All characters belong to Aaron Sorkin, John Wells Productions, Warner Bros., & NBC. Standard disclaimers apply. Please send feedback. This Street, That Man, This Life Violet
This street holds its secrets
Like a cobra holds its kill.
This street minds its business
Like a jailer minds his jail.
That house there is haunted,
That door's a portal to Hell --
This street holds its secrets very well...
They had until nine o'clock.
The light in the bar was more than red, Sam thought. There was a dusky quality to it, partly from cigarette smoke and partly from nothing specific at all. It was scarlet. Burgundy. Vermilion. It was more than red, anyway.
Sam checked his watch for the third time in as many minutes. It wasn't making time move any faster. He sighed quietly and stared into his rum and coke as if it was a witch's cauldron. Double, double, toil and trouble, he thought. Eye of newt and tongue of -- frog? toad? He couldn't think of the exact quotation, couldn't think of the right shade of red, couldn't think of the right word for anything, and it was killing him.
The red light, reflected on the surface of his drink, shimmered slightly. But that might have been the stinging in his eyes. He hadn't wanted to leave the White House, hadn't wanted to walk out into the humid night. He hadn't wanted to remember that there was this world of people, just outside the walls, just outside the secret. But Leo had told them to go, and it was what he did. He followed orders.
He remembered that he was supposed to be eating, and he picked up a handful of peanuts and popped a couple into his mouth. They were too sweet. He liked them better salted, and it was a struggle to chew and swallow them. He got them down, clenched his jaw to quell a wave of nausea. The drink washed the taste out of his mouth. There. He had eaten. Puce? No, it certainly wasn't puce. And he was lost for words.
His watch said he still had forty minutes to kill, allowing for the walk back to the White house. Mentally, he subtracted out the time it would take to get from the exterior door to his office. To sit behind the desk. To pick up the phone when it rang. To walk to the Residence. Sam figured he had half an hour, and then that time, those things to do. And then they were going to ask the question, and then he would have to contemplate the answer.
Sam covered his face with his hands and closed his eyes. The red-but-more-than-red light left a green afterimage ghosting inside his lids. There was a word that meant both red and green, wasn't there? Yes, he remembered that one. Sinople. It meant everything, the extremes of possibility and everything between them. Sinople.
He stared at the red, the green, the drink and the watch, and prayed as hard as he could that the night would end.
* * *
The two of them hadn't discussed whether they were going to her place or his. It was just as well, though, because they didn't make it out of the parking garage.
Toby's car was not, of course, a Dodge Dart, but it was small, and the backseat could only be described as tiny. He looked at the door and looked at this stunningly tall woman, and knew it would have been a joke. C.J. stepped out of her shoes, standing stocking-footed on the cold cement. She wrapped her arms around herself and looked at him and opened her mouth to speak.
He couldn't have listened to any words she could have said, so he kissed her instead. She kissed him back, hard, too hard, and he slid her jacket off her shoulders and let it fall to the pavement. She pressed herself against him and made him remember the contours of her body in a hundred ways, and he knew this time was different. They had never needed each other quite this much, not after his divorce was finalized, not after her brother's funeral, not after bullets had flown over their heads. They had never needed each other quite this much, and it had never hurt quite this way.
Her back hit the side of his car, and she winced slightly, guessing it would leave a bruise. Every sound they made echoed, but it didn't matter. There were forty reporters in the Press Room, but there was no one in the garage, and neither of them remembered whom they were hiding from, anyway. Neither of them believed things could possibly be worse.
There was sweat. There was ragged breathing. There was pleasure. There was pain. There was no cover. There was no consciousness of time or location; they obliterated that for each other. In each other. She might have bitten him; he might have said he loved her. Neither of them was going to remember it.
When it ended, they stood for a long time, leaning into each other. His hands were still on her hips; she was still clinging to his upper arms. She laughed. He raised an eyebrow in puzzlement.
"They say..." C.J. caught her breath. "They say you start out as an adolescent having sex in cars, and you wind up middle-aged..."
