Time had not turned Lara Jean Song Covey into a morning person, but on the day she began her new job in a brand new city, nerves had her up and out of bed at barely five in the morning. Three hours later, she had showered and gotten dressed and was putting the final touches on her outfit while on FaceTime with her older sister, Margot.
“How does my hair look?” Lara Jean asked, turning her head from side to side.
“Lift me up higher so that I can see,” Margot answered.
Lara Jean raised her phone up above her and repeated the motion again. “Better?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Margot replied, then, “Hmm…”
“What?” Lara Jean asked, smoothing her hair back.
“Just...are you sure about the bow?” Margot asked rhetorically, making it very clear how she felt about the navy blue bow Lara Jean had secured around her ponytail.
“I think it’s cute,” Lara Jean said.
“It’s your first day at a new job,” Margot answered. “You don’t want to look ‘cute’, you want to look professional.”
Lara Jean glanced at the mirror and sighed as she took the bow out of her hair and tossed it on her bed.
“Perfect. I love the skirt, by the way,” Margot added. “Look at you! My little sister working for the future President of the United States.”
Lara Jean rolled her eyes. “Don’t jinx it, Margot! She hasn’t even won the primary yet. Anyway, it’s not really my first day on the campaign. I’ve been volunteering for almost a year.”
“But now you’re getting paid to do it. That’s totally different,” Margot declared. “You’re like a real adult, LJ.”
Lara Jean rolled her eyes. “Oh shut up,” she said as her sister laughed. “I have to go. I don’t want to be late, and I haven’t gotten used to the trains here.”
“You’re gonna do great!” Margot promised. “I can see you freaking out -- don’t freak out!”
“I’m not freaking out. I’m fine. Love you, bye.”
“Love you! Don’t frea --”
Lara Jean clicked out of the FaceTime call before Margot could finish her sentence.
She was totally freaking out.
Today was her first official day working as a paid field organizer in the Chicago headquarters for Senator Tracy Wu’s presidential campaign. She had started volunteering for Senator Wu more than two years ago, back when the senator was trying to get re-elected for a second term representing California. Lara Jean had been working on a degree in Political Science at UC Berkeley at the time, and the progressive junior senator had fit everything Lara Jean wanted in a politician.
When Wu officially announced her intention to run for president, Lara Jean knew she had found her calling.
After graduation, she moved back in with her dad in Portland and joined the local field office there while doing some temp work to make ends meet. A week after Thanksgiving, Justine, the lead Portland organizer, told her about a position opening up in Chicago and offered to give her a recommendation.
By Boxing Day, she had a U-Haul packed to take to her apartment in Wicker Park, a new roommate, and less than three months to help the senator win the Illinois primary. Most new jobs would probably let you wait until after the new year to start, but since they were in such a time crunch, Lara Jean was moved in by December 28th.
She could do this. Technically it wasn’t even really a first day. She was just meeting her new co-workers and filling out the requisite paperwork. There was no reason to be nervous.
She pulled on her winter coat and grabbed her bag. In her head she could see Kitty, with her newly dyed purple hair, rolling her eyes at Lara Jean’s nerves and stating imperiously, “LJ, please. We’re the Song Covey girls. We can do anything.”
Chicago was cold. Lara Jean knew that intellectually, and her first three days had been wintery, but something must have happened overnight, because it was freezing when she stepped out of the front doors of her apartment building -- freezing and windy. The air whipped her perfectly styled hair into a million different directions before she’d even made it to the corner. By the third block she stopped moving, nearly causing a collision with the person speed walking behind her. She stumbled away from him at the last second, and he glared as he walked past.
“Sorry,” she called helplessly to his back, and he raised a hand in acknowledgment without turning around.
The red line station she needed to make it to was still four blocks away, and then she had to wait on the platform outside for the train to come, before trekking another half a mile to the campaign headquarters.
Lara Jean knew when she’d been beat. Raising her hand up, she hailed the first empty taxi she saw on the street and gratefully dived into the backseat. She gave the driver the address and then focused on massaging the feeling back into her frozen fingers.
“Bit chilly today, eh?” the driver asked as he began maneuvering through the dense, downtown traffic.
“A bit, yeah,” she responded, trying to keep her teeth from chattering. She had never been so cold in her entire life. The annual high school ski trip was like a tropical vacation compared to this. How the hell did anyone live here?
The taxi dropped her off in front of the administration building an hour earlier than she’d planned to arrive. The Tracy Wu For America posters in the windows let her know that she made it to the right place.
Tentatively, knowing that they weren’t expecting her to be there until 11am, but not wanting to spend another second outside, she pushed opened the front doors and went in.
The lobby was warm and crowded with stacks of the now-familiar lawn signs and bumper stickers, and filled with the buzz of people making phones calls and bustling around. No one looked up at her as she walked in, and she tried to make eye contact with someone who could direct her where to go.
There was a guy sitting behind a desk scrolling through his cell phone who looked the least busy out of everyone, so she was just about the tap him on the shoulder when she heard a voice call out to her from the next room.
She spun around and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw Ali Videl, the woman she had been Skyping with about the job, walking towards her. She had thick, wild, curly hair held back in a barrette doing some truly heroic heavy lifting. She had on black pants and knitted red sweater.
“Ali, hi,” Lara Jean said, walking over. They shook hands. “I know I’m early, but I ended up taking a taxi instead of the train because it’s so cold out.”
“Yeah, winter is definitely here,” Ali agreed, and then laughed a little, not unkindly. “I can tell you weren’t ready for it, because you’re wearing a skirt.”
“Huge mistake,” Lara Jean admitted. “Is it this cold all winter?”
Ali put a hand on her shoulder and said very seriously, “Welcome to Chicago, Lara Jean.”
“That’s Roger, Ignacio, Kelly, Gwen. Newt — yes, that’s really his name — is the one on the phone back there. Team, this is Lara Jean, she’s replacing Penelope,” Ali introduced.
Lara Jean waved and began making her way through the small group of people, shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries.
“The rest of the volunteers start to filter in later in the afternoon. We’ve also got a half dozen UIC students who will phone bank for us on Tuesdays and Thursdays once winter break’s over. Come on, I’ll show you where your desk will be. It’s right across from Roger.”
“My little girl, out there changing the world.”
Lara Jean rolled her eyes as she positioned her laptop on her desk so that she could get herself centered with the camera and sit comfortably on her bed.
“Dad…” she whined.
“What? I can’t be proud that I have three amazing daughters?” her dad asked from the other side of the FaceTime conversation. “Besides, your mother’s not here anymore, so I have to be proud enough for the both of us.”
“Did you just play the Mom card?” Kitty asked, sliding into view beside their father at the kitchen table.
“You’re damn right I did,” her dad answered, giving Kitty a playful whack to the back of the head. “And I reserve the right to pull the Mom card from now until the day I die when it comes to talking about how great my kids are. Margot’s on her way to getting her doctorate in Anthropology…”
Margot appeared on the other side of Kitty and handed her and their dad each a hat.
“You’re so embarrassing, dad,” Margot said.
“Then there’s Lara Jean,” her dad barrelled on, ignoring them all, “who is going to help make the first Asian-American woman President of the United States. Now imagine what your mother would think of that, huh?”
Lara Jean felt her eyes fill up with tears, and she ducked her head to surreptitiously wipe them away. Of course, it was always in the back of her mind that she wanted her mom to be proud of her and the work she was doing, the woman she’d become.
“And lastly, there’s Kitty, who is...whatever the heck it is you are.” The rest of them laughed and Kitty straightened up proudly. “You’ve got purple hair and weird, Coke bottle glasses, and you’re smart and kind and bullheaded, and I love everything about you.”
“Blah, blah, yes, we’re all great. We know, Dad,” Kitty said. “Now LJ, put your hat on! There’s only five minutes.”
“This is stupid,” Lara Jean said, but she dutifully put on her Happy New Year! hat and struck a pose for the camera. “There’s still two hours until midnight by you guys.”
Margot was still back home for the holidays from New York where she was living, but Lara Jean was stuck feeling homesick and FaceTiming her family instead of being there in person like she wanted to be.
“It doesn’t matter. We’re celebrating with you,” her dad said.
“Where’s your roommate?” Margot asked.
“She’s at a party,” Lara Jean answered. “She invited me to go, but I didn’t want to.” The thought of ringing in the new year with a bunch of strangers was somehow even more depressing than doing it at home alone.
“Sit next to the TV so that we can see the ball drop,” Kitty demanded. “And get your champagne!”
“Ok, ok,” Lara Jean said. She re-positioned the laptop so that it was on the bed facing the television, and then dragged her desk chair over to sit beside it. The bottle of champagne was on her night stand, and she poured some into the clear, plastic flute she picked along with the hat from Walgreens earlier that day. “I’m ready.”
They watched in silence as the announcers got the crowd hyped up and the timer in the corner continued to countdown.
The ten second warning came up, and the four of them began to shout it out together.
“3, 2, 1...HAPPY NEW YEAR!”
The ball dropped on the screen as the audience cheered and Lara Jean took a sip of her champagne and her family clinked their own glasses together and drank as well.
“How does it feel over there in next year?” her dad asked.
Lara Jean grinned and took another sip. “Good,” she decided. “It’s going to be a good year.”
Her father raised his glass. “The year of Tracy Wu!”
