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This is She: six act interlude

by the stylus

     Subject: [glass_onion] NEW FIC: This is she [R]
     Date: Monday, September 09, 2002 8:08 PM

     TITLE: This is she: six act interlude
     AUTHOR: the stylus (
     KEYWORDS: Abbey/Nancy
     RATING: Definite R
     SPOILERS: "Dead Irish Writers" and (barely) "The
     Women of Qumar"
     DISCLAIMER: Hae meae personae non sunt.
     SUMMARY: Watching.  Or, 'There is something, but it
     isn't exactly someone.'
     NOTES: Very crossposted-- my apologies.  Title and
     subtitles from Adrienne Rich "XX."  See end for
     full text of poem, full author's notes.

This is She
six act interlude

I. That conversation we were always on the edge / of having

"We shouldn't be doing this."

Abbey says that each time with Nancy's long, dark fingers tangled in her soft hair. Later, Abbey says, "we can't do this again," but her voice is usually rough and drowsy by then.

She has no idea how this started. That is, she very clearly remembers the first time they kissed, the first glimpse of the dusky freckles under Abbey's silk blouse, the first feel of Abbey's thigh between her legs. But it must have started before then. In the corridors of the White House or at a State Dinner or over the head of Abbey's secretary. There were glances before, suggestions, hints. Weren't there? It is impossible that the First Lady of the United States merely showed up in her office one day to talk about women's rights in Qumar and ended up pinned against the door and seemingly unwilling to escape.

In public, they don't say much. She has been living a whole life of don't ask, don't tell; perfect practice, really, for fucking a President's wife. She tends toward the back of crowds, watching. Abbey draws people to her; there is some curious, radiant magnetism about her. Nancy knows, obviously. She is not immune to it. So she spends a lot of time watching, glad for once not to be the one stared at, whispered about. A black woman in the office of National Security Advisor was cause for a great deal of whispering at the beginning, just like she'd been at the snow-white prep school, just like she'd been in her classes at law school. There had been Vassar, that four years worth of haven, but even there she'd sensed a distance that had to be overcome with pointed humor and helping the pretty girls through physics.

And here she is, more than twenty years later with a closet full of navy blue suits and that same damn tingling in her left hand every time she catches Abbey's perfume. It was supposed to be easier now, everything was supposed to be definite and sure. At twenty-two, a career at the top of the ladder was just within her grasp and all she wanted. She was going to get over this thing for girls, or at least over needing this thing.

She took the job at the White House and a big cut in pay because it was important, fulfilling, the kind of work that would mean something for years afterwards. This was the position she had been working towards: this office with these people and these decisions. Interviewing with Leo and Bartlet, she had told them the truth: she is good at the hard decisions, at objectivity, at imbuing policy with the force of her convictions.

She got the job. And then she realized she was in a girl phase--and it had nothing to do with the nubile young interns with their pert hair and pristine resumes and habit of saying "like." One day the First Lady came in loaded for bear to argue about a point of foreign policy, not just to listen to Nancy, and she'd said with a flip of her hand, "Call me Abbey." And it was back, curled low and iron-hard in her belly.

"Nancy." Abbey's voice comes from behind her in the hallway, low and jagged She realizes that she has been unconsciously listening to the approaching footfalls and is already smiling. "Do you have a moment?"

Nancy nods, not really looking at the woman behind her, just halfway skimming a backwards glance over her shoulder. She holds open the door to her office and Abbey walks in, freezing her guards outside with a stare; the impassive Secret Servicemen flank the doorway of the outer office and center their weight. Nancy has no idea what they know, what they choose to ignore. She doesn't want to know.

She moves to sit behind her desk as Abbey slides into one of the chairs for visitors, designated by being the only surfaces in the office not covered in stacks of paper. The First Lady is wearing a dark suit and a red silk blouse that makes the tips of Nancy's fingers prickle; she looks weary, but energized. Nancy runs her fingers through her own hair, pulling at it, distracting herself from the tingling of her hands. She blames Abbey for her silence, for not knowing whether to say "How can I help you, ma'am?" or "What's wrong, Abbey?" They haven't ever set any ground rules in this relationship; and they haven't spent much time alone in a room when they weren't touching, either.

Abbey cocks her head to the side in that way she has of sizing up people. The gaze is hypnotic: Nancy heard some of the East Wing staffers talking about it one afternoon when she was striding out with the taste of the First Lady's lipstick in her mouth. Like staring at a snake, waiting for it to strike.

Abbey takes in the office, moving her gaze slowly along the overflowing desk, the crammed bookshelf, the haphazard array of satellite photos and copy-proof memos scattered on the dark carpet. Abbey's office is only messy enough to look worked-in, photo-shoot messy. If she has paper for her eyes only, it is not strewn on the floor in haste. Knowing these things makes Nancy feel large and clumsy and yearning, like an adolescent watching college girls. She smoothes her skirt over her knees.

