All Too Human

by: Kansas J. Miller

Pairing(s): CJ/Hoynes; CJ/OMC
Rating: MATURE
Summary: After a month in rehab, John comes home to trouble.
Author's Note:Titled after Clinton advisor George Stephenopoulos' book, in which he discusses the human weaknesses that beset each and every one of us, even the American President. I've always found the title highly appropriate for so many situations, and I couldn't resist using it here.

~*~

        It was three o'clock and Vincent Carter had not yet eaten lunch. Trying to ignore the rumbling in his stomach, the Senator from Florida sat in the endless Social Security hearing and tapped his pen lightly against the paper on which he had not made one note. He had long since tuned out of the hearing - not because he didn't care, but because he was easily distracted when he was hungry - and Vince was not surprised that his eyes had found their way over to where CJ Cregg-Hoynes was sitting.

        She was wearing a white pantsuit today, and her honey-tinted hair was swept up off of her neck for a change. Vince had noticed that lately CJ was sporting more eye-liner and mascara, darkening her eyes, trying, Vince suspected, to hide the fact that she'd been crying too much. Today she sat in perfect posture and rapt attention, listening intently to the hearing and asking a thoughtful, informed question every so often. Vince noticed how she would take down a note here and there, and then whisper to her assistant something that would send Carol quietly down the aisle of the hearing room, only to return with more information that the Texas Senator could use to contribute to the hearing.

        She was in her early fifties now, Vince knew, and it never ceased to amaze him. She was aging gracefully, growing almost smoother and more refined with her years. It must have been hard, Vince suspected, to spend nearly twenty years under the watchful public eye, a public eye so content on analyzing appearance. But CJ had mastered the art of her own beauty, always managing to shift the focus away from herself and back to the issues, deflecting her appearance with humility. CJ Cregg-Hoynes knew she was a knockout, and everyone else knew it too. There was no need to flaunt.

        As the Republican Senator from New York took a turn questioning the experts, CJ's fingers flew to her neck and she kneaded the muscles there, turning her head to stretch. Catching Vincent's eye for a moment, she gave him a small smile, so quick that Vince did not have time to return it before CJ's attention was back to the notes before her.

        He decided that she looked more tired today than she had yesterday, as if the days of the month were serving only to wear out her strength and whittle down her resolve. It had not been an easy month for CJ Cregg- Hoynes; she and her family troubles had been all over the news. John Hoynes, former President of the United States, was in drug and alcohol rehab, due to come home - if Vince's count was correct - the day after tomorrow. Having her husband's alcoholism as such a public point of conjecture and discussion had torn apart CJ's emotional stability, and Vince had seen firsthand the way she had retreated into her shell and hid: there were no outbursts in meetings, no policy initiatives that pushed the envelope, and no impassioned floor speeches. She wasn't behaving like the First Lady who could take on the world, no - this was shy Claudia, ducking her head and pretending not to care that everyone was judging her.

        Vince knew that the extent of his worry and concern for CJ was inappropriate; he knew that she should not have been on his mind as much as she had been over the past four weeks, but there was always something about her that drew him to her, like a moth to a flame. They had been friends from the start of their terms, and they had grown steadily closer over the past two years. Vincent often felt like their private moments together were surreal; sometimes he was sure that he would wake up and find himself back in his very first Miami apartment, watching her on CSPAN. CJ had been the Press Secretary when Vince was in law school, and he could still remember what day of the week it was when the White House announced that she and the Vice President were marrying. It was strange to find her, some days, in his office with a salad, her notes sprawled out on his conference table, and the laptop set up just for the hell of it. She would talk about veteran's affairs, foreign aid or the crappy way President Harrington was handling the issue du jour, and Vince would always inevitably tune out, distracted by her elegant fingertips or dark eyelashes, amazed that he was sharing lunch with this woman from history.

Vincent Carter had been a Hoynes supporter since the Texas Senator ran for President in the 1998 primaries. It had been Bartlet's year, then, but Hoynes had embodied the Vice Presidency like none other. Vince had wasted no time volunteering for the '06 Florida Hoynes campaign. He'd given whatever free time he could in between long hours at a new law firm, working nearly around the clock during the summer of that year. It had been crazy, hectic, and unpredictable trying to organize supporters against local Governor Robert Ritchie, but Vince had never doubted that John Hoynes would win the race, the time finally right. He'd been in Los Angeles for the nominating convention that year, charged with coordinating the Florida delegation, and the night that he shook hands with John Hoynes remained one of Vince's most prized memories.

Vince had been backstage during the sound check and run through, and the Vice President had come through the green room with his entourage of staff and Secret Service. He had worn a look of focus and determination, but seeing all of the supporters backstage with Hoynes for America credentials, John had stopped to shake hands with the group. It was a firm handshake, strong with a dose of genuine eye contact, and Vince could still remember the way it felt to have such a great man in such close proximity. Vince often wished that he had asked for an autograph or a photo - any kind of tangible reminder that he'd shook the hand of his hero. It was because of John Hoynes and the example that he set in politics, Vince knew, that he'd run for the Florida state house of representatives and later for the United States Senate. A man like Hoynes was larger than life, a political giant - news of his alcoholism, to Vince, had always seemed like such a tragedy. Apparently the great President was battling it still, and Vince never saw it as a weakness like so many other Americans had - even heroes were allowed to be human sometimes.

"You gonna sit here all afternoon?"

Vince's eyes snapped back into focus and he found CJ standing in front of the table where he sat, one hand on her hip and one arm laden with notebooks. Vince cleared his throat and glanced around. "Is it over?"

CJ looked vaguely amused as she watched the last few members of the hearing filter out of the room. "For a few minutes now, yeah."

Vince sheepishly stood, walked around the table and casually took into his own arms the heavy pile of notebooks that CJ was carrying. CJ raised her brow at his chivalry and began to walk out of the hearing room. "You know, this was a great opportunity for you to talk about the calamitous social security situation in Florida, but you were out in the clouds, Vince! Are you okay?" CJ glanced curiously back at him as he stopped to let her pass through the double doors first.

Vince fell into step with CJ and shook his head. She'd noticed that he wasn't paying attention, and suddenly Vince wondered if she had caught him staring, too. "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine, just a little tired. Hungry, actually."

CJ smirked in understanding. "I don't think I've eaten since yesterday. No time."

As they turned down a long hallway of the Russell Senate Office Building, the unmistakable sound of children echoed along the marble corridor.

Vince chuckled. "You can always hear 'em before you see 'em."

Before CJ could agree, Riley - dressed in pirate's clothing with a patch over one eye - and Addy, swathed in a glittering pink princess gown - both came bounding through the hallway, nearly crashing into CJ and Vince with their excitement.

"Mom! Check out my sword moves!" Riley cried, brandishing a plastic pirate's weapon. "I practiced during the whole party at school!"

"Mommy, my tiara won't stay on," Addy whined, clutching at the glittering, pink, rhinestone-covered hair decoration.

CJ grinned and tried to adjust Addy's tiara while at the same time reaching a hand out to block Riley's swash-buckling. "We might want to get you some fencing lessons!" CJ laughed. "I should've told security about you!"

"Wow, you two could win a costume contest! Are you going trick-or-treating later?" Vince asked with a big white smile, bending down to Addy's height and producing two large and sugary lollipops from inside his suit coat. He'd been carrying a stash all day for the many children who had been in and out of his office on tours - Halloween had always been one of Vince's favorite holidays.

Addy took the lollipop with a gracious, small-voiced, "Thank you very much." The eight-year-old unwrapped the candy carefully as she studied Vince's dark curling hair and brown, attentive eyes. Before sticking the pop into her mouth, Addy pursed her lips thoughtfully. "You remind me of my Daddy."

Vince was touched as he stood up and handed the other pop to Riley. "That's the nicest thing I think anyone's ever said to me," he murmured, glancing at CJ.

