It’s seven o’clock on a Friday morning and Arthur’s showered, dressed, and rushing out the door before he realizes he actually has nothing to rush to. Not that things have been slow; nothing’s ever slow in his line of work—most of the time it’s like he’s racing the Indy500, pushing speeds considered suicidal in any other environment—but it’s been consistently predictable. The inaugural buzz has all but died down, Yusuf’s already trading jokes with the press corps, and Fischer’s holding up his end of the bargain, quieting the loudest grumblings within the GOP ranks, half of them still licking their wounds with their tails between their legs. Arthur knows it’s the honeymoon period—voter turnout was the highest it’s been since the left paid the price for Vietnam, there’s a pervading sense of renewal, of faith restored in the system, and a resurgence of democratic spirit—no side wants to be the first to spoil it. But it’s guaranteed to all go to hell in a hand basket once the legislative agenda’s laid out on the table, so he’s gonna damn well enjoy it while he can.
Instead of taking a cab to the office, he walks to the breakfast joint down the street, nondescript but cozy-looking, a throwback to the halcyon days of diner food cooked in butter and bacon grease, omelets with goddamn yolks in them and not one single mention of fucking kale.
“Morning, sweetheart,” Sheryl greets him as he walks in, “the usual?”
“Hey, Sheryl, let’s go with a short stack today,” he says because he’s been craving it all week, “chocolate chips, whipped cream. A side of bacon, and eggs over easy. Today I’ve got time, I’m feeling good.”
He’s smiling as he straddles a seat at the counter and sets his phone down by the cream and sugar, shrugging his coat off and laying it over the seat next to him. There’s only one other guy there, a cop who tips his head by way of greeting and goes back to the Post and his coffee.
“You look like you got up on the right side of the bed today,” Sheryl winks, jotting down his order and sticking it up above the flattop.
By the second week of their acquaintance, the third week after he moved into the neighborhood, Sheryl already become convinced of two things: that he needed more protein in his diet, and that he had a varied and colorful sex life involving a different partner every week, probably multiple partners at once, so as a divorced mother of two working double shifts, it would be in her best interest to live vicariously through him. Maybe it’s the suits, or the hair, God only knows, and as hard as he’s tried to dissuade her, she’s remained undeterred and incredibly tenacious with her double entendres. It took him three more weeks to stop blushing like a goddamn schoolgirl.
“No, it’s not that,” he says, then takes a deep breath. “It’s just one of those days when you wake up and feel lucky to be here. In a country like this I mean. Where holding fair and free elections isn’t just a dream, it’s a reality. Where pluralism isn’t brutally suppressed, it’s encouraged. Where dissenters don’t get thrown into jail because freedom of speech and assembly is a basic right. A country founded on the ideal of a government of the people, by the people, for the people. It makes you feel lucky.”
Sheryl’s looking at him fondly when he finishes, and he realizes with some embarrassment that he probably does this a lot—harangues her about the importance of good governance while quoting dead presidents. He should probably get out more, but the thing is, he’d rather not. He’d rather be camped out in the office with the rest of the staff and a couple six-packs debating the finer points of NAFTA and the defense budget and SEC regulations. (When he’s sober he can win seven times out of ten. When he’s drunk, he’s fucking untouchable.)
“I voted for President Miles,” she tells him after a moment of silence, “I figured it’s about time a woman took office. All those things they were saying about how she’s too much of a looker for other leaders to take her seriously, or how she’s got the wrong priorities because she has no husband or kids, I think that’s just a load of bull. From what I’ve seen she has a good head on her shoulders. She’s a strong, smart, courageous woman who fought her way to the top with a third of the country standing on her shoulders. And now—now I can tell my daughter, look, sweetheart, you can be president, too, one day. And it won’t sound like crazy talk.”
She looks fiercely hopeful and fiercely proud, and Arthur feels his throat close up a little, imagining how moved Mal will be by all of it when he tells her because it’s these little everyday stories she lives for. He wishes she were here now, witnessing this hope and this pride in real time.
“I’ll pass that along,” he says as Sheryl sets down his short stack, piled high with whipped cream, and then his bacon and eggs.
She laughs because he’s never told her what he does for a living. White House Deputy Chief of Staff. Ex-attorney. He works just as many hours for about half the pay, but he sleeps better, not every night but most nights, knowing he just might leave the world a little better off than it was when he started.
