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NATION, PLEASE WELCOME

The rabbit-eared interns, eager and alert and endlessly underfoot, are the first to notice his return. It isn't as though he's making a secret of it; he's in too bad a mood to attempt civility, and the glass door wobbles wildly in its frame as he shoves it out of his way. He marches down the lobby of campaign headquarters, stirring a flurry of papers and low voices in his wake.

"Coffee, sir?" asks a bright young rabbit, one hand on the phone receiver.

"First, don't ever call me that again," snaps Arthur. "Second, why aren't you canvassing, who told you to stop-- and third, no, thank you, I had a cup on the way here, but it's kind of you to ask."

The staffers are drawn out of hiding one by one, like the sharp click of Arthur's shoes are pied piper music to their ears. They thrust sheaves of documents at him, poll results, finance records, schedules, anxiously offering him coffee and asking about his arm, Is it all right, oh my god, should you even be here right now, you're an inspiration to all of us. Their voices churn through Arthur's head, freshly released from the loving embrace of Vicodin. He has a massive headache, his arm is still broken and sore as hell, and his candidate is a fucking idiot.

He marches around a corner and his empty jacket sleeve catches on the edge of a venetian blind, jerking him back in place. An obliging staffer fumbles with it for him, so he manages a drawn smile before he says, "Get back to work, deadweights," and yanks open the door to the inner sanctum.

"Arthur," says Cobb, rising from his desk, "I thought you were--"

"Please, sit down," says Arthur, and forcibly pushes Cobb back into the chair with his good arm. "I'm going to say a few words to you, and if at any point you attempt to contradict me or look as though you are not listening, I am going to brain you with this plaster cast."

"But I signed that plaster cast for you," says Cobb.

"That was probably the high point of our relationship," says Arthur, "because do you know what you did just two weeks later? Two weeks I leave this campaign alone, just two weeks, and what do you do? Tell me, Cobb, what did you do?"

"Please stop talking to me like I am a dog," says Cobb. "This is about the Colbert thing, isn't it?"

"What else can it possibly be about?" demands Arthur. "Has the press been showing anything else today? You're not a talker, you shouldn't be doing any comedy shows at all, let alone the Colbert Report! What in the world possessed you? Jesus Christ, and I was the one high on Vicodin."

He reaches over the desk to the keyboard of Cobb's laptop, furiously typing in the URL of a news aggregate site. A headline leaps out of the screen in huge boldface letters: Cobb Fumbles Report Appearance, Fumbles Primary Chances? There's a long litany of a similar vein cascading down below the link, but Arthur clicks on the largest one.

"First you talk to me like I'm a dog," says Cobb, "and now you're going to rub my face in it."

"Okay, look, I'm sorry," says Arthur. "I didn't mean to treat you like a dog. I also didn't mean to yell at you. And I'm sorry for mentally calling you a fucking idiot. But I think that maybe you're not quite willing to accept the gravity of the situation here, and I'm hoping that maybe a repeat viewing of your performance will make the implications too clear to ignore. All right?"

"I don't need a--" begins Cobb, but Arthur has already pressed play on the embedded video.

To thunderous applause and upbeat background music, Stephen Colbert jogs to his interview table, exchanging a row of high-fives with his audience. The camera cuts to Cobb, perched on the edge of his chair, grinning from ear to ear.

Colbert crosses his legs as he sits down, and narrows his eyes thoughtfully at Cobb.

"You look somewhat familiar, sir," says Colbert, as the audience titters. "I think I may have seen you on television."

"That's strange," says Cobb, still grinning, "I think I've also seen you on television."

"Right there!" exclaims Arthur, and pauses the video. "You could have stopped right there and it would have been so good, Cobb. You're an ex-professor, nobody expects you to be funny, that would have done fine as a repartee. You could have given the rest of the interview straight."

"I wasn't really trying to give the rest of the interview funny," says Cobb, sullen.

The remaining minutes of the video clip proceed to contain the gems that drove Arthur halfway to apoplexy earlier on that morning; Cobb reaching out to shake Colbert's hand for just an adoring second too long, Cobb leaning forward on his elbows with a look of awe, Cobb gushing, Sorry, I'm sorry, I didn't catch that question, it's just-- I'm a big fan of this show, Mr. Colbert, a huge fan, since before I became senator, and it's such an honor for me to be here at the table where I've watched so many dignitaries and world leaders and innovators and humanitarians converse with you, and I never would have imagined that one day I too would have the privilege of sitting across from you and meeting you in the flesh and blood, I ought to tell you that when I used to teach economics, I would never miss a single episode, not if I was at a conference overseas, not if I had research proposals due the next morning, I would always, always catch your show, and I am not just saying that out of courtesy, Mr. Colbert, I truly mean it, and the camera cutting to Colbert's genuinely astonished face over peals of audience laughter.

"You made a complete and utter fool of yourself," says Arthur, attempting to cross his arms and wincing. "You looked like a schlub, Cobb, you know that? You looked like he was your greatest hero, like you're some college student eating Cool Ranch Doritos by the handful at midnight in his boxers in front of his 16-inch common room television screen! Fishing Dorito crumbs out of the cracks in the couch during the commercial breaks!"

"That's oddly specific," says Cobb. "Look, Arthur, don't you think that you're--"

"The screencaps of you getting the Colbert fist bump are everywhere," hisses Arthur. "That's not presidential! You looked like you were going to declare him your running mate, for god's sake! Well, at least now you've locked up the disaffected youth vote -- except, of course, oh, wait -- they don't vote."

He sucks in a deep breath, bracing himself with one palm on Cobb's desk. The adrenaline is dulling the pain in his arm, but the monster headache and the suspiciously pre-ulcerous gnawing in his stomach are starting to exhaust him. He falls into one of the folding chairs lining the walls.

"This is ridiculous," he says, letting his head hang. "I can't fucking think. I need food or something."

Like manna from heaven, a salad drops into his lap. The halved cherry tomatoes glisten at him, technicolor crimson, nestled on beds of curling parmesan. Succulent as the painted lips of a Rita Hayworth, he thinks, and then, what the fuck am I even saying.

Dazed, Arthur lifts the fork and guides it to his mouth. The sweet-salty dressing is a balm to his burning tongue. He nearly sobs at the sensation of relief that floods him, the crunch of arugula stalks between his teeth, and all at once he's ravenous for more. It's only after another hurried shovel or two that he remembers he hasn't thanked his benefactor yet.

He looks up, sees who it is, and promptly chokes on his mouthful of salad.

"What are you doing here," he shouts. "Cobb, what is he doing here."

"I'm a spy," says Eames, proudly.

"I knew it," yells Arthur.

"Remember that party unity nation tour you suggested, before your accident?" asks Cobb. "We decided to go through with it. Eames is here to compare notes and draw up a mutual schedule."

 

 

 

A BRIEF BREAKDOWN OF THE STATUS QUO

Here is the beginning of the story:

Once upon a time, millions of years ago when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, Arthur was a legislative aide to an Illinois congressman. It was no one too fancy, no one too special, just an affable freshman-elect who happened to realize that he had room on his staff. By re-election season, Arthur was his legislative director.

"Do you have any experience running campaigns?" asked the congressman.

"I've seen things," said Arthur, because the word no made him break out in hives.

This was normally how disasters happened, but fortunately for the congressman and for Arthur, it turned out that Arthur had a preternatural talent for keeping ships afloat. Like a tidy, trim little machine of war, their campaign quietly demolished the challengers and sailed on into the second term. Two years later, they sailed on into the third. It wasn't a hotly contested seat, and not very many people noticed.

Dominic Cobb, the junior senator from California, was one of them. He had Aspirations of a Certain Nature, and was intrigued by these deadly outfits that Arthur seemed to be fond of running. The relatively small size of Arthur's campaigns also appealed to him, as did their lack of much unnecessary flash and bang-- maybe it was his academic background, but for a man insane enough to run for President of the United States, Cobb was really dismally down to earth.

Arthur knew of him, and news traveled fast. He was waiting for the phone call when it came.

"California is on the wrong end of the continent," he said, when Cobb had finished lurching through his offer. "You'll need to relocate halfway, at the very least. Come to Chicago and we'll set up HQ here. It's an auspicious city."

 

 

 

Here is how the story became complicated:

They were expecting Mallorie Miles to enter the race, as did most everyone else, long before she scheduled her press conference in front of the Kansas Governor's Mansion. Cobb and Arthur were parked in front of the television screen with styrofoam containers of take-out lunch, counting down the minutes.

"I prayed so hard that she wouldn't run," said Cobb.

"Well, that wouldn't have worked," said Arthur. "Doesn't she pray to the same god that you do?"

The surprise wasn't anything to do with Miles (or Mal, just Mal, her preferred moniker). It was the man standing to her right, a rare new face in a somewhat incestuous arena of talent. He was tieless and rumpled and broad, his jacket creased at the elbows, a stubbled backdrop to the petite torpedo figure Mal cut in a lavender suit.

"Who is that?" asked Cobb.

"I think he's chewing on a toothpick," said Arthur, horrified.

Eames was indeed chewing on a toothpick. However, he did not turn out to be Mal's brother, as Cobb had predicted-- or her boyfriend, as Arthur had assumed. Eames was Mal's campaign manager, plucked from the obscurity of some clerk's office somewhere in Maine. Despite his Maine driver's license and citizenship, he also had a befuddling posh British accent. Her choice made absolutely no sense to Cobb or Arthur, but then again, few things about Eames did.

"Mark my words," said Arthur, "if he's not dating her now, then it's just a matter of time."

"That would completely collapse her bid," said Cobb.

"She's unmarried, he's unmarried," said Arthur. "Look at her, would he leave her alone? For that matter, look at him, would she leave him alone? I'm telling you, her wedding veil is going to be her funeral shroud."

"You watch too many period dramas," said Cobb.

"I know the love lives of men and women!" said Arthur.

 

 

 

Here is how Arthur thought the story was going to end:

There wasn't the slightest inkling of anything brewing between Mal and Eames, the contact between them easy but dry, and the press -- initially so curious -- gave up hounding after what seemed a distant amorous impossibility. Arthur was perplexed.

Instead of gossip and scandal, the Miles campaign produced a series of fantastic speeches and an irreproachable ad about Mal's breadth and depth of experience in foreign policy. Eames was all the more formidable for being unknown, and the spot was so clean and effective that Arthur felt the bottom drop out of his stomach when he saw it for the first time. Then he wondered why they hadn't aired it more, in every slice they could fit it, in every state they could.

And then he realized, during a mysterious two-day bout of tense radio silence from the Miles camp, that her campaign just didn't have the funds for it. For all of Mal's cool composure and Eames's deft hand at narrative, their operation lacked the bloodthirsty fundraising bite.

Ah, thought Arthur. Now I have you.

 

 

 

Here is how (to Arthur's dismay) the story continued:

Unfortunately, for all of Cobb's professorial likability and Arthur's skill at raking in cash, their own operation wasn't perfect, either. The two clear frontrunners of the primary were perennially neck-and-neck, and in their desperation to pull ahead, both campaigns started to chafe. Mal took to her town hall meetings with oblique jabs of derision in Cobb's direction; Cobb took to his with passive-aggressive charm and tried to wheedle the voters away from her.

After a plethora of dark insinuations and ambiguously phrased accusations, none of which did either camp permanent damage, the media was thoroughly astir and frothing at the mouth. In retrospect, Arthur prefers to gloss over these weeks as a dark and shameful period in his life. Both camps were perhaps moments away from commissioning some truly virulent attack ads when polls began to show a disconcerting trend-- both of their ratings dropped, dropped, and continued dropping.

"Why?" demanded Cobb. "Are people switching parties or something? Has President Browning saved an orphan child from a burning building and somehow I missed it?"

"You know what I think it is," said Arthur, "I think the voters are sick of the infighting. I think they want us to please lay the fuck off each other."

"They want party unity?" asked Cobb. "Are you sure about this?"

"I think America just saved us from ourselves," said Arthur.

"Seriously, Arthur," said Cobb. "Stop watching period dramas."

They sent out a poll and the numbers came back. Arthur was right. In the hypothetical era of peaceful campaign, both candidates showed a marked improvement in nearly all qualities-- decent was up, fair was up, reasonable was up, honest was up, loving was up, consistent was up, trustworthy was up. Even sense of humor was up.

