Sometimes you need to step out of the rain.
They'd been there before, out in the rain, when seventeen people became eighteen, then twenty, and then too numerous to count. At least, not without a census. When the tropical storm hit Washington, breaking all meteorological rules and predictions, it seemed an ominous warning for the struggles to come. The subsequent months were filled with crises of faith and trust. Hesitation, allegation, interrogation, crashed down upon them, and they who were lost in the torrential downpour floundered in waves of fear and doubt. They nearly drowned in it.
It would have been more idealistic to say they found their way back to dry land together. More romantic to say that after the rain, the sun came, all glowing and guiding, lighting the path that led them back home. If nothing else, it would have made great press.
But the truth was, there was no going back. What could they do but weather it? They clung to lifeboats and brittle rafts, some floating together, most drifting alone. And when it was all over and the thunder stopped pounding them, they wrung themselves out, wiped their feet at the door, and dragged their soggy asses in from the storm.
They should have known.
This time, when the showers commenced, they should have seen it coming. Except they were having fun, a rarity, and they relished the chance to be playful with one another. They headed out together, fully intending to enjoy the evening. Until a voice turned them around.
"The President's dead."
What started out as a light and lively evening was quickly weighted down by those three heavy words.
As the Secret Service detail hurried past, the staff somberly shuffled back into the West Wing. They moved as one, a mass of sharp tuxedoes and gorgeous gowns, all shaking off droplets of moisture from their coats and wraps. It was supposed to be an evening of theatre, along with hours of the President annoying them, or rather, regaling them with Lincoln quotes and historical references, but now it had turned into a night of real drama. An odd little play in which the first line was true, but the President was somehow a live player. The curtain had gone up, Leo the stage manager was already spouting initial directions, and each member of the senior staff began to break off from formation, taking places.
Josh silently followed Leo to his office. Donna trailed a step or two behind, her habitual notebook appearing, with pen in hand, poised for further detailed instruction. Meanwhile, Carol was already waiting at the doorway to CJ's office, faxes and messages held out for her to grab as she swept in. Finally, Toby brought up the rear, his hands deeply entrenched in the pockets of his overcoat as he watched everyone scurry.
He sighed. A deep exhale of onerous air, the first of what would be many sighs that evening, for countless reasons. He shook his head slowly, already feeling the tension, knowing exactly what he was going to be asked to do. A miniscule part of him, the toddler long gone, was dying to scrunch up his mouth, wave his fists in the air, and scream incomprehensibly until his face turned purple.
"Don't want to," he whispered, wishing that would be reason enough to release him from the assignment. If only it were that simple.
"What did you say?"
Startled, Toby looked up. Ginger stood before him, her wide ocean eyes blinking inquisitively. He hesitated. Such a sweet young woman, hard-working, dedicated... yet suddenly her innocent countenance, her unfaltering allegiance, hell, her very presence irritated him, and he had to fight the incredible urge to take out his frustrations on her. Not that anything had ever stopped him from doing it before. Still, he would need her to stay late and come in early to help him prepare for the upcoming onslaught of duties, so he thought better of it this time. Instead he bit his tongue until he tasted something wet, and said, "Nothing. Just... nothing."
She raised an eyebrow but wisely did not push further. "Ohhh-kay." He turned to his office, his back already discharging her as she finished with her usual, "Let me know if you need me." Grunting his acknowledgement, he went inside, and shut the door a little too hard.
Damn it. There was no way, no good way to prepare a statement. There were the usual things said when a former President died, all patriotism, gravity, and respect, but this one was different. When a man was considered the "Attila the Hun" of the conservative right, practically an instrument of pure evil... oh yes, the compliments were sure to flow easily onto the page for him tonight.
"I'm not writing the eulogy," he muttered aloud. It was almost as if he was gearing up, to say those insubordinate words to Leo in protest when the time came.
"I'll write tonight's statements for the briefing, but I'm not writing the eulogy." And then one final attempt, punctuating each word with great emphasis, "I am not."
The empty office sensibly did not dispute him, so he felt resolute in his argument. Yes. He would be heard, and he would not back down.
Shit. If only it were that simple.
