SalR323 (salr323) wrote,
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WW fic: "The Road Less Travelled"

Spamming my flist a little today! Sorry.

Anyway, this fic has been hanging around for ages and I needed to post it! It's set toward the end of S6, at which point it veers dramatically off-canon...

ETA: Many thanks go to coloneljack for the inspiration and prodding, and to caz963 for the excellent beta! Can't believe I forgot to say that!!

Chapters 1 & 2 are posted here, 3 & 4 and 5-7 will follow in subsequent posts.

Enjoy!



The Road Less Travelled
by
Sally Reeve


Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The Road Not Taken – Robert Frost

Chapter One

There were points in time, Donna reflected, where the path of life changed on a dime. Sometimes you knew right away, you could feel it switch under your feet, other times you didn’t know until years later. Like the day she’d walked into the Bartlet for America campaign office and talked herself into a job. That had been one of those life-changing moments; even now she could remember, as clear as day, the look on Josh’s face when he’d handed her his pass and turned her life in a whole new direction.

There had been others since: the first time she’d known – known – that what she felt for her boss wasn’t simply a crush or admiration or respect, but something deeper and impossible to shake. That had changed her path too, or perhaps chained her to the beaten one instead. But that humiliating evening in CJ’s office, when she’d pointed out exactly how ridiculous Donna’s life had become, was another. And that had sent her in a whole new direction, toward the moment when she’d uttered aloud the words that had been hovering like angry wasps in her mind for six months: I quit.

And after that…?

After that came this moment. Sitting next to her mother in an out-of-the-way café in Georgetown, killing time on a Sunday afternoon before her mom’s flight home. This was one of those moments.

“Oh my Goodness!” her mom exclaimed, grabbing hold of Donna’s arm. “Look who it is!”

From her level of excitement, Donna was half expecting to see Brad Pitt as she glanced around in search of a familiar face. “Who?”

“At the counter!” her mother continued, bustling to her feet. “It’s Josh Lyman!”

Cursing her bad luck, Donna glanced over and instantly hated herself for noticing how good he looked in his jeans, sunglasses dangling from the neck of his t-shirt, as he paid for a coffee to go.

Donna was toying with the idea of saying ‘hi’ when, in a loud voice that screamed out-of-towner, her mom called, “Joshua!”

Turning in surprise, Josh stared at her mother in utter shock for a moment before, to Donna’s amazement, he smiled. It was a small expression, but genuine, and brought with it a wave of unwelcome nostalgia. Worse still, as soon as his gaze darted in her direction the smile faded into unease.

Nevertheless, Josh grabbed his coffee from the counter and made his way through the mostly empty tables toward them. “Mrs. Moss,” he said, with more warmth than Donna could account for, “it’s good to see you again.” And then, with half a look in her direction, he added, “Hey, Donna.”

“Hey.” She could be as cool as him; decidedly chilly in fact.

“I’m so pleased we bumped into you,” her mom was enthusing. “Please – won’t you sit down and join us for a little? You’re not in a hurry are you?”

“Well, I—” He hesitated, glancing out the window as if the answer might lay there, and said, “Okay, sure.”

Taking a seat he pried the lid off his coffee, helping himself to the sugar. “How’ve you been?”

“Very well, thank you. And how about you? And your mother? She sent me such a lovely letter after Donna was hurt. Do you remember Donna? Very sweet.”

She did remember. Rachel Lyman knew more than most about the pain of seeing your children hurt.

“Mom’s fine,” Josh said, stirring his coffee slowly. “I— I haven’t had time to get down there in a while.”

“Oh! You sound just like Donna. That’s why I came to visit! I figured it was the only way I’d get to see my daughter, so here I am. And, I have to say, I’ve had a ball!”

Josh gave a slight smile. “First time here?”

“Yes! Can you believe it? But now Donna has a bigger apartment it’s easier for me to—”

“You moved?” His attention was suddenly fixed on Donna, his expression unreadable.

“A couple of months back.” She couldn’t resist adding, “Now that I actually have a decent salary I can afford something a little bigger than, you know, a shoe box so—”

“I didn’t know,” he said, turning his attention back to the coffee. “I didn’t know you’d moved.”

