Barring Complications

By Blythe Rippon

blythe.rippon@gmail.com

Disclaimers: None. All of the characters are mine.

Warning: This story involves romance between women. For those of you not offended by lesbian love, happy reading!

Dedication: This story is dedicated to everyone who has fought for marriage equality – by marching in a parade, by writing a letter to a congressperson, by having a conversation at a dinner table.

Copyright Blythe Rippon, June 2013. All rights reserved . This story, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any format without the prior express permission of the author. This story is a work of fiction, and is not intended to represent any particular individual, alive or dead.

Barring Complications will be posted in five parts. Feel free to drop me a line at blythe.rippon@gmail.com .

 


 

– PART I –

 

Victoria

Chapter One

She had hoped they wouldn't hear the case. Of course, she knew that was unrealistic of her. Since DOMA in 1996, Vermont in 2000, and San Francisco and Massachusetts in 2004, it was inevitable that the Court would hear a case on this issue. It wasn't a question of if, but when. And what she would be able to do about it.

She breathed deeply, in and out, focusing on the rhythms of her body, trying to stop her mind from spinning. She concentrated on the movements of her arms and legs through the pool. Inhale. Exhale.

The case was Samuels v. United States. The four plaintiffs – as per usual, a lesbian couple and a gay male couple – were legally married in Iowa. They sued the federal government under the Equal Protection clause, for its failure to fully recognize their marriage. At stake in the case was the fundamental right to marry. If the Court heard Samuels , they would have the opportunity to issue a sweeping decision on gay marriage, once and for all.

But the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in Samuels – well, Victoria couldn't believe that HRC, NCLR, HER, and the other gay rights organizations had allowed those subpar attorneys to argue their cause in Iowa.

She neared the blue tiled wall and, turning her head to the side, took a deep breath. She pulled the water with both arms, tightened her abs, and spun around herself. Gazing at the corrugated ceiling panels through the chlorinated water, she kicked off from the wall and rotated. Sometimes, before she surfaced and began normal freestyle strokes, she pretended she knew how to do a dolphin kick and wiggled her body a bit. Sometimes it made her smile at herself and her goofy side that no one ever got to see. This wasn't one of those times.

If the Court declined to hear the case, the appellate decision would stand and gay couples in a number of states would be granted marriage rights and benefits. It was tempting to want to do nothing – why give the four and a half conservatives on the highest court in the land an opportunity to overturn what was being touted as the defining civil rights victories of a generation?

Human rights groups, religious organizations, and even a few politicians (under the table, of course) were spending millions on advertising and attorney's fees.

It was political. And the Court wasn't supposed to be political.

As Victoria began her return lap, her thoughts turned from her swimming form back to the previous day's Conference of the Justices. In advance of the October session, the Justices had each reviewed the petitions and individually decided which cases they wanted to take. At their Conference, the Justices had followed the Rule of Four – every Justice voted, and as long as four of them wanted to hear a case, the entire panel would grant review for it.

She executed another flip turn, pushed off, and began her twenty-fourth lap. She tried in vain to even out her breathing. Because yesterday, at the Conference of Justices, all eight other members of the Court had voted to hear oral arguments in Samuels v. United States . They had come to her last, when her vote wouldn't have mattered. She had simply nodded her affirmative vote and said, affecting her best Josiah Bartlet, “what's next?”

Alistair Douglas had patted her knee in his usual fatherly way before the room moved on to a habeas case brought by three Guantanamo detainees.

At forty-seven, Victoria Willoughby was the youngest Justice – both in terms of age and seniority on the bench. She had barely had the opportunity to get to know her colleagues. She was more than nervous about her ability to persuade some of them to vote in favor of marriage equality. And she didn't even want to think about the heightened media attention that might very well be coming her way.

She finished her usual thirty laps, frustrated that they hadn't stopped the spinning of her mind.

 

* * *

 

“Aunt Tori, when do you get to be Chief?”

Victoria laughed at her nephew, who was prancing around her brother's unnecessarily large (appropriately manly, he insisted) backyard grill. While Victoria and her brother watched the grill, Tommy kept crossing and uncrossing his little legs.

“It doesn't work that way, Tommy. Chief O'Neil will be Chief until he leaves the Court, and then the President will pick someone to take his place.”

Tommy hopped from one foot to the other and wiggled a little. “So I'll never get to call you Chief?”

“I'm definitely the Chief of the Grill, don't you think?” Tori winked at him.

“Uh huh. Definitely.” Tori could see he was getting a little distracted by his situation.

“Hey Buddy. You gotta pee?”

“Oh yeah! I do!” He careened off to the sliding door separating the backyard from the kitchen, leaving his aunt and father chuckling behind him.

Victoria threw her arm around her brother's shoulders, highlighting their matching 5'8” frames, which provided a constant source of irritation for him. When he was a boy, he couldn't wait to be taller than his older sister. When in high school he finally reached her height, he was certain that in a couple of months he would be able to hold things just out of her reach and try to convince her to jump. She had promised that if it ever came to that, she would simply tickle him until he dropped whatever he was trying to hold over her head. Sadly, for William Willoughby, he stopped growing in high school, and Victoria loved to wear heels around him.

The siblings stood at the grill, shoulder to shoulder, watching the flames dance around the slats. “He's just like you at that age. Can't stand to think he's missing a part of the action.” With her free hand, Victoria slid a spatula under a burger and flipped it.

William nodded his head toward the red feeder hanging from an oak tree just beyond the grill. “There's two of them.” The hummingbirds seemed to be dancing with each other.

“I don't understand how their wings move so fast.”

“Ever been close enough to see their little feet?” Will asked.

“Huh. Of course they have feet. That never occurred to me.”

“Add it to the list of things I'm smarter than you about.”

Victoria rolled her eyes. “Glad that list is longer than one item now?”

“Are you kidding? I already knew more than you about diapers and midnight feedings.”

“Congratulations. You want a sticker?”

“That'd be nice, actually. Think you can manage?” William asked.

“I'll see what I can do.” Victoria closed her eyes for a moment, happy to be surrounded by family and adorable little birds and the end of summer. It was hot, especially for September, and when she opened her eyes she watched the warm breeze ruffle her brother's hair.

“Diane can get really close to them,” he said, nodding to the hummingbirds.

“Yeah? Maybe she can take a photo for the rest of us.”

“Some things aren't meant to be captured on film, Tori.” He stretched and sighed and grinned. “Like this beautiful day. You can't Flickr or Shutterfly this feeling.

She reached out and tickled his exposed ribs. When he scrunched down and clutched his side, she laughed. “You make it so easy.”

“Kabobs!” Diane emerged from the kitchen with an overloaded tray, which she passed off to Victoria. Tori carefully positioned the kabobs horizontally on the vertical slats, tweaking their placement to ensure they had equal access to the flames.

“All set?” William asked, when she stood back to admire her handiwork.

“All good,” Tori replied.

William snatched the tongs from her, and before she could stop him, he plucked up the kabobs and dropped them in random locations around the grill. Then, he looked at her, his hand over his mouth and his eyes wide. “Oops! Did it get all messed up? Oh no!”

She reclaimed the tongs and circled around him, trapping him between the hot grill and the marinade-covered ends that she snapped closed quickly a couple of times, right in front of his nose.

“Will, is your sister winning again?” Diane asked. “You need some new moves.”

Tori laughed, and took pity on her brother. She stood back and let him retreat to a deck chair. While she returned the kabobs to their proper place, in a little row, she listened to them chat.

“Rebecca still sleeping?” Will asked.

“Yep. You know that means we'll be up all night.”

“Maybe we should wake her up.”

“But she's so cute when she sleeps,” Diane said.

“Hmm. Maybe Tommy will wake her up.”

“Sure, send our son to do our dirty work.”

Watching the progress of the grill, Tori called over her shoulder, “did school start up for Tommy already?”

“He's two weeks in,” Diane said. “I think he's got a new – “ Diane faltered, interrupted by the voice coming from the surround sound speakers Will had mounted by the grill.

“Tonight's edition of They've Got Issues : it's an open secret that Justice Victoria Willoughby is a lesbian. Tonight, Roger Rhodes from The Atlantic and Abigail Prince from The Wall Street Journal will discuss how Willoughby's sexual orientation will impact what we all assume will be an upcoming decision from the Supreme Court on gay marriage and DOMA. Abigail, let's start with you.”

“Look, we all know Willoughby's gay, whether or not she's ever said so on the record. It is unconscionable to think she wouldn't recuse herself from the case. Clearly – “

“Now wait a minute, Abigail,” Roger cut in. “Are you saying that every female judge should recuse herself from a rape case? Every black judge should recuse himself from affirmative action cases? Every justice who has ever invested in the stock market should sit out any cases involving financial regulation? This quickly becomes a slippery slope.”

As the two journalists continued to debate her ability to objectively interpret the constitution, Victoria abandoned her post at the grill and sank into a lawn chair. The wooden slats underneath her felt solid and she squeezed the edge of the seat, grateful for something hard to grab onto. William trotted over to the glass door that separated the porch from the kitchen, slid it open, and called to his son. “Hey Tommy! Why'd you turn off Palladia? Will you put it back on please?”

