It’s the back of his knuckles on her wrist that does it, of all things. Distracted from what he’s saying by an itch on her face, Donna reaches up to scratch her cheek. He touches her and somehow this is how it finally dawns on her.
How long have I been here that this thing is healed to the point of itching? , she thinks.
Having him around all day is not unusual. Watching him whisper on the phone when he thinks no one is seeing is not unusual. Donna is so used to Josh collapsing out of sheer exhaustion in that chair in his office that his dangerous position in the one in front of her is not enough to make things sufficiently different.
More than the healing bruises on her face, it’s his caress on her wrist, gently keeping her from picking at them, that reminds her that this is Landstuhl, not DC.
His voice finally registers again as content, instead of just comfort.
“— and, really, whoever thought putting food inside jello was a good idea was just, I don’t know, a very sick person. I think I saw something that had a fish in it, once, Donna, a whole goddamn fish —“
"What in the world are you talking about?"
He stops short, eyebrows furrowed, a little pout.
"You asked me about aspics,” he explains, uncertain.
"Aspen, Josh. Aspen. I was talking about skiing, why would I ask you about gelatin.“
“This conversation just made a lot more sense,” Josh says, with a grimace. He runs a hand over the shadow on his cheeks. "Christ, I need a shave, why didn't you tell me I need a shave.”
“What you need is a decent night of sleep."
"I'm sleeping just fine."
"No, Josh, you need real sleep. In a bed. You need to sleep and you need to go home."
He huffs out a dry laugh, “Haven’t we been through this? I’m not going anywhere."
"Yes you are."
"You're in a hospital like ten thousands miles—“
“More like four.“
“—from home, I am not leaving you alone.”
“I’m not alone, Josh, I’m everything but alone. I swear that between you and my mother behaving like I’m gonna die at any moment I have so many people around me I’m gonna start to rely on the morphine drip to escape the trap that is my current reality.”
He softens a bit with a smile, “I’d… seriously advise against it. They notice and they take it away from you and then everything hurts like hell until you start to behave again.”
Something clicks in her head. Her eyes widen.
“Were you drugging yourself back in—“
"Water under the bridge, Donnatella, you're the one who was knock-knock-knocking on heaven’s door like a week ago, can we focus back on your impending drug addiction?"
That's a strangely accurate way to describe their relationship, she thinks, but says, “I resent the Guns N’Roses reference, you know.”
"Josh, you can go”, she sighs. “Seriously. Leo needs you, the President needs you, don't let me keep you here."
"No one's keeping me here, Donna."
“You know they’re literally solving peace in the middle east at Camp David, right.”
"And they're all very smart people, they don't need me there. Come to think of it, I don't need me there, either, I need me here."
“Now you just completely stopped making sense, how long since you last ate a decent meal?"
"Donna..." He whines. "C'mon, it's not that hard. It can’t be that hard to understand.”
“Shouldn’t that be my line?”
He drops an elbow onto the mattress beside her and rests his head on his hand.
"Do you want me to go?”, he asks, half boredom, half amusement. There’s a beat of silence. ”If you can look me in the eye and honest-to-god tell me you want me to go, then I'll go.”
“Not a peep.”
“I’ll just pack up right now and take a plane back to DC.”
She takes a deep breath and scoots a bit so she can take a good look at him.
“Prepare yourself for a long flight, Joshua,” she says.
Donna searches his whole frame, first, taking in his disheveled state. His hair points everywhere at once, and the dark circles underneath his eyes could rival her own. She suspects he’s got the shirt he’s wearing from Colin, because she’s seen this one discarded on a floor, somewhere, very recently. Josh looks tired and pliable with sleep, but there is not a sign of tension in his shoulders.
As she studies him she notices his relaxed features, the dimpled smile in the corner of his mouth that grows slowly as gaze glides over his skin.
When her eyes meet his, she finds Orpheus: gone through hell and finally out, still unable to believe he’s allowed to look at Eurydice again.
Donna blinks hard.
“Damnit”, she says.
The smile that blooms on his face is a small sun, “You can’t do it, can you.”
“You could at least go to a hotel.”
“On the salary of a humble public servant?”
She snorts inelegantly, “Yeah, a humble public servant with a trust fund the size of—“
“Donna…”, he pinches the bridge of his nose.
“I was gonna say my patience.”
He adjusts himself on his chair, “Look, the only way I’m leaving this hospital is if someone else decides to almost die back in DC, too. Okay?”
“You should at least find a better place to sleep, tonight, then.”
Josh rubs his face with a groan, fatigue and exasperation turning him into a moody child. He looks around the room and lazily scans their surroundings, as if an answer is going to magically materialize in front of him.
Finding neither answer nor magic, his gaze falls back to her.
His eyebrows shoot up.
“What?,” she asks.