“Yes!” Margot said, and the other three raised their glasses in toast.
“This is a nightmare,” Lara Jean said.
“It’s not a nightmare,” Ali said patiently.
“I’ve had nightmares exactly like this,” Lara Jean argued, tugging at her formally white shirt, which was now all brown and soggy. They were at the Winter Fun Fest, which was inside of an atrium area at a local college. Lara Jean’s first official Chicago event for Senator Wu, and she had just spilled her entire large cup of hot chocolate all over herself. After the initial burn of the hot liquid, she was just left wet and embarrassed. She’d already checked her coat in the front, so she couldn’t even hide inside that.
“We’ll fix it. This is a university event. They have to be selling some logo t-shirts somewhere. We’ll get one of the volunteers to find something for you. In the meantime…” Ali opened up her giant tote bag and pulled out a pale blue t-shirt decorated with a unicorn on top of a rainbow and the caption: Always be yourself. Unless you can be a unicorn. Then always be a unicorn.
“What is that?” Lara Jean asked.
“It’s my nine-year-old daughter’s, but you’re tiny enough to fit in it. It’s just until we find you something better, right? This is a college campus. Everyone will think you’re a hipster. Come on, the bathroom’s that way.” Ali tossed her the shirt, and Lara Jean caught it and headed off to the women’s room, doing her best to conceal her soaking wet front.
In the bathroom, she grabbed a wad of paper towels and took them into one of the stalls. She wiggled out of her shirt and grimaced as it pulled off of her skin with a squelching sound. Then she used the paper towels to wipe her chest and stomach off as best she could before squeezing into the unicorn t-shirt.
She left the stall and examined herself in the bathroom mirror. The shirt was really tight and looked silly, but Ali was right that it was better than what she had been wearing. There was no hope for her Wu For America shirt, covered as it was in dark brown liquid, so she threw it in the garbage before exiting the bathroom.
She’d gone about five steps when she heard someone call out to her.
“Lara Jean! Hey, Covey!”
Lara Jean stopped. She stopped walking, she stopped breathing -- even her heart stopped. Because she was a thousand miles from home, in a random school in Chicago, of all places, and it shouldn't have been possible, but she knew that voice.
Slowly, she turned around and there, inconceivably, impossibly, jogging towards her was Peter Kavinsky, her high school sweetheart, wearing a wide grin on his face. His hair still did that charming flopping thing, and his chest looked somehow even broader than it had when they were teenagers.
When he got close enough to her, he leaned his lanky body down and engulfed her in a warm, familiar hug. That was when her body abruptly decided to restart, and her heart began to hammer as it tried its best to climb up her chest and all the way into her throat.
“Peter... Wha...What are you doing here?” she asked, when she found her voice again.
Peter looked down at her with that puzzled half-smile that always meant that he was confused but trying not to show it.
“We’re here for the same reason you and your guys are,” he answered nonsensically. “When I heard you were coming to Chicago, I wondered how long it would be until we ran into each other.”
She stared at him, trying to make any kind of sense of his words. It wasn't until she noticed the Richardson campaign t-shirt he wore that some pieces started to slot into place.
“You...work for Gary Richardson?” she asked incredulously. Gary Richardson was the governor of Connecticut and another candidate running against Senator Wu for the nomination, along with Richard Kent, the senior senator from Missouri, and Grant Forsythe, a Silicon Valley tech guy who was self-funding his campaign.
“How did you not know that?” he asked. “I’ve been posting about it on Facebook constantly for the last year.”
Lara Jean felt herself begin to blush. The truth was that she had muted him on social media four months after their breakup because he had posted a picture of him and some other girl smiling together at the beach. It had hurt too badly at the time to see Peter moving on when Lara Jean was still so hung up on him.
“I barely ever go on Facebook,” Lara Jean lied, and scrambled quickly to change the subject. “Since when are you interested in politics?” she asked instead.
Peter shrugged. “After I tore my ACL my sophomore year and transferred out here to Northwestern, I had to find something new to focus on besides sports. Maybe you inspired me,” he admitted. “All that time in high school when you would go on about politics and civic duty, I guess it sort of seeped into my brain. When I was thinking about what to do next, it felt like the best option.”
“Um...wow,” she stammered, struck dumb at the thought that all of her mindless yammering to him back in high school actually had an effect. “I'm sorry to hear about your knee.”
He waved away her concern. “Don't worry about it, it was a long time ago. I’m happy with what I'm doing, so it all worked out.”
Maybe she’d been too diligent about avoiding his posts over the years. If she’d snuck a look every now and then, she wouldn’t have been sucker punched by this news.
“So how are you handling being so far away from your dad?” he asked.
“It sucks,” she admitted, “but I’ll get over it. My four years at school in California helped prepare me. And I’m gonna go home to visit in the spring after the primaries are over, so…”
“Awfully confident that Wu’s still gonna be around after the primaries,” Peter teased. “The governor is going to give her a run for her money. He’s polling really well in Iowa, and he’s on track to sweep New England.”
Lara Jean rolled her eyes. “He’s from Connecticut,” she replied. “Anyway, you can have Maine and Vermont -- “
“And New Hampshire?” he added with a raise of his eyebrow, but she ignored him and continued.
“I’ll take the Midwest and Southwest. And if I were you, I wouldn’t be so confident about Iowa.”
“Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t bet the house on Arizona being a sure thing either,” he countered.
“I guess we’ll see,” she said with a grin.
“Yeah, we will,” he agreed, matching her smile with one of his crooked ones that always made her heart skip a beat. He cocked his head, then, and added, “So that’s some fashion statement you’re making there.”
Oh god. Somehow in the shock of seeing him, Lara Jean had forgotten why she had gone to the bathroom in the first place.
“I had to borrow a shirt. I spilled my drink all over mine,” she said as she subtly tried to cross her arms over her chest and obscure it from view.
“I mean,” he gestured at her shirt, “it’s good advice.” His lips were pursed in a way that made it obvious he was holding in laughter.
“Who doesn’t like unicorns?” she answered weakly. Just kill me.
How was it fair that he’d managed to get more handsome since the last time she’d seen him, on the night before he’d left for Boston? Meanwhile, she was standing there wearing a nine year old’s t-shirt and feeling more flustered than she had since the day Peter had waved that secret love letter in front of her face all of those years ago.
“Are you going to that college fair at the Daley Center next week?” she asked in a desperate bid to talk about anything else.
“Yup, I’ll be there. I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other in the next few months, Lara Jean,” Peter answered.
“Well, you know. Gotta keep tabs on the competition,” she answered, and then she reached out and slugged him in the shoulder, much to her chagrin. What was that?
“I’m shocked to learn that Senator Wu encourages violently attacking her opponents. You’re gonna cause a scandal, Covey.”
“Haha,” Lara Jean said, thrown off-kilter by his teasing tone. “Anyway. I...have to go to the bathroom.”
“Didn’t you just come out of there?”
She tried to hide her grimace. “Yup. Just, you know. Lady problems.”
“Peter Kavinsky…! Oh. My. God.” Chris threw back her head and laughed on the other end of the FaceTime call.
“I know,” Lara Jean said. She was huddled in the handicap stall of the women’s room talking to her best friend from back home.
“What were the odds of that?” Chris asked.
“Astronomical. Did you know he’s lived here for three years now?” she asked.
“How was I supposed to know that?” Chris responded.
“From Facebook,” Lara Jean said.
“LJ, you made me unfriend him years ago,” Chris said.
Lara Jean paused. She hadn’t done that, had she? “I did?”
“Yes. Me and your sisters. So this one is all on you, babe. Anyway, I think it’s romantic -- “
“It is not romantic,” Lara Jean hissed.
“Yes it is. Your first love who you never got over --”
“I’ve been over him for years!”
“I’ve dated plenty of other guys,” she said.
“By plenty you mean three,” Chris said. “And none of those ‘relationships’ -- if you could even call them that -- lasted more than two months. Plus, don’t forget that I’ve seen you drunk. Vodka cranberries don’t lie, Lara Jean.”
“Oh, just...shut up,” Lara Jean said, scowling.
“Come on, you’re the one who loves romance stories. Tell me this isn’t perfect. The two of you broke up when you moved across the country from one another for college. You went to California, he went to Boston. And now, four years later, you're meeting up again in the middle. It’s like fate is pulling you back together,” Chris said.
“Shut up,” Lara Jean repeated. “He broke up with me, Chris. Nothing is going to happen this time. I don’t even know if he has a girlfriend.”
She grinned slyly. “But that’s the only reason why? Because he might have a girlfriend? Not because you’re not interested?”
“I’m hanging up on you,” Lara Jean declared, clicking out of the call to the sound of her best friend’s laughter.
Ten minutes later, as Lara Jean was passing out a sticker to a woman wearing a Santa hat, she felt her phone vibrate. When she touched the screen to open it, she saw that Chris had texted her a picture of Peter’s Facebook profile where he listed himself as ‘single.’
“New Ipsos poll just released shows us gaining in the north suburbs.” Roger turned his laptop screen towards Lara Jean so that she could see what he was looking at.
Lara Jean leaned in and read the top line results. “Maybe we should be putting more resources up there,” she mused. “If we can run up the numbers in Lake County, it might off-put how badly she’s going to lose the south.”
