Title: The Dragon’s Rubies
Author: Elliott Silver
Homepage: Elliott Silver's Fiction Niche
Characters: Not who you think, so I’d love to know what you think.
Timeline: "Posse Comitatus" now occurs in early January.
Author’s Notes: This isn’t the story I sat down to write, the nice little 5 pager one. But this is the story that came from the Muse. So please, please, please, let me know what you think, even if it’s just to write "you’re an idiot" in the subject line.
Oh, and yes, this version has all the correct page/section breaks in it … who invented HTML anyway.
Summary: When you learn the price of what you lost, can you bear its cost?
She came to him at 10:53 Thursday night.
He had Vivaldi on, the violin concerto "La Primavera". He was fighting a migraine and trying to write the President’s speech about the new energy bill for tomorrow. He hadn’t gotten past sentence 3, and he didn’t much like the three sentences he had.
When he heard her, she was knocking for the second time. He’d left the office around seven, when Toby had ranted at him for the second time and Sam wasn’t about to wait for a third. Writer’s egos were fragile things, and his boss expressing in no uncertain terms that he had the writing skills and style of a Republican third-grader made him seethe to write a new tell-all book about the Bartlet presidency that cut through all the shit they had been dealing with lately. Josh had been off doing whatever it was he did when he was trying not to let his femi-Nazi girlfriend destroy him and his career, and Leo was still down in the Sit Room with Fitz and the rest trying to figure out where they’d gone wrong in assassinating the Qumari defense minister. CJ was out dealing with the international fiasco that had been caused as well as the death of Simon Donovan. He could understand the harsh words she inflicted, with the press gouging at her about Abdul Shareef and her former remarks about the treatment of Qumari women. And all of them, even Charlie, were trying to stay away from the President, who was still in a bitter rage since The War of the Roses.
That was when he had ripped for his coat and a stack of papers on his desk that seemed somewhat important in a vague sort of way and told Mr. Ziegler he was going to fax the speech to him later that night. Mr. Ziegler said to email him instead.
He remembered seeing her on the way out, a wisp in a blue silk shirt the color of the sea when he sailed far enough away from shore that he seemed the one thing alive. She had been running towards Josh’s office with a stack of papers and phone messages, even though he wasn’t there.
And now she was here.
He stood against the door he hadn’t bothered to lock. If anyone wanted to climb up the four flights of stairs to his apartment in hopes of stealing his valuables or murdering him in some grisly spree, then Sam was more than willing to comply with the migraine he felt pressing in with daggers at the corners of his tired brain.
"Donna," he said as she stared back at him, her cheeks primrose pink with early January cold. "What are you doing here?"
She handed him a folder of papers. "These are the revised figures for the energy speech."
He took the folder from her gloved hand. They were those little cotton gloves with the nubbies on one side that were supposed to help you grip though he didn’t quite see how.
"Josh forgot to give them to you earlier."
"Yes," he answered. No one had said a word to him about revised figures, but it was just like Josh to let a detail like that slip in the grand scheme of things and in his current state of mind, he could have been quoting energy usage from 1963. "Thank you."
She gave him a corner of what he imagined would have been a smile. She had dark circles under her eyes that even her pale Clinique foundation couldn’t cover up and she looked too tired to make it down those four flights of stairs again. It had been a rough week for anyone in the White House and it was far from over.
"Hey, you want to come in and warm up for a minute?"
Donna looked like she was going to refuse and then she just nodded and stepped in. "The heater broke in my apartment building," she said by way of thanks.
"So Josh sent you out?" he asked, heading towards the kitchen and the thermostat. She looked positively frozen, huddled in her black trenchcoat and the same blue shirt and grey pants he’d seen her in earlier.
"You know Josh," she said vaguely as she looked around at his apartment. It was a big, airy place painted in deep shades of navy and maroon with his sailing pictures up on the tall walls. Only he didn’t have the requisite ship in a bottle.
"Do you want tea or coffee?" He was happy to see her; outside of frenzied scurryings in the hallways, he rarely got a chance to say more than two words – usually "look out!" – to Donnatella Moss. He’d always liked her, from the gutsy way she showed up in Manchester, New Hampshire with all her belongings packed into her nondescript little car, to her sashaying blonde hair that always seemed to stay the same flyaway length, and her amusing, endearing quirks, like her penchant for alpine skiing that had lasted all of three and a half weeks.
Vivaldi was still playing and she stood outside his jumbled pentagram of papers on the floor as if he could, by some secret ceremony, voodoo his way to the speech.
"You’re writing, I should go," she told him, gesturing at her intrusion into his bolthole sanctum. Her eyes looked grey against the bright blue of her shirt.
"No, look – really – " He, Samuel Norman Seaborn, was being about as articulate as a Republican third grader and Donna Moss was staring at him as if she thought the same thing. "I’m stuck with writer’s block," he admitted. "I’d welcome a break."
"Are you sure?" she asked, consternation crinkling tectonically on her forehead. Her gloved hands were tucked up in balled firsts in the sleeves of her coat.
"Yeah," he reassured her. "Tea or coffee?"
"Coffee would be wonderful," she admitted, deftly maneuvering her way through his rhumbs of paper to the couch where he’d been sitting.
"I was drinking tea," he said drolly.
"Oh, that’s fine too."
"I was kidding." He wasn’t but it didn’t matter. He bumped the thermostat up to 85 and as he notched the temperature, suddenly knew his introduction to the speech. He dumped the Earl Grey bag from his mug and started the coffee machine he never used. When he came back out, she was still wearing the trenchcoat but at least she had shed the gloves. Vivaldi had switched to "The Cello Suites" by Bach.
"I love Yo-Yo Ma," she confessed as she took the Duke mug gratefully, wrapping her fingers around its sweet warmth. She looked as if she needed the Colombian blend spiked, but she seemed tired enough already and he didn’t want her out on the roads feeling a Jack Daniels kick, especially in this weather.
"Yeah?" He had never thought of her that way, as liking serious classical music, but he remembered from the Christmas party that year how she had been so ecstatic to hear the renowned cellist.
"Yeah," she answered. She looked like she was going to tell him something else, but then stopped herself. She took a sip of the coffee.
"I guess the cello really isn’t Josh’s style, huh," he said. It had been the "Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major" that had crushed him that seasonal night. It had been one of Sam’s favorite pieces until Josh had said post-traumatic stress disorder to him.
"No, it really isn’t," Donna said with half a laugh. "Right now, he’s into Van Morrison." She said it with no trace of hurt but she also didn’t say a word about Amy Gardner either. From the look on her face, she didn’t have to.
"It’s supposed to go down into the teens, tonight," Sam mentioned as he sat down on the couch next to her, dropping his notepad to the floor with the rest of the miscellany. He didn’t know what else to say about that and decided nothing was best. She looked grateful for his change of subject.
"Brrrrrrrr," she trilled, the sound half like she was blowing a raspberry and half like she was really chattering her teeth. "It feels about zero degrees out there now."
"Let me get you something warmer," he said despite her protests and came back from his bedroom with the Princeton sweatshirt he’d gotten for some academic honor as a freshman. It was the only one he had left, so well-worn the paint was peeling off the letters just a little. It was the only one he had small enough not to eat her up.
"Sam – "
"Donna, you’re not going back out there like a – like a Donnasicle."
She unbelted the trenchcoat and slipped on the sweatshirt over her blue silk shirt. It still swallowed her up and made her look so much like a college sophomore that Sam felt ancient and world-weary beside her. Only her face told the same story as his.
"So how’s the speech coming?"
"It’s coming," he answered noncommittally. Talking about writing was equivalent to jinxing it.
"Well, how about I sit here really quiet and don’t disturb you, and you can finish it?"
He wanted to tell her he hadn’t even gotten a start on it yet. But he imagined how her forehead would crinkle with that, and how she’d grab at her coat and slip out into the zero-degree weather before he could stop her.
"Ok," he agreed and picked up his pad and pen. He scribbled out the first sentence that had been mulling around in his head. It led to a second, and a third, and a fourth, and before he knew it, a fifth and sixth. When he finished the first page, he flipped over the tablet and looked over at Josh’s secretary.
Her head had fallen back against the couch and she was breathing deep, easy rhythms like waves. Sam rose and taking the cashmere throw his aunt had given him for Christmas two years ago, he tucked it around Donnatella Moss.
Then he brewed himself another cup of Earl Grey, turned off most of the lights, scribbled out a second and third pages to the speech, and started typing them into his laptop.
"Sam?" Her voice was rough with sleep and it made him think of honeycombs. "What time is it?"
He rolled his wrist. "3:43."
She had pulled the navy throw around her like an Indian blanket. "Go back to sleep, Donnatella. It’s too cold to go home."
"But – "
"I’ll take you to work tomorrow."
She breathed a little sigh that seemed almost half a groan or grunt and kicked off her shoes, snuggling up on the couch next to him. Within a few sentences, her breathing returned to its elastic slumber and just as he was emailing the speech via attachment to Toby, her head slipped to his shoulder. He clicked ‘send’, shut off the laptop, and stayed where he was.
He was brushing his teeth when she woke.
"Good morning," he said, or rather it sounded something like "ogg orrin" with a mouthful of Crest.
She stood in his doorway like a Michealangelo statue or a pre-Raphealite painting with their sensuous lines and warm colors, with her hair tussled like the silk on budding corn and her blue shirt wrinkled so that each movement shimmered like ripples in a pond. Sam had been roasting all night but he hadn’t been about to turn down the heat.
He rinsed his mouth. "How did you sleep?"
"Really well," she said with more than a corner of a smile. "Thanks for letting me stay."
"I don’t want you turning into a Donnasicle," he said. "Josh would kill me."
Donna shook her head thoughtfully as if she was contemplating Josh’s world reaction to her loss. "And then where would the world be without Josh coming to the rescue?" It sounded bitterly sarcastic.
Sam shook his head. "You want a shower or anything?"
She shook her head too.
"You sure? I’ve even got clean towels."
"You definitely know how to win a woman’s heart, Sam Seaborn," she said, still standing in the doorway.
But in all the years that he’d known her, talking to her when sober and hitting on her when drunk, he’d always wondered why he couldn’t win hers.
She pointed to the corner of his jaw. He wiped a finger there.
She came to him and ran a finger under the corner of his bottom lip.
"Where would the world be without you, Sam Seaborn?" she asked rhetorically as she wiped a smudge of Crest on the white towel around his neck.
The world would be where it had always been, he thought, with her still obstinately in love with the man who sent her out into 16 degree whether while he fooled around with Amy Gardner.
"Thanks," he said.
"Yeah, you owe me a coffee."
And she liked Starbucks Caramel Macchiato, he discovered, when she kept him to it. He bought her the foamed milk and espresso and took her to work, still wearing his Princeton shirt. He didn’t know when exactly she changed, but sometime that afternoon when she passed him in the hall, she was wearing a black knit sweater and a pair of khaki pants, the outfit she kept in her bottom drawer for such emergencies. Then Josh was calling him and telling him that the energy speech was one of his best.
"Sam," Josh’s voice was monotone calm, which was never a good sign with him, who got bent out of shape with the little things and neglected the big ones. "I need to talk to Jack."
"Why?" Sam asked, nonplussed, looking up from his reading on urban sprawl and crimes increases. Jackson Jay Walker IV was an old friend of the Seaborn family. His great-grandfather Jackson had started a publishing company in Boston that his grandfather Jay had built on and his father J.J. had diversified and expanded. Jack had taken the Walker conglomeration into the 21st century and was tops among the media moguls in the world. Sam remembered him as the distinguished gentleman with the whisky voice that could throw a gentle curve ball, although the Seaborn family remembered the Walkers back to clambakes on the Maine shore, both families with the same luck: no one knew how to bake clams right.
"The Wallace Memorandum is short," Josh conceded, looking uncomfortable but not guilty.
Sam looked at him clearly, though his memory on the Wallace piece extended only to its involvement with the military and he thought the one of Jack’s umbrella companies was the one airing the military ads on TV. "I was under the impression that we didn’t want the Wallace piece to go through before election."
"Because we want to pass better legislation after the election, right?"
"Yeah," Josh answered, running a staggered hand through his bristling hair.
"So why do you need to talk to Jack?"
"Because we lost some votes," Josh admitted carefully.
"Enough," Josh replied easily, but Josh was always calm in the worst sorts of desperation. "Can you arrange it?"
"I’ll call him," Sam said, but he didn’t promise anything. He didn’t have to say that Jack was an old friend of the family or that Jack was the reason he had gotten into Princeton and Duke when it hadn’t looked so good, or that his first Montblanc had been a gift from Jack, with the traditional 4810 inscribed on the nib. Josh swung out of his chair and ambled into the hallway with his swinging cowboy walk, calling for Donna from across the room the way he always did. Sam didn’t say anything because the way Josh talked and walked made it seem like a last ditch effort and after the President’s harsh words, meeting with Jack might be all that stood between Josh and being fired.
