Chapter 1: Josh
“Don't let me darken your door,
That's not what I came here for.
No, it's not what I came here for.
And I won't hear you cry when I'm gone,
I won't know if I'm doing you wrong.
I never know if I'm doing you wrong.”
–“Reminder” by Mumford and Sons
It's definitely the long hours.
That's what Josh decides, after he finds himself staring at her for the tenth time in as many minutes. It's the long hours, it's the lack of sleep, it's the lack of caffeine. It's the lack of anything resembling a life outside the White House and this damn bill. He can't remember the last time he slept in a bed, or the last time he got more than a nap at his desk. What's it been, two, three days? It's making him loopy—it would make anyone loopy.
It's definitely not because he likes her.
Okay, Josh likes her; of course he likes her. How could he not? She's Donna! Blisteringly smart, funny, capable, resilient, snarky, unsettling (and yet all at once, completely grounding) Donna. There's nothing not to like. He wouldn't hire just any degree-less, charming girl off the Wisconsin streets. Of course not. Of course Donna's special.
Special. Josh squints at the paperwork in front of him, scratches his ear. He isn't going to look at her. He isn't going to look again, he isn't—
She's so funny when she's concentrating. She always furrows her brow just like that, a crease right between her eyebrows. And normally, the pen tapping might be annoying (especially because he's trying to focus—it's important work, drafting bills), but the way she does it is so...
This is ridiculous.
He bites his lip, jerks his attention back to policy. What policy is this? What has he promised Leo he'll deliver? It's almost ten and he has to have something to show before senior staff meets at eight tomorrow.
“You got anything?” Josh asks, decidedly not looking up from the papers spread across his desk.
“Well,” Donna says, a little too brightly for someone who's been at the office for close to thirteen hours, “you'll be pleased to know that I did finally manage to decipher the first section of your notes from the meeting with Wolchek.”
“You're blowing my mind,” Josh mutters. “An hour and a half to go through two pages?”
“I'm starting to think you need occupational therapy,” Donna snaps, tossing his notebook down in front of him. “This is illegible, Josh!”
“You're one to talk. And hey, my handwriting's not the problem here!” Josh snatches up the notes, flipping a page. “Look, I can read this just fine: 'Republicans willing to knock down two votes on the floor for...'” Uh-oh. “'....for...party condol—cam—compromise? Yeah, party compromise on tax...taxPAYER-funded—'”
“If you would just let me sit in on these things,” Donna cuts in, “and type up coherent notes for you, we could have been out of here three hours ago, happily eating our respective dinners at a normal time, like normal humans do.” She crosses from around the front of the desk, leans over his shoulder, jabbing a finger at a sentence halfway down the page. “Is that even a word, Josh? Because it looks like a confused kindergartner took a stab at capturing Senator Wolchek's thoughts on immigration!”
Josh cranes his neck, opens his mouth to inform Donna that nobody but her has ever had trouble deciphering his penmanship, but he can't get the words out.
It's because he only got two and a half hours of sleep last night. It's not because Donna's alarmingly close to him. It's not because she smells good (really good, like...flowers? Or something flower-y.). It's not because she's right here, with one hand on his shoulder, her hair falling across her face, while she gives him that look, that self-righteous, entirely adorable look that means he's in as much trouble as anyone can be in with their assistant.
It's not because she's beautiful. (Even though she is.) (Of course she is. He's her boss, not a monk. He's allowed to think she's beautiful. Just not allowed to do anything about it.) (Not that he'd want to do anything about it.) (He's just tired, okay?)
“Josh?” The back of Donna's hand is on his forehead now, like he might be feverish. “Are you okay? Are you having a stroke?”
He jerks back from her touch, almost out of his chair.
“Fine,” he croaks, wishing his voice wouldn't always pitch an octave higher than usual when he's nervous. “I'm fine. Dandy, even!” Donna doesn't look like she believes him even a little bit. “I'm just, y'know. Exhausted. And late. It's late, I mean. The hour.”
“Okay,” Donna says slowly. She's retreated back to her side of the desk. Josh is currently preoccupied with staring down at his illegible notes, but if he had to guess, he'd say Donna's looking at him right now like maybe she needs to call his mother.
“I'm really very fine,” he says. Whispers, almost. “I'm sorry. It was a long day.”
“Yeah,” Donna says. “Did you even go home last night?”
“I crashed here.” Josh glances up, catches her frown. “What? I do that sometimes.”
“When was the last time you had a shower?”
“A full meal?”
His wince intensifies.
“That's it,” she says, tossing her pen onto his desk and shoving her chair back. “We're done. You're going home.”
“Donna, I have to at least get some notes ready for Leo,” Josh protests, but it's too late. She's got him by the elbow, she's throwing his backpack at him, she's wrestling him out of his own office, and before he knows it, they're halfway through the bullpen. “Hey! I'm not messing around. I've gotta—”
“What you've gotta do,” Donna says, steering him towards the exit, “is go home, eat whatever's somewhat edible in your fridge, take a shower, and get at least five hours of sleep. I will get your notes ready.”
“I'll come in early. It'll only take me another hour, and then you'll have some basic talking points on the bill. Then Leo's happy, you're well-rested, and I won't have to report you to the Secret Service for being a crazy person who lives in his office.” Donna pauses just before the door, takes a breath. “You can't take care of the country if you can't take care of yourself, Josh. Go. Home.”
He looks at her again. He can't not. The way the glow from the streetlights just outside is catching her hair...it's distracting. The way she's scowling at him is distracting. Come to think of it, so's the way she's not letting go of his elbow.
What about her isn't distracting?
“Josh?” she asks, and this time, the frustration is almost gone from her voice. “Do you need me to get you a cab or something? You look...”
“No,” Josh says, easing his elbow out of her grip. “No, you're right. I'll go. I really should sleep. I hear it does wonders.”
“Thank you,” she says. “Now, I'll see you tomorrow morning, but not too early. Don't think you can sneak in ahead of me. I'll know.”
“Yes, ma'am,” he says, shuffling nervously. “And, uh. Thanks. For doing all this.”
“Well.” Donna's trying not to smile. As usual, Josh is trying not to stare. “Somebody has to.”
“I'm nothing without you, Donnatella Moss,” he says, going for charming and quippy. It comes out too low. Too serious.
Before he can be any more of an inappropriate basket-case, he hoists his backpack over his shoulder and shoves through the door, out of the White House. He is determined not to look back at his assistant (who he doesn't like—not like that); he is determined to find his way to his car and then somehow get home without crashing into anything.
And yet. He turns, just for a second. Donna's still in the doorway, watching through the glass. As soon as she sees him, she jolts out of sight. Josh ignores his stomach twisting, snaps his eyes shut, exhales slowly.
It really is just these long hours.
One shot in:
Toby is heckling him. It's in a more friendly way than usual, but it's heckling nonetheless.
“So, you're telling me you've never thought about it,” Toby says, swirling his Jack and Coke. He raises his eyebrows, tilts his chin. “Not once.” Josh might scream.
“For the last time, goddammit, no,” he hisses. “And she's right there, might I add, so if you'd switch to a less insane topic, that'd be swell.” Josh hopes he doesn't look as red as he feels. He wishes that Donna were anywhere else but three stools down the bar right now—maybe Tokyo? Would that be far enough? Gritting his teeth, Josh signals the bartender for one more, which makes Toby snort and rub his forehead like they're talking polling numbers and swiping errant committee votes instead of whether or not Josh is trying to sleep with his assistant.
For what it's worth, the assistant in question is thoroughly absorbed in her conversation with C.J. (who will probably be trying to get them all well and truly hammered after her second bourbon kicks in). Donna's not looking at Josh, because why would she be?
“Mmm,” Toby says, following Josh's gaze. “You know, there are many things you're not exactly bad at. In fact, there may be several things you're actually good at; even I'd admit that. But Josh, poker has never been your strong suit.”
“So, we've moved on to cards now,” Josh says. His shot of Cuervo arrives and he downs it without the lime. He likes vodka okay, can occasionally stomach whiskey, could never begin to handle gin, but tequila...now that's a thing he can get behind every time. It makes everything smoother, brighter. Makes C.J.'s laugh ring pleasantly in his ears. Makes Donna's hair shine like gold, even in a smoky bar. Makes Toby less of an unbearable asshole, which is really quite something to see.
“Joshua.” Toby's finished with his drink now, too, and leans forward, blocking Josh's view. “I did not ask you a question earlier. I told you: you need to do something about, uh, whatever this is, because it's becoming obvious.”
“And I told you that I don't know what the fuck you're talking about.” Josh isn't slurring yet, but he's working a little harder than usual to enunciate vowels. “Except I said it nicely then, because I really thought you could not possibly be serious with this.” Toby laughs, leans back in the stool, and orders another drink. Josh takes a minute to regroup, to try to focus on his hands, on the sticky bartop, on the crappy band screeching in the background. Where's Sam when you need him? He was supposed to be here by now.
“Look, she's beautiful. That's not in question,” Toby is saying. “Not to mention, she's ten times smarter than you. We all know this. If Donna had the law degree and the policy background, she'd be running the place, and you'd be getting the coffee.”
“She doesn't get me coffee,” Josh snaps. “God, Toby. This isn't the 50s. I get my own damn coffee.” Toby waves his hand.
“Yeah, I know she doesn't get you—would you listen for a second?”
“Y'know, it actually seems that all I'm doing here is listening.” Josh shouldn't order another shot. Maybe a beer. A light one. Never one to take his own advice, Josh catches the bartender's eye, points at his glass: yes, one more. Toby leans in even further, his crinkly forehead and dark frown swimming fuzzily in Josh's field of vision.
“I'm talking about your picture in the paper, Josh,” he says, and any hint of warmth from before has evaporated. “I'm talking about headlines screaming about sex scandals. I'm talking about Donna's career on the goddamn rocks, okay? She'd never work in politics again.”
“Toby, this may come as a shock to you, but I already know that,” Josh bites out. He won't risk a glance down at Donna or C.J., who've been thoroughly uninterested in the Josh and Toby Show for over an hour, anyway. Where the fuck is Sam? Or Josh's third shot, for that matter? “You think I haven't—I mean, this isn't like that. The point is moot. But, hypothetically, if it were, I sure as hell am not stupid enough to think I could, you know, act on it.”
“Well, good,” Toby nearly shouts. “In that case, you might want to stop staring at her slack-jawed anytime she wears something new. You might want to stop buying her flowers on your, what was it, oh yeah—your 'anniversary.' You might want to stop shooing all her potential suitors away. And, just maybe, you might want to practice being convincing, in case someone more important and much scarier than me decides to have this conversation with you.”
The third shot is here. Josh stares at it, considering: how drunk does he need to be for Toby's onslaught to stop feeling like a series of sucker punches to the gut? How much more tequila before Josh stops wanting to smash things?
The band is playing another shrill song. Toby is mercifully quiet beside him for the first time in half an hour.
“Okay,” Josh says, pulling a hand through his hair. “Okay, okay, okay.”
“Okay, you'll get it together?” Toby asks. “Or...okay, you want me to shut up?”
“Both,” Josh mutters.“Both, okay?” Toby's quiet again. Josh leans forward, head in his hands, and wonders why the hell he agreed to come out tonight. It's 11:25 PM on a Tuesday. He's an adult who's more than a little responsible for helping run the country. He should know better.
“Josh,” Toby says, and this time, he doesn't sound angry or funny or even annoying. “Are you in love with her or something?”
“Okay. Shut up.”
“Shit. You're in love with her. I didn't realize—shit. It's just that people have been talking. I hear things. I wanted to—”
“I hear things, too. I know what people think, but I don't...I don't, you know. It's not...”
“I want you to drop this,” Josh says softly, unable to do anything more than dig his fingernails into his forehead with renewed vigor. “I am asking you to please, for the love of God—”
“What have you two been arguing so intently about?” C.J.'s voice is louder than usual. She's practically shouting in Josh's ear. “I thought we agreed to put the shop talk to bed for the night, boys.”
“The government never sleeps, Claudia Jean,” Toby says. Josh glances up, and Donna's right there, leaning over to talk to the bartender. She smiles to thank him, and Josh doesn't want to notice this, but it's one of her best smiles: the real one, the one that's like concentrated sunshine. The one that always makes him feel slightly wobbly, even when he's sober.
C.J. is yelling about Sam and how he always drags his feet getting to these things, and Donna's waiting for her drink, and Toby, Josh realizes, is watching him watch Donna. And now Donna's got a cranberry vodka or something and she's giggling with C.J., and everything Toby pummeled Josh with keeps running through his head on loop, and the band is getting worse, and then the next thing Josh knows, he's knocking back shot number three.
“How many?” Donna asks Toby, inclining her head towards Josh. Toby smirks, holds up three fingers.
“Traitor,” Josh whines, but he's grateful Toby doesn't say anything about the two beers they'd each had right when they sat down.
“You have a breakfast meeting at 7:30!” Donna says. “You're going to be completely useless.” C.J. elbows her in the ribs and a good half of Donna's drink sloshes onto the bar. Toby snatches his wallet out of the way.
“C.J., you're drunk,” he says, reaching for the stack of napkins.
“No!” C.J. says. “I'm just the only one who isn't mentally still at the office! For the next...well, at least the next two hours, provided nobody's pager goes off, we are not talking about work and we are not talking about breakfast meetings. We are focused on our sole and judicious imperative.”
“Getting trashed?” Toby confirms.
“You got it, buckerooni.”
“I'm beginning to think that your nicknames get folksier in direct correlation with the level of your BAC,” Toby says, but he's smiling, and his gaze has shifted away from Josh and directly on to C.J. Josh seizes the opportunity and stands before he can't anymore.
“I'm done, guys,” he says. “Donna's right. Got...yeah, that thing. In the morning.”
“You drove him away!” C.J. cries, pointing an accusatory finger in Donna's general direction. “I was so looking forward to seeing him all liquored up. It was the only thing getting me through that last tortuous briefing.”
“Sorry as I am to ruin the night, I think it's best for everyone involved if I duck out before the last shot takes hold.” Josh is already feeling slightly unsteady on his feet. “Everything's all...shiny.”
“I'll take you home,” Donna offers. “Just to make sure you get there okay.” Josh opens his mouth to say no, but instead he blurts out: “Yeah, thanks,” and then, amidst C.J. groaning and Toby staring at Josh again over his drink and Sam finally fucking showing up, Josh waves them all off and shoulders his way towards the door, his hand on the small of Donna's back (so as not to lose her in the crowd, of course).
His apartment is a short walk away, but he's stumbling, and it helps to have Donna right there, her arm linked through his, helping him navigate all the turns and the crosswalks. Two blocks from his place, Josh stops, a sour taste in his mouth, trying to brace himself against Donna's slender waist. Not a good idea. He lets go of her almost immediately.
“I'm sorry,” he says, lowering himself to the curb. “Can we sit? Just for a minute. Or you can go on. I'm almost there.” Donna smooths her skirt and settles down next to him.
“Don't be silly,” she says. “Where else do I have to be?”
“Oh, I dunno. Asleep?” Josh props his head on his hand, turns to consider her. “Still at the Hawk and Dove? Enjoying the few precious hours you have without the pleasure of my company?”
“Though you have a point, and you do know how I treasure my you-free time, I have to say that I always sleep better knowing you're alive. As a general rule.” She brushes a hand across his shoulder like she's dusting him off.
“Just had a couple drinks,” he mumbles. “Thanks, Mom. Think I'll live to die another day.”
“Thank God for small miracles.”
They sit there for a minute, a little closer than maybe is professional, but then...Josh tries not to sigh audibly. They are, after all, at the point where she's walking him home, and then maybe upstairs, knowing her—just to be sure he doesn't fall down and break himself, which is a real possibility, and what did he ever used to do back before she breezed into his office and started answering his phone and sorting out his life?
“You're nice, Donna,” Josh says, flopping his head against her shoulder. He wants her to understand. “You're nice, and I appreciate you.”
“Thank you, Josh. That was sweet.”
“Really. I appreciate you and your...your hair.”
“It's nice, too. Pretty. Smells good.”
Donna blinks down at him, and Josh realizes by the way she's flushing that maybe he shouldn't be saying any of this.
“Sorry!” he says again. Everything Toby rambled on about earlier is sloshing around in his stomach, soaked in tequila and anxiety. None of it's true, Josh reminds himself. What Toby had said. What does Toby know? He's drunk, too.
“What did Toby say?” Donna asks, her arm around Josh's shoulders. If he had better control of his fine motor skills, Josh would squirm away from her. Whenever she's touching him, it's hard to talk.
“What'd you say?” he asks, and he's definitely slurring now.
“You said none of what Toby said was true,” Donna reminds him. “Just now.”
“How else would you have said it?” She taps at his shoulder impatiently. “Now, what about Toby?”
“Nothin',” Josh says. “He was...it was dumb.”
“What was it?” Donna asks. Josh tilts his head to look at her, and he almost says it. It's right there, waiting—Toby thinks I'm in love with you, and he says everyone else does, too—but she's so...so Donna, and she's seemed happy tonight, and this feels like it would make everything less happy. Besides, she might leave if he says it, might get up off the curb and be embarrassed and tongue-tied. What if she felt too awkward to keep working with him? What if she got up and took her methodical lists and her effortless wit and her pretty hair and her sunshine smile away? Sunshine smile. The hell? Josh begins to feel his IQ dropping, adjective by adjective.
“It was about, y'know, complicated,” he finally says. Ugh. That's not a sentence.“Uh, complicated man stuff.”
“Man stuff?” Donna wrinkles her nose. “Okay, maybe I don't want to know.”
“Wise of you,” Josh agrees. “But anyway, Toby was wrong about all of it. He usually is.”
“Almost always,” Donna says, nodding her head against his. Her fingertips are sweeping across his shoulder, ghosting along in small, rhythmic circles. This feels easier than it should.
Josh closes his eyes, focuses on the world not spinning out from underneath him. His stomach churns and he can't think; his mind is like a TV set with no signal, all mounting static and noise. It's the tequila and it's Toby and it's Donna, right here beside Josh's drunk ass, telling him she has nowhere else to be. It's the thought of how her skin would feel against his, his hands slipping through that gold hair, his tongue in her mouth and it's wrong. It's all wrong. Josh is wrong.
He throws-up, but not until later. Not until he's told Donna good night and gotten himself upstairs just fine. Not until he's safely ensconced in his bathroom, stripped down to just his boxers, kneeling in front of the toilet and wondering why the fuck he ever thought drinking with Toby Ziegler was going to end any other way. And Toby can't be right, but Josh finds himself missing Donna's hand on his shoulder, missing the way she'd worried after him, missing—well—her. Just her, all banter and fussing over him aside.
He ends up sprawled across the bathroom floor wrapped in a towel instead of in his bed, just in case his body decides on mutiny again. He can't concentrate and the ceiling's swirling above him and the floor's so cold and the night's so long and God damn him: he misses Donna.
But Toby's wrong. And Josh is going to get it together. And this won't keep happening. He repeats this to himself like he's memorizing Hebrew for his bar mitzvah again, until the words are humming through his brain. Josh believes it all, too, right before sleep comes crashing down over him.
Almost, that is.
When you work with someone every day—and sometimes it is really every day; sometimes it's Sunday afternoons, early Christmas morning, 2:15 AM on a Monday in June, not to mention everything and anything in between—you have to trust them. It doesn't matter if you like them, it doesn't matter if they shred your nerves. Doesn't matter if you've known them two weeks or ten years. If you trust you can tell them to do something and that it will be done, if you can ask their advice and not wonder if they mean it, if you can find yourself laughing with them at the end of an unbearable day...that's it. You'll be fine.
Josh used to hate Toby. The feeling, of course, had been mutual. In the early days, back on the campaign trail, Josh had overheard Toby complaining to C.J.: “Who is this Lyman kid, anyway?” Like Josh was twenty-fucking-years old or something. Like he hadn't breezed his way through Harvard and Yale and the bar; like he hadn't been working the Hill and cutting deals and bullying politicians since he actually was a kid. Josh had shoved his hands in his pockets and leaned against the other side of the doorway, jaw set, while Toby sniped that Josh was a used car salesman, a wheeler-dealer, that he looked and acted like a hotheaded teenager. C.J., to her credit, hadn't agreed. She didn't really know Josh yet, either, but she'd liked him right away, which didn't always happen with women (or anyone, really). When Toby had finally shut up, C.J. reminded him that Josh was beyond qualified—a supposed wunderkind, even—and that Leo had hand-picked him.
“Besides, Toby,” she'd said, “you don't have such a winning personality yourself.” Toby had scoffed and grumbled about that not being the point, but he'd let it go. Josh had slipped away back to his motel room before either of them noticed he was there.
It's hard to say now what changed. Of course, Josh's friendship with Toby isn't exactly easy, but somewhere between getting Josiah Bartlet into the Oval Office and then fighting non-stop to keep him there, they had figured out how to trust each other. Maybe it was all the late nights right before the first election, how they had to sit civilly together and hash out policy until dawn. Maybe it was the time Toby unexpectedly backed Josh in a tense meeting with then-Governor Bartlet (Toby had cut Bartlet off in the middle of bellowing at Josh about ad space in New Hampshire, had put a hand on Bartlet's arm and said, “You know, Governor, Josh has a point.”). Maybe it was that Toby actually had a sense of humor, buried under all that misanthropy. Maybe it was that Josh could get most people to take a shine to him eventually, if they could get past the layers of ego and his knack for shooting off his mouth. The point is: here they are now, several years down the road. They like each other most of the time. They trust each other always.
