Author: little zigzags
Prompt: 111. Josh/Donna, Camp David
Spoilers: Through The Third Day Story, I guess.
Disclaimer: No money from these beauties.
Summary: But then she looks at him, late at night, his slumped shoulders and the thin line of his mouth and she’s rooted to the spot. Josh got across the Atlantic only a few hours faster than it took her ex-boyfriend to get across Madison and really, that’s got to count for something.
A/N: Ack. This was written for round 1 of sorkin_fest. What started as a short, sweet idea turned long and rambling, and God, it just wouldn’t end. Let me know if it’s coherent. And yay, now I actually get to go read other people's stuff! (As soon as I finish the second fic, that is.)
It’s got so I don’t even know for sure
Whether I am glad, sorry, or anything.
There’s nothing but a voice-like left inside
That seems to tell me how I ought to feel,
And would feel if I wasn’t all gone wrong.
Robert Frost, A Servant to Servants
He’s been working late again. Well, later, anyway—eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock, into the early hours of the morning. She stays with him, tonight at least, her leg aching from being folded under a desk. The bullpen is dark. A vacuum whirrs in another part of the building.
He emerges from his office, looking worn and rumpled. Months later, and he hasn’t lost the tired, frowning lines under his eyes, the ones he got from a week curled in a hospital chair. His battle scars, to match the ones he already has. To match hers.
The lone light from her desk casts odd shadows; he looks filmy and ghostlike in the blueish light. His eyes soften as they focus in on her. He’s leaving; he’s got his backpack and his thin autumn jacking over his arm. His tie is loose and the a few buttons undone; she can see his throat moving as he swallows, even in the dim evening hues.
“I thought you’d gone home,” he says hoarsely, his voice riddled with exhaustion.
“No.” She stands slowly, her leg creaking in protest.
“I’m—I’m going to go try to get a few hours sleep.” He rubs his eyes with his hand. He looks smaller these days, quieter, as if someone had deflated him. They’re all like this, these days, as if something had nested in the dark corners of Sam’s old office and slowly died. There are times when she wishes she could leave, just run like she did so many years ago across the country and away from him.
But then she looks at him, late at night, his slumped shoulders and the thin line of his mouth and she’s rooted to the spot. Josh got across the Atlantic only a few hours faster than it took her ex-boyfriend to get across Madison and really, that’s got to count for something.
He picks her coat up where it hangs on their coat rack and holds it behind her as she slides her arms in. She can hear his breath; feels his hands linger on her shoulders. Her hand brushes the tops of his knuckles as she slides her hair free from her collar.
They’ve been skirting each other for weeks now, months. Everything has grown quieter, dulled at the edges. He’s not as loud. They don’t banter as much. He feels her pained frowns with a clench in his gut. She tries to forget the solitary red rose he left with her lunch tray in the hospital.
In any other situation it would have been so clear. But they’re twisted and thwarted and have to revert to total dysfunction before they get anything done. It’s not much different than the government, her relationship with Josh.
He’s taken his hands from her shoulders and they walk together from the building, through the gates and down the deserted avenues. He stands in the road to hail her a cab, and she pulls her coat tighter around her against the chill.
She climbs in, looks up at him through the open door, gives him her small, tired Donna smile. “Come with me, Josh,” she says, her hand reaching out to him, and his heart nearly stops, there’s no ground beneath him, no air in his lungs. She’s sitting there in the cab, looking up at him with her wide, clear eyes, and he takes a shaky breath.
She starts and blushes, realizing how she must sound, beckoning him to her cab in the middle of the night. “You’ll never get another cab. Come with me, have them double back.”
He breathes out. He tries to think for a minute, some sort of analysis of her request, then gives up when he realizes that his mind has gone to slush in the late night.
He climbs into the warm cab next to her, their thighs touching briefly as she scoots over. He tugs the end of her scarf playfully, the side of his mouth turning up, the skin crinkling in a halfhearted dimple. “Thanks. I would have—I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t gotten a cab.”
“Passed out in the middle of Pennsylvania and called it a night?”
She looks at him shrewdly. “You shouldn’t work so late, Josh.”
He looks up, meets her eyes. “Neither should you.”
“I leave when you leave.” She shrugs, looks away.
He nods to himself, resting his head against the back of the seat and closing his eyes. He could almost fall asleep here inside the warm cab, the cabbie humming the chorus of Happy Days under his breath and Donna’s watchful eye, the windows steaming just a little bit.
