Your Next Bold Move
by Luna, Jae, and Lydia
There's a space in Leo McGarry's office where Will is beginning to feel comfortable, and it's three feet away from wherever Josh is standing. Today this pins him to the hallway door, because Josh is pacing a wide track around the table.
"Once upon a time," Josh says, to no one in particular, "there was a certain kind of unity among Democrats. There used to be reciprocity. Statesmanship. There were gentlemen in this party, and they treated each other like gentlemen."
"Exactly how far back in time do you want to go?" C.J.'s voice is dry. "I mean, am I still allowed to vote?"
"You'll have to bribe me for the privilege," Josh says. His shoulders loosen a little. He grabs a White House coffee mug off the table and knocks back about half the cup in one swallow. "I don't want to hear you defend these people, C.J. I don't want to hear about how compromise is the better part of--whatever. They walk and talk like Republicans, and they soak up money my party doesn't have to waste. I don't want to hear a *thing* in their defense."
Will coughs. It's louder than he expected, loud enough that everyone looks at him, as if they'd forgotten he existed. Possibly they had.
Josh frowns at him. "What?"
"Nothing." Will pushes his hands back into his pockets. "Except, I really think that's my coffee cup."
In the background, C.J. chuckles, and Toby turns his attention back to his highlighted newspaper. Josh's expression doesn't change as he looks down at the coffee. "Great," he says. "You don't have mono, right?"
"Kidding." Josh arches one eyebrow like a question mark. He turns toward C.J. and Toby. "We should switch the new guy to decaf."
Will exhales and leans back against the wall. Sometimes he's sure he's learning the rhythm here, learning to enter it as a high voice enters harmony--yeah, right, he thinks, I'm the fifth Beatle. He never knows when they're going to start talking about him in the third person again, when he'll find goats in his office and olives in his jacket or, worse, the other way around.
But he doesn't feel sorry for himself: this is the White House. He shapes the words, turns them over on his tongue, and straightens up again.
Just in time. Leo walks in through the door to Margaret's office wearing such a contented smile that Will wonders what's up. "And a very good morning to you all," he says, holding up a folded newspaper.
C.J. raises her eyebrows. "Don't tell me you're this excited about the Dow."
He takes a seat behind his desk and slaps the paper against it. "It's the first sunny day in over a week, it looks like Richardson's coming over to our side on the hate crimes bill, and I just finished Thursday's Times crossword in pen. What's not to be excited about?"
"I beat the high score in Space Invaders," Josh says. Will smiles a little, but only a little, because he's barely stilled his hands, barely gotten to the point where he's comfortable calling Leo by his first name.
"Speaking of hate crimes." As Leo puts his glasses on, there's a visible shift in the room. They're all planting their feet, getting into their fighting stances. Around here, you have to change gears that quickly. "The American Law Enforcement Reinforcement Act," Leo says. "Let's skip over the jokes about the name of the bill--"
"It's not the rhyme I'm impressed with," C.J. says, leaning against the edge of the table. "It's the meter."
"And by 'skip over,' I obviously meant 'tell one of the jokes, C.J.'" Leo rolls his eyes. "It's going to be the next thing on the floor, as soon as they vote down 409."
"Which means Tuesday." Josh nods to himself. "It's convenient; it gives us the weekend to meet with everyone we need."
"Who don't we need?" Will asks. He edges forward and automatically reaches for his coffee cup. He can't help sighing as he pulls his hand back. "I mean, from what you've said, we're pushing a pretty big rock up Capitol Hill here. Who are we *not* targeting?"
A crease of irritation appears across Josh's forehead. "Well, I'm pretty sure that if I went into a room with Lillienfield one of us wouldn't come out, so you can cross him off your list."
"Will has a point," Leo says. He doesn't raise his voice, doesn't even raise his eyes from his desk, but somehow it's clear he's talking to Josh. It's a remarkable trick. "There may be a deplorably low number of moderates in Congress, but you're not sitting down with all of them one by one."
Josh presses his mouth into a line. Then he says, "Freshmen. We need the freshmen."
Leo peeks over the rim of his glasses. "You think so?"
"Well, they've been in Washington for almost five minutes," C.J. says. "Josh thinks they might still be gentlemen. And women."
He ignores her. "We need them because they need us. Think about it. There are twenty-six new guys in the House. No experience, no clout--hell, half of them are working out of trailers. What do they need most if they want to keep their seats? They need connections. They have to build a relationship with the President, because he got a lot more votes than they did. That gives us leverage. We promise a couple of photo-ops, a couple of pens at the bill signing, and we've bagged twenty-six votes."
"We only need twenty-five," Toby murmurs.
Josh opens his mouth to ask something, and then they all get it in the same instant. Nobody needs to say Sam's name. Will smiles, a small smile of pride. He can see it reflected on the other faces in the room.
Josh lets out a noisy breath. "I'm gonna have Donna start making phone calls as soon as we're done here. Hopefully we can get a lot of these meetings out of the way during the weekend, while the senior members of Congress are in their home states playing charity golf. It'll put us in good position on Tuesday. Oh." He spins around, grabbing Will's coffee cup and pointing it at him. A dimple flickers in his cheek. "And you can talk to Sam."
Will blinks, blinks again, but Josh doesn't disappear. "I can?"
"Good." The wheels of Leo's chair squeak as he pushes it back. "I have to get to a security briefing."
"I'll keep you posted," Josh tells Leo, taking a swig of the coffee. He makes a face. "This is cold. Hey, this is yours."
Will takes the cup without looking at it. "What just happened?"
"I just sat through a meeting that had absolutely nothing to do with me," Toby says. He gathers his newspaper and pulls himself up from the couch. "And you're meeting with Sam about the American Law Enforcement--the ALERA vote."
C.J. whistles. "Good save."
Before Will can think, they're filing past him into the hallway. He glances toward the desk, but Leo's already disappeared into the Oval. Will can't follow him. So he leaves the coffee cup on the table and follows everyone else, sprinting a couple steps to catch up with them in the hall. "I'm the Deputy Communications Director," he begins, slightly out of breath.
They all stop walking, but Josh hardly turns his head. "Toby?"
Toby aims the end of his rolled-up newspaper at Will. "I'm deputizing you."
"This isn't in my job description." Will hesitates. His heart is beating a little too quickly. "Is it?"
The three of them exchange a look, a look that makes Will feel like he has a flashing neon sign over his head reading 'New Guy.' C.J. smiles at him the way you'd smile at a puppy. Will hopes he isn't blushing. That would make it even worse.
"Look, Will, you serve at the pleasure of the President." Josh shrugs. "If he wants you to play ping-pong with the ambassador from Liechtenstein at two in the morning, then that's in your job description."
There's something in Josh's face, something other than amusement or impatience, something cold. It stops Will from asking why he's pushing this. Instead he says, "Okay, but you're not the President."
"And don't think that doesn't rankle." Josh springs away from the wall, and suddenly he's halfway into his bullpen, yelling for Donna.
"Well, *somebody* definitely needs to switch to decaf," C.J. says. She lingers for a second, with her eyes on Will, and then trails after Josh. Toby harrumphs and heads in the other direction, toward his office.
In pursuit again, Will understands why the White House needs its own gym. Endurance training. He taps Toby's arm with two fingers and stops him in front of Ginger's desk. "Are you telling me Sam used to do this sort of thing?"
Toby squints at him, edging toward his office. "Sam was very comfortable having a conversation with Sam, as a matter of fact."
"You've known him longer," Will protests. He's aware that he's long since lost this argument, and that talking to Sam is hardly a chore, if that's what they want him to do. Still, it's hard to know where the hazing leaves off and the job itself begins. "Josh has known him longer. Why doesn't--"
"This conversation's gone on for Sam's entire term," Toby says, and turns away.
"You should use those charms on Congress!"
But Toby's door is already swinging shut. Will takes off his glasses and polishes the lenses on his jacket sleeve. He pinches the bridge of his nose, trying to banish the beginning of a headache, before he puts them back on. The blurs in the bullpen resolve into desks and TV sets and people--the people are Bonnie and Ginger, and they're both looking at him curiously. They don't bother to hide it. He doesn't even rate the pretense.
Will turns away from their gaze and trudges into his office. *His* office: he stands a little taller. He hasn't exactly decorated it, beyond a few family pictures and the Ziggy calendar Elsie left on his desk. But there's half a library in a box in the corner, along with inkless pens and gnawed pencils and other debris from his desk in the Wilde campaign headquarters.
He straightens up, crosses to the other side of his desk--*his* desk--and takes his Oxford dictionary out of the box.
Sam places the last of Mike Satchel's folders carefully in a cardboard box and folds the flaps down. "This is officially my office now," he says to himself, with a hint of awe. Then he calls, "Do we have packing tape?"
"Not yet." Cathy comes into the doorway and crosses her arms. "What are you going to do with that?"
"I'm going to have someone take it over to Satchel's office. As soon as we figure out where that is."
She sniffs. "It's probably in a part of the building with windows."
"I have a window." Sam turns his back and studies his reflection in the rectangle of glass. His face looks pale and unfinished, a blur over the darkening sky. He isn't used to the view yet, if he can even call it a view. "Admittedly, it only gets sunlight for about thirteen minutes just after high noon."
"Charlotte's here," Cathy says.
He turns around. "Why didn't you say something?"
"Because I have a feeling I'm going to be the one who ends up dragging that box upstairs to Mike Satchel." She raises her eyebrows. "How much have you missed me?"
"You have no idea." Sam smiles and raises his voice. "Hey, Lottie!"
His chief of staff has short red curls and freckles the same color as her hair, and when she comes in there's an almost giddy glint in her eyes. Except for a few fine lines, she's still the girl he knew at Duke. But her suit is tailored, and she draws herself up straight, almost his height. "Congressman," she says. An unprofessional grin flits across her lips. She turns to Cathy. "Oh, wow, I still can't say that with a straight face."
"Well, with that kind of support--" Sam begins to scold, but he can't sustain it. The word still gives him a sensation of awe that makes him dizzy. Like he's going up in an elevator that moves too fast. He shakes his head at both women, both of his employees. "I'm pretty sure we have work to do."
"You've been busy already," Charlotte says, waving a hand at the box on his desk. "I can't believe you didn't just dump the drawers into the trash. You've gotta be the most conscientious guy in Congress. Also, the luckiest."
"I don't know about--"
Obediently, Cathy clasps her hands behind her back and recites the article from memory. "'Three days before the election, Webb's daughter entered the Congressman's private office to find her father in the embrace of longtime family friend Melinda Hanson--"
"Okay," Sam says.
"Ms. Hanson had no comment on her relationship with the Congressman, whose attack on his opponent's character had formed the basis of his campaign--"
"Okay!" He throws up his hands. He's memorized the story, too, without trying. It's stuck in his head, along with the voice of a reporter saying Horton Wilde was dead, with Josh telling him about the rainstorm on Election Night. Josh's voice is the loudest, but none of it is going to fade anytime soon.
