CJ swept past Donna in the hallway. "So I need to get a new dress for the State Dinner."
"But you have that beautiful blue Armani. And the silvery gray ballgown with the plunging back--"
"Yeah. Well. It's a thing." CJ kept walking and Donna hurried after her. She was glad of her height -- she easily matched CJ's stride. "And I need a ride. My car is in the shop again. But if you don't want to go..."
"No, no. Of course I do." She always appreciated it when CJ asked her to do something personal, something away from the office, even if it was just because she needed a ride. Of course she wanted to go, to help.
She knew that they didn't always approve of how Josh brought her to everything, including senior staff nights at the bar. She thought that CJ asking her to go shopping at lunch was a step in the right direction, a step toward acceptance on her own merits, rather than as Josh's tagalong.
She wanted that more than she could possibly say.
Because while she loved Josh and Sam dearly, was extremely fond of Toby (though she'd never tell him so) and was in awe of Leo, CJ was everything she wanted to be -- elegant, smart, respected and generally amazing.
Of course, CJ was currently in the doghouse, but still, she was cooler than anyone Donna had ever known, her ease under pressure was extraordinary, and if she'd screwed up, well, it still wouldn't ever be as bad as Josh's secret plan to fight inflation, or Toby's mishandling of Ann Stark. Or the President's lying to them all about his MS.
It was on the tip of her tongue to say something, but CJ was in her office now, picking up the phone.
"Lunchtime?" Donna asked, and CJ nodded.
The boutique was small and out of the way, tastefully decorated in muted blues and grays, and, Donna was sure, very, very expensive.
The owner, Max, had five gowns waiting for CJ. All of them had long sleeves and high necklines.
Donna frowned as CJ stepped into the dressing room. None of the dresses were what she'd consider CJ's usual style. They were all far too...matronly was the only word she could come up with. The gowns were all far too matronly for someone as stylish as CJ.
Donna wandered through the sparsely furnished store, and she knew she could never afford any of the dresses. Someday, she told herself. Someday she would.
She was lost in a daydream of herself wearing a strapless cobalt blue cocktail gown when she heard CJ say, "You're holding out on me, Max."
She turned in time to see Max enter the changing room with a heavy black gown over his arm.
In the mirror, in the brief moment that the stall door was open, Donna caught a glimpse of CJ's arms. They were thin and pale and covered with angry red marks.
"Claudia Jean! Are you ill?" Max said.
Donna whirled away, pretending she hadn't seen.
"No," CJ snapped. "I'm okay. But you can see why I need this dress, right?"
"I don't believe you, but you can take the dress," Max said mulishly. "But next time, backless or nothing."
CJ paid for the gown and they headed back to the White House, an uncomfortable silence between them. At least, Donna felt it was uncomfortable.
She knew how private CJ was, and didn't think she'd take well to the motherly hectoring to which she'd have subjected Josh or Sam in the same situation.
There were very few people from whom CJ would take any type of interference at all. Of that handful, Leo was still angry, and Donna didn't exactly have the status to go to the President or Mrs. Bartlet and ask them to make sure CJ was okay. Josh would just bungle things, and Sam would be too easily put off with excuses.
Which is why she found herself outside Toby's office that afternoon.
"Yes?" he said, not looking up from the document he was reading.
She closed the door and sat down. "Something's going on with CJ."
"Gee, you think?"
"Toby--" Donna swallowed the sarcastic response that automatically sprung to her lips and said, "Toby, I'm serious. She asked me to go with her to buy a gown for the State Dinner, and --"
"Why is she buying another dress? She's got that blue one, and the one with the back." He cocked his head, thinking. "Well, the one without the back, really."
"This is what I'm saying."
He shook his head, went back to reading.
She tried again. "Toby, I saw her in the dressing room. She's, she's sick. She has these red marks all over her arms--"
His head snapped back up, dark eyes locked onto hers. "Red marks? What kind of red marks?"
Donna shrugged, frustrated at not being able to tell him more. "I don't know, Toby. That's why I'm here, telling you. You go talk to her. She'll listen to you." She crossed her arms over her chest; even thinking CJ was sick, after everything else that had happened, gave her a chill.
Donna took that as rhetorical. He stood, so she did too.
"Don't thank me yet."
CJ was staring at her reflection in the mirror when he walked into her office.
The gown was columnar, black, with a turtleneck and long sleeves.
CJ hated wearing such conservative gowns. He wondered what she was trying to hide.
"Hey." he said, sitting on her couch, pulling the throw around his shoulders. It reminded him of a tallit, which reminded him of the dead. She couldn't be sick. It wasn't allowed.
She gave him an odd look. "What's the matter?"
"The heat's been broken for the last hour and a half, CJ. I can see my breath," he said, and even to his own ears he sounded tired.
He thought of several ways to lead up to the subject, and while he knew himself to be an eloquent speaker on occasion, he was just too worried and tired to make the effort.
"Donna said you were sick."
Her lips tightened, but she didn't say anything for a long time. He imagined she was plotting revenge on Donna.
Then, "Do I look sick, Toby?"
"I'm not sure."
She laughed, but it sounded false, forced. "You really know how to flatter a girl."
His answering smile felt weak, pasted on. "You're not a girl, CJ."
"Get out, I have to change so I can go home."
He didn't move.
"I've seen you naked before, and it's warmer in here. I'll drive you home," he added when she continued to glare at him.
