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it was like autumn, looking at her

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winter.

The ice on his windows is almost blue, slight with morning sun and winter frost. February is never kind to Washington: the wind a bite colder and the ground dusted with semblances of snow. A blizzard had hit two days prior, blustery and hazed with grey. Sidewalks disappeared under white blankets, streetlights muted and golden, while the normal hustle settled into quiet footsteps and fires crackling within homes. It was a dribble to end Santos’ second week of the presidency, finding himself holed up in the Oval Office calling east coast governors while Donna snuck out of her wing to spend the dwindling hours with Josh, their shoulders brushing as they read over the First Lady’s first proposed policy.

Remnants of snow continue to cling to concrete and barren yards. Everything feels a bit slower, easier when snowflakes are falling, dancing in the city streets. Josh likes this time of the year best, how it makes him feel like he’s back in Connecticut where pine trees loom and the air smells brightly of ice.

His eyelids flutter open, gentler than usual. Blearily, he catches the alarm clock blinking a red 7:48 a.m. If this were five years ago, he would already be on his third cup of coffee. If this were five months ago, he never would have made it to bed in the first place.

But it’s now—and he wraps his arm tighter around Donna’s waist. He buries his face into the back of her head, nosing her blonde locks and fending off a smile. She’s here; she’s been here since their vacation in Hawaii when things that needed to be said were finally said and Donna proposed that perhaps she would continue to sublet her apartment. Josh had readily accepted, knowing that this, this, was something he would never let go of now that he had it.

He wakes up next to her in the mornings and comes home to her in the evenings, bumping elbows in the kitchen and trading toothpaste-tasting kisses in the bathroom. She sometimes steals the blankets and definitely steals his favorite Harvard sweatshirt, nods her head when he rants about republicans and wraps her arms around his neck when a bill fails before it even leaves the Senate. She’s here and there and within every second: him sitting in his office when Margaret drops off a sandwich that Donna had ordered for him, locking pinkies as they walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, her catching his eyes with a smile across a west wing corridor.

It’s hypnotizing how easy it is after it being all so hard. After Rosslyn and after Gaza and after Iowa—the hospital and hotel rooms, divided by physical and imaginative walls. Always within reach but never to be touched. Whispered words, Yeah, I’m still here. Broken words, I’m ready for more and it’s not happening. Ships passing in the night, and perhaps they had forgotten their course, too far left or right to ever return. Days and weeks and years passed, gone without a whimper of a fight.

Then: a first kiss and a second, pressing and remembering how to breathe. Hard years shed, new days earned.

She stirs around eight a.m. The sun feels warmer on his skin—or maybe it’s her. She sounds like she’s smiling: “Hey you.”

He threads his fingers through hers. “Good morning.”

“Surprised you’re not up yet.”

“The President said I could come in at nine.”

“If President Bartlet told you that, I think your head would’ve exploded.”

He tilts her onto her back, leaning over her, bringing his mouth towards hers. “Things change.”

Her hand cups the back of his head. “They do.”

They kiss until Donna says she needs to shower, and then kiss a little more. Josh puts on a pot of coffee while Donna gets ready. From the kitchen, he catches her through the cracked door into his—their—bedroom, shrugging on a silk blouse and carding her fingers through her hair. He takes a moment and watches, admiring the domesticity.

“I can feel your eyes on me,” she calls out, laughing.

“Maybe I like the view,” he replies.

“You better get your ass out of your pajamas or we’re gonna be late,” she chides, albeit lovingly.

He pours her a mug and brings it to her. She gives him an appreciative smile. He can’t help but kiss the upturned corner of her lips. “Will do.”

He pulls off his old Yale tee, reaching for a baby blue button-up. She lingers by the dresser. Cockier, with a smile thrown over his shoulder, “Now you’re watching.”

She says it like it’s a fact: “I didn’t stick around in New Hampshire for the snow after all.”

He approaches her, nimbly buttoning up his shirt. “I seem to remember you briefly leaving—

She looks at him with wide eyes, the crash of ocean waves. “But I came back.”

“You came back.”

Her hand touches his exposed chest. “I always do.”

He leans forward, desperate and needy, words never being enough when it comes to her. Her mouth is warm under his, soft and tasting of sweet coffee. It’s just as addictive as the caffeine.

She whispers against his lips: “We’re going to be late.”

“Yes, we are.”

He feels her smile.

 

 

Strangely, the news cycle goes quiet by mid-February. Santos continues to focus on Kazakhstan and education, leaving the news outlets and gossip magazines little to exploit. The details of bills and tactics are too convoluted (read: boring) for the average reader and with a democratic majority in the House, partisan disputes fade into the background.

