"Flight Path" by Jae Gecko

The yellow image of a seat belt is still lit on the sign overhead, but C.J. reaches over to turn the lever in front of her anyway and lets the tray table fall to her lap. She's been doing this flying thing for more years than she cares to count and has never once been skewered by a square piece of dingy beige airplane plastic during takeoff, so she must be doing something right.

She glances outside her window just long enough to see the shoreline merge into dry land, and looks at her watch. Just a couple of hours. Just a couple of hours to sit hunched in a tiny red and blue striped upholstered chair that's far too ugly for anybody's living room, but which perfectly complements the resigned looks on the faces of the other passengers and the stale, recycled air they all have to breathe. Just a couple of hours to come up with a mental list of justifications for why this isn't all a big mistake.

She slides far enough toward the edge of the seat to release the file folder she's sitting on, and lays it open in front of her. At least he's polling second in a few states other than his home state; that's a start. The Midwest will be the real hurdle, but then again, it always is. They'll go to Iowa first, probably, after a few token days in New Hampshire, and she'll spend at least a week there convincing reporters from the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Centerville Daily Iowegian that the candidate's unique brand of idealism makes him God's great gift to farmers and small businessmen alike. She can do that. That's not the problem.

Setting her glasses on top of the thick stack of data, she grasps the bridge of her nose, pressing hard as she circles her fingers around to her temples. It's probably just stress, but the dull pain nipping at the edges of her consciousness feels like the beginnings of a migraine. She's glad she didn't have that cinnamon Danish with breakfast.

"I'm going to have to ask you to raise your tray table until the captain turns off the fasten seat belt sign."

She lifts her head and one eyebrow simultaneously. The flight attendant's face is young, but the dark beard ages him at least two years, and the beginnings of a receding hairline add another five. He's the sort of guy who'll look forty when he's thirty, and when he's fifty, too.

"Does the position of this piece of plastic somehow affect the navigational or communication systems of the plane?" she says, grasping the front edge of it.

"Just for another couple of minutes," he says with a patient, customer-service-job smile that C.J. recognizes instantly. It sharpens into a smirk as the fasten seat belt sign shuts off with a dull dinging sound.

They stare at each other for a long moment. He's stifling a laugh. "I can still put it up for a few seconds if it'd help you save face at this point," she offers.

"Could you? It'd make my day."

C.J. smiles slightly and lifts the folder off the tray table as she raises it. Her glasses wobble precariously against the surface of the pile, but they don't fall.

"Much better, thanks," the flight attendant says, and heads back down the aisle.

The trampy brunette behind the Brighton Avenue bar wore a white t-shirt cut low enough to show at least an inch of cleavage, and tight enough to display the outline of her bra. Just above her left breast was pinned a green plastic nametag that read 'Farrah'. At least she didn't have feathered, bottle-blond hair. From the radio in the back, David Loggins was begging someone to "please come to Boston in the springtime", and C.J. had to wonder if it was planned that way.

"Can I fill up that glass of yours?" Farrah asked the guy sitting on the stool at the far end, leaning over the bar toward him, bottle poised and ready.

"Could you? It'd make my night."

Farrah's forehead wrinkled, and she held the bottle of Scotch in mid-air like she couldn't tell whether he was flirting or making fun of her. C.J. stifled a snicker into her coffee cup, and Farrah scowled at both of them as she refilled the guy's whiskey glass.

"Do I amuse you in some way?" What remained of the guy's dark hair hung right below his ears, and he sat hunched over his drink as if he thought Farrah might take it away from him.

"I was just wondering what kind of person can have his night made by an ounce of Scotch."

"Clearly, not the kind of person who shows up in a bar and orders coffee," the guy mumbled into his glass.

C.J. swiveled the stool toward him and lay her arm down on the bar. "I've got an 8:30 meeting tomorrow, and I'm still on Pacific time, and I figured it would be better to be stimulated than depressed. So if you could indulge me, I'd appreciate it."

"California?"

"Berkeley."

The guy nodded and raised his glass in the air. "Here's to your escape." He took a long drink.

"California's got sunshine and beaches and fifty-four electoral votes," she said, thrusting her chin into the air, before she could remind herself that she was here now, and that she'd left willingly.

"Don't tell me you're running for President."

"No. But tomorrow I'm supposed to show up at Tom Warrington's campaign office magically transformed into his press secretary." The guy's head jerked up, and his spine stiffened. "Tom Warrington," C.J. explained. "He's running for Massachusetts State Senate."

"I know." The guy nodded slowly, staring at her. "I know."

