Title: The Decay of Lying
Author: Jae Gecko
Category: Josh/Sam (slash), Turning-universe.
Rating: R for language and -- how do they put it in the film industry? -- "sexual situations".
Spoilers: Extensive spoilers for "The Fall's Gonna Kill You" and "Two Cathedrals." Major spoilers for "Manchester" and "Gone Quiet". Brief, fleeting spoilers for "A Proportional Response", "He Shall, From Time to Time", "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen", "The Portland Trip", "Noel", "The Drop-In", "Somebody's Going to Emergency, Somebody's Going to Jail", "Bad Moon Rising", and "18th and Potomac".
Disclaimer: Sam Seaborn, Josh Lyman, Toby Ziegler, Donna Moss, Leo McGarry, C.J. Cregg, President Josiah Bartlet, Ginger, and Bonnie all belong to Aaron Sorkin, who is a far more talented writer than I am. Everyone else is mine.
Archive: Yes to list archives; all others please ask.
Summary: The fallout from the MS scandal in Sam and Josh's relationship. First-person, Sam's point of view.
Feedback: Send to email@example.com
Website: http://www.jaegecko.com/ for the other Turning-universe stories and some standalones.
Notes: This story picks up a few days after my "Interlude for Two Voices and a Cast of Thousands" ends, but you should be able to follow it even if you've never read a Turning universe story before. Matt's for Dafna. The couch in scene eight is for Richard.
Acknowledgements: Luna let me borrow her wit, successfully held back the steamroller, and was the principal architect of the added scene. Anna-Maria Jennings talked sharky plot with me more times than I can count for nearly a full year. Minna Leigh rescued scene seven and gifted me with her words. Rivka always, always knew what I was trying to do. Elizabeth Collins pointed out the obvious and the not-so-obvious. Adina Reeve figured it out. Dafna Greer joined Team Gecko and did the quick and dirty version. Another Juxtaposition was my one-woman cheering squad. kel brought the Michael Huffington, Stephanie C. brought the Cheryl Wheeler, and Mary Mac brought the beer.
"Watergate had been about nothing if not the Decay of Lying. All those men, defined just like the rest of us by history, made what they were by what they wanted, and each one engaged in highly public, theatrical, remarkably tedious bouts of denial: I didn't do it. I don't remember. I am not a crook. Those denials were not contrary to what the men were -- powerful leaders of a big, powerful country -- but rather a part of what they were, maybe the decisive part. Political disillusionment set me against denial. I would have to stop denying what I was (I am not a crook) and start affirming it (I am -- yes, yes, I am ...)." -- James Morrison, _Broken Fever_
The Decay of Lying by Jae Gecko
The guy with C.J. looked familiar.
I glanced down at my desk, pulled my glasses from under an inch-deep pile of SME notes, and put them on. The guy in the bullpen was a little taller than me, with short brownish-blond hair that curled a little at his temples. He was wearing a jacket, but no tie. A visitor's pass hung around his neck in its place, and since he was talking to C.J., I had to assume that he was probably a journalist of some kind, but I couldn't place him.
Giving my head a quick shake, I forced my concentration back down to my desk and picked up the page of notes Bonnie had dug up for me about last year's bitter debate over raising the minimum wage. We hadn't yet decided to bring up the issue in the speech, but it didn't hurt to be prepared one way or the other. Over 90% of all U.S. firms are SMEs, I jotted in the margin. This audience would know that, of course, but it wouldn't hurt to remind them that we knew it, too.
C.J. burst out laughing, and I glanced back up again. The guy was grinning. He tossed his head back in a gesture I somehow knew to read as casual confidence, and all at once I was absolutely certain that this was someone I'd seen before. I squinted at him, as if blurring my everyday surroundings might knock something into place in my mind, and he turned a little so that he was facing my office. As he reached up to run his fingers through the hair at the nape of his neck, his eyes met mine. He lifted his chin in some sort of silent greeting, smiling. His eyes held a spark of recognition, and I squinted again, curling my fingers around the front edge of my desk.
C.J. walked him to the door, and I watched him leave. Shaking off the feeling that the answer was just out of my reach, I looked back down at my notes. I picked up an editorial written by the chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce about the necessity of further capital gains tax reform and sighed. Bonnie had marked this one with three asterisks on a yellow sticky note, but we definitely weren't going there. Not with a reelection campaign to launch.
"How was Delaware?"
I lifted my chin. C.J. was standing in the doorway, one hand on her hip. "I think it went pretty well," I said, tilting my head to one side. I'd only mentioned the trip briefly on Friday to let her in on why I'd wanted to be sure to leave the office at a reasonable hour. I'd told her the truth -- that I would be volunteering to help clean up after an oil tanker had crashed into the shore -- though I'd left out the part about having bought the boat for them in the first place.
"Did you have a good time?" She stepped toward me into my office, her legs brushing against the back of my desk.
"C.J., I spent the weekend cleaning up after an oil spill. Frankly, the fact that you'd even ask that question is making me a little worried for your social life."
"Do you have any blisters to show off?" Her lips turned up in a smirk.
"Mostly I just carried wheelbarrows and shovels down to the beach," I said, ignoring her mocking tone. "But I did get to help install a floating blockade in the water on Saturday afternoon."
C.J. laughed and held up a hand. "Did you, like, wear those plastic waterproof pants that you-"
"This was serious, okay?" I narrowed my eyes at her. "They say the volunteers went a long way toward helping contain the spill. It's not like we were out there working on our tans."
"Nobody in the press room has asked about it."
I nodded. "Good."
"And that surprises me, since this is exactly the sort of human interest story they like to run on the weekend." She leaned toward me over the desk, waiting for me to fill the silence. When I didn't, she continued. "Which suggests to me that they're not asking about it because they don't know you were there."
I looked up at her, keeping my expression carefully blank. "I decided it would be better if I didn't give my full name."
"I'm just saying that it wouldn't exactly hurt our credibility with the GDC if I were to-"
"No." My tone was firm.
"No *what*, Sam?"
"If one of them brings it up, you can go ahead and tell them what I told you, but I'm not going to give a press conference about this." I glanced back down at my desk, picking up the capital gains editorial and sliding it into a file folder.
My head snapped up. "Because it's none of their business, that's why!" I said, more loudly than I'd meant to. C.J. took a step back, and I pressed my lips together. "Josh doesn't think this is something we should spin," I added, lowering my voice. "And I agree with him."
C.J.'s eyebrows flew up, and a look of realization crossed her face. "Josh went with you."
I opened my mouth to protest, and then closed it again. Although my relationship with Josh was hardly a regular topic of conversation with the press secretary, she was certainly aware of it. "Yes," I admitted.
She nodded slowly, grinning. "He went with you."
I tried to suppress the smile that tugged at the corners of my mouth, but it crept across my lips despite my efforts. I'd expected him to find some reason to back out of the trip to Delaware right up until the moment when his car had pulled up in front of my apartment, but he'd been right there all weekend. He'd borrowed a slicker and a pair of boots and waded into the water along with the rest of us to skim slick black pools from its surface. We hadn't shared a hotel room, but he hadn't pretended we'd been there separately, either, even after the camera crews had shown up.
"Okay, then," C.J. said, like that changed everything, and turned to leave.
"Hey, who was that guy?"
She glanced at me over her shoulder. "What guy?"
"That guy you were talking to a couple of minutes ago. Out in the bullpen."
C.J.'s forehead wrinkled, and then she nodded, remembering. "Oh, you mean the reporter. That was the new correspondent from the Boston Globe. Andrew Keller. I was just giving him the ten-cent tour."
"Andrew Keller." My lips went numb. The last time I'd seen Andy Keller, I'd been twenty years old, and he'd been pressing his phone number into my hand after the end of a rather eventful week-long student journalism seminar in D.C.
"From the Boston Globe," C.J. repeated, grabbing the doorframe on her way out. "But don't worry, I didn't breathe a word about your secret rendezvous with a containment boom."
"I appreciate that," I called after her, thankful that she was gone before she could hear the tremor in my voice.
I looked back down at my desk, but I wasn't really seeing it. Memories flashed across my mind: my first glimpse of Andy at the bus station, his nervous excitement at the Grenada press conference at the Pentagon, a walk back over a bridge across the Potomac. His hair, longer then, spread across my chest in a hotel room later that evening. I swallowed. C.J. was going to kill me.
I couldn't imagine Josh was going to be too thrilled, either.
I pushed my chair back. Nothing was forcing me to tell C.J. Andy had recognized me, but he hadn't even stopped to say hello, and he obviously hadn't let on to her that he even knew who I was. Josh, on the other hand, really had to be told. Pulling myself to a standing position, I walked over to the door. I think sometimes you don't give me enough credit, he'd said, on the night he'd suggested we go to Delaware together. He had surprised me then. Maybe he would again.
"Hey, Ginger?" I called out into the bullpen, and she glanced up from her desk. "Could you have Donna send Josh down when he's got a spare minute?"
"She was just here, actually. She said Josh was in the Oval."
"Okay, it's not urgent, just ... whenever he's free."
I looked over at the space in the middle of the room where C.J. and Andy had stood only moments before. It was amazing how the past just never quite seemed to stay where you had left it.
"Is something wrong?" Ginger asked, peering up at me.
I shook my head. "No, it's nothing. Nothing important."
"Donna says he's been in there since before she got here this morning, so I can't imagine he'll be that much longer," she added.
That was a long time to spend locked away with the President. "Okay, thanks."
I walked back into my office and sank back into my chair. This didn't have to be a thing. So maybe it did look bad that I'd once come pretty close to sleeping with a guy who would now be a permanent fixture in C.J.'s press room, reporting on activities within the White House. But it had been almost twenty years ago, and we'd been only twenty years old. Andy had probably slept with lots of guys back then, maybe even other kids at the seminar. Maybe he didn't even remember where he knew me from. I pulled my chair in toward my desk and picked up a pen.
My head jerked up. Josh was leaning against the doorframe, tracing the outline of his brow with his fingers. His face was drawn, and I remembered that he'd been up and gone that morning before I'd even made it out of bed. "Hey," I answered.
"Donna said you were looking for me?" he asked, his voice far too tired for the early hour.
"Yeah, I wanted to run something by you," I said carefully.
Josh grabbed the doorknob. "Is this a closed-door or an open-door meeting?" I blinked, holding my breath. I let it out slowly through my nose and opened my mouth. Josh sighed. "I'm closing the door."
I nodded. "Yeah, okay."
He walked over to the chair next to my desk and collapsed into it, slouching down to rest his head against the top of the chair back. He closed his eyes for a moment. I weaved the pen between my fingers, bending them tightly at the knuckles. "Have you ever wondered about the ratio between bad news and good news around here?" he asked. "I mean, doesn't it seem like things are, like, seriously biased in one direction?"
My chest felt tight. Here I was, about to pile some more on. "This can wait."
"No, it's- it's ... okay." Josh lifted his head and looked at me. "What's up?"
I clicked my pen closed and set it on the desk. "Thirty-second hypothetical."
I inhaled a breath. "What do you think C.J. would do if she found out that one of the senior staff had slept with a member of the press corps?"
A look of relief spread across Josh's face, and he cocked his head to one side. "Well, that depends. If we're talking about *you*, I think she'd probably pause just long enough before wringing your neck to ask whether it was possible for you to have a sex life without making a media incident out of it." I felt my forehead wrinkle. Josh raised both eyebrows. "Wait a minute. "This *is* just a hypothetical, right?"
I leaned back into my chair, uncrossing my legs. "Um."
Josh sat bolt upright on the edge of the chair. "Sam? Ah ... just what are you telling me, here?"
My eyes widened. "God, no. Josh. No." I splayed both palms in the air in front of me. "I- it was a long time ago. Before- before I even knew you. I was twenty years old. You know I'd never-"
"Yeah, okay." Josh's shoulders lowered, and the look of relief returned to his face. He leaned back again against the chair. "So wait- how did you end up in bed with a member of the press corps when you were twenty years old?"
"It was at a student journalism seminar," I explained. "We were both young, and it was in the middle of the Grenada crisis, and we'd just had this crazy day where we walked out on these lectures to go over to the Pentagon and sit in on a press conference ... it was- I don't know- it seemed like this big adventure, and somehow, after all that, we ended up in bed." I paused for a moment, studying his face. He didn't look angry, and the tension in my shoulders eased a bit. "It was harmless, really."
"Well, I hardly think C.J. could hold it against you that you couldn't see into the future and recognize that it would be a bad idea to sleep with some kid who'd someday be a member of the White House Press Corps."
"Yeah, that's what I was thinking," I said, my tone several shades brighter.
Josh's face burst into a playful grin. "Which one of 'em is she?"
"The girl you slept with, Sam, who do you think I mean? You're not gonna get out of telling me the rest, here."
I pushed my chair away from my desk. "Uh-"
"No, wait, let me guess." Josh reached over and planted his elbow on the edge of my desk, waving a hand in the space between us. "It's Kate Hayden from the Chicago Sun Times. She's got this way of looking at you whenever you-"
"Josh, it's not Kate Hayden," I said, cutting him off. "It's the new Boston Globe correspondent. Andrew Keller."
Josh's cheeks hollowed. His lips shriveled into a pucker, like he had just swallowed something sour. "Andrew ... Keller."
"He was just here in the bullpen, talking to C.J., and I thought I recognized him from somewhere. It turned out I did."
Josh looked dazed. "Oh."
I stared at him. The fact that Andy was a guy shouldn't have changed anything, but for Josh it seemed to turn this situation from some fun new thing to hassle me about into a major ordeal. I struggled not to let my irritation show on my face.
"So you slept with some guy who's now a member of the press corps," he said, his voice dull and expressionless.
"Actually, we never got quite that far. Technically."
"You never got that-"
"I mean, really, it was almost nothing. It was just ten minutes or so, and we didn't even-"
"Sam," he said sharply. He looked down at his lap, shuddering, and I pressed my lips together. "So wait. This means- so a member of the press corps knows-"
"Yeah." I shrugged.
"I'm sure he's not going to *write* about it, if that's what you're worried about," I snapped. "I don't think he'd consider it to have been that memorable."
"I don't even ..." His voice trailed off, and he grabbed the arms of the chair. "Wait, let me think about this."
