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Thank you Lord

Chapter Text

“I’m sorry.” River says. “I really did love you.”

Payton watches as he lifts the gun to his head. How curious, he thinks. River has a gun. Then the world slams back into him and he shoves River hard, in the chest. It’s the only thing he can do.

River’s hand jerks downwards and to the side. The bullet still fires.

~

The bullet enters through the right shoulder, shattering both the clavicle and acromion. It continues down through the top of the right lung, causing a partial pulmonary collapse, and then the bottom of the left. Before exiting the body the bullet clips the seventh rib on the left hand side, resulting in a compound fracture and rupture of the diaphragm. There is instant hemothorax between the chest wall and the pleural cavity. The bullet ends up in the floor. Blood rapidly follows it.

~

River lives.

~

Payton doesn’t see him again. The paramedics arrive in a blaze of blue and light and River is immediately airlifted to a major trauma centre in LA, where he spends eight days in intensive care, and another fortnight in the hospital, by which time his father has arranged a private rehab facility in the Los Altos Hills, one that also does therapy and counselling. The last Payton hears is the family is moving, somewhere, anywhere, and that they aren’t taking visits beforehand. Astrid tries and is turned away, three times, before she dumps River by text. Payton doesn’t even try.

There is so much else going on. The student body presidency race feels like he’s caught in a giant pinball machine – especially after Astrid takes over River’s position as the opposition candidate – as though he’s ricocheting from one bout of insanity to the next. Fake cancer, relationship scandals, the Haitian vote…it’s almost a relief when Principal Vaughn tells him that he never actually won the cancelled election, Astrid’s pity vote carrying the day. Of course, then he has to survive not one but two assassination attempts and his father disinheriting him whilst his mother disappears over the literal horizon, but hey, all the great presidents suffered misfortune right? It’s probably character building.

By the time Harvard rejects him Payton has hit a comfortable numb place that makes it so much easier to travel as far away as it’s possible to do so without leaving the country, and lose himself in New York, in alcohol and music in a way he gathers is vaguely traditional, almost a homage. He doesn’t think of River, not at all, not of his kisses or his smile or the way he would fall asleep in Payton’s bed after an evening of Mandarin and lazy loving sex, his face curiously empty when he wasn’t propping things up behind it.

Fuck, Payton is so fucking useless and pathetic for never noticing that River was on the brink. Some nights he still wakes up in a cold sweat, has to go and throw up and then scrub his face with water so cold it hurts, just to rub away the memory of those terrible awful things he said that night, so obsessed with his own mediocre bruises he didn’t notice the gaping wounds in River’s soul.

God that’s melodramatic. The sort of thing River would say. Does say, on the rare occasions Payton imagines him. Because Payton is too chickenshit to send his suicidal gunshot-recovering ex-secret-boyfriend a get well text, but he’s fine to hallucinate him on a sporadic basis for his own comfort. When James and McAfee and the others finally haul him out of the stinking well of his own self-pity to stand against Standish (god, puns, he really has hit rock-bottom) then Payton thinks maybe, just maybe, he can exorcise the last of the demons that River’s ghost symbolises.

He shouldn’t say ghost, not really, it’s not like River died after all. Though Payton sometimes wonders how differently things would have gone if he had.

~

Payton launches his campaign for State Senator, with his ace up his sleeve and his dream team at his side. He’s on the up again, back on the campaign trail, those white house steps finally visible again at the end of his path.

And of course, that’s the moment River Barkley decides to wander back into his life.

Chapter Text

Payton sits in his dorm room and looks at the assembled crowd. Maybe dream team had been too hasty an evaluation. He’s not sure many politicians have people who legitimately tried to kill them in their campaign teams.

His brain rifles through their profiles like an accountant through a rolodex. Snick-snick-snick-snick. He can do this. He can work with this.

Skye Leighton

So Skye’s the hot potato and also one of his strongest wildcards, all at the same time. Payton lets himself bluntly acknowledge the facts of the matter for a moment – the race vote matters, and Dede Standish is married to a black man. She has him trumped, unless Payton can demonstrate visibly and emphatically that he’s more than just a rich white boy with a rich white girl on his arm. Skye therefore needs to feature prominently, which she’s probably counting on, and could also draw in either the religious vote or the youth queer one (although probably not at the same time…), depending on how he plays her. A valuable asset.

She also tried to kill him, but frankly Payton has probably spent the last three years slowly trying to kill himself, so hey, maybe that can be a bonding moment for them.

Astrid Sloan

Payton isn’t 100% sure that Astrid is bringing him anything except the scoop of the century. She may not have actively tried to kill him, but he’s pretty sure that’s only because she didn’t get a good opportunity – he’s also pretty sure she knew all about him and River and has some evidence tucked away somewhere, and the only reason she never dug it out back in Saint Sebastian is because it would have disintegrated her own ‘grieving girlfriend’ platform. Although she did turn her own father in to the FBI for being a crook, which might carry some virtuous, honourable, self-sacrifice type spin if they ever need it. He’ll give it to McAfee to chew over. But otherwise: no money, no connections, no political nous above anyone else’s, dubious life choices on par with Payton’s own for the past few years and also: no loyalty to him whatsoever.

But. She did technically beat Payton in his last campaign. Fuck. She’s in.

McAfee Westbrook

K. S. Brooks once said ‘vengeance is one of life’s great motivators’ and damn, Payton has seen enough evidence of that already in his life to completely and totally agree. Which is why he’s sure a decent proportion of McAfee’s motivations for coming to him and James with this whole fool scheme in the first place is because she’s got a chip on her shoulder about being talked down to by Standish’s right hand woman (Hadassah Gold is a whole separate headache he’s going to have at some point – they need someone who can stand toe to toe with her and word on the grapevine is that Hadassah wears steel-capped boots and isn’t afraid to kick).

On the 'pro' side, Payton has no problem with vengeance as a motivator, and McAfee’s the only one of them who’s stayed in the game the past few years. Con: he’s still a bit mad about the sleeping with Skye thing. And McAfee may have come to New York with him, but he's about 73% sure she's just using him to get ahead...oh what the hell, the more the merrier right?

James Sullivan

Cons: an irritating tendency to always be right and then never shut up about it

Pros: an unwavering steadfast loyalty that’s kept him by Payton’s side the last miserable three years and that Payton will never doubt again for as long as he lives

Alice

Fuck. He can’t think about Alice right now.

~

Payton looks at his dream team and his dream team look back. Time to get to work.

~

“Okay, so firstly I want to say, thank you all for coming and standing by me for the launch of this campaign.” Payton starts. He wants to get the humility out of the way so they can crack on. “I’m humbled that you all feel I’m still a candidate worth backing-”

“I never backed you.” Astrid interrupts.

“I only backed you for my own gain.” Skye adds.

Payton sighs.

“I also want to make it clear how much I appreciate the open and honest conversations that we have, it’s a great sign that our campaign team feels so comfortable with each other right from the start to be able to say things like-”

“I’m here mostly from boredom, and a little bit for money,” says Astrid.

“I’m here for my own gain, and will drop you the second you start to flounder,” adds Skye.

“Would you two shut the hell up?” Payton yells. He wants to beat his own head against the desk. When he pulls his head away from his hands everyone in the room is grinning at him. Skye shifts in her chair.

“Okay, he’s back. Now we can start.”

~

James and McAfee take over.

“Okay, the deadline for declarations closed yesterday so we’re formally committed to a two-candidate race – great announcement speech by the way Payton, so glad you’ve still got it.”

“Thanks McAf-”

“But that means we haven’t had any of the preparation time that a campaign of this magnitude would normally need – that’s a con. On the pro side, Standish’s campaign hasn’t done any preparation either because they’re arrogant and lazy and we’re going to use that overconfidence to crush them.”

Oh yeah, definitely vengeance. But hey that’s great, McAfee is always on her best game when she’s out for blood.

James steps up. He has slides. When the hell did he make slides?

“We’ve had a strong start with the MTA issue, and that’s definitely going to be the cornerstone of our campaign. But we really need to run with that through the rest of our policies, especially ones most relevant to the residents of NY State District 27. Everything needs to loop back to those heavy-hitting MTA points – Standish has overseen no improvements despite her unopposed tenure, she’s thrown good money after bad, she’s become disconnected from the people she’s supposed to serve, her own wealth and privilege have been skyrocketing the whole time-”

“Are we really playing the money card?” Skye asks. “Payton ain’t exactly broke.”

“Actually I am.” Payton chips in. “I’ve been completely disinherited.”

“But we want to be careful how we use that.” James says immediately. Payton wasn’t exactly expecting sympathy but a moment of silence would have been nice. “I was rich and now I’m poor isn’t a strong line – the American Dream is all about doing it the other way round. And – sorry Payton – but the circumstances of being disinherited were weird enough that we’d be handing any reputable media outlet a gold mine, and a disreputable one the lottery. We’re going to focus on the student aspect, the underdog fighting the system, as Payton’s backstory for this campaign. Standish has her own reasons for not wanting to drag up personal lives too much.”

“At least until we’re ready to.” McAfee says, and they all go silent in acknowledgement of their ace in the hole. Payton has forbidden any and all conversation about it – if they’re overheard, and the story breaks too early, then they’ve lost the election.

“So what’s the plan?” Astrid asks. Is she – she is. She’s chewing bubble gum. Payton can’t believe his eyes. What has she become?

“Two prongs to this early phase: research, and excitement.” James is practically bouncing on the spot and McAfee has a twinkle in her eye. God Payton missed them. “We need to be hitting the streets, especially round Washington Square Gardens and up to Midtown. Find out local issues, small dissatisfactions, any old grudges towards Standish that we can shake up a bit. We need to be challenging her leadership of the NY State Senate in terms of her overall record but hitting her with local issues will fit Payton’s whole ‘underdog’ vibe and really entrench making her look disconnected.”

“And then for excitement, we need to be keeping the momentum around Payton going.” McAfee flips her hair over her shoulder. “He’s new on the scene and that speech got people talking, we need to maximise the attention. Especially on platforms that Standish’s antiquated campaign doesn’t have a hope of touching. I’m talking fan pages on Instagram – Payton, I need more footage of you performing, can you do like a jazz cover of whatever’s top of the charts at the moment? – but also I want Payton’s whole campaign – that’s us – looking young, fired-up, motivational…lots of grassroots activism stuff on twitter and Grebo.”

“What the hell is-”

“Oh it’s the new social media platform-”

“It lets you do video responses to challenges and campaigns-”

“It’s great for demonstrating responsiveness to the public voice-”

“Lin Manuel Miranda is using it to promote his new off-Broadway show-”

“So everyone’s on there at the moment and we want Payton trending before the week is out.”

James and McAfee finally stop talking, both out of breath and beaming. Before anyone can say a word Payton holds up a hand.

“Okay, I need to say one thing real quickly. James and McAfee, I’m going to need you to co-parent a child around the same time Alice and I have kids. Obviously I don’t want to say the long-term goal was political dynasty or anything like that – but if any future child of mine chooses to also go into politics then they’re going to need a political advisor of your combined calibre ready-made for them.”

McAfee goes bright pink and James looks like he might be tearing up. Payton puts his head on one side and smiles at them fondly. He can't trust anyone else as far as he can throw them but maybe he'll be lucky enough to keep these two in his life whichever way this goes. Then it belatedly occurs to him that he just announced his plans to have children with his ex-girlfriend who just ran away from her four million dollar wedding to support his campaign having barely spoken to him in three years.

He risks a glance at Alice. She’s smiling at him. Oh thank Christ.

“So. Gross straight people breeding conversation to one side, we hitting the streets then?” Skye slaps her thighs and looks ready to get to work.

“There’s something we need to talk about first.” James says, the brief moment of tears gone in favour of James’ ‘serious face’. Payton feels a curl of worry in his stomach.

Skye is also frowning. “Which is…?”

“They want to do pre-emptive damage control.” Astrid pops her gum and raises an eyebrow at the room. Payton reluctantly has to admit that this new look is kind of working for her. “I’ll go first then. My weak spots are – my criminal father, my hooker mother, no higher education to speak of and a lingering white girl privilege vibe despite waiting tables for three years.”

“Is your father still in jail?” James asks quickly. Is he – he’s making notes. Payton eyes the notebook. James better be planning to burn that once he’s memorised it. Payton will watch just to make sure. Any one of the conversations they’re about to have could be incendiary. Oh god, another pun.

“Yup, for at least another two years, so no worries about him popping up unexpectedly.” Astrid smirks. “My reputation is somewhat restored by the fact that I’m the one who ratted on him to the cops, and my mom’s now working as a counsellor for a mentorship programme for trafficked women.”

“That’s all workable.” McAfee says, James nodding.

“I left my husband at the altar.” Alice announces in her high clear voice. Her gaze is as direct and unflinching as always. “And the cost of my wedding would be incomprehensible to the average working man. I’m also unsure at this stage if my family will continue to back me or if I will also be disinherited for this considerable embarrassment.”

“But you’re still receiving your allowance at the moment right?” James asks. Payton can see he’s writing down the words Kardashian-style wedding drama in big letters. Alice pauses a moment.

“Yes. And I’m happy to donate it to the cause.”

“Good. Once we’ve drummed up more of a volunteer presence we’re going to need offices to work out of.” Everyone pauses to silently consider the cramped dorm room. Above them, Khai makes a snuffling noise and rolls over. They didn’t bother trying to get him out of the room. “Getting some financial backers will be a key priority for McAfee and I, but they’re not going to be beating down our doors until we’ve demonstrated we’re a creditable opponent and even after that we’re going to have to select them carefully, so anything we can use to keep ourselves afloat until then…”

“Of course.” Alice inclines her head. Payton is aware he’s gazing at her like a besotted idiot, but, well, he is so a besotted idiot so if the boot fits...

“James and I are fairly clean.” McAfee says. Tactfully, neither Skye or Alice say anything, and by unspoken mutual agreement the conversation moves on.

“My weaknesses are my strengths.” Skye declares, voice ringing with conviction. Payton knows that trick – it’s similar to the vibratotechnique that opera singers use. “The biggest stain against my character – and I still maintain Payton you kind of deserved it – I’ve worked hard to atone for through my community service time and work as an outreach pastor since. I would even go so far as to say that I am the poster girl for rehabilitation and recovery. So – I feel I’m pretty safe.”

“I’m bisexual,” says Payton. He does it very fast so the words can’t be unsaid, and the room goes very quiet.

“Well that’s unhelpful.” It is, of course, Astrid who breaks the silence. “Not gay? Gay would be better.”

“Bisexuality is commonly viewed as indecisive, greedy or dishonest, with bisexual partners perceived as more likely to cheat or simply lying before they later come out as fully homosexual.” McAfee adds. “Gay is a much stronger political stance. Especially in New York.”

“I’m not gay.” Payton says. “I’m bisexual. If that’s even – look, I know it’s a cliché but gender doesn’t matter much to me, okay? It’s always – always been about the person.”

“How many male sexual partners have you had?” James asks. He’s put the pen down. This doesn’t go in the notebook.

“Four.” Payton says. “But only – only one of them had feelings involved.”

No one says anything. Nothing needs to be said. The name hangs in the air like a guillotine. Astrid is looking at the floor.

“Who were the other three? Will they cause a problem?”

“No – they – no. Two were...” God, this is humiliating. Payton feels the heat creep up his neck. Can’t he go back to grovelling about being a drunk? “Two were back alley fumbles. They didn’t know my name, probably couldn’t even pick me out of a line up. The other one…should be fine. I’ll look into it privately.”

McAfee has crossed her arms over her chest. She’s mad that he gave a couple of guys blowjobs in the back of an alley, as though at the time Payton had thought he had anything to protect, any future worth worrying about. “Anything else? What about girls? Or kinks?”

“He’s fairly vanilla.” James says. Payton gives him a look. “Or at least by Capitol Hill standards. Nothing hardcore – a bit of light d/s stuff, he likes going down on his partners quite a lot, bit of a praise kink.” He finally seems to realise that now everyone in the room is giving him a look. “What? Payton never learnt to clear his search history.”

“So he doesn’t just dress like a grandpa but acts like one too?” Skye says with a groan. Payton waves a hand to shut her up.

“You go through my porn?” He demands. Astrid now has a grin on her face like the cat that caught the canary. “You announce my tastes in porn?”

“They’re very vanilla.” McAfee says, almost –

Payton glares at her too. “You’re disapproving of my tastes in porn?!”

“If we could all focus?” asks Alice, cutting through the babble. There’s the very faintest pink blush to her cheeks. “So any potential sex scandal of Payton’s will be linked to his interest in men rather than anything more…exotic. Is it worth announcing his bisexuality from the start? Otherwise it will have to be concealed completely. The unfortunate stigma – that of duplicity and dishonesty – will otherwise be very much at odds with the campaign we hope to run.”

“Can you do that?” James demands, looking at Payton. They’re all looking at Payton. It feels like a brand when once it would have felt like soaring. “Can you never be with a man again?”

“Yes.” Payton gives the answer easily, without hesitation. For the chance to have Alice back at his side? Not a question. There’s no other man who’s ever come close to his feelings for her, apart from…and after all, it’s not like River is going to wander back into this life is he.

Later, Payton will remember this moment, and smack himself in the face for it.

“Okay. That’s the line then. Payton’s straight.” James has a note of finality in his voice, although Skye is looking irritated.

“So I hope you all realise how the idea of someone concealing their sexuality due to society’s prejudices is completely at odds with my own personal platform and principles. But also, can someone please teach Payton how to be smart online? Even if he’s white boy vanilla, that’s still a news scandal waiting to happen.”

“We do need tech input.” McAfee says to James. “I don’t think Standish or Gold even know what Instagram is, but they might hire someone intelligent eventually. We need our platforms and main campaign site as protected as possible, let alone as slick as possible.”

“I can help with that,” comes a yawning voice, and they all twist upwards as Khai slumps over the edge of his bed. His hair is sticking up in all directions and he’s got a pillow crease down the side of his face, but Payton knows everyone in the room well enough to be able to tell – they all still think he’s hot. “The tech stuff I mean.”

“I’m sorry, who is he?” Skye demands. Khai blows her a kiss.

“Khai Zhi, at your service. And man, you guys strategize really loudly.”

“Is he a problem? Is this a leak?” McAfee is glaring at James like she wants to set him on fire. Payton and James can only shrug helplessly. It’s Khai. Khai is...Khai.

“So, that’s settled. I’ll do your tech stuff. Give me a list of the stuff you don’t want hacked, we can talk websites later.” Khai waves a hand, rolls over, and to all intents and purposes appears to go straight back to sleep. Payton offers a hopefully charmingly-helpless smile to Alice, who just smiles back serenely. McAfee and James are having a hissing conversation in the corner and finally seem to settle whatever they’re snarking about.

“Right. Is there anything else we need to know at this stage? Otherwise we have a lot of legwork to do.”

“We talked about future scandals. What about past ones?” This is from Astrid, still in her corner. She doesn’t seem to be chewing gum anymore. If Payton finds that under a seat he will scrape it off and make her swallow it. He knows what’s coming too. “You know, the whole ‘fake cancer’ thing, police custody thing, stealing my boy-”

“I didn’t steal anyone who didn’t want to be stolen!” Payton snaps, and then wants to hit himself as Alice’s face goes tight and closed-off. Damnit. He knows how much Astrid riles him up, why does he always let her loosen his tongue like that. He just – he just can’t bear hearing anything bad said about River, even after all this time. “And – and the police custody thing was for your fake abduction anyway!”

“Do you think Infinity would be willing to come out in support of Payton if we ever needed her to?” McAfee asks Skye, who pulls a face and shrugs.

“Maybe. His mum did donate an extremely large amount of money to victims of Munchausens by Proxy. So she kinda owes us one. Also after trash-talking him in that Vanity Fair article.”

“Anything else? Anything else at all over the last three years?” Payton opens his mouth to answer and then realises McAfee is asking James instead of him – James, who is answering without even a glance at Payton.

“No, not really, apart from the drinking, but Khai and I were the only ones who saw it when it was really bad. And he’s back on the wagon fine. I kept an eye on everything else. Mainly he was just sad.”

Mainly he was just sad. The words chime off something inside Payton, knock something loose with a shudder. He’s not sure what it was, he’ll have to have a look later, but right now he can only gape at James a little helplessly.

“You sound like you’ve been keeping track.”

James just looks at him. “I have been. You’re the only one who lost faith in you Payton. Everyone else here’s been expecting this call for years.”

They’re all looking at him, and maybe if it doesn’t feel like soaring yet then at least it doesn’t feel like a brand anymore. Payton feels the weight of their expectations settle back onto his shoulders like a blanket. He’s heard that most people don’t like that weight, find it exhausting or suffocating, but to Payton it always felt comforting, like if people expected important things of him then that meant he was important to them, that he mattered. Like River, who’d always believed that he would change the world. What even was that? Change the world. God River could be melodramatic sometimes. But in terms of faith…there was no one who’d believed in Payton more.

But River was gone now, living his best life in some Swedish chalet or British castle or hell, probably meditating in a Nepalese Buddhist temple for all any of them knew, and it was the people in this room who had faith in Payton now. Some of them might stab him in the back the second the opportunity arose, but they still thought he was worth sticking around for.

“Then I thank you all for your support,” he says formally, and this time no one makes fun of him. “And I swear to you I will do my utmost to be worthy of it.”

There are nods and smiles all round, and then James and McAfee take back over, their double act as effortless as though they've spent every moment of the last three years still side by side, and then they’re handing out assignments and Grebo handles and the team is splitting up to go lay the groundwork for Payton taking over the world. Or at least the 27th District of it.

God, it feels good to be back.

Chapter Text

It’s two and half months until the primary. Less than ten weeks. That’s all the time they have to convince the residents of the 27th District that Payton is a better candidate than Dede Standish. Once they’ve done that, they have to convince them that they’ll he’ll also be a better candidate than the Republican’s one, which at the moment is…no one. But the second the Republicans realise that Standish is vulnerable and that they could potentially knock out not just the Senate Leader but also break the trifecta, then they’ll be throwing all their muscle – and money, let’s not forget the money that Payton’s team definitely doesn’t have right now – behind the strongest candidate they can find. Payton feels a headache coming on. He does a breathing exercise to calm down. Four breaths in, four breaths out, works like a charm.

One thing at a time Payton. Focus on the primary.

“We’re goddamn lucky they abandoned the closed primary process four years ago.” McAfee mutters, pouring over voter demographics. “We would be stuffed if the Democratic nomination was left up to just the formally registered members.”

“Would you believe Standish herself actually agreed it should be opened up?” James said. “Said she was tired of running unopposed. And now we actually benefit from an open process. I imagine a lot of Republicans will grab a Democrat ballot and cast a vote for you to benefit whoever their candidate ends up being.”

“Can we not talk about the Republican candidate for a bit?” Payton asks. “Or you two can plan away but – just let me focus on Standish, okay?”

His lieutenants accept this easily enough. They’ve always done most of the forward planning, so that Payton could focus on being with voters in the moment. Payton watches them scribble and wonders if there’s a polite way he can ask for them to get the hell out of his room.

“Guys, would you mind – can I have the room to myself for a bit please? I need to meditate.”

“Sure thing Payton.”

“No problem.”

And just like that they’re gone. Christ, Payton really has forgotten what it’s like to be a person that other people look up to. Character building, everything he went through was character building, he has to remember that.

Ugh, being humble is tiring. Payton almost misses his old existential crises about whether or not he’s a good person, lying in bed with River debating morality and philosophy and the nature of altruism in relation to egoism. Well, Payton debating, River lying there with his eyes closed and his face turned up to the last streaks of the evening sun, usually just before he’d interrupt Payton’s ramble with some devastatingly insightful comment.

God, Payton misses him so much it aches. Sometimes – in some terrible deep dark part of his soul – sometimes Payton wishes that River had actually died, had succeeded in taking his own life that day. Because if River had died then Payton would have had a boundary to his grief, could have enclosed his mourning within the knowledge that it was fixed and unchanging. There is nothing quite as devastating as the idea that he wasn’t brave enough to go after River, or that River never forgave him enough to come back. Nothing quite as devastating as the thought that one day one of them might be brave enough or forgiving enough. Nothing quite as devastating as hope.

River is alive. Alive when he nearly died. That’s all that should matter to Payton. But it isn’t.

“You alright down there man?”

“Christ, fuck, Khai – I’m going to put a bell on you!”

“Not my fault you always forget I’m here. Remember back at the start of term when all you and James did was complain I snored too loud? Don’t even notice it now do you.”

Payton has to laugh. He hasn’t noticed Khai’s snoring in months. He probably wouldn’t be able to sleep without it now, his very own background-noise machine. River used to snore too, deep heaving exhales that sounded like surf on the seashore.

God, Payton really needs to stop thinking about River. It’s everyone appearing like this on his doorstep, it’s stirred him up, he’s moping like a Brontë character.

(Payton definitely does not think about the fact that he’s never stopped thinking about River, not one day in the past three years.)

Khai is swinging down from the top bunk, muscles moving easily under his thin white t-shirt. Payton gives him a helpless once-over and Khai catches the end of it as he flops down on James’ bed. He grins at Payton.

“So. Any reason you didn’t tell your gang that I’m the other guy you screwed around with?”

“They’re not my – they’re my campaign team, okay?”

“Campaign team.” Khai laughs. “I love you Payton, I really do.”

“Oh shut up.” But Payton is grinning as well. Khai has an easiness to him that isn’t like anyone else that Payton knows, not even –

Oh for god’s sake.

“Want another go?” Payton asks recklessly. Anything, anything, to get this goddamn ghost out of his head. Khai frowns at him.

“Thought you promised your girl never again?”

Payton had forgotten. Jesus Christ he’s been out of the game too long to mess up so quickly, so stupidly, so –

“Fuck.”

“That was some quick backtracking.”

“Shut up. It’s just – fuck. I don’t know. That was stupid of me. Sorry, Khai.”

“No problem.” Khai shrugs. “I had a good time – several good times. I’d happily have another round, but I’d rather be a good mate then a good lay. And…” the casualness slips away and he’s watching Payton with dark eyes, a steel core to him that’s the reason he has Payton and James’ trust even if they’re not quite sure why, that makes him top of his Computer Sciences class. “I don’t fancy sleeping with someone who’s got another name coming first on their lips.”

Payton can’t pretend he’s talking about Alice. He goes to say something and then just shrugs helplessly. It’s true after all. Khai nods as though they’ve settled the matter and rises to his feet in one easy motion. Goddamn these athletic jock types.

“So if you’re busy with all this campaigning stuff does that mean you’re not doing your usual gig anymore? I had some friends coming along on Friday to hear you play.”

“Ah sorry, no, probably not for a while. I hear they’ve already replaced me though, you should definitely still go along. That bar’s given me enough free drinks that I still owe them a crowd.”

“Always giving back Payton.” Khai gives another laugh and claps Payton on the shoulder. The easy acceptance makes his heart stop pounding for the first time in days. “Make sure you don’t stop performing though – I know how much it means to you.”

That’s true. And McAfee did say she wanted videos of him. Preferably ones where you didn’t see him sway drunkenly when he finished his set. And Payton’s campaign needs him to come across as a hard-working underdog so it might be worth keeping a few gigs…Payton can feel the reasons stacking up in his head, justifications to present to James and McAfee. Geez, can’t he just admit that he doesn’t want to stop playing? It’s good for him. Payton sometimes has trouble staying connected to his emotions, and music gives you permission to feel.

Payton can’t quite remember who told him that, but he always liked it.

“Thanks Khai. And – Khai –”

“Don’t insult me man. I won’t tell anyone. Hey, I’d get disowned too if that’s the reassurance you need.”

Payton feels a little bit of shame but mostly relief. He nods and bumps shoulders with Khai as he stands. Everyone else is an old friend (read: ally or ex-enemy), it’s good to feel like the new ones are there for him too.

But damn, he’s going to miss the sex.

~

“Standish has made her first move.”

James and Alice come rushing over to the café table where Payton is sitting pretending to study and really just watching videos of Obama’s speeches. The man has an effortless lilt to his delivery that Payton really admires and ideally wants to copy. His River-hallucination is keeping him company, clearing tables near the back.

“What? What did she do?”

He tries to grab the tablet out of James’ hands and gets a smack for his trouble. Did he used to be treated with more respect? Probably. How many times has he thrown up on James in the last year alone? Yeah maybe he deserves the smack.

“Did you really need to smack me?” He asks plaintively, just because. “I think you used to treat me with more respect.” James cuts his eyes at him.

“How many times have you thrown up on me in the last year alone?”

“Well, um…” Payton tries to simultaneously glare and indicate Alice with his eyes. James just smirks at him and slides the screen across the table.

“She hit us where our most obvious weakspot is – money.”

Payton flicks through picture after picture – the villages, Hell’s Kitchen, Midtown – all covered with posters and flyers for Standish’s campaign. There’s barely a spare scrap of wall space left on half the island.

“She threw money at the problem – got all this stuff made up last minute and hired a massive army of people to put it up literally overnight. It’s a good tactic – she’s not lowering herself to acknowledging you; she’s just not giving you the space to exist.”

“I’m sorry Payton, my budget won’t stretch to something like this.” Alice adds sorrowfully. Payton is still flicking through the pictures, letting his brain work.

“Workers or volunteers?”

“Workers.”

“Zero-hours contracts?”

“Good idea. I’ll look into it.”

“Anything environmental?”

“Fully recycled and recyclable.”

“Toxic glue or – ?”

“Nope.”

“Campaign funds or her own money?”

“Undisclosed. We’ll do some digging.”

“What are we thinking as a response?”

“Skye’s got an idea, she’s looking into whether it’s possible, but it’ll be a few days away at least.”

“I feel we need to proceed with quality over quantity.” Alice adds. “If her name is everywhere, then yours needs to be where it matters.”