They were never friends. First Abbey smiled at her in public and said nice things about her dress or shoes or performance at a briefing; then, she kissed her back. Nancy spent a lot of time in between watching the First Lady and still has no idea what changed, if anything.

"I'm going to New York next week. And several other cities in the northeast."

"Yes." What does this mean? Nothing moves in Abbey's face that indicates her intent. We can't do this, Nancy thinks. I can't do this. She picks up a pen from the desk, idles it between her middle finger and thumb.

"I'm meeting with several different groups who contribute funds to Democratic causes. People have suggested that you brief me in detail on the language of official current US policy regarding the Palestinian-Israeli situation."

She nods. She does. Abbey follows the words closely, her head angled to the side but her body relaxed in the chair. Nancy has briefed the First Lady many times. Abbey never has taken notes, not once. She also has never, to Nancy's knowledge, misspoken about a matter of foreign policy in public. Nancy finishes strong with a summation of current positions and future options and a crisp "ma'am" for good measure.

Abbey smiles, graciously. "Thank you." There seems to be something else she wants to say but she stands and straightens her jacket with a habitual tug and makes her way to the door. Nancy stands because protocol dictates that she must; long after the other woman is gone, she leans lightly on her desk, still waiting for the backwards glance that would indicate something other than a comfortable working relationship.

II. and I discern a woman

Word works its way back to the Security Advisor's office relatively slowly. Nancy's people have their own gossip, a curious intersection of Defense and Executive detritus that mirrors the balancing act of her position. Eventually everything that happens in the East and West Wings as well as all five wings of the Pentagon usually passes through her secretary. Karen is well trained in many things, including reading her boss's moods like a weather chart, the addition of one and a half sugars to very strong coffee, the deft flattery that will budge even starred generals, the difference between urgent and nuclear situations and when to pass on the information she gleans from interaction with other support staff. Nancy is proud of her assistant and herself; she has carefully cultivated alternative information sources to combat the old male guard that dominates both her source and recipient pools.

She hears about the medical license from Karen, a random comment in the middle of birthday party stories. She has no idea what comes afterward except that it involves "Oh, Canada." Mostly she is actively trying not to faint in her own office; it seems a highly undignified act. She is also trying to dislodge a mental image of Abbey's strong hands which haunts her. Like Macbeth. That makes her smile, gives her enough energy to thank Karen and send her on an errand of research that actually needs to be done.

The chair behind her desk seems lower when she reaches herself into it, though she knows it has not moved. Giving up her medical license. Anger like a flash: did he make her do it? The bastard, is he trying to save his own skin? She takes a deep breath: the idea is impossible. It is Abbey, who has no reasons but her own, however unfathomable they might be. Not even for him, she thinks. She tries to think. She shuffles and sorts possibilities in her head like cards, laying them out, seeing how they fall, comparing the various hands. None of them seem to add up.

III. drowning in secrets

She is still in the chair when Karen returns. All through the afternoon of interminable meetings and banal, repetitive humor she keeps catching Abbey's profile at the edges of her vision. Standing by the window gazing at something Nancy never sees, as she sometimes does when they have taken their clothes off in haste and replaced them without ceremony. She opens and closes her left hand reflexively, willing the tingling to subside, willing the ache in her chest to ease. General Greyson makes a remark about the arthritis in his hand and Nancy wonders if he has unconsciously cued off her motions. Her right thumb circles the knuckle of her left, moving over the thin skin again and again.

IV. And this is she (...and soon I shall know)

Nancy plays tennis with a roommate from college on Sunday afternoon, the two of them a little slower now but wilier, too. Both have the drop shots they wanted at twenty. Both have the careers they wanted, though Angela took six months away from her firm to have the son who arrived promptly two years after the promotion to a secure partnership. Caleb is the godson Nancy spoils but doesn't really know, a charismatic schoolboy with his mother's green eyes and slightly upturned nose and just a shade of his father's Caribbean lilt to his speech.

After tennis they have drinks at a tiny bar that is as much a part of this routine as the sound of shoes squeaking and sore Monday shoulders. Angela invites Nancy to a "little thing" at her house, which Nancy knows means white linen napkins and candles, men loosening their ties for dessert and women with sleek hair coiled at the napes of their necks. She says "I'll try," which is the best she can do nowadays. Usually she gets all the way dressed for wherever she is going and then has to spend the rest of the night in her office wishing she'd worn slacks instead of a skirt and hose.

