MS. WALTER GOES TO WASHINGTON, PART 4

 

 

06:00, Friday, 9/2/01, The Old Executive Office Building Gymnasium.

Leila wound the fabric tape around her right ankle and swallowed two Voltaren capsules dry. She extended her leg and rotated her ankle. It didn't feel too bad today and the anti inflammatory drug would work in a few minutes. It probably wasn't quite up to aerobics, but some weights and a few sets on the cardio machines would be ok.

She found an empty rowing machine and had 'rowed' about 2 kilometres and was beginning to feel tired when Sam sat in the ergonometer next to hers.

"You look like you know what you're doing." Sam commented.

"Uh huh. Hi, Sam," Leila got out between breaths.

Leila lost focus as she watched Sam's attempts at getting a rhythm going. She slowed down and reset her machine and stopped his.

"Hey. What did you do that for?"

"You row like that in real life, you'd have capsized before you left the pontoon." She demonstrated the correct motion, which Sam picked up easily and settled into a powerful rhythm, his upper body strength perfectly balanced by strong thighs.

"Thanks," Sam said, enjoying the feel of the resistance of the virtual water against his body.

"No worries. Wanna race?" Leila challenged.

"Sure. Fastest over a mile?" Sam asked.

Leila nodded, she called the start and they took off. Leila's race experience and Sam's greater reach and therefore stroke rate meant they were pretty evenly matched. She looked over and felt that the sight of the muscles rippling on Sam's shoulders and back beneath his shirt was somewhat of an unfair advantage. Must focus. Must not look. She repeated in time with the strokes. She did however allow herself to take a peek at his speedometer and pushed herself harder, finding an extra stretch from somewhere, just nosing in for first. She let go of the oars and automatically gave a small victory yell. She leant over and shook Sam's hand.

"You've done this before, haven't you?" he asked, puffed.

"Yeah, but you still got beat by a girl," she teased him.

"Where?" he asked, ignoring the jibe.

"Oxford. I coxed for the Osiris Eight- and was a lightweight single sculler, not quite Blue material, but close. Part of the Rhodes requirement," she explained.

"Well, aren't you quite the Renaissance girl," Sam responded. "Rematch?"

"Nah... I gotta get ready for work, maybe another time?"

"Wuss. Alright, you name the time and I'm there. Barring any governmental crises."

"Of course." Leila got up from the seat and grabbed her towel, wiping her hands and face. "Actually. I've got a favour to ask."

"Yeah?"

"Can I borrow your car tomorrow? The Potomac Boat Club rang me and said they have rack space available for my boat... and my little car isn't up to that sort of caper. You have an S.U.V. right?"

"That's right. So you want me to pick you up around 8:30, and we can do breakfast afterwards and come into work around 11?"

"Sounds like a plan. Thanks. Hey, bring Donna too."

Sam looked at Leila, searchingly. Must be a woman's intuition thing, he decided. He'd regretted that they hadn't been able to be up front about their relationship, and what Leila suggested offered some degree of normalcy.

"I'll ask her," he said smiling.

Sam was waiting for her when she came out of the change rooms. He had been sitting on a bench reading a memo and had to jog to catch up with her as she headed purposefully toward the exit.

"God. You move fast," he panted when he caught up with her.

"This gimp's got some speed... I thought you'd have figured that out after I whipped your arse back there." Leila grinned.

"You're going to be insufferable about this aren't you?"

"You catch on quick."

"About that. I got a deal for you."

"Yeah?"

"You teach me to row, I'll teach you to sail."

"It's a deal. I'd like that." Leila said, suddenly struck shy.

 

09:30, Friday, 9/2/01, The Office of the Assistant to the President for Health Policy

Leila sat in her office with Emlyn and various health staffers- the weekly round up looked like it was going to be mercifully brief this week. The general reaction to the State of the Union address seemed to be along the lines of if you didn't have something nice to say, nothing should be said. Apart from that they were discussing a men's health promotion in the lead up to the vote.

Lisa Mainor, the White House Fellowship intern deployed to Leila's department had been instrumental in devising the plan and was thoroughly enjoying her moment in the sun in the way in which a person afraid of heights enjoys the liberation of sky diving. It hadn't occurred to Leila that anyone would be scared of little old her. It was kinda cool actually, she decided as she murmured encouragingly.

Something made Leila look out of the window overlooking the operations bullpen. CJ stood on the other side trying to get her attention. She motioned to Leila to come outside. Leila excused herself, apologising to Lisa. She went into the corridor and closed the door behind her.

"Sorry to pull you out of the meeting," CJ began.

"You could have come in." Leila replied.

"There's a bit of a crisis, actually," CJ stated nervously as she began walking to communications. Leila followed, her stomach tying itself into a fair imitation of a celtic knot. "What's happened CJ? Please tell me it's not Lillienfeld."

"Nothing like that. It's actually a bit of a medical crisis. Toby's in a spot of bother. And, don't ask me why, you are the only one he'll let me get." CJ chose the words carefully.

"Oh. OK. Hang on a sec then." Leila had doubled back to her office and retrieved an impressively stocked first aid kit.

Leila lifted the back pack in explanation of her disappearance and muttered about being prepared for every contingency. "Can you be a bit more specific?" she asked CJ as they came up to Toby's door.

"He'd better explain it," was all that CJ would say.

Leila studied CJ's face as she pushed open the door. What the...?

Toby was sitting flush to the desk with both hands clutching a stress ball. Nice healthy complexion. Facial grimace- obviously in some pain. The way he's crushing the crap out of that ball suggests full strength in both limbs. OK, Leila breathed, it doesn't look like a stroke or a cardiac arrest but Toby wasn't being particularly forthcoming, in fact he looked less animate than the Mt. Rushmore carvings. She regarded him a moment more, giving him a chance to speak up.

"So, Toby. What seems to be the problem?"

"Nothing seeming about it. Not even seemly," Toby responded through clenched teeth.

"Are you in pain?"

"You could say that."

Leila put the kit down and crossed her arms. "I'm not psychic, Toby."

"CJ, tell her," he grunted, his face going bright red.

"He's got swelling that won't... umm reduce," CJ hedged.

Leila made a small gesture to Toby's nether regions and CJ nodded.

"OK. So how long?" she asked.

"92 minutes." Toby grunted again.

"Stamina is a good thing, Toby." Leila said dryly.

"Funny."

"So was the swelling caused by any...um, trauma?" Thank god for euphemism, Leila thought.

"No." CJ looked askance.

Leila had to bite the inside of her cheeks to keep from grinning. "Have you tried massage, you know, to alleviate the problem?"

"Uh. No," Toby muttered.

"This is all your fault," he said to CJ.

"Don't pin this one on me, mi amor," CJ responded with some heat.

"So this happened of it's own accord?" Leila's left eyebrow denoted a healthy level of skepticism.

"There was a certain visual stimulus, yes"

"Toby." CJ's voice took on a menacing tone. Leila thought she should take lessons. CJ continued. "I am talented at many, many things but controlling your thoughts and certain physiological responses, is not one of them. It is in no way my fault."

"OK. OK. Enough. CJ, perhaps you should wait outside." Leila's tone brooked no dispute and CJ left quietly.

"Toby, I'm sorry, but I'd better take a look."

Toby had been steeling himself for this eventuality and pushed his chair away from the desk and stared at his bookshelf as Leila took a peek.

"Um, Toby? It might ease the situation if you ah, undo your trousers."

Leila allowed herself a smile which she hoped would pass for sympathetic. She leaned over the couch and made sure the vertical blinds were tightly closed. Toby pulled his chair back to the desk. Leila heard the zipper pop open tooth by tooth as it was undone very carefully.

"Is that better?" she asked still looking away.

"Some," he said noncommittally.

"Can I have another look?" she asked.

"OK."

She came round to his side of the desk and finally ascertained the root of the problem. She grabbed the scissors from the desk tidy and noticed that Toby had gone a little pale. She opened and closed them a few times and giggled.

