“No,” Josh repeats, staring the press secretary down.
“Yes,” CJ replies, apparently undaunted by his glare.
“Josh, we’ve talked about this. We have to issue a press release before your dog gets here.”
He groans and rubs his eyes, leaning back in his chair. “Then do it while I’m gone so I don’t have to deal with it when I trying to work. It’s going to make me less effective, CJ, and you know it, so put it off as long as possible, okay?”
CJ sighs and leans forward in her seat, resting her folded arms on Josh’s desk. “How is it going to make you less effective? All the major players at the least already know about the PTSD, and their knowledge hasn’t affected your work. Donna going with you to meetings on the Hill hasn’t ... well, that has affected your work, but positively. When she’s with you, you get things done like the pre-Roslyn Josh did. I only hope the dog is as good as Donna.”
Josh scoffs. “That’s not likely.”
“I want to tell you not to bash a service dog you haven’t met yet, but that could also be a compliment to Donna’s excellent help.”
He can’t help the small smile that flashes to his lips. “I bet Carol wouldn’t do that for you.”
CJ’s belly laugh seems to surprise even herself. “God, no. She’d be first in line to take my job after I was inevitably fired, though.”
Oh. Josh spins his chair to face the window, though he’s not really seeing anything outside as he asks, “You think firing is inevitable?”
Low heels click softly on the floor, and CJ’s hand settles lightly on his shoulder. “Josh?” When he tilts his head slightly, she continues. “I meant in my theoretical case, without a person so wonderful and as in tune with me as Donna is for you, I would be fired. You won’t. You have Donna. You have the President, because he was shot at the same time. Leo’s the one who brought you in on the campaign, and you brought in Sam. You’re my brother, and Toby’s as well, but don’t tell him I told you that. A lot of Congress was in the armed forces and understands PTSD, even if they didn’t call it that when it was happening to their buddies. You’re not the public face of this administration the way I am. That’s a long list of reasons why you’re safe when I wouldn’t be.”
He turns slightly to look at her better, pressing a hand lightly over hers when she moves to withdraw. “When’s the last time you talked to someone?”
CJ laughs. “I’m the press secretary, Josh. All I do is talk.”
“And deflect, but not now. I’ve watched all the briefings from that night, CJ.”
“Why?” There’s genuine curiosity mixed with the concern in her eyes.
He shrugs, then releases her hand, pleased when it stays on his shoulder. “There’s a lot I don’t remember and even more I was unconscious during. I had to catch up before I came back to work. And I’m glad I did, because I think in the moment everyone was too caught up in the story to see you.”
“Danny saw me.”
Josh smiles and makes a mental note to send the journalist flowers in thanks - and to fuck with him. “That’s good, but something tells me you didn’t let him in.” He notes the shake of her head silently. “Toby took care of Sam. The President took care of Toby. I can’t tell you about Leo, but someone had him. Donna had me and still does. Who do you let take care of you?”
A brief flicker of pain crosses CJ’s face before light humor replaces it. “You could help me by letting me announce your new service dog.”
“No,” he replies, letting her drop the previous subject but scribbling a note on a random piece of paper not to let it lie too long. “13 people know, and that’s frankly 12 more than I’m comfortable with.”
“I’m not sure you can walk around DC and be the only person who knows that the service dog beside you exists,” CJ interjects with a snort.
“Okay, 14 people then.”
“Again, not sure it’s possible for only you and Donna to know.”
Josh wonders when he’s become so transparent that people stopped guessing he means his mother when he means Donna. “Maybe if I just step into Star Trek and grab a cloaking device.”
“In the absence of futuristic technology, we’ll have to release the information, which is where I come in. Unless you’d rather Sam and Toby draft the press release.”
“No,” he answers quickly. “If it has to be done, it has to be you. You’re the one reading it, and you know how important body language can be.”
CJ shakes her head slowly. “I’m trying really hard to pretend you didn’t just insult my ability to do my job, Josh.”
“I meant you’re good at your job, but I want this perfect if it has to happen at all, and that means you practice.”
She takes her hand from his shoulder and moves to sit on his messy desk. “Okay. Fine. What do you want me to say?”
Josh sighs and rubs his head, slides a hand into his hair and pulls until he can focus past the anxiety of the whole press room - the whole country - knowing he’s so messed up he needs a damn dog to keep him straight. “Tell me what you have so far.”