CJ smiled back at him silently, quickly glancing away, down at her costumed children who were now occupied with what was surely not their last candy of the day. "We're going trick-or- treating tonight with some of their school friends. I've been goaded into dressing up as a black cat, so it should be an interesting night," CJ grinned, maneuvering her kids out of the hallway and into the office suite where they were less likely to cause a traffic jam.

"Take a picture," Vince suggested, handing CJ the large pile of papers and books he'd been carrying for her. "Your husband will be sorry he missed it."

CJ sighed as Riley and Addy scrambled into Donna's office, where Carol had suggested that there might be candy. CJ turned and looked at Vince, her face suddenly long. "He's coming home in a few days."

"I know," Vince said softly, smiling supportively as his eyes danced over CJ's expression. "It's a good thing, you know. Everything with be better now."

CJ shook her head slowly, lacing her eyes with Vince. She always wanted to believe this man when he told her it would all be okay, but living had often provided a different example. Clearing her throat, CJ forced a smile and a change of subject. "Hey, what about you? Is your son here for Halloween?"

Vince characteristically covered his disappointment with a positive outlook. "Don't I wish? But Maria didn't want to fly up for just a weekend, so I'll just look at the other kid's costumes when they come by. Hopefully I'll get a visit before Thanksgiving, but I never know anymore."

CJ shook her head. Vince's son Lawrence was three and a half, and she knew how rarely he saw him. There was something deeper there, something troubling, but CJ didn't know what to say. "I'm sorry, Vince" she murmured.

Vince nodded, and walked backwards towards the suite entrance. This moment with CJ had already gone too far, and Vince knew he had to leave before she had him coming completely unglued. "Have fun tonight. I'll see you tomorrow."

CJ nodded and kept her eyes on Vince's back as he turned and left her office; he was as much of a puzzle as John was, but there was only so much that she could keep her mind on at once. Spinning around, CJ walked towards Donna's office, where Riley and Addy were on the floor with Tiffany Lyman, all three looking adorable and content with their costumes and candy. If anything right now, CJ needed Halloween to take her mind off of her troubles, and as she sat down on the couch with Donna, CJ resolved to let the holiday do just that.

~*~

        It was ten-thirty by the time CJ had gotten Riley and Addy into bed and taken off her own black cat costume. The children's candy sacks were stuffed to the brim with sweets and sugar, and CJ had had a good time on their trick-or-treating route, enjoying the company of other parents. It was one of the children's first Halloween's spent out and about; when they had been in the White House, a hosted party was about all they could bargain for with the Secret Service. CJ had enjoyed the adults' conversation as it revolved around their children, school, and typical issues of parenting. It was liberating, CJ had discovered, to be around people who didn't care so much that she was a Senator, a former First Lady - the parents of Riley and Addy's friends didn't treat her any different than the next mom, and it had felt so good to be included. Tonight, CJ now realized, had been just a taste of what life without politics might be.

        Getting into bed, CJ flipped on the television as she allowed herself a moment to wind down. It was still relatively early, and as she sank back against the pillows and unwrapped a Milky Way candy bar from Addy's stash, CJ sighed in relaxation. CNN was mid-hour into its live program, News Night with Aaron Brown. CJ found herself only half-listening to the discussion about the Medicare bill that had just passed in the Senate, an issue that had long-since escaped CJ's control. She had given up on that bill after Vince had warned her to back down; they weren't going to get anywhere threatening the members of their own party, but a softer bill was the price the Democrats had had to pay.

        CJ finished up the candy bar as the segment on TV ended, the next issue of the night quickly following. CJ rolled off of the bed and headed over to the makeshift mini bar - a small stash of alcohol she kept on a side table in the bedroom - when the fresh segment's topic caught her totally off guard. Spinning around with a wine bottle in hand, CJ peered curiously at the TV as her ears perked up.

        "Tonight, we're joined by Donna Moss-Lyman, Chief of Staff to Senator and former First Lady CJ Cregg-Hoynes. Donna, welcome to the program."

        CJ returned to the bed with a healthy amount of wine in her glass, and she sat up at attention while Donna began to answer the questions thrown her way. In the chaos of Halloween, CJ had completely forgotten that Donna was slated to appear on Aaron Brown in regards to the campaign finance mess.

        Donna looked sleek and in control, her blonde hair straight and sharp, offset by a jet black suit jacket and a professional amount of makeup. "As we've done from the start, Aaron, Senator Hoynes has been fully cooperating with investigators. We've turned over all of our financial records, and former President Hoynes has done the same. I'm confident that when the facts are finally straightened out, everyone will see that the Senator has been telling the truth all along."

        "Now, let me clear things up for our viewers. The initial discovery - that illegal money had been put into the former First Lady's Senate campaign - was leaked to you by an unnamed source?"

        Donna nodded firmly onscreen and CJ thought about how Sam Seaborn, now the host of NBC's Meet the Press, had revealed to them this information. That was one fact that could never, ever get out - Sam's credibility would be on the line, and for that, CJ knew they had to lie. Donna was smooth in doing so. "That's right. My office was anonymously informed that illegal contributions in the First Lady's name might have been made into her campaign. I immediately began consulting with our campaign manager, Toby Ziegler, in order to clear things up. We were unable to locate our contribution records, our logs showing that the financial manager Stephen Perry was the last person to have possession of those documents."

        Aaron leaned forward. "Stephen Perry, we've been hearing his name for weeks, now. Senator Hoynes has been asserting that any illegal financial activity in and out of her campaign was the product of this man's dealings and not her own. Is it really plausible that he would have had access to the private accounts of former President Hoynes? It seems unlikely that President and Mrs. Hoynes would have set themselves up for embezzlement of this sort."

        CJ sighed heavily as she gulped at her wine. The campaign contribution situation had quickly become a sticky quagmire, more accusations piling on top of one another until not even CJ could separate fact from fiction. She had been, in reality, quite uninvolved with the finance aspect of her campaign, a move that had clearly been a mistake. Trusting someone she hardly knew to handle her money was risky business - a lesson CJ was now learning the hard way.

        Flipping off the set, CJ set the empty wine glass on the night table as she turned down the bed. There was no point in worrying - the lawyers and investigators searching through her campaign records and John's financial documents would come up with the truth eventually. There was nothing CJ could do at this point except to defend herself when necessary. And Donna was already taking care of that. CJ switched out the light and crawled into bed.

        The huge, King-sized bed felt a mile wide without another person to keep her company. CJ had been missing John for far too long, and the past four weeks had all but killed her. She had been ready to start repairing her marriage the month before, but they couldn't do that until John got his drinking under control. It still stunned and shocked CJ that he could have ignored all the years he'd spent sober; it still took her breath away to know that he'd been drinking himself silly almost nightly for the past eighteen months.

        He was coming home in less than forty-eight hours, and just the thought of seeing John sent nerves jolting through CJ's stomach. Would he be drastically changed from the man she'd known for the past two years? Could he possibly be the controlled, put-together, loving and attentive husband and father that he'd been during their time in the White House? Before John's affair with Katie Witt, and even in some of the time after it, CJ had never known happier times - all because of her husband, and it was a feeling CJ longed to have back. With hope, that would still be possible, but as CJ tried to drift off to sleep, she knew she couldn't be sure of anything anymore.

~*~

        Margaret was waiting with the early wire reports when Donna walked into the office suite. "Morning, Donna."

        Donna took the pile Margaret held out. "How you doing this morning? Are we still getting calls about the Aaron Brown segment?"

        Margaret walked around her desk and picked up a stack of message slips. "Not as many as we got yesterday, but lots of reporters are still looking for a comment or a clarification."

        Donna sighed and took the messages. "I guess I shouldn't have gotten quite so angry when he accused us of trying to divert attention from the President's alcoholism."

        Margaret raised her eyebrows. "Hey, I thought your response was right on. I told CJ she shouldn't have turned it off."

        Donna rolled her eyes as she headed towards her office. "I gave her a tape, but obviously she's got other things on her mind. By the way, we're going to have to do a little media control today when she and the kids go down to the airport to meet the President. I don't want cameras swarming, reporters in her face, you know?"

