C.J., Josh, Toby, and Sam belong to Aaron Sorkin, John Wells Productions, Warner Bros., & NBC. The other characters are all original. Lyrics are by Carly Simon. Standard disclaimers apply. Please send feedback. First To Burn And Then To Freeze Violet & Cinnamon
I'm home again, in my old narrow bed,
Where I grew tall, and my feet hung over the end --
The low beam room with the window looking out
On the soft summer garden,
Where the boys grew in the trees....
She looked up from her cluttered desk. "What?"
C.J. emerged from her office with an armload of files. "At the Human Rights conference, today's keynote speaker on women's rights is -- Azizeh Asgaripour?"
"Yes," her assistant confirmed.
"Can you give me even a vague idea how that's spelled?"
"Which? Azizeh or Asgaripour?"
She struggled to put the files in order. "Either. Both."
"I'm not sure, but--"
"Two minutes," C.J. warned, semi-frantically.
"You'll have it," Carol promised.
C.J. nodded and hurried away, through the hectic bullpen. She didn't get far before Josh called out to her. "C.J.! You know the thing with the Southern Baptists tomorrow?"
"Out with the trash," she assured him, still rummaging through her notes.
"Yeah," he said, following her. "Although, if we mention it, it might look good, because otherwise we'll start to hear about family values--"
"Please. We hear about that anyway. We just don't need to hear it from the Southern Baptists. You want to make me their puppet, Josh?"
He grinned. "I don't think I could get my hand that far up your dress."
C.J. rolled her eyes as Josh strode off. Further down the hall, Sam fell into step with her. "Hey, C.J., guess what?"
"The British are coming?"
"China. Suicide in China. Did you know that five hundred girls and women--"
"Kill themselves in China every day? Yes, I did know that. I actually pay attention to the things I say when I'm talking sometimes."
"Okay, you know what?"
"I know I can tell the difference between Oregon and California." She gave him a playful sidelong glance. "I don't even need to look at a map."
"See, that's not funny any more!" Sam protested, as she quickened her frenetic pace. "Stop trying to outsmart me, stop trying to outdo me, and stop being six feet tall!"
"No dice," she answered sweetly, leaving him behind.
As she rounded a corner, Toby appeared just ahead of her. "C.J.!"
"Oh, not you too. What do you need?"
"The HMOs summit. You're going to need to make a statement."
"Every American should have access to health care and treatment; it's part of the Constitutional right to life."
"I've got all that already." She looked up and realized she'd made a complete round of the corridors. "I'm walking in circles!"
"You should join the circus," Toby said sarcastically.
As he turned away, Carol rushed up with an index card. "Azizeh Asgaripour."
She shuffled it in with the rest of her notes. "Thanks."
"And you have a phone message from your brother," Carol added, handing it to her.
"I don't really have time now--" C.J. broke off as she read the message. She stopped in her tracks, nearly causing Carol to run into her. "Okay."
"Do you want me to--"
"Call him back." C.J. took a deep breath. "Okay. I have a briefing." She gathered her files, and her wits, and stepped into the Press Room.
* * *
C.J. fidgeted for most of her trip. When she finally landed in Dayton, she impatiently pushed her way through the crowd and found herself growing annoyed when she didn't spot her brother right away.
C.J. whirled around, startled, and saw him standing behind her, grinning. "You ass!" She chuckled lightly, trying to catch her breath.
Thomas laughed and pulled her into a warm embrace. C.J. smacked his arm in exasperation, then relented and hugged him tightly.
"It's good to see you, babe," he said, taking her bag and slinging it over his right shoulder. "Is this all you brought?"
She nodded. "I'm not staying long. You know, Thomas, I've missed you a lot, but that sneaking up on me thing? Try not to do that anymore."
"I've been sneaking up on you since I was eight years old. You should have expected it."
"I keep hoping you'll grow out of it," she remarked dryly.
"Don't hold your breath." He grinned again. "You look really nice."
