Title: Interlude for Two Voices and a Cast of Thousands
Autjor: Jae Gecko
Spoilers: Extensive spoilers for "Bad Moon Rising". Mild spoilers for "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen". Vague spoilers for "Noel". One brief, fleeting spoiler for "The Drop-In".
Disclaimer: All of the characters except Lisa Seppala and Cameron Pierce belong to Aaron Sorkin, who is a far more talented writer than I am. I'm not confused; I'm just borrowing them. He can have them back when I'm done!
Archive: Yes to list archives; all others please ask.
Summary: Sam deals with finding out about the tanker that hit Delaware. First-person, Sam's point of view.
Feedback: Send to email@example.com
Notes: This is another installment in the series that began with "Turning Myself Into You" (the rest of which can be found on my website). It's completely self-contained, so even if you've never read a Turning-universe story before, feel free to start with this one. If you want to understand how it fits into the bigger picture, it's probably best to read "Speechless" and "Tripartisan" first, but don't feel obligated.
This one got written as a result of my irritation with Sorkin for not tying up the loose ends he had unraveled in Sam's storyline in "Bad Moon Rising". If he wants to come back to it, I think it's fine (and quite realistic) not to completely *resolve* it now, but it's just sloppy to just leave it hanging and then not refer to it again for episode upon episode. Sorkin's so good that we in this fandom don't often feel compelled to use fanfiction to repair bad writing. Let this stand at my first attempt.
That said, I don't think this is exactly the best thing *I* have ever written, either. It's not terribly meaty, it's self-indulgent, and while it's not *quite* hurt-comfort, it's probably the closest I'll ever get (not to knock good hurt-comfort, but Turning-universe hurt-comfort would be a big mistake). I'm not completely sure I should even be showing this one to people, but it's written, and the research that went into figuring out whether or not this story was even plausible had to be used for *something*, and Kathie requested something happy, and it sets some things up nicely that I needed to set up anyway for the next epic, and It Happened This Way, dammit, so here it is. Enough excuses.
Thank yous: To the always resourceful Pamela B. for the tip about the intended-but-dropped storyline about the trip to Delaware, which saved this story from the dustbin. To Kemuri for time-consuming research and a significant contribution to Sam's long legal babble at the end, and to Mango House Counsel T2 for fine general legal advice and helping me interpret Ainsley. And, of course, to the best beta team I could ever possibly have wished for: Anna-Maria Jennings, Minna Leigh, Adina Reeve, and Elizabeth Collins. If you like my stuff, thank them, because it's their presence that's been slowly transforming this storyteller into a writer.
Interlude for Two Voices and a Cast of Thousands by Jae Gecko
A sound halfway between a snort and a gasp alerted the resident sentry in my brain, and I snapped my eyes open, instantly awake. The green glow from Josh's alarm clock lit the room just enough that I could make out the shape of his body next to mine, and I propped myself up on my arm to lean closer. His back was turned, his arms twisted around the covers he'd bunched up at his waist. I braced myself for the expected outburst. At least he was still lying down.
The sound shuddered to the surface once again, quieter this time -- and rhythmic, accompanied by the slow, steady breaths of sleep.
Josh was snoring.
A smile born of amusement and relief crossed my face, and I looked at the clock. 4:36 AM. Laying my head down on the edge of my pillow, I allowed myself to lightly stroke his hair before turning back over.
The nightmares had decreased in frequency to the point of near non-existence for a while, but recently they seemed to be coming back, which meant *I* never slept quite as deeply anymore, either. The reason for their return seemed clear; the first anniversary of the shooting loomed only a few short weeks away, and since even I felt unsettled by that, I knew how it must have been affecting Josh. It wasn't as if I could really do anything about the dreams when they happened, and I often wondered whether it was really worth having me there, for all the embarrassment it caused him. Yet I knew my presence must have been reassuring on some level at least, since the first thing he did every time he woke from one of them was reach for me.
The sheets tugged and creased as I felt Josh shift against the bed, his breathing becoming less even as he woke. Then he lay completely still, and I heard him swallow.
"You awake?" I could hardly hear him, like he was making sure not to disturb me if I wasn't.
I pivoted my body again, facing him. "Yeah," I whispered back. His back was still turned, and I curled myself around it.
He grabbed my forearms and pulled me closer. "The alarm is going to go off in fifteen minutes."
Interlacing his fingers with my own, he raised my hand to his lips and held it there. I lifted the familiar curls at the back of his neck to kiss the light fuzz where his hairline ended and tapered into bare skin. A hazy sense of desire mixed with comfort, adding just a hint of a spark to our intimacy. I exhaled against him, closing my eyes. It had been far too long since we'd taken the time to lie like this.
Reaching over to suppress the alarm before it could go off, he turned over to face me and let his lips graze mine. "You want first dibs on the shower?"
"No, you go ahead. I don't have to be in until 7:30."
Josh reached over to the nightstand and flicked on the light as he swung his legs off the bed and stood, stretched, and padded down the hall toward the bathroom. Following his lead, I climbed off the bed on the other side, weaving a bit to dodge the piles of books, clothing, and various other debris on the floor that were an inevitable side effect of choosing Josh's apartment over mine to sleep in, and took a black suit out of the closet and hung it on the door.
Over the course of the three months since Josh and I had agreed to risk spending the night together again, a subtle, steady transformation had taken place. A corner of the surface of Josh's smaller dresser had expanded first into a drawer inside of it and then to the entire dresser; a hanger on which to hang a single suit had gradually become nearly half the closet. Throughout, Josh hadn't balked once, and in fact had even seemed to encourage that sort of merging of our personal space. I wasn't sure which dismayed me more -- the fact that I now had to monitor my speech so as to make sure not to refer to Josh's apartment as 'home', or the fact that if I let myself think too hard about what that meant, it made me almost giddy.
As my thoughts turned almost involuntarily to the office and the four newspapers I would have to read at my desk early this morning before the day could really begin, I remembered Josh's irritation about the repeated disappearances of his own home copy of the Washington Post. "It's got to be that whiny, skinny guy from upstairs," he had grumbled, kicking his shoes off and putting his feet up on the coffee table last night. "He's the only one who ever leaves the building before me, and the way he always looks right past me with those weaselly little eyes means he's got to be feeling guilty about something."
I glanced at the clock on the nightstand again. It was early enough that even the whiny, skinny guy with the weaselly eyes probably wouldn't have had the chance to make it downstairs yet.
Running my fingers quickly through my hair, I pulled on a pair of gray sweats and ducked outside, leaving the door ajar as I crept down the hall to the mailboxes at the front of the building. I smiled as I saw the paper peeking out of the slot, and pulled it the rest of the way through. Turning around and heading back to Josh's apartment, I set the prize down between piles of paperwork on his kitchen table.
I walked back to the bedroom just in time to meet Josh in the hall as he emerged from the bathroom in his boxers, drying his hair with a pale blue towel, and we stepped into the bedroom together. "So what's on the agenda this morning?" I asked him, making conversation as he retrieved a clean t-shirt from the laundry bag on the chair by the bed.
"That depends," he answered as he pulled his head through the shirt. "I'm supposed to finally talk to Dixon this morning about the proposed changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act, but every time we've tried to have that meeting, our side has had to cancel." He reached into the closet and pulled out a white dress shirt, pushing his right arm into a sleeve.
"Dixon? He's standing for that?" I couldn't imagine anyone cancelling a meeting on the burly old Republican without feeling his wrath. I sat down on the edge of the chair next to Josh's laundry bag, fiddling absently with the waistband of the pants he'd worn yesterday.
"Barely. I swear he's about ready to write us off completely, he's so pissed. I know he thinks we're stalling, but it's really just that more urgent things keep coming up. But hey, maybe it'll actually happen this time. Can you toss me those?"
I grabbed Josh's pants, throwing them to him in a low, underhanded motion. He caught them in mid-air. "Thanks. How about you?"