"Don't worry Toby, it's not that drastic. It looks like the fly on your boxers acted as a tourniquet." She pulled the waist of the underwear, undid the top button and snipped the thread holding the second button in place, pulled it off and separated the fabric and watched the colour return to Toby's face. She put the scissors on his desk and the button next to it, walked around his desk, picked up the kit and went to the door. She turned back, her hand on the door knob. "I assume you can take it from here?"

"Yeah... Thanks," he said gruffly. Leila closed the door behind her.

CJ was leaning against the magazine stand between Sam and Toby's office and straightened up as Leila came out.

"Problem solved?" CJ asked.

"Yeah."

"Thank you," CJ said grabbing Leila's arm for emphasis.

"No worries... I'll just go back to my meeting now." Leila couldn't even begin to imagine how to engage in small talk after something like that.

"OK," CJ said as Leila walked away.

Leila went back into the meeting and when asked, assured them that it had been a false alarm and muttered something about indigestion. The meeting broke up shortly afterwards.

"Lisa, would you wait a moment, please." Leila put her hand up as the staff filed out. Lisa blanched slightly as she resumed her seat.

"I just wanted to welcome you to the team. I meant to have a chat on Monday, but things have been a little crazy."

"So I gathered. I'm so excited to be here, ma'am."

Leila laughed and abruptly stopped and apologised. "It's good that you're excited, but if you ever call me ma'am again, you're fired. It's Leila to you and the rest of the West Wing, Ms. Walter to the D.N.C. and if

they sound nasty or Republican it's Dr. Got it?"

"Got it." Lisa warmed to Leila right away.

Leila checked her diary surreptitiously. "Give me a chance to find out more about your program. You've probably noticed I'm kind of new myself, and we'll do breakfast. Monday at 7:30 OK for you?"

"Yes ma... Leila. That would be lovely."

"By the way. Where are you from?" Leila asked trying to place the accent.

"Washington State, just outside of Seattle," Lisa responded.

"That's where my dad was from, apparently." She trailed off as the spectre of Lillienfeld appeared.

Lisa got up sensing that the meeting was over.

Leila nodded. "You've done really well so far. I look forward to having you on the team. Any problems, come see me."

"Thanks." Lisa nodded, appearing as if she wanted to curtsey, then left the office.

Emlyn appeared at the door with a stack of budget analyses. "The files you requested, ma'am."

"Fuck off." Leila lent back in her chair, smiling in case Emlyn hadn't realised she was joking.

"Well I never," Em replied archly.

She took the files from him with a small groan, inwardly grateful that it was Friday, even if weekends didn't actually mean time off, they still had symbolic value. "Ever so much obliged," she said as she made faces at the pile of epidemiology reports from the CDC in front of her. "I think I need a mid morning snack," she said, deciding to go with flight rather than fight.

Leila came back from the mess, balancing an orange on top of a can of diet Coke, a folder under her arm and her wallet between her lips.

"Any messages?" she mumbled around her wallet.

Emlyn picked up a sheaf of yellow notes, Leila stuck out her little finger and Emlyn wedged them between it and the can.

"Ta." At least that's what Emlyn thought she said..

She went into her office, unloaded herself and went through the notes.

"Emlyn?" she called out.

"No need to shout, I'm right behind you."

"What's this from security?"

"Apparently some Aussie guy arrived to see you, he was carrying a large black case but he wouldn't let security go over it. He said you'd know what it was about." Emlyn looked bemused.

"Oh God, it's Bill, he left a message last night. Shit. Shit. Shit. Has he been waiting long?" Leila didn't wait for an answer as she headed toward the main entrance.

"You'll need a coat, he's at the north west appointment gate," Emlyn called out in a calm counterpoint to Leila's harried tone. "They literally called a minute before you came back, I was about to come find you." Emlyn tried to sound petulant, but he was having too much fun watching Leila get all flustered. Maybe he was an old flame... hope she brings him up to show him her office, Emlyn thought with not entirely pure motive.

As soon as Leila had gone, he went to her phone and called Donna. "Leila's got a mysterious Aussie visitor and she seemed really excited."

"Really? What's his name?" Donna asked.

"Bill, I think is what she said. Has she mentioned that name to you?" Emlyn asked, he felt as if he should remember who that was.

"Her brother I think... he's a violinist or something," Donna answered, she prided herself on her memory for details.

"'Kay." Emlyn sounded disappointed. "Still, chances are he might be cute."

"Gay, straight, you men are all the same," Donna commented dryly.

"And you just figured that out?... You can't blame me, I mean, you could cut the sexual frustration around here with a butter knife."

"I think you might be projecting there," Donna said coyly. "Anyway, I'd better go, Josh is barking again."

"'Kay, see you. I'm not."

"Sure, sure. Bye." Donna hung up the phone, smiling to herself. Emlyn was such a cutie.

Leila went through the double gates and out onto the street, looking both ways until she saw a sandy haired man, huddled against the fence reading a paperback.

"B?"

"L. Finally. Government moves as fast as it does back home," Bill said wryly as he stood up, putting his paperback on the large musical instrument and hugged her.

"You have absolutely no idea how glad I am to see you." She ran a hand through his blond hair. "Whatcha doing here, kid?" Leila looked closely at him, looking for a clue as to his unexpected arrival.

"I'm out here on tour with the SSO remember?" Bill was pleased that he had surprised her, but pretended to be hurt that she had forgotten.

"Of course I remembered, I've already bought tickets, you dork. But aren't you meant to be in L.A.? Anyway, it's freezing, let's get through security and you can tell me inside." Leila picked up the cello. She punched in the pin on the gate and went through to the guard's booth, and handed it over. The guard opened it briefly, letting Leila pull it out of its case.

She looked at her brother. "You wouldn't let them open it? Is this why they wouldn't let you in?"

Bill looked a little sheepish. "It's like 0 degrees out here, and stringed instruments don't like extreme temperatures. It was self preservation, something happened to it and my life wouldn't have been worth living." Bill's admonitory tone had a humourous edge to it.

"In celsius, he meant," Leila explained to the guard. "Apologies for the confusion caused."

"Not a problem ma'am, it sounds like he did the right thing." The guard, amused by the conversation. He handed Bill a temporary pass.

"Thanks for worrying, but I wouldn't have killed you, honest. The guards booth is heated you know."

"Yeah, I know, I kinda wanted to meet you down here, that building is a little imposing, and, well..." Bill trailed off, embarrassed that he hadn't wanted to go in by himself."

"I know how you feel," Leila replied heartily. They walked quickly up the drive. "You didn't make a special detour, did you?"

"Nah, not really, we entered the quartet into a young performers' chamber music competition- a souped up eisteddfod, really, but the purse is rather attractive, and then we'll meet up with the rest of the crew. I'm staying with Julia at the Hyatt. Ben and Paul are arriving tomorrow. But I kinda booked us in cos you were here and I didn't want to baby-sit your cello all the way across the country."

"So you and Julia? Finally." She wavered between relief and disappointment that he wasn't staying with her. She didn't have the time to be a good host, and if he and Julia had finally- and that word didn't do justice to the five years of will they, won't they- hooked up, well good luck to the people in the next room if they wanted to sleep.

"Yeah." At 24, Bill still got flustered when he talked to Leila about girls, and he was hardly verbose at the best of times.

"I've got to pick up a few things for dinner. Do you want to grab some lunch with me on the way, then you can tell me about the itinerary."

"A quick bite, yeah, Julia said she'd take a nap while I dropped this off and then we're going to the National Gallery," Bill replied.

Leila guided Bill into her corner of the Operations area and introduced him to Emlyn and Donna, who just happened to be walking past.

"Emlyn, I'm taking Bill out to lunch and grocery shopping. I'll go straight on to the hill from there. Anything urgent comes up, I've got my pager and my cell. OK?"

"OK," Emlyn replied. "Nice to meet you Bill, hope we'll see some more of you while you're stateside."