Sam pulled his black book full of phone numbers and names and scraps of hieroglyphic paper from his lower desk drawer. It was so crammed with notes that he had resorted to rubberbanding it together, but Jack’s number was only on the second page, where Sam kept his computer password and blood type, and when Marjorie answered the phone with her cheery good morning, guilt washed up on him for losing touch.
Jack answered right away, delighted to hear from him, and agreeing to the meeting without ever asking what it was about. As it turned out, he had been flying down on Friday for a formal media dinner and could meet Josh before that.
Then Toby came in and Sam forgot all about Jack in the commotion.
She of all people knew Josh was back with a vengeance. Even CJ came out of her silent fugue the next day to tell him to quiet down unless he wanted to shout her briefing from his office. Ever since the president had royally bitched him out about almost losing the votes on the welfare bill, Josh had been riding through the West Wing like a Valkyrie and no one had seen fit to do a thing about it. Josh was fifteen kinds of stressed like the rest of them; the only difference was he had Donna to take it out on.
"You know," Sam said to Josh as he idly chewed the Subway Chicken Teriyaki sandwich that Donna had gotten for lunch, "you’ve been a little hard on Donna lately."
"I don’t like Chicken Teriyaki," Josh protested when he was three-quarters of the way through the sandwich. He took another three bites and threw the rest in the trash. "I gotta go find Alverson and Michaels. Bruno wants to talk to me."
"Donna!" One of the other secretaries informed him that he had sent her to get an analysis from Foggy Bottom. One day he was sending her to North Dakota, the next he was sending her to Sam Seaborn’s house, and the next to the FBI.
She came back just as he was calling her name again. She handed him the report from Foggy Bottom and told him he had a meeting with the Smithsonian Museum people 10 minutes ago.
"I thought I was meeting with Alverson and Michaels. And Bruno."
"Alverson and Michaels were yesterday, Josh. And Bruno wants to see you at 3:30."
"You were supposed to tell me this!"
"‘Cause you know, this is what I pay you for."
"I did tell you, Josh!" If Sam had been Josh, he would have stopped pushing her about 5 seconds before, but then again, he didn’t want to think he would have ever put her in that kind of position to begin with.
"Josh, take it easy," he said and still felt like he wasn’t doing enough.
Josh ran his hands through his hair. "Alright, call Alverson and Michaels and reschedule. It’s only about the election in November, nothing too important."
"Go meet with your museum people, Josh," she said, sitting down at her desk. "And don’t forget Bruno at 3:30."
"Ok," Josh headed down the hallway. "And Donna, I don’t like Chicken Teriyaki."
"Donna?" Toby came across the room. "Did I just hear that Josh forgot to meet with Alverson and Michaels?"
"Yes," she said, phone to her ear. "I’m rescheduling."
Toby made some sort of exasperating grunt. "You people are running this place to hell!" he growled and came towards Sam.
"We’ve got another speech to write," he said by way of introduction as he corralled Sam back into his office and Sam sat down at his desk under his flag where stacks of material he was reading on the Everglades were piled up.
"Did you know that the Everglades contain 16 endangered species and 6 threatened species found nowhere else in the world?"
"No," Toby said, sprawling on his couch, "But if you find something remotely related to writing about gun control in there, I’m all ears."
"We’re writing about gun control?" Sam asked.
"Not we, you." Toby sat up and stalked out. "I’ve got more important things to do."
The last Sam saw of Donna she was wearing a white sweater and scheduling a meeting for Tuesday at 2 with Congressman Alverson before Toby swung shut his door and he started thinking about what to say about gun control when their President made comments about their rival in the vein of ".22 caliber mind in a .357 world" that didn’t make them look hypocritical or idiotic.
But he was thinking about Josh’s secretary.
Things in the West Wing whirled on, as they always did. They were hurrying to outmaneuver Ritchie, make nuclear policy gains with China, and stop the spread of AIDs. He saw Donna out of the corner of his eye, but that was all, the way Josh was running things. When he caught a glimpse of her face a few days later, the bones under her cheeks seemed more elongated than he remembered, the skin stretched over them a little tighter and paler the stringent way all the Estee Lauder and Elizabeth Arden models looked. She looked a little thinner maybe, though with women he’d always found it hard to tell and best to say nothing. And she seemed to be continually running, up and down and through the East and West wings, always carrying stacks and shuffles of papers and binders and books.
He had just left the Oval Office from a meeting on Cuban diplomacy when he heard Josh. He wasn’t quite yelling, but another half decibel and he would be.
"I needed the stats on the Millovich thing, Donna! And I needed twenty copies of the 10-10 case, not ten copies of the NASA 20 report!" He blew air through his teeth. "Jesus! What’s wrong with you?"
When she went to answer, he waved her off.
"Whatever it is, get over it and get with it, will you?"
Sam saw her slip down the stairs and he followed her to get some papers from Babish’s office. He wasn’t very surprised at Josh’s harsh words lately with all that was going wrong, but he had never seen him be so brutal when it wasn’t called for. As he walked on, he was always surprised how empty the lower levels seemed compared to the bullpen and briefing room.
She came careening through the doorway, not altogether steady in her heels. She and CJ wore such insensible shoes, though it was CJ mostly, who towered over all of them in bare feet and still insisted on wearing 3 and a half inch Manolo Blahnik heels.
"Hey," he said as she ricocheted.
When she didn’t say anything and didn’t look at him, he reached for her arm.
She stopped reluctantly and when she raised her watery eyes to him, he knew if he hadn’t stopped her, she wouldn’t have cried.
She looked at him and he knew suddenly why people had once called the moon the watery star. Two tears rolled silently from her reddened eyes as she looked at him. She was the one person that still looked at him that way.
And then she thumped her head down on his shoulder, her blonde hair falling against his white shirt in waves. Sam put his arms around her and drew her closer, resting one hand on the back of her head and the other around her thin waist. The copies in her hands were still warm against his back as she leaned into him and he tilted his head against hers.
After a minute, she pulled back, wiping angrily at her face, the copies fanning in her hand. Asking her if she was all right was stupid but he wished there was something he could do or say to make up for the great jackass their deputy chief of staff could be.
"I’m sorry," she said, her voice breaking. "I shouldn’t be so emotional."
"There’s nothing wrong with emotion," he told her.
"Well, I guess that depends on who you’re talking to," she answered, wiping at her wet face with the back of her hand.
"You’re talking to me," he said. She looked at him with her deep eyes; her lashes blinked wetly. She was such a tough, fragile, beautiful creature.
"Thank you," she said with dignity that made Jackie Kennedy look frumpy.
Sam nodded and didn’t say a word as she jogged the steps back to the office where Josh was waiting.
"We got it by five," Josh proclaimed, flopping down into the chair opposite of his desk with something that was too crawly to be relief.
Sam got up so that the flag on his wall mirrored him – Don’t Tread on Me – and closed the door to his office so quietly Josh looked up at him.
"I heard," Sam managed. He felt like he was grinding his teeth to chaff.
Josh babbled on.
"Goddamnit Josh!" By the unmoved expression on Josh’s face, he knew the anger was starting to leak out of his voice.
"I thought you wanted to talk to Jack about the media promotion behind the bill, not because he was sleeping with Amy’s new boss!" Now Sam was angry, more angry than after Jack’s irate phone call when he knew the friendship was seriously damaged, if not unsalvageable. He’d lost his teacher, mentor, and the man who’d always come to Thanksgiving dinner at the Seaborns house bringing a bottle of bourbon, an adamant dislike to cranberry relish, and a deep, booming laugh, all because Amy Gardner and her suckerhold on Josh.
"You didn’t know," Josh said obviously, looking only slightly rebuked and not yet contrite. It sounded to Sam more like "you didn’t need to know" and he wished he’d told Josh outright that he only arranged the meeting out of faith on their friendship because Jack went way back with the Seaborn family, back to clambakes and childhood and his first awful taste of aged Scotch.
Sam had known when Josh had had Amy fired the first time that his promises that she couldn’t cause any more trouble were empty as paper hyperventilation bags. They all should have known, and while a bitching out by the President of the United States would have straightened out most of the world, Josh was not one of those people.
Lane Chenault had published her new book on feminism and the government through one of Jack’s print houses and somewhere along the line, they’d been introduced. It had been innocent at first, as all introductions were really, but it was only after they swapped their names and backgrounds that they found more in common, their intellectual passions for fine literature, jazz music, Oysters Rockefeller, and 18 year-old Macallan Scotch. That’s all it had been at first, rousing debates at The Kipling Club with oysters and drinks and Jack using frequent flyer miles on the weekends. Sex came later, as did Jack laying down the law to her according to Amy Gardner’s suggestions. Loss of an agent, publishing house, free press, and government ties wouldn’t have swayed Laney on an ordinary basis; in fact, what Sam knew of her, she probably would have laughed, being the powerful, beautiful, intelligent leader she was. It was Jack that had swayed her.
Josh just watched him, his fingers laced together as if he was fascinated with the way flesh and bone contorted under pressure. Sam felt that way now.
"It’s over, you know," he said and Josh barely looked up. Of course, Josh knew, as he had when he had walked into Sam’s office and asked for the meeting, knowing Sam wouldn’t ask why, because they were friends and that was what friends did. Any anger from Jack had diluted into cold loss; Marjorie and he had been at best acquaintances for several years now, sharing the same bank account and houses, but running different lives. Putting pressure on Lane to drop Amy’s suggestions about the Wallace Memorandum - the one about women and image advertising in the military - so it would fail now only for Bartlet to pass it later had cost him his relationship with her, at the price of good politics, if there was such a thing.
"What’s next, Josh? We declare war on Canada, or Paraguay, or Nepal because Amy wants you to?"
"This – " But Sam was on a full tilt rant. It wasn’t so much because of Jack, because friendships that went back that far were hard to kill, but also because of the unjustified attitude Josh had been taking out on them all lately and especially Donna because of his idiotic cling to Amy.
"Why can’t you just find a nice girl? Someone who doesn’t run this country to rack and ruin?"
"Nice girl?" Josh sounded outraged. "There are no nice girls in Washington! Certainly no one I want, for Christ’s sake."
Josh ranted on about the lack of good women, but Sam didn’t really hear what he was saying. After a minute, Josh stopped, clearly surprised when he didn’t rally back, but the truth was, Sam didn’t dare rally back, didn’t dare show Josh the extraordinary nice girl not five feet from them, didn’t dare give up this sudden precious gift he had never expected, the dragon’s ruby.
Josh swung out his door quickly and Sam followed him, standing in the archway, feeling peculiarly dizzy. Donna was typing up notes on her computer, fingers clattering over keys. He stood there until she looked up. Then he waited until she looked up and held his gaze; he felt her trying to figure it out, her mind spinning as dizzily as his. Only then did he walk back to his office and wait for hope.
She came a day later.
"I wanted to bring this back," she said, handing him the folded Princeton sweatshirt as he held open the door to his apartment. It smelled of Downy dryer sheets.
"You washed it," he noticed and he felt about as brilliant as Shakespeare in his powers of observation.
"Yeah," she said and looked at him oddly.
"You didn’t have to."
"Well, if it makes you feel any better, I had to do laundry anyway." She gave him half a smile again. "I had some free time since Josh is in California lobbying for the election," she said, and then added, "Amy’s with him."
And that was the way things went. Josh left Donna to do his job in wind chill weather while he cavorted off to the Pacific coast with his killer girlfriend. Sam wanted to tell Donna that it didn’t matter, that the Atlantic was prettier than the Pacific anyday, that the water under the bow carried you so far the color of the sky was the color of your dreams, and when you reached down and touched the water, it felt like a kiss.
But he didn’t and they just stood there, silent.
"Anyway, I just wanted to bring back your sweatshirt." He tucked the sweatshirt under his arm and she stepped back like she was leaving.
"I’m sorry," Sam said quickly. "I should have invited you in."
She looked at him and her eyes were serious, the color of the sea when it mirrored the sky and you knew you should turn around and head towards the shore before you were drowned.
Sam wanted to be drowned.
She came in.
"Did they fix the heat in your apartment yet?" he asked as he closed the door behind them.
"No," she answered him taking a seat on the couch now that it was free from his clutter. "It’s going to be a week before they can get the part they need. They’re backordering it from Idaho or Iowa or Italy or something."
"Well, you’re welcome to stay here," Sam offered, suddenly rushing on before she thought he sounded lecherous. "I don’t want you to freeze to death."
"Thanks," she said with a trace of a smile. "But it’s alright. I could stay with friends if I needed to. Or I could go to Josh’s apartment if I had to. I’ve got the key and he’s never there."
There was so much more in those words than he expected to understand. She could be a million places, but the fact was, she was here.
"What’s it like to sail, Sam?" she asked when he didn’t say anything.
"It’s amazing," he answered simply. "It’s like living a dream where nothing goes wrong and you don’t wake up. It’s like being free."
She nodded looked at the sailing pictures on his walls, where he was smiling and holding the ropes that spun him out over the sea. "It sounds wonderful."
"I’ll take you," he offered and he wasn’t just saying it.
"Sam – "
"Donna – "
She grinned at him, a little self-consciously, and then took a deep breath. He wanted to be noble for her and he wanted her, if not in his bedroom than at least on his couch.
