The van that came to pick them up from the hotel seated six comfortably, but Donna Moss chose to sit in the front beside the driver, and Josh Lyman quickly dropped into the reverse-facing seat behind her—so that he didn't have to look at her, Lou surmised. At the time she'd hired Donna, Lou had thought that Josh was just being an asshole about hiring the competition's leftovers. She was apparently the last fucking person to know that Donna had been Josh Lyman's assistant—hell, his gatekeeper: if you'd wanted to get to him, back in the day, you had to get through her first. Lou pushed for more gossip, and got such a variety of stupifyingly whacked-out stories—Josh and Donna were fucking; Josh and Donna weren't fucking; Josh had set Donna up in an apartment; Donna had blackmailed Lyman into hiring her; Josh and Donna had been secretly married during the first Bartlet administration; Donna was actually Josh Lyman's sister, but they kept that low-profile because they didn't want it to look like nepotism (though Jesus, a less Jewish-looking woman than Donnatella Moss, Lou could scarcely fucking imagine)—that she understood it all to be bullshit. Nobody knew anything.
Except there was something. Lou was on the phone to Edie, getting the numbers on their post-Minnesota visit, when she looked up and saw Josh and Donna's heads, one behind the other, gently bobbing in unison. Frowning, Lou said, "Hang on," and pulled the phone away from her ear. The van driver had the radio on, some song Lou didn't recognize. Josh was staring out the window, but he was tapping his fingers against his leg and nodding his head. Behind him, Donna's head was moving in the exact same rhythm, like they were puppets, their heads connected by some invisible string.
"Edie, I'll call you back," Lou said, and then she snapped her phone shut and said to Josh, "Okay, look: is she your ex, or what?"
Josh jerked around to look at her and said, "Sorry, what?" The question didn't make sense.
"Your ex, your ex," Lou repeated, leaning forward impatiently, beating the backs of her fingers hard against the palm of her other hand a couple of times for emphasis: whack whack whack. "Come on, seriously: I don't give a shit," Lou said in her intense, ferret-like way, "but I want to know if there's something out there that could bite us in the ass. Is Donna your ex, or what?"
"Is Donna—?" Josh repeated, his voice going high. Helplessly he glanced over his shoulder and got a glimpse of blonde hair and a stiffening shoulder; he knew right then that she'd heard the question and been mortified by it. Something twisted in his gut, like it always did when Donna was upset. Josh wasn't always sure that what he felt for Donna was love, but he did know that when Donna cried, it made him want to kill people. Josh turned back to Lou, and said, faintly, "No."
Lou arched a thick black eyebrow. "No?"
"No," Josh repeated, and of course that was true. Donna wasn't his ex—or at least not yet, though she was very possibly a future ex, if he could ever manage to get them back to where they'd been.
But Lou wasn't letting go. "Because it sure seems like you guys have some kind of history, here."
"Yeah. Well." Josh shrugged and kept his voice casual as he tried to figure out how to explain it. "Sure. We have a history. She was my—" but he didn't want to say it, not again, not when Donna had worked so hard to establish a reputation apart from him. Not when she'd been a spokesperson for the Russell campaign, and had done media targeting for the Northeast and Pacific Northwest, and wrangled poultry on TV. He tried flipping it around. "I was her—" but that wasn't any good either; if anything, that was worse. Lou was staring at him like he'd developed a stutter, and he fumbled to come up with something—anything—that felt true. Only one thing did. "She's—kind of my wife," Josh said.
It was almost worth it to see the shocked look on Lou's face, the way her eyebrows shot into her hairline. She opened her mouth to say something—but it was Donna who spoke up. "Except we don't have sex," Donna said, turning and glaring at him over the back of the bucket seat.
That was just too good an opening. "Like I said," Josh deadpanned.
Donna let out a soft, exasperated sound, which Josh found oddly comforting. "I don't believe you! God, you're an idiot: what is going on in your brain that could possibly make you say something like that—"
"Oh, come on!" Josh felt his body surge with adrenaline. God, it felt good to be fighting; he hadn't felt so good in weeks. "Don't tell me you've lost all sense of—"
"—now, here, with her and him and—seriously, are you retarded or something? Are you the victim of some obscure neurological impairment that allows you to be a master political strategist and a complete social moron? Because I will Race for the Cure."
Josh suddenly had the feeling he had missed something, some subtext, some road sign that had just flashed by and was gone, but he had geared himself up and now he couldn't stop. "It's okay, Donna, don't worry: I'm past sex. No, really," he insisted, lifting his hands, "—a few years ago, fine, I was still at the tail end of the bell curve, but now? Forget it. I'm history, past it—a eunuch, Donna. Best years of my life down the toilet. I could be the towel boy at a wet t-shirt contest and not get—"
Donna reached over and smacked him in the head with a file folder.