It was never that hard with Sam, obviously, or C.J., for that matter. There's never been any question with Leo.
But then: there's Donna.
“You're my assistant!” Josh shouts, leaning over his desk.
“So what?” Donna shouts back. Her voice is shriller than usual, her hair falling down out of a messy ponytail. Josh shoves past her, slams the door so hard it shakes.
“So, you know...assist me!” He's being too loud. He clenches his fists, flexes his fingers, takes a breath.
“I have told you a hundred thousand million times not to shout at me, Josh!” Now Donna's arms are crossed tightly across her chest. The color's rising in her cheeks and her eyes are red-rimmed, but Josh refuses to feel guilty. “I have also told you where the NEA budget report is. I have told you on three separate occasions—today alone—that it is in the green folder in your top desk drawer.” Oh.
Well, if she hadn't taken the snippy tone with him when he asked...if she'd just said that...
“This system doesn't work for me,” Josh says, lowering his voice. “I want you to hang on to these things until I ask for them from now on, or else we'll keep ending up, uh, here.”
“This isn't my fault, and you know it,” Donna snaps. “But I'm just your assistant, so I guess it's fine to humiliate me for no reason in front of everyone I work with.”
“Humiliate you?” Josh's voice pitches up a half-step. “Donna, I didn't—”
“Everyone out there can hear you,” she says, staring intently down at the floor. “They can hear how you speak to me, and I'll tell you something else, Josh. They feel sorry for me.”
It's like a physical blow.
“What?” he says, because there's honestly nothing else to say.
“I'm not incompetent. I'm not a child. And I'm not your g—” Donna stops herself. “What I'm trying to say is, you can't just scream at me like that. Not for real. Not for no reason.” Before Josh can say anything else, she's slipping out of his office, shutting the door behind her with a gentle click. He takes a shaky breath. All the air has been sucked out of the room along with Donna.
Josh moves back to his disaster zone of a desk, flops down in the chair, runs a hand over his face. There's the NEA report in the top drawer. Green folder. Donna's messy scrawl on a sticky note right on top: Told you.
He finds her at her desk, sorting through two neat piles of memos. Her hair's fixed, now, and her eyes aren't red.
“Donna,” he says. She doesn't look up. “Donna? Would you...please come back to my office for a second?”
“Why?” She slams one stack of paper down, never so much as turning in his direction.
“There's a...there's a thing.” Josh shifts uncomfortably. “Just come back here, please? Okay?”
“Okay,” Donna says, “but you have a meeting with Congressman Dwyer in fifteen minutes. And you've already missed the NEA briefing.”
“I'll reschedule the NEA,” Josh says. “I'll see them tonight instead.”
“Do you want me to call now?”
“No. Come on.”
This time, Josh closes the door softly, then goes to lean against his desk. He promises himself he isn't going to raise his voice.
Donna still won’t really look at him, is fighting to appear composed and coldly disinterested in Josh Lyman and whatever it is he wants. Josh can picture it: Donna combing her hair smoothly back into place, dabbing at her eyes, steeling herself against him. Maybe she’ll go home tonight and pull out the want ads. Call her mom and ask if she can come home, just until she figures out what to do next. Maybe tomorrow, there will be another Post-It on another file, only he won’t have her to tell him where to look. Josh can almost read the note now. I quit.
“Donna.” He tries her name again. Sometimes, if he uses just the right inflection, she’ll soften. If she would just stop frowning down at the ground, if she would just look him in the eye, she’d know what Josh was trying to say. She wouldn’t need to hear it.
But she won’t look, and Josh isn’t good at this—at apologizing, at feelings, at convincing women not to leave him. She will leave him, too; he's sure of that. Maybe not tomorrow, or the next day, or even the next, but yes, yes, she'll go, as certainly as Josh will try to stop her. She’s already outgrown him. If he were a better boss (a better man), he would have kicked her out the door himself a long time ago, flatly told her she was better than pushing his papers and tying his ties and refusing to bring him coffee and neatly honing his chaos into order, into usefulness, into greatness.
Josh was many things before Donna. Yeah, he’d been smart; yeah, he’d known his shit; yeah, he could get almost anything done. That was how Leo had initially sold Josh to the President: “Josh Lyman gets it done when nobody else can, sir.” Josh would sink his teeth into something and refuse to let go, would work himself and everyone around him ragged, would snap, would shout himself hoarse, would pace and pace and nearly climb out of his skin until the problem was solved. Until he’d gotten it right. Until he could deliver. He would lose weight and notes and sanity, would stumble through presentations, show up at meetings in the nick of time. He would skate by on luck and charm and the grace of his Ivy League education, flashing his dimples so nobody would guess he was floundering. He tried to prove that he could keep getting it done, single-handedly, so he would be indispensable, invaluable—so the Governor and Leo would never let him go. He kept taking on projects he knew he couldn't juggle. He wouldn’t delegate. He wouldn’t trust anyone.
Donna had not given him the option of trusting her. She hadn't earned it. Josh had not looked up one day and realized he could not do without her. Just like the way she’d basically hired herself, Donna has worked her way into his life, under his skin, without Josh noticing or minding or wanting her to stop. She doesn’t force him to eat, but there’s always food waiting. He wants a bottle of water: there it is. Where are his notes? Donna has them. When’s that meeting? Donna will know. He doesn’t have to focus on keeping his head above water anymore—she does that for him. And God, she’s smart, she knows everything, can rattle off trivia and poetry and (mostly) translate three languages, has absorbed more about politics in a handful of years than Josh had known when he graduated from Harvard. It's why he gives her more work than any assistant should have. It's why he keeps her late, why he tries to keep her busy and challenged, why he wants to teach her everything he legally can. She's not just good. She’s the best kept secret in the West Wing.
If Josh were a better man, he would tell Donna all of this. He would swallow around the hard lump in his throat and admit that he's not one hundred percent sure he'd still have this job without her. He would humble himself before her.
Instead, Josh reaches out a hand before he can stop himself, grips her upper arm, and chokes out, “Donna.” She looks up finally, wide-eyed. Reflexively, he squeezes her arm, runs a thumb along the seam of her sensible cardigan. Josh doesn’t want to care about the way her face shifts, almost imperceptibly. “You were right. I’m an idiot.”
“This isn’t news, Josh.” She's being careful now. “This isn’t the first time.”
“I know. I’m just…look, I’m sorry, okay?” He reluctantly lets go of her arm. “I’ll make it up to you.”
“You can make it up to me by using the intercom,” she mutters. Josh snorts.
“I’ve told you, Donnatella. I prefer the drama of the unfiltered human experience. Electronic barriers are for chumps.”
“Well, I prefer not to be shouted at!” Donna's starting to thaw. Josh can practically feel the temperature in the room rising. “Fine, then. If you’re not going to use the intercom, you can make it up to me by letting me humiliate you in front of the President.”
“The President?” Josh throws up his hands. “All I did was berate you a little in front of the underlings. You want to drag me over the coals while the leader of the free world watches?”
“Yes,” Donna says, hands on her hips. “He'd likely cheer me on. Oh, and another thing, Josh. The underlings and I are unsatisfied. We want raises. We want them yesterday.”
“How ‘bout I buy you lunch instead?” Josh is already halfway to the door. “We can talk about all the ways you’ll kick my ass in front of the President. Then, when we're through, you can tell everyone out there that you almost talked me into the raises I don’t have the power to give them.”
“And why will I tell them they’re still broke?” Donna wants to know. She hasn’t stopped looking at him yet; he can see her pretending not to smile. It warms Josh all the way through.
“Definitely tell them how lacking in power I am,” Josh says, nodding sadly. “Tell them I’m just muddling through and you’re pulling the strings. Tell them you’ll trick me into it eventually.” Donna’s smile emerges in full force, familiar and vibrant and enough to make Josh wish, for a split second, that he could be somebody else. Some guy in some bar, offering to buy her a drink. Some guy on the metro, holding the door for her. Some guy who could...
No. Not this. Not right now.
“It’s not much,” Donna says, “but I'll take it.” She marches past him out of his office, and Josh follows, just a pace behind her. He skips the meeting with Dwyer and buys Donnatella Moss the best sandwich in the mess, plus a brownie. Josh listens to her complain about the book she’s halfway through and worry about this stupid guy she’s seeing and laugh about something Margaret said earlier. He doesn’t check his pager for 45 minutes. When they go back to work, Donna’s still smiling, and Josh is, too. It doesn’t matter that he’s unbelievably behind, or that he’ll have to grovel to smooth things over with the Congressman. He feels light.
And hours later, when C.J. and Sam stop by to fill him in on the NEA briefing, Josh shouts: “DONNA! Where’s the NEA report?” He lets her take him to town in front of C.J. and Sam, lets her slap the report in front of him and call him utterly useless and worse than a small, needy child and unfit to run a village post office, much less the country (whatever that means). Instead of arguing, Josh just nods and focuses on turning red, stares at his hands until she slams the door of his office behind her. Sam whistles, low and nervous.
“Don’t ever screw up like that again, Josh,” he says. “Also, please remind me to do whatever it takes to stay in Donna’s good graces.”
“Wow,” C.J. says, and Josh hopes Donna’s listening at the door. “She’s really something, Joshua.”
“I know,” he agrees, biting back the stupid grin that’s threatening to spread across his face and give him away. If Josh were a better man, maybe he’d let it. “Isn’t she?”
It's Leo on the phone again.
“Still nothing,” Josh says instead of hello. His connecting flight doesn't board for ten more minutes, but it might as well be ten hours. He can hear his heart pounding dully in his ears. It reminds him of just after Rosslyn, waking up in the hospital surrounded by machines and people and grief. Josh had been able to see someone trying to talk to him, had heard the faint buzz of their voice, but for those first few blurry moments of consciousness, his heartbeat had washed everything else out. Back then, it had sounded like this: Thump. Thump. I'm alive? Thump. Thump. I'm. Alive.
Now, it sounded more like this: Thumpthumpthumpthump. Donna. Thumpthumpthumpthump. Donna Donna Donna.
“Josh? Are you there?” Leo's voice finally cuts through. “Josh?”
“Sorry,” Josh manages. “Just...you know.”
“Yeah,” Leo says. “Well, just keep us posted. We're all pulling for her. Let me know when you get to Germany, and if I somehow hear anything before you land...”
“Please call,” Josh says. “Put a message through to the cockpit if you have to. I don't care.”
A brief moment of silence, punctuated by Josh's heartbeat. He checks his watch. How can there still be six more minutes?
“Okay, kid,” Leo says. “I'll let you go, then.”
“Okay,” Josh says. “Thanks, Leo.”
“Uh, Josh—I...” Leo sighs. “Never mind. Safe flight.”
“No, what's up?” Josh asks, eyes still glued to his watch. Five more minutes.
“It's just...hold on a second.” Josh can hear Leo shifting the phone around. “Okay, I don't like saying this. I wish I didn't have to say this. I don't want to be your boss right now.” Josh's mouth goes dry. Fuck.
“Then don't say it, Leo. Please.” Four more minutes.
“I want you to remember that you are the White House Deputy Chief of Staff,” Leo says quietly. Josh imagines he's cupping the phone's mouthpiece with one hand, hoping Margaret won't overhear. “I want you to remember that Donna is your assistant. I want you to be very careful about this, and I want you to think about how this trip will look to anyone who doesn't know you.”
“How it will look?” Josh demands. His heart is racing even faster now. “Leo, I'm the one who...I have to go. You know I have to go.”
“You told me everyone would understand.”
“That's right, Josh. We understand.”
“I'm not sure you do!” Josh has been digging his nails into his palm without realizing it, and now he can't seem to stop. His knuckles are turning white. Thumpthumpthump, goes his heart. DonnaDonnaDonna. “It's Donna. I have to be there.”
“I would never try to stop you,” Leo says, his voice unexpectedly gentle. “I'm going to let this go for now, but I want you to think about something while you're on the plane.”
“Think about what?” One more minute.
“You don't drop a grand on an international flight to get to your assistant at a moment's notice,” Leo says. “Not even for someone as good as she is. Not even if you (stupidly, might I add) think this is somehow your fault.”
“Leo,” Josh croaks. His heart is getting louder, louder, the thrum of it rushing through his skull. He can't seem to catch his breath.
“You just don't do this.” Leo's voice is impossibly weary. “Not unless—”
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!” chirps the gate agent. “We're about to begin the boarding process.”
“I have to go.” Josh hangs up without waiting, jumps to his feet.
Much later, after the unbearable flight and waiting for Donna to wake up the first time and suffering through her new Irish boyfriend's smug face and silently praying his way through the surgery (not to mention navigating the bizarre covert ops mission Kate Harper had sent him on), Josh sits beside Donna's bed and tries to sleep. Well, close his eyes, really—just until the others are back. Good old Whatshisface had persuaded Mrs. Moss to let him take her to get something to eat in the hospital cafeteria, which even Josh had to concede wasn't an entirely stupid idea. It had taken reassurances from three doctors and one very patient nurse to convince Mrs. Moss that Donna would likely be unconscious for several hours yet, and that this was the best opportunity for a real meal before...well, before they would know anything, brain damage-wise.
“And if she does wake up,” Josh had said, “I'll have someone find you right away. I'll make sure Donna knows you're here.” Mrs. Moss had only been in Germany for seven and a half hours, but she had clearly been awake for several days; she'd been pale, shaky, unable to concentrate for longer than a few minutes. She'd asked questions over and over (like the answers would never sink in), waved off coffee, snacks, fresh clothes. She had refused to go to the hotel room Josh had booked for her, even to drop off her bag. If she hadn't eaten or stopped to catch her breath since Josh had called right after the accident, he wouldn't have been surprised. Josh grimaces now, thinking about Donna's mother's face. When he'd brought her into the room for the first time, she had just stared at Donna from the doorway, one hand on her mouth, the other clutching Josh's arm. He'd leaned into her grip, wouldn't let her fall, wouldn't let her even sway. It had been a solid five minutes before he could get her to a chair.
“I didn't think it would be like this,” Mrs. Moss had kept repeating in a very small voice. “God help me, I didn't think it would be like this."
Josh clenches his teeth, shakes himself a bit. This isn't helping, this obsessive play-by-play. It doesn't fix Donna. It doesn't fix a goddamn thing. He flips on the TV because anything has to be better than sitting here, listening to all the machines beep in time with Donna's ragged breathing. Anything has to be better than reliving the way she'd stared up at him from the operating table, that raw fear in her eyes, her hands trembling, holding up the notepad: Scared. Anything has to be better than wondering if Donna will even know who her mother is, who Josh is, who she is, when she wakes up. If she wakes up.
I can't do this without her. Josh has thought it before, too many times to count, but it's different now. This isn't work. This is everything.
He should have said it, in the OR. He should have made sure she knew that she was more.
Two separate men have now told him, in a handful of days, that you don't just fly to Germany for your assistant—the implication being, of course, that Josh's feelings (whatever they are) are both more transparent and more complicated than he wants to admit. Stupid Whatshisface had looked so pleased with himself, too. What had he said again? Tragically unconsummated love, kept at arm's length by puritanical American workplace ethics. Josh swallows, stares blankly at the TV.
She's always been more.
Does Donna think like this about Josh, too? Had she felt this helpless after Rosslyn? He knows, vaguely, that she had worried, especially after one of his bad nights, but had she been this...lost? Josh doesn't think so. She'd seemed so capable to him back then, so put together. Josh can't imagine her falling apart beside his hospital bed. He had never asked everyone how she'd taken it, him getting shot, because Donna had just been herself. All business, at the ready with a thousand lists, a chart for his meds, half of her things in his apartment so she wouldn't have to leave him alone, a plan to help him work from home, a set of rules to keep the rest of them from asking too much of him, a schedule that stopped him from losing his mind (mostly) on the days he thought he'd never be able to dress himself again, let alone advise the President. Donna hadn't been scared. She had just shown up for work like always: determined, ready to help Josh however he needed. Ready to get it done.
Josh finds himself looking at her, even though he's been trying not to. Mostly, it's because she'd hate it. Donna doesn't like to be gawked at when she's conscious, and definitely not when she's banged up and half-dead in a hospital bed. It's also maybe because seeing her like this makes Josh feel like he's going to drown, like his lungs are filling and he's sinking to the bottom, like the fear will never stop and the air will never come.
Donna's face is unchanged, slack and drained of all color. He immediately turns back to the TV. Tries to stop peeling his cuticles bloody. Wonders if this is the last way he'll ever see her, if he'll trudge through the rest of his life with the lack of her burned into his heart. His heart.
It's catching up to him again, that desperate pounding. It's crescendoing over everything else, until the beeping and the sound of his own breath and the news and the nurses laughing in the hallway are gone, and all that's left is thumpthumpthumpthump.
Donna. Donna with a pen twisted in her hair, frowning at him over a cup of coffee. “Tell me again about 149? I don't understand this rider.”
Thumpthumpthumpthump. Donna. Donna beaming down at his inscription in the book like she's going to carry those words with her wherever she goes.
ThumpthumpDonna. Donna in a little black dress Josh has been trying not to notice, calling back over one freckled shoulder that he's a slave driver and she's going on her date whether they get the vote or not. Donna in a little red dress that could end wars (or start them), telling him, “This is the guy, Josh.” Donna with her hair all curled, standing in the snow, wrapped in Josh's coat, and she's so fucking beautiful that he can't even bring himself to care that she almost made him fire her and they're going to a ball (going to eight of them, actually) and God, her smile.
DonnaDonnaDonna. Donna in his office, taking notes. Donna at her desk, typing. Donna rushing after him with the latest briefing memo. Donna yelling. Donna worrying. Donna learning how to tie bow ties and outsmart Republicans, two things she always reminds Josh she'd never planned on mastering. Donna listening to him explain: laws, earmarks, legislative agendas, polling data, vetoes, floor votes, everything. Donna never forgetting a single detail. Donna staying all night when he told her to go home at seven-thirty. Donna taking care of him after the shooting, staying with him when they both knew she should go. Donna back in his apartment after she took him to get stitched up one awful December night, tucking him into bed, brushing a hand over his forehead, whispering: “We're going to beat this, Josh.”
Donna's eyes are open.
Josh's heart stops.
He's on his feet and leaning over her before he knows what's happening, and she's really awake, really blinking up at him, really seeing him. She's here.
“Hey, you're awake,” Josh hears himself say. Everything feels very far away right now. “Your mom is here. Colin took her downstairs for some...I don't know, some schnitzel or something.”
“You're still here,” Donna whispers, but it's somehow louder, clearer, than anything Josh has ever heard. It drowns out the world.
“Yeah.” DonnaDonnaDonna. Donna, after surgery. Donna, who can go on as many dates as she wants and wear as many little dresses as she can steal, who can lecture Josh about the difference between diffusion and osmosis, who can snark at him early in the morning and file files and sing under her breath whenever she's bored and put off doing her dishes and break Josh's heart however she pleases. Donna, alive. Donna. “I'm still here.”
This is what he does after Donna quits:
Josh spends about five minutes panicking in his office. He stands with his back flat against the wall, hands fisted in his hair, and runs through his first set of insane strategies to convince her to come back. Promotion? Nope, she'd call him on his bullshit; ask where this had been three weeks ago, three months ago, three years ago. Pleading? It would just make her feel sorry for him. Yelling incoherently until she listens to him? That always turns out so well. Maybe the President would call her and insist that she take her job back—for the good of America, obviously. Genius.
Five minutes are up. Josh shakes his head as hard as he can, because no, this is not a dream, and yes, she's really gone, and yes, this is what he knew would happen, and no, she really isn't going to forgive him, and yes, yes, yes, she really quit with zero notice. He lost her.
Time to stop this, now. Time to stop fucking thinking so fucking much.
Josh isn't thinking when he gets on a plane and talks Matt Santos into a shot at the presidency. He isn't thinking when he drops everything to run the campaign. In fact, he decides to stop thinking all together, to let this thing consume him whole, to eat, sleep, breathe primaries and ad buys and the votes and coaching the candidate and molding him into an ideal, a man the American people will celebrate. Whole weeks of Josh's life flash by, the days bleeding into each other one by one. There's city after city, endless streams of people, endless numbers, endless nights. It makes it easy not to deal with Donna, to let her fade into the whirlwind of anxiety and fatigue that now passes for his life. And he doesn't mind that, either, because this is what he'd dreamed of for so many years, and this is what he wants, and this is what his life should be. Josh Lyman is no good at people, but he's good—he's amazing—at this. When he closes his eyes, he sees record voter turnout. He sees Matt Santos's name on a ballot. He sees the whole damn map lit up blue.
He doesn't see her. He doesn't need to anymore.
