Ms. Walter Goes to Washington.

Part Two.

 

Wednesday, 07:00, 23/11/00. The Office of the Assistant to the President for Health Policy.

Leila had been jogging since six and was finally making her way up the western side of The Ellipse towards the White House. Her luggage had arrived late the previous evening at the West Wing and since Leila had packed some leggings, a jersey and her runners, she had left a change of work clothes and her wet bag in her new office. She came to the southwest appointment gate and fished her security pass out from under her jersey. She was puffing from the last sprint leg and could barely speak to wish the guard a good morning. Her cheeks were rosy and her hair had curled into little tendrils where it had escaped from her ponytail. Leila loved running in this weather, she felt warm and alive without drowning in her own sweat. She was in this slightly euphoric post jogging state of mind, when she saw C.J coming toward the entrance. CJ stopped and waited for Leila to catch up.

"Morning CJ." Leila got out between deep breaths of cold air.

"Energetic this morning, I see." CJ commented dryly.

"Yeah, not sure what possessed me, except that my work clothes are in the office, and I couldn't really rock up to the White House in running kit without looking like I'd actually run. I'd never exercise if I didn't' trick myself into it."

They walked in through the foyer, Leila's runners squeaking on the marble. "CJ, can I have five minutes with you at some stage today?"

"Sure, see Carol, she should be here by now .You got something on your mind?"

"Great, thanks, I want to give you a heads up on a few things the press may know. Or, at least, they won't have to look too hard to find out about me, that, well, I'd prefer if you heard from me first."

"'Kay." CJ had not expected Leila to come to her, but she knew they'd have to bring it up and was immensely glad she wouldn't have to introduce the topic. How do you ask someone to spill about her skeletons?

Leila went into her office, got her stuff and walked to the bathroom. She saw Sam and Toby arguing about grammar in the communications bullpen.

"Morning fellas." Leila kicked the door to the bathroom open and it closed with a satisfying thud.

"How can she be that chipper at this hour of the morning?" Toby asked no one in particular.

"It's only her second day. She didn't have a chance to stuff anything up yesterday. She's the only one in the building with a clean slate." Sam answered.

"Who is?" Josh came out of is office and caught the end of Sam's comment.

"Leila. She's been jogging."

"At this hour?"

"My thinking exactly." Toby was not a huge believer in exercise or any activity that could be construed as needing to be done outside. Unless it was by somebody else, and only then, the Yankees.

Leila was ready in fifteen minutes. Her hair, though still wet, was in a French braid. A navy dress with a boat neck and three-quarter length sleeves and heels made up her outfit. A little make up and she was out of the bathroom, had grabbed a coffee and headed off to Leo's office.

Leo had asked Margaret to prepare employment papers for Leila, she had also put in applications for visas and the like. Leo commented that one of the perks of the White House was how easy it was to arrange Green Cards.

"It won't be necessary, Leo"

"Why not?"

"Dad is an American expatriate. So I have dual citizenship."

"Really?" Leo's eyebrows shot halfway up his forehead

"Yeah, he met my mum in Vietnam. She was a captain in the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corp stationed in Nui Dat. Dad got shot down flying helicopters and captured by the Viet Cong. An Aussie detachment rescued them two weeks later and he ended up in Mum's ward. The regiment chaplain married them. He got a medical discharge, some kind of medal and when her tour finished in '68, they came to live in Australia.

"My, aren't you one for surprises."

"I didn't realise it was relevant until I thought about the paper work. I suppose it will make explaining why you couldn't find a yank to sort out health a little easier, since, theoretically, I am one."

"It was a problem that didn't outweigh the benefits of hiring you. This information does make it easier, though, you're right. What was your father's name and rank?"

"Maj. Stephen Walter. Why?" This had the potential to be coming from left field. Where is this going? Leila went on guard.

"He's still alive?" Leo asked quickly.

"Yeah, I spoke to him yesterday."

"Good. I'm glad. You can go now." He dismissed her peremptorily, his face stern, not giving any hint of the turmoil he felt.

Leila grabbed the file with her papers in it, her countenance clearly bemused. She figured she would get an explanation eventually, but was a little miffed that he did not clarify himself without delay. She walked, almost dazed, past Margaret, got to the door, did an abrupt about turn and stalked back into Leo's office.

