Zoey isn’t abducted by foreign terrorists; instead, it is right-wing fanatics. They taunt Bartlet and send in slanderous faxes about Charlie and call for white, Evangelical purity. They become too brave, too overzealous and start to send over pictures of Zoey too, tattered and eyes wide with fear. The FBI and the Secret Service and everyone else hurries, pouring over photos and trying to exact her location.
Bartlet doesn’t step down; he burns too much in anger. These right-wingers aren’t asking for the release of political prisoners nor the liberation of a terrorist cell; rather, they jeer, calling for a race war and making America a land of righteous whiteness.
The senior staff sits in wait. Josh and Donna and Toby and Leo and C.J. Sit and watch and wait. They barely trade words, only cups of coffee, and their shoulders shake. Eventually, Zoey is found in West Virginia. Bartlet and Abbey drive out to the scene, flanked by black SUVs and the first breath of relief.
Josh looks to the right of him. Donna’s there. Her eyes meet his, saying something without a word.
He reaches for her hand. She squeezes it. No one thinks about Amy.
It’s midnight. It always seems like it’s midnight. The hours he spends in his actual bed are far and few. He’s used to his arms as his pillows, his coat as his blanket, the early morning mutterings of janitors and assistants and the occasional Leo as his alarm. Things were supposed to get easier by year five, but they haven’t. If anything, the days are longer, more arduous, tasting bitter in his mouth like bad coffee.
Three knocks. He looks up. Donna, leaning against the doorframe.
“Hey,” he says softly. He almost recoils at it, the unexplainable effect she has on him, something that touches beyond friendship. She makes him… quieter, he supposes.
“Hey.” She gives him a half-smile. The night doesn’t feel so dark.
“What are you still doing here?”
Shrugging, “You’re still here.”
“It feels like I always am.” He nearly laughs.
She watches him. He shakes his head, saying, “You should go home.”
“So should you.”
“Don’t worry about me.”
A wry smile: “I’m good at it.”
Another stretch of silence.
He clears his throat. “I thought you had a date.”
Her hands run over her arms, considering. “You needed help on the education bill.”
“I’m holding you back.”
She steps into his office. “I chose to stay.”
A breath gets caught in his throat. He considers the two possible implications to that sentence: that she stayed tonight, or that she has stayed for years. Stayed through the chill of Nashua and endless filibusters, stretches at Camp David and caffeine-fueled nights during a trade dispute, down to the final second passing of bills and moments where he thought he might just explode.
She never leaves.
“Yeah,” he chokes out. “I guess you did.”
She moves closer, circles around his desk, landing in front of him. She frowns.
He rubs his hand over his jaw. “What?”
“You look tired.”
“I mean you normally look tired—“
“But, like, even more than usual.”
His lips set into a flat line. “Gee, you sure know how to make a guy feel good.”
“It’s just… things should be easier by now.”
He lets his eyes slowly shut, exhaling. “I know.”
And then, faintly, and half of him wonders if he’s imagining it, he feels her fingers deftly slide over his cheek, catching the bone of it, a thumb sweeping over the dark circles he worries are permanent. He lets one eye open, peeking, then another. She’s close to him, almost inspecting him with a look he cannot put a word to. A look he honestly fears to put a word to, knowing what that word might be.
Again, but softer: “Donna…”
“Josh, I’m sorry, I…”
But her hand doesn’t move.
They have never been this close.
They’ve been near before: trading tight hugs, maybe the press of his lips on her cheek, his fingers cradling her elbow and hers nimbly fixing his bowtie. She hovers over him and he leans in to whisper confidential words. But it’s never been this, the line between work and personal so tangible, so threatened to be crossed. Inches have never felt more like miles, a distance warranting travel that cannot be retraced.
If he leans forward, there is no leaning back.
And so, in the bathe of dim office lights and his hand finding the curve of her cheek, he rises up and kisses her. At first, she tenses, and he knows she’s also thinking about what he might’ve done and changed in one single movement. But after a couple of seconds, she gives in, their mouths tentative and explorative, pressing and reveling. She tastes like chapstick and her favorite tea from the Mess and something indescribable but inherently her. He’s not sure how he’s supposed to stop kissing her now that he has her in his arms, but eventually, they have to come up for air and meet each other’s eyes.
Her cheeks are tinged red, bashful. She bites back a smile. “Wow.”