"—and ow, ow with the hitting!" Josh yelled, raising his arms to protect his face. "I mean, seriously: if we ever really got married, would there be more or less hitting? Because you hit me a lot already."
"We're not—" and Donna was turning a really pretty shade of pink; it went with her pale green parka. "We're not ever—I'm not marrying you. In your dreams."
"You don't know anything about my dreams, though I will tell you that my favorite involves me being the graduation speaker at an all-girls liberal arts college with an award-winning gymnastics team—"
"Oh, can it, Josh."
"I'm talking lithe, Donna. I'm all about the litheness and flexibility—"
"Fine, then—dream your sad, pathetic dreams and leave me out of it."
"Okay, look," Lou said, cautiously. "Maybe we should—"
"Hey, I tried leaving you out of it. You came to me. Twice—no, technically three times, if you count—"
"You're the one who was talking about marriage. You said the m-word. You called me your wife."
"Yeah, because 'wife' begins with m," Josh said and rolled his eyes. "In—I dunno, French."
"No, really," Lou said, raising her hands. "I didn't meant to start—"
"I hate you. Oh my god, I hate you so much."
"And I didn't say you were my wife, I said you were like my wife. Which you are. See?" Josh said, turning to Lou. "She's kind of like my wife, in a totally abusive, hitting me in the face, not having sex with me and hating my guts kind of way. I know married people less married than this."
Lou had the look of a woman who had gotten a lot more than she had bargained for. "All right, this is really—"
"Vexed?" Donna sounded bitter.
"Thwarted?" Josh offered.
"—twisted, I was going to say," Lou said, and flashed them a tight, humorless smile. "But yeah."
"We know," Donna said, and Josh nodded. The van was circling the terminals now: International Departures, International Arrivals, Domestic Departures. The drive was clogged with vehicles—cars and buses disgorging people and luggage and strollers and small children—and they slowed to a crawl.
"Well, if you guys like being vexed and twisted," Lou said, shrugging and grabbing her briefcase, "I say knock yourselves out, but I myself would advise you to just fuck already." She flicked her sleeve back, looked down at her watch and frowned. "Not now, though. This flight leaves at two, and we still have to get through security. Hey!" Lou called to the driver. "Just let us out here."
After that, there was a lot of wading through crowds and standing in line and shuffling forward, though Lou, by virtue of her loud voice and a lot of finger snapping, managed to get them a fair amount of special treatment. Donna, who was lugging a shoulder bag as well as a carry-on, was grateful for this, but she knew how much Josh hated anything that could be construed as favoritism; this was, in fact, a defining characteristic of the entire Bartlet administration. They were all of them overeducated, egotistical, and elitist, with their Gilbert and Sullivan societies and New York Times crossword puzzles and snobbiness about French cuisine, but God forbid you upgraded them to first class. Lou, on the other hand, believed that the first rule of being a shark involved eating as many smaller fish as you could stand, and publicly picking your teeth afterwards.
It was more fun traveling with Lou, really.
Josh was still muttering as Lou collected their upgraded tickets from the counter (they had compromised on business class) and began striding toward the security checkpoint. It wasn't until after they'd passed through and were headed for the gate that Donna realized that she was too light, she was missing something, her bag—and she clutched frantically at where her shoulder bag had been before looking up and seeing that Josh had it slung over his own shoulder, where it was jostling against his backpack. He must have taken it from her when she wasn't paying attention, and she supposed she ought to ask him for it—except her collarbone ached, and really, he owed her this much, didn't he?
"You okay?" Josh asked, turning; he had stopped when she had, though Lou was still burning a trail up the industrial carpeting of the gateway. "You lose something or something?"
"Uh—no. I'm fine," Donna said and grabbed the handle of her wheeled carry-on. "Never mind."
They were among the last to board the plane, and their seats were two together and one in front. Donna, first down the aisle and confident that Lou was right behind her, slid into the window seat, but just as Lou was about to slide in beside her, Josh dropped a hand on her shoulder.
"Hey," Josh said to Lou. "Switch with me." Lou looked hard at him for a second, then turned to Donna, who could read her expression perfectly: You want me to fight this? Donna swallowed hard and shook her head at Lou, who just rolled her eyes and shoved past Josh to take the aisle seat in front.
A moment later, Josh dropped into the aisle seat beside her, shoved his knapsack down around his feet, and fumbled for his seat belt. Donna turned and stared out the window.