"Leo, about before. We have to set some ground rules here. If something comes up about my family, and I don't mean just now, I mean while I continue to work for this administration." Leila realised she perhaps shouldn't be laying down the law like this on her second day, especially to the Chief of Staff. But she was going to finish what she started and besides, she'd say the same to President Bartlet himself, if need be. "It is so far from acceptable behaviour, it beggars belief, for you not to engage in full and frank discussions with me about any impact my background may have on me doing my job. I know there are things you will undoubtedly not bring me in on or think carefully before doing so. But this is not and I repeat, not, one of them. The quickest way to secure my non-negotiable resignation is to cut me out the loop on my family."

Leila had not raised her voice but her chest felt like she had been screaming and disconnected images flashed before her. She realised that Leo had really pushed her. She rarely, if ever, got as angry as she just had.

"I flew helicopters out of Bien Hoa. Your father and I flew with the 48th Assault Helicopter Company. We never heard anything of him after the Aussies rescued him. We did not even know the severity of his injuries..." Leo spoke flatly. He did not appear to think it strange that Leila was dictating terms of her employment to him.

"Two fractured tibias, one fractured femur, a predisposition to whiskey soaked rages and an enhanced capability to hold a grudge." Leila listed his war wounds clinically and impersonally. "You were saying?" "I was saying, that you caught me off guard. There is no secrecy about me having gone to Vietnam nor did I mean to imply anything about your father. I apologise for giving any suggestion to the contrary."

"I spoke out of turn, Leo."

"Regardless, I won't tempt fate and not bring you in on anything concerning your family." Leo's response was dry and he shot her an enigmatic smile. "But it's not going to be a thing."

"So it's not a thing that I was an unmarried teen mother who has bought up her child with two men, who happen to be gay. That my parents fully embraced and never truly let go of the counter culture movement on their return from 'Nam. Which part isn't in the majority whip's wet dream, Leo? Tell me, cos I'm stumped.

Leo laughed. Your parents supported you to become who you are. As did Davy's fathers. Moreover, despite, or perhaps because of the hurdles you set yourself, you are here now and that is all we will be saying. The president doesn't comment on the private life of his staff." Leo's face had hardened into a battle mask, but softened again into a surprisingly gentle smile.

"I hope you're right. Thanks for hearing me out." Leila felt winded and left Leo's office quickly, not looking back.

Leo watched her leave his office, realising that his initial impression of Leila had been correct. She knew which battles she had to fight, had her priority's set right and he felt that she would be a strong presence in the west wing. Frankly, though, he was glad she was on their side.

Leila went back to her office, the edge of her optimistic outlook slightly worn. She turned her computer on to check her email and heard Josh screaming at Donna.

"And I thought I was the one with the temper." she said aloud.

She was preoccupied and paid little attention to the computer screen. Leila had had another late night conversation with Jonathan. Her resignation had been in front of him and he was less than impressed.

"No, I didn't know this was in the offing, Jonathan, You would have been surprised, though, if I hadn't taken the job. You know you would have."

"..."

"I'll be home on Monday afternoon and I'll finish up at the department on the 15th of December. It's all in the letter."

"..."

"How dare you say that? I meant what I said last night. I lost a lot respect coming to the department when I did. I did it anyway because health is a bipartisan issue, even if you lot do have a propensity to stuff everything up. Well, as much as it is bipartisan, it is international. And the feeling I get here is that I have a chance to really effect change."

"..."

"You have potential, Jon, but you're on the wrong side of the floor. I honestly am sorry we didn't have a chance to work more closely together."

"..."

Them's the brakes. Adam will do just fine. He's the yes man you need to make you look good, cos that's Howard's main aim

"..."

"Oh, please. You and your predecessors never listened to what the department had to say. If you were interested in governing Australia for Australians, then you wouldn't spend so much time defending a tax so inequitable and bureaucratic that it makes Whitehall look streamlined. You are not going to change my mind."

"..."

"I'm hanging up now."

"..."

"Yes, Minister." Leila smiled to herself. "It's not half so much fun when I just say it, is it?"

"..."

"Goodbye, Jonathan, see you Monday."

