Author: Elliott Silver
Washington was the only city he knew that always stayed the same shade, day or night - it was always the color of bone.
The May sky was maroon with so much artificial light, a deep reddish hue of a massacre, the color of half-dried blood and curdled smoke. It was not a red of bubbling paper cuts, of quick sting and curse, but a red of wounds and punctures, of bruises and bone marrow, the color that flickered alarmingly behind his gritty eyelids.
The Washington sky was the red of storm and sin and dead passion.
Looking up only served to remind Sam Seaborn that the nights in Washington never got black anymore, and no one ever saw the stars. Looking up only made his head spin and his vertebra crunch like ice between his molars, dry and cold.
He had learned not to look up anymore.
It was a few minutes past midnight as he left the Senate Office Buildings on Delaware Avenue, only a few blocks from the White House. The Capitol with its famous rotunda flared before him, flaunting its domed architecture that had dominated the political city's fluctuating skyline since its construction in 1863, at the height on the war between the states. The building's neoclassicist design was born of the Parthenon in Rome, and Sam couldn't help but think two things, that Washington had never been the first US capitol and that empires of Rome had always fallen to ash.
They were falling too.
Red light spilled hemorrhagically over the Capitol's bare white ribs like sacrilege, as arrogantly and angry as the bevy of senators' words echoing like heartshock against the curves of his skull. The Bartlet administration knew all too well these last months that there was little support in Washington for the president, not on health care or the environment or the looming war with Qumar. All over there was the hue and cry of failure, of disbelief, and of cold shoulders and closed ears since Josiah Bartlet's admission of multiple sclerosis. Every effort to garner support or relief was usually met with curt rebuffs and meetings like tonight - for a bill to save lives that no one would endorse - made Sam wonder if there was any point to trying.
Strive as he might, Sam was left as tonight with only the certainty as he looked at the red sky that it was indeed falling. And try as he would, he was lost without the hope of celestial navigation, without the salvation of stars.
It wasn't disheartening, if it ever had been that simple; it was heartbreaking.
In a reelection year that should have been marked by hope and bravery, Sam wondered exactly what had gone wrong. And the only answer he had ever had made red flare behind his eyes as if the sky had crashed into him.
He could have walked Pennsylvania Avenue back to the White House, the way he had come, but he didn't. He wasn't in a mood for sidewalks and civilization and following footsteps. Instead he walked down the Mall with its dusty concourse and dull shadows of stunted cherry trees, trying to delay the inevitable - the rattle of Toby's breath, the ache in CJ's eyes, the desperate sag in Leo.
Buildings towered up menacingly on both sides of the Mall's trampled grass, crippled and stunted a pea-orange color in the late spring drought. He passed between the National Gallery of Art with the only Leonardo da Vinci copy in the Northern Hemisphere and the National Air and Space Museum. Further down, he passed by the National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian, and finally he dead-ended at the fire-straight spire of the Washington Monument. There were few people out at midnight in the dawn-driven DC, bustling and hurrying with their heads down, save a lone man twirling aimless looping circles in the middle of a dirt patch, sending crusting clouds of dust billowing like smoke signals.
Sam though that might be the only peace in this bone city, the only kind possible, and he knew he would settle for it too, just to know it, touch it, breathe.
Sam had never realized how much the president's admission of MS and all the administration's subsequent crises had taken its toll of him until he realized how painful it was to turn to the right and walk towards the White House, away from the twirling man, until he wished he could walk anywhere else.
Sam had never realized anyone else felt the same way, but she sat alone on one of the scarred benches lining the Mall.
His first thought wasn't truly why she was there, but that she should have been somewhere else, somewhere truly pretty and peaceful like the Potomac Park where the war memorials and cherry trees and splinter-straight Reflecting Pool were - not here where there wasn't even grass, much less conviction and truth, where a man was spinning circles in the midnight dust like temptation.
"Donna?" And Sam Seaborn realized that even though the night dyed the rest of the world in blood, that she was untouched save by shadows and light.
She looked up at him and her eyes expressed all things he couldn't possibly put into words. And what Sam saw in her eyes hurt him more keenly than any failing he had made, than the bone city's secrets, than the falling of massacre skies.
It was defeat and disbelief and the end of all dreams.