        "We should've kept the Secret Service agents," Margaret called as Donna disappeared into her office. At that very moment, CJ slid out from her own office on the way to a committee meeting. She smirked at Margaret as she stopped by Carol's desk.

        "Trust me, Margaret, if you'd spent a full decade with men in black following you around, you wouldn't have kept them either. Carol! I'm leaving now, with or without the notes!"

        Carol darted out of the copier room and tossed CJ a stapled pack of paper. "Told you I'd have 'em. Go!"

        As CJ strode out of the suite, Donna raced out of her office and caught up to the Senator, falling into step with her in the long marble hallway. "So, the flight lands at 3:30?"

        CJ glanced over at her Chief-of-Staff. "I'm going to try and get there by three."

        Donna cleared her throat as CJ's step sped up. "There might be some, ah, some press there. We didn't do a very good job keeping the flight information under wraps."

        CJ slid her eyes sarcastically towards Donna. "Is that because we were too busy yelling at one of the nicest broadcast journalists out there?"

        Donna sighed heavily as they turned a corner. "Okay, I'll admit that that wasn't my finest moment, but the whole thing makes me crazy, CJ! This is the kind of crap we get dealt, simply because you're you! I'm sick of it and I'm not gonna sit quietly when someone attacks you to my face!"

        CJ stopped outside the conference room where the Finance Committee was meeting. She straightened her suit coat and stared at Donna, hard. "Look, Donna, I don't really care what people say anymore. Fact is fact, and that's all that matters. That should be our position on every piece of extra-curricular nonsense that gets put out there. Right now, I have a meeting, a day to get through, and what I'm sure won't be the easiest night ahead of me, so let's just drop it."

        Donna swallowed, feeling like she'd stepped way over the line. "I'm apologize, Senator, I didn't mean to-"

        CJ sighed, and put her hand on Donna's arm. "No, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound like that, and you know I appreciate your support and defense. It's just that - well, with John coming home today, I feel a little - I don't know. I'm just nervous, that's all."

        Donna smiled in understanding. "You should be excited. Look, don't worry about anything right now. Go the meeting, and we'll deal with things one at a time."

        CJ nodded and stepped into the caucus room, taking her seat and glancing up at the clock. Only a few more hours.

~*~

        John Hoynes didn't know what he was going to say to his wife. He honestly and truly could not come up with words right for the moment, words deep enough to explain how he felt and how sorry he was for putting CJ through hell.

        John knew CJ had taken his relapse into drinking very hard, but they'd never really talked about it. There had been only one day in between when she'd found out and when he'd left the ranch for the rehab center. And in between that day and this one, John knew that the entire world had found out his dirty little secret.

        As he sat on the plane, staring out the window and sipping on black coffee, John knew he was back in control. He wasn't going to touch a drop of alcohol; it was the farthest thing from his mind. He was going to start at all over, one day at a time, and do what he needed to do, without letting drinks get in his way.

        John wanted to see Riley and Addy - he had missed them most during his time out in Arizona. They were so much of him, so important to him, and so close to his heart that there were times when John couldn't help but cry. But he'd expended too many tears of regret over what he'd done - to the kids, to CJ, to himself - and as he sat pondering what he could possibly say to make up for it, John had the feeling that there was nothing even close to adequate.

        He felt guilty and ashamed, and it was almost making that feeling worse when John realized CJ had probably *already* forgiven him. The way he felt about her, about the situation, about everything that he'd done to her - John questioned why she still stayed with him, why she put up with his bullshit. But she was never lying when she said she loved him, and as the plane carried him closer to Washington, D.C., John didn't know if he could match her devotion. He sure as hell hadn't been good enough for over the past two years - and he certainly hadn't treated her right when they were in the White House. The thought of Katie Witt still made John sick, and he knew that his chances to make things work with CJ were numbered. It was this time or never, and he faced that realization with fear. Washington was under thirty minutes away, and John Hoynes still did not know what he was going to say to his wife.

~*~

        The Watergate boasted large apartments, and CJ's had always seemed spacious and large, even after Addy and Riley had moved there full-time. But with John Hoynes occupying the space, CJ felt like everything was closing in on them.

        His suitcases from Texas took up every inch of floor space in the guest bedroom, and as he sat in the easy chair by the glass terrace, Addy and Riley were working their hardest to keep themselves quiet, a monumental task for the two. John had the paper folded out in front of him and as he perused the pages through his glasses, his mere presence was overwhelming. CJ felt a nervous twisting in the pit of her stomach as she walked over to join him, two cups of coffee in hand.

        "John?" CJ murmured, setting the mug down on the table beside him.

        John lowered the paper, smiled softly at his wife, and then looked around curiously. "Do two children really live here, or are they in hibernation?"

        CJ sat on the plush footrest, inches away from her husband. She looked at him and then lowered her eyes. "They think you were sick. They haven't seen you in a month. I think they're a little bit afraid, to be honest."

        John sipped the warm coffee and watched his wife. She looked tired, exhausted even, and he could see the distraction behind her eyes. "Claudia, I don't know what it is you need or want to hear from me. I did a lot of thinking on the plane, and I honestly have no idea what to do right now. How do we pick this up and continue?"

        CJ gripped the coffee mug and let its heat sear the palms of her hands. "We just do, John. We never talked about what kept us apart for two years, but then it became pretty obvious to me that alcohol was the culprit."

        John set his coffee forcefully on the end table, a bit of the dark liquid splashing over the edge. "No, what kept us apart for two years was your *unbelievably* overblown political ambition and the fact that you were still angry about Katie Witt."

        CJ reacted calmly to John's small outburst, ignoring the mention of Katie. "And I think what has kept us apart for two years is the fact that you can't deal with my success after yours has ended. And John, that's okay. I understand that it hasn't been easy. I guess you feel like everyone has put you last, replaced you even, but that just isn't-"

        John snorted. "I feel like you think I'm not nearly good enough for you anymore. It's like you think that *no one* would be good enough for you. You don't see it, CJ, but you're ridiculously self-involved." He looked up and met his wife's eyes, and something about her expression melted John's attitude. He sighed and reached for her hand. "No, that's not what I mean," he murmured, stroking her palms. "I'm sorry. This is all such a mess."

        "It doesn't have to be," CJ whispered in response, tears starting to choke her voice. She didn't know how much more of this day she could take; the airport had been a melee of reporters, cameras and a gathering of supporters, her family's private reunion made totally public. John had responded graciously, seemingly appreciative of the show of support, but CJ felt like she'd been put on display, laid bare, at the most inappropriate of times. And now John was sniping at her, practically picking a fight.

        He squeezed her hand, hard. "I love you very much, CJ. I love you, and I love our children. I don't want to jeopardize this again, but I feel like I strike out every time I try to do the right thing."

        CJ felt tears spilling onto her cheeks. John leaned forward to wipe them away with his fingertips and CJ smiled sadly, touched by his small action. "Can't we start over, then? Take it slow? Everything we had before is still here, I know it."

        John brought CJ's hand to his lips. "We'll have to find it, then."

        CJ took a deep breath and stood up. "I'm going to start dinner. I thought I'd make steak and mashed potatoes, since it's your favorite."

        John nodded and watched his wife slowly disappear into the kitchen. A heavy blackness hanging over his head, John sighed and picked up the paper, wishing that his children would just make noise in the apartment - anything to fill up the space that seemed so empty.

~*~

        Vincent Carter felt guilty watching John Hoynes' homecoming as it replayed on early-morning CNN. He felt like a voyeur, along with all the hundreds of gathered people and reporters, watching what most definitely should have been a private moment between the former President and his family.

        CJ had tried to hide her damp eyes, and Vince felt his heart pull at the sight of the long embrace she shared with the President. The children seemed unfazed by the gathered crowd, and Vince suspected that since they had been born in the spotlight, they would thankfully never be troubled by the attention that their family generated. John Hoynes had appeared content and happy to be in Washington, waving to the crowd and had even shaking a few hands before retreating into the back of a long, black limousine with his wife.