Naturally, reporters turn elsewhere for a story; it happens to land on Josh and Donna.

There already was speculation. The White House’s political mastermind and legislative pit bull, Josh Lyman, looked happier in recent days, and the American public grew a particular fondness for the First Lady’s charismatic and stunning Chief of Staff. LemonLyman.com began posting signings of the duo going out for the occasional lunch or sneaking in a coffee run, usually surrounding themselves with piles of binders and the odd Secret Service agent. They held serious glints to their eyes and pens always in hand, scribbling down notes and looking pleasantly professional.

But, there would be a laugh, a hand resting over the other’s, bright and wide smiles. Perhaps, Washington’s once famed bachelor wasn’t so single anymore, looking positively enamored with America’s political sweetheart. Theories ran amuck on the discussion boards.

Then—a picture: Josh tugging on Donna’s hand and drawing her into a kiss right in front of the White House, an action so fantastically cliché that it’s near swoon-inducing. She weakly tries to push him off, giggling, but he pulls her right back in, his hand curving around her cheek and her easily giving in.

In the cold, they melt.

TIME calls them the next political power couple. The New York Times wants an exclusive story. The President and First Lady’s Chiefs of Staff falling in love? Margaret finds herself putting Hollywood executives on hold.

“Look at this,” Donna says, dropping a newspaper on her boyfriend’s desk. “We’re on page six.”

“Only six?” Josh quips. “I think we deserve to be on at least page three.”

She rolls her eyes. “Don’t you think it’s weird?”

“Of course,” he says, “but I’d rather they talk about us than some inane Presidential rumor.”

Picking up the article, her eyebrows furrow. “Some of this stuff isn’t even true.”

Josh continues to read through the latest press briefing, only half-listening. “Uh-huh.”

“We didn’t have an affair during the Bartlet administration.”

“Mhm.”

“Nor did we secretly meet up during the campaign trail.”

“Nope.“

“There was election night… but that was different.”

“Hmm.”

A pause. “Are you even listening?”

“…Yes?”

She lets out a soft laugh, muttering to herself. “Are Americans so starved for gossip that they cling onto us falling in love over these past couple of months?”

He lifts his head. “Well, that’s obviously false.”

“That Americans are starved for gossip?”

“Oh no,” he says, “that’s definitely true. But the other part—the falling in love part.”

“Yeah?”

“I’ve loved you for far longer than that,” and leaves it at that, kicking his feet up on his desk and underlining a paragraph in the briefing, catching the pen cap in his teeth.

She nearly leans on his desk for support and takes a breath. “Josh.”

He keeps his eyes down. “Donna.”

“You can’t just…”

“Hmm?”

Almost strained: “That’s quite the loaded sentence to say.”

“I assumed you knew.”

“What? Why? How?”

He lets out a laugh. “It’s not like I threw snowballs against your windows for nothing.”

She grumbles. “Yes, but it’s not like you did anything about it afterward.”

“I didn’t say I was good at any of that. Hell, I didn’t know what I was doing until I kissed you after the California polls.” He gives her a wide smile, flirtatious with a cocked eyebrow. “I’m trying to make up for lost time now.”

“So you knew all that time…”

“Are you going to try to tell me that you didn’t have feelings for me either?”

“Oh, I think my feelings were painfully obvious. Amy asked me once if I was in love with you.”

He almost chokes. “She did?”

A stifled laugh. “She saw straight through me.”

“So, I guess both of us were bad with timing. Not just me.”

“Well,” she moves in closer, plucking the paper out of his hand and hovering her lips just centimeters over his. He swallows. Her voice drops to a whisper, “You could have promoted me sooner.”

And then steps away, leaving him gobsmacked. “Hey!” He cries. “You can’t just walk away.”

“Looks like I did,” she says with a smirk. “I’ll see you later. Maybe on page two if we’re lucky.”

(In March, they sit down with The Washington Post. A simple question over who said I love you first devolves into a ten-minute debate over who loves who more.

I said I wouldn’t stop for red lights if you were in an accident.”

“Well, I actually flew nine hours after you were in a real accident.”

“I put up with being your assistant for almost a decade.”

“I took you to not one, or two, but eight inaugural balls.”

When writing up the article, the interviewer notes: I ended up staying at the Lyman-Moss apartment for two hours longer than anticipated. I’ve never seen two people quite so in love with one another, yet so feverishly competitive at the same time. If this is a reflection of the work being done at the White House, I imagine the Santos Administration will achieve great success.)

 

 

 

spring.

“Let’s go away for the weekend.”

“Where?”

“Connecticut.”