We sat there in silence. Josh seemed to be trying to rub the lines out of his forehead. I could almost see the synapses firing in his brain. "So it's not a problem if it was a woman, but if it was a man we've got to sit here and ruminate about it?" I finally said, an unmistakable note of defensiveness creeping into my voice.
Josh shook his head. "Are we ruminating?"
"If this had really been about Kate Hayden, you'd be teasing me about- about the color of her underwear or something."
"Come on, Sam, that's hardly a fair comparison," he said, his voice low.
"Oh, would you be *serious* for one minute?"
"You tell me, then," I said. My tone was defiant. "What's the difference?"
Josh leaned across my desk, his face flushed. "Because if this Andrew Keller guy knows about *you*, that's only one more step to figuring out about *us*, that's the difference!"
I leaped to my feet. "And for you it always boils down to that, doesn't it?"
"Sam ... I'm not freaking out, okay?" He leaned against the back of his chair. "I'm sitting here, I'm listening, it's just- just- give me a minute."
He tilted his head back again, staring up at the ceiling. I sat down again, watching his expression carefully. He looked more exhausted than angry. I folded my hands and set them against the edge of the desk, waiting.
"It's just a little weird, that's all," he said finally, not looking at me.
"To think of you ... with another guy."
"You knew there were guys before you," I reminded him.
"Yeah." He sighed, still looking up at the ceiling.
"None since, though," I said, trying to sound reassuring.
He lifted his head, and his eyes met mine. "I know."
"I don't even really know this guy. There's no reason to get-"
"I'm not. It's just-"
"Weird," I repeated.
I scrutinized his face. There was no hint of the kind of anger Josh always displayed whenever Lisa's name came up. This wasn't jealousy; it was something else.
"You're right -- it's probably nothing to worry about." He rubbed the back of his neck.
Josh looked past me at an empty spot in the middle of the room, his forehead wrinkling.
"Hey," I said, gently, and he sighed again. "You okay?"
I rolled my chair closer to him and nudged the side of his foot with my own. I wanted to reach for his hand, but I held my fingers in check.
He looked up at me and blinked. "It's just- it seems like every time I think I have a handle on all this, something else happens. There's always some major thing that we haven't taken into account, and all of a sudden everything's completely different."
"It isn't any different, though," I said. "Not really."
"Yeah," Josh breathed. He sounded anything but certain.
"Hey, remember how you were speculating about what might be going on with Toby?" I asked, glancing briefly at Josh as I ran hot water over my dinner plate. The remains of congealed fat and pizza sauce ran down the drain, and I tucked the plate into Josh's dishwasher.
"Mmm." Josh didn't look up. He was staring so intently at the newspaper spread out in front of him that it almost didn't look like he was reading it.
The 'Sam's past comes back to haunt him' debacle of this afternoon had subsided, and we'd managed to find time to eat together for the second time in a week. Okay, so maybe it was just takeout, but compared with the status quo, this was the White House staffers' equivalent of domestic bliss. "Well, I think it's over," I said, nudging the dishwasher closed with my foot.
"You think it's- you think what's over?" He raised his chin just enough to glance in my general direction. "What are you talking about?"
"Last week you were saying you thought something might be going on with Toby. You know, because he was so pissed off," I elaborated, wiping off the counter. "Something other than the school vouchers. Would you pass me that box?" I pointed at the empty pizza box shoved carelessly over to the other end of the table.
"Oh." Josh blinked. He nodded absently at me. "Oh yeah, right." He reached over and passed the pizza box to me across the counter, giving it a little push.
I turned the faucet off with the side of my hand and grabbed the box, folding it twice. "I was just thinking about how lately he's seemed ... I don't know, a little calmer. I haven't heard him yell at anybody for the last couple of days, really." I reached under the sink and stuffed the pizza box into the trash. "And he's letting me completely take the reins on the SME speech. You know, the thing for Chicago? It was supposed to be his baby initially, but he's had a change of heart or something. So maybe whatever it was has blown over."
Josh rubbed his forehead and glanced back down at the paper. "Yeah, maybe."
I leaned across the counter, laying my forearms flat across it. "Anyway, he's still the official point of contact for the speech, so I told him he could reach me here tonight if anything comes up that he needs to pass on to me right away."
Josh lifted his head and looked at me. "Wait, what did you do?"
"I told Toby he could call me here tonight, in case anything-"
"Couldn't he have called you on your cell?"
"I had to recharge it, so I left it at the office," I explained, and Josh grimaced. "He knows, Josh," I insisted. "There's no reason to hide anything from him."
He looked back down at the paper. "I guess not."
I watched Josh out of the corner of my eye as I washed my hands, rinsing the last of the crumbs out of the sink. He was staring at the paper, his head propped up against his left hand. I looked back down at the sink and smiled. Two dinners, this week. If I got the first draft of the SME speech done by the end of the day tomorrow, maybe we'd even be able to make it three.
Sometimes it was easy to forget just how far we'd come. During the campaign Josh had been too afraid to let even C.J. know about us, and that had caused so many problems that it had finally broken us up. This time, Josh had been the one to tell C.J., and when he'd realized that Toby probably knew, he'd been uncomfortable, but he hadn't tried to back out of anything.
I wiped my hands on the dishtowel, draping it over the edge of the sink to dry, and crossed into the dining area to stand behind Josh. I rested my hands on his shoulders, letting my fingers curl around his collarbone. "I've been wondering if maybe we shouldn't just go ahead and tell the rest of the senior staff," I said quietly.
Josh snorted. "Oh, yeah, sure, and let's go ahead and take an ad out in the Post while we're at it."
"It wouldn't have to be a big thing," I said, squeezing his right shoulder. "We could just say it kind of ... nonchalantly."
"You never do anything nonchalantly." He didn't look up.
My fingers stiffened, and I lifted my hands from his shoulders. "We should at least say something to Leo." I stepped to Josh's side so that he could see me.
He looked up in surprise, as if realizing for the first time that I might be serious. "What? Why?"
"He probably knows already. He's pretty observant, Josh. If Toby's figured it out, I can't imagine Leo hasn't. Especially since he knows about me."
Josh leaned back. The corner of his mouth twitched, and it fell open.
"Hold on." I folded my arms, feeling my entire body stiffen. "Why is it okay for C.J. to know, but it's not-"
"It wasn't *my* idea to tell her." He glowered at me.
"And back when we realized Toby probably knew, you and I had a perfectly normal, reasonable conversation about it." I leaned closer to him. "So what the hell is this?"
"What do you-"
"What's the big deal with Leo knowing?" I said, spreading both hands in front of me. "What's going on?"
Josh stood, turning away from me. "I was just about to ask you that! You're totally overreacting, here."
"Don't change the subject. Why *shouldn't* we tell Leo?"
"Leo's like ..." He turned back around toward me, glaring. "Come on, Sam, you know."
"Okay, then pretend I don't." I trapped two tight fists beneath my elbows, pressing them close to my body.
"He's known me since I was a kid. He was a friend of my dad's-"
"What does that have to do with anything?" A clot of bile lodged itself in the back of my throat. He had made me believe he was getting over this.
He threw his arms out to his sides. "What, are *you* gonna tell *your* dad about us?"
I took a step toward him. I could feel my cheeks begin to flush. "Okay, first of all, it's your idea to keep this a secret, so don't you *dare* act like it has anything to do with me. Second, Leo's not your dad. And *fuck* you for bringing *my* dad into this."
"I didn't mean-"
"He's not your dad, Josh, he's your boss."
He took an almost imperceptible step backward and held up a hand. "All I meant was that there's absolutely no reason to tell Leo other than your-"
"Why don't you want Leo to know about us?" I asked again.
"Because he saw me in my Little League uniform, okay?" he sputtered, gesturing with both hands in the air. "I just don't want him to take this the wrong way. I just don't want him to think ..." He let his voice trail off.
"What?" I urged. "What don't you want him to think?"
"I don't want him to think this means anything!"
My stomach lurched. Everything that came out of his mouth sounded worse than what had come before. "You mean it *doesn't* mean anything? Well, it's good to finally find that out, after six months of-"
"Of course *we* mean ..." He looked down at the floor and rubbed his forehead. "I'm talking about *me*. I don't want Leo to think this means anything about me."
I rolled my eyes and jerked my head up, stalking away from him. It shouldn't have surprised me that Josh could still be guilty of this sort of self-deception. This couldn't have been more typical.
Josh followed me into the living room and reached for my arm. "What? What's going on *now*?"
I spun around. "For such a brilliant guy, you can be pretty damn stupid."
"All I'm saying is that if we tell Leo, then he's bound to think it's about me. That I'm- I mean, I want *you*." He was rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. "This has always been about you, for me. You know that."
I stared at him. He apparently thought that was supposed to sound romantic. "You honestly don't think the fact that you want me means anything about you?" Discomfort flooded Josh's face, and his expression pleaded with me to drop it, but I couldn't stop. "I can't believe you've gotten so used to denying this that you won't even admit it to yourself."
"Are you saying you think I'm gay?"
"Are *you* saying you think you're *straight*?"
He shook his head, clenching two fists at his sides. "You're the only guy I've ever wanted to-"
"You know what? I don't believe you."
Josh stared at me for a moment, stunned. "What?"
"I don't believe you," I repeated, like I was speaking to a small child. "I don't believe I was the first guy you were ever attracted to, Josh. You were twenty-five when you met me, and I was in your bed within two months. You weren't some kid experimenting. You might not have actually done anything about it before that, but you wanted it. You wanted to have sex with a guy."
"I wanted to have sex with *you*." His voice was low, almost threatening.
"Well, I'd have thought you might have noticed by this point that I do, in fact, possess all of the necessary masculine body parts," I mocked.
"And you were the only guy back then, and you're the only one now. I don't see how that makes me-"
"Yeah, sure, whatever," I said, looking away. "I didn't believe you when you told me that fifteen years ago, either, but somehow I never imagined you'd still be such a closet case at this point in your life."
"Do you have any idea what you're sounding like tonight?" Josh took a step toward me, and I leaned backward. "This is real life, Sam, and it's a hell of a lot more complicated than 'we're here, we're queer, get used to it'."
"If you're seriously going to reduce over three decades of rhetoric to ..." I let my voice trail off as my throat became so tight that I couldn't speak. So far back in the closet he can't see the light of day, the head of the Gay Alliance of Princeton had once said about a high-profile English professor. I'd laughed along with the rest of them, but now it seemed anything but funny. "Do you have any idea what kinds of cracks we used to make about people like you?"
" 'We?' " Josh yelled, his voice breaking. " 'People like you?' What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
I stepped away from him. "You may be able to make the rest of the world believe you're straight, Josh, but I'll be damned if you're going to convince me."
"What's this about, Sam?" Josh demanded, reaching out to wrap a fist around my arm. "What's this *really* about?"
"Don't you get it?" I yelled back, shaking off his touch. "It's about the fact that if you want to sleep with guys, then you can say you're gay, you can say you're bisexual, but you don't get to say you're straight! It's about the fact that you *still* want to go on lying to yourself about that, the same way you want to keep lying to everybody else!"
"*You* were the one who originally said we had to hide this, back in New Hampshire. You said it was for Bartlet-"
"Oh, for God's sake, I'm not talking about the President. You're so fucking delusional, I can't stand it."
We stared at each other for a long moment. The room was so silent that all I could hear was the hissing of my own breath. Josh's face was blood red, the veins pulsing in his neck above his loosened collar. My vision blurred, and the edges of the room seemed to glow orange like a slow fire that had been burning so long we'd grown used to it. My eyes dared him to look away first, and he finally did.
"You know what?" he said quietly, without glancing back up. "I think I'd rather sleep alone tonight."
For a split second it occurred to me that this was the first time in fifteen years that Josh had ever told me to leave, but I was so angry that it didn't matter. Tearing my gaze away from him, I stalked over to the front closet, retrieved my coat, and left.
"We have to commit to staying the course," I read aloud from the page lying on the table in front of me. "We have to be decisive about sticking with the economic policy that has worked for the past two and a half years: fiscal discipline accompanied by a strong investment in education, research, and development." I looked up at the staff assembled around the table in the Roosevelt Room. "That's where Chris's Internet usage statistics will come in."
All eight of them scribbled simultaneously on the paper in front of them. I glanced past Bonnie over to the door and caught sight of Donna walking down the hall outside. I leaned forward, craning my neck to follow her with my gaze. She was carrying a stack of files, and she disappeared out of sight just outside of Leo's office. I'd been waiting for over an hour for Josh to come out of his meeting with Leo, but grabbing Donna and letting her know I was looking for him sounded like the next best thing at this point.
"Have you made a decision yet on the thing with the uncle?" Bonnie asked.
I reached across the table for my glasses and stood up, still watching the hallway through the closed glass door. After waking up alone in my own bed for the first time in weeks, last night's conversation with Josh had seemed more like the rantings of two exhausted White House staffers than anything earth-shattering. I knew I had to apologize before things got out of hand. "The what?"
"His uncle," Bonnie clarified, looking down at her own copy. "Middle of page one. 'As I travel across the country and listen to the struggles of business owners, I'm often reminded of my uncle, who ran a small business and worked hard every day to provide for his family.' Et cetera. Are we keeping that?"
"Let's leave it in for now." I glanced at her briefly before turning back to watch Donna walking back down the hall. I stepped over to the door. "Excuse me a moment."
"You said you'd let us know-"
"It's okay for now," I repeated, swinging the door open. "Donna," I called out as she disappeared down the hall, and she spun around. "Could you send Josh back down when he's got a moment?"
"He's in with Leo," she said, pointing past me toward the Chief of Staff's office.
"I know. When he's done, could you send him back down?"
"Sure." She nodded. "You'll be in the Roosevelt Room?"
"Yeah." I grabbed hold of the doorknob. "Thanks."
Paul's whiny voice carried into the hall as soon as I opened the door. "I'm just saying that this whole section sounds an awful lot like what we tried to do in New Orleans last winter, and you know how that went over." He pressed the stem of his thick glasses between his fingers.
"And I'm just saying that New Orleans isn't Chicago," Bonnie argued. "For that matter, it's 2001, and the numbers have been a lot-"
"Trouble in paradise?" I asked, staring down at both of them.
"It's fine," Bonnie said.
"I was just telling Bonnie that we might want to think about changing the wording about the tax cut," Paul supplied. "Because of what happened in New Orleans."