Months of campaigning and scraping up support and all the doubt and the close calls, and finally, they do it. They best Russell. They put Leo's name on the ticket. Josh loses ten pounds and probably ten years of his life, but they have the nomination and they're going to win. They have to win.
Donna asks for a job. Josh isn't thinking when he says no, or when he slips—if you think I don't miss you every day—because he doesn't want it to be true. He's just angry: angry that she left, angry that he wants her, angry that she was so good at working for Bingo Bob that it's now impossible for Josh to hire her back. Angry she didn't call months ago. Angry he couldn't bring himself to knock on her hotel room door. Angry, angry, angry, and definitely, absolutely, not goddamn thinking. He isn't thinking about the look on her face long after she leaves, isn't standing in his office at 1 AM wishing he could pick up the phone and tell her that he needs her here and the job is hers, because he doesn't do this anymore. He's getting Matt Santos elected President. That's what he does now.
Josh keeps going, keeps pushing, and he's only getting two or three hours a night, but he'll sleep when his candidate is in the Oval Office. He's not eating much, but there's not time for it anyway. He's screaming a lot more than he used to, but only because nobody seems to hear him if he doesn't. He's firing people, and it isn't bothering him the way it once might have. Nobody on the campaign likes him except the Congressman (who, okay, only likes him occasionally), but what does Josh care? He doesn't need to make any new friends. He needs this. The country needs this.
And then: Lou Thornton hires her. Donna's on TV, holding the campaign's megaphone, blasting Vinick on abortion, and Josh is so furious he has to literally count to ten, has to fucking hit something, because he can't—he can't not think with her around.
He gripes at Lou the first chance he gets; later, he gripes at Donna. Lou's right that Donna is too qualified to be able to cut loose, so Josh has to swallow it and move on. Has to keep moving on. Has to not care how different things are between them, one week, two weeks, three weeks later (she talks to him like he's just her colleague, now).
All at once, they pick up speed. San Andreo happens. The campaign blazes forward, and Josh puts out as many fires as he starts, can no longer remember what feeling rested is like, thinks of his time in the White House as a sort of distant, lovely dream—didn't he used to shave, like, every day? He had clean suits, then, too. He had friends, had structure, had a real office. Had his sanity, most of the time. Had Donna.
Now, the days are long and the nights blink past and the election looms nearer. There isn't time for the things he misses, but Josh gets restless. He's become an expert at not thinking, but every once in awhile (especially in those rare moments in bed), he surrenders for a few moments. He dwells. He wishes. Sometimes, it's just for space, for a minute to breathe; sometimes it's for the President's endless trivia; sometimes it's for C.J.'s affectionate scolding; sometimes it's for the smell of Toby's cigars. Sometimes, it's for Donna's steady voice in his ear. He can usually wrestle it all down and shoulder on through, but one miserably early morning, Josh is lonelier than usual. He's stuck on the latest data out of Ohio, listening to Donna work on spinning the dip in their numbers. She does it perfectly, and when her plan is all laid out and she's waiting for his go-ahead, Josh smiles at her over his breakfast and says he's glad she's here. It's a Wednesday. She's bleary and irritable, but instead of ignoring Josh or biting his head off, she pauses, studies him, cautiously replies: “Me, too.”
On a Thursday, Donna laughs at one of his jokes for the first time in what feels like a century. Something uncatches in Josh's chest. They get coffee at midnight on a Saturday. She worries after him a little, asks if he's eating enough, before she remembers to be pissed at him. On a Monday, he apologizes for not hiring her, the words tumbling out all at once in her hotel room, midway through her suggestions for the Congressman's next statement on education. Donna puts her hand on his and says thanks, and Josh wants to curl his fingers up into hers, wants to brush his thumb across her palm, wants to tell her that she was so very right to demand more—but instead, they awkwardly grin at each other, and she quips that he's gotten soft in his old age, and he mutters that he always has this effect on women, and then it's back to the statement, but also, in so many ways, back to normal. And Donna isn't the way she used to be, isn't anticipating his every need, isn't there to yell for because she's too busy wrangling the press, but Josh finds he doesn't even want that. He just wants her to look at him again. He wants her to be his friend, to fall back into that easy banter. He especially wants her to keep kicking ass at her job, because seeing her command everyone's attention the way she's always commanded his...it's weirdly beautiful to watch.
On a Friday, he wakes from one whole uninterrupted hour of sleep to incessant pounding on his door and muffled shouting in the hallway. He stumbles out of bed, throws on yesterday's shirt over his boxers, not entirely sure he isn't sleepwalking. Donna rushes past him into the room, babbling that states-by-states are out, they've pulled ahead, national tracking polls have been released, and they're tied. Tied nationally.
Josh could cry. Josh could kiss her.
So, he does.
He's wanted to kiss her before, more times than he can count on all ten fingers. He's always chalked it up to excitement, the heat of the moment (or tequila). Hell, he usually wants to kiss anyone within arm's reach after a victory; he's laid one on C.J. before, and even once caught Sam on the lips while going for his cheek. When Josh is awake, when he's focusing, he's always stopped himself before aiming for Donna's mouth, reminded himself that he's her boss, that the way he sometimes fantasizes about her isn't okay, that he has to be smarter and stronger and better than his libido.
But not this time. This time, he's got his hands on her face, has pulled her to him in a rush, has his mouth on hers before it occurs to him that this is spectacularly inappropriate. He pulls back, fully intending to pass it off, to apologize—just the exhilaration, totally innocent—but then they're staring at each other, and she's not his assistant anymore; this won't destroy her career. He doesn't have to pretend...
Also: she had been kissing him back.
It's true, Josh realizes, that he hasn't been wanting things the way they used to be. All he's been wanting, maybe since forever, is Donna.
He kisses her again like he's coming up for air, kisses her like he's been trying not to for almost a decade. He kisses her like he can't stop himself, like he has to memorize the taste of her, the shape of her, before she disappears.
The rest—the Congressman bursting in, Josh's lame apology, Donna leaving her room key on the table, Josh not getting to it in time—all flies past, like he's watching a movie of someone else's life. He's been trying not to think for nearly a year now. He's been trying to get his guy into the White House. He's been trying to forget Donna, sure he had lost her for real, for good, only to get her back, and to get her back in a way he had never quite believed could happen. Josh hasn't been thinking, and now he's gone and made-out with Donna Moss while he was basically still asleep (and also basically in his underwear), and she had, impossibly, not seemed to hate it. In fact, Donna seems to know what all of this means, which is more than Josh can say. He's afraid to find out. He's afraid it might break him in half.
He hasn't been thinking. He repeats that to himself so that he doesn't end up at Donna's door and make things worse, repeats it again and again until the night before the election, repeats it through half a glass of $200 scotch as his coworkers couple off and leave him there alone. With her.
He's struggling to breathe evenly, struggling to keep up. Donna's saying no to every question Josh asks, staring at him openly in a way he thinks she usually tries to hide. And then—in the time it takes him to blink—she's sitting next to him, and her legs are a thousand miles long, and he can't stop wanting her, can't stop imagining peeling off her sweater, sliding his hand up under her skirt, and fuck, even though she isn't touching him, isn't even looking at him, Josh can feel every inch of her.
“Do you want another drink?” he asks.
“No,” Donna says. He meets her gaze. These days, he usually can't figure out what she expects from him, can never begin to guess what she's thinking. Tonight, though...tonight, she's not screwing around. Tonight, he knows exactly what she wants. Before Josh can think to panic, Donna is up off the sofa and purposefully striding out of the hotel bar. Josh is stupid sometimes, but he's not this stupid. He can't be, not again.
He downs the last of his scotch and wonders how he got here. It's because he hasn't been thinking these past few months, isn't it?
Well. He's sure as hell thinking now.
They don't talk on the elevator. They don't need to.
Josh stands beside her, close enough that his fingertips brush hers, close enough that he can smell her perfume. They watch the numbers light up together. On the second floor, Donna traces one finger along the side of his hand. On the fourth floor, Josh presses the entire length of his arm against hers. On the sixth floor, Donna is running her thumb along the inside of his wrist.
They get to their floor (seven) and are in the hallway almost as soon as the doors ding open.
“Do you—?” Josh nods in the direction of his room, unable to make himself say the words. He already has his key out, anyway. Donna whips it out of his hand instead of answering, takes one steadying breath, and in less than five seconds, she's tugging him inside. Josh has her by the waist before the door slams shut. He backs her up against the wall, and Donna's arms are around his neck, her fingers in his hair.
He groans when he kisses her this time, mumbles against her mouth: “You're fucking incredible.” She laughs, pulls him in closer, and he's got his hands under sweater, slips it over her head; he's kissing her face, her jaw, her shoulder, has his tongue along her collarbone, his teeth against her neck. She gasps, grabs him by the collar, fumbles with his tie and the buttons of his shirt. He's already halfway unzipped her skirt.
“Been wanting to do this since the second I saw you,” Josh grinds out. Donna's skirt is off, now, and she's working Josh out of his shirt one arm at a time. “Been wanting you for—”
“Talk later,” she says, reaching back to unhook her bra. Josh draws away, just for a moment, just to take her in without the usual guilty lurch in his chest. Every adjective that springs to mind is a cliché, and she's so much more than that. She's beyond his vocabulary.
He kisses her again, hands everywhere, lets her walk him backwards to the bed, lets her strip off his undershirt and undo his belt, and then she's kicking off her shoes and crawling on top of him, and she tastes like scotch and cinnamon, and he thinks the hotel could explode, the Congressman could drop out of the race tomorrow morning, the Republicans could take over the entire world, whatever—Josh wouldn't be able to let go of Donna long enough to care.
He rolls them both so that she's on her back, and then he tends to the business of getting rid of her pantyhose. He rips them instantly. Donna laughs again and wriggles her way out of them; Josh crumples them into a pathetic ball, lobs them across the room.
“Won't be needing those,” he says, settling down on top of her and nuzzling against her neck. He mouths his way down to her breasts, her stomach, her panties. “Won't be needing these either.” She rolls her hips up and he slides them off for her.
“Come back up here,” Donna murmurs, and what can he do but oblige? She tugs meaningfully at his pants, and Josh scrambles out of them without needing to be asked twice. Donna runs her fingers up along his bare chest, his neck, across his face, into his hair. She rests her forehead against his, and then she's reaching down, slipping one hand deftly underneath the waistband of his boxers.
“Mmph.” He presses in closer. Could he ever be close enough? “Oh my G—shit. You're gonna kill me.”
“What a shame,” she says. Josh's boxers are totally off now. “And just when you were about to hit your sexual peak!”
“Well, in that case,” Josh says, drawing one of her insanely long legs up over his hip, “I won't go gentle into that good night.”
Donna's hands feel so soft, and for the first time in a very long while, Josh is awake. He's not engulfed by the election or strategy or Matt Santos or polls or politics. He isn't trying to control himself. He isn't trying to be anywhere else but here, tangled up in Donna.
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” Donna whispers, twisting against him. He reaches for her, kisses her until he can't breathe, pulls her on top of him, strokes down her side, her hip, lower, lower, until she moans into his ear: “Josh.”
There's not much time for thinking, after that.
Chapter 2: Donna
Warning: This chapter contains brief mentions of an abusive relationship. It is hinted at in the first section and described in more detail in the third section.
"So I watched the world tear us apart:
a stoic mind and a bleeding heart.
You never see my bleeding heart.
And your light's always shining on,
and I've been traveling oh so long,
I've been traveling oh so long."
–"Reminder" by Mumford and Sons
Donna takes another sip of coffee and waits for Josh to start yelling.
They're lost again—somewhere upstate, among soybean fields and cows and rolling hills. It's all gotten very provincial. She's only known her boss six months, but Donna has already locked in on the ebb and flow of his moods and the pattern to all of his tics and the way the cogs in that very weird, very complicated mind of his grind together. Josh Lyman is the kind of guy who will cry over spilled milk but who wouldn't blink if you asked him to find a way to get it back into the carton. He's all about the big picture.
Which means that any second now, he's going to notice that they've passed the same paint-splattered barn for the third time in half an hour, and then he's going to see that the sun's almost down, and then he's going to realize they've been in this car for nearly three hours without a bathroom break, and then he's going to—
"I know where we are. I swear."
"No, you do not—oh, for fuck's sake. We're not ever going to make it to this damned hotel, are we?"
"What you don't know about me is that I have excellent driving karma," Donna says, setting down her thermos. "I always find the best parking spots. You can ask anyone."
"You have...driving karma." Josh inhales sharply. "I can't believe it's all going to end on some backcountry road next to a grown woman who believes in driving karma—"
"The energy you put into the universe comes back to you, Josh," Donna says, turning past an unsettlingly familiar farm. "Also, you're not going to die, you big baby."
"I won't even get to see Governor Bartlet win the election," Josh says, his head in his hands. "In fact, who's to say he will win, what with me being, you know, dead and stuff?"
"Josh, you are not—"
"All this beauty and ambition and youth, forever lost to the world. Wasted." Josh looks up at her, hair practically standing on end. He's doing that thing with the raised brows where his eyes go all wide and serious, but then he's fighting back a grin, and God, Donna needs to be concentrating on the road, not on her boss's dimples.
"You're supposed to be navigating," she reminds him, squinting at an upcoming sign. "This was your idea."
"Well," Josh says, lolling back in his seat, "I was tired of the bus."
"Yes, Josh. Everyone is excruciatingly aware that you were tired of the bus."
"This is the way to see America!" Josh protests, tapping the dashboard meaningfully. "Could anything be more patriotic, Donna? Just me, my assistant, the open road, and a little freedom."
"It will be slightly less patriotic if we miss the Governor's rally tomorrow morning." Donna finishes the rest of her coffee and flips on the headlights. The sun has officially set. "This is why Leo didn't want us to rent a car."
"Well, it was either this or..." Josh throws his hands in the air. "I dunno, I think Mandy was going to put me out of misery. Violently." Donna smirks.
"I think Toby would have thrown a party."
"Hell, I think Toby would have helped." Josh shifts, checks his pager for the thousandth time in an hour. "Do you think we're missing anything?"
"I think that we're missing bad food and warm beer and everybody yelling at each other about the speech."
"Exactly nothing," Donna agrees. "Once we find civilization, we'll get some bad food of our own."
Josh smiles at her again. He doesn't seem nearly as anxious about this as Donna had thought he would be.
"I'd rather have dinner with you, anyway," he says. "You're much smarter than Sam or Toby. Prettier, too."
"I'm sure your girlfriend would be thrilled to hear that," Donna says. Is she blushing? Why is she blushing?
"Ex-girlfriend, as it should happen," Josh says. "As of two days ago." Donna slams her foot on the brakes, nearly jerking through a stop sign.
"Yeah," he says. "Why'd you really think I wanted off that bus?"
"Oh. Uh." Donna swallows and pulls into the intersection carefully, grateful to finally see a stoplight and florescent signs blinking up ahead. She's not going to look at Josh again, not until she can string a coherent thought together. "You did keep complaining about the seats."
"Mandy is just..." Josh gestures expansively. "She's so much, you know? All the time."
"She's her own person," Donna agrees, scanning around for a restaurant.
"Which is fine. Great, even," Josh says.
"I don't know. I just was getting tired of every single conversation turning into the verbal equivalent of a street fight." Josh cranes his neck. "Hey, I think that's a diner? Right there, off to the left?"
They whip into the parking lot. The restaurant is a typical small town favorite, filled with sweet-faced waitresses, green vinyl, grumpy old white men in flannel, and laminated menus. Donna might as well be back in Wisconsin. She had vaguely expected Josh to sneer at a place like this, but he seems perfectly content when they're ushered into a booth near the window.
"I haven't been to a real diner since law school," he says, surveying his menu happily. "This is gonna be way better than hotel food."
"Are you kidding me?"
"How are you not freaking out right now?" Donna demands, rushing to lower her voice. "We don't even really know where we are! You're probably not going to be able to go over the final draft with Toby until tomorrow. We could be miles and miles off track! We could have to stop for the night in a cornfield or something. Or, worse still, we might really miss the rally altogether."
"You'll get us there," Josh says, not even glancing up. "They have fried oysters! They have gravy fries and gyros and garbage plates and malted milkshakes, Donnatella." Donna blinks.
"Is this about Mandy?"
"Why does it have to be about Mandy?"
"I have never seen you this relaxed in the entire time I've known you. I have never seen you get excited about a milkshake—"
"A malted milkshake, Donna! The best in all of New York state, according to the menu."
"I got us lost!"
It hangs there between them for a moment. Josh peers at her over the top of his menu, and Donna suddenly feels very young and stupid and small. It is, after all, her fault that they had gotten off at the wrong exit, and then her fault again when they went in the wrong direction for nearly sixty miles. Her fault that they'd been circling nowhere little towns for the better part of the day. Her fault that they aren't already there with the others, settling in for the night. Donna's just been so tired lately, ever since she came back. Ever since she broke-up with Carl. She hasn't slept a full night in...she can't even remember the last time. Maybe it was in Denver? Or San Clemente? Somewhere west.
She hasn't been too hungry, either. She hasn't been able to focus long enough to read a book all the way through in months, which used to be the only thing that she would look forward to after a long day. She hasn't wanted to do much of anything but work, and she especially hasn't wanted Josh to notice something is off with her. He had been good enough to take her back without even one jab at her taste in men (or lack thereof), had been understanding—sweet, even—about her bad ankle, and thus far, has trusted her with everything he needs. She hasn't let him down. Until today, that is.
If she could just concentrate...if she could just keep her mind on work—work, not Carl. Work. She feels pathetic enough as it is. She has to be better, has to be sharper, or Josh will stop remembering how good she is at note cards and start remembering that she's the flighty college dropout who went crawling back to a guy at a moment's notice, went from everything Josh had tried to give her to waiting tables again, all because Carl sent some dumb flowers and called her crying at two in the morning and said I need you, Donna; I can't do this without you and I want to be with you forever and I'll do anything if you come home and I'll be so different this time.
Of course he wasn't different. Of course he didn't really love her. Of course he was just scared and lonely and didn't know how to get through med school without her rent and moral support. Of course he'd stopped for a beer when his girlfriend called him, terrified, from the hospital. Of course, while Donna was leaving, he'd yelled at her that her boss didn't miss her and would show her the door the second she came back. You're giving up on me—on us—because I didn't rush straight to your bedside? You were fine, Donna! It was just a sprain. What do you fucking mean you deserve better? This is so like you. You think you're so special? You're a girl from Madison with a high school diploma who tricked some Washington hotshot into giving you a job. I'll tell you what else: you didn't get that job because he thought you were smart or qualified. If you want to know how you got it, take a look in the goddamn mirror. He just wanted to get in your pants the first time around. You think he's gonna be stupid enough to fall for it again? You're a waitress, Donna. You're not a political operative. You're nobody.
Of course, Carl had just been an asshole. Of course he hadn't known anything about Josh or the campaign. Of course Donna knows that he was just angry and still drunk when she was throwing all of her shit back into her car. Of course, he was wrong, and probably wouldn't even remember half of what he'd said. Of course.
"Donna? Seriously, now I am going to freak out. Are you okay?" Josh waves a hand in front of her, and Donna snaps back to reality. Reality: she is sitting in a crappy diner with her boss, not getting screamed at again by Carl. Reality: she got them hopelessly lost. Reality: she needs to keep it the hell together.
"I'm sorry." Donna shakes her head. "God, I'm sorry. I'm fine. Were we ordering? What are you getting?"
"You just zoned out," Josh says. "You look—I mean, we should really get you some food." He glances around for a waitress until he catches the eye and attention of a smiley redhead. Her name is Ellen, according to the tag pinned to her apron.
"What can I get you, honey?" Ellen asks Josh, pen at the ready.
"It's gotta be the tuna melt," he says. "Macaroni and coleslaw for the sides. Could I please also have a vat of coffee and the largest chocolate malted milkshake you've got?"
"Sure thing. And for you, sweetheart?" The waitress is smiling at Donna expectantly now, like Donna has had time to look at a menu while she's been publicly unraveling.
"Just water for me," Donna says. Josh's eyebrows nearly disappear into his hairline.
"Uh, no," he says, snatching her menu away from her. "She will not have just water. She will have...let's see, you like a good steak sandwich, right, Donna? Yeah, of course you do. And you like fries. So she'll have the steak sandwich with pepperjack cheese, light on the onions, and the fries extra crispy. She wants a chocolate shake, too, in the worst sort of way. This is a milkshake emergency, okay?"
"Josh!" Donna wants to melt underneath the table.
"She'll thank me later," Josh says, winking up at Ellen.
"He's a keeper," Ellen tells Donna, beaming down at them. "I'll put those orders in for you kids right away."
"See? I'm a keeper," Josh announces the second they're alone again. "Everyone says."
"I can't believe you know what my favorite sandwich is," Donna says, staring down at the table. She can't look at Josh right now. She's pretty sure her expression would say it all.
"You gotta know these things about your employees." Josh unwraps his silverware. "I have to keep you around somehow."
Very, very soon, Donna is going to completely break down in the middle of nowhere in front of her boss, a chirpy waitress, and a restaurant full of registered Republicans. She's losing her goddamn mind.