        As he put together his notes for the day's long repertoire of meetings, Vince hoped that CJ and John had enjoyed their first night reunited - maybe today he would find CJ refreshed and happy, and maybe the emptiness in her eyes would even be gone.

        "Sir?" Carter's assistant Emma popped her head into the spacious office. "The Minority Leader's office just phoned. The meeting has been pushed back an hour."

        Vincent looked up and ran a hand through his dark, waving hair. "Well, I still have to leave at eight tonight. I really shouldn't skip that party at the Australian Embassy."

        "I've already arranged for your first appointment to come in early, Senator," Emma, a short blonde, responded quickly. "And you had a message from Senator Hoynes' office regarding the foreign aid vote next week."

        Vince's ears perked up. "Yes?"

        Emma shook her head. "The Senator would just like to speak with you at your convenience. If you don't find a moment today, I noticed her name on the guest list for that party tonight."

        Carter nodded as Emma retreated. His schedule was jam-packed today, but with the promise of seeing CJ in the evening, Vince decided not to worry about her until then.

~*~

        Riley Hoynes could not believe that his parents were quarreling already. His mother was dressed up in a long, white, beaded skirt and a fancy, off-the-shoulder top, ready to go out somewhere. From what Riley had been able to gather from his listening spot in the hallway, his father did not want to go with her.

        "John, please! It's just a reception for the new Australian Ambassador! You don't have to do anything but keep me company and, God forbid, enjoy the party."

        "It's not personal, Sweetheart! I just don't want to go out tonight! I'm tired, ok?"

        Riley knew his mother was upset. "You know what? This is not exactly what I had in mind when we decided that we were going to 'start over'. I want us to be *together*! I don't want you to sit at home by yourself! You don't really want to try at all, do you?"

        Riley sighed and turned, moving out of the hallway and into his sister's room. She was in pajamas, lying on her stomach, sprawled out over the bed with a book propped up in front of her. Riley sat down beside her and poked the little girl in the side.

        "Hey, stop it," Addy murmured, scooting away from her brother.

        "Do you hear them?"

        "Of course I hear them," she rolled her eyes, dropping the book. She looked at Riley like he was a moron. "People in *Egypt* can hear them."

        Riley twisted his mouth up and looked at his sister, ignoring her attitude. "And what was with Dad sleeping in the guest room last night? This is just like it was back at the White House."

        Addy a breath out of her lungs, a deep woosh of air breaking into the room. "Remember when she threw the vase at him?"

        "I can't believe you can actually remember that," Riley frowned, recalling the way the breaking glass had sounded as it hit the wall behind John's head. Riley had been standing in the hallway that night, too, and he could still replay the scene perfectly in his head. "You were too young."

        "I was already four - and it's pretty hard to forget," Addy mumbled, turning her eyes back towards her book. "Anyway, go away, Riley, I'm reading."

        "Yeah, yeah," Riley grumbled, getting off of Addy's bed and stepping out into the hallway again. He could no longer hear his parents, and Riley realized that the guest room door was shut tightly, a light burning inside of it. CJ was moving around in the kitchen, and Riley felt restless. He wandered into CJ's bedroom, the largest in the house, and eyed the table- full of alcohol.

        Riley had done some reading on the subject of alcoholism, and he was disturbed to learn that it was hereditary in families - sons and daughters of fathers who got drunk, Riley discovered, were quite likely to get just as drunk. As he stepped steadily closer to the table where the bottles temptingly sat, Riley couldn't really believe that he would like to get drunk. It did such strange things to his father - it turned him into a different man, and then sent him away from his family for an entire month. It made his parents fight, and it even made CJ cry when she thought she was out of everyone's earshot.

        It was funny, Riley thought, that his mother could drink alcohol, too, but not suffer the same odd reactions. The bottles on the small table in her room proved that CJ did have a drink from time to time, dark wines and amber-colored liquids only halfway filled their containers, and Riley was suddenly overcome with the urge to try a taste. It really couldn't hurt anyone, he decided - his mother wouldn't know that some was missing, and his father was sure not to notice, or even care. He was shut away in the guest room for the night.

        With a shaky hand, Riley reached for a bottle curiously labeled Jack Daniels. Nervously, he untwisted the cap, and with a sense of both excitement and dread, he filled a shot glass to the brim. The smell was familiar, a strong and pungent odor that the ten-year old found reminded him of time spent near Toby Ziegler and cigar smoke. Bringing the small glass to his lips, Riley breathed in the harsh fumes from the liquor, dizziness briefly washing over him. With a deep breath, he knew he was going to do it: he was going to try the Jack Daniels and see what all the fuss was about. He was going to do what his father did and find out the truth.

~*~ 4

Knocking the shot of Jack Daniel's back with a large gulp, Riley cried out at the unbelievable burning that hit his throat and chest; his eyes watered as the alcohol flooded his system and stomach, heat washing over the boy as his head instantly began to swim.

        "Riley! What's wrong? Did you fall down!?" CJ cried, rushing into the room a moment later at the sound of her son's voice and a small thud signaling a crash. "Riley!"

Riley knew his face was red, but not from embarrassment or shame - the liquor had heated him up and as dizziness chased circles in his brain, Riley thought he might throw up. His mother picked up him up off the floor, her face pale at the sight of the empty shot glass. He was on the bed then, a feeling of floating taking over his body, and as he began to gasp for deep breaths, the urge to puke slowly passed. CJ was kneeling before him, her hands squeezing his knees.

        "Riley, Riley, Riley, why did you do that?" she was murmuring over and over again, disbelief, desperation, and tears in her voice. "Riley, no, no, no, don't ever, ever touch it again, please, Riley, no..."

        Riley laid back and closed his eyes, the dizziness turning into drowsiness. The minutes passed slowly, and it seemed like hours later that he found himself under the sheets in his bed, a headache tearing at his temples. Riley did not feel well and he knew exactly why. A sick nausea washed through his stomach, and as he tried to go back to sleep, he realized exactly how something so awful had been able to tear his family apart.

~*~

        CJ was late to the party at the Australian Embassy; she'd missed the new Ambassador's speech, and the reception was in full swing when she flew out of the chauffeured car and into the main hall. Catching her breath and checking her coat with the attendant, CJ straightened her beaded white skirt, taking a moment to adjust her hair and lipstick in a small mirror on the wall.

        She had almost given up and stayed home; after finding Riley nearly passed out in her bedroom from what had apparently been a very large shot of Jack Daniels, CJ found herself close to breaking down. She had assumed that he knew better; she had incorrectly presumed that her son was impervious to the one thing that had plagued John's lifetime. Riley was only ten, only ten! If he started to experiment with alcohol now, CJ didn't know where his future would lie. Strangely, she felt powerless against it all, just as powerless as she'd been to save her marriage.

        John himself had appeared in the door as CJ numbly cleaned up the spilled liquor, watching the torturous scene unfold with a look of horror on his aging face. He had taken their son into his arms, putting the boy in bed without a word. CJ had watched, then as John sat beside Riley on the comforter, stroking the boy's back in a terrible, tense silence. Tears had uncontrollably cascaded down CJ's face, and she'd run then, bolting herself into the bathroom as she'd let it all come pouring out.

        CJ could still feel her eyes burning from the tears as she stepped into the party and quickly accepted a glass of wine from a passing waiter. Nodding a hello here and forcing a smile there as some of the party guests offered her a greeting, CJ stepped farther into the room and maneuvered through the crowd. She didn't know how she'd managed to pull herself together, but when she'd emerged from the apartment bathroom after cleaning off her runny makeup, John had been standing there, waiting. Go, he'd said quietly. It'll be better if you go to the party. Just go. She'd left feeling confused, hurt, and angry. John couldn't even stand to be in the same apartment with her anymore.