Payton nods. “Give me ideas.”

“There’s an MTA Public Hearing planned for Thursday. We want you to crash it.”

“Protest or audience?”

“Audience, but we’ll pump prime the crowd around you as much as possible in the time we’ve got. It needs to look spontaneous, like you’d have done it whether you were campaigning or not. We’ll try to suppress any official evidence and then have crowd footage of you break out online. Best case scenario, we can make it look like your voice is being kept down by the authorities – the MTA colluding with Standish to keep the money coming. Worst case, we’ve still got you in a crowd doing your thing.”

“Racially diverse crowd?”

“Of course. Astrid and Skye are on it.”

Payton can’t help himself – he grabs James’ head and gives him a kiss on the forehead. James waves him off but looks pleased.

“Stop that – no kissing boys remember.”

Payton snorts out a laugh and even Alice smiles. He’s going to have to put a full conversation ban on this topic as well, but for just right now – Payton never thought it would be something he could laugh about. He takes what feels like a full breath for the first time in – well, possibly forever, if he’s being completely honest. Completely honest is a terrible trait for a politician, he’ll have to work on that.

“Stop turning me on with your competence and I’ll stop kissing you.” He jokes. James suddenly looks straight at him, at him and Alice both, his eyes even larger than normal.

“Damn. Starting to regret I missed out on a threesome when I had the chance.”

Payton has nothing prepared to say to that, no remarks ready on the tip of his tongue and he feels his own eyes widen and Alice, is she – she is. She’s blushing, and Payton’s mouth is opening because apparently he’s about to say something although he has no idea what –

“Hullo chickadees. How are you all doing this morning then?”

Hadassah Gold is standing by their table.

She’s wearing a marigold-orange Chanel suit, AW 2017 if Payton’s eye is good and it is, and a crocodile-skin handbag that he’s 100% sure is real crocodile and equally certain that no one would dare call Hadassah Gold out on animal rights issues. Payton’s eyes slide across the table to meet James’ – did she hear them talking about threesomes? And then, hot on its heels and urgent enough to make both their eyes widen – does Hadassah know about Dede’s throuple?

“Cat got your tongues then?” Hadassah clicks her fingers at James and he jumps up to get her a chair. The rest of the café is moving on around them. Hadassah isn’t a public face for Standish’s campaign and no one really knows who Payton is yet – but they will – so they’re ignored, overlooked, just another few New Yorkers in the great heaving mass of the city. “Or is it possible that you require me to introduce myself?”

“Not at all Ms Gold.” Payton forces himself to recover. Alice has already beaten him to it, letting her eyes go wide and vacuous, playing the part of trophy wife to perfection. James is trying to slouch as much as his perfectly tailored shirt will let him, going for tech nerd. “It’s an absolute honour to meet you.”

“Oh, so that’s your type then.” Hadassah nods, not disapprovingly. Payton feels flayed open under her gaze. He has a full and proper respect for experience and this woman has crawled through and out of more political mires than he’s had hot breakfasts. Especially since Payton doesn’t really eat breakfast; he’s been intermittent fasting since he was fourteen. Good for the mind.

“Seeing through me already Ms Gold?”

“Oh no, I’ll give you enough credit to assume there’s some hidden depth. But yes…” She leans forward, smiles with all her teeth. “I see you. You’re on my radar, Mr Hobart. Did you like our welcome present?”

“We were just debating how many trees in the Amazon Rainforest were cut down to supply your wonderful gift.”

Hadassah snorts. “If that’s what you were actually talking about boy, then this will be even easier than I thought.”

“Well I’d hate to disappoint you and Ms Standish.” Payton goes for a sunny smile this time, California-roots. Under the table where she can’t see, his fingers are rubbing together against a small scar he has across the tips. A nervous tic. Terrible habit for a politician. “I’m great admirers of you both.”

“Good, you should be.” Hadassah is standing to leave already. Payton feels Alice and James’ eyes on him, urging him on.

“Wasn’t there something you wanted Ms Gold?”

“Oh yes, and don’t worry, I got it.” Hadassah gives him another full-toothed smile and Payton can’t help a comparison to a crocodile in his head. He suspects that once Hadassah Gold bites down she also doesn’t let go. “Sometimes it just helps to look someone in the eye, taste their sweat on the air. You remember that boy.”

“I certainly will ma’am.” Payton and James both stand as she leaves, as properly respectful as the political matriarch deserves – and then collapse back into their chairs as soon as the café bell jingles behind her. Payton immediately has a finger in James’ face.

“Okay, so complete embargo on that topic we were discussing when she came in. Or any associated topics. Pass the word to the others.”

“Agreed. That was too close.”

“Secondly: did you see what I saw?”

“She’s cocky. Too cocky.”

“I also do not believe that Hadassah is aware of the subject of our first forbidden conversation topic.” Alice says. “If she knew that her candidate had such a weakness as the one we know of, there would be more prudence in her manner.”

Payton steeples his fingers in front of his face to think.

“How long has she been Standish’s campaign manager?”

“Nearly sixteen years.” James hisses the words back across the table. Nothing more needs to be said. Payton has no doubt that Hadassah got something useful from them as well, especially catching them off guard, but nothing that could compare to their ace. He doesn’t really want to get into a slugging match with Dede Standish, especially when he’s likely going to have to face down a Republican candidate when he makes it through the primaries, so anything that could destabilise her campaign with minimal impact to themselves…

Payton’s brain hasn’t moved this fast in years. He lets his head slump back to the table.

“God I need a drink.” He says, and freezes at the same time the other two do. He lifts his head back up. “I didn’t mean that. I don’t need a drink. Three and a half weeks on the wagon.”

“That’s amazing Payton, we’re really proud of you.” Alice offers, her voice soft. James is watching him carefully and Payton tips his head to acknowledge he needs help.

“But, I feel like I need a drink. So, what should I do instead?”

“Sex? Exercise? Meditation? Colouring-in books?” James rattles off answers, Payton feeling his expression becoming more incredulous with each one. “Music?”

Music.

~

“I’m almost at the bar now.” Payton says into the phone. McAfee is somewhere very crowded and it’s hard to hear her response. “The manager said I should just come along and see if the new guy minds me playing a couple of songs. There’s normally a decent crowd on Wednesday because the drama soc finish rehearsals next door.”

“What are you going to play? And James brought the good camera right?”

“Do you think ‘Everybody Knows’ would be too loaded?”

“Yes, but record it anyway just in case it comes in handy. What else?”

“I’ve been working on a broken-down version of Beyoncé’s last hit.” Payton’s actually pretty proud of that. It sounds amazing. “And then I was thinking a musical number, New York and all. What’s the one that got like six Tonys?”

“Dear Evan Hanson?”

“Yeah that one. I’ll do the main song, it fits my range perfectly.”

“Great. And you’re changing shirts in between songs right? I need these to look historical.”

“Yes, yes – I even let Astrid choose my outfits.”

“Oh, good.”

McAfee sounds more pleased than he’d expected and Payton pulls the phone away to pout at it. Why is everyone taking aim at his dress sense? He says goodbye to McAfee as he spots the bar door ahead and pulls up his collar against the hint of an early May chill.

Then James slams out of the door and grabs him by the arms. His eyes are wide and startled and his grip is too tight. Payton can’t remember the last time he saw him this rattled.

“Payton – shit, Payton, I don’t think you should go in there –”

‘I don’t think’ isn’t a ‘don’t’, so Payton immediately shoves his way through the door, can’t stand not knowing. The bar is crowded, packed, and Payton shoves his way forward, following the crowd’s pointed heads and focused attention towards the piano at the back.

Then he stops and looks around.

It’s not just drama soc kids or the regulars, there’s people in here he’s never seen before. He spots his River-hallucination at the piano and Mike the barkeep has shoved a few extra tables in to try and accommodate the crowd. But there’s nothing damaging, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that would have sent James into such a tizz.

James appears at his shoulder, hyper-focused on Payton.

“Payton? Payton, are you okay?”

“What? Yeah I’m fine. What’s the matter?”

James gives him an incredulous look. His eyes snaps to the piano and back. There’s a gorgeous melody playing that Payton can’t quite place, someone crooning along to it in a deep voice. The new guy must be good.

“Can’t you – Payton, it’s River. River.”

“Yeah, I know –” The bottom drops out of Payton’s world. “Wait, you can see him too?”

What? Yes, of course, River’s sitting right there.”

Oh.

Fuck.

Payton feels like the world is turning in slow motion. River knows he’s there. Payton knows that like he knows Lincoln’s biography or the notes of a Major C scale. River’s still playing at the piano with his eyes closed and his fingers moving deftly over the keys but he knows Payton is there and Payton can’t move, literally cannot lift his feet off the floor to step away. He can see James pulling out his phone and the only muscles that will move are the ones in his arm that reach out to stop him.

“Don’t.”

Don’t. Just – not yet. Just let me have this moment, he wants to say, and James does, lets Payton stand there and listen to the rest of River’s song.

It takes forever to finish and is over in a blink, River rising and waving to the wildly clapping crowd with an easy smile, Mike immediately bustling in telling people to grab a drink whilst River’s on his break. Half the crowd wants to stop River, talk to him or buy him a drink but River moves through them all easily, declining offers without giving offense in that effortless but sincere way he always had and that Payton was always so jealous of.

He looks good. He looks the same. Same curls, the one in front flopping over onto his forehead. Same blue eyes. Same pink mouth. Same dimple. Same broad shoulders – oh fuck oh fuck Payton can’t do this, the last time he looked at River’s shoulders one of them had a bullet hole in it, Payton feeling the bones crunch under his hands as he desperately tried to keep pressure on the wound and River’s blood went everywhere–

“Payton. Payton, breathe for me.” River’s there, River’s there, holding his arms and leaning close so that Payton can hear him over the din and how can he be here, how can he be holding Payton, he’s a ghost a mirage a comfort blanket hallucination from Payton’s own soul, the real River is fucking thousands of miles away living a life that doesn’t have Payton in it –

“He’s having a panic attack, we need to get him out of this crowd.” James’ voice is low and urgent and very far away. River just smiles.

“No he’s not, he’s fine. His brain’s just going too fast, give him a sec.”

Payton is vaguely aware that he’s just sort of gazing at River’s face, trying to take it all in. He wants to trace the perfect cupid’s bow of River’s lips and also bite them, very hard. He starts leaning in.

James reaches in between them and shows his own hand over Payton’s mouth. It’s ridiculous and desperate and possibly the only thing that would have brought Payton crashing back to his own brain. Thank you Lord, for placing James Sullivan by my side, I do not fucking deserve him.

“There, see. He’s fine.” River’s still smiling at him.

“Payton there are about four dozen people in this bar, pull yourself together.” James hisses. River gives him a long look and then turns his smile back to Payton. God. River’s smile.

“Sounds like you’ve got a lot going on man. We should have a catch up some time, you can tell me all about it.” He claps Payton on the shoulder. God. River’s hands. “Good seeing you Payton.”

And then he’s gone, walking out the door with his easy loping stride and James and Payton still staring after him. Payton clears his throat –

“James, did you –”

“Yes I definitely saw him too.”

“Oh my god.” They look at each other, identical mirrored expressions of shock and confusion. “River’s back.”

Chapter Text

“Who called him?!”

“None of us fucking called him Payton, how could we? No one’s had River’s number in years!”

“Was it you? I know it was you Astrid.”

“Screw you Payton it wasn’t me. If I could get River to do something it sure as hell wouldn’t be coming here to you.”

“Skye?”

“Not me. I only spoke to the dude for like, a day, before all that other shit happened.”

“Fuck. Fuck, fuck fuck.

“Payton you need to calm down.”

“I do not need to calm down! I need to know how he’s here, why he’s here, what –”

“You need to prepare your speech for the MTA meeting tomorrow! Standish is in Albany on business so she won’t be there to refute it, we need this Payton –”

“Fine! Fine. But I need to know –”

“I know, I know. We’re on it. Also, Payton…did you happen to film those videos –”

“No McAfee I did not film the videos.”

~

“Do you think that’s fair? Does anyone here think this is fair?”

“Sir I’m going to have to ask you to sit down, you are not a registered speaker-”

“No, no, I’m not, I’m just an ordinary New Yorker like everyone else in here, everyone who uses the Metro to live their lives every ordinary day. Do you use the Metro every day, Director Everson? I hear you Uber to work and charge it back to the taxpayer. What about you Assistant Director Morales? Oh wait – that’s your Bentley outside isn’t it?”

“Sir –”

“So this Board sitting before me is proposing a new capital project – a vastly disruptive, hugely expensive new project – that will see them all keep their cushy salaries and their claimbacks for many more years whilst the transport life of the ordinary New Yorker continues to nosedive into a black hole! Who authorises this? Who allows this abuse of power to continue? I’ll say it again – this is not fair!”

“Sir, if you could come with me please, I’m going to escort you out of the building –”

“Let him speak!”

“Yeah, he’s only saying what we’re all thinking!”

“Let him speak!”

~

The Let Him Speak challenge has 8,578 followers on Grebo. Post a video or message as part of the campaign and let your voice be heard on Grebo!

~

“So it’s not finished yet but it’ll be done in a couple of hours, we’re going to keep the drapes up overnight and then bam! It’ll be like it just appeared tomorrow morning.”

“Is someone going to tell me what ‘it’ actually is, or should I just start guessing?” Payton says. Skye and McAfee just grin at each other. Whatever ‘it’ is he’s going to have to say nice things, they’re clearly pretty proud of themselves. He’ll get James to tell them if it’s shit.

He absent-mindedly offers Alice his hand as they step around some piles of garbage, and then jerks a little in surprise when she accepts it. They haven’t had a moment to talk in the last two days, not since River was in Payton’s life for a grand total of three minutes and forty-six seconds and then casually sauntered back out.

And now they’re down an alley near 2nd Avenue and East 7th Street, that opens out into a large space – an old parking lot awaiting construction – and damnit neither he nor Alice are wearing the right sort of shoes for this.

“Guys, this is Eric, he’s head of the crew working on our special project.” Skye waves over a tall mixed-race guy and they do a complicated but super-cool looking handshake. Payton feels a sudden stab of whatever the opposite of homesickness is. Martin and Luther used to come up with secret handshakes all the time and never include him.

“Hi Eric.” He says, offering his own hand the traditional way. Then he sees it in Eric’s eyes – that slight double-take of recognition. Eric knows who he is although they’ve never met before. He knows who Payton is. Fuck. Payton is grateful for his perfectly tailored slacks because he’s pretty sure he just got a little hard. There’s nothing that compares to the feeling of being seen.

“Oh hey man.” Eric’s voice is a little nasal with a strange accent that Payton can’t quite pinpoint. “I, uh, saw that vid of you at the MTA meeting. Pretty cool stuff.”

“Oh shit, you saw that? Thanks man. Lost my temper a little bit.” Payton rubs a hand over his head and laughs. Eric nods eagerly.

“I don’t blame you! It was great, some really good things you were saying –”

“Eric you dork, you recognise him from some vid and not because you’ve been staring at his face the last three days?” Skye asks with a laugh. Payton wants to narrow his eyes at her but he’s still playing the aw shucks card.

“Nah, that’s different, that’s different Skye.” Eric holds up his fingers and thumbs like he’s framing a shot, uses it to squint through at Payton’s face. “Too much focus on colours and shapes, you know? But now I know all this is for him, man, that’s awesome.”

“Yes, well, I’m really excited to see ‘it’.” Payton can’t stop himself from saying, rocking up onto his toes. He gives McAfee a look so she knows he’s not joking. Payton has always hated not knowing something. Fortunately Eric is already waving them over to one of the walls bordering the old parking lot. Payton hadn’t paid it a moment’s thought, scaffolding rising high with dirty grey drapes covering the lot.

“Here, duck under – there you go – I’ll get one of my boys to turn on the lights at the top, it gets hot working under the drapes but Skye was like, gotta keep the reveal moment precise, you know?” Eric yells something incomprehensible up at the top of the scaffolding and points at the dark wall in front of them.

A light switches on.

It’s a giant graffiti mural of Payton’s face, the angles picked out in abstract swooping shades of red and blue and white – nice touch Skye – but unmistakeably him. It’s bold, it’s unmissable, it’s cool –

“So this weekend there’s a festival in Tompkins Square Park and this road’s the closest line from the Metro. A few hundred thousand people’ll be stomping past and every one of them’ll see this.”

- and Payton would never have thought of it in a million years. Thank you Lord, for placing Skye Leighton by my side, I do not fucking deserve her. This is the perfect way to launch his campaign.

“Guys – this is – this is – Eric, man, your crew did this in three days? I don’t know what to say. It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Hey thanks man.”

“Skye…”

“Don’t get weepy on me Hobart, that’s not what I signed up for.”

McAfee is beaming, that familiar expression of intense satisfaction on her face, of pulling off a well-executed coup. Skye is grinning smugly, waving at others of Eric’s team as they appear on the scaffolding above them. Payton sneaks a glance at Alice’s face. She’s staring up at the wall. Her face is serene with conviction.

“Eric – I’m taking these guys to buy them all a drink. You and your crew are welcome to join us; I think it’s the least I owe them all.”

“Hey that sounds great. We’ll finish up here and then Skye can let me know where you guys are at.”

“Great.” Payton turns back to his team. “McAfee, tell James and Astrid to call it a night and meet us at the bar by the noodle place on East 12th Street. I’m not drinking, but you’re all going to.”

“That sounds like a promise and a threat and I am up for either.” Skye crows, flinging an arm around Alice’s neck. “Come on pearl princess, let’s go bond over something with prosecco in it. Payton’s paying.”

“I rather think that means I am.” Alice says, but she’s smiling and easy in Skye’s grasp and McAfee is coming up on Payton’s other side with her phone buzzing in her hand and god, they might actually pull this shit off.

Three hours later and Payton's pretty sure they’re doomed. He’s got no problem not drinking whilst they all get shitfaced – but god whoever came up with that saying about herding cats should try shepherding a bunch of drunken political Californians and hipster graffiti artists from one East Village bar to the next. Skye and Eric won’t stop making out and Astrid is watching them with hot eyes and Payton is literally terrified about what that means. McAfee eventually pukes up all over the sidewalk – it smells like maraschino cherries and elderflower gin and Payton is really confused about what she’s been drinking – and he dumps her off on James to get back to her apartment and then he turns round and Skye and Eric and Astrid are gone and Payton is going to have to lobotomise himself to stop imagining what’s going on there. He slumps down on one of the benches outside Union Square Park and just breathes.

“Thank you for not getting as drunk as the rest of them.” He says to Alice, perched delicately next to him. Early on in the night she took off all her jewellery and put it away in her bag and she looks curiously young without it, her lipstick mostly rubbed away and Astrid’s coat round her shoulders. Alice never really looked anything but perfectly composed when they were together. Even sex – before, during or after – there was a poise to her that Payton could never quite reach past. A lot of men would take that as some sort of affront but it was always just another thing he loved about her, the constancy of Alice Charles, his very own stone-cold bitch.

“I’m so happy to be here Payton.” Alice says suddenly. She’s looking up at the tops of the buildings, the snatches of the night sky beyond. “I always knew that I missed you but I never realised – the world looks different, standing at your shoulder. Did you know that? It’s like the light has a different quality to it.”

Payton doesn’t know what to say.

“Do you want to talk about River?” He asks.

“No, I don’t want to talk about River.” Alice says calmly. “I want to talk about Thad.”

“Okay, um, sure. What…” Payton trails off before he’s even got started, but Alice knows what she wants to say.

“Thad has agreed to a grace period before we decide whether or not to continue with the engagement” She looks him dead in the eye. “It’s in nine weeks’ time.”

Payton doesn’t need to ask the date. It’s in her eyes. The day after the primary.

“My parents have also deferred any decision about my position within the family until after that date. I will be allowed to keep my allowance until that point.”

“What – which way –” Payton doesn’t know how to ask the question. “Which outcome will affect their decision?” What will make them cut you off, me winning or me losing? What will make you break up with him forever, me winning or me losing?

“I’d prefer not to disclose that information at this time.” Astrid replies. Then she leans forward and gives his cheek a kiss. “I feel very happy about this grace period Payton, and very grateful to both my parents and Thad for allowing me to take this time to prioritise certain things in my life. Now, it’s getting a little late. I think I’ll head back to my hotel.”

Payton isn’t one of those men who can’t read a signal. He jumps up to help her with her coat and then goes to hail a cab. He and Alice are nowhere near the place where he’d be accompanying her back yet. So when Alice pauses with her hand on the cab door he can’t stop the querying look he gives her.

“Payton.” Astrid asks, just the slightest hint of embarrassment in her voice, and Payton immediately gives her his full attention. “Would you object to my seeking physical stress release elsewhere in these highly pressurized times?”

She’s talking about James. There’s no one else she would risk going to.

“Won’t Thad mind?” Payton asks, a fairly pitiful defence that Alice kindly doesn’t call him out on. He wants to be angry, can feel the sour churn of it in his chest but knows he has absolutely no right to be.

“He and I have our own understandings.”

Payton raises her hand to his lips and presses the briefest kiss there. God her skin smells like vanilla and camomile and it makes his heart skip a beat. He’s missed her so much.

“Then I could never begrudge you even the smallest comfort.”

The smile he gets in return is the only thing that makes the trudge back to his dorm bearable – Payton doesn’t have a whole heap of pride but the small scraps that survived his three years at the bottom of a bottle absolutely prohibit him asking his ex-girlfriend for the cab fare home – and at least he can walk in a straight line, unlike all the other nights he’s made his way back. His key sticks in the lock and he has to jerk the door open with a bang and a swearword, making the two figures in Khai’s bed sit straight up in alarm. Payton immediately covers his eyes with his hand.

“Khai! We agreed – sock on the door!”

“Shit sorry Payton, my bad.”

“Payton?”

He knows that voice. Oh fuck, fuck, fuck, he knows that voice.

“Do you guys know each other?”

Payton opens his eyes. River looks back at him from Khai’s top bunk, wearing only an undershirt and a smattering of purple marks around his neck and jaw, his hair a tousled mess and his eyes sleepy and warm. There’s a thousand memories clamouring at Payton’s mind, trying to get in, memories that come from deep in his gut and make him ache with the strength of them, but he won’t let them, he won’t let them in, not the softness of River’s hair in his fist or the firm strength of his thighs. His skin, smelling of campfire smoke and chocolate.

“Damn Payton, I had no idea. He was doing your slot at Mike’s tonight and hey, can you blame me, look at him.”

“Don’t worry about it Khai. Sorry I barged in.” Payton lets the words come out naturally. 60% amused indulgence, 20% embarrassment, a little lingering irritation sprinkled through. The way anyone would react. He rubs his fingers over the scar on the tips, desperate to ground himself. Don’t think about the smell of River’s skin. Don’t think about his thighs. Don’t think about how every second standing here was another moment River was back in his life.

Three minutes and fifty four seconds.

Three minutes and fifty five seconds.

“I mean – we’re just sleeping, honest, you’re totally welcome to –”

“No it’s fine, I’ll go crash at –” Payton doesn’t really have anywhere else to go. McAfee will be passed out cold. Skye is having a ménage-a-trois. Alice…is with James. “I’ll go crash somewhere else.”

“Payton –” River starts.

Four minutes.

Four minutes and one second.

Payton leaves and doesn’t look back.

~

New York Post

“Does Standish need to step up? Student challenger Payton Hobart rapidly gaining grassroots support in the villages ahead of State Senator primaries.”

~

They have offices.

Okay, so it’s a run-down ground-floor storefront near Columbus Circle, so close they’ve got the rumble and honking of traffic as background noise. But some contact of Eric’s got them hooked up to this amazing wifi and Astrid scavenged some furniture from god knows where and Alice found a little extra in her purse and had a sign made up for the front:

Vote Payton Hobart for State Senate District 27

Payton stands outside and looks at it. Eight weeks to go, eight weeks to restore all his dreams and aspirations for the future, because the Lord knows he won’t get another chance if he messes this up, these people won’t assemble for him again. Payton knows full well that Dede Standish and Hadassah Gold would laugh at him if they could hear his thoughts right now, and they’d be right to, he’s barely out of teenage years, only had his beard come through properly in the last few months, what the hell does he know about life chances? But Payton’s gone from wealth to poverty, had his lover’s blood on his hands, been poisoned twice and is a recovering alcoholic.

Sometimes he feels so fucking old he could cry.

He takes a breath, juggles the trays of coffee cups in his hands and kicks open the door to his campaign offices.

“Payton! Thoughts on gay adoption?”

“100% support and the entire adoption process should be made simpler and safer. We need stronger vetting processes and more open hearts.”

Astrid comes over to snatch a tray and pop a gum bubble in his face. “We’ve got another half dozen volunteers, friends of that Regulated Rent campaign group you tweeted about yesterday. They’re all upstanding-citizens-looking so Skye sent them out to canvass small business owners in Chelsea.”

“Sounds good. Thanks Astrid.”

“Oh, and I found a print company that’ll do us 50% off the first ten thousand flyers if we promise to use them exclusively for the first four months after you’ve got the nomination.”

Payton smiles at her. And he’d once wondered what Astrid was bringing him. “Is there anything you can’t get your hands on?”

Astrid takes a sip of her coffee and quirks an eyebrow at him over the cup. Payton thinks that back in California he never once really saw her look at anyone with affection. They’re not quite there yet, but maybe…“Nope. I’m your diamond in the rough.”

“And I’m his pearl.” Alice says, sweeping over with a stack of papers in her arms. “Payton, I’ve completed our financial declarations for the last fortnight. James and I have meetings set up all next week for potential backers – there’s still a great deal of timidity amongst them to be seen publically going against Standish, but we will do what we can. Is this my hazelnut macchiato?”

“It is. Can you pass James his latte?” The women leave him and Payton looks around the offices, filled at any given time with ten to twenty people now, activists, campaigners, curious residents and the odd lost tourist. He can hear Khai and McAfee shouting at each other in a corner, something to do with an API between software platforms, and leaves their identical black coffees on the table beside them. The rest of the coffees get dumped on the volunteers’ table for people to help themselves. Back in Saint Sebastian Payton’s campaign team was McAfee and James and the freshmen they bribed with cafeteria vouchers to put up posters for them. In New York it just keeps growing. Payton smiles and remembers names and brings them coffee with his own two hands and they look at him with something he’s still not quite used to seeing yet.

“Meeting room. Now.” James says, appearing at his elbow like the ghost of Christmas past. Payton definitely does not jump out of his skin, and follows him obediently to the ‘meeting room’, which is a circle of chairs surrounded on three sides with brown cardboard boxes filled with red ribbon – Astrid found them being chucked out of Parsons for being two shades too crimson and commandeered the lot.

“What’s today’s drama?” Payton asks, taking a sip of his green tea. It does not taste very nice. His mother usually sends him a care package every few months and she’s overdue – he’s hoping for another box of Bhutanese amcheka tea.

“Hold on, everyone’s joining us.” James says, and goes back to his phone. Payton takes a seat and crosses one leg over the other, idly tapping out a tune on his ankle. Slowly the others filter in, Khai and McAfee first, now sharing a croissant between them. Alice has somehow doubled the amount of paper she’s holding. Finally Astrid and Skye appear, Skye still pulling off her jacket for a small brunette woman to hold, in addition to two phones, a tablet, a box of badges and what looks like a small teddy bear dressed as the Statue of Liberty. Skye waves at everyone.

“Guys, this is Shirley, she’s stepping up to be my deputy volunteer coordinator. Round of applause for Shirley please.”

Everyone waves or nods and Shirley blushes a little, especially when Payton leans forward to make eye contact.

“Nice to meet you Shirley. Glad to have you on board.”

“Thank you Mr Hobart. I really – I really believe in what you’re standing for Mr Hobart.”

“That’s brilliant to hear Shirley. You’re from New York originally?”

“East Village born and raised.”

“Even better. Welcome to the team.”

Shirley keeps blushing whilst Skye ushers her out. Astrid smirks as she sprawls in a chair.

“Still can’t reconcile you as a babe magnet Payton.”

“Payton has a very wide-ranging appeal.” Alice says primly, but there’s a little smile hovering around her lips

“I’m calling to order.” James interrupts, which Payton is profoundly grateful for. “Can I get check-ins? Alice?”

“I’m hoping to have better news next week; as of this moment we are not in the most stable financial position. We have these offices for another month and can cover volunteer expenses, but for any further resources I will have to rely on Astrid’s ingenuity.”

“Great, we’re still broke, no change. Astrid?”

“Already told Payton about the flyer dudes. Otherwise right now I’m trying to rustle us up a catering company for McAfee’s hustings – for free obviously Alice, don’t freak out at me – and talking to some Media guys at NYU to see if they can swing doing a political ad campaign for extra credit with their professor.”

“What’s the likelihood of that?” McAfee asks. The formal candidate videos will air at the four-week mark, and they’re expecting to be hammered by the slickest ad campaign Standish can afford. Astrid shrugs and pops her gum again.

“One of them said he’d do it for free if I blew him.”

“No one, absolutely no one, is to exchange sexual acts for favours related to this campaign.” Payton says immediately. He’s like, 90% sure that Astrid is kidding. Okay, maybe 85%. He points a finger at Astrid, then at Skye, skips over Alice and hovers between Khai and McAfee for a second.

“Moving on from talking about sex – can we please stop always talking about sex?” James asks, and then waves away his own question. There may have been a very drunken round or two of Truth or Dare that Payton is fervently glad most of the others don’t remember. “Skye?”

“We’ve got about thirty volunteers all in.” Skye gives them a grin. “Shirley is my girl right now, she’s taken all the scheduling off my hands. We’re splitting them across the different canvassing streams James wants running, as well as posters, flyering etc. If Alice says we’re definitely staying here for a month then I’ll think about finding a few people to act as receptionists or greeters or whatever, make this place a bit more of a hub.”

