Dr. Stanley Keyworth made his living – and a not insubstantial one it was – sitting in unnaturally quiet rooms. This room was no different from any of the others: a little more luxuriously appointed, yes, with its Oriental rugs and burnished mahogany, its broad bayed windows looking out on Massachusetts Avenue. The heavy tick of the Empire clock on the mantel was the only sound in the room. Stanley folded his hands and waited, because he excelled at waiting. After a minute he cocked his head at the hands of the man sitting across from him.
“That’s an unusual ring,” he said.
“Yes. It was given to me by my grandfather, who had it from his grandmother, who had it from her great-grandfather, Tsar Peter the Great of Russia. The clock is quite nice also. Perhaps we could talk about the rugs? They are antiques, all of them, most of them personal belongings of mine, from my great-grandfather, Grand Duke Ernst-Ludwig of Hesse, who was the grandson of Queen Victoria.”
Stanley glanced at his blank notepad to hide his smile. “So, you’re from a big family, then.”
The answering smile was thin and not remotely friendly. “How droll.”
“Tell me about the other night at the Watergate.”
The smile disappeared. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Stanley tilted his head the other way. “Yeah, I think you do. I don’t actually think there’s much wrong with your memory. Tell me about why you were at the Watergate.”
“I keep a set of rooms there.”
“Oh yeah? This place looks pretty nice. Why don’t you live here?”
“Because I don’t care to.”
“Isn’t that a bit unusual, an ambassador living in a hotel?”
“I keep an apartment here as well.”
“So the Watergate is more private.”
It was Marbury’s turn to fold his hands. “That is making some assumptions, isn’t it?”
“Well, unless you tell me differently, that’s what I’m going to have to do. We could talk some more about your ring, if you want.”
“It is an onyx cameo, set in Russian gold. The cameo itself was a gift of the Ottoman Sultan to Peter the Great on his travels, as a mark of favor and respect, and also as a request not to turn his territorial ambitions southward to the Black Sea. He needn’t have worried, of course; Peter was far too busy concentrating on Western Europe to spare much time for the Turks. Ironically, it is the head of Alexander the Great, whose life story the Sultan cannot have read too closely.”
“Is Alexander a relative of yours, too?”
“How did it survive the blast?”
The room went back to still. “I beg your pardon?”
“The ring. How did it survive the car bomb? Were you wearing it at the time?”
“I always wear it.”
“So how did it survive?”
“That’s hardly the relevant question, is it?”
“So what is the relevant question?”
“What you mean to say is, how did I survive?”
Stanley folded his blank notepad to a new blank page, and settled it on his knee. “Okay. How did you?”
Marbury’s eyes narrowed at him, and Stanley found himself watching the hands, which were unnaturally still. He had never met Lord Marbury before today, but it hadn’t taken five seconds in a room with him to know that his hands were never still. Their quiet was as unnatural as the room’s.
“Surely that isn’t the sort of thing I am expected to answer.”
Stanley shifted, weighing a lie, considering how much to say, and when. It was like sitting in a room with a jaguar that had gone quite still, sitting across from this man, and it took a bit of concentration to mask his unease. There was something deeply unsettling in those eyes, and already Stanley was busy canceling his flight plans in his head and rearranging the next few days. “I think,” he answered slowly, “that that is the sort of thing you expect yourself to answer.”
“My, you are excellent at this. I’ve never heard such sophomoric parroting outside of a senior level diplomatic meeting.”
“Tell me about that night at the hotel.”
“There is nothing to tell. I slipped and fell, and knocked over a lamp. I’m quite fine, and no harm done. My right leg is understandably a bit gamier than it was before, and tends to give at odd moments.”
Stanley pretended to scratch something down on his pad. It surprised him, the blatant lie, more alarming than hesitation or embarrassment would have been. “Okay. Define ‘gamy.’”
“In this instance, gamy means that the femur and tibia of my right leg have been replaced with stainless steel rods two and one-eighth inches in circumference.”
“Are you in pain?”
“Are you in pain right now?”
“Why did Leo McGarry call my office?”
The silence draped the room again, as heavy and cloaking as the velvet curtains framing the window. “I thought it might be useful to consult someone such as yourself, and Leo McGarry mentioned that he knew of someone, and offered to call.”
Stanley pretended to scratch some more. “So you wanted to see me.”
“It was your idea?”
“Then why are you acting like a twelve-year old who’s been called to the principal’s office?”
“I don’t know what you mean. I am doing my best to answer every question you put, no matter how inane. I have even redirected some of your more inept questions, so as to save us some time.”
“Why did you want to see me?”
Another silence fell, and Stanley did not look up – did not have to, to know those unsettling eyes were on him. “As I said, I thought it might be useful.”
“Uh huh. What sort of problems are you having?”
Marbury crossed and uncrossed his legs. Stanley wondered if the motion was painful. Evidently this was the sort of question Marbury had been expecting, since he had relaxed fractionally. “I have had difficulty sleeping. I thought perhaps you might prescribe something for that.”
“See, that’s not what I do.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I don’t write prescriptions for sleeping pills. I’m the guy they call when the sleeping pills don’t work. Tell me why Leo called me.”
“I believe I have, ad nauseam.”
“Tell me why Leo was the one to call me, and not you.”
“As I said, he said he was familiar with your work from a previous experience, and spoke highly of you. I asked if he would ring you, and he agreed.”
“He could have just given you my number.”
“I suppose. Perhaps he didn’t wish to give it out.”
“Maybe. Where did you and Leo talk about it?”
Marbury frowned. “Beg pardon?”
“Where did you talk about calling me? Was it at a party somewhere, some diplomatic function? Or was it a meeting of some kind? I’m just curious how the whole thing came up.”
He twisted the ring. “He sought me out, and asked how I had been doing. We chatted a bit, I mentioned the difficulty sleeping, and he offered to give you a call. Obviously he was mistaken about your expertise in these matters.”
“Sought you out where?”
“It was – at an Embassy function, just the other week.”
“Do you remember the day?”
“What on earth does it matter?”
“Because I want to see how far you’ll go with the lie.” He didn’t look up, but kept on scratching at his paper. He was curious to see if Marbury would actually break it by speaking; it was an even gamble, that sort of challenge. There was every possibility he would pick up and leave the room, and then they would have to start again. But he needed just this little bit of honesty before they could get any further, and every touch, every probe, every flinch, said that this was where to start.
“I begin to understand this country more and more,” Marbury murmured at last, “if you regard discourtesy as a form of therapy.”
“Is that what this is?”
“Oh, for the love of God. You are every bad stereotype come to life, aren’t you?”
“I need you to start by telling me why Leo McGarry called me.” He did look him straight in the eyes for that one, waiting for the flinch. It didn’t come.
“I’ve told you all I am going to tell you on the subject of Leo McGarry.”
Stanley took a sip of his water and scratched at his pad some more. “Okay,” he said, after a minute. “What else did you want to talk about?”
He watched as Marbury slowly twisted the ring. “What is it you do, exactly?”
Stanley gave a little smile. “Sit in a room with people like you, mostly.”
“People like me.”
“I see. Is that what you think I am? And if you answer by asking me if that is what I think I am, I shall run screaming from the room.”
Stanley cocked his head. “Why do you think that is?” That did get a small chuckle from Marbury, and his face relaxed marginally. Stanley took another sip of water.
“So,” Marbury said. “Is this the place where you ask me to tell you what happened?”
“Does that come later, then?”
“I don’t want to hear what happened. For one thing, I saw the news, I know what happened. For another, you don’t need to hear what happened, because unless I miss my guess you’re inside it, just about every minute of every day. And besides, all that ‘describe what happened’ bullshit is mainly for the waiting room magazines. What happened was, you got blown up, and then some people put you back together, and threw away the extra parts. What I want to know is, why did it happen.”
Marbury stopped twisting the ring. “Excuse me?”
“Yeah, you need to stop doing that, because it’s pretty annoying, the whole 'excuse me' thing. Why do you think you got blown up?”
Marbury’s brows were a single line. “There was no reason. Violence is senseless and arbitrary.”
“Except it wasn’t, was it? I mean, it wasn’t like a war, where they try to kill just anybody, and bad luck if it’s you. They were trying to kill you, right?”
The silence was back, but it was different this time. Stanley was very good at hearing silences, and this one had movement and breath. It swirled with thought. “I don’t know,” Marbury said at last.
“No, you don’t,” Stanley said quietly. “Tell me why Leo McGarry called me. Tell me why you’re sitting here. You don’t want to be here, so why are you here? Who’s making you?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. No one makes me do anything. I am Great Britain’s ambassador to the United States, the Marquis of Needham and—”
“That’s something else you need to stop doing. Why are you here?”
He listened for the silence, straining his ears to catch it. “Let’s just say. . . I promised a friend. Will that do?”
“May I ask you a question now?”
“Quid pro quo, Clarice.”
“What did you call me?”
Stanley waved his hand. “Pop culture reference. You wouldn’t get it, trust me. Ask away.”
“What are trauma victims like?”
Stanley capped his pen to hide his surprise. Marbury’s ability to surprise him was worrisome, as worrisome as every other sign he was seeing. “They’re a mixed bag,” he said slowly, “but there are some defining characteristics. Generally a trauma victim is caught in a feedback loop of some kind, where their brain makes connections that can overpower it, cause it to shut down. Sensation and association. It’s a neurological disorder.”
“What happens to them?”
“The ones that get treatment get better. The ones that don’t get worse.”
“And the ones that get worse. . .become violent, yes? Do damage to others, that sort of thing?”
Stanley looked up. “No, John. They do just exactly the sort of things you’re thinking about doing.”
Marbury gave a short bark of a laugh. More of a cough, really. “That is absurd. For one thing, I’m not remotely suicidal. For another, talk about your ham-handed segue.”
Stanley smiled. “I wouldn’t have figured you for a movie buff.”
“I am any number of things you would not figure.”
“I don’t doubt that’s true,” he mused. “Tell me about that lamp.”
“The one in the hotel room. The one you broke? You said you knocked it over.”
“Ah. Well, what would you like to hear? Peach colored, about so high, really quite hideous, cream colored shade. Anything else?”
“How did it break?”
“I told you, I slipped, reached out, and knocked it over. I really hadn’t expected it to shatter.”
“Was it loud?”
Marbury tilted his head. “What?”
“When it shattered. Was it loud?”
“It was. . . I really don’t remember. Yes, I suppose, yes. It startled me.”
“Startled you. And then what happened?”
“I really don’t remember.”
At that, Stanley looked up, sleepy eyes gone wide and alert. “That’s right,” he said. “You don’t.”
In the silence that followed, he watched Marbury’s hands stray back to the ring, resuming the slow endless twisting. “What is the first thing you remember?” he asked, unsure if he was going to be shut down, unsure where in the shifting sand of this man’s mind he stood. He saw the memory flit across Marbury’s face, and saw him edit it – the cast of eyes to the side, the fingers frozen on the ring. To Stanley’s surprise, he spoke.
“Someone was there.”
“A friend? Someone from the hotel? Who?”
“A friend. I was. . .” Again Stanley rode out the stillness. “That doesn’t. . . I’m not sure it’s possible.”
Stanley let that sit for a minute, let him get the picture of where and how he had been when he had come back to himself. His own guess was, in a room he hadn’t been in before – bathroom, sitting room, whatever. Maybe on the floor, dazed, probably in pain from the exertion of tearing up a hotel room.
“How did the lamp break?”
“I’ve told you, I knocked it over and it shattered on the floor.”
“Is there carpet on this floor?”
“I. . . yes.”
“Seems kind of odd it would break, then.”
“I suppose they just don’t make them like they used to.”
“Uh huh. What did you have in your hands?”
“In my hands? Nothing.”
“You had your cane.”
“What? No, I didn’t.”
“You used your cane on the lamp.”
“That is the most ridiculous—of course I didn’t. I think I would remember that – and how on earth would you know something like that. I was there, after all.”
Stanley sucked on his pen for a minute before answering. “No,” he said. “You really weren’t.” He let that hit bottom, watching Marbury’s face, the shifting layers, like murky pond water – clearing one minute, clouded the next, no telling how shallow or how deep or exactly what was swimming in there. “Tell you what,” he said. “Why don’t we finish here for the day. I can come back in the morning. Maybe you can have some answers for me then. But before I go, I do have one last question I need to ask you. I need to know if you’re going to be alone tonight. I know you’re protective of your privacy, and I respect that, but I do need to know if you are going to be alone or not.”
Marbury did not raise his eyes from the carpet. “I won’t be alone,” he said.
“Will you be with someone who knows everything that’s going on?”
It seemed like an obvious question to Stanley, but for the first time Marbury shielded his eyes, as though the light in the dim room was too bright by half.
“Yes,” was all he said.
Margaret was in his office, her hand scrabbling for the remote before he had even whipped off his glasses. “Three minutes ago.”
The images on the screen screamed, shouted, wept. Chaos, running, sirens – the peculiar tinny British sirens that sounded like cartoons, like Foghorn Leghorn was about to step out of the car, boy I say boy – then more running, and a pale figure hunched over a microphone mouthing something inaudible because the sound hadn’t connected yet, but the feed at the bottom of the screen read Belfast, Live. The camera jerked. A splash of rain hit the lens.
“Oh, Jesus,” he breathed, and before he hit the final sibilance C.J. was in his office, and then Toby, and there was nothing to do but stand there, stunned into muteness as they watched the horror unfold, or the horror’s aftermath. Josh trotted in.
“It gets worse.”
Four heads swiveled to him, and Leo noted he tucked his mouth in at the corner, in that way he had when what he was about to say was nothing good. “The British ambassador was in the motorcade. He’s been hit. It’s not good. AP wire’s got it, they’ve got confirmation, they’re going with it,” he said, his voice a tense line, and right on cue the ambulance rushed by on the screen, same hollow unreal siren, splatter of rain from its tires.
“Oh, Christ. What the hell was he even doing in Belfast? He should have cleared it—ah, hell. Margaret, get me Clayburn’s wife, Patrice, get me Patrice Clayburn, get her to hold for the President, until we know something we do not need her making any statement—”
“Leo,” he said, and Leo stopped, because Josh’s face was white, and smudged at the edges with something he couldn’t place. “Not Clayburn.”
“What? You just said—”
“No—I meant—British ambassador. Theirs. To—British ambassador to the U.S.” He licked his lips, and took a panting breath, as though he might have run from his office, and Leo supposed he might have at that, but he was making no sense, no sense at all, and he just frowned at him.
“They got Marbury,” Josh managed in a whisper. The room hushed, and for some reason all Leo could think was the ambulance, I just saw the ambulance, it wasn’t him, it’s impossible that was him in there, it couldn’t have been, but he only blinked. The cameraman or someone had reconnected the sound to the man with the microphone, and he was saying something that had everyone else turning to the screen, but Leo remained perfectly still, snatches of sound washing in and out of his ears from the set.
“—now tuning in, at Chichester Street adjacent to Waterfront Hall, in an apparent car bombing— the Irish prime minister’s motorcade— not able to tell at this time – at the Royal Victoria now—”
Leo shouldered through the gathering crowd in his office, pushing open the adjoining door, and he registered small sensations quite vividly: the slick of the doorknob on his fingers, the whoosh of the carpet under his feet, the slight draft from the vent as he walked through the doorway. On the Chippendale table, the clock that was a gift from Giscard d’Estaing thock-thocked, and the morning sun made dust motes swim by the windows, but all these things happened outside of him and far away. When he spoke, his voice was calm and even, but the only sound he heard was the whining of the ambulance’s cartoon siren. He’s been hit, it’s not good, he heard himself saying, but all he saw was a broken bloodied body, twisted on the pavement.
“All at the Royal Victoria,” he was apparently saying, and the President was nodding, eyes set and grim, but all he could think was, except for the parts they left behind.
“All right, get me Trilling. No no, get me Mayherne – God knows someone has to stop her before she goes on the air and starts throwing around words that just escalate everything, and if she uses the word ‘war’ just one goddamned time—what the hell, Leo? I mean, goddamn it,” he said, slamming a folder into the desk. “Are we really back here again? Really? And Mayherne better wrap her mind around the possibility it was not IRA but Protestants pissed that the Irish PM was even setting foot in—”
“Mr. President,” Charlie was saying, his head in the door.
“That better be Mayherne. Okay, let’s do this,” he said, and Leo was nodding, nodding, but his lungs were dead weight in his chest. Blood, blood everywhere, so much of it he could taste it, and as the President picked up the phone he realized it was his own blood, that he had chewed right through his lip, or bitten it somehow. There was a taste like tar in his mouth, and the room slid a little to the left.
“No, Madam Prime Minister, we don’t know any more than you do, but until we know something—no, no, I understand that—Madam Prime Minister, I would appreciate being allowed to finish a sentence here. It’s entirely likely that O’Doole, not Lord John, was the intended target, and at this point, until we know something more, I think we ought to be assuming this is an LVF strike that—no, I think you know perfectly well they have the capability—” the President was saying, rolling his eyes, and Leo found his legs moving him to the outer office, a drumbeat pounding in his head: He’s been hit, it’s not good, not good, not good.
“Debbie,” he said. “Get a line to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. Get it now.” He gripped the back of a chair and slid into it, not caring how it looked, and shut his eyes. Offices, he thought. Every single thing that ever mattered to me has happened in an office.
“Excellent work there, Gerald.”
Leo hid his start behind a shuffle of paper and managed not to look up. “Your Lordship.”
“I said, excellent work there.”
“Yes, I heard. I am assuming you’re referring to my staff’s successful shepherding of the most comprehensive and progressive energy package in two and a half decades through a Neanderthal and bitterly partisan Congress?”
“Well, that and your foisting me off onto Toby tonight.”
“Ah. You noticed that.”
“I did indeed.” Marbury leaned against the doorframe and watched him, and Leo let his pen scratch a few more papers before he looked up, trying to figure out which Marbury was at his door tonight – the twittering obnoxious one, or the one who enjoyed making him look like an ass in front of the President, or the one who enjoyed making himself look like a drunken sot in front of just about everyone. Or perhaps the irritatingly obstructionist one. None of them were men he particularly wanted in his office at half past midnight, and his frown deepened as he capped his pen.
“So, your Lordship. I suspect the party is winding down, and it’s a bit late for you to be prowling the West Wing. Anything I can do for you?”
Marbury sloped into the room in his odd gait, somewhere between a shuffle and a stalk, and collapsed on the sofa, all long limbs and mussed hair. His hand clasped the neck of a green bottle, and from the depths of his coat he pulled two champagne flutes. “Brendan McGann cannot visit the White House.”
Leo’s mouth tugged down. “I feel sure this is a discussion you have already had tonight.”
“Ad nauseam.” He was tugging at the plastic cork.
“I’m not really thirsty, Mr. Ambassador.”
Wordlessly, Marbury turned the label so it was visible. Chilled sparkling grape juice. Marbury’s eyes on him were large and dark, and there was no humor in the lines around them. So fucking hell, this was another thing he had to swallow and wake up with in the morning, the knowledge that Lord John fucking Marbury knew he was a fucking alcoholic, and in those elegantly manicured, long-fingered hands was not exactly where he wanted his political future to be resting.
“Takes one to know one,” was all Marbury said as he decanted the sicky sweet stuff into the glasses. He reached across and set a glass on the desk, then leaned back and stretched himself on the sofa, loosening his tie. “Have I mentioned that Brendan McGann cannot visit the White House?”
“Almost as many times as you’ve fondled the First Lady’s breasts.” He regarded the flute and its contents, but made no move to pick it up. “If you got nowhere with Toby, there’s no reason to think you’re going to fare any better with me.”
“Mm.” He appeared to sink into thought, and a lock of dark hair shadowed his eyes. “It’s true, I got nowhere with Toby, but then, I wasn’t really trying. Oh, it crossed my mind for a millisecond, and I dare say he saw it, but I didn’t give it a go. My God, this is swill. It’s enough to drive one to drink.” He set the flute on the end table. “I was thinking I might have better luck with you.”
From the base of his neck, a prickle set in that signaled the beginning of a migraine headache, and that thirty years ago and deep in the tangled roots and mud of Laos had signaled something else entirely: danger. He decided to ignore it. “Toby told you our answer. We talk with McGann because there is no option besides talking, and this is what friends help friends do. Toby speaks for this office.”
“Does he,” was all Marbury said, and patted his breast pockets for his cigarettes. He took his time shaking one out and lighting it. “I suppose it’s more to the point that he speak for that office,” he said with a glance at the door to his right, “but I wasn’t in fact discussing McGann, and I think I’ve had enough of the irritating little Mick for one night, truth be told.”
“Watch your mouth.” He saw a flash of something in Marbury’s eyes at that, and hated himself for giving the twit the satisfaction, but he couldn’t help it. It was in the blood, and if you were going to go throwing around words like Mick you sure as hell weren’t going to do it in that over-ripe British accent and expect him to sit here and take it. “My mother used to tell me, say what you want about Hitler, but he did bomb London.”
A cloud of smoke, and the cherry tip crackled. “That isn’t remotely amusing.”
“I wasn’t trying to entertain you, your Lordship.”
“My goodness, but you do despise me.” He flicked ash onto the carpet, and Leo felt the pain in the back of his neck spark to his jaw. “And here I thought it was all a show for the kiddies.”
“I have nothing but respect and admiration for you, Mr. Ambassador.” He rose heavily, feeling in his joints the weight of the long day, and the longer tomorrow. “And now if you don’t mind, I think I will go home. You’re welcome to pass out here if you like, or in the lobby if you’d prefer. I’m sure security can arrange something comfortable.”
“I am not in fact intoxicated, at the moment. Does that surprise you?”
“To be perfectly honest, your Lordship, nothing you do surprises me.”
“Oh, come.” Marbury rose at that, and ran a hand through the mop of hair – the hand that held his cigarette, a practiced gesture, the gesture of someone who had been smoking for so many years and in so many ways he could probably floss while holding a cigarette, and forget which hand it was in. “You can’t mean I’ve lost my ability to shock you.”
Leo was opening his mouth to reply to that, but never got there. Never got there, because in another of those surely practiced gestures, Marbury was across the carpet and in his space and no, not in his space, in his mouth, Lord John Marbury was kissing his goddamned mouth, pressing pliable whiskey-soaked lips to his, flicking a plummy whiskey-soaked tongue across his teeth. Actually kissing him, the loony bastard. He brought his hands up to push the fool away, but Marbury was there ahead of him, and caught the hands in his as though it was a tender gesture, as though he was sure Leo had brought his hands up to caress him, goddamn it, and here was Marbury pushing deeper into his mouth, tilting his head for better access. Bleeding blue Jesus.
And then Marbury’s eyes were on his, the sharp-featured face inches from his. The lines around the eyes were visible, and Leo thought, not for the first time, that those eyes took up too much space in an already crowded room. Marbury always did suck up all the available oxygen.
“Surprised?” he was asking. While still clasping his hands, Leo noted.
“Not so much surprised as wondering when the hell you’re going to get your hands off me.”
“Ah.” He let the hands drop and stepped back. “I appear to have miscalculated.”
“Ah,” he said again, and fluttered the too-long lashes, the lashes that on any other face would have been impossible, womanish. He flicked the cigarette Leo realized he had never dropped. “I do apologize, Leo.”
“Well, that’s something. I didn’t think you actually knew my name.”
He tossed his hair back in the sort of insouciant schoolboy move that made Leo itch to smack him, and gave a wry smile. “I always did know your name, Leo Thomas McGarry.” And with that, he picked up the bottle, palmed the flutes, and stuck the cigarette in his mouth for a last long drag before flicking it in the general direction of the Waterford bowl on the coffee table. He was out the door before Leo could find a response, but his head poked back around the corner of the door within two seconds.
“And as for that can of what you so elegantly refer to as whoop-ass, you would do well not to forget who burned this building over your provincial colonial heads, not so very many years after Yorktown.”
“Yeah, well, you and those cigarettes keep hanging around, it won’t be the last time, either.” But Marbury was back out the door already, probably careening into the next warm body he encountered.
