Chapter Ten

Present Day

The heels of Elizabeth's stilettos clattered against the wooden steps as she scrambled down the last stretch of the staircase and into the embrace of freshly-ground coffee and toast slathered with butter that wafted up from the kitchen. She raked one hand through her hair and then wrestled her jacket on. A glance at her watch—she should have left five minutes ago. "Has anyone seen my glasses?"

"Here." Stevie said through a mouthful of cheerios, and she lifted the glasses case from the top of the kitchen table.

"Thank you." Elizabeth snatched up the case, and she leant down to press a kiss to the top of her daughter's head. She spun round, and with her gaze darting over the room, she muttered to herself, "Phone, bag, keys…"

"Babe—" Henry brushed the crumbs from his fingers and then stood up from his chair, still chomping on a mouthful of toast. He caught hold of her waist, pulled her towards him and kissed her temple. "—it's going to be fine."

She fiddled with the top button of Henry's shirt before meeting his eye. She winced. "You promise?" Telling her family was one thing, but the whole nation…?

"Seriously, Mom," Stevie said. "We're proud of you." Alison twisted round in her seat, whilst Jason looked up from his bowl, spoon poised over the cornflakes. Both of them nodded.

Elizabeth's chest lifted a little, but it sank just as fast. "Tell that to Russell Jackson when he sees and freaks out." She could just imagine the vessel pulsing at his temple: I told you to keep it fluffy—psychiatric wards aren't fluffy! She shook the image from her mind and then blew kisses to her children. "I'll see you all this evening."

There came a chorus of "Bye. Love you." that followed her to the door. Henry walked with her, his hand resting against the small of her back. He held out her trench coat for her, and she shrugged it on.

"Do you want me to come to the office?" Henry asked as she turned round. He adjusted her collar for her and then let his hands linger there. "I could watch it with you."

Elizabeth shook her head. "I'll be fine. Besides, I want someone to be here with the kids."

Henry squeezed her shoulders, and he dipped down to catch her gaze. "Babe, they're okay."

Elizabeth drew her lips to one side, and her gaze fell away as she toyed with the end of his tie. "I thought maybe they felt awkward talking about it with me."

"You heard what Stevie said: they're proud of you." Henry tilted her chin up. "I'm proud of you." And that pride shone through his eyes. "I love you." He kissed the corner of her lips, gentle but lingering. Her pulse quickened. "Now go change the world." He gave her a sharp tap on the bottom, eliciting a squeak. A rush of heat flooded her face, and he smirked in response.

She jabbed one finger at his chest. "You're so gonna pay for that." She tried her best to scowl, but a smile tugged at her lips, causing his grin to widen.

"I look forward to it."

The staff sat on the sofa and chairs around the coffee table in Elizabeth's office, facing the small television screen in the corner, whilst Elizabeth had wheeled her chair round and sat in front of her desk. An assortment of coffee mugs cluttered the table, surrounding the box of doughnuts that Blake had brought in specially for the screening of the interview. The smell of frying oil and sugar stirred Elizabeth's stomach; an undercurrent of nausea.

She watched her staff, heart pounding. Here came the punchline.

"You developed anorexia?"

Elizabeth's throat bobbed as she swallowed. "Yes."

Blake stopped eating, mouth full, the doughnut still held to his lips. He swivelled round in his chair, eyes wide, and he looked like he might choke. He swallowed, grimacing as he forced the bite down. A driver who had stalled on a railway crossing whilst the ding of bells soared to its crescendo couldn't look more shocked than he did right now.

The others turned to her too. Elizabeth hit pause. The silence weighed heavy on the room, like the lull before the storm clouds burst. Matt let out an awkward laugh as he leant forward in his seat on the couch. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, and his lips tweaked into an uncertain smile. "Wait…you're kidding, right?" He stared at her hard, and the smile withered.

Jay's gaze dipped to the coffee table—perhaps rethinking his definition of worst thing—whilst Kat's gaze raked over Elizabeth, and Blake just continued to gawp.

"Matt," Daisy hissed, and she jabbed him with her elbow. Her eyes bugged; perhaps shock, perhaps horror that Elizabeth hadn't come to her about this first. "Ma'am, I didn't…" She shook her head, and her hair bounced around her shoulders.

