E minus 212 days, 9:45PM.
At the first glimpse of Governor Bartlet on the screen, a chorus of boos and catcalls spread through the hotel bar. He shot the crowd that pompous New England grin of his, waving. From somewhere in the back of the bar, somebody threw a wadded-up ball of paper at the television.
It was ostensibly the Democrats' night, but Des Moines was clearly still Armstrong country.
A hint of a smile spread across Megan's face, but she forced her mouth into a line again. Four heads were tucked into a huddle at the next table, and a woman with short, spiky hair glanced up long enough to check the screen and take the temperature in the room. Megan recognized her from pictures as Lena Moreno, and if the Dems were sending Lena Moreno to Iowa, there was still a lot of work to do. Far too much to justify anything resembling overconfidence.
"I can't believe it's going to be Bartlet," Eric said. His voice was giddy, as if he’d picked up on Megan's moment of suppressed glee and run with it.
"Seriously." Greg grinned. "Hoynes is a blowhard, but Bartlet's a nobody."
Ted pushed up his glasses and tilted his head thoughtfully. "I don't know. He's a blank slate, and that can be used to his advantage. We've known Hoynes' weaknesses inside and out for years, and the ads would have written themselves. Bartlet can be anybody they want him to be."
Greg and Eric rolled their eyes in unison. "Come on, man," Greg said. "No northern liberal will ever be President of the United States."
"Especially not one with zero foreign policy experience," Eric added.
Ted held up a cautioning hand. "All I'm saying is that it's only April. A lot can happen between now and November."
The woman with the spiky hair from the next table stood up and headed for the bathroom. She had a row of tiny hoops along the bottom of one ear, and nobody would ever call that black t-shirt a blouse. Definitely Lena Moreno.
Megan leaned across the table toward Greg and Eric, blonde bangs falling across her face like a veil. "I don't want to alarm any of you, but the table right next to us is full of Democrats. We might want to keep our voices down?"
As if on cue, all three of them craned their necks to look.
Megan pressed a fist to her forehead. "Okay, remind me: I haven't put any of you people on opposition research, right?"
They turned back. Greg was blushing a little, his face clashing with the red in his hair. "How do you know they're Democrats?" he asked.
Eric nudged him in the ribs with an elbow. "Hel-lo. No self-respecting Republican would go without a haircut as long as that bearded dude has."
Megan folded her hands against the table. "Eric's friend with the beard is from Urbandale. He's a Polk County coordinator. The lady across from him's a precinct captain. I don't know the other one, but I'd bet she's from right here in Des Moines, given the way the locals keep going over to talk to her. And the woman who just disappeared into the bathroom is Lena Moreno. She's from New York, but I'm pretty sure she's Bartlet's new field director, statewide."
Greg’s eyebrows flattened. "Can't they get their own damn hotel?"
Megan shrugged. "Most of the Dems are over at the Marriott. They seem to be using the Hyatt as overflow. Probably because of the shortage of meeting space at the Marriott."
Greg shook his head. His eyes were a little frustrated, a little admiring. "How do you know all this?"
Megan leaned back and gave him her sweetest smile. "I pay attention. You might want to try it sometime."
They laughed, and Eric slapped Greg on the back. Greg made a face. "You've got a scary, scary brain, Richter," he mumbled.
A scary brain, but a weak bladder. "I'll be right back," Megan said, standing. She grabbed her purse, raising an eyebrow at Greg. "Don't inadvertently pass them any secrets while I'm gone, okay?"
On the screen, Bartlet was behind the podium now, and the crowd in the bar was starting to pay attention. It wasn't an acceptance speech yet, not officially, but it might as well have been. Tomorrow she'd have to call her precinct captains—it was time to ramp things up a notch. Megan stepped toward the bathroom.
"Wait. No, listen to me. Sue, no." The urgency in the woman's voice stopped Megan in her tracks: raw and naked and uncontrolled.
Megan made herself take another careful step forward, rounding the corner. The woman's back was turned, her shoulders hunched around the pay phone, but it was definitely Lena Moreno.
A haze of cigarette smoke hung over her. She exhaled another breath, adding a fresh layer to it. "Fine," she said, her voice crisp and staccato. "The relationship's over. You made that perfectly clear with the stunt you pulled last week. But there's no reason you can't stay living there. I'm in Iowa straight through to November. It's not like I'm going to be cramping your style."
A realization settled into Megan with a shudder: a relationship, with someone named Sue. She tried to keep walking, but her knees were suddenly wobbly with unease. She twisted a strand of hair around her finger.
"But we signed a fucking lease!" Lena's voice broke. It would have made anyone else sound fragile, but there was something in the way she was standing: something elegant, something powerful.
Lena took another puff on her cigarette. Megan realized she was holding her breath. She let it out slowly, inaudibly, through her nose.
"God da— No. Sue. You know that thing was supposed to be in both of our names. I don't care—"
There was a reckless edge in Lena's voice, and Megan's heart bounded up from her chest. She twisted the finger around her hair again. Suddenly, compulsively, she knew she had to be somewhere else.
"Fuck you, Susan Charleton," Lena spat at the phone. "Fuck you very much."
The receiver slammed down with a clang, and in response, a storm of sobs ripped through Lena. They were a little boy's sobs, loud and angry, as if she felt even more betrayed by her own tear ducts than by this Susan Charleton. Lena slammed a flat hand against the side of the pay phone, sending an echo of a ring sounding off the walls.
Megan threw a look over her shoulder toward the bar, and then back up toward the bathroom. At this point there was no way Lena wasn't going to see her.
Lena pressed a breath out of her lungs as if by brute force. She ground out her cigarette on the side of the phone, tugged at the bottom of her shirt to smooth it, and turned around.
Their eyes collided, and for a long moment Lena's cheeks were the sickly gray of new cement. Then the color flew back to them, and her eyes narrowed. "All right, show's over."
"I wasn't—" But of course she had been. Megan blushed to the roots of her hair.
"Right, you were just walking to the bathroom, didn't hear a thing."
Lena barked out a laugh. "Am I what? A lesbian? Yes, I'm a lezzzzzzbian. You can say the word, you know, it won't bite."
An electric jolt shot through Megan's body. "Are you all right," she managed to counter. "I was just going to ask if you were all right. But let's both pretend I just walked right on by and said nothing, shall we?"
Megan stalked past her toward the bathroom, gritting her teeth. Eavesdropping was a little impertinent, sure, but it didn't justify that kind of rudeness. Those New York manners weren't going to get the famous Lena Moreno very far in this part of the country.
Megan's feet ground to a halt again. Her heart was ricocheting around inside her ribcage: inexplicably, maddeningly. She turned around.
Lena's shoulders were slumped, and there were dark rings of mascara under her eyes. She looked defeated, like all of the prickliness had been sucked out of her. "I'm sorry."
Megan swallowed. Her lips parted, but nothing came out.
"I'm a bitch when I'm under fire, and that phone call—" Lena tossed her head back like she could shrug it off. "But I shouldn't have taken it out on a stranger."
Sad to angry to contrite in sixty seconds. This woman was a whirlwind. "It's okay," Megan said, by rote, but it came out in a little squeak. She cleared her throat.
"I'm Lena Moreno." She held out a hand.
Megan took it. It was warm, and still a little wet from her tears. "Megan Richter." She leaned back a little. "Are you all right?"
Lena gave her a watery smile. "Nothing a long night of work and a good stiff drink can't cure." She tilted her head at Megan. "Can I buy you one? It's the least I can do."
Megan's legs were unsteady again. "I'm just..." She pointed at the entryway into the bathroom.
Lena nodded. "Rain check, then."
Megan's hand clenched around the strap of her purse. She pried it back open again. "Sounds good." She forced a smile. "See you." She stepped into the bathroom.
She scurried toward the stall, but her gaze snagged on her reflection in the mirror. Strands of blonde hair had fallen loose from her barrette, and her face was the color of a ripe tomato.
This wasn't the woman with the scary, scary brain, or the one who could fire up a whole room full of middle-aged farmers, either. It was somebody else.
Megan swallowed. She reached inside her purse for her compact, dabbed pale peach powder across her nose and cheeks, and squeezed her hair back into its metal clasp. But her eyes were still bright, and her heart was still rattling.
E minus 211 days, 12:20PM.
"It can't be double-booked." Ted's voice was level, but the veins in his neck were straining. "I booked it myself last week."
Megan glanced into the room. It was already set up, but with four round tables and floral centerpieces instead of legal pads and a projector. Whatever this was going to be this afternoon, it wasn't their training session.
She put on her friendliest smile and leaned in slightly toward the hotel clerk. "It's just that we've got twelve people coming in at two. We really do need this space."
The clerk bit her lower lip. "What was the name again?"
"Richter," Ted said quickly. "Megan Richter."
She held the registration book open with both arms, clenching fists around the top edge. "That's, uh, not the name we've got."
Megan swallowed. "What name do you have?"
The clerk pulled the book closer to her chest. "I'm sorry, I can't—"
"Is there a problem?" A woman's voice. A New York voice.
Megan turned around. Sure enough. Since last night, Lena Moreno had toned down the long row of hoop earrings to two discreet studs and exchanged her t-shirt and baggy jeans for a tailored navy blue pantsuit and heels. A nerve pricked in Megan's neck. She shifted her weight onto her back leg.
Their eyes met. Lena's mouth turned up at one corner. "We meet again," she said, her voice low and dramatic.
The hotel clerk's face shriveled with embarrassment. "There seems to have been a double-booking for this meeting room. We're so sorry."
"It's Ms. Moreno's name in the book?" Megan asked, but she already knew the answer.
The clerk gave a little nod. She sucked in her cheeks.
Lena's mouth pinched, like she was suppressing a smirk. She shrugged.
Megan pushed out a breath. Sometimes it was better to admit defeat than to risk making enemies, especially when it came to a hotel clerk who had the key to your room. "Is there a suite we could use, maybe? Something with a bit of a larger living room than the regular—"
"There's an empty king suite." The hotel clerk's face brightened. "We could move the couch out of the way, maybe set up some folding chairs?"
Megan put a hand on Ted's arm. "Why don't you go check it out."
The clerk scurried off, Ted taking long strides to keep up with her. They ducked into the elevator and were gone.
"Sorry," Lena said. She kept the smile off her face, but it still edged into her voice. She was enjoying this.
"It's not your fault," said Megan, sharp and clipped.
The silence was more stubborn than awkward. Megan fixed her eyes on a chandelier and began counting bulbs.
"We should probably have a seat," Lena said eventually, holding out an arm toward the round tables. "This might take a while."
Megan gave her a quick nod and followed her to the table. They pulled out chairs and sat down. Lena pinched a browning leaf from one of the centerpieces and tucked it into her pocket. The silence grew, settling into the corners of the room.
"So," Megan began, reaching into the back of her mind for a conversation starter. "How did you end up in Iowa?"
Lena shook her head. "There's no story there, really. I applied for the job, I got it."
Megan swallowed. "I guess I'd have thought they'd need you more in the sort of place where they speak more Spanish."
"What makes you think I speak Spanish?" Out of nowhere, there was an icy edge in Lena's voice that made Megan's breath catch. Lena's eyes narrowed a little. "Why would you even assume that?"
Megan's face flushed, then tightened. Why did liberals always have to bring political correctness into every single conversation?
Then, just as suddenly, the icy expression was gone, and Lena's mouth broke into a smile. "Oh my God, you should see your face right now. It's like it got stuck somewhere between embarrassed and pissed off."