Josh makes a show of straightening up and pulling his chair closer to her bed. It shrieks, scratching against the floor, but he doesn’t stop until it’s flush beside her. He sits back again and leans forward. His head falls on the edge of her pillow unceremoniously, “There, I’m in a bed. Sort of.”
“Josh, no,” she says, but it sounds half-hearted to her own ears.
“I have met all of your requirements, quit nagging.”
“You can’t loophole this forever, Josh.”
“I’m a lawyer, I can loophole whatever I want,” he grumbles, brows furrowed. But try as he might, they both know he’s already starting to fade.
They just look at each other, for a second. Donna feels soft puffs of air on her skin, brushing against her cheek.
“Okay,” she whispers.
She doesn’t think about Colin coming back to visit; she doesn’t think of her mother, gone on her walk, or about her leg, or the White House. She knows all of these things are there, and she’ll have to deal with them, but she elects not to think of them, now. She focuses on the lines of Josh’s face, on the rumpled shirt that’s not his, on the way he keeps looking at her despite the fact that his eyes can barely stay open.
Donna lifts the hand not attached to the IV and touches his eyelids. They close, and she traces his features, fingers barely there. Still awake, although not for much longer, Donna says, “Just today”.
The one thing that tells Josh that he’s been asleep is that he wakes up. His phone vibrates in his pocket, waking him up. He blindly digs it up from his pants, slapping it against his ear carelessly.
“Josh…,” It’s CJ. He’s heard his name from her in many voices, but she rarely uses this one: tight, controlled, almost scared. Josh head lifts from the corner of Donna’s pillow and brushes the sleep from his eyes with a hand.
“What’d you need?”
“I’m sorry, I know it’s late in there, it’s…,” he can feel her hesitation from across the line.
“CJ, you’re worrying me a bit, here.”
When she speaks again, Josh is watching Donna sigh softly in her sleep. The shadows that deepened her eyes are starting to fade, and the shallowest cuts are more or less gone. The blues and greens that color her body still scare him, and will forever, but her skin has lost the translucent quality it had a few days ago.
Whatever dream plays in her mind, her eyebrows twitch in reaction.
The eight hours of flight from DC to Germany he spent wishing her alive. CJ hangs up. He wonders if there was a price to getting his wish granted — a game of choices, hidden from view, where he traded a life for another without ever knowing he was doing it.
“Donna…?,” he whispers, voice soft and a warm hand resting on her wrist.
He runs his thumb up and down her skin, follows the lines on her hand.
She stirs right away, gives him a few blinks, “Josh…?”
“‘m sorry to wake you. CJ just called.”
He tightens his hand around her wrist just a little bit. Understanding flashes in her eyes.
“Okay…,” she nods, “Alright, they need you ‘round there, it’s alright.”
“I’m…,” he swallows.
“I’ll be alright.”
Without thinking Josh reaches a hand up to touch her cheek, “Call me in case of anything, ‘key?”
Donna leans in and takes his hand in hers, links her fingers to his in a way that has his thumb against her mouth. Her lips brush against him when she talks, “Careful, I’ll call just to annoy the shit out of you.”
They linger there; chapped, dry, soft. The sensation lights up every nerve ending in his body. The pressure in his chest eases all at once.
Josh feels light.
“Go,” she tells him.
“Yeah,” he says, standing up. “Bye.”
Josh stays there for a moment, looking intently at her. In the split second in between his hesitancy and the moment he breaks contact, he feels the ghost of that feeling, of her lips, on his own.
And it’s not enough. For the first time, it’s not enough.
It feels important that this is her second to last last day in Germany; it feels big in a way that hopping on a plane to head to Gaza hadn’t. An almost innocent excitement washes over her, like that of a child getting ready for their first flight, and her worsening mood swings settle on the better side of their spectrum for the day.
A lifetime ago Donna had packed her bags with no more enthusiasm than she had doing her laundry. Now, sat on her bed, with her leg propped up, all she wants is to sign the discharge papers and prepare to go home. Not much of her luggage survived, so it should be a lot easier, this time. A matter of walking out the door; of just deciding to make her way back. And if she can avoid thinking about all the things she found here, she can almost believe that thought.
Occupying her mind with the task, Donna forgets that she’s expecting Colin when he strides into the room.
He looks like the absolute antithesis of what Josh looked like a few days before, in general appearance, but he walks carrying himself with that same lightness, that same swagger of a man who doesn’t have all that many worries anymore. It isn’t a novel look on him like it was on Joshua. When meeting Colin, she first thought it was just the careful constructed image of someone who was both a journalist and an artist, but after the first night she understood that the cool aura that surrounded him had deeper roots. The devil-may-care attitude revealed someone who cared deeply. The spring in his step that didn’t quite agree with life in a war zone was something that existed not in spite, but because of it.
Donna had once heard that those who are prepared to die without regrets are the ones who are truly free, and that willingness — dare she say need — to live one day at a time, making meaning with each and every one of them, was what had carried her away from Wisconsin, almost a decade ago. It was what had drawn her to Colin, in the first place. It is, even now, what makes his presence a breath of fresh air.