“No, really, I—” he tries to explain before his phone buzzes with two incoming texts in quick succession, the first from Dom and the second from Eames.
POTUS security scare. Damage control ASAP.
Dom blowing things out of proportion. Easy to spin. DON’T have coronary.
“I guess the honeymoon period is officially over,” he mutters. “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.”
“Something wrong?” Sheryl’s looking at him with motherly concern.
He stares forlornly for a second at his hot breakfast.
“Yea, I have to go, I’m sorry. Work emergency,” he says, standing up and pulling on his coat before pocketing his phone. “Give this to the officer over there, will you? And tell him President Miles thanks him for his public service.”
“She did what?” Arthur knew, fucking knew when he got Eames’s text telling him not to have a coronary that it would be exactly what he’d end up doing. Which is about the only predictable thing that’s happened since he walked into the West Wing.
“Eames is right,” Dom sighs, like he didn’t always know that his job as Chief of Staff would be an uphill climb from start to finish, “we just go with the truth. President Miles went for a morning walk, she’s not yet used to the presidential security detail, she didn’t think she needed it. She wanted to be among the people, spend a sliver of her day being an average American.”
“Average Americans buy hot dogs and tie-dyed t-shirts that say ‘I heart DC’,” Yusuf points out, “they don’t give extravagant sums of money to homeless men who then get a little too excited and force the Secret Service to cordon off two blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue in the middle of morning rush hour.”
“It makes her look naïve,” Arthur says shortly, buttoning up his jacket. “She’s not a goddamn kid at the grown-ups’ table, she’s not an average American, she’s the President of the United States.”
“It makes her relatable,” Eames argues, perched on the edge of Dom’s desk. “If we play our cards right, it won’t come off as gaffe, it’ll be endearing like the rest of her small-town sensibilities. Plus, the far right raised hell about her French mother the entire campaign. It won’t hurt to play up the American bit.”
“Where’s Ariadne?” Dom frowns, looking at his watch. “The President will be here in ten minutes.”
“She texted me an hour ago saying the pipes burst in her bathroom this morning and flooded half her apartment—” Eames starts to explain before Ariadne power-walks into Dom’s office, looking harassed but still perfectly put together, hair in a tidy bun, the green of her blouse popping against the light charcoal of her pantsuit.
“I am going to kill my landlord,” she announces with feeling. “If I kill my landlord, you’ll represent me, Arthur, won’t you? Pro bono, though. I’ve heard the gruesome tales of your billable hours.”
“I make no promises,” Arthur says, mouth twitching, feeling his tension ease enough that he just might get to lunch without firing an intern.
“Do we not pay you enough to live in a real apartment?” Dom squints at her before sighing. “Time to face the music.”
They file into the Oval Office just as Mal walks in from the Rose Garden looking more radiant than any overworked public servant has the business to look, hair in artful disarray, cheeks flushed from the cold. The two agents who follow her in look long-suffering but fond.
They greet her with a subdued chorus of good morning, Madam President, and she sighs in exasperation.
“All the long faces. I feel like I’ve just started WWIII.”
Eames is right. This charm of hers might not be their panacea in the long term, but Arthur thinks it’ll do just fine for now.
He clears his throat and points out, “With all due respect, ma’am, there’d be a lot more yelling and a lot less standing around if that were the case.”
Mal turns to him, eyes bright and mischievous—the kind of look that convinced him early on that she wasn’t just qualified, she was electable. (If he had to pinpoint the day, then he’d say 3pm on a cold, blustery Thursday, when she’d given that speech on student debt in Manchester to a turnout of 300 people cheering like they were 5,000 strong.)
“I suspect you’re right, Arthur. Gives us a little perspective, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he concedes.
“I’ll be asked about it, Madam President, there’s no avoiding it,” Yusuf speaks up, wisely keeping to himself that he’ll probably be laughed out of the press room.
“I’m sure your sharp, Cambridge-educated wit will come up with something fitting,” Mal says, eyeing him purposefully.
“I’ll be upbeat but firm,” he tells her, effectively ending the discussion. She’s always been quick to decide when someone’s wasting her time, and quick-tempered when they keep on wasting it.