Leila then rang Davida and broke the news. Davy was disconcertingly calm about it, and Leila was not at all sure that this was less upsetting than a blistering row. Leila had said that she was going to be home for Christmas and would pack up between Christmas and New Years. They would move all of Davy's stuff to her father's place, where she already had a room, until she decided what she wanted to do.

"You can come with me and I desperately hope you will, but if you want to stay in Sydney, you can always come over in the holidays. It won't be forever, Bartlet's up for re-election in two years. Who knows what will happen."

"What will nanna and grandpa say about it? Davy asked, deflecting a decision for the time being.

"I think they'll be happy for my career, but not happy that it's the White House. Dad voted for Bartlet which was the first time he voted since he immigrated, which is a good sign. Mum, well, I think she'll be worried for you, to be honest. Honey, you will tell me everything that happens if you don't come, won't you?"

"Course, mum, cos if I don't, you could tell and then you'd badger me till I coughed up the dirt, I'll save you the trouble." Leila's heart sank at the implication of those words. "Have you told Dad and Kris yet?"

"No, not yet, they're next. I'm stealing myself for Mum and Dad."

"Don't worry about them, they'll tell you what they think, you'll do what you want anyway, and then they'll get over it. Same old story."

"Thanks, Davy," Leila said dryly, "my relationship with my parents in a soundbyte from my oh so wise daughter."

"It's in the genes, mother."

They kept talking for a while, but neither Davy nor Leila dared bring up the subject of Davy moving, both hoping the other would give a real indication of what they wanted.

"Honey, I've got to go now, you will let me know your decision as you soon as you come to it? I don't want to pressure you into coming, but I need to know fairly soon."

"OK mum, I'll let you know. I love you and miss you heaps"

"Ditto, little one."

Leila hung up and was very glad that she was sitting in the privacy of her hotel suite, so the tears could run freely. It had all happened so fast that, combined with the residual jet lag, Leila had to fight hard to regain her composure. What in hell was she doing? She asked herself for the millionth time that day.

Leila came back to the present and scrolled through her emails. News traveled fast in the Australian public service, she observed. Several people, many she could barely remember meeting, had dropped her a line to congratulate her. The Australian Embassy in Washington D.C. had also heard and wrote saying that they had not even known that Leila was in the States in the first place. Should she need anything during her stay, she was to please avail herself of any services they could provide. Leila found it hard to believe that they actually cared she was Stateside. That is, before she had the job. So she replied, thanking them and only slightly tongue in cheek, asked them for a jar of Vegemite and decent beer.

Leila logged off and went to see Carol. CJ was giving a briefing and Carol had obviously gone to stand in attendance. Leila decided that she would watch and unobtrusively stood behind the vacant glass walled press room. An announcement regarding her appointment would not be made until Leila's resignation was effective. It was prudent, therefore, not to be a presence upon whom the press could ponder. She slipped out as soon as CJ announced the final question.

"Arthur." CJ picked a voice out of the melee of voices vying for her attention.

"CJ, does the White House have any comment to make on yesterday's Health Care Reform Summit?"

Leila turned back.

"The President has found it an immensely fruitful exchange of ideas and hopes it will enhance efforts to approach health care on a global level. That's it, folks. The next briefing will be at three."

CJ stepped away from the lectern and walked out of the room with Carol. Leila was waiting for them beyond the press barriers.

"Hi CJ, nice work. I was just looking for Carol to discuss an appointment time."

"Carol?" CJ asked.

"You've ten minutes before the President pardons the turkey."

Leila looked confused. CJ sighed. "Twenty-two years of school and I'm dealing with poultry."

"Something to do with Thanksgiving?"

"Yeah, and I'm the schmuck stuck with organising the whole catastrophe. Anyway, enough about me, what do I need to know?"

CJ closed the door to her office and Leila sat on her couch. A turkey gobbled from behind CJ's desk.

