"It's Been A While"
The sun was setting as C.J. strode back to her office from the pressroom. Fresh from her last briefing, she should have been happy - ready to go home and soak in her bathtub for an hour before watching an old movie. But something wasn't quite right.
Getting to her office, she asked, "Carol, can you get me Josh?"
"Sure." The assistant connected a few lines and spoke absentmindedly. "In your office."
"Thanks." C.J. walked in and picked up the receiver. "Josh, that you?"
"Yeah, C.J., what's up?" Josh kicked back, putting his feet on his desk.
The press secretary took a long breath before answering. "Have you seen Danny at all today?"
Josh thought a moment. "No, I haven't. How come?"
"Just wondering." C.J. bit her lip. She didn't dare tell Josh of her and Danny's aborted dinner plans the previous night. The reporter had never shown up. And now he hadn't been in the press room all day.
Josh read the dormant tension in her voice. "C.J., everything okay here?"
"Yeah yeah, it'll be fine." C.J. ran a nervous hand through her hair. It would be fine; she was sure of that.
"Okay." Josh unwillingly let the matter drop. "So, what do you think the euthanasia bill will do in the House..."
The conversation dragged on, but C.J. wasn't really listening. She had mentally detached her official persona and was letting it talk to Josh. Inside she couldn't help but focus her attentions on the reporter who was, if not a would-be lover, at least a close friend.
It'd been great. They were content to share tender glances and the occasional finger touch. A forbidden kiss was the steamiest and most interesting thrill. He'd given her Gail. She'd taken him out to talk about hate crimes. Tempered with being apart, their relationship, strangely, became even closer. They looked more forward to being together after being apart. But C.J. could never really tell what kind of relationship it was. There would be nights where they would stay three feet apart, and then there'd be nights where he fell asleep holding her close.
Then that day had come where C.J. had told him that it would not work. She was too attached to her job and the stress was affecting them both.
He had taken it well. Coolly, even. But now it had been so long almost six months and she had not heard from him at all. He'd been on assignment in Chechyna for the longest time, having transferred to foreign correspondent. But it wasn't like he couldn't pick up a phone.
It worried her. But what could she do? He was a grown man.
So she was doomed to sit here listening blindly to Josh, as though she could ignore the foreboding she felt.
She finds her address book. There in the damning blue ink is the entry. D Concannon. It seems so innocuous that she almost laughs. But she knows there's more here than this.
But before she can dial, her telephone rings. Cautious of this coincidence she picks up the receiver. "Hello."
It is a familiar voice. Yet at the same time it's unfamiliar, like an ancestral home with rotting walls. But even the sunny exterior is marred by foul weather.
She swallows her surprise. "Danny."
His voice is dull, bloodless. She would never recognize him; she knows that now. But what has caused this? "Danny, how are you?"
He doesn't answer; not directly. "C.J., I want you to have something."
"What?" She fights the rising panic. It's hopeless; a whole fucked-up mess with only one key, and she does not have it.
Now he's rambling, rambling, gabbling of Bartlet, Gail, Hoynes, his pencils, the Newseum, who shot Josh Lyman? C.J. is terrified. This is too big for her to stop. She does not like the feeling of being out of control. She's confused; where is this going?
She tries what she can. "Danny, stop it. You're scaring me."
Like magic he slows. "There's nothing for *you* to be scared of."
She takes the conversation in the direction she thinks it should go. "Is there anything for you to be scared of?"
Danny laughs, once: a short exhalation that expiates some of the misery that permeates the line. "I'll tell you. The worst."
"Living." The word is whispered, a combination exhortation and irritation. "Scared of living."
C.J.'s confused, scared, not certain of what her next move should be. She has the sensation of a chess game, but some of the pieces are lying, shattered in half. "Danny, are you drunk?"
He snorts. "Of course not. That would be too ordinary."
She doesn't know what to say, so she directs her thoughts to her supposedly invaluable reason. "Danny, what's wrong? You're scaring me. I mean it."
Danny sighs and stops talking cosmic bullshit. "I just wanted to say hello."
C.J., though slightly relieved, is more than a bit incensed. "That's all you wanted to say and you scare me with this shit? Go to hell, Danny!"
There is silence on the other end of the line. Finally, he speaks. "It's been a while, hasn't it, C.J.?"
"Yeah." C.J. says tonelessly. What is he leading to?
"There's been so many times when I wanted to call you." Danny pauses, and only then does she hear the weariness in his voice.
"Believe me, C.J., there were times when I'd lie awake in some hotel thinking that I should pick up the phone." He stops, and the last words of his thoughts are couched in whispered defeat, an acquiescence that brings tears to her eyes. "But I just could not call."
"Why?" In spite of herself she asks. "What the hell made you think that you couldn't come to me?"
"What the hell made you think I could come to you?"
The insult is rapid fire. But it isn't really meant as an insult; just a statement of fact. Yet it leaves her cold and gasping.
They'd talked for hours, with Danny hinting around the edges of his problems and C.J. trying so hard in vain to help him. Now on the phone with Josh, she knew what had to be done.
"Josh, I gotta go." Her voice was low and quiet, suffused with low tension.
He read it instantly. "Be careful." Of what she's not sure, but she takes his warning well.
"I will." They hung up and C.J. moved away.
She knocks on his door. The building has a fašade that reminds her of Danny himself: crumbling majesty. The loyal footsoldier, stricken because his empire is falling apart. She's had a haunted look in her face lately, and she imagines he's felt the same.