“I knew there was a reason why I hired you,” she smiles, then turns to Eames and Ariadne, “I expected a draft of the speech from you two twelve hours ago. Ideally, I’d like to have a look sometime before I’m expected to give it. That’s how drafts work, I’m told.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Eames says, looking chagrined, if only for her sake. He’s always shameless about arguing his case, Arthur knows better than anyone, but never so much so that he forgets he serves at the pleasure of the President. “It just needs some minor tweaks, the phrasing in the last paragraph’s been bothering me—”
“Draft, Eames,” Mal reminds him. “It doesn’t have to win a Pulitzer.”
“I’m afraid you’re beating a dead horse there, Madam President,” Ariadne interjects, not making all that much effort to stifle her grin.
“You’re not off the hook, Ariadne,” Mal points a finger of censure, “you should be keeping him in line.”
“Ma’am, he’s my boss,” Ariadne says, a little helplessly.
Mal raises a well-defined eyebrow. “I outrank him last I checked.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ariadne agrees, grinning.
“It’s not just a speech, Madam President,” Eames says, a little pained, “it’s your first address to a joint session of Congress. Your first opportunity to address the public as a leader of the free world. To say to them, look around at this great nation and remember how it stands now, because I plan to make it greater. This will be your Monroe Doctrine, your Four Freedoms, if I have anything to say about it.”
Arthur breathes, feeling vaguely like he’s standing in a vacuum all of a sudden, lungs straining weakly for air that’s not there. Times like this reinforce his pride in the work they’ve done, in all the work they still have to do. Times like this remind him that for all Eames is an impossible human being—incorrigibly opinionated, infuriatingly opaque—he’s good at what he does. He’s fucking sublime. There was never a shortlist for Communications Director. There was Eames. He already won that Pulitzer and he shouldn’t have a goddamn thing left to prove, except he thinks he has everything left to prove. He thinks he needs to get it right, every time, because he has a responsibility now not only to write the truth, but to make people listen and stand up and believe.
“Congress hasn’t made the formal invitation yet,” Dom cuts in, as if he’s afraid Eames might launch into a recitation of Roosevelt’s 1941 address, “Arthur, make sure that doesn’t fall through the cracks. It’s archaic but let’s hold back on flouting tradition until we pass a bill or two. Madam President, you still need to decide on the designated survivor.”
“In case I start WWIII and North Korea nukes the Capitol building,” Mal clarifies solemnly.
“That’s one possible scenario, yes.”
“Anything else before I go change so I can make people think I get out of bed in the morning looking presidential?” she asks, finally shrugging off the light fall jacket she’d been wearing in below zero temperatures. You can take the girl out of New Hampshire but you can’t take New Hampshire out of the girl, she likes saying from time to time.
“Ma’am, I have little doubt you came out of the womb looking presidential,” Eames says with a smile that flirts with trouble.
Ariadne snorts lightly. Arthur rolls his eyes feelingly, but keeps quiet. He suspects Mal never calls Eames out on his outrageous remarks in part because it’s something that’s carried over from the campaign trail, when the distinction between leader and followers had been less stark, when Mal had come down from the highs with the rest of them, clinking solo cups and singing bawdy drinking songs until they became tirades on income inequality and the myriad injustices of a patriarchal society.
“No, nothing else,” Dom says, giving Eames the eye, “thank you, Madam President.”
Mal throws her jacket onto the couch and pushes away an unruly piece of hair. “Okay, thank you, gentlemen. Dom, stay back a minute, will you?”
Arthur’s the last to leave and closes the door behind him.
“What’s with the weird fixation on WWIII?” Ariadne asks as they walk out to the corridor.
Arthur rubs at the back of his neck and twists to the left to avoid a staffer. “I think she’s worried the Joint Chiefs aren’t taking her seriously.”
“She hasn’t even been called into the Situation Room yet,” Yusuf says, flipping through his notes for today’s briefing.
“Yea, so when she does—”
“We’ll have to batten down the hatches,” Eames grins with his usual insouciance, never liable to panic until there’s clear and present danger—very clear and very present. Which isn’t to say Arthur panics—he wouldn’t last a morning in politics if he did—but he’s a worrier. He fusses over all the minutiae while Eames only has eyes for the big picture.
“Maybe not before we throw the journalists overboard,” Yusuf suggests, turning off in the direction of the press room.
“You can’t punish them for doing their jobs!” Ariadne shouts after him.
“Why the hell not!” he shouts back before disappearing around the corner.
Arthur’s about to walk into his office when he stops dead in his tracks and turns to Eames.
“You don’t think anyone caught this morning’s—thing on video, do you?”