C.J. folded her arms around herself and leaned away from him. "Look, I'm twenty-seven years old, and this is my first campaign job. I just left academia two years shy of a Ph.D. in communications, and not only do I have very little to show for all those years, but I've also been in school so long that I don't know whether I can even *do* anything real at this point. So if you're about to tell me that I'm too young or too green or too- too ... *tall*, then you can rest assured I've already covered that, all right?"

"No, it's just-"

"Just what?"

His eyes rested on C.J.'s, and she scooted back against the bar. He looked her over once, following the line of her body from head to toe.

"What?" she yelled, ducking her head.

"You seem like a reasonable enough person, if a little touchy, so I thought I should probably let you know that you've just boarded a ship that's sinking so fast you'll be gulping water by next week."

She let her arms drop to her sides and cocked her head. "What do you have against Warrington?"

The guy shrugged. "Nothing, except that he's going to lose. Well, that and he's a pompous, prep school-educated son-of-a-bitch who doesn't know his ass from his elbow, but that's not the point."

"I've known Tom since we were both freshmen in college."

"He's still going to lose."

"He's the front-runner, okay? The only other Democrat in the race who's got half a chance is Jeff Lang."

"Exactly."

C.J. froze and stared at him, her mouth falling open a fraction of an inch. "Every last poll they've put in the field for the past month has Lang behind by at least seven points! Who are you to sit here and tell me all that data is just plain wrong?"

The guy leaned over and pushed his arm along the bar, lifting his wrist up just enough to offer his hand for her to shake. "Toby Ziegler."

She didn't take it. "Toby-"

"Lang's campaign manager."

C.J. blinked, slumped forward and put her forehead on the bar. "Do you think you could maybe just shoot me now?"

"And make Warrington scramble to hire a new press secretary? Why would I want to do that?"

"Look, if you could just- just forget what I said about not being sure I can do this job-"

"You know, it's too bad you're on the wrong side, because you're really quite attractive when you're feeling humiliated."

She lifted her head and peered up at him. He was watching her, his lips turning up slightly at one corner, the corresponding eyebrow raised. It made his face look lopsided, and she almost laughed. "I'm not going to sleep with you, okay?" she said. "I mean, I may be stupid, but I'm not *that* stupid."

"Well. That clears that up, then."

C.J. sat up straight and clasped his hand, shaking it. Toby stood and walked over to the stool directly next to her, pushing his drink along the bar with his other hand as he went. She smiled, and he nodded back, raising his glass in the air as he sat back down. "To the fate of the Second Suffolk senatorial district."

She raised her coffee cup and clinked the lip against his glass. "Whatever that fate may be." They locked eyes as they each took a sip.

She hears the squeal of the cart before she sees it, and looks up from her notes into the face of the flight attendant from earlier. The corners of his mouth turn up, and she mirrors the gesture back at him. The resemblance really is uncanny, although the smile is just a bit too wide, and of course the voice is all wrong. This guy's much louder, brasher.

"Can I offer you some lunch?" he says. "Our chicken salad sandwich is a life-changing experience."

"I've got few enough years left to live that a sandwich just might be able to change them," she answers wryly.

"I'm supposed to offer you the roast beef, too, but honestly, I wouldn't recommend it. Water?"

She snorts, nodding. "Do you flirt like this with all three hundred or so passengers on board? It must get tiring."

He sets a clear plastic cup on her tray on top of the open file, filling it with sparkling water. "The Boeing 787 fits six hundred twelve, actually, and there are fifty-seven empty seats, so that makes exactly five hundred fifty-five passengers on this flight. But it's doable." He grins at her. Definitely too wide.

A tray appears in front of her with a soggy sandwich on an oblong brown bun and a package of shortbread cookies flanking the edges of the plate, and a fruit salad in the center. "Thanks," she says.

"It'll change your life," the flight attendant insists again as he rolls the cart on down the aisle.

She rips open the plastic wrapper around the sterile white airplane silverware, and pokes halfheartedly at a sprig of wilted grapes. They're soft and pliable, but still tough, like cardboard. She doesn't dare touch the sandwich; that's not the kind of life-changing experience she's looking for.

Sliding the lunch tray off the folder, she shuffles through the pages in the stack, setting the polling data on the empty seat next to her. Her eyes scan four old op-ed pieces, three written about the candidate and one written by him, in another lifetime. She thumbs through fat briefing papers on environmental policy and national defense. They're mostly what she expects.

Leaning her elbow against the tray, she rests her forehead on her hand and rubs her temples between her thumb and her index finger. It's going to be a hard battle, and he must be aware of that, too.