He leans against the doorframe leading into her office, looking expectantly. She asks, “Really?”

“I’d like to show you where I grew up,” he says with a quiet smile.

That’s all she needs for an answer. “I’d like that, too.”

They leave on Friday afternoon, the sun golden and hushed against the horizon. He taps his fingers on the steering wheel to whatever rock song is drifting through the stereo. They trade words over an environmental regulation the republicans are trying to block, bring up future state dinners, laugh at the President’s latest attempt to convince the First Lady that they should adopt a dog. Before any of this—being in a relationship, being caught between two campaigns, feelings kept close to the chest and gazes nothing more than just—they were friends. Boss and assistant by label, friends during every spar and banter and jab. Donna realizes he might be the best friend she’s ever had.

The sun goes down by the time they reach New Jersey. Burnt oranges and deep purples detail his face, bringing out his smile in bright brilliance. He scowls less, lets his lips curve more. She likes him this way: kind and open, a near childishness to him as he tries to quell his laughter and his dimples shine through. Sometimes, she had found herself wondering if the Santos campaign was Josh’s point of no return: how it ate at him, kept him up late at night and four espresso shots in by noon. His eyes duller, his shirts looser and over-worn. He had never been the type to stop and care about himself, usually looked to her to tell him that he was thirty hours of sleep away from being awake; however, this was different. He was different, trying to dodge punches while leading a virtually unknown congressman into the highest office. It exhausted him as much as he didn’t want to admit it.

But she looks at him now as he stares ahead, his hair curlier and the lines around his eyes less strained. She sees the man she first met in New Hampshire: a quick tongue and biting words, leveling opponents with a single look and sly Harvard-taught arguments. If she closes her eyes, she’s back in the frostbitten nights of Nashua. Him in Bartlet/Hoynes ‘98 shirts and her wrapped up in at least two sweaters even though she grew up in unforgiving Wisconsin winters; him buying her hot chocolate and her espousing the latest fact she’d learned about New Hampshire (“Did you know that New Hampshire was the first state to declare its independence from England?” He looked at her, almost smiling in bemusement: “No, I did not.”); then more dangerously, her watching him, observing his passion and wit and questioning if he could ever love something as much as the political fight.

(He does. In the West Wing corridors and city streets and the quiet of their home, he loves fiercely.)

She slides into the driver’s seat once they reach New York. He holds onto her hand over the console, letting his thumb circle over her porcelain skin. The sky stretches into inky blackness, swallowing car headlights and expanding into forever. They fall into a comfortable silence until she briefly looks over and realizes he’s drifted off.

Still, he holds onto her hand.

She gently elbows him awake an hour later when they come upon a WELCOME TO CONNECTICUT sign.

“Yeah?” he yawns out.

“We’ve made it.”

He breaks into a smile she can’t quite put a word to. Content, almost nostalgic, boyish and sweet. His eyes reflect the starry sky. He whispers, “Joanie used to say Connecticut was the perfect state because you were halfway between Boston and New York City.”

Donna doesn’t say anything. He fills the quiet with stories she never thought of him ever uttering. Him and Joanie. Joanie holding his hand during thunderstorms. Josh helping her build sandcastles on the shoreline. The two of them never getting out of their pajamas on a snow day.

On a Connecticut highway, he rebuilds a past.

 

 

The cottage he had rented for them abuts a beach. In late April, it is still relatively quiet with the air beginning to warm but the ocean still freezing to the touch.

She had made the mistake of trying to her wade her ankles in the lapping waves, quickly letting out a shriek at the ice-cold brush. Josh sat on the beach, looking more carefree than ever with his rolled-up jeans and black Ray-bans, breaking into raucous laughter. She ran back to him and asked why he couldn’t pick somewhere warmer, but there was a look to his eyes, soft and settled and home, that she amended her former statement with a kiss.

Later, he tugs a navy blue sweater on over his white button-up. She asks him to help her zip up the back of her dress, looking at their reflection in the door-length mirror. His fingers dance across the exposed skin and she lets out a brief shudder. He smirks against her shoulder, relishing the moment.

“I’ve never seen you dressed like this before,” she says. Her eyes move from the sweater to his khakis.

“It’s how people dress in Connecticut,” he replies, inching the zipper upwards. “Do you like it?”

“It’s different,” she answers. “But, I do.”

“Good,” he says.

“Although,” she hikes up an eyebrow, “I think I’ll like taking it off you even more.”

He barks out a laugh. “I don’t deserve you.”

“No, you don’t,” she teases, reaching for her coat and his hand. “Now, let’s go.”

