by shukyou (主教) and Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)
[The following is a work half of satire, half of imagination, and entirely of fiction. Any resemblance to actual proper nouns is entirely intentional, though imaginative liberties have been taken with the principal characters to the point of near-unrecognisability. The easily offended, die-hard political junkies of any affiliation, and persons lacking a sense of humour are respectfully requested to both grow a thicker skin, and do it somewhere else.]
Damn, Jim swore, slamming the door to his dressing room behind him at such a volume to make it clear to his staff that he did not wish to be disturbed. He was not a man to suffer fools gladly, and suffered even less gladly being made to look like one himself. He made a mental note to fire the producer who’d suggested such a horrific spectacle, then remembered that the one who’d made the suggestion hadn’t been his to fire — and not only that, but Jim himself had consented.
A timid little knock sounded, and Jim sighed. “Come in, Aimee,” he called, settling himself in front of a light-lined mirror; even in his bitterest rages, he could never find it in his heart to be mad at Aimee. He ran a hand over his brow, not caring that it came away orange-stained with his horrible television makeup, not caring that the face in the mirror looked even more bedraggled than usual.
The door creaked open, revealing five blonde feet even of the best personal assistant he’d ever had. “Mr. McGloin?” She shuffled inside, juggling some of the myriad folders that never seemed to leave her arms, her face prematurely lined with perpetual worry. “First, you’re in no rush — Senator Frist has come down with a stomach virus, and made his apologies for dinner tonight.”
“You always start with the good news.” Jim even managed a smile at her through the mirror as he brought to his cheeks a warm, damp cloth. “Tell me, is he vaulting around the green room like a triumphal monkey, flinging feces with glee?”
“Senator Frist?” Aimee’s brows furrowed. “Oh! Mr. Renault! No, but Sam told me he’s stolen the microwave.”
There was a small pause, during which Jim did battle with his lips over the issue of cracking a smile; they were for it, he was against it. “Let him have it,” Jim finally waved his hand, still stone-faced. “A parting gift from his friends at The McGloin Report.”
“I could go over and take the coffeemaker from the Renault Assault,” she offered, pronouncing both words to rhyme with ‘snow’.
“Don’t; it’s probably got granola in the percolator.” With a long sigh, Jim slumped back in his chair and began to undo his tie. The fight had burned white-hot and right through him, as it tended to do so often these days, and as such found itself quickly out of fuel. Letting his hair go to its natural grey had not been his decision so much as the network’s, who’d thought six months ago that recasting him as more of a patriarch would boost ratings — a comforting, grandfatherly figure that would still take a switch to you if you misbehaved, as it were. He’d known better than to refuse an aesthetic decision such as that, but now, the act of looking at his face in the mirror made picking up that proverbial switch seem a great deal of effort.
Aimee placed one of the folders on a table by the door — next week’s schedule, most likely — then retrieved Jim’s discarded tie and hung it over the coatrack. “…I thought you came off well.”
“He made me look like a jackass.”
“He made himself look like a jackass. It’s hardly the same thing.”
“He looks like a jackass all the time. It’s come to be expected of him. If he’d managed to make himself not look like a jackass, that’d be news.” Jim shook his head, removing wardrobe’s shirt — the makeup stains around the collar made them unfit to be seen in public after a single wearing — and searching around for the one of his own he’d been wearing earlier. He found it on a hangar; that, too, must have been Aimee’s doing. “And now Letterman’s going to run a montage of the best moments, with blithering, pseudo-insightful commentary that boils down to, ‘Man, that McGloin, what a jackass!’ He should just say that, it’d save himself the awkwardness of doing the same five buck-toothed jokes about me he always does, and maybe whatever candy-coated guest musician he’s got on tonight can do another song.”
Aimee tucked her remaining burdens under one arm and began to fasten Jim’s tie for him. It was one of the rules around the studio — never let Jim fasten his own tie; they pretended it was out of deference and respect, but Jim knew it was because he got it crooked every damn time. “It’s Bright Eyes; you don’t want to wish that on America.”
Jim frowned. “Who?”
“Never mind.” With the smile she always gave him when he’d managed to evidence his aged ignorance of her youthful pop culture, she patted his chest. She was so tiny, she had to stand on tiptoe for the final inspection of the knot, and he’d always found that endearing. “Okay, you’re good to go. And you’re making fun of Letterman, you must be feeling a little better.”
He managed his most withering scowl for a good two seconds before relenting. “Yes, I suppose I am. Though I won’t be after I watch it again, I’m sure.”
“Do you have to watch it again tonight?” Aimee asked, biting her lower lip. “If I were you, I’d take Senator Frist’s intestinal distress as omen that it’s time for a night off, and enjoy it. It’s a Friday night, and you don’t have to think about or be back here until Monday — and by the time you come back, I bet everyone will have forgotten about it.”
Not likely, he thought, but he gave her his best, bravest smile. “What would I do without your unbridled optimism?”
“Starve and die,” she offered, with a cheery wink. “Or get eaten by bears. Also, Mrs. McGloin called.”
“Tell her I’m dead. Or out of the country. Or both, so she can busy herself for a few weeks extraditing my body.”
“I think most countries won’t extradite you unless you’re alive. And besides, she’s still your wife, so if you died, she’d get everything.” Aimee favoured him with a sympathetic look. He was certain the intimate, messy details of his divorce proceedings, now entering their third prolonged year, were common knowledge among members of his staff, but Aimee was the only one who ever mentioned it — largely, he supposed, because she was the one who ended up relaying Martha’s frequently cryptic and unfailingly irate communications.
Jim pulled his suitcoat from the back of the chair, shrugging it on. “In that case, tell her I’m out of the country, purposefully outliving her. I’m going to go watch the tapes, then head home. If I get hungry later, I can call out for pizza.”
Aimee shook her head. “Just let it go, Mr. McGloin.”
“Have a lovely weekend, Aimee.” Jim dashed off a little wave as he walked out the door.