"It's about Davy, well not her, exactly, She has a step dad and well," Leila waved her left hand sans a wedding band in front her face. John, Davy's father is gay. He realised sometime after I introduced him to my best friend and his future partner. I was pregnant, I loved them both, and figured that, well, this was Sydney, these things happen all the time. It's no secret, but a Press Corp looking for dirt on an outside appointment to the White House might feel rather chuffed with this discovery, I guess. Kris, John's partner, just got appointed Senior Counsel in the New South Wales Department of Public Prosecution. He doesn't need to draw fire over this. The Sydney press has a nasty habit of equating homosexuality in the NSW judicial system with pedophilia. Don't ask me why." She looked and felt disgusted every time she thought about it.

CJ considered Leila's information. "I appreciate you coming to me with this. Forewarned is forearmed, I suppose. Are there any likely sources that could leak this?"

"As I said, it's no secret, but nor is it common knowledge. It is a fourteen-year-old story, and I've never had any kind of public profile before. I don't have sworn enemies, as such, that I can think of, anyway. But my colleagues know, like they know how many kids anybody they work with has."

"OK, leave it with me, we'll find a spin, if and or when it becomes necessary."

"I hope I don't sound paranoid being up front like this. The White House Press Corp has a reputation for being slightly rabid, is all."

"Like I said, spin is fast becoming a strength of this administration." CJ's tone gave Leila to understand that it was a sore point with CJ that much of her job was taken up by getting West Wing staff out of trouble. At least she had warning on this one.

"Thanks CJ, have fun with the turkey."

"Fun? With a matter of such gravity?" CJ replied archly. "Ya, I'm sure I shall. 'Later."

CJ's respect for Leila's political insight had increased exponentially. Her interpretation of how things stood with the Press Corp was not far enough off for CJ's liking. Moreover, for someone with no media exposure she had pinpointed the vulnerabilities of her appointment.

Leila returned to her office. A folder had arrived from personnel with resumes of people suitable for the Aide position. She sat down, hit play on Achtung Baby and flipped through them, narrowing it down to two. She would ask Donna if she knew anything about either of them. Next, she opened the other package, which was sealed in a diplomatic bag. The Australian embassy sent her something? Wow.

Leila tore at the paper tape that sealed the box and then dug around in the foam bubbles until she fished out a jar of Vegemite, a six pack of Coopers Pale Ale. How did they know was an Adelaide girl? A packet of Bushell's tea bags and a tape of Roy and H.G.'s 'The Dream', which was a satirical late night round up of the days event's that ran throughout the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

She immediately rang the embassy, getting to speak to the Ambassador's senior aide, Bernard Jones, in record time. Must be the White House prefix, she realised.

"Mr. Jones, it's Leila Walter, just ringing to thank you so very, very much for the care package." Leila couldn't have kept the smile out of her voice if she tried.

"Your email suggested an impending case of homesickness, and we had to nip that in the bud."

Leila chuckled. "You've really made my day. I'm going to look for some bread and butter and then I'm set. A cuppa and Vegemite sandwich- all one needs in life."

"Very ascetic"

"Oh and Coopers, of course."

"I rang your mother to find out what constituted 'decent' beer, I have to say, I had a hard time convincing her that nothing awful had happened."

"That sounds like mum."

"Keep in touch while you're at the White House, we run a net ball tournament during the winter between us, the Kiwi's, the Pom's and the Windies and other assorted pink bits on the globe. We could always do with the help." The emphasis lay equally on help and always.

"Sure, I'd love to, it sounds like fun."

"Did you find Fatso?" Bernie asked cryptically.

"No, hang on." Leila dug a little deeper into the box and found a stuffed toy wombat. "You sent me a 'Fatso the Fat-arsed Wombat' toy. That's so cool. He's already taken pride of place on my desk."

"We watched "The Dream" religiously here. It was the best part of the Games coverage, that and the swimming of course." Bernie explained the running theme.

"Yeah, I volunteered my nursing skills during the Games and one of the perks of working for the health department was I got to pick where I was deployed. So, of course, I picked the pool deck. The atmosphere was out of this world."

"You couldn't have got a better spot than that. Look, I will send you an email with the game fixtures. We start in the New Year, so hopefully, you'll be all settled in and raring to go."

"Thanks again, Bernard. I will always remember this. Bye."

"Good bye."

A little while later, Donna knocked on the doorframe and noticed the box. "It's not your birthday, is it? You know with the CIA and the FBI, you would think between them, they could let us know if our newest staff member had a birthday. It's only polite."

