Bruno is in Tallahassee, and the air is so thick with moisture he can feel it rolling off of him like water, the breeze feels like waves, and the insides of his clothing are like disgusting swamps. All he wants is to find the Holiday Inn, strip off all of his clothes, and lay on one of the comforters until he is no longer in immediate danger of melting into a puddle.
But first--despite death threats from Jill and the desperate offer of a sexual favor from Dylan--he stops off at one of the tacky tourist shacks on the side of the dusty-hot highway to buy a postcard. Bruno has gotten plenty of death threats over the years and seen stuff scarier than Dylan when he's drunk and feeling friendly.
And ignoring Jill's outpouring of abuse and the frantic, sullen clacking coming from Dylan's laptop, Bruno takes his time, poring through the meager collection until he finds a glossy, goofy map of Florida on one of the postcards. The picture has Mickey Mouse ears springing out of Orlando, tiny cruise ships by Ft. Lauderdale, palm trees for Miami; the water has cartoonish waves and whitecaps and one mermaid, winking.
Bruno pays a dollar for it and pulls a Sharpie out of the inside pocket of his jacket (used theretofore to deface print ads of rival candidates in moments of extreme duress) and covers the goofy red letters spelling out FLORIDA and writes in HELL, underlining it twice.
When they finally pull into the underground garage of the Holiday Inn, Jill invokes some deity who has surely abandoned her already. And when Dylan and Jill shuffle off to the Fairchild/Hollister block on the third floor, Bruno detours at the front desk.
He flips the postcard over, and in blue hotel ballpoint pen, writes in all upper case letters:
OR HOT ENOUGH TO BE IT. HOW GOES THE COSMIC JOKE? ETC B.W.
Bruno addresses it to a one bedroom apartment in Toronto on the corner of Finch and Kennedy and gives it to a perky, twenty-three year old woman with strawberry blond hair at the counter to put in tomorrow morning's mail.
Former Ambassador current senator hopeful Democratic nominee for the Office of the Presidency Fairchild prefers to be called simply "Sir." He has one son named Doug who is photocopying papers and fetching coffee at the DNC a hop, skip, and one block down from the House office buildings and one college intern he calls "Armando" only when he remembers the kid's name wasn't actually "Commando."
Bruno has written each of these sentences--much more disjunctively--to Boots at one point or another. Sometimes, he writes on postcards, others, he types in all lower case.
It is two thirty on a Thursday afternoon and Bruno is in Florida because primary elections are stupid and he should have majored in law like his father told him to--Canadian law. Bruno can never decide whether going to Georgetown was the best or worst decision of his life, because he met Fairchild because of it but he lost Boots--sort of. At least he lost Canada for sure.
Most days the adrenaline rush of running on no sleep and all chemicals is enough to keep his mind off of it. Bruno's doing what he does best, cause a riot, get peoples' blood pumping. Do the impossible; make the dream come true. These are all campaign slogans that he alternately rejects and shamelessly employs, and nobody in the Fairchild camp can understand why the Senator decided to let Bruno Walton, who has next to no national experience and too much idealism have a major hand in his campaign.
Sometimes, Bruno believes in what he does, and other times, he believes in winning. Bruno knows that Fairchild knows how to make Bruno want to win, and that's close enough to sticking by his guns to make it through the fifteen hour drives to Florida with the disgruntled travel secretary and one speech writer with gender issues.
Now, Bruno is naked and wet and just out of a shower, feeling more human than he has in nearly four days, and he's laying flat on his stomach on his bed, typing a note to Boots without a single capital letter.
Bruno knows Boots doesn't get this, why Bruno writes in all upper case by hand and can't seem to hit the shift key to save his life when he's putting together an email.
"you're not supposed to get it, it's a secret. is this driving you nuts?" Bruno writes. "also, much upheaval, geneve thinks he's got the nomination in the bag because he's got more resources--i've got guerrilla instincts, and fairchild's probably got some stuff, too."
Of course, none of this is making any sense to Boots, who requires moderation, logic, and a basic grasp of the English language.
"hey," Bruno types, completely reasonless, "did you ever read any kerouac?"
Bruno gets a phone call at eight o'clock in the morning, which in Boots' world must mean "morning," but in Bruno's just means "summarily executed," so he ignores it, like he ignores it every time he knows it's Boots calling.
It's been six months since he's seen Boots face to face, and sometimes when he thinks about this it makes him hurt all over, like somebody took a baseball bat and really let at it. Like someone gave Boots a baseball bat, and said, "Hey, you lived with the guy for eight years--go for it." But then there's that traitorous voice in the back of his head saying that at least Boots would be there if he got a chance to hit Bruno.
But the deal is that Bruno has identified a pattern with Boots and telephones.
Last time Bruno talked to Boots on the phone was six months and one day ago. Which is also the last day he worked in the Longworth building for Senator Coxx from New Mexico.
Bruno does stupid stuff, he gets this, has gotten this since his parents told him one day toward the end of fifth grade to get his jacket and comb his hair, he was getting a passport photo done because they couldn't just send him to boarding school--they were sending him to boarding school in Canada. He's always had problems reigning himself in and he's never really wanted to; stuff always--mostly, sometimes--worked out in the end, and most of his damages were under one thousand dollars.
The older and more fiscally solvent he gets, Bruno's stupid stuff gets dumber. So last time he picked up the phone and Boots talked about his apartment and new job and what the school looked like and his morning commute, Bruno found himself on Boots' doorstep the next evening.
Bruno can't afford to spontaneously quit his job and run back to Boots anymore, so he just doesn't pick up the phone, apologizes to Boots in his head, writes another post card.
Bruno turns over and tries to go back to sleep.
An hour after that, Jed the press secretary is banging on his door with one hand and probably masturbating his headset and cell phone with the other, because Bruno can hear him chatting politely in between shouting, "Walton--ass out of bed! Senator's up, the fucking Republicans are up--oh, Mrs. Morgan! What a pleasant surprise, yes, I'll hold--Walton! Get up!"
Bruno tries to bury himself under a mountain of sheets but it doesn't work. They send Jed to get him up because he's the only person annoying and loud enough to do it--which is also why Jed is PR.
"Jed, you're fired!" Bruno shouts, but rolls out of bed.
"Thank God," Jed yells back, and bangs on the door one last time.
Bruno hears Jed stepping back down the hall and Bruno sticks one hand into his duffle bag and hopes that he's got underwear in there.
"Where's Jed?" Bruno asks.
Suite 2301 in the war room, version Tallahassee. They've only been in there appreciably for twenty minutes, but it's already destroyed. There are a lot of napkins with "Denny's" written on them, and Bruno's balling them up and shooting them toward one of the two televisions--the one spooling out the FOX news network.
"You told him he was fired," Dylan says jealously.
"Yeah, about that, Walton, if I wake you up, would you fire me?" Jill asks.
Bruno beams at them and opens his arms expansively. "Jill, you and Dylan are brilliant, I would never fire you."
They look at him loathingly.
"Hey, if you don't want to suffer alone, someone should go get him," Bruno suggests, and Dylan slings himself at the door like it's his last chance at life. But Bruno's learned a few things in the years between cleaning up after Elmer's stupid bush rats and one of them is never to give anybody an out--especially not himself, and that's why even though Boots is speed dial number one, Bruno never holds it down until it dials.
The point is that it's ten o'clock in the morning, Bruno's not wearing underwear, and he's supposed to be a brilliant political strategist anyway.
So Bruno drinks some coffee because when he was an intern with Ambassador Fairchild, he'd drunk it because he felt like he should and gotten addicted somewhere along the way.
So the real point is that Bruno drinks coffee and orders people around and makes the wake-up call to Fairchild and they're all downstairs like a silent, well-dressed, well-oiled machine and into the wall of steam that Florida calls oxygen again by eleven fifteen.
Fairchild gives the same speech six times that day between eleven thirty and five fifteen in the evening, and Bruno hates it more and more with every pass. By four, he started throwing things at Dylan every time Fairchild opened his mouth to talk because it's all going to be Dylan's hackneyed metaphors and choking prose, which was gorgeous and subtle about sixteen recitations ago.
Jill looks kind of distressed. "Did this speech suck three days ago?"
Dylan looks like he's about to vomit, and doesn't even dodge Bruno's latest ballpoint attack.
"This speech was awesome three days ago. This speech was a thing of beauty three days ago," Bruno insists, partially because he was holding the thesaurus while Dylan was writing it in the car and Jill was running red lights.
It's six thirty and the speech is going out for the seventh time that night. Bruno's starting to look at it like a wounded animal; maybe he just needs to have it put down.
But the thing is that Fairchild gets better and better every time he delivers it, everything gets more meaningful, the whole thing becomes more technically perfect. The Senator's learned how to emphasize every single syllable into a thing of smooth, political glory, and he's got single mothers, middle-class families, African-Americans, and people who drive Volvos beaming at him in hesitant admiration.
But Bruno misses the pockmarks in the speech, the little dents and imperfections, the self-deprecating laugh that meant that Senator Fairchild was still an ordinary guy who wanted an extraordinary job--and not so much a Democratic candidate for President of the United States of America. It's weird, that distinction. Bruno figures he's probably going insane.
There's a screaming crowd and they're all waving signs that say FAIRCHILD FOR FREEDOM, which seemed like a good idea at the time, like most of the other signs that say things like FAIRCHILD AND HOLLISTER: SAVING AMERICA and FAIRCHILD FOR FAIRNESS. There's streamers and bad lighting and this is just what Democracy is about: wasting paper.
Bruno rubs one hand over his face and realizes he said the last part aloud when he turns around and Commando is looking at Bruno like he just tried to defrock Lady Liberty or something.
"What?" he asks, annoyed.
"I think you need a vacation," Commando says calmly.
Bruno grins, jaunty. "I never need a vacation."
Commando looks at him, and Bruno recognizes that expression.
"You just said democracy was about wasting paper," Commando deadpans. "You need a vacation."
Bruno narrows his eyes and crosses his arms. He can feel the sharp edge of the plastic sleeve of his security pass dig into his bicep and he doesn't care. He just glares at Commando until the kid backs down like a good college intern, shrugging his shoulders and sighing. Bruno notices that the light slivering behind the curtain catches Commando's silver earring at just the right angle.
Sometimes, Bruno wonders about Commando. The kid's brilliant, no question. Where Bruno knows how to work a room, Commando knows how to work a theory. He's so damn smart and earnest and on the ball that Fairchild had to hire him and bring him on the trail--Bruno can't even imagine the security risk of letting one of the other candidates snatch the guy up.
Bruno figures that's kind of why he's working for Fairchild, too.
Before he gets a chance to apologize for being a jackass and trying to rape Commando's sense of youthful idealism before it's gotten a chance to get debauched on its own, Senator Fairchild's saying, "--fair freedom for all Americans!" like this is a brand new concept.
There's an enormous roar and Bruno knows that means that the Senator has finished with an incredible flourish, the most beautiful promises ever. And Senator Fairchild wants to keep them, has ever intention of doing his best to keep them, which is the reason that Bruno works for him; it's just that Bruno wonders if Fairchild can actually do it--if any man can actually do it. Because the fact of the matter is that even George Washington made compromises in his integrity, but those are private tragedies that don't show except on the faces of his long-dead staff, hiding behind a long-ago-rotted curtain.
When Senator Fairchild steps off the stage, hand in hand with his lovely wife of many years, Bruno finds himself holding down the one on his cell phone, but picks up his thumb just before it begins to dial.
"Kerouac wrote on this huge roll of butcher paper," Dylan says. "He just kept going because he thought there was a lot to say."
"Most people who're stoned think there's a lot to say," Jill throws back, because she doesn't have the tremulous appreciation for the Beat revolution that Dylan holds in his heart.
Bruno steps in before Dylan can start slapping Jill on the shoulder, and wonders why he's always in the car with them when there's like, six billion other black Camarys in this motorcade. Jed drives with Commando; Bruno wishes he drove with Commando.