"I try. Actually, I was supposed to do a--" she waved a hand in the air, then gave up trying to explain. "A thing today on women's rights."
She shrugged. "What about you, Dr. Cregg?"
"It's my day off." Thomas shifted her bag to his left shoulder. "Actually, I took the whole week off."
"You've known about this all week and you didn't call me until today?" C.J. looked at him sharply.
"No, I just found out this morning, too."
"I was in Montana," he said simply.
"You went on vacation in Montana?"
"There's incredible fly-fishing in Montana, C.J."
"That's good to know." She paused. "So how bad is this? Have you talked to his doctor?"
Thomas nodded. "Yeah, I spoke with her this morning. Aaron has a tumor surrounding his heart."
He touched her arm and they stopped walking. "It's infiltrating his lung, but -- but they're trying radiation and chemo. They're hopeful."
"What do you think?"
"Well, I'm not an oncologist." He noticed C.J. shake her head slightly. "He has a chance to beat this."
"Okay." C.J. took a breath and resumed making her way through the airport. They remained in silence for several minutes, until Thomas spoke.
"God, kid, do you always walk this fast?"
She slowed her pace. "It's a little trick I picked up at the White House."
* * *
"Here we are."
Thomas turned off the engine. As C.J. unbuckled her seatbelt, he reached into the backseat and pulled out her bag.
She opened her door and gazed up nervously at the old gray house. "How are they doing?"
"Mom's bustling around cleaning everything, and Dad's not saying much of anything to anyone. So, you know, the usual."
"He's at work right now, I think. Are you coming?"
C.J. slouched a little in her seat. "Can't we just sleep at a hotel?"
Thomas looked at her seriously. "Come on, Ceej."
"Yeah." She climbed out of the car, stretched, and grinned at him wryly. "After all, it won't be that bad, right?"
"'Course not," he said, with equal irony. They walked up the steps and into the house.
"Hello?" Thomas shouted as they came through the front door.
"In here," George Cregg's gruff voice replied. They followed it to the kitchen. He looked up from the sandwich he was making. "Well, look what the cat dragged in."
"Hey, Dad." He waved her closer and she bent and kissed him on the forehead. "Where's Mom?"
"She went to the store," George told her. She tried not to seem visibly relieved. He continued, "She needed something for spaghetti sauce. I still don't know what she puts in that stuff. I'm getting a snack before she chases me out of the kitchen."
"You're supposed to be watching your diet," Thomas reminded him.
"Ah, you sound like your mother," George grumbled. "It's just a sandwich."
George cast a pleading glance at C.J. "He had to be a doctor. He couldn't have gone to law school?"
"He's right." C.J. held up her hands. "Sorry."
"And look at you, Claude!" Her father beamed at her. "Working in the White House. You get to hear all the President's dirty little secrets?"
"This President doesn't have any dirty little secrets," she teased. "That's only Republicans."
George scoffed. "Things were better four years ago."
Thomas smiled at C.J. "He says that every four years."
"It's true every four years!" George took a defiant bite of his sandwich. "Your mother made the bed up in your old room."
"I'll take my stuff up."
C.J. took her bag from Thomas. As she left the kitchen, her father mumbled, "My daughter's a pinko-liberal--"
"I heard that," she called over her shoulder.
"Good!" he shot back, playfully.
She shook her head and climbed the back stairs. Walking into her old bedroom, she was amazed at how little it had changed since she was fifteen. There was the same peach-colored paint on the walls, and a familiar old red quilt was on the bed. She set down her luggage, crossed to the window, and opened the curtains. The view hadn't changed. She watched the late afternoon sun play across the branches of trees, and recalled years of tagging along after her brothers, as they built forts and played war games. Each of them had gone through a phase of sneaking out at night, during their teenage years. She'd caught each one trying to creep back in, been bribed dozens of times not to tell their parents. She never had.
C.J. stared out the window for a minute longer. Finally, she rubbed her forehead and settled on her bed. Kicking off her shoes, she dialed Josh's office, and after a moment, Donna put her through.