Leila giggled and explained.

"So that little squat, brown thing is a Wombat?"

"Yep, and here's one for the A.T.C.O.J, Annoy the Crap Outta Josh files, to the uninitiated. The Wombat does more damage than any other form of road kill- including big things like cows, cos it's got a really low centre of gravity. The physics of the beast is it's best revenge."

"Excellent, Josh has this thing for physics. Now I can play him at his own game. He is SO ripe for trivia, he's been driving me nuts all day."

"Really?"

"Yeah, I mean Josh is abrasive at the best of times, but it's getting absurd, even for him."

Leila grimaced in sympathy.

"Oh, by the way, do you know anything about..." Leila checked the folder, "umm, Melissa Emory or Emily Lloyd? Personnel sent me their C.V.'s for the aide's position."

"Not really, but let me ask around."

"If you would? Thanks ever so. Did you need anything?"

"Josh asked for 10 minutes with you. I could have rung, but I was passing." Donna explained.

"Sure, anytime he's free, my diary is clear. Hang on." A thought occurred to her mid stream. "Is he free for lunch?"

"He was going to have it at his desk."

"I think you both need him to get some fresh air. I'll talk with him over lunch. Tell him I'll be with him at 12:30."

"That's great, thanks."

Leila had ordered soup and a bread roll. She made up the roll with butter and Vegemite, a salty yeast spread that tastes kind of like the foam on top of Guinness, icky definitely, but for Leila, it was comfort food of the first order.

She put on her hat and over coat on, grabbed her lunch and went to meet Josh, who intercepted her coming down the corridor, so they headed out to a park bench in the White House grounds.

"How has your morning gone?" Josh asked politely.

"Not bad, thanks." Leila told him about the care package and her meeting with CJ. She hesitated about mentioning the thing with Leo, she wasn't convinced that Leo didn't think she was a raving harpy crossed with a particularly angry mother tiger. And she didn't want to have her fears confirmed either.

"So I hear that you're a Yankee after all."

That meant he either thought she was rude, stupid, stupidly brave or a hard nosed bitch. She couldn't decide which was worse.

"Dad's past is firmly under the do not discuss heading in my family. I travel on an Australian passport and I don't even know if I have relatives over here. So while, yes, I do have citizenship, it's not been something I identify myself with." Leila explained as best she could.

"Oh."

"So, what's up with you? You seem a little on edge." Josh realised instinctively that Leila knew something more than just a bad day was the matter and couldn't be fobbed off. That same instinct told him that she was trustworthy. That he did not need to pretend to be OK. Well not much, anyway.

He couldn't, for instance, tell her that since the shooting, he would periodically experience panic attacks where he would become tachycardic, clammy, hyperaware and out of control. This was because he couldn't bear to allow himself to realise how helpless and hopeless he sometimes felt. Let alone tell all that to a woman he barely knew.

The fact was, however, that his face had told her the whole story in the five seconds he had hesitated.

"I guess I'm a little tired. I get bad pain now and then. That sets me on edge, too." So much for unburdening myself, Josh observed himself, as if from above, which was weird and happening a little too often for his liking.

"Having someone as clued in as Donna must help a great deal." Leila was pretty sure that Josh was way too buttoned up and determined to be over this, that it wouldn't have occurred to Josh to let her in. Still, the aim was to plant a seed in his mind, not give Josh the third degree. She hoped that this little foray into Josh's undoubtedly labyrinthine psyche would tip the balance and allow Josh to realise that he needed to get help.

"Well, it would, if there were anything to talk about. I'm fine, I've dealt with it and we have a country to run." Josh snapped, more sharply than he had intended to.

Well and truly over it? Sure. Whatever he reckoned, this man was heading for a breakdown.

They ate the rest of their lunch in silence. Leila finished and stood up to brush the crumbs from her coat.

"Donna said you wanted to see me about something. She didn't say what." Leila's tone bordered on being merely business like.

"Just wanted to make sure everything was going OK."

"Like I said, it's going well, thanks. She relented then and asked if knew a reputable real estate agency. She would look for somewhere to live before she went home. There was no way she could afford the hotel bills when she went on the payroll.

"Sure, Chamberlain and Harders has good listings. Are you looking for one or two bedrooms?"

