Title: The Real Thing
Author: Jae Gecko
Category: Josh/Sam (slash), Sam/OFC, Turningverse.
Rating: R, but mostly not.
Spoilers: Extensive spoilers for "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen."
Disclaimer: Lisa Seppala, Sam's secretary Michele, and the waitress in the diner are my own creations, but everyone else comes from the mind of Aaron Sorkin. Just borrowed. He can have them back. (Well, except maybe Sam.)
Archive: Yes to list archives; all others please ask. Archivists, please *replace* the old version of the story with this new one!
Summary:
There is no way not to be excited
When what you have been disillusioned by raises its head
From its arms and seems to want to talk to you again.
You forget home and family
And set off on foot or in your automobile
And go to where you believe this form of reality
May dwell.
-- Kenneth Koch, from "Paradiso"

Feedback: Send to jaegecko@jaegecko.com
Website: http://www.jaegecko.com/ for the other Turningverse stories and a couple of standalones.
Notes: This is a rewritten version of the second story I ever wrote (meaning that I can now purge that horrible thing from the web! hurray! *cough*). As with my rewrite of "Turning Myself Into You," which I posted a little over a year ago, the plot is still the same, but this version has about 95% new material. One scene is entirely new, and the others are significantly expanded. It's from Sam's point of view, and it's the story surrounding him joining the Bartlet campaign in 1997.
Acknowledgements: My "little sister" found the poem, and Laura Shapiro accidentally soundtracked scene four (again). C&I gave up Fridays, the bathtub, and Remembrance Day weekend. Sev and Tina M. came up with words. A cast of thousands (Luna, Minna Leigh, Another Juxtaposition, International Princess, Anna-Maria Jennings, Ryo Sen, Lyman's Might, Dafna Greer, soupytwist, Rivka W., and DWR) played Toby to my Sam. And a thousand thank yous to my betas (Luna, Elizabeth Collins, Minna Leigh, Dafna Greer, Anna-Maria Jennings, and guest beta International Princess), who made it all come together.

###

The Real Thing by Jae Gecko

I didn't want to wake him.

The mattress let out a loud groan as I shifted onto my side, and I winced. Josh would never get back to sleep before his morning meeting. I opened one eye first, then the other, holding my body frozen. The gap between the windowsill and the sheet tacked onto the wall let in enough of the city light that I could easily make out the angles of his body next to mine.

He reached a hand under his pillow, and the blanket fell against the bed, exposing one pale, freckled shoulder. His breathing was long and slow with the stillness of sleep. I smiled, propping myself up with my elbow.

The sign from the hotel across the street sent flickers of green neon light across Josh's face, and I traced his cheekbones with my eyes. The early beginnings of the beard he would shave off in a few hours dotted his cheeks and blurred into shadow. I followed the edge of his hairline around his ear to the back of his neck, and the first stirrings of arousal nipped at my consciousness.

I wrapped my fingers around the coarse weave of the blanket and tucked it underneath his chin. His forehead wrinkled in protest, and his fingers grazed my arm as he grabbed the blanket and pushed it away. It fell behind him, taking the thin sheet with it. My eyes flew to his bare chest, and I shifted closer to him, our bodies only just touching. Warmth emanated from his skin, transforming itself into fire as it permeated my own.

He mumbled a sleepy approval and arched against my lips as they met his neck. I grasped his arm in response, pushing any remaining thoughts of sleep for either of us to the back of my mind. My breath echoed in his ear as I leaned closer. I snaked an arm behind him and curled my hand into the curve of his lower back. His shoulders pressed into the mattress, and I shifted my entire body against him.

"This is a nice way to wake up," Lisa purred.

I jerked my arm loose. Blinking, I pushed myself up from the bed, the muscles in my arms tensed and shuddering. The short brown curls of Josh's hair transformed into Lisa's blond waves, spread flat against the pillow. The woolen blanket against my forearm became the garish, multicolored afghan that had been a housewarming gift knitted by one of her parade of New York-based relatives. I blinked again. Josh's old apartment in Chelsea, the mattress on the floor, none of it was real.

"What's wrong?" Lisa asked, cupping her fingers around my shoulder. They felt grotesquely tiny. "Sam?" Her voice was pinched with alarm.

"Nothing. I ..." My head jolted up, my gaze settling on the window, and the sheet Josh had tacked there was gone, replaced by the mint green curtains the designer had picked out for us last summer. The first light of dawn was just beginning to peek into the room. A shudder twisted through me, and I pushed myself into a sitting position, rubbing my eyes. "Nothing's wrong."

Her arm dropped to the bed, and she rolled onto her back, her eyes flicking away from me. She stared at the wall across the room, visibly struggling to keep her face blank.

A stab of guilt pierced my stomach. "You just-- you startled me," I said, reaching for an explanation. I stretched out next to her, my gaze on the back of her head. "I wasn't-- I mean, I was still half asleep."

She didn't move.

I forced a shallow laugh and lay my hand across her stomach. Her skin was cool and dry, and the absence of covers left her vulnerable. "Remember when I was studying for the bar, and I had to ask you whether we'd had sex that one night?"

"It's okay, Sam." Her tone was flat.

"Once we've closed the Kensington deal--"

"It's okay," she repeated. She turned her head toward me. She was smiling, but her eyes were wet.

The stab of guilt spread to my chest. It was the same look she'd given me when we'd first started sleeping together back in law school. Back when I'd still been struggling to get over Josh. "It's not okay," I tried.

Her forehead wrinkled. "What's not okay?"

I reached over and ran my fingers along her forearm. "We got interrupted."

The corners of her mouth softened, and the painted-on smile melted into a genuine one. She reached an arm behind me, pressing my body against hers, and threw a quick glance at the clock on the nightstand. "We've got another half hour before the alarm goes off."

Her breasts were soft and familiar against my chest. She kicked what remained of the sheet to the foot of the bed and clamped her fingers around my shoulders. I straddled her, leaning down, and her heart fluttered as my lips connected with hers. Her tongue flicked hesitantly between them before entering my mouth, as if she wasn't sure we were allowed to do this. I responded with a long kiss, a cushion of reassurance.

She inhaled sharply as she drew back from my mouth and wrapped her arm around me, urging me closer. The faint smell of fresh sweat mixed with the perfume of clean cotton sheets. I curled my thumb around her breast, flicking her taut nipple against my own skin. Her eyes fell shut. Her lips parted and her chin jutted forward.

Her breath was coming in gasps, and I pushed her legs up just enough to enter her. Her fingernails dug into the flesh just below the small of my back. I rocked against her in a rhythmic, anesthetic pattern of thrusts, reaching. And then it was over.

Lisa's skin clung to mine as her breathing slowed. I pushed myself up with my forearms and settled in beside her. Her face was stained pink, and the corners of her mouth twitched in the faint beginnings of a smile. She turned toward me, twisting her arm around my waist. Her forehead fit neatly into the crook of my neck as she relaxed against my pillow.

"It's been a long time," she mumbled into my clavicle.

My gaze flicked across to the wall on the other side of the room. The guilt was back, crushing my chest. I knew she didn't mean it as an admonishment, but that almost made it worse. I turned away from her, pressing my back against the mattress.

Her eyes followed me, first questioning, then drooping in sudden understanding. The smile disappeared from her lips, and I felt her carefully withdraw from me so that I almost couldn't tell we'd stopped touching. I pressed my eyes shut.

Ten years together as of last winter. As of February. Sometimes I wished we didn't know each other quite so well.

The bed shifted as Lisa sat up and slid off the edge. I stole a glance at her as she grabbed her robe from the hook on the back of the door, my gaze flickering across the curve of her hip, the outline of her breast peeking out from beneath her arm, the perfect pale skin of her back against the green terrycloth. She turned to face me, her body covered, and my eyes fell closed again.

"I could run to the corner for bagels." Her voice was crisp. "We've got time."

"I should be in early," I croaked. My eyelids were glued shut. "I've got that meeting with the Kensington people this morning, and I have some stuff to look over first." It was the truth, but it sounded like the most transparent of excuses.

"That's my workaholic," she said, playing along. I didn't want to see her face, didn't want to watch her struggling to smile. "I'm going to hop in the shower."

There was a time when she would have asked me to join her. "I'll grab the paper," I offered.

I managed to force my eyes open in time to watch her disappear into the bathroom.

###

"Pam needs about another fifteen minutes on those figures." Michele's voice fluttered with the nervous tension that had surrounded her for over a week.

Sometimes it seemed like she cared more about this deal than I did. I didn't look up. "Which figures?"

"The tax figures."

I waved a hand at her. "Cameron isn't going to want to see the tax figures."

"You might need to show him her calculations," she squeaked. "Or at least tell him about them."

I lifted my chin. She was panting, like she'd just run up the stairs, and her scarf had come untucked from her suit. "So send me in there with a copy."

"Pam's got them," she repeated, a file folder clenched between her fingers. "And she needs--"

"Another fifteen minutes. Right." I glanced at my watch. The meeting was in five. I leaned back in my chair. "Tell you what. Get the figures from Pam when she's done, leave them on my desk, and if I end up needing them, I'll duck out for a few minutes."

"I can bring them down to you. You know, so it doesn't look like--"

"Michele." I peered at her over the edge of my glasses. "The deal's done."

She exhaled a slow breath. Her shoulders relaxed, and the stress lines on her face began to soften.

"It's done. Kensington's not going to take their business elsewhere at this stage because I don't have a copy of the tax figures at my fingertips."

"Okay." She stared at me. I maintained her gaze for another half-second, then looked back down at the contract. My secretary's ability to hover from across the room never ceased to amaze me. "Aren't you going to head down to the conference room?" she encouraged.

"Oh, I don't know. I was just thinking about sending you in my place. Maybe taking the morning off, heading down to the--"

"Lisa called, by the way," she interrupted. "I told her you were getting ready for the meeting. She said just to tell you good luck."

Guilt reverberated across my skin, and I pushed the image of Lisa's disappointed face to the back of my mind. I still hadn't been able to look her in the eye when she'd left, and even now, my mouth tasted of stale coffee, hastily gulped down before dashing out the door. I swallowed. "Thanks."

"And that she'll pick up dinner on the way home."

"Okay." I looked back down at the agreement.

"And that she wants to start talking about picking out china patterns."

"Okay." My head jerked up. "Really?"

"No." A broad grin spread across her face, wiping away the last vestiges of tension. She stepped toward me. "I just think it's all so sweet!"

I slipped the draft into the file folder on my desk and grabbed the stack. "We're very sweet people," I said dryly.

"You're going to be a partner here--"

"Once again, I'm glad they gave me a wooden desk." I rapped my fist against it twice as I stood.

"... and she just made partner at Dewey Ballantine. You're getting married to spite the rival firms!" Michele beamed.

I stepped toward her. "I thought we were getting married to unite them." I tilted my head as I stopped in front of her, dropping my voice several notches. "You mean I've never told you my real name was Henry the Fifth?"

"Go." She shoved a file into my hands in a rush of motion and perfume. She was still grinning as I turned and started down the hall.

Jack Gage's step was quick as he rounded the corner. Rita scurried along behind him, her feet struggling to keep up and her arms loaded down with a stack of files. "Ah, Sam, good," Gage said. "I sent Jimmy down to get Cameron. You ready?"

"All we need now is the go-ahead from Kensington," I said, nodding.

Gage smiled in that stiff way that didn't quite spread from his eyes to his mouth. "Excellent." He put a hand on my back and guided me into the conference room. "Phil!" he said, letting the low growl of his voice expand to fill the room. "Found something better than that eagle on seventeen at Pebble to brag about yet?"

"Jack." The man talking to Jimmy lifted his eyebrows, and the corners of his lips turned up in a smug smile. He was tall, maybe around forty, with a receding hairline and a red power tie. He mumbled something to Jimmy and strode over to meet us. "Good to see you again. How's Annabelle?" he said, shaking Gage's hand.

"Oh, fine, fine." Gage waved a hand in the air. "Her back's still bothering her a bit, but she still manages to get around. Sharon and the girls?"

"They're doing well. Christina just started at Swarthmore this fall."

"It's amazing how time flies, isn't it?" Gage turned to include me. "Phil, this is Sam Seaborn. He's been handling the file. Sam, this is Phil Cameron."

"It's a pleasure to finally meet you, sir," I said. He grasped my hand in a firm shake.

"The pleasure is all mine," he said, already looking past me at the others.

Gage gave me an avuncular nod and moved toward the table. Following his lead, the others started doing the same. I claimed a seat between David and Rita and glanced around at the accumulated group. The steady rumble of conversation slowed and finally stopped.

"Well, I think we can get started," Gage said, folding his hands against the table in front of him. He introduced everyone, and a row of heads bobbed in greeting. He turned toward Cameron, holding his palms open. "They've all briefed me, and I think it's tight. If you're ready, we can go over the final changes to the agreement. I see no reason that the deal can't be signed tomorrow."

I slid my copy of the agreement out from inside the file and eyed Gage for my cue to begin. He ignored me and swiveled his chair toward Cameron. "Let me just get Rita to pass around copies of a few other things you'll want to have a look at when you have a chance, and then I'll take you through it."

I leaned back in my chair. If Gage wanted to handle this himself, we all had to hope he'd found time to at least look it over. Rita passed me a stack of loosely clipped pages. I took one and handed the rest down.

Gage whipped out his glasses and set them on his nose. "The most important change we've made since last time has to do with the price. If you all turn to clause two, we can go over it point by point."

I ruffled through the papers, paging past a copy of a letter from the seller, and let my eyes rest on a draft press release. Kensington Oil announced today that it has agreed to acquire three additional VLCCs from Bergesen D.Y. ASA for a total purchase price of $18 million, it read. It is anticipated that a definitive agreement concerning the acquisition of the three VLCCs will be concluded shortly, and that the vessels will be delivered over the next two months. This agreement follows on the heels of the 1995 joint purchase of two VLCCs with Euronav Luxembourg S.A., in which Kensington still owns a share.

Struggling to repress a smirk, I removed a pen from my shirt pocket and underlined the offending final sentence. Somehow, it didn't seem terribly likely that Kensington actually owned a share in Euronav Luxembourg. This was almost as bad as the press release Josh had written back when they'd announced Mike Silverstein's candidacy for Senate.

I rested my chin on my hand. It had been years since I'd dreamed about that time. Since I'd dreamed about Josh.

"Sam's going to tell you about it. Sam?"

I looked up quickly. "Hmm?"

"Structure versus cost?" Jack prompted.

"Uh, yeah." I looked at Cameron, sitting up a bit straighter. "What Jack means is, if you were getting the tankers for a buck eighty-five and trading stamps, it would still be a bad deal if we didn't limit your liability."

Cameron nodded. "And did you do that?"

"We did."

"How?"

"The same way we do with any other asset acquisition," I said. "Create a separate corporation for each one of them, then mortgage the boats, top to bottom." I flipped to the back of the file. Michele had been right. I did need a copy of the figures.

"Ships."

I looked up at him again. "I'm sorry?"

He didn't even try to keep from rolling his eyes. "Oil tankers aren't boats, they're ships."

I lifted an eyebrow. "Mr. Cameron, you want me to buy the boats, you're not asking me to be the first mate, right?"

"No," he conceded, pressing his lips together.

"You want to finance the tankers a hundred percent, so that if litigation does penetrate the liability shield we've set up for you, there are no real assets at the end of the line, just debt," I continued. "You're judgment-proof. Let me run back to my office and get the tax figures while David and Rita talk to you about IMO regulations." I pushed myself up from the table and headed out into the hall.

I took my glasses off and shoved them into my breast pocket as I walked back toward my office. Michele met me just outside it. "Sam," she said. "There's a guy waiting in your office who said he's a friend of yours."

"What's his name?"

"Josh Lyman?"

I shot her a skeptical look. This had to be some sort of practical joke, except for the fact that Michele couldn't possibly have known enough to find it funny. "Seriously?"

"Yeah."

My step quickened as I walked into my office. That familiar head of curls was bowed over my desk. He was wearing a perfect match for the brown trench coat he'd worn all those years ago, and a black backpack was thrown carelessly over one shoulder. I felt myself start to smile. Some things never changed. "Hey."

He spun around. As our eyes met, his face erupted into a grin, dimples gaping. "How're you doing?" He pulled me toward him in a hug, his pack dangling between us as an awkward buffer. I closed my eyes. Even his cologne was the same.

I pulled back to arm's length. He had a little less hair than the Josh in my dream, but there were no new lines in his face. "Hey, you look fit."

"You made partner?" He cocked his head at me.

"Next month." His eyes were bright, and my heart jumped. I realized that I'd thought about this moment, unconsciously rehearsed what I might say to him the next time he turned up in my life. I was glad he'd come now, when I had something concrete to show for all those years. My smile grew wider. David and Rita could stall Cameron for at least half an hour. "Listen, I'm hungry. You want to go grab a hot dog or something?"

He raised an eyebrow. "It's 9:30 in the morning."

"Yeah, they'll be fresh." I clasped a hand around Josh's shoulder. "Come on."

He shrugged. "Okay."

Josh walked two paces ahead of me toward the elevator, one hand on the strap of his backpack.
His usual confident swagger was muted as his gaze bounced distractedly from office to office. I pressed the down button, watching his reflection in the mirrored doors. His eyes were fixed on the painting on the far wall. The designer who'd redone the place last summer had insisted Gage hang it there. To make an impression, the guy had said.

"I haven't seen you in ... what's it been, five years?" Josh said, his voice deliberately casual as he tilted his head up toward the chandelier. He reached for the plant in the center of the elevator lobby and squeezed a leaf between his fingers.

"You were here in ... '91, I guess it was," I said. "We had dinner." He'd been in the city for a distant relative's wedding, a huge event at the Plaza. I'd left work early that day and taken the train two stops to the restaurant. I'd only told Lisa about it afterward, even though nothing at all had happened. Even though nothing at all could have happened. The elevator doors opened, and we stepped inside. The button for the lobby lit as my fingers grazed it.