"I thought I'd get a jump on that Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition speech. I sent Ginger to the library yesterday. Did you know that we still don't know how salmonella is transmitted between egg-laying hens?"
He buttoned his shirt and wound a striped tie around his neck, his pants dangling over his arm. "No, but I'm sure that knowledge will come in handy next time I'm offered the opportunity to cozy up to a chicken."
I leaned back, propping myself up against the back of the chair. "In Europe they're still supposed to steer clear of beef products like sausages, hot dogs, meat pies -- you know, any products containing beef in an unrecognizable form. Because of bovine spongiform encephalopathy."
"That sounds appetizing. Bovine spongy what?"
"Bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Mad cow disease."
He smirked at me, raising an eyebrow. "Is this a ploy to get me to listen to my doctor on the dietary restrictions, Sam? Because Donna's already on me about the-"
"No, I'm just saying." I shrugged. "I rescued your copy of the Post this morning, by the way."
Josh froze with one leg in his pants and the other in mid-air and blanched. His panicky eyes flew over me from head to toe, taking in my sweats and my obvious just-stumbled-out-of-bed appearance, and I pressed my lips together as I felt the muscles in my face tense.
"Nobody saw m-"
"Yeah," he interrupted, looking quickly away. I stared at him as he pulled his pants the rest of the way on and looped a belt through them at his waist, obviously trying to look nonchalant, but the routine morning motions couldn't cover his discomfort. I scowled and looked away.
Josh headed for the doorway and I stood and walked abruptly toward the closet, feeling the tension in my chest slowly converting to resentment as I hung a tie over the hanger next to my suit. I went along with the unspoken agreement that we were never to go into the office or leave for the day together, and God forbid I might have ever answered his phone. But retrieving a newspaper from the hall at five in the morning was hardly a big deal.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw him leaning uneasily against the doorframe, watching me. "Got time for breakfast?" His cheer sounded forced. "I think I've got some English muffins. They're probably stale, but at least we can be pretty sure they haven't met up with any sick chickens or mad cows."
I looked past Josh as I walked over to the dresser and took a clean pair of boxers out of the top drawer. He shifted against the doorframe and coughed. "So, uh ... I'll start the coffee?"
"Okay." I didn't look over at him, but I heard him breathing as he lingered in the doorway for a moment longer before heading off toward the kitchen.
I walked down the hall to the bathroom, stepped into the shower, and closed my eyes as the hot water hit the back of my head and gushed down my back. It scared me just how easily I could delude myself into thinking that things could be normal between me and Josh, but the specter of the past incarnations of our relationship never quite disappeared, no matter how much we both wanted it to. I hated living in constant fear that trying to make any kind of concrete plans for the future -- or even clearly stating just between ourselves that we were essentially cohabitating at this point -- would cause Josh to decide it wasn't worth the risk of being discovered. As he always had, every other time we'd gotten anywhere near this close.
Toweling off and dressing quickly, I walked down the hall to the living room that opened up onto the dining area. The first thing I noticed was that Josh had cleared off the table, which was enough of a surprise in and of itself, since I was pretty sure I'd never seen enough of its surface before to even be aware what color it was. What stopped me dead in my tracks, though, was the fact that he'd set the table. With placemats. I smiled a little despite myself. Breakfast with Josh usually meant a cup of coffee downed hastily while leaning against the kitchen counter.
"I figured we could share the paper," Josh called out from the kitchen, rushing in to plunk a hot English muffin on the plate closest to me. "You get first dibs, though, for your efforts."
I felt my slight smile turn into a grin as I walked over to the table and sank into a chair. "No, you go ahead -- I'll read it at the office."
I poured coffee into both of our mugs as Josh unfolded the Post and scanned the headlines. Picking up a knife, I buttered the muffin in front of me. It wasn't so stale.
"Have you noticed that we don't have lunch together anymore?" Josh asked, covering his half-full mouth with his hand and looking over at me.
"What do you mean?"
He swallowed. "I don't think we've grabbed lunch together since- well, since we started eating breakfast together." He shot me a lopsided grin.
I nodded. We'd been seeing far less of each other at the office lately, probably under the subconscious assumption that spending the night together had allowed us to spend more time together in private, even though it wasn't necessarily always the case. "I can't remember the last time we actually made time to have breakfast together, either."
"Good point." Josh drained his coffee. "You got time for lunch today?"
"Maybe. It depends on how long my 11:30 goes." I took a bite of muffin.
"We could just, like, go down to the mess. No big time commitment."
Josh unfolded the paper to page two, and I popped the remainder of the muffin into my mouth, washing it down with a sip of coffee. I watched Josh skim the paper, and as he read, the muscles around his eyes began slowly to tense. He ran his fingers through his hair in that familiar gesture that always betrayed his worry. "What's wrong?" I asked.
"Oh, we're gonna have to watch Mexico today. The peso's weak and losing ground against the dollar, and the Bolsa index has been really unstable. The market closed low on Friday, and if it doesn't get some sort of jolt this morning ..." His voice trailed off, and he rubbed the back of his neck.
"If it doesn't get some sort of jolt this morning, Dixon will have to wait again."
Josh sighed. "Yeah. I guess that's probably true."
He looked tired, despite the nearly full night of sleep. I fought the urge to smooth the worried lines from his face. "Hey, do you need me to meet with Dixon? I can probably deal with anything he'd throw our way."
"No, no, he really wants to talk to me." He folded the newspaper and set it on the table as he stood. "I'd better get in there, though."
I shifted uncomfortably against the back of the chair. This was the point where I was supposed to pretend I had other stuff to do around the apartment, that there was a reason apart from Josh's fears why we weren't going in to the office at the same time. "Okay."
He glanced down at my empty coffee mug and the plate in front of me containing nothing but crumbs, looking suddenly nervous. "Unless you- you seem like you're ready, too. We could-"
I waved my hand dismissively and lowered my gaze, not quite meeting Josh's eyes. "No, I was going to sort through some files first that I didn't get a chance to look over last night. You go on."
Relief replaced the anxiety on his face. "Okay."
"See you in the office." Searching for something to do with my hands and my brain, I picked up the newspaper from the table and unfolded it. I stared at the words on the page, but the weight of Josh's eyes prevented me from focusing on them until he disappeared into the living room.
I heard the door to the apartment open, but a moment later the unmistakable sound of Josh's footsteps drifted down the hall as he stole back inside. He stood behind my chair briefly, as if waiting for something to happen, and then finally bent down and lay his hands casually against my shoulders. He brushed his lips along the back of my neck.
"I like getting to have breakfast with you," he murmured into my ear. His tone was serious, but with just a hint of playfulness, and I melted just a little. "Even if we don't get to do it every day, I mean, I like having the opportunity."
I felt myself smile, and I reached up with both hands to squeeze his.
My head jerked up at the sound of Toby's angry voice as he came barreling into my office through the open door. One hand was clutching a newspaper, and the other was flailing so wildly I thought it might fly out of his trenchcoat and across my desk right at me.
He slammed the folded newspaper down onto my desk, pointing at the bottom of the front page with a furious fingertip. "What do you know about this?"
I groaned inwardly and drew in a breath. I'd expected him to be upset about the quote, but this was extreme even for Toby. "Only what's in the article. A senior White House official-"
"Which could mean any self-promoting bastard in this building!"
"A senior White House official seems to have said the President might be willing to compromise on school vouchers."
"And we're going to find out exactly which Benedict Arnold did this!" His face was red, his breath coming in fits.
I paused for a moment in an attempt to relax the pace of the conversation, and spoke softly. "You know it's pretty impossible to plug a leak once the press has gotten a hold of the information."
"Do I look like I care what's possible? We're going to find out who said this, we're going to find out today, and we're going to fire his ass so fast, he-"
"Are you asking me to conduct an investigation?" I interrupted. "Because I'm writing today. You know, the food safety speech? I've already got Ginger on-"
He grabbed the newspaper and spun back around. "C.J.!" he bellowed into the bullpen. I watched him through my window and sighed. It was going to be a long day.