She rubs her leg absentmindedly, and he opens his eyes and watches. She’s just barely off her crutches and he tries to ignore the soft lilt to her usually graceful gait. She’s taken to wearing stockings just matte enough to make the jagged scars look like an optical illusion in the macabre light of the west wing. The nicks on her face have reverted back into her pale skin, he wants to examine her up close sometimes, make sure the evidence remains. But her sleek suit pants and longer skirts remind him of what’s changed. He’s missed her girlish naked legs all summer; her sheer stockings and tiny, professional suit dresses. He knows she would probably hit him if she knew how much he reminisces about the sight of her bare knees. She looks up at him, flushing again as she notices his gaze is the dim light of the cab.
“It hurts, still?”
“Sometimes. The long hours, or when it rains.”
He nods, remembering the deep ache in his chest. “I’m sorry,” he says quietly.
“For what?” Her voice is soft, soothing, he closes his eyes again.
“You know the—the hours. All the time we spend behind a desk.”
She nods, seriously. “What you do is is important. Sometimes it can’t wait.”
His mouth widens in a grim line. “Sometimes it feels important.” He breathes out. “Sometimes it feels like prison, like one of those Escher prints? With the never-ending staircase?”
She looks at his face, trying not to give away her surprise. She rarely hears him talk like this about his job. Sure, most of the time he looks like he’s running on nothing but adrenaline and caffeine and nerves, but tonight his face is cramped and he looks like he did those months after the shooting, like a caged animal. She wants to speak, pet his jacketed arm, but she just looks at him, his gaze staring ahead. He turns, looks into her worried face seriously.
“It’ll get better, Josh,” she says, finally reaching out to clasp her hand over his slender wrist. He looks at her in the way he does sometimes, like he never expected anyone to care about him. He glances away, resting his head again against the back of seat, sighing a little in exhaustion.
“The President wants us to go to Camp David for a long weekend,” he says without opening his eyes.
“Yea.” He swipes his hand over his face. “It’s going to be a slow week, or slower than usual, anyway. I don’t know why he wants us to go, actually, ‘cause it’s not like we’ll be doing anything, really. Just us and the President of the United States, just doing nothing? It doesn’t sound right.” He sits bolt upright suddenly. “You know, it really does sound fishy. Do you think he’s playing, you know, a practical joke or something?”
She chuffs. “Sounds like he wants you guys to have a break, Josh.” He makes a little “Ah” face and she laughs outright at his complete incomprehension of normalcy. “Do you want me to communicate with your deputies while you’re gone, make sure everything is going alright?”
He looks at her, surprised. “You do realize you’re going too, right?”
“I’m going where?”
“To Barbados, Donna.” He quirks his mouth at her.
She looks at him, surprised. “I’m going to Camp David?”
“For the whole weekend?”
“Why?” He watches the lines of perplexity in her face, her pouty mouth glinting in the light of the passing street lamps. She’s been to Camp David before, and Manchester too, but only for working weekends, when he desperately needs her help.
“I think—” He processes his words in his head. “Leo’s coming, did you know that?”
“No, considering you just told me we were going at all.”
He sees her small grin, because she knows his mind is foggy and he’s struggling for words. “Well, he is. And I think—I think he wanted you there too. Because, you know—” he waves a hand vaguely at her leg “—everything happened together.”
“Yea.” He opens his eyes; looks at her seriously. “You and Leo were—hurt, together. And now you’re better.”
He looks at her, and she nods, but her eyes are concerned. “But I’m—Josh, I’m nothing, compared to him, the President shouldn’t invite me, not if Carol and Ginger and Margaret aren’t coming. It will look—strange.”
She can feel his eyes on her as she gazes out the window at the passing DC streets. He’s quiet for a moment, and she feels the warmth of his palm through her stockings as he reaches over to cup her knee. “The President wants you there, Donna.” He’s quiet for several long moments. “And you’re not nothing.” She turns her head and looks at him, catches a few seconds of his soft, open face before he leans back to his side of the cab, a cool spot on her knee where his palm was.
This is how it is with them, these days. She’ll catch him, sometimes, when he doesn’t think she’s watching, and she’ll remember some hazy morphine scene, his big, scared eyes and open mouth, the rumpled dove gray of his suit.
He wouldn’t look like that if he knew she was looking, she’s sure of it.
The car rumbles to a stop in front of her apartment. She makes to reach into her purse, give him some money for the cab, but he waves her off. She gives off a small smile. He’s so strange, so incongruous, he pays for her cab and her food and giving her flowers, but she’s usually carrying his suitcase and his backpack and he’s stranding her in the middle of the bullpen in her wheelchair.
“Thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow,” she says, looking back at him as she opens the car door and steps out into the chilly October air. He wonders where the summer went, all sticky and sultry and the bright sheen on her face from muscling around on crutches.
She closes the door, and he watches her striding up the steps, her hand on the railing for leverage. She looks back at him, once, before opening the door.