"Having sex in cars?" Toby concealed a smile in his beard.
She shook her head, her hair brushing against his face. "We're so damn old, Toby."
She slipped past him and perched on the hood of the car. "Would you fire me?"
He stared at her. "Would I--"
"If it needed to be done."
"It won't," he told her. She chuckled sadly, not believing it any more than he did. He sat down beside her and let her lean against his shoulder. They stayed as long as they could, knowing they would walk back into the White House wearing each other's touch between their skin and their clothes.
* * *
The streetlights glowed intensely, slanting Josh's shadow in sharp contrast across the sidewalk. Donna followed it, staying a few paces behind him. She was sure he knew she was there, but they both pretended he didn't for a little while.
Josh turned to face her when he reached the corner. He leaned against the bars of the fence, tilting his head back to look at the sky. "Do you know anything about constellations?" he asked.
"I know Orion." Donna came to stand beside him. "That's about it."
"Didn't any of your relatives ever take you out under the big, cold midwestern sky and teach you to navigate?"
"Why not? Too busy on the farm?"
She elbowed his arm lightly. "They just didn't."
"My grandfather once taught me how to find the Little Dipper by following the Big Dipper. And from there you can find the North Star." He frowned, the shadows pooling in the lines on his brow. "Except I forget which part of the handle you're supposed to follow."
"I believed in horoscopes when I was in high school," she said suddenly. "I used to read them in the paper every day. I'd compare them with the ones in TV Guide, and get nervous if they both said something bad was coming."
She watched his mouth quirk into a smile. "When did you catch on?"
"The day I graduated, my horoscope said I wasn't looking for any big world-shaking events in my life." She crossed her arms. "The only thing I was looking for was big world-shaking events."
"You're not using your lunch hour to call those TV psychics, are you?"
"I'm not even using my lunch hour for lunch," she reminded him. Then she lowered her voice. "You could have told me."
"No, I couldn't." Josh put his fingers to his temple, then ran them through his hair. "No, I could have. But I didn't."
Donna wasn't sure why she felt like it was a compliment. She reached instinctively for his hand. "I don't believe in horoscopes anymore. I think fate is kind of do-it-yourself."
"Deep," he quipped, but he squeezed her hand. "I can't remember if you follow the first two stars in the handle or the last two. My grandfather would be disappointed."
"Because you can't find the northern star?"
He nodded. "If you can't find the North Star, how do you find your way out of the woods?"
"Deep," she teased, but she kept her hand locked with his. "You'll remember."
The frown was back. "I might not."
"No," she agreed, swallowing against the sudden lump in her throat. "You might not."
That man wears his skin
Like a dancer wears her veil.
That man stalks his victims
Like a cancer stalks a cell.
That man's soul has left him,
His heart's as deadly as a rusty nail --
That man sheds his skin like a veil...
They had until nine o'clock.
Leo walked through the door that connected the Oval Office to his own. He closed it behind him, turned back around and jumped, since Margaret was standing about six inches in front of him.
"How do you do that?" he asked.
"Appear out of nowhere like a magician's assistant."
Margaret stared at him. "I'm subtle."
"That's one word for it, I guess." He shook his head. "Well, why do you do it then?"
She stepped back and inhaled softly. "I heard."
Leo froze. "Heard what?"
His voice grew urgent. "Heard what, Margaret?"
Her voice was quivering, bewildered. "Mrs. Landingham--"
"Oh." Leo's shoulders slumped; he was acutely aware of the pounding of his pulse. "Oh."
"Charlie told -- Charlie told me," she stammered, wringing her hands. "He came in, I told him you weren't here, and he said he knew, and--"
"Sit." Leo steered her over to the couch. She was breathing too fast, and he rested a hand on her shoulder. "Slow down."
Margaret pressed her trembling hands to her face. "There are cookies in the jar on her desk, Leo. She always made those cookies and she always kept track of who deserved them."