"She's at the early morning briefing," Ginger reminded him, backing slowly away from Toby as he stormed into his own office.
I looked up at the television on the shelf on the other side of my office in time to see C.J. walk up to the podium. I sure didn't envy her this morning. Turning my attention back to the notes in front of me, I wondered if the fact that I was finding data about the labeling of poultry and egg products soothing at the moment said anything about my sanity.
Absorbed in my notes and the contemplation of three possible ways to phrase a plea for stricter irradiation standards, C.J.'s skirmish with the press corps barely penetrated my consciousness. It vaguely registered that she was attempting to use another news story to distract them from focusing on the quote, but I didn't really hear her until I stood and walked over to the shelf where the television was to retrieve a file.
"How many gallons do you think-"
"Two hundred thousand gallons so far," I heard C.J. respond as I stood at the shelf, my eyes focused on my notes. "The Coast Guard has set up a command center with EPA workers and the state emergency response team. The ship belongs to Kensington Oil."
"Does the ship have a name?" one reporter asked. I opened my leather binder and removed a page of notes, setting it down on the shelf.
"Yeah, it's the Indio. I-N-D-I-O. The Kensington Indio."
As if emerging from a trance, I lifted my head slowly at the sound of the familiar name and forced myself to focus my eyes on the television, setting the folder on my desk. That was one of the boats ... oh, my God.
"Operations are already underway to-"
"Containment booms?" I heard another reporter ask, and what was happening sank in just a little bit more. I'd spent three months putting together a deal that would spare Kensington the possibility of being held responsible if any of their new tankers ever caused this sort of accident. And one of those tankers had apparently just crashed into the shore.
I rushed out into the bullpen, my heart pounding. "Bonnie, what happened?!"
She blinked at me, her expression blank. "What do you mean?"
"The oil tanker."
"I'm hearing it now."
I turned to Ginger, trying to force myself to stay calm. "Ginger, what do you know about the oil tanker?"
"It hit Delaware," she responded, pushing past me.
I paused for a moment, numb. "I'm amazed it found Delaware," I murmured at no one in particular, and stumbled back into my office.
The details of the deal I'd so painstakingly constructed years ago flooded my mind involuntarily, and I leaned forward against the back of my desk to brace myself against them. My team had danced along the edges of legal, adhering just barely to IMO regulations by registering the boats overseas, so holding Kensington legally responsible for the spill would be a near-impossibility. And then there was the fact that the Indio, along with the other tankers I'd bought for them in the same deal, had its own corporation, financed so many times over that even if they did lose what would inevitably be a painful, prolonged battle in court, Kensington themselves wouldn't pay a penny of the damages. I was almost dizzy at the thought.
They'd be trying to contain the spill at this point, I knew, and that was a fight against the clock. I wondered how many gallons they thought would be spilled in the end, how quickly the Coast Guard was sealing the gashes in the hull. The details of the Internet research I'd done on oil spills four years ago crashed into my thoughts, leaving me too well-informed to be blissfully ignorant at this point. If the weather wasn't just perfect, containing this would take at least twice as long as it otherwise might. Unless a miracle occurred, this could end up endangering countless species of shoreline wildlife and affecting the entire ecosystem.
Greenpeace, the GDC, the NWF, they'd all be out for blood. We'd have to issue a statement about this today, I knew, anticipating as many of their concerns as we could and taking a stand on current regulations and standards. Toby would probably want me to write it, in fact. I leaned harder against my desk as the first paralyzing wave of guilt hit me, and I felt physically ill.
Turning around and shuffling back into the bullpen, I grabbed myself a large cup of coffee and headed down the hall, knowing I had to talk to C.J. I rounded the corner just in time to hear Toby's voice as it echoed through the corridors. "I want you to find out who the senior White House official was and put his ass in my office by the end of the day!" he screamed, turning around.
I stepped back as he brushed by me on his way back to his office, and I looked up at C.J. She looked tired and irritated.
"It wasn't me," I added, hearing the gloom in my own voice as we walked through to the inner part of her office together. I took a sip of my coffee.
"I imagine if it was anyone within the sound of Toby's voice, they'd be looking for a trap door right now," C.J. said wearily, her hand brushing against the top of her desk as she looked down.
"Is there anything you can tell me about the tanker?"
"Carol's going to give you the notes from the Coast Guard." The press secretary opened a folder on her desk, rummaging through its contents.
"Do you know whether it had something to do with the navigation or the steering?" I asked, not entirely sure I wanted to know.
C.J. looked up at me. "Well, all that's being investigated, but I'm assuming that when a ship runs into the shore, it has something to do with the navigation or the steering."
I swallowed hard. "Yeah," I said weakly, and turned to go.
Turning back around, I looked at her, holding my coffee out with my right hand.
"You don't know who it was, right?"
For a split second I thought she might have been talking about who was responsible for the oil spill, but quickly realized that she must have meant the 'senior White House official'. "No."
She pressed her lips together and sighed as I walked back down the hall to my own office.
Sitting down at my computer, I let my fingers be led by my subconscious as I repeated the same Web searches I'd done on oil spill containment the *first* time my guilty conscience had hit me between the eyes on this subject. I clicked through the pages, reading about new kinds of sorbents and improved techniques to skim surface oil. At least there would be a chance of cleaning this up within a reasonable amount of time, as long as the weather played along. Though it would almost certainly have been too late for hundreds of seagulls.
"Hey, could you dash off a statement about the Delaware oil spill sometime this morning?"
"Hmm?" Looking up, I found Toby in my doorway. His voice was calmer, but his eyes were still raging, and I could see how difficult it was for him to control his temper long enough to concentrate on anything but his crusade of the day.
"We need to issue an official statement on the oil spill. Could you write something up and run a draft by me before the next press briefing?"
I nodded, sighing. "Yeah."
"We can use this as an opportunity to slap Congressional Republicans for their proposed plan to drill in the Arctic refuge," he suggested, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. "You'll want to draw a parallel with the Exxon Valdez spill back in '89, or something. Remind people that Alaska's still not completely recovered from that, and now-"
"Right." My eyes burned with anger and shame. I'd created this situation, and now I was supposed to manipulate public opinion on it for political gain? I'd have laughed at the irony if it hadn't nauseated me. "Sure."
As Toby stepped back out of my office, I clicked on the empty document window already open on my desktop. *Disasters such as this one serve as compelling reminders of why we must remain vigilant in defending America's natural treasures against those who would despoil them for short-term gain,* I began, letting my fingers serve as a conduit between my brain and the computer. *Like multi-billion dollar oil companies and self-serving attorneys who throw their ethics out the window for a chance at a partnership,* I added mentally. I rested my head on my hands as the words on my screen began to blur.
I had warned them, I reminded myself firmly. I'd come back at Kensington on my last day at Gage Whitney, the day I'd walked away from it all, and tried to get them to buy a more expensive, safer set of tankers. I'd done everything I could as soon as I'd recovered my sense of justice and realized what a mistake the deal had been. I could still remember the smug look on the client's face when he'd made fun of my newfound enthusiasm for the more ecological solution. I'd tried to warn them, but they hadn't listened.
I swallowed back the angry lump that had formed in the back of my throat. They hadn't listened, but they *had* heard. Kensington had been all too aware of the boats' inferior design when they'd bought them. I jerked my head up, suddenly struck by the fact that everything I knew about what had happened made me a first-class witness for the plaintiff.
*I could testify against Kensington.*
I'd almost certainly be disbarred for breach of attorney-client privilege, but that seemed a small price to pay, given the magnitude of the situation.
My hands frozen in mid-air above the keyboard, I stared at the screen, seeing only the inside of my own thoughts. Disciplinary action would hardly be a walk in the park. My disbarment would be a scandal to the administration. But I could do this -- I could turn this crisis into an opportunity to slap Kensington down, while simultaneously warning other companies that there were consequences for making the economical choice instead of the right one.
