MEREDITH SPENT THE following days, the next weeks, focusing on herself. She was letting herself get distracted, and with that, distracted by precisely the person she was supposed to be focusing on. It felt ironic, really, but she wasn't amused.
She spent time tapping her sources from and around the campaign trail, trying to establish a connection with other politicians who had been identified as potential candidates for the election, trying to expand her network beyond her small corner of the policy scene. ("The policy scene" was much bigger than she'd thought.)
She reached out to think tanks, to analysts, economists -- she was getting a little off track, but basically, she talked to everyone with no link to the name "Bentley," despite the precise nature of her assignment.
Her stab at freedom from the now-former Secretary of State was to little avail. While he was the foundation of his campaign, there was enough else going on surrounding the election that she could dance around confronting him.
Yet, not for as long as she'd have liked.
She was knee-deep into finding the perfect person to cold call at Brookings when the crucial blow came.
"Meredith!" Her boss's perpetually peppy voice rang through the hall toward her office, and our fatigued heroine looked up with a brow raised. Ashley stopped in the doorway, appearing elated. "Guess what?"
Her eyes flashed with crazed excitement, and Meredith almost didn't want to ask what. It felt very much like a trick question.
In response to Meredith's expectant stare, silent and unmoving, Ashley sighed and entered. "You should be a lot more excited when I come running down to your office with a 'guess what,' y'know."
She sighed. "Oh, no! I'm so sorry! What ever exciting news could I be missing out on at this very moment?" Her contrived enthusiasm reeked of sarcasm, but Ashley's spirits were too high to be quashed, and she only rolled her eyes in response.
"So, you've been covering the Bentley campaign for months, right?" Apparently she was ignoring the less-than-thrilled response. Meredith nodded. "And you were out in front of it before anyone else was, right? You know more than anyone else about his platform and history."
Grudgingly, she nodded again. "I suppose so." She was equally unexcited to claim to know Thomas Bentley's past better than anyone else.
"And, he's projected to be the Republican frontrunner."
"The debates haven't even started, everything could change in a night," Meredith pointed out. "You know that."
"You're right, the debates haven't started." Meredith was clearly missing something. Ashley seemed to be unreasonably thrilled about the lack of pre-existing clash between the candidates. She raised a brow, and Ashley appeared to be holding back a squeal with how she was grinning. "But, the debates are only a few days from now, so, I called in an old contact from NBC, and of course, they'd heard of you--" She paused for dramatic emphasis, but the anticipation wasn't exactly killing Meredith, "And... since the Washington Post is co-sponsoring the event, they want to have you as one of the moderators for the first round of debates!"
With that, Meredith was struck silent. "They..." She could only gape for a moment, and Ashley nodded excitedly.
"Mm-hmm. It's against precedent, but since you've become the most prominent and consistent reporter covering Bentley the past few months, they think your input would be invaluable."
"But what about my live commentary?" she asked, still dumbstruck. Everything in her was telling her this was a bad idea; she needed to protest her way out. "I won't be able to provide as good of coverage of the debates if I'm not taking notes and writing during them. It'll hurt my articles. This is too big of an event not to write for."
She knew she was rambling, but Ashley only let out a sigh, as though Meredith was being absolutely ridiculous. "Oh, come on. Your commentary's more valuable on the spot if it can be used to grill the candidates and get Bentley to talk."
"'Get Bentley to talk'? This is a debate, not an interrogation." She blinked, visibly put-off. "Besides, it's not like I'd be controlling the floor. I wouldn't be doing much good anyway, and it really wouldn't get me much notice." She paused a moment, trying to gauge Ashley's reaction, and swallowed. "I think I should stick to my own territory."
"Meredith." Her tone was firm now. "This is the biggest opportunity you're going to get for people to notice you as a political journalist. It wasn't easy to get you this position, and besides, you're perfectly equipped for it. You've spent hundreds of hours by now researching the issues, contacting think tanks for different perspectives on them, contrasting Bentley with the other candidates, and..." She took a thoughtful pause. "And I can't even scratch the surface of what you've been spending all this time on. If anyone should be moderating, it should be you. This isn't the time for cold feet."
Ashley had begun monologuing, and Meredith knew right there that there was no getting out of this job. It's not about getting cold feet, though, Meredith thought, I can do it, easily. What Ashley didn't know, though, was that there was more there.