The doors slid closed again, twin mirrors meeting in the middle. The narrow line that separated them marred the image, dividing our reflections. They stared back at us. Josh's forehead creased into an expression that stopped just short of a frown, and he gestured over his shoulder with a thumb. "You were still at that other firm."

"Dewey Ballantine."

"Over on Sixth Avenue."

"Yeah."

"So, six years." Josh shook his head, staring at the space in front of him. "Wow." He ran his hand up and down the strap on his backpack. "You look good, though," he said, lifting his chin to look me over again. "I like the suit."

I looked down, holding my arms out in front of me. "My suit?"

"It's sharp," he said, one corner of his mouth raised in a half-grin. "Is it new?"

I raised an eyebrow at him. "It's a few years old." The lines in his face deepened, widening into caverns.

The elevator doors spread open, and we funneled out into the lobby. Doors opened and closed and elevators dinged, but the rustling of the fountain masked the steady flow of activity in the building, transforming it into white noise. Josh's eyes followed the slab of marble up to the ceiling.

"You know, I haven't heard from you since just before you started working for Hoynes," I said, dragging Josh's gaze away from the sheet of water. "How's that going?"

"Great," he said absently. It was the expected answer, but his enthusiasm was muffled. "We're ramping up for the campaign."

"The numbers look good." I pushed open the glass doors, and we stepped out onto the sidewalk. The sounds of the late morning Manhattan traffic were a dull roar, background noise. John Hoynes wasn't the best candidate, just the safe candidate, but that was only going to help him win. The latest polls had him leading William Wiley by ten points or more. He probably could have been a good politician if he'd paid as much attention to governing as he did to putting himself in the Oval Office.

Josh turned around and looked back up at the building. A taxi honked behind us, and a guy in a charcoal gray suit waved at it from the doorway. Josh shook his head. "I can't believe you made partner."

"Your confidence in me is stirring," I said flatly.

He dropped his gaze and looked at me. "No, it's just ... it's hard to imagine it's been that long, you know?" I raised a questioning eyebrow, and he extended an arm in a wide, sweeping gesture. "I mean, wasn't it just the other day that it was you and me, right here, trying to put Mike Silverstein into the Senate?"

I started walking again. "It wasn't quite the other day, no."

"Yeah," he exhaled, letting his arm fall back to his side. He shoved his hand into the pocket of his trench coat.

The stand was free of crowds at this time of the morning, and the unmistakable smell of freshly grilled hot dogs permeated the air for at least a ten-foot radius. I glanced at Josh and gestured at the thin sausages. "You want one?"

"No, I'm okay."

I held up a finger to the short, bearded guy behind the stand. "Just one." He placed a dog into a bun, wrapped a napkin around it, and traded it to me for a five dollar bill. "Keep the change," I said, holding up a hand.

The guy nodded. "Thanks."

I stepped away from the stand and took a bite of the hot dog. "Keep the change?" Josh asked, his voice half questioning, half mocking.

"Yeah," I said, and he smirked. "It's a courtesy," I insisted.

"Okay."

"And I don't want all those coins rattling around in my ..." Josh was grinning now, and I narrowed my eyes at him. "What?"

"It just sounds a little, you know."

I gave him a blank stare. I took another bite of my hot dog.

"Snooty."

"Snooty?"

"A little."

"How else am I supposed to get him to keep the change?" I spread my arms out to my sides. "Grab my hot dog and bolt before he can force it into my hand?"

Josh let out a plosive laugh. "I don't know. I've never figured that one out, either."

I popped the last bit of my hot dog into my mouth and wiped it clean with the napkin. My feet began moving again, carrying me further away from the building. Josh followed a pace behind. "I wish I'd known you were coming -- we could've gone for lunch or something."

"Yeah, I was going to call before I came here, but then the strangest thing happened."

I tossed my napkin into a trash can as we passed it. "What?"

"I forgot the name of your firm."

"Gage Whitney?"

"Yeah." His tone was sheepish. He tucked his chin inside his coat.

"You couldn't remember Gage Whitney." I could certainly tell Josh had never used his law degree as anything other than a line on his resume.

"I know."

"Second biggest firm in New York?" I rubbed the palms of my hands together. The moisture evaporated from them.

"I know."

"Did the Shearson deal, bought Transcom--"

"I really do know Gage Whitney," he insisted, and I snickered. "I'm saying, I'm just-- um-- having a brain problem." He stared at the air in front of him.

"What are you doing in town?"

"I'm on my way to Nashua."

"What's in Nashua?"

Josh shrugged. "Eh, a waste of time. Listen." He looked right at me. "You know why I'm here?"

It should have occurred to me that this probably wasn't a social call. Not in the middle of a workday. "You want me to quit my job and come work for Hoynes?"

"He's gonna win, Sam."

"So what do you need me for?"

"A better campaign. Come do some speechwriting."

He didn't know about the wedding. I stopped walking. He turned to face me, and I inhaled a deep breath. "Lisa and I are getting married in September."

Josh's eyebrows shot up. His mouth fell open, but no sound came out. "Ah," he said finally.

My eyes darted away. I forced them back. "Yeah."

He shrugged, attempting a smile. "Okay."

He had the same look on his face that he'd worn that day in my living room in Yonkers, just after things had finally ended. More resigned than sad. I pressed my lips together.

He took a step back from me. "Listen, I-- I should real-- go." He pointed north. "I've got to go. I should let you--"

"I've got to get back to this thing."

He inhaled a breath. "It's good seeing you again." His forehead creased again, and I knew the expression was mirrored on my own face.

"It's good seeing you too." I tilted my head at him. "I miss you," I admitted.

He turned abruptly away, and I pointed myself back toward my building. "Hey, congratulations on that partnership," I heard him call back as he walked away.

I stopped walking. Would it have killed him to congratulate me on the engagement? I wasn't about to apologize for marrying Lisa. She was the one person who'd always been there, no matter what happened.

I whirled around. "Josh."

He turned back toward me. His expression was blank.

"Hoynes. He's not the real thing, is he?"

He stood still for a moment, as if trapped. He edged toward me. "See, that-- the thing you've got to know about Hoynes is--"

"It's okay." I wasn't some guy from the Hill he could talk into something with a little hand waving and a long list of excuses.

"No, I-- I'm saying--"

"Josh." We were face to face again. "What are you doing?"

"I don't know," he said quietly. His eyes were dark. He forced a smile. "What are you doing?" he asked me.

"Protecting oil companies from litigation." Josh nodded slightly. "They're our client," I said, parroting the words of my second-year corporate law professor. They'd never sounded more hollow. "They don't lose legal protection because they make a lot of money."

Josh smirked. "I can't believe no one ever wrote a folk song about that."

I looked down at the sidewalk. My chest tightened, and my face was hot with embarrassment. I tried to smile, but my mouth wouldn't move.

"If I see the real thing in Nashua, should I tell you about it?"

I met his eyes again. So this wasn't campaign business. He was going up to Nashua to talk to another candidate. He wasn't any more certain of Hoynes than I was. Faith rose inside me so slowly and tentatively that I almost didn't recognize it. Josh might never find the real thing, but he'd keep looking. "You won't have to," I offered.

"Why?"

His expression was so genuine. Josh could lie with his mouth, but never with his eyes. I gave him a wistful smile. "You've got a pretty bad poker face."

Josh smiled back. "Okay. Take it easy."

My chest clenched around my heart as I watched him walk away.

###

The heavy smells of cheese and Italian spices accosted me as I opened the front door to the condo. Lisa stood at the kitchen counter in stocking feet, her arm buried in a white paper bag of takeout. "Hey," I said. I propped the ball of my foot against the back of my shoe and pried the shoe off.

"Hey." Lisa's smile was bright as she glanced over at me across the room. The only hint of this morning's awkwardness was the slight tension across her shoulders. She pulled three cardboard boxes from the bag and spread them across the slate countertop. "I picked up a chicken mozzarella panini for you, but you can have some of my Caesar salad if you want."

"Thanks." I kicked off my other shoe and walked through the dining room, setting my briefcase down on the corner of the table. My suit jacket was damp with sweat from a sprint for the train, and I laid it carefully against the back of my chair. Lisa had already set the table. Paper napkins, silver forks, and long-stemmed crystal water glasses. The ice cubes clinked together as I lifted the pitcher in the center of the table and poured us each a glass.

She pulled a pin from her hair, releasing it. With a shake of her head, she let the fine blond waves fall across her shoulders. "How did things go today?"

The kitchen tile was cold against my feet. I grabbed a plate from the counter and set the sandwich onto it. "Everything's on schedule. We're meeting again tomorrow night to sign the thing."

"It's nice to have you home before 10:00." A light touch on my arm made me turn around, and I bent down to kiss Lisa absently on the lips. "Just one more day, and it's all over."

"Just one more day."

"You excited?"

"Yeah," I breathed.

"You don't sound excited."

"I'm tired." My plate clanked against the counter as I set it down. "Did you guys set a court date yet?"

"A week from Tuesday. My turn with the late nights." She undid a button on her suit jacket and let it fall open.

"Yeah." I rested my forearms on the counter and leaned toward her. There had been a lot of late nights on this deal, batting language around with the guys from tax, meetings with the other side's attorneys that had stretched out until long after midnight. I pushed the air out of my lungs. "Do you ever feel like-- like maybe you're just sort of spinning your wheels?"

"What do you mean?"

"Like nothing you do ever really makes a difference?"

"Not since we got a cleaning service." She grabbed a plate from the counter and turned towardthe food.

"I mean at the office."

She laughed. "Hey, come on, now. A little more enthusiasm from the guy who's about to close the biggest deal of his career." She lifted a generous lump of salad onto her plate.

I sniffed. "I'm helping an oil company get a good price on a bunch of twenty-year-old boats." She turned around, her eyebrows raised in surprise. "I just don't think it's going to win me any medals," I said with a shrug.

"It's going to make you partner. Over a year sooner than you expected." Lisa tilted her head to one side and narrowed her eyes at me, probing. "Did something happen this morning?"

"No. The meeting went fine. I've just been ... I don't know. Thinking." I flicked a finger at a darkened spot on the bread.

Lisa set her plate down on the counter next to mine. "Kensington could have gone to anybody, you know. They came to Gage Whitney."

I didn't look up.

"They came to *you*. They had an idea, and you ran with it. You made it happen. How is that not making a difference?"

"So thanks to me, there's going to be another whole fleet of tankers in the U.S. waters that barely meet IMO regulations."

"They meet regulations."

I shook my head. "I can't stop thinking about the kind of damage these things could cause." I looked up at her. "Don't I have an obligation to tell the client what they're really buying if they go through with this deal? Shouldn't I go over with them what could happen?"

"You have an obligation *not* to tell them, Sam." Her tone was firm. "If you say too much about what you think of these boats, you're setting them up for a fall if anything goes wrong ten years down the line."

I let my eyes fall to the plate. She was right. I pulled at my necktie, loosening it.

Lisa brushed past me as she headed into the dining room. Wood scraped against wood as she sat down. "Have you been talking to Josh again?" she mused.

My head jerked up. "What?"

A teasing laugh erupted from her throat. "It's just that the last time you started making noises about wanting to change the world, it was right after he had you on the phone until two in the morning telling you about his new job with Senator Hoynes." The smile drained from her own face as she examined mine. "Wait. You ..."

I swallowed. She was staring at me, her fork held frozen over her salad. "He showed up in my office this morning," I mumbled.

Her eyes widened, and her lips parted slightly. Her fork clanked against the plate.

"He was on his way to New Hampshire and decided to drop by." A shot of tension dashed along her jaw as she clenched her teeth. "He was only there a few minutes," I insisted. "He was just passing through."

She snorted. "You mean he hasn't already decided they've won New Hampshire? That's unusually humble for Josh. What did he want?"

I pressed my eyes shut, letting my head droop over the plate. "What makes you think he wanted something?"

"We're talking about Josh Lyman, okay?" she snapped.

I swallowed. Every few years Josh reappeared briefly in our lives and opened up a tiny hole into the past, like a stone skipped in slow motion across the surface of water. I never knew what to say to Lisa about that, how to explain that it never amounted to anything but a few awkward moments and empty reminiscences, followed by another year or two of silence. "He asked me to come work on the campaign," I said helplessly.

"What did you say?" Her voice was pinched.

"What do you think I-- I said no! You think I'm going to drop everything and go write speeches for John Hoynes?"

The tension in her shoulders relaxed into an almost imperceptible slump. She took a sip from her water glass, not meeting my eyes. I carried my plate to the table and sat down next to her. My knife sliced into the sandwich, releasing hot steam where it split the bread. I glanced at her. She didn't look up. She skewered a stack of leaves with her fork and closed her mouth around it.

I crumpled my fist around a paper napkin. "I don't want to work for Hoynes," I said. "It's just ... sometimes ... I want to be able to feel like I'm doing something that matters."

"You are-- you're doing something that matters!" She jerked her head away. Her eyes pierced mine as she looked back up. "You're the biggest talent that firm of yours has seen come through its doors in years. I've seen how you get when you're knee-deep in facts and figures, or writing up the fifty-second draft of an OC or a contract. You're good at what you do, and you work hard. Now you're going to get rewarded for it. How many people get to have that?"

"Nobody's going to be able to stop these tankers from crashing into things. If there's a spill--"

"Kensington's not going to be held responsible. You've seen to that. That's all you can do. That's what you're *supposed* to do."

I blinked. I could feel my throat constricting, a ripple of tension along my neck. I pinched the bridge of my nose.

"It's a good deal. You negotiated well, the clients are happy, Jack Gage is happy, you're about to make partner. What else are you looking for?"

I pressed my eyes closed. I didn't even know.

The soft touch of fingers grazed my skin at my wrist. I pulled away in an involuntary flinch, and my eyes flew open again. Lisa's hand jerked back, her expression twisting, wounded. Her hand curled around her glass. She lifted it to her lips, hiding her face behind it.

The chair scraped against the hardwood as I pushed back from the table. "I should look over the comments from the other side one more time."

She set her glass back down on the table and stared at her plate. The corner of her eye was twitching.

I picked up my briefcase and balanced my plate on it. "It'll only be a couple of hours." My feet were stuck in quicksand, being sucked into the floor. I couldn't sit there for another moment. My eyes darted around the room. "I'll just ... take this into the study."

I strode down the hall, pulling the door closed behind me. My briefcase landed on the floor next to my desk, and I sank into the chair in front of my computer. My eyes fell shut, and the breath squeezed out of my lungs. I held it, frozen, not daring to inhale, until my chest was burning so thoroughly that I couldn't help but gasp for air.

My fingers reached for the floor, pried open my briefcase, and groped for the floppy in the main pocket. The drive sucked it in with a click. I opened the final draft of the agreement, the product of three months of drafting and revising, of negotiating and meetings. My gaze bounced away, repelled by my own words, and landed on the framed picture next to my monitor. It was a snapshot of me and Lisa on a playground during our first year of law school. The strap of a swing hugged her tiny hips, her fingers grasping tightly onto the chains as she leaned back to propel herself as far as she could into the air. Her head was tossed back in laughter, her long hair flying. I stood behind her, my hands poised to push her again when gravity sent her hurtling back toward me. I couldn't remember who'd taken it.

I shoved the picture off to one side and reached behind it, closing my fist around the cool surface of a shell. I pulled it out, turning it over to reveal the pink and white streaks on the smooth interior. Some form of marine life had once lived in that shell. A conch, maybe? For the first time, I wondered how it had died.

I slammed the shell down on the desk, and my hand fumbled for the mouse, opening a browser. My fingers flew over the keys as I typed in a search on oil spills. My eyes scanned the company names. Amoco, BP, Exxon, Kensington, Shell. An alphabetical compendium of disaster.

A click of the mouse took me back over to the agreement. I stared at it. If Kensington decided they wanted something better, I'd have to throw it out and start all over again. If it was their decision. I drew in a long breath and held it.

I clicked the agreement closed and pulled down the print menu on my browser. The laser printer breathed out oil spill statistics as it hummed. With each page, I felt lighter.

###

Raindrops danced on the metal ledge outside my office window. The sky had faded from the hazy gray of day to black, but even the weather couldn't dampen my mood. Excitement coiled inside my chest like a compressed spring. I shifted my weight from one leg to the other and drummed my fingers against the open file on the windowsill.

Behind me, a door latched with a click. "All right."

I spun around. Michele had her back pressed against the inside of the door. "Yes?" I said.

"You pay me to make sure your work gets done efficiently, right? And on time, and with a minimum of hassle?"

"Technically, the firm pays you." Her hands were spread flat against the door on either side of her. I brought my hands to my waist. "Are you asking for a raise? Because trapping me in my office is arguably not the best way to get one."

"I'm asking for information." She stepped away from the door, toward the center of my office. "You've been acting fishy since this morning," she accused.

"That would have been the salmon cream cheese on my bagel," I said.

"I mean it, Sam. Something's up, and I think I need to know what it is if I'm going to continue to do my job."

I shook my head, but a smile tugged at the corners of my mouth. "Nothing's up."

"See?" She pointed a finger at me. "You're practically ... buoyant."

"Buoyant?" I raised my eyebrows.

She planted her hands firmly on her hips. "It was in my crossword puzzle this morning. Now spill." She walked toward me, peering over my shoulder at the file on the windowsill. I slammed it shut. She looked back up at me. "What's that?"

"It's a file."

"An unlabeled file."

"That it is." If I'd labeled it, I'd have had to call it 'Sam goes for broke,' and she'd have asked me whether she should file it under S or B. I tucked it under my arm along with the rest of the stack and headed for the door.

"Where are you going with that?" she said, following me. "You have a meeting in five minutes."