At a thousand dollars a pop, C.J. didn't tend to go to these dinners on her own dime. In fact, she didn't go to most of them at all. This time, though, she'd managed to talk Jim into paying for it. This was exactly the sort of thing EMILY's List was supposed to do, she'd argued. If they wouldn't support a candidate like this one, what good were they in the first place? And she'd been right, and Jim had known it, and so here she was, wearing a little royal blue dress that was probably a size too small by now but which still looked terrific on her anyway. She used her fork to spear the last piece of the most expensive chicken cordon bleu she'd ever eaten, and shoved it into her mouth.

It was hard to imagine a more animated speaker than Andrea Wyatt; the candidate positively glowed behind the podium. The words themselves were flat, but she still managed to capture and hold the attention of every person in the room, and C.J. found herself nodding agreement despite herself. Toby sat behind her, off to her left, with his spine pressed so stiffly against the back of his chair that Andi had to have directed him not to slouch. He looked older, but not much; only the extra inches of bare scalp betrayed how long it had been. He was obviously trying to smile, but his eyes kept stealing over to the door in the back corner like he was calculating an escape route.

The entire room rose and applauded when she finished, and C.J. grabbed an after-dinner gin and tonic and wove her way to the front of the crowd to greet the candidate. Andi's face lit up with a smile so wide it almost looked genuine, and she tossed her head back in a gesture that would have pushed her hair behind her shoulders if she'd been wearing it down.

"C.J. So glad you could make it."

C.J. shifted her drink to her left hand and took Andi's to shake. "So am I. That was a great speech."

"Thank you." Reaching around behind her, she grabbed Toby by the elbow and dragged him forward until he was standing right next to her. "Have you met my husband, Toby Ziegler?"

From up close, she could see new lines on his forehead, as if he'd spent most the past few years scowling. "We've met," he mumbled, not quite meeting her eyes.

"C.J.'s with EMILY's List. They do work for pro-choice women candidates."

"I know what they do." He pulled his arm away, letting his wife's hand fall back to her side.

"Thanks for the invitation," C.J. continued, smiling at Andi. "Are you going to be free for lunch sometime next week, to talk about the donation?"

"That sounds terrific. I'll have my assistant call you once things settle down, at least as much as they ever do." She laughed, a high-pitched tinkly laugh that briefly made C.J. think of slumber parties and late-night makeovers. "You have a good evening, and I'll see you next week."

They both followed Andi with their eyes as she walked over to shake hands with her next admirer, and then C.J. looked down at her drink, swirling it. She took a sip and let the sour taste splash onto her tongue.

"So. You're fundraising for pro-choice women candidates."

She lifted her chin and looked at him. His body was facing hers, but his head was turned away. "Yeah, well, actually, I've been doing PR, you know, organizing media contacts and writing-"

"Why did you tell her it was a great speech?"

"What do you mean?"

He turned toward her. "I mean, the speech was a debacle, beginning to end. To say otherwise ... are you deluded or just terminally polite?"

"Believe me, I've heard worse."

"You said it was *great*. It wasn't even *good*, and I distinctly heard you say-"

"Toby! That's what you say, okay? What did you expect me to do, walk up to the candidate at her big fundraising dinner and say: 'Nice spread, honey, but you've *got* to get yourself a new speechwriter'?"

"At least it would have been honest!"

"Terrific, and then what? She calls my boss and I'm out of a job?"

"Just- just forget about it. Never mind." He stalked across the room and pushed open the sliding glass door that led out onto the balcony.

C.J. followed him out. There was enough of a chill in the night air that they were alone outside, and a gust of wind smacked against her bare arms. "What's this about, Toby?"

"I don't appreciate you validating Andi's ludicrous opinion that Steven Russell can write a seventh grade essay on what he did over summer vacation, much less serve as head speechwriter on a congressional-"

"You know what I think you don't appreciate? I think you don't appreciate the fact that your wife's the one who's running the show, this time. I think you're fed up with tagging along and being introduced as the candidate's husband, and having to stand there and smile and shake people's hands. I think this is about grasping at straws to find something you can control. And I think you're scared to death she's going to win, because that would mean at least two more years of this or w-"

He turned and grabbed both of her forearms, and her drink splashed onto the back of her hand and his black suit jacket. She inhaled sharply through her nose, watching him staring at her, the whites of his eyes streaked with red. He squeezed her arms so tightly that her heart was pounding, and her mouth fell open. She could hear herself breathing, rough and ragged.

In one quick movement, he dropped her arms and turned away, leaning hard against the concrete of the railing. She pulled her arms tightly against her chest and stared out across the Potomac to the glowing specter of the Washington Monument, outlined against the blackness of the sky.