"Josh?" she asked, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear in a gesture that made her seem young where her perceptiveness gave her age.
He nodded just slightly. "I don’t want you doing this because of Josh, or the way – "
She stopped him with her hand on his. "I never was," she told him. "Were you?"
Sam shook his head. He wanted her for many reasons, but Josh Lyman never entered one of them. When she touched him, he felt her certainty and yet he needed to believe it was more than just a certainty of the moment.
"Donna, I don’t want a one-night stand," he said, trying to keep his tone level when each syllable felt like he was mashing gears.
"Neither do I," she answered clearly. In all that followed, he would remember her in that moment, how she looked with her cheeks flushed and her heart pounding through her shirt, the way she smelled like softness and warmth, and the grace as she ran her fingers over his hand, wound them together, and hoped with eyes the color of storm.
"You know Washington won’t tolerate more."
"I know," she answered and she kissed him and he kissed her back, at first lightly, and then her tongue and his twisted and he shivered when she ran the tip across the roof of his mouth. Everything slowed maddeningly adagio as they shed their clothes and fell into the thin dimness of his bedroom and the depths of his dark bed. He kissed her all over as her hands smoothed over his skin as if she was working clay and he swore he could feel every indent and ridge of her fingerprints. He marveled at the way her bones contorted and shifted under her flesh as she slid against him and they shed their underwear so that there was nothing between them but this sudden slick sweat.
When he turned to his nighttable and fumbled through the drawer, nearly falling off the bed, she laughed. It sounded like sunflowers in the wind and he laughed with her, fishing out a condom and rolling himself back into the bed.
"Been a while?" Donna asked, leaning on one arm and arching a tawny eyebrow at him.
And he nodded as he tore open the packet and she reached for him. She held him by the muscles of his upper arm as he sank into her and suddenly if felt like they were moored to each other by the thick spun-strand ropes that held ship into port. And every rock away of his body from hers felt like the pull of the waves and sea against land, and every reel back into her felt like the high tide sweeping over the shore. Everything black sank away into blue shadows of her eyes and when she tensed into him, he moved with her and she came in a shiver, calling his name into his mouth as he kissed her. And then he came too, and it felt like hitting the surface of the ocean after diving and holding his breath.
They lay into each other deeply, blood whistling in their heads and breath in the chests, so that he could feel the ball of her hip pushing into him and the soft curves of her breasts, warm, on his chest. He moved off her slowly and she held him still.
He traced the line of her cheek, the peach fuzz hair there damp with sweat.
She looked up at him with her eyes the color of lupines at full, iridescent bloom, the kind he had seen scattered across New England as a child. Purple was the color of nobility, of magic, of battle-worn hearts.
"Do you regret it?" she asked into the silence and he felt the whole world hinge on one answer now that the sex was done and real things like consequences took over again.
"Yes," he answered her as gently as he could. "There’s no such thing as no regrets," he explained as she rolled up on one arm to look at him. "I regret not kissing you sooner, I regret not having the courage to love you before this, and I regret not fighting for you."
"Donna?" he asked as she faced him. "What I said about the one night stand? I meant it."
"Sam?" she asked as he faced her. "What I said about Josh? I meant it too."
He leaned down around her as she wrapped herself around him and she was more than halfway towards him when he kissed her. He hadn’t been sure the first time she had said it, because the misdirection that followed had been a classic Josh Lyman trick, and because he wanted her so badly and ignobly that he wanted her no matter how short the time was. But when she curled around him and held him, her tawny form sprawled into his and her eyes trusting and honest, he believed her. Sam closed his own eyes and when he woke that way with her, he remembered his dreams had been of lupines in great swathes of fields with children running and laughing and tumbling and he hadn’t dreamt in such a long time.
Title: The Dragon’s Rubies (2/3)
Author: Elliott Silver
"We just invented the tenth circle," his boss muttered through clenched teeth, his hands flexing and unflexing the way he threw his rubber ball against Sam’s wall which made Sam glad he didn’t have the ball right now.
"Thank you for being awake this morning, Dante," Toby congratulated him as they walked through the bullpen. "The DEA made a drug bust last night on one of the cartels and now the FBI is saying that the $30 million is an illegal seizure and want us to respond. There was a school shooting in Italy and the Italian embassy is blaming it on an American student and want us to do something. The Mississippi River flooded and the farmers want us to give them relief after complaining about the drought! The President is in a budget meeting trying to change the program we worked for five months because he thinks he knows some economics and CJ has a cold and took too much Sudafed or Tylenol or whatever you take when you can’t breathe through your sinuses and is delusional enough to tell the press that we invaded Nicaragua or Niagara Falls and start a catastrophe." Toby growled loud enough for most people to look up and then look away. Nobody wanted Toby’s wrath.
"And on top of it all, Josh is in California and Leo is out and there’s no one here to organize us!"
"Passed out in her office."
"Josh sent Donna back to North Dakota," Toby said as they threaded their way down the hallway.
It hit Sam with sledgehammer force. He’d seen her just this morning, just over two hours ago, when he’d dropped her off at her apartment to change and head to the White House on her own. She had kissed him before he drove away. He was stopped-in-his-tracks stunned and it was probably a good thing that Toby was used to that from him.
"Because they still want North dropped from their name," he said as he shuffled through the piles of folders in his hands. Toby was a great card shuffler, especially in poker. Sam didn’t have the deception for card games.
"I thought we settled that last time," Sam said, taking more phone messages and memos from Madison, the pre-law secretary he’d trained when Cathy left for chef school, as he passed by.
"Apparently not," Toby concluded as he ducked into his office, skimming over the latest dispatch before the briefing CJ might or might not do.
He was surprised and surprised to be so surprised, though in the end, it made some sort of logical sense because she was saving him the trip when he had more important things to do than debate about the difference between the Mount Rushmore state and their northern sibling. But after last night, he’d hoped for something different than Donnatella Moss being in Bismarck, North Dakota. He hoped for eyes like lupines in the spring and the soft, sure way she kissed him as if it really meant something.
He was fine without her, he really was. They’d only spent one night together, which was somewhat of a theme in his experiences. He wasn’t Petrarch or a melancholy romantic from the nineteenth century - he was still the same dashing, charming, witty Sam Seaborn when she was 1532.28 miles away. He went to meetings, wrote scholarly things, paid his bills, and every now and then remembered tea was not a recognized food group. He could still play political hardball and drive his car in a more or less respectable manner that prevented him from getting tickets. He could smell her lingering perfume on his passenger seat and the silver necklace with marcasite beads was still sitting on his endtable, but he wasn’t dying. He missed her every time he passed a Starbucks and when he walked into Josh’s office two days later to ask about the particulars for the delta flood bill and Josh was giving her instructions, it tugged at him not to interrupt and ask her how Harry Conway was. He ordered two Yo-Yo Ma CDs online and paid for overnight shipping.
He stayed in his office later than he needed, caught up on things that slipped, and slept a little less than he should. He could still make bad decisions without her, and good choices too. He could run the country, inspire the citizens, draft policy with the president, ignore Toby when he bounced his ball off their walls, and wonder at corner moments, if it had only been a night of comfort for them both, or whether it meant more. That was also a theme in his relationships.
He was reading the new Japanese trade regulations and he was trying not to pay attention to the way his glasses were itching the bridge of his nose. He was tired and he knew if he wanted to stay awake, he needed to uncork his legs and get some coffee. But he didn’t want to do either and he wanted to know about whatever this chest of wonders would be that he had opened with Donnatella Moss and where it would lead.
"They sent me to North Dakota."
He looked up, pulling the glasses off with relief. She stood in the archway of his door like a silhouette, a travel bag with its jutting airport tags slung over her shoulder.
"So it’s still North Dakota, right?"
"For the moment," she said with a tired smile.
"It’s almost midnight," Sam said bizarrely, glancing at his watch.
"I had to drop the stuff off for Josh," she said, waving vaguely in the direction of his office and shrugging the weight on her shoulder. She looked at him and there was something more in her eyes. "He said you were still in the office."
"You asked him?"
"Not so directly," she says, and if she wasn’t jetlagged, Sam thought she would have been almost coy in her answer. "I said Harry Conway asked me to pass on a message."
"What did he say?"
"I think he said, hello, and maybe a few other things," she stopped and shifted the weight on her shoulders again. "Are you going home yet?"
He grabbed his coat and turned off the lamp; she was still waiting when he came to stand beside her in the doorway. She stepped out of his way and he followed her; the door slammed aloofly through the empty space. They heard the static from a secret service agent and a muffled banging from the janitor. They walked out into the night and he held open the car door for her. No one paid them any attention; he’d taken her home on occasion before when Josh was too busy or she stayed late or for any other inscrutable reason. Josh had taken Ginger and Bonnie sometimes, and even Margaret when Leo was out of town and didn’t want to go alone. They could be real gentlemen, the men of the West Wing, sometimes. He backed out and started into the street, the car lights glaring through the night as he braked for a red light even though there was no one else in the intersection but them.
"Sam," her voice was shivery in the car even though he had the blowers on high. He was in the right turn lane to head towards her apartment. He turned to her as she leaned across the console and kissed him and he felt the miles that had separated them for three days in the way she did and the way he kissed her back. Her lips were little chapped and he could taste Burt’s Beeswax on her. Her eyes were open and he wondered if she had ever closed them.
"You’re in the wrong lane," she pointed out. The light had been green all this time, but no traffic had come up behind them or across from them, or even catty corner. It faded to caution and then red again and he slid the BMW out of the turn lane, floored the gas delightfully, and went straight, quite illegally.
They parked and slipped into his apartment, shrugging off coats and bags and suddenly just standing, awkward and silent and still before one another. They weren’t but five feet between each other, but Sam wasn’t sure how to cross that space. He knew there was a way, but he didn’t know what it was.
Across from him, Donna crossed her hands across her waist and pulled the rusty sienna shirt over her head. Her hair sparkled with static in the dark, racing blue-green streaks of pent electricity. The shirt lingered in her hand before she dropped it and walked to him. Her bra was white and edged with lace.
He had sacked his tie earlier in the night and undid the first button on his white shirt. It made a popping sound against the crisp fabric; it seemed to swallow them. She blinked as he unloosed the other buttons and stripped the shirt. He jerked the cotton undershirt over his head, knowing it spiked the ends of his hair.
There was half a footstep between them as he slid his hands down her arms from shoulder to elbow and across the planes of her back, unhooking her bra and letting it slide to the wood floor like a dandelion wisp. When he touched her, it felt like she had never left.
She swayed towards him, her breasts and stomach pressing against his chest as she kissed him and he pulled her tighter as they stumbled backwards to his bedroom. When they fell to the bed, she was still kissing him, her tongue dancing against his until he broke the kiss and traced the ridges of her collarbone with the tip of his tongue. His hands steadied her hips as she ground against him and he felt like screaming. They stripped the rest of their clothes as he melded into her and when she came, his name on her voice was possibly the most beautiful thing he had ever heard.
She fell asleep twisted into him and he laid there, propped on his bent arm and watching her. He had seen her doze before, briefly on Air Force One, but she had always looked hurried and tense, and when she startled awake, guilty. Now there was a peace in watching her sleep that reminded him of iambic pentameter, where words measured and breathed together and everything that encompassed the world fit into one single line of prose.
He watched her until the sky merged into a blue conglomeration like a Kandinsky painting, knowing he would feel the wear on him but unable to look away. The color fell over her like a wave and when he ran his fingers down the side of her face, he almost expected them to be wet.
"I can feel you watching me." She said it quietly, without moving or opening her eyes.
"I thought you felt my touch."
"That too," she said and her voice was drifting with sleep.
"Should I stop?" He was already fifteen minutes past his usual waking hour, when he rose and dressed and hurried to his office when the building was quiet – it was never still.
"No," she answered simply, yawning so that he felt the puffs of her exhalation against his skin. She curled to him and her skin was cool, the way it would feel after a dive into the ocean. "Five more minutes," she begged as her hand wound in his.
"Ok," he said, and wrapped himself around her. CJ would arrive before him, and Ed and Larry, and probably Leo. And when he gave Donna five additional minutes of his own, until the sky faded from blue to sunburst, he knew Toby would be there too and Josh.
But the blue sky had turned to rain as he ran into the White House an hour later, spewing huge pouring droplets the size of sanddollars so that the trees, the sidewalks, and the black macadam were all slick with watery pomade. By the time he skidded into his office, cursing the smooth soles of his expensive shoes, the thunder had started pounding like a war drum.
He hadn’t even set down his bag when Madison came into his office with a whole sheaf of notes.
"Ok, Sam," she began like a drill sergeant, "You’ve got a meeting with Senior Staff in three minutes, and Toby’s already been here twice about problems with the Wolsey Bill. Also David Cates from Department of Transportation called about the bridge that collapsed in Alabama – "
"And a good morning to you too, Maddy."
Madison kept reading despite his interruption. He sat down at his desk. He felt giddy.
Madison stopped reading; she hated being called Maddy. "Sam, did you just say good morning to me?"
"I most certainly did."
