Title: Hymns to the Earth and the Air
Author: Jae Gecko
Category: Sam, references to Sam/Lisa and Josh/Sam, Turning-universe.
Spoilers: Extensive spoilers for "100,000 Airplanes." Sorta.
Disclaimer: JAE is not responsible for original materials. It says so right here: http://www.flashgun.com/JAE/subcheck.html. (But Lisa Seppala and Andy Keller are mine.)
Archive: Yes to list archives; all others please ask.
Summary: The Congressional censure, the State of the Union, Lisa, and Josh, all wrapped up in one rather messy little package and delivered COD to Sam's doorstep.
Feedback: Send to email@example.com
Website: http://www.jaegecko.com/ for the other Turning-universe stories and some standalones.
Notes: This is a Turningverse retelling of the events of the episode "100,000 Airplanes," replacing Sorkin's Lisa Sherborne with my Lisa Seppala, and dealing with all of the changes that necessarily follow from that. More information for Turningverse neophytes about what that means (and why I did such a silly thing) can be found here: http://www.jaegecko.com/hymnsintro.html
Acknowledgements: To Elise M. for the title, to Kate O' for the content check, to Lysandra and the other emus for bringing the Cosi, to Minna Leigh for batting this idea around with me early on, and to Luna, Dafna Greer, and Elizabeth Collins for most excellent beta.
In grayish doubt and black despair,
I drafted hymns to the earth and the air,
pretending to joy,
although I lacked it.
The age had made lament redundant.
So here's the question -- who can answer it –
Was he a brave man or a hypocrite?
-- Czeslaw Milosz
Hymns to the Earth and the Air by Jae Gecko
"The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?" Toby looked up from the file open on the table in front of him. He stood, leaning toward Bonnie, and waved a stack of white paper six inches from her face. The pages fluttered through the air. "You brought me a file on the Arctic national wildlife refuge?"
She didn't flinch. "Yes."
Toby scowled down at the file folder, shoved the report into it, and pushed it aside. "We're not doing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Not this year."
I scanned the room. There were seven of us around the table, each one wearing the same tense expression. Bonnie exchanged a pointed look with Ginger across the table and turned back to Toby. "I thought we were supposed to use the State of the Union to highlight our accomplishments."
"Not this accomplishment."
Bonnie turned around to face me, her right hand clutching the back of her chair. I pressed my lips together and looked down at my own notes. I could feel Ginger's eyes on me. "Why not?" Bonnie finally asked, leaning back to address both Toby and me.
"Because tomorrow morning the President is going to accept a Congressional censure," Toby muttered, rifling through the four-inch stack of files on the table off to his right. "And then two weeks from tomorrow night he's going to tell the country why that shouldn't keep them from voting for him again."
"So-- so wouldn't it be a good move to remind them of a battle he fought with Congress and actually *won*?" Bonnie ventured.
Toby glanced up at her, his expression unchanged. "Not when forty-eight percent of Americans still support opening the refuge to energy exploration, and presumably at least a few of that forty-eight percent will be watching television the night of the speech."
Bonnie reached over and lay a hand across my notes. "Sam?"
I felt my throat tightening, and the muscles in my face tensed from my jawline to my neck. "Toby's right," I said, meeting her eyes. "It's too controversial."
"You were the one who asked me to put together that file!"
I shook my head. "That was before the new numbers. Toby's right."
"So we're just ditching it?" She dropped her chin, raising her eyebrows at me.
"We're ditching it," I confirmed. My voice was leaden, toneless.
She turned away from me, slapping her folder shut. "Don't come crying to me when the Sierra Club revokes your membership," she mumbled.
"Excuse me?" I said to the back of her head.
"Okay, Internet commerce," Toby announced, sitting back down. He ran a finger along the tabs of the folders in the stack and looked up at me. "Where's the stuff on Internet commerce?"
"It's in my office," I said, pushing back my chair as I stood. "I'll be right back."
The blonde assistant next to Ginger leaned in and whispered something in her ear. Bonnie coughed loudly, and I turned away, unwilling to keep fighting with her icy glare. I walked behind the others to the back of the room. None of us really wanted to take out the parts of the speech that mattered most, but we had to work a miracle this year, and sacrifices had to be made. This wasn't the first one, and it wouldn't be the last. I crossed the hall into the bullpen, letting the breath trickle out of my lungs.
I freed the file from its place underneath a stack of identical ones on the corner of my desk, and trudged back through the bullpen. The phone rang on Ginger's desk. I lifted the receiver, tucking it between my shoulder and my chin as I flipped open the file. "Communications, this is Sam Seaborn."
"Hey, bypassing the middleman. I like it." The grin in Andy Keller's voice was almost drowned out by the static hiss of traffic. He was on his cell. I leaned back against the edge of Ginger's desk. "What are you doing answering the phone?" he asked.
"Toby wanted the file on Internet commerce," I said.
"They've got you fetching and carrying?"
I closed my eyes, rubbing the exhaustion from them, and set the file down on the desk. "It was in my--"
"Anyway, I'm glad you picked up. I'm coming to get you."
I paused, my knuckle folded against the corner of my left eye. I opened the other one. "What?"
"I'm coming to get you. When was the last time you ate anything?"
"I--" I'd had a bagel in the mess at 6:30 this morning. Had I eaten lunch? "You can't just come and *get* me," I said.
"Well, first of all, there's this security problem with the building I work in. My boss gets a little paranoid, see, and if I don't tell the guards you can come back to my office--"
"We'll have you back there in an hour."
I twisted a finger around the phone cord. "Andy, I'm working on the State of the Union. Remember that little speech the President's supposed to be giving two weeks from tomorrow?"
"You don't get dinner breaks?" he challenged.
My stomach growled, and I felt a vague hollow sensation I could only barely identify as hunger. I glanced at my watch. It was after six. The meeting would run until nine, and I'd probably be in my office until midnight. "Forty-five minutes," I countered.
"Wait," I said, holding a hand up in the air as if he could see me. "Who's we?"
"Me and Matt. He's holding us a table at the Cosi sandwich bar on the corner of 17th and Pennsylvania. They're open 'til seven. And it's close."
"Whoa, whoa," I protested, holding a hand in the air. "I'm skipping out on writing the State of the Union to have sandwiches with a Republican Congressman on the eve of the censure?"
"I'm already gone." There was a click, followed immediately by dead air.
I held the receiver in front of me, grimacing at it. Maybe Bonnie would forgive me for siding with Toby if I got him to agree to a dinner break. I stood, replacing the receiver in its cradle, and the phone rang again before I could remove my hand from it. I picked it up. "Don't tell me. You called from the lobby."
There was a long pause. "Sam?" The bewildered voice on the other end belonged to Lisa.
"Hey!" My mouth turned up in a faint smile. "That's a voice I haven't heard since before Christmas."
"I figured I'd just leave you a message-- what are you doing answering Ginger's phone?"
"Ginger's in the Roosevelt Room," I explained.
"So she's taking a meeting and you're covering the phones," she said drily. "I suppose somewhere there's probably a world where that makes sense."
"I was just getting the-- you know what, never mind." I lowered myself back down onto Ginger's desk. "What's up?"
