Set after "We Killed Yamamoto"

Characters property of NBC and Aaron Sorkin. No infringement intended.



This Conversation

"What about lesbians, Josh?"

Some time ago, Josh had buried his head in his arms and given up, but his girlfriend didn't care.

"And gay men, for that matter. We don't let them marry. Then we deny them certain benefits because they're not married. Tell me how that fits into the blatant discrimination you guys call welfare reauthorization."

But she didn't really expect him to tell her, because she knew that on some level he knew she was right. And she was aware he hadn't spoken in ten minutes.

"You're right," she continued, unconcerned by his lack of obvious respiration. "You've forgotten lesbians and gays in your welfare plan. Like you've forgotten single parents whose would-be spouses are abusive. Or unfit. Or, hell, honey, just not in love. We can't pay people to marry."

Josh lifted his head, bleary-eyed. "I'll pay you ten thousand dollars to marry me."

"No deal, darlin'. Case in point."

"Then I'll pay you ten thousand dollars to stop talking about this now."

"I'll stop talking about this when we've had a conversation about it. We should be able to have a conversation about it."

"I don't want to have a conversation about it."

"Not every man is a good father, you know."

"Oh, damn it to hell," Josh muttered, dropping his face onto his arms again.

"You can't buy your way into a wedded America, Josh."

Josh lifted his head and shrugged helplessly. "We need votes, Amy."

"We need policy that isn't stupid, Josh."

"We need policy that isn't Republican, Amy."

"Exactly, Josh."

Josh stared at her. "Shit," he said, and dropped his face onto his arms again.

When he looked up it was morning, and Amy was ironing his tie. It took him a minute to understand that the yellow reflection on the countertop was sunlight, which meant it had to be at least eight, which meant he was in trouble.

"How domestic," he muttered, pulling his tie loose as he staggered to his feet. "You didn't want to take it off me first?"

"Watch, your neck's going to be stiff," she warned him, but he was already wincing, having figured that out.

"Why didn't you wake me?"

"You weren't snoring."

"I meant now. This morning."

"I slept well. Despite the alarm."

Josh squinted confusedly at her. "What do you mean I wasn't snoring?"

"When you sleep in bed, you snore. When you sleep at the table, you're quiet. Then I get to sleep. Quite soundly, and despite the alarm. Make some coffee, would ya, honey?"

Josh tipped the coffee can out of the cupboard and dropped it on the floor. "What?" he asked, scooping up coffee grounds and putting them back in the can.

"Does my government truly believe there's an even number of compatible, interested, fit, loving, destitute women and men on welfare who are going to couple up and do-si-do to the tune of 300 million dollars?"

Josh pointed at her, and then at himself, and then at the coffee, and she waited patiently until it was made and he'd had a sip. Then she said, "Well?"

"Your government wants a good president to get re-elected."

"If he cashes in the good for the re-election, what's the point?"

"You left the iron on."

Without taking her eyes off him, Amy leaned across the counter and flicked the switch. "Go to work," she commanded.

He kissed her. If he could distract her, neither one would have to face the fact that this was never going to work, that they were never getting past this conversation.

Josh was late for work, of course, but he didn't rise to the bait that was tossed his way by everyone he saw. For some reason, he didn't want to talk about Amy. Well, for one reason, he didn't want to talk about Amy. For the simple fact that he was afraid of breaking up over something as impermanent as a political argument.

He knew that wouldn't really be the reason, but it was so frustrating. What she was doing was right and what he was doing was right and they still didn't reach the same end. It was the maddening game of how much compromise is too much compromise? Of how do you date the women's movement when you're the White House?

"Josh?"

CJ was standing in the doorway, holding, inexplicably, her fish bowl.

"Will you watch Gail?"

Josh blinked twice, but CJ and the fish were still standing there. Er, well, CJ was standing. The fish was swimming in pointless little circles. Josh got his wits about him slowly. At last he said eloquently, "Huh?"

"They're doing work in my office. I'm afraid some plaster or something is going to get into her bowl. Can I leave her here?"

"Um."

CJ rolled her eyes and plunked the fish bowl on the desk. "She doesn't bark, Josh. She won't be any trouble."

"Mmm."

"Are you .. running an experiment?"

"Huh?"

CJ perched on the other corner of his desk. "I thought maybe you were running an experiment to see how far you could get in a day using only syllables and no actual words."

Josh shook his head to clear it. "Is there food?"

"You skip breakfast?"

"For the fish. I mean, yes, but .. I meant for the fish."

"I'll bring Gail's food. And there are unguarded danishes at Bonnie's desk."

"Thanks."

"Are you okay?"

Josh loved it when his friends were blunt. "Fine."

"If you're upset about the welfare thing .."

"I'm not."

"Because Leo told the President he was the one who signed off on that."