The growing pause following her boss's speech was heavy with expectation, and finally, Meredith sighed, knowing she didn't actually have a choice in the matter if she cared to keep her job.
"Fine. Should I book myself a hotel in Detroit?"
"Don't bother. It'll come out of company funds; it's the least we can do."
She sighed, turning back to her computer, closing the tab she'd just opened. "Michigan, here I come."
THAT CONVERSATION HAD taken place Monday, and, as Meredith later realized, the first round of debates were that Wednesday, so she had approximately 48 hours to pack, fly, and get situated in Detroit. That evening was a whirlwind -- Ashley texted her that the flight the WaPo had booked her left at 10:00 on Tuesday morning, she immediately began her frenzied packing. Which, in turn, brings us once again to the apartment, filled with Meredith's anguish, the hair she was tearing out with stress, and clothing strewn over the carpet's full surface area.
"What do I wear, Ella? I'm gonna be on national TV, I need to look good but so, so, so professional," she wailed, looking up at her friend who was perched on the edge of her bed. Ella gave her a sympathetic look.
"You're overthinking it, honey," she said, "No one's worried with what you're wearing, alright? It's what you say, not what you look like."
"But I'm..." She sighed, arms going slack along with the three different dresses she'd been holding up to the light, shoulders slumping. "I dunno, it's just the first time I'm gonna be that clearly in the public eye. When I'm writing I can just hide behind the words."
"The time for hiding's over." Ella pushed herself off the edge of the bed, joining Meredith in the garment tsunami that threatened to claim her furniture. "You got the spot with the debates because people wanna hear from you, so pick an outfit. Doesn't matter which."
"But it does." Meredith looked over at her weakly, everything in her expression reading dejected, from her furrowed brow to her little pout. Ella gave her a pointed look, and she huffed. "I just... It's not only the public, y'know? I'm also up with all the famous newscasters and the fucking Republicans, for God's sake."
"Since when do you care what Republicans think of you?"
"I..." She hesitated, considering herself. Ella made a good point -- since when did she care? "I don't, really. I just don't want to look bad on national TV on my first gig where I'm... visible."
She pursed her lips, praying the issue wouldn't be pushed further.
Finally, Ella huffed, beginning to pick through the pile of Meredith's clothes, seemingly resigned to the angst that deciding one outfit had apparently proved to be. With a sigh, Meredith slumped against the footboard of her bed, her dejected stare meeting the multicolored flood piling around her ankles. She carded a hand through her now-disheveled hair as she checked her phone, unable to stifle a grin at her Twitter notifications coming from all different corners of the political compass -- not to mention, now, Rami Mostafa. Her recent article on Bentley's voting history was blowing up.
She began to respond to a tweet, nails tapping frantically against her phone screen, and though she couldn't see it, Ella raised an eyebrow.
She let out a soft giggle as she read another response to her post: this time, the successive Secretary of State, his voice being behind her loud and clear. The feedback on her writing was only making her progressively giddy. Her smile curled with self-content, though, as she saw James MacDuff's message about her post, sent directly to her. Ella raised another eyebrow.
"Meredith?" Ella's tone bordered on cagey as it cut through Meredith's laser focus. She looked up, eyes wide. "The concerns about your outfit wouldn't happen to have anything to do with the Bentley campaign, right?"
"Well, of course they do." She blinked, unable to place the intent behind the skepticism heavy in Ella's words. "It's the only reason I have this gig, anyway."
Ella pursed her lips; apparently, that hadn't been quite what she was asking. "Would it have anything to do with a specific person from the Bentley campaign?"
Meredith paled. All-too-vivid memories of the state dinner that was now months past fought their way to the forefront of her mind -- her attempts to curb them hadn't been in vain till Ella popped the question. "I'm sorry?"
The pause that followed as Ella examined Meredith's look of near-panic was anything but silent, both their trains of thought threatening to derail themselves with conjecture. Ella took in a shuddering breath.
"I just mean..." Meredith could hardly bear to meet Ella's wary gaze. "D'you have a thing for James MacDuff?"
The next beat that passed was simply stunned. Meredith could hardly conceal her laughter in a huff; she had to swallow her amusement, every nerve in her body immediately relaxing.
"What did you just ask me?" She shook her head, small grin breaking out across her lips as her shoulders slumped. Ella didn't look so sure. "I am not lusting over James MacDuff, Ella. He's literally married."