Donna felt a momentary pang of guilt at the oversight, but really, what did he expect? He’d hardly spoken to her in six months, how could she have told him? “I didn’t send out cards or anything,” she said, aware that it sounded defensive.

Josh didn’t answer, just kept stirring his coffee. Into the awkward silence her mother said, “I’ve been watching your Mr. Santos, Josh. He seems very spirited.”

“Yeah?” He looked up with a smile. “He’s got a lot of…passion, I guess. He really wants to make a difference, and I think he could.”

“Do you think he’ll win?”

Josh shrugged. “If I didn’t think he’d win, I’d still be working at the White House.”

“I like what he has to say about education,” her mother twittered on. “My eldest daughter’s a teacher, and the stories she tells us… Right Donna? The stories Annabel tells us…”

“Yeah,” Donna nodded, feeling strangely awkward in this conversation – as if she were the outsider. “Annabel’s certainly got a lot of stories.”

“Not that President Bartlet didn’t try,” her mom added hurriedly. “I mean, I know his heart was in the right place, but—”

“Yeah, I know,” Josh sighed, softening it with a rueful smile. “We didn’t do enough. The President would be the first one to agree that—”

“I think we did a lot,” Donna said, determined to edge her way into the conversation. “I’m proud of what we achieved and—”

“Are you?” Josh was looking at her intently.

“What?”

“Are you proud of what we did?”

“Of course, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I just— I wasn’t sure if—” He stopped and returned to stirring his coffee. After a moment, and in a lighter voice, he said, “Did you…visit the Smithsonian?”

Donna’s mom laughed. “Well, some of it. Just astonishing, isn’t it? Oh, and last night we went to see a concert at… Where was it, Donna? The— ”

“The Kennedy Center, mom,” Donna smiled. “The NSO – it was Mozart, mostly.”

“They played the Mass in C Minor,” her mother added. “So moving…”

“It’s a beautiful piece,” Josh agreed.

“Yes, and so very—” Suddenly, her mom reached out and grasped Josh’s arm, startling him. “I just want to say – it’s so nice to see you again, under better circumstances, Josh.”

Clearly taken aback, he just nodded. “Yeah. You too.”

“I hope— It’s still such a blur, really, but I hope I thanked you properly for everything you did for us – you know, in Germany. It made such a difference, I can’t begin to tell you—”

“It was nothing,” he replied, sipping at his coffee. “I wanted to. I wanted to do what I could.”

She squeezed his arm again, then let go, turning a beaming smile on Donna. “And just look at her now,” she said. “As beautiful as ever.”

“Mom…”

Josh was staring into his coffee again. He didn’t answer, but fortunately Donna’s mother rarely needed an answer.

“I’ll never forget seeing her there, with those tubes and her face so pale and…” She gave an exaggerated shudder. “I’ll never forget it. Never. I’m sure you won’t either.”

Josh glanced up, as if wondering who she was talking to. When he saw that it was him, he quietly said, “No. No, I won’t.”

“Did I tell you, Donna, that Josh organized my flight and the hotel and…everything?”

“Yeah.” About a million times! “You—”

“And the constant updates, especially after— Well, we saw it on the news of course, but we couldn’t get any information until Josh phoned to tell us you were in hospital— I was beside myself, as you can imagine, and your father was all for running right out the house and finding the first plane heading to Israel. Well, I said—”

“Mom?” Donna interrupted, attempting to dam the flood of words. “Would you like another coffee or something?”

She blinked for a moment, “Another coffee? Yes, yes that would be nice. Josh, let me buy you a coffee… ”

He shook his head. “Thanks, but I really have to get going—”

“One to go then.” Brooking no argument, she flagged down the waitress while Josh tried not to squirm. “After everything you did, Josh, a coffee is—”

“Really,” he said, “you don’t have to keep thanking me. It was— It was the least I could do.”

“It really was,” Donna cut in. “Don’t forget he’s the one who sent me there, Mom!”

It was supposed to be a joke. She laughed a little, but it fell flat into an icy silence. Josh didn’t move, save for the hand that constantly stirred his coffee, faster now so that it lapped at the edges of his cup. Out the corner of her eye Donna caught her mom’s fussy little motions as she unfolded and refolded the napkin on her lap, and when Donna looked over she saw her mom’s face pinched into disapproval.