I felt my burden decrease measurably in mass, the statement's remaining language flying from my fingers at the speed of light. I could do this.
Three hours and one meeting with a lieutenant from the Coast Guard later, I was better informed about the details of the situation. I knew it had been the steering that had malfunctioned ten miles off the coast of Rehoboth Beach. I knew the boat had been moving so quickly that the anchor had broken. I knew the weather was, in fact, *not* on our side today, and that high winds and a tidal pool had been responsible for pushing the Indio into shore. And I knew I wouldn't be able to forgive myself for this if I didn't get the chance to testify.
I knew, too, though, that it wasn't going to be that easy. It was anybody's guess as to whether they'd let me testify in the first place, and even if they did, the defense would easily be able to make the argument that privileged testimony, no matter how damning, should be struck from the record and disregarded in making the final decision. As I considered all of the consequences and possible outcomes, it struck me that the best possible legal advice could be found at the other end of the phone line in New York, with Lisa, my close friend and the woman I'd spent ten years of my life with. She was the best lawyer I knew besides myself, and if I'd discussed the situation with Kensington with her back when we'd been together, then at least I wouldn't have to breach attorney-client privilege twice in order to get her opinion on the latest developments.
I picked up the phone and dialed the number I'd had memorized longer than my own, and the deep yet musical voice of Lisa's longtime secretary floated across the phone line to my ears. "Dewey Ballantine, Lisa Seppala's office."
"Hey, Cam. Is Lisa around this morning?"
"Sam Seaborn!" His tone was light as he spoke my name, his vowels elongated. "I'd recognize that sultry tone anywhere. How *are* you? Have you saved the country from certain destruction lately?"
I felt my lips turn up into a smile of amusement, enjoying the tumble into the usual banter I had to pass through whenever I wanted to talk to Lisa at the office. "A little more each day, I like to think."
"Aren't you sick of the land of marble-topped desks and hot air yet?" Cameron Pierce spoke so animatedly that I could almost see him in front of me: slender, bald, fortysomething, and sitting at his desk strategically placed in front of the door to Lisa's office. For Cam this was always a safe, meaningless flirtation with a presumed straight guy, and since I'd never had any real investment in correcting his assumption, the diversion existed on multiple levels simultaneously for me. It had started as an obvious attempt to shock me and persisted from there, but I'd always known how shocked *he* would have been if I'd ever actually responded with any degree of seriousness. Horrified, even.
"Every time I get you on the phone, I have to admit I have doubts about having abandoned the Big Apple," I volleyed back at him.
"So when are you coming home, then? And I don't mean for a paltry little weekend visit this time, I mean for real. You can't be serious about this politics gig."
I laughed. "Sometimes I wonder."
"How much of a pay cut did you take again? Do you even make more than I do?"
"Oh, don't remind me."
"Let me tell you something in all seriousness," he quipped, his tone suddenly hushed. "You're no politician. I remember you -- you're an attorney through and through. A real pit bull, the best of the best. You don't belong in Washington with all those stuffed shirts."
Bile rose in my throat as his unintentionally ill-timed remark struck me unaware, and I tried to cover up the sting by continuing the string of chatter. "I don't think Lisa's latest flame would think much of the idea of me coming back to New York permanently, Cam."
"Oh, forget *Lisa*. I'm claiming you for myself."
"Well, how could I possibly turn down an offer like that?"
"Oh, God. Let me put you through to her while I go have a stroke from sheer excitement at the very thought."
There was a click on the other end of the line, and Cam's voice was replaced first by the high pitched strains of a classical violin, and then a moment later by Lisa.
"Why, hello!" She sounded even happier to hear from me than her secretary had.
"Hey there. You got a minute?"
"Sure. What's up?"
"Do you remember what I told you about what happened on my last day at Gage Whitney? At the Kensington Oil meeting, when I walked out before it was over?"
There was a long pause on the other end of the line before she spoke again, and when she did, her voice was pinched. "Um. I don't think you've ever told me any details about that day."
"Nothing at all?" My heart sank.
"You weren't being very forthcoming about much of anything at that stage of our relationship," she snapped, and I drew in a breath. It occurred to me, too late, that this probably wasn't the most pleasant of memories for her to reflect on, since that day had also been the day I'd left her to run off with Josh and join the Bartlet campaign. I fiddled nervously with the phone cord.
"Sorry, that didn't come out right," she added, filling the silence.
"No, no, you're right," I backed off. "I just thought if I'd said something ... hey, you know what? Why don't we start this conversation again from the top and talk about something else altogether?"
"Sam. Is something wrong?"
"No," I lied, and then remembered I'd never succeeded in lying to Lisa about how I was feeling, even over the phone. I let out a slow breath. "Yes. Something's wrong. But it's privileged information, and if I haven't already talked to you about it before, I shouldn't be bringing it up now."
"Sam?" Her voice was suddenly full of alarm.
"Kensington Oil. This doesn't have anything to do with- that oil spill, this morning, that was- oh my God."
"Sam, are you in trouble?" she asked, her voice tight with worry.
"Honestly? I'm not sure yet. It's all pretty complicated."
"You know that if you need me -- for anything at all -- I'm right there. Right? If you decide you need a lawyer, all you have to do is call."
"Lisa, you hate contract law."
She snorted. "I know a lot more about contract law than many attorneys who actually *write* them."
"I learned an awful lot from this one guy, you know? This guy I lived with for a while?"
I tried to smile, but knew my expression was wistful. "I know."
"If you need my skills, my name, whatever, just say so. And if you need a friend-"
"I know," I repeated. "I just don't want to pull my friends down with me."
"I'm worried about you."
I shook my head vehemently, forgetting for a moment that she couldn't see me from the other end of the line. "I'm worried about Delaware. I'm worried about the shoreline of the entire East Coast. I'm worried about the birds, and the fish, not to mention the human beings who have built their livelihoods around the ocean. I'm worried about-"
"Don't do anything you're going to regret, okay?" Her voice shook with emotion. "You can't- you might want to practice again someday. There's no way this job you've got can last any longer than eight years, and that's the best case scenario. I know I'm probably talking to a brick wall on this, but you've got to listen to me -- no matter how horrible this feels right now, it isn't a thing to get on your high horse about. You damaged your reputation when you walked out of Gage with no notice, but this would mean throwing the rest away. There's no going back if you do what it sounds like you're thinking about doing."
The phone line crackled with static. I couldn't explain to her that the threat of disbarment didn't deter me -- that the last thing I wanted to do now was practice law. I'd never be able to practice again. Not after this.
"I promise that if I do decide to do anything here, it won't be something I'll regret, okay?" I blurted.
I heard her sigh, and when she spoke again, she sounded resigned. "Okay."
"I'll be all right." I tried to make my voice sound gentle, reassuring.
"Or something like that."
I cradled the phone in both hands and held it tight, as if by doing so I could hug her fiercely from across the distance. "I'll be fine."
"I love you."
"Love you, too."
"Hope your day takes a turn for the better."
I sniffed, smiling a little. "Thanks. Talk to you soon."
I leaned back in my chair for a moment after hanging up, considering my options. Talking to Lisa was obviously out of the question, and calling the only attorney still speaking to me at Gage Whitney would have been far too awkward. But with someone representing the White House, attorney-client privilege didn't exist. If I spoke to a government lawyer, they might even feel obliged to tip someone off, and then the burden would be lifted, the decision made for me.
I had to talk to Ainsley.
I walked down to her office in the bowels of the White House and paused for a moment before knocking softly on the door. "Come in," I heard her say, her voice muffled through the thick wood.
As I stepped into her office, I was positively assaulted by the changes she'd made in the ambience, and I took an astonished step back. The room was lit softly by new lamps, art adorned the walls, and music emerged from the CD player near her desk. "Hey!"
Ainsley waved her hand around, mock-directing the music as she jotted notes onto a legal pad. "Hello, Sam," she said without looking up.