Josh didn't say anything as the plane taxied to the runway, and Donna's own heart began pounding as they began to pick up speed. She knew—God, why did she know this?—that most airline fatalities happened right after takeoff or on the initial climb: after that, even jet-fueled objects in motion tended to stay in motion. Donna looked away from the window and stared straight ahead, trying not to think about anything, feeling the bottom drop out of her stomach as the plane's wheels left the ground. This was it—if something was going to happen, it was going to happen now, with the whole plane tilting back sharply and heading up, up, unnaturally into the sky. Donna reached down to clutch the armrest and found a hand there already, but before she could pull away, the hand turned and squeezed her fingers. Donna squeezed back tightly—and felt better. The hell with everything: if the plane blew up, so be it.
It was only after the plane leveled out, and the pilot welcomed them to Flight 431 and said that they were now free to use approved electronic devices, that Donna was able to tear her eyes away from the horrible blue plaid seat back in front of her and look at Josh, pale and sweating beside her.
"Did you know," Josh said faintly, "that 47 percent of air fatalities happen during take-off or in the first few minutes of flaps-up climb?"
"Yes." Donna frowned. "Actually, I think maybe you told me that."
"Probably, yeah," Josh said, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. "I hate flying."
They hadn't ever flown together much—they also serve who only stand and fax—but Donna realized that she'd absorbed all of Josh's anxieties through the same osmosis by which she'd learned that the best way to get votes in New Mexico was to show support for their development of their multi-modal transportation system, or that you could bring Idaho's two Republican senators on board for practically any piece of legislation if you could get them either crop insurance or concessions on lumber. "But the odds of dying on a commercial airline flight are something like 50 million to one," Donna pointed out.
"Yeah," Josh said, before adding cautiously: "Unless, of course, it's a commuter plane—"
"Oh yes," Donna agreed instantly. "That's like sticking a fork in an electrical socket."
"Seriously. You might as well walk. Donna, listen," Josh said suddenly, and Donna looked down and saw that Josh was still holding her hand. "I wanted to say—you know, about before—"
Donna tried to pull her hand back, but he didn't let go. "I don't want to talk about it."
"But I want to—look, I'm just trying to apologize," Josh said, finally letting her hand slip from his. "I didn't mean to—it's just, she asked, and I didn't know what to say."
Donna turned to stare again at the horrible blue plaid seat back. Their seats were too close together; it was hard to look at him. He was too close. "So you said the stupidest thing possible? I've worked hard to establish a reputation with these people, to get Lou and the rest of the party to take me seriously—"
She could hear the wince in Josh's voice. "I know. I know, but—"
"—and then you say things like that and it just, it undermines me. So I really wish you wouldn't." Donna stared down at her hands for a long moment, twisting an aquamarine ring that her mother had given her for her sixteenth birthday, and then decided that this was probably the best opportunity she was going to get to speak her piece. "I know it must be hard for you to work with me again," she said quietly. "You're used to me being subordinate—"
"Oh my God. No, I'm not—"
"—and so am I, Josh, okay?" Donna said, lifting her head. "It's me too; I'm used to it, too. So if sometimes I avoid you, it's not personal—"
Josh rolled his eyes. "—except that sounds totally personal."
"—it's because I'm trying to be professional, all right?" She was almost pleading with him.
Josh shifted again in his narrow seat; his suit was getting wrinkled, and it was one of his good ones. "I—Yeah. Okay. But—" he began, and then he groaned, and closed his eyes, and let his head fall back against the headrest. "Donna," he said quietly, like it was easier for him to talk to her if he could somehow pretend she wasn't there. "The thing is? Sometimes I want you so much my teeth ache."
There was suddenly nothing at all beneath her: not for 35,000 feet. "You should see a dentist about that."
Josh opened his eyes. "I'm not kidding, Donna," and yes, she could tell he wasn't, but it was weird for him not to be kidding. Right now, she would have given him five bucks, hard money, to crack a joke about her being a Catholic schoolgirl, or a soft porn dairymaid, or a Swedish film star. But his eyes were serious.
Donna tried to put her regret into her voice. "No. No, I know you're not."
She saw panic flit across his features. "Donna, wait, listen," he said, and leaned toward her.
"No, you listen: I have been here before, okay?" Josh's mouth opened, but Donna pressed on, wanting to get it all out before he recovered himself. "This isn't about you, this is about me, and the fact that I do this thing where I fall in love with—with—" and she gestured stupidly at him with her hand, "—and I put myself second, and then when it all falls apart, I've got nothing, Josh, I'm nowhere. I can't do that again."
Josh turned his face away sharply, but not before she had seen the hurt on his face. "You," Josh said, sounding like he was fighting to control himself, "think I'm like him?"
"No, no," Donna said hastily. "You're nothing like him," and that was true: Michael's brand of cool had been spiky and sharp, whereas Josh—well, Josh wasn't cool. Okay, sometimes he looked cool when he was wearing his sunglasses, except mostly he didn't wear them, because he was mostly inside, at a desk, wearing yesterday's suit and yelling into the telephone. She thought of Michael's buttery black leather jacket and how stupid Josh would look in it; she pictured Michael's Japanese motorcycle and realized that in her mind "Josh" plus "motorcycle" equaled "accident." And Michael had stopped for a beer on the way to St. Vincent's. Josh had gotten on a plane to Germany without so much as a change of clothes.