Leo only stayed a few minutes afterward, to make sure he wouldn’t run into the lunatic bastard roaming the halls, then grabbed his overcoat and ducked out. He never took papers home anymore, because what the hell was the point of that? He was in the office until close to midnight every night, and back just after dawn, most days. Home, if a hotel room could be called that, was for sleeping and showering. He couldn’t remember sitting down to read on a chair that wasn’t owned by the federal government in God knew how many years.
It was something he thought about, when he allowed himself thoughts like that. How when he retired, he might build a house. A house with a room, and the room would look out over a lake, or a lawn. Something green, with trees. And in this room would be a chair, by the window. Comfortable, with cushions. Somewhere to sit and just stare out the window. But it would never happen, because guys like him didn’t retire; they just dropped dead of heart attacks in the middle of their offices and got rolled out with the carpet.
That night he scoured his teeth with more than usual care. He ran his tongue across his teeth, but he could still taste the whiskey, and was irritated at himself for not wanting to brush it out, for savoring the lingering taste, the faint gut-twisting tang. Or maybe he was savoring the taste of another long-vanquished addiction, longer-vanquished than the booze, and twice as dangerous. Worse than the booze, because there was always rehab for the booze, and for the other, there was only Father Phinizy and fifteen hot, uncomfortable minutes in a confessional, and not meeting his eyes after that at Jenny’s parties.
Marbury was all his addictions rolled into one elegant package, and Marbury was right, he had miscalculated, but not in the way he had meant. Leo didn’t despise him. He was terrified of him.
Back in the office the next morning, he found a perfectly round burn hole where Marbury’s cigarette had missed the bowl and sizzled right through the lush triple pile of his carpet. A blackened smoldering crater, right there in the middle of the room where no possible chair or table could hide it. Right there in the middle of the West Wing, where even the President stepped outside to smoke.
Okay, maybe he despised him a little.
He thought no more about the incident, on the whole. Marbury was apt to do any number of shocking and inappropriate things, and the Bartlets, both of them, were apt to indulge him like a much beloved, imperfectly housebroken dog. It was beyond him how Jed could stomach the man, but then again, Jed had a soft spot for brilliance, however eccentrically expressed. Also, he suspected Jed had a soft spot for irritating him. At more than one dinner party, he had seen the President deliberately use Marbury to bait him. “John, have you seen the latest missile defense projections?” he would ask. Or, “John, Leo has been re-thinking our participation in the International Criminal Court. What are your thoughts?”
No, on the whole, he thought nothing of it. If you were defining “on the whole” as “fully dressed and in the West Wing,” that is. Nights, however, were a different story.
Jacking off was something he did to take care of himself, and because it was occasionally necessary, like flossing. It was one of those things you had to do, and the less said – or thought – about it, the better. If he found himself at night in a situation, with an erection that would not be willed away, he would roll over and take himself briskly in hand, and that would be that. He no longer indulged in fantasies, even. For one thing, they took up time he didn’t have. For another, fantasies had always been dangerous turf for him, and these days he brought himself off on pure sensation, or maybe envisioning a faceless, sexless mouth closed on his dick. A few quick strokes of his hand, and his body’s embarrassing, unwanted needs would be taken care of, no fuss, no mess, or at least no mess that couldn’t be wiped up with a kleenex.
Except not so much, these days. He didn’t want to connect it to Marbury. Didn’t want it to have the least thing to do with what had happened in his office. But there had to be some reason, some reason why he was waking up in the middle of his too-short nights, achingly hard and already rubbing himself on the sheets. The first night it happened, he had barely had time to clutch himself, to cup his balls, before he was coming. And the images that flashed in his head were not sexless, or faceless. They had a face, all right.
The next night, he woke hard again, a steady thrum in his groin, the movie still playing in his head. He made himself lie there, chest pounding, refusing to touch himself. That had lasted about three minutes, and then he closed his hand around his dick and came with shocking force, gasping and wet.
As his own little aversion therapy, he didn’t clean himself afterwards, but let the semen cool on his stomach until it became a cold sticky puddle. He scrubbed at it next morning in the shower, and threw away the washrag he had used. But it didn’t stop. Each night, the minute he let himself slip into sleep, the movie would start to unspool in his head. The movie he didn’t want to see.
In his head, he saw himself not stopping Marbury’s kiss.
He saw himself tilting his head a little, opening for him.
He saw himself digging fingers into that ridiculously expensive tuxedo jacket and crushing the long lean body to him.
He saw himself unbuttoning his fly.
That was usually right about where he came, hard and long and with an involuntary groan that surprised him. His sex noises hadn’t been involuntary since about the Johnson administration. But still, it wasn’t anything to lose sleep over. It merited an internal shrug, and nothing more. It wasn’t like there was still a wife lying next to him, peacefully dozing, while he gripped himself and shuddered into his hand, thinking of things he couldn’t name by daylight. It wasn’t like there was anyone left to care, so what did it matter anyway?
And if a Kashmiri border guard hadn’t forgotten his sunglasses, that would have been the end of it.
But he did forget, one exceptionally bright and clear morning along the India-Pakistan border, and because he had left his sunglasses at home – what had happened, Leo later wondered, reading through the later interviews with the man. Had he been out drinking the night before? Had the baby spit up on him, and he had had to rush back into the house for a fresh change of clothes? Forgotten his keys, locked them in the car? Or maybe his sunglasses had been left on the kitchen counter? Probably it had just been one of those mornings.
And because he had forgotten, the guard had had to shield his eyes with his hands, and because his hands were partially blocking his eyes, he had stepped in front of the vehicle that had just been cleared to pass through the checkpoint. And the vehicle had rammed into him, knocking him flat, and his weapon had discharged. And when his weapon had discharged, his fellow guards had whipped around to see him lying flat on his back with an Indica VC2 parked on his lower left leg, and they had opened fire. And when they had opened fire, all five people in the car had died, including the woman in labor whose father and mother and husband were driving her to the hospital. And the four year old boy probably wouldn’t have had to die, but apparently the minute the gunfire started he crawled up onto his mother’s already bullet-riddled body and clung there until he was just as full of holes as the rest of them, and before night fell in Kashmir there were Hindu bodies being dragged through the streets in terrible retribution, and mosques set ablaze with living bodies as tinder in retribution for that retribution, and as he sat in the situation room and flipped through the reports, his eyes not seeing the words, Leo knew that for once, the wailing of the women in Srinigar had drowned the wailing of the sirens.
“Asleep on the job, Gerald?”
Leo jerked up from the folder he was buried in, unsurprised to find Lord John Marbury propped once again in his doorway. Because when India and Pakistan were dragging out the nukes, who better for the President to call than one of the world’s foremost India experts? Of course Marbury would have been his first call. Never, not once, had Jed actually warned him ahead of time when he would be calling Marbury.
He tossed the folder aside. “Your Lordship,” he said loudly enough for Margaret to hear, and feel the reprimand. “You’ve seen the President?”
“Alas, no – he is on the phone at the moment, and the doors of the Oval Office are remarkably impervious to eavesdropping, so to entertain myself while I waited I thought I would drop in on you. Oh, and ah, give you this.” He shucked off his coat and scarf and dropped them on Leo’s desk, scattering the contents of the folder and knocking over an 18th-century inkwell.
“Margaret,” Leo called.
“Yes, your lovely assistant was kind enough to wave me right in. At least someone in this building recognizes brilliance when she sees it. Do you know, that lumbering cretin at the gate actually made me wait while he rang someone up to verify my credentials? The ambassador plenipotentiary of the United Kingdom, Marquis of Needham and Dolby, Earl of Croy, Baron of Brixton, first cousin thrice removed to the Queen of England, and I am forced to wait at your gates like an overweight tourist from Omaha City. The indignity of it.” He folded himself smugly into the sofa.
“There is no Omaha City. Margaret,” he called again, with rather more menace.
“I speak metaphorically. What would you do, I wonder, without me to periodically snatch you back from the brink of fiery nuclear destruction?”
“I’m sure the President will be off the phone in a minute,” he said, eyeing the blinking red light on his phone. “Perhaps you would care for some coffee from the mess.”
“Ah, excellent! Black, please, with two teaspoons of sugar and a hearty dollop of cream.”
“It’s really more of a carry-out sort of arrangement,” Leo tried, opening the folder again.
“Oh, come Gerald, don’t be cross. We’ve work to do. Now.” He rose and clapped his hands together. “Whom shall I save first?”
It was the rest of the day and into the night, and yes, Marbury was given to fantastical statements, but the part about fiery nuclear destruction had not been one of them. By one-thirty in the morning, they could see the troop movement beginning on the Landsat photos, and by two-thirty Marbury’s negotiations were beginning to have some effect. The Indian Foreign Minister was on the line, then off the line, then on the line again, cursing righteously, and Leo breathed quietly into his end, not wanting to interrupt Marbury’s tripwire tight-rope dance. His eyes met the President’s as Marbury talked, and talked, and talked some more, and they were grim and gray-shadowed, but steady.
By three, Landsat was showing no further troop movement, and the Pakistani ambassador and the Pakistani Foreign Minister on the line had stopped tag-team swearing at Marbury in unintelligible dialects of Urdu and decelerated into vague thuggish threats in English. The President rose, which was the signal that the sit-room was over for the night – or for the morning, or for the next few hours, anyway. Leo stumbled upstairs and simply collapsed on his sofa, which he rarely did. Margaret, for one thing, would fuss and flutter like a wounded bird when she found him there the next morning, plying him with warm scented towels and fresh shirts and thermos kegs of coffee and grapefruits the size of small children. It would be worth it, though, not to have to make the drive back, and while he could always take a spare bedroom upstairs in the residence, he knew exactly what Abbey thought of that.
He lay on his back on the sofa and stared at the ceiling. Marbury’s face swam before him, all over-large eyes and shaggy hair. His hands, as he spoke on the phone, beating an endless weary arpeggio on the sit-room table. He had watched Marbury flex and clench and drum those fingers for hours, but not once had the voice been anything other than crisp and even-handed. It had been, he had to admit, something to see, and if they could all sleep a little easier in their beds tonight, it was largely because of what Marbury had done on that phone propped on his angular shoulder.
At one point, Marbury had simply bowed his head while listening to the flood of enraged shouting they could all hear, and he had rested his forehead on his fingers in an infinitely exhausted gesture. That was when Leo had excused himself, ignoring the President’s puzzled gaze, and had returned five minutes later with the coffee: two teaspoons of sugar, heavy on the cream. Marbury’s fingers had closed around it quickly, and he had had time for only a quick grateful glance upward before he was off again, his voice careful and over-enunciated even in Hindi, his fingers starting their dance again.
Leo sighed, shifting. It should have been a supremely comfortable sofa, all goosedown and moiré silk and firm curves. In fact, it was a living nightmare, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway – there was no way he was sleeping tonight. His body was a tight hum of nerves, his eyes wide and taut. Beneath him, he was acutely aware of the sofa, the sofa on which Marbury had lazed earlier, as though there was nothing in the world unusual between them. As though it had never happened, that insolent, ridiculous kiss. And maybe it hadn’t, for him – maybe Marbury had been too drunk to remember it.
There were times he missed liquor for the way it made him feel, and other times he missed it for what it could do for him. This was one of those other times, because he wished he could have had the luxury of forgetting, too. With a groan, he pushed himself off the sofa and grabbed for his coat. If he stopped to think, he would never do it.
He had to bang only twice on the door before it swung open. Marbury hadn’t bothered with undressing, either; he was still in his shirt, open and askew, and his hair was wild.
“Leo?” he said, and it was a measure of how exhausted he must be that he used his actual name. “What’s happened? Why did no one ring me?”
“It’s all right,” Leo began. His voice sounded odd even to his ears. “No more troop movement. It’s settling down. I checked the latest sats before I drove over here.”
“Thank God.” Marbury leaned his head against the edge of the door and swayed a little. Then he jerked it up. “What on earth are you doing here, then?”
“I’m—there’s—I ought to come in.” Marbury flung the door wider, and Leo followed him into the suite, sparing a glance around at the luxurious, impersonal surroundings. Odd, but predictable, he supposed. “There something wrong with the Enbassy residence?”
“What?” Marbury squinted at him. “Ah. No, nothing at all. Just a bit of a fishbowl. I keep this as well. How did you find it?”
Leo raised his eyebrows. “You seriously think we can’t put our finger on you at any given moment?”
“Ah. No, I suppose not. Well, that’s spectacularly invasive of you, though I must say unsurprising.”
“Yeah. Look. I wanted to say. . .” He shifted his weight, rearranging the coat draped over his arm. Now that it had come to it, he felt like an idiot, and the words he had rehearsed in the car sounded hollow, ludicrous. “I wanted to say that was something tonight, what you did. It was. . .” He paused. “It was something.”
Marbury’s squint deepened. “I’m sorry. Did you just come to my rooms at four o’clock in the morning to convey the thanks of a grateful nation?”
“No, I came to your rooms at four o’clock in the morning to convey the thanks of a grateful Chief of Staff to an overworked President. What you did tonight, it was. . .”
“That it was.” He shifted, peered at the window behind Marbury’s head, the lights of the city winking at him. “All right, that’s it. That’s all I had to say.” He turned to go, and had his hand on the doorknob before Marbury stopped him.
“Half a moment.”
He waited while Marbury crossed the room, a thoughtful frown on his face. The hand rested on the half-open door, not stopping him. Just resting there.
“If I ask you a question, will you tell me truly?” The eyes were so large he almost flinched from them, but he nodded. His throat was too dry for speech.
Marbury dropped his eyes, appeared to be considering. “Did I miscalculate?” he said at last, his eyes skating up to Leo.
He studied the grain of the wood in the door, and felt the weight of the words in the back of his throat before he said them. “No,” he said. “You didn’t miscalculate.” Because he was fifty-goddamned-six years old, and exhausted beyond prevarication, and it was four in the morning and the world was still more or less in one piece. And because the lie would have tasted sour, and with all the lies his job required him to juggle, this was just the one he couldn’t bear.
“Ah.” Beside him, he felt Marbury shift, draw breath. “Then, if you want to—” and here the hand did begin its slide down the edge of the door, to close just lightly on top of his own, which was suddenly cold—“why don’t you close the door.”
The click of the door was muted, like everything else in this over-decorated, ridiculous room. Marbury removed his hand, and just stood behind him. For a second Leo wondered if they would simply stand there for what was left of the night, staring together at the door.
“Turn round,” Marbury said. Leo spun on his heel and went past him to the sofa table. He clicked off the lamp, then went to the one on the console against the wall, then flicked the switch on the halogens over the bar. When the room was pitch black, and only the city watched them through the window, he dropped his coat on the chair.
“It has to be in the dark, then?” Marbury’s amused voice asked.
“Yeah,” he said, already loosening his tie. “Come on, let’s go.”
Marbury’s outline was perfectly plain in the room as it sloped towards him. Too tall, and Leo was not a man who ever walked into a room feeling too small for it, but Marbury’s height bothered him. His hand was on his fly when Marbury grabbed his wrist.
“Are we doing this or not?”
“Wait.” Marbury began unbuttoning his own shirt, and pushed it off onto the floor. Leo couldn’t see more than angles and shadows, and then the hands were at his shirt, pushing it back and off him, and then there were thumbs brushing his nipples. Marbury’s hands were stroking his chest.
“One night, then,” he said thoughtfully.
“Sure,” Leo said, though ‘night’ seemed like overshooting it a bit, considering how long this was likely to take.
“All right, then,” Marbury said, and pulled Leo to him, all wiry strength and firm fingers. Then the fingers were gripping his ass, pressing into it, and there was hot breath at his neck. The breath smelled of coffee and cigarettes, and his dick gave a leap at it, and at the feel of Marbury’s tongue on his neck. The tongue was suddenly gone, and whatever was on Marbury’s face was hidden by the dark.
“Come on,” he said, and a hand on his shoulder was pushing him into the bedroom, down onto the bed. He hadn’t calculated on there being a bed involved, and he was lost for a moment. And then there was only the pressure of a long warm body on top of his, and hard warmth grinding into his. Marbury stretched his hands along Leo’s arms and pinned him by the wrists. Leo pushed back, and flipped them so he was on top of Marbury. No sense letting him get the wrong idea here. Marbury’s long fingers were at the base of his neck, pulling him in, and at first Leo wasn’t sure for what, and Marbury’s lips were on his before he was ready for it.
The kiss was the twin of the one he had attempted to give in his office – slow and luxurious and somehow arrogant. It was hard not to sink into it, into the fingers kneading the back of his neck, threading through his hair. In the dark there was only fingers and eyes and lips, until of a sudden the fingers were pushing his pants down and off. He hadn’t calculated on total nakedness, but that seemed to be where Marbury was heading. The voice in his ear was hot.
“I’m going to hazard another guess,” he murmured. “Have you ever done this with someone whose last name you actually knew?”
“Well,” he temporized. “I know yours. All of ‘em, in fact.”
“Yes, I suppose I can share them ‘round, can’t I?”
Leo opened his mouth to answer, but the lips were back on it, the tongue flicking across his teeth. The fingers were back at his shoulders, and then he was being rolled again, and Marbury, damn it, was crawling on top of him, but he couldn’t find breath to protest that, either, because when he dug his fingers into Marbury’s ass he felt hard muscle, a dusting of soft hair, and oh, Marbury’s dick was out, and had found his. They both jerked at the contact, and then Marbury’s voice – God damn it, why wouldn’t he stop talking?
“You’ve thought about this,” he was saying, in that arrogant, plummy tone that ordinarily made Leo want to kick him in the balls, except now those balls were pressed up against his own.
“It’s possible,” he conceded.
“What did you think about, when you thought about it?”
“This,” grunted Leo, and gripped the back of Marbury’s neck, pushing him down towards his groin.
“Ah,” he replied, and then that hot hot breath was on his dick, only he wasn’t sucking it – just licking it. Nuzzling it, almost, which would have been fine, except that in the four seconds it had taken Marbury to travel down him his dick had gone from pleasantly hard to aching-to-come, and he arched up a bit to give Marbury the hint.
Which he took, because the mouth was all around him now, taking him in, and he clenched his fingers in the bedspread and let a whimper escape him. Too goddamn long it had been since he had felt this, and oh, it felt incredible, but then Marbury moved a bit, shifted, rearranged his tongue and did something with it, and Leo knew that no, he had never felt this. He groaned aloud and pushed up into it. “Come on,” he whispered. “Come on.” He didn’t know if he was saying it to Marbury or himself, but then Marbury raised his head and peered up at him, not saying anything. Apparently he reached a decision on his own, because he lowered his mouth back down and swallowed him whole, one of those fingers brushing against the base of his balls, giving just enough pressure, and he was dismayed to hear the depth and volume of his own groan as he spilled into Marbury’s mouth.
The shudders just kept going, and he relaxed into them, letting himself float. Marbury climbed back up him and grabbed him by the wrist, bringing a hand to where he was hot and hard and a little slick at the tip. Leo had forgotten that this part might be expected of him, but he could manage. He gripped and tugged and gave a twist at the head, just like he himself liked, and it seemed to be a universal. Marbury snaked an arm underneath his neck and pulled him in, Marbury was practically sprawled on top of him, humping him, Marbury was grunting softly into his neck.
“Yes, that’s it, come on then,” he was saying, thrusting into Leo’s hand, urging him faster, faster. Leo had just a second to worry about whether there were tissues beside the bed before Marbury threw his head back.
“Leo,” he groaned loudly, and then Leo’s hands were hot and wet with him. He might have known Marbury’s orgasms would be as full of drama as the rest of him.
“I need to go over there,” he said, in what he hoped was an even tone. “We need to send someone to Belfast, and it shouldn’t be a State Department lackey, it needs to be me.”
Jed sighed, his head bowed. It was eleven at night, and the latest NSC briefing had just wrapped up, and Leo had held it together all day, been the impartial, impersonal éminence grise for long hours of having to listen to endless reports while waiting for the next bulletin from Belfast, not knowing if the next one would say the unspeakable that he couldn’t even say in his head. “I think,” he heard himself saying, “that some sort of gesture like that would be what’s called for.”
The expected protest did not come. Jed scrubbed at his face with his hands. “What’s the latest?” he asked.
Leo pretended to have to glance at the paper on his knee, but he had it memorized. “He entered surgery at 1700 hours Belfast time, exited at 2130. They didn’t finish, but had to close because he was destabilizing.” That was the word that made the room lurch, and he swallowed carefully around it. “Last memo, still unconscious in the ICU. They plan to open him back up in another couple of hours, see if they can stabilize him.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“No,” Leo said lightly. “Not really.” The memos Debbie had slipped him periodically hadn’t contained any information about how much of Marbury had been left on the pavement, and how much they might be laboring to save. In the interminable briefings that followed, his head had played with various possibilities and combinations, each more grisly than the next.
“Hey there.” Leo turned at the sound of Abbey’s low voice at the door, and he watched Jed unfold, literally unbend, the way he always did when Abbey walked into a room, no matter how whipped he was, no matter how empty of anything left to give. He had spent too many years resenting that to notice it much now.
“Hey,” Jed said, though the surprise was evident in his voice. Abbey tended not to come to the Oval, and Leo knew enough about why that was not to speculate on it. “You’re still up?”
She wrapped her arms around her and came to settle on the sofa opposite Leo. “What’s the latest on John?” Leo handed her the memo, and she read it, her brow furrowing. “That’s not good,” she said softly.
“Yeah. Leo and I had pretty much figured that one out, but thanks for your expert medical opinion there.”
“Oh, stuff it,” she said absently, fingering the piece of paper.
“I’m flying over there,” Leo told her, for something to say, and she nodded.
He glanced at his watch. “Pull a few things together, take a car to National, I figure I can be there by tomorrow afternoon, Belfast time.”
“God, John,” she said, and bent her head. “Those bastards.”
Leo rose quickly, because if he saw Abbey lose it, he might be ill. He might be tempted to grab the sidearm off the Marine at the door and start wildly shooting at things, like the windows, the d’Estaing clock, himself. “Okay then,” he said. “I’m heading out. I’ll call when I’ve got a flight.”
“Yeah.” He paused at the doorway to his office.
“You all right with this?”
There seemed no possible response to that, so he attempted none. “I’ll call,” he repeated, and clicked the door behind him.
One night, they had agreed.
One night, and it would be out of his system. No more fantasies, no more distractions, no more desperate midnight jerk-off sessions. India and Pakistan solved for now, and Marbury packed off to the background where he belonged, and Leo could resume his life.
Only, not quite. Because the movies in his head now had a focus. They had smells, and sounds, and touch and taste and reality. Before, it had all been speculation; now, he knew exactly what Marbury sounded like in the half-second before he came. He knew what the skin at the base of his neck tasted like, and what his fingers felt like cupping his balls. And over and over again, the movie played that orgasm. Leo, he had said, like it was a good thing, a wondrous thing, in a voice packed with so much desire and hunger that Leo’s dick had stirred out of its own post-orgasmic languor and taken notice.
When he stroked himself, at nights, those were the words he heard, in continuous reel. Leo, Leo, Leo. He felt Marbury humping him again, Marbury undone by want, Marbury sucking on his neck, eating his mouth, nuzzling his jaw. And then his brain took it the next step, to the things they hadn’t done, but might have, if they had had more of the night. In his head, he saw himself fucking Marbury, and Christ, but he came hard whenever he thought of that one. Marbury underneath him, tight muscles clenching him, strong fingers on his shoulders. Or Marbury face-down, and he was sucking the back of Marbury’s neck as he fucked him, and Marbury wasn’t saying anything, just grunting softly as Leo slammed into him, fucked him fucked him fucked him yes.
“Ah, hell,” he muttered, wiping his hands with the bedside Kleenex he was having to replace on a pretty regular basis now. Getting it out of his system had clearly not worked.
But Leo was nothing if not a pragmatist. If something didn’t work, you changed your plan of attack. So when Margaret stuck her head around his door and said “Lord Marbury. Do you want him?” he had choked for a minute, then nodded and picked up the phone.
“Ah, Gerald, good. Listen, I think we ought to meet.”
“You do,” he repeated, glancing out the window.
“Indeed. Say Friday, ten o’clock?”
He paused, considering. No, your Lordship, I don’t think that’s such a good idea. I’m sorry, your Lordship, I have a previous engagement. There were any number of sensible ways to respond.
“Excellent, then,” Marbury was saying, as if he had agreed. “I’ll see you then.”