Being a progressive, Asian, female senator from California didn’t play well with the more conservative-leaning farmers in southern Illinois, but if they really were making inroads with the fiscally conservative but socially liberal upper middle class white voters that populated the northern suburbs, that could potentially be huge.
She tapped a note on her laptop to remind herself to bring that up to Ali when they had a moment.
“Post that to the Slack,” she said.
“Sure,” Roger answered.
Lara Jean had made it two weeks in Chicago, and she felt good about how she was getting along with the rest of the staffers and in the job. Primary season was right around the corner, and the fact that Senator Wu was the current front runner to win the Democratic nomination was somehow making Lara Jean more nervous. There’s something comforting about being the underdog.
She buckled down and kept working. As the days wore on, she found herself staying at work later and later, making phone calls, returning emails, addressing mailers, and organizing merchandise. The good news was that she wasn’t alone. She was almost never the last one to leave, and Ali had taken to giving her rides back to her apartment so that she could avoid riding the L-train too late at night.
Speaking of Ali, she walked up to Lara Jean's desk and dropped a few sheets of paper in front of her.
“Oh hey,” Lara Jean said as she gathered the papers up. “Did you see those new polling numbers? I have some thoughts about Lake County.”
“From Ipsos? Yeah, I saw about them an hour ago. We should talk about strategy. Maybe add some canvassing in the area if we can find the volunteers,” Ali agreed and then gestured at the papers in Lara Jean’s hands. “That’s the floor plan for the college fair on Saturday. They put all the candidates’ booths together in the back, which makes sense since they want the schools’ booths to have priority, but it’s still annoying. Anyway, you can look it over when you get time. We’re in between the Kent guys and the Richardson guys.”
Lara Jean tapped her pen against the surface of her desk as she looked at the paper. “Richardson?” she asked.
“Is that a problem?” Ali asked, confused.
“Nope,” Lara Jean said. “No, not at all. That’s totally cool.”
One of the hard lessons that Margot had drilled into Lara Jean’s head over the years was that even if you lied to everyone else, you should never lie to yourself.
So that’s why as she tried on her third outfit in front of the mirror she admitted that she was dressing up to impress Peter. Fine, fine. She was going to be sitting right next to him for six hours on Saturday, and the last time he saw her, she was wearing a sparkly kids’ shirt. She wanted to prove that she was grown up and professional.
And she wanted to look pretty. She wanted Peter to think she was pretty, because he was a jerk who didn’t even have the decency to stop being gorgeous after he dumped her.
“Admit it and move on,” she said to her reflection as she turned from one side to the other to examine how her favorite green sweater looked with a pair of gray pants and her trusty black boots.
A huge part of Senator Wu’s strategy -- and the Democratic strategy more broadly -- was to encourage as many young voters as possible to turn out to vote, which was why they were all clamoring to register potential voters who would be eighteen years old by the time the election took place. Giant college fairs like this one were a perfect place to find and connect with civic-minded young people.
Lara Jean and Ali had begun setting up their table when Peter arrived with two other people. She gave him a friendly wave and forced herself not to adjust her sweater or touch her hair self-consciously. Peter grinned back, though he couldn’t return the wave because of the boxes in his hands.
Once he put them down on the Richardson table, he walked over to them.
“Hey Covey,” he said. “This is Nate and Vicky. Guys, this is Lara Jean, she just transferred to Chicago. We go way back.”
Lara Jean greeted both new people with a grin.
“Uh, I’m here too, Peter,” Ali said pointedly.
Peter rolled his eyes and smiled good naturedly. “Hi, Ali. How are you, Ali? It’s always wonderful to see you, Ali.”
“That’s better,” she said.
She and Ali continued setting up their tables with free merch and iPads for voter registration and signing up for Senator Wu’s mailing list when Ali asked, “How do you know Peter?”
“We went to high school together,” Lara Jean responded.
“All the way in Portland?” Ali asked. “That’s crazy.”
“You have no idea,” Lara Jean said.
“Excuse me, are you ladies registered to vote?” Lara Jean asked three teenage girls walking past the table wearing business suits and clutching binders.
They barely looked up at her as they hurried past. One managed to mumble, “Uh, no…”
Peter stepped out from around his table and halted them in their tracks. “What? Three clearly ambitious women like you?” He shot them a disarming, amiable grin and crossed his arms over his chest. “You’re all at least seventeen, right?”
One girl tentatively raised her hand. “I’m eighteen,” she said.
“Even better. What’s your name?” he asked. “Mine’s Peter.”
“Um, Rebecca?” she answered, making it a question in her nervousness.
“Rebecca. Is Becky ok?” he asked.
The girl nodded, her pale skin pinkening, and Lara Jean gave Peter an exasperated look from behind their backs.
“Becky, look at you. You’re like halfway to taking over the world already. Do you know what you’re going to major in?” he asked.
“Biology?” she replied. “I want to go to med school.”
“Oh yeah? Well, if you don’t want to spend the next twenty years drowning in student loan debt, you should think about which candidate is going to work to help stop the big banks from taking advantage of you. Here.” He handed her a tablet. “Just register now and then it’s done and you don’t have to worry about it. Governor Richardson has advocated for debt-free college for all Americans. Just something to think about.”
“I’m turning eighteen next week,” another girl piped up. Lara Jean rolled her eyes as Peter turned to her.
“Really? Hang on.” He turned back to the table quickly and grabbed a blank name tag and a Sharpie. “What’s your name?”
“Sarah,” she answered.
He scribbled Happy Birthday, Sarah! on the tag and then handed it to her. “Happy birthday! Here, you should register too. What about you? When do you turn eighteen?” he asked the last girl.
“August,” she replied.
“You can still vote in the primary, as long as you’re eighteen by November. And you should definitely register. You have that high-powered future senator look about you, I can tell.”
She giggled. “I was thinking about majoring in Political Science,” she admitted.
“I knew it.” He leaned down closer to her and said conspiratorially, “Politics are my thing.”
Ali handed Lara Jean a small bottle of water and asked, “Was he like this in high school too?”
Lara Jean remembered how thoroughly infatuated she’d been with him for two years as she unscrewed the bottle. “Yes,” she answered as she took a long sip.
“Tell you what, I’ll make you a promise,” Peter was saying to the third girl who was typing her information into his tablet. “You vote for Gary Richardson now, and I’ll vote for you when you run. Deal?”
“Deal,” she answered, and she accepted his hand to shake as the three girls laughed.
Once they had submitted their forms and went on their way, Nate, sitting at the Richardson table and watching the whole interaction, said, “Our secret weapon.”
“That was gross,” Lara Jean replied.
Peter put a hand on his chest and widened his eyes. “What? It was harmless flirting for a good cause. I’m flirting for democracy, Covey.”
Later that afternoon, Lara Jean was standing in front of a vending machine and searching through her purse for some change when Peter sidled up beside her and inserted his own dollar into the slot.
“Are you still annoyed with me?” he asked.
“No,” Lara Jean admitted. “And it’s not like I can blame those girls either. I mean, I wouldn’t exactly have a leg to stand on there, would I?”
Peter pressed a few buttons and a bag of animal crackers was released and fell to the bottom. He reached down and fished it out before handing the bag to Lara Jean.
“That’s what you were going to get, right?” he asked.
She blinked. “Yeah,” she said as she took the crackers from him automatically. “Thanks.”
“What do you mean you wouldn’t have a leg to stand on?” he asked.
“Seventeen years old and obsessed with Peter Kavinsky? Let’s just say I’ve been there,” she replied and then gestured over her shoulder at their table. “Anyway. I need to get back.”
“You and Peter used to date,” Ali said on the drive home that afternoon. She took a hand off of the steering wheel to point a finger at Lara Jean. “Don’t deny it.”
Lara Jean hesitated for a second before deciding it didn’t matter.
“Back in high school,” she answered. “It was a long time ago.”
“Uh-huh,” Ali said. “It doesn’t seem like it was a long time ago. Not with the eyes you two were making at each other.”
Lara Jean smoothed a hand over her ponytail, a nervous tic. “It’s not like that. We dated our last two years of high school, but then he broke up with me because he was going to school in Boston and I was going to Berkeley. He didn’t want a long distance relationship -- which I get. My sister did the same thing with her high school boyfriend. It’s just...Peter doesn’t…” She stopped and took a deep breath and steeled herself. It had been four years, she should be able to just say it by now. “Peter didn’t love me as much as I loved him.” She took a long sip of water to avoid talking while she collected herself. When she swallowed, she spoke again. “Anyway, it’s not like that.”
Ali put a hand on her shoulder and said, “I don’t know anything about your history or what happened back in high school, but from an outsider’s point of view, he seems…” She paused to think of the right words. “He seems very fond of you.”
“Well, we’re old friends,” Lara Jean mumbled.
“That must be it,” Ali said.
“Second place? That’s good, right?” Kitty asked. She and Margot were on a three-way FaceTime conversation with Lara Jean on the day after the New Hampshire primary.
“It’s really, really good,” Lara Jean confirmed. It was so good, in fact, that the whole Wu campaign was still in shock. Ali had made everyone pitchers of margaritas the night before to celebrate, and Lara Jean was still feeling the after-effects. “We were expecting to come in dead last in New Hampshire, but the momentum from winning the Iowa caucus last week must have bled over and given her a huge push with undecideds.”
