Disclaimers: None of these characters belongs to me. Oh, except the lawyer who I really don't care to take credit for anyway. "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" belonged at one point to James Joyce and presumably belongs to some heir of his now.
"I am not going to blush."
"That's not really reassuring me, Sam, because you're blushing now."
"So are you."
"He's not going to be looking at me."
"How do you know?"
"Because I'm going to keep him focused on you."
"Because I'm going to blush."
"Well, it's true." She shifted nervously in her chair and her gaze brushed over the open doorway. "I don't know what's taking him so long."
"He's trying to make us nervous."
"No, he's trying to make you nervous." The words were no sooner out of Ainsley's mouth than the subject of them appeared at the door. "Mr. Tribbey," she said hurriedly, jumping out of her chair.
"Sit, Miss Hayes," the tall lawyer ordered as he walked into the room. "Sam."
"Sam, we all know this is crap."
"Yes," Sam replied uncertainly.
"We also know they can make it sound like it's not," Lionel continued.
"You've talked to Ainsley?"
Sam glanced over at her quickly, careful not to linger overlong. "Yes."
"And?" Lionel asked, directing his focus to her.
For a moment she was too startled by the fact that he had called her Ainsley that she forgot to answer. "Oh, um, I think we need to meet with Brookline and Joyce and their lawyer and . . ." She gestured vaguely.
"Kick some ass?"
She looked back at Lionel with amusement partially replacing the fear. "I was going to say scare them a little, but okay."
"We don't have time for a little, Ainsley." Lionel dropped into the third chair and put his feet up on the desk. "We need to scare the hell out of them."
"I know," she replied.
"Because we can't settle with these people."
"Of course not," Ainsley agreed. "It would look - beyond bad."
"So?" He leaned back, daring her to impress him.
"No one slandered anybody, because Sam reached his conclusions about Joyce and Brookline with absolutely no input from anyone else. I didn't tell him anything - I actually lied in their favor, but we won't say that unless we have to -"
"Not in those words, anyway," her boss agreed. "I promise you, the words 'I lied' will not leave anyone's mouth."
"Right. So that's the slander angle covered." She fiddled nervously with a pen. "Then we have to attack the prejudicial thing."
"The unjust termination of employment thing?"
"Yes." She carefully did not look at Sam. "They know they don't have a real case, so they're going to have to try and confuse the issue."
"By?" Lionel asked curiously.
Ainsley took a deep breath. "We're guessing, by implying that Sam and I were involved at the time."
"They're going to imply that you and Sam were involved after knowing each other for three days?"
"It's slightly worse than that, actually." This was the part she'd dreaded.
"Ainsley?" Sam asked, forgetting himself.
She sighed. "I got a tip from - someone - this morning." She'd promised Danny Concannon she wouldn't give him away. "Brookline and Joyce are leaking to the press that they're filing this suit, and as of early this morning they're claiming that Sam fired them with the understanding that he would be - repaid." She couldn't look at him. She felt his tension and his barely controlled rage from all the way across the room, but she kept her eyes focused sharply on her boss.
Lionel inhaled deeply. The look on his face made Ainsley very glad there were no cricket bats in her office. "Before we go any further, Sam, for the sake of formality, tell me that's not true."
"It's not," Sam barely managed to force out.
"Ainsley, for the sake of formality, did you ever feel the need to repay Sam in any way for what he did?"
"No," she choked.
"I feel quite safe in assuming you were not sleeping together at the time of the incident."
"No," Ainsley replied, since Sam didn't seem capable.
"Notice," Lionel interjected, "that I did not ask if you are sleeping together now. You do not answer that question. Even if the answer is no, you do not answer that question. Don't give me that look, Sam, I'm not suggesting that you are sleeping together. What I'm saying is, that question comes up in this meeting, Sam does not say a word and Ainsley -" He turned the full force of his bright eyes on her. "- you are insulted and appalled, yadda yadda, you're not going to dignify - you know the drill. If they can make you deny it too many times, you'll both start to sound defensive, and we don't want to go there."
"I understand," she replied.
"But -" Sam started to protest.
"Sam," she interrupted, "we have to make the entire idea sound preposterous. If we let them force us to discuss our relationship, we put ideas into people's heads. You know that." Knowing Lionel couldn't see her face as she turned toward Sam, she silently apologized to him with her eyes. There would be time enough to sort out their relationship and how to go public with it after this was over. For now, the slightest hint could kill them.
"So we're trying to make them back down?" Sam asked finally, tearing his eyes away from Ainsley's.
"And if that doesn't work, we turn around the same statements and get the case thrown out," Lionel answered.
"When are we meeting with them?"
Lionel looked at his watch. "Ainsley and I are meeting with them in half an hour. You're dropping in fifteen minutes later."
"Because I want to be with Ainsley the first time she meets with them," Lionel replied calmly.