"What are we doing here, Sam?" Donna Moss, secretary to the Deputy Chief of Staff and his best friend, asked him. And he heard her ask him because she had once asked Josh and Josh didn't, as always and never, had an answer.
"We’re waiting for morning," Sam said at last as he sat next to her because without stars, without burning balls of gas and a compass, he didn't have any other answers.
Her hand found his and it was the first time he could ever really remember touching Josh's secretary. And Sam found not consternation but comfort in the way her bone and sinew and flesh contorted in the movement, the simple way they were no longer alone in the blood night and bone city.
All above them, the night sky was barely dark and somewhere else, as they breathed together, the city rushed on without them because, they realized, it could and they sat there like that until the sky brightened, glittering like fool's gold and Donna rose gracefully, like smoke or steam, and Sam didn't let go of her hand.
"You know, Sam," she said and her voice wasn't faraway but it sounded like stars, like a dream he had once had. "You're the only one I still believe in."
And her hand was still twined with his, calluses and fingerpads and lifelines and when she held him like that, Sam stood up with her so that they were both out of darkness and walked back with her to the West Wing.
* * * * *
Sam saw her only a few times in the next two weeks, and every now and again, he would catch an edge of her lithe body maneuvering through another one of Josh's frantic and ill-considered errands. He remembered he saw her on a Tuesday when she was wearing a pale green silk dress the color of the new leaves on the cherry trees in the Mall, and he saw her again on a Thursday, as she balanced coffee and two bags of Josh's dry cleaning on a pile of copies and folders as thick as his old law school tomes.
She stumbled only one and she didn't drop anything, but Sam saw her stumble and his heart lurched.
He saw her again on a Saturday morning that had swept rain into the city, when he had almost convinced himself that her words hadn't rung in his head like bell chimes and tree whispers and the way muezzins summoned Islamic people to prayer from towering minarets. He had almost stopped believing that her voice had rattled at the corners of his brain and behind his eyelids as he wrote speeches and made policy and thought he might be believing again in everything he had stopped believing in.
Then from across the way, Donna Moss looked up and she looked at him.
Sam almost called her name, but then Josh was bellowing and he thought for sure he had been mistaken that she had once said to him, "You're the only one I believe in."
But as Sam looked back, she was still standing there. Donna met his gaze and her eyes were like waterlilies at sun-blown bloom as she smiled and he simply smiled back.
He wasn't sure when it had all changed, when they had all changed.
In a world where few things were certain, Josh and Donna had always seemed one of them. From the moment she had planted herself into their campaign office and assigned herself to Josh, there had been something about them, something of snap and sparkle, the crackle to two stars burning together. Then somehow, somewhere, there had been nothing left to burn.
And Sam Seaborn knew what Josh had never known, that things like Rome and stars and this woman had never been about burning at all, and he thought maybe that was the way things happened.
* * * * *
It happened the way nothing should happen.
It had been a whirlwind for so long that no one remembered how to react when the world suddenly stopped spinning and left everyone scrambling not for balance, but how to pick themselves and their collapsed president up.
It happened in Manchester after three consecutive days of powerful handshakes, teeth-baring smiles, and mildly electrifying speeches. Jed Bartlet was speaking at an annual dinner honoring local teachers and giving special recognition to a motley crew of children for artistic and academic achievements. It was a pittance of an event the President adored and everyone else tolerated, when he couldn’t be convinced otherwise.
They had been there two hours and nine minutes, Sam remembered, because he had just looked none too discreetly at his watch, earning a black look from the First Lady, when the President patted the last child on the head and struck off with the closing remarks. He accepted the generous applause with his usual lack of humility, and Sam had to admit, in his deep-cut navy suit and striped tie, he looked every inch the colossus he pretended he was.
It happened on the three small steps from the stage to the floor. Everyone was standing and bunched into jumbled cliques and queues and the room was swept in thousands of blurred conversations. Toby claimed he noticed first, that the President's head was beaded with sweat and that his eyes were shrunken and glazed, but it was CJ who moved first and not in time.
Josiah Bartlet fell on the second step and in a shred of a second of screams and Secret Service static, he pitched sideways onto the floor.
Everything became a blur of bodies and panic.