“Ugh!” Kitty said, throwing herself back on the couch. “I can’t wait until I’m finally old enough to vote.”
“Next year,” Lara Jean said.
“What about Richardson?” Margot asked. “Wasn’t he supposed to win last night?”
“That’s what all the polls said,” Lara Jean agreed. Gary Richardson had come in a distant third to Robert Kent and Tracy Wu, despite the edge most believed he had by being from New England.
“Isn’t that Peter’s guy?” Kitty wondered. “Sucks to be him.”
She hadn't seen Peter in days, but she could guess how well this setback was being handled in the Richardson camp. “Yeah.”
“Maybe you should offer to help him feel better,” Kitty said and made a kissy face at the camera to Margot’s laughter.
“Kitty!” Lara Jean gasped.
“Oh please,” Kitty said. “Do I have to forge another letter to send so you don’t mope about this forever?”
"I'm not moping. I'm completely over him," Lara Jean said.
Kitty snorted. "Does she think that moving away for a month would make us forget who she is?"
"Apparently," Margot replied.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Lara Jean demanded.
"That we're your sisters, and we know your 'I'm in love with Peter Kavinsky' face after seeing it every single day for years," Margot answered.
"It looks kind of like..." Kitty pouted her lips and fluttered her eyelashes dramatically.
"I have never made that face in my life!" Lara Jean said.
"'Peter just bought me flowers for getting an A on my English test. Doesn't Peter look so dreamy in his lacrosse uniform?'" Kitty mimicked in a saccharine voice and holding a hand over her heart.
"You're lucky you're a thousand miles away right now," Lara Jean said.
“Take a risk, live a little," Margot said. “Something awesome could happen.”
“Also stop being a wimp,” Kitty added.
“That too,” Margot agreed.
Later that night, Lara Jean was sitting in the kitchen working on her laptop. Beside her was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a bag of popcorn that she was eating for dinner. She stuffed a handful of popcorn into her mouth with one hand and opened her email with the other.
The city staff was coordinating with the field organizers in Springfield and southern Illinois to put together a big get out the vote push over the next month. The email chain as they ironed out the details was getting out of control, and Lara Jean was going to suggest that they take it to Slack instead.
Just then, her phone started buzzing. Lara Jean looked to see her phone lighting up beside her computer. The number was unknown, but at this point she was used to fielding phone calls from strangers all over the state regarding organizing volunteers, get out the vote drives and rallies. She clicked the green button to accept the call with the hand not holding a fistful of popcorn.
“Hello?” she greeted.
“Covey, I can’t believe you still have the same phone number you did in high school.”
Lara Jean jumped, popcorn ending up all over her shirt and her keyboard.
“Peter?” she asked as she lifted the hem of her shirt to dig out the kernels that were caught in her bra.
“Yeah. I took a chance with the old number and whatta you know?” He laughed.
“I never changed it,” Lara Jean answered unnecessarily. “Um...did you need something?”
“I need a lot of things,” Peter replied. “Another beer for one.”
She huffed a laugh at that. “Peter Kavinsky, did you drunk dial me?” She closed her laptop and hitched it under her arm to head back to her bedroom.
“Did I? Hmm. Yes, I did,” he answered. “Anyway, what else do I need? Let’s see. Well, as of tomorrow, I’ll need a new job.”
That stopped her mid-step. “What do you mean?”
“The governor is dropping out. They’re releasing the official statement in the morning.”
Lara Jean blinked as her mind tried to process that new information. If Governor Richardson was out of the race, that left only Senator Wu, Richard Kent, and Grant Forsythe in the running. Last night had been a terrible result for Richardson, but Lara Jean had still expected him to make it to Super Tuesday at least.
“Wow, I’m...I’m really surprised. I’m sorry, Peter,” she said.
“Third place? He was supposed to clean up in New Hampshire. The donors are jumping out of the sinking ship.” He sighed, and Lara Jean could hear the sound of another bottle opening. “But that’s good for you. Just, hey, don’t tell anyone until the news drops, ok?”
“I won’t. And it is good news for me, but I’m still sorry for you. You guys worked really hard,” Lara Jean insisted.
“That's because you're so nice. You know, I only saw you one time in the last four years, just one, but then we met again last month, and it was like nothing had changed. You were still Peter, and I was still Lara Jean.” He paused. “Wait. Strike that, reverse it.”
“Got it,” she said as she sat down on her bed. And the thing was, even though Peter was clearly drunk, she knew exactly what he meant. His laugh was still the same, his hugs were still the same. He even smelled the same. But that just meant he was still Peter Kavinsky, the boy who broke up with her and flew all the way across the country.
“Did you feel that way too?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she answered softly.
“And even though you’re actually here, in Chicago, with me, you still feel so far away. I miss you, Lara Jean.”
Lara Jean pulled the phone away from her ear as she tried to think of an answer to that. Finally, when none was forthcoming, she returned it to her ear and said, “I...when did you see me before?”
“What?” he asked.
“You said you saw me once in four years. When was that, I don’t remember.”
“Oh, uh. It was during winter break our sophomore year. You and Kitty were headed into Florence’s for ice cream. I didn’t want to bother you,” he answered.
“I would have been happy to see you,” Lara Jean said. “We both would have been.”
“Yeah?” he asked. “Well, I chickened out, I guess. You were wearing a red coat.”
“You chickened out because I was wearing a red coat?” she asked.
“No, I chickened out because I chickened out. I just remembered thinking you looked beautiful in that coat.”
Lara Jean pressed the back of her hand to her mouth and felt her eyes go wide. There was a long silence, and then Peter cleared his throat. “Anyway. Like I said, I’m really drunk. I just wanted to give you a heads up about the governor. I’ll stop talking about stuff that’s ancient history. Later, Covey.”
“Bye,” Lara Jean said faintly, but Peter had already hung up.
“Richardson is out!” Ali shouted at her as soon as she walked into work the next day. “His campaign just released a statement. He’s doing a press conference at noon to officially confirm it.”
“Oh wow,” Lara Jean said, hoping her lack of reaction would be taken as shock. It didn’t matter, though, because the whole office was buzzing with the news, staffers making phone calls and shouting out bits of WaPo articles or tweets. They barely even noticed her.
“Who’s getting his donors?”
“Do we know who he’s endorsing?”
“Who do we like from the Richardson staff?”
Lara Jean only hesitated a second, don’t be a wimp echoing in her mind, before clearing her throat and calling out, “Peter. Peter Kavinsky.”
“So I guess I don’t need a new job after all.”
Peter, one of four former Chicago-based Richardson staff members now integrated into the Wu campaign, leaned his hip against Lara Jean’s desk.
“I guess not,” she answered.
“Any idea who recommended me?” he asked.
Lara Jean looked up at him and shrugged. “Ali?”
“Hmm.” Peter nodded thoughtfully. “That must be it, yeah.” He grinned at her a moment and then faltered, running a hand through his hair. “Listen, I wanted to apologize about that call the other day…”
“It’s ok -- “ Lara Jean began, but he interrupted.
“I was drunk, and I said some stuff I regret. I don’t want to make things awkward between us, especially now that we’re working together --”
“You won’t. You didn’t,” she assured him.
“Ok. So we’re cool?” he asked.
“We’re totally cool,” she confirmed.
It was less than two weeks until Super Tuesday, the day when twelve states held their primaries and caucuses simultaneously to make their choice for the next nominee. And while Illinois wasn’t voting until the week after that, there was still so much to do that Lara Jean almost couldn’t wrap her head around it.
They were in the middle of a huge phone banking and canvassing operation around Illinois, and when anyone could be spared from that, they were also phone banking for some of the Super Tuesday states that they believed the senator might need a push in.
The team and all their volunteers were hitting every VFW hall and Sunday bingo tournament and craft fair and fundraiser and canned food drive available -- all in the dead of winter when it was so cold it felt like Lara Jean’s bones were going to shake apart.
She’d missed three phone calls from her dad in the last two days and hadn’t eaten anything but leftover take out that she kept in the fridge in the break room, because she basically lived there when she wasn’t traveling around the state handing out bumper stickers and pens.
She definitely didn’t have time to think about Peter sitting two desks over, his floppy hair falling into his eyes as he hunched over the canvassing maps for Rodgers Park where his team was headed the next day.
She didn’t have time, but she was doing it anyway -- and doing it obviously enough that when Peter looked up, she couldn’t avert her gaze fast enough and ended up locking eyes with him across the room. He smiled at her a bit questioningly, and she just shook her head and forced her eyes back down to her laptop.
Focus, Lara Jean.
Just as she was getting back into her work, the front door opened, and a man Lara Jean had never seen before entered carrying a bouquet of roses.
Kelly, whose desk was closest to the door, turned and shouted over her shoulder, “Ali, your adorable husband is here!” She looked back at him. “Hi, Juan.”
That was Ali’s husband? Lara Jean looked at him in interest. He was a handsome guy -- medium build, with short-cropped hair and friendly, dark eyes.
“What…?” Ali asked, coming out of the bathroom and shaking her hands dry.
“Happy Valentine’s Day,” he said to her, and Lara Jean looked down at the date in the corner of her computer screen. Sure enough, it was February 14th.
Ali took the flowers from her husband and hugged him, and then the two proceeded to speak to each other for several minutes in rapid fire Spanish.