"No one knew, Daisy," Elizabeth said. She nodded to the screen. "Which is what I'm about to say." She glanced to the others in turn, her gaze lingering longest on Blake. "I'm happy to talk about this with you, but I'd like you to listen to the rest first." She paused a second and then pressed play. As the sound kicked in, her staff turned back to the screen, all except for Blake.

When the show came to an end, Elizabeth switched off the television. She placed the remote control on her desk and then stood up and smoothed out the creases from her skirt, her palms clammy against the wool. She settled back against the edge of her desk, her arms slung across her stomach. Her staff watched her, waiting.

"Any thoughts?" Elizabeth gave a stilted shrug, anything to break the tension.

Kat's eyes brightened with her tentative smile. "Ma'am, I've gotta say, I'm impressed." She motioned to the television. "That took serious huevos."

Elizabeth chuckled, and as her chin dipped, her hair swept forward into her face. Maybe she had been wrong to think that people would see her as weak; maybe the people who mattered would know the strength it took to stand before them now.

"I didn't mean to offend, ma'am," Matt said. "It's just that you seem so normal." That earnt him another acid look from Daisy.

"That's because I am normal," Elizabeth said, "or as normal as any of us are." Because what was normal anyway? "As I said, I was lucky, I recovered, and I'm hoping that by highlighting the issue it might help others to return to normality too." Her hands found her hips as she eased away from the edge of her desk and paced towards the window. "Do you know how many people live with eating disorders in America alone?"

"Millions," Daisy said.

Elizabeth nodded. Her lips quirked into a sorry smile. "Just imagine what they could achieve if they had the help they need to overcome their problems, if they received treatment as quickly as I did." She shook her head to herself, and her gaze turned to the curtains, the thin gauze glowing saffron in the sunlight. "I know what it's like being in the thick of it—you're barely able to function, you're so fixated on the illness and food." She rested her fingers against the window ledge and let out a long sigh. "So many brilliant minds caught up in that tangle of thoughts."

What achievements would the illness have robbed her of had she not recovered? Maybe she would have clawed her way through high school, possibly university. But relationships and a career? No. And what was the point of certificates if you were incapable of using them? What was the point of life without connection?

"It's a waste," Jay said, "and whilst I having nothing but respect for what you just did, there's nothing that State can do about the issue."

Elizabeth turned to him. She leant back against the window sill, her fingers curling over the edge. "It's not about what we do as a department," she said. "It's about me taking this opportunity to open up about my experience so that perhaps others feel able to open up about theirs too."

Jay shrugged, the corners of his lips curving up. "But maybe under the McCord administration?"

Elizabeth laughed, a sharp bark. "I couldn't possibly comment on that." She flashed them a smile. There were no secrets in DC, right? "I hope this—" She nodded to the television screen. "—doesn't make anyone feel awkward at all. I like the dynamic we have, and I don't want that to change."

"Of course not," Daisy said. She clutched her knees and then gave a slight shrug. "Though next time, maybe a little heads-up?"

"You mean before I go to the press about my secret love child?" Elizabeth deadpanned, but a smile broke through. "Oh no wait, they already ran that story, right?" Elizabeth's gaze flitted to them in turn, before she glanced at her watch. "Unless anyone had any questions, I think we can call that a day. Blake—" She looked to him. "—hang back a minute."

Jay, Kat and Daisy filed out, but Matt approached her where she still rested against the window sill. He stood in front of her and then opened his arms to her. "Permission to hug you, ma'am?"

Elizabeth chuckled. "Permission granted."

Matt wrapped her in his embrace. When he squeezed, it made her feel small again, like she had that summer, but safe too. "I can honestly say that you are one of the strongest people I know," Matt said, "and making yourself vulnerable like that, it only makes you stronger."

"Thank you, Matt," Elizabeth said when he stepped back, and her chest glowed. She laid her hand against his arm, a fleeting touch. "That means a lot." Acceptance and compassion.

Matt nodded. "Goodnight, ma'am." Then he strode towards the door, clapping Blake on the shoulder as he passed.