“Yeah,” he grins. “Wow.”
“I didn’t mean for—“
“Yeah, I did.”
She doesn’t answer. He feels a tight nervousness in his chest.
“Was that…” he studies her, “okay?”
She nods. “More than okay.”
He softly smiles. “Good.”
“Yeah.” She quietly steps back. “I should probably go.”
“Oh.” He runs his fingers through his hair. “Yeah, sure, of course, yeah. It’s late.”
“You should go too,” she says.
He sinks back into his chair. “I will soon.”
Waving her off, “Thirty minutes at most. I swear.”
“I don’t believe you.”
He watches her walk out the door, and he tries not to stare, but there’s so much he could say and so much he could not but she’s leaving and—now she’s circling back. Her voice is quiet but clear in the dark. “Goodnight, Josh.” It’s earnest, sweet, and simple and he thinks he has fallen for her all over again.
She waits for him to say something. And she supposes he might be waiting for her to say something too. But they walk a dance instead, moving around any real conversation and focusing on the work of the White House instead. After three days, she worries he thinks they’ve made a mistake. She would be lying if she said she didn’t worry the same. Their definition of boss and assistant has always been murky, favoring their easy friendship to a traditional working relationship.
She knows she isn’t the best at concealing her true feelings, and either he’s too kind or too thick-headed to realize how close she is to spilling what she has guarded most. Him kissing her had felt like the first acknowledgment to both her and the possibility of a life beyond the west wing corridors. Now he’s back to his erratic, hand-waving ways, and maybe that kiss had merely espoused out of pure exhaustion. He becomes drunk on his lack of sleep and lets his thoughts blur and she gets caught in the crossfire.
“Donna!” He’s yelling from his office, stepping out into the bullpen, and it’s so normal of him to do, she worries even more. He walks over to her desk. “Did you set up my meeting with Camden?”
She says, “Yes. It’s at two,” and then, lower: “We need to talk.”
She stands up and reaches for his wrist, pulling him towards the quieter hallways of the west wing.
“Donna,” he says, “Donna, Donna, Donna.”
She spins around. “Josh, we can’t act as if nothing happened.”
“I know we can’t.”
“Then, why are you avoiding me?”
“I’ve been busy, Donna.”
“That’s always your excuse, isn’t it?”
He glares. “You oversee my schedule. You know I am.”
“Then make the time.”
“Josh, I’m not asking for this to be a thing. I just want to talk.”
“Okay, fine, yes, we should talk. You’re right.” He sighs. “I’ll swing by your place tonight.”
“And by seven, you actually mean ten.”
“Nine. I’ll be there by nine.”
“Okay,” she sighs. “Okay.”
He glances down at his watch. “I’m going to be late for my meeting with the President.”
“Nine o’clock,” she says.
He nods. “Nine.”
And when nine finally rolls around, she’s two glasses of red wine deep, feeling inexplicably nervous like this is some random guy and not Josh. But it is Josh, and that’s what makes it worse. There are history and emotions so close to the surface and she swore she could go back to normal if that kiss was just a fluke, but honestly, she’s not so sure.
When he knocks on her door and she opens it, he stands slightly disheveled and disarmingly handsome, the knot of his tie loosened and his suit jacket almost slipping off his shoulders. She remembers telling one of her college friends about him, showing off a cherished photo of them at a White House Christmas party, his arm slung around her waist in a way only reserved for the holidays. “He’s cute,” her friend supposed, “in that older, professional kind of way.”
But what her friend will never know is this, the way he looks at her now, the seasoned confidence and air that comes with being Deputy Chief of Staff. There’s a glint to his eyes, the quirk of his mouth, the study set to his jaw.
He drops his backpack to the floor. “I know we said we would talk and I want to and I have things I need to say and…”
His voice lingers; as do his eyes.
“Actually,” and his words sound deeper, reverberating. She had thought she knew Josh in all ways, but not like this. His tongue flicks over his lips. “Fuck it.”
He seizes her face in his hands and presses his mouth to hers and it isn’t like the previous night: this is feverish, desperate, taking all of her in. He haphazardly kicks her front door shut and pins her against the nearest wall.