“Good idea,” says James. “We want to do some stalls around the district as well – I’m thinking Waterside Plaza, Chelsea Market, Washington Square –”

“The Muslim LGBT centre on East 20th and 7th says we can run some campaigning out of there. And the Village East Cinema.” McAfee adds. “They want some shots of Payton online in both locations though.”

“Payton, you’re going to the cinema.”

“Yes sir.”

“McAfee, how’s online going generally?”

“Good, really good. We’re running rings around Standish. The campaign website looks gorgeous and is as tight as we can make it, thanks to Khai –” Khai looks like he’s gone to sleep on McAfee’s shoulder, which they all ignore. “And Payton’s got three different fan Instas. Grebo count’s up to eleven thousand and there’s a few mini campaigns sparked off our big one. And Payton got a named headline in the New York Post this morning.”

“I’m not just ‘the upstart’ anymore?” Payton perks up. Name recognition is brand recognition. McAfee sparkles at him with a flush in her cheeks, like a shark scenting blood in the water.

“Nope. The name Payton Hobart was on half a million New Yorkers’ front page this morning.”

Payton feels a tightness in his belly that spreads rapidly through his entire body, fizzing all the way to the ends of his fingers. God, god, this is what he was made for. James and McAfee are smirking just as wide as him.

“The Journal’s always had a good opinion of Standish, we’re going to struggle to crack them so we’re aiming for neutral coverage…but if we can make the Times as well as the Post…”

“I’m working on it,” McAfee breathes out. Her fingers are literally twitching on her phone. Payton turns to James, the final piece of his puzzle.

“Hit me Sullivan.”

“You’re polling at 73% approval and 17% disapproval, but that’s against a known/unknown rating of 26% to 59%. So when people know about you they quite like you, but most people don’t know about you. Hopefully that’ll change after this morning – McAfee, did the Post tweet the article?”

“Yes. We’ll talk shares after this.”

“We broke down those numbers a little more wherever we could. 81% of respondents approve of you taking on the MTA and 72% like the rest of your platform, although only 4 out of 10 people said they were ‘fully’ or ‘mostly’ aware of what you stood for. Big issue for us is that 68% of District 27 residents disapproved of another Democrat standing against Standish.”

“So they’re not against me specifically, but they don’t think there was anything wrong with her.”

“Precisely. If Standish’s team are even remotely competent – don’t pull that face McAfee, you didn’t meet Hadassah when we did –”

“– I met her plenty.”

“– then they’ll be picking up similar numbers and will be coming for us with disloyalty accusations, putting New Yorkers at risk to the Republicans, turning on our own people…”

“How are we countering?” Payton looks around at his team. “Anyone?” There’s a few awkward faces. Skye throws her arms wide.

“You sure you ain’t gay Payton? Because that would be one way.”

Payton ignores her.

“We can really try to push the wealth angle, showing that Standish betrayed the working man long before we came along…but that’ll be tricky, she’s done a lot of philanthropy and fundraising work.” McAfee adds quickly.

“Her voting record’s impeccable too,” says James. Payton briskly slaps his hands together before they can work themselves into a funk.

“Right, then that’s our priority. James is pushing ahead on the MTA issues, they’re going down well, but everyone brainstorm how we can serve New York Democrats better than Standish can – and sweep up some non-partisans as well. McAfee, am I still off to that interview?”

“Yes, definitely. The magazine chose a café called Chasey’s on Christopher St – they’re staffed entirely by ex-cons who did time for minor offences and are now trying to get their lives back on track. Plus the café is super cute, amazing backdrop.” McAfee jumps to his side as the meeting breaks up, everyone hustling back to their assignments. Khai tips over onto McAfee’s abandoned seat and lets out a snore.

“That sounds perfect, thanks McAfee. Do you want me to bring up the drinking?”

“We have final editing approval so yeah go ahead. It’s a good context, and better to own the story ahead of time. Astrid –”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m here.”

“Payton, Astrid’s picked out some clothes for you to change into.”

Payton glares at them both.

“Why is everyone criticizing my outfits all of a sudden?”

McAfee and Astrid exchange a glance. The rest of the team are all studiously looking elsewhere.

“Payton, we need to talk about your personal style...” McAfee starts.

“Personally I always preferred him without any clothes on at all.” River says.

Time stops, hiccups, and then carries on as usual. Payton can see jaws drop. Of course. Only he and James – and Khai – actually saw River in the flesh. For the others, it’s like the boy they once knew who disappeared in a gunshot has suddenly reappeared in front of them. Payton watches Astrid’s hand fly up to her mouth, and then something in her face harden. She takes a careful step back, moving her out of River’s line of sight, but she needn’t have bothered – River isn’t looking anywhere except at Payton.

“Right!” Payton claps his hands together again, beams round at everyone. It’s fake as anything but who gives a fuck right now. “Good meeting guys; could I ask to have the room to myself quickly. Yes? Great, thanks.” None of them are stupid; the team file past him without a word, only James shooting Payton a quick glance and McAfee glaring at River, and then Payton is dragging River further into the pathetic sound-proofing offered by a stack of cardboard boxes.

“Is this revenge?” He snaps, feeling like his heart trying to beat its way out of his chest. He drops River’s wrist like it’s burning him but River just looks at him with those blue, blue eyes, his head in that quizzical little tilt he always did whenever he was figuring Payton out. “Is this you getting back at me for being the most horrific friend in the history of friendships? Because if you want to out me I’d appreciate it if you just sold your story to the papers, it’s traditional and appropriate and will be a whole lot faster than randomly making comments in the middle of my campaign offices and sleeping with my roommates!”

“I haven’t slept with James.” River says, and Payton makes a high-pitched whining noise and puts his face in his hands. “And why would I want revenge on you Payton?”

“I don’t know, maybe because I was a shitty boyfriend and screamed a whole load of nasty accusations in your face right before you tried to kill yourself?” Payton’s got enough sense left to keep his voice pitched low, but he can’t stop the words from coming. He feels tired, defeated, when literally thirty seconds ago he had the low electric hum of purpose singing through him, making him feel alive.

“You weren’t a shitty boyfriend.” River says, then dimples. “Most of the time.”

“Oh god, oh god, this is literally the ghosts of my past coming back to haunt me.” Payton moans into his hands. “I feel like – what’s his name, the Dickens humbug guy –”

“Scrooge.”

“Right, right, Scrooge, I’m going to have to face all my sins and look at my own grave and then somehow redeem myself by buying a kid a turkey–”

“Payton, you need to calm down.”

“Don’t tell me what to do!” That was too loud. Payton has the best team – they’re all idling around the entrance to the meeting room, blocking any extra sound with their bodies and stopping anyone else coming near. Wait. Are they – they are. They’re taking bets on something. God. Payton has the worst team. “Fine. Fine. If you’re not here for revenge then what are you here for?”

“I’m here for you, Payton.”

Payton swears he can literally feel his heart stop, looking up into River’s blue eyes. God they’ve got to be past the six minute mark now. Six minutes of River back in his life and it feels like there’s not enough air in the world. What will he be like after ten minutes, twenty?

Payton went one million, five hundred and seventy-seven thousand minutes without River in his life and it wasn’t really living.

“For me?”

“Yeah, for you.” River holds up his ‘Vote Hobart’ badge and dimples down at him. “I’m one of your volunteers. I’m here to help with the campaign.”

Payton could kiss him and kill him at the same time. He just ends up gaping at him like a particularly socially-inept goldfish and then Skye of all people comes to his rescue.

“Heya River, long time no see.”

“Hi Skye. You look like you’re doing well.”

“Well, I’ve had an interesting time of it.” Skye says, and Payton definitely does not mouth the word poisoner at her. He probably needs to let that go. “But hey, looks like we’re going to be working together again, that’s cool.”

“Yup.” River looks around the offices with a smile. “I’m looking forward to it.”

“That’s great, that’s great – hey, River.” Here it comes. “Answer a quick question for me. Whereabouts have you spent the last few years?”

“Mostly in Shanghai.” River says with a smile, and Payton wants to smack himself in the face. Of course River went back to Shanghai. Skye’s throwing her hands in the air.

“I called it! China. James, gimme my cash. You and your beach in Bali can hustle on.”

“Damnit!”

The team descends into bickering over notes, Skye crowing loudly in the middle. Payton stares at them and wonders if his life is blessed or cursed or possibly both. River seems intensely amused by the whole thing.

“You’ve got a good gang over there.”

“Yeah, they’re – yeah. They’re really great.” Payton says softly. They’re also doing a fantastic job of pretending to ignore him and River again. All apart from Astrid, who was never that great at faking anything. Payton can tell from the little toss of her head that she’s hurting.

“Do you want – we can give you and Astrid a private moment if you want to speak to her?” He offers, casually gutting his own soul at the same time.

“Why would I want to speak to Astrid?”

“Because – Christ River. Because she was your girlfriend, back when –”

River just shrugs. “I’ll speak to her later.” Payton chokes down several responses and takes a moment to pause. His control is seeping back, steadiness being restored with every breath. He’s calm, he’s in control.

His emotions are nowhere to be seen, but that’s something to worry about later.

“I’d appreciate it if you could speak to her sooner rather than later. I need Astrid at the top of her game, she’s a valuable part of this campaign team, and I think your presence here will be disruptive to her.”

River looks at him for a long steady moment and then nods. “Okay Payton. I’ll do that.”

“Great, I really appreciate it. Shirley! Hey, Shirley, River’s one of yours right?”

“Oh yes, yes, sorry Mr Hobart, River only just joined this morning, I didn’t get a chance to finish his induction…River, shall we stop bothering Mr Hobart and take another look at the canvassing rota –”

“River’s been no bother.” Payton says with a smile. “I’m so grateful to all you guys for coming out to support me. I have to head over to East side now for an interview, thanks again both for all your hard work.” It’s his politician smile, 100% fake, the one he’s been practising in the mirror since he was seven years old. Shirley eats it up, blushing and nodding. River just watches him.

Payton leaves him to it. He has an election to win.

Chapter Text

We sat down with Payton Hobart, NYU International Relations student, who’s running against Senate Leader Dede Standish in the Democratic primaries – though it’s more likely you’ll recognise him from his amazing gigs at Mike’s Bar over on St Marks Place, where he regularly crushes the dreams of theatre majors with his gorgeous soulful voice and piano-playing!

Payton’s an absolute snack, with big brown eyes and lashes to make a drag queen weep. We met up with him in much-loved neighbourhood bar Chasey’s – link to donate in the summary below – and he let us snap a few pics whilst telling us about why he's going up against Determined Dede.

So first thing’s first – are you insane?

P: [Laughs] No, not at all! I just love a challenge – but, no, seriously, for me Dede Standish represents the status quo in politics right now, this idea that just because something’s always been this way then it will always be this way. And I say ‘hell no!’ to that. Dede has done a brilliant job in so many areas – but I’m not the only person who thinks she’s been losing touch in the past few years, and people are no longer willing to overlook the massive issues with the way New York is run just because someone’s been around for a really – really – long time. The people of District 27, hell, the people of New York, deserve more than that.

Soooooo….why you?

P: It’s not about me. I’m just the voice. Heck, I’m just the mouthpiece. You know, my campaign is entirely made up of volunteers? Every single person. Dede Standish hired a hundred people on zero-hours contracts – which I firmly oppose, by the way – to put up posters for her and hasn’t done a single meeting or engagement event yet. She doesn’t even hold open office hours. You have to make an appointment three weeks in advance to meet with a junior member of her – very highly paid – team. Apart from the unpaid interns she has doing her mail of course. Everyone who’s working with me is doing so because they believe in my platform, every single issue we raise is because someone in District 27 has come to me and told me about it themselves.

And what is your platform?

P: To make New York better! It’s the greatest city in the world…but there’s so many problems that Standish and the other political elite have been ignoring for years. The MTA is a travesty – billions upon billions of New York dollars being poured into…what? Executives’ pockets, as far as I can tell. But Standish doesn’t take the subway, so that’s not her problem. Rent regulation has completely dropped off the Democratic political agenda, despite the thousands of New Yorkers being screwed over by unscrupulous landlords…but Standish owns a five-bedroom Brownstone on the Upper West Side, so that’s not her problem. And the proportion of education dollars that New York receives has dropped by 7% over the last six years, massively impacting upon the quality of our schools…but Standish doesn’t have children, so that’s not her problem. You want to know what my platform is? My platform is: New York’s problems are my problems, and I intend to fix them all.

Damn, you’re not pulling your punches! Don’t you think you’re being too hard on Standish?

P: Not really. Standish has run unopposed for so long, I don’t think District 27 has had its fair and democratic process around this nomination, the way it should have had. Candidates need to be challenged, need to show they can put their money where their mouth is. Well, maybe not in Standish’s case – she’s got a lot more money than the rest of us!

So what challenges should you be getting?

P: The ones I rightfully deserve. I’m not here to play some political game. I know what it’s like to – to hit rock bottom and try to turn your life around, just like all the guys working here in Casey’s. I’ve had struggles with alcoholism in the past – though I’m happy to confirm I’m completely on the wagon now – and I was one of the lucky ones who had friends and family around who could scrape me off the floor and get me back on track. I do singing gigs every night of the week to help make ends meet. I take the subway just like everyone else. I’ve made bad choices, god, you can read about some of the silly ones online still, back from when I was in high school and didn’t know what I was doing! I’m just an ordinary guy trying to help people out the same way I was.

Well you’ve definitely convinced us. Any last words for State Senate District 27?

P: My last words are for all of New York, not just 27. You deserve better. And I promise to do my best to be the guy who gives it to you.

~

#NewYorksProblems is trending

~

“Did the bit about money land okay? I thought I worded it clumsily.”

“A little but it worked. Great play on all the stuff in high school, hopefully that’ll have taken it off the board. The platform part was inspired.”

“Thanks McAfee. She’s going to have to respond now right?”

“God, it’ll be about time. She can’t ignore you forever. ”

~

“And that’s my final word on the tax reform proposals I’m afraid –”

“Dede! Dede! One more question!”

“The state senator isn’t discussing the reforms any further –”

“Dede, any comment on Payton Hobart? The young campaigner standing against you for the state senate primary who’s receiving a lot of attention –”

“Well it’s nice to finally have an opponent! Though I would have liked one who was out of diapers…”

“What do you say to his recent comment that you represent the status quo in politics, of political elites who’ve been ignoring hard-working New Yorkers –”

“He said what?”

“And what do you say about the amount of Democractic grassroots organisations who’ve been offering him their support-”

“The Senate Leader isn’t taking any further questions –”

“I’m not worried about Payton Hobart. This city and I go way back, if New York knows what’s good for it, it’ll vote for the lady who fought off Steve Grubberman in ’08, not some Californian prep schoolboy…”

~

“She said my name. She said my name!”

“You’ll be in every paper in the city by tomorrow morning.”

“Oh god, oh god I can’t believe it’s actually happening. Wait – wait – show me that last sentence again…oh, god. Print that. Print that everywhere.”

“What? Payton –”

If New York knows what’s good for it. Don’t you see? When she says it, it’s clever, it’s a joke, an in-joke between her and New York. When it’s printed, when you read it…”

“It sounds like a threat. Like arrogance. Oh my god Payton.”

“Print it. Everywhere.”

~


New York Post

“Out of touch? Standish comes under fire for lack of consultation meetings.”


New York Times

“Opinion: Why taking New York(ers) for granted is a dangerous tactic for Dede Standish at the polls”

~

“Hadassah?”

“Yes?”

“This boy is starting to irritate me. Can we please do something about him?”

Absolutely.

~

“Hi Payton, Skye asked me to give these to you when you got in.” River says.

Payton takes the stack of files, careful not to let their hands touch, and definitely doesn’t look up.

“Thanks.”

“No problem.” River slopes back off to the front desk. Payton has positioned his chair so that he’s facing the other way, the front desk not visible even from the corner of his eye. All that achieved was to make him super paranoid that River’s doing something behind his back.

Goddamnit, how is anyone supposed to work in these conditions?

“Payton!” The front door slams open and James and Astrid storm in, scattering volunteers and residents like confetti. Payton drops the paper on the Campaign for the Humane Relocation of Subway Rats that makes him feel like his eyes are bleeding and gets to his feet before they bowl him over too.

“Do you have a suit? Black tie.” Astrid demands. She’s eyeing him up and down like her usual doubles partner got sick and he’s the subpar replacement being offered. Which is quite positive, coming from Astrid.

“No he doesn’t.” James answers for him. He’s rifling through the box of profiles he and Alice put together on potential financial backers. Payton was definitely going to get around to reading them once he’d finished the rat thing and then possibly killed himself from boredom. Oops. Can’t really make jokes about trying to kill yourself round here anymore. “He’s got a cheap grey Alain Dupetit that Khai and I try not to let him out of the room in. Payton – read this.”

Payton has given up on trying to defend his wardrobe. He flicks through the folder instead.

“Ezra Kagan. Kagan…shipping magnate family right?”

“That’s him. Old money – a lot of money. Democrat to the bone but apparently he just chucked Standish’s finance guy out of his offices, saying he didn’t like been taken for granted.”

“He’s refusing to endorse her?” Payton’s eyes widen and he starts drinking in the words off the page as Astrid runs slim hands over his shoulders and James speaks as fast as humanly possible. Ezra Kagan, married to Michael Kagan-Bowles, current head of the Kagan Industries Board, philanthropic interests include LGBT youth, CBD medical therapies and the protection of the White-Necked Alaskan Sandpiper. Reclusive lifestyle predominantly between Monte Carlo and estate in the Hampshires.

“Not yet – but it’s not a done deal the way it’s been the past six years. Word on the street is that Standish is coming back from Albany this evening to waylay him at a fundraising gig for some bird –”

“The White-Necked Alaskan Sandpiper, it’s endangered, they have a distinctive multi-octave mating call and only breed every two years –”

“Why do you know that?? Geez Payton – fine, a fundraiser for the piping bird, but if we get to him first…”

“God.” Payton stares at him. “I need a suit.”

“I have a suit,” says River. Astrid and James both jump but Payton just goes with it. River seems to have perfected the art of sneaking up on Payton and randomly joining in his conversations. Payton can’t quite figure out what volunteering River’s actually supposed to be doing – whatever Shirley gives him to do, sooner or later he always wanders back over to Payton’s side.

Astrid blows her hair out of her eyes and gives River a once-over, deliberately lingering in certain areas. Apparently the two of them have talked. But no one knows what they said.

“Yeah…I’m pretty sure your suit isn’t going to fit Payton.”

“I have one in his size.” River says pleasantly, as though that isn’t the single weirdest thing someone has said to Payton since…well, since River came over first thing that morning to have a conversation about breakfast cereals.

“I’m…not going to pick up on that right now.” James says. “Where is it? Can you bring it to us at the Angelique Remillard Centre on Lexington and 79th?”

“Yes of course.”

“I’ll go with him.” Astrid says, her glare threatening to singe the hair off anyone who has a problem with that. “If it’s a piece of shit I’ll swing past Martin Greenfield’s on the way.”

“We do not have four thousand dollars to spend on a suit.” Payton hisses. Having his hair singed off would be a minor setback compared to what Alice would to his balls if he upset her budget lines. Astrid pulls a face.

“I can get them to loan us one for the night…he owes my father a favour.”

“You shouldn’t have to call that in if you don’t want to.” River says softly. “The suit I have for Payton will be fine, I promise.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever, let’s go. James, get Alice to fix his hair at the Centre.”

“What’s wrong with my hair?” Payton asks, only to be completely ignored. Goddamnit. Can he go back to reading about rats now?

~

Was he the only one who didn’t have a black tie ensemble tucked away just in case? Payton comes out of the side room with Astrid – who’s dressed in a gorgeous emerald Rime Arodaky gown – tugging on the lapels of a suit that fits him absolutely perfectly, and sees his team changed as well. Alice is beyond exquisite in a seashell-pink Temperley number, whilst Skye and McAfee both have tailored suits in dark purple and cerulean respectively. James is wearing an Emma Willis shirt-and-tie combo that makes him look all cheekbones and jawline, and Khai has his dinner jacket slung round his shoulders like a cape. And River…

River is in traditional black tie. He looks like Bruce Wayne or James Bond, elegant and untouchable, his bow tie left unknotted around his neck and his heartbeat showing under the soft skin at the hollow of his throat. Payton wants to put his mouth there, feel it under his lips.

River is alive, and with him.

Payton forces himself to focus.

“How did you get us in here?” He whispers to James as they move down the receiving line. Astrid and Skye have already disappeared to scope out the place. Payton has Alice on his arm as they wait to shake the hand of Monsieur Bennedot, the founder of the Society for the Preservation of the White-Necked Alaskan Sandpiper, and another outrageously rich old New Yorker – this one a staunch Republican though.

“I lied a lot.” James whispers back, and then ducks away as Alice sweeps into a curtsy and Monsieur Bennedot beams at her and Payton, his monocle perched trembling on top of the smallest nose Payton has ever seen.

“Why, Miss Charles, how lovely to see you again.”

“Monsieur Bennedot, I am delighted.” Alice replies, her French flawless as always. Her accent is pure 16th arrondissement. Payton’s has always had a little more Breton peasant to it. “May I convey my grandmother’s well-wishes to you, and her support for this most excellent work.”

“Ah, the redoubtable Madame Archambeau. My most sincere compliments to her also. And this is?”

“Good evening sir.” Payton says, taking the road of least resistance and sticking to English. “Payton Hobart, at your service.”

“Hobart?” Monsieur Bennedot’s accent gets thicker, dropping ‘h’s like there’s no tomorrow. “I ‘ave ‘eard of ‘im, yes. The young man standing against Standish.”

“I’m standing for the people of State Senate District 27, sir.” Payton inclines his head. “I have nothing but the utmost respect for Senate Leader Standish.”

“Hah.” Monsieur Bennedot waves them past. “An interesting companion Miss Charles. Please, 'ave a delightful evening.”

“Thank you Monsieur.”

“Was that good?” Payton hisses to Alice as they sweep into the rest of the room. “Was it okay?” Oh god he’s sweating, he can feel it on his brow. James passes Alice a handkerchief and they pause behind a pillar so that she can pat at his face but it doesn’t feel like it’s helping. God, Payton’s been out of the game for too long, he used to do this easily as breathing but now he’s stumbling at the most basic hurdle, if he can’t match wits with a wizened old Frenchman what’s he going to do when they put him on a stage –

“Here, Payton – drink this.” It’s River, holding out a glass so cold the water is beading down the side. Payton grabs it. Ice-cold spring water, flavoured with rosemary. He feels his heartrate kick back down to a normal level and glugs the rest of the glass. That’s better.

“Man, you’ve really gotta do something about your anxiety levels.” Khai says. He’s leaning against the pillar, blocking them from the view of the rest of the room but glancing back at Payton to check on him. “Or your heart’s going to pop before you’re fifty.”

“He’s not going to have a heart attack.” River says, as though his conviction will make it so. When River Barkley speaks, the gods listen, Payton thinks, and realises he might still be slightly hysterical.

“It was fine.” Alice says reassuringly. “Monsieur Bennedot is catty but harmless. And I suspect he will rather enjoy a little political drama at his soiree.”

“So he’s not the rich old dude we’re after then?” Khai asks, and James shakes his head.

“We need to track down Ezra Kagan – even if we can’t persuade him to back us, just stopping him from resourcing Standish’s campaign would be a major coup. Where his money doesn’t go, neither will anyone else’s, and we’re at enough of a disadvantage even before Standish starts paying for things.”

“Old Jewish dude; money for us, none for Standish, got it,” mutters Khai, and disappears for a moment only to reappear with a tray of champagne flutes. “Here, liquid courage; all for us, none for Payton.”

“Arsehole,” mutters Payton and then smiles when Khai winks at him. Then he notices James and Alice and River all looking between the two of them and almost wants to go back and keep Monsieur Bennedot company again.

“We should mingle.” Alice says firmly. She’s right. It’s bad enough Payton’s group sticks out like a sore thumb anyway – he’s seen a few dowagers peering down their noses at their fairly loose interpretation of ‘black tie’, not to mention they’re thirty years younger than anyone else in the room – but nothing would be worse than to be thought of as not having the good manners for conversation. Alice slides onto his arm again easy as anything and Payton leaves the others to their own devices whilst he sweeps her out onto the floor.

They’ve made two circuits of the room, taking congratulations on the campaign from two Broadway producers and the owner of Chelsea Market and enduring a lecture on the dangers of splitting the Democratic vote from the aging daughter of the founder of the New Hampshire Issue. She has some good points, so Payton listens carefully, his brain slotting away rebuttals and mitigations. She’s eyeing him with wary respect when Alice’s gentle pressure on his arm tells him to make polite farewells and then steers him towards where the group has congregated behind another pillar.

“We really need to stop meeting like this.” Payton jokes, squeezing in between Astrid and Khai, though it doesn’t get a smile out of anyone but River. McAfee is holding court in the middle.

“Okay, so do you want the okay news, the great news, or the really bad news?”

“Oh god.” Payton rubs a hand over his face. “All of it, in the order that makes the most sense.”

“Ezra Kagan’s here, but he only lasted half an hour before cloistering himself away in one of the side rooms saying he had a headache. One of his aides is guarding the door.”

“And that’s the…okay news?”

“Yes. The great news is: there’s a massive hold up on the I-87 south; Standish hasn’t got past Orange Lake yet.”

“Shit. So he’s ours for the taking.”

“That’s the really bad news…”

McAfee jerks her head and Payton realises why they chose this pillar. A hundred metres down the hallway he can see a door being guarded by a typical suited attendant, and bustling towards him is…Payton jerks his head back round the pillar before Hadassah Gold spots him.

“What’s she doing here? Why wasn’t she in Albany with Standish?”

“It’s her grandson’s bar mitzvah tonight. Standish called her in twenty minutes ago.”

“Wait.” Payton pauses to frown at McAfee. She’s good, but that’s uncanny. “How the hell do you know all this?”

McAfee smirks and shoots the cuffs on her suit. “I wasn’t the only Columbia graduate they tried to take advantage of. You’re going to be hiring my friend Kennedy once they’ve finished giving us the inside scoop.”

“Deal,” mutters Payton, rubbing his palms together. “Now, how the hell are we supposed to get past Hadassah Gold? She’s not going to let Kagan get a word in edgeways unless it’s agreeing to fill the coffers again.”

“Hey, that attendant dude’s not budging.” Khai says suddenly, and then they’re all craning their necks round the corner to see. Payton can’t believe his eyes. Khai’s right. This random aide is standing up to Hadassah Gold.

“Are they one of ours?” He whispers. James, Skye and McAfee all shake their heads, eyes wide with admiration.

“Whoever he is, he’s my new hero.” James adds. They watch as Hadassah tries every trick in her arsenal, from coaxing to outright threats, and the attendant just shakes his head over and over.

“So, new good news and bad news.” McAfee whispers. “Good news is Hadassah isn’t reaching Kagan tonight; bad news is if she can’t get through there’s no way we can.”

“I’ll still take this one as an overall win.” James says. “Mainly because this is hilarious.”

Hadassah is almost purple with rage. It takes ten minutes before she gives up and whips around to storm off. Payton is shocked not to see stalactites forming in her wake. The aide looks like he’s only still on his feet from sheer force of will.

“Damn bro.” Khai mutters, watching him square his shoulders and stand his ground. “You’re in my way but you have my respect.”

“Hey,” says River. “Let me try.” Before anyone can say a thing he’s sloped off down the corridor and Payton realises at the same time as everyone else does that their dream team has suddenly expanded to include six foot four inches of literal Greek god with bonus dimples. They watch as River reaches the attendant and bends his head to murmur for a few minutes, then slips through the door.

“That bastard.” Payton says, with feeling.

“Thank god he’s on our side.” Skye snorts. Payton would quite like to say something smart and preferably cutting but his throat has seized up and he can’t quite get it to loosen. Another minute passes and then River pokes his head back out and waves Payton over.

“James –” Payton begins.

“Ezra hates crowds.” McAfee says instantly, Payton already knowing it’s true. “We can’t all go barging in there, it would probably send him catatonic.”

“Go do your thing.” James adds and Payton feels an immediate flutter of anxiety in his chest, six pairs of eyes focused on him. His mouth is bone dry as he nods and trots down to the door. River smiles as he approaches.

“Payton, this is Avery, he’s Michael Kagan-Bowles’ nephew. I promised him we’d only take a couple minutes of his uncle’s time.”

“Of course man, thank you.” Payton claps Avery on the arm, the other guy still pale under his freckles from Hurricane Hadassah. He grins at the sight of Payton though.

“You’re the mural guy right? The one who led that protest when they were trying to knock down Lipstick Legend last week?”

“Hey, New York’s lost nearly 80% of its lesbian bars in the past ten years, I couldn’t let them just wipe away another bit of history like that.” Payton grins. “Plus LL gave me my first gig when I moved to the city.”

“Yeah, I hear you man. My mum loved LL. Hey, tell Uncle Ezra that I reckon my parents would have backed you, okay?”

“Um, sure.” Payton smiles and lets River pull him through the door, trying not to flinch at the feeling of his warm hand on Payton’s arm. River always had such firm hands. Payton’s trying to ignore it so strongly that it takes him a moment to realise River’s pulled him into another room where two men are seated by a window, staring at him. One has freckles and a gorgeously cut burgundy dinner jacket with gold lapels, whilst the other has dark eyes and the tall bearing of military experience.

“Mr Kagan, Mr Kagan-Bowles, please could I introduce you to Payton Hobart, currently standing for the Democratic nomination for Senate State District 27.” River said formally.

“Mr Hobart.” The tall man says, his eyes piercing through Payton like a rifle scope. “Please make this quick, my husband is suffering from a terrible headache.”