Eames’s eyes widen just a fraction, as if he can just about make out the shape of danger getting clearer and more present.
He glances at his watch. “It’s been almost two hours. If there’s a video, then my guess is it’s already gone viral.”
Arthur pinches the bridge of his nose and closes his eyes. “Well, fuck.”
Six hours later he’s standing in a corridor in the West Wing, which is about as descriptive as he can get because he’s lost. He left the map OPM gave him his first day on his desk, figuring he’d be more than capable of finding the meeting room without a visual aide; he graduated magna cum laude from Amherst and Harvard Law School for fuck’s sake.
And now he’s lost, like a mouse in a maze except there’s no consolation prize if he makes it through, only a meeting with a couple junior Congressmen eager to curry favor with the President by way of her Deputy Chief of Staff, clearly having decided he’s influential enough to affect their staying power but not so influential that they’d be out of line. Gillevet and Eckhart. Democrats from districts that flip-flop every other midterm. It won’t take him more than 90 seconds to figure out if they’re ambitious or just greedy. He’s learned the distinction, for what it’s worth, is never so barefaced as it is in politics. That, or a month in and he’s already getting too cynical for this job.
“Oh good, there you are,” Eames says, popping out of an intersecting corridor that looks fucking identical to the one he’s in. “I thought you had a meeting at two?”
“Where did you come from?” Arthur frowns. “Are our offices back that way?”
“Ah, I was hoping you’d tell me, hmm,” which is Eames’s way of vocalizing his utter lack of concern.
“You’re useless,” Arthur tells him. “Lucky for us, I’m man enough to ask for directions. Excuse me, do you know where room WW-160 is?”
The young woman he stopped gives him a shrug, juggling her folders and a White House coffee mug. “No idea, sorry.”
“What about the Oval office?” is Eames’s follow-up question.
She just looks at him like he’s batshit crazy before walking off.
“What about the Oval office?” Arthur repeats incredulously. “That isn’t suspicious at all given we clearly work here and we should know where the goddamn Oval office is!”
He’s projecting his frustration and Eames knows this—he knew by the third week of the campaign after three shouting matches that put everyone’s nerves on edge and Mal off her game—so he doesn’t so much as bat an eye.
“We have other things going for us,” he reassures Arthur as they keep walking in hopes that they’ll accidentally end up in the right place. “Did you hear how the meeting went with the Vice President?”
“No,” Arthur says, “contrary to popular belief I have not set up CCTVs in the West Wing to boost productivity.”
“Well, Yusuf told me that Dana told him that they had a disagreement.”
Arthur frowns, momentarily forgetting that he should be keeping track of which turns they’re taking.
“What is this, a game of telephone? And how did a reporter at the Tribune hear about this before we did?”
Eames rubs a hand over his mouth tiredly and shrugs. “Someone in Fischer’s office going on a little power trip?”
“Well, for all we know they could’ve been arguing about the benefits of fish oil.”
Eames pauses. “Have we taken a stance on nutritional supplements?”
“It’s fucking fish oil, Eames,” Arthur says, and then stops short. “Oh my god, room WW-160. The numbering goes from 122 to 160. Why does it go from 122 to 160? It makes no sense.”
“Thank god our jobs make perfect sense,” Eames deadpans. “I’ll go wander around some more then, introduce myself to all the interns, give a few autographs.”
“Send Ariadne to talk to Fischer. If you or I go, the press will have a fucking field day whether it’s fish oil or not.”
“One step ahead of you,” Eames says, walking backwards down the hallway before disappearing around the corner.
“Andy, get in here, will you?” Arthur shouts from his desk before leaning back in his chair and dragging his hands down his face.
His assistant of ten months appears in the doorway a minute later, looking alert and cheerful like she hasn’t been in the office for nine hours already on a Friday. Plus, Arthur knows she runs on practically zero caffeine, just, apparently, on sunshine and a limitless reserve of willpower.
“I am here to do your bidding, oh mighty one,” she proclaims, standing to attention, hands holding a stack of file folders in front of her.
Sunshine, willpower, and laughs. Lots of laughs. Arthur’s wondered if he and Eames shouldn’t swap assistants. Helen’s more like Arthur, more biting and emotionally restrained, less likely to suffer fools. Wondered, but never seriously. Andy showed up halfway through the Miles campaign, having just quit her soul-sucking job as a paralegal, willing to be put to work for no pay as long as she was doing something that mattered, and it took Arthur three days to see in her a kindred spirit.