His hands are everywhere and she still wants more. There’s a strength to him she’s not used to: he’s typically light, a boyish skip to his ranting words and stumbling laugh. Here, she feels his back flex under her fingertips, solid muscle hidden by the layers of his suit. It’s not close enough, and she reaches for his jacket, shoving it off. He grins dangerously against her mouth, enjoying their impatience. His hands slide down her sides, under her thighs, lifting her, and her legs circle his waist. It’s all so easy for him, it’s nearly dizzying.
He brings her to her bedroom and lays her down on her bed, settling over her. He kisses like he’s debating with a republican senator: in control with the heat of his sharp tongue and conviction. He always knows his next move, how he’ll win his argument, and here, as they kiss, he leads. Stripping her of her shirt, his hand dipping between her thighs, smirking as she gasps.
They don’t really talk. They say names and sigh out swears and fall asleep entangled. He leaves before she wakes up and comes back that night to do it all over again.
“It can’t be more than this,” she says a week later.
“I know.” He looks at her. “Are you okay with that?”
“Are we still friends?”
“Then that’s what we are. And this is just… this.”
And so, here is how this goes: at work, everything is normal. She hands him files and he asks her to set up meetings. They bicker over coffee orders and whether Josh’s latest hare-brained scheme to get another vote on Bartlet’s proposed environmental regulation is a good one. He yells out her name to get her attention and she sharply says his back. It’s years of practice, a secondhand they have with one another. No one is to think anything other.
But then, at night, she’ll sneak over to his apartment and let him undo her under his sheets. He’ll bring wine to her place and fall victim to her touch. They obsess over each other like they’ll never be able to do it again, hands sliding under shirts and mouths bruising collarbones, needy and eager and tipping each other to the point that they fall apart.
He fucks her slowly and deeply and maybe it’s better that this is all a secret. They’re less reserved and it adds a thrill, her nails digging into his back and him whispering her name into her ear. “Donnatella,” he says so wickedly. “Donnatella.”
Sometimes they end up cuddling and sometimes, the other retreats back to their own apartment. It’s nothing more than just, and perhaps, it never needs to be.
She feels his hand tighten around her wrist as her hand moves dangerously up his thigh. The agricultural lobbyist group sitting across from them is droning on about soil and Donna tuned out at least twenty minutes ago. She looks over at Josh, watches as his jaw clenches and his gaze narrowly flicks towards her.
She stops moving her hand, instead nudges his ankle with her feet, toeing the cuff of his pants. His teeth grit.
“Something wrong?” One of the lobbyists is asking.
Josh drops his pen and he flashes a kind, saccharine smile. “Not at all.”
“Oh good,” the weathered man responses, wearing a dusty, brown suit. “So as I was saying—“
Donna’s hand slides up again.
“Actually,” Josh interrupts quickly, “we have to move onto another meeting. I’m so sorry.”
The man looks at Josh dubiously. “I thought we had fifteen more minutes.”
“My assistant and I are swamped today. Y’know how the White House is—things are always moving and changing. We’re sincerely sorry.”
“Oh, okay,” the man says, slightly perplexed. “Well, thanks for meeting with us, and I hope we can talk again soon.”
“Of course.” Josh gives his best hundred-watt grin, all teeth and dimples.
He and Donna stand up and shake the lobbyists’ hands before Josh is hurrying her out of the room. He looks around—coast clear—and pulls her into a closet.
“What was that?” he asks sharply.
She plays innocent: “What was what?”
“Don’t play coy, Donna.”
“I was bored,” she says absently.
“We’re at work,” he replies, curt.
“So, you should have been able to handle yourself better. Leaving a meeting early is highly unprofessional, Josh.”
“But you were—! It was your hands—not mine!”
“Fine, I won’t do it again.” She reaches for the door handle.
His fingers curl around her wrist. “You can’t leave now.”
“We have to go back to work.”
“We don’t have to—“ and he kisses her, long and deep.
“Unprofessional again, Josh,” she laughs against his mouth.
“Don’t care,” he murmurs. “I don’t care at all.”
Her fingers catch through the curls of his hair and he curves his hands around her rib cage, pulling her taut to his body. Their mouths meet and meet again, smooth over jawlines and the columns of their necks, teeth grazing skin and just tempting enough to leave a mark. She reaches for his belt, and he hikes up her pencil skirt, his fingers pulling at the lace of her panties, nearly tearing the delicate fabric.