He sighed longer this time, and flopped down on the couch. Grumpy resignation rumbled within him, while the outside distant thunder politely echoed his sentiments. The sound grounded him, and he shook his head vigorously, trying, as CJ liked to say, to get his game face on.
Two magical initials that conjured up so many memories, thoughts and images. Tonight's was particularly enjoyable, as he reflected upon her choice of dress, an elegant strapless red garment that flowed to the floor luxuriously. In his mind's eye, he was grateful for that minor detail -- no sleeves to obscure the framework of her great temple, those magnificent strong shoulders from which he trailed downward, following the slope of her back, to the gentle curve of her hips...
Wait a minute.
Had it been a dream, or was it there?
Slowly, Toby reached inside his overcoat, running his hand down to the pocket of his tuxedo jacket. He could feel it from the outside, the unobtrusive lump. Carefully, he reached inside the pocket, and felt the smoothness of material.
The corner of his mouth twitched into a bemused half smile. It was still there.
CJ's gown rustled noisily as she paced her office, flipping through the information Carol had handed her moments before. "Do we have any statements from the family yet?"
Carol's head popped into the office. "From the family?"
CJ looked up at her assistant from over the top of her glasses, papers halted in mid-air, already slightly crumpled from energetic leafing. "Yes, the Lassiter family. Did they send a statement they want us to include in tonight's briefing, or was this medical report all we've got for now?"
"That's all we've received so far. Is it enough?"
"It could be, but I'd be more comfortable if I had a personal quote, something other than from his doctors. Can we put in a call to the family's spokesperson," pausing, she glanced down at her pages, "which would be President Lassiter's aide? Would you see about that?"
"I'm on it, Boss." Carol smiled, and CJ mirrored the sentiment briefly before returning to her work, marking bold notes in the margins with her red pen.
She began to speak out loud, formulating her words concisely, testing each phrase for appropriate language and cadence. "Good evening, everyone. We regret to inform... no... President Bartlet would like to express his sorrow at the loss of his distinguished predecessor... no... it is with great sorrow that we announce... ehhh... Good evening, everyone. We have some sad news tonight..." CJ tried to find the suitable word choices but found it difficult as she tripped over the train of her dress for what seemed like the hundredth time. "Damn it! Stupid thing, get out of my way!" She shoved it behind her, only to trip over her own feet in the process, falling forward with more gangling than grace.
"That's it! I'm getting changed," she announced with great annoyance, and perhaps a hint of melodrama. If this was a battle between her and it, the dress was going down. She scanned the room for her day clothes, discovered neatly hanging atop the back of the door. Pants, blouse, suit jacket... all unwrinkled and ready. What was left? Undergarments.
CJ paused, contemplating when she had first removed them, not an hour earlier. She recalled with unabashed satisfaction the sight of blood draining from Toby's astonished face, no doubt heading to regions best left implicitly apparent. His shock confirmed the endorsement of her long-held code: going commando under her formfitting gowns was sometimes out of necessity and, secretly, sometimes out of wicked glee. Now where had she stashed them? That's right, in her briefcase.
She strode over to her couch, where the covert carrier silently held the sassy little things, and reached inside, feeling around for silk and lace. She pulled out her bra, tossing it onto the couch for the time being, and went in again, feeling around for more fabric. What her fingertips found was a paper cut.
"Ouch!" Yanking out one hand and sucking on the offended digits, she dug deeper with the other, but came up empty. Giving up, she peered into the caverns of the bag, searching. Again, nothing.
How could this be? It should have been right there. Sighing with a touch of irritation, she began to pull everything out of the case, impatiently flinging each piece onto the couch. Pens, legal pads, folders, glasses case, appointment book... nope. The entire content of her bag was now strewn all over the couch cushions, but it wasn't there.
What... the... hell. Where was her underwear? She could have sworn she put it in there. Didn't she? Think, CJ, think. Tapping her forehead lightly, she searched her mind next, racking it, tracking her day. And then she froze.
Wait a minute.
Wait just one damn minute.
The realization spread through her brain like a virus, and she shook her head, incredulous.
He wouldn't. Would he? He didn't. Did he?
There was no other explanation. Yes. Yes, he did.
You little weasel, she thought, shaking her head in laughing disbelief.
Ohhh ho, buddy, you're going to get it.