Victoria barely heard her six-year-old nephew's reply. “Dad! I was trying to find cartoons when I heard these people talking about Aunt Tori! She's practically on TV! That's so cool.”

“Totally cool, buddy. Could you put Palladia back on now, though?”

“Do I have to?”

“Yes, buddy, you have to.”

“Fine.” After a few seconds of a commercial and the Jeopardy theme song, his channel surfing stopped on the requested channel. Victoria exhaled heavily as Eric Clapton's “Crossroads” once again filled her ears.

The hummingbirds had flown closer. Tori strained to see their little feet, but all she could see was the blur of their wings. She leaned left, then right, but couldn't find the right angle. Or maybe her eyesight wasn't good enough. Maybe she needed a stronger eyeglass prescription.

“Tori?”

She blinked and turned to see Diane seated next to her, her hand on Tori's knee.

“Ah, there you are,” Diane said.

“Sorry.”

Diane offered her a small smile. “Listen, they don't have anything on you. In the first place, they have no proof that you're not straight. And, more importantly, it's ridiculous to think that you would need to recuse yourself.”

Tori noticed that Will had taken over as Grill Chief while his wife comforted her. She tried not to sigh. “It doesn't matter what they know – it only matters what they think they know, Diane. I never wanted the spotlight. That's one of the reasons I was drawn to the Court in the first place. The media generally leaves the Justices alone – at least, once the confirmation process is over. Then, we usually get all the space and privacy we need to focus on the law. These gay marriages cases, well, these cases will be a whole different ballgame. At least for me.”

“Well, it's just one session. You just joined the Court. This will pass, and you'll have years on the bench. Shaping the laws of this country and all that.”

Tori nodded, gazing at the hummingbirds again. “I didn't expect this case so soon.”

“But you did expect it?” Diane asked, gently.

“Of course. A blind man could see this coming.”

“Maybe if his name was Tiresias, sure. I didn't know. I really thought this process would play out in legislatures.

Will cut in. “And at the ballot box.”

“That strategy wouldn't be sustainable,” Tori said. “Eventually the country would reach a stalemate between red states and blue states, and the gays in Alabama and Mississippi would be left in the cold.” She knew she was assuming her lecturer voice, but she couldn't help herself. “Bodies such as the US Congress are dominated by majority opinion, which seldom strives to protect minority rights. That's the balance that the courts offer this country – sometimes the majority fails the minority, and that failure needs a remedy. The only way to settle an issue like gay marriage is for the Court to issue a broad ruling on it.”

Tori turned and noticed Diane looking at her with a mixture of respect and sadness. She found herself offering comfort, rather than receiving it, and she took her sister-in-law's hand. “I'll be fine, really. Don't worry about me. Worry about what I'll do to Jamison if he votes against gay marriage, though.”

She glanced over at her brother, who was staring at the grill. She knew, even though she could only see the back of his head, that he was disappointed not at her poor attempt to joke the situation away, but at the media, the homophobes, and any member of the American public who would want to drag his brilliant, kind, beautiful sister through the ordeal that loomed ahead. She felt a surge of love for him in that moment – for her short brother who would happily protect her from the world with all he had.

As if he could read her thoughts, he turned his head and his hazel eyes met hers. They smiled at one another for a moment before she asked, “how those kabobs doing, dude?” She could tell he had forgotten they were even there.

 

* * *

 

From his booster seat in the middle of Will's dining rom table, Tommy put a bit of hotdog in his mouth before he started speaking. Will rolled his eyes. “We get to do “Day-Glo.' It's by some Harry guy.”

“It's ‘Day-O,' son.”

“Not Day-Glo?” He sprayed a little hot dog bun as he spoke.

“Nope. Just an ‘O' at the end. If you're going to dance to it at the fall show, you'd better know how to say it.”

“Oh. Okay. So, we get to do Day-O. And the second graders get to do ‘Moves like Jagger.' I wanna move like a jagger. Or a panther. That'd be cool.”

The adults laughed. “Jagger is a singer, Tommy. And you need to sit still at the dinner table.”

Tori watched him still his wiggling with effort, only to start up again a moment later.

“Ay-Tor. Ay-Tor!” Rebecca screeched out, and all eyes turned toward little Rebecca, who was munching on Cheerios. Her eyes were still groggy from her nap. At eighteen months, Rebecca had completely captured Victoria's heart when the Justice realized that “A-Tor” was the best Rebecca could do with the mouthful that was “Aunt Victoria.” Tori turned puppy-dog eyes at her younger brother. “Can I hold her, please?”

“Sure, but don't come complaining to me when she throws your food on the floor,” William said.

Holding her beautiful niece, Victoria felt safe, if only for a moment, from the world outside her brother's house. She kissed the top of Rebecca's head, smiling into hair the same strawberry color as her own. They both munched on honey-nut Os and Tori murmured, “I love you, Rebecca.”

“Wove A-Tor!” Rebecca squealed, putting her sticky hands all over her aunt's face.

Tori repositioned them and tried to keep eating her dinner. Rebecca seemed to make a game out of grabbing everything her little arms could reach, which included Tori's food, and eventually Tori gave up. She wasn't particularly hungry anyway. Her stomach felt fluttery, and she knew it had nothing to do with her appetite. Her cheek resting on Rebecca's head, she turned toward her brother and sister-in-law. “That's it. I'm staying here forever.”

“You can, you know. Standing offer. The in-law suite is yours if you want it,” Will said.

Tori leaned back in her seat and took in the antique rectangular table capable of seating twelve, the triptych of photographs from vacations Diane and William had taken together, and the beautiful, mostly-red-headed family that surrounded her. This house in Alexandria, full of love and life, struck a stark contrast with her spacious, yet somehow empty, bi-level in Donaldson Run. She sighed. It was tempting. “No, I need my space. Besides, there's no way I would subject your beautiful family to tabloid reporters hiding in your bushes and video cameras pointed at your front door.”

“Do you really think it will be that bad? Justices usually fly below the radar, don't they? You're just not as glamorous as Hollywood.”

Both women rolled their eyes at William's predictable lack of tact.

Diane turned to her husband and took his hand in hers. “You know this has teeth, Will. It's sex and politics and gossip all rolled into one.”

Will nodded briefly, before turning mischievous eyes on his older sister. “Well, Babe, if they're going to come after you about who you might potentially sleep with, I think it's time you actually start sleeping with someone.”

Diane hit her husband with her napkin as Tommy asked through a mouth full of food, “Aunt Tori, are you going to have a sleepover? Can I come?”

Three sets of eyes bored into her, two of them sparking with laughter and one of them genuinely curious. “No, Tommy, no sleepovers for Aunt Tori.” All three pairs of eyes looked disappointed.

“Whatever you've been waiting for, Victoria, I think it's happened. You might as well start living a little.” Diane nudged her.

Rebecca took this opportunity to knock over her aunt's beer and as the golden lager cascaded off the table and onto Tori's khakis, she wondered if her young charge knew how perfect her timing was.

 

* * *

Four hours later, Victoria rolled over in her bed, placed her reading material on the nightstand, and removed her glasses. She had wondered which would be more torturous: reading all the articles speculating about whether the Court would chose to hear the gay marriage case and if Justice Willoughby would abstain from voting, or ignoring the press altogether and living in ignorance. Deciding that she could always inform herself later, but never undo reading a particularly vicious attack on her objectivity, she had begun Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals instead. She thought perhaps the Civil War might offer some insight into a country still riven by difference and dangerous rhetoric.

She hoped she had read enough to still the spinning in her mind and actually get some sleep. She leaned over and pulled the chain on the light atop her nightstand. Despite the warm September air wafting through the open windows of her bedroom, she burrowed beneath her down comforter and jersey-knit sheets. Sleep, however, proved elusive. She closed her eyes, but her mind kept racing, covering the same ground about judicial recusal and gay marriage and the media, over and over, tripping and restarting. She was struggling to redirect her thoughts back to the bizarre relationship between Abraham and Mary Todd when the shrill tones of her landline jolted her upright. She fumbled for her glasses and the light's chain before grasping the phone.

“Yes?” she asked, wary of who might be calling her at midnight.

“Justice Willoughby? Damien Fitzpatrick here, from the Star Reporter . I have a source telling me that the Court has decided to hear oral arguments for the gay marriage case. Don't you think it's unethical for you to hear the arguments, considering you're a lesbian?”

And so it begins, Victoria thought. She knew that Fitzpatrick had no such source, that none of the Justices would reveal what they had agreed on in their private Conference until the docket was set. The lack of conclusive information would motivate reporters from tabloids such as the Star Reporter to fabricate sources. What she didn't know was how he had learned her phone number.

She resolved to begin with politeness and see how long she could maintain it. “Mr. Fitzpatrick, it's midnight, and completely inappropriate for you to call me at this number. I trust you will never do so again. Good night.” She hung up without waiting for a reply. First thing in the morning, she would instruct her secretary to change the number of her landline. She thought again about giving it up entirely, but she couldn't shake the premonition that it might come in handy someday.

For now, however, she simply removed the receiver from its cradle and threw a pillow over it to muffle the beeping.

