Rubiconby Lyman's Might
"He came to the conclusion that nothing more was needed now but to look out for a lady to be in love with; for a knight-errant without love was like a tree without leaves or fruit, or a body without a soul." -- Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
"The sea, washing the equator and the poles, offers its perilous aid, and the power and empire that follow it.... 'Beware of me,' it says, 'but if you can hold me, I am the key to all the lands.'" -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
There are things that are beyond control, things that sweep over life like a tide. Vessels are built to conquer the tides, to tack into the wind, and people forget that they aren't really in control at all. It's only in shipwreck that they remember, that they see that their rules, their controls, are abstract and irrelevant. They forget that there are currents that shouldn't be challenged, that there can be something noble in admitting defeat. They just charge on, against history and reason, trying to manufacture passions, trying to recreate the world. When it should stand humbled, humanity will always be it's most haughty.
So, in a corner of the White House, in a room Leo hadn't even known existed, Ainsley had pressed Sam against a wall and kissed him until he couldn't hear the crashes of her office over the blood pounding in his ears. And he'd looked at her with wide eyes, startlingly blue eyes. He took a shaky step toward her, thinking that maybe here, even now, when he could hear the world crumbling in the walls of this cave they had buried her in, something pure might have survived. She is Duty and Loyalty, and when she kissed him it almost didn't matter that she was a Republican.
But she takes another step away, and he stumbles as he leans to kiss the space where she'd been. His eyes ripple before he turns them to the ground. Maybe, he thinks, everything is tainted. He isn't shaky anymore, just saddened, and he doesn't look at her for a long moment.
She's furious. She's buried in the basement, cast out of her party, for this man, these men, and now she's drowning with them. And she, surely, will not recover. She could scream, but nobody would hear because this office is noisy, hidden, and largely forgotten.
So she kissed Sam in a strangely malicious way, because she didn't know what else to do. She's guilty, sort of, as he stands just inside her door, and, ironically, it's only Sam's innocence that makes this all right. He doesn't understand that she is angry at him for being too busy trying to help Josh to learn where Kirkwood was. He was so busy being noble, being Sam, that he gave her an easy way out, making her arguments irrelevant, even though they were clever, because they were part of a brilliant, building rhythm that didn't fit into a sound bite. Sam is brilliant but overburdened, and his mistake forced her into this mess.
He doesn't understand that she wanted to watch him shatter, but he was already broken, and she suddenly pities Leo and the president, because she can't imagine how he looked when they told him. He has no business in politics, lurking the West Wing, bruised and betrayed, the stray dog nobody can turn away. And he had no right to care so much about Josh at her expense.
All he understands it that she thinks he's alarmingly beautiful, and, when she's with him, her hands ache to touch him. But now he's standing in front of her, and it's like her first hangover, an irreversible mistake aching in every part of her body.
He'd come into her office, she's sure, to fight with her. They tear can into arguments for hours, and Sam uses this as recreation. Ainsley, whom nobody trusts while Bartlet is under siege, is assigned only tasks trivial enough to make her an ideal diversion for Sam. The president, she thinks, would be upset, if he had time to care about anything but reelection, because she wasn't hired to distract Sam.
But she doesn't really know why he came to her office, because she has this way of listening to them from a mile away. She isn't sure if it's that they speak Democrat or that she's afraid of them, or maybe it's a little of both. But it kept her rambling when Leo offered her a job, and the times when she's humiliated and has to backtrack awkwardly over the conversation balance with the times when that distance protects her from the expression they all give her, the distrust and disgust that make her job difficult. She gets it from everyone now, because nobody quite understands her, and they all wish she would just fade away, like Mandy, because there isn't time to learn to trust her.
She felt him breaking from the second her palm flattened against his chest. And as she'd pulled him with the other hand, she knew she couldn't do this. She's furious with this White House, but not with Sam. He's been good to her, relatively, and he's taken her seriously enough to fight about trivial things. There's a compliment in there somewhere, and she can't destroy him just because he's the only staffer she has access too.
She hadn't realized he was so fragile. He came down to her office a few times a week, to argue and to escape the frenzy in his bullpen, and she should have seen him falling apart. He's been begging her to see it because she has the time to notice, time that nobody else has. He wants her to fix him, in this hellish office where nobody would know. He'd spent his energy fixing Josh, and really, he'd done a horrible job. So he's guilty because Josh almost slipped away. He's angry at his father, and he's disappointed because he hasn't yet realized that making mistakes is a part of being the Real Thing. He's been begging her to fix him, but she's been too angry to see it.
