TITLE: A Strange Spot in the Sky
ARCHIVE: coming soon to http://www.sparkgirls.com
CATEGORY: Sam/Will, post-admin, rated PG
NOTES: Not my characters. Tahlia and Priya brought the beta magic. This is for Kacey Linden, with admiration, and applause, and thanks.
SUMMARY: Someday you'll look back laughing. It doesn't seem plausible now, but you'll understand yourself better by then.
A Strange Spot in the Sky by Luna
Many years from now, when you're much older, you'll admit your own reasons to yourself. You will look back and say, yes, the White House broke your heart when you learned of the MS. Yes, in part it was because you were the last to know.
You will look back and say, yes, you stayed longer and left later because of Josh. You left him on purpose.
A promise to a widow, you said once, believing it was all coincidence. You'd call it chance, or luck, or call it fate. Now Congress is out of session and you're sitting on an idling plane, your Senate campaign waiting for you in California. The polls don't favor you yet, but they're not quite as dire as Bartlet's were in the beginning. Maybe you can win. You're ready to go, with Toby's new book open on your lap, though you've already seen it through notes and drafts and proofs. You hope someone will sit down next to you and ask what you're reading, and by the time you're over Kansas you'll have pressed it into their hands. You like to pass on wisdom, when you can.
Someday you'll look back laughing. It doesn't seem plausible now, but you'll understand yourself better by then.
Someone coughs over your head. You're in an aisle seat, so you shut the book and stand without thinking. And find yourself face to face with Will Bailey, instead of the usual old lady with a load of paisley luggage. He grins and says, "Hi."
You realize your mouth is open. You close it, and then open it again. "Hi."
"I thought I'd come by and see you off," he says.
"Airport security must be sleeping on the job."
Will squints behind his glasses. "I... think that's an insult, but I'm not quite sure how to parse it."
You shake your head, feeling yourself begin to smile. "They usually don't let people on planes without a ticket. Even people who used to work in the White House."
"I have a ticket." He reaches into his jeans--the back pocket--and produces his boarding pass for your inspection.
Either the large black coffee you downed at the gate hasn't kicked in yet, or this is a little bit strange. You wave the boarding pass away. "You bought a ticket for the flight so you could see me off?"
He hesitates, his hands falling by his sides. Jeans, and no necktie. Suddenly you feel overdressed in an everyday blue suit, like a kid who's been prettied up to have his picture taken. You *are* going to have your picture taken, you realize, at the same time that Will says, "That's exactly what I did."
His chin drops, and his shoulders do, too. "Not really, no."
You shrug inside your jacket. A rumble rises up under your feet; somewhere there's an electronic ping as the seatbelt light goes on. "We're about to start taxiing," you say. "So I guess if you don't hurry, you're coming to California with me."
Will grins again, but this time it seems shakier. He steadies himself with a hand on the top of your seat. "I'm coming to California with you."
"Yeah?" He nods. "Okay. Well. Hey, I'm glad to have the company."
You rock back on your heels to keep balance with the vibration of the floor, and to look at Will with a little more distance. In spite of the goofy smile, maybe even more because of it, there's something definite about his eyes, and you know that look; it says, I'm not screwing around.
You hear yourself ask, "What've you got in California?"
"Don't you think we should sit down?"
"Sam, at some point before takeoff, we're going to have to sit down." He glances nervously over his shoulder. Maybe he's hoping a flight attendant will come to his rescue, but the only one in sight is busy trying to fit a duffel bag into an overhead compartment half its size.
You plant your feet and give him your best imitation of Leo's pinning- a-butterfly stare. "What have you got in California?"
He takes a deep breath and lets it out through his nose. "Nothing much," he says, as lightly as he can. "I'm flying to California to see you. Also, to convince you that you should date me."
The noise of the engine increases to a roar, shaking the dry air inside the cabin. It's cool inside, but outside it's late summer, and you're aware of sweat prickling at the back of your neck.
"I think we should sit down," you say, and promptly drop into your seat.
Will squeezes past you and sits by the window. He is careful to touch you as little as possible in the cramped space, keeping his elbows tucked in, his hands on his knees. He fastens his seatbelt, and spends a lot of time looking at the airsick bag and the safety card. Finally, he says, "I was actually hoping to be a little more subtle than that."