"Yeah, hope so." Bill proffered his right hand and shook Emlyn's hand. Good strong grip, Emlyn observed. Bad move, he told himself, he's your boss' brother. Don't go there. Emlyn smiled, slightly preoccupied.

They walked back out together, Bill looked at Leila. "Cell?" he said in an American accent. "They're turning you, Leila, next you'll be wanting cookies instead of biscuits and saying zee instead of zed."

"Don't worry, Nan didn't pay for three years of elocution lessons without something sinking in. So fill me in on all the news. You have to tell me about you and Julia and don't think you can get away with one word answers either, my boy."

Bill and Leila fell back into a comfortable banter. They had always been close, despite the eight year age gap, which wasn't to say that they didn't clash, and they did, spectacularly so. However, the ego driven worlds of professional music and politics had meant, essentially, that they had come to serve as the other's perfect antidote to ego toxicity.

Among the various vignettes about friends and acquaintances Bill told Leila was one that, had the situation been less sensitive, would have caused paroxysms of joy to be loudly announced to all and sundry. As it was, Leila managed to only ask Bill to repeat the details twice and keep herself from skipping down the aisle of the extremely overpriced but convenient gourmet grocer. She excused herself for a moment and rang the office, asking if Josh and or Leo were free at all that afternoon and since they were, could Emlyn please give her heartfelt and sincere apologies to the secretary of health and human services and reschedule.

"Was it something I said?" Bill asked. "I'm guessing you don't play hooky from that without a damn good sick note from mum."

"Yeah, and one day I'll be able to tell you just what it was, but suffice to say, you may just have dug me out of one extremely deep hole. Basically, you, my good man, rock." She kissed him on the cheek.

"And you really can't tell me what I've done?"

"Nope."

"Can I guess?"

"Only if you want to piss me off, because, seriously I can't tell you. Perhaps I should be able to tell you but I can't and that's how it stands." Leila's voice took on a warning tone, which Bill received loud and clear. Her shopping done, they went to the sandwich counter and ordered lunch to go, which they ate on the banks of the Potomac.

"It's not quite Circular Quay, but there's both water and trees," Leila said as she parked her car. She envied Bill his working environment- the Sydney Symphony headquarters were in the Sydney Opera House and the surrounding environs were like no where else on Earth.

It was too cold to get out of the car, so they sat there with the soft top on, covered in their coats and an old quilt that Leila had thrown in the back- driving home late at night had proven to be icy in her prehistoric unheated car.

"Sorry I didn't take you to a proper lunch," she said as they finished up and she drove back to the White House.

"Nah. Don't worry, I didn't even expect this. I show up practically unannounced, in the middle of the unmentionable crisis and we still got to see some sites and catch up. Besides I'll be back in March, I expect to be properly entertained then."

"Right then, consider it done." Leila laughed at him as she pulled up into the driveway of the Hyatt hotel. Bill looked up surprised. "Hang on, weren't you going back to the White House?"

"Yeah, but this was on my way, more or less. How were you going to get back if I hadn't?" Leila said maternally.

"Well, thanks, but you didn't have to." Bill felt guilty but grateful nonetheless.

"Go on. Get out." She leaned over and gave him a kiss and a hug. "Thanks for bringing the cello. I'll see you tomorrow night after the concert. Love you."

"You too. Bye." Bill waved as she pulled out from the kerb and into the traffic.

Leila slipped back into her office. Emlyn had called to tell her that Leo would see her as soon as she got in, but her cello beckoned seductively. She'd just check the tuning and have a moment to ponder the serendipity of it all, she thought in an attempt to rationalise her tardiness. A scale or two later, she looked up to see Donna standing at her door, speechless. Leila put the bow down guiltily and laid the cello back in its case. Donna clapped. "You'll have to play for us one day."

"Yo Yo Ma, I'm not," Leila said briskly, embarrassed at being found out.

"No, but he's not you either," Donna responded simply.

Leila smiled. Donna knew exactly the right thing to say. "True, but I bet he doesn't get stage fright. I love playing but I hate performing. Kinda defeats the purpose I've always thought," Leila replied

Donna nodded, a little disappointed. "Josh is in Leo's office. Would you give him this?" She handed her the fax that had come through since he'd left. Pentagon letter head she noted.

"Sure. So we on for breakfast tomorrow?" Leila asked.

"Ya, Josh wants me in here around 11, so we'll go straight on to the office."

"Excellent," Leila said, and walked to Leo's office, wondering if Sam had told Josh yet. Donna was right about bringing Josh into the loop. She didn't like to admit how much she, personally, had riding on Josh accepting the situation- happily at best, but equanimity would suffice.

Leila came into the spacious office, surprised to see the entire senior staff ranged about the room. She silently handed the fax to Josh and sat on the other end of the couch from Toby. She was silent, and wondered if she should leap right in with her news.

"Today would be good," Leo said dryly, prompting Leila out of her introspection.

Leila looked at Leo and nodded. "Umm. An acquaintance back home worked on Lillienfeld's 1992 Senate campaign and he remembers a draft dodging scandal that they managed to bury." Leila let go of the breath she'd been holding since entering the office. It wasn't much, but she was hopeful.

"What sort of acquaintance?" Toby asked, still burnt by the Ann Stark debacle.

"I've known him since he was sixteen, we were friends, but we moved in totally different spheres. He was old money and I was an activist nurse with a small baby. I guess I'm finally worth knowing now. Bill had gone to church with my mother before he left on tour and Dan cornered him in the crypt during the post-service meet and greets. The way Bill tells it, it was an exercise in name dropping- you know- I had Washington connections before you did. Na-ni-na-ni-na-na." Leila poked out her tongue in illustration. Toby chuckled. Josh handed the fax to Leo, who perused it quickly.

"Well it seems they couldn't bury it deep enough." Leo allowed himself a small self satisfied grin. Josh had managed to get in contact with a friend in the Pentagon- which were fewer and farther between since CJ had stepped on Ed Barrie.

"What's the fax?" Leila asked, agog.

"An incredibly empty DoD file for a Peter Lillienfeld. Not enough proof of a draft dodge but confirmation enough that this is a viable lead," Josh answered, his finely honed sense of the rhythms of D.C. political machinations picking up a change in their luck.

"Did Bill get any hint of a continued relationship with Lillienfeld?" Toby asked.

"No, I don't think so, but there's people I can ask." She trailed off, wondering if it was all a little too convenient. "We can't do anything with this without proof. They'd know we'd be bluffing," she said aloud, the implication that they could be being double crossed hanging out there. A sickening thought occurred to Leila. Sam noted Leila's gray complexion.

"What's wrong?" he asked, concerned, passing her a glass of water.

"OK, I hope I'm being paranoid, but I may have just filled in a piece of the puzzle. Dad and Dan talked a fair bit when Dan came back from the states, maybe he talked about 'Nam to him. Dan joined the reserves after high school, so they bonded a bit. More than he and I ever did."

CJ picked up the ambiguity of her statement and wondered which of them she meant. Maybe both. "Josh, have you spoken to Mr. Walter yet?" she asked.

He shook his head, trying to read Leila's body language, he had tested the waters about the call and she had been hesitant, though she had acknowledged the need for it. She caught his eye and nodded. He checked his watch and calculated the time difference, it would be early the next morning. Leila nodded again- her body clock had been able to adapt to D.C. time easily enough, but she knew without thinking Sydney time as well. Leila recited her parents phone number. Dad would probably be up. He never slept that much and spent the pre dawn hours devising computer programs, his head never really able to quiet itself. Leo dialled it. "Don't tell him he's on speaker phone, he'll freeze up." Leila felt as if she was betraying him somehow and wondered if she really even cared. She should care, she knew that, and felt ashamed that she couldn't. Josh and Leila silently negotiated who should talk as it rang. They couldn't decide and Leo made an executive decision that it should be Leila just as the phone picked up.

"Dad, it's me."