Wide awake now, but knowing she wouldn't be able to focus on Lincoln's appointment of his political rivals to his inner cabinet, Justice Victoria Willoughby turned on the television in her bedroom and flipped channels until she landed on PBS, which was broadcasting reruns of “Soul Train.” She hummed along until sleep claimed her.

 

Chapter Two

Victoria swiveled in her office chair and grabbed the next paged of the proposed fall docket from her desk. She was making edits when the door to her private chambers opened and Alistair Douglas stuck his head in.

“You want lunch? Sunmin is ordering.”

Victoria pulled her glasses off her face. “What are we having?

“Chinese okay?

She grinned at him and realized it was the first time she'd smiled all day. “Sure. Thanks for asking, Alistair.”

He disappeared through her office door and she resumed reading the proposed docket that the Justices' clerks had devised last night after their bosses went home. She drew a couple of arrows, switching around the order of things. With all the hype around the marriage case, she wanted to carefully plan its position on their docket. She indicated it should be in December, before their winter recess. That would buy her some time – time on the front end to start greasing some wheels before they even heard arguments, and time on the back end before a decision would be expected in June. She was turning to the final page of the docket draft when Alistair returned.

Justice Alistair Douglas was the closest thing Victoria had on the Court to an actual friend. The job was so demanding and divisive that the Justices rarely socialized with each other outside of work. Besides, while she respected her colleagues, Victoria wasn't quite sure that they all had personalities. Sometimes she imagined Ryan Jamison was really a robot that an ambitious science nerd had foisted on the American judicial system as some kind of twisted joke.

But Douglas was kind and charming, and Victoria surmised that in his day he was quite a ladies' man. He was twenty-five years older than her, but wore the years well. After Tori had been confirmed, Alistair had taken her under his wing, welcoming her as the newest liberal member of the highest court in the country.

“So how you holding up, Kiddo?” he asked, gingerly lowering himself into one of her two easy chairs. Tori noted that the arthritis in his hip seemed to be getting worse.

“Good. I'm good, Alistair.”

She noticed his eyes drop from hers to the dark shading underneath her eyelids and the tension lines around her mouth before he nodded, choosing to let it drop. “How was your recess? Did you cavort about listening to Justin Bieber or whatever else you young people do these days?”

She laughed at his attempt to sound stodgy. Truth be told, of the two of them, he was definitely the more hip (arthritis jokes aside). “How's the family, Alistair?”

“As good as it can be when my daughter's married to a Republican and my son still goes to Burning Man. I swear, fifteen minutes with those two effectively settles the nature versus nurture debate.”

“You sure you didn't feed one of them paint chips?”

Alistair snorted. “Which one?”

Tori waved her hand. “Take your pick. I could never marry someone whose political views differed so substantially from my own, and I could never spend a week picking sand out of my bra, smelling a bunch of unwashed hippies get high.”

Alistair huffed. “Please speak more respectfully of the transformative experience that is Burning Man.” He struggled to say it with a straight face and before long both of them were snickering. “It must be a generational thing. I just don't think a forty-two-year-old father of three should abandon his family for ten days. Vacation time is precious, and I don't understand why he would want to spend it away from his wife. Me, I'd want to spend every day of my vacation with my wife, ten times out of ten.”

In that moment, Victoria envied him his family. Granted, she had William's family. But it wasn't the same. She didn't have a partner to vacation with. To complain about children with. To turn to when work became unbearable. It had never really bothered her before.

“Different people make different choices, I suppose,” she said, trying to keep any hint of sadness out of her voice.

“Victoria.” He studied her. “Why did you choose this?” “This?”

“Being a Justice. What inspired you?”

She leaned her head to the side, considering. “When I was nine, my mother and I were in New York on our first ever mother-daughter trip. We were in the hotel elevator heading up to our room when Earl Warren stepped in. He had just retired as Chief Justice. Not that I knew that at the time. I had never seen my mother so flustered. When the elevator stopped, and Warren started to exit, she said, with absolutely no grace whatsoever, ‘can I have your autograph?' She had always said autographs were weird and the people who collected them even weirder. Well, Warren didn't have any paper, and neither did my mom, so he signed the back of his receipt for the hotel restaurant. I remember he had ordered two scotches and tipped generously. When we got up to our room my mom gave me this speech about how he had fundamentally changed the social fabric of the country by undoing segregation. And then she said that one day there would be a woman on the court.”

“Ah, the ways our parents shape us.”

“Indeed.”

“Was she thrilled when O'Connor joined the bench?”

“Ecstatic.”

“And were you disappointed?” Alistair asked.

“Disappointed? Why would I be?”

“I assume from your story that you had wanted to be the first.”

“Not at all. Firsts are so scrutinized. They seem to be remembered only as being a first, and not for what they do. I never wanted that.” Victoria said.

“Well, I don't think that applies to O'Connor. She's widely regarded as an excellent jurist, wouldn't you say? People remember her as much, or more, for her decisions on abortion and Bush v. Gore , than for being the first woman Justice.”

“Maybe. I'm not O'Connor though.”

 

“No. You're Willoughby. And if you also happened to be the first, hmm, cross-eyed, noseless woman on the bench, I think you would be remembered for more than that.”

“Really? That's a pretty big hurdle to surmount.”

“Okay, true. In that case, if you're not the first cross-eyed, noseless woman on the bench, then you'll be just fine.”

Tori bit her thumbnail.

“Well, Victoria.” Alistair crossed his legs, grimaced, and uncrossed them. “Please forgive my presumptuousness, but Sunmin is putting together a memo about judicial recusal. She'll have it on your desk by tomorrow.”

“I don't really think that's the best use of your clerk's time.”

“I don't suppose it would matter if I told you it was her suggestion. She and Wallace were up all night working on it. She didn't want to step on his toes.”

“My clerk is working on projects for you now? Fantastic.”

“Actually, my Dear, I think you'll agree it's really a project for you.”

Tori swallowed. “Point taken. And what do you propose I do with the results from this little foray into judicial private lives past? We're not exactly in the business of leaking memos to the press.”

“It's just for you, Victoria. Armed with facts and precedent, you'll know how to respond if you find yourself cornered by some over-ambitious cub reporter.”

“You mean, besides ‘bite me?'”

“That language is hardly becoming for a beautiful young woman like you.”

“Overdue for your ophthalmologist appointment again, Alistair?”

“Never. She's this young Japanese beauty who always gives me a cookie. My appointments with her are more regular than …well, you don't need to know about that.”

Tori rolled her eyes. “Thanks for sparing me your toilet humor.”

“Victoria, I'm serious about this. There is absolutely no basis for these calls that you recuse yourself, apart from stirring up media controversy. I want you to read this memo, decide on two or three talking points, and be done with it. I assume you'll want to hear the case in December. Ease the swing vote toward gay marriage gradually, before we hit him with oral arguments. You need to focus on how you want to author our decision for Samuels so that it contains the appropriate historical weight and is also something Jamison would be willing to sign his name to. Michelle, Jason, and I have talked, and we all agree you're the one to write it.”

The three other liberal Justices on the court blithely stepping aside so she could author the decision (majority or minority) smacked of tokenism. As the youngest member of the court, Victoria knew the public would view it as such also.

Victoria leaned back in her chair and tried to stop biting her thumbnail. Some habits were just impossible to break.

She sighed. The mahogany closet, lined with leather-bound legal books and thousand-page tomes on jurisprudence, which had for decades protected Victoria's sexual orientation, would be stripped away as easily as Lindsay Lohan's dignity once the young Justice penned the landmark decision that called for the United States government to recognize the marriage rights of gay couples.

Casting a vote was one thing. Ruling DOMA unconstitutional, declaring marriage a fundamental right for gay couples – these actions would fill Tori with pride. Finding a way to sway Jamison or some other conservative Justice to vote with her was a challenge she welcomed.

But this opinion would be scrutinized closely for decades, and it required a deft hand to craft it. Tori thought perhaps a more senior Justice would be better suited to pen the decision. Besides, she remained convinced history would be kinder toward the opinion more if it came from a straight Justice.

“Why don't we just see how arguments go, and discuss authorship afterwards?” was all she could offer Alistair.

“Scared?”

“Damn straight.”

“Ah, the mantra of gay people everywhere.”

Victoria opened her mouth for an attempt at a witty response but was interrupted by Sunmin and Wallace bearing, among other cartons, a carryout box filled with Singapore rice noodles that Tori knew had her name on it. As the two young clerks unpacked lunch, Alistair peered Victoria over his steepled fingers. If she couldn't bear his scrutiny, Tori knew, she stood no chance with the reporters who would be dogging her steps in the coming months.

The two clerks passed around fortune cookies and she nodded at Alistair once, assenting to his request that she read the memo on judicial recusal, and she shook her head once, indicating that she wasn't ready to commit to writing the pro-gay marriage opinion on the upcoming case.

Later, when lunch was over and Justice Willoughby was alone, she cracked open the her fortune cookie and was confronted with the following words: “do not let your past get in the way of your future.”

Hardly a fortune. Since when did it become convention that those tiny slips of paper instructed, rather than predicted? She moved to drop the instruction into her trash, but in a moment of uncharacteristic superstition, found herself tucking it inside her top desk drawer instead.