And the phone clicked dead at the other end. Lord John Marbury had just called him at the White House to set up an assignation. The strangest phone call he had received all week, and here it was, only Tuesday.
He was barely through the door before Marbury was on him. Their kisses were fierce and frantic, in between shedding jackets and toeing off shoes and tugging at ties. Leo met him kiss for kiss, this time, nothing held back, just the taste of Marbury inside him, around him, underneath him. This time, though, there was no making it to the bed. He got both their dicks in a rough grasp right there on the lushly carpeted floor, setting a quick harsh pace that had them panting and spilling over their joined hands before their socks were completely off. Afterwards, Leo rolled off him with a groan and stared at the ceiling.
“What are you thinking?”
“That I’m too old to be doing this on a floor.”
Marbury snorted. “You do have an exaggerated opinion of your own gravitas, don’t you?” He rose lightly and crossed to the bar, and Leo watched his bare ass below the lean back. No one should look that good wearing nothing but black socks and a casual smear of come on his upper left thigh. He watched Marbury bend to the minifridge, and that was even nicer.
“Here you are.” Marbury tossed a mineral water at him, and Leo scowled at it.
“You really don’t have to do that,” he said, irritated.
“Do what?” Marbury wiped his mouth after chugging half his own bottle in three seconds.
“I’m used to people drinking around me. I’m pretty sure I can withstand the temptation. Fix yourself a goddamn martini if you want.”
Marbury settled back on the floor, arms and legs akimbo. “But I don’t want.”
He bent over Leo, and he realized Marbury was cocking an inquisitive head at his penis. “What’s your recovery time, I wonder?”
Leo shrugged. “What is it, Friday?”
“Oh, please. You’re not that old. Besides, I was wondering if later on, you might want to fuck me.” He took another swig of his mineral water.
Leo blinked at him. He had meant to object to the whole “later on” idea, but had been derailed by the final two words.
“Or is that not something you do?” Marbury’s smile around the lip of his water bottle could only be described as impish.
Leo rose quickly, tearing off what was left of his clothes. “Finish your water,” he said, stalking to the bedroom door. “And get in here.”
And nothing, nothing had prepared him.
Because he wasn’t white, or still, or any of the things Leo had prepared himself on the plane to see, all the things he thought he would see when he stepped through those glass double doors.
He was broken.
Leo stood braced in the door of the CCU, his hand clutching the cold metal of the frame of Marbury’s alcove, not seeing the monitors and the greenish light and the dark-suited agents and the nurses swathed in turquoise, not seeing any of it, only the long broken thing under the thin sheet whose chest rose, fell, rose, fell with a mechanical whoosh, what had been hands swaddled with tubes and gauze, and only bloodied craters where eyes had once been.
He turned on his heel as quickly as he had come and headed down the hall, to the bathroom whose sign his unconscious mind had registered even as he had swept in, not stopping at the front desk, letting his detail take care of it. He slipped into the bathroom and clicked the stall door behind him, not closing his eyes, just staring at the dirty green paint of the door. Then he landed his fist in the middle of the door, not feeling it, really, so he kept at it, again, and again, and again until he felt the warmth of the blood and the burn of something else and knew with satisfaction he had at last managed to break something.
So they fell into more or less regular – meetings, Leo called them in his head, because he couldn’t bring himself to the ridiculous “assignations,” and “tryst” sounded loverlike, which this definitely was not. This was hard, and desperate, and fierce, and yes, there was kissing involved, but Leo figured that had more to do with Marbury’s constitutional inability to control his mouth in any given situation than with sentiment. There were no words for what an awful idea it was, which was something Leo thought with frequency and force each Monday. But inevitably, by Thursday he thought that a bit less, and by mid-afternoon Friday, it was no longer an awful idea. It was fucking brilliant.
“This has got to be the dumbest idea in my political life,” Leo said, stretched back on the bed, watching Marbury stalk naked across the room to the bathroom.
“Oh, really? Dumber, for instance, than running the Department of Labor while doped to the gills?”
“Yeah,” Leo agreed amiably. “Dumber than that.”
“Spare me,” Marbury replied over the running water.
In the office, it was something he wondered about.
Because they were all who they were, and while it might sound ridiculous to say it out loud, they were the best there was, the best the country had to offer. Maybe even better than that. And they were professionals, and they were there to do a job. What they were beyond that was something they checked at those wide glass doors, something the marble in the lobby slicked off the bottom of their shoes each morning. Because for these years – these few precious years – they weren’t anything more than this job they had to do, and whatever lie his staff might find to say to whoever shared their beds at nights, it wasn’t one he had been able to tell to Jenny, that night when she had asked. Not more important than this, she had said, pleaded almost. Leo, not more important than our marriage. And he had looked her square in the face and told the truth, not because he was too noble for the lie, but because he was so goddamned angry that she was going to make him say it.
Only now, he wondered. Was it like this for any of the others? Were there secrets, dark hungry longings that they occasionally indulged, when they thought it didn’t matter? Once, he would have shrugged at the thought, or hastily dismissed it, not wanting to know. Now, he wondered. Once, maybe a year or more ago, he had happened to look up at an odd moment and had seen Toby glance at C.J. with more naked longing than he would have thought the human face could reasonably express. Just a flash, though, and it had been wiped away, and then it had been Toby’s same bland, unreadable eyes. But still, he caught the way her eyes would sometimes flick to Toby, and it didn’t escape him that those glances never coincided.
There were other glances he had occasionally intercepted, too, the long quiet ones Sam had aimed in Josh’s direction. He had known, at the time, that there had been more to Sam’s decision to leave than ambition or even quixotic idealism. But even in his innermost thoughts he had refrained from comment on those glances; Sam did not need him to spell out the object lesson in pointless.
Maybe they were full of secrets, all of them. Maybe Josh and Donna occasionally swept Josh’s desk clean and screwed each other senseless right there on top of it; maybe Toby and C.J. found nights when they could forget everything else but a lifetime of choked longing, and tore each other’s clothes off; maybe Margaret left the West Wing at nights and picked up guys in bars who bit her bra off with their teeth and – yeah, that was as far as he wanted to go with that image. But where once, thinking about this sort of thing might have disturbed him, now he felt a kind of solidarity with all of them. Now, he was kind of hoping Walter in the lobby had a secret sex dungeon, and someone he called when things got too bad.
As for his own phone call, he had known it would come. He just hadn’t known he would be the one making it.
“Yes?” Marbury’s voice on the line was his same slightly impatient one.
“I think we need to meet.”
A pause, and Leo wasn’t able to tell what was on the other end of it. The closing of a door? A nod to a secretary? A weighing of response? Because here it was, only Tuesday. “Absolutely,” came the crisp reply.
He made it to the hotel room before Marbury, this time. He just sat on the sofa, in the dark, waiting, and when the door finally clicked open, he didn’t look up. Marbury crossed swiftly to him, his shoes brushing the soft carpet, and in a move that dried Leo’s mouth completely, he knelt in front of him, a gentle hand on either knee.
“Do you want to talk about it before, or after?” he asked.
“After,” Leo managed.
“Thank God.” Then there were warm pliable lips closing on his, slower and less fierce than usual but that was nice, it was comforting. And then the lips drew back, hesitated, and he knew Marbury could taste it on him. “Ah,” was all he said.
“Yeah,” Leo said. The shame of it slung around and caught him in the throat, and also the surge of utterly irrational, blinding anger, which was predictable. He had been down this road a few times, and he knew the roadsigns because he had paid every toll on it, many times over.
“But you’re not drunk.”
“Which means you stopped.”
Even in the dark, he could pick out Marbury’s frown. The puzzlement was genuine. “How?”
“I called you.”
Marbury bowed his head at that, but Leo was beyond any sort of shame right now – beyond anything but a scourging, desperate self-disgust. Marbury’s hands at the back of his head, pulling him in, for what he didn’t know, but then there was a forehead resting against his own, and fingers cradling the back of his neck, and a thumb brushing his jaw in an idle caress, and though his harsh, racking intake of breath could not have been called a sob, Marbury’s soft “Shh, it’s all right,” undid him.
That was the first night he let Marbury fuck him.
Maybe it was a sort of punishment he had devised for himself, thinking it would be humiliating and painful and demeaning and all the things he knew he deserved, to have let himself have that sweet, sweet drink, and the one that had followed. So he lay there and let Marbury do whatever he wanted, because this was almost like getting drunk – it was a perfect “fuck you” to the universe, to everything he was supposed to be and do.
“You’ve never done this, have you?” Marbury’s breath was hot in his ear, and he was glad he couldn’t see his face.
He shook his head. “Just do it,” he said, hoping Marbury would know what he wanted – nothing gentle, nothing slow, just to have what he had done fucked out of him.
“Fine, but I’m not going to hurt you. You’ll have to flagellate yourself on your own time. Now relax.”
“I’m relaxed,” he gritted out. “Will you just – Jesus Christ!” He jumped as something warm and wet, inarguably Marbury’s tongue, swiped a trail up the crack of his ass. He could feel Marbury’s chuckle travel up his spine. “Stop fucking around, will you, and just get in me already.”
Then Marbury’s body was moving up to stretch on top of his, the hot breath back in his ear, though a little less steady this time. “Keep saying things like that,” he whispered, “and this is going to be over quite soon.”
“Get in me, and shut the hell up.”
Marbury’s dick was blunt and stiff and hurt like hell going in. He didn’t cry out, but bit his arm instead. Marbury was heavy on top of him, just resting there. “I’m going to move now,” he said at last, in a strangled voice.
“About damn time.”
His rhythm was fast and a little brutal, and Leo gasped at it, involuntarily spreading his legs a bit more. He didn’t know what it said about him that this was making him achingly hard, or that Marbury’s harsh breath on his neck was so arousing. Nonetheless he flinched away from Marbury’s hand on his dick, as it slid down and underneath him.
“Go fuck yourself, Leo. Right now, I’m fucking you, and I say you’re going to come.”
“Christ Christ Christ,” he moaned as the rough hand jerked him, and his insides came unstrung.
“Wait,” Marbury bit off, a hand closing on his balls and twisting them.
“Jesus, come on.”
“I’m not done fucking you yet,” but Leo heard from the hitch in his voice how close he was. Marbury shifted a bit, and this time Leo did cry out, but not in pain.
“There?” Marbury’s voice was not his own.
“Yes yes there you fucking—”
“Shut up then,” which was unnecessary because not for the life of him could he have gotten any words out after that, not with Marbury’s dick hitting him there at every inthrust, and he no longer needed a hand around him to get off, he was doing just fine on the mattress, thank you. He knew he was groaning, but didn’t care – his head was arching back, his arms splaying. Marbury’s arm stretched on top of his, Marbury’s fingers laced in his, gripping tight, and it was just the anchor he needed, somehow, because on his next choking breath he came hard and wet into the bed, in long lacerating strings of pleasure that uncoiled from the inside and shot out of him like knives.
“Christ, Leo, wait, I—” Marbury’s thrusts were even faster, painfully so, but then he felt something warm and wet that wasn’t Marbury’s tongue, but his come, his come spilling inside him, and his own last few shudders of pleasure seized him, loving the feel of his ass clamping down on Marbury’s dick, of Marbury shaking and swearing against him.
For long minutes they didn’t uncurl, or move, or do anything but ease back into regular breathing. Marbury’s head was tucked into the back of his neck, and something in the weight of it made him never want to move. His eyes began to drift shut.
“Now tell me why.”
He jerked awake at the murmur of Marbury’s lips against his neck. In the dark he thought about it, weighed it. Why the hell not. There was no one else to show, no one else ever to know. With difficulty he untangled himself, hating the feel of Marbury’s dick sliding out of him, of the cold of the room as he padded barefoot and bare-assed to his briefcase in the next room.
Wordlessly he tossed the manila folder on the bed, and laid himself back on it, staring at the ceiling. Marbury clicked on the light, opened the folder. To his credit he didn’t ask questions about what he was looking at, just silently examined them, one horrifying image after another.
“Taken from a chopper after a bombing,” he said, when he knew Marbury had had a chance to look at all of them. “A farming village called Mei Tong. Tango Company had a reporter embedded with them, did some amazing aerial photography when he got a chance. You can even see some of the bodies. Some of them are face up.” Marbury rotated one picture, peering at it. He wondered if it was the one with the body of the little girl, maybe six or seven. She looked quite peaceful, except for the fact that the lower half of her body was ten yards away from her upper half. On top of the compost heap, which again showed quite clearly in the photographs, down to the scraps of peel and refuse. You could even see the skinny whitish dog beginning to nose his way toward the heap and the pile of her bloodied limbs.
“Vietnam,” Marbury said softly.
He shuffled the enlarged photographs. “This is appalling.”
“Why do you have these?”
“They weren’t that hard to get hold of, actually. A few calls, a few file searches over at the DOD. They were on my desk this morning.”
“You requested them.”
“Some time ago, this Air Force general, Adamley, mentioned a bombing raid – January of 68. Claimed it was a civilian target, not a military installation. It occurred to me there might be some photographs still lurking around, thought it couldn’t hurt to track them down.” He stuck them back in their folder.
“But it did.”
“Yeah. Well. As it turns out, not only am I an excellent pilot, I am also accurate from ten thousand feet.”
“Ah,” Marbury said, and Leo hated how much he could pack into that syllable. They lay there in silence for a bit more.
“It was heavy cloud cover,” Leo said finally. “It was instrument flying. I had my orders, and I carried them out. It was—” his throat closed, and he used his hand to rub his temples and shield his eyes. “It was supposed to be a bridge. A bridge and a weapons cache.”
“But it wasn’t.”
“And this man told you? After all this time?”
“Why? To what end?”
Leo picked up the folder, fingered its frayed edges. “This was back when I was throwing my support to the International Criminal Court.”
Marbury sat up, his brows a single line. “Do you mean to say a general in the United States Air Force attempted to blackmail you?”
“God, no. You don’t know Alan. He—” Leo scrubbed at his face. “He meant to show me what the face of an American war criminal could look like.” He put his hands down. “And if you say ‘Ah,’ so help me, I will deck you.”
Marbury plucked the folder from his hands and set it on the nightstand. “In fact, I was going to say this.” He rolled over and shifted closer. The angle was awkward, but he got a hand behind Leo’s head and pulled him in. The kiss was slow, exploratory almost, and it struck Leo that this particular bit of kissing was inexcusable. No sex in sight, post-coital glow long faded, no objective other than the fact of the kissing, which made it all somehow lewder, more intimate, unbearable. He lifted a hand to push Marbury away, because he didn’t need comfort, God damn it. There was no acceptable palliative for what he had done. But his hand fell back against the bed, because Marbury’s kiss – and it was definitely Marbury’s kiss, he had nothing to do with it – did not seem to be about palliation or erasure or anything so obscene as comfort. It was something else entirely, but Marbury had pulled away before he could name it, and was regarding him with those impossible black holes of eyes. The thumb that brushed his cheekbone took him aback.
“So you took the drink.”
“I took it.”
“But you stopped.”
“Well.” He shifted. Marbury’s knee against his thigh was only slightly more uncomfortable than his gaze. “Not so much stopped, as ran out.”
Marbury cocked a brow. “Ran out?”
Leo shrugged. “It was a friend’s stash, and it was handy.”
Marbury narrowed his eyes at him. “You stole the President’s entire whisky stash? From the Oval Office?”
“It was half a bottle, he won’t miss it, and how do you know it was whisky? Also, why are you – are you actually laughing?”
“No, no, I’m – all right, it is marginally amusing, but you have to admit—”
“You’re laughing at me? You really think this is the appropriate response to a drunk who falls off the wagon? Laughing?”
“Oh, stop taking yourself so seriously. It’s not the end of the world.”
He shoved Marbury off and away, and kicked back the covers. “It is the end of the world for me, you idiot. I’m an alcoholic, and this happens to be what the end of the world looks like, or do you not get that?”
Marbury caught his hand in his, still smiling, the bastard. “But you stopped.”
“I stopped because I ran out. Drunks don’t stop.”
“You stopped, and you called me. You could have gone in search of more. You could have stopped anywhere and got some more. But you called me, and you came here.”
“Oh, for – I called you, you conceited self-important lunatic, because I was drunk and in need of a good lay, and I knew you were a drunk, and I knew you were likely to give me more to drink. Happy now?”
Marbury caught the other hand. “But I didn’t give you more, and you didn’t ask for it.”
“Yeah, well, I was working up to it.”
Marbury chuckled again, and flopped back on his pillow. “How do I know it was whisky, he asks. Please. Do you seriously think I can’t detect single-malt at fifty metres? It’s in the blood.”
“Literally, in your case.” He watched Marbury click off the light on the nightstand. He knew this was his cue to get up and slip back into his clothes, but he allowed himself a few more minutes of bonelessness. The image of the little girl chased him, whenever he shut his eyes, hovering there at the edge of his vision, waiting for him. He imagined his deathbed, and wondered if she would be waiting there, too, with the skinny white dog who would chew his limbs. The dog was starting in already, mouthing his feet, his fur splattered with the blood, his teeth crunching ankle bone and gristly tendon.
“Fuck,” he breathed, jerking awake. Marbury’s hand was already on him, steadying him out of the nightmare, and he rolled over, shaking. Long arms came around him, and he didn’t shrug them off, because it would have meant turning his wet face to Marbury. This was a part he knew, too, the shaky sweaty teary aftermath of what the liquor did, and he wasn’t the second-most powerful man in the world, he was a stupid fucking drunk.
“You stopped,” Marbury said quietly, into his hair, responding to his thoughts. “And you called me.”
“One of these days I won’t stop,” he said to the wall. “It happens that way. One of these days it will happen again, and I won’t stop, and what the hell I’ll do then I have no idea.”
“You’ll call me.”
To that, Leo had no reply.
He took the call mainly because it gave him an excuse to get out of that room, away from the blinking monitors and the sucking whoosh of the respirator, away from looking at the broken thing stretched on the bed. He flipped his phone open without checking the ID, because frankly, anyone who had this particular number was someone whose call he needed to take.
“Yeah,” he said, still striding down the hall to the small lounge with its artificial potted palms, and the two agents at its door who quickly stood aside. There was a moment of fuzziness on the other end, a bit of a crackle, and when it came clear, he had to blink for a second or two before he could place the terribly familiar-sounding voice on the other end of it.
“Yes ma’am,” he began again, and then just listened. Outside, he could see the late afternoon rain beginning. The streets were slick and heavy with fog; the whole city looked gray.
“No ma’am, he’s not conscious. He’s –” not likely ever to be, was on the edge of his tongue, but he was uncertain what exactly she knew, or how frank he ought to be. “Things are pretty touch and go at the moment, I’d say.” The windows of the little lounge looked down on the service entrance at the rear of the hospital, and he could see linens being loaded into a dingy truck, workmen leaning against the truck bay, tossing a pack of cigarettes. He wondered if Marbury had had his smokes in his jacket, and what had become of them. Or what had become of his jacket, come to think of it.
“Yes ma’am, I’m still here. Yes, if you’d like I could call you directly and let you know the minute there’s any change. The surgeon would like to try to take him back up to surgery in the next few hours, so it’s possible we’ll know more then.” Below, workman number one was laughing while workman number two made some sort of gesture with his hands, possibly obscene. Workman number three was shaking his head, grinning.
“Yes ma’am, I’ll be sure to do that. Yes, he is a fighter.” With any luck, Marbury was beyond fighting at this point, beyond all awareness of pain, beyond consciousness. It was hard to wish him into consciousness, knowing what awaited him if he did. He shut his eyes.
“Honestly, ma’am, I would say that’s anyone’s guess at the moment. My instinct is, we could be looking at a UDA or UVF hit – just because they haven’t demonstrated the capability doesn’t mean they don’t have it. It’s possible that he wasn’t even the intended target.” The agent that had briefed him in the car from the airport had said something about a switch, that maybe O’Doole’s car had been switched for Marbury’s at the last minute, but he was unsure what she knew, and he wasn’t about to be the one to offer her a briefing.
“You can be assured the President wishes that too. I’ll pass the message on to him. Yes ma’am. Thank you ma’am.”
He clicked the phone shut and watched the workmen for a bit more. Then he flipped it open again and pushed the series of digits that would connect him to this phone’s twin. No speed dial on this phone, or any list of contacts; cell phones could get lost or go astray.
“Leo? How’s it going?”
“Not good. So, were you the one who gave the Queen this number?”
“Yep. Didn’t think I was going to listen to her yatter at me, did you? Besides, she wanted to hear from someone on the ground there. She say anything nice about me?”
“No, on account of she doesn’t much like you.”
“Yeah, that’s never changed.”
“You made fun of her dogs.”
“And she’s never let go if it, either. Listen, they’re saying most likely the device was planted in the storm drain, maybe even just beneath the pavement. It’s the best anyone’s got right now, for how a sweep could have missed it.”
“It sure didn’t look like that kind of a blast.” That was the sickening thing, of course; CNN and every national and international news agency was showing the blast itself in continuous reel, slow-motion. The black car flying through the air, the keen scream of metal on pavement, the explosive spray of steel and blood and smoke. Over and over, on every channel. “That’s what Scotland Yard’s saying?”
“So far. They don’t really know yet, but they’re speculating it was a hit on O’Doole gone awry.”
“You don’t think so.”
“My gut?” Leo watched as the workmen flicked their cigarettes into the puddled gutters, climbed back into their truck, still laughing. “I don’t think they made a mistake. I think they got their man.”
Silence on the other end, and Leo watched the truck pull away from the service bay, splashing mud on the pavement. It was always raining in this goddamned city; the adjective “bleak” was invented for this place.
“Thank you for being there.”
He didn’t say anything, not because he was ashamed he had passed off personal interest as national interest, but because of what he saw coming.
“Leo, seriously, thank you. I’m glad you were there, glad you were on the ground. You should come on back now – there’s nothing more anyone can do, really, other than wait for Scotland Yard to file their report. Who knows how much information they’re going to share with us anyway, the close-lipped bastards. You know, I think you might have made up some mileage for me, about those dogs. When I told her my Chief of Staff was already in Belfast, actually at his bedside, I swear her voice got a little softer there, for half a second.”
“That was your imagination.”
“I only said they were fat. It’s not an insult – corgis are meant to be fat. It looks good on them. It was a compliment. Fat can be a compliment.”
“I can’t think of a single situation in which that is true.” He eased himself down into the uncomfortable vinyl sofa, wondering if he could close his eyes for a few minutes.
“Seriously, Leo, come home.”
This seemed like the sort of conversation he ought to be standing for, or at least opening his eyes, but he was too tired and lagged and sick to bother. “I think I’m going to stay for a bit.”
“Why? What’s going on?”
He paused. It was possible he could plausibly manufacture an answer to that one, something that would sound reasonable. On second thought, probably not. “Nothing,” he said at last. “I just think I’m going to stay for a bit. At least until they get him through this next surgery.”
“Leo, I know you’re—”
“Hang on.” A cart wheeled by in the hall, with someone jogging behind it. Two more nurses were coming running from the other direction. “Shit,” he breathed. “I gotta go.”
“Leo, what—” He flipped it shut, pretending not to hear, already running toward the glassed alcove they were all converging on, not wanting to see, not able to stop. Not like this, oh Christ, not like this, please don’t let him be conscious, was all he could think.
He took the call without thinking, because Margaret didn’t flip calls to him unless they were calls to be taken. But it was towards the end of the day, or at least the day as most sane people defined it, though he had several more hours’ work to do.
“Yeah,” he began, frowning at the jumble of the position file Josh had just handed him. It had all the earmarks of something he had put together himself, without any help from Donna. It looked like a fourth-grade book report.
“So I’ve been thinking about sucking you,” drawled the voice on the other end, and Leo fumbled the phone and almost dropped it.
“Ah—that’s probably for later,” he muttered, glancing at C.J., who was still on the sofa, and Toby, leaning in the doorway.
“Excellent. Because I’ve been thinking about it all day. It’s been rather a light day round here, not much to do but sit around and look posh, which fortunately I’m rather good at, so I’ve had plenty of time on my hands to ponder the question.”
“Uh huh. What question would that be?”
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” C.J. was saying to Toby. “That’s like a pinata of dumb – I could take a whack at it, but then all the pieces of dumb would break off and come flying at me.”