A knot tightened in Megan's chest. "And yours looks like it got run over by a pendulum swinging from political correctness to mockery."
Lena let out a long laugh from deep in her belly. "Touché."
The knot loosened. There it was again: three moods in as many seconds. Hurricane Lena.
"My mom's white," Lena explained, her voice level again. "I got my name and my look from my dad, but he left when I was six. So I've got two years of high school Spanish, but that's about it."
"And you grew up in New York?" Megan asked carefully.
"Born and raised. How about you?"
"Martensdale, Iowa. Population four hundred seventy-two." Megan gestured over her shoulder with a thumb. "It's south of here."
Lena nodded. "I only know it from the map, but I'm sure I'll see it for myself before this gig is up."
A smile crept across Megan's face. "Make sure not to blink."
"So you're the home advantage on Armstrong's Polk County team, then?" There was genuine interest in Lena's eyes.
All right, so this was going to be a real conversation. "Well, I live in Iowa City now. Since college. But right up until the campaign I was always back most weekends to see my parents, anyway. So I suppose it's true: this area is still home."
"They're both still around, then."
"My parents? Still alive, still married, still living in Martensdale."
Lena pursed her lips. "Where fairy tales come true, apparently."
Megan rolled her eyes. "Okay, I can't tell whether that was garden-variety cynicism or full-blown misanthropy."
Lena made a little noise of protest, but she was smiling again. "What do you—I'm no cynic!"
Megan raised an eyebrow. "So you're admitting to the misanthropy?"
Lena tilted her head to one side. "Okay, maybe sometimes." She chuckled. "The way you talk. It's kind of crazy, but it's great."
That was a strange comment from somebody who pronounced the word 'talk' like it had a w in it. "I'm from Iowa."
"Not your accent. Your ten-cent words. Like you're trying to choose the perfect one in every sentence. You done any speechwriting?"
A warm feeling worked its way through Megan. The perfect word in every sentence—that was exactly what it felt like. "I've mostly worked on ballot initiatives."
"Really, no speechwriting?"
"I'd like to, someday," Megan admitted.
The hotel manager grabbed the doorframe and leaned into the room. "Everything all right in here?"
Megan nodded at him. "We're fine."
"No blood on the walls," Lena quipped.
"We're so sorry about the mixup. Can I get you two something to drink while you wait?"
Lena raised an eyebrow and slid her gaze over to Megan. "I do owe you a drink."
"Can you bring us two gin and tonics?" Lena was still looking at Megan.
"Make mine a Coke," Megan corrected.
"Coming right up." The manager pushed himself off the doorframe and was gone.
"You don't like gin and tonic? You don't drink before dinnertime?" Lena tilted her head, questioning. Then her eyebrows flattened. "You don't drink at all."
"Everybody drinks. I don't drink alcohol."
"I should have known." Lena's mouth pursed into a smirk. "Are you people even allowed to drink?"
Megan rolled her eyes again. "You people? Now who's stereotyping?"
Lena held up a hand. "Don't get me wrong, I know there are sane Republicans." She leaned back in her seat. "And the Governor knows that too, by the way, coming from New Hampshire. But you have to admit, an awful lot of Iowa Republicans tend to be the kind of people who think you'll get barred from heaven for a single sip of beer."
Megan shook her head. "I'm not even sure heaven exists."
"Really?" Lena leaned back in her seat. "Interesting." She held out a hand, gesturing for her to continue.
"I don't know." Megan shifted in her seat. She'd been thinking about this for years, but she'd never had much cause to put it into words. "I mean, my parents are good Lutherans, but at some point all the stuff about heaven and hell started sounding like the fables they tell kids to get them to keep quiet and behave themselves."
"Huh! You were a rebel! Just...secretly." Lena twisted a stray strand of short dark hair around one finger. "You were a stealth rebel."
"I do think there's some sort of afterlife, but I guess I think it'll probably be something more like..." She let her voice trail off, unsure of how to put it. And then she knew. She held her hands in front of her, raising her eyebrows with a dramatic flair. "What do you think has become of the young and old men?"
Lena squinted a little. She shook her head. "What?"
Megan reached across the table and put a hand on her arm to silence her. "And what do you think has become of the women and children? They are alive and well somewhere."
"Sounds like heaven and hell to me," Lena said. Her voice was low and growly, but her mouth was turned up at one corner.
Megan shook her head and patted Lena's arm again. "The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, and if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it, and ceas'd the moment life appear'd."
Lena leaned in closer, her eyes glinting with amusement.
"All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, and to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."
Lena recoiled in mock horror. "Oh my God, you're one of those crystal people! There is no death, we are one with the earth, yadda yadda—"
Megan withdrew her hand and shrugged. "Tell that to Walt Whitman."
"I've got a crystal-wearing Republican quoting Walt Whitman at me. Talk about Twilight Zone."
"He was like you, by the way."
"He was a liberal?" Lena grinned.
Megan smiled. "He was in love with a bus driver named Peter for most of his life, and we know he kissed Oscar Wilde at least once." She uncrossed her legs and planted an elbow on the table. "He didn't drink alcohol either, though. And not because he thought it would keep him out of heaven."
Lena's grin softened, and she shook her head at Megan. "You sure are a funny one."
"The suite's gonna work," Ted called out from the doorway. "They're getting us some chairs and a podium."
"We're so sorry about this," the clerk said again.
"I guess we owe you one," Lena said.
"Which isn't a bad position to be in." Megan stood.
"A fair point," Lena acknowledged, following Megan to her feet.
"I guess I'll have to take another rain check on that Coke," Megan said.
Lena's answering smile was genuine. "Anytime."
"You two were looking pretty friendly there," Ted said as they stepped into the hallway. "You got something up your sleeve?"
"We were just talking," she insisted.
Megan frowned. Usually it was true: if Megan was talking to a Democrat, there was some tactical reason, at least since she started doing this for a living. But she hadn't minded being thrown into a room with Lena Moreno.
E minus 180 days, 12:15PM.
It was the third McDonalds in three days. Megan would rather have waited for any other fast food chain to come along, but Greg and Eric had both asked to stop, and Megan wasn't going to turn this into a battle. She swung the door open and turned to the guys. "Okay, we've got about ten minutes if we want to be sure to get to Altoona by one."
"I can be done in five," Eric said.
Greg patted himself on the stomach. "You could be done in two, with the way you pack things in."
Megan held up a hand. "As long as we're out of here in ten."
Greg gave her a salute. "Yes, boss."
"Hey, Richter, isn't that your new friend?" Eric's voice was a sing-song.
Megan's gaze stretched across the dining room, and over by the window, she spotted Lena. A smile spread across Lena's face, and she gave Megan a wave. There was a flutter in Megan's stomach. She lifted an arm and waved back.
Lena leaned in toward the guy she was with, and he turned, looking over his shoulder at Megan. Lena stood, grabbed her cup, and moved over to a table for two.
It was the hectic campaign schedule that was making Megan's heart race. It had to be. The two of them had been friendly whenever they'd seen each other over the past few weeks, but there had never been time for more than a few quick exchanges.
Lena made a 'come on over' motion with her hand and patted the table across from her. Megan's breath caught.
She didn't want another hamburger anyway.
Eric and Greg looked at each other, then back at Megan. "Looks like she's expecting you," Greg said.
"Ten minutes," Megan said to the others, not looking at them.
"Oooh, Richter's going over to the other siiiiide," Eric teased.
Anger flared in Megan's chest, but she fixed her eyes on Lena and swallowed it back. She walked into the dining room.
"Hey there, stranger." Lena was smiling as Megan reached her table. "What's a nice girl like you doing in a cheap fast-food joint like this?"
"How's it going?" Megan slid in across from her.
"Good. We're just getting back from a really great morning rally in Iowa City, actually. Lots of support."
Megan's lips pressed into a half-smile. There was plenty of support for Bartlet from the college crowd, but scratch the surface, and Iowa City was another overgrown farm town. "I bet you'd tell me the same thing if it had gone badly."
"Oh, sure," Lena said with a shrug. "So how are things in the Armstrong camp?"
Megan's smile widened into a grin. "Couldn't be better. Lots of support."
Lena threw her head back and laughed. It was a nice laugh: a little too loud, but that only made it sound more honest. "Uh-huh."
"So, Bartlet's new tax policy seems to be going over like a cement truck," Megan ventured. This conversation could have been so awkward. It was strange that it wasn't.
Lena raised an eyebrow, but her smile didn't waver. Her lips curled around her straw, and she took a sip of her shake. "That's not what our internal polling says."
"You might want to try occasionally polling outside of Iowa City," Megan said.
There was a glint of an edge in Lena's eyes, and she sat taller. "Yeah, well, if you think opposition to Armstrong's tax cut is limited to Iowa City, it's you people who need to adjust your polling."
A nervy excitement hummed through Megan. She hadn't had a conversation like this since college. "You think."
Lena slapped a hand on the table in front of them. "That thing has left the richest subset of Americans with enough to afford a new sports car, and middle-class Americans with enough to afford a warm soda. Iowans aren't happy, not in Iowa City, not in Des Moines, and not in the sticks, either."
Megan held up a finger. "That's funny, because the ones I'm talking to know that excessive taxation and regulation do nothing but impede economic development. Bartlet's anti-growth policies would—"
"You do know that the Governor is an economist, right?" Lena shook her head.
Megan leaned back in her seat. "Yeah, I admit it was a bit of a disappointment to find out just how recklessly the LSE seems to give out Ph.D.s."
Lena's laugh was back. "Uh-huh. And the Nobel committee, too, apparently."
"The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences," Megan corrected.
"There's no Nobel committee for Economics. The winners are picked by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences."
A small cup with a lid on it appeared on the corner of the table. "I got you a coffee." Greg's voice.
Megan looked up, but he was too busy glaring at Lena. Megan reached over and took the cup. "Thanks."
Greg's expression tightened. He didn't move.
"Thanks, Greg," Megan said pointedly. She fixed her eyes on him.
He let out a little sniff. He walked back over to Eric, but not without tossing one last look at them over his shoulder.
"It's good to have minions, isn't it?" Lena mused.
They were both looking over at Megan and Lena now, and Eric's expression had fallen into line with Greg's. "Sometimes," Megan muttered.
"Anyway." Lena swiveled her seat around to the other side. "I guess we'll see in November whether Iowans still prefer Armstrong-style corporate tax cuts to a breath of fresh Bartlet air."
"I guess we will." Megan held the cup up to her mouth. The coffee was surprisingly fresh for a fast food restaurant. Good coffee, good conversation. "You know, I would have never taken you for the policy wonk type," she mused.
Lena tilted her head. "What makes you say that?"
"You don't strike me as the kind of person who gets into this line of work to influence a few lines of tax policy, that's all."
"I am working on a master's in policy analysis. At NYU."
Megan shrugged. "I could be wrong."
Lena's eyes dropped to the table. "Nah, my professors would agree with you. There are reasons why I'm taking a year off, and they sure aren't about the salaries in this line of work being too hard to resist."
Lena didn't elaborate. She didn't look up, either. "So what are they about?" Megan prompted.
"Actually." She met Megan's eyes. "This is going to sound crazy to you, but I really like Bartlet. He's a really smart, highly educated populist. How often does that come along?" Lena took another sip of her shake. "That and I was pretty lost after the Senate campaign I worked on last. I might not even finish the master's at this point. I think I'm too addicted to campaigning."