You manage to nod your head, not looking at him, but past him, into the rosy brilliance of the early morning sun. It hurts your eyes, and after a few seconds, makes them water so that everything is blurred.
"You don't have a suitcase." Your voice sounds normal enough.
At the corner of your vision, Will frowns. "Oh. Right. Well...this kind of came up at the last minute."
With a pop of static, the pilot begins to speak on the intercom. It saves you from having to come up with a reply. The plane turns toward the runway, its nose already aimed at the sky.
Maybe it's because of the change in air pressure, but by the time the plane reaches cruising altitude, a headache is welling up into your temples. You lower your seat back by an inch and stretch your legs out as far as you can. Beside you, Will knocks his knees together, pushes a hand up under his glasses, pinches the bridge of his nose. The silence draws out, and out. Just before you think you're going to have to say something, Will looks at you. "What're you reading?"
You look down at your hand, curled tight around the spine of Toby's book, your knuckles standing out in a pale zigzag. You rotate your wrist out to show Will the front cover.
He brightens. His name is in the acknowledgements right after yours, and yours is right after Leo's. "It's amazing," he says.
"Toby doesn't think so." You touch the raised lettering on the book jacket. "It won't be his last book, and it won't be his best."
"He says that, but it's still amazing."
For an instant you're sharing something warm with him. Then a pulse moves in your head, and you actually flinch. You've always thought the best thing anyone can say about a flight is that it's uneventful. That won't be something you can say today.
"At the last minute." You turn his words over in your head as you repeat them. "At the last minute, you decided you had to rush to the airport and convince me that--that--that what, exactly?"
"That we should be dating." Will presses his lips together. "I think I was clear on that point, at least."
You push your fingers through your hair and ask, "What were you doing, watching Sleepless in Seattle?"
Will raises his gaze to the rounded ceiling and turns his hands palm- up. "I spent three hundred dollars on my plane ticket, and he's going to make fun of me."
Something like a laugh tickles inside your throat. You try to ignore it. "I want to know where this is coming from, Will. Come on."
When he swallows, you see his Adam's apple hitch. "Okay," he says, in a smaller voice. "Okay. Believe it or not, it was a conversation I had last night with my father."
It's just about the last thing you expected to hear, and you have to try even harder not to laugh, or snort. "The Supreme Commander," you begin, but Will throws you a warning look from the corner of his eye. You work a finger into the knot of your tie and loosen it. "I'm sorry. I won't interrupt you. Tell me."
He does, looking straight ahead at the peak of a bald man's head in the next row. "My father's never given me static about--well, about much of anything, except when I'm not doing something as well as I can do it. He's never been the kind of parent who tries to stage- manage his kids' lives, or if he was, he got over it by the time I was born. I want you to know he's not like that."
The inside of your mouth feels like medical gauze. But you already promised not to interrupt; you hold your questions, knowing you'll forget half of them before he's finished.
"Anyway," Will says. "We were talking about--he knows I've been doing some work for the DNC, and that I've been thinking about teaching. He asked if there were any campaigns I was interested in. And yours came up. I thought about you--"
He breaks off quickly, as a flight attendant hauls a bulky beverage cart up to your row. Will has some coffee, black and sweet. You have water, with the round hollow ice cubes they always have on planes. Your mouth is so dry that the water just evaporates before it even reaches your throat. You wait for Will to say something, but he's become very interested in the paper handle of his coffee cup. You hold out a little, and then prompt him: "You thought about me?"
"Yeah." He puts down his tray table and centers the cup precisely in the round indentation. "My father's eighty-three years old, Sam. He's always been direct with me and sometimes, hell, he's downright profound. He just asked me, 'Will that make you happy?'"
A pause, long enough for you to begin hearing the hum of engine noise, as you watch the sunlight splashed on the surface of your water.
"I got up early this morning and I called your office." Will slides his fingers under his glasses again. You notice his eyes: you always think of them as black, but they're brown. Softer than you ever remember. "Cathy told me what flight you were on. Cathy's very nice, by the way. I think she was talking to two or three other people at the same time as me, but--very nice."
You tap the back of your head against your seat and run your hands over your face. "This *is* a little hard to believe, Will," you say, reaching for your drink. "Things like this don't happen--I'm not that irresistible."
