TITLE: People Living Brightly
AUTHOR: Ellen Milholland
RATING: PG
CODES: Josh/Joey, post ep -- 18th and Potomac
SPOILERS: TFGKY, 18th & Potomac
SUMMARY: "Thank you," he says slowly, close to her face, "for dealing in absolutes."

*

The restaurant is surprisingly busy for a Monday night. She sips a glass of Red Zinfandel from California, thinks of home, and her cats. Her mouth is thick with grapes and distinct notes of cinnamon and nutmeg. She's picking at a breadstick, waiting patiently for the rest of her meal.

She enjoys these places, these seas of people. She enjoys them because they become fragmented, mouths and bodies moving, and all she is aware of is the precise way that knees bend and heads tilt and lips curl. She fills the silence inside of her with people living brightly. The voices in her head sparkle in brilliant Technicolor.

There may not be sounds, or voices, but there are shades of red and purple and green that are sharper than she could ever attempt to explain, closer to music than anything she could imagine.

The color of today, though, is gray. The faces around her are smooth and jovial and animated, but inside of her head, there is just gray, the gray of the suits and of the pallor of skin too long without sunlight, too long without sleep. The world is painted the color of storm clouds, or the color her fingers turned when she spent an entire night penciling tiny calculations into the margins of computer print outs, trying to determine if the President would stay the President for long.

She handed the sheet of numbers off to Leo, but somehow she can still feel them, smudged against her fingers, smooth and gray like graphite. The numbers are hers, accepted unquestioningly by the President himself. She is good at what she does, but she cannot scrub her hands hard enough to wipe away the dirty facts she cannot spare him.

Her pager goes off, vibrating against her hip, and she is surprised to see his name across the little screen. His name, and a message. "Baxters," it says, "Now. Please."

She knows the place, Baxter's Bar and Grill, near the White House but not too close. She knows that the bar has little, dark booths that are almost closed off to the rest of the world. She knows that they serve the only Bellini Martinis worth drinking on the entire coast.

But she doesn't go for any of these reasons, of course. She goes because he asked her, because of the word 'now.' She goes because that is what she does, she comes when he calls. She goes because in that room that morning, he had been staring at her and he had brushed her hand as she'd left.

So she gets up, scribbles out a request for her check on the back of a napkin, gets a dirty look from the waitress, pays for the eggplant parmigiana she won't ever see. She slips her wallet back into her purse, pulls her sweater around her shoulders, scrawls the name of the bar on another napkin as she hails a cab.

She is used to cities without sounds, and so it isn't hard to make it to Baxter's, isn't hard to find him. His skin is the same shade of gray as her heart, and she touches his shoulder as she sits next to him in his booth.

"Hi," she says. He is always a little surprised by the sound of her voice, she can tell by the way the corners of his eyes crinkle just a little every time as he acclimates himself to her.

"Hey. You want something to drink?"

"Bellini Martini."

"Excuse me?"

She grabs a notepad from her purse, pulls the pen from her pocket, writes messily in bright green ink.

"Ah. Peaches," he remarks.

"Yes, Josh," she nods. She can tell he recognizes the sign for his name, the sign she taught him once and that she only uses when they are alone, the little J and then the touching of her pinky to her lips, mimicking the shushing noise people make, the way his name ends with that same sound. And blowing a kiss, too. Touching his name to her mouth.

Kissing him without touching.

He recognizes it, replies with the way she signs herself, the proud J ending near his throat.

"Josh," she says, kissing his name.

"Joey," he replies, acknowledging her silent voice by touching his own jugular. He calls over a waiter, orders her drink, she can tell by the B and the way the word 'martini' plays over his lips.

When he looks back at her, she says slowly, "You paged me." She has to set her hands on the table, because sometimes she finds herself signing before speaking and because sometimes she wants to touch him.

"I have about an hour."

"Until?"

His face tightens all over, then releases. She thinks this is what his sighs look like. "We're meeting about beets."

She nods in understanding. She appreciates how he moves his lips more when he speaks to her, but some part of her shivers at the way his eyes meet hers, so hard and holding so fast.

"They told Donna," he says, and his shoulders fall inwards as he collapses in on himself.

"How was she?"

"Toby said she took it well. Very well."

"On the outside at least," she says, but he doesn't understand and she must write it down.

"Yeah, pretty much. I mean, that's all of this, though, right? The cracking fašade."

"Cracks? Gaping holes, maybe?" she says.

"You know, I'm sorry about this morning," he says abruptly.

"What do you mean?" She remembers his stare, his heart-rending, heart- pounding stare.

"With Kenny and the President."

"The President was right to worry. You trusted him, though. Kenny, I mean."

"I trusted you." He fights the urge to dip his head; she sees the muscles in his neck tense. She can tell that this is hard for him, maybe, all of this eye-meeting and these deep soulful looks. She knows he is used to averting his eyes, to half-listening, to taking all of this for granted. She knows she is new.

"I know, Josh," she signs his name as she speaks, and he repeats his own name back to her.

"Josh," he says.

"Josh," she repeats aloud.

He looks at her mouth. "Thank you for coming, Joey."

"I knew the drinks were on you."

He shakes his head, but almost smiles. "To Washington. I mean, I know you're not just sitting around waiting for us to call."

"You trust me, Josh. That's enough reason. Why are you here?"

"Leo told us to go eat something."

"No, Josh. Why are you here?" she motions towards herself with a hand.

"Would you think I was crazy if I said you made sense?"

Her stomach catches in her throat. "Nothing makes sense," she says, signing it for emphasis.

He watches her hands, "Yeah, you're probably right." He moves closer to her as she takes a long drink, and the length of their legs are touching, and he sets tentative fingers against her knee. Her eyes go wide, and her mouth is cloying like peaches, and she must look away. She looks down into her glass, watching the liquor ripple, and then he touches her cheek to get her attention.

"Thank you," he says slowly, close to her face, "for dealing in absolutes."

For a moment, she doesn't know what to say, let alone do. And so she does what feels right, and she speaks without her mouth, only with the art of her fingers and the tiny motions of words of air. She explains to him the way he makes her heart beat, explains to him that she doesn't want to leave him this time, begs him to touch her. She says all of this because she knows he will not understand.

But he sees his name, the touch of her flesh to her mouth. He signs her name without saying it. And he takes her hand, and he kisses the fingertip that's touched her mouth. He kisses her palm, and her wrist, and each of her knuckles, taking the words from her hands through his skin.

And when he looks up to see her, her eyes all wide as she bites down hard on her lower lip, he smiles sadly.

"I don't understand, but it's beautiful," he says, meaning, 'you're beautiful,' but the words catching against his lips.

"You understand enough," she says.

"When are you leaving Washington?" he asks, touching her arm.

"I won't leave until you've figured out if you need any more numbers."

"Where can I find you?"

"Just page me."

"Joey," her name is sharp on his face, "If I wanted to find you tonight, could I--"

She raises a hand and gives him the name of the hotel, the room number. "Page me before you come up. In case I'm asleep, to wake me."

He looks at her, then, hard. Her head is back, her throat bared. "Okay. You want another drink?" His hand touches her hair.

"Yes, please," she says, willing to get a little drunk for him, and when he kisses her, just her jaw, she wonders if there might be a beginning for them in another man's end.

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