Title: Molting

Author: Elliott Silver

Email: ElliottSilver@hotmail.com

Summary: To recover from a loss, you have to accept the pain. But you can't do it alone.

 

 

She was drunk, and not half-heartedly.

He stepped vigilantly through the still open air of the dim space, hoping CJ hadn't made any new furniture rearrangements since he'd been in her rooms. It was forty-five minutes to midnight and her keys jangled in his hand - she'd left them hanging in her hallway lock.

When she spoke, he jumped - just slightly.

"Danny," she said without getting up off the brocade couch and then even in the unlit rooms, he saw the not quite empty bourbon bottle beside her.

CJ loathed bourbon because her father had loved it too much.

In any old crime drama, she would have had a gun pointed at his chest. Instead, she simply had her legs crossed like a lady and tipped her tumbler towards him.

The rattle of half-melted ice in her glass sounded like a bird tangled in wind chimes.

Her first words sounded the same way and shocked him.

"I'm fine," she stated defensively though he hadn't said a word and she hadn't seen him in two years.

He sat down opposite her and set her keys on the low table between them.

She looked phenomenal, as she always did, even after things like root canal, 37-hour days, and unexpected death, in which you were supposed to look haggard and cheated. Svelte was the word he had always used to speak of her, a killer body and a striking face framed by sizzle color hair, and when he looked at her through the darkness, he wasn't surprised the title still fit. But when he looked at her, he wanted to look away, something he had never felt when it came to all things CJ. There was a roughshod darkness to her now after all that had happened while he had been a world away. There was shade and shadow in the way she didn't move and the hollows of her eyes. Midnight bled over her like bruises.

"I'm fine," she repeated again and her voice sounded on the verge of crystallizing. The rasp of it was a dry whisper like a 3 packs a day smoker at eighty, like the scrape of metal along macadam when a tanker jackknifed, like cut wheat stalks rattling in a Kansas field under a thunderstorm two counties over. She poured the last of the bourbon into the glass with an almost steady hand, although the bottle jiggled like a crystal dreidel when she set it next to her keys. She put the glass to her lips, closed her eyes, sucked in her breath, and swallowed the three mouthfuls in one single motion. Her body shuddered.

"Yeah," Danny pressed back at her, as he leaned towards her and the reek of bourbon and something danker clogged his nostrils. "That's one of the five phrases most often used as a lie."

"You think I'm lying?"

"I think youíre being uncreative."

"That's not a word."

"Yes, you're lying."

"What are the other four?"

"'Trust me', 'I love you', 'This won't hurt a bit', and 'I'll still respect you in the morning'."

"I'm fine."

"CJ, you're not fine."

"Yes, I am." But it came out more like "saam" as she rose and tottered imposingly like a Russian stature being pulled down after the Cold War.

"CJ, you just walked into a wall." She had, face first.

"It's not out of the ordinary," she responded as she slid sideways and felt her way to the bathroom.

"CJ," he called as he followed her. "CJ, stop it."

And when he caught up to her, she was on the floor and crying.

"It was a beautiful dress, Danny," she said through the spit and tears. "It was a black Vera Wang couture dress that I couldn't afford and I bought it anyway."

Then she threw up.

Her hair was oily with sweat as he raked his hands through it to keep it out of her face. The ends he couldn't catch stuck to the rims of the toilet bowl. And in that moment, as he knelt behind her on the rough-edged Italian marble tiles of CJ Cregg's bathroom floor, he knew it was true, the world never ended with a bang, but a whimper.

Her back hunched in a curl as she pooled on the floor and when she moved, her vertebra jerked in spastic shakes. He yanked a towel from her rack and wet it under her silver faucet; when she looked at him, he wiped her face clean. The tears came then and he put his arms around her as her forehead thumped to his shoulder so hard he gasped. He let her cry because he had never been worried the alcohol would kill her.

He made her toast from bread he wasn't positive wasn't moldy, but she never looked at the slightly green crusts as he fed them to her. Her apartment was in a state of dark dishabille, and the rooms smelled a heavy kind of panicky unpleasant as she perched on one of her kitchen stools.

"Start from the beginning," he ordered her solemnly and he felt her hang on the cusp between memory and the flashback repetitions playing in her mind. There was a difference between them, between what was real and what was remembered. There were so many versions of the truth, Danny knew too well, but the correct one was always the hardest to find and usually the most painful.

"Sometimes I just wonder how it all began."

"The women of Qumar," Danny said quietly.

And she looked up at him and her look hurt. What she expressed in her eyes in a single look was more words than he would ever write in his life.

"I saw you when you started it," he said and he had. Although sucking in a television feed via satellite gave away suspicious vibes and precise location, he had to see her. Sitting in another woman's hotel room over half a world away, he watched her explode and there had been nothing he could do about it. He tried to tell himself if he had been there, he would have stopped it. But he never believed himself.

"My father, Danny," and it was all she said and it was choked. It didn't matter any more because she knew he knew whether she told him or not. He heard it through the bourbon still caught in her throat.