"If you two don't cut it out, when we win, I'm making you staff me instead of Fairchild," Bruno threatens, and a silence falls over the car before Dylan can't resist, and says:
"Well, it's not like the speech writer staffs the president directly anyway."
"Yeah, and I'm only of paramount importance while we're on the road," Jill sulks.
Bruno wants to drive the car into a tree.
So he threatens to do that, and they both glare at him and settle down to their respective labors, while Bruno watches the roads melt into one another and night fall in between the shrill ringing of his cell phone telling him that something else has fallen completely apart. He thinks sometimes that this job would be making him completely unstable if it wasn't for the fact that he spent a lot of his formative years burying zucchini and plotting the downfall of tyrannical educators, setting up pool funds and saving a microcosm--a very valuable one--of the world.
That's the other thing that makes this hard; it'd be easier, a little at least, to think that he was saving America for Boots, but Boots doesn't live there and Bruno's not going to call.
"Why are we doing a Tour de Sweet Tea?" Wilkerson wants to know.
Wilkerson is one of those completely disgusting and totally brilliant people that Bruno doesn't mind but that the rest of the world cannot stand. It's probably the reason that whenever there's a crowded room with the entirety of the Fairchild campaign in it, Bruno's stuck babysitting Wilkerson, whose technical title is "campaign strategist," but who everybody calls "oh, God, not that asshole."
"Because we're going to lose the south," Bruno says evenly, and he starts toward the back of the room, where Fairchild is sitting on a sofa with his feet kicked up on the table, cell phone pressed to one ear, rubbing his temple with his free hand.
"Why are we wasting funds on states we aren't going to get?" Wilkerson asks.
Bruno says, "Because there was a sudden desire to drink vast quantities of Coca Cola--" they'd toured the Coke factory earlier that day, they got huge cheers, it was always kind of sad to see Southern democrats trying really hard "--and talk about peaches, Wilkerson."
"Coke and fruit aside," Wilkerson says sarcastically, "we're not going to sweep any state south of Virginia, we might get North Carolina because Fairchild's wife is from there, but even that's an if. I don't see why we aren't concentrating on the Midwest. We should be in Iowa already."
When Bruno and Senator Fairchild were having this discussion three days ago, Bruno said the same thing. He doesn't know why they're hanging around the Deep South longer than necessary; these states are lost causes. But then Fairchild looked at him and said he was campaigning for the United States of America, not a couple of advantageous primaries, and gave Bruno a look like he'd just forgotten what the whole principle of democracy was about.
Fairchild's tangible idealism is the only reason that Bruno is working for him, and probably the reason that they're going to destroy their own campaign. Like the smart compromises are the ones that they can't make or something.
"I don't know, Wilkerson!" Bruno yells. "Back off, already."
Wilkerson throws up his hands and does, but Bruno figures it's only because Bruno looks homicidal tonight. He keeps picking at his cell phone, if this keeps up, he's going to have to throw it away and go Blackberry only. If he throws his cell phone away, Jed will eat him alive, which would actually solve a number of problems all at once, so Bruno doesn't dismiss the thought immediately.
When Bruno makes it over to where the Senator's sprawled out on a couch, Fairchild's ready.
"So we're going to do this again," he says evenly.
"We'll just keep doing it until you give me an answer or let me manufacture one," Bruno replies.
Fairchild rubs at his face, and from a nearby seat, Commando is staring at them hard.
"Walton, I don't want to talk about this."
"That's great," Bruno says. "But, Harold Reed wants to talk about this, and so does CNN and so does MSNBC and so does FOX News and occasionally, so does Barbara Walters. So it doesn't really matter if you want to talk about this because everybody is going to talk about it at you."
Senator Fairchild gives Bruno a look like he wishes he could fire him.
Bruno sort of wishes Fairchild would fire him, too. There was a ticket into Toronto for one hundred dollars today. That's hard to beat, even on Orbitz.
Harold Reed keeps attacking Senator Fairchild's fairly nonexistent stance on the issue of traditional family. By which Harold Reed means Senator Fairchild likes fags, thinks they're great, wants to have fag sex--all those things that come out of his silence on the issue.
Bruno's met Reed in person before, and the f-word was used no less than sixteen times. Bruno's not exactly sure how to handle that; he spent college sucking a lot of cock, and most of his nights jerking off to the image of his best male friend from boarding school, so.
When he's feeling really masochistic, Bruno will go to senate.gov and read through all the roll calls for Senator Fairchild, and stare at the infinitely large "NV"s that means Fairchild's trying to drive Bruno to drink. There's an easy answer here, Bruno thinks: take a stand one way or another, that's the best way to go. Moderation doesn't work in a highly polarized country but Fairchild doesn't seem to care, and he's probably got his own very good reasons for that. Doesn't mean Bruno doesn't want to pick up an aluminum baseball bat and go at his computer monitor every time that the Federal Marriage Protection Act or some chimera of it comes to vote again on the Senate floor.
And even though Bruno spent all those nights in college sucking cock and jerking off to boys, he knows better than to tell Fairchild to do the right thing. Bruno always tells the Senator to do the right thing for America--which is to win and then try to affect change. That's why politicians lie: people are too stupid to know what's good for them.
So Bruno's policy on alternative lifestyles is to (a) never mention that he lives one, when he remembers to have a life, and (b) to vote against amendments and bills restricting rights for constitutional or states' rights reasons, and never for personal ones.
But it's the same fight they have every two weeks, and Bruno always loses, so he stalks off to the balcony to take a deep breath, and put thoughts of quitting and hitting speed dial number one out of his mind.
It's dark and Atlanta's lit up like the prettiest gem in all of Southeastern America. There's a hot, sweet wind blowing and Bruno feels it ruffling his collar and tangling in his hair for a second before he registers that he's not alone on the balcony.
So he flops down next to Commando on the ground, legs bent and open and wrists resting on his knees, boneless and tired. Commando just looks at him from the corner of his eye and smirks.
"Your boss pisses me off," Bruno mutters.
Commando is sitting, nursing his Coke. The condensation is beading on the aluminum and Bruno can see the water rolling down Commando's long fingers.
"He's your boss, too," Commando reminds him. He runs one damp hand through his spiky hair and smiles crookedly at the Atlanta skyline. "Actually, he's more your boss than mine."
Bruno rubs his hands over his face. "How do you figure that?"
Commando takes a long drag of his Coke and says, "Well, you get paid."
"You get paid, too," Bruno replies easily, and the wind gets cooler now, slicker, like a film of water on his skin. Goosebumps are rising on his arms and Atlanta suddenly starts to smell like rain, and not like peaches and Coca Cola at all--smells like Macdonald Hall did before a heavy storm, when he and Boots would wake up with light bleeding blue and gray into the room.
Commando's whole body moves when he laughs and Bruno kind of likes that. His shoulders shake and his stupid, spiky hair jostles around, like the heavy-duty product that Bruno's seen in Commando's possession can't beat this case of giggles.
"Yeah, if you're using 'paid,' very liberally," he quips. "I get enough not to die destitute."
Bruno raises one of his eyebrows. "That sounds like proper grounds for a revolt."
Commando looks at him out of the corner of his eyes. "That something you do a lot? Revolt?"
"We used to have a scale for our riots," Bruno says proudly, thinking about running into the night at the Hall, the way that the girls in their ratty nightgowns and slinky tank-tops would turn out onto the green grass in a wave of soft skin and pink mouths, lush from sleep.
Lush and red and glossy like Boots, just awake and tousled, damp and panting and utterly human. Sometimes, then, when they got sent back to their rooms still-snickering despite Boots' protests that they'd be expelled in the morning, Bruno would shove him again the door as it closed, kiss him senseless and wordless and Boots would kiss him back.
He rubs his eyes with the heel of his hand and stares outward until Atlanta resolves itself again through the railings of the balcony, until the yellowing paint and their squeaky beds and eighteen year old bodies aren't so real anymore.
Commando just shakes his head fondly at that. "Sounds like my middle school run." He grins wryly at Bruno. "You know the Senator's kid almost got sent to a special school?"
Having met Doug, Bruno can confidently say yes, so he does, and Commando laughs at that again.
And then Bruno's phone rings and reality snaps back in sharp relief.
All of a sudden, he is Bruno Walton, twenty-nine year old political strategist for Senator Fairchild who is running for President of the United States of America, and Bruno's not wearing any underwear because he probably left all of it in Florida. It's a lot less impressive sounding when he shakes it all out like that, but Bruno figures that when you've spent more time lost and filthy and driving around in a black rental Camary than Moses, personal dignity isn't really the point anymore.
He's pushing himself to his feet as he answers the phone:
"Our position is that we're against a federal amendment against gay marriage, but we're not for legalizing it either," Fairchild says over the din. "Did you hear that?"
Bruno releases a long breath, one hand on the glass door, thrown open to the night, and he sees Commando from the corner of his eye.
"Yeah," he says, a smile creeping over his face. "I caught that."
There's a long pause, and Bruno swears he hears the future first lady call her husband an asshole.
"We need to talk tomorrow," Fairchild says urgently. "Before we meet up with Hollister in SC."
Bruno picks his way back into the raucous suite, where there are too many people and conflicting ideas and no sign of the future Democratic candidate. Jill is in a corner with a cell phone clutched to her ear and her twelve-inch Powerbook in her lap and she looks kind of Zen, like lunacy before the really violent part hits. Dylan and Jed are discussing something that involves a lot of hand-waving.
"Where are you, Sir?" Bruno asks, and walks to the minibar, where he grabs a four-dollar bottle of Evian which will taste worse than the tap water from the bathroom, he bets.
"We need to talk," Fairchild reiterates. "Before SC."
"Yeah, but you're calling the states by their abbreviations, Sir," Bruno says earnestly. "That's a bad sign. You never even worked in a post office and I know someone else stuffed all of your envelopes before the primaries."
Fairchild sighs into the phone. "Jesus Christ," he murmurs, and hangs up.
Bruno drinks his water and takes a piss, and falls asleep on one of the couches after he kicks Greg the website guy off of the far end. The last thing he sees before he passes out is Greg typing something up for the blog with the words, "honest America."
That's one of those compromises Bruno made for this campaign, he thinks as he's falling asleep. He hasn't figured out whether he regrets it or not, and before he can, he's dreaming about flying fish and exploding sandpits, earthquake machines and Die in the Woods.
They've only been in Georgia for six and a quarter hours when Hollister's entourage calls and says that they'll met up with the main campaign at the South Carolina border at some big rest stop with seven bathrooms.
Bruno falls off of the couch and Commando smirks at him, hands him one of their fourteen billion complimentary Cokes and says, "Hey, you ready to go?"
"No," Bruno says. "What are we doing?"
He's never felt this disconnected from something he's orchestrated, but managing six hundred teenagers is apparently easier than running a campaign, and Bruno is okay with delegating responsibility.
"We're going to South Carolina," Commando tells him. "Like, five minutes ago. Come on."
Bruno's nodding and opening his Coke, pushing himself off the ground and following Commando out of the deserted hotel room and down the hall when he says, "Wait, I've got to go grab my stuff."
Commando shakes his head, puts one arm on Bruno's hand and says, "It's done. It's in the car. I told them to let you sleep a little so we got all the other stuff together." He smiles at Bruno. "We're all ready to go."
Bruno's got to be hallucinating. "Ready to go," Bruno says.
"Yeah, I know, freaky, isn't it?" Commando laughs, and cocks his head. "Let's go."
Bruno knows he's hallucinating now, because that "Let's go" sounded kind of like, "You're kind of cute, you know." He shakes it off and they race down the steps, footsteps thumping down the stairwell and he sees their shadows bouncing brown and black against the corners. The pictures and kind of melting into each other because he's still groggy and little soda has spilled on his hand and on his chin.
So when they burst out into the Georgia night, where it's dark and the air is sweet, and the cars are slick and black and gleam.
"You ready for this?" Commando asks, grinning like Bruno thinks he used to grin, too.
"Yeah," he says, smiling. "Yeah, I think I am."
Bruno isn't in the car with Jill and Dylan.