"See, fate smiles on you." Charlotte steps forward, pulling Sam's mind away from recent and ancient history. "And the hate crimes bill is coming to the floor."
"Well, fate's doing *something* on me, anyway." He picks up a notepad with a list of phone numbers. "Cathy, could you--"
She plucks the list out of his hand. "I know how to make calls, Sam." The gesture is familiar, and so is the no-nonsense swish of her hair.
"You know, you could try calling me Congressman sometime."
Cathy stares at him for a second with an expression that he's missed. "Yeah, I don't think so," she says, almost laughing. So she's missed him, too.
"It wasn't even worth a shot, was it?" he says, and reaches for his chair as Cathy strides into the outer office.
Charlotte lifts her chin and somehow it's clear she's ready to get down to business. She smoothes her skirt as she sits down in one of the other chairs. Cheaper chairs than the ones in the White House. He frowns at himself. He ought to stop comparing.
"This is the thing," Charlotte says, crossing her ankles. "It's the first vote that everyone's going to be watching. You have to capitalize on it. You have to show everyone here, and everyone in Orange County, who you work for."
"Show them who's boss?" He makes the corners of his mouth turn up. "No, of course, you're right."
"Yeah. All screwing around aside, I'm not the only one who has a hard time thinking of you as a member of Congress. In most people's eyes you're still a charter member of the Bartlet brigade." She taps her fingers on the edge of his desk. "You're still Josh Lyman's Sam Seaborn."
Her eyes are serious now, wide and fixed on him so that he can't dodge the look. He rocks back as if he's been shoved into his chair. His smile stretches thin. Behind it, his mouth has gone completely dry.
"Yeah. I've seen the same polls as you." The words scratch his throat. "It's a good bill for any Democrat who isn't from a district that's predominantly white and wealthy."
"Like the California 47th," Charlotte says.
"Like the California 47th." He checks a sigh, exhales slowly through his nose instead. "It's a good bill, anyway. If this had happened a couple months ago I'd have been pushing it onto the floor myself."
She leans forward, moistening her lips. "I really hope that this isn't something I ever have to tell you again, but this vote is not about the bill's merits or your personal--" A wrinkle appears, then deepens, between her eyebrows. She pushes her fingers into her hair. "Your personal opinion. It's about timing, and it's about perception. Maybe it shouldn't be that way, but that's how it is if you want to hold onto this office."
It all sounds something like the kind of speech Josh might have made at him five years ago. Sam bites the side of his tongue until it hurts. He *has* to stop comparing. "I know that," he says. "It's just--you know, it takes some getting used to."
The wrinkle vanishes, and Charlotte smiles. "So, the Communications office called to schedule a meeting with you for Saturday."
It shouldn't be Communications, he thinks; this bill isn't Toby's baby. "With whom?"
She shakes her head. "Will Bailey. I guess they're breaking him in."
Sam stretches as he gets out of his chair, lacing his fingers against the tension in the back of his neck. "I happen to know his desk was left clean and empty."
"This is good," Charlotte says, standing. "You'll meet with this guy, tell him how you're going to vote, and you'll simultaneously score points at home and show everyone in this building that you're not a lapdog. Which you're not."
Her voice is crisp, confident, the way his ought to be. He swallows hard and looks away from her. "Yeah," he says. "I'm the luckiest guy in Congress."
She doesn't say anything, but she doesn't leave, either. He turns to the window, placing his hands on the narrow sill. His reflection looks like it's wearing thin, and beyond that, there's nothing to see.
"At some point in any man's life, he will wrestle with his conscience and his contributions to the liberty and defense of his country. Those contributions need not be military to be valuable; that was simply the course of action I chose."
Even on a transatlantic phone call, Will can hear the richness in his father's voice, the rough edge of tobacco smoke, the warmth beneath the formality. He sounds the way he is. "I really like that," Will says, nodding to himself.
Thomas Bailey laughs. "Thank you, son, but you're not much help to me if all you're going to do is like it."
Will slides two fingers and a thumb under his glasses to rub the sleep out of his eyes. "Okay," he says, trying to concentrate, running the words over and over through his mind. "'At some point in any man's life,'" he repeats. "Are you sure about 'any man'?"
"Something wrong with it?"
"Aside from the implicit sexism, I'm pretty sure I've met some people who wouldn't know citizenship if it danced through their bedrooms at the head of a brass band."
"Ah," his father says, and Will can almost see his eyes crinkling. "And how many of those people are going to be reading my memoirs?"
"There's a problem with that." Will tries hard to stifle a yawn. "But I'm not going to try and pinpoint it quite so early on a Saturday."
"I didn't think about the time difference. I forget sometimes that you're not still at Eton." There's a pause that feels like a hug. "Honestly, I forget sometimes that you're not running down the hall in your shorts and a pair of flippers."
"One time," Will says, and smiles. He tilts his head back against the cushion of Toby's couch, closing his eyes against the sharp early daylight. "How's Nice?"
"As you remember it. Warm. Clear. If this isn't paradise, it's within walking distance."
"This is the first day all week we've had temperatures above freezing." Will scratches the back of his neck, above the cut-off collar of his sweatshirt. "Which means that we get slush. Six inches of slush mixed with the sand that's supposed to be melting it. This isn't paradise. It's not even California."
"How's Operation: Relocation coming?"
"Not bad." He glances down at the carpet he's sitting on. "That is, apart from the fact that I'm living in my office, except for when I'm living in Toby's."
"What's your relationship like with Toby?" his father asks, in a lower voice.
"You know, I'm, I'm not sure. Sometimes I think we're building a rapport--" Something in his father's tone registers, then, and Will scrambles backwards and upwards, onto the couch. He's wide awake now. "Okay, no, Dad," he sputters. "Whatever it's like, it's not like *that*."
"I just asked."
He's glad there's no one looking to see his face turn red. "I think I'm going to cry," he says.
"I'm getting off the phone, in that case. Thank you for letting me read to you."
Will draws in a deep breath, filling up his chest. "Thank you for asking," he says, and means it. "Have a good night."
"Have a good day."
His father clicks off; the line goes dead. Will flips his cell phone shut and gets up. He walks around the office with his arms over his head, stretching out the knots in his back that come from sleeping on the sofa. Even with a backache he's feeling pretty good; it's hard not to come away from this phone call without a little glow of pride. Will yawns, blinks several times, licks the roof of his mouth. It's hard to glow when you haven't brushed your teeth, or had a shower.
He makes an effort to smooth the wrinkles from his worn-out khakis. But it doesn't make much of a difference, and he steps out to the bullpen. Nobody looks at him funny, or at least, not any funnier than usual.
Ginger's at her desk, with Bonnie perched on one of its corners and Carol loitering nearby. They don't look at him at all. Their hands are full of pencils and clipboards, memos and schedules. Ginger's fingers hover over the home row of her keyboard, but instead of looking at the keys or the screen, she's shaking her head and saying, "It was the welfare bill. It must've been the welfare bill."
Will leans on the strip of wall that separates Toby's door and his own. He doesn't like to eavesdrop--no, he likes to eavesdrop, but most of the time he knows better. His father's voice is still in his ears, though, and he wonders what anyone's relationship is like with anyone. It's the kind of thing he can't ask, the kind of thing he should already know.
"You only think that," Bonnie says, crossing her legs. "See, I would have dumped him because of the welfare bill. So would you."
Ginger snorts. "I'd have to date him first."
"Well, Amy did date him. That proves she doesn't think like us, and God knows Josh doesn't think like anyone. Except maybe Amy. I'm saying it wasn't the welfare bill."
"How do we know she dumped him?" Carol asks, placing a pencil behind her ear. Both Ginger and Bonnie look at her like she's suggested the grass is blue, and she shrugs. "It's possible."
Bonnie throws a glance in Will's direction. Standing there like a statue is just as obvious as shouting. He takes a fax message from the inbox on the wall and turns it over in his hands a few times, hoping he looks absorbed. He didn't know that Josh and Amy had broken up; he didn't know that they'd ever officially been an item. It seems impossibly obvious now, but he never caught on.
"Last October," Bonnie's saying. "Maybe it was when Stackhouse dropped out of the campaign."
"No, no. He was already panting after Donna by then." Ginger's fingers clatter over the keys. "Not that that proves anything."
"I can't believe Amy would still want to work so close by after all that," Carol says.
"She dated Josh," Bonnie points out again. "So we know she's a glutton for punishment."
No matter how many times he reads the fax, it doesn't say anything about how this place works. These underpaid women in the bullpen are still far more aware than him, and far more awake. He folds the paper, tucks it back into the box, and walks away. Halfway into the hall he's attacked by a yawn. He feels the assistants eyeing him and picks up the pace, resisting the urge to look back. Anyway, he'll bump into someone if he doesn't watch where he's going.
Around here he's always walking into and through other people's business, snatches of conversation sticking to him like spiderwebs. Today he's paying better attention. He walks from one bullpen to the other, straining to listen and see, to learn.
Will learns, for starters, that Toby paces in and out of C.J.'s office without looking up, as comfortably as if it were his own. "I've heard the list of suspicious characters," Toby says, pacing with one hand on the back of his head. "Many times."
"The Umbrella Man," C.J. calls from inside her office. "The Black Dog Man. The Badge Man. The Dark-Complected Man."
Toby makes a sound between a sigh and a groan. "And every time, it sounds more like a series of Hardy Boys novels."
C.J. emerges from her office, leans her hips against the doorframe. She's wearing jeans and a little less makeup than usual, Will notices; she looks tired. "Explain this magic bullet to me one more time," she says, and draws a zigzag in the air with her finger. "It went through Kennedy, hit Governor Connally, did the hokey pokey, turned itself about, and went across town to bite Jack Ruby in the ass?"
"Okay." Toby whirls around and holds up his hands, palms out, like he's stopping traffic. "Quit watching that Oliver Stone movie. Listen to me very carefully. In forty years, no amount of study has ever proven anything except that Oswald shot JFK. Not the CIA, not the Cubans, not the Russians, not the Rat Pack--Oswald shot JFK."
She tilts her head back and stares at Toby for a few seconds. At last she says, "I'm starting to think you were in on it."
"I was nine years old."
"So you had a convenient disguise." She looks past him. "Hey, Will, did you need something?"
He backs up a step. He'd been caught up in watching them circle around each other, listening as they argued without urgency, like they knew exactly how it's going to turn out. Somehow, he'd forgotten he was standing there. "No," he says, forcing a chuckle. "I just--how many times have you had this conversation?"
"Apparently, not enough to keep her from doing the list." Toby drags the heel of his hand across his forehead, ignoring the glare C.J. flashes at him. "You slept on my couch last night."