"Sam, you realize it’s pouring rain out and there’s a chain of severe thunderstorms passing over DC for the rest of the day?" Sam nodded. He still felt giddy; she wasn’t wearing off. "Sam, you realize you have a meeting on the Hill and that requires you to go out into that rain, right?"
"Yes, Maddy, and it’s a task whose challenge I relish with delight."
"Sam, are you happy?"
He wasn’t just happy; he was exalted, exuberant, inspired. Madison walked out, shaking her head and muttering something about how all bets were off in the universe since Sam Seaborn was in not just a tolerable mood, but by all appearances, a middling to ecstatically jolly mood, on Wednesday morning as he followed her and headed towards Leo’s office for Senior Staff, pouring a turpentine cup of coffee on the way.
The alarm screeched the next morning and Sam fumbled from under the covers to turn it off. After a few seconds, he managed to shut it off and shrugged back under the sheets.
"Donnatella," he whispered.
She squirmed against him and ducked her head under the blankets. Donnatella Isabella Moss wasn’t a morning person, especially after sex and jetlag and sex.
But Sam was wide awake, even after sex and politics and sex.
He scrunched down under the blankets with her, pulled the navy linen sheets over his head too so that his forehead and hers were touching. Her arms were pulled up across her chest and she was curled against him so that her breath lulled against his face.
Gently he inched down and began kissing her forearms, where the ulna and radius turned and twisted against each other. He heard the quick intake of her breath, the small shifting of her weight as she leaned towards him, and even in the dimness of their tented world, he could see the fluttering of her eyelids that belied she was awake.
His fingers wrapped around hers and laced them together as he drew her arms down and kissed her shoulder blade, where the joint of her scapula met her collarbone, tracing the slight dip in her warm skin with the tip of his tongue.
She twined her leg between his, anchoring herself to him as he kissed up her neck to the fine line of her cheek, tugging on her corner of her ear as she rolled slightly and he leaned his weight down on her warm chest, her breasts pressed against his sternum as he kissed her temple and down to her nose and hovered over her for a second so that she opened her eyes before he kissed her lips.
"Sam," she whispered between kisses as she wrapped her arms around him and tugged him closer. "Do you have any shirts?"
Sam was busy kissing his way down Donnatella’s elegant breastbone. "Yes," he answered in his typically Sam voice.
"Can I wear one?"
"Sure," he mumbled as his hands swelled around her firm breasts and kissing his way under the sheets. "Why?"
"Because I’d rather have another fifteen minutes of this than going to my apartment to get dressed."
And that was how Donna Moss ended up wearing the Deputy Communications Director’s shirt to work at the White House.
He handed her the pink shirt still in its original Brooks Brothers giftbox when she came out of the bathroom, her hair tucked up in one of his sapphire towels, another tucked around her damp body so that he longed to pull it off, fall with her onto the bed, and nest themselves in its blue-shadowed world.
"But this is new," she protested as he handed it to her, his own white button-down fluttering open on his chest as he stood in his black boxer briefs.
"Pink’s not my color," he said and she grinned. He also explained how it was also 2 inches too small around the collar and 2 inches too short in the sleeves and how his aunt persisted in giving it to him anyway.
And the truth was Donna Moss looked better in it than he ever would. She slipped into it and tucked it into the grey pants she’d worn the day before, tugged on her black heels, and looked so immaculately precise Sam felt undressed next to her.
And although Sam had his doubts about her couture choice, no one else did. Bonnie told her she wanted a shirt just like it, and even the President’s new secretary made a comment about how nice Donna looked. Sam guessed they weren’t looking to see which side the buttons were on.
He didn’t see her after that morning. Toby kept him busy with grammar school lessons about preposition choice and when he tried to slip out of the office at 6, CJ informed him they were working with Bruno late into the night about the President’s ad campaign. Sam gritted his teeth and went to the meeting.
He unlocked the door to his apartment and dropped everything he was carrying onto the floor, slamming the door after him and leaning against it. He’d wanted to see Donna again tonight and even though they both knew White House schedules didn’t coincide well with relationships, and usually those schedules killed relationships, or all the ones Sam knew of including Leo’s, Toby’s, Josh’s first, and his second, Sam had wanted to work this one out. And that was why he wasn’t about to go knocking on Donna Moss’ door at almost 2 in the morning either.
He walked through the dark room past his couch and into the kitchen, flipping on the light and standing at the sink staring out the dark window at the flaring lights of DC in the night sky.
He swung around so fast he felt off balance. She stood half in the shadows in her bare feet, her hair tussled around her shoulders.
"Donna," he breathed, his heart pounding. "What are you doing here?"
"I wanted to bring your shirt back," she explained softly, fingering the cotton seam as the collar plunged into a deep v to the soft swells of her breasts. The tails of the shirt brushed against the top of her thighs, thin enough so that Sam could see the lacy embroidery of the pink string bikini she wore. The shirt was all she had on.
Sam went to her and holding her face in his hands, kissed her. She covered his hands with hers and drew them down over her breasts to the buttons of the shirt. Sam left the pink shirt on the tiled floor of the kitchen as he stumbled with her into the deep dark of his bedroom, falling into each other until they breathed again.
When the alarm went off the next morning, she was pooled next to him, her skin melded into his, into every crevice and niche, every place he had never known before was empty.
"Sam," she murmured as she twisted over in his arms so that her head tucked under his. "Can I wear one of your shirts again?"
By the end of the next week, they were mostly living together, although working at the White House, they had really been living together for years – now they just spent nights together as well. She was hesitant about spending so much time with him at first, afraid that someone would see them and take notice. But besides all the sex – the most Sam had ever had with one person – there was the simple yearning to spend time together, and although she picked up her mail and watered her few plants, the time she spent in her apartment was minimal. At first, there was an unsureness to her movements and motions when she was with him that faded only with the way they laughed together, the klutzy way they tripped over things and nothing, and the way they fought over the last slice of ham-pineapple-pepperoni pizza.
She was a better actor than he, of which he attributed to her drama minor. He would see her across a crowded copy room and want to go to her. He would see her walk by his office with a handful of blue folders and want to call to her. One time he found her alone faxing a memo, humming Vivaldi under her breath, and all Sam could think was how much he wanted to touch her. Then Josh walked in and called to him and Donna looked up. But she didn’t look at her boss; she looked at him and in her eyes, he saw the world.
He would come home and she would be there and they would cook something to eat, or rather, he would cook something or she would order Thai takeout or Moroccan. They were both used to insane schedules that rarely coincided and eating at macabre hours of the night. Sam found he liked curry and mint and peanut sauce; he liked the way her lips got sticky and how she would use the tip of her tongue to lick them clean. And how of all the people he knew, she was only one who could actually eat with chopsticks.
He would come home and he called it home, not just that place outside the office where he sometimes went and stored stuff. He told her they were out of trash bags on Tuesday and she had looked at him from blow-drying her hair and asked whether he wanted big ones or small ones and when he had come back, there was a new box of Heftys. One day he had come home and she had put the Beatles on his stereo and she was singing "Lady Madonna" in the kitchen and suddenly he was so damn grateful for the British invasion.
A wilted violet plant had appeared on his kitchen windowsill, in a plastic pot and a huge pottery saucer that had the name Maude glazed on it in iridescent turquoise. In a week, Maude was proudly sprouting feathery pink and white flowers. Suddenly there was color in his rooms that had never been there before. It was the way she was.
She liked tucking herself up in his chair and reading his books from college, the eclectic collection of valuable treasures, childhood friends, and textbook enemies with his bent earmarks and notes scribbled in the margins. He had Kerouac, Steinbeck, and Salinger, and here and there a Faulkner and Hemingway. He had Heart of Darkness next to All the King’s Men, and he had seen her flipping through his Auden, Frost, and Wordsworth. She minded Machiavelli and Cicero with a critical eye, and bypassed Leviathan and The Social Contract, as well as Locke and Montesquieu. He had The Guns of August and a Tom Clancy someone had given him but he had never read, and then he had all his Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times, Bleak House, and the book that had started it all, Great Expectations in several editions and one in Spanish. These were his favorite books; all his political references and congressional data were stuffed in his office. And Donna knew it, knew by touching them and reading them, she was learning a part of him. He’d assumed her favorite poet was Emily Dickinson because that was every girl’s favorite poet and told her he didn’t have a single copy when she’d tartly informed him Walt Whitman was her favorite and that it just went to show even Sam Seaborn could be wrong once in a while. He had a few DVDs that people who didn’t know him had given him, but he’d only seen her watching AMC or CNN on the wide television he hardly ever watched, since he didn’t have time to collect a menagerie of porn the way some people did.
She wasn’t the Donna people thought she was, the absent-minded but efficient secretary to the deputy chief of staff. She was Donnatella Isabella Moss, smarter than anyone gave her credit for, tough as an Iwo Jima Marine on the outside, and as fragile as blown glass on the inside. She was allergic to penicillin, had loose curls in her hair if she let it air dry, had been scared of carousels as a child, and loved Casablanca and any movie with Cary Grant to no end. When she woke up, if she woke up, she could be awfully grumpy, and when he kissed her awake, she’d put a hand over her mouth to ward off morning breath. Then, sure that she was up, he’d get out of bed and shower and leave the water running for her, so that she could lie in bed for 5 extra minutes. Then he’d call and she’d stumble in, still sleepy, fully nude, and she’d slip into the shower and turn on so much hot water that the bathroom fogged up and Sam would grouch at her that he couldn’t see to shave. She’d wash her hair with the shampoo that smelled like orchard apples and he would breathe in the hot sweet scent over the spice of his shaving cream, listening to the water echo off the stalls of the shower as she moved. She’d turn off the water and step out and he would hand her the towel, and sometimes he wouldn’t and she’d either smack at him pointedly or drip water all over the bathroom, and she’d dry herself off and twist the towel around her hair and push him outside to get dressed so she could brush her teeth and dry her hair and dab on her makeup. And then she’d come out and he’d kiss her before she got dressed and she’d taste like Crest Mint and Scope, since she hated Listerine, and she felt powdery and warm and smelled like heaven and he could have stayed with her like that until the end of time.
But they’d go to work and he would run the country and she would help Josh help him run the country.
"Why did it take us so long?" he asked one night out of the blue when he couldn’t stand pondering it any longer.
Donna looked up at him from where she was organizing papers for the next day. She’d been so engrossed in her task that she hadn’t noticed he’d been watching her for the last seventeen minutes.
"You were my boss’s best friend," she pointed out, straightening a sheaf of papers by tapping them against the endtable and stapling them together. "What was I supposed to do?"
"You were supposed to be in love with your boss," he defended.
"I know," she answered and she chewed against her one cheek in something that reminded him of regret.
"So why did you?" he asked, curiosity getting the best of common sense which was a great academic trait, but not so wonderful in the real world where women gave answers he didn’t understand and couldn’t decipher.
"Because you came out of Josh’s office that day and you stood there looking at me, and I saw that look in your eyes," she said all in a rush so that she almost sounded like CJ mouthing a cover-up than Donnatella Moss. "I’ve wanted someone to look at me that way my whole life." The last part she said so slowly he could hear the truth between every syllable. "Why did you?"
"Because I hoped," he said so honestly he realized he had almost forgotten what honesty felt like, that clean jab that could slice you to the bone and deeper. "Because I hoped that there was hope."
She was silent as what he said sank in.
"I can never promise you normal hours, free weekends, the usual holidays, dinners out, movies in, or all the other sane things most people do."
"If you can’t give it, I don’t want it."
"But you should," he protested, rattled by her words and her remarkable calm and certainty in saying them. He had kept his certainty on rein for years and knew it well, but hers flustered him because it was so true and it meant only one thing, that she wasn’t in love with Josh Lyman, hadn’t been for some time, because she was in love with someone else.
Donna put the papers in the stack and closed the file, padding over on her knees to where he was sitting on the couch. When she took his hands and then kissed him, he knew she wasn’t lying, she really didn’t. And that was when he finally wondered if she was right, if there was some admirable part in the sinking black morass of his lost soul.
Donna was one of the few women who he could read. By watching her across the room, he knew she was spurned and furious. Sam could read that just by the irate corkscrew of her back as she sat at her computer, and the jerky mechanisms of her movements. He was fascinated by the intricate tappings and joltings of her fingers against the keyboard, the plinking sound her short nails made against the plastic, the poking of keys that all signaled carpal tunnel and a smashed computer in no small way. He knew from across the room that she was frustrated because the Internet wasn’t working correctly and he wondered idly what that said about their technology.
He slunk back into his office. He returned two calls to people he didn’t like. He signed several papers and gave them to Madison without really knowing what they were about. He refilled the ink cartridge on his second-favorite pen and put it in its box so he would forget what he’d done with it. He went looking for Toby, but Toby was out of his office. He skimmed through two proposals. He tried to pay attention.
When he couldn’t bear it anymore, he asked her to lunch. It was 1:04. There were people milling around – there always were – but she had given up on the computer and was scribbling notes out of a huge maroon binder. She finished her line and looked up at him with her blue eyes.