"C.J.! What's up? Where are you?"
"Home," she said, then corrected herself. "Dayton."
"Ohio?" he asked, surprised.
"No, France. Of course I'm in Dayton, Ohio, Joshua."
"Thank you, Snippy McSarcasm." He switched the phone to his other ear. "Seriously, what's going on? Leo won't tell us why you left."
C.J. took a breath. "My oldest brother is in the hospital."
"Claudia Jean," he said softly.
"I'm going to see him in the morning. I'm just staying for the weekend, but I'll tell you, Josh, I'm really not looking forward to spending time with my other brother. He doesn't get along with my other brother and--"
"Wait, wait. Exactly how many brothers do you have?"
C.J. leaned up against the headboard. "Three. Aaron's the oldest, then Thomas, John, and me."
Josh took a sip of coffee. "Yeah, huh."
"Huh as in what?"
"Huh as in, that explains a lot."
"Okay, I'm hanging up now." C.J. heard a knock and looked up to see Thomas standing in her doorway. He mouthed the word "Mom" and pointed downstairs. She simultaneously rolled her eyes and nodded.
She turned her attention back to the phone. "Yeah, I'm here, but I have to go."
"Okay. Take care of yourself and call me whenever."
"Thanks, Josh." C.J. switched off her phone, then climbed from her bed and slipped on her shoes. She closed her eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, and slowly made her way downstairs and into the kitchen.
"Claudia!" Mia set down a bag of groceries and dashed over. She stood on tiptoe to kiss her daughter on the cheek.
"You shouldn't wear heels," Mia scolded her lightly.
"I know." C.J. stifled a sigh.
Mia handed her a plastic bag of tomatoes. "Be a good girl and put these away." She turned away, and added, "It's good you're home. I'm just worried sick about your brother."
C.J. opened the refrigerator. "How's Paula holding up? And the girls?"
"I was at the hospital with them all day. Paula's trying to be brave. The girls?" Mia threw her hands up. "Who knows with kids? They seem fine so far."
She raised her eyebrows as she put away a gallon of milk. "How long has he been sick, Mom? This can't have just come out of nowhere."
"He had a cough that wouldn't go away. Paula says he's been coming home from work tired for months. I thought it was just because he works so hard." She nudged C.J. "You work too hard too, you know. We never see you."
"Well, my job is important."
"It's unhealthy, that's what. Spending all that time at work. When do you ever get a chance to relax?"
"I do all right," C.J. said patiently.
"When do you have time to meet--"
"--A good man?" Mia gave her a worried look. "You're not getting any younger, sweetheart."
C.J. interrupted before her mother could continue the familiar tangent. "I'm doing fine, Mom. Where'd Tom go?"
"Outside to have a cigarette. Disgusting habit."
C.J. put a loaf of bread away. "I'm going for a walk."
"Be careful in those shoes."
She headed for the back door. "I will."
"And don't roll your eyes at your mother!" Mia reproached her.
"And don't lie to your mother!"
C.J. groaned and let the screen door clank shut behind her, walking around to the front of the house. Her brother was smoking on the porch steps. She sat down next to him, reached over, and gently swiped the cigarette from his lips.
"I thought you didn't smoke," Thomas said mildly, as she took a drag.
"I don't." She exhaled slowly. "Only when I'm home."
"Is Mom getting on your case?"
"A little." C.J. half-smiled. "I think she's still mad that I was taller than her by seventh grade."
Thomas lit himself another cigarette. "No, she's mad because you got a great education and have a great career, but you're not getting married and making babies."
She laughed. "Mom wants you to get married and make babies, too."
"She has better chances with you," he observed. "You been seeing anyone?"
"No, not really."
"You sound doubtful."
She pushed her hair back wistfully. "It's complicated. There was someone -- I thought it might be something, but work kind of got in the way."
"Your job or his?"