"Some sort of extended publicity stunt would do it," Arthur said into the phone. "Maybe a nationwide tour together, all the relevant events attended by both candidates, a bus ride across the country. A week of favorable optics and a message of solidarity for everyone. Doesn't that sound good?"

"Can you clarify something for me?" asked Eames. "Are we supposed to pay you for sharing the polling results?"

"Consider this the benevolence of a future victor," said Arthur.

"You can really be quite hilarious sometimes," said Eames.

 

 

 

And here is how the flashback ends:

The next day, mountain biking to his restless heart's content, Arthur attempted to gauge how much of Eames's statement had stemmed from scornful sarcasm. Just as he reached the conclusion that it must have been somewhere between 93 to 97 percent, most probably leaning toward the higher end of the range, his front wheel snagged on a tree branch.

 

 

 

SHE DOES A MEAN MID-ATLANTIC

"In the ambulance, I should have called you," Arthur tells Cobb. "No matter what you do, Senator Cobb, don't go on the Colbert Report. Bequeath my meager savings to the DNC, tell them I was loyal until the very end. And don't go on the Colbert Report."

"Are you honestly that worried about this?" asks Cobb.

"Didn't you see the headlines?" asks Arthur, swallowing another forkful of salad. "Or did I just imagine them in my delirium of pain?"

"For what it matters, my opinion is that Cobb is right," says Eames. "You're just stressed from being kept out of the loop for two entire weeks, and now you want a crisis to manage. Unfortunately, this isn't one."

"Is that good advice? How do I know you're not actually a spy?" asks Arthur. "Hold on, you didn't poison the salad, did you?"

"Look," says Eames, "you remember when that video of Mal leaked, the one with the French accent?"

 

 

 

This question from Eames seems to necessitate one last brief flashback, so here it is:

Mal had a penchant for donning accents, honed from years of mimicry and high school plays. Eames was nothing to scoff at, himself, and in moments of frustration they would blow off steam by quipping absurdities at each other while cycling through their dialectical repertoire (or so the Miles campaign claimed, ex post facto).

One thing about Mal that consistently tested terribly with voters leaning anywhere but hard left was her childhood spent in France. She had been a resident of Kansas since she was eleven years old, but everyone right of center appeared to be convinced that she was a Continental debutante come to set a powdered wig on every American pate and a macaron in every American pot.

When a cell phone video was leaked to the press, six-seconds of Mal saying It is very difficult, Monsieur le Conseiller, this country will not allow me to wear the pantsuit in a heavy French accent, the response was electric. Talking heads spouted steam from their ears. Headlines harped on the subject for weeks. Relevant news clips spawned three exasperated Moments of Zen, Un-American in Paris was one night's Word, and the hoopla raged on. Kristen Wiig put up her hair on SNL and played Mal in a well-received skit. Arthur sent Eames a flyer for spin class at a local Kansas gym.

"It's a gesture of camaraderie," said Arthur.

"Is the handwritten SPIN HARDER on the back also a message of camaraderie?" asked Eames.

With her favorability ratings dipping nearly into the 30s, the Miles campaign found the golden angle over the weekend following SNL. First thing Monday morning, networks and blogs led with a handful of officially released photographs showing Mal at her campaign HQ, watching SNL and laughing with a paper bag of popcorn peeking out from behind a cushion. Later on that afternoon, an "anonymous staffer" provided for public consumption the full version of the original damaging video; a two-minute extravaganza of more than a dozen accents -- most of them American regional -- hilarious and witty and utterly disarming.

A dozen accents in a candid video and not a single potentially racial connotation, thought Arthur in despair. Was she genetically engineered to run for office?

The flyer for spin class returned in a manila envelope left on his desk, with SPIN HARDER crossed out and replaced with DONE.

"She's very talented," Arthur told Eames. "She's wasting time in politics, help her look for an agent."

"You know who else is also very good," said Eames, "I'm also very good."

For a solid week after, Mal was ahead of Cobb in the polls. Arthur tore up the flyer into minuscule granular pieces and briefly considered eating them as a demonstration of grief.

 

 

 

"This is going to blow over," says Eames. "You know it will-- and you won't even have to break your neck trying to package it, like we did. You caught a much better news cycle than ours."

"There's that auto safety bill on the Hill," admits Arthur. "Vote wrangling will probably turn dirty and draw some attention."

"Not to mention the release of President Browning's tax statements from last year," says Cobb. "He can't help being a rich bastard, but the press will have a fit anyway. Fischer-Morrow's bound to get dragged in, Robert Fischer's going to spend days backpedaling on everything, and maybe people will start paying some attention to that primary for a change."

"The Republican primary isn't a race, it's a massacre," says Arthur. "All the other candidates besides Fischer still have favorability ratings in the low single digits. He's going to eat them all for breakfast, the tax statements won't change that."

"But the press attention will be off our back," says Cobb. "Be sensible about this, Arthur. Is anyone going to be talking about this Colbert thing, a week from now?"

"If you manage it as a crisis, people will see it as a crisis," says Eames.

There's truth in that. Arthur looks down at the empty salad container on his lap, runs his nail across the plastic edge of its cover. His arm does hurt, but god, two weeks swimming in and out of a drug-induced haze, fretting every waking moment, sleeping with his Blackberry under his pillow, futilely hoping that someone would please think to bother him-- it might have been the worst two weeks of his entire life.

To leave, he needs to stand up and walk out of the building, but he knows he never could. Not when he's already here, lodged exactly where he belongs. In the midst of the tension, the strategy, phones ringing off the hook. Crisis or not, this is his campaign to run. Arthur snaps the container closed.

"Thank you for the salad, Eames," he says, "it was unethically delicious."

"Hey, don't mention it," says Eames.

"We want to do the Midwest alone at a later date," says Arthur. "We require that the tour start in Illinois and work its way down into the South, then we will hit Florida and curve up along the Eastern Seaboard toward New Hampshire, where I presume you'll want to stop, unless you were thinking of dropping by your previous site of employment for a moment of nostalgia--"

"Slow down there, Ferret," says Eames, and grins. "We require that the tour include the Midwestern states."

 

 

 

THE FOURTH ESTATE

Ariadne hardly gets out her hello before Arthur demands, "What did you call me on your blog?"

"Whoa, all right," says Ariadne, "I see we've decided to dispense with the pleasantries. Are we enemies now? I liked you a lot better when you were recuperating at home, you were much mellower then. Oh, Arthur, I believe in yesterday."

"You know I'm in the office?" asks Arthur. "That was quick."

"I got eyes on the street, Ferret," says Ariadne.

"That! Why are you calling me that!" yells Arthur. "I resent that, the word ferret carries negative connotations, you're grievously misrepresenting me with the implication that I conduct my business in a furtive or devious manner--"

"Relax, I didn't even invent it," says Ariadne. "Not to mention that everyone already assumes you guys conduct your business in a furtive and devious manner."

"Other people have been calling me this?" groans Arthur. "Why would they single me out? Wait, is it my leave of absence, do they think I've weaseled my way out of the campaign? Do they think I fake-broke my arm?"

"No, they do not think that," says Ariadne. "That bedrest really did a number on you, huh? You're unusually jittery today."

"You're right," says Arthur, "I have been finding myself raising my voice."

"It probably has more to do with your physical appearance," says Ariadne. "They just think, you know, that you're kind of sleek. Dark and sleek. In good shape."

"...Ariadne," says Arthur, "do you like me?"

"Please," says Ariadne, so immediately dismissive that Arthur is wounded despite himself. "But maybe I should ask you what gym you go to, because that would boost my readership drastically. I should do a little gossip. Or process stories-- I should do process stories, shouldn't I? Yusuf does, people love them."

"You should not do process stories," says Arthur, very firmly.

It's more than half his own distaste for them. They're hard to control, they stray from the message, and they humanize what needs to be perceived as a stainless clockwork mechanism, reducing his workshop to a cage of headless squabbling macaws. Process stories do him a grave disservice, when he tries so hard to keep his operation in order at all times.

But it's also that it stokes some spark of moral outrage in him, that two of the biggest names in the independent political blogging arena would choose to concern themselves with something as petty and counterproductive as process stories. It's already bad enough that Yusuf enjoys writing them, and complete overkill for Ariadne to give into the temptation as well.

"I bet he gets more than half his traffic from his fluff and process pieces," says Ariadne. "Why couldn't Eames have been my personal friend? That's where Yusuf gets all his gossip, isn't it, Eames loves stories like that."

"Too bad you're stuck with me," says Arthur. "Do you want the details on the national tour, or would you prefer to talk to Eames?"

"Don't be so resentful," says Ariadne. "Right then, to start off with-- what states will the tour hit?"

"We're starting in Missouri and moving down into Texas," says Arthur. "Then we'll make a series of stops through the Southern States, before turning north in Florida and visiting the states lining the East Coast. The tour will conclude in New Hampshire."

"Any comments on why the West and Midwest are being overlooked?" asks Ariadne.

"Not if you ask it like that," says Arthur. "The tour will include two joint town hall meetings in addition to numerous opportunities for both the candidates to directly express their respect and admiration for the Americans to whom we owe so much, the citizens who silently and lovingly serve their family and their community, those who -- in doing so -- serve the entire nation and make America the great country that it is."

"Send me off with something about Governor Miles," says Ariadne. "Something about her as an individual."

"Governor Miles has been nothing short of an absolute pleasure to work with in organizing the American Unity Tour," says Arthur. "She has been fully cooperative, and my interactions with her have left me with no doubt of her commitment to this project. We are confident that she and Senator Cobb will keep their promise to the American people in seeing it through to the end."

"But what about her sophisticated good looks?" asks Ariadne. "You want to kiss her? You want to marry her?"

"Yes," says Arthur. "I also wish that she were my personal friend, instead of some pipsqueak blogger straight out of seventh grade who won't stop calling me names."

"You cut like a knife, Arthur," says Ariadne. "By the by, rewinding a little here, what did you trade her in exchange for those two town hall meetings? You know she'll come out on top if she engages Senator Cobb in debate, that's unquestionably her forte."

"Off the record," says Arthur, "she allowed us to hold private fundraisers during the course of the tour-- no more than three, that's the cap, but the public image turnover will be worth it."

"Speaking of fundraisers," says Ariadne, "did you hear Mayor Saito's statement today?"

"No, but I can guess well enough," says Arthur, feeling the joints of his spine pop back into place when he stretches. "I'll deal with that tomorrow, even he's not really expecting a response from me, I don't think. By now it's just some sort of bizarre running joke."

"It's still funny," says Ariadne. "Have a good evening, Ferret."

"Stay away from process stories, Dormouse," says Arthur.

 

 

 

SCENES FROM THE STAR-SPANGLED ROAD

The AmericanUnity DemocraticParty VoterReassurance PublicityBlitz NationTour™, as it uncharitably comes to be called on Ariadne's blog, kicks off in Jefferson City, Missouri. The joint press conference that starts the tour goes flawlessly, with a handshake photo op and a ceremonious ribbon-cutting in the parking lot where the discreet grey buses stand waiting.

Arthur drags his duffel bag and suitcase up to the storage compartment of his bus. Eames ought to be loading up his own luggage onto his own bus, but instead he just stands there looking amused, watching Arthur tug at his bags.

"What are you doing?" demands Arthur. "Go get your things in, or we'll leave without you."

"Can you handle all that weight by yourself, with your delicate shattered arms?" asks Eames, blinking in mock innocence. "You sure you don't need me to hang about in case you need an ambulance later on?"

"Please, don't hang about on my account," says Arthur, "why don't you go fuck yourself instead?"

The cast and sling have been off for a while, and it's not like he deserves the jab in the first place-- he broke his arm while mountain biking, in the pursuit of strenuous exercise. It's not like he got it caught in a revolving door or something, for god's sake. Arthur hurls his bags deep into the storage compartment of the bus, and then -- just for good measure -- he tears Eames's bags out of his hands, stomps over to the Miles campaign bus, and hurls them into the storage compartment there as well. The confounded look on Eames's face is immensely satisfying.

"Right, that's," says Eames, as Arthur dusts his hands and glares at him, "thank you, Arthur, that was very kind of you-- I think."

"You're very welcome," says Arthur, and stomps back to the Cobb bus, swinging his muscular fucking athletic arms.

