ALL ABOUT DUTY

When he thinks of her, which he does often, he pictures her in the South that never was, Alabama or Louisiana, a hundred years ago. She's on the porch, entertaining her guests. The conversation is vivid; she gestures with her mint julep to underscore a point. Her laughter is happy and bright and she wears white velvety camellias in her hair.

Someone made a joke about the South today, in her presence. He didn't laugh. The joke was funny, but seeing her smile politely and take it in stride wasn't. She came into his office later, shut the door.

"It doesn't matter," she said, her North Carolina accent a little thicker than usual..

"It isn't right," he said, embarrassed and angry, because she had noted him not-laughing, when everyone else did and she had to make it into a thing.

She said his name, clearly exasperated with how he made everything his cause. But he couldn't help it and he didn't want to hear it, so he told her he had work. Only after she had left, he realized she hadn't requested his Danish, although it was there, in full sight.

==

President Bartlet made a smart political move when he brought her in. She's bright, incisive and vocal, just the way the President likes his staff, but the qualifications bringing her inside the Bartlet administration were youth, gender and political affiliation. And yeah, she also kicked his ass on national television. Leo sealed the deal, taking a fatherly interest in her, because Leo serves at the pleasure of the President and will do anything to protect him, even if he has to play nice cop to a Republican lawyer; Leo is a much better strategist than anyone knows.

The rest of the senior staff is quick to distrust her, to blame her for leaks and improprieties. She takes it and she takes it, all day long. And when they are finished insulting her upstairs, she goes down to the steam pipe trunk distribution venue, Leo's little joke, where she cleans up their speeches and paperwork as meticulously as if she really was dedicated to their cause.

He knows he is a rotten strategist. He asks her if she wants to go get dinner with him. Before he can explain that it is not dinner as such, just a meal, and that the lasagna carciofi is their specialty, she says yes. He gets her coat, heavy off-white wool lined with silk, and holds it for her in such a way that she can get into it without brushing against any part of him. They walk down the hallways, not quite together, but close enough that Leo would frown if he saw it.

==

The lasagna is excellent. The wine is Californian. Misinterpreting the situation, the waitress puts candles on the table. He pretends not to notice. They talk about politics, like they always do. Today, she opposes him on education, health care and fossil fuels. He shoots her down easily on fossil fuels, because he is nothing if not an environmentalist. She has a few points on education, the most important one being her reaction to what she thinks is an incredibly patronising statement. He rewrites the paragraph in his head to improve the soundbyte and wonders why they always have to prove something to each other. It is not a mating dance, because more often than not the resentment is real.

==

She grows taciturn over the tiramisu. He takes care of the check and she doesn't argue, which is unusual. A few jabs at the Majority leader fail to provoke her and he wonders if he said something really out of line. As long as she's talking, even lashing out at him with unconfirmeds and half-truths, he knows she's fine. But silence is always a bad sign with her.

It makes him angry that he knows this about her. It makes him angry that he cannot laugh at Republican jokes anymore, even if they're funny as hell. It makes him angry that people think he would sell out all he believes in for a blonde Republican sex kitten. He's the Deputy Director of Communication and the best lawyer on the senior staff that is not working as a lawyer. If he didn't meet with the White House Counsel representatives intermittently, he would not be doing his job, which is to serve at the President's pleasure. That hasn't changed and won't change, even if he laughs less these days than he used to.

==

Crossing the street outside the deli, he pulls at her sleeve, meaning to direct her attention to an oncoming cab. She gasps and when he turns to her to see what's wrong, she's biting her lip. For a terrible moment, he thinks his anger translated into roughness with her. But she pulls away from him, cradling an elbow he didn't even touch. These are deep waters he doesn't know how to navigate. But charts and marks are the same under maritime law and he's seen enough.

He says her name and she cannot meet his eyes. She does not resist when he pushes up her sleeve, gently, because there might be a sprain or a hairline fracture under it. She has the thinnest wrist he has ever seen and it's covered with dark, fingersized bruises.

And he doesn't really know what to say or do now. They are clearly past the jokes and excuses. He closes his hand around her wrist, carefully fitting his fingers into the prints of another man. Someone yanked on her arm with a big strong hand. It might have been her father, angry that his daughter works for a Democrat. Or the redneck brother his prejudiced mind thinks she may have, telling her to wise up or else. Remember that you're a small woman. Remember who's in charge. And if you forget, I'll be back to remind you. Yanking on her arm for good measure.

He knows she's not going to tell him who did it. A Republican lawyer with the harassment suit of a lifetime, she refused to point out Brookline and Joyce. When the bruises happened, she wouldn't have raised a hand in her defense. She might have said no. Maybe she said please, don't. But he thinks she just stood there. And she's kept her sleeves down all day.

Inanitites spring to mind. No one should hurt you. Have you seen a doctor? A gun wouldn't have helped. He's appalled to find that he actually considers saying the last of them. Then a space alien with no loyalty whatsoever to President Bartlet takes over his brain and he does what everyone thinks he's already done. He kisses her.

Well, why not? She's standing close enough and tender is something he knows how to do.

==

Pulling back from the kiss, he knows that she'll never tell on him either. He can get away with anything he does to her. He isn't sure that's what he wants. He's been let off the hook so often that he's starting to wonder if the women he was seeing were just cutting bait. Last he heard from Laurie, she was working for one of the better law firms in LA and starting to make big money. Leo steered Mallory in the direction on a hockeyplayer with wrecked knees. And he hasn't hit on anyone's wife in a really long time.

In fact, there hasn't been anyone special since Lisa, not really, and Lisa finally went too crazy even for him. Back in the nineties, he thought he could fix her, except it turned out that schizophrenia was not his forte. The last time he went to see her, her father met him at the gate and asked him not to come by anymore. Yessir, he said and got drunk on the plane back to DC, because that was when he understood it was over. No medical miracle was going to come his way. Lisa wasn't ever going to come out of it, start using a fork, be his wife again.

And now here is Ainsley, looking every bit as lost and frightened as Lisa ever did.

Someone once told him that if he was one of the good guys, he should act like it. And a hooker with a heart of gold is generally right.

He turns her cold face upwards, to streetlight and falling snow and says:

"I'll take you home."

==

In his mind, she lives far down South. She's her Daddy's princess and her Mama's dahling daughter and she has never known strange and angry men. In his mind, when he comes to ask for her hand, he's not the ogre, but the knight in shining armour and she'll let down her hair for him.

FIN