The silence in the room was suffocating. Toby sat at his desk, legal pad before him, its yellow pages blaring like warning lights, its strong black lines like prison bars. The incessant tapping of his pen against the pad broke the quiet with increasing volume and rhythm. Nothing. He had absolutely nothing. He couldn't form a single sentence, much less anything inspiring. What he wouldn't give for a drink right about now. Or some pie. Anything to distract him from his cell. Anything.
He glanced over, surprised to see CJ leaning in the open entryway. "Hey."
She remained in her glamorous gown, and had draped herself diagonally across the doorway, her long body balancing precariously by an elbow against the frame. She looked breathtaking.
One hand played absent-mindedly with her hair, the other delicately traced the top of her bodice, where satin skin met smooth silk. Toby's eyes followed her hand as it glided back and forth, back and forth. Was she even aware how mesmerizing it was? He cleared his throat and shifted his gaze when she spoke.
"So, I'm having a little trouble with the wording about President Lassiter. Leo said you were working on something for me to use?"
Toby sighed uncomfortably, his eyes dropping down to the blank page. Without a word, he picked up the pad and showed her his progress. Or lack thereof.
"Toby, I've got a press briefing in about half an hour."
"Yeah?" Like he didn't already know that.
"Maybe forty-five minutes, by the time all of them get back here. I need two, maybe three sentences. Can't you think of a single nice thing to say about him?"
He glared at her. One of Toby's top ten hits, the well-cultivated Ziegler stony stare. A gaze that was usually enough to crack the toughest men and reduce senior assistants to tears.
Yet somehow she was undeterred. "You know Leo's going to make you write the eulogy, don't you?"
His round eyes were now thin slits, his mouth a tight scowl. He raised his chin defiantly, as if she didn't have a clue what it took to create a sentence, much less poetry of great expression. "I know that!" The words came out louder than he had intended, and his hand rose to rub his forehead self-consciously. He lowered his voice and cleared his throat. "I know that."
Her only visible response was one perfectly arched eyebrow.
He cleared his throat once more, his chin dropping down to more humble levels, but his voice betrayed him, elevating with each frustrating word. "You don't think I've thought about that? Let me tell you something, CJ Cregg, I've thought about that... Over and over and over again. I've been sitting here, and I've got nothing. There's nothing good to say. This is a nightmare."
CJ stifled a smile at his exaggerated display. "It can't be that bad."
Too late for her mock sympathy. His venting was on extended play, complete with choreography, as he waved his hands in the air and hurled his pen across the room. "It is that bad. It's a disaster of... of colossal proportions. And just how do you think I'm going to come up with a stirring eulogy, when I can't even piece together a, uh... a... brief statement in his honor for tonight?"
CJ said nothing, and Toby came down from his emotional rant with a sobering thud. He chewed his lower lip, brooding a moment, before he exhaled three serious words. "I need pie."
She tried her very hardest not to grin. "You should get some."
"Ok, I'm going to leave you alone now." She didn't wait for his response. Circling carefully so as not to trip on her ridiculous train, she headed back down the hall to her office, a slight smile playing around on her lips.
Ten minutes later, she was back in his doorway.
There were balled-up pieces of paper scattered all over the floor, and he could barely disguise his aggravation at her presence. "What?"
"Excuse me?" she said as if he had actually surprised her with his rudeness.
His voice softened somewhat and he sighed. "What are you... did you want something?"
"Other than the statement?"
He frowned. "You can't have it, it's not ready."
"Ok." She turned to leave and stopped. "Hey, did you know that a Union soldier stole a copy of the Bill of Rights at the end of the Civil War?"
A new edition of the Ziegler stare came forth, one of apathetic dismissal. "Go away, please."
She smiled as sweetly as possible, knowing it merely served to boost his blood pressure. "Ok. I'll be back."
"Of course you will." He returned to his notes, crossed off half the page with a thick black pen, and began anew.
Ten minutes later, she found her mark once again at his door.
"CJ!" He tossed his pen down, fuming.
"What?" It took enormous effort to suppress her smirk this time.
"What are you..." She couldn't tell if the strangled groan he produced was a very short chuckle or an incensed expelling of air, but the expression on his face made everything clear, especially when he followed it with, "Are you trying to drive me insane?" His attempt to stay calm was a pathetic and unconvincing endeavor.