They drive into the center of Westport, lined with brick sidewalks, expensive stores, and the most WASPy-looking people Donna has ever seen. She knows Josh comes from an area of influence, carrying that certain New England air to him when he moves, perfectly honed by his time at private schools and universities, but seeing him slide back into that life almost makes her laugh. She wants to tap a Westport native on the shoulder and say, “I know this man looks good now, but you should see him half-asleep at his desk and wearing a three-day-old suit. That’s the real Joshua Lyman.”

His hand falls to the small of her back when he leads her into an upscale restaurant. “It was my parents' favorite place,” he had told her. “We always went there for celebrations.” She’s used to his hand being there; it was a habit of his long before they were even a couple. However, there is a certain meaning to it now, deliberate and by the curve of his hand: she’s mine, all mine.

When they are seated, he asks for their best wine and she slightly frowns.

He tenses. “What?”

“This is all so much, Josh.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“We live off government salaries.”

“After Hawaii, this is the only other vacation I’ve been on in the past ten years.” He gives her a gentle smile. “I can splurge a little.”

“Just a little,” she reminds. “You don’t need to prove anything to me.”

“I promise I’m not,” he assures. “Although, after putting up with me for so long, I don’t think I can ever truly repay you.”

She shakes her head. “Enough of that—we’re here now. That’s all that matters.”

They both order pasta dishes and treat themselves to chocolate cake. She laughs when he gets frosting stuck on his lip, and his hand brushes her knee when her third glass of wine has her slightly leering. They walk, perhaps slightly stumble out of the restaurant, tipsy on red wine and infatuation, and amble throughout the town’s quaint streets. She keeps her fingers interlocked with his, leaning into his shoulder as he presses a kiss into her hair.

She’s not sure when she’s seen him this happy before. Maybe day three into their Hawaii trip, sprawled across the beach with sand in their hair and love spilling from their lips. This is a different kind of happy though, how it deepens his dimples and brightens his eyes. He doesn’t mention home much, not since his mother moved down to Florida, but he appears to have missed it. There’s an extra bounce to his step.

She takes in a breath, catching the faint smell of his cologne and smiles. She finds herself wondering what it would have been like if they knew each other in high school (forgoing their obvious age difference, of course). A seventeen-year-old Josh, brilliant and top of his class. Josh studying for the SATs and Josh playing pick-up basketball. Josh straightening his mandated tie and Josh trying to catch the eyes of girls. Josh with his dimples and his curled hair and easy smirk. Maybe she would have fallen in love then, too.

It’s as though he can read her mind: “You would’ve hated me in high school.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I was a self-assured asshole.”

“You say that as if you still aren’t.”

He lets out a dry laugh. “Oh, ha-ha.”

“I think I would’ve liked you.”

“No, you wouldn’t have. I barely liked myself.”

“You sound so sure.”

“Because I am.”

“I think I would have been charmed by your confidence.”

“It was all a farce.”

“Really?”

He cracks his jaw. “I was still… I was still blaming myself for… y’know…”

The fire, she mentally adds in. She lets out a breath. “Oh.”

“Yeah.”

A beat. She tries for a smile. “I bet you had the wildest hair.”

That makes him gently laugh. “It was pretty hard to tame. I almost shaved it all off.”

“You did not.”

“Oh, I did.”

“I can hear hundreds of girls’ hearts breaking somewhere.”

“You really think I was a player in high school?”

She raises an eyebrow. “You’re telling you weren’t?”

“I tried,” he says. “But I was pretty bookish.”

“Nerd.”

He looks mock offended. “Excuse me, that reading got me into Harvard.”

“I forgot—you’re a bit of an elitist, too,” she chides, but she’s smiling and he’s smiling back.

“I was better there, I promise.”

“I actually considered applying to Harvard,” she confesses. “But I chickened out at the idea of leaving Wisconsin.”

“Really?”

“I mean, it’s not like we would have met there considering…”

“Yes, I’m old. I know,” he deadpans.

She rolls her eyes fondly. “But yeah, I thought about it.”

They reach their car and he opens up the passenger door for Donna. She slides in and he goes to shut it, then pauses. He looks at her, eyes softening: “If we met in college, I would have fallen for you the moment I saw you.”

 

 

 

summer.

It’s hot from the moment he wakes up. The heat clings to his skin, a bead of sweat already forming on his brow. He slips out of bed and pulls on an errant pair of boxers, padding out into the living room to check on the thermostat. It reads a dismal eighty degrees. The air conditioning puts out the most pitiful blast of cool air, so he opens up every window he can, listening to the creek of worn wood. Living in an older apartment has its perks, namely the added charm of crown molding and wainscoting, but summer is already agonizing enough. The inescapable stuffiness of the air doesn’t help.