"Your media relations stuff for that- that group ... it's a good place for you." His voice was so quiet that she almost couldn't hear him. "You couldn't lose your job that easily. You're too good at what you do."

A bump in the plane's flight path jolts C.J. awake, and the fasten seat belts sign lights up with a ding. "We'll be in a patch of mild turbulence for about the next ten minutes, folks," the pilot's voice crackles over the loudspeaker, "so just keep those belts buckled and sit tight."

She sits up straight, feeling the telltale cramp in her legs, a sure sign that she's been sitting curled up into a ball for far too long. She winces as she tries to straighten them and they unfold directly against the seat in front of her. Looking up, she tries to focus her eyes on the tiny television screen where they're showing the in-flight movie, but it's almost directly overhead and all she can make out on it are blurs of color. She reaches over to the seat next to her and grabs her glasses.

"Is there anything I can get for you?"

Her eyes rest on the smiling face of the flight attendant, and she raises an eyebrow. "A bigger seat with about a foot more leg room would be good."

"Hmm. I'll have to put that on order. It won't arrive, though, for about another ..." He glances at his watch. "Fifty minutes. Think you can wait that long?"

"I think I can manage."

"Great. I'd hate to disappoint."

Her jacket feels tight and constricted across her shoulders, and she pulls at it in two different directions before she finally takes it off altogether. The sheer blouse underneath is damp with sweat, and she grimaces. She should have opted for business casual. It's been far too long since she's worn a suit.

Rubbing her eyes, she sits up and picks up the folder with her notes again. She sets aside the information about the other two main Democratic contenders -- she'll have to devote a couple of hours to that later, anyway -- and turns instead to a list of the candidate's main financial backers. It's only three pages long, and it's not diverse enough. She feels her heart clench.

People think he's too liberal to be elected President, and they're probably right.

Closing her eyes, she rests her hand and the papers on her lap and lets her head fall back against the seat.

C.J. slid open the door to her closet and stepped inside, running one hand along a rainbow of blouses as she toweled her hair dry with the other. She grabbed a rusty orange one by its hanger, took it out, and squinted at it, noticing a stain on the collar. Hanging it back on the rod, she reached instead for a green and purple striped silk shell with a scoop neck, holding it up against her chest and letting the towel drop to the floor. It was probably too dressy for what essentially boiled down to just lounging around the house. Grimacing, she put it back and grabbed the stained orange blouse again, pulling it over her head.

Stepping back out into her bedroom, she glanced up to where the ceiling sloped to a point, and ran a finger along the smooth polished oak of her dresser. She paused in front of the mirror and rubbed at the tiny discoloration on her collar, smoothing the wrinkles out of her pants. She made a face as she pushed her damp hair out of her eyes and reached for her glasses.

He was standing in the kitchen, looking up at the skylight, when she walked back out. "You know, this really is some house."

"Thank you."

He glanced across the kitchen to the living room. "C.J., you've got marble countertops."

"Well, I'm sorry I'm not living the liberal poverty dream in a shack downtown, Toby."

"I'm just saying."

"Right. Toby, remind me again why you're here."

"I'm-"

"You're trying to get me to come out to New Hampshire and take a job that pays six hundred dollars a week, right?"

"Yes." He walked past her into the living room.

She turned toward him and lowered her chin to her chest, peering at him over the top of her frames. "So do you think you might quit lavishing praise on the house I won't be able to afford mortgage payments on if I do what you're trying to get me to do?"

He stopped in mid-stride and turned around. "Have I already mentioned that Josh Lyman left a key position in Hoynes' campaign to come work for Bartlet?"

"That's- that's much more convincing."

"I thought it might be."

"You say he's a good man?"

"Bartlet? He is."

C.J. gave Toby a long look as she walked across the room to the picture window that looked out onto the valley. A tiny lizard scooted across the porch and disappeared over the edge, and a gold-breasted bird landed on her wicker swing. "You know, I just lost my job."

"You were a glorified maitre d'."

She turned around, her forehead wrinkling. "I was good at it, Toby."

"Note that I didn't say you weren't a good glorified maitre d'."

"I could get another one," she said, stepping toward him. "I could walk back out there tomorrow and have another job just like it. Probably with a pay raise."

"You'd be better at this other thing, though."

"I don't know." She reached a hand out to the back of the couch and collapsed onto it. Looking down at her lap, she stared at her hands as she ran them slowly up and down her legs, watching her tan fingers almost blend into the dark beige of her pants.