But of course they did have something in common. She had worshipped them both, and for pretty much the same reasons; their brilliance, their arrogance, the ways in which everything important depended upon them. She remembered how Michael was in post-op: tired, yes, but kind of sparkling at the same time, flushed with power and ego—and who could blame him? He'd just held a human life in his immaculate, fine-boned hands. And from there, it was easy to conjure up Josh, hands raised and striding around the bullpen, calling out, "Victory is mine, victory is mine! Light the oil lamps, Donna, and oil yourself up while you're at it! Slay the fatted calf!—or you know, corned beef works fine, too, with rye, and maybe a little mustard. Order from Steinmann's," and he was kidding, but of course he wasn't kidding, because now some kid somewhere had health care, or someone was safe from deportation, or a good judge had just been appointed—and she would roll her eyes as she ordered him a corned beef sandwich, but of course, secretly, she adored him.
It terrified her that she'd escaped the arrogance of a surgeon by going to work for a politician. Who was next up on the hierarchy? God, she supposed.
A muscle was twitching in Josh's smooth cheek; she could see it, even with his face turned away. "I don't want to hurt you," Josh said softly, and okay, that was another way he was different than Michael; by the time things ended between them, she had been sure that he had wanted to hurt her. "I mean, I know I shoot my mouth off," he said, and glanced at her uncomfortably, "but that's the last thing I'd ever want to do."
"I know," Donna said, and she wanted to touch him, to squeeze his arm and reassure him, except that she was afraid of sending the wrong message, and with him this fragile, half-afraid she might break him.
The flight attendant came by and offered them something to drink. Donna asked for a Diet Coke, and Josh said vaguely, yeah, whatever, he'd have the same, but he pushed it toward her when it came, and she passed him her packet of corn chips. The airplane thrummed around them, and something near her was rattling faintly but persistently. Donna reminded herself that only 12 percent of airline fatalities occurred at cruising speeds, and surely she'd used up her share of bad luck in Gaza.
Then again, she wasn't the only one on the plane. Josh, who had already survived a fire and a gunshot wound to the chest, was staring down at the plastic safety card protruding from his seat pocket, maybe contemplating the rule of threes.
"Okay," Josh said suddenly, softly, lifting his head and fumbling his hand back into hers. "If that's what you want. I mean, this," he said, and squeezed her hand, "this thing we have? It's enough," and when he smiled at her, she felt a little bit of their old electricity surging between them. She made herself look at him, at his rumpled shirt, the subtly flecked tie that she was pretty sure she'd given him, his tired, oh-so-familiar face. He was smiling, but the smile didn't reach his eyes. It was the opposite of how he normally looked: his mouth a grim line and his eyes, amused. "We're good at this, you and me."
"We are good," Donna agreed, relieved to find that she knew her lines. "We're pros."
"We've been twisted and vexed for eight years now," Josh said. "I say we're ready to compete nationally. Hell, internationally. I'm going for gold, Donna, nothing less."
"I don't knooow...." Donna shook her head slowly. "Those Russians are pretty vexed, what with the snow and the vodka and the suicide. Not to mention the Austrians."
"Hey, they're okay: they've got opera and great coffee and those little Mozart kugle."
"And wiener schnitzel and psychotherapy and Hitler," Donna pointed out.
Josh's brow furrowed. "Okay, yeah. The Austrians are gonna be a problem."
"It's all right," Donna assured him. "We'll play dirty, kneecap 'em. I'll sharpen my skates."
"Ohh." Josh closed his eyes and asked, breathlessly, "Will there be spandex?"
"In your dreams," Donna said, because that's what she always said, but Josh didn't reply with a fantasy of college gymnasts or Catholic schoolgirls or Evelyn Baker Lang's shoes. Instead, he jerked beside her and went still, like he had abruptly run out of funny, and there wasn't anything more she could say, so she tucked her arm through his and put her head on his shoulder. He sighed and tilted his head to rest against hers, and they sat like that, quietly, until the pilot came on the intercom announcing their descent.
After that, there was more shuffling, and wading through crowds, and standing in line, though when Josh took her shoulder bag, she let him, and when Lou flagged down a limo at the taxi stand, Josh let her. Twenty minutes later, they were pulling up in front of the Phoenix Marriott, where the bus— blaring Santos For President—had already arrived. The lobby was full of staff, and the congressman himself was sitting at a table in the coffee shop surrounded by aides and taking notes.