Will looks down at himself. "I haven't found an apartment yet," he admits.
"Well, find one." Toby moves away from C.J.'s door, in Will's direction. "I'm in my office," he says at large, and trudges into the hallway.
"Pain in the ass," C.J. says in a friendly tone. "House-hunting, I mean."
"Although, Toby..." Her eyes seem to darken briefly as they dart away from him, but she holds onto the smile. "Did you ever consider just getting your own couch?"
He nods. "I will now."
She goes into her office, and Will continues toward the stairs. In the background he hears Leo yelling for Margaret. Fax machines stammer and stutter, phones ring, CNN drones in its infinite loop. And this is a Saturday. It's comforting in a way; this is the only place he's ever worked where sleeping in the office barely raises eyebrows.
But the noise diminishes as he gets further down the stairs, fades to nothing but an occasional hum in the heating ducts. Nobody's in the gym when Will gets there. He does a few minutes on the treadmill, just enough to break a sweat and maybe burn off a little of last night's Chinese food. Enough to delude himself that he's staying in shape, before he walks to the locker room, stripping off his sweatshirt along the way.
He gets in the shower before it's heated up, and opens his mouth to gulp some of the metallic water. As he twists the cap off the complimentary bottle of shampoo, he feels himself starting to smile. He's worrying for nothing, about nothing. Everyone here has had four years--more, even: decades, entire histories--to learn about each other, to find their way in. Will closes his eyes as the hot water sluices over his shoulders and down his back. He has plenty of time to catch up. And public arguments, and gossip in the bullpen, aren't subterfuge. It isn't like he's trying to find out who was on the Grassy Knoll.
He reaches around the edge of the curtain for a towel, fumbles for his glasses before he realizes he left them next to his locker. With the towel wrapped around his waist, steam coming off his skin, he edges out of the shower stall. And hears Josh laugh.
Will looks up, and has to squint to see him clearly. Josh stands just inside the doorway, hands on his hips, wearing charcoal-colored running shorts, a sweatshirt, and a quizzical grin. "Hey," he says. "Don't you have that meeting with Sam today?"
Will would smack himself if he didn't need to hold up the towel. Damn. He wonders how he managed to forget. "Yeah," he says, hoping he doesn't look completely dumbfounded and dumb.
"'Kay." Josh turns away, then changes his mind and turns back. There's something written on the front of his shirt, small black letters, difficult at this distance. "You're going to put your pants on first, right?"
"Not that I care, but you know, it's cold out, and it's kind of a walk to the Capitol--" Josh shakes his head, one eyebrow arched toward his hairline. The expression of a man who's caught a cat burglar toppling in through his window, red-handed. In flagrante. "You'll let me know how it goes. With Sam."
"I didn't think you meant with my pants," Will mumbles, but Josh can't hear him, or isn't listening. Just before Josh is out of the room completely, the text on his sweatshirt clicks clearly into Will's mind: Bartlet for America.
Charlotte looks hopeful, but there's a firmness in her voice that Sam recognizes. It's the tone she used to use with their contract law professor whenever she knew he was about to disagree with her. She clicks her tongue. "Now, he's probably going to promise you a photo-op with the President if you--"
"Lottie, do you know how many times I've appeared in pictures with the President?" Sam interrupts.
She folds her arms. "You still have to build a new relationship with him as a Congressman. They're not wrong about that part. But you can't let them talk you into voting for a bill your constituents don't support."
Sam's gaze drops to the desk. This bill would have been his project if it hadn't been for a promise to a widow and a lapse in judgment on the part of his opponent. He would be getting ready for the opposite role in this meeting.
Cathy looks at Charlotte. "He's dithering."
Sam turns away from them both and walks behind his desk. "And on my brand-new carpet, no less."
"I know that look. You're thinking about voting for this." Cathy points at him. "He's thinking about voting for this."
"I'm not ..." Sam's gaze jumps from Charlotte to Cathy. He sits down. "You know, I was one of the guys who lobbied Congress last time we did a go-around on hate crimes."
Charlotte's carefully plucked eyebrows flatten. "'We' meaning Congress, or 'we' meaning the White House?"
"It was back in 2000. January. After the murder of a kid from Minnesota named Lowell Lydell, we rolled out the Hate Crimes Prevention Act. It was a much less comprehensive bill, but at least it was a start."
"Sam." Charlotte's voice is just shy of a growl.
He spreads his arms out at his sides. "It's just that the irony is staggering."
"They know how you feel about this issue, and you can't let him use that against you. Don't let him appeal to your personal sense of right and wrong."
"Right." Sam spits out the words. "Because we can't have that get in the way."
Charlotte ignores him. "They're aiming at you because you're the newest kid on the block, but Bailey's even greener than you. If he's ever lobbied anybody, it was as student council president. It gives you an advantage."
Cathy's peering down at him now. "Are you going to stay behind your desk the whole time?"
"Why?" Sam asks.
"Maybe you should stand." She taps a pencil against the pad of paper in her hands and turns toward Charlotte. "Do you think he should stand up?"
He scowls and pulls away from them. "Are you two going to help me fix my hair, too?"
Charlotte leans over and gives his cheek a little pinch. "We just want the best for you, honey," she mocks. "We want your first big meeting to be perfect."
There's a faint knock at the door, no louder than a scratch. Sam glances up to see Will hovering in the doorway. "Uh. Hello?" Will stammers out.
Sam jumps to his feet. "Will." He's shed the look of a small-time California campaign manager, traded shirtsleeves and a loosened tie for the sleek lines of Armani. It works for him.
A look of uncertainty dashes across Will's face. "There was nobody out front, so I just walked--"
"That's all right." Sam's eyes narrow at Cathy. "My secretary was just heading back out there."
"Right." She scurries to the door in a flutter of papers.
"Will, this is Charlotte Warrington, my chief of staff. Lottie, this is Will Bailey."
"It's a pleasure," she says, her accent thickening like sugar syrup. It does that when she meets someone new; it makes her sound deceptively gentle.
Will shakes her hand. "I'm charmed," he says.
She looks him up and down and sort of smirks. "Yes, you are."
"Thank you, Lottie," Sam says loudly, and she definitely smirks at him as she bounces out of the room.
Will steps forward and almost trips when his shoe catches the carpet wrong. "Nice office, by the way."
Sam stands there, trying to remember whether or not Lottie and Cathy wanted him standing or sitting. After an awkward moment he gives up and sits down behind his desk. "Freshman Congressmen don't exactly get to pick where they end up. It's all about seniority."
"No, really. It's--" He makes a vague circle with his right hand, reaching for the right word. He walks to the window and peers out. Sam's mouth turns up at the corner; Will turns around, smiling. "Okay, the view could be better."
"It's not the North Lawn."
"Yeah, but I bet you don't get rubber balls thrown at your head."
"You mean Toby hasn't broken that window yet?" Will's face freezes, and Sam tilts his head. "Or has he?"
"Um. Actually, I did."
He looks at Will over his glasses. "You broke the window?"
"We were arguing about foreign policy." Will looks a little bit sheepish and a little bit proud.
In four years, the four longest years of his life, Sam never did any damage to that office. Will broke a window within a month. Sam chuckles, partly in surprise, and partly because he can't help imagining Toby's face.
If it hadn't been for Sam, Will would still be in California running impossible candidates. Instead he's here playing hardball with a Congressman. Sam realizes that he's grinning. Will is, too, with just a hint of curiosity behind it. "If we were drinking, I'd toast us," Sam says.
"We could do that later." Will shuffles toward one of Sam's chairs, and his grin dims to a polite, professional smile. "But we should probably--you know why I'm here."
Sam shrugs and tries to sit a little taller. "It's a shame our first meeting has to be about something like this," he says, as he crosses to the far side of his desk. It's a shame he has to have this meeting with someone he considers a friend.
"Seventeen people were shot for being gay, not a month ago and not a mile from where we're sitting. You know how important this is."
"I do." Sam's mouth goes a little dry. "I know exactly how important it is. Especially in the White House."
"Right. So." Will turns his palms up on the arms of the chair. "ALERA will probably come to a vote by the end of the week."
"It's going to be close. Lots of people in this building like hate crimes legislation about as much as a poke in the eye. We're ready for a firefight on this one. And it means a lot to Josh."
He can picture Josh working on this, hunched over his desk, a hand in his hair. Sleepless, ceaseless. The mental image works on Sam like sun on snow, and he feels his face soften. "Yeah," he repeats, not trusting himself to say anything more.
"In fact, yours is one of the few votes we can count on, and I can't tell you how much it helps."
Sam presses his teeth together and looks at Will for a long time. "No," he says. "You can't."
Lines run across Will's forehead; he leans forward. "Sorry?"
"You can't count on my vote, Will."
Will blinks, owl eyes big behind his glasses, lips moving as though he can't quite process the sentence. "Okay. The way you just said that? It sounded like you said you're not going to vote for the bill."
His mouth tightens. "Actually, that's what I'm telling you."
"Is it section seven? Because I told someone from Legislative Affairs they should have moved that up." Will pauses. "At least I think it was someone from Legislative Affairs, but--"
"Will." He keeps his voice level. "It's not section seven."
The way Will's staring at him, Sam could have sprouted antlers. "How can you oppose this?" Will asks finally. "You've written enough speeches on the subject of equality and tolerance to wallpaper the inside *and* the outside of the Capitol. Last year there were almost ten thousand hate crimes in the United States. Of those, more than a thousand were motivated by sexual orientation. And there's nothing--"
"Will--" Sam knows all this already, knows it and wishes he could forget.
"--Absolutely *nothing* addressing that in current law, despite the fact that there's been a Democrat in the Oval Office for the past four years. Despite the fact that you and the rest of the administration were, yourselves, the victims of a hate crime." A fire's blazed up in Will's dark eyes; he chops one hand down hard into opposite palm. "There is no earthly reason for you to oppose this bill."
"I don't oppose this bill."
Another rapid blink. "What?"
"Sixty-three percent of the people in my district do."
It must click for Will then; his hands slacken and fall to his knees, and his eyes go dark as ink. His shoulders slump, only by a fraction of an inch, but still.
Sam swallows against the sudden tension in his throat and pushes on. "I just got elected. My first official act as these people's representative can't be to tell them that they're wrong."
Will's mouth opens and then closes, as though he's thought of something to say and then thought twice. Suddenly Sam can't stand to be looked at this way anymore; his nerves are restless and he's out of his seat. "I have a roll call," he says, and silently thanks heaven for small procedural favors.
"I want to keep talking about this." Will doesn't say 'please,' but it's there in his tone, and written plainly all over his face.
Sam turns away, knowing how much Will wants to change his mind, knowing that the worst thing he can do is let Will think it's possible. He knows too much about false hope. "If we have to," he says, and leaves the room. As he passes through the outer office, Cathy and Charlotte laser him with expectant looks. He walks past them without looking up.