"Hey, Donna? I really am worried about you." Josh leans across the table, lays a hand on her arm. "I mean, I know I'm not the most laid-back kind of guy. I know I get...impatient. Loud. I'm not that easy to work with most of the time. But I don't want you to be scared of me. God, that's the last thing I want."
"What? I'm not scared of you."
"It just seems like you think that because we got lost—"
"Because I got us lost."
"Okay, sure, because you're a human being and you made a couple wrong turns—"
"We almost ended up back in Pennsylvania, Josh."
"All right, so it was kinda worse than that. But not by much." Josh runs a thumb reassuringly over her wrist. "It happens, is what I'm trying to say. You think I could have done any better? You know I can't read maps."
"Hence why you're a horrible navigator," Donna agrees, staring down at his hand. It's a nice hand, she thinks. A bit rougher than she'd expected. Where does he get so many calluses from?
"Exactly hence," Josh says. "But Donna, you do read maps, really well in fact, and you've never gotten turned around like this before. It was just a bad day. Did you think I was going to fire you?"
It's happening. It's happening, and she can't stop it.
"No," Donna says, but her voice is cracking right down the middle, and then she's crying for the first time since she left a drunken Carl in his townhouse's driveway, shouting incoherently after her car.
"Oh no," Josh mutters.
"I...I'm..." Donna hiccups and helplessly mops at her eyes with her napkin. "I'm just really..." Before she can finish, Josh is slipping into her side of the booth, he's got his arm around her, and she's burying her face into his shoulder. God, she's not this person. She's not a crier, and she especially never cries on people, and she fucking especially never cries on Josh. He's her boss. This is so inappropriate. If he wasn't going to fire her before, he definitely is now.
"So, here's what I think," Josh says quietly, his mouth nearly against her ear. "I think that you haven't gotten enough sleep lately. I think that you really need to eat some dinner. Also, I think that I'm going to drive us the rest of the way to the hotel."
"No, no," Donna says, jerking back from him. "No, you really don't need—this is my job, Josh. I'm going to do it. Honestly, I'm fine."
"Well, I'm sort of the one in charge here, and I say you're not fine," Josh says, leaning in some more. "Usually, people who are fine don't start sobbing over ordering dinner."
"I...I'm so sorry. This is just completely unprofessional, and I promise you, I'll never let it happen again—"
"Donna!" Josh is frowning, studying her with the kind of intensity he usually reserves for the campaign map. "Dammit, you're allowed to cry! You're allowed to make mistakes. I don't need or want you to be infallible. So...cut it out, you know?"
"What do you mean?" Donna asks, hiding her face in the napkin again.
"You told me once that I might find you valuable," Josh says. Donna can feel his breath against her neck, can smell old coffee and clean laundry and something spicy. She's never been so close to him before. Josh squeezes her shoulders, and then reaches across the table for his napkin. He presses it into her hand. "You can stop trying to convince me, Donna. I'm not going anywhere without you."
"I didn't get my degree. I quit with no notice back in March. I have no political experience." Donna draws a long breath. "And then I got you lost."
"You got me to bed before 4 AM last night. You pointed out that we weren't reaching fringe populations in Illinois, which made Leo and me reconsider how we approach minority voters. You replaced all of my blue markers before I even knew I was running out. You organized, like, five hundred pages worth of data into a manageable report in two hours and twenty minutes. You remembered Senator Harding's wife's name at the fundraiser and made me look charming and thoughtful enough that they wrote us a $15,000 check. You talked some kid's ear off in Boulder, convinced him the Governor was committed to relieving student loan debt, personally assured him that you'd help make it a priority, rattled off eight kinds of statistics I couldn't have come up with in the middle of a crowded bar, and wouldn't leave him alone until he promised you that we had his vote. You did all of this, Donna, without being asked. You did all of this, and somehow also found the time to learn to tie a Windsor knot." Ellen the waitress shows up with their milkshakes and Josh's vat of coffee. She does a good job of ignoring the fact that Donna's crying, shooting her a knowing look over the top of Josh's head.
"Food'll be right out," Ellen says, and then bustles off again.
"Anyway, Donnatella Moss," Josh says, after taking a sip of his shake, "I'd have to be pretty clueless not to find you valuable after all that. Wouldn't you say?"
Donna looks up at Josh, who takes his arm away from her shoulders and suddenly won't meet her eye. He's staring at the tall glass in front of him, worrying his straw. If Donna didn't know better, she'd say he was embarrassed; his ears are going red, and he seems more fidgety than usual.
She feels like she's only really seeing Josh now, as though he's come sharply into focus. He's been crazy and intense and left her breathless with his easy intelligence, which seems to either bolster or threaten to overwhelm him, depending on the day. He's been endearing, funny, annoying, and perpetually late. He's been loud and infuriating. He's been sort of quietly kind: hiring Donna when she gave him every reason not to, being so gracious when she quit ("Hey, I get it. If he's the guy, he's the guy. Life's short, you know?"), always convincing Leo that Donna has to come along to each new stop on the trail (even though funds are tight), buying her dinners whenever he needs her to stay up late with him, never treating her like she's somehow just his assistant (even though of course she is).
But he's never been like this. He's never been her friend.
They've both been toeing that awkward professional line, neither one of them quite willing to step over it. Donna is, after all, Josh's employee. She's even salaried, now; her hotel bills and meals are no longer coming directly out of her pathetic savings. The campaign covers all that. Even when she was working for nothing, Josh had always been very careful around her. He'd tease her and he'd whine at her and he'd laugh at her, but he'd never ask her anything personal. He knows about Carl ("Dr. Freeride"). He's seen her SAT scores and her college transcripts. He knows she was a waitress and that she mostly grew-up in Wisconsin. That's about it, though. Donna knows even less about Josh, apart from the fact that his father was a lawyer, and had passed away unexpectedly after a pulmonary embolism. Donna can still see Josh's face when she'd had to tell him—how quickly his expression melted from joy to shock, how he'd waved away her offer to drive him to the airport. She had wanted to hug him or something, but he'd been rushing to tell Leo, call a cab, throw his stuff in a bag. There hadn't been time, and they were still mostly strangers back then.
Donna knows that Josh is from Connecticut, since she had booked his ticket home that awful night. She also knows that he went to a couple of Ivy League schools, though he'd mentioned this offhandedly when she asked about his background, and he hadn't said where. He's got a law degree, though he never practiced, and had jumped straight into politics.
It seems strange to Donna that she's worked with Josh for half a year and she doesn't even know if he has brothers or sisters, doesn't know what his first job out of college was. She doesn't know if he likes to read or what kind of music he listens to or if he ever goes to temple. She doesn't know what he's going to do if they lose the election. She hadn't even known he and Mandy had finally broken-up, and Donna was riding on the same bus with them the day it happened.
Josh's arm brushes against Donna's as he reaches for the other milkshake. Her heart leaps to her throat and dammit, this is why. This is why there's a line. This is also maybe a tiny bit why, when she left Carl for the last time, she didn't think of going back to her parents' or to stay with her best friend Amanda for a few days. Donna had wanted to feel useful again, wanted to bury herself in work, wanted to prove to Carl and herself that she was capable and smart and could make it in politics—but then, there was also Josh. Josh, yelling about states-by-states and voting districts and getting out their message. Josh, trying to teach her about ad buys and how to figure out where they were going to go dark. Josh, pulling at his ridiculous hair. Josh, with that stupid dimply smile that always sends Donna's train of thought flying wildly off the rails. Josh, who she stares at when she's sure he's not paying attention, when he's swamped in numbers and policies, when he's arguing with Mandy, when he's scaring the interns, when he's falling asleep on the bus next to her with his head against the window and his shoulder slumped against hers. Josh, who is her boss.
"You should drink your shake," Josh says, nudging her. "It's melting."
"Thank you," Donna blurts out, pulling the glass towards her. She's relieved to find that the tears have finally stopped. "Thank you for saying all of that just now, Josh. I just…that means quite a lot to me."
"Well, it's all true," Josh says gruffly, shrugging one shoulder. "I wouldn't say it if it weren't."
"I know," Donna says. The milkshake is really good—not too sweet, just the right amount of whipped cream. She'd believe it's the best in the state.
"Are you really okay?" Josh still isn't meeting her eye, but the concern in his voice is palpable.
"Yeah, of course," Donna says. "You were right. I haven't been sleeping well. I've been worrying a lot."
"Is it about that guy? The doctor?"
"Sort of," Donna admits. "But he isn't important anymore. This is what's important. I'm just trying to make sure I do my best so that you don't ever have a reason to regret hiring me back."
"I'll never regret that," Josh says, just a touch too quickly. He takes a long sip of his coffee.
"Not even if we miss that speech tomorrow?"
"We won't miss it," Josh says, turning to give her his full attention.
"But if we did?"
"There will be plenty of other speeches, Donna," he says. His eyes are warm and his ears are still a tiny bit red, just at the tips. Josh takes a breath, seems to be about to say something else, but then their food arrives. Donna tells him to go back to his own side of the booth, and then she's so hungry and so excited about her sandwich that she doesn't think about the way he was looking at her again until much later.
Instead, she steals some of his macaroni, and finally asks him about his family. His parents were married for almost 45 years. His mom is struggling somewhat on her own, but she has good friends to look in on her. There had been an older sister, but she passed away many years ago (Josh doesn't say how or when). Josh grew up in Westport but never felt like he quite fit in. He went to Harvard, where he fit in even less, and then on to Yale, which felt a little more like home. He's easily bored by most novels, but inhales memoirs and political biographies (of course he does). He likes Jewish food and Jewish holidays, but he only goes to temple when his mother's around to guilt him.
After his second enormous cup of coffee and a piece of cherry pie, Josh asks Donna about her family, laughs at funny stories about her older brothers, wants to know what it was like to grow up in the Midwest, what her favorite of her many majors at UW-Madison was (drama, actually, although she tells him it was polisci). They talk for two and a half hours, until the restaurant is about to close. Josh gets another cup of coffee to go, wrestles the keys away from Donna, and then insists she try to get some rest. Donna flatly refuses. She pulls all the maps Josh had crumpled up off the floor of the backseat, and then manages to figure out that they're only half an hour outside of a town called Canandaigua, which is where their hotel is supposed to be.
They get there at just after 10, Josh rattling off his predictions for how Governor Bartlet's education plan will go over in Ontario County. Donna listens and jots down notes, her feet on the dash. After they park, Donna wrangles the bags while Josh checks them in, and then, when they head off to their rooms, he drops her key in her hand and says, "See, I knew you'd get us here!"
Donna hugs him for the first time without thinking about whether she should. Josh wraps one arm around her with his usual awkward gracelessness, but then she lets her head rest on his shoulder, and he tilts his chin just so, pulls her in tight. Donna lets go sooner than she wants to, and then, before she can change her mind, she says good night and hurries into her room. She leans against the heavy door in the dark for just a moment, eyes closed, trying to catch her breath, trying to pretend that she's just lonely, trying to pretend that she hadn't seriously been thinking about kissing her boss thirty seconds ago. He was just being nice. You work for him. You can't want him, not that way. You can't do this. This has to be about your career. This can't be about Josh.
Donna pushes away from the door and gets ready for bed. When she brushes her teeth, she thinks about the notes she'll need to have ready for the speech tomorrow. When she scrubs her face nearly raw, she thinks about the dress she'll have to try to de-wrinkle in time for the fundraiser tomorrow night. When she crawls under the scratchy sheets, she reminds herself to check why they're spending so much time in an area that almost 100% votes red, at least according to the report Josh had made her read back in Scranton.
When she's asleep, she dreams. She doesn't jolt awake in the middle of the night, sweaty and anxious, Carl's voice ringing in her ears, his whiskey breath hot on her face. She doesn't have to lie there for hours, staring at the ceiling until her wake-up call. Donna sleeps soundly, right until the phone rings at six. She feels rested and alert and more clear-headed than she has in weeks. Months. A year?
When she gets up to make coffee, she thinks about Josh. When she stumbles into the shower, she thinks about Josh. When she pulls on her favorite skirt, she thinks about Josh. Donna thinks about Josh until she sees him in the lobby, rumpled and sleepy and frowning, staring down at a copy of the speech. He's shaking his head. He runs one hand over his face and shouts something to Leo, his voice jumping higher than she's ever heard it go. Then he's ranting, and Leo is trying to talk him down, and Donna knows she should go over and make Josh take a breath, and then fix his tie for him and tell him it's going to be fine—Toby and Sam know what they're doing.
She waits, just for a minute, watching this crazy man wave his arms around and knock over his cup of coffee, listening to him insisting that Toby needs to learn there's more to New York than the city and there's no reason to bring up Manhattan and city taxes when they're in corn country, watching the way he shrugs off his suit jacket (now stained), still yelling all the while.
When Donna gets there, she calms Josh down in about five minutes, convinces Toby to tweak the language about New York City, tells Josh to get himself a new cup of coffee while Donna finds him a fresh jacket, hustles him out the door and into the car in enough time to follow the bus to the ampitheatre the Governor is speaking at, laughs as Josh tries to get their rental car to pick up any station but country, laughs even harder when he gives up and starts singing along with a heavy twang, watches the sun streaming in through the cracked windshield. It turns Josh's hair coppery.
When they pull up in the parking lot and Josh jumps out of the car, yelling that he has one last change to make and that he needs Donna just as soon as she parks, Donna knows. She knows when she finds him ten minutes later and helps him organize his thoughts to present to Toby, who looks like he's going to explode when they beg him to tack on one more point. She knows when she watches Josh watch Governor Bartlet bring a crowd of conservative farmers and blue-collar workers to their feet. She knows when they start chanting Bartlet! Bartlet! Bartlet! and Josh whoops, spins, pumps both of his arms above his head. She knows when Josh catches her around the waist and swings her up into the air, hollering about victory and 29 electoral votes and something else about corn.
Josh grabs her by the elbow, yelling that she has to come out on to the stage with everyone else to join the applause. As Donna lets him drag her forward into the rush of sunshine and the cheering crowd, she knows (beyond doubt, beyond reason, beyond hope, beyond professionalism, beyond everything): she is in very big trouble.
She hadn't meant to stay.
It's just that Donna's tired, really, and she's been hauling boxes from the office over to Josh's apartment all day, and then she'd been trying to make sure he didn't throw himself into work right away, and then she'd decided to organize his medicine cabinet so that he won't get confused in the middle of the night and take a handful of something he shouldn't, and then Josh had just looked vaguely pathetic when she had talked about heading out, and she still can't get the image of him covered in blood out of her head, and how can Donna possibly be thinking about leaving him alone—really alone—for the first time since the shooting?
She's not just staying because of that, though. It's also that his mom had needed to finally get back home. She's a sweet woman, a well-meaning, smart, strong, and absolutely loving woman, but the shooting had stolen something from her. It had been clear to Donna, right from those first few days at the hospital, that Ruth Lyman was not going to be able to handle seeing her little boy like this for long. Josh's mother needs him healthy, cracking jokes, yelling at congressmen. She needs him lying about going to temple and grinning down at her boyishly and doing her taxes. After Joanie, after Josh's father—maybe Ruth can't handle another loss, even a near miss. At any rate, she had flown to Washington the second Leo had confirmed Josh was one of the shooting victims, and planted herself at Josh's bedside. Ruth had let Donna hold her hand through all of his follow-up procedures and the bad nights, the ones where Josh's breath came in bursts like gunshots, where he'd mumble incoherently about popcorn and Schubert, staring past them glassy-eyed as he swam in and out of consciousness.
When he was awake at long last, when he was complaining about being an invalid and begging to take meetings from his hospital bed, when he was whining for one of his extra extra extra well-done burgers, Ruth had firmly lectured Josh about taking better care of himself. She had unfolded herself from the quavering, mute woman Donna had met a week previously into the fast-talking, no nonsense meddler Josh had always described her to be. Ruth had practically poured matzo ball soup and Vitamin C down Josh's throat, and told her son that under no circumstances would he be eating anything fried while she was alive to watch him do it. Ruth had scoured his apartment, with Donna's help, and then had cooked and frozen enough food to keep Josh fed for a year. She'd spent three nights on a cot next to his bed at home, just in case Josh needed something in the middle of the night. And then, finally, Ruth had wilted, bought a plane ticket, and asked Donna to please look after her son. Ruth had seemed so humiliated, so exhausted, and Donna hadn't known how to ease any of that. She'd seen the way Ruth had stared at Josh while he was sleeping: like he was a ghost. Like he was already lost to her forever. Like her world was crumbling to ash again, for the third time in as many decades.
Donna had promised Ruth. She'd looked Josh's mother in the eye in the departure lane at National and said that she would see to it that Josh was taken care of. Ruth had been crying so hard, but she had barely made a sound. Donna hadn't known what to do except hug the poor woman and whisper that Josh was going to be all right, that he was so strong, so resilient. He was already doing so much better than anyone had believed possible.
"He needs someone," Ruth had hiccuped. "He needs someone so badly, Donna, and he doesn't want anyone to know. I wish that I..."
"He's got me," Donna had whispered.
Ruth had looked at her for a very long time, still stretched over from the passenger seat, her hands on Donna's shoulders. It had taken a TSA agent rapping on the car window to break the moment, and then Ruth had kissed Donna's cheek and murmured her thanks and goodbyes.
Donna takes a breath now, trying to shift into a more comfortable position on the cot next to Josh's bed. It's weird. It's weird, but it's necessary, at least for tonight. Maybe she could help him figure out an arrangement of some kind with a live-in nurse? Someone who would know what to do if anything went truly wrong in the middle of the night. Someone who could save his life. Someone...well, someone not Donna.
She's wearing an old Mets shirt of Josh's and a pair of his boxers, which is also weird, but right now, they seem to be beyond the bounds of professionalism. He'd insisted, anyway, telling her to take anything she wanted from his dresser, whatever she needed to be comfortable.
"It's really nice of you to stay," he'd told her after the decision had been made. "But you can go home! I'll be, you know. Fine."
"Just for tonight, since it's so late," Donna had said. "You'd be doing me a favor. I hate taking the metro after nine."
"I'd call you a cab."
"I hate taking cabs after nine."
There'd been a long pause, Josh staring intently at the ceiling, Donna staring intently at Josh, and then he'd finally muttered, "Thanks."
And that had been that.
Josh falls asleep a lot these days, sometimes nodding off in the middle of a conversation. It's a combination of the heavy pain meds and sheer exhaustion. Even the simplest tasks make him break a sweat; he can shuffle around with more of a swagger than he could at the hospital, but not without some assistance, and not without basically collapsing whenever he gets where he's going. Tonight, he had dozed off on the couch during the movie Donna had put on to distract him from the pain—he'd been complaining about the ache in his lungs all night. It had taken almost half an hour to get him into bed. Thankfully (for Josh's pride, at least), he'd been too medicated to protest, had leaned on her heavily and let her pull his Yale sweatshirt over his head and tuck him under a soft knitted blanket like he was about five years old.
Donna presses her face into her pillow and listens to Josh's labored breathing. Will it ever go away, this sharp, consuming, gnawing worry? Is she ever going to be able to be around Josh again without wanting to cling to him, to keep him near her, to keep him safe and alive and in one piece? Donna hasn't been able to sleep or think since Rosslyn. All she's wanted is to keep doing things: tangible, important things, things that will help Josh recover, things that will make her useful. She has to be useful, because she wasn't there.
She wasn't there when Josh was bleeding alone on the sidewalk, a bullet lodged somewhere in his chest. She wasn't there to hold his head or scream for help or dive in front of the damn thing herself. She wasn't there to tell him not to be afraid, when he surely thought he was going to die. She wasn't there to tell him—
Well. Maybe it's a good thing she hadn't been there, in the end.
"Donna!" Josh's voice is so loud it nearly sends Donna toppling on to the floor. He sounds unnaturally strained, even for him.
"Josh? Josh, are you okay?" Donna sits, panic bubbling steadily up from the pit of her stomach. Oh, God. Please, no.
She launches herself off of the cot and kneels down next to him, tentatively reaching for his arm. His skin feels damp and clammy; his t-shirt is nearly soaked through.
"Josh? What is it? I can call 911, I can get you...I don't know, but I'll get it, whatever you need, whatever you want. Tell me what's wrong."
"Donna," Josh moans, and it's only now that she realizes he's not conscious. He's trembling under her touch, his breath more uneven than before. His eyes are screwed tightly shut.
"Josh," Donna murmurs, leaning in close to his ear, "it's a dream. Josh, I'm right here. It's me, Donna. I'm here. I'm here. You're okay. I'm here."
"No." Josh thrashes, gasping, his voice breaking. "God, no. No no no no no—"
"Josh! Wake up!"
"I didn't mean to, didn't mean...no no no no no—"
"You're dreaming. I'm here, Josh. Wake up!"
Josh's eyes flicker open at last, but he still can't see Donna. He can't see anything.
"There's too much smoke," Josh says. Donna strokes his cheek—a reflex, almost—and Josh is crying, his eyes shiny and wild in the dark. He turns his face into her palm, and then he grabs her wrist so hard it almost hurts, covering her hand with his own. Donna's breath hitches.
"There's no smoke," she says, running her thumb along the line of his jaw.