"I wanted to leave a message for you there because I'm pretty sure you're not going to be going anywhere near your apartment over the next couple of weeks."
"Good thinking." I nodded.
"And I'm calling now because from what I just heard on All Things Considered, it sounds like it's only going to get worse there after tomorrow."
I let out a sigh, and the breath was replaced by a steady pressure behind my ribcage. C.J. would have leaked the censure by now, and if NPR had it, everybody probably did. "Yeah." I looked at my watch again. So much for being home by midnight.
"You guys okay?" Her voice sounded cautious through her concern.
"We've been through worse," I tried to reassure her, though at the moment I couldn't think of an example. "What's going on?"
"Okay, I almost decided not to tell you this, since I think we're probably just being persecuted by the timing gods again, here. But GW Law is flying me down on the 28th to speak about antitrust litigation. I'll be there through the morning of the 30th."
I groaned. "You're kidding me. You're getting into town on the day before the--"
"And leaving the day after. I know." She let out an ironic laugh. "I don't suppose you'd be able to pencil me in for an early breakfast that morning?"
I peered through the hallway at the Roosevelt Room. Toby paced past the window, his arms raised. "There's no way I'm going to be able to see you."
"Yeah, I figured," she said, disappointed.
"I mean, I can't even get away for lunch that day. There's no way. And that night there's this party--"
"It's nothing fancy or anything, just West Wing staff and a few guests, but I've obviously got to be there. Actually, the invitation had said 'Sam Seaborn and guest.' Not that I'd ever taken advantage of that. Not that anyone did, for the most part. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who found it impossible to hold down this job and a relationship simultaneously. "Hey, wait, why don't you come with me?" I heard myself saying.
"Come with you?" she repeated, like she had to have misheard me.
"To the party." Once the words were out of my mouth, it sounded like the best idea I'd had in a long time. Certainly better than talking about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the State of the Union.
"You mean, as your date?"
I shrugged. "Why not?"
"You really need me to answer that question?"
"It might be fun. I think they're going to have crab puffs."
"Is this a regular thing for you guys?" she tried to tease, but the crack in her voice defied her attempt at a joke.
"The crab puffs?"
"Do White House staffers usually bring their exes to office parties?"
"You're my friend," I said.
"I'm also your ex."
"It'll be good," I insisted. It had been long enough since Lisa and I had broken up by now that this didn't have to be painful or awkward, just pleasant. "Neither of us has to duck out on any obligations, and we still get to spend the evening together."
"And Josh will be there with that lobbyist, and you don't want to show up alone to your own party," she continued. Her voice was dry.
"It's not--" My eyes darted around the bullpen. "This isn't about Amy Gardner," I said, my voice lowered to a whisper. I ran a thumb and forefinger along my eyebrows, scoffing at my own automatic response. Not only was there nothing left to hide, but after the way things had ended between me and Josh -- in my office in the middle of the day, yelling loudly enough for the whole Communications staff to hear -- trying to keep anything a secret now was pretty pointless. "I mean, I'm pretty sure he won't be bringing her to the party, anyway. I don't think it's that serious." I tilted my head, squeezing the receiver between my shoulder and my chin. "I just want to see you."
"You really want to take me to a party at the White House? On the night of the State of the Union?"
I smiled. "It'll be fun."
"It's just ... a little weird."
"No weirder than a lot of things that have happened."
She laughed. "I'll grant you that." She sounded pleased, and it almost edged out the irony in her voice. "Okay, why not? That's one more thing to check off from my list of things to do before I die. Climb a mountain in Nepal, see the Red Square in Moscow, attend an official function at the White House--"
"I'll have Ginger file the paperwork for your pass. You can pick it up at the northwest appointment gate that night."
"You try to get some sleep, okay?"
I rubbed at my eyes. Ever since I'd started sleeping at my own apartment again, I'd spent nearly every night dreamless and still, but even the luxury of a continuous block of rest never quite seemed enough. And it would only get worse from here. "Can't promise that," I said. "I'll see you on the twenty-ninth."
We both hung up I stared at the phone as I pushed myself up from the desk, half expecting it to ring again. It didn't.
"He should be-- there he is."
Andy waved over at a table behind a low, reddish-brown wall on the far end of the restaurant. Congressman Skinner raised his head, nodded, and gave us a stiff smile. We passed the counter where a long line of bright young government employees with bags under their eyes stood waiting for their sandwiches. The smell of fresh bread reached my nose, and I felt my mouth begin to water.
Andy pushed past a couple leaning against a black leather couch and stepped up to the booth in long, brisk strides. The Congressman stood as we approached. His only concession to the informal nature of the place was the abandoned suit jacket draped over the back of his chair on top of his bulky wool coat. I glanced at Andy, who'd already taken off his tie and shoved it in a pocket, and I wondered for the hundredth time how these two made it work.
"Sam." The Congressman offered me his hand to shake as Andy squeezed past him into the booth.
His grip was firm. "Congressman," I answered.
Shaking his head, he held up a hand in protest. "Matt."
I nodded. "Matt."
"Glad you could join us." Matt reclaimed his seat next to Andy, and I eased myself into the booth across the table from them. Andy took off his coat and draped his arm casually across the back of the booth.
They weren't quite touching, but there was something in their easy way of moving in tandem that made it impossible to forget how long they'd been together. I dropped my eyes to the table. "I really can't stay long. We have our hands pretty full right now."
"Yeah, I can imagine," Matt said. He sat up straighter. "He's doing the right thing."
I glanced up and gave him a tight-lipped smile. That certainly removed any doubt about which way he would be voting. Our eyes met in a look that felt more awkward than combative. A screechy laugh erupted from one of the women sitting at the next table, and I glanced away.
Andy reached across and grabbed Matt's water glass, raising it in a toast. "Here's to putting all this behind us," he said.
"I'll drink to that," I agreed, cupping my hand around an imaginary wine glass and touching it to Andy's.
"How's the State of the Union coming?" Matt asked, tentatively meeting my eyes again and relaxing a little against Andy's arm.
"It's coming," I said coolly. "It seems I've got a date for the party afterward, though." I raised an eyebrow at Andy. "It turns out Lisa's going to be in town, so she's going to come with me."
Andy's eyes darted over to Matt, and they exchanged a long look. My own gaze bounced from one to the other. Andy took a sip of Matt's water, hiding his face behind the glass, and Matt stood, stepping out from the booth. "So ... should I get some sandwiches? Three to share?"
"As long as one of 'em is a Tandoori chicken," Andy said, touching a finger to Matt's arm as he set the glass back down.
"Back in a bit." He dodged the woman at the table behind Andy, who was moving the baby on her lap to a huge stroller that almost completely blocked the aisle. I pulled my arms out of my coat and shifted just enough to set it on the seat next to me.
Andy leaned back against the booth, folding his hands against the back of his neck. "I told you Toby would let you out."
"Yeah." I nodded. "I think he was glad to call a break, but we would've been sitting there for at least another hour before he thought of it himself."
"How are you holding up?" His voice softened, and he tilted his head at me.
I shrugged. "I think considering the fact that I've hardly seen my apartment this week, I've been wearing the same suit for almost two days straight, and I'm trying to spin Congressional straw into gold, I'm doing pretty well."