He waits until he sees her light flip on in the upstairs window before the cab rolls away.
The office is abuzz on Thursday as they prepare to leave; Ginger is shoving a stack of piles at Toby because he insists on working on some speech or another, Margaret is helping CJ frantically tie up some loose ends.
Donna’s running around trying to make sure that Josh doesn’t forget, you know, his brain, because even if it’s a short trip, and they’re not going to be working on much, he still can’t find his cell phone charger or his file on the India thing, or a clean toothbrush.
“Did you get the briefing on the 602 thing?” He asks as she walks into his office, setting his packed backpack down next to his duffel.
“Yep.” She plops down into his visitor’s chair.
“And the Stackhouse thing?”
“Josh, you’re packed. And may I remind you, this is supposed to be, you know, relaxing?”
He grumbles, scratching his hair.
She rolls her eyes. “What was I thinking. You and Toby, we’re going to have to pry you out of the building.” She looks at him more seriously. “Josh, weren’t you just telling me last night how—tired you are?” She chooses her words carefully, not saying the dozen or so more adequate adjectives coming to mind. He’s exhausted, she thinks. Drained. Remembering the desperate tinge to his expression, she allows herself to think what she really saw. Trapped.
She regrets her words though as he averts his eyes and she sees the light flush creeping over his face. She knew if he hadn’t been so tired that he never would have let her see him look like that; never would have voiced his emotions. It’s at once terribly sad and ridiculously infuriating, that he won’t talk to her in the light of day.
But that’s them, though, all dim lighting and late night, eleventh hour confessions. It’s ridiculous, she thinks, that one of them has to be hopped up on morphine and hovering near death for any truth to come forth. And none of it holds in the light of day.
The uncomfortable silence is interrupted as Toby wanders by the office, carrying his overnight bag and an armful of legal pads bearing his usual inky scribble. “You guys ready?” He says. “The President’s on his way over from the Residence.”
Struggling to her feet, she grabs Josh’s backpack and is surprised when he shoulders her bag along with his own. He doesn’t look at her, the faint tinge still visible on his cheeks, his jaw working uncomfortably. She falls in line behind Toby and Josh as they make their way towards the waiting motorcade.
“No laptop this time?” Josh asks Toby, gesturing awkwardly around the bags towards Toby’s full arms.
“Security measures,” he mumbles gruffly. “Wouldn’t want one of you all reading over my shoulder.”
“Ah, I see. And there’s no chance of that now, seeing as you write in, you know, Arabic.” Josh jokes, looking pointedly at the illegible scrawl.
Toby fixes him with a glare, and nods at CJ as she meets up with them in the hallway. “Please tell me that I’m not going to have to ride with him.”
CJ waggles her finger at him. “No, no, no, Tobus, I got him last time we went somewhere, and I swear I had a migraine for about three days.”
“Hey!” Josh cries, mock hurt in his voice. “I’m standing right here, you know.”
“We know,” Toby and CJ say in unison.
“Look at my senior staff, getting along, the shining example of a fluid, cooperative government,” a booming voice sounds behind them.
They slow, turn around. “Mr. President.”
Bartlet strides on ahead. “Here we are, poised at the beginning of a restorative retreat, to rejuvenate our minds and bodies in preparation of the long year ahead.” He turns back at them, a mock haughty look on his face, eyes full of mirth. “Let’s try not kill each other while we’re at it.”
They murmur a response, and Bartlet turns back around as they continue their walk down the hall.
“Camp David—” the President starts, leaving his staff to groan good-naturedly in the background. He turns to glare at them again, and they fall silent. “Camp David, also known as Naval Support Facility Thurmont, received its name from President Eisenhower in honor of his son. Before that it had been known as Shangri-La, as named by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942. But tell me, do any of you philistines know the original name of Camp David?”
His senior staff is silent for several long moments, before Josh, unsurprised, hears Donna pipe in from the background. “It was known as Hi-Catoctin, sir.”
Bartlet smiles. “Good girl,” he says, offering her his arm. She grins broadly and takes it. “You ride with me.” He glances back at Josh, Toby, and CJ. “The rest of you can fight over Josh.”
Donna sighs and lies back on her bed. It’s so strange, being away, for once not running around or answering phones or making sure Josh doesn’t trip over something. Sure, CJ and Josh and Toby are calling their staff once every, well, ten seconds to make sure something hadn’t exploded or erupted or been bombed, but for the most part, they aren’t doing much.
She looks out the window at the dusk settling in on the woods outside. She loves it when they go somewhere like Camp David or Manchester or middle-of-nowhere, Indiana. Loves the open space and the lack of offices and the crisp smell of autumn.