 

* * *

 

Kellen O'Neil's secretary had waved her through the anteroom of his chambers and she walked past the smaller offices occupied by clerks. She halted in front of the Chief Justice's door. During her brief time on the court, she had only entered his office once, and that was an unannounced visit to invite him to a dinner party. He had politely declined the offer, citing dinner reservations with his family. She suspected his actual reservations were of a different nature.

Kellen O'Neil had summoned her with a handwritten note requesting she visit him in his chambers before she left for the day, delivered by one of his clerks. It was a quirk of his. O'Neil wrote and edited decisions on a desktop computer, and he read emails, but he still believed all communication between the Justices' chambers should happen via paper memo rather than electronically. In the moments when she felt affection for the Chief Justice, Tori found this archaic attitude charming. Today, she shook her head at his waste of paper and his clerk's time.

Victoria raised her hand to knock, but stopped when she heard the sound of her own voice coming from within. She turned her ear toward to the door to listen. “I, Victoria Jane Willoughby, do solemnly affirm that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States under the Constitution and laws of the United States.  So help me God.”

She shook off her surprise and knocked. A terse “enter!” came from inside the office. She opened and closed the door softly.

“Victoria,” he nodded at her.

“Kellen. You wanted to see me?”

“Do you know that swearing-in ceremonies are one of my favorite parts of this job?” He turned away from the video of him administering the oath to Victoria.

Victoria raised her eyebrows. She rarely associated sentiment with the conservative hard-liner. “Why is that, do you suppose?”

“It's one of the few moments the court feels as divorced from politics as the Constitution dictates we be.”

Victoria was inclined to agree. Plus, she was a sucker for pomp and tradition. She smiled at the tall man in the navy suit. “Common ground, at last.”

“You'd be surprised,” he returned. Unsure where he was going with this, Victoria claimed a leather-covered chair opposite him and waited.

He sighed. “Victoria. You and I have may have completely different approaches to constitutional interpretation, but there are a great many things on which we agree. For example, I'm confident we both feel strongly that a Justice recusing herself from a civil rights case simply because she shares identity markers with the minority group in question sets a dangerous precedent.”

She inclined her head at him, grateful for his support.

“Good then. I would be loath to see unnecessary distractions influence our upcoming session.”

“Understood.”

He shifted in his seat, and his tone grew somber. “Victoria, I hope you appreciate that these votes – on the judicial and the legislative level – are never personal.”

She stared at him. Dumbfounded. She was so dumbfounded that all she could think was the word “dumbfounded.” Which led her to the word “dumb.” Which she suppressed with effort.

The white-haired man sitting across from her removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He clearly had more to say, but Victoria knew in that moment that she couldn't stomach hearing it.

She rose from her chair and squared her shoulders. “Chief Justice O'Neil,” she said tersely.

She turned and exited without waiting for a reply.

 

* * *

 

At home in her kitchen that evening, she sliced zucchini with such force that tiny disks of it were flying off the cutting board. Not personal? Of course it was personal, and anyone who said otherwise was either horribly naïve or a lying liar who lies a lot.

What Kellen had meant, of course, was that he wouldn't be personally affected by the vote. What he had meant was that she shouldn't be personally offended by his vote. What he had meant was that he hoped she wouldn't think he was a jerk.

Ryan Jamison could vote against gay marriage, and she wouldn't really think he was a jerk. Truth be told, she couldn't fathom how he had been nominated and confirmed for his current position, because he struck her as mind-numbingly wooden and entirely daft. He blindly voted as though throwing darts and authored almost no opinions.

Kellen was a different story. Granted, he was classified as a conservative, and he and Victoria disagreed vehemently on a host of issues. But Kellen O'Neil was a charismatic leader with a keen mind for the nuances of the law and the integrity to interpret the constitution consistently. She knew she shouldn't have expected his support, but having his negative vote thrown in her face so casually was not just infuriating. It was personally hurtful.

She was seething.

God, she had to find a way to stop feeling so passionately about this case. It was very unlike her. She was typically so detached when it came to questions of the law, so measured and reasoned. She was known for it, actually – known as a reserved jurist with deep respect for the constitution. But she was struggling – truly struggling – to find that emotional distance on this issue. Marriage was personal. She wondered how Thurgood Marshall would have felt voting on Loving v. Virginia . At least that particular case had been decided unanimously. At least when Marshall joined the court shortly after arguments were heard in Loving , he was surrounded by colleagues who voted in favor of interracial marriage.

She thought back to O'Neil telling her that he didn't want distractions such as this recusal nonsense affect her, and she was reminded of that scene in The Princess Bride where Wesley asks the albino, “why bother curing me,” and the albino responds, “well, the Prince and Count always insist on everyone being healthy before they're broken.” Torture. That's what it would feel like to have her colleagues – especially O'Neil, whom she respected – cast votes that, no matter how you spun it, would treat her as less than, as a second class citizen, as other.

She was fuming.

And the thing was, on one level – perhaps on the most important level – it didn't matter one iota how these cases might affect her personally. It was clear to her, as it had been to a host of district and appellate judges, that the constitution, its amendments, and a number of federal statutes dictated that the US government must recognize gay marriages. She would know this even if she were straight.

She was trying to calm down. The difficulty, she had recognized long ago, was that jurists had to contend with the tension between descriptive and normative viewpoints, between the world as it was and the world as they thought it ought to be . Lobbyists and legislators had the luxury of envisioning the world as they thought it should be, and fighting for that world. Judges, on the other hand, were supposed to apply the law, as it had been written. Of course, there was a lacuna the size of Texas in areas the law didn't specifically cover. And there was no way on God's green earth to begin to fill in the gaps in American law without the personal coming into play. And this, this particular issue, this was as personal as it got for Victoria. This was her life! Well, okay, not her life exactly, since she wasn't married, or partnered, or – but she could be! Millions were.

She was bleeding.

Damn. She stared at the blood gushing from her thumb, which was decidedly not the zucchini she'd meant to be slicing.

That's what happens when you go to the cutting board angry.

She elevated her hand instantly and wrapped layer upon layer of paper towels around her hemorrhaging thumb. A wave of dizziness washed over her and she swayed a bit.

Stitches, she thought, and she stumbled toward the phone to call a cab.

 

Chapter Three

In a room in George Washington Hospital, the doctor removed her latex gloves and the nurse snipped the thread of the last suture on Victoria's thumb.

“There you go, Justice. Willoughby,” the doctor said. “Five stitches. That was quite a cut you gave yourself.”

Victoria passed her hand over her eyes, trying to wipe away the embarrassment and hide herself from the curious stare of the physician. An inquisitive heath care provider was the last thing she needed right now.

The blond doctor nodded at the nurse, who quickly departed. “I'm going to prescribe you some heavy-duty Ibuprofen to keep the swelling near the stitches at bay. Do you want Vicodin for the pain?”

Victoria shook her head. “I'll manage, thanks.”

After tearing off the top piece of paper and handing it to Victoria, the doctor removed her eyeglasses and Victoria felt herself being studied. “I'm off now. Would you like a ride home, Justice Willoughby?”

The pain was clouding Victoria's faculties, and she couldn't tell if the attractive woman in the pale blue scrubs was coming on to her. She thought briefly about her brother's suggestion that if the media was going to scrutinize her love life, she should actually get one – one worthy of the column inches that would be dedicated to it anyway. She glanced briefly at the doctor's left ring finger and noted an etched platinum band. In a clumsy attempt to cover her silence and the disappointment she felt, she coughed a bit. “I can call a cab, Doctor Lukin. But thanks for your concern.”

The doctor looked at her quizzically, then shrugged and rose from the swivel stool on which she had been perched. “Here's my card, then, in case you need anything.”

Tori rose and the two women shook hands. “Give ‘em hell, Madam Justice.” Doctor Lukin winked at her and, patting her on the shoulder, left her alone with her bandaged left hand and her scattered thoughts. Tori gathered her belongings and proceeded down the overly air-conditioned hallway of George Washington Hospital.

As she emerged from the sliding doors separating the antiseptic air of GW from the humid air of DC, she fumbled in her purse, searching for her cell to call a cab. If her eyes hadn't been focused on the many interior pockets of her bag, she might have had more warning.

“Ms. Willoughby, what happened to your hand?”

“Justice Willoughby, can you confirm reports that you were with another women when you injured yourself?”

“Over here, Justice Willoughby!” That one came from a reporter who had circled behind her, cutting off her retreat back into the hospital. “There's a rumor that you are pushing for the gay marriage case to appear late in the Court's upcoming session. Would you care to comment on your reasoning?”

She raised her startled eyes just as a camera flashed at her, and she tried to blink away the onslaught. She was surrounded, and she froze, feeling much like a small animal stranded between a cliff and a hungry mountain lion.

As three reporters simultaneously tossed out questions about her relationship status, a black BMW pulled through the sea of cameras and honked, scattering the reporters. The passenger-side window lowered, and Tori could hear Dr. Lukin's voice. “You sure you don't want that ride?”