Megan knew that one. She'd only been a volunteer in the last election, but she would never forget how it felt when the President had won. "I'm addicted to winning," Megan admitted.
Lena pointed across the table at her. "Yeah, that's it. Winning isn't everything—"
"—it's the only thing," Megan quoted. A thrill flamed through her. They were so different, but in this they were the same.
Megan felt a gentle current pass between them. She gave Lena a little smile, and Lena echoed it back.
"To winning." Lena held up her cup. Her smile carved a dimple into her cheek. It was a little out of place on that elegant, angular face, but it only made her look more interesting.
Megan lifted her coffee in response, and the cups touched in a soundless toast.
Megan swiveled her chair around. Eric was standing by the exit, pointing at his watch. Instantly the room dimmed into something much more commonplace. Megan made herself stand. "The minions beckon."
"It really was good to see you." Lena's eyes locked on Megan's with a surprising fierceness: wide and dark and open.
A rush of dizziness flooded her head. She couldn't make herself look away. "You, too," she managed to respond. She took a step away, her knees a bit wobbly. "See you back at the hotel."
"See you." Lena gave her a little wave.
Eric and Greg met Megan at the door. "Okay, seriously, what's up with Moreno's friendly act?" Eric asked, his face twisted into a frown.
Megan forced calm into her voice. "I think she finds me a scintillating conversationalist. What, are you saying you disagree?"
"Yeah, well, I think she wants to get into your campaign strategy briefs," Eric growled. "Or maybe your pants."
Megan felt her face curdle, muscles cording on her neck. She pushed through the double doors and into the parking lot.
"Dude, keep your fantasies to yourself, okay?" Greg's voice was so loud that it could have been heard on the other side of the street.
"Sor-ry!" Eric protested.
She pulled her keys out of her pocket and picked up the pace. Her hands were shaking.
"I don't need to know where your mind goes, and I'm sure Richter doesn't want to hear it, either." Greg's voice was more disgusted than outraged. "Please."
"I just think it's a little weird, that's all," Eric grumbled.
At the car, Megan tried to shove the key into the lock, but it just scraped against the car door. She clenched a fist around the key ring, drew in a shuddery breath, and released it again.
Greg had permission to drive the campaign car, and he could darn well use it today. "Hey, Greg," she called out.
"Catch." She threw them over the car, and he caught them. "You're driving."
"Really?" A look of surprise flickered across his face. "Okay," he said with a shrug.
Megan walked in front of the car to the passenger door. Her eyes focused, then went glassy again. It was true. There had been something in that last look of Lena's, a feeling far larger than 'it really was good to see you' could encompass.
"Are we going?" Greg said from the inside of the car, his voice muffled through the window. He pointed at the lock.
Megan shook herself aware for long enough to climb in, pulled her seatbelt on with trembling hands, and gripped the sides of her seat to still them. What if Eric was right? What if Lena wanted—
Her heart constricted with fear. And quite possibly with something else, something a little more like hope.
Megan coughed and turned to stare out the window. It had been happening for weeks already. Sometimes it was just a little flutter in her stomach whenever Lena was around, and sometimes it was a little more drastic, like a moment ago. But Megan had always been able to push it away for long enough to pretend it wasn't really there, and at this point there was no denying it: this woman—this Democrat woman—had somehow managed to slip inside Megan's head and take up residence there without Megan even fully noticing.
It was a terrifying thought, and an exciting one. But whatever else it was, it certainly wasn't normal.
E minus 151 days, 5:15PM.
"Who do we have seated next to Alan Hayworth?" Megan called out to Ted. She hugged her clipboard to her chest as she made a beeline for him. The tables were long since set up and the caterers were already beginning to unpack, but lately she couldn't shake the feeling that there was always a whole raft of unfinished business waiting in the wings.
Ted glanced down at the seating chart in his hands. "He's at the head of that table," he said, pointing. "Which puts him next to...Sharon Kaiser."
Megan bit her lip in concentration. Sharon Kaiser could talk anyone's ear off, but she was decorative, and that counted for a lot with somebody like Hayworth. Anything to get him to open his wallet for more than just the price of admission. "Okay, that should work."
The room wouldn't hurt, either. Hayworth was a lover of understated luxury, but he'd turn up his nose at anything too opulent, and this place straddled that line beautifully. It had been an ordinary barn once, but sometime in the last couple of decades it had been transformed into something peculiar and wonderful. Tall ceilings sloped inward to a point up above a fully renovated room, and a row of thin skylights allowed the sun to rake across it during the day and exposed slivers of starry skies at night. The long June days meant that tonight they'd be treated to a little bit of both.
"It really is a great space." Ted glanced around, admiring.
Megan smiled. "Isn't it?" The smell from the pig roasting out back had begun to float into the barn, giving the place a country feel without sacrificing its elegance.
"How did you find it?"
"It belongs to someone I knew back in high school, actually," she said, leaning in toward Ted. The orchestra was already tuning their instruments, and the sound collected in the center of the room, breathing new energy into it. "But if anybody asks about it, can we maybe pretend I had to work some impressive feat of networking in order to get it?"
"Wow." Ted whistled. "It's a good thing for us your high school friends were Republicans."
There was a flutter of guilt in Megan's stomach. Tammy had never been anything but a Republican, but if her husband had still been living here, he'd never have allowed them to use it for a fundraiser for President Armstrong. Even Tammy herself had been noncommittal when Megan had asked, but a moment after hanging up, she'd called back and agreed. "If he doesn't like the idea, he can come back and tell me that to my face," she'd said with an edge of bitterness.
"Excuse me." A woman in an apron shoved past Megan with a stack of silver serving trays. Megan stepped to one side, caught sight of the woman, and her heart leaped into her throat. It was Lena.
No, wait. Not Lena. Another olive-skinned, spiky-haired woman with a row of tiny hoop earrings, but not Lena.
Megan gave her head a shake to dispel the feeling of dread, and embarrassment sprouted up in its place. As if Lena would have been catering a fundraiser for the President. Megan really was cracking up.
"So Hayworth can stay where he is?" Ted asked, craning his neck to glance at Megan's clipboard.
She handed it to him. "Yeah, I think so."
"Megan Richter. Just look at you." It was Tammy's voice, with a smile in it as bright and wide as the summer sky.
Megan echoed the smile back at her as she turned around. Tammy's hair was drawn back in a ponytail, and her green scoop-neck t-shirt hugged her figure. She'd put on a few extra pounds, and a new set of crow's feet were tugging at the corners of her eyes, but the sound of her voice was as welcome as ever.
She held out her arms for a hug, and Megan took a step toward her, sinking into them. "I thought I wasn't going to get to see you at all," she said against Tammy's cheek. "Weren't you going to be at your mom's this week?"
"We just got back," Tammy said, drawing back to look at her. "I dropped the kids off at the house and came out here to see how it was going, only to find you hard at work being your amazing self." She took a step toward Megan, her eyes traveling over her from head to toe. "You're looking amazing, too. How is it that the rest of us just get dumpier while you keep getting prettier? Most women have to get pregnant to get that kind of glow, you know."
Megan's smile faded. Tonight she wasn't going to think about any 'glow' she might have taken on and the potential reasons for it. "You're looking great, too," she said, snapping the smile back into place.
"You are such a liar, but I love you for it," Tammy said, a hand on Megan's arm. "You ready for a break? You got time for a cup of coffee?" She held up a thermos, a little plastic bag of styrofoam cups dangling from between her fingers.
Megan hesitated, her gaze stretching across the barn. They had the stepladders up now, and they were almost done hanging the decorations.
"We'll just be outside," Tammy prompted.
"I can come get you if we need anything," Ted said, pushing his glasses up with a finger.
The tension in the back of Megan's neck thawed a little. Ever since high school days, there had never been anyone who could talk Megan back from a ledge like Tammy. She glanced at her watch. "Sure, I can spare a few minutes."
They walked around to the side of the house, stepping from the stone path onto an immaculately mowed lawn. "I couldn't believe it when I saw you in action back there," Tammy said. "You've really made it, haven't you?"
"I don't know about that," Megan said, shaking her head. "I do love it, though. There's nothing quite like winning an election to make you feel like you're doing something that matters."
"It's great. Mr. Collins would be so proud." Beside the lawn was a slab of concrete with a picnic table, and beyond that there was a barbecue pit. Tammy waved a hand at one of the two hand-carved wooden chairs placed at strategic angles along the pit. "Have a seat."
The chairs were a dark red-bronze, and wide enough to comfortably fit someone much larger than Megan. The knots in the wood formed holes in the back, but they had been sanded to an eerie smoothness. "Wow, what are these?" She sat on one of them, and it curved gently against her back. "They're fantastic."
"They're Aaron's." Tammy couldn't stop the pride from trickling into her voice as she sat down. "He carved them himself back in high school, and he still loves them." Then her expression shifted, her lips coiling around a snarl. "Though apparently not enough to stick around for them." She unscrewed the thermos and set a cup on the ground next to Megan.
Megan reached across to Tammy, a reassuring hand on her arm. "Thanks again for the loan of the space. It's so beautiful out here."
"It really is in the summer." Her voice was shaking a little. "The winters can get pretty lonely." Her face darkened, a cloud across the sun.
Megan knew the breakup had hit her hard, but she hadn't realized how fragile Tammy had become. It had been six months by now, but her cheeks sagged with a sadness as heavy as if it had happened yesterday. "I'm sorry I haven't called more often," Megan said in a low voice.
Tammy waved a hand. "No, it's—I mean, what is there to say? He's gone. It's not like there's anything you can do about it." She poured coffee into Megan's cup.
"He's a jerk," Megan offered. "A first-class jerk." She picked up the coffee and took a sip.
"Tell me about it." Tammy pulled her arms in close, hugging them to herself. "But what does that say about me? I fell for a first-class jerk, uprooted my life for him, raised his kids—" Her eyes went soft, and then dark, and then she was really crying. "Well, at least one of us girls is happy," she said, dabbing at the corner of her eye with a knuckle.
Megan's teeth clenched, a ripple of pain along her jawline. It wasn't quite that simple.
"You know, sometimes—" A sudden lump of sandstone in Megan's throat cut her off.
Her eyes clouded over. No matter what Megan did lately, Lena was always there, hanging around in the back of her mind like a ghost. Megan couldn't help looking for her across every crowded room, painting her picture in lines of verse in the margins of campaign memos and strategic plans and demographic analyses.
"Sometimes I can't help but wonder—" She made her eyes snap into focus again. She forced herself to look at Tammy. "—why I've been single for so long."
Megan was holding her breath. She kept her eyes fixed on Tammy's, expectant.
Tammy's voice was still heavy with tears, but she managed to choke out a laugh. "You're busy, girl! Doing important work! What do you need a man for? I mean, really!"
Megan's eyes dropped to the ground. She let her breath back out, slow and even.
"They all want some stupid cow without a brain in her head, anyway, and that's always going to leave you out of the running. Seriously, forget love. What you're doing—it's bigger than that."
A straightjacket of loneliness coiled around Megan. There was a sour taste in her mouth, like fruit juice gone bad.
Tammy stood. "I mean, heck, look where love got me. I left my home, my life, moved out here where I knew no one." She stalked over to the picnic table. "And honestly?" She held up a hand. "I mean, the kids are great, don't get me wrong. I love them like my own. But if I'd known I was going to move all the way out here only for Aaron to up and leave as soon as he found somebody better—"
"She wasn't better than you," Megan said. It sounded hollow, but it was what she was supposed to say.