"That's where I'm going."

"The meeting isn't for five minutes."

I turned around. I gestured in the air with a finger. "See, I understood that when you said--"

"You're so excited for a meeting that you're going to be *early*?" She inhaled a long breath and let it out again in a whoosh. "Okay, you do remember that this is the last meeting with this particular client, right?"

"Indeed I do."

"They're supposed to be signing tonight. All you have to do is show up with the final draft in hand, and ... smile at them."

"You know, I'm impressed with the grasp you have on what goes on inside these meetings. Especially seeing as that you've never actually attended one." I grabbed onto the doorknob.

"You're really not going to tell me what's going on."

"Nothing's going on." I pulled the door open and stepped out into the hall.

"Sam." Michele's voice was tense, scared. I poked my head back into the office. She was bent over my desk, her hand clenched around a document. "Isn't this the agreement?"

I pulled the files out from under my arm and paged through them. I looked back up at her. "So it is."

Without breaking eye contact, she walked over to me and set the agreement on top of the other files. Her eyes probed mine, her hand still grasping the edge of the file. I tugged at it, but her grip was firm.

I smiled at her. "Thanks."

Her face fell as she let go. I raised a questioning eyebrow, and her eyes dropped to the floor. "Go on," she said quietly, tilting her head in the direction of the conference room.

Affection welled in the base of my throat. I touched a hand to her arm, the tips of my fingers barely grazing the fabric of her blouse. "Hey." She looked back up at me. "Thank you," I said, almost inaudibly. I shot her a grateful smile as I walked down the hall.

Rita met me at the door with a grin and a hand on my arm. "Hey, Sam. A bunch of us are going out tonight to celebrate. Nothing formal, just free-flowing beer and a lot of back-slapping. You coming?"

"Uh, sure," I said, my tone carefully noncommittal. They wouldn't want me along for any sort of celebration if I succeeded in getting Loch and Cameron to send us back to the drawing board. I'd be lucky if they ever wanted to speak to me again.

The meeting started only five minutes late. Gage sat at the head of the table beside Cameron, and I claimed a space on the other side of Loch. Questions buzzed around me, but my own thoughts were racing, drowning them out. I stole a glance at the file in front of me, running a finger along its edge.

"I think all that's left, then, is to dot the t's," Gage said. He turned toward me, his eyes expectant. His lips were pursed in a smug half-smile.

I was standing at the edge of a cliff, but I didn't look down. "Actually," I said, holding up a finger. "I have a thing. I have a thing I was going to mention, just a proposal to throw out there."

Gage removed his glasses. Rita's forehead wrinkled in confusion.

"When I was a congressional aide," I continued, "we had an expression that no idea was too stupid to say out loud. So here it is, and bear me out." I stepped off the edge. "Instead of buying these ships? Don't buy these ships. Buy other ships. Buy better ships. That's my idea."

Rita's mouth fell open. Loch turned to face Gage. "What is he talking about?"

"That's a perfectly fair question." Our eyes met, steel on steel. "Sam, what the hell are you talking about?"

"And the good news is we have a no-penalty clause we can exercise if we pull out before the first of December." My voice was light, deliberately cheerful.

"But Sam, we want these ships," Cameron said. "This is as little as we've ever paid for a fleet."

"Well, there's a reason why they don't cost a lot of money. They're 20-year old single-hulled VLCCs that nobody wants. When they hit things, they'll break. And they *will* hit things, because they don't have state-of-the-art navigation systems. They don't have G3 tank gauging, or
EM-5000 engine monitoring, the recommended staletronic, or electropneumatic ballast."

"And yesterday, he didn't know the difference between a ship and a boat!" Gage mocked, laughing. I narrowed my eyes at him. Turning the idea into a joke was certainly easier than considering it.

"Sam, I thought you told us that you covered our liability," Cameron asked.

"I did." I let my head drop, nodding. "Strictly speaking, I did. But there's a broader liability to think about. People drove past Exxon stations after the Valdez."

Cameron held up his hands in dismissal. "We've got PR firms for PR problems."

The fate of a hundred thousand seabirds, trivialized to a PR problem. I fixed my eyes on him. "There's a Suez tanker ready to launch in the Koje Island shipyard in Korea. Chevron just dropped the option, and it's sitting there in its cradle. Let's go get it."

"Sam, can I talk you for a second?" Gage pushed himself up from the table, visibly struggling to remain calm.

I stood to follow him. "308,000 deadweight tons, carries 2.2 million gallons, and you can have it today for 46 million."

Loch turned toward Rita. "46 million dollars?"

"That's a good price!" I insisted, closing the door behind me.

Jack Gage stood no more than an inch taller than I did, but he still managed to loom over me. "Sam," he said, rubbing the back of his neck. "What are you doing?" His voice was quiet, but his eyes were narrowed.

"I think I have an obligation."

"What are you doing?" he repeated. His teeth clenched together, sending waves of anger down his neck.

It was the same question Josh had asked me, but this time I had an answer. I looked him straight in the eyes. "Maybe they want to buy safer boats, but we never gave them the option."

"Are you trying to get fired?" he threatened.

"Maybe they're really going to thank us for this suggestion."

"Knock it off, Sam!"

"Look--"

"Knock it off!" He whirled away from me and stormed back inside the conference room.

I followed him in. Cameron was turned toward Rita. "You've made some changes."

"Yes," she responded, glancing at me out of the corner of her eye. I walked back to my seat and stared down at the file of oil spill statistics open in front of me. My heart was pounding, pumping life into my veins. Already I was freer.

"That's amortized over--"

"Fifteen years."

"Pre-tax?"

Rita looked up at me. "Sam?"

"Hmm?"

"Fifteen million pre-tax amortization," she prompted.

Every pair of eyes was on me. My heart was drumming in my chest. I stole a glance at Gage, and then looked back at Loch. "Eleven million extra dollars," I insisted.

Rita leaned back in her chair and threw her pen down on the table. "Sam," Gage said, his voice low.

Loch looked at Gage, his nose wrinkling in disgust. "We're back to this."

"Money's going to be spent, Mr. Loch. You can spend it now, or you can spend it later, but it's cheaper to spend it now."

"Sam." Gage snarled my name.

"And it's also the right thing to do. Spend eleven million extra dollars."

"Sam."

"Spend it on a better boat."

"Damn it!" Gage slammed his hand down on the table.

"The Amoco Cadiz, 68 million gallons of crude oil off of Brittany, France. The Braer, a Liberian tanker, 26 million gallons off the Shetland Islands." I slid the top page out of my file and waved it at them. "I just pulled these off the Internet last night. The Exxon Valdiz. The Aegean Sea. The Argo Merchant. Look it up."

"I'm sure they're--"

"Spend an extra eleven million dollars."

"Sam, that's enough," Jack warned.

"You don't want to pay for it? Pass the expense on to us."

Rita's eyes flew open. "Sam!"

"Half a penny at the tank." I dug into my pocket and pulled out a five dollar bill. I slapped it on the table in front of me. "Here's five bucks. A thousand people are on me."

"Sam!" Gage's eyes bored into me.

A knock from outside the conference room tore my gaze away from him. Josh stood at the window, the hallway lights surrounding the dark outline of his body with an eerie, luminescent glow. His coat was streaked with rain, and stray curls sent droplets of water down his cheeks and onto his chin. One hand grasped the strap of his backpack. His expression was solemn. Visionary.

The air crackled with adrenaline. I knew I was supposed to be surprised to see him there, but suddenly his presence felt more natural than the meeting going on around me. Distant voices chanted my name, as if calling out to me through a wall of possibility. Josh lifted two fingers and pointed at his face. His mouth was turned up at the edges, and his eyes were wide with pure throw-away-the-rule-book-and-change-the-world joy.

"Excuse me, Sam." The voice belonged to Loch.

I tried to look at him, but I was transfixed. "Yeah."

"It doesn't quite feel like I have your attention."

"Yeah."

Josh nodded, still pointing at his face. The real thing. It was out there waiting for me, and all I had to do was go grab it.

I turned my eyes away from the window and looked down at the file with the draft of the agreement in it. My fingers wrapped around it in an automatic gesture, but I jerked back and let it fall back down to the table. "I'm not going to need that," I said, breathing out a laugh. I stood up from the table and turned toward the door.

"Sam?" Gage sat up straight in his chair as he struggled to maintain his composure. "Sam! Sam, please keep your seat. Sam, where are you going?"

Josh opened the door for me. In a gust of fresh rain and hope, I floated through it. "New Hampshire," I said, tossing the words behind me.

We raced down the hall, dizzy with euphoria. The grin on Josh's face surrounded me, lightening my step until we came to a dead stop in front of my office. He grabbed onto my arms, sending drops of water flying across the front of my suit, and we both exploded into laughter. "I can't believe you just did that," he yelled, tossing his head back and looking up at the ceiling.

"Neither can I!" My smile was so broad that the corners of my mouth ached.

Josh ran a hand through his wet hair, shaking it lightly. "You do know you didn't have to walk out on the meeting, right? Like, I would have waited." He peered into my office. "I mean, you've got a pretty cushy place, here."

"You went to see another candidate."

"Josiah Bartlet." The syllables danced on his tongue.

"He's the real thing?"

"Yeah." He nodded, his mouth still spread in a triumphant grin.

I gestured over my shoulder with a thumb. "Then there was no reason to spend another half hour in that meeting."

"You're gonna quit?"

I looked back toward the conference room. "I think I just did."

"You're crazy, you know that?" He tilted his head at me.

"No crazier than you are."

"You think?"

"Why come here?" I shook my head, waving a hand in dismissal. "I mean, I can do this thing. I know I can. But you must know dozens of good speechwriters with a lot more hands-on experience than I've got. I've worked on one Senate campaign, more than a decade ago. We both know I don't have the resume for this job. Why would you pick me?"

His eyes were shining. His smile softened. "The real thing wouldn't be the same without you."

###

I rested the cardboard box on my hip as I slid my key into the front door. My rain-soaked suit hung on my body like a film, but the soles of my feet were still vibrating with unspent energy. I pushed open the door and stepped lightly into the apartment.

Lisa was curled up on the end of the couch, a pillow tucked under her arm, her fingers wrapped around a cup of tea. Her eyes flicked over to the box, and the light drained from her face. "You quit your job," she said, her voice quivering.

"I did." I bent over and let the box drop to the floor, struggling to suppress a smile.

She set the teacup down on the end table. "You're going to work for Hoynes."

My feet carried me through the living room to the hallway. "I'm going to work for Bartlet," I called back behind me. Josh wasn't expecting me until tomorrow, but if I could manage to get there tonight, I'd get to meet the man tomorrow morning. I grinned.

"What?" The couch squeaked as she jumped up to follow me.

I turned around, but kept moving backward down the hall. "Josiah Bartlet. Former Congressman, twice-elected Governor of New Hampshire."

"What are you talking about?"

"You know how I'm always saying that if some of the idiots running this country are actually of above average intelligence, I don't want to see their yardstick for average?" I paused in the doorway to the bathroom. "Well, this guy is *brilliant*. He's got a Ph.D. from the LSE, and he taught at Dartmouth." I ducked inside. Throwing open a drawer, I let my fingers fumble for my deodorant, my toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste. I tossed them into a shaving kit along with my razor, and grabbed onto the doorframe. "And get this. He's a Nobel laureate."

"So what? You went to hear this guy speak today?"

I pushed past her into the hall. "Josh did." I glanced at her over my shoulder. "You know what he said?"

"I can't imagine." She pressed her lips together into a pucker.

"Bartlet voted against the New England Dairy Farming Compact while he was in the House, right?" My feet came to a dead halt in the middle of the hallway, and Lisa stopped directly behind me. I grabbed her by the shoulders, the shaving bag dangling around my wrist by the strap. "This afternoon in Nashua he stood there and told one of his former constituents to his *face* that he did it because he didn't want to make it harder for people to buy milk, and if the guy didn't like it, he should vote for somebody else."

"You're quitting your job to go work for a candidate you've barely even heard of?" Her voice was breathy with bewilderment.

I threw my arms out to my sides. "I mean, think about that. He didn't say it to impress anybody. He said it because it was *true*. This farmer's probably not going to vote for him now, but that's not important. He went with his gut, and he told the truth. When was the last time we saw that in a Presidential candidate? When was the last time we saw that in *any* candidate?"

I spun around and stepped into the bedroom. My hand reached for the closet door, and I threw it open. The small black suitcase on the top shelf fell to the ground with a thud, and I zipped it open, tossing the shaving bag into it. I thumbed through my suits, pushing them aside. A fresh surge of giddiness swept over me as I grabbed a couple of casual shirts and ties and threw them into the suitcase.

"This is a guy who's going to finally ask questions that matter." I looked at Lisa over myshoulder. "He's going to shake things up. He's going to hold guys like John Hoynes accountable."

Lisa's mouth tightened into a thin white line. She folded her arms.

I turned back toward the closet, grabbing a fistful of pants by the hangers. I let them fall into the suitcase on the floor. "I've been stuck in this rut for so long that I couldn't even remember what it felt like to really care about what I was doing. But when I walked out of that office tonight, knowing I was going to get to go off and make a real difference to this campaign, it was like ... a bolt of lightning." I turned around to face her. "I'm not going to spend the rest of my life buying boats for guys like Adam Loch and Phil Cameron. I'm going to do something-- something that will let me look at myself in the mirror again."

Her face crumpled like a jacket that had been tossed on a chair and forgotten. With a start, I realized what I'd said.

"It's not the-- it's me," I said quickly, holding up a hand. "I know plenty of people do this kind of work and love it. But I can't. Not anymore." I took a step toward her. "And here's this incredible, once-in-a-lifetime candidate. You know Josh, he can see through anybody. He's not going to be moved by hot air and hyperbole. This guy's the real thing, Lisa."

She sat down on the corner of the bed. "Bartlet or Josh?"

I swallowed. "What?"

"Look. You do what you've got to do." Her voice was thick. "Just don't think I'm going to stick around and pick up the pieces when he takes a bulldozer to your relationship again."

"Wait. What?" I stared at her, my throat tightening. I picked up the suitcase and set it on the bed. "No."

She turned away. "It's not as if this is completely unexpected."

I pointed at her with an outstretched finger. "You're wrong. This isn't about Josh."

"Of course this is about Josh." She whipped her head back. "You just quit your job based on a pipedream he sold you. It's always *been* about Josh, with you. You think I don't know that?"

"It's not," I said. My voice sounded flimsy, weak. "It's really not," I repeated, more loudly this time. The mattress buckled as I sat down next to her.

"I've always known that if he was willing to take you back on your terms, that'd be it for me," she spat. "And now, well, I guess today's the day." She threw her arms in the air.

"He's not-- we're talking three months. Tops." I reached for her leg, but she jerked it away. "Bartlet isn't going to *win* this. He's just going to give some speeches and make people think. Three months, and then I'll be back."

"You think you can go off with Josh and then come back in three months as if nothing had changed?"

"I'm not going off--"

"You can't change the world without changing your own life, Sam," she snarled. "It doesn't work that way."

"I'm not-- I'm not *leaving* you. We're still going to get married."

"No." Her voice was quiet. "We're not."

Her words hit my ears like a blow. "We'll talk. At night." Waves of frantic energy rose in my chest. "I'll come home whenever I can."

"And the rest of the time, you'll be with him." She looked up at me. "I've barely been able to compete with him when you only get to talk to him every couple of years. How can you expect me to do it with the two of you on the campaign trail and me back here in New York?"

"Josh isn't looking for a lover!" I yelled. "He's looking for a speechwriter! He's offering me a *job*!"

My words hung in the air, and Lisa just stared at me, her eyes searching my face. Her angry expression transformed itself, melting into an impenetrable sadness. Drops of rain pelted themselves against the window and flowed into each other, coating the surface.

"I know you." Pain cut through her voice with the jagged gashes of a knife. "And I know what Josh is to you. You know perfectly well it can never work, but you're always going to be in love with him anyway." She forced out a laugh. "I can't even be mad. I know exactly how you feel."

"I love you," I protested. "I don't know why--"

"I know you do, Sam. I know." A sob ripped from her throat, and she covered her eyes with one hand. "And that makes this that much harder."

I tried to speak, but my vocal cords wouldn't move. I swallowed the lump that had lodged itself between them, and it fell like a boulder into my stomach.

She shifted her body so that we were face to face. "You know, I've always felt kind of like I got away with something I wasn't really supposed to have. Like I had to cheat something to get all this. To get you." She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "It's always been there. Like I knew it would come back to claim you if I got too complacent."

"Josh isn't--"

"Sam." She held a hand in the air, cutting me off. Her jaw set, and her gaze locked on mine. "I've got too much self-respect to keep trying to hold your interest for the rest of my life."

My eyes were burning. I wanted to shake her, to tell her that was the last thing she needed to do. I gulped back a breath.

"I know this isn't the way you want to live." She gestured around the room. A tear rolled down her nose and dripped into her lap, but her voice was level. "You've just been going through the motions for a long time. If it seems like I'm surprised that you're leaving, it's only because I've always hoped you wouldn't. But I'm not surprised. Not really."

"I won't go." My gaze bounced from the closet to the dresser, my hands wrapping around the edge of the bed. I was losing my footing, falling into a crevasse I hadn't even realized was there. "I-- I'll call Josh. Tell him I can't do this. He'll find somebody else."

"And then what?" She shook her head. "We go through this again in another couple of years? The next time Josh runs up against the real thing and decides he can't make it happen without you?"

"If you think..." I shook my head, holding up a tense finger. My other hand clenched into a fist in my lap. "If you think I'm just going to walk away, you don't know me very well. I'm not that guy."

"And if you think I'm going to let you keep hanging around when you really want to be somewhere else, you don't know *me* very well." She folded her hands in her lap. "Stalemate."