"Both, actually." She rested her head on her hand and regarded him quizzically. "You're so nosy. What about you?"
"I stopped seeing somebody recently." He shook his head. "You don't even want to hear the sordid details, trust me."
"Sorry." She looked up at the old oak in the front yard. "God, I haven't been back in a long time."
"Neither have I. It still looks the same around here, doesn't it?"
"Yeah. Dad looks older, though."
"He's 68 years old," Thomas reminded her.
"I know." She stubbed her cigarette out on the wooden step. "It's really weird."
"Our parents being in their sixties. I don't know about you, but that makes me feel old. And now Aaron...."
"You'll always be younger than me." He patted her hand. "Aaron's going to be--"
"He has cancer."
"Yeah." He frowned. "It's getting cold out here. You want to go in?"
"I guess." She stood up and hugged herself. "Dad's going to make us watch hockey."
Thomas grimaced and got to his feet. "As long as Mom doesn't try to make us go to Mass, I guess it's okay with me."
"We should probably come home more often," C.J. said guiltily.
He tossed the remnant of his cigarette into the bushes by the porch. "We should probably do a lot of things."
C.J. stared at the buttons on the elevator as she waited impatiently to reach Aaron's floor. It wasn't that long ago that she was in a different hospital, and she certainly didn't want to be in this one now.
"Claudia, stop it."
"Stop what, Mom?"
"Tapping your foot." Mia frowned. "It looks rude."
"Claudia," Mia looked up at her daughter. "Just stop it."
C.J. caught Thomas's eye as the elevator stopped. He flashed her a small, forced smile, and they stepped into the lobby of the oncology ward.
Thomas and C.J. were silent as they followed their mother to Aaron's room. When they reached his door, C.J. abruptly stopped short.
"Ceej?" Thomas looked back at her.
"I'll -- I'll be in, in a minute."
She watched as Thomas put a hand on Mia's back and allowed her to enter the room before he did. Sudden tears stung her eyes and she chuckled, shaking her head.
"C.J.?" She felt a soft hand on her arm.
"Paula, hi." C.J. was surprised to see her sister-in-law standing next to her, and they embraced quickly.
"What are you doing out here?"
"I'm not sure," C.J. said honestly. "What about you?"
Paula raised a small paper cup of coffee. "Sustenance."
"Was Aaron sleeping? Maybe we should have called--"
Paula reached out and squeezed her hand. "Honey, relax. Your dad and John are in there right now. I was just taking a break."
"Did you stay here last night?" C.J. asked with concern.
"Yeah." Paula noticed C.J.'s glance. "It's not a big deal, C.J. The girls stayed with my sister and I slept a little."
"Get in here, ladies." George peeked his head out of Aaron's room. "You're missing all the fun."
"Okay, Dad." C.J. turned her attention back to Paula. "You could go home to rest, you know."
Paula drained her cup of coffee. "I'm fine. Come on."
C.J. let her sister-in-law lead the way. Steeling her nerves, she swallowed and stepped inside after Paula.
"Well, if it isn't my favorite sister!" C.J. was pleased to see Aaron sitting up in bed. His voice was a little weaker than she'd remembered and he looked pale, but he was smiling.
"I'm your only sister," she said, crossing the room and kissing his cheek.
"Yeah, that's true."
"You might want to start coming up with some new material there, Aaron." C.J. took a seat next to Thomas.
"Maybe I'll hire a scriptwriter." His eyes twinkled. "You know any good ones?"
"Good morning, C.J."
She turned to her third brother. "John."
"Nice of you to come home," he said, fiddling with his tie.
"Yeah, it's good to have her here, isn't it?" George looked at his son.
Aaron shifted on the bed and Paula absently began rubbing his leg. "You didn't have to come all this way for my benefit, C.J. I know it's a big deal for you to take time off."
"I was long overdue for a trip home anyway."
"How long has it been, anyway?"
C.J. eyed her brother. "Too long, John. But I'm here now, right?"
"You certainly are."