"Marriage isn't forever, babe." She pinned her with a skeptical stare, to which Meredith could only laugh.
"I swear to you, Ella. You will at no point see me trying to jump James MacDuff's bones."
"So why'd you react how you did when I asked you about the Bentley campaign, hm?" Ella folded her arms, plainly unconvinced, and Meredith's breath caught. She'd supposed she was off the hook.
"What do you mean?" Meredith wished the question hadn't come out so breathily.
"Meredith," Ella started, exasperated, "You've been messaging MacDuff on Twitter. You've met him multiple times and have spent your fair share of hours detailing to me each of the times you've met. You were just giggling at something he sent you." She was fully deadpan by then. "You don't need to hide it, I just want you to talk to me about it."
"I promise, it's not that I'm in love with MacDuff." Meredith's smile as she returned to packing was meant to have been placating, but functioned as anything but. She needed to get back to packing before Ella could press the matter. "Blue or green dress?"
"Don't change the subject!"
"I'm not, but I'm gonna be on a plane in twelve hours!" she said, "I need to finish packing."
"So there's no ulterior motive to how you're approaching the Bentley campaign?"
For a moment just long enough to evoke doubt, Meredith paused. She wasn't inclined to reminisce on the last time she'd actually talked to anyone from the Bentley campaign, but her psyche had other priorities. A nearly undetectable chill ran down her spine -- she could still feel his heavy hands trailing down to her hips, hot breath brushing over her cheek; she could even feel the sculpt and contour of his body as it pressed against hers, muscles rippling under his stiff button-down. Her skin burned still where rough calluses had grazed her neck.
"There's no ulterior motive, Ella." She wanted her words to be true, fighting back a shudder as she bottled up the memory. "I swear."
Ella didn't look convinced.
ABOUT TEN HOURS, a mildly annoying trip through TSA (the Post had paid for her pre-check, otherwise she'd have been less forgiving of the experience -- and the line), and two hours on a plane later, she rolled into her hotel lobby in Michigan, small suitcase dragging behind her. She knew she wasn't exactly a sight to see, just off a plane at noon in her socks and sandals, her oversized sweater. She certainly wasn't feeling as high-end as her hotel appeared to be.
The high ceilings, crown molding, and arched entryways all reeked of wealth, not to mention that the space was crawling with men and women in sharp suits, appearing as though they were on the verge of being willing to cut anyone who held them up for a moment too long. She shifted her weight uncomfortably from one Birkenstock to the other, waiting for the manager to return to the front desk so that she could check in. As she warily eyed the man marching through with a clipboard, aggression in each step, she had to wonder why the Washington Post had decided to drop her there, of all places.
She would've loved to disappear into her sweater, at that moment.
The manager returned to her position, looking just as sleek and professional as everyone else there, and Meredith's appearance seemed to give her pause. "Can I help you?"
"Hi, yes, I'm here to check into my hotel room for the next three nights." She gave the manager her warmest smile in an effort to diffuse some of her tense nature, but it was to no avail. "I'm here with the Washington Post, but I think it should be under the name Garcia?"
Meredith waited a moment, trying to roll some of her post-travel soreness out of her shoulders as the manager typed away at the computer before her. She creased her brow, frowning for a moment. "Meredith?"
"That's me," she said, enthusiasm weak in her voice.
"Alright, you're up in room 569, so let me get you your key." She paused, rooting through drawers as her coworker appeared next to her, apparently taking a post at the next laptop over. She looked back up. "Alright, you should be all set," -- She slid the keys across the counter to Meredith -- "but it's still early, and I'm not sure your room's been checked out of quite yet. Excuse me for a moment to go see about that."
Before Meredith could say another word, she was gone, and Meredith let out a heavy sigh. It'd been a long twelve hours, and all she wanted was a proper bed and a nap. It seemed rest wasn't what the universe had in mind for her, though.
She began checking her Twitter while she stood in wait, paying no mind to the energetic bustle of who she'd worked out to be politicians and the like, given the snippets of conversation she'd picked up standing there; however, tuning out became significantly more difficult when a familiar voice sounded next to her.
"Yes, only the next three nights. The room is registered for the surname 'MacDuff'." If she couldn't guess from his voice, his words were a dead giveaway. She looked up, and sure enough, there was the man himself. Well, shit.