I blinked. The edge of the bedspread blurred into the carpet. My lips were numb.

"I'm tired, Sam. I want out."

For ten years, every vision of my future had included Lisa. I couldn't even imagine what it would look like without her in it. I swallowed. "I-- I didn't mean for it to happen this way."

"I know. I love you for that." She balled her hand into a fist and hit me lightly on the arm. "Damn you."

Her fist unraveled, molding itself to my shoulder, her fingers trembling as she grasped it. I reached for her, wrapped her in my arms, clung to her. My eyes fell closed, and she rested her forehead on my chest, her tears mixing with the rainwater on my jacket. This was how our relationship had begun -- holding onto each other -- but then I'd been mourning the death of my relationship with Josh. I'd drawn strength from her that night, a strength I'd never managed to return.

I pulled back to look at her. My face was wet. "You're amazing, you know that?"

"Hey, don't get me wrong, here," she said, pushing me back to arm's length. Her eyes were slits, her lashes glued together with tears. "Just because I understand why you're doing this doesn't mean I think you're playing fair. And if you go back to him, I still say you're making the worst mistake of your life." She sat up straight and drew in a breath, steadying herself against the bed with an outstretched hand. "But you'll never forgive me if I let you turn this down."

"It's a job," I insisted. "I'm not going back to Josh."

Lisa's mouth turned up in a doubtful smile. "Good."

I dropped my eyes to the floor. Teeth sliced into my tongue, and a faint metallic taste coated the inside of my mouth.

"What's going to happen to the deal?"

I blinked. "The deal?"

"Kensington? The agreement?"

That had been a hundred years ago. I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand. "Rita's going to salvage it, I think." I looked up at her. "Honestly, I didn't stick around to find out."

"What did Michele say?"

I closed my eyes and inhaled a long breath. She'd paced, and then yelled at me, and then, finally, hugged me goodbye. "Let's just say I had to type up my own letter of resignation." I smiled slightly. "I've never heard her swear like that."

Lisa let out a hollow laugh. "If she's willing to switch teams, you can tell her Kathy Harrington is looking for somebody." She nudged me with an elbow. "She'd be a breeze to work for after you."

Her lips were still quivering, fighting with her smile. She was trying so hard to turn this into anything other than some tedious melodrama. A rush of feeling washed over me. "I love you."

"I love you," she answered, without hesitation. She disentangled herself from my arms and pulled herself into a standing position.

I looked up at her. "This is really what you want."

She nodded.

"Okay." I stood. The ground seemed to crumble beneath my feet, but I held myself steady.

She tilted her head at the door. "Now get out of here before I change my mind and try to talk you out of this."

I glanced around the room. None of this was mine. It was as if none of it ever had been, as if a decade had suddenly been cut out of my memory. The loss overwhelmed me, like a punch to the stomach, and I staggered backward. I groped for my suitcase and zipped it shut. "I'll have to-- I'm going to take the Mustang."

She nodded. Her eyes were shining.

Ten years of accumulated possessions. We'd have to sort through them. My eyes were swimming. I lifted a hand to my forehead, my fingers like ice against hot skin. "I guess you'll keep the apartment. And the--"

"We'll figure all that out." She waved a hand in the air, her voice quivering.

I grasped the handle of the suitcase and stepped into the hallway. With each step I could feel the pull of gravity beneath my feet. I retrieved a trench coat out of the front closet and draped it over my arm. Lisa was standing behind me. I turned around. "I-- can I call you? Just to talk?"

"You'd better." She smiled. "I want to hear everything."

I leaned in toward her automatically, as if to kiss her, but she ducked her head and rested it on my chest again. She reached for my hand, and our fingers entwined in a tight weave. Her palm was still moist with tears. I squeezed it and let go.

"Take care of yourself," she called out to me as I walked through the door.

###

I rang the bell on the counter, letting it echo in the empty hotel lobby. I peered behind the counter into the back room, shaking the rain off my coat. It was only ten degrees colder in Manchester than in it had been in New York, but it felt easily cold enough to snow. I was so numb that I'd stopped feeling the chill by New Haven.

A light was on in the back, and the faint sounds of a radio tinkled out a melody I couldn't hear well enough to place. I turned around and spread my arms across the counter, pulling each of them into a long stretch. The lobby had obviously been designed at one time to look as if they'd spared no expense, but the hideous red velvet sofa and armchairs were really velour, and the carpet was worn into a threadbare strip that led from front door to front desk.

I turned back around. I leaned forward, letting my voice carry into the back room. "Hello?"

The rustling of a newspaper reached my ears, followed by the squeak of a chair. A large man with an oversized beer belly wandered into my view. "Yes?" he prompted, scowling. His green and white tie was loose, the top button of his shirt unfastened.

"I'd like a room, please?" I asked.

He shook his head. "Sorry, we're full."

"You don't have any rooms available? At all?"

"Nope."

The weight of my eyelids made them droop. "Can I maybe get you to check to see if there's a reservation for me? It's Seaborn."

"You've got to give us a credit card number, or else show up before six," he said, as if reciting something for the hundredth time. "You don't show up before six, we give your room to somebody else."

I clenched my hands into fists. "Look," I said, my voice cross. "I drove all the way from New York tonight, and I ended up taking the wrong ..." I forced out a smile. "You really don't have any rooms at all."

"Nope," he repeated.

I reached into my pants pocket and pulled out my wallet, nudging my MBNA platinum card onto the counter. "I'll take a suite."

"All booked. There's an antique show in town."

"An antique show."

"At the convention center. And there's lots of politicians hanging around these days, besides."

"Politicians." I rested a hand against the counter. "Right."

"Jed Bartlet's doing the rounds. His whole campaign staff is here." A hint of excitement crept into the guy's voice. "He's running for President now."

"Yeah, I'm supposed to be working for him." I propped my head up with my elbow, shielding my eyes with a hand. "That is, if I can find a place to sleep tonight."

"You're with the Bartlet campaign?"

My head jerked up. "Yes. Sam Seaborn?"

The guy squinted at me and ruffled through the reservation book behind the counter. He glanced down, then back up at me, then down again. "What was that name again?" he finally said.

"Seaborn."

He jotted something into his book, turned the page, and grabbed a key from behind the counter. I wrapped my hand around it, a thick round weight in my palm. "Room 309," he said, gesturing. "The elevators are right around the corner."

"Thanks." I lifted my suitcase and headed for the elevator.

The doors dinged open onto the third floor, and I found my room with a quick glance around. I shoved the key into the lock, trying to remember the last time I'd stayed in a hotel with real keys. With a flick of the light, I walked into the room. The wallpaper was textured beige, and a tacky painting of a lighthouse hung above the two double beds. Barely six inches separated them in the tiny, cramped space.

I let my suitcase fall against the surface of the dresser and spread my coat and my suit jacket against it to dry. The room was warm, and I rolled up my sleves before I dropped to the bed, feeling myself being sucked against it. I closed my eyes. I could still see the insistent shake of Lisa's head, the cross of her arms, still feel her tears against my shoulder.

A knock at the door drummed out a syncopated rhythm, and I staggered to my feet. I looked through the peephole into brown curls and a broad grin. I opened the door.

"Hey!" Josh said, his eyes shining with excitement. "I knew you'd drive up tonight."

"What are you doing still awake?"

He shrugged, pushing his way into the room. "It's a campaign. You don't get to sleep much."

I felt my shoulders droop with exhaustion. "It's after three in the morning."

"I was just going over some numbers with Leo. For tomorrow's staff meeting." He bounced onto the other bed. "I called down to the front desk to see if you'd checked in, and they gave me your room number."

"Leo McGarry," I said quietly, as if to remind myself I'd be working with him. He was a Vietnam vet, and former Secretary of Labor. He was huge in the party, had gotten countless guys elected. I swallowed.

"He's gonna love you."

"We'll see."

"Nah." Josh's forehead crinkled. "He's gonna love you. They're all gonna love you."

I let myself sink back down against the bed opposite him. I didn't respond.

"It's all good news. Hoynes is leading Wiley by almost twenty points, but that's only making him think he's already got it in the bag." I glanced at him, raising my eyebrows, and Josh held up a hand. "Trust me on this one. This is just the right time to shake things up. Deluca is technically polling third, but there are two or three other candidates hovering at around the same level, depending on the poll. And really, the only reason these other guys are doing so well right now is because nobody's heard of Bartlet yet."

"Mmm." My eyelids fell shut.

"How did things go with Lisa?"

A twinge of pain shot down my neck and settled in my chest. I drew in a breath. "Actually, she broke up with me."

"What?" he said, his voice cracking. I opened my eyes. His eyebrows were raised, his forehead wrinkled in shock. He sat up. "Oh, my God."

I sniffed. "Yeah."

"You were going to get married!" he squeaked.

"Yeah."

He shifted his weight against the bed, fidgeting. "Are you-- uh-- you doing okay?"

"Yeah. I'm tired." I swallowed. "I'm okay."

"You want to, like, talk about it?"

"I'm not sure there's anything to say."

"Wow." He ran his fingers along his hairline. "Hey, um, listen. If you want to take the morning off-- I can tell the others you're tired from the drive--"

I waved a weak hand in the air. "No. I'm in this for real." I rubbed my forehead with the back of my hand, stretching my skin. "It's just-- it's been a pretty crazy couple of days."

He cleared his throat. "If there's-- uh-- anything I can--"

"I will," I interrupted, nodding.

There was nothing anyone could do. My eyes dropped to the bed, and the pressure in my chest began to ease, leaving behind a dull ache. A cart squeaked down the hallway outside my room. The rain had slowed to a drizzle against my window, and I could hear it draining from the building, trickling through a pipe to the ground below.

"Maybe she'll get over it," Josh said.

I shook my head. "I don't think this is something you get over."

"Why the hell not?" He stood up.

The vehemence in his reaction startled me, and I sat up a little. His eyes were blazing.

He threw his arms out to his sides. "I mean, come on, what did you do that was so wrong?"

"We had a life," I said. "Together. In New York."

"Yeah, and it sure doesn't look to me like you were the one who threw it all away." His feet began tracing a line back and forth along the foot of the bed. I glared at him. "What, she can't even let you go off for a few months and do this thing? Does she want to control your every move or--"

"It's not like that." I glared a warning at him. "It was never like that."

"If she's gonna break *up* with you just because of *this*, then-- that's just ridiculous." He kicked the dresser with the toe of his shoe, his face flushed. "Stupid."

"Lisa's not stupid, Josh."

"You're better off, you know. If she's gonna just let you go, without even-- if she's--"

"Josh."

"She doesn't deserve you."

"Josh!" I sat up all the way. My spine was rigid.

He stopped in mid-stride, panting. His teeth were clenched.

"She loves me. I love her." My eyes bored into him, and I watched his shoulders sag. I leaned back against the bed. "It's just not enough to make it work," I said quietly, my throat catching on the last word. I shifted onto my side and squeezed my eyes shut.

The floor creaked, and the cheap polyester bedspread crinkled as Josh's legs brushed against it. His breath eased into a sigh, and I heard the other bed's springs squeak as he sat back down. And then his hand was on my shoulder, tentative fingers tracing a feather-light pattern through my thin dress shirt.

My eyes jolted open. He was spread out against the other bed, propped up by one hand while the other one reached across the tiny space that separated us. A spasm of electricity shocked my throat closed as he continued the journey down my arm. His fingers hesitated briefly over the roll of fabric at my elbow and drifted down to the bare skin on my forearm. Goosebumps pricked my skin's surface, every tiny hair standing on end. His wide eyes followed his fingers down, slowly, as if hypnotized by his own movements. All the muscles in my stomach were tensed and quivering.

He coughed, and his hand jerked back. He blinked at it, staring, and sat bolt upright. My arm was burning where his fingers had been. "Ah." He cleared his throat. "I should-- I should let you sleep."

My heart was pounding out a drumbeat in my ears. "Yeah," I managed to respond, my voice raspy.

Josh jumped up from the bed like it was on fire, stumbling away from it. Running a hand through his hair at the back of his neck, he took a step backward. "So, ah." He coughed, stepping toward the door. I pushed myself up from the bed and followed him. He was staring at the ground, his eyes blinking furiously. "I'll-- I'll see you in the morning," he said, not meeting my gaze. He threw the door open and walked through it.

I locked it behind him.

###

"Okay, so we've touched on day care, family leave, and women Congressional candidates." Toby Ziegler made three black checkmarks in the margin on the page in front of him, nudging the computer keyboard away with an elbow. "That should be enough to satisfy all three of the co sponsors." He leaned forward, scratching the bare surface of his head.

"Do we want to bring up ..." I let my voice trail off.

He stared at me from across the table.

"I mean, he's talking to a women's advocacy group, and he's running for President," I continued. "It's going to look funny if he doesn't mention it at all. And they already know he's on their side, anyway."

"As long as it's a policy issue," he said carefully.

I lowered my chin and looked at Toby over my glasses. "This is a campaign for the Presidency. I think people would be hard pressed to claim that it's not a policy issue."

"Governor, if your daughter Eleanor got pregnant out of wedlock, would you support her decision to have an abortion?" He slammed a fist against his palm. "Bam. We're up to our nostrils in the Catholic thing."

I tilted my head to one side. "Maybe that wouldn't be so bad. I mean, sooner or later somebody's going to bring it up, and if we confront it now, it can't surprise us later." I spread my hands in front of me. "I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me."

He nodded slowly. "JFK."

"Well, I'm pretty sure it's Ted Sorenson. Technically."

He lifted one eyebrow in a gesture that would have turned into a smile on another man's face. "Okay." His thumb clicked the end of a pen, and he started scribbling. "Thomas Jefferson intended the principle of the separation of church and state to apply not merely when it is convenient, but also, and even especially, when difficult moral choices need to be made. I have my personal beliefs, but I don't have the right, you don't have the right, Congress doesn't have the right, and the Supreme Court doesn't have the right to make them law."

"That's good," I said.

He looked up. "Your thing was good."

I smiled. "Thanks."

"For a fancy lawyer from Madison Avenue," he growled, looking back down at the page.

My smile widened into a grin. "Right."

"Wasn't there a ..." He snapped his fingers, still staring at his own words. "North Carolina. School prayer. Wasn't that referred to the Supreme Court?"

My chair squeaked as I stood up. I walked around to the other side of the table and reached for the keyboard. "I can look it up on WestLaw."

"Don't you need an Internet connection for that?"

I blinked. "We don't have an Internet connection here?"

"No."

"We're running a campaign for the Presidency without an Internet connection?"

"We just got cable a little over a week ago." Toby folded his hands in front of him. "Bartlet for America leaps into the eighties."

I glanced at my watch. It was late enough that I might be able to reach Lisa. "Want me to call somebody?"

"Okay."

I shoved a hand into my pocket and pulled out my cell phone. I gestured over my shoulder with a thumb. "I'll just be in my ... broom closet."

I stepped next door, pressing the speed dial key for Lisa's direct line. My back grazed the wall as I squeezed around and a table, dodging the boxes on the floor as I raised the phone to my ear. Her phone rang once, and there was a click as it went straight to voice mail.

I hung up. A wave of blood rushed to my head, and I sat down on the edge of the desk. She'd said I could call, but I wasn't sure if I should give her more time. Or maybe I should have already called her by now. I clenched a fist around the phone, drew in a breath, and dialed the number for her secretary.

"Dewey Ballantine, Lisa Seppala's office."

"Hey, Cam, it's, uh, Sam." I wondered what she had told him. I lay a palm flat against the desk, steadying myself. "Is Lisa in court this afternoon?"

"Sam!" His voice was airy with surprise. "I think she's still-- no, wait, she just got in. Let me put you right through, hold on."

"Thanks."

A violin whined in my ear. I shifted around and lowered myself into the chair, and hard, cushionless metal pressed against my back. The overhead fluorescents flickered as I drummed my fingers against the desk.

"Hey there, stranger." Her tone was just a shade too bright.

I swallowed, flicking a finger at the bottom edge of my sleeve. "How'd it go in court today?"

"We did okay," she said vaguely, omitting the expected details. "We're going back in tomorrow at 9:30. What's up?"

"Oh, nothing, I was just ..." Suddenly I didn't want to ask her for this. I didn't want to ask her for anything, ever again. "You know, it's nothing. Forget it."

"What is it?"

The cellular static magnified the distance between us. "It's just-- we don't have an Internet connection in the campaign office yet--"

"Sam." Her voice was firm, no-nonsense. "What do you need?"

I sighed. "Can you look something up on WestLaw for me? North Carolina school prayer case. Pitcock v. ... some kind of tree." I rubbed my forehead. "Chestnut. No, wait."

A steady stream of keyboard clicks reached my ears, followed by silence. "Pitcock v. Hickory School District?" she said finally.

"That's it." I grasped the bridge of my nose beneath my glasses.

"What do you want to know?"

"Did the Supreme Court grant cert.?"

"Let me see." Her keyboard clicked again. "Extremely difficult to delineate ... considerable time considering and debating the history ... primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion ... cert. granted."

"Thanks." I drew in a breath. "I mean, really, that was--"

"It was no problem," she said, cutting me off. The crackle of dead air on the line intensified. I tilted my chair back, resting it against the wall. "Everything going all right up there?" she asked.

"Yeah. I'm just working on a thing. A speech. With Toby Ziegler. He's the-- he's our director of communications." I realized Lisa knew nothing about any of them. She'd never heard of Toby Ziegler or C.J. Cregg or possibly even Leo McGarry. I hadn't told her a thing. The back of my throat started to sting. I swallowed.

"Good. Hey, listen, you want to give me a call at home tonight? I just got back in, and I--"

"No, no, sure," I said quickly. "Sorry to bother you. I really--"

"Sam. It's okay. I'm happy to help," she insisted. "I'll talk to you tonight?"

"Yeah." I let out a slow breath through my nose. "Thanks again."