"Ok, ok... No, hold on. One more thing."
He exhaled noisily but waited.
"Tell me we're not conducting mind control research at the Pentagon."
Toby's eyes practically bulged out of their sockets, and she wrestled to keep from erupting into hysterics at the sight. She swallowed the urge as he gestured emphatically towards the door.
"Go away. Right now."
Inhaling a deep breath, she intentionally tripped on her dress, sending herself sprawling across his floor, his crinkled paper balls rolling everywhere.
To his credit, the man did not even blink. "CJ, you fell on the floor there."
She ignored him, concentrating instead on making sure fleshy parts had not popped out of the dress during her slapstick routine. Nice. Everything was intact.
"Are you hurt?"
"What?" She rotated herself cautiously into a sitting position on the floor.
"I said, are you hurt?"
"Help me up, will you?"
He bit his lip, holding back his own growing amusement so as not to encourage any more of her exasperating interruptions. "Are you kidding?"
It was her turn to glare at him. "Toby, this dress is a complicated structure. We're talking yards and yards of fabric here. I'm going to need a little assistance getting up."
He sighed, this time more out of habit than anything else. Getting up from his desk, he gingerly stepped over to the puddle that was CJ and reached for her hands. He struggled to pull her up, but the cumbersome material of her dress was caught underneath his shoe. She stumbled, flailing backwards onto the carpet, yanking him with her.
"CJ!" He tried to sound more bothered by the time being consumed helping her than by whether or not he had actually hurt her when he fell on her.
"What? I can't help it. You were standing on my..."
She stopped short, abruptly aware of his closeness, heightened by the sensation of his hot breath on her neck. She held her own, but he didn't move. Not right away.
Not that it bothered her. The full weight of him upon her was unexpectedly comfortable as his hands gripped hers firmly and his legs entangled with her gown. His sturdy chest pressed against hers, and she could feel each shallow puff of air, each intake and release. It felt warm on her skin, and she closed her eyes for a second or two, listening to the reassuring pulse of his breathing, taking in the feel of his body on hers.
He dropped his head to the hollow of her neck, resting there. It was a sweet space where he could smell faint remnants of spicy perfume, and his own eyes closed, momentarily savoring the scent of her. As he inhaled, his mouth twitched, the hairs of his beard tickling her shoulder, and he felt her throat vibrate against his cheek as she tried to mask her involuntary giggle.
He sighed, this time out of contentment, and his voice came out low and muffled. "You make me crazy."
"I hate to tell you this, but you went there a long time ago, my friend." She laughed heartily, and he lifted his head from her shoulder at the sound, allowing her to see a sliver of a smile.
His face was intimately close to hers, near enough for him to lean in and...
"Oh, for goodness... get off me!" She grinned and gave him a playful shove.
His reaction was startling and immediate. He rolled away, his back to her, and it appeared she might have hurt his feelings.
She hadn't meant to do that.
It was just that... she didn't know what it was exactly. Earlier, she had messed with him, and it was tantalizing and fun. Knowing full well that her actions had enormous effect on him. But now, in the moment, his intense physical presence rattled her and she felt the need to exert her control of the situation. To bring it back to more familiar territory.
She reached out and put her hand on his shoulder. "Toby."
He shook her off and stood, for some reason intent on brushing undetectable dust from his pants. "I've got to finish the thing, you've got press in about twenty minutes."
She felt the impulse to try again, but thought better of it, retracting the hand that was still outstretched. "Yeah."
Bending down, he slid his large, strong hands around her waist and hauled her up. His fingertips lingered on her ribcage, holding her securely as she regained her balance. In a flash he let go, and made his way through the mess to the other side of his desk. His eyes flickered to hers, then focused on the pages before him. "You should get changed. That thing's a hazard to your health."
CJ smiled wryly. "Yeah."
"Give me ten minutes, I'll have it done." He sat down, and that was it. She was dismissed.
Ordinarily she found the sound of rainfall soothing. Not tonight. With every shift of the wind, the water swiftly pelted the glass with a hail of sloppy wet bullets. The cracking and popping assaulted her senses, each strike a reign of punishment, slapping her face. CJ slumped onto the sofa. Cradling her forehead in the palm of her hand, she found no consolation for her behavior. In truth, she had no idea what the hell she was doing.