CJ doesn’t bat an eye as she starts speaking. “Some of you know that, following the shooting at Roslyn, our own Josh Lyman, Deputy Chief of Staff and key advisor to the President, is now living with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. To help him live his life to the fullest despite this disorder, Josh will begin utilizing a service dog on Monday - or whatever day. Carol is passing around information on both PTSD and service dogs, but I want to highlight a couple of things. Service dogs must stay focused on their handler in order to perform their job; please do not distract Josh’s service dog - or should I say lifeline here? - by talking to it, petting it, or making noises designed to gain its attention. They should remain unobtrusive to your daily business as much as possible, so please extend it the same courtesy and speak to Josh as though the dog were not there at all.” She pauses to look st Josh before adding, “How’s that? Body language aside.”
“She.” At CJ’s confused look, Josh clarifies, “She. I’m getting a girl dog. A collie. So you can update the pronouns, and go ahead and say she’s a collie so maybe they won’t ask me as much.”
She nods. “How about saying dog versus service dog? I didn’t want it to get repetitive, but should we emphasize every time that she’s a service dog to really drive home that she’s working and not a pet?”
There’s a buzzing in Josh’s ears that won’t go away, so he yanks on his hair again, three times until it fades enough for him to think. “Maybe.” His hand comes away with more hair in it than he’s really comfortable with CJ knowing about, but her sharp, calculating look tells him it’s too late to drop it without notice. His other hand rises quite without his direction to his tie, loosening it and worrying st the skin beneath. “I don’t ... Maybe ... Sam. Donna. I can’t.”
CJ leans toward Josh, and he jerks back hard enough to send his chair slamming into his computer. He avoids her gaze in favor watching her hand operate his phone. “Donna, my dear? We’re having some trouble with the language in here. Could you pop in for a few minutes?”
It’s visible. Every inch of him screams that he’s not okay, even though he was ten minutes earlier when he last saw Donna. He tries to hide it, because he knows he can’t get rid of it in the short time it takes Donna to enter his office, but there’s no way she misses his hands clenched on the arms of the chair, his shoulders halfway to the ceiling.
But this is Donna, and she sees more than just the manifestations of his internal struggles. “Don’t you know visitors use the chairs?” she asks CJ in light humor. “The desk is reserved for me and Josh.”
CJ rolls her eyes but moves, leaving her desk spot open for Donna. “I wasn’t briefed on the assigned seating,” she shoots back.
Donna laughs as she slides slowly closer to Josh. He hates being treated like a wild animal, but he does feel like he might bolt at any moment without warning.
“So, quick summary, or...?”
Donna nods at the other woman. “That sounds good.”
As CJ fills her in, Josh watches his assistant split her attention with ease between the press release and helping him manage his symptoms. She reaches out slowly and lets him lean in the last inch to make contact, doesn’t push him for eye contact, uses the idea of fixing his tie to stop his return to that particular self-harming behavior. She sets her hand beside his on the armrest and waits for him to make contact before she starts rubbing the top of his hand, and she taps his hand when the conversation requires his attention again.
“I think it would be too repetitive to say ‘service dog’ every time, but I would definitely do it most of the time for those reasons you said but also because ... hmm, how to say it,” Donna muses aloud. “She is a dog. She’s a well trained - superbly trained - dog with a job, but she’s still a dog. She’ll have bad days where she messes up commands or misses alerts. She’ll need a potty break during an important meeting or pass gas in the Oval Office. Don’t get me wrong; I think she’ll be a massive game changer for Josh. I know she’ll do great things almost every day. But by saying just ‘dog’ sometimes instead of ‘service dog’ I think we might leave people open to being understanding when she has those mistakes, those ‘just dog’ moments. And if they see her off duty playing on the lawn or at the dog park.”
CJ takes a long moment to reply, but when she does, Josh feels a little more tension and upset bleed away. “Josh, I’m not sure if you heard all that; I know you were distracted.” He makes eye contact with the press secretary, cuts his eyes at Donna, and nods before letting his gaze drop back to his hand half-covered by Donna’s. “You agree with what Donna said?”
He nods at the same time Donna speaks. “He does.”
“Okay, good. I’ll write down this release, run it past Toby—“
“Sam,” Donna interjects. “Toby later, but Sam now.”
CJ nods. “Write it down, run it through Sam, and bring it back to you. When you’re happy with it, I’ll take it to Toby.”
Josh twitches his hand under Donna’s, just a bit, just enough to get her attention. He’s still way too wired (and he knows she knows it, too), and he’s getting tired just from holding back the tide rising in him, too tired to speak if Donna can do it for him.