Tori bent down and threw her a grateful smile before pulling open the door and sliding into the sanctuary of leather-covered seats, a camel-colored dashboard, and Ella playing through an iPod adaptor. She smiled at the doctor's taste in music. “It's Only a Paper Moon” had always been one of Tori's favorites. She leaned back against the seat and sighed.

“I should have been clearer when I asked earlier. I thought you knew.”

“No, when the cab dropped me off on my way in, it was quiet,” Tori responded, rubbing her eyes with her good hand.

“Is your life always this glamorous?” Dr. Lukin asked.

“Oh, you have no idea. Between juggling interviews with Vanity Fair and Vogue , I rarely get a moment to iron my robe and powder my wig,” Tori answered.

“Extenuating circumstances, then?”

“You might say that, Dr. Lukin.”

She smiled. “Please, call me Sonya.”

“Thanks, Sonya.” Tori turned a little in her seat to study her driver. The doctor was about her age, or perhaps a little older – late 40s, early 50s maybe. Her blonde hair was cut into a stylish wedge, long, silver earrings hung from her earlobes, and she had slight smile lines around her mouth. The blue scrubs she wore were wrinkled and her eyes looked tired. “Long day?”

“Par for the course, really. Although it's not every day I play white knight to one of the great legal scholars of our time. Twice.” Sonya tossed a little grin over to her passenger before returning her eyes to the road. “Where to, Miss Daisy?”

Tori laughed. “Donaldson Run, please, if it's not too far out of your way.”

“No problem.” After a beat of silence, Sonya continued. “When will you all announce the docket?”

Tori was surprised by her forthrightness. People – at least those without cameras and microphones – usually danced around any work-related question they wanted to ask her. Tori found the doctor's directness refreshing. “We'll release it by the end of the week, I imagine.”

The car turned onto the ramp for the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge while Ella and Billie crooned together on “East of the Sun.” Tori glanced over her driver's shoulder at the Arlington Memorial Bridge, resplendent in the soft evening lighting.

Inclining her head toward it, Tori said, “that's my favorite bridge in the city.”

“Really? Mine too. Gorgeous detail, stunning lighting. Funny thing about bridges – they're far more attractive when you're looking at them than when you're using them.” Tori murmured her agreement, and as the BMW made its way down the George Washington parkway the two women engaged in a casual discussion about the aesthetic merits of the various structures spanning the cold waters of the Potomac.

When Sonya exited Old Dominion Road onto Upton Tori began pointing out the necessary turns to bring them to her house.

Smiling at a middle-aged man and woman walking down the street holding hands, Sonya glanced at her companion. “So what's it like, the life of a Supreme Court Justice?”

“I don't imagine it's too different from that of anyone else in Washington. I go to work, and I usually bring it home with me. I take vacations. I exercise. I spend time with my family.”

Sonya's eyebrows raised. “Sorry, but I can't let that last one slide. Your family?”

Laughing knowingly, Tori answered, “my brother, his wife, and their two children. I adore being an aunt.”

“Spoiling nieces and nephews is a major perk in life,” Sonya agreed. She threw a sidelong glance to her right. “No time for a family of your own?”

Tori shrugged. “Things just never worked out that way. I suppose time was a factor.”

“It must be hard. Is it worth it?”

Without hesitation, Justice Victoria Willoughby responded, “absolutely.”

“Ah, a fellow workaholic. You know, we keep trying to schedule our support group meetings, but something always comes up at the office – or the hospital, or the Court – and we keep postponing. Maybe one of these days…”

Tori chucked. “Yeah, add me to your mailing list and I can join the ranks of those too busy to confront how busy I am.”

“You do manage to sneak in a little fun now and then, right?” Sonya asked, and Tori could hear that while she was trying to be playful, an edge of concern laced her voice.

“Sure. I'm writing a book right now,” Tori shrugged, wondering why that project suddenly didn't sound like fun.

“Ooh, is it a steamy romance novel?” Sonya giggled.

Tori knew she was blushing, but she couldn't figure out if it was because of Sonya's suggestion, or because she knew her answer would be boring. “Sorry to disappoint, but it's on the value of using international laws in our domestic legal system. Not quite a page turner.”

Sonya shrugged. “I'd read it. But I read anything.”

Tori smirked. “Including steamy romance novels?”

Sonya bit her lip and raised her eyebrows. “I'll never tell.”

After the briefest of pauses, the two women burst out laughing at the same time.

Disappointment filled Tori's chest as she realized their ride had nearly ended. “The one on the left is me,” she indicated a two-level rusticated stone house set back from the road. The front yard featured a meandering set of stairs that led to a red door and landscaping reminiscent of the picturesque style – intentionally designed to look natural. Branches from a weeping willow dipped below the surface of an oblong pond with lily pads. Red shutters bordered each window, and soft lighting emanated from the panes on the second story.

“Nice place.”

“Thanks. It's usually my sanctuary, but I'm not sure that it will remain that way in the coming months.”

“Because you're granting cert to the marriage cases?”

“Ah, ah, ah, don't think I'm going to give that one away.”

Laughing, Sonya pulled the lever between them into Park. “Can't blame me for trying.”

Tori shook her head, smiling. “Let's just say that there will probably be a repeat performance of tonight's tango with the media, and leave it at that.”

“Well, you have my card. Call whenever you need me to rescue you.”

The young Justice in the passenger seat turned to face the driver. “It's unlikely that a gorgeous blonde doctor picking me up on a regular basis wouldn't incite more media frenzy, Dr. Lukin.” Tori surprised herself with her boldness.

“Well, that's the nicest thing I've heard all day.”

As the two women smiled at each other, Tori drowned for a moment in kind brown eyes.

Her reverie was broken when Sonya spoke. “Hey, my wife and I are hosting a little barbeque a week from Saturday. You should join. It's casual – just an excuse to pull out the grill before the temperature plummets. We'd love to have you.”

Tori cleared her throat. “Thank you for the invitation. I'll think about it.”

Sonya nodded at the business card Tori had been fiddling with. “Call if you want directions. Next Saturday, 2pm.”

As Tori exited the car, she heard Sonya repeat her earlier directive: “Give ‘em hell, Madam Justice.”

Before shutting the door, Tori leaned down and peered into the car. “Call me Tori, Sonya. Thanks again for the chariot ride.”

“Anytime!” came Sonya's cheerful reply.

 

* * *

 

Alone in her den, with her legs tucked under her on a brown leather accent char, Victoria nursed a glass of chardonnay and shook her head, more at fate than at herself. Of course the first woman she'd been attracted to in she couldn't remember how long would be married. Sonya was brilliant, generous, caring, clever. And beautiful. Let's not forget beautiful. As her imagination summoned an image of Sonya in the driver's seat, laughing, with the Arlington Bridge in the background, Tori smiled wistfully.

It has been so long since Tori had even allowed her mind to wander in this direction. She cast back to law school, when for the briefest of moments she had entertained the notion of love and romance and passion – when for the briefest of moments she had believed she could find a way to have it all.

The throbbing in her hand brought her attention from the stratosphere back to her surroundings. Love, she had learned, was nothing but a distraction.

She finished her wine, which on her empty stomach hit her harder than usual, and she padded off to bed.

 

Chapter Four

The next day, as she weaved up and down the aisles of the grocery searching for risotto ingredients, she was trailed by a less-than-discreet twenty-something reporter with a neck tattoo. He must have thought her vegetable choices held a secret code about the upcoming docket. He snapped a couple more photos while she checked out and she turned away from him.

She slid into her Volvo and turned on Nina Simone, grateful for the soothing sounds of her rich voice. Tori took a moment to be proud of her nonchalant attitude toward the reporter before pulling out of her parking space.

Twenty minutes later, she turned down a brick road in Georgetown and parked in front of Bloomsday, her favorite florist. She took in the storefront and grinned. She remembered standing in front of this same flower shop as a young child, holding her mother's hand and hearing her mother announce that an establishment selling flowers or coffee must have a pun in its name to receive her business. Although a number of shops in the greater D.C. area met Elizabeth Willoughby's criterion for patronage, Tori had only ever seen her purchase flowers from Bloomsday.

The bell above the door tinkled as she entered, and Rosie pushed aside the heavy plastic flaps separating the cooler from the counter, wiping her hands on an apron. Sometimes it was almost too much for Tori that the florist's name was Rosie, and that Rosie's mother Violet had first started the shop when Tori was a child.

“Victoria, mija ! It is good to see you. You look good.” As she talked, Rosie walked up to Tori and placed her hands, covered in tiny scars from thorns, on the sides of Tori's face. “Anxious and stressed, but good.”

“And you, Rosie, look beautiful as ever.” Tori breathed in the smell of lilac and gardenia that always clung to Rosie's skin, reminding her of sunshine and rain at the same time. They hugged tightly and Tori could feel the scissors and wires tucked into pockets of Rosie's apron.

“Can I make you a nice bouquet for your office? You have just resumed your session, yes? Back from your summer abroad? Ah, mija , what I wouldn't give for a summer break.”