 

 

 

The first town hall meeting is in Oklahoma, right off the bat. Inevitably it turns into a bit of a debate, though they keep it civil and silky smooth for the benefit of the audience and the press in attendance. They're mugging for the cameras. You just watch us get along, yeah, thinks Arthur, where he's leaning against the wall at the back of the room. He thinks Eames might be nervous because he won't stop fidgeting with his Blackberry, but then again, Eames is always fidgeting with something or another.

"I thought that wasn't so bad," says Cobb, as the candidates are whisked back to the buses after a few moments of ropeline hand-pressing and meaningful eye contact. "I didn't get completely creamed, to my own surprise."

"No, you did well," says Arthur. "It's pretty clear that you've got her on economic issues, especially on the legislative front, there's no question about that. We'll try to steer the dialogue in that direction, best as we can."

"But Jesus, she's tough," says Cobb. "It's a miracle I managed to make it out alive. Hey, what did you think about her responses to the FP questions?"

"It seemed like she was holding back a little, knowing what we do about her credentials," says Arthur. "Maybe because of the whole French thing still. Watch out for that, she might decide otherwise and unleash it on you later on-- but overall, you did much better than expected. We might celebrate, timidly."

It turns out to be even more timid than planned, because halfway through the first glass of champagne, there's an urgent call from Ariadne about some sort of vague tip-off regarding Robert Fischer's personal life. Eventually she admits that it doesn't seem to lead anywhere, but by then both Cobb and Arthur are too wired to sit back down and drink. They watch a basketball game and yell too loudly.

Celebrated victory with steak dinner, comes Eames's text message. Delicious.

 

 

 

In Texas there is a pie-eating contest, because there's always a pie-eating contest somewhere. Cobb's lightly patterned shirt is just folksy enough hitched up to his elbows, and Mal is resplendent in her coral sheath dress. They laugh and gasp for breath, their faces smeared with whipped cream. The wide-open Texas air is hazy and golden around the edges. The optics are great.

"The optics are great," says Eames, where he and Arthur stand watching them from beyond the ring of spectators. "I am filled with an odd sense of pride, like I'm watching my own children stuff their faces with pie."

"This could be the campaign brand right up to the general election," says Arthur. "All you have to do is drop out, we're ready and willing to cut a VP deal with you. The Cobb/Miles ticket. Think about it."

"In your dreams," says Eames, and points a chiding finger at Arthur, one hand occupied by his slice of pumpkin pie.

Arthur doesn't hear the camera go off behind him, but later on his laptop back in the hotel room, he finds that a picture of Eames has been making the rounds along with the shots of the candidates. Yusuf's blog has the high-res image. In the picture, it looks like Eames is pointing and looking straight out of the frame, poised between the pumpkin pie and the foreshortened stump of his finger. He also looks like he's smiling, though Arthur didn't think Eames was smiling, when the photo was taken.

I'll stay on message if he'll stay on me, says one of the myriad comments to the picture. Yusuf is moderating the comments section lately, and he's replied to it with a Whoa, I know this guy outside of work, too much information!

Arthur is annoyed. He closes the browser with as emphatic a click as possible. Of course he's annoyed, he's right to be-- it's idle gossip. They're operatives, they're not supposed to have their pictures posted on blogs. People aren't supposed to know who they are. They aren't the news.

And what's with the comments, besides, he thinks, slamming his laptop closed.

 

 

 

A reporter thrusts a microphone into his face and asks, "Arthur, the blogosphere has taken to calling you The Ferret. What are your thoughts on the nickname?"

They're running late and they have to cross the Florida state border in half an hour to make it to the southern tip, so Arthur just says, "Yeah, did you know that all my hair turns white in the winter," and keeps walking. "That's when I masquerade as Anderson Cooper," he adds, absently, as he spots the buses and starts jogging.

It turns out to be a mixed blessing, because the press pool concludes that he's not bothered by the name, though his ability to distinguish between members of the weasel family leaves much to be desired. Disappointed and robbed of entertainment, they then proceed to spend several hours debating over what to arbitrarily christen him next.

That night, Arthur and Eames get rather drunk in West Palm Beach.

"Why me? Why did I get hit by the shrapnel?" asks Eames. "And why Foreign Aid? Could they have possibly picked a worse attribute to focus on-- I have a sodding Maine driver's license, let it go already!"

"At least yours doesn't make you sound like a Dreamworks villain," says Arthur. "What is the Dark Genius, why do they keep implying that there is something nefarious and unsavory about me? What did I ever do?"

"You are not unsavory," says Eames, woefully. "You are perfectly savory, Arthur."

"And you have a Maine driver's license," says Arthur, clinking their bottles together.

 

 

 

Arthur drinks the day's first cup of coffee out of habit, the second cup out of a desperate attempt to squash his hangover, and the third cup when headquarters calls him on the bus to South Carolina with an SOS message about Robert Fischer.

"It's something," says HQ, "it's definitely not nothing."

"But is it going to break?" asks Arthur, clutching the phone to his ear and trying very hard to combat carsickness with sheer willpower. "Ariadne called me about this in Oklahoma, she said it looked like a dead end."

"Not anymore," says HQ. "Only, we still don't know what the something is. So far all the leads are coming through Nash, and he's refusing to disclose anything until the time seems right. It's working, for sure, the anticipation just keeps on building."

"What a fucking asshole," says Arthur. "All right, considering that it's Fischer, two-to-one it'll be something to do with his father or Browning's tax statements. Something financial. Draft a statement and sit on it, play to Senator Cobb's perceived strengths, keep in touch."

There is a Cobb fundraiser in South Carolina, but due to a combination of the Fischer suspense, the hangover, and the overdose of caffeine, Arthur is unable to attend. He spends the afternoon on the phone, facedown on his hotel bed, convinced of his imminent heart attack.

"I hate Nash, I hate him so much," he groans to Ariadne. "Is he even going to fucking source this shit, because that would be a welcome change."

"I bet he just names his balls and attributes quotes to them," says Ariadne. "Breaking story, Senator Cobb is a polygamist and he's secretly forming a private militia composed of his own illegitimate children! Exclusive details from Ted, my left nut."

There's a knock on Arthur's hotel door, and someone says, "Excuse me, sorry to bother you, I'm one of the interns from the Miles campaign--"

Who, as it turns out, is bringing him a sub sandwich and a can of Diet Coke. Arthur takes the plastic bag and squints at its contents suspiciously.

"It's from Mr. Eames," says the intern. "He told me to remind you that coffee has no nutritional value."

"Ariadne, I-- I have to call you back," says Arthur. "I think Eames is trying to poison me."

 

 

 

It breaks when they're in North Carolina. Arthur's phone has been ringing nonstop, buzzing in the background as he sits and stares at the television screen. He ought to answer, whether it's Ariadne or HQ -- maybe it's Cobb, though Cobb's out for lunch with Governor Miles and several members of the state legislature -- has Cobb heard, wonders Arthur, and turns up the volume.

He isn't even exactly sure how he feels. It's out of left field like a hammer to his skull, and maybe he ought to be elated, pumping his fists in victory, but really it just feels like he's dreaming. He scratches at his ankle with one socked foot, mouth slightly open as he stares. He would answer his phone, only he can't look away from the coverage. It's a dream, it's got to be a dream. In no conceivable reality of his would the opposition candidate in a presidential campaign be caught up in a bona fide prostitute scandal.

Numbly, Arthur flips the channel to another 24-hour news network, where they've gathered a panel of pundits jaded enough to joke.

"Not just any major party candidate, but Representative Fischer," one of them says. "Good boy like that, how'd he know where to call for a prostitute? You wouldn't think he had it in him--"

"Let's be clear, she wasn't a prostitute," says someone else, "she was an escort, the semantics are hugely important here--"

On yet another channel, they're trying to make sense of the escort's official position, which is that there was no contact of a sexual nature at all between her and Fischer. That there was hardly any contact at all, other than a few minutes of hand-holding as an expression of commiseration.

"She said they were just talking!" the social column editor being interviewed sounds almost outraged. "She said he hired her so that she could listen to him!"

There are attempts to discuss whether light will finally be shed on the role of high-class escorts in the political arena ("Tell you something, having seen what I have of Washington behind the scenes, I'll say that without the aid of an escort service--"), whether it needs to become an issue at all ("We're currently waging four wars on four different fronts, frankly I think that every second we spend covering a manufactured scandal--"), and whether anyone has seen Fischer anywhere since the story went public ("For all we know, he could be off in a hotel room right now crying to another call girl about how unfairly the media is treating him").

There are screenshots of the front page of Nash's blog ("EXCLUSIVE: FISCHER HIRES HOOKER"), clips of the escort releasing her public statement (thin blonde hair, modest grey suit, "He did not approach me at any time with any inappropriate requests"), and Arthur's phone keeps ringing and ringing and ringing, the voice of the anchor onscreen rattling doggedly on ("As our calls to the Fischer campaign headquarters in New Mexico remain unreturned, we would like to remind our viewers that they can join us on our official Twitter account for around-the-clock updates"). The drone of his phone below, the drone of the anchor above, and Arthur wonders what stance they ought to take.

The high road: Senator Cobb will not be releasing any statements regarding the current controversy surrounding Representative Fischer, and would prefer to concentrate his efforts on making the American Unity Tour a success by continuing to listen to the voices of hardworking everyday citizens.

The muckraking opportunist: She says there was no sexual contact, but are we sure that she's the only one there is to ask? After all, Representative Fischer is the sole heir apparent to a multinational energy conglomerate-- surely someone in his privileged position must be accustomed to indulgence.

Morally upright with a mean streak: Representative Fischer hired an escort, don't you think that's all there really is to say about that?

"Arthur," yells Eames's voice from the other side of the door, punctuated by a bout of frantic pounding. "You're in, aren't you? Jesus Christ, what is even going on anymore-- will you open your damn door, Arthur?"

"Sorry, I got it," says Arthur, letting him in. "So I assume you've heard the news?"

"Have I heard the news? Have you heard the news?" asks Eames, bounding into the room. "Where's the fridge, break open the minibar! Let's drink to a Democratic victory."

Arthur has only known him for a handful of agitated months -- uneasy allies at the best of times, bitter enemies at the worst of times -- and he's never exactly seen Eames upset. But even so, he's also never seen Eames this purely happy, beaming like this, like the sun's on his face. Eames opens all the cabinets below the television and finds nothing, so he rubs his hands together and goes searching in the hotel wardrobe.

"Could this spell the end of the Republican presidency?" asks the anchor onscreen.

"Sing it," Eames shouts with his head inside the wardrobe. "We need to be on the road in half an hour, don't we? I suppose we'll make do with beer-- here, catch."

Arthur does, and they settle at the foot of his bed, the television still chattering away. Eames can't hold himself still, drumming his fingers against the side of the beer can.

"You really think so?" asks Arthur, at last. "You think this will break Fischer?"

"Half the country thinks he's an asshole for hiring an escort," says Eames, "and the other half thinks he's a moron for not fucking her, if you'll excuse the-- look, this is big, now this is a real scandal, you know? We ought to be ashamed of ourselves, letting Fischer show us up like that."

"Unmarried, not even dating, and he didn't break a single law," says Arthur. "If they even figuratively persecute him for this, can you imagine the damage he could do by dragging the rest of Congress down along with him? Hiring escorts isn't a crime, never has been, they can't set a precedent like that."

"Congress may have no choice but to take his side," says Eames, "but the voting public--"

"That's just a matter of spin," says Arthur. "So as long as he takes the right line, this will blow over, like most everything else. You don't think Fischer got this far without a reasonably talented PR team, do you?"

Eames says nothing, only peers down at his feet. He's visibly deflated.

"Though clearly they're nowhere near as talented as I am," says Arthur to lighten the mood, because he feels a little bit responsible. "Or you, I guess," he adds.

"High praise," says Eames, and sighs. "Trust you to rain on my parade."

"Yes, well," says Arthur. "You can put your beer on my tab."

After some internal debate, he gives Eames what is intended to be a hearty pat on the shoulder. In his awkward hesitation it turns out more like he's brushing the lint off of his jacket or something, but Eames looks sidelong at him past the can of beer at his lips, and he seems to understand.

 

 

 

"Guess what Mayor Saito said," asks Cobb.

