as i'm watching your decay
by ellen m.
commander in chief, mackenzie/kelly-ish.
pg. post-"the mom who came to dinner."

you could've spared her. oh, but no. messiahs need people dying in their name.

for babylil. lovingly betaed by furies.

title/summary from 'pancake' by tori amos.

*

You've taken to working in the middle of night, after Rod's asleep and the kids have gone to bed. After you've drunk your warm milk and counted a dozen flocks of sleep, when you're still awake and staring at the ceiling and begging sleep to come. Even tonight, even though it's Thanksgiving and you should be sky-high on love and tryptophan, you find yourself rolling out of bed, pulling on mismatched clothes in the mostly-dark and setting out.

But an hour later, you're pushing aside the papers that long since stopped making sense, getting up from your desk and walking back to the Residence, bored and frustrated. You're going up the hall and you notice the light from under Kelly's door. You really shouldn't knock, you really shouldn't, you should just go back to your nightgown and your bed and your fourteen thousand sheep. But you don't. You brush your knuckles against the back of the door -- presidents don't knock, after all -- and turn the handle.

"Anybody home?" You push the door open just far enough to peek around it. Kelly's sitting at her desk, surrounded by three-ring binders, nose close to the page, a highlighter held between clenched teeth. She's still dressed in her holiday finery, a long shawl wrapped carelessly around her shoulders. The light from the desklamp filters through her carefully curled hair and across her face and in the single moment before she looks up, you think maybe you can make out each one of her eyelashes and how they touch her cheeks. Then the highlighter drops from her mouth with a little messy clatter onto -- from what you can see -- a briefing book about Iranian nuclear capabilities as she scrambles to her feet.

You try to gesture her back down. You're sick of everybody acting like it really matters whether they're standing or sitting when they talk to you. But Kelly's already up, already saying, "Madam President, did you need something?"

"What? Can't a girl just drop by, see how somebody's doing?" you ask, pushing the door all the way open with the toe of your shoe. You lean against the doorjamb, trying for nonchalance, but you only manage something like an exhausted inability to stand unaided.

"I guess," Kelly agrees. Her thighs press against the edge of her desk, and you notice. "Though, typical presidential courtesy calls don't come at three in the morning."

You feel yourself smiling, and it almost hurts, like something bent too far in the wrong direction. "You're right," you say, a little awkward. "I just wanted to, to wish you a happy Thanksgiving," you finish, rather lamely. Your smile gets tighter and tighter, threatens to crack. "Guess I'm not quite up to witty repartee this time of night. I'll see you in the morning."

You're turning away. You press one hand to the wall for support, your head full of nice one, Mac, when you hear Kelly say, "You could stay." Her voice is dead-tired and low and quiet, and you can't help but stop and turn back.

Choosing words has never really been your strong suit, but you're getting better at it. You press your lips together, deciding. "It's a holiday," you finally say. "You should really go home."

Kelly shrugs, caps her pen. "Government doesn't take holidays," she parrots, something you must've said years ago as an excuse for making her work late. You don't quite remember, but it sounds like something you would have said once, demanding and na´ve and young. Kelly gestures towards the couch. "Seat? Tea?"

"When you were a speechwriter you never got me tea," you say, taking slow steps. "The promotion suits you."

"For that," Kelly says, wrinkling her nose, "you can get your own tea." You sit at opposite ends of the couch. You cross your legs. Kelly's not wearing any shoes, and there's something about that fact that makes you feel like you're intruding. Under the loose edge of the wrap, Kelly's shoulders are sharp and her skin is clear.

"Kelly," you finally say. "How are you?"

"I'm good," she replies automatically with that little press secretary nod she's perfecting. You narrow your eyes, tilt your head. Kelly shrugs. "I'm fine, really. I'm--" She stops, considers. Licks her lips. "This isn't exactly the easiest job I've ever had."

"Tell me about it," you say, not altogether kindly. Not sure you meant to be kind. All you can think of are Essex, Rod's face when he accused you of sleeping with Mike Stanton, how he would've just let that poor woman die, how he can still hurt you after all these years. Little failures, sure. But failures, nonetheless.