In less than a minute, they were all rushed into their designated cars by the Secret Service agents and Sam remembered the constant chatter on the air channels as he rode with Josh and they stared across the seats at each other. Josh's heart was thudding through his pale blue shirt, and two inches above that, Sam knew there was a scar where a bullet had skidded through him. The threat of an assault or assassination or a malicious attack was ruled out within the hour, by the time the president was firmly ensconced in his bed at their Manchester residence. But the hour after that, his wife, doctor, and the First Lady informed Leo that he hadn't simply fallen. Is it, Leo had asked and Abbey Bartlet only had to nod, it was most likely a slight MS attack. By the early morning hours when it was still dark enough to be dream, Sam, Josh, Toby, and CJ were back in DC and by mid-morning CJ, unshowered but unyielding in a severe Donna Karan suit the color of the carefully-concealed circles under her eyes, was in front of her cameras for the day's briefing.
They all gathered at the back of the room, all watching CJ because it was impossible not to watch her and because they didn't know where else to look in a world that had fallen apart overnight.
It had been an honest mistake, she informed the reporters with a cool smile that she didn't mean. The President had merely taken a misstep and tripped, to everyone's chagrin. It was neither a terrorist attack nor a medical emergency. CJ looked especially beautiful when she said that.
Every reporter in the room protested.
"Remember," CJ rebuked sternly, her glasses on a cord around her neck. "The President rides his bike into trees and sprains his ankle too."
And then CJ pitched into the rest of her notes as if the world falling simply wasn't important at all. Only CJ could do that, only CJ because she knew catastrophe like that, because she had already paid that awful price.
Sam didn't realize Donna had been standing beside him until CJ disappeared from behind the podium and throngs of reporters began rising from their seats, grappling at notepads and cell phones. Toby went after her as Sam turned and Donna looked up into his face.
"Sam," she said and it was all she had to say.
And he just nodded as her waterlily eyes filled with tears.
* * * * *
"He's still going to run," Leo told them and for the first time any of them could recall, his timbered voice shook as he looked straight ahead and at none of them as they stood, nervous and assembled in his Chief of Staff office. On his massive desk covered with documents and bills and proposals that marked the future of the country stood a small dark frame with a wrinkled napkin in it, smeared with three words: Bartlet for President.
It was the first time Sam had ever seen it face-down and he was sure it hadn't simply been knocked over.
"Why?" CJ asked, and Sam thought he heard Toby ask, "How?" but he couldn't be sure, because Toby and CJ had always fit that way.
"Because it's too late to drop out," Leo said and his voice was flatline, because they knew that was true too.
"Leo - "
"And because - "
"Leo, he's dying!" Toby voiced all their thoughts.
"- he can." Leo finished.
The room fell in silence, and Sam could feel the crush of it against his skin as Leo dropped his head and rested with his fists on his desk where his beliefs had toppled face-first onto the mahogany like spilled dreams.
"We're all dying," Josiah Bartlet said as he stood livid as a shadow in the Oval Office doorway. His voice was as deep as graveyards and the vault where they stored his Declaration of Independence so it, too, did not fall away into nothing. "And for all you know, car crash or building collapse or heart attack, you could die long before me."
The President looked haggard as he usually did from the flight from Manchester back to DC. There was light stubble on his jaw and his skin was the color of the Capitol building where he boomed State of the Union addresses and had been inaugurated almost four years ago. But for the first time, it seemed the office was holding him up, not the other way around.
"We haven't lost yet," he continued, but there was something desperate in his tone.
It was Josh, foot-in-mouth numbskull, who announced it first.
"But how can we win?"
The president they had worked so hard to elect stared at them all and then without censure, quietly bid them good night. They all stood in perfect silence without moving, without even breathing, and without saying 'thank you, Mr. President' as he left them.
The thick door to the Oval Office should have sounded like the thunder that screamed outside and yet when it closed behind him, it barely whispered. And Sam's only consolation was that when the president looked out into the storm from his protected and cosseted windows, the night was unusually dark for DC, the city that never got dark, and that he wouldn't have to look into the sky the color of blood.
