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The Syntax of Things Unspoken

by: Ygrawn

Character(s): Ensemble
Pairing(s): CJ/Toby, Donna/Josh, Sam/?
Disclaimer(s): Not mine
Rating: R, I guess
Category(s): Romance, Humour and Drama
Summary: Adjective, Verb, Noun, Adverb. Past imperfect. Future tense. Present reflection. Four stories with no split infinitives.

1. Adjective: Elusive

It’s like bending backwards, like thought overriding speech, like the presence of words with no sound, or a sound that is nothing, and it seems that all the days of her living have been about this man.

It’s not true, of course. It’s pathetic. But it’s true in the places - in the ways - that many things can be true: in hidden corners, under autumn-red trees, between headstones in blue-grey graveyards. In those places, things that are sacred and stupid, things unspoken and almost unthought can take on the proportions of truth, even though they remain untrue.

There are other places, common, constant places, where everything is untrue, and those places tell lies with joy and relief, and most damningly, indifference. Those places are pressrooms, hotel lobbies, champagne-chandelier ballrooms, shopping malls, cinemas, supermarkets, and the multiple bedrooms of their madness.

CJ moves through truth and untruth as other people move through sunlight and shadow, and it is no more consequential to her than those intangible objects. She knows what is true and what is not, but she also knows the harder lesson. She knows the time for truth and the time for lies. She knows to be afraid of neither and wary of both. She knows that the power of a lie and the power of the truth resides in the pauses, not the words.

But the words are still there, always there; and maybe it is truer to say that all the days of her living have been about words.

They’ve shared and stolen thousands of words. They have fought over words, avoided them, circled around them and ignored words. There are words across every inch of his too-white skin, down his spine, wrapped around his torso, curled across his forehead, printed beneath his shoulder blades, stamped into his calves. Toby is words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters, in order and disorder, and in circles that diminish and enlarge at the moment of his choosing.

She could say - at any given moment, during a press conference, at an Inauguration Ball, the State of the Union or after a campaign stop in somewhere, USA - CJ could say that all the days of her life are about this, and she could believe it. She could believe that her life is about the race, the victory, the certainty and uncertainty, the huge, hot, crowded rooms, the reporters, and the refrain of questions and answers that are neither answers nor questions. The politics, the ideas and ideals, and the towering tree of a man called Jed Bartlet.

But Toby is those ideas and ideals, and he is on the bus, he is in those hot, crowded rooms, he stands in the back of her pressroom with his powerful hands resting against his truly enormous heart, so he owns this too, just as he seems to own everything else about her.

Their words are different than everybody else’s. CJ’s words split hairs - might have, could have, should have, wouldn’t have, possibly, probably, most likely, most unlikely, perhaps, conceivably, we think, we believe, we have been led to believe, sources indicate…onwards, ever onwards, an army of words that say something without meaning anything.

She could not be more precise or less exact, and the like four-thousand and twenty-two other dichotomies of her life, CJ balances perfectly in the centre of this see-saw, tall and incandescent, leaning neither way, knowing that she is glorious and fallible.

Toby, too, has an army of words. His don’t split hair; they colour them, dye them, lengthen and shorten them. Toby’s words - for they are his, not the dictionary’s, not the people’s, nor deeper still, are they in possession of themselves - Toby’s words could not be less precise or more exact.

So, at no point in the history of their almost-relationship can CJ recall a time when they had an actual conversation.

Without absolutes, there is nothing she can hold onto that is - or was - absolutely true. She’s neither said it, nor heard it amongst the thousands of words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters that they have exchanged across the intimate spaces of states, time zones, marriages, and campaigns. And, even the limitless, barren inches across hotel beds, when the heat off Toby’s skin was close enough to warm her body but he was still too far away.

Instead, it has been his wet, expansive mouth against the crook of her elbow. The hand hovering at the small of her back, never touching, but somehow more intimate than touch, that breathless anticipation of touch, and the implicit permission she gives to him: that he alone may rest his hand there. It has been the shift of colour in the non-existent colour of his eyes when she walks into rooms. The lift in his voice when he tells a joke that is meaningful only to her. The imperceptible tilt of Toby’s body towards hers when CJ sits next to him in the Oval Office, so that they are angled toward each other and millimetres from connection.

Those are the only moments of truth they allow themselves.

She wants to capture those moments, catch them and keep them close, although she doesn’t necessarily want to keep them safe. Safe isn’t always the best or most magnificent thing to be. She wants to keep those moments when there have been no words because CJ and Toby have not tried to make them. Because they have realized that words are inadequate.

If she could grasp those moments, though, she would do it clumsily, and they would slip through her fingers and disappear. Not as quickly as water and sand, perhaps, but quickly enough for her to feel the absence of those moments when they went.

CJ does not reach for them, and does not ask for them, so she does not expect those silent moments, and is surprised when they catch her, defenceless and vulnerable in the middle of her balancing act. Silent moments when she looks at him, and there is no breath, no space, no pause between what she thinks and what she feels about Toby. The silence spills out across the words and they both becomes the same beautiful, loving thing, without division or derision.

It scares her every time. But there is something to be said for vulnerability.

But those moments are rare and sporadic. Instead, most of the time, CJ is a different person. A person who can never be silent. A diversionary, misdirecting - misdirected - woman who must concentrate on the balance between lies and truth. A press secretary who uses her words like a sword, her smile like a gun. A woman who knows that men watch her as she strides past and continue watching in the wake of her presence, waiting for the waft of her perfume. A woman taller than others and harder than most, more imperfect and prideful than all.

That woman accepts Toby’s friendship, and the thing he has given very few other people: his respect. Darker, deeper still, she accepts his equality, accepts that she is his equal, and sometimes, his better. She cannot concentrate on anything but keeping her balance, but she waits for those moments when she slips, when Toby’s love slides underneath her skin and rests there contently.

During those moments, CJ is like a Goddess from a far distant time and place. She bends backwards beyond truth and untruth, into a greater place, where something is true because is it is thought, and something is untrue because it is spoken. A place where the army of words disbands and scatters across the landscape. A place where it doesn’t have to be true or untrue, and that is all.

For a vast moment, CJ accesses that world and wonders at it; she wonders at the power of letting go of truth and lies.

CJ wishes, in her office, at one a.m. in the morning, when her head hurts, when her soul is travel-weary, and her jaw is sore from talking all day, that she could make that place real. She is sick of the truth and the untruth of this world, and the importance attached to it. In this world, in every auditorium, in every newspaper, in every classroom, in every bedroom and bathroom and barroom, the desire for truth drives everybody onwards, further and further from happiness and peace.

