The Snowball Effect
Cold Keys Series part 2

C.J. drummed her fingers gently on her desk as she perused the stacks of folders in front of her. She had hours of prep work ahead for her briefing in the morning. She considered going home to relax for awhile and then coming back to work later. But the guys were prowling around in a frenzy after hearing that a former Secretary of State was possibly being held hostage by a white supremacy group.

The poor guy had gone on vacationing in Montana, taken a hike in a national park and ended up missing. He'd been gone for several hours before his wife alerted the Park Police. Shortly thereafter, a local group contacted the media and claimed they'd abducted him in a ploy to gain access to the media and "spread their doctrines."

It was a volatile situation. She could be of no use in resolving it, of course, but she doubted the guys would like to hear she was heading home to take a long hot bubble bath just because she'd had a busy week. But sometimes she did resent being unable to do overtly 'girl-type' things just because she was the only woman in the inner circle. She felt certain that most of the time they forgot she was a woman. And that wasn't necessarily a bad thing, she mused. It meant she'd also earned their respect and they treated her first as a colleague and not a woman.

Her train of thought halted when Sam appeared at her door.

"C.J."

"Yeah."

"We just got a copy of the formal demands from the supremacy group." He put the copy on her desk and dropped into a chair.

C.J. picked it up and started reading. "What else can you tell me, and what can I tell the press?"

"We haven't got confirmation that they really have the guy. But no one can find him so it's being considered. The FBI demanded proof of life from them prior to further formal negotiations. You can give the press the demands and a non confirmation on any other particulars. Okay?"

C.J. nodded "Yeah."

She expected Sam to dash out of the room. He stayed on her couch.

"There's more?" she asked.

"Not about that. I'm just stalling going back out there because Toby's on the warpath about the changes we have to make for the speech tonight. And Josh is in a funk about Senator Williams demanding an apology from Leo for Josh calling him a moron in front of a CNN camera crew."

"Sounds like our Josh."

"Yeah."

Sam sat quietly while C.J. read for a few minutes. She looked up to watch him with amusement when he started flipping idly through a copy of Cosmo she had on the table.
He looked tired and stressed. But she couldn't help thinking he looked, well, cute, looking at her magazine. It was obviously not his usual reading material.

She kept staring at the notes but her mind was wandering to a night recently in his office when she'd allowed herself to think of him as a man and not just a colleague. She really wanted to avoid the problems inherent in those thoughts and had no intention of pursuing any romantic path. She'd worked very hard to gain respect in this administration. She also recognized that the feelings were harmless. Brief thoughts about the men she worked with were not dangerous or that uncommon.

But she'd been trying a bit hard to suppress it over the last few days and it had made her feel awkward. After the initial episode in his office where she'd tripped over the books and nearly fell on her face, she'd continued to have uncharacteristic episodes of general clumsiness in Sam's company. Just because she was thinking about it and trying not to be clumsy. Yeah, she thought. I'm living far from pools until this one's over.

Toby bellowed down the hall for Sam, but he was saved temporarily when Josh appeared to announce that they were all wanted in the Oval for an update.

She and Sam exchanged a long-suffering look. C.J. put the folders into neat piles on her desk and stood up to go. Sam smiled at her and waited for her to leave the room first. She tripped on the throw rug and smacked her hip on the table.

Sam's face registered surprise after he could see she was unhurt.

"C.J., What's up with you and the clumsy thing?"

She was annoyed with herself and managed a Toby-like snarl. "Shut up Sam."

"I'm just saying."

They managed to make it to the meeting without any further coordination failures on her part. She was careful to walk far enough from him that she couldn't smell his cologne. It did bad things to her.

During the update they learned that the former Secretary had not, in fact, ever been in the hands of the hostile group. He'd wandered off the trail and been forced to climb up a tree to avoid a bear on the trail. Unfortunately, he was bad at getting down, and had to limp painfully back to the trail on a sprained ankle and wait for assistance from a passing hiker.

Leo, Josh and Toby were in foul spirits after spending so much time on the situation and ended up arguing about some stupid points for the speech. C.J. had a headache from reading too many briefs while wearing an old pair of contacts that didn't give her adequate correction and left everything a bit blurry. The trip to the eye doctor was on her list of things to do. It was, sadly, a long list. She was rubbing her temples against the pain when she caught Sam staring at her.

She looked at him irritably. "What?"

He looked sympathetic. "Got a headache?"

"Yeah." She saw no need to elaborate.