"I meant the thing with Josh Lyman."
I stared at him. I tried to swallow, but my mouth was full of cotton. "I ..." I pointed a weak finger at him. "When I told you about-- about the guy who-- I didn't actually name any names, did I?"
"Oh, good, because I was about to start feeling like a complete idiot." My voice cracked on the last syllable.
Andy lowered his arms to his sides. "I just thought it was time I stopped pretending I didn't know who you were talking about."
I let my hand fall to the table. My chest constricted, and the murmurs of conversation all around us seemed to fall silent as my eyes unfocused. Of course Andy knew. He was a journalist, trained to pay attention and to read between the lines. There had been more than enough clues throughout the years. Maybe he'd even known before wrenching the appropriately vague story about 'another White House staffer' out of me. A chair from the next table scraped against the floor, and I looked up again. "Does Matt know?"
"I don't think so. Not from me, anyway."
I coughed. Half of Washington probably knew by now. Ginger and Bonnie, at the very least, would have heard me and Josh in my office that day. They weren't stupid. A lump formed at the back of my throat. For so long, almost nobody had known. And now that there was nothing left to know ... I drew in a long breath and let it out through pinched lips.
"All right, then," I said, nodding slowly. "I'm supposed to be back at the White House working on the State of the Union, but instead I'm having sandwiches with a Republican Congressman and having a conversation with the White House correspondent for the Boston Globe about the dramatic end to my relationship with the Deputy Chief of Staff." I choked on the words. Talking to people in Washington about Josh felt unfathomable, even now. "No wonder the President wouldn't give me that raise."
"You don't have to keep doing this, you know," Andy countered immediately. "You don't have to stay in this job."
I blinked. "Well, I didn't think any of that was bad enough for him to *fire* me."
Andy gestured at me with an open palm. "Look at yourself, man. That place is killing you."
I pressed my temples between my thumb and forefinger. "Andy, I'm not going to quit my job."
"It's been up to you to convince everybody it doesn't matter that Bartlet lied. But it does matter. It matters to voters, it matters to Congress--"
"Yeah, and I'm sure you've heard plenty about that from your boyfriend," I said, raising my voice as I shot him a glare.
"--and it matters to potential campaign contributors who read my paper over corn flakes at the breakfast table." Andy reached across the table and touched my arm through my suit jacket. "I think it matters to you."
"Nobody lied, Andy. He just withheld the truth."
"Right." His tone was flat.
I jerked away from him. "Look, Josiah Bartlet isn't just my boss-- he's the President of the United States. I'm not going to just pick up my toys and go home the minute a few cracks start appearing in his armor."
Andy drew back a little. "You've toughed it out for more than three years. Most White House speechwriters don't make it half that long."
I let my eyes fall shut. Sometimes I tried to imagine what might come after this, but it was like looking into a void. There was nothing I could possibly picture myself doing next. I kept trudging through catacombs, trapped on all sides, with nowhere to go but blindly onward.
"There are a million other things you could be doing."
I opened my eyes. "Like what?"
"Journalism. Consulting. I don't know, you name it." Andy shrugged. "You could go back to practicing law."
I tried to laugh, but it came out as a cough. I balled a fist against my forehead and squinted my eyes shut again. That wasn't an option. I looked up again at Andy. "I'm not going to quit my job, okay? That's not how it works."
"Okay," he conceded, backing off.
Matt appeared at the edge of the table, clutching a dark brown tray fully covered by three plates of sandwiches. The woman at the table behind Andy shook the stroller as the baby laughed. "One Tandoori chicken, one roasted plum turkey breast, and one vegetarian," Matt said.
Andy gave Matt a quick kiss on the lips as he sat down. "Terrific."
*For the first time since the seventies, we have balanced the budget,* I typed, glancing down at my copy of Bonnie's carefully rendered bar graphs. The moon cast a shadow across my computer screen, and a twinge of pain nagged at my lower back from sitting too long in one position. The smell of Toby's microwave popcorn hung in the air, and I knew Toby was trying to prove to himself that this was just another late night at the office. *From a deficit of seventy billion in 1998,* I continued, *we moved on to a surplus of twenty billion last year. Now we are on course for budget surpluses for the next twenty-five years.*
"I leaked the thing to Will Sawyer."
I swiveled my chair around to face C.J. in the doorway, and the spasm in my back throbbed. "I heard NPR's got it," I said.
She shrugged. "Everybody's got it."
Obviously, she was doing her best to put on a brave face, but I could see the slight slump in her shoulders and the exhaustion under her eyes. She didn't have it any easier than the rest of us right now. "You ready for the deluge?" I asked her, my voice quiet.
She gave me a toothy smile. "You bet."
"Good," I said, echoing her nod as she turned to leave. "Hey, I think I'm going to bring Lisa to the thing after the speech," I called after her.
She caught the edge of the doorframe and pulled herself back into view. "Lisa Seppala?"
"No, Lisa Sherborne from Vanity Fair."
C.J.'s eyes widened in an incredulous stare. She dropped her arms to her sides.
"I'm kidding," I said flatly.
"Right." A look of realization tugged at the corners of her eyes. "So you're bringing your ex to a party at the White House?"
I raised an eyebrow. "She's my friend."
"She's also your ex."
I turned my chair back toward the computer. "Funny, that's just what she said."
"How come you guys didn't get married? Was it the lawyer thing?"
I lifted my chin, not quite turning to face her. "The lawyer thing?"
"Like, it was bad enough being one, but you didn't want to have to sleep with one?" She was grinning.
"Yeah, that was the reason," I said, rolling my eyes.
"I could do this for a living," she said, and disappeared down the hallway.
Forcing my gaze back down to the computer screen, I shifted in my seat. C.J. knew exactly why I hadn't married Lisa. She knew how much electing a great man had moved me. She knew I would never have been able to say no to Josh.
I swallowed the tension in the back of my throat and glanced back down at Bonnie's graph. The red, green and blue bars streaked across the page in full color, extolling our administration's responsibility for the inevitable economic growth. Sighing, I set it down on the table and rolled my chair back over to my desk.
The smell of popcorn intensified, and I looked up. Toby grabbed the last fistful of kernels out of the greasy bag and crumpled the paper into a tight ball. He tossed it across my office. It hit the rim of the trash can before falling to the floor. "I'm out of pie," he muttered.
He looked like he'd spent the day running a marathon with no real finish line. "We'll get some more," I said, trying to sound reassuring.
Toby smacked his lips lethargically and popped two kernels of popcorn into his mouth. "So, how's it going on the, uh ... what are you doing?"
"The economy," I said, reaching for the laptop on the desk in front of me. The floating White House seal on my screensaver disappeared as I touched the mouse pad, and it was replaced by the finished two-thirds of the first section. "I'm getting somewhere."
"I can look at it when you're ready."
"About another two hours." I glanced quickly up at him before looking back down at my screen. "I talked to Lisa tonight. I'm going to bring her to the thing."
"The thing after the speech."
I met his eyes again. His look was blank. "Okay," he said, shrugging. I took my glasses off and set them on the desk.