Its weight is crushing and unforgiving and it has killed people greater than her.

She knows she cannot let go of her obsession with truth and untruth. It is her living, her calling, her burden to carry. But she wishes for that release, the dance, the bending backwards across all the useless things of this world, weightless and uncaring.

Because, in that other world, it doesn’t matter that she and Toby have never said anything true. It doesn’t matter that all CJ does is a lie to him. Her love for him would be honest because she has held Toby inside her body and inside her heart. It would true because she thinks it is true. Because she knows it is true.

There is a place where that could be possible, but it isn’t here.

And so the truth is consequential to CJ. She knows what is true and what is not, she knows the time for lies, and the time for truth, she knows the sharp, ever-narrowing line between the two, and she walks through each world with ease and grace, but the truth is consequential to her.

It matters.

She knows it matters to Toby too. It is one thing to lie without understanding the lie or the truth. It is another thing to understand both and be brilliant at them, and still choose the truth without hesitation or incentive.

And that is why all the days of her living are about this man. Because the truth matters to him, too.

CJ decides - as she leaves her dark office at two a.m., one morning in the middle of February, as moonlight dances over the almost-white walls - that next time, she will lessen and contract the inches across the hotel bed, until the warmth of Toby’s skin is her skin.

********

2. Verb: Collide

It is late in the morning, and Josh is lurching from one meeting to another when he and Donna end up on the floor, tangled up in each other’s limbs and lust, surrounded by a cheering crowd, and only half-embarrassed about their display.

The incident is Donna’s fault, and she freely admits it two hours later, behind the closed door of his office, when the latest interminable meeting is over and they are sharing their supposed lunch-break and pretending that nothing has happened.

Donna meets him at the door of the Mural Room, carrying two blue folders, his jacket and a book he wants for the next meeting. He says goodbye to a room full of people whose names he has no hope of remembering and prepares himself for another room and another request.

His assistant talks at him - messages, an update of the day’s news and issues, and a rescheduled meeting with Senator Byrne this afternoon that means he won’t get a dinner break until nine o’clock. Donna is a flurry of information, facts and reminders, and this regular contact with her between meetings is often the only thing that keeps Josh sane during the busy days.

Josh hands over his folders and accepts his jacket. He pulls it on mid-step, nearly braining a junior speechwriter in the process.

"Sorry," Josh yells behind him.

"Micah," Donna adds the staffer’s name over her shoulder.

"Micah?" Josh asks, almost wanting to look behind him. "I don’t know any Micahs. He must be new."

"He’s been working here two years," she corrects, vaguely amused but unsurprised.

"Are you sure? Because I think I’d remember a Micah. It’s an unusual name."

"Josh, I organized his security pass with the Treasury Department, almost two years ago. Of course I’m sure. And Josh, you don’t remember anything unless I put it on a cue card."

"Speaking of which…"

"…here are the cue cards from the latest Fisheries and Wildlife Report."

"Thanks," Josh says, beginning to flick through them.

Donna keeps pace with him as they dodge around huddled hallway conferences, water cooler conversations and impatient delivery men. Josh has occasionally stopped to wonder how she does that in her heels and skirt, but he’s chalked it up to another one of her many fabulous skills.

They’re rounding the corner into the Communications bullpen when it happens. It looks like something out of The Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy, Bonnie suggests over lunch with Ginger. Toby is later heard to tell CJ that it looked more like a train crash. However, all witnesses concede that it was unintentional and unavoidable. And laugh-off-your-ass-off hilarious.

Josh pauses slightly to look at CJ’s briefing on the bank of television in the bullpen.

Donna has her head down and is flicking through one of the folders to check on his notes from the meeting.

She barrels into him just as Josh turns around to tell her to get a copy of the briefing for later and she trips over his extended leg.

They collide.

Paper and cue cards fly everywhere and flutter randomly to the ground. The book lands with a heavy thud somewhere beside Josh’s hip. Donna makes a squeak of surprise and grabs onto the first thing with purchase. Josh scrabbles for something, too.

Josh ends up flat on his back, winded and confused, clutching tightly to Donna’s waist. Donna ends up splayed across Josh with her hands wrapped around his tie. Her right elbow ends up in his groin.

And everyone around them starts clapping, cheering and whistling.

Donna makes another noise of surprise and releases his tie.

"How did that happen?" Josh asks.

He cranes his neck and discovers that this view of Donna is particularly enticing. Too enticing. Her shirt is twisted and falling down her shoulder and her skirt has hitched up her legs. His brain freezes for a good five seconds as Josh realizes that underneath her demure black shirt, Donna is wearing a bright red bra with pink cabbage roses scattered across the silky material.

Donna doesn’t answer him. Instead, she places her left hand onto his chest and tries to push herself upright. Josh hisses as she shifts her weight to her right elbow, unknowingly nudging him in the groin.

When she realizes what she’s doing Donna blushes and tries to shift her weight again. Except that her legs are still tangled in his and when Josh moves to accommodate her, Donna loses her balance again and flails against his chest.

"Josh!" she cries, irritated. Her hair is soft against his arm.

"Sorry," he mutters. "Hang on."

Most of the Communications Bullpen is still cheering and clapping and people have come to see what the fuss is about.

Josh reaches out and attempts to move Donna further up his body so that they can untangle their legs. Unfortunately, he can only hoist her weight by putting his hand on her ass.

"Josh!" she shrieks again, elbow crashing into his groin.

"Donna." Josh grits his teeth. "Could you not do that?"

"You’re the one with your hand on my…" Donna can’t even say it.

"Sorry, but if you could just…"

Toby’s office door slams open, cutting across the noise.

"What in the name of…" Toby trails off.

Josh freezes with his hand on Donna’s ass and the two of them look up to see Toby standing directly above them.

The cheering stops.

Toby raises an eyebrow, a single, amused but annoyed eyebrow, and it seems that is all he needs to do.

In a scramble, Donna stands up, pulls Josh to his feet and collects the files, the cue cards and the book. She is propelling Josh towards the Roosevelt Room, a hand firmly on his lower back, before he knows what to think or say.

And by the time it comes to him, Donna has shoved two folders against his chest, pushed him through the door and hissed the name of the guy now holding out his hand and smiling.

"You should trip more often," Josh says to Vaughn Ackroyd.

Vaughn smiles politely. "Sorry?"

"Make the trip more often," he hurriedly corrects.

His hand burns, and it’s not because of Ackroyd’s handshake.

****

Donna has lunch, more messages, and an apology waiting in his office, two interminable hours later.