The door to Josh's office bangs against the wall as he storms inside. Will follows a step behind, and he's not ready when Josh whirls around, dizzily fast, to face him and ask, "How did you screw this up?"
Will scuffles back a little to get that extra inch of breathing room, his toes on the threshold. "Excuse me?"
"What did you say to him?" Josh demands, leaning forward even further, his feverish face inches from Will's. "How did you manage to come back here with an answer like this?"
"He had his mind made up, Josh." Will holds up his hands, palms out. He feels like a referee trying to face down an angry linebacker. "I was as surprised as you are."
"That's not acceptable," Josh shoots back, and then he's off again, pacing a track around his office. He moves like an animal trapped in an unfamiliar, undersized cage. "That's *not* acceptable."
"I don't think--"
"You work in this building for four years." Josh pauses by the desk just long enough to jab a finger in Will's direction. "You spend all that time fighting and pushing for exactly this kind of legislation. And you walk around in a righteous funk whenever you can't have your way--"
"Righteous funk?" Will echoes, hoping that maybe Josh will hear his own words and chuckle, take a beat, take a breath. Maybe he can get to something rational under the bluster and frustration.
But Josh just points at him again. "How can you come back and vote against this? It's-- it's-- it's an affront to everything you stand for."
Will takes his glasses off and studies the faint scratch marks on the lenses. "Josh," he says quietly, "I'm not Sam."
The blur that is Josh circles to the far side of the blur that is the desk. "And don't think I haven't noticed that!"
He puts his glasses back on and comes away from the door, fully into the room. "I'm not Sam, and I'm not responsible for Sam's decisions. But I do have to say, he has a point."
"There is no valid point in Sam's position." Josh's voice rises, in pitch and volume, on every other word. His hands are clenching and unclenching like they're trying to squeeze blood from air. "We're dealing with an opposition Congress that's one generation removed from wife-beating and possum-eating, on an issue that is literally life and death. Sam's the one--" He turns toward the window, one hand lingering on the desk. "He's the one friend we had."
"He knows it's important." Will sighs, remembering Sam's voice, flat and hard as the polling number he reeled off. "But he's not working for us anymore."
Josh turns back from the window, his profile harsh where sunlight meets shadow. "Yeah, and whose fault is that?"
Will lets this fly past him as he walks up to the edge of the desk. "You would have told Earl Brennan the same thing twelve years ago. You would have told him it was political suicide to cast a vote that tells your constituents you think they're ignorant and prejudiced."
Josh's eyebrows shoot up, and he yanks his chair out of his way, not noticing when it crashes into the wall. "I would never have tried to convince Brennan, or anybody else, to vote against a bill like this."
Will curls his fingers around the edge of Josh's desk. "So, I take it you were on vacation when this President signed the Marriage Recognition Act?"
He sees Josh flinch and try instantly to cover it, his jaw thrusting out like that of a bulldog or a scolded child. "Yeah, you're right. We lost that one, and look how well it worked out for those kids at Dupont Circle. We're not gonna concede this one."
"Think about what it's like," Will pleads. "He can't coast along relying on the liberals in New York and northern California to bail him out. His entire body of voters can fit inside the stadium at UC Irvine, and let me tell you, as constituencies go, it's a pretty homogeneous bunch." As he speaks, Will's own disappointment eases a little, a knot inside him starting to give. Because, really, Sam does have a point. Will rubs a hand over his mouth. "They're the ones who hired him, and they're the ones who can fire him again. He has to do what they want him to do."
"I don't care what he tells his constituents when he goes home. I don't care if he gets up and recites Leviticus at them while tap-dancing on the Constitution." There's a ripple of something close to laughter underlying Josh's voice, the hysterical laughter of too much stress and too little sleep. He drums on his side of the desk. "Here in Washington he needs to build a career, and he needs to start doing that by voting for something he knows is right."
That sounds nothing like an argument Josh would make, in any other situation. Will shifts his weight uncomfortably, edging backward. He's thought of the shooting at Rosslyn several times over the past month, and it occurs to him now that Josh must be thinking of it, recalling it with memory and body, every single day. It's no wonder that he's jumped on this bill like it's the last lifeboat on a sinking ship. There have to be other votes they can sway, other untapped sources of influence.
"You know, I don't like Sam's decision on this any more than you do," he tries, forcing his voice to come out low. "But there's got to be some other way of making this work. Maybe if we set up a meeting with T--"
"No." Josh shakes his head, and the shadows around his eyes don't disguise the furious light in them. "You're going back there. Tell him his relationship with the White House is his trump card, not a liability. Does he want to be just another freshman Congressman? Tell him nobody in Orange County is gonna be surprised to find out that he's a Democrat. Tell him how important this is. Tell him it's like-- like the cure for cancer." His index finger stabs the air again. "Tell him that."
"Josh. I don't even know what you mean by that." Will wonders why he's even standing here, since he's clearly not the one Josh is talking to. He bites the inside of his lip and decides to say it. "Why don't *you* tell him?"
A shadow crosses Josh's face, but it's gone as soon as it appeared, a fragment of cloud on a fast wind. "Are you seriously standing in my office trying to tell me who I should meet with? Do I need to draw your attention to the flow chart?" Josh makes a big show of looking around, knocking some loose papers off the corner of his desk. "I think I have one around here somewhere."
"I'm just saying that he's your friend. He's not going to--"
"You fix this." It's more than a note of finality in Josh's voice; it's a Hallelujah chorus of command. "Get it done."
Will looks into Josh's eyes and sees no room for discussion, and less for explanation. "Okay."
Will leaves the office with his head down, too confused to be chastened, but still lost in thought. Josh has taken this like a body blow, staked a lot more on Sam's vote than a political victory. Will isn't sure why, much less why it's happening like this.
He pauses six inches from Donna's desk and ventures a glance back over his shoulder into Josh's office. His jaw still in a tight line, Josh scoops the scattered papers from the floor and crushes them in his hand, and fires them, one by one, at the wastebasket. Then he moves out of the rectangle of the doorway and disappears: the lion rounding the corner to the far side of the pen.
Will swallows and looks away. As he walks down the hall, his mouth is still sour from unfinished sentences and unasked questions.
Sam begins walking down the stairs at the back of the Capitol, leaning into a chilly wind that makes him scrunch his eyes shut. There's not one member of Congress who hasn't been talking about hate crimes for the better part of a month, but the introduction on the floor of the House today made it official, formal, real. He used to laugh with other staffers about these opening remarks, all the stiff sentences beginning with "Mister Speaker." His own rituals now. His footfalls are heavy on each step, and he shivers beneath his wool coat.
Just behind him, someone calls, "Congressman." Sam keeps going, until he realizes that word refers to him. It stops him in his tracks. He looks back.
Andi Wyatt is sitting on the steps, drinking from a big paper cup. Her pregnant belly bulges from beneath her coat, and her corresponding grin is nearly as large. "Took a second, didn't it?" she says, setting the cup down.
He can feel his face turning red; he hopes she'll chalk it up to the cold. "What are you doing out here by yourself?"
"I'm drinking hot chocolate and getting some--" She tries to raise herself into a standing position, but it seems like she hasn't figured out how to leverage her newly spherical body. She ends up leaning back against the stairs behind her, mock-pouting at her own failure. "Fresh air."
Sam climbs the steps to her. With that belly and the sun on her hair, she's as radiant as television commercials tell you she's supposed to be. "Soon enough you'll have a couple of little Tobys and Andis on your hands," he says.
She glances down at herself and sort of glares. "No matter how soon it happens, it's *not* soon enough." She raises her eyes. "And let me tell you, whenever they get here? They're grounded." Sam offers her his hand and she takes it. Her fingers are warm in his grip as he pulls her to her feet, making sure she's got her balance before he lets go. "Thanks," she says, dusting herself off.
"I didn't want you to still be stuck out here at midnight," he says.
"Please, this is nothing. Just don't ask how I plan to take off these stockings." Her smirk sharpens into a more inquisitive expression, and she tilts her head. "So how are things looking from this side of town?"
It's a faster change of subject than he expected, and he considers it as they descend. Given the experience of the last few days--and the look he saw on Will's face--he'd be willing to trade in his chance to vote on this one. More than willing to go back in time, to advise, and argue, and nothing more. It's probably better if he doesn't even imagine that, let alone say it out loud. "It's a little different when your part of the debate starts after the bill hits the floor," he offers.
"Okay, so...you're going to love committee meetings, but casting your vote will be another story." Her gaze is steady on him, seeking out something she thinks he's trying to hide. Maybe he is. "You know yet which way it's going to go on ALERA?"
The smile drains from his face. His eyes flick away from her, then back again. "Do you know that in Spanish, alera foral is a legal term? It refers to the villagers' right to pasture their cattle in land belonging to another town."
"You're not voting for it," she says, immediately.
Sam presses his teeth together. A couple of teenagers brush past him on their way up. "I'm *completely* behind all the Washington farmers who want to stow their cows in northern Virginia."
"Are you sure you're not voting no just to annoy Toby?" she asks. "Because sometimes I'm tempted to vote against things to annoy Toby."
This startles him into laughing. "I'm sure you are."
"You know, here's some free advice. Much as we have to respect the people who elected us, we also have to accept the fact that, well..." Her eyes lock on Sam's. "Some of them are idiots."
A gust of wind whips through his hair. "Yeah?"
"I mean, come on. Some of the people I represent are suing me because they honestly believe--I mean, they're completely convinced--that pregnancy is a disability. And I know for a fact that they're not Amish, either, so that leaves the idiocy thing."
Sam slides his hands into his coat pockets, looking away over Andi's shoulder at the cold white columns that loom above them both. She's trying to keep him smiling, but she's digging for something, and the last traces of his smile are gone. "I'm sure that's been inconvenient for you."
"But I haven't let it get in the way of living my life, or of doing what I think is right."
Inside his pockets, his hands turn to fists. The few tourists around keep darting curious glances their way, but it's too cold for there to be any kind of crowd. Sam keeps his voice down anyway. "Andi, your district makes the Upper East Side of Manhattan look centrist, and you practically ran unopposed in this election. I think there's a little bit of a difference."
"The principle is the same." She shrugs. "Seriously, if you're doing this to send a message to the White House, that's beneath you."
He pulls back from her as if from an electric shock. "It's certainly not that."
She studies him again, and against Sam's will, his stance wobbles a little. What if she's right? Maybe, underneath all the things he believes about himself, this vote is just a message that some petty inner Sam wants to sign, seal and deliver directly into Josh's hands. His forehead creases. Josh probably believes exactly that.
From far away, Andi's voice drifts to his ears. "Either way, you should remember that you have friends in this building, too."
He squints at Andi, struggling to believe that she ever felt this unmoored as a freshman in Congress. He wonders how long it's going to take before the feeling fades, before the office and the Office conform to him like gloves to skin. He forces a smile. "Thanks."