I stood, pushing my chair back, and crossed in front of him to the bullpen. I grabbed my copy of the Post from the shelf outside my office. "C.J. asked me if Lisa and I didn't get married because it was bad enough *being* a lawyer that I didn't want to have to sleep with one, too."
"Yeah," I admitted, cracking a smile as I crossed back to my desk.
Toby swallowed the last of the popcorn. "So, why didn't you get married?"
"Hmm?" I turned around.
"Why didn't you?"
The newspaper fell open in my hands. He knew why -- he had to. I blinked at him, opening my mouth, but I didn't know how to respond. Everyone in the West Wing seemed to be pretending as if nothing had happened, as if Josh and I had never had this relationship at all. Maybe they all thought it was easier that way. Certainly that was how Josh looked at it. I swallowed.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the outline of what had to be a Secret Service man in the hallway outside the darkened bullpen, and I craned my neck to look at him. The President bustled along beside him. Reacting instantly, Toby shot out of my office and stood in the doorway as I followed behind. "Good evening, Mr. President," he said, straightening his shoulders as the President opened the door.
"Good evening, sir," I echoed, the question in my voice betraying my surprise.
"I'm calling everybody in," the President said, gesturing in the air with the folded piece of paper in his hands. "Tonight I had dinner with some of Abbey's friends. They're all oncologists. I think in the State of the Union I can announce that I'm directing our researchers to have a cure for cancer in ten years." He pointed at both of us with the paper, and the Secret Service guy held the door open for him as he backed up. "Meet me down in the Oval Office in five minutes."
The door to the bullpen closed, and the President and his agent disappeared down the hallway. I cast a bewildered glance at Toby. He locked his hands behind his back. "This is about the censure," he muttered. He spun around, disappearing into his office.
I grabbed my jacket from the back of my chair and the brown leather binder with my personal notes on the speech, and followed Toby out into the hall. He looked at his watch a total of three times as we made our way down the corridor, punctuating each glance with an exasperated sigh. He pushed the door open to Mrs. Landingham's old office, not even looking at the others, but I creaked out a smile at Joey Lucas and Kenny as we joined them.
C.J. stood leaning against the desk, her arms folded. "A cure for cancer, Toby?" she said, peering down at him.
"You say that like he's declaring war on China," he said.
C.J. shook her head. "That would probably be more plausible than a cure for cancer."
Josh stormed through the door, ripping off his coat and scarf. "What's going on?" He tossed them on a chair and nodded a quick greeting at the others before turning to Toby. "What was that phone call?"
"We're gonna meet and talk," Toby said noncommittally. "How did it go?"
"Not at all well." Josh perched his hands on his hips. My eyes leaped from Josh to Toby and back again. "You know whose fault it is?"
Toby raised an eyebrow. "John Tandy's?"
"Yours." The hostility in his voice was aimed at Toby, but I flinched. Toby gave Josh a cool once-over and turned his gaze toward the Oval Office. I shot them both a puzzled look.
Leo swung open the door from the inside. "Let's go."
The collective irritation among the staff was palpable as we funneled inside. Toby turned to Leo, straightening the bottom of his suit jacket. "Leo, is he serious about--"
"He's on his way down," the Chief of Staff responded, and Toby closed the door.
"Totally your fault," Josh hissed at Toby, his hands still at his waist and his eyes fixed in a glare. Toby held Josh's gaze with that same half-bored look he'd worn when he'd asked why Lisa and I hadn't gotten married, and it struck me that Josh had probably been asking Toby for advice about Amy Gardner. My chest clenched. I looked down at the binder I was carrying, clutching it at the edges with both hands.
The glass door to the outside swung open, and the President rushed in. "Good evening. Thanks for being here so late."
"Good evening, Mr. President," I murmured under my breath, and echoes of the same surrounded me on all sides. The President walked over to his desk and leaned against the back of it, Leo standing next to him in silent support. The President was in shirtsleeves, and his top button was unfastened beneath his tie. His eyes flashed bright with an excitement I hadn't seen in months, and almost unwillingly, I felt myself begin to pay attention.
"A President stood up and said: 'We will land a man on the moon before the end of the decade.' You know what we knew when he said that? Nothing." He curled his fingers around the edge of the desk and looked around at us, scanning our faces, and I asked myself how he always managed to sound like he was talking to each of us individually.
"We didn't know anything," he repeated, waving a dismissive hand in the air. "We didn't know about the lunar surface. We didn't know how to land one of these things. All we'd ever done is crash it into the ocean and God knows, if we could figure out how to land soft, we didn't know how to blast off again. But a President said 'we're gonna do it,' and we did it." He lifted a finger. "So I ask you, why shouldn't I stand up and say we're going to cure cancer in ten years?"
Waves of excitement rose in my chest, and I looked around at the others. Josh and Toby looked like they were trying not to roll their eyes, and C.J. looked tense and hesitant. Joey Lucas glanced at Kenny, her fingers twitching. I suppressed the bubble of enthusiasm and looked away from them.
"I'm really asking," the President repeated, leaning away from his desk and holding out his arms.
"Well, how close are we to really being able to do this?" Josh said.
The President smiled. "Nobody knows."
"Toby?" the President interrupted.
Toby looked at Josh, who had fixed his eyes on the President. "It'll be seen as a political ploy," Toby said quietly. I squelched the protest on my tongue.
The President raised both hands in the air. "Why?"
"It can be seen-- excuse me," C.J. said, shooting an apologetic glance at Toby. "It can be seen as self-serving."
"How?" the President asked.
"Using cancer to deflect attention from MS."
"You think people with cancer care what my motives are? You think their families do?" His eyes were still dancing, that slow-burning fire still not extinguished by their remarks, and I felt a vestige of hope stir inside of me.
"Joey?" the President continued, dismissing C.J. as he turned to Joey with an outstretched finger.
Joey's normally swift fingers hesitated as she began, and Kenny translated. "I agree with everything that's been said. Except I don't think they'll see it as deflecting the MS. I think they'll see it as deflecting the censure."
"Once again, why would--"
"Everybody cares about motives, Mr. President," Joey said in her own voice.
The President pointed at his ear. "I didn't--"
"She said, 'Everybody cares about motives,' sir," Kenny repeated. I looked back down at the floor. The seal on the carpet stared back at me.
"Sam?" he said, turning to me.
I jerked my head up. "Yes, sir?"
"Why shouldn't I do it?"
I stared at him. If we could make a gesture like this, it could actually happen. Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy -- only the Presidents who were willing to believe in the impossible had a chance at achieving it.
"I think you should," I answered. "I think ambition is good. I think overreaching is good." I glanced at the others. C.J. looked away. "I think giving people a vision of government that's more than Social Security checks and debt reduction is good. I think government should be optimistic."
The President looked at each of us, his eyes resting just a little bit longer on me. He turned around to face Leo and then back to us, nodding his approval. "I'm sorry, I know it's late, but I want to start seeing drafts of a new section in the next few hours. C.J., I want a sense of a media overview, too." She gave him a weak nod. "Now," he said, pointing at the floor with two index fingers.
"Yes, sir," everyone mumbled.
I turned to leave, but not before my eye caught on Toby's glare. Josh wouldn't look at me at all.
