"I CANNOT BELIEVE I agreed to come here," Meredith huffed, her teeth gritted and glare dark. She'd dragged Liam away from the table for her third glass of wine (she'd switched from gin after two glasses, having decided early in the night that even Bentley wasn't worth the hangover). She groaned as she slumped against the bar. He didn't have to ask what was bothering her.
"You're being dramatic." He lifted himself onto one of the barstools next to her, rolling his eyes, and she scowled as she met his exasperated gaze. "I work with him. I've had to deal with this almost every day for years."
She furrowed her brow. "Good point. How are you not dead on your feet?"
He grinned. "That's assuming I'm not. Haven't you been paying attention?"
She swung around on the stool as she snorted, took a long sip of her drink before leaving it on the counter, and hopped to her feet. "Good point. Wanna buy me another before we head back?"
"Buy it yourself, Garcia."
"I thought you said you were paying tonight." Meredith plastered on a pout in an effort to stifle the smile that threatened to break through. "'Least, that's what you said when everybody else was around."
"I paid for your ticket."
"I didn't have a ticket!"
"Beside the point."
She scowled, rolled her eyes as she turned back to the bar. "Excuse me?" She shot Liam a final glare as the bartender turned to face her. "May I have a glass of your most expensive red, please? Whatever will do." She flashed him her widest smile, but he just sighed. Apparently working state dinners takes quite a bit out of you.
Liam quirked a brow at her while the bartender went to grab her a drink, and she only shrugged.
"Cash or credit, ma'am?" She turned back to him with the same sweet smile.
"Just put it on my tab, please. It's under the name Thomas Bentley?"
"Will do." He turned away once again, and Liam let out a surprised huff of laughter.
"And I thought you were about to charge it to me." His expression was amused, though impressed as she faced him, looking rather self-contented.
"Why would I ever do something like that, Liam?" She couldn't stifle her grin as she took a sip of her drink. "You did pay for my ticket, after all."
He chuckled. "Of course."
She leaned back on the bar, hesitant to return to their table as she savored the taste of her overly-expensive drink. The atmosphere in the room was warm; she didn't feel nearly as uncomfortable as she had when she entered, yet it exhausted her more than anything. She sighed, brushing a loose hair away from her face.
"Two whiskey sours." Her train of thought was broken abruptly, though, as an unmistakable voice came from her right, and her eyes widened, turning toward the source.
She turned back to Liam with urgency written across her expression. "Liam," she hissed. "That's Rami Mostafa."
He raised an eyebrow. "It sure is."
"Do you know him? Can you introduce me?" She couldn't understand how his enthusiasm wasn't matching her own, him only folding his arms disinterestedly.
"Yeah, he's a good friend." He pushed himself off the bar, before pausing. "Why?"
She rolled her eyes, suppressed an exhausted groan. "Liam. I'm a reporter. On politics. In Washington. Knowing the vice president could be a game-changer for my career. Do you have his number?"
"Get it yourself." Her steely glare broke through his annoyed expression, and he huffed. "Yes. Fine, I'll introduce you."
Just as he turned, though--
"Haber!" Rami Mostafa's jovial voice called a few feet down the bar at him, beckoning him over, and Meredith's eyes lit up. She had to stop herself from sprinting the, maybe, two yards to her right as Liam escorted her over, though her expression still read as starstruck. "How's it going?"
"It's been worse." Liam's grin grew to match Mostafa's, and he grabbed his hand, pulling him in for an amiable hug. "What about you? How's the last year of vice presidency going so far?"
"Couldn't ask for better, with Bentley officially leaving our cabinet." The two men shared a knowing look, satisfaction obvious as Liam withdrew, holding Meredith's shoulder.
"I can say for sure that it won't be the same without him."
Mostafa snorted, just as his wife emerged from behind him, having grabbed their drinks from the bartender. He accepted his whiskey with a quick 'thank you' and a kiss on the cheek, before turning back to Liam and Meredith. "Hey, have you met my wife, Abigail?"