* * *
"And then he says, well, our offices are different, but we're both trying to bend people over." C.J. laughed half-heartedly. John continued, "He bought the car, though."
C.J. set the last plate down at the dinner table and picked up several napkins. "Well, good."
"It's not a Middle East peace treaty," he quipped, walking around the table with silverware.
"You have a good job," C.J. said.
"I do," John replied defensively, as he placed a knife by his plate.
"I know," she reassured him. "Would you go find everyone? I'm going to help bring in the food."
He shot her a strange look and strolled out. She went into the kitchen, and soon everyone was sitting down to eat.
C.J. took a bite of her mother's lasagna. "This is so good."
"You think so?" Mia beamed. "It's vegetarian. I modified my recipe."
Her husband rolled his eyes jokingly. "I miss the meat."
"It's delicious this way," Thomas agreed.
Mia clicked her tongue. "You kids don't eat properly."
Paula toyed with her food nervously. "I should get back to the hospital."
"Nonsense," Mia said firmly. "You need a good meal inside you. You should've brought Robin and Ashlee too."
"I called my sister. She put them to bed early."
"All the more reason you should relax," George told her kindly.
"You know, Mom's right," John said, suddenly. "You two should come home more often."
C.J. tilted her head and looked at her brother. "We know that."
"I mean, you're missing out on a lot. You're both so busy with your" -- his voice was a bit smug -- "careers, we only see you when there's some kind of emergency."
Thomas set down his fork. "What's your point, Johnny?"
"I'm just saying."
"Well," Thomas said, quietly, "don't."
C.J. ate some lasagna and said nothing. Mia changed the subject quickly. "Did your boss hassle you about taking time off, Paula?"
Paula shook her head. "I have some vacation hours I was saving up, and -- well, she's been really understanding."
"That's good. You have enough to worry about."
"We all have enough to worry about," John commented. C.J. flicked her eyes rapidly towards Thomas, who was concentrating on his plate.
"I thought the low-fat ricotta might be too bland," Mia said brightly, trying to break the tension. "But I think with the garlic, it comes out just right."
"At least, those of us who care are worried." John fixed Thomas with a steady look.
Thomas met his stare coldly. "We're worried. Our brother's in the hospital. What's wrong with you?"
"Nothing's wrong with me," John retorted. "I just think, if you don't care enough to visit when things are normal, why bother coming around now?"
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"That's enough out of both of you," George cut in sharply.
Thomas gritted his teeth. John hesitated at his father's reprimand, then continued stubbornly. "You love your damn jobs, you're not interested in anything else. The both of you -- you think you're so important."
"Shut up," Thomas growled.
"Stop that." Mia looked back and forth between her sons with dismay. "You're acting like children."
They were no longer listening. "Don't tell me to shut up."
C.J. rubbed her temples. "John, we didn't come here to--"
He raised his voice. "You know I'm right, C.J.! I work hard, too, but I don't act like I'm too good for people. The only place we ever see you is on the news." John gestured at Thomas. "And someone has to be dying to get this freak's attention!"
Paula burst into silent, unexpected tears as Thomas shot to his feet. "You're calling me a freak?"
John jumped up. "Yeah, but I could call you a lot worse!" Mia laid one hand on John's arm to restrain him, her other hand resting on Paula's shoulder, trying ineffectively to comfort her.
"I can't believe this. You're such an asshole!"
"Oh, now I'm the asshole? I bet--"
"All right." C.J. stood up and spoke flatly. "That's it. I'm sick of both of you."
Everyone looked at her, and she was suddenly businesslike. "This is ridiculous, and juvenile, and there's not going to be any more of it. Paula -- why don't you go upstairs, wash your face, and try to get some rest? Mom, go up with her?" Mia nodded in agreement, and guided Paula towards the stairs as C.J. went on. "Dad, John, you should go sit in the living room. Tom, help me clear the table."
George rose from his seat and walked out wordlessly. The brothers glared at each other a last time, and then obeyed her orders.