Lara Jean snuck another look at Peter, only to find him already looking back at her. She quickly glanced away and back to her work once again. Focus.
At the end of the night, after she’d sat at her desk and ate a whole container of chicken fried rice and three of the muffins Newt brought in courtesy of his mother, Lara Jean finally saved her work and closed her computer. She pulled out her phone to order a Lyft when Peter came up to her, his coat already on.
“Ready to go knock on some doors tomorrow?” he asked.
“You know it,” she responded.
“Well. Happy Valentine’s Day, Covey.”
He extended his hand to her, something inside his closed fist. She reached out and he dropped three silver Hershey's Kisses into her palm.
“Yeah. Happy Valentine’s Day, Peter.”
Lara Jean woke up on Super Tuesday with a knot in her stomach that not even two cups of coffee could loosen. She took a shower, checked the final predictions on FiveThirtyEight for the thousandth time in the last day, and made herself two pieces of toast, only to throw them in the garbage untouched when her stomach rebelled at the thought of eating anything.
As she rode the red line into work, she mentally went through her inner-mantra as she fielded emails and text messages from her co-workers and family.
We know that Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Arkansas, and especially Missouri are lost causes. She needs to come close in Texas and run up the delegate count in California, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Colorado. We’ll know it’s a good day if she wins in Vermont and Georgia.
It wasn’t even 8am. They still had almost twelve hours until the first returns would come in. Lara Jean expected the Wu headquarters to start getting crowded around five as staff and volunteers began filtering in to watch how the night unfolded.
Before that, though, Lara Jean had to cross-coordinate on a rally the senator was holding that weekend. With the Illinois primary scheduled for next Tuesday, Senator Wu’s campaign was finally making it into the state to campaign on Saturday and part of Sunday before she flew out to Florida. Her first stop was Peoria, a city in southwest Illinois, followed by a trip through some southern farming areas that had been hard hit by the recession, before ending on a glory note in downtown Chicago.
Ali made Lara Jean the point person with the national campaign for the Peoria rally, which was taking place inside of the city’s convention center in the early afternoon. They anticipated over 5,000 people were going to show up. It was exciting to have that much responsibility, but it was also exhausting and terrifying as well. Lara Jean had been handling it pretty well so far. She was a detail-oriented person and had years of experience planning smaller events. She also knew a few of the people working with the national team from her time volunteering for the senator’s re-election campaign.
Lara Jean bit her thumb nail nervously as she scrolled through her phone, making a mental note to respond to her father and sisters’ good luck texts later. She was reading a New York Times piece entitled "Everything You Need to Know About Super Tuesday" when a text from Ali popped up.
If you stop at Panera for some bagels on your way in, I’ll pay you back and love you forever.
Lara Jean responded in the affirmative, and when she got off at her usual stop, she headed left instead of right to hit the Panera a few blocks down.
“Bagels!” Lara Jean declared twenty minutes later, balancing the bagels and condiments in one hand so that she could open the door with the other.
There was already a noticeable tension in the office, with twice as many people milling around than there usually would be this early.
“Bless you,” Ali said as she took some of the bags out of Lara Jean’s hands.
They carried the goods into the break room and Lara Jean set out all of the bagels and cream cheeses and utensils for people to use. People began filtering in, grabbing food and mumbling their thanks as they wandered back out again.
“Did Kelly and Roger finish setting up the viewing area?” Lara Jean asked.
Ali nodded as she bit into a cinnamon bagel. She held up one finger, a signal to wait while she chewed and swallowed. “Did you see it when you came in? There’s so many screens set up it looks like NASA back there. Have a bagel.”
“I will later,” Lara Jean answered. “I feel like if I eat right now, I’ll throw up.”
“I understand that,” Ali said. “I’m pretty sure Roger already had a panic attack in the bathroom before you got here.”
“Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee are off the table,” Lara Jean said, reiterating out loud what she’d been going over in her head.
“She’s gonna gain a ton of delegates in California,” Ali added. “It just sucks that we have to wait until after ten to start seeing those results come in.”
“Wanna go watch MSNBC?” Lara Jean asked.
“Let’s bring our laptops so we can pretend we’re working,” Ali agreed.
“Exit polls coming out of Tennessee have 54% of Democratic respondents saying that the most important issue they’re voting on is national security,” Ignacio called out to a round of nervous groans from everyone in earshot.
“Who the hell turned that monitor to the Fox News feed?” Kelly demanded.
“You said you wanted one screen on every news channel,” Tim, a college volunteer, responded.
“I said news channel, not propaganda network,” she answered. “My blood pressure cannot handle looking at Tucker Carlson’s weasel face right now. Turn that shit off.”
“Pizza’s in the back!” someone shouted, and there was nearly a stampede as a few dozen people began funneling through one doorway to get to the food.
“Want me to get you some?” Peter asked her.
She shook her head. “Not right now.”
Boos rang out all over the room as CNN called Tennessee for Senator Kent.
“We were never gonna get Tennessee,” she told Ignacio, Peter, and Gwen.
“Georgia is close,” Gwen added.
“She can pull it out,” Lara Jean said, taking an anxious sip from her water bottle. “There’s still a ton more votes left in Atlanta.”
It was rowdy and packed inside of Wu Headquarters, but outside, the whole world was quiet.
Lara Jean looked up at Peter from where she was sitting on the curb. “Hey.”
“You ok?” he asked. “You’ve been out here for half an hour now. It’s freezing.”
She nodded. “I just needed a little break, that’s all. I’m starving.”
The pizza was long gone, but there was a half-bag of Chips Ahoy in the cupboard that she grabbed on her way outside for some air.
Peter gestured at her. “I can tell. You look like Cookie Monster.”
Lara Jean self-consciously brushed off the crumbs littered over the front of her coat before taking another bite. “I’m nervous,” she admitted. “She’s gotta hold her own in Texas. She’s gotta run away with it in California.”
“What about Missouri?” Peter asked and Lara Jean scoffed.
“Kent’s home state? Hopefully she can keep it relatively close, but that’s it.”
“You don’t think she can win it?” Peter asked.
Lara Jean took another bite of a cookie, and said around her mouthful, “No one does.”
Peter shrugged and fiddled around on his phone for a second before turning it around so she could see the screen. “I guess MSNBC disagrees with you, because they just called it for her.”
Lara Jean immediately began choking on the cookie in her mouth. Peter rushed over and gave her a few good thumps on her back until she finally got it all down.
“Give me your phone,” she demanded, taking it from him and looking at the tweet he had pulled up. “Oh my god.”
She pulled out her own phone from her pocket and saw that she had twelve missed text messages of people celebrating the victory with her. “Oh my god!”
Without thinking about it, she threw herself at Peter. She pressed her face into his neck, and though he grumbled about her cold nose, he didn’t let go. As they hugged, she felt a keen, effervescent happiness expand inside her chest, as light and buoyant as champagne bubbles. She closed her eyes and hung on.
“So I’m still in love with Peter,” Lara Jean said in a rush. “Or maybe in love with him again. I’m not sure.”
“Duh,” Kitty said.
She glared at her little sister over the phone. “He broke up with me though.”
“You are not helpful,” Lara Jean told her.
"Lara Jean, I have a question." She looked up from her laptop to see Gwen leaning over her desk and fiddling with a pen.
"Sure," Lara Jean said.
"You're single, right?"
Lara Jean bristled, cutting her eyes as inconspicuously as she could to the left to see Peter watching them from his own desk.
"Um...uh-huh. Yes," she answered as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
"So it's totally fine if you say no," Gwen began.
"I have a friend, he's in his first year of law school, really hot, really friendly, really funny..."
From across the room, Kelly piped up. "Are you talking about Francisco?"
"Yeah," Gwen said.
"LJ, get it, girl. He's gorgeous," Kelly answered.
"Umm..." Lara Jean sank down lower in her seat and did her best to shift so that she faced away from Peter, whose eyes she could still feel boring into her.
Ignacio walked up to her desk and put a companionable arm around Gwen's shoulders. "The one with the glasses who came to our holiday party?"
"Hot right?" Gwen said.
"Hot as hell," Ignacio agreed. "And he came to the party with two handles of Cuervo and a pan of homemade arroz con gandules. That is a real man."
"See?" Gwen said, pointing at Ignacio and Kelly and back at her. "And I know he's in law school, but he's not like a lawyer, you know? I think you guys would get along. But like I said, you can totally say no if you're not into it. No pressure."
Lara Jean cleared her throat. Her face felt like it was on fire. "Thanks, but I'm way too busy right now with the primary and everything going on."
Gwen shrugged. "Cool. That's what I thought you'd say, but I thought I'd throw it out there. Maybe in the spring after things calm down?"
"Sure, maybe," Lara Jean said, just to get out of the conversation.
Ali poked her head out of the break room and saved her, shouting, "Gwen, stop harassing LJ."
"I'm not!" Gwen yelled back, and then winked at Lara Jean and mouthed we'll talk later before traipsing away.
Lara Jean turned back to her laptop and then risked a glance over at Peter. He met her gaze and wiggled his eyebrows at her with a small smile. She rolled her eyes back and bit her lip to tamp down on her returning grin.
The Thursday after Senator Wu’s big win, Lara Jean still had a rally to plan. Illinois, Florida, and Arizona were all voting on Tuesday, and there were a ton of delegates between them. While Wu looked to have Illinois in the bag, it was a point of professional pride for Lara Jean that Wu not just win -- that she destroy the competition.