She heard Toby's footsteps against the hardwood and felt the couch buckle as he sat down beside her. He rested his hand on hers, holding them still, but they still trembled against his skin. She swallowed hard and lifted her head. His lips were pressed gently together, and she let out a long sigh.

"Who's in charge of message? Who's their director of communications?"

He dropped his gaze briefly and released her hands. "That would be me."

"You?"

"Yeah."

"Toby!"

"Yeah."

"You're going to be my *boss*?"

He lifted one eyebrow and one corner of his mouth in that familiar half-smile. "Does that mean you'll take the job?"

C.J. opens her mouth and rubs the back of her jaw as she feels the cabin pressure change, and a faint popping sound releases into her ears. "We will be landing shortly in Washington's Reagan National Airport," the voice over the loudspeaker confirms, "and we'd like to remind you that your seat belts should be fastened, your tray tables raised, and all cabin baggage securely stowed under the seat in front of you."

Looking out her window, she squints against the cloudless sky as she watches the dry land stretch out in front of them and merge back into water, as if the flight has served no other purpose than to connect twin oceans and thrust them all back out onto the beach on the other side. Sitting up straight, she tries to stretch her legs, nudging either side of her black carry-on bag with her feet as she flexes them. The bearded flight attendant meets her at the front of the business class cabin as she exits the plane, her jacket draped over her arm and her bag hanging from one shoulder. "Have a good day," he says, and she smiles back.

She expects him to meet her at baggage claim, but he's already waiting for her at the gate when she walks out into the terminal. He's wearing a red polo shirt instead of a suit, and there are new streaks of grey in his beard, but he looks at her expectantly and it feels like coming home.

"How was your flight?" He reaches over to take her bag. She lets him.

"The chicken salad sandwich was a life-changing experience."

"What?"

"It was a flight, Toby. I got in on one coast and out on the other, through the miracles of modern technology." She stops mid-stride, staring at the corner of the concourse that once held a watch shop and a newsstand, and blinking as if she might be able to conjure them back. "That restaurant didn't used to be there."

"It's been a while since you've been at good old Reagan National."

"National. Just National." She starts walking again, and he follows her. "I refuse to call it that- that other thing."

"Nothing like using, you know, a twenty-year-old name for something to convince people you haven't lost your touch."

"I don't care," she says, her voice turning up sharply. She strides ahead, and he lags behind her, not even bothering to try to match her long step. She can feel him smirking, and she slows down to let him catch up again.

"How's Sam?" she asks.

"He's good. Tired."

"Are you going to take me to see him?"

"I thought I'd take you to your hotel first."

She turns her head as they walk past a new video arcade in the central concourse, and he reaches over to put his hand on her arm. Pulling her toward him, he grazes the edge of her mouth with his own as they walk, and she turns her head so that the remainder of the kiss lands on her cheek.

Looking away from him, she draws in a breath and lets it trickle slowly back out of her lungs. "I'm too old for this."

"Well, I've slowed down some, myself, but that's no reason to stop."

"I mean the campaign press secretary gig, Toby. I don't know if I can still take a different hotel bed every night. Besides, doesn't he need somebody who can stand in front of hundreds of cameras every day without looking like death warmed over?"

"I don't think it's a pretty face he's looking for. He's pretty much got that one covered on his own."

Her eyes narrow into a glare. "You know, you could have at least *pretended* to argue with me about that 'death warmed over' comment."

"He wants you there. He needs you there."

"He made it to the Senate without me."

"Josh says he won't be able to get him to do this if you're not on board."

She shrugs. "That's why I'm here."

"Is that the only reason why you're here?" he asks, softly, just as they reach the stairs leading down to baggage claim. She stops walking, meeting his eyes. There's a ringing sound in her ears. A Chinese proverb she's probably never heard more than twice turns over and over in her head like an unwanted mantra: When the boat reaches midstream, it is too late to mend the leaks. She coughs loudly into her hand, clearing her throat, and it's gone.

"I'm not working for you this time," she offers.

"Yeah."

"And we're not trying to elect opposing candidates, and I'm not raising money for your wife."

"Yeah."

"He's polling higher than Bartlet was at this stage."

"I'm retired, anyway."

She snorts, grabbing his wrist. "Not possible. You still have a pulse."

His lips turn up slightly at one corner, and he raises the corresponding eyebrow in that lopsided expression she knows as well as she knows her own face in the mirror. He grasps the hand that's holding onto his wrist and draws it behind her until his arm is around her waist. Spreading his palm against hers, he curls his fingers comfortably around her hip.

The airport was renamed twenty years ago, but she still thinks of it as just National. Because little things may have changed, but the rest is the same, really, even after all this time.

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