        Gulping at the wine, CJ felt it begin to soothe her nerves at the same time as it served to rattle her even more. Drinking, she thought, was such a double-edged sword. All of the pain and torture that it had caused in her marriage, in her life, should have justified a total embargo against the stuff. Yet here she was, letting the glass of wine serve as her lifeline to sanity.

        "I've been looking for you!" A familiar voice rang out, deep and comforting, friendly and jovial. "You're late!"

        CJ spun around to find Vincent Carter making his way through the party. He was dressed in a stunning black three-piece suit and sky-blue tie, his cuff-links shining brightly, like a million dollars had fallen upon him by chance. She smiled sadly, hating the way he looked like John and hoping against the odds that he would ignore the obvious fact that she'd been crying. "Hi," she murmured, tucking a strand of hair behind her ears.

        Vince sipped at the champagne flute he was holding and grinned, taking CJ's elbow with his free hand. "Come on, the new Ambassador was hoping to meet you. I promised to steer you in the right direction if we ran into one another."

        CJ was desperate to resist Vince's attempt at walking. "No, no, not right now, I can't. I've gotta - I need to take a minute to - I just can't right now, Vince."

        Vincent's good humor fell away as he stepped closer to CJ, ducking his head a bit to even out their heights. "What's wrong? Come to think of it, yes, what is wrong? You look like-"

        CJ shook her head quickly to stop his words. "I know what I look like right now. God, what am I doing here?" she wondered aloud, spinning in a panicked circle, ending up with her eyes back on Vincent's. "Oh, shit, you have no idea."

        Vincent reclaimed CJ's elbow, this time in an attempt to steer them towards the outdoor terrace. CJ did not resist this time, only exchanging her empty wineglass for a fresh one as they passed a waiter on the way out. Sweeping open the glass doors of the ornate embassy, Vince watched worriedly as CJ walked out into the cold night air, her face crumpling almost instantly.

        "We are so completely past the point of being able to function anymore, Vince. Everything is so fucked up."

        Vince leaned against the terrace railing as CJ did, thinking a moment before sliding out of his jacket. It was freezing outside, and CJ was dressed sleeveless. She murmured appreciatively as he tucked the jacket around her shoulders. "Thank you."

        "Tell me what's so fucked up," he suggested. She said nothing for a moment, and Vince glanced at her, knowing she would open up at her own pace.

        Thickly, in a numbed tone, CJ found her words. "Things aren't better. He's just the same, but sober. He says he wants to fix things, but he doesn't do anything towards repair. It's just bullshit and talk, like I suppose it's been all along. And my son! Christ, Vince, I found him on my bedroom floor tonight with an empty shot glass," CJ sputtered, her voice breaking as she spoke of Riley. "I should be there, but then again, I feel like the only option is to run away."

        Vince slid his hand over CJ's back and let it rest in between her shoulder blades. "God, when you go through it, you really go through it, don't you?"

        "Thanks, Vince, that's really the thing you want to be saying to me now," CJ snorted, a wry chuckle escaping her. She leaned her forehead against her arms, moaning to herself. "I don't think I have the strength for this life anymore."

        Vince shook his head, his voice apologetic. "That isn't true. You don't see yourself like the world does, like I do."

        CJ picked her head up, tears pooling in her eyes. "Fuck the world."

        "Let me take you home," Vince suggested quickly, the hand on her back falling to her arm. She was breaking down, that much was obvious.

CJ sucked in her breath, the cold air filling her lungs as Vince's soft fingertips stroked her wrist, gently tracing the delicate bones there. She raised her eyes slowly, meeting the taller man's gaze, finding John's eyes instead. "Hell, you look like him. You practically are him," she murmured to herself, recalling the eerie moment at the office two days prior when Addy had announced that Vince was reminiscent of John. It had all clicked into place for CJ then, and she finally understood the strange magnetism that she'd always felt towards the Florida Senator.

        Vince shook his head, swallowing angrily. "Whatever the hell it is that John Hoynes has done to make you hurt this hard, I swear to God, CJ, it never would have happened with me."

        "Well, you've got shit timing," CJ snapped back, realizing that Vince's fingers were on her elbow now. They'd crept closer to one another, just inches separating his chest from hers. "And you don't know the first thing about what he's done to me."

        "No one does. I can only imagine," Vince rasped, both of his hands stroking. under his coat, at the smooth skin of her upper arms. He felt his feelings and emotions for her finally overflowing as she stood before him, vulnerable.

        "No, you can't imagine," CJ murmured, leaning into his hands on her shoulders; her own hands had fallen to his trim waist. "A handful of people and I are going to take it to our graves."

        "He cheated on you," Vince guessed as his heart thudded uncontrollably in his chest. He rested his chin against the top of CJ's head as she closed the space between them.

        She was silent at his words, her arms snaking around the younger man's middle, an embrace that Vince quickly moved to tighten. CJ exhaled and then breathed in against Vince's neck, his cologne smelling just like it did every day at the office. CJ inhaled the familiar scent and sighed. "He cheated on me," she finally confirmed with a quiet voice. "It never got out. It never will."

        Vince felt anger spike his blood. "Un-fucking-believable," he muttered, gripping CJ's shoulders.

        She pulled back from him, suddenly, her tone rising out of control. "What the fuck are you so angry about? I don't need your indignation, Vince, like you're too honorable to imagine it! Damn-it, don't think I haven't guessed how you feel about me. Don't think I haven't noticed that your marriage is falling apart, too! Try and deny it, Vince, tell me you haven't had the same exact thoughts that I'm sure went through my husband's head four years ago!"

        "Stop it, CJ," Vince murmured, reaching for her arms again, hoping to calm the storm she'd stirred up between them. "Let's just stop this. You're having a bad night."

        "I'm having a bad week," she choked, tears filling her eyes all over again. "A bad month. No," she sobbed, bringing her hand to her mouth as the floodgates opened. "A bad year!"

        Vince swallowed hard, wishing he could just tell her the truth about his feelings for her, wishing she would let him fix her world if only he could. Instead, he continued to firmly stroke her shoulders with his fingers. "I'm going to drive you home, all right?"

        "I have a driver," she said through her tears, turning her head away from Vince as he tried to get her to look at him. "And I don't want to go home."

        "Well, we're not going to stay here," Vincent decided in a soft voice, reaching out a hand to wipe the tears from CJ's cheeks.

        She froze at his action, realizing that it was the same movement John had made the day before as they'd sat drinking coffee. CJ sucked in her breath and locked eyes with Vince. A long moment of silence passed between them as Vince's finger ran over her cheek. She felt the air catch in her throat as she tried to speak. "Right now, if you keep looking at me like that, Vince, I'm going to be just as guilty as everyone else in this world."

        He leaned forward and slid his hand into her hair, bringing her mouth into his. Softly, gently, and tenderly Vince brushed his lips across hers, tugging at her lower lip as the kiss slowly ended. "We're just humans," he murmured, his heart pounding as their breath mingled.

        CJ slid her arms around Vince's neck, their foreheads resting against one another. She slowly, tentatively met Vince's eyes and saw a spark flash through them. She felt her breath hitch, and slowly, her lips curled up into a sultry smile, a smile that told Vince everything he needed to know. Taking her elbow, he led her off of the terrace in silence, both knowing that they would not spend the night alone.

~*~

Collapsing on top of her for a moment, Vince caught his breath before rolling them over so that CJ lay exhaustedly on his chest. Burying his head in her hair, Vince sighed deeply and clutched her body, still intertwined with his. "God, CJ, you're unbelievable."

        CJ closed her eyes as her head fell to the crook between Vince's neck and shoulder. "Mmm, John, that was-"

        They both froze at the same moment, CJ's heart stopping in her chest as she realized her mistake. Vince was still, slightly stunned as CJ mechanically sat up, pulling herself partially off of his body. Her eyes were wide, apologetic, shocked. "Vince, I, I, I didn't mean to-Oh, my God."

        At the sight of her tearing eyes and tousled hair, Vince let out the breath he'd been holding, reaching out to pull CJ back to him. "Shhh," he breathed against her ear. "It's okay."