He pours a glass of chilled water and sits on the couch, fanning himself with the morning newspaper. How Donna can sleep through and embrace this kind of heat is unexplainable to him. She’s a Midwest girl with a love for Texas-like weather, always sliding closer to him during cooler nights and using him as her own personal heater.

(He would be lying if he said he didn’t enjoy it, just not during days like these).

This July has been inexplicably hot—“That’s climate change,” Sam reminds him. Josh already dreads putting on his workplace attire, feeling the scalding vice of a collar and tie around his neck. Perhaps, he can persuade the President to let him and Donna go on another vacation even though they took a long weekend a few months ago. Matt Santos is particularly generous when it comes to the couple, saying that he sees himself and Helen reflected in their Chiefs of Staff.

Josh has to bite his tongue from making a remark about how at least he and Donna haven’t broken a hotel room bed.

“Morning,” he hears Donna say. She wears just panties and an oversized shirt, crashing down on the couch next to him and looking almost miserable. “Why is it so hot in here?”

“The A/C is giving out.”

She sighs. “I’ll call the super while we’re at work.”

Normally, he’d enjoy seeing his girlfriend in so little, but he’s preoccupied with trying to keep cool. “Sounds good.” He lets out a puff of breath. “The White House must be better than this.”

And it is—sort of. He rolls up his sleeves and loosens his tie, pointing a fan in his direction. He sips at an iced coffee instead of his normal Americano order. Everything feels more lethargic, the minutes rolling by with the slow breeze, standing still at every odd hour. Josh typically finds himself on his feet; today, he leans back in his chair and undoes his shirt’s top button. To hell with looking professional today—he is just trying to fend off a heat stroke.

There is a knock on his door. He doesn’t look up: “Yeah, Sam?”

“I can’t tell whether or not that is a compliment,” Donna laughs, stepping into his office and closing the door behind her.

He immediately feels lighter. “Hey.”

“Hey yourself.” She sits in the chair opposing his, holding up a paper bag. “Helen gave me an hour-long lunch break.”

“So you want to spend it with me?” He clasps a hand over his heart, jovial. “I’m touched.”

“You should be, pumpkin patch,” she says. “Also, my office was beyond boiling.”

He tilts his fan towards her. “Using me for the air conditioning I see.”

She replies, coy: “Something like that.”

She pulls out a sandwich and then another, tossing it at him. He clumsily catches it and breaks into a grin at the realization it’s his favorite kind. He says, unfiltered and content, “I’m in love with you. Like so in love with you. You know that, right? So, so in love.”

He catches her blushing, cheeks flushed with a soft pink. She bites back a smile. “I love you, too.”

They work in easy silence, wordlessly passing each other highlighters and opinion pieces. A snapshot: him behind his desk and her sitting across from him, finishing off her sandwich while he reaches for his coffee. He mutters a line of a bill to himself and she passes him a book without a second thought. It’s a moment that could happen any year, ’99 or ’07 or the in-between, a natural rhythm and discovered synergy they have with each other. Filling in the blanks, deft hands and knowing glances. With her, he never asks, just nods and she understands. She knows as much as she loves him, and perhaps, that’s the same thing.

His eyes flit over the top of the paper he’s reading; he catches Donna undoing one, two buttons, briefly pondering over a third, of her blouse.

Swallowing, “What are you doing?”

She shrugs. “It’s hot.”

His eyes stay trained on the sliver of revealed skin—more than a sliver really, a whole column. He struggles: “Someone could come in.”

“No one’s coming in with Margaret guarding the door. Plus, I took a peek at your schedule. It’s pretty clear.”

“Oh,” he croaks. “Yeah. It is.”

She tilts her head. “Why are you acting so flustered?”

He watches her let out a breath of air, how her hair sways in the breeze. Her lips look redder like she’s just had a cherry popsicle, melting in the summer sun. He’s transfixed, asking, “Why?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Because you look… you look—

“Hmm?”

His stare hardens. “Because I’m five seconds away from having my way with you if you’ll let me.”

Now she sounds strained. “Oh.”

They avoid it. Any act of PDA is relatively contained: the rare brush of her lips on his cheek before she sends him up to the Hill, squeezing her hand under the table when a few democrats won’t budge on a line-item veto, the occasional stolen kiss in her office because it feels like they haven’t seen each other in weeks. But other than that, they’re friendly, cordial. Everyone knows of their changed relationship status, and especially what the media likes to make of their courtship, but they keep the more intimate moments tucked away in their Georgetown apartment.