My fingers were itching, and a torrent of words danced in my head. I glued my eyes to the computer screen and kept typing, but the impatient sighs from the next office over the course of the next hour were impossible to mistake. As midnight loomed, the squeak of Toby's chair and his footsteps in the empty bullpen let me know he'd had enough. My fingers froze against the keyboard.
"You about done with that?" he said, and I looked up. His hands were buried deep in the pockets of his suit, his tie long discarded.
"You said I could take an hour and a half," I countered, peering at him over the edge of my glasses. "I've got fifteen minutes left."
"That's fifteen minutes we won't get back."
I looked back down at the screen. "I'll finish the section on the economy before I head home tonight."
"Yeah," Toby said, his voice heavy with scorn.
My chin jutted forward, and I pushed myself back against my chair. "Would you rather see me go back down and tell the President that we're sorry, but we're just too busy to write about curing cancer?"
"No. I would rather have seen you do that an hour ago." He paced across my office. "This is never going to be in the speech."
"How do you know?"
He threw his arms out to his sides and turned around. "Because we have no idea what it would mean to say this! We don't know how it would affect the budget, and we don't know which organizations would get the money. Hell, we don't even know if the scientific community might not just laugh him out of the Capitol Building for even mentioning it."
"Toby, he told us he wanted to see a draft by tonight. Last I checked, I still served at the pleasure of the President."
"He would have listened to Joey if you hadn't offered up your noble vision of a government that can transcend the laws of gravity."
I narrowed my eyes at him. "He asked me what I thought."
"And that had nothing at all to do with the fact that he knew you'd tell him what he wanted to hear?"
"Maybe it had more to do with the fact that my job title includes the phrase 'counselor to the President,' just like yours, and everybody else had already voiced their opinion," I said, raising my voice.
"We're on a two-week countdown," he argued, accentuating each word like I was a small child who needed a firm tongue-lashing. "Don't you think it's time to stop diddling around and just write the damn thing?"
"Has it occurred to you that maybe he's right about this one? That it might just be the rest of you whose priorities are screwed up?"
He rolled his eyes, stepping toward me. "Right. We'd all be better off if our priorities were saving the penny, crusading for a strong seat belt law, and fighting the big bad expose book."
I met his eyes in a cold stare, pressing my lips together. "I'm writing," I said, pointing at the computer screen. Toby stormed out of my office with a scoff and a shake of his head.
I forced my eyes back to the screen, ignoring the simmering anger in my chest. I typed the last line and clicked on print before I could change my mind. Shrugging off the tension in my shoulders, I stood and retrieved the page from the printer in the bullpen. My eyes flew over it. It was good.
The low clicking of C.J.'s shoes reverberated in the dead air of the hallway. She was headed back down from the Oval, already wearing her coat to make the point that she was more than ready to go home for the night. She tucked her chin further into her scarf as she saw me, her eyes darting away. She had to be thinking exactly what Toby had said, that this was just another useless fight nobody cared about but me. I let my shoulders slump. I was so tired of being the only one who gave a damn.
I glanced down again at the paper in my hand. We could use it. Toby had been right -- of course it was about the censure. But that didn't have to matter. This was the Strategic Petroleum Reserves decision all over again, and motives were still secondary if you were doing the right thing. It was a good idea, and it was good writing. We could use it.
But we wouldn't.
As if someone had finally found the valve that tapped the last trace of my energy, I felt myself deflate. I grabbed the binder from my desk, stuffed the sheet of paper into it, and shuffled out into the hall to meet with the President.
The door to the Oval Office was ajar, and I hesitated for a moment in the doorway. The majestic room was darker than it had just over an hour ago, marred by shadows. The overhead lighting was dimmed, leaving only the lamp on his desk and the light by the couch to wrestle with the night. Drawing in a breath, I tapped the door.
The President glanced up from his reading and motioned at me from across the room. "Come on in," he said, folding the paper against his desk.
"Good evening, Mr. President." I stepped across the dark blue carpet.
"You got it?"
"Yeah." I smiled slightly, opening the binder.
He took the page from me and stepped out from behind his desk. He put his glasses on, and his eyes flew quickly over the page. The usual trace of excitement this sort of collaboration always stirred in me was absent. He paused, and then started again from the top, reading more slowly this time. Sitting down in the stiff, beige armchair, he finally nodded. "This is good."
My mouth was still frozen in a stiff smile. It didn't matter how good it was if it was just going to sit on my hard drive. "You know we can't do it," I said quietly.
"Yeah." His voice rumbled low in his throat.
"We'd need to line up experts who can face the press, and in just two weeks," I elaborated, walking toward him.
"Sloan-Kettering, Dana-Farber, the Cleveland Clinic, UCLA."
He took his glasses off and looked up at me. "We'd want to include the Society of Clinical Oncology."
"And the NCI."
"The OMB would have to score it. We haven't identified the offsets to pay for it, and we can barely tell them what the 'it' is."
I counted off the information I'd gathered in my cursory Internet search an hour ago. "Clinical trials under Medicare and Medicaid, Science and Technology Democrats, the pharmaceutical companies--" I stopped. The look on his face was drawn with resignation. He wasn't hearing anything he didn't already know.
He sighed, staring down at the page. Letting his chin drop, his eyes met mine. "It was a good idea, though."
"We have other good ideas," I offered.
"So we don't get water from a rock," he said, staring into the space in front of him. "We just do our thing and take our chances."
"I think so."
"We're going to have to do it awfully well this time." He stood to face me.
"We've done that before," I said, taking the page back from him. The thought was familiar, and I knew that I had always been the one to voice sentiments like that. Somewhere along the lines it had become my job to remind us all of our past triumphs and pave the way for greater glory. But now the words were hollow.
"Anything else?" His face was an echo of my own lost expression. We had all wanted to believe in the real thing, and that was true of no one more than Josiah Bartlet himself.
"Thank you, Mr. President," I said, shoving the page back into my binder as I walked out.
"He's back in here." Bonnie's voice was loud enough to be heard over the murmur of a dozen conversations.
I tore my eyes away from the television screen where they had just begun broadcasting the speech, and glanced at the door. Standing just in front of Bonnie was Lisa, wearing a dark green silk dress with a wide neckline that exposed pale skin at her shoulders, and her blond hair was piled high on her head. Her smile expanded to fill the room, and I felt my own lips turn up at the corners as she walked toward me.
The familiar sense of calm that always accompanied Lisa's presence permeated my skin as I hugged her, and I felt my shoulders relax a bit. "You look great," I said. My lips grazed her cheek.
"Thanks." She pushed me back to arm's length and scrutinized me. "You look exhausted."
"After tonight I can sleep." Her perfume scented the air, and I rested my fingers against the dip of her neck.
"What's all this?" she asked, pulling away just enough to turn toward the screens along the wall.
I concentrated on the grid superimposed just below the President's face, and the colored lines that spread across it as he spoke. The red line dipped, and the green one held steady. "Instant polling numbers, just add people. It's Joey's," I explained, pointing across the room at the pollster. Her fingers were busily issuing commands to her staff, but she gave us a quick nod in response. "The dials go from zero to 100. They dial up if they like what he's saying. They dial down if they don't. All the numbers lead to a central computer."