She looks at her watch. They’re having dinner in about ten minutes, she supposes, or as soon as Leo arrives. She’s barely seen him since his heart attack, too busy wrangling herself out of her wheelchair and onto crutches; dealing with the searing pain in her leg; learning how to walk again. Learning how to look at Josh again, at his guarded, mournful face.
Pushing it out of her head, she wanders down the hallway to Josh’s room. She can hear CJ and Toby chatting—or arguing—amiably downstairs, but she hasn’t heard a peep from him since they had gotten here a few hours ago.
Rapping lightly on his door, she pushes it open. Her eyes fall on him. He’s asleep, on his side facing the bedside table, one palm under his cheek and the other resting on a briefing book he must have taken out to read. As she walks around to the side of the bed she sees that the pale yellow lamp next to him illuminates his face and sheds some light onto the dusky room.
She looks at him for a few moments. It’s ironic, really. Josh can go 48 hours without so much as a catnap; he runs on adrenaline and Red Bull and some sort of internal energy she can’t begin to explain. But give him a bed and a quiet corner, and he can fall asleep at the drop of a hat. Still, she rarely sees him so prone, the youthful boyishness of his face evident in the soft light.
She sighs. Some days she can’t fathom how old they have become, how different she seems than the person who had waltzed into his office all those years ago. But looking at him now, she wonders how different they really are. She’s still his assistant, still carries his bags and answers his phones and when she catches him looking at her, he looks away. He’s been shot and she’s been somersaulted through the air in a ball of fire, and sometimes the need for change is a burning knot in her throat.
As she lies her hand on the soft wool of his sweater, the warmth of his shoulder radiating into her palm, she feels a deep ache in her stomach. They are different, she thinks, as she shakes him gently, his eyes fluttering open. This must be different.
Reaching over with his other hand, he clasps his fingers lightly over her own as his eyes slowly focus on her face. She doesn’t remove her hand, not even when she recognizes the light sweep of embarrassment in his features as he pulls his hand away.
“Hey,” he says in a gravelly tone, peering up at her.
“What time is it?”
“Six-thirty.” She sits gingerly on the side of the bed as he wrangles himself upward, his hair sticking up at odd angles. He’s changed; she shakes her head, looking at the day’s suit and shirt crumpled in a heap on the floor next to the suitcase. She’s surprised at his dark slacks and lean black sweater; she rarely sees him in anything other than a suit, with the addition of a tuxedo and an occasional pair of jeans. He looks good, she thinks. Relaxed. Casual. She’s not bothered to change out of the slim suiting pants and silk blouse she had been wearing earlier at the office.
“God,” he says, his voice still slightly sleep muffled. “I haven’t slept in the afternoon since, I don’t know, maybe college.”
“You need the rest,” she says softly, trying to keep the mothering tone out of her voice. “Seriously, Josh, you’re not twenty-five anymore.”
He grimaces. “Of that,” he says, tipping his head back, one of his vertebra popping loudly in protest, “I am painfully aware.”
She gives him a small smile, trying to avoid watching the muscles in his throat. “Dinner’s in a few.”
His face brightens. “Leo?”
“Any minute.” She smiles at his face, suddenly happy and clear. She has no doubt that Josh’s grinding, desperate attitude of late is due at least in part to Leo’s absence. He’s struggling in the wake of the older man’s departure, although he would never admit it, not even to her. CJ’s capable, God, she’s more than that, she’s fierce and loyal and ridiculously keen, but she’s also been thrown in the deep end and things are getting missed. His shoulders are more burdened than they have ever been and she’s felt the deep pang of worry ever since she’s been back.
She also knows the question he would never dare to ask, not to Leo, not to the President. He’s Josh; he’s arrogant and he’s smug and he boasts and brags, but mostly he just takes what he’s given and doesn’t complain. She thinks of all the lesser men who would have bowed under the weight of his loss, and all that Josh has done.
She watches him, sitting upright on the bed, still bearing the faintly lost look of the recently awoken, and feels a tightening in her chest. Try as she might, she cannot lose this, this fierce protectiveness she feels for him sometimes. It’s dangerous, she thinks. How she would fight off Toby or Leo or even the President for him.
“I’m going to head down now. See you down there?”
He nods, scruffing at his hair with his palms. “I’m just going to splash some water on my face.”
“Okay. Don’t be too long, the President wants to properly educate you lay-people more about the history of Camp David.”
She grins as she hears his groan. “You two are like two peas in a pod, you know that? Champions of useless, inane knowledge that no in their right mind would care about!”
She rolls her eyes. “Josh, what’s the voting trend of middle age black men in agricultural states?”