"No problem." There was a click, and the connection died.

I held the phone a foot away from my face and watched the light vanish from the display, my lower lip curling in a wince. Tension hovered behind my eyes, the beginnings of a headache. I rubbed my forehead.

"Buffalo wings."

I glanced up. Josh was standing in the doorway, his fist wrapped around a white paper bag. "Hmm?"

He held up the bag, waving it. "Or, uh, hot wings. Whatever it is you used to call 'em." He squeezed into the room, dodging the table by pressing his back flat against the wall. "Okay, this office is, like, really small."

I tucked my phone into the pocket of my shirt. "I'd noticed that."

"Seriously. Calves being raised for veal have more room to move around than you do." Josh plunked the paper bag down on my desk and pulled apart the staples that were holding it shut. Spicy steam released into the air, and my stomach trembled. He tilted his head back toward the door. "You sure you want that table in here? We could move it out into the big room."

I shrugged. "I'll move it." I leaned forward and grabbed the metal container out of the bag, peeling it open. "Thanks for the wings."

"Sure." He sat down in the chair at the edge of my desk. Leaning back, he put his feet up on the corner of my desk, took a bite of a wing, and cocked his head at me. He was smirking.

"What?"

"Nothing." He kept staring.

I peered at him over the edge my glasses and grabbed a wing. I bit into it. The hot sauce sent fire across my lips, numbing them.

Josh let out a loud laugh. "Those glasses. You look like Herbie Stempel."

My forehead wrinkled. "Who?"

"That guy from that, uh, quiz show thing. Or maybe Clark Kent."

"Clark Kent?" I smiled.

"If I squint." His grin filled the entire lower half of his face, and I felt myself echo his expression. "How's the thing coming? For that girls' club?"

"If you mean the speech for the Progressive Women's Network, then it's going fine." I extended my left arm across my chest, pulling it into a stretch, and set the chicken bones on the edge of the container. "Better than fine, actually. It's going to be good." I'd been relieved that it hadn't taken more than a day or two to feel my way back into this kind of work.

"Yeah?"

"Toby's-- he's really good."

"Isn't he?" He folded his hands against the back of his neck and leaned back, a smug smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "I told you you were gonna love him."

"Actually, you told me *he* was going to love *me*."

"With a passion." Dropping his feet off the corner of my desk, he leaned forward and grabbed another wing. He held it up, wiping red sauce from his lips with the back of his hand. "Okay, you know who these things always make me think of? Charlene."

I snorted. "I'm sure she'd be thrilled to hear that." The arrival of the feisty Silverstein for Senate office manager into any room had always sent us scrambling to hide anything unhealthy from view. I planted my hands on my hips and let my voice rise to a squeak. "Home-grown produce," I imitated. "You boys should be eating home-grown produce. That processed stuff is gonna be the death of you."

Josh laughed. "Didn't she live on the Lower East Side or something? I always wanted to ask her where she stashed her garden."

"She was right, though," I said, grabbing another wing and biting into the meaty end. "That whole campaign was like some food science experiment gone bad. How long can a dozen people survive on pizza and beer?"

"Don't forget Pepsi." He picked up a bottle, tilted it at me in a silent toast, and took a swig. "I used to cook you dinner, though. That was something."

"Ah, yes, cold spaghetti with sauce heated up in the microwave," I said dryly. "I'm sure Charlene would have been pleased to know we were getting all four food groups."

Josh scowled. "Hey, funnyman, it wasn't my fault the food got cold."

An electric charge shot down my spine. The chicken turned to cardboard on my tongue, and I gulped it back. Memories floated to the top of my mind: trays of food abandoned on the floor of his apartment, a sagging mattress under my back, Josh's hands, still uncertain, against my skin. He drew in a quick breath, and our eyes locked.

For a long moment it was as if all the intervening years had never existed. My hand shook against my temple as I reached for my glasses, the stem flimsy between my fingers. I folded them against the desk in front of me.

Josh ducked his head down, and the sudden loss of eye contact was like gulping back ice water. His hand flew to the carton of wings and pulled one out. "So, ah, I was just gonna say that if the speech goes well here in Manchester, maybe we can book him in to talk to the branch in Concord."

I narrowed my eyes at him. He'd done this before, this little dance of flirtation and retreat. He'd done this before.

Josh's eyes darted around the room. He bit into the wing. "And then maybe up north, too," he said, chewing. "A tour. Ah, of the women's clubs." He looked up at me. "We need to send a message that we need them working for us right now, not just at the polls in January."

My teeth clenched, locking pools of long-forgotten anger into the corners of my jaw. I dropped my gaze to the desk, reached for my glasses, and put them back on.

###

All eyes around the circle were on Leo McGarry. The main room of the campaign office was just big enough to comfortably house a meeting of just the six of us, but it would have been cramped with any larger a team. I shifted against my folding chair, letting my legs cross at my ankles.

"I just wish we could afford to hire somebody for full-time fundraising. We really should have somebody by now," Leo said, his mouth set in a line. "There's a beautiful irony in that. No full time fundraiser, nowhere near enough money."

"Toby and I are good for now," Josh reassured him. "We've got a couple of things lined up."

Leo pointed at Josh. "Weren't you going to talk to somebody at the AFL-CIO?"

"Already done." Josh leaned forward, his hands curling around his knees, and tilted his neck into a stretch. "I met with Linda Chavez-Thompson while I was down in Washington. They're really wanting to unseat Hoynes at this point, but Wiley's too whacked when it comes to environmental policy to be a viable alternative. I think we've got 'em."

"Their PAC money?" I asked. That wouldn't be much, but it would be something, and every little bit counted at this point.

Josh glanced at me, his Adam's apple crossing the length of his throat as he swallowed. "Definitely their money, and she hinted that the unions' money might eventually come our way, as well. And then everything that goes along with that." He shrugged. "I mean, the money's a drop in the bucket. The thing here is the clout. If we can get the unions behind us--"

"We've got to cement it with something," said Toby.

"How about an ad?" C.J. suggested, scooting forward to the edge of her chair and drawing herself up to her full height, towering over us. "We could target union members. Turn that five thousand dollars into at least that many voters."

C.J. Cregg didn't have a whole lot more campaign experience than I did, but she never failed to paint good PR ideas onto a blank canvas. "This would be a good time for one," I agreed.

"We could play up the fact that John Hoynes has never worked for an honest wage in his life," Josh suggested, a snicker dancing at the edges of his voice.

"Uh ... one small problem with that," Leo said.

Josh turned toward him. "What?"

"What?" the Governor repeated, raising his eyebrows at his campaign director.

Leo planted his eyes on the Governor, staring pointedly.

The Governor's brows collapsed into a line as his eyes narrowed. "Let me tell you something. I never liked you very much."

I fought to suppress a smirk and exchanged a look with Josh across the circle. From day one, the Governor had been grouchier than I'd expected from a man so charismatic, but it had only taken a week to realize that the gruffness was more playful than annoyed at least some of the time. And he was positively brilliant in front of crowds, where any nervous energy seemed to transform into waves of pure light.

"We could turn that one on its head," Toby added. "Something like ... Bartlet works for you."

C.J. nodded. "That works for me."

The juxtaposition of those two phrases jarred an idea loose in my head. "Wait, wait," I said, holding up a hand. "What if we had, you know, people--"

"Like, actors playing people?" Josh's forehead wrinkled. "Or people people?"

"Kids and dogs people," I explained, turning toward him. "Different ages, races, men and women."

Josh sat up straight in his chair, his mouth widening into a grin. He splayed his fingers in the air in front of him like a billboard. "Bartlet works for me--"

"--Bartlet works for you," I said, my head bobbing.

I could feel my face setting in a grin that mirrored Josh's own. He cocked his head to one side, his dimples gaping, and relaxed against the back of his chair. See what we can do together, his eyes seemed to say. The hairs on the back of my neck and stood at attention.

"I say let's run it," said Leo, folding his hands against his lap.

He glanced at the Governor, who leaned back in mock surprise. "Don't look at me. At this point, as long as I don't have to shave my head and wax somebody's floor, I don't care. What's next?"

"The Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner," Leo continued.

Toby drew in a breath. "That's next Saturday."

"They're letting each candidate speak for twenty minutes," Leo explained. "And after that comes the straw poll."

"So it's more of a full-day thing?" I asked.

Leo nodded. "They'll start things off in the late afternoon, over cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. Jazz band between each speaker, the works. I think the first guy goes on at four, but the last slot is the one everybody wants. While they're eating, just before they vote. That's when the guy who wins the coin toss will speak."

"I don't think you can call it a coin toss with six guys left in the race," the Governor grumbled.

Leo rolled his eyes. "Coin toss, hat pull--"

"Tell me again how we managed to swing this?" I said. "I mean, wouldn't the party usually hold a straw poll at the Iowa dinner if they're going to do one?"

"When the date of the New Hampshire primary gets moved up, they move up the straw poll," Leo said with a shrug.

"I'm just surprised nobody's objecting to it being in New Hampshire," I elaborated. The location of the poll was a coup, but it couldn't help but feel like someone from the DNC was going to step in any day now and realize they'd made a mistake. "What with the Governor playing to the home crowd and all."

"You can get away with an awful lot if nobody thinks you've got a chance," the Governor said, lowering his chin to look up at me.

"He's a stealth candidate," Josh mused. "Like a submarine. Nobody knows he's there, and then ..." He clicked his tongue and made an upward gesture with his thumb. My lips curled into a smirk in response.

"It's a chance to make a breakthrough," Leo added. "If we can place fourth or better, we can finally get some media attention."

C.J. glanced once around the circle, as if studying our smiles. "The numbers all show Hoynes with a steady lead, but we can't ignore the fact that the press is really starting to respond to Wiley. Bryan Talbert wrote an op-ed piece last week painting him as the only guy who can challenge Hoynes." Her eyes landed on Leo. "'The only reason Hoynes can't stand Wiley is because Wiley never sold out to big oil,'" she quoted.

Josh scowled. "You know, it never occurs to these people that maybe Hoynes can't stand Wiley because he's, like, met the guy. I mean, even shaking his hand feels creepy."

The Governor nodded in agreement. "Some of his ideas are in the right place, but he's impossible to work with."

"He's a clown," Josh said, throwing his arms out to his sides.

"He's a popular clown," C.J. insisted, her nostrils flaring. "He's got Susan Sarandon and Winona Ryder supporting him, and now Eddie Vedder."

Josh shook his head. "Who?"

"The lead singer of Pearl Jam."

"Is that some kind of jewelry emergency?" Josh asked.

"You've never heard of Pearl Jam?" C.J.'s eyebrows flew up. "Who are you, my father?"

Josh snorted. "Hardly. Do I look like a giraffe to you?"

C.J. shot him a quick glare before turning back to Leo. "I'm just saying that Wiley is a press hog, and the celebrity endorsements are only making it worse. And it's not just Wiley. Even Hoynes has people, and he's barely got a platform."

"Clint Eastwood supporting John Hoynes for President isn't an endorsement," Josh muttered. "It's satire."

"Well, we've got the head of the New Hampshire Job Creation Alliance coming out for us," Leo said. "That should hold us until January."

"We're not going to get any big names," C.J. said, shaking her head. "Not at this stage. It'll have to be something else."

"What if we turned their tactics against them?" Josh suggested. "If we can make it look like the two of them are running a three-ring circus instead of a campaign for the Presidency, we can come in and present Bartlet as our star."

"Your star's sitting right here," the Governor reminded him.

C.J. threw up her hands. "Where's our audience? He can look as presidential as it gets, but if nobody's watching, nobody's going to know about it."

"We'll need to impress the hell out of them with that dinner speech," Toby mumbled.

Leo's eyes bounced from Toby to C.J. "It's the best chance we've got."

"We've got to get the eyes of the press on us *before* the speech," C.J. said, leaning forward. The corners of her eyes crinkled in frustration. "There are enough bright shiny objects in the other guys' entourages that the press isn't going to give two minutes to Bartlet unless we give them a reason."

"What about a pre-dinner campaign event at the Capitol building?" I suggested. The idea came tumbling out of my mouth as soon as it had entered my head, and I grabbed it and ran. "We can bring in prominent New Hampshire Democrats, maybe even some Republicans. They can speak on the Governor's behalf, remind people of what kind of support he's got here. Remind them of why."

"And he can speak to the crowd outside, with the Capitol as backdrop. Make people think of Washington," C.J. added.

The Governor nodded slowly. "I like it," he said, and I felt myself start to smile.

"Toby, can you have a draft of some remarks by the weekend if you start now?" Leo asked.

Toby's eyes flicked over to me and then back to Leo. "I was thinking Sam might get to-- since it was his idea--"

"Sam's going to have enough on his plate already." Leo waved a hand in dismissal. "We're giving him primary responsibility for the dinner speech."

A jolt of shock shot through me. My spine stiffened, and I sat bolt upright. "Um ... sure," I managed.

"Anything else?" Leo glanced around the circle, surveying our faces. I struggled to keep the surprise from showing on mine. He stood. "Then we're done."

The others followed Leo to their feet and headed off to their respective offices, but I was anchored to my chair. My fingers trembled against my notes as I lifted them from the floor, as much from adrenaline as from nerves. I'd had this job for two weeks. He was testing me. I'd just have to pass.

Leo appeared at my elbow, standing between me and the overhead light, casting a shadow across the pages on my lap. "So, draft by Wednesday?" he said. I looked up at him and blinked. He shrugged. "The Governor's going to want to have a look. You understand."

"It'll be ready." The corners of my mouth turned up in a smile. My heart seemed to be trying to beat its way out of my chest. I stood, clutching my notes. "Thank you."

I broke eye contact and turned away from him, folding my chair. I lifted it and walked it over to lean it against the far wall.

"Hey, kid," came Leo's voice from behind me, and I turned around. His voice was gruff, but his eyes radiated confidence. "Don't screw this up," he said.

I grinned and pointed myself toward my office.

###

"It's awful. It's horrific." My hand clutched the cell phone as I made my hundredth trip between the desk and the edge of the bed.

"I'm sure it's not." Lisa's voice was calm, but nothing could soothe me.

"No, you don't realize the depths of horrificness to which I've sunk this time."

"Horrificness?"

I raised a hand to my face and winced against it. "I rest my case."

"Why don't you read me some of it? I'll give you my honest opinion."

A strangled sound emerged from my throat. "God. No. I can't." I turned back around, letting my eyes fall on the laptop sitting on the desk. I glared at it.

"Read me the part you hate the least."

"That would be the beginning, I guess." I stepped toward the desk and paged up through the document. I let my eyes fly over it, imagining my words from Josiah Bartlet's lips. They clattered to the ground in a disorderly heap, and my stomach lurched. "Or maybe not."

"You know, it's never as bad as you think it is when you get like this," Lisa said lightly. "You'll wake up tomorrow morning and read it over again, and it'll be fine."

I pushed the computer away. "This time it's not fine. It's really not. I've only got twenty minutes to turn this whole campaign around, and ... let's just say that this if there's ever been a time to be writing this badly, this is not it." I spread my palm against the desk. My words were running in circles, losing more meaning with each sentence. I turned around, glancing at the neat stack of pizza boxes on the table, at the rumpled bed still unmade from the morning. "I can't find a way to wrap it up. And I've got to show it to Leo tomorrow."

A rhythmic knock drew my attention to the door, and I stepped over to it. "Hey," Josh announced as I opened it, pushing his way into the room. His right arm hugged two brown paper bags. "I thought you might need a break." The door slid closed with a click.

The unmistakable smell of Kung Pao chicken assaulted my nose, masking the stale hotel room air. "Just a sec," I said to Lisa. I covered the mouthpiece of the phone and held it against my chest, my eyes on Josh. "So, I take it you've been talking to my mom?"

Josh turned around, his forehead wrinkling. "Your mom?"

"I figure there has to be some reason you keep bringing me food."

He set the bags upright on the table next to the pizza boxes and slid his trench coat off, tossing it on the back of the chair behind him. "You haven't left your room since yesterday. We can't have you wasting away." The bags crinkled as he opened them, and he set a row of white cartons on the edge of the round plastic table.

"I ordered pizza." I pointed at the empty boxes. "And Pepsi."

A dimple appeared in his cheek. "Ah, but takeout Chinese is Charlene-approved," he said, dumping a carton of rice onto a styrofoam plate.

I removed my hand from the mouthpiece and lifted the phone back up to my ear. "I've got to go," I said to Lisa. "It looks like I'm having a dinner break forced on me."

"Okay," she said. "Hey, don't you let yourself stew over this. If you decide you do want to run some of it by me, give me a call."

I ran fingers along my eyebrows, rubbing the tension out of my forehead. "I don't want to bother--"

"You're not bothering me, Sam. If it's a choice between watching a rerun of Law & Order and talking to you, there's not much of a contest."

I coughed out a laugh. "Okay. Thanks. I love you," I said quietly. Josh's head jerked up. I glanced away.

"I love you," Lisa echoed. "Enjoy your dinner."

"Bye."

"Bye." I ended the call and set the phone down on top of the television. Moisture dotted the palm of my hand, and I wiped it absently against my jeans.

"Your mom?" Josh asked, a single eyebrow raised.

"Lisa."

"Ah." He nodded quickly, his eyes flicking away. He looked back up at me, gesturing in the air with a finger. "Are you two--"

"No, no." I waved a hand at him.

His jaw jutted forward. "It just-- it sounded a little like--"

"We're friends, Josh," I snapped. "We're trying. You know how it goes."

"Yeah." He shoved both hands into his pockets, sending coins rattling against each other. He leaned over the food, but didn't sit down.

I walked over to the table and let myself sink into the chair. "Thanks for this."

"It's okay, I had to eat, too." He sat down opposite me. "How's the speech coming?"

I squinted my eyes shut. "It's not."