She dropped her hands into her lap. Tears were trickling from her eyes. "She can't just leave those cookies there," she murmured. "She can't just go away and leave those cookies there, because who's going to make sure--"
She started sobbing. There was nothing to say, so he simply sat with her, rubbing small circles on her back with his thumbs, and waited for her to calm down.
Margaret wiped her eyes on the heels of her hands and flicked her bangs ineffectively out of her eyes. "I hate this haircut," she said flatly.
"It makes you look younger," he told her, letting go of her shoulders.
"I'm sorry." She sniffled. "For startling you before."
"It's not your fault."
"Sure it is."
"It's really not." Leo stood up and looked at her with his best paternal face. "Go home."
"It's only eight-thirty."
"Go home," he repeated sternly, and helped her to her feet. "Get some rest."
She wavered a little as he walked her to the door. "I'll be here in the morning."
"Yeah." He watched her go and then went to his chair. Sitting at his desk, alone in the quiet office, he listened to the blood roaring through his veins and envied Margaret the ease with which she cried.
* * *
Oliver Babish paced around the periphery of his office. He was prowling, he mused, like a panther would if it was over six feet tall, weighed more than it should, and had the ability to mutter obscenities in six languages under its breath. So not like a panther at all, really. He was prowling like a lawyer.
While he was cursing in Creole French and contemplating cat physiology, another part of his mind was on its own track. Five in two years. Five in two years. Why couldn't Josiah Bartlet keep a lawyer in the White House?
Neil Buchbinder's exit was simple. Prostate cancer had made him look carefully at his life, and decide he'd rather spend it teaching his grandchildren to fish than scrutinizing the legality of the President's every word, not to mention the eleven hundred other clients that came with the title. He'd lasted eight months. His associate, Donald Cercek, had only ever planned to take over in the interim, until Fred Dawes came on board.
Early last fall, Dawes had claimed he was ready to retire, to spend his golden years in the peaceful seclusion one could only find in the middle of Manhattan. But he'd taken a teaching post at Columbia, and Oliver suspected he had been scared off. Maybe it had been the shooting at Rosslyn. Or maybe he'd known something.
He made a mental note to call Fred Dawes' house first thing in the morning. Wake the old bag of bones up and catch him off guard, and see what he had to say for himself.
And Lionel Tribbey -- well, Tribbey was what he was and he prided himself on unpredictability. He'd had lunch with Babish, just before his appointment, and claimed he was leaving over a combination of issues: money, exhaustion, the little blonde Republican, and something incomprehensible about Gilbert and Sullivan.
Or maybe he'd known. It was possible they all had. Five in two years. Perhaps they'd only suspected, sensed the ugly shape and shadow of this thing. Perhaps that was enough to make them run away. Perhaps they'd asked inappropriate questions, and their resignations were less than voluntary. Perhaps they'd decided they hated being lied to.
He knew that feeling intimately.
He also knew what the First Lady thought of him: that he was disrespectful and that he was against her. He wasn't. She worried him, yes. He worried about all the things he was sure she didn't tell him. But she wasn't his biggest problem.
His biggest problem was the President, who believed that he was an honest man, who had taken more than two years -- more than three, counting the campaign -- to realize the morass of deception and fraud and error he'd waded into. Bartlet was stuck like a cow that had waded into a swamp, if the cow was extraordinarily brilliant, but flawed as any human being, and responsible for life and death decisions as a representative of an entire nation. So not like a cow at all, really. He was stuck like a President.
And it's a privilege, Oliver thought, to serve the country, to serve the President. Even when the President is hip-deep in the worst kind of shit imaginable. He checked the clock, turned the air blue in Japanese, and circled his office once more.
* * *
Benjamin Landingham held the phone in his hand and did not hear the dial tone humming. The kitchen was darkened, only lit by the dim flashes of the television in the next room. He'd been sitting on the couch, watching ESPN, waiting to see the score from the Red Sox game.
But it didn't matter anymore.