Donna stopped Josh and tugged at the strap of her bag. "Give me," she said, and Josh let it slide off his shoulder. "And your backpack. I'll get us checked in, send the luggage up. Seriously—go," and Josh shot her a grateful look and made a beeline for Santos, who stood up and extended his hand. Donna watched them for a moment, surrounded by abandoned baggage, and then turned to stand in line at the registration desk.
The rest of the evening was a blur: Donna barely had time to wash her face and change her airplane-fusty sweater before she was called downstairs for a dinner meeting with Lou and Edie about the campaign's Southwestern strategy. Her job was to cover all the major media outlets, paying special attention to Spanish-language media in the area, but the press releases were out already and tomorrow she'd send everyone an updated copy of the congressman's schedule. He would be doing events with several prominent local Democrats, two of whom were in tight re-election races and were happy to exploit the congressman's popularity with Hispanic voters. WKTR would be covering tomorrow's rally live, and she'd set up a one-on-one with Jeff Freeley, the chief political reporter for the Arizona Star, which would be broadcast on—
She only caught a glimpse or two of Josh that evening: once, when she stopped by the central suite to pick up the latest poll numbers, she saw him having an intense conversation with the congressman; later, he passed her in the hallway without even seeing her, phone pressed to his ear, looking white-faced and tense. Eventually, Lou strode down the hallway clapping her hands and yelling, "The bus leaves at 6:30 a.m., people! Go to bed, for fuck's sake!" and Donna wished everyone a good night and went up to her room.
She changed into a t-shirt and shorts and put on a pair of thick socks before going into the bathroom to wash her face and brush her teeth. She was almost out of her facial moisturizer, but she slathered the last bit of it under her eyes before rubbing skin crème on her elbows and turning off the bathroom light.
She called downstairs for a 5:45 wake-up call, and set the bedside alarm as a backup. And then, as she sat there on the horrible, pink-purple floral bedspread, she was overwhelmed by a wave of loneliness, and she could feel Josh's warm, slightly sweaty hand in hers and hear his voice in her head.
"This thing we have? It's enough,"—except it wasn't, oh my God, it wasn't at all. She tried to imagine Michael saying that and couldn't, but Josh—Josh had just chosen to continue being in a vexed, twisted, and sexless relationship with her rather than lose her, and suddenly she wanted him so badly she couldn't stand it.
She fumbled the phone out of its cradle and dialed Josh's room number. He picked up right away.
"Josh Lyman," he said, and she could hear the faint scratching of pen against paper. "Hello?" he said, when she didn't say anything right away. "Come on, you're wasting my time—"
"Josh?" she said. "I'm in Room 314," and this time the silence on the line was all his.
"Josh?" the voice said, and even though Josh was pretty sure that he'd know her voice anywhere, since it had been eight years of hearing her on voicemail and intercoms and tinny cell phone connections and bad videoconferencing microphones and, most recently, on television, he still had to check: "Donna?"
"Yes,"—and okay, she sounded nervous: why did she sound so nervous?
"Are you okay?" Josh asked, now nervous himself.
"I'm fine. I'm great. I think I'm really good."
"Okay. So, um," Josh said, hedging, "do you want me to come down there?" because actually, this call could be purely informational: I'm in 314, just in case you need me for something—like, say, the Center on Policy Attitudes' numbers on changing political typologies in the southwest United States, which could really help him articulate the district-by district strategy he was working on. He couldn't assume she was saying—
"Yes," Donna said, sounding peeved, and okay, that wasn't fair, because it wasn't like he had given her a lesson on professionalism at 35,000 feet, and now she was inviting him down to her hotel room at—
Josh looked at the bedside clock. She was inviting him to her hotel room at—
"Donna, you know that it's past midnight, right?"
After she hung up on him, Josh stared down at the mouthpiece of the phone for a few seconds, resisting the urge to call her back and say, "So I should come down there, right?" He hung up. He was going down there. Hell, he was going down there whether she wanted him to or not!—though really, he was pretty sure that Donna wanted him to, because she had called him in the middle of the night and given him her room number, and the only other time she'd done that was way back during the first Bartlet campaign when her coffee carafe had shattered while she was filling it, and he'd raced down and found her shaking and holding a bloody towel to her cut hand and he'd taken her to the hospital for stitches. But she'd just said she was fine.
He was still mostly dressed in yesterday's suit, and he wondered if he ought to spruce up by finding his tie and jacket or dress down by changing into jeans and a sweater. But he couldn't do either; he felt sartorially paralyzed, worried about sending her the wrong message. Donna probably just wanted to go over yesterday's numbers. Maybe something had come up with the southwestern media markets. Probably something was going wrong—Donna was always pretty brilliant at sniffing out things before they became Things—and she wanted to give him a head's up. Josh felt strangely relieved to know that it was probably just looming disaster. Still, he splashed water on his face and ran a brush through his hair before grabbing his room key and then, on second thought, his laptop.