"You did some decorating."
"Yeah," she confirmed, still not looking up.
I was impressed. "A woman's touch."
"It was a guy named Kirk," she jabbed halfheartedly.
Something was familiar about the music. I raised a finger in an attempt to jog my memory. "Hang on, I know this piece of music -- I love it."
"Isn't it great?" Her forehead wrinkled, but her gaze remained focused on the papers in front of her.
"No, but there's a reason I like it." I stared off into space, taking a few steps closer to her.
"Well, it's beautiful."
"No, hang on." Putting my hands at my waist, I racked my brain.
"It's called Air on a G string," she elaborated, peering up at me. "Could that be it?"
"Yes," I said quietly, smiling a little as my face grew hot.
"What do you need?"
I breathed in, hesitating, and then looked right at her and blurted out the truth. "A lawyer."
"Well, you came to the wrong place," she joked, still writing.
At that she looked up, concerned eyes meeting mine. "Are you in trouble?"
Lisa had asked the same question not fifteen minutes earlier, and the answer now seemed, if anything, less straightforward than it had then. I sat down. "No," I responded, leaning back. "I'm not. I just want to ask you some questions."
She reached over, turning off the music.
"You've been covering the attorneys general for Maryland and Delaware this morning, right?"
"On the oil spill."
She nodded almost imperceptibly. "They'll hold a joint press conference this afternoon to announce that they're seeking damages."
She tilted her head a bit in a prissy Republican version of a shrug. "Who can say at this point, but if I had to guess, I'd say in the area of a hundred million for cleanup costs, probably another three or four hundred million punitive. I know how you feel about these things, trust me -- Kensington's going to pay it through the nose."
"No, they're not," I sighed.
She looked back down at her desk, but her voice was expressive. "I think you're wrong."
"Somebody's going to pay. It's not going to be them."
She put down her pencil and looked up at me again. "You think their liability shield is that strong?"
"How do you know?"
"Because I'm the one who bought them the boat." She blinked, like she didn't understand, and I clarified. "I bought the Indio for them when I was at Gage Whitney."
"Wow." She looked stunned. "Talk about your chickens coming home to roost."
"Yeah." I leaned toward her over her desk, almost conspiratorially. "But what I was thinking was this. I know this is going to sound crazy, but I was thinking- if I could be deposed for the plaintiffs ..."
I let my voice trail off as the disbelieving look on her face changed to one of recognition, as if she knew how capable I was of suggesting something so insane. "Why?" she asked finally.
"Because," I shot back, stubborn.
She looked skeptical, but waited for me to finish.
"Look, I was very proud of myself for making such a great deal. And it really sealed it for me with the partners, and they were about to make me one." I stared off into space for a moment, remembering how easy it had been to get knocked off track, to forget about what was really important. "It really didn't bother me that the boat was cheap for a reason."
My path had seemed so clear ... but then Josh had been there, and everything I'd thought mattered to me suddenly no longer had. I remembered the painfully awkward conversation we'd had over early morning vendor hot dogs on a New York street corner, when I'd ducked out of a meeting with Kensington to go talk to him. I remembered that Josh had asked me what I was doing, and that I hadn't been able to give him a good answer.
"But then ... at the eleventh hour I had a change of heart." She looked at me in disbelief, and my eyes fell down to her desk. I waved my hand dismissively. "For whatever reason, I had ... a change of heart. And I told them the boat wasn't good enough."
I looked back up at her. She was still staring at me, wide-eyed, looking increasingly uncomfortable, but I pushed on, the intensity of my voice growing with every word. "Particularly with regard to the steering and navigation systems -- which of course they already knew, and I suggested they spend more money, and they said-"
She put her hand out firmly in front of her in an attempt to cut me off. "Stop talking right now."
"Eleven million extra dollars, they laughed m-"
"They laughed me out of the room!"
"Stop talking, or I'm walking out." At that moment I knew for sure that she wasn't going to be passing any tips along to the plaintiff, and I fought back a wave of disappointment.
"You know better." I wasn't sure whether she meant the breach of attorney-client privilege, or putting her in this position. I shifted in my seat, feeling like I should apologize, but I couldn't quite force the words past my lips.
"Neither you nor your clients abdicated attorney-client privilege when you left Gage. If you gave that deposition, you'd be disbarred. And even if you were willing to be disbarred, there's no judge in the country who'd allow privileged testimony."
"Ainsley ..." I shook my head vehemently. "Unless a company like this is forced to fork over so much money that they don't want to go on living- unless they're compelled to pay five hundred million dollars, there's no incentive for them to spend eleven million to make the boats safer!"
"Yes." She sounded resigned, and so sensible that the force of it hit me like a physical weight. I winced.
"All right," I capitulated. "It was just an idea."
"Hey, you never know. With the liability shield -- maybe you're not as good as you think."
It was a strange sort of poetic justice, I thought. I felt powerless so much of the time to solve the enormous problems this administration faced every day, and the one time I'd truly had the power, I'd used it to protect a client who stood against everything I believed in.
"Yeah, I am," I countered, despondent, as I turned around and walked back through the door.
As soon as I got back to my office, I forced myself to stop thinking about Kensington Oil and the Indio long enough to bury myself in data on hazard analysis and critical control point systems in food inspection. Under the guise of avoiding Toby and his rage, I closed my door and sat down at my computer, turned on a recording of the Mikado, and let myself write pages upon pages of text. I knew that at this rate, I'd actually have the speech done early, but I'd always done my best work while trying to distract myself from something else. I was grateful that the communications team knew better than to interrupt me when I was on a roll, allowing me to forget entirely about the oil spill for a few hours.
I had the volume on the CD turned up enough that I only barely heard Josh's knock at my door, and when he knocked again, louder this time, it startled me halfway out of my chair. I nodded at him to come in, reaching hastily over to silence the music I knew he still couldn't quite handle. "Hey. What's up?"
"Sorry I haven't been by for lunch," he apologized, looking sheepish.
I looked at my watch. It was 3:20, and I'd ended up emailing Bonnie to ask her to run down to the mess and pick me up something to eat at my desk, not wanting to break my stride. "No problem."
He leaned against the window, resting his hand on the doorknob. "It's just that things have been crazy with this Mexico thing -- I had this endless meeting all morning with people from finance, foreign relations, and Senate banking, and I've been on the phone off and on all day with the treasury secretary."
"And then Carol Villanuevo took too long to write it up, so it was late getting to the masses for markup, and now I've got to convince Congress that they don't actually need to take the time to *read* the thing before agreeing to vote on it-"
"It's okay, Josh."
"I wanna have lunch with you, but I-"
"It's no big deal. Really." I blinked at my screen, hit the key combination that would save my latest spurt of writing, and pushed back slightly from the desk. No longer immersed in absorbing facts and figures, my thoughts returned to the oil spill, and my head ached.
I walked across the room to turn the television back on, changing the channel quickly from C Span to CNN, and was immediately assaulted by a deluge of images. The Indio, several enormous gashes in its hull, spilling oil into the ocean. Gulls that should have by all rights been soaring overhead, coated in blackness on the beach and dying. Coast Guard officials standing at the edges of small vessels, rocked by the rough water while attempting, in a seemingly futile effort, to skim oil from the water's surface with what looked like a chain of limp mops. I flinched unwittingly, rubbing my eyes.
Josh took one step forward, still standing awkwardly in front of the closed door. "I'm not- I'm not avoiding going down to the mess with you. I'm just swamped."
"Well, if you've got fifteen minutes, we could split my sandwich," I suggested wearily. "Bonnie's on her way down to pick up something for me right now, and I was just going to sit here and eat it at my desk."
Josh glanced at his watch. "Fifteen minutes I can spare."
He sat down in the chair opposite my desk, and I tried to make conversation. "So. Mexico."
Josh nodded, eyeing me nervously.
"You going to be able to get the money together?" I asked halfheartedly.