"Where are you? Your voice sounds funny."

"I'm in my office- the speaker phone is on." She looked at Leo and shrugged. Better to stick as close to the truth as possible.

"What's up?" He asked shortly.

"Umm." Leila didn't know how to start, her mouth was dry and her ears were ringing. CJ handed her a note, she read it, acknowledging it with a brief grin. "There's some stuff I have to ask you."

"Yeah, well shoot." He said testily.

"There's some people asking about how you got your Purple Heart. And I realised I didn't know what to tell them. What do you want me to tell them?" Leo let out a long low sigh. Truth be told, he wasn't too sure how he'd have attempted this phone call either.

"Who's asking? he asked guardedly.

"The Post wants to do a background article on me," she improvised.

"Another one?" Leila was touched that he'd been following it. She hadn't expected that.

Leila's eyes widened as if to ask the room how far she should go with this.

No clear responses were forthcoming. "That was the Times."

"We were instructed to provide covering fire for the troops on the ground and to shoot suspicious targets with impunity." Leila looked at Leo for confirmation and he nodded. "I was doing so when one of the rotors got blown off. The gunner and I managed to evacuate. The impact broke my legs and I provided covering fire for Bob to make for the U.S. front. I guess he did, cos that's why I got the medal. The Vietcong found me and realised I was an officer and kept me alive. The Aussies found me during the Tet offensive and evacuated me to Vung Tau."

"Why didn't they send you on to a U.S. hospital?"

"I was too shell-shocked and I begged your mother to let me stay. I guess she was able to pull some strings. If they'd sent me back, I'd have probably deserted."

"Why?"

"The Vietcong showed me what we'd been shooting at." Stephen's voice began to crack. "They were families, children. Everyone was under suspicion, they were all fair game and they hadn't done anything to us, to me, but want to live free of colonial rule, even if that meant communism. I just couldn't face what I'd been asked to do in the name of my country. So I didn't." A note of long held defiance crept into his voice.

"OK. Thanks, dad. You've told me enough. I'll be able to handle it from here."

"Good. Anything else?" Leila leant over and switched off the speaker phone and picked up the handset, covering the receiver with her hand.

"Should I ask about Dan?" she whispered to the others. They all nodded and she looked to Leo for confirmation, he also nodded. She switched the speakerphone back on.

"One other thing. You spoken to Dan lately?" she asked.

"No, I guess he's been down in Canberra mostly. Why?"

"Just wondering... Bill mentioned him. Did you ever tell him about what happened?" She couldn't think of a less direct way of asking, so she took the risk that he'd want to know why she was asking.

"No, only you and your mother know. By the way, tell Mr. McGarry hi from an old friend." Leila allowed herself to smile in relief."

"OK, dad, will do. I'll let you go now. Thanks again."

"That's alright. It was nice hearing your voice. Bye."

"Bye." She made a cutting motion in front of her throat and Leo ended the call.

"So. Dad says hi," Leila said, dead pan. The senior staff laughed as the tension dissipated.

"So we go digging for proof, then. Until then we play for time." Leo looked relieved, Stephen had reiterated what he had remembered of the situation. He was convinced, now, that they had done nothing wrong but followed orders. "So Toby, can you get on to that. CJ, you know the line we take. Josh, keep your ear to the ground, and Leila, well done, and can you wait here a moment."

Leila sat down again, wondering what could possibly be next. "So, the thing is this. The Florida nurses are talking about a strike. Can you keep an eye on the situation, we're still in flu season and there's meant to be another wave. So needless to say, we need a nurses strike like a hole in the head."

"Okay. I'm on it." Leila got out of the chair. "Thanks, Leo."

"I wish we didn't have to do what we just did, but you handled it brilliantly. So thank you."

"Leo, you thought we were screwed, didn't you?" Leila asked quietly.

"No, not really..." Leo's scrunched shoulders spoke volumes.

Josh had waited for her just outside Leo's office, she had something, he decided, it was a beguiling mix of pragmatism and altruism, and oh god, the way her hair, when she wore it down, shone red in the sun. Josh shook his head and pushed himself away from the wall as she came out. He accompanied her back to the operations bullpen, elated at a scandal practically buried. He wondered how he could subtly bring up the subject of dinner that night. Eagerness, apparently, wasn't becoming. He'd play it cool, he could do that. Yeah, that's the strategy.

"So do you like salmon?" Leila asked out of the blue.

"Yeah. Why?" Josh's forehead crinkled. See, cool, I can do cool, he said to himself.

"Just asking apropos, you know. Dinner?" Leila's tone bordered on shrewish.

"I hadn't forgotten." Josh did his best to sound wounded.

"Good," Leila said and walked ahead of him. "About 8:30, ok?" she

threw over her shoulder.

"'Kay." He resisted punching the air until he was safely in his office.

 

20:15, Friday, 9/2/2001, 4/18 Ridge St NW, D.C.

Josh rang the door bell a few times, waiting a minute or so between each ring before he resorted to banging his fist on the door. He finally hit upon the idea of ringing her. He could hear music playing in the apartment so he knew that he hadn't been stood up, which would have set a precedent for the most galling rejections- how many men could say a woman moved house rather than keep a date? He let it ring about five times and could hear the phone ring from inside, he was relieved to note that he was standing in front of the right door.

Leila eventually picked up noting the number on caller I.D.

"Josh. Hi, what's wrong?" Leila looked at the clock on her wall. He was due to arrive in 15 minutes and she wondered if this meant something had come up.

"No, nothing is wrong, as such. I'm standing outside your door as it happens." Josh looked at his watch- dead on time.

"Right. OK. Hang on." Leila hung up and had a mild panic attack. She had gone to the door and unchained it before realising that she should perhaps be wearing more than a towel to answer the door. She replaced the chain and opened the door wide enough to tell Josh she'd be right back.

She ran into the bathroom, threw on a pair of cargoes and an Oxford university jersey, stuck an ibis clip in her hair- she had been putting on a little make up when Josh had rung, so she finished putting on the lip gloss. So much for femme fatale, Leila thought as she examined herself hurriedly in the mirror.

Josh had been leaning against the door and stood up when he heard the chain jangling.

"You were early," Leila said by way of explanation, with a small hint of reproach in her voice.

"I'm pretty sure I'm not," Josh said smirking slightly.

Leila looked pointedly at the wall clock. If he hadn't smirked, she probably could have resisted making a thing out of it, but damn it, she was hard pressed to think of a reason to not make him squirm just a little. Josh followed her gaze and sure enough the clock was now showing 8:25. He looked at his watch and suddenly remembered that Donna had finally managed to get his watch off his wrist long enough to change the battery and set it five minutes fast- a ploy to enhance his punctuality. And he had allowed an extra 10 minutes because he was under the impression that his watch still sucked. Well the punctuality initiative had definitely worked, he must remember to thank her. His smirk changed to a sheepish grin. "Sorry. I don't think I've ever been early before."

"That's good to hear," Leila said.

Josh's mouth went dry and he looked at her oddly. Was he hearing double entendre or had the vision of Leila in a towel addled his brain?

Leila showed him into the lounge room. "So. Would you like a drink?" Leila asked awkwardly, wondering if her last comment had sounded as suggestive as it had when she replayed it in her head.

"Umm. Yeah, that would be good," he replied as he rummaged through his back pack. "I bought wine. White goes with fish, doesn't it?"

She nodded and looked at the bottle. "Cricket Pitch, 1999 Chardonnay. You bought me Aussie wine. What a sweetie." Leila clucked and leant over and kissed him on the cheek. "Should I open it now or would you prefer a beer?"

Josh swallowed and resisted the impulse to kiss her back while she was still in the vicinity. "A beer please. I really liked the wine you brought to Thanksgiving so I thought I'd continue the theme."