"Are you crazy?" He sips some coffee, looking straight at you for the first time in a long time. The corner of his mouth quirks upward. "Of course you are."
The water nearly shoots out your nose.
A woman in the next row leans over and glares at your sputtering. Will settles back in his seat. He seems to be chuckling to himself. You don't have a napkin, so you wipe your mouth with the back of your hand. "Funny." You're squeaking. You try again. "That's, that was really funny. Funnier, though, if I was having a beer or something."
"I'll remember that." Will leans forward with his elbows braced on his knees, tilts his head. "But I wasn't trying to make you laugh. I mean it. I mean--have you not ever looked in a mirror?"
He's turning pink around the cheekbones. Your face feels hot; you're probably pink too. You try to look away from Will and catch sight of your faded reflection in the elliptical window. It startles you no less than a stranger's face would, even though you've been living with it all your life. You look the same. You are the same, and nobody's ever dropped everything for you. Not even Lisa. Certainly not Josh.
The headache is a wave crashing against the inside of your skull. You let your gaze drift back to meet Will's. "Not to mention," he says, "that you're going to be the most genuine, and genuinely decent, Senator in the last fifty years."
"I'm not a Senator yet," you say automatically. You've been ready to say it to reporters for weeks.
Maybe you expected him to chuckle again, but his mouth tightens and he looks hard at your face. "God, I can't imagine what happened to you."
"What are you talking about?"
"Honestly, Sam. I just can't imagine what happened to you to keep you from knowing how incredible you are." Still blushing, he gives the smallest shake of his head. "It's endearing. But it's also very sad."
You fumble for your plastic drinking glass, find it, and manage to get it to your mouth without spilling it on your shirt. You wonder if Will notices that your fingers are trembling. The ice chips melt away to nothing on your tongue.
"I still don't know what you're talking about," you say.
He shrugs. It's an elegant shrug. "There are a couple thousand miles between here and L.A. Maybe one of us will figure it out by the time we get there."
Many years from now, in the cold light of getting older, you'll see many things more clearly: your family, your family history, your place in a greater history. It will be easier, in retrospect, to tell when you were really happy, when you were miserable. Easier to say why. Of course, there will still be things you'll never know. And things you'll forget, in the shadows.
You won't remember eating the breakfast that the flight attendant sets in front of you, though right now it seems like the most important thing in the world to take each tasteless bite and chew it as long as you can, prolonging the silence. You won't remember pinning your elbows against your sides, pressing your ankles together, trying to keep yourself contained in your seat. Wanting not to be touched. Wanting not to be. You won't remember.
Will gives you time if he can't give you space. He sits with his cheek touching the window, looking at nothing the way people do on public transportation. You try not to see him, except he's still there at the corner of your eye. When you glance at the windows on the other side of the plane, you can tell you're passing over a carpet of clouds. Bad weather for baseball. Good weather for farmers. Every coin has two sides.
You won't remember thinking these thoughts. But you'll remember the way the plane jerks slightly in a crosswind. Somewhere behind you, a baby starts crying. You hear a woman shushing at it uselessly, and raise a hand to rub your eyes.
Will murmurs, "You kissed me once."
Without turning your head, you slant your eyes so you can see him. You crumple a little square napkin in your fist. "I don't remember that," you say.
His face doesn't quite fall, but he blinks a couple in rapid succession. "Wow." His voice is cold, like ice, but it cracks. "That's remarkable; I was pretty sure you would."
"I meant, I don't remember it quite like that," you say. Too little, too late. You twist your fingers together. "As I remember it, you came over to my apartment, and we were arguing, and you kissed me."
"Semantics." Will rolls his shoulders against the back of his seat. "There was a kiss. And we weren't arguing about one of your votes, if you remember *that*."
And you do, at least as well as he does. Better. As you remember it, he had you cornered, panicked. And at the same time, when his mouth met yours, it was like a wire broke inside you, something that had been holding you upright let you go. It was a relief.
"Yeah," you say. The plane jerks again. The baby wails.
He doesn't seem to have heard you. His fingers tap a rhythm out against his leg; he curls the other hand under his chin. "We were arguing about you and Josh Lyman. And how I knew about you and Josh, and how I hadn't known because you hadn't told me."
