It was a beautiful day for a funeral.
And I think the Presid -- Jed would have liked it that way.
I just couldn't get used to referring to him by his proper name, despite all of the obviously heavy-handed cajoling from Abbey Bartlet. As his disease had progressed, she'd become more and more adamant in keeping close those dearest to her husband; and that included all of us having to learn to refer to him by his first name. Thankfully, she didn't truly start to push it until after the elections, after they'd settled up in New England.
In a lot of ways, it didn't surprise me how quickly Jed passed away after he was out of office. All that stress and adrenaline he'd been living on for 8 years? It's a wonder he lasted as long as he did, MS or not. When Ellie not only gave him a grandson, but named the boy after Jed, I thought he was to burst from overwhelming pride. But I also had the feeling that it signaled his time to truly rest. His legacy was being passed on. And no, not the presidential legacy. That would always continue and evolve. No, it was obvious that there were enough grandchildren to pass on the Bartlet familial legacy, even if Zoey hadn't settled down yet. And so he spent the remainder of his life doing what he loved best: spending time with his friends and family.
The service itself had been full of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the death of an influential world leader. Full of politicians and other world leaders; all of whom were extolling his praises, regardless of their actual thoughts or feelings on the man and his policies. What was it about funerals that brought out the poetic waxing for the deceased?
"Claudia Jean Cregg."
That voice pulled me out of my reverie pretty damned succinctly, and I smiled self-consciously as I heard myself uttering, "Yes, Ma'am?"
She matched my smile warmly. "What have I told you about that Ma'am garbage?"
"Force of habit?" I retorted wryly and squeezed her forearm lightly. When she wrapped her own hand around mine, I studied her face for a moment. "How are you doing, Abbey?"
"As well as can be expected, I suppose. Not many people here can claim the foreknowledge I've had. Besides, Jethro and I discussed this eventuality quite extensively once his initial diagnosis came in. We've had this wake planned for years."
I glanced around the room, smiling broadly despite the circumstances. When the MS had progressed so rapidly in that final few months of his second term, they'd brought me into many intense discussions. I'd taken over as their Leo in the absence of the original. Plans for this very event had been hashed and rehashed more times than I could count. Jed had wanted things to go very specifically, and it had fallen to me to shoulder the responsibility of pulling it off without a hitch.
Nearly everyone he'd worked with at the White House was there. Leo, of course, was an obvious exception. But I already knew the two of them were holed up somewhere in heaven, watching over us while regaling each other with tales of their past over scotch and cigars; knowing Abbey would be having a litter of kittens at the whole thing would make it all the better for them. They really were a couple of little boys sometimes…
"I'm rather upset that the deejay didn't have some of the music we'd specified," she continued. "Thank God, you had the backups." A thoughtful smile crossed her face. "What would we do without you, Claudia Jean?"
I shook my head. "You both impressed upon me the need for this to be perfect. And of course, it's some of my favorite music, too."
Any further comments were lost as my eyes were drawn to a flash of pale blonde hair. It wasn't Donna, or anyone else I could immediately identify. Blinking to take a closer look, I heard my own involuntary gasp of recognition. And at that particular moment, the music kicked in again.
"I saw her today at the reception
A glass of wine in her hand
I knew she would meet her connection"
Rolling Stones? "You Can't Always Get What You Want?" Ironically appropriate. I silently sent a curse toward Jed and Leo for their perverse senses of humor still reaching out to us. A quick sideways glance at Abbey showed the irony hadn't been lost on her either.
"Isn't that Ainsley Hayes?" Abbey mused nonchalantly. "She's certainly looking lovely these days."
I narrowed my eyes at her briefly. "Very subtle, Ma'am," I shot back.
"I thought she wasn't coming?" she asked, smiling and ignoring my glare.
I shrugged at that. "Never heard back from her, so I assumed she wasn't. It would have been nice to know she was coming though."
"I'd say. You could have worn something completely different, yes?"
My glare deepened, eyes narrowing even more. "You do realize you still have an unmarried daughter to play matchmaker with, right?"
Abbey's clear, husky laughter rang out in the room, causing everyone -- including Ainsley -- to turn and stare at us. "Oh that's familial obligation. This is far more interesting to watch. And you obviously forget how easily I can read you, Claudia." She pushed lightly at my shoulder. "Go say hello, hostess with the mostest."
"I don't know who is worse at meddling, you or your dearly departed husband."
"I taught Jethro everything he knew," she replied with a smirk and pulled me down to press a chaste kiss to my cheek before wandering off -- leaving me to my own defenses, or lack thereof.
Taking a deep breath, I drained my wine and headed for the bar to shore up my courage again. Abbey had at least been right in saying I had to play the hostess. Mechanically, I ordered my wine and a second glass without thought. It was only as I started walking toward her that I realized what I'd done.
"CJ?" Her melodic accent washed over me, followed closely by the faint musk of her perfume. "My god, you look wonderful! How have you been?"
It felt like forever before my mouth would work, but was probably only a split second. "I've been all right, given the circumstances. You look fabulous, you know. What have you been up to? How have you been?"
My god, did I really sound as inane as I thought I did? I wanted to just stand there, bask in her presence, let the memories flow over me: the good and the bad. And yet, I wasn't babbling. Was I? No, I must not have been, or I'd have started asking all the questions I wasn't fully sure I wanted the answers to. Did she even remember any of it after all this time? Damn, but she was looking good. I didn't know if it was wishful thinking, past memories, or something entirely different, but I'd have sworn she looked better than the last time I'd seen her.
