C.J., Josh, Toby, Sam, Carol, and Donna belong to Aaron Sorkin, John Wells Productions, Warner Bros., & NBC. The title's from Joyce Carol Oates. Standard disclaimers apply. Please send feedback. Because It Is Bitter, And Because It Is My Heart Violet & Cinnamon
C.J. shuffled her notes and stood, tucking them under her arm. "Joshua Marie."
"Can you taste the excitement in the air? Can you feel the magic?" Josh hopped out of her way, and she brushed past him as she stepped out of her office. "Marie?"
"Carol, do you have the pages on--"
"Asiatic parrots." Carol handed C.J. a manila folder. "Here you go."
"And I thank you." C.J. turned towards the hallway. "Accompany me, young Lyman, and explain yourself."
"Oh, I believe you know of what I speak."
"Nine times out of ten, I don't know of what you speak, and truthfully, I don't think you do, either."
They rounded a corner. "Tsinia Furnia."
"Was that a poem?"
"Tsinia Furnia!" Josh gestured broadly. "The new director of FEMA, Tsinia Furnia, has agreed to meet me for dinner."
"Yeah, Josh, that's almost as exciting as my Asiatic parrots." C.J. stopped next to the briefing room.
"I'm dating. I'm out there, eating life."
"I don't like Life. I've always been more of a Cheerios gal."
"Thanks for your enthusiasm, C.J." Josh began backing down the hall. "I can always count on you!"
"I wish you and lovely Miss Furnia a lifetime of happiness!" With a smile, she pushed open the briefing room door and made her way to the podium.
* * *
Carol knocked on C.J.'s doorframe. "Messages."
C.J. looked up from her copy of the Post. "Did you know there's a dust cloud that developed in Mongolia, picked up industrial pollution in China, and is now rolling across the western half of the U.S.?"
"It apparently looks like a whitish haze." C.J. craned her neck to look out the window. "Does that look like a whitish haze to you?"
"That looks like a cloud."
"Yeah, I'm not entirely sure how we're supposed to tell the difference." She turned back around. "Messages?"
"Wiley's aide returned your call; he said two o'clock Friday is fine."
"Amir Zagross is coming in at five, and Sam called to ask--"
"Sam called?" C.J. looked confused. "He couldn't walk down the hall?"
"He's in Mexico with the President," Carol reminded her.
"Oh, right. I went to Mexico once, you know."
"Did you have fun?"
"I was twenty. I drank so much that I couldn't stand up for three days, and I lost all my money and got sunburned to a crisp."
"So you had fun."
"Oh, yeah. What else?"
"You've got two people holding right now."
C.J. leaned back in her chair. "She's getting what she wants, she's a popular girl. Who's on the phone?"
"Lucy Postolov, and your brother."
"Really? Which brother?"
"I just talked to him Sunday." C.J. frowned. "Okay, put him on. Tell Lucy I'll call her back in half an hour."
"Okay." Carol closed the door as she left the office. C.J. placed her elbows on her desk and rested her chin on her hands, then straightened up when the phone rang. She picked up the receiver. "Hey."
"Hey, Ceej," her brother said. "How's your morning?"
"Mongolian dust is going to kill me, Asiatic parrots are a thing, and I'm meeting with a guy named Amir Zagross to talk about the foot-and-mouth scare. It's a good day, Tom. How are you?"
"Not so good."
Her voice turned serious. "I guessed that. You don't usually call me at work. Is there a thing?"
Thomas chuckled. "You really have to start hanging out with new people, you know."
"I know. What's up? Is it Dad?"
"What? No. No, they're both fine. It's me. I mean... it's Ethan."
She furrowed her brow. "Did you two have a fight?"
"Not exactly." He hesitated. "Ethan tested positive."
"Damn. Hang on a second." C.J. pressed the hold button and then the intercom. "Carol?"
"Call Lucy Postolov back and tell her I'll talk to her in an hour. And push back my ten o'clock if it's possible."
"Okay." C.J. shut off the intercom, took a deep breath, and reached for the phone again.
* * *
Josh shook his head. "See, now you're just making up words."
"He's a diplomat from Thailand." Toby cleared his throat. "I have a meeting with him this afternoon."
Toby clasped his hands together. "Oh, I'm serious."
"Where do we find these people?"
"Where did we find you?"
Josh plopped onto Toby's couch. "What happened to naming your kids Joe or Max or Frank?"
"People still do that, Josh, just not people in Thailand. And need I remind you that you brought Tsinia Furnia?"
C.J. leaned against Toby's doorjamb. "Hey."
Josh jumped to his feet. "C.J., would you name your son Tikapon?"
"Sure, if I wanted him to get beaten up on the playground every day." She took a few steps into the office. "Lucy Postolov is not a happy camper. She wants to do the profile, Toby."
"And I want a knish. Life isn't fair, C.J."
"Do you want me to tell her that you're not doing it?"
Toby rolled a pencil between his hands. "You can tell her whatever tickles your fancy."