"Let’s go to Gilgarry’s," he said, standing over her. Her look simmered crystalline between admonition and invitation as she glanced surreptitiously around them.
"You can get Josh lunch," he prodded.
"He’s with McMurdock right now," she informed him.
"Ok," he turned to go back to his office and count paper clips.
"Sam." When he turned around, she was standing and reached for her windbreaker and black purse. As they went out, he held the doors for her, and he liked that second where she paused and waited for him still unused to the gesture so that he escorted her through with a hand on the small of her back.
D.C. was crowded with traffic and bleeping horns. Pedestrians, joggers, and tourists flocked in muddled herds through the shifting cars. It was early spring, a week and a half before the cherry blossoms burst out, but the sky was sunny like summer. She walked beside him in her light jacket and tortoiseshell shades that had seen better days without saying a word as they threaded their way down to the deli.
They stopped at a crosswalk and she stared at him from under the shaded lenses. She didn’t have to ask; he already knew the question and he also knew she already knew the answer.
"I just wanted to see you," he said innocently as they dodged between cars on the Don’t Walk signal.
"That’s all you wanted?"
"Yes." He didn’t, but that was beyond the point.
"You know we can’t, Sam."
"It doesn’t mean I want it any less." He also knew he didn’t have to tell her that it wasn’t really that they couldn’t have it, but that it was the price they would have to pay for it. They were doing a good job so far of having what they couldn’t have.
He barely saw the woman coming towards them before she greeted them and this was exactly why Donna had been so leery. It was because he wanted to believe the best of people, because he didn’t know the cool restaurant and didn’t care, because he didn’t know where the Tommy Hilfiger party was, didn’t care, and didn’t know what to do once someone made him get there. It was because of him, because he believed things could be easy because they were right. It was because she believed him.
"Congresswoman Kinney," he said as she stopped in front of him.
"Sam, I thought I saw you." She was an attractive blond, somewhere around Toby’s age he supposed, who could be just smart enough to be dangerous on occasion. "Congratulations on 876."
"Thank you," he replied. Donna had shifted a half-step further away from him. "We couldn’t have gotten it through without your help."
"I was just one vote," she replied neutrally, meaning she expected quid pro quo in the future, and glanced suspiciously at Donna.
"Congresswoman, this is Donna Moss – " he began.
"Josh Lyman’s assistant," the woman placed her, as Donna held out her hand and she shook it lightly.
"Yes," Donna agreed breezily, "I’m just out to get him lunch now."
The comment disarmed the congresswoman and she said a few more words to Sam and then darted back to her work. Donna was cleverer than people gave her credit for; she had a talent for misdirection that could very possibly save them both when his attachment to truth upended everything they held sacred.
Neither of them said anything as they walked the last half block to Gilgarry’s. Sam opened the door for her, but didn’t touch her to escort her through. That was the way things had to be, if they were to be at all. They both knew it, hated it, and accepted it.
The line was oddly short and they ordered quickly, Donna paying for her chicken salad on sourdough and Josh’s hot pastrami and provolone, no mustard, on burnt black bread, with Josh’s money, and Sam paying for his Black Forest Ham on rye on his own. They could have been two strangers as easily as they could have been two lovers.
"Sam, you know we can’t do this, right?"
"But we are," he defended, and as she looked over at him, she knew what he meant.
The candle beside him guttered as he cursed and the words echoed off his walls. Outside, thunder crashed mercilessly enough to knock out power throughout DC and leave the city in a blackout that was going on three hours long. Throughout it all, Sam was trying to finish the speech for the reception of the Palestinian delegation in the Rose Garden the next day. Needless for him to mention, it wasn’t going very well.
He’d left the office just as the first set of storms were sliding through and had been drenched by the first shower before even getting to his car. He drove home sopping wet through rain so hard it bounced off the ground in ricochets. Before he’d gotten the door to his apartment open, the city had gone black. Donna had already been there and they had lit all four candles that Sam had, and then after a very quick, cold shower, he discovered that his laptop had 14% battery left. He was writing on business envelopes because he had left his briefcase and legal pads in the office and after stubbing his toe against a molding hard enough for him to wince, he wasn’t about to stumble around his apartment looking for anything larger.
He sat on the couch trying desperately to conjure the word he wanted in his sentence while Donna reclined in the chair across from him flipping through some papers by the light of another candle. At his cursing, she looked up.
"I should go," she said quietly as thunder boomed in the distance. "I’m just distracting you."
"No – " But his voice was raggedly vehement.
"It’s ok, Sam."
"No, Donnatella," he said more quietly. "You don’t get it."
She had risen from the chair already.
"I need you now more than ever." Josh couldn’t push this beautiful, fragile, tough woman far enough away, and Sam couldn’t get her close enough. He wanted her close enough so that he couldn’t ever forget this was why he was in the government, that this was what he was protecting. He wanted her so close that the words hung between them, as if he could take a knife, cut the air between them, and use the words that bled out to write the most articulate, moving speech he could imagine. After all, there was nothing to writing but sitting down and opening a vein, or at least most of the time.
"Ok," she answered softly. She rose and went to his bookshelf and after thumbing his covers, pulled out a leather-bound copy. She sat back down and pulled one of the candles closer to her so that her face was wreathed in flames like tiger lily petals as the pages flickered through her fingers. It was the first edition of The Great Gatsby his mother had given him on his sixteenth birthday. In the background of the guttering candles, he could hear the swirl of the parchment pages as she turned through Daisy’s life and Gatsby’s devotion, the echo of thunder as it slid over the sky.
‘Vindication’, that had been the word he had been racking his brain for, the vindication of not of victory or defeat, but of a quiescent truce. He scribbled on, his pen jutting oddly over the gummy seal of the envelope backs. When he finished, she was about a quarter of the way through the book.
"What do you think?" he asked and it was only when he called her name that she blinked and looked up at him. He grinned. "Where are you?"
She cast her eyes back down at the beautifully black printed lines. "He has an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again."
Donna read in a clear voice that gave off mellifluous undertones and firm remonstrance. Her voice was like baklava, not to be trifled with, and he could see her doing CJ’s job in a few years.
There was a disturbing calm within him. It wasn’t the thrill of finishing a piece of writing, nor was it the impenetrable anxiety of letting other read what he had crafted.
"Would you read this?"
She marked her place in the book and got up without a word. Sam moved over on the couch so she could sit next to him. His thigh barely brushed hers as he handed her the stack of envelopes he'd written on. She took them carefully and pointed out all the spelling and grammar mistakes but one, an optional comma that Sam and Toby used just to insure the President knew when to breathe and break the line.
"It’s not about an end or even how it ends," she said, pointing to the last line. "It’s about hope, the vindication of hope and the hope of vindication."
And as he scribbled down her words, he knew she was right, not only for Palestine and the Rose Garden, but also this night and them.
He went to the West Wing for several hours early Saturday morning to let her sleep and he’d returned to a yawning, hungry Donna who had by various not-so-clear ways enchanted him into making pancakes at two hours past noon and the game on tv. She had mixed the Bisquick batter in one of his old tee shirts that fell just to the top of her thighs, threatening him with the batter-dipped whisk when his hands ventured up and under the shirt. They were both laughing for no certain reasons and it felt wonderful.
After fending off his advances, she had stationed him in front on the spuzzling frying pan and changed into jeans and shirt while he poked at the dollop of lumpy beige goop with the spatula and flipped it, sending a hail of batter drops across the stove. Dubiously, he shoveled out the misshapen pancake and Donna poured another cup of batter into the pan. Before he could turn around, she was already eating the first product of his labors – one that not even Aunt Jemima would claim – slathering it with a layer of peanut butter he didn’t even know he had and then rolling into a wrap. She did the same for pancake number two.
"Are you going to leave me any?" he asked, hands on his hips as she got two bites into her third peanut butter pancake wrap and the count was 3 Donna, 0 Sam.
Donna stared at him, her cheeks bulged like a chipmunk’s guiltily, and with great difficulty swallowed. He watched the lump sink down her throat and prayed between the dough and the sticky peanut butter, she didn’t choke.
"That one’s yours," she said, pointing around him to the one in the frying pan. "The one that’s burning."
Sam turned and flipped it over in a spray of butter and oil. One side was definitely more black than brown. She looked at him so innocently.
He kissed her and she tasted like peanut butter and suddenly he wanted to try a pancake with peanut butter. He set the spatula down on the batter-speckled counter as she leaned into him, not caring about his pancake because charcoal was good for the digestion and because she was sitting on a stool in his kitchen and they were kissing and making deformed pancakes that probably weren’t fully cooked to USDA regulations and because it was so perfect.
He would have kept kissing through the burnt smell and the batter marks his fingers left on her cheeks and the game he wasn’t all that interested in on tv, except that the phone rang.
He sighed and Donna laughed, hopping off the stool and rescuing the frying pan from the heat as he dug out his cell phone. He could hear her scraping the burnt pancake into the trash.
"Donna, it’s your phone," he said, grabbing the other Nokia from the endtable. She set the pan down on the sink and he could feel her reluctance to take the ringing thing. She did though, answering it curtly as he sprayed the pan again with no-stick and poured another cup of batter onto the heat.
"Josh," she said with consternation and she stopped looking at him.
"I’m at home," she answered brightly, but her voice sounded a little strained. "I didn’t hear the other phone."
Sam’s smile tightened as she turned away from him and paced to the other end of the kitchen.
"You knocked?" she asked suddenly and there was more than surprise in her tone, a little hostility at invasion. "At my apartment?"
Everything stopped. The world falling down made the same sound as a mosquito buzzing close to his ear, the dreadful bloodsucking sound of beating wings and jaws that slurped out your soul in one careful incision.
"I was probably in the shower," she explained easily. "You know, personal hygiene and all, Josh. I’m not lying, Josh. Where else do you think I’d be? Ok? Alright, fine. I’ll be there in twenty minutes."
Sam turned to her, already knowing because that was how the White House worked. There was a smudge of batter along the side of the phone from where he’d marked her like coup on her cheek.
"Does he know?"
She shook her head and then she looked straight into him with her lupine eyes.
"Are you sure?"
She didn’t shake her head that time. "And what’s going to happen when they do find out about us sleeping together?"
"Does it matter?" he’d asked though he knew it did.
Donna just stared at him and then chuffed in disbelief.
"You’re the Deputy Chief of Communications and I’m the Senior Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Staff, so yeah, I think it matters at little," she said. "You’re Josh Lyman’s best friend and I’m his secretary."
"I know that," Sam replied evenly.
"Then maybe you should start caring about what this relationship looks like instead of what it is."
"This isn’t about sex," Sam returned, suddenly on the defensive.
"Yeah?" Donna questioned as her fingers curled whitely around the cell phone. "Then why do I feel like I’ve just been fucked?"
When he didn’t say anything, she just shook her head. "I have to go in," she said, washing her hands under the faucet and wiping her face with a paper towel.
It seemed as though the world had suddenly split. Not five minutes ago, they’d been laughing and here she was walking out his door, the very muffled echoes of her jogging down the wood stairs ringing in his ears.
But she came back.
He got up from the couch as she flicked on a light. He’d been sitting there so long his eyes had grown accustomed to the dimness.
"You were right," he told her because she was. And then he handed her what he’d been holding.
"What is it?" she asked, thrown off guard.
She opened the nondescript bag and pulled out the DVD inside with Bogart and Bergman on the cover.
"It was on this afternoon, but you weren’t here," he explained. "So I – "
Donna threw her arms around him. "I’m sorry," she whispered and he knew she was sorry for being right. He was sorry they had ever felt wrong because holding her like that in his arms was one of the rightest things he knew.
She fed in the DVD and they ate the pancakes he’d saved from the morning, and he was even brave enough to try one with peanut butter the way she liked them. It wasn’t half-bad he told her as they watch the scenes in Rick’s American Café. She leaned against him as Ilsa asked her famous request, "Play it once, Sam." She never said ‘again’ in the movie.
They watched up through the famous plane scene when Donna’s head lolled against his shoulder, her eyes softly lidded. In the dark room, she was cast in an amber glow by the one light he had left on and her sleeping form reminded him of the smooth grace of a Neruda poem he had memorized once.
"Ya eres mía," he whispered to her, gently touching her cheek. "Reposa con tu sueño en mi sueño. Amor, dolor, trabajos, deben dormir ahora. Gira la noche sobre sus nvisibles ruedas y junto a mí eres pura como el ámbar dormido…"
He’d always called it the amber poem, though it was actually one of Neruda’s sonnets. Beside him, Donna shifted slightly and he continued as if parsing a lullaby. "La noche, el mundo, el viento devanan su destino, y ya no soy sin ti sino sólo tu sueño," he finished softly and kissed her forehead.
"It’s beautiful," she said without opening her eyes, as if she was afraid it was only a dream. "What does it mean?"
"I’ll tell you," he told her as he pulled her into his arms and carried her to his bed. She was too tired to change and instead, just pulled the sheet up around her as he slid in and she spooned to him.