Forsythe was all but out of the running, only hanging on by the fact that he was self-funding his whole campaign. Senator Wu’s big competition was Senator Kent, who had taken a real blow on Super Tuesday but wasn't out. Florida was always a wild card, and they still had another two dozen or so elections until the end of the cycle.
The biggest problem she faced at the moment was from Mother Nature: it was going to snow in Peoria on Saturday. It was going to snow a lot.
Lara Jean bit the cap of her pen a moment and said, “Ok. The whole event should be over by four, and the forecast says that the snow will be starting right around then. Is that enough of a window that we can guarantee everyone’s safety…?”
On the other side of her conference call, Terrence from the national campaign responded, “The senator wants to go through with it if at all possible. What if we move up the start time an hour? We’ve got two days to get the word out about it.”
“I’ll have to contact the people at the convention center, but that should be doable,” Lara Jean mused.
Tammy, the woman in charge of the southern Illinois branch of the Wu campaign piped up, “You’re going to be the advance person on this, right? We weren’t planning on getting there until around one, but we can make it earlier, if you want.”
“No, one should still be good. I’ll be there. Ali and I are aiming for nine o’clock to make sure everything is set up.”
“Actually,” Ali piped up from the beside her at the table, “I’m staying behind to shepherd the rest of the crew down in my van. Lara Jean and Peter, another organizer, will be doing the advance and the closing work on this one. Sorry, I forgot to tell you that.”
Lara Jean jerked her head to stare at Ali. “Uh,” she said, taking a moment to pull herself together. “I guess it’s me and Peter then. Either way, I’ll be there for sure.”
When the conference call ended, Lara Jean said, “When did we change our plans?”
“Is that ok?” Ali asked. “Roger’s car broke down, and he was driving Gwen. So now I need to take both of them, and I was already planning to bring Ignacio and Kelly.”
Peoria was three hours away. That was three hours, there and back, alone in a car with Peter Kavinsky.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Lara Jean said.
Lara Jean had no future political aspirations of her own, but if she was ever somehow elected president, her first order of business would be to make it against the law for any person to have to leave the house before six o’clock on a Saturday morning. She had barely finished getting ready when Peter texted that he had arrived to pick her up. Making sure that she had everything, Lara Jean locked her front door and raced down the two flights of stairs before the lobby.
Peter’s SUV was idling by the fire hydrant in front of her building. She jumped in the passenger seat and put her messenger bag down at her feet before putting on her seat belt.
“Morning,” she said when she had herself situated.
“Picking you up at your house when you’re half-asleep -- just like old times,” Peter said with a grin. “And hey.” He handed her a Starbucks cup.
“Thank you,” she said, taking a grateful sip.
“And one more.” He reached down under the dashboard and pulled out a small bottle that he tossed to her. She caught it with her one available hand, and when she saw what it was, her heart gave a flip.
“My favorite yogurt. You remembered.” She tried to keep the emotion out of her voice, but she didn’t think she succeeded.
Peter looked a little sheepish as he shrugged and shifted the car out of park. “There’s a Korean market near my house, and I knew there’d be no way you’d get up early enough to eat breakfast, so. No big deal.”
“Well, still. Thank you, Peter.”
He shot her a bashful grin that was so endearing Lara Jean had to shove her hands under her thighs in order to keep herself from clutching her heart like a heroine in one of the romance novels she used to love.
It turned out that Lara Jean didn’t need to be worried about the three hour ride being awkward. The two of them had so many things to discuss for the event that day that the trip flew by, and before she knew it, they were pulling into the free parking lot around the block from the convention center.
Lara Jean was pleased to note that even though it was only a little after nine in the morning and nearly freezing out, there were still a handful of supporters already lined up to get into the rally at two.
The liaison from the convention center working with Lara Jean was a balding man named Ed, who unlocked the front doors to let them in when Lara Jean called. He led them into the office area where they hashed out the logistics of the new start time, as well as walking them through the security for the event.
Other Illinois field organizers and some advance people from the Senator’s national campaign staff began making their way in as the hours ticked on.
Standing backstage while Senator Wu gave her speech to a packed house, Lara Jean didn’t have a way to tell what the weather was like, though the app on her phone assured her that the snow had already begun by the time the rally ended. Needing to race the weather to their next destination, the senator and her staff left as quickly as possible. The other staffers filtered out soon after, until it was just Lara Jean and Peter doing the closing work.
They finally finished with everything at a little after six and got out of the convention center -- only to stop dead in their tracks when they stepped outside.
“Wow,” Lara Jean gasped as she looked around. The snow fell in large, wet flakes that began to accumulate in her hair and inside the creases of her coat. Since they’d been in the convention center, at least four inches of snow had fallen. It would have been beautiful if they weren’t a three hour drive away from home. "They weren't kidding about the snow."
"Come on, let's get to the car," Peter said.
They began to make their way slowly across the snow-covered sidewalk, but as they stepped off the curb and into the street, Lara Jean slipped on a slick patch of ice, her feet flying out from under her. She gasped as she lost her balance and lurched forward, and then again when she felt her right ankle turn painfully. Before she could hit the ground, though, Peter caught her, wrapping his arms around her waist and keeping her up.
“Are you ok?” he asked, his head was bent close to hers. There were snowflakes clinging to his eyelashes.
“Thanks,” she said breathlessly. “Yes, I’m ok.” She straightened up, and Peter released her. She took a tentative step on her right foot and hissed when it touched the ground. “I twisted my ankle,” she admitted.
“Can you walk?” Peter asked. He made an aborted move to reach for her, but she determinedly walked on.
“I can make it to the car,” she said, and began to hobble through a snowbank. Peter raised an eyebrow and looked unconvinced.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said through gritted teeth. Despite the frozen snow cocooning her feet, she could feel her ankle beginning to swell already, and every step sent a jolt of pain through her. “Go ahead of me so you can get the engine running and start cleaning off the car. It’s fine.”
“Lara Jean…” Peter said, clearly not wanting to leave her.
“It’s fine,” she repeated. “It’s only a block, and I’d rather have a warm car when I get there.”
“Alright,” he agreed reluctantly. “Be careful.”
He loped ahead of her, his long legs easily navigating the snow. Meanwhile, Lara Jean bit her lip and forced herself to keep moving forward, step by painful step. It took almost ten minutes for her to arrive at Peter’s car, but when she did, he was cleaning off the back window with a snow brush.
“Get in,” he said, indicating the passenger seat. “This is my second round of cleaning. By the time I finished the back window, the front was covered again.”
Lara Jean limped to the car and gratefully sat down in the passenger seat. The heat was blasting inside, but it had only just begun to warm up. She took her gloves off and rubbed her chapped red fingers as Peter continued to work.
A few minutes later, he opened the back door and tossed the brush on the floor of the back seat. He then got in the car and slammed the door, shaking snow out of his hair.
The window wipers were keeping the snow from collecting on the windshield, but it swirled around outside, thick and steady, making it impossible to see more than a few feet in front of them. They watched in silence for several seconds, before Lara Jean took a deep breath and said what they were both thinking.
“There’s no way we’re driving all the way back in this. The forecast said it wasn’t going to let up at all tonight. We should find a hotel.”
Peter sighed and pulled out his phone. “You’re right. You tell Ali, I’ll find the closest hotel around here.”
Lara Jean pulled up the conversation with Ali in her phone and texted, This snow is nuts. Peter and I just left the convention center. We’re finding a hotel. It’s too dangerous to drive.
Ali replied back seconds later, Good idea. Text me when you get there safely. We’ll make sure you guys get reimbursed for the rooms.
Lara Jean texted back, Will do before closing the conversation. “She says they’ll reimburse us for the hotel rooms,” she told Peter.
“Good,” Peter said. “It looks like the closest one is a Best Western about two miles away.”
“Let’s go,” Lara Jean said, buckling her seat belt.
“I hate snow,” Lara Jean repeated for the fifth time on their journey. The two mile drive had taken nearly thirty minutes as Peter carefully navigating the slippery, deserted streets.
She had a white-knuckled grip on the grab bar on the door, and to make matters worse, her ankle was throbbing in time with her heart. Every rapid beat brought with it another flare of dull pain.
“You should see Boston,” Peter said. “It doesn't get nearly as cold as it gets here, but the snowfall is insane. One foot, two feet, constantly all winter.” He finally maneuvered them into what looked like the last remaining parking spot all the way at the end of the hotel’s lot, put the car in park and turned off the engine. “It looks packed,” he said, his eyebrows furrowed in concern. “I hope they have rooms available.”
Lara Jean hadn’t even considered that possibility. “Oh god, don’t even say that,” she admonished. “I can’t drive in this car anymore today.”
She opened up her door and got out, wincing at the pain in her ankle.
“Lara Jean, please let me help you,” Peter pleaded. “Come on, just into the building.”
Lara Jean closed her eyes and sighed. She really needed help. “Yeah, ok. But you’re not picking me up.”
Peter came around to her side and ducked down until he was nearly bent over double so that she could wrap her arm around around his neck. They made it a few awkward steps that way, with Lara Jean leaning heavily on Peter, and Peter hunched over as low as he could go before he stopped. “This is dumb,” he said. “Just let me carry you.”