The waitress seemed to be taking forever to return.

Suddenly she heard the soft bleep of something electronic, and realised that Josh had his cell in his hand. Donna watched with a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach as he slipped it back into his pocket. Was he…? Was he using the code? The ‘phone-me-now-to-get-me-out-of-this’ code they’d invented?

“Ah…how long are you in town?” Josh said at last, looking up at her mom.

“Just until tonight,” came her awkward reply. She seemed embarrassed. “My flight’s at six.”

“Ah…” he nodded. “I hope you have a good—” His cell phone rang – right on cue – and he fished it out of his pocket. “Yeah…? Okay. Thanks. I’ll be right in.” Snapping it shut, he stood up. “I have to go. There’s a…thing, back at the office, so…” He held out his hand to Donna’s mom. “Really good to see you again, Mrs. Moss.”

“You know you can call me Marjorie,” she said, taking his hand in both of hers and pressing tightly. “You take care of yourself, Joshua.”

He flashed a brief smile. “Thanks. Have a good flight, Marjorie.” And then he flung a quick, guarded look at Donna. “Bye.”

“Bye,” she said, knowing it sounded acidic, but unable to get over the fact that he’d used the code – he’d used it to get away from her! Of all the insulting—

He was gone before she could complete the thought. Fortunately, her mom was oblivious to his little deception, her eyes riveted on Josh as he hurried out of the café, slipped on his sunglasses and walked away down the street. He was missing his usual swagger, but aside from that he—

“Donnatella Moss, how could you be so rude?” Her mom’s sharp tone cut right across her thoughts.

“What?”

“How could you speak to him like that? After everything he did for me – for us! – how could you—” She shook her head, her fingers clenched tight in the napkin. “I’ve never been so humiliated.”

Donna blinked. “What are you talking about? What did I—?”

“How could you tell Josh it was his fault you got hurt in Gaza! How could you—?”

“I didn’t say that! All I said was that he’d sent me there – which he did – and for no good reason, I might add.” She paused, braving her mother’s disapproval. “Anyway, it’s just— It’s banter, mom. It’s what we do.”

Her mom cut her an angry look. “You always had a smart mouth, Donna. I’ve never seen you use it to hurt someone before.”

“I didn’t hurt—”

Her mom wasn’t listening, which was entirely typical. “I don’t like what this place is doing to you, Donna. It’s making you hard. You used to be such a sweet, caring girl, so trusting and open and—”

“It’s called naïve, mom. And you’re right, I was all those things once. But Josh taught me to be something different. He taught me that you can’t trust anyone, that no one has your best interests at heart, and that if you don’t look after yourself then no one else will!”

Her mother stiffened, chin lifting. “I don’t pretend to understand your job here, Donna, or what happened between you and Josh. You’re my daughter, I love you, and I’m proud of you, but— All I know is that I sat for a half hour outside the recovery room with that man, watching him cry for you. And I don’t know how that fits in with him not having your best interests at heart but—”

“He was…” The image was shockingly painful. “Josh cried?”

“Of course he cried. They told us you could be brain damaged, Donna! He sat there with that piece of paper screwed up in his hand and— Well, obviously he didn’t want me to see, but I’m not blind.”

Josh had cried for her…? “I didn’t know that,” she muttered, her voice strangely husky. “I didn’t— I don’t remember much of anything that happened there.”

Her mother softened, her firm, familiar fingers finding Donna’s hand on the tabletop and giving it a squeeze. “I know you think I’m old-fashioned and very small-town, Donna, but— I miss the Donna Moss who’d give away her last dollar to anyone who asked because she’d rather trust someone than not, and because she always looked for the good in everyone she met. I miss her, Donna.”

She felt ridiculously tearful and the words that tumbled out of her mouth surprised her. “I miss her too,” she heard herself say. “I miss her too, Mom.”

***

The early fall sunlight glared against the hood of his car as Josh slid behind the wheel, slammed shut the door and switched on the engine. Then he stopped and sank his head back, closing his eyes. It always left him feeling like this, every encounter with her left him feeling like this – inside out, as if his heart were beating in the open air. Every single time.