"Yeah," you repeat, raising your voice. "You know, about that--"
"You don't want to talk about that relationship." He waves his hand at you dismissively and then goes back to drumming on his thigh. "You didn't want to talk about it then, either. I mean, Sam, it's not like I've never seen you since you've been in Congress, it's not like our paths haven't crossed. But look at you getting all pale and square the second I brought this up."
"I'm pale and square?" You face him, and the corner of his mouth is doing that crooked thing again.
"In the geometric sense," he says. "The thing I'm trying to say is, it shouldn't be a shock that I like you. I like you, Sam. Based purely on the fact that you kissed me once--"
"Or the other way around."
"Okay, well, based purely on a single incidence of kissing and that you haven't asked for alcohol or done any impromptu skydiving yet, I think maybe you like me, too."
You have to keep your hands busy. You straighten the garbage on your tray and take Toby's book off the floor underfoot, sliding it neatly into the pocket on the back of the seat. "I never said I didn't like you."
"That's one hell of a backhanded compliment," Will says. He points at the book jacket. "Did you pick that up from him?"
You puff out a deep breath, the kind that would freeze if it were colder, and hang over your head, and haunt you. "It's been four years," you say. "Since the single incidence of kissing."
He moves his hand to your armrest and keeps the rhythm going with his fingers. "So let me take you back to the beginning of this conversation," he says. "You should date me. And the only reason I didn't say so sooner is because of this, this look you've got on your face. I want to know whatever it is I don't know about you."
"I thought this was all your father's idea," you say. Right away you want to bite it back. Maybe you didn't say it. Maybe it was only an unworthy thought.
Will frowns, but all he says is, "Well, for an old-fashioned, heterosexual Gentile, he'd make one hell of a Yenta."
Even as you're laughing, you're thinking that he won't forgive you for that one. Then the plane gives a full-body shudder like it's trying to digest something prickly and poisoned. The garbage on your tray slides into your lap, and Will's hand jumps automatically to your wrist. His face is pale except for the red at the cheekbones. He lets go as soon as he realizes he's grabbed you, without a word. You pick your napkin off your lap, grimacing at the small grease spot it's left on your inseam.
"It has to do with the jet stream," you say. "The wind, or something."
"I am not afraid of flying," he mumbles. A stray lock of hair droops over his forehead, just grazing the upper rim of his glasses.
You remember why you kissed him, once.
The seatbelt sign pings on and Will buckles himself in, even before the pilot starts up on the intercom with the standard speech about experiencing turbulence. You hesitate. Then follow suit.
When the speech is over, you say, "Square?"
"You'll never be able to catch your own face doing it," he says. This version of his smile is thin. There are a lot of different smiles in him.
He's lowered the shade on the window, and he sits with a straight spine, a military bearing. You've been studying him covertly for the last five minutes, trying to time it so that you're only looking at him when he's not looking at you. Already, at least once, he's caught your eyes darting away, but for the moment he seems preoccupied with ignoring the motion of the plane. Or maybe he's said everything he bought a plane ticket to say.
When you think of that, shame heats up the back of your neck. He's going an entire continent out of his way for you. You've given him next to no encouragement, next to no reason, yet there he is beside you, upright and locked. And patient.
Rattling around in the back of your head there's the sound of Josh's knock on the Plexiglas window of a conference room, the smell of rain in Josh's hair, the sight of blood darkening to brown on Josh's shirt. Will probably deserves to know he's making a mistake.
You loosen your tie a little further, open your mouth. But Josh's name dies somewhere between your throat and your tongue, and what you say instead is not what you expected. "I'm sorry I said, you know, I wasn't nice about your father."
Will gives another of his expressive shrugs. He doesn't turn his head.
"It's great that you're that close with him. Most people aren't."
"Most people don't know my father as well as I do."
"I meant, in general, sons and fathers." His eyes meet yours and hold them. You moisten your lips. "For example, me and mine."
He tilts his head to one side like a psychologist in the movies. Slowly, he nods.
You know you'll able to say this without tearing up from sadness, from anger or physical pain. It took years. But you can. "He spent most of his time at work when I was growing up. And a lot of that time he wasn't actually working. There was another woman. My, ah--" You pause. Breathe. Continue. "It started when I was eight; my mother found out when I was thirty-six. They're divorced now."