He's adorable in a way that would be more appealing if it weren't such a burden, if he didn't believe that being in the White House means that every mistake destroys lives. It's an innocence that makes Ainsley want to smooth his hair, kiss his forehead, and send him off to grow up. But it's a strange ordeal, comforting Sam. It hollows the space between wanting to care for him because he's so sweet and wanting to fuck him because he's so good looking, and it leaves no room to carve anything healthy. And she was tired of patting his head, and she was frustrated and angry, and she felt him cracking on the first kiss. She just couldn't do it to him because it wasn't his fault, not really, and he would always think it was.
But she doesn't know what to do now, because she can't stand in a room with him, with his set jaw and squared shoulders, without wanting to touch him. And he's finally looking at her again, his eyes sharp and blue, and his intensity makes her hands tremble. His sweet flavor lingers in her mouth, and she's idly wondering how other parts of him taste when he speaks.
"Ainsley?" He almost keeps his voice steady.
"You kissed me."
"Well," he stares at her for a few seconds, wondering how she still flusters him so easily. "Why did you do that?"
She looks at him, her stomach dropping because she wanted to control this. She won't answer that question because she's back in that strange territory where she doesn't quite know what it is she feels for Sam, where she wants to soothe him and screw him all at once. And, either way, she can't say, "I wanted to hurt you," not while he's standing there, staring into her. She knows that a nervous, incoherent mess is about to slip out, and then this will really be out of control. "Well, Sam, I know that that was not appropriate. It was just something that I, on an impulse that was, I realize, ill-considered, did, and for that I apologize, and I assure you that I-"
The door swings shut with a thud loud enough to cut her off, which is good because she was whiney and she was making very little sense. His hand rests tentatively on the doorknob for a second of reconsideration before he faces her. There's a desperation in his eyes that makes her feel cheap, and she's almost ready to ramble again. But he's talking, in a husky whisper that makes him feel too much like a stranger in a bar, and then he's standing very close. She's staring at the curve of his jaw.
Her fingers twitch.
"Ainsley?" A pause and a hard swallow. "Do you want to do it again?"
She doesn't have an answer to that; she has a million separate answers. Before she knows she's talking, they're spilling into the air. "Sam, while I would, I'm sure, very much enjoy kissing you again... considering that we are in the White House, and someone will probably come looking for you because people tend to walk into my office at inopportune times causing embarrassing incidents with alcohol and dancing...considering these and other factors, I don't know that it would be-"
He's been licking his lips and wringing his hands, and he's suddenly on her. His hands are tangled in her hair, and he's backing her into a wall. She moans softly as she slides down to the floor, and she knows there's no way to take control. He lets her push him down as she unbuttons his shirt, but he soon pulls her back down to him. And it's never been like this for her; it's never been so insistent. As his hands run over her, she moves to skim his throat with her tongue.
But after a few seconds of indulgence, she's pulled back to kiss him. Every time she begins to wander down his chest, she barely gets to the scar along his rib cage before his lips are back on hers. He wants her so badly, but he can't stop kissing her long enough for that to matter. This is about sex, surely, and she's still being used, but only hesitantly, because he can't really have her. It's about sex, but it's also about what this could be, if they were anything but politicians. And, most of all, it's about this moment, and how badly he wants her.
He's all over her before he even let's her touch him. And, she thinks, that's Sam. She wonders, vaguely, what happened to him to make him so desperate for approval. But he tastes smooth and sweet, and it doesn't matter to her that she's probably abusing him. She can't stop this, not now, because the reasons in her mind are political, and she can't be a politician while Sam's hand is sliding up her thigh.
He's inside of her, and it's never hurt this way before. Above everything else she's feeling, she can feel him falling apart. He's brittle and burdened and he's breaking down, right here. She can't save him, but she isn't surprised, because that's just another in this string of failures that is the Bartlet administration. But the Bartlet staff keeps going, they slam into walls and crumple to the ground, and one of them comes along to heal the injured. They have this interdependence that keeps them alive, and, she wants to believe, catching Sam's pieces it almost initiation.
But, when they've finished, and he's stopped kissing her long enough to dress and depart, she can still feel him embedded in her, like shrapnel. She wonders if there were bits of Josh in him, if that's why he didn't know where Kirkwood was. Because, right now, she can't think of anything but ways to fix Sam. It's different, though, with Ainsley and Sam, than it is with the Senior Staff and Sam because he's attached to them. When Sam leaves himself in any one of them, he's safe within the protection of their sphere, and he'll be caught and protected and returned.
She's outside of them, though, and Gilbert and Sullivan and Kung Pao chicken can't change that. Because Toby, whom Sam reveres, sang Pinafore to her with the rest of them but stayed behind a desk instead of shaking her hand. And he stayed behind the table and glowered in her direction as she helped Sam make the president funny. They were in a battle, and Toby'd been the only one who knew about it, and there she'd been, sabotaging them, while she thought she was just trying to help.