Leila looked unaccountably embarrassed at the mention of the last time they had shared a meal. "We'll have to have steak some time so you can sample a Barossa Valley Cab Sav. If you like red that is." The moment over, Leila moved toward the kitchen. "I'll get that drink. Come and talk to me while I cook. Dinner shouldn't be long- it's really only glorified fish and chips, I'm afraid."

"Fish and chips?" Josh looked blank.

Leila looked at him. It really was the little differences she decided. "Chips- French fries and fish, it's usually battered and deep fried, but it seems a shame to do that to salmon, and well I'm not cooking French fries either- I'm doing potato latkes instead..."

"Latkes, like Jewish hash browns?" Josh interrupted excitedly.

"Yeah." Leila looked over at him surprised. "You've had them?"

"Mom used to make them. I drove her insane trying to eat them straight out of the pan."

"My mum got the recipe in Israel during a stint with a Red Cross mission before Bill was born. I used to eat them with a mix of tomato sauce- that'd be ketchup- and mayonnaise," Leila replied.

"Your mother have some interesting tales to tell," Josh commented.

"It runs in the family. I'm a fourth generation nurse. My great grandma ran a hospital in far west Queensland, my grandma trained at Sydney Hospital before she had five kids and ran a farm while her husband was a commercial traveler, and well there's mum and now me."

"Does Davy look like she wants to go into nursing?" Josh asked, hoping the topic wasn't off limits.

"Nah, I don't think so. John being a nurse as well as me, I guess she's had enough of nursing not to want to it herself. On the other hand that's what my mum said about me. I can't really say what she wants to do. She just likes being in the moment. I envy her that, but I wouldn't be a mother if I didn't worry about her ambitions. I guess whatever she does she'll do well and I'll be content with that."

Leila dropped spoonsful of the batter into the pan and put the salmon steaks on the griddle. She flipped the latkes and turned the first batch out onto a plate and Josh went to grab one. Leila reflexively slapped his hand.

"Owww. Mom," Josh whined and then laughed as Leila relented and broke one in half and offered him a piece. She expected him to take it from her hand and eat it, but at the same time wasn't at all unhappy when he ate it straight from her fingers. Josh swore he saw Leila close her eyes when his lips made contact with her hand.

Leila looked at him while he devoured the fritter. "Good?" she asked, conscious that her voice sounded husky.

"Damn good," he replied softly, taking another bite.

She'd have to jump him right there and then if he kept this up Leila decided and salmon was way too expensive to waste. Breaking the connection between them felt like wading back to shore in the middle of a rip tide, but she just managed it. "Can you flip the latkes and then the salmon, while I toss a salad?" she asked.

"Sure, I can't cook, but I can probably flip," Josh said gamely. Leila just raised her eyebrow and went about making a vinaigrette dressing.

"You seriously can't cook?" Leila asked.

"Nope. Apart from eggs benedict with smoked salmon." Josh was justifiably quite proud of his signature dish. Leila wondered cynically if he learnt how to cook that as part of a seduction plan- you know, nice meal, drinks somewhere, back to his place for some horizontal folk dancing, and eggs the next morning.

"What?" Josh asked defensively. Something about Leila's face reflected the direction her thoughts were taking.

"Just wondering why that dish. I guess if you can only cook one thing, it's a good choice but why that dish?" Leila replied.

"Umm." Josh prevaricated. He really wished he hadn't bragged now. The past eighteen months, ok, it was closer to two years, of celibacy had proven he was no Don Juan but he still had some game and it wouldn't do to give away trade secrets.

"I'm guessing there was some strategy behind it," Leila said obliquely.

"Hey, leave a man his mystery," Josh responded, realising the game was up.

"I really like eggs benedict," Leila said casually as she carried out the plates into the dining area. Josh followed dumbstruck carrying wine glasses and the bottle. They sat down to the meal and as Leila corked the bottle of wine she asked Josh if he wanted to listen to a CD. Donna had told her about the Yo Yo Ma concert and she had turned the music off just before letting Josh into her flat.

"Yeah, whatever you were listening to before sounded good," Josh responded.

"Moby? OK." She turned and pressed play on the stereo behind her. "So how's it going?" she asked as she gestured toward the small protective dressing that still covered the worst of his cuts.

"I'm still getting shrunk, if that's what you mean."

"Is it helping?"

"Ya, but the nightmares still come now and then."

"PTSD is a bitch like that."

Josh looked carefully at Leila. "You sound like you're speaking from experience."

"Yeah." Leila wasn't sure if she wanted to elaborate further.

"What happened?" Josh asked quietly, forcing her hand.

"Umm," she began, her throat dry. "I was fifteen, I think, somebody threw a Molotov cocktail in the window of the council offices next door. It shattered the bedroom window over my bed. It was during the Ash Wednesday bushfires and the air was full of ash anyway. I remember waking at the noise and the exploding glass. I was lucky though, I only have one tiny scar, here," she pointed to a small nick above her right eyebrow. "It was the only bit of me not covered by the bed sheet.

"What symptoms?"

"Noises would set me off. You know how when you wake from a deep sleep and you can't move? That feeling of being paralysed and unable to escape the shower of glass. I relived it over and over. I still hate being too close to windows."

"It went away?"

"Yeah, eventually," Leila shrugged, "but I spent a year feeling like I was going crazy. I only realised that it was PTSD a few years later during a mental health lecture at uni. Now that was embarrassing, sitting in the auditorium, tears streaming down my face, hyperventilating. It was a sight to behold."

"Did you know that that was happening to me at Thanksgiving?" Josh asked, his voice quietly urgent.

"Yes." Leila answered, looking up at him, she let out the breath she didn't know she had been holding, "but I couldn't tell you out right. I mean, 'Josh, you feel like you're going crazy and I know why' wasn't something you were ready to hear from me. I was hoping that I gave you a gentle shove in the right direction, though." She was afraid to look at him, waiting for a reaction.

"You know, I knew that you knew, but I couldn't bring myself to open up to anyone." Josh felt he was doing his therapist proud, as it was.

"My door's always open," Leila said in a quiet voice.

Josh regarded Leila across the table. She had Audrey Hepburn eyes he decided. Eyes which at this precise moment reflected an empathy that made Josh's heart skip a beat.

"Thanks." He looked down at his plate, not able to hold the gaze any longer. He usually relied on words and found he needed none in her presence.

"Did you know that I almost went back to your place on Thanksgiving?" Leila asked, throwing caution to the wind, needing to fill the space. Besides, it wasn't a total non-sequiter.

"You did?" Josh's jaw dropped a little. See, still got some game. "Why didn't you?" he asked.

"It wasn't that I didn't want to." Leila hated these conversations and immediately wished she'd held her tongue. Damn Josh and that look.

"But you didn't."

"No, we're here now though, aren't we?" Leila's eyes were shining, mischievously Josh decided.

"Yeah. We are." Neither of them moved, though the moment called for it. Leila felt her cheeks go hot and wondered if Josh could tell. She began stacking the dishes to take back to the kitchen, giving in to the paradoxical urge to retreat. She leant across the table to reach for Josh's plate and Josh brushed his fingers along the back of her hand.

"It was a wonderful meal. Thank you," Josh said, able, this time, to maintain eye contact, trying to communicate the desire he felt to taste more than food. Leila let go of the rim of the plate and rotated her wrist so his fingers rested on the palm of her hand. She folded her fingers over them silently reciprocating. "It was my pleasure," she whispered in response, aware that her heart was thumping.

"What's for dessert?" Josh asked cheekily.

"Who said anything about dessert?" Leila replied, as if to say two could play this game, when in actual fact, dessert hadn't even crossed her mind. Mentally, Leila slapped herself. What kind of host am I? Oh God please let there be some gelato left. If wishing could make ice cream appear as if by magic in her freezer, she would have had a glut. "Hang on." She let go of Josh's hand abruptly and picked up the dishes.

She continued to pray silently as she opened the fridge door and peaked inside the freezer. She shut it again. Thank you, God. There was, at least, a tub sitting on the shelf. She repeated the improvised mantra as she opened the door again, grabbed the tub and lifted the corner. As she did so, it occurred to her that she may indeed be going a little mad.