“My bidding is for you to go home. It’s 7pm on a Friday, go do something—fun,” he says, waving a hand to express a vague notion of fun.
Andy raises her eyebrows. “It’ll be a sad, sad day when I start relying on you to remind me to have a life.”
“If you started relying on me to remind you to have a life, I’d fire you,” Arthur tells her, smiling a little.
She smiles back, bigger and brighter. “You sure you don’t need me for anything else?”
“Yea, I’m just going over the shortlist for Attorney General for the hundredth time. I can’t shake the feeling we’ll let something slip through the cracks,” he says, rubbing at his forehead. “Something the nominee wrote thirty years ago in some obscure law review that made it vaguely sound like he supported—I don’t know—fucking racial profiling, and then the Republicans will make sure we don’t live it down.”
“Don’t be such a downer,” Andy says, pursuing her lips. “Have you seen the likes and comments on the video of the President from this morning? The public adore her.”
The video did go viral but, by some stroke of crazy luck, there’s been virtually no fallout. Arthur watched it once for the sake of being thorough and while he cringed the whole way through, it’s not the train wreck he expected—because that’s part of Mal’s magic. She manages to make everything she does look effervescent, even her blunders.
“No, I haven’t, and as much as my heart wants to use YouTube comments as a proxy for presidential approval ratings, my head tells me no,” he deadpans.
Andy rolls her eyes, easily deflecting his pessimism. “We live in a new age, you never know. See you Monday, boss.”
“Don’t get into any trouble I can’t get you out of,” he shouts at her as she walks away.
Her disembodied voice rings out immediately, “Where’s the fun in that?”
He sits in silence for another half hour staring at his computer screen before he gives up and takes the short trip over to Eames and Ariadne’s adjoining offices. They’ll both still be there trying to get the draft onto Mal’s desk before the morning, probably bickering about cadence like that’ll be the key to getting a Republican-controlled Senate, predominately old and predominately male, to take Mal seriously. And that’s what’s really on the line. It’s not a stump speech or victory speech where she can capitalize on emotion, promise she’ll be better, do better than the current guy, because she’s the current guy now.
“How’s the section on minimum wage coming along?” He leans against the doorframe and watches Eames scrawl edits onto a printout of the draft. Ariadne’s sitting on his couch in the corner, hunched over her laptop, chewing on her nails. “Merchant’s getting cold feet.”
Eames looks up slowly and blinks, taking a second to reorient himself. Arthur knows how single-minded he is when he’s writing, how manic, and how deeply he lives inside his head, rejecting everything but his words for company. It’s actually bewildering, considering the rest of the time he spends surrounding himself with people and charming them off their feet with obnoxious ease, living in the world and living loudly. And every so often Arthur just stands back and takes it all in with a secret smile, because he’s always had an affinity for paradoxes.
“I heard. And I thought we locked him in with tax incentives for small businesses,” Eames says, pushing his sleeves further up his forearms. He’s lost his tie already, probably around the time his last meeting ended and he’s probably kicked it under his desk or stuck it in a drawer somewhere, being nothing if not impatient with dress codes of any kind. Frankly, he’s impatient with rules of any kind, and Arthur wonders if he doesn’t play it up just a little for irony’s sake.
“He’s saying it’s not enough. I think he’s courting donors.”
Ariadne stops typing. “Donors? He just swept his district with a margin of 71%-24%.”
Arthur glances at Eames who’s raising his eyebrows, cogs turning in his head. “He’s dreaming a little bigger than that.”
Ariadne stares at him a second before the metaphorical light bulb flashes. “He wants to run for president?”
“It’s the first I’ve heard, but it’s not crazy,” Eames says contemplatively. “He has almost as much name recognition as the House majority leader, the black community respects him, the Christian right tolerate him, his wife works with the NWPC. Shame he has about as much charisma as a sack of potatoes.”
“What’s crazy is that I haven’t even ordered a stapler yet and you’re telling me I need to start rethinking campaign slogans,” Ariadne says, disbelieving. “I’m still basking in the afterglow of victory, damn it. Let me bask.”
“Hey, you’re preaching to the choir,” Arthur tells her, holding up his hands, “if I had it my way, no one would be allowed to campaign until four goddamn weeks before the Iowa caucus. I bring up Merchant because I’m thinking we might want to tone down the language on minimum wage.”