Not only was she painfully opposed to having to interact with him in her near-pajamas and slipper socks, feeling like the biggest mess she'd ever been, but she also knew that where he was, Bentley wasn't far behind.
She immediately busied herself with something, anything on her phone, facing down and away from him in the hope that he wouldn't notice her. She'd just pulled up a scintillating article on diabetes in labradors, when--
"Meredith?" The man at the desk helping him had disappeared when she reluctantly turned to face him -- busying himself with something other than helping protect her from social interaction, apparently. James, however, looked all but amused.
"Hey, James." She did her best to return the positive sentiment he perpetually seemed to give off, but she knew it came out weaker than intended. "Should I assume I know what brings you here?"
"Should I assume that it'd be the same thing that brought you here?" He quirked an eyebrow, unable to resist eyeing her outfit. She sighed.
"That might be fair," she conceded, small smile resting on her lips. "Is the campaign all ready for the first round of debates?"
He laughed; not a polite chuckle, but a full-bodied laugh, as though he couldn't believe the question. "Something like that. We've prepared Thomas as many talking points as we could think he might need, but I'm worried the moderators--" He gave her a pointed look, wearing a knowing smile, "--may end up grilling him regardless."
A wry smile crept onto Meredith's face. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
"Word travels fast, especially from the Washington Post's Twitter account."
"You really are always one step ahead, hm?"
"You're the one with the questions, last I checked."
"Well, I'm sure your campaign will be thrilled to hear them -- following you is why I got the gig, anyway." She only shrugged, despite the self-content etched into her grin.
"Oh, really?" Amusement was deep-set in his smile.
She nodded. "I'm forever grateful."
"Grateful enough to go easy on Thomas?"
"Not quite," she laughed, "When following his campaign makes me my first million, then we'll talk."
"Sounds like we'll have to step it up, then."
"Running on a deadline, James," she warned him in a singsong voice, folding her arms.
"We'll win you over by the end." He grinned, turning back to the woman at the desk, handing her his credit card, and shot Meredith a sly glance. "Thomas has always loved a challenge."
Her stomach turned at his words for reasons she couldn't explain, amused smile faltering for only a moment as James slid his card back into his wallet and tucked it into his coat pocket. He raised an eyebrow at her silence, her moment of hesitation.
To her delight, that was the moment the concierge returned, wearing a wide (and contrived, but that was how customer service was) smile, stepping back up to the desktop Meredith stood before.
"Alright, your room should be all set, Ms. Garcia." She returned to quickly tapping at the keyboard, before pulling out a number of brochures. "These are for room service and the various hotel amenities. Our pool is on the second floor, gym is on the third along with the spa, meeting rooms are on the fourth, and the business office is on the fifth, fully equipped with desks and printers." She hesitated, glancing with disdain down at Meredith's choice of travel outfit. "Are... you here on business? Or... ?"
As she trailed off, Meredith sighed, returning the less-than-candid customer service smile. "Yes, I am, actually. Thanks so much for everything."
She nodded. "Alright! Don't hesitate to come let us know if there's anything else you need. There will always be someone here to help you."
"Perfect." She turned back to James as she folded up the brochures, shoving them into the side pocket of her purse. "Well, sounds like I'll be seeing you around, then."
"Thomas and I look forward to it."
Then, the automatic doors of the lobby slid open, and a rush of cold air, as well as a grand entourage, made their way in, catching both of their attention. "Well, speak of the devil."
At that, Meredith realized exactly why there was such a crowd, and it became immediately clear why the Washington Post had chosen that hotel to set her down in, among the countless in the area. Thomas Bentley had just entered, along with a bustling crowd of Secret Service and reporters, all orbiting him like he was the sun. He wore a broad grin, laughing and shaking hands, and Meredith stared for decidedly a moment too long, longer yet than James had. Her breath caught as Thomas looked over at her, and she found herself frozen, rooted to the spot, his gaze locked on hers.
Thomas, too, was stunned when she caught his eye. His pause was minuscule enough to be unnoticeable, hardly a fleeting glance that even Meredith didn't think anything of, but his self-consciousness couldn't let it go in that moment. His smile faltered for a moment, softening to become small, apologetic, and certainly more sheepish than it'd ever been, all the teasing self-content drained out of it. For the first time, she returned the smile -- tense, nervous, but real.