It took him a few seconds and a couple of deep breaths before he shifted the laptop into the crook of his left arm and made himself knock on her door. A moment later it opened and—holy god, she wasn't wearing a bra, because her t-shirt was clinging—and her nipples were—and shorts, and there was leg, and leg, and leg—
Donna nervously tucked a strand of long, shiny blonde hair behind her ear as she stepped back to let him in. "You want a nap now?"
"Huh?" Josh blinked a few times and tried to concentrate. "What?"
"You brought a laptop?" Donna repeated, shutting the door and pointing at him.
Josh looked down; he did indeed seem to be carrying a laptop. "Yes," he said, having learned in prep school that it was always better to answer questions confidently, even—or rather, especially—when you had no idea what was going on. "Yes, I did," he said, and put it down next to the T.V.
"Okay." Donna was backing away from him slowly, and she was turning pink all over—not just her face, but her arms and legs and everywhere. "Do you want a drink? We could crack open the minibar." She turned toward the minibar, and Josh saw then that the shorts were soft and gray and clinging to the rounded outline of her— "—or bourbon, I think. We could get ice."
Ice? It was hot enough to melt— "I—no, I don't, I—"
When Donna turned around, her face had flushed to a dark pink, and she suddenly blew out a breath and gestured down at herself violently in a way that made her breasts bounce. Josh nearly fell over. "Look, I know this isn't—" Donna began, and then she crossed her arms over her chest, under her breasts, pulling the soft cotton fabric taut across them oh my dear god, and waggled a sock-clad foot at him like she was doing the hokey pokey. "I didn't have anything sexy, all right?" and that was so astoundingly preposterous that Josh hooted with laughter before he could consider the advisability of doing so—because Donna looked furious.
"No, wait! Donna! Just—" and he quickly raised his hands in surrender, because she looked like she was about to rip his head off. He raised his hands higher, higher, as she came closer, and her pretty mouth tightened as she glared at him but she didn't throw any punches, to his relief. "I'm not laughing at you, I swear," Josh said, as earnestly as he could manage. "It's just—I don't think we're speaking the same language."
She looked impatient and defensive. "What are you talking about?"
"You've never seen a Girls Gone Wild video, have you?" and then she did hit him, and he said, "Ow! Hey! That's a compliment! I'm not having any problem seeing the sexy, here," and then she stopped hitting him and tilted her head to the side.
"Really?" she asked, smiling a little shyly.
"Yes. Really. Those scrunchy socks are driving me insane," and then she hit him again, and Josh said, "What, you think I'm kidding?" because he actually wasn't at all.
"Oh," Donna said as that sank in, and Josh nodded vehemently, trying to project, yes, yes, insane, and we haven't even gotten to the thing where you're braless. Donna stared at him for a moment, and then she stepped forward, curled her warm, bare arms around his neck, and kissed him.
For a moment, he was so taken aback that he couldn't even enjoy it; his brain was too full of Holy Moly and she smells so nice and where do I put my hands?!—and then something in his brain fizzed and buzzed that hey! it was okay to put his hands on the girl, on Donna, on lots and lots of warm, round, cotton-clad, clean-smelling Donna, and Josh wrapped his arms around her and pulled her against him. Her mouth was soft and wet and oh, so sweet, and helplessly Josh sacrificed a hand that could have been enjoying itself on her ass somewhere in order to cup her head and hold her mouth to his.
Donna, apparently unwilling to make the sacrifice, stroked her hand warmly down his back and squeezed his ass. Her leg moved lasciviously against his. She seemed to be trying to climb him.
"Okay," Josh said, breaking off the kiss. "This would be the part where I strain something."
"Right," Donna said breathlessly, and pulled him back toward the bed. "Let's not do that."
Everything became a warm, wonderful blur. When Josh finally broke the kiss, he found that Donna was half-sitting in his lap with her warm, bare legs loosely around his waist. Her hands were in what was left of his hair and she was kissing him, hotly, over and over again. In his imagination, he had always been begging for it, hands grasping desperately, trying to kiss her. Please, Donna. Please—and if he was lucky, if his subconscious mind was willing to give him a few minutes without his rational mind interrupting, fantasy-Donna would whisper, Yes, yes, okay, and let him, and he would reach for her with trembling hands. Sometimes, though, even fantasy-Donna snorted and told him to take a hike, though his shrink told him not to worry about this: it was, he had explained, merely symptomatic of Josh's preference for realpolitik over romanticism. Still, it only went to show that even in his wildest dreams (which, counter to what he told Donna, rarely featured gymnasts or Catholic schoolgirls, though he was taking the fifth on Evelyn Baker Lang) he had never imagined that it would be Donna above him, hands rhythmically gripping his shoulders, pushing him backwards onto the bed.
