The consultant had brought it up toward the end of the vetting session almost as an afterthought. “You realize, I assume,” he began, “what accepting this position means in terms of your - availability to the President.”
Paul groaned inwardly. “Of course I do,” he said, casting a longing glance toward the window. He’d never gone this long without pull-ups before, and the inactivity was making him irritable. And he’d been sitting in the same hard plastic chair in the same hot and airless room, answering the same barrage of questions (yes, twice; not that I’m aware of; you’d really have to check with the doctors on call that day; never; a little to the left but not noticeably I don’t think) from a parade of seemingly identical and endless frowning, red-faced old men.
“What I mean to say is that you’ll belong to him - in the way of Vice Presidents.”
He frowned. The hell? The consultant sighed, clearly reluctant to delve into specifics. “You’ve heard, I imagine,” he began, “rumors. Haven’t you? Rumors of tradition, of ceremony, of the ways that things are done around here to ensure - to ensure successful future campaigns - a majority Republican house - responsibilities and roles that it falls to the Vice President to perform. Some of them are widely known. Others are not.”
“I’m fully committed to joining in the race, if that’s what you’re saying,” Paul said. “I’m absolutely on board with Mitt’s vision, his -”
Paul stopped as the consultant raised his eyes to meet his. The consultant seemed almost - wistful? Apologetic? Paul couldn’t be sure, but he found himself stifling a twinge of annoyance. I’m not a child. “Paul. Kiddo. Can I give you some advice?”
I don’t suppose no is a legitimate option. “Sure.”
“You’re a young man. You have a great career ahead of you. You’re on Ways and Means, for Chrissakes. Turn it down. Get reelected and plan ahead from there. You don’t need this.”
Paul laughed. He couldn’t help it. The consultant threw up his hands. “I know, I know. You’re about to be one of the youngest Vice Presidents in United States’ history and I’m just a tired old fact-checker who couldn’t make a go of his own. You’ll do what you want.”
“Is that all you need from me, then?” Paul couldn’t help himself from asking. If it was rude, the other man had been rude first and he’d been in this room for hours. They hadn’t even let him bring his core-stabilizing bouncy ball he normally used instead of a chair.
“Almost.” The consultant leaned back and rubbed his eyes. “Paul, I’m going to assume that what I’m about to tell you, you haven’t heard before. And I need you to understand that it’s not going to come up again, that if after we leave this room you try to mention it to me or to anyone else - I don’t give a shit who, your wife, your fellow Congressmen, Mr. Romney, anyone - you will be out of this race and out of your seat that same hour. Palin will look politically relevant when we’re through with you. Is that something we’re clear on, you and I?”
“Wonderful. That’s wonderful.” The consultant ticked off something toward the bottom of the sheet. “Traditionally, the President - takes - the Vice President upon assuming office. At least once, sometimes more often, but that’s really something that we leave to the President’s discretion.”
Paul shook his head. There was something in that sentence he was supposed to pick up on, he was sure of that, but a day of questioning had left him fuzzy and exhausted. “Taken?”
“Paul, you’re a man of the world; you’ve been a congressional aide.”
“I really don’t see how that’s -”
“All right, then, I’ll spell it out for you, if that’s how you want to play this. But Paul, I’d like to remind you that I didn’t think you were ready to hear it and I still think you ought to drop out.”
“You’ve made that clear. And I hope you understand I don’t mean any disrespect when I say that only makes me more determined to hold that position.”
“As Vice-President, you will belong - to the president - physically. Sexually. That’s the simplest way I know how to put it.”
Paul laughed again. Not because he didn’t believe the man - everything about his demeanor suggested this was not a man who’d gotten his current position by making jokes - but because he couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“It’s been this way since the Founding Fathers. Yes, all the other Vice Presidents have done it. Yes, all of them,” the consultant continued, putting up a hand against Paul’s increasingly choked laughter. “Yes, I’m serious, and yes, this will include you. I’m not going to waste my time or yours by waiting for you to process this information - there’s plenty of background in the folder we sent to your office this afternoon and you can review it at your leisure. It has to happen only once; but the President can choose to set additional terms, if he finds them agreeable.This is how things are.”
Paul, dazedly: “When?”
“So you can keep up.” The consultant smiled, a bit grimly for Paul’s taste. “Inauguration night, after the speeches, before the parties.”
“And the others - they know?”
“All involved parties and relevant staff have been briefed on procedure.”