"And now you're mine," he began, translating in his mind the Spanish to English. "Rest with your dream in my dream./ Love and pain and work should all sleep, now./ The night turns on its invisible wheels,/ and you are pure beside me as a sleeping amber." She asked him for the rest and he continued until the end: "The night, the world, the wind spin out their destiny./ Without you, I am your dream, only that, and that is all."
He came back late Wednesday night from working out at the gym, still in his Adidas shorts and sweaty Duke tee shirt, lugging his gym bag after him. She was curled up on his couch flipping through a proposal and making notes; a Brahms sonata was on in the background and he could smell apples on the air so that he knew she had just showered. He dropped the gym bag in the closet without bothering to dig out the damp towel inside. In the distance he could hear the dryer rumbling with a fresh load of clothes as he went over to the couch and leaned over to kiss her.
"Mmm," he whispered as he ran his tongue over her lower lip.
"Mmm," she mocked flippantly, "Sweaty Sam."
"Uh huh," he agreed as he ran his hand through her damp hair and she opened her mouth to his kiss, her tongue dancing against his.
"Shower first, Sweaty Sam."
"Why," he whined at her. "I’ll just get sweaty again."
"Yeah, but you smell."
"Thank you, dear."
"No problem, darling."
She was giggling, her finger in the binding of the pages where she’d been reading. She was wearing his terry robe with the red-sailed ship embroidered on the back, the ship he could have taken to the Olympics if he wanted to and though things weren’t back to where they had been between them since the argument, they were getting there.
"I ordered Thai again," she called as he headed towards the bathroom, flicking on the light and leaving the door open.
"So how was the meeting with Everglades people?"
He could barely hear her voice as he turned on the faucets and water gushed out of the shower. She’d left the cap open to her shampoo and the room smelled of apples.
"It went well," he said, raising his voice so she could hear him.
"Well well, or just well?"
"They agreed with us," he said as he stripped off his clothes and stepped into the pounding water. "We’ll set aside 7 million dollars and they’ll protect new land and the breeding grounds of four endangered species."
He could barely hear her now.
"We’re gonna win," he shouted back. "This is going to make him look bad in his home state."
He rinsed the shampoo out of his hair, careful not to use Donna’s as he had once and smelled of apples all day so that even Bonnie had noticed. He shut off the water and toweled himself off just as the doorbell rang.
"I’ll get it," she called and he heard her padding across the floor for the food. He slipped into the bedroom and pulled on a pair of jeans and a black tee just as he heard, "I don’t believe this," and easy as that, his world fell apart.
Donna had the door open, his blue terry robe belted twice around her waist and falling almost to her knees.
"Josh," she said.
Sam came up behind her, and Josh stared at him dumbly. Donna glanced back at him once and then kept her eyes on Josh. She was wearing his bathrobe, her hair was just slightly damp and down, her lips just-kissed, and her cheeks pink from where his stubble had rubbed at her. It was damning.
Josh stared at her and Sam saw it hit in his eyes, saw his world break and fall apart too. That made two of them. He stood in the doorway in the shit-brown suit and brown-gold geometric tie he’d worn to work, trying to make sense of what he was seeing and failing to get there.
"Josh," Donna said and he focused on her. "What did you need?"
He couldn’t stammer a coherent reply as the Thai deliveryman rounded the stairs, out of breath as always, his toupee askew and his cell phone glowing on his belt. Ricardo was at least fifty and he was always the one that delivered, calling Donna "Mrs. Sam" so that she’d laugh.
He barged right into the middle of them and at any other time it would have been funny. Donna had the money rolled in her hand and she handed it to him as Josh had to step back. Ricardo chattered on and on, but as she took the two brown bags, he took one look at their faces, bid them goodnight and left.
"I’ll let you two talk," she said as she turned and took the bags into the kitchen. Sam heard her set them down on the counter with a thump. He looked back at Josh.
"I don’t believe it," Josh said, running a hand through his hair without really knowing what he was doing.
"What did you need?" Sam asked.
"Uh," Josh said and Sam could see him struggling to think back. His face was still tan from the few days he’d taken with Amy in the Bahamas or Bermuda or whatever Caribbean island you went to get a tan and get drinks with little purple umbrellas and get laid and call it luxury. "Your cell was off."
Suddenly Josh’s attention returned and the cold anger of reality sunk in like oil seeping across his retinas. He straightened his back and stared at Sam. "Leo needs to talk to us about Ritchie. We’re meeting at 7 tomorrow morning."
He turned his back and started down the hall. Sam went out after him, calling his name and asking what the meeting was about, but Josh just raised his hand and kept going.
Donna was waiting when he closed the door. She had changed into jeans and a grey shirt and was standing with her arms crossed in the center of his living room, her hair pulled back into a ballet dancer’s bun so that it made her look strained and serious.
The apartment smelled like curry and the smell got into his nostrils so that it smelled like he was breathing fire. And all he could think was that he was Lancelot: he had stolen Guinevere from Arthur and no one would ever be the same, not king, queen, knight, or country.
Donna was still standing there.
He couldn’t lie to her. His only sin was Lancelot’s, of loving too deeply, now, then, and forever.
"Well, that’s the beginning of the end," he said quietly.
Title: The Dragon’s Rubies (3/3)
Author: Elliott Silver
Sam turned off the alarm before it sounded the next morning. Donna didn’t move but he knew she was awake, if she’d slept at all last night. He hadn’t; he’d spent it holding her as close as he could and watching the telltale sky brighten with blues that reminded him of bruises.
"Sam," she said as he threw back the sheets. "He might not say anything."
She was so beautiful in the swirling light as if the room was dizzy with bottled water. Swollen breakers seemed to crash over them both and he knew he couldn’t yet tell her about the undertow, how it swallowed you whole into the sinking black depths of the ocean. He leaned down on the mattress with his clenched fists and she reached up to kiss him. That was how he knew Josh wouldn’t let her go. No one in their right mind would let her go.
Because in the end, Josh was Gatsby and Donna had fallen short of Daisy. It wasn’t solely her own fault, but his as well, because she stopped waiting and in doing so, tumbled far short of his dreams. She had rewritten the book with a different ending than Fitzgerald and Josh couldn’t understand how.
They went to the White House together, not because Josh had seen them, but because they had been doing it since Donna suggested she wear his shirts so that they had fifteen to twenty extra minutes, the time it took to drop her off at her apartment so that she could grab something professional to wear. He stopped at Starbucks and bought her a Caramel Macchiato and then they went to the dark chaotic heart of the nation called the White House. They cleared security together and walked through the maze of architecture to the West Wing where she delved towards her desk and he kept walking to his office. She was wearing grey pants and the blue silk shirt that reminded him of the sea.
He was five minutes early to the meeting with Leo and Margaret pointedly directed him into the paneled space even though her boss hadn’t arrived yet. Sam stood there and wondered what they were doing, really, because they weren’t doing anything at all.
Toby came next, followed by CJ who was drinking black coffee out of a pink Lucite tumbler. Leo came, sloughing his overcoat and dropping his briefcase and papers with a crash.
"We’ve got a problem," he stated without preamble, his voice gravelly and suddenly old.
Josh came in then but no one turned to look at him.
"Ritchie gained four points on us," Leo continued, fishing out papers and handing them out. Sam took his and glanced at it. "And we dropped four points from where we were."
Toby cursed under his breath.
"We did some unofficial polling." Leo watched them all. "The first question was, Do you believe in President Bartlet’s abilities? 40% said yes, 26% said maybe, and 18% said no. The second question was, Do you believe in Governor Ritchie’s qualities? 44% said yes, 32% said maybe, and 9% said no."
"Joey Lucas?" CJ asked, looking up from her sheet. She still didn’t look good, hadn’t looked good since the play in New York.
"No," Leo answered.
"Who?" she asked and she swung her gaze at Josh. Joey had called and told Josh he was an idiot for his antics with Amy Gardner, or rather, Kenny had told him as fast as he could.
"Bill Yates out of New York," Leo answered.
"We need to unroll our videos now," Toby said. "We need to hit them back. We can’t sit here and pretend we didn’t assassinate the Qumari defense minister. We did it to save lives and because it’s in our power to do that and that’s why we’re in government. We have to show them we actually do things right, that we do more things right than wrong, that we do more things right in a single day than their administration could accomplish in a year!" Toby was getting adamant.
Leo turned and looked at him. "What do you think?"
"These are the times that try men's souls," he said slowly. "The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods."
Everyone was staring at him now.
"Thomas Paine said that back when he was fighting for what they thought was right. They were fighting for a country and it makes us look little because we’re only fighting an election. Like Toby said, we’re not sunshine patriots and we don’t back down from fights, especially the good fight. We’ve got the Everglades down and that makes Ritchie look bad in his home state. We’ve got the Environment, we’ve got Drugs, we’ve got Education, we’ve got the Budget and Economy. Our guy’s got a Nobel Prize in Economics, for Christ’s sake. They’ve got Tax Reform, Gun Control, and Social Security. We don’t have Defense or Foreign Policy, but neither do they. Ritchie can play up his ideals for all he wants, but we’ve got the experience and the record to prove it. And the power of example is our greatest power."
He realized they were all looking at him.
"The power of example is our greatest power," CJ said, and she tilted her head the way she did when she was mulling things over. "That’s pretty catchy."
"We’re getting screwed here," Leo said and Sam didn’t dare look over at Josh, "And the question is, can we rally back?"
"Yes," said Toby and CJ nodded.
Josh looked up. "Of course."
"What about the President?" Toby asked carefully.
Leo looked at them and smiled. "The President was going to kick Ritchie’s ass with or without you. He just wanted to know whether you wanted a piece of the action."
Toby and CJ walked out first, Carol catching her boss with her briefing notes and folders as she headed towards the press. Leo disappeared into the Oval Office and they were left alone, staring at each other. Josh had his hands in the pockets of his suit pants.
Sam kept his gaze even. He had done things in his life of which he wasn’t proud, but loving her wasn’t one of them and he wasn’t about to be contrite to the man who had let her go.
Josh didn’t say a word but motioned him into his office.
"For her sake –" Sam began as soon as the door snacked into place and then Josh hit him and the world blurred for a second.
"I thought you were my friend!"
"I am," Sam insisted as he turned around to face the Deputy Chief of Staff and Josh swung at him hard enough to send him back against the doorway.
"Goddamn it, Sam! You’re fucking my secretary!"
Sam aimed straight for Josh’s jaw not even caring about the rationality of a fistfight in the White House. Josh twisted back at the last second and the blow pummeled down on half his nose and lip and sent him careening back so hard he lost balance and toppled onto the floor. He was up in a second and came rushing at Sam when the door opened and CJ came in.
"That’s enough," she commanded roughly as they both ignored her.
CJ came between them and when Josh still pounded at him, she clipped him one on the shoulder that sent him reeling off balance and reminded Sam never to get in a fight with CJ, even if she held a grudge against Josh for calling her a "paranoid Berkeley shiksa feminista".
"He’s fucking my secretary," Josh intoned darkly and the room went silent as she came between them.
CJ managed a strained, "What?"
"Sam’s screwing Donna." Josh shook off CJ’s restraining hand and gingerly touched his cheek. A corner of blood had trickled from where his teeth had gouged his gum. He wiped at it with his index finger, smudging it across his chin.
Sam’s knuckles burned and he flexed them as slowly as he could. Josh eyed him darkly. Leo left whatever secret meeting he was at in less than five minutes. In his office of power and the shadows of Valium and Johnny Walker Blue, he stared at them both and gave the ultimatum, but it was to Sam that he said it. "End it, is that understood?"
And all he could do was nod, because he had always been the outsider to them all, from the highest social background and except for CJ, the best job before the Bartlet campaign. He was the loner because he had no one. CJ had Toby who crossed swords with the President and who preferred solitude anyway. Leo and the President were good friends on most days, and old friends on others. And Josh was friends with them all, savior to Leo, confidante of the President, and general annoyance to Toby.
Sam was their dark horse, always had been and always would be, the maverick, the renegade. He was the one they never quite trusted all the way without quite ever being able to put their finger on it. If he had to think about it, he knew it was because he was too passionate, too concerned with right and wrong, and acted accordingly without due thought to professional political endeavoring. He’d deep-sixed them more than once, especially with Kevin Kahn and the campaign tape, much the same way Donna had lied about her diary with Cliff Calley. They acted the way they thought the world should be, forgetting that it wasn’t.
Josh was the favorite, always had been and always would be. He would one day be President, though Sam didn’t think anyone consciously realized that, least of all Josh. He was the dependable one, the one that they could trust to blackmail, backarm, or disarm friends and opponents alike. He was the one that could tell a lie with a smile and whose mild consistency was more valuable and durable than Sam’s up and down brilliancy. No one would believe anything bad about him and that was where he was grand in politics and where Sam hated him concerning Donna. No one could believe she wasn’t with him.
As for him, everyone had thought it would be Ainsley, Sam knew, who had been born with the silver spoon of privilege in her mouth and a bee in her bonnet, to avoid other less tactful metaphors, and the natural gift of argument. She was the finished, glossed, burnished, and wrapped product of a superior education, a family inheritance, and a Southern heritage that stretched back and back. Sam questioned how well people really knew him to make that assumption and hold such revered, hollow faith in it.
