TITLE: Things Start Breaking
AUTHOR: Ellen Milholland
RATING: PG-13 (for language)
CODES: CJ, some CJ/Sam
SPOILERS: Set two weeks after Two Cathedrals.
ARCHIVE: Ask, please.
SUMMARY: "She wasn't surprised that this wasn't nearly enough to fix the shattered parts inside her."
THANKS TO: India.
There come moments when things start breaking, like fingernails and heartbeats and coffee mugs, and people start forgetting to pick up the pieces. Sometimes, these moments end in blessed exhaustion, and sometimes they end in the bottom of a cocktail, and sometimes they end in easy resolutions like superglue.
And sometimes, just sometimes, they end with lips on lips, hands in hair, and a deep, overwhelming feeling of defeat.
It had been two weeks that none would soon forget, but that none would ever want to remember. It had started with the funeral and the President's press conference, and his decision to run for reelection. It had been a maelstrom of high-power meetings and high-tension briefings, of confidential intra-office memoranda and releases addressed to every major journalist in the nation, of individuals and of nations.
There were days of time that could not be recalled precisely. She remembered her briefings, or at least parts of them, but she could not remember the exact moment when she came to understand the meaning of 'relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis' better than she understood the letters in her own name. She remembered the late nights, but could not, usually, remember how exactly she ended up back in her bed each morning.
She remembered the looks on people's faces, remembered the way their hands shook, remembered the sunken cheeks and the bitten fingernails. But she could not remember, sometimes, how it had all begun, or what the purpose of it all was supposed to be.
She had left the night before at two-forty AM, stumbled out into the damp, cool D.C. night with bleary eyes and tired ankles. Her once-crisp white button-down was wrinkled and half-tucked, and she stood in the thick air for a solid five minutes, examining the facades of nearby buildings, looking up into the sky, wondering where her car was. And later, she had found her car and her keys, and she had driven home at ten miles an hour, creeping down the shadowy city streets.
They had found her in her office again at six-twenty, poring over agriculture reports and ambassador appointments and new polling numbers, a vague email from Joey Lucas left open and questioning on her computer screen. There was a pen resting behind her ear, a paperclip between her teeth, two highlighters in her hand. Carol had wandered into her office to drop things into her in-box five times before she had lifted up her head, looked at her assistant through squinting eyes, and mumbled a distracted good morning. Carol smiled good-naturedly, touched the older woman's arm with comfortable ease, and snagged a bite-sized Almond Joy from behind CJ's shoulder.
It was the beginning of another day, like all of the others. She wandered around in her well-tailored suit, found herself eating a sandwich that she did not remember purchasing, and had to reapply her makeup four times to make her look a little less like the undead. Her head was stuffed with the cotton of fatigue, and her senses were dulled to the point that she missed her name being called, touched hot surfaces, and lost focus on the words on the page.
Her afternoon briefing was the same as so many others. She fielded the usual questions about the president's health, about Ian Faulkner, the special prosecutor, about subpoenas. She frowned agreeably, slew them with her razor-sharp wit, evaded their more difficult questions, and spent three minutes too long discussing apple and pear sales for the past year, much to the confusion of the young reporter who'd asked about something else completely. She almost fell onto Carol as she left the room, and the younger woman wrapped a tight arm around her, holding her up. It would have been almost unnoticeable, except for the way CJ stepped on Carol's feet, and the way Carol's fingers dug into CJ's arm.
She paled, a little, when she was told that her personal attorney, Abiah Stein, was waiting in her office. Carol explained that she only allowed the walk-in because it had seemed urgent. CJ was unimpressed; urgency had become normalcy. Carol mused aloud, her arm still wrapped fiercely around the taller woman's waist, that Stein was probably ready to talk about the subpoenas and about the impending grand jury trial.
CJ just nodded because there was nothing to say. By the time they reached her office, she was standing firmly again, smiling pleasantly and showing her teeth, reaching her hand out towards the dark-eyed young attorney. Within five minutes, Stein had a dozen sheets of paper spread out across CJ's desk. Stein was shaking her head and setting her teeth for a long battle. CJ was shrugging and agreeing easily, thinking quite vividly about all the lies she had told, knowing and unknowing, in the past three years.
Thinking about the lies made her head hurt, and Stein kept talking as CJ rifled through a drawer in search of Tylenol. She swallowed them dry, the rough bitterness of the white pills no more unpleasant than Stein's long discussion of how many ways CJ was liable to take the fall for the whole thing.