"Prettier, then." Tammy was pacing again, and her eyes were wild with anger. She wasn't looking at Megan. "Whatever. All I'm saying is that you can go around making history because you're single. Trust me, if you actually had this life, you'd know it wasn't worth it."
Megan looked up. Ted was jogging over to them, his glasses a little fogged and his curls bouncing. Megan stood. "Is something wrong?" Megan called out.
"Easy." Ted held up a hand as he came to a stop in front of her. Tammy turned away from both of them, dabbing at her eyes. "It's no big deal," Ted explained. "Just a little argument over who's going to introduce the speaker."
"It's supposed to be Gloria Hammond." Megan shook her head.
Ted nodded. "That's what I thought. I just need you to tell everybody that."
"Go on." Tammy's eyes were still rimmed with red, but she gave Megan a tight-lipped smile.
Megan set her coffee down on her chair. "I'll be right back," she said, giving Tammy's arm a squeeze as she passed.
Megan trudged back to the barn, her paces matching Ted's, but she could feel the pull of the earth on her, as if someone had turned up the gravity knob a notch or two. Who was she kidding? She couldn't talk to Tammy about this. She couldn't talk to anyone.
"Hey." Ted put a hand on her arm. "Are you okay?"
Megan forced a smile. "I'm fine."
"You just looked really sad all of a sudden."
"I'm okay. Thanks."
"You know it's going to go great tonight, right?" Ted tilted his head at her, giving her one of his goofy grins. "The decorations are almost ready, everybody's RSVP'ed who's supposed to be coming, and the barbecue's going to be way better than your standard rubbery fundraiser chicken."
"Thanks," Megan repeated, but her voice sounded hollow, like it was being broadcast from the other side of the yard.
E minus 25 days, 10:30 PM.
It was already late, but if Megan made good time, she'd be back at the hotel by midnight. A good night's sleep would do her good at this point in the campaign— her eyes were starting to feel like someone had blown sand into them. It had been a warm fall, but the shorter days betrayed the fact that they were heading into the homestretch, and she needed to collect sleep for the darker, crazier days of November.
As she turned onto 1st Street, her gaze snagged on a modest red brick house with a wide, hilly lawn and a ridiculous number of Bartlet for America signs out front. She squinted against the darkness, and a series of figures took shape. One woman walked toward her car, giving Megan a wide wave with her whole arm, as if to flag her down. Lena.
Megan's heart trembled a little. After months of regular coffee breaks and breakfasts together, it had been more than a week since she'd seen Lena, even in passing in the hotel lobby. But she'd never quite managed to put her out of her mind.
She pulled to a stop in the shoulder of the driveway, right at the very edge where the Reelect President Armstrong stickers on the back wouldn't stand out quite as much. She leaned out the open window, feeling her mouth spread in a grin. "Hey!"
Lena stepped up to the car and leaned in toward Megan's window, a hand on the car roof. She was swaying a little. "What are you doing in Grimes?"
"New office opening." Megan gestured over her shoulder with a thumb. "Over on James. What are you doing in Grimes?"
"We're celebrating." Dark red wine sloshed around in Lena's glass.
"What are you celebrating?"
"You think I'd tell you?" Lena teased.
Lena was barefoot, her feet smeared with dirt. "I think you might have misplaced your shoes," Megan said, pointing.
"I left them out back." Lena's eyes were bright. She turned, motioning to Megan over her shoulder. "Come on. I've got to show you something."
"Uh, Lena?" Megan eyed the house. There were more blue balloons hanging from the rain gutter than she'd ever seen in one place. "I don't think I'm going to be all that welcome at a Bartlet for President celebration."
Lena shrugged. "I'll sneak you around the back. Come on." She started walking toward the house.
Megan let out a short, sharp laugh. Then she turned off the car. This was the very definition of insanity, but so was everything else that involved Lena Moreno.
The sidewalk edged into woodchips at the side of the house, and Lena stepped more gingerly through them, spilling a slosh of wine onto the ground. At the base of a wooden staircase in the back, she shook each foot, then climbed up. Megan followed.
When they reached the top, Lena held out an arm. "Just look at that."
They were standing on a wooden deck that looked out over a backyard so thick with weeds that the shadows transformed it into a massive sea of green. But a dark curtain all but completely blocked the light coming from the house, and the only other light came from the stars. They seemed etched into the sky, illuminating it in a spectacular yellow-white glow. The sounds of music and laughter spilled out from the open kitchen window, but the two of them were alone.
"Wow." Megan stepped over to the wooden railing at the edge. The sky seemed to expand even further, surrounding them.
"See? Wasn't that worth it?" Lena's voice was giddy.
Megan nodded. "I haven't seen a sky like that in a long time."
"I've never seen a sky like that."
Megan pressed her lips together. That was the price of living in the city. Even Iowa City's lights dimmed the stars to the point where they looked pale and hazy. "My parents used to take me out into the woods behind the high school just after dark sometimes," she explained. "Just to look at the stars. We'd bring snacks and wait for the sun to go down. On the best nights, it looked just like that."
Lena shook her head. "You really did grow up in a Currier and Ives print, didn't you?"
Megan's eyes narrowed. "Now you're just making fun of me."
"Sorry. My knee just keeps on jerking." Lena leaned back against the railing. "Actually, it sounds nice. Really nice."
"You don't have to say that, you know," Megan said stiffly.
"No, I mean—I wish my family had been a little more like that." There was no sadness on Lena's face, but she wasn't mocking, either.
"For your sake, I wish they had been a little more like that, too," Megan said. "Family is important."
Lena laughed. Now, that was mockery.
"It is important," Megan insisted. "Democrats seem to think it's just a buzzword, but family is the most real thing there is."
"You know, if anybody else said something like that to me, I'd tell them they needed to lighten up." She swirled her glass. "And then I'd pour them another glass of wine."
Megan's mouth pinched into a pucker. "I find it telling that you can't stop associating drinking alcohol with a loosening of inhibitions."
"I find it telling that you don't exactly present any counterevidence to that point." She stretched her forearm flat against the railing in a lazy, sleepy gesture. "So why don't you drink, anyway? I mean, if it's not about religion."
The hairs on the back of Megan's neck were standing at attention. She clenched her teeth. "Why is it that not drinking alcohol is something people have to defend, but binge drinking is perfectly acceptable?"
Lena shrugged. "I was just asking."
"I prefer to maintain some restraint."
"Re-straint." Lena pulled at the word, clipping it at the end. It sounded dirty. She smirked.
"Somebody's got to keep a level head while everybody else is losing theirs," Megan said pointedly.
"And that's your role."
"Sure," she answered, a little too quickly.
"So when do you get to lose yours?" Lena slid just a little closer. "When do you get to just let go?"
There was a sudden heaviness in the air, like the thickening before a thunderstorm. The question hung in the space between them, filling it.
Megan leaned in toward her along the railing. Her heart was drumming faster now, but she breathed around it. "Tell me about Susan. Sue."
"Sue who?" Lena's eyebrows flew up. "You mean my ex? Back in New York?"
"The one from the phone call. Yeah."
Lena chuckled a little. "I can't believe you remember her name."
Megan shrugged. She remembered everything about that night. She remembered the rawness in Lena's voice, and the cold, hard look that she'd given Megan to cover her embarrassment. She remembered Lena's anger, and the way it had turned so quickly to gentleness.
"What do you want to hear? She's tall. About four inches taller than you. She's smart. Though not as smart as you." Lena cocked her head. "I'm not sure anybody's as smart as you."
"Why did you split up?" Megan urged.
"I don't know. We'd been together two years, but it reached a certain point and never got beyond it. It was kind of like—like the relationship passed its best-before date? But I guess it took us another year and a half to finally throw it out."
"That's life." Almost imperceptibly, Lena moved closer to Megan. "Anyway. I don't really want to talk about Sue."
"What do you want to talk about?" There was a wobble in Megan's voice.
Lena looked up at the stars. "How about...the way the sky looks like you could just fall right into it."
"That's the wine."
"It's not the wine." Lena's eyes fixed on Megan's. "Maybe it's you."
Megan wrapped a fist around the railing for support. They were close enough now that Megan could breathe in the earthy smell of Lena's body, close enough to feel the electric current moving between them.
Lena ran a hand through her hair, clenching it into a fist. "Oh my God, did I say that out loud? Maybe it is the wine."
Megan looked away. Her pulse was always a little quicker whenever Lena was around, but this prickly pins-and-needles sensation across the entire surface of her skin was brand new.
She opened her mouth, but she didn't know what she was going to say. And then she did. "How I long to fall just a little bit, to dance out of the lines and stray from the light," she quoted. "But I fear that to fall in love with you is to fall from a great and gruesome height."
"Let me guess," Lena said, her voice level. "Keats."
A little laugh bubbled up from inside of Megan. "No."
"Sorry," Lena said with a shrug. "I don't know very many poets."
Megan turned toward Lena, meeting her gaze, steady and strong. "Megan Richter."
Lena's eyes widened: huge and round and almost black in the dim light. She looked rattled, like a single touch might shatter her into a thousand razor-edged shards. She set her wine glass down on the wooden railing.
Megan gulped back a breath, and it flowed into her lungs with a speed she couldn't control. Her heart was thundering around inside her chest.
Lena leaned in closer, hesitating just a moment. And then their lips met in a collision of ice and fire: comingling, cancelling each other out, disappearing. A familiar trembling started in Megan's belly and shot straight down between her legs. It usually came over her gradually, like a breeze swelling to life, but this time it was an abrupt gust of desire, and her knees went liquid with longing.
A soft hand on her face, tracing a line along her jawbone. Another briefly at the small of her back, then moving over to cup her hip. The kiss deepened, and what little breath Megan had left caught in her throat.
Terror flashed through her head: a warning sign. This wasn't right. "Wait, I can't—"
Megan's voice was so thick and dark that she almost didn't recognize it as her own. She stumbled back a step, a hand on Lena's breastbone to push her away. Her breath was hot and ragged, and it pulsed in time with Lena's.
For a long moment, they just stared at each other.
"I'm not like—I'm not," Megan blurted.
Lena deflated. Her eyes sagged, and then narrowed. "Okay, fine, you're 'not'." Her voice was coated in syrupy sarcasm. "But I'll be damned if I'm going to let you claim that you didn't just kiss me back. And you're not even drunk."
Lena turned away, bending against the railing. The fizz of a cigarette lighter, a flash of fire, the murky scent of smoke. Lena's shoulders curled around it, and the silence stretched between them, reverberating out across the night sky.
Megan's throat thickened with the onset of tears. She took a step backward, her eyes still pinned to Lena, but Lena didn't move.
Without a sound, Megan slipped down the staircase, through the woodchips, and back around to the front. A tear slid down her face and into her mouth, but her lips were still burning like she'd been branded.
E minus 24 days, 7:15 AM.
Megan scanned the hotel restaurant, but Lena wasn't there. Her gaze snagged on Ted's, and he waved her over, but she shook her head and walked over to an empty table for two. She sat down.
If anything had come out of last night's hours of lying awake, it was the need to apologize. Nothing could happen between them, of course, but if anyone had been watching, they would have rightly accused Megan of leading Lena on, and none of that was Lena's fault. Megan sat up straight against the back of the chair, willing her shoulders to relax. Even if Lena was too hurt to talk to Megan at any length at this point, Megan at least needed a chance to take responsibility for what had happened.