At the back of her mind, she knows this is wrong. He’s her boss and she’s his assistant and if the press ever catches wind of this, all hell would break loose for the Bartlet administration. He should find her a promotion or she should quit or any other possible combination. But a part of her thinks that conceding to the wrongness is asking for them to be something more, and she’s not sure if they could be that way. Josh had been in a relationship with Amy, but the word relationship was a weak label more than anything. He never went after Joey and naively, Donna still wonders if it was because of her.
Josh and relationships don’t seem to mix, and she knows she should fret about this more and argue over what this unbecoming of their boss-assistant dynamic means, but she feels him slot between her legs and forgets what she was thinking about.
She redefines what they could be when he strips off his white undershirt, and she bursts into giggles. The falling sun settles across his skin, bending gold into the muscular curve of his body.
He quirks an eyebrow. “What?”
“It’s just funny,” she says.
“You wear those massive suits and yet, you look like that.”
He looks down at his abdomen. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
“You’re in shockingly good shape for someone who doesn’t know how to take care of himself.”
“I go to the gym,” he argues.
“So you can find the time to run but not sleep?”
“It helps clear my mind,” he says. He moves to lay his back, looking expectant. Instead, Donna’s pointer finger falls to his stomach, tracing the lines of his abdominals, going back and forth over each ripple. He shivers under her touch.
“What are you doing?”
“I don’t know,” she murmurs. “Admiring, I guess.”
“Admiring?” he barks out a laugh.
“Your groupies would be so jealous of me if they knew about this.”
“Oh god,” he groans. “You’ll never move on from that, will you?”
“No, I will not. It’s in my job description to humble you.”
“It definitely isn’t.”
“And yet, you still handed me your ID tag in New Hampshire.”
“You remember that?”
She looks at him, her hand falling flat against his stomach. “I remember all of it.”
It’s too tender and too kind, and wordlessly, they agree to not burst the bubble. So, they don’t have sex that night. She falls asleep with her head pillowed against his chest and he sleeps better than he has in six years.
They swear they’re not dating. Even when he brings over coffee one morning. Or when they watch a movie at his place and throw popcorn at the television after the main character makes a stupid decision.
They’re not dating when he calls her beautiful at the break of dawn or she mutters about his brilliance into the crest of his hair. It’s merely their post-coital haze, running on remnants of caffeine and the rapid rise and fall of their chests.
They’re definitely not dating when there is a presidential dinner and they don’t think to invite dates. Instead, they assume they’ll go with each other. Him in a black tux, her in a red dress. Their arms are interlocked as they enter the ballroom, and Donna even goads Josh into dancing with her. It’s friendly, nothing more.
They’re just having sex. That’s it.
She shuts his office door behind herself and kisses him. Hard.
He fumbles. “What are you doing?”
“Missed you,” she says against his lips.
“Everyone. Leo and C.J. and Toby, they’re all right the—”
He kisses her back.
“It was a boring trip,” he says.
“Yeah.” He backs her against his desk, mouth insistent. “Wish you were there.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to Italy,” she says.
“Maybe we’ll go someday.”
“I would like that.”
The west wing swirls around them, and they continue to kiss. They let the wrong words and feelings slip out between parted lips, testing the boundaries of their current situation and sliding into dangerous territory.
Yet, the only thing they worry about is whether or not someone will at least knock before barging in.
He catches her wearing one of his Harvard sweatshirts, the hem reaching halfway down her thighs and the sleeves hanging over her knuckles. She stands in the kitchen, making herself a cup of tea. He pulls on a pair of discarded sweatpants and pads over towards her. It is strangely domestic and Josh thinks he should stop, go back to bed, wait for the familiar dip of the mattress as she slides under the sheets. Instead, he lingers by her.
“Couldn’t sleep?” he asks.
“Eh,” she says. “I have some work to do.”
“You sound like me.”
“It was bound to happen after spending so many years with you.”
“Yeah," he nods. "Bound to happen.”
She stirs sugar into the tea, glances over at a binder she has propped open.
“Anything interesting?” he tries.
“You’ll find out in the morning. It’ll be on your desk.” She looks at him. “Go back to bed.”
“I won’t be far behind.”
He leans against the counter next to her. “I’ll wait.”
She rolls her eyes in mock-exasperation. “If you say so.”
They fall into a comfortable silence. His fingers slip over the crimson fabric of her—his—sweatshirt.
“Where did you find this?” he asks.
