A Late Thaw

by Sary

The night got considerably better once the ice melted.

Or anyway for most of them -- for the ones who were trying to finish this godforsaken speech.

It was going well. Parts of it were funny. Other parts were still particularly flat, but the mood was lifting since Josh and Donna had returned, and Ainsley with her peach.

They were throwing jokes back and forth. Bouncing them off each other like a rubber ball off the wall of Toby's office. Some of them were good and some of them were so bad they were funny, but the overall effect was prolonged laughter, which was of course the goal.

The speech read well out loud, and they even had an audience, but their audience wasn't listening and they knew it.

That's why it was such a surprise when he started to laugh.

Aloud. Toby, laughing as if ... well, as if it were funny, which this particular section wasn't. They laughed with him, and when he didn't stop, they delivered him another.

The next one wasn't in funny's zipcode, but their one-man audience kept right on laughing. So did the writers. Everyone was wired on coffee, and Josh and Donna were grinning any time their gazes met. Ainsley and Sam had proven completely their ability to simultaneously argue and bring the funny.

Paragraph by paragraph it really was shaping up, this funny speech. And the funnier it got, the louder everyone laughed, and the louder everyone laughed, the funnier it got. So when Toby stopped laughing abruptly, everyone noticed, and everyone pretended they hadn't. And because they couldn't ask him what was bothering him, since no one would acknowledge that something was bothering him, they kept laughing out of desparation. Something was up, and they sensed it, and he knew it, and they all pretended to ignore it.



"I'm standing right behind you, Josh."

Josh turned around. "I knew that."

Donna walked past him and picked up a pencil from the table. "Then why did you yell?"

"I like the sound of your name."

"You like the sound of your voice."

"That too."

"So, see, flattery will get you nowhere."

"Sure, but philately ­ now that's the key."

"Could you maybe let that go?"

"Could the two of you focus?" Sam interrupted.

"Look who's talking, Mr. Watch-Me-Teach-The-Republican-The-Error-Of-Her-Ways," Josh protested.

Sam shrugged. "She's wrong. How's this? 'So, the other day I ran into some protesters from a feminist organization informing me I've been negligent to the needs of female citizens. Turns out it was organized by my ­'

"Cut the First Lady jokes," Josh interrupted.

"Aah. I keep forgetting that."

"Maybe that's because you're an idiot who surprises me by remembering his own name," Ainsley suggested.

"You're so witty I just can't stand it."

"It's late," she justified.

"The two of you know you've surpassed partisan discussion and moved right on into fourth-grade recess, don't you?" Larry asked.

"It's late," Sam echoed.

"How much more do we need?"

"A few paragraphs. A conclusion."

"More than that," Donna reported, skimming the sixth draft.

"Why?" Sam asked.

"The jokes are good," Josh added.

"The jokes are great," Ainsley agreed. "Donna? You want to tell them what we did?"

Donna looked up and smiled. "We left out the plot."

"The plot," Josh repeated.

"The whatever. The moral," Ainsley clarified.

"The moral?" Sam asked.

"We left out the point of the speech," Donna explained.

"There is no point. It's a correspondents' dinner," Josh protested.

"He can't just fire off one-liners all night, Josh!"

"Why can't he?" Sam asked.

"He has to at the very least pretend to have a point," Ainsley said.

"It's a correspondents' dinner!" Josh protested.

"Josh --"

"No, seriously, Donna! He's honoring some people. He's making some statements. He's having dinner. What kind of point are you looking for?"

"The honoring people and the statements." She waved a late copy of the speech.

Josh, Sam, Larry, and Ed scanned the text of the speech for a moment.

"Well, wait. I think the point's still intact. Look at paragraph two," Ed suggested.

"I think I see a thesis," Sam agreed.

"In what language?" Ainsley asked.

"Yiddish. Who has the third draft?"

"I do." A paper airplane sailed lazily from Larry's side of the table.

"Did we get fortune cookies?" Ainsley asked.

"With dinner?"

"No, with draft three, Sam. Of course with dinner."

"Yes, we did get fortune cookies, because we're all eight years old and insatiably curious about our future spouses."

"Actually," Josh said, and tossed a fortune cookie at Ainsley.

"Thank you, Josh," Ainsley said.

"No problem."

"Thank you, Josh," Sam said.

Josh grinned. "No problem."

"So what the hell is the point of the speech?" Ed asked.

"Who cares, as long as it's funny," Sam shrugged.

"It's a correspondent's dinner," Josh repeated.

"You really want the President to play stand-up comedian?" Donna asked.

"It certainly wouldn't be the first time," Ainsley pointed out.

"Was that a President joke?" Sam asked.

"No, Sam, that was a speechwriter joke."

"Paragraph eight," Donna announced.

"Which draft?"


"You mean the Incurably Unfunny Draft."

"It's not incurable. We've cured it. Now all we have to do is reinsert ­"

"The moral. You know. The plot." Josh and Sam grinned at each other.

"What's the plot?" Larry asked.

"'Change is on the horizon. Your life will chart a new course.'"

"That's a pretty weak plot," Josh said.

"That's not a plot," Ainsley informed him. "That's my future." She waved the slip of paper she'd extracted from the cookie.

"'Your life will chart a new course'?" Sam repeated. "Who wrote that?"

"Sam ­"

"No, seriously. Is it credited?"

"Sam, please."

"'Your life will chart a new course'? Exactly when did we give life itself the ability to chart something?"

"Can we work?" Donna pleaded.

"All evidence to the contrary," Josh replied.