"No sirens, Josh. It's so quiet, can't you hear? There's just the clock in the living room and the air conditioning. There's just me, right here, talking to you. It's Donna, Josh. You're at home, you're in bed. You're safe."
"No no no no—"
There's nothing else left. Donna gently pulls her hand away from his face, bites her lip, and slips into bed behind him. It's weird and it's wrong and she shouldn't, but she has to. She has to. His voice is so—he's so—he—
He needs someone.
"Josh," she whispers, wrapping an arm around him underneath the covers. He's still shaking. "Josh, are you here? You've just been dreaming. It's all been a very bad dream, but you're going to be okay now. I'm right here. Do you feel me next to you? I'm here."
"Donna?" Josh asks, voice barely more than a rasp. "Are you...what...?"
"You're okay," Donna says again, tightening her grip on his arm. "Just go to sleep. You have to sleep."
"Don't leave me," he chokes out. "God, Donna. Don't leave me." She knows that Josh is still half-asleep, terrified, high on Tramadol and Norco. She has to remember that, whatever happens next.
"I'll never leave you," she tells him, shifting even closer.
Suddenly, Josh is turning to face her—painfully twisting underneath her arm, and then he's reaching for her blindly, tangling his fingers in her hair, drawing Donna in until her forehead brushes his.
Her heart races and she should pull back, should be scrambling away from him and out of his bed. This is wrong, wrong, wrong. He doesn't know it's you. He doesn't even know he's awake. He thinks he's nine years old again in a burning house. He thinks he's getting shot on the steps at Rosslyn. He's not Josh, and if he were Josh, he would never have let you get in bed with him. He would never want this.
"Donna," Josh says yet again, sliding his hand down the back of her neck. Donna closes her eyes and tries to focus on inhaling, exhaling. Wrong, wrong, wrong. "I shouldn't be at this meeting."
"You're not at a meeting. You're at home. You're in bed."
"Donna, I have to tell you."
"You can tell me in the morning."
He's pulling her in even further, until she's got her chin in the crook of his neck. His hand trails down to her shoulder, then across her back.
"Is it really you?" Josh asks. His tears are dripping into her hair, and Donna is drowning in them.
"It's really me."
"And you're here."
"So are you."
"That's good," Josh mumbles, his arm slackening around her. "You're good." He takes a long, shuddering breath. Donna pulls away a little to check on him. His eyes are drooping shut, and then, mercifully, he's asleep again.
Donna traces her fingers across Josh's forehead, blinking furiously against tears of her own. He's alive, he's alive, he's alive.
He's alive. He's going to go back to work in two or three weeks. He's going to get better. He's alive.
He's alive. He's going to shout at her again from his office. He's going to order her around and fall asleep at his desk. He's alive.
He's alive. Donna didn't lose him. He's here, he's warm, he's got a pulse. He smells like bar soap and sweat and Josh. He's alive.
Donna should get back to her cot. Donna should know better.
Instead, she rests against her boss, close enough to feel the steady rise and fall of his chest. She wraps her arm more firmly around him, just in case he needs her again. It doesn't matter that she's stupidly, unavoidably in love with him, and it doesn't matter that he can't know, and it doesn't matter that Donna spends most of her time trying to keep these inconvenient feelings safely filed away. It doesn't even matter what this might look like to anyone else. This isn't about Donna or her heart. It isn't about HR violations or lines that shouldn't be crossed.
This is too important for that.
Donna will stay here for a few more hours, just to be sure Josh sleeps through the night, just to be sure he's all right, and then she'll sneak away before he wakes up. He doesn't ever have to know. This never happened. Donna falls asleep with her head on Josh's pillow and a plan.
She wakes up with the sun in her eyes and Josh staring at her.
For a second, Donna just squints at him. She's still halfway on his pillow, but she isn't touching him anymore, thank God. Josh looks scruffy and confused, his hair matted down on one side, his forehead wrinkled. Donna wants to reach over and smooth her hand against his stubbly cheek again, just one more time. Instead, she jerks backwards to the other side of the bed, taking half of the blankets with her.
"So," Josh says.
"I didn't mean to fall asleep here." Donna knows she must sound ridiculous. She's still waking up, still trying to process the situation."I'm sorry. I know that this is awkward."
"Freudian, even," Josh agrees. She's never seen him look quite so uncomfortable before. "Why...?"
"You were upset," Donna says quietly, dropping her gaze down to Josh's comforter and the knitted blanket. It looks handmade. There's a loose stitch right near the border, and she picks at it, trying to twist it back into place.
"Upset," Josh repeats. His voice has more gravel to it than usual, like he's smoked half a pack of Marlbolo Reds or something."Upset how?"
"It's not important," Donna says, but Josh grabs her hand, gripping it so hard that she has to look up at him again.
"What did I do?" Josh asks, his jaw clenched, his eyes dark and wide. Donna can see every worry line creased into his face, every shadow. Sometimes, she forgets he's nearly 40. He always seems so young.
"You were just crying out in your sleep," Donna says. "It was the medicine, you know? You didn't know where you were. I tried to wake you up, but even then...you thought..." Josh's hand is nearly crushing hers now.
"You thought you were somewhere else," she says, studying his expression. It's stony, unreadable. "You were very scared. I just lay down next to you to try to...um, calm you down. I hugged you and told you where you were, and then you fell asleep again. That's all it was, Josh."
"I'm sorry about that," Josh says. He finally lets go of Donna and scrubs his hand over his face, through his hair. "Fuck."
"There's nothing to be sorry about."
"This isn't in your job description, Donna," he says, shifting back against his headboard. "You didn't sign on for...this. It's a little above your paygrade."
"I'm not here as your employee, Josh," Donna snaps. The annoyance in her voice even startles her. "I'm here as your friend, all right? You're not just a paycheck to me. Do you honestly think I would do this for anyone I work for? Do you think I would be in Leo's bed? Toby's? Sam's?"
"You're my friend and I care about you and I'm here to help you," Donna says, wrapping the blanket around her and sitting up. "It can be as easy and uncomplicated as that, Josh. This is only strange if we make it strange. Now, I'm going to have some coffee, and you're going to have some tea, and then we're going to watch bad TV until you annoy me into letting you go through the fair trade bill. And you're going to keep your pager off until at least noon."
Josh is smiling at her now, his eyes soft.
"Okay," he says. "But why do I get stuck with tea?"
"Absolutely no caffeine. You know what the doctor said."
"You're a cruel woman."
"I've been told."
Donna finds Josh's Yale sweatshirt on the floor and pulls it on, then heads to the bathroom to brush her teeth.
"Hey, Donna?" Josh's voice stops her at the door. Donna turns, and he's propped up against his pillows, still grinning at her the way he sometimes does when he's drunk or tired or trying to get her to bring him a donut. It's her favorite of all Josh's smiles. It's usually just for her. "Thanks. I'm pretty lucky to know you."
Donna smiles back at him, leaning against the door. When she looks at Josh, who's disheveled and sleepy and in need of a shave and so wonderfully imperfectly alive, Donna sees him handing her his badge in the Manchester office. She sees Josh in New Hampshire on election night after the win, how he'd just beamed at her through the balloons and confetti and champagne, how he'd hugged her and whispered, "You're gonna work at the White House, Donnatella Moss," how he'd guided her to the dance floor and spun her into the dizzy mass of people, and then pulled her back to him again. She sees Josh waking up in the hospital the first time the doctors let her in to his room, the way he'd looked up at her and said her name and asked if she, Donna (who had not just been shot and had open heart surgery), was okay.
"I'm the lucky one," Donna says, and means it.
Donna's sure the knocking will go away if she keeps ignoring it hard enough.
She's been in bed pretty much since Josh told her to do absolutely nothing, in that hard, frantic voice. Donna had walked out of his office and gone home without saying another word to anyone, all the while trying not to panic or throw-up (or both). Somehow, she'd made it to the metro, and then to her stop, and then to her apartment. As soon as she was inside, Donna had taken her landline off the hook, turned off her cell phone and her pager, climbed under her covers (still fully clothed), and tried to forget how badly she'd just fucked everything up.
It had been an awful idea to have a diary in the first place. A worse idea to write in it freely without bothering to censor any of her feelings. A worse idea still to leave it in plain sight on her nightstand, where anyone could see. Where Cliff had seen.
And then she'd lied about it. The question ("Do you keep a diary?") had caught her off guard, and so she'd answered too quickly: no. She writes a lot of things, but nothing about the President, nothing about the administration. The committee wouldn't find anything in there to support a case against President Bartlet. All they'd get would be a novel's worth of reasons to have Donna fired, to smear Josh's name across the papers, to pull even more focus from the campaign. Everyone would know. Probably everyone would think that Josh had slept with her, or had at least encouraged her feelings to his own advantage. She knows what it looks like, the way people whisper behind their backs. Her friends have always defended her, but how could they continue to if they ever read all the things she'd written about him? Donna would have to leave Washington, leave politics, leave Josh (who would probably be too disgusted to talk to her again, anyway). All of this because Donna had needed an outlet—something, anything—and she'd always loved writing. All of this because she'd distracted herself with Cliff Calley. All of this because of a man. Again.
The knocking isn't stopping. Whoever it is has gotten into the building without using the buzzer.
A terrible thought occurs to her: what if Cliff had gone to the police? Is that something he could do? Donna had lied under oath, after all, and she'd been rude and uncooperative when he confronted her. Cliff had seemed nice about it, too. Why hadn't she listened to him? God, had she forced his hand? Is she going to jail? Will it look like she's been resisting arrest because she let the cops pound on her door for ten minutes?
Donna bolts out of bed. When she throws the front door open, it's not the police. It's not Cliff.
It's Josh, who heaves a sigh of relief as soon as he sees her.
"Are you okay?" he demands, pushing past her and into the apartment. "I was getting worried."
"No, I'm not okay!" Donna says, her voice far too high. "I thought you were the police." Josh shakes his head, balling his hands in the pockets of his jacket.
"I've been trying to call you for over an hour," he says. "Didn't I tell you? Didn't I say—do absolutely nothing?"
"I thought that's what I was doing!" Donna protests, trying to steady herself against the counter. "I didn't know if I should stay at the office, and I wasn't thinking—"
"That's obvious." Josh's voice rises dangerously. "Dammit, Donna. Why did you lie to them?"
"Why are you here?" Donna's trying not to sink to the ground. She's trying not to look at him. This might be one of the worst moments of her life—not worse than that time with Carl, with the glass and the screaming, but it's right up there.
"Are you going to listen to me this time? Are you going to do whatever I say?"
"Do you promise?"
"Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure? Because if you do something this stupid again, I don't know what the hell I'm gonna do!"
"I know you're sorry; I don't care about sorry! I care about why you lied and I care about whether or not you've imagined, for one second, what the repercussions of that lie could be, and I care about how I'm ever going to be able to trust you not to do something like this ever again. So you need to convince me, Donna. You need to pull out all the fucking stops!"
"Would you please stop yelling at me?"
"Look at me, goddammit! This is your career we're talking about. This is your life! If this goes wrong, if this doesn't play how I'm praying it will, then one day, the police will be at your door, and I won't be able to protect you from that, do you understand? I'll have to watch! I'll have to—hey. Hey, Donna? Donna, take a breath. Donna?"
She's on the ground, her back against the kitchen island, and it's setting in: the raw panic, the hyperventilation, the tingling numbness creeping up from her fingertips to her elbows. It always starts like this.
Josh's face is suddenly right in front of her, and his hand is on her arm, and he's saying something to her, but she can't follow. She tries to speak, tries to tell him that she's fine, that this will pass, but the air has been wrung out of her lungs, and all of her words are gone with it.
Josh is grabbing her hands, turning them over, and then saying something—something about trying to count to ten. One two three. He squeezes her hands. Four five six. He's pushing her hair out of her face. Seven eight nine. He's talking again, his voice so much gentler. Ten.
She counts to ten with him five more times, until she gets her wind back, until she can shakily accept a glass of water.
"Do you have pills I can get you?" Josh asks. Donna shakes her head. "Does this happen a lot?" Donna shrugs. "For how long?"
"Since I was nineteen," Donna manages to whisper. She focuses on her water, and then takes a long sip.
"I'm so sorry," Josh says, sitting down next to her again. "I didn't know, Donna. I didn't mean to trigger anything. This is just serious."
"I know. You don't need to apologize."
"Sure I do. I didn't mean to come over here and shout at you, anyway." Josh bumps his shoulder against hers. "I came here to tell you I have a plan, a pretty good one. At least, I hope it is."
"Better than your secret plan to fight inflation?"
"Wouldn't anything be?" Josh smirks at her, and Donna starts to feel a little more grounded in reality.
"What kind of plan?" she asks, eyeing him warily.
"A plan to get you out of this," Josh says, nodding like he has to reassure himself, too. "To get us out of this. Cliff Calley seems like a decent guy. It was dangerous for him to talk to you in the first place. I think he's going to work with us."
"What do I have to do?"
"I already called him and told him I was going to let him read your diary and decide for himself if anything's material," Josh says. "We're going to meet him in an hour."
Donna stares at Josh, struggles to keep breathing normally.
"The whole thing?" she asks.
"Yeah, the whole thing." Josh frowns at her. "I promise I'm not going to yell again, but are you sure there's nothing about the President in there? You didn't, I dunno, overhear or see something you didn't tell me about?"
"I never write about the President," Donna says, taking another sip of water. "How can you be sure he won't give it to the committee?"
"It doesn't work like that. What he agreed to is illegal—just taking the meeting could get him disbarred or worse. Besides, I was hoping that you might have some collateral."
"What do you mean?"
"I thought maybe you wrote about him. About your...dates." Josh looks away. "Is he in there?"
"Yeah," Donna finally says. "Two entries."
"Good," Josh says flatly. "I'll take those, so we'll be the only ones who have them. That should be enough."
"Fine." Donna sets down the glass, careful not to let it slip. She imagines the pieces of it splintering, jaggedly, across her palm.
"Can I read it first?" Josh is drumming the floor with his fingers now, his hand hovering near Donna's.
"The stuff about Cliff?"
"The whole diary. I want to understand what we're dealing with before he does."
"No. You can't." Donna gets to her feet.
"You have to believe me, Josh. There's nothing in there about the administration or the President. It's all...personal. I need it to stay that way."
"I'm sorry, I'm not trying to be that guy, but what the hell for?" Josh is on his feet now, too, tilting his head at her. "It's just me, Donna. I'm not going to, you know, judge you or something."
"You can't read it." She turns, bracing herself on the counter again. "Please don't ask me again."
"Okay," Josh says.
"You've convinced me. But why weren't you just honest about it at the deposition? I know it's embarrassing, the idea of strangers going through your innermost thoughts, but if you weren't protecting the President...wouldn't it have been better to just let them have it? They couldn't use anything they found in it that's not directly linked to the investigation. Would it really be so bad?"
Donna pauses, considering. In some ways, it would be so much easier to just tell him, if only so he'd let it go, so he'd never ask her again. She could fudge it, sort of...she could tell Josh that she'd had a crush on him a few years ago and had written about it, that she had been embarrassed and worried it might get either or both of them in trouble. Would Josh buy that, though? Would he tease her about it, or get awkward, or call her stupid again?
Or worse, would he do something about it that they'd both be obligated to regret?
"Would it really be so bad?" Josh repeats. He leans against the counter beside her. "I just don't understand what could make you—"
"It could be bad for you," Donna says at last, shutting her eyes.
"Dammit, Josh. I, um. I wrote about that time, at your apartment after the shooting. When I had to sleep in your bed? I was so worried when I wrote it; I said a lot of things about you and how much I care about you and how I was so glad you were out of the hospital. I talked about how, um, distressed you seemed? Maybe that's bad, too. I also mentioned the incident last Christmas, in a later entry—I didn't even remember that until just now. But Josh, the point is I wrote that I slept in your bed, wearing your clothes, and even though both of us know that it was nothing, that it was completely platonic, I thought other people might...I mean, you know what everyone says about us, you have to know. If I've heard it, you've heard it. I thought there might be backlash, some trashy headlines about the Deputy Chief of Staff and his assistant, something that could hurt your career, or possibly interfere with the campaign, make it look like the President's senior counsel is...is..."
Donna falters, trying to find the right words, the right way. Josh's jaw is the definition of dropped. In any other situation, Donna wouldn't be able to leave him alone about it. "You know what I'm trying to say. Josh, I know it was stupid to write about. I see that now. This has been...well, humiliating is the right word, I guess. All of this. I just want it to be over. So, if you can let this piece of it go...and I know that's asking a lot...but if you please can let this go, I think I'll be able to look you in the eye again someday. Of course, I'll do whatever you say. Cliff can read it. You can keep the pages about him. When this is all over, I'll run it through the shredder or something."
"You were concerned about my career?" Josh is staring at Donna like she's completely lost her mind.
"Of course," she says. "I know it was dumb."
"It wasn't dumb, Donna," Josh says softly. "It was...I don't know what to say. I had no idea you would ever...that you were so worried that night."
"Of course I was worried!" Donna smiles, hoping he accepts it, hoping he doesn't keep pressing the issue. "It was a scary time."
"Yeah. It was."
Josh is standing too close to her. She can feel his arm against hers, knows that if she looked up at him right now, they'd be nearly nose to nose.
"Should I go get it?" Donna asks. She leaves before he can respond. When she retrieves the stupid thing and brings it back to the kitchen, Josh has moved to the table, has his head propped in his hands and his knee jiggling furiously. He starts when she sets the diary in front of him.
"All right," he says, picking it up as though it might catch on fire. "This is the only one?"
"I'm not Virginia Woolf," she mutters, and Josh snorts.
"Yeah, yeah. Where's Calley?"
"October 4th and 5th." Donna sits down next to Josh and holds out her hand. "Do you want me to...?"
"Tear 'em out," he says, passing it back to her. Donna finds the pages quickly—they're almost at the end—and does as she's asked.
"You can read them if you want," she says, sliding them over to Josh. "There's nothing explicit."
He opens his mouth but seems to think better of it, exhaling roughly instead. Josh picks up the entries (five pages in all), and Donna watches him read about the first meeting—how cute and funny Cliff was even when Donna had been so late, but how she couldn't see him again—and then, how she'd slept with Cliff, how guilty she'd felt about it, how she wondered if Josh would be angry, how Cliff had been kind and sweeter than the last guy, but that it would never change the fact that he was a Republican who was investigating the White House. Josh would hate what she was doing, Donna knew that, and she knew it had been a mistake to get together with Cliff again; she wouldn't see him a third time. She'd just been lonely and it had been so long since anyone was really genuine with her. There'd been an allure there, too. It was forbidden. Things are always more tempting when you know you can't have them.
Josh finishes reading, a muscle working in his jaw, and then he folds the pages up and puts them in the inner pocket of his jacket, along with the diary.
"Let's go." He stalks out of her apartment without waiting for Donna to put on her coat.
Later, sitting silently on a bench beside Josh, Donna stares out across the park and wonders what Cliff's reading about right now. He has to be past Josh's PTSD diagnosis. Truth be told, all of the entries have blurred together in Donna's mind into one convoluted mass. She rarely rereads what she's written. The point is to put all of her feelings and confusion into something external and tangible, something she can throw at a wall or shove under her pillow. Something she can destroy, if necessary.
She writes about so many of the same things. Honestly, it's probably boring Cliff to tears at this point. Josh did this. Josh said that. What am I doing? Will this ever end? Why him? Why him? Why him?
Donna closes her eyes and tries to focus on counting to ten again.
Josh in his office late at night, tie off, shirt unbuttoned, looking at me over a stack of paperwork. Not saying anything. Not laughing. Not flirting, even. Just running his eyes over my face, my hair, my legs. Always when I'm working, always when he thinks I won't notice. But I do. I can't not.
Two, three, four.
Maybe in five more years. If we can both stand it. If Josh feels even a tenth of what I do. If it's more than just unresolved sexual tension. If I can't cut the unbearable want of him out of my heart. If I can't just let him go the way I absolutely have to. Maybe in five years, I can tell him.
Five, six, seven.
He's arrogant and pigheaded and impossible. He never asks about my weekend. He talks too much, always cuts people off, never gives anyone else a chance to get a word in. He can be funny one minute and cuttingly derisive the next, like someone pulls a lever in that stupid Fullbright brain and his humanity gets temporarily shut off. He always has to be right, will bully you into admitting you were wrong just so that he can gloat and jeer. He always forgets a clean shirt and has to send me out to get one for him. He doesn't read any of the books I lend him. He never uses the goddamn intercom. He can't be bothered to say please when he shouts for his files or his backpack or my notes.
And what infuriates me the most is this: when he grins at me or does one lovely thing or starts ranting about idealism and honor, none of that matters to me at all.
Josh talks to me like I'm his equal. He argues with me like he really wants to change my mind. If he apologizes, he actually means it. He went to two of the finest universities in the country and today he told me that I'm smarter than half the people he graduated with.
It shouldn't ache this way.