"I’m sorry Josh, it was my fault," she says, the minute he enters the room. "I wasn’t looking where I was going."

Josh pulls his jacket off and closes his office door. "Neither was I."

"No, but you’re naturally clumsy. I’m not and I should have remembered."

"Thanks, Donna."

She shrugs. "You are clumsy. I really am sorry."

"No harm done," Josh replies, moving behind his desk. "Well, not too much harm, anyway. Toby will no doubt embarrass us with the story as often as he can. It was bound to happen one day. Frankly, I’m glad it was with you, not CJ."

"Mm." Donna hands him a sandwich and orange juice. "Can you imagine being tangled up in CJ’s legs?"

He’s sorting through his email inbox and says, "Yours were bad enough," without thinking.

There is silence. Josh turns in his chair with wide eyes. Donna is staring at him. "That’s not what I meant."

"I know…what you meant."

"No," Josh shakes his head. "I meant…well, I meant…"

"You don’t know what you meant?" Donna prods.

"I do!" Josh busies himself unwrapping his sandwich. "Damn it - this cling wrap is ridiculous."

"Here." Donna scoops up the sandwich and undoes the cling wrap in three quick, efficient movements. "Did you hear me tell you about Senator Byrne, earlier? His office has changed the meeting back, just to keep you confused."

"I know what I meant," Josh insists again. He takes a savage bite out of the sandwich. "I did."

"Okay," Donna says mildly. "So, like I was saying, you’re schedule is back to normal and you’ve got a dinner break."

"Okay." He stares at his sandwich. "Is there any meat in this sandwich?"

"No." Donna glares at him before he can say anything. "It’s a salad sandwich, hence the glaring absence of meat."

He makes a face, but keeps eating it. Donna waits until he’s eating the second-half before she says, "Well, what did you mean?"

Josh chews and chews, ten, twenty times, and swallows as slowly as he can, until he has thought of a safe, neutral answer. "I simply meant that your legs were long enough."

"Oh." Donna shifts a pile of paper two inches across the desk. And back again. "Well, I am sorry."

"Given the amount of walking and talking we do around here, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before," he says, lightly.

"And at least we didn’t bring anybody else down with us," Donna says, reaching for light-hearted and breezy as well.

But when they finish their lunch, and Donna is collecting the rubbish, Josh says, "It’s not a bad thing. Your long legs."

"Okay." She seems bemused, so he continues.

"They’re…they’re nice. And long. Your legs. They’re…well…" he trails off. "You know."

Donna could deny it; she could shrug it off; she could ignore it, she could make a sassy comment about sexual harassment, or tease him about how badly he compliments women.

Instead, she smiles. "Thank you."

Josh has a clear, searing, physical memory of his hand on her ass, and the curve of a white breast in red bra, and the way his body seemed to remember Donna instead of discover her.

He knows - although he has known for a long time, now - that he and Donna are heading for disaster.

Which is fine by him.

A bright red bra isn’t a bad way to go.

********

3. Noun: Puzzle

Leo hates the expression as clear as day. In his world, nothing is clear. The days aren’t clear, and neither are the nights. The decisions and beliefs, enemies and friends are not clear. Nothing is.

But he can’t think of a better expression.

Leo has a memory, and it comes to him as clear as day. It comes to him often and without warning. It is a memory he will have on his deathbed, a memory that sears across his mind, his eyes, and his heart. A memory that reminds of him important things and allows him to forget other useless things.

It is a memory of Josh, and it is not special or unusual, or to be honest, that important.

Leo has many memories of Josh. Some of them are hazy, incomplete pictures: his college graduation party, visits to Noah’s house when Josh was two, eight, sixteen, a restless, equally ebullient and withdrawn boy who asked questions without always waiting for the answer.

There are longer, stronger, more painful memories that he rarely revisits. Joanie’s funeral: Marah’s thick and bitter wails from the second floor of the synagogue; Noah’s stiff shoulders and clenched fists; and the confused, blank look on Josh’s face. It was a look that stripped Leo naked and made him ache, deep, low, near his kidneys.

He remembers the way Josh stood straight and kept his head up because he didn’t want to shame his father. He remembers the wobble in Josh’s voice, during the prayers, and how that one wobble seemed to capture all the grief of that stunned congregation. Josh kept it in, until he, and Noah, and Noah’s father, Jacob, had to throw dirt on Joanie’s coffin.

Then, tears had streaked down Josh’s face and mingled with the dirt, until those two elements were one, and Josh buried his sister in water and earth, in the true gifts of his people.

Josh’s grief is an aura that has never left him. It is hidden now, tucked between the crevices of Josh’s other fears and guilt, controlled and mostly ignored. But Leo sees it occasionally, and he aches all over again, deep and low.

He remembers watching Josh - in full, awesome flight - in a meeting, when he worked for Hoynes. Josh does not have the gravitas of an office bearer, but he has the persuasive fire and force of a more elemental political creature. Leo remembers the sharp, flooding pride he felt when Josh looked over, mid-argument and grinned at Leo because Josh knew he was right, and he knew that Leo believed it.

There was a greater, stirring greater pride that speared through his body when somebody - a Senator - leaned over and said, "Your boy’s amazing."

He remembers Josh as a baby, the way he didn’t cry very much and was entranced by shiny things. He and Jenny had been childless then, and when he’d held Josh, when Marah had foisted the baby upon him despite Leo’s protests, it had been awkward and difficult.

He remembers fourteen hours of surgery the way he remembers missions in Vietnam: with fear so thick in the back of his throat that he can’t swallow properly, even now. Worse still, that Christmas, and the realization that he couldn’t bring Josh back from the edge, from any edge, no matter the power of his love.

Leo’s memories of Josh are surprisingly sacred to him. He has hidden their importance from everyone in his life, even himself. From Jenny, because he didn’t want her to remind her of the three miscarriages, of the sons she could have given him. From Mal, for the same reason, or something approximate. Mal is his daughter, his blood and flesh and love, and he has never received a greater, more miraculous gift.

The President knows, but Leo has never really shared his relationship with Josh with him, either. Nobody else could understand that Josh is often the one thing that keeps Leo sane. Because Josh believes that Leo can be strong, Leo is.

It doesn’t surprise him that he keeps it hidden. Leo is the eldest son of an Irish Catholic drunk. He is an Irish Catholic drunk. He doesn’t talk about his emotions. He regards them with vague amusement, and wonders why some people have such a deep, psychotic need to share their lives with complete strangers.

But the memory of Josh that comes to him often and joyfully is a memory of Josh when he was almost thirteen years old, not long before his bah mitzvah.