“Tone down the language?” Eames blinks. “You were the one championing stronger language. Did the President say something?”
Arthur loosens his tie. “No, and I’m not saying I’m no longer backing the issue. I’m just—we want to hit the ground running, but not so fast we leave our own party behind. That’s all I’m saying.”
“Our party should be running with us!” Eames says, clearly thrown for a loop. “We promised the country ‘bigger, better, bolder.’ We got elected on it. Let’s maybe preserve our integrity, at least until we get our 100 days. Christ, is this the Twilight Zone? You should be the last person who needs convincing.”
“Um, do you two need a minute?” Ariadne looks back and forth between them. “I’ll just finish this up in my office—”
“No.” Arthur frowns. “Don’t be so fucking dramatic, this about strategy, not integrity.”
Eames crosses his arms over his chest. “Yea, okay, because that’s not at all a slippery slope. Ari, you’ve read the section on minimum wage. Do you think the language needs toning down?”
“I think I will be in my office,” she says decisively, having learned long ago that she’s better off playing Switzerland in these kind of war games.
She slips out the door with a wave and then pulls it shut.
“What is this about? Are you getting cold feet?” Eames looks at him, so fucking perceptively he might as well be in Arthur’s head, tramping through the overgrowth of doubt Arthur can no longer confine to one corner. “We’ve hashed out minimum wage with Dom a dozen times. The polls show increasing support, up fifteen percentage points in two years—”
“I know the numbers,” Arthur interrupts, impatience flaring, “I can quote the numbers in my sleep but that won’t mean a damn thing if the bill is dead in the water before it even reaches the floor. And it will be if we don’t get Merchant back on board.”
“So we find another way,” Eames says stubbornly. “We go after something else he cares about—job training for the long-term unemployed, renewable energy, student loan programs—but we don’t fucking backpedal.”
“Jesus, Eames, we’re done campaigning, quit acting like we have nothing to lose. We’re—” Arthur runs an aggravated hand through his hair, “we’re not sitting in a fucking dining car anymore, sketching pipe dreams onto napkins, the crazier the better because, why not, the whole goddamn thing’s a long shot anyway. We’re here. We can’t—”
“Risk dreaming bigger?” Eames says quietly, face half-shadowed, and Arthur doesn’t even remember the sun going down. “This was your issue. You made this your issue. And to think, all this time, you lacked the conviction.”
For a minute Arthur says nothing. He just lets Eames push his buttons, lets the accusation they both know is empty draw something out of him anyway, something raw and messy and seething, meant for Eames if it’s meant for anyone.
Then he crosses the room in two long strides and presses his palms against the edge of Eames’s desk, leaning in until he can smell Eames, a mix of sweat, aftershave, and the cigarettes he sneaks in between meetings—fucking expensive imports Arthur can taste on his tongue.
“My mom worked minimum wage jobs for five years to get back on her feet when she was raising me and Heather, and that was enough,” he starts out, voice low and dangerous. “By the time I was 14 I figured out that falling above the poverty line didn’t mean you led a comfortable life. It didn’t mean you wouldn’t miss a few meals to keep the electricity on. It didn’t mean you could pay the hospital bills after a trip to the ER. It didn’t mean you got a college fund. I figured out it wasn’t just teenagers in these jobs, earning extra cash for video games or weed, it was people living from paycheck to paycheck, single parents too busy getting their kids through the week to think about their future. So don’t tell me I don’t have conviction. I’d deliver a personal fuck you to the majority leader if that meant we got our bill. I have plenty of goddamn conviction.”
He’s breathing hard and fast through his nose now and it does feel like they’re on the road again, throwing verbal punches to keep each other sharp, hungry, bodies singing with adrenaline, then coming down from it feeling like they could’ve easily been fucking instead of fighting.
Eames leans forward, leans until Arthur can count his goddamn lashes, mouth smiling, eyes deadly serious.
“You’re right. We’re not in a dining car anymore where no one’s listening. The entire country is listening now. And this isn’t when we tone down our convictions. This is when we let them be heard.”
They stare at each other for a moment longer, neither gaining ground, and then Arthur expels a heavy breath, setting his forearms on the desk and letting his head dip until his hair brushes Eames’s shoulder.
“I fucking hate it when you’re right,” he says without rancor.
“No, you don’t,” Eames murmurs, breath tickling the shell of his ear.