The flash of a camera broke their gaze, and the moment ended as quickly as it came.
MEREDITH CRASHED ALMOST immediately into her hotel bed upon reaching her room; she'd had less sleep than she'd have liked during the past thirty-six hours, anxiety keeping her awake. She was shaken from her long-overdue nap, though, by her phone buzzing angrily next to her. She groaned as she recognized the number as belonging to Ashley, her boss, and declined almost immediately.
After that, though, despite her best efforts, her nap seemed to have ended, and much to her dismay. She made the mistake of instead opening her email, then, deciding productivity was the obvious cure for sleeplessness -- until she opened her most recent email from Ashley. (The subject line read 'IMPORTANT, IMMEDIATE, AND URGENT.' Got any synonyms for 'redundant'?)
The oversized, highlighted body text blared at her to the point where her eyes began to water, still adjusting to the light and certainly not ready to be staring directly into all the light of the sun her boss had managed to stuff into a single communication.
There's no reason to use font size 25, she thought, rather irked, and highlighting every word in bright yellow goes entirely against the point of highlighting.
She could only bring herself to skim the message, but when she did, she groaned at its contents, falling back onto her hotel bed in annoyance. Thomas Bentley was having another campaign rally, apparently, to garner support going into the debates. And she was being prodded to attend.
It was expected to be a small ordeal; the venue was modest, and around 100 people would be in attendance, maximum. So, she went. Grudgingly, with a full 30 oz cup of coffee, and in jeans and a tank top, but she went.
She showed up just over 20 minutes before the event -- a town hall on his policy, as it turned out. She felt a bit out of place, the look she was rocking from her hiking boots to her disheveled post-nap bun not exactly screaming 'distinguished professional,' but she liked to think throwing a blazer atop the whole look saved it.
The venue was small, homey -- she'd read that it was generally used as a comedy club, but that the space could be rented out (obviously). Meredith figured the best use of her time there was to get to know Bentley's base of voters. Who were they? What did they care about? And, most importantly, how long could they keep her occupied so she never actually had to speak with Bentley?
The first person she met, though, wasn't exactly a supporter.
She'd tucked herself into a back corner as everyone swarmed Bentley, who was busy giving his opening remarks, but she was content just to record them, to reserve judgment for the time being (verbally, at least). She had the audio being taped, all but absentmindedly taking notes for herself for the debates. Yet, there wasn't much substance in most of what he was saying.
"This seat taken?"
She looked up with her eyebrows raised, surprised to have been approached. What met her was the smiling face of a vaguely-familiar Democratic reporter, and eyebrow cocked in question.
"I... No! No, please sit." She smiled, motioned to the metal folding chair beside her. "We've met before, right? Ben Hayek, New York Times?"
"That's me. And it's Meredith, yeah?" He pulled out the chair, swinging a leg around it and resting his forearms on his thighs as he looked to her. "You're from the Washington Post, the one tracking Bentley."
She sighed. "That seems to be everyone's first reaction to meeting me, hm? Bentley's media adversary?" Her tone was joking, but there was a certain bitterness in them at her career now being irreparably tied to Secretary Bentley. She hoped Ben didn't take it personally. "Yeah, you've got the right girl, though."
"To be fair, you've become famous for digging up info on him that no one else seems to have." He shrugged. "I've read some of your recent stuff, since we're following the same campaign; hope you know you're famous in your own right, even if it is tied to him." He nodded toward the stage with that, just as applause broke out and Bentley began taking questions from the crowd.
She chuckled, though it was all but mirthless. "Thanks, but I'm not so sure about that. Everyone loves gossip, and they only know me because they think I'm here to dish out the dirt on Bentley."
"Now, that's not true." She raised a brow, and he grinned. "They follow you because you knowledgeably and eloquently dish out the dirt on Bentley."
"Oh, that's so different." She rolled her eyes, but couldn't help her laugh at his words.
"It's true!" he protested. "C'mon, there's a reason the public has latched onto your coverage and not mine."
"I dunno about that." She pursed her lips, stifling her small smile. "I've read your writing. It's really good."
"Aw, you've looked up my writing? I'm flattered." He appeared touched, though mockingly, placing a hand on his heart and plastering on an exaggerated pout, causing her to laugh.
"Well, you did give me your business card."
He sighed, nodded sagely. "Ah yes, I suppose the media circus is easily Google-able, huh?"