“Don’t fuss Michael darling.” Ezra Kagan says. He’s a gentle looking man to be one of the wealthiest in the country. “And Payton…you won’t recall my boy, but we met once before, many years ago. Your father had a 1827 copy of Hannigan’s ‘The mating cycles of Euroasian migrating swallowflits’ which I coveted most desperately, and your mother entertained us so wonderfully for an evening whilst he and I haggled over the price. I gave up a bottle of 1975 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Cote de Nuits for that book…and definitely got a better deal!” He chortled happily and then started coughing, a sound that makes Payton’s brain flinch away from a memory, the last time he’d heard someone struggle to breathe like that. He didn’t, couldn’t, look at River. But it was clear that Ezra Kagan was not very well and even Payton has enough decency in his soul to put politics to one side for an evening.

“Mr Kagan, I’m so sorry to bother you. I’ll apply to your secretary for a time when you’re feeling better –”

“Nonsense.” Ezra Kagan flicks a hand at him. Now Payton can see the sharpness in his eyes. “Tell me what you want of me, only moments after Hadassah Gold nearly breaks down a door to get to me.”

“Money, sir.” Payton says, and hears Michael snort, though whether in amusement or disgust he can’t tell. His eyes are fixed on Ezra’s, whose are unreadable.

“Your father has money.”

“He no longer considers himself my father, sir.”

“I heard. Your mother is no longer in the marital home I understand.”

“No sir. She had an affair with our horse trainer Brigitte. After that she chose to move abroad.”

“Ah.” Ezra’s exhale speaks volumes and says nothing. For a long moment his gaze travels over to River, standing at Payton’s side. “Money, and…”

“And?” Payton flounders for a second. River shifts a millimetre closer to him and he shoves his guts back where they belong and lifts his chin. “And everyone to know it. Sir.”

The moment stretches and then Ezra throws his head back and laughs out loud, laughs so hard that he starts coughing again and Michael has to help him sit up and press a handkerchief to his mouth. Payton feels like the worst sort of grasping intruder, like the insurance guys who chase after ambulances or lawyers who serve papers at a funeral.

“I think you should go.” Michael says, and River is pulling at Payton’s arm again to get him to move.

“Payton Hobart,” Ezra calls, and they pause at the door to look back at him. “Your father is a man I hold a great deal of respect for. But not perhaps in this area.”

It’s strange. Payton has never really spared much thought for his father’s decision to disown him. But hearing those words on the lips of a man who looks like him, sounds like him, sends a shiver across nerves already pulled tight like banjo strings. He gropes around for something to say.

“I, um, thank you. Though I – I don’t begrudge him anything. He’s – I’m not sure if he ever fully considered himself my father.” What the hell is he saying? Even River is staring at him with wide eyes. “So I couldn’t blame him for not treating me like a son. It’s – well, never mind. I’m still grateful beyond words to him for every kindness he ever showed me.”

“Whether or not he considered himself your father.” Ezra’s voice is very flat. “He owed you more than this, a child under his care.”

Payton laughs though he’s not sure why. “Yes. Um. Thank you. And, hey – Avery said his parents would have liked me, so I guess I’m not completely unlovable.” There’s an uncomfortable half-hidden truth in that last flippant word but Payton shoves the feelings deep and doesn’t look too close at them, can’t quite bear to, not yet.

Ezra looks like he wants to say something else but then he’s coughing again and Michael is waving them out and River is pulling Payton along with him as they emerge back into the corridor and the party and the gorgeous expensive clothes and expensive drinks and expensive people that are all flashes of a life that Payton thought he’d left long behind, with a grey Alain Dupetit suit in his closet and a piano helping him to pay the bills and a sorrow held clenched-deep inside him so long he’d managed to pretend it wasn’t there at all.

~

“God my feet are killing me.” Astrid yanks off one heel and then the other before throwing them at the opposite wall, where they leave dents in the cheap plaster.

“Hey, we have to pay for damages.” Khai tells her, climbing back up to his bunk. The others collapse around the room in various states of disarray. Payton climbs up onto his bed on his hands and knees.

“Was this a successful night?” He asks the room, most of whom just stare at him blankly. River has stayed quiet ever since they left Ezra and Michael, and now just sits on James’ bunk opposite, looking at Payton with calm eyes.

“Well, we saw Hadassah Gold get thwarted, which is a memory I will return to on my deathbed, so whatever else happens I am content,” McAfee hums. Skye gives her foot a little kick and dumps a duffle bag on the floor between them.

“Plus the champagne was good. And on that note, I figure after the week we’ve had we could all do with a little more…”

“Oh, gimme!” Astrid is instantly reaching out her hands as Skye pulls out bottle after bottle. Where the hell she got the money from Payton has no idea, but she’s got grapefruit gin for Alice and McAfee and spiced rum for Khai and Astrid and a bottle of whiskey that she waggles at River with a smirk. Then she pulls out a bottle of ginger ale and hands it to Payton with a grin.

“And for our beloved leader.”

“Is it poisoned?” Payton deadpans, and the room laughs and suddenly they’re okay.

Half an hour later someone (coughAstridcough) comes up with the idea of Never have I ever and Payton has never regretted being on the wagon so badly. He’s got James on one side with his head on Payton’s shoulder and McAfee on the other waving her glass around every time she laughs, and Payton’s pretty sure there’s more gin on him than in the glass by this point.

“Why do our evenings always end in booze and saucy games?” He complains out loud, and gets ignored. Beloved leader, like hell.

“Me first, me first!” McAfee bounces on the bed. Khai makes a snoring sound from the top bunk and she waits for quiet to fall before holding up a finger. “Hmmmm…never have I ever…gone skinny dipping.”

Astrid and River both drink and Payton has to shove down a bolt of…something. Just, something. He watches them smile at each other, something easier in the air between them now. Good. Great. He needs Astrid at the top of her game. He really does.

“I’ll go next then.” Astrid says, and flicks her eyes around the circle. “Continuing the theme…never have I ever…sunbathed naked.”

All the girls drink. And River. Payton is starting to think he’s doing it on purpose. He drags his brain away and focuses on the time he walked in on Alice sunbathing in her back garden. From the look on her face she’s remembering it too.

“My body is one with nature.” Skye intones, and then dissolves into giggles. It’s slightly terrifying and Payton has to take a pull on his ginger ale to stop from staring at her. “Alright people, I need to know this for my own sanity…never have I ever…kissed someone of the same gender – don’t glare at me McAfee, I don’t conform to any gender, I’m allowed to say what I want. Now drink you bitches!” She watches victoriously as every single one of them drink. “Good. Thank god. I can still be friends with you all.”

Payton pokes James in the side. “Who did you kiss?” He whispers. He can’t believe he doesn’t know this. When did James kiss a boy and not tell him?

“When did Alice kiss a girl?” James shoots back and Payton decides discretion is the better part of valour when none of them are going to remember this tomorrow anyway, and shuts the hell up.

McAfee hiccups. She prods Skye with a bare foot. “Just cos…just cos they kissed someone doesn’t mean that they’re, like, queer. Queer-ish? Whatever. Threesomes are a thing now. Hey! Never have I ever had a threesome.”

“You’ve already had a go.” Payton starts, but Skye is drinking and Astrid is drinking and River is drinking and he sighs and takes a sip of his drink as well. Skye looks around and nods.

“Well I stand by my point cos I’m queer and Payton is bi and Astrid is badass so –”

“I’m gay,” says River, and there is silence.

“My turn!” James says loudly. “Never have I ever…thought Astrid was badass.”

“You have definitely thought that.” McAfee snorts, as everyone drinks and Astrid suddenly blushes bright pink. James frowns at the floor for a second and then nods and takes a drink as penalty.

“Also Astrid is the only person who’s had threesomes with two different sets of people in this room.” McAfee adds, holding up a finger as though she’s expounding on some political science theory. “So I think that makes her extra…um…extra badass.”

“Well Payton has slept with the most people in the room,” retorts James and Payton has no fucking clue how this has become a moment he has to live through because Skye is snorting in disbelief and holding up both hands and intoning loudly –

Never have I ever slept with Payton Hobart.”

Alice drinks. Astrid drinks. River drinks. Khai leans down from the top bunk to tap River’s shoulder and River hands him his glass so he can take a sip. Four out of seven. Oh my god Payton is officially the group slut.

“What?” Skye shrieks. “No way!”

“Wait, you slept with Khai? Khai was the third guy you slept with?” McAfee demands and Payton is literally wilting away under her glare but then she and James are exchanging relieved looks and miming wiping the sweat off their brows.

“Oh thank god. I was terrified that one was going to come back and bite us in the arse. How come you didn’t know it was Khai?”

“I don’t know, how did I miss that?” James frowns over at Payton who is busy trying to sink into his bed.

“Excuse me, how the hell is Payton is the person who’s slept with the most people here?” Skye is still waving her arms around in disbelief. “I mean, come on – Payton man, I say this with love but out of all of us here you are definitely the least hot and –”

Payton is nodding, agreeing with her 100% but Alice is sitting up ramrod straight and River is frowning and Khai is leaning over the top bunk and James and McAfee are opening their mouths to protest and Astrid beats them all to it.

“Payton is hot and you know it Skye, don’t even pretend you wouldn’t tap that –”

“He’s not exactly on River’s level!” Skye argues back, and Payton suddenly remembers that he’s technically running for political office at the moment and yelling about his sex life in a student dorm at two in the morning whilst on campaign is probably one of the stupidest things he’s done in his entire life. And he’s not even goddamn drunk.

“Right!” He says, letting his voice project through everyone else’s. “I’m sending you drunk losers home and I’m expecting you all in the office at the usual time tomorrow. I’ll have Gatorade and dioralyte waiting but the sleep is on you!”

There’s a chorus of groans but Payton ignores them mercilessly. He fetches Alice some water and orders an Uber from her phone but the rest of them have to sort their own shit out. It’s not until he’s come back up from escorting her to her cab that he realises that Astrid wandered off with James and McAfee scooped up Khai on her way out and now he’s standing in his dorm room alone, apart from River.

Fifteen hours, fifty-four minutes and twelve seconds.

River is standing casually in the centre of the room. His dinner jacket is flung over a chair and he’s standing barefoot in tailored black pants and a white shirt, his hair a tousled mess falling over his forehead and he’s so beautiful Payton can’t breathe.

“River,” he starts, and then can’t make another sound. River turns to him properly and Payton stumbles closer till they’re only a metre apart.

“I think everyone thought it would be good if we had a chat.” River says calmly, and Payton feels a little air escape out of him, a little breath escape that he didn’t know he was holding. Oh. Of course, this was planned. River wouldn’t be standing here if someone wasn't making him.

“They’re probably right.” He manages to get out. “Though I still want to know which one of them called you here in the first place.”

River actually laughs. “Why does everything have to be a conspiracy Payton? I had a google alert set up for you on my phone. I always knew you’d start campaigning again someday.”

“Oh.” Payton just stares at him helplessly. Then a memory resurfaces out of the drunken shambles of the night. “Are you…you’re not gay, River.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because you were with Astrid for years –”

“Fourteen months. And at most that makes me bi. But I’m gay.”

“How would you – who have you –” Payton can’t make his brain work right to ask. The furiously bubbling pit of jealousy in his stomach might also have something to do with it. “So, what, you slept with Khai and now you’re gay –”

“If it helps, I ran away to Shanghai with my physiotherapist Eamon.” River says casually, so casually Payton wants to scream at him, shove him, force River to do something other than appear so calm the whole time – “I wasn’t very happy in the rehab centre my dad enrolled me in, so I left.” – But that’s – no, he mustn’t scream at River, that’s what happened last time, shouting all those terrible things in his face – “And then I…Payton? Payton, calm down. I’m here, I’m right here, come back to me.” River has closed the space between them, has a firm grip on both his arms and Payton can’t do anything but gaze up into his face, at his straight brows and the dimple in his cheek and the cupid’s bow of his lips and his blue, blue eyes –

“Breathe for me Payton, come on, four breaths in, four breaths out. You remember.”

“River,” he whispers. “How do you know you’re gay?”

“Easy.” River says, smiling down at him. “Because I’m in love with a man.”

They need to talk more, there’s so much more they both need to say but Payton can’t, won’t, doesn’t want to do anything except fit himself into River’s arms. He’s swaying forward but River is suddenly holding him away, keeping him at arm’s length and Payton feels dizzy, like he’s going to faint or throw up and whatever River sees in his face must startle him too because suddenly he has a hand on the back of Payton’s neck and another on his jaw and he’s holding him firm and steady.

“Woah, it’s okay Payton, we will, just – just I need to do something first, okay. I need you to see something.”

We will, River said, and Payton clings onto that like a comfort blanket, his brain not quite processing as River stands in front of him slipping the buttons free on his shirt, till he slides the whole thing off his shoulders and is standing there with his trousers clinging on to the jut of his hips. Yes, yes, River shirtless, very nice, excellent, Payton’s brain says absent-mindedly, never mind that River shirtless puts the statue of David to shame, apart from – and now his brain screeches to a complete halt, stalls, and refuses to restart.

River’s body is beautiful, perfection…until he twists even just a little and the mess of scar tissue on his left hand side is revealed, not just the raised scars where first the bullet and then his rib punctured through the skin, but the thin surgical lines where the trauma team at LA General did twelve different surgeries to repair his diaphragm, reinflate his lungs and piece his body back together. His right shoulder, where Payton can remember cutting his own fingers on a piece of River’s clavicle, is almost unblemished, just a slightly unusual dip where the missing bone mass should be. Payton has more of a scar then he does.

The last time Payton saw River’s bare chest was when the man he loved was dying in his arms, and Payton hadn’t realised till this moment how much that last image had blocked out all the other times, all the other memories of River braced above or below him, lying by his side in bed or sharing a shower. He should have taken a drink for sunbathing nude, Payton thinks, suddenly remembering the day they drove up to the hills and spent an afternoon with only birdsong for company, ending up sun-drunk and dazed from love-making in the heat.

“There you are.” River murmurs, his eyes never leaving Payton’s face. “Come back to me Payton.” He holds out his arms and Payton falls into them, a thousand loving familiar memories flooding back over him at once as he finally lets them in and River holds him against his chest, his perfect ruined chest, as he cries and cries and cries.

Chapter Text

“So. What you been up to for three years?” River asks from the dark, from where they’re curled up together in Payton’s bed, chest to chest, their legs entangled and their hands clasped between them. He asks whilst gently stroking the scar on the tips of Payton’s fingers, and Payton thinks that maybe this is all a dream.

Mainly he was just sad.

“Oh, you know. New York.” He says. “How about you?”

“Oh, you know. Shanghai.” River mocks. Maybe not a dream then. In his dreams River was always nicer.

~

“You were playing the piano. You were singing.”

“Yeah. I had pulmonary hypertension for a while, they got me on to singing to strengthen the intercostal muscles. It comes back if I stop, so I keep doing it. I’ll never have a voice like yours though. Mostly people just like to watch me.”

“You were playing the piano.”

“I wanted to remember you.”

~

“You know I love Alice right?”

“Yeah. I know you do.”

~

“Do you forgive me?”

“Yes.”

~

“Do you forgive me?

“Yes.”

~

“No, no, I’m serious, they actually tried to kill him! They were leaning over him with a pillow in the hospital bed and everything!”

“Payton your brothers are psychopaths, you know that right?”

“Not my brothers anymore so who cares.”

“Payton. They’re psychopaths who are going to be some of the richest men in the country. We can’t let that happen.”

“Fuck.”

~

Bhutan?”

“Don’t ask.”

~

“Yeah, he was cute. Not as cute as you though. He was only working in Los Altos to save up enough money to fund living in China for a year, teaching OTs and physios in rural hospitals how to work with physical disabilities. He didn’t mind shifting his base to Shanghai instead.”

“Mmmmmm.”

“Payton –”

“Okay, and so Khai as well, I can see the appeal there. Anyone else? What were they like – the other guys you – stop laughing at me!”

“You can’t see my face, how do you know I’m laughing?”

“I just – I just can!”

“They weren’t you Payton. That’s all that needs to be said.”

~

“Anyway.”

“What?”

“Anyway. You slept with Khai as well. Quite a bit.”

“River…are you…you’re not…”

“I’m just asking.”

“Oh my god I can’t believe this is happening, River Barkley is jealous. So, Khai and I, yeah, we –”

“Did he do that thing that you like, with the –”

“River!”

~

“You know I didn’t sleep with him right?”

“What.”

“Khai. He saw me play and came over to chat, and then invited me back just to hang out. I think he knew who I was. Who I was to you.”

“I never told Khai anything about –”

“Somehow he knew something. Or sensed something. I was – I was in a bit of a weird place, maybe thinking about leaving the city that night. But he invited me back and we made out for a bit and then he insisted I stay, really insisted, just to sleep over. I’d only been in New York a few days, and, well, he was warm and –”

River always preferred to sleep next to someone. He liked the warmth, the presence. He wanted someone to reach out to if he woke in the night. Khai would have had an easy job of it.

“– and then you came back and I swear Payton, it felt like fate, like I had to stay –”

River shifts in the dark and Payton squeezes his hands, soothes him.

Thank you Lord, for placing Khai Zhi (the bastard) at my side, I do not fucking deserve him.

~

“I, um, okay, so this is going to sound really weird but –”

“Now I’m intrigued.”

“Shut up River. So I, may have, hmmmm, hallucinated you on a number of occasions when I was going through some troubles or having a crisis of faith or when I was poisoned – did I tell you Skye poisoned me?”

“Yes. A couple of times.”

“And then Ricardo poisoned me too! Man, that year was – oh, um, sorry. But yeah…in my hours of need, I…dreamt you up, I suppose.”

“Was I helpful?”

“Were you – um, yes, usually. Mostly you just gave me really cryptic advice. Kind of like a really tall Yoda.”

“Huh.”

“…River?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re not mad?”

“Why would I be mad?”

“That I imagined you rather than, you know, actually calling you?”

“Well, that would be a bit hypocritical of me. Seeing as I did the same thing.”

“What? You hallucinated me? When? In times of need? What did I say? I assume I gave you really great advice.”

“Not so much in my hours of need. It’s you, so…pretty much just all the time. You kept up a running commentary on how much you hated the GIG building for three hours once.”

“…I did?”

“Apparently it’s an affront to the classical 1920s Art Deco vibe that embodies the Shanghai architectural heritage –”

“Well it is!”

“For three hours, Payton.”

“Oh. Christ, River…I think we might be a little bit not okay.”

“Not as bad as your brothers though, so I’ll take it.”

~

“I don’t want to sleep. I’m scared you won’t be here when I wake up.”

“I promise I will be. Sleep.”

River is alive and with him, and for at least one more night, he’s staying.

~

River snores. Deep heaving exhales that sounded like surf on the seashore. His skin smells like chocolate and campfire smoke.

~

Twenty-one hours, three minutes and seven seconds.

~

Payton wakes up, and River’s still there.

Chapter Text

It’s four and a half weeks to election day and Payton, his dream team and about twenty of his two hundred-strong volunteer army (“No, Khai, I’m not calling them the Hobarteers”) are packed into Payton’s offices watching the screen McAfee’s projected onto the wall. They stayed in Columbus Circle in the end, because by the time Ezra’s money (and then everyone else’s) came through, all of District 27 knew where to find him, and Payton quite likes keeping it rustic. It polls better.

“It should be airing any second.” McAfee says, scrolling across three phones simultaneously.

They’ve taken over the storefront next door as well to create more space, a gender-neutral bathroom and an actual meeting room, but Payton barely spends any time here. McAfee and James normally have at least four or five items lined up for him a day – brunch with an investor, visits around town during the day, an interview over coffee, dinner with local community leaders and after-work drinks with other candidates wanting to see the whites of his eyes. Payton would be putting on weight if he wasn’t walking across the borough three times a day and he’s lost it instead, which is bad, it makes him feel smaller, like he carries left heft in the world.

“I heard she got Ang Lee to direct it.” One of their volunteers whispers. Shirley shushes them.

“That is definitely not true.” McAfee hisses, just in case anyone else heard.

Payton has one night off a week, which he now spends at McAfee’s, as she’s the only person with an actual apartment and they needed to base him somewhere more secure. Astrid found him a piano, he will never ask where from, and he normally plays till his fingers are cramping and the ache in his lungs has eased. He will never campaign on a local scale like this again and he loves it, he loves it, but god –

“Is it true it cost half a million to make?” Someone says.

He’s tired.

“That’s crazy. I thought there was a limit of a $100k.”

Payton stays in McAfee’s apartment on his own, unless one of the other crashes on the sofa. He hasn’t shared a bed with anyone since that morning he woke up still entangled with River in his dorm, their breaths warming the space between them. He’s barely seen River since then – James put Skye on the churches and River on the gays. So far it’s going really well.

“It’s $150k, and shush, it’s starting.” McAfee replies.

Payton looks up as Dede Standish’s face appears on the screen, a map of Manhattan and an American flag on the wall behind her. Her hair is pulled up into an elegant chignon and she’s wearing a white blouse and a soft blue blazer – she looks trustworthy and mature and refined.

Payton sees McAfee bite her lip and has a bad feeling about this.

“Hello, I’m State Senator and Senate Leader Dede Standish, a Democrat running for re-election in the 27th Senate District of Manhattan…”

It’s all fairly de rigueur. Dede outlines her background, her platform, her record, all top notch stuff. Payton wouldn’t have had a second’s hesitation voting for her himself six weeks ago but now she’s his opponent and he wants to rip the stuffing out of her like a dog with a teddy bear.

“I’ve had the privilege of representing District 27 for a long time now, and though some people might think that’s somehow a disadvantage, there’s a lot more who know that makes me the best person for the job…”

On the screen Dede’s smile is growing and then fades away to scrolling-up text, three columns of tiny letters all rolling upwards, dozens of backers and supporters by name or company, hundreds of them, scrolling and scrolling and Payton feels a horrible pinched feeling in the bottom of his stomach. It’s a solid forty seconds at the end of her ad of name after name scrolling up the screen. Message received loud and clear. Dede Standish has the world behind her.

“Can I ask for a round of applause for Dede Standish?” Payton asks loudly, to cover up the slightly stunned silence and also just in case Standish has planted someone with a camera in the room to catch his reaction. “She’s a brilliant candidate and I’m honoured and excited to be standing against her – whichever one of us goes up against Republican candidate Logan Laurelton is going to do an outstanding job.” His volunteers start clapping obediently and Payton lingers a bit to smile and exchange handshakes and do his best to ignore McAfee’s nails digging into the meat of his arm. Finally he lets her drag him through the door – it’s a hole, it’s a hole in the wall between the storefronts that Eric knocked through for them – and into the meeting room. James is already there.

“Well, that was punchy.” Payton says, despair creeping up his spine. They’d been doing so well.

“Do not get disheartened –” James starts, and Payton just gives him an irritated look.

“Don’t give me that Sullivan. That ad was nice – too nice. She’s been letting us off easy so far –” If by easy Payton counts the Accounts Inspector who came around after a tip off they were taking hand-outs from the mob and went through Alice’s books for a tense forty-eight hours, or when all of Astrid’s painstakingly-negotiated flyers mysteriously vanished from the printing company’s warehouse, or when their volunteer group chat got hacked from Skye’s number and told everyone their services were no longer needed. But other than those things… “That ad was building up to something big. You can feel it too.”

James and McAfee exchange a glance and don’t waste any more breaths on protests. They know as well as Payton that ever since Ezra had a burgundy-and-gold care package delivered to the office and Standish’s financial contributions dropped by a third, that it was only a matter of time.

“She needs to beat you by a landslide, or her reputation is tarnished forever.” McAfee says, the truth that they’re all thinking. To beat Payton by a landslide, Standish is going to have to crush him.

“Okay, so, let’s think. Let’s think let’s think let’s think.” Payton says, clapping his hands together. McAfee and James have been with him since the beginning, three heads are better than one and all that jazz.

“She’s setting herself up as being the choice that everyone wants –”

“So she needs to make you look like the choice that nobody wants –”

“But she has to be careful not to alienate everyone who has already backed you –”

“Because she needs them to come back to her instead of flocking to Laurelton after the primaries.”

Okay,” Payton rubs his hands together. “So how to make me look unwanted without making people feel like fools for wanting me?”

“By making it seem like you’ve tricked them.” James frowns. “They get to feel deceived and vulnerable, Standish gets to welcome them back to the fold. She’s going to make it seem like you’re a fake in some way –”

“That you’ve lied about something, that your platform’s dishonest, that you can’t be trusted –”

“Okay, so what have we done that she could be going after?” This is making Payton’s head spin. It’s a vaguer conversation than any of their campaign planning so far, hypotheses based on assumptions inspired by guesses.

“Not a lot…” James says slowly, still frowning. McAfee is scrolling through everything they’ve put out publically, trying to spot the chink in their armour that Standish clearly has.

“If she knows about that second thing we don’t talk about –” McAfee starts, meaning River, “then that could be grounds that you’re lying to people…”

“He’s way too popular.” James murmurs. “He’s, like, 80% of our campaign Instagram likes now. It would probably boost your ratings in New York, especially if we spun it as though you were trying to keep a loved one safe and out of the limelight, etc etc…”

“No, McAfee’s right.” Payton says, a slow queasy feeling starting to make itself known in his stomach. “But not about me or him. We assumed she wouldn’t go after people’s backgrounds because of the risk to herself – but she’s cocky, we know that, she’s complaisant, she’s kept her own secret for ten years so how the hell would we know about it – but our backgrounds…”

“…are open game.” James finishes.

“Oh, fuck,” says McAfee, staring down at her phone. Standish didn’t waste any time, Payton thinks grimly, and jerks his chin at her.

“Tell me.”

McAfee wets her lips and reads aloud.

“…comes as a shock to reveal that Skye Leighton, one of the most prominent members of the Hobart campaign, has been found guilty of two counts of administering poison with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. Leighton, Hobart’s key liaison with religious groups in the city, also oversees the large number of teenagers and young people who have flocked to his banner as volunteers – a situation that should cause extreme concern to every mother and god-fearing citizen of our city…”

“Payton, I can explain –” Skye is bursting through the door with River behind her. Payton picks up a stapler and throws it at her.

“You poisoned someone else as well?”

“She deserved it!” Skye yells back, ducking the hole-punch he throws next. River catches the tablet that follows it and frowns at the room.

“I’m going to go check on the volunteers. Someone give Payton a chocolate bar.”

“I don’t need any chocolate!” Payton yells, but McAfee is already frantically rifling around her purse and he takes the Bounty she shoves at him with ill grace.

“Is the article just Skye or the rest of you too?” He grumbles at her, and it’s testimony to their long friendship that she understands him even with a mouthful of coconut.

“We should no longer be eating Bounties.” Alice says, sweeping in with Khai and Astrid behind her. “Saturated fats are a major cause of obesity in Americans, and Mars Company have been challenged on their claim to only use ‘ethically sourced’ palm oil.”

“Payton was having a moment. He needed a chocolate bar.” River says, popping his head back round the door. Alice gives a soft sigh.

“Hide the wrapper at least.”

“She’s started with Skye, but I suspect the rest of us will follow.” McAfee answers his earlier question. James is rubbing his hands over his face beside her. “Skye is probably the most sensationalist, which should give us some indication of where she’s going for everyone else…”

“We covered this.” Payton says, feeling the red creep up his neck. Fuck fuck, fuck. He hates not knowing something. “We had a whole conversation about pre-emptive damage control, remember?”

“We miscalculated. Now we’re recalculating.” McAfee says. “River, how’s everyone else?”

“Shirley’s got things in hand.” River says, taking the last seat at the end of the table. Skye is half-perched on the edge of hers, probably worried Payton is going to throw more things at her. Good. “But it has caused a shock. Also, Payton, no more throwing things at people.”

“Good point, let’s avoid any Klobuchar comparisons, that won’t poll well.” James agrees. Alice has taken the seat next to Payton and he feels calmer already with her steady presence at her side and River calm and composed across from him.

Or that might be his blood sugar levels stabilising, Payton can’t quite care at the moment.

“We’re going to have this conversation again,” he says through gritted teeth. “About what other stupid things people might have forgotten to tell me –”

“Or that we did discuss but assumed Standish wouldn’t be coming for.” McAfee says, giving Payton a look. “We assigned her a level of caution that, in hindsight, was lower than correct.”

“We had limited data to go on,” James gripes at her. “Our assumptions were based on the information available.”

“Then we should have built in a wider margin of error to account for the incomplete data set –”

“Okay, guys.” Payton holds up his hands. “Priorities. I want statements online and flung across to all the major papers within the hour. Skye, you’ll then be doing reassurance visits immediately, everyone rejig your diaries to ensure you’re on hand to manage this.”

There’s a series of nods around the table and Payton fixes his glare on Skye, who’s fiddling with her cuffs in the most nervous way he’s ever seen.

“’Fess up Skye.”

“So I’m not going to go into detail about the first time I poisoned someone, most of you were there…” Skye leans over to River on her left, “-and if you weren’t: Payton definitely over-exaggerates it.”

“Skye!”

“Okay, okay…second time was a lady called Marcia Pegram…she was one of the supervisors on my girl’s pastor programme…Payton.” Skye meets his eyes dead on, not a trace of hesitation there any more. “She deserved it Payton. She was…not a nice person. I never proved it…but I know, I know, that some of my girls that left the programme were got into bad situations by her. Drugs or dead or trafficked on. I have no evidence, nothing that you can use…but even though they were going to find me guilty it never went through, I never served any time. The case got casually dropped – and you can’t tell me that it wasn’t because the judge didn’t want anyone looking too deeply. These were young black girls who needed help and this evil white woman was selling them on…that case went deeper than just me shoving rat poison in an apple pie.”