Lurking in her mind were two compelling notions. After many, many years of friendship, this could be the obvious next step, one they'd been dancing around like the leaves swirling past her window in the storm. At the same time, tonight's activity was unprecedented. Without question, from the first introduction, there had been a teasing and lighthearted flirtation, but over time it had evolved into a more profound connection, a solidarity and silent understanding of each other's shadows. If she stepped out from that place, she would be exposed.
As if to mock her fears, a brilliant flash of lightning blinked at her, followed by a quick clap of thunder splitting her thoughts and shaking the office. CJ promptly jumped up, hugging herself and peering apprehensively into the misty black beyond.
The rain now poured down her windows like thick clear syrup, and her eyes followed the stream, searching for clarity. The whole thing had been a tactical error, one she fully intended to correct. She had no idea how until she spotted the dusty old boombox in the corner of her room.
He was waiting for her by the time she hastily changed her clothes and sprinted to his office. As soon as she entered, he held out a scribbling of comments. He looked tired, and his voice couldn't conceal it. "I give up."
CJ browsed the remarks. "It's good, Toby. It more than works."
He ran a hand over his forehead and down the back of his head, pinching his neck, wearily massaging it. "Thanks."
He cut her off. "Carol's probably looking for you. You should get to it."
Avoiding her eyes, he nudged past her and grabbed his coat. "Anyway, I'm going home."
"Toby!" The timbre of her voice halted him in his tracks. "I'm trying to say something so shut up and sit down and listen to me!"
He did as he was told, though she could have sworn she heard mumbling under his breath as he did it. She was about to reprimand him and get to her point, when Carol knocked wood. Damn it.
"They're waiting for you, CJ."
"Ok, thanks." Toby looked ready to bolt, but she had her own intimidating gaze, the Cregg stare, created by her father and perfected by her. One that could cut glass and make grown men squeak with alarm at the sight of it.
She faced him as he clutched his coat in his lap, fiddling distractedly with a loose button. "I need to talk with you."
"But you've got the briefing." He kept twisting the button.
"Yes, I've got the briefing, so I need you to stay here until I'm done."
"It can wait." The damn button was going to pop off.
"It won't take long. It's a full lid after this, and I'll be done."
"CJ, I'm exhausted."
She hesitated. "I know. I'm sorry." She knelt down before him, tightly gripping a hand over his, immobilizing the poor button from further distress. "Toby. Please."
He blinked, lifting his sad coffee brown eyes to meet her insistent blue ones. The word came out in a cloudy sigh. "Okay."
"You promise, you'll be right here when I get back?"
He looked vaguely perturbed. "I said okay."
She squeezed his hand and dashed off, determined to make this the shortest briefing in her history as Press Secretary.
"...And that's a full lid, guys. Thanks for coming back out here tonight, really. Drive home safely."
She hardly heard the chorus of thank you CJ's as she tore out of there and zipped back to Toby's office.
He wasn't there.
"Son of a BITCH!"
Her voice rang through the hallways, bringing Carol to her aid. "What's wrong?"
"He promised he was going to wait for me. Damn it all--"
Carol interrupted. "Are you talking about Toby? He's standing by the front gate."
CJ'’s cursing came to a screeching standstill. "Oh." She mulled the news, and scrunched up her face in confusion. "Wait a sec. He's outside?"
"He's smoking a cigar."
"In the rain?"
Carol shrugged, laughing. "Please don't tell me it's in my job description to explain that man to you, because I'll quit."
CJ stared at her assistant, bewildered and relieved. "Ok, thanks. You can go home now."
"Thank you, CJ. See you tomorrow."
"Right." She stood there indefinitely, thinking. And thinking. And thinking. Coming back to reality, she squared her shoulders decisively and marched into the deluge. Game on.
From her view, the scene outside the front entrance easily could have been cut straight from a 1940's black and white movie. The rain spilled freely, crackling and sputtering on the pavement. The street lights illuminating the path created a hazy glow amidst the darkness. In the fog she could see him leaning against the great foundation of the building, a protective canopy whipping over his head. His tuxedo jacket was open all the way, and his bowtie dangled from the collar of his shirt. He stood, allowing the wind to spray him with rainwater as tendrils of cigar smoke wafted lazily around him. CJ half expected to hear the plaintive croon of a muted jazz trumpet, but the solo sound in the air was the cascade of wetness hitting the ground.