"Ah," he stuttered out, "if you haven't started writing it yet, you're worse off than you look."

"Oh, it's started." I ran a hand from my forehead to my chin and met his eyes through parted fingers. "I just can't figure out a way to finish it."

"Want me to have a look?" he asked, jumping up and heading for the desk.

Horror swept through me as I realized he was going to read the speech. I leaped over to the desk and grabbed his shoulder, pushing him out of the way. I lodged myself between him and the computer, blocking his view.

Josh staggered backward a step. "Whoa."

"Don't. I mean, you can't see it yet."

"I just thought I could help."

"You can't."

"I do know a thing or two about speechwriting myself, you know." His chest puffed out like a bird trying to put a rival in his place.

"It's not-- it's ..." I looked down at the carpet, tracing the patterns in it with my eyes. My voice softened. "I'm sorry. I'm just-- it's not going very well. I'm not writing very well."

Josh sat down on the corner of the bed. "You work on stuff with Toby." His voice was icicle sharp. "You show him your drafts."

"I wouldn't show him this," I insisted, looking up at him.

"It's not exactly private property, you know. You're supposed to give it to Leo tomorrow morning."

"I know."

"And a couple thousand people are going to hear it on Saturday at the dinner, and if it goes well, a few hundred thousand more will see bits of it on tele--"

"I know!" A flutter of panic rose in my chest. "I know," I said again, more quietly. Josh's eyes were still narrowed. "Look, it's not you. I just don't want to show this thing to anybody until it's good. And it's not good."

His shoulders rose in a shrug. "Okay." He stood and walked back over to the food. I stared at him, but he didn't look up.

Josh thrust a hand into one of the bags and spread plastic forks and knives across the stack of pizza boxes. Neither of us spoke. He sat down, skewered a piece of chicken with a fork, and shoved it into his mouth. I shifted my weight from one leg to the other.

"Okay." The breath hissed out of my lungs.

Josh glanced up. "Okay?"

I stepped to the side, revealing the laptop behind me. "Go ahead and read it."

He stood slowly, keeping his eyes on me as he walked over to the desk. He leaned over it, lifting an eyebrow in a silent request for confirmation. I nodded. He sat down in front of the computer.

I turned back around. My eyes landed on the food, spread out across the table and already growing cold, but none of it really registered in my brain. Almost 2500 tickets to the dinner had been sold. I had to pull this together. I ran a finger along the rough stubble on my chin, feeling the blood drain from my face.

"Sam."

I whirled around. "Don't even say it."

"Will you stop, already?" He rolled his eyes. "It's really good."

The corners of my mouth quirked. "It is?"

"Not only that, it's done," he said. "I don't know what you're freaking out about."

I stalked over to the desk. "What are you talking-- it just trails off. It's not done."

"Trust me. It's done."

"It's at least five minutes too long." I leaned across him and grabbed the mouse, scrolling to the place where the fourth section failed miserably to flow into the next. "And look at this part. I can't leave it the way it is, but everything I try to add to the end comes out sounding like a high school student's American government term paper."

He snatched the mouse back from me and highlighted the last two sections. "Press delete, and it's done." He pointed at the screen. "I mean, if I know you, you'll still want to polish it up, but you've got a great ending right there."

I stared at the screen. My eyes scanned the words. The truth in our Declaration of Independence. He was right.

Relief flooded my veins, and I was pulled to him like a rock to the earth. Driven by the same unseen force, he turned in toward me, his face inches from mine. He caught my eyes and held them, trapping the air in my lungs.

I tried to pull back, but I was frozen in place, the edge of the desk digging into the backs of my legs. His lips were parted, and I drew closer to him. My eyes fell closed. His breath was hot against my cheek, sending nerves quivering throughout my face and into the rest of my body, just below the surface of my skin.

A hand pressed up against my shoulder and fumbled against my chest, pushing me back. "I should ..." His voice came out in a squeak, and he stood, clearing his throat. "I should, like, go put my coat back in my room."

I sat down against the desk. His shoulders were rigid, like he was tensing to run. I pressed my lips into a line.

"I'll need it tomorrow morning. When we head out." He stumbled backward to the table and groped behind him for his coat. "I mean-- ah-- when I head out. From my room."

"Okay." I kept my voice even.

He took a step toward me, and then stopped. Gesturing toward the door with his thumb, he squeezed between the desk and the end of the bed. "So I'll just-- you want me to get some ice on the way back? For the Pepsi?"

I turned back around toward the computer screen. I felt my stomach folding in on itself, as if I'd just avoided being hit by something sharp. "Sure."

A click of the light switch sent the bathroom fan whirring, and plastic crashed against porcelain as Josh knocked the ice bucket into the sink. The fan came to a dead halt with another click, and the room was silent. The floor creaked behind me. I didn't turn around.

"So, ah. I'll be right back?" Josh said.

I could feel him standing there, the weight of his gaze pressing between my shoulder blades. He was waiting for me to speak. I clamped my jaw shut. There was a quiet sigh from behind me, and then the door slid open and fell closed again behind him.

I slammed the palm of my hand against the desk in a thousand kinds of frustration, and pressed delete.

###

The jazz band was barely audible from the corridor that led from the bathroom back out to the hall. I glanced at my watch. He was due to go on in five minutes. Energy coursed through me, propelling me through the hallway despite the lack of sleep. I rubbed a hand along my forehead. It was warm.

"It's a good speech, Jed," I heard Leo say. I came to a dead stop. The door leading into one of the back rooms was open a crack, and a light shone into the hallway where the hinges separated it from the wall. My heart stuttered.

"It's better than the last version," the Governor grumbled.

"It's not just-- would you give the kid a break?" I could almost hear Leo's eyes rolling. "He spent two days cooped up in his room for this." I swallowed the tension in my throat. I knew I had to move, but my feet were bolted to the floor.

"I'm not saying 'the long arm of justice'. I won't do it, Leo."

"You're going to say it, and you're going to mean it." Leo's voice was firm, and icy fear shuddered through me. I knew that had been too much. Why hadn't Toby made me cut that line? "When this is over, we've got to have a talk about you taking your nerves out on your staff."

A tap on my shoulder sent my heart pounding, and a wash of dizziness swept through me. I spun around. C.J. was standing in front of me, one hand on her hip. "Hey, Sparky," she said, raising an eyebrow. "I thought you were going to the men's room."

I stole a glance at the room and then looked back at her, my face growing warm. "I was just--"

"Didn't your mom ever teach you not to listen in on other people's conversations?" she said, giving my arm a playful nudge.

"I'm not--" I stepped forward three steps, just out of hearing range of the Governor and Leo. I looked up at her, lowering my voice. "I was on my way back to my ... wait, what did you just call me?"

"Sparky."

"Okay." I blinked. "Am I allowed to ask why?"

She shrugged. "It suits you."

"It suits me."

"Sure." The dim light behind her sent a shadow across her face, but I could still see the nervous twitch of her mouth beneath the grin. "Josh is more snarky, and you're kind of--"

"Sparky."

"Yeah."

"Okay," I said, my shoulders finally relaxing.

She tilted her head back toward the hall and put a hand on my arm. "Come on, it's almost time."

The wail of the saxophone grew louder as we stepped back into the hall, and I took a moment to listen to the acoustics. The high ceilings collected the sound at the front of the room, completely missing the tables near the back. He'd have to compensate for that. I clenched fists at my sides and followed C.J. back to our own table.

Josh looked up at her as she sat back down next to him. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm feeling good about tonight," he said, spearing a piece of chicken breast with his fork. None of the others were eating. "The signs are right," he added.

"Don't tell me you've been consulting an astrologer," Toby grumbled, barely lifting his eyes. I spread my napkin back across my lap and picked at the lump of mixed vegetables on my plate. "Because if it got out that the chief architect of our campaign strategy was--"

"No, I just mean things are looking good," Josh explained, washing down the chicken with a big gulp of water. "We had a great turnout for the pre-dinner thing. We won the hat pull, so our guy gets to speak last. Wiley shot himself in the foot with all those balloons that kept popping the whole time he was speaking. And the weather couldn't have been better. The snow melted just in time for people to decide not to stay home."

"So now you've got an in with the weather gods," Toby mumbled, his head bent over his plate. I shoved my fork in my mouth, barely tasting the carrots.

Josh shrugged. "I'm not saying I made it happen, I'm just saying I've got a good feeling about all this."

"Don't you know you're not supposed to ..." Toby leaned back against his chair and held up a hand. "Just ... don't say things like that, okay?" His tension sent a chill across my skin, and I clenched my teeth.

"Things like what?" Josh asked.

Toby threw his arms out to his sides, almost hitting C.J. in the arm. "You're tempting fate!"

Josh grinned. "Better keep your voice down. We wouldn't want it to get out that Bartlet's communications director's, like, superstitious or anything."

C.J. smirked at Josh, and he maintained his cocky grin. He didn't even look nervous. Snarky and Sparky, C.J. had called us. "So do you have little nicknames like that for everybody?" I asked her, gesturing at her across the table with an open hand.

"Just you and Josh," she said, smiling. She picked up her fork.

"Oh, good," I said. "So this isn't a 'C.J. and the Seven Dwarves' kind of thing."

Josh stabbed his chicken with a fork and cut off a slice. He glanced at C.J. "What?"

"Because Toby could have been Smoky," I continued, leaning against the table. It pressed into my abdomen. "And I suppose Leo could have been Sneaky. And the Governor could have been Sto--"

"What the hell is he talking about?" Josh said with a full mouth, turning to face C.J.

"I could have done a lot worse than Sparky. I mean, I could have been Spanky."

"You'd really have to piss me off for that," C.J. assured me.

"You mean he's not even getting close?" Toby mumbled, glaring at me, and I felt my spine stiffen. I clamped my jaw shut.

"You know, if they like the speech, there's a chance we could actually finish fourth," Josh mused. "All we have to do is knock out Deluca and--"

"Will you just shut up?" Toby scooted forward in his chair, grabbing onto the arms and leaning across the table toward Josh. "Please."

The entire table fell silent, magnifying the conversations around us. Toby glowered at his food, and C.J. took a sip of her wine, stealing a glance at the reporters lining the edges of the room. Fear gripped the inside of my ribcage, crowding my heart. I tried to catch Josh's eye across the table, but he wouldn't look at me.

The trumpet ended the piece with a flourish, and polite applause sounded through the hall. The tall, thin state party leader stepped up to the microphone, the top button of his shirt unfastened under his tie. "Our final speaker of the night is Governor Josiah Bartlet, from the great state of New Hampshire."

A loud series of whoops and wolf whistles emerged from the audience, and I exchanged a look with Toby. The Governor enjoyed unprecedented support in his home state, but it was the state, not him, that they were applauding. He traded places with the leader of the New Hampshire Democrats, and they shook hands as he stepped up to the podium. The sports coat and tie we'd settled on made a sharp contrast to the way Hoynes had appeared in his expensive suit.

"Thank you. Thank you," the Governor said, his smile masking any hint of nervousness. "Before I begin, I wanted to take a moment to thank the fine folks who have been serving us all night. Let's give them a hand."

He gestured with an open palm at two of the tuxedo-clad servers who were setting the last plates of chicken on the table at the front of the room, and then withdrew his hand again and began to clap. Another round of applause rumbled throughout the hall, a faint echo of the previous outburst.

"Now, if you've enjoyed the chicken tonight," he continued, "I'd just like to say that's game from our very own New Hampshire farmers. If you didn't like it, well, we've been stuffing them full of feed from Washington State all year, and I'd ask you all to remember that come January." The responding ripple of laughter from the audience drained the tension from my shoulders, and I felt myself ease against the back of my chair. This was in his hands now.

I'd taken the risk of beginning the speech on a low note so that he'd have a place to build from, but the steady hiss of whispered conversation withered and died with his very first sentence. A series of low clanks of metal against china spread from table to table as people set down their forks, and soon his New England accent was reverberating through the room and echoing in our ears during the silences. It was the ultimate act of collaboration: my words, his music, and every word I'd written another note in his symphony.

Leo had told us the man could lift whole houses off the ground. With his trademark combination of sincerity, brilliance and vision, he picked up an entire auditorium. I found myself staring, mesmerized, my lips almost imperceptibly mouthing the words along with him. He gripped the edges of the podium, the lift of his chin and the light in his eyes promising far more than my words alone conveyed, and for a moment I forgot about his temper tantrums and just believed in him.

"Americans have never been afraid to embrace new ideas, new leadership, new chances, and this is not the time to start," he said, the strength in his voice making my words his own. I stole a glance around the room. Over two thousand plates of chicken were growing cold on the tables, and video cameras lined the edges of the room like a row of foot soldiers, capturing the moment on for the television audience. "It is time to return to the truth of our Declaration of Independence: that true patriots are not complacent. True patriots do not settle for any less than the very best we can achieve as a nation. True patriots are those who turn to their leaders and say: 'This isn't good enough. We can do better.'"

I turned my eyes back to the front. A roar of applause sounded in the hall, and my chest swelled. A few people at the second table from the stage rose to their feet, hands held high as they clapped, and the Governor stepped back from the microphone, surveying the crowd. Mouthing a final thank you, he raised a hand in the air, and I grinned.

This was my job, now, to put words in the mouth of the poet. A shiver began at my neck and pooled at the base of my spine. Someday, every single person in every room would stand at the end. Someday soon.

"If that doesn't make them sit up and take notice, nothing will," said C.J. "Sam, that was great."

I was still grinning. "It's easy to write for a guy who can do that."

"It was good work," Toby said, his eyes squarely on me, and his mouth turned up at one corner.

Leo appeared behind Josh, a sly smile dancing at his lips. "I think we should all be sure to thank Josh tonight." He slapped his hands on Josh's shoulders, clasping them tightly.

Josh leaned back to shoot him a confused look, and then glanced around at the rest of us. "Ah. You're all welcome."

"If it hadn't been for Josh, our guy could never have snapped up the best new talent in speechwriting before anyone else even knew about him," Leo explained, his eyes on me.

"To Josh," C.J. said, raising her wine glass.

Pride tingled through my chest. "Hey, I wouldn't give Josh any credit, here," I teased. "He tried to get me to work for Hoynes."

Toby snorted, and C.J. laughed. "Good thing Josh isn't very convincing, then," she said, setting her glass back down.

My gaze bounced across the table to Josh, and for the first time that evening, he met it. His eyes were wide with excitement, but the smile didn't quite form on his lips, and he looked away. He spooned the last of his potatoes into his mouth. "Am I ever going to live that down?" he asked.

The next half hour dragged on longer than any meeting I'd ever been forced to attend, longer than any lecture I'd ever had to sit through in law school. People moved around the room and conversations began to form in the aisles as the waitstaff cleared the tables. Any lull in the music pulled my eyes to the front of the room, but the announcement didn't come.

Finally, one of the reporters left his table and sauntered across the room, coming to a stop behind C.J. He bent down, his scruffy face inches from her ear. "Come next summer, I want you to remember I did this for you," he said, keeping his voice low, and dropped a piece of paper into her lap.

I sat up straight, my fingernails digging into the palms of my hands as C.J. unfolded the paper. She bent over it, staring.

"Was that the guy from the Post?" Josh asked, leaning toward her.

"Don't keep us in suspense," Leo said.

She lifted her head. A grin spread across her face as she spoke. "Hoynes, 48 percent. Wiley's second, with 22. In third place, Governor Josiah Bartlet, at 19." She slapped the paper down onto the in the center of the table. "All the others are in the low single digits."

A surge of energy pulsed through all of us, as if our hearts were suddenly beating in tandem. "Third," I managed, my voice dry and trembling.

Toby bowed down over his plate as if to give thanks to the unseen force that had made this happen. He leaned back, resting his hands on the edge of the table, and let his eyes fall shut. "Nineteen percent."

"Is it a-- it's effectively a three-candidate race, now, right?" C.J.'s gaze jumped from Josh to Toby and back again. "I'm not just being overly optimistic, here."

"Yes!" Josh yelled, slamming the palms of his hands against the table. Glasses shook against the table, clinking together. Dimples appeared in his cheeks, and his face spread into a grin.

I squeezed the air out of my lungs, purging the last vestiges of fear from them, letting my eyes fall shut. I breathed in hope.

###

Carelessly folded newspapers littered every inch of the table not occupied by the remains of breakfast. Josh shoved his empty plate out of the way and set the printout down in front of him. I rested my chin in my hands, my mouth set in a contented smile.

"This one's from CNN, off the Web. Posted just after midnight last night." Josh scooted to the edge of his seat. The lapel of his coat folded over on itself, exposing the bright red Bartlet for America button beneath it. "Although Senator John Hoynes of Texas easily won the New Hampshire Democratic straw poll Saturday with 48 percent of the vote," he read aloud, "the real surprise of the night was former New Hampshire Governor Josiah Bartlet, who catapulted himself into third place with a feat of acrobatic strength and nineteen percent of the vote."

"A feat of acrobatic strength," I mocked, drumming my fingers against my cheek.

"We must have gotten all of the flying Wallendas," Toby said. "That would account for the nineteen percent."

"With a showing only three points behind Senator William Wiley of Washington," Josh continued, "Governor Bartlet is poised to seriously challenge the Senator in the days ahead.'" He slammed a hand down on the newspaper with a dull thud. "God, I'd love to see the look on Wiley's press secretary's face when he reads that."

"I'm rather partial to this bit." I grabbed the page away from Josh, squinting at the blurry gray type of the office printer. "For many in the audience, Governor Bartlet's speech seemed to be the highlight of the night. Speaking last of six, he drew enthusiastic applause from an attentive crowd."

"We upstaged Hoynes on CNN!" Josh said.

"Hey, guys, guys." Toby held up a hand. "We can't get so caught up in what happened to us last night that we forget what happened to Hoynes."

"What happened to Hoynes?" I asked, raising an eyebrow.