Bonnie leaned back in her chair and stared pointedly at Paul. "And *I* was just saying that this wasn't something to bother Sam with."
"Okay, how about this." I paused long enough to give Bonnie time to get her pen ready and stepped toward the chair in front of the fireplace. "The debate over a tax cut -- whether to have one or not, how large it should be, how small it should be, what share should be received by whom -- all of this, my friends, is the wrong debate at the wrong time over the wrong issue."
Turning around, I saw Donna's face in the window again and motioned for her to come in. She opened the door, and I looked at her with expectant eyes. "Josh said to come down to his office if you wanted to talk to him," she said.
"Oh." I felt my chest clench. "Did he seem ..." I cut myself off, pressing my tongue between my front teeth.
"Did he seem what?"
I glanced down at the eight pairs of eyes around the table, all of them on me. "Nothing," I said, shaking my head.
The door on the opposite side of the room creaked open, and Ginger poked her head in. "Toby wants you."
"Toby wants me right *now*?" I asked, failing to suppress my irritation.
"Because you're an extremely attractive man?"
I stared at her, shocked. The silence that fell over the room was immediately followed by a burst of raucous laughter.
"Was that too far?" she said innocently, not even cracking a smile. Her wide eyes blinked.
I brought both hands to my waist. They were still laughing. "I think that counted as insubordination, frankly."
A devious glint flickered across her eyes. "But you're not my boss, and Toby didn't hear me."
I heard Donna snort from the doorway, and I whirled my head around to glare at her before looking back at Ginger. "That doesn't mean you can say stuff like that!"
"But you *are* an extremely attractive man." Donna said, and Ginger giggled.
"You should speak up a little, Donna," Toby said, appearing behind Ginger in the doorway. "I'm not sure the President caught that last bit."
My eyes darted between the two sides of the room. "Toby, I want my own assistant."
"Fine," he said, stepping back and motioning for me to follow him. "We'll pull our budget back from Congress and add that in. In the meantime, come to my office."
"Hey, do you guys really need Josh for this?" Donna asked, pointing over her shoulder. "Because if you don't, I'll just-"
"No," Toby said.
"Yes!" I insisted. My voice was loud with unchecked desperation.
"No," Toby repeated as he disappeared back into the communications bullpen, leaving no doubt that I was meant to be right behind him.
I gave Donna a helpless look. "Tell him I'll be down in a couple of minutes," I said, and she grinned as she closed the door behind her. I surveyed the staff, nodding once each at the two sides of the room. "Have a look at the next paragraph in the tax cut section, and we'll fix the transition."
I followed Ginger out of the Roosevelt Room and across the hall to Toby's office. He was already seated behind his desk when I walked in. He shoved a piece of paper off to the side of the desk and glanced up. "I've actually- I've got to run down to Josh's office." I gestured toward the door behind me with my thumb.
"Toby?" Ginger's voice carried over my shoulder, and I turned. She was standing in the doorway, her hand on the knob. "Josh sent down those stats you wanted on the governors of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and-"
"Hang on to 'em for a minute, would you?" Toby interrupted. Ginger took a step backward, closing the door behind her.
I frowned. "Why are we looking at the governors of Midwestern industrial states?"
Toby leaned back in his chair, ignoring my question. "Look, I ran into Justin Aldrich from the CBO about half an hour ago on the Hill, and he let it slip that when they release the projections on the surplus later this week, they're probably gonna be pretty up there."
I felt my shoulders sag. That certainly wasn't going to make it any easier to say anything real in this speech. "How up there?"
"He wouldn't say, but we're gonna have to be ready to hold back on any strong language opposing tax cuts for a while, and that goes double for Chicago."
"Are they going to have the official estimates before we're finished with the draft?"
"They should be out by the middle of the week."
I shrugged, nodding. "Well, at least that's something." Toby looked down at his desk, and I turned to leave.
He peered up at me. "You're not really getting your own assistant."
"I didn't think so," I said, walking out of his office.
I swallowed the tension in my throat and headed down to the other end of the West Wing, trying to erase the image of Josh's angry face from my thoughts. We'd both behaved out of character last night. I had overreacted and screamed at him, and Josh had been exhausted and angry enough to tell me to leave. It had to be fixable with a few key words. And while I wasn't the one who usually needed to fix things, words were one thing I did have at my disposal.
I rounded the corner, catching a glimpse of Donna standing half in and half out of Josh's office. He hadn't been willing to come back down to the Roosevelt Room. He'd sent Donna in his place. I swallowed hard and stopped walking. This was probably going to be easier if I didn't think too hard about what that might have meant.
Taking a deep breath, I stepped over to stand directly behind Donna. Josh was sitting behind his desk, one hand woven through his hair. He looked up at me. "Hey," I said. I tried to smile.
Josh brought his hands down to grip the arms of his chair and leaned back. "Hey."
"Sam told Toby he wants his own assistant," Donna said cheerfully. "Looks like he recognizes what a valuable role we play around this place."
"He did, huh?" Josh glanced at Donna, and then back at me. "Look, if you're coming down to ask if you can borrow Donna-"
"I don't want- why would I want Donna?" My forehead wrinkled.
"Because she's an extremely attractive woman?" she said, echoing Ginger's innocent tone.
Josh raised an eyebrow. "What?"
"Nothing," I said quickly.
"Actually, I was just about to say you could have her," Josh exhaled, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Oh. Great. Thanks." Donna's face settled into a pout. "If you need me, I'll be looking for an intern to help me pull the knife out of my self-esteem."
"Don't bleed on the carpet," Josh called out after her, and she disappeared down the hall into her own office. He scooted his chair back toward his desk and picked up a pen, scribbling a note on the page in front of him.
I stood in the doorway for a moment, watching him, but he didn't look up. His desk was piled high with paperwork, and three thick hardbound volumes flanked his elbow. I leaned against the shelf along the wall, feeling the sharp corner press into the small of my back. Pushing the door mostly closed, I stepped into his office.
Josh lifted his eyes, but not his chin. "What do you need, Sam?"
I glanced quickly at the door, then back at Josh. "I think we should talk about what happened last night."
Josh looked back down at his desk. "It seemed to me like you pretty much said everything there was to say about that."
"I didn't mean- I was way out of line. On a bunch of things." I kept my eyes fixed on the top of Josh's head, but he didn't look up. "I'm sorry."
He raised his head and met my eyes, staring silently.
"I shouldn't have called you a closet case," I continued. "I really shouldn't have gone as far as-"
"Torremolinos," C.J. announced, pushing the door open.
I stepped to the side and glared at her. "Aren't you supposed to knock, or something?"
C.J. waved a piece of paper in front of her. "There's been a- a riot, or something, in Torremolinos. I'm trying to figure out where it is."
"They're rioting in Torremolinos?" Josh asked her.
"How can they be rioting in Torremolinos?" He planted an elbow on his desk and gestured at C.J. with an open palm. "What, are they all flamenco dancing at each other and wielding sharp, pointed fish?"
"I haven't seen the footage," she deadpanned, and I pressed my lips together. "Do you know where it is?" she repeated.
"You can't find a map in this place?" asked Josh. "Like, I swear we have a room, or something."
She planted a hand on her hip and rolled her eyes. "Oh, right, and put myself in the position of having to decide between the Mercator projection and the Peters projection and the cartographers-need-to-get-a-life projection? I'd rather come and ask you, thanks."
"Isn't it somewhere in, like, Portugal?" Josh's monotone betrayed his utter lack of interest.
"It's in Andalucia," I said finally, exasperated. "That's in southern Spain."
"You sure, Sparky?" she asked, looking over at me for the first time. "When you don't volunteer elaborate navigational instructions, I have to double-check."
"I'm sure," I said through clenched teeth.
"Thanks." She closed the door behind her as she left.
An uncomfortable silence filled the small room. My eyes were still locked on Josh, and he stared back. I tilted my head back toward the door. "These things should really come equipped with locks."
Josh sighed, rubbing his forehead. "Believe me, this isn't the first time I've wished they did."
"Maybe you could get Donna to rig something," I suggested.
"Naw, she'd probably come at it with a couple of screws and a ball of twine."
He leaned back again, tipping his chair until it squeaked, and looked up at me. A tight-lipped smile finally formed on his face, and I echoed it back at him.
I stepped toward his desk and down on the edge of the chair opposite him. "You sent Toby some personal stats on a bunch of Midwestern governors?" I asked, stalling.
Josh blinked. "He told you about that?"
"I was standing in his office when they got there."
"Yeah." Josh let out his breath and reached up to grab the back of his neck. "It was about the- the thing with the-"
"We don't have to tell Leo," I finally said. "I mean, if you're not ready."
His eyes shifted away. "Sam-"
"I just thought that since C.J. and Toby both know, it would make sense to finally stop carrying this big secret around with us wherever we go. But you're right, there's no specific reason to tell any of the rest of them now. And it's certainly true that if more people know, it's more likely that the news will eventually find its way out into the papers, and while I still don't think that would be the absolute worst thing that could happen to us, it could certainly make things difficult. For the President. And for us, of course. At least temporarily."
Josh folded his hands along the edge of his desk, resting his elbows on the arms of his chair. He shrugged slightly. "Okay."
"I mean, there's no sense in-"
"Sam, it's okay. Just- let's just drop it, all right? It's okay."
The silence returned, and Josh leaned his head to one side, stretching his neck. My fingers itched to reach over and rub it. I swallowed. "So ... we're good?"
"Yeah." He shrugged again, giving me a half-smile. "Of course we're good."
I spread my hands out on my desk, one on either side of the neat stack of paper in front of me. It was a good draft. I placed my pen across the top of the speech, leaning back to study it. Set your knife along the top edge of your plate, my dad had always said, reaching across the table to demonstrate how it should look. That way people will know you're finished. Well, this thing was as finished as it was going to be at this stage of the game.
If it hadn't been for the minor disaster of a meeting with the Americans for Tax Justice and the Progressive Caucus, this would have been the most productive day yet. Everybody always wanted to get in on a speech at the last minute, like their contributions weren't really real if they didn't come in just under the wire. I wasn't sure when it had become some sort of liberal mortal sin to suggest that the upper one percent of wage-earners might deserve better than a horsewhipping for paying twenty-seven times more than the rest of the country in taxes, though. I frowned. They'd all looked at me like I was some sort of Republican wolf in sheep's clothing.
I scooted my chair back and stood. I had been right, of course, but that didn't change the fact that I hadn't managed to make my point without pissing off two major organizations that backed the President, and that remained a problem. I pressed my lips together. I seemed to be pissing everybody off lately. Maybe I needed to wire my jaw shut for a while.
I walked out into the hall and stopped outside Toby's office. "So." I leaned against the doorframe.
Toby glanced up from the page in his lap. "Yeah?"
I stepped toward him, shoving my hands into my pockets. "I think I may have offended-"
I flinched. "Yeah."
"Who?" he asked.
"Well, I met with some of the staffers for Americans for Tax Justice and the Progressive Caucus."
"And you think you may have offended them?"
"Yeah." One of the women had taken my comment about the writing as a slight against the entire female half of the species, and it had been all downhill from there. I tilted my head to one side. "And girls, possibly."
"Were you right?"
"Yeah." I held up a hand, taking another step toward his desk. "Toby, it's class-"
"That's all you need to tell me," he mumbled, standing. "I trust you."
I stared at him, raising my chin in surprise. He was looking over my shoulder, past me.
"Sam?" Leo called out from behind me, and I turned around.
"Come see the President and me a minute, would you?"
I nodded. "Yeah." I followed Leo back out into the hall.
"Sam?" Toby said quietly.
"Yeah?" I answered, turning back toward him.
"I'll be here in the office when you're done?" His eyebrows were raised, and he was watching me with almost protective, fraternal eyes.
I gave him a surprised smile. "Yeah, okay."
Neither Leo nor I said a word as I followed him down the hall. We went into his office through the back door that led right into the hall, avoiding Margaret's desk, and I felt an anticipatory tingle forming on the back of my neck. "Have a seat," the Chief of Staff said, indicating the couch as soon as we entered the room. He stood in front of me, almost hovering. "Can I get you something to drink? Water?"
"I'm fine." I shook my head, eyeing him with suspicion.
The door to the Oval opened. The President flashed a smile I hadn't seen since the campaign, not since that long period in the fall when it had looked like we might lose. "Sam," he began. His tone sounded warm, too warm, with an edge of something else I couldn't quite place.
My face froze. "Good evening, sir."
He stepped toward me and sat down in the chair opposite me. "Sit with me for a moment, would you?" he said, tilting his head to one side. I looked down at his right hand. It was tucked under his jacket. He hadn't offered it to me to shake.
My back was stiff as I sat down on the edge of the couch. I shot Leo a questioning look as he took the chair next to the President, but his eyes were fixed on the edge of the couch.
"How's Chicago coming?" The President folded his hands against his lap, leaning back in his chair.
"We finished up this evening," I said.
"Good, good." He was nodding. "I take it you heard about the surplus estimates?"
"Two hundred billion less, projected eight years out," I recited. "Nine years out, it's four hundred billion less." I frowned, looking from the President to Leo and then back again. "Sir, if you're concerned about the speech, then I can run down and get you a copy, and we can go over it together."
"I'm sure it's a fine speech." The President cast a fleeting glance at Leo. He turned his gaze back to me, fixing it squarely on my face. "Sam, a little over seven years ago, after a period of minor but persistent health problems, I was diagnosed with a relapsing/remitting case of multiple sclerosis."
I stared at him.
"Relapsing/remitting refers to the fact that I will tend to have long periods of total recovery and remission, followed by sporadic attacks, during which symptoms reappear. They can last for varying periods, but mine have never been present for more than a few days at a time."
I felt disconnected from my feet. It was as if my head was hovering in the air with no body beneath it. "Multiple ..." Vague childhood memories of a telethon flooded my mind with images of wheelchairs and crutches and sad, sickly looking children, pleading for able-bodied viewers to pledge their support. I looked at Leo. His lips were pressed together in a grim line. "I'm afraid I don't- I don't understand." I looked back at the President. "Sir?"
"Superficially, I'm in excellent health. My condition doesn't show up in any routine medical exam, and I have no other major physical ailments, chronic or otherwise." His tone was formal, almost monotonous, like he was reciting a speech he'd already made too many times. "Now, according to the books, symptoms can range from numbness and loss of vision to difficulties with cognitive function and paralysis, but so far I've been lucky. I've had only one attack since I assumed office. It was last year, just before the State of the Union."