She had called his number not quite two weeks ago for no certain reasons and all the ones she couldn't name. The number rang four times and she had been just about to hang up when a woman answered for The Post and she had asked for him before being solicitously and immediately transferred to his rabid ruffled grouse of a boss, Carolyn Sinclair. He had called in randomly for his messages a few days after that, and Carolyn had randomly mentioned that CJ Cregg had called. He boarded the next flight from Bahrain.

As the crust of her last triangle of toast crunched between her teeth, he wanted to tell her there were black holes in the dark deep places of the universe, places where gravity defied even light. He had seen those places where the screams of people dying made no sound and red faded from vision because there was so much of it. But as he looked at her, he knew she already knew those places where the world was so quiet that she would scream to fill it with some kind of sound. It was a world where the clatter of ice cubes into the bottom of a tumbler and the gushing, rushing sound of poured bourbon were the only comfort to blind out her father's callused hands and a bloody cummerbund on the dirty tile of a corner store.

"CJ," he asked as he sat next to her and watched the lump of crushed bread slide down her throat.

"Yes."

"I know why you called."

"Ok," she answered, and it was the classic CJ Cregg "ok" that she deftly applied to everything without giving anything away. She had too little left to give without losing it all.

"You loved him," he told her through the silence that seemed to encompass them like a firestorm of war.

She had that look on her face that told him balls-out he was right.

"How did you know?" she asked. "You were halfway across - "

"CJ, you were crying about a $5000 dress," he said. "Nobody cries about a couture Vera Wang."

On the white counter, Danny took her shaking hand in both of his and held it. She was shaking so hard. And he was reminded of a picture he had seen in Bahrain, from a photojournalist stationed out there with him. He was a crazy Frenchman who spoke only Italian, but he'd taken this one picture of the village called Khashma where the rebel troops had slaughtered the people before the "good guys" got through. It was only a black and white of a dead woman lying in the dusty road with blood pooling all around her, but Pierre had taken it into the blinding sun and the light had glanced off the corpse at odd angles so that it looked biblical. Danny had never been a religious man too much, but in that picture, it seemed as if she were still alive.

Sitting beside him on the stool still not high enough to keep her toes from touching the floor, CJ reminded him of that woman, strung between life and death like dust on a sunbeam. He didn't know whom to be haunted by more, this woman who was alive or the woman who had died. He didn't know which was which.

"I didn't know him long enough to love him," she tried to declare.

Danny brushed her off with a wave of his hand. "What did you say to him the first time you met him?"

She thought back. "I told him he didn't need to see me naked."

Danny snorted. "You told me you liked my socks."

"They were great socks, Danny, the yellow ones with the little blue Washington Monuments on them."

"Yeah," he agreed. "They were great. I still wear them, but nobody in Bahrain gets it."

"That's the price you pay for being an American," she informed him drolly.

"So I'm cheap," Danny said, shrugging his shoulders. "I bought a pair of socks to impress you - you bought a Vera Wang."
"I thought you said you bought them for that piece you were doing about increasing DC tourism and historical appreciation."

Outside the sky lightened to the color of spilled ink.

"CJ, you are a woman who falls off treadmills and orders a Grasshopper of all the embarrassing drinks you can possibly order, and you do a mean kareoke of The Jackal, which by the way, I've always meant to ask you, do you do that in the shower?"

"Do you want me to tell you the truth?"

"No," he answered right away. "I'd rather imagine you naked anyway."

"How you ever got through four press secretaries without being charged with sexual harassment is a complete miracle." And she smiled the way he remembered her when the guns were hailing bullets all around him in the war zone and he couldn't think of any good thing in the world but her smile. He couldnít think of anything else worth surviving for.

"No one thinks of Ken Carlton even halfway naked," Danny claimed about the balding, dumpy press secretary before her.

She looked out the window at the dawn that was falling. Danny lowered his voice. "What did you like best about him?"

"I liked that he was tall," she answered and he knew it wasn't directed at him being vertically challenged compared to her. Most people were vertically challenged compared to her, in bare feet. "I liked the way he combed his hair. I liked the way his tone never changed when he got aggravated with me, which was pretty often if you must know. I liked that he could fire a .357 Magnum without falling on his ass. I liked that he was noble and honorable and brave."

She looked up; the blue of her eyes was devastating. "I don't know if I can - "

"CJ, you can't mope forever. Even grieving has its place."

And when he thought about it, that was what he had come almost entirely around the world to tell her. The problem was, she didn't know how. And looking at her, Danny wasn't sure she could.

Instead, she took a deep breath. "I loved him because he was the last of the good men you thought died out with your grandmother's generation. I loved him because he lived life not as it is, but as it should be. I loved him because he was everything I never knew I always wanted."

He didnít know how to tell her he was jealous, and in the end, he realized he couldn't.

He wasn't that man.

"Even you said you couldn't love him because you didn't know him long enough," Danny shot back at her. "For all you know, he could have been one of those people that left the toilet seat up all the time and the toothpaste cap off. He probably washed the whites with the colors and would leave his sweaty socks on your clean underwear. He probably farted a lot. He could have been a really horrible lover."

CJ just shook her head slowly. "It wouldn't have mattered," she told him. "I wouldn't have cared."