"Leo - " It was Toby that spoke, but the Chief of Staff only sat into his chair and without another word they all filed out of the office. Sam watched as CJ went into her office and picked up the phone, the hand on her temple barely shaking. Toby's door slammed and his blinds reverberated against the glass in shrieks, followed in seconds by the concussive wallops of his rubber ball against whatever hard surfaces he threw it at.
Only Josh remained and simply by the way his best friend stood unsure and tense, Sam knew they were both looking for the same thing and on the night they needed hope the most, he knew only one of them would find it.
Without looking at each other, they separated and Sam knew in his heart, it would be permanent.
They walked out of the West Wing together, shrugging into their coats and shuffling phones and pens and old papers, and once outside they simply went different directions, and it was only Sam who stopped in the pelting rain and watched Josh go, and know, in his heart, it had always been that way.
There were no stars in the lost sky above him as Sam stood there alone as the rain hurled down like accusation, knowing no matter how he came back to this place, that it would never be the same, that he could never be the same. Above him, the heavens were scudded with clouds and storm and the never-ending space where thunder cried and lightning burned holes like acid.
In the rain, the Mall looked like a war zone.
All around him as he walked the rain was coming down so hard and fast it was stripping the petals from the cherry trees. There was the fragrance of mutilation in the air, the sweet sad cadence of lost hopes as Sam sat on the bench she had chosen, let the rain pour over him, drench him, and chill him. Water gushed by in slipstreams and eddies and white petals floated over the surface in torn handfuls and he waited, for absolution, redemption, salvation, hope, and never once thought he would know any.
He had no where else to go, and when she came to him, he only knew that every new beginning came from an old beginning's end.
She was wet-dark like a reflection and her hair was the color of pencil wood as it dripped all over her shoulders. Her eyes were bluer than dreams when she reached for him and after several breaths, took his wet hand, exposing her arms that were all ulna and radius and that queer way even bone bent when she twisted her wrists. And even though their skin was wet, their hands never slipped once.
"What are we doing here?" he asked and his voice was hoarse and cracked, rougher than the machines that tore up macadam and made the road uneven.
And through the rain and distant thunder, Donnatella Moss answered him. "Waiting for morning."
She tasted like sweet copper and salt of the rain and the orange lisp of her chapstick that smoothed over the cracks in his mouth as he kissed her for the first time in the rain of the Mall and the falling cherry blossoms.
He never remembered how they got to his apartment, except that he knew the night was black because the traffic lights all flared red prisms onto the hood of his BMW and there were triangles of rubies on their bodies. He remembered the night was black because his rooms were the color of ink and she was only the light as she stood before him in the silence so deep, they could hear water plashing from their clothes onto his hardwood floor.
He felt the uneven rhythm of her breathing, wild as the storm outside, as he slipped his hands to her waist and palm to her skin, skimmed up the crests of her ribs and swells of her breasts, the waves of her collarbone as he slipped the wet shirt over her head and let it fall to the floor in a wet thump.
She reached to him and as his heart pounded furiously, tugged the sodden coat from him and slowly undid every button on his dark shirt, trailing it off the ridges of his shoulders, the bends of his elbows, the notches of his wrists where his pulse thrummed. They shed everything, even doubt and fear and consequence, and as Sam stripped his shoes and pants, his hands came away crusted with wet cherry petals.
He wiped them away but when he touched her, Sam left a trail of white over Donna's heart. When he kissed her there, he tasted green sap on her skin and she shivered against him, her hands splayed between his shoulderblades so that he could feel each ridge and rise of her fingerpads.
They went into his bedroom, sinking into his sheet-tight bed, her body slaked against his, thigh to thigh, hip interlocking hip, sternum sealed to sternum under which their hearts beat the way their bodies joined - slowly, fully, irrevocably, without doubt or hesitation, in a long short eternity of full breaths and open eyes.
They moved together the way the rain fell and filled the holes of the earth, rock and rhythm the way the sea pulsed against the shoreline. She came unexpectedly in a gasp of breath and tensed muscles and her tremors brought him with her, because he had never known anything like this, and Sam saw just before it took him, that there were white petals still on her skin.
His phone rang five times the next morning before he answered it because he didn't want to let go of her, of the way they were tangled together seamlessly - ribcage to ribcage, her head on his collarbone, her hands braided with his as if they could merge fingerprints.
"We need to talk," Josh said without introduction because he had never been brought up in a society family of manners and morals.