Nancy asks after Jean-Pierre and Caleb. Angela asks after her father, admires the new haircut that cost more than it was worth and watches Nancy ruffle it a bit self-consciously. "Is there anyone...?" she asks, trying hard to make it seem casual. Nancy shakes her head and reasons that it isn't really a lie. There is something, but it isn't exactly someone.

The apartment is as still as a snowfield when she gets home. She takes a moment to mourn Max's sharp barks that welcomed her for so long at all her front doors. It is only a moment because then she turns her cell phone back on and heeds the blinking entreaty of the answering machine.

V. aside from pain

Abbey is so quiet Nancy cranes her head to see if she has fallen asleep. All the muscles in her back protest at the motion. They are lying on opposite sides of a king-sized bed in a locked guest bedroom of the residence: Nancy tracing the whorls of the ceiling with her eyes, Abbey curled away from her, the thick hair tangled across the pillow.

There is a sharp rush of constricting need in her chest and it is hard to breathe. She reaches for Abbey's upturned, marble shoulder and hesitates, her hand finally fluttering back to the sheets. In her recent memory she sees Abbey's faces as she comes, the eyes briefly shuddering closed, the mouth set hard, her hands twisted hard into the sheets; it is always so quick that Nancy sometimes has to wait for the body beneath her to vibrate with aftershocks before she is sure what has happened. She has never spoken and never cried out. Nancy wonders if she has always been like this. Unreachable, even in the same bed.

And then Abbey rolls over and her eyes are on Nancy, pinning her to the bed. Her mouth is hot and hard; it feels as if she is trying to pull the air from Nancy's lungs. The surgeon's hands move swiftly and precisely over her skin, never hesitating or unsure, finding all of the places that make her spine into a white hot conduction channel. Her knees drawn up, Nancy feels one finger enter her, then two. The rhythm quickens, Abbey's free arm cradling Nancy's head. The new haircut must tickle in the back where it is so short.

There are too many things to focus on: a tongue on her nipple, teeth on her ear, a hand skimming the tender skin of her side. Abbey drives her, building the tension with steady strokes, pushing Nancy faster and faster. Each time she glances up those eyes are on her, as if she were completely open to them. It is almost too much too fast, but Nancy closes her eyes, loses herself in it. The breasts pressing her right side. The cool air raising goosebumps behind the hot trail of Abbey's tongue. The relentless hands urging her on. The steady gaze boring through her. She is ragged, breathless. Abbey whispers in her ear, "Come for me." And she does. The world goes white and then a nebula of colors explodes behind her eyes.

Returning, Nancy finds her head again cradled on Abbey's outstretched arm, though she is now facing the other woman while Abbey stares up and away. Her hand rests curled on the fan of Abbey's ribs. Breathing might break the spell that has fallen over this moment more intimate than anything else they have done. Finally Abbey rises, turning away as she sits on the edge of the bed. She is going to get dressed and leave quietly, slipping out though this is her home. But tonight she lingers with her back to the other woman, still curled in the warm sheets. Perhaps she, too, feels how much quieter this wing is with the President and his entourage on the opposite coast. Her shoulders tuck in about her body protectively.

Nancy reaches out a hand and lightly traces the line of Abbey's spine, sees her lover turn her head slightly and bite down on her lower lip as she inhales. Abbey's eyes are closed and her face taut but blank. Nancy is not sorry, not with the knots of vertebrae beneath her fingers, though a gesture like this has previously been outside the unspoken bounds of their relationship. Tomorrow the board is going to formally accept the forfeit of Abbey's medical license. Her hand stays for a beat, splayed at the base of Abbey's back; then Abbey turns her face aside, unwilling, Nancy thinks, to allow herself any more.

She pushes off the bed and moves across the room, gathering her clothes and slipping back into them. There is no hitch in the practiced motions, but she moves more slowly than usual, as if underwater. Transgressing again their tacit rules, Nancy watches from the bed as the rumpled clothes are pulled on, the fingers run through the dark hair. Before Abbey can pull back on the impossibly high heels she almost always wears, Nancy slides off the bed, wrapped in the sheet they helped untuck. She gathers Abbey's earrings from the night table, cold and hard in her palm. Moving slowly, she reaches up and eases each post through its hole, then gently pushes the back on: right, left. With each earring, she feels the soft downy skin of Abbey's earlobes under her fingers. Her knuckle brushes the column of throat and she can feel the pulse dully throbbing there. Abbey's eyes are closed; she breathes deep and slow, her breasts soft against Nancy's chest with each inhalation.

The simple ceremony over, Nancy lets their own weight carry her hands to her sides. Abbey, her eyes open, steps around her and softly turns the latch to unlock the door. Nancy does not watch her go. When the door settles back into the frame, she picks up her own clothes, repeating the ceremony of dressing, though in an empty room. The hall is empty, too, Abbey having long months ago warned her bodyguards to "leave me the hell alone in the residence." Nancy heard that through Karen.