Tori laughed the laugh that only came when a woman ten years older than her called her “daughter.” Rosie had a way of making her feel like a schoolgirl again, exuberant and optimistic and invincible. She had started calling Tori mija shortly after their mothers had both died within days of one another. Tori was preparing to head to law school and Rosie was stepping up to take over her mother's shop. Tori had thought they would bond over their loss as equals, as motherless children, but Rosie immediately assumed the role of authority figure, holding Victoria's hand and telling her everything would be all right.

“Actually, Rosie, I was hoping for a little something for my dining room table. The house feels so drab after England.”

“Bah, England? Isn't it cold and rainy there? How could sunny D.C. feel dreary after that?”

Victoria thought back to her father's cottage just outside Leeds, which was always filled with wildflowers and delicious-smelling food and activity. “Must be my lack of flowers, then,” she answered, smiling.

“Well, I've got your remedy. I'll whip you up something that will fit the bill.” She winked at Tori as she disappeared back into the cooler and Tori laughed, knowing that when it came to the bill, the two of them would never agree. Rosie would insist the arrangement was on the house. Tori would try to sneak cash someplace in the shop. Rosie would sniff out her hiding place and slip the cash back in Tori's pocked while hugging her goodbye. It was a dance they executed with joy and just a little bit of competition.

Rosie emerged moments later with a breathtaking arrangement of snapdragons, lilies, and irises. Tori felt her shoulders drop and her jaw relax just looking at the exquisite flowers. She had been in the habit of buying flowers once a week for her house when the Court was in session, and she realized now that one reason she had felt a dark cloud hanging over her brief time back in D.C. was their absence.

“Thanks, Rosie. This will help a lot.” Rosie put the arrangement on the counter, and Tori put her nose in the arrangement, and they both smiled.

“I would ask what it is that these flowers are meant to help, but I know you too well. You take too much on yourself, Victoria. You are just one person.”

Tori nodded, agreeing wholeheartedly. She hesitated, then asked, “Rosie, what kind of flowers would you take to a barbeque hosted by a woman you just met and attended by people you don't know?”

Rosie's eyes lit up. “Ah, Victoria. You want flowers for a woman?”

Tori felt the heat rise in her cheeks. “No, no, Rosie. I mean, yes, she's a woman, but she's a friend. She's married. I only met her a few days ago when she, um, helped me out of a jam. I'd like to say thank you.”

“You will want sweet peas. Those are the flowers when you want to say ‘Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but I'm at your party, and I hope you like me.'”

Tori laughed and rolled her eyes at the same time.

“Kids these days listen to such cotton candy music,” Rosie teased.

“That's true. How do you even know that song?”

“Please, it's like a lost puppy – it follows you wherever you go.”

“And I bet you dance every time you hear it,” Tori challenged.

Rosie shrugged, trying in vain to hide her smile. “I might dance. That doesn't give the song substance. What day is this party of yours?”

Tori couldn't help but chuckle, feeling lighter than she had in days. “Saturday, if it's not too much trouble.”

“I will see you on Saturday then. And Victoria, you must find a way to relax and take care of yourself, yes?”

“Yes ma'am. I'll do my best.” They kissed each other on the cheek and Tori slipped fifty dollars into Rosie's apron. She did it subtly, so she was pretty sure she'd win this time and Rosie would discover the cash only after she had left.

She exited the shop with the oversized flowers obstructing her view. As soon as the door closed behind her, she heard the click of an SLR camera.

“Justice Willoughby, who are the flowers for? The world wants to know: are you dating someone?”

Tori was about to respond when a raspy voice behind her handled it. “Are you dating someone? When was the last time you bought flowers for anyone? Probably never -- who would even want to date a skinny white boy like you? Now get your pasty ass out of here and leave this woman alone.”

Through a sea of blooms Tori could see the paparazzo's eyes widen and his jaw drop. He began to back slowly away, until he bumped into a parked car.

“Scram, low-life,” Rosie called out, waving her scissors, and, to Tori's surprise, he listened. He threw himself into a black hatchback and drove away.

Tori rotated to face Rosie and was about to begin effusively thanking her when the older woman cut in. “Victoria. Why are you not using the Supreme Court police to protect you from this? That's their job.”

Tori opened her mouth to respond, then closed it. It hadn't really occurred to her. But of course, during moments of particular media attention and scrutiny, the SC police had been known to escort Justices when they were out in the city. They had trailed her during her confirmation hearings, keeping reporters at bay. Rosie was particularly taken with one of them who had accompanied Tori to her flower shop back then.

“You will call them today, yes, Victoria?” Rosie crossed her arms and gave her a look that brokered no argument.

“I will call them today, yes, Rosie,” Victoria affirmed.

Rosie walked around her and down the sidewalk, stopping when she arrived at Tori's car. She pulled open the rear passenger door and helped Tori situate the arrangement on the floor behind the passenger seat.

“When I see you on Saturday, there better be a strapping policeman tailing you. Maybe that one I met before. He looked … strong.”

“I promise, Rosie. Strapping policeman. Done.”

“And then you will tell me more about this woman who helped you out of a jam, while I make flowers for her.”

“There's not much to tell, but yes, you'll get the whole story on Saturday.”

They waved at one another as Tori pulled away. It wasn't until she was parking her car in the garage beneath the Mt. Vernon Triangle that she noticed the fifty dollars stuck in the pocket of her pants.

Chapter Five

She climbed the steps to the Harbour Club, looking forward to some time away from the world while she swam. D.C.'s most exclusive gym, the Harbour Club was located above Mt. Vernon Triangle and only admitted new members if they were recommended by current ones. Most members either held public office or were senior staff to Senators or Representatives. Alistair had recommended Victoria shortly after she joined the Court.

Alistair Douglas used to have an amazing jump shot. His weekly basketball game in the Highest Court in the Land, located on the top floor of the Supreme Court, was infamous. Clerks for other Justices lobbied hard for an invitation to play against him – and harder still to be on his team. He was devastated when the arthritis in his hip became too painful for him to continue shooting hoops. He joined the Harbour Club after his doctors insisted swimming was the best therapy for his joints.

In addition to the basketball court, the top floor of the Supreme Court also housed an impressive array of weight machines, elliptical trainers, and treadmills, along with two racquetball courts. Unfortunately for Victoria, the Court's fitness facilities did not feature a pool, and swimming was her exercise of choice. Alistair said he had the perfect solution, but she was unprepared for the grandeur of her new gym.

When she first entered the locker room of the Harbour Club, she struggled not to gape at the private changing rooms with engraved plaques on them naming “Secretary Kathleen Sebelius,” “Ambassador Susan Rice,” and, halfway down the last row, “Justice Victoria Willoughby.” She used her new keycard to enter her room. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. A terrycloth robe hung on a hook behind the door. To her right, a slate countertop supported a sink basin and one of those funky faucets she had only ever found in upscale restaurants. Displayed on the countertop were a hair dryer and diffuser, Q-Tips, face lotion, hair spray, toothpaste, mouthwash, and assorted other toiletries. To her left was a floor length mirror, framed in stone. Ahead of her, fluffy towels were stacked on a shelf outside of another door that opened into a shower featuring three nozzles. Shelves built into the stonework of the shower supported hotel-sized bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and body wash.

At least she didn't have to worry about running into Nancy Pelosi when they were both naked in a communal shower, or some other equally mortifying situation. Historically, she was not a big fan of locker rooms. But on that first day, as she unpacked her gym bag and placed her makeup next to the newspaper the Club had provided, she grinned. This, she could get used to.

Today, as she stripped off her clothes and tugged on her suit, she noticed the club staff had left two chocolates on a tiny plate next to her floss. She often emerged from the pool ravenous and craving sugar, and she wondered if the staff of the Club knew this about her, or provided every member with chocolate. She would believe either scenario. Donning the plush white robe and snatching a towel, she headed to the pool.

She swam slowly for the first five laps, warming up her muscles and feeling the tension leave her back. She concentrated on reaching as far in front of her as she could to begin each stroke, keeping her fingers relaxed and pulling the water back in an S shape. After all these years, she still had to remind herself to bend her elbow so that her stroke would stay close to the length of her body rather than windmilling far away from her. She breathed every third stoke and focused on keeping the splash from her flutter kicks as small as possible. After five laps, she increased her pace and pushed herself so she remained winded but stopped short of gasping.

Settling into the faster pace, she allowed her thoughts to drift back to work. Tomorrow she and Wallace, the clerk she assigned to the gay marriage case, would begin research. They would start by reading the district and appellate decisions. Then they would read everything they could get their hands on that might indicate a viable line of reasoning to sway Jamison toward marriage equality.

She would also get Wallace started on researching the habeas case the court had granted cert to, as well as an antitrust case against Google. The docket would be announced on Friday, and she wanted to use the intervening day to dole out preliminary assignments to her staff and wrap up the chapter of her book on international law that she had been researching over the summer.

This portion of the book tackled the discrepancies between the UN Charter and US foreign policy, and she meant to put forth some hypothetical situations that would examine whether international law might be enforceable. Her work on the book, she knew, would get scant attention until the court's session had concluded, and if she didn't get her thoughts down on paper now they would float away like autumn leaves, scattered and impossible to recapture. The rest of her laps passed in a blur of planning and mental lists and strategizing.