"So we're talking about this," Fairchild says, and he sounds deeply annoyed. Bruno doesn't think that's very fair, it's not like he's the one who has a straight absentee record on family issues.
"This is a nice car," Bruno says, getting kind of nervous now. It's like the Fish's office all over again--only it can crash and burst into flames. "Really nice," he emphasizes, and runs his fingers on the leather upholstery and all the silvery fixtures. "My car isn't this nice."
"You annoy me," Fairchild tells him, gruff. "Actually, you seriously piss me off."
Bruno knows he's making a hurt face. "That's not very nice, Sir."
Fairchild looks old, and maybe it's just because of the light, which is deep and dark like ink, but Bruno thinks he looks about a hundred without rosy lights and his wife on his arm. Mrs. Fairchild isn't here, and Bruno has a weird feeling she's in the car with Commando, because even the shitty green Honda he's driving is better than sharing air with Fairchild right now.
Fairchild says, "So we have to have a campaign line about gay people."
"No, no," Bruno soothes. "We need an official policy toward family issues, sir. Family issues."
Fairchild gives him a look that calls Bruno's bullshit and says, "What I tell you here stays between us. What you do with it is all yours, but what we say here is just between us."
"I can do that, sir," Bruno agrees.
The Senator looks at him one long, hard moment and says, "Doug's gay."
It takes Bruno five minutes to process this. By then, the car has stopped, and he's been relocated to his black Camary, where Dylan is concerned about him and Jill is supportively quiet. The motorcade roars onward while Senator Fairchild ignores Bruno's calls--made at forty-five second intervals for nearly an hour while Jill cuts off about eight people on the freeway.
Once upon a time, Bruno actually kissed a guy named Robert who turned out to be a flaming Republican. The kind of guy who'd name his kids GOP--all four of them raised in upper-upper class America and drove SUVs to their country clubs where they would probably do the best crack available with hundred-dollar bills.
Bruno's political views were a lot more nebulous then, which was weird for a Georgetown student, but he was fresh out of Canada and kind of fucked up, so when he got there all he knew was that he liked boys and missed Boots. Also, that Robert looked at him with heavy eyelashes like he was trying to figure out what kind of underwear Bruno wore, and how to get him out of them.
So when he was two days shy of twenty he told his wary heart to fuck off and let Robert fuck him in Robert's family's two million-dollar townhouse in Georgetown. Bruno remembers the pale blue sheets, fine and smooth with a high thread-count. He remembers the pillow Robert pulled out of the mountain at the head of the bed and folded up to jam underneath Bruno's hips, and how it'd felt, to be naked and ashamed and completely unable to lie about what it was, what he was anymore.
He went home six hours later and cried himself to sleep, curled into a ball at the foot of his bed.
That was the first time he went back to Boots. He missed three exams and his little sister, in her junior year at Sidwell Friends School, called to say that their parents were upset, and that he needed to come home before he failed out of college. When he got back to Virginia about twenty hours later, she was waiting for him at Dulles Airport. She drove him back to his dormitory, kicked his roommate out for the evening, and stayed the night, stroking his hair and telling him it was going to be all right.
"So this is you making up for all the times you kicked me in the nuts as a kid," Bruno had said.
She had shrugged, and her hair was beautiful even then because it was chocolate brown and gold in the light and curled. "Maybe I just want to lord it over you later," she had said.
"Weirdly, that makes me feel better," Bruno had admitted, and had fallen asleep.
He graduated with honors two years later.
They meet up with Hollister's people at the rest stop in South Carolina with seven bathrooms, and the collective campaign staff packs all of them. There are five women's restrooms and two for men, and for once, the women breeze in and out while Bruno leans against a wall and crosses his leg one over the other casually, because it's classier than holding his dick.
That's the real problem with not enough women in politics, Bruno thinks, it's fucking unfair that there's no mutual waiting for bathrooms in these sorts of situations.
Overhead, morning is creeping into the sky blue and light purple, and when Bruno steps out of the bathroom, rubbing his hands dry on his pants, the sun is almost out. Fairchild is sitting on a picnic table, rubbing his forehead and talking on his cell phone. Dylan and Jed are pouring over a sheaf of papers, which is Bruno's official sign to steer clear unless he wants to be roped into actual work. Jill is chainsmoking, and Commando is sitting by himself, staring weirdly at the Senator.
Bruno makes a mental note not to think about the fact that he and the Senator's kid now share more than a passing interest in doing Weird Shit.
And then it hits him all over again: Doug's gay. Great, Bruno thinks dully.
This whole thing would be less horrible if Doug had a troubled childhood, had a few misdemeanor drug charges, because then Bruno could drag the kid on the trail and they'd all talk about reform and second chances, and it'd lead into a beautiful campaign line about doing the same for the country. Maybe Doug and the Senator could smile at each other, watery-eyed--Bruno would give them the saline droplets himself if he had to--and it'd be on the cover of every major newspaper in the country. And on the Washington Times with a completely incomprehensible headline, but it wasn't like anybody read the Times, anyway.
But Doug's gay, and Bruno has this sudden urge to go throw every copy of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and most of E.M. Forrester into a boathouse and burn it down symbolically, like that'll keep Bruno's entire life from ending or something.
Then his cell phone rings and Bruno is saved from any further introspection.
"Walton, yeah," he says, because he used to answer the phone, "Bruno Walton speaking," and he got sick of people laughing about it.
"So here's the thing about Doug," Commando said.
Bruno turned to see Commando still sitting on a stone bench by himself with his cell phone to his ear and his eyes trained on Bruno, mouth moving. This was at least a seven on Bruno's weird scale, but he could go with this.
"Yeah?" Bruno asks.
"The thing about Doug is that he's gay," Commando says.
Of course Commando knows. The guys have been best friends since the sixth grade--like him and Boots, but now's not the time to think about it--Commando must know.
"Yeah, I knew that," Bruno admits. "The Senator told me."
"I know the Senator told you," Commando replies, lightning fast.
From where he's sitting, Bruno can see Commando fidgeting nervously, and Bruno gets the sinking feeling that he's about to have somebody else come out on him and he's really not emotionally prepared for that. Doing it himself was bad enough; having the senator tell him also sucked; if there are any more gay people on this campaign caravan, Bruno might have a fit, paint all the cars rainbow and join a commune.
"That's also not the whole thing."
"This is a really big thing, apparently," Bruno says, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Because it's now encompassing two conversations and fourteen sentence fragments and we've still not covered all the intricacies of this thing."
There's a long silence before Bruno sees Commando scowl, saying, "You're an ass," and hangs up the phone, shoving it into his pocket and yelling across the way:
"You're buying me a drink tonight!"
Bruno kind of wants to ask if Commando's even legal to drink, but this morning, Bruno made Jill stop at a Target so that he could buy three packs of boxers, so it's not like he's a paragon of virtue anyway.
Gary, the chief campaign strategist, finishes his cigar and they all pile back into their cars and drive. Bruno waves at one of Hollister's perpetually-giggling female staffers from the car window, and Jill hits him and mutters something about sexually harassment.
The fact that Bruno finds that incredibly funny doesn't help his case.
The bar's the opposite of seedy: slick and smooth and metallic. The stool are cool when Bruno brushes his palm over the flat surface before sitting down, and he realizes that he can see a ghost of his handprint on the metal. It's one of those too-hip-to-be-hip places, indie-desirable, serving fairly traded organic alcohol or whatever shit is the toujours pur that week.
Personally, Bruno believes in doing things the best way, and somehow making that play nice with the right way. It's a policy that worked during his primary education, sufficed during college, and that is falling into disrepair now, when the right way is generally the wrong way and the best way is also wrong but more importantly right.
Plus, there's that whole thing about winning.
"So what do you believe in?" Bruno asks, feeling drunk just on atmosphere.
"Believe in what?" Commando says, sliding into the seat next to Bruno, arms folded on the counter and chin lowered to his clasped hands. "I wasn't raised religious or anything."
"I asked what you believed in," Bruno says sarcastically. "Not what you tell your mom you believe in." He waves distractedly in the air, which brings a bartender running over. "I said--oh, hi, perfect. Gin and tonic." He glances over a Commando, who flushes horribly and hesitates a moment before saying:
"I'll have a whiskey sour then."
The barkeep gives both of them a look, but shrugs and wanders off. They could never get away with this stuff in DC, Bruno muses idly; DC's all about checking credentials and drivers licenses, careful, state-sanctioned spontaneity, and Commando's probably used to that, to not getting away with anything--but it's Yemassee, South Carolina.
"So," Bruno starts again. "What do you believe in?"
"The American Way," Commando laughs. "Democracy and freedom of speech. I'm all about the Bill of Rights and voting. I don't even hate reporters yet."
Bruno stares at him a long time before it hits him that underneath the joking tone Commando is serious, that The American Way still means something. Than when he says it, he doesn't think how "The American Way" sounds funnily like "Amway" or what congressional districts are the most valuable statistically but that he's genuinely thinking about truth, patriotism, and idealism, the foundations of the United States.
"That's weird," Bruno says finally.
Commando smiles, wry. "I know," he admits.
"So why isn't Doug working for this dad's campaign?" Bruno asks, and the bartender hands him his gin and tonic with a bright red maraschino cherry at the bottom. It's neon, supernaturally colored, and Bruno's delighted by it, takes a sip immediately and imagines he can taste the amaretto-tang of cherries in the alcohol. "Why's he's pushing paper at the DNC?"
The muscles in Commando's arms go tight and tense, and he doesn't touch the whiskey sour that has appeared in front of his still fingers. Bruno watches, fascinated, seeing flesh turn into stone.
Finally, Commando says, "Because Doug always wants to do the righteous thing. Because he's always got to be difficult and different."
Bruno finds this uncomfortably familiar. Something out of second year of college, during which Bruno went to Canada for spring break and ended up having really awful sex with Boots in the backseat of Boots' little brother Edward's car behind a gas station. After which Boots punched him in the mouth and shouted about how Bruno had to do everything the hard way, had to make everything about winning, why nothing could ever be a good compromise, if he was trying to break up their friendship by mixing it up with sex--like he'd been doing since they were seventeen.
So Bruno's fingers tighten on his glass and he stares at the cherry at the bottom of his cup, lost in a few flat, extraterrestrial shapes of ice and fizzing slightly.
"Maybe he just sticks to his guns," Bruno says lightly.
Commando laughs, and touches the tips of his fingers to the rim of his glass, brown skin foreign-looking on it, like Bruno is watching someone touch an alien substance. Like Bruno is stuck somewhere he doesn't really recognize, and he's been wandering around lost for years, deserts and oasis all around him and nowhere to be and no one to be there for.
"Idealism doesn't win," Commando manages, and he's staring at the bar, angry and frustrated.
Bruno blinks. "I do. Every time."
Commando stares at him, a long time, eyes wide with surprise and then utter sadness before it all crinkles into a desperate, dark laugh that fills up the entire bar and Bruno can't help but to join him, thinking that maybe this is it. That maybe this is all there ever was for him.
Yemassee, South Carolina has a population of eight hundred and seven people, is four point five square miles in size, has 323 households, and no bodies of water. The town's more African American than white by a few percentage points, and Bruno thinks this little pit stop might be some sort of karmic punishment for that thing he and Boots did to the Fish's tux every year for Founder's Day.
The Yemassee Holiday Inn Express at Point South off of Exit 33 has fifty-three rooms, forty-three of which are now filled with Fairchild-Hollister staffers.
"It is costing us--two thousand, nine hundred and sixty-seven dollars to stay here tonight."
Bruno rubs the heels of his hands into his eyes and laughs, "Armando Riviera, human calculator extraordinaire."
They're sitting on Bruno's balcony, because Armando is sharing a room with someone named Reuben who goes to bed promptly at eleven o'clock every single night--a phenomenon which nobody on the Fairchild campaign trail can understand.
"That's if we don't get some sort of group discount," Commando says thoughtfully.
"Which I'm sure we do," Bruno adds smoothly. "As Yemassee probably doesn't get forty-three rooms full of business every day."