"My parents divorced when I was three," Will says, relaxing somewhat into his seat. "I don't remember it at all."
Everyone says 'I'm sorry'; Will doesn't say he's sorry, and that alone surprises a smile out of you. You reach up to rub the taut muscle where your neck meets your shoulder. "We talk now," you say. "But I'm resigned to the idea that we'll never know each other."
His eyebrows arch up, wrinkling his forehead. "How'd you get resigned to that?"
"Most people are more than we think they are. And less."
"You've never come out to your father," he says. He's lowered his voice enough that you can barely hear him, though your faces aren't even a foot apart. Still, you can tell that the whispering isn't instinctive to him; he has nothing to hide.
"I don't lie to him." You turn your hands over, empty palms facing up. "We just haven't had that conversation."
"It might be easier now than when you were fifteen." He considers this, then adds, "Or it might have been easier when you weren't an elected official."
"Yeah, I did the sex scandal thing already," you say. Laurie's face flickers in your vision, or your imagination. You make a mental note to send her flowers when you land. Then you make another note to think of something that wouldn't be a meaningless token. You've never been able to do enough to make things right. It might be impossible to do that much.
Your headache is gone, or you've stopped noticing it, but there's a tension in your chest now. Not exactly pain, but a tight feeling like something's encircling your heart. You slow your breathing. It doesn't go away. "I've done the keeping-a-secret thing, too."
His mouth moves, but he stops himself from speaking. It doesn't matter, though. You recognize the shape of Josh's name. And you sigh.
After a minute, Will says, "You know where I was during Bartlet for America?"
Non-sequiturs used to throw you off, but they've been the way of your life for so long now that you don't blink. "Boarding school?"
"I don't know if you noticed, but I'm not, in fact, twenty years younger than you."
"And that campaign wasn't twenty years ago?" You're not trying that hard to resist the mental picture of a boy in a uniform, cowlick falling over toward the top of his glasses.
"I worked for the ACLU," he says. "It was exciting, but my actual job wasn't exciting. I was doing research, writing briefs. I had an idea that someday I was going to evolve into Clarence Darrow."
"Why didn't you?"
"Clarence Darrow had Scopes; I had a dispute about erotic lawn sculpture." He sort of winks. You don't ask. "So I discovered NPR that winter. I assume you know what all the chatter was about."
"Rush Limbaugh called him a blockheaded would-be Kennedy who probably kept his grandmother's dresses in his closet," you say, with a weak chuckle. "That was my favorite. I had it on tape for a while."
"It's one of those things that sounds ridiculously smug, but I was with you from the beginning." He folds his arms. Then the plane shivers and he lowers them reflexively, grabbing the edge of his seat. "Hoynes was going to crush Armstrong, Hoynes was going to get crushed, and nobody saw Bartlet as anything but a stumbling block on the way to the New World Order. Every time I heard Bartlet dismissed, I wanted to know more about him. By the spring, I knew." Will takes off his glasses and polishes them on his sleeve. "I wanted to be part of something like that."
Your throat is tickling again, in a way that could be imminent laughter and could also be a sob. You manage to swallow it down, along with Lisa's anger, Josh's joy. "You didn't quit your job and run off to join our circus."
"Maybe I should have. But I felt that way about Horton Wilde, too. And...." He puts his glasses back on and leans slightly toward you. Yes, his eyes are brown, but their softness doesn't preclude intensity. They've seen a little of everything. They're drawing you in. "Sometimes there are scandals and disasters," he says. "Sometimes your heart gets broken. But there is a third alternative."
You know you're going to sound hoarse, so you don't try to talk above a whisper. "And you're going to tell me what it is."
"It takes a lot of effort, but--being who you are." His knee bumps against yours, maybe intentionally. "Believing that that's good enough."
Maybe you only sit that way for a second, or maybe time doesn't pass. Maybe the plane stops jolting, frozen in the bright limbo between the sun and the shifting clouds. Maybe nothing moves at all until finally he lifts his hand. You're sure he's going to touch you- -almost sure you're going to let him--but he pulls back, slaps himself on the forehead.
"This couldn't possibly be worse timing," he says, "but I need some cold water."
You can tell he's going pale, as he struggles loose of his seatbelt and past you. He almost trips over your feet. You sit by yourself, pressing your hands over your face as if that might press your thoughts into order. It doesn't work. It never has.