"I'm just two floors up from you. You should come up sometime for coffee or a doughnut."
He's always liked Andi, in the small ways he's known her. But he's well aware that she wouldn't back off from an argument this easily, or Toby would've crushed her completely years ago. He knows he won't be dropping by until well after the vote, but she leans into him against the wind, and it's clear that she's still waiting for a response. "You have doughnuts?" he evades.
"One of the perks of having been here for a while," she says, with a perfect deadpan on her bright face. "From what I hear, if you stick around long enough, they even stop stretching the coffee by mixing it with motor oil."
"I find that hard to believe. The coffee in the White House is just as bad." There's a sudden surge of heat in his chest, visceral and completely unwanted. He finds himself longing for the comfort of backroom conversations, for the inside jokes and nicknames and shorthand. The wind lashes him in the face, drawing water from his eyes.
Andi's hand finds his arm, a light touch, but insistent. "It's a good bill, Sam. I've looked at it closely. It has your ideological fingerprints all over it. Think about it like a legislator. You're a legislator now."
No, he thinks. I'm a politician. "You should go inside." He musters up one last smile for her. "You're going to give birth to Eskimos."
She nods, glancing over her shoulder. Beyond her and the Capitol Dome, the blue of the sky is beginning to deepen, as though they're moving further and further out to sea. Andi lingers, one step above him, hands folded on the curve of her belly. "Doughnuts, Sam. That's all I'm saying."
"I'll see you soon." The promise is just vague enough to leave some room, and Sam doesn't help her back up the stairs. Instead, he crosses to walk down the Mall. The first car headlights are coming on, forming bright beaded chains on the street beside him. It was much easier when he was frustrated at his decisions being overruled. He can't believe he never considered how hard it would be to overrule himself.
The air grows steadily colder as he heads toward his office, and he shoves his fists deeper into his pockets. The wind picks up speed, hounding him along.
There are times when Will looks at the ink on his fingers, the pen in his hand and the blank sheet of paper before him, and forgets all the words he knows. This is one of them. The rough notes on his desk are piled up into something like a scale model of the Himalayas. It will all get done, he's sure, once something catches inside him. Something has to strike the match.
C.J. swings into his doorway, a smile quirking on her face. "Wilberforce."
He raises his head, amused, and grateful to have an excuse for his distraction. "Now, that's one I haven't heard before."
She lets her shoulder rest against the wall. "I need to know about the remarks for tomorrow."
"There are what, four speeches tomorrow?"
"The photo-op with Chirac."
Will lets the pen fall from his grasp. "The press corps is chomping at the bit to find out what the President has to say about our long and illustrious relationship with France?"
"They want to know how long the speech will run. It's right before lunch." Her hand stirs the air in a throwaway wave. "You really don't want to see Danny Concannon with low blood sugar. It makes Night of the Living Dead look like a Disney film."
He snorts. "It's going to be about ten minutes. I can cut it to seven if we need to."
"Seven is okay. Ten minutes and someone might start gnawing on the furniture. Or, you know, the President of France."
His gaze drops to the blaring white of the unmarked page. "You know, I should be in France right now."
"After I packed up in California after the campaign, I was going to go visit some friends of the family in Nice." It would have been the best kind of laid-back vacation, but then, those things are luxuries of a normal career trajectory. He rolls his eyes. "Not that I wouldn't rather be here, of course."
"France." She turns her left hand palm up, and then her right, making them the two sides of an unbalanced scale. "Washington in February. That's certainly the sound judgment we like to see in White House staffers."
"I'm still waiting for the President to grab Toby by the scruff of his neck and chew him out for hiring me," Will admits, waving at the mountain range that covers his desk. "I'm down the rabbit hole, and the President hasn't noticed that I'm not Alice."
"Maybe if you put on a little gingham dress." She's halfway out of the room when she adds, "Hey, by the way. Don't mind Josh."
Will looks up at her. "What?"
"It doesn't mean anything." She twists one hand around the doorknob and smoothes a strand of hair behind her ear with the other. "I mean, he does this to everybody. It's just your turn."
"I figured it was part of the hazing," he says, shrugging. "You know, see how many times he can get me to take the same meeting." He looks at C.J. over the rims of his glasses. "Though it did occur to me that maybe he assumes this bill should be my territory."
Her steps are measured as she walks back into the room, and her eyes are intense and intent on him. "It's not that."
"It kind of seems like that."
"No, Will," she says flatly, dropping into the chair that faces his. "Whatever Josh is thinking, I can guarantee you that's the furthest thing from his mind." She pauses, pursing her lips, choosing her words. "He--he just really wants this to pass. And when he's that--that focused, he doesn't think about anything else. Especially not the way he's talking to people on his staff."
Will knows he probably shouldn't be talking behind Josh's back, not to someone who's worked and celebrated and suffered with Josh for the life of this Administration. But the question's been ticking away in his mind for days, now, and he has to find a way to ask it. "I just figured that with how much this obviously means to him, he'd want to be the one to take Sam on."
The look on her face turns speculative. She's sizing him up, and maybe he's close to the mark. "Sometimes when you've known somebody for that long, there are times you just *can't* talk to them about the things that matter," she says, and her eyes wander to the window into Toby's office. There's nothing to see but the blinds and the dim empty room behind them, but she looks anyway.
He sets his chin in his hand; it's his turn to study her. "How long have you known Toby?"
She laughs. "Since before cell phones. Which means it feels like forever, but it's really only been about twelve years."
"I bet twelve years ago you wouldn't have predicted that you'd both end up in the White House."
"No, I don't think that was something either of us considered." The curve of her smile draws downward, almost a frown. "It's just-- it's complicated to work for somebody when you're friends. When you have--" She breaks off, idly flicking at her hair again. "When you've had that kind of relationship with somebody." Her eyes drift to the window and back, coming to rest on his face. "Sometimes it's hard to be objective."
When you have--when you've had. Will's memory offers up a film loop of C.J. last Saturday morning, arguing with Toby in the bullpen, in no hurry to win. The way they were standing, their hands making loose shapes in the space between them.
The image blurs into a snapshot of Josh, his back turned, his hand slipping from the desktop. Sam's the one--he's the one friend we had.
That kind of a relationship. C.J.'s words echo in Will's ears again, that look on her face that isn't a frown, just a softening. He's seen it somewhere before. He's seen Sam wearing that face, when he mentioned Josh's name. That look, like ice just beginning to melt.
Josh, with his face hidden, shoulders blocking the sun: Sam's the one--
Inside Will's head, the light goes on.
His mouth falls open a little, and before he catches himself, C.J.'s noticed. Recognition must be scribbled all over his face. She colors a bit at the cheekbones, and shifts in her seat, crossing and uncrossing her legs. "Don't worry about it," she says hastily. "It's not a thing. And even if it were a thing, it would be my thing ... and Toby's thing. It doesn't affect you."
But his thoughts are flooding with Josh and Sam, with the strain that seems ridiculously obvious now, with the soft and, yes, longing look that Sam didn't bother to hide. Maybe C.J. and Toby don't affect him, but this does, like a gale force wind affects a tumbleweed.
"So." C.J. stands up, her hands fluttering over her clothes, over wrinkles that aren't there. "Chirac. Seven minutes."
He shapes the word, but it takes a while before he can make a sound. "Right."
"Thanks." A quick rustle of fabric and she's gone.
Will stares at the place where she was, images still fleeting across his mind. He made Sam a candidate for Congress, he vouched for Sam to a dead man's wife. He never knew this, never even guessed. But that matters less than the realization that Sam sent him back to the White House without any hint of what a jungle he was walking into; made Will his replacement without any hint that there was this kind of a void.
The phone receiver is heavy in his hand, and all at once he knows what he needs to do. He rummages under his notes for Sam's business card and keys in the phone number. It rings only once before Cathy picks up. "Congressman Seaborn's office."
"Hi, this is Will Bailey. From the White House," he adds, though Cathy knows perfectly well who he is. "I need to meet with Sam. When's the soonest you could fit me in?"
"Is it an emergency?"
"No." But there was the fury in Josh's voice, the brittleness in Sam's, they've been hidden in plain sight. "Maybe." He holds up a hand. "Wait, no. Yes."
"I'll take that as a yes." Some papers shuffle audibly on her end of the line. "He's got some time tomorrow at two."
That's too long, and he's about to protest, before he remembers that it's less than twenty-four hours. "Can you pencil me in?"
"I'll even write it in pen."
"Thanks." It takes him two tries to get the phone into its cradle. He stares at it for a moment before pushing himself out of his seat.
He walks to Josh's office as if drawn by a magnet. From the doorway he watches Josh working, bent over a thick blue folder, silently scanning page after page. Josh is clearer to him now, his edges have sharpened. But the solution is still as confusing as the puzzle was. Josh has been with Amy and he flirts with Donna enough to keep the bullpen chattering, and yet there's this, and Will's sure he's not wrong. His stomach knots, a sudden pang that he's startled to discover must be jealousy.
Josh glances up, notices him and gives a crooked smile. "Is there something on my face?"
He shakes his head, hard, forcing himself down to earth. "I'm meeting with Sam tomorrow," he says, peering at Josh and waiting to see him crack, or melt, or confess. "At two."
There's no confession, not even a reaction. Josh just turns back to the folder. "Good."
The knot in Will's stomach tightens, a strange feeling, but one he can't ignore. He drags a hand across his forehead as he turns and walks away.
The only sounds in Sam's apartment are the quiet murmur of the television and his own footsteps on the hardwood floor. He gets a cold beer out of the nearly empty fridge and uses the bottom of his T-shirt to twist off the cap. On his way back to the living room he turns up the thermostat, feeling slightly nostalgic for Southern California temperatures. And Southern California Chinese food. He sips some beer, debating whether it's worth the effort to order takeout, or whether he'll just subsist on stale crackers. On PBS a couple of historians are practically jumping for joy over a spyglass that Captain Morgan might have looked through once. Sam's doing pretty well for a Tuesday night.
Just as he settles on the sofa, his intercom buzzes like a mechanical bee. Sam stretches and goes over to press the button. "Yeah?"
Through a pop of static, he hears the doorman say, "There's a Bill Bailey here to see you."
Sam peers at the speaker. "Probably not."
"I'm sorry, that should have been Will Bailey."
It's out of the blue, and it's half past ten, but Sam shrugs. "Sure, send him up."
As he lowers his hand, he realizes all at once how rumpled he must look. He bends to tug his socks up and the ankles of his sweatpants down. The TV screen changes colors in the corner of his vision. "History Detectives" doesn't exactly project a professional, powerful image. Sam scans through the channels until he finds a basketball game, the Wizards and some other team with an equally bad record. He tosses the remote down on the couch and turns to open the door. And Will is standing there, hand raised to knock. They both jump back at the same instant.
