All characters belong to Aaron Sorkin, John Wells Productions, Warner Bros., & NBC. The title's from a 10,000 Maniacs song. Standard disclaimers apply. Please send feedback. Trouble Me Violet
There are two things that Toby knows for sure about C.J., and the second thing is that she will never know the first one.
This does not make it easy to walk beside her, on the way out of a typically uninspiring Democratic Party fundraiser. She's wearing something silvery and elusive, changeable in the light. He remembers her wearing the dress almost a year and a half ago, on New Year's Eve -- the new millennium, except it wasn't. It's lovely, and she's lovely in it, but it is not easy for him to look at her.
He has organized his thoughts, planned his argument as precisely as he can without actually putting pen to paper. He knows what he has to say. So, as he instinctively holds the lobby door for her, he is ready to speak. Stepping past him, she beats him to the punch.
"The White House social season should be glittering and gay."
Toby blinks and stops walking, leaning against the open door. "What?"
"It's a song." C.J. laughs mildly. "Loretta Lynn. Here in Topeka, the rain is a-fallin'."
"Sure. It's country. If you prefer, the flies are a-buzzin'."
"You don't like country music."
"I can't like a song?"
He begins to lose any hope of controlling the conversation's trajectory. "You can like a song."
"I like that song. Anyway, I'm saying it's really spring now. The weather's warm. The parties are picking up."
"Tonight? You consider that picking up?"
"No," she admits. "But things will."
"Things are going to--" He breaks off abruptly and stands aside as two lobbyists, clearly drunk and giggling too loudly, stagger out. "The next few months are going to be an ordeal."
"The parties always get better when everything else gets worse," she informs him brightly. "Fiddling when Rome burns, that sort of thing. You've never noticed that?"
"Rome wasn't burnt in a day, you know."
He puts a frustrated hand to his brow. "How much did you have to drink?"
"Not that much." Her voice is suddenly serious. "Go ahead."
She folds her arms. "You're getting into the stance you use when you've got a piece you want to speak. I won't interrupt. Go ahead."
Toby studies her face and takes a breath. "Things have been...." But the words he had carefully chosen before have already left him. He looks at the ground and tries to summon his vocabulary, and his rational argument, back from wherever they've gone. All he can picture is Rome burning.
He raises his eyes again. "What?"
"You know, if you're going to stand there and not say anything, that makes it really hard for me not to interrupt you."
So he has no choice, and he says it. "Things have not been easy, and you're making them harder."
C.J. raises her eyebrows. "Am I?"
"We are." He gestures at something invisible in the air between them.
"This. We've been doing this for a while now. It was supposed to keep life bearable."
She lets her arms fall. He isn't sure if she tightens her hand on the door handle, or if he imagines it. Either way, her voice is almost perfectly even. "Supposed to?"
"You weren't going to interrupt."
"It was making life better than bearable," he continues, starting to find the words he'd wanted to say. "The climate's changing. The direction work is heading these days will take a lot out of us. It always does, but this--"
"Is going to be an ordeal," she finishes for him.
"I am right."
"I said that." She smiles wistfully. "I know how it's going to be."
"You cannot be an aspect of my life that makes living harder." He sighs as a boisterous group straggles past them and out. "And I can't be that, to you. We've known each other too long. If the choice is to be more trouble to each other, or to stay out of trouble, it's not a choice at all."
She nods slowly, holding his gaze. "I've been thinking about this too."
He is slightly surprised by her lack of surprise. "Yeah?"
"And you're right. If we're just causing each other more trouble, it isn't fair." She indicates the space between them. "To this."
"Yeah." His throat feels uncomfortably dry. He swallows painfully.
C.J. opens the exterior door. The damp, dark air rolls into the entryway. "Do you need a ride home?"
"I'll take the Metro." Toby takes a step toward her. "We can pick this up again later."
"When things aren't so crazy?" Her smile turns ironic.
He shrugs. "We can pick this up later."
She bites her lip, looking sad for the first time, and nods again. "Let's go."
C.J. holds the door for him. As she follows him into the parking lot, her silver dress shifts colors under the streetlights.
* * *
Ten days later, Josh walks into her office without knocking. "Fred Stockton opened his enormous mouth again."
C.J. leans back in her chair. "Yeah?"
"He says the President's education plan is irrational, possibly unconstitutional, and--"
Josh tilts his head. "You okay there?"
"I meant me."
"You're irrational, possibly unconstitutional, and resilient?" He grins. "I'd buy that."
"All right." He places his hands on the back of one of her visitor chairs. "As opposed to what?"
"Suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."
He squints at her. "Are you turning into Sam?"
"Never mind." C.J. stifles a yawn. "Stockton again?"
"He's an idiot. What bothers me is, why is he starting this now?"
"You think he knows the President--"
"No," Josh says quickly.
"Or because he's never been particularly close with the Majority Leader."
He nods. "He's ankling. He's tiptoeing farther right."
"Well, after all, it is fundraising season."
"It's always fundraising season," he points out.
"You don't have to tell me that." She sits up. "I'll handle Stockton."
He drums his fingers on the top of the chair, watching her with concern. "You need anything?"
"I've got it. I can handle things, Josh."
"Right. 'Cause you're resilient."