"Nice," Lisa said, whistling. "It's a little fancier than what you get for a Senate race, at least back in 1986."
"Courtesy of the DNC." I shrugged. "In case you ever wondered where your membership money goes."
"So, what, you fly people in?"
I cocked my head at her. "Fly people in?"
Lisa pointed at the screen. A wisp of hair bounced at her temple. "The people with the dials-- they're behind a screen somewhere?"
"They're in Macomb County, they're in Portland, in Los Feliz, California, Norman, Oklahoma. Joey puts together a decent snapshot. Red's for Republicans, blue's for Democrats and green's for Independents. Joey says we're usually lucky to break 65." But I knew the numbers the pollster would give us after the speech would be the ones that would really matter.
"I have abiding respect for the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader," the President said on the screen, gripping the edges of the podium. "They are men of fundamental decency and public servants of purpose."
I tuned out the speech I'd already heard hundreds of times in my mind. He looked like a cartoon character, his mouth opening and closing but with no real words coming out. Nothing of any significance. "Is this yours?" Lisa asked. Her eyes were riveted to the screen, and her voice held more than a hint of awe.
"Hmm?" I raised an eyebrow.
"'Shed the weight of partisanship and donned the cloak of progress'. Is that yours?"
"Um. The weight's mine, the cloak's Toby's."
"It's okay." I squinted at the colored lines. They were steady.
"Not much reaction." She sounded disappointed.
"We had one that would have gotten a reaction." The cancer announcement would have probably ended up in the first half hour, somewhere near the top of the second fifteen-minute period.
"What was it?"
"We almost cured cancer," I said. My voice was lifeless.
Lisa leaned in toward me, her eyes wide. "You what?"
"This close," I said, holding up pinched fingers as I reached for her elbow and guided her toward the double doors that led out into the party.
"What happened?" she asked, dragging her feet.
I shrugged, not looking at her. "It got pulled."
Pushing the door open, I looped my right arm through Lisa's. A voice cried out my name, and the small crowd applauded. I strained my expression into the same stiff smile I'd been wearing all evening. "Thank you. Thank you. I'm at HaHa's in Cleveland on the 16th. Please tip your waitresses."
In an involuntary gesture I still couldn't quite shake, my eyes searched the room for Josh. He pushed away from the bar as he saw us enter, and walked over to us. "Sam."
"Hey," I said, my voice raspy.
He held out his arms, and I leaned toward him in an awkward hug. He seemed to be strengthened by it, but I just felt weaker. "Hey, you, too," I said against his shoulder.
"Lisa," he said as his eyes landed on her. He glanced at me and then back again, the corner of his mouth curling into a sneer.
Her smile was a little too wide. "Josh."
"Still single?" His mouth erupted into a grin, and I winced.
"Still a pompous jackass?" she said through clenched teeth. My stomach lurched.
He snickered, still grinning. "Oh, you bet. See you later."
My gaze followed him as he walked purposefully toward Amy Gardner. She was hovering near a table with her drink, her black dress hugging her figure. I watched him trace the curves of her body with his eyes. I swallowed hard and turned back to Lisa. "I'm sorry."
"For-- he shouldn't have said that."
"For God's sake, don't start apologizing for Josh." Lisa waved her hand in the air in dismissal. "You'll never stop. So how did curing cancer get cut from the State of the Union?" she asked, changing the subject as we made our way over to the bar.
"A lot of things got cut," I breathed. I turned to the bartender. "Jack Daniels." Tonight called for something a little stronger.
"I'll have a glass of Chardonnay," Lisa added, and turned back to me. "You were going to cure cancer?"
"We were going to *say* we were going to cure cancer," I corrected. "Curing it is someone else's department."
"That sounds like a pretty big thing to cut."
I leaned against the bar as the bartender poured the whiskey into a low glass. "Hey, we had to cut a section about making government manuals easier to read, so curing cancer can take a number."
"Are you trying to tell me you didn't mind?" She squinted at me, as if she could read me more easily with blurred vision.
I shrugged. "It's not as if we've actually got some new drug hidden in our back pocket. It was all words at the point when it got cut."
"You know what a wise man said to me once?"
"What's that?" I picked my drink up off the bar, stirring it once.
She lifted her wine glass. "Words have the power to change the world."
The light in her eyes reflected that same old faith she'd always had, that notion that I would someday do great things. I glanced down at my whiskey glass. "By next week, nobody will even remember what was said in this speech. Right now it's the numbers that really matter. Either we're back in business, or we're not. But we can't talk about curing cancer just to make those dials turn."
"When did you get so cynical?" She tossed her head back and took a sip of her wine. A strand of blond hair fell out of the complex weave of ties at the back of her neck and caressed the freckles on her right shoulder.
I reached down and tucked the stray hair behind her ear. The skin on her neck was smooth, warm. "I'm just being realistic."
"It's a sad day in Washington when Sam Seaborn becomes a realist."
"It's better than saving the penny, crusading for a strong seat belt law, and fighting the big bad expose book."
Her forehead wrinkled. "What?"
I sniffed, and my lips turned up at the corners. "Just something Toby said. It's nothing." I met her eyes again. They were a perfect match for the color of her dress. "How did the lecture go this afternoon?"
"Those kids at GW are smart," she said, shaking her head. "Not to mention mouthy. I can't tell whether it's that they actually know more than we did, or if the sons and daughters of southern aristocrats we used to hang out with were just more likely to sit quietly and listen. But they sure asked some good questions."
"I'm sure you held your own."
She laughed, her voice clear and light as she rolled the wine glass between her fingers. "Yeah, don't worry. A few hundred legal whiz kids are no match for the superior mind of a seasoned professional."
I cracked a smile. She certainly was that. For years we had discussed Supreme Court decision making and environmental legislation over Grape Nuts and coffee every morning, back at a time when it was all still at arm's length. Back when it still felt as if the law could be all the right things in the right people's hands. "I'm so glad you could make it tonight," I said, lowering my voice almost to a whisper. I curved my hand against her skin, tracing a path from her neck down to her shoulder with an index finger.
Her shiver was visible. She took a step back. "Thanks."
At the front of the room, Joey appeared behind the glass door that led back to the offices. "Joey's back," I said, tilting my head in her direction as the nervousness in my stomach made itself noticeable again. I put my arm around Lisa and guided her toward the door.
As I pushed on the etched seal of the Communications department, I came face to face with the pollster and her interpreter. "Do you have anything?" I asked, catching my breath.
"No," she said, reading my lips as she answered in her own voice.
"I don't believe you."
"I don't have anything," she signed to Kenny, and he translated.
"If you didn't have anything, you wouldn't be down here at the party," I insisted.
She shrugged. "I like parties," she signed, mouthing the words as Kenny spoke them.
"What do you have?"
"I have the first 20 minutes."
I glanced at Lisa. She lifted her wine glass to her chest, looking almost as apprehensive as I felt. "Okay."
"You don't want the first 20 minutes."
"Sam," she said aloud, her voice impatient, her eyes darting between me and Lisa. "Hi." She smiled.
Lisa nodded at her. "Hi."