"Well," Sam manages to say, "there's nothing quite like a heart attack right before you go to bed."
"Sorry," Will says, coming in from the hall. His glasses are fogging; he takes them off and wipes them on his coat sleeve. "I didn't think you'd be right...there."
The corner of his mouth quirks. "I kind of live here."
Will nods. "Right. Nice place." He hesitates before he starts to walk around the living room, his hand hovering near souvenirs and the few pictures Sam keeps in frames. "Nice bookshelves," he says, running a hand along one of them and letting it rest on Sam's model of the HMS Bounty. He picks it up. "Nice...boat in a bottle." He pauses, standing awkwardly in the corner. "The elevator was nice, too."
Sam can't hold back a smirk. "Okay, the elevator's not exactly mine. But, thanks. I like it here, too." And he does, even with the heating bills he runs up in the winter. He points to his beer bottle, but Will waves him off. "Where are you staying?" Sam asks.
"Actually, you've seen it." Sam must look blank, because Will continues, "Toby's couch may not look like much, but you know what they say. Location, location, location."
Sam considers mentioning that he's slept on Toby's couch, too, but thinks better of it. "It took me at least three weeks to find a place," he says, as they both sit down. He lets his spine sink into the back of the couch. "So, what's going on?"
Serious wrinkles cross Will's brow. He opens his mouth like he's about to deliver a speech, closes it, opens it again. "What's the score?"
"Uh." He squints at the screen to read the tiny fuzzy numbers. "Sixty-seven to sixty-four," he says, and really hopes Will doesn't ask who's winning.
Will takes in a breath and lets it out slowly, hands clamped on his knees like he's mustering his strength to say something hard. This time, he blurts out, "I didn't actually come over here to talk about the basketball game."
"Could've fooled me," Sam teases, but the nerves in his shoulders and back are suddenly twitching with tension. He tries to ignore them. "Is something wrong?"
"I..." Will struggles, and seems to make up his mind. "Yes. There's something wrong."
Sam slides away from him, toward the arm of the couch. "We have a meeting tomorrow--this is about the bill?"
"It's--it's not about the bill. Not really." With another breath, Will pushes himself up, planting his feet as if the ground might run away underneath them.
Fleetingly, Sam wishes he could disappear into the upholstery. He has no doubt that he doesn't want to hear what Will has to say. He waits, anyway, without a word.
Will toes a circle on the throw rug. "I've been driving myself crazy trying to figure out why Josh sent me to meet with you. There had to be some reason he didn't just jog across town and talk to you himself." He looks at Sam and his dark eyes are as incisive as an X-ray, as knowing as a doctor who's diagnosed something deadly.
Sam's jaw clenches, hard, and he can't meet the stare. He gulps at his beer and sets the damp bottle down on the coffee table with a noisy clink.
"I've been killing myself trying to step into the role you played in that place, and all along there was no way for me to know what that role even was." Will's mouth thins to a line. "I didn't realize what it meant for you not to be there. I can't be effective at this job if I'm nothing but a pawn on the chessboard. And if I can't be effective at it, then I don't want it."
Sam concentrates on pulling a copy of Time over for a coaster, lining its edge up with the edge of the table. "You're not a pawn."
"Josh has been treating me like one. He's been sending me into a minefield with no ammunition, no explanations, and there's a lot more behind that than his position in the administration. And I couldn't figure out why until..." He trails off, and the unfinished sentence hangs in the air. Will is standing directly over him now, and there's no way to avoid the eye contact. Sam knows exactly what Will's going to say. "You should have told me, Sam. You should have told me about you and Josh."
Something twists in his chest, a heavy key turning in a lock that's been rusted shut. His hands jitter and his legs are unsteady as he stands, and yet there's an odd relief in all this. It's been more than a decade since his first sight of Josh, deep in the warren of tiny offices inside the Capitol. Ever since then, his blood has moved faster whenever Josh is in the room. Those rooms have been in cheap hotels and in the West Wing itself, but it's never mattered. It doesn't matter now. He stands up, pacing a small distance away from Will. "There was nothing to tell."
"The hell there wasn't!" Will pushes past the corner of the table. "He talks to you when you're not there, Sam. He argues with *you* when I'm the one standing on the other side of his desk. He's telling me this bill is like the cure for cancer, and that doesn't even mean anything to me."
Blood rises into his cheeks. He didn't think Josh would even remember that. At least not in that way.
Will bites down on his voice, turning it into a hiss. "Do you know how close your campaign staff probably came to finding out from the morning papers that you were screwing Josh? You didn't even warn us that could happen. Do you think that was fair to Kay Wilde?"
Sam's breath is knocked out. He reels back a step, like he's been punched. He inhales, trying to keep his head. "There wasn't-- I mean, we weren't. By that point." He stumbles on the words. They sound pathetic, paltry, but this is the closest he's ever come to talking about it out loud. Inside his chest, the lock breaks.
Will doesn't seem to have heard him. "As if the odds weren't against us enough in the first place! And--" He stops, and a little of the fire dims in his face. He flexes his hands at his sides. "Well, okay. I shouldn't have--said it like that. But you've got to know that not many people would see that distinction."
Sam makes himself step toward Will, though it sends a tremor through him, and now it's much too warm in his apartment. "Look, I'm sorry I made things harder for you at the White House. But as far as the campaign goes, frankly, that wasn't any of your business. The relationship was over." He's managed to say it without choking. "There were no sordid stories to be told on the front page. And it had nothing to do with my ability to represent the people of the California 47th, which is the *only* thing that mattered. We can serve the public without living out our entire lives in front of them."
"Of *course* it had nothing to do with your ability to represent them," Will snaps. "But it might have affected my ability to get you there." He raises a hand to his temples. "And, honestly, Sam, do you really think I wouldn't have understood?"
He can still see Andi on the Capitol steps. She was more on the mark than he'd thought possible. Sam didn't run for Congress on a whim, and on the whole list of reasons for doing it, Josh was at the very top. It wasn't something that could have taken him out of the running, it was what made him run. And he managed to win an election without letting himself know why he was out there in the first place. He turns away from Will, unable to blink the sting out of his eyes. "No," he says. "I don't think you would have."
"I've *been* there," Will says. "Okay... maybe not there, exactly." Sam hears Will's persistent step behind him. "But I've made that exact same argument about personal privacy, and I've dealt with the fact that things happen, things that you can't talk about--" He catches hold of Sam's arm. "I understand that. I would have--"
Will stops as Sam lets himself be turned around, and their eyes lock. He's sharply aware of the heat and pressure of Will's hand on his bare arm. Sharply aware that they're standing too close together. He's uncomfortable in even more ways than he should be.
With his free hand, Will's taking his glasses off. There has to be something to say. Sam has to say something. "You would have--"
Will kisses him.
It's not the greatest kiss in the history of the world, or even in Sam's memory, but it's been a little while since he's kissed anyone. It's too unexpected to pull away from, and too unexpectedly nice not to kiss back. At least for a few seconds. Then reality rushes back into the room and surrounds them. Sam lifts his hands, touches Will's shoulders, pulls himself away.
"I'm sorry." Sam's hand twitches, and he suppresses the instinct to wipe his mouth. He can't believe that happened. Then he remembers Laguna Beach, Will's necktie and the wind off the Pacific, and he can almost believe it after all. "We're dealing with an emotional subject and--that was a mistake."
Will's eyelashes flutter; he covers his eyes with his hand briefly before he puts his glasses back on. "It wasn't a *mistake*, but...let's move on."
Sam slumps on the couch, all the energy drained out of him. He rifles his fingers through his hair. "Okay," he says.
"Okay," Will echoes, in a sigh. "I want to resolve this, this question of the bill."
It's almost funny. Sam raises his eyebrows. "I thought I'd made it clear that it wasn't a question."
"I know you say you've made up your mind, but--" Will shakes his head, almost to himself. "You can justify any vote you cast with one axiom of political theory or another, but you always know why you're doing what you're doing."
Sam looks down at his bare feet against the floor. "That's not necessarily true," he murmurs. "The last time we had this argument..." His voice trails off as he plays it back in his head: Will called them victims of a hate crime. Pandora's box is open now and all the obvious truths are free, and Sam just wants to kick himself. It's never been the content of the hate crimes bill that's been tearing him up, though he could have written it himself. It's Rosslyn. It's Josh, and the two centimeters of a miracle that kept him alive.
"You're dying over this," Will says quietly. "I can see it. And I don't want to pressure you, even though it's probably my job to do that." He peeks at the door as if he's making sure of his escape route. "If I thought you were sure you were doing the right thing, I wouldn't say another word."
It's too late at night and too late in the conversation for Sam to argue this. And he's too tired. "Say it."
"Privacy is a great concept." Will tilts his head back and looks down at Sam. "But there's a fine line between standing up for that principle and being ashamed of who you are, so ashamed that you'd rather betray yourself than try to change your constituents' opinions."
Slowly, Sam turns his hands palm-up in front of him. "I don't want to be a one-term Congressman," he says. It's another strange new thing to hear himself say, but as it emerges from his mouth, he knows it's true right down to his bones.
Will nods. "Just think about it," he says, not without sympathy. He even smiles. "For starters, I think you'll have a block of time free at two tomorrow."
Sam almost wants to ask Will to stay, to help him figure this out. But he's not so exhausted that he can't recognize a bad idea. This is his decision, his path to navigate, and he has to do it without anyone else pushing him or pulling him there. Even without Josh. Will's words sound inside his head. "Josh talks to me when I'm not there?" he asks.
A pained look flickers over Will's face, gone almost as soon as Sam sees it. "It just would have helped if I'd known," he says. There's no more anger; he's simply stating a fact.
Now that is funny, and Sam laughs a weary laugh. Will can't possibly imagine he's the first person in America to have information withheld from him by the White House staff. "It would have helped if I'd known about the MS, too," he says, standing up. "Welcome to pro ball."
Will steps toward the door. "I know the way out," he says, but Sam follows him anyway, watching him disappear into the elevator. Sam closes the door. He feels a little sick, a little relieved, and not nearly as drunk as he'd like to be.
The drone of the basketball game meets his ears in the empty apartment. Sam stares at the screen without seeing it. He doesn't want his vote to belong to Josh, any more than he wants to give it to the Republicans. It's a joke: his first chance to cast a vote, and it will be spun out of his hands and credited to anyone but himself. He leans forward, hands on his knees. So maybe he should stop wondering how it will play.
Sam can't tell who's winning the game, and it occurs to him that he doesn't care. He picks up the remote and switches the TV off.
"That's not Henry Quartermaine," Josh announces loudly to the crowded bullpen.