Taking a deep breath, he forced his eyes open and tried to forget – again. It was getting harder; each time it got just a little bit harder. Harder to forget her casual barbs, and harder to understand why she did it.

Ignoring the gnawing sensation in the pit of his stomach, Josh threw the car into gear and pulled out into the light Sunday afternoon traffic. He wasn’t sure where he was going, but it wasn’t back to the office. And he couldn’t face his silent apartment. So instead he just drove, his foot heavy on the gas as his mind analysed the latest twist of the knife.

It was that, more than anything, that he couldn’t understand. What had he done, what the hell had he done that was so appallingly unforgivable that she hated him so much? He wasn’t blind to his own faults – enough people pointed them out to him on a regular basis – but Donna had always seemed to see beyond them. She’d always been on his side, not just the side of the administration, but his side. She’d been the one person he’d trusted implicitly, the one person he’d relied upon to be there for him no matter what, and—

A sharp pain in the centre of his chest made him grit his teeth and he found himself tailgating the SUV in front. Irritably he pulled around it and dared the lights ahead to turn red before he made them. He sped through on orange – just.

Occasionally, usually when he’d had a couple of beers, was tempted to call her just to ask that question. Why do you hate me? But perhaps he was afraid of the answer, because he’d never mustered the courage to ask. He had several theories, however. At first, right after she’d left, he’d assumed it was because he’d blown off their lunch date too many times and she was teaching him a lesson – waiting for him to beg her to come back. But then, after the first time he’d run into her in New Hampshire, he’d realised there had to be more to it than that.

He could still remember the ice in her voice, the disdain in her eyes when he’d all but asked her to come and work with him on the Santos campaign. Worse, she’d laughed at his struggle to get the campaign off the ground, and that – right then – was when he’d first realised that he’d really lost her.

For all those years he’d believed she’d been working for the same ideals that drove him; the belief that America could live up to its potential, that it could deliver social justice, could banish inequality, and could light a beacon to guide the world toward a better future. That America could, once more, be the city on a hill. He believed that, he fought for that every day, and he’d thought she felt the same.

But standing there on that freezing New Hampshire street, he’d seen her in a cold light. She didn’t care about him, or his ideals, all she cared about was hitching her flag to the biggest, fastest ship and sailing it to victory – no matter that Bingo Bob was at the helm. Suddenly he was beneath her and she’d seemed to revel in the fact. She’d seemed to enjoy twisting the knife, laughing at him and—

A familiar lump crept into his throat and he tried to think about something else. He made the turn from Canal Street onto the Clara Barton Parkway and put his foot down. The speed felt good, it eased the tension a little, but it wasn’t enough; this afternoon he couldn’t seem to shake his bitterness and anger. Or the hurt – that never left. That ache of betrayal, like a hollow space inside his chest, haunted him every day.

Perhaps it was because he missed her every day. Despite everything, he missed her smiles, her voice, just the comforting knowledge that she was there for him. But even those memories were tainted now, and instead of the hundreds of breakfasts and dinners they’d shared, his most vivid memory was of her irritation. She’d compared him to peppermint ice-cream; she’d said that he stuck in her teeth. And he hated that, hated that her casual words had stolen so many happy memories. How long had she felt like that? How long had she resented him? Had he been kidding himself about her all along? Had she always hated him? Because she had to hate him now – why else would she want to hurt him? Even when he was trying to reach out…

New Hampshire hadn’t been the only time. Later, much later, he’d smiled and swallowed his pride and told her how good she was at her new job, and for a moment – God, the memory was painful in its poignancy – she’d smiled and said she’d had a good teacher. And he’d felt the ice melt a little, felt that perhaps the past eight years hadn’t been a complete fabrication, and then she’d twisted the knife again.

I was talking about Will.

A joke, he supposed, but hurtful nevertheless. Not because he believed her, but because she’d known he was reaching out and she’d slapped him back. Only one way to interpret that - only one way to interpret today’s little joke too.

He’d pissed her off and she hated him for it. But… It came back to the same question, over and over. Why? Why did she hate him? What had he done to turn eight years of friendship (what he’d thought was friendship) into this?