She was nibbling on her chocolate as she walked back through the gym toward the exit. Her mind was on the International Criminal Court when a security guard stopped her.

“Pardon me, Madam Justice. A word please?” he gestured to an office behind the front desk. Concerned, she nodded and followed him. They sat down in chairs on opposite sides of a desk and he offered her tea, which she gratefully accepted.

As she sipped the steaming chamomile, the security guard spun around a monitor that showed a grainy picture of the parking garage where she had left her car. He pointed to a black hatchback parked three cars down from her Volvo, and she could just make out the silhouette of a person seated in the driver's seat.

“This car followed you into the garage, and the driver has remained in the car. We've written down the license plate number.” He slid a slip of paper with the number on it across the desk toward her, and she pocketed it. “If you'd like to give us your keys, a member of our staff will drive your car out of the garage and to one of the private, underground delivery entrances for the Club. You should be able to exit from a different gate, and I would think you would lose your stalker that way.”

She jerked at the word stalker. She couldn't tell if he was joking, and she felt a wave of unease wash through her and settle in her stomach. She took another sip of chamomile before responding.

“Yes, thank you. I appreciate your attentiveness.” She pulled her keys out of her purse and placed them in the agent's hand, noticing that her fingers shook a little. She attributed her unsteady hand to too much physical exertion with too little food.

“You're welcome to stay here and watch us on the monitor, if you'd like. We'll come and get you when your car is settled in the underground delivery garage.” She nodded and he exited.

She watched the monitor for a minute, but felt too jittery for stillness. She stood and began to walk around the tiny office.

The day after the Senate confirmed her as an Associate Justice, the Chief of the Supreme Court Police left her a voicemail requesting a meeting. After reviewing the security around the building and giving her keys to the appropriate doors, garages, and security cabinets, he had given her a cell phone. The only number she was ever to call with it, he instructed her, was his, and it remained to this day the only number stored in the phone's contacts. He had requested she always carry it with her, and she had complied.

She watched as a security officer located her car and slid into the driver's seat. Before he had time to turn the Volvo's lights on, the hatchback reversed out of its space and drove away. The cameras weren't close enough to capture the driver's face.

She pulled out the phone she had never used, feeling its weight in her hand. It felt heavy. She dialed.

 

Chapter Six

 

“I didn't know you could bake it,” Diane said, peering into Tori's oven.

Tori leaned against the island in her kitchen and took a sip of wine. “Oh yeah, it beats standing over the stove stirring constantly. The first time I made risotto I thought my arm was going to fall off.

William smirked at her. “Wimp.”

Tori sauntered over to him and squeezed his bicep. Her eyebrows furrowed. She squeezed lower, then higher. “I know there must be a muscle in there somewhere. Wait, I bet you still have that spy equipment Dad got you when you were twelve. You walked around with that stupid magnifying glass glued to your eye for about eight months. Loan it to me and maybe I can locate your long lost guns.”

“Ha. Ha ha. You're really funny. I'm rolling on the floor laughing. Can't you tell?”

“I could take you, you know.”

William stood up straighter, but he was barefoot and Tori was wearing heels.

She laughed. “Poor Will. Maybe if we spiked your hair you'd look taller.” She started fluffing his hair and he tried in vain to bat her hands away.

“Don't mess with the ‘do!” he grunted, making Tori laugh harder.

“You mean what's left of it? You've got more forehead now than you had when I left for England, dude.” It wasn't true, but Will stopped batting her hands and starting running his fingers along his hairline with genuine concern on his face.

“Lair!”

Tori shrugged.

“Children, don't make me turn this car around,” Diane warned as she walked to the dining room table and sat down.

Both William and Victoria stuffed their hands in their pockets. “Sorry. We'll be good,” they chanted in unison, their eyes twinkling.

Diane giggled. “Your hair looks ridiculous, Honey.”

“She started it!” He pouted and headed to the bathroom to return his errant locks to their proper position.

Tori grabbed her wine glass from the counter and joined Diane at the table. “I'm really glad he fell in love with a shorty.”

Diane rolled her eyes as she took a seat. “I don't think he'd love me if I were taller than five foot five.”

Tori studied her a moment. “How short are you, anyway?”

Diane sat on her hands and squared her shoulders, striving for more height. “I'm five foot two. Sometimes. When I'm wearing shoes.”

Tori laughed. “Well, at least you two can bond over your respective desires to be taller.”

Diane raised a glass. “Here, here.”

“Thanks for spending your date night this week with me.”

“Well, we missed you all summer. Tommy did too. He asked me every day when you were going to come over to play Legos with him. I told him that one doesn't play Legos, but the nuances of the English language don't seem to capture his interest. I think he wants to be an architect like his daddy.”

Victoria smiled. “Oh, I'm sure he'll want to be a translator like his mom, and then a lawyer like his aunt, and he'll probably end up a rock star, just to spite us all.”

“Or a football player, just to give us all heart attacks every time he gets tackled.”

“With those genes? He won't be tall enough to be the water boy!”

Diane threw her napkin at Tori.

Tori chuckled as she picked it up and started refolding it. “You seem to throw these around a lot.”

“Better a napkin than my food.”

“Rebecca's got you covered in that department, huh?”

“Yep. I've been considering naked dinner.”

William had been walking into the dining room, and he stopped in his tracks.

“Can I watch?”

“Not me naked, you perv!” Diane's newly refolded napkin flew again.

“Damn.”

“Okay, I'm not folding that again.” Tori crossed her arms.

William scooped it up from the floor and started messing with it. Somehow he worked the cloth into something resembling a sailor's hat, which he dropped onto his sister's head. “Big improvement.”

“Remind me again why I invited you two for dinner?”

“Because we're devastatingly gorgeous, and you need some eye candy after spending so much time with lawyers.” He punctuated the word lawyers by crossing his eyes and raising one eybrow.

“The last time you made that face, you said the F-word and Mom was washing your mouth out with soap.”

Before Will could find a retort, the timer on the oven beeped.

While Tori stirred fontina, parmesan, and basil into the risotto, William dished up salads and Diane sliced garlic bread. They reconvened at the table and were just about to get down to the business of eating when Tori's landline rang. She rose to answer it, wondering who besides her secretary and clerks had her new number.

“Hello?”

“Justice Willoughby? This is Damien Fitzpatrick again, from the Star Reporter . We got cut off last time, when you hung up on me. Is now a better time to talk?”

“How did you get this number?” she asked, genuinely concerned about the answer. Her secretary had seen to her new phone number yesterday. Tori's stomach started to churn as she contemplated the possibility that there was a leak in her office somewhere. Or maybe someone had hacked the email her secretary had sent out with the new number? She shook her head, realizing Fitzpatrick was rambling on about something.

“…consider doing an interview about why you refuse to recuse yourself? I would be happy to – “

“Mr. Fitzpatrick, I've contacted the Supreme Court Police, and they will be monitoring my security for the foreseeable future. If you attempt to contact me again, I will be sure to tell them you are harassing a sitting justice about an issue currently up for consideration before the Court, and I'm sure they will take care of securing a restraining order. Good day.” She hung up before he could respond.

When she returned to the table, she was shaking.

William took her hand. “Tor, don't let him get to you. He's a slime ball and no one reads the Star Reporter .”

“I don't care what he writes, or even if he keeps calling me, really. But I just got a new phone number yesterday. I hadn't even given it to you two!”

“Oh.” William sat back in his chair, at a loss.

“Oh,” Diane repeated.

“Yes. Oh. I guess I'll add this to the list of things I need to cover in my meeting with the Supreme Court police chief tomorrow.”

All three of them reached for their wine glasses at the same time.

They ate a moment in silence before Diane filled the air. “Have you heard about the shake-up happening at the HRC?”

Will knit his brows. “I thought it was at NCLR.”

Diane shrugged. “I can't keep them straight.”

Tori rolled her eyes. “I'm not even going to dignify that with a response.”

“Maybe it wasn't NCLR . . .” Will mumbled through a mouthful of salad.

“Well, whatever organization it is, it might mean new lawyers arguing the gay marriage, right, Tori?” Diane cut in.

“Probably. I can't imagine how it would matter at this point. The case record speaks for itself, and I don't think new counsel will change anyone's mind.”

Diane shrugged. “Well, I for one think it could be a good thing. New blood and all.”

“It'll take more than a new lawyer to shake Jamison from his stupor,” Tori said.

Will studied her a moment, wiping his lips with his napkin. “You're not usually so pessimistic. What gives?”

Tori exhaled audibly. She stared at her lap, folding and refolding her napkin. “I don't know, really. I guess I feel like … What if my legacy on the court includes hearing – and losing – this case. And then a gay immigrant with two kids gets deported because our government doesn't recognize his relationship to his partner? Or, you know, a tomboy in Wichita who gets bullied in school all her life, and gets depressed because she'll never be able to get married, and .… when I was in a position to make the world different and I failed.” Her napkin now resembled an awkward origami blender. She smoothed it out and glanced up to find her brother and sister-in-law staring at her. She watched as they grasped each other's hand on the tabletop.

Will smiled. “You have no idea, do you? What you've done for that little lesbian in Wichita, just by being you. By being a strong, beautiful lesbian who shattered the glass ceiling in the legal world.”