Lionel and Ainsley were, purposely, late for their meeting. They walked into the Mural Room side by side, throwing both double doors open at once. Brookline and Joyce and their four lawyers did not stand.
"Don't you think the Mural Room is a bit intimidating, Lionel?" one of the lawyers asked.
"Is it? I hadn't noticed," Lionel replied cheerfully.
"Besides," Ainsley put in, fighting down the nauseous feeling that had come over her at the sight of Brookline and Joyce, "the Oval Office was being used." Joyce looked irritated and she immediately felt better. This might be fun after all.
"Where's Sam?" another lawyer asked.
"Mr. Seaborn is running the country," Lionel replied. "He'll stop in if he gets a minute." He slammed his briefcase down onto the table. "Let's cut to the chase. You have no case, this suit is crap, let's talk about all the many reasons why you're going to drop it now."
"You've had your fun, you got to threaten the White House, it's time to quit while you're ahead."
"Not so fast," the first lawyer said. "What do we get?"
"For what?" Ainsley asked.
"In exchange for dropping the suit."
She turned to Lionel with an innocent look on her face. "Do they get anything for dropping the suit?"
He looked at her, not them. "They get to avoid the humiliation of being blasted in the courts and dragged through the press like the pond scum they are."
Ainsley turned back to the men across the table. "Sounds like a good deal to me, fellas."
"We have evidence," Mark Brookline burst out.
Lionel raised an eyebrow. "Evidence of - what, exactly?"
Brookline's lawyer shushed him and answered for him. "Evidence that Mr. Seaborn and Miss Hayes are involved in a sexual relationship."
Ainsley willed the color back into her face. Fortunately they were all distracted by the door flying open and Sam, who had been carefully coached, striding confidently into the room. "What'd I miss?" he asked, taking a seat on Ainsley's other side.
"Mr. Cartwright was about to tell us about his evidence that you and Miss Hayes are having a sexual relationship," Lionel said very carefully. "Please go on, Mr. Cartwright," he added, not giving Sam time to erupt. Under the table, moving only the lower part of her arm which she was sure they couldn't see, Ainsley dropped a hand onto Sam's knee as both a comfort and a warning.
Cartwright pulled a manila envelope out of his briefcase and pushed it across the table to Lionel. "See for yourself."
"Miss Hayes," Lionel instructed, gesturing toward the envelope.
Struggling to keep her fingers from trembling, Ainsley picked up the envelope and pulled a glossy black-and-white photo out of it. It was of her and Sam having dinner at a nondescript restaurant in work clothes. She couldn't have pegged the exact night if her life had depended on it. She relaxed. "When did you say this was taken?" she asked with a steady voice.
"I didn't. February third," Cartwright replied.
"Ah, February third," she repeated. "I remember that night, don't you, Sam?"
One of Lionel's rules had been 'go along with anything Ainsley says.'" Sam nodded. "Of course."
"Do you recall us having sex at the dinner table?" she asked.
All six men across the table nearly choked. Sam got over his initial shock and grinned at her, understanding her point. "No, I'm pretty sure I would remember that."
"Me too," Ainsley replied thoughtfully. She turned her attention back across the table. "Mr. Cartwright, it looks like you have evidence that on February third Mr. Seaborn and I had dinner after work, but I don't really see evidence of a sexual relationship here." She dropped the photo on the table and slid it back over to them. "And see, I know you're not stupid enough to think this photo is evidence of anything of the kind. I think you were planning on using it to make us nervous or to let us know that we're being watched. Since we have nothing to be nervous about, I have to be the one to tell you, it didn't work. Now," she said, folding her arms and leaning over them, "feel free to explain to me how you have a case."
Steve Joyce wasn't lasting another minute. He finally exploded in Lionel Tribbey's direction with, "He screwed us over for this Republican witch and there's no way he's allowed to fire us unless we weren't doing our jobs."
"This woman," Lionel replied in a deadly calm tone, "is an Associate White House Counsel. If you speak to, or about, her that way again I will have you removed."
Suddenly inspiration struck Ainsley so hard that she almost reeled. She addressed herself to Steve Joyce, much as the thought sickened her. "So you're suing because Sam was only allowed to fire you if you weren't doing your job?"
"Yes," he replied in the most condescending tone he could muster.
"So," she said, thinking as she went along, "I can guess that you're hoping this will create a scandal, and that getting himself sued for slander would force Sam to resign."
"Very good," Joyce replied. His lawyer nudged him.
"All right," Ainsley replied very slowly. "So you're saying that it's all right to force a White House employee to resign if he's creating scandal by being brought to court over work-related harassment charges of some kind?"
"It's happened before," Brookline said, casting obviously predatory glances at Sam. "You work in the White House, it's your job to represent them."