        CJ tightened her grip on Vince, a numbness taking hold of her. "It's not okay! That was not okay," she choked, meeting Vince's eyes with her desperate, blurry pair.

        Vince squeezed CJ's shoulders, stroking her back gently with his other hand. "I know how much you love him, CJ," he whispered. "Anyone can see it."

        "Then why are we here?" CJ swallowed hard, curling more closely to Vince, finding safety, comfort in his arms. He was so much of John; it was almost eerie how much Vincent Carter reminded CJ of her husband. It almost made sense that they had ended up in bed together, in more ways than one.

        Vince shook his head and smoothed down CJ's hair, watching her tenderly. He didn't really have an answer for her. "I've wanted you from the minute I met you," he told her, his voice rasping as he traced a finger over her lips and chin. "I never in a million years would expect you to feel the same."

        CJ clung to Vince's hard body, pressing her lips against his for a long moment. When they parted slowly, Vince searched her expression, wishing the answers to all his questions might swim in those pools of blue. She smiled sadly. "You've just got shit timing, that's all, Vince."

        He let out a short, bitter-laced laugh as his hands slid down her bare back. "You told me."

        "I'm sorry," CJ whispered, glancing away. "I don't know what I was thinking."

        Vince felt his heart sinking to the pit of his stomach. "You need to work things out with your husband, while there's still a shot, CJ," he advised her quietly, somewhat surprised as she laid her head down against his shoulder. "I wish I still had that chance with my wife, but when things are over, sometimes there's no going back."

        With a murmur of agreement, CJ closed her eyes. A long moment passed between them, silence filling the room, the sound of their breathing all that there was. CJ finally spoke, sleep in her voice. "Can I stay tonight?"

        Vince quickly moved, shifting out from under CJ to turn down the bed. When he had pulled the sheets down, he tucked the soft comforter lovingly around her. "Of course," he said softly, covering her body.

        CJ propped herself up on her side, watching as Vince crawled under the sheets. "Will you hold me?" she asked shyly, feeling self-conscious, vulnerable, and terribly needy. What they'd just done - the intensity of what had happened - CJ knew it was wrong, she knew it should never have gone this far. But in the moment, and even now as she waited for Vince to respond, all CJ had wanted was to feel safe again, to feel taken care of, loved. For one moment, impossible as it seemed, CJ longed to escape herself, to escape the troubles in her life, to flee from who she was: a Senator, a former First Lady, wife, mother of two, and a member of a family that was falling apart.

        Vince reached out for CJ, tugging her closer. When their bodies were settled comfortably together, CJ sighed and pressed her lips against Vince's neck. "I wish this thing - this thing between us, whatever it is - could be different."

        "I understand why it can't be," Vince said quickly, knowing he would never press her for more than she'd just given him. She and John Hoynes had come too far to end things now, and part of Vince knew that he would pale in comparison to the former President, flaws and all.

        CJ closed her eyes. "Thank you," she murmured sleepily.

Vince ran his fingers through CJ's hair and let it go, not sure what she was thanking him for or why. Tonight had been all about relieving tension, soothing emotions and troubles in their lives, and acting spontaneously. Whatever else there was between CJ's heart and his, Vince knew it would have to be put aside and forgotten when the sun hit the morning horizon.

~*~

        Vincent Carter woke up when the sun assaulted his eyes through the open shades. In the heat of the moment the night before, he'd never thought to close them, and as five faded into half-past, Vince rolled over to find an empty bed. CJ was gone, her distinctive perfume on the sheets the only trace of her that remained.

        Sitting up in bed and rubbing his eyes, Vince recalled the night before; the kiss he had shared with CJ on the terrace at the Australian Embassy, a kiss that had led to so much more. Never in all his wildest fantasies had Vince imagined that making love to CJ Cregg-Hoynes could be so deliciously indescribable. Having her in his bed, in his arms, all night long had only made Vince want her more, and as he stretched his arms out and yawned, Vince knew that seeing her at the office was going to hurt like hell.

        She'd all but admitted that if things had been different - her marriage, her commitment to her children, this point in her life - if those things were not as they were, there would be something to explore with Vince. Ironic, he thought with a snort, how fucking ironic. Turning to flip on a lamp, Vince caught sight of a white slip of paper on the clean night table, covered completely with small, curly handwriting.

        "Vince, I want you to know that I left early not because I couldn't face you this morning, but because I thought that space might help. As a colleague and, more importantly, as a friend, I value you more than you can know. I don't want to lose that, even though the circumstances are wrong for us to explore a deeper relationship. I love my husband, and I know you understand why I have to save my marriage. I apologize, Vince, because I never intended to drag you into the middle of my storm. -CJ"

        Vince sighed, tossed the note aside, and flopped back against the pillows of his bed. Her letter sounded sterile, emotionless, formal, as if she were speaking to a complete stranger instead of someone she'd slept with and shared an emotional connection with. Vince squeezed his eyes shut and rolled over, sinking down into the bed. He had expected this, he knew from the moment they kissed that it could never be more than one night. He knew it, he'd prepared for it, and he'd protected himself against it. Only one mistake, only one thing overlooked: he'd forgotten to tell his heart.

~*~

        CJ unlocked the apartment door carefully and quietly, hoping no one would hear her come in. Those hopes were dashed as soon as the door fell open. John was right in CJ's line of view, sitting in the easy chair by the terrace doors. His right foot was on his left knee, and he had a cup of coffee by his side, no paper this time, just a worn and worried expression on his face.

        "Claudia," he said softly, turning his head as he saw her reflection in the glass.

        CJ stepped into the living room, her heart in her throat. Her clothes were rumpled, her hair the same. There was no way she didn't look exactly like what she'd done. "Hi."

        "Riley got sick after you left," John told her, standing up and moving to meet his wife in the middle of the rug. "We had a long talk about what happened."

        "I-I would have stayed, John, but - but you told me to go," she quietly explained, catching the time on the clock behind John. Five- fourteen. Her husband looked like he'd been up all night.

        John sighed, nodding his head. "I told him all about my experiences with alcohol. I explained everything to him. I know he's only ten, but I didn't want him to walk around feeling like my mistakes were his fault. I think he understands that he doesn't have to make those mistakes, too."

        CJ hung her head briefly before looking back up to lock eyes with John. "It's no body's fault, John. We have to stop trying to place the blame - in everything, not just this."

        John was quiet a moment as he took in CJ's appearance. Her makeup was smeared, her hair a mess, her clothing wrinkles and unruly, despite CJ's best efforts to put herself back together. Still, she had been unable to find her underwear, and her skirt and top had spent the night on the floor by Vince's apartment door.

        John cleared his throat, curiosity and then clarity flashing through his eyes. "And just where the fuck have *you* been!? I wasn't going to ask, I wasn't even going to mention it, but Christ, you look like you just got fucked in the back of someone's car! Shit, Claudia Jean, you're a United States Senator! Not to mention my wife! You can't go around-"

        "Oh, hell, John, save it," CJ sniped, waving her hand through the air as she turned to head for the kitchen. "It doesn't matter."

        John was right on CJ's tail as she strode into the kitchen. Watching her pour out a steaming mug of coffee, he felt ready to explode. "It doesn't matter? It doesn't *matter*? Who the fuck are you kidding? We are never, not ever again, CJ, having a conversation about fidelity and this marriage, do you hear me?"

        CJ slammed the coffee pot back into its warmer, next violently flinging open the refrigerator door in search of cream. Her voice was level, but barely as she stared her husband down. "I don't want to talk about it."

        "Then how," John said in a patronizing tone, "just how do you propose we save this pathetic shamble of a marriage?"

        "Pathetic? If that's how you're going to label it, why even bother? John, we're never going to be able to get past any of this if we keep reminding ourselves of how bad it's gotten!"

        John was silent as CJ tersely shut the fridge, poured the cream into her coffee, and stirred in a spoonful of sugar. Turning away from her husband, CJ stood by the counter and watched a spot on the wall, waiting for John's next move.