Instead he had fallen for Josh Lyman’s girl. They were both crazy, clumsy people, stumbling over boxes or high heels, who could quote random facts and figures with a flair and who had lost their faith. They were unbelieving and unstable, but in the best of ways because they were each other’s equilibrium, balance, sanity, proof-reader, take-out orderer, pancake maker, and peace.
Donna heard about the fight, as he knew she would. He didn’t see her, but he saw the slushy ice pack on her desk and knew she was tending to the injuries he’d inflicted. Sam knew there had been an immediate meeting with Josh, Donna, and Leo that lasted a good deal longer than he felt comfortable with. But he knew that Donna had held her own and shown them her mettle. He also knew Leo and the President were pragmatic and realized without her, they would be without Josh as well and that was a loss the administration couldn’t bear. And so there was white tension in the office, the way everyone’s voices were muted when he came around in the dark house of terrors and secrets.
Professionally and politically, he functioned without her. His job did not include any stipulation requiring love or Donnatella Moss in it for him to be successful. And after the ultimatum, they both continued their jobs as they had before.
But there was leftover Thai food in his refrigerator and Maude was blooming riotously on his windowsill. Her apple shampoo was still in his shower and there was a load of laundry in the dryer that no one had taken out. His shirts mingled with hers and his Princeton sweatshirt smelled like Downy sheets again. Her Scope still sat next to his Listerine and there was a note on near the door that reminded them they needed dishwasher soap.
It was only when Sam returned home and found the still rooms empty, that the peace of iambic pentameter shattered. It didn’t break like glass against the floor, like a mistake, but like molten glass slipping from a glassblower’s torch, as if it could be stretched and strung and hardened past breaking, past pain, past everything. And Sam was reminded of Shakespeare, who in one single line could turn the world he had created upside down and on its head.
Never, never, never, never, never.
He took her sailing the last Sunday in May. Ultimatum or no, he called her on Friday night and asked her to go sailing with him on Sunday and when she said yes, he heard the relief in her voice. They drove out to the Chesapeake early in the morning in his black BMW. They barely said a word to each other as Sam untied the moorings to the 30-foot sailboat a friend never used, throwing the ropes onto the deck and maneuvering out into the wide gulf of water still the color of black pearls and oil slicks with the morning fog.
He ratcheted the sails with the swirling breeze and sent them flying out into the rising sun so that they left behind the marina and the city and the damning politics of the Bartlet administration. They had just gotten clear of the edges of land when the first rays of sun cleared the horizon and darted at them, slippery as golden fish. Then the melting ball rose up over them and Donna shielded her eyes as she sat on the bow and watched them skim the water towards infinite nowhere.
She wasn’t really dressed appropriately for sailing and he knew in forty-five minutes when they hit the seaswells out on the open expanse of water, that he would give her his jacket and she would wear it and when he got it back there would be telltale blond hairs over it.
There was almost no one else out. Two fishing boats coasted by to their left, heading back towards the shore with the morning catch. Their voices were indistinct with their distance, if they were even the sailors’ voices at all and not the ocean talking to him.
When they got further out into the ocean, the sun poured down over them in mounds and cascades of dripping light, throwing shadow and shade at odd angles on the ship. Donna edged out of the drenching heat and walked carefully on the tilting deck to stand behind him as he spun the wheel and kept them idling forward. He watched the crashing waves and just as she moved, turned the wheel against the wave so that the ship bounced under them. Donna sprawled towards him, clutching at his shoulders to right herself on the unstable flooring.
Sam turned his head back towards her. She didn’t take her hands from his shoulders and instead as he steered the smooth ship towards the straight water, slipped her arms under his and knotted them around his chest, hugging him close as she rested her head on his shoulder.
Sam took one hand off the wheel and put it over hers, running his thumb over the top of her hand, where the veins under her knuckles drifted back to her heart.
Under them, the sailboat slipped over the water, casting up spray that misted over them. He could feel Donna’s pulse against his back, the way the rhythm of her body speeded up with every swell they hit, the way her grip tightened when they skidded on faster and faster, the way she loved the sea, the way he did.
Her chin rested on his shoulder and he twisted his heads towards hers. Under her sunglasses, he saw her blink, twice, fast. Then she craned forward and kissed him, and he could taste sea salt on her lips.
"Take the wheel," he told her and nudged her in front of him. She set her hands on the vanished wood gingerly and as the nose of the boat tumbled into a wave, the wheel spun sideways through her fingers. He caught it and righted them.
"Hold it steady," he instructed her as she wound her fingers around the grooves.
"Now what?" she asked, looking to him.
"Feel that wind behind us?" he asked, and she nodded. "Always keep the wind behind you." She looked up at the billowing sails, the way they plumped forward with the force of the breeze.
"That’s what keeps you going forward," he said and she leaned back against him, bracing herself as he let go of the wheel. "Feel the current under you?" he asked, holding his hands over the wheel and showing her the way the ocean was moving as she nodded. "Steer with it, not against it. You can’t fight the sea; you have to work with it."
"Aim for the horizon."
Even from behind her, he could see the smile on her face at the way the seawind gusted against her, the way the white cold spray lufted over her, the way the wheel felt in her hands as the ship plunged forward. It was the same way he felt, that he could chart his own course out here and navigate by the stars, crossed as they may have been.
He let her guide them out into the depths of the ocean where nothing was visible except lengths of water falling off to infinity so that Sam understood how the mariners of old thought the earth was flat. He tossed anchor over and they drifted in the peace of waves and the lone bird that flew over them casting feathery shadows on the deck as if a cloud had fallen.
He sat in the shade of the masts and she sat between his legs. Her hair drifted over his lap, her arms layered over his thighs, her hands on his knees, as she rested her head back against his stomach.
"Why did you call?" Donna asked and a part of him knew she asked then, so if he lied to her, she wouldn’t see his face while he did it. Donnatella Isabella was no one’s fool.
Sam waited a wave and then another. "When I was six," he said, "my family went to the beach in Maine where we’d gone for years. It was summer and the water up there was still cold from a coast storm, but I went in anyway. I was up the beach where I wasn’t supposed to be because the water was rougher there around the point."
There was a tension in the way she touched him, tensile and thick.
"I don’t remember the undertow at all. All I remember is going under and being whirled downward against the bottom where the rocks and shells scraped at my skin and the water stung at the cuts so I knew I was bleeding. I remember the darkness even from behind my closed lids and I remember drowning."
He had never told anyone the story before, not even his parents when he had limped back to them and said shakily he’d gotten cut from diving and for no known reason, they had believed him. He’d been forbidden to go back in the water the whole vacation and that had been just fine with him. He told her how being held under had felt like falling asleep against your own will and how at the end he had almost given up. It had been his first lesson in his own fragility and strength and just what he would fight for.
"The hazards of the waters are their apparent transparency," he told her. "You think because you can see through them, that you know them and that you know where the dangers are. But in the end, the undertow never comes from where you expect."
She nodded her head very slowly. "I could leave Josh in a heartbeat, if that’s what it took," she said and he knew just by the cadence of her voice that she’d had that conversation and said those words thousands of times in her head. "But I can’t leave you."
"You’d leave?" Sam asked as the crushing realization hit him. She’d give up a senior job in the White House, the respect she had always wanted, and everything she had known for him, for this.
"No," she answered very softly. "I’d stay in this administration for you."
And in those few words, he understood all there was to understand between them. She could leave for him to unblemish his career as much as she could because that would be hard, but she would stay in the Bartlet presidency for him because it was impossible and because without Josh, there wasn’t really a presidency. She would stay to be with him during blackouts and writer’s block and trips to North Dakota because down in some part of her, she understood just an inkling of how much he needed her. And it was enough for her to volunteer for hell.
They’d gotten themselves caught in the net of presidential politics and nowhere did love get in. But it somehow had, and now that it was there, they had to do something, nothing, or everything.
"If I leave – "
"I’ll go back to making $400,000 at Gage Whitney Page," he said evenly. It was twice what the President was making and he would be home by 5pm most days. He would reconcile his principles to reconcile with the enemies he left there. "And I’ll take you sailing twice a week."
"But if you stay with me, you could never be president," she intoned and the words echoed darkly off the sea behind him so that he heard her twice. "And I think you should be president."
"And I think I should have you." Sam waited a beat, maybe a beat and a half. He’d always had really bad timing. "I don’t want the presidency," and he was surprised how easy the words were to say. He realized it was easy to say because he meant it. It was the first time he had ever told anyone, ever let the thought out of his own head and into the world where it could cause torrential damage.
"Sam – "
"I’m serious, I really don’t. I thought I did, but all I want is to write and maybe one day be as good as Toby, to someday be able to tell the truth without first telling a web of lies."
"I want something more than State of the Unions, international summits, ground-breaking policy, and running the most powerful country in the world. I want something more than I have."
"What if that’s too much to want?"
"I don’t think it’s too much to ask," he said and he now understood the space between them and how to cross it. "I don’t think it’s too much to ask to have you."
"What’s wrong with what you have?" she countered and her eyes were the color of lupines and larkspur and his sailboat sea where he was free.
"I don’t have you." He’d had that answer for years.
They listened to the silence of the sea and how it talked to them. The boat rocked and they felt the churning the ocean waters under them. He rested one hand on the top of her head, weighting her towards him, the other on her shoulder. She was so still and peaceful he thought she had fallen asleep until she spoke.
He shifted and leaned up.
"Whatever mistake we’re making," she began and took a breath that seemed to encompass the length and breath of the sea. "It is right."
"Donna," he asked and she twisted her head to look up at him. "It’s not a mistake."
She didn’t say anymore but when he dropped his arm down, she took his hand in hers and laced their fingers together like the woven knots sailors tied to keep ships at port. They stayed that way until the ocean turned a darker shade of blue with evening and he yanked up the anchor and took the helm. He changed sails and set the sailboat on the line of waves rushing toward shore so that they too charged land-ward and when they saw the edges of the bay, it felt like coming home.
"We’re meeting with Bruno," CJ informed him as she swung into his office. Sam took off his glasses and looked up from the polling data spread on his desk. He’d talked to Toby and they’d talked to Leo and asked to have Joey Lucas run the same poll. Leo shrugged and agreed.
"What’s up?" he asked as he got up from his chair stiffly.
"The Ritchie camp knows about you and Donna," she said as they walked down to the dungeons of the White House. "They’re going to run with it."
"We knew they’d get it," he said, though he was unwilling.
"They want a resignation," she said and then he didn’t say anything.
"Sam," she said, stopping him with her hand on his arm. "Listen to me."
He looked over at CJ and wondered how she had somehow become his ally in this. And he realized it was when she had fallen in love with her secret service agent, though she didn't think anyone had noticed, and knew that love came from strange places and most often, right beside you.
"Whatever happens in there, remember you’re a snotty, arrogant, SFB asshole who went to Duke instead of Harvard, whose ideas are crazy and whose tactics are questionable, who gets us into more hot water than not and who we’d all love to kill at some time or other." She let go of his arm but he still felt her concern. "Then remember that she loves you and you love her, and if that’s the only good thing to come of the administration, it’s more than enough."
CJ wore her armor like a Victorian dress, buttoned high to her throat, but even she had learned that people rarely went for the jugular anymore and that it was the little pricks through the coats of mail that bled out more profusely than arteries, because those tiny cuts hurt worse and never killed you.
"Sam, stop burning your bridges and start walking over them."
And this from the one woman who a long time ago had told him the wisdom about relationships was not what they were, but what they looked like. A long time ago he remembered the Sam Seaborn saying he cared about what they were too. She had changed; he never had.
He opened the door and she walked through with her head up, and if she could go on after Simon, then he could too.
"Sam," Bruno greeted him as the doors whooshed shut behind them. "The man of the hour."
He sat down between CJ and Toby.
"Ok Sam, tell me this one thing, alright," and he paced around the table. "Are you really worth this much trouble?"
"That’s an absent rhetorical musing, right," he shot back.
Bruno straightened up. His aides stared across the table at Sam with google-eyes. And Sam knew only one thing, that this was worth fighting for more than surviving an undertow.
"First things first," Bruno declared and kept pacing. His bald assistant kept tapping his Bic against his yellow legal pad. "You are having relations with Donna Moss?"
"Yes," he answered.
"Since January 17."
Bruno, who had been leaning on the table, almost collapsed. It would have been funny if it had been some other day. His assistant stopped tapping his pen.
"That’s what," he asked in something akin to astonishment. "Almost five months?"
"And you tell me," Sam told them, leaning forward on the table. "It took the other guys to make you sit up and notice what was going on in your administration?"
Toby looked down at his lap; CJ was the only one who kept his gaze. Josh wasn’t there and he was certain it had been planned that way.
"We’ve been "having relations"," he said, quoting with his hands, "for almost five months and you’re going to tell me it matters now?"
"Sam, stop being idealistic."
"And why is it that we call our generous ideas illusions and our mean ones truths?" He stood up and starting pacing at the other end of the table from Bruno, who was now standing still with his arms crossed around his chest of his custom-made suit. "We say that the power of example is our greatest power, but when it comes to providing good examples we immediately step down and find something tawdry instead! We’re just as bad as they are."
