"Punchline" by Jae Gecko (West Wing, Leo, 500 words)

The guy from the DNC is just like you remember him: slick, cocky -- and dull as a weatherbeaten fencepost in winter. He lifts the glass of Scotch to his lips, takes a sip. "Some people say the crucial moment in a Presidential campaign is the first debate. We think that moment is now."

You shuffle your feet beneath the table. Get to the punchline already, you think. He's gonna offer you Hoynes, and you're gonna pretend you need to think about it, but you both know you'll say yes. Hoynes is no Bobby Kennedy, but you've seen worse. You've elected worse. You'll do this thing because this thing is what you do. And because nobody needs to be reminded of that more than you.

"The key to taking back the White House is choosing the right candidate and putting together a team of pitbulls to back him up," he says. "Hoynes is a Southern Democrat with unprecedented support. He's sharp, he's charismatic, and he's going to win."

"The numbers say you could be right." You're not lying. Any idiot could get Hoynes elected.

"We'd like you to think about coming back long enough to put him there."

You nod slowly, like you're thinking, not agreeing. You wait for him to finish.

"We'd like you to serve as a strategic advisor to the candidate."

You watch his lips move, your face frozen. He's saying something about your 'invaluable role,' but all you hear is his contempt. They want you because they need some guy whose name matters more than his brain, somebody who's burned out enough not to interfere. Window dressing.

"It's a way to ease yourself back into the scene, dip your toe in--" His phone rings. "Just one-- one second," he says, holding up a finger as he flips it open.

He turns away, and your eyes fall to the half-empty glass of Scotch in front of him. How wrong can he really be? It wasn't all that long ago that you were mumbling to the asphalt in a hotel parking lot, waiting for Jed Bartlet to come save your ass again. What do you have to show for yourself since then? A resum full of expensive speaking engagements. A marriage you barely managed to save. A daughter who only hates you sometimes.

"I'm gonna take this one outside," he says, standing up. "Why don't you think it over, and we'll talk."

Bile sears the back of your throat as you watch him walk out. You could run this campaign in your sleep, and he doesn't even want you to do that.

You don't want to do that, either, you realize suddenly. Any idiot could get Hoynes elected, but only an idiot would bother.

Your hand shoots across the table, pushes the glass out of the way, wraps around the napkin underneath. The pen is cool between your fingers. You let it hover over the napkin for a fraction of a second. You're holding your breath.

It's time.