“No,” he concedes easily, “I don’t.”
Because it’s how they’ve worked from day one, even if they hadn’t figured it out until Dom cobbled together their team twelve hours before Mal announced her candidacy. It’s how they worked in Chicago, managing separate re-election bids out of the same headquarters with no functioning bathroom. It’s how they worked when they unseated the incumbent in the third most conservative district north of the Mason-Dixon line. They don’t just keep each other sharp, they keep each other honest. At any given time, one of them remembers what brought them here, all of them: the simple but powerful idea that politics shouldn’t have to be divorced from ideals.
“Maybe we should open the door, just so Ariadne doesn’t think we’ve killed each other.” Arthur lifts his head up and Eames is looking at him with an honest-to-God twinkle in his eye.
“Oh, darling, if we were ever going to kill each other, we would’ve done it a long time ago.”
“Madam Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of the 114th Congress, distinguished guests—”
“She looks calm, collected,” Yusuf murmurs, tapping his pen against his thigh and staring at Mal up at the podium looking resplendent in a peacock blue tweed dress even if it is only a dry run. “Imbued with gravitas. I’m feeling the gravitas.”
“Not sorry you picked her over the other guy then, I take it,” remarks Eames, perched on Arthur’s armrest, tie crooked enough that it makes Arthur’s fingers twitch.
“Ha ha, you’re a riot,” Yusuf responds dryly.
“She missed it,” Eames frowns, “she missed the rhythm on the parallels, did you hear that?”
It’s the only time he gets wound up tighter than Arthur, when Mal’s giving one of his speeches up there and he wants, needs her to nail every line come show time, and Arthur’s about to reassure him she will, she always does, when Ariadne slides into a seat behind them.
“You guys heard the birth certificate issue is making a comeback?”
Arthur stifles the urge to tip his head back and close his eyes because pointless, spiteful bullshit like this always chips away at his faith in humanity.
“It’s Walker again. He’s been talking to The Republic. I am this fucking close to getting their credentials revoked.”
“There’s this thing called the First Amendment, see,” Yusuf says slowly, like he’s teaching U.S. History to a first grader.
“Can someone explain this line to me? The time has come for us to resurrect the American deer.” Mal’s voice carries effortlessly across the briefing room. “Are they an endangered species now? Is that why we care about them?”
“Ariadne!” Cobb yells peaceably from the front row without bothering to turn around.
“Goddamn autocorrect,” Ariadne says quietly with feeling before raising her voice. “Dream, ma’am, not deer. I’ll get that fixed.”
“Is Walker still talking about the pictures of her waving a French flag in front of the Eiffel Tower?” Eames asks distractedly, eyes still fixed on Mal. “How is this still a thing? It’s so far beyond the scope of useful inquiry I don’t even want to send my intern to give him a slap on the wrist.”
“You don’t have an intern,” Arthur reminds him.
“My point exactly.”
“People enjoy fueling conspiracy theories,” Ariadne shrugs. “If we keep ignoring it, it’ll keep resurfacing.”
“So we give a proportionate response.” Eames finally turns to them. “Remember the high school yearbook we dug up in March? We release that picture. The public will eat it up.”
“Most likely to become President.” Arthur smiles. It’s exactly how she looks in it, he remembers. Smile bright, shoulders squared, eyes charting a path to greatness. One of those pictures in her narrative that falls perfectly into place and makes Arthur think if a person was ever meant for anything, then Mal was meant for this.
Up at the podium, Mal tells them, “This isn’t about class warfare, this is about social welfare. This is about retrieving a fundamental way of thinking we seem to have left behind. Letting it evolve, not erode. The idea that education isn’t a privilege, it’s a right. That healthcare isn’t a privilege, it’s a right. That economic opportunity isn’t a privilege, it’s a right.”
Her voice rings out clear and true as they all listen, rapt and motionless. It sounds like a call to arms, trumpeted by a leader with the head of a pacifist and the heart of a revolutionary, and it makes Arthur think that maybe, just maybe, they’re poised to make history.
“She’s ready,” he says, and it’s meant for Eames as much as it’s meant for Mal. It’s become his way of telling Eames, in the sincerest way he knows how, that they might have gotten off the ground without him, but they never would’ve soared like this.
Eames’s shoulders are looser now than they were three minutes ago, and when he turns, Arthur sees that telltale spark of childlike delight.
“I do love it when I can just sit back and enjoy the show.”