She can still feel Sam, and she's not sure she wants him to fade away. She wants him to be in her office tomorrow, without apologizing, so that she can stare at his jaw while he picks the day's fight. She wants him to make her angry enough to kiss him, and then she wants this all to happen again. Because she felt, when he couldn't let her stop kissing him, what this could be.
He's there, in her doorway, the next evening, and he asks her to dinner with a shy smile and a shuffle. It's an apology, but it's also something else, something less demeaning, so she accepts. And at the table, to fill the candle-lit silence, they talk about sailing because it's a place to start for people who have little in common.
Growing up, she had an uncle on the Chesapeake, and the breeze on the bow of his Telemachus was her refuge from the fierce August heat. She sprawled at the stern, following the dusk-painted, golden trail on the water to the horizon. Her uncle told stories of seamen across the ages, from Ithaca to America, and the haze anchored her in a surreal, timeless connection to history, the colors of Michelangelo in a Monet painting.
On clear days, the islands seemed to float in the air, their American flags gazing down on her from the background of dusky green. White sails passed in the soft focus of childhood twilight. As she grew to know disappointment, she recognized the musings of Arnold's Sophocles as she watched the flow of potential draining over the edge of the world, somberly awaiting the echo of sadness from the sea.
It's an odd connection between fans of the sea, and it's an escape from politics into a world of dream and drama. They connect here, where they are both children, where they are free to explore these fantasies. He smiles freely, swinging his hands wildly, laughing and telling his stories. In sharp relief, his soul pours onto the table, spilling over its edges, washing over the room.
She pictures him as a boy, pointing eagerly at passing ships, reading their names, and shouting to their passengers, mingling in the strange society of recreational sailors.
And she pictures him as a young man, staring bronzed and brazen, shoulders squared, hand resting gently on the furled jib, defiantly staring at the horizon. Daring the edges of the world even as the sea spit salt water in his face.
But then she pictures him now, strapped to the mast, screaming and squirming against his fate. He's sensitive to her touch, she thinks; he squirms under her fingers. It's a strange thought to have as he explains the history of the word "starboard," but it all feels connected, the sex, the struggle, and the sea.
She asks him the name of his father's boat. He eyes her. "Carpe Aurum."
"Seize the gold?" It almost sounds more ridiculous in her accent.
"Yeah." His face twists momentarily. "I never asked him why. I always assumed it was about discovery. Or maybe happiness." He's wistful, lazily reminiscing, seeing his father consumed by integrity instead of lechery.
"Or being rich."
"Yeah," he sighs. "Or that."
The dream shatters in his eyes, and it's like she's stolen his childhood.
** Days have passed since she kissed him, and this has become a thing they do. He brings her food, or, if he can spare the time, takes her out, and she works late so that he can take her home. It's like dating, sort of, in that there's a lot of food and a lot of sex. But it is also secretive and shady, something that exists only in her office and her bedroom, in dark corners of restaurants and darker corners of her mind.
This doesn't feel right, she knows, as she pulls on his tie in her bedroom. They are in a constant state of collapse, and every kiss, every night together, is just a step toward the inevitable end. There are these barriers that define them, Democrats and Republican, these people for whom ideology is everything. And it's inconceivable to them that these walls will ever fall, because they live in this labyrinth of distrust, and they often forget that these divisions exist only in their minds. She crossed the border months ago, and shešs just been loitering on the shores, waiting for them to notice.
So, this could change everything, this thing with Sam. They could rewrite this administration, by this one act, by this one hour. But they wonšt, and she knows, as her nails slide down his back, that this is an act of destruction.
She is Dulcinea, a love born of necessity and delusion, his misplaced passion. Someday soon, he'll realize that she isnšt a Republican because she doesn't understand the issues. He'll learn that she isn't someone to be enlightened, that, though she can spout statistics and philosophies in justification, she is a Republican the way he is a Dodgers fan, the way that they are both sailors. Somewhere beyond reason, at her core.
She is the loyal opposition, and he should learn to appreciate that because hešs felt so much betrayal. Sam could be the only one to understand that loyalty sometimes takes odd forms. But he won't, because there are other loyalties, to Leo, Toby, and Josh, to President Bartlet, that are more secure, and they will always define Sam's sense of trust.
His skin shines in the moonlight, and he smiles at her. She doesn't want to face the fact that this is all hypothetical. Almost dating Sam is a surreal experiment because the truth is that they have these identifying prejudices that will always interfere. If they were other people, somewhere in suburbia, these would be things to argue over dinner, things to energize the air, their own brand of academic foreplay.
This is Washington, though, and political parties may as well appear on driver's licenses. The water's edge, the shore of a stream that looks like an ocean, is illusory.
This thing that could be electrifying will end because, they aren't really those kids on sailboats anymore, but Sam still lives in black and white, he's fragile, and he takes every political failure personally. This will end because she's a Republican, and, in a very real way, that is all that matters.