Until now. He rises from his chair, circles around his desk and presses his mouth to hers. Sweet at first, languid and dissolving with the heat—but then, she tilts her head, pulls at his tie to draw him in closer, and it becomes desperate, teeth and impatient tongues. He holds onto the arms of the chair for support while her hand cups his cheek, her thumb sliding over the sharp bone of his jaw. He’s not sure what’s hotter—this weather or her—but as she tugs off his tie and slides her hand over his chest, feeling for his shirt’s buttons, he decides it’s her.

“Wait,” he breathes out.

“What?”

“I should—” he steps away and locks the two doors into his office.

“Ah,” she replies, grinning.

He moves back towards her, grabs her hand, and leads her to the couch. Whoever’s idea it was to have a couch in the Chief of Staff’s office definitely didn’t intend for it to be used like this, but Josh isn’t questioning it, not when Donna seizes the lapels of his shirt and leans back, pulling him over her. They’re still in the wide-eyed stage of their relationship, no matter how many months it has been, thrilled by every touch and intake of breath. She hitches her knee over his hip, drawing him in it, and his hand skirts from her ribcage to her thigh. After so many years apart, he’s not sure if they can ever be close enough.

“I’ve thought about this before,” she’s saying against his lips.

His mouth moves from hers to her jaw, her neck. “What?”

“What would happen if I just said screw it and kissed you in your office,” she says breathily.

He pulls his head back and looks at her: blue eyes, flushed cheeks, parted mouth. “Oh, really?”

“Yeah,” she replies, almost embarrassed.

“So you’re living out your fantasy right now,” he grins.

“Oh god,” she covers her face with her hand. “You’re never going to let me live this down.”

He pauses, watching her. How he has her right here, the woman he’s always loved. “Donna,” he says. He moves her hand, bends in closer, his lips brushing hers. “I thought about it, too.”

And like everything else she does, she kisses him fervently.

 

 

The Santoses invite Donna, Josh, and a few other staff members to Camp David for a summer respite weeks later. The workaholic part of Josh almost recoils, wondering how the President could ever consider sneaking off while running the world. But Donna encourages him to relax for once, especially since this summer has consisted of an arduous stalemate between the House and Senate. Josh agrees with a sigh.

Josh had been to Camp David a couple of times—most notably when Bartlet attempted to broker peace between Israel and Palestine. Saying he was there, though, was up for debate. Physically, he stood in Maryland forests, debating foreign policy one moment and throwing a football with Toby the next; mentally, he was in Germany, at Donna’s bedside, his eyes always on her. Like she would disappear if he looked away, like he could control the situation.

Like he was the reason she was there.

“Hey,” he feels her hand on his shoulder. “Are you done packing?”

He throws another pair of shorts into his duffle bag. “Oh, yeah, all set.”

Her gaze lingers on him, eyebrows skewed. “You okay?”

“I—” and he knows he can’t lie, she always sees right through him. “The last time I went to Camp David was after Germany.”

A new weight to the air. She stills, doesn’t reply.

“I walked on the outskirts of the camp trying to find enough of a signal so I could call you,” he says. “I just wanted to hear your voice.”

“You had work to do,” she says quietly. “You had to leave.”

“I don’t think I can ever fully explain what I was thinking after Gaza, after just… everything.” He looks at her eyes, tries to figure out what she might be thinking. She blinks back at him. “I know I ran away instead.”

“I quit, too.”

“Because I didn’t listen. I didn’t fully… see you.”

She looks at him. “Do you see me now?”

He swallows. “I see you everywhere.”

Wordlessly, she takes his hand and they head downstairs towards the car, towards Camp David, towards something better and together.

Josh knows that Donna has never been before, so he enjoys watching her light up as they pull into the compound. There’s the main cabin, a pool, a golf course, a forest that seems to stretch forever. They find themselves in their own world and Josh shakes off any ill-will he had towards this vacation.

She begs that they check out the pool. He tries to explain that he would be far more content with sitting indoors and reading books—until she pulls out a black bikini she had purchased during their Hawaii trip and every argument dies on his tongue. He starts muttering about him sitting by the poolside and she throws his swim trunks at him, telling him that she’ll push him in if she has to. He knows he’s getting older, but he’s been hitting the gym more since the campaign ended and Donna whispers into his ear about just how attractive she finds him, so he gives in.

He does that a lot, he thinks. Not exactly giving in, but fighting less, enjoying more.

“You’re going to blind me with your paleness, Josh,” Sam quips from his poolside chair as Josh follows Donna into the water.

Josh scowls. “Not everyone moves to Southern California to get skin cancer, Sam.”

“It sure would do you good.”