I gestured between the two of them. "Lisa Seppala, this is Joey Lucas. Joey, Lisa." I touched Lisa's arm as I introduced her, my fingers brushing against the soft fabric of her dress. "Why don't I want the first 20 minutes?"
Joey stared at Lisa, looking her over from head to toe.
"Whatever it is, you can say it in front of Lisa," I insisted. "She's not a reporter."
The pollster nodded, conceding. "It's what we expected it would be," she signed.
"It was the censure-- people saw it--"
I closed my eyes. It was going to be bad. "Just tell me."
"Democrats, low to mid 50s. Republicans, high 30s."
My chest tightened. "Independents?"
She had said we might break the 50 mark if things got bad. I stared at her. "You are kidding me."
Her mouth opened, and her voice sounded like a strangled plea. "Sam--"
Kenny translated as her hands flashed in front of me. "We knew the first 20 minutes--"
"Ten minutes-- you said ten minutes and not this bad." I struggled not to shout at her. Lisa took a step toward me, touching my arm in support.
"Wait for the rest of the dials," she insisted again, and Kenny's voice echoed the urgency of her fingers.
I turned to Lisa. Her eyes were wide. I rubbed my forehead as if to clear my head. "We did Internet commerce in the first 20 minutes," I mumbled at her. "We did child asthma--"
"He wasn't the President in the first 20 minutes," Kenny's voice interrupted. "Wait for the rest of the dial groups."
After all the blood and sweat invested into turning things back around, it could still all be over after tonight. I hated the way we were doing this, but that didn't mean I didn't want to win. I inhaled a long breath and let it slowly back out again. "Top line, cross-tabs, whatever you get, I've got a bad feeling about tonight."
"I'll have another Jack Daniels," I said to the bartender, setting the empty glass down on the bar. The man nodded and lifted the bottle, moving stiffly in his tuxedo. The whiskey splashed into the glass.
I turned around and leaned against the bar, watching the faces of the crowd blur into a single mass of suits and dresses. I had to wonder how many of them were deliberately steering clear of me. Although there had been a few stray congratulations, no one seemed to want to express relief that the ordeal was over if the numbers were still going to ruin us. Paul, one of the fact-checkers, pointed at me from across the room as he leaned across the table toward an unfamiliar redhead. I waved, forcing myself to keep smiling.
My eyes caught on a motion near the door, and I saw Josh put an arm on the wall behind Amy Gardner. He was grinning, and I grabbed for my drink. I felt numb, like an outline of solid flesh with no sensation. Like a scar. My fingers twitched as the memory of a rough scar beneath my fingers leaped, unbidden, to my mind, and I turned the glass over in my hand. I gulped back the whiskey. It tasted sour on my tongue.
Lisa reappeared at my elbow, but I didn't look at her. "Do you want to talk about it?" she said quietly.
"It?" I watched Amy glare at Josh and duck out from under his arm. I pulled my eyes away and turned toward Lisa. Her lipstick was freshly applied, and the stray pieces of her hair were pinned back again.
She tilted her head at them. "Josh."
"What is there to say?"
"All you told me was that it was over."
I swirled my drink, and the ice cubes clinked against the sides of the glass. I looked away from her. "That's what there was to say."
She gestured around the room. "Do you want to talk about this?"
"You mean the speech?"
"The speech. The censure. The MS. All of it."
"We've been over most of that." I looked down at my glass, and the amber liquid stared back at me. I raised it to my mouth, draining the rest.
"No, we haven't, Sam. We've hardly talked in months, and even when we have, we haven't really *talked*." She walked around to stand in front of me, and looked up to meet my eyes. "You don't owe me any explanations, you know. I'm just saying that you seem pretty unreachable tonight."
My eyes darted over to the door where Josh was following Amy out of the room, but I forced them back down onto Lisa. Her forehead was wrinkled in concern. "You can always reach me," I said, smiling a little as I brushed my hand against her arm.
Taking a step back, she planted a high-heeled shoe in the middle of Ed's foot as he walked up to the bar with Larry. "Whoa!" She looked down, and they both moved out of her way. "I'm so sorry," she said. "I didn't see you."
Ed laughed. "That's all right. My shoes are pretty thick." He turned toward the bartender. "I'll have a bourbon."
"Same here," Larry said.
"I think it's probably a good thing I hung up my ballet slippers before my eighth birthday," Lisa said, grinning.
"Ed, Larry, this is Lisa Seppala from Dewey Ballantine," I said.
"Which one's Ed, and which one's Larry?" Lisa said, glancing between the two of them. "I like to know who I'm stepping on."
"Doesn't matter," they both said at the same time, and everyone laughed. I chuckled, but it felt empty in my throat.
Larry lifted his wine glass from the bar and tilted it at me. "Hey, congratulations."
"I talked to Joey. She said they were just about ready."
"Thanks," I said, nodding as the two men left with their drinks.
"Lisa Seppala from Dewey Ballantine?" Lisa asked, raising an eyebrow at me. Her lips were pursed with amusement.
"You mean you aren't Lisa Seppala from Dewey Ballantine?" I teased. I glanced around. "Quick, find a guard, there's an imposter in our midst!"
"Well, I suppose it was better than saying 'This is Lisa, some girl I slept with for a while,'" she said drily.
I frowned. "I wouldn't have said that."
Her eyes crinkled around the edges. There was no flash of teeth, just a slight lift of the corners of her mouth, but the smile was genuine. "Glad to hear it."
C.J. stepped out into the center of the room, motioning frantically at me. I raised my eyebrows in response, and she nodded. "I need to talk to CJ," I explained, my hand on Lisa's arm as I rushed toward the press secretary.
"It's time," C.J. said. Her eyes were flashing.
"Joey's got something?"
"She's got numbers." She spun around and made a beeline for the double doors leading back into the Communications department.
I looked down at Lisa. "Well, it's the moment of truth," she said. "Do you want me to stay out here?"
"Are you kidding?" I shook my head and curled my fingers around her elbow. "I think I'm going to need a hand to hold."
We dodged party guests with drinks to push our way back into the communications department, and the crowd grew dense in the hallway just outside the bullpen. I glanced behind me at Lisa and pushed between Ed and Jeff to stand next to Toby at the front. Josh was leaning against the glass wall, talking to Donna, and Amy Gardner was nowhere in sight. A nervous energy bubbled up from the center of the room, and the walls vibrated with anticipation.
"Well," Joey mouthed, shrugging, and Kenny translated. "Something happened at the half-hour mark."
"What?" Toby asked.
"They remembered why they liked him in the first place," she signed, her fingers a blur. I raised my hands to my waist and drew in a breath, almost afraid to hear what that meant. "The breakdowns are being handed around, but the really good news are the panel backs. Sixteen Democrats, sixteen Republicans and twelve independents were asked identical questions two days ago and one hour ago. Two days ago, 48 percent said he was able to handle his job effectively. Tonight, that number's 59."
A cry of relief rippled forth from the crowd, and I closed my eyes. That was good news, but it wasn't enough to bring us back.
"'Trustworthy,' 60 percent, up from 41," Joey signed.
"Give us the real one," Toby said.