That penetrated the fog that had accumulated around my brain. "Before the ..." I sounded hoarse, and I cleared my throat. "You said you had the flu," I said slowly, the words dragging out of me as I remembered. "You were coughing. In the press room, during the run-through, you were coughing and sweating."
"That's right." The President nodded. "I was running a high fever at the time, and it's likely that was what caused the initial relapse, though we'll probably never be sure. I suffered no long-term visible ill effects, and the episode was over in a few days."
I remembered the thunder of applause after that speech, and his strong, firm handshake. He had boomed out his thanks to me and Toby in the Mural Room for all to hear. He couldn't have been sick then. It wasn't possible.
"I realize that as an attorney, you're probably going to be most concerned about possible legal ramifications."
I tried to swallow, but my throat was too dry. I hadn't even thought about that.
"I want to assure you that no one has lied," I heard the President saying, as if from the other side of a thick wall. "There has been no cover-up, no conspiracy. I decided a long time ago to make my personal health issues my own business. It was my own choice, and no one else's, not to make this information public when I ran for election."
"Oliver Babish," I said, still staring blankly in front of me. My voice sounded hollow.
I forced myself to focus on the President. "Does the White House Counsel know?"
He nodded. "He was told last week."
"Is this going to ..." I gulped back a breath of air. "I have to assume this is a prelude to going public."
There was a momentary crack in the President's formality. For a long moment he just looked frightened, as if he had retreated into his own private and rather unpleasant vision of the future. Nothing could have scared me more. "Yeah," he said finally, exhaling.
I rubbed my forehead. The announcement speech would come first, probably here at the White House. Then there would be endless interviews, conferences, television appearances. All of this prior to the campaign kickoff. Oh, God. Was he even going to run again? I pressed my temples between my thumb and forefinger, closing my eyes against the palm of my hand.
"Now, I know what you sacrificed to take this job," he said, the confidence returning to his voice. "And I know I don't always show proper appreciation, but believe me, I know all too well that I wouldn't be here at all if it hadn't been for you -- you and Josh and C.J., and Toby and Leo."
"Yes, sir." I lay my hand flat on the arm of the chair and lifted my chin. "Thank you, sir."
"We'll be needing your talents more than ever in the upcoming months. I hope I'll be able to go into this with your support." The look on his face was expectant.
I opened my mouth and drew in a breath. I tried to speak, but my vocal cords wouldn't move.
"You don't have to answer that just yet."
I swallowed. "Yes, sir," I managed.
The President stood, and I mirrored him, drawing myself up. The dizziness was instantaneous, and my knees buckled. I felt a hand being thrust into mine. My fingers slipped as I gripped it. "Thank you, Sam," he said.
"Thank you, sir," I repeated.
I heard the door to the Oval click shut again, but I couldn't lift my eyes from the floor. The edge of the couch blurred into the carpet beneath it.
Leo's chair creaked as he stood. "Why don't you sit back down -- you look a little pale."
"Yeah," I said, my voice quavering. "Yeah, okay." The couch buckled beneath me. I fixed my eyes on the coffee table. I could hear rustling and clanking from across the room, but I didn't look up. My mother's voice echoed again and again in my mind in some sort of tearful litany: He's had some woman in an apartment in Santa Monica, Sam. For twenty-eight years.
I gripped the edge of the couch and swallowed the pool of saliva on my tongue. I was supposed to be asking questions. I had to have questions for Leo. "Why now?" I said. It came out in a whisper.
"What's that?" Leo's voice carried over from the other side of the office.
I shook my head and forced my eyes over to the Chief of Staff. He was standing at the shelf along his wall, pouring water from a metal pitcher into a tall glass. "Why are we doing this now? He just said he's been aware of his condition for more than seven years."
Leo picked up the glass of water and stepped toward me. "Yeah."
He sat down in the chair opposite me, setting the glass on the table. His eyes were patient, but behind them I could see the fear. I wondered how long it had been there, how long I'd been missing it. "So why now?" I repeated.
Leo sighed, his shoulders slumping. His hand twitched in his lap. "Hoynes put a poll in the field. He was trying to gauge public opinion on his potential candidacy without setting off any red flags." He looked back up, meeting my eyes. "It didn't quite work out that way."
"He did." Leo nodded.
"He knew when he took the job?"
I looked down at my lap, spreading my fingers flat against my legs. I stared at the faint blue pinstripe in my suit. My eyes clouded over briefly and then snapped back into focus. "Is the President going to run again?"
"We can't answer that question just yet."
Leo shifted forward in the chair, leaning toward me. "FDR didn't give up when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor."
I nodded again, like a machine, and reached for the glass of water. The splash of cold was almost painful on my tongue.
"Now, the top's gonna be blowing off of this one real quick, but at this point only a few people are on the inside. There are going to be a lot of meetings behind closed doors before we finally decide it's time to let 'er rip. So when you need to let one of the other staff know that you've been brought in, you should use the code word 'Sagittarius'."
"So if I accidentally say it to somebody who doesn't know, yet, I should just do a quick cover-up and pretend to be interested in their astrological sign?"
Leo smiled, visibly relieved. "You're a good man, Sam."
I forced myself to sit up straight and downed the rest of the water in one gulp. My gaze rested on Leo. "So." I clenched a fist around the glass, resting it on my knee. "Will that be all?"
"For now, yeah." He stood, and I reached forward to set the glass on the table as I followed suit. My legs held me up this time. "We'll talk more in the morning."
I stumbled back to my office without even seeing the familiar corridors around me. The lights in the bullpen were off, but Toby's office was still bright. I paused briefly in front of the wall where our doors met, but my tongue was too numb for speech. I ignored the light switch, headed straight for my chair, and collapsed into it. The glow from my screensaver filled the room with a faint glow of color and cast shadows across the flag on the wall, obscuring the words at the bottom: Don't tread on me.
Reason gave way to instinct, and I rolled my chair over to the computer and clicked open a browser, searching on 'multiple sclerosis relapsing remitting'. I clicked on the first link, and my eyes flew over the screen. Symptoms included fatigue, tingling, numbness, pain, blurred or double vision, impaired cognitive function. The clarity of the facts released a fraction of the tension in my chest. I rubbed my eyes. I could work with this. Maybe.
The first question we'd get, of course, would be what would happen if the President had an attack while sitting in the Situation Room. My hands jerked back from the keyboard, and I sat bolt upright in my chair. He had, in fact, been in the Situation Room while he'd been having an attack. If this had happened just before the 2000 State of the Union, then that would have been right around the time when India had been accumulating troops along the Pakistani border in anticipation of the end of a two-week ceasefire. God.
I leaned forward again. There were medications and therapies to help with the symptoms, it said. Had someone been prescribing him something all along? That would be one more person who knew. How many people did know? It was incredible that this hadn't gotten out yet. I let the breath out of my lungs and closed my browser, reaching down to flick the off switch on the front of the computer. The faint whir of the fan came to a standstill, and the room grew dark around me as the electric glow extinguished itself.
I wrapped my hands around each other, pressing them so tightly against my stomach that my wrists tingled. My tie folded over them like a blanket. This was going to be a full-blown scandal, probably of the magnitude of Warren Harding's Teapot Dome ordeal back in the twenties, maybe even Watergate. That comparison wasn't even terribly farfetched. They could easily charge him -- and maybe even the rest of us -- with conspiracy, with fraud. I'd asked Leo whether the President was going to run for reelection, but perhaps the real question had to be whether he was even going to make it to that point. I clenched my teeth and gripped the arms of my chair, scooting back over to sit in front of my desk again.
I'll be here in the office when you're done, Toby had said. He knew, and had probably known for weeks. I shook my head, scowling. Of course this was what had been setting him on edge all this time, and all the speculating I'd done about that with Josh ... My hands balled themselves into fists. Josh knew.
He had known, all this time, and hadn't said a single word to me.
A surge of anger launched me to my feet, and I stalked into the hallway. The sudden bright light from Toby's office made me wince. Toby glanced up from his desk, the corner of his eye twitching.
"So," I said, trying to keep my tone even. "May I ask who exactly was behind the decision to keep me in the dark as long as possible?"
Toby looked me squarely in the eyes. He'd been expecting this. "You had a speech to finish."
"And none of you trusted me to be able to write it once I knew." My voice was like barbed ice, far colder than the blood boiling in my ears. "I can't help but wonder what I might have done to make you think I was that incompetent."
"It wasn't about competence, Sam, it was about not making things any harder on you than they had to be."
I sniffed. "Well, that makes it all right, then."
He leaned back in his chair, but his gaze didn't waver.
Rage erupted from my mouth like the hot lick of volcanic ash. "No matter what's been happening, I've always been right there, one hundred percent. When the chairman of the GDC came to me for an explanation after you slapped them down, I looked him right in the eye and said exactly what you wanted me to say. While Josh was still in surgery, I spent the morning after the shooting on the Today Show, recounting what had happened. I damn well could have written a speech through this."
"There was no compelling reason for you to know-"
"Of course not. Because right now we have absolutely no need for speechwriters with years of legal training."
"... until the speech was written." Toby stood, throwing his arms out to his sides. "Quit making kicked puppy noises for a minute and listen to me!"
I snapped my jaw shut and turned away. His excuses disgusted me. He disgusted me.
"We made the decision that was best for the President!" he bellowed, and his voice echoed in the stillness of the after-hours office. "If it wasn't the best thing for you, well, that's just too bad. We stand with him, right now, or we don't stand at all. There's no room for individual egos on this one, period."
He brought a hand to his forehead, and his shoulders slumped forward. He shifted his weight onto his right leg, nudging his chair. It rolled backward, hitting the file cabinet behind him with a faint thud.
"It was me, okay?" he said, more quietly. "I was the one who said we should wait to tell you. Josh wanted us to bring you in on it right away."
"Yeah?" I jerked my head back up, narrowing my eyes at him. "How long has *he* known?"
"Sam." Toby's tone was low, with an edge of warning. Don't make this personal, I could almost hear him saying, and it shouldn't have been, but it always was. "He's tried to convince me to tell you at least once every day," he went on, "so if you're going to blast somebody for this, just ... make sure you're aiming your weapon at the right guy. I'm just saying."
"Right," I said, looking away. "Are we done?"
Toby let out a sharp breath. "We're done."
I didn't look back at him as I left.
I pushed on the door to Josh's apartment and let it slam open against the wall. Josh jerked his head up from behind the couch, and the folded newspaper suspended in the air disappeared behind it. His eyes flew up and down the length of my body until they met my own, and his expression shifted from expectant to resigned.
I turned away, pushing the door closed again, and hung my jacket in the closet. The light brown jacket from Josh's own suit lay draped across a pair of ski boots where it had fallen to the floor. I stared at it, but didn't pick it up. I pressed my lips together and shoved the door closed again.
Loosening my tie, I stepped into the living room. Josh pushed himself into a sitting position, supporting his weight against his arms, watching me. He looked defeated. I pressed my lips together. "Sagittarius," I said. My upper lip curled into a sneer.
A brief look of panic crossed Josh's face, but he masked it immediately. "That's my line," he said, forcing a grin. He set the newspaper down on the coffee table and stood. "You're supposed to say 'What's your sign?'"
Ignoring him, I stepped past him into the kitchen and nudged the tap in the sink. I opened the cupboard overhead, pulled out a glass, put a finger under the water, and held it there. It was still tepid. I wrapped my other hand around the edge of the counter. The water grew cold, but I didn't move. The icy liquid flowed over my fingers, turning my skin bright red.
I could hear Josh behind me as I filled my glass. I leaned against the counter. The dull, rounded edge pressed into my stomach. I expected him to touch me, but he didn't. I wasn't sure what I would do if he did.
"He didn't shake my hand," I said finally.
"The President. That's how I realized something was up." I scowled down at my glass. "That was about thirty seconds before he told me, though, so it doesn't quite make up for the fact that I was too stupid to figure it out a week ago."
"Come on." He still didn't reach for me. "You're not stupid."
"You must have thought all this was pretty funny." I grabbed my glass from the counter and spun around. Josh was standing about two feet away, his shoulders slumped. He looked helpless, but the slight twinge of sympathy in my chest didn't suppress my words. "I mean, with the way we've been speculating about why Toby's been screaming at everyone, and all along you knew exactly what-"
"I only found out last Wednesday! That's not-"
"That's five days!" My icy fingers turned white around the water glass as I gripped it harder.
"You were working on-"
"And don't try and tell me it's because I was working on the SME speech, okay?" I held up a hand. "I know that's what Toby told you to say, but you can just save it for someone who gives a damn."
I slipped past him out into the living room. There were files spread all across the couch, on the floor next to it, on the coffee table. They were probably about the tobacco suit -- although maybe they were about this, now that Josh didn't have to hide it anymore. I bit the insides of my cheeks.
I sank into the armchair over by the television. The water was tasteless, and I set the glass down after one sip. Josh walked back into the room, each step slow and methodical. I expected him to sit down on the footstool in front of me, staying close, but he reclaimed the couch, sitting awkwardly on the only spot not covered in paper. Neither of us spoke. The tap in the kitchen released tiny droplets of water into the sink, counting the seconds.
Josh ran a nervous hand along his face and let it come to a rest on the arm of the couch. "I wanted to tell you," he said. "I almost did, something like four or five times. But Toby said it should wait, and ... I dunno. Maybe I should have." He let out a breath. "Anyway, now you know." I stared at him for a moment, and then shifted my eyes to my lap. "Did you talk to Toby? About, uh. About how we're going to put this."
"C.J. thinks we've got to do this live."
I looked back up at him. "She's right." How long had C.J. known?
He shook his head. "We can't edit him if it's live."
"The last thing we should be doing right now is editing him. If you're that worried about what he might say, then make it a formal address. That way all the editing goes on beforehand, by communications." I leaned forward in my seat. "Anyway, at this point I'm not sure I'm going to be sticking around long enough to be in on those decisions."
Josh blinked at me. "What?"
"You heard me."
"You're quitting? After-"
"After what? After you all got together and came to the conclusion once again that I didn't need to know anything until the last minute? After this man that I've devoted more than three years of my life to serving turns out to have been lying to us the whole time?" Josh's jaw jutted forward, and I shook my head. "He was supposed to be the real thing, Josh. Explain to me how this fits into *that* picture."