They're slumped in their bus seats racing toward Virginia, too worn out to make the effort of looking at each other while they converse. The tour is taking its inexorable toll on all of them. Any excitement brought on by the cross-country road trip or Fischer's fuck-up has ebbed away in time, and by now they feel tired and strangely, unshakably grimy, like only a shower taken at home could manage to wash away the weary buildup of dust.

"Is this the set-up of a joke?" asks Arthur. "Wait, I think I know how it goes. Did he once again refrain from endorsing either you or Mal? And then did he once again try to scout me for his re-election campaign? Say what you will about the man, but he's extremely consistent."

"You're not going to accept the offer, are you?" asks Cobb. "You couldn't possibly, we're kind of in the middle of doing something."

"Cobb, please," says Arthur, "insecurity is not a presidential trait. You know I'm going to turn it down, I've turned it down before. Like twenty times already."

"Even after the election," says Cobb, "I want you to stay on. I need you on my transition team, Arthur. And then I need you in the White House."

"That's very touching, but don't jinx it," says Arthur. "I'll draft my twenty-first refusal statement when we stop for today. Where are we going, again?"

"Virginia," says Cobb, after consulting the printed itinerary.

"Right, Virginia," says Arthur. "That's great."

"So," says Cobb, "where did we come from?"

"Fuck if I know," says Arthur. "Where do any of us come from? Where do any of us go?"

"Cotton-eyed Joe," says Cobb.

 

 

 

The second town hall meeting is in Virginia, where their tour buses become involved in some sort of ludicrous parking ticket fiasco and can't pick them up until an hour later. Arthur suggests procuring other forms of transportation, but Mal wants to use the down time to do an unscheduled meet-and-greet at a local supermarket.

"It's not that far, anyway," Cobb tells Arthur. "Just give us a call when the buses get here."

Arthur and Eames end up sitting at the curb like a pair of problem children from a 90s movie about peer pressure, while the staffers and interns and mill around on the sidewalk behind them, all of them craning their necks and watching the empty road.

"I thought it went reasonably well, considering," says Arthur. "Certainly better than the last town hall. Must have been all the EP talk."

"Really?" asks Eames. "And here I was thinking that this one was all about the IR diplomacy, so naturally I assumed it went even better for us than last time-- that's funny. I mean, we can't both win the debate."

"I'd fight you for it, but we're supposed to be getting along," says Arthur.

"We have problems as it is," says Eames. "Fischer's ratings are almost back."

The angle his team came up with was exactly what Arthur would have recommended; a hard stance to counter the perceived emotional weakness of hiring an escort to serve as agony aunt. Fischer was cool and insolent at his press conference, his smile full of fond pity, citing the hourly fee a typical psychiatrist might charge. With rates like that, he said, do you really wonder why I talked to her instead?

"Well," offers Arthur, "he lost the psychiatrist vote."

"What a tragedy," says Eames, glumly.

Arthur remembers the Eames that he opened his door to in North Carolina, that moment of bliss when Eames allowed himself to believe that things would be easy for once, that someone else would do just a little bit of their work for them. It was part of what made it so irresistible, this game, this bug they called politics-- constantly on your toes, wracking your brain, steeling your stomach. A full-contact sport.

But even just for a moment, if they couldn't find something to celebrate without trying to divine the consequences down the line. Eames striding into his room, looking for the minibar. That was a nice smile, wasn't it, thinks Arthur.

 

 

 

Summer comes to rural New Jersey. Their rally is at a county fair, crowded thick with families and shaggy dogs and curious visitors from out of state. Mal participates in a hay roll with a staffer and an intrepid journalist, shoving their bale across the finish line to raucous cheering. She has bits of straw in her hair, charming and endlessly electable.

Cobb gives her a jocular high-five and a hug. Good move, Arthur mouths to him, and he gives Arthur a thumbs-up before he goes to fuss over the victor of the baby crawling race. Cobb has never been much for cooing at children, but he seems to be enjoying himself, laughing and feigning exertion when the baby's parents heft him into Cobb's arms.

He's doing an excellent job, and Arthur decides that he deserves a little unexpected kindness. The line for the ice cream truck stretches between the inflatable cow and the display rack of cheeses, and he's the only one there over four feet tall, towering above the children, unwieldy as a skyscraper. He asks for one pistachio cone, Cobb's inexplicable favorite, and a vanilla cone for himself.

Distracted by the sight of the inflatable cow stretching and jerking and swaying as kids bounce inside it, a cartoonish depiction of gastrointestinal warfare, Arthur doesn't notice that the man in the truck hands him a cone of raspberry ice cream along with the vanilla. He's on his way back to the far side of the fairground where Cobb is inspecting a row of patterned quilts, when a girl grabs at his knee.

"You have my ice cream," she says. "Raspberry."

"Oh, I'm sorry," says Arthur, and feels like a monster. "I didn't-- hey, I asked for pistachio, right?"

"You did," calls the man in the truck, "that's the young lady's, my mistake."

"Here you go, I apologize," says Arthur, stooping to hand her the cone. "Careful, it's started melting already, sh-- I mean, shoot, oh no, there it goes."

A trickle of raspberry ice cream starts dripping into his palm and down his wrist. He needs the shirt for the dinner later that night; it's the only one he has left in a light-colored fabric and anything else still clean would clash with his tie, and he can't change the tie because then he would clash with Cobb, whose style advisors would throw a fit if they had to put together another ensemble just because Arthur somehow managed to get food all over himself.

Arthur twists his elbows like a double-jointed contortionist, trying to redirect the flow of the melting ice cream (now vanilla and pistachio) toward the ground instead of down the line of his arm. It doesn't work very well and also, it hurts like hell. He has a few near run-ins with children and nearly trips over a hapless whippet, but he makes it to Cobb in one piece.

Later, after the dinner and a long scalding shower, Arthur is just about ready to collapse when his phone starts ringing on the dresser. He puts Piers Morgan on mute, which is how he likes Piers Morgan best anyway, and takes the call.

"Are you running for office or something?" asks Ariadne. "Why did you buy a little girl ice cream?"

"I didn't," says Arthur, "it was the wrong order and I accidentally took hers, so I had to give it back to her-- god, are there pictures of me doing that? I must look like a fucking idiot, I felt like a fucking idiot. Like a hulking troll who steals ice cream from preschool children."

"I wouldn't put it that way," says Ariadne.

"I am not going to look at them," says Arthur, "because I am a man of singular willpower. Also because I am terrified of confirming my fears regarding how stupid I must look in those pictures."

"Hey, you're admitting to emotional vulnerability," says Ariadne, approvingly. "Good progress, Dark Genius. It's almost like you're growing a heart beneath all those campaign badges and discreetly striped ties."

 

 

 

Cobb's eyes dart toward him, a quick flicker of apprehension. Arthur is immediately alert. Even as Cobb continues to nod and offer appropriate interjections of interest to the representatives of the Connecticut Agricultural Coalition, behind his back, he crooks a finger and motions frantically for help.

"Senator," calls Arthur, "I need to borrow you for a moment."

"Now, Arthur?" asks Cobb, amiably exasperated. "I'm sorry, guys, it seems like my handler needs to yell at me about something or another. Excuse me-- I'll be right with you."

"What is it," whispers Arthur, when Cobb has joined him out of earshot.

"They're vegetable farmers," whispers Cobb. "They're talking to me about vegetables."

"Yes," says Arthur. "Please get to the point."

"When they're done talking," says Cobb, "they're going to give me a chance to sample their wares."

"Cobb," says Arthur, very patiently, "is this about how you don't want to eat the vegetables?"

"There are beets there, Arthur!" says Cobb. "Raw beets! Raw heads of cabbage! I'm not going to complain about the brussels sprouts because that's just going to make me sound childish and petulant, but you understand that I am a grown man facing a very real and adult conundrum here. How do I avoid eating the vegetables without offending the farmers, Arthur? What do I do? Can't I be President without expanding my diet beyond cheeseburgers and Cool Whip?"

"Senator Cobb is ready for you now," Arthur calls to the farmers.

 

 

 

It's just a short walk from the hotel to the elementary school, but security insists that the candidates be driven there. Mal tries to protest, because it's a gorgeous morning out, still cool this early and this far up north, the mist settling on their skin. Security denies her, politely.

Cobb and Mal are spending the whole morning at the school-- a tour, a question-and-answer session, then a photo op where they read Miss Rumphius together to a gaggle of students too young to be disgusted at being used. News is mercifully slow of late, and there's nothing particularly pressing for their campaign staff to do in their absence. Arthur and Eames decide to enjoy New Hampshire.

"Maybe if the staffers see us loitering outside," says Eames, "they'll try to have us arrested."

"They probably have jurisdiction over this block," says Arthur. "Scientifically, I've heard, any space immediately surrounding a Robert Fischer campaign base can be classified as an alternate reality. One in which any schmuck with the right pair of cheekbones can maintain a comfortable lead in the GOP primaries, despite his corporate ties and personal friendship with an extremely unpopular incumbent."

They sip at their drinks for a beat of silence, trying to angle themselves obliquely enough to avoid being spotted by the staffers working inside. Fischer's New Hampshire campaign outpost is on the first floor of an office building, huge windows like a showroom, his logo emblazoned on the glass doors.

"It's a nice logo," says Eames.

"It's a pinwheel," says Arthur. "You don't think it's a little jejune?"

"Appropriately jejune," says Eames. "He can't cut the Fischer name out of the Fischer-Morrow empire until his old man gives up the proverbial ghost, and Fischer senior would sooner see his son's presidential bid engulfed in flames than split up his life's work. That company always was his favorite child."

"Blows to be Robert Fischer, in a way," says Arthur.

"Oh, definitely," says Eames. "You regularly get into screaming matches with your father in Australian restaurants, and the public's still convinced that you're just a puppet for him and the rest of big energy. Damned if you do, damned if you don't."

"Well, someone out there loves him," says Arthur. "Many someones, in fact, or his favorability ratings would indicate."

"He's aiming for the general elections already," says Eames. "Trying to siphon off the swing vote. Only, he knows that overtly taking a centrist position will weaken him in the primary, so he's letting his logo do the talking. I'm not evil, I'm not corporate, I'm not entertaining lobbyists from energy at my private summer mansion."

"With a side order of turbine imagery for a little subliminal green messaging," says Arthur. "Robert Fischer, the great eco-friendly Republican."

"Also," says Eames, "it's just a very aesthetically pleasing logo."

"That's for sure," says Arthur. "Better than either of ours, certainly. Sometimes I can't even tell ours apart. They're both sort of circular, with lots of swooshy blue vector stripes and a star pegged to it somewhere like someone was playing pin the symbolism on the graphic identity."

They ruminate on the consequences of having apparently hired the wrong firms to design for them, still outside in the New Hampshire morning, hunched in their respective campaign windbreakers. Arthur takes a thoughtful sip from his takeout coffee, his second cup of the day. Electioneering, in its essence, is the slow and tortuous process of replacing all the blood in his veins with caffeine. Beside him, Eames takes a long pull from his straw.

"Wait," says Arthur, "what the hell are you drinking?"

"A milkshake," says Eames.

 

 

 

The last tour stop of all -- the absolutely final event before they can all pack up and board a plane to fly back home, return to a more sensible schedule not primarily dictated by the vastness of the American continent -- is a rally in Durham, New Hampshire. They make it to Cowell Stadium barely on time, and they all dash helter-skelter from the buses to the locker rooms, where the advance guard has set up an impromptu backstage dressing area. Arthur polishes off another cup of coffee and furiously leafs through Cobb's speech.

It's a good speech. They've taken to calling it the Things We Have Forgotten speech, after a crescendo refrain about the blessings and inevitable dangers of individualism. Cobb's set to go first, then Mal, with her own rousing call to compassion and solidarity (another good speech; Arthur has read and approved the text). He knows there's nothing for him to fix, but he has to occupy himself somehow, before a rally this large. His heart is going to leap straight out of his fucking ribcage.

"What the fuck, Arthur," says Eames, alarmed, "are you going to keel over? You're shaking like a leaf, Jesus Christ."

"Caffeine," says Arthur. "It happens."

"Will you please relax, you are absolutely terrifying me right now," says Eames. "Are you worried about the turnout? Is that what it is?"