And damn, did he look sexy standing there.
She slid up behind him and slipped a hand onto his shoulder, giving it a little squeeze. "You're not in your office."
He continued to puff his stogie. "Nope."
"I asked you to wait for me."
"And so I am."
She ignored his cheeky semantics and rested her chin on that broad ledge of his. His jacket was damp. "You're getting soaked."
He tilted his head, giving her a passive, heavy-lidded glance as he dragged out one word. "Yeah..."
She rolled her eyes. "Come inside."
Stamping out his cigar, he pushed off from the wall and let her propel him back to his office.
He stood before her, his sodden clothes dripping on the carpet. His chin lowered until it nearly grazed his chest, but his gaze remained fixed on hers. The dark, vulnerable look in his eyes was an odd combination, equal parts little boy lost and jaded grown man.
She realized the depths of that look. Recognized his pain. Pure desolation, tinged with cynical self-loathing and agonizing desperation. She knew in that very instant. As with most stages in his life, he was anticipating disappointment.
She had no choice. She had to do this right.
"First of all... No. See, the thing is..." Did she say she had to do this right? Silly of her, she meant she had to do this in fright. She was completely bungling it. Why did this have to be so complicated? "Would you stop looking at me like that?"
"Like that," she said, fluttering a hand toward his face.
"How am I looking at you?"
"Like I just killed your dog, and... other bad things."
His features transformed into an alternative version of the Ziegler stare, one of impatient indulgence. He folded his arms in front of him and sighed. "CJ, I'm beat." He was going to launch into a tirade about how he had waited for her, against his wishes, because she had asked him to, because he would always wait if she asked him to. But he honestly didn't have the energy to verbalize it. So he stopped himself, bracing for her to inflict whatever torture she elected.
She interrupted his thoughts at last. "Wait here."
"CJ, you're not making any..."
"Don't move. I'll be right back." She pointed one accusing finger in his direction. "I mean it, Tobus. I better find you in that exact spot."
Before he could object, she was gone. And returned before he had time to process it. She carried her boombox and a handful of towels. He watched her curiously as she closed his door and locked it.
"Are you going to do 'The Jackel' for me, CJ? Because I have to tell you, while I appreciate the gesture..."
"This is new." She pulled the blinds of his main window.
"New? Well, that's... that's definitely intriguing." He watched her move about his room, fastening the shutters of the windows near his desk and laying the towels on his couch. "But you might want to consider it's not the night for this. A man just died... there's a certain level of appropriate..."
"No, Toby." She set the player on his desk and bent down, plugging it in. He raised his eyebrows. "I mean, yes you're right about those things, but this is separate. This is us."
His eyes widened and he cocked his head at her. "Us?"
"Yes." She stood up, facing him, and straightened her blouse. "Now sit down and shut up please." She smiled briefly.
"I really don't see what..."
"Toby, sit down!"
"Ok!" His flabbergasted expression was priceless as he did what he was told.
He clasped his hands together tightly, uncertain, as CJ reached over and pressed play. A funky guitar riff and steady drumbeat kicked in.
Anxious, Toby started twiddling his thumbs, watching them as they circled each other over and over. "Maybe you've missed your calling, CJ. You might want to rethink your career. Do they still have those lip-syncing shows on TV? You could... you know... audition for one of those..."
Sighing exasperatedly, CJ reached over and pushed stop.
He looked up at her in surprise. "What?"
"You're mocking me?"
"No, I was just..."
"You're mocking me. Here am I, making an effort, being honest, opening myself up to you, and you're mocking me?"
"You know, Toby, this isn't as easy as it looks, no matter how stunning and smooth my presentation. This takes guts, this takes chutzpah, this takes daring..."
"I don't doubt that."
"You mock me and that's what's going to stay with me the rest of the night. Maybe you don't deserve my song, Tobus. Maybe I should take my music and go home."
"I think you should say you're sorry first."