"Okay," Ainsley said. "So, let's play this out for a second. Let's say I were to sue you, Mr. Joyce, and you, Mr. Brookline, for harassment three months ago and for slandering me in the press this morning. Seeing as how I have actual evidence and witnesses, I don't think that would be unreasonable of me. So according to your own rule, the White House would in that case be completely justified in requesting your resignation, is that not correct?" Before anyone could answer her she added, "In fact, I seem to recall from my conversations with Mr. Seaborn this morning that before he fired you, he explicitly stated that you had opened up the White House to a big harassment suit, is that not true?"
"I definitely remember saying that," Sam confirmed before the other men could speak.
"I heard that too," Lionel added with a wolfish smile.
"So," Ainsley concluded, "it seems you were fired for failing to uphold all the requirements of your job. Not to mention," she added, "exposing the White House to a grand jury investigation for perjury on - what was it? - the Rockland memo." She sat back in her seat. "Gentlemen, personally I'd run now while you still can. Because if you try to take this to court, we're going to bury you so deep in your own arrogance that no one in this town will ever hire you again."
"I think this meeting is over," Cartwright said, getting to his feet. Sam, Ainsley, and Lionel sat motionless waiting for them to leave. When they had all trailed out of the room Ainsley released the breath she'd been holding. She lifted her hands from the table so Sam and Lionel could see them shaking. "Do you think they'll drop the suit?" she asked.
"If they don't, they're even more catastrophically stupid than I ever gave them credit for," Lionel replied. He got to his feet and dropped a hand to Ainsley's shoulder, thoroughly surprising her. "Very well done, Miss Hayes. I could have murdered you for holding onto that trump card as long as you did, but well done."
"I didn't think of it myself until that moment," she replied, still shaky. "But thank you."
He squeezed her shoulder firmly, then left the room without another word. She turned to Sam and breathed deeply. "We did it."
"You did it." He checked the open doorway before taking her hand. "If they drop the case now, Ainsley, we can go back to a normal timeline. You know, have dinner again maybe, go out, before we reenact Romeo and Juliet."
He knew he'd said something wrong the minute he saw the look on her face, but he wasn't sure how to fix it. Yet. He tightened his grip on her fingers, thinking hard. "I have to get back to work. Will you meet me somewhere?"
"Tonight?" she asked, her voice low and a bit duller than usual.
"Ten," he replied.
He paused for a second. "On the bench by the Reflecting Pool."
"In the dark, and we'll arrive there separately. It'll be okay."
"Okay," she replied finally.
He nodded in agreement and gave her one last look before he slipped from the room.
Ainsley's footsteps alerted him to her presence before he saw her shadow moving along the walk. He slid over on the cold bench to make room for her. She sat beside him and for a while they both stared into the water without speaking.
"I said something stupid," he said eventually. She didn't respond so he continued. "I gave you the impression that I thought we were moving too fast."
"No, you didn't," she replied.
"I gave you the impression that I thought we'd gotten too serious too fast."
After a long pause she replied, "Yes."
"I don't feel that way."
"No, I don't feel that way." He took hold of her shoulders then and turned her to face him. "Ainsley. I don't feel like we're too serious. I don't mean that we should start seeing each other less frequently, or that we should limit ourselves to going out for short dates. I like being with you." His voice dropped considerably as he leaned closer and held her eyes with his. "I liked last night. I liked this morning. I mean that we should just be able to have a normal relationship without all this drama being involved. We should just be able to move at whatever pace we like without creating a scandal. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"Yes," she replied after a while.
They fell silent again. She looked out over the reflecting pool and said out of nowhere, "The tide was flowing in fast to the land with a low whisper of her waves, islanding a few last figures in distant pools." After another silence she added, "That's what I always think of when I come here."
"Not really a distant pool."
"No." She folded her hands in her lap. "It's about escape, and exile."
"Who else?" She leaned back against the bench. "I don't know why the reflecting pool makes me think of it. Maybe I thought of Washington as my escape."
"I don't feel the need to escape, Ainsley," he said quietly. "And I've never felt less exiled."
She turned just slightly to face him and said thoughtfully, "Good."
"I wanted to kill them, you know."
It took her a minute to reply. "I knew you would want to."
"That's why you didn't tell me until Tribbey was there?"
Her tone was not at all defensive. He said simply, "Fine."
"Are you angry with me?" she asked, her tone not changing much.
"I'd kind of like to be."
"You didn't give me a chance to help you decide what to do."
"No, I didn't," she replied.
"I would have wanted to take care of you."
"You didn't let me."
"No, I didn't." She looked at him calmly. "Are you angry with me?"
He lifted his hands to her arms and held them gently. "Will you come home with me tonight?" Seeing the nervous look on her face he added, "The suit hasn't been dropped yet. Just, you know, last night was nice. I'm kind of used to being with you now."
"Okay," she whispered.
He pulled them both to their feet, saying as they walked away, "You're really hot when you kick ass, you know that?"