The door opens to her touch, not locked. "Danny?" she calls, feeling her voice splinter and break against the vapid tiles of his front vestibule. "Danny, it's C.J."
Then she hears it. A sort of strangled moan, coming from a far point away. "N no "
Against judgment she follows the sound. There are more like it. And along with it floats a wraithlike smell. It pounds her senses and the intensity is almost physically painful.
"Danny?" Now her voice is pale and ghostly. She does not trust herself again.
Then, she opens the door.
He is curled up on the sofa, legs wrapped into a tight ball. He is limp, fragile. Skin cracked and broken, disintegrating at a single breath. Dull, sunken eyes, staring at nothing. He is shaking so badly the sofa trembles with him. She feels the color go out of her face to match his own.
The things are on the table.
C.J. approaches slowly, not wanting to shake his bubble. "Danny?" Now her voice is in tatters, each fragment barely connecting. "Danny, it's me."
Slowly the paroxysm fails. The shaking subsides; the muscles lengthen. But the eyes remain the same.
"C.J." The voice is together, and this is what frightens her the most. "What the hell are you doing here?"
He reeks of the smell. That smell permeates the room, his clothes, everything. C.J. realizes it is a familiar smell. And the traces of snow on his coat fix themselves in her consciousness.
She takes the pipe off the table, trying, trying so hard to keep calm. "This explains so much."
Danny follows her slim hands, eyeing his possession. "Does it?"
"I think so." Her voice is dead and hard as the objections run through her head. He's a reporter. He's someone's lover. He's a colleague. He's my friend.
He's an addict.
She is toneless, formless, lifeless. "Why?"
"Why what?" The reporter's face twists into a monstrous parody of a smile. "Why do I do this, or why didn't I call you?"
"Both." C.J.'s voice is calm. She will not cry. Will not. The addiction would have the power.
"Why do you think?" Danny subconsciously reaches for the dust. C.J. grabs his wrist firmly.
"Damn it, C.J.!" he shouts, in the heat of the moment, yet cold-bloodedly planned. "I couldn't call you because you don't love me!"
She cannot deal with both at the same time; the insult and the pain. Yet she has sustained a mortal wound, and can only keep on going before she bleeds to death. And she is mad enough to make him bleed too.
"You couldn't call me and talk because you were scared." C.J.'s voice is colorless. "That's natural." She paused. "Understandable, even. Our relationship was in turmoil from day one."
Danny nods. She sees him jam his hands together, but they still betray him. They still quake, wanting to just reach right in front of them for the powder reposing on the table.
She continues. "So you went to Europe and Chechnya. You did great things as a foreign correspondent. But the pressure got to be too much and you started doing bad things. I'm just stating facts, right?" she breaks off to ask. "I'm not stretching the truth at all?"
Danny sighs. "No. You're not."
"So you turned to heroin to make all your problems go away?" she asked harshly.
The effect is as dramatic as a slap in the face. Danny gasps for breath, turns, writhes, but he cannot escape reality no matter what.
C.J. waits for an answer.
Then, unexpectedly, he begins to shed tears. They are penitential, honest tears, and they take C.J.'s anger along with Danny's pride. "You think this is bad," he says, voice cracking, "you should have seen Chechnya."
She says nothing, waits for more.
She gets it. "Chechnya was bad. Very bad. That's not an excuse," he added quickly, a spark of feeling creeping into his timbre. "I'd been in Spain, and Bosnia, where things were just as bad, physically. Children sleeping in the streets; massacres going on every other day. Sometimes my luck was all that saved me.
"I remember once, when I'd borrowed a Red Cross jacket from a friend and walked across the freezing street. While I was gone my base was taken over by the Chechen rebels. My Red Cross friend was murdered, because they didn't believe he was Red Cross.
"You don't understand." He is lashing out, yet there is no vitriol in his tone. "You never will. You've been under pressure. You've seen some of the worst political problems this country has witnessed in fifty years. But you've never seen *war.*
"Filthy, stupid, mindless war. The Russians didn't give a damn if they lived. Neither did the Chechens. We were stuck on the streets, sharing cigarettes and marijuana like there was no tomorrow. And worst of all, there probably wouldn't be.
"One night " His voice catches in his throat as he reaches again for the powder. C.J. restrains him once more and he surges with anger. But he channels it correctly. "One night, I was sleeping in an old hotel in downtown Grozny. A man broke in. He was a Chechen, but he wasn't a soldier. He was just a civilian, but somehow he'd gotten hold of an AK-47. I was the only one awake, and he stuck the gun barrel in my face. He kept saying, 'Food. Food. Please, food.' And all I knew was military Russian. I couldn't help him.
"But " Danny finds the strength to look C.J. in the eye. "On his way out he stepped on a land mine." He buries his face in his hands, willing himself to stay calm. "I realized then, watching his bloody hand land at my feet, that... life isn't worth a damn, is it?" He laughs once, with a complete absence of mirth. "The next day I tried some pot. Then some coke. It just doesn't mean a thing. We could all die tomorrow." His breath is coming in great, racking harshness. "Doesn't mean a fucking thing." He breathes some more as his system craves the powder. "Others have so much more problems. They deal. But I could never get over you..."
C.J. does not speak. There is a gulf that needs to be crossed, but the foundations of a bridge are there. She knows that inside there is a fundamentally good man waiting to get out.
Finally she does let the words out. "Danny, what do you want?"
His face clenches in an expression of pain. Finally the broken voice speaks. "I want to get out of this."
That is all it takes. C.J. moves closer, pushing the hell table away. She takes him into her arms and resolves to help. She will fall asleep holding him tonight.