Thomas followed C.J. "I shouldn't have said that."
"No, you really shouldn't have." She put her dishes in the sink.
He collected the empty glasses. "I just couldn't listen to that crap."
"I don't care," she told him, as she crossed back and forth between the dining room and the kitchen. "Yes, he was being a jerk. But you encouraged him, Tom. We're all under stress, and you can't blame him for being upset."
"Of course I can," he said, with an incredulous look. "What, you think he was right?"
"No." She rinsed off a plate. "I know he's not right, I just... this is a lousy situation all around, Tom."
He sighed. "Yeah. It is. I'm gonna go have a cigarette. You want to come?"
She shook her head. "Go on. We'll talk later."
Thomas walked out heavily. C.J. finished putting away the leftovers, looked around wearily, and reached for the phone on the wall. She glanced at it disparagingly as she dialed. "Bonnie? It's C.J. Is he -- yeah. Thank you."
She stretched the cord around the corner and took the receiver into the pantry, as she'd been doing since junior high. Leaning against the wall, she wedged the door shut and waited.
Toby's gruff voice came on the line. "Hello."
"Hey. I'm checking in. What's going on?"
"You haven't been watching the news?"
"I haven't had a chance," she told him with a sigh. "My brother's in the hospital. He's really sick. His wife's having a breakdown, and my--"
"The conference is getting unpleasant," he interrupted.
She was stung by his abruptness, but did not comment. "China?"
"They feel we're being accusatory and insensitive to the different needs of a more populous, less developed nation."
"Are we, in fact, being accusatory?"
"Yes, but we're right. Also, Khamenei's making noises about the sanctions. He says it's a war on public health."
C.J. frowned. "Well, we've heard that before."
"He might be right."
"You don't see something contradictory in this? The White House says everyone has a right to health care, unless we don't approve of their government?"
"It's not like that," she replied. "We're fighting abuses--"
"I know." She could picture Toby's gloomy expression. "I just don't like how it plays. I don't like it."
"Well, when I get back, we'll work with it." She absently studied a soup can on the shelf. "I should let you go. I need to go check on everyone."
"Watch the news," he admonished.
His voice dropped unexpectedly. "The treatments for cancer are ugly."
"I've heard." She was mildly confused. "Why do you--"
Toby's tone was carefully controlled. "My first wife."
C.J. was too startled to reply right away. He took advantage of her silence and hung up. She listened to the dead line for a few seconds, then shook her head thoughtfully and left the pantry.
"Really, you don't have to do this," Paula protested.
"Do what?" C.J. spooned a large pile of scrambled eggs onto her plate and moved down the line for bacon and sausage.
"This. Buying me breakfast." Paula looked around the hospital cafeteria. "You don't have to take care of me."
C.J. shrugged, placing two pancakes on her plate and covering them in maple syrup. "I was going to eat this morning anyway, right?"
Paula glanced wistfully at the door. "I should be upstairs with Aaron."
"He's up there having a great time with Robin and Ashlee." C.J. added a carton of juice and a sweet roll to her tray, then paid for both of their meals and made her way to a table.
Paula eyed C.J.'s tray. "You're eating all that?"
"No." C.J. switched plates with Paula. "You're eating it and I'm eating... this apple." She bit into it heartily. "It's good."
"Paula, you need to eat. You've been living on coffee for days."
"You do it," Paula remarked.
"I don't have two little girls to chase around," C.J. scolded gently.
"Yeah, you're just helping to run the country." Paula shook the carton of juice, then carefully peeled it open and took a small sip. "You're not under stress or anything."
C.J. leaned over and took a piece of bacon from Paula's plate. "I love my job. I can't imagine doing anything else."
"The girls just can't get over you." Paula pushed a forkful of eggs around on her plate. "You know, because you're on television all the time. Aaron, too. He's really proud of you, C.J."
"Aaron has a lot of things to be proud of, Paula."
She studied her pancakes. "Yeah," she said softly.