He opens his mouth reflexively to speak, then closes it again and glares at her. “Go away from me.”
Grinning angelically over her shoulder at him, she makes her way down the stairs, a small sound erupting in the back of her throat as she sees Leo unwinding a scarf from his neck by the front door to the lodge.
“Leo!” She exclaims, hurrying down the stairs. He looks older somehow, and yet she recognizes the steely, almost mirthful look in his eyes as he grins his lopsided grin. She moves to envelope him in a ginger embrace.
“Hey, kid,” she hears him say into her ear before she pulls away and is instantly surrounded by CJ and Toby.
Out of the corner of her eye she sees Josh descend the stairs quietly. Forgoing Toby’s gruff handshake, he hugs Leo, and only because she’s listening can she hear his soft exhalation of breath.
They all love Leo; CJ, Toby, Sam, herself. But she knows it’s been the hardest for Josh these past few months, struggling through in the West Wing without him.
They separate, and CJ nods her head towards the dining room. “The President’s busy interfering with the cooks. Something about the originating county of the beef, and whether he’ll be served green beans with it.”
They all chuckle. Donna drops back as they file into the dining room, looking back at Josh as he ambles behind them all. Hesitating slightly, she presses her hand to his lower back.
He turns, giving her an impenetrable look. They’re like this now, all unexpected comfort and soft glances. She wants to touch him more often than not, and the lines that have kept her from doing so in the past have become blurred.
He’s still looking at her as they pass through the doorway into the dining room, set informally for them all. She lets her hand fall from where it rests, but notices as he slides into the seat next to her that the bright flash of joy she saw when Leo arrived has passed from his face, that he now looks pale, almost shaken in the light.
He’s been strange with her all summer, one minute devastatingly intimate and the next inching away. They’re all careful looks and hands that linger too long and sometimes she feels so desperate for something, some part of him, or her life, or their jobs to change that she feels that something is trying to burrow its way out of her chest. The summer has passed in its usual whirl of heat and drawling late afternoon light and she can’t imagine that they have another one, just one more before they are thrown from their perch at the top of the world and she and Josh will go their separate ways.
Except he’s Josh and she can’t even think of a way that doesn’t involve her talking to him late at night and force-feeding him salads and trying to not let their glances or his palms linger too long in places they shouldn’t, and really, that scares the living crap out of her. She’s supposed to be a feminist, she’s supposed to have heroes like Gloria Steinem or Elizabeth Blackwell or CJ, not her loud and offensive boss.
When the President raises his glass she turns to listen, abandoning her scrutiny of Josh’s preoccupied face. Bartlet is flushed, his jovial mood evident as he smiles his trademark grin at the wide table.
“Thank you all for being here,” he starts, raising a glass of red wine to them. “I was supposed to be accompanied by my wife, but she was invited to address some crucial women’s issue in Peru at the last minute and is apparently impervious to presidential orders.”
She feels Josh kick her lightly under the table and she turns slightly to glance at him out of the corner of her eye. His face is blank and attentive but she can see the outline of one gleeful dimple forming on his left cheek. She kicks him back, hard, and he disguises his squeak of surprise with a loud cough.
The President glares at him. “As I was saying,” he continues, his face turning serious. “I’m glad you could all make the time to take some time. I know you have a lot to do, and a lot you’d like to do, before we find ourselves being shown the door.” He looks at them each in turn, his eyes resting on Donna and Leo, who sits on her other side from Josh. “The Lord giveth, and the Lord hath taken away. While we have suffered great loss during our lives, I can’t begin to express the relief and happiness that those we thought might be lost to us have been returned. To say that things would be different if any member of this table were absent is an understatement. You are indispensable to our work, to our minds, to our souls.” She lets out a small breath of air as she feels Josh’s warm hand close suddenly around hers where it rests on her leg under the table. He’s tactile, sure, she knows this, all hugs and hands on her shoulder and her knee and at the small of her back. But he’s not openly affectionate, not really, not anywhere that could be construed as work. Sure, he wasn’t exactly the picture of platonic admiration with Amy, but Donna knew that was mostly her. Amy was all sex and heat and raised voices and temper, and for all Josh’s talk, she knows he’s really pretty modest. She knows that for the most part he’s well-mannered and dorkily chivalrous and actually downright shy, and she also knows that for all the glamour and the fan clubs and the perks, he knows that his job is important. That was he does matters more than kissing his his girlfriend in the middle of the bullpen.
Or his secretary, she thinks, as his grip tightens for the slightest of seconds. It all feels so bizarre that she’s having trouble focusing on what the President is saying, which, she thinks, is kind of the point.
“Let us remember the joy that we feel tonight at being united together. There are more trials ahead for us, for sure. But for now let us be safe, and happy, and alive. God bless us.”
