It's CJ and some Toby, and you need Things Fall Apart in your mind.
Title: Don’t Look Down
Rating: TEEN (for a word)
Summary: She vows to keep her feet on the ground and her head out of the clouds.
Disclaimer: Not mine at all.
Spoilers: Pre/In/Post to ‘Things Fall Apart’.
Feedback: Always appreciated.
A/N: Sherry: I never said never, it just came sooner than I thought! sweetly_savage, as always. And thanks to Rhonda.
Don’t Look Down
Her fingers are too long. At seven years old, her bones periodically outgrow her muscles and she’s got no grip. She watches, helpless, breath caught, tongue pressing against the gap in her front teeth, as the ribbon slides through her hand; watches as that pretty pink, with its smiling mouth and friendly eyes, soars ever faster into the brilliant blue sky. There’s not even a cloud to hide its cheerful bob-bobbing, and she stares until the tears stream down her cheeks, until she can stare no more. She’ll blame the sun, later. When she’s had a chance to think about it.
“Will you hurry, Claudia?”
Tal Cregg’s voice contains its habitual irritation, and it’s enough to snap her from her reverie. She swipes at her face with her sleeve and squints ahead. Her brothers have already reached the car, and she can see her mother in the passenger seat, arms filled with soft toys and candy, laughing her loud laugh. She sees her father start to turn again.
“Coming, Daddy!” And she runs, all legs, until she’s there and squeezing onto the back seat, elbows making space where before there was none. The car smells of sweat and sweets, and just a trace of cigarette smoke. She feels better.
“Where’s your balloon, Squirt?” Her elder brother tugs sharply at the strand of hair that’s come loose from her band.
“You didn’t let go of it, Claudia?” Her mother looks over her shoulder at her daughter and sighs. “You made enough fuss about having one.”
Claudia digs her nails deep into her palms and lifts her chin. “No. I… gave it away.”
“Sure you did.” Robert knows how to press her buttons.
“Shut up, Egg Head!” Long fingers are good for poking between ribs, at least.
Tal makes sure it’s a short drive home.
Later, when the house is quiet, when all she can hear is Max snoring as she scratches the coarse gray hair beneath his collar, she’ll tilt her head to the gap in the curtains and look with all her might. To go up and up and up, and never reach the top; to twist and turn and bob and have nothing to push against. It’s a nightmare of her very own.
Claudia grips tight to her bedclothes and the warmth of her dog, and vows to keep her feet on the ground and her head out of the clouds.
He’s left no note, but his intentions are clear. Clothes, her clothes, are heaped in a pile in the corner. There are records and books on her chair, which, in turn, has been pushed next to the door, and she knows without checking that he’ll have found every one of them. Her life of four months has been gathered into one place, and pointed towards the door. There’s nothing left.
She crosses the demarcation line and picks up the phone.
“It’s me… can I come over, I mean… can I stay?” She pulls her hair from her face and simultaneously wipes at non-existent tears. “Just until I find someplace?”
She listens and nods. “Okay. I’ll be half an hour. And, Toby… thanks.”
The apartment’s on the ground floor, but it still takes her twenty minutes to load the car. Another fifteen across town and she’s already running late. She parks clumsily, but near enough, and stands at the door for another five before she remembers to knock.
“Give me your keys, CJ.”
She starts, unaware of the man now standing in front of her. Warm fingers on hers wrest the car keys from her hand, and she hears rather than sees him as he lugs her bags across his doorstep. She follows him into the tiny kitchen and stands just a little too close.
“Do you need coffee?” His eyes are as dark as his newly grown beard, but they glitter in soft sympathy as he reaches across her for mugs. “Andi’ll be back at the weekend with her sister, but the room is yours ‘til then. What are you going to do?”
Her eyes are dry, but it feels like an age since she blinked. Everything in her line of vision is slightly out of focus and if she looks just past Toby’s shoulder, she can make him grow several inches and turn his eyes blue.
“CJ!” His voice barks out and she remembers to breathe.
“I don’t know. It’s part of the peril of sleeping with your boss – you’re only as good as your last fuck.” She’s proud that her voice doesn’t wobble. “Remind me not to do that again.”
They don’t sit to drink their coffee, but CJ hooks a foot round the table leg and holds tight to her mug.
“Come with me to Boston.” Toby turns to her suddenly.
“ Boston? I thought that Johnston was based here?”
“He is, but he’s got a sick, uh, aunt, or something. He called earlier, and he needs me to take some papers from the office for him to sign.”
“Tomorrow morning. Flight leaves at eight.”
She pauses. “Okay. And you would need me for?”
“We need you to inject some enthusiasm into the campaign. Fresh ideas, you know the thing.”
“So that would be for my mind rather than my body?”
Toby stares at her and she can tell that he’s not sure what to answer for the best. She decides to put him out of his misery.
“Flying, yeah? Well, as long we come down.”
Later, when the apartment is quiet, when all she can hear are the sobs that shake her hard enough to hurt, she’ll close her eyes and imagine herself floating away. There’s nothing familiar about the bed she’s lying on and the window of the spare room looks out on the blackened brick of next door’s kitchen, with just a few inches of dirty orange sky visible if she cranes her neck. At the moment, she feels small enough to fit through any hole and the panic fills her chest to bursting point.
“Hey…” Toby’s voice is gentle and the bed dips slightly as he sits.
The hand on her ankle is her anchor, and she falls into sleep.