Megan looked over her shoulder again, her heart drumming inside her ribcage. Megan would have to call her room. She'd have to find a way to say she was sorry in a voicemail.
There was a slapping sound, a folder landing on the table. Megan jumped. Lena plopped her purse down on top of the folder and sat down. "Morning."
Lena's face was nearly as gray as her suit, and her mouth was pointed downward into a weary frown, but her cheeks weren't tearstained. Megan nudged at her with her eyes. "Hi?"
"Hi." Lena's gaze met Megan's for a moment, then fell to the laminated breakfast menu. She turned it over, scanning it.
"Um." Megan wasn't entirely sure how she'd expected this to go, but this wasn't it. "We should talk about last night."
Lena waved a hand. "Don't worry about it."
Megan pushed on. "I'm so sorry. I just—"
"Seriously. It's okay." Lena put down the menu and looked Megan in the eyes. "I'm just sorry I said what I said. God, I'm always so awful to you," she said, giving her head a shake.
Megan's mouth opened, then closed. She tried again. "No, I—"
"But I'm done with all that, okay?" Lena spread a hand against the table and met Megan's gaze again. "No more pushy Lena, no more mean Lena, just...Megan's friend Lena. Okay?"
Lena looked back down at the menu. "God, I am so not having cereal again, not with this hangover." She held up a fist in the air. "Where's a goddamned bagel when a girl needs one? A real one, not the doughy Midwestern kind. What are you having?"
"Um, I was thinking about a yogurt, maybe?" Megan's voice was high and thready.
"Yeah, I think I need something more substantial than that. Maybe some toast." Lena slapped the menu back down. "Toast it is."
Eric and Greg had sat down with Ted, and they all looked over at her. Megan dropped her head down, letting her bangs fall across her face to shield her, but she could still feel their eyes on her.
"Can I get you two some breakfast?" The waiter, with a pad of paper. Lena ordered coffee and toast. Megan had no real appetite, but she got a blueberry yogurt anyway. The waiter scribbled down the orders and the room numbers to bill and then left them with their silence.
Lena had her folder open now, and she was flipping through some papers. Her expression was calm, methodical.
There was a little twist in Megan's chest. She tried one more time. "Are you sure—"
"I'll be with you in a second, okay?" Lena held up a finger without looking up. "I've got this thing I've got to read before my nine-o'clock." She pulled out a page and put it next to her on the seat so that Megan couldn't see it.
Across the room, Greg leaned in toward the others and cupped a hand over his mouth. Eric laughed. Ted tried to catch Megan's eye, frowning, but she looked away. The knot of tension in Megan's neck tightened and shot down between her shoulderblades. Her face was hot.
One of Lena's assistants materialized next to their table, a young guy with wavy hair and a five-o'clock shadow. "Hey, Lena, can I borrow you for a minute?"
Lena narrowed her eyes at him. "What's up?" she said carefully.
He looked down at Megan, then back over at Lena. He raised an eyebrow. He waited.
"Oh my God, I haven't had my breakfast yet. I haven't had my coffee. Is it really that important?"
He held up a hand. "It won't take five minutes, I swear." He bit his lip and cocked his head. "Okay, maybe fifteen."
"You've got five," Lena said to him. She stood, pushing a breath out in a sigh. "Duty calls," she said with a quick glance at Megan, and followed him out into the lobby.
Lena raked a casual hand through the hair at the back of her neck as she walked. She wasn't faking this. Her shoulders were straight, her head held high. Apart from the residual effects of the previous night's drunkenness, which she would have had anyway, she was actually fine.
Megan fidgeted with her napkin, tearing a strip off one edge.
"One yogurt." The waiter set a bowl down in front of Megan, followed by a small plastic cup of yogurt. "And toast for your friend."
The word was a thorn beneath Megan's ribcage. "Thank you."
"I'll be right back with the coffee."
Megan picked up the cup of yogurt, turning it over in her hand. So it hadn't meant anything to Lena. She was probably kissing somebody different every night, and Megan was just another in a long line of enjoyable but ultimately forgettable post-breakup encounters. Megan bit her lip, an inexplicable sadness rising off of her like mist off of ice in a warm room.
She didn't look back at the others again, but she knew they had to be staring at her, alone, waiting for a frustrating, maddening Democrat who was taking her own sweet time in coming back. Eric's would be bright with amusement, Greg's hot with disgust, Ted's dark with disapproval.
Megan's hands clenched into fists. She couldn't stay sitting there. She grabbed her briefcase first, then her yogurt.
Megan's gaze snagged on Lena's purse, and a split second later on the folder beneath it. She glanced around for someone to give it to, but the four tables of Democrats in the restaurant were busy with their own breakfasts.
Then her eyes dropped to the paper on the seat.
She slipped into Lena's seat, her pulse fluttering, her eyes scanning the page. It was a memo about a meeting Bartlet had taken last week with AFSCME's local leader Joe Cercone. Aside from the mild baggage of a radical union boss with an Italian name associating with a Democratic candidate who was trying to appear moderate, it was mostly benign: what they talked about, their points of agreement and disagreement. Until the final sentence: Keep it on the hush-hush.
There was a sudden drop in Megan's blood pressure, and her pulse raced. Bartlet had been all over the President after his speech to the Catholic Alliance, so there was room to damage him in a tit-for-tat play, here. This was better than that, though. They didn't want him associated with Cercone at this stage of the campaign, so they didn't want news of the meeting getting out. Which smacked of a coverup.
Or at least it could be spun that way.
Megan swallowed. She slid the memo into her briefcase. She stood, glancing around, but no one was looking now. She wrapped Lena's folder around her purse.
Megan stopped at the closest table of Democrats. The blonde woman's laughter died on a fake cough as Megan set Lena's purse and the folder down on it. "Lena left her purse on the table when she got called away, and I've got to go. Could you make sure this gets to her?"
The woman glanced down at the folder, then back up at Megan. She shrank back from it like a rat from a snake.
Megan gave her the sweetest smile she could manage. "Thanks."
She hugged her briefcase to her chest as she walked away.
E minus 23 days, 10:30AM.
"Okay, I'm going to tell you something, but you're not allowed to freak out." It was Ted's voice.
Megan finished the sentence she was typing and looked up at him.
"There's nothing wrong. So don't freak out." His hair was a little messy, but his eyes were shining.
"Okay." She'd set up camp in the corner of the hotel lobby while her room was being made up: folders stacked on the table in front of her and one of the campaign laptops on the couch next to her.
Ted kneeled down. He was out of breath, his face red. "Marvin Pendergrath is—you know who that is, right?"
Megan cracked a smile. "Don't tell me there's a second Marvin Pendergrath who's not the RNC communications director."
"No, that's him. He's here."
Megan's eyes widened. "In Des Moines?"
"In the hotel. In the conference room."
"What?" Megan's spine was suddenly rigid. "How did I not know—"
"Apparently it wasn't planned? One of the guys he was with said they were on their way to the airport, and they just stopped by." Ted put a hand on her knee. "To talk to you."
"Me?" This was about Lena's memo. Megan was finding it difficult to breathe. "What—"
"You'll see." He couldn't hold back a grin. He stood. "Come on, you don't want to keep him waiting." His eyes flashed with excitement.
Megan clambered to her feet, grabbing the computer. "What am I supposed to do with this?"
"I'll take it." Ted grabbed it and gently pressed it closed. He tucked it under his arm.
"And these papers." Megan grabbed the two fistfuls of folders. "I don't know—"
"Here." Ted held the laptop flat.
Megan set the folders on top of the laptop, and Ted held the stack level with both hands. "Come on."
Megan followed him down the corridor and into the hallway, a buzz of panic setting her nerve endings on fire. Ted was looking more excited than scared, but Megan knew that Pendergrath wasn't the type to stop by one of the local teams for a friendly pep talk. She'd heard all of the stories about the tight lock he kept on communications, the way he ruled with a heavy hand and a sharp tongue.
Ted stopped in front of the last conference room on the left. He set his stack down on the floor and knocked on the door. "I'll be here when you're done," he whispered.
Megan knocked on the door. "Come in," said a voice from inside. She gulped back a breath and pushed it open.
There were four men in the room, all in their fifties, but the one at the head of the table was definitely Pendergrath. He was a huge man both in height and in girth, and his face gave way to several rows of loose wrinkles. Megan's first thought was of her father: his thick shoulders, his bushy eyebrows, his bald head. The knot between her shoulderblades loosened a little.
He stood, stepping toward her, holding out a hand. "It's Megan, right?" It was a Southern voice, smooth like satin and thick with the sound of both money and power.
His hand was warm. "Yes, sir."
"I just wanted to thank you personally for that memo you passed on."
Relief was the first thing to hit. "You're welcome."
He gave her hand one last squeeze and let it drop. "We've already leaked it to a couple of papers. It's just starting to hit now, but it's gonna be big."
The relief gave way to a spasm of panic, edged with just a hint of pride. "Just doing my part," she managed to push out.
"And now we've decided to take it to the next level." He pointed at the wall behind her. "I came to Iowa to work with a local communications team on an ad, and I wanted you to be the first to see it."
Megan turned around. It was a storyboard for an ad, seven frames in all. A sepia-toned picture of Bartlet looking upper-crust and haughty, a black-and-white one of a screaming Cercone with his fist in the air. A voiceover text below one of them: Bartlet tells Iowans he's a moderate, but he tells Joe Cercone he's ready to make a deal.
"You like it?" Pendergrath was smiling now.
It wasn't any worse than what the Bartlet camp had said about the President after the Catholic Alliance speech. Fairer, too. "It's certainly hard-hitting," Megan said.
"It is. And we can only hit him that hard because of you."
There was a little thrill at the back of Megan's neck. "Thank you."
He clasped her shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "Keep up the good work."
"We'll give it everything we've got, sir."
One of the other men gave Megan a nod and walked over to the door. He held it open for her. She gave them one last smile and stepped back into the hallway.
Megan shut the door behind her and leaned back against it. She let out a breathy laugh and met Ted's eyes.
He was grinning. "Okay, seriously, Richter," he said in a whisper. "Right now? I could totally kiss you." He picked up the stack on the ground.
She pushed off the door and started back down the hall, holding her arms out in front of her to steady herself. "I think I need to sit down."
There was a spring in Ted's step. "We're actually gonna win this state."
"Who gave him my name?" Megan shook her head.
"And the best part? The guy I talked to said they're talking about sending the President out here again to capitalize on this."
Megan crackled with adrenaline. "We're going to have to work even harder." They needed new polling. And another fundraiser. And a volunteer drive. She gave Ted a hard look. "I mean it."
"I'm on board with that," Ted said as they stepped back into the lobby.
Ten feet from them, leaning against one of the pillars, was Lena. Her arms were folded, and she was staring at them. Something in her face glinted hard as steel.
The wave of energy drained out through Megan's feet. Ted looked over at her, went pale, and skittered away, leaving them alone.
Megan's eyes narrowed. "What."
Lena's jaw set. "You know, I've been wondering what you were going to say to me when we next saw each other. I guess 'what' is as good as anything else you could have said."
She knew. Probably from a reporter at one of the local papers. Megan's shoulders stiffened.
Lena's eyes traveled over Megan from head to toe, then crashed into Megan's own. "You do know they could fire me over this, right? Did you even think about that?"
The words were a fist in Megan's stomach.
"I might still have a job, though, if I'm lucky. They're weighing their options."
Megan swallowed. "I—I would hate to see that happen."