She exits down one of the back stairwells and makes her way along a corridor of closed doors into the close darkness. In her car, she flicks off the radio and drives home in silence, catching glimpses of her own face reflected in the glass by the passing streetlights. Resting her head on her hand, her elbow propped on the narrow ledge of the armrest while waiting for a light to change, she realizes her hands still smell of sweat and Abbey's perfume and something darker but also Abbey's. When the light turns green, she is not gentle with the clutch. The rest of the way, she puts the car through its paces with deliberate intensity, feeling the engine under her and listening to the pitch change as she pushes through each gear. She takes the longest way that she knows, the one with the most open road. For the first night in a week the clouds have broken up and there are stars scattered in the fissures.

VI. where it cannot hear me

When he throws his wife into the maw of the lion, Nancy has her feet on her coffee table and the tv in her living room crooning CNN soft and low. It is a fundraising dinner they are covering, the camera panning from the podium out over the room of well-heeled baby boomers and back. The anchorwoman cuts in, looking pleased with herself, smirking in her retouched makeup and coiffed hair. Nancy registers all of this absently, like a background noise that, after some time, ceases to exist unless it changes.

It is Abbey's name and the slightly acidic inflection the anchor gives it that brings the tv back into focus. A clip is being introduced, the president frozen in black tie a box in the upper left hand corner of the screen. Then the banquet fills the screen and Jed Bartlet is at the podium saying, " wife has willingly given up some of her own work for the duration of my term in office--but not her commitment and dedication to the causes she and all of us hold so dear." There is a skip, something cut out of the speech to get to the punchline. Jed turns a bit toward where Abbey is sitting on the edge of her chair and sweeps his arm toward her: "It is a great pleasure for me to introduce my wife, Mrs. Abigail Bartlet."

It is tape-delayed from last night. She remembers now: the National Cancer Institute banquet. Abbey has made Jed go every year of his term, over the protests of his staff who feel he "did" cancer in the first two years and should move on. The picture on her tv is snowy at the right edge and the sound is low and most of the screen is filled with Jed, still half-turned, his arm flung out, a bright smile on his face. But Nancy barely sees any of this. She is focused on Abbey, who has turned her head slightly away from the room at the announcement of her name.

"Mrs. Abigail Bartlet." It burns like a brand. She takes a deep breath through her nose and forces down the things that are prickling behind her eyes. She bites a little on the inside of her cheek and closes her eyes.

Nancy is not there, cannot see these exact things, but she knows. She has found the raw, numb flesh of the tender mouth with her tongue. She has made the bones of those cheeks curve out they way they must now. Her stomach is a fist.

The clip is still running. Abbey turns back to the crowd and smiles. She makes her way to the podium, kisses her husband warmly and acknowledges the applause. Jed goes back to his seat, still smiling, whispering to the people beside him a little as he sits. They are all smiling, the people sitting around him. Only Nancy at home on her sofa seems to sense, as if in true empathy, the tenseness of the muscles at the small of Abbey's back that are holding her ramrod straight. Only Nancy seems to see how tightly her hands latch onto the sides of the podium.

She can only watch, unable to say anything, too far away to reach out to Abbey, even if she could. Whatever lies between them cannot ease this. Jed smiles and Abbey keeps her direct, strong gaze on the crowd, her hands locked on the burnished wood of the podium until the knuckles are white. When the anchor's voice cuts in over the text of the speech, it is only Nancy who sees that quick, silent duck of the head that was like a child who had been struck. Her fingers itch with the memory of Abbey's skin.


Author's Notes: This was supposed to be a Wing Swing fic. It still is; it's just running a bit behind. My apologies to all the lovely swinging ladies and gents for the inexcusable delay. I grovel before you most humbly. Many, many thanks to Christine for beta-ing and unsplitting infinitives, also for being ok that it's not so much of a Nancy story, even though that was the ostensible goal. And for liking Abbey even when she seems a bit like Kathy. Thanks to Q for good fun and lovely, well-written chiding about finishing things. Harass, cajole, or dispute the author at the above email address. This and more at

     Full text of poem:
     XX (from "Twenty One Love Poems")

     That conversation we were always on the edge
     of having, runs on in my head,
     at night the Hudson trembles in New Jersey light
     polluted water yet reflecting even
     sometimes the moon
     and I discern a woman
     I loved, drowning in secrets, fear wound round her throat
     and choking her like hair.  And this is she
     with whom I tried to speak, whose hurt, expressive head
     turning aside from pain, is dragged down deeper
     where it cannot hear me,
     and soon I shall know I was talking to my own soul

     Adrienne Rich

"Stories have no point if they don't absorb our terror."

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