"Okay, you want to know why the rest of them don't always want to tell you everything right away? *This* is why." His voice rose in pitch in tandem with his stiffening spine. "There's no room in your little world for the real thing to be anything but perfect, twenty-four/seven. One little slip and bam, it nullifies the creation of millions of new jobs, putting Mendoza on the bench, and the first real headway on campaign finance reform in more than two decades."
I snorted. "One little *slip*? I hardly think this qualifies-"
"This isn't about who knew what when, and whether the President should have told us all sooner. This is about one brilliant guy with a debilitating disease, who just wanted to be able to do his job without people assuming that he's got to be weak and feeble-minded just because he's human enough to get sick."
I shook my head. "But what if it does mean that, Josh? He had an attack last year, back in January, just before the State of the Union. Do you happen to remember what else was going on right around then?" I planted my elbows on my knees. "India and Pakistan were four days from the end of a two-week ceasefire, and the President was in the sit room trying to figure out a way to get India to back off the border territory. One of the major symptoms that can show up during an attack is impaired cognitive function. Shouldn't the voters have been the ones to decide whether they were really comfortable with someone like that leading the country?"
"Someone like ... someone like *what*?" Josh sputtered. He leapt to his feet, throwing his arms out to his sides. "Okay. Let's throw him out. There might be one day in an entire term where his brain function isn't completely up to speed, but damn it, we can't risk even that much with the future of the free world at stake. Impeach him. Why not? Good riddance."
My eyes followed him across the room as he paced, his feet carefully avoiding the piles on the floor. The defeat was gone from his posture, and now he just looked angry.
"And while we're at it, let's be sure to cleanse the staff as well," he went on, a slow flush spreading from his neck to his cheeks. "Let's make sure anybody who can't live up to Sam Seaborn's expectations gets the axe. Leo McGarry? It's a high-stress job. Maybe he'll have another drink someday. Thank you for your faithful service to the party, Mr. McGarry, but don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. Oh, and let's not forget that Josh Lyman guy-"
"I wasn't talking about you," I said quickly.
He turned to face me, raising his shoulders in an exaggerated caricature of a shrug. "What's the difference?"
"The difference is that you weren't elected under false pretenses. You weren't elected at all."
Josh made a noise that came out halfway between a snort and a gasp. "So keeping me on board is a bad decision of Leo's instead of an uninformed decision of the electorate? Is that what you're saying?"
I sat up straight, my spine rigid. I stared at him.
He narrowed his eyes at me. "I can do my job."
"I never said you couldn't."
"And the President can do his."
I leaned back again in my chair. Superficially, I'm in excellent health, the President had said. He was the same strong man with the booming voice that he'd been yesterday. I just knew a little more about him, now. I let out a breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding.
Josh sat down on the footstool in front of me. "So okay, he's no saint," he said, lowering his voice. "And he never was as perfect as we all wanted him to be. But he's the best President we've had in decades, maybe in over a century. He doesn't need your moralizing. What he needs most of all right now is the best goddamn speechwriter the White House has ever seen."
I let out a sigh through the tiny space between my lips. My eyes flickered away from Josh and then back again, but his gaze never wavered. Almost involuntarily, I found myself nodding. The corner of his mouth twitched in a ghost of a smile.
Leaning forward, I reached for Josh's hands. He jerked back slightly in response, hesitating, but then pulled me closer, weaving his fingers through mine. Leaning down, he pressed them to his cheek.
"What's next?" I asked. My voice was hoarse.
Josh lifted his chin so that our faces were inches apart. I leaned in closer, pressing my forehead against his, and he closed his eyes. We were holding each other up rather than holding onto each other. As if either of us leaned back, we would both topple to the ground.
"I hate all the lying," I whispered.
"Yeah." Josh let out a slow breath through his nose. "I know."
The comfortable cushion of the limousine seat felt wrong against my back. The wind raged outside the window, but the only sound audible beneath the car's armor was the repeated thumping of thick drops of rain against the windshield. The car idled at a light, and the driver carried us into motion again, turning onto E Street. The motorcade was slow, methodical, like a row of animals being led to the slaughter. A funeral march.
The actual funeral had already taken place. I had carried the weight of Mrs. Landingham's body out of the church that afternoon, together with Josh and Toby, an act of cooperation. It had been the last one. Within a matter of hours, Leo had told us of the President's decision not to run again. It was over, everything we'd worked for in the past two and a half years cut short like an unfinished novel after the death of the author.
I glanced quickly at Josh to my left, at Toby in the seat in front of me. They were each staring out their own windows, lost in their own thoughts. Without the President, the forces that had kept us in such perfect equilibrium were fragmenting us, splintering us apart.
"Did you see the way he reached for Mrs. Bartlet's hand when they walked into the cathedral together?" Josh asked quietly, not quite looking at either of us. "That was a nice touch, wasn't it?"
"He wasn't posing for the cameras," Toby grumbled.
"No, I just meant that it was nice," Josh clarified. "That they were together. Just ... nice."
"Yeah." Toby looked out the window again.
"Charlie was good, too," he continued.
Toby grunted a response, and I turned my head away from them. I didn't want to think about the funeral. I leaned forward from the back of the seat, keeping my arms rigid. I couldn't afford to be comfortable; I knew I wouldn't have the strength to get up again. I lifted my hand to the window, and my fingertips grazed the dewy condensation of breath against the glass. As a child, I'd always spelled out "HELP ME" backwards along the bottom edge, as if some tiny creature had been trapped inside. It had been a joke, then.
"Hey, do we have a transcript of the thing?" Josh asked. "The interview?"
Toby craned his neck to watch him in the rearview mirror. "Josh, it was less than an hour ago. Nobody types that fast." Without its usual edge of annoyance, his voice sounded defeated. "What do you want a transcript for now, anyway?"
"Didn't he come right out and say he first found out back in June of 1993?"
"Yeah," Toby answered. Josh looked down at his lap, scowling. Toby swiveled around, grabbing onto his seat. "Why?"
"They're gonna put it together and realize that he was diagnosed while Leo was in rehab."
"Yesterday's news." Toby waved a dismissive hand in the air and turned back around.
Josh shook his head. "Not if there's some juicy new development. They love that sort of thing." He leaned forward slightly. "What, you don't think anybody's gonna notice?"
"No." Toby's voice was firm.
"Come on, ten minutes on the Internet and any third-string reporter could have this figured out."
"Have you ever managed to accomplish anything in ten minutes on the Internet?" Toby said.
"He could have just said 1993, couldn't he?" Josh said. "This is, like, the last thing we need coming back to haunt us right now. You know how that's gonna read, right? A sick guy and a drunk running the country?"
I sighed. Finding something that wasn't quite broken yet meant that Josh still had something to fix. He was always most reassured when things were in the process of falling apart, as if he took it as an indication that he was still in better shape than the rest of the world. It wasn't until after things had actually shattered that he finally felt lost. I turned toward him. "Josh, he's about to tell the world he won't be running for reelection. We're about to give new meaning to the term 'lame duck'. Hoynes is the story after tonight."
His face fell, and his head dipped down. I pinned my hands between my knees, holding myself back from reaching for him, from clinging to him.
"Hoynes is gonna go all Mighty Mouse on our ass," he mumbled.
"What?" I asked.
"Like, here I come to save the day!" He shook his hands in front of him. Nobody laughed.
I looked down at my lap. My stomach rumbled, like a rebel force inside of me. I hadn't eaten since five this morning. Nausea gripped me at the very thought of food, and I swallowed it back. My stomach felt heavy, filled with concrete. There was no time to eat now, anyway.
The car rolled to a stop in front of the State Department, and we climbed out. A clap of thunder rattled the teeth in my skull. I wrapped my coat around myself, trying and failing to block the blinding rain. Josh walked next to me toward the building, water dripping from his curls down onto his face. He was a faint shadow of the man who had appeared in the window at Gage Whitney, sopping wet and full of hope and fire. I turned away. The air was thick with moisture, infused with grief.
We headed through the glass doors into the building, marching in wordless tandem down the hall. It smelled damp, and the weight of my rain-soaked coat dragged me downward into the floor as if into mud. The President stood front and center like the defeated commander leading his troops into one last battle. He wiped the rain from his face with a borrowed towel. Our shoes tracked water across the floor, forming dirty brown puddles beneath them like wasted sweat and tears.
Leo pushed open the door into the press room, revealing reporters packed in like a sold-out crowd. Cameras were flashing, preserving the President's rumpled jacket and damp hair for the newspapers and history books. "Front row on the right," C.J. hissed at him as he passed in front of her.
My eyes searched the room and fell on the white-haired medical journalist in the front row. The President would call on him first, as C.J. had directed him to do, taking medical questions as a warm-up before leaping straight at the question all the others were poised to ask. I assumed my place next to Josh, off to the left. The President gripped the edges of the podium. Everyone was seated. He surveyed the crowd as if to draw strength from them. The room fell silent.
"Yes," he said, pointing toward the back. "Sandy."
Shock jolted through my skin, and I felt my hand jerk back. He'd called on the wrong reporter. "Mr. President, can you tell us right now if you'll be seeking a second term?" Sandy demanded. A loud click of a camera shutter scrambled the last few words, but we all knew what she'd asked.
The President lifted his chin. "I'm sorry, Sandy, there was a little bit of noise, there. Can you repeat the question?"
"Yes, sir. Can you tell us right now if you'll be seeking a second term?"
There was a long pause interrupted only by the constant whir of the cameras. I held my breath, my eyes fixed on the President. His posture relaxed, and he looked away and smiled, sliding his hands into his pockets. I felt my heart stutter.
"Yeah. And I'm going to win." It sounded disembodied, like the voice of God himself floating through the air, reaching each of our ears at once.
There was a brief moment of stunned silence, and then pandemonium pulsed through the room from the center outward. "Mr. President! Mr. President!" the reporters chanted, as if in rehearsed unison. A surge of energy from the crowd pressed them forward. I could see Andy Keller at the back of the room, squeezing between two other journalists and extending a pen in the air to give himself four inches of advantage.
Questions were asked, but they couldn't possibly have been uttered in English, because I failed to understand even a single word of them. Adrenaline crackled through me like a live wire. Faces blurred around me, shapeless swatches of random color, but in the eye of the hurricane was President Josiah Bartlet. The real thing, the man I had believed in, the man I still believed in. The entire surface of my skin felt charged. We would fight for him.
Afterward, I was pushed out of the room. Murmurs of excitement rippled through the hallway, the voices coming in whispers, as if no one dared utter expressions of relief in anything but hushed tones. Toby was standing off to the side, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his coat. He was staring at the floor in silence, eyes wide, one corner of his mouth turning up. C.J. joined him a moment later, her face radiant, ethereal. I felt myself begin to smile in reaction. I'd almost forgotten how.
I felt Josh clap me on the shoulder from behind. His touch warmed me like the flame of a match I'd thought had been extinguished. I turned around. "How 'bout that?" he asked, the entire bottom half of his face spread into a smile. "So much for answer B."
"So much for taking the rest of the night off," I said with a laugh.
"I didn't need to sleep tonight, anyway."
"This isn't going to be easy," I reminded him. I tried to focus, fighting the incipient giddiness.
"Yeah," Josh said, nodding. His eyes glinted with excitement. He shifted his weight between his legs and bounced up on his toes, unable to contain his own energy. "So."
Josh pointed at his face, and his silly grin transformed into something softer. His expression held a mixture of instinct and inspiration and the feeling that this, right here, right now, was where we both had to be.
I nodded, unable to speak. In that moment, I could see nothing but a single spark of pure, unadulterated hope. My heart felt weightless. I followed Josh out, soaring.
The hotel bar reeked of stale cigars and the heady hops of freshly poured beer. Across the room a small group of men -- probably all attorneys, from the fact that they were all wearing expensive suits on a Sunday night -- cheered another guy as he sank a ball into the corner pocket. To the right of the pool table stood an antique-looking parlor chair that looked far too uncomfortable to actually sit on. Even in a bar they couldn't quite escape the New Hampshire quaint.
The voice on the radio was barely audible over the low rumble of chatter, but one line about a girl named Jessie and the price you paid for dreams caught on the corner of my mind and wouldn't let go. We'd only been in Manchester three days, and already I was tired of spending every minute of my life looking at the faces of the new campaign staff. More than that, though, I was just plain tired. It was as if the accumulated weight of the past six weeks was crushing me, pushing me straight into the floor.
I drew in a smoky breath, raising my hands to my waist, and scanned the room for stragglers from our group. Toby was still out at the farm with Doug and Bruno, poring over what we all hoped would be the final copy of the speech. My eyes came to a rest on Josh. He was sitting at the bar with Donna, each of them perched on an identical barstool. I walked over to them, claiming the stool beside Donna and leaning in toward her. "Hey."
Donna lifted her chin and shook the hair out of her eyes. "Hey, Sam." Twin beer glasses sat in front of them on the bar. Josh held onto his, tracing an absent finger around its edge, and Donna's was empty. "Taking a break?" she asked.
"Nah, I'm giving up for the night. The President's got a copy of the speech now." I shrugged. "I guess we'll see."
A middle-aged man in a white button-down shirt appeared on the other side of the bar in front of us. "What can I get you?"
"I'll take a pint of Sam Adams," I said automatically, though it was the ritual I craved more than the beer. I tilted my head toward Josh. "Any new crises while we've been locked away?"
"Donna and I have been having a debate about the merits of using high school marching bands at campaign kickoffs," he said.
Donna snorted. "You don't know the first thing about marching bands, high school or otherwise."
"They wouldn't even play what we asked them to play!" Josh insisted, his voice cracking, and I knew this wasn't the first time he'd said this tonight. "Besides, it's tacky. At least they could have invited somebody with some actual connection to him."
"Yeah, right, those posh New England boarding schools are so well-known for their top-quality marching bands." Donna leaned in toward him, reaching for his arm. "Come on, these guys are okay. Trust me. Were *you* first-chair flute in *your* high school?"
Josh shrugged and glanced at me. "She had to be better than me at something," he said with a smirk.
Donna rolled her eyes. I looked down and noticed that my beer had appeared in front of me. I dug in my pocket and pulled out a five. "Hey, Sam, can you clear something up for me?" Donna's tone was half-playful, half-inquisitive.