Commando turns to grin at Bruno, wild and looking a little younger than he really is. "Maybe that's just the opportunity to make as much money as possible." He makes a large motion with his hands. "It's not as if we're not trying to throw around as much money as possible before we get to the convention or anything."
There is something wild and a little unhinged about Commando that Bruno remembers from himself what feels like a long time ago. Wild and unhinged and a little green--or red, white, and blue. It's easy to believe in the American dream when you think that you're helping people to live it, Bruno thinks distantly, harder when you're giving them the best of two lesser kinds of political middle-road.
"Do you think we're doing the right thing?" Bruno asks suddenly. He sounds naked and young, like he did when he spooled out a list of reasons why Boots couldn't leave the hall, like he did when Boots kissed him and said forget it, the last time he was in Toronto.
Commando seems to understand all the layers in that question immediately.
"You know, I tried to slime the Senator with green Jello once?" he says.
"You're very disturbed," Bruno tells him.
But Commando is grinning and he even laughs a little when he says. "Doug and I--we somehow got to talking about frolicking and booby-trapping our dads, and he decided he needed to try to slime the Senator with green Jello." He makes a hand motion. "We put a bucket of it on top of a partially opened door. There were like, sixteen little Jello cup containers in the garbage can."
Commando's face is smooth and pale brown in the moonlight, olive and mocha, is what Dylan called it, beaming and holding Commando's hand adoringly the day they'd all been introduced at the Hawk and Dove on Penn--the skank side. Commando's eyes are shining and Bruno looks at Commando's mouth--mostly because he hasn't looked at anybody's mouth in a long time, not well enough to see the gleam of wet skin on the inward curve, how it looks soft and lush.
"But Doug forgot the president was coming to dinner that day, and we slimed a secret service agent instead," Commando laughs, eyes crinkling and bright. "We had baked chicken and mashed potatoes and I talked to the president all night until Doug made me go back to his room and listen to him talk about medieval biathlon."
Medieval biathlon, Bruno thinks, of course.
"I'm hoping this story has a point," Bruno says.
"The point is Senator Fairchild is a good man," Commando murmurs, looking at Bruno from the corner of his eyes. "But he's not a great man and he knows that you know that."
It makes Bruno uncomfortable that his dirty little secret is not so secret. He likes to believe that he appears to believe enough for it to count, that his little emotional fake book has been good enough so far to hide the fact that he is working for the lesser disappointment after the greater fall. But Bruno gets that Commando sees things, things he may see in himself, and Bruno respects that realistic idealism, if such a thing genuinely exists, and wishes he had it himself.
The idea that the "best choice" was not necessarily the "good choice" was a source of major cognitive dissonance until he'd turned twenty-one and Boots had thrown it in his face, pressed Bruno's awareness violently into the fact. If he doesn't try hard not to, Bruno still remembers vividly Boot's eyes, more gray than blue and rimmed red from lack of sleep and maybe crying. But Bruno knows that Boots was shouting, that he was making accusations and asking questions that Bruno didn't know how to answer, probably still doesn't know how to answer.
"You don't do what's best, you never have! You always decide what's good for you, Bruno!" Boots shouted then. "You don't think about what's best for me!--for you!--for both of us!"
Boots had some sort of strange concept of "best" that meant he got a girlfriend and a degree in education, taught bastard high school kids literary archetypes. "Best" also meant that Bruno ended whatever it was that hung between them. Apparently Boots could pretend that the last year they'd spent at an all-boy's boarding school--nevermind that it was across the street from several hundred attractive girls--was the product of desperate lust, but not that Bruno would quit his job and screw up his future out of an inability to get an easy fuck out of anybody but some English teacher in Canada.
In retrospect, it was the honesty of what he was doing that made Boots panic, and Bruno is furious about it still, finds hate and desperate need intertwined like roots of a tree, deep beneath the surface.
"Freshman psychology is pretentious as well as annoying, Armando," Bruno snaps.
Commando probably isn't talking about how Bruno may or may not be in love with his former roommate who may or may not be gay, but it's making Bruno batshit insane anyway.
"It's not like you hide it," Commando replies easily. "You have a shitty poker face. And that's okay, it's not like you don't do your best anyway. But he knows he's not what you've always been looking for."
"How would you know what I've been looking for?" Bruno shoots back, before his brain-to-mouth filter can remind him that there are pieces of himself he shouldn't be giving away. It takes half a beat for the words to totally process, and Bruno can see the realization dawn on Commando's face even as he's frantically thinking of ways to suck the words back into his chest, fold them and slide them beneath something heavy and dark.
"You left Coxx." Commando turns away. "He kind of was destroyed. We all saw who he really was--I guess we figured you saw it early and bailed ship."
"I never signed up to help him lie to everybody," Bruno says, dark and bitter, just like the first time he realized, all those years ago, that he'd thrown in his lot with somebody who played politics like everybody else in the building, that Bruno was letting himself help somebody ordinary, who didn't want to exceed it. "He wasn't honest."
"You wanted too much," Commando says reproachfully.
"There's no such thing," Bruno answers, because in many ways, it's true.
"You sound like Doug," Commando complains, sighing. "He fights with Senator Fairchild."
"I fight with the Senator," Bruno says conversationally. "It's becoming a national pastime."
Commando snorts disapprovingly, shifting his shoulders and Bruno thinks he can see a ripple of muscle from beneath the rolled-up sleeves of Commando's pale blue shirt, wrinkled from wear.
Bruno rubs his face with his hands. It's actually getting cold outside, and he thinks he only sees three or four lights still on in the distance, away from the hotel. It's weird and desolate, lonely, like whatever happens here won't matter at all.
"What fucked you up so badly?" Commando asks.
Bruno looks at him for a long time before he pulls one arm up, strokes three fingers down the side of Commando's face, and Commando's skin is just as soft as it looks. There's always been the idle temptation; Commando's very handsome, with his wide, smart eyes and easy smile, his athlete's grace that comes from years of basketball and the pale calluses on his fingers that Bruno has sometimes wanted to taste.
And right now, sighing beneath his touch, Commando is easy, tame, the brilliant, docile animal that Bruno will never be, and it is by turns terrifying and fascinating, to see the road more traveled by reflected on the face of somebody who is essentially the very same person.
"I'm just fine," Bruno whispers. "Didn't you hear?"
Commando's eyelids droop sleepily. "I hear lots of things about you, Bruno."
Bruno thinks he can see the oxygen between them, panting breaths and hot, sticky summers and long car rides steamed upward into the humidity that is making his collar damp, the concrete clammy.
"Most of them are true, I bet," Bruno says, grinning. This is familiar, if terrible, because Commando is so young and Bruno's an asshole.
Commando's chuckle is undeniably sultry, and Bruno leans inward, their noses brushing, mouths hovering centimeters away when Commando says, "They say you're the best."
"Okay," Bruno murmurs, ducking his head to slide their cheeks together roughly, "not to give a guy performance anxiety or whatever."
Commando's eyes crinkle shut as he bursts into laughter, and all of a sudden, one of his slim hands is fisting Bruno's sleeve. Then, somehow they're kissing, like teenagers or maybe old men, but there's something desperate and sad about it beneath a veneer of playfulness, and Bruno lets their teeth click together, tongues snap and roll.
They laugh and stumble up and over to Bruno's bed, where Commando gives Bruno one of those blowjobs that make Bruno think his brain is leaking out of his cock. By the time he recovers enough to tackle Commando into the mattress, to slick his hands into Commando's pants and curl his fingers through Commando's wiry pubic hair, around his cock, Bruno is making all sorts of incredibly inappropriate intern jokes.
"You're--shit!--not funny, fucker," Commando gasps, and grits his teeth.
But in this department, Bruno is older and wiser or at least a bigger slut, so he just laughs, leaves a purple, possessive mark on Commando's collarbone before sliding down Commando's lithe body, hands stroking old scars. He takes the time to pant hotly onto Commando's hard, flushed cock, before the legs Bruno threw over his shoulders are thumping impatient heels into his back.
"Walton!" Commando barks. "God!"
Bruno's almost forgotten that sex can be fun, what with all the desperate, guilty fucks he's hiding from his coworkers and all those times that he and Boots made love, slow and sweet and reverent, nearly-silent. So Bruno sucks one of Commando's balls into his mouth and remembers that yeah, sex can be one-dimensional.
Commando is making dark, whispering noises now, head thrown back into the pillows, and Bruno tightens the hand on Commando's cock, jerking him hard and harder until Commando is bucking up into the strokes, entire body arching off the bed and Bruno is humping the mattress, too, grinding his hips into the rough cloth and loving the imperfect friction.
Commando comes first and Bruno doesn't take much longer, dropping his own hand to his dick and pulling once, twice and coming all over Commando's heaving chest. They're both silent for a few gasping moments, and Bruno wipes them off with the duvet, which he throws onto the floor before he strips off his sweaty shirt and kisses Commando until they collapse on top of the sheets.
The last thing Bruno remembers before he falls asleep is that at least the door was locked.
Commando isn't there when Bruno wakes up, and in a lot of ways, Bruno is unspeakably grateful for that. He kind of wants to give the kid a raise, but feels that it would be some kind of weird, reverse prostitution, the logic of which gives him a headache if he thinks about it at length.
Bruno's covered in a lot of depressingly familiar bodily fluids, and the stickiness that was hot last
night is the opposite of sexy now. The clock say's it's half past eight, and Bruno decides that he's a jackass, and drags himself out of the rumpled bed.
He turns on the hot water and lets it steam up the bathroom, averting his eyes from his shadow in the fogged mirror. Even though he knows there won't be rosy-dark marks from Commando's mouth anywhere on his chest; this was one of those fucks where nobody wants reminders.
The hot water helps, and after ten minutes under a boiling sting Bruno feels partially human again, enough to grope around for soap and shampoo. By the time the last bubbles are sluicing down his body, Bruno has nearly rationalized the whole thing, washed away the experience. He tells himself that this is a good wake-up call, that something big had to happen to kick him out of his funk, and boning an intern was it.
Because they are in the Holiday Inn Express, Bruno hears it clear as day through the paper-thin walls when somebody knocks. He has a good idea who it is, but he also has an excuse this time, so he grins and scrubs at his stomach lazily, feeling the edge of his ribs. The knocking stops eventually, but his fingers are still skating along the bottom of his ribcage, and it makes him pause, and worry a little--he doesn't think he's ever been this thin before, he wonders if someone who knows him would be able to tell that he's been a little disconnected, a little bit lost.
But the phone rings and Bruno has no excuse for ignoring that, so he curses and reaches out with one hand while shutting the water off with the other. He gropes around the back of the toilet until he grabs his cell phone, blinking water out of his eyes and saying, "Yeah?" as he flips it open.
There's a long enough pause that Bruno is considering hanging it up, when he hears Boots say, "Well, I guess this means you aren't dead--just an asshole."
Bruno yells and drops the phone into the still-pooled water at his feet.
Two hours later, in a non-descript emergency room, with Dylan clutching one of his hands and gazing at him in deep concern and the Senator standing on the other side of his bed looking more than vaguely amused, Bruno says, "I'm not hurt. It was just an accident. I need a new phone."
His most humiliating moment makes the news on every major network, and is being run on the ticker on CNN, FOX, and MSNBC, it's enough to make Bruno want to die. The only upside of this is that if Boots is looking for any election news, he'll know that he almost electrocuted his former best friend and fuckmate, and Bruno can comfort himself with the fact that Boots will feel very guilty about that, and will for the rest of the day.
"You really just electrocuted yourself?"
Bruno glares into the rear-view mirror. "I swear to God, I will give you a head wound."
"I'm only saying because," Jill goes on, smirking, "you're usually so coordinated."
"I played sports, all right?" Bruno said, catching her latent insult. "I don't need your crap."
"Oh, look!" Dylan says brightly, pointing out the window. "That's a Sprint store!"
Bruno sulks and stops the car in the shopping center. It takes them two minutes to pick out the phone and twenty to take care of the photo op. The press eats it up, and Bruno ignores the white noise in his head.
It makes sense, he thinks sullenly when Dylan takes the wheel later that afternoon. Boots electrifies him, and then he ruins his life.