The adult Josh is just a taller version of the boy. Josh was irascible, even then: determined, flawed and intelligent. Impatient and thoughtless, and, when it counted, and sometimes when you weren’t paying attention, extremely thoughtful and kind.

It was a Sunday, and Leo hadn’t seen Noah for almost six months. He’d been in Miami Beach for the convention and he was exhausted, wrung out, sick of political manoeuvring and backroom deals. Noah had called, and Leo had gladly agreed to head up to Connecticut for the day.

The house was - as always - silent. The Lymans had their own breed of silence after Joanie’s death. It wasn’t insidious, but gently, tentatively dampening. It was uncertain and cautious; the three of them were careful with each other. Josh was unbelievably careful of his parents, wary of upsetting them or confusing them. He couldn’t hurt them again. He couldn’t let them down again.

He’d done that thing that boys do, without warning. Josh had grown tall, and he was reedy, gangly and awkward. His face had thinned out, his shoulders and torso too, and Leo almost hadn’t recognized him when he’d walked into the house. Josh had been a little boy, the last visit, and he wasn’t anymore.

Leo remembers that part clearly: walking into the kitchen and finding Josh at the counter, reading the newspaper with a look of deep concentration and idly holding a glass of milk in his right hand, as if drinking something was coincidental and irrelevant to what he was thinking.

Josh looked up, and Leo had known that he would see Josh do that again, many, many times. He had known - somehow - that at some point, he and Josh would almost live together, that he would often watch Josh read something with perfect concentration, or hold a glass of milk, or water, or champagne, and look up expectantly.

"Hey, Mr. McGarry," Josh had said, with a smile that charm an inanimate object to life.

"Hello Josh," Leo replied, still startled by his realization. He cleared his throat. "Are your parents around?"

"Mom, Dad, Mr. McGarry is here," Josh had called, upstairs to wherever his parents were. He’d managed to even do that quietly. Josh looked back down at the newspaper and began reading again.

Leo shrugged off coat and peeled off gloves and hung them on the hallstand.

Then, Josh looked back up, stricken. "Uh, sorry, McGarry. How are you, sir? Would you like something to drink?"

Leo grinned at Josh’s embarrassment. "I’m fine, thank you, Josh. Go back to the newspaper."

"Oh no, sir, I…"

"It must be an interesting article," Leo interrupted. "Your mother will be down in the minute. I take it she’s resting?"

Josh nodded. "Yes, she…well, she does that sometimes. Rests. In the middle of the morning. Or before dinner."

"You must tire her out," Leo offered. Both of them knew why Marah really went to bed in the middle of the day.

Josh half-smiled. "Yes, sir." He tossed a look at the paper. "It’s not that interesting really. It’s just another article about the convention."

Leo raised an eyebrow. "You’ve been reading about the convention?"

"A little." He paused. "A lot. Dad says it’s a waste of time. But I’m interested, you know?"

"I know."

Josh bit his lip and then cleared his throat. "You…Dad said you were at the convention. That you…go to conventions, and things."

"And things," Leo said, his tone still mild.

Whenever children found out he worked in politics - no matter how sketchy or precise their understanding of that great beast - they always asked him, "Is it fun?"

And then Josh tossed him a curve ball. "Is it hard? Working in politics, I mean?"

Leo uncoiled slightly. "Yes, it is."

"It must be worth it - if you still do it. You could do other things, right? Dad says you’re very clever, so you could do other things."

"I could, but I like politics."

"Dad doesn’t." Josh shifted the glass of milk half an inch across the counter. "He understands it, but he doesn’t pay any attention. He says it’s all mishegas." The boy lifted his head to see if Leo knew what that meant.

"Some of it is." Leo leaned against the bench. "Some of it’s just…part of the performance. The decorations. And what you see isn’t what’s really happening."

"Like a puzzle or a riddle. You have to know the right code to understand what’s really being said," Josh said, uncertainly.

"Yes," Leo nodded. "Just like a riddle."

"Leo," Noah said, striding into the room. Noah Lyman was a tall, thin man, with a beaked nose and a huge, bright smile he’d bequeathed to his son. "Sorry - I was on the phone." He gripped Leo’s hand. "It’s been too long."

"Yes," Leo agreed.

"How is Jenny? And Mallory?"

"They’re good. Jenny sends her love."

Noah glanced over at Josh and made a face. "You are reading about the convention again, Joshua? Go upstairs and see how your mother’s feeling."

"Yes, sir."

Josh disappeared with his glass of milk and a backward glance at the newspaper.

Noah rolled his eyes. "The boy is fascinated by politics. I keep explaining it’s only a career path for con artists…" he trailed off and grinned. "But then he reminds me that you are in politics and you are one of my good friends."

"Doesn’t preclude me from being a con artist," Leo offered. "There’s nothing wrong with a healthy interest in politics."

"Not my Joshua," Noah said. "There’s interested, and then there’s Joshua. I’m not sure why he likes it so much."

"It’s a puzzle," Leo agreed with a straight face.

"Leo," Marah said, appearing from the hallway. She smoothed down her skirt and smiled. "I didn’t realize you’d arrived."

As always, Leo was struck by Marah’s beauty, by the honey-brown of her hair, her creamy skin, and the huge hazel eyes that dominated her small face. He kissed her on the corner of the mouth, and squeezed her arm, gently. But his gaze drifted to Josh, standing in the kitchen doorway, still holding that glass of milk.

Later, after lunch, after he’d argued with Marah about welfare initiatives and thoroughly enjoyed himself, after he’d sat with Noah and chatted for a few hours, Leo wandered out to the back yard and found Josh sitting on the back steps. He sat beside him.

"I want to work in politics," Josh said.

Leo clasped his hands together and let them hang between his knees. He’d been expecting this. "I know."

Josh sighed and turned his head to look at Leo properly. "My father won’t like it."

Leo waited, longer than a beat, longer than it took to expel his breath. "Your father is a good man, Josh."

"Yes." Josh nodded, without hesitation. "He’ll understand, but he won’t like it."

"He’ll still be proud of you." Leo meant it, without any trace of truism.

"I know. I just…" Josh trailed off. "It’s not quite enough to make him proud, is it? I have to…" Josh shrugged. "Well."

Leo found himself, with great surprise, reaching out and laying a hand on the back of Josh’s neck. The skin there was warm and smooth. Josh didn’t pull away from the touch, and something soared through Leo.

He could have said something - about living a life that made Josh happy, about fathers and expectations, about choices and regrets, that Josh didn’t have to be Joanie, that he really, really didn’t - or hundreds of other things that Leo wanted to teach this boy.