"Don't believe so." He leaned in to shake her hand with a warm smile. "Liam Haber. I'm the one who keeps the country from going broke."
"Abigail Mostafa. I'm the one who keeps the family from going broke." She gave a wry smile as she pulled away, and Rami scoffed.
"Right. Mr. Vice President over here isn't much of a breadwinner."
"Mm, but he is quite a breadspender." Abigail grinned, looking pleased with herself as she looped her arm back through Rami's, but he just rolled his eyes.
"And you've met my wife Audrey before, but this is our friend Meredith." Meredith reached out to shake both their hands, trying to contain the awed look in her eyes. "Audrey's at home sick with our son, but I didn't want to spend all evening lonely with our other lovely administration members."
"Tell me about it," Rami laughed. "It's great to meet you, Meredith."
"You as well, Vice President Mostafa. I'm... a bit of a fan, to be quite candid. You've done some incredible things throughout your career."
He let out a soft 'aww', as he pulled back from shaking her hands, waving her praise away absently. "Oh, please, it's Rami. A friend of Liam's is a friend of mine. And I can assure you, I'm a lot more impressive on paper."
"Take him at his word on that," Abigail added, leaning in with urgency, her tone falsely serious. "He means, like, a lot more impressive on paper. Like, miles from reality."
"They get it, love."
"Just trying to assist your point." The couple shared a pleased look, both their eyes shining, and Meredith had to grin.
"It's incredible to meet you, too, Mrs. Mostafa. I'm sure you're just as impressive in reality as you are on paper."
"She is," Rami piped in, and Abigail laughed.
"You both flatter me." She rolled her eyes, despite the grin playing at her lips. "And the pleasure really is all mine, Meredith. How do you two know each other?" She glanced between her and Liam.
"We actually go a ways back." She looked over at Liam, brow furrowed as she recalled. "I've been his sister-in-law's co-worker for number of years, and since we've been roommates, I've gotten to know Liam and Audrey pretty well."
"Where do you work?"
"I'm a writer for the Washington Post, actually." She bit her lip, not sure of how much to say, nor of whether she could play this into gaining a contact. "I report on politics, and was actually just promoted to my current position covering federal affairs."
"The Washington Post?" Abigail asked, "You wouldn't happen to be the same Meredith Garcia who follows the Bentley campaign, would you?"
She sighed, hung her head with a tired smile. "Don't remind me."
Her words elicited a collective laugh, before Rami piped in, "I've read your articles, actually. You're a great writer; it's scathing stuff."
"Hey, I might be biased, but my writing is just the facts." She held up her hands in defense. "But thank you, so much. I can't say how much it means to hear you say that."
"Can't help if it's true." He shrugged with a grin before pausing. "Say, are you on his campaign all the way up until the election?"
"That I am. Gotta love long-term assignments."
"'Course you do." He grinned. "Can I... give you my card, have you reach out to me if you ever need a contact on anything? Just, y'know, as a concerned citizen who'd rather not see Bentley in office."
Her brows shot toward her hairline as he reached into his coat pocket, glancing over at Liam in her shell-shocked state. "I... Yes, of course! That'd be incredible."
"Good." Rami handed her his card with a wink. "Please don't hesitate to reach out. Our democracy depends on it."
She laughed. "Don't I know it."
SHE SPENT THE rest of her evening back at the table trying to make getting wine-drunk off of fancy aged merlot seem as classy as possible, hoping it wasn't obvious when she snuck over to the bar for another (fourth) glass of gin instead. It was unclear whether the stuffy, formal atmosphere was getting to her head or if it was just the liquor, but her strained smile was beginning to melt into fatigue. She needed a rest.
Her patience was running thin as she forced a laugh at something someone had said. She wasn't sure who anymore, let alone what they said, but everyone else was laughing. Her regard for appearing out of place was waning as well.
Her tired hand fell to Liam's forearm on the table, giving it a gentle squeeze to get his attention.
