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First Breath After Coma

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He hadn't been thinking about Christmas at all; he was aware of the change in seasons because he had to wear a coat every morning, and there was snow outside his window. It was possible that the greenery and red bows that went up everywhere in the White House had given him an inkling. But it hadn't sunk in, and one could say it hit him over the head as he stood outside a women's clothing store bedecked with cheerful ads begging male passersby to shower their ladies fair with wool sweaters and silk scarves.

Not that Josh Lyman had a "lady fair," exactly. But standing in front of the store, where on the other side of the window a blond-wigged mannequin wore a red sweater that clinged in the right places but looked warm and comfy, he couldn't help but think of Donna and how she'd kept wearing his Yale Law sweatshirt to keep warm when she was...when he was recovering.

He went into the store and grabbed one of the sweaters, in red because he thought she liked red. He checked the size label and was fairly certain it said "Medium." He said no to the special gift wrap but yes to the gift receipt - you never know.

He left the store as quickly as possible, and later he would remember leaving his credit card on the counter and someone chasing him outside to give it back to him. But it was a bit of a blur, as the noise in the store had driven him out - there were sirens in the street and Josh was worried he wouldn't get out of there.

The sweater sat in his closet for two or three days. And then he snapped at her, twice, about staples or copies or probably nothing at all, and he walked by her desk once and caught sight of two or three balled-up tissues and a Diet Coke. She was rarely sick and she never drank caffeine after 4 unless they were having an unusually long night or she was having a bad day.

He went home on the pretense of having a dinner meeting and returned the sweater. He went to the jeweler's two stores down and bought a simple necklace, a pearl set in gold on a thin chain. It cost him $300. And two days after that, he returned it when Sam and Toby started talking about what they were buying for Ginger and Bonnie. Clearly, the necklace was outside the bounds of propriety for gifts from boss to employee.

Three weeks until Christmas, and suddenly Josh wasn't thinking about Christmas, really, and he certainly wasn't thinking of buying something for Donna. She kept shouting "Yo-Yo Ma rules!" and was generally driving him crazy, and there was a lot of noise in his head and then there was the pilot and he just did not have time. Never enough time.

---

Christmas Eve arrived, and the White House was as festive as always, and Josh the somewhat lapsed Jew was even less interested in the holiday than usual. He'd even forgotten Hannukah, really - his mom had called to see if he was going to synagogue or if he wanted to sneak away and visit her for the final night at least, and he'd not looked at a calendar in so long that the dates meant nothing to him.

The meeting with Stanley from ATVA was in an hour or so. Donna knew for sure, she'd left him a Post-It on his keyboard to remind him and had come in his office twice to remind him. He hoped she would come in again, remind him one more time.

Josh wasn't about to admit it to anyone, but he missed having Donna around all the time, every day, sometimes at night. In the beginning, she would fall asleep in an armchair Toby had moved into the bedroom. If he wasn't in a lot of pain, and he pretended to be asleep, she would fall asleep on the bed, next to him, and he would wait until her breathing was even and calm and open his eyes, watch her until he couldn't stay awake any longer. During the day she would answer the phone and work from his makeshift dining room (she called it a "nook") while he watched too much Discovery Channel. Just having her so close, easy to reach, kept him from
going stir-crazy. Then Leo told her she needed to spend more time in the office, since Josh was mobile and taking care of himself, and it was like clouds had moved in and wouldn't go away. Not that he thought in those terms, not at all, not in poetic strains, and never about Donna Moss, assistant to the deputy chief of staff.

His assistant, that is.

He had work he could be doing, briefing memos to read, but Christmas being tomorrow meant that he would be more or less alone in being so prepared, and he didn't feel like doing it anyway. He was thinking about what could be wrong with him. He'd seen a therapist, yes, had been seeing one on and off for his various phobias and hang-ups (and he wasn't thinking about Joanie, not just then). But to be seriously, truly fucked up was so far beyond Josh Lyman's accepted version of himself that just the idea of sitting down with ATVA specialists made him nauseous and feel like he could punch through a window.

His hand was throbbing. He sat down and rubbed it, carefully.

"You're going to make it worse, you know."

Donna's voice pierced through his thoughts, brought him back from the dark rambling. Josh looked up to see her with her hands on her hips, the pursed-mouth caretaker look from the days after the hospital on her face.

"Your meeting is in just a couple of minutes, Josh."

"I know." He winced at the short, tight tone. He didn't see how Donna's face shifted sympathetically, her brow furrowed in worry. "Just...I know, okay? I'm going."

He got up and Donna stepped to the side.

"Josh?"

Her voice was quiet, sort of soft the way it got when she was trying not to upset him too much, the voice she used when he had come home from the hospital, the voice she used when she found out about Leo, the voice she had used when driving him to the airport the night his dad died.

It was the kind of soft he wasn't sure he wanted to hear right now.

"Yeah."

"It'll be fine. You'll be fine."

He didn't answer; he wasn't sure he could answer her without screaming at her or crying, or both.