"Strong leader?" she signed, and I opened my eyes. A smile spread across the pollster's face. "69 percent."
Josh let out an exuberant cheer and raised his fists in the air. I looked down at Lisa, grinning, and then over at Toby. His mouth was fixed in a line, but his eyes reflected my own relief. He stepped toward me, and I leaned into him in a hug. "You did good," he said quietly as he pulled back, smiling in earnest now.
"You did, too," I agreed, and let my lips turn up at the corners.
Larry gave me a high-five, clasping my hand. C.J covered Toby's face with tiny, enthusiastic kisses, and Josh wrapped his arms around Donna. The President clasped one hand on my shoulder and the other on Toby's, calling for someone to bring us some pie. My face froze in that same smile I'd worn all evening and looked around the hallway. Every face was lit in a brilliant smile. They all looked transcendent, weightless, but I stood still, unable to move.
A tug at my elbow reminded me of Lisa's presence, and I turned to face her. She pulled me close, and I bent down to embrace her, holding onto her like she was the last thing in the world that felt real. I felt myself being pulled into the walls of this place, like I was shrinking. Disappearing.
I pushed Lisa back to arm's length, and her expression radiated up at me. My heart was pounding, and I grasped her forearms. "Come on," I said, shifting my grip from her arms to her hand. I pulled her back toward my office.
"What are we doing?" she asked, still smiling as she struggled to keep up.
She laughed. "Lead the way."
Interlacing my fingers with hers, I guided her through the bullpen and into my office. My fingers hesitated near the light switch, but I pulled them back again without turning it on. The light from the hallway drifted far enough into the room for us to see. Lisa pushed past me, and I closed the door, leaning against it.
Her chest expanded as she inhaled an excited breath, her eyes flashing. "All right, that was a rush. Almost like ..." She shook her head, and the stray hair at her temples danced. "No, you know, that wasn't really like much of anything that takes place in a statewide campaign. Even the night we won the primaries pales in comparison to that."
I pushed myself up from the door and walked past her into the center of the room.
"You guys are pretty amazing."
"Yeah," I said noncommittally, glancing down at the paperwork littering my desk. The numbers said all the effort had paid off, but it felt like anything but a triumph.
"You don't think so?"
I shook my head. "I'm just tired."
"You never used to have trouble getting fired up no matter how exhausted you were," she said, a hint of concern creeping into her voice.
"We all get old eventually." I crossed behind my desk to the window, twisting the string that dangled from the blinds. They fell with a snap.
I felt Lisa's hand on my arm, and I looked down at it. Her pale fingers seemed to glow against my suit. "Come on, that was a shining moment," she said. "You really came through for everybody tonight. I think you can take at least a couple of minutes to pat yourself on the back."
I grabbed onto the lip of the windowsill. "It got the job done. It's just--"
I turned around. "It's just ironic that of all of us, I'm the one who's supposed to know the difference between flash and substance. That's supposed to be what I do. Here, I mean."
"Maybe a little flash was necessary tonight." Lisa looked up at me.
I shook my head. "We only resort to flash when we don't have anything left to say."
"It wasn't all sound and fury, Sam -- it was stirring. And you can't hang your head when you say it got the job done. That job was impossible, and it had to be done. There aren't ten people in the country who could have written that speech."
I sniffed. "I'll bet the cancer community can't wait to buy me a beer."
She nodded slowly. "So that did matter to you."
My gaze dropped to the floor, and I felt her fingers brush against the tiny hairs on the back of my hand. A shock of electricity shot through me, like a pinprick on fire. I glanced up again, and our eyes locked. My desire for her stirred like a bear awakening from a long, troubled winter's sleep. "C.J. asked me a couple of weeks ago if the reason we didn't get married is because it was bad enough being a lawyer that I didn't want to have to sleep with one, too."
Lisa breathed out an uncomfortable laugh. "Yeah, that's exactly why we didn't get married."
I ran my hands along her forearms. The moonlight danced across her face through the slits in the blinds, and the soft silk of her dress flowed between my fingers. "Why didn't we get married?" I asked her.
She inhaled sharply, her eyes wide.
"I mean-- sometimes it's just hard to remember." My eyes closed, and I felt myself pulled toward her. My hand followed the seam down along the back of her dress until my mouth met hers. Her lips were soft and moist, and she returned the kiss, her hand trembling at my waist. I opened my mouth to draw her in and felt the heady flutter of her heart against my own.
She gasped as she drew back from me, her lips parted, her breath unsteady. She spread her palms against my chest and pushed me back. Her head hung down, limp, and a strand of hair fell out of the clip and dangled in front of me. She stepped back, dropped her arms to her sides, and looked back up into my eyes. Her sudden absence in my arms was an almost physical pain.
"You really want to know why we didn't get married?" she said, her voice cracking.
Her face was flushed, and she was trembling. "Why?" I whispered.
"I couldn't have made you happy." She gasped out a laugh and looked up at me. "I mean, I really tried. Harder than I've ever tried at anything. But whatever it was you needed wasn't anything I had to give."
I let my eyes fall closed. My throat was burning.
"Look, I know there have been plenty of times where this whole thing with Josh made me a little crazy, but to tell you the truth, I'd rather feel like that than see you like this. More than anything, I just want you to be happy." I opened my eyes again, and they met hers. Her voice was heavy with the weight of her words, but the look in her eyes was sincere. "I mean, I really do hope you eventually stumble across something, or somebody, who's got that magic formula. Whatever it is."
I opened my mouth to protest, to tell her she was wrong, but no sound came out.
"I'm really sorry the White House hasn't done it for you, either, or that one last try with Josh. But I'm even sorrier that it's not going to be me."
I looked away from her, the pain twisting into a knot in my chest. My lips chilled as the moisture evaporated from them.
"Do you still have what you wrote that night?"
"About curing cancer?"
"Yeah." She swallowed. "Read it to me."
I stepped away from the window and grabbed the back of my chair, letting it roll away from the desk. Bending down, I brushed my hand against the mouse pad and double-clicked on the file that was still on my desktop. I stared at the words, searching for the meaning in them.
"Over the past half century," I read, "we've split the atom, we've spliced the gene, and we've roamed Tranquillity Base. We've reached for the stars, and never have we been closer to having them in our grasp. New science, new technology is making the difference between life and death, and we need a national commitment equal to this unparalleled moment of possibility. And so I announce to you tonight that I will bring the full resources of the Federal Government and the full reach of my office to this fundamental goal: We will cure cancer by the end of this decade."
I looked up at Lisa. She was standing at my elbow. I turned my chair around to face her, and she touched a finger to my chest, right above my heart. "Now that was more than just flash." Her eyes were shining. Bending down, she kissed me on the cheek. I could feel the warmth of her breath against my face. "I know the way out," she whispered.
The door latched shut as she left, and memories tugged at my mind, flowing together into a fog. Lisa folding her hand over mine across the table on the night we decided to get married. The first time I heard Josiah Bartlet speak, his soft New England vowels reverberating throughout the room and echoing in my ears during the silences. Josh, in a voice still thick with desire, telling me that we shouldn't do this anymore.
I reached a hand toward the mousepad, highlighted the text on the screen in front of me, and pressed the delete key.
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