"Hey, it alright with you if I go get some air?" She leaned in as she asked, a sense of urgency in her voice, and he raised a brow.
"Are you alright?"
She strained her smile further, though it seemed only to worry him more. "Just a bit of a headache. Mind if I step out?"
"Go for it." He gave her a worried smile as she stood from her seat, her napkin folded delicately on the table before her, the chair pushed gently out behind.
Her breathing relaxed as she turned away from the table. Her gaze darted all around and through the room; finding the nearest exit had become her first and only priority. The click of her heels against the ballroom floor melted into the clamor of the air. Deep breath in.
She hadn't looked back at their table as she walked, trying with everything in her to retain a calm, collected composure, and it took the full strength of her will to keep her steps straight and under control as she spotted a hallway branching out from the room. Deep breath out.
She slipped out of the room between the mass of gorgeously-dressed bodies, sighing as she reached her first gasp of air that wasn't polluted with pseudo-intellectualism. She lived for politics, but all in all, politicians weren't her cup of tea.
She continued down the hall while looking for somewhere out of sight to rest. For the most part, it was just alternate hallways branching out, a labyrinth designed if only to put an ache in her feet, before she stumbled upon a series of offices. Her eyes lit up.
The first door she tried was locked, but the next was open, and she didn't bother to look for the light switch as she stepped out of her heels. She flexed her feet in her pantyhose as she walked across the cool marble, collapsing momentarily in the chair that sat across from the desk, presumably for meetings.
She simply stretched for a moment, enjoying the solitude. Her eyes wandered across the walls before they landed on a bookcase, a little off to the side but packed to the brim with gilded titles. She glanced behind her out the office window, letting her curiosity get the best of her.
The books that day on its shelves seemed to be about any topic imaginable as she browsed the stacks, from recognizable titles -- Pride and Prejudice, Leviathan, The Second Treatise on Government -- to slightly more obscure ones, not to mention several in French. Whoever the shelves belonged to seemed to have interesting taste. She'd have liked to discuss it with them, she thought to herself as she appreciated the heavy volume of philosophy. Not enough Kant for her liking, though.
The person had even tucked some poetry away. She almost reached out to grab a Sylvia Plath, before a leather-bound volume of T. S. Eliot's works caught her eye. She tugged it out of its tight fit without a second thought, the beauty of the book itself getting the best of her.
The book fell open in her hand onto a particular work of his, its corner dog-eared, the page marked up, and where it met the spine painfully worn. She absentmindedly ran a finger over the annotations, knowing the poem by heart but silently appreciating this mystery reader's take on it.
The book nearly flew out of her hands, though, as she heard the door opening behind her. She jumped back where she stood, unsure how to explain to whoever this was the reason for her being there.
The light he flicked on only powered the lamp on the desk, but it was easy enough for them to make out one another's faces. Her eyes widened.
"Thomas?!" she exclaimed, panic flooding her system, "What are you doing here?"
An amused smile settled onto his lips as he entered the room. "Oh, so it's Thomas when we're alone?"
"That was just on reflex, don't take it too personally," she scowled, snapping the book shut in her hand. "You scared me."
"So 'Thomas' is reflex, then, huh?" The way he raised a brow told Meredith that he was enjoying this a bit too much, and she huffed.
"What are you doing here, anyway?"
"It's my office. Least, last time I checked." He nodded toward the back of the sign on the window, which presumably marked the space as his own. She gaped for a moment longer, before pursing her lips, silently cursing her luck.
"God, of fucking course it is." She pinched the bridge of her nose, letting out a shuddering sigh. "Because who else's office could I have stumbled into when I had the entire building's worth of offices here."
"Yeah, it does seem like long odds." He shrugged, innocent expression falling across his features as he walked toward his desk. "Unless, of course, it was intentional."
He couldn't contain his grin as she fixed him with a withering glare. "You really think I'd choose to spend a second more around you than I had to?"
"You tell me." He smiled knowingly. "After all, you chose to spend more than a year followin' my campaign around. Seems pretty intentional to me."