Blake was still perched on his chair, twisted round to face Elizabeth, but his gaze had settled on the floor. Elizabeth offered him a small smile. "You look like you could use a hug too."

Blake let out a huff of breath, a derisive laugh. He looked up at her, eyes wide. "How did I not know?" And perhaps he had been doing the same as Henry, running through every moment they had spent together—every conversation, comment, action, expression—looking for the clues. But the truth was: there were none. She had left them where they belonged, back in 1984. Blake shook his head to himself, a slight blush creeping through his cheeks. "I'm sorry for all the comments I've made, all the food policing—"

Elizabeth held one hand up. "Blake, this is exactly what I don't want: for things to get weird." That was the thing with knowledge: it shifted perceptions and attitudes, and not always in a helpful way. "It doesn't bother me when you Fitbit me or make sure I'm eating something other than carbs. I just want us to continue like before. Can we do that?"

Blake pursed his lips and then nodded.

"Come here." Elizabeth beckoned him closer, and he eased up from his seat. She hugged him tight, clinging on to him until he relaxed. "If it makes you feel any better, even Henry didn't have a clue."

Blake gave a soft snort. "You never cease to amaze me, ma'am."

"Good." She patted Blake on the back, and as her grip loosened, he stepped away again. She smiled up at him. "I'd hate for people to think that I'm boring."

"You're certainly not that." Blake's expression sobered. "I know what it's like to worry what people will think about you, and how hard it is to face stigma, and though it'll probably take me a while to get my head round this, I'm proud of you and I'm grateful that you decide to share this with us."

And that pride blossomed like white light unfurling in Elizabeth's chest. She touched Blake's elbow. "Life's too short to live in fear, Blake, and far too precious to waste."

Elizabeth placed the phone back in the cradle. She stared at it for a moment before looking across to Henry where he sat on the stool at the end of the kitchen island, a glass of red wine in hand. He met her gaze and set the glass down with a soft clink, and then waited for her to speak.

"Russell Jackson's here."

Henry frowned. "Now?"

Elizabeth nodded. "No prizes for guessing what this is about." Her chest deflated as she let out a short sigh.

"Hey, babe—" Henry climbed down from the stool and strode towards her. He caught hold of her hand and laced his fingers through her own. "I'm with you." Then he raised her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles.

He walked with her through the house and stood behind her as she wrenched open the front door. The night air drifted in, cool with the lingering trace of smoke. "Evening, Russell," she said, and Henry gripped her shoulders, his thumbs kneading the knots, a reminder to relax, a reminder that he was there and that he had her back.

Russell stepped inside, face buried in his phone as he jabbed away at the keypad. "Evening, Bess." He hit send, then stuffed the phone into his coat pocket and glanced up. He shot Henry a look, as if surprised to see him there too. "Henry."

"How can we help you, Russell?" Henry said, and his grip on Elizabeth's shoulders tightened. She pushed the door to, and as it hit the frame, the window panes shuddered.

Russell strode through to the reception room, but paused and turned back to them when they didn't follow. "What?" He gave a wry laugh. "You're not going to offer me a drink?"

Elizabeth barely suppressed a snort, and Henry squeezed her shoulders in response. In her mind, she could hear his voice, Breathe, babe, just breathe. "I'll get the Scotch," he said. Then his touch was gone. Any tension that he had relieved snapped back within a second, leaving each muscle as taut as a fishing line snagged in the jaws of a marlin.

Elizabeth lowered herself into one of the armchairs; she sat right at the edge, her hands clutching her knees. Russell took a seat on the couch opposite, and his gaze held to the ground as he tugged at the knot of his tie and slackened it. She watched him, a silent study of every move. Agitation? Perhaps from well-suppressed anger. Or maybe something else.

There was a clink of glasses and the glug of liquid flowing from a bottle. Then the tap, tap, tap of footsteps.

"Here, babe." Henry pressed a tumbler into her hand. She lifted it to her lips, her gaze still trained on Russell. She took a sip and waited for the rush of warmth and the bite that dragged at the back of her tongue. Henry passed a glass to Russell, who nodded in thanks, and then he retreated to perch against the arm of Elizabeth's seat.

