Donna never heard the sirens.
When Josh had fallen apart, she'd seen it coming, as much as anybody could have. Just because she had never finished college didn't mean she wasn't smart, and it didn't mean she couldn't learn things. She'd just been interested in too many things to stay with one course of study for too long, and then unfortunate circumstances had intervened. But the same curiosity that had ruined her transcript had eventually made her a hell of a researcher for the third most powerful man in the White House. The work she did there was enough for a half-dozen college educations, but the only subject she'd ever found compelling enough to stick with was her independent masters class in Joshua Lyman. Almost before he'd been wheeled into recovery after fourteen hours of surgery, she'd hit the books on this new chapter, familiarizing herself with everything he was likely to go through and how to get him better. There was a dizzying, nauseating amount of information on physical recovery, much more than she'd ever wanted to know about the frailties of human flesh, but there was also plenty about emotional recovery. She'd known it wasn't going to be easy. People weren't simple things to put back together.
When Josh had fallen apart that summer, he'd crumbled in the center like badly-fired clay, and she'd run after him with broom and dustpan to try and catch all the pieces. She saw what the nightmares did to him in the long recovery after Roslyn; she slept on his couch through that terrible summer, held onto him when he woken up unable to breathe through the screams choking his throat. She listened to his fragmented memories of blood and sirens, and of seeing Toby and CJ's frantic faces but being unable to hear them, and hearing Sam crying but not knowing where he was. She'd done research on nightmares and on trauma, then she'd made a list of doctors who might be helpful. He shoved it aside with barely a look. It was the one piece of his recovery she couldn't nudge or cajole or nag or beg him into. There were certain problems people could not have if they wanted to advise the president. The nightmares had tapered off on their own after awhile, so maybe the crumbled-away pieces hadn't been as important as they'd seemed. He still jumped at sirens, but the man rode around in a motorcade, it was something that would fade with time.
When Josh had fallen apart that winter, it had been like a window shattering, shocking and loud and full of sharp, cutting edges. Donna had seen the cracks appearing, cut her fingers on the jagged splinters of his temper as he railed at her about the dependency and lack of self-worth that made her seek validation from unsuitable men. She'd had to choke back something, maybe tears or maybe laughter that he of all people would fault her for that. He'd calmed down again, given her the crooked half-smile and faint compliment that were all the apology he could ever muster, but it was only the start. He'd spent a chilly November berating the assistants and scaring the interns, intimidating members of Congress and running up the governmental bill for apology fruit baskets well into four figures. He'd startled at loud noises and started keeping his doors shut most of the day. Donna had spent her lunches in Margaret's office, taking a break from Hurricane Joshua and listening to Margaret's oblique tips on how to cover for a boss who was losing his ability to do his job. For Leo McGarry, a trip to rehab had saved his career and perhaps his life. Donna didn't know what was supposed to save Josh.
When Josh had fallen apart, it had been in noise and in yelling, a shouted plea in the Oval Office for somebody to help him, for somebody to see that he was drowning and save him. Donna was terrified and relieved all at once, terrified that this was the end of Josh's career, relieved that somebody else was finally paying attention. Josh's salvation came, slowly but surely, in Stanley Keyworth, in breathing and relaxation exercises, in the white noise machine Donna found for him and the earplugs she carried in her purse. It made sense to her after Josh had explained it. He remembered gunshots, sirens, lights, and the clamoring of excited voices, so he found solace in dim light and silence. The relief she felt when she was finally able to help him was indescribable. As the leading expert in the field of Josh Lyman studies, she learned to notice when he was teetering, often before he knew it himself, and she could shore him up before he fell. It was what they did for each other, it was how they were before everything else happened. And whenever she heard a siren, her first impulse was to glance at him, to make sure he was all right.