Sam nodded and looked up again at the floor show. Leo and Toby were nose to nose in heated discussion and Josh was pacing behind them and throwing in loud comments.
It finally ended a few moments later when the President called Leo to a security briefing.

C.J. escaped wearily to her office and promised herself a really long bath and a glass of good wine when she was done for the night.

She got neither the bath or the wine that night. One of the local papers produced a copy of a college term paper written by the newest Supreme Court Justice trumpeting the merits of Nazi Germany's youth recruitment system. It didn't play well when he said he'd been stoned when he wrote it and didn't mean it. The President's Press Secretary was having a very bad week.

Any thoughts of Sam in a romantic light were easily chased away by the need to focus on her job. But she still had another bumbling episode when he showed up unexpectedly in her press gaggle the next morning to hand her a note about the latest stupid comments from the Justice Department.

His hair was wet because it was raining outside and his sleeves were rolled up to conceal the wet cuffs. His hand brushed hers when he handed her the note and she caught a whisper of his cologne mixed with the scent of rain.

Diverted by the stupidity of noticing this during a press conference, she dropped the note and pulled out her mike when she stooped to pick it up. Then she knocked over the podium and fell in a sprawl on the floor. CSPAN played the scene six times in the next hour.

She was mortified, but actually ended up seeming endearing to the press corps because she openly made fun of herself for days after the incident.

She also compensated for the latest blunder by working like a demon to restore her calm, prepared image. That meant she avoided Sam.

She'd meant this to be a subtle thing. She simply didn't stop to chat with him in the halls, didn't sit next to him in briefings, and went directly to Toby if she needed information. But Toby was not pleasant much of the time and she missed Sam's calm banter.

She finally gave in a few days later and sat next to him on the plane to a speech in Chicago. Toby was just too loud that day. Josh was just too Josh. Usually she liked his bluster, but she'd ended up with a headache again after reading for hours.

"Hey, Sam," she said as she slid into the seat next to him.

He looked up at her and smiled. "Hey C. J. How are you? "

"Fine."

Sam looked at her closely. She looked tired. And he could tell she had another headache.

"So, got another headache?"

"No."

"C.J?"

She tried a small smile at him. "No, I'm fine."

"You're lying."

"Yes. I'm sure women have lied to you before Sam."

He didn't allow himself to be diverted. "Why lie to me C.J?"

"Because it's nothing."

Sam pondered that for a moment then said softly, "How about I return the favor of a neck rub?"

C.J. flinched a bit. It sounded wonderful, but she really didn't want Sam touching her until she was over her stupid crush on him.

Sam didn't wait for her to respond. She was his friend. She was in pain and he wanted to help. He softly began to massage the back of her neck and soothed her into leaning over in the seat so he could use both hands on her upper shoulders. His soft motions eased the tension in her shoulders. Though she'd stiffened initially, she soon leaned into his hands and simply enjoyed the touch. Sam had very talented hands.

She started at that thought and pulled away.

Sam looked at her in puzzlement. "Did I hit a sore spot?"

Further words were halted when Leo appeared suddenly at her side.

"C.J., the President wants you to do the fight song."

"The Notre Dame fight song? Are you kidding? We are going to Chicago. They aren't playing there. They aren't playing anywhere today. And their quarterback is out for two weeks with an Achilles tendon tear."

"He'll be impressed that you know about the quarterback, but he still wants you."

C.J. was mad now. Summoned again to be a glorified cheerleader. The guys didn't have to do this. She hadn't done anything to insult his "sacred" team lately. He'd admitted to Josh that he just thought it was cute. She was tired of being cute.

"No, Leo." She remained seated and fixed him with a glare.

"Come on, C.J. you know he's gonna make you." Leo continued with a kidding tone. He expected her to relent in a moment as always.

"Leo. I said no, and I mean it. If he wants cute he needs a new Press Secretary." This came out with a soft vehemence that C.J. rarely used.

Leo's face registered the change. "C.J., what's wrong?"

Sam was shocked by C.J.'s tone, and jumped in unconsciously. "Leo, she doesn't feel well. Tell the President that."

C.J. looked a Sam, feeling a bit betrayed. It was true, but it wasn't the real reason.

Leo frowned. C.J. was never sick. "What's wrong?"

"It's just a headache."

Leo looked unconvinced. He could tell she was lying, but she did look pale in the faint overhead lights. He flicked his gaze to Sam. Then he really started to worry.

Sam's face was not the face of a politician most of the time. His thoughts and emotions painted themselves with visible brushstrokes on his face and in his eyes.