“In your closet. I was cold.”
“Ah.” He smiles, almost dangerously. “It looks good on you.”
She laughs. “Is this some fantasy of yours, Josh?”
“It’s something,” he murmurs, drawing her into an unruly kiss.
“Joshua,” C.J. says, “can we talk in my office?”
His eyebrows cinch together. “About what?”
“Let’s just talk.”
He steps into her office. She hurriedly closes the door behind him.
“What’s going on?” he asks.
“Sit,” she says, gesturing to a chair.
He sits down; she moves into the chair behind her desk.
“C.J., can you please just tell me—”
She holds up a finger to quiet him. He stills. She reaches into her desk drawer and pulls out a photo, placing it in front of him. He picks it up and glances over.
“Seriously, what is…” he trails off.
It’s him and Donna. It’s blurry and out of focus, but it’s him and Donna outside her apartment building. He had left his scarf in her apartment and she had ran down to give it to him. In the spur of the moment, he wrapped his arm around her waist and drew her into a kiss, laughing at the squeal she had let out from him almost literally sweeping her off her feet.
In the picture, they’re engrossed in a kiss so warm and intimate. It doesn’t look like a fling. It doesn’t look like friends with benefits. They look like they’re in love.
“Who took this picture?” he grits out.
“Someone in the press corps,” she says softly.
“Are they… are they writing an article?”
She shakes her head. “I was able to get them to shelve it, citing that you can’t truly be sure the picture is of you and Donna.”
“But you know it is.”
“I know it is.”
“Josh, this looks really bad. Hell, this is really bad. She’s your assistant.”
He can’t meet her heavy gaze. “She’s more than that.”
“I know she is. She’s my friend, too. But still, she’s your assistant.” A beat. “Josh, look at me.”
He slowly lifts his head.
C.J. speaks starkly: “You have to end it.”
He struggles, wringing his hands together. “I… I can’t. It’s… complicated. It’s not—we’re not—it’s not like we’re in a relationship. It’s just… it’s this. It’s a thing.”
She heavily sighs. "Josh, you're in love with her.
He can’t speak, her words hanging in the air, almost taunting. The problem is, he knows. He knows he's in love with her. He knows this because he could go days without seeing Amy. He could put up with her getting fired and spewing hateful names in his direction and feeling disappointed when he backed out on their Tahiti trip. They would fight and they would fuck and they never could fully figure out the in-betweens. He definitely cared about Amy the way a boyfriend should, but it wasn't this.
This—Donna laughing at one of his stupid jokes. And this—Donna remembering his favorite ice cream flavor. This too—Donna sliding her fingers through his hair when he accidentally slips up and mentions the disappointment in Leo's eyes when Josh couldn't deliver on a bill.
“And the thing is,” C.J. says, “she’s just as in love with you.”
Josh rubs his hands over his face, sighing. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.”
“I know,” C.J. says.
“She really was just my assistant.”
“For a week, maybe,” C.J. gently laughs.
“She wanted to help the campaign,” he tries.
“She wanted to help you.”
Josh shuts his eyes, overwhelmed. His tongue feels heavy in his mouth, his chest caving in, pressing on his heart. He knows what he should do. He knows he should march over to Donna's desk and tell her they've made a mistake and they need to go back to being just colleagues, perhaps not even friends. He wishes he didn't: he wishes he would have to decipher through books and policy pieces and try to scramble together a coherent conclusion, delaying the inevitable. But this answer—it's as clear as day.
He stays rooted in his chair.
“Josh,” C.J. says, “if you can’t end this, then you need distance. And you need to get her out of your office.”
“There’s a congressional trip to Gaza.”
She turns around and looks at him. “Gaza?”
“And I think you should go.”
“You would listen in on meetings, take notes, report back to the White House. You’d be great at it.”
“I know I would be great at it but—Gaza?” She looks at him dubiously.
“It’s perfectly safe,” he assures. “It’ll be boring governmental meetings between various Palestinian groups. Potential peace talks.”
She huffs out a laugh. “You’re really selling it, Josh.”
“It’ll be fun.” He quickly pecks her lips. “Think about it.”
He readjusts his pillow under his head and lets his eyes shut.
She pokes him in the side. “Josh.”
“There isn’t any other reason you want me to go, is there?”
“Donna, this is a great thing to add to your resume. Plus, you said you wanted to travel more.”
