosses and secret service security briefings and kicking your ass, when exactly have I had time to read the inauguration address. Which, by the way, you finished five minutes before we left!" Slowly she took her finger down from where it hovered between them. His lips parted, her eyes narrowed. "Don't," she warned breathlessly.
For a second he appeared to heed her warning and closed his mouth, then with a gleam in his eyes he quickly mumbled "coulda read it in the car" and took off.
CJ took a deep breath, and another one, and one more just to be safe, before breaking formation to find Senator Hoynes.
Thankfully the VP-Elect seemed calm and collected and his capable staff had done an excellent job keeping him on schedule, so really all she had to do was confirm his speech and choice of Bible.
The esteemed members of the press, on the other hand, were rowdy and excited. Their constant questions and demands did little for the headache she'd managed to bring under control. Deftly she herded them into their assigned holding pen . The week'd been too long for witty remarks, so she stuck with quick and simple answers to keep them happy and distracted them with brand new itineraries and Carol while she dashed off for a last quick word with the President-Elect.
Abbey was carefully smoothing down her husband's suit and tugging on his tie when CJ popped behind the stage. Just out of earshot, one of the assistants busily conversed with the ceremony master but the stress in the room was palpable. The hour was upon them.
When the First Lady took off in search of a mirror for a last check of her make-up, CJ quickly approached her boss. He looked a little forlorn, standing in the middle of an inhumanly amount of wires, lights, cables and more wires. People she'd never seen before where running around the place like a colony of rats. How could security possibly be as tight as she'd just told the press it was?
"Are there a lot of people out?"
She swallowed. "Yeah." In fact, she'd never seen such a crowd. Hard to believe some people had been standing out in the cold since eight a.m. "Did you talk to Hoynes?"
"Just before he went out," Jed confirmed, " If I get shot in the next ten minutes, he'll get one hell of a promotion."
"Well let's just pretend that's not going to happen."
"Let's," Leo deadpanned, appearing out of nowhere. "It's time to go, Mr. President-Elect."
Abbey reappeared at her husband's side, the three Bartlet-daughters, one son-in-law and two nervous grandchildren in tow. CJ shuffled uneasily; she had a message to deliver, but she hadn't counted on an audience. "Sir?" Leo looked at her impatiently. Thankfully Bartlet's blue eyes were kind, allowing her to set aside her reservations. "Just… remember you already won, Mr. President."
His eyes narrowed, "is that your way of telling me not to be smug?"
"You can be smug, just don't let anyone see or hear it. Sir."
He held her eyes a moment longer. She felt anxious under his stare, unwilling to let him see she didn't have complete faith in his adlib-talents. Her mask cracked and he smiled thinly. "The only thing we have to fear, Claudia Jean, is fear itself." Oh God, Roosevelt, again. Before she could react he grabbed his wife's hand and the First Family moved away from her. "Let's do this."
CJ watched them go and made a brief stop by the press pen for any last-minute questions. The confirmation was already underway when she took her place next to Toby, standing just off the stage all the while fending off the sense of dread that loomed over her.
A strange sense of calm settled over her when the applause died down and the confirmed President opened his mouth to speak. She wished her parents could be here, that she could've watched the confirmation with them, without distraction. She wished she could listen to this speech as if she hadn't heard it – well, most of it – dozens of times before. Toby's speeches could take your breath away.
It took some time, but Toby had warmed up to his new sidekick and his writing was better for it. Samuel's enthusiastically idealistic and at times naïve disposition seemed to have conquered Toby's bleak outlook on humankind to allow for the possibility that maybe they were not surrounded by total idiots and morons.
There was hope in this speech, hope that dared to announce itself as such, but flanked by confidence and faith. The combination worked particularly well on large crowds and the enthusiastic response from the audience spurred President Bartlet on.
After the first few sentences she managed to breathe and when he was a few minutes into the address and hadn't quoted FDR at all, she actually relaxed enough to glance around her. Next to her Toby's eyes were aimed squarely in her direction. "Don't look at me like that."
His mouth thinned and it just might be the closest thing to a smile she'd seen from him in a long time. "Like what?" He asked in a quiet voice, false innocence palpable and his eyes lit up like a Christmas tree.
"Like you knew he'd do good."
"Sure." She didn't buy it. This was sheer luck. Toby just looked at her and shuffled his feet minutely. An uneasy feeling crept up on her. Her friend didn't usually look this smug without good reason. Suspicious now, she glanced from Toby to Josh, to Sam and Leo. And back to Sam. He mouthed along with President Bartlet's words. Sam always did that. It was not something that should strike her as odd, because it wasn't.
Except that Sam couldn't possibly know how Bartlet would improvise, let alone match him word for word. Her mind finally connected the dots. Without looking she jabbed her elbow in Toby's side. "You played me!"
"Like a violin," her friend confirmed with pride in his eyes.
Toby's non-smile widened, "touch of the master."
CJ followed his gaze back to the just confirmed President, orating with every ounce of gravitas in him and she wanted to be mad for the unnecessary stress they caused, for giving the press more information than her. She wanted to be mad, really. But they played her. The President of the United States of America played her and the address drew deafening applause in all the right places.