But he didn’t. He saw - he recognized - that Josh didn’t want those words from Leo. He didn’t want platitudes or meaningless comfort and there would be time for lessons later. At this moment, Josh wanted something from Leo that Noah wouldn’t give him - Josh wanted Leo to open up the world for him and allow him to step into. He wanted someone to show him the way.

So they simply sat on the step, Leo’s hand warm and reassuring on Josh’s neck, Josh’s knee nudging Leo’s calf, as the light and heat began to seep out of the day, until twilight spread across the sky. And then they went inside.

It is not an important or special memory. It isn’t grand or life-changing. It isn’t funny, or amusing or even illustrative. But it is all of those things to Leo, and he has never shared it with anyone for fear that it will lose its power.

There was something about Josh’s thin neck, about the way his muscles relaxed under Leo’s hand, about the silence, about the way Josh confided his deepest desire in him, about the total understanding between them, the way something soared in Leo and settled perfectly into place as they sat in silence.

Leo can’t name it and doesn’t need to.

Leo believes that some men are supposed to have daughters and others are supposed to have sons. Mal makes him breathlessly happy, but he believed for a long time that he would have been a terrible father to a son, that he would only repeat every wrong, every mistake is own father made.

Leo watches Josh, sometimes, in the middle of an argument, laughing with CJ, teasing Sam, flirting with Donna, and the same thing soars inside him.

And then Josh looks up at him with that expression - the expression that says Josh would get the moon for Leo, if he asked - and it is as clear as day to Leo that he has been an excellent father to his son.

********

4. Adverb: Absently

Standing between an autumn sky and the wet earth, all Sam could think about was how badly he wanted his brother, Ben, to come back.

Sam had invented an imaginary brother at the age of six.

He’d called him Ben, never Benjamin. Ben had been two years and three months older than Sam. Ben had darker hair than Sam’s and light brown eyes, but they’d had the same chins and similar noses.

Ben hated tomatoes, religiously followed the 49ers, possessed a diamond-shaped chicken pox scar above his left cheekbone, and when he was six Ben had broken his collarbone under the mistaken impression he could fly off the garage roof. He had flown, Ben argued - it was just his landing that he had to work on.

Ben did well at school, but not as well as Sam, and never finished his homework on time. Ben was better at sports and wanted to pitch for the 49ers. Ben always promised Sam that when he was famous and rich, the two of them could live together in a big mansion and eat chocolate ice cream all day.

Sam and Ben had played ball, sneaked cookies together, built fortresses in the backyard, and spied on the three blonde-haired, blue-eyed, distantly beautiful Tatum sisters who lived across the road. They’d even had arguments, and once, Sam had gone a whole fortnight without speaking to his brother after Ben refused to play tag with him.

Ben was a true imaginary brother - nobody else knew about him. Unlike other kids who made a point of discussing their imaginary friends or talking to them in public, Ben was a dark and well-protected secret from everybody in Sam’s life. Whenever other people appeared, Ben disappeared.

When Sam was nearly twelve, in the middle of May just before school broke up for the summer, Ben simply disappeared. He was no longer there when Sam woke up, and his absence grew and lengthened. Sam missed him, but didn’t pine for him, and after a while he forgot all about Ben.

Besides, that was the summer he finally kissed Rowena Tatum, and nothing else seemed important.

It was during a compulsory Psych 101 class in college that Sam had suddenly remembered his brother; had instantly remembered everything about him, from the tomato-hating to the diamond-shaped white scar on his left cheekbone and the way it unbalanced Ben’s face.

Looking back, of course, it was quite obvious that Sam had been lonely for a sibling and desperate for the company. It was unusual that Ben had been older - most children invented younger brothers and sisters because it made the real child feel more mature and responsible.

Sam, it seemed, wanted to be looked after rather than look after somebody else and when he thought about it that actually wasn’t very surprising.

For reasons he cannot pin down, Sam hasn’t ever told anybody about Ben. He holds Ben tight and close to his heart. Sam isn’t afraid of being mocked or laughed it - he knows that much. Instead, Ben is still something private, something unnameable, a desire that hasn’t really been met.

Thoughts of Ben had bloomed, irrepressibly, when he’d first met Josh, although Josh was nothing like Ben. Josh was too offhand in his affections, too vague with his protectiveness, too unwilling to compromise, and too superior in manner and intellect. It was perhaps Josh’s star-like brilliance, the way he eclipsed rooms that brought back memories of Ben.

But Josh had been somebody’s little brother, and remained so, even after Joanie’s death, and he hadn’t stepped into the role of only child. For that, and other reasons, Josh made a poor idol and a terrible older brother.

There was also that particular glint in Josh’s eye, the way he and Sam half-flirted from the moment they met each other, so that Sam’s brain - and his body - could never categorize Josh as a brother of any description.

His wife had asked him once, not long after they were married, if anything had ever happened between Josh and him. It wasn’t a question designed to shock, and it hadn’t. The answer was an emphatic no, but Sam had paused before uttering it, and Elsie had known that it was not for lack of desire.

Sam should have known, of course, who his real brother was. It was perfectly obvious to everybody around him. And they’d joked about it, often. They’d occasionally been serious about it, too.

That was no direct or logical path to this moment, but standing between an autumn sky and the wet earth, Sam wishes Ben could be here, now.

********

The autumn chill has crept into Sam’s bones and joints, and his back aches unobtrusively. CJ had always said that Sam would never age, would never grow old, but his hair is greying now, and there are wrinkles spreading outward from his eyes like ripples.

The other day, his youngest child had traced one of the lines near his mouth with her small finger, and asked him why it was deeper than the others.

"There’s more room to hide things in there," he told his daughter.

She’d pulled the skin taut, as if to look for treasures. "Be serious, Daddy."

"It’s a laughter line," Elsie had told her, from the kitchen bench.

"Because Daddy laughs a lot?"

"That’s right," Elsie said. "Honey, could you go upstairs and tell your brothers that dinner is ready?"

Clare had clambered off Sam’s lap, skipped over to the bottom of the staircase, and yelled, "Guys, dinner is ready."

And Sam had laughed.

Clare had been a surprise, the third child they hadn’t planned for, which is all the more amusing given the news Elsie disclosed last Tuesday night, in bed whilst Sam was reading a brief and attempting to ignore the smooth splay of his wife’s body against the dark bed sheets.

Elsie had suggested the name Clare, and Sam had quietly suggested Juliet as a middle name. Clare had been almost six months old before Elsie and C.J realized what he’d done. Elsie had laughed, but C.J. had kissed him with unshed tears in her eyes, and there were fewer thank you’s more special than that.