"I don't know yet. She hasn't decided and I can't force her." Leila's voice was raw. It was clear to Josh that Leila was perhaps as equally sensitive about Davy as he was about his state of mind. If anything, it made him want even more to tell her what was going on. Not enough though to risk it.

They went back to the West Wing and although they did not speak, the silence was friendly and expressed an understanding and mutual concern.

When Leila got back to the office, Joan at the FLOTUS office set up an appointment for 1:30. Which was, Leila realised, in five minutes. She really needed to get on to finding an aide. Margaret had left a note saying that her presence was required at the senior staff meeting set for 2:30. Shit. Her feet had to touch the ground sometime soon. Just, obviously, not today.

Dr. Bartlet greeted Leila warmly. Leila's appointment to Assistant to the President for Health Policy had been a personal victory. Leila's doctorate supervisor was an old friend who knew of Abby's mission to ensure that health got a good piece of the Bartlet administration pie. He felt that Leila could be of use to Abby, so a parcel had arrived from the Institute of Health Sciences at Oxford University containing her dissertation. She had studied notions of equity in public health systems in Britain, Sweden, Australia and the US with recommendations for policy changes. However, Abby also knew how Jed's staff worked, so she checked back through everything she had published. She was radical but not insanely so, she had guts and knew how to last out a political battle.

"I'll put you out of your misery." Abby said dryly.

"Ma'am?" Leila stammered, she knew to what Abby referred, but did not feel it was necessarily a good thing that she was so transparent.

"Simon Jacobs is an old friend of mine and your PhD supervisor, I believe. He sent me your dissertation, somewhat out of the blue."

"I hope he doesn't choose your bed time reading too often. Then again it might be a wonderful cure for insomnia."

Abby laughed. "I have high hopes that your appointment is exactly what we need and you can consider me an ally. I am arranging an informal breakfast with Millicent Grffiths, the Surgeon General, you and myself when you get back from Australia. I understand your week has suddenly grown remarkably busy. It's endemic in the West Wing. It means you belong."

They then spoke of raising daughters; Davida and music lessons; Zoey going off to college; how much Leila had enjoyed Concanon's biography of the first lady; health care in general and emergency medicine in particular. Leila found the First Lady's earthy practicality reinvigorating. It would, she felt, keep her grounded and focused in the months to come.

Leila almost floated back to her office. She had crossed an emotional barrier back there, talking to Dr. Bartlet. She finally believed, on a subjective level, that all the sacrifice was worth it. That her life's journey had taken it's painfully circuitous route for good reason and that everything she had been and done informed the woman she now was. That woman who had just been the appointed Assistant to the President for Health Policy. It was a heady feeling and she felt like kissing someone. She had to settle for Fatso. It did occur to her, though, that she would prefer to kiss Josh. The man, even desperately unhappy, was undeniably magnetic. Leila steered herself sharply back on course. Do not fall for colleagues. Do not fall for unavailable men, especially when they don't even realise they are unavailable. It's a can of worms, Leila, and you are a consummate professional. Her conscience had taken on a strict, admonitory tone. That would have to be the only thing getting consummated, she thought, submitting to her own better judgement.

Sam was waiting in Margaret's office and when Leila arrived, he flashed her a brilliant smile of welcome, "How are you finding it all?"

"A little crazy and I still periodically have to wonder which rabbit hole I've fallen down. Though I don't think there is much chance of a Queen beheading me here."

"Not unless you include by proxy assault with a cricket bat that Queen Elizabeth gave our senior counsel, Lionel Tribbey."

"I'll watch out then." Leila rejoined lightly.

"So watcha doing for Thanksgiving?"

"Getting ready for the red eye back to Sydney the next day. Why?"

"Umm, well, we figured that you wouldn't have plans... so, I, I mean we, wondered if wanted to join Josh, Toby and me for a low key thing at Josh's place."

"Sure, I'd like that. What about CJ?" Did they confer about everything? Leila wondered. There is presenting a united front then there's codependency. Be nice Leila. She interrupted her own chain of thought. She was glad to be asked. She must be beginning to feel at home, because, despite never having celebrated Thanksgiving before, she dreaded the thought of spending it alone.