“But everyone doesn’t - they wouldn’t all know - when I accept the nomination, would people - would Congresspeople -”
The consultant shrugged. “Have you heard anything?”
That wasn’t the answer Paul had been hoping for. “But Mi- Mr. Romney knows? Did he know about this when he nominated me?”
“That’s really not for me to say.”
“All right. Okay. I see. Okay. Okay.”
“I know I shouldn’t volunteer more of my advice when you clearly don’t want any,” the consultant said, smiling more gently this time, “but something I can tell you about Mr. Romney is that he’s not the kind of person who goes looking for a fight. I wouldn’t recommend giving him one. He’s a very gracious winner. This can be easy to underestimate. Don’t make that mistake.”
“And when he loses?” Paul found himself asking. Why are you asking that, why would you ask that, why are you even considering -
The consultant smiled again. “He doesn’t.”
When Paul left the small basement room a few minutes later, he found himself wondering if any of the surreal proceedings that had taken place there that hot afternoon had been real.
The next few days were lost in a flurry of activity - after accepting the nominations there were the speeches, the briefings, the strategy meetings, the wardrobe fittings (“no, that’s 6% body fat,” he couldn’t help correcting the girl taking measurements) - and Paul barely had time to think about the cryptic conversation he’d had with that odd, final consultant. He and Mitt hadn’t even been alone in the same room together, and nothing the older man had said or done suggested that there was anything out of the ordinary. He behaved just as he always did - patiently, courteously, with a touch of amusement behind his slow and careful speech.
When the moment came, they were in the hallway, and Paul was not prepared. They’d been discussing something about the timing of the speeches when the last of the aides stepped back into the conference room and Paul felt suddenly, stupidly aware that it was just the two of them.
Everyone knew but you, he thought to himself, his face burning the the realization that once again he’d been the last to pick up on it. “I don’t think it should be a problem,” he continued brightly, “if we move the section about education cuts toward the end of -”
“Leave the education cuts where they are,” Mitt said. Nothing in his voice was different, but Paul couldn’t move. “I need to talk to you about something.”
“All right,” Paul said. “All right, we’ll talk.” This was the smallest hallway in the world. How did people step around each other in this absurd hallway, he wondered. No room.
“Here are a few things this isn’t, Ryan,” Mitt said, stepping deliberately - and chest-tighteningly - closer. “This isn’t a joke.” Now one of Mitt’s hands lay on his shoulder, the other casually tugged on his belt loop. “And this isn’t a game.” The hand moved. “So I want to make sure that you’re paying attention.”
“I am. I’m paying attention, I am,” Paul insisted. A finger traced the hollow of his collarbone and he twitched helplessly, gasping. Could the others hear them talking?
“They told you what’s going to happen to you after the election.” Not a question. Paul nodded. “Good. I wanted to be sure that you knew - that you accepted it - that you were ready.”
“This is - this is why you nominated me?”
The words came in close and warm against the shell of his ear: “Ryan, this is why I ran.”
The speech began, and Paul found himself avoiding eye contact, wresting his thumbs together and staring at the patch of lineoleum in front of his wingtips. He did, however, find himself acutely aware of every move the speaker made - every time Mitt’s hand landed on the podium in a resounding thump - every stride toward or away from the front of the stage, every pleat in his khakis - as if he were invisibly tethered to Mitt’s every move.
The lights were very bright, and very hot, and it seemed to Paul that every single person in the room was looking at him out of the corner of their eyes. They know, he thought wildly. Or some of them. Some of them have to know. They can tell. He froze in what he hoped was an attitude of casual vice-presidentiality.
Is Condoleeza smirking at me? Paul jerked wildly in his seat, trying to avoid her withering contempt, and found himself staring into Janna’s eyes. Stop fidgeting, she mouthed affectionately at him, then closed her hand over his. Paul couldn’t breathe.
You can’t do this, he told himself. You’re about to be the vice president, for Christ’s sake. Have some self-control. He forced himself to look back at the podium - just like everyone else is doing - just look at his tie, just focus on the tie - have some self-control.
But he’s looking at me. A twitch grew and stretched itself out along his frame into a warm and pleasant shudder.
He is not, he is not looking, and if he were it would be in - in the normal way - the way that any president looks at his vice president.
His vice president. His. He found himself awash in a wave of lust so acute it was determinable only by the filthiest of protractors and shivered.
Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Think of something - anything -
He looked up.
Their eyes were exactly the same shade of blue.