"You would—oh, well, thanks." Lena shook her head. "It's a little late for that now, don't you think?"
A nerve pricked in Megan's neck. For months, Lena had been tough as nails, willing to do anything to win. Now, all of a sudden, different rules applied.
"Lena—" Megan struggled to keep her voice level. "I appreciate the position this puts you in. And I'm sorry about that. But you can't tell me that if I'd left something like that on my seat, you wouldn't have done exactly the same—"
"Oh, my God, I can't believe—" Lena held a fist to her forehead, her eyes widening. "I would never—"
"What about all that talk of yours about winning being everything?" Megan's heart was racing, but she wasn't buying this Saint Lena act for a minute.
Lena made a strangled sound in her throat. Her hand dropped to her side, revealing an expression that had frozen somewhere between outrage and pain. Megan felt a clutching in her chest.
"You know—" Lena's head dropped. She lifted it again, slowly, and sucked in her cheeks. "I was thinking just the other day that one of the nicest things about coming out here to Iowa has been the chance to get to know you. But I realize now that we never knew each other at all."
Megan watched Lena disappear into the elevator lobby. Her throat was burning.
E minus two days, 7:15 PM.
Megan drew back the edge of the curtain just a crack, listening to the President's booming voice echoing in the half-filled ballroom. He was already halfway through his speech, and the whole left-hand portion of the room still looked completely deserted.
A muscle rippled in Megan's jaw. She pulled the curtain closed again and turned back to Ted. "Where is everybody?" she hissed.
"I don't know." He shook his head. "Maybe there's something else going on tonight?"
"We checked!" Megan had made absolutely certain to fit this around one group's pre-scheduled annual meeting, and she'd asked two other groups to move competing events. "Besides, this is the President of the United States! When he's in town, people are supposed to show up!"
The crowd let out a cheer. It was enthusiastic enough, but nowhere near loud enough. Megan ground her teeth together.
"I don't know." Ted repeated, his voice low but edged with nerves. "It's weird."
Megan and Ted turned their heads in unison. It was the hotel manager. "Do you know why the Marines might think this event was supposed to start at seven-thirty?" he asked.
"The Marines?" Megan shook her head.
"I just got three very angry phone calls in a row. The commandant of the Marine Corps League is apparently telling people you wanted people here at seven-thirty."
"What?" Megan took a step toward him. "I told him six-thirty! I told him it was going to start at six-thirty on the dot so his people wouldn't be late. And then we could actually start at seven."
The hotel manager shook his head. "He says you told them seven-thirty. He said he remembered because he had another event that didn't get over until six-thirty, and he would have said something about it at the time."
"Seven—" Megan gulped back a breath.
A thought jumped out of the back of her mind, soaked in the fuzzy quality of memory, but still clear enough to make out the edges. In the beginning the event had been scheduled for seven-thirty, but she'd had to move it. But she'd gotten back to the groups she'd talked to first, hadn't she?
"Oh no." Megan rocked back on one foot. A hand flew to her mouth.
Ted's mouth opened a crack. "You told him seven-thirty."
"I told him seven-thirty," she groaned. She turned to the hotel manager. "I'm so sorry."
He made a face. "It's okay. I'll let people know." He walked back out the side entrance.
"Wow, two slipups in one day," Ted said with a crooked grin. "I guess you're human after all."
"What?" Megan's head jerked back over to Ted. "What was the other—"
"You were supposed to call the supplier back about the number of folding chairs."
Megan's heart leaped into her throat.
"Don't worry, I took care of it."
An image flitted across her mind: old men with canes dragging themselves into the ballroom only to find they'd have to stand. The breath flew out of Megan's lungs.
Of course, now there were too many chairs. She peeled the curtain back again.
The ballroom was still half-empty, but there were more people arriving now, hovering in the doorway. "What time is it now?" Megan asked, her voice heavy with dread.
"Seven-thirty," Ted said. "On the dot."
The time they'd been told to show up. Panic wound itself around Megan's heart, squeezing.
For the next ten minutes, Megan could do nothing but watch the scene unfold before her. A crowd of would-be spectators appeared in the back of the room, heard the speech already in progress, and hesitated, confusion etching itself into their faces. Some slowly moved into the ballroom and sheepishly found seats at the back, while others just left. Eventually a glut of bodies formed at the door, blocking it.
The crowd let out an enormous cheer as the President finished, but his campaign smile slid off his face as soon as he made it to the edge of the stage. He leaned in toward one of his assistants, struggling to maintain his composure, his expression sour. A wave of shame washed over Megan, and she wanted to sink into the ground.
Then the assistant pointed at her, and the President stared at her, his face contorted with rage. Then he looked away, finally, mercifully.
The President's assistant stalked up to her. "You're Megan Richter?"
"Yes, sir." Megan's voice was breathy.
"Tuesday's going to go a lot more smoothly here than this, right?"
A bowling ball dropped into Megan's stomach. Her face shriveled. "Yes, sir."
He walked away, disappearing out the side door. Three secret service agents followed him, followed ultimately by the President. His eyes narrowed as he passed Megan, and he shot her a withering glare.
The door slammed shut behind him. Megan shrank back against the wall, rolling her head along it. She pressed her eyes shut. Not crying. Not crying.
She felt Ted's hand on her arm, and tears sprang to her eyes. She jerked it away. "Don't."
She was breathing. She kind of wanted to stop breathing, forever, but at this point she was still doing it.
"Hey. Okay, don't overreact. This could have happened to anybody."
"Yeah, well it happened to me." It was a good thing she'd had a whole phone bank of volunteers to spread the right time, or else the place would have been even emptier. The air whooshed out of Megan as if from a puncture wound. "Or I happened to it."
"Come on. It'll be okay."
She stared at him. "Ted, the President of the United States thinks I'm some sort of ignoramus. He looked like he wanted to have me drawn and quartered."
He tried on a grin. "Well, if he's pissed at you, at least that means he knows who you are. That's more than most of us can say."
Megan leaned her head back against the wall again, her face twisting in anguish. It was two days until Election Day. There was no room for error, and no time to make up for any blunders.
"You know what?" Ted said. "Let's get out of here."
Megan looked back at him. "Are you kidding? I have to—"
"Our event is over," he said firmly. "The President is gone, he's not even staying in Des Moines tonight. It's just the cleanup crew now, and that's not on you."
Megan slapped both hands over her face and pulled them down, stretching her skin taut.
"If you stick around here, somebody's just going to chew you out again, and how is that going to help? There's no sense setting yourself up as a target for people to take shots at." He grabbed her arm again. "Come on."
She swallowed. She let her hands drop. "Okay."
He snaked an arm around her waist and led her out the back. "Have you eaten anything today?"
Megan tried to remember. She'd had lunch. "At some point, there was a sandwich."
"What you need is something salty," he said, steering her down the corridor and into the lobby. "Maybe a big plate of nachos."
Megan's stomach rumbled. She really did need to eat. "Hot wings."
Ted laughed. "Even better." He gave her waist a squeeze as they stepped into the hotel restaurant.
She stopped in her tracks. At the table along the edge of the room sat two women, their foreheads pressed together. One of them was a redhead with a thick braid that went all the way down her back and a smile as wide as a high school football field. The other woman's back was turned, but Megan would know the slope of those shoulders anywhere.
A dull, empty feeling pitted itself in her stomach. She reached for the closest table and leaned against it.
Then the redhead whispered something in Lena's ear, and Lena reached a hand up, cupped her face, and kissed her. It didn't matter that they were sitting there in the middle of a restaurant in front of God and the world; these two weren't seeing anything but each other.
Megan's mind lurched, teetered on the edge, and fell.
"Richter. Richter, are you okay?" Ted's voice was far away, underwater. "Megan?"
The room snapped back into focus. Noise pulsed around them: a low hum of pop music battling it out with the television in the other corner. The tables were half-empty, but a steady stream of people was filling them up fast. Over at the bar, Eric and Greg were sitting on matching stools. Eric waved at them.
Megan's lips pressed together. She marched up to them.
"Do they need a hand cleaning up the ballroom?" Eric asked.
There was a drink sitting in front of him: dark brown, ice. Megan pointed at it. "What's that?"
"What's what?" Eric picked up the glass. "My rum and Coke?"
Megan turned to the bartender. "I'd like a rum and Coke, please." There was a steely edge of determination in her voice.
A spark of delight flickered across Eric's face. "Ooooooh," he said.
"Richter's drinking!" Greg said with a grin.
Megan sat down on the barstool next to Eric. What was it they always said in the movies? "Make it a double," she added.
A chorus of laughter rose around them. Eric slapped Megan on the back.
Ted stood a few paces away, watching them, his face lined with worry. Megan felt a prick of hesitation in the back of her neck, but she clamped down on it, nailed it shut, and waited for the cold numbness of oblivion to settle in around her.
E minus one day, 8:00AM.
There was a violent buzzing from the phone on Megan's nightstand, and the hammer of consciousness slammed into her brain. She tried to open her eyes, but the glare of morning sunlight was blinding, and the room was spinning around her. She closed them again.
A slosh of acid in her stomach. A thudding in her brain. An aching in her muscles like the onset of a fatal illness. So this was a hangover.
The phone rang three more times, but every time Megan tried to sit up, a stab of pain in her forehead propelled her back down to the pillow. Her eyelids felt weighted down with sandbags, her brain gauzy with cottonballs. She drifted in and out of sleep for a while, trapped in the space between dreams and reality.
Finally there was a knock at the door, first soft, then more persistent.
Megan peeled her eyelids open. She forced herself upright, stood, and stumbled to the door. She opened it. Ted.
"Are you coming down?" His eyes were bright: a bit of panic, a bit of worry.
"I can't—" She staggered against the wall, and then she couldn't hold herself upright anymore. She sank to the floor.
"Are you okay?" Ted called out through the door.
Megan looked down at herself. Yesterday's blouse was unbuttoned to her breastbone, and yesterday's bra was still fixed in place, but her legs were bare. "Don't come in," she said weakly, fumbling with the buttons on her blouse. "I'm not wearing any pants."
"I'm coming in."
He pushed the door open and eased in past her. He turned his head pointedly to one side and grabbed Megan's arm. "I won't look. Go lie down."
Ted helped her to her feet and she half-walked, half-crawled back to the bed. She collapsed onto the mattress and pulled the sheet over her legs.
"God, you're a mess," he said, shaking his head. "Have you taken anything?"
His voice was a gong in her ears. She winced. "Taken anything?"
"Aspirin. At around three."
"When you can, you'll want to take some more. And eat some crackers."
Megan's stomach lurched. "I can't."
"When you can." He stepped around to the other side of the bed. "I'll get you some from the restaurant and bring them back up."
She swallowed around the sandpaper on her tongue. "Thank you."
He sat down on the edge of her bed, gently, careful not to rock it. She turned her head and looked at him.
He grabbed hold of her hand. Disappointment scooted across his face and then was gone.
"I know," Megan said, her face hot. "I'm sorry."
He shook his head. His eyes fixed on hers and held them. "This is about Lena Moreno." It wasn't a question. "Isn't it."
The tears hit first, followed quickly by another pounding wave of nausea. Megan gagged, choked, and sprinted for the bathroom.
She coughed into the toilet, hot and fetid and horrible. After a moment, she felt Ted's hand on the back of her neck, holding her hair out of the way. It only made her feel worse.
When she was done, she slumped to the floor, pressing her cheek against the cold tile. The walls were spinning in here, too. "Aren't you supposed to feel better after you throw up?" she whimpered.