The President had called him, though it still seemed a little funny to think of him as the President and not just Governor Bartlet. After all the years, he'd never expected they'd end up in Washington. It had been surprising enough when the campaign started, and his wife had gone traveling all around the country, sending home a postcard or a full-length letter every single day.
He wanted to slam the phone down on something, but it was a cordless, so he just let it go. It clattered satisfyingly on the floor. There was salt on his fingers from the potato chips he'd been eating, violating his diet six ways from Sunday. He'd meant to stash them somewhere before his wife got home.
He walked to the sink, turned the tap on, and held his hands under it. The water was ice-cold, since he'd gotten himself a glass earlier, so he absently turned it up. It still felt chilly. He kneaded his hands together and stared blankly out the window. The dampness of the night was condensing on the glass into tiny little globes that reflected his own eyes back at him, framed by the yellow curtains his wife had sewn herself years and years back.
She'd been so excited about the new car; it was like they were teenagers again. He hadn't seen her that happy in months, years, decades, maybe not even since the twins were babies. And he loved seeing her so cheerful. He'd been so worried about her ever since the summer, and she didn't like to talk about work too much but he could tell when she was worn out. After all, they'd been together so long.
The water still seemed cold, but he looked down and there was steam rising from it. He pulled his fingers out of the stream and looked at them. There wasn't enough light to tell if they were red or not, and they didn't hurt. He wondered why that was, why they didn't feel hot or even warm. They were just numb. He wondered if that had something to do with his arthritis. When Delores got home, he would ask--
And then it hurt, and he put his burned fingers to his mouth reflexively, cringing from the pain. He was blind, suddenly, with searing tears he hadn't shed since his sons' funeral. He sank to the floor, leaning against the cabinets, listening to the running water and the sportscaster on the television. Neither was speaking any language he could understand. Both were saying the same thing.
His wife was never going to come home.
Lord, you play a hard game,
You know we follow every rule.
Then you take the one thing
That we thought we'd never lose --
All I ask is, if she's with you,
Please keep her warm and safe
And if it's in your power,
Please purge the memory of this place...
Someone living in the White House, sometime in recent history, had liked striped wallpaper. Abbey wasn't crazy about it, but she'd said long ago that she wasn't going to be one of those First Ladies who spent four years remodeling the Residence, just in time to move out. "I'm not a Kennedy and I'm quite pleased about it," she'd told her husband. So the wallpaper had stripes, like the bars of a cage or a cell, and Jed sat on the sofa and studied it for what seemed like a very long time.
He wasn't crying, though his eyes had moistened when he'd spoken with Leo and stung when he'd spoken with Benjamin. He wasn't crying, but he knew he would, and he wished he could keep it from happening. There were a lot of things he was capable of, a lot of mental power packed into him, but he couldn't always stop himself from crying.
Delores Landingham. She'd worked for him fourteen years -- fifteen in June. Never missed a day. Never complained about the hours, though he heard from her plenty about his poor nutrition and his habit of yelling and his refusal to master new technology. He was a gluttonous Luddite with reprehensible manners. In turn, she was a selfish, Puritanical shrew who wanted to deprive him of the small pleasures he asked from life.
They'd loved one another so much.
Jed crossed himself and twined the beads of the Rosary around his fingers, but couldn't bring himself to pray aloud. He was almost certain that that would make the tears come, and he wasn't ready, not yet. So he clutched the string tighter, until the beads dug achingly into the flesh of his palm, and he closed his eyes just as tight.
Fourteen years -- fifteen in June -- was almost an eternity. It was almost thirty elections, including the midterms, and that was as good a way to measure time as any. Zoey had been a preschooler when he'd hired Delores, a small redheaded tornado who was fond of curling up on the floor under her father's desk. She'd fallen in love with Mrs. Landingham -- the cookies, first, and then the woman herself -- and her father had quickly followed suit. He'd never imagined being in the White House, back then.
He'd never imagined being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, either.
He hadn't told her. But then, he hadn't told Charlie. Abbey had asked, but Zoey swore up and down she hadn't either. He had just known, sitting ten feet outside the door for twenty hours a day, with his eyes open, paying attention to the most insignificant things as well as the huge ones. Charlie had picked it up intuitively. Charlie had known.