"Yes," she said aloud, relieved that the quart tub was at least ¾'s full. Her little victory dance was rudely interrupted by a knock at the door. "Shit." She muttered and put the gelato on the bench and wiped the ice crystals on her hands on the seat of her pants and went through to the front door.

She looked through the peep hole and opened the door. Toby turned around at the sound of the door opening.

He stammered. "I know it's late, but I feel I owe you an apology. It was a difficult time and I don't think I was thinking clearly, in fact I don't know what I was thinking." He thrust a bunch of flowers into her hands.

"All I want to know is what that certain visual stimuli was." Leila said, smiling, not expecting an answer but touched by the gesture. He looked sad, and maybe a little lonely. "Come in, we were just about to have dessert, join us." Leila, she scolded herself, why didn't you just take the damn flowers and send him on his way? Leila's Better Angels:1, her obsessive need to scratch that itch: nil.

Toby hesitated for a few seconds... she had said 'we', hadn't she? He'd be interrupting, but she wouldn't have offered if she hadn't meant it, would she? Not to mention, after this morning... it wouldn't do to refuse her, now would it? He nodded and followed her in.

"Josh, pour Toby a glass of wine... I'm going to put these in water and get dessert, I'll be out in a few secs."

Josh and Toby regarded each other. Josh eventually asked after him- intelligence of Leila's mercy dash had been sketchy. Leila paused at the doorway of the kitchen, wondering what Toby was going to say, a small grin playing at the corner of her lips.

"Yeah, I'm fine, false alarm as it turned out, thanks." Toby's reply bordered on brusque and he knew that it hadn't put Josh off the scent but he doubted that Josh would push his luck.

The talk turned to baseball and Leila tuned out as she prepared the espresso machine and put out plates of the gelato and poured shots of brandy. The problem with American sports was that they wore too many clothes... Grid iron and baseball? What was with the neck to knee outfits? Rugby and Aussie Rules had it right... Short shorts, and jerseys gave a girl something to look at. The ball was hardly the point, now was it? Basketball, though, they had the right idea, she decided then and there that was going to be her new favourite sport.

She was in the process of bringing the plates back to the table when that damn doorbell rang again. "Aren't I popular tonight?" she said as she went to the door... again.

Leila opened the door. "Hi CJ." Nothing was going to surprise her anymore.

CJ proffered forth an identical bunch of flowers to Toby's. "Thank you so much for this morning, just wanted to say I appreciated how you handled it and that I feel bad for dragging you into it...."

Leila's eyebrow quivered ever so slightly. "CJ, for heaven's sake, it's my job... well it was and anyway, better be safe than sorry, glad to be of assistance. Come in, Toby and Josh are here, have some dessert and glass of wine."

"So Pokey had the same idea as me? You sure? I don't want to impose."

"Yeah, come in... so you and Toby?" Leila's interest was piqued now, Pokey? Not that it wasn't before, but now, she felt that perhaps she just might have a chance to find out. Two bunches of flowers suggested that something was going on, for sure.

CJ looked guiltily away. Actually, it wasn't guilt Leila decided, it looked like it was temptation rejected and the desperation felt at the realisation that perhaps she couldn't reject it the next time.

"Nothing to tell. Really. Despite appearances to the contrary."

"But you'd like it to be?" Leila lowered her voice, not because the conversation could be heard from the dining room, but because it felt conspiratorial to do so.

"I love him." CJ said simply, looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights. "Oh God, I haven't said it out loud before." Despite her height and forthright posture, CJ looked beaten.

Leila put her hand on her shoulder and gave it a comforting rub. "Look, come in for a coffee, all is not lost... I'm pretty sure that there's a little reciprocity going on here. It's an entirely doable thing. Don't despair, CJ."

"Yeah." CJ gave a little sniff and hung her coat on the rack.

Leila decided it must be the wine going to her head, it all seemed to be becoming a little surreal.

She got out another bowl, made more coffee and brought the extras to the table with the second vase of flowers. She hoped that no one else decided to bring flowers- she only had the two.

CJ looked around the room at the photos from home and found one that caught her eye.

"You and Davy look alike." She commented. Josh and Toby followed her gaze.

"Oh that one... that was taken at Christmas... she wanted tickets to 'HomeBake' an Ozrock festival for her birthday, so I went one better and took her and a friend. I'm not sure she was entirely convinced that having mum along for the ride was a great idea, but she was too young to go by herself, so tough shit..."

Toby squinted at the picture. "You have pink hair. And workman's boots on. The White House Wild Child."

"It was hairspray, and covered shoes are a must for moshing, my Blundstones are incredibly comfortable, ugly maybe, but you can't have everything." Leila responded a tad defensively.

"Moshing?" Toby asked.

"Showing your age there, Mi Amore," CJ ribbed him. "Could get us the youth vote, though."

"I'd think Davy would monumentally pissed off, if that picture ever got out. She's intensely embarrassed by her mother, she made me promise I'd tear up any evidence of my having pink hair, but what can I say? I'm in politics, I lied."

"I think its pretty cool, wish my parents had taken me to rock concerts when I was 14." Josh put in.

"You say that now, but when you were 14, didn't you spend most of life wishing they would leave you the hell alone? We parents live to embarrass our kids, its payoff for childbirth." Leila said sagely

CJ, Toby and Josh all just looked at her, it was easy to forget that she was the youngest staffer, but the juxtaposition of her pink hair photo and her commentary on the art of parenthood served to bring the reality into sharp focus.

"What? You try shitting a pumpkin and not want some revenge." Leila commented.

"I hear you sister," CJ replied with a grin. "This dessert is great, what's it called?" CJ spooned some of the coffee and brandy over the half melted gelato.

"Café Affrogato. Yeah it is good. John's Italian. His mother taught me." Leila smiled, pleased at the compliment.

"How did she take the news?" Josh asked, Leila's life fascinated him, eccentric really was the right word to describe her.

"That he was gay or that he was fathering a child out of wed lock?" Leila asked sarcastically.

"Both, I guess."

"Not well. But she eventually accepted it and us. She spoils Davy rotten and thinks I'm remarkably accepting of the situation. It never hurts to have that martyr schtick happening for you in big Italian families."

"Or a good handle on Yiddish." Toby commented.

Leila looked confused for a moment. "Oh yeah, that, I worked at a Jewish nursing home as an undergrad, I absorbed it I guess. Mrs. Goldstien told me that with chutzpah like mine, I'd go far. "

CJ and Toby were sitting opposite each other and Leila observed them stealing glances at each other, perfectly timed so that their eyes never met. Talk about tension.

"More coffee?" Leila asked, hatching a plan.

CJ dragged her eyes from Toby and nodded appreciatively. Josh, taking a cue from Leila got up, picking up plates and cups. Toby nodded as he glanced subtly, his eye caught on the way the light caught the auburn highlights in CJ's hair.

In the kitchen, Josh stacked the dishwasher, methodically- more anally retentive than Leila would have given him credit for.

"Josh... I'm sorry about this." Leila began, not even sure that the apology was for Josh, or more for herself. The connection that had been forming between them had come to an abrupt halt and Leila, for one, felt all at sea, unsure that it had even been a good idea when it came down to it. Nevertheless, she felt acute disappointment at the realisation that they wouldn't have a chance to find out.

"What's the deal with them? Josh asked, deflecting the apology. If there was going to be interruptions, then at least this was an interesting one.

"Can't say. Nurse- client privilege."

"Oh come on, you're not a nurse here, you're in politics." Josh dug a little further.

"Regardless, I was consulted because I was a nurse and besides, I don't rat on my friends, even to other friends."

"You're a tough nut."

"Really, I'm a softie. A softie with ethics, but still, a softie." They worked side by side at the sink, Leila rinsing and Josh stacking. "So do you think they'll ever get it on?" Leila asked, smiling obliquely.