C.J. nodded. "I'm glad you feel that way, Tiger, because she's shadowing you on Tuesday." He groaned, and she held up a hand. "If you don't like it, call her and deal with it."
Josh grinned. "Look at you, Iron Lady."
"Look at me, ignoring you." C.J. made her way to the door, then paused and turned to face Toby and Josh. "My brother is getting the results from his AIDS test today. I've given Carol everything except the briefings, so if you need something, you can get it from her."
Josh stood. "Okay, sit down."
C.J. sighed. "I have to--"
"Sit." Toby echoed Josh. He waited until she did, then said, "Why do you think it's going to come back as anything but negative?"
She drew a shaky breath. "Tom's a doctor, and he was in charge of a community blood drive a couple of weeks ago. He talked a lot of people into giving blood, including his boyfriend."
Toby moistened his lips. "And he tested positive."
C.J. nodded. "They screen the blood for all sorts of things, and HIV is one of them. Tom says that he and Ethan have never been anything but careful, but...." she trailed off and rubbed her forehead.
"I don't know what to say." Josh put one hand on his hip and ran the other through his hair.
"Yeah." C.J. placed her palms on her legs and stood. "I'll be in my office." Toby and Josh said nothing, staring at the walls as C.J. walked away.
* * *
C.J. sat at her desk and tried to focus on Mongolia, or Thailand, or anything that would keep her mind from wandering. She was concentrating so hard on her notes that she jumped when the phone rang. Her voice was shaky when she answered. "Yeah."
"Hey, C.J." Sam's voice crackled over the long distance line. "Did I catch you at a bad time?"
"Because it sounds like I caught you at--"
"What do you need, Sam?"
"I'm just checking in. The talks are going well. We expected that we'd end up grudgingly backing the loan they want. So far we haven't agreed to that."
He sighed. "Eventually we're going to end up grudgingly backing the loan they want."
Cradling the receiver between her shoulder and her cheek, she picked up her cup of coffee. "You're a real bringer of light, pal. How's the President?"
"Did you know he'd never been to Mexico before?" Sam chuckled. "He's reveling in the new experience. He says he's always been partial to his native New England but he may become, and I quote, a desert dweller yet."
"Well, tell him that if a guy named Pablo shows up and offers him a shot of tequila and a ride to Tijuana, he probably wants something."
"Pablo?" Sam sounded bewildered. "Okay, I'm guessing you don't actually want me to tell the President that."
"Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm okay. You guys'll be back tomorrow, right? I'll talk to you then."
"Don't swallow the worm," she said. He laughed as he hung up.
C.J. sipped the lukewarm coffee and made a face at its bitter taste. She started trying to read again, but found it nearly impossible to focus. She had read the same sentence three times in a row, and still hadn't deciphered it, when the phone sounded again. She picked it up and answered it the same way she had before. "Yeah."
"You shouldn't answer the phone that way, Claudia," her mother said in a reproachful voice.
She rolled her eyes. "I have Carol screening my calls, Mom."
"Her phone manners are better than yours, sweetheart. I could have been the President."
"You could absolutely not have been the President," she said dryly. "Although you might have pulled out the soccer mom vote."
"Smart mouth," Mia snapped. "I suppose it's my fault. I read to you as a child."
"And look where it got me?"
"Indeed." Her tone softened. "Have you spoken with your brother?"
"Yes. He called you?"
"Of course. We just got off the phone. I didn't -- I don't know what to think. I didn't know what to say."
"There might be nothing wrong, Mom," C.J. said gently.
"But there might be."
"I am too."
Mia paused. "If Thomas has AIDS--"
"HIV," C.J. corrected her abruptly.
"Well. If he's sick, then."
"There are treatments. They're doing good things with the pill cocktails now. There are--"
"There are treatments for cancer too," Mia said flatly. "Claudia, we can't lose another child."
She bit her lip and thought unwillingly of her oldest brother's funeral. "I know."
"I don't think your father's heart could take it. And I--"
Mia swallowed hard, then spoke briskly. "I'm going to check in with your brother John now."
"Tell him I said hi."
"I will. Take care of yourself, Claudia."
"I hope so."
"You, too. Give Dad my love."
"And say 'hello' when you answer the phone," Mia scolded. "I didn't raise you to grunt at people."
"Goodbye, Mom." C.J. hung up the phone, rubbed her eyes, and forced her attention back to her work.
* * *
C.J. looked at her door. "Excuse me?"
Donna poked her head into C.J.'s office. "I would have actually knocked, but my hands are full." She kicked the door open wide. "I brought things for you."
"You heard about the Asiatic parrots?"
"I heard about your brother." Donna placed the food on C.J.'s desk. "I found a chocolate chip muffin and three double-fudge brownies. Of course, I'm going to eat one of them."
"What did you do, raid Ainsley's secret stash?"
"No comment." She handed C.J. a Styrofoam cup and sat in one of her visitor's chairs. "I also made you some cinnamon tea. As you can see, I was feeling domestic. But don't tell Josh."
C.J. nibbled on the muffin. "My lips are sealed."