"Mom, campaigners don't get days off," Bruno explains, glaring at the exit they pass.
There's something wrong with these roads. It's North Carolina and he's trapped on something called the Beltline. He can't tell which is the inner and which is the outer and how people survive if they are constantly forced to work this system. Bruno has a sinking fear that they don't--they just stop their cars, slaughter one another and cook the meat over the dying heat from their engines.
"Don't be ridiculous," his mother snaps. "It's America--there're rules. Your father was a lawyer on retainer for OSHA for nearly a dozen years and I know for a fact that you get days off--"
"It's kind of different when you're running for president, Mom."
"Are you personally running for president?" his mother asks.
Bruno is silent for a moment, and hands the map sadly over to Jill, who looks horrified. They're going to die there, right on that highway in North Carolina, he can tell already.
"Well, no," Bruno admits. "But--"
"But nothing," she says, steamrolling any of his arguments. "You're coming home this weekend, and I expect you here either Friday night, or early Saturday morning." There's a shuffling pause. "I'm making pot roast. If you can't get days off, I'll call your boss myself."
Bruno groans, letting the car taxi to a stop behind what feels like every single SUV ever manufactured, and rests his forehead on his fingers where they're gripping the steering wheel. Bruno thought that having the fact that he'd dropped his cell phone in the shower and managed to slightly electrocute himself was the worst of it--the worst of it came a few hours later when not only was it broadcast on every single channel and made Leno's monologue, his parents and sister called, asking if he was going slightly insane. Now, his mother was demanding he take a vacation. He was waiting for the asteroid to hit his car any second: it would only be natural.
"Mom, you are not calling Senator Fairchild," he moans.
"I most certainly am," she barks. "I know you think that because he's a senator you have to give 200% all of the time, and in the interest of democracy I suppose I understand why you'd want to, but honestly, Bruno Gabriel Walton, you've--"
"Mom!" Bruno tries desperately. Jill finally throws the map down and says:
"Take the next exit. If it doesn't free us, we die together. Last one buries the other two."
"--fallen off of the face of the earth! Do you know Melvin called us the other day? Long distance from Canada? He said he hadn't heard from you in months!"
Bruno opens his mouth to say that's an outright lie, but upon consideration realizes that this is a possibility. The last time he went to Canada was two weeks before the beginning of the primaries, before he'd packed his underwear and Palm Pilot and bet his life on the underdog Democratic ticket.
He tries not to think about the last time he was in Toronto--he may be stopped in traffic but that's no guarantee he won't suffer some sort of fit and drive them into ditch.
"We're not as close as we used to be, all right?" Bruno shouts into the phone. "We couldn't stay friends forever, you know!"
Dylan flinches in the backseat; Jill looks out the window purposefully.
Bruno's mother is quiet for a long time before she says, "I didn't know you felt that way," and hangs up on him.
It's some kind of sign, Bruno thinks, groaning and throwing his cell phone into the change tray. He's stuck on the beltline and his mother just hung up on him, next thing, God will just reach one hand down to smite him for various sins, including but not limited to voracious homosexuality, debauchery of minors, destruction of platonic adoration between friends, and upsetting his mom.
Traffic starts moving again, and Bruno feels nauseated, like the entire contents of his stomach are going to lurch like the car if his mother doesn't stop talking about this. Raleigh is blurring around them, and there are a lot of shopping centers. He sees four Wal-Marts within a mile of one another, and he hopes that these are just hallucinations.
"Ohmigod," Jill murmurs, reverently, "I think that's it! Turn! Go! Go!"
New Hampshire was kind of a given, so Bruno smiles graciously and sleeps well until somebody says, "Hey, time to head out."
It's four in the morning Iowa time when Bruno totally loses it. Nobody else notices.
"Hey, you know what Iowa stands for?" Carter says, laughing. Carter went to Harvard. As far as Bruno knows, this is his only defining personality trait.
Jill laughs, because she's weirdly fascinated by Carter in the way that Bruno is weirdly fascinated by gigantic men with shrub-like hair all over their body--perversely so and with a disconnected sort of fear, like they could kill you but it wouldn't be that bad.
"What does it stand for?" Brett--strategist, asskisser--asks.
"Idiots out wandering around," Carter brays, honking like this is the funniest joke ever.
Jill and Brett burst out into laughter, and Bruno growls, "Yeah, hey, let's make sure everybody in this state which is a vital primary battleground know for fucking sure that we are not the candidate that they want to be endorsing for the Democratic ticket."
They get quiet. Bruno has eight jobs waiting for him the minute he decides to pay attention and probably sixteen more if he wanders into a Senate office building--his imminent unemployment, whether in eight months or eight years is not a big issue. The rest of the people in the car don't have the same luxury, and he allows himself to feel superior for a few minutes before dragging himself back to reality.
"So, are we going to win this one?" Bruno asks the room, upbeat and a little wild, because his staff may be made up of asswipes who graduated top of their class and people who are too neurotic to do anything aside from betting their futures on something as fickle as public opinion--but they're good people, and Bruno wouldn't have let Fairchild hire them if he didn't see something better in them than what they are willing to show.
"Not a chance," Dylan says brightly. "Midwesterners hate Fairchild."
"A lot," Jill agrees cheerfully. "We're fucked."
"Also, I think yesterday the senator expressed ambivalence toward full-contact sports," Carter piped up. "I'm thinking we finish dead last."
There is general murmured agreement around the room, and Bruno scowls at all of them.
"Assholes," Bruno mutters. "But at least we've identified the problems."
Twenty minutes later, Bruno is explaining to Senator Fairchild why they're going to invite the Green Bay Packers to beat the shit out of him. The senator doesn't think it's a good idea. Given that the senator knows nothing about sports, has a gay son, and refuses to drink domestic beer, even for a photo op, Bruno doesn't care what he thinks.
It's more traveling than they anticipated, but most of the crew stays in Iowa to make phone calls and chainsmoke. Bruno follows Fairchild up MIMAL and to the left, making phone calls to old friends who played pro ball and sold zucchini sticks. Fairchild gets a faint black eye, which he actually laughs off and the press eats up. FAIRCHILD FUMBLES, PICKS UP VOTES, and FAIRCHILD: ONE OF THE GUYS make the front pages of a lot of newspapers, and it also ends up all over CNN and even FOX, which leaves Bruno in a quandary as to whether to feel proud or violated.
Their approval rating in the Midwest goes way up, because Fairchild is a blue-blood WASP pussy, but he's trying. Bruno makes Fairchild eat cheese and be normal. There's also some sort of visit to an agricultural center, but Bruno passed out in the backseat of a car so he doesn't remember, but they don't end up sued and the polls are pretty much the same, so he takes it as a good sign.
"Besides," Bruno had said, laughing on the Today Show the morning of the primaries, a little bit crazy after pulling forty-eight hours without any rest, "Hank the Tank loves the guy."
They win Iowa.
Somewhere along the line, Bruno realizes three things in rapid succession: one, that he never went home that weekend, two, that he doesn't remember the last time he got to sleep, and three, that they have won the Democratic ticket.
They don't sweep, but they get South Carolina, which is kind of a miracle and keeps the pundits on Crossfire properly confused.
Peaches and Coke aren't that bad, and Bruno remembers Atlanta, sweet and slick overhead.
Commando, who Bruno hasn't seen since That Thing, shows up the night they win Arizona, lips wet, eyes shiny, and as young and eager as he was the other time, in the other place.
He sits on Bruno's hotel bed and grins up at him, three buttons loose, looking a little wild.
Bruno tries to glare. "You're like, twelve, and I'm not actually that easy," he tells Commando.
Commando smiles, and quips, "Actually, I'm like, twenty, and I think you really are."
Bruno rubs his face and mutters, "God," but they have sex anyway.
When Commando pulls the condom out of his pocket, Bruno has the sudden flash of realization that Commando hasn't really had sex with a lot of people--or at least, he hasn't had sex with a lot of guys, because he just blushes hard enough to stop traffic in L.A. and lays on his stomach, waits for Bruno to do all the work. It makes Bruno feel about as dirty and old as he's ever felt, and that's counting one time he accidentally felt-up a fifteen year old in Philadelphia.
It's not fantastic, but it's nice, and nice sex has its own virtues. Bruno whispers kisses into Commando's neck as the boy beneath him is coming, like quieting a nervous horse, and they clean themselves off with a sheet. Post-coitus, wrapped in the white bed sheet, flushed and a little too embarrassed to have been having sex for very long, Commando looks about sixteen years old.
"What happens when we win?" Commando asks later, staring at Bruno's ceiling after they have relocated themselves to the other double bed in the room.
Out of deference, Commando has put on his clothes again, despite the brief, wincing struggle with his trousers, which Bruno politely pretended not to notice. Bruno was never really naked in this process anyway, so he just zipped up. It occurs to him that his eroding sense of moral responsibility is going to get him sent to jail one of these days.
"We wear nice suits," Bruno explains. "We have the same bad salaries and terrible hours but we get to do it in a big white house." He pauses. "Well, you go to school. Do your thing with Doug. When you graduate, we let you in again and you can change the world."
Commando stares at Bruno's ceiling. "I don't think I'm what Doug wants."
"Hey, so," Bruno says, half-crazy, "I'm going to tell you a story."
"Is this part of your pedophilia manifesting itself?" Commando asks.
"It's about these guys, kids in an all-boy's boarding school in Canada," Bruno plows on, ignoring Commando. "So the first guy, we'll call him Gabriel and his roommate, who we'll call Melvin, start fucking and they don't talk about it. They graduate and go to different schools and Gabriel sometimes goes back to Canada and they fuck and they still don't talk about it. But then Gabriel fucks Robert and they have to talk about it, because you're sleeping with everybody your partner's ever slept with when you have sex."
"For the record, I got this talk in the ninth grade," Commando mutters.
"This whole arrangement makes Melvin freak out, because I--Gabriel doesn't know what he's been doing this whole time, but apparently throwing Robert into the mix suddenly makes this whole thing gay, and that's unacceptable. So Melvin goes apeshit and hostile."
Commando looks a little bit sad. "And is there still fucking during all of this?"
Of course there's fucking, Bruno wants to yell, angry fucking. Sex that left Bruno with bracelets of bruises around his wrists and left him walking funny for the rest of the week. Sex that started with them yelling at one another and ended the same way. Sex that left Bruno shaky and fucked up and on the way to the airport, disoriented and terrified, off-balance and angry, feeling like he was the corner hooker when Boots was his best fucking friend.
But Bruno's a moron and that didn't stop him from going back, from buying the goddamn plane tickets because no matter how bad it gets it's never as good as when it's with Boots. He kept visiting, because before the lights went out and everything got awkward and naked, there was grinning and laughing and something that made Bruno think that maybe Boots was a little bit in love with him, too.
"Yeah," Bruno mutters, "something like that. Anyway, the moral of the story is that he's your goddamn best friend. Don't fuck it up."
Commando's quiet for a long time before he says, "So we shouldn't do this anymore?"
"Probably not," Bruno admits. He's still staring at his ceiling. If he starts crying in front of the intern, he's going to hang himself with the shower curtain. "I'll make up a list."
"Of what?" Commando asks, disoriented and panicky all of a sudden, like he realizes the depth of this, that despite what Bruno likes to tell himself, sex is never just fun.
"Everybody you'll both be sleeping with," Bruno says quietly.
Commando leaves. The next morning, Bruno sees him on the phone, eyes red-rimmed, but when Commando hangs up, he's smiling, and Bruno feels like he's won the elections already.
"We're going to win this," Bruno tells the senator one night.
They're back in Washington, in Fairchild's newly-purchased Georgetown townhouse and Bruno is trying not to think about how the first time he had sex with somebody he didn't love was just around the corner from here. It's distracting and all of his luggage is in the Fairchild's foyer; all he really wants to do is go to his one-bedroom on Capitol Hill and sleep for a year.
"Jesus," Fairchild mutters, and drinks his German lager.
"You're going to be president," Bruno explains.
Fairchild closes his eyes. "Fuck."