Kelly may have the decency to blush, but you can't quite tell in the dim light. Her chin dips towards her chest. "I really shouldn't complain. Especially--" She doesn't finish.

"Especially not to me," you finish for her. "Yeah. I know. I'm gonna fire whoever it was who scattered these eggshells everywhere. I can do that, you know."

Kelly rewards your try for humor with a smile, brief but brilliant, all white teeth and gunpowder. You don't mean to notice, but you notice. "Sorry," Kelly concedes. "It's just-- It's not like before, when--"

You hear the rest, ringing loud and hard in the space behind your eyes, even though Kelly just trails off, looking down into her lap. Before, when you were VP. When you were all asleep by midnight. When you felt important but didn't have to be. Before that little sneer Rod's getting so good at. "I know. I didn't--" You sigh. "I'm just forgetting what it's like to really talk to anyone but myself." Your eyes close and embarrassment makes your face hot. "Forget I said that?"

"Ma'am," Kelly says, "I need more warning than that before I go off the record." Your eyes are still closed, but you can feel Kelly moving a little closer from the shifting of the cushions. Kelly's fingers brush your shoulder as she rests her arm along the back of the couch, and, God, you notice. She asks, her voice a whisper and a touch and you should really go back to bed, "How are you?"

"I think it's obvious," you say. Kelly's knee nudges yours, and you open your eyes, and she's almost smiling when you look at her.

She admits, "You look tired," and you want so badly to laugh, and you would if you weren't so distracted by her almost-touching the bare back of your neck.

"Thanks," you say, dryly. Kelly's looking at you, all wide eyes and narrow, smiling mouth, and her fingers brush the little hairs at the base of your skull and it's just a friendly touch, that's all, but you can't help but shiver.

Kelly finally says, unsurely, "Ma'am..." and it's been days since you've slept, and that's all you can damn well take. When you lean forward, you catch Kelly off-guard, your cheek brushes hers, your mouth almost touches her ear. You say, "For God's sake, Kelly. Call me Mac," and your voice almost isn't your own.

You surprise her. You can hear her sharp breath, and she pulls your hair as she tries to push you away or maybe pull you forward. It hurts, but not as badly as it hurts when she whispers, "What'd he do this time?"

You pull away. You're leader of the free world, and she's all doe-eyed innocence. You touch one of her little ringlets with the tip of your finger, and you want to be cruel, you want to do something to hurt her. You want to be like Rod, you want to prove something to him or to yourself, and Kelly's looking at you like she already understands what you can't or won't.

You're too old for this and far too nice, and if you really wanted to hurt Rod you'd hurt him and not this girl you've known since she was 19 and a junior in college, this girl who'd do anything for you, and you know it. This girl you love who's sat up with you all night when Rod's hurt you, just drinking beer and doing work like nothing was the matter, this girl who never asked to go home. This girl who's always known the reasons you need her.

At the end of the day, you believe in saving face. "This doesn't have anything to do with him," you say, looking somewhere off, over her shoulder.

There's something sad in her voice when she says, "Okay."

I'm the president, you think. You could have her. You could take her. You could break her or heal her or love her. I'm the president. "This wasn't supposed to be so hard," you say, and you let your head fall into your hands, fingers pressed against your eyes, willing away the tears that would make you forever unable to face her.

"I think you're really the only one who thought it'd be easy," she says and pushes herself up. You're cold where she's gone. "I should get some sleep," she says, and you don't look up. You hear the rub of fabric as she puts on her coat. "You should, too."

You get up, finally. You don't look at her. "Happy Thanksgiving," you say as you pass her. You consider your bed, consider how Rod would throw his arm across your stomach, how he might wake you with a kiss. You blink hard, you think I'm the goddamn president. You turn to go back to the Oval.

"You're going the wrong way," Kelly calls down the hall at your back.

You keep walking, just like you didn't hear her, but even still, you whisper to yourself, "I know," and close the door behind you.