"Yes, it is." Will stands a little way apart from Josh and Leo, staring up at the C-Span screen as the Congressman makes his way to the floor. They're more than halfway through the roster now, and it looks like ALERA will pass, if only by a slim margin. But that isn't all they're watching for. Every vote sends a buzz of excitement around the room, like they're all conduits for the same electricity. Will isn't quite sure whether he's meant to be part of the circuit.
"Where's the rest of him?" Josh asks, lacing his fingers against the back of his head. "Henry Quartermaine weighs something like 500 pounds."
"He had his stomach stapled," Donna says, from her perch on the corner of Bonnie's desk.
"If oil industry fat-cats aren't fat anymore, they're just--" He breaks off and cranes his head to look at Donna. "How do you know that?"
Donna bounces her shoe at the end of her foot. "I am a fount of knowledge."
"Shut up, both of you," Leo says, in a good-natured tone. "He's voting yes."
Sure enough, the number in the 'yea' column ticks up by one, and the applause ripples through the room. Will knows he's grinning, and he glimpses the same look on Josh's face as Josh lets out a cheer.
Leo gives a small shake of his head. "We're going to owe him one."
"I don't care," Josh says, his hands clenching and unclenching. "Right now, all I care about is the crispy, crunchy, peanut-buttery taste of victory."
"The President's still got to sign his name to it," Leo says. Will studies him from the corner of his eye. There's something uncertain behind Leo's eyes, and underlying his voice, but he's smiling through it.
Josh snaps his fingers in the air. "Here come the Rs," he says. The bullpen hushes. Every flicker on the screen moves them one step closer to Sam's vote, and everyone can feel it, and is quiet. "Will, go get Toby." Josh takes his eyes off the screen just long enough to yell over his shoulder, "Toby!"
"I think he's sort of working," Will explains. He has a feeling that if he looks at Toby's window, he'll see that it's obscured by crumpled yellow paper, the entire room buried in false starts.
"He'll want to see this," Josh insists. "Get him out here."
Will pulls himself away from the screen and ducks into Toby's office. All at once there's a loud snap as Toby breaks his pencil. He aims and throws the two halves into the wastebasket like darts into a target. "This does not work."
"It was a pencil, Toby," Will says, from the safety of the doorway. "I'm sure it worked better when it was in one piece."
"The draft. It isn't working." He glowers at the legal pad on his desk as though it's personally affronted him, and the punishment will be harsh. "There's no way to write this speech without addressing the hate crimes bill, and no way to address the hate crimes bill that won't piss off the entire population of Fort Jackson, South Carolina."
"It really does have to be in there." Will gathers a couple of balls of paper up from the couch cushions. His guess was pretty close. "If he says nothing, it makes it look like he's ashamed of the bill."
"Whereas getting booed by a hangar full of men in uniform is really going to put his chin in the air."
Will shrugs. "You want to just drop it in?"
"Right." Toby rummages in his desk drawers for something else to write with. "'We're sending you to get shot at in Kundu for a moral cause. Oh, and while we're on the subject, three cheers for gay rights!' If there's a rotten tomato on the base, it's in the air."
Will frowns to himself. The last time he argued with Toby about how to articulate foreign policy, he *changed* foreign policy, and that's why these strangers in Fort Jackson are going to Kundu. Maybe he should just sit down, read from a thesaurus, and keep his mouth shut the rest of the time. "Come watch the vote," he says, pointing toward the bullpen with his thumb.
"Not until this is done. Which, at this rate, will be sometime after the fall of the Republic." Toby looks up, scowling. "Don't just stand there, make yourself useful."
"I'm not an authority on this. You can phrase it better than I can..."
Toby points at him with the needle-sharp end of a new pencil. "You're the Deputy Communications Director, and you're a military reservist. You may not be an authority, but you're standing in my office."
Will hesitates, then nods. "Okay." He moves over closer to Toby's desk, twisting his fingers together. "I think you're underestimating them."
Toby leans forward, folding his hands on the desk. "Talk," he says.
But for a moment, Will doesn't talk. He starts to pace, without looking at where he's going. If he knows anything, he knows military people; he has since he was born. They vote Republican and tend toward a knee-jerk distrust of, well, everybody outside their unit, but their core values aren't alien. They aren't contradictory at all. "They're going to Kundu," he says aloud. "All right, they're going over to stop a genocide. In Kundu there aren't laws and courts and police to stop it. They require our help. We're putting peaceful measures in place to stop the same kind of thing from ever happening here."
Toby says nothing. Will keeps moving, and the words keep coming.
"What they're fighting for isn't a new idea. It's written in the Constitution that everyone, *everyone* has the inalienable right to life. And when lives are in danger because... of national identity, or... personal identity, anything, all the powers of American government, American laws, and ultimately of the American people must rise up against that and..." He stops to catch his breath and loses his thread. "Do a thing," he finishes lamely, and turns around.
Toby's been writing at a breakneck speed; at least a page is already covered in his dark slanted print. Will stares. He was just talking. Then it jolts him: he's made the right point, the one the President should make. It will work. Outside the office, there's an explosion of applause and cheering.
Will moves instinctively toward the noise, but stops when Toby clears his throat. He lifts up his notepad and reads from it. "When life is threatened, anywhere, on the grounds of nationality, ethnicity, or identity, it is a threat to our single, defining national value: freedom. America was founded on a passion for freedom, and that passion lives in each of you. You are fighting for it on foreign soil. We..."
Will steps toward the desk. He looks into Toby's eyes, and it's like he reads the sentence there. "We honor you by fighting for that within our borders."
"That's it." Toby puts the pencil down and pushes back his chair.
Leo pokes his head around the door. His grin is firmly in place now. "You're missing the celebration."
Suddenly Will knows what just happened. His eyes widen and he feels like he could jump up and touch Jupiter. "Sam voted yes," he says, unable to suppress a grin of his own.
"Baby's first vote." Leo slides his hands into his pockets. "So we're gonna talk about ALERA at Fort Jackson?"
This brings Will back to earth, enough to remember that he's done training maneuvers in Colorado, and Leo McGarry flew combat missions in Vietnam. He takes a step backward. "It was just an idea."
"It was a good idea, well-spoken." Leo looks directly at him. "'Americans will always do the right thing--after they've exhausted all the alternatives.'"
"Winston Churchill," Will says. It's a wonderful quote. It's wonderful, to know that he knows what to say.
"Good work," Leo says, and disappears.
Will turns back to Toby, beaming. "That was fun. We had this whole--" He flaps his hand quickly back and forth. "Telepathy thing going on."
There is no reaction on Toby's face. "Telepathy," he repeats, his voice deadpan.
"You know, like Professor X and Jean Grey." This earns him a blank, annoyed look. "From the X-Men." Will hadn't thought it was possible, but Toby gets blanker and more annoyed. "It's a comic."
"You're still in my office," Toby grumbles, finally. "Are you having a hard time finding the way out?"
Will feels too good for Toby's irritation to have anything but a minimal effect on him. He moves out into the bullpen like a balloon on a breeze. Most people have gone back to work, but Josh is still standing there. He sees Will and pumps his fist once in the air.
"I knew he wouldn't be able to vote against it." Pride filters into Josh's voice, and his chest puffs out. When he talks about Sam, his feelings are as obvious as a light switched on in a dark room. You'd have to be an idiot to miss it. Will has been an idiot. "But thanks for making it happen," Josh is saying. "You did good on this one."
Will returns his smile. "No problem."
"Hey, I'm sorry if I was a little hard on you." Josh straightens up and inches closer, slipping his hands in his pockets. "I get a little--you know--when I'm working on something like this."
"I kind of gathered that when you threatened me with the flow chart."
"I shouldn't have treated you like you were some lackey." Josh's grin broadens; his dimples appear. "I mean, that's Donna's job."
Even this throwaway apology is a big gesture from Josh, a concession of major ground. "It's okay," Will says. Questions rush to the tip of his tongue. There's still so much he's only guessing at. He steps toward his office, leans against the door. All of his questions matter less than this room, than the monumental fact that they work, together, for the President. Yeah, Will thinks, he did a good job today. He's going to do a good job here.
He nods to Josh again. "Toby's in torch-and-pitchfork mode, and I've got a lot of..." He waves at the approximate place where his inbox is, underneath layers of memos and messages. "So, if there's anything else?"
"Nah, I'll get back to you later if I need you in another meeting."
"Later," he agrees, still smiling as he watches Josh go. The ubiquitous noise from the bullpen, phones and fax machines and fingers on keyboards, is almost a rhythm. Will circles his desk and sits down in his chair, feeling as much at home as he's ever been.
One of Sam's hands is hot around a paper cup of coffee. The rest of him is freezing, and he brushes sleet off the shoulders of his coat as he enters the Rayburn building. Cathy's already at her desk when he comes in, the receiver of the phone clamped between her ear and shoulder and exasperated lines across her face.
"No, sir. I don't think the Congressman took any campaign contributions from Will and Grace." Cathy pauses to listen to the voice on the line. "Well, I don't know for sure, but I think it might have something to do with the fact that they don't actually exist." She covers the mouthpiece with one hand. "People from Southern California are *crazy*," she says in a stage whisper.
"I'm from Southern California," Sam points out, sipping his coffee.
Cathy rolls her eyes and points her thumb at Charlotte's office. "She's waiting for you inside." She uncovers the phone again. "No, sir, Congressman Seaborn has never been a member of the Communist Party."
Sam steps past Cathy's desk and into Charlotte's doorway, tugging his scarf loose with one hand. Charlotte's on the phone, too. She looks up. "Right. Hey, Sam just got in. Right. Three-thirty. I'll look forward to it. B'bye." She hangs up and wags a stern finger at him. "No more waffling on this issue."
"And a good morning to you, too," he says. "The vote's over. There's really not much room left for waffling."
"'Too liberal' we can handle." Charlotte's frown is severe; she's not thrilled about having to spin this. "You become 'Congressman Ping-Pong Ball,' and the party leadership will stonewall you so hard you might as well step down now."
"You know, I've been given a lot of nicknames a lot over the years, but..."
Charlotte stands behind her desk, planting her hands on her hips. "Don't take the meeting, Sam."
He turns the coffee cup around in his hands, trying to absorb its heat. "Matt Skinner?"
"Tell him you have to look over the text of the Senate amendment to H.R. 871." She snatches up a binder from her desktop and brandishes it at him. "You *do* have to look over the text of the Senate amendment to H.R. 871."
"Matt's a good guy," Sam protests, stepping toward her. "He's got the rare ability to respectfully disagree. We're going to sit down for fifteen minutes and have a conversation. Aren't you the one who thinks I need to build connections outside the White House?"
"Not with Matt Skinner!" She tosses the binder down.
"He's not the Symbionese Liberation Army, Lottie, I'm not Patty Hearst. It's gonna be fifteen minutes." Sam rubs his forehead with his warm hand, throws a look at the outer office. "He's probably already on his way down."