And just by looking at her, he knew she wouldn't have. She was stubborn, mysterious, devious, and a real bitch at times. She was probably one of those people that left the toothpaste cap off herself, and he knew better than to get near her at certain times of the month. She wasn't the best kisser he'd ever had either. But if someone had asked him about her, he would have said without a shade of doubt, it didn't matter. He didnít care.

"Then tell me this," Danny asked her and for a second, his voice sounded pleading. "Would you do it all again?"

CJ was thrown a little, but just a little, and he saw just how good she had become at her job, so good it scared him because no one else could see the twenty-seven kinds of pain she was in. No one, not even Josh or Leo or the President who were all intimate with trauma, saw, because he knew they would have done something already if they had.

"I don't know. " But he saw it in her eyes, that screaming yes of throwing up bourbon and knowing that hearts really did break.

"Better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all." He tried not to sound bitter.

"Tell that to someone who's lost."

Broken bones never mended quickly or easily, he knew that from when he was a kid and had busted his pitching arm in two places falling off his bike. But some bones never healed, never grafted back together again, because there had to be two halves to make a whole and CJ was missing her other half.

"I have to go to work," she said quietly and slipped down from her seat. She walked carefully to the bathroom and didnít hit any walls on the way. As he brewed some coffee from her grouchy machine, he thought he could hear her singing over the pounding of the shower. Vaguely he thought he heard her say, did I ever tell you about the man who changed my life, but perhaps it was only wishful thinking on his part. When she reemerged, she was CJ Cregg, the United States' Press Secretary and he knew the world would be hard-pressed to throw her.

"CJ," he said quietly. "What was his name?"
"Simon," she said. "Simon Donovan."

He stayed several days he didn't have. Leo gave her a mandatory day off, no argument, and Danny had dragged her out of her apartment, but the cherry trees on the Mall had bloomed and wilted, and nothing was left but the crisp brown exoskeletons of what had once been flowers. They sat together in the cold sunshine without saying a word. As he put his arms around her, he knew it was the second time he had held her and then crept away.

In the end, it had come down to Joseph Conrad, as Danny supposed most things in life did. He didn't want her to live or dream alone. He didnít want her to wrestle with death, that grey contest without the great desire of victory and without the great fear of defeat, without clamor, without glory, without belief. He wanted to be all that she saw in this man Simon Donovan whom he had never met and never would. He wanted to, if only for a short time, see the world not the way it was, but the way it should be.

In the end, he took her heart of darkness because it was a burden he never wanted her to carry. He carried it with him as he boarded the flight back to Bahrain.

He just smiled and turned away. He let her go.

 

 

She was sitting in her office several days later when it came. Carol had come by several times already, but it was the only time she ventured in. CJ took the manila envelope from her assistant and looked at it strangely.

"What is this?"

Carol shrugged. "It just came for you. I signed for it."

CJ skirted her entire desktop for her letter opener, when she remembered that Josh had taken it for some assumed purpose. After a minute of frustrated bungling, she managed to rip one end open enough to slide out the paper inside.

It was a black and white picture, taken so quickly parts of it were blurry even with high-speed film. But that didn't matter.

He looked almost haggard, she would have said, though not to his face. Even in two-tone color, there were shadows under his eyes and dark stubble along his chin. His hair wasn't combed. At the corner of the picture, she could see the .357 holstered to his waist. He looked tired; he looked angry; he looked cheated.

He was absolutely, heartrendingly, unsparingly beautiful.

The camera had put an automatic watermark date on the bottom edge of the picture. It had been taken the day Danny left for Bahrain. That information had been circled in red permanent marker.

She flipped the photo over. Attached to the back was a simple sheet of paper. It was a photocopy of a memo dictating Simon Donovan's new assignment, so strictly undercover only 4 people were aware of it. The bottom of the paper showed a stub of airline records for a flight to Qumar and it hit her all at once. Simon had gone after Khamir Halid, the man responsible for targeting her. He had gone because he was too noble and brave. He had gone because he was the last of the good men she had always believed died out with her grandmother's generation. He had gone because he believed in protecting the things he loved, even if it came at the price of his own death.

He knew she wouldn't believe without proof; Danny had always known her better than herself in so many aspects. Simon would come back, battered and sunburnt perhaps, but he wouldnít die on her twice. Danny had known that, otherwise he never would have sent the dossier. But written on the back of the photo in the same red ink were 9 words. She called Danny's number.

The receptionist answered as usual and without saying a word, transferred her to Carolyn. She picked up before the first ring.

"I'm sorry," she said, "But Mr. Concannon is unavailable."

"This is the United States' Press Secretary," CJ demanded instantly. "You make him available and you make him available right now."

"CJ," Carolyn said and she sounded weary and in all her years of knowing the leader of The Post, she had never heard her sound weary before. "Danny left this morning for the war zone. He never checked in and we have no way of contacting him."

CJ set the receiver down gently before either of them could say anything.

She looked back down at the photo of Simon Donovan, dead but alive, and cried for the other man.

"Because I loved you the way you love him," was all that he had written.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer: All things West Wing belong to Aaron Sorkin, John Wells, etc Ö I own the stories.