Sam nodded his head even though he knew Josh couldn't see him and Donna lifted her white gold head from his chest.
"L'Ange," her boss said. "7:30," and then he hung up.
Melted into him like glass or metal, Donna stared at him with her petal eyes.
"Was that Josh?" she asked.
"Yes," Sam answered her without nodding and Donna crunched her bottom lip between her teeth without looking at him.
"You were dreaming before he called," she said and her voice was low.
"Yes," Sam answered, tilting her chin up and looking into her. "Of hope, that you weren't just my dream."
* * * * *
Josh was on his second coffee when Sam sat at the corner table of the small cafe and ordered a tall tangelo juice from the university waitress.
Josh's suit had two year's worth of wrinkles in it and his tie knot was skewed. He had thrown himself into the stiff chair and it didn't suit him, because Josh liked to lounge and sag and fidget. Serious things like formal seating arrangements and absolute things like the truth didn't become him.
The tangelo juice was the color of fire between them.
"He can't do this, Sam," Josh said finally and he sounded out of breath because that was how things went when he didn't sleep.
Sam didn't say anything until Josh repeated himself and his voice was piqued.
"But he is," Sam replied before Josh could finish and he felt each curve of his spine align with the back of the chair because unlike Josh, he knew how not to crumble. "He is."
"Sam - " And there was the sharp censure and rebuke like a sabre through his ribs.
"What are the alternatives?" Sam asked and he continued when Josh didn't have any answers. It was why Donna had asked him, what are we doing here, because Josh never had any answers, because Josh never would have any answers.
"If he doesn't run, Hoynes will get the nomination and Hoynes can't trump Ritchie. If he runs, he keeps Ritchie out of the White House."
"And if he wins?"
"You mean, if he dies?" Sam asked and wondered why Josh never told the truth.
Josh nodded slowly.
"I think having Josiah Bartlet as president for whatever time is better than Ritchie for any time. And if whatever happens, he's picked Hoynes specifically for that reason, Josh."
Josh stayed quiet and Sam knew somewhere else CJ was talking to Toby, or at least letting Toby rant and interjecting a few words when she could until he calmed down. And he knew somewhere else, Leo was cradling an unopened bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue the way Abbey Bartlet was holding a mostly empty vial of Beta Seron.
"The public already knows he has MS," Sam continued but he wondered without cherry blossoms and hearts and the knowledge that skies didn't bleed, whether he would have believed. "If they elect him, they elect all of him - all the good and all the bad."
"It's not that simple, Sam."
"It really is."
And then they just stared at each other, Deputy Chief of Staff and Deputy Communications Director, and in that moment when Josh finally looked away, Sam knew they would once say they had been friends.
"I've got to get back to work," Josh said and rose unsteadily. And Sam realized that Donna had never learned to stand on her own from him, that she had mastered something he hadn't, that she knew what he didn't, that more than gravity held things in place.
"Josh," Sam called and he stopped and finally turned around. "It's just a question of what you believe in."
Josh's mouth screwed up and his face remained blank. "What do you believe in?"
"Hope," Sam said simply and he didn't have to lie.
* * * * *
There was no formal announcement, because there had been no formal disavowal, because gravity was second-grade science and it was common knowledge people fell. Two days after Manchester, the Bartlet for America campaign seemed as hell-bent as it had been two weeks ago, which by their own standards, hadn't been so enthusiastic.
Leo had re-confirmed the high staff's allegiance almost fourteen hours ago, giving each the option to bail, though no one had.
"I serve at the pleasure of the President," they had all quoted. Sam had been the first to say it, Josh had been last.
Then they all walked out of the Chief of Staff's office, knowing that the Oval Office and perhaps even the President of the United States was within ten feet of them. They had all gone their own dark ways after those tortuous hours, and it was only he and Josh found themselves standing outside in the breeze-laden DC evening again, the time when night was just falling and it sometimes seemed, if you pushed hard enough, you could keep it from collapsing into the world.
They stood the way friends would have stood, close without touching, Josh fidgeting a little because he couldn't stand to be still and Sam standing stock-still, because unlike Josh, he had never entertained the idea of running away.
"Hope, huh?" Josh said without looking at him.