Leo saw concern and worry on Sam's face.

Sam was remembering C.J.'s odd behavior over the last week, and trying to reconcile it with the C.J. he'd thought he'd known so well.

Leo paused a moment more, then relented. "I'll get you out of it."

Two days later Sam paced in Josh's office.

"Sam, What!!" Josh grumbled irritably. "Did you do something stupid?"

"No."

"Sit down, Sam." Josh could tell something was wrong with his friend.

"Spill it, Sam."

Sam sat and looked at Josh uncertainly.

"OK. It's about C.J."

"Yeah." Josh continued to flip papers on his desk.

"She's been weird with me lately. And she's been falling. And she's had headaches and blurry vision. And she's lying to Leo and the President."

Josh dropped his bored expression. "What?"

"How could you miss it, Josh?"

"I missed it." Josh said slowly.

Sam continued. "She's not here this morning. I went looking for her. Carol said she had a 'Doctor's appointment.' I left some briefs on her desk and happened to notice that she had the appointment with a Dr. Sims at Georgetown written on her calendar. I looked it up in the phone book. Dr. Sims is a neurosurgeon." Sam paused while Josh absorbed this.

"You think she's sick? Don't neurosurgeons deal with bad stuff like brain tumors and..." Josh paled.

"Yeah." Sam replied softly.

"And you said she admitted she's had headaches and blurry vision?"

"Yeah."

"Sam, it could be nothing."

"Josh, it's just been weird lately. I know something's wrong."

"We need to talk to her."

That afternoon C.J. crashed on her couch after returning from her appointment. Dr. Sims, her optometrist, dilated her eyes for the exam. She had a horrible headache from driving back in the sun. She'd finally managed to find time to get a new prescription ordered. She groaned softly at her own stupidity for waiting so long, and put the pillow over her head.

She stirred when a quiet knock sounded on her open door. Sam looked at her and frowned. He'd heard her groan of pain before he knocked.

"C.J., God, are you okay?"

She started to shrug it off but he looked worse than she felt. "I'm fine, Sam. It's just a headache." She frowned when she said it, realizing she'd been saying that a lot lately.
She swung her legs around and sat up. Sam sat on the couch and looked at her eyes with a horrified expression. He could tell the pupils weren't right for the level of light in the room. He didn't want to just blurt out "C.J. do you have a brain tumor?"

He fixed her with his very blue gaze and said softly, "C.J., you know you can talk to me about anything, right?"

She thought about that for a moment. Had he guessed the cause of her unusual behavior? She really had no intention of telling him anything about her feelings for or rather about him. She was sure she'd probably die of embarrassment.

"I've got nothing to tell, Sam." She made a strategic exit and went off to her briefing.

Sam was more confused than ever. He was sure that if there really were nothing important going on C.J. would have given him a reasonable explanation for her recent behavior.

Reluctantly, Sam decided to talk to Toby. The gruff communications director had not survived so long in politics without being able to understand people. He knocked hesitantly on Toby's door and waited for a response. He closed the door behind him. Toby looked up and was immediately perplexed by the closed door. It was rare for them to bother to worry about privacy.

"What's up, Sam?"

Sam took a moment to respond and Toby grew more concerned.

"Have you noticed anything going on with C.J.?"

"She's been a little grumpy, but no more than one of the usual funks we all go through. She was pissed at the President over the fight song thing, but Leo made that go away."

"Toby, she's been getting headaches."

"We all get headaches, Sam."

"These have been pretty bad. And she's been acting weird around me and she's been falling a lot."

"Falling?" Toby hadn't noticed that. C.J. was usually very graceful, unless there was a swimming pool around, he amended to himself.

"Well, sometimes. And just more clumsy than usual."

"She's been fine around me, Sam."

"God, Toby you wouldn't even notice."

"Sam. It's C.J., I'd notice." His voice took on a low rumble. Toby felt he poorly concealed his affection for the Press Secretary. He thought it was pretty clear because he hardly ever yelled at her.

"Are you sure?"

Toby reflected for a moment. He really hadn't spent that much time with her lately. And he hadn't been paying that much attention.

"What's the rest of it Sam?"

"She denied it when I asked her about it. But she had an appointment with a neurosurgeon."

Toby was angry now. "She's seeing a neurosurgeon, but she won't even admit there's anything wrong? Doesn't she know she can talk to us about anything. We've all had the intimate details of our life discussed at length by the Senior Staff."