"It's how these things go," he said, pulling her into a seated position. He flushed the toilet, tucking a stray strand of hair behind Megan's ear. "It's hard to believe right now, but eventually, you're going to feel better. Let's get you back to your bed. I'll get you some water."
Megan stood, and the roller coaster in her stomach revved up again. "I don't want water, it won't stay down." She staggered back to the mattress.
"You need to drink water," Ted called out after her. She heard a rushing of the bathroom faucet, then silence, and he stepped back into Megan's hotel room. "You need to drink lots of water, trust me." He held out a glass. "Here."
She eyed him with a sidelong glance and took the glass. It was cool against her palm. She held it up to her mouth and took a sip. Her stomach shuddered a little, but settled. "That was okay," she said with a little flicker of surprise.
Ted folded his arms. "Yeah, well, you're going to want to drink a lot more. I'll fill the other glasses and leave them on your nightstand." He disappeared into the bathroom.
Megan took another sip, and her stomach trembled again, then eased. It didn't make her feel quite human again, but at least she could almost remember what human felt like.
This is about Lena Moreno.
The words fell into her brain and lodged there. The pounding relocated from her stomach to her head.
Ted reappeared, a glass of water in each hand and another tucked into the crook of his elbow. He set all three on the nightstand.
"Thank you," Megan said softly.
He walked around to the other side of the bed and sat down again. He reached a hand out like he was going to stroke her forehead, then let it drop to his lap as if he'd just thought better of it.
His face drooped. He met her eyes.
"How did you know?" she asked.
"About the water? I've had more than my share of hangovers."
"About—" She couldn't make Lena's name form on her tongue.
"Oh. That." His gaze fell to the bed, and his Adam's apple bobbed up and down. "It was the way you kept looking over at her table, I guess. And a couple of the things you said last night."
"Oh no..." She reached back into her mind, but nothing emerged from the blur of tastes and sights and sounds. "What did I say?"
"Don't worry, it wasn't very coherent. But it wasn't hard to figure out if you've been paying attention."
She glanced around, and the walls lurched again. "How did I get back to my room, anyway? No, wait, don't tell me that."
"Eric carried you, pretty much. You'll want to thank him."
"Thank you, Eric," she said miserably, to the air. Her eyes traveled over to the pants folded neatly against the dresser. She swallowed. "Did he—my pants."
Ted flushed crimson. "That was me."
Megan pressed her eyes shut. She covered them up with a hand. Her brain pulsed.
"Okay. Here's what we're going to do. First, I'm going to take your ten-o'clock meeting."
The day's schedule crashed into her mind like a weight. She was supposed to be meeting with the precinct captains this morning, and the whole afternoon was filled with training sessions. For tomorrow. Tomorrow.
"I'm supposed to—oh no..."
Ted held up a hand. "I'll tell everybody there that you have food poisoning and can't get out of bed. They'll spread the word that they're stuck with me for today, and we'll all pray it's just a twenty-four-hour thing." He leaned in toward her. "And it will be, too. Because you are going to get a full night's sleep so that you can be downstairs bright and early tomorrow, all cheerful and enthusiastic and ready to win an election."
"Thank you." She was a cheap campaign talking point, repeating herself over and over again, too exhausted for eloquence.
He shook his head, his gaze suddenly firm. "I swear, Richter, if you're not there tomorrow, I'm going to kill you. Personally. I mean it."
"Okay." That was fair. That was more than fair. "Thank you."
He stood and started walking toward the door, but then he turned around. His mouth opened, but nothing came out.
The veins in his neck were straining. "I guess—I mean, I know you've always kind of been one of the guys? But to me that's not—I don't think of you like that."
Megan's heart sped up. No. Don't do this. Stop.
"I thought I probably shouldn't—I mean, we work so well together, and I didn't want to jeopardize that during the campaign. Especially when you're supposed to be my boss. But I always thought...maybe after..."
Megan's eyes fell shut. A cloak of misery wrapped itself around her.
"But I was wrong, wasn't I? It never could have happened that way."
The image of Lena with the redheaded woman skittered through her mind. Part of Megan's reaction had been shock: the brazenness of the public display of affection. But what she hadn't wanted to think about last night was how desperately she'd wanted to be in that woman's place. How she would have given anything for it.
"I guess...I think that's right," she admitted. It came out as almost a whisper.
"Okay, then." Ted nodded. "That's good to know."
He turned around. His shoulders sagged.
He turned back toward her.
"If it had been any guy at all, it would have been you."
"Thanks," he said. His voice was a weight that sank straight into the floor. "Believe it or not, that actually helps."
Megan's eyes fell shut. She waited for the door to close behind him before letting oblivion take her again.
Election Day, 10PM.
The campaign office felt empty after the madness of the day's activities. Just two hours ago, the place had been packed from wall to wall with staffers and volunteers, but at this point the crowd had dwindled to a half dozen stragglers who hadn't yet made it over to the party.
Megan glanced over at the television, propping herself up against the arm of the couch. The President was ahead in electoral votes, but not by much, and so far at least, the right states weren't going their way. She'd been carrying a knot of tension between her shoulderblades all day, but now it had tightened into a painful twist.
Greg walked over to the group and draped his coat against the back of the chair. "Why is the sound off?" He stepped over to the television and turned it up.
"—and it's definitely not looking good for President Armstrong tonight," came the announcer's voice. "If he can't take Pennsylvania easily—"
Eric's head swiveled halfway back around toward the television. "Turn that back down!" he yelled, clasping his hands over ears. "Lalalalala—"
"Sorry!" Greg put his finger on the volume button, and the sound dwindled again. He looked at Eric. "He didn't mean we didn't take Pennsylvania, okay? Or even that we—"
"I don't. Want. To know," Eric said, glaring at Greg. He turned all the way back around, his back to the television.
Greg held up a hand. "Okay! Okay." He looked back at the screen, and Megan followed his eyes over to it. The graphic was focusing on the southern states, with Florida still in gray. "You know, we should get back over to the hotel. The party started an hour ago."
Megan scooted down onto the couch and turned over on her side. She'd spent the day shuttling between the campaign office and the local precincts, and her feet were throbbing from more than a dozen hours of standing. "I'm not sure I can get up yet," she said, curling into a ball.
Greg gave her a knowing look. "You must still be weak from that food poisoning you had."
"Ah yes, that pesky food poisoning," Eric said with a smirk. "Funny how you just happened to come down with it after downing five double rum-and-cokes."
Megan's stomach quivered, and she forced herself to sit back up, her face hot with embarrassment. She was no longer gagging at the thought of food, but any mention of alcohol still brought her to her knees.
"Oh, my God." The color drained away from Greg's face, and he clapped a hand over his mouth. He was staring at the screen.
"What?" they all said at once.
"I think they just called Iowa for the President."
Megan scooted to the edge of the couch, her back rigid. "Are you sure?"
"How can I be?" Greg pointed at Eric with a scowl. "This idiot wants to keep the sound turned off." On the map behind the announcer, Iowa turned from gray to red. "It's red," Greg shouted. "It's red!"
"What?" Eric turned around. "Turn it—no wait." Eric sat back down, his hands clenching and unclenching. He looked at Megan. "It's really red?"
"It's really red." Excitement hummed through Megan, spreading through her veins and leaving her giddy.
"Oh my God." Eric slapped both hands against his head. "We—oh my God!" Noise and laughter pulsed around them: cheering, hugging, back-slapping. Greg came over to the couch and planted a wet kiss on Megan's forehead. She snaked an arm around the back of his neck and pulled him into a hug. There was a recklessness in the air, born of too much adrenaline and too little sleep.
Ted was staring at the television again. He was trying to smile, but the quiver in his lip wouldn't let him. His face was tense, alert. He turned around to look at her.
"We did it!" she yelled, her hands in the air. She clasped them together and held them there: a victory sign.
"We did it," he said. His face was solemn. He sat down next to her on the couch. "That means now it's in everybody else's hands."
Megan placed her hands on her thighs and let out an even breath. For months, the prize had been Iowa. Intellectually she'd always been aware that this amounted to a mere seven electoral votes, but now she realized for the first time just how much was outside of their sphere of influence. A sinking feeling of helplessness swept through her. She pressed her lips together.
"Okay. If we leave now, we can probably still make it to the party before they call Florida," Greg said, but his eyes were still fixed on the television, and his feet looked rooted to the floor.
The shot on the screen was of a party now, the President's election signs bobbing in the crowd. That odd-shaped room, almost an octagon. That looked like the St. James Ballroom, in Springfield.
She shot to the edge of her seat, anxiety spiking in her chest. "They're about to call Illinois. Guys?"
"Twenty-one electoral votes," Greg choked out. Beside Megan, Ted sucked in a breath and held it.
The camera snapped to the announcer, and then to a closeup of the outline of Illinois next to Josiah Bartlet's name. Megan's chest spasmed with dread.
"Oh God." Greg's voice was raw and creaky and lost.
"Did they call it?" Eric demanded.
"They called it," Greg confirmed.
Eric gripped the edges of his chair. "Is it red?"
"Do you really want to know?" Greg asked.
Eric sucked in his cheeks. "Fuck." He pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut. "Fucking Chicago," he muttered.
Ted leaned in toward Megan. "We needed the Midwest," he said in a low voice. "We needed the whole Midwest."
"There's still Indiana." All the moisture retreated from Megan's mouth. "And Ohio."
Ted shook his head. "It won't be enough. There's no realistic road to 270 now."
A buzz of frantic energy surged through Megan. She started adding up scenarios in her head. "There's Texas...Arizona...Colorado..."
"We'll take those." Ted was nodding. "But it won't be enough."
He was right. It was over.
Ted's mouth opened wide, and Megan heard the breath leak out of him. Her stomach plunged. Next year there would be a new President, a new administration. President Armstrong would retire, they'd give him his library. Megan's eyes were stinging. She grabbed Ted's hand.
Greg's gaze was still fixed on the screen, the dim light of hope still flickering in them. Eric was fighting with the urge to turn around, and the tension in his face betrayed the fact that he hadn't given up either. Neither of them had realized that the election was over, and with it, this job, this life. Eric's neuroses and his childish humor, Greg's dogged determination, Ted's work ethic and his friendship. It was all leaving.
And Lena. She would be leaving, too.
There was a rawness in Megan's throat, and her heart hit bottom. She met Ted's eyes, dark and rimmed with red. He squeezed her hand.
Eric's gaze flickered from Ted to Megan, and then back again. "Why are you two—they didn't call it, did they? The election?" He twisted around, stopping halfway. He made a face. "Oh, for God's sake." He picked up his chair and turned it toward the television. "Go ahead and turn the volume back up."
Fleeting images presented themselves in Megan's mind, bloomed, then died away like flame into ash. Lena back in April, taking out the fire in her belly on the pay phone. Lena in the McDonald's, moving to another table so that they could talk alone. Lena's soft lips, her warm hands, the breathiness of her desire. Every single one of Megan's best memories of this campaign were about a Democrat with spiky hair and a sardonic laugh and a reluctant romantic streak.
All of her worst memories, too. But Megan had brought those upon herself.
Megan pushed out a shuddery breath. Her face was wet.
"We've got a critical call here," the announcer said, holding up a hand. Then the camera flashed to a blue screen, and finally to a smiling picture of Bartlet. "The great state of Ohio, for Governor Josiah Bartlet."
Cheers erupted from the speaker on the television, a room of enthusiastic Democrats waving signs. And then they flashed the same picture of Bartlet again, above the word 'elected.'