Above them, the Washington sky bled into killing fields.
And Sam just nodded, because there were so many things Josh didn't know about Donna.
"I hope it's enough," Josh said and walked away, because there were so many things he didn't know about stars.
What Sam knew about stars was sitting on one of the kitchen stools he never used when he sagged into his apartment. There was a bag of deli sandwiches on the counter cluttered with too many old Posts and Congressional Quarterly's, old debris of half-finished thoughts and dead-dry inspirations.
They stared at each other, at the darkness radiating from them, from bruises and dark circles and calluses and broken hearts.
Slowly Donna slid down off the stool and stood facing him.
"He's still running."
"Yes," Sam answered, because sometimes one word encompassed everything. He went to her, wrapped himself in her arms, and prayed that hope was enough, not for Josiah Bartlet or the campaign for America, but for her, for them, that he could ever be enough for her. When he pulled back, hours or days later maybe, she kissed him so slowly, tongue sliding over his lower lip, that Sam actually felt the rush of the world grind to a halt beneath them. In her touch, the way bone fluttered under the skin of her fingers, Donna proved all science wrong, all theories about revolution and rotation, of solstice and equinox, of suspension and the tethers of gravity.
And Sam could only ask one thing of her.
"Do you think he can win?"
"Yes," Donna Moss answered him and her voice was soft as petals, certain as a heartbeat.
* * * * *
In the end, like it always did, it had all come down to the little things like a few states' votes.
The idea of losing the White House had never seemed so bad as when it might actually happen, as when Ritchie had swept states he was never supposed to take. But then again, Sam thought as they all stood banded together like refugees, that was how it had always been.
They were in the Midwest, Kansas Sam would remember, a flat space where everything was green or gold - corn or wheat - that did get dark at night, dark enough to eat you alive. It seemed like they had been campaigning forever, though they had only just begun, shaking hands and forgetting names, smiling when no one really seemed to care.
Sam was drafting as many as four speeches a day, writing on buses and planes and bumpy pick-up trucks, tapping away lines and syntax on his laptop or scribbling freehand on anything that came up blank - tickets, napkins, invitations, tourist brochures, the Farmer's Almanac.
He always collapsed into his dark hotel room, and this time Sam thought they were in Topeka, but all he really knew was that Bartlet had read the last speech, all facet-polish and sleek syllables, and when the President was finished speaking in his booming baritone that had commanded much more than a town hall of wheat and corn farmers, the room had stayed obstinately silent. The women gazed up at their president with pursed lips in sunset shades and their hands folded demurely in their laps while the men slouched back or sat spine-straight in their folding chairs with steel wool and thunderstorms in their eyes.
It wasn't the first time it had happened and Sam thought about Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan - ominous places where the most powerful man in the United States had relented to speaking in empty rooms because people didn't show up, or as they had found out at two rallies, the time or place had been misprinted.
It seemed they couldn't get anything right, from coinciding itineraries to the spin of the earth, to the drought-choked fields, to the words in Sam's speeches.
"This was a mistake," Josh spit out, but even his tone was dull and lacked bitterness as the room emptied and the Secret Service hustled the President into a Suburban and to his hotel.
And Sam thought of his speech, since Toby rarely wrote anything but his name to checks now. And he thought of how it had sounded in the President's voice, how the words, starch and stars on paper, had crumbled when Josiah Bartlet spoke, and he was a man who could speak anything.
For the first time, Sam, folded over a makeshift chair at odd angles, had said, "maybe." He hadn't seen Donna in forever, it seemed, and he didn't think he meant it, but Josh had disappeared before he could relent.
Sam went outside and for the first time in so long, looked up.
The stars glittered overhead and pinned to the black sky, Sam wondered if they were ever afraid of falling. Before he went back in, he knew he would be, he knew he was.
His hotel room was just as dark, but the only light came from the illumination of his furiously whirring laptop. The screen was blank, saving for the blinking cursor, but when she came to him, in the darkness of his nondescript hotel room where he hadn't even bothered to unpack, she was as bright as a supernova. She closed the plywood door quietly and came to stand behind him, staring down at the computer.
"I don't know what else to say," Sam said and he heard the despair in his own voice.