“Did you like it when I fucked you?”
Leo coughed. “I’ve, ah, there’s—” he glanced pointedly at C.J., who ignored him.
“I wonder if you liked it as much as I liked it. Like it. Come to think of it, that sentence can be taken a number of ways. One could mean, ‘I wonder if you liked being fucked as much as I like being fucked, or alternatively one could mean, ‘I wonder if you liked being fucked as much as I like fucking you.’ Perfectly appropriate queries, both of them, because much like that sentence I, too, can be taken a number of ways.”
Toby swiped at his eyes. “Title IX has limited applicability – it’s not the Civil Rights Act, it’s the regulation of funding, and while I personally never stop thinking of new and inventive ways to make people hate Democrats, taking away their high school football teams was one I hadn’t gotten to yet.”
“Well, that’s because you haven’t been trying.”
“This is why people hate Democrats, C.J. – because they think we want their girls in helmets and pads and their boys in leotards learning interpretive dance, besides which—”
“What about interpretive dance?” Josh stuck his head in the door.
“Hey there, ballerina boy.” C.J. took a swig off her water bottle.
“Are the children being unruly?” Leo could hear the amused smile. “Doesn’t sound like they’re paying you much mind. I’ll just stay on the line then, shall I?”
“Yeah, that’s possible,” he replied, turning the next page.
“I adored fucking you so much that I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it, actually. I’ve been bringing myself off every night thinking about it.”
“Okay, yeah, I can see that.” Leo continued to flip the pages.
“I’m telling you, equal access for sports is an issue we should be setting up a tent on and preaching the word.”
Toby rolled his eyes. “Badminton is not how you energize the base.”
“Oh, hey, I played badminton!”
Marbury’s voice smirked at him. “Shall I tell you more about how hard I come, just thinking about fucking you?”
“That would be good.”
“I’ve been getting hard during the day, thinking about it. I’ll be sitting somewhere, some dreary meeting or other, some insufferable luncheon, and if my mind wanders in the least I’ll begin to get hard. I should stop myself, but it feels so achingly good, being hard like that. I’ve even had to bring myself off in the washroom, once. Nearly impossible, that, but I was so hard I had no choice. And all I could think about was your mouth on me, how good that felt, how hard you make me come, how—”
Leo propped the phone on his shoulder. “Guys. Take it outside, will you?”
“You could just hang up, you know,” came Marbury’s sly voice.
“No no, I’m here. Keep going.” Josh trailed them out the door, looking a little lost.
“So you never answered my question.”
“Oh? Which one?”
“About fucking. Did you like it?”
“Yeah, that worked fine. We could probably do that again.”
“It was a bit rough the other night. I could do better. Slower, perhaps. Very, very slow. As slow as we could manage. I could pull out almost all the way, and then slide back in so slowly – I’d love to hear you groan while I do that. God, you made me come so fast the other night, the way you were groaning for me, how is it you do that to me? What do you say to slower this time?”
“Yeah,” Leo said, around a sudden dryness. “I’m thinking that might be another possibility. Yeah?” He propped the phone back on his shoulder as Josh reappeared.
“Position paper? Donna said she gave it to you.”
Leo handed him the file. “Clean this up. It looks like notes you took in social studies. Why isn’t it even typed? Can you not type? Seriously? I need you to do something with this, because as it is I can’t tell if we’re planning a restructuring of Title IX, or a prison break.”
“I can type!” Josh protested. “I can. Just, you know, badly. And Donna’s still a little pissed about the other thing, you know, with the—” Leo peered over his glasses. “Those were rhetorical questions, weren’t they? Okay, right, I’m on it.” Josh headed briskly out the door, tapping the folder on his leg. “I’m back,” Leo said.
“I’ve lost my train of thought.”
“Ah! Yes, of course. But before we did that, I was thinking I might want to suck you, as I was saying before.”
“Okay. I think we could work that in.”
“Because I was—hang on.” Leo could hear him shifting, re-arranging the phone. “I was thinking about how much I liked that, earlier today. Shall I tell you what I especially like?”
The voice went quite low and throaty. “I like it when you hold my head. You’re very considerate when I suck you, really, not too demanding, not too forceful, right up until the very end, when you just can’t help yourself any longer, and then you hold my head and fuck my mouth like you can’t stop yourself, with your hands braced on either side of my head – as though you’ve just remembered who you’re with, and you can do those sorts of things, and God, you have no idea what it does to me. The first time you did it, if I could have gotten a hand free, I would have stroked myself off right there, on my knees in front of you.”
The image caught Leo in the gut. He shifted a bit, splaying his legs so his erection would have a bit more room. “Oh? That’s an interesting thought.”
“Yes, isn’t it? I tell you what else is interesting – how much I love the sound you make when you come.”
Margaret’s head poked around the corner of the door. She had her Senbeb Co-op canvas bag in her hand, and waved it at him. He nodded. “Corned beef on rye.”
“You say the hottest things.”
Leo smiled into the phone. It was easy to smile on the phone with Marbury; it would never do to smile like that in person, when it might go to his head. “Tell you what. Let me wrap things up here, and we should be able to meet to discuss that some more around, oh, ten?”
He slid the phone into its cradle, and left the smile where it was. By nine-thirty, he could tell it was starting to scare Margaret, who kept sneaking him shifty looks, and five minutes after she left, he grabbed his coat and headed out the door, resisting the temptation to whistle. His detail fell into place behind him as he drove out the gates, and swung into the parking garage of the hotel at a discreet distance. Thank God, he didn’t have to have a body detail; his security could wait at doors and in parking garages for him, and that was a small mercy. He was running enough risks as it was.
He slipped across the low-ceilinged, checkered-marble lobby and into an unoccupied elevator. No one ever looked twice, in Washington hotels, where you could be sharing an elevator with a head of state or a high-class hooker, and probably both at once. He tried not to read too much into it, that Marbury had chosen the Watergate as his den; maybe the place was only a curse for Republicans, and not for scandal-prone Democrats who would really rather people not find out they were engaged in inappropriate sexual relations with foreign ambassadors.
He was there before Marbury again, but only just. He only had time to click off the lights and shrug out of his coat before he heard the keycard in the lock, and when Marbury turned to close the door behind him, Leo was on him.
“Oh, Christ,” Marbury groaned, and Leo couldn’t get enough, couldn’t taste smell lick feel enough of him, right there against the door. He fumbled at Marbury’s zip, and his fingers began to shake when he felt how hard he was, underneath the fabric.
“How did you walk across the lobby like that,” Leo muttered, smiling into his neck.
“It was – oh yes, yes please, I can’t—” he was shuddering, and with a jolt Leo realized he was inches from coming. He got a hand around his dick, hot and leaking in his hand already, keeping him shoved up against the door.
“Please,” he moaned, fingers digging into Leo’s shoulder, and he knew what he wanted. He sped up, letting Marbury’s own leakage slick him, and God, but the man was a sight, flushed and spread against the door like this, fingers practically clawing the wood.
“Fucking beautiful,” Leo grunted in his ear, rubbing himself against the hipbone that caught him just right, and Marbury arched into his hand, something like a whimper escaping him.
“Leo,” he breathed, “Leo, Leo, Luh—” He buried his face in Leo’s neck, and his body convulsed on the “L”, as Leo pressed against him, gentling Marbury through it, loving the hot breath on his neck, the half-sob against his throat. He started small kisses up his jaw, into the wild mess of hair, inhaling deeply.
“Can’t get enough,” he groaned, “can’t stay away, damn it, can’t—”
Marbury’s mouth found his, sloppy and sex-warm. Long fingers began tweaking at his zip, and he flinched. “Oh no, I’m good.”
Marbury pulled back to look at him, his head hitting the door with a thunk. “Oh?”
“Yeah. Let’s just say that problem is taken care of for now.”
Marbury glanced down at his trousers, a brow arched. Leo almost flushed; how many years had it been since anyone or anything had made him come in his pants? He tilted Marbury’s face to him and began again with the kissing. Marbury just let it happen, catching his mouth here and there in his own, but otherwise content to let Leo have his fill, and it struck Leo that this was the first time he had done this, the first time he had done other than let Marbury kiss him. What sort of sense did it make, that he could still be so hungry, even after sex? And hungry for what? He skimmed his fingers over the lean body, burrowing into fabric and skin and warm hair, but Marbury didn’t seem to think it was strange, Marbury was right there with him, tasting and clutching and kissing.
“Bed, I think,” he was muttering into Leo’s ear.
“Shower first,” he said, and here was another new thing, showering together, which didn’t, in the end, turn out to be all that strange. Leo had never been fond of joint showers, and back in the days when he and Jenny had been prone to that sort of thing, he had never really understood the purpose. Kind of like brushing your teeth while making out, from his point of view, but thankfully Marbury was all about efficiency and hasty scrubbing in the shower, and then they were warm and clean and sliding under blankets together and whoa, he hadn’t seen that one coming.
They were spending the night together, apparently. To mask his astonishment, he rolled Marbury over and made him pay up on that promise of slow, which was pretty amazing, yeah, but somehow not as amazing as four hot minutes up against a door, and wet trousers. But it allowed them to slip into sleep afterwards without it being strange that here they were together, sleeping through the night in the same bed. Yes, it had happened once before, after the drinking, but that had been an extraordinary occasion all around. This was a bit more intentional, and Leo wondered if the sex had been a little bit lazy because Marbury had known he just needed the excuse.
He woke around 2:30, not with a start, but slowly swimming to wakefulness. The room was dark except for the clock light, and Marbury was still stretched next to him – sprawled, more like, taking up well over his share of the bed, predictably. Leo propped his head on his hand and watched.
Marbury had kicked off the covers long before, and was mostly naked – as restless asleep as he was awake. He had meant what he had inadvertently let slip, before – Marbury was shockingly beautiful, there was no denying that. All lean lines and dark eyes, though taken individually, he was a bit too long in the bone, his eyes a bit too large. But somehow despite the imperfections – or because of them – he was beautiful, and Leo supposed he would never live down having said it, though –
His brain stuttered on the memory of Marbury moaning his name as he came in a warm splash into his hand, and suddenly he knew – knew like he knew what last weeks’ polling numbers had been, like he knew the margin of Democratic defeat or victory in the last midterm in every Congressional district to the last decimal place – he knew that it had not been his name Marbury had been saying when he came, but another word that also began with “L”, and at that Leo sat bolt upright.
This was not what happened. What happened was, when you couldn’t take it anymore, when you had needs you had to fulfill, what happened was, you got someone. Someone in a bar, someone you paid, didn’t matter. It was a physical need. Those sorts of needs were all physical, all about physical things, and some people were lucky enough not to have them and some people did have them, but you dealt with it. It wasn’t anything that called for you to rearrange your life.
Marbury’s eyes were on him in the dark. “All right?” he mumbled, and Leo blinked at him.
“Yeah,” he said, a little wonderingly. “Yeah.” He bent down, slowly, hesitating a little, unprepared in the dark for Marbury’s hand on the side of his face, the stroke of his thumb.
If he could see Marbury’s hands, he might feel better. They were like giant gauze-wrapped clubs. Burns, he knew from his discussions with the nurses. But there just wasn’t anything of him to touch, nothing he could reach.
In his head, he reconstructed what the blast must have been like, from the inside. Often, unconsciousness was instantaneous, but he knew enough about such things to know that just as often, it wasn’t, no matter what grieving family members were told. Marbury might have been wedged in some burning bloody prison, struggling for air, screaming as the skin was seared off his body – he stood abruptly, feeling the rise of nausea. It wasn’t the thought of what had happened that turned his stomach. It was the pure hate that surged through him, the desire to tear and rend and eat the flesh of the bastards who had done this.
“God damn it,” he muttered. He paced between the bed and the tiny window, going over it in his head. UVF made sense. Marbury had been the most visible proponent of disengagement from Northern Ireland for years, and the loyalists hated him for it. Then there had been his recent public agitation against Brodie and his proposed visit to the White House – but on the other hand, he had been just as vocal about Sinn Fein when McGann had come to Washington. And the Catholics hated him just for everything he was, of course. Everybody would have had cause to dislike him, everybody would have stood to gain something by a hit. Another notch on the royal belt, for the IRA – another Mountbatten. Another warning to the party of disengagement for the UVF, their first major hit.
“John,” he tried, and let his head sink into his hands. The respirator was gone, and he was breathing on his own now, but no one seemed to think this was cause for jubilation. Except, of course, for Marbury’s blowhard brother, who had arrived on the Wednesday and breezed out again on the Thursday, apparently satisfied that his chances of moving up to number fifteen in the line of succession were pretty rosy.
“Here’s the deal,” he said softly, to the bedrail. “I need—I need you to listen to me for a minute, if you can. I fucked up.”
There was no movement from the bed, and Leo felt like an idiot. The odds that Marbury would wake up at this point were plummeting every day, but here he continued to sit. “I fucked up,” he said, a little more loudly. “I really did it this time. And the thing is, I need you to—I need. . .” he cleared his throat, subsided. Everything felt false but his name.
“John,” he tried again. “John, listen. I couldn’t have done worse on a bet. I screwed it up, first to last. I just – I screwed up. And I kept thinking I would find a way to fix it. Fixing things is what I do. I’m not bad at it. So how did I—” he bowed his head. “How did I get to be so bad at this,” he finished, already knowing the answer. Skill to do comes of doing, his 8th grade English teacher had said, and Emerson’s platitude had stuck with him. And this he had never done, this he had spent his life trying not to do – this thing where he. . .
He pushed up from his chair, wiping his palms. From the window he watched the fitful sun disappear behind the more determined clouds. “I’m sorry,” he said, to the carpark, his voice angry. “I screwed it up, and I’m sorry, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t give to get another chance at it, and that’s just the thing I’m never going to have a chance at, because even if by some miracle of God you and most of your limbs get up out of that bed again, I am the last thing on God’s green earth you are ever going to want to see.”
If this were the movies, he thought, he could turn around and see the dark eyes blinking at him, fuzzed with the beginning of recognition. He half-turned, wondering if maybe he would see it, but the figure on the bed was as still as it had ever been, the breathing just as shallow.
“Come on, John,” he said, not sure what he should append to that. An impulse took him, and he wished he could be the sort of person to do it, because when he was little and sick, his mother had always sung to him, and In The Gloaming was what sprang to his mind when he thought of illness like other people thought of mentholatum. He sat and tweaked at a gauzy hand, wondering where the fingers were in all of that, and if they were.
“Jesus Christ,” he muttered. “Those were some depressing lyrics. I can’t believe she sang those to us. There’s the Irish for you. You get a head cold, we’ll whip you up a nice little song about early death. It’s not impossible my mother had some issues.”
He drummed his fingers on the blanket. “This would definitely be the place where you wake up,” he said. He wished he could remember something else, some of the wild Gaelic songs his father had sung while drunk. He had never heard his mother sing anything Gaelic. But then, when his father had been alive, she hadn’t said much of anything. He wished he could have learned the word “cunt” in a locker room, or from graffiti on a bathroom stall, and not from hearing his father kick his mother in the gut as she curled on the kitchen floor. “It’s not impossible I have some issues, too.”
He shut his eyes. “Come on, John. I need you to wake up and kick my ass.”
The chirp of his cell phone woke him, and he knocked it off the nightstand reaching for it. “Yeah,” he said, struggling for wakefulness, blinking back the dream he had been wrapped in. A dream which, thank you very much, had left him hard as nails. It took him a minute to place himself – back in his rooms, alone, no Marbury spread out next to him like sex on a sheet. “I’m here.”
“Mr. McGarry? The President needs you in the sit-room, sir.”
“Ah, hell. Be right there.” He snapped the phone shut and swung his legs over. No time even to jerk off in the shower this morning, and though it was only 2:45 AM, he was going to assume it was the start of his day, and not an auspicious one at that.
He was briefed in the car, by Nancy on the phone, and again when he arrived, and by the time he saw the Landsats forty minutes later he knew he wouldn’t be seeing his bed again for another few days. “What kind of crap is this,” he muttered, tossing the folder into the center of the table. “Honestly, what the hell were they thinking?”
Nancy shook her head. “The world has only a certain amount of crazy, and Islamabad’s using all of it today.”
“I’m going to be upstairs,” the President said, rising. “Leo, you get up to speed, then come join me while we wait. Gentlemen, try not to lose any more military installations while I’m gone.”
“Okay, Nancy.” Leo stood as the President walked out. “Where are we?”
She shrugged. “About where we always are – confused as hell about who are our friends and who are our enemies, and how to tell the difference. I’m telling you Leo, I can’t so much see the difference any more.”
“What’s the toll stand at now?”
“Thirty-five killed, it looks like another twenty to twenty-five wounded.”
“God damn it.”
“Good news is, these particular terrorists are not your brighter kind. They let themselves get tracked right back to their base, so there’s that going for us.”
“Or, that’s exactly where they wanted to lead us.”
“Or, possibly that. Though what they stand to gain by painting a big red X on themselves, God only knows.”
“All right,” Leo pushed himself up. “I’m going to go make some calls.”
In the Oval, Jed was already on the phone, and it didn’t take much to figure out with whom. The Pakistani ambassador would be here by seven, surely, so they had some time; with any luck, Marbury could work his magic again. Leo crossed to his office and collapsed in his chair, not sure which of the thirty-five numbers to dial first.
“Listen, Leo,” the President said, sticking his head in the door. “We’re going to need a third-party negotiator, someone the Pakistanis trust, if they’re going to hand these guys over to us.”
“Yeah. We’re gonna need him, I know.”
“Okay, just checking.”
“You never really checked with me before.”
“Yeah, well.” Jed glanced at the clock. “It’s a little early to spring Marbury on anybody. Normally I admit, it’s kind of fun for me, but not so much today.” He turned his head to the TV in the cabinet behind him, and they watched CNN on mute for a minute. They had the maps of Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan up, all carefully color-coded. The explosion point was a neat little fireball graphic. “C.J. here yet?”
“Called her from the car. I think we should issue the statement as soon as she gets here, and brief with questions at 8 – that gives us at least an hour with the ambassador, and with whoever else Marbury can get on the phone.”
“They’re not going to do it,” he said.
“Nope,” Leo agreed.
“Yeah, okay, just so we see where we’re heading.”
“I’ve already got Nancy and the Chiefs working up the list.”
“She in a lather about that?”
Leo stayed in his own office for the next hour, trying to move as much of the day’s reading out of the way as possible, waiting for the voice next door. When he heard it, he gave it another minute, then rose and pushed back the door. Marbury looked tired around the eyes, but otherwise impeccably put together.
“Your Lordship,” Leo said, trying to find the note he had been accustomed to use, and surprised to find he could still hit it. Marbury let their eyes linger a minute.
“Leo,” he said, which was as good as a long hard kiss in the middle of the Oval. “I’ve only been asleep a few hours. It isn’t possible you could have brought us all to the brink of nuclear devastation in just four hours, is it?”
“Oh, we’re improving our time. Did the President get you up to speed?”
“Just beginning to, actually,” Jed broke in. “Sorry to drag you in here blind, John, but there really wasn’t time. We need you to talk to the Pakistanis.”
“Oh, excellent.” He settled himself in the comfortable chair, the one the President usually sat in. “Last time he and I spoke, he expressed the opinion that my mother was the fart of a sodomized camel driver. I look forward to continuing the conversation. Coffee, Gerald?”
“Landsats first,” he said, and tossed the folder into his lap. “Karshi-Khanabad.”
“You should have been out of there years ago.”
“That’s for another time,” the President said warningly, though Leo made no doubt Marbury didn’t hear it. He was busy leafing through the photos.
“Yep,” Leo continued. “Crashed right through the checkpoint, took out the guards and part of the retaining wall. They overturned near the barracks, detonated within seconds.” He could see Marbury hesitate on the picture of the concrete crater that had been the barracks.
“Hmm. These were high-test explosives. Very nice work.”
“Uzbeki National Front is claiming responsibility,” the President said, from behind the desk.
“But you think they’re lying.”
“But we think they’re lying,” Leo agreed. “Because of these.” He handed him the second set of photos. He watched Marbury’s eyes scan them, and saw the redness in them. He folded his hands in his lap so as not to reach for him. “There were two cars, we’re thinking. When car number one detonated – probably ahead of schedule – car number two turned and ran. We managed to track them to the Tajiki border. They’ve gone to ground, and we think we know where.”
Marbury looked up, meeting Leo’s eyes. “Pakistan.”
“What is it you want me to do?”
“Get Aziz to agree to hand them over,” Jed said, steepling his hands and watching Marbury.
“We’ll get to the ‘or’ later,” Leo interjected.
“We’ll get to the ‘or’ now, if I’m going to the table for you. I assume there is already a list of bombing sites prepared.”
“If I’m doing this, I do need to know that I’m not being used to buy you time for a press briefing before you ignore everything I’ve accomplished and do what you were planning to do in the first place, which, may I just add, is a monumentally stupid idea.”
The President was rising. “John. We’re not using you. We need you.”
Marbury’s mouth twisted down. “And this is what friends help friends do.”
He nodded. “Yes.”
Marbury carefully arranged the photos on his knees so their edges lined up. “Basically, you’re asking Aziz to consent to a violation of Pakistani national sovereignty in one of two ways – either he allows Special Ops to cross the border from Tajikistan, because let’s dispense with the polite fiction that Pakistani police or military are going to be persuaded to go after them, or, he allows US air strikes on Pakistani soil, which his whole policy of appeasement has been designed to prevent, and which would cause such massive destabilization in Pakistan as to very probably destroy his governing coalition and put you in need of shopping for new friends.”
“Governing coalition, my ass,” Leo growled.
“Leo,” the President said.
“Excuse me, but governing coalition, my ass! You may have gone to Cambridge with Aziz, but the President he works for is a jumped-up military thug, and I don’t think you get to throw around phrases like ‘governing coalition’ when you’re talking about a country run by a military junta. And I’m sorry, but did you just use the word ‘appeasement’?”
“From a certain perspective, American territorial ambitions in Central Asia are exactly analogous to—” He broke off as Charlie entered with a note. Marbury had frequented the Oval Office enough in the last few years to know that no one ever broke off a conversation because of Charlie; Leo narrowed his eyes at him and saw that he was using it to calm himself. The President crumpled the note.
“All right, I’ll be in the sit-room. Leo,” he said, and Leo nodded, reading the request. The door clicked shut behind him, and Leo turned back to Marbury.
“Exactly analogous to what? Because if that sentence is going where I think it was going, I’d really like to hear it.”
Marbury rose, tossing the folder on the coffee table. “I won’t be party to this sort of set-up. It’s the wrong choices you’ve got on the board.”
“You won’t – ah, hell.” Leo got up and stalked into his office, slamming the outer door. Marbury was right behind him. Leo slammed the Oval door. “God damn it, John, what the hell is going on?”
“What the hell is going on? I’m sorry, did you just mistake me for someone in the employ of this Administration? If it’s a negotiator you want, then negotiate I shall, but that means that I shall be pressing you for concessions just as strenuously as I shall the Pakistani PM.”
“Concessions? Concessions? You self-righteous prick, I’ve got thirty-five dead servicemen, and thirty-five calls to make this morning that I wish to hell I didn’t have to make, and frankly I’m offended you would use that word in this office, or the one next door!” He took a breath. “This is a time when we should be standing shoulder to shoulder – when friends should be supporting friends.”
“I spoke as a friend would speak, Leo.”
“You forgot who you were speaking to in there!”
“And you forget to whom you speak,” Marbury said, and Leo could see the flash in the dark eyes, and God, it made his fist clench. “Or was I supposed to suck your cock in there as well?”
“Watch your mouth!”
“I will not, you paranoid, hypocritical, guilt-ridden overgrown altar boy. And no one can hear us, anyway.” He stopped, resting his hands on his hips, studying the carpet. “Look. You and I both know that K2 should have been turned over to the Uzbekis years ago. You had to have known this day was coming – God knows they’ve threatened it enough.”
“So, I’m sorry, your negotiating stance boils down to, you had it coming?”
“That isn’t at all what I said, and what’s more, you know it.”