"I'm not."

"Your girlfriend is, though, right?"

"Don't you have a secret service agent to be avoiding or something?"

"You don't see him anywhere, do you?"

"He's right there." Josh pointed with a pinky toward Simon Donovan standing near Donna's desk.

"Oh." CJ turned to look, then slid off Josh's desk. "I guess I'm not doing a very good job, then, am I?"

"No."

"Okay. I'll bring the food." She lovingly patted the fish bowl. Then she was gone, casting furtive glances at Simon as she went. She was grinning, and Josh suspected she wouldn't be sorry if she didn't lose her agent after all.

Simon followed CJ to her office, then back to Josh's to deliver the fish food, then to Toby's. CJ felt silly for feeling safer with Simon there. This was the White House, after all, and the place already swarmed with Secret Service. But since learning about the Vera Wang ... the thought that he had been there ... She remembered Simon's shooting demonstration to calm herself, which proved exactly how much she didn't really want to lose sight of her agent.

In Toby's office, CJ sank onto the sofa without saying a word. Toby looked up slowly.

"Can I help you, Miss Cregg?"

"Ms."

"Can I help you, Ms. Cregg?"

"Can you believe I have this Secret Service agent following me around?"

Toby looked at Simon. "Based on the evidence, I can."

"It's silly."

"It's not silly."

"Nobody else has Secret Service protection."

"Okay, I think our boss might."

CJ rolled her eyes. "I meant of us."

"Of you and me?"

"Of the staff."

"Charlie does."

"Charlie's dating Zoey Bartlet."

"Yeah, I noticed."

CJ sighed shortly. "That's fine," she said. "And if I ever start dating Zoey Bartlet --"

"We'll have to have a little talk." This from Charlie, entering the office with a piece of paper in his hands.

"Chas," CJ greeted him.

"Claudia."

"Didn't see you there."

"Didn't think so. Toby. Leo asked me to give you this."

Toby nodded and took the paper. Charlie cast a mock-paranoid glance at CJ as he left.

Toby read the sheet Leo had sent him. It was a duplicate; he was already writing these statistics into the speech. Leo was distracted about something. Toby went back to work. A few minutes later he noticed CJ was still with him.

"Don't you have a job?"

"I brought it with me." CJ waved a stack of papers. "They're doing work in my office."

"What a nice change of pace for it."

She ignored him. "What do you know about Qumar?"

He looked up. "You want the population, or ... ?"

"I mean about Sharif. Coming here."

Toby shrugged. "I know that he's coming here."

"So do I."

"I won't say don't start," Toby said carefully.

"But you'll think it."

"CJ --"

"How can we let him in the building, Toby?"

Toby shook his head and shrugged again, because he really didn't know. The Qumari government was horrendous and the U.S. government did business with them because it was convenient, but convenient meant necessary in a way. So CJ was right, but so was the U.S. government, and there was no compromise to be reached. It was maddening.

CJ sighed shortly and Toby watched her force her attention to the stack of papers on her lap. He forced his own to his desktop, scattered with discarded drafts of a speech that at this rate was never getting written. To his credit, he hadn't crumpled every failed draft and launched it across the room; after spending three hours the other night hunting one little fact that had gotten accidentally discarded, he was just piling everything into one big, poorly written but uncrumpled mess on the desktop.

He was too distracted to write properly. He kept thinking about the Sam-Seaborn-shaped hole in the wall. It reminded him of another of Leo's wall references, letting President Bartlet be as liberal as he wanted to be, pushing him past the testing stage into the legislative one. And probably losing re-election. Which was probably going to happen anyway now.

"Whatever happened to running into walls full-speed?"

CJ didn't look up. "We're doing better than we used to."

"We're a one-term administration that didn't accomplish anything memorable."

Now she did look up, surprised. "We've accomplished plenty, and what makes you think we're a one-term administration?"

"I'm not saying that, exactly. I'm just saying I -- I don't want to sacrifice that --" he groped for words -- "that -- freedom -- to screw up. Or to risk it. I don't want to give that up just to chase an election that is, is no sure thing."

"No election is a sure thing." Her voice was gentle, but there was a current of desperation hidden somewhere beneath it. She wanted to win. He knew how she felt.

"Yeah, okay," he said quietly, and gripped his pen tighter. CJ kept looking at him for a while before she stood up.

"Need coffee," she muttered, and he could tell he'd killed her decent mood. Absently, he watched Simon Donovan trail her away.

CJ got her coffee and then went to check on Gail. She found Josh with his forehead on his desk; when she realized he was asleep, she got a pen and started writing on his hand. Don't forget to feed the fis-- Josh woke up before she could get the last letter written. He swatted at her and then looked at his watch without noticing the memo on his hand.

"Tell me you stayed up all night arguing about marriage incentives," CJ baited him.