Payton frowns. “How come she got a pie and I got a cupcake?”

“Payton, if after all this you still trust me enough to eat something I make, then I will make you any goddamn pie you want.” Skye says, and Payton can see that she means that, that Skye Leighton is genuinely worried about losing the trust of Payton Hobart.

“Okay, so we’re thinking mitigations and counterattacks,” he says, and sees her swallow hard in relief. “How are we going to defend Skye against–”

James is holding up a hand.

“Do we really want to do that?”

“Screw you Sullivan,” snaps Skye, and James waves a hand at her.

“No, obviously, we want to defend Skye, but – is that the best tactic? My gut is telling me Standish is going to keep these attacks coming regularly, and fairly indiscriminately. Eventually it won’t matter what they are or how well we defend them; if every single member of Payton’s campaign team gets trashed with libel then people will eventually start believing at least some of them just because ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ and ‘well they can’t all be lies’...” James pitches his voice like some of the whinier nearby residents, and Payton has a sinking feeling that he’s got a point. They’re going to run themselves ragged defending themselves against true accusations and then when Standish starts pulling out the lies people will have been primed to believe anything.

“That’s why she held off for so long.” McAfee smacks the table with one hand. “She was gathering stuff up on as many of us as possible.”

“So.” James says. “Do we need to be picking our battles?”

“You’re saying some people are going to have to be sacrificed.” Skye immediately argues. “Take the reputation hit – and probably get fired – so that we can protect the campaign.”

“So that we can protect Payton!” James says instantly, a flush high on his cheeks as everyone around the table exchanges glances. “Yeah, so the faith groups like you and Instagram likes River and the dowagers like Alice…but Payton’s the only one that matters. When Standish comes for him, and she’s going to, that’s the battle we need to throw our all into fighting. Not this.”

“No.” Payton says, and they all turn to look at him. “I mean, yes, normally I would be agreeing with James. In the past I would have, and in the future I probably will again. But not this election. This campaign – more than any other fight I have in my life, this one will be a turning point, for me personally. And I can’t get through it by sacrificing the people who I owe everything to. For this election, I have to fight for you just as hard as you fight for me.”

“I look forward to you throwing me under the bus in the future Payton.” Skye says, but she’s smiling, they all are, and Payton knows he’s made the right call, Alice is squeezing his hand and River has his head tilted to one side, a curl falling over his forehead. Payton nods a few times, pushing down the churning anxiety in his stomach that’s worrying whether he's just ruined everything, and then looks up at the table.

“Right then. So, we’re going to do this again and we’re going to do it properly – is there anything anyone else needs to tell me…?”

Hands go up around the table. Payton groans and puts his head down. It’s going to be a long day.

~

“We’re sure humour is the way to go?”

“Yes, definitely.”

“I agree. There’s already a new meme format about it. Poisoning is very old-school, very Disney – hey, see if you can work in a big apple joke –”

“I refuse to do puns James.”

~

“So, Payton, we have to ask – quite a sensationalist story about one of your campaign team hit the airwaves this morning…”

“Thanks Bill, I was hoping you’d ask about that. I’m afraid it’s all true.”

“What? Seriously? She poisoned people?”

“People? Oh, no, the second one is nonsense. But Skye Leighton has definitely been convicted of poisoning with intent in the past – me, in fact.”

“Wait, wait, wait. Payton, let me see if I’ve got this right – your Volunteer Operations and Field Coordinator tried to poison you.”

“That is correct.”

“That is…”

“Hilarious? I know right!”

“Yeah, definitely, it’s something…so what happened, give us the story, this is amazing.”

“So it gets even better – she fed me a poisoned cupcake!”

“A cupcake! Wow, this got very Hunger Games all of a sudden.”

“I actually ended up in hospital – never in any real danger of course, but I had one of those mums, when the crystals and chakra healers didn’t work…”

“Haha that’s brilliant Payton. So, what, how on earth did you welcome back into the fold the person who tried to poison you with a cupcake – oh my god I can’t even say it without laughing –”

“I know Skye very well, and I trust her completely. She poisoned me because at the time she absolutely believed it was the right thing to do, and to be honest, I wanted someone with convictions that strong on my campaign team. Plus, you already know she’s spent several years working as a community pastor for wayward girls –”

“Oh really? Oh, er, yeah, we knew that.”

“So in my eyes she’s more than redeemed herself. I believe in our Lord and I believe in forgiveness Bill, and I like to prove that every single day rather than just mouthing along on Sundays.”

“Wow, that’s really admirable Payton. And Skye Leighton has really atoned huh.”

“100% Bill. I’m really grateful to have her as a friend – because she was a pretty dangerous enemy!”

“Haha I love it! Thanks for sharing the story Payton, and good luck with the campaign!”

~

New York Herald

“Criminal ties run deep as second of Hobart’s campaign team revealed to have dubious past – this time their law-breaking father!”

 

New York Times

“How far does the apple fall from the tree? Payton Hobart’s Advance Coordinator Astrid Sloan revealed as daughter of convicted wire fraud felon Theo Sloan”

~

Hi everyone – I’m dedicating this cover of Kelly Clarkson’s Because of You to my close friend Astrid, who once had to face a choice most of us could never contemplate. She made the right call to send a corrupt man to jail, even though he was her own father. Astrid is an inspiration for me every day to always do the right thing, and this song is in her honour! – Payton

16,390 views

~

Scandal rocks Columbia amidst accusations of students trading sexual favours for higher grades

A New York journalist is allegedly poised to break a story of epic proportions – that of a secret sex trade at Columbia University, with students trading midterm and final exam grades for sexual acts of varying levels of degradation and lewdness. A number of tenured professors and alumni are implicated in the scandal, including the Communications Director of a prominent local State Senate campaign…

~

“Payton, I promise you, I did not perform any sexual acts in exchange for my grades in my entire time at Columbia."

“I believe you McAfee –”

“Why on earth not? I would have. Reckon my blowjobs are worth an A at least.”

“Astrid…”

“What? I’m sure your blowjobs are good too Payton. Hey, let’s compare, R–”

“Don’t you dare.”

“What? Afraid of a little competition?”

“Astrid, stop embarrassing Payton and get back to work – I need you to get your hands on something…”

~

New York Times

“Did Dede Standish earn her grades? Or did her father’s donations smooth the way? Newly leaked Dartmouth transcripts paint confusing picture about academic record...”

~

“Payton?”

“Hi Khai, what’s up?”

“Can you send someone to bail me out please?”

“Yeah sure, what happened – oh god, please don’t tell me you mean actual bail. Please Khai. Please.”

“Okay, so, let me explain man –”

“Oh my god Khai we only just made McAfee’s thing go away, how are you in jail, what did you do –”

“It wasn’t me Payton.”

“Right sure, I’m sure the cops have never heard that one before –”

“Payton! It wasn’t me.”

“…what?”

“Seriously. Standish messed up. She tried to get me fingered for some illegal tech smuggling ring but it’s a different Khai Zhi! One Asian kid looks the same as another to these pigs. If you westerners ever learned to read characters they’d have known this immediately but heck, you guys were still writing in the dirt with sticks during the Xia Dynasty…”

“Okay, hold on. So you’re wrongfully arrested –”

“Yeah, and my uncles are mad. They’ll post you the money from Beijing, someone just needs to come down here in person.”

“This is…this is great, we can use this, okay, I’ll talk to James and McAfee, we’ll come up with a way to –”

“Payton.”

“Yes?”

“Can you send someone to bail me out first please?”

~

Payton closes the door to McAfee’s apartment and just stands there in the dark for a long moment, letting the quiet wash over him. He’s just spent four hours at a hustings for small and medium independent business owners in the Midtown area, and it feels like his skin has been peeled off him in strips. He manages the two steps to the sofa – gotta love that Manhattan square footage – and collapses onto it face first. His shoes hurt, but his fingers feel too heavy to untie the laces.

Of course, that’s when someone knocks on the door.

Payton groans and ignores it.

“Payton. It’s me.”

River.

Payton gets to his feet and back to the door, gets the deadbolts undone and the handle turned and that’s where he runs out of strength, clinging to the door and blinking at River blearily. River’s wearing a dark sweater and jeans, and looks like a Grindr ad. Standish’s campaign hasn’t come after him yet. What are you gonna do, declare that it’s illegal to be that attractive? Payton gives a snort of amusement and River’s face grows fond.

“You’re too tired to stand right now aren’t you?”

“I am standing, am I not?”

“If you let go of the door you wouldn’t be. And I can tell that you’re making dumb jokes in your head. The second sign of Payton Hobart Burnout.”

Payton thinks about letting go of the door to prove River wrong, and then decides against it. He feels his face crunch up. Right, he’s frowning.

“Stop…stop knowing me so well. I don’t give you permission to know me so well.”

River laughs and – gently – pushes past him to come into the apartment. His voice is low and husky.

“Little bit late for that lover.”

Payton’s got enough of his brain still working to hiss and then quickly check the empty corridor. When he’s finished bolting the door back up River is standing three steps away in the ‘dining area’, which is a stool against a countertop. He holds up two bundles.

“I bring you a gift of papers from McAfee, and a gift of food from me.”

“I’m too tired to eat.”

“I got you Lap Khmer from a tiny little Cambodian place on Grove Street.”

That sounds amazing. Payton lets River shove him onto the couch and dump a carton into his hand, before sitting cross-legged at the other end of the sofa with his own. Payton shoves bell peppers into his mouth for a desperate five minutes and then finally recovers enough to breathe.

“You’ve been in New York for less than two months, how do you know where the good food spots are? Also, what are you eating?”

“Green mango salad. Here, try some.”

River is an expert at chopsticks, unsurprisingly. Payton just prays not to embarrass himself and lets River lift a piece of mango into his mouth and then promptly groans as tangy earthiness explodes across his tastebuds.

“Oh my god that’s good.”

River dimples at him. “I got us a Bai Sach Chrouk too, I know how much you like coconut.”

“You’re a lifesaver.” Payton mumbles, still snuffling through his carton. River just smiles down at his own and lets him eat. His presence is so soothing. It always has been.

“Did you hear there’s going to be a story about James in tomorrow’s paper?”

“Oh?” River raises an eyebrow. “What’s she come up with this time?”

“Get this – links with the Russians. Apparently they’re influencing all my policies.”

“Because the Kremlin is deeply interested in State Senate politics.”

“I know right?” They share a grin. Payton can still feel the tiredness in him, in the way his head feels like it’s too heavy for his neck and his brain’s still a little fuzzy round the edges, but every minute spent with River is a minute worth more than any other. They haven’t talked at all in the past few weeks, some silent unspoken agreement in the whole group that whatever relationship things exist, the campaign has to come first for a little while. But now River is sitting less than a metre away looking quietly beautiful and Payton hasn’t had his hands on either him or Alice in over three years, hasn’t had his hands on anyone except random fumbles, hasn’t had space through the sadness to even remember what lust or love feels like…

“You need to stop looking at me like that.” River says quietly. “You test my willpower enough anyway, if you look at me like that…Payton, I won’t be able to stop myself.”

“What if I don’t want you to?” Payton asks, hearing the quiver in his own voice. Every muscle in River is taut, so carefully controlled as he puts his carton on the table and begins to stand up.

“I think I’m going to leave now.”

“Wait –” Payton flings out a hand to stop him and they both stare at where it lands, high up on River’s thigh. Payton can feel the muscle under his jeans, the firmness of it, fuck, right where he used to leave little bitemarks across River’s skin.

“Payton – fuck – Payton, listen, James and McAfee already read me the riot act okay, I know this isn’t a thing you’re allowed to have, I know you agreed that you wouldn’t, you’re tired and exhausted and I’m here and I shouldn’t be here this was stupid of me –”

The words are tumbling out of River and Payton feels a great swell of love surging up inside him. This, this is one of the sides of River that he forgot, that he packed away with the rest of the memories. In all his imaginings he only ever remembered yoda-River, saint-River, wise-old-Buddhist River…not River who wanted to be touching his partners every minute of every day and who babbled when he was embarrassed, who even got embarrassed, and who would make little whining noises in the back of his throat if Payton pushed him back into the sofa and swallowed his cock…

After that, it’s a very easy decision to make.

River goes easily, his eyes already a dark blue as Payton pushes him down and kneels between his legs. He’s already so gone, his cock a hard line against the seam of his jeans and his hands grabbing at the couch cushions to stop from stroking up the back of Payton’s neck. Payton just gives him a look as he unbuckles River’s belt, his own hands sure and steady – they both know where River’s hands will be going the second Payton gets his mouth on him, both know how much Payton likes being held down and River likes holding him down. River looks back at him desperately, helplessly, and then his head falls back against the sofa as Payton pulls him out from his briefs and bends to flick his tongue over the tip.

Fuck, Payton.”

River is, unsurprisingly, proportional. Payton’s mouth waters as he rubs his cheek against River’s cock, rubs it against his mouth, loving the softness of the skin and the little beads of pre-come that get smeared all over him. His own cock is blindingly hard in his pants, so aroused that even the smallest movement makes him hiss. God, god, he missed this, he missed having River in his mouth, spread out before him, so fucking much.

“Payton, please…”

Payton gets to work properly, sinking his mouth down over River again and again and going a little deeper every time, till his gag reflex remembers how this goes and he can slide all the way down, feeling River’s cock nudge against the back of his throat. There’s a low, desperate groan and then River grabs firmly at the back of Payton’s neck, holding him there, and all of the tension and stress just flows out of Payton, leaving him lighter and happier and perfect for the first time in years.

And still hard as fucking steel, but he’ll get to that.

“Payton, Payton, god, I missed you so much, missed your mouth, your gorgeous mouth –” River’s fingers are stroking at his cheek, over his lips where they’re stretched around River’s cock, and Payton pulls off for a second just to take them in his mouth, flicking his eyes up to where River already looks wrecked, a streak of pink high on each cheekbone and his hair a mess. He’s always loved Payton’s mouth, always wanted to push his fingers or his thumb or his cock in there. Payton lets him stroke over his tongue, sucks hard so that he feels River’s cock jump where it’s held in his firm grasp and then pulls away. He wants River to come in his mouth and he’s going to get it.

River is moaning continuously as Payton sucks him, letting his tongue flutter against the underside as he slides up and down on River’s cock. He builds the steady rhythm that he knows River likes, feeling his own jaw ache and the press of River’s fingers on his neck. He can’t see or taste or hear anything except River.

“Fuck, Payton, you’re going to make me come.” River gasps out and Payton sucks hard. He wants River to come and he never wants this to end, never wants to go back to a life that doesn’t let him do this every single day. “Oh – fuck – Payton – fuck –”

Payton has his hands spread out over River’s thighs and he feels it, feels every muscle go tense and then slack, even whilst most of his attention is on River shoving hard into his throat, holding Payton still so that he’s got no choice but to swallow every last drop. When River finally lets him go Payton just has to drop his head down to those thighs, gasping for breath and feeling like all his bones are liquid.

River grabs him by the neck again and hauls him up and into his lap. His eyes are still dark blue and his hair tousled from sweat and Payton goes limp in his arms as River drags him into one kiss and then another, kissing him harder and harder until Payton is literally trembling. He forgot this too; he forgot how much bigger River was, how easily he could manhandle Payton around, how being on River’s lap made Payton feel safe and secure and loved – and this, too, as River yanks him around till he can get a hand down Payton’s trousers and wrap it around his cock, jerk Payton hard and fast whilst holding him still for more kisses, till Payton is begging brokenly and coming in his hand.

They sprawl there, sticky and sweaty and trading kisses until Payton shifts the wrong way and presses down on a too-tender spot and River laughs and lifts them both to their feet. There’s a pile of cartons to clear away and a stack of papers to read and a nasty vindictive lie about James coming out tomorrow morning and Payton just. Can’t be fucked.

“Do you want to stay over?” He asks quietly. River tilts his head and looks at him.

“Do you want me to?”

“Just – just to sleep.” Payton feels like an idiot. Once upon a time he’d barely needed to use words with River, especially not in bed. But that was a long time ago, and now Payton counts every minute that he has in River’s company and if River stays over that’ll add another six or seven hours on to the total.

“Yeah, I’d like that.” River says softly. He follows Payton into the bathroom, which isn’t big enough to fit one full-grown man, let alone one taller-than-average and one-ever-so-slightly-shorter-than-average one, and then into the bedroom where they both look between his body and Payton’s sleepwear for a long moment before silently agreeing that River will stay in his briefs. When they climb into bed he curls up behind Payton without a moment’s hesitation, entangling their legs and pressing a kiss against the back of Payton’s neck. He falls asleep almost instantly, his breathing deep and slow.

Payton lies there and counts seconds until he falls asleep himself.

Chapter Text

The next day it’s late afternoon before Payton makes it to the office. He wishes that was because he’d spent an entire morning having lazy indulgent sex, but actually he’d shoved River out the door at seven because he needed to shower before going off to meet representatives from the transit union and having River sitting in the bed half-naked and watching him get ready was going to make him so, so late. He picks up a couple of bags of bagels from Bernie’s Deli on the way over – Alice has carefully budgeted him a ‘Payton feeding the volunteers’ allowance – and dumps the bags on the table as he looks around.

His offices are concerningly empty.

“Hi Shirley, how are you doing today? Where is everybody?”

“Mr Hobart!” Shirley jumps and all of Payton’s instincts immediately go on high alert. “I’m so sorry I didn’t see you there. Um, everyone is…out on their assignments, I think. Miss Charles asked if you could meet her in the meeting room when you arrived.”

“Thanks Shirley, you’re the best.” Payton says, going for a smile that he can tell is too forced from the embarrassed flick of Shirley’s eyes. Goddamnit what the hell has gone wrong now? He hurries into the meeting room, where Alice is reviewing supplier invoices in a pale blue dress and sweater combo that perfectly matches her eyes. She glances up when he comes in.

“Payton. How did the interview with Brooklyn Magazine go?” There isn’t a hint in her voice that anything is amiss, even as she carefully starts laying her papers to one side.

“Well enough.” Payton shrugs. “They go to print tomorrow but they seemed keen to fit a piece in – they’ll use the photos we took at the Fundraiser for Orphans of the Kharkiv Conflict. Hey, Alice…where is everyone?” He tries to make his voice sound unconcerned and fails miserably.

“Something’s come up.” Alice says, still in her calm way. She’s close enough for Payton to smell the camomile wash she uses on her hair and it calms his racing heart somewhat. “Or at least, we strongly suspect that something might be about to come up. McAfee had a tip off from her contact at the Post.”

“Will you tell me?” Payton asks her quietly, trying to read her face. Alice is pulling a shirt and jacket out from their bags and handing them to him.

“Astrid left these for you for tonight’s event. Get changed and then I’ll do your make up. And no, not yet – I would save you even this small burden, at least until it’s confirmed.”

Payton gets changed in front of her. There’s nowhere else to do it, and he’s bared his soul to her enough times that baring his body seems almost mundane in comparison. She takes his red turtleneck and his undershirt from him without a word and folds them.

“Do I need make up?” Payton asks, shrugging on the jacket. “I thought this was dinner with the League of Women and we agreed looking too baby-faced would work against me?” Payton has been debating for some time over whether to try and grow a beard. James and McAfee are still running the numbers. Alice pushes him gently into a chair and clicks open her make-up case.

“The make-up isn’t for your face.” She says, and starts applying a concealer to the back of his neck and the soft purple bruises in the shape of fingerprints there. Payton swallows very hard and lets her work in silence whilst heat creeps up his spine and turns his neck and ears red. If Alice notices she doesn’t say a word. When he hears the case click he turns and grabs her hand.

“Alice…”

“Yes, Payton?”

“It – I don’t – it was – it was just sex –”

“No, it wasn’t.”

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. He’s making this worse. Alice isn’t meeting his eyes and Payton can feel panic clawing at his guts.

“I…I don’t know what to say to make this okay.”

Alice finally looks at him, or through him, her eyes like an x-ray beam. “I would like to understand why you did it.”

Why? God. Payton wishes he knew. Why the hell is he putting the dream he’s had since he was seven years old on the line just for, what, an orgasm? Fuck, no, that’s worse, that’s him just trying to convince himself of a truth that isn’t true.

“Because it takes more effort to not touch River than it does to touch him,” he tries. Alice shakes her head.

“That’s still primarily about the sex. Tell me why.”

“Because…because…” Payton doesn’t have a clue, but then words are pouring out of him like he's got no control over them at all. “Because I lived three years of my life without him and it nearly killed me, it was killing me, and I’m going to have to live the rest of it without him as well and the only chance, the only chance I have, of not just perishing away is to store up as many moments with him as I can before he goes.”

Alice just stares at him and Payton can see all the wounds he’s caused her, layer upon layer of them, and that this finally might have been worst one – telling her that in three years it was the lack of River that he never got over, and not the lack of her. He thinks he’s so much better than he was, thinks that because Astrid humours him and Skye’s acknowledged a use for him and River’s back that all the damage he did before has been magically wiped away but it hasn’t. It hasn’t. And Alice was the one he hurt the most.

Alice stares at him and Payton stares back and he feels like he’s wilting and blooming at the same time under the gaze of her blue, blue eyes…and it’s like the bottom drops out of his world, not for the first time but more abruptly than ever before.

The world has always presented it as a choice, like he could have one or the other and anything in between would be fraught with lies. But Alice and River…he can’t have one without the other. When River was gone…that’s why Payton didn’t look back in the corridor, why he let Alice go for three years without chasing after her. Because Payton can’t have just one of them. Losing River is like having his soul torn in two but losing Alice is like having his heart cut out – he can’t survive without either.

When River gets whatever he came here for, penitence or answers or the revenge Payton still deep down secretly thinks he still wants, then he’s going to leave again and then Payton will turn away from Alice as well. He need them both to balance him, his north and his south, the two weights on his scale. He doesn’t know what this means – well actually yes he does, it means now he needs to savour every minute with Alice too because he can see in her eyes that soon he’s going to lose both of them – but right now, he doesn’t know how to put this into words in the way that will help Alice understand how much she matters.

“Alice -”

And then, because the universe is a dramatic bitch sometimes, the door opens and River stands in the doorway. His eyes flicker between them but otherwise his face doesn’t change – Payton glances at Alice and sees her face perfectly composed as well.

God, he really does have a type doesn’t he.

“Yes River?” Alice says.

“I’m sorry for interrupting – your car is here.”

“Thank you. Shall we, Payton?”

Alice is looking at him calmly and finally Payton’s brain catches up enough to offer her his arm. River stands aside to let them pass but Payton can feel his gaze on his collar, seeing the marks he left covered up.

Payton thought the two of them kept him in balance. He never for a moment contemplated that maybe they’d tear him in two.

“Alice.” River says, and Alice glances back at him. Payton freezes like a deer caught in headlights. “I haven’t heard yet from McAfee and Astrid. Stay close to him – I’ll be nearby if you need me.”

“Can someone please tell me what’s going on?” Payton snaps. He hates, hates, hates not knowing something. His implacable blue-eyed beauties just look back at him and Payton tucks Alice’s hand more securely into his elbow and huffs his way out of the door. He’ll have great fun hearing the news once everything’s gone wrong, he’s sure.

~

Dinner is about 68% a disaster. Payton can tell he’s not at the top of his game which makes him frustrated which makes him more ineffectual which…he snaps his brain out of the loop before he can start spiralling again. Thank god for Alice, who nobody could tell is absolutely livid with him and instead is poise incarnate at his side and speaks movingly about their ambitions to reduce domestic violence rates and improve STEM inclusion for young girls. Payton’s campaign has never officially declared them together – on paper she’s his Finance Director – but he can see approval in the eyes of the women opposite him when they look at her, measured and sophisticated, a First Lady who could step onto the world stage with grace.

God Payton wants her to be that First Lady so bad.

And then just before the dessert course Alice’s phone gives a little ping in her purse and she excuses herself to go to the bathroom and when she comes back there’s a strand of hair that’s come untucked behind her ear and Payton knows, huh what a surprise, everything’s gone wrong.

“Lady Peshance, I’m afraid I’m going to have to give our apologies.” Alice says, before she’s barely sat down, and that’s how Payton knows, huh it’s gone really wrong. “You understand the demands of the campaign trail.”

“But of course, thank you so much for taking the time to meet with us this evening.” Catherine Peshance replies as her colleagues smile and nod, her eyes not missing a trick. Alice doesn’t seem to care, which is really what kicks Payton’s heartrate up into defcon 1. Maybe Khai is right and he’s going to have a heart attack before he’s fifty.

“Alice,” he hisses, whilst they’re waiting for the maître d’ to bring their coats. “Please for the love of god tell me what’s going on!”

“We need to get out of here.” Alice says calmly. Her phone beeps again. “River’s got a car outside, let’s go.”

They nearly make it. And then on the steps a photographer leaps forward to block their path completely, his camera going off in Payton’s face again and again till his entire vision is spots. There’re bodies close by and a microphone being shoved in his face and finally his ears can pick words out of the din.

“Payton! Payton! Any comment to make on your brothers?”

“My brothers?” Payton says, and Alice’s nails sink into his arm as she keeps trying to drag him forward.

“Do you think you can honourably run for office with such a taint on your family name?”

“Payton! Do you condone your brothers’ actions?”

“What did they do Alice?” Payton hisses under his breath, desperately rubbing his eyes to try and clear the flashes away. They’re nearly at the car. A microphone bruises his cheek, comes at him again.

“Payton Hobart! How do you feel being related to murderers?”

Murderers.

Payton feels the world turn to brittle-ash as Astrid shoves him in the car and River slams the door closed behind him.

What the fuck have Martin and Luther done now?

~

“Cheney got away with it.” James is saying, perched on the desk in their dorm room. He’s drumming his heels against the drawers below and Payton’s about three seconds away from throwing a pillow at him.

“Cheney dropped 5 approval points.” McAfee snaps back. She’s on her second cup of black coffee despite the fact it’s ten at night. “And he’s still a laughingstock. And he didn’t kill anyone.”

“Kudos to your family for managing a better cover up.” Skye says to Payton, still flipping through the folder McAfee had to spill blood to get her hands on. “Now I know where that ruthless arsehole streak you have comes from.”

Payton rubs his hands over his face. His leg is jiggling madly and the tips of his fingers have gone numb from where he can’t stop tracing over the scar. “Okay, okay. Give it to me one more time. My idiot brothers were drunk –”

“Your idiot brothers were drunk and out shooting with their buddies and “accidentally” –” Skye drawls out the word, “– shot one of their friends in the chest. As in, they both shot him, so much in sync that the coroner couldn’t tell which arrow actually killed him. And somehow this guy dying – he seemed like a good kid by the way, wanted to be a civil rights lawyer – didn’t make state news, didn’t even make the local paper. Totally hushed up. Your brothers didn’t even get arrested.”

“This is bad,” says McAfee, for about the thirtieth time that night. Payton claps his hands briskly. Everyone’s here except for Astrid and Khai, but fuck them if they can’t be bothered to rock up in the hour of his greatest need.

“Okay people, focus! How are we going to handle this?”

“Easy route: you’re disowned, you haven’t seen them in years, they’re monsters who you’re glad to get away from, they’re psychopaths, the product of an unstable home environment…” McAfee trails off at the look on Payton’s face.

He can’t drag his mother through the mud. He can’t. He doesn’t like to say he hates his brothers, it’s more like…a space where caring should be, right next to the vague scrapings of affection for his father. He knows his mother has no illusions about the twins…but it would still devastate her if Payton insulted the upbringing she tried to create for all of them.

“There’s no way we can argue for self-defence?” James tries, but McAfee’s already shaking her head.

“It’s the cover up that looks bad. This happened four months ago. If the Hobart lawyers had a robust enough case for self-defence you can bet they’d have done that already.”

“What proof is there that they were drunk?”

“One of their “buddies” turned on them, spilled the beans on the whole thing. So you can bet the pressure will be on all the others as well now; that’s potentially five witnesses all saying the same thing.”

“Fuuuuuuck.” Payton drawls the word out. Alice is sitting next to him, the soft rustle of her dress the only noise she makes. Payton can almost feel her pulling away from him and it’s breaking his heart. “How bad is this going to hit us?”

“We’ve been managing most of the scandals fairly well – Khai’s wrongful arrest was a boon we didn’t deserve, it definitely made it look like people are out to get us – but there’s no doubt your numbers have been wavering. Our ‘trustworthy’ rating has taken a big dip, as well as ‘honest and open’.”

“Ironically, our figures for ‘political experience’ have shot up.” James adds. “But this is going to hit us hard. On top of all the rest, it looks like Payton is surrounded by the worst kind of people, like he’s either a terrible judge of character or he has no problem with dishonest individuals who think they’re above the law. Either way, a terrible State Senator.”

“Do we have no other options?” Payton asks helplessly. God, please, these past few weeks have been liking breathing mountain air after living in a swamp, he can’t lose this, he can’t slide back into the misery that was all he had. He feels more than sees James and McAfee look at each other.

“Can we have a word with you in private Payton?” James asks.

“Oh, I see how it is.” Skye snaps instantly. “When the going gets tough, then the mealy-mouthed weaklings start clustering together huh?”

“It’s his campaign! I’m allowed to talk to him first!” James shoots back. Payton can almost see the fracture lines opening up in the group. Alice will be hurt yet again if he asks to speak to McAfee and James alone; how will River take it if she stays and he doesn’t? Skye isn’t going to go without a fight either way. Where the hell are Astrid and Khai? Payton puts his head in his hands again and kind of wants to cry. A couple of months ago they were all sitting here in this same dorm room and it felt so hopeful, so terrifyingly alive with possibility, that these people he considered as ex-lovers and allies and enemies-turned-neutral were even considering coming together to help him, whatever their own reasons for doing so. And then…somehow they sort of all became something like...friends.