This was a habit he’d picked up in school — every night, no matter how late things had run, no matter what his other obligations might be, he watched his broadcasts, himself his harshest critic. Solitude was not a necessity; some nights, like the night after the 2004 election, the entire staff had stayed to watch with him, eating pizza and celebrating until nearly two in the morning. Tonight, however, Jim was alone except for the bank of monitors, their test-pattern glow his only light.
Even as he took the remote in his hand, he knew this would be the first night in forty-three years of broadcast journalism that he’d watched part his performance on mute.
The first part of the show was fine, even better than usual, especially the segment on the new Congress’ agenda and its potential impact on American families. Jim scrawled quick notes on the legal pad by his elbow, both for himself and for the production crew — new logo graphic obnoxious, good change to bigger font for viewer letters, vertically striped tie = awful. He wasn’t sure how much anyone else paid attention to his commentary, but he always felt better about it when it was done. The show had his name on it, after all; he had to take some responsibility for its quality.
Then the graphic announcing the ‘Culture War’ segment spun up, and Jim preemptively scrawled, never let e.r. on show again.
There was not a whole lot to like about Ethan Renault. Oh, Jim assumed the man was attractive enough, in that bookish sort of way, the one that when Jim was a boy would’ve gotten a young man punched in the face for being a sissy, but now seemed so popular. And he definitely had talent; you didn’t get your own show on Comedy Central by thirty unless you had a fair bit of talent. And he knew how to work an audience, as evidenced by how Jim’s own crew had been unable to keep themselves from laughing at their boss’ misfortune during the segment.
But really, when you came right down to it, the man was an ass. The fact that he’d spent the last eight years of his life cultivating a persona designed specifically to mock Jim McGloin seemed to Jim more than a little petty and pointless, and not just from a personal standpoint either. Politics, journalism, morality, respectability — these were things Jim McGloin held in high regard, and things Ethan Renault seemed bound and determined to turn into laughing-stocks.
“In the ‘Culture War’ segment tonight,” announced the Jim McGloin on the single screen, his lips quirked in a knowing smile that polled very well among viewers, “‘The Renault Assault’ on Comedy Central is a very successful program that owes everything to me.”
Cut to file clip. The screen filled with Renault’s face, smiling a near-identical smile that probably polled well among his viewers too, and Jim hit the mute button. He was so much less offensive this way, this comedian pretending to be a journalist. In fact, Jim might even go so far as to say Renault looked handsome, staring down the camera with dark, doe-like eyes framed by thick lashes and gold-rimmed spectacles. They looked too old on him, of course, as did the slightly dowdy grey suit, but that was part of the persona, Jim supposed. And damn if the man didn’t make it look better than Jim ever had.
Cut back to the studio, the two of them poised on either side of the short glass desk. Jim watched in silence for a few moments, trying to keep his eyes to his own half of the screen, yet unable to divorce him gaze from the discussion’s other participant. Out of morbid curiosity, he turned the volume on again just in time to hear Renault say, “Hit it. I’d love to be nailed.”
Jim slammed the mute button with his thumb as quickly as possible. Well, that sounded terrible out of context.
When observed silently, Jim reflected, his perfomance left little to criticise. He was composed, controlled — even his smile exuded confidence. Visually, Renault hadn’t scored a single hit. There was, however, still the question of if his voice had given him away. Steeling himself, he clicked the volume button again: “It is tough being me. Is it tough being you?”
“It’s hard for me to be you, I’ll tell you that much,” replied Renault, and Jim silenced the set. Well, that had sounded vaguely promising — and, Aimee was right, Renault did sound like a jackass. If he’d heard it, surely his audience had heard it too, even the few who hadn’t already thought Renault a jackass before. Jim pondered stopping the tape and being done with it — declaring victory and going home, as it were — but now he’d made it this far, he might as well struggle through to the end.
At least the comedian had made it through the whole show without calling him ‘papa bear,’ a nickname which got more demeaning with every white hair that sprouted from Jim’s scalp. He wasn’t much of a bear by anyone’s definitions, trim, small-framed, kept himself clean-shaven, even in the ’70s had never been able to grow a decent moustache. Not that he knew why the ridiculous nickname offended him to such a degree, but Jim was darkly certain that had the younger man pulled out such an insult, his cool and collected demeanour would have vanished. God knew there was only so much a man could be expected to take.
He was roused from his thoughts by the sudden interruption of his own voice — “You must be doing something.” — followed by Renault’s sugar-coated, “I’m doing you, Jim.” Jim reached for the remote, but where it had been only moments earlier, the table was empty. Turning, his eyes found the shape of a tall, thin man leaning against the control desk, a shape that belonged to none other than Ethan Renault.
With a smirk, Renault clicked off the picture entirely, returning the room to its original test-pattern glow. “Your assistant told me I’d find you in here.”
Jim folded his arms and leaned back in his chair, defiant, in charge, practiced at meeting any challenge head-on. Never let ’em see you sweat. “You know, when Aimee said you’d stolen the microwave, I figured you’d have gone with it.”
Renault shook his head. “The microwave is safe in a location I can’t disclose. Send an operative with two Hot Pockets to Central Park after 4 a.m. and we’ll come to an arrangement.”
As little as he liked to admit it, the mention of food made Jim uncomfortably aware of his empty stomach. He’d barely eaten since lunch; despite her best efforts to keep her boss well-maintained, some things slipped even Aimee’s constant vigilance “You’re off-camera now, you know,” sighed Jim, pulling himself to his feet and straightening his trousers. “You can stop behaving like … you do.”
“I could say the same to you.” Renault’s smirk, that on-camera smirk Jim was sure had been learned from many hours studying The McGloin Report, remained fixed. The only thing it was missing was a little sign reading ‘please slap this off me’.
“Are you hanging around to gloat? Don’t you have to be home by midnight, or Jon Leibowitz turns into a pumpkin?” The Nightly Hour‘s host was perhaps the only person in the business more a thorn in Jim McGloin’s side than Ethan Renault, though after tonight, this assertion was even more debatable.