"It's always about the turnout," says Arthur, the jitter in his voice giving him away. "Yes, we had word in advance, they said the crowd looked good-- yes, we're only using half the stadium for seating, that's maybe four thousand, five thousand seats to fill at most-- but still, Eames, there's about a million things we could have done better-- we should have moved up all the events scheduled today, it's two hours after sundown, who wants to leave their house for a political rally when it's pitch black outside? Maybe publicity wasn't aggressive enough-- and it's raining, it's fucking raining, nobody is going to drive to Durham when it's raining at night--"

There's a flurry of movement from behind them, where the makeup team has declared Cobb and Mal fit for the stage and good to go. Cobb hands Mal her jacket (cornflower blue, it matches his tie) and signals for Arthur.

"Shit," says Arthur, "okay."

The trek from the locker room to the stadium tunnel is like the goddamn green mile, and Eames keeps sneaking glances at him, like he's expecting Arthur to spontaneously combust from nerves. But Arthur manages; he puts one foot in front of the other, proud of Cobb's shoulders thrown back. Of the steel in Mal's smile when the PA system booms out their name and she takes Cobb's hand for the cameras.

It's hardly drizzling, really-- barely wet at all. And when all the lights in the stadium burst to life at once and blind them with their white-hot flare, the crowd thunders for them in place of the weather. Arthur blinks. Oh, the stands are full. The shouting, screaming, whooping, cheering, clapping, loving crowd. Mallorie, they're yelling, Dominic. The love is like a tidal wave, knocking him off his feet.

"See," calls Eames above the roar, "what were you worried about?"

They can monitor the speech from inside, back in the locker room on folding chairs, but neither of them leave. The floodlights just seem to grow brighter and brighter. Arthur grips his Blackberry in his pocket, so tight he thinks he might shatter it, and tries to make out each precious reverberating word of Cobb's speech.

It's a good speech. When he's done, the crowd erupts. Launches to its feet like the seats have been set on fire, and the hollering, the whistling, the love-- Arthur feels it pour into his skin. Thank you, Durham, Cobb is saying, thank you, New Hampshire, thank you. Arthur draws in a deep breath, filling his lungs with the damp night air, with the applause, with the taste of fervor. He's lightheaded, drunk on love. Take me into your arms, he thinks. Carry me to shore.

"This is why I can't quit," he says, out loud. "It's like-- you hear a crowd like that, and suddenly belief doesn't seem so dirty anymore. Everything hacks like us laugh at for most of the year -- the weight of history, the thrill of the future, promises and ideals -- nights like this, all of that feels real. Like it would almost be okay to believe in something, to expect something to come of our dreams."

He turns to Eames, because it seems very, very important to him that Eames understand this.

"Like-- like it would be okay to just love someone," says Arthur, lost for any other words, rapt and helpless with just how much he means it.

Eames looks at him -- the floodlights only a faint glow where they're standing in the tunnel, the din of the crowd still drowning out the loudspeakers -- and nods.

 

 

 

A MORE PERFECT UNION

"It feels like New Year's Eve," Eames says to no one in particular. "Doesn't it? Like we're all sitting here waiting for the ball to drop. Shouldn't we have champagne for this?"

"Real Americans drink beer," calls Arthur. "All other drinks test terribly, Monsieur le Conseiller."

Eames catches the can Arthur tosses him. For all of the candidate's personal down-home appeal, Cobb's campaign HQ has always been a sparse affair, a fortress of metal and glass. Accessories for interior decoration are strictly limited to whiteboards and water coolers. It must be Arthur's doing; environmental assimilation, he thinks, houses and pets grow to take after their owners, but he doesn't hate the way that the Miles campaign has turned his temple of electoral victory into a living room. He rather likes it.

They're gathered in the main workspace with the cubicles pushed to the walls, ESPN droning on in the background because they're too antsy for any other channel. It's a week after the end of the American Unity Tour, and an independent polling organization has set up camp upstairs, conducting a nationwide survey on whether the Tour has achieved its purpose. The Miles campaign drove over from Kansas with bright upholstered couches and enough pita chips to fill an inflatable pool.

Cobb and Mal are discussing something over the spinach dip, voices hushed, but it doesn't sound dire. Eames has commandeered the last remaining couch chair. It seems a bit stuffy to drag over a folding chair to sit on, so Arthur balances himself on the arm of Eames's couch, legs dangling off the edge.

"You should send someone up to check," says Eames. "I can't do it, if I ask anyone to do anything, I just sound like I'm ordering around a butler."

Arthur does, but the staffer doesn't return. Gradually the room notices, and the general conversation drops in pitch, in careful anticipation for some sort of news to arrive.

"I feel like Noah in the ark," says Arthur. "If the dove fails to come back, it's probably found land somewhere--"

"Guys," says the staffer from the top of the staircase, "we're up."

The living room bursts into cheers. Cobb and Mal beam at each other, shake hands, then decide to go in for a full triumphal embrace. Arthur feels the tension drain out of him-- the hurdle's down, they've leveled out again, back on familiar territory. It was worth it, thinks Arthur, worth the whole week of budget hotel rooms and bus-induced nausea, endless luncheons and not enough fundraisers. Worth every day of it.

He turns and Eames is smiling, handing him a red Solo Cup.

"Turns out someone brought champagne after all," says Eames.

"Oh, this is so classy," says Arthur, and can't help laughing as he takes it. "This is perfect."

Whoever brought the champagne didn't stop at one bottle, and there's plenty flowing free to refill his cup, Eames's cup, Cobb's cup, and then Mal tips her head back and laughs as he pours her another, making him feel oddly chivalrous, like he's done something very nice for her. It's not a bad feeling. The room is bustling all of a sudden, and he clinks his cup with Eames's, though the plastic makes no sound and it's slightly unsatisfying.

"To the hacks," says Arthur.

"Clink," says Eames. "Get out the word, tell the journos we're back."

Arthur finds a quieter room on the second floor and calls Ariadne, leaves a voice message when she doesn't pick up. He's a bit tipsy, maybe-- he finds himself drifting off in the chair. He could go back downstairs and just get some air outside, but in a mood like this, he wants to be as high up as possible. Like he's physically on top of the world, looking down on all that he's conquered. He climbs the stairs to the designated rooftop smoking area, chuckling at the good news and a job well done.

The sun is setting when he gets there, a little winded, and it stains the clouds champagne and rose. The evening wind stirs his hair-- he lights up and puts his hands on the railing, coughing a little when it occurs to him that he hasn't really smoked in months. The cigarette tastes foul, probably gone bad in the meanwhile. Too busy even for addiction.

The door behind him creaks open, and Eames steps onto the roof.

"There you are," says Eames. "I was beginning to wonder where you'd disappeared to."

"Thought the air would clear my head," says Arthur, watching Eames stumble a little. "Same as you."

"Good air, yeah," says Eames. "Sobered right up. Do you have a spare?"

Arthur hands him a cigarette. The sun's low enough for the wind to take a tinge of chill, and Eames leans his head into the flickering bloom of Arthur's lighter, the cupped shelter of his hand, touching the tip of his cigarette to the flame. He sucks in, the cherry sparks sizzling alight.

"Oh, fucking--" says Eames, pulling a face and nearly spitting out the smoke, "that's disgusting, that is. Do you honestly smoke this shit?"

"Well, it brings me down a notch," says Arthur. "Sometimes I get a little uppity, after a brilliant, astonishing, flawlessly executed comeback plan like this one. The offensive flavor of stale cigarettes reminds me that I, too, am only human."

Eames flicks his butt into the ossified interior of the trash can, layers of old ash and tobacco like a sedimentary record of the years. Arthur follows suit. They look out over Chicago, its lights beginning to speckle the curtain of dusk, the blur of the lake like someone's thumbprint in the distance.

It's beautiful -- it's home -- but there's always a faint urgency in sunsets, watching a ball of fire tip over the edge of the world. Like it's the last time you'll ever see the sun, and you're only left with that precious sliver of time to do all the things you meant to do. Like making a wish before the shooting star fizzes out.

"I wish," Arthur blurts out, his grip tight around the railing, "I wish you were on my team, Eames," and the next thing he knows, they're kissing.

Beneath the dusty trace of cigarette that Arthur laps away as thoroughly as he can, Eames still tastes of celebratory champagne, provocative as victory. There on the rooftop so close to the sky, Arthur melts open for him-- because there's nothing he needs to explain to Eames, nothing Arthur needs to struggle to phrase. They're two of a kind, when it comes down to it, like a rare breed of tiger wandering in the wild, ploughing through three feet of subartic snow in search for something or someone to understand what they mean. They're operatives, the text of their lives scrolling by too fast for anyone else to read, for anyone else to grasp why they won't stop sprinting on this hamster wheel.

Dimly, Arthur feels Eames's hand at the back of his head, tangling in his hair and tugging him closer. Arthur gasps, nearly breaking the kiss, but Eames is insistent-- only venturing further into him, making him shudder with every hot brush of his tongue. This is Eames, thinks Arthur, feeling like he ought to laugh, or scream, or cry, something bubbling up and building in him, the way speechwriters feel before the words gush onto the page. Eames, brilliant and incisive, still a mystery to him. Arthur knows almost nothing about him yet, what he was doing in Maine, how he boarded this campaign, but all the frivolous details don't seem to matter, lacunae he can piece together in time. The indelible shape of him -- the terrifying acumen of his political mind, the pastrami still warm in the sub sandwich he sent, the press of his body against Arthur's -- that, Arthur knows already. It feels right.

"I lied, before," says Eames when they part for breath. "Now I'm sober."

"Yeah," pants Arthur, hands still fisted in Eames's shirt. "God, Eames."

"I mean, this isn't how I planned it at all," says Eames. "I had a line and everything, I was just saving it for the best possible moment. I worked on that line, I thought it wasn't half bad-- would you like to hear it?"

"You-- you what?" asks Arthur. "You worked on-- well, yes, tell me, please."

"If I were the state legislature," says Eames, "I'd redistrict my bed to include your seat. Do you get it? Your seat, not as in your-- your congressional sector, but as in your arse--"

"No, yes, I'm well aware," says Arthur, and he starts to laugh. "Come on. I'm taking you home with me."

 

 

 

INTERVIEW WITH A ONE-PERSON FOCUS GROUP, PART THE FIRST

Yes, it was good, thanks for asking. It was amazing. Did he enjoy it? I presume he did, judging by the number of condoms we went through. That's about as delicate an answer as I can give.

You know, though, he told me something crazy. He said that-- there was that time we were at this fair in New Jersey, and I was getting ice cream for Cobb, only I took some kid's order by mistake and it was melting all over my hand by the time I gave it back to her. In retrospect, I probably should have bought her another one, but the point is-- the point is, Eames said that the picture they got of me from that whole screw-up, the one that ended up on the web-- he jacked off to it later that night.

Isn't that crazy? I mean, what was there to jack off to? I asked him about it, I was like, Are you serious? I was handing an ice cream cone to a little kid, were you beating yourself to the thought of what a great dad I'd make? And he said something like, I don't know, It wasn't that, it was your wrists, there was this trail of melted ice cream running down your wrists, and you had your sleeves rolled up, whatever. Something tenuous.

But the thing is, I get that. It sounds stupid, but yeah, it's the stupidly little things that stick with you, when you really want someone like that. Even if you don't realize it at the time. Like, I remember the pie-eating contest in Texas, that's the time Eames's picture got plastered all over the blogs. And I remember I was so fucking angry because it was distracting from the message, the real objective of the tour-- but it wasn't just that. They took that picture from behind me, when he was in the middle of talking to me, and I guess I was also pretty pissed that nobody seeing that picture online knew that. I mean-- it was our moment, excuse the platitude, but it was our damn moment.

It's a bunch of things like that. When Mal announced her bid in front of the Governor's Mansion and Eames was caught on camera, and I told Cobb something like, look at him, Mal isn't going to leave him alone. What did I mean by that? It wasn't about Mal, not really. What I meant was, if I were Mal, I probably wouldn't leave him alone. And that time when Fischer's escort scandal broke and Eames allowed himself that tiny window of celebration, hunting for the minibar in my room, and he just looked so happy, I remember that. I wanted him then, I think-- only I never took the time to listen to myself say so.