I knew I was listening to what she said, reacting appropriately, but I couldn't have repeated a single word of it if my life depended on it. All I could do was watch her, drink in her presence. I perked up a bit at the mention of a failed relationship, quickly quashing that old desire that reared up again.
"I didn't think you'd come," I finally said, only partially surprised that I'd actually uttered the thought. "We haven't heard from you in ages. You weren't at Leo's funeral--"
"Actually, I was." My god, she sounded hurt that I'd think otherwise. "I was in the back of the church. I -- I didn't want to intrude, but I had to…"
She blinked several times, pinched the bridge of her nose, and drained her wine. Setting the glass on the tray of a passing waiter, she plucked the still-full glass in my left hand and by the time half of it was downed, the blatant strain around her eyes had lessened considerably. Before I realized it, I stretched out my hand to straighten her hair out of her eyes. It had grown long enough to further enhance her beauty.
"Thank you." I flushed and tried to pull my hand back, but she gripped it suddenly, fiercely. "I wasn't sure I wanted to come today. There are so many reasons…" Again, that tightness enhanced the crow's feet just beginning to blur along her temples. Only this time, it didn't go away.
"Don't." She drained the last of the wine, grimacing at the large gulp she'd taken.
I took the glass from her hand, set it on the nearest table. "Come on, let's get you out of here," I murmured as I slipped an arm around her shoulders, trying to guide her to a quieter corner. I caught Abbey's concerned gaze, followed her line of sight toward the hallway that led onto the patio. Silently I settled her at one of the tables and moved to sit across from her. "You okay?"
She shrugged nonchalantly. "I suppose the polite thing to say is that I'm fine, that Jed Bartlet's death put more strain on me than I'd expected."
"And the real reason?" I asked softly, half wanting to hear the answer…and half dreading it.
"You probably wouldn't believe me if I told you."
I found myself drawn to the naked emotions racing across her face. And in the back of my head, I could hear a pair of much-loved, and much-missed, voices goading me on. "Try me."
"I’m serious," I replied, feeling far more in control than I'd have thought.
She stared at me for a long moment. Rather than speaking, she toyed with her hair. I forced myself to stay calm, meet her intent gaze. "Why do you want to know, CJ?"
"Why?" I considered that for a long moment. "Why not? Life's about here and now."
She eyed me skeptically. Oh, I remembered that look well. I used to love watching her level that look on poor Sam. "That can't be the only reason."
And with that, it was my turn to attempt nonchalance. "I could give you the easy reason, but that's a cop-out." Before I could lose my nerve, I plowed ahead. "I want to know because… Because I want to know what's going on in your life. You may not have realized it, but I enjoyed it when you were working in the White House. And I was rather…disappointed when you left. If nothing else, your replacement was a royal jackass."
She laughed at that, easing my discomfort. "Didn't like him much then, I take it?" she teased lightly, and I felt the shiver down my spine at her laughter. When I shook my head, she smiled, but it didn't last long. "I had to leave, you know. I couldn't very well give my reasons, other than saying they were personal."
I quirked a brow at her. My curiosity couldn't have been plainer if I'd had it tattooed across my forehead. She stood and began to pace. I let her continue for a moment or two, let her attempt to gather her thoughts, courage, or whatever she needed. "I didn't want you to leave." A part of me wasn't even surprised I'd said it.
She flinched slightly as my words registered. But I didn't regret saying it. I couldn't -- wouldn't regret it. What was life for, if not to take chances? Would I seriously want to meet Jed and Leo in the afterlife and have them eternally ribbing me for not taking this chance? What was the worst that could happen? She'd say no, and I'd never see her again. But at least I'd have given it a shot, right?
"Not now, CJ," she whispered, near tears. "Please. I can't do this right now."
My heart broke at those barely audible words, eyes closing against the reality of what they meant. But I was CJ Cregg, former press secretary to Jed Bartlet, later his chief of staff. I'd stared down a room full of angry reporters and survived. I'd withstood indictment charges and survived. I could handle a simple rejection, no matter how much it hurt. "I understand." I barely heard my response, let alone worried if she did.
"No, you don't. But I can't explain it right now. Just… Just give me some time, okay? There are things that need to be dealt with before I can even begin to consider taking this step." She went silent then, and I could only nod mechanically. I struggled so hard to control my feelings; I didn't even know she'd moved until her hand was cupping my chin, tilting my head up. "Look at me, CJ?"
"I'd rather not." Had my voice ever been that husky with pain before?
"I wish you would, but I won't force you." I heard her inhale, let the breath out, then inhale again. "It wasn’t a rejection, CJ," she finally murmured, close enough that I could feel her breath stirring against my lips. "It was simply a request to let me properly mourn my losses before I can commit to exploring this with you, whatever it ends up being. Can you allow me that one request?"
I couldn't breathe for what felt like an eternity. My mind was racing to process what she'd just said. And only when I thought I understood, my eyes snapped open to meet her tentative gaze, read the sincerity of her words. Reaching up with a shaking hand, I tucked a strand of her hair back behind her ear and smiled.
And in the back of my head, I could hear Jed and Leo badly harmonizing as they serenaded me from heaven.
"You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometime you just might find
You get what you need."