“Sometimes he turns into one all by himself. Have you ever been to Les Halles?” He slipped from one sentence to the other as though the transition were completely natural.
Jim frowned. “What halls?”
“Les Halles. It’s on Park Avenue. The logo involves cows kissing. Possibly a cow and bull, if that’s a more comfortable assumption for you.”
“I frequent places with less bestiality in their ad design.”
Renault clucked his tongue. “Now, it’s not bestiality if the cows keep it among themselves. Or one cow and one bull, as nature intended.”
This had progressed past insult to injury, and was now treading deeply into the realm of the bizarre — not to mention giving Jim some strange mental pictures, owing to his pondering the mechanics of cow kissing. “No. I haven’t.”
“Would you like to? Assuming you haven’t eaten yet.”
Of all the phrases to come out of Ethan Renault’s mouth, especially after tonight, a dinner invitation was not among those Jim would have expected. “…I beg your pardon?”
“Oh, come on, Jim, this is America. Surely two men whose media careers revolve around making fun of each other can dine together as friends. As brothers!” Renault punctuated the last phrase by punching the air proudly with his fist, a gesture Jim always (appropriately enough) associated with that French musical about the student revolutionaries, the one with the name neither he nor most of America could pronounce. He wondered if there was a patron saint of not breaking into song, and resolved to find out and pray to him (or her) retroactively.
“…Does this have something to do with the microwave?” Jim lifted an eyebrow.
“No, I hear they have their own kitchen there.”
The fullness of the request began to settle on him, and seemed to have none of the weight of a joke. “You’re serious,” he marvelled, more of an observation than a question.
Ethan levelled that dark glare over the tops of his glasses, looking over them with such clarity that Jim was given to suspect they might be props as well. “I’m always serious, Jim.”
Jim snorted. “Like a joy buzzer.”
“I’d like to think so.”
The mere thought of sitting through an entire dinner with Ethan Renault made Jim’s dander rise — yet, he had to admit, seemed perversely fun, in a masochistic sort of way. Of course, the possibility hadn’t left Jim’s mind that this might be some elabourate setup, complete with cameras and C-list celebrities, but he supposed he’d deal with any potentially humiliating possibilities as they arose. “The name sounds French.”
“The French,” Renault placed a hand against his chest, taking a tiny bow in acknowledgement of his heritage, “are regarded by some to be gifted in the culinary arts.”
“Since 9/11 happened while you were still in diapers, I’ll forgive you for forgetting my long-standing boycott of French products.”
“I won’t tell anyone if you don’t. If you’d like, we could refer to it as the Liberty Markets! Or the Freedom Beefery!”
“It’s a good thing you’re paying,” sighed Jim, grabbing his overcoat from the door and heading out of the studio, not even sparing a glance behind him to make sure Renault was following. He really had no idea how he’d just been talked into dinner with his de facto arch nemesis, but suspected it had something to do with God’s wrath, and had no intention of becoming a pillar of salt unless absolutely necessary.
“Fair enough.” The sound of Renault’s smile curling the tips of every word made the hairs at the back of Jim’s neck stand on end.
One of fame’s nicer perks, Jim reflected, was never having to wait for a table. Renault had called ahead from his car, and by the time the driver let them off curbside, the hostess was already poised by the door, a smile on her face and two menus clutched dearly in her arms. Winter had cleared the restaurant’s tables from the sidewalk, and that particular January night had chased away most bystanders with its cold, but Jim still felt like drawing a blanket over his head as they walked inside. Some heads turned to see them enter, but they were mostly young, and probably looking at Renault. For perhaps the first time in his life, Jim was glad that the jokes made about how most of his audience collected Social Security benefits were largely accurate.
As promised, two cows engaged in some awkward tongue-touching ritual graced the majority of surfaces inside the restaurant — and they were definitely two cows, poised over the words ‘AMERICAN BEEF FRENCH STYLE,’ neither of which did anything to calm Jim’s misgivings about the place. Per Renault’s request, they were seated at the table farthest from the door, away from general traffic. The weather had probably done well to keep the restaurant’s crowd to a minimum, but quarters were still tight.
Renault still wore his glasses off-camera, Jim was mildly surprised to learn, but the chill wind had blown his hair from its perfect, studio-slicked coif, the tendrils now falling across his forehead giving him a rakish look. He’d divested himself of his tie in the car, and his crisp white studio shirt had rumpled itself appropriately, giving him an off-duty casual air. Jim felt frumpy by contrast. “All right, so what’s good here?” he murmured, picking up the menu and turning to the first page — where, to his great dismay, all the items seemed to be in French.
“Oh, it’s all good,” Renault assured him. “Or at least edible.”
Jim made a face, squinting in the dim light to read the tiny English description beneath each dish. “Frogs and snails aren’t edible,” he quipped, though there looked to be nothing of either on the menu. Or, at least, he couldn’t see anything, and cursed having left his reading glasses in his other coat.
Renault laughed, and the sound was irritatingly musical, the kind of perfect amusement sitcoms wanted in their cans of laughter. If everything the man did was that annoyingly perfect, it was little wonder he was such a smug asshole. “Think of it this way: We’re expanding your horizons. …Although possibly not literally, if you look at all the waiters like that.”
“…I beg your pardon?” Jim peered over the menu’s top edge.
“I’m fairly certain he wasn’t going to steal your wallet.”
With a snort, Jim went back to the dining options. As ridiculous (and unpronounceable) as most of their names appeared to him, he could see a few options that appeared both palatable and unlikely to give either him or his doctor a heart attack. “A fine example of the liberal mind at work, dreaming up racism where none exists.”
“No politics, please, it upsets my digestion.” Renault leaned in closer, dangerously close over the rickety little table for two. “You seem nervous. What’s on your mind, Jim?”
Jim gestured to their surroundings. “I’m just waiting for the Candid Camera crew to jump out of the woodwork.”
“Oh, I never bring those in until the second date. Actually, the Faux-filet Bercy is very good.” He reached over and tapped the right side of Jim’s menu, near the middle, where Jim saw a collection of letters that might conceivably match the words just spoken.