“John,” he said, shaking his head. “You’re losing sight of the picture, here. These people don’t want us gone from K2. They don’t want us gone from Uzbekistan, they don’t want us gone from Central Asia, they don’t even want us huddling inside our own borders on the other side of the world. They want us gone, off the face of the map, off the face of the planet, and time was, you knew that too.”
“So because their ultimate demands are unreasonable, you are ignoring their lesser ones?”
“They’re not making demands! They’re scattering body parts! I’ve got body parts to pick up here, damn it, and I don’t care if their demand is Cheez-Its and beer, I’m not giving it while I’m standing over the bodies of dead American servicemen!”
“You feel more comfortable waiting until it’s dead American civilians, then?”
“Don’t you even go there!”
“Then when will you listen? When will you wake up to the fact that you cannot dot the globe with what are basically military colonies, and then react as though U.S. soil has been violated when the locals decide they’d really rather not support the presence of a foreign power in their midst!”
“Your self-righteousness would go down a whole lot easier,” Leo muttered, “if it weren’t so laced with hypocrisy. You’ll be giving back the Falklands and northern Ireland next, I take it? For someone who’s never fought in a war, you’re awfully quick to decide what’s a necessary presence and what’s not.”
“Necessary presence,” Marbury snorted. “I’m not the hypocrite here. And I did fight in a war, in fact.”
Leo raised his brows.
“I was with the mujahideen for three years. Tactical support. And operations.”
“I see,” Leo said drily. “Well, hey, thanks for the starter lessons to the guys who are shooting at us now. Good job.”
“Oh, please. CIA had agents there, it wasn’t just MI6. If it was a mistake, it was your mistake, too, so shut up. And if there’s anything the lessons of the past need to be teaching us, it’s that you cannot bomb the rest of the world into submission, and I would think you of all people would realize that!”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Damn it, Leo, he will listen to you! You know and I know that if you give the word, he will do it, and if you throw the brakes he will stop, and for once, for once in your life, I am begging you to walk in there and be his better angel and not his worse, because the stakes are only going to get higher—”
“President Bartlet is his own man, and I don’t tell him a damned thing that he can’t—”
“Oh, spare me! Can’t we just stop pretending for half a moment that we don’t know who actually runs this country, can’t we engage in a little collective honesty for a moment?”
Leo hurled the folder at his desk, and it hit the side of his computer with a whack, sending the photos flying. “I am sick and fucking tired of telling you to watch your mouth, but so help me God, you open it to insult Jed Bartlet one more time, and I will smack it shut for you!”
“Yes, resorting to threats of physical violence, let me say how utterly unsurprised I am. Good God, Leo, why can you not—I thought you were beginning to understand the way the world works, I thought you were beginning to listen to me!”
Leo’s stomach gave a sick lurch. “Oh, really, is that what you thought, really? So this was about getting me to listen to you, gaining a little access?”
“Leo, stop. You—”
“When I need lessons in the way the world works, I’ll be sure to ask the world’s most irrelevant country, you bet,” Leo spat. “Your advice is as worthless as your country’s friendship. And in the meantime, the only thing I need to be listening to is the best interest of this country, and I think I can tell the difference between that and a cheap fuck!”
The room was absolutely still, except for the sound of their breathing. Marbury held his eyes, and Leo gave him look for look. At last Marbury turned and reached for the knob to the outer office.
“And here I thought,” he said quietly, “that you could only demolish from ten thousand feet.” The door shut behind him.
The Tajikis, in the end, were what he came up with.
In return for the Americans holding their air strikes, Aziz pledged to find and turn over the suspects in forty-eight hours. Which was a hollow pledge, as Leo and everyone else in the Oval knew, but Marbury got the Tajikis on the phone next, and Tajikistan agreed to lend their support to a strike team inside Pakistan’s borders, but under nominal Pakistani command, and with no U.S. troops. Aziz didn’t have to ask his military for cover they probably wouldn’t have provided, the U.S. didn’t have to commit to air strikes that probably would have accomplished little, and within eleven hours, their guys were being flown to—
“Ali Al-Salem?” Leo asked incredulously.
Marbury was still tapping the phone. “It’s the only place they would agree to extradite.”
“Because it’s in Kuwait!”
“There is an RAF contingent stationed there. Twelve Tornado-class planes.”
Jed frowned and glanced at Leo. “And this is where you tell us that they’ll only hand over to British forces.”
“Ah, yes, this would be the appropriate place to mention that.”
“Al-Salem is thirty-nine miles from the Iraqi border,” Leo said. “Why do I not like the sound of this deal.”
Marbury rose. “Well, it’s the best you’re going to get.”
Leo looked at the President, whose hands were thrust in his pockets. They waited in silence while he studied his desk. “Will the British government agree to extradite, given a decent lapse of time?”
In the silence, Leo’s eyes shot to Marbury. Not once during this long day had Marbury so much as glanced in his direction, or spoken to him other than politely. “I would imagine,” he said lightly, “that is an issue you will have to take up directly with Her Majesty’s government.”
The corners of Jed’s eyes narrowed. “In this room, you are Her Majesty’s government, and I’m asking you, will the British government agree to extradite according to treaty?”
Marbury rose, and Leo could see the weariness in him. “Ah. Well then. If it’s treaties we are discussing, why don’t we start with the British nationals currently being held at Guantanamo?”
Leo’s eyes went from Marbury to the President, and the unflinching gaze hanging between them. “That is a discussion worth having,” Jed replied slowly.
“Yes, it is. But for now, the world is still in one piece, and I for one am exhausted, and if you think you can manage without me for a bit, you doubtless know where to find me. Try not to blow anything up while I’m gone,” he said, heading for the door. “And Gerald.” He turned, met Leo’s eyes. “I never got my coffee.”
They watched him go, and Leo heard Jed exhale slowly. “Leo,” he said at last, with a cock of his head.
“When I left the room this morning, England was still our closest ally, right? Anything you want to tell me?”
“I’ll talk to him.”
“Yeah, ‘cause look how well that worked before.” He sat down heavily. “Now I guess we do our thing with C.J.”
“Now we do our thing. Look, we got the guys. We got ‘em. That’s the thing, right there. It was a good day.”
“No it wasn’t, Leo.”
Leo thought of the thirty-five phone calls he had made, the thirty-five different registers of grief the human voice could express. “No,” he agreed. “No, it really wasn’t.”
He waited two days to call Marbury’s office. It wasn’t that he felt he had anything to apologize for – it had been an honest disagreement, and Marbury had been wrong, and insulting on top of it. And as for things said in the heat of the moment – well, that was what happened in an argument, and Leo had been in too many arguments over the years to let this one sit too heavy on him.
So he waited. Marbury could call him, after all. But by four o’clock on the second day, the reasons for not calling were evaporating, and Friday was the next day, and they needed to smooth things over before then, so he called.
“Lord Marbury’s office.” His secretary’s diction was excruciatingly correct, but her polite voice grated.
“Leo McGarry here. I need to speak to the ambassador.”
“I’m sorry, his Lordship is in a meeting at the moment. Shall I have him ring you at his earliest possible convenience?”
This was new. Never before had the secretary done anything other than put him immediately through. Then again, maybe Marbury really was in a meeting. But a meeting she wouldn’t get him out of when the White House Chief of Staff called? He hesitated. It would be easy enough to force her hand, to feign a diplomatic emergency of some sort that would require Marbury to be put on the phone. But Marbury probably knew, damn him, that in the event of a real emergency Jed could always get in touch with him.
“Sure,” he heard himself saying. “Whenever.”
“Thank you, Mr. McGarry. Have a pleasant day.”
“Yeah,” he said, into her click.
By Friday mid-morning, he knew there would be no return call, and by Friday afternoon, he knew that his keycard to the room at the Watergate wouldn’t work that night. He didn’t need to go there and jiggle the handle to know that.
“Leo?” C.J.’s head craned around his door at eight o’clock.
“You all right?”
“Because you were just kind of sitting there.”
“This is stress management. This is me, managing my stress. What do you want from me?”
“Right now, a firehose and some rubber bullets, possibly a rabid Alsatian and some concertina wire. I called a full lid two hours ago and they won’t leave.”
“They’re not sending the bill tonight. And even if they did, we’re not going to call the veto until the morning.”
“Earlene Gannett from the Dallas Morning News has a source says they’re sending tonight.”
“They’re not sending tonight.”
“They’re in there waiting for me with those large expectant puppy-dog eyes, so hopeful and yet so trusting. They’re like every bad date I’ve ever had.”
He closed the folder on his desk and opened a new one. “They’re not sending tonight. And what are we, Doc’s drugstore? Tell them to clear out.”
“I’ll try, Officer. I’m just saying that if Earlene’s source—”
“Okay.” She was back in three seconds. “You sure you’re all right? Because you seem kind of—”
“Good night, C.J.”
He jumped, and his coat spilled off his lap onto the linoleum floor. No telling how long he’d been asleep, but his mouth felt furred and heavy, the sliver of window in the room had gone black, and his neck was a single throbbing cramp. The nurse changing the bag on the IV was looking at him, not unkindly.
“Why don’t you go home and get some rest, Mr. McGarry? There’s not like to be any change tonight.”
“Yeah,” he tried, surprised at how hoarse he sounded. He licked his lips and stood, muscles popping and aching in protest. The figure on the bed was as still and silent as before. How many days had it been now? He had lost track. In between staring at the white-draped hospital bed, he had been fielding phone calls from Josh every half hour or so, steadily ignoring the rising panic in Josh’s voice as forty-eight hours stretched to seventy-two and now to whatever it was. Jed’s voice had gone hard around the edges, the way it did when anything failed to yield to him – not hard with anger, because that wasn’t his way, but with a profound and not unamiable puzzlement, that the universe should contain something he could not master, could not push and pull the way he wanted it to go. He frowned at his shoes, not wanting the thoughts about Jed, not wanting the way they made him hear Marbury’s voice, and the last words they had spoken.
“Mr. McGarry.” It wasn’t the first time she had said it, he could tell.
“Sorry. Yeah. I’m—a little tired.”
She nodded sympathetically. “No mistake there, sir. You’ll wear yourself out, you will. It does a heart good to see someone care like that – not that other people don’t care, it’s just, for so many with loved ones in here, it’s hard, y’know? They don’t like to see them like this, and they get all weepy, and they can’t stay long. It’s better that way – for sure there’s not much they can do.”
He nodded back at her, uncertain how to reply. She seemed inclined to chat, and he supposed the evening shift must have come on duty while he dozed. He must have seen her before, but the nurses were all a blur; everything was hazed at the edges but the one face that stood out too sharp, too pale, too bloodless against the white sheet. He folded his coat over his arm again and took a step toward the door.
He turned and saw her hesitate, saw her glance at the nurse’s station beyond the glass, saw her uncertainty. “Yes?”
“I have – well, I’m not sure who I should give it to, really.”
“Who you should give what to?”
“I—” she sighed. “I’ve been carrying it in my pocket because I didn’t know what else to do.”
“All right,” he said slowly. Any number of gruesome possibilities flashed in his head. She stepped closer, digging in the pocket of her turquoise scrub jacket.
“You see, it’s – well, I’m sure it’s a personal item of Lord Marbury’s there, but I wasn’t on duty when his brother was here, well, not long enough to remember, anyway, or I suppose I would have done it then. It’s—well here y’go, maybe you’ll recognize it. . .” She held her palm out, and Leo’s chest seized at the gleam of dull gold and onyx in it. Marbury’s ring. He shut his eyes against a wave of nausea.
“You recognize it, then?”
“Yes,” he managed. “Where did. . .”
She sighed. “That’s the part that’s a bit difficult to tell. It wasn’t on him when they brought him in, is the thing – we only found it later.”
“Found it?” The idea that hospital workers had been picking over the wreckage of the car disturbed him; had they been looking for body parts to sew back on?
“Oh,” she said hastily. “Not so much found it as. . . well, it was with his driver.”
Now he really was confused. “It was with his driver?”
“In his neck, you see.”
Oh. He supposed he did, at that. He swallowed.
“But not. . .” she hesitated, fingering the ring. “It wasn’t blown off his hand by the explosion, I don’t think. Not that anyone’s asking what I think, but if they were to ask, mind. Because if it had been blown off his finger, well, there wouldn’t be much left of his finger, would there? And other than the burns, his hands are whole. And also, the driver, poor man, when they got to him, had bled out his carotid – he was sliced right across, you see. But the wound had been. . .” she trailed off, and Leo could see she was aware of maybe saying too much.
“What about it? The driver?”
She turned back to the ring, twisting it. “Well, I think the ring slipped off him because of the blood, if you were wanting my opinion. Because I think Lord Marbury was trying to stop the bleeding.”
There was no word for the dry that seized Leo’s mouth, and he had a sudden flash of it: Marbury, in those terrible long seconds following the blast, still conscious, struggling to crawl forward, trying to keep his slippery hands on his driver’s severed neck, to stop the blood that gushed over him and through his fingers, pressing blackened fingers into hot blood until he lost consciousness himself, and fucking hell, why could he not have lost consciousness, why did he need to know for sure and certain now that Marbury had been awake and aware and—
He snatched the ring out of her palm and fisted it, not wanting to look at it anymore. He thrust it in his pocket.
“If he should wake, I wouldn’t want him to be without it. And if he shouldn’t. . . well, I thought you would know who to give it to, yes?”
He nodded, not at all sure what to say to that, because he had not the first clue who to give it to, and right now the thought of this ring ever being on anyone’s finger but Marbury’s made him so sick and weak with rage he could barely keep his feet under him. “Sure,” he said. “Of course.”
“Good then.” She smiled at him. “He’s lucky, he is, to have a friend like you. It’s funny, isn’t it, all them grand types like that, his Lordship and all, and no real family to speak of. Cold as fishes, I expect, like that brother of his. Well. I’ll leave you be now, Mr. McGarry. You get yourself some rest now.”
She was off down the short hallway, and Leo just stood there, feeling the ring like a lead weight in his pocket, and the greater weight in his chest. The words he had been trying to find the other day came to him in a rush, summoned, perhaps, by the Irish lilt of the nurse’s voice, which was the voice of his great-aunts, the music of being tucked in at bedtime, of listening to the distant hum of grown-up talk at the kitchen table.
Mater misericordiae. Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra. In hac lacrimarum valle. Lacrimarum valle. The words beat a rhythm in his feet as he walked down the halls and stairwells and out the side door, where his agents swung into place silently behind him. Gementes et flentes, he thought. Groaning and weeping in this valley of tears.
All the prayers he knew were as sad as the songs. He looked around him at the gray streets, and the grayer people walking them. The goddamned Irish, he thought. The reason Zoloft was invented in the first place. And northern Ireland? Well, that was why God made whisky. He saw a half-empty bottle of whisky on the kitchen table, the slosh of the glass beside it.
So into the local pub walks old Paddy Murphy. . .
Tom! Not in front of the children.
Ah, shut your mouth, it’ll do them good. Listen up, boy. So in walks old Paddy, see, looking like he's just been run over by a train. His arm is in a sling, his nose all broken up, his face a terrible wreck and all.
Tom, I wish you wouldn’t.
Shut up, I said. So the bartender says, Mother of mercies, Paddy, what happened to you? And Paddy says, Me and Jamie O’Connor had a fight. And the bartender says, what, that little shite O’Connor? He couldnta done that to you, he musta had something in his hand. And Paddy says back, Sure he did, a shovel is what he had, and a terrible beatin he gave me with it. And the bartender says, Almighty God, Paddy, you shoulda defended yourself! Didn’t you have nothing in your hand? And Paddy says—
Oh Tom, please.
Shut up, you’re spoiling the joke, woman. And Paddy says, Sure I did! Mrs. O’Connor’s breast, and a thing of beauty it was, but useless in a fight!
Tom. . .
Shut the fuck up already! A thing of beauty, boy, dyou get it? But useless in a fight. Hah hah. Ave you been noticing any of your little classmates, boy, are they getting nice titties on em yet?
Please, Tom, you’ve had enough. . .
I’ve had enough when I say I’ve had enough! Shut your filthy cunthole. Come drink with me, boy, come be my little man. Come ere, that’s right, don’t look that way. That’s my boy, he’s a man’s man is this one. You been grabbing their little titties boy?
Back at his hotel, Leo flicked on the TV and watched the news channel until the voices in his head sank back into the darkness they had come from, into the box where they lived. He woke to the cell phone’s chirp with all the lights still on, but now the channel was playing old soap operas, he guessed—he had a brief flash of overdressed people staring large-eyed at each other.
“McGarry here,” he rasped, and it took him a minute to place the voice – he had been so sure it was Jed, calling to harangue him once again about coming back, about a definite date, about what-the-hell-are-you-doing-over-there. “Just a second.” He cleared his throat. “Wait. What?” And then his head was instantly clear, his feet already swinging over the edge of the bed.
“I’ll be right there,” he said, and clicked the cell phone off before the words were even out of his mouth.
And that, as they said, was that.
As quickly and easily as it had begun, it was over. No more pleasantly obscene phone calls to field. No more ducking into the hotel for evening quickies, no more glancing at the clock as the day edged toward night, no more odd twisting in his gut when he saw that long form come around the door. No more anything, cold turkey.
He expected to feel some serious sexual frustration, after all those months with regular sex pretty much whenever he felt like it. And it had been some good sex, at that, he wouldn’t deny that. Sex was sex, and even if it had been the strangest sex of his life, it had also been, in many ways, the best sex of his life. You didn’t give something like that up and expect not to miss it. So he was prepared.
He made himself jerk off a bit more, even when he didn’t feel like it, just as a preventive measure. He closed his eyes tight and concentrated on nothing but sensation, on pure feeling, on his hand whipping along his dick, not letting himself think about other hands, about lips, about whispered breath in his ear, about fingers, fingers reaching places on him that he hadn’t known were there. His orgasms were adequate, and he did all right if he moved along quickly. If he paused, though, images would rush in to fill the space. They would coil in his chest.
So he was fine, and it was no big deal. It had been a mistake, was all, and really, given the record of those in his life, this one hardly registered.
It was about two weeks later that he was walking briskly along to his office, thinking about Congressman Winthwaite, and the best way to maneuver him off Energy and Commerce and into something where he could do less damage, and how the DNC could probably put some pressure there—there were midterms coming up, Winthwaite was vulnerable in his district. This would not be the time for him to be irritating the party leadership, and with a little finesse the Minority Leader could be persuaded—he stopped. Stopped so suddenly that Margaret on his heels crashed into him a little bit, but he didn’t notice.
Because just ahead of him strode Marbury, his long swinging gait unmistakable, his dark head half a foot above everyone else in the crowded corridor. He was just walking along, headed out to the lobby, and God knew why he was here in the first place, but he was leaving now. Leaving, and in the three and a half seconds it took Marbury to turn the corner and push through the double glass doors into the lobby, Leo knew.
He pushed ahead, not looking to left or right, not seeing. He ignored the intern piled with documents who staggered out of his way, he ignored Margaret’s quick steps behind him, he ignored C.J.’s distant voice saying his name, he ignored the pounding in his ears, the dry in his throat. He ignored everything but getting to his door and pushing it open and shutting it behind him. He kept his hand on the knob to brace himself, and leaned against it.
Because now he knew, he knew from just that brief accidental glimpse. Now, he knew.
He was screwed.
He shut his eyes and let the knowledge sink into him, let it settle and hit bottom. It was entirely possible—no, it was probable—it was somehow conceivable, that against all reason, better judgment, and political self-preservation, against all sanity and prudence and self-knowledge, against all of these things, he was. . . that he. . . goddamn it, he couldn’t even get his head around the words. Couldn’t even say them.
He was in love with John Marbury.
It was like a light switch had been thrown, and even in his head Leo felt the painfulness of the cliché, but it was really the only word for it – the way everything stood out in sharp relief. Especially his own words, the appalling things he had said. Cheap fuck, he had called him. In a cold hard voice that dripped contempt, that had said exactly what he thought of him. And the look on Marbury’s face. The pause after, the quiet of Marbury’s voice filling the silence. No, he wasn’t screwed.
He was fucked.
But God’s sense of humor in these matters, it turned out, was as vast as it was unpredictable, because barely four days later – four days in which he thought about anything but Marbury, in which he invented a thousand reasons not to pick up the phone, and then had to re-invent them at the end of each hour because they never seemed like quite enough – just four days later, the invitation to the British Embassy’s Christmas ball arrived.
The Bartlets, of course, would be going. They went every year. And Leo always went, too – it was one of those things, like NATO, that there was no getting out of. It was what you did for your closest ally. You dressed up, and you made nice, and you smiled and sipped club soda with cranberry juice and danced one or two dances, made inane conversation and you went home and thanked God you were done with that for another year. He tapped the invitation that Margaret had placed on his desk – thick cream-colored vellum, swirl of engraved script, Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the United States of America, etc. etc. Margaret had put it there because that was what Margaret did with invitations she had already accepted and entered on the calendar, and she had accepted and entered it on the calendar because it hadn’t occurred to her that he wouldn’t be accepting, and now he couldn’t call and un-accept without drawing attention to himself and furthermore his absence, even if for good reason, would be a conspicuous one, and oh, hell.
“You ever think about asking me if I want to go to something before you just commit me to it?”
She glanced around the room like there was something lurking in it that might explain him. “Is this about your sister’s Christmas party?”
“What? No, this is about the British Embassy ball. What, you’ve just stopped asking me things now? And what do you mean, my sister’s Christmas party?”
“We said yes to Elizabeth’s, no to Josephine’s.”
“I like Josephine’s parties!”
“No, you don’t. You say every year that you like Josephine’s parties, and every year I say that you’re going, and then the night before the party you remember that no, you actually don’t like Jospehine’s parties because they are always loud and full of people who want to talk to you about the specific amount of money you should be giving to the ACLU, and then I have to call and cancel, and it irritates your sister so much she comes by your office the next week to yell at you about it, and then you yell at me because I did not intuitively know that your sister, who by the way you are afraid of though it doesn’t make me think less of your manliness, would be dropping by and terrifying you, and so just no. No.”
He rested his hands on his hips and stared down at the invitation. “Get me out of it.”
“But I already accepted.”
“So there’s an emergency of some sort.”
“An emergency I know about three weeks in advance?”
“Ah, hell.” He swiped at his eyes. “Just—ask me next time, all right?”
She frowned. “Ask you. . . what, exactly?”
“About this! Things like this!” He waved the card. “I’m not going to be able to go to this.”
“I can’t call his secretary back. She has an accent, and I get flustered. It makes me feel uncouth.”
“She has the sort of voice that makes you feel like you haven’t showered in a week and have string beans hanging out your teeth.”
“Okay.” He gritted his teeth. “Go type something.”
“Something specific, or just—”
He collapsed in his chair, trying to think, trying to weigh whether a no-show was even possible. Another conversation about it, and Margaret would know something was up, if she didn’t already. Maybe it was better just to go, lurk for a few minutes, and decamp quickly. He might possibly be able to avoid the receiving line altogether. A few canapes, some quiet nods and smiles, and he could be out the back door before Marbury even knew he was there. It would probably not be that bad.
In the event, of course, it was far, far worse than he could have imagined.
For one thing, the Embassy was more crowded than he remembered it being in past years. The ballroom was so thick with people that dancing was barely even possible, which was fine by him, except it meant that there was more conversation than in previous years, more tugs at his elbow, more half-drunken slaps on the back, more vapid smiles to generate.
And yeah, it was gorgeous, all right. The Embassy always did it up right, that was for sure – Christmas trees ablaze in every corner, garland swagged from chandeliers and balustrades, the orchestra in full joyous swing. You could say this for them, the Brits knew how to throw a party, and this was the most coveted invitation in town, the invitation every first-term Congressman’s wife longed to receive. Or maybe it was Marbury who knew how to throw a party, because there he was, right in the center of it, shaking hands and laughing, that distinctive voice carrying over the press of people, over the swell of music, over everything else. There was a small clearing around him, and Leo reflected, watching him from up on the landing, that it was like magma displacement, the eruption of that over-large personality into a room, and any room, even one as crowded and bright as this one, tended to look a little dimmer and drabber compared to Marbury, who was all light and shadow and movement. Leo sipped his club soda and frowned a little, noticing small things he wouldn’t have seen before – the slight tension in Marbury’s jaw, the too-quick grasp of his hands, the dart of his eyes to the side. It wouldn’t be apparent to anybody who didn’t know exactly what to look for, but Marbury wasn’t having a good time.