"You have a son," Bruno goes on, baby steps. "He likes boys. It's okay, I promise."
"I think he's dating Armando," Fairchild groans.
Bruno figures that this is likely. Mostly because Commando's hot and he and Doug have been best friends forever. Also, because that would make the fact that Bruno totally had sex with him (twice) much, much worse, which seems to be the general theme of this year's presidential elections.
Bruno tries to make comforting noises, though he's uncertain about his success given the remarkable amount of beer that the senator is ingesting.
"When I was in school, I gave a lot of speeches," Bruno says suddenly, and he's horrified that he's going to try to do this. In the last few weeks, he's spilled his guts going on two times now, and he just can't get over that--it's his own personal tragedy, and he's turning it into everybody's Hallmark special.
The senator rubs his face with the heel of his hand. "I don't need this right now, Walton."
"When I was in school, I gave a lot of speeches," Bruno insists. "I talked a lot and I talked big. I wasn't afraid of anything or anybody and I ruled the world. I was huge." He looks out the window, at the overcast skies over Washington. "I told my mom I was gay when I was twenty-three, and she cried and cried, my father still doesn't talk about it. I mean, he doesn't ask me when I'm getting married, but it's no man's land in my family."
Fairchild is staring at Bruno and Bruno feels like what he's saying is heretical gospel, looped out in a mad tongue from the very furthest recesses of Biblical history. Like he's finally given voice and shape to God and He is framed in fire, terrible and beautiful all at once.
And in some ways this is the truth that Bruno has never told anybody, the cause he's never championed, because he's always fought to save the important things, and he's never had anybody to reach craving, desperate hands to, to say, "Save me."
"The thing is," Bruno murmurs, possibly more to himself at this point than Fairchild, "I don't think that they're upset with me. I don't think that. You don't stay angry with somebody you love for that long, even if they've done you wrong--even if you've done them wrong. We're not wired that way." He moves his hands, because he's run out of words to express that sentiment, the way that he loves Boots like a ragged gasp that hurts to take, that he craves nonetheless.
"I think that they're just sad for me, because I don't get to do their thing. I don't think I'm going to have kids and I don't think I get to get married. There are always going to be places where I can't kiss somebody I love and if this information goes beyond this room, I'm as good as a pariah," Bruno muses.
The look of solid, protective determination that flashes across Fairchild's face lets Bruno know that this will never happen, that Fairchild will fight and fight viciously. It's not acceptance or even empathy, but it's a visceral sort of affection, and so much of Bruno's life has hinged upon that instinctive desire to love that stirs in every heart--in his mother's, his father's, his little sister's as she smoothed his hair and figured him out. There have always been shipwrecks and rocky shoals, and the blind, voracious desire to love the people you love has saved him every time, floated him toward safety.
"So the world is crumbling all around me--" Bruno smirks, because he can't resist "--and I can try to hold up everybody's house but my own. And when I'm done, I think my mom thinks that I'll still be the one that doesn't have anywhere to go."
He's been so busy trying to reshape the world, smooth the curves, that he has missed his own jagged edges, and they've been tearing him to pieces all of these years, from the first day he stepped into the Hall and his heart skipped a beat at the thought of sharing his life with a school full of boys, of the suggestion of slim muscle beneath golden skin, to the day he met Robert and that grin meant more than Bruno could copy his policy notes. There's always been an undercurrent, and maybe he's been drowning all of this time.
"It's hard enough not having the luxury of being ordinary," Bruno goes on, staring Fairchild hard in the face, because this is truth and he can't be ashamed of something he can't change, "and if you love him you owe him not to be ashamed of something he cannot afford to be shamed by."
"I think I have more personal experience with this than you," Bruno interrupts with a wry smile. "I think I've had my attempts at being straight and being angry at being not and all of that shit in between--believe it or not, regardless of how gruesome it is to look from the sidelines at somebody doing something that's going to make their life hard, it's worse when you're in the driver's seat and you can't change it, when you don't want to."
"You want me to let him train wreck?" Fairchild demands.
"Maybe he won't," Bruno says softly. The faint light from outside is turning orange and red, like the earth is softening for Bruno because he's always been one enormous, open wound, and maybe it's finally time for it to heal. "Maybe he'll just trip and fall and scab his knee. Maybe Armando will give him a hand."
Fairchild looks like his heart is breaking, and Bruno knows that feeling.
"I just wanted--it'll be so hard for him," he whispers, solemn and sad and so honest it makes Bruno ache with him, because this is short, savage truth.
There's no denying it, and for a moment, in that mostly-empty townhouse, Bruno sees Doug's father and not Fairchild's press. It's a little humbling, Bruno thinks, amazed, to lift the curtain that he so carefully constructed, to see through months worth of efforts to simplify the man into someone that can be mass produced and find all the technical flaws just underneath the skin. It makes Fairchild real, marked, dark and ill-tempered and human.
It makes Bruno believe all over again.
"But that's the thing," he says, and Fairchild looks up at Bruno's voice.
They're suddenly thinking the same thing, Bruno can sense it, and the electric current of it runs up his spine, pools in his head, makes him dizzy and shocked awake, with faint buzzing still humming along the sinews of his thoughts, in the concaves of his chest. They're going to win, Bruno knows, but it's different now--now, they're going to win.
"That will be how you help. You win and you make it better. You win and you do this right."
Traffic is vicious and Bruno has nearly forgotten what Washington looks like, meek and washed in silver-blue when daylight has crept away. It takes him a little while but he ends up running something like parallel to the blue line and parks his car. He throws the duffle strap over his shoulder, grabs his suitcase, and takes the steps two at a time to his third-floor apartment. The light in the hallway still flickers and his neighbor's door is still a slightly-different color green than all the other ones. It feels like home, and Bruno grins.
He leaves his luggage in a hapless pile by the door, and he starts untucking his shirt, toeing off his shoes. His plant (singular) is dead, his answering machine is blinking frantically, and he wonders for half a beat if there was somebody who didn't notice his face splashed all over Meet the Press for what felt like every goddamn Sunday since four months ago. The room smells funny so Bruno sprains something opening every window in his kitchen and living room. He's going to regret it in the morning when traffic wakes him up, but whatever.
There's an inch of dust on all four of his televisions, he bets, and he examines them just to be sure. He starts in the kitchen because he's there anyway, and one by one, kitchen, living room, bathroom are all faintly gray and look cobwebbed. It's kind of depressing, and Bruno slinks into the bedroom unbuttoning his shirt and looking forward to sleeping for approximately eight billion years.
It actually takes him about a minute to register that Boots is sitting on his bed, eyes wide open and bluer than Bruno ever remembers, electric like realization or risk.
Bruno thinks it's weird, how being in love with someone can be so much of you that you don't even see it, like looking for water at the bottom of the ocean and only seeing blue.
So he thinks about the last couple of years, between eighteen and twenty-nine, and wonders what he's been doing, how he's been doing this.
He asks himself if he's been completely blind, or just ignoring it, or maybe he didn't feel the cold, didn't need the oxygen, just drowned in it until he was in an abyss, and loving Boots was so familiar and deadly it didn't even register.
Bruno just stares, partially because he doesn't understand what's happening, and partially because he doesn't know how Boots got the keys to his apartment. He has an uncomfortable feeling that this is going to be at least mildly confrontational.
"Um," he says.
"You look good for somebody who fried himself," Boots says lightly. He looks real, and Bruno boggles over the fact that despite four years teaching high schoolers literature, Boots looks just the way Bruno thinks Boots has always looked: beautiful and benevolent and alive.
"It's not universal, but you know, pretty good when…" Bruno trails off, hoping that it makes sense that he's talking about health care. And then it strikes him that Boots is sitting on his bed and that he's trying to talk about health care--there's something deeply wrong with that.
"Why are you here?" Bruno asks.
"Your mom invited me down," Boots says matter-of-factly. Bruno thinks he looks unearthly. "She said somebody needed to water your plant."
Bruno blinks. "The plant is dead. I threw it away."
"Not a green thumb," Boots says ruefully, grinning.
Bruno rubs his face. His shirt is half-unbuttoned, he had sex with an intern, and he might end up working at the White House soon--this is seriously the very last thing he can handle.
"Please don't try to be funny," Bruno croaks. "I ran out of underwear in Missouri and my mother hung up on me in North Carolina. Please don't try to be funny."
Boots looks contrite immediately, and the grin fades into a solemn frown.
"You lost weight, Bruno," Boots says quietly. "You look not so good."
"You just said--"
"I was trying to be funny," Boots says, dark and crisp. Bruno hears Boots sigh, suck in a breath, and go on, "This isn't funny, though, is it."
Bruno scowls, all the fire suddenly rushing back into him. This is his apartment and his turf and his goddamn country--since when did random Canadians get to come in and pee in his Cheerios?
"You're breaking and entering, I don't remember saying you could come here," Bruno snaps.
And so does Boots, because suddenly, he's on his feet, taking advantage of the fact that he is two inches taller than Bruno and is beautiful and terrible, just like what Bruno thinks maybe divinity looks like when it is bearing down on man, when it is coming to give you fear and faith and the fruits of temptation.
"This isn't the Hall, Bruno!" Boots shouts. "You're not putting a masking tape line down the middle of our floor! There're over a thousand miles between us on any given day and all I can do is watch you falling apart on twenty-four hour cable news and making everybody eat out of your hands!"
"You broke into my apartment to yell at me?" Bruno yells back.
"I'm not built to watch you self-destruct, Bruno!" Boots hollers.
This makes Bruno see red for a moment, everything in his field of vision going scarlet.
"You did this to me!" he bellows, and is voice breaks on the last word.
He can feel himself cracking open and spilling over, pouring out all over the floor blood red and pulsing. He has a migraine and all the images running through his head are blurry, like he's not breathing enough and he probably isn't. That doesn't change this--it doesn't change anything.
Boots looks like he's about to cry, and his mouth opens and closes a few times but no sound comes out. Bruno's grateful for the silence, it lets him say:
"You did this to me. Don't you see it? I've probably still got you--" his voice fails him for a second, and Boots stares at him, eyes huge and watery and luminous, supernatural "--I've got you all over my skin. You left marks, fingerprints, bruises, cuts, and I still see them, everywhere."
"I never saw them," Boots confesses.
Bruno growls. "Trust me--I bought the band-aids and--"
"I never saw them," Boots insists, haunted. "Every time you came you always went away, and I never got a good look at you, Bruno. You were there and gone and off to bigger, better things, right?" Boots is silent for long enough that Bruno hears the rush of blood in his own ears, and then Boots says, "You were always leaving me."
Bruno can feel this conversation like he's felt this conversation ever since the last time he saw Boots face to face.
The last time was the hotel in Toronto, because it didn't feel right anymore to stay with Boots every time he visited, and this had been a sign. He remembered taking his rental car through the city and thinking that if things didn't go right this time then maybe they weren't ever meant to go right. Bruno was old enough then like he's old enough now to know that having somebody to fall on is a luxury for people who paid more attention when it mattered, not kids who realized they'd reached adulthood before their relationships were ready for it. Bruno met Boots and drank excessively, and when his blood alcohol was high enough to pass for courage, Bruno had leaned over in his swaying inebriation to press his mouth to Boots', thinking "please, just please."
Boots had pulled away. "I can't do this anymore," he said. "It's too hard. We--we're not right."
And Bruno thought, "That's it. That's it."
And now, it's been too long and all the details that had cut like a knife are fuzzy around the edges. All he remembers is a yawning sense of devastation, illness almost, that seeped into his skin and made him feverish, desperate, claustrophobic in his own head. But Bruno has pounded a lot of pavement since, been in inclement water and the heights of victory, he's worn down to his very nerves now, and doesn't have anything to soften this. Boots was right then: this is too hard.
"You never wanted me to stay," Bruno argues weakly. He can't keep any of the facts straight in his head anymore. He's always looked at things from his own frame of reference, and generally, that works, or something about it works anyway, because he's never lost a fight he wanted to win yet--this may one of many firsts.
"That's never stopped you before," Boots snaps.