"I was born a coal miner's daughter."
C.J. picks up a pencil. "Not really."
He stands straight. "Are you, then, a honky-tonk girl?"
"Go away," she orders, and Josh obeys her.
* * *
A week goes by, and Sam is sitting on Toby's couch one morning when he walks in. "What?" Toby grumbles automatically.
"You're in my office."
Sam stands up. "I mean, why are you already growling at me?"
"You're in my office," he reiterates.
"I have some notes for you on pharmaceuticals." He holds out a folder and a small paper bag. "And breakfast."
"These notes have to be -- you brought me breakfast?"
"Yes," Sam says proudly. "It's a carton of orange juice, and a cheese thing."
"It's got cheese. It's got bread. It's been baked. There may be some kind of butter-like substance in the mix."
Toby raises his eyebrows and regards Sam suspiciously. "What have you been doing with pharmaceuticals?"
"Take the breakfast, Toby. You need it."
He takes it and goes to stand behind his desk. "I need the cheese thing?"
"Everything always looks better when you've eaten," Sam declares.
"No, everything always looks better when you don't have a lunatic in your office."
"You need it," Sam says again, his expression turning solemn. "The last two weeks or so, you've been--" Toby glares expressively at him, and he shrugs in defeat. "I'm just saying, it's not even eight o'clock and you're already in a bad mood. Breakfast might help."
"Thanks," Toby says grudgingly.
Sam beams at him. "No problem. You'll enjoy the cheese thing."
"You know, the last couple weeks--"
"Rome wasn't burnt in a day," Toby says abruptly.
Sam pauses in the doorway and looks at him quizzically. "It's 'Rome wasn't built in a day,' isn't it?"
He furrows his brow. "Yeah."
"I'm assuming they burned it faster than they built it."
"I'll be in my office. If you need anything."
"Go away," he orders, and Sam obeys him.
* * *
Five more days pass, and Toby is alone in his office, early on a Saturday evening. He saves a file on his laptop, shrugs his jacket on and tries to straighten his bow tie without a mirror. Something makes him look up, and C.J. is standing in his doorway. She's wearing red, accented by black and gold, something fiery that he can't remember ever having seen. It suits her, but he knows most things do.
"Another gala event," she says dryly.
"The White House social season," he replies.
"You remembered I said that?"
He shrugs, fingering his tie awkwardly. "If I remember right, you didn't say it. Loretta Lynn did."
"You're a strange bird," she tells him, shaking her head.
"I'm a bird?"
She stares at him strangely across his desk. "You have to know I'm biting down hard on a bald eagle joke right now."
He meets her gaze. "Thank you for that, flamingo."
The tension holds for a few seconds, but then she laughs, and he takes a breath. The banter comes naturally, only marginally less easy than it ever was. They have been friends long enough that some things never change.
"So." C.J. adjusts her wrap -- it's black, he notices, trimmed with red -- around her shoulders. "Fred Stockton."
"Still?" Toby wonders. "He didn't shut up yet?"
"Stockton's not going to shut up for awhile. He's still trying to stick a fork in the education plan."
He picks up a memo from his desk and scans it. "We're going to have to do something about that."
"He wants to be in the next Republican cabinet," she says.
"He can wait another six years."
She mulls this over. "You believe that?"
"Yeah," he says. Then, more firmly: "Yes."
"Okay. How have your meetings been going with the drug people?"
"Children are still dying of measles and meningitis in Nigeria."
"That well, huh?"
"I think I hate those people," he mutters.
"Well, I'm sure they're wild about you."
He frowns. "Things have been difficult."
"I know." She presses a loose strand of hair into place. "Tonight may be a really good party."
He is having trouble keeping his eyes off her. She's standing in his office, the area that's supposed to be reserved for work. She's standing in the middle of his rational space, and he is grateful there's a desk between them. She doesn't make anything easy for him.
"Penny for your thoughts," C.J. says.
Toby keeps his eyes down. "I charge more than that."
They live in a world where nothing is ever simple. Trouble comes and goes. Cities are built and razed. He lets himself look at her, and suddenly he's only sure of one thing about her. But he does know what to say.
"So," she teases, "we've established what you are, and now we're just haggling over the price?"
"You are the tallest woman I've ever loved," he says offhandedly.
Her posture freezes and her eyes widen. She does not speak.
"Also," he adds, "The only one who's fallen into a swimming pool. Twice, as a matter of fact."
"Once," she manages to contradict him. "I was... pushed, the other time."
"It still stands."
She looks at him steadily. "It does."
"You've never--" she begins.
"Don't do that."
"Okay." She shakes her head. "We have to go to this thing. I mean, we could skip it, but--"
"It's an important fundraiser."
"That, and I'm all dressed up."
"That you are," he agrees, smiling into his beard. "Go ahead. I'm going to close up here and follow you."
"Okay." She steps uncertainly toward the door, then turns back. "You know I..."
So C.J. leaves. Toby closes his laptop, puts away a folder, and suddenly she's back. She says nothing, only walks up to his desk, leans forward, reaches out -- and straightens his tie. And they're standing in his office, but he can't help covering her hand with his own.
"It was crooked," she tells him earnestly, her eyes twinkling.
Reluctantly, he lets her hand go. "We can pick this up later."