The empty seat next to you is conspicuous. When the beverage cart trundles up the aisle for the second time, the steward gives you a dubious look. You're tempted to say, "I stowed him in the overhead compartment." You're also tempted to order a rum and coke. Instead, you have coffee, because it's only nine in the morning, Pacific time. Your day is hardly even beginning.
Will comes back from the bathroom, blotting the back of his neck with a paper towel. He looks better now, and the flight is leveling, but his steps are still cautious. You start to get up as he approaches your row. He shakes his head and waves you into the window seat.
"I'm sorry," he says, collapsing into your seat. "That was the most pathetic ending to an inspirational anecdote this side of Chicken Soup for the Chocolate Lover's Soul."
"It was fine," you say. Then, "Are you all right?"
"Yeah. Of course. Yeah." He rubs his fingertips over the furrows in his forehead. "I was probably working up to something especially persuasive, though."
You understand that feeling well, as a writer, that feeling that you just forgot the perfect sentence, on the tip of your pen or your tongue. "Will," you begin. You turn your coffee cup around in your hands, waiting for the right words to come. "The way you felt about the President, the way you felt about Wilde..."
"Absolutely," he interrupts, a sudden sharp clarity coming into his voice. "Yes. From the moment you stood up in that bar, I saw you the same way. You've been a good Congressman for a district that largely disagrees with everything you care about. You really want to be a Senator; there is no earthly reason why you won't be one of the best."
You made a promise to a widow, and to Will. You realize you should have expected this confidence from him. But still, it strikes you hard, and deeply, and it rings in your ears. "I'm not sure I'll win."
"I can help with that," he says. "Winning. Also, with being sure."
"I know about perfection," you say. The Bartlet you imagined during the first campaign, the diamond you put on Lisa's finger. A kiss in the rain. Things that don't hold up under the rough handling of reality. On an impulse, you turn and put your hand on top of Will's arm. He widens his eyes and waits. "You really think I can do this," you say. "Without screwing it up?"
He laughs. "Look at me, Sam. Would I be on this plane?"
"No." You move your hand a little, toward his wrist, as if you're checking his pulse. Which might be what you're doing. He's more solid and real and alive than you feel. "When I kissed you four years ago--"
"You admit it?" This time, he definitely winks.
"I wasn't--" You weren't over Josh, and it's much too unkind to say straight out. "I wasn't ready. To think about this. Maybe I'm still not ready. You've had a lot more time to go through it in your head than I have."
"Yeah, but you're good on the fly." He twists his arm under your touch and points at Toby's book in the back of the seat ahead of him. "Another thing I learned from him, by the way?"
"Some sons are lucky enough to have great fathers," he says, and moves his hand up, so it's underneath yours. Palms touching, fingers separate. "And some sons surpass the fathers they have."
The clouds have broken below you, and the sunlight is strong against one side of your face. Still, that doesn't explain how warm you feel right now, or the tingle jumping from nerve to nerve, running up your arm and into your spine. It doesn't explain the way the heel of your palm is fitting into the hollow of his. This has happened to you before. But it has never, not ever, happened like this.
"I'm not sure I can handle this," you say.
"I might decide I can't."
"The whole Sleepless in Seattle thing, not so much."
"Sam, I'm trying to convince you," he says gently, as he takes his hand away. He keeps it close to yours. "Not the other way around."
Many years from now, when you're telling this story, you'll say it was one of Will's smiles that gave you the confidence. You'll laugh at yourself, at how full you were of yourself, but you'll never laugh at the memory of the pain in your chest, the fist around your heart. You'll never even admit to it. And you'll never know how Will remembers this flight--in your company, at least, he will always shake his head and say you tell the story better.
Mostly, you'll have forgotten the feeling that you're getting away with something you haven't, and can't, earn. The guilt.
All you'll remember is this moment when the air pressure changes, and the plane begins to tilt toward the earth. You're thinking of two- sided coins, and the tintinnabulation in your ears is the sound of Will saying, "But there is a third alternative."
You give your own version of his shrug. Your voice cracks a little when you ask, "What did you say to your father when he asked if I'd make you happy?"
You watch the slow beginning of his smile, and wait for him to tell you the answer.
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