And then Leo almost dropped his drink with the shock of it, because Marbury turned and looked straight at him, a level gaze that took all of him in. It was only half a second, because almost immediately another hand was on Marbury’s shoulder, and he whipped around, a smile on his face, a jovial greeting on his lips, surrounded again.
Leo pushed his way to a dark corner and set his drink down with a shaking hand, trying to still his pulse. What the hell had that been? What the hell? Had it just been reflex—had Marbury felt eyes on him, and turned? Or had it been something more? If he had known it was Leo, if he had somehow sensed. . . Maybe it was an invitation. Maybe he wanted to talk. Maybe it was. . .
He leaned a hand on the wall, trying to think. He should have been marshalling arguments against it, he knew—should have been reflecting on all the reasons ever being alone in a room with Marbury again was a bad, bad, terrible, unimaginably awful idea. But he knew it was useless. He knew he wouldn’t be able to stop himself, any more than he had been able to stop himself from the first inquisitive brush of Marbury’s lips against his, and God, the hunger came rushing back now, the feel of Marbury’s body against his, please Christ let him not be getting hard here in the ballroom of the British embassy—
“Mr. President. Enjoying yourself?”
“Well, I don’t know. I lost my will to live about four hours ago, after Abbey had tried on and rejected the seventeenth or eighteenth dress. I thought we would never get out of that room alive. What is it about a ball, Leo, that does this to an otherwise rational and sensible woman? I mean, look at her.” He turned, and Leo caught sight of a swirl of midnight-blue satin and pearls as Marbury kissed Abbey’s hand. “You’d never guess, would you, that she could slice you right down the middle and sew you back together with dental floss and a paper clip.”
Marbury spun her, depositing a stolen kiss on her cheek, and Jed sighed. “Yeah, I really wish he wouldn’t do that. He’s probably a better kisser than I am.”
Much, Leo’s mutinous brain supplied, and he kicked it down, turning to the President. “Listen, have you run into Fallenshaw yet?”
“She looking for me?”
“Yep. Don’t get into it, all right? She’s going to want you to say something about the FEC, and we’re just not going to go there with her yet.”
“Leo, do I look like someone who put on white tie and tails so I could wade into FEC politics?”
“I’m just saying, she plays you.”
“She plays me?”
“She’s an attractive woman, she likes you, you like her, she asks a question, you tend to answer, and Monday morning I’m explaining to C.J. why she’s reading your statements in Hotline.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, I put the ‘sir’ in circumspect. And for someone dressed like a wine steward, you’re getting kind of cheeky there.”
“Nah, I look pretty good.”
“Yes, you do.” From behind him, Abbey slipped an arm into his. “Having a good time, Leo?”
“The best. Abbey, you look incredible.”
“Thank you. See, Jed.” She took a sip of her champagne. “Leo knows how to treat a lady.”
“Yeah, time for you to lay off the sauce there. Come on, put that down and dance with me.”
Leo smiled as they took to the floor, and he watched them a while, watched the surreptitious glances at them, the way other dancers angled to get closer. Jed and Abbey were oblivious to all of it, as they always were when together—like there was a glass wall that came down around them, and everyone else was eternally on the other side of it. But they were handsome together, there was no denying it.
Out of the corner of his eye he caught Marbury’s head bending down to talk to someone, an intent expression on his face. He was nodding, then leaning even closer as he listened, and Leo frowned a little, trying to see who it was that was capable of capturing Marbury’s complete attention like that. And now Marbury’s arm was closing around a slim satin-clad waist, a sleek reddish head was bent close to his, and—
Holy fucking shit.
Leo moved the club soda to his lips, carefully controlling his movement.
It wasn’t possible that even Marbury could have done something like this to him, could have orchestrated her presence here. Her face wasn’t visible from where Leo was standing, but Leo knew the expression on Marbury’s face, all right. And now they were moving to the dance floor—Marbury was going to dance with her, and he was going to have to stand here and watch. He was going to have to watch. He was going to watch while John Lord fucking Marbury put his arms around his wife, goddamnit, while Marbury bent his head even closer, while Marbury laughed in that low voice at whatever she was saying, while Marbury looked at her in that way Leo knew all too well, and like a hot fist of rage in his gut Leo knew this was no ballroom flirtation, this was no courtesy dance—it was all over Marbury’s face, and Jenny’s too. He was really putting forth the extra effort, he was, and Leo watched as Marbury’s hand slipped down a little below her waist. He quickly set the club soda down; his fingers were so tight on it he was afraid the glass might shatter.
The taste of rage like sour whisky flooded his mouth. And what a curious thing it was, that here he was, at this age of his life, and he was only now discovering pure and perfect rage. All his limbs were light with it.
He smiled and nodded his way across the room, but the words people spoke were unintelligible. He kept getting pulled into knots of people who kept talking at him, and he was aware of a whole conversation with Jed at some point, but what he said or what was said to him, he had not a goddamn clue.
He danced with Abbey for a while, and was amazed at his ability to run his body on auto-pilot. And all the time, out of the corner of his eye he was watching Marbury with Jenny, watching how they never seemed far from each other, watching how Marbury’s hands kept returning to brush her arms, her waist, her back, watching how she tipped back her head and laughed when Marbury leaned into her ear. The room was only light and color and sound, and the rage in his mouth.
And then his legs were walking him over to Marbury, and to his surprise there was nothing in his voice when he said, “Follow me,” and he didn’t even look behind him to see if Marbury was in fact following him up the broad marble staircase. There was only the hot fist inside him, burrowing deeper into his bowels, impelling him up the stairs and into the first room he could see off the loggia, an oak-paneled office of some sort, and he spun on his heel and waited for Marbury to close the door behind him, and when he opened his mouth he could barely find breath, let alone words.
“What the fucking hell do you think you’re doing,” he hissed.
“I beg your pardon?” Marbury’s eyes were as cold as his voice.
“You heard me, you bastard. You keep your filthy fucking hands off my wife.”
Marbury stepped closer, never taking his eyes off Leo’s. It was a move calculated to intimidate, but it had no effect on Leo. “My filthy fucking hands,” he repeated slowly. “How interesting. And not inaccurate, of course, because if my hands are filthy it’s because they’ve been fucking your arse while you begged for it, you pious hypocritical closet case. You don’t even have the liquor as an excuse anymore, do you? I mean, years ago, you could always just say you were drunk. Now, you just like fucking with other boys. Tell me, did you always like that? Did you—”
“You shut up,” Leo snarled. “You shut the hell up. This has nothing to do with me. I’m talking about my wife, I’m talking about what you’re doing to her, I’m talking about whatever faggot disease you’re giving her!”
Marbury went white, and Leo could see his chest heave. “It is astonishing,” he said softly, “how much self-control it is requiring not to strike you where you stand. How dare you.”
“How dare I? How dare you put your hands—”
“You don’t have a wife! You are divorced, you monstrous idiot! And what she chooses to do with herself, and who she chooses to do it with, are none of your goddamned business!”
“You’re using her,” Leo said, struggling to get his voice under control. “You’re using her because you’re pissed at me, and if you hurt Jenny, I swear to God I will come for you, and there will not be enough titles for you to hide behind because I will destroy you, I will—”
“My, how touching,” he sneered. “Your devotion to the wife you screwed around on for twenty-five years is moving me to tears. Tell me, when you came home at nights, did you have the decency to wash the come out of your mouth before you kissed her?”
“You watch your disgusting mouth! You know nothing about my marriage, don’t you fucking presume—”
“Oh, I believe I’ll presume, all right, I think I’m qualified enough to talk about your pathetic emotional life, and if I want to—”
“This is not about me!” Leo yelled. “What the hell is it with you, can’t you see beyond yourself for just three seconds, can’t you do just that much?”
“See beyond myself? Christ, you have got to be kidding me, coming from you that’s the richest thing I’ve ever heard. You haven’t had an unselfish thought since nursery school, and you’d be wise not to preach to me about how to treat Jenny considering how little you thought of your marriage or of her for God knows how many—”
Leo broke into a bitter laugh. “Oh, this is good, this is just unbelievable, you are going to tell me about marriage, yes I think I’ll be taking advice from you. What, do all the wives tell you their troubles while you suck their husbands’ cocks? You don’t even like women!”
Marbury’s eyes went, if possible, a shade darker. “You don’t know the first thing about my sexual preferences, or what I do and don’t like, and it might shock you to find out.”
“I know that for a guy who’s got his hands all over my wife, you seem to like taking it up the ass an awful lot!”
“She is NOT. YOUR. WIFE!” Marbury roared. Silence hung in the room, and Leo tried to get control of his breathing, which had become painful. The edges of his vision had begun to blur, and for the first time, he considered the possibility that he might actually pass out from sheer rage. Decades of wrangling on the Hill through some of the worst political fights of the late twentieth century, and five minutes in a room with this son of a bitch gave him a fucking seizure. The room’s only sound was their breathing.
“I don’t care,” Leo said quietly, “what any goddamn piece of paper says. She is my wife. You’re pissed at me, fine, be pissed at me. But leave Jenny out of it. I’ve hurt her enough in this life, and I don’t need to be the reason for any more hurt coming her way. We had a whole life together, and though you may find this hard to believe, it’s not that easy to get un-married to someone you care about. Not that you would know anything about that, you self-absorbed prick who’s never cared for anything in his life beyond where his next tin of caviar is coming from.”
Marbury’s eyes narrowed, and Leo was aware they were standing much too close together. His voice went as low as Leo’s. “What a useful pose—the rejected yet still devoted husband. How nice for you. Or is that not what all this is about?” Marbury was studying him, and the smile that tipped the corners of his mouth was not a pleasant one. “Ah, I think I begin to see. All this chivalric posturing—it’s simply a cover for your own jealousy, isn’t it? Well, I think we can fix that.”
And just like that, his hands went right to Leo’s crotch and closed around him, and Jesus fuck, his half-hearted erection from earlier had not entirely gone away. Marbury gave a low chuckle, and Leo had never hated anyone more in his life.
“Get your hands off me,” he gritted out.
“Oh, really. That isn’t what the rest of you seems to be saying, is it? What’s the matter, Leo—did you come here tonight hoping for a nice fuck, is that it? Hoping to get lucky? Well, I wouldn’t want to disappoint.”
His hand was rubbing roughly up and down Leo’s length through the fabric of his pants, rubbing him right to hardness, and Christ, Leo did not want this to be getting him hard, please let him not be getting hard. He closed his hand on Marbury’s wrist, tight. “That’s not what I want.”
“What, worried we’ll be caught? You needn’t be—no one in this building opens a door I’ve closed. Come on, I’ll give you what you came here for.”
“No,” Leo tried, in a strangled voice, but oh sweet Christ, the hand felt so good, it took everything in him not to arch into it, oh if he could only come, if he could only taste Marbury one more time—
He snaked an arm around Marbury’s neck, giving in with a groan, ignoring the bitter sound of Marbury’s answering laugh. Leo pulled at him, bringing him in closer, shifting so he could close on his lips, hungry to taste him, hungry to sink into that lushness he knew so well. Marbury yanked his head away sharply.
“Don’t presume,” he hissed, even as his hand increased the pace of its rubbing, and Leo opened his mouth to protest, to tell him to stop, stop, but a groan was the only sound he could make.
“This is how you like it, isn’t it?” Marbury was whispering in his hear. “Fast and rough and cheap. Well, I can give you that. I’m quite good at that, aren’t I? I’m good at giving you what you like.”
“Please. . . not—like this,” Leo gasped, and with the last reserve of his strength and willpower he shoved Marbury away.
Marbury’s laugh was ugly to hear. “Poor Leo. Some things never change, do they?”
Leo’s fists were clenched against the pulse of want in his body. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“It means that maybe Jenny and I have something in common, did you think about that? I mean, you’ve fucked us both—badly, I might add, and we can probably compare notes on that. Poor, poor Leo—the one thing he really wants in life is the one thing he’ll never have, which is Jed Bartlet’s cock up his arse.”
There was only roaring in Leo’s ears, and the fist that had been curling and twisting inside him found its way out at last, and his arm was connecting with Marbury’s face before he was aware of even wanting to hit him. The thock of fist on flesh was the most satisfying sound he had heard all week, and he felt air rush into his tight chest for the first time since Marbury had closed that door behind him.
Time slowed, or maybe it jumped ahead, or maybe he had in fact passed out after all, because in the next instant he became aware of three things.
The small streak of blood on Marbury’s lower lip.
The sound of his own breath coming hot and hard.
Abbey Bartlet standing in the doorway to the adjoining room.
He swallowed, and the taste in his mouth was no longer sharp or bitter or anything but flat. Marbury just stood there, his lip already beginning to swell, his hair falling over his face making him look the way he must have thirty-five years ago, when he was the young prince of whatever room he walked into and conversations like this one had seemed like they would never, ever happen to him. Leo wanted only to climb across the few feet of space between them and lick that trickle of blood away, to kiss him until he never, ever looked at Leo that way again.
“Abigail,” Marbury said, though his eyes were still on Leo. “I fear I have been a dreadful host. You must forgive me.” He turned, and gave a smile Leo couldn’t bear to look at.
“Leo,” she said. “Jed was looking for you.”
He cleared his throat, licked his lips. There was no telling how long she had been standing there, what she had heard or seen. He hadn’t even heard her, hadn’t even seen her standing right there. “Okay,” he said, and even he was shocked at how much his voice was not his own. “Sure. I’ll be right down.” He walked the few careful steps to the door out to the loggia, and didn’t look back.
And on the fifth morning, he was awake.
Leo had twitched aside the curtain, expecting to toss down his paper on the bedside table and relax with his morning coffee, ready for another endless day of nothingness and misery, and instead had met those eyes. Which had somehow been magnified by everything around them, so that while the rest of Marbury had become thin and white and frail, his eyes had absorbed yet more energy and life. Leo clutched at the curtain, his mouth open to call for the nurse, scream for anybody, anybody to come running, when the nurse adjusting the IV bag turned and smiled at him. The nurse he knew, the kind one.
“Good morning, Mr. McGarry,” she lilted. “I was just going to call you and let you know he was awake. He’s been awake since about three this morning, and the doctor’s already seen him. Everything’s looking grand, and we’ve even increased our intake of fluids.”
Leo half-expected Marbury to snort at that, the sick-room infantilization of that “we,” but he did not. His eyes remained large and on Leo.
“Hey there,” Leo said, since there seemed nothing else to say. The nurse was bustling out of the room, cheerful as ever, carting her little tray of vials. He watched Marbury’s throat work on the swallow, and Leo leaned in for the little Styrofoam cup of water and the straw, helping him. When he had finished, his eyes never leaving Leo, Marbury worked his throat again.
“Tell me,” he managed hoarsely, and ah, fuck Leo thought, because he had thought maybe he would get a little time before this part. But of course he wouldn’t; of course this was Marbury, and he would want to know.
“How much did the doctor tell you?” he began.
“Operation. My leg. Explaining the meds. Leo, please.” And then Leo realized the eyes were confused, and he had never seen Marbury confused before, and he put a hand on the bandaged wrist and began. He started with the morning of the blast, reconstructing as best he could what the sequence had been for several hours before that, because unless he missed his guess Marbury didn’t remember any of it, probably had no clue what city he was even in or what the hell had happened to him, and his eyes stayed on Leo like he was the only thing that made sense in the room.
Marbury didn’t interrupt him, and Leo continued, not sparing the details of the blast, nor its aftermath. He described to an exactitude what had happened to his leg, the way the blast had shattered bone and stripped away flesh, and the nine hours of surgery that had carefully pieced him together. The only thing he omitted was how he had missed certain death by perhaps a matter of millimeters, because it was too much to expect Marbury to be grateful for that. He looked even thinner now that he was awake.
“Charles,” was all he said at the end, and Leo frowned.
“He didn’t make it. I’m sorry.”
Marbury closed his eyes, and Leo wondered if the seconds after the blast had returned to his memory, or if they ever would. He really hoped not.
“Are you tired?” Leo asked, and Marbury murmured, “yes.” Leo stayed for as long as he slept—the nurses had given up trying to evict him days ago—and tried to fight back the nervousness that he would not awake, that he would slip back into wherever he had been before. When Marbury opened his eyes again, Leo looked away, so it wouldn’t be as apparent he had been doing nothing but watching him, clocking every breath.
“You’ve been here,” was the first thing Marbury said on re-awaking.
“I’ve just been reading the paper.”
“No, I mean, all this time. Since. . .” He didn’t supply a noun, and Leo realized he didn’t have one.
“Sure I have.”
“Have you been sacked, or something?”
He folded his paper. “Not yet. Josh is minding the store.”
“Words to rouse me from my bed of pain.”
“Are you in pain?”
“Curiously, no. I’m sure it will come. That must be quite the aperitif dripping into my veins.” He cast a glance up at the IV bag, moving his neck fractionally. “You said nothing about who’s claimed responsibility.”
“There hasn’t been any.”
“That’s alarming.” He twitched. “I need—can you possibly get me a telephone.”
Marbury’s eyes swiveled to him. “Get me a phone, goddamnit.”
“No. If you need to talk to anyone, you can tell me about it, and I’ll relay any messages. But for now, you need to rest. At least for today. Can you not give yourself twelve hours after waking up from a coma, or is that too much to ask?”
He caught the twitch of Marbury’s mouth, just a faint movement at the corner. “Ah,” he said, “there’s Leo. I was wondering where he’d gone.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
This time there was a twitch of brow to match. “I had forgotten,” he said slowly, “what a Catholic you are. How predictable. An opportunity for self-flagellation has arrived, and naturally you’ll be first in line. I wonder, what heady cocktail of guilt and recrimination are you brewing for yourself over there? It must be quite something, to keep you glued to my sickbed for five solid days.”
“That’s a hell of a lot of talking for someone just out of a coma. Also, a hell of a lot of four-syllable words.”
“I did well in school.” Marbury’s eyes drifted shut again, and this time he slept most of the afternoon and through the next shift change. He woke with a start close to four in the afternoon, and for a wild second his eyes darted around the little curtained space as though he had forgotten everything again, and landed on Leo with that same confused look, and Leo leaned over the bed, fingering a stray lock of hair off his forehead.
“Hey,” he said. “I’m here. You’re still in the hospital.”
Marbury just watched him. Leo kept stroking the hair, because Marbury hadn’t told him not to, and it felt sinfully good to touch him after so long of not allowing himself to, because he had not stolen caresses while Marbury wasn’t conscious—wouldn’t have done that to him. And then because Marbury was still not stopping him, and because while the drug haze was slowing his reflexes might well be the only time Leo could seize the opportunity, he leaned in closer and pressed his lips to Marbury’s forehead, just a quick cold brush of lips against skin.
“Stop,” Marbury said, and Leo sat back.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Don’t you fucking dare to pity me.”
“That was self-pity.”
“In what way, exactly?”
“Because I know that once you’re strong enough to deck me, you’ll never allow me to do that again.”
Marbury’s eyes were so naked, it was almost hard to look at them. So large and unshielded, and now Leo knew why Marbury was Marbury, with all that meant: because when nature or God or whoever gave you eyes like that, you better damn well keep a cover on them, you better damn well put on the show of a lifetime if you wanted to keep those eyes safe and out of sight. He had never had their full force on him, with nothing in between, and it was the worst few seconds of his life—like a searchlight in a darkened prison courtyard, and there was nothing to do but cower against the wall and wait for it to be over, no strength even to shield his face.
“Leo,” he said at last, and Leo held his breath, not daring to hope. “Go back to Washington,” he said, and Leo stared at the floor.
And in the end, of course, he did. He went back to Washington, and went about his life, and did his job, because there was a job to do and no one else to do it, and he had gotten what he wanted, after all, which was Marbury’s eyes on him and awake and alive. Marbury alive – that was all he had wanted.
Well, not precisely all. But it was all he was going to get, and he wasn’t arrogant – or deluded – enough to ask for more. If he could only live, please God just let him live, he had prayed in that Belfast hotel room, addressing a God he didn’t believe in. But maybe Marbury did. And as was the way of such things, once God or the universe had given him what he wanted, he wanted more.
So, all right. You didn’t get to be where he was, and who he was, without a little bit of knowing how to get what you wanted.
“Angels and ministers of grace defend us,” Marbury had said, the first afternoon Leo had walked into his room at the rehab facility. It was the best room in one of the nation’s best rehab hospitals, but still, Marbury could have chosen the absolute best, not just one of the best – Kessler in New Jersey, or Spaulding in Boston, or he could have gone to the Rusk Institute at NYU. Leo had researched them all. Or Marbury could have stayed in Belfast to finish his recovery, or gone to London. But instead, Marbury was here, at this posh private facility on Irving Street—because it was located in DC, and DC was where his job was, and his job, Leo knew full well, was what Marbury would be hellbent on returning to.
“I brought you these,” Leo said, setting a stack of care packages on the dresser. “From Abbey, of course. Silk pajamas, from what I could see of the top layer, books, from the weight of it, and from the distinctive clinking sound, plenty of single-malt. You’re welcome.”
“I can see I am going to need to be very clear here,” Marbury said, and he struggled up, pushing himself so he was sitting upright in his bed. “Leo, you are forgiven. Ego te absolvo, your penance is over, your sins are remitted, in nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti. You have nothing to feel guilty about. Leo? Are you understanding me?”
“I’m just gonna move aside some of the tropical rain forest of flowers you’ve got over here to put some of this down, okay?”
“God help me,” Marbury moaned, and sank back into his bed. He was silent for the rest of Leo’s visit, and Leo carried on as though they did this every day, filling him in on news of the West Wing he thought would interest him, talking of this and that, just mainly to paper over the silence—not frantically, but determinedly. After about half an hour he checked his watch, gave Marbury a cheery good-bye, and strode on out.
On his next visit, he was halfway through a story about how Margaret had accidentally given his corned beef on rye sandwich order to a fellow customer at Senbeb instead of to the man behind the deli counter, because the man had been wearing a white coat and leaning over the frozen meats, and then it had turned out the man was wearing a white coat because he was head of oncology at Georgetown and had just had two seconds to grab lunch, and was exactly the guy Leo had been trying to reach for two days straight to see if he would agree to testify about health care funding allocation before a congressional sub-committee, and of course he said yes he would and also asked Margaret out to dinner, because that was just the sort of thing that happened to Margaret, when Marbury had leaned over intently and said, “Leo.”
“I was not almost killed because you had a go at me and said bloodcurdling things. You do realize, deep in your imperfectly catechized brain, that that is not the way these things work, yes?”
Leo pretended to consider. “Well, as long as we’re talking about saying bloodcurdling things, I don’t think you should sell yourself short there. You’re pretty impressive in that category yourself.”
“And I see we’ve gone right from groveling to recrimination, summing up not only Leo McGarry’s entire emotional range but also, and not incidentally, all of Irish political history.”
Leo tapped his absently folded newspaper on his knee. “You’re not going to make me angry, you know.”
“Good God. If I had managed to work in an insult to your mother and the Virgin Mary as well, might that have done the trick?”
“You have an interesting fixation with my religion.”
“Your religion is an interesting fixation.”
“Well,” Leo said as he rose, “I have to get back. I’m planning on sneaking you in some actual food tomorrow, so give me a call if you can think of anything you want in particular. Otherwise I’ll just have to use my imagination.”
“You haven’t got one of those.” Marbury was lying on his back staring at the ceiling, and Leo took his time fiddling with putting on his coat, because that remark had struck home.
“Liverwurst it is, then.”
“Can’t you leave me alone,” Marbury said in despair.
“No,” Leo said with his hand on the door, but quietly. “Apparently not.”
Marbury sighed. “Well then,” he said, and Leo took it as the dismissal it was, but as resignation too, and for just that much concession Leo did not make the sandwich liverwurst, and he cut his visit short the next day, to give Marbury his space, and to show he could take a hint after all. But when he rose to go after ten minutes, he saw Marbury’s quick startled glance at the clock. “Or I could stay,” he offered.