I lay an arm along the front edge of the bar. "About high school marching bands?" The bartender set my change on the counter, and I glanced up at him. "Thanks." I pushed it aside as a tip.
"I've been thinking," Donna reminded us. "You guys have been trying for days to get this whole event put together in a way everybody can live with. And the only reason we're here at all is to give the President an opportunity to announce that he's running for reelection."
I nodded. "Yeah, so?"
She shook her head. "He already announced that he's running for reelection."
Josh dug in the red basket in front of him and emerged with a handful of popcorn. "You mean at the press conference? Back in May?"
"I was there when he said it," Donna insisted. "It was the second-biggest news story for a week afterwards. I'm pretty sure it wasn't a hallucination."
"I don't know." Josh held his bare forearm up to her forehead and turned to face me. "She does feel a bit feverish."
"Hope it's not contagious," I said gravely. "We have a big day tomorrow."
"Come on, I'm serious." She grabbed Josh's arm at his wrist and pushed it away.
Josh took a sip of his drink. "He may have told the press he was running for reelection, but he hasn't *announced* it yet."
"Nope," I confirmed.
Donna sat up and folded her arms. "Okay, so let me get this straight. A whole room full of reporters asked him whether he was going to run for reelection."
"Yep," I said.
"And he said he was going to run."
"He said he was going to *win*," Josh added.
Donna held both hands open in front of her. "So how was that not an announcement?"
"That was an expression of intent," Josh said, chasing a wayward kernel of popcorn across the bar with his finger.
"An expression of intent," Donna repeated.
"It's not an announcement without the fanfare. You know, a formal introduction, a stage, an applauding crowd." Josh nudged the unpopped corn back into the basket. "And campaign signs."
"Not to mention a high school marching band," I added.
Donna raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Okay, so this is one of those things, then. Something you just do. Like waiting for an invitation from Congress before giving the State of the Union. It may be ridiculous, but that's just the way things work."
Josh shrugged. "Yeah."
Donna slapped a palm against the bar. "Well, then bring on the fanfare." She pushed her glass aside and climbed down off the barstool. "Tomorrow, anyway. Right now, I'm going upstairs." She pointed at Josh. "You get some sleep tonight."
"Good night, Donna," he said, his voice laced with mild irritation.
She sauntered out of the bar through the entrance that led to the hotel. I looked down at my glass, swirled it once, and took a sip.
Josh cocked his head at me. "You okay with the final draft?"
I turned to face him. "Doug's got him going in there and breathing fire about the best-led military force in the world. I mean, come on, there's a difference between a show of strength and an expression of megalomania."
"I thought you didn't want me to ask."
"I can't believe Leo's got him working with us on this," I said, the suppressed frustration rising in my chest. "He's not a speechwriter. Everything he writes ends up sounding like an advertising jingle. Reelect Josiah Bartlet. Tastes great, less filling."
"He says we're being arrogant."
"He may be right about that," I admitted, taking a sip of my beer. "But that doesn't mean he can write."
"You're not campaign staff. This isn't White House business."
I slammed my arm down on the bar. "Well, then what am I doing here in the first place?"
"Supporting your President?" Josh shrugged. "I dunno. I've been asking myself the same thing." He took a long drink. "Leo won't let me fix the RU-486 thing."
"What do you mean?"
"This guy over at the FDA owes me a favor. I could call it in."
I grimaced. That was just what we needed right now. "Well, if Leo's what it takes to keep you from doing something that far outside of what's, well, *legal*, then I'm glad *he's* around this week, anyway."
Josh swiveled around to face me, scowling. "Come on, who would ever know?"
I met his eyes. "We would know."
"Oh, would you just get off your- I'm saying I could make this go away!" He looked as exasperated as I felt, and I clenched my teeth. "Do you have any idea what kind of trouble this is gonna make for us? Of all of the issues that could crowd in on our news cycle on Monday, the FDA approval of RU-486 has got to be one of the grade A choice ones. First we've got the-"
"I understand the issue, Josh."
"First we've got the fact that a majority of Americans think this drug is a bad idea. Then we've got the fact that the President favors the approval. And as those two things weren't bad enough, we've got the fact that he's got his own personal crisis of conscience over the whole idea, and it's not like pro-choice voters aren't aware of that by now." He looked down at the bar. "I'm just talking about a couple of weeks. It's not like I'd be asking them to hold it until after the election."
I looked away. The foam along the surface of my beer had dissipated, leaving a thin line along the side of the glass. I swirled it once, and it was gone. "Connie thinks he should apologize."
"They all think he should apologize," Josh muttered. "Connie. Doug. Bruno. They all think he should get up there and tell everybody how sorry he is in the same breath that he's asking them to vote for him. That's a strategy and a half if I ever heard one."
"He concealed one piece of personal information." His voice was tense, and I could feel him glaring at me. I shrugged and looked away. "What, do *you* think he should apologize in the speech?"
"I think he should have apologized four weeks ago."
"Because you think it's gonna be a thing."
I looked at him pointedly. "Because he *lied*, Josh."
Josh swiveled his stool around so that he was facing forward again, and turned his head away. He picked up his glass and looked down at it. I pulled on my napkin, tearing it along the expanding ring of moisture the beer glass had traced in the center. Josh cleared his throat, and I swallowed.
"Have you noticed that lately we never talk about anything but work?" I said.
Josh lifted his glass and drained the rest of his beer. "There's a lot to say about work."
I tucked the six-pack in my right hand under my arm and struggled to get the door open. The sound of the television drifted out into the hall. I headed into the apartment and set the two boxes of beer on the floor as I pulled off my fall coat.
I bent down to untie my shoes and craned my neck to see into the living room, but I didn't see Josh until I stepped over to the couch. He was curled into a ball around a pillow, his head propped up by the arm of the couch and his mouth partway open. I grinned and picked up the remote on the edge of the table, silencing the never-ending drone of the CNN Health Report.
I carried the beer into the kitchen. One bottle for Josh, and the others went into the empty fridge. It opened with a hiss, and I stepped back into the living room. Josh let out a sleepy snort as he shifted position, tucking his head into the corner. I smiled. It was usually Josh who crawled into bed long after I was asleep. How long had it been since we'd shared a meal, or an evening alone together? About as long as had it been since we'd had something to celebrate.
I crouched down next to him and put a tentative hand on his shoulder. "Hey."
Josh jolted awake, startled. "What happened?"
"Shh. Nothing happened." Josh blinked at me, pushing himself into a sitting position and leaning back against his forearms. I smoothed the tension out of his arm and leaned in next to him. "I brought you something." I held the bottle of beer in front of Josh so that the label faced him.
Josh's face lit up, and he leaned back against the pillow. "Hey!"
"Lagunitas Pale Ale, all the way from sunny California."
"When did you have time to pick this up?" He looked up at me.
"I made the limo driver pull over at a liquor store on the way back to the airport."
"You're kidding me." Josh snorted, taking the beer out of my hand. "Was it Jack?"
"Even better." He laughed, shaking his head. "I wonder what his revenge will be this time?"
I felt myself grinning. "I thought it was worth it."
He turned the bottle over in his hand, tracing a finger along the edge of the label. He cocked his head at me and pointed at the picture of the wrinkle-faced dog on the front. "You know what this reminds me of?" I folded my arms along the edge of the couch, resting my chin on my hands. "You remember that kid with the buck teeth and the funny hair? The volunteer? The one who used to follow us around?"
"You mean the one who you'd send out on beer runs, supposedly to pick some up for the candidate?" I erased the smile from my face in an impression of Josh's grave look. "He's had a really rough day, but he'll only drink Lagunitas, and we're fresh out."
Josh snorted. "It kept me well stocked for that whole week."
"You really do suck," I said, laying my head flat against my arm. I reached out, my fingertips grazing the smooth surface of the bottle. "It's not cold, but the rest is in the fridge. I got two six packs. The other one's the Pilsner."
"All *right*." Josh took a sip and closed his eyes as he leaned his head back. His arm fell across the table, and the bottom of the bottle scraped against it. "Now, that tastes like California. It tastes like late nights in a bar and exhaust fumes from standing behind a campaign bus. It tastes like ... like ..."
"Hope?" I offered.
Josh opened his eyes and stared at me, as if realizing that it had been a good six months since he'd heard me use that word. "Something did happen," he said.
I shrugged. "Not really. It was just ... good. In California, I mean. I know it was just a technology conference, but ... it's been a long time since it's been that good."
Josh's eyes grew wide, his face serious. I leaned in closer, not quite touching him. "Tell me," he insisted.
"I mean, it wasn't anything tangible. It was just regular White House business, really. We flew in, got to the conference around ten in the morning. He made some crack about the northeast corridor being Silicon Valley's worthiest rival. It was like- it was like before. Before all this." I gestured around the room with an open hand, as if to indicate the invisible malaise that we lived with every day. Josh nodded, following my fingers with his eyes. "People applauded when he spoke, not out of pity, but because they liked what he had to say. They asked questions, and he answered them, and everybody was impressed. The thirteenth and nineteenth letters of the alphabet weren't mentioned once all day. That's all."
I watched Josh's throat bob up and down as he swallowed. "That's a lot."
"Yeah." I nodded, my lips forming a thin, tight smile. I rested my chin on my fist.
"So, what, we're celebrating?"
"Something like that."
"Okay, then." Josh lifted the bottle in the air in front of him. "To a second term?"
"To a second term." Josh took a sip and handed it to me. I closed my eyes and let the amber liquid settle on my tongue for a moment before swallowing it. It did taste like hope.
Josh's fingers wrapped around mine as he reached for the bottle again, and I opened my eyes. A jolt of electricity shot through me at the contact, and he jerked his hand away, but my eyes locked on his and wouldn't let go. I leaned in toward him, the same force of gravity that had always kept me anchored to him now pulling me close again.
I cupped my fingers around his ear, and Josh closed his eyes, turning his head so that his lips barely grazed my wrist. His breath thickened into a gasp against my skin. Suddenly I was on fire. It had been so long. We'd each spent so much time doing damage control on Josiah Bartlet's presidency that moments like these had disappeared entirely. But now. Now.
My hand trembled as I grabbed the beer and pushed it onto the coffee table. I heard it wobble precariously against the surface, but I couldn't tear my eyes away from the tiny hollow at the base of Josh's throat. I leaned in, filling the space with my lips. He inhaled a shuddery breath, hesitating for only a split second before arching his body against me. He wrapped his arms around me as I rolled on top of him, pressing his fists into the small of my back.
His erection tensed against my leg, and I pressed against it as I unbuttoned his shirt. I reached under the thin white cotton t-shirt, the soft hair on his chest cushioning my palm. Josh struggled to regain his breath as his hands dipped lower and cupped around me, pulling me against him. A surge of energy rushed through my entire body. I wanted nothing more than to feel him all around me, his skin hot and moist against my own.
"We should go in the other room." My voice was rough.
I felt the muscles in his chest tense beneath my hand, and he jerked away from me. A ripple of fear spread across his face, and I pulled my hand out from under his shirt. I'd seen Josh scared, but never at a moment like this. Even the very first time, on a worn mattress on the floor of his Manhattan apartment fifteen years ago, he had been completely uninhibited. I pushed myself up, pressing my forearms into the couch on either side of him. "What is it?"
He winced, unwrapping his leg from mine. "I don't want- I don't think we should go in the other room."
My forehead wrinkled. "Okay." Josh reached up with one hand and pushed me back further, his eyes not quite meeting mine. "Are you all right?" I asked, worry edging out the confusion in my voice. I put a hand on his shoulder.
Josh recoiled from me completely in one agonizing moment, but then he reached for me again and pulled me back against him. He snaked one hand around behind me, reaching inside my pants just as the other hand curled around the back of my neck. He pressed my lips against his, his tongue hot and wet in my mouth.
My body took charge, chasing away any lingering doubts about Josh's hesitation, and I melted against him again. His fingers danced along my back, along the hot skin at my neck as he loosened and removed my tie. I reached for his belt buckle, struggling to unfasten it as quickly as I could, and he moaned as I reached inside, the palm of my hand grazing his erection through his boxers. Arousal pulsed through me, so strong that my entire lower body ached.
Not wanting to wait a moment longer, I moved my head down so that my nose was at his navel, listening to his choked breath as he curled his fingers around either side of my head. I reached up to slide his boxers down around his hips, almost dizzy, and I heard Josh gasp. The muscles in his abdomen stiffened, and he pushed my head away. "Wait," he said, panting. "Don't."
My eyes flew open as I lifted my head. "You want me to stop?"
Josh's cheeks flushed, and he pushed me off of him, disentangling his body from mine. He fingers struggled to refasten his pants, trembling as he buckled his belt. He sat up. His entire body was shaking as he turned his back to me.
A chill ran down my spine, and I pressed against the back of the couch. Surges of arousal coursed uselessly through my system. My breathing sounded labored in the sudden silence. "So, uh, was it something I said?" I tried to joke. It sounded forced.
Josh looked down at his chest, buttoning his shirt and tucking it back into his pants. "I don't think we should be doing this right now."
"Uh, okay." I swallowed hard, my throat thick with confusion.
Josh scooted to the edge of the couch and balled his hands into fists, resting his forehead on them. He looked devastated.
He didn't move.
"Look, I'm not going to force myself on you, okay? It's no big deal."
His shoulders began shaking harder. He spread his fingers through his hair, clutching at the top of his head.
"Hey," I said. I sat up, swinging my legs off the edge of the couch and scooting over to sit directly beside Josh. His eyes were closed, and his breathing was shallow. "It's okay," I said, trying to sound soothing through the lingering roughness in my own breath.
His mute panic brought back nights spent holding him after his dreams had haunted him enough to wake him, but it had been months since anything like this had happened. What could have triggered it? I reached for him, and he flinched from my touch. His head jerked up, and my chest tightened as I saw a familiar look on his face: scared, resigned, and completely alone. I hadn't seen that look since Tampa, since right before Election Day, just as everything had been falling apart. Cold reality rushed through me, as if I'd stepped barefoot on an electric wire.
"Wait," I said carefully. I held myself perfectly still, arms drawn in to my sides. "Did something just happen here?"
Josh pushed himself to his feet and turned away from me.