"It wasn't like making you help me get you a goddamn pool, Melvin," Bruno grates out. He wants to say something about how he's in love with Boots, and what makes Boots happy will ultimately make Bruno happy, even if he finds it at the bottom of a bottle six years later--even then, it's acceptable joy.
Boots looks shaky. "You can't just change the rules on me, Bruno," he pleads.
Bruno's too tired for this. He's never ever been not tired enough to do this, he thinks darkly.
He takes a few stumbling steps and falls on his bed, sprawls out, faces the ceiling. Boots is now close enough so that Bruno can feel him, sense how warm he must be, all warm, golden skin underneath worn jeans and an old white shirt, the sleeves rolled up. Even now, Bruno knows Boots well enough to know what it's like to be allowed close enough to touch. Bruno thinks that Boots may be his paramour, someone he wants to have painted and to hang in his bedroom, cloaked behind heavy curtains for his eyes only.
"Despite what you think I think," Bruno mumbles, "I do not think I am God. I can't make you love me like I can't make Senator Coxx a good man." There's an awkward pause. "I mean, for fucking serious, Melvin, how many times did we end up being held at gunpoint by that old hag, anyway? I'm fallible--I fuck up. You shouldn't." Bruno can't finish that sentence.
There's a long silence before Bruno feels the bed depress near his shoulder.
Boots whispers, "You shouldn't say that."
Bruno snorts. "She'd been dead half a decade, Boots. Even Cathy blasphemes her at this point."
"You could never make me do anything, Bruno," Boots says to him, gently like he's afraid Bruno is going to run away like a child, which is probably a valid concern at this point. "You--I always chose to follow you, Bruno. You always said that I should and I never really said no."
It takes Bruno about two minutes to process this. "Oh," he says.
He's definitely maybe crying a little bit now. He doesn't even know what all of this means but apparently he's going to sob through it. Bruno just can't deal with this--maybe if he had underwear, but in his current state, this is too much.
Bruno feels himself being pulled over and rearranged, and suddenly his head is in Boots' lap. He can feel the hard edge of keys in Boots' pocket and he closes his eyes, too tired to say that they really can't do this anymore.
"I wish you would come home with me," Boots murmurs as Bruno is falling asleep.
"Gotta save the world first," Bruno mumbles.
Boots runs his fingers through Bruno's hair and says, "Yeah, I figured as much."
Predictably, Bruno wakes up to the sound of morning traffic. By the time he crawls out of the shower and finds fresh laundry sitting unfolded in a basket by his bed, he has remembered what happened the night before, and it makes him want to throw himself out the opened windows of his bedroom.
Instead, he puts on some clothes and slinks though his apartment--which has suddenly been cleaned--and finds Boots sitting at his kitchen table filling out immigration forms.
Bruno's too disoriented to do anything but feel verbally impotent and frustrated. His dead plant is back on the windowsill, which may be a metaphor, but English was always Boots' forte, Bruno concerned himself with conquest and rule.
"What the hell are you doing?" he finally manages.
Boots looks up, narrowing his eyes at Bruno like he's taking measurements in his head.
"So you're not using this election as some excuse for not coming to Canada to marry me, right?" Boots suddenly demands, dead serious, and Bruno can only stare helplessly for a few terrified moments before he says:
"I'm so confused," Bruno admits. "You did my laundry?"
Boots sighs, regretful, and lowers his head to the papers again. "You're never going to let me make an honest woman out of you," he says distractedly. "And your clothes were filthy, when was the last time you got anything laundered?"
"I--Tennessee--Boots, what the fuck are you doing?"
"I'm not letting you leave me anymore," Boots says quietly, and looks up at Bruno.
"Your whole life is in Canada," Bruno says, panicking. "You--you're polite and well-adjusted and you know what a beaver looks like! You know what curling is! You have a job! You can't just drop everything and come here!"
Boots is quiet and considering a long time before saying, "Yeah well, it wasn't much of a life."
Bruno has sixteen arguments about why this is insane, but all of them die on his lips when Boots looks back up at him, tousled and kind of happy. Bruno has always wanted Boots to be happy, and even when Boots hasn't been able to figure out how to do that on his own, Bruno has always paved the way. If Boots wants to fill in immigration forms and not be able to marry Bruno or have universal health care, then maybe Bruno just needs to go with the flow.
"You have to mean it, Boots," Bruno says, because he's twenty-nine and all scarred up, he can feel them all flaring in pain, memory spiderwebbing across his skin.
"I'm not scared anymore," Boots said, voice even.
"You're serious about this," Bruno says, sitting down opposite Boots and staring at the immigration papers.
"You were always so busy saving the world you never bothered to save yourself," Boots says. "I wasn't good at it, but I'd like to try."
That's it, Bruno thinks, that's all I needed to know.
Domestic bliss is anything but, and the first four days that Boots is there are mostly spent trying to prove that the train wreck that appears to be his life is largely due to the fact that he hasn't lived in his own apartment for several months, really, and not that Bruno never got around to being an adult. In between being forced to dust and mop and scrub, Bruno takes the time to call his little sister and curse her soundly for giving Boots a copy of the key, which she interprets as gratitude and says that he's very welcome before hanging up.
Boots sleeps on the couch and they don't touch each other very much at first, like they're just dating, or have recently met, when Bruno's known Boots his entire life. It hurts, pinpricks of discomfort that leave Bruno sullen and unhappy until one night, Boots reaches over to smooth his hand over the crown of Bruno's hair.
At some point the, the Reliable Source is going to print something about how one of Fairchild's senior campaign staffers has apparently shacked up with a man, but until then, Bruno has six more days to get used to this new skin. It's lighter, more comfortable, and he feels like there's more room at the ends of his fingers and toes, like he can stretch them longer, reach for things that are far away.
On Monday, he drives Boots to the immigration office in D.C., and Bruno pulls a few strings.
"Hey, that's kind of cool," Boots comments, genuinely impressed.
"Yeah, I'm your man if you want a form letter in four weeks instead of eight," Bruno says, laughing. He hits the gas, "Onward. We're going to the FDR Memorial."
"Why?" Boots asks, he's grinning, and the scenery's already blurring in the windows.
Washington is charcoal and soft around them, faintly orange from the street lights, and Bruno thinks that maybe Boots has always belonged here, so that he can look otherworldly and beautiful and unexpected. Or maybe, Bruno lets himself think, Boots has always just belonged with Bruno, wherever he may be.
It's a little too selfish to be good and a little too honest to be wrong. This is a dilemma which Bruno fears he will face a lot in the future.
"If you're going to be an American citizen," Bruno reasons, "you have to learn to love it, right? I mean, we don't have beavers, but we do really cool things with huge slabs of marble."
"So is this like, a date or something?" Boots asks, and he's smiling.
"Yeah, cheap, too," Bruno quips, and then gets quiet and thoughtful before he says, "We've never been on a date, have we?"
Boots shrugs, head leaning back against the chair and eyes closing. Orange light is smoothing his features and Bruno thinks he must be dreaming, that this all has to be a dream. If Bruno narrows his eyes just right, everything will look like it did when they were nineteen, and maybe he can call a redo, just hit erase and rewind, because they had every chance in the world and they fucked it up--but Bruno's paid the price for buying more time, and he knows what to do now, and how to do it right.
"Never really needed to," Boots says, self-deprecatingly, cracking one eye open to finally look at Bruno. "I mean, I was kind of a sure thing."
"Never, ever, ever say that again," Bruno instructs.
"I mean it," Boots says again, and he's serious this time, the way he was serious when he told Bruno this couldn't happen anymore, that whatever it was that hung between them would hang them both. "I was a sure thing."
The meaning of this sinks in around the time that Bruno hits the traffic patterns of Dupont Circle.
"I have to state for the record that the grotesque irony of you and I finally having this conversation while we're stuck in Dupont Circle is not lost on me," Bruno declares.
"I'd hope not," Boots says lightly, "I mean, you're going to be running my country soon."
It makes happiness bubble through Bruno, fizzing up his spine and bouncing in his chest so that when they get to the next red light, he says, fuck cameras and people in the cars around them and reaches out to Boots. It's as easy as grabbing Boots' collar and hauling him over, pressing their mouths together before they open up to one another, and the kiss is hot and sultry and damp, like a Washington summer. It's so familiar and sweet that Bruno cannot help but to think of peaches and love and holding Boots' hand for the first time ever so very, very long ago.
But this is real life, and Bruno's jarred into reality when a shrieking car horn interrupts, and when he pulls away, Boots is breathless and red and his eyes are shining.
This is better than he remembers, Bruno thinks, because this isn't just remembering anymore.
After they get home and get ready for bed, Bruno says, "Good night," and Boots says, "Yeah," but doesn't go to sleep on the couch. He curls up underneath the covers with Bruno, kisses him on the brow, and closes his eyes.
This lasts approximately fourteen point eight six seconds.
Bruno will hold a spirited argument in his head later about who kissed who first, but what will win out in the end is the memory of Boots slicking his hand under Bruno's shirt, his fingers sliding down, down, tugging at the elastic on Bruno's boxers.
Somehow, they're naked, with the same efficiency that they changed for gym and stripped for each other in high school. Boots rolls them over on the bed until he's straddling Bruno's waist, and there's a brief shuffle of not-as-awkward arms and legs until Bruno's grinding their cocks together, until his hands are knotted in Boots' hair and they're making desperate, needy noises into one another's mouths.
"Wait, fuck," Bruno groans, and turns his head to the side. "Boots, cut it out."
Boots is, for not the first time in their lives, ignoring him, and applies himself to licking Bruno's neck, which just makes it all the harder to think.
"The--they're in the--" Bruno's trying to complete a sentence and it's just not going to happen, so he growls in frustration, throws his arm out to the side and jerks open his nightstand. The noise barely makes Boots look up, but it does make him start to twist his hips as he grinds down, and for a moment, Bruno's fingers lose their purpose, until he remembers that all of this is going to be over really fast unless he moves quickly.
When he finally finds it, he practically throws the lube at Boots' face, which ends up being the only reason they don't come all over one another right then. But then Bruno's facing a whole different kind of seduction when Boots slicks up two of his fingers and never breaks eye contact.
Boots' mouth is red and bruised and perfect like that, and it kisses Bruno's sternum indulgently, before sliding down in one open, endless kiss down the line of Bruno's chest, tongue stroking into his bellybutton and then kissing the base of Bruno's cock, which makes Bruno's hips jerk.
"You're such an asshole," Bruno manages, hands in Boots' hair, urgent.
"It's karma," Boots murmurs into the crease of Bruno's thigh, where the skin is soft and his leg met his pelvis. It makes Bruno bend his knees, makes them fall apart wantonly. Bruno can feel Boot's five o'clock stubble against his balls and it makes him want to scream.
"Oh, fu--" Bruno tries to say but it dies on his tongue when he feels an obscenely wet kiss on the other side of his cock just as Boots' fingers slide inside him. They're smooth and cool from the lubricant but Boots' fingertips still know how to curve, where to bend, and Bruno's coming off the mattress, shouting and trying to impale himself on Boots' hand, feverish and shaking all over.
Boots moans and Bruno feels a third finger slip inside of him, and for a moment the stretch is a little uncomfortable, before Boots finds that spot again, and he's pleasure-soaked, boneless and desperate and sweating, hovering on that knife edge just before an orgasm.
"Come on, come on," Bruno mutters. "Come on."
"Jesus," Boots moans some more. "Jesus." But he slides up Bruno's body and the friction nearly kills them, and by the time he manages to pull his fingers out, Boots' arms are shaking and he's barely holding himself up. So Bruno moves a hand down to Boots' cock, and helps him slide in, says with his body and his half-closed eyes and his half-opened mouth, come in, come in and meet me here.
And like always, Boots' eyes fly open just as Bruno's eyes slide shut, and then it's just the steady rocking of their hips, how they cradle one another, the creak of the bed and the cage of Boots' arms, his long, erudite hands on either sides of Bruno's face. Boots feels hot and huge and heavy between his thighs, and there's an ache but it's too much good to be really bad, even if he'll feel it in the morning. It's going to end, and it's going to end any minute, their right hands are laced together and they're all grown up, they kind of said "I love you," and it's too, too good to last much longer.