“No no, go, all your maudlin overwrought kindness wears on my nerves. What is the equation, then? One excruciating visit per sin of furtive self-abuse? Is that a formula you worked out yourself, or is there a handbook for that sort of thing—a website, perhaps? Because I don’t imagine you had the honesty to confess the words out loud to a priest.”
Leo draped his coat carefully over his arm. Marbury was studying the bank of flowers, the window, anything but him. “You know,” Leo said, with equal care. “It wasn’t actually all the fault of my religion, that I’m as fucked up as I am. I do a pretty good job of fucking up all on my own. I managed to fuck this up, for instance, without any theological help at all—the best thing that had ever happened to me, or was likely to; the one person I ever found I could truly love with every part of me, and not have to hide any away or keep back or lie. The only time I ever did lie to you was when I called you a cheap fuck, which was a lie on both counts, because you were a hell of a lot more than a fuck, and as for cheap, I never met anyone who cost me more. And was worth every cent of it, for that matter.”
He stopped, because he was mindful of that word “maudlin” and Marbury’s distaste for anything he might perceive to be contrived. He draped his coat over the other arm and avoided Marbury’s eyes, which he could now feel on him. He looked instead at Marbury’s leg, at the metal thing encasing it that looked like something out of the Inquisition—pins stuck in him from a halo of metal from groin to ankle. There were brown smears from the daily iodine washings. “I have something that belongs to you,” he said, digging in his pocket.
“Here.” And he held out the ring, Marbury’s ring, in the palm of his hand. Marbury gravely regarded it. “I didn’t know what to do with it,” he confessed. “At first, I mean. And then every time I come I say I’m going to give it back, and somehow by the time I get back to my car it’s still in my pocket. But I thought, you know, you might like to have it back.”
Like it was nothing, he pressed it into Marbury’s hand. It had been a comforting weight in his pocket every day, but a stolen comfort, and it belonged back here. Marbury was holding it up, studying it.
“Remarkable,” he murmured.
“Yeah. Well. I didn’t say all that, you know, because I somehow thought—I mean, I know the score. I don’t somehow have expectations here, of—yeah. I mean, in terms of—sexually speaking, that is. Maybe I shouldn’t have. . . but, it needed saying, was all. So thank you for, you know.”
“I take it that’s the part of the speech you didn’t practice.”
“Not as such, no.” He stood there awkwardly, wondering if there was going to be more, watching Marbury turn his ring around and around, as though he had never seen it before.
“So I have to endure your gloomy tortured presence,” Marbury said reflectively, “but I don’t actually get any sex out of it, is this what you’re telling me?”
“That part is potentially negotiable,” Leo said, ignoring the hopeful triphammer started in his chest.
“Is it now.” Marbury closed his hand on the ring and was back to studying Leo, and this time Leo didn’t flinch from those eyes. “Well. A moot point, at any rate. For the moment, at least.”
“Maybe not,” Leo said, and this time he moved his coat to the back of his chair. He glanced at the closed door. It didn’t lock, and there were two Secret Service agents on the outside of it, not that they would stop any nurse who needed to come in. He tugged at his tie a bit, just to loosen it.
“You cannot be serious,” Marbury was saying.
“Just let me,” Leo said, and he was bending over the bed, and the half-broken body stretched upon it, gently tugging at the drawstring of the silk pajamas. All those lovely nightclothes, shorn off at the hip to allow room for his leg apparatus. He was lucky to have a leg at all. Part of him wondered if Marbury would be in less pain and difficulty now if they had just said, to hell with it, and chucked the leg back in Belfast; it was nothing but dead weight on him now. Marbury’s penis was lying quiescent in its bed of dark fur, unscathed by the destruction that had missed it so narrowly. Its blind innocence tugged at Leo’s chest, and he bent to suckle it, cradling it with his fingers, warming it in his mouth with the softest of caresses.
“Leo,” Marbury whispered. “I’m on—rather a deal of pain meds.”
He lifted his head fractionally. “Does it feel good?”
He bent to his work again. He kept his weight off the bed, leaning on the bed rails instead, and he had to grip them very hard because his hands wanted to wander, wanted to touch, and right now he wanted Marbury to feel only this.
“Close your eyes,” he said.
“I can’t help but feel someone ought to keep an eye on the door,” Marbury murmured above him, and Leo smiled around the member that was now, unmistakably, thickening a bit. Slowly, and almost imperceptibly, unfurling. Leo didn’t change anything he was doing; just kept his nuzzles and suckles as gentle as before, and as aimless. Marbury gave a soft exhalation, a sigh almost, and for a moment Leo wondered if a hand was going to rest on him, touch his head maybe, but it didn’t, and probably that was for the best.
He pulled back a little when he realized Marbury had his full length now, or just about, and began moving his head slowly up and down. He let his tongue be a little firmer, though he kept his motions as even as before. He could see out of the corner of his eye Marbury’s hand knotted on the bedrail, and he caught the glint that told him the ring was back on the hand. It was just a few inches away from his own hand, but he made no move to touch it, or any part of Marbury’s body but the one he was working on.
He wanted to pull off and nudge at Marbury’s balls, maybe roll them around in his mouth some, get them nice and wet, and he was assailed by the memory of Marbury’s groans at that, how much he had liked that. But he didn’t allow himself – that would have required getting some hands on him, and he knew without needing to be told that this was not about hands. So he kept at his careful unhurried pace, until he caught the sound of Marbury’s faster breathing, and then a “God—Leo—” which was like a javelin in his gut. He speeded up then, but only barely.
And after a long while: “Leo—the meds—I don’t think I can—” To which Leo just said, “Shh,” and kept at it, careful not to drive him to the point of pain or unbearable frustration. And when his tongue began its insistent dance on the distinctive mushroom-head of Marbury’s cock, the arm laced through the bed-rail shook, and Marbury himself gave a stuttered astonished breath, and there was wet in his mouth, which he drank down as gently and gratefully as he had sucked before.
When the rattle of Marbury’s inhalations above him had slowed, and the arm had relaxed, Leo let the cock slip from his mouth, and with infinite solicitude tucked it back into the soft folds of the pajamas, and tied the laces. Marbury’s eyes were hooded and sliding shut, but he made a half-hearted gesture toward Leo, something between pulling him closer and reaching for his groin, and Leo smiled. “Just rest,” he said, and because he figured this at least he was allowed, he leaned in and brushed a kiss to the side of Marbury’s forehead—a metaphor, really, for the thing he actually wanted, which was to climb on top of Marbury’s elegant wasted form and hump until he came hard and wetly, with his tongue thrust down Marbury’s throat, eating every inch of his warm pliant mouth.
“Get some sleep,” Leo whispered, and as he leaned away from the kiss, if kiss it could be called, he was caught by surprise—Marbury’s head leaned against his for only a second, but there it was. Leo bit back every choked irrational endearment that wanted to fight out his strangled throat, and picked up his coat, heading briskly for the door. The agents fell into place behind him, and none of them remarked on it when he did not put on his coat, despite the bitter raking wind as they walked to the car, but kept his coat firmly in place over his arm and in front of his body. He did not move the coat until he was back in his office, and could duck into his private washroom and lock the door and pull his aching cock out of his pants and rub fiercely until he came in a wretched agony of delight, right over the tiny sink, knocking his hips against its cold rim as the spasm took him.
The next day they did not speak of what had happened, and Leo did not presume on its occurrence. Marbury was tired, because they had moved a sort of thing into his room: a kind of platform with rails on either side, and he had to practice walking its narrow length. He had been on it when Leo had come in, and Leo had stopped dead, watching him—the determination as fierce as the pain on his face. “I expect I shall only need a cane, when all this is over,” Marbury said.
“With a brace, possibly,” the physical therapist put in. She was an extraordinarily attractive, bosomy brunette with flawless skin, and Leo wondered if Marbury had had to pay extra for her, or if that was just his sort of luck.
“Well, we shall see,” Marbury said, in a tone that told Leo he had no intention of wearing any sort of brace. No doubt Marbury already had his eye on a ridiculously expensive sterling-handled cane made from some exotic or extinct wood polished with the pubic hair of half-clad Tahitians, or some such. After the therapist was gone, and Marbury was collapsed in bed, Leo just watched him rest, and after a while – after he was sure Marbury had drifted into sleep – a dark eye cracked in his direction.
“Do you know,” he said, “why you are such a terrible alcoholic?”
“I’m thinking a heady combination of genes, geography, and neurosis?”
“No.” Marbury shifted, wincing a bit. “I mean, do you know why you are so terrible at it? At being an alcoholic, that is?”
“You don’t think my entire personal history points to my being kind of spectacular at it?”
“No.” Marbury’s face was solemn. “I don’t. That is to say, I do—I think that you were spectacular at being a drunk, really the best there was, but perfectly awful at being an alcoholic, that is, a recovering drunk, the drunk who resolves never to drink again. Do you know why you’re bad at that part, is what I mean?”
“Because.” He sounded infinitely weary. “Because, Leo Thomas McGarry, you don’t believe in the possibility of forgiveness. Drunks drink. It’s what they do. Alcoholics relapse. And then they say they’re sorry, and everyone moves on. Only someone who firmly believes in the possibility, even the inevitability, of the second chance has any sort of shot at being a successful alcoholic. And you don’t believe in them—second chances that is—even when they’re handed to you.”
Leo considered this. The thought that all he might have had to do, all those months ago, was simply ask for forgiveness, was almost too awful to bear. I won’t disappoint you, I won’t fail again, I won’t fail us again, he wanted to say, but he knew what Marbury would say to that. Yes you will, Marbury would say, and Leo would have to swallow that too. Marbury would fail and disappoint him too.
“Which isn’t to say,” Marbury was musing, his voice now an indistinct murmur into his pillows, “that more blow jobs would be completely unhelpful.”
“Well,” said Leo, “I’m a helpful guy.”
Stanley was back to arcing aimless doodles on his notepad. Just wide strokes of nothingness, of abstraction. He cocked his head to consider the effect: not displeasing. Like a sunset over a lake, maybe, with lots of grass around. “So tell me what was going on at the embassy,” he said, as he sketched.
“The day you broke the lamp. What was happening that day?”
Marbury spread his hands in a gesture of resignation. “I believe we’ve been over this. I had a series of meetings in the morning, then luncheon, then some telephone calls, then I read briefing papers until about three in the afternoon. Three-thirty, perhaps. Then I went back to the hotel, because I had had an early start to my day and was tired.”
“Mm. Where did you go for lunch?”
“I—my God, man, I have been as patient as you like, but we are now in day three of this, and I fail to see how describing my extremely boring luncheon, or the contents of my sandwich, for God’s sake, is going to help in the least.”
“So it was a sandwich?”
Marbury rested his head on his hand. “Sweet Christ.”
“I’m only asking because, you know, you said ‘luncheon,’ which made me think you had a fancy lunch date somewhere, maybe a banquet to go to.”
Marbury hadn’t moved, still just rested there with his head on a weary hand. “I said luncheon because it is an involuntary quirk of language. British people say luncheon, Americans say lunch, please, for fuck’s sake tell me what this matters.”
In the midst of his doodling Stanley made another mark off to the side, in a little column he was keeping. Marbury was about the most exquisitely verbal patient he had ever sat in one of these rooms with, and every slip of profanity mattered, especially the bald inelegance of that ‘fuck.’ “It matters because I need to know if you left the embassy that day. It matters because something happened that day. There was some trigger you encountered. You didn’t just beat up on a lamp—and everything else in sight, by the way—because something happened in your brain right then. My guess is, it had been happening for a while, probably all day. So I need to know your day. I need to know everything in your day. I need you to remember. And you need to know, your brain is going to resist telling me. Your brain is going to resist telling you. So every time you’re pissed at me, just remember that.”
Marbury studied him with eyes that were not wary, but surprised. Score one for Stanley, he thought—he had actually surprised him. Marbury got up, hobbling rather more than he had the day before, and went to the small wooden sideboard by the window, poured himself something to drink out of a decanter, and hastily downed it. It wasn’t alcohol—water, it appeared. Maybe mineral water.
“You don’t feel like having an actual drink? It’s late enough in the day for it.”
“I don’t actually drink,” Marbury replied.
“That’s an awful lot of liquor over there for someone who doesn’t drink.”
“It might surprise you to know that the British ambassador entertains visitors at the embassy. It is what you might call in the job description.” He drank another glass, knocking it back with a stiff wrist.
“How come you quit drinking?”
Marbury cocked a shrewd head at him as though he knew exactly where the question was aiming, despite its blandness—right where all the others had been, right at the spot Marbury wouldn’t let him in.
“Because,” he said slowly, “I take pain medication with some frequency now, and it might also surprise you to know that lucidity is another part of my job description, along with hospitality, articulacy, and stunning intelligence.”
“So what you’re saying is, you’re smarter than me.”
“I’m smarter than most people. I wouldn’t take it hard.”
“I’m not the one who got blown up, though.”
“Is that supposed to make me fly into a rage, in which I sputter and fume that what happened to me was by no means my fault? It very well might have been my fault, I have no real way of knowing. You’re going to have to do better than that, I’m afraid.”
Stanley smiled a little, and doodled some more. Marbury hobbled—that wasn’t quite the word for it, because his motion with the cane was fluid, really more of a hitch in his gait than anything—over to the window and peered out, twitching the heavy curtain with his finger. Stanley studied his doodle. “So tell me about your luncheon.”
“I ate at my desk. A sandwich of some sort. I really don’t remember. It was a very busy day, and I didn’t have time for anything else. I often don’t.” He spoke absently, like he was watching something out the window.
“Hm? Yes, I was alone. I took a phone call during lunch, read through some more papers, that sort of thing.”
“Whose phone call?”
“I don’t remember.”
Stanley made another little mark, over on the other side of his notepad, where he was tallying the lies. “Okay,” he said. “Sorry to be tedious, John, but like I said, this is part of my job description.” He caught the involuntary wince and pressed it. “You mind if I call you John?”
“Our relationship is a professional one. I believe I have addressed you as Dr. Keyworth. I realize I live in a country that regards formality as discourtesy, so think of it as a cultural preference rather than a personal one, if you like.”
Actually you haven’t addressed me at all, Stanley thought. “Okey dokey. So out of curiosity, just how many people call you John?”
“Well, my mother was a descendant of the third of the nine children of Queen Victoria. Victoria was the granddaughter of George the third, who was the great-grandson of George the first. George the first was the great-nephew of Charles the first, who was the son of James the first, and James’s mother was Mary, Queen of Scots. Not that many people call me ‘John,’ Dr. Keyworth.”
“I bet the Queen does.” Marbury gave a small smile at that, and Stanley wanted to write a big check mark in the ‘scores for Stanley’ column, which was the shortest of them all.
“Yes, the Queen.”
“And who else?”
“It’s just a question.”
Marbury was leaning against the windowpane now, in the pose of a thoughtful schoolboy. He tilted his head curiously at Stanley. “Do you really suppose,” he mused, “do you honestly believe, that if I say to you, Leo McGarry is my lover, all my problems will be solved?”
“No.” Stanley chewed on the tip of his pen and kept his voice even. “But I think if you can’t trust me just that much, then I won’t be able to help you.”
“I don’t want you to be mistaken on this point,” Marbury said, and he turned from the window. “I may be your patient, I may even be, as you have said, a trauma victim, but do not make a mistake—I am a very, very powerful man. I wonder if you have understood exactly how powerful. It is within my power to destroy you, in every single way. And not just you, but your family, including your wife, the lovely Dr. Linda Keyworth of Northwestern University’s neurology department, and your rather extravagant North Side townhome whose property taxes I can name for you to the decimal point. You see, I know the things it behooves me to know, and I want you to know this: if any harm comes to Leo McGarry, in any way, shape or form – if he is made to suffer in the smallest way because of anything I have said to you, then not only will I not hesitate to destroy you but I will take profound, lasting, unutterable delight in doing so. Do you understand me?”
Marbury’s voice was as quiet and schooled as before, but Stanley still had to twist his pen cap for a good thirty seconds before he trusted himself to speak. “Don’t ever speak my wife’s name in that tone again,” he said.
“Fair enough. I meant no disrespect, merely a statement of fact. Pardon me,” he said, as he bent awkwardly to the floor, closing a vent. “It’s a lovely old mansion, but there’s no denying it gets drafty at times. If I don’t keep this one closed, I get not only the most unpleasant draft near the fireplace, but every horrid cooking odor from the kitchens as well. The whole ventilation system is probably quite unsound, and lined with asbestos, I wouldn’t be surprised. When I develop an obscure and fatal cancer, Her Majesty’s Government can sue for the cost of my billetage. Now, where were we?”
He had settled back in his wing chair. “Last Friday afternoon,” Stanley said. “You had meetings all morning, you ate lunch at your desk, you talked to Leo on the phone while you read some papers. What happened in the afternoon?”
“I told you, I read briefing papers.”
“Here, or somewhere else?”
“I was here. I remember because there was going to be an event at the embassy that night, and the place was in rather an uproar, so I stayed here, in my office, rather than going to the downstairs study, which I usually use for reading.”
“Uproar,” Stanley said. “What kind of uproar?”
“Oh, you know, workmen in and out, setting up for the evening, that sort of thing. Quite the usual, around here.”
“Mm.” Stanley sucked on his pen. “Was it loud?”
“What? No, not in the least. Not up here, anyway, the walls are thick, it’s quiet as a tomb. That’s why I read up here.”
“What was the event? The one they were getting ready for, I mean?”
“Oh.” Marbury gave a slight wince. “It was an Open House. One of those horrid ‘Britain On Your Doorstep’ things we are expected to host, twice a year or so. Something between EuroDisney and a bad Masterpiece Theatre series. You know, people wandering about in period costumes, offering stuffed haggis, that sort of thing. Thank heaven, the ambassador isn’t expected to be present.”
“Haggis,” Stanley said. “That something you eat a lot of, over there?”
“It’s quite decent, you know, the one or two times I’ve had it. But I can understand, as an American, the opportunity to look down on the native cuisine of others must come along so seldom it can’t be passed by, so I will overlook your sneering.”
“What else do they have, at this Doorstep thing?”
“What, are you imagining games, carnival rides, that sort of thing? Sorry to disappoint. The whole thing is about as exciting as, well, being in Britain itself. Mainly people are happy if you serve them great platters of roasted meats, with vats of mustard to bathe it in. These sorts of events never pay any mind to the cultural and historical development of the British Isles after, say, the time of Henry VIII. We have to pretend that we all go around gnawing on turkey legs, which of course Henry never saw in his life, since the turkey is native to North America, but there’s no mention of that at cultural propaganda events, or interesting facts such as London being home to the largest Indian community in the world, excluding the subcontinent, of course. More than the Indian populations of all other EU countries combined, in fact. Not unlike the extraordinary congregation of Jews in New York’s Lower East Side around the turn of the last century—over a million and a half in a single square mile, did you know that particular statistic? The mind boggles at it. We live amongst our own even when we have every incentive not to, as a species. Curious things, humans.”
Stanley set down the pad, and in all the involuntary kneejerk rattle and desperate last-ditch defense of Marbury’s agonized brain, he heard it. “Roasted meats,” he said.
“What about them?”
“All this time I’ve been thinking it was noise, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t the noise at all, was it.” And he got up, and bent to the vent Marbury had just closed, and opened it. A chill draft hit him, and along with it, a faint odor of something. He couldn’t place it, wouldn’t even have smelled it if he hadn’t known to concentrate on it, but Marbury’s brain had.
“The cooking odors,” he said gently, looking up at Marbury from where he crouched. “All afternoon. The roasted meats. Burning flesh. To your brain, it was burning flesh.”
He watched it cross Marbury’s face, watched the spasm of rejection, the shrinking from it. “That is ludicrous,” he whispered. “As though perfectly normal cooking odors would—why on earth would burning flesh—”
“I think you know the answer to that one.”
And of course, Marbury did. Even as his subconscious rejected it, thrashed around like a cornered beast, kicked and flailed and spat, his conscious mind saw it. Marbury rested his forehead gently on the tips of his fingers, and shut his eyes. “Of all the ridiculous things,” he said, after a long while.
“It’s not ridiculous. Repression of association and sensation is how we survive. Only, in some cases, it kills us. Your Lordship. Whose flesh was burning?”
“Charles,” he said dully. “It was Charles.”
“Who was Charles?”
“Had he been your driver a long time?”
“About three hours,” Marbury said. “I met him that morning. A pleasant enough fellow. Not overbright. Four children. He—“ The other hand came to his forehead, or rather Marbury bent to it, hunched in his chair, his face hidden, his voice muffled. “Nobody was trying to kill him. He took a stupid job because he had a duty—to his family, his wife and children—he had a duty. I tried to—I didn’t realize at first I had been injured too, of course one doesn’t see that at first, it seems impossible, one’s own injury of that sort, so I was trying to help him, to stop the bleeding. But I couldn’t—there wasn’t—”
This silence pulsed so loud Stanley was the one who wanted to hide his face. “What happened to him?” he asked after a while.
“I had my—hand at his neck. I had read things, accounts you know, of soldiers with carotid artery wounds, who had just kept their hand there long enough—if one can apply enough pressure, it can be done, I know that it can. I thought that there might—but then I couldn’t figure where all the rest of the blood was coming from, and then I saw that he didn’t have—there wasn’t any—his legs were off him, you see, only one was caught in the windscreen—and it was still, you know, flaming—charred, rather. I remember thinking, they can reattach it, I shall just keep holding my hand here, until someone—until—” The choke of his voice was terrible.
“So he was already dead.”
“That is one word for it,” Marbury whispered.
“So he took the force of the blast.”
“Well of course he did,” and Marbury lifted his ravaged face at that. “Naturally he did. The protective glass, you see, was around me, was encasing the back of the car, so my injuries were not as severe—were recoverable, in fact. Because in the order of the universe, I matter, and Charles whose last name I never learned did not. He was not the Marquis of Needham and fucking Dolby. He wasn’t the third cousin to anybody. He took a stupid fucking job. He did his duty to his wife and his children, and he had the bad luck to run into me, and I killed him as sure as if I’d—as if from ten thousand feet I’d—Leo thinks he’s the only one that—and no one gives a bleeding fuck what happens to Charles, or to that little girl in Mei Tong, or—no one—ah God, God—” Marbury bent double at that, and Stanley watched the valance of the heavy curtains to keep the knot out of his own throat.
After a few minutes Stanley was the one to walk to the windows. He took his time there, enjoying the view, giving Marbury the courtesy of his back for as long as he needed it. Lots of other patients, maybe he would have offered some physical comfort, but this one would as soon rip off his arm as accept so much as a pat on the shoulder. He thought again of a jaguar at the zoo, of thinking you could reach your finger through the bars and scratch it just because it happened to be stretching there, in momentary vulnerability. Besides, Marbury would have comfort, he knew that much now; it would be there, when he needed it, from someone who knew far better than he did how to offer it. Stanley poured himself some of the seltzer water on the sideboard and brought a glass to Marbury as well, who accepted it gratefully, before he resettled himself.
“So tell me about your childhood,” he said, and at the harsh bark of Marbury’s laugh, he offered his own grim smile. They sat there in silence for the rest of the hour, but this was a silence that had airholes punched in it, that had oxygen at last, and Stanley just sat there watching his patient learn how to breathe it.
“Well, this is utter crap.” He could hear Marbury toss aside the pile of papers from where he sat ensconced on the bed, and at the bathroom sink Leo smiled. He wiped his hands on the towel and came around the corner to the bedroom, still smiling. “What are you smiling at?”
“The bad effect I’ve had on your diction.” He pulled open the dresser drawer, rummaging.
“Look, Leo, you can’t seriously be contemplating throwing your lot in with these raving lunatics.”
“And by raving lunatics you mean. . .”
“The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, of course. Well, the ECPA, specifically.”
“Uh huh. Refresh my memory.”
He slammed the dresser drawer. “A lot of acronyms cross my desk on any given day, all right?”
“The European Commission on Preservation and Access.”
“Wait. These are the librarians.”