"Also, 'change is on the horizon,'" Larry said.

"It's clichéd," Ed chimed in.

"And it brings to mind a distant mirage of nickels and dimes," Larry said.

"How did 'change' get to be used so often in that tired line, anyway?" Ed wondered.

"'You will find new emotions in familiar places,'" Donna read her fortune aloud.

"'You will throw caution to the wind and pursue romance.'" Josh wiggled his eyebrows. Donna tossed draft four at him.

"More like you'll throw your responsibilities to the wind and pursue a new career."

"Donna's right; can we work?" Ainsley agreed.

"Nothing to prove it so far," Sam replied. And then, "'You are good-hearted and kind.' What the hell kind of fortune is that?"

"Who's got draft four?"

"You're holding it in your hands, Josh."

"That's just a description," Sam complained.

"And pretty inaccurate," Ainsley agreed.

"They can't write, these fortune-cookie people."

"Damn them."

"They should hire me."

"Shortly after you get fired from your old job for failing to do any work."

"Listen to this!" Josh cleared his throat and faced Toby, who had not moved or spoken since he'd stopped laughing five minutes ago.

"Josh ­" Donna interrupted.

"Shh, shhh." Josh held up his hand and prepared to read.

"It isn't funny, Josh."

"What isn't funny?"

"The bleeding-heart liberal joke."

"Oh, that one is definitely funny," Ainsley protested.

"I cut that one a half an hour ago and it's staying cut," Donna insisted.

"Then replace it with something," Josh said.

"I could replace it with the point."

"Which is --"

"Oh, honestly, Joshua!" Donna grabbed a pencil and wrote in a few of the names that had been left out by draft six. "There."

"That's it?"


"You couldn't have just done that half an hour ago?"

"Maybe if it was my job to be writing these speeches ..."

"Hey, it's not my job, either," Josh protested. "Do you see me complaining?"

"No. I hear you complaining."

Josh gave up. "Toby. What do you think of this one? 'I'm happy to see so many familiar faces here tonight, and I know you all have burning questions on your mind, so let me answer a few of those right now.'" Josh attempted to pause for effect. "'The wine is Cabernet Sauvignon, the suit is Armani, and I just don't know who did the decorating.'"

"When did that one happen?" Donna asked.

"That was me," Larry answered.

"I didn't know you were fashion-conscious."

"Last week I got cornered by Melissa from In-Style. Quite informative, actually, that meeting."

"Of course," Sam said to Toby's absence of laughter, "that one only works if the wine is Cabernet Sauvignon and the suit is Armani. Do you have any idea ...?"

"It is," Larry assured them.

"Hang on," Ed said.

"It is," Larry repeated.

"The wine is merlot," Ed announced.

"It's cabernet."


"We can't fill that in later?" Donna sighed.

"We need CJ," Josh said.

"It's cabernet," Larry assured them.

"Yeah, where is CJ?" Ainsley asked.

"Merlot," Ed whispered.

"She used her superior evasive maneuvers to leave the building before we could catch her," Sam said.

"Lucky woman," Donna sighed wistfully.

"Hey, there, Donnatella, you wanted to help!" Josh protested.

"Not really. I just needed an excuse to stay here and fight with you."

"But now?" Josh prompted. Sam, Ainsley, Larry, and Ed rolled their eyes as Josh and Donna went through the whole lock-gazes-and-grin-shamelessly thing again.

"Now I want to finish this," Donna lied.

"I think we are finished," Josh said.

"We have the funny," Sam agreed.

"We have the plot," Ainsley added.

"What do you think?" Larry asked.

"Can we go home?" Ed suggested.

They were met with silence.

"Toby?" Donna prompted.

Toby blinked. "What?" he asked, speaking for the first time since he sat down.

"The speech," Josh said. "Do you think we're finished?"

"Uh ... yeah," Toby said. "Yeah. It, uh -- it's funny."

"We could tell by the way you maintained a perfect poker face."

"I laughed some," Toby said quietly. He watched them gather their things, tossing coats and cookies back and forth, still laughing over their finished product as they traded bad jokes and pretended not to be concerned about tomorrow.

"Good night," they began to call to one another.

"Good night," Toby said quietly, and watched them leave. He didn't have the energy to register Josh and Donna still grinning at each other as they left, or Ainsley and Sam picking up an argument about foreign relations, or Ed and Larry discussing who would win some boat race tomorrow, or CJ's absence. He didn't have the energy to leave the building himself right now.

Because it may have been unbelievably stupid.

It may have been unthinkably stupid.

But it had happened and it would be dealt with, and right now he was, but wasn't really, the only one of them who knew it.

"So," Josh said to Donna as they left the building.


"Pretty cold out here."


"A late thaw," Josh said absently, and Donna smiled to herself. They walked in silence for a minute.

"Josh," Donna said at last.


"Toby --"

"I know. It was something."

"You think we'll find out about it tomorrow?"

"I think we'll find out pretty soon."

Silence. Footsteps. They stopped at Donna's car.

"You think it's bad?"

"I think it wasn't our bringing the funny that made Toby laugh, if that's what you're asking."

"It is," Donna said.

"Yeah. Well. We'll know soon."


"Good night."

Donna nodded, and got into her car. "Good night," she said, closing the door. She started the car and sat watching as Josh walked away. He kept glancing at the night around him. Savoring it. He knew something without knowing it, and so did she.

But instead of letting herself wonder what it was, she put the car in reverse and backed out of the space. It was still night, and they would deal with it tomorrow.

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