"CJ, what do you think?" Bruno turned the tables on her before he could continue his rant.
"I think this is the classic Washington scandal."
"Why? Because the Deputy Communications Director is sleeping with the Senior Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Staff?" Sam began pacing again. "That’s bullshit."
"Life is not The American President, Sam!" Toby was irate as he only could be when someone demonstrated what he believed was insurmountable ignorance.
"No," she answered calmly as only CJ could. "Because you fell in love."
"I thought you said the classic Washington scandal was when we did something right," Toby interjected.
"Is falling in love not right?" she batted back.
"Enough," Bruno said, cutting the air with his hands. "This gets us nowhere."
Sam stared across the table at him and wondered how on earth this presidency could make sense of something as complicated as a nuclear arms treaty when it couldn’t comprehend something as simple as love.
"We’ll need to meet with Josh when he gets back tonight," he said and the room emptied until he and Sam stood at opposite ends of the table.
"Are you worth it?" he asked and this time the question wasn’t rhetorical.
"No," Sam answered and breathed. "She is."
He only heard about that night years later when several bottles of Sam Adams Summer Ale and a new campaign had eased some of Josh’s memories from their tethers. What pieces Josh didn’t remember, Sam could only imagine from the black tar dreams that smothered him some nights when, only later, he knew all he could have lost and that the cost would have been unbearable in the worst way.
They had all been gathering for Bruno’s meeting when Josh had opened the door to her apartment with the key he couldn’t remember how he’d gotten, if she’d given it to him, if he’d stolen hers and made a copy, or if by some undefined magnetic force the brass trinket had stuck itself to him and he had known instinctively what it opened.
He opened the door for reasons unknown, reasons that would probably remain unknown for the rest of his life, at least to Josh himself. Sam thought Josh opened the door that night because somewhere behind him another door had closed, irreversibly.
He shut the door behind him quietly. He knew Donna didn’t have a roommate anymore, didn’t like cats because they made her sneeze, and after CJ told her Gail was the third Gail, didn’t trust goldfish. The rooms were bizarrely cool for May and he figured the problem was, once again as it always was, that the building’s heating/cooling system had crapped out. A pile of mail was balanced against all laws of physics on the arm of her couch, catalogues and a few haphazard magazines and credit card offers she hadn’t yet ripped up and thrown in the trash. There was a thin brushing of dust on the little table by her couch so that when Josh reached across it, he left tracks on the surface. Two of the plants on her kitchen windowsill had dropped dead about two months ago, the one with the big green leaves and a small viney thing that looked like dead spiders. There were dishes in the chipped sink, two plates, two forks, a mug, and a potato peeler. There were crusts of mold along the plates and dark blobs of something coagulated and still sticky-looking on the silverware. When he opened her refrigerator, a lone egg, three sticks of margarine, four cans of Diet Coke and a Dasani greeted him sullenly. She had tucked up the yellowy sheets on her bed but left two of her shirts strewn there. He hadn’t seen her wear them lately.
He left with the idea that perhaps she’d be where she shouldn’t be and when no one answered the door there, he undid the lock with the key Sam had given him after he’d come home from the hospital, still feeling the bullet’s trajectory in his flesh. Sam had said to come over any time, that he meant it. But that was back when they had still been friends.
There was a note to get computer disks and Earl Grey tea on a yellow post-it written in Donna’s curling handwriting hanging sideways on the wall by the door. A pile of scribbled papers with Sam’s notes and a stack of CDs toppled on the little table by his blue couch, the one that overlooked the massive oil painting of the three ships. He had flipped through the CDs, screening names like Mendelssohn, Vivaldi, and Rachmaninoff, and then oddly enough the Beatles 1 CD. There were also two Yo-Yo Ma CDs. Donna’s tastes had never exactly run Van Morrison, he thought, as he walked unwillingly into the bedroom. A handful of dry cleaning bags were twisted over the door on their flimsy wire hangers. There were three of her suits, including the brown tweed that she thought made her look dumpy – a classic Donna word - and five of Sam’s starched shirts, a French blue, two plain whites, a silver grey, and a pink one Josh couldn’t ever remember him wearing because he would have given him hell for wearing it. Her mauve silk shirt with the belled sleeves hung down on his closet over his white with white pinstripes. Sam’s Princeton sweatshirt lay on his dresser. There was a pair of pantyhose in the trashcan and her opal necklace was on the top of his bureau where Sam usually dropped his wallet and keys. There was apple shampoo in the bathtub, a half-full bottle of Clinique foundation on the toilet tank, and a purple Gilette razor on the sink that he was sure wasn’t Sam’s. A hairy-leafed violet in a huge saucer with the word Maude on it sat contentedly on the kitchen windowsill, blooming outrageously perfect pink flowers the color he often imagined her laughter. There were no dirty dishes in the sink, but several empty boxes of Thai food in the trash and a Gilgarry’s wrapper smothered in coffee grounds. And there was a note posted on the refrigerator on half a folded piece of yellow legal paper in Sam’s writing: To Catch A Thief (Cary Grant!), Sat 1135, Channel 35 and then in capitals below it, underlined twice, Casablanca, Sun 1, Ch 47.
It was all so domestic and comfortable, as if they were living in it. And as he saw the load of clothes, whites, darks, and light colors heaped up on top of the dryer waiting to be folded and the note left on the refrigerator, he knew they were.
Living was what you did while you were waiting for the next night or next vote or next presidential election. Living was what happened when you stopped waiting.
He passed by the note for computer disks and Earl Grey on his way out and he almost took it with him, not as a reminder of what he was about to do, or because he was ever motivated to save his work to disk or drink tea, but because she had written it and she had never written him anything like that because he had never written her anything about Cary Grant.
He’d walked into Bruno’s meeting almost forty minutes late, the same swinging careless stride as ever. Sam wouldn’t remember it, but his eyes had seemed darker that night, the hollows beneath them deeper.
"It’s over," he said and before they could all clamor. "I ended it."
Sam looked at her from across the table and felt her heart fall a little, knowing Josh had done something Josh when she knew all too well what Josh usually did. Honor wasn’t a word for Josh; it didn’t suit him. He fought for a cause, one that he didn’t always believe in, but one that needed his fight.
That was when Sam knew about the dragon’s rubies.
They’d left the White House that night separately, all of them except him and Josh who had always been paired together by some invisible cosmic force, fanning out in spokes across the metropolitan area. Sam never heard the story about what really happened that night, and as far as he knew, only Bruno and eventually Leo knew – Bruno the next day and Leo the next week. He could have asked Bruno, but in the end, he didn’t want to know, for more reasons than one. Even so, he heard whispers that disturbed him and it wasn’t until years later that he got the first part of the story. Even drunk, Josh wouldn’t tell him the rest.
Josh couldn’t tell him, because Josh had gone to the devil and then he had walked back into that room with all of them and told them it was over, and in all the ways that mattered on the outside, it was. Donna remained his secretary for years, through the election and after it, and she kept him organized, if not to practicality, then at least to functionality.
Sam heard the bitterness in his tone that night and knew Josh wasn’t proud of what he’d done that night and if Josh wouldn’t tell him what had happened even when he was drunk, then Sam really didn’t want to know. Josh had said he’d done it because of Casablanca, but the way Sam saw it, it was about that Sunday afternoon at one o’clock when he and Donna had snuggled down deep into the couch and watched Bogey and Bergman together. It was about the note he’d left on the refrigerator two days ago that said simply, An Affair to Remember, Tonight, 12.
Josh said suddenly as he had gotten into the cab to go home and the Sam Adams was doing its last bit of conversing, that he realized he had never been the one to carry off Guinevere’s fluttering ribbons tied to the end of his jousting stick. And then he realized he wasn’t even Arthur. Kay, Sam thought when Josh’s knowledge of medieval British myth ran thin, or Gawain or perhaps there was even a Gatsby then, one of the nameless faceless knights of the Round Table whose lives and loves had been lost in the legend of Lancelot’s flaring, dark-hearted sun.
"Why do you love her?"
They were sitting on the steps just outside Josh’s apartment after leaving Bruno when Sam still had no idea at the time what had just happened except that they had been saved. They were eight of them, old cement stairs that bore the brunt of impatient feet and sullen weather. Sam remembered back when Josh had sat on them with the gang on them, outside for the first time since his almost-fatal shooting at Rosslyn. Donna had flitted around him, making sure he wasn't cold, didn’t need another beer, reading all his prescription medicine tags to make sure the beer didn’t have any adverse effects on him, although Josh was so quirky it would have been hard to tell. He had largely ignored her that night and Sam wondered when it had finally hit her that she couldn’t love him forever. Then he thought about Josh and thought this was no less a momentous occasion, one that hurt any sliver less.
"She inspires me," Sam said, and knew Josh wouldn’t understand that because he wasn’t a writer, didn’t understand that highest compliment of them all, of any. "She makes sense to me, I understand everything when I’m with her."
"What do you mean?"
"It’s like when you sat in eight grade geometry and didn’t understand logarithms and knew you never would and then suddenly at 34, I do. I understand why birds fly north, how Coriolis force occurs, the way to make a perfect pancake, why Whitman ended "Song of Myself" the way he did. I understand iambic pentameter and I understand peace and vindication and hope. It clicks. It makes sense. I understand what I never thought I would."
Josh was still angry.
"And what’s going to happen when she no longer inspires you?" There was bitterness in his voice and Sam guessed if he’d lost what he’d always thought was his and realized it had never been, that he would have been the same way. It wouldn’t ever be the same, their friendship, if it survived at all. It would simply be different, but Sam wasn’t as idealistic as he used to be, and knew that few things in life were simple short of loving her.
"You should tell them you want the presidency," Sam said quietly. "You know I don’t."
"You would have gone back to Gage Whitney Page for her."
"No, I would have stayed in this administration for her," Sam corrected as Josh looked over at him and finally he understood, at least, a little. He relented, because relenting was the last and only thing in the world he could do, short of surrender.
"I loved her too," Josh said at last, looking back over the street. They had all lost so much in getting where they were, and he wondered sometimes, whether they didn’t lose so much more than they gained. Because in Josh, Sam saw the tale his mother had always told him as a child, the tale of the dragon’s rubies. It was said when the slayer slit the dragon’s breast, that blood did not spill forth, but rather a cascade of rubies in all cuts and carats and gushes of red. It was said that dragons did not possess blood because they could not die, and to rob them of their fortune was to take their lifeblood from them, to take their soul.
Sam imagined Josh that way, bleeding without bleeding, bleeding rubies.
"But you did the one thing I couldn’t do – you made her happy."
She rose off the couch as soon as he opened the door and closed it behind him so slowly that the lock snicked into place heavily.
"He’s ok," Sam told her. There were six steps of space between them but he understood how logarithms worked, how they mapped out the world and made it navigational, how they explained space really wasn’t empty. There was always a way to cross it, though like early navigators exploring a world they believed was flat, it wasn’t always the way you thought and the stars directed you, and mostly, it came at a cost.
She nodded her head. "And you?"
She was wearing one of his grey tee shirts so old that the lettering had come off of it and he couldn’t remember if it was from Princeton or Duke or whatever past that had chased him here to this dark place where he had found her. She had on a pair of jeans and bare feet and her hair glowed pale, the way the sun looked when he, even at age six, had burst to the surface after the undertow.
It was Leo who had the map of the world on his face who would explain it best in the years to come, who would wax unexpectantly poetic in the middle of a toast. Laurie had given him that insufferable geek bravado they all hated. Mallory had taken it away and replaced it with an uncertain swagger. Ainsley had given him quick reflexes. He couldn’t even remember when he had stopped believing in truth and justice and promises, but according to Leo, only one person made him remember the good in changing the world and one man’s actions, even if they left a Sam Seaborn shaped hole in the wall. Only Donna had given him back his faith.
She crossed the space floating on logarithms and put her arms around him, sinking her head against his chest so that he knew she understood too. He didn’t doubt that she loved him. It wasn’t a flashy, ostentatious love, this indefinable, undeniable thing between them; it was a quiet, restful love of solace and filled rooms and breath. It was imperfect and would never be easy – undertows never were – they knew it, hated it, and accepted it. He tilted her head and she looked up at him with her lupine and larkspur eyes. He touched his hands to each side of her face, ran his thumbs along her cheeks, and kissed her.
"Failing to catch me at first, keep encouraged," he said and smiled, one of the bright smiles that clutched at him and he saw things not the way they were, but the way they could be, the way he could change them.
"I stop somewhere waiting for you," she returned.
He had never understood before now, not in any of his Contemporary Lit classes nor in any speech he had written, but he understood looking at her. He hadn’t understood the lack of punctuation at the end of Whitman’s work and had gotten into roaring debates with his professors over it, arguing that a poet’s forgetfulness did not make history but rather questioned his grammar.
But as she kissed him back, he knew Whitman and knew that some things went on forever and never ended. He knew the price of the dragon’s rubies and the sin of Lancelot, and he loved her deeply enough to change his dreams and change the world.
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