“Yes, yes. The lunatics. They are asking the EU to mandate complete control over every historical print archive in Europe to them. Complete control! Can you imagine – why at the Bodleian alone blood would flow in the stacks if anyone were to suggest ceding oversight of the archives to an international body. You can’t muck about with their documents, Leo, it’s pure insanity. And why should the ECPA have control? Next thing they’ll want is to start restricting access – they are, after all, the Commission on Preservation and Access, and the universities have always prided themselves on the enormous liberty of access granted in good faith to anyone with sufficient scholarly credentials, and to many without. Think of the Fitzwilliam! For one thing—”
“For one thing, I’d rather not,” he said, sitting on the edge of the bed and stripping off his socks. “For another, it would be really hard to overestimate my level of not caring about this particular issue.”
“Well, since the President’s speech at the Dutch Embassy the other night, I can tell you, passions have been running high.”
“Among the librarians.”
“KNAW was there in force the other night, in case you hadn’t noticed, and they were—”
Marbury rolled his eyes. “Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen.”
Leo grinned. “There is no way you haven’t been saving that up all night.”
“We are going to have this conversation at some point.” A well-aimed steno pad thunked against his back.
Leo straightened and stood, looking down at him. “Maybe. But I can’t have any conversation with you when you look like that.”
Marbury glanced down at himself. He was still half-dressed, but only just. His shirt was unbuttoned, his chest bare, and he wore only boxer shorts. His bare legs were stretched out, the right one carefully propped and angled on a series of pillows. He frowned. “I don’t see why not. Do I have to be completely clothed to discuss matters of policy?”
“You do if you expect any coherent response. I can’t have conversations with you that end up with me signing away national sovereignty because I like the way you look in your underwear.”
The corner of Marbury’s mouth twitched. “Well, I don’t see why not. I for one—” he shifted slightly in Leo’s direction, but his hand quickly clenched in a fist, and Leo caught the gasp.
“John. When was the last time you took your pain meds?”
He waved his hand. “It’s fine. I shouldn’t have – I just overexerted myself a little today, that’s all. I’ll take something later on, if I need it.”
Leo sat back down, facing him, watching him try to mask a spasm of pain that shot through him as he rearranged himself on the pillows. “John. Wear the damned thing.”
“I will not. It’s ridiculous, absurd. It weighs twice what I do, for one thing—”
“John. Wear it.”
“No.” He met Leo’s gaze, and though his eyes were angry, Leo knew it wasn’t at him. “Look,” he said, after a minute. “It makes not the slightest difference if I wear the brace, or not. At the end of the day. . .”
“At the end of the day you still hurt so bad you can barely stand it, and I have to sit here and watch you pretend not to be in agony, and it’s driving me nuts.”
Marbury’s eyes dropped. “I did say it wouldn’t be easy.”
Leo fiddled with his cuffs and began unbuttoning his shirt. “I don’t want easy.” He waited until the dark eyes were looking at him again; he knew he wouldn’t have to wait long, if he was unbuttoning things. “And like I said, I like the way you look in your underwear. Did you talk to Stanley again today?”
“I did. We’re becoming quite close. After a week of this, I think we’re ready to declare our love and make it official. Really, it’s embarrassing at this point, I think we’re only meeting because he can’t bear to part from me. We shall build a little cottage somewhere and settle down. You won’t mind, I’m sure.”
Leo snorted. “If I made jokes like that, you’d have MI5 wiretap my underwear.” He stared to lower himself back down to the bed, stopped, and considered. He hadn’t thought about doing it now, but for some reason he wanted to, and the remark about the cottage had made him think of it. “Wait here.”
“Where are you—”
He trotted into the next room and pulled out the careful roll from his briefcase, stopping to grab the pill bottle from the wet bar. He paused, frowning – it only took a few seconds, though, to figure out what was different. He walked slowly back into the bedroom, and tossed the pill bottle at Marbury. “Here. Take two, and then you can tell me what the hell you were thinking. What the hell, John? You think you can’t trust me around your booze, is that it? Did you find a nice locked cabinet for it, maybe with a combination?” He kept his voice even, but his chest was tight. He had known that the relapse Marbury had seen was bound to have repercussions, was bound to have changed the way he thought. But so much had happened since then, and it took him up short, the lack of. . . he didn’t even know what. “What the hell?” he said again.
“For God’s sake, don’t be ridiculous. I chucked it all because of me, not you.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Because of you? You don’t take those meds often enough for it to make any sort of difference. And take those pills, by the way.”
“I didn’t particularly want to sink into a drug-induced stupor tonight.”
“When the hell is it not a good night to sink into a drug-induced stupor, is what I’d say, but I’m not the one to listen to. Take the damn things, come on.”
He watched as Marbury knocked the pills back, and set the glass on the bedside table. “Look, Leo. It’s not as though I couldn’t stand with laying off liquor, myself.”
His eyebrows went higher. “You’ve quit drinking? You?”
He shrugged – really more of a twitch of his shoulders and a tilt of his head. “It was inevitable.”
“For someone in love with an alcoholic, I mean. What do you have there?”
Leo hesitated. He wanted to go back to the earlier part of that sentence, or even the second part, but they would get to it later tonight. He would be buried in Marbury so deep it squeezed his balls and choked him in his chest just thinking about it, and their voices in the dark would say wild impossible things, and he would whisper in desperation say it, say it again, and Marbury would twist and find his mouth and murmur it, over and over and over again like thick sweet honey coating him, like the thickness of come drenching his fingers where he found Marbury’s cock. So for now, he just unwound the rubber band around the roll of papers and dropped them on Marbury’s lap.
“And what is this?”
“Take a look.”
Cautiously, he spread the tight roll of thin papers out. Leo fought the urge to chew his lip, or pace, or do anything but stand there and watch him, watch him take everything in.
“These are. . . these are blueprints.”
Marbury looked up. “Blueprints of what?”
“Not of what, for what. They’re for my house. The one I’m building.”
Marbury cocked his head, and Leo was unsurprised to see how quickly those eyes could narrow to inscrutable. He supposed they were not, after all, comfortable eyes to encounter from across a negotiating table. “Your house.”
“Yeah.” He nodded at the papers, and Marbury followed his eyes down. For long minutes he did nothing but study the plans. Leo watched him, saw him lingering over the northwest corner of the second floor, and knew he saw it. He made himself stand there and wait.
Marbury smoothed the blueprints out on his knees. When he spoke he did not look up. “This is a house you intend to build.”
“Actually, I bought the land some time ago. Not too far from here, out in Maryland. They broke ground last week, in fact.”
“This place. . . Leo, if you don’t mind my asking, exactly how much money do you have?”
He smiled. “I get by all right.”
“I must say I knew you were wealthy, just not obscenely so. This house, it doesn’t strike you as a bit. . . large?”
Leo sat on the edge of the bed. “To tell you the truth, I was hoping to share it.”
“With—oh, come on, take a look.” He scooted up closer. “See, there’s this suite of rooms in the master wing – two bedrooms, two dressing rooms, and they all open into this shared sitting room – there’s, all right, over here you can see it better, there’s an elevator off the sitting room, and downstairs has two large studies, at opposite ends here, so you can, you know, and over here there’s—”
He stopped, almost afraid to look up.
“Are you actually building this house? At this very moment?”
“I am actually building this house. Look, I’m not going to live in a hotel forever, all right? In eleven more months, my public life is over, and I figure I get this.” He pointed at the blueprints. “It’s going to be gated, the whole thing, as secure as I can make it. I’d add in some guard towers and riflemen, but I’m pretty sure there are some codes about that. But look, enough land for the stables, too, and some decent pasturage. The blueprints for those are in here somewhere – hang on, let me find it—okay, here we go, there’s—”
“Leo.” Marbury’s hand stilled his as he riffled the papers. “Please stop talking.” That made his chest tighten, and he looked up to see Marbury studying him from four inches away, a strange frown on his face. “Is this really what you want?”
“Hell no. What I really want is a goddamned fortress with a thirty-foot moat, electrified barbed wire running over a ten foot wall, and a rabid German shepherd at the gate, but this will have to do.”
He swallowed. “Yeah, this is what I want. Is this something you could want too?”
He fingered the blueprints. “I do have. . . Leo, you know I have a house, right? Some several of them.”
He smiled wryly. “No kidding.”
“And I’m not sure. . . that is to say—this is certainly lovely.”
Leo’s chest skittered a little, and he twitched at the plans, rolling up the nearest one into a tight cylinder. “Yeah. Well. It was just a thought, you know, just a place I could—”
Marbury caught his hand. “I simply can’t be away from England forever that way. Leo. Please tell me you see that.” Leo nodded slowly, though his throat was dry. “And what I am thinking is—if this strikes you as impossible tell me, but what I am thinking is, we ought perhaps to divide our time. Because as I say, I do have a house, and if you have this, well, perfectly adequate little place, then we would have a foot in both countries so to speak, and that way, if you see, we could. . .” He trailed off. “Does that seem possible?”
Leo just sat back on his heels and looked at him. It struck him that Marbury was as taut around the jaw as he was, and he wanted to laugh at it, at both of them, at all their carefulness with each other. “Yeah,” he answered softly. “It does. To tell you the truth, I’d live under your average highway overpass, if it meant I got to come home to you every night. Dressed like that, I should add.”
“Ah. Well then, I shall have a care to my toilette.” His face relaxed into a wary smile. “I meant what I asked before, you know. Are you quite sure about. . . all this?” His gesture took in the blueprints scattered on the bed, and everything they hadn’t said.
“Yeah. I’m sure, all right.”
The smile widened. “Excellent.” He plucked up the largest blueprint. “Now, if you don’t mind, I think some more discussion ought to go into the size of my dressing room.”
He heard the creak of the porch swing, and didn’t have to turn on the light to know who it was. He let the screen door announce his presence, and settled on the swing beside Marbury, together watching the moon dust and skim the fields beyond the barn.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Leo said, for something to say.
Marbury’s cigarette tip glowed and crackled red. “Mm,” he said. He flicked the cigarette into the bushes, and Leo rolled his eyes.
“You might want to think about extinguishing those, next time. I think the President will be understandably put out if his 18th century farmhouse burns to the ground. You’re a one-man fire hazard,” he said, wanting his voice to sound harsher than it did, but damn, they were alone for the first time all day, and it was still the same punch in the gut to be sitting right next to him, and be able to touch. Marbury twiddled the handle of his cane, and its silver caught the edge of the moon as well.
“Abigail took me to the barn today, showed me round a bit. They’ve acquired some quite lovely animals, did Jed tell you?”
“You’re not fucking serious,” Leo said, because he could see where this was going a mile off.
“Oh spare me. It’s only because you know nothing of the sport yourself that you think it is somehow inherently dangerous. I shall be trotting along woodland paths, not racing the Grand National, for God’s sake.”
“John. We talked about this when we built the stables. And you said then—“
“What I said then applied to then, and at the time I said I had no plans to take up riding again, only now I do have plans because I am vastly improved, have far better control, and there’s far, far less risk. And in the worst case scenario, if something did happen to go wrong, I will be riding with a medical doctor. I can’t think of anything safer.”
Leo said nothing, because Marbury would do what Marbury would do, and the more Leo objected, the more he would be sure to do it, of course. “Stop brooding.” Marbury nudged a shoulder against Leo’s. “It makes you nervous, doesn’t it, being out here. Admit it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I like it fine out here.”
“Rubbish, you hate the country. You’re only reconciled to the grass around your own house because you regard it as a kind of moat. Which reminds me, I’ve been thinking.”
In answer, Marbury leaned closer and seized Leo’s mouth in his. His free hand came behind Leo’s neck, pulling him in closer. It was a kiss that meant business, but then, Marbury’s kisses had more vocabulary to them than most people’s five-page essays, and Leo settled in for it. Marbury’s tongue had things to say. “We’re gonna get caught,” Leo murmured, against a scrape of stubble. “Jed’s still up.”
“I know,” smirked Marbury’s mouth against his.
“You wanna get caught?”
“And what if I do?” Marbury had pulled back just enough so the dark puddles of eyes were on him, fathomless, dangerous. So this kiss had had subtext as well as text. “Suppose I want everyone to see? What would you say to that?”
“I would say. . . I don’t know, why are you asking me to have coherent thought after you kiss me like that?”
“You like it?” Marbury’s throaty husk was at his ear, teeth were grazing him.
Leo’s own voice was rough. “You know I do. Let’s get upstairs.”
“All this concern for the proprieties. Jed and Abigail are hardly the innocents you suppose, you know. Or did you think our guest rooms adjoined quite by accident?”
“There’s a difference between knowing a thing and being confronted by it.”
“Ah, is that what I’m being.” Marbury’s lips, slightly chapped and tasting of his last cigarette, came back from their exploration and brushed his. “Confrontational.” The lips became more insistent, and as always Leo felt the vertigo of kissing Marbury—the sense of the world shifting a bit around him, destabilizing. The hand at the back of his neck became a finger stroking into the base of his hair. “How very naughty of me.”
“We need to take this upstairs,” Leo murmured.
“Nonsense. We’re not going to be interrupted.”
“And you know this how?”
“Because Jed caught sight of us from the kitchen window fully five minutes ago. The light was on, I could see him quite clearly. No doubt he has barricaded himself in his bedroom and won’t be reappearing till morning.”
“Jesus Christ,” Leo breathed. “Well, thanks for that.”
“You’re quite welcome. Now where were we?” Marbury’s hand drifted to the stiff lump of his penis, thumbing the head of him through the fabric. “If you think kissing on Mum and Dad’s front porch is naughty, whatever would you say to this, I wonder?” And the thumb became firmer, became a hand cupping him and kneading him in just the ways he knew got him hard.
“I’ve an idea,” Marbury’s silken wicked voice continued. “What do you say to taking a moonlit stroll down to the barn? I’ve a sudden yen to see you spread out on a bed of straw wearing nothing but a few wisps of hay and your hard and leaking cock.”
“I think I like that idea.”
“Yeah. If I give all the horses a heart attack tonight, there won’t be any left for you to kill yourself on tomorrow.” But he rose and extended his hand to Marbury, who took it, and as he did he caught the spasm that crossed Marbury’s face, the involuntary wince of pain, and he knew that partly, tonight was about being distracted from the pain that must have been at him all day. But he wouldn’t start in on that argument now, the one where he said, for the nine millionth time, take the fucking meds, because in this instance as in all else, Marbury would do what Marbury would do. They walked slowly, pretending it was in order to admire the moonlight on the pasture, and Leo stayed close enough so Marbury could lean on him if he wanted to.
“The country doesn’t make me nervous.” Leo matched his pace to the taller man’s, ambling along the path with his hands in his pockets. “You make me nervous.”
“Ah. Well, that’s as it should be, then.”
And of course, when they got to the barn, they lay there for a long time, stretched in the hay, just talking. When it came to the sex, it wasn’t frantic or demanding or rough or any of the other things Leo usually loved it—him—to be, but tender and slow and. . . reticent, somehow, in ways that broke Leo into slow pieces. Of course, their sex life these days was less athletic than it had been—fucking was difficult enough for Marbury without getting exotic about it.
Afterward, Leo played with the cane, examining the bone and silver of its handle in the moonlight, twisting it round. It was like an extension of the man himself, after all these months, and he might have known that Marbury would accommodate himself to it with his usual grace and fluidity, the ease of the natural athlete. The hitch in his gait was almost lovely, somehow. It was the sort of easiness of body you acquired on the playing fields of an English public school before you were ten, or you never acquired it. He himself had wrestled, in high school, because there weren’t really many other options for a boy of middling height and ability, and it had seemed like a manly thing to do.
“Did it now,” Marbury had smirked, when he had told him about it one day. And then he had told him about the day he had found Joey Cahill jacking off in the deserted locker room, just leaning against the lockers with his shorts around his ankles, wearing only his socks, eyes shut and biting his lip and breath already coming fast, and Leo had sucked in his breath and flattened himself against the bank of lockers around the corner, and despite the terrified drumbeat of leave leave leave in his chest, another, stronger one had started in his groin, and Leo had gotten hard there against the cold metal of the lockers, watching him, and that night had waited until the house was dark and still and beaten himself to frantic blinding orgasm like none he had ever experienced, and cursed and cried when it was over, even as he thought about ways to make it happen again.
“Describe it,” Marbury had said, after he had finished the story. “Tell me more about what it was like, watching him.” And Leo had, taking his time about it, and as he did Marbury slowly unzipped and fisted himself, leaning there on the sofa next to Leo, and Leo hadn’t stopped him, just kept talking until he couldn’t anymore, stuttering on Marbury’s quiet breathless climax.
“Do what you wanted to with Joey,” Marbury had said, when he was done, limp and sated and sprawled against the sofa back. A lock of dark hair fell in front of his face. So Leo did, crawling up on him and unzipping himself with fumbling fingers and cramming his whole hot length, wet already, into Marbury’s mouth, who took it eagerly, sucking him down while Leo fucked him there, swallowing every stringy drop. Leo had even held the back of his head to keep him steady there, and Marbury drank it. The memory curled Leo’s balls sometimes, if he thought about it.
“What are you thinking about?”
Leo turned to see Marbury watching him, the same fall of dark hair over solemn, impish eyes.
“Joey Cahill,” he replied truthfully, and Marbury snatched back the cane.
“Give it here, I shall beat you to death with it now,” he said, and the horses whickered at Leo’s too-loud laugh.
Jed was already in the pasture when he rose the next morning. Marbury was already gone from the bed, too, but he was used to that; the man slept fitfully and rarely, and was always up before dawn anyway. He could see Jed from the kitchen window as he poured his coffee, just leaning there against the fence, looking out at God knew what. Leo headed down to join him, not sure what he would say, but certain that it needed to be said, and they needed to be alone to do it.
“So I’ve been thinking about Ron Ehrlich,” Jed said when Leo came up beside him.
“We made a good call there. He’s a good chair,” Leo said, watching a secret service agent in the distance talking into his handheld.
“Yeah, I wasn’t thinking about the Fed. You’re right, though, we did good there. That’s something, anyway. Nah, I was thinking about him and Abbey.”
Leo gave a reluctant half-smile. “Not again.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking, there goes old crazy again, but it wasn’t just the fact that he’d dated Abbey for nine months that made me hesitate to name him, you know. I had my reasons. Reasons of state.”
“You know, I seem to recall a lot more deference, back when I was in office.”
“Nah, that was just the armed guards talking.”
“I still do pretty good.” Jed nodded at the black speck. “I bet that guy over there could take you.”
“I bet he could at that,” Leo assented, watching the man slowly walk the perimeter. The farm wasn’t the thronging madhouse of agents and press it had been just last year, but there would never be any such thing as truly alone for the Bartlets, ever again. His own detail, he’d been able to shuck on leaving the West Wing; for them, it was a life sentence.
“So, Ron Ehrlich,” Jed was saying. “Here’s the thing. I found out just a few years ago that he’d asked Abbey to marry him.”
“He did, huh?”
“He did, the lowlife scum. She had neglected to mention it before.”
“Well, what can you do.”
“The thing is, Leo,” he said, and he bent his head a little, studying his joined fingers. Leo turned to him, startled by his sudden seriousness of tone. “The thing is, she should have said yes.”
“I doubt she would say that,” Leo said slowly.
“No. No, she never would. She probably doesn’t even think it. Well, maybe not often.”
Leo was silent, because they never talked about Abbey. That was a fence Jed had drawn years ago, and he had respected it, just like he had respected Abbey, liked her even. But it wasn’t his fence to step over, so he stayed silent, and listened.
“The hell of it is,” Jed said, his voice softer, “he would have made her really happy, I think. And I don’t mean just the whole escape-from-a-public-life-she-never-wanted thing. I mean in all the little day-to-day ways, he would have been better for her. I’m – well, you might not believe this, Leo, but people have said I’m difficult to live with.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“It’s true, they have. Often the same people who live with me, too. But you know,” and his tone shifted again. “I’ve thought about it. About our positions being reversed. Mine and Ron’s, I mean. I mean, what if I was the guy she’d said no to, and he was the guy she’d said yes to? Because I can imagine meeting her again, all those years later. I can see it in my head, her married to Ron. What if they had been the ones to have three happy kids, to have a whole life together, all that. And I think,” he paused. For a minute Leo thought there might be no more, because Jed wasn’t given to pauses. He rode this one out, just watching him, unable to gauge this strange new mood.
“What I think, Leo, is that there is no force in heaven or earth that could have kept me from her. I wouldn’t have cared, about any of it – her marriage, or her three kids, or her happy life. I would have done anything, anything I had to, anything to make her mine. Screw it, is what I would have said. Because there is nothing, nothing on God’s green earth I wouldn’t do, to be with Abbey, and if I had been that guy, and seen a chance to be with her, there isn’t a law I wouldn’t break, a mortal sin I wouldn’t commit, Church be goddamned. Church be goddamned, Leo,” he said, and turned the full force of his gaze at him. “The world be goddamned.” Leo had to look out and away from that gaze, at the orchard in the distance, to deflect the weight of it.
“You find that person once, maybe,” he resumed, after a minute. “And you do whatever you have to. Whatever the hell you have to,” he said again.
They stood in silence, anchored by the fence. Leo tried to find words, but knew they wouldn’t make it out around the tightness in his throat, even if he had them to hand, which he didn’t. “Yeah,” Jed said ruefully. “That sounded a whole lot less disjointed in my head, before it came out.”
“Well,” Leo said, his voice thicker than he intended. “Public speaking was never your strong suit.”
“Think there are classes I could take?”
“Could be. You get some help with that, and you could go places.”
“Ah, now you’re just kissing up.”
Leo grinned. The agent at the edge of the field was beginning his slow circuit back, and they watched him for a minute before Jed cocked his head back in his direction.
“You know, we could actually talk about it, if you wanted.”
“Yeah. Well. I’m not sure that’s something I can do. Metaphor works pretty well for me.”
It was Jed’s turn to grin. “Just don’t get so wrapped up in metaphor you lose sight of—yeah, okay, we’re gonna stop before I start giving you advice about your love life. Come on, Abbey will have started that second pot of coffee by now. And current attachments or not, I’ve never been so sure leaving John alone with my wife was such a wise idea.”
Leo chuckled. “I’m not so sure you’re wrong there. He does have a bit of a fixation, where she’s concerned.” They wended their slow way down the path to the house and up the wide avenue of beech, not saying much, because there was nothing left to be said. Before Vermont, Leo had always thought “crisp air” was metaphor, too, but he could feel it bracing and filling his lungs as he walked. The strong morning sun dappled the drive, and there were certain shades of green in the trees too intense to be looked at directly. On the porch, Marbury was stretched full length on the swing, with Abbey in a rocking chair beside him. Leo could see the dark head come up at their approach, and he almost had to stop where he was, the sensation of it was so sharp. Almost painful the surge of what he felt when he caught sight of Marbury – John. He had always been John, in bed, but he found himself slipping more and more into John these days when they weren’t in bed.
“You all right?” He heard Jed’s solicitous voice, and almost laughed aloud. Probably he thought he was having another heart attack.
“Yeah,” he smiled. “I’m good. Just—” he shrugged slightly, his eyes involuntarily straying to the couple on the porch.
“Yeah,” Jed said quietly beside him, following his eyes. “Gets you in the gut sometimes, doesn’t it.” He cocked his head at them. “They do make a nice couple, though.” He cut his eyes at Leo, then bumped Leo’s shoulder with his own. “Come on, let’s go break ‘em up.”
Together they trooped up the path, and Leo felt the dark eyes on him. He held them in his own, letting everything in him show. By the time he stepped on the porch it had all been said, and answered, and Marbury swung his long legs down so Leo could take a seat on the swing, too. He settled himself gratefully, then reached down and pulled Marbury’s legs back up, to rest across his knees. If Marbury was startled, he didn’t show it; he just relaxed back into his former position, not breaking off his conversation with Abbey about local Revolutionary War heroes and how they ought to have been hung for traitors. He did pause once, when Leo’s thumb on the inside of his ankle began describing a slow circle, and shot him a glance – not of warning, but of surprise. And when had he learned to read all of Marbury’s glances that way? When had the man’s least gesture become as readable and as beloved to him as a favorite book? When had his world narrowed to this, to the slow circle of finger on bone, and Marbury’s hands waving circles in the air as he talked and talked?
He tuned out their chatter and watched the green in the distance shift and sway in the morning sun. He stayed unmoving long after his knees had fallen asleep beneath the weight of Marbury’s legs, afraid to move suddenly lest the heavy bowl of warmth and joy in his chest spill out, and he lose a single drop.