“God bless America,” Toby mumbles, and they murmur their affirmations.
“Now,” the President says, reaching for the wine bottle, his face turning cheeky once more. “I would like to enjoy the few minutes I have when something is not being invaded by helping myself to more of our splendid libations. I suggest you all do the same. Except for you, my friend,” he says, raising his eyebrows mock haughtily at Leo. “If you’d like to fall off the wagon then fine, but not on my vacation.” Leo chuckles, and the President’s breaks into a grin. “Or you,” he said, turning his eyes to Josh. “I hear sensitive systems are not things to be meddled with.”
“Donna!” He cries whinily, and she shrugs, hiding her laugh under a curtain of golden hair as the rest laugh unabashedly.
He glares at her, but only later does she realize that his hand stays atop hers until she reaches for her fork and begins to eat.
She gives him curious glances all throughout the meal; he looks away.
Later, with the President conversing with Leo and CJ beating Toby’s ass at Scrabble (“for the love of all that is holy, woman, if you come up with another seven letter word I may have to, you know, kill myself”) he finds himself with nothing to do, no one to talk to. Fitting, he thinks, wandering through the deserted kitchen. Camp David is strange, half military bunker and half summer camp, and he feels strange, almost nostalgic, like they should be eating peanut butter sandwiches in between lake activities, like he should challenge CJ to a game of capture the flag.
She’d kick his ass, he thinks, making his way through the darkened rooms.
He pauses when he sees a faint glow coming from the porch at the far end of the lodge. Pausing slightly before poking his head through the entryway, he sees her sitting on a small daybed tucked in the corner, the cold air prickling his arms. She’s changed into a sweatshirt and jeans, a quilt draped over her knees as she writes thoughtfully on a piece of blank stationery. He shivers slightly as the night air wooshes in through the screen, the summer sounds of crickets and whippoorwills not entirely gone from the dark night.
“Hi,” he says quietly, and she looks up, momentarily startled, her face softening when sees him.
“What are you doing? It’s freezing out here!” He takes a few steps onto the porch, his stomach lurching awkwardly at the sight of the cold flush of her cheeks, the soft illumination of her hair in the lamplight.
“Just looking for a quiet place, I guess.” She puts down her pen, shielding her note from view as he cranes his neck surreptitiously to see what she is writing.
“You should come watch this,” he says, jerking his thumb behind him. “CJ’s just put ‘baptize’ on a double word. Toby’s about to throw in the towel. Something about his culture yielding no advantageous diction.”
Donna scrunches her nose. “That’s just not true. ‘Klezmer.’”
He laughs. “’Mitzvah.’”
“”Kibbutz.” She arches her eyebrow in challenge.
He smoothes his hand through his hair, remembering a snow-covered covered evening, and the scent of her on his coat for weeks. “Menschy.”
“Blintzes!” He chuffs, his grin wide, and she feels that unique tug in her gut at the sight of his soft, dimpled face.
They’re still smiling when he sees her shiver involuntarily in the cool air, pulling the blanket higher around her arms. “It really is cold out here. Do you want a cup of tea?”
She looks at him curiously, and he realizes that for all of his complaining about her ability as a beverage-fetcher, he hardly ever offers to bring her anything. Sure, he buys her lunch occasionally, or more frequently she eats his lunch, but usually he’s too busy poring over some briefing or yelling at CSPAN to be at all concerned with her level of caffeination.
He raises his hands, palms front. “Look, it’s not some grand gesture or anything, it’s just a cup of tea.” He shoves his hands deep into his pockets. “Take it or leave it.”
She rolls her eyes at his abruptness. “Yes, Josh, a cup of tea would be lovely.”
He nods sheepishly and wanders back into the large commercial kitchen, puttering around until he finds a tea kettle and some sugar.
Returning a few minutes later, he places his cup down on the small table nearby. She reaches up to take the cup from him, her fingers lingering over his as he carefully places it carefully in her hands. “Careful, its hot,” he says quietly, the preoccupying blue of her eyes disarming him as they gaze up to his over the mug.
She scoots to one side of the daybed; it takes him a second to realize that she’s making room for him. She’s got her knees up, the note she was writing discretely folded in the curve of her lap. He avoids looking at her delicate coral toenails as he sits gingerly, taking the cup from the table. He’s a detail oriented guy, that’s his job, to remember the quirks and the nuances of every bill, every domestic issue that comes across the President’s desk, but he’s not that way with people, really. Donna has to smack him over the head before he notices how hungry she is or how good CJ looks that day. There’s a big, guarded kernel of regret in his stomach called Sam, his pallor, his disillusioned, glazed eyes, the downward lilt to his lips. The part he didn’t notice until his best friend caught the first plane out of the place and decided he couldn’t come back. He hadn’t noticed any of that.