"What can I say, clowns recognize clowns." Her gaze drifted back toward the stage with this, turning toward Bentley as she cast Ben a sidelong glance. The corners of her lips quirked up. "And we are all caught in this circus, too." The pointed look she gave Bentley at that was entirely devoid of subtlety, and Ben laughed.
"Are you claiming Bentley as part of our circus? A bold move, Meredith."
"Good point, good point." She leaned back in her chair with a grin. "So what are we, then? Consumers taking advantage of free entertainment?"
"I dunno, we're making money off this circus." He pursed his lips. "Shit, what d'you call the people who like, run the circus?"
Her eyes widened in amusement as she looked back over at him. "What, we're the ringmasters?"
"Yeah, yeah, exactly!" She couldn't keep herself from laughing at that, the idea of Bentley as a circus freak or a traveling sideshow too comical to entertain. He cracked a grin as well, unable to take himself seriously. "C'mon, hear me out -- he's up there playing the fool, and we're making the big bucks off of it, hm?"
"Fair enough," she conceded, grin now chronic and apparently contagious. "Anyway, what're you here for? Just general info from the town hall, or looking for something specific?"
"Well, I figured this was my chance to question Bentley before the debates, y'know?" He nudged Meredith at that. "Or can I just pass my questions off to you for tomorrow, since I've heard you're moderating now?"
She sighed. "Word really does travel fast when Bentley's name is attached, huh?"
"Or it's because your name's attached." She gave him a skeptical look, and he held up his hands defensively. "I'm serious! People care about what you have to say now, y'know? Given, it is about his campaign, but really, it's your take on the next election that they want -- it's no longer just about him."
Meredith had to pretend her chest wasn't swelling with pride at that. Perhaps he was just feeding her ego, talking her up because he wanted to be able to use her for sources, but it was nice to hear regardless of the motive behind it. Her small smile grew. "Well, thanks, I guess. I'll certainly take it."
"You should." He looked like he was about to continue, but his following sentence was broken off by a sudden uproar of excitement. Hollers, cheers, and applause sounded loudly from the center of the room, and they both looked over to see Bentley exiting the podium, moving down to begin talking to the voters there to see him, and Meredith sighed.
"Guess we'd better get a move on if we want anything out of this event."
"I suppose so." He huffed as he lifted himself out of his chair, and Meredith immediately followed suit, tucking her laptop into her bag. "You headed to talk to Bentley?"
"Nah, actually." Her gaze darted through the room as she tried to find where to begin. "Just tryna find out what his supporters care about for the election. Needa know what points I need to drive home tomorrow at the debate." He nodded, and she cocked an eyebrow. "Care to join me?"
"Think I'll have to take a rain check, unfortunately. My editor wants direct quotes from Bentley, and this is most of my window of opportunity." He glanced over at her with a small grin as they walked together toward the center of the room. "Come find me if you get sick of the Republicans, though. I'd be more than happy to abandon Bentley for a cup of coffee at the place around the corner."
He winked before he made off toward where Bentley stood, and Meredith was left stunned a moment. Shit, was he hitting on her? She couldn't help it as her eyes raked over his retreating form, biting her lip as she decided that she certainly wouldn't have minded if he was. After all, even the clowns need company in the media circus.
She didn't let herself dwell, though, but instead fixed her focus on the task at hand. She floated throughout the room for the next hour or two, meeting Ben's eye in passing here and there, receiving a wry grin. A few trends emerged from Bentley's supporters, and they were fairly generic. Russia, China, healthcare, the crushing weight of existence and the feeling that they were running out of time, fear of the impending race war, healthcare -- y'know, the usual.
A few hours deep, she checked her watch, concerned about how long this would go on, leafed through her notes trying to determine whether she had enough to just jump ship, to climb into her hotel bed, order room service, and take her pants off. She glanced back up at Bentley warily.
Her gaze traveled lazily around the room as she decided talking to one or two more people wouldn't kill her, wincing internally even as she made the decision. She braced herself for just a few more minutes of crazy.
Oh, the voice that came from her left was melodic, sounded of angels singing, of her walking miracle saving her from the political shitshow, and she turned with a smile. Walking toward her brightly was Iris MacDuff, and her brows shot up as she reached her.
"Hey, Iris, what's up?"