Russell looked up and met her eye. "Good job with the interview." The words lumbered from his mouth.

Elizabeth stopped with the rim of the glass resting against her lips. Her heart gave a jolt, as if flung into a different place or time. She let the tumbler fall back to her lap. "What?"

Russell shrugged. He took a swig from his own glass, his eyebrows raised. "You're officially America's sweetheart."

"So—" Elizabeth shook her head slowly, eyes narrowing on him. "—you're not mad?"

Russell frowned. "About what? Your approval rating is higher than ever." He leant forward in his seat, his gaze unflinching. "I want you to start liaising with the Health Department, see if you can come up with some new policies. God knows they could use some fresh ideas; maybe a little of your out-of-the-box thinking is what they need."

"Policies?" Elizabeth echoed, and the tumbler almost slipped from her hand.

"It's about time you started branching out," Russell said, "thinking about your campaign." He shook his head to himself. "The presidency is a whole different ballgame to State, Bess. You can't win an election on foreign policy alone, and I reckon this is as good a place to start as any."

Elizabeth's mind swam, the words a jumble that she had to sift through. "You want me to talk to Health about mental health provisions?"

"Why not?"

"I just…" Elizabeth's eyes widened. "…I didn't expect…"

"What? That I'd get it?" Russell's voice sharpened. He held one hand out—stop—and he took a deep breath before meeting her eye again. "My son ran track in high school. It was his life. Every day, practice and meets. Then he picked up an injury and it was like his whole world fell apart." His jaw clenched. "What started out as cutting back because he didn't want to gain weight when he wasn't training soon progressed to a full-blown eating disorder." He rubbed his brow, and his gaze dipped back to the floor. "It was a living hell."

Elizabeth swallowed. What if it had been Stevie or Alison or Jason who had been ill, not her? The thought of seeing them like that…it made her stomach clench. "I'm sorry, Russell."

Russell shook his head. "Don't be sorry. Just do what you do best—tear apart the system, break all the rules, and don't let anyone stop you until you've changed the world."

Elizabeth nodded. Silence hummed through the room, interrupted only by the soft tick-tock tick-tock from the clock on the mantlepiece. She placed her hand on Henry's thigh, searching for an anchor, and he covered her fingers with his own. "Did your son get better?" she asked Russell.

"Better? Yes. Recovered? " Russell drained the rest of his Scotch and winced. "Maybe, one day, who knows." He stood up and set the tumbler down on the coffee table. His gaze clung to it. "I've spoken to Conrad and we're in agreement about this. Whatever you need."

"Thanks, Russell." She moved to stand, but he waved her back down.

"I'll see myself out. Night, Bess. Henry."

Elizabeth's heart continued to thud long after the door had closed. Henry squeezed her hand, and she turned to look up at him. "I never thought this would actually lead to a change in policy; I just thought, if it was going to come out anyway, maybe it would give others the courage to speak up too. I mean, of course I want to help people, but do you really think I can do this?"

"Shake up the system? Enable people to get the help they need?" Henry said, and she nodded. His face softened, the corners of his eyes crinkling. "I know that you'll do your best."

Elizabeth looked down to her lap. "And if that isn't good enough?"

Henry placed his hand on her shoulder. "You can only try." He squeezed. "Even if you manage to help one person, it'll be worth it."

"You think?" She laid her head against his thigh.

"I know." He stroked her hair, the gentleness of his touch lulling away the worries and fears that flurried through her mind. "Imagine if that one person was sixteen-year-old you. Look how much she's achieved. Look where she is now. It only takes one person to change the world, babe." His hand stilled. "I believe in you."

And maybe she could make a difference. Maybe she could spare one person, one family, that pain. Maybe they could all find strength in their moments of weakness. Maybe through vulnerability, acceptance and compassion, they would change the world.

Henry rubbed her shoulder. "It's late, babe. Come to bed."

She nodded. And as he switched off the lights and closed the latch on the front door, she thought back over all that had happened, and how maybe, just maybe, everything had stemmed from London, summer 1984.

The End

So, a bit different from my previous stories. I was debating whether or not to post it—so I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, please take a moment to leave a review. It will brighten my day. Thank you!