But he can’t help but realize that he’s noticing all the small parts of her, all the quiet subtleties to her now. Her squared off nails and her deep, vaguely insolent laugh. He’s noticing it all now and it scares the crap out of him.
“It’s nice out here,” he says idly, sipping at his tea then resting it down, leaning back to prop his hands up behind his head.
“Mm.” She’s looking at him curiously over her knees; he’s carefully studying the juxtaposition of her bare toes just inches from his dark slacks.
“Sometimes I think I could, you know, stay,” he says, looking up from her feet. “Set up shop here.”
“At Camp David? I don’t think they’d let you do that, Josh,” she says, her mouth still grimly serious but her eyes warm and lively.
He rolls his eyes. “You know what I mean. The country, with the grass and the air and stuff. Out here, Donna, the great outdoors. I am an outdoors—” he stops and breaks into a quiet grin when he sees her silent raised eyebrow.
“Okay, well, I like it, that’s all.” He makes a face. “When there’s not like, bugs and stuff. Or snakes.”
It’s her turn to roll her eyes at him. “So pretty much, you want to travel around in a giant screened bubble of bug and snake protection.”
His eyes lighten mockingly. “Could that work?”
“Yea Josh, you’re a regular Bear Grylls.”
He smirks. “Like you’re Jane Goodall or something.”
“At least I don’t make my assistant kill the spiders in the office.”
“One time! And that wasn’t a spider, Donna, it was a—a—tarantula, or something.”
She chuckles at that, then her face sobers. “No, I like it here too. It’s peaceful. There’s times when I think—I think I would like to move someplace more rural. Someplace where I could have a big back yard with streams and stuff for my kids to catch frogs.”
He looks up at her, his pulse quickening sharply. “Do you think about—that—often?”
She looks up at his halting words. “Sometimes. I think about what my life will be like after this presidency.” Her brow furrows. “You don’t think about that?”
He frowns. “I don’t know, sometimes. I guess—I guess I just figure that I’ll still be in some office somewhere, yelling at people. It’s what I do.”
She purses her lips and looks down at her knees. “You should slow down, Josh.”
He grins weakly at her, although the conversation is making his stomach churn. “What am I, an octogenarian? I’m in my prime, Donna, I’ve got years of yelling ahead—”
She cuts him off. “And that’s what you want? Years more of—of this?”
He’s quiet all of the sudden, and she sees the flashing sweep of injury pass across his face. She realizes in one sharp moment that she’s hurt him, and she inhales sharply as he speaks, his voice soft and gravelly, serious. “I thought most of those years were okay.”
“They were.” She thinks of the hundreds of words behind what they’re saying, all the conversations they've never had. She thinks about most of these years and how they’ve been the most thrilling of her life. She thinks about him, in his office, telling her about how they are going to save education or healthcare or get this bill passed so people can afford to live their lives. She thinks about all the combined hours they have spent in hospital waiting rooms and how it never amounts to anything, not really. About how she thinks about this final, excruciating year and she doesn’t know how she’s going to do it. She thinks about Josh, earlier, his quiet, peaceful face as he slept, and how she almost couldn’t wake him, and all these quiet moments between them now.
He pulls away from her gaze, coughing slightly, struggling for safe ground. “Who are you writing?” Gesturing half-heartedly to the paper on her lap, his eyebrows raise questioningly.
She looks away. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Really? You looked pretty, you know, into it.”
They are silent for a moment. She picks at the corner of the stationery. She sees his face close as he realizes she’s not going to tell him, which is exactly when the words spill from her, almost involuntarily.
“Colin. I’m writing Colin.”
“Colin.” She watches his face as it changes from genuine confusion into glaring understanding. “Colin? The IRA guy from—from the thing?” She watches his hands move, his voice catching slightly as he recalls that time.
“Please, Josh, he’s from Belfast. You know, Northern Ireland? Which probably means he’s not actually in the IRA.”
Josh plows on, a strange heat thrumming behind his eyes. “You write to him?”
She’s still not really looking at him. “Yes.”
“Because there’s not a lot of internet access in the Congo, which is where he is right now.”
He shakes his head. “No, I don’t mean why do you write him. I mean why do you write him.”
She narrows her eyes at him. “Thank you, Josh. That completely elucidated your point.”
“You know what I mean, Donna!” He pauses. His voice sounds loud, shrill against the quiet night. He hopes the Secret Service he knows must be lurking outside can’t hear him. He continues, more quietly. “Why do you write to him?”
She shrugs, deflating slightly at the delicate sincerity of his voice.