“Just say it James.” He says, so tired. “If I’m going to fall then I can’t begrudge someone wanting to know my last few desperate flails so they can choose to cut ties if they want to.”

“You know what Payton –” Skye starts angrily, but McAfee is holding out a hand and by some miracle Skye is subsiding, waving a hand at James to carry on. James hops off the desk and comes to sit on the opposite bed to Payton.

“We can’t make it go away, we can’t find a way to fix it, so – we take the hit, roll with it, and come out swinging.” His eyes are huge on Payton’s face. “We use our ace.”

The silence has that curious quality of when everyone has taken a breath in at the same time and no one wants to let it out first. It lingers for a second or two and then River speaks into the quiet.

“What’s our ace?”

Oops.

Of course, Payton thinks, no one’s talked about it in weeks, as though by silent mutual agreement the card had been temporarily taken off the table. Round about the time that River reappeared in fact.

“Oh for god’s sake.” James jumps up and over to River’s side, yanking on his shirt. River has to bend almost in half for James to murmur in his ear, and Payton shamelessly watches his face as River absorbs the news that Standish has a husband and a boyfriend, is polyamorous, a throuple, a V, whatever the hell you want to call it, and that they’ve been planning all along to use it to bring her down.

That Standish loves two people, and Payton intends to destroy her for it.

That he’s the worst sort of hypocrite.

James finishes whispering and River straightens back up. He looks at Payton for a long moment and then turns and leaves the room. The door clicks closed behind him.

James swallows so hard his Adam’s apple bobs underneath the starched collar of his shirt. Everyone else’s eyes follow his when they trail back to Payton, who’s still looking at the door River just left through, Alice still utterly silent beside him.

It’s happening sooner than he thought, but he knew he’d lose them both in the end.

“Here’s what we’re going to do.” Payton says.

~

It’s even later than the day before when he gets back to McAfee’s dark apartment. He wants to play the piano, exorcise some of the bitterness that’s clawing its way up his throat, but he thinks his fingers would cramp the second he tried.

“Payton.”

“Fuck!”

It’s River, sitting on the couch in the dark. Payton clutches at his chest. Okay, shit, Khai was definitely right and he needs to see a doctor about his blood pressure, that does not feel good.

“How did you get in here?”

“They gave me the spare key.”

They? As in, what, did the group take a fucking vote or something. Oh, Payton’s stressed and we need him on form, send River over to say meaningful things and possibly give him a blowjob, that’s what he needs to relax.

Screw them. Especially for being right.

Payton can’t take it anymore. Dealing with actually feeling things for the past few years hadn’t remotely prepared him for any of this because it turns out he’d only been feeling three things and they were all variations on sadness and god he’d been right all alone, there is nothing, nothing more devastating than hope so damn them all, damn James and damn McAfee and damn Alice and damn River for making him hope again.

Payton is moving across the room before he can think and River makes an oomph noise as Payton crashes down on him, shoving his shoulders back and kissing him hard. River’s mouth is soft underneath him and Payton licks his way inside, sucking on his bottom lip so that he knows it’ll be red and sore looking when he’s done. His hand is already on River’s chest, sliding down and twisting a nipple just slightly too hard so that River hisses and jerks away.

“Payton, this isn’t –”

“Isn’t this why you got sent here?” Payton snaps back. He can feel River’s heart beat under the muscles of his chest. “Payton-management right? Or is this what you came back from Shanghai for, checking whether I was still desperate for you?”

“Payton for god’s sake –”

Payton kisses him again, harder, pulling up every memory he has of how to make River wild for him and it doesn’t take much, it never did, River loves touch and loves sex and once upon a time he loved Payton and some vestigial muscle-memory of that must still be in him because when they stagger over to the bed River tips back first and pulls Payton down on top of him.

McAfee has lube in her drawer because of course she does and Payton manages to get it absolutely everywhere as he stretches River out, leaving bite marks across his chest the entire time. He gets his mouth on River’s scar, licks over the white-pink marks and River makes a high-pitched noise, his hands clenching in the covers and his head thrown back and his thighs trembling around Payton. Payton is holding River’s hips so tightly he’s going to leave bruises of his own, leave his own marks all over River so that when he fucks off again there’ll still be at least a couple of days when he can’t utterly forget Payton’s existence.

“Payton, please – god – get in me, please.”

Payton rolls him over, because he can’t bear to look at his face. River’s back is beautiful, flawless muscle stretching down to his arse and Payton hates it because he can’t see the scar anymore, see the proof that River will always carry with him that Payton was part of his life. He strokes his hands over every inch of River that he can reach and bites down on his shoulder – his right shoulder, Payton’s favourite – as he slides himself inside.

Fuck. Fuck. It’s hot and tight and perfect. Payton clenches his jaw and breathes out slowly so he doesn’t come fucking everywhere in three seconds flat. River is trembling underneath him, his hair sticking to his forehead and his mouth softly parted as he gasps for breath. Payton stretches up – it really is a stretch with River so much taller than him, but it just grinds his cock even further in so that River lets out a tiny whimper – and pulls River’s head down to kiss him. God he’d missed the taste of River’s mouth, the way he nuzzles in to every kiss.

“Did you miss me?” Payton asks softly, viciously. River nods frantically and Payton doesn’t believe him. “Did you miss me fucking you?” He asks, slowly rocking his hips in, loosening River up. He missed this, he can’t pretend that he didn’t, loves feeling River warm and tight around him, letting Payton into his body. God, god, he loves this.

“Yes. Payton, yes, I missed you.”

“Good.” Payton breathes out, and then takes a good grip on River’s hips. His first thrust is testing, checking River is ready and just savouring every inch of the tight pressure around his cock.

His second is brutal, and so are the rest.

By the time he’s ready to let them come River is dripping with sweat and shaking all over, Payton holding his hands down against the bed so that he can’t touch himself. He’s long lost the ability to speak and now just makes a little broken-off gasping noise every time Payton shoves his cock back inside. Payton has been hanging on with every last inch of his willpower for a while now, determined to absolutely wreck River. But it’s finally becoming too much, River feels too goddamn perfect and Payton can feel that low coil starting up in his belly, impossible to resist. He strokes one hand up River’s sweaty gorgeous back and reaches around under him with the other.

Fuck, Payton, please.”

“Are you going to come for me?”

“Yes – oh – fuck – yes.”

Payton bites his own lip so hard he tastes blood immediately, desperate to keep inside all the words that want to come spilling out. River’s cock is hard as steel in his hand and when Payton slams his hips as deep as they will go and grinds down River gives a low urgent cry and Payton jerks him through it. His own orgasm is almost an afterthought – albeit one that feels like a punch in the gut and like all his bones are turning to liquid – but nothing as good as feeling River trembling and sated under him.

God he loves him so much.

Payton pushes his face in between River’s shoulder-blades and hopes that his tears will be mistaken for sweat.

He’s good at this politician business, so it’s only a few moments before he’s composed himself, and then he’s carefully pulling out of River. Fuck, they didn’t even use a condom. Firstly, James and McAfee will kill him if he gets papped coming out of a clinic, and secondly, he literally wants to fuck River again right this second at the sight of his own come sliding out of his arse.

“Come here,” River mutters, dragging Payton close with an arm. He seems to have forgotten that this started out as angry sex, and Payton is too exhausted to remind him. That’s the only reason he lets River pull him into his arms and drag a duvet over them. “Feeling better?” River asks, just a hint of a smirk in his face, and Payton shoves at him half-heartedly.

“Fucking you always makes me feel better.” He says, as crude as he can manage, and feels vaguely insulted when River just laughs.

“You fucking me always makes me feel better too.” He says.

“Wasn’t enough though was it.” The words are out of Payton’s mouth before he’s consciously thought them – a terrible trait for a politician – and he can see River’s face change when they hit home.

“It…no. Back then, it wasn’t enough.”

It’s right there, right there for Payton to ask. Is it enough now? But he doesn’t. Because hope is devastating and he doesn’t know how much more of it he can bear.

“Payton…”

“What?”

“I can always tell when you want to ask something. Your mouth goes all pursed.” River is nuzzling closer, curling his body up around Payton’s. Payton sometimes think that River really wishes he was the slightly-shorter-than-average one, the amount he loves being little spoon. He huffs out a short laugh.

“River. The list of things I want to ask you is…forget it.” River just elbows him. “Okay, you know what, fine! Where do you want me to start River? Why did you leave, or why did you come back?”

“I left because I was guilty.”

Payton hadn’t actually expected him to answer and now he’s caught off-guard and blinking – another terrible trait for a politician, is this what River does to him? Probably.

“Guilty?”

“You sound surprised. How could I not be guilty after what I did to you?”

“To me? River…you’re the one that you shot!” Payton is trying to wrap his brain around the idea that River has anything to feel guilty for. Unlike Payton himself, who carried the weight of it for fucking years, the knowledge that he was the worst boyfriend in the goddamn universe who’d driven his own lover to attempted suicide.

“Payton. I tried to kill myself in front of you. God, just think about it. If I’d actually succeeded, if you hadn’t stopped me…you’d have watched me die in front of you. God. I can’t even imagine what that would have done to you. It was so selfish of me. When I realised that…I couldn’t even begin to think about asking for your forgiveness. It wasn’t until you started this campaign that I realised there might be a chance for me to earn it. That’s why I came back.”

Payton looks at River, at the pink flush still fading from his cheeks and his blue eyes looking tired and sad and his hair a complete and utter mess, so different from the perfect boy that everyone insisted he be remembered as.

“Why did you do it?” He whispers. A single tear rolls down River’s cheek.

“It was just all…too much. I’ve spent years trying to find the words but I can’t. It’s like the whole world never stops screaming at you and you try to hide from it but the screaming is everywhere and eventually there’s only one place to go where you’ll be able to get some peace.”

Payton has to swallow hard. He can’t – there’s nothing he can imagine saying to that, nothing that doesn’t sound incredibly hollow next to River’s pain. “So why…why did you do it when I was there? You were waiting for me, you –” Payton has carried that memory every single second of every single day, burned into his eyes. I’m sorry. I really did love you. River raising the gun to his head, pulling the trigger…so many times Payton imagined what had happened if he hadn’t pushed River, if the bullet had completed its intended journey. He throws up every time.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry –” River is breathing hard, burying his face into Payton’s neck and Payton just lets him cling to him. He’ll have River in his arms however he can get him. Finally the other man lifts up his head. “It was so selfish, it was so selfish, I just…I didn’t want to die alone. The time before, that was the worst bit, being alone. I thought I could go through with it if I wasn’t alone.”

“Fuck you River.” Payton says.

He tries to pull away but River grabs hold and won’t let go. He’s got half a foot and forty pounds on Payton and there’s no way Payton is getting away if River won’t let him so eventually he just slumps down and goes limp. River presses his forehead against Payton’s shoulder and says I’m sorry I’m sorry over and over again. Payton feels things now, that was River’s legacy to him – which means he can feel betrayal and grief and fury and about a thousand other things all at once.

“I’m glad you’re here actually,” he says, when River’s breathing has evened out a little and he’s watching Payton with large eyes. “You missed the briefing earlier so you don’t know what your assignment is.”

“Tell me what you want me to do Payton.” River says. Never leave me, Payton wants to say, spend the rest of your life making up to me for what you did. I’ll forgive you on my deathbed if you’ve spent the entire time in between at my side. But he knows, he knows now that River came here for forgiveness and Payton will give it and then River will leave and so will Alice and Payton will walk the road to white steps all on his own.

Payton tells him what his assignment is. River looks confused and then suspicious.

“Why me?”

“Because you’re the person who can fake things the best.” Payton says. It’s cruel but it’s true. The trouble with cruel but true things is that usually they hurt more than the kind things that are lies. "And I need someone who doesn't show fear."

River’s face has settled down into its usual composed lines. “I need to ask you a question first. If you want me to help you do this, to that poor woman.”

Payton snorts in amusement. Dede Standish would twist someone’s head off if she thought they pitied her. But whilst River might not be the saint that everyone tried to remember him as, he has honour and integrity deep down in his core in a way that Payton doesn’t.

They’re terrible traits for a politician.

“I need to know why.”

“Why what?”

“Why, Payton. If you’re asking me to do this, if you’re intending to destroy Standish’s political career on this basis, if this is how you pave your path…at least tell me why. Why do you want to win this election?”

Payton looks at him blankly. This conversation has taken a strange turn and he doesn’t like it. River is still looking at him as though he doesn’t care that he’s naked and covered in Payton’s come and has tear tracks on his cheeks.

“It was the perfect opportunity. Defeating the unbeatable Dede Standish would relaunch my entire trajectory towards the White House in a way that nothing else could –”

“Payton.”

“And Astrid’s scoop provides us with the ammunition we need to secure a win –”

“Payton. Stop. That’s not what I meant. God…when you were running for School President I knew why you were doing it, I could see how much you wanted to make things better –”

“–is that why you stood against me?”

“–just listen, Payton. Sure, I knew it was a step on the path but it was also more than that. You listened to what other students told you, came up with policies to make their lives better. Now, people are coming to you all the time and you’re saying the right things, making the right moves but…I can’t see you Payton. I could always see you before. Now it’s like you’re only half there. So – why do you want to win this election? Why do you want to represent the people of district 27?”

Payton doesn’t have an answer and wants to make that River’s fault. He jerks away from his grip, to the other side of the bed.

“Why do you care so much? Are you going to refuse to help me unless I give you an answer you want? Can’t you just be like the others, using me to get ahead?”

River actually rolls his eyes. Payton doesn’t think he’s ever seen him look so exasperated with Payton before.

“You need to learn to trust that people actually like you at some point Payton. But no – I’m not asking this for me, Payton. I’m asking it for you. You need to know the answer more than I do.”

Goddamn River and his goddamn wise-Buddhist-owl-riddle-questions. God he’s even more irritating in person than when he was a hallucination. Payton can’t deal with this, can’t handle this right now.

“I think you should go,” he hears himself say, and River’s eyes widen when he realises Payton means it. Slowly he gets up from the bed, showers briefly in McAfee’s tiny bathroom and then pulls his clothes back on in silence and the whole time Payton sits there and watches him, the words stuck in his chest and climbing up his throat and trembling on the tip of his tongue, unable to get any further than that. Finally River reaches the door, his hand on the doorknob shaking, and Payton wants to call him back, wants to call him back to his arms so much but he doesn’t say a word and River leaves, locking the door behind him.

Payton curls up in the middle of the bed and cries himself to sleep.

Chapter Text

New York and Shanghai are nothing alike and yet almost identical, and River feels curiously at home as he wanders down the streets. River likes big cities, likes what little anonymity he’s ever managed to get when he’s 6’4 and, as Astrid once said, looks like the sexual equivalent of what most people ask for as their last meal on death row.

His ex-girlfriend has always had a way with words.

His soulmate is even better with them.

If Payton sends him away for good, River knows he’ll be okay. He might go and live his life somewhere else, find another man to love with big Bambi eyes and a gorgeous singing voice and pretend that’s close enough to satisfy him. He might end up with a wife and do the whole white picket fence thing, slip so deep under a mask and a pretence that it’s basically a hibernation that he never wakes up from. Or he’ll go find another gun and a sunset and take care of things quietly that way.

Whatever he chooses, he’ll be okay.

The doctors said it would take three to five weeks for the antidepressants to leave his system completely. River could have told them that they wear off instantly if your ex-lover stumbles across you playing piano in a bar. They wear off so fast that the entire world crashes back into you, all the sadness and curiosity and fear and frustration and perfect desperate longing that’s been hiding just out of reach. They wear off so fast that all River could do was make sure Payton was okay and then stumble back to the dingy motel he’d found when he was still uncaring and curl up in his bed whilst the world bled emotions back into him and his heart started beating again for the first time in years.

Payton. Payton. Payton.

River knows he’ll be okay.

No one understands why River loves Payton. They all think they understand why Payton loves him, they look at River’s face and body and make their own assumptions. They don’t realise Payton loves River because River loves him, completely and unconditionally. There’s a hole in Payton’s soul that won’t ever be filled up and River is the only person who can keep pouring love into it the whole entire time and it’ll be the closest that Payton ever comes to being whole.

But why would River do that? Why would River love someone hollow? Someone who maybe loves River less than he loves his own ambition?

River smiles as he walks. The city is full of flickering lights and noises and suffering, and that’s a cliché but River’s meds have worn off and he’s drowning again, just like the first time, like every step he takes he feels the ground sink, quicksand, sucking him in. But when Payton is there…Payton is purpose and brightness and under his feet the world grows firmer in order to support the weight of him. River has always known that Payton would change the world, because Payton does, just by existing. The world shapes itself to accommodate the ambition and intention and willpower that is Payton Hobart and if River stands as close to him as possible then the world will be stable under his feet as well.

River knows he’ll be okay.

River has never told anyone this:

He caught an infection, midway through his recovery, so bad it was actually the closest he came to dying. And he dreamt of Payton, of standing in a place filled with white light. River finally got a chance to tell him, to explain, to try and put into words some fraction of what had been gutting him every single day of his life except the minutes he spent at Payton’s side, his only relief. And Payton had wanted to stay with him and River hadn’t let him, because he knew Payton had to change the world.

River never told anyone this and he’s glad he didn’t, because he found out later that Payton had been dying from sepsis at the same time, toeing the line between life and death the same way he was, and he knows, he knows, that it was a real conversation they had, somehow, somewhere.

River knows he’ll be okay.

Payton is his soulmate, and that’s terrible because River knows that sometimes they are really not okay. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, if Payton can look up from the knife-edge tangle of his own brain to see the love around him, from his friends even if not from River, if he can ever learn to reach back for it. If Payton turns away, if he never reaches back to River, if he sends him away…

River will be okay. Even if he’s goes for the sunset option, he’ll be okay. Whatever option, whatever path River ends up taking without Payton at his side, they all end in the same place. And when River finally can’t take drowning anymore, can’t take the world screaming at him, can’t find anywhere else to hide…

He’ll go back to that line. In the white place, he’ll wait there for Payton to join him, and then they’ll go the rest of the way together.

River is content with that. He knows he’ll be okay.

Chapter Text

“I need today off.” Payton says down the line. He can picture James and McAfee clustered close at the other end, picture the way they look at each other without their faces giving anything away.

“That’s probably a good idea,” says James. “Any plans?”

“I thought I’d just enjoy New York.”

“Will you still be going ahead with our evening plans?”

“If you give me the go-ahead.”

“Okay. We’ll let you know.”

“Thanks.”

Payton hangs up the phone and looks around the tiny apartment, McAfee’s apartment, that she gave him the keys to without a word, at the piano in the corner that Astrid found god knows where and James and Khai and Skye spent an hour carrying up the stairs. There’s a bouquet of flowers in the corner that cost more than anything else in the room, palm leaves for victory, bells of Ireland for good luck and yellow poppies for success, Alice’s touch, Alice’s gift. And River, who’s never said ‘I love you’ but wanted Payton to be the last thing he saw before he died.

Payton picks up the phone and dials a different number.

“Alice? I’m sorry to disturb you. Would you happen to be free this morning?”

~

Payton takes Alice to the Met, because she loves Degas and Payton loves Alice. He follows her whilst she wanders around the sculpture room with her eyes sparkling. They’ve been spotted a dozen times already, people whispering and pointing. His brothers are murderers. His team are all crooks. His campaign got investigated for mob money. Did you hear, did you hear, did you hear…

Payton ignores them completely.

Afterwards they have a light brunch on the terrace in the June sun. They discuss Alice’s studies and Thad and the conflict in Eritrea and what could be done on the world stage to help mitigate it. He puts her into a cab afterwards and she kisses his cheek and smiles at him. It’s a perfect morning, one he’ll remember for the rest of his life.

He walks down Park Avenue until he reaches 52nd street. It takes him an hour of arguing with the manager, and then an hour with the head professional, until the Racquet and Tennis club agree to waive its policies of the last hundred years and permit a membership with only one nominator. Payton signs his mother’s name without a second’s thought; he knows she wouldn’t mind. Two hours later he signs his father’s with even less hesitation, on a donation to NYU’s Computer Sciences programme, making a note that it’s to be earmarked for the student-led campaign to install sleep pods in the labs. Payton thinks they’re idiots but hey, one of them is his idiot, so he signs with a smile.

The next bit is trickier, but Payton doesn’t blink. He sits on a café balcony overlooking Bryant Park, knowing there’s a dozen long-range camera lenses on him but probably no mics, and works his way through the little black book of contacts he’s been collecting for the past few weeks. The men and women who are expecting to be his political colleagues are happy to hear from him, happier still to do him a favour this early in the exchange. It takes Payton less than forty minutes to line up two positions, Comms Assistant in the Governor’s re-election campaign and Policy Lead in Senator Cho’s team. Perfect.

His phone pings with a time and place and Payton’s got another couple of hours to kill. He goes to the Village, to Stonewall Inn because why the hell not, and sits in a corner nursing a coke and writing a statement, the words flowing easily on to the paper as though they’ve been waiting for him to say them for a long time. And then his phone pings again, McAfee politely trying to ask what he’s wearing, and Payton rolls his eyes and fixes his hair in the neon-lit bathroom mirror and walks back up to 69th Street West to meet Standish.

~

“Mr Payton.”

“Ms Standish.” Payton shakes her hand, trying to hide his little thrill of excitement. He’s been looking forward to this moment since he stood on the Town Hall steps eight weeks ago. Dede Standish is a little taller than him, so thank god they’re not meeting in public because that would drop him two points in the ratings right there (he sees her notice this too, and a flicker of irritation that she missed a trick) and wearing a flattering peach Chanel suit, her hair loose around her shoulders. They’re in the formal consultation area she’s created in a separate section of her home, a nice touch. Payton takes the seat she waves him into.

“You’ll forgive me for being brief Payton – I may call you Payton? – I was only able to fit you in for a short period.”

“Not at all.”

“I was surprised when your team asked for an urgent private meeting.” She’s watching his face just as intently as he’s watching hers, and Payton doesn’t see a trace of actual surprise there. Satisfaction mostly, a trace of wariness, tiredness, boredom. And oh, deep down, the thing that he was desperately hoping to see.

Indecisiveness. Something is tearing Dede Standish in two.

Payton knows how that feels.

“And thank you very much for fitting me in at such short notice.” He says, adjusting his cuffs. This has to go just right. “I wanted to discuss you standing down from this nomination.”

Dede Standish’s jaw drops. She’s staring at him with wide eyes and Payton almost smiles. She’s a beautiful woman anyway but the shock is making her look twenty years younger and curiously innocent. It lasts about three seconds and then her politician instincts kick back in.

“Payton Hobart, I find that –”

“Please, Ms Standish, please. I truly don’t want to waste your time. I’d like you to hear what I have to say, and then you can kick me out of your office with as much berating as you please.”

Standish gives him another once-over and then she’s shaking her head with a smile.

“Well, Payton, I will give you this – you have unparalleled levels of chutzpah. I am impressed. You may say what you want to say and then I will drop-kick you to the curb.”

“Okay.” Now. He has to do it now. Payton rubs at the scar on his fingers, a nervous tic. Dede Standish notices it, because of course she does, but it doesn’t matter now. Whether Payton gets this wrong or right, it won’t matter after this conversation. “So, to begin with then Ms Standish, a little background. I need you to understand: I am a quintessential politician. I manipulate and deceive as easily as breathing, I can’t meet someone new without thinking about how to use them and I have trust issues like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Are you hoping for input at any stage in this monologue Mr Hobart, or are you happy to continue you on your own?”

“I’m saying all this so that you understand how much respect and admiration I have for you, Dede Standish. You oversaw a slide to a majority in not just the Senate but the State House as well, completing the trifecta. You confronted Governor Matthews on Proposition 87 and he backed down. You obliterated Grubberman in ’08. When I was 15, I compiled a list of the top 100 politicians in the country that I wanted to emulate and you were number 12.”

There’s a long moment of silence when he finishes speaking. Standish is looking at him, now about half-and-half wariness and surprise.

“I…I thank you Mr Hobart. I sense that you do mean those words sincerely. Though I confess I’m still grappling a little for your point…?”

“The point is that I’ve been watching you for most of my life and that’s why I can say with confidence, that I have no idea where you’ve been this whole campaign. Your heart doesn’t seem to be in it. I’m not even sure you want to win.”

He’s knocked her speechless for the second time in as many minutes. This is either going brilliantly or terribly.

“You insulting little –”

“I don’t know why you’ve checked out of your own re-election campaign. Although I do have one guess.”

“I don’t know what you mean and I don’t appreciate you casting aspersions –”

“So it wouldn’t have anything to do with Junior Senator-Elect Tino Hoffman’s visit three months ago?”

Standish freezes. Payton can see the wheels turning behind her eyes and hurries on, the words threatening to come out in a babble he’s talking so fast.

“He fired his security aide after that meeting; the poor boy ended up stranded in New York, where he was hired by a friend of mine who wanted more protection for his sick uncle. He mentioned the two of you had been cloistered together for some time. I also happen to know that after your little chat together Hadassah Gold searched ‘White House election tactics’ six or seven times a day for the next week – you really need to learn to clear your search history by the way.”

Standish has clenched her jaw very tight. “You’re reaching above your station Mr Hobart.” Oh, so, they’re not on a first name basis anymore. Oh well. Payton isn’t finished yet.

“Also your husband went into Martin Greenfield’s and ordered a number of suits – some not in his size, interestingly enough – and I quote, ‘fit for a Second Gentleman’.”

If Payton were a good man rather than just one who does good deeds, he would probably feel a little stab of guilt at the way Standish’s face suddenly goes closed off and hollow. As it is, all he feels is a grim curl of satisfaction in his belly.

“I have other bits of evidence I won’t bore you with now, all tiny little things that are meaningless on their own but when you put them together…Ms Standish, you have been absent from this race because you are looking ahead at the one that comes after.”

“Mr Hobart – I concede. I underestimated you –”

“I’m not finished. I also –”

Hold your tongue. ” The power in her voice takes him by surprise, presses him back against the seat. Goddamnit, Payton shouldn’t have underestimated her either. “Do not think you can intimate me the way you do high school principles or Harvard admissions officers – yes I know about that too. You’ve done some excellent detective work, I admit, but work that is ultimately meaningless. The future that I’m looking ahead too would only boost my popularity further, would be received with adulation by our party colleagues, would –”

“Would destroy the happiness of the two people you love most.”

The hit slides home, and even knowing he’s about to be kinder to Dede Standish than he is to himself, Payton feels a little bit disgusted by himself. Does this truly count as a good deed River, he wonders, is it enough to make me a good person?

“I’m not sure what you mean.” Dede says, playing for time whilst her brain finds a way out and for a moment Payton sees a glimpse of her thirty years ago when she was as hungry as he was. She would have been a lot like Alice, he thinks: unreadable and ruthless.

“I mean two things: firstly, I’m talking about your husband and your partner. I congratulate you on a long-term happy relationship and for keeping such a glorious scoop out of the papers for so long. Secondly, I’m talking about the fact that you know there is no possible way you could continue to do so in a White House campaign. Even to try risks losing at least one of them. And you, Dede Standish, are not sure you want to take that risk. You haven’t put your heart into this campaign because you’re not 100% sure you want to win it.”

Dede Standish looks at him and sees him, for the first time. Payton feels the thrill of it in his bones.

“I’ve been monologuing for a while now, for which I beg your apology. I’ve only got a little more to say. I respect you Ms Standish, so I’d like to offer you the choice, to decide what your legacy is.”

“You have no proof of anything.”

“You know as well as I do that I don’t need any; as soon as those words are said aloud then the proof will creep out of the walls to follow them. But here, if it helps with the decision, I put some other elements together as well.”

Payton pulls some papers out of his bag. Normally he avoids putting things like this on paper, but Standish is the old-fashioned type. That’s rather been his point the whole campaign. He watches her face as she flicks through them. Only some of them are about her lovers. One is proof that the hack on their group chat came from her office’s IP address – Khai had a laughingly easy time tracing it back. Another is the payment given to his brothers’ friend to say that they’d been drunk when out hunting – Payton doesn’t doubt that they were, but bribes never look good for anyone. He gives her a moment to digest and then carries on.

“You should know that a member of my team is with the Editor of the Post right now. We know he’s old friends with your partner…but I’m not sure how the paper’s owners would feel knowing he concealed the scoop of the century over a friendship. He may well decide to cut his losses and redeem himself by breaking the story before anyone else does…” Standish’s hand clenches on the papers, but the rustle is the only sound she makes. Payton goes in for the kill. “Another member of my team is currently with Hadassah Gold, breaking the news that you’ve been lying to her for a decade.”

The moment Standish closes her eyes, Payton knows he’s won.

When he’s done his two terms as President and spent half a decade or so on the after-dinner speech circuit, Payton will consent to an authorised autobiography. He’ll reveal every single detail about himself and Alice and River, and if Standish is still alive then he will send her an autographed copy, so that she can laugh herself sick at his shameless, shameless hypocrisy. Hopefully she’ll also realise that Payton gave her a chance to save the two people that she loved, and sacrificed his own.

God Payton is in a melodramatic mood at the moment. A couple of months having River around and he’s Emily Brontë herself.

“I won’t insult you by laying out your options Ms Standish. I’ll only request that you make a decision as quickly as possible, preferably before the news about my brothers gains too much traction. As a fellow Democrat I’m sure you don’t want it to damage me too much before I go up against Laurelton.”

“Please leave,” is all Standish says, and Payton obediently rises. She’s wonderfully elegant in defeat, far more than Payton ever could be. Maybe it comes with experience. He really hopes not – he’d prefer not to have too much experience with defeat. At the door he hesitates, but doesn’t look back. He’s said everything there was for him to say.