"We've got to. They've got to pay back thirty billion in loans this week, and not everybody's as forgiving as we are."
I looked up at the knock on my door, and motioned for Bonnie to come in. "Sorry to interrupt," she said, balancing a turkey club sandwich on top of a stack of folders.
"It's okay." Tilting the folders against my desk, she slid the plate off onto its surface. "Thanks." I unwrapped the sandwich, laying the paper wrapping flat, and picked up my half as Bonnie left my office, closing the door behind her. "You can have that," I said to Josh, gesturing at the remaining piece.
"Thanks." He picked it up and took a bite. "Anyway, it's going to be a hard sell, but I think we'll make it. I managed to convince Donna, so Congress should be a snap after that."
"That's good," I said absently. I wondered if the winds had died down at all in Delaware.
"You seen much of Toby today?"
"As little as possible."
Josh nodded. "Yeah. Does he seem, you know, like, a bit over the top lately?"
"What do you mean?"
Leaning back in his chair so far I thought he might tip over, he lifted a leg and rested his knee against the back of my desk. "I mean, we all know how angry he can get, but he really wants this guy's head on a platter. And sure, it pisses me off too to have a policy initiative undermined like that, but since when does Toby care that much about school vouchers? I can't help but think maybe something else is up."
He shrugged. "I don't know. All I know is I've been watching him storming around here like the entire Presidency was threatened by this, and it just makes me wonder, you know? Makes me think maybe he, like, knows something we don't."
I shook my head. "I've never heard of a President being brought down by his position on school vouchers."
"I know, that's why it doesn't make any sense."
Glancing past Josh at what seemed at first glance to be a CNN retrospective on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, I strained to hear what they were saying as images of the Alaska coastline appeared on the screen. "The Valdez was the largest spill in U.S. history," a deep male voice intoned over old footage of that catastrophe, "testing the abilities of local, national, and industrial organizations to prepare for and respond to a disaster of such magnitude. The tanker struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska in March of 1989, spilling more than eleven million gallons of crude oil into the ocean. Although far smaller, today's spill in Delaware may be arguably more devastating to humans due to its proximity to large centers of population."
I looked away from the screen, unable to watch anymore. More devastating than the Valdez. God. My stomach rumbled and lurched, sending me reeling. I picked at the remaining quarter sandwich on my desk with a fingertip, staring at it, and finally pushed it away.
"Afraid of salmonella?" he asked, sitting up straight again.
I blinked, looking up at Josh. "Hmm?"
"It's all that reading on foodborne illnesses that's destroying your appetite, right?"
"Right." I nodded, my lips turning up, just barely, at the corners.
Josh watched me for a moment with scrutinizing eyes. "Hey. Are we, uh, okay?"
"Yeah." I forced myself to focus my full attention on him. "Of course. Why?"
"I just thought-"
"Sorry, I'm a little preoccupied," I sighed, shaking my head. For a split second I thought about telling him the entire story, but I didn't want to make the situation any more complicated than it already was. "The speech. And some- some other stuff. Just- I've got a lot on my mind right now."
"Yeah, okay," he responded, too quickly.
"We're fine," I reassured, looking right at him.
"Yeah." Josh tore his eyes from me long enough to glance at his watch. "You know, I really need to-"
"Good luck with the vote." I tried to smile at him.
"Yeah." He stood, lingering in the doorway for a moment like he didn't want to leave, his hand on the knob. "See you tonight."
"See you." I watched him through my window as he headed down the hallway, then buried myself in my notes again.
Shortly after 9:30, I finally locked up my office for the night, murmuring a quick, almost meek 'good night' at Toby as I set off down the hall to the other side of the West Wing to let Josh know I was leaving. The rumbling of my stomach reminded me that I hadn't yet eaten dinner, and I thought about stopping to pick up a pizza on the way back to Josh's place, grimacing at the thought of struggling up the narrow back stairs while holding onto a pizza box.
Maybe I'd use the front door, I thought, leaning in toward the wall slightly as I walked. Josh had never directly asked me not to. He'd made some excuses about the parking being better on the street closer to the back entrance, and I'd known the score at that point, but if I was carrying a pizza he wouldn't be able to blame me for not wanting to maneuver myself through the skinny door and up the steep staircase, right?
I snorted, shaking my head at myself for worrying about something so trivial. *Sam Seaborn, the guy who ran out on a four hundred thousand dollar a year job and a beautiful fiancee to chase a dream or two, contemplates doing something *truly* crazy -- walking through the front door of his lover's apartment building.*
I didn't want that fight tonight, though. I wasn't sure I had any fight left in me at all, and I wondered where it had gone. Maybe I'd left it behind in Ainsley's office.
I rapped my fingers lightly against Josh's door as I stepped inside. "Hey."
He was hunched over his desk, buried in paperwork and cartons of half-eaten Chinese food, but he smiled as he looked up and saw me in the doorway. "Hey. You heading out?"
"Yeah," I said, suppressing a sigh. Suddenly the thought of falling asleep alone in Josh's bed sounded more difficult than it was worth, and all I wanted was to draw the curtains in my own bedroom and curl up under the down comforter I'd had since college. "I think I'm going to head back to my place tonight," I found myself saying. "Pick up the mail, you know. Check messages."
"You mean ... to sleep?" Josh's forehead wrinkled in dismay.
I nodded. "It's late, I've still got a lot to think about, and it looks like you'll be here a while longer ... I mean, it's not like we'd see much of each other tonight anyway."
He stood abruptly. "Wait, I'm about done, here. There's nothing more I can really do at this point." He closed the containers of Chinese food, putting them back in the plastic bag.
"Don't rush on my account," I protested, shaking my head. "I can-"
"No, no, I'm coming. I've just got to make sure to be back in by six or so tomorrow." He grabbed his backpack, stuffing files into it, and zipped it shut, handing the bag of Chinese food to me. "Why don't we- why don't we go back together? You can leave your car here, and I'll bring you in tomorrow morning."
I felt myself smile, and saw Josh's own face relax in response. "Come on, let me at least try to distract you," he insisted, giving my arm a little cuff as he threw his backpack over one shoulder and gestured for me to walk back through the door. "As long as you don't mind coming in bright and early."
"No, of course not. Sure. Thanks."
Josh drove home, shooting me the occasional glance while I sat in silence, staring out the window. I found myself hoping that the more-than-slight breeze and the cloud cover over Washington meant that Delaware's weather had moved westward and tomorrow would bring sunny skies to the cleanup effort. Arriving back at his apartment, Josh reheated his Hoisin chicken and thrust it, still in its carton, under my nose as I lay down on the couch, draping my tie off the edge of its arm. "I'm assuming you haven't had any dinner," he explained, climbing over me to stretch out next to me along the inside edge.
"Thanks." I balanced the carton on my chest, grabbing the fork with my right hand while resting my other arm across Josh's side.
"So, pop quiz."
I raised an eyebrow. "Pop quiz?"
Josh reached over to fish a piece of chicken out of the carton with his fingers, popping it into his mouth. "Seventh grade social studies class. Let's see how much you know about current events as reported on CNN."
I gave a little snort. "My job does give me a bit of an advantage over most twelve-year-olds on that front, you know."
"I'll start you off easy, as a warmup. How much did the Mexican market drop between Friday close and this morning?"
I looked up at the ceiling in mock contemplation. "Uh, fifteen percent?"
"Twenty percent. Close enough for government work," he said with a goofy smile. "Let's try a harder one. Which Congressman referred to Bartlet's remarks on race relations as 'visionary'?"
"That's easy. Representative Dick White of Michigan."
Josh patted me on the head. "You're batting a thousand here, young Seaborn. You might just get to go on to the eighth grade. What was the most devastating oil spill in U.S. history?"
I felt a lump form in the back of my throat. I resisted an urge to cough, and swallowed instead. "The Kensington Indio."
