For Geraldine, because she asked so nicely. (

He was stripping out of his wet clothes almost before the door closed behind him, jerking on the limp tie, kicking off the shoes that had squeaked all the way down the hallway. Anger was still coursing through him, wave after wave of impotent rage that left him shaking and grinding his teeth so hard he could have heard the enamel complain, if he'd been able to hear anything over the sick pounding of his pulse in his brain.

Damn Kevin Kahn, he seethed as worked the buttons on his sleeve free and pulled the sodden shirt of his back. Damn Bruno. Damn Toby. Damn Jed Bartlet and his MS and his damned secrets.

It wasn't until he reached the bedroom that he took a breath. Standing in his boxers, water from his hair coursing in little rivulets down his neck, he closed his eyes and willed his jaw to unclench.

No excuses, he told himself, raising his head to meet his reflection in the full-length mirror on the closet door. His hair was sticking out sideways, still damp and disheveled from the rainy confrontation with his former friend. The anger started to swell again, but he pushed it back down. You've got no one to blame but yourself.

Amends would have to be made.

Shivering a little in the air-conditioning, he moved to the dresser and opened a little wooden trinket box from which he extracted a small key. An antique cherry desk stood in one corner of the bedroom. Its top was clear save a few photos, for Sam never used it for work. He sat down before it, fitted the key into the lock of its only drawer and drew out a long, thin box, tracing the textured leather with one fingertip before opening it.

The fountain pen hadn't held any ink for years, almost since his father had given it to him at his junior high graduation. The blunt tip, once squared for elegant writing, had been filed to a sharp, thin point like a stiletto. Sam laid it reverently on the desk blotter.

He pulled the right leg of his boxers up to the crevice of his hip and paused, examining the faded white marks neatly laid out across his upper thigh. He remembered each one and recited silently as his fingers ghosted over each one.

Second place, ninth grade spelling bee.

Junior varsity basketball.

Rejected by Harvard. Two points for that one.

Second in his class, Princeton.

Third in his class at Duke.

Lisa.

Laurie.

Josh, gasping and bleeding, alone while Sam was clenching a broken necklace in his fist.

Twenty-eight years of blindness.

Daniel Gault.

Sam picked up the pen and fished a disposable lighter out of the drawer. He held the sharpened point in the flame for a moment, then gripped the pen in his fist and in one swift movement, jammed the point into his thigh.

For a second after he pulled it out he felt nothing, and he closed his eyes and waited.

Soon the familiar burn of traumatized nerve endings made him hiss through his teeth. He blotted at the welling blood with a tissue. The pen was carefully cleaned and put away, the drawer relocked, the key secreted in its box.

He wandered into the bathroom, toweled off his hair and brushed his teeth. Almost as an afterthought he dabbed a bit of antibacterial cream on the wound and covered it with a Bandaid.

Later, as he lay in bed and reveled in the sharp little pain, he whispered into the darkness, "I can do better. Next time, I'll do better."

End