"Oh God," Josh moaned, letting himself fall backwards, arms splaying out around his head. "I'm dead, I've died, I—" and Donna leaned low over him, and blonde hair fell into his face. "Donna," and her hand was sliding down over his chest, trailing over his scar, moving lower down over his too-soft belly—and then she was touching him through his pants. He tugged her down, hard against him, trapping her soft, full breasts against his chest, and they lay there, kissing and touching, his hands pushing up her t-shirt, her fingers unzipping his fly—and suddenly her hand was curled around his cock, which she had tugged out of his pants, and he was shuddering and gasping and it was too late: he was coming and no force on earth could stop him.
"Oh," Donna said, taken aback as Josh's eyes fluttered closed and his spunk splattered her hand. "I—" and then she leaned forward and kissed him impulsively, wanting to be with him as much as possible.
When she pulled back, Josh groaned and drew his arm across his eyes. "You do realize that now I have to kill myself?"
"Sadly, yes," she said, and the corner of his mouth turned up. A moment later, he moved his arm away, and she stroked her hand against his face, which was pale and a little puffy from lack of sleep. She was sure she looked pretty much the same.
"Any suggestions?" Josh asked softly.
She pretended to consider it. "Well, nothing too messy. We could fill up the tub and throw my hairdryer in."
"Okay," Josh said after a moment, "that's the girliest suicide I've ever heard of. I would have to kill myself for even—" and Donna grabbed the hem of her t-shirt and pulled it up, over her head, and when she next saw Josh, he was staring up at her, apparently awestruck. She tried not to look smug. "Oh my God," Josh said fervently. "Donna. I want to live—" and then he was rolling her over and sliding down her body.
He surprised her by being good in bed, because after that first, speedy ejaculation, she had nobly lowered her expectations, telling herself that if he loved her, it didn't matter. But now, with his face buried between her legs, mouth working her skillfully (and God, was this an Ivy League thing or what, because it seemed to her that the better educated the guy, the more likely he was to go down on you like it was a point of honor or something) she could admit that yes, okay, this was better. She gasped and arched up against his mouth as she came, and rather than pulling back, Josh pressed in and did something with his tongue that sent a second orgasm rolling through her before she was even done with the first one. When Josh lifted his head, he looked flushed and disheveled and more than a little pleased with himself. He crawled up her body to kiss her, and then he fucked her with slow tenderness for what seemed like hours, and boy, if this was Josh at the end of the bell curve, then God only knew what he'd been in his prime.
Donna didn't remember falling asleep; she'd just passed, seamlessly, from being pleasure-drunk to being stone-unconscious. But she did remember the phone ringing, and Josh muzzily lifting his head off her chest, and she'd reached out blindly and slammed the receiver down. Josh was staring at her with a strange, lost expression, and so she'd said, "That was the best sex I've ever had," and the smile that took hold of his face was absolutely glorious, the more so because she couldn't ever remember seeing Josh smile like that, not even when they'd won the election that first, amazing November. It was like seeing the sun come out, the moon breaking through the clouds, like music playing, and she pushed at his shoulder and rolled on top of him and rode him until he groaned and came.
It was only later, as she drowsed against his shoulder, that she realized that there actually had been music playing, hadn't there? Except it had stopped—and she bolted upright and looked at the glowing red letters of the bedside clock: 8:29. "Oh my God..."
Josh came awake instantly and pushed up on his elbow, and Donna took a moment to thank God for the way Josh responded to urgency; whatever his other faults, Josh was a man who understood that now meant now. "What?"
The clock radio had turned itself off. Two hours ago—and Donna suddenly felt close to tears. "I—it's almost—we missed the—" and oh, damn, she'd ignored the wake-up call, and her phone was in its charger, and Josh had come down without his, and oh, damn, she was already doing it, she'd ignored the wake-up call and now she had to live with the—
"Come on," Josh said, and he was scrambling out of the bed, and oh my God, he was naked and for a moment, Donna forgot all about missing the bus. "Donna!" Josh said, turning and—wow, naked and half-erect and not at all bad looking for a forty-something lawyer: score. He reached into the bed, grabbed her by the hand, and practically yanked her to her feet, and if Josh noticed that she was naked as the day she was born, he didn't let on. Instead, he shoved her toward her baggage and said, "Hurry, pack your stuff."
She began hurriedly throwing her things into her bag as Josh searched for and found his underwear, his pants, shoved his arms into his shirt. A moment later, he startled her by coming up behind her, putting his arms around her, and kissing her cheek. "I'll be right back," he said. "Be ready," and then he was gone, and she was left standing there, folding yesterday's sweater and shoving it into her bag.