The flowers are beautiful and Josh is an idiot. Sometimes, I want to be honest about Carl. More honest than I was today, when I finally told Josh about the car accident. I want Josh to understand, fully, what it was like for me before I left: Carl, drowning in booze, shouting at me until the early hours of the morning because I'd traded my night shift for a day shift. Carl, stressed beyond reason by his residency, throwing things in the middle of the night. Carl, who only hit me once, but made it really count. Carl, soaked in vodka, telling me to get out of his house after the diner laid me off. Carl, who could be so sweet and funny and gentle, who would sing to me and bring me used books and make chocolate chip pancakes. Carl, who would do all of those things sober, and call me terrible names after his sixth drink. Carl, who I somehow loved for five years and three months. Carl, who stopped for a beer with the guys on his way to the hospital. Carl, who told me I was nobody when I said I deserved better. Carl, who smashed a tumbler of Jack Daniels on the kitchen wall while I covered my face and screamed until my voice broke. I picked shards of glass out of my hair for nearly an hour afterwards while whiskey dried on my scalp, on my neck, on my favorite blouse. I took the hottest shower of my life that night and still wasn't clean enough. The blouse went in the trash. Then, I packed my things for the last time, told Carl to go fuck himself, and got in the car. Carl kept yelling, but I wasn't listening anymore.
It isn't that Josh gave me the strength to leave for good. I know I did that all myself. But if he could just understand how far I've come and the life I've made for myself here, Josh would never doubt that this job, this work, is the best thing that's ever happened to me. He'd give me flowers in February.
If Josh knew about all of that—really knew—I don't know what he would do with it. I'm not sure I want to find out. He might stop thinking I could carry the world for him. He might stop thinking I could carry anything at all.
"Hey." Josh taps Donna's knee. "Looks like he's done."
Donna's eyes fly open, and sure enough, Cliff is on his way back to them, the diary in his hand. A wave of nausea crashes over her.
"It's gonna be fine," Josh tells her again. Donna nods and starts counting to ten, one more time.
"Hi," Cliff says. He's right beside the bench now. Josh stands abruptly, moving in front of Donna as though he's throwing himself in the path of a guided missile.
"So?" Josh demands.
"There's nothing in this that's relevant," Cliff says. He leans around Josh's shoulder, raising his eyebrows pointedly. "Donna. Can I talk to you in private for just a minute?"
"Absolutely not," Josh says before Donna can even think to respond. "Whatever you have to say to her can be said in front of me."
"You're not her lawyer, Josh," Cliff says. "I also think I've been more than generous here. This isn't about the investigation. It's personal."
"Personal." Josh's laugh sounds more like a growl than anything. "Right." Donna stands up, too, lays a hand on his forearm.
"It's all right," Donna says. Josh looks at her, brow furrowed, but finally shrugs.
"It's up to you. Just remember that you don't have to tell him anything you don't want to, okay?"
"For Christ's sake," Cliff mutters. Josh glares at him, and then turns back to Donna.
"I'll go get us some coffee from that place across the street. Be back in five minutes." He walks away even faster than usual, head ducked low. Donna wishes she could follow him.
"Well," Cliff says. Donna grinds her nails into her palm and forces herself to look him directly in the eye.
Cliff smiles at Donna in a sad sort of way, his eyes locked on to hers, and then hands her back her diary.
"I understand why you didn't want this to be subpoenaed," he says.
"I'm glad you do."
"Donna." Cliff takes a step closer to her, lowering his voice. "I want you to know that I will never discuss what I read tonight with anyone. This will never appear in a tabloid. This will never be used against Josh for political gain. It will not fuel the Beltway gossip mill."
"Thank you." Donna closes her eyes again, just for a moment.
"I also want you to know that while the situation you're in is delicate, you can make a relationship with him work. Five years is an awfully long time to wait. There are ways around—"
"Please." Donna holds up a hand, shakes her head. "Please, can you not...? This is hard enough."
"Okay." He bends forward to hug her, and Donna lets him.
"You've been very kind, Cliff. I don't want you to think I don't appreciate the risk you took tonight."
"I'm so sorry about all of this. For everything." He plants a quick kiss on her cheek before stepping back. "Tell Josh not to worry, all right? Go home and get some rest. The hard part is almost over."
Donna watches Cliff Calley disappear into the night, and then sits back down to keep waiting for her boss. She can't help but wonder if the easy part will ever come.
It's nearly 1:30 AM, but C.J. uncorks another bottle of wine anyway.
"He was such a handsome man, you know?" C.J. says, splashing more chardonnay into Donna's half-full glass. "In that very classic, very precise way. That smile."
"It was a stunner," Donna agrees.
"He knew it, too. He used to flash it at me and pour on the charm anytime he had to break bad news or try to convince me to be less than truthful with the press. Like I was a woman so easily swayed!"
"Much to my dismay," C.J. says with a sigh. "I never let him think he was winning me over for a second, though."
Donna giggles, snuggling more comfortably under the soft throw on C.J.'s couch. She's in her favorite grungy sweatpants and her gigantic, faded Packers t-shirt. She can sleep past 5 AM tomorrow. She's lounging in a cozy apartment instead of another generic, fluorescent motel room. After everything—the campaign, and the election, and Josh, and Leo's death—it feels good to be able to sit with an old friend and drink a little too much. It feels good to remember Leo, to reflect on what a beautiful, complex man he had been, to celebrate him. The grief has been so unrelenting these past few days. To finally be able to think of Leo's smile, to be able to laugh with C.J. about his churlishness and his snappy suits and how old school handsome he was...it's more comforting than any funeral or wake.
"Thank you so much for letting me stay here," Donna says, taking a big sip of wine. "I've really missed this."
"God, me too." C.J. stretches languidly, sticking her feet under the blanket next to Donna's. "I mean, Danny was disappointed, but this—" C.J. claps a hand over her mouth. "Oh, shit."
"What do you mean Danny was disappointed?" Donna kicks at her lightly, and C.J. yelps. "Don't tell me—"
"Too much damn wine," C.J. says, setting her glass down so hard it almost topples over. "I'm trusted with state secrets; you'd think I could keep my big mouth shut about Danny Concannon and his erstwhile plan to seduce me."
"Oh my God!" Donna squeals, unable to help herself. Hey, she's had a little wine, too. "C.J.! When did this happen?"
"I'm not entirely sure. I suppose it's been in the works for seven years and it's just, you know, about time I stopped finding excuses not to enjoy it." C.J. smiles almost shyly down at her hands, twisting the bracelet around her wrist.
"That's wonderful. Beyond wonderful. I'm so happy for you two," Donna says. "Why didn't you just tell me you had plans tonight? I could have made other arrangements!"
"It would have been awkward to explain right then. I'd had slightly less booze." C.J. reaches for her wine again and drains the rest of the glass. "This is why they don't let me drink in the Sit Room."
"C.J., really. Danny must hate me."
"He'll survive," C.J. mutters, snorting. "And besides, was I supposed to just leave you out on the street? Where would you have gone?"
"Well." Donna bites her lip. She honestly hadn't been planning on bringing this up with anyone, not until she had figured out what, exactly, "this" was going to be. It seems too messy, too complicated, to try to explain. But C.J. clearly understands about complicated.
"I could have stayed with Josh," Donna says into her wine glass.
"What, on his lumpy couch?" C.J. asks, rolling her eyes. "My guest bed is much more—wait. Wait just one goddamn minute, Donnatella. Are you...are you saying...?"
"Maybe." Donna smiles, the way she's been doing every time she thinks about Josh in his hotel room, his shirt all undone, his hands in her hair, his mouth everywhere at once. It's almost Pavlovian at this point.
Now C.J. is the one who squeals. She basically throws her wine glass down again so that she can yank Donna into a hug.
"I should be furious with you for keeping this from me, but as I'm not currently in a position to talk, I'll just say that I'm thrilled."
"Thank you." Donna can't stop smiling.
C.J. grabs for the bottle of wine.
"Now tell me everything."
"Donna, this is...this is just, wow. Wow."
"Well, remember that day I said that we'd had an odd moment?"
"He'd kissed you?"
"I can't believe you played it off so coolly. I really thought he'd just, I don't know, gazed at you a little more longingly than usual."
"I didn't know if he would ever do it again."
"I always thought that if he started kissing you, he'd never be able to stop."
"And clearly, I was right. Tell me: is the sex as good as I think it is?"
"That's an interesting shade of crimson you're turning, there, Sandra Dee."
"You really have had too much wine."
"I think I've had just enough. In vino veritas, or something."
"Or something, all right."
"So why didn't you stay with him tonight? He didn't offer?"
"He did. But only after I'd already asked you."
"Donna! Why didn't you just go?"
"Then I would have had to explain—"
"Donna! Do you mean to tell me we both could have been getting laid tonight?"
"And yet, here we are."
"We are the biggest pair of idiots. We're an affront to the sisterhood."
"I don't know, come to think. It just seems like there's a sisterhood out there, judging us harshly."
"Maybe more wine will help."
"I don't know, actually. It just seems like a good idea."
"You're not wrong there."
"Why didn't you just plan to stay at Josh's place all along?"
"Because I didn't know if he'd want me to."
"What? Of course he'd want you to. How could he not?"
"It's Josh, C.J. I was afraid if I asked to stay over, he'd think I was trying to move in with him."
"Oh, come on."
"I really think this might just be sex to him. That's what he said, when I told him I was staying with you—'So, sex in a hotel room is okay, but sex in my apartment isn't?' Or something like that."
"You think this is just sex?"
"Donna, you are an exceptionally bright young woman."
"I mean, the work you did for Josh alone—not to mention on the Russell and Santos campaigns—was thoroughly impressive. I've been very proud."
"I wanted to get that part out of the way quickly, because you're not going to like what I've got to say next."
"No offense, but when it comes to Josh Lyman, you are an absolute dumbass."
"Oh, come on. I didn't mean it like that."
"I really think you did."
"I'm not saying Josh isn't also a dumbass. He's worse than you are."
"I can't have this conversation with you again."
"What do you mean, 'again?'"
"Donna. Are you upset with me right now?"
"Really? Because you're doing a stellar impression of someone who's upset with me."
"It's just that whenever I think of what you said to me that one night, the night the West Wing crashed, just before I went to Gaza...well, I think of that as the moment I realized Josh was never going to love me the way I love him."
"So I don't want to talk about it again. I know how pathetic I've seemed in the past, but—"
"Yes. I know. I know that I kept myself in a low-paying, thankless job for seven years because of a man, okay? I get it. I know what that must look like to you, C.J. You would never have done something like that."
"I really thought what I did for him mattered, you know? And I don't regret it, exactly, not really. I'm grateful, and I know I couldn't be where I am today if I hadn't done that job, and learned to do it well. But you were right; I didn't stay because it was the White House, and I didn't stay to serve the President. I turned down opportunities and didn't look for promotions because...you know, because of Josh. Because I was in love with him. Because he took a chance on me when I really needed someone to believe I was worth taking a chance on. Because he was so smart, C.J., so breathtakingly smart, and funny, and because he argued with me and never let me win; I had to earn it. Because he respected me enough to be wrong sometimes. Because he said I was invaluable. Because of his eyes and his stupid hair and the way his smile could about level me if he caught me off guard. Because he taught me everything I know about politics and about what it means to serve this country. So I let that—all of that—cloud my judgment, and I'd hoped I wasn't quite so transparent. Yes, I wanted more, I knew I could do more, but it would mean leaving Josh, and I wasn't ready for that. He just seemed more important, for so long, for too long. And then you said...well. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter at all."
"At any rate, I'm being more careful now. I'm trying not to plan my entire existence around him again. And he never knows what he wants, especially not when it comes to women. I've had plenty of time to watch over the past eight years, and I'll tell you, I'm not sure he's ever wanted me. Not really. I hoped that once we were out of the White House, maybe...but I don't know, now. I'm afraid to know. I'm afraid that he'll never want more from me than sex, and I can't fucking bear it, C.J."
"Don't look at me like that."
"Donna. I have never, not for one moment, thought of you as pathetic."
"It's not okay. I made you feel small. I made you feel like your work was unimportant."
"No, you didn't. I know you would never intend for me to take it that way. It was just that, on that night, in that moment, I could see myself reflected back in the way you were pitying me. I didn't like what I found."
"God, Donna. I'm so sorry."
"You shouldn't be. You were right, in the end."
"I wasn't saying that being an assistant was anything to be ashamed of, and I certainly wasn't implying that Josh Lyman didn't value or desperately need you in order to function. You can't know, Donna, how much he needed you."
"I'm sure he thought he did."
"You don't honestly believe he kept you in that position because he didn't think you could do better."
"Donna, you were given the largest, most extensive workload of any assistant in the administration. In fact, you weren't so much an assistant as, well, Josh's deputy."
"Deputy Deputy Chief of Staff."
"You're laughing, but there's no punchline here."
"C.J., you told me I should be doing anything that didn't have to do with Josh Lyman."
"And I stand by that. He was never going to let you go, don't you see? It wasn't that he didn't want you to succeed. It was that he was too blinded by his feelings for you—"
"No, you have to let me finish. I can't stand thinking that you're holding yourself back from him because I planted this, this idea in your head that Josh wanted you filing his position papers and bringing him coffee for the rest of your life."
"I almost never brought him coffee."
"Whatever. Whatever, Donna. Listen to me: Josh has been in love with you—"
"Please don't say that."
"—in love with you since...I don't know, maybe since the day he hired you. He probably didn't even figure it out himself until that business with Jack Reese—"
"C.J., I can't listen to this. I can't—"
"Life is too fucking short. It's too short to play this game with him anymore. I know he hurt you. I know you wanted more, career-wise, and you needed him to notice. But he couldn't see that! The man was up to his ears in crises and stress and his own neuroses and he didn't see that you wanted more than what he could give, because he thought he was giving you everything. You were his right hand. I'm not entirely sure he thought he could get by without you right there, where you'd always been. It was stupid of him, but that's Josh. He was just getting through it one day at a time. He wasn't sleeping. He was positively mired in guilt about sending you to Gaza. He was blindly in love with you and couldn't do a damn thing about it—couldn't risk your reputation, or his, or the administration's, or put you in a position where you might feel pressured into sleeping with him. He just...he didn't see."
"How do you know he was in love with me?"
"No, how can you be sure? Did he tell you? Did he ever...?"
"Of course not. It's Josh. That's not his style."
"The way he looked at you."
"Well, we were attracted to each other. That wasn't exactly a secret. We just tried to ignore it."
"I'm not sure you understand. I'd catch him sometimes, especially in the early days, when he wasn't so good at hiding it. You'd be busy, wrapped up in a conversation with someone, alphabetizing files or looking up phone numbers, and he'd lean in the doorway of his office and stare at you like you were the answer to every question he'd ever had. He didn't even realize he was doing it half the time. I would have to say his name at least three times to get his attention."
"Yes, really. It got to the point where Toby had a talk with him."
"Yeah, it didn't go over well because Toby's an idiot, too, and he waited until they were drunk. Josh was a little more careful after that, though. Less sending of flowers and sabotaging of your dates. And of course, I had to be very clear with him right from the beginning about the ramifications of a relationship with his assistant, the kind of attention that would get. I told him, just after we took office, that he had to watch himself with you. He didn't like that very much, either. I suggested transferring you if he wanted to pursue a relationship, but he just waved me off, kept saying that you'd worked too hard and he would never interfere with your career, that he would never be that kind of guy. That you deserved better."
"Donna, I think that it takes an unusual kind of person to work for the President of the United States. Look at our personal lives. Look at me, look how long it took me to do whatever this is with Danny. I can't begin to guess what's going to happen next. Other people, they figure these things out with spectacular ease. But you, and me, and Josh, and Leo, and...and Toby...we all learned to sacrifice what we wanted, and maybe what we even needed, for something much greater. We had to. I'm proud of us all for that. I can't help but wonder, though, what the next eight years will look like, and I can't help but be reminded, especially after Leo, that our days on this earth are ephemeral. There's never enough time, not nearly enough. Why waste even one more minute being afraid?"
"What if he's not ready?"
"Then he's not ready. But you can't know that unless you talk to him, Donna. You can't know that unless you tell him what you want. It's Josh. You're going to have to spell it out for him. It's part of his boyish appeal."
"I've just gotten so used to the not-telling, you know? I'm not sure there's ever been a time when I wasn't trying to hide from him, at least a little."
"Well, it's time to stop, now. What do you want?"
"But I need him to try harder. I need to know that he can sacrifice his work, sometimes, for me. I need him to know he loves me, and I need him to tell me. I need him not to be afraid anymore, either. I need him to get all of this sooner rather than later, because I can't do this for another eight years. I can't handle him running himself into the ground until there's nothing left and then calling me up for sex to unwind. I can't know what he tastes like and not have him, not have all of him. It'd hurt too much, the almost having him. It would be worse than never having him at all. I can't do it. I won't."
"Then tell him that, mi amor. Just tell him."
When C.J. drifts off some time around 3:00, the throw yanked up nearly to her chin, Donna stumbles to the kitchen with the empty bottle and the two glasses. She's drunk, really and truly drunk, and the only thing she wants to do is find Josh and crawl into his lap. She wants to cling to him, to melt into him. She doesn't want to think about losing him. She doesn't want to think about what happens next, beyond the way they fit together, beyond the staggering newness of it all.
Donna turns on the sink and runs the glasses under hot water. C.J. had been right about time. There isn't much of it left before Josh is the White House Chief of Staff and Donna is—God help her—possibly his employee again. That can't happen. Won't happen. Her career can't be about Josh. And Josh's career can't be an excuse to put off figuring out what he wants from her.
The water splashes over Donna's hands, and she thinks about snowballs crashing against her window on a freezing January night four years ago, about the way Josh had pulled her into his lap in the taxi and had maybe realized he was in love with her. She thinks about how she'd been ready to pine for Jack and wallow in her own shame, but one look at Josh in a tux, bellowing at her in the cold, had blown that all to hell. And then, later, after they finished up work and a bottle of champagne with the others, Josh had taken her home. She'd let him in for coffee while Josh had lectured her at length about taking the fall for Jack and brushed against her on purpose more than once. He hadn't been tipsy. He was pretending to be, because he always got handsy after a couple of drinks and Donna always let him get away with it. So clever of him. He had probably thought he was convincing, slurring his words the perfect amount, but Donna knew. His eyes were too bright; his gaze was too heavy. When he'd touched her, running his hand down her arm, squeezing her knee, his grip didn't tremble. She had let him sleep on her couch anyway, and he'd been gone in the morning when she'd woken up. Donna had sat in the kitchen in a shaft of dusty sunshine, staring at the dirty coffee cups from the night before, wondering if he'd really been there at all.
The water's going cold, but Donna doesn't mind. She lets it keep flowing over her hands for a long while, watching the way it spills through her fingers before she can catch it, over and over and over again.
"Do you need to get that?" Mrs. Santos smiles patiently, raising her eyebrows at Donna's buzzing cell phone.
Donna winces, fumbling with the buttons to reject Josh's call yet again. Can't he take a hint?
"No, Mrs. Santos. I'm so sorry. Let me put it on silent."
"There's no need! It could be important."
"It's Josh. If it were important, he'd leave a message," Donna says, frowning down at the phone. "He knows I'm meeting with you, and I can't think why—" The cell lights up again, vibrating wildly on the coffee table. Mrs. Santos laughs.
"I haven't known Josh Lyman for as long as you have, Donna, but the one thing I'm definitely sure of is that he doesn't like to be kept waiting. You can take the call. Technically, he's still your boss. For now."
"For now," Donna agrees, "but not for much longer. Thank you, Mrs. Santos. I'll just step out and deal with this, and then we can get back to our conversation."
"No rush. I need to check in on the kids, anyway."
The call has already gone through to voicemail by the time Donna gets into the hallway, but before she can hit speed dial, Josh calls for the fifth time.
"Josh? Is something wrong?"
"I have a very important question for you, Miss Moss." Josh's voice sounds...Donna squints, trying to pinpoint the adjective. Playful? Cheery? That can't possibly be right.
"Seriously, are you okay? You know I'm meeting with Mrs. Santos to talk more about the C.o.S. offer."
"It's a question of a time-sensitive nature," Josh says, but he doesn't sound harried or choked. He sounds like he's smiling.
"Time-sensitive, huh?" Donna asks, biting back a grin. "What's so urgent?"
"It's a matter of national security," Josh whispers conspiratorially. When was the last time he'd been anything other than anxious or grumpy or wound-up? When was the last time he'd seemed this much like his old self? Donna's stomach jumps hopefully.
"With you, almost everything is."
"Donnatella, my time-sensitive, very important question for you is this: Kauai or Oahu?"
Donna sucks in a breath.
"You heard me. Kauai, the northernmost, oldest island in the chain, graced with vibrant, natural beauty, flourishing with romantic escapades and outdoor adventures? Oh, and something about a Jurassic Park waterfall? Whatever the hell that means." Donna can hear Josh clacking away on a keyboard. "Orrrrr...Oahu, home of the great state's capital, full to bursting with artistic and cultural wonders? And surfing lessons. And—well, that's less romantic, but certainly historically relevant—Pearl Harbor."
"Are you asking me to go to Hawaii with you?"
"You're too smart for me. I think that's the thing I find most attractive about you."