The kiss, that was-- what that did for me was-- right, say that you're running a presidential campaign. The primary's close, but the GOP isn't putting up much of a fight, which doesn't apply to this year because Fischer's a formidable son of a bitch but let's not talk about Fischer right now. The primary's close, so that's where the real race is. Say that you've been clawing your way up for months and months, and then suddenly, caucus time rolls around, and you win Iowa. That's when you first realize, you're not just running. You could actually win this thing. It's possible, your candidate could actually become President of the United States. It's like you're standing in front of this huge door, and then all of a sudden it gets knocked down-- and there's this incredible road starting right at your feet, leading from the door, stretching as far as you can see. The road was always there, you just never knew it until the door got knocked down. You know? That was the kiss. Like a cannonball driving through the door.

There's this rule that Eames lives by-- politics is an affective game. That's why he's so lenient on process stories, so focused on the life narrative of the candidate. Personally, I prefer a different approach to my campaigns, but I think that there's something for me to take away there. The bottom line is, I took Eames home to my apartment and I let him finger me open, and I lay him down and I fucking rode him until neither of us could see straight-- and his name in my mouth, his mouth on my skin, that was more than anything I can explain with numbers. That was affect.

 

 

 

THE TRUTH WILL OUT

Arthur wakes to the sound of Eames's voice saying, "Your phone's ringing," and he hears the sizzle from the kitchen and the soft pad of Eames's footsteps across the carpet before the buzzing from his bedside table.

"Are you making bacon naked?" asks Arthur, blearily. "Isn't that dangerous?"

"Good morning," says Eames, pressing a kiss to his forehead, ridiculous and sweet. Well; Arthur didn't exactly expect him to bolt, knowing where he works and all, but breakfast in bed is an unexpected luxury. Then again-- it's a funny picture Eames makes sauntering back to the kitchen, buck naked and frying pan held at a wary arm's distance.

"You only stayed so you could make bacon naked," Arthur calls after him. "You're not doing this to feed me, you're just doing it for the laughs."

"Let me get one out of you, then," Eames calls back. Arthur shoots him a good-natured ha and answers his phone.

"Hey, Ariadne," he says, stretching. "Did you get my message from yesterday?"

"Arthur," demands Ariadne, all in a rush, "are you sleeping with Eames?"

Shit-- god, what the fuck--

--he's wide awake, heart pounding, the back of his neck running instantly cold. What? How does she know already, who else knows, is it a problem-- is it a problem? Why is she asking it like that? Why is she scared? Is there something that slipped their minds, some way Fischer's oppo team could spin this-- betrayal to their respective campaigns? But that's a straw man conspicuous enough to shoot down from miles away-- it can't be that, so what is it? What did they miss?

Eames cranes his neck into the bedroom at the sudden spell of silence. "Who is it?" he asks.

"Oh my god, you are," gasps Ariadne. "You are sleeping with him, fuck, Arthur, you're--"

Numb to his fingertips, Arthur snaps his phone closed, squeezing it in his hand like he could ball it up and will it to disappear. Something's wrong. Him and Eames, it's not an issue, it shouldn't be-- they might be minor accidental celebrities, visible and photogenic, but in the end they're private citizens. Their personal lives shouldn't be under scrutiny like this, there's no reason why Ariadne should sound so alarmed by the prospect--

"It's Ariadne," Arthur tells Eames. "I don't know what it is, but there's some sort of problem-- she knows about this, Eames. She knows about us."

"That's all right, though, isn't it?" asks Eames, frowning, stepping into his boxers. "This is-- we're all right?"

"I thought so," says Arthur, "but she seemed-- god, my phone's ringing again, it's her-- what's going on?"

"If she knows this soon," says Eames, "and if she's calling you before work, her sources were probably both direct and credible enough that their information must have raised some red flags with her."

"Eyewitness," says Arthur. "Someone saw us leave together, or arriving here together, whichever. But that doesn't explain why this is fit to print anywhere but in the gossip column--"

His phone chimes; it's a voice message from Ariadne. When Arthur swallows back his trepidation and plays it, she sounds a little less dire-- and a little soothing, a little hushed, like she's trying to help him stomach something terrible and bitter.

"You've got to call me back," she says. "I need to talk to you about this, but there's also something else that you might consider even more important. It's about the campaign, Arthur."

He calls her back. This is how Arthur learns that Dominic Cobb and Mallorie Miles are in love.

 

 

 

"Off the plane now," says Eames, hours later. "What did Cobb say?"

"Well, he-- I'm think I'm still reeling," Arthur says into his phone. "There was a-- we failed to reach an agreement. He said that I ought to know better than to assume that he'd let his personal life interfere with the campaign, and that he would deal with the media fallout if the story went public at any point in time. And that if I were to unwisely insist on his making a choice between the two, then he'd-- then he'd choose Mal over his presidential campaign. He said he'd rather choose her. He'd rather be with her than be President of the United States."

"So," says Eames, "him too, huh."

"Is that what Mal said?" asks Arthur. "God, these candidates."

"I've seen her argue for things before," says Eames, "but never like this. Actually, she's a bit peeved with me at the moment, we've switched over to the motorcade but she told me she needed some time alone, and that maybe I should go find a different car to sit in."

"Yeah," says Arthur, "I'm in a second-floor office right now, Cobb effectively kicked me out of his. There's no convincing them, is there?"

"No chance at all," says Eames. "Best we can do is cover for them until the story breaks, as it inevitably must-- I'd give it a couple weeks at most, vague as the leads are so far."

"What's Yusuf's position?" asks Arthur. "Is he going to hold off on the story?"

"Same as Ariadne," says Eames. "After the eyewitness approaches him about us, he'll also stall that story for as long as possible, though eventually I suppose they'll just go to Nash or someone similarly scummy. About Cobb and Mal, that's a no go-- as soon as enough surfaces on that front to build a story out of, he's going to print it. That's actual news, that can't be helped."

"I suppose not," admits Arthur. "Especially since it's more or less a given that whoever doesn't win the primary will end up on the VP slot of the ticket."

"It's going to test terribly," groans Eames. "No, forget testing, it's complete and utter suicide. A VP in a relationship with the President? Possibly married to the President? A regular royal family, Jesus Christ. It's going to sit uneasy with even our most loyal voter base."

"We're not so averse to royal families in our politics," says Arthur, only half his heart in the joke, "we always leave room for the Kennedys."

"Yes, well, you pull the Kennedys into a fight, you automatically lose," says Eames. "I feel like we're on a plane headed straight for an enormous mountain, and all the while you and I are screaming, There's a mountain, for heaven's sake, we're going to fly into the fucking mountain, and Cobb and Mal won't let us steer, and they keep telling us, We'll face the mountain if we have to, because we're in love with the damn mountain. And I guess the most tragic part of it is, it's our responsibility to peel them out of the hillside wreck and whisk them into the Oval Office somehow. That's our job, isn't it?"

It is their job. Arthur looks out of his window. There's a fine haze settled over the city, a film of gauze rolling into every alleyway, stranding him like an island in a sea of mist. And just last night, he thinks, it was so clear. You could see all the way to Lake Michigan. He clears his drying throat.

"I guess that--" he begins, "so-- I guess that still means-- that we can't--?"

"Arthur," says Eames, his voice weary and broken, all the resolute humor drained out of it. "Please, don't make me say-- that's not fair, you know it isn't. You know I--"

"I know," says Arthur, and closes his eyes. "Yeah. I'm sorry-- I know."

 

 

 

INTERVIEW WITH A ONE-PERSON FOCUS GROUP, PART THE SECOND

Simply put, it's this: one instance of inappropriate fraternization may be imprudent, but two starts to look like a conspiracy. It starts to seem suspiciously premeditated. Some sort of dynastic union, poised for the monarchist takeover of the United States, and that's strange enough to raise anyone's eyebrow.

We're not supposed to be the story. Unless somehow, our stumbling into the spotlight takes some of the unwanted attention away from our candidates-- but this isn't like that, you understand, this would only compound the disaster. It would be a synergistic clusterfuck. Fucking publicity nuclear armageddon. If Eames and I--

--if Eames and I continued to--

--right, so. About Ariadne? About Ariadne. What she offered to do was, she would keep stringing the eyewitness along, as far as she possibly could. Pretend to be interested in the story, like a little chatter about what a couple of operatives are doing with their dicks would be worth anything more than a few off-color jokes. Of course, the whole problem is that it actually is worth more than that, but only because of Cobb and Mal's own story in the works. Without that, the bit about us is completely worthless. But the eyewitness doesn't know that-- the eyewitness doesn't know that there is a Cobb and Mal story.

So the eyewitness keeps shopping their dirt around, vaguely hopeful that someone might be interested, but unaware that any major media outlet would pounce at the chance. They think it's too small for anyone but independent bloggers to touch. Ariadne makes like she wants to buy the story, but at the last minute, she backs out. She turns the story over to Yusuf instead, recommends him very highly. Really he comes with his own recommendation, he's every bit as well-known as Ariadne is, big names, both of them.

Yusuf goes through the same spiel. The eyewitness won't fall for it forever, yeah, that's obvious. Sooner or later they'll get fed up, go crawling to Nash. He's a sorry bastard too, that Nash, he broke the Fischer scandal and still he amounts to nothing more than some third-rate rag-- like all that journalistic cred he wanted slipped right off his greasy back. But what the hell are we talking about Nash for? The point is that Nash will print it -- Nash will print anything -- and when the Cobb and Mal thing hits the stands, it'll be so much the worse for that.

The hope is that by the time our story goes live, we'll have found some sort of angle to diffuse it. Just the one witness, just the one sighting, it'll be doable. Or we could hedge our bets on Fischer stealing our thunder by getting married, having an affair, and fathering a child out of wedlock-- but that's a bit much to expect from him in just a couple of weeks, not to mention a bit much for the fetus as well. See, look, that's a joke, I'm not so-- I'm not as bad off as you think, I'm-- we're okay. We're not-- it's not like one of us is dead, all right? We're--

--listen. Someone had to break it off, and it wasn't going to be Cobb and Mal. What? No, there's nothing noble about it, this isn't sacrifice the way you think it is. Are we-- would we rather not? Yeah. Of course. But what's the alternative? We're operatives-- we're sharks. Every waking minute of the day is dedicated to ensuring the victory of our own campaign, and everything we do, we do because we're terrified of losing. This isn't sacrifice. It's as much for us as it is for the candidates.

The Miles campaign was leaving town, so Eames had to go regroup. Before he left, we talked it over, agreed that we'd have to just-- you know. Stay on separate sides of Missouri. And to keep the bit about us quiet to Cobb and Mal, because what good would it do for them to know, anyway. It doesn't matter. Cobb and Mal's own story won't stay buried forever, and we'll be busy spinning as hard as we can.

What bacon? Oh, you mean-- Eames's, the bacon that he-- I don't know, I don't remember. I had to-- we had to go to work, so we couldn't--

--we couldn't. I wish we could have.

 

 

 

BRING OUT YOUR GUNS

"Arthur, call for you on line two," says a staffer, poking her head into Cobb's office. "It's Mayor Saito."

In the middle of gesticulating fervidly at a map in order to demonstrate the paramount importance of wooing the Midwestern States, Arthur freezes. Cobb freezes along with him, unsure of the appropriate response.

"Are you in trouble?" asks Cobb.

"I don't think so," says Arthur. "It's probably the usual-- he did an interview about his re-election campaign that they printed this morning. It contained a fleeting but now requisite reference to scouting me, and maybe he's wondering if I'll actually take the trouble to formulate an official response, this time."

"Can I formulate an official response?" wonders Cobb. "If I categorically excise any possibility that you might go work for Saito either before or after this campaign, then wouldn't he have no choice but to stop asking? I'm only looking out for you, Arthur, you go in and there's no knowing if you might ever come out. I've heard things about the gravitational singularity of the Chicago mayoralty."

"He's a mayor, not a mob boss," says Arthur, and sounds unconvincing even to his own ears.

But when he takes the call, Cobb steepling his fingers in anxiety across the desk from him, it turns out Saito isn't really asking about the scouting offer at all. Arthur fumbles with the pen he's been spinning. It rolls down beneath his chair, and he slams his head on the edge of the desk as he comes up with it.

"Fuck," he exclaims, rubbing frantically at his scalp, "sorry, that wasn't-- no, not you, sir, I dropped something, and--"

"What is it?" hisses Cobb. "What? What did he say?"