There is his CJ now - not much greyer than him, with an equal number of wrinkles, and as fierce-eyed as she’s ever been. Her words are strong, unwavering, untainted by the tears being shed by the other mourners. Her words are a poem of frustration and love, a reward for a man who had loved to hear CJ speak, who encouraged her voice and gave it strength and fullness. CJ was the obvious choice for the eulogy - nobody can breathe magic into words the way CJ does.

CJ’s suit is not black, but vivid, startling red. And that too is a tribute.

Clare is also wearing red, Molly is in blue, Sylvia is solemnly orange, and Miranda is decked out in pink with a matching hat. It was a conscious decision on the part of the two-and-a-half mothers. The colourful girls stand out amongst the other mourners, startling splashes of vivacity amongst the black and navy blue suits of the adults. Except that Donna’s scarf is orange and Elsie’s coat is green.

Sylvia - six and sassy - is leaning against her father’s legs, her head riding his hip. Josh periodically touches her corn-coloured hair. Miranda, more controlling than Donna and more charismatic than Josh, is standing in front of her mother, holding her younger sister’s hand.

Molly’s head is bowed and her white, thin fingers are tangled together. Her dark hair is curtain over her face and she leans against Donna. Redheaded Huck is standing beside Josh, and Sam watches as Josh puts his hand on the back of Huck’s neck and squeezes it tightly.

Sam’s heart squeezes and tightens with that gesture.

Connor shifts closer to Sam, silently asking his father for the same gesture. Sam puts his arm around Connor’s shoulders instead and pulls the boy against his body. His second son is a silent, mysterious boy, with a gorgeous smile and remarkable perceptiveness.

His brother, two years older, and twenty times louder, is Elsie all over. More than that, Ethan is brilliant at baseball. Ethan wouldn’t let his father hold him like this, but Connor tucks his body into Sam’s and sighs with contentment. Sam hopes that the time between now and Connor’s seventh birthday dawdles.

On Sam’s other side, holding his hand tightly, Clare bends and straightens her knees, watching the wide skirts of her red dress sway. "Like a bell, Daddy," she’d said that morning, showing him the sway of her skirt. But then the cars arrived and CJ had called for him, and Sam had been distracted and hadn’t said anything in response.

Holding Clare’s other hand, Elsie is muttering the appropriate response to the Mass. That his wife is a Catholic is something he discovered about her long after they started dating. Elsie’s mother - the second of Thomas Bailey’s three wives - was a loud, lively Italian Catholic, and although Elsie doesn’t attend Mass weekly, she usually gets there once a month.

Sam doesn’t go with her except for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. He loves the old cathedral they attend, the incense and wood weighing down the air. He loves the singing, the anticipation, the celebration, and the impressive ritual. The rites are foreign to him, but he loves watching the rest of the congregation move through the Mass as if it is a familiar dance. That Elsie - his flippant, mouthy Elsie - never falters and always shines during Mass, is the part he loves the most.

The children sometimes go with her, although Sam and Elsie are careful about not indoctrinating their children. Surprisingly, Ethan seems to enjoy it the most. As much as Connor is a mystery, Ethan is also an enigma, but Sam feels no resentment about their taciturnity. It makes his sons independent people, not mere extensions of him and Elsie, so Sam enjoys discovering their worlds and their thoughts.

Clare, though, has never been a mystery to him. Like the child he’s been waiting for all his life, Clare wears every emotion - every disappointment and triumph - on her face. Her voice carries her happiness, her eyes bear her sadness, and her mouth conveys her stubbornness. When Clare slid into the world, screaming and sticky, she looked so familiar to Sam that he nearly dropped her.

Sam looks over at Elsie now and catches his wife looking up at him from under the brim of her black hat. She half-smiles at him and screws up her nose, a gesture that can still rotate Sam’s stomach. He motions his head to Clare who is still bending and straightening. Elsie’s smile widens.

They definitely didn’t plan for a fourth child - they even took precautions against it - but they’ve failed, because Elsie is vomiting in the mornings, and there are two lines on every pregnancy test she’s taken, and she told him on Tuesday night that he and his stupid libido had knocked her up again. Her words exactly.

Sam had thought for a moment that she was upset about the pregnancy, that she wanted to talk about their options, but then he’d seen her eyes and remembered how much Elsie loved being pregnant, how she loved the fact that she’d never had any trouble falling pregnant to him, that the ripe potential of her body made her glimmer and glisten, and Sam had known that she wanted this baby.

It occurs to him now, as the priest crosses himself, that he wants this baby, too. He doesn’t care about the extra financial burden. He doesn’t care that by the time this baby finishes high school, he’ll be almost sixty. He doesn’t care about the money or the effort, or even over-population, an argument he used on Elsie after Connor was born.

As he stands under the grey sky, burying Leo, Sam is ready for new life, ready to meet this fourth person he has made. Ready to solve another mystery or greet a remembered friend.

Mal is standing at the head of the coffin and her head is bowed. She is alone, and nobody is waiting for her in the crowd. No husband, no children, no partner. Sam remembers that kind of loneliness and understands the weight of it. Some last dark shadow of his loneliness still lingers between his shoulders blades and Sam sometimes finds himself rotating his neck or shifting position uncomfortably, uncertainly, trying to ease the ache.

He’s only seen Mal a few times since he and Elise got married. She still lives and teaches in Washington, but his life is so full Little League games, caucus meetings, late-night votes, ballet rehearsals, doctor’s appointments and dinner parties that he barely sees anyone beyond his wife, his children and his co-workers. Sam understands that families do this - they contract and broaden your world at the same time. And he isn’t unhappy about the limits to his time and space. But he hasn’t seen Mal very much over the last ten years and he’s surprised to see middle-age in her eyes. He’s more surprised by her resignation to it.

Mal’s staying at the farmhouse - the President insisted everybody stay with them and Abbey is overjoyed with the number of children bouncing through the house. It’s strange that Leo wanted to be buried in Manchester. But the President will be buried here, so perhaps it’s not strange at all.

They’ve all gathered at the house over the last three days: Josh, Donna, Sam, Elsie and CJ and their seven collected children from Washington; Will from Boston; Zoey and Charlie from New York; Ellie and her family from LA; Liz and Annie from Chicago; even Josh’s mother, Marah, from Florida. Margaret had come from Washington carrying the instructions for Leo’s funeral. And Mal.