"Are you, with all of your mental faculties present and accounted for, actually asking me to go to Hawaii with you?"
"I'm not asking," Josh says, "I'm begging. I'm on my knees. You just can't tell because of, y'know, being somewhere else. I'd like to fix that. Immediately, in fact."
"Josh! What...when do you want to go?"
"It all depends on your answer to my very important question. The clock's ticking!"
"Kauai. Of course Kauai. Always Kauai."
"Done. How fast can you pack?"
"Is this really happening?"
"I have two tickets to Kauai for a flight leaving at 6:55 from National tonight, and one of them has your name on it. I can't make you come with me, but it's really not worth going without you. Nothing's worth anything without you."
Donna can't remember her heart ever being this full.
"How many bikinis should I bring?" she asks. Josh groans into the receiver.
"All of 'em. Every last one in the District. I'll pay for as many extra checked bags as it takes."
"I'll see what I can do about that. How long should I tell my future employer I'll be on vacation?"
"Exactly one week. And if she gives you any guff, don't worry. I've got some pull with her husband."
"Because you're such a handsome and powerful man."
"It's intimidating, I know. You've got less than an hour and a half to recon all those bikinis. You better move."
"Keep your pants on."
"Only if you say please."
"Okay, you lunatic. I'm hanging up now."
"I've already got my bag. Just have to finish up two things at the office, then I'm on my way. I'll have Otto drop your ticket by the apartment and put you in a car. And I'll meet you on the plane."
"That sounds perfect."
Josh pauses, and then says, in a soft, raspy tone she's never heard him use before: "You're the best thing that ever happened to me. You always have been."
Donna presses the phone as close to her ear as she can and slumps against the wall.
"Josh, if you surprise me any more in the next thirty seconds, they're going to have to scrape me off the floor and I'll never make it to the damn airport."
"We can't have that," Josh says. "I'll see you at 6:55. Hurry."
As soon as Donna finds her balance again, she practically runs.
Josh has been asleep for almost four hours, his head propped against the window, his mouth hanging slightly open. Not for the first time, Donna smiles at him over the top of her paperback and reaches over to run her fingers through his hair. It's a relief he's finally conked out, admittedly after a valiant effort to watch the in-flight movie. It had taken ten minutes of Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFayden arguing in period costumes to put him under. Maybe he'll even sleep through the rest of the flight, at this rate. God knows he needs it.
Josh seems to be embracing the vacation. He had ordered a tequila sunrise as soon as the flight attendants had brought the drink cart around, declaring himself officially off the clock. He'd meant it, too. There was no work in his backpack. He didn't want to talk about the President-Elect or the transition or any of the next steps. He even claimed to not have his Blackberry—Donna's still pretty sure that's some kind of elaborate joke.
"It's my deal with Sam," Josh had explained. "His opinion was quite clear. After the way I screamed at Otto...I think I have to agree. I need to unwind. I don't like the person I'm turning into."
"You're just exhausted," Donna had reassured him, lacing her fingers through his on the tray table. "Did you apologize to Otto?"
"Yeah, of course. I apologized to everyone. They were all cool about it, especially after I gave them some cash for the Hawk and Dove tonight. I told Otto I'd think about other positions for him...told him we'd talk once I had my head on straight. I hope he doesn't completely despise me."
"Nobody despises you, Josh."
"I don't know, Donna. I realize I'm not Leo, but I have to be better than this. He would never forgive me for speaking to a staffer like that."
"Of course he would forgive you. You haven't been sleeping, and your mentor just passed away. You clinched a win in one of the closest races in our country's history, and you haven't taken a day off in over a year. You made a mistake; you said you were sorry. Now it's time to let yourself off the hook, dim the lights in that ridiculous brain of yours for a minute, and rest."
Josh had shut his eyes, squeezed her hand.
"Do I really look as terrible as everyone keeps saying?"
"You look like a guy who's been working twenty-hour days," she'd said, squeezing his hand right back. "Nothing a little sun and rum and sleep can't cure."
But she isn't exactly sure of that now, she thinks, setting her book down to regard Josh more carefully. He looks so much older than he had even a few months ago: the lines on his forehead more defined, the hollows in his cheeks more pronounced. He's lost more weight. His weariness is bone-deep at this point, as much a part of him as anything else. How much has this all cost him? How much left does he have to lose?
"Hey." Josh blinks at her sleepily, reaching out to rub her knee. "Time is it?" Donna glances at her watch.
"2 AM in D.C., 9 PM in Hawaii."
"There are really five hours left?" Josh yawns, sitting up more fully. "You should get some rest, too. You've had a long day."
"You know I don't sleep well on planes," she says, but he ignores her, pushing the armrest between their seats up, looping his arm around her, and then pulling her in sideways against his chest.
"Just close your eyes for a minute," he murmurs, brushing her hair away from her neck. "I've got you."
And it shouldn't work (nothing ever does), but the steady thump of Josh heart and the way he leans his head down on top of hers and the hum of the plane make Donna's eyes feel so heavy, she closes them. Just for a minute.
She doesn't wake up until the pilot announces they're preparing their descent into Lihue Airport, where the temperature is 75 degrees even after midnight, and the weather tomorrow will be perfect. Mahalo.
Josh kisses Donna with one hand caught in her hair, and when the couple across the aisle asks if they're on their honeymoon, he just grins over at them and says, "Nah, it's our first date." They crack up while Donna blushes and tries to explain, but Josh pulls her in closer and goes right back to kissing her until the plane skids to a landing in Kauai.
"This is too much!"
"It really isn't."
"Josh, I know you can't afford this."
"I really can."
"Would you stop that? I'm trying to be angry with you."
"The dimples. Put them away."
"Did you see that lobby? The marble, the spiral staircases, all the open air walkways—I can't even imagine what it will look like in the day. And I can hear the ocean! Do you think it's close?"
"I'd say so."
"Josh. Josh, Josh, Josh, Joshua."
"You cannot afford this."
"I put a little aside for a trip like this, Donna. This will put a small dent in my rainy day fund, enough to dissuade me from my inevitable midlife crisis."
"Don't you want a red hot Camaro or something?"
"I'm more of a Maserati guy myself."
"Ooh, look. There's a balcony."
"I should hope so. If this place is going to bankrupt me, there better be a damn balcony."
"Oh, shut up, Moneybags. I always suspected you were holding out on me."
"In a minute! This bathroom is incredible. The shower has jets on the walls! And this tub is basically a tiny swimming pool."
"Donna, it's 3 AM. Come to bed. This will all be here in the morning."
"It's 8 in Washington! Plus, we both got more consecutive hours of sleep on the plane than we've had in two years."
"Yeah, I didn't say, 'Let's get some shut-eye.' I'll repeat: come to bed. Preferably wearing one of the many bikinis you promised me."
"Josh! Look at the soaps! They're shaped like little sea turtles."
"Or wearing nothing at all. That'd work for me, too. I'm not picky."
"These robes are maybe the softest things I've ever felt in my life. You've got to try one on!"
"Thanks for coming with me."
"It's been a huge inconvenience so far, let me tell you. It's not all turtle soap and velvet robes."
"I'm pretty sure these things are not made of velvet."
"That does sound like an impractical fabric for a bathrobe, doesn't it? I wonder what type of—"
"Okay, that's it."
"You can't just grab me whenever you want to—mmph—"
"Please come to bed?"
"Well, since you asked so nicely..."
Donna stands on the balcony while the sun comes up, wrapped in one of the robes. The light is spreading over the water and the sand below, turning everything to molten gold. The green mountains just beyond the bay rise up into the brightening sky like sentinels, craggy and timeless and more stunning than Donna could ever have imagined. The air is thick, earthy and warm, and the breeze off the ocean sweeps through the trees, lifting her hair. There's no sound at all but the rush of the tide and the faint rustle of palm fronds. She bends forward against the railing, breathes in the scent of salt and bougainvillea. And coffee.
"Morning." Josh sets a couple of mugs down on the little mosaic table sandwiched in the corner, then comes to stand beside her. His arm snakes around her waist, and Donna leans into him, her head against his bare shoulder.
"Morning," she whispers, unable to tear her gaze away from the sea and the too-white sand and the lush unrealness of it all. She had always thought Hawaii would be wonderful, but she'd had no idea it would be like this. It's one of the only places she's ever been that actually outshines the postcards, and she hasn't even left her hotel room. "Have you ever seen anything more heart-stoppingly beautiful in your entire life?"
"Yes," Josh says hoarsely, his grip tightening around her waist. When Donna turns to grin at him, he's staring at her as if he can't quite believe she's real, as if she's the ocean and the sunshine and gravity itself. As if he's loved her quite as painfully and helplessly as she's always loved him. As if he's never going to stop.
Everything else fades. The coffee grows cold, forgotten on the sandy balcony. The day stretches on, balmy and mild, and the tide goes in and out and in again.
Donna gets out of bed for the second time when the afternoon is half gone and takes a long, hot shower. Josh orders room service and two bottles of wine, and they sit together back on the balcony, talking and laughing and planning how they'll use the six days they have left here. They make it down to the beach just before the sun sets and walk until they've almost lost sight of the hotel, until they're nearly alone behind a little grove of palm trees. Josh holds her hand and watches the sun sink down, and Donna takes him in: his unbuttoned, wrinkled shirt; his pants, rolled up above his ankles; his hair, curling down over his collar; his face, open and relaxed and missing the usual grim fatigue. He's at once so different from the man she fell for all those years ago and so very much the same. He's steadier, now, a little more jaded, a little sharper. His laugh doesn't come quite so easily. There's a hard edge that was never there before Rosslyn, and that's only gotten harder as the years have crept past. But his smile hasn't changed, and he still reaches for her before anyone else, still tells a dirty joke just to see if she'll giggle, still raises his eyebrows at her and smirks because he knows it will make her do anything he wants.
That's really all Donna needs.
On the walk back, Josh starts to bring up the timeline Donna had set (three weeks, four days left). He starts to say something about not thinking and not being very good at this sort of thing, something about not having a life and not wanting to screw it all up, but Donna stops him, kisses him hard, her hands on his chest.
"Let's not," she says, when they break apart. "Let's just be here, okay? We can deal with everything else later." He nods wordlessly, kissing her again, and then leads her back to their room and peels off her sundress as soon as the door swings shut. A crescent moon has just risen in the clear, dark sky, and the wind is swirling through the open balcony door. The sound of the sea is the only thing Donna can hear apart from Josh murmuring her name. It fills the room, that familiar rhythm of waves and foam and give and take, carrying them through the night.
Chapter 3: Josh and Donna
Josh & Donna
"A constant reminder of where I can find her,
a light that might give up the way
is all that I'm asking for
without her I'm lost,
but my love don't fade away."
–"Reminder" by Mumford and Sons
This can't be happening.
"—and what's more, I don't know why I ever expected anything else from you! I can't believe I was naive enough to think you could be a grown-up about this. I can't believe that after all of that, after a perfect week together, you won't have a serious conversation with me about what's happening between us, where you think it's going to go, how we'll make it work. No, as usual, you just get that panicky look on your face and you stand there and you don't tell me what you're feeling and you expect me to just do it all myself and you—"
"Donna, please, that's not what I—"
"Let me finish. You only know how to work. That's what you do, Josh. You don't commit to women. You don't know how."
"That's not fair, and you know it."
"Really? Look me in the eye and tell me you aren't scared shitless right now. Go on, do it. I'll be waiting."
Josh opens his mouth, but there's a dull buzzing in his ears, and his heart is pounding wildly, and he doesn't know how to put this back together. He doesn't know how to make her understand. Donna's eyes are cold and hard and burning straight through him. They both know she's right.
"Good answer." Donna whirls away, pulls her coat and purse off the back of the couch, and heads for the door. "I'll be at C.J.'s. I'll figure out how to get my stuff out of here when you're at work tomorrow."
"Donna, come on."
"I can't do this. I refuse to do this. I waited for you for years, Josh, and I'm—I'm in love with you. I'm not sure I ever won't be. But I'm done waiting for you to be in love with me. I'm done hoping that you see a future beyond the White House. Your life is the job, and that's fine. That's what you want, I guess. I just want more. I need more."
"I know. I'm sorry." The words are out of his mouth far too fast. Josh is certain, with sinking dread, that it was exactly the wrong thing to say. It sounds like he's giving up.
"Not sorry enough," Donna says quietly. She slams the door, and for the third and final time since the day they met, Josh lets her leave him without saying a single thing to make her stop.
Josh sits on his bed, staring at Donna's suitcase. It's still leaning against the wall. He had been hoping she'd unpack it later tonight or tomorrow...he'd had this whole idea of how he'd rearrange his dresser and his closet to make room, how he'd help her pull her stuff out of storage this weekend and figure out how to make it all fit in his townhouse. Or maybe, he'd take her to find something bigger, something in Wheaton or Silver Spring with a yard; Donna had always talked about wanting a dog, and when they had kids, the kids would want a swingset—kids need swingsets, they need space to run around, they need fresh air to breathe and dirt to track in to the house and safe cul-de-sacs to race their bikes through.
Josh pinches the bridge of his nose. Why the fuck had he gotten so impatient about the timeline? He should have just told her he thought they were past it. He should have told her he didn't need two more weeks (and four days) to figure out what he wants from her. He's already there. He's been there since he kissed her that first time, when he realized that he might actually have a shot with her. When he realized that she could ever think of him this way, that she would honestly want him, Josh, with the vanishing hairline and the mountains of issues and the high-strung workaholic tendencies. He'd been so afraid she'd just thought of him as a campaign fling until that ultimatum, which she'd thrown down with such poise and confidence. Josh hadn't known what to do with that, how to juggle not fucking everything up with Donna and learning how to be Leo. It was why he had initially tried to buy more time. The weariness and anxiety had been so all-consuming at that point that Josh could barely think ahead past the next thirty minutes, let alone a month into the future.
Thank God for Sam. Thank God for Hawaii. Thank God for bikinis and warm oceans and pineapple and ten hours a day of sleep, sex, and Donna—Donna, plowing her way through two and a half novels in five days; Donna slathering on layer after layer of sunscreen and going all freckled and pink anyway; Donna, reciting Kauai trivia late into the night ("Josh, did you know that Kauai's building code dictates that no building shall be taller than a coconut palm? And did you know that Kauai is the only Hawaiian island without the mongoose? And don't even get me started on the feral chickens."); Donna, half-drunk on mango daiquiris, dancing barefoot in the sand with her arms above her head, her hair coming undone in the moonlight.
It had taken an impressive five hours after getting home from the best week of his life for Josh to shove his foot firmly in his mouth, and only another hour after that for Donna to decide she'd had enough. He's now wasted another hour sitting here and missing her, utterly lost and miserable and alone. As usual.
He's so tired of being alone. He's physically, mentally, emotionally exhausted from it. He knows how to be alone without getting lonely; he knows how to get by without aching for more; he knows how to do work and nothing but it. For most of his life, and really, all of his adult life, that's been enough. The thought of at least four more years in the White House, slogging through each day, dragging himself home to the same empty apartment for a couple hours, and then getting up to do it all again, makes Josh feel sick. He wants to serve his President. He wants to serve his country...but it doesn't mean anything to him without Donna.
He's not sure how or when that happened. All he knows is that if she asked him, he'd hand Matt Santos his resignation. He'd move to Wisconsin. He'd learn to grow corn. He'd build her a house himself, brick by brick. He'd marry her in a little white church, without so much as a chuppah, and let his mother howl. He'd shave his head and change his name and follow her down any dusty road she led him. He'd wear a Phillies jersey in public. He'd learn to map the stars in distant galaxies, and name them all for her. He'd do everything short of vote Republican, but she'd never want that, anyway.
Josh stumbles to his feet. What the hell is he still doing here?
He should be running to wherever she is.
Danny's wearing boxers, an old Harvard t-shirt, and a frown. Josh falters, unsure what to make of this. Of all the people he'd expected to open C.J.'s door, Danny Concannon absolutely hadn't been one of them.
"Uh...hi, man," Josh says, scratching the back of his neck. "Sorry, did I wake you?"
"Not at all," Danny says dryly. He steps aside, jerking his head. "Come on in. Looking for Donna?"
"Yeah." Josh glances around C.J.'s very empty, very quiet living room. "I'm sorry...I thought she was here?"
"That she was," Danny says. "Want a drink?"
"A drink. C.J. has scotch, wine, beer, vodka..." Danny rummages through a cabinet and comes up with a handle of Tito's. "I'm in the mood for a vodka soda, personally."
"No, that's okay. I really do apologize for just having barged in this way, but...um, did Donna leave, then?"
"She certainly did." Danny splashes some club soda into a glass and stirs in quite a bit of the Tito's.
"Danny, I'm sorry to be a pain in the ass, but where the hell did she go?"
"Well, Josh, she banged down the door at around 10:30—interrupting what was shaping up to be quite the romantic evening, might I add—and sat there sobbing on the couch for a good half hour after that. Then, in her infinite wisdom, my beautiful Claudia Jean decided that a change of scenery was in order and whisked her off to the nearest bar. It was decided I should remain here, as I am a man, and men are on the collective shit list tonight. Now, why do you suppose that is?"
"That's right. Uh-oh." Danny takes a swig of his drink and then points an accusatory finger in Josh's face. "This is your fault, pal. You are the reason I am sitting in my girlfriend's apartment alone on a Saturday night. She works fifteen hour days, Josh! When do you think I ever get to have sex?"
"Wait, when did you and C.J. start dating?" Josh asks, before catching sight of Danny's frankly menacing scowl. "Ah, I mean...congratulations!"
"Look, I've been on Team Josh for years," Danny says, throwing what an unwitting onlooker might have mistaken for a friendly arm around Josh's shoulders. Danny slowly walks Josh to the door, an unsettling smile plastered across his face. "I placed my bets. I went to her apartment with you to throw snowballs and be the bad cop. I even talked you up a little tonight, damned if I know why—that's when they banished me to the bedroom. So, I have to ask myself, Josh, what has it all been for? And what are you going to do to fix this, and then ensure it never happens again?"
"I'm going to put in a valiant effort," Josh says, wriggling out of Danny's grip. "Really, I came here to swing for the fences."
"Terrific. Get the hell out of here."
"Wait! What bar?"
Danny drains the rest of his drink.
"McCormick's. Make a left; it's just down the block. And Josh?"
"If you make my night any worse, I'm going to call my buddy at the Post and tell him to be ready to run an obituary for the incoming White House C.o.S."
"Thanks, Danny. I'm really, uh, you know. I feel like an asshole."
Danny waves a hand, his creepy smile softening slightly.
"Oh, whatever. Go get her."
Josh spins on his heel and takes the stairs two at a time. When he hits the street, he sprints, the buzzing rising in his ears, adrenaline and anticipation and the slightest bit of hope shuddering through his chest. It's been a long time since he ran anything that wasn't a campaign, but then again, it's been an even longer time since he had anything worth running to.
He hopes Donna will meet him at the finish line.
The whiskey isn't helping.
"I can't drink any more of this," she nearly has to scream at C.J., because of course, it's karaoke night. The guy up on stage is hollering "Don't You Forget About Me" into the microphone at a truly alarming decibel.
"Whiskey is my go-to if I need to cry," C.J. yells back. "Tequila if I need to laugh. Vodka if I'm pissed. Gin if I'm feeling sexy."
"I don't want to cry," Donna complains, but that's not strictly true. She wants to cry, all right—has been crying, in fact, for hours. What she really wants is for Josh to not have been such an unbelievable jackass. She wants to be in his apartment, wrapped up under the covers with him, wishing they were back in paradise, but sleepily starting to plan their future. She wants Josh to want that, too. She wants to rewind to this time yesterday, when she was eating a peanut ice cream cone from a little video store down the road from their hotel, and Josh was telling her the funniest story about his older sister and a squeaky piano.
Goddammit. Why had she brought up the timeline?
She'd just felt antsy. She'd wanted Josh to be ready for this—Hawaii had spoiled her. She had gotten used to a Josh without responsibilities, a Josh who could nap on the beach in the middle of the day, a Josh who didn't want to talk about politics or flip on C-SPAN. Donna had even been excited when he asked if she wanted to stay with him while she figured out her apartment situation, but then she'd felt a little ripple of anxiety. She had wanted to be reassured.
It had popped out of her mouth without warning: "I don't know if that's such a good idea until we figure out where we want to be two weeks and four days from now."
Josh had looked at her, a strained expression spreading across his face, and asked what she meant.
If she'd just have stopped there...
But no. She had decided to pick that particular fight.
She told him she really wanted to know where they were heading before they got any further, that they should talk about all of this, even if they didn't come to a decision, even if they still needed the extra couple of weeks. And Josh had snapped at her, had huffed away across the living room and muttered: "Why are you so hung up on this stupid deadline?"
Which meant, of course, that he thought Donna was stupid—at least, that's how she took it—and so she'd proceeded to inform him that a deadline, a timeline, actually wasn't stupid at all, that it was important and that they needed the structure of it so that it wouldn't fall to the wayside in the middle of the transition. Josh had gotten even angrier, and then he'd growled that Donna knew the kind of pressure he was under, that he was about to start the most important work of his life, and why the fuck did she have to pile onto it?