He was about to, until he saw the twinkle in her eye and realized she was now mocking him. "CJ, I'm cold and wet and still tired. What are we doing here?"
"Who was the one standing out in the rain instead of staying in his office like I told him to do?" He started to protest but she stopped him with one hand. "Here's what's going to happen. I'm going to do my song. You're going to sit there and be quiet and listen to it, because the words are important and you need to hear them. But during the song, I'm not going to dance like I usually do."
He cleared his throat. "No?"
"No. You need to change out of your wet clothes. So I'm going to help you with that."
His mouth literally dropped open, much to her amusement. "Close your mouth, Toby."
It snapped shut, but he continued to gape at her.
"Turnabout is fair play. You saw me change out of my clothes earlier. Now I'm going to help you change yours. Any questions?"
He shook his head, stunned.
"Ok. I'm gonna start again." She turned away from him, and froze as she looked down at the harmless play button before her. This was it. No turning back.
Inhaling a strong breath and holding it there nervously, she closed her eyes and tried to collect herself. It was the same as preparing for a difficult briefing. Get it together, CJ, get it together.
Exhaling with more certainty, she pushed play.
The same funky guitar riff and steady drumbeat kicked in, but as she turned around to face him, Toby remained silent, waiting. The singer began.
If you want my lovin'
If you really do
Don't be afraid, Baby
Just ask me
Ya know I'm gonna give it to you...
Toby's eyes grew rounder than the Presidential seal as he listened, and watched CJ move towards him, her hips swaying in perfect rhythm to the beat. She reached over and slid his sagging wet bowtie from under his collar, tossing it on the couch.
Oh and I do declare (I do)
I wanna see you with it
Her eyes fixed on his, she knelt before him and began to unbutton his wet shirt slowly, deliberately. Reaching the top of his pants, she pulled the tails out and unflinchingly finished off the final three.
Stretch out your arms little boy
You're gonna get it
She skimmed a hand down his exposed chest, and he inhaled a sharp breath. Pulling the material from his shoulders, she eased his arms out of the sleeves, running her hands down his bare arms, feeling the muscles twitch at her touch.
'Cause I love you
(Baby, Baby, Baby I love you)
He tried to break eye contact but she caught him by the chin, stroking his beard softly a moment, holding his gaze to hers.
Ain't no doubt about it
Baby, I love you (Baby, Baby, Baby I love you)
I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you
Baby, I love you...
He opened his mouth to speak, but she silenced him with one finger to his lips.
If you feel you wanna kiss me
Toby swallowed, his eyes unavoidably dropping down to her rosy lips. They mouthed the words seductively as Aretha continued to wail.
Go right ahead, I don't mind
All you got to do is snap your fingers
And I'll come a-runnin'
I ain't lyin' (I ain't lyin')
She leaned in, the satin of her blouse cold against his damp skin, and he shuddered. Grabbing a towel, she draped it around him and held the ends firmly as she pulled him to her. He fell against her, and she hugged him snugly, rubbing her hands up and down his back and arms, warming him.
And ohhhhh, what you want
Little boy, you know you got it
Releasing the hug, she took his hands and firmly pulled him to his feet. He didn't waver this time, looking at her steadily as her hands found the zipper to his pants.
I'd deny my own self
Before I see you without it
She managed to unzip and yank the soggy trousers down to his ankles efficiently in time with the beat. He laughed, and she smiled up at him, relaxing considerably.
'Cause I love you
(Baby, Baby, Baby I love you)
Ain't no doubt about it
Baby, I love you
(Baby, Baby, Baby I love you)
He kicked off his shoes and stood almost shyly, blushing into his beard as she tugged his pants off. Massaging a downy towel up and down his legs, she gently dried the rain away.
I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you
Baby, I love you...
She felt her way up his body methodically, effortlessly, running her long fingers over his calves, his knees, his thighs, his hips, and his torso, until at last she seized him by the shoulders. She looked at him with an indestructible confidence.
Someday ya might wanna run away
And leave me sittin' here to cry
But if it's all the same to ya, Baby
I'm gonna stop ya from sayin' goodbye (Goodbye)
She wrapped his arms around her, pressing against him, her hands moving their hips in tandem, to the throbbing of the horns and the bouncing of the guitar and bass.