The pain in his head is growing strongly, a fierce bleat pounding at his eye sockets. He feels as though there is not enough air in his lungs. “Are you still with him?”
Her eyes snap up, surprised. He’s looking down at her big toe, the one that Colin had touched as he strolled into her hospital room. His face still looks guarded, but when he looks up to meet her eyes she sees a need there, something strong and fierce and private. She opens her mouth. “How could I be with him, Josh? He’s thousands of miles away. I haven’t seen him since we left Germany.” I haven’t seen you since I left Germany, she thinks. Not really, not the Josh she remembers, all worried silence and tender glances. She remembers how he had lifted her gently, wrapping his arm around her shoulders as if in an embrace in order to change her pillow. Her face had buried itself in the hollow crook of his neck, and she had closed her eyes against the broad strength of him before he gingerly placed her back on the fresh linens and petted her hair once before sitting back in his chair. She blushes. Her mother had watched.
The Josh she had come back to is so different from what she had there. In Germany, there had been no responsibility beyond her, no press to be wary of, no random interns glancing at her disapprovingly as she straightens his tie in the bullpen. She can see it now, glimpses of it, in the soft light of Camp David, and for an instant she is so swallowed with fear that she wishes she hadn’t come at all.
He swipes at his eyes. “I don’t know, Donna. I’m not the relationship king, or anything, but some people do that, you know, ridiculous long distance thing.”
She looks at him, her face plain and open. “Josh, we aren’t together.”
He nods slowly. “But you were.”
She exhales softly. “I don’t know if I would call it that.”
“What would you call it?”
She looks at him, his face blank and unreadable. She feels topsy turvy, at sea in the wide expanse of her relationship with Josh. “I don’t know, Josh. It was this terrible, amazing place. I was there. And he was there. I mean, not just around, but there, when it happened—”
She sees his expression change, his face grow tight and she can see his jaw working. “He was there?”
“He was there?”
“Josh, don’t get upset—” She leans forward, reaching out for his knee, his leg, his hand.
“I’m not upset!” He’s not yelling, but his voice is raised, and she hears his voice crack desperately on the last syllable. “I’m not upset.”
“There was nothing he could do, Josh, you shouldn’t be mad at him—” She finally grabs his forearm, and he stills, looking at her, his eyes boring into hers, and her breath catches in her throat.
“I’m not mad at him, Donna, I’m jealous.”
“You’re—what?” She sits back, her hand dropping from where it rests on the muscle of his arm. Sure, she knows he’s jealous, she knows it and he knows it and probably the entire West Wing knows it. She treks back from date after date in a sexy dress and half her dinner in a to-go box under her arm, a little tipsy but ready to get back to work. She’s never heard him say it though, and certainly not like this.
“I sat there, in the bullpen, and there was a smoking car on the television and people screaming and God, Donna, we didn’t know who was in it, or whether they had been hurt or—” he stops, works to regain composure. He looks back at her. “The car was on fire.” She looks at him sharply, straining to hear him against the loud murmur of the crickets outside. “The car was on fire, and I wanted to crawl through that television screen, Donna. I would have pulled everyone out, I would have pulled you out—” He stops, and she wonders how she hadn’t anticipated this, or suspected it. He hates being helpless. He hates being far away, outside, while things go down around him. She had realized, months after Rosslyn, that Josh had been in the only place he could. If it had been anyone else, CJ, or Sam, or Toby, he would have never forgiven himself. She wonders how how many times someone can weather the same storm.
Josh continues, not looking at her. “I would have given anything to be where he was, Donna.”
She realizes then the meaning of his earlier words. Josh isn’t jealous of Colin for being with her, for kissing her and for sleeping with her or for being there in any of the moments before the explosion. He’s jealous because he wants to have been there, there, in the moment when the SUV exploded and she hung, unconscious, bleeding. It’s at once so genuine and so disappointing that she feels suddenly exhausted, shaken.
“Well, it doesn’t matter,” she says, deliberately lightening her tone. “I’m here.” He looks up at her, his face a mask of confusion and question. “I got out. It didn’t matter who was there.” She hears him inhale sharply, and laugh his quiet, devastated laugh, the one that’s not even a little bit funny, not even at all.
“Yea, you are.” He stands and she opens her mouth to say something, to say anything to clear the sudden look of pale resignation from his face. He stands, gathering their mugs and heading for the doorway to the porch. All of her words are caught in her throat, she can’t think of a single thing to say.
He turns back, suddenly, looking at her carefully, his face sad and tired in the warm lamplight. “And I’m glad for it.” He turns, and she listens to his footsteps retreating on the wood until she can no longer hear them.
Continued in Part 2