“After Sam, after us, Leo is going to want his turn (and Margaret), and the President and Charlie and Mrs Landingham, though they could probably wait until after Toby. Leo comes before Toby for sure, though. After Toby’s first pass, I want to send it to Stanley, Stan, and Joe and share their notes with Toby for another polish. When everything is set, Mom Lyman - I mean, Josh’s mom - should get a copy before your briefing.” Donna’s hand slips gently on top of Josh’s as his grip tightens, strokes the knuckles as they turn white. “One step at a time, though. You and Sam, then bring it to me. The rest we’ll deal with as it comes. Okay?” Josh can tell by the tapping of her fingers that the question is meant more for him than for CJ, though the other lady answers in the affirmative. Josh lifts his fingers from the arm of the chair, presses them into Donna’s touch before letting them drop back into their clenching.
“Thanks, both of you. I know this isn’t what you want right now, Josh, but you’re working on it anyway, so thank you. We’ll talk about timing later, then?”
“You’re welcome, and yes,” Donna answers for both of them. Josh watches her track CJ’s movements out of the office, listen for the click of the door closing completely, before she turns to him. “Hi.”
He smiles at the absurdity of it all. She’s seen him all day, been in the office for close to ten minutes now, and all she has to say is hi? “Hey,” he replies for lack of anything better to say.
“You look better.”
“I feel better.” He lifts his fingers against hers in demonstration, then suddenly panics at the idea of her moving her hand off of his. It’s one of very, very few things keeping him grounded right now.
Donna presses his fingers down and curls them around the armrest of the chair, holding them there with her own hand. “So how can we get you feeling better-er?”
“Word,” he croaks out, still fighting back the new wave of Donna-leaving panic.
She makes a show of looking around the room but doesn’t release or even let up pressure on his hand. “I don’t see Toby, so I think we’re safe to use a made up word,” she says, concern and humor warring in her voice. “So, any ideas?”
Josh shakes his head despite the instant ideas popping up in his head.
His throat is locking up again. He can’t speak. Donna wants him to articulate his needs before she helps, and he can’t fucking speak. He feels his mouth moving like CJ’s goldfish, feels as helpless as a fish in a small bowl. He rips his hand from under hers and grabs her just above the elbow, a small but unintelligible sound sneaking out.
“Okay, let’s start with some breathing,” Donna suggests softly, but he shakes his head again despite his breaths coming in gasping fits and stuttering starts. “Can you tell me what you need without speaking?”
He’s shaking. In only seconds, he’s going to start crying; if he isn’t under control in a couple minutes, he’ll be hiding under his desk on the verge of passing out from this not-breathing he’s doing. He takes his left hand, the not covered by Donna’s, and reaches for her. She meets him halfway, takes his hand, squeezes reassuringly, but it’s not right, not enough. He tugs gently. Confusion clears from her face as the first tears slip from his eyes, pooling on his cheekbones before streaking his face. Donna stands, slides her left hand up his right arm, and pulls on his left arm.
Josh shakes his head hard enough that he feels dizzy, though a distant part of his brain notes that his panicky breathing accounts for a lot of the dizziness. He can’t stand, can’t move. All he can think about is how every blanket in his home is piled on his bed, how he can’t sleep without the weight of them holding him down so he doesn’t fly straight out of his body. It doesn’t matter how hot he gets; the blankets are the most important thing from bedtime until his alarm. There are no blankets at work. There are no giant bills or briefing books in his reach, his mid-day substitute for blankets. There’s only Donna, and he can’t move or speak to get her to cover him like a living blanket, a breathing briefing book.
But it’s Donna, and she steps cautiously toward him as he grips more tightly, barely conscious of the likelihood of leaving bruises on her fair skin. She steps cautiously toward him as he tugs again, her bare shins knocking against his own as her skirt brushes his knees. She leans hesitantly over him and wraps her arms around his shoulders, and he whimpers as he tugs on her wrist one last time. His vision is starting to go grey in bursts and swirls; he isn’t sure if it’s the still-growing panic, the lack of breathing, or a new case of dissociation.
Donna moves her feet, and Josh feels the tears cascade down his face faster, but she stops with her legs on one side of his. “This?” she asks softly, lowering herself gently onto his lap. He tries to nod, but instead he smears tears on her neck as his arms wrap tightly around her waist and shoulders. He shudders. Every time her arms stop tightening around him, he hears another whine slip out of him, until her grip is tight enough to keep them in.
“I don’t want people to know,” he whispers into her shoulder, and she leans her cheek onto the top of his head.
“They’ll know before long,” she whispers into his hair.
He nods. He knows this. Knows every argument she or CJ would make, knows what Leo would say if they escalated the issue to him. He’s done fighting against it, however unhappy he is about the press release. 14 people is about to become 14 million people; he knows it’ll make every paper known to man.
He hopes the dog is worth it all.