"Toby is asking her. We've been staying out of her way, seeing that that turkey thing was kinda our fault." Sam did have the grace to look sheepish.

"I take it that you're not actually going to claim responsibility, though, cos that would be... actually, why aren't you going to tell her?"

"Have you seen CJ mad? She can be downright mean." Sam spoke lightly, but there was a real element of fear. Leila giggled.

"And you're quaking in your boots. Gutless wonder." Leila teased.

"So sue me. I wanna live to fight another day. Plus, I've been dealing with psycho-Christians all day, CJ on my case as well, would be enough to have me scheduled." Leila felt vaguely sympathetic.

"Anyway, so about tomorrow night. What do I bring? I've never celebrated Thanksgiving before."

"To tell the truth..." Sam began.

"Always a good idea" Leila interjected. They hadn't thought that far? And these people were running a country?

"We hadn't got that far."

"I'll be all ears when you have, Sam."

"Just bring something to drink."

"OK."

They filed into Leo's office and perched themselves around the room.

"So what do I say the President is doing about the Chinese refugees?" CJ wanted to be out of there, sometime this side of tomorrow, if that was at all possible.

"We're working on that as we speak. Let's just say that the National Guard has a history of not always doing it's job."

"I hope you don't want me to go on record criticising the National Guard. Because I shouldn't have to tell you why that is bad. Especially because they haven't yet not done their jobs, which..." CJ trailed off, reading between the lines. "... is exactly what we want them to do."

"So just report it straight. No comment either way." Leo instructed. A look of simpatico passed between Leo and CJ.

"Leo recapped further on the day and got up to speed on how the Thanksgiving festivities were proceeding. CJ looked worried.

"Apart from putting a musical on national TV with my musical abilities, which we all know only extend to lip-synching acid jazz? Everything is going swimmingly."

 

Thursday, 20:30, 25/11/00, Lyman Residence.

Leila stood on Josh's front steps. She had pressed the security intercom button for Josh's apartment but had not yet received any response.

Toby arrived and joined her on the steps. He looked quizzically at her.

"You've already pressed the buzzer?"

"No, just standing here enjoying the view and impending frost bite."

"So no answer then?"

"Nope, and I've been here ten minutes." Leila bounced on the soles of her feet, the cold exquisite.

Toby went down to the street and looked up, counting the floors until he got to Josh's window.

"Well the lights are on."

Toby pressed the button again, holding it down so it would ring continuously. There was no response. A few minutes later Sam and CJ arrived.

"A welcoming party? All for little old us? Sam asked jovially.

"No, Josh isn't answering his buzzer. And yes, he is at home."

Sam got out his key ring. "Lucky I happen to have his spare." Too many nights dragging Josh home after a night on the town had taught Sam never to be without his friend's door key.

"Don't wave it about like a flag, use the damn thing, my nose is about to drop off here." Leila was freezing and her sense of humour was almost equally frosty.

Sam opened the door and they climbed the stairs in single file. Leila felt unsettled, something was not right here. She dismissed this and decided to enjoy the evening, turning off the extra sensory perception that had come with years of nursing.

It did indeed appear that Leila had been overly worried. Josh came to the door, dressed casually, his hair still wet from the shower. Still, Leila looked at him closely. Almost into him, Josh felt when he noticed her observing him. She made him feel vulnerable, as if she could cut through his bullshit fašade. He expected to see pity in her eyes, but there was nothing like that, concern, maybe, but pity, no. He had to look away. He had the disturbing sensation that Leila knew that his hair was wet because only the sound of water rushing over his head cut out the noises, like that damn buzzer. Everything was too intense, too loud, and too bright and only submerged in water could he think clearly. Even then, though, his thoughts were worryingly out of control.

He went and got a corkscrew for the bottle of Wolf Blass Chardonnay that Leila had bought for dinner. CJ was busily compiling a Thanksgiving meal from components she had managed to buy from Sutton Place Gourmet. There was no way she had the time or inclination to cook after the Andrew Lloyd Weber effort today.

"You sang well today, Josh." CJ commented drolly. "I think the whole thing went rather well. Leila had the anthem down word perfect and those songs weren't too hard to pick up."