Hail, Mary, full of grace, he thought, and ground his teeth. If she'd known, she'd never said a word. If she'd known, she'd been incredibly tolerant, incredibly kind to keep it to herself. Knowing her, he couldn't have expected anything else. And she was so wise; surely she'd guessed something.
And if she hadn't, God, he was almost glad she never would.
He'd begun crying without realizing it, soundlessly and slowly. He didn't fight it, but he didn't let it carry him away. He stared at the stripes on the wall and allowed the tears to course uninhibited down his face. That was how Abbey found him.
She stood in the doorway and cleared her throat to announce herself. "I'm so sorry," she said, and her voice was so gentle it startled him.
Jed tapped his fist against his knee. "There's a thing in Haiti," he told her, unable to think of anything else to say just yet.
"So I've heard." Abbey watched her husband's face with concern. "I watch C.J.'s briefings, you know."
"She does those well."
She took a few steps toward him. "Yes."
"They all, all of them, do their jobs well."
He looked up at her, and his wet eyes looked so ancient that they were also boyish. "A drunk driver. A drunk, at 18th and Potomac."
"She was driving back here."
She put her fingers to his cheek. "I know that too."
He drew her down to him, buried his face in her hair and held on. She eased herself onto the couch, keeping her arms around his neck. The rosary in his hand dangled down her back, and the kiss was fierce.
The irrational thought that occurred to him was that he and this woman had created life. In more than thirty years they had brought three living, breathing, independent, beautiful beings into the world. But they could not bring one back, and his lungs and brain screamed for oxygen, and he had to release her.
Abbey smoothed her hair and nestled against his side. "Are you all right to do this tonight?"
"Of course." Jed put an arm around her and rubbed his eyes with his other hand. "It can't wait."
"You need to be all right," she said firmly. "That's the only thing that matters."
"I'm all right."
She considered arguing the point, but let it pass. "So, there's a thing in Haiti?"
"We've been fighting a lot lately," he said.
"Us and Haiti?"
"You and Mrs. Landingham?"
"You and me," he clarified.
"Oh." She leaned her head back against his arm. "Yeah, we've been getting pretty good at that. Practice makes perfect."
He looked at her searchingly. "Are we fighting now?"
"I don't know." She furrowed her brow. "Babish says I should get my own lawyer right away."
"Babish is good at his job, too." Jed took a deep breath and let it out very slowly. "Delores is... was the best, the best at her job. Hell, she'd probably be better at my job than I am."
"Probably," Abbey agreed. "But you do pretty well."
They sat in silence for a moment. It was broken by a knock on the door. "Come in," they both said, at the same time.
Charlie leaned into the room uncertainly. "Leo called. He's coming over in five minutes."
"Thank you." Jed placed his hands on his knees and leaned forward. "Charlie?"
He paused on the threshold. "Yes, sir?"
Jed looked at him steadily. This young man had suffered loss before, had shown amazing courage time and again, and it wasn't the next generation of Americans that Jed worried about.
"You're free to go home," Jed said. "You're also welcome to stay."
Charlie nodded almost imperceptibly, understanding. "Thank you, sir." He walked away down the hall.
"I do pretty well?" Jed asked.
"Most of the time," Abbey replied. She covered his hand with hers, the rosary beads pressed between them. "You need to be all right, sweetheart."
"I know. I am." It wasn't exactly true, so he amended, "I will."
They were quiet and still again. Dr. Bartlet watched her husband, and his gaze moved from her face to the red stripes on the wallpaper, to the soft golden light from the floor lamp, and finally to the clock. The second hand glided. The minute hand jumped. The hour hand shifted.
It was nine o'clock.
This life holds its secrets
Like a seashell holds the sea,
Soft and distant, calling
Like a fading memory.
This life has its victories,
But its defeats tear so viciously --
This life holds its secrets like the sea...