"Oh, damn!" Paula looked at her watch and quickly stood. "I have to get the girls over to Gina's."
"Do you want me to take them?" C.J. stood as well, taking a final bite from the apple before emptying her tray into the trash. "I have Mom's car."
"No, no, I can do it." Paula buttoned her coat. "Do you mind staying with Aaron until I get back?"
"Not at all."
* * *
"We shall soon, before the break of day, start on our long journey...."
Aaron was sitting up in bed, his daughters perched on either side of him. He looked up to see C.J. and Paula in the doorway. "Looks like we're out of time."
"You didn't finish," Ashlee protested.
He laughed as he laid the book aside. "Sweetheart, it's three hundred pages. I'll read you some more later, okay?"
She pouted a little. Her older sister jumped up with a gleam in her eye. "Hey, did you bring us anything from the White House?"
"Robin!" Paula was shocked. "I'm sorry, C.J."
"It's okay. Unfortunately, I didn't think to bring presents."
Ashlee clambered over her father. "Robin wanted you to bring that cute guy from the talk shows."
"I do not," Robin insisted.
C.J. was momentarily lost. "Who?"
"Sam Sea-born," Ashlee sing-songed mischievously.
"Shut up!" Robin squealed.
C.J. broke into a wide smile. "Oh. Yeah, he's pretty cute." Robin's face colored, and Ashlee giggled.
"Time to go, girls." Paula motioned them toward the door, and looked over at her husband. "Honey, I'll be back in about half an hour."
"No rush," he assured her, taking his glasses off. "Robin, Ash -- be good, okay?"
"I will if she doesn't bother me," Robin promised, with a dark look at her younger sister.
"You'll be good anyway," Aaron reiterated. "And Ashlee? Don't bother her."
Ashlee looked at the ceiling, with exaggerated patience. "I'll try."
They followed their mother out. C.J. looked after them as she eased herself into the chair by the bed. "They're adorable, Aaron."
"Well, as you just saw, they can be a handful." He grinned. "But all in all, they're pretty good."
"The last time I saw them, they were a lot smaller. I have to get home more often."
"I know it's a pain, though," he told her. "I'm glad you came."
She laid a hand on his arm. "Of course I did, doofus."
"Yeah. So, can I tell you something?"
"Swear you won't tell anyone?"
C.J. was amused. "You always used to make me do that. Remember when you broke the downstairs toilet?"
"That wasn't my fault," he reminded her. "It was Tom's idea to put the turtle in there. Seriously, though. You promise?"
"Yeah. Want me to pinky-swear?"
"Nah, I'll trust you on this one." Aaron's tone turned serious. "I couldn't talk about this with Paula, or the guys, or Mom and Dad. You know how it is."
She thought about the scene at dinner the night before. "Yes."
"So, here's the thing." He leaned back against the pillows. "This could be really bad, C.J."
She frowned with concern. "I thought the doctor said--"
"I know. I know what she said. But...." Troubled, he ran a hand through his hair and trailed off.
"I'm scared," he admitted after a moment.
She drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'd imagine you would be."
"I'm scared of the treatments, and I'm scared that -- I hate not knowing that everything's going to be all right."
She took his hand quietly. "I wish there was something I could do."
"I just needed to say that. And I figured you'd understand."
"I do," C.J. told him, feeling her throat tighten.
He looked at her with a half-smile. "Of course you do."
* * *
C.J. sat on the edge of her bed, looking out the window at Geor ge and Thomas as they tried to fix a lawnmower.
Looking up, C.J. saw John standing just inside her doorway. He took a few steps and sat next to her. "Hey, Johnny. I thought Dad had a riding mower."
"He does." John slid his sunglasses to the top of his head. "That's Mrs. Heikali's."
"My God, isn't she about five hundred years old now?"
John chuckled. "At least."
"She doesn't mow her own lawn, does she?"
"No, no. Richie Pulec does it for her."