There’s always someone raiding the kitchen for food, and in the morning there’s a queue at each of the three bathroom doors. The kids have discovered the barn with great excitement and Sam doesn’t see his three children from one day to the next. He gathers they get fed during the marathon meals that the women seem to spend the whole day preparing. Every time a man goes into the kitchen they shoo him out. The President holds court in the front living room, telling tales about Leo that are entirely true, but seemingly fantastical. Charlie and Zoey are in an off phase of their on-again, off-again relationship, but given the way they’ve been looking at each other over the last forty-eight hours, Sam’s willing to bet they’re close to being on again.

Mal drifts from group to group, but every time Sam has seen her over the last few days, she’s been on the edge of things. Although she’s brilliant with children, Mal has kept her distance from and Miranda, Sylvia, Huck, Molly, Ethan, Connor and Clare over the last few days. She seems unconcerned by their arguments and games, uninterested in talking to them, unmoved by their laughter and their universal and spontaneous affection for every adult around them.

The redhead teacher is stranger to the children, but they know she was Uncle Leo’s daughter and they speak quietly whenever she is near.

Mal has also kept her distance from him, something that has confused Sam.

On their second night at the farmhouse, Donna and Sam were on bath duty after dinner. Elsie and Josh were downstairs arguing about Thomas More’s Utopia. Josh was being pragmatic, Elsie idealistic, but after twenty minutes they’d swapped sides, just for fun. They often did. Huck was playing the piano in the downstairs drawing room and he’d drawn an audience. The piano sounded ethereal as it drifted up the stairs and into the blue bathroom.

Their assorted children were splashing around in the water and the heat in the room made the ends of Donna’s hair curl up. Donna is the only woman Sam knows who can honestly look fetching. Elsie can be many things - fey, funny, elusive and ebullient, beautiful and brilliant - but never fetching.

Sam mentioned it to Donna - half-captivated by her flushed skin and half-concerned about the acrobatic feat Clare was attempting to perform from one end of the tub to the other - he’d asked why Mal would keep her distance.

"Is it because of Elsie?" Sam had asked.

Donna - unfolding towels and telling Sylvia that Connor had a penis not a ding-a-ling - had rolled her eyes. "She’s staying away from you because of you."

"Why?" he asked.

"Because ding-a-ling is a ridiculous word for something that has a proper name," Donna told Sylvia. "Her father’s just died. She’s evaluating her life and wondering what if? You are a what if, Sam."

"Mal and I were finished years before I married Elsie."

Donna threw a towel at him. "It’s not about Elsie. You remind her of what she could have had if she’d done things differently. If she’d made different choices."

"But I’m married to Elsie. And I don’t think anything would have made a difference - we were supposed to find each other."

"Senator Sam, you’re a beautiful man." Donna kissed his jaw, a gesture as offhand as it was heartfelt. "Yes, Sivvy, your Daddy has a penis."

"Is his bigger than Connor’s?" Miranda asked.

Sam laughed. Donna flushed redder. "It’s time to get out."

"We don’t wanna be prunes," Clare agreed, seriously.

Sam wrapped Sylvia in a towel and rubbed her vigorously until she laughed with delight. Donna did the same thing with Connor, while Clare and Miranda stood dripping on the mat. He held Sylvia tight in his lap, feeling her warmth seep through his clothes and watched Donna bump noses with Clare.

He wondered what if, in a fashion as offhand as Donna’s kiss.

Elsie and the congregation are muttering the Lord’s Prayer, and Sam joins in.

The last time he’d seen Leo, the ailing man had been impatient to be on his way.

"No point waiting around," he’d said in a weak voice. But his eyes had been strong and it hadn’t stopped him from arguing with Margaret about finishing his lunch. Margaret won, of course.

On the other side of the bed, Josh had grinned. "There are things to organize in Heaven. You’ll make it in time for the general election up there."

"Neither of us is going to Heaven," Leo had retorted.

Josh had laughed - shortly, quickly. Josh’s humour had been his last gift to Leo. But his seriousness was unmistakable: the last two months of Leo’s life, Josh had visited him every afternoon, sitting with the dying man for hours until the sun was gone and the stars were threatening to appear.

Leo never once said thank you - but he held Josh’s hand across all of those hours.

This morning, after the performance of getting all the children dressed and ready, Connor tripped going down the stairs. Elsie - talking in another room - got to her son before he started crying, a skill that still stops Sam in his tracks with surprise.

By the time Sam arrived from the kitchen Connor was running around again and Elsie was leaning against the banister.

"You okay?" Sam asked, softly.

"Morning sickness," Elsie murmured.

Sam reached out so that his fingertips grazed his wife’s stomach. "I can go get some graham crackers."

"Thanks." Elsie had stepped forward so that the palm of Sam’s hand was flat against her abdomen. "No more sex. Ever. Okay?"

"Okay. It wasn’t that good, anyway. The sex."

"No," Elsie agrees. "How you doing, my sunshine man?"

Sam smiled at the sobriquet. "Happy to see everyone together. Sad that it took Leo’s death to do it. Sad in general. Smiling, because the President keeps telling funny stories about Leo. And my shoulder hurts. You?"

"Pregnant, sad, distracted and guilty."

He’d frowned. "Guilty?"

"I told Donna about the baby this morning," Elsie confided. Sam made a face. "I know. I just…I wasn’t thinking." She sighs. "You know she had another one last April?"

"Josh told me. That makes three miscarriages since Sylvia."

Elsie rested her hand over his. "She’s happy for me, but…"

"But." Sam nodded. "Josh isn’t coping. And he doesn’t know how to help her. She won’t let him."

"She can’t. But she knows how he feels." Elsie leant forward until her head was resting against Sam’s chest. "I love you."

"I know."

"No, I love you."

He kissed her forehead. Then he tilted her head up and kissed her properly, lingeringly. "I know, sweetheart."

"Just stand here a while with me," Elsie whispered. "Don’t go anywhere."

He wrapped his arms around her waist. "I’ve got nowhere else to be."

Sam held his breath so he could feel Elsie breathe. He rested his hands at the base of her spine, pressing her against him until he almost believed that the life she was carrying was inside him. He is always fascinated by his wife when she’s pregnant. Right now, all he wanted to feel is life - his, Elsie’s, their baby’s. Elsie stood perfectly still and Sam knew she felt the same way he did, which is why he’d married her in the first place.

"Mommy!" Clare called from the bathroom. "Ethan got water on my dress."

"I did not!" Ethan yelled.

Elsie and Sam exchanged a look.

"Crackers," Sam said.

"Water on dress," Elsie said, and she headed for the bathroom.

When Sam turned around, he saw Mal standing perfectly still at the top of the stairs. He’d known without asking that she’d been standing there since Connor had tripped. She’d watched his son trip, hadn’t gone to help him, and she’d watched Sam and Elsie without saying a word.