"Not much." She pulled Meredith for an unexpected hug, grinning as she pulled back to look at her from arm's length. Her hands still rested on Meredith's shoulders. "Fancy meeting you here, though. What are the odds?"
"Oh, so low. Especially considering my job and your marriage, who knew we'd both end up at Bentley's town hall?" Her tone was playful as Iris rolled her eyes.
"Oh, don't gimme that. I'm just glad to see you."
Meredith laughed as Iris finally pulled back, settling beside her. "Jesus; tell me about it. D'you know how many crazy voters I've had to pretend were completely normal in the past few hours. Even just your sanity is a breath of fresh air."
"Yeah, the American voter." Her smile was amused as she eyed the crowd. "Really gives you hope for the future of our country, hm?"
"Of course." Meredith laughed, tucking a hair behind her ears. "Comforting to know these are the people who determine our president for the next four years."
"I'm sure." Iris glanced back up toward where Bentley stood, James apparently now beside him making his way through the crowd. "Though, I do find a bit of comfort in the idea of Thomas being the one behind the wheel for the next four."
"That makes one of us." Though Meredith's tone was joking, her words were dead serious, and transparently so. Iris grinned as she caught her eye.
"I might be just a little bit biased." Meredith shrugged. "To be fair, I've spent the past four months digging up all the dirt there is on him, and reviving any and all skeletons in his many, many closets."
"Yeah, I gotcha. I keep up with your articles." Iris winked, and Meredith could feel herself flush. The fact that Iris MacDuff actively kept tabs on her writing felt like quite the honor. "Didn't think any of it was all that damning, though, to be honest."
"No, I agree with you." Meredith nodded reasonably, eyes fixed on Bentley as he moved fluidly through the room, weaving between people and families, shaking hands, taking selfies. "And I'm glad it comes off that way, too. I try to keep the tone of my writing neutral, but as a journalist, I have to look at everything with a critical eye, y'know?"
"I've gotcha. I may be biased too, considering my husband is probably gonna be his running mate." Iris grinned as she caught James's eye and waved to him. He was at the opposite end of the room, but he began walking toward them almost immediately.
"James may be what saves the ticket in my eyes, to be honest." Meredith returned the smile as he neared them, and turned to Iris. "If not, though, is it too late to take you up on covering my therapy costs?"
She laughed, squeezing Meredith's forearm lightly. "I'll just have to hope James helps keep your sanity these next few months."
"What's that about Meredith's sanity?" James furrowed his brow as he reached them, a small smile resting on his lips, but his gaze full of concern.
The two women shared an entertained look before Meredith turned to James. "Just that when I lose it, the two of you had better find me a comfy asylum."
James's visible confusion deepened as Iris's grin grew. "Don't worry about it, love. We were just discussing Meredith's writing about the campaign."
"Ah, so that's why you're losing your sanity?" He raised an eyebrow, and Meredith nodded in confirmation. "Then no worries, we'll find you the best therapist money can buy."
She let out a soft 'aw,' placing her hand over her heart. "When you do, I'll be sure to write an exposé on the generosity of the MacDuffs. You'd better be honored when I cross party lines for you two."
James grinned. "Abandoning partisanship for the Bentley campaign? Never thought I'd see the day."
"You won't. It'll all be for Iris." Meredith shot her a wink. "I'll throw all my weight behind Bentley when Hell freezes over."
"You do so much for me," Iris sighed dramatically, wiping away an imaginary tear as she squeezed Meredith's hand, pretending to be moved by her words. Meanwhile, James folded his arms, wearing a small smile.
"He'll see to it that that's sooner than you think."
SHE ABANDONED BENTLEY'S rally not long after, having no desire to breathe any more air that reeked so heavily of contrived charisma and shitty cologne, but having all the desire in the world to snuggle into her warm pajamas and pop open a bottle of hotel wine. After all, the debates didn't start for nearly 24 more hours.
She was about to pick up her nap from earlier right where it'd left off, but had first to piece together what she'd taken away from the rally and forward it over to Ashley. Not to mention the unfortunately necessary hours of preparation between her and the debates. She couldn't mess up her first run on TV. It was two hours and half a bottle of wine later that she sent off the culmination of her notes and recordings from the afternoon, and by the time Ashley emailed her back, it was nearly eight PM. After that, she resolved to spend no more than two hours writing and revising her questions for the following evening.