And her hands were on his shoulders, where his neck met his back, where it hurt the most from hunching over to work and her touch was warm as summer sun on his cold body, soft as waterlily petals.
"Sometimes, Sam," Donna said quietly as she came to face him, "you don't have to say anything."
Her kiss was everything Sam had ever wanted to write in his life.
And when he touched her, shedding clothes like molted skins, he breathed in sentences and syntax and synecdoche, of everything beautiful and bright in this world, of how grammar strung together strange things, like hope and faith, like gravity and flight, like two human beings.
When he held her close, their kiss was adjectives and waterlilies.
And then slowly, inexorably and inexpressibly, they went to the bed, all tangled limbs and longings, falling on his charcoal pants and pinstripe suit jacket and the dress shirt the color of her eyes when she didn't think anyone was looking and she let everything in the world run across them, hopes, fears, demons, and dreams, named and unknown.
Without rush, Sam traveled over her skin not like shadow, but like light. With his tongue, he traced the ridges of her collarbone and the curl of her neck when she tilted her head back and closed her eyes. With his hands, he slid over the curve of her hips and the hollow of her stomach, the budge of her belly button, feeling the muscles tighten under his palms as she moved with him.
With his mouth, he drew against her and with a breath, wrote poetry without words, without need, into her and she shivered.
"Sam," Donna said and her voice was breathless as she drew him up to her and when she kissed him, he tasted salt and sweet verbs in their mouths.
Her hands were on his chin where half a day of stubble burned his jaw and her eyes told him all he had ever wanted to know.
He knew she wasn't afraid of falling.
She called his name when he came into her and suddenly three letters had become thousands and thousands of syllables as he moved within her, and when he came, their hearts exploded and all Sam knew was in her syllables, Donna was no longer calling his name but saying something else completely and as they curled into each other, he couldn't possibly believe stars could be so unafraid.
But when Sam woke up at 3:45am to board the buses for the next state, the sky still held its stars and his laptop was still glowing, but the screen wasn't blank.
At 4pm, she had sat next to the President in North Dakota because they knew her there, because she had been sent there twice, and they had asked her more questions because Donna Moss had always given them more answers, straightforward and sincerely, than their president. She at least had never lied to them.
"Miss Moss, what happened in Manchester?"
In her chair and dressed in larkspur blue, this woman seemed the only thing still alive when the room, the air, the world had stopped breathing.
And up in front of everyone, Donna Moss's smile curled up only the edges of her mouth and her eyes were full-blown waterlilies, and said simply, "Everyone falls."
For that second, she was looking at him and she kept smiling.
And later that night, they lay together under the pale glow of the crescent moon that night, under an onyx sky of healing and grace where Sam forgot that in Washington the horizon was the color of rent flesh, because not all things could be told by looking at the sky, though most could, and gravity was what kept the stars from falling, what kept her standing on the same ground as he.
And that was how he wrote his speeches, of her, because the President was a man who understood science and in his voice, things like gravity and orbit and light made people believe in looking up again.
* * * * *
She came to him in Washington when they finally landed Air Force One or disembarked the umpteenth motorcade and started the serious work from their home base. And although it seemed they separated outside the West Wing, Donna shared his apartment with him, cluttering little spaces with her Clinique make-up and Enya CDs and the latest issue of Cosmopolitan that he always found piled under his law reviews and political papers when it was two months old and she still hadn't read it. Her sky-blue Talbot's suit hung next to his charcoal pinstripe, her chocolate Pop-Tarts rampaged next to his erstwhile GrapeNuts, and when she ordered sushi, she ordered rainbow rolls for him. And when they lay awake at night, rapt in each other's arms, she would always try to tell him that the Big Dipper was the Pegasus constellation and then, gently and softly as he traced her cheekbones with his fingers or threaded through her silvery hair, Sam would recite each star as the heavens fled across the sky and her breathing was as steady as the earth's spin.
And it was just as beautiful as the word 'fall' in her voice, because she could make anything, even catastrophe, beautiful. Because in these four years, she had learned that too well.
As they waited for the November states' verdict and the outcome of the months of campaigning promises, Sam went to Donna and as they stood on the fringes of the clustered muddle, she had slipped her hand through his, their fingers twining together like a child's daisy chain. And Sam was painfully reminded of the daisy commercial on television, of things besides nuclear explosions that ended badly, of things like presidential reelections. But Donna smelled like late spring, like copy ink and warm fax paper, and Sam knew without question, North Dakota had given them their votes.