"He came in first," Josh said, his voice deliberately pedantic. He turned to Toby. "Don't tell me you were surprised."

Toby's eyes narrowed into slits. "You don't get 48 percent in a straw poll with six guys left in the race without a whole lot of breathing room."

"It's not six guys now." Josh cocked his head at Toby. "Grissom and Jackson dropped out this morning. Haven't you read the paper?"

"I'm just saying that this isn't the time to get complacent." Toby looked down at his glass, curling both hands around it.

"He's going to give himself a heart attack one of these days," I said to Josh. I turned toward Toby, ducking my head down to look him in the eyes. "You're really going to give yourself a heart attack one of these days."

"How 'bout we save going after Hoynes for this afternoon, okay?" Josh said, leaning back against the booth. I reached across him for the Washington Post. "This morning we bask in the glory."

I unfolded the paper to page two, scanning for familiar names. "Hey, look at this," I said, pointing. "'When asked about Deluca's chances of winning the nomination, top campaign staff refused to comment--'"

"No way! Deluca's dropping out?" Josh grabbed the paper out of my hands. His eyes flew over the article. "It really is gonna be a three-man race."

Toby gestured wildly in the air in front of him. "John Hoynes? Twenty-six point lead? New party record?"

Josh looked up at me. "Did you just hear something?"

"Not a peep," I said.

"Must have been the wind."

I shook a finger at him. "You should get your ears checked."

"All right, Shirley, Laverne," Toby grumbled. "Enough."

Josh took a big gulp of water, draining the cup down to the ice. "We should go out tonight. Celebrate."

"Sure." I leaned back against the vinyl seat. "First drink's on me."

"I was thinking dinner," he said, setting his cup back down. His eyes were fixed on mine.

"Oh." I stole a glance at Toby, but he was buried in the paper. I blinked. "Okay."

The waitress reappeared at the edge of the table, handing Josh the credit card slip. Neither of us looked up at her. "There's this place called the Boar's Head in the east end." He scribbled his signature, maintaining my gaze. "Over by Londonderry Park? I can book us a table."

"Uh, sure." Suddenly self-conscious, I glanced up at the waitress. Her hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail, and the light brown glasses on her nose matched the freckles that dotted her cheeks. Her neck was craned to get a better look at Josh's coat.

"I'm sorry," she ventured, her eyes shining. "I couldn't help but overhear you guys talking earlier. And your button ..."

Josh looked down at his coat. He pulled the lapel straight, and the bright red button tilted a little to its side. "This button?"

"Yeah. You guys don't happen to work for Governor Bartlet, do you?"

"We sure do," Josh said.

"Oh, my God!" She clenched tight fists against her chest, and her eyes flew open. "He was *so* amazing last night."

Josh's eyes flicked over to me. The corner of his mouth cracked open in a smile. "Wasn't he?"

"This girl I knew in seventh grade used to live down the street from their house in town. She used to play with his daughter Zoey on weekends?" She fiddled with the hem of her apron. "It's just the coolest thing that he's running for President." I swallowed, shifting in my seat.

Josh grinned at her, and she smiled back like he'd given her permission to take the rest of the day off. "It's a good thing to get excited about."

"Do you really think he can win?"

"I'll tell you what." Josh leaned in toward her, like he was sharing a secret with a child. She took off her glasses and leaned in closer, holding them tightly in her fist. I glanced away. "Come down to the campaign office and you can sign up to volunteer for the next President of the United States," he said.

"Really?" The girl's cheeks flushed crimson, and her hand fluttered to her mouth. "Oh, God, no, I couldn't do--"

"Here." He stood, fumbling to unfasten the button. He reached over and pinned it to her apron, masking the grease stain above her left breast. "Tell them Josh Lyman sent you."

She beamed, scrunching up her shoulders. I let my eyes fall down to the table as I slid out to the edge of the booth. Toby shoved an arm through his coat and headed for the door, and I followed, with Josh close behind. The double doors swung open onto the sidewalk. Toby cuffed Josh on the arm, glaring at him.

"Ow!" Josh clutched his shoulder, shooting him a bewildered look as they stepped down into the parking lot. "What did I do?"

"That's not the way to increase our volunteer base."

Josh threw his arms out to his sides. "We've got a zillion of those buttons back at the office!"

I came to a stop at my car, but they kept walking. "See you guys this afternoon," I said.

"See you," Josh called over his shoulder, still rubbing it with one hand.

I unlocked the car door and ducked inside, shooting one last look back at the waitress through the window of the diner. My cell phone chirped against my leg, and I dug in my pocket for it. "Sam Seaborn," I said, touching it to my ear.

"I've just got a minute, but I had to call." Lisa's voice was hurried, but light.

"Hey, there." Trapping the phone between my shoulder and cheek, I pulled the car door closed.

"It sounds like you guys had quite a night." I could hear her smile across the line.

Excitement fluttered in my chest again. "Did you watch it on TV?"

"I was driving back from Raleigh, but I left the car radio on NPR until it wouldn't come in anymore, and then I switched to the all-news station."

"What did they say?" We'd rushed back to the office to see the reaction on CNN, but I hadn't heard anything from radio.

"There was about a ten-second clip from the speech. The part about removing guns from the hands of criminals."

I nodded to myself. They always went straight for the controversy. "What did you think?"

"Well, I have to admit I kept waiting for the new depths of horrificness," she teased. "What do you think I thought, Sam? It was good. Really good."

"You seem to have been right," I said, grinning. "Again."

"And he's a fantastic speaker."

"You should've heard the crowd. You don't get that kind of applause just for being from around here."

"Well, he convinced me. He's won over another Manhattan Democrat, if that makes a difference."

"Every vote counts," I said.

"You were right, you know. About him." Her voice was low, but there was no hesitation.

I clutched the phone, pressing it tightly against my cheek. Something coiled at the back of my throat, and the connection was clear enough that I could hear her breath catch. "Thanks," I said quietly.

"The staff must be going crazy," she continued, keeping her voice level.

"Yeah." I remembered the antics in the diner and smiled. "Well, everybody except Toby."

"I bet Josh is pretty smug," she said, probing.

I leaned back against the seat. I wasn't sure whether that was meant to be a criticism. "He is," I said carefully. "We're going to dinner tonight." I pressed a fist against my stomach. Why had I said that?

"You and Josh?" Her voice turned up just a shade too much at the end.

"Yeah. Just-- just to celebrate," I explained.

"Right."

It didn't sound like a question, but I knew it was. "It's not like ..." I struggled to explain, suddenly conscious of talking on a cell phone. I rubbed a hand along my leg. "Things are a little-- he's being a little ..." My voice trailed off.

"A little?"

I let out a sigh. "He's just being Josh, I guess." Something tightened under my breastbone, and I coughed. "Things have been a little ... strange. Just occasionally. But I think he wants to talk about it tonight."

"You guys are going out to dinner, and you think he wants to talk?" she said sharply.

"It's really not like that," I said quickly, rubbing the back of my neck. "I mean, it's good. I like working with him. I like working with all of them."

"I'm glad," she said. Her words were clipped.

I shifted against the seat. It felt strange to be talking to her about this, but it would have been worse not to.

"Hey, I've got to go," she said suddenly. "Client meeting."

I blinked. "On a Sunday?"

"Yeah, it's that kind of week. You know how to get a hold of me if you've got some time tonight, though, right?"

Affection crowded out the tension in my chest. My eyes fell closed, and my fingers reached for the pack of gum she'd left in the ashtray. I pressed it against the palm of my hand. "You know, you're really something."

"I sure am," she said, laughing.

"I love you."

"I love you, too. 'Bye." There was a click, and she was gone.

I pressed my lips together, and a shallow sigh escaped through my nose. I set the phone and the pack of gum on the seat next to me and started the car.

###

The restaurant was shadow-lit and small, but in a quaint, cozy sort of way that you only find in New England. Our table stood in the parlor of an old Victorian-style home, and antique furniture lined the walls against patterned wallpaper.

I sliced into my salmon and lifted my fork to my mouth, letting it dissolve on my tongue. "You sure Toby didn't just suggest South Carolina so we could spend the next couple of months in a place that was a little warmer?" I asked Josh, leaning toward him across the table.

He snorted, pushing baby carrots away from his steak with a knife. "Don't tell me the California boy's objecting to that."

"I'm just saying."

"Nobody's expecting it," he said, skewering a carrot. "The last move they're expecting us to make right now is to leave New Hampshire, not when everybody else is just getting here. It could really throw Wiley."

"He's right about that. And there really is nothing left to do here." Contentment settled across my shoulders, loosening a knot I hadn't even realized was there.

"Oh, that reminds me." He took a sip of his wine, pointing at me with his free hand. "I'm starting to get things packed up this afternoon, right? So I go to my office, and there's this girl there, answering my phone, looking at my schedule and stuff. Never seen her before in my life. And when I ask her what she's doing there, she announces that she's my new assistant."

I raised a single eyebrow. "Since when do we have money to pay assistants?"

"That's the thing. Margaret had never seen her before, either. Apparently she just walked in off the street, figuring I wouldn't notice one more face. I guess she thought that by the time I realized I'd never hired her, she'd have made herself indispensable or something."

"With all the chaos in the office today, that's not even such a crazy scheme." I shrugged. "It could have worked."

"Apparently, she was running away from some guy. Nothing violent, I mean, just a bad breakup. I coaxed the story out of her."

"So what are you going to do?"

He shrugged. "I'm letting her stay. She's coming with us to South Carolina."

I paused, my fork halfway to my mouth. "Seriously?"

"She's paying her own way." He parked his elbows on the table and gestured with open hands. "And who knows, maybe she'll be good. She's dedicated enough. Already has my office all packed up. And I think she's pretty smart, from what I can tell. I've got a good feeling about her."

I found myself staring. I didn't think Josh could surprise me anymore. I put my fork down. "I'm-- wow, really?"

"I don't know, I guess she caught me in the right frame of mind or something." He checked my expression, as if to make sure I approved. "I feel like I want to give every underdog in the goddamn world a chance right now."

I smiled. I knew exactly how he felt. It was as if we could do anything. Change lives, move mountains.

"Not to mention the fact that the whole thing kind of reminded me of this one time when some other kid came in off the street and ended up shaking up a campaign I was running." He grinned.

"Silverstein was no underdog," I reminded him. "He'd raised more money for a Senate campaign at this point than we've got now, and that was back in 1985."

"Silverstein wasn't a lot of things," he said, raising a hand to his mouth while he chewed. "He certainly was no Josiah Bartlet."

He cut another bite-sized piece out of his steak and set his knife down on the side of his plate. It occurred to me that I could have been back in New York right now, negotiating some new deal with some new client. I could have missed out on all this. "You know, I never did thank you," I said quietly.

"Thank me?"

"For coming to get me." I held his gaze. "For giving me a chance to do this again with a better candidate."

Josh stopped chewing, the crinkles in his face disappearing as his eyes widened. He gulped back the bite of steak, and I dropped my eyes, embarrassed. He was going to bring it up. I think we both know there's still this thing between us, he'd say. I just want to make sure that it doesn't, you know, affect us working together. I bit the insides of my cheeks.

"I've been thinking." Josh lifted his wine glass, giving it a swirl. "About-- about how things used to be. And about how they've been, um, lately."

Tension stabbed into my forehead. I couldn't have this conversation in a restaurant. "Josh--"

"I want you back."

I tried to exhale, but it came out as a cough. "Excuse me?"

He charged on, not hesitating even to catch a breath. "I know it's only been a couple of weeks since-- since Lisa-- but if I don't say something now, you'll be with somebody else before I can turn around." His head dipped, but his eyes remained steady. "And I don't think I can just stand there and watch that happen."

My throat closed over, reduced to the size of a straw. This was the last thing I'd expected to hear tonight. The last thing I'd ever expected to hear from him at all.

He ran his fingers through his hair. "When you said you were going to marry her, it felt like-- like-- being hit by a truck, or something. I mean, I knew you were with her. But marriage ... that's--" His breath caught. "And then you told me things were over between you guys, and I felt like I was getting another chance."

I opened my mouth to tell him I hadn't meant it that way, but the words wouldn't form. My tongue was betraying me, as if it knew more about my motives than I did.

"But I kept thinking that it was a chance that had, like, a window of opportunity. A limited time offer."

"A limited time offer," I echoed. I could hear the incredulity in my own voice.

"You know." He nodded at me. "I couldn't jump in too soon, couldn't let things wait too long ..."

Blood rushed to my head, knocking me off balance, and I clenched tight fists against the table. I forced myself to look at him.

"And I guess I'm-- I'm kinda hoping I guessed right. On that window of opportunity, I mean."

"So, okay, wait a minute." Fingers brushed against my forehead, my thumb digging into my cheekbone. The nail pierced my skin, and I let go. "If you've been-- what was that thing the other night about you running out to put your coat back in your room?"

"I didn't want you to think I was hitting on you."

"You almost kissed me, Josh," I said, keeping my voice level. "And then you ran off."

"I didn't want--" he started. "Wait a minute. *You* almost kissed *me*, too."

A spark of anger spread through me. I glared at him.

He scooted back in his chair as if to physically retrace his steps. "I mean-- I just didn't want you to misinterpret that." He shifted uncomfortably against the side of the chair, grabbing onto one of the arms.

"Aha." My voice was frosty. "So when you just happened to remind me of why we would let our dinner get cold when I used to eat at your place, I wasn't supposed to interpret that as you hitting on me, either?"

Spots of red dashed across his cheeks. "I wasn't trying to-- it just came out that way."

I stared at the table, hearing my pulse hissing in my ears.

"I didn't want you to feel obligated, okay? I didn't want you to think I came to New York to get you just so you could be my ..." He coughed. "You were still getting over Lisa--"

"Okay," I said, cutting him off. "Just to make sure we're on the same page, then." Dropping my chin, I pressed the tip of my finger against the table and looked up at him. "Right now. You're hitting on me, right?"

His dimples formed caverns in his cheeks, and the cleft in his chin grew deeper. "Yeah."

A warm feeling swelled in my chest. I squelched it. "What makes you think you could deal with having a relationship with me? You couldn't deal with it back when you were a kid in your first campaign staff job."

"I asked you out in front of Toby, didn't I?"

"And the stakes are that much higher now," I said, ignoring him. "This is a Presidential campaign, not a Senate race."

"Yeah, and it's 1997, not 1985," he said, his eyebrows forming a single straight line across his forehead. "And I'm some guy you work with, not your boss. I hope we're not going to run through all the things that have changed, because I really don't want to still be sitting here at five in the morning."

I didn't respond.

His voice softened slightly, and he gestured at the room around us. "I'm in a restaurant -- which, you might notice, is a pretty public place -- telling you that I want to be with you. What else do you want me to do, hold a press conference?"

Something loosened inside my chest, and I blinked at him.

He leaned in close to me. "I want you back, Sam. And I think-- I think you might want me, too."

I looked down at my plate. A dozen scenarios for how this could play out dashed across my mind, but I couldn't see the ending in any of them. I lifted my chin and met his eyes. He looked impatient, expectant. "I don't think ..." I began. The corner of his eye took on a nervous twitch. "I don't we should be talking about this here."

Another table's waiter walked past us, and Josh's arm shot out, blocking him from passing. "Ah, could we maybe get the rest of this to take home?"

The waiter's gaze bounced from Josh to me and then back again. "Certainly."

Josh let his arm fall to his side, digging in his pocket for his wallet. He took out a credit card. "Thanks." The waiter perched the two plates on his arm and hurried away.

My vision clouded over as I stared at the bare placemat. An hour ago I'd been sure the last remaining vestiges of our attraction were a problem. A problem for both of us. I touched my fingers to my forehead, rubbing the lines out of them. "You know, Lisa called this one," I said.

"What?"

"When I told her I was leaving to work for Bartlet, she assumed I was running off with you. She was so sure we were going to get back together."

"Well." He picked up his wine glass. "Let's hear it for Lisa."

"Yeah, well, she also said I'd be making the worst mistake of my life if I let it happen."

He set the glass down without taking a sip. "Okay, ah, scratch that."

"Can you swear to me she's not wrong?" I felt my lip curl into a grimace. "Because I don't think you can."

Josh's jaw jutted forward, and a wounded look clouded his face. He turned away from me in his chair, following the waiter with his eyes as he hurried back to our table. "Here you go, sir," the man said, setting the credit card slip on the table in front of Josh.

Josh signed it, already leaping to his feet. "G'night, thanks."

We grabbed our coats from the coat rack, and the double doors swung open into air that was crisp with cold and the scent of new snow. I lagged two steps behind Josh as we headed down the sidewalk to my car. Thick snowflakes dusted his hair, painting landscapes across the back of his coat. His feet stepped gracefully off the curb, over the iced-over puddle, like a cat who knew how to creep through the night without making a sound. It struck me just how easy it would be to go back to his room with him.

I unlocked the door, setting the leftovers on the back seat, and flexed my fingers around the wheel. The cold rubber ate into my palms, and I shoved the key in the ignition, turning the heat all the way up. The windows were fogged up with our breath, blocking out the outside world.

I looked down at my lap. "You love your work too much to risk this," I said finally.

"You're making it sound like work is the only important thing, here."

"It *is*, Josh." I jerked my head up, letting go of the wheel. "To you it is. It's the only thing. And I think you might be underestimating how important it is to me."

His defensive expression stretched into a smile. "You do seem to have, like, come back to life or something since you started doing this again. It's been-- I mean, it's very attractive."

I clenched my fingers around the wheel again, ignoring him. "Now, I'm not going to deny that I still have certain ... feelings for you--"

"Way to make it sound like some horrible disease, Sam," he grumbled.

I turned to face him. "I'm just not sure-- I'm not sure what's supposed to happen next, here."

"You mean stealing you away to my hotel room and rolling around on the bed for a while isn't an option?"