"What should we do?"

Toby paused for a moment to think. "Nothing. We just watch to be sure she's OK, try not to give her too much work and let her know we care about her without saying it. If she doesn't want to talk about it, she must have a reason and we need to respect that for now."

Sam was a bit shocked. Toby sounded truly kind and honestly concerned. The gruff exterior was gone. Sam decided to leave the room before he let some stupid remark out of his mouth that would shift Toby back into grump mode.

So they watched her. Sam, Josh and Toby hovered around C.J. as often as possible. They were trying to be inconspicuous and of course, that was impossible. They carried things for her. They didn't yell. They didn't call her in the middle of the night.

Carol was the first to ask C.J. about it. "C.J., what's going on with the guys? They're hovering over you like crazy, and I heard some crazy press rumor that you were sick on the plane on the last trip and that the President let you out of singing his fight song. But you'd have to be unconscious for that to happen. So there's got to be another explanation. The press rumor mill also says you're pregnant and that the father's one of the senior staff cause they've all been weird lately too."

C.J. practically sputtered a reply to the outrageous rumors. "Carol, please tell me you're kidding?"

"No." Carol replied quickly.

"Absolutely none of that is true except that I didn't have to sing the fight song. I had a headache. Leo felt sorry for me and got me out of it. I'm not pregnant and I positively have had no sex of any kind with any of the senior staff."

"Yeah. I thought so. Crazy rumor mill, huh?"

"Yes."

"So why are the guys hovering?"

"That, I don't know. I hope they haven't heard any of those stupid rumors."

"Toby asked me three times yesterday if you were working too hard."

"And you told him what?"

"That you were always overworked, just like everybody else."

"Thanks, Carol."

Carol started to leave, but leaned back in to add, "But you've been having some of the 'I just noticed Sam is really hot' symptoms lately, so I guess that's part of it."

"What?"

"We've all gone through those phases, C.J. I'm surprised it took you so long. The man is gorgeous and a woman would have to be dead not to notice."

"Carol, I really wished we would have had this conversation a few weeks ago."

"Yeah. I'll go squelch the rumors."

C.J. laughed at the silliness of the situation. She should have just come clean to Sam a few weeks ago. Then she would have been fine. She'd been self conscious and it had made her act weird. But what the hell did they think was going on that they were tip-toeing around her like this?

Her musing was halted when Carol reappeared at the door to tell her they wanted her in Leo's office.

She arrived with a stack of binders in her hand, intending to catch up on her own stuff if the meeting deteriorated into a Toby or Josh rant.

Josh, Toby, Sam and Leo were already seated in the office. They looked up at her with guarded expressions, then shot sheepish glances at each other. Toby got up and took the binders out of her hand and settled her into the couch. That was the last straw for C.J. They were treating her like she was going to die at any moment.

C.J. threw her hands up. "Guys, before we start dealing with the latest national disaster, can I just say, listen closely here--I'm fine. I'm not pregnant. No one in this room is going to find out how good in bed I am. Now tell me why the hell you all are acting so strangely!?"

Nervous glances shifted around the room. Leo looked pointedly at Sam.
Sam cleared his throat before speaking. "I know you've been seeing Dr. Sims."
He looked at her like that was supposed to explain something.

"What does my eye doctor have to do with anything?"

Sam looked at her and frowned. "The only Dr. Sims at Georgetown is a neurosurgeon, C.J., why are you lying to us?" The hurt tone in his voice was unmistakable.

"Sam, are you crazy? He's not even an M.D. He's an optometrist. Did you just look in the phone book or something?"

Sam looked sheepish. "Well... yeah."

"Okay, I still don't understand, Sam. Why would I be seeing a neurosurgeon?"

"Well, you've been clumsy, having headaches, irritable..." His voice trailed off.

Toby realized how the whole thing had snowballed. He glared at Sam. "How did you manage to get us all thinking C.J. had a brain tumor, Sam?"

C.J. looked at Toby, Sam and Josh. Leo hid his face behind his hand. "You thought I had a brain tumor? This is just crazy."

Sam's face glowed with relief. "So you really are fine?"

"No. I'm insane to work with you morons."

Sam tried again. "We were worried, C.J."

She tried to look angry, but just couldn't. Some of the smartest people in the country had just been led on a wild goose chase. But she was touched that they cared.

Leo looked grimly at Sam. "Sam, you will pay for this."

Sam looked down at his notes. "I'm sure."

They settled back to the business of running the country.


 

 

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