"We didn't even get finished," Josh answered blearily. "Amy's scheduled a meeting."

"With who?"

"Me. Here." He looked at his watch again, having already forgotten what it said. "Now."

"Hmm. Then I should leave?"

"Probably."

"How's my fish?"

Josh looked at the animal swimming laps on the corner of his desk. "It's fine."

"She."

"Huh?"

"You called her an it."

Josh stared at CJ, expressionless, for such a long time that she finally turned away. When she heard his forehead hit the desk again, she decided to close the door behind her and let the man get some sleep.

But that left her nowhere to go, unless she wanted to see Sam, who was so paranoid everyone was checking up on him (since everyone was checking up on him) that he'd already thrown her out three times this week. This paperwork wasn't the most exciting part of her job, but it had to get done somehwere, so CJ sat in a chair outside Josh's office and got to work.

Moments later she subconsciously noticed Simon shift his gaze, but it took her a while to realize that meant someone else had arrived. It was Amy Gardner, carrying a deli bag and studying CJ.

"Hello," CJ said politely.

"Hi."

"Josh is in. Might not be awake, though."

"I'll let him sleep a minute." Amy took the chair beside CJ.

"You're here about welfare reauthorization?" CJ asked.

"I am."

"I'm here because they're doing work in my office. Plaster and whatnot."

"Oh."

They sat for a while, and Amy tried to study CJ without CJ's knowledge. She was curious about this woman who worked in the White House and still managed not to kill Josh Lyman.

"Keep after him," CJ said suddenly, without looking up from the stack of papers on her knee.

"Hmm?"

"Marriage incentives. Don't let him off the hook."

"I don't plan to."

"Neither do I."

"Good."

"Only ..." CJ shrugged.

"What?"

"Someone has to give in eventually," CJ said, "and it isn't going to be President Bartlet. Nor is it going to be the electorate. So I might let Josh off the hook after all."

Amy thought about that, and about Josh's job, and how he didn't have as much control as he would like over legislation, Congress, the weather, whatever.

"I can't let him off the hook," Amy said.

"I know. You shouldn't have to. But the problem is, you're both right." CJ sighed, almost wistfully, Amy thought. "You're just two very separate kinds of right."

Amy was going to answer, but Josh's office door opened then, which was good, since she had no idea what she would have said to CJ.

"Ham and cheese?" Josh asked hopefully instead of saying hello.

"Peanut butter and jelly," Amy lied, following him into his office. He reached around her and closed the door. "Let's talk about welfare," she said.

"The vote's next week, and I can't change it, and you know it, so let's talk about why you're here," Josh countered.

"Does your hand say you should remember to feed a fis?"

Josh looked. "Well," he said.

"What's a fis?"

"CJ's in a weird mood," Josh said as if that were an answer.

"I just talked to her. She seemed fine."

"Amy --"

"I think we have to stop seeing each other."

Josh didn't miss a beat. "Because of marriage incentives?"

Even now she couldn't resist. "You see how they're bad for relationships?" she teased.

Josh smiled. It was a sad smile that was slow to fade, so there was still a trace of it when Josh said, "Because we can't discuss the issues." It wasn't a question.

"It sounds stupid when you say it," Amy told him. She put the sandwiches on his desk, where they stayed for the rest of the meeting.

"Thanks," he said, drawing now a sad smile from her.

"It isn't stupid, though," she went on. "We've done this on marriage incentives, on Defense of Marriage, on Right to Know. The person in your job and the person in my job would have to be emotionally unattached to their jobs, or to each other, or both, or very drunk to make this work."

"We can swing the very drunk," Josh offered.

"That's all we can swing," Amy answered.

"I like dancing with you," Josh said.

"I'll miss your damn snoring," Amy told him, and walked out. She smiled at CJ, nodded at Simon and headed for the nearest exit.

Behind her CJ remained bent over her work. Simon watched her. She kept glancing at Josh's door, as though she wanted to check on him, but didn't. Simon thought about what she'd told Amy -- that it didn't matter they were both right, somebody still had to give in. It was the same conversation she'd had with Toby. It was the same conversation that had kept Simon out of politics, all those years ago in college when he'd thought he might go into politics.

CJ stood up suddenly, and Simon started to follow her, but she didn't go far. "I can check on the fish," she said triumphantly, and opened the door.

Eventually, Josh and CJ ate the ham and cheese sandwiches his ex-girlfriend had left. Sam joined them first, looking for a staple remover, and then Toby, because he still couldn't write the damn speech. Donna came next. They talked about North Dakota, sugar growers, and Governor Ritchie. They didn't mention welfare, Sam-Seaborn-shaped holes, or the President. Inside the office they could talk about what they wanted. Simon stayed just outside, in the rest of the world.

~Sary
5/18/02



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