When Donna fell apart, it was like freezing to death. There was no drama and no yelling, no apology baskets to send, and no sirens. It crept up gradually, numbing as it went, so subtly that even with all her research she could only distantly perceive the danger. The first moments of chill started in Germany, which was strange because she'd felt so warm and safe waking up with Josh at her bedside. She was so, so glad to have him there, full of gratitude and other feelings she thought maybe it would be okay to acknowledge sometime soon. Josh fixed things, and it was all right that she was weak and broken because he would hold the world together for her until she could take it on again. Having Colin there did make things awkward, and she'd have sent him on his way (Colin was the sort with whom there'd be no hard feelings) except it quickly became obvious to Donna that despite flying four thousand miles to see her, Josh wasn't about to make any undying declaration of anything. When she looked deep into Josh's warm brown eyes, most of what she saw was the endless ocean of guilt for sending her on the CODEL, for letting her get hurt, for letting her out of her box for even a minute. The guilt wasn't unexpected, it was exactly how Josh treated every bad thing that happened in his life, but it certainly wasn't helpful. Every time she tried to talk about the bombing, every time she startled awake from an unremembered nightmare, every time she whimpered when her bandages were changed or her leg was adjusted, he'd look about ready to walk into traffic just to somehow absolve himself. A cool resentment crept into the secret corners of her heart that she should have to suppress her own pain to avoid making him any more miserable, and when Leo had started making noises about wanting him home, she'd almost been glad to see him go.
When Donna fell apart, it was like a sandcastle falling victim to the ocean, every new wave taking away some small detail until all that remained was an unrecognizable mess. It took almost two months before she was ready to come back to work, months of painful rehab first at the army hospital in Germany, then at the sprawling hospital complex at UW Madison where she'd paid a medical school tuition and yet never finished her bachelor's degree. Madison wasn't home anymore, and her mother's fear was uncomfortably cloying, but Donna couldn't dress or bathe herself and she couldn't afford an assistant of her own. Donna had once prided herself on her can-do spirit and positive attitude, but soon found that crumbling away in the face of constant overwhelming frustration. The reporters found her home number and called until her parents had to change the phone number they'd had for twenty years. Undaunted by her silence, they then wrote ridiculous pieces that painted her as heroine, victim, miracle, dilettante. CJ advised her not to read them; she did anyway. Even when she was able to get back to work, four weeks earlier than her doctors had advised, things had changed. Her life didn't fit her anymore, chafing like the pantyhose that irritated her healing scars. On her first day back, she sat abandoned in her wheelchair outside the bullpen and thought that if she could've walked, she'd have run away. The feeling passed quickly of course, there was so much work to do. How could Josh get by without her?
When Donna fell apart it was an enigma, a puzzle, a mystery, three words that all meant the same thing: that she couldn't fix herself because it wasn't at all clear exactly what had gone so wrong. She didn't try and go it alone, she arranged and attended all six therapy sessions that her insurance would cover. The therapist talked about delayed trauma and transferred emotions, but she didn't explain why Donna had lived and the four men with her had died. She didn't explain why Donna couldn't remember anything between waving goodbye to Colin and waking up in Germany, but she still flinched at sudden bright lights and loud noises. Donna didn't say anything to the therapist about Josh; after Cliff Calley she had learned that some things should never, ever, ever be let out of the privacy of her own thoughts. Even if she had, she suspected the therapist would not have been able to explain why Donna's feelings were so confused now. She still felt the longing and wanting and caring that were old familiar emotions, but were now mixed with regret, frustration and anger that she was pretty sure he hadn't even earned this time. Josh had never signed up for a course in Donna Moss studies. He had many more important things to do than notice his trusty assistant losing pieces of herself, and even though she knew that was true, it was still a bitter taste in her mouth.
When Donna fell apart, it was quiet and fast and desperate, a scrabbling rush like someone clinging to the edge of a cliff and trying to hold on. It was barbed comments and meetings she pushed onto his schedule and silent angry demands that if he couldn't be there for her the way she needed him, that he at least respect her as a professional. It was a moment in the bullpen that she couldn't take back and found she didn't want to, it was rushing home at the end of the day with a hastily-packed cardboard box full of photographs and coffee mugs and all the spare clothes that had migrated into her bottom desk drawer for emergencies. And her salvation came, slowly but surely, back where it all began. Working on a presidential campaign, riding the bus and meeting the press, keeping herself too busy to brood or to regret lost chances. She began to sleep again at night, and to taste the flavor of the fast food they constantly ate, and to not dread seeing her old coworkers on television. Thinking about Josh was still painful, to say nothing of actually seeing him, but that was such a normal and mundane kind of pain that she almost welcomed it. Donna had never heard the sirens, not the way Josh did, but she finally began to understand the relief that came from not hearing them anymore.