"He's endorsing you," Arthur blurts out in excitement, even though he's still on the phone and Saito can hear every giddy word. But there's nothing to bargain for, nothing to hold hostage; Saito knows just how valuable his endorsement is. He has phenomenal clout with the Democratic Party, respected and admired and not just a little bit feared. A rockstar superdelegate with the deportment of an emperor.

Cobb leaps up from his chair, jabs the air with a rapid series of fist pumps, and yells, "Mayor, I'll give you Arthur."

"Is that Senator Cobb?" asks Saito. "Is he saying something?"

"No, he's just... expressing his sincere gratitude for your support," says Arthur. "We really appreciate this, Mayor. If there's ever anything within our power that would benefit Chicago--"

"Aside from you coming to run my re-election campaign, you mean," says Saito. "Don't worry-- you'll be working for me someday, sooner than you think."

"What the hell, stop being so ominous," says Arthur, "you can't tell me who I'm going to be working for! You're a mayor, not a mob boss!"

"I don't need to be a mob boss," says Saito, and chuckles. "I'm the Mayor of Chicago. Functionally, Arthur, I own you."

"At least make an attempt to wine and dine me first," Arthur yells into the phone, as the line clicks dead.

The important thing is that they have Saito's endorsement, a sudden bolt of luck that could change the race, and Arthur's happy enough to sing. He hangs up the receiver and leans back in his chair, mind racing with how best to unleash the news. Should they go public, or should they wait for Saito to make his own statement? Should they unveil it right away, or should they let the rumors ferment for a few thrilling days?

"I didn't mean it, you know," says Cobb. "About giving you to Saito. Please don't leave me."

 

 

 

Arthur swears Cobb to secrecy three times over, and Cobb has the nerve to feign taking offense.

"Of course I wouldn't tell her," he says, straightening his tie. "This is strictly pleasure. It's not as though I want to take her out on a date in the capacity of a man running against her-- how do I look?"

"Electable," says Arthur, and Cobb punctuates it with another vehement fist pump.

If he concentrates hard enough, Arthur can taste the barest hint of something bitter at the back of his throat. It's Friday evening and Mal has a speaking engagement in California. It's nothing at all for Cobb to fly back to his home state to meet with old friends, old supporters-- to meet with Mal. Perhaps especially because they all know the inevitability of the story they're heading for.

The mountain we're steering ourselves into, thinks Arthur, remembering Eames's voice. With Cobb on his way to California and the team members heading home for the weekend, the lights at HQ begin to blink out one by one. Arthur feels the weight of his phone lodged heavy in his pocket, turns it over in his hands, contemplative.

It's a terrible idea. They talk, regularly enough; they even trade the same barbs they used to. But there's something thin and fragile about it, like they've swapped their weapons for spears made of paper and glass. Calling him at a time like this, the building growing dark and his footsteps a lone echo in the corridor, that's just asking for trouble. I'll probably end up telling him about Saito's endorsement, thinks Arthur, and then my social security number, my bank PIN number, my mother's maiden name next.

He switches on the lights in the press briefing room. Once, Eames -- why is it always Eames -- once, he said that if Cobb won the election, then Arthur would end up entering the White House as a policy advisor.

"Though it's a moot point," said Eames, "because we all know he's not going to win."

"In the off chance that Mal wins," said Arthur, "what would you be?"

"It's a bit obvious, when you think about it," said Eames. "I'd be press sec."

Arthur runs his hand across the curve of the microphone stand. It's true, Eames would make a great press secretary, slippery as an eel. He'd lean against his elbow, jocular and rumpled, and never give an inch.

Gripping at the sides of the podium, Arthur clears his throat. The word that leaves him, We--, is timid in the empty room, falling flat to the floor. His eyes flicker to the door, self-conscious. He tries again.

"We've been consistently inspired by the leadership and character of Abraham Lincoln throughout the course of our campaign, and we've decided to take some cues from his trenchant political insight." He shrugs, makes an effort at a crooked grin. "After all, marriage is the original Team of Rivals."

It's nothing he can ever use-- and besides, he thinks, no one said anything about marriage. Don't take this too fast, it's not even your relationship. More brazen now with the sound of his own voice, he steps out from behind the podium and points at a vacant chair.

"Yes, Jake Tapper," he says. "What's that? Is the Cobb campaign not concerned that the close personal bond between Senator Cobb and Governor Miles will lead to undue political influence in the eventuality that either of them gains victory in the general election? My answer to you is that the American people should be appreciative of the great bargain they're getting. You elect one, you get one free-- it's a deal! We're practically giving these candidates away!"

He beats a little rimshot with his hands. It comes out a bit hollow, in the bareness of the room.

 

 

 

The next time Arthur has Eames on the phone for longer than five minutes, it's for the last possible reason he'd like to have Eames on the phone. It's been a couple days and the Saito endorsement is out of the bag, promising but no deal-breaker. Arthur should be finalizing the last-minute plans for a scheduled fundraiser, but instead he's pacing the floor of his office, too restless to be the wildcat in its cage, his steps quick and furiously clipped.

"Yusuf had family business to attend to, so he couldn't be there," says Eames. "But Ariadne went, didn't she? What did she say about it?"

"That it went down like a spoonful of fucking sugar," says Arthur. "They ate it right up."

Peter Browning is in the final lame-duck stretch of his presidency. For the annual WHCA dinner, however, it appears that he has finally managed what he hasn't been able to accomplish for the past eight years; to make himself likable. A recording of his farewell video is already available online, and Arthur is in despair.

For Browning, it's a fine time to win hearts. He's stepping out of office in just a couple of months. Arthur doesn't mind that so much, only-- it's the surprise cameo appearance in Browning's farewell video that has him glued to his phone in dread.

Onscreen, Browning plods into the Oval Office, a stack of construction paper in his hand. He fiddles with a pair of scissors, a jar of glitter, a stapler, and then admires the flimsy paper crown he's made. Then the camera pulls back and -- with an audible murmur from the audience that explodes into laughter -- Robert Fischer is there, bending his head to receive the crown.

"It's brash as fucking balls," says Arthur. "I can't believe Fischer agreed to do this-- how the hell did he know it would work? It's such a fine line with jokes like this, either you win them over or you get stoned to death, what a lucky asshole."

"Lampshades the whole successor argument, doesn't it?" asks Eames. "He's given up the moderate reformer angle and positioned himself solidly within party lines. If he's going for that, then he'll be announcing a Browning fundraiser before the day is out."

"Oh, yeah," says Arthur, "he's got that one in the bag. Jesus, isn't there some way we can turn this on him? His father, the businessman-- the ex-President, practically an uncle to Fischer-- it's almost dynastic, that's what it is."

"But we can't take the royal family angle for obvious reasons," says Eames. "Didn't you run a poll like this, way back when? Something about how Fischer would test if he aligned himself with the pro-business, pro-energy crowd?"

"Funny story, about that poll," says Arthur. "Obviously a lot of things have changed since then, but still-- he actually tested a lot better with the more conservative platform. Seemed like most left-of-center voters would fail to be convinced by his moderate stance, but any hard-right demographic like business would be quick to take him in as one of their own, when before they scorned him as some sort of thin-skinned traitor. So it actually gave him a leg up on us in the general. 55-43, for fuck's sake, what are those numbers?"

"Like you said, that was a long time ago," says Eames. "And numbers do lie. Politics--"

"--is an affective game, yes, I know," groans Arthur. "God, I miss when Mal used to be the only enemy I'd need to worry about. When Fischer didn't rock the goddamn boat like this."

"Arthur," says Eames, his voice suddenly so quiet that it almost seems loud, soft as the faint buzz of static behind him.

"I'm sorry, I know," says Arthur, "I haven't forgotten the hard-earned lessons from the cross-country tour, it's just that-- god, this game keeps changing right underneath my feet, I don't know how anyone's supposed to keep their balance like this. We're fucking great at what we do, Eames, we really are, and still we always feel like we're floundering. Triumph only comes in tiny pinprick starts."

"Do you know," says Eames, "what Cobb looks like on paper?"

"What? Yeah," says Arthur. "Like a stodge, through and through. Even his passionate love for baseball has something pedantic about it. Everything out of his mouth, you'd expect it to be weighed down with a whole string of ten-cent words."

"Right, but he's really rather down-to-earth in person," says Eames. "Very relatable."

"Thank you," says Arthur, "but I'm not sure what this--"

"Now Mal, on paper she reads like a human softball," says Eames. "People can't stop thinking of her as the girl from Kansas-- the slightest misstep and she becomes a caricature. But she's nothing like that, you know she's not. If anything she's the analytical one, a politician of the brain, to Cobb's wonk of the heart."

"Wonk of the heart," repeats Arthur. "He'll like that."

"But Mal and I, we can't play that up," says Eames. "People think they want an intelligent President, sure, but eight times out of ten the line between pretension and intelligence is too thin to mind. Cobb's better at fundraisers, but Mal's better at debates. Cobb's better at working a room, but Mal's better at holding it sway. Cobb's a folksy city boy, Mal's a cosmopolitan small-town girl."

"Both of them are excellent whistlers," says Arthur.

"Neither of them like vegetables, much," says Eames. "And they're in love with each other. Arthur-- that's affect. That's all we've got, because the numbers lie. We're not our numbers, we're not our supporters, we're not what we run on. We try so hard to polarize our campaigns, in hopes that we'll tap into some vein of sweet water we never knew was there, some bloc that will decide to love us and follow us wherever we go. But really, we're all of us a bigger tangle than that. Anything as clean-cut as numbers can't keep you on your feet, can it?"

"I'm not an affect operative," says Arthur, miserable. "I don't know how to read affect like you do." What he doesn't say is, And the only time I ever thought I knew what affect meant-- the one moment when I thought I could grasp it, what it meant to resonate with someone beyond every rational boundary-- like a bridge shivering and falling to pieces in the right wind, like a glass blown to shards at the right piercing note--

"You're not as bad at it as you think you are," says Eames. "None of us are as anything as we think we are-- we're not the names we've given for ourselves. Mal isn't the smart one, or the sharp one, or the quiet one. And she's not your enemy."

Arthur leans his head against the floor-to-ceiling window, feeling like he's on the bare edge of his foothold. Like there's nothing between him and the concrete but seven stories of freefall. The sound of his coffee mug against the glass is cold and delicate.

"Arthur," says Eames, "talk to her."

 

 

 

A LOVE THAT WON'T SIT STILL

A scant three hours before the Saito fundraiser, Arthur skids into his seat across the table from Mal. The coffeeshop is nearly empty, a broken-down hovel run by an elderly retired couple, sadly devoid of any counterculture appeal due to the abysmal quality of its coffee. From what Arthur can tell, the few customers freckling the room are just members of Mal's security detail, itching in their unfamiliar casual clothes. She's in Chicago for an event, traveling light with minimal entourage.

"So," says Mal, "I suppose you're here to warn me off your candidate."

Her voice is fine and unyielding, steel thread weaving in and out of his skin. He winces, half from the bluntness of her approach, half from the taste of the coffee.

"I wouldn't presume to hold that much influence," says Arthur. "As precariously close to babysitting as my job seems at times, in the end candidates do have the liberty of making their own decisions. Operatives can hardly resort to physical violence toward a potential Commander in Chief."

"Oh?" asks Mal, tucking a curl of hair behind her ear. She looks surprised. "You're not going to reprimand me for sabotaging your campaign?"

"If anything, both of you are sabotaging your own campaigns," says Arthur. "The worst I could threaten to do is quit, and there's no chance in hell that either Eames or I would seriously consider anything of the sort. We're a bit invested in the two of you. For better or for worse."

"That's what you think, then?" asks Mal. "That you're stuck with us?"

"Not because of any mistake," says Arthur. "I'm running Cobb's campaign because I think he ought to be President-- and Eames is running your campaign because he thinks the same about you. Maybe what I should have said is, for better or for worse, we believe in the two of you."

It sounds a bit more earnest than he means it to. Mal peers at him over the rim of her mug, and the back of Arthur's neck prickles with something like shame.

"And now, if you'll excuse me," he mumbles, "they'll be collecting my heartless PR hack membership card any moment now. We'll just keep an eye on that door, right? That'll work."

"You know," says Mal, "that's why Dom and I like the two of you. We want that kind of faith."