It was an answerless question, one that had circled his mind for months. It haunted him at night, ate at him every day. And the only way to beat it was to ignore it, to lock it up in a corner of his mind and leave it there to fester. Because it didn’t matter what he’d done, whatever it was, there was no going back. Donna hated him, she went out of her way to hurt him each time they met, and the only solution – the only solution that made sense as he hurtled down the Parkway – was not to see her again. Just don’t see her, don’t give her another chance to twist that knife.

It was elegant in its simplicity, avoidance at its most basic. And it made sense; if he never saw her again, she could never look at him through those stranger’s eyes and she could never make him feel like this again.

The fact that the thought of never seeing her again made him feel like he was dying inside was beside the point because—

Shit! The curve was too tight! He slammed on the breaks, the back end skidded out, and suddenly he was in a blind spin. Someone yelled – him? – and then a bone-crunching impact smashed him into darkness.


Chapter Two

It was dark. It was the pitch-black, leaden-limbed darkness of the small hours, silent outside, even in this city.

But not silent inside. Inside there was a noise… An irritating trill. Donna buried her head deeper into her pillow and hoped it would go away. It did. Slowly her body began to relax back into the dreamscape, but then it started again. And again.

Blearily, she lifted her head and her foggy mind lazily identified the sound as her cell phone. Stumbling out of bed, her feet cold on the wooden floor, she followed the insistent ringing into the living room. Groggily, she cursed herself for not keeping her phone by her bed anymore. But this kind of call had been rare since she’d left Josh— The White House. She meant since she’d left the White House.

“Donna Moss,” she croaked into the phone.

“Oh thank God!”

The urgent tone – and unfamiliar voice – roused her like a bucket of cold water. “C.J.?”

“I couldn’t get hold of anyone on the Santos campaign, but AP have it. How is he?”

Blinking, disorientated, Donna sank onto the sofa. She was cold, her feet were freezing. “How’s who? What’s happened?” There was a long, strained pause. “C.J.?”

“I’m sorry,” CJ said at last. “I just assumed— Josh was in an accident.”

“Josh…?” It was all she could muster, all her brain could process. “What kind of accident?”

“A car accident. All AP have is that he was taken by ambulance to GW. I just assumed—”

“Is he okay?” No, it’s critical. She felt sick…

“I don’t know. All AP have is that he was taken to GW in an ambulance. I just— I’ll try and get Matt Santos, I’ll call you when I know—”

“No.” She was on her feet, running to the bedroom. “No, I’m going down there. I’ll call you from there. I’m just gonna—” Suddenly her throat was too tight to speak, and the only image in her mind was the way he’d stirred his coffee so hard it had started to spill.

Blinking back tears, she flung on whatever came to hand, grabbed her car keys and ran for the door. The journey was mercifully fast at two a.m., and unlike last time there were no secret service, no press, no one at all as she raced into the ER.

“Josh Lyman,” she blurted to the duty nurse. “He was brought in— car accident…”

The nurse looked at her through narrowed eyes. “What time was he brought in? We haven’t had anyone in since—”

“I don’t know. I just found out. He was— There was a car accident. It was on the news. Josh Lyman. L.Y.M.A.N.”

“Are you family? Visiting hours are—”

“No! I’m—”

Suddenly she saw a familiar figure stepping out of an elevator, young, pretty, dark hair. Stupid name. “Ronna!” Donna called, running after her. “Ronna, wait!”

The woman turned, her face pale and tired and showing no sign of recognition. “Yes?”

“Is he okay? What happened? Where is he?”

Ronna blinked. “I’m sorry, I don’t— Do I know you?”

“Yeah, I’m… I’m Donna Moss.”

“I’m sorry, I—”

“I’m a… friend. I just heard. Is he— Oh God, is he okay or…?”

“He’s okay,” Ronna nodded, and Donna felt her knees start to shake with relief. “He’s broken his elbow – they’re going to put in some kind of pin, but they don’t want to operate yet because he has a concussion.”

“Concussion…?” She knew her voice sounded faint and pathetic, but she didn’t care. She really didn’t care. “Broken… Did you say elbow?”