~

They’re all waiting for him in the dorm room. Astrid and Khai are still yawning from their eight-hour flight; James and McAfee have the bleary-eyed look of people who haven’t slept at all. Alice is perched on a chair putting the rest of them to shame – Payton is pretty sure she spent the rest of the day in a spa – whilst Skye is purring like a cat that got the cream. River – River has a black eye.

“Are you okay?” Payton blurts out, dropping his bag by the door and forgetting all the grand plans he’d come up with on the way over here to be aloof and distant. River touches at his eye gingerly.

“I’m fine. Token of Hurricane Hadassah’s appreciation.”

“How did she even reach your face?” Astrid asks. “She’s barely as tall as your chest.”

“Man, are you sure you don’t want me to steal you a steak for that?” Khai yawns. “There’s a rich guy living two corridors over, he’s always got filet mignon or shit like that in his fridge.”

“No stealing meat products.” Payton says, feeling like they’ve gone off-track slightly. What is wrong with this lot that they always end up chatting about nonsense rather than focusing on the matter at hand?

“Do you think one of those vegan fake meat steaks would work too?” Skye is asking, inspecting River’s face. He’s sitting on the floor so that she can see properly. “Like, the ones that bleed fake blood?” She looks up and sees Payton’s face and laughs. “Lighten up Hobart. It’s only been the most important day of your campaign. Hey – we should have a drink again! Come on Payton, even you can have a non-alcoholic root beer with friends once in a while.”

Friends.

Payton forgets what he was about to say, all the speeches he had prepared, let’s Skye prod him over to the bed. It’s a calmer atmosphere than the past few times, everyone content to sit and talk rather than go crazy with drinking games. Eric and some of his friends arrive, and then McAfee’s contact Kennedy rocks up with three bottles of Dom Perignon they stole from Standish’s campaign offices, and then Avery and Cassius – who they have to thank for the Tino scoop – carrying another care basket from Ezra that contains some extremely expensive-looking whiskey that River steals immediately. At some point James’s mobile rings and he’s goes out to answer it and then comes back in and punches Payton on the jaw.

“Ow!” yelps Payton. “What was that for?” He’s vaguely insulted to see that all the new people have jumped up and are looking shocked whilst his – his friends – just sit there hiding their smiles. James is glaring at Payton furiously.

“Why the hell did Senator Cho’s head of staff just call to offer me a job?”

“Um…”

“Wait, you too?” McAfee sits up very fast. “I got a call earlier from Governor Matthew’s office – Payton! What did you do?”

“It was just in case –” Payton starts, and then has to duck James’ fist again. Alice comes over and narrows her eyes at him. Her dress is very pretty and her face is very mad and Payton begins to think maybe he miscalculated.

“I also received a gift from Payton this morning.”

“There’s more.” River has gone unerringly to his bag (the bastard) and is rifling through Payton’s notebook, pulling out papers. “Here, Astrid. Khai, I – I’m not going to ask man, but I’m pretty sure this one’s yours –”

“River, stop.”

“Oh, hey, this is awesome!” Khai grins down at the donation receipt. Astrid is just sort of staring at her lifetime membership confirmation.

“And this – oh.” River looks down at the page, at Payton’s scribbled handwriting. His eyes are very blue when he looks up, and then turns to Skye. “I’d like to think this was for me, but I’m pretty sure it’s for you.”

“So everyone gets presents and jobs and I get a letter, I mean, really Payton, you shouldn't have –” Skye’s voice abruptly trails off as she starts reading and the whole room falls quiet around her. Payton can feel himself sweating, tries not to shuffle his feet. Finally Skye looks up with a strange expression on her face and he gives a little shrug.

“You said it was at odds with your personal principles.”

After a moment Skye clears her throat and nods. “Yeah, well, um, that’s true – so, so thanks Payton, I appreciate the gesture –”

It takes Payton a second and then he realises. Sometimes a gesture isn’t enough and you have to put your money where your mouth is. He’s in a room full of strangers and his future is tiptoeing around someone else’s decision but right now he has to make a choice about him, and about Skye, who said she was here for her own gain but yesterday looking gutted when Payton talked about cutting ties and today called him friend and fought in his name. Payton takes a deep breath.

“What even is it?” Astrid is asking, reaching out a hand for the notepad, and Payton speaks up before she can reach it.

“It’s my coming out statement. I’m bisexual.”

There’s a moment’s silence. Payton can see all the strangers exchanging glances, or worse, shooting looks at James and Khai and River, speculative eyebrows raising. Everything he’d been so scared of happening, happening. But Skye is looking at the floor and wrinkling her nose and Payton knows her well enough (because she’s his friend) to know she’s trying to hold back tears.

“That’s really cool man.” Eric says finally, tipping his beer at Payton. A murmur of agreement goes around the room, smiles and salutes. Avery is looking him up and down with a gleam in his eye and Payton can see both River and Alice noticing. Then McAfee storms over the Skye and snatches the paper out of her hand to read it.

“Are you kidding me?” She throws the whole notepad at Payton and it hits him in the chest because she’s following it a second later, waving a finger in Payton’s face. “A statement? Some random “heartfelt” statement that you probably wrote in a bar? I have a twelve-page dossier of the most meticulously-crafted coming out plan that you can imagine –it was elegant, it was meaningful, it was going to go viral – and you were, what, going to do a random press release?” She huffs out a breath and crosses her arms across her chest. “Why do I even bother working for you, you clearly don’t appreciate me.”

Payton laughs out loud and wraps his arms around McAfee in a hug. She’s stiff and unrelenting and then slowly softens in his arms

Thank you Lord, for placing McAfee Westbrook at my side, I do not fucking deserve her.

“Wow, so apparently I am the world’s worst present-buyer.” Payton says, trying for a laugh and to cover up the fact that he’s sniffling a little. His friends are decent enough to obediently laugh and pretend not to notice the tears. Skye comes over for a hug as well, and Astrid kicks him in the shin and he knows that’s her way of saying thank you. Payton finds himself being passed around the room for handshakes and congratulations. It’s Eric who loops an arm around his neck and presses close.

“That was really brave dude, I’m proud of you. When you do it properly we’ll all be there to cheer you on. Hey, shame you can’t have a drink with us to celebrate though – that’s totally cool though, of course – but feels like tonight you need one hey!”

Payton grins and ducks his head. He agrees but also doesn’t. For the first time in nearly three months he doesn’t feel like he needs a drink at all.

“Thanks man I appreciate it. But yeah, I’ve got to be strict with myself, always have to avoid that first drink.”

“I do have a solution.” It’s Alice, soft and pastel, her eyes meeting someone else’s behind Payton’s back as she takes a large sip of her gin and tonic. Then she’s clasping Payton’s face in firm hands and kissing him, her tongue slipping into his mouth and setting his spine on fire, the soft floral taste of juniper exploding across his lips. Then she’s letting go and smiling and Payton knows he’s gaping at her, before even firmer hands turn him around and River’s tilting his chin up and kissing him, smoke and malt flavour easing into his mouth and the room around them bursts into laughter and cheers.

“Me next, me next!” Khai is yelling, jumping down from the top bunk. There’s more cheering and a queue forming, smiling lips pressed against Payton’s again and again as Alice and River stay steady by his side. McAfee tells him she’s still mad before adding to the gin flavour, Skye telling him not to get any ideas and adding beer to the mix. Eric dips him with a flourish and Kennedy is too shy to do anything more than a peck on the lips.

“I feel like this is our ‘I’m Spartacus’ moment.” He hears James say behind him, and Payton twists round so he can grab him by the braces and haul him in for a smooch, James making a spluttering noise and half the room dissolving in laughter.

Friends, thinks Payton, and turns round to kiss someone new.

~

“Hi, yeah, you two can be somewhere else for a bit.” Astrid tells River and Alice. It’s one in the morning and the dorm party is winding down, Skye and Khai shepherding whoever’s left to a karaoke bar two blocks over. Payton is sitting on his bed (well it’s been McAfee’s for a while but still), feeling kiss-drunk and happy.

“Please leave enough of him left to love.” River says to Astrid, who just pops her gum at him. But he and Alice are both getting up and Payton grabs at his sleeve.

“Don’t I have to, like, consent to being left alone with Astrid Sloan?”

“Bitch, be grateful for me.” Astrid snaps, plopping down next to him. The room is rapidly clearing out and soon it’s just the two of them sitting there. Astrid is eyeing him sideways.

“Is that what you wore to go meet Standish?”

“Astrid –”

“Geez, I’m joking, chill out…”

They sit there in silence for a bit, Astrid seeming totally fine to just stare at the ceiling and pop her gum and Payton feeling increasingly like he’s got ants crawling over his skin.

“Astrid…”

“What?”

“Oh my god please say something the suspense is killing me.”

“Wuss.” Astrid starts rifling around in her pockets. “So I mainly just wanted to tell you that your brothers are even bigger arseholes than they were when we were in high school. Also they’re getting kind of podgy.”

“They weren’t terrible were they?”

“Oh yeah they definitely were. But Khai’s uncles had a bunch of guys meet us at Santa Barbara airport and they handled it. We’re, like, aware that his uncles are majorly fucking dodgy right?”

“It’s not something we really talk about.” Payton hedges. He and James and Khai had gotten mugged one night coming back from a bar. The next day the mugger had been outside their dorm building prostrating himself for forgiveness and returning everything he took. Khai didn’t seem to think there’d been anything weird about it, but Payton and James had stopped complaining about his snoring really soon after. “Thanks for sending me the stuff about the kid Standish bribed.”

“Yeah. I mean, I get the sense that he kind of wanted to spill the beans anyway – because Payton, your brothers were off their faces – but we’re campaigning and she messed up, so now it just looks like a typical terrible hunting accident, no cover up or drama involved.” Astrid finally yanks out an envelope from her pocket. “Also, I got this for you.”

“What…is it?” Payton takes it and tenses instantly. He knows this. He knows this paper – you should always use at least 100 gsm, Payton my boy, to ensure a suitable thickness for embossing. I favour ecru personally, but eggshell can also convey a certain gravitas. The envelope should match, of course – as well as he knows the handwriting on the front. Payton realises at the same time Astrid does that his hands are shaking. She stirs uneasily beside him.

“I’ll give you a sec.”

“Wait.” Payton grabs for her hand without looking up from the envelope. “Would you – I don’t mind if you stay.”

A long pause. “Fine.”

Payton breaks the seal and pulls out the letter carefully, thick and soft in his hand. The page is crammed full of tiny writing and for a moment his eyes blur and he can’t read it and then they focus enough for him to scan the top line.

My dear son, I can only apologise for the way I…

Payton lets the tears fall as he reads, words he didn’t know he wanted until Astrid carried them three thousand miles for him after re-entering a world that she hated, that she’d rejected more than any of them, for Payton’s sake and Payton’s sake alone and bringing back a gift that she would have desperately wanted for herself. A father’s love.

Thank you Lord, for placing Astrid Sloan by my side, I do not fucking deserve her.

“Seriously Payton, I know my jumper isn’t goddamn Barneys like Alice’s but if you get snot on it we are through.”

“Sorry Astrid.” Payton sniffs, wiping his eyes on his own sleeve. He’s all disgusting now and it can’t be an attractive look – if there’s a camera within forty feet of this place he really will fire McAfee – but Astrid just nudges him with a shoulder and clambers off the bed. By the time they get downstairs there’s only the distant sounds of Khai’s drunken yelling, and Astrid kicks him again in farewell as she runs off after them. River is leaning against the building door, wearing a dark blue sweater over a white shirt and looking like every dream of him Payton’s ever had.

“Sorry I kept you waiting.”

“Don’t worry about it.” River smiles down at him. Payton wants to reach up and stroke his dimple. “Alice asked me to apologise, said the dawn was getting too close for her liking and she wanted to get some sleep. I got her a cab.”

“Oh…okay…”

“She also said to remind you that she’s an engaged woman and she takes that commitment seriously, and to give you a cheer-up kiss when you didn’t stop pouting.”

Payton’s not pouting. Is he – he is. Goddamnit. River’s smile breaks into a laugh. He’s looking at Payton like he always has, like he thinks Payton hung the moon or rescued a kitten from a tree or…or was going to change the world.

“Does it bother you that I didn’t get you anything?” Payton asks, because apparently blurting out dumb stuff is just a habit he has around River, fantastic, possibly the worst ever trait for a politician. And it’s an especially stupid question considering how well all his other gifts were received…and the fact that he does have something to give River. He just doesn’t know if he can.

River smiles and shrugs, blue eyes easy.

“I already have everything I could ever want from you Payton.”

They’re standing on the steps of Payton’s dorm building, the only sound coming from crickets in the trees around them. There’s nobody in sight, no glint of a lens or paparazzi breathing. But there’s still a risk. A risk to everything.

Payton leans up and pulls River down into a kiss.

“I love you,” he says. River kisses him back sweetly, easily.

“I love you too.”

Payton can feel he’s pink-cheeked and giddy when he pulls back, unable to stop the smile from creeping onto his face. River just looks down at him with that same soul-deep fondness that he always has, like there’s something about Payton that just brings him peace.

Payton swears, he swears, that this time he’ll do just that. He’ll bring River peace, so that when the world gets too much he can come to Payton to hide from it, and will never have to consider…anything else. He has no idea how, his brain flinching away whenever he tries to consider what tomorrow and Dede Standish will bring. But for tonight…

“Come back with me,” he says, and River’s fondness slides into something more earthy. “Come back with me tonight; I need to make up to you for yesterday.”

“You don’t need to make up to me for anything.” River says, his voice low. He’s shoved his hands in his pockets but his whole body is swaying towards Payton like he’s being pulled by a string. “But if you want to fuck me again in apology, I have no problem with that.”

Payton has to use every inch of his willpower not to grab him and kiss him again right there, for the whole world to see. Maybe one day, that flinching part of his brain suggests, but Payton ignores it. There’s nothing more devastating than hope after all, and he has other priorities right now. But still…

Maybe one day.

Chapter Text

Dede Standish sits in her conservatory. She’s having a glass of white wine as a special treat, the lights of the house dark around her. Her blazer is tossed over a nearby chair. Marcus will grump at her for that. She loves it when he grumps at her.

From the garden she hears the creak of a wooden gate open and close. Most women in New York would pause at the sound of someone entering their back garden. For Dede it means that her house and her home are finally complete, that William will shortly be puttering round the kitchen cooking pasta al limone for dinner whilst Marcus irons their shirts for the week.

She lets her mind drift back to the meeting she just had. Not the one with Hadassah, tearful and raging and coming up with a thousand different plans to take the smug little brat down, who does he think I am, trying to turn me against you. No, the meeting with Payton Hobart, the first time she’d ever seen him face to face. There’s something interesting about him in person, she thinks. It’s as though the rest of the world goes a little out of focus, or maybe he’s just more in focus, like as he moves through a room the air shifts around him to get out of his way.

She’d heard he was a liar and a lush, a washed-up underachiever with mommy issues and a string of bad choices behind him.

The man she met carries the weight of every one of those bad choices, has survived being abandoned by not one mother but two, has been knocked sideways by life enough times that he understands what it means to get back up.

The kitchen door rattles and William comes in. He doesn’t greet her until he’s locked the door, pulled all the blinds closed, checked it’s just them in the house.

Dede can’t imagine living like this every day for the rest of her life.

Payton Hobart. Shorter than she’d thought. And with truly terrible dress sense. But there was something…Dede tapped a finger against her lip. She’d learnt to recognise ‘something’. It didn’t mean anything of course, but then again, maybe it did. But also he was a smug little brat and she kind of wanted to spank him. If it weren’t for the mummy issues she would have.

Marcus gets home, loud and cheerful through the front door. He gives her a kiss hello and then checks the doors are locked, the blinds are closed, that it’s just them in the house. Then he kisses William as well.

Dede knows her choice is already made.

She tips back the last of her wine and strokes over the photos in her lap. They’re of Payton, younger and less worn than he is now with fewer bad choices weighing on him. Payton, with his elegant blond girlfriend on his arm. Payton, pulling a boy with dark hair down to kiss him.

Cheeky little bastard. The nerve of him.

Dede puts the photos to one side and goes to join her loves. The least she can do is make him sweat for it.

Chapter Text

“She still hasn’t put out a statement?”

“Nope, nada, nothing.”

“Even though we published the stuff about the bribe?”

“Dead silence.”

“Goddamnit.”

“What do you want to do?”

“…did the Herald still want that interview on school districts?”

~

New York Herald

Hobart promises a review of NY school funding allocations

 

New York Times

Forceful Payton Hobart caught on camera demanding fairer deal for New York schools from Albany Education Officer Justine Treco

 

Wall Street Journal

Hobart growing into his potential: the Democratic candidate proves he stands for more than just the Instagram generation

~

“Anything?”

“No…”

“Goddamnit!”

“What are you thinking? Payton, tell me what that look on your face means.”

“Khai’s pretty sure his uncles can bail him out of anything right? Great. I’m going up to 145 St, I’ll be on the southbound A train for rush hour.”

Payton, Payton, wait –”

~

NEW YORKERS STRANDED!

Over 300 people were left abandoned in the dark during rush hour today when an A train had to stop between stations due to an unexplained signals malfunction. If 300 angry New Yorkers weren’t enough to give the MTA bosses a headache, State Senate Democratic candidate Payton Hobart was amongst those trapped for over an hour in an overheating carriage. Twitter is already being flooded with messages about how the young politician encouraged his carriage to stay calm and share water and food; the man himself was too busy accompanying an elderly lady to hospital afterwards to give us a comment, but his office released a statement shortly after:

“The core tenet of Payton’s campaign has been about the appalling condition of the New York Subway System and the impact it has on ordinary New Yorkers, and today he was proved right in the worst possible way. Our thoughts are with all of those who were affected by today’s unfortunate events, and we encourage them to Vote Payton! in a week and a half’s time if you never want it to happen again! New York deserves better!”

~

“Jesus Payton! A lady went to hospital!”

“She was fine. No, seriously Skye – ow! You know, if someone gets footage of my team beating me up all the time – OW! – okay, fine, quit it – McAfee!”

“It’s fine Skye. We made sure there was a paramedic or nurse in each of the carriages, and Eric had some of his guys with extra water spread out across the train too. We think the lady just liked Payton holding her hand so much she wanted him to keep doing it.”

“Ah, Bertha Nowakowski, she’s the new love of my life. Fascinating lady, you know she was at the World Fair of 1939? She worked in the Poland exhibit before it closed with the outbreak of –”

“Payton, focus.”

“Oh, right, yeah the hospital said she’s going to be fine. And I’m going to cover her hospital costs out of my appearance fees – McAfee make sure that gets leaked.”

“Sure thing.”

“Also, has there been anything –”

“Nope. Maybe she’s on holiday.”

“Oh god I can’t take this.”

~

The NY Deserves Better challenge has 25,586 followers on Grebo. Post a video or message as part of the campaign and let your voice be heard on Grebo!

~

“River, are you busy right now?”

“Payton. You look tense.”

“Are you busy right now?”

“You really want a blowjob huh?”

“River! How do you always know…never mind –”

“Sure.”

“…Really?”

“Anything for our illustrious leader.”

“Are you mocking me? You are. You’re mocking me. My whole team is being so disrespectful today, I spent an hour trapped in a tube carriage with at least three homeless people and all I get is Skye beating me up about some old lady who definitely groped me by the way and you – goddamnit River stop laughing.”

“Come on.”

“What?”

“I’m clocking out. Astrid and I have been on one of her scavenger hunts all day, I could do with some stress relief myself. And to hold you in my arms for a bit.”

“Don’t say it like – you can’t just –”

“Payton. Let’s go home.”

~

“Payton, it’s nearly midnight, what the actual fuck…”

“I just wanted to quickly check in, see if you’d heard anything –”

“Oh my god Payton. No. Now go to sleep.”

“If you do –”

“If you don’t hang up this phone right now I’m texting River. And then I’m texting Alice.”

“Night McAfee!”

~

“Morning James, morning McAfee, I got you both a coffee, say, have you heard anything – okay, I’m going, I’m going –”

~

“Payton.”

Payton looks up from where he’s definitely not just staring blankly at a wall and jiggling his leg lots. Goddamnit, McAfee is going to kill him if he doesn’t have this speech written by noon.

“Hey, River. How was canvassing at the Centre?"

“Good.” River drops down into a chair. He’s wearing a long sleeve jumper despite the day’s warmth, to cover the marks on his wrists that Payton put there. Payton almost gets hard again just at the sight of him. “The crowd was a lot bigger than we expected and we ran out of badges, but Skye took down addresses and we’re going to get Eric’s guys to hand-deliver them this evening.”

They’re in the middle of the office. There’s at least fifty people bustling around them. The doors are open for any residents to wander in. And Payton wants to pull River into a kiss so goddamn badly he can feel his fingers twitching.

Alice walks past and gives him the blank look that’s her version of an eye-roll. Payton clears his throat and shifts away from River slightly, who gives him the head tilt and smile that’s his version of a smug smirk. Payton can do this. Think aloof, think cool…

“What can I help you with River?”

“If I tell you something will you not freak out?”

Aloof and cool go out the window. Payton shuffles closer.

“What is it? Tell me. Is it –”

“Calm down. Hadassah Gold’s asked to meet with me. Tomorrow.”

“Fuck. It’s a trap. They’re plotting something. That’s why they went silent, they were scheming, I knew it. There’s barely a week to go and they were plotting away, McAfee told me to stay calm but we should have been doing the same –”

“Payton. We’re in the office. My options for calming you down right now are pretty limited. Here –” River hands him a bottle of ice water, rosemary-scented. “And take a deep breath for me.” He watches Payton drink and breathe, blue eyes scanning every inch of him. Payton always felt more seen by River than by anyone else. “I’m going to meet with Hadassah, and then we’ll figure out what to do. We’re in a good place Payton. Standish’s lead over you is down to nothing, if we keep up the momentum for another week then we might just pull it off.”

Payton takes another sip of water and lets the coolness wash through him. “You’ve been on the campaign trail with us for too long, you’re starting to sound like James.”

River dimples at him. “I may have already talked this through with McAfee and James and they told me what to say.”

Payton has the worst team, and the best friends.

“He also said you’re to finish that speech for McAfee and then meet him at the Disability Action group headquarters as planned, and tonight you can take Alice and Skye out for dinner in some hole-in-the-wall place he found. He wants you supporting independent local eateries.”

“Where will you be?”

River looks at him, long and steady. “I’ll go back to the same place I was last night.”

Payton’s arms, Payton’s bed. Payton can’t do anything except nod dumbly. God, he’s already thinking about the things he wants to do, lay River out and go to town on every inch of him. He’s going to make River come with his mouth and then fuck him whilst he’s still pliant and gasping –

“Payton, you need to stop looking at me like that right now.”

God fucking damnit.

Being a politician sucks.

~

Dinner is lovely. Alice and Skye spent the first month and a half of the campaign giving each other sideways glances and now seem to have bonded over being stone-cold bitches, one with ice-water in her veins and the other with molten-lava. They talk about microaggressions and philanthropy and the Palestine-Israeli conflict and eat really excellent pierogi and Payton’s waiting for his card to be returned (Alice’s card) when his phone pings and he excuses himself to go meet James, who is hiding in the men’s bathroom.

“What happened?” He hisses. James is wearing a jacket that doesn’t match his shirt. It must be bad.

“Look!” is all James can say, and shoves his phone into Payton’s hand.

“Is Standish sick? Undercover source says there are concerns about Senate Leader’s health…oh my god, is this true?” Payton grabs at James arm so hard he’s certain there’ll be bruises, but James is grabbing back at him just as hard.

“Unconfirmed. Most of twitter seems to think it’s us that leaked it, or making it up. Everyone’s expecting a statement from her sometime tomorrow. Did she – when you met her, did she seem –”

“No.” Payton clicks his fingers rapidly as he paces around the bathroom. “No, she didn’t. But how the hell would I know, I’ve never met her before, so maybe…” The door opens and some average joe in a suit walks in. “Hi, excuse me, we’re just talking here, would you be so kind – great, great – thanks –”

“I hope he wasn’t a voter.” James remarks dryly.

“I can lose one.”

“Last time you lost by three.”

“I thought we agreed we weren’t going to talk about that. Fuck, James, what do we do? What time is River meeting Hadassah?”

“Breakfast. So don’t keep him up too late.”

“Shhhhhh!”

“No I will not shush. Payton, McAfee and I have been very tolerant of your stress-relieving antics but what the fuck are you playing at with him? You’re lucky no one yesterday decided to sell a camera phone pic to the papers –”

“He’s not my stress relief, he’s –”

“What? Your soulmate?”

Payton stops and looks at James and James looks back and then swears solidly for two straight minutes. When he’s done he waves a finger in Payton’s face and Payton zones out for a moment to think that sometimes he and McAfee really do act like the same person.

“Listen here. Just – you did your statement and McAfee’s got her comms plan and that’s all great but we agreed after the election, yes? You said it yourself.”

“Yes, I know, nothing until after I’ve got the nomination.”

“And at some point, Payton, we’re going to have a conversation. As your Campaign Manager, as your friend and as…someone with other interests at heart. We’re going to have a talk about Alice.”

Payton nods his head. There’s nothing else he can do. Deep down in the pit of the stomach he’s still convinced that he’s going to lose both of them, so he may as well savour every second he can in the meantime. That endless clock just keeps ticking...he's had River back in his life for seventy-two thousand, four hundred and thirty-six minutes. Not enough. Never enough.

James runs his hand over his head and huffs out a breath. “There’s a few journalists outside, only small papers thankfully. I’ll bring a cab round; can Skye take Alice home?”

“I’ll check.”

“Okay, great, McAfee and I will find out what we can this evening, we’ll have some statements prepared for each option for you to review tomorrow morning. Also, fix your tie.”

“You’re the best James.” Payton says as he peers into the mirror. James just leans against the wall and smiles at him.

“Yeah, yeah. And remember – don’t keep him up too late!”

~

Payton keeps River up too late. He just can’t get enough, can’t get his fill, not when it’s like he’s got two clocks ticking in his head now, one cherishing the time he gets to spend with River in general, and a second one, that counts every second when he’s got his hands on him. And both clocks are ticking down and it’s fraying him to pieces and the only relief he gets is to lose himself in River.

Payton spends nearly half an hour sucking River off, nuzzling across his stomach and his thighs and his cock as River keeps his hands tight on the headboard. He opens him up as he sucks him, slow and careful until River is trembling, and then slides all the way down till he comes with a shout. Afterwards Payton does as he’d planned – he pushes River’s thigh back and slides into him whilst River is still coming down from his high, so open and easy around him that Payton has to grit his teeth not to come immediately. River can’t get hard again so soon but he moans with every thrust and Payton doesn’t last nearly as long as he wants, feeling the tension coil tighter in his body till it explodes.

Payton falls asleep to the feeling of River stroking his hair and when he wakes up in the morning he’s already gone. He lies there in a bed that smells of them and then grabs for his phone to text the others, McAfee to bring coffee and Khai to bring bagels and James to bring the morning’s gossip, and meet at the apartment. Shirley can manage the office for a bit and River will meet him back here, but Payton thinks he’s already figured out what they’re going to do.

~

“Well, at least you don’t have a black eye this time.” Skye’s on her third bagel when River gets back, looking exhausted but content. He doesn’t seem surprised to see everyone there, just dimples at the room and grabs a lox bagel.

“Worse. She pinched my cheek and said if she was thirty years younger…” Everyone groans and River shrugs. Old ladies are about the only people he’s okay with hitting on him. Everyone else just gets River’s usual meaningless smile. Payton feels a sudden shiver go down his spine at the realisation that he just called Hadassah Gold an old lady, even inside his head – he’s sure she knows, somehow, and will eviscerate him next time in revenge. Astrid’s boot connects with his shin and he jerks to realise everyone’s looking at him, River waiting patiently for his attention before he speaks.

“Sorry, sorry – just, bad mental images.”

“Man, stop, I do not need those in my head.” Khai groans. He’s on his fourth bagel. There may be a competition happening, Payton isn’t sure.

“What’s the message from Hadassah?” James is almost bouncing in his seat. River looks straight at Payton.

“She said if you hadn’t already figured it out then you didn’t deserve to hear it.”

Payton smiles.

“What does she want? Governor or Congress?”

“Governor.”

“What? What’s going on, what are we – oh.” Understanding dawns over James face and he slumps back in her seat. “Oh, she’s good.”

“Hey, for those of us who can’t read Payton’s mind, what the hell is going on?” Astrid pops her gum and raises an eyebrow. River gives a little shrug.

“I’ll leave it to these guys to explain. All I know is, she said we still had to work for it.”

“Yeah, of course, they can’t make it easy for us, that would defeat the purpose and probably blow wide open at some point –”

“James.”

“Okay. Okay.” James takes a deep breath. “So: Standish isn’t sick. She’s just going to let some hints drop that she is – she’ll probably make a big speech later about how tough she is, how she soldiers on in the face of adversity, god, McAfee, that would be a great speech to write –”

“James!”

“James, focus.”

“Right, right, sorry. But her numbers will drop. You can’t get sick when you’re running for election. You can show weakness. Her numbers will drop, and if we do everything right for the next week and if we’re so goddamn lucky then, then…this election is ours.”

The words hang electric in the air. Payton can’t believe James dared to say them out loud. He feels like his blood has turned to champagne, fizzing up inside him.

Dude.” Khai has a mouthful of bagel. “You just said she’s the one letting hints out that she’s sick. Why the hell would she do that if it means we win?”

“Because she wants us to win.” Payton says softly. “Because it’s the only way she can save her marriage. Or throuple. Whatever.”

“Are we blackmailing her?” Skye asks curiously. Payton waves his hands.

“No, no, well...okay, no, not really – she knows that the threat we pose is nothing compared to what campaigning alongside Tino would be. And the only way she can realistically rescind on his offer without creating a very dangerous enemy is, well, to make herself ineligible. To no longer be in political office herself.”