“I, uh, was looking at the Hamburger Rossini,” said Jim quickly, trying to cover how far the word ‘date’ had thrown him by latching on to the only pronouncable item on the menu — half German, half Italian, and not an accent mark anywhere in sight. If only all his meal choices were so easy. “So, really, where are the boom mikes? Don’t they have a show like this on MTV these days?”
“Two People Enjoying A Meal In Midtown? Not that I know of. Although it might be an interesting piece of performance art.”
Despite Renault’s assurances to the contrary, Jim hadn’t entirely discounted the candid camera scenario, and resolved to comport himself in the manner that, should such a thing turn out to be true, would least make him appear a credulous fool. “Admit it, you’d be this paranoid if I’d asked you.”
Renault snickered, taking a sip from his water glass and chewing absently on the sliver of lemon floating amongst the ice cubes. “Well, Jim, that would be because the pod people had clearly taken over your body, and I’ve mislaid my shotgun at present.”
“That’s clever. It is.”
“Are you that insecure in your masculinity that you can’t have a friendly evening out with a colleague?”
“It’s not insecurity!” said Jim, a little louder than he’d intended. “It’s you! You in particular!”
At that, Renault just leaned his head back and laughed that obnoxious, perfect laugh, and whatever retort he might have been saving was pre-empted by the appearance of the waiter, a short, dark-haired man who looked as French as Alberto Gonzalez. “Are we ready to order, sirs?” he asked, an unplaceable Latin American accent colouring his words.
Before Jim could even open his mouth, Renault turned to the waiter and smiled. “We’ll have the Vol-au-vent aux Champignons Sauvages et Salsifis to start,” he began, pronouncing each word with such confidence that even had he been incorrect, Jim doubted anyone would have noticed. “I’ll have the Pavé de Thom Grillé, sauce Vierge Légumes Grillés à l’Huile d’Olive; my companion will have the Hamburger Rossini with a side of the Légumes du jour; and we’ll take a bottle of the Pauillac, Château Lafite Rothschild.”
“Very good, sirs,” nodded the waiter, who retreated to the kitchen without having written down a thing. Jim was caught in a strange limbo between doubting whether any waiter’s memory could be good enough to ensure that such an ostensibly complicated order made it to their table correctly, and trying to recall the last time anyone had ordered for him. In fact, he could only recall instances in his past where he’d been the one ordering for other people, all women, and now felt retroactively awkward.
Settling back in his chair, thankful once again that Renault had let him have the seat against the wall, Jim unfolded his napkin and placed it in his lap as a precautionary measure. “So I’d thank you for coming on my show tonight, except I don’t know if ‘thank you’ are precisely words I want to use.”
“It was my pleasure, if that spares you the trouble. I thought it was sort of exciting, personally.” Renault smirked at the expression of exasperation Jim let slip. “Genuine dialogue! Finding common ground! Aren’t those things that excite you?”
“That dialogue was about as geniune as talking to myself in a funhouse mirror,” Jim snorted.
“Well, inasmuch as you’re your own funhouse mirror, I might just be the most genuine thing you’ve got going.”
The waiter returned with a bottle of wine tucked beneath one arm, and poured a swallow’s worth into Renault’s glass. “Now what’s that supposed to mean?”
Instead of responding, Renault took the glass in hand and made a production of swirling it about, sniffing it, holding it up to the light, and finally, just as Jim was about to force his jaw open and pour the damn wine on in, took a drink. Giving a thoughtful nod, he gestured to the waiter, who filled both glasses, placed the bottle on the table, and retreated. Only after they were again alone, Renault shrugged and said, “Just that you’re creating an image, and I’m helping you see through it.”
“Oh, come on, you’re accusing me of having an on-camera personality? Name me on person in this business who doesn’t.” Jim lifted the wine glass to his lips, then stopped. “Katie Couric doesn’t count; I don’t think she has an off-camera personality.”
Leaning back in his chair, Renault winked. “You beat me to a joke. I think everyone’s through the looking-glass tonight.”
“Says a man who gets his kicks by being me,” Jim mumbled into the wine, nearly to himself. He wasn’t much of a connoisseur of fine alcohol one way or another — and hardly the type to take a sip and pretend could detect the hints of chocolate and honeydew, or pine and broccoli, or whatever he was supposed to be tasting — but even he could tell this wine was definitely good enough to live up to its price tag. Leave it to Ethan Renault not to skimp when it came to luxuries.
“You have a very identifiable style, plus you’re very well-known right now — or I suppose I should say, your performance of yourself is. And there’s a reason: It’s a good hook, eye-catching even when it’s a parody of itself. In a way it’s really ingenious. In a shouting sort of way.”
Jim felt his jaw set tight as Renault talked, and had a difficult time convincing his teeth to unclench afterward; still, he managed his most gracious smile. “I’ll be polite and say thank you, since I almost think I’ve been complimented. In a mean-spirited sort of way.”
Renault looked perfectly innocent. “Have I hurt your feelings, Jim?”
Having long ago thought himself immune to such petty, backhanded criticism — particularly from Ethan Renault’s dismissable parody of himself — Jim was surprised to find himself stung by such an analysis. “Hardly.” He rolled his eyes, playing off how close to their mark such barbs hit. “I’m old enough to remember when we boys weren’t supposed to be ‘in touch with our feelings’, so: sticks and stones, and so forth.”
“You just seem a little sensitive about this. But I can assure you, I’m an admirer.”
“You’ve tailored your entire career around mocking me. You’ll forgive if I’m a little incredulous.”
“Haven’t you ever heard imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?” asked Renault sweetly, and Jim thought long and hard about the repercussions of punching a public figure in a crowded restaurant.
“It’s not my fault you can’t get your own shtick — apart from showing the world pictures of my face edited onto the body of some sexual sadist.” Though Jim had not actually bothered to go watch the tape of Renault’s Monday show, Aimee had been, he felt, sufficiently descriptive — and Jim wasn’t about to admit to Ethan Renault that he knew the word ‘leatherman’. “Which is not only in questionable taste, but raises some eyebrows about you yourself.”