"It's been a long time since you've seen me naked, Toby. What would Andi say?"
He had no response for that, except to get up and walk out.
"I'm waiting out here."
A moment of silence, and then a furious pounding on the door from the inside.
"I'm sorry," she screamed. At him? At Leo? At the President? Toby wasn't sure. "I'm sorry." Softer that time.
He drove her home and she told him about it -- the dry skin, the reaction to stress leading to inflammation, the thirty-five dollar lotion she'd thrown out because -- She'd had no good reason, couldn't give him one, anyone. He couldn't think of one either, except that she felt guilty and was punishing herself.
For the lies about Bartlet's MS, lies she hadn't even known she was telling. For screwing up during the briefing. For a thousand and one little things that had happened over the past three years that never quite faded away.
She told him she was thinking of resigning, going back to California, and he knew that he couldn't convince her to stay. He wasn't the one who was angry at her. Even the President's and Leo's anger wasn't the real problem, in the end.
It was CJ who was angry, who had yet to forgive the mistakes she'd made, who had to make peace with herself.
He did the only thing he could, and hoped it was the right thing. Hoped she wouldn't shatter like glass. Aimed for a tone between annoyed and sympathetic. Aimed for normal.
"Everybody screws up, CJ. Get over it before you do any more damage."
And he left.
The announcement that the President would seek re-election.
The tension between the Bartlets.
It all ratcheted up Toby's stress level, already high because of his worry for CJ. Donna kept giving him what Josh called her "dead hamster" look, and he now understood why Josh hated it so much.
He wondered vaguely if Donna was somehow related to his mother, because no shiksa should be that good at guilt-tripping just by widening her eyes and turning her lips down.
He'd taken to avoiding her the way he was avoiding CJ. Except, of course, that he couldn't avoid CJ, so they just steered clear of the topic altogether. He watched her, though, watched the way she rubbed her arms, leaned against the wall and attempted to be surreptitious about scratching her back.
He thought of the gown again, as he lay sleepless in his own bed at night.
She'd bought herself her very own hair shirt. St. Claudia Jean, martyred on the altar of Bartlet's lie and her own mistake.
It had to stop. And he knew if he didn't do something soon, Donna would go to Josh, and that would be a disaster of monumental proportions. Because Josh loved CJ -- they all loved CJ, though they'd never say it -- and he would bull his way into it and Sam would try to rescue him and... Toby got a headache just thinking about it.
And now Donna was standing there, looking at him again. "She's in the barn."
"Isn't there a speech or something you should be going over with her?"
He knew a command when he heard one, and he wondered again just how it was that Josh's assistant ordered them all around like she was the President, and they all obeyed.
He shook his head.
He was born and raised on asphalt and concrete. He had no truck with nature, with grass that wasn't the outfield at Yankee Stadium or the Sheep's Meadow in Central Park. And now his job had taken him to rural New Hampshire.
To a barn.
Where a woman he cared about deeply was about to break into a million pieces, and he couldn't think of a way to make it all better.
He stopped when he heard voices.
Abbey Bartlet, brisk and no-nonsense. "CJ."
And CJ, in a tone he'd never heard before and never wanted to hear again. "I'm sorry."
This is what we're going to do," Abbey said, all-business, and that's what being a doctor did for you, he thought. Allowed you to listen to a woman shattering and sound like you were discussing the weather. "I'm going to write you a prescription for tetracycline -- yes, CJ, it's treatable with antibiotics. You don't have to suffer like this. And a topical cream that should help with the itching.
"If you use it, you should feel better, and then you can stop being so goddamn sorry all the time and start doing your job again."
He walked in. There was professional and bracing, and there was cruel and he was a little surprised that Abbey had crossed that line.
But CJ didn't look broken. She looked better than she had all week.
"CJ?" he said. "Oh, Mrs. Bartlet. Hello." They looked at him, Mrs. Bartlet with a raised eyebrow and CJ -- CJ had finally lost that hangdog look that had haunted him all week. "If you're done with her, I need her to read a speech." He directed his words to Abbey, but his eyes never left CJ.
"Of course. There's some more cider in the kitchen, if you'd like. When you're done, CJ, come see me. I'll have the scripts ready." And she walked out, leaving him to face CJ alone.
"Did I miss something?"
"I was going to have a little breakdown, but now I think I missed my opportunity."
"That's probably a good thing." he said, after a moment. She gave a nervous laugh.
"I was planning it out in my head, you know? What I was going to yell, and throw. I was going to get really cold and go into shock. Now, I think I'm just going to help myself so I can do my job again."
"First on your list, this speech."
He offered her the yellow legal pad he carried, but she shook her head and held out her hands. "I'm all sticky."
He followed her gaze downward to the shards of broken glass on the dirt -- the remains of a "Bartlet for President" mug.
She bent and carefully picked them up.
"I'll walk you to the nearest faucet."
She made a sound that was almost crying, but also a laugh. "There's a snake in here, you know."
He frowned. "That's unnatural."
"No, Toby, I think that's exactly what nature is," she answered. He breathed a sigh of relief. She was back.
When they were done with that draft of the speech, he drove her into town so she could fill the prescriptions Abbey had written her. He gave her the thirty-five dollars for the tube of unscented lotion. This time, she didn't throw it away, and that night, he rubbed it onto the inflamed skin of her back while she clutched a bedpost with white knuckles and hissed.
When they got back to DC, he was going to make sure the next gown she bought was backless.