Her huff was annoyed as she once again turned away, eyes scanning the bookshelf to try to find where she'd taken the volume from.
"What're you readin'?"
His voice came from closer this time, trying to get a look at what she'd chosen from the shelf. She eyed him skeptically, but his curiosity seemed to be genuine.
"Your collection of Eliot poems." She held up the book with her words, and his soft grin came in response.
"Good taste," he commented, leaning onto the desk beside her. She raised a brow. She wouldn't have expected him to be much for poetry, but it wasn't an unpleasant surprise. She didn't notice the small smile growing on her face. "Got that one as a high school graduation present. Haven't let it out of my sight since."
"I can tell." She held up the book with an amused brow raised, looking at all the rips and tears, water damage and multiple spine repairs. "It's been worn out."
"It's important to me." His voice was quiet at that, even with his smile, and she felt as though she'd accidentally broken through to something she wasn't supposed to see. A vulnerability she wasn't meant to receive.
She held his gaze for a moment, and despite his words, he looked entirely nonchalant, and she reopened the book to the page in question, glancing briefly down at it. She bit her lip. "Why this poem?" He raised an eyebrow, and she shrugged, simply curious. "The page was bookmarked. And covered in scrawled blue ink. Seemed important."
He chuckled, glancing down at her, and his stare was knowing as she looked back at him. "It is important. May I?"
He reached for the book Meredith was still holding, and though it took her a moment, once she understood his intimation, she immediately passed it over. She had to ignore how her skin burned as her fingers brushed against his. He opened the book.
He paused a moment, running a hand over the aging marks that had been left on the page, staring fondly down at the words inscribed in what was obviously an old book. "God, I haven't looked at this old thing since I packed it away into this bookshelf. Almost can't remember when I forgot about it."
With how he stared down at the book, gaze faraway and smile gentle, Meredith couldn't help but feel like an intruder. The poetry was obviously something personal for him, and it seemed as though she was breaking an intimate moment between him and an old friend, especially with how bittersweet his smile was when he looked back up.
"The poem's about loss. Or change." He sighed, tugging at the corner of the paper absentmindedly. "Or leavin'. It's gotten me through a lotta hard times; I used to read it almost every day when I first started college. Eliot always seems to know how to say what I don't."
"Yeah," Meredith breathed, though breathless from the immediate proximity, "He has a way with words, huh?"
Thomas's grin immediately returned as she spoke, him having been broken from his melancholy reminiscence, and he looked down at her with his eyes gleaming in the low light. "You a fan, sweetheart?"
She couldn't help smiling at his words. "I have a casual appreciation."
"And that's why you chose this book out of the hundreds I got scattered around this office?"
Again, the laugh his tone coaxed from her was involuntary; she felt unusually comfortable with his playful demeanor (too comfortable, worryingly comfortable), and she shrugged. "Fine, call it a bit of a fixation." He stayed quiet, just raising an eyebrow, and she hesitated, searching his expression before she continued, "I've been writing poetry since high school, and he was a pretty big influence on me. I actually almost got a tattoo of some of his writing when I was in college."
"Yeah?" His smile was inviting, now, and she found herself feeling vulnerable this time around. "What'd you wanna get tatted?"
"I never decided," Meredith chuckled, before pursing her lips. "I was never decisive enough -- or brave enough -- to actually go through with it."
"Shoulda done it." Thomas moved to put the book back onto his shelf, brushing against her shoulder and leaving Meredith alone at the desk. She was glad he couldn't see the way she shivered at the contact. "All this isn't gonna last forever, y'know?"
"I s'pose so." She folded her arms, grinning. She found his conviction amusing, but at the same time, his words rang true. "Maybe I'll go back to get it done someday, live on the edge a little."
"You should." He turned around with that, having found somewhere to fit the book back in through his jigsaw puzzle of a shelf, and found himself nearly toe-to-toe with Meredith, where she leaned back onto his desk. Her pulse jumped, but she didn't move.