“Yeah.” Ronna frowned. “Are you okay, you look a little—”

“I’m fine,” Donna smiled, fighting back tears. “I’m just— Bad memories.” She cleared her throat and glanced at the elevator. “Where is he, I should—”

“You can’t go up there. They just threw me out. They’ve given him morphine, so he’s pretty out of it anyway.”

“Right…” It all made perfect sense, except for the fact that she ached to see him – just to see with her own eyes that he was okay. “Last time we were allowed to…”

“You should come back tomorrow,” Ronna said, taking a couple of steps toward the door. “I’m exhausted, so I’m gonna…” She nodded toward the exit.

“Yeah,” Donna said. “Think I’ll just…” She sat down on a plastic chair, not sure what else to do. Go home, she supposed. Call C.J. Josh was okay, there was no reason to stay, except that the thought of leaving made her queasy and she felt an overwhelming desire to be close.

Her eyes fixed aimlessly on Ronna, the only other person in the empty ER, as she walked wearily toward the exit. She was young, Donna thought, as young as she’d been on the first campaign. Naïve too, perhaps; working for a better world on a shoe-string budget with no hope of victory. It was enough to make her— All thought left her mind, everything was swamped by the staggering realisation that Ronna had Josh’s backpack slung over her shoulder.

And it was that, more than anything else, that brought the truth home. He hadn’t called her. Josh had been in an accident and he hadn’t called her.

No one had called her.

***

Donna didn’t bother going to bed once she made it back home. She was too wired to sleep anyway, and needed to be up in just a couple of hours. So instead she took a long shower, then curled up on the sofa with her schedule for the day. The morning briefing started at seven, after which she had a meeting with advance because the next day they were heading out to California. There was no way that meeting could be cancelled or postponed, so she figured she wouldn’t be free to go see Josh until at least two. On the plus side, she was hoping he’d be out of surgery by then, and really there was no point in going earlier because she probably wouldn’t be allowed to see him anyway.

And she wanted to see him. A lot. It was disconcerting how much she wanted to see him, given that she’d spent the past few months convincing herself that she didn’t want or need him in her life.

But, she reasoned, she’d proven her point. She’d shown him, C.J. Cregg, and the world at large, that she could make it on her own. She’d proven that her life didn’t revolve around Josh Lyman and so, perhaps, it was okay to admit that she… What? Needed him? Cared about him? Yeah…cared about him. She sat up a little straighter, as if trying on the idea for size. It fitted, and she liked how it felt. Of course she still cared about Josh – how could she not? And, even more surprisingly, she realised that she didn’t care if C.J. thought that made her pathetic. She knew it didn’t. She felt it…

It was a startling, energising revelation. She cared about Josh, with his quick smile, acerbic wit, and that aching vulnerability he hid so well most of the time. Donna smiled, feeling her heart begin to race. She cared about him and he needed her. He needed a friend and that’s what she was, that’s what the past six months had proven to her; she was his friend, not his lackey or his doormat, but his friend. And she didn’t have to hide it, or run from it anymore. She was his friend and—

Great friend… The little voice was quiet and sly, dredging up memories she’d rather forget. Like the first time they’d met after she quit, the way he’d looked at her like she’d steamrollered his puppy. Or the way he’d seemed to crumple when her little jab about Will had punctured his ego. Or the way he never seemed comfortable in her presence, or—

Short-circuiting the memories, she reached for the remote, switched on CNN and went into the kitchen to make breakfast. She wasn’t hungry, but if she didn’t eat now she’d be falling over by eleven. She poured Cheerios into a bowl, grabbed the orange juice and 1 %, and headed back to the TV. She was just pouring milk into her bowl when she heard his name.

“…and Josh Lyman, former Deputy Chief of Staff, was pulled from his wrecked car on the Clara Barton Parkway late yesterday afternoon...”

Donna’s stomach turned over at the sight of Josh’s car, crumpled sideways into a tree. How many times had she ridden in that car with him?

“…Lyman, now running the campaign of Democratic hopeful, Matthew Santos, escaped with a broken arm and concussion. But police have confirmed that his car was travelling in excess of eighty miles per hour at the time of the accident and that they will be interviewing him later today. No one else was hurt in the incident. Meanwhile…”

The police? She hadn’t even considered… Milk sloshed over the lip of the carton as it landed heavily on the coffee table. She’d been so focused