This is the first of four stories in the O, Canada series.
Disclaimer: These characters are not mine, but I wish they were.
O, Canada: Champagne Cork
A West Wing Story
C.J. Cregg pressed her finger harder against the persistent throbbing between her eyes. Why the hell had she agreed to get drunk with Abigail Bartlet? Okay, that was a stupid question. The First Lady says, "Claudia Jean, let’s get drunk," you get drunk. Still, as loose as she had been upstairs in the residence, Abbey Bartlet now showed no signs of drunkenness, not even a tipsy giggle. C.J. envied her that ability. As she tried to block out the plethora of party noises bouncing off her tender eardrums, she ran her tongue over her teeth to dislodge a piece of cork and stood silently.
It was hard to read Abbey Bartlet sometimes. Okay, most times. She was enigmatic: at once graceful and tough, eloquent and profane, headstrong and…well…headstrong. But when Abbey admitted errors, she went all out and C.J. heard total sincerity in the First Lady’s assurances to Donna, who had appeared suddenly, still apologizing for gross insubordination for calling the First Lady on her abuse of physicians’ ethics over the betaseron.
C.J.’s thoughts jumped back to her own revelation to the First Lady that her long-time friend and ally, in an untimely display of ethics, was bowing out of her hearing. That disappointment had prompted Abbey to suggest their champagne pity party and eventually led to Donna’s over-the-line comment. Curiously though, the First Lady’s attitude had changed at that point and she had abruptly decided they should return to her birthday party.
The pounding in C.J.’s head subsided a bit, but she still didn’t really follow the odd exchange between Josh and Amy, except to hear the latter toss out the description "jackass." She heard Abbey laugh at that and wondered if there was more to it than she knew. Then Josh was telling Donna that she really was American, or at least could be again, and suddenly the room burst into the Canadian national anthem as crossed maple leaf flags rose majestically.
"What the hell is going on?" The President approached, his twinkling eyes belying the gruff tone of his voice. "I was gone for forty-five minutes. They were all Americans when I left!"
He extended his hand and C.J. blushed a bit because his smile was one few of them ever saw. It was reserved strictly for Abigail Bartlet. It was a lover’s smile and spoke of intimate knowledge between the two of them. As Abbey placed her hand in his and slipped away, C.J. contemplated her next move. No more corky champagne, that was for sure. She swiped a glass of water from a passing waiter’s tray and glanced about the room as everyone sang, with unexpected ability, "O, Canada."
Her eyes fell back to where the President and Abbey stood, and she caught her breath, because Abbey’s face had changed. No longer was it the party face she put on for the guests, or the motherly face of reassurance she had shown Donna. It wasn’t even the soft glow of a lover that she had given the President when he took her hand. No, this face was disturbing. It was scared. C.J. recalled the only other time she had seen Abbey Bartlet scared. That was in the emergency room at George Washington when her husband lay bleeding from a bullet wound, and they were all scared. This was different. Abbey held her gaze solidly on her husband, waiting it appeared, for him to respond to something she had said, waiting with almost audible anxiety.
Not wanting to intrude, but instantly concerned, C.J. edged closer and angled herself to see both of their faces. At once, she felt the bitter taste of panic rise in her throat. Over the course of the campaign and three years in office, she had seen Jed Bartlet angry, impatient, ecstatic, surprised, even flat-on-his-face unconscious, but she had never seen him completely and totally stunned. Now, he stared at his wife, unmoving, unable to speak. Oh my God. What has she told him? What has happened?
The moment drew out, longer and longer. C.J. saw others around them begin to take notice that his easy grin had disappeared. The President of the United States was visibly shaken. Finally, he seemed to realize it, because he broke the stare and glanced around self-consciously. Abbey continued to watch him. Then C.J. saw him nod and Abbey’s trembling smile returned for a moment. But Bartlet wasn’t finished, because he spoke again and C.J. could lip-read at least part of what he said.
"…love you very much."
Tears brimmed at her own eyes as she saw them pool in the First Lady’s. Then Abbey said something else and C.J. was positive the President was only seconds away from kissing his wife right there in the middle of the room in front of everybody. She found herself urging him on silently. But the moment was shattered by the noisy return of Lord Marbury.
"Abigail, may I grasp your breasts?"
C.J. had just lifted the glass of water to her lips and managed to spray a good portion of the table next to her when she heard the brazen request. Her eyes flew to the President, half expecting to see Marbury already flat on the ground. Visions of the catchphrase "Bartlet Bashes Brit" plastered on the screen next to Wolf Blitzer flashed before her. Her mind groped for a way she could spin a news headline about the President of the United States smashing his fist into the British Ambassador’s face. But, to her surprise, Bartlet seemed only mildly annoyed.
"I’m standing right here," he proclaimed.
Undaunted, Marbury kissed Abbey on the cheek, as she had graciously permitted. Then Leo appeared and wished her a happy birthday, and the President stepped beside her, slipping his arm around her shoulders and pulling her close as they all finished singing the Canadian national anthem.
As a soft buzz settled in her ears, C.J. relaxed into the post-climactic stage of the party, slumping into one vacant chair, kicking off her shoes, and propping her feet in another one. She didn’t even stir when the chair to her left squeaked with a new occupant.
The familiar voice pulled her back from the quasi-comatose state she had almost entered, and she answered, not needing to open her eyes to identify her new companion.
"What’s up, Tobes?"
"Brendan McGann cannot come to the White House."
"No, really. He can’t. But…he must, and it’s okay."
She sighed, used to Toby’s cryptic conversations. "You WILL give me a couple of seconds heads up before whatever you’re talking about gets slammed in my face by the entire Washington Press Corps, okay?"
"You got it."
She risked a peek from her left eye and saw him sipping gently at a generous mug of ale that she was pretty sure had not been among the liquors offered a the party she had attended. He was calm and understated, but she recognized a smirk of satisfaction on his face. "What did you do tonight?" she asked. She had not seen him since early in the evening.
"Had a beer with a friend. You?"
"I got drunk with the First Lady."
He took that bit of information with on a nod of acknowledgement, as if it there was nothing unusual about it. They sat quietly for another minute or two.
"Where is the First Lady?" he asked.
This time, C.J. opened both eyes and looked around. The crowd was not quite as thick as before, but at least a hundred partiers remained. Conspicuously absent, however, were the Guest of Honor and her husband.
"Well, they were here a minute ago." She smiled slightly as she remembered the First Couple’s intimate glances just before they joined everyone in the song. She doubted they would see the Bartlets anymore that evening. Turning to Toby, she cocked her head toward the bandstand, where the swing band stilled jammed, and invited, "Wanna dance?"
He shrugged and rose, leading her, shoeless, onto the floor.