Tori smiled back, but hers was laced with melancholy. “I don't think it counts if you're not really out of the closet.”

“What, you think you need to make some big announcement? People seem to already know. And about that – how does that work?”

“I honestly have no idea. Maybe because I'm a single woman who's never been married and that's what society assumes about all of us?”

Diane shook her head. “Maybe your ex said something?”

“No way she talked,” Will countered. “Maybe you give off a vibe or something.”

Both women looked at him, amused. “And what vibe might that be?” Tori asked. She and Diane leaned forward and put their cheeks on their right hands, patiently awaiting his answer.

“Um. Well, I don't know.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “I don't know what you ladies …” He glanced at his wife. “Any of you ladies…I think I'll go call the sitter and check on the kids.” He slid his chair back and hurried from the room while the women giggled.

“Think his foot tastes as good as my risotto?”

“Hell no – this is delicious. Can I get the recipe?”

When Will returned from making his phone call, Diane and Victoria were discussing what kind of vibes he gave off, especially at the gym, where he went that one time back in the Stone Age.

 

Chapter Seven

The office of Liam Pollard, the Chief of the Supreme Court Police, was located in the bowels of the Supreme Court building. The lighting was florescent, and there were too many chairs in there. Tori couldn't properly cross her legs without bumping her knees on his desk. She stopped trying and smiled at Pollard, waiting for his assessment.

“Well, Madam Justice, it looks like we have two problems on our hands. One appears relatively straight-forward, and one is significantly more complicated. First, you suspect there is a leak in your office. Base on the information you've given me, I agree.”

He cracked his neck to the left, and then to the right. Tori used the pause in the conversation to fidget in her seat. The computer monitors in his office kept flickering.

“I suggest we share different information with each of your clerks and secretaries, and see which information gets back to you. It's a simple, elegant troubleshooting method. When we've discovered who the leak is, we plug it. And Justice Willoughby, ‘we' doesn't include you. No independent confrontations. This isn't a matter to take into your own hands.”

Tori bit her thumbnail. God, she had to stop doing that.

It galled her to think of her staff suddenly under scrutiny and it was completely unnerving to think about one of them sharing confidential information with a reporter. “Yes, fine. I will share all results with your office and avoid taking matters into my own hands.”

“I'm sorry, Madam Justice, perhaps I wasn't clear. You will give the results to me personally, not my office. And I will give you the different information that you will pass onto your staff. Misinformation campaigns need to be carefully managed. We only get one shot at this, before the leak knows we're on to him. Or her.”

“I just can't imagine any of my staff betraying not just me, but the whole Court. None of them are --”

“None of them seem the type. I understand, but your phone seems to keep ringing and here we are.”

Tori pursed her lips. She wasn't a fan of being interrupted. “Understood. Moving on.”

It was clear Pollard was used to dictating the conversation, but after only the briefest of pauses, he continued. “Your second difficulty. You might have a stalker. Thus far this individual has yet to make direct contact, so we have no sense of what he wants. I'll run the license plate number and we'll find the car, but in the meantime, I'm going to assign you a security detail. We'll put a car outside your house, and we'll follow you to all your engagements. Since you haven't been approached, I don't see the need to escort you inside anywhere. You'll need to provide me with a daily schedule. Let's avoid email for the time being, and since your office isn't secure, we shouldn't do this over the phone. Can you personally put a hard copy of your schedule in my hands every morning, if I come to your door?”

“This seems a bit much,” Victoria returned, frowning.

“Justice Willoughby, how did you sleep last night?”

She hesitated. “I've slept better.”

“Got an easy docket coming up? Lots of simple, straight-forward cases that will be decided unanimously? Or do you think you might need quality sleep this term? The sooner we get your difficulties taken care of, the better you'll sleep.”

Victoria saw no point in arguing. “7 A.M. work for you?”

Pollard nodded. “When you're ready to leave the office today, come here first and I'll introduce you to your security detail, and we'll escort you home.”

They both rose, and Victoria extended her hand. Pollard's was warm and his callouses scraped against her skin. She smiled when she realize she liked it. There was something comforting in his rough handshake.

 

* * *

 

Noon the following day saw eight Justices seated around an oval conference table on the second floor of the Supreme Court, waiting for their Conference to begin. Alistair was uncharacteristically late. Twirling a pen around her nimble fingers, Tori glanced around at her coworkers. Seated at the head of the oval table, Chief Justice Kellen O'Neil was wearing a stupid bow tie. Sighing, Tori recognized that her irritation with his attire was misplaced anger at the man himself. She forced herself to focus on the things she liked about him – his full white hair, his deep laugh, and his enduring passion for the law.

To his left, the swing member of the court was nursing a Diet Coke. Ryan Jamison had been appointed by President Clinton, and the confirmation process had indicated he would tip the balance of the court back to the liberal side for the first time in twenty years. The first opinion he joined, however, was authored by O'Neil and struck down the use of racial quotas in selecting incoming freshmen classes at the University of Nebraska. Since that day, Jamison had confused scholars and pundits alike, none of whom could agree on whether Jamison was his own man, and not a soldier for the Democratic Party, or whether he was a bizarre robot who joined decisions based on the flip of a coin. So far, no one could determine logical themes in his voting record.

Michelle Lin sat to his left, the first Asian American woman on the Court. While she waited for Alistair, Michelle was sketching a stone cottage nestled in a forest. Tori knew she had contemplated art school at one time, before turning to law. Completing the liberal branch of the Court, Jason Blankenstein sat next to Lin and flipped through the New Yorker . After Alistair, he was the oldest serving member, but to Tori he looked as young as the day he took his oath fifteen years ago.

Victoria occupied the chair next to Jason. Wanting to put all her anxieties behind her, hoping she could at least give the appearance of confidence, she had chosen a dark red skirt suit for that day's Conference. She was periodically taking sips from a thermos of tea. Her pen continued to twirl as she pondered going to Sonya's barbeque, and the teasing Will and Diane would give her if they found out.

Seated opposite Victoria, to O'Neil's right, sat the conservatives. While it wasn't true that Eliot McKinzie, Anthony Jaworski, and Matthew Smith could always be counted on to vote together, if one Justice's name was on an opinion, there was a sixty percent chance the other two names could be found there as well. That number would be higher if it weren't for Matthew Smith's particular penchant for writing concurring opinions. It was obnoxious, really. Tori suspected his plethora of concurring opinions represented an awkward (and ineffective) effort to become the most cited Justice on the court.

Still, for all the differences in their legal philosophies, Tori found she usually liked her colleagues. She hoped her affection for them would carry her through the divisiveness of the most personal case for her that she was likely to hear during her tenure on the Court.

In fact, as she looked around her, she realized she was happy, despite all the stress she was under. Maybe the clothing choice had something to do with it, but she felt in control of her life for the first time since her return D.C. The Supreme Court Police were putting together next week's protection detail and schedule for her to review. She and Wallace had begun strategizing how to sway Jamison to their side in both the gay marriage case and the habeas case, and she had white-boarded their research agenda. She felt optimistic about persuading Jamison.

As she reversed the direction of her pen twirling, she replayed her sister-in-law's gentle nudging from dinner the other night: “Whatever you've been waiting for, Victoria, I think it's happened. You might as well start living a little,” Diane had said. Maybe Diane was right. She had a lifetime appointment. The issue that kept her so reserved was confronting the court right now. Maybe after the Justices decided on gay marriage, she could start living a little. Maybe she could even start living a lot.

Tonight she would have dinner with her brother and his family. And on Saturday, she would chat with Rosie while the florist arranged flowers for her to bring to Sonya's barbeque. And maybe one night very soon she would sleep soundly.

She was about to ask McKinzie how potty training his new dog was coming along when the door opened and Alistair Douglas entered. He took his seat at the vacant head of the oval opposite O'Neil.

“Apologies for my late arrival. My clerk and I were distracted by this afternoon's HER announcement.”

Tori raised her eyebrows. She hadn't heard any announcement from Her Equal Rights, a women's rights organization that worked alongside agencies such as NARAL and NCLR. She took a sip of tea and continued to twirl her pen while she waited for Alistair to continue.

“After HER publicized that they have a new president, HRC and NCLR announced that they've changed the legal team arguing the Iowa gay marriage case, should we grant it cert. Which of course, we have.”

Kellen drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “Alistair. Wrap this up sometime today, please?”

After a dramatic eye roll, a huge Cheshire grin spread across Alistair's face. “The new president of HER, and lead counsel for the Iowa case, is Genevieve Fornier!” He pulled a piece of paper out of his briefcase and slid it down the table, revealing a printout from the HER website with the announcement. There she was. In the photo, she was descending marble courtroom steps, her black skirt suit showing off chiseled legs and black stilettos. Her black hair was styled to perfection. Her piercing blue eyes seemed to bore into everyone in the room. She might have been a model, except that every Justice there knew her as a tough-as-nails litigator with an off-the-charts track record.

The faces to the right of Kellen O'Neil looked annoyed. Expressions of delight could be found to his left.

A small gasp escaped Victoria's lips and her pen clattered to the floor.

 

To be continued.

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