"Yeah, you did good today, CJ. She's going to be good to have around, isn't she?"

"Ya, thank god she only looks like Mandy."

"What do you mean by that?"

"This one's around for the long haul, Josh, Mandy never was." CJ's words deliberately ambiguous.

Josh turned around and lent against the bench. He studied the floor tiles. "Ya reckon?"

"Yeah, I do, in fact I'm sure of it."

The five of them sat around Josh's living room watching the game. Periodically one of them would explain the relevant rule of Gridiron to Leila. Most of the time, however they just sat, companionable and relaxed, the atmosphere only moderately tinged with exhaustion.

The group began to disperse about one am. CJ and Toby left first. It was awkward saying goodbye, there was that moment of hesitation- whether to go the euro route, cheek kissing or not... Leila settled for that and hoped she didn't seem to much like a wanker. The wine made her not care terribly.

Sam offered to drive her back to the West Wing. Leila had decided earlier she would kill the few hours she had between the end of dinner and her flight by going over papers and drawing up a plan of attack for the coming months.

"Thanks Sam, but what little I know of D.C. geography is that the White House is 15 minutes in completely the wrong direction. But if you'd wait with me till a cab comes, I'd appreciate that." Leila was definite. It was way too late and Sam looked tired, if two days at the pace she'd just experienced was anything to go, then it was a surprise that any of them could walk in a straight line.

"Sure, OK, if you're sure." Sam aquiesed, grateful, his bed was calling louder than ever.

Josh saw them to the door of his apartment. Sam gave him a hug goodbye, the past months a constant reminder to how close he came to losing his best friend. It was for Sam, a real day of Thanksgiving.

It seemed natural, then, for Josh to draw Leila into an embrace, one with a totally different dynamic to be sure, but not, to the onlooker at least, inappropriate.

"Stay." He whispered in her ear. Josh wasn't sure where that had come from, but it he had said it before he had a chance to weigh up the consequences.

Leila pulled away and looked closely at him. His eyes were clear, but the intent behind his suggestion was not so easy to fathom. Without doubt, it was exactly what Leila wanted to hear, whether she should or not, though, was a completely different kettle of fish.

She smiled and picked up her luggage.

"So, I guess I'll see you in January. Have a happy Hanukkah, Josh. The correct Hebrew pronunciation rolling easily off her tongue."

"Thanks. Have a good Christmas. Enjoy the last blast of summer while you can." Josh regarded Leila, wondering if he saw something like regret in her expression.

Leila and Sam stood on the pavement waiting for a cab.

"What did you mean, the other night, when you said things were complicated?" Leila asked, hoping that he would remember the context of their previous conversation, if only because she really, really did not want to explain why she was asking.

Sam turned to Leila, about to ask what she meant, but understood eventually to what she referred.

"Nothing, really." The tone of his voice weakened the veracity of his denial. He went on. "Their synchronicity scares the hell out of me. But nothing is going on, so to speak."

Leila itched to ask how exactly he knew that, but felt it would probably be pushing the friendship to dig further.

"Oh," was the response that Leila settled for. She looked at Sam and had a epiphanous moment. "You and her... and he doesn't know." Sam looked up in surprise.

"How do you figure?" He tried not to splutter, aiming for disdain but failing miserably.

Leila smiled mysteriously. "I have a sense for these things. He, nor anyone else, will hear it from me. Besides, I merely voiced a baseless supposition and you neither confirmed or denied that there was any truth to my speculation."

Sam smiled wanly, he was not looking forward to telling this to Donna when she got back from Madison.

A cab finally arrived, not soon enough for either of them. Leila hugged Sam goodbye.

"Thank you for everything, Sam, you're a good man." She kissed him on the cheek and got into the cab.

"See you in January." She called out the window, waving a gloved hand. The cab pulled away and she wound up the window. The full meaning of the non-conversation she and Sam had just had began to sink in.

Leila took a deep breath. Gather ye rosebuds. She hoped that she wouldn't come to regret this.. She tapped the safety screen between her and the driver.

I've changed my mind, can you take me back to where we came from?"

The driver made a dramatic u-turn. Fucking indecisive women, he thought, as he flung the car around.

"Sure, Lady, whatever you say."

 

 

 

 

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