“Peter Kavinsky, you are not carrying me,” Lara Jean said. She could feel her heart speeding up at the thought.
“Well this isn’t working,” Peter countered. He thought about it a moment, and then said, “What about a piggy-back ride?”
Lara Jean groaned. “This is so embarrassing.”
“Come on, it’ll get us out of the cold faster,” Peter urged.
“Fine,” she huffed and made a spinning motion with her finger before firmly pushing the strap of her messenger bag onto her shoulder.
Peter turned around and bent over, allowing her to crawl on his back. He secured his arms around her legs and she wrapped hers around his neck. He gave one good buck so that she lurched into a better position and then began to walk the two of them towards the hotel’s double doors.
Closing her eyes, she laid her head against the back of his neck and said, “I’m so sorry about this, Peter.”
“Yeah, how dare you twist your ankle,” he responded back.
“You know what I mean,” Lara Jean countered.
“No, I don’t,” Peter insisted. He shifted his weight so that he could open the door and lead them in. “Did you make it snow, Covey?”
“You’re impossible,” she said, trying not to feel fond and failing spectacularly.
“So are you,” he said as they approached the welcome desk. “Hi there. Please, please tell me you’ve still got rooms available.”
The woman behind the desk looked at the picture they made curiously and with a hint of humor. “You have perfect timing. We have one room left.”
Lara Jean felt her whole body tense at the thought of having to share a room with Peter --
“It’s a king, if that’s ok.”
One bed, of course. And she was just supposed to do this now with Peter so stupidly good looking and good-natured, literally carrying her on his back, and she was in love with him --
Peter’s hand on her arms wrapped around his neck broke her out of her impending panic attack. “You’re choking me, Covey,” he gasped.
“Sorry!” Lara Jean said, immediately relaxing her arms. “I’m so sorry! Here, let me get down.”
He helped her get down without putting much pressure on her bad ankle. “There’s no other rooms?” she asked the receptionist desperately.
The woman shook her head with an apologetic look. “We’re the closest hotel off the highway, so we get a ton of business when the weather is bad. I could try to see if there’s a roll-away bed that I could have brought up for you if you wanted?”
Peter looked questioningly at Lara Jean, who pushed down her anxiety to nod resolutely. “Yes. There’s no way I’m getting back in that car tonight. A roll-away bed would be great.”
There was no roll-away bed available. But there was a complimentary pot of coffee from the apologetic receptionist, along with an Ace bandage and an ice pack for Lara Jean’s ankle.
It took her about ten seconds to realize that she would not be able to use the bandage while wearing her skinny jeans. Instead, she rolled up the cuff as far as she could to reveal her swollen ankle. She placed the ice pack firmly on the worst area and then stuffed a pillow under it to elevate it.
Peter handed her a cup of coffee and said, “I saw a gift shop next to the lobby. I’m gonna go see if they have any Aspirin and maybe some clothes to change into.”
“That’s gonna cost a fortune,” Lara Jean said.
“It’s better than sleeping in these wet pants,” Peter said, and there was no arguing with that.
“Get me some pajamas too while you’re down there,” Lara Jean said. “I’ll Cash App you the money.”
“Be back in ten,” Peter said.
Lara Jean waited until the door closed behind him to cover her eyes and groan into her hands.
She chugged a half a cup of coffee and plugged her phone into the charger that she had thankfully thought to bring with her before pulling up her conversation with Ali to let her know that they had arrived safely.
She had just turned off her phone when she heard the door open and Peter returned holding a huge bag.
“Well, we won’t win any fashion contests, but now we’ll always have something to remember this day by,” he said. Reaching inside of the bag, he pulled out a blue t-shirt that said I Heart Peoria on it and a matching pair of blue, plaid pajama pants and tossed them to her before pulling out a black set for himself. Then he added a toothbrush and travel-sized toothpaste to the pile.
“That was free at the front desk,” he continued. “There was a huge bowl full of them along with bottles of water.” He revealed a couple of those from inside the bag as well. “I think a lot of people are stranded here for the night.”
“That was nice of them,” she said. “How much do I owe you for the clothes?”
He waved his hand, “Don’t worry about it.”
“Peter,” she said warningly.
He rolled his eyes. “$35. Here.” He tossed her a bottle of painkillers, which she caught and eagerly opened to grab a couple.
She swallowed them along with a swig of her lukewarm coffee.
“The bottle cost $10. You can divide that by twenty-four if you want to figure out how much to pay me for each pill,” he said sarcastically.
“Maybe I will,” she answered, just because, and handed the bottle back to him. She shifted her leg off the bed and gingerly stood up. “I’m going in the bathroom to change.”
“Do you need help?” Peter asked.
Lara Jean felt her eyebrows fly up even as Peter seemed to realize what he said and waved his hands frantically. “Not like that. I just mean, you know, your ankle.”
She grinned at his panic, her own awkwardness dimming in the face of his. “I’ll be ok.”
Once she had the bathroom door closed, she closed the lid on the toilet and sat down before changing into the new clothes and wrapping the bandage around her ankle.
She checked her reflection in the mirror as she brushed her teeth and splashed some water on her face. The clothes were a size too big, and her hair was falling out of her ponytail. Pulling the rubber band out and putting it on her wrist, she ran her fingers through her thick hair a couple times and tried to ignore the voice in her head reminding her that Peter liked her with her hair down.
She limped back out into the room and saw that Peter had taken the opportunity to change into his own new clothes as well. He sat on his side of the bed with one pant leg rolled up. He was rubbing his knee, his face twisted in pain.
“What’s wrong?” Lara Jean asked.
Peter shook his head. “Nothing. Just this stupid knee acting up again.”
Lara Jean winced. “This is because you carried me, isn’t it?”
“Nah. Would have happened from walking through the snow anyway,” Peter said, waving away her concern. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?” she asked.
“Yes,” Peter answered seriously.
“What?” she asked.
“You can let me pick what we watch on TV.” He smirked at her as he continued to rub his bad knee.
“You jerk,” she said, slapping him on the arm.
“Walked right into it,” he said. “Or limped right into it.”
She tossed him the remote control and carefully maneuvered herself back onto the bed with her foot elevated on one of the pillows. Peter stiffly extended his leg with a hiss before settling back in the bed beside her.
“We make quite a pair, Covey,” he said as he switched the television on.
“A little snow was all it took to do us in,” she agreed.
He flipped through the television channels, both of them watching the images change every few seconds in silence before Peter said, “You know, we never even got to sleep in the same bed overnight together when we were dating.”
Of course they hadn’t, with both of them still teenagers and living in their parents’ houses. Still, the irony wasn’t lost on her.
“Yeah, I know.”
He shrugged and turned his head to look at her. “I used to imagine it.”
She was hit with a bittersweet sort of nostalgia that made her eyes sting and her throat constrict. “Me too.”
“Kind of crazy that it’s happening now, all these years later.”
She looked down. “Yeah. Crazy.”
“You ok, Lara Jean?” he asked quietly. He’d stopped the television on an episode of The Simpsons.
“Just tired,” she lied.
“It’s only 8:30,” he said.
“It’s been a long day.”
“It has been. So. Your first real snow storm. What did you think?” Peter asked.
She thought about that for a moment, and then answered, “It’s pretty. Really quiet. Not a fan of driving in it though.”
“It’s the worst,” Peter agreed. “More coffee?” He offered her the carafe on his night stand.
“Sure, thanks,” she said, handing over her cup for him to fill.
"So," Peter said as she took a warm sip from her cup, "not interested in dating any future litigators?"
Lara Jean quickly swallowed the coffee in her mouth and coughed a bit into her elbow. "Less than a week before the primary? I'm not interested in dating anyone."
"That's makes sense," Peter answered. "And even after that, with our crazy schedule and all of his classes, you'd probably never see him. It's probably for the best."
The warmth suffusing Lara Jean's chest now had nothing to do with her drink. She fiddled with the comforter over her legs and said, "Yeah. I don't think, until after the general election anyway, that I could be with someone who wasn't as invested in it as I am."
“So do you think she’s gonna win on Tuesday?” Peter asked.
“I think she’s going to win in November,” Lara Jean answered firmly.
Peter grinned. “Well, with Lara Jean Covey on the case, how could she fail?” he asked.
She pretended to flip her hair back. “I am pretty amazing.”
“I mean, you could have said something nice about me there, but…”
“Nah,” she said, grinning and glancing at him from the corner of her eye.
“Oh, ok, I see how it is,” Peter replied with a matching grin of his own.
Some time later, in the middle of the night, Lara Jean was woken up by the sound of a muffled curse. She sat up in bed and looked around in the dark, disoriented.
“Peter,” she called out, before the fog cleared from her brain and she recognized that it was freezing. “Oh my god.” She gathered the blankets around her as she reached a hand blindly towards the night stand to turn on the light.
“Sorry, I was trying not to wake you up,” Peter said. When the light flicked on, she found him at the back wall fiddling with the thermostat. “I think the heat’s broken.”
“Oh my god,” Lara Jean said again. “I’m calling down.”
She picked up the phone and called the front desk, her body already starting to shiver.
A few minutes later, she hung up and turned to look at Peter, who had burrowed back under the blankets.
“Well?” he asked.
“Heat’s out. They’re trying to fix it. Could be a while,” she answered, leaving off the harried explanation the woman at the front desk had given.