She’s going mad. He’s a mercurial man, her President. He’s brilliant and he’s funny, and sometimes just keeping him on track seems like the hardest thing she’s ever had to do. She thinks that she would have enjoyed being his daughter - as much as she enjoyed being her own father’s daughter, anyway. The President has more… warmth. Or maybe she’s better as an adult than as a child. Either way, while she feels she’s failed her own father many times over, she’s determined that she’s not going to fail this man. She’ll talk him through it – even though it’s a town hall and he’s done it three thousand times before - or try to anyway, just once more. He expects it of her and she likes to make him smile.
“Why didn’t the Columbia land last night?”
He has her attention now.
The President is talking to Sam. Sam doesn’t know about Toby’s brother – nobody knows about Toby’s brother except her, and, obviously, the President. It’s amazing how normal she appears when, actually, her heart is beating at least three times faster than it should.
“CJ…” There’s a quiet voice in her ear. Ed? Larry? Who cares? She just takes the papers and scrawls her name. She’s almost sure she’s on the verge of a small stroke.
She realizes that the President is still speaking.
“He’s a payload specialist.”
“I didn’t know that!” Sam is startled.
“He’s up there with four red-bellied Japanese newts. He wants to see how a newt’s inner ears, which are remarkably similar to humans, are influenced by the absence of gravity. Do you know what he calls them, CJ?”
She breathes in and raises an eyebrow. “Astro-newts.”
It’s become an old joke and she can’t raise a smile. The absence of gravity and she can’t raise a smile.
Sam’s gone and she knows that Toby’s in for one of those meetings that only ever happen with Sam: the slightly hurt, ‘I thought I meant more to you’ face and the whine in his voice that makes you want to slap him, or kiss him better. Then there’ll be questions. As far as she’s concerned, Toby is saddled with two brothers, both of them equally irritating to him in their own way. Though she’s sure Toby loves Sam.
She drags herself back to the moment. The man of the moment.
“CJ, you say I have a pitcher of water and a drinking glass… and the water gets into the glass how?”
She’s certain it’s nothing. Toby would have said.
Later, when the shots are still ringing in her ears and there’s an unspecified stinging… she brings her hand up to her neck.
“CJ?” Toby turns his head to look at her.
She opens her eyes. Donna’s in one corner, white-faced and dry-eyed brave. Sam and Mrs. Bartlet are battling with genteel vehemence over a word – she’s no idea what it is, she’s not heard a thing that’s been said for the buzz in her head. And, somehow, she’s sitting next to Toby, his knee pressed against hers in silent support.
“CJ?” He sounds worried. Worried and exhausted.
“Were you scared, Toby?” Her voice is a hoarse whisper.
He exhales, an incredulous almost-laugh. “There were shots, there was panic and my friend may be dying. You’re asking me if I was scared?”
Her eyes flutter shut and she thinks of the past few hours and the mortal danger they endured and, for now, survived. Their feet never even left the ground.
She shakes her head. “For David. Were you scared for David?”
“I need ten minutes.” She manages to keep her voice under control.
Margaret looks concerned, but nods her assent, hand on phone.
CJ closes the door firmly behind her and finds that she can’t move.
“Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. Swallow.” She takes two steps before she’s suddenly off balance and the wall is crashing into her and then keeping her upright. She can feel the cool plaster beneath her palms and she knows that the sweat that’s beading on her forehead is about to trickle down onto her cheek. She may well leave handprints on her brand new paintwork.
The bastard! Hutchinson is a bastard! He hates her and she has no problem hating him right back. He thinks she’s incompetent, which she’s damn well not, and he thinks she’s weak… soft. She’s not… she’s not - it’s just common humanity, surely? Spinning and spinning and then there’s no air. Bastard! She’s still the new girl, never completely in the picture, even though it’s been months now. God knows she’s done enough to earn some respect. It’s only him… the others, well, she’s won them round, with Kate’s help, but Hutchinson… which way is up? Breathe! Breathe!
The door creaks, but CJ can’t open her eyes. She’ll deal with the fall-out; plead sickness – which it is of a sort – if necessary. She inhales through her nose and, then, relaxes infinitesimally. Margaret always gets it right, she’s worth her weight in gold.
She’d say his name, but she can’t unclench her teeth.
A strong hand on her elbow, then her shoulder. Both arms pull her from the wall and to his chest. They stagger, comically; her sheer length has always made him clumsy with her. It’s why he sticks to the little touches. But not this time.
Somehow, he manages to perch her on the edge of her desk while keeping her in a tight embrace, and even though she’s still struggling to breathe, she’s not going to ask him to let go. At least she knows her oxygen isn’t running out.
“Are you…?” Toby lifts his head and touches a hand to her hair.
“I’m fine, I’m fine.” Her voice is surprisingly strong against his shoulder, and she finds herself believing it. “It’s nothing…”
Toby releases her, peering at her as she falls against him and then pulls away.
“It’s not nothing, CJ, you’re shaking. Look at your hands!” He tries to grab one, but she’s behind her desk and the moment’s passed. Things are different now.
“I need to, uh…” She waves a steadier hand at the papers on her desk and pushes her hair off her face. She is pale, but collected. “Can you give me an hour and then come back?”
“Sure.” He turns to go, then pauses, looking carefully at her bent head. “An hour. I’ll be back in an hour. I’ll have questions!”
“I may have some of my own,” she mutters.
He closes the door quietly behind him.
Later, when Annabeth is holed up with Greg Brock and the Communications Department is frantically fending off calls and delaying the next briefing indefinitely, she goes to his office. He’s there in the dark, and when she stands and waits for him to speak, she’s certain she sees a flash of something in his eyes. Despair? Empathy? She’s not sure which. All she knows is that her fingers are too long, and she’s let go of the ribbon.
She needs him to hold on to her.