“Oh?” Instead of taking the insult as it had been intended, Ethan inclined his head with a wicked smile. “How do you figure?”
It was at this precise moment the hors d’overs chose to make their appearance, accompanied by a second waiter who seemed bound and determined to rearrange every single item atop the table’s surface before he deemed it appropriate to lay down his savory-smelling burden. “…Well,” Jim hemmed and hawed, not wishing to detail further even without someone resettling every piece of his silverware half an inch to the right, “I think it’s obvious.”
Renault just sat back, one hand still about the stem of his wine glass, looking completely unperturbed by the chaos unfolding between them, as though he might be somehow specially equipped to float cheerfully above any disturbance to his person. “No, please, elaborate.”
His only recourse was to drink the wine, and so Jim did, draining the glass at a metered pace so that he did not finish until Renault took one of the puff pastries from the tray and cut a smaller bite from it. In retrospect, this wasn’t the best idea he’d ever had, and it left him with the slightly dreadful knowledge that nothing loved red wine more than an empty stomach. So he decided to pour himself another glass, and would almost have made it, had Renault not swept up the bottle and poured it for him. What a gentleman. “Why did you invite me to dinner? Just to mess with my head?”
“I was hungry.” Renault settled the bottle back against the table, then sighed. “And, yes, to mess with your head. And because I’m enjoying your company.”
“Well, finally a little honesty. For two out of three, I guess.” Jim tried the pastry and found it to be delicious, if half-filled with vegetables he couldn’t identify.
“All right, you caught me.” Renault held up his palms as though empty-handed, even though one still held his glass, and the other now wielded a fork. “I’d actually just made a sandwich. In the microwave!”
Jim rolled his eyes again. He found himself doing that a lot tonight. “You’re not going to tell me what you did with it, are you?”
“That would ruin the surprise.”
“Now I’m just disturbed. Like I am every time I watch your show. Which I don’t usually do, I should tell you.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t expect that. Still, anytime you want, I owe you a place in the hot seat.”
“I’d be afraid your audience might lynch me,” Jim scoffed. Though he’d never admit it, little did so much to unsettle him as the thought of repeating that evening’s broadcast, only this time in front of an actively hostile audience. The worst he had to worry about on his own territory were camera crews who didn’t know they were supposed to laugh with their boss and at his guest, not vice versa.
Now it was Renault’s wine glass that was empty, and Jim returned the pouring favour, pleased to note that only a hint of coordination had been sacrificed to the evening’s drinking. “Well, if they’re actually principally marijuana-abusing college students, like your surveys say, I think you’re probably safe. The best they could manage would be ordering a pizza in a vaguely threatening manner.”
“It’s nice to know those liberal arts colleges are teaching some real life skills,” Jim lobbed, before remembering the earlier request not to talk politics. How long had it been since he’d had a conversation about anything except breaking news or network politics? He couldn’t remember. It felt … nice.
“Yes, I remember my Ordering A Pizza final being particularly strenuous. I never took another economics class.”
Caught off-guard, Jim laughed aloud, despite any and all promises he’d made himself not to let on that he was having anything approaching a good time. “Well, that explains so much.”
“For one thing,” Renault gestured at Jim with a speared slice of mushroom, “why you’re going to have to calculate the tip.”
“Some first date this is,” muttered Jim — which, he realised as soon as he’d said it, had been meant to come out sounding far more like a careless joke than it actually did. He blamed the wine. Stupid wine.
“I did agree to pay,” Renault reminded him.
Jim felt a flush rising in his cheeks, and fought with all his might to keep it back down. Stupid, stupid wine. He’d better have another glass. “Yes. Well. Thank you.” He smiled, looking as casual as could be, but found he couldn’t meet Renault’s — Ethan’s — eyes.
“Would you like to get a drink afterwards?” The late hour had worked toward clearing out the restaurant, meaning that Renault’s question sounded impossibly loud in the emptier space; nonetheless, Jim wasn’t entirely sure he’d heard the man correctly.
“I … what?”
“A drink,” repeated Ethan, his eyes dark and deep in the restaurant’s dimmed light. (Oh, Jim thought, how many glasses did it take to make his brain dig up nonsense like that?)
“This doesn’t count?” Jim’s fingers rapped a crystal rhythm on the rim of his glass, sending ripples through the stupid, stupid wine.
“I’d certainly hope it does, but….” Ethan leaned closer, dropping his voice. “I was thinking of something more informal.”
There was something about Renault’s tone that Jim didn’t like at all. For starters, it made him feel as though his knees might give way, and he wasn’t even standing up. “It doesn’t get a whole lot more informal than this,” he pointed out, gesturing at the assembled patronage, fewer than half of whom were dressed in suits, and not one of whom had shown up in black tie.
Ethan smiled into his wine. “That puts your life in an interesting perspective.”
“Now I’m starting to think you’re the pod person.”
“How do you know I’m not?”
Jim had to admit, Ethan had him there. “…Well, I suppose I don’t. And it does make more sense than most other explanations.”
“That brings up the obvious question: Do you have a shotgun? …Do you have a shotgun? Now I’m curious.”
It would have been a great opportunity to derail the conversation to safer topics, to go into those hours Jim and his father had spent hunting together decades ago, to take the topic of conversation to a place that had not become entirely out of Jim’s depth, but all he could find to say was, “…Not on me, no.”
“I’d make the obvious joke about ‘in your pocket,’ but I doubt you’ve ever been happy to see me.”
“The opposite, in fact,” said Jim, but he was aware that he was smiling despite all instructions he had given his mouth to the contrary. It began to dawn on him that Ethan Renault was not a case of getting past the jackass to find the charm, but understanding that the jackass was part of the charm. Which didn’t make Jim feel better about much, of course, but did put certain things into perspective.
“So what is your type?” Ethan Renault, ladies and gentlemen, master of the non sequitur.
“Women,” answered Jim curtly. “I hope you remember those.”