That had infuriated her. Yes, of course he was under a lot of pressure; she'd never said he wasn't, had never once invalidated how hard it was going to be. This was precisely the point of setting a timeline with an end in sight—so that Josh could be prepared. So they both could be. And why did it always have to come back to this, to the White House, to Josh's career? Why couldn't it, just this once, be about them?
To which Josh had shouted that she should know more than anyone what his job meant to him. She should know him better than that. Why couldn't she just drop the fucking ultimatum and stay with him and not make it all into a thing?
It was the way he said "thing" that really hit her hard. Thing. Like this was all some ordeal, a distraction from what was really important.
Donna had wondered, in the split second before she started shouting back at him, what Josh would do if she made him choose. She would never do that, not really; she was never going to be that kind of woman. Josh should have his passion, his work. It was so intrinsically part of him. He should need to do it. He should sacrifice and struggle and throw himself into it all, headfirst. Donna had always admired that about him, that fervent, undiluted desire to help people and make the world better and beat back all the Beltway bullshit. He lived for it. He loved it.
Donna had just wanted him to love her more.
It was selfish and beyond naive. Short-sighted. Unfair. Unrealistic—no, not just unrealistic.
And so she'd kept ranting until her throat was raw, kept cutting him off and not letting him explain himself. She'd stormed out into the night and had to basically throw herself in front of a cab to keep from turning around, racing back in there to yell some more and to kiss him senseless and to try not to care that he was still putting her second.
She misses him. She misses him, and it's only been a couple of hours.
"Do you want to go, Donna?" C.J. asks, reaching across the table to grab her hand. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. I know you hate karaoke."
"I ruined your night," Donna says, sniffing angrily and swiping at the tears on her cheeks. "The least I can do is get you drunk."
"You didn't ruin anything," C.J. insists. Donna has to laugh at little at that. Danny had looked ready to start throwing things when he'd opened the door and found her standing there. Donna's rarely seen him so miserable.
"You don't have to lie to me. Poor Danny. I seem to keep doing this to him." The guy on stage finally finishes butchering Simple Minds, and it's blessedly quiet for the first time in what feels like five years. Donna takes a celebratory sip of the whiskey and grimaces. "Ugh, I really can't drink this. Do you want it?" C.J. starts to say yes, but freezes, her gaze locked on something behind Donna's back.
"No," C.J. whispers.
"Oh my God. Donna, don't—"
"So, I'm really sorry." A familiar voice is blaring through the bar's sound system. There's an unusual wrenching sensation somewhere in the vicinity of Donna's chest. Ever so slowly, she turns in her seat, and her mouth falls open. C.J. grabs her hand again, clenching down on her wrist like it's the only thing stopping them both from floating away.
Josh is standing on the little stage, blinking into the single watery-blue spotlight.
"C.J., he can't, he can't, he can't," Donna says urgently, the words coming out in a breathless jumble. "He—what is he doing, he can't—people will recognize him, there's gonna be a reporter or a friend of a reporter or a reporter's third cousin's brother-in-law or I don't know what and then this is going to be a story or something. This is going to reflect poorly on—"
"Shhhh. Listen." C.J.'s grip around her wrist tightens, if that's possible.
"I, uh. I understand that it's karaoke night," Josh is saying, and now he's squinting out into the crowd, one hand over his eyes. "I paid Jackson over there fifty bucks to take his spot in the line-up. I'll try to be as quick as I can about this."
"Boooooo!" someone in the back shouts. A bunch of people giggle and shuffle nervously, but the bar itself has gone uncomfortably quiet. Everybody is paying attention. Donna covers her face with her free hand, bites down on her palm.
"Yeah, whatever, buddy. I get that I'm depriving you of some off-key Billy Joel right now," Josh calls, and Donna can see through her fingers that he's glowering in the general direction of the boo-er. "Have another Zima or something. Anyway. So, my dad took me to my first Mets game when I was eleven. He didn't want to take me until he thought I was old enough to appreciate the experience. I'd been driving him crazy for years, asking when we were gonna catch the train down to the city for a game, begging and bargaining and, you know, being a pain in the ass. He made me wait, though. He made me wait until I wanted it so bad that it was all I could think about, until he knew I was going to respect it and remember it perfectly and be able to tell all you fine people now, thirty-odd years later, that it was overcast and humid that day, and that we beat the Cubs 26-9, that Tug McGraw was pitching, and that I ate two hotdogs with mustard but no ketchup and slammed four bottles of Coke.
"My dad told me, once the game was over and I was pretty much high on all the soda and the win...he looked at me and told me that anything worth having in life would require patience. He said that it wasn't going to be easy, that I was going to have to learn how to sit still and bite my tongue and figure out how to wait for the good stuff. My dad was...well, he was a man of the law, like me. I think even then he was trying to prepare me for a life of red tape and bureaucracy and sweet-talking politicians. But he also told me that the wait makes you better. I didn't get it then, and I don't think I really understood him until right about now, standing here like an idiot in front of all of you. I'm not even drunk." There's more laughter, some whispering, but it's kinder this time. Donna's hand has fallen away from her face and she's staring, her fingers intertwined with C.J.'s, biting her lip so hard it's starting to bleed, her thoughts smashing into each other one after the other. Something is happening. Something is happening.
"It may not surprise any of you that I'm standing here like an idiot because of a woman," Josh says, wincing a little. C.J. inhales audibly. Donna stops breathing entirely. "Donna: I can't see your face, but I spotted you when I came in, so I'm just gonna...I'm gonna talk at where I think you are." Josh turns, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet, and exhales nervously into the mic. "Okay. Donnatella Moss: I think maybe I only have one more shot to get this right. I think I've used up about ten years' worth of chances. I think I paid Jackson fifty bucks and got up here with a microphone to embarrass myself because this is what works in the movies, and because the only thing I've got left is a big, stupid romantic gesture that I'm ruining with stories about baseball. I just need you to hear me out. I need you to know that I'm not going to let you go this time without putting up some kind of fight. I need you to know that I am insanely, unapologetically, incontestably in love with you. I need you to know that not telling you that every day for the past eight years—not even letting myself think it—was probably the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.
"I need you to know that the best parts of me are from you, that I was a fucking mess without you, and that I never intend to feel that way again, because I will do or be whatever you want me to, and I will go wherever it is you feel like going, and Donna, God, I don't know. I don't know what else to say. You thought I needed four weeks to figure this out? I didn't even need four seconds. I waited and waited and waited for you and I think that when that wait was finally over, I wasn't sure what to do with myself. I...wasn't sure it was for real. Waiting for you has been tough and hilarious and miserable and genuinely worth it. I wouldn't trade it, I wouldn't change it. I like that it was hard. I like that I'll be able to tell people in ten, twenty, thirty years what you looked like that first day in Manchester and what color your dress was at the second Inauguration and the way your voice sounded when you were trying to convince me to put some guy on a stamp. I like that it gave me time to learn you. But you know what I love? I love that the wait is goddamn over. I love that it's not complicated anymore. I love you. When I asked you if we could just forget the timeline and not make it a thing...that's what I, y'know. That's what I meant." Josh pulls his hand through his hair, nods. "So...that's it. That's all I wanted to say, except to add, I guess, that I would do it all again, every single second of it. You made the years fly by, Donna, but I'm a pretty impatient guy. I'm impatiently ready to get to the part where we're together, and not just wishing we were. If you'll have me."
It's intensely silent. Josh is still peering out into the darkness, and C.J., mascara running down her face, turns to Donna with a disbelieving, wide-eyed smile, and then, Donna is unentangling their hands, rising to her feet. She's halfway across the bar in seconds. People are staring and whispering, and there are cameras, and absolutely some reporter is going to be making Lou Thornton's life hell for awhile, but Donna gets up on the stage anyway.
She's crying again. Josh stares at her under the heat of the spotlight, and the mic slips from his hand. Donna wants to tug him offstage, away from the audience, but he just poured out his entire heart to a roomful of strangers. If it's going to be a story anyway, it might as well be a good one.
"I think your dad was right," she says, her voice catching halfway through. "I am so much better for that maddening, impossible wait. And you have made it beautiful, Josh." He smiles his slow, quiet smile. The one that's just for her.
"What's next?" Josh asks, but he doesn't need to wait for an answer.
When Donna kisses him—her hands on either side of his face, her fingers curling into his hair—the bar erupts. There's screaming and whoops and applause and cameras flashing; there's Josh's arms around her waist, and then he's whipping her off to the side and down the steps, through a wall of cheering people trying to stop them, and into the chilly November night. Josh grabs her hand, pulls her around a corner, and then he presses her against the side of McCormick's and kisses her some more, until Donna pulls back and gasps out, "Joshua Lyman, you are the most ridiculous man I've ever met. What the hell made you do that?" Josh raises his eyebrows and smirks.
"I know what women like," he says, as though it's the most obvious thing in the world. Donna screeches indignantly and kicks him. Josh yanks her back in, laughing, and tucks her hair back behind her ear. "I really wanted to make sure I got your attention. I was just going to stand on the bartop, but then I got there and they had a microphone. I wanted to be perfectly, one hundred percent clear. I wanted witnesses."
"You love it."
"As we speak, gossip columnists throughout the District are downloading photos of us making-out in front of eighty people at a seedy bar."
"It was a classy make-out session. Like Casablanca."
"You practically killed me. And C.J.! Oh my God. C.J.! We just left her there, along with my coat and my purse and my Visa for the bar tab..."
"I really meant it. And I really love you."
"I really love you, too. You idiot."
"Someday, this is going to be one of those stories our grandkids get all gooey about. Just wait and see."
"Yep. I'll probably be about 150 by the time we have any, so you may have to do the story-telling for me. I hope you were paying attention in there. You'll wanna tell it right."
"I don't know if I'll make it to grandkids if you keep up like this. My poor little heart can't take it."
"I haven't been waiting all this time just for you to keel over at the ripe old age of thirty-four. You're supposed to be the one keeping me youthful."
"Speak up! My hearing's not what it once was."
"I still can't believe you said all of that in there."
"Me either, really."
"I want to go home."
"You do, huh?"
"I want to have my way with you."
"How many times?"
"As many times as it takes."
"You're an incorrigible woman. I knew I should have slipped you some bromide when I had the chance."
"I'm also a pretty impatient woman, Joshua."
"Not in my experience."
"If you don't take me home right now, I don't know if I can be held responsible for my actions."
"Mmm. Well. We're just going to have to get your stuff from C.J. another time, then."
"She's always been so magnanimous."
"But this can't."
"I'm glad you were listening."
"Josh? Call a damn cab."
"Tell me another."
Josh rolls onto his side and opens his eyes. Donna is propped on one elbow, the blankets falling away from her shoulders. Her hair's tousled, sticking up slightly on the left; she's beaming at him. Josh is pretty sure that no matter how many times he sees her like this, he'll never get used to it.
"It would be faster for me to tell you about the times I wasn't about to figure it all out. Or kiss you. Or, I don't know…throw myself at you."
"Well, I like this better," Donna says, dropping down and wiggling further under the covers. "This is way more fun." Josh loops his arm around her and draws her in, wraps one of his feet around her ankle.
"You'll get bored," he mumbles, smushing his face against her neck. He kisses a spot just above her collarbone, tugging a little with his teeth, and Donna sighs happily. "It's gonna be an early morning. We should sleep."
"If you think that hearing you talk about mooning after me is boring—"
"Mooning! I never mooned."
"You totally mooned. You pined. You were a man possessed."
"Hey, I wasn't that bad!" Josh pokes at her side. "I am nothing if not composed. Smooth, even."
"Oh, please," Donna says, and then pinches him. Josh yelps. "Your deep dark secret is out, mister. You looooove me."
"You are really not as cute as you think you are," he informs her, scowling as authoritatively as possible. Donna just grins up at him and pinches him again, right on the fleshy part of his arm. "Ow! C.J. is going to be here at six to give you back all your stuff and probably slap me around a little. We have to be up at five! And then we have to go to work and be adults. I'm thinking we need at least a couple of hours of rest to pull that off."
"We definitely need to take C.J. and Danny out to dinner or something," Donna says, tucking her head just underneath Josh's chin.
"I'd bet hard money that Danny was five minutes away from strangling me with his bare hands tonight. I think all he really wants is an uninterrupted evening with C.J., some vodka, and possibly to never see either one of us again in his life."
"Let's figure out a way to make that happen for them."
"Done." Josh is struggling to keep his eyes open. "Now, go to sleep."
"Right after you tell me another," Donna says, tracing a pattern on his chest. "So, there was some night in your office, and I was distracting you…"
"When weren't you distracting me?"
"Exactly. And then there was that time you were being an ass about the NEA budget report…"
"God, okay. Fine." Josh flips onto his back, and Donna props herself back up on her elbow, leaning over onto his pillow. She's enjoying this way too much.
"Um…there was this time, with Toby. It was, I don't know, I think the second or third year in office? We were all at the bar, but you and C.J. were somewhere else, and Toby told me I needed to get it together because it was becoming more clear each day that I was trying to get you in bed."
"Oh, yeah. C.J. told me he'd had a talk with you."
"I'm pretty sure they were in cahoots," Josh says, rolling his eyes. "Of course, at some point, everyone from Charlie Young on up to the President of the United States had a talk with me, in one way or another. Toby was just the most obnoxious."
"Why did Toby's talk get to you the most, though?" Donna wants to know. "Why is that the story you picked?"
"I think it's because it was the first time I admitted to myself that any of them were right," Josh says, frowning up at the ceiling. "I mean, I knew I was attracted to you. I knew that wasn't good. I had thought, I dunno…I'd thought that maybe I'd get over it. Or maybe that you would get married to one of your gomers and I'd have to get over it. But I didn't. And you didn't. And then Toby asked if I loved you, and he was looking at me like I was a puppy he'd accidentally kicked in the head, like he'd just figured out some heartbreaking thing even I didn't know about myself. Like he maybe even vaguely regretted giving me a hard time about it! Toby."
"That," Donna says, leaning down to kiss him on the cheek, "is very, very sweet."
"Unbelievably sweet. What else?"
"Well, of course there was Gaza."
"And there was that first time we…you know. Before the election?"
"You hadn't totally figured it out by then?"
"Well, I'd certainly figured out how I felt. I just wasn't sure about you."
"What!" Donna's the one scowling now. "How could you not know?"
"Well, first of all…you'd recently hated me. We'd only just started talking normally again. I thought maybe you wanted to burn off a little steam, I guess? I was obligated to ignore it, but I knew we'd always had a tension."
"Okay, I never hated you," Donna says, smoothing a hand over Josh's forehead. He bends into her palm. "Never, Josh. I was just angry and hurt and I wanted you to be hurt, too. I can admit that. But I was in love with you then, and in love with you now, and I suppose, in love with you pretty much every day before that."
"Well, when did you figure it out?" Josh asks. Donna's hand stills, her fingers just barely brushing his temple. "When did you really know?"
"You're going to laugh."
"I think you might," she says. Josh shifts, peeking up at her. It's dark, but he can still tell she's blushing.
"Was it tonight? Was that when you knew?"
"You just look so embarrassed! I'm not gonna be offended, Donna. My feelings wouldn't be hurt if you weren't…certain or something, until you were yelling at me and it slipped out—"
"It's the name of a town, Josh."
"Okay, but where the hell is Canan…whatever?"
"Upstate New York."
"Really? I mean, we haven't been there in…what, at least four years, right? Didn't we stop on the last campaign?"
"Not in Canandaigua."
"We had rented a car," Donna says, voice hardly above a whisper, "and I cried on you at a diner with the best milkshakes in the state."
"But…that was…that was 1998," Josh says, propping himself up on his elbow, too. Donna pulls the blankets up a little further and worries at the edge of the knitted one, the one Josh's mom had made for him so many years ago. "The first campaign. That was right after you'd come back, when you were upset about Freeride and we were lost and you hadn't been sleeping…and you knew?" Donna doesn't respond. "Donna. You knew you were in love with me when you were twenty-five years old? You really knew?"
"Yeah," she finally admits. "I was a pretty hopeless case myself."
Josh gapes at her.
"You blow me away," he manages. "You blow me away, and I don't deserve you for a second." And then, he crushes her to his chest, and pulls her on top of him, and kisses her enough to try to apologize for all the times he couldn't, and fuck it, he doesn't ever need to sleep again, doesn't need anything else but this, her, forever, as long as they've got, however long they're lucky enough to have it. Now. Now. Now.
"Tell me another!"
Josh could not possibly look more pleased with himself, or more smug. He's still mostly on top of Donna, his arms on either side of her head. She tries to hide her face under the blankets, but he catches her, pinning her against the pillows.
"Jooooosh," she complains.
"Nope. Fair's fair." He smacks a kiss on her cheek, then her forehead, then her other cheek. "I suddenly see the appeal."
"It's so late! It's nearly three-thirty."
"Sleep is for the weak," Josh says. He yanks on her hair. "Donnaaaa. It's your turn."
"I hate you."
"You definitely don't."
"I'm beginning to."
"I'll win you back. I'm three for three; I like my odds."
"Would you please get off of me?"
"Sure. Right after you tell me another."
"That night after the shooting, when I slept in your bed."
"Yeah, nice try. I already knew about that one."
"Because you wrote about it in your diary, and I'm capable of drawing the obvious logical conclusion. I did go to Harvard, you know."
"You're an elitist snob."
"Also, Yale. They loved me there."
"Then maybe you should stop crushing my ribcage and go back. I'm sure they'd be overjoyed to have you."
"Okay, sounds like a plan. I'll head out, right after you tell me—"
"The night with the diary, when I had to let Cliff Calley read it, and you were so disappointed in me. That was another time."
"Aw. It was?"
"Of course. I thought the entire world, including you, was about to find out I was in love with you. I also thought I was gonna go to jail because of it."
"Wait—that's why you lied about it?"
"I thought you went to Harvard and were capable of drawing the obvious logical conclusion."
"You told me it was because you wrote about the time in my bed—"
"Well, I did. I also wrote about regularly undressing you with my eyes—"
"—and I meticulously analyzed almost every word you said to me—"
"Can we go back to the part about undressing me with your eyes? Are we talking, what, a couple times a week? A day? An hour?"
"—plus, of course, I detailed all the ways you nearly drove me to legal insanity—"
"Was it any tie in particular that did it for you? Was it the rolled-up sleeves? The Tuesday suit?"
"Focus, Joshua. It was everything."
"Even Sam's foul weather gear."
"Yes, you were."
"Okay, but you really wrote all that stuff? About me? In the diary?"
"This is almost as humiliating the second time around."
"No wonder you didn't want it subpoenaed."
"Can you even imagine?"
"Yeah, I can."
"What's with that dopey look on your face?"
"I wish you'd have let me read it."
"That would have been horrible!"
"I know. But I still wish you'd have let me read it."
"Yep. Now. How about another?"
"This is never going to end, is it?"
He rolls off of her, settling down on his side. Donna rolls too, angling in so that their noses are nearly touching. She can't think of a time Josh has ever looked happier.
"I hope not," he murmurs.
It's halfway to four AM. They have to be up in less than two hours to face their friend, and then their coworkers, and then the future President and First Lady of the United States. There will be questions. There might be pictures and gossip and mean-spirited accusations splashed through the papers and the online columns. It's going to require patience. It's going to be hard.
Donna reaches for Josh.
"When you got the President to call Mrs. Morello," she says, tracing the planes of his face. Josh runs one hand over her shoulder and down her side. "The night you threw snowballs at my window. All the times you left coffee for me on my desk and pretended it wasn't you. Every single night you made up a hundred excuses for me to stay, just so I would have to cancel my plans and pretend to be pissed about it. When you dated Amy, and I thought maybe I was really going to have to let you go for real. When I dated Jack, but couldn't quite shake you. When you flew all the way to Germany for me. When my mom told me how you never moved from my side the entire time she was there, except to hold her hand. When C.J. talked to me after Leo's funeral, and told me how you used to stare at me. When you took me to Hawaii. When I fought with you about my timeline. When you got up on a stage and did the bravest, dumbest, most beautiful thing you've maybe ever done. Five minutes ago. Right now. Tomorrow. Ten months from Tuesday. One thousand years from then. Always."
Josh wraps her up in his arms, Donna's lips brush his neck, and they curl there together in the dark, in the comfortable silence, in the simultaneous novelty and familiarity of each other.
Yes, it will be hard, Donna thinks. There will be work and fighting and long nights; there will be politics and Josh shouting for her and the occasionally lazy Sunday morning and mistakes and complications and tough decisions and at least a few broken promises. But: there will also be Josh, with his smile, and Josh, loving her so intently, and Josh, arguing because he can't not, and Josh, needing her despite himself, and Josh, who may never stop surprising her.
Josh, who Donna would wait ten more years for. Maybe ten hundred, if that's what it took. She smiles to herself, breathing him in, wishing she could go back to that bright day in Canandaigua and know what she knows now. Wishing she could tell her young, frightened self to count to ten.
The wait makes you better, she'd whisper, staring off after Josh into the sunshine and the noise and the swell of things to come. The wait is only the beginning.