She groaned at the fourth email from Ashley -- she had too much criticism, but not nearly enough suggestion. If all my ideas are bad, Meredith thought, frustrated, why don't you have any better ones? After shooting her a response, she decided to take a well-deserved break.
At this point in the night, shame was a non-factor in her decisions, and she was far beyond caring if anyone down in the lobby was going to judge her tank top or bunny slippers. She just wanted whatever candy went best with shitty, five-dollar, red wine, and a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and she knew the hotel's food kiosk was the most convenient place to find both.
"Wait, hold the elevator!" She only really kicked into gear when turned the corner on her floor to see the elevator's doors about to close, and she really didn't have the patience left to wait for the next one down, let alone actually take the stairs. To her delight, a hand darted out against the door at her words, and they bounced back open. She breathed a sigh of relief as she finally reached them, ready to sing her mystery savior's praises -- that is, until she saw who was standing in the back of the elevator, and her eyes widened; she'd be lying if she said she didn't seriously consider braving five flights of stairs just to reach the ground floor undisturbed.
"Oh, I-- Meredith..." Bentley's voice trailed off, surprised, as she stepped hesitantly into the elevator, keeping her distance from him even in the small space. "Hey."
"Secretary Bentley." She only acknowledged him, not meeting his eyes as the elevator doors finally closed. He glanced over at her with an eyebrow raised at that, though, almost surprised that 'Thomas' had somehow reverted to 'Secretary Bentley' in just the past few weeks, but he couldn't pretend he didn't know why -- that was why he didn't say a word about it, especially since they both knew, and both wanted to deny, that they couldn't help but still think about the last time they'd met. The tension was heavy in the growing silence.
She could feel his gaze over her shoulder, could see him out of the corner of her eye, but she was determined not to catch his eye, looking instead firmly down to her phone screen, responding to Ella and Liam's texts from earlier in the day (keeping her brightness down, though, so he couldn't see those, either). She swallowed thickly as he looked back up, biting her lip as she glanced over at him. She looked back down for a moment, anxious in the deafening silence, eyes unfocused but toward her phone screen, but she figured she was safe to sneak another glance at him -- apparently, he'd made the same calculation.
She froze as their eyes met, breath catching in the back of her throat and heat rushing to her face, and he only smiled, waiting to see if she would make the next move. She was determined to ignore him, but it appeared as though she'd been caught. He held her gaze a moment as the elevator descended; it appeared she wouldn't be the first to speak.
She bit her lip, looking up at him as his eyes traveled down her form, grin widening as he caught sight of her pajama pants and slippers, and he raised a teasing brow. "Harry Potter? Really?"
She glanced self-consciously down at her Deathly Hallows pants, her face growing hotter by the second, and she looked back up at him weakly. "They're good books, okay?" she said, tone defensive as she folded her arms, fixed her gaze back on the elevator doors before them, and he chuckled.
"You won't hear me arguin' with that." He had to choke back another laugh as she rolled her eyes, letting out a nearly-inaudible huff. "Aw, c'mon, I'm just teasin'."
She scowled as she looked up at him, feeling more-than-flustered and far from entertained. "What do you want from me, Bentley?"
He quirked up a brow at her. "Really?" He paused, seemingly in disbelief, and she shook her head blankly at him, waiting for him to continue. "We just never gonna talk about that state dinner, then?"
Her face was now burning; she couldn't meet his eye. He'd finally pointed out the elephant in the room, and for once in her career, it didn't happen to be the one that belonged to the GOP. Just the one that had decided to sit directly on her ego and crush her spirit. "I certainly wasn't planning on bringing it up."
He sighed. "C'mon, Meredith." She didn't look up. "Alright, fine, pretend it didn't happen. But I just wanted to say that--"
That was the exact moment the elevator dinged as it reached the ground floor, catching both of their attention immediately. He cut himself off as the doors began to open. As they caught sight of the numerous people standing before them in the lobby, waiting to get onto the elevator, he glanced back down at her to find her looking up at him, biting her lip but her expression unreadable.
"Some other time, Secretary Bentley."
She exited the elevator without another word, and he did the same, although slow to follow suit. He didn't continue after her; he couldn't see the point. There was no way he'd be able to have that conversation with her in a lobby full of politicians, but his stare was still attached to her as she left. He really didn't know what to make of her -- but he intended to figure it out.