Eric lunged at the television and turned it off, and the resulting silence ballooned in the room. Ted's face was tight, and his hand was a vise grip in Megan's. Greg's head drooped, his hair covering his face.
"Fuck," Eric said with a sharp intake of breath.
Megan's spine went rigid as she struggled to regain her composure, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. She scooted to the edge of the couch, gave Ted's hand a squeeze and let it drop. "You know, you guys did a great job. And we won. You won."
Greg looked down at her, his face twisted into a hollow mixture of sadness and emptiness.
"Every single one of you contributed to that win, and you have to be proud of that."
"Yeah?" Eric said, his voice hard with anger. "Then why does it feel like we lost?"
"I can't believe Josiah Bartlet is going to be President of the United States." Greg's hand clenched into a fist, and he pressed it tight against his stomach. "What is wrong with this country?"
"No shit." Eric's eyes darkened. "I don't know if I want to go to the party. Are we allowed to just skip it?"
"No," Ted said with a firm shake of his head. "We're going. Richter's right—we had a victory tonight, and we're damn well going to have ourselves a victory party. We deserve that, and so does the President."
A victory party. A bolt of thunder shot into Megan's mind, and all at once she knew what she had to do.
It was time to let go of the steering wheel.
She shot to her feet and over to the desk on the far wall. She opened the top drawer and grabbed an unused donor thank-you card with a little picture of the President with the slogan "Keep America Working." She grabbed her purse from the desk's surface and slid the card inside.
She tossed a glance back at the others. They were all getting their coats on. She grabbed her own from the back of the desk chair.
"I've got another seat free in the Pontiac," Ted called out, pointing out the window.
Megan shook her head and walked back over to him, draping her coat and her purse over her arm. "Actually." She swallowed. "I think I'm going to head over to the Marriott first."
Ted's mouth dropped open. "Oh." He blinked. "Wow."
Megan's eyes fell to the floor, but she made herself look back up at him. She shrugged.
He leaned in a little closer. "Are you sure you know what you're doing?"
A laugh burst out of her. "I have no idea what I'm doing."
"But you're still going to do it."
Ted gave her a tight-lipped smile. "You sound pretty sure of yourself."
She shook her head. "I'm sure about how I feel. As for the rest—well, it isn't really in my hands." Her nerve-endings fizzed: mostly fear, but behind it was a little rush of excitement.
"All right, then." A look of wistfulness flickered across his face. "Can I say good luck?" He pulled Megan into a hug, his grip so fierce it stole her breath.
"Thank you," she said into his ear. "For everything."
He pulled back, his hands on her forearms. He cocked his head to one side. "You're still going to be thanking me by the midterms, aren't you?"
She squeezed his arms and let them drop. "Since that particular 'thank you' was for being my friend, I really hope so."
Megan pulled on her coat and took one last look around the room: the phone bank cubicles, the stacks of lawn signs, the banner on the wall. Then she stepped out into the cool November air, repeating Lena's name under her breath like a mantra.
A riot of noise poured out of the ballroom at the Marriott, followed by the smells of standard campaign-issue catering: heavy on grease and salt and tradition. Megan stepped inside. A short, stocky man with his shirttails hanging out passed by and let out a Tarzan yell.
Megan scanned the room, and over by the bar, she spotted Lena. She was wearing a long brown suede skirt that Megan had never seen before, a half-open slit of buttons up the front revealing black knee-high boots underneath. Megan's breath caught, and her knees buckled. Lena was beautiful. Megan had never let herself notice that, but there was no denying it now: she was dazzling.
Lena pulled the man she was standing with into a hug. From over his shoulder, her gaze snagged on Megan's, and her eyebrows flew up. She pulled back from the man, shooting Megan a questioning look.
Megan shifted her weight from one leg to the other. She held out her arms: a surrender, a welcome.
Lena shook her head in confusion. She leaned in and said a few more words to the man she was with, but she didn't take her eyes off of Megan. She crossed the room.
"What the hell are you doing here?" A crease formed in Lena's forehead.
Megan sucked in a breath and reached into her purse. She held the card out.
Lena glanced over at the front of it, and the crease in her forehead deepened. "Uh..."
"It was all I could find at the last minute." She pushed it toward her again. "Open it."
"When to the heart of man was it ever less than a treason," Lena read out loud. "—to go with the drift of things, to yield with a grace to reason?" The corner of her mouth flicked upward. "Is this another Megan Richter?"
Megan cracked a smile. "It's Robert Frost."
Lena tucked it into the pocket of her jacket. "I think I still preferred the Megan Richter." Her voice was almost inaudible over the music, but Megan could still hear the sadness in it.
Megan's heart fluttered. "Lena, can I—I'm sorry. I broke your trust, and that's—" She took a step closer. "I mean, there's taking advantage of an opponent's moment of weakness and then there's...what I did. I'm so sorry."
Lena's eyes bored into Megan's. Her shoulders were stiff, guarded.
"You were angry?" Lena's mouth contorted in outrage.
Megan's stomach turned over. She held up a shaking hand. "Upset. I was upset that you were—that it seemed like that night at the house didn't really matter to you."
Lena rolled her eyes. "It mattered, Megan, I just wasn't gonna sit around pining after some straight girl when she was pushing me away. I did enough of that in high school."
"I know, I know. I get it. I'm sorry." Megan was tripping over her words now, but she kept pushing them out. "And I'm even sorrier about how I reacted. With the memo. Really, really sorry. It was unconscionable."
Lena folded her arms. "Okay," she said with a quick nod. "I appreciate you saying that."
"I just think—I think we could have had something amazing." Megan's voice was trembling. "And if there's any chance I didn't actually throw it all away that morning, could you maybe let me know?"
The ice in Lena's eyes wavered, then melted a little. Her gaze slid away, and then she walked out of the ballroom and into the hotel lobby.
For a long moment, Megan just stared at the door, and then she made herself move. In the lobby, she caught sight of Lena through the window out front, and walked outside through the double doors.
The fall air was crisp with the smell of dry leaves, too chilly for Lena's thin jacket, but she just leaned against the metal railing and lit a cigarette. Megan fell into line beside her, her heart beating so loudly she was sure Lena could hear it.
Lena lifted her cigarette to her lips, then exhaled a curl of smoke. She wasn't looking at Megan. "So. President Bartlet."
"Stop," Megan said with a quiver. "I'm still a little hung over from Sunday night, and if you say that again, I might just vomit all over your shiny new boots."
Lena's eyebrows arched. "A two-day hangover? Man, it's a good thing you had friends with you. When you fall off the wagon, you sure fall hard."
Megan made a face. "Yeah, well, now that I know what I was missing, I can say it with conviction: never again."
"You'll be on your own again in your sobriety tonight, then." A lightness crept into Lena's voice. "There are going to be an awful lot of GOP operatives drowning their sorrows now that President Bartlet has whooped your asses."
"Except here in Iowa, where he got soundly trounced by President Armstrong," Megan countered.
Lena let out a little snort. "Fine, if it makes you feel better, you go ahead and claim the battle as a silver lining. We still won the war." Her eyes slid away, and she took another puff on her cigarette. "You saw me with Ellen Hartley, didn't you."
Megan's stomach turned over, and her lips pressed into a line. "You don't owe me—"
A ripple of hope ran through Megan. "No?"
Lena shrugged. "I was just blowing off steam." She exhaled a puff of smoke and let her eyes travel back to meet Megan's. "And maybe trying to make you a little jealous."
The ripple of hope surged to a wave and crested. "It worked."
Their eyes locked. Lena's jaw went slack, like she'd just stopped gritting her teeth. She searched Megan's face. Megan's heart raced.
Lena ground out her cigarette in the ashtray and flicked the butt into the garbage. She rested her hand flat against the railing.
For a long moment, Megan just stared at it. Her fingers were trembling. Then she reached out and wrapped them around Lena's. Lena's hand tightened on the railing, but she didn't pull it away.
"So, are you going to invite me in?" Megan asked with a hint of a smile.
Lena's answering laugh was a bark. She tilted her head back toward the hotel. "In there?"
Megan shrugged. "Why not?"
Lena blinked. She laughed again, this time longer and with a reassuring lightness. "Just so you're aware, there are an awful lot of very happy Democrats in there right now."
"Just as long as none of them try to keep me away from my favorite happy Democrat."
Lena's breath caught. "Megan." And then Lena's arms were at Megan's waist, Lena's cheek against hers.
The kiss was softer this time, and gentle enough that Megan had the chance to notice the little things: the way Lena tasted like smoke and lipstick and a little like mint, the way her hand shook when it came to rest on Megan's hip, the way she shivered when Megan traced a finger down along her collarbone. Megan buried her face in Lena's neck and inhaled her like a breath, letting the sensation send her reeling. A little reckless abandon never hurt anyone. In small doses.
From behind them there was a buzz of excited chatter, then a pointed silence as the group scurried past. Megan lifted her head, and one of them shot a look at them over his shoulder.
Lena groaned. "Wait." She pulled away. "What are we doing?"
"I thought we were kissing?" Megan said innocently.
Lena gave her head a firm shake. "Is this you experimenting? Because I don't think I can deal with that." Her forehead creased, and she bit her lip.
Megan reached for her again. "I don't need to experiment to know that I'm right where I want to be, doing just what I want to be doing for a good long time."
A little smile flickered across Lena's face, but her frown amputated it. "Okay, can you take off those romance-colored glasses?"
Megan grinned. She shook her head. "Not really."
"Just for a second." Lena's voice was firm. "It's just—this isn't an easy thing you're saying you want. Your people are probably going to have you strung up. Or maybe locked up."
Ted had been so accepting, and he would have had every reason not to be. Megan gave her head a vigorous shake. "Not all of them."
Lena held up a finger. "And mine aren't going to be all that happy about this either, especially after what you pulled."
Megan clutched her hands to her chest. "If you want me to apologize to them, too, I can certainly—"
"And even if it does work out—"
"Okay, let me ask you this." Megan parked a hand on one hip. "Do you want it to work out? Because I know darn well what I want. And if we both want the same thing, how can it not work out?"
Lena was shaking her head. "Even if it does work out, what about long-term? Are you going to come to New York? Because I'm telling you, moving to Iowa is seriously pushing the limits of what I'm willing to do for love."
Love. Megan's heart turned over. "I've always wanted to see the Statue of Liberty."
"And I know I'm doing that whole U-Haul thing by bringing that up ten seconds after our second kiss, but if this is doomed from the start, I want to be able to brace myself for the fall."
Megan's forehead creased. "U-Haul thing?"
Lena raised a fist to her forehead. Her eyes widened. "Oh my God, you don't even know what I mean by that!"
Megan reached for her, her fingers fiddling with the belt loops on Lena's skirt. "So tell me."
Lena gripped her by both arms. "There are already rumors about us, you know. I've heard them all. So if I bring you as my date to the fucking victory party, it's going to be everywhere within twenty minutes. You'll be the Republican baby dyke who got seduced by the big bad Democrat. There will be no turning back."
There was a shiver in Megan's chest, but it was a good shiver. "That makes it easier, then. No need to break it to them gently." She gestured toward the door with an open palm. "What are we waiting for?"
Lena drew in a long breath and let it all out in a whoosh. "Okay." She laughed, shaking her head. "Yeah. Okay."
The noise from the crowd swelled as they crossed the threshold and stepped back inside. Megan held her breath and felt for Lena's hand.