---

"Donna figured it out."

As they walked out of the White House, the Christmas carols ringing in his ears (he was waiting for the sirens to begin, to drown him), he thought about that. Donna knew, before anyone had even guessed, that he needed help. She'd always known, come to think of it. She anticipated the worst moments and the best, and was there for him however he needed her. Often, she was there even when he didn't know he needed her.

Like now.

They went to the emergency room, where the sound of real sirens outside gave Josh a headache and made him practically beg Donna for an aspirin, which she wouldn't relinquish until he'd seen the doctor. It took about an hour before one was available, and then a half hour more while the wound was irrigated (with a lot of tsk-ing from the nurse) and disinfected and finally stiched up (13 stiches, all told).

The doctor did Donna's purse-friendly first aid kit one better, and gave Josh a prescription for stronger painkillers. He filled it at the hospital's all-night pharmacy, and amazingly, Donna was still there at the end of all this to take him home.

She hailed a cab, claiming it was for herself since it was so cold, but by this time Josh was swaying a little, the first painkiller kicking in and mixing with his exhaustion from reliving in an hour everything he'd been going through for weeks. Donna gave the driver Josh's address.

She came inside with him, and Josh was certain she would turn right around and leave, Leo's recent lecture about what looked proper in the eyes of the media and the public and how it differed from instinct ringing in his ears. But Donna put her coat in the closet, took her shoes off, turned up the heat and went into the kitchen. She called in an order for pizza, and in the time it took her to do all these things, Josh didn't get any further than the couch, with his coat and scarf still on.

Donna came out of the kitchen with cheap plastic cups of water. She eyed him carefully and shrugged a little, apparently determining that it wouldn't hurt to let him sit there for a moment more dressed as he was.

"Stanley said it's post-traumatic stress disorder," without preamble.

Donna nodded. She hadn't said much at all since they left the White House, letting Josh speak first almost every time. Unlike her, though Josh didn't dwell on it.

"I told him I didn't think that was something they let you have when you serve at the pleasure of the President."

It wasn't what he said, not exactly, and Donna probably knew it. She also probably knew that relief had flooded Josh's mind after that pronouncement.

But she nodded, and stood in front of the television, facing Josh and watching him over the brim of her cup.

"I...Donna...Leo told me...."

And he couldn't say it while he looked at her, he didn't know that he wanted to see what would be in her eyes. Pity, no doubt.

So he cast his glance at the floor. "Leo told me you figured it out. He said you were the one who sounded the alarm, so to speak."

He picked at his fingernails and cleared his throat, uncustomary nervous gestures for the ordinarily confident Josh.

Donna made the first move. She set her cup down on the coffee table and walked around to sit down on the couch, carefully more than an arm's length from Josh. "Yes," she said.

"Donna...."

He looked up at her, finally, and saw not pity. He hesitated, he would continue to hesitate, to put a word on what it was that shone from Donna's eyes. It was probably the medication that prompted him to wonder if it might be...but it wasn't, and it couldn't be.

They sat like that, staring at each other in that dazed way exclusive to unrequited lovers drinking in their illicit fill. A clock ticked somewhere in the apartment. They were oblivious to it, but Christmas came all the same, midnight claiming the last of this long, strange eve.

Donna broke the silence. "You needed help. It's what I'm there for."

Josh stood up, taking his own cup and pacing just a little, just what his drowsiness and the space would allow. It was what she was there for, wasn't it, it was always what she did.

He caught a glimpse of the time, just after midnight, and he looked over at Donna (the magic had slipped away, and she was biting her lip and he was frowning ever so slightly). It was Christmas, and it hit him all at once that he had gotten nothing for this woman who had done so much, and meant so much, to him.

Sweaters and jewelry and books and trinkets and even his mother's homemade rye bread wasn't going to cut it. Neither would the formerly much-hoped-for skis and ski equipment. Josh looked at Donna, who had taken to casting her glance about the room, and thought of the many times she'd sat in that very spot while talking on the phone to doctors and insurance people and his mother, protecting Josh and caring for him far above the call of duty.

He walked back over to the couch and sat down, so close to Donna that she had to scoot over, just to keep from falling into him.

He took her hand, surprising her so much that she didn't protest and hardly seemed to breathe.

"I didn't get you anything for Christmas."

She smiled, relief coloring her cheeks. "I didn't get you anything, either."

"Guess that boss of yours doesn't give you enough time to go shopping?"

"He can be a tyrant, yes."

They laughed a little, the mood lightening. And just when Donna's hand had relaxed in his, Josh leaned over and kissed her, lightly and quickly on the mouth.

Donna's eyes filled with tears, though Josh only saw them shine and took it for something else entirely.

"Merry Christmas, Donna."

She took a breath, then two more, and offered him a closed-mouth smile.

"This doesn't let you off the hook of getting me a present, you know."

He laughed. "I guess not."

"Josh?"

"Mmm?"

"Kiss me again?"

And he did.