He seemed so at ease now, swinging his body with hers, trailing his own hands up and down her spine, leaning his cheek against hers. She could feel his exhale of relief and the spreading of a smile upon his face.
Baby, I love ya (Baby, Baby I love ya)
Baby, I need ya (Baby, Baby I need ya)
Said I want ya (Baby, Baby I want ya)
Love ya Baby...
The song faded into the silence of the office, but they ignored it, swaying leisurely in each other's arms for just a little bit longer. It seemed neither of them wanted to let go of the embrace. They supported each other safely and lovingly, clinging to the last strains of music until it was gone.
After a few minutes of quiet, Toby murmured into her ear, "You do realize I'm still undressed."
CJ gave a throaty laugh. "Yeah, the song's too short. I didn't plan it that way. You were supposed to be returned to warm, dry stuff by now."
He pulled away, his hands dragging over her hips with great care until they disengaged from her body entirely. "I better..." He cut himself off and stepped aside, seeking out his day clothes.
As he pulled his trousers on, CJ reached down and picked up his dry shirt, fingering the starched cuff lightly. "You should really learn to hang up your things. It's all wrinkled."
"It'll live." He took the proffered shirt from her hands.
"Yeah, but you keep that up every day and you'll start looking rumpled, like Josh."
He looked up in alarm as he buttoned his shirt. "We can't have that."
She laughed again, a lively melodious tune that reminded him of muggy summer nights, wholesome girls-next-door, and fizzy champagne. Toby studied her a moment, taking in her lanky frame, her tousled hair, her glowing complexion, and her vibrant eyes, which seemed to fill with a sudden bashfulness as they dropped to the floor. He extended a hand, and tenderly caressed her face.
CJ couldn't help herself and leaned against his hand, allowing it to cup her cheek. "So, did you like the song?"
He gave a short laugh. "What do you think?"
"I don't know. Sometimes even I have trouble reading you."
"I don't believe that for a second."
"I think you liked the song. I think you like me."
He smirked. "I don't know, you're kind of tall."
He laughed, and CJ took immense pleasure in it. To hear that sound resonate from the dark depths of Toby Ziegler was a rare treat, one to which not many were privy.
"Are you mocking me again?"
His eyes scanned the room quickly, obviously looking for some sort of instantaneous escape hatch. Seeing she was not dissuaded, he gave up the search and allowed the hint of a smile to emerge. "Yes."
"I was entertaining, Toby. I was smooth and hip and fabulous. In fact, I was magnificent, and I think you should say so right now."
He rolled his eyes but obliged her. "It was a good song. Very... illuminating."
"And you like me."
He sighed, trying again. "It's not improbable that I may harbor a thing... a liking, if you will..."
"Mon ami," she grinned, "you're going to have to do better than that."
As she stood before him, tapping her hand against her thigh impatiently, he seemed to be considering her words, and his, thoroughly. At long last, he stepped towards her, cupping the sides of her face in his hands, brushing her lips with a gentle kiss. Her eyes closed. It was a sweet kiss and over far too quickly.
He pulled back, watching her suspiciously for any disenchanted expressions. Instead she paused, taking her time, savoring the taste of him on her lips. She opened her eyes.
A wide, easy smile stretched across her face. "That was nice." She reached out, enveloping his body with her long arms as she planted a slow, spicy kiss on his welcoming lips.
He smiled back at her affectionately. "That was better."
"I thought so too." She tilted an ear toward the window. "I think it finally stopped raining."
He shot her a look of melancholy. "All good things must come to an end..."
"Not yet. I have one more thing to say to you."
"More?" he said a little too eagerly.
CJ shook her head. The man was incorrigible. She led him over to the couch, where they nestled against the cushions. She touched his face casually, tracing her fingertips over his forehead and down his cheekbone. He sighed, this time out of pure bliss, leveled by the sensation of her running a hand through his hair, massaging his head and neck. His eyes fluttered shut, and he sighed yet again.
CJ whispered in his ear. "Comfortable?"
He mumbled his affirmation. "Mm-hmmm."
"Good," she said. Grabbing him by the collar of his shirt, she pulled him to her until his face was inches from her own. He gasped.
"Now," she laughed, "...gimme back my underwear."