"I missed you," Bruno gasps, because he's wanted to say it so long.
And Boots' mouth finds his, and it says, "I won't let you leave me anymore."
Bruno comes first, and when he feels Boots come inside him three, four, five strokes later, he feels a weary sort of contentment. Their right hands are still laced together, and nobody's leaving anybody in bed alone. This isn't one night sex, this wasn't first time sex; Bruno's not sure what it is, but he sincerely hopes that it will lead to married sex.
They have just enough time to press their mouths together for a sweet, shallow kiss before they fall asleep, and stay that way long into the afternoon of the next day.
There's a hitch in the plan because Bruno's never had married sex before. He expresses this concern to Boots one night, shyer than he's ever felt, feeling exposed. Boots looks at him for a long time before he kisses Bruno, hard and sweet and possessively, for long enough to make them break away from one another in a gasp for oxygen.
"We'll just have to keep it up then," Boots decides, grinning wickedly.
Bruno nods, sliding his hands up Boots' back. "In the name of scientific inquiry."
"Elmer would be so proud of us," Boots muses, tugging at Bruno's jeans.
"Yeah, let's stop talking now," Bruno decides, and they do.
And Bruno thinks that this is too good, that all of it is too good. He waits for the impending sense of end, for the crescendo and then the storm, but three more days pass and it doesn't happen. On the fifth day after, Bruno realizes that Boots is really going to stay. He makes it to the shower before he lets himself start to cry, but Boots finds him there anyway--and because it's Bruno, and because it's Boots, Bruno doesn't explain why and Boots doesn't ask, because they've known all along anyway.
They say it out loud this time, gasping and desperate and clawing at one another's flesh, he's so frantic and hot and grateful that Bruno wants to crawl into Boots' skin. They say it a thousand times, locked together underneath the hot spray of the shower, until the water runs lukewarm and they tumble out against the bathroom counter when it goes cold.
"This is kind of hilariously familiar."
"Shut up," Bruno growls, jamming things into bags left and right. He casts a scowl over to where Boots is sitting serenely on the bed, leaning back against his hands and looking entirely too put-together.
"I mean, you run a campaign," Boots goes on. "I thought you might have grown out of this."
"Are you even packed?" Bruno demands, looking desperately for underwear. He turns up empty-handed, and decides to blame this on Boots, who has put away his laundry in unfamiliar places and kept him mostly-naked since. "I told you that you had to come--being Canadian at the moment isn't going to get you out of this."
It's convention week, and Fairchild called earlier that week to ask both if Bruno was alive and if he still intended to work for the campaign, as he'd skipped all the briefings. Bruno argued that he wasn't going to be on stage anyway and asked how was Doug and Commando. This led to the senator hanging up on him, which Bruno counted as a personal, if petty, victory.
"I've been packed," Boots says.
"Stupid convention," Bruno mutters. "It's like Die in the Woods."
"Except for the part where we're going to Boston," Boots says thoughtfully.
"Hah," Bruno says under his breath. "That's what you think."
"If you're about to say something like, it's a jungle out there, stop while you're ahead."
Bruno finally finds his underwear, folded up into one of his drawers--he and Boots are going to have to have a conversation about this before this relationship goes any further--and starts jamming handfuls of it into the front pockets of his suitcase.
"It's not all fun and games and balloons, you know," Bruno warns. "There're a lot of the shining stars of the Democratic party there--and they'll all be horribly intoxicated. They may even touch you inappropriately. Get a taste of the wild side."
"Yeah, Canadian's real exotic," Boots laughs.
"It's because you're like a WASP, but not," Bruno insists. "You're laughing but it's true."
"Bruno, I don't even know what that is," Boots says gently, grabbing his luggage and starting to shove Bruno and his bags none so gently toward the door of the apartment.
Boots has that frantic look in his eye, the one he got before finals and when college applications were due; it didn't mean that he was panicking for himself, just that Bruno hadn't studied or filled any out. Despite Bruno's best efforts to mellow Melvin's somewhat high-strung temperament in a process he'd called better living through sex in high school, it never really took; the prospect of having a second go at it is exciting.
"Hey, I can postmark stuff on my own now," Bruno says, suddenly remembering that he could.
Boots only says, "And somehow, that won't get us to Boston any faster."
Bruno thinks that it may be a sign that they're meant to be or something, but before he has time to really flesh out his theory, there are miles of highway, and the curves of Boots' face soft in the night, sleeping in the passenger seat. Somewhere near the WELCOME TO MASSACHUSETTES sign, Bruno realizes that this volcanic feeling in his chest is joy, and that for the first time in maybe years, the warmth is reaching all of his fingers and toes--he can finally feel his edges again, where he ends and where Boots begins, and those are the only borders that matter.
The convention is loud and enormous and inspirational. Boots, who has never seen the draw of politics or the energy of a crowd--even though he's been the center of both--gets a little starry-eyed. This could possibly be the champagne that Dylan keeps bringing him, handing over the flutes with a dewy hopefulness that Bruno thinks is kind of cute, if thankfully fruitless.
After the antics on stage, Bruno watches Commando walk around red-faced and ridiculously pleased, tailed closely by Doug Fairchild, who has lived up commendably to his surname. They are pretty retardedly happy, Bruno thinks for a split second, before Boots leans into his side and Bruno realizes that he's pretty retardedly happy, too.
"Okay, don't like, let your smile split your face in half or anything," Jed mutters.
Jill complains that Boots hasn't been introduced. Her face is red and her eyes are shining; it makes Bruno a little bit shy, but Boots laughs and says, "You can call me Boots. I'm Canadian."
This is somehow uproariously funny to everybody, and thankfully everybody's too drunk to ask why Boots has his hand on the small of Bruno's back for the rest of the night.
He and the rest of the staff eventually abandon their companions and go to the wings of the enormous convention stage, and watch with slightly-glazed eyes as Fairchild accepts the nomination of the Democratic party to run for the Office of the Presidency. Six billion flashbulbs go off at the same time and when the bright spots and colors fade, Bruno sees a perfect profile of Senator Fairchild, a wry, realistic grin on his face. He looks older than his sixty-odd years, and younger around the eyes, alive and a little scared, jittery and shaking, a little bit out of his skin and maybe even out of his depth in front of this heaving mass of people, of optimism and hope and the best intentions.
For a split second, Bruno believes, differently than he usually believes, that they cannot possibly lose--but for separate reasons, and in a different way. However this ends, whichever way this fight goes, and whoever takes the steps of the capital on inauguration day, Fairchild will be Bruno's president, and it's his imperfection that makes him real, that makes him worth the effort.
By the time that Bruno makes it back out onto the floor, Boots is flushed dark red, his collar is loosened, and Bruno is so taken by this that he forgets who he is and what he wants for the country long enough to take what he wants for himself. He drags Boots in, close and tight and intimate, and they dance in the space between the crowd, swaying.
And over their heads, the speakers are blaring U2, "Walk On," and Bruno thinks that maybe nobody will ever feel this song like he feels it right now--and he doesn't care who takes a fucking picture.
It's ten months and one newly-minted American down the line before anything gets printed in the Reliable Source about Commando and Doug, and even then all the noise is pundit-generated. Fairchild makes a public and pretty showy statement that he loves his son and how he's the president of the United States of America--not of the Confederated States of Straight People Who Have Money, which sparks several debates about welfare, privatizing social security, whether or not homosexuality is genetic. Jed spends a lot of time before and after press conferences popping aspirin.
Bruno manages to convince Fairchild to go to San Francisco during Pride Week, but no force on Earth is enough to compel him to join in the parade.
"He's the president," Commando scolds over the phone. "He doesn't need people throwing condoms and travel-packs of lube at him."
"We'll give him an umbrella," Bruno says, beaming. He's in a sultry, red, jazz bar in San Francisco, surrounded by colleagues to whom he never told the truth, and all of them are asking why Bruno didn't bring Boots, and commenting on how amazing the city is. Amazing, that's a word that Bruno is starting to overuse, and never in exaggeration.
"You're totally shameless," Commando mutters, and hangs up.
Bruno thought this was a pretty big statement coming from somebody who had told Boots he was really sorry about sleeping with his boyfriend during a state dinner. Then again, Boots also said Commando had been so terrified and embarrassed he'd nearly died.
"Is this--am I in trouble about this?" Bruno asked later. They'd been eating pizza and getting grease all over the essays Bruno was helping Boots grade.
Boots had raised his eyebrows. "Do you need to be in trouble about this?"
"No," Bruno had insisted. "I mean, unless. Um. No."
Boots had smirked at him. "Breathe, you moron. Jill told me about it months ago."
Bruno takes these things as signs that the Fairchild staff is evil, backed by unholy powers that be. All things considered, he's glad that he works with them rather than against them.
Bruno, who--as Boots said many years ago--has no nerves, so a year after that when the Reliable Source outs him and everybody is up in arms over his sharing a home and a mortgage with a man, Bruno bullies four pieces of legislation through committee with sheer force of will. He also placates his father, who thanks to the magic of newsprint has finally realized that his son will never marry a woman and distracts his mother, who wants to know when and how many Bruno and Boots intend to adopt.
He's overworked and under-rested he's never been so happy in his life.
This might be the fever talking.
"There's this thing," Bruno insists.
"I'm sure there is," Boots humors him, tucking a blanket up Bruno's throat, which is hot and scratchy and hurting him. He wants to blame somebody for this, somebody in his staff is responsible, and as soon as he can make some of his hysterical ranting coalesce into a thought, he will pick up the phone and fire somebody, have them transferred to Dylan.
It's been raining, and their house is tucked away on one of those tree-lined neighborhoods which don't actually exist in the greater D.C. area. He had to park around the corner and run to the house, and so by the time he got in and forced himself through dinner he was flagging and Boots was stripping him out of his damp clothes and pushing him into bed, talking about calling in sick for him the next morning. Somehow, there is a thermometer in all of this shuffle.
"There's a file," he adds fervently, he waves his hands around for emphasis before Boots catches them and shoves them back beneath the blanket. "I am the deputy something, you know. I help run this country."
"You can't find your face right now," Boots tells him. "You have a hundred and two degree fever."
"I can find my legislation," Bruno whines. He really can't find his face, but if he did, he bets it would be hot and uncomfortable, just like the rest of him.
"God, go to sleep," Boots instructs him, and Bruno does.
When he wakes up next, it's dark and soft and all he hears is rain on their windowpanes and roof, and the sound of Boots' breathing, soft and reassuring in his ear. Boots is still awake, though, Bruno can tell from the way that Boots' heart beats next to his ear.
He says, "You're still all over me, you know. There're marks."
Boots is silent for a moment before he says, "I saw."
Bruno goes back to sleep, and in the morning when he wakes up, Boots will be there.
And love is not the easy thing
The only baggage you can bring...
And love is not the easy thing...
The only baggage you can bring
Is all that you can't leave behind
And if the darkness is to keep us apart
And if the daylight feels like it's a long way off
And if your glass heart should crack
And for a second you turn back
Oh no, be strong
Walk on, walk on
What you got, they can't steal it
No they can't even feel it
Walk on, walk on
Stay safe tonight...
You're packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been
A place that has to be believed to be seen
You could have flown away
A singing bird in an open cage
Who will only fly, only fly for freedom
Walk on, walk on
What you got they can't deny it
Can't sell it or buy it
Walk on, walk on
Stay safe tonight
And I know it aches
And your heart it breaks
And you can only take so much
Walk on, walk on
Home...hard to know what it is if you never had one
Home...I can't say where it is but I know I'm going home
That's where the heart is
I know it aches
How your heart it breaks
And you can only take so much
Walk on, walk on
Leave it behind
You've got to leave it behind
All that you fashion
All that you make
All that you build
All that you break
All that you measure
All that you steal
All this you can leave behind
All that you reason
All that you sense
All that you speak
All you dress up
All that you scheme...