“To Italy.” Her voice softens: “With you.”
His mouth curves into a smile. “I know.”
“But seriously, what’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on.”
“Going with the full name, are we?”
“I’m going to punch you.”
He sits up and runs a hand through his hair. “C.J. knows.”
“Oh.” It's like a pin drops. She sits up next to him. “How—how does she know?”
“Someone in the press took a picture of us kissing outside your apartment building.” He watches her eyes flash grey with concern. “Don’t worry. She was able to convince them it wasn’t us—but she knows. She could tell." He pauses, lays out a part of the truth: "She told me we needed distance.”
“So, I go to Gaza...”
“And I figure things out back here.”
“Figure things out?”
“I can get you a promotion. Find you a different job within the west wing. All I know is…” and he looks at her now, studying, trying to figure out every minute response, “if we want this to continue, you can’t be my assistant anymore.”
“That will… be an adjustment,” she admits.
“I know, but we have to do it.”
She lies back down, pulling the sheets up to her chin. “I’ll go to Gaza.”
“And I'll find you a job.”
Neither of them sleeps well that night.
Gaza. Explosion. Donna. No one can find Donna. Three dead. Where’s Donna? Has she been taken to the hospital? The lines are jammed. News networks replay the footage of a fiery wreck. A phone makes it through. She's in Germany. I'm sorry, sir, we don't know the full extent of her injuries. She was in a burning car. In Gaza. Donna, Donna, Donna.
“I don’t care!” He erupts in C.J.’s office.
“Josh!” Leo says curtly, almost yelling.
Josh looks over his shoulder. It’s Leo and Toby. Some staffers in the bullpen stop and listen, looking over at the calamity. Leo pulls the door shut and the shudders loudly rattle.
“I don’t care who knows and I don’t care who sees,” Josh rants, pacing. “I have to go. I can’t stay here.”
“Is Donna…?” Toby asks gently.
“She’s at the hospital,” C.J. replies. “We don’t know much else.”
“Josh,” Leo says, reaching for his deputy’s arm, “we’re all worried about her.”
Josh pulls away. “It’s more than that. She’s more than that.
“Josh…” C.J. says tentatively, “I don’t think you want to—”
“We’re together, okay?” He is met with wide stares. “Or, well, we’re something. We never defined it or anything. We’re just… we’re this and it’s messed up and wrong and I know we shouldn’t have. Believe me, I know. Why do you think Donna went to Gaza in the first place? We needed distance. The press was starting to catch on and we were going to cause absolute hell for everyone. So, I told her about the trip and she agreed to go, and I was finding her a promotion, okay? She wasn’t going to be my assistant. I was figuring it out and everything was going to be fine and now—fuck!”
His hands curl into fists. He lets out a sharp exhale: “And now Donna is in some hospital in Germany and it’s all my fault. I did this to her. Donna... she's from Wisconsin. She's never done anything in her life wrong except… except for listening to me.” Tears prick the corners of his eyes. His voice falls into a whisper: “I have to go, and I don’t care who sees.”
The room falls into a hush. Josh feels his chest rapidly rising and falling.
“Go.” It’s Leo.
“What?” Josh asks.
Josh doesn’t hesitate. He runs to his office and grabs his backpack, then fights his way onto the next flight to Germany.
He hates hospitals. Hates the stark walls and bright lights, the cloying smell of chemicals, the underlying anxiety to everyone’s movements. He runs down the seemingly endless stretch of hallways. Donnatella Moss, he tells a receptionist. Where is Donnatella Moss? Nurses point him towards her room, trying not to look at him as though he were a kicked puppy.
Seeing her is like taking the first breath after spending minutes underwater. She’s hurt, marred with bruises and gashes, but she’s whole and that’s all that he cares about. He almost lost her, which is something he’s never considered before. Losing Donna, that shocking permanence, a life led by him without her by his side. He cannot fathom it, even during those few minutes he was forced to back in D.C. and the footage of the explosion pervaded the twenty-four-hour news cycle. There’s a part of him so intrinsically locked within Donna; losing her would be losing himself.
He touches her hand, expecting her to stir. She doesn’t. She sleeps and the room stays quiet. So quiet, it’s agonizing. He’s used to their arguments, their bickering, the sound of her voice when she says his name. Sometimes annoyed, sometimes frustrated, and other times, so gently affectionate. All he wants is to hear her say something, anything, and let himself pretend that things are okay.
