The children heard the helicopter first, and ran to see it land. Donna and Helen hurried after them and grabbed their hands to keep them a safe distance back. Donna could tell as soon as Josh appeared on the stairway, his backpack over his shoulder, that something had changed. He looked tired, she thought—with her gone he'd probably managed to get even less sleep last night than usual—but he looked better, too, less tense, more relaxed—happier, she decided. He gave her a grin that melted her heart from twenty feet away, and crossed the distance between them with a bound, throwing his arms around her and kissing her hard and long without the slightest trace of embarrassment. Beside them Helen and the President were embracing, too, and the children were hanging off their father and swinging themselves around as if he was their own personal swingset and jungle gym combined.

Josh came up from the kiss still grinning.

"Hey," he said. "Did you miss me?"

Donna smiled at him, too breathless to think of a snappy reply.

"I did," was all she could manage, and how lame was that? But the way his dimples deepened made it impossible to care.

"I missed you, too," he said tenderly, brushing a strand of hair back from her face and looking into her eyes in a way that made her knees turn to jelly and her thoughts turn to the cabin Helen had helped her take her things over to that morning. It was a particularly nice cabin, with a big, old fieldstone fireplace, a basketful of dry kindling and logs, and a very large and soft and comfortable-looking bed, draped in layers of patchwork quilts and Indian blankets, and looking as if it would provide a very warm and cozy nest on a cold and rainy night. It was starting to rain again now, fine, light droplets making a mist in front of her eyes and condensing on Josh's face and hair. But she didn't mind, she thought, as long as he was here, happy and safe beside her. The rain was almost a plus, really, when they had that snug and inviting cabin to go to, with that warm and inviting bed . . . .

As if he could read her thoughts, President Santos called out,

"Donna, that man is tired—I don't think he sleeps when you're not there. Go show him where you two are going to be tonight, and see if you can get him to get a couple of hours down-time. But make sure to have him back in the lodge before the afternoon is over; there's an Astros game he and I are going to watch. We're planning to have a few beers and talk about the really important things, like baseball."

"And women," Josh said, with another dimpled grin. "We're going to talk about women."

"Women, huh?" Donna said, pulling back a bit and frowning at him with mock severity.

"Our women," Josh said serenely, ignoring the scowl that earned him. "After all, that's what you guys do to us."

"We guys get together and talk about women? About your women? Josh, you are so seriously confused—"

"That he needs you to get him unconfused," the President said, laughing. "Go along, you two. There's lunch if you want it, but otherwise I'll see you for the game, Josh. It'll be a pretty long game; you can take your time. You really do need some sleep."

"Sleep's not what I need," Josh whispered in Donna's ear, as she led him away.

"Oh? What else did you have in mind?"

"I don't really think I could find the words to describe it. You'll just have to wait and see."

Hours later, after Josh had pulled himself reluctantly away from Donna to go and watch a baseball game, and after the game was over, and dinner, and Josh had surprised everyone—even Donna—by playing "Heart and Soul" with Peter on the big piano in the living room and then teaching Miranda how to play it too, and after Blankie had been lost and found and lost again, and finally wrapped around Miranda's neck and sent to bed with her and Raggedy Old Pooh, and after Josh and Donna had said goodnight to the President and his wife and had shivered their way through the surprisingly cold night air to the cozy little cabin that was waiting for them, the fine, grey drops of rain began to change. Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, they grew thicker and softer. Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, they began to leave brushstrokes of white across the muddy ground.

Hours later still, Matt Santos propped himself up on an elbow and looked out the window of his bedroom. The curtains were only partly drawn, and in the light from the security spotlights outside he could see the white flakes drifting silently down. He was so startled that he got up to take another look. Snow in April, he thought: I had no idea it could snow in April in Maryland. But this was in the mountains; it wouldn't be snowing back in D.C. He stood there watching as the shimmering, soft stuff settled on the trees and the ground. Even after his years in Washington as a Congressman, the Texan in him hadn't gotten over his wonder at the sight of snow. It always seemed magical to him. It changed everything, made everything feel, for the moment at least, peaceful and pure and fresh and new.

That was an illusion, Matt knew. The snow would be gone in a day or so, leaving plenty of mud on the ground to slog through, but that sense of newness still seemed wonderful to him. It was what he had been wanting so badly: a clean slate, a fresh start. It didn't change anything that had happened, and it didn't mean he wasn't going to have to work damn hard to do better in the future, of course. He knew it was going to take a lot more than a confession and a few words of absolution from his priest before he could ever let himself off the hook for those deaths in Washington State; he would be working every day, every hour for the next four years, or maybe eight, to make sure he never let anything like that happen so needlessly again. And he knew it was going to take more than an apology and a few beers in front of a baseball game to build a real friendship with his Chief of Staff; he was going to have to work at that, too, every day. It would be hard sometimes: it was so easy to forget, in a position like the one he had now, that the people who supported him were only human too, with weaknesses and vulnerabilities he needed to go easy on and work around at times, as well as the amazing strengths he leaned on every day. No, remembering that wasn't always going to be easy. But Matt had never been afraid of hard work: he just needed to be pointed in the right direction sometimes, and then he could take on any challenge . . . .

He stood by the window for a long time, watching the snow falling, feeling again that sense of possibility and conviction that had so eluded him for the past few weeks. When he finally turned away and settled himself back into bed beside Helen, he fell asleep again more easily than he had in a long time, snowflakes drifting through his sleepy thought like a benediction.

In the little cabin just a short walk from the lodge, Josh woke in the night, too. He didn't get out of bed, though, or look out the window at the snow. He turned himself over and gazed at the woman sleeping next to him—at the curve of her throat, the fine line of the bones in her cheek, the soft, light wave of her hair spread over the pillow—and felt overcome with wonder that she was there beside him. He wanted to kiss her but he didn't want to wake her, so he just lay there quietly, watching her. After a minute she reached sleepily over without opening her eyes, found his hand and pulled it close to her, settling it against her breast. He buried his head in her neck then and kissed it softly, over and over, until they both drifted comfortably back to sleep.

In Washington that night it was wet and cold, and the weathermen on the t.v. and the taxi-drivers and their passengers and anyone else who was awake were all wondering what this weather was doing to the cherry blossoms and when it was going to stop. But in the log-built lodge and the little cabin tucked snugly away in the blue foothills of the Catoctins, nobody minded it at all.

oooooo

oooooo