In the confined space of her bedroom, with the cast still constricting her movements and disturbing thoughts making her breathless, Donna has never felt more in need of it.
When he approaches, she breathes him in. Takes in his presence like the smell of a favorite perfume.
“At last,” she says by means of greeting, extending her arms as far above her head as she can, “Freedom!”
“How very American,” he answers with a smile.
“I’ll have you know I am, in fact, a born Canadian.”
“You’re full of surprises, aren’t you.”
“You haven’t seen half of it, Mister.”
Colin sits beside her. She likes it that when he sits down beside her his weight on the mattress doesn’t feel like a responsibility.
“I wonder if I’ll ever have the chance to…”
“What, aren’t you tired of me, already?”
He brings out his best smile, bright and flirty, “I don’t think that’s really possible.”
Donna grimaces, and he follows her with one of his own.
“That did not come out as smoothly as I wanted, did it?”, he says.
“No, it didn’t.”
They laugh together, and when it dies down, Donna finally matches his gaze. The bittersweetness that settles in the air between them is so thick she can feel it weighting her chest, but it doesn’t hurt. On the contrary it keeps her smiling.
“It was so good meeting you, Donna,” he says. Colin takes her hand in his squeezing it a bit.
“It was good meeting you, too.”
“Maybe you could come around to wherever I am next time you decide to take a plane to the ends of the world.”
“Sure, if Josh decides he can live without me for a couple weeks,” she says. “Or maybe you could just whisk me away into an adventure.”
“Yeah, I really don’t want to piss off your…”
“Friend, ” she answers, very matter-of-fact.
“Boss ,” he completes. Donna finds that being on this side of this sort of teasing is not all that fun. “I’m pretty sure he’d mind a bit if you just up and left without notice one day. Where is he, by the way?”
Colin frowns in surprise. “Really …?”
She can see he’s grappling with different impulses, here, trying to find the sweet spot between inconsequential jest and a new-found sense of respect that she can read all over him.
“Ok, what’s going on, now…?”
“It’s nothing, really. It’s just that in my line of work there are some things you learn how to detect even before you see them. You have to, if you want to get the click just right, the moment just right,” he says. And it’s very light, almost like an offhand comment, but it makes her uneasy, anyway. Not exactly uncomfortable under his gaze, but seen, somehow. Under a spotlight.
“What are you saying, Colin?”
He takes a quick, perhaps instinctual, glance at her leg.
“That hell must be absolutely breaking loose at the White House.”
There’s no lightness this time. But this is one truth that’s not theirs to discuss.
Closing his eyes, Colin finds the joke very fast and says, “Oh, god, no. ’e took my shirt, didn't ‘e.”
His accent turns a bit thicker than usual, for a second. Donna can’t help the tingle of amusement at his irritation. “I’m afraid so.”
“I really liked that shirt.”
“You shouldn’t have given it away so easily, then,” she answers.
“And here I was, thinking you were going to be kind enough to send it to me.”
“I think the shipping alone will cost more than you paid for it, but if you insist, sure , why not. What kind of disaster had to happen for you to give it up anyway?” And because she can’t imagine a world in which Josh would be terribly inclined to wear the clothes of someone she’d been sleeping with, she rectifies— “Never mind that , what had to happen for Josh to accept it.”
“Related, if different, tragedies, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy.”
“I’m leaving, Colin, are you absolutely sure this is how you want to say goodbye to me?”
“I could kiss you, but that feels too final,” he says, “better to leave you with some reason to remember me.”
“Colin, the man of mystery, ” she jokes.
“And Donna, full of surprises.”
“Quite the duo. We could start a magic act, before I go back. Travel the world.”
He gives her a gentle laugh, “I’m sure you miss home enough, already.”
She looks down, tries to conjure a smile, and says, “Yeah, I do.”
Because she is — there’s nothing that Donna misses the most than being home . But when she tries to picture her apartment, with her beloved battered old couch, she comes up with nothing but walls, a stained carpet, and silence. Even the halls and hallways of the White House are nothing but a long echo, now, empty of it’s usual warmth and hustle. The places that hold the entirety of her life feel like an empty memory.
When they lock eyes, Donna sees understanding. She wonders if this is one of those things, one of those moments — if somewhere in the back of Colin’s mind he sees this as the moment before the click —, or if maybe this is just recognition coming from someone who’s entire wardrobe fits inside a duffel bag.
“Then it’s time to figure out how to get there,” he says.
There’s a smile on his lips that doesn’t agree with how she feels.
Colin puts a strand of hair behind her ear. He leans down to kiss her and she lets him. It’s deep, gentle, and he was right — it does feel too final. His lips taste like the end of something big.
Later, when he leaves, Donna feels alone. Truly alone, for the first time since she can remember.
If getting here had felt like routine, returning feels like standing on the edge of a cliff, looking down at the free-fall.