“But she can’t just resign.” James picks up the story, still bouncing. “A woman like Dede Standish does not just resign. Payton offered her an out, to be beaten by someone worth being beaten by. A good end to her story – except Dede Standish does not just accept being beaten either. Nor does she throw an election. She’s leaking the rumour about being unwell because it gives us the best shot of beating her legitimately, and she can step down with honour, take a few years off ‘to focus on her family’…and then come back swinging.”

“And Payton will owe her a favour.” River says calmly.

“I’ll owe her a Governorship.” Payton replies. “She’s backing me; she thinks I can go all the way,” the memory of fifteen-year old him making that list punches the air in delight, Dede Standish thinks I can go all the way! “ – or at least get high enough that when she stands for election to Governor – fully recovered by her imaginary illness, probably something sympathetic and galvanising like breast cancer – then my public support will swing it in her favour.”

“Damn.” Astrid mutters. “This bitch is colder than me and Alice combined.”

“It’s Dede Standish,” Payton beams, still giddy. “What did you expect?”

“So what do we do now?” Asks Khai, looking consideringly at a fifth bagel. “I mean, it’s basically ours to lose right?”

Energy sings through Payton, bright and burning. The path in front of him is more solid than ever. It’ll be years, years, till he hits those White House steps…but he’s going to get there.

“Khai, take the bagel with you. Everyone else, on your feet. We’ve got work to do.”

~

“Senator Standish! What do you have to say about the recent rumours about your health?”

“Those rumours are completely unfounded, I am in excellent health and fully able to continue running this race. The New Yorkers who I’ve represented for so many long years are fully aware of my determination and bravery in the face of adversity…”

~

Wall Street Journal

“Closing gap between Standish and Hobart reveals potential step change for New York, and for future Democratic campaigns altogether”

~

Is Times Square coming under new management?

With only six days to go before the New York State Senate Democratic primary, Hobart and Standish are neck and neck in the polls and Midtown and Village residents are starting to ask themselves who they’re going to trust with the most historic NY districts…and which candidate has the health and strength to go toe to toe with Republican nominee Logan Laurelton.

~

“What’s the variation rate?”

“Seven points either way.”

“Fuck.”

~

Van Wilsen’s Foundation for Disaffected Youth becomes latest organisation to throw backing behind Payton Hobart for District 27.

~

Standish seen helped from the stage following her Senate address last night – rumours about ill health still unconfirmed.

~

Hobart’s Volunteers Coordinator Skye Leighton delivers powerful speech to NY Girl Scouts Association only three days before election.

~

“Hi, Alice, come on in.” Payton hurries to clear away cartons and papers as Alice carefully steps inside McAfee’s apartment. She’s wearing her grandmother’s diamond brooch, which was always a sign she needed a confidence boost. Payton quickly texts Cassius to come and pick her up in a bit – he doesn’t quite trust the cab drivers of New York enough to let her get home alone.

Alice is looking around curiously. Apart from the other morning she hasn’t visited him here, and Payton sees her shy little smile at the sight of her bouquet still in the corner. Payton touches the leaves for luck every morning before he leaves.

“Can I fetch you a drink?”

“No, Payton, I won’t be staying long. McAfee has had to travel down to Brooklyn so I said I would bring you your papers for the assembly tomorrow.”

“Oh, great, thanks –”

“And also I have a gift for you.”

“A gift?” Payton blinks at her. “Alice, that’s kind of you, but I don’t need –”

“It’s primarily from me, but also from everyone.” Alice says calmly, carrying on as though she hasn’t heard him. She usually does that when she thinks he’s saying something silly. “It was already in the works before you went on your gift-giving spree last week –” she gives him a considered look. Payton is still in trouble with everyone except Astrid and Khai for that (Astrid has already kicked his arse twice at singles). When James gets irritated at him he usually announces that he’s leaving to work for Senator Cho instead. “– So we decided we wanted to give it to you before the election. Please remember I dislike overemotional thanks.”

She hands him a small box. Payton opens it. It’s a key, and an address written on a card. The address is 24 West, near 8th Avenue, almost the exact heart of District 27.

“It’s only one-bedroom, but there’s a study with a pull-out futon in case you ever need security or James or McAfee need to crash. Eleven hundred square feet with a kitchen and breakfast bar, please don’t ask me the rental cost as I won’t tell you. Khai and Eric are coming to move the piano over there tomorrow, Astrid has already furnished most of it. Also I’ve told Thad I’m going to marry him after all. I thought it would carry more weight if I told him before the election result.”

Every word feels like a wave crashing over Payton, but the last bit breaks through. He closes his eyes, just for a moment, just so there can be a before to the after Alice said those words.

He always knew he would lose them both eventually.

“Then I…then I wish you all my sincerest congratulations and, and, god, excuse me –” He’s choking up, he can feel the tears about to come pouring down his face. His Alice, his perfect beautiful Alice…

“Payton. Listen to me. I agreed to marry Thad on the condition that I continue working as your Financial Director – and eventually Secretary of the Treasury – for as long as I wished, and he can never interfere or seek to prevent me.”

The waters pull back and Payton isn’t drowning anymore but he’s not sure he can breathe yet either.

“You – what?”

“I love Thad, Payton. He’s a good man – a great man. He has ambitions of his own, and with his family and my help he will achieve them. And if the day after tomorrow goes well, then I expect you to also help him achieve them, as he will help you with yours. As you will both help me with mine.”

Payton looks at her calm face, wondering if Thad knows her as well as he does to be able to spot the loose strand of hair over her ear, the very slight purse to her lips and the gentlest flush to her cheeks – all signs of what she’s feeling inside.

“Do you understand what I’m offering Payton?”

“Yes.” He does, god, he does. He wants to weep and laugh at the same time. “You’re not leaving me.”

Alice steps forward and cups his face in her hands and kisses him, sharp and sweet. “Never.” She steps back firmly. “But once I am married, I will be faithful and loyal to my husband as his wife, at the same time I am faithful and loyal to you as your most trusted advisor. I will live my life not in the shadow of two great men, but beside them, and I will be fully credited for everything I do myself to make the world a better place.”

“Alice Marguerite Charles.” Payton smiles at her helplessly. There will never be anyone who matters to him in quite the way that she does. “I would not be the man I am if it wasn’t for you.”

“I know.” She says simply, and smiles back. Then she taps the key in his hand. “I have two spares. One will be kept by James and McAfee. I took the liberty of giving the other one to River.”

Payton shivers gently all over. This is Alice. He can say anything to her.

“Alice…if I’m with River…will that ruin everything?”

“It may do.” She says, brutally direct. “It will be another ten years before you’re in a position to step onto the national stage so vividly – and where it will become a major problem – so we have until then to create an impeccable record for you in other areas. And do what we can to shape the world in the meantime so that it’s more willing to accept a First Gentleman.”

She says it so easily, but Payton feels that path grow a fraction firmer. The next ten years will be about paving it, creating a road that can withstand anything the Republicans throw at him so that he can keep marching straight forward until his goal’s in sight.

“I was so scared…so sure, that I was going to lose both of you. I can’t have just one of you. It has to be both.” Even the idea of never getting to hold Alice in his arms again is ripping him to shreds inside.

“We know.” Alice says. “That’s why we agreed on this. I’ve made it clear to River that I expect my position in your life to be respected.”

River has no ambition. He never has. All he wants, bizarrely, seems to be Payton.

“Do you pray, Alice?” Payton blurts out suddenly. Great, good to know the uncontrollable babbling isn’t limited to just River’s presence. Alice blinks a little and then gives the question her full consideration.

“Yes. Why do you ask?”

“I…I don’t know if I do.” Payton admits. “I just ask for things a lot, which I don’t think is how it’s supposed to work. I try and bargain. For the things I want. But I never asked for this – there was nothing that I could think of that would be a fair trade.”

Alice gives a delicate little shrug. “I don’t have an answer for that. I can give you River’s, however.”

That makes Payton laugh. “What would River’s answer be?”

Alice makes an excellent attempt at lowering her voice as much as possible, cupping a hand round the back of Payton’s neck. It’s really a very bad sign that both things make Payton a little hard.

“River would say, you already know what the trade has to be Payton. You have to change the world.”

“God!” Payton actually laughs out loud. He still has tears in his eyes for fuck’s sake. Forget the anxiety, his heart really can’t take the swerves of emotion. “I can’t believe you both came back to me. You – god, I have never been so grateful. And River reappearing…it felt like fate.”

Alice looks at him, a little smile playing around her mouth, and Payton suddenly knows what she’s about to stay as she says it.

“I’m the one that called River.” And then, when he just stares at her, wordless, gives a little shrug. “I told him you needed him, and he came.”

There’s nothing Payton can say to that. Everyone is always astounded by how River always seems to know exactly what Payton needs. But Alice is on the other side of the scale, always has been, and she can do it too. She brought him the thing he needed most of all.

Thank you Lord, for placing Alice Marguerite Charles at my side, I do not fucking deserve her.

There’s only one thing left. Payton has always been too greedy for his own good, but this feels right. He steps forward and loops an arm around Alice’s waist.

“You said that you would be faithful and loyal to Thad…once you were married.”

“Payton.” Alice blushes bright pink and Payton’s heart skips a beat with how much he loves her. And he will always love her, even if after this night he never gets to touch her again, knows that the most intimate parts of her life are reserved for someone else. That’s okay. There’s a thousand and one ways to let someone know you love them. Changing the world with them at your side is just one of them. He pulls her in for a kiss, and then another, and feels her melt in his arms. When she pulls away her eyes are sparkling and her smile matches his.

“I’m going to take a moment to freshen up.” She says, and Payton takes the hint to pull out his phone and text River a long string of emojis that he knows (desperately hopes) River will be able to interpret. He’s sure River will understand why he needs this one night – because Payton hopes to give all the others to him.

Just before he follows Alice into the bedroom he texts Cassius as well. Alice won’t need escorting anywhere else tonight.

Chapter Text

The night before the election, Payton spends it alone. He goes back to Mike’s bar and plays until three in the morning and his voice is raw and his fingers exhausted. And then he walks. It’s a Thursday night and New York is the city that never sleeps, so there’s plenty of life going on to keep him company as he walks from Avenue D to Washington Street and up to Strawberry Fields, all the streets that would have been his to take care of. He gets to the office at about 7am and then realises that he was never actually given a key to his own offices, and has to sit there for half an hour until James and McAfee arrive. Astrid has left him out a suit with a pale blue tie and Payton leaves it hanging round his neck whilst he paces around the meeting room, rehearsing both the speeches he has prepared. At 9am James comes to get him.

“Payton, we’re ready to head over to the polling station.”

“James,” Payton says. He wants to say something meaningful, something that would be worth three years and change of unending loyalty. James just looks at him and then makes a hurry up gesture. They have work to do.

The office bursts into applause when he walks out, what looks like nearly every volunteer they have crammed into the tiny space. Payton walks around, giving Shirley a hug that makes her start crying and exchanging high fives with some of Skye’s girl scouts. There’s still cameras pointed at him and a whole day for people to get down to vote after all. Also, they owe Shirley a ridiculous amount and Payton has always thought the Girl Guides were amazing. Then they set off.

Payton walks with Alice and Skye on either side, James and McAfee behind them. River is forbidden – for the time being – from standing next to Payton, mostly because River makes anyone look short Payton but especially you, sorry that’s just the way it is. He and Astrid and Khai are already at the polling station in Times Square. There’s one closer to Columbus Circle but McAfee wanted a better background to his shots and Payton wanted to feel New York around him.

Standish voted earlier that morning. There’s photos online of her arriving arm in arm with her husband, waving her ballot paper at the cameras with a smile. Payton is two points ahead in the polls as of this morning, with a margin of error of three percent.

When the moment comes, Payton’s hit with a second of pure madness and nearly considers putting a cross next to her name instead, of coming out of the booth and telling everyone else to do the same. He went three years without his ambition, with nothing but music and feelings and –

Who is he kidding?

Payton puts a cross next to his own name, folds his paper in half and puts it into the box. Everyone around him bursts into applause. Alice puts hers in next, then James, McAfee, Khai, Astrid, Skye. Then River. Then the crowd is pushing forward to do the same and when Payton comes out of the station the queue is stretching round the block, everyone waving as McAfee runs up and down with her Instagram live feed running, badge after badge saying ‘Vote Hobart’, and Payton knows he’s won.

~

I am pleased to confirm Payton Hobart as the State Senator for New York District 27…

~

Hobart sets the bar

Payton Hobart of District 27 was amongst the frontrunners of the Democratic primary elections yesterday, winning 68% of the vote against Dede Standish’s 32%, with rumours of the latter’s ill-health still circulating. It was a closely fought campaign with Payton only pulling ahead in the last few weeks and with a minimum usage of the dirty tactics that have marred the Republication primaries in Districts 43 and 58. Sarah Karlstrom of District 20 has the next highest majority, coming in at 52% in her three candidate field against 31% for Fred Barney and 17% for Andrew Margate…

~

“Good morning Mr Hobart.”

“Good morning Ms Standish.”

Payton shakes out his umbrella as he enters the kitchen, New York having decided to celebrate his victory with a late June shower. He can’t help the sour thought as he takes off his jacket that Dede Standish is practically glowing with good health whilst he feels like death warmed over. Payton might not have been drinking but everyone else’s celebrations last night enough to leave him exhausted by association.

“Coffee?”

“Please.”

They sit in the conservatory, as the sky overhead clears and the first beams of light come filtering through the clouds. They talk about the campaign to reopen a historic lesbian bar in East Village, the potluck festival being planned to celebrate the first iftar of Ramadan, the best ‘dogs at the polls’ pictures they saw. Finally Dede Standish puts down her cup and looks at him with laser eyes.

“Has it sunk in yet?”

“No not really.” Payton admits. His official confirmation as the Democratic candidate is on Monday, but more than that – he won an election. To say it eases old wounds doesn’t really come close.

“Well you better not be planning to rest on your laurels.” Dede sniffs at him. “Laurelton’s not going to beat himself you know.”

“I’ll beat him.” Payton says easily. “Thanks to you.”

“To me? I can’t think what I’ve got to do with it.” Dede gets up to wash their cups out. Payton grins at her back. She really is magnificent.

“There were a hundred options you could have chosen to bow out of the race. Or make the margin between us as miniscule as possible, to give your eventual comeback more strength.”

“Oh, could I?” Dede is drying the cups meticulously. She may or may not be smiling down at the sink. Payton presses on.

“So I suppose it must just be good luck that the option you chose gave me the biggest mandate, and therefore dealt the least damage to me as the Democrat candidate, for when I go up against Laurelton. Whilst setting up an excellent comeback narrative for yourself, of course.”

“Oh, of course.” She comes back and sits down opposite him again. There’s nothing on the table between them anymore and Payton feels the lack of social lubrication keenly. Standish puts her head on one side, studying him like a bird does a worm. “You do seem to like deducing things Mr Hobart –”

“Can I go back to being Payton?”

“– but you mustn’t come to rely on it. Always assume that your opponent is smarter, better, knows something about you that you don’t.”

Dede Standish is giving him advice! Payton tells himself he is absolutely not going to squeal like a little girl. She gives him a look that says she knows exactly how much he’s having to resist the urge.

“I neglected all three this campaign, to my own detriment. Well fought, Payton.” She offers him her hand, and he takes it. “Take care of District 27 for me. Or I’ll sic Hadassah on you.”

“I will do. Enjoy a few years off. I look forward to seeing you again in the future.” Payton rises easily, not wanting to take up any more of her morning. He reaches the doorway when Dede’s voice calls him to a halt.

“One more thing Payton. I have a couple of gifts for you. I hear that’s the done thing in your team.”

God, those gifts are never going to stop biting him in the arse.

Dede hands him an envelope. For a politician, envelopes very rarely contain good news. Payton feels himself tense as he tips out two sets of pictures. The first are of – good god. He feels himself blush. He’s not sure he’s old enough to be looking at these pictures of Laurelton. He shoves them back into the envelope as quickly as possible and looks at the others.

It’s him, three years ago. Him and Alice. Him and River. Payton takes four breaths in and then lets four breaths out, till his heart has calmed back down. There’s nothing to be said. Standish has had these photos all along, and Payton isn’t out yet – all the worst accusations of being bisexual and lying and cheating had been at her disposal the whole time. Dede’s elegant hand enters his field of vision and taps the photo of him and River.

“I gather this isn’t going to be a problem for much longer, but I’ve included the name of my source on the back, just in case you wanted to take care of it yourself.”

“I…thank you.”

“Don’t be.” Dede Standish’s smile is all teeth and not a trace of warmth. Always assume that your opponent is smarter, better and knows something about you that you don’t. “I intend to exact repayment in full, never fear.”

Payton bows to her, and leaves.

~

His campaign offices are empty. The place looks like the set of a zombie apocalypse film, chairs overturned, banners half clinging to the ceiling. The New York Democratic party has its official headquarters over on Lexington Avenue, but Payton thinks that he should continue Dede’s tradition of maintaining his own, and he’d quite like for it to be these. Unless that’s needlessly sentimental. He’ll ask James and McAfee.

Speak of the devils…Payton follows the sound of raised voices into the meeting room next door. McAfee is waving a pointer at a presentation covered in graphs. James has three different tablets spread out in a semicircle around him. Payton leans against the door and wants a nap just looking at them.

“Payton! Opinion on legalising marijuana?”

“I support any initiatives that would undermine organised crime in our city, and focus police time and resources on the issues that most affect the lives of average New Yorkers.”

“Laurelton’s an ex-police chief. We’re going to have to create watertight stances for all public safety issues. I’ve been collecting data on the areas that New Yorkers say they’re most concerned about –”

“Didn’t I give you guys today off? Skye and Astrid were going to play mini golf, weren’t you going too? And how have you even got so much done in just a day?!”

James and McAfee look at each other.

“You said we could plan for Laurelton whilst you focused on Standish. We’re been working on this for months.”

“And we can play mini golf anytime. This is more fun.”

Payton swallows hard. He will never, ever be worthy of this much faith. But he’ll do his best to try to be.

“Fine. Have fun.”

“Payton –”

“I gave me the day off too!”

Payton leaves them to it. Monday he becomes the Democrat candidate; Tuesday he’ll start planning the next campaign. But the rest of today is his.

~

He’s carrying his umbrella down Madison Avenue when his work phone rings. It’s an unknown number. That means it’s a telemarketer, or someone old – basically someone who hasn’t realised that no one picks up unknown numbers anymore. Payton clicks decline. It rings again. He sighs and picks up.

“Payton Hobart?”

“Speaking.” Payton’s had to change this number three times already. Astrid will not be pleased if she has to get him a new one already.

“Payton, dreadfully sorry for calling y’all out of the blue like this.” There’s a hint of a drawl, but otherwise the voice is older, male, heavy with authority. “Logan Laurelton speaking, pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“Mr Laurelton.” Payton feels himself squaring his shoulders subconsciously. There’s something in the guy’s voice that puts him on edge. “To what do I owe the pleasure.”

“Why, I just wanted to congratulate you on such a spectacular win. You ran that campaign well boy.”

Payton feels the hackles on his neck rise. He doesn’t want to say anything, but that’s not what a politician does.

“Thank you sir, I appreciate it.”

“That’s right, that’s right. Dede Standish, well, she’s not the woman she used to be. In any way, wouldn’t you say!” He laughs. Payton doesn’t.

“Congratulations on your nomination as well Mr Laurelton. I know it’s been a long time since a Republican stood in District 27, hope the pressure’s not too much.”

“Ah don’t you mind me boy, we’ll have a good tussle. You keep your nose clean until we get down to it you hear? I don’t favour those nasty whisper tactics, slander and libel and whatnot. I like a good clean fight me. Otherwise it all gets a bit too womanly, too much gossip. You know what I’m saying Payton?”

“I hear you loud and clear, sir. I totally agree. That’s not how politics should be.”

“Exactly! Exactly. Some of my advisors, they tried to tell me you’d be the sort to try fussy little things like that but I told them no, I’m a good judge of character and I don’t think Payton Hobart’s the type of man to do that. Good to hear you’re going to be standing with me on this one Payton. A good clean fight you hear?”

“Absolutely.”

“Brilliant. Brilliant. Well, you have a good day then. Congratulations again.”

“Have a good day Mr Laurelton.”

Payton hangs up the phone and looks down at it. He’s going to have to ask Astrid to get him a new number, and a new phone. He wants only one person using this line; thinking this is the only line to be bugged. But first he texts McAfee and James from his personal number.

– Laurelton’s coming for us and he’s playing dirty. Plan for a no-holds barred fight –

That’ll make their day, he thinks, putting his phone away, his brain already churning with tactics until he very firmly turns it off. He’s going to be strict with himself. Nothing on the next campaign till Tuesday. He’s got other things to be doing today.

~

Payton turns the key in the lock of his new apartment. This is the first time he’s been here and it takes him a moment to figure out how to jig the lock. His first impression is – light. It’s all open plan, pale wood with grey and red accents, a sofa large enough to fit, conveniently, about eight people. The piano is in the corner, next to the open window leading to the top-floor fire escape. Payton ducks through.

River is sitting there with his face turned up to the sun, gazing out towards Madison Square Gardens just visible in the distance. He’s wearing dark jeans and an open white shirt, his curls messier than usual in the breeze. He looks like 19th century Kronberg painting, or a Calvin Klein model. Payton is vividly thrown back to the first moment River appeared in his house in California, youthful and tragically gorgeous and how Payton had had to hide, literally, from the intensity of looking at him.

“River.” He begins, and then just stops. River turns his head slowly to look at him. Payton can see now, how when he’s out with the others he’s more sociable, more talkative, more…normal. How it’s as fake as River always said it was. But here, with Payton…River just gazes at him, blue eyes shining.

Here, River is real. That might not always mean happy, but that’s okay, Payton loves him anyway.

“Hey.” River says, voice deep. “I hope you don’t mind I came in.”

“Came in? I hope you moved in.” Payton tries to joke, but his voice cracks halfway through and oh, he’s shaking, he hadn’t noticed that and then River is standing in one smooth motion, pushing him back through the window and onto the piano seat and kissing him, kissing him, kissing him.

“You want me to stay?” River asks, his voice coming from somewhere deep in his chest. “You love me and you want me to stay?”

“Yes. Yes. Stay with me, stay by my side, stay with me forever.” Payton is babbling, his hands grabbing at River to shove the shirt off his shoulders as River holds the back of his neck and presses deep forceful kisses onto him till Payton is dizzy and shining with love.

They make it to their bedroom but only barely – and Payton definitely has plans to blow River on that piano stool sometime soon – and Payton is dropping clothes on the floor whilst River peels his jeans off his ridiculously long legs, lean and smooth with muscle. Payton has to stop and look at him, stupidly beautiful and sincere and all Payton’s and then he straddles him so that his legs are spread wide over River’s thighs.

“Will you fuck me?” He asks, and River looks at him and nods. They usually do it the other way round, because River has no concept of hang ups around masculinity or sexuality, and because Payton can’t quite bear how much he completely falls to pieces when River’s inside him.

River preps him slowly from their – fuck you Astrid – fully stocked bedside drawer. Even that’s overwhelming, leaving Payton trembling on his lap and burying his face in River’s neck, breathing in the chocolate and campfire smoke smell of him as River slides his fingers in and out. It is also definitely not sexy at all when River literally picks Payton up and lays him down in the centre of the bed, biceps sliding under tanned skin. Payton is already rock hard, shivers spreading through his entire body as River bends down to kiss him, covering Payton completely with his weight and his warmth.

“I love you Payton.” River murmurs, and holds himself steady as he slides inside.

Payton takes shallow breaths to get through it. River is on the larger side, long and substantial and Payton feels every. single. inch. as he pushes inside, spreading Payton open. River is breathing heavily himself, sweat standing out on his brow at how good Payton feels. That’s the one plus to how much this wrecks Payton – it wrecks River a thousand times worse.

“Fuck…Payton…” River mutters, dropping his forehead to Payton’s shoulder. His hips are nudging deeper, opening Payton up more, as one arm slides round Payton’s waist and the other hand clamps onto the back of his neck. Payton is completely surrounded by him, he can feel the ease with which River moves him back on his cock, sliding Payton’s body on and off and fuck it feels good, it feels fucking amazing, River taking control of everything and Payton just warm and loved and blissful, being fucked until his toes curl.

River sticks to slow deep thrusts for a long time, easing out till just the head’s inside and then sliding back in so deep Payton can feel it knock the breath out of him, kissing all the while. His own cock is trapped between their stomachs but Payton can’t even think about reaching for it, is clinging on desperately to River’s sweaty back as River slowly starts to pick up speed, slamming into him. He keeps going, harder and harder, until something finally cracks loose inside of Payton and suddenly he can’t stop the little gasps escaping with each thrust, little choked-off noises that make River groan and fuck him harder.

“Yes, Payton – fuck – let me hear you, I want to hear what I do to you.”

“River – oh – god – that’s so good. Please, please...”

River groans again. His teeth are against Payton’s throat. He can’t leave marks. He’s not allowed to leave marks. Not yet.

Someday.

“You feel fucking amazing Payton. Good I love how tight you are for me.”

“River – River –”

Payton can feel it building, curling up inside him and fuck he still can’t get a hand on his cock, he needs to, he needs to so badly. He can’t control anything coming out of his mouth now, whimpering every time River fucks into him, now holding onto Payton’s hips so that he can yank him back onto his cock.

“River, please – oh, god –“

Then River’s hand is there, wrapped tight around Payton and fuck that’s all it takes, two firm strokes and Payton’s groaning deep, feeling his legs jerk as he comes and comes, every muscle taut before he collapses back down onto the bed. River has been grinding deep whilst he comes, keeping up that insane pressure on Payton’s prostate, but now he’s still hard and deep in Payton’s arse and Payton reaches up to wrap his arms around River’s neck. He’s sore and he loves it.

“Keep going. I want you to come inside me.”

River growls, actually growls, and then his hips are snapping hard and fast, pulling Payton’s body back as he uses the heat and tightness to come. He’s being rough, knowing full well how much Payton fucking loves this part, loves watching River fall to pieces, overwhelmed by Payton’s body. And it’s better now, it’s a thousand times better, because this is it, this is them, this is how they’re always going to be and Payton’s never going to have to worry about Astrid or Eamon or anyone else River might touch because he’s River’s and River’s his and River is groaning loudly and coming deep inside him and that’s the only thing that matters.

“Fuck. Payton. Fuck.” River’s hips keep moving in little thrusts as he comes. Payton is going to be complaining very loudly in about five minutes about how much come is in his arse but right now the feel of it makes him shiver, his head feeling as warm and softly glowy as his body. He strokes up to River’s hair and pulls him down for a kiss.

He’s River’s and River’s his. River’s alive and by his side and will be staying there forever.

Later, when they’ve gone another round and cleaned up and Payton has put on pyjamas and River has made him take the top back off, lying there himself in tight black briefs like he wants Payton’s heart to stop thirty years ahead of schedule…later, Payton gently strokes over the scar on River’s side and River watches him do it.

“You’re the only person to ever touch me there.” River says, and Payton can’t tell from his voice whether that’s a good or a bad thing. So he shuffles down the bed a bit and kisses it, right on the puckered round mark that was from the bullet. He stays there so he doesn’t have to look at River’s face when he asks.

“Do you ever wish I hadn’t stopped you?”

“I don’t know.” River says, and Payton trembles in the face of that unflinching honesty. “Sometimes. When things were particularly bad…when it felt like the whole world was grasping at me, cracking bits off me with its pain. Then, yeah, I wish you’d let me do it, the one time I was brave enough to. But I haven’t had a bad time in a while.”

“But you might again.” Payton says. He’s done some reading, some research, trying to be prepared for how River might need him to help him. “There…there might always be a chance of a bad day?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.”

“Still want me to stay?” River says it with a smile, but there’s a tremor there underneath and Payton crawls back up his body to kiss him again.

“Only forever.”

God. ” River breathes out, rolling over to look down at him, press his thumb over Payton’s mouth in a way that sends a bolt of lightning through him though he’s come twice already. That’s just the effect River has on him. “God, how did I get so lucky as to have you in my life? I could offer prayers of thanks every day for a thousand years and still not show enough gratitude.”

“Don’t give me that.” Payton says, blushing to his hairline and half-shoving him away but not really. He’ll never push River away again. “And I can’t imagine you praying either.”

“I pray,” River protests, his dimple out in force. Payton is helplessly in love.

“Oh? And what does River Barkley pray for?” He asks. He strokes fingers down River’s neck, over his shoulder, his chest…River’s breath is coming faster as his blue, blue eyes stare down at Payton.

“I say…thank you Lord, for placing Payton Hobart by my side, I do not fucking deserve him.”

When he was six, Payton’s mother read Wuthering Heights aloud to him in bed, Emily Brontë's prose flowing over him like water on sand, surf against the seashore. Only one line stayed with him, how did it go…

Whatever souls are made of, his and mine are the same.

Payton thinks of his dream team, how they’ve gone from allies and ex-enemies to friends. To family. To extensions of himself; Khai and Astrid and Skye his hands and feet, helping him create a new world. James and McAfee his brain, planning how to get there. Alice is his heart, keeping him true to his path. And River – River’s his soul.

Whatever souls are made of, his and mine are the same.

River is kissing him now, again and again, his cock already stirring against Payton’s hip. On Monday he becomes the Democratic candidate and on Tuesday he begins the fight against Laurelton. He and River will need to talk, and him and Alice and James and McAfee and all the others, about how to manage River’s presence at his side in the eyes of the world. So many conversations to have. So many fights ahead of them. But today, today is theirs, another fourteen or so hours where he is River’s and River is his. Fourteen hours to go…and then the rest of their lives.

Payton stops counting. They have all the time in the world.