"I dunno." Her voice returned more quietly, unfolding her arms to prop herself up on the mahogany table. "I think I'm a little too afraid of the consequences. I don't wanna..." She swallowed thickly at the way he looked at her, only growing closer. Her tone was measured as she continued, feeling her pulse quicken as she finished, "do something I'll regret. I'm not a reckless person, Thomas."
"Sounds like you need to learn how to be brave sometimes," he chuckled. His easy nonchalance was only putting her more on edge, and she grew more and more certain that the distance between them was no mistake. "Stop worrying, let yourself live."
She pulled her feet in closer to the table, drawing herself to her full height, and as she could've counted his eyelashes in the little distance between them, she was no longer sure they were talking about her tattoo.
"If you only ever focus on the consequences, you're never gonna be able to live in the moment." She let out a shallow breath, entire body tense. "Relax a little." His grin was wide, the look in his eyes wolfish. She could hardly breathe.
His hand came to rest at the side of her jaw, his thumb on the slope of her chin, just below her bottom lip, and she looked up at him with undiluted anxiety in her gaze.
"Thomas." Nerves were evident in her voice, fear mingling with anticipation, but she didn't try to stop him, and he chuckled.
"Relax." The word was hardly a breath as he leaned in toward her, before pausing with his eyebrows raised, giving her plenty of opportunity to push him away, tell him how out of line he was. She bit her lip, searching his eyes for some kind of a motive, but all she saw were his dark eyes blazing into her own, felt his calloused skin cradling her jaw.
She didn't push him away.
Her eyes began to flutter shut, body slowly relaxing under his touch, and she could feel his warm breath dancing featherlight across her lips, his chest pressing against her, hips pinning her against the wooden desk. His other hand drifted down to her waist.
The next sound came from the hall.
Meredith immediately tensed, eyes wide and meeting his own panicked stare, faces still just millimeters apart. When the voice moved to a hand jiggling the brass door handle, her hands moved to his chest, frantically pushing him away to try to maximize the little distance there was between them during the little time she had. His hand had just begun to move from her cheek when Iris MacDuff burst through the door, smile wide.
Immediately, she began to look nearly as startled as they were, though she still had claim to not being in such a compromising position.
"Oh! I-- Thomas." She froze for a moment, gaping at the pair. "Meredith! I.. I'm so sorry! I, ah, didn't mean to interrupt anything... between you two, I was just--"
"Oh, no, no, no." Meredith immediately walked Iris's apology back, sliding out of Thomas's grasp as she scrambled aside. She didn't catch the disappointed look in his eyes. "No, I-- You--" She sighed, taking a moment to regain her bearings. "This is not what it looks like."
Isn’t it, though? she thought, jaw clenching in spite.
"No, Iris, really, this, ah..." Thomas trailed off, looking to Meredith for assistance she didn't know how to give. She was just as panicked as he.
"Don't worry about it," Iris said, immediately trying to retreat back through the door. "I... This... I'll forget I saw this. It's fine."
"No, Iris!" Meredith lunged after her, catching the door and risking a glance backward as Thomas followed in her step. There was only concern in his gaze. "I swear, we were just headed out. Nothing happened, it wasn't--"
"What were you lookin' for me for, Iris?" Thomas's voice had somehow regained all of its composure, something Meredith couldn't understand with how frazzled she felt. "I just stepped out to check on something."
Her gaze was still skeptical as she looked at him, and then spared a glance over at Meredith. "There was just someone asking about your campaign, and I figured you'd want to talk to them." She left it at that, her voice shaky.
Meredith let them lag behind her as they walked, though, picking up her pace frantically. She wanted to remove herself from the situation as quickly as possible, and she tried to focus on finding Liam while suppressing the words which threatened to emerge in her mind.
Thomas Bentley had been about to kiss her.
She shuddered at the thought, taking a deep breath, trying to find some semblance of level-headedness.
Worse yet, she had been about to let him.
The thought sunk in her chest.