But things like the stars were easier to see in North Dakota, and it was the other states they were waiting on, the ones where voters had to trust Jed Bartlet that there was a thing called the heavens and that he was indeed able to hold it upright, to inspire them to the idea if they looked up, they too might see, between the red skies and fluorescent light, if they looked a little harder, beautiful bright things.
Sam wasn't sure who was holding on tighter, but he was sure they were both shaking, just a little. And in his heart he was more than a little scared, because stars fled under the horizon and to the other side of the earth every night, and he was afraid without the White House, she might do just that.
A phone rang and everyone looked up without jumping. They all stared at it numbly and Donna's thumb pressed into the web of his hand so that he could feel her nail dig into his skin. Josh looked at Sam but before his eyes became unreadable, Sam thought dark, unforgivable thoughts passed on them, but then he answered the call, pressed the receiver against his ear, and listened.
He didn't say a word until he set the phone down and the receiver clicked. He didn't look at any of them until he looked up and at Donna; then he jumped on one of the desks, sending her neatly-ordered papers flying every which way, and crowed, "Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis is still in the building!"
And then behind all the shouting and cheering, and only barely aware that somehow they had won a second term, Sam turned to the woman next to him, pulled Donna towards him and for the few seconds he held her, he had never held her like this, and Sam remembered exactly what they had been fighting for and what they had won. And he was grateful mostly not for victory, but for white flowers, stars, and this woman.
When they stepped back, there was a smile on the corners of her mouth and Sam thought maybe she was still shaking a little as Josh danced between them at something between a waltz and the electric slide and pouring champagne into coffee mugs at the same time, but it was a different kind of shaking and it wasn't from fear, but almost, it seemed, quite the opposite. He handed a glass to Sam, who took it before Josh dropped it, and then palmed one towards Donna.
She waved him away and somehow her smile had changed as she looked at Sam over the fizzling glass and he wondered if her thoughts were his, that neither had expected Josh to be happy about winning.
"C'mon, Donnatella, celebrate!" her boss whined, mocking petulance.
"No thanks, Josh." And ignoring her boss, because sometimes it was that easy, her eyes were wide like waterlilies as she looked over at him, and all Sam wanted suddenly was to kiss her or touch her without knowing why.
Josh pressed a glass into her hand even though she was shaking her head.
"If you go out and get drunk on less, I'm gonna fire you," Josh threatened as he dragged Sam away with him in babbles and dangerously tilted champagne. Then they were separated between all the Senior Staffers and Sam didn't think about the champagne because even Margaret was laughing, as the President came in and thanked them and for once, saved the talk of what dreams they could accomplish until later, until they would forget it had been a few states' that had won this second presidency.
Donna looked at him from across the room as President Bartlet told them all to go home and Sam knew as he looked back at her, that they were - they were going home together. After seven months since the cherry blossoms had faded and turned into beautiful sweet succulent fruit, he took her out into the dark night and he didn't even need to look to celestial navigation to guide him when he told her very simply, "I love you."
And in his arms, she smiled again, and before he kissed her, she repeated the three words she had typed onto his laptop in Kansas, words of hope.
* * * * *
The night after the last state's votes came in, after a day they had spent together realizing they had four years of Washington skies, Sam heard her roll away from him in the night. The clock glared 2:12am as her bare feet padded on the tile floor, making that sticky sound of flesh on rock, and he knew when she joined him again, her soles would be freezing and they would twine their bodies together.
And for a second, Sam stopped himself from going back to sleep, and thought how fortunate he was, even in a city of bone and red heavens. And even though they had won Washington skies, now they knew there were such bright white things as stars and lotuses, and in the end, hope and love.
But then suddenly Sam heard her coming back and her feet weren't sticking to the floor at all, and her voice when he rolled over and Donna spoke, was the worst thing he had ever heard.
"Oh God, Sam," and Sam saw the world tilt in Donna's stricken face. He didn't see the glistening spot on the bed sheets too dark to be anything but blood until she fell towards him, until the woman who had said, 'you're the only one I believe in' was gone.
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