He knew she was right - they couldn't keep wallowing in the past - but it was eating John alive to realize she'd been with another man last night. Had it come to this? Apparently it had. John felt rage in his veins; he wanted to find that man, twist his neck and kill him, but the dawning fell sharply over John, stunning him as it dawned. This is what CJ must have felt like four years ago; this is exactly what he'd done to her. A taste of his own medicine, that's what it was. It was fitting, it was just.

He sighed heavily as CJ avoided his eyes and moved closer to the window, holding her coffee tightly. John cleared his throat. "Look, CJ-"

        CJ did not turn around. "Unless you want to give up on this, we have to do things differently."

        John quietly walked over to where she stood, and took the spot beside his wife. For a moment, they both stood in silence, staring out the window as the early morning light hit the sky. After a while, John slowly and tentatively slipped his arm around CJ's waist. "I don't want to give up."

        "Then we have to start spending more time together. We've been ripping each other apart for two years, longer even. I can't go through it anymore," CJ murmured, staring down into the coffee mug. "You said it right a few days ago - we're just going to have to find what we had before."

        "I've always wanted us to be a team again," John agreed, stepping behind CJ as he tightened his arm around her waist. Resting his chin on her shoulder, he pressed a quick kiss against her neck. "We've been through so much together. I love you."

        "I love you, too," CJ responded immediately, "but we can't just keep saying it and expecting that to be enough. We're going to have to work at this, John."

        "Can we start right now?" he murmured, kissing her again. "Sometimes I'm so angry I can't see straight, and I know you are, too. But if we can just put it all in the past and live our lives day to day..."

        CJ turned around and set her coffee on the window sill. Bracing her arms against John's shoulders, she smiled sadly, tiredly. "I wish everything was easy again."

        "Oh, but Sweetie, it was never easy with us. Right from the start, things were always hard," John shook his head, coaxing her closer. Their lips met slowly, softly, and John again cursed whoever it was CJ had been with last night. They parted and John solemnly searched her eyes. His voice was low when he spoke. "Promise me you won't run away."

        CJ rested her forehead against John's as their eyes remained locked. "Like you did for the past two years?"

        John sighed and slid his hands up CJ's back, briefly averting his eyes from hers. "If that's what it seemed like, I apologize. I was drinking myself silly right from the start of your campaign. Even when we were still in the White House. I still can't explain why, but believe me when I tell you that it'll never happen again. As long as I know that we still have a chance together, I promise you I won't be anywhere but here."

        CJ blinked away the tears pooling in her eyes as she and John shared another kiss. It lingered and deepened, their bodies pressed tightly against one another. Their mouths were warm, conveying all the emotion burning between them, and they would have continued to kiss if a small voice hadn't interrupted them.

        "Umm, excuse me? Excuse me, please - EXCUSE ME!"

        CJ and John separated and turned to the doorway, where a rumpled, sleepy Addy stood in her pajamas. "Morning, pumpkin," CJ chuckled, her arms still around John's shoulders.

        "Hiya, princess. What are you doing up so early?" John asked, catching the clock. The kids didn't wake until six on school days, and it was just half-past five.

        Addy glanced skeptically at her parents. "Well, all the yelling before woke me up, but then it stopped, so I got curious. I take it that the fight is over?" Addy raised her eyebrows; her parents were getting on her nerves, and she just wished everything would go back to normal

        CJ and John glanced at one another and chuckled at their daughter's straight-forward manner. "It's been a long time coming," CJ grinned, catching John's eye. She nodded at her daughter. "And we're going to try and keep it that way."

~*~

        A few hours later, CJ strode into her Senate office suite dressed to kill in a black jacket and skirt paired with a brilliant red blouse. "Morning, Carol."

        Carol followed her boss into the office, her face slightly frantic. "CJ! I've been trying your cell for at least an hour, and earlier this morning, you ignored your page! I needed to get you an urgent message from the Minority Whip! I was about to try the apartment, but you know I hate doing that when the kids are sleeping - what's going on?"

        CJ stopped in her tracks and spun around before she reached the desk. Dropping her briefcase, her hands flew to her waist, where her pager and phone were normally clipped. "Oh my God."

        "Did you lose them?" Carol asked calmly.

        "Yeah, I left them at-" CJ began, cutting herself off shortly. "Never mind, I'll get them back, Carol."

        "Well, if you let me know where you think you left them, I can send an intern."

        CJ chuckled wryly, settled behind her desk and looked skeptically up at a Carol. "Trust me, that is not a good idea. What am I supposed to be doing right now?"

        Carol raised her brow, curios over the whereabouts of CJ's electronic equipment, but nonetheless she turned to the scheduler in her hand. "Okay, well first thing you need to do is head over and see Dianne Page - she called with this urgent message at like, ten of six in the morning. But in twenty minutes, you've got staff. After that, you're meeting with the winner of the Texas State Legislative Essay Contest and presenting her with a scholarship check for five-thousand dollars. Then you're looking over a draft Margaret wrote for the intro to the coffee table book. At eleven, you're-"

        CJ looked up from the pile of notes she was sorting. "The coffee table book? What the hell?"

        Carol grinned. "It's a large coffee table book full of Texas landscapes shot by Victor Alvarez, who won some kind of photography award for the pieces. You agreed to write the intro."

        CJ shook her head, not at all recalling when she'd agreed to do any of that. "Okay, at eleven?"

        Carol nodded. "You're on the floor introducing the Head Start improvement bill - since the committee approved it yesterday. Twelve, you have a women's caucus luncheon, and at two, there's a vote on increasing the EPA budget - Donna told the Majority Leader's office that you were a definite yes. After that, Toby wanted you on the phone. Hopefully you'll be out of here for dinner with the family, tonight."

        CJ sighed. The day was packed, but at least it looked early. "That's right, Carol, I will be home by six tonight."

        "Good goal," Carol grinned, turning to leave. "I'll buzz you in twenty minutes for staff."

        CJ stood up. "Okay, I'll be back by then."

        Carol watched her boss walk out the door. "Where are you going?"

        CJ was in the hallway as she called, "To get my cell phone!" Leaving her suite, CJ took a deep breath and turned in the direction that she knew would take her straight to the Senator from Florida.

~*~ 7

        CJ was moving down the hall towards Vincent Carter's office suite just as Vince himself was coming into the hall. The both stopped in their tracks upon sight of one another, and a long, awkward pause set in before they hesitantly moved closer together.

        "I was just coming to see if you had-"

        "I found you phone and your pager this morning when I-"

        Both stopped again, averting their eyes from one another after having spoken at the same time. Vincent cleared his throat, breaking the tense silence.

        "Here, your pager, your cell: both of them went off numerous times, but obviously I didn't touch them or-"

        CJ reached out and took both devices, blushing slightly. "Thank you, no, I appreciate your keeping them safe."

        After she'd clipped her pager to her belt and tucked her cell phone in her blazer pocket, CJ looked up at Vince, meeting his eyes as steadily as she could manage. She lowered her voice. "I'm sorry I left you a note. That was," CJ shook her head, embarrassed, "that was impersonal, and I don't mean to imply that's how I want things to be with us."

        Vince didn't know how to respond. CJ was his fantasy and his nightmare, all wrapped into one at the moment. He shook his head and cleared his throat, turning back towards his office suite. "I don't know what to say to you, CJ. Last night was a mistake. For both of us."

        CJ stepped closer to Vince, though he had turned his back to her. "I have no regrets," she offered softly, internally debating the wisdom of touching his arm. She kept her hands close to her sides as she took a deep breath. "I promise you that if this could be, it would. But the fact of the matter is that I have got to give my marriage one-hundred per cent right now. We're right on the edge of making something work again, and I can't run away just because I want to, or because he did for two years. I really think, Vince, that-"

        Vince pivoted, catching CJ's eyes strongly with his. "You don't have to explain it to me. I understand," he said coolly, his voice dripping in icicles. "But please don't tell me that you'd be with me if you could. That's not what I want to hear from you."