Charlotte looks at him doubtfully. "Fifteen minutes. And if you even get the glimmer of a thought about decrying your vote, I'll--" She ducks behind her desk and hauls up a huge plant, her arms wrapped around its pot. "I will bean you with this ficus," she declares, staring at him through the leaves. Sam stifles a laugh. "What?" she says, her eyes narrowing.
"Last week you were still calling me Congressman," he points out.
With caution, and a little bit of a blush, she lowers the ficus to the floor. "Well, you do know how to pick 'em."
He finishes his coffee in one sweet gulp. "Yes, I do."
"Matt Skinner's here," Cathy says, stepping up close behind him.
Sam turns around, takes off his coat and folds it over his arm. "Thanks." He shoots one last look at Charlotte, who's still glaring, before he goes into his office. Matt's sitting in the extra chair, but he stands up as Sam enters. "Thanks for coming down," Sam says, and holds out his hand.
Matt shakes it. "Thanks for seeing me." He raises his eyebrows. "I was sorry to hear the White House had gotten to you."
Sam freezes on the way to his desk. "Wow. You're not much for small talk." He sinks into his chair and Matt sits, too. "We're not going to get into a long discussion of the merits of the bill, are we? It's a little late for that."
"I'm not here to argue the merits of the bill." Matt steeples his fingers. "I'm here to tell you that you let your relationship with the White House corner you into sabotaging your own career."
Sam's hands tighten involuntarily on the arms of his chair. "What makes you think this is about the White House?"
Matt lowers his head and levels a look at him. His face is bright in the gray winter daylight. "You spent the last four years there," he says, in the tone of voice you'd use with a small child. "They're flogging this bill like it's a slow horse. You met with them, you caved."
"I met with a lot of people," Sam says.
"But you listened to them."
Sam shakes his head. Maybe it looked that way to someone who wasn't in the room, but he didn't listen to them at all. He swivels his chair slightly in the direction of the window. "Why does everybody focus on the fact that I worked for the White House, and forget about the fact that I left?"
"Your flip-flop on this issue didn't indicate a lot of independent thought."
Sam spins his chair back. "I think that's exactly what it indicates."
"A lot of factors went into this decision." He flattens his palms against the desktop. "The polling in my district, the position of my party, and believe it or not, the question of what would be best for the country. But when it comes right down to it, I have to listen to myself." He taps one finger against the polished wood. "I have to vote my conscience."
"Did you honestly think that was going to be your job?" Matt tilts his head to one side. "To vote your conscience?"
"Matt, I may be the newest kid on the block, but that doesn't mean I don't know what my job is." He's quiet for a second, so quiet he can actually hear footsteps moving in the office above his head. "Yeah, I could have voted against it. It would have been a good move. But I--I don't want to do things that way."
Matt's laugh explodes in the space between them. "That's the only way anything gets done. If you want a job where you get to dictate laws based on your personal convictions, you should start looking for a different system of government."
Sam cracks a smile. "I love it when Republicans call me a fascist."
"When you start trying to legislate against what's in people's minds, it's not a big leap." Matt stands and walks around to put his hands on the back of his chair. He leans down and looks Sam in the eyes. "This was the first thing down the pipe for you. This won't be the last vote you'll cast, and it won't be the most important one to anyone except you."
The words, and the knowing tone in Matt's voice, send a shudder through Sam. He pulls his hands off the desk and crosses his arms in front of his chest.
"But you don't get to spend your whole two years going back and forth," Matt goes on. "You have to decide what kind of Congressman you're going to be."
Sam pinches the bridge of his nose, waiting for the right answer to come. This vote wasn't about what the White House wanted, or what his constituents want. It wasn't--the knowledge makes him lift his head--It wasn't even about what Josh was thinking. At least, not in the final analysis. Sam reaches for the leather-bound copy of ALERA that lies on the corner of his desk, and opens it to a random page. A voice inside him says yes. Yes, he voted for something that he believes in. There's only one master he can serve and do this well, even if it costs him the job in two years.
"I know what kind of Congressman I'm going to be, Matt," he hears himself say.
Matt straightens up, releasing the chair and taking a backwards step. "It's going to be harder than you think," he says, not unkindly.
Sam lets his eyes close briefly, exhales, and opens them again. The coffee is hitting his bloodstream, stirring him up. But there are no jitters. "It probably will."
"Well." Matt plays with a button of his suit jacket. "I've got the feeling that this argument is the first in a series."
Sam gets up, shoulders back, and extends his hand again. "I'll look forward to the next installment," he says. And he thinks he actually sees Matt wink before he walks out.
There's barely even time for Sam to go back to his chair before Charlotte comes in. He blinks at her. "Were you standing out there with a stopwatch?"
"I just want to see how things went," Charlotte says. She comes to stand over his desk, peering suspiciously down at him.
"No pinging, no ponging," he says, holding up his hands in surrender.
She ruffles her curls with her fingertips. "You're back in Orange County this weekend. There'll be no shortage of Matt Skinners waiting for you to explain yourself."
"I made a decision." He leans back, pushing his copy of the bill away. He settles into the cushioned back of the chair; it's beginning to take his shape. His. He feels himself grinning at Charlotte as he opens his hands. "What's next?"
"It's like the Yankees and the Red Sox," Josh says, around a mouthful of chicken. "No, they're not even the Red Sox. They're Pittsburgh."
The bar smells like heaven or, more specifically, like fried food and salsa. Outside, the day's slush is freezing into black ice, but the lights inside are sunny and warm. Josh, Toby and Will have their coats slung over their chairs. Nachos, buffalo wings, a few beers, a plaintive guitar on the jukebox. Pretty close to heaven, Will decides, stretching out in his chair.
Toby's frown is distinct beneath his beard. "If the Democrats were the Yankees, we'd have a better record."
"But approximately the same number of cocaine addicts," Will says. He takes some nacho chips. A long strand of cheese stretches back to the platter. It takes him three tries to break it before he can eat the chips. Toby scoffs at him and takes a long drink.
Josh nudges Toby with his elbow. "You know, we did win one today. You could lighten up for one evening." He traces a line around the top of his glass with his fingertip. "Will, he's your boss. You get him to lighten up."
But that isn't going to happen, Will would bet, not before Toby writes himself a tunnel out of the hole he's in. "I think that's one superpower I don't possess," Will says.
"Two hundred and twenty votes," Josh intones, hoisting his glass for a toast.
Toby ignores it, crushing a napkin in his fist. "It was too close."
"Of course it was too close. There are too many Republicans in Congress."
Will settles his chin in his hand, equally unaffected by Toby's irritation and Josh's humor. They're like nothing so much as a couple of old dogs, letting out the same barks and growls they do every day, just to prove they can. Will chuckles and drinks some beer. "You have to admit that getting 220 Congressmen to do anything this quickly ranks right up there with breaking the sound barrier."
"Exactly. It's like--" Josh's voice cuts off as he looks up. Some pleasure, some sadness, and about six shades of in-between flicker across his face. Finally, he starts to grin. "Well, if it isn't the man of the hour."
When Will looks up he sees Sam, standing there in an overcoat with a scarf loose over his shoulders. His face is easy, calm, for the first time since he was elected, maybe even since Will first met him. It's a good look on him. "I think you guys are the man on this one," Sam says, with a small smile.
Without saying anything, Toby shifts his chair over so there's extra room. Will copies the motion. "Pull up a chair," he says.
Sam shakes his head, slipping his hands into his pockets. "Nah, I've got a flight to LAX tonight. I just wanted to stop by and say congratulations." He looks straight at Will, and his smile widens.
"Did you hear about Quartermaine jumping the fence?" Josh asks, wiggling his eyebrows.
"Yeah," Sam says easily. "It was quite a leap, for him."
"Henry Quartermaine voted for ALERA." Josh tips his chair back, flinging his arms wide. He barely misses knocking his beer into his lap. "It's a good bill."
Sam hunches his shoulders. "Sure."
Josh rocks his chair forward again, and the front legs thump on the wood floor. "I know the voters are gonna give you grief about changing your mind," he says. "But a lot of people will respect that you acknowledged your mistake."
Sam's gaze flicks to Josh's face and then rests on Will's. The guitar in the background builds. "It wasn't a mistake," Sam says. "But let's move on."
Warmth tingles through Will, and all at once he's as giddy as if he'd just downed an entire bottle of champagne. But he's not drunk, and this is real. The light spills around Sam like a halo, and for a moment there's nobody else in the room.
"The fight's not over yet," Toby grumbles. Will makes himself stop beaming at Sam and pay attention. "We've got to get this thing through the Senate first."
"You know what you are?" Josh asks, pointing a finger in Toby's face. "You're not the guy who rains on the parade, you're the guy who blows up all the floats." He sighs. "I'm gonna have to talk to Crandell's people. And probably Craig Ramsey. I hate Craig Ramsey."
"If we hire a couple of new communications people early next week, they can pick up the slack." Will glances from Toby to Josh. "I could take a couple of those meetings."
Sam's face gets the same in-between look that Josh's had, a little wistful and a little proud. "I think you guys'll get it done." He throws a glance toward the door.
Will reaches toward him, glass in hand. "You're sure you can't stay?"
"I have to be at the airport by eight-thirty," Sam explains, shaking his head. "It's a long flight home."
Good Congressmen do this, spend their weekends in their home districts, split their lives up for the sake of the voters. A proud little thrill runs up Will's spine, but he knows Sam would have gotten to Congress even if Webb hadn't humiliated himself, even if Horton Wilde were still alive. Sam belongs there.
Will's beaming again. He sets his glass down and nods to Sam. "See you."
Sam holds up a hand, not exactly waving, and turns away. He walks a straight line out of the bar. Will watches until his black coat vanishes into the dark.
Josh thumps a hand on the table. "So, if the House Republicans are Pittsburgh, then the Senate Republicans are--" He stops and thinks for a minute, crunching a handful of nachos.
Somehow Toby's gone through his second beer, and he drains his third in a single gulp. "So help me, one more nonsense baseball metaphor..." He picks up a napkin and, with a pointed glance in Josh's direction, tears it into shreds.
Their waitress comes around, a girl barely out of her teens with a high ponytail and flawless skin the color of cinnamon. "Do you need anything else?"
"Just the check," Toby tells her. As she tears it off and sets it down, he looks around the table. "We're going back to the office."
"On a Friday night." Josh uses the table to push himself up to his feet. He digs his wallet out of his pocket. "Gee," he says, the sarcasm laid thick on his voice, "I can't think of *anything* I'd rather be doing."
Will stretches as he stands, reaching for his own coat. "Neither can I," he says, and as he says it, he knows it's true.
They split the check three ways, counting in a substantial tip for the waitress. As if they're acting on a signal, they all shrug into their coats. Like knights putting on their battle armor, Will thinks, and he's beaming again. He follows Josh and Toby out the door, and the music follows, too. And the cold doesn't touch them.