But they’re not. Even when she stirs hours later, chiding him for his lack of sleep and unshaven face. She struggles to drink water from a cup and fights to keep her eyes open. He ducks into the hallway to give updates to the Bartlet team, waits for Mrs. Moss to arrive, paces outside the door when looking at her becomes a shard too painful. Still, he can’t will himself to sleep. It feels wrong. He has to be there for her: when she wakes up, when she asks for medicine, when she wants a bite of food. If he sleeps, he’ll miss something.
He leaves to buy her roses and returns only to find that she isn’t in her room: there are blood and gauze instead. He thinks he is going to pass out. A doctor tries to calm him down and explain what’s going on in laymen’s terms, but Josh knows exactly what’s happening. He’s been here before. A pulmonary embolism from the heart to the lungs. Potentially fatal. Surgery required. First, his father and now Donna: it feels like a cruel joke is being played on him.
She’s asking for you, the doctor tells him.
His knees briefly stop shaking.
When he steps into the operating room, she doesn’t write ‘I’m scared.’
Rather, she draws a heart. He’ll know what it means.
It hurts to wake up. It hurts less to see him there, sitting by her bedside.
“You’re here,” she rasps.
“Of course,” he whispers.
“You’re still here.”
“I never left.” His eyes are dark, his gaze heavy. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” and it comes out watery and rough and she can barely smile no matter how hard she tries, but he’s looking at her. Looking at her so openly, so easily, so in love.
“I know,” he says against her forehead, his lips warming her skin.
“You know a lot of things.”
He shakes his head. “I’m usually lying, but this,” his hand reaching for hers, “I actually do.”
“Good,” she says softly, “because so do I.”
She tries to slide over, bracing herself and letting out a painful breath.
“Hey,” he says, brushing a hand over her cheek, “you shouldn’t move.”
“I want…” and then, slightly embarrassed, “I’m trying to move over so you can sit up here.”
“Oh.” He breaks into a smile too wide for his face. “Let me help.”
With his help, she maneuvers over and feels the dip of the bed as he angles himself next to her. They don’t really talk; they don’t have to. Enough has been said, has been known. He had flown hours to get to her, and then stayed by her side, never once questioning that choice. He wasn't going to leave, not now, not when they return to Washington, not ever.
She looks over at him, his hair mussed and downy, the lines dissipating from his face. He’s quickly fallen asleep; she isn’t sure the last time he has actually slept. Every time her eyes opened, he was there, determined to see her even when the circles under his eyes darkened.
Things will be different when they go home, she knows. There will be a shift in their working relationship, redefining what they have become. Perhaps less sneaking around and more being upfront with one another. It’s strange, slightly exciting, that there is a next step.
After so many years and moments being sidestepped around, she thinks they've finally made it.
Donna wobbles on her crutches as she tosses another fax into a nearby trash can. She hadn’t realized how much stuff had accumulated in her desk over the years. After taunting Josh for his constant messiness, she prided herself in her meticulous nature, keeping her station neat and organized. Now, as she finds a fifth errant pen, she’s not so sure. All the files and pens and nonsensical faxes from years of being assistant to one of Washington’s most powerful men—it’s definitely piled up.
Josh had offered to help Donna out, but she waved him off. He already was fawning over her far more than usual, all but having her move into his apartment so he could help out as she recovered from her injuries. He has always been someone to push off self-care; with her though, he constantly lingers and asks if she’s okay. She’d be lying if she said she didn’t appreciate it, watching him transition from White House bulldog into doting boyfriend the second he sees her.
Still, she’d like to be able to do at least one thing on her own. And so, she rolls up her sleeves and opens another desk drawer.
C.J. had quickly extended Donna the position of White House Deputy Press Secretary when Donna flew home from Germany, citing the position had been empty for far too long. Donna accepted the job without hesitation. It would keep her close to Josh, but in a way that was appropriate for their change in relationship status. Plus, communications and working with the press seemed more in line with her ambitions compared to Josh’s caffeine-induced fights with legislators.
The senior staff was thrilled for them; or, at least thrilled in their own ways. C.J. looked at them like a proud older sister; Toby gave them a half-grin; Leo only rolled his eyes and said, “Took you long enough,” while Bartlet pulled Josh into his office and threatened the power of the Secret Service if Josh screwed things up (once a father, always a father). Josh stepped back into the bullpen a few shades paler.