"CJ and Toby? I dunno, maybe, hadn't even thought about it before."

"God, you really are dense." Leila muttered under her breath.

"What did you say?" Josh moved so he was standing directly in front of her.

"I said that CJ and Toby have had an itch for each other, at least since I've been here, and you know them and you haven't even noticed."

"See, I thought you said I was dense."

"Well, I did, I was just clarifying why I thought so.- An argument without evidence is like bread without butter- hard to swallow."

Josh's mouth went dry- again and Leila's eyebrow cocked. "OK so I'm dense. I'm man enough to admit it," he said.

"Man enough, huh?" Leila aped him, even the octave jump between the two syllables of 'enough', her heart racing.

Josh looked down at her, a smirk playing at the corners of him mouth, the dimples ghosting at his cheeks. He hadn't really noticed how small she was before now as she stood meeting his eye, waiting for his counter thrust. At work, she had this elegant, almost regal aura that belied her elfin stature, and the cane, which she wielded like a staff, only added to that. They stood like this for a few seconds as if they had been put in freeze frame. Josh became aware of how increasingly difficult he was finding it to breathe and how dry his mouth was. Like a traveler in a desert on finding an oasis, his fingers sank beneath her hair till he felt the smooth sensation of skin on bone. He leant down and matched his lips to hers, tracing the contours of her lips, his heart accelerating as she stuck the tip of her tongue out and pressed it to the underside of his top lip, guiding him more deeply into her mouth. She held his bottom lip between her lips as he moved his hand to her jaw and leant in towards her, her heart also beating harder. The kiss, so long in coming, was gentle without being timid, and grew in intensity as they fused, neither sure, in that moment, of where they ended and the other began. They stopped to breathe and consider what had just passed.

Leila cleared her throat. "I should make that coffee." Willing him to kiss her again, wanting not to have to do the right thing.

"Yeah. You should." He put out his hand to touch her again, not quite able to believe what had just happened. She rested her cheek in his palm and turned her head so she could kiss the hollow of his palms. He kissed her neck, opened up to him by the incline of her head in his hand. The quality of their second kiss was sadder than the first, imbued with the sure knowledge that this could only go so far and no further. Damn CJ and Toby. Josh felt like going out and saying to them to get themselves a box of condoms, a hotel room and get it out of their systems. To stop behaving like insecure adolescents, or at least not do it in Leila's dining room. However it was Leila's dining room and the agony aunt persona had its charms.

She smiled teasingly up at him. "They are expecting coffee sometime tonight," she said as they moved as a unit towards the fridge. She turned around and opened the door, Josh's arms still circling her waist, his fingers caressing the flesh above the band on her pants, the jersey covering them, he felt her sag slightly. "Ah shit," she had used up all her luck on the ice cream. "I didn't get milk. I don't believe it."

"Hope they like it black then," Josh said helpfully. Leila smiled and was almost swayed by his suggestion.

"Nah. I'll just pop down to the 7-11 on the corner, you can channel cupid while I'm gone."

"It's almost 11 o'clock at night, and this is D.C., it's not safe," he replied.

"You offering to go then?" Leila grinned at him.

"Huh? How did that happen?"

"I do it all the time, but I'm not about to go proving a point by walking past three houses in the freezing cold if I don't have to and I'm sure there was an implied offer in there. You'd better take Toby, just to be safe." She handed him her door key.

"Don't ever say I'm not a man of my word, words that I'm not sure I even said, but still." He took the keys and kissed her again with a flourish. "Once more unto the breach, my friends," he quoted as went out to gather Toby for their foray into the D.C. metropolis. She waited a few moments for her heart to slow and to have a half time match round-up before going through to the living room. This has catastrophe written all over it, she decided, thankful that Toby and CJ had arrived. It was probably better not to get swept up. Please Leila, just don't. It would be her new mantra.

Toby and Josh left and Leila sat down, somewhat heavily, her knees unable to hold her up. She was, also, apparently quite flushed and CJ smiled knowingly.

"So what gives?" CJ asked.

"What gives with what?" Leila asked, ever the ingenue.

CJ rolled her eyes. "Just tell me I won't be fielding questions on the state of play on the latest Bartlet Love-in."

"If you do, it won't involve me."

CJ heard the oblique reference to Toby and herself and took it in her stride. "Not for now?" CJ was persistent, Leila gave her that.

"If you mean Josh and me, he's got other people on his mind."

"People he can't have."

Leila grimaced. CJ didn't... couldn't know how true that was. "Like that's ever mattered before. And celibacy is preferable to second best."

"We've all got baggage." CJ responded, realising that she was preaching to the converted. She opened her mouth to say something but shut it again. People really did start looking like their pets, she thought, tangentially.

The doorbell rang yet again and Leila stifled a groan and shook her head emphatically when CJ asked if she was expecting anybody else.

Looking through the peephole, she half expected Josh, come back to ask which milk. But no. This time it was Donna. "Oh good grief" she muttered.

Donna like CJ and Toby before her, looked somewhat upset. In fact, to say she looked as if she been crying and was moments away from sobbing was much more accurate. That's me, she thought, White House counselor to the lovelorn and celibate. "Donna?" she paused, then realising she should mention that she already had guests, "Come in, CJ's here."

Donna startled. "Oh. I won't stay... I was just on my way home." Leila was silent, waiting for her to continue. "We broke up." Donna's tone was flat, as if putting any inflection on her words would tip the balance between emotional stability, such as it was, and hysterical grief.

CJ unwound her long frame from the armchair and got up. Her torso appearing above the sofa.

"Hi CJ." Donna said bleakly.

"Who did you break up with?" CJ asked, concerned.

Donna looked to Leila, who avoided making eye-contact, ashamed at the denial of knowledge... but CJ was going to be filthy. She got up, suddenly antsy and got a tumbler from the dresser. She was going to turn them all into alcoholics at this rate.

"I did. I said I would and I did... but I never thought I actually would." Donna's hands shook slightly as she took the tumbler from Leila.

"Who did..." CJ's tone began to get more insistent, but she was interrupted by Josh and Toby returning with the milk.

They came into the living room and gaped at the distraught expression on Donna's face.

"Is this the newest chapter of Lovelorn Anonymous? And here I was thinking I was just coming to dinner." Josh's comment seemed to suck sound from the room, even the background traffic noise seemed muffled. CJ and Leila sent him a look that would have made lesser men long for the safety of the womb. Donna just went pale, sculled the scotch and got up, grabbed her coat and mumbled something vaguely akin to see you later and had left before Leila had a chance to scramble out of the chair.

"Nice work there, Josh." CJ said as Leila got up to go after her. Josh went to follow her but Toby put a hand on his arm to stop him.

"Let her handle it," he murmured and looked inquisitively at CJ.

"She just broke up with someone... I don't know who. I was just about to find out when Mr. Jackass here opened his big fat mouth."

"I'm gonna kill him." Josh said to himself, his contrition evident as he crumpled into a chair to wait.

Meanwhile Leila stood on the pavement staring after a small Mazda as it squealed round the corner. She turned around and went back inside and climbed the stairs.

"Missed her," she announced. Leila felt decidedly awkward and stood there, not quite sure what to do or say. Finally the silence was broken when Toby rose saying that he would go and looked furtively at CJ, hoping she would follow. She did.

"Thanks so much for the dessert. I had better go. Got a few errands to run before I come into work tomorrow." CJ said.

"It was a pleasure. Thanks for the lovely flowers, both of you." Leila went to the door and saw them out. Closing it softly, she allowed her head to rest against it for a second. She turned around to face Josh, who sat staring blankly at the painting on the opposite wall.

"Well," she began. "I think I need another drink."

"That would definitely be in order," Josh concurred. "Mind telling me what the hell that was about?" He felt decidedly out of the loop.

"It's not for me to tell, Josh, really. You have to ask Donna," or Sam, she added to herself.

She bought the bottle and two tumblers to the table and again was interrupted by thumping at the door.