“How did President Santos allow you two to work together again?” Donna asks, rolling her eyes. “It’s like dealing with frat boys.”

Josh points at his deputy. “Sam started it.”

“And you fell right for the bait,” Sam grins.

“You are looking a bit pale,” Donna agrees, swimming away.

“Oh, says you,” Josh replies, trying to catch up. “I could lose you in a Wisconsin snowstorm, freckles and all.”

“I thought you liked my freckles,” she says sweetly.

“I do.” He gets closer and brings his arm around her waist to chastely kiss her. “I like them very much.”

Sam pushes his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose. “I will never get used to that.”

“Used to what?” Donna asks. Josh still has his hand on her hip bone.

“You guys actually being in a relationship and not just inadvertently flirting all the time.”

“We were not flirting,” Josh defends.

“The first time Will met you guys, he asked me if you were dating,” Sam deadpans.

Donna squeaks out: “Oh.”

Josh argues: “He’s not the brightest person, okay.”

They don’t notice Santos and Helen encroach the pool. “I thought you two were divorced or at least had a bad break-up when I saw you together on the campaign trail,” Santos adds.

“Oh my god,” Josh mutters.

“Lou had to explain to me that you were just coworkers,” Helen laughs. “I didn’t believe her.”

Donna buries her face into Josh’s shoulder, echoing, “Oh my god.”

“You guys didn’t see them during Bartlet’s first term,” Sam says gleefully to the First Family. “They were like a ticking time bomb of sexual frustration.”

Santos and Helen break into more raucous laughter. 

“I told you we should have stayed inside and read the books I brought along,” Josh whispers to Donna.

“Maybe so,” she acquiesces.

They glance up at Sam, Helen, and Santos, all engrossed in some story that Sam is telling them. Josh briefly hears the mention of Christmas and Jack Reese, and he knows they should make a break for it, not wanting to relive to the worst of his pining. He grabs Donna’s hand, and they try to tiptoe out of the pool. They’re reaching for their towels, thinking the coast is all clear, when suddenly Sam exclaims:

“So, that’s why you canceled your meeting with me?!”

They both grow red, and it's not because of the sun.  

 

 

autumn.

“You want to go to…”

“Wisconsin.”

“Wisconsin?”

“Wisconsin.”

“Your parents don’t like me.”

“Yes, they do.”

“No, they don’t.”

“They like you enough.”

“That sounds like a concession.”

“It’s not like they really know you.”

“I’ve spoken to them on the phone!”

“They want to see you.”

“C’mon, Donna.”

“Joshua.”

Donna.”

“I want them to love you like I do.”

He blinks at her.

“Okay, maybe not exactly like that.”

“I spoke to your mom in Germany.”

“That was two years ago.”

“And I think it perfectly broke the ice.”

“She called you handsome, you know.”

He puffs his chest. “Oh, really?”

“Yup.”

“Anything else?”

“That you’re an idiot when it comes to relationships.”

Scratching the back of his head: “Okay, I deserved that.”

She places a hand on his chest. “You’ll love Wisconsin.”

“I’ll like the cheese.”

“God—Josh!—stop with the cheese jokes.”

“You guys lean right into them.”

“Wisconsin looks like Connecticut in the fall.”

“Nothing looks like Connecticut in the fall.”

“We’re going, okay?”

“What if I wanted to go to Florida?”

Rolling her eyes: “Josh.”

His name gets swallowed as she pushes her lips to his. Soft, plying, hands curling around his jaw, fingers caught in the curls of his hair. His mouth parting, tongues sweeping, deeper and further. She’s stumbling back, into a wall, his mouth hot and pressing harder and harder. Her hands move down his back, his sides, trying to hold all of him. Usually, he kisses with intricateness and thought, moving meticulously with each brush and touch. This is rougher, propping her up so he can kiss her entirely, fully, barely breaking for a breath.

“So,” she whispers, almost smirking, “Wisconsin?”

He nods, his forehead knocking against hers with a laugh. “Wisconsin.”

 

 

Donna lingers in the doorway, sipping on a glass of wine, as Josh gets swarmed by the Moss family. Her father won’t stop talking about the Green Bay Packers, swearing that they’ll make it to the playoffs. Josh admits that he is a Giants fan, and Mr. Moss gives him a shoulder squeeze of sympathy much to Josh’s wide eyes.

Her mother tries to corner Josh and ask him if President Santos will readdress his agriculture plans. The Mosses aren’t farmers themselves, but they have many friends who are and Mrs. Moss has always been one to look out for her neighbors. Josh promises that he’ll bring it up with the president, especially with the State of the Union coming closer than not, and she wraps him into a hug. Later, she’ll pull Donna into the kitchen and tell her daughter that Josh is the one, but for now, she smiles at Donna over his shoulder.