“Bipedal, usually mammalian? Yes, I’ve read some research.”
Jim thought of his soon-to-be-ex-wife and scowled. “Just my luck, I seem to attract the reptilian type.” Maybe he’d call her tomorrow and tell her that he’d decided he’d rather have dinner with Ethan Renault than return her phone calls. That’d frost her cookies on some existential level.
Renault shook his head. “I suppose this demands some sort of cheap shot about like calling to like.”
“We’ll assume it’s been made and I’ll save you the effort.”
“That’s very considerate of you. You never answered me about the drink.”
“That’s because you’re being surreal again,” Jim pointed out, which he felt was possibly the lamest comeback he could have pulled out, and as such resolved to do better in the future. It was clear that Renault wasn’t going to be dissuaded forever by tangents, but Jim intended to hold the line as long as humanly possible.
“Surreal doesn’t mean insincere,” countered Ethan, his voice low.
“Maybe you’ve got a microphone on. Oh, that must be it.”
“Would you like to pat me down?” Ethan held his arms as wide as the small space would allow, his suitcoat pulling wide to give a greater hint of the trim frame beneath. “For security’s sake.”
Jim decided it was high time to develop a renewed relationship with his glass of wine. “Your jokes get stranger by the minute.”
“It’s the most I can hope for,” winked Renault, as the waiter arrived right on cue with two steaming piles of meat.
“I’m not biased,” Jim said as he tried to insert his key into one of the three keyholes swimming in front of him. Somewhere between dessert and the ride home, there had been both another bottle of wine and a heated argument about the Constitutionality of masturbating into the American flag, to the point where the former made him unsure of who had won the latter, why he’d been the one who ended up arguing that it showed a roundabout sort of respect, and how regardless of outcome they’d wound up back at Jim’s penthouse. “I mean, I know lots of gay people.”
“Mm-hmm,” nodded Ethan — because apparently two bottles of expensive wine meant his arch-rival’s last name became too French even to think about — crossing his arms and leaning against the door frame. He looked a little flushed, but otherwise unmoved by the alcohol, which made Jim wish that he, too, were thirty again.
The lock finally clicked open, and Jim pushed inside. “I mean, Kenny Mehlman’s a great guy.” Ethan snorted, so Jim felt compelled to continue. “And when you get to know Karl Rove, really, he’s got his nice side–”
“He doesn’t count. You have to be human to be gay.”
“That’s not what you liberals said when they found those gay penguins.”
“I stand corrected. You have to be human or a penguin. Karl Rove is neither.” Ethan was helping him undo his tie, which was very nice of him. Aimee must have given him the memo. “Okay, or some other creature capable of evoking sympathy.”
“And, of course, Andrew Sullivan–”
“What did I just say?”
“And I know you liberals don’t like her, but Ann Coulter’s got a–”
“Sympathetic enough for Disney to make an animated movie about. That requires evolution beyond pond scum level. Merely up to is unacceptable.”
“Please don’t bring up my exes when I’m undoing your pants.”
Is that what he was doing down there? Jim nearly hadn’t noticed. Standing up began to seem like too much effort; fortunately, Ethan guided him backward to the couch, where he sat down hard with a huffing sort of noise. “I met Mary Cheney and her, uh, lady friend at the inaguration….”
Ethan knelt between Jim’s knees, looking up at him with a bemused sort of expression. “You planning on listing yourself?”
“I’m not gay.” Jim laughed at the ridiculousness of the suggestion, yet the question made him feel awkward, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on why.
There was a long, patient pause during which Ethan gave Jim a long, hard look — which in turn made him realise that the gaze wasn’t the only thing here hard. “So I see you’re only outsourcing your homosexual urges,” Ethan quipped, slipping Jim’s rather insistently erect cock out from the slit in the front of his underwear. Oh, if only he’d known he was going to be on the receiving end of a blowjob, he might have put on slightly more dignified undergarments this morning.
And then Ethan’s mouth was around the tip of his cock, sucking wet and hot, and Jim wasn’t entirely sure what had just happened. In fact, the only thought that still persisted with any real clarity was well, I guess this makes this evening 75% less airable on MTV, even if there does turn out to be cameras. The rest of his brain was a great Sargasso Sea, where confusion and alcohol intertwined with desire, creating a unnavigable mass designed to sink any ship that ventured its way.
It was an odd metaphor, but still a literary one, so Jim was bound and determined to stick it out.
There seemed to be no end tonight to things Renault did spectacularly well, and among those was, apparently, sucking cock. He looked so cute when he did, too, so tremendously lovely, with his dark eyelashes and hair curtaining his half-lidded eyes; he’d taken off the glasses at some point when Jim hadn’t been paying attention, and seeing his face without them, Jim could understand why he wore them. It was the same reason Jim had grown and worn a full (if somewhat patchy) moustache until he was well into his thirties — nobody trusted a baby-faced reporter, whether he was expounding on truth or truthiness. The profession required a certain amount of gravitas, if one were inclined to put it kindly, and age, if one were not.
Jim reached his time-etched hand down and touched Ethan’s face just at the corner of his eye, where the faintest edges of lines had begun to form, rubbing the soft skin there with the ball of his thumb. The contact broke Ethan’s rhythm, and he lifted his head, letting the tip of Jim’s cock rest against his lower lip. “The early results are promising,” he smirked; precome and saliva glistened at his mouth as he spoke.
“Oh, for the love of–” Jim’s caress turned into a gentle smack, ruffling Ethan’s hair. “Can you quit the politics while you’re–” He hadn’t been entirely certain when he started where he wanted that sentence to end, and now he’d arrived, all the possibilities left him speechless.
Ethan fell backward, knocked a little off-balance, and laughed. “While I’m what, Jim?” His knees splayed, and from the way his trousers pulled, Jim was given the strong impression that he was not the only one favourably influenced by the evening’s proceedings.
Jim coughed and took a deep breath, finding it hard to speak with a mouth gone entirely dry. “…The bed?”