His eyes were glinting with a hope that made my breath catch. I couldn't let myself share it. "I'll never practice law again, Josh. I mean it. Joining this campaign felt like coming out of a coma. And well-intentioned but ultimately crazy suggestions about press conferences notwithstanding, I think we both know what's really important."

"Bartlet." He punctuated the name with a sigh.

I nodded. "If he's got even the slightest chance -- and we both know he does now -- that's got to be more important than you or me. Or you and me."

"So ... what, then? Could we keep it a secret? Could-- could you deal with that?"

I sniffed. "Would I have to pretend we hardly know each other?"

The palm of his hand hit my dashboard in a shallow slap. "Come on, Sam, that was twelve years ago!"

"And time heals all wounds, right?" I said.

"Don't you even want to try?"

His voice was suddenly brittle, and I felt a soreness in the back of my throat, tugging at the corners of my eyes. I pressed them shut with my fingers, pushing against the bridge of my nose. I drew in a steady breath and looked at him. "I'm going to take us both back to the hotel," I said.

A smile started in his eyes and began spreading to his lips. I held up a hand.

"You're going back to your room, and I'm going back to mine," I clarified. "And we're both going to think about this." My voice wavered on the last sentence, but it didn't break.

"I liked my idea better," Josh muttered, turning toward the window. His shoulders were hunched as if to absorb a blow. The snow in his hair had melted, tiny droplets of water dotting the curls, and I felt my defenses begin to crumble. Reaching across the gearshift, I cupped a tentative hand over his.

Josh whipped his head back. A light of hope returned to his eyes, and he smiled.

###

I emptied the last of the things from my desk into a box: a comb, a tiny package of Kleenex, a long clear plastic box of paper clips. The styrofoam cup in my hands met my lips and was followed by tepid coffee, and I let my eyes flick back down to the note that had been sitting on my desk this morning. An index card, folded over once and perched on top of the stack of files from the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner speech, where I couldn't have missed it.

Everybody knew Josh's handwriting -- broad and garish, it was barely legible at its best. But there was no mistaking the words written in black felt-tip marker against the white background of the card: I love you. The fact that it had just been placed there in plain view, where one of the volunteers could have seen it, danced just along the edge of reckless. My face ached from grinning. I picked up the card for the hundredth time, running it between my fingers.

The sound of cardboard scraping carpet drew my attention to the door, and C.J. leaned flattened brown boxes against the doorframe. "I'm all packed," she said. "Did you want the last of these?"

"Sure, thanks."

"You need any help?" She straightened up to her full height. "We've got some extra volunteers for today."

"Most of this is staying here, actually. My stuff only fills about two boxes." I tucked the note into my breast pocket, walked over to her, and grabbed one of the boxes. "But thanks."

"Leo wants us all to meet at ten. Margaret's asking us to go over her suggestions for use of the office space, and Josh wants to talk about initial strategy in South Carolina."

"Use of the office space?" I picked up a roll of packing tape and rolled it along the bottom seam of the box.

"You know, who we move in where while we're on the road, that sort of thing. I think she's going to suggest that we get rid of the back set of offices if we don't have a full staff here." She lifted her hair from the back of her neck, pulling it into a ponytail. "Anyway, happy packing. See you at ten."

"See you." I set the box on the floor, crouching down to grab a stack of files from the edge of my desk and slide them inside.

"Sam?"

My head jerked back up to the door. "Hmm?" It was Margaret.

"There's a delivery for you." The redheaded office manager looked even more eager than usual.

I set another stack of files into the box. "I'm not expecting anything."

The corners of her mouth turned up in a sly smile. "It's definitely your name on the card."

"Card?" I asked, and Margaret turned on her heels and rushed back down the hallway. Curious, I pushed myself up from the floor and followed her out into the big room.

A short girl with chin-length brown hair stood in the center of the room, in a green uniform. She had a clipboard tucked under one arm. Her other arm was cradling a bouquet of flowers. "Mr. Seaborn?"

My eyes fell to the flowers, and I looked back up at her. "I'm Sam Seaborn."

"These are for you." Paper rustled against itself, and a long stalk of something green poked me in the arm as she thrust the flowers into my hands. "If you could just sign here, please."

Margaret was hovering so close behind me that I could feel her at my elbow, and C.J. peered down at me, her lips pursed as if trying to keep from laughing. "Somebody sent you flowers?" she asked.

"Uh. I guess so." Three volunteers were standing by the window, all watching me with piqued curiosity. One of them stood and walked toward us. I looked back at the delivery girl. She gripped her clipboard expectantly.

Flustered, I turned around, dumping the flowers into Margaret's arms, and propped the clipboard against my stomach as I signed. My signature was a scribble. I handed the clipboard back to the girl. "Thanks," I said.

"Enjoy." A bell dinged the door closed behind her.

"Oh, look, there's a card," I heard Margaret say, a little too loudly. I spun around just in time to see her pluck it out from between the flowers. She turned it over.

I lunged for it, snatching it away from her. "I'll take that."

Flanked on both sides now by Bartlet for America volunteers, I slid the corner of a fingernail underneath the flap of the envelope and pulled out the card. It was blank except for three simple words, scribbled in Josh's unmistakable scrawl: I love you. I felt myself grinning again, and I looked down at the floor, trapping my lower lip between my teeth.

"So." Margaret leaned in behind me, looking at the card over my shoulder. "Who are they from?"

"Actually, there's, uh, no name on the card." I slid it into my breast pocket and pressed it against the one from this morning.

C.J. folded her arms, smiling. "You leaving somebody behind in New Hampshire?"

"Not that I know of."

"A secret admirer," she teased. "Must have been someone who heard your speech."

"Oh, well, then they must be for the Governor," I said. One of the volunteers giggled, and I shifted my weight from one leg to the other, suddenly uncomfortable.

"I'll just put them in some water for you." Margaret scurried off in the direction of the kitchenette. Behind me, the bell signaled another opening of the front door, and I turned around. Toby stamped his feet, brushing snow off his shoulders.

Everybody was still staring at me. I held up a hand. "I swear, there was no name on the card. Seriously."

Toby stepped toward me and stopped, surveying the crowd around me. It now consisted of C.J. and three young female volunteers. "Has the candidate dropped out of the race?" he asked, his expression blank. "Because there must be a reason why we're all standing around instead of getting ready to go to South Carolina."

C.J. gestured at me with a thumb. "Somebody got a flower delivery."

Toby's eyes flicked over to C.J. and then back to me. He raised an eyebrow. "Ah."

I felt a flush crawl across my skin. "All right, show's over, guys." Dodging C.J. and a little blonde girl with a box in her hands, I made a beeline for my office. A stray hand flew to my breast pocket, and I felt myself smiling again.

Margaret appeared behind me, pushing past me into the center of the tiny room. "We didn't have a vase, so I kind of ... improvised." The flowers poked out of the top of a tall water glass, pointing in all directions. She held it up, displaying it proudly.

"That's fine." I let my eyes fall to my desk. I was supposed to be packing. I had to pack the rest of my things.

"Where do you want me to put them?"

"We're leaving for South Carolina tomorrow morning, Margaret, I don't care."

"Right. So maybe we'll just set them down right over here?" Glass clinked against metal as she set them down on top of the file cabinet. "That way, we can leave them there for the person who takes over this office."

"Fine with me."

I crouched down, rifling through the stack of files in the bottom of the box on my floor. I could hear her breathing behind me, like she was about to say something. "You really have no idea who sent them?" she finally asked.

"There was no signature on the card," I repeated, not looking up at her. I turned my back, fighting with a smile. Crazy. He was crazy.

"Hey, Sam."

"What?"

"Don't you have a staff meeting to go to?"

"Yeah, at ..." I glanced down at my watch. It was almost ten after ten. "Right."

"It's in Leo's office."

"Right." I squeezed past her out the door.

I sprinted the few steps down the hall and came to a dead stop in Leo's doorway. The others were already sitting in a circle. Josh lifted a stack of files from the chair beside him, making room for me. He was smiling, but pale skin darkened to gray under his eyes, and I knew he hadn't slept any more than I had. "Nice of you to join us," Leo said.

"Sorry," I breathed, my face still warm. I slid into the empty chair next to Josh, forcing my eyes away from him.

"Preoccupied with your secret admirer?" C.J. asked.

"Hmm?" Josh asked.

"Somebody had flowers delivered for Sam," she explained. "No signature on the card."

I shot her a pointed look. "Can we just--"

"You been seeing somebody in New Hampshire we don't know about?" Josh said. His voice was just light enough to be playful.

I blinked at the spot on the carpet in the middle of the circle, biting the insides of my cheeks. I turned my head toward him, slowly, forcing my mouth into a straight line. "If I have been, then I don't know about it, either."

"You can't just go around breaking hearts along the campaign trail, you know." Josh said. He was still smiling. My skin chilled, prickling with goosebumps.

"All right, that's enough about Don Juan de Seaborn, here," Leo growled. "I'm assuming you all came here for a meeting?"

I dropped my eyes, forcing myself to focus on Leo. Josh was sprawled out in his own chair, one leg folded over the other at his ankles, inches from my own. I sat up straight, tucking my legs under my chair.

"We've got people setting up an office for us down in Columbia," Leo continued, "so we should have something by tomorrow afternoon. It's in a strip mall, so we're not talking room with a view, here but the price is right, and it's a lot bigger than what we've got now."

"Do we really need something bigger?" C.J. asked. "I mean, we've been okay so far."

Leo nodded. "We do if we want to hire more people."

I lifted my chin. Last I'd heard, that wasn't in the cards. "Can we afford to do that?"

"If we can keep this kind of momentum, I don't see why not." Leo looked at Josh. "I want to get somebody on full-time fundraising, and hire one more person to stay in Manchester with Margaret."

"We should think about getting Mandy Hampton," Toby offered.

"Is she available?" Josh asked.

Toby shrugged. "She's consulting."

"Get her to send me her resumé," Leo said to Toby, and then turned back to Josh. "Let's talk strategy."

"Okay." Josh's chair creaked as he sat up, and I let myself turn toward him a little. "We're not gonna touch Hoynes at this point, especially not in South Carolina," he said. "Right now the thing is to get rid of Wiley."

"You really think we can get his money?" C.J. asked, her eyes on Leo.

"If he doesn't come in second in South Carolina?" Leo said. "Absolutely."

"The thing with Wiley is that he's weak with black voters," Josh continued. "So if we can concentrate our time and money in predominantly black areas, we can really hurt him."

Toby raised his eyebrows. "You think a Catholic from New Hampshire is going to do better with black voters than Wiley?"

Josh shrugged. "Bartlet's an unknown quantity. All people know about him right now is that he blew them away at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner. If we can find a way to ride that, we can do anything we want."

"We're not gonna draw any votes away from Hoynes by concentrating on African-Americans," Toby shot back.

"We can take care of Hoynes later," Josh said, shaking his head. "Right now it's gotta be Wiley."

Leo was nodding. "I bet we can get an endorsement from Congressman Breeland."

"So we focus on get-out-the-vote efforts, then," I said. "Shake a lot of hands. Talk to people."

"Exactly." Josh spread his hands in front of him. "Bartlet's accessible here. People know who he is, and that's worked for us so far. It'll be hard to lay down a foundation like that in South Carolina in just a few weeks, but I think we can do it."

"If we can get people fired up enough, we should be able to make it work," C.J. said.

Josh reached under his chair, retrieving three file folders. "I whipped up a chart of the voter turnout rates in some of the primarily black neighborhoods in Columbia and north Charleston." He handed the folder on top to me. "If you want to take a look, and then pass it down."

I slid my thumb inside the folder as I opened it. Josh kept talking, but none of his words penetrated the fog that was suddenly closing in on my brain. The folder was empty apart from a yellow Post-It note in the center of it. Three words spread across it in large block letters: I love you.

I snapped the folder shut and cast a frantic glance around the room, letting my eyes land on Josh. I tried to glare at him, but I felt my mouth turning up at the corners. "The fifth district has traditionally been--" he started, and then cut himself off. He cocked his head to one side. "What?"

My eyes fell back down to the folder, and a sputtery laugh escaped my lips. My face was burning.

"Do I get to see the chart?" C.J. asked.

"I, uh." I looked up at Josh again. "I think this is the wrong folder," I said, passing it back to him.

He opened it. "Whoops." He shuffled the stack of file folders and handed me another one. "Here's the chart."

The remainder of the meeting blurred together and lost coherence. Memories jarred against new thoughts inside my mind, and I felt myself suspended in the most frightening, most exhilarating sort of timelessness. Who was to say that the past carried more weight than the present? And who got to decide which one of them had a greater influence on the future?

"See you all in Columbia," Leo finally said, rising to his feet, and I felt myself follow. Josh reached under his chair for his remaining file folders, and stood next to me, not moving. I let all the air out of my lungs and turned toward him. "Could I talk to you for a second?"

One corner of his mouth cracked a smile. "Sure."

We stepped across the hall to my office, and I closed the door behind him. "Nice flowers," he said.

"We're supposed to be thinking about things!" I yelled.

He spun around, throwing his arms out to his sides. "I'm thinking! Can't I send you flowers while I think?" He grinned. "So, was it Margaret who met the guy at the door?"

"It was a girl. And yes."

Josh let out a chuckle and leaned against my desk. "God, I wish I could have been there to see that."

He stretched out his legs, both arms behind him to prop him up. All the energy that had been building between us collected in his eyes, and he fixed them on me. I felt my heart falter.

"Did she try to look at the card?" he asked.

"Margaret?"

"Yeah."

"Not really, but she kept asking if I had any idea who had sent the flowers." I tried to glare at him. "But never mind that. What was that thing just now?"

"What thing?"

"Your little chart. The one that wasn't a chart."

"Ever heard the expression 'turnabout is fair play'?" He pointed a finger at me, grinning.

"I handed you my acceptance letter to Yale, Josh. Not a Post-It note with 'I love you' scrawled on it." I brought my hands to my waist. "Whatever happened to 'that was twelve years ago, Sam, none of that matters anymore'?"

The playful expression drained from his face, and his forehead creased. "I never said it didn't matter. It mattered one hell of a lot to me."

His eyes pierced mine. I could hear my heart rushing in my ears, and I turned toward the window, rubbing the damp hollows of my palms onto my legs. "We were kids." I struggled to keep my voice steady, but it came out in a whisper.

"We were pretty bright kids." The desk creaked as he stood up, shifting closer to me. He snorted. "Well, at least you were. I was arguably a pretty stupid kid."

I took a step backward and lowered myself against my desk.

"Do you ever think about-- about how things might have turned out if you'd gone to Yale? If you'd moved in with me?"

A stab of pain shot through me. I never had. I'd never even let myself wonder. "It would never have worked," I said.

"Yeah." Josh let out one of his long, world-weary sighs. "You're probably right."

I pressed my eyes shut. The memory of his door closing behind me stole into my conscious mind, and a cavern of emptiness widened inside me. I'd seen him no more than a handful of times between then and the day he'd wandered back into my life a month ago, but I still felt branded.

"So it's a good thing we get a second chance now."

I drew toward him slowly, almost without volition, as if he'd tied an invisible line to my chest and was tugging on it, reeling me in. His eyes were wide, sincere. I swallowed back the fear in my throat and met them.

"I've never met anybody else like you, Sam. Nobody else has ever ..." He glanced at the floor and let out a cough. "I miss you," he tried again. "And I thought I'd miss you less if you were here, but seeing you all the time and not being able to-- it just makes me miss you more."

Warmth spread through me from my chest outward. My hand was shaking in my lap.

"I guess what I'm trying to say is that I ... I still ..."

I stared at him. His mouth twitched helplessly at the corners. I cracked a smile.

"You can fill in the blanks anytime now, you know," he said, the breath in his voice just short of desperate.

"No, no, that's okay." I leaned back against the desk, propping myself up with a hand spread flat against its surface. "I've only got two boxes to pack today."

His mouth fell open, and he drew in air as if to speak, but only the rush of a breath reached my ears. He pressed his lips closed again. His forehead wrinkled, and he sighed.

I reached around to the hair at the nape of his neck and pulled him toward me. My lips grazed his, just barely, as if to pause just long enough to let memory overtake my conscious thoughts. And then he was kissing me back, his tongue soft and tentative against my own, as if to welcome me home.

We stopped at the same time, and I pulled back just enough to look at him. His hands hovered just an inch away from my shoulders. "I love you, too," I said. It came out as naturally as a breath.

Josh blinked and inhaled sharply through his nose. "Right. That." He looked down at his lap, bringing a hand to the top of his head. His hair brushed against my forehead "I do. I mean." He looked back up at me. His eyes were wide with a mixture of relief and terror. "I love you."

I brought my hand around to the side of his face, tracing the line of his jaw with my thumb. "I'm surprised you're having so much trouble saying it after writing it a dozen times," I teased.

"I think it was three times." His vulnerable expression eased into a familiar grin. "Technically."

I breathed out a laugh. My heart felt weightless. There was nowhere else I wanted to be, not now. Not ever.

He drew back, clasping both of my hands between his. He wasn't quite looking at me. "Look, I know how much of a jackass I was. Before. I mean, the last time we tried this."

I swallowed. There was no way to respond to that.

"But that was-- I'm really-- I'm sorry about all that. I've never even said that, have I?" He ran a hand through the hair on the top of his head and looked back up at me. "I was just so scared."

"You're not scared now?" I tried to mask my own fear with confidence, but it seeped out through the cracks in my voice.

He leaned in toward me, pressing our foreheads together. I could feel his breath against my cheek, warming it, and his fingers danced along my spine. "Nowhere near as scared as I was that you were going to turn me down," he said.

I let myself relax against him, our bodies blending together. No matter what happened from here, I knew that when I woke up tomorrow morning, Josh would be lying beside me. Not just a dream, this time, but the real thing.

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