Donna’s two brothers, older than their sister and taller than their sister’s boyfriend, all but berate Josh. Asking him about his job, what he sees himself doing after the Santos administration, why he dragged his feet with Donna. Josh awkwardly chuckles and she catches a spot a red on his cheeks, but eventually, he settles into the conversation, a beer in his hand and a smirk on his lips, and Donna thinks: maybe Josh fits right in.

The rest of dinner and dessert goes without a hitch. Aunts and uncles and cousins, all with their own political questions for Donna and Josh, eventually file out the door by eight. Josh jokes that every single political alignment was under one roof tonight, and he’s proud of himself for not arguing with at least three of her uncles. She takes his hand into hers and leads them upstairs for the night. After not having any alone time together, she can’t wait to slip into her pajamas and doze off with his arm around her waist.

“I’m in Donnatella Moss’ bedroom,” he says when they step into the room, laughing. “Did you ever bring any boys up here, or am I the lucky one?”

“Oh, shut up,” she says and whacks him in the head.

He rubs the sore spot, still chuckling. “I had fun today.”

“Really?” she asks. “You’re not just trying to be nice?”

“I promise. They’re nice people, cheese-loving and all.”

“Good… because my mom has already invited us up for Christmas.”

“Oh.” He has a surprised look on his face.

“What?” she asks, stepping closer.

“I’m just… not used to making such an impression, I guess. I mean with politicians, yeah of course, but normal people? Not really.”

“Well, get used to it as I imagine we’ll be here for every Thanksgiving.”

It’s the first time Donna’s mentioned something close to forever. They don’t talk about it, exactly, their future. They usually take it day by day, too burdened by the responsibilities of the administration for anything else. The mention of marriage is far from their vocabulary. It’s not that she thinks they’ll ever break up; it’s merely that they don’t consider something so distant and intangible. It’s usually about the present moment.

He has a quirk to his lips. “Every?”

She feels her cheeks grow warmer. “Um, yeah. Y'know, next year and the year after that and—only if you’d like that, obviously.”

“Donna,” and he looks at her now, bright and open and entirely, “I’ll be here every time.”

“Good,” she says softly. He presses her mouth to hers. “Really good.”

“I would though,” he says, pulling back, “like to take you to Florida. My mom wants to see you.”

“Are you sure you want us in the same room?” Donna teases. “You know we talk on the phone often. One might even call us best friends.”

He rubs his hand over his face, but he’s still smiling. “It’s a risk I have to take.”

“Did I ever tell you about the time she mailed me one of your baby pictures?”

His eyes widen. “She didn’t.”

“You looked very cute in your red turtleneck.”

Mortified, “Oh my god. Do you still have it?”

“Obviously.”

“I’m about to walk out of here and go ask your mom to see some baby pictures.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“You know I would.”

He has a dangerous glint to his eyes.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she says.

“Like what?” he asks lowly.

“My parents are down the hall.”

“This feels very high school.”

“Josh, you’re almost fifty.”

“Don’t remind me,” he grumbles.

“And I’m exhausted.”

“Fine, fine, fine,” he says, sitting on the edge of the bed and stripping off his shirt and pants, leaving himself just in boxers.

When they collapse into bed, Donna with the comforter pulled up under her chin and Josh curling around her frame, she almost falls asleep instantaneously. She can feel him pushing back the blankets, pressing a kiss to her slightly exposed shoulder, smiling.

“I love you, Donna,” he says.

If she thinks about it for too long, it makes her nearly laugh: Josh, here in Wisconsin. For so long, she could only think of him in other states purely for political reasons. On the campaign bus, brief stints in hotels, passed out in the passenger seat of rental cars. Now, he’s here, in the chill of autumn and just a drive from Canada, with his eyes shutting and his breaths even, and it feels right. Like they were always supposed to find themselves, existing in a state, a town, living without sole political gain. The idea of a life outside of the White House feels all that more tangible.

“I love you, too,” she whispers.

She's always home next to him.

 

 

 

winter (again)

They stand at an intersection on Pennsylvania Avenue. She’s looking off into the distance, wondering aloud about what they should do for dinner when she realizes he isn’t answering. Josh Lyman, who loves to talk and argue and hear the sound of his own voice, has fallen silent. She turns around, ready to chastise him, only to see him down on one knee.

He opens the small box in his hand; inside sits a stunning ring, reflecting in the glow of the White House.

Distantly, she notices the stoplight flicker from green to red.

He has the widest smile on his face. “I wouldn’t stop for red lights either.”