The first time the doorbell rang, no one was there. "Right," C.J said to the stoop, "Fine. Thanks. It's not like I have, you know, better things to be doing."
It wasn't until ten minutes later, when a much shriller bell reminded her to open the oven to a faceful of black smoke, that C.J realized the first bell had been the oven timer, and the second bell was the –
The doorbell rang again.
"Go away!" C.J shouted.
The ringing stopped. She slammed the oven shut, then opened it, attempted to rescue the pie from the smoke, and burned her fingers on the dish.
"That's no way to treat your guests," Toby deadpanned when she conceded to his ringing the bell a third time.
"I don't have any guests yet. I can't possibly have any guests yet. You're just a figment of my imagination."
C.J took her burned fingers out of her mouth. "I said, you're a figment of my imagination."
Toby raised his eyebrows. "Discounting the fact that as a figment of your imagination I am not only already inside your apartment but inside your head, may I come in?"
"Oh come on then."
Toby positioned himself in the corner of the kitchen, hands behind his back, practically twinkling with amusement. "Claudia Jean," he declared, "I have never seen a tower of boxes so fine."
"I'm going to unpack those," she said, without turning around. Trust Toby to throw off his black cloak of despair on the one night she had absolutely no patience for it. The pie, she decided, was a hopeless cause. Sometimes a girl had to cut her losses and move on. She made a bold leap into the salads.
"Before everyone gets here." Should she microwave the potatoes, or did that make the cream curdle? "After I've finished these salads. And fixed another pie. And picked up some beers."
"And put the table together?"
"And put the table together."
"You do realize I was kidding about being a figment of your imagination, right?"
It turned out that microwaving the potatoes did curdle the cream. Should she – to hell with it, curdled cream was still cream. "Yes, Toby."
"Actually, I am a flesh and blood guest."
She could feel his stillness at her back; his bright, passive gaze. As if to compensate for their usual roles, she felt graceless, impatient.
"Toby, I'm kinda busy here."
"Of course. I'm just pointing out that your window for doing all these things has, ah, closed."
C.J thrust her purse at him. "Yeah, but you're just the kind of guy arrives at a girl's house ridiculously early so you can stand in the corner and twinkle, Toby, I know you."
"You twinkle. You're a twinkler."
There was a pause while Toby considered this, or perhaps he was considering her purse which he was holding with both hands like a holy book.
C.J was cutting tomatoes into chunks, separating out the moldy soft bits. There were a lot of moldy soft bits. "Well?"
"It may be true that I'm a little early."
"Really quite early."
"Enough early?" she asked suddenly. Maybe she could make another pie.
"Shut up. You underestimate me. Run out and pick me up some beers, would you?"
"Is that why I'm holding your purse?"
"Unless you'd rather pay for it yourself, which now that I think about it would be great, because there's very little money in there, on account of I haven't been paid yet, have you been paid yet?"
"Huh. You should bring that up with Leo."
"Yeah, sure – " And there it was, the first tiny impatient sigh, and how was it she could feel a glimmer of regret for having pushed Toby back to his grumpy self at the same time as she felt relieved that now she could argue with him – "Because there's nothing I'd rather do than bring up money in front of Leo McGarry. Except maybe jump naked into the Potomac. C.J?"
"Oh like hell, you think I'm gonna ask Leo for money? You'd better make some room in the Potomac because he'll kick my ass right in alongside you."
"No he won't. C.J?"
"Okay, then I'll climb in of my own volition out of pure unadulterated shame."
Toby shuffled his feet and ran his hand over his bald head. "Okay. C.J?"
"There's a perfectly good bar on the corner."
"There is. There’s also a perfectly good liquor store, which is where I'm asking you to pick up some beers for me."
"No, I mean, we could go down there. For the party. Get a table at the back, get some food."
"Toby, I asked everyone around for my housewarming. If it's not at my house it kind of defeats the purpose."
"Yeah, C.J, I don't know if you've noticed this, but your house isn't exactly warm."
"It was nearly a whole lot warmer, if you ringing the doorbell hadn't caused me to check the pie just before it burst into flames."
Toby laughed with some alarm. "C.J – "
"Little joke there."
"Yeah," Toby said dubiously. "Look, I'll call the others, tell them to meet us down there. I'll go grab us a table."
"Would you stop it? I can do this. I have everything under control."
"C.J, we've been in Washington a month and it looks like you've barely spent ten minutes in here."
"Well, I've had a lot on at work."
"No kidding. You should see Josh's place."
"Josh found a place?"
"This is what I mean."
"That's not the point. You can't compare me to Josh. I invited everyone around. I can't just – "
"What, you think you're held to a higher standard than Josh?"
"Everyone's held to a higher standard than Josh," she shot back, but she'd slipped, she knew it, and Toby knew it too. Maybe she meant to slip.
"C.J, no one expects you to be Press Secretary and – I don't know, Betty Crocker."
"Martha Stewart. Whatever. Just 'cause you're a woman doesn't mean you have to prove you can – I'm trying to say – "
"Yeah, Toby, I'll stop you right there and remind you that not only do I have a Masters degree in kicking your chauvinistic ass, but I also have at least seven deadly kitchen utensils at my immediate disposal. Shit."
"You all right?"
"Yeah, I just – dammit. I just cut myself. It's fine. It's nothing."
Toby thrust his hands in his pockets and rattled an enormous sigh through his beard. "C.J, let's go to the bar."
C.J was running her hand under the tap, alternating between the cut finger and the burnt ones. Okay. Breathe in, breathe out. She knew defeat when she saw it.
"It's my housewarming, Toby," she said, as final resistance.
"So, we're changing the venue."
"You can't change the venue of a housewarming without also calling it something else, Word-Man."
Toby shrugged irritably. "Make it a House-warming."
A smile flashed across her face despite herself, and suddenly Toby was reticent again.
"You know," he mumbled, "like for the White House. Like Washington is, is, is," he gestured broadly, "our house now, or whatever."
C.J dried her hands on her apron, then turned around to face Toby for the first time. "Washington is our house now?"
He still had his hands in his pockets. He raised his eyebrows at her, hiding the embarrassed smile in his eyes. "Well, certainly more than here."
The pie steamed and smoked on the counter. C.J threw it into the trash with a force that was unexpectedly satisfying, then leaned forward and kissed Toby on the cheek. "Okay. You call the others and I'll grab my coat. Let's go."