"Elsie’s pregnant?" Mal had asked, from the landing. "Again?"

It was the way she said ‘again’ that made Sam say sharply, "Yes."

"Oh." Mal had descended two steps, and her body was a dark, thin exclamation mark against the white staircase. "Congratulations."

"Thank you."

"Sam Seaborn, father of four." Mal’s mouth impersonated a smile. "If anyone had told me ten years ago that you, Josh and Toby would have eight children between you, I’d have…" but Mal had trailed off.

"I’m as surprised as anyone," Sam offered.

Two more stairs. "You’re happy with Elsie?"

He’d frowned at her. "Of course. She’s got a heart of gold and a will of iron. And she’s funnier than me."

"Everyone’s funnier than you, Sam." One stair. "Dad really liked her. She always cheered him up when she visited." Two stairs. "I couldn’t cheer him up."

Sam shook his head. "We were allowed to leave, Mal. We’d visit for a few hours and go back to our lives. You had a harder job. You had to stay."

"Well, I can leave now, can’t I?" One last stair and she was standing opposite him. "But you’re happy, right?"

"Yes, I am…"

"Look Daddy!" Clare tugged on his sleeve. His daughter undulated her body and her dress shifted and swayed. "Like a bell."

"That’s…"

"Sam!" CJ called, from the front doorstep. "Sam? The cars are here. Can you help me get everyone together?"

"Let’s go find some crackers for Mommy. And you can round up people as we go." Sam bent to pick up his daughter and when he’d straightened, Mal had still been staring at him.

But CJ has finished talking now, and Sam concentrates on the final rites. Mal bows her head. Abbey weeps silently. The President doesn’t take his eyes off the coffin.

Connor presses closer. Elsie murmurs under her breath - she’s saying the Hail Mary. Donna and Margaret are holding hands, two women of spring under an autumn sky. CJ is standing behind Molly, her arms around the girl’s waist, smiling softly. Clare stops swaying and stands straight.

But Josh is swaying now, also speaking under his breath. Not speaking, singing. The lilt of his litany catches and flows around Sam and his family, around everybody here.

It is Kaddish, Sam realizes. Josh is saying Kaddish. His voice is unsteady and his swaying looks drunken not graceful. Until another voice joins Josh. Huck. Huck is saying Kaddish for a man who has been like a grandfather to him. He is saying it with a man who has been like his father, lending his strength to Josh’s voice. Josh and Huck sway in unison as the priest finishes the Catholic rites.

Sam wishes, again, that Ben were here, standing beside him, near him, looking after him.

But Toby isn’t here. Toby hasn’t been here for seven years. He hasn’t seen his children since the day Andie died in a car crash. He sends CJ money every month, as if that means something when Huck can play the piano like David Helfgott and Molly is smarter than Josh and they are the most miraculous children.

But Toby had been driving the car, and he’d left the day after Andie’s funeral, a ceremony thicker and darker than this funeral. Andie had died and Toby had lived, and there was no voice strong enough, no words powerful enough to absolve Toby of his guilt. Nobody has seen him for seven years.

Not even CJ, who shed hot, angry tears for six months after Toby left. CJ has been to the piano recitals and the parent/teacher interviews, CJ has kissed cuts and mended toys, worried about and yelled at the two children she inherited and loves beyond all measure. Not Josh, who still talks about Toby as if he’s on a holiday and will soon return.

That spot between Sam’s shoulder blades is called Toby.

The coffin begins its descent and Ethan begins to say the Hail Mary with his mother. Clare is swaying with her uncle and Huck, humming under her breath. She is no longer four years old, but every age, eternal, beautiful. It reminds Sam that she is not really his.

Josh - Josh’s voice - wavers dangerously but his face is smooth and he sways with strength.

Molly steps forward and begins to say Kaddish in her strong, determined voice - her father’s voice - adding timbre and grace to the song. She sways from the hips, and she seems to be a blue pennant in the wind.

Sam doesn’t understand the words of the Kaddish, but he does not think he is supposed to. There are mysteries that should remain unsolved, languages that should remain foreign. It is enough that the song flows along his back, around his family, through the cemetery, more powerful than any words that Sam does understand.

"…now and in the hour of our death…" Elsie chants.

The priest keeps his head bowed, as if Kaddish is one of his prayers.

Mal collects a handful of dust and tosses it into the yawning hole. Her tears have formed ribbons down her face, ribbons of salt, and Sam knows she will be okay.

Margaret throws the second handful of dirt, and Sam wishes he could tell Margaret how much she meant to Leo. He wishes he could make her believe how much Leo loved her. But Margaret already knows and that’s probably why she’s crying.

Sam knows that the President - who is silent, still and tearless - will not be okay. Sam knows this because Leo is gone. Jed Bartlet is stronger than most men, but the two men were brothers and Sam understands that.

Ethan reaches behind his mother for his father, reaching blindly for something and Sam holds his son’s hand and cries. He cries because Leo is dead, because it seems real now. Because it is real, now. Because one day his children will cry at his grave and he cannot save them from that grief.

And then - as if wishes were real - there is a fourth voice singing Kaddish.

Others turn around to see, but Josh, Huck, Molly and Sam do not.

The voice singing from behind Sam is strong and layered, dark and beautiful, hopeful and sad. The voice is warm enough to melt the dark spot between Sam’s shoulders so that Sam almost believes it is gone.

The four of them - two men and their children - finish singing Kaddish. The words echo and hold people frozen for a long moment.

Sam turns around slowly, cautiously. If he could see his own eyes he would not believe how blue they are. If he could see his own face he would not believe how hopeful it is.

Toby is wearing a black overcoat and wrinkles around his eyes. Toby is carrying the bitterness of his years around his mouth. Toby is standing on the edge of the crowd, staring back at Sam. Toby is here for Leo, but Sam could fool himself into believing that Toby is here for him.

Ethan and Connor and Sylvia and Miranda stare at this man they do not know.

Huck is holding Josh’s hand and Molly is holding CJ’s. The two children watch their father without anger or hatred because CJ raised them to be better people than that. They watch him with caution instead, wondering if he is here for them. Maybe he is. Maybe he’s here for a man he will never see again, who will never know that Toby cam to his funeral.

Sam realizes that there is nothing to say. And even if there was, he wouldn’t know how to say it.

Clare, however, is no mystery, and she steps up to Toby and sways like a willow, like a pennant, like a girl, like his daughter.

"Look," she says. "Like a bell."

And she is.

********

The End

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