My mind was racing. We hadn't slept together in a long time, not since the MS announcement. Not since the week before that. Not since our fight. I forced my mouth open, afraid to say what had to come next. "When- when you said we shouldn't be doing this right now, did you mean ... something other than not wanting to have sex tonight?"
Josh didn't move. I stood, maneuvering myself around the coffee table to stand in front of him. The fear was still painted on his face. He glanced away, like he was suddenly unable to look me in the eye.
I folded my arms around myself, pressing them tightly against my chest. "We are talking about tonight, right? Not about us?"
"What does that mean, anyway?" Josh snapped. "Us. What the *hell* does that mean?"
For a long moment I just stood there, numb, waiting for him to take it back. He didn't.
"Are you breaking up with me?" I said finally. He didn't respond. "Josh, did you just break up with me?"
"I don't know."
It was as if he had peeled away a scab from the surface of my skin, revealing a fresh wound underneath. My arms dropped, my hands forming fists at my sides. "You don't *know*? You don't *know* whether you just broke up with me?"
He didn't answer. I could still see the moisture glistening on his lip from where I'd kissed him.
"That isn't something you get to not know, Josh," I said. I could feel my throat tightening, a pain along the jawline. "You can not know how to jumpstart a flagging campaign, and you can not know how to keep Congress from breathing down our necks about censure, but you don't get to not know whether you just broke up with me."
He looked up at me, his eyes flashing with anger. "Damn it, will you quit pushing? You're always *pushing* me!"
I took a step back. Josh drew in a long breath, trying to calm himself. As if there was any reason at all to be calm.
"I just think- you know," he said, the thickness in his voice betraying his lingering desire. His fingers were twitching at his sides, like he was physically restraining himself from reaching for me. "You said it yourself. They want to censure him. Morgan Mitchel is still talking impeachment. And then there's the thing with you and that guy from the press corps -- who knows what he's gonna say. This isn't the time to- I just think we should ..."
"Stop doing this."
"Doing what?" I had to hear him say it.
He scowled at me, throwing his arms out to his sides. "Whatever the hell we've been doing here!"
The silence between us was so empty that the hum of the refrigerator from the other room was deafening. We'd been in this place before, once back in New York, and once again on the campaign trail in Florida, where we'd stepped back and watched everything collapse. We'd been powerless to stop it, both times. It wasn't supposed to happen that way again.
"I just want to make sure I understand what's happening here. I searched his face for any sign of hesitation. "You're breaking up with me because you think our relationship would be a liability for President Bartlet."
He blanched, but kept his eyes on me. "I said I don't know, Sam. I don't know. I just think it's a bad time to-"
"Whatever happened to 'now that we know how much worse it feels every time it ends, we'll just have to make sure it doesn't end a third time'?" I let the anger leech into my words.
Josh flinched. He didn't speak.
My pulse was hissing in my ears. "You're trying to tell me this is about the President? How stupid do you think I am? Do you really think I don't know where this is coming from?" I stepped toward him. "Has it *ever* been about the President? Or has this always been about you, every single time?"
He turned away, but not before I saw his face crumple. He stood there for a moment, his back turned, and then walked slowly over to the window. Spreading his palm flat against it, he stared out at the street beyond. I waited. He didn't turn back around.
"So it's over. Just like that."
"No, I can't- I said I don't know!" he yelled. "I don't *know*, okay?"
I pressed my arms against my sides, summoning what was left of my strength. "No, Josh. That's not okay."
Fighting the sting in my throat, I grabbed my tie from the back of the couch and walked over to the door. I stepped into my shoes, not even bothering to tie them. My coat stared back at me from where it hung neatly in the closet. Fifteen years ago I'd run out of Josh's apartment so blinded by anger and pain that I'd left my jacket lying on his couch, but that had been before I'd learned how to clean up my own messes. I retrieved the coat and set the hanger back carefully on the rod.
"Sam, no, wait." He sounded desperate.
I turned around, my hand resting on the doorknob. Josh still had his back turned, and he was gripping the windowsill so hard I could see his back straining. I tried to imagine what he could possibly say that would make things all right.
"Fuck," he said, his voice thin and reedy. "Just go."
Propelled by his words, I walked through the door and closed it behind me.
"So they want to test the ad next week, and then have it ready leading up to Iowa," I reported to Toby, trying to erase the bags from under my eyes with my fingers. I glanced at my watch. It was already six. I couldn't believe I'd spent the entire day working on an issue ad.
At least it had been an improvement on last night. First there had been an hour-long attempt at purging Josh's words from my mind with sleep, followed by a shower that had used up every drop of hot water but hadn't kept me from feeling like I'd been run over by a truck. I'd been in the office by five. Apart from a single comment from Bonnie about morning people, no one had noticed.
"Weren't we originally talking about more than just the one on school construction?" Toby scribbled a note on the printout on his desk.
"If that one works for us, we'll go back and do one on healthcare," I said, my voice rough with exhaustion. "And maybe something on the environment."
Toby raised an eyebrow. "In Iowa?"
"It's soft money, Toby," I said, mocking Bruno. "From abundance springs satiety."
"Speaking of which." He sat up straight. "Good compromise, today."
I shrugged. Praise from Toby was about as rare as water in the Mojave desert, but for once I wasn't in the mood. "They are talking about legitimate issue ads at this point, not thinly veiled campaign ads. And we've got to work with them."
"Just remember, though, *they* don't have to work with *us*. This is Bruno's show this time around, and Doug's and Connie's. They don't have to ask for our help."
"They do if they don't want their ads to look like something that fell out from between the pages of a small-town newspaper." I leaned forward, resting my eyes on my hands.
"I just want you both to know something," I heard Josh say from the doorway. The tiny hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I'd avoided him all day, but I'd known the inevitable confrontation was imminent.
I forced my eyes open and glanced up, my gaze slipping around him as if trying to keep its balance on a sheet of ice. He was leaning casually against the doorframe, his arms folded, with Donna directly behind him like a henchman. My hands clenched into fists. Part of me always wanted to hit him in the jaw whenever he pretended everything was normal.
"After the Majority Leader self-destructed this morning on the 'why do you want to be President' question," he went on, "C.J. and I spent about three hours trying to figure out what President Bartlet could say if someone asked *him* why he wanted the job. Because guess what? We don't *have* an answer to that question."
"Well." I looked at Toby. "The White House Press Secretary and the Deputy Chief of Staff spent the afternoon crafting a message. That sounds like a fine use of human resources." I looked back up at Josh, meeting his eyes this time. "I gather it was a slow day for you?"
He glared at me. "Hey, we couldn't help it if you guys were tied up all day with Mutt and Jeff," he said, pointing from me to Toby and back again. "We were just trying to clean up your mess."
Toby folded his hands against his desk. "Has it occurred to you that he might actually be able to answer the question without a prepared speech? I mean, he *has* had a couple of years to think about this one."
Josh waved both hands in the air in front of him. "See, I thought that, too, but it's a harder question than you think." He turned to face Donna. "See, see, here. Donna. Why do you want to be President?"
"What makes you think I want to be President?" she asked, eyeing him with suspicion.
"No, I'm just saying. If you did want to be President, how would you answer the question?"
"Well, if I were President, I wouldn't have to answer your stupid questions."
"Actually, that's not exactly true," I mumbled.
"Come on," Josh said, his voice edged with irritation. My eyes leaped from him to her, and from the way they were glaring at each other, I knew he'd spent the day taking last night's anger and frustration out on his assistant. I rubbed my forehead. I didn't have any energy left for sympathy.
"Okay, hold on, hold on, I've got it," Donna finally said, holding up a hand. "You know how sometimes you find some little piece of information you think everybody should know about? Well, if I were President, I could force people to listen to me."
"And that would be different from what you do now exactly how?" Josh sneered.
"Well, right now, whenever I want to share something like that, you tell me to shut up."
Josh rolled his eyes. "I do not."
"Okay," she said, grinning. "Apparently when the male river otter finds a mate-"
Donna raised both hands in the air, her fingers spread in matching victory signs. "Vote for me!"
I glanced at Toby and shrugged. "It was a better answer than the Majority Leader's."
"So, okay," Josh tried again. "Toby, why do you want to be President?"
Toby blinked. "Excuse me?"
Josh threw his arms out to his sides. "Come on, just- just answer the question!"
Toby stared at him, his eyes wide and incredulous.
"See?" Josh yelled, his voice breaking. He pointed a finger at Toby. "You can't do it." He shook his head. "This is kinda freaking me out, here. Why can't any of us think of any good reasons why somebody would want to run for President?"
"You get to ask the Pope for advice," Donna offered. "And you don't have to drive to work." She put her hand on her hip and shot Josh a challenging look. "So, okay, why do *you* want to be President?
Josh folded his arms and pressed his back against the doorframe. "Well, obviously, for the chicks."
A sudden pressure around my heart threatened to crush it, and I fell against the back of the chair as if Josh had physically struck me. I tried to inhale, but the weight on my chest prevented me from drawing a breath. I shot him a wounded look. He wouldn't look back at me.
"How about you, Sam?" Donna asked. "Why do you want to be President?"
"I think Josh got it in one," I said, struggling to keep my voice level. My eyes darted around the room. "I'm gonna ..." I stood, pointing past Josh and Donna out into the bullpen. "I've got a bunch of phone calls to make."
Without waiting for an acknowledgement, I pushed both of them aside and made a beeline for my office, closing the door behind me. Leaning against it for a moment, I let all the air out of my lungs.
At least he was predictable, I thought, trying to reassure myself. At least I already knew exactly how this would go. He'd act like an asshole for a while, and then he'd probably run out and sleep with somebody like Mandy just to affirm that he still could. All this had happened before. I swallowed the lump in my throat. We'd never tried to *work* together right after things had ended, but I'd manage.
Toby still had a clear view of me through the window. I lifted my head and walked around my desk to sit down. Ginger had placed a list of phone messages on top of a stack of other memos, and I ran a finger along its edge. If I picked up my phone, I knew I'd call Lisa. I set the note back down on the desk and pushed my chair just far enough away that it was out of easy reach.
There was a loud tap on my window, and I jerked my head up, but in place of Josh's phony grin, there was the smiling face of Andy Keller. My glare melted away, and I leaned back in surprise. His hair was shorter now, and there were lines in his face where dimples had once been, but there was no mistaking that smile. He raised his eyebrows and motioned over his shoulder with his thumb, as if to ask if he should come back another time. I shook my head and waved him in.
"Hi," he said, pushing the door open. I rose to my feet, and he hesitated for a moment in the doorway. "I'm Andrew Keller. From the Boston Globe," he said, holding up his press pass. "I don't know whether you'd remember me, but-"
"Of course I remember you." We shook hands. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Josh standing in the middle of Toby's office, studying us intently through the window. I turned away just far enough that I couldn't see him. "What can I do for you?" I asked, letting my hand drop back down to my side.
"Actually, I'm really just here to say hello. I mean, I had a meeting with C.J., and I just figured it was time I finally stopped by."
"Have a seat," I said, indicating the chair in front of him. I sat back down, swiveling around so that my back was to Toby's window, and tried to look friendly. "So you stayed in Boston."
"Well, I took a circuitous route back, anyway," he said, leaning back and reaching around to prop his head up with his arms. "By way of Kuwait, Israel, and St. Louis, Missouri. Though not in that order."
"You covered the Gulf War?"
"For the Chicago Tribune, yeah. I've been with the Globe since '92."
"Hey, wow, that's great." I cracked a smile. "You're in D.C., now, after all that? And you're not bored?"
Andy grinned, stretching his legs in front of him. "Yeah, well, to be honest, I pretty much expected to be. No offense, but this isn't exactly my dream job. But I started in May." He planted his elbows on the arms of the chair and clasped his hands together. "Let's just say it ended up being a little more exciting than people had led me to believe."
"Yeah." I sucked in a breath. "I can imagine."
"You guys have sure been keeping us hopping."
"Well, we couldn't let you people think the Press Corps was the place to end up if you wanted to take it easy for a while."
He rolled his eyes and laughed, tossing his head back. For a moment I could almost see his twenty-one-year-old self in front of me, grinning and pushing his hair behind his ear. "Well, believe me, it hasn't been anything like that." He sat up straight and held out his arm in a wide gesture. "But hey, look at *you*!"
I gave him a tight-lipped smile. "Look at me."
"You know, when I used to wonder what had become of you, I'd imagine you working for the Times, or maybe as an assistant editor for Newsweek or something. But then suddenly there you were, senior staff in the goddamn White House."
I nodded. "Well, I interned at the Times, so you got that much right. But then came law school, so I did that for a while, and then this kind of fell into my lap, and, well." I swallowed. Trying to explain how this had happened without mentioning Josh sounded almost as ridiculous as it felt. "Here I am," I said with a shrug.
"When I heard what you were doing these days, I had your standard two minutes of shock, but then I realized it made perfect sense." He grasped the arms of the chair and pushed himself up straight. "You've got to be one of the top two or three writers I've worked with over my entire career, but you didn't have much of a handle on journalistic objectivity."
"Hey! I resent that!" I laughed, surprised to find that it was genuine. "I held my own with you on that Grenada story."
Andy smirked. "Yeah, you did an okay job once I reined you in a little."
"Oh, come on." I rolled my eyes. "You did not rein me-"
"Take a look at any decent story about Grenada. I dare you to find *one* that uses the phrase 'calculated losses' to describe those students."
I touched a hand to my face, hiding my eyes and my embarrassed grin. "Oh, God, you remember that?"
"And when was the last time you saw the word 'sacrificial' on the front page of any newspaper, in any story at all? Quotations don't count." Andy laughed. "Trust me, you made the right career choice."
The right career choice. I felt the grin disappear from my face, and I dropped my hand. I was supposed to have become a person of substance, but I felt hollow, as if everything meaningful inside of me had given way to emptiness. Andy tilted his head to one side, silently questioning. I didn't answer.
"Look," he finally said. "I meant to come by sooner. But then, well, the MS story broke, and you had to have been as least as busy as I was. And then after a while I figured you'd just think I was trying to use any leverage I might have to get an exclusive-"
"I wouldn't have thought that," I interrupted.
"Thanks." He looked at me for a long moment. "You know, I'd never mention anything. To anybody."
I inhaled a breath, and then let it back out. "I appreciate that."
"I'm not that kind of reporter."