When Josh came back to her room, he looked more put together: he'd changed his shirt and tie, though he was still wearing yesterday's suit. He had his backpack over one shoulder, though he shrugged it off so he could unzip it and stuff his laptop in. "Come on, let's go," Josh said, slinging his backpack over his shoulder and reaching for her bag.
"Go?" Donna repeated. "How are we going to—"
"I rented a car, the concierge is bringing it around." Josh took her arm and tugged her toward the door. "We can catch up with them if we're quick."
She let him pull her out the door, down the hallway, and into the elevator as she wormed today's schedule out of her pocket. The bus had left at 6:30 for a breakfast meeting and photo op with Governor Janet Siciliano and three members of the Arizona state senate, but by 8:30 a.m. the campaign was supposed to be on Route 17 North, headed for a lunchtime rally amidst Sedona's crimson sandstone towers and blue sky.
When the elevator doors binged open, Josh yanked out his phone and hit speed-dial. He was talking even as they strode toward the exit: "Hey, it's me. Yeah. We got held up—where are you?" and by the hotel's front doors, a uniformed attendant handed Josh a car key and pointed to a white Honda parked outside. "Great, thanks," Josh said to him, and then, into the phone: "No, keep going. We'll catch up with you near Tonto National Forest," and then Josh was snapping his phone shut and pushing through one of the glass doors.
They loaded up the car and Josh drove away, following the signs for Route 17. Donna sat in the passenger seat of the car and stared out the window, still feeling shaky. One night—just one night!—with Josh, and she'd already ignored a wake up call, missed the bus, and other metaphors as well: plainly speaking, she'd screwed up. Beside her, Josh was driving grimly, weaving them in and out of traffic until he could turn onto the highway, and then he swerved the car into the left lane and floored it. God, she was such an idiot.
"It's gonna be okay," Josh said, shooting her a sideways glance. "Really. Don't worry."
Donna forced herself to smile.
Josh reached out for her hand and squeezed it reassuringly as they sped up the road: the campaign had scheduled handshake stops in New River, Rock Springs, and Black Canyon City, but Josh hoped to catch up with them at the Red Rock diner in Camp Verde. Donna felt the bottom drop out of her stomach: those stops had been her idea, because back in Madison she remembered how the diner at the bus station had kept Dwight D. Eisenhower's coffee cup in a glass box, unwashed, since he'd stopped there in the Spring of 1954. But she wasn't going to be there to see how these visits turned out, because she just had to sleep with Josh.
"There," Josh said finally, hitting the turn signal and crossing two lanes to get off at the Camp Verde. "What's it called, the Red Roof?"
"Red Rock," Donna said faintly.
"Red Rock," Josh repeated, and then they were speeding down the main street, looking from side to side.
The Red Rock was a big, barn-like structure across from the gas station, and while the parking lot was full of cars, there was obviously no bus. Donna felt weirdly numb. Josh pulled up at the entrance and flipped open his cell phone. "Lou," he said, almost angrily, "where the hell—" and he listened for a moment, dropped the phone into his lap, and threw the car into drive.
"Josh," Donna said worriedly, but Josh was pulling out of the Red Rock with a squeal of tires and racing back toward the highway. Donna blindly flailed for the leather strap on the car door and held on as the car picked up speed: 50 mph...60...70...85...and as the needle moved toward 90, the bus suddenly came into view up ahead, Santos for President, and Josh began hitting the horn to get their attention: beep! beep! beep!
The bus flashed its right turn signal and slowly pulled off onto the shoulder, and Josh yelled in triumph and slapped his hand against the steering wheel. He guided the Honda to a stop behind the bus and turned to Donna, grinning. "Tell me that wasn't some serious driving, there. If the NASCAR dads saw that, we'd have their votes for sure." He reached past her, popped the trunk, and got out of the car.
"Josh," Donna said, quickly following him out; she now realized that this plan had a serious flaw. "Wait. What about the car?"
Josh was pulling her carry-on out of the trunk. "What?"
"The car," Donna repeated, and gestured toward it. "I mean, are you going to follow the bus to Sedona, or try to return it somewhere around here, or—?"
Josh looked surprised. "I'm not coming. I've got a 4:00 flight back to Washington," and she suddenly understood that this whole crazy trip had been to get her back onto the bus, and Donna flung her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly, stupidly, not caring who saw, because God, how she adored him.
"Hey!" Josh said, and then more softly, misunderstanding: "Hey. It's only a couple of days," and then he was pulling back and worming his Harvard signet ring off, and pressing it into her hand. "I'll meet up with you in Salt Lake City," he said, and kissed her cheek. "We can make fun of the Mormons," and then he slammed the Honda's trunk down and carried her bag to the bus's doors, and she kissed his face once, twice, passionately, before climbing into the bus with a light and happy heart.