He twisted his leg around mine, leaning closer so that his chest was pressed against my side. "Bzzt, try again. The Exxon Valdez, eleven million gallons spilled off the coast of Ala-"
"The Valdez was the *biggest* spill. The Indio crashed closer to large population centers," I whispered, closing my eyes.
Apparently mistaking my desire to block out the world as a cue for a romantic gesture, Josh leaned closer and brushed his lips against mine. Startled, I opened my eyes again with a start, jerking my head to one side, and Josh pulled back again. We sat there for a moment and blinked at each other, saying nothing.
"I'm not losing my touch, am I?" he asked finally, sounding like he was only half joking.
"I'm sorry. I've just got a-"
"A lot on your mind. Yeah."
The pause quickly turned into an awkward silence, and Josh drew back a little more, propping himself up on his elbow. "Whatever it is, I think you'd better just spill it, because I've just run through my entire inventory of Sam Seaborn distraction techniques."
I looked away from him. "I can't talk about it."
"Do you know how constantly I get that from you?" he complained. "You always keep everything important to yourself."
"Where did you pick that line up, your therapist?" I snapped back. Josh stared at me for a split second, shocked and wounded, and then sat up suddenly and withdrew so far from me that we weren't touching at all.
I pressed my fingers hard against the corners of my eyes. And here I was supposed to be the one who was *easy* to get along with. "Josh."
He didn't stir.
He slid over to the end of the couch, swinging his legs off the edge, and looked sharply away from me.
"You don't understand. I *can't* tell you. I'm not allowed to say anything to anyone."
He spun his head back around at me, eyes flashing. "You mean *legally*?"
The anger left his face and was replaced by confused concern. "You're in some legal trouble?"
"Well, no ... not really." I set the carton of Chinese food down on the coffee table and sat up. "It's more like ... an ethical dilemma."
"This doesn't have to do with Toby's leak, does it? The school vouch-"
"Then what, Sam?" Josh shook his head, his tone betraying his exasperation. "I'm running out of things to say, here. I think it's your turn to do the talking."
I drew in a slow breath, letting it out again in a whoosh. "I want to tell you. But if I do, I'm afraid I'm going to be doing it for the wrong reasons. It's privileged information."
Josh looked at me and shrugged, as if to say "Yeah, so?"
"On the other hand, lawyers always tell their spouses everything about their cases, and nobody objects to *that*," I continued, cocking my head to one side. "If anybody tried to claim that attorney-client privilege was breached because an attorney spoke to his own spouse about a case, no self-respecting judge would even listen to the end of the sentence before ruling that the privilege still applied."
I wasn't looking at Josh. I wasn't even really *talking* to Josh anymore -- I was tripping over my tongue, unable to stop myself from forging a direct connection between it and my brain.
"And you're not my *spouse*, exactly, but there have certainly been attempts to make an argument like that stick in court. It didn't work in Greenwald because New York state law doesn't extend spousal privilege to common-law marriages, even between opposite-sex partners, but the District of Columbia *does* recognize common-law marriages and even extends spousal privilege to them, so it's only a matter of time before a same-sex couple decides to test that. Of course, we'd run up against the problem that in order to meet the requirements for a common-law marriage in this jurisdiction, we'd have to prove intent to present ourselves to others as spouses, which you, of course, have never had any interest in doing. But I suppose we could always argue that we were doing exactly that when I spent all that time with you in the hospital, when they weren't allowing anybody in but family. I guess we were working with a different sort of 'spousal privilege' there ..."
I finally looked up at him. His back, stiff as a board, was pressed up firmly against the edge of the couch, and his eyes were wide and stricken.
I shook myself, propelling my body further backward, and bit hard into my tongue. "Forget it. I'm not making any sense. I- I'm really tired, and .... just forget about it. It'll blow over."
A long silence fell over the room -- a silence so uncomfortable that I could do nothing but avert my eyes so I couldn't see the look on his face when he said whatever was going to come out of his mouth in response. Those were fantasy thoughts to be reserved for moments of weakness, not to be contemplated consciously, and certainly not to be voiced aloud to Josh. I wondered if I had enough cash on me for the cab back to my place.
"Tell me." His voice was quiet.
I swallowed hard. "No, Josh, I shouldn't have even brought it up."
"Tell me," he repeated, more firmly this time. I looked over at him, and he lay a hand on my leg and squeezed. The deer-in-headlights look had disappeared, and now he just looked determined.
"Okay, this is your last chance to shut me up, because once I've told you, you can't pretend you haven't heard it."
"Oh, for God's sake." He rolled his eyes. "I went to law school."
"Okay, okay." I inhaled, holding my breath for a moment, and then let go. "Remember that deal I was working on at Gage Whitney? The thing I was just about to finish when I left?"
"Yeah. Some big oil company, right?"
He squinted slightly, and I watched as the expression on his face reflected the realization in his mind. "Kensington. Aren't they-"
"Yep. And guess who bought them a set of twenty-year-old single-hulled VLCCs and mortgaged the life out of them so Kensington could never be held financially responsible for a spill?"
His eyes flew open. "You're kidding me."
"And guess who changed his mind at the last minute and tried to get them to spend more money on a safer set of boats instead, and then bailed on them when they laughed in his face?"
"Oh, my God." He shook his head, incredulous. The corners of his eyes began to twitch, and he smiled. "You know if this ever gets out, the GDC is *really* going to have your head," he teased.
I flinched. "This isn't funny, Josh."
The smile erased itself from his face as quickly as it had formed. "You're really upset."
I lay back down against the couch and stared up at the ceiling. "This is my fault. The entire coastline is going to be ravaged by this spill, and it's *my fault*."
"Come on." He nudged my leg encouragingly. "You know it's not. This is what lawyers do. They make sure the questionable deals businesses would make anyway are at least legal. It's not like you're the only-"
"That doesn't make them *right*," I said through clenched teeth.
"Well, there's a reason why lawyers have a reputation for being second only to politicians in the slimeball department."
I rested my head on the pillow. I supposed that made me the biggest slimeball of them all.
"I don't know why you were so torn about telling me, anyway. I'm certainly not going to tip them off, no matter how much you might want me to."
"They've got to let me testify," I insisted.
Josh shook his head gently. "Privileged testimony, Sam? What good would that do anybody?"
I nodded, rubbing my eyes. "I know. But I've got to do *something*. I won't be able to look at myself in the mirror tomorrow morning if I don't."
"Increasing your donation to the Sierra Club this year won't cut it, huh?" He climbed back in next to me, his back against the couch and his hand on my stomach.
I pressed my lips together for a moment. "I think I owe a bigger debt to the world than that. Thousands of migratory shore birds are at risk. A lieutenant from the Coast Guard came by today, and she said that despite the fact that everybody's in on this -- the EPA, the NTSB, everybody -- they're still fighting a losing battle against time." I looked down at him, and our eyes met. "You know what she said to me?"
I shifted onto my side and scooted down so that we were lying nose to nose. "'Getting oil out of water? You try it sometime.' Like it's this completely impossible task that they still have to figure out some way of carrying out, because the consequences of not trying are too dire."
Josh shrugged. "Well, maybe you should."
"Maybe I should what?"
"They take civilian volunteers on this sort of thing, don't they?" he suggested, wrapping an arm around me. "You could go to Rehoboth Beach yourself and help with the cleanup effort."
The first thing that occurred to me was to wonder why I hadn't thought of that already. I could easily take a whole weekend away from the office if I started planning for it now. I knew enough about the details of oil spill cleanup at this point to actually be of some real use. All I'd have to do would be-
"We could both go."
And then it was out there. I stared at him, stunned. He couldn't take the words back, and even more incredibly, he didn't even look like he wanted to. The four words hovered in the small space between us on the couch like four bright lights that could either blind us or light our way.
"You owe me a trip, anyway, as you might recall," he teased, grinning and poking me lightly in the arm. "We were supposed to go to Virginia Beach back in February, and you flaked out on me at the last minute."