        CJ swallowed, her throat tightening. Vince's dark eyes were clearly full of pain. "What do you want, then?" she whispered.

        Vince softened, reaching his fingers out and briefly brushing CJ's cheek. He took his hand away quickly and straightened his back. "I want us to walk away from this right now and never look back at it. We're political allies. That's all."

        CJ felt like her lungs had stopped working. Part of her was relieved at Vince's conclusion to this mess, and part of her felt sick, like her stomach had just taken a hard punch. Before she managed to inhale, Vincent Carter strode into his office, leaving the Senator from Texas alone in the hallway, wondering just how, just why he'd made her forget to breathe.

~*~

        The winner of the Texas State Legislative Essay contest had written about Abigail Adams. The first First Lady to take her own stance on issues usually reserved for the opinions of men, Abigail Adams had provided quite the example, even so long ago. CJ found the essay impressive, and she was touched that the Houston student had compared CJ to the historical Adams.

        After posing for photographs and spending as much time as she could chatting with the young lady, CJ found herself tired, drained. The brief exchange with Vince in the morning had thrown her; she'd somehow expected that their friendship would remain intact, despite the reckless, thoughtless, physical decision that they'd made the night before. CJ was not sure how she should proceed - should she go to Vince again in hopes of brokering a better solution? Or should she step back like he was wisely suggesting and put all of her energy behind her marriage? The answer seemed obvious, but as CJ sat blankly staring at Margaret's draft of the coffee table book intro, things felt cloudy, muddied up.

        There was something hidden amongst what should have been so clear cut; she'd made a mistake and Vince had, too. They should never have slept together, and now that it was over and he was giving her the chance to walk away from it with no consequences, CJ found herself unsatisfied. She didn't want to lose the easy friendship she'd shared with Vince. She didn't want to lose that camaraderie, and she needed his political partnership on any number of issues. But there was a danger in too much closeness; there had been a spark between them the night before, and there was no way she could risk falling into that fire - not with John finally ready to make amends, and certainly not with her children so much in need of a strong family.

        CJ sighed and tried again to focus on Margaret's draft. There was no choice - CJ was just going to have to forget about the way she'd felt last night. She was just going to have to do what was right, what she knew would carry her through in the long run.

~*~
        CJ stood on the Senate floor, her notes spread out on the lectern before her. She gripped the podium lightly as she spoke, not noticing that Donna had slipped into the chamber through a side door. "More than just an educational program, Head Start provides family services, dental care and health care. Head Start provides the opportunity for a young girl to have a book read to her for the first time; for a young boy to have his first check-up, and a for a mother or father to understand nutrition, the early signs of lead poisoning and the right treatment, or how to encourage learning at home." CJ spoke firmly while Donna crept carefully through the aisles of desks and lecterns, trying to stay out of view of the CSPAN cameras. She had written the message on a slip of paper, and even though CJ wouldn't be much longer on the floor, Donna knew that her boss would appreciate this immediate notification. "In these tough economic times we need to do everything we can to help America's working families. Head Start works. It is one of the nation's most successful and important programs - every year helping thousands of Texans, New Yorkers, and middle-Americans alike. That is why I am so pleased that this legislation to preserve and strengthen this vital program received the support of the Senate HELP Committee yesterday." CJ continued speaking, even as she finally caught sight of Donna. Quickly taking the note that Donna passed to her, CJ put the piece of paper on the lectern as Donna smoothly slid out of the chamber. CJ unfolded the note and fluidly continued speaking, even as she saw the message scrawled in Donna's hand. Hesitating imperceptibly, CJ felt her heart jump at the news. "The legislation approved by the Committee yesterday retains the current structure of Head Start while providing critical resources to strengthen and improve the quality of the program. The bill also dramatically expands Early Head Start, which was created by my husband's Administration in 2008 to reach infants and toddlers during this critical stage of development. I will now yield the balance of my time to my colleague from Louisiana, Senator Croix, who will now outline the benefits of the new bill."

Croix, an older, graying, but gentlemanly Democrat with proper Southern manners bowed at CJ as she frantically gathered her notes, impatiently trying to get out of the chamber. "I'd like to thank the gracious and hardworking Senator Hoynes, my friend from neighboring Texas..."
        CJ barely acknowledged the Senator as she dashed out of the chamber, elated at the contents of the message Donna had brought, more than eager to find her Chief-of-Staff and to get Toby on the phone.
        "Is this for real!?" CJ cried as soon as she made it to the main lobby outside of the Senate chamber. Donna spun around, her face full of joy. CJ grabbed the blonde's arms. "I mean, this really happened?"
        "Stephen Perry just turned himself in. He's confessing to everything - to taking the money out of the President's accounts, of covering it so it'd seem like you were the one making the transactions - everything! Toby was just on the phone, and the breaking news is on the television. You're going to be briefed, and then we'll do a press conference. I already told the women's caucus that you wouldn't be at the luncheon."
        CJ was elated; she embraced Donna in a wave of excitement. "Unbelievable! Let's go!"
        As CJ and Donna rushed out of the Senate lobby towards the Russell office building, CJ felt lighter than air. This was the best news she'd heard in a long, long time - and just this morning, she'd gotten her marriage on some sort of right track. Maybe, CJ thought as she headed urgently towards her office, just maybe things were going to work out in her favor this go around. ~*~
        It was eleven o'clock. CJ was on the bed, stomach-down and propped up on her elbows as she watched CNN recap the news of the day. Stephen Perry's confession was among the top three stories, and it gave CJ no end of relief and happiness to know that her legal troubles were behind her. She'd worked very hard over the past month to stay outside of the issue, to let the authorities take their time with the investigation - staying uninvolved yet cooperative had been a matter of perception; with the simultaneous instance of John's month at alcohol rehab, CJ had not been able to afford any more controversy.

        "What are you smiling at? You look like a cat," John grinned, stopping in the bedroom doorway to watch his wife lounging on the bed.

        CJ sat up onto her knees and flicked the television off as she shrugged lightly. "I'm kind of in awe that the two things bothering me most seem to have been resolved all in one day."

        John came into the bedroom and stood in front of the mattress, gesturing hesitantly at the spot beside CJ. "Can I-?"

        CJ nodded vigorously, reaching out her hand to take John's. "Of course!" Pulling him down onto the bed, they leaned back up against the pillowed headboard, curling closely together. "I hope you're sleeping in here tonight," CJ said shyly, lowering her eyes with a smile.

        John squeezed CJ's shoulders and quickly kissed her forehead. "I am."

        They sat quietly together for a moment, and CJ closed her eyes, her head resting against John's shoulder. He listened to her breathing, losing himself in the rise and fall of her rhythm until their breaths were matched, a soft, single whisper of air keeping them both alive.

        "John," CJ eventually murmured, catching herself before she could doze off.

        "Claudia Jean," John responded automatically, smiling as he gently shifted his wife aside in order to pull back the comforter and sheets. Sleepily, with some coaxing from John, CJ crawled under the blankets and curled back into her husband's body, her arm falling across his stomach as her head found his chest.

        "This is what I've missed the most," she told him as they got comfortable. "Just going to bed together."

        Inhaling the sweetness of the perfume that lingered in CJ's hair, John felt his eyes well up. "I love you. More than I can even begin to explain," he said through the lump in his throat. He stroked her shoulders, lulling CJ back into sleep as his thoughts wandered. Eight years of the Presidency, eight years as Vice President, and all the years before that serving his home state in the Senate - none of the success and none of the great accomplishments could ever really match up to the one thing he'd always been most proud of. His family with CJ - the two lives they had created and the world they had built together: that was an achievement they should never have let become so insignificant.

        John sighed in some kind of satisfaction; he'd been given another chance, probably his last, but he knew this time they would make it work. Reaching over CJ to switch off the lamp, John bathed the room in eleven o'clock darkness. Resting his cheek against CJ's hair, he closed his eyes and again listened to his wife as she breathed in and out, the rhythm flooding into him until they were once more breathing together.

END

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