And then CJ looked up, her tongue dry, and she realized how tight Stein's cheeks were across her cheekbones and how pale she was beneath her dark complexion. She reached across her desk and touched the woman's hand, which stopped Stein cold. "Abiah, you're the best there is, everyone says so," she said, "I trust you."
And she did. Stein relaxed and slumped back into her chair, her black suit jacket pulling against her shoulders, tiny diamonds glittering on her earlobes. CJ was struck by the fragility of the characters in her life, and by the way her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. "Tell me what you want me to do, Abiah. I'll do it. I'm running on auto-pilot these days anyway."
It was the first moment of truth she had experienced in days, and the words surprised her as they left her mouth. It had become easy to convince people that she had everything under control, that because she read hundreds of pages a week she knew what she was talking about. It was a farce that was occasionally too difficult for her exhaustion- muddled mind. And so she spoke the truth, that afternoon so much like all the others, and the only witness was fierce, dark Abiah Stein.
CJ hated herself for the moment of weakness, and so she busied her hands with checking her email. There were four new messages, all of their subject lines mysterious and rather sinister. Stein promised a game plan within the week, and CJ forced herself to smile for the woman's benefit.
She released her pent-up breath only after Stein had closed the door behind her. She estimated that she had at least three minutes before Carol found something new to accost her with, and so she leaned back in her chair, rubbing her neck absently with her hand, letting her eyes close against the harsh, yellow-white sunlight climbing in through her window.
And then, precisely three minutes and sixteen seconds later, Carol knocked and stuck her head in through the cracked door. She smiled cautiously and announced CJ's next visitor, someone whose name CJ was relatively sure was Suzanne, from Agence-France Presse, a woman with short, shimmering blonde hair and a wide mouth.
It was very suddenly five o'clock, the Agence-France woman, whose name had turned out to be Suzette, had finally gone, and CJ was leaning against the wall of the elevator, flipping through a folder of newspaper clippings. But the words weren't real to her, any more so than the word Sagittarius was as she muttered it to the red-haired man near the nondescript door.
They had begun calling it the Dungeon, because it added some levity to the whole thing. Still, CJ had trouble laughing at the metaphor, because it was so easy to imagine herself chained to the wall of the room, unable to escape.
It wasn't a hard comparison because she could almost feel the shackles digging into her wrists, could feel the indistinct pain of rhetorical metal cutting into spiritual flesh. She was thankful, if nothing else, for the fact that the room was still and silent, the kind of room you could stay buried in and forget about the outside world, if only for twenty or forty minutes at a time. There wasn't much secret strategizing going on, these days, but they kept the room password- protected. Sometimes they all needed to escape.
She fell into a chair, dropped the folder onto the table, and exhaled a long, thin breath between her teeth. She turned to the table, began to read the articles she'd skimmed in the elevator, took a drink from the bottle of Diet Coke she had been nursing for the past half hour. It was a day like many others, and she could feel the twinge of caffeine- induced nausea biting at the back of her throat.
She was tired of it, tired of the snide questions and the impossible answers. She was dizzy from the spinning, sick of Toby's bitter condescension and of Josh's never-ending attempts to avoid thinking about the real issues. She had considered taking up smoking, just to smother his overwhelming idealism, just to blow the smoke in his face. Just once.
Her own face stared back at her from a day-old Newsweek article she'd just uncovered. It was a picture from the last big state dinner, and she was wearing pale blue and smiling idiotically, a hand on Toby's arm. She smiled wryly as it occurred to her the ridiculousness that had seemed important then, and she envied that self, that grinning, tipsy self.
She touched her fingers to her temple, willing away the headache threatening to return. She wondered how many hours it would be before she would be able to return home, before she'd be able to take a couple Tylenol PM and fall into her bed, still clad in her blouse and her bra, her mascara smearing below her eyes.
"CJ." Her head shot up, and she bit down too hard on her tongue.
"Jesus, Sam. You really can't sneak up on me like that," she said, frowning, tasting blood. She had been trying to avoid him, because he was her greatest weakness, the soft-spot in her armor.
"It wasn't exactly a stealth attack, CJ. The door squeaks like hell." He was leaning against the table, his arms crossed across his chest. His eyes were sunken, and his eyelashes were exceptionally dark against his cheeks. She was toying with the corner of the Newsweek clipping, and she could feel her own eyes following her from the glossy photograph.
"Yeah, I'm sorry. I've been... a little out of it today." She looked anywhere but at him. It was suddenly too hot in the room, and she was considering the amount of work she should really be doing.
"Could've fooled me," he laughed mirthlessly.
"Hit me where it hurts, Sam." She leaned back into her chair, swallowing hard to get the taste of blood out of her mouth. "I can't help it if White House intrigue knocks me a litt