"This wouldn't be a vacation."
The grin left his face, and he nodded, his expression earnest. "I know."
I pulled back slightly, widening the gap between us. "Josh, they'd need us now. This weekend, at the latest. You didn't even have time for lunch today -- how could you justify going to Delaware in the middle of everything that's happening at the office?"
"By this weekend, Mexico will have paid back their loans, Dixon will be off our backs, and I'll be in the middle of whatever other unexpected disasters have come our way this week. You know that."
"All the more reason you shouldn't have to take the time."
"I didn't say I thought I *had* to take the time, okay? It's just-" He cut himself off, apparently realizing he wasn't convincing me. "Look, this is obviously important to you. I think we should do it."
I clamped down on the little piece inside of me that was starting to waver. That was the argument Josh always resorted to with me when nothing else was working -- *let's just do it, and it'll all work out in the end.* Because it was easier to "just do it" than to figure out what would happen when life threw us for a loop.
"You know they'd probably send the press out," I reminded him. "Two senior White House staffers help clean up after an oil spill-"
He rolled his eyes. "So we let 'em think this White House is so dedicated to helping clean up the environment that they sent us to do this personally. We could do worse things for our image."
The inside of my chest felt hollow, everything else I'd been feeling squeezed out by fear. I didn't want to say what needed to be said, didn't want to utter the words that would ruin the moment. But I couldn't let myself believe we could really do this big public thing together. When the chips were down, Josh was never willing to take that sort of risk. "People would wonder why," I murmured.
He touched a finger of protest lightly to my chest. "Wait, a minute ago you wanted to testify, and now you're worried about-"
"I don't mean they'd figure out I was the one who bought Kensington the boat, Josh." I grabbed his wrist and pushed his hand away.
Josh moved uneasily against the back of the couch and looked down at my chin.
I pressed on. "On top of everything else -- the letter we got during the campaign, how I slept in your room the first two weeks you were in the hospital, the fact that I've hardly seen the inside of my own apartment for the past three months, they're *going* to wonder why you and I, togeth-"
"Nobody's gonna wonder that," he blurted.
I shot him a dubious look. Even Josh didn't look like he really believed that this time.
"And if they do, well ..." He let his voice trail off, and then he shrugged. His eyes met mine, and the look in them was nervous, but stubborn. "I'm not gonna let that stop me from going to Delaware. Are you?"
I searched every inch of his face for a sign that he hadn't really thought this through, but found only a lingering anxiety covered almost entirely by a desire to do this incredible thing for me. And love. There was love there, too.
It wasn't always like this, not by any stretch of the imagination. But sometimes when I was able to take my head out of my ass long enough to really see this man who was with me against all odds, sometimes when he cut through all the sarcasm and secrecy and did something truly noble and tender, those were the times when this just ... worked. And when it worked, Joshua Lyman could reach inside my soul and touch me in places no one else could find. I reached for him, lacing my fingers through his hair at the nape of his neck. My eyes were wet.
He grinned. "So you'll go with me?"
I smiled back and nodded, reaching up to brush my thumb against his cheek with my other hand. He bent down closer to me, closing his eyes, and our lips met.
Josh pulled back just enough so that our eyes could focus on each other, our chins almost touching. "I think- I think sometimes you don't give me enough credit."
"Maybe that's because every time I've given you that kind of credit in the past, it's come back to haunt me," I mumbled.
He drew back further, hurt. "That's not fair."
I shifted my eyes away. Maybe it wasn't fair, but it was true.
"I know you are. It's just-"
"You keep raising the bar, Sam, and I keep jumping. And you know, I'm not sure if you've even been noticing, but you haven't tripped me up yet."
I looked back over at him. His expression was a little bit wistful, a little bit longing. He was right about that -- he hadn't backed out on a single promise this time around, hadn't even neglected any unspoken commitments. That was more than could be said for me.
"Just how high do I have to jump before you trust me again?"
"I do trust you."
"No, you don't. Not really."
"I'm trusting you here," I insisted. "I'm trusting that if we make this trip together, and we start getting direct questions about our relationship from the press as a result, you'll finally be willing to answer them truthfully. Now, you've never given me *any* reason to believe that you'd be willing to do anything like that -- in fact, you've given me plenty of reason to believe that while you may well have the best of intentions right now, if this goes down, you'll end up backing out on disclosure, and then we'll have to cover it all up with another lie. But I just said I thought we should go to Delaware together anyway. I don't know how much more I can trust you than that."
Josh sighed. It wasn't a sigh of contentment, but one of years of shared pain and attempts to wade through it to get to the joy on the other side. I moved my fingertips lightly over his face, and he rewarded me with a halfhearted smile. Moving my hand lower, I splayed my palm flat on his chest. He was worth it. He was worth all of it.
"Thank you," I whispered.
The solemn expression fled his face, and his tone grew playful. "Yeah, well, you owe me, now."
I tossed my head back and laughed at the sudden shift in mood. "Oh, so that's how it's going to be?"
I transformed my splayed palm into a pointing finger, poking him just above where his scar began. "Somehow I seem to remember that it was *your* idea that I tell you about this at all, not to mention your idea to go to Delaware." I smiled, teasing. "Besides, it's only fair that I get you to share the burden for this one, since it was your fault that I changed my mind on the deal."
"*My* fault?!" He rolled over on top of me, pinning me to the couch. "Now hold on-"
"I worked on that deal fourteen hours a day for three months," I insisted, struggling halfheartedly to break free from his grip. "They were going to make me partner because of it, and Jack Gage himself told me more than once how proud he was of me." I sat up a little. "Hell, *I* was proud of me -- I thought I was the greatest thing the legal profession had ever seen, and if I may be so arrogant, I wasn't entirely off-base on that. You think it's a coincidence that I walked away from all that the day after you showed up in my office?"
"No, but I hardly think you can blame me-"
"'I can't believe no one ever wrote a folk song about that'," I quoted at him.
"What?" He looked confused.
"That's what you said to me that day. I told you what I was doing at Gage, and you said 'I can't believe no one ever wrote a folk song about that.'"
Josh stared at me for a moment, incredulous. "Okay, you have a freakish memory and can quote my sarcastic remarks back at me verbatim four years later. I still don't see how that makes this my f-"
"I was supposed to have a final contract the next day, Josh, but instead I came in armed with oil spill statistics and data on the steering and navigation systems of large ships." I heard my voice grow more earnest, quieter, as I reached up to touch his face. "I had no choice at that point, you know? When we talked that morning, it was like ... hearing my conscience speaking."
"Wait a minute. Your conscience?"
I nodded, grinning.
"I got to be your conscience? *I* got to be *your* conscience?"
"That's what it felt like."
"There's something deeply weird about that, you know?" His words were critical, but his face held the widest grin I'd seen on him in months.
"It's not so weird," I insisted. "Any two people who have known each other as long as we have are bound to undergo the occasional role reversal."
"Is that right?" he asked, moving his head down to kiss my earlobe.
I felt the skin on my collarbone quiver where he was reaching inside my shirt to touch it with his tongue, and a tingle shot all the way down my spine. "Reversal into- reversal into opposite is one of the key mechanisms of the vicissitudes of the instincts, in fact, according to, uh .... Freud," I gasped.
"Isn't he the guy who thought a sneeze was the same thing as an orgasm?" he breathed against my neck.
I pushed his head back, determined to make my point. "He claimed that it's through those defenses that we prevent dangerous impulses from being carried through from the unconscious self to the conscious. So that sort of role reversal is, in fact, good for you."
"Sam?" Josh looked irritated, but amused.
He pressed me against the couch and kissed me hard on the mouth, forming a bubble around us that separated us from the universe and chased away any lingering thoughts of anything but Josh. "It's your conscience speaking," he said, pressing his forehead to mine.
I looked back at him, dazed. "And what is it saying this time?"
"Shut up," he mumbled, melting against me.
Back to the Big Block of Cheese Main Page