C.J. looked at her brother. "Is he -- Chris Pulec's son?"
John nodded. "Yeah. His mom is Nat Farber."
"You're kidding!" She shook her head thoughtfully. "Wow."
C.J. gazed out the window again and watched her mother carry out coffee for Thomas and George.
"Are you leaving today?"
"Yes, I am." Looking at the small clock beside her bed, she added, "I need to get going, actually."
"Do you want me to take you to the airport?"
Surprised, C.J. caught his glance. "No, I called a cab. But thank you, John."
"Why'd you do that? Mom and Dad could have taken you, too."
"Thomas said the same thing." She heard John scoff. "What?"
"What, C.J.?" He regarded her tersely, then looked at his hands. "I'm sorry about last night."
"You should be." She waited for him to reply, but he said nothing. "I mean it, John. You ruined dinner."
"Tom had a hand in that, too."
"I know that, and I told him as much, but you shouldn't talk to him the way that you do."
"You shouldn't talk to him the way that you do."
He shrugged by way of apology. "I guess I didn't make this weekend any easier, huh?"
"Hey, compared to the press room, you guys are a cakewalk."
He stood and picked up her bag. "Really?"
"No." C.J. straightened her sweater and followed her brother downstairs.
She rummaged through the hall closet for her coat as John went outside and told her parents that she was leaving.
George lumbered into the kitchen and wiped the grease from his hands before opening his arms wide. "Come give your old Dad a hug." Holding C.J. tight, he whispered, "Love you, Claude."
C.J. kissed his cheek and lightly embraced her mother. "I made you a sandwich, and I stuck some cookies in there for you, too." Mia handed C.J. a paper bag, then scurried to the fruit bowl and pulled out a banana. "Here, sweetheart, take this, too."
"Thanks, Mom." She turned to John, who looked at her for a moment, then hugged her quickly and wordlessly.
"Cab's here, Ceej."
C.J. nodded. "Walk me out?"
"Eat that on the plane, now," Mia called as the front door closed.
C.J. and Thomas walked slowly across the lawn and stopped beside the cab. "Well," he placed her bag on the curb. "This is the end of the line."
"Yeah, I guess so." C.J. reached out and held her brother close. "You should call me more often."
"Don't make me list the number of unanswered messages I've left for you."
"Well, the next time you call, I'll call you back. I promise."
Thomas laughed and squeezed C.J.'s hand. "I love you, kid."
"I love you, too." She opened door of the cab and placed her bag on the floor, then crawled in. "See you, Tom."
Thomas shut the door behind her, and raised his arm to wave. "See you."
* * *
C.J. rubbed her neck as she sank wearily onto a black plastic chair. Stretching her legs, she looked out the window at the planes landing and dialed Sam's home number.
"C.J.!" His tone brightened. "It's good to hear your voice. What's up?"
"I'm at the airport."
"You're coming back already?"
She nodded out of habit. "Yeah, I'll be in tomorrow. What should I expect when I get there?"
"You're probably going to have to talk to the press about the fiasco with De Ruijter. Just remember: you don't know anything about it."
"Well, I don't know anything about it, Sam."
"Trust me, you don't want to know." He spoke quickly, then paused. "How's your brother?"
C.J. shrugged. "He's scared."
"It's a scary situation."
"Yeah." She cleared her throat. "You know what? My niece thinks you're cute."
He perked up. "Really?"
She had to laugh. "She's twelve, Sam."
"Anyway, I'll be in early."
"De Ruijter will be on your desk," he promised. "We've missed you, C.J."
She smiled. "I was only gone three days, Sam."
"Still, I'm glad you're coming back."
"Me, too," she said softly. "See you in the morning."
C.J. ended her connection and slipped her phone back into her purse. She took one final look around the airport, then gathered her luggage and made her way to her gate.
Last night I slept in sheets the color of fire Tonight I'll lie alone again, and curse my own desires Sentenced first to burn and then to freeze And watch by the window, As the boys grew in the trees....