"I remember." I gave him what I hoped was a friendly smile, but it strained the edges of my mouth.
Andy leaned forward in his seat, grabbing onto the side of my desk. "So what do you say we get out of here and go get something to drink?"
"I really shouldn't."
"I'm not- I don't mean like that." He held up a hand. "I'm living with somebody. Here, in the city. That's why I took this job. So I'm not asking you out, or anything, just ... old friends, going for a beer."
I looked down at the paper littering the surface of my desk. "I've got this thing to finish before tomorrow."
"It looks to me like you're just clearing off your desk."
I exhaled loudly. "I guess I am."
Andy cocked his head at me. "I promise, not a single word of business. I won't even ask you about the trip to California."
A warm smile spread across his face. Suddenly I wanted nothing more than to spend an evening talking to a nice guy I barely knew, about a time long ago when the world seemed one hell of a lot simpler. I nodded slowly. "Well, far be it from me to miss out on an opportunity to test a reporter on a promise like that."
"This time, anyway," he said, his eyes glinting. "Next time, you can bet I won't go so easy on you."
"I stand warned," I said. I grabbed my coat from the rack and swung the door open, gesturing into the doorway. "After you."
I anchored my neck in place, straining not to turn my head toward Toby's office, but it had a mind of its own. Josh was hovering in Toby's doorway, his gaze traveling up and down Andy's tall frame and finally landing on me. I could feel myself wincing, and I turned so that I was facing Toby through his window. "I've got my cell if you need me tonight," I called out to him.
"'Night," Toby said back.
I could still feel Josh's eyes on us as we rounded the corner into the hallway. "So." I cleared my throat and looked at Andy, struggling to recover. "Tell me about the guy you're living with."
He shrugged. "Oh, you know him, actually."
"I do?" I blinked.
"He's in the House. Matt Skinner?"
"Matt *Skinner*?" Josh had met with Congressman Skinner about a year ago to try to convince him not to vote with the rest of his party on the Marriage Recognition Act. It hadn't been one of our more successful moments. I came to a dead stop in my tracks.
"I was working the campaign trail back in 1990 for the Trib, and I ended up interviewing him," Andy said, ignoring the surprise on my face. "In Washington, actually. He was running for office for the first time, and it was just your standard profile sort of thing. Nothing too exciting. He was a total prick, but there was something about him, you know?"
"Yeah." My voice sounded empty. "I do."
"Anyway, he lost miserably. The country wasn't quite ready to elect an out gay Republican to Congress."
"Not in 1990, no," I agreed.
"It took six years for me to convince him that he wouldn't be ruining his life if he dated a reporter, and then it was another two after that before he got himself elected. Then we did the long distance thing for a while before I finally gave in and asked for a transfer. And so here I am."
"Wow." A journalist and a politician, both struggling to keep their heads above water in a world where so much depended on public opinion. And yet they'd made it work. "I'm ... impressed." My chest tightened. I suppressed a cough.
"Hey, it hasn't always been easy," Andy said, shaking his head. "I mean, I should say that it's been a lot easier on me than on Matt. He managed to get elected, which took a kind of determination I know *I* don't have. And now he's got to defend himself on all sides, you know? How can an out gay man be a Republican, how can a fine upstanding Republican Congressman be sleeping with a guy? But he always says that if you let the teeming masses define you, the battle's lost before you even start fighting it."
Are you saying you think I'm gay? Josh's angry voice reverberated in my mind. I felt dizzy.
"And now, God." Andy started walking again. I followed him, my feet like lead weights. "We're buying a house in northern Virginia. I'm helping pick out paint colors for the den, man. Me." He slammed a fist against his chest in an imitation of a knife through the heart. "Can you imagine?"
I tried to smile, but my mouth wouldn't move.
"I keep telling him that he's trying to fit a square peg into the proverbial round hole, but he really wants this. We're so different, and our friends all wonder how we make it work. But somehow it's still good. It's really, really good."
"That's great." I sounded hoarse.
"How about you? Is there anybody?"
My legs wobbled, and I stopped walking again, unsure if they would still support me. The corridor I saw at least twice every day fogged over, and I reached backward for support. There was nothing but air. My feet faltered, and a hand appeared at my arm, and then I found myself sitting, a marble bench beneath me. I bent over, supporting my forehead with the palms of my hands. My eyes were stinging, but I was too numb to cry.
I looked up. Andy was just sitting there, studying me, his face flooded with a mixture of curiosity and concern. "I'm sorry," I blurted. "It's just- I'm sorry. I'm sorry." I looked back down and closed my eyes again, balling a fist against my forehead.
"You know," he said, keeping his voice low, "when we said goodbye way back when, I gave you my number and told you to call once you had things figured out. But you never called."
"I'm sorry," I repeated, still not looking at him. "It was-"
"No, wait, wait." He placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder. "It's okay. I mean, sure, I was disappointed, but it was okay. Your choice, man, you know? After a while I had to assume it was because you weren't really that interested. But right now I'm wondering if maybe it was because ... well, because you never *did* end up figuring things out."
I choked out a rueful laugh. "Oh, I did. It's just ... things got a little complicated after that."
The low rumble of commotion in the hallway began to register in my brain, and I picked my head up off my hand. I folded my arms, pressing them against my chest, and exhaled a long sigh. Slowly, I looked up to meet Andy's eyes.
"You still want that drink?" he asked.
I sniffed. "I think I need it, now."
"Well, then." He stood, holding out a hand to help me up. I grabbed onto it and pulled myself to my feet.
"Matt Skinner, huh?" I said.
Andy sighed, like he had known that was coming. His lips turned up in a hint of a smile.
I held up a hand. "Just to clarify, we're talking about Representative Matthew Skinner, Republican of Ohio? The same Matt Skinner who made an impassioned speech last year on the House floor *opposing* campaign finance reform? That Matt Skinner?"
Andy grinned, rolling his eyes. "Yeah, yeah. Take it up with him."
I squinted at the page of notes on my desk, but Ginger's large, loopy handwriting still eluded me. "So wait, what's this?" I asked her, pointing at the side margin. "Three languages?"
"Luxembourg has three official languages." She twirled her hair around the pen in her hand.
"It does? Okay." I counted them off on my fingers. "French. German." I shook my head. "I give up."
"Luxembourgish," she said, as if I should have known that.
I peered at her over my glasses. "You're kidding."
"That's a language?" I took them off, setting them on my desk.
"Well, he's not going to be able to say something in all three of them. It's only a fifteen-minute address."
She shrugged. "You're the boss."
My head jerked up. Josh stood in the doorway, both hands shoved deep into the pockets of his suit. He looked somehow simultaneously hesitant and expectant, and I raised a cynical eyebrow at him.
He was right on schedule, really. This would be just about the right time for our standard, absolutely crucial conversation about our strategies for continuing to work together. Or about making sure I'd still want to watch football games with him on Monday nights whenever we weren't working late. Or about a million other little things that would just make it harder to look him in the eye tomorrow. At least last time we'd managed to have the conversation away from the office. I held back a glare.
Josh glanced at Ginger. "Can I have a minute?"
"Sure." She scurried out, and Josh closed the door behind her, leaning against it as if to trap me inside. I pressed my lips together and stared down at the legal pad in front of me.
"You working on that school construction ad?" he began.
"That's Bruno and Connie's department," I said, my voice cold.
"Are they gonna let you look it over when they're done?"
"That's how it's worked so far. I don't see why we'd want to change anything about the process now."
Josh plonked himself down into a chair. I propped my head up with a fist and stared at my notes in my best 'can't-you-see-I'm-working' pose, even though the smoldering anger behind my eyes was blurring the words on the page.
"So is that for Iowa, or is it something else?" he said finally.
"The caucuses aren't for another six weeks. It doesn't take me that long to write a speech that essentially says 'thank you for affirming the fact that I was the only serious contender in this race'."
Josh was silent, as if waiting for me to make conversation. I spread my fingers flat against the desk. It would be a cold day in hell before I gave him that satisfaction. "Hey, did you hear Senator Montgomery's down for the count?" he finally offered. "Skiing accident."
"I was supposed to meet with him tomorrow about the HMO thing, but he's not gonna be pushing that through anytime soon. Gives us some breathing room."
"What are you doing here, Josh?" I didn't look up.
"I'm just telling you about-"
"Would you please just cut the crap?" I lifted my chin and glared at him. "It's already been a long morning."
Josh opened his mouth, and then snapped it shut again. He glanced down at his lap and looked back up to meet my eyes. "Where were you last night?"
The question was so unexpected that all I could manage was a muffled laugh. "Excuse me?"
"Where did you go last night?"
"Don't tell me you waited up," I said sarcastically.
"Your cell was off, and I got the machine at your place," he growled.
I shook my head, incredulous. "What makes you think I'd answer the phone if you called?"
"You're incapable of letting a phone ring, Sam, so just answer the damn question!"
The muscles in the corner of his jaw rippled as he clenched his teeth, and our eyes met in a long, cold stare. Swallowing back the bitter taste on my tongue, I formed a tight white line with my lips.
My silence only fueled his anger. "You can't sleep with a member of the press corps!" he blurted.
I looked back down at my desk, fighting with the impulse to hit him. "Okay," I said carefully. "If you turn around and walk back through that door right now, then we can both forget you ever said that."
"You work in the White House -- you're not a fucking teenager. There's a hell of a lot more at stake here than some grudge you have against me. You can't do this!"
"What I do with my private time is no longer any concern of yours." My voice was low, but my words were clipped.
He leaned over the back of my desk, his head shaking. "You don't get that kind of private time, not in this job."
I looked up, meeting his gaze with a tense stare. "Well, that's an issue you and I have never quite seen eye to eye on, isn't it?"
"Oh, for God's sake, would you give it up?" He stood, slamming a fist down in the middle of my desk. "This isn't about me, okay?"
He walked toward me, every step more menacing. I grabbed the edge of the desk, welding myself in place.
"If this one gets out, it's not gonna matter how many great ideas you've had, or how many nights you've spent eating takeout Chinese in the Roosevelt Room to get that last section of a speech just right. Leo'll still see to it that your ass gets kicked out the door so fast you won't have time to blink first."
I rose to meet him, my eyes blazing. I waved a finger in his face. "Don't you *dare* threaten me with Leo."
Josh threw his arms out to his sides. "I don't have to threaten you with anything, Sam. You jump in the sack with a member of the press corps, and it'll make what happened after Laurie look like a game of tiddlywinks."
I snorted. Josh apparently failed to see the irony in the fact that he'd been the first to come to my defense back then. Which, of course, had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Laurie had been female.
"This is your career, okay? This is it."
"Oh, it's about *my* career now, is it?" I said. "You are just so full of-"
"You don't even know what you're throwing away, do you?" Josh sputtered out a dry laugh. "You really don't. You have no idea." His breath was coming in fits. "You know how we went chasing after the real thing? Well, you've got it. All that potential for greatness we saw back then, and then some. But one false move right now, and it's *over*. That's how this game works."
I turned away, both hands clutching my arms as if my own iron grip was the only thing holding me together. I wanted to clasp my hands over my ears like a three-year-old and drown out his words with nonsense syllables.
"What are you gonna do, go back to that prison I sprang you from? Use that amazing Seaborn brain to buy boats for oil companies so they can't get sued when there's a spill?" I flinched, and Josh grabbed my arm. "Would you listen to what I'm saying, here?"
I spun around, shaking off his hand. Something inside of me snapped, shaking loose a torrent of emotion I hadn't realized I'd been holding back. "What do you want from me, Josh?" I yelled. "Tell me. You want to hear me tell you that I'm not sleeping with Andy Keller? Well, that I can do. I'm not sleeping with Andy Keller. Or maybe you just want to hear me say that I still love you more than I've ever loved anybody in my entire life, and I can't imagine ever stopping? Well, that's true, too, so there you go!"
Josh's mouth opened, but he looked too stunned to speak.
"Or maybe I'm supposed to tell you that I don't have any regrets. Something like this, maybe." I raised my hands in the air as if poised to make a speech. "Even though we managed to make a far more spectacular mess of this whole thing than we've ever made before -- which, incidentally, is something I didn't think was even possible -- I wouldn't trade the past year with you for anything." I let my arms fall back down to my sides. "Well, sorry, Josh, that one I can't give you."
"It's never enough for you to wreck something just once, you know? You have to keep doing it over and over again, even though we both already know it's an exercise in futility. So let me spell it out. This relationship is over. You got that? And among other things, that means that even if you do think I'm probably sleeping with an old friend to get back at you, you don't get to knock on my door in the middle of a work day and ask me about it!"
I could feel my heart drumming in my chest. My eyes were fixed on Josh, unwavering. He looked shriveled, as if I'd reached inside him and strangled his spirit.
"Just let me get over you!"
My words hovered, suspended motionless in the air before falling to the ground. They were the final death blow. A mercy killing. Josh paled and cast a stricken look at the floor.
"Okay," he whispered, so quietly I almost couldn't tell he'd spoken, and then I couldn't look at him at all. I turned toward the window, wincing against the brightness of the sun.
Josh's leaden feet took a single shuffled step toward the door, and then another, and then another. It took three steps to get to my door from the desk, and one more to walk through it. My throat was burning. A turn of the knob squeaked the door open, and the fire spread to my eyes as it clicked shut behind him.
I stretched out a hand, supporting myself against the windowsill. The wind chased a withered brown leaf across the lawn outside, charging it with some final artificial gasp of life. As if for the first time, I realized that the recent chill in the air had been signaling the imminent onset of winter.
From miles away I heard a faint scratching sound that I only barely recognized as a knock. I couldn't respond. My fingers were cold. My face was cold. My body was numb, inert, like I was standing in a void at the very center of nothingness. The noise came again, more insistent, and I tried to turn around, but I was anchored to the floor.
I felt transluscent at the window, like blurred edges of bone marrow in an X-ray. Someone could see me. Maybe they all could. There was someone at the door, but I couldn't move. My feet were frozen. The noise continued, like a dull, endless thud on the other side of the ice.
The door slid open. "Sam?"
It was Toby. I didn't move. Couldn't move.
"Sam," he repeated, his voice gentle.
I pressed my eyelids together, flames melting the ice on my face. A quiet sigh from behind me momentarily drowned out the sound of my own heartbeat, and the door swung closed again.
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