“This night keeps getting better and better,” Peter said.
“I need my socks,” Lara Jean said. “And my jacket.”
“Alright. On the count of three, we both get out and get our stuff,” Peter said. “Ready? One, two, three…!”
They threw back the sheets at the same time and scrambled out of bed. Lara Jean felt the hairs on her arms stand up and she shrieked as a rush of freezing air hit her. She picked up her socks from the floor and hopped into them as fast as she could, mindful of her sore ankle. Then she grabbed her coat and threw it over her shoulders before jumping back into the bed, Peter just seconds behind her.
They laid facing each other, breathing heavy, eyes wide, and both began to laugh.
“This is crazy,” Lara Jean said, voice automatically lowering due to their close proximity.
“Somehow the weirdest stuff always happens with you, Covey. You’re a weirdness magnet.”
“Excuse me,” Lara Jean objected. Somehow their faces had gotten much closer. “My life was very normal without you.”
“Well, that sounds boring,” Peter said.
She paused, then admitted, “It was.”
A look of surprise passed over his face, and then he said,“I promise I’m not trying anything here. I just think it will be easier for us to sleep like this...”
He trailed off and shifted closer, wrapping an arm under her coat and around her waist. “Is this ok?”
She shivered once, hard, took a deep breath, and said, “It’s ok.”
His hand tightened around her waist and she tentatively turned closer until their legs tangled together, her shorter ones with his longer ones.
It felt like she was in a dream or a memory, cocooned in the heavy silence brought on by the snow, without even the hum of the heater to distract them. And there was Peter Kavinsky across from her, the boy she once thought was the love of her life who had turned into this charming, clever, kind man. His hand was large enough to span across her whole back, warming her with his touch. She closed her eyes and tucked her head against his chest. Don’t be a wimp.
“How’s your knee?” she asked quietly, just to break the silence.
“Fine. How’s your ankle?”
“That’s good. Can you sleep like this?” he asked.
Lara Jean nodded, still not opening her eyes. “Yeah, I can sleep like this.”
“Good night, Covey,” Peter murmured.
“Night, Peter,” she answered. Quietly, in the dark, she listened to the steady sound of his breathing for several minutes, gathering up her courage, until, barely above a whisper, she said, “Peter?”
“Yeah?” His voice was a low, sleepy rumble.
Remembering his words from earlier, she asked, “Is this ok?” Then she put one hand on his chest to give herself leverage to push up and graze her lips against his.
He froze and then shifted so that he was up on his side, balancing on his arm. He caught her hand as she tried to move it away from his chest.
“Lara Jean?” he asked. In the dark she could see the wide, bright whites of his eyes staring at her.
“Is this...I mean…” She trailed off uncertainly. “Would you want -- “
“Yes,” he answered, cutting her off, and then he rolled them over until he was on top of her. He kissed her in a way that felt familiar and dear, yet different all at the same time. Her arms wrapped around his neck and she hung on, suddenly much too hot to have her coat around her shoulders.
“Wait, wait, get this off,” she said, struggling to get it out from under her. Peter helped, using his position to yank the annoying item loose and fling it over the side of the bed.
He was straddling her now, careful not to rest his whole weight down on top of her. He used his fingertips to brush her hair back before framing his face and smiling down at her.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” he confessed, leaning down to kiss her neck.
She arched up to give him more room and slid her hands under his loose t-shirt to trace his back muscles. “Me neither,” she agreed.
Peter’s mouth traced lower, finding the thin skin of her collarbone. He stopped then and his eyes met hers questioningly. “Are you sure you want to…?”
The gentle care in his voice brought Lara Jean back to high school and their first time together in his old bedroom while his mom was at work. Embarrassingly, she felt her eyes fill up with tears, and she pulled one hand away from him to rub at them.
Peter moved off of her instantly and knelt next to her on the bed. “Lara Jean. Hey, Lara Jean, what’s wrong? Are you alright?”
She nodded, hand still hiding her eyes. She swallowed a few times until she could talk without crying, and then answered, “It’s stupid, I’m so sorry. I just really, really missed you, that’s all.”
She offered no resistance when Peter took her hand away from her face and lowered it back to the bed.
“Lara Jean Covey,” he said, his voice warm and full of wonder. “I really, really missed you too.”
Lara Jean was jerked awake by the sound of the heater kicking back to life. She stretched her arms above her head and turned to see Peter watching her.
Self-consciously, she tugged the blanket up to her chin to cover her bare chest as she felt her face redden. He grinned and ran a hand through her no-doubt thoroughly tangled hair.
“Good morning,” he murmured.
“Morning,” she said. “Heat’s back on.”
“I want to make a ‘we made our own heat’ joke, but I don’t think you’d appreciate it,” he said.
“Good call,” she said. “Of all the things I’ve missed about you in the years since you broke up with me, your love of stupid puns doesn’t make the list.”
Peter abruptly shot up in the bed and took the blankets with him.
“Hey!” Lara Jean squeaked, crawling on her knees and gathering the covers back around her. “What are you doing?”
“I didn’t break up with you,” Peter said, looking at her like she was crazy. “You broke up with me.”
Excuse me? “Um, no,” she replied. “You took me out to Giovanni’s for Italian food and then you told me you wanted to break up.”
Peter was already shaking his head before she had even finished speaking. “We went to Giovanni’s, and then I asked you if you wanted to break up, and you said yes.”
Lara Jean squinted at him. “Why would you ask me if I wanted to break up if you didn’t want to?”
“Because of your sister!” Peter said.
“My…” Lara Jean stared at him in confusion. “Which one?” she asked.
“Margot!” Peter declared. “She broke up with Josh when she went away to school because your mother made her promise to. You loved your mom. With us moving so far apart, I was afraid you’d want to do the same thing.”
“Of course I didn’t! You and me weren’t Margot and Josh! We were us! We were…” She corrected herself. “I thought we were different.”
“Then why did you say yes?” he asked.
“You wanted to break up with me!” Lara Jean cried, flabbergasted. “I was humiliated and heartbroken! What was I supposed to do, say no?”
“Yes!” Peter shouted.
His answer hung in the air a long moment as they gaped at each other, until finally, Lara Jean burst into hysterical laughter. Another second later, Peter joined her.
“Wow,” she said when she could catch her breath.
“We both went to college,” Peter said.
“We did,” Lara Jean agreed.
“We both graduated from really good colleges. We’re about to help win someone the Democratic nomination to be President of the United States. How were we this stupid?”
“I love you,” Lara Jean said, grinning wide and feeling fearless, that fizzing champagne bubble feeling curling inside her once again.
Peter kissed her temple sweetly. Then he bent his head and kissed her naked shoulder before resting his forehead against it. His rapid breath tickled the hairs on her arm. Lara Jean turned so that she could put her other hand on the back of his neck, anchoring him to her.
“You keep saying things before me, Covey,” he complained.
“Well, I am a strong, brave woman,” Lara Jean said loftily. “And also Kitty told me not to be a wimp.”
Peter chuckled and then straightened, cupping her face in his hands. “Good advice,” he said. “I mean, not as good as ‘always be a unicorn’, but...“
She threw her head back and laughed, giddy. He kissed her soundly and pressed their foreheads together. "Not to ruin my own shot here," he said, "but didn't you just say that you weren't interested in dating anyone right now?"
She laced her fingers through his and answered honestly, "You're Peter Kavinsky. You're the exception to all of my rules. You always have been."
The grin that lit up his face was brighter than the snow outside. “Lara Jean," he said, "I love you. Please don’t ever break up with me again, even if you think that’s what I want.”
“Promise,” Lara Jean said.
He gave her another quick kiss and let her go. “Good! Now…” He let one finger trace the top of the blankets that she still had cinched around her. “Do you think this place has late check out?” His hand closed around the sheets and tugged them down until they pooled in her lap.
Eight Months Later
All of the many times that Lara Jean imagined this moment and how she would feel, she never anticipated there would be so much crying.
But here she was and she could not stop. It began slowly, almost shockingly, as an itching in her eyes and the back of her throat, but it overtook her whole body before she knew it. Every time she attempted to take a calming breath it turned into another hitching sob.
Peter had his arm wrapped securely around her shoulders, holding her close as crowds of people milled around them in the large stadium. Her make-up was a lost cause, but she used the sleeve of her shirt to futilely wipe at the mascara streaming down her cheeks.
“You look fine,” Peter assured her with a touch of laughter in his voice.
“I’m going...to end up...a meme,” she gasped through her tears.
“I didn’t want to say it, but there’s a CNN anchor like twenty feet to your left,” Peter admitted.
She turned her face into his chest to try and shield herself from view. In front of her, she made eye contact with a woman who grinned widely before striding forward and wrapping her arms around Lara Jean.
Lara Jean broke away from Peter to hug her back. It was the kind of moment when you hugged a stranger.
Just as quickly, the woman let her go and traipsed away, not a word exchanged between the two of them.
A preternatural hush abruptly came over the huge crowd then, and Lara Jean scrambled to clutch Peter’s hand as her eyes locked on the screens lining the stage just in time to see Rachel Maddow say, “At 11:35 PM Eastern time, because of victories in California, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, NBC News is now projecting that California Senator Tracy Wu has made history by being elected the first female, and first Asian-American, President of the United States.”