“Are you sure you don’t need help?”
Josh leans against the doorframe, an upward tilt to his lips.
She rolls her eyes. “I said I was fine, Josh.”
“I’m just saying… I’m right here if you need me.”
“Don’t you have a congressman to strong-arm?”
“Congresswoman,” he says with a tsk.
She lets out a laugh.
“C’mon, Donna, you’re my… girlfriend,” and he says it so shyly, so quietly, almost a red hue to his cheeks, “not my assistant anymore. I can help.”
“Fine,” she quips, but it’s all fond and painted with her own blush. “I need everything from that drawer”—she gestures to the one next to her—“put into that box.”
He breaks into a gleeful smile, dimples and bright eyes, knowing he’s won his case.
They fall into silence, and it’s comfortable now. They’re so used to talking and commanding and asking and arguing, but here, they don’t really have to anymore. He will slide a hand over her elbow and she’ll lean into his shoulder and it’s more than enough. As with everything, he works with diligence and she almost admires at who she has fallen in love with.
Then—her fingers slip over an old envelope. She picks it up, inspects it, and instantly knows what it is. Christmas, 1999. The skies were cold and iced blue, but inside the west wing, everything felt touched with gold, warmer and loved in. She fell into his arms and he buried his face into her shoulder, and it was too intimate for what they were, but they blamed it on ‘tis the season.
I can’t do any of this without you, he scribbled out, a mess of black ink across a Hallmark holiday card.
She drags her thumb over the words, still stark and black, not faded with the years of tiring politics.
He notices her pause. “What is it?”
“That card you gave me… wow, over four years ago now.” She gently smiles. “You really can be sweet.”
He almost looks embarrassed. “I wasn’t lying when I wrote that.”
“You still remember what it said?”
“Are you kidding me?” he asks, a curve to his lips. “I agonized over what I would write in it for days.”
And now, because she can and because she has wanted to since Christmas 1999 and during red lights and the night of eight inaugural balls, she wraps his tie around her hand and draws him into a kiss. He lets out a noise of shock that is quickly quelled by the press of her lips. After a few, she ducks her head back and bites down a smile, a touch shy. He merely smirks.
“I guess we can do that now,” he says.
“That was a one-time thing,” she replies quickly. “You were being… cute.”
He leans back in and presses a chaste kiss to her lips. “Now two times.”
“Yes, I am.”
“Maybe I’m happy I’m moving desks.”
“Nah, you’re totally going to miss me.”
“With what? Teaching you how to use your computer still?”
“It’s boyish. It’s cute.”
“Dear God, I’m dating a twelve-year-old.”
“You’ll miss me, Donna.”
“They say distance makes the heart grow fonder.”
“You’re killing me here.”
She looks at him. “Josh.”
It’s a dance they always do.
She quietly smiles. “I love you.”
They haven’t said it much. In Germany, in the darkness of his apartment, always bold and heavy. After guarding their words for so long, it's not always easy to let the walls fall. She had gotten good at it, saying one thing but meaning another. I love you—it is the bravest sentence of all, the one that cannot be taken back. But she watches him now, how the light catches his eyes and the deepening of his dimples, and it's all so easy. She loves him. Wholly, entirely, without fault. Loves his brash words and confident grin, his unruly hair and rumpled shirts, his cunning intellect and general calamity.
“I love you, too,” he says back.
She loves him for how he loves her.
She lifts his wrist and looks at his watch. “I told C.J. I would meet with her to go over some logistics before I start tomorrow.”
“So, I’ll see you later.”
“I’ll walk with you.”
“You don’t need to—”
“I’m coming, Donna.”
It's better than to argue with a determined Josh. “Okay.”
She feels his hand on the small of her back as they walk down the hallway. Together, side by side, as equals. The west wing continues to navigate around them, files being passed along and feet moving quickly. They find themselves in their own world, finally slowing and embracing the minutia. It feels like years earned, how they’ve gotten here, past all the lingering glances and lost touches. Now, it is without reservation: how his fingers touch her skin, how she says what she means, how with one will always come the other.
He moves in closer, whispering into her ear, “This is the happiest I’ve ever been.”
She doesn’t have to say anything back. He knows. He always has.