"I don't know what you mean," says Arthur. "You shouldn't be looking for naivete in your operatives, Governor. The handbook says you have to starve it out of them."

"It's not a mistake that we're in this race, either," says Mal. "He's running because he thinks he ought to be President, and I'm running because I think the same about myself. Between you and me, he's wrong, but I expect you'd respectfully disagree."

"I could-- I could also disagree disrespectfully, if you prefer that," says Arthur.

"We didn't just stumble onto this campaign trail," says Mal. "First and foremost, we're candidates, Arthur. We're well aware. And as much as Dom and I want to be with each other, if we thought our careers would suffer for it, we'd agree that we probably can't give our relationship the chance that it deserves."

"You can't be serious," exclaims Arthur. "Of course your careers would suffer for it! Governor, we're heading into a shitstorm. Even if you two somehow manage to survive the primaries-- a husband-and-wife ticket against Robert Fischer? A royal family in the White House? God, it's never going to fly in a million years. You can't have everything, you can't be--"

"Can't I?" asks Mal. "Would you stop me from fighting for what I want?"

She rests her cup on the tabletop, the steam curling between them like incense, like a soothsayer's chant, like something on the horizon too large to make out at once. She's beautiful and ruthless, in that moment, all the quixotic stars in her eyes turned to talons from closer up, and Arthur can't give her an answer.

"How could anyone stop me," she says, "when all this nation ever wanted was that right to fight, for its people to be able to grasp for the things they dreamed of? How can I give up what I want and trade it in for a political position, when the only reason I want that position at all -- when the only reason anyone should want it -- is so that someday, everyone can know the luxury of being allowed to want?"

"It's greedy," stammers Arthur. "You shouldn't--"

"But don't you see, I should," says Mal. "I have to, until that last moment when everyone can. If they want to question my objectivity, that somehow I'll be soft on Dom because of what we are-- then let them, that's easy, that's something I can show them and prove them wrong. And if they won't elect me because I'm weak on EP, or because I don't yet have the experience on me-- then I'd bolster myself as best as I could, but I'd accept it. I'd understand."

She leans toward him, closing the space between them. Her talons flashing fire.

"Only, if they're going to challenge my right to fight to have it all," she says, "if it's some nebulous and untenable objection against my god-given privilege to love whoever the hell I please, to run for whichever office I'm qualified for, then I don't care how many campaigns it takes or how many years it'll cost me. If that's what they want to bring against me, then I'll fucking war with them, tooth and nail until death or victory stops me. Being President isn't my career-- that's my career. Do you believe me, Arthur? Do you believe I'd do that?"

"Yes, Governor," says Arthur, helpless, a little bit enchanted. "I think-- I think that you would. I believe you."

Her hand is warm from the heat of the coffee, from the blood churning inside her. She brushes a thumb across his cheekbone, a small, soothing touch.

"Because we're all allowed to be greedy," says Mal. "Even you."

 

 

 

The banquet hall they've rented is packed sardine-tight, benefactors flying in from out of state just for a glimpse at the mythical Mayor Saito from across the room. Superdelegate, thinks Arthur. He must be the only one there with the express intent of avoiding Saito, in no mood to dodge jokes about joining the re-election campaign, unwilling to be pinned and questioned in a crowd with no easy escape route. Saito is a helpful ally, but with a bit too much of a wicked streak to keep very close.

All evening long Arthur has been floundering through the crowd, wading as far away as he can whenever a swell of conversation drifts too near for comfort. A bizarre and fugitive game of Marco Polo. There's an excited flurry of voices now cresting somewhere to the right of him, Saito probably holding court in the eye of the storm. The schmoozing is in full swing and Cobb won't need him any longer-- Arthur turns toward the exit, inching to fresh air step by laborious step.

He has only the distant square landmark of an open doorway to guide him, winking in and out of sight with the shuffle of the mob. A novice at celestial navigation, preoccupied with the negotiation of traffic, Arthur doesn't realize that it isn't a doorway until he's already stumbling through the gauzy curtains. He finds himself on an empty balcony instead, the sudden rush of night air like a splash of water on his skin. It's an unexpected relief. Freed from smothering, blissfully alone, he sets his champagne flute on the railing and breathes deep.

The commotion is muffled behind him, faraway and cryptic as interstellar noise. The balcony looks out over a bite-sized lawn, tucked in away from the street entrance, far from prying eyes. It seems well-kept and dainty, but barely lit. Arthur keeps one ear on the muted murmur from inside, just in case someone might disturb his slice of serenity. His mind is still simmering with the sound of Mal's voice, her words bubbling to the surface, breaking in fragrant, ardent whiffs of hope. His heart feels a little lighter. Like there's the barest hint of a breeze stirring his pinion feathers, like he might fly if only he knew the right way to hold his wings. If only, he thinks, I knew how to catch the wind--

Right then, like the undead breaking free of the grave, a hand shoots up from below the balcony, gripping the railing, knuckles white with strain. Arthur starts back in shock and barely manages to stop himself from yelling; the first thing that flashes through his head is assassination attempt, but before he can shout for security or do something significantly less advisable like crack his champagne flute over the intruder's head, an elbow hooks against the railing for balance, and the top of a head pokes over into sight.

"Eames," chokes Arthur, "what the hell are you doing here?"

It takes Eames a moment to swing himself onto the balcony, and another moment to catch his breath, slumped against the railing with his hands on his knees. In his tux he looks like a spy in training, an apprentice decked out in the well-cut mantle of his mentor. He looks up, eyes bright with exhaustion and an incurable, undeniable fondness. There's a faint sheen of sweat at his temples, and caught with the want to dab it away, Arthur curls his hands into fists inside his pockets.

"O Arthur, Arthur," says Eames, throwing out his arm in a dramatically arrested pose, "wherefore art thou a Cobb supporter? That which we call a liberal by any other name would still be in favor of repealing Browning-era tax cuts--"

He pauses to suck in another thirsty breath, and Arthur lifts his champagne flute to his face, biting down on the glass to keep his lips from quirking.

"Is this okay?" asks Arthur. "Shouldn't I be out on the lawn for this?"

"No," says Eames, and catches his sleeve. "Stay."

It's hardly necessary-- Arthur isn't really going anywhere. But god, how perfect that feels, Eames's hand circling his wrist and holding him in place. Like a band of heat, warming him through. Arthur falters, losing the right timing to shake him off like a joke. Eames doesn't say anything else, and the moment stretches into something quiet, something significant, the whole world tapering down into the two of them out on the balcony, in the gentle haze of filtered light seeping through the curtains.

"You can't look at me like that," says Eames, faintly, sounding a little strangled, "and not expect me to do something about it."

"I'm sorry," says Arthur, "but I think my heart is breaking," and what he means is, not like someone's thrown it to the ground, not like it's lying there in shards-- no, it's like-- it feels like it's pounding too fast, swelling, full and aching, too big for the confines of his ribcage, straining and translucent like a balloon blown too large, like it wants to reach straight out of his chest and fold itself into the palm of Eames's hand. Like that's the only place it'll ever fit.

Eames opens his mouth to answer, even that beat of silence something tender, but then-- there's a sudden commotion from inside the banquet hall, voices surging to a fever pitch, a hurricane of chaos that manages the difficult feat of putting Saito's entrance to shame. There isn't any screaming, no one yelling 911, so it doesn't seem to be an emergency-- but Arthur turns toward the room, unsure.

"Do we need to be in there?" he asks. "What's going on?"

"It's Mal," says Eames. "Mal is here."

"What?" asks Arthur, craning his neck to peer between the curtains, reluctant to break the contact of Eames's hand around his wrist. "But what's she doing here? Are you here with her? Why are either of you-- doesn't she have some sort of event tonight, that's what she told me when I--"

"She's here," says Eames, "because the man she loves and respects is holding the most important fundraiser of his campaign. She came for him."

"Oh," says Arthur, as it dawns on him. "This is the event. This is what she was in town for."

"And as for me-- well," says Eames, "I'm here for someone else."

There's a slow breath of air that stirs the curtains, a graceful billow like a waterfall made of light. The glow of the chandelier from inside is soft on Eames's face, and the hubbub of the crowd sounds only like a whisper, the rustle of a brook, curling around them, filling the air almost thick enough to touch.

Here's the wind I've been waiting for, thinks Arthur, and I'm greedy enough to want to catch it, as he turns his hand in Eames's grip, bringing his palm against his, touching his fingers to the racing pulse beneath the cuff of Eames's shirt.

 

 

 

INTERVIEW WITH A ONE-PERSON FOCUS GROUP, PART THE THIRD

Reader, I married him.

Or if you want to pick at semantics, fine, go ahead and do that-- I'm telling you, it all amounts to the same thing. We snuck out of the fundraiser, past the endless flash photography, safely clear of the crossfire but still half blind by the time we tumbled out onto the street. We ran past reporters clutching their phones, driven to their wits' end, too distraught to notice us. Shouting at their editors, That's what I said, Mallorie Miles is here. We ran for blocks and it felt reckless, like a secret. Like breaking the oldest rule in the book.

On the L, we called Ariadne to release the moratorium on our story. For a while she didn't say anything and I thought that maybe I wasn't making any sense, I was talking too fast or laughing too much, dizzy, reeling, on fire. But when she did speak, you know what she told me-- you know what she said? I'm not going to print it because it isn't fucking news, just like that. And then, The problems of two little campaign operatives don't amount to a hill of beans, in her worst Humphrey Bogart.

Some journalist, isn't she? She's great. I heard from her that Yusuf said he'd do the same, and they were both sorry they wouldn't be able to stop Nash from breaking the story. But that's okay, and I told her that. It's going to be dirty, but isn't it always? Isn't politics a full-contact sport, bare-knuckle brawling in the mud, more affect than numbers? Isn't that how it's always been?

See. We've been making mountains out of molehills and then complaining about the climb. The best packaging sets off what's inside, it doesn't obscure it and lie about it. Fischer's no moderate, Cobb and Mal aren't enemies, and when you're in love, you're in love to all the world. I'm not a dissembler; I'm a fucking spin doctor. I'll use all the insidious weapons in my arsenal to persuade people that what we want is what they want, but it's not my job to lie about what we want, what Cobb wants or what he believes in-- or what I want. What I believe in.

Jesus, maybe it's got me soft. But soft comes with Eames pressing his mouth to my throat, hitching my legs up over his shoulder, moving in me slowly with his breath held quiet in his lungs like he can't believe what he's got underneath him. The bright, scalding sound of my name on his tongue.

Yeah. There are worse things to be than soft.

 

 

 

THE HOME OF THE BRAVE

Here is the coda to the story:

Arthur knows Eames slid out of bed at half past two, remembers the touch of Eames's lips briefly burning through his sleep. Is it time already, he muttered, and Eames said, I'll see you later, Ferret, kissing the shell of his ear.

So in the morning he already knows he'll be the only one in the room, and in his nocturnal petulance he blamed Topeka for being so far away, but he gets up with the sun beginning to glimmer through his curtains and it's really not that bad after all. Eames's side of the bed is still disheveled, somehow still warm, heavy with his scent. Arthur buries his nose into it, and smiles.

The night before, Eames's arm thrown slack over the small of his back, Arthur lay in bed and scribbled his way through a notepad. The torn-up pages are crumpled in the wastebasket near the door, some stray balls of paper lying scattered around it from each time he didn't quite make the shot. But eventually, when he managed to end up with something he liked enough, he set the pad on top of his dresser with some measure of pride before he switched the lamp off and snuck a bit closer toward Eames.

What he wrote there was, Cobb/Miles 2018: Dare to Dream-- only when he rolls over and reaches for it, Eames has crossed out the names and replaced it with Miles/Cobb instead, adding a scrawled I like it to the margin. God, this gorgeous upstart nobody from Maine. Arthur lets the page drop to shade his eyes, laughing, completely done for.

Here I am, six in the morning, he thinks, with a slogan in my hand and my fucking wartime paramour speeding to his fortress of solitude two states away. Working for the wrong damn campaign, but what can you do?

Though the streets are quiet still, hours until the city shakes itself to life, Arthur thinks he can almost hear the wolves at his door. Milling around at the scent of blood, hungry to sink their teeth in him. That's no problem. It's his job to fight, tooth and nail. It's his job to win.

He takes the day's first cup of coffee.