The two women fell silent while they ate. After she'd finished half her muffin, C.J. tossed it onto her desk and folded her hands across her lap.
"Did you know that I can walk on my hands?" Donna said.
C.J. looked at her. "Really?"
"No. But I could try if you'd like."
C.J. sipped her tea. "This is good, Donna."
"I'm a very talented woman."
"From what I've heard, so is Tsinia Furnia."
Donna stood. "I heard she got a boob job in '96."
C.J.'s phone bleated, and she placed her hand on the receiver.
"Good luck," Donna whispered.
She waited until Donna closed the door behind her before she picked up the phone and placed it to her ear. "Hello."
"C.J." Her brother's voice was soft.
Tears stung her eyes. "No."
"I'm sorry, Ceej."
She rested her elbows on her desk, and placed the receiver against her right forearm. With her free hand, she covered her eyes and sobbed quietly. After a moment, hand still over her eyes, she moved the receiver to her ear again.
He exhaled slowly. "I've got a great doctor."
"We went to medical school together. He's really one of the best."
She moved her hand to her forehead. "That's good."
"I guess I ruined your day, huh?"
C.J. laughed weakly. "Pretty much."
"I'm going to be okay, you know. I'm starting antiviral therapy and I'll modify my diet. I'll be around for a long time."
"Have you told Ethan?"
"You always told me that you were my first call."
"And you know something? You're the only one who listens to me." C.J. wiped the tears from her chin with the back of her hand. "Do you want me to come home?"
"You have obligations there."
"Do you want me to?"
"There's nothing you can do."
"Do you want me to come home, Thomas?"
His voice was thick. "Please."
She stood, gathering her things. "I'll call you back in twenty minutes."
"I'm so sorry, C.J."
"You've said that twice now."
"I mean it."
C.J. rustled through her top drawer and pulled out a Kleenex. "I love you."
"I love you, too."
She disconnected the line, then pressed the button for Carol's desk. "Get me on the next flight to Dayton."
* * *
"The relationship between the nations of southeastern Asia has never been more complicated."
"I disagree," Toby said, resting his chin in his hand.
"You disagree?" the diplomat said incredulously. "Mr. Ziegler, with all due respect, I spent the first forty years of my life in Thailand."
"And I spent the first forty years of mine in New York," Toby countered. "I can't be objective about the Yankees, or the subway system, or the street vendors. But I can be objective about southeastern Asia."
The other man smiled. "Point taken."
Behind him, C.J. approached from the bullpen. She stood in the open doorway, wrapped her arms around herself, and waited.
"We can finish this next week," Toby said, standing up. "Thanks for coming down, Mr. Baholyodhin. I'm still pronouncing that wrong, aren't I?"
"Yes," the other man said, shaking Toby's hand. "But I've gotten used to it." He nodded to C.J. as he left.
"I hate to agree with Josh," Toby mused, "but why doesn't this administration work with anyone named Smith?"
"I think there's a Kelly Smith in Education, isn't there?"
"You're too literal."
"Pot, meet kettle."
"Whatever." He waited for her to say something. She didn't, so he continued, "I spoke to Lucy Postolov."
"I'm sure that was fun for her."
"She may be the devil."
"I have a few other people in mind for that role already." C.J. stepped forward into his office. "I'm going home."
"Yes. Don't start with me. The President isn't even in the country. Henry will gladly handle the briefings, and it's not like--"
"I was going to say that's a good idea," Toby interrupted.
"Things are at low ebb here. This is as good a time as any."
She sat down on his couch and raised a hand to rub the back of her shoulder. "I shouldn't have assumed."
"You should go home." He studied her face carefully. "Tom called you back."
She slumped back against the cushions. "The next round of budget talks, when someone brings up funding for AIDS research, because someone always does--"
"I'm saying don't ask me to weigh in on that."
Toby walked over and extended a hand to her. She took it, and he helped her to her feet. "Go home to your family."
She nodded. "Thank you. For being so--"
"Unlike myself?" he asked, ushering her out of the room.
"Not really." She smiled faintly.
"Get me on the phone when you land," he called after her.
C.J. crossed the hall and leaned into Josh's office. He was staring absently out the window. She coughed. "Anyone home?"
"C.J.!" He turned and grinned at her. "I'm not busy. It's a nice day. Do you want to go for a walk?"
"You're not worried about the Mongolian dust cloud?"
He shrugged. "Could it really make the air quality worse around here?"
"I don't know. Actually -- you're sure you're not busy?"
"Sure." He tilted his head. "What do you need?"
"What time's your date with the fabulous flying Furnia?"
Josh spoke with mock dignity. "Tsinia and I are having dinner at eight."
"Do you have to go get your hair done, or can you give me a ride to the airport?"
He circled his desk and grabbed his coat from the rack. "Do you need to stop home first, throw a suitcase together?"
"Yeah. Thanks, Josh."
"No problem." They walked down the hall together. "Do you want to talk about it?"
She shook her head. "Not just yet. Maybe in the car."
Josh rested a hand on her arm. "You think I should get my hair done?"