"For fuck's sake. Who the hell?" Leila said wearily. She glanced at Josh, who raised his eyebrows in response.

The thumping resumed.

"I'm coming. Don't get your knickers in a knot."

Leila opened the door, foregoing the peephole. Surprise me, she told it.

"Is she here?" Sam said as the door opened.

"No, you gutless wonder, but here's your big opportunity." Leila responded, gesturing expansively into the room.

Sam did a quick double take and wished he'd bee a little more circumspect in his choice of greeting. Simultaneously, Josh had his eureka moment and not for the first time that night, was at a loss for words. "You and Donna? When? And you knew all along," he said, turning to Leila, his tone accusatory.

Sam belatedly showed some courage. "Yes. Since just before the mid terms and Leila guessed." Sam said quietly.

Josh glared at Leila, angry but not quite sure why or how justified he was being so. He turned his attention to Sam again. "There seems to be a pattern here, Sam," his tone scathing.

"You know, that is exactly why I didn't tell you." Sam shot back. "It always comes back to you. Everything is about you. You egocentric jerk."

"Sam, it's you with the transference issues. What is it? You can't have me, so you try for one of mine?"

"Neither of them were yours, Josh, and it was once when I was twenty two and it's hardly an experience that I've wanted to emulate since."

Oh. Catty. Leila decided to let this latest episode of the farce that was the lives and loves of the Bartlet administration play out. Who needed 'Bold' when you had it in your own living room?

Josh gaped at Sam and Leila thought she observed the vaguest hint of hurt flit across his face. "I think you'd better go," he said finally.

"Josh..." Sam began, shocked at himself, "I'm just trying to say, the further we got into it, the harder it was to tell you. I didn't force her into it. It just happened. We were in the middle before we knew we'd begun."

"She said she was on her way home." Leila put in, hesitantly.

Sam turned to her, his face a mixture of exhaustion and relief, glad that the proverbial boil had been lanced and able now to see what it was he had to do next. Which was find her and do what was necessary to get her back. Screw 'Bold', this was more like La Morte d'Arthur, she thought as he turned to go. "I am sorry, Josh. Really."

They both watched him go. It felt as if a tornado had swept through the room, deflating both of them. Leila's mantra was pointless now.

"Josh, I know you love her, and if I thought she was going to get hurt, I would have told you, so you could look out for her, but I trust Sam. What else could I have done?

Josh rubbed his eyes in frustration. "I don't know. Look, I'm having trouble taking this in. I think I should go."

Leila wordlessly gestured to the door, staring at him, wondering, if things would ever be simple.

Josh mimicked the gesture. His anger suddenly dissipated in the face of her calm acceptance.

He examined Leila's face carefully for a hint of what she wanted. Her jaw was set in a stony glare but eyes were still soft. They would give her away one day.

He picked up his bag and coat and left.

Just left. No words. Nothing, no strut, nothing that gave a hint of his emotions.

The door closed quietly behind him and Leila cursed quietly under breath.

As if on auto pilot, she gathered up the glasses from the coffee table and carried them back to the kitchen. On her second trip, with the sponge in hand, she noticed the quart of milk sitting on the coffee table and stifled the urge to throw against the wall. Instead she carried it back to the kitchen, putting it in the door of the fridge. She leant against it and surveyed the damage and sighed.

"Bugger it. I'll do it in the morning." She switched off the light and got ready for bed. She changed into worn red plaid flannelette pyjama bottoms and a chesty bonds singlet she had requisitioned from John or Chris. She had climbed into bed and crossed off another day on the small 'Men of AFL' calendar that Davy had sent along with her audition tape for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts (her daughter was going to Fame, Leila still grinned every time she thought about it), her arrival date pre-circled in red felt tip.

She lay on her back, trying to shake off the feeling that she had done the wrong thing. From whichever way she came at it she couldn't see how she could have done anything different. CJ, no doubt, would probably want all the details before long, she'd think about it then. Now, it was time to sleep and not relive that kiss. As it turned out, she had time to do neither, the doorbell rang not 30 seconds after she had turned off her lamp.

Leila groaned and threw back the doona. She was fast running out of people she knew in D.C. that would arrive at this hour. She gave a perfunctory glance at the spy hole and yanked the dead lock and chain open and stood there her face blank and arms crossed.

Josh ran his hands through his hair distractedly. Perhaps a fleeting look of shame crossed his face, Leila wasn't sure.

"You know, I don't think differently of you because of what happened between you and Sam. And I know you were just blindsided by it all, it was a knee-jerk reaction, I'll cope." she said cutting to the chase. It was late, she wanted to get back to bed and she assumed he wanted some sort of absolution, like it mattered what she thought.

Josh just stood at the door, frozen.

"Yeah, I don't suppose you would," he commented finally.

"Josh, what are you doing here?" Leila asked, just to be sure, stifling a yawn.

"I shouldn't have just left. Like I blamed you. I don't."

"I'll sleep easier knowing that," Leila replied, a modicum of sarcasm in her voice. But still, it was good to hear.

"I needed... I need to know what tonight really meant, I mean I'm happy for them, I'm hurt that they didn't tell me, that they thought that little of me, but I can't let that destroy what we had. Cos we did have something. Didn't we?" he shrugged, suddenly losing courage. "I should go. Let you get back to bed." He began to turn to go, but stopped as if finding a reserve tank of courage and leant over and kissed her softly on the lips. Wistfully almost. She kissed him back and wasn't quite sure why. The keenly felt desire of earlier in the evening had been replaced with a dull ache, a numbness. She broke away.

"Sure we had something. But perhaps it was best that we didn't find out what it was," she replied to the almost forgotten question.

"So you're just willing to let it go?"

"Yes," she said simply.

"Why?"

"You want the two page summary?"

"And I'll get Leo to initial it, if you want."

"I have to let it go. Josh, I'm a single mother, of sorts, I don't have the luxury of just going with my heart. Besides, I don't want to be collateral damage in your quest to perfect the art of self deception. I don't want to be the consolation prize... a stop gap for someone you can't have. I like you. A great deal. But I just can't... How did Donna put it? You can't just randomly tumble into a girl sidewise and hope she breaks up with you soon." Leila was breathing hard, her throat felt tight and her eyes were hot, as if she wanted to cry but couldn't. "I like you too much for that."

"So you're telling me that my baggage is too heavy. I'm not buying insurance from you. I'm asking you to let me in."

"I'd take out some personal injury insurance of your own before you do that. Believe me, I know what you'd be getting into," she responded, when it came down to it, Leila of all people couldn't really criticise his track record. Hers sucked. And blew. She'd lived beyond her means, so to speak, before and, true to form, it had all ended in tears.

"That's my risk to take, but it's all a little academic, isn't it? Cos I'm not going to pine for the fjords."

Charmed, I'm sure, "Oh for fuck's sake, Josh, I want to let you in, I want desperately to believe it could work, but there's too much at stake if it didn't." This was going around in circles. Percale sheets and a goose down doona were calling.

He was pacing, his arms crossed as he considered his words, trying not to shout. He came to a rest in front of her, closing her in. "I don't believe that that's all that's stopping you. I reckon you're scared. That's ok. I'm scared, I get scared every time a car backfires. Get over it. You make me feel safe, alive. I want you to allow me to return the favour." Leila straightened up, matching his hostile stance, closing the gap between them. Taking advantage of this, he bent down and kissed her again, consuming her. Again she kissed him back, this time though the energy between them licked at her like tongues of flame. Damn it, it was way too easy to get swept away by the cravings she felt for him.

"What I said to Sam... I was angry, I love Donna, I need her, but not like this." Josh continued, as they both parted to draw breath.

"Kiss me again like that, and you might yet convince me." She whispered, her voice hoarse.

Josh smirked and looked a little too satisfied for his own good. "I can be very persuasive, so I'm told."

Like he needed to be told. Ah bugger it, what the hell? "So are you gonna come in or not?"

 

 

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