“You have one?” Ethan smirked, reaching up to wipe at the corner of his mouth in a way that should not have been that sexy. “And here I thought you all dangled from the ceiling to sleep. You know, you’re destroying all my dearly held notions about Republicans tonight.”
“You are such an asshole.” Jim pinched the bridge of his nose, then began a very earnest campaign to find his feet again.
Ethan pulled himself up with an infuriating degree of grace, then extended a hand to Jim. “That may be so,” he conceded, “but if we go to the bed, it’s not mine we’re going to be talking about.”
“Do you ever shut–” Jim didn’t even let himself finish the sentence, just grabbed Ethan’s tie and pulled him close, kissing him deep. He could taste spit and his own precome and the banana flambé they’d shared for dessert, and beneath it all something very particular, a taste Jim had a feeling was nothing more or less than Ethan himself. Jim McGloin had been called old-fashioned before, and supposed it was for very good reason, but there was just an order to things, and even if the world had suddenly turned in a very odd direction, by God, he was bound and determined to hold to something that still made sense.
He felt surprise on Ethan’s lips, a sort of rigid tension, and could not help being intensely pleased with himself — finally, finally, he’d gotten one over on Ethan Renault.
The triumph was short-lived, however, gone as soon as Ethan recovered himself and took full charge of the kiss. Jim couldn’t remember the last time he’d been kissed like this, if ever. Oh, he’d been kissed by men before, to be sure, in the parts and places of his life that didn’t end up in celebrity autobiographies, and even by some women of exceedingly passionate (if somewhat sordid) natures. But by God, he’d never been kissed by Ethan Renault before.
It was Ethan who finally broke the kiss, reaching for Jim’s hand. “Well, come on,” he smiled, leading Jim through the apartment’s living room presumably toward the door which looked most likely to be the bedroom. As it turned out, he was right.
Without bothering to turn on the lights, Ethan pushed Jim toward the bed and fell atop him, kissing and undressing him all at once. Jim tried to return the favour, reaching for Ethan’s clothes and unfastening what he could; the tie gave way after a few gentle tugs, and Jim tossed it somewhere off the end of the bed, not giving a damn where it landed. Ethan shucked his own shirt off shortly afterward, and in the light from the open door, Jim could see more clearly Ethan’s lean frame. How he’d passed the last few years without noticing just how spectacularly attractive the man was, Jim couldn’t say, but there was no denying it now.
Ethan rocked off the bed, first casting off his own pants and shoes, then removing Jim’s with similar efficiency. He bent to kiss Jim’s hip, then worked his way upward, letting his mouth’s insistent kisses nearly distract Jim from how his own legs were falling spread apart, and how Ethan’s body was moving to fill the space between them. Oh, so that had been why Ethan had said–
“Are you the bedside table type?” Ethan rolled to the side and opened the drawer to the bedside table, which revealed a well-thumbed King James Version of the Bible, a bottle of asprin, half a dozen earplugs, a small notepad, a pen — and condoms and hand lotion, which presumably had been his intended goal all along. “God, I love it when men are predictable.”
Jim propped himself up on one elbow, intending to mount a protest at the idea of being, well, mounted, but getting distracted prematurely by Ethan’s comment. “…So you’re gay?”
“No.” Ethan kissed Jim’s forehead, then turned back to unscrewing the cap on the lotion.
This seemed incorrect on several levels, and Jim took advantage of Ethan’s distraction to think it over as much as his impaired judgement would allow. “Because you do seem a little gay right now.”
“Opportunistically multi-sexual, more like it.” Ethan squirted some of the white cream onto his fingers and began rubbing them together, which caused a faint almond scent to filter into the air. “We’re that elusive seventh stripe on the pride rainbow.”
“Makes you sound more like an infectious disease to me,” muttered Jim, though it was hard to front even a minor argument when talking seemed so much less interesting than watching Ethan Renault roll on a condom. In fact, he discovered, that kind of a sight demanded a man’s full attention.
Ethan let his slick fingers trail down the inside of Jim’s thigh, sporting a truly wicked grin. Slowly, his fingertips circled the warm skin just behind Jim’s balls, sliding a little lower with each revolution. “…So tell me, is your wife divorcing you because you get funny feelings when your doctor tells you to turn your head and cough?”
Jim made a terrible face and felt his balls clench; of all the things he felt like thinking about right now, Martha was unimaginably far down the list. “She’s divorcing me because she’s a heinous shrew. It’s not the same thing.”
“Oh, of course not,” Ethan snickered. Wet fingertips pressed against Jim’s ass, and he forced himself to breathe and relax as a single long, well-manicured digit worked its way inside of him. “…Mm, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
As he opened his mouth to protest that, in fact, he had never been in a position like this before, Jim found that all the air had escaped his lungs. Somehow along the way, too, his hands had fisted in the sheets, and his eyes had shut tightly. He almost wanted to say it hurt, to be able to summon some degree of discomfort worthy of complaint, but it was good, breathlessly good, and only got better when a second finger joined the first. His cock twitched against his belly, leaving a drop of precome where it touched skin.
“So, what do you think of gay rights now?” Ethan wiggled his fingers in a way that made Jim see stars a little. “Or gay lefts? I could switch hands!”
“I hate you and everything you stand for,” Jim gritted through clenched teeth.
“At last,” Ethan mused cheerfully, “we’ve achieved meaningful dialogue on the issue! I should call Carson and Begala on Monday and give them some suggestions; I hear Crossfire‘s still looking to change its format.”
Jim cracked one eye open, hoping there was enough light in the room that his scowl might come across loud and clear. “That’s it. I’m cutting your mic.”
Ethan laughed, fucking Jim slowly with his ‘gay right’ a few more times before withdrawing his fingers entirely and wiping them on the sheets. “Well, you know what they say, you can take the man out of the pundit’s seat, but you can’t take the pundit out of the man.” Slicking his rubber-sheathed cock afresh with the lotion, Ethan positioned himself between Jim’s thighs, lifted their hips together, and pressed in.
Though he’d rarely been accused of being a man able to see both sides in a debate, Jim found himself weighing evenly the pros and cons of the evening’s alcohol consumption. In the pro column, he was fairly sure this particular sexual endeavour would be be somewhat less comfortable without a fair amount of red wine greasing the skids, as it were. In the con column, he was similarly sure that this particular sexual endeavour wouldn’t be happening at all if he were in his right and sober mind. Then Ethan’s hand wrapped around his cock, stroking with great care, which skewed Jim’s view disproportionately toward the pro column — which Jim was fairly sure constituted a violation of most state and federal fair election laws, but that was beside the point.
Jim couldn’t remember the last time he’d been quite this hard about anything or anyone, in bed or otherwise. Ethan hoisted their hips higher, splaying his knees in what Jim was certain was a terribly undignified position, and began to move with a more definite rhythm. Proctological jokes aside, Jim could feel the head of Ethan’s cock bring him to a new and sudden awareness of a highly sensitive spot deep within him, and knew that his prostate cancer self-exams would never be the same again.
Ethan’s breath was audible now, harsh and heavy, and Jim felt a certain amount of pride at knowing that he had caused this loss of dignity and control. The light from the doorway caught the side of Ethan’s face, illuminating his parted lips, his heavy-lidded eyes. He was indeed a handsome man, and maybe that had been what’d disturbed Jim so about him from the beginning — that deep attraction, coupled with the subconscious desire to wind up like this, naked and coupled. Not for the first time in his life, Jim was glad he didn’t believe in the mental health profession, and therefore had no therapist to whom to lie about any of this.
The hand around his cock picked up speed, stroking faster, and Ethan hovered over Jim’s body; as though their previous position hadn’t been awkward enough, Ethan was now fucking him hard enough now to justify hooking Jim’s knees over his shoulders, a configuration even more ungainly but substantially more effective. Jim gave up any semblance of control over the situation and let his body fall back entirely against the bed, fingers clenching at the expensive Egyptian cotton sheets, certain that he looked quite a mess but at that precise moment unable to care. He licked his lips, dimly aware of the groans of pleasure that were coming from his mouth, glad that his bedroom was situated in such a place that he had no neighbours to worry about, were he even able to amass the wherewithal to care at this moment.
As a sign of his manliness and prowess, Jim resolved not to let Ethan come before he did. Unfortunately, the resolve likely travelled no farther than his brain, probably got garbled somewhere around the middle of his chest, and certainly did not make it as far as his genitals, which had indeed been denied the pleasures of companionable discourse for quite some time. Overwhelmed by sensation, taken in by heat and slickness and sheer infuriating perfection that was Ethan Renault, Jim gasped and arched his back. “Please,” he was dimly aware of saying, his voice little more than an arid gasp. “Please.”
“Come on, Jim,” purred Ethan in a way that was not sinister at all, and Jim did just that, reaching his climax with a choked cry, spilling into Ethan’s hand and all over his bare stomach. His heart still racing in his ears, Jim looked up to see Ethan close his eyes and catch his own lower lip between his teeth, furrowing his brows in a look of intense concentration. Then he craned his head forward and let out a long, hitching breath as he came.
Momentarily, his hips began to slow, then stopped entirely. With a grunt that was truly undignified, Ethan slipped out of Jim and fell back against the bed. The condom came off shortly afterward, tied and disposed of in the nearby wastebasket with nary a drop spilled. Well, at least one of them had ended up clean.
As though having read his mind, Ethan got up from the bed and walked over to the open bathroom door, where a towel hung over the doorknob; he grabbed it and returned to the bed, sitting on the edge next to Jim and gently wiping him clean, starting with his stomach. With an eye to the mess drying there, Ethan smirked. “Age before beauty.”
“Pearls before swine,” grunted Jim in response, though as far as insult warfare went, it was a half-hearted response. For one of the few times in his life he could remember, he felt too good to fight back. He even smiled a little as Ethan drew the towel down between his legs, cleaning up the far more unpleasant combination of substances there that, despite his best mental efforts to ignore Dan Savage’s insane ramblings, Jim had forever connected with Pennsylvania’s most recent ex-senator.
That matter resolved, Ethan settled in next to Jim and pulled the sheets up over both of them, tossing the towel to the floor. Though he was the taller of the pair, Ethan put his head against Jim’s shoulder, snuggling in so that Jim could smell his hair. Men weren’t supposed to smell this good, Jim supposed, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.
After he was certain he had enough air in his lungs to speak again, Jim cleared his throat. “…You know, I never did get that drink.”
“Well, Jim,” smirked Ethan, “it’s your house, and I don’t know where you keep the booze.”
Jim laughed softly and stroked Ethan’s shoulder. “Then I guess I’m the bad host. I’d go get you something, but … I think I’ve misplaced my legs.”
That earned him a soft (albeit smug) laugh. “I’ll take a rain check.” Ethan’s fingers traced patterns along Jim’s hip and stomach, following the lines and folds of skin as though trying to commit them to memory. “You know,” he finally said, in a slightly hushed voice, “you’re the reason I got into broadcast journalism in the first place.”
Such a confession caught Jim off-guard, and for a moment he was able to do nothing more than breathe. “…Really?”
“No.” Ethan swatted Jim’s chest. “How gullible are you?”
“I could smother you right now.” Jim reached for a pillow. “Not a jury in the world would convict me.”
“Not since Lawrence v. Texas, no.”
Jim sensed he’d lost the argument already, so he did the only thing that made sense without a commercial handy to cut to, and that was to turn Ethan’s face towards his and kiss him, hard and long. In the end, after a fashion, the victory had indeed been his, and he’d sleep better tonight knowing that he’d finally found a way to make Ethan Renault shut the hell up.
The microwave turned up Monday morning, tucked into a corner of the soundstage, wearing a wig and a tie, and sporting a little sign reading ‘MIKE McGLOIN: THE NO-TURNTABLE ZONE.’ Upon hearing this, Jim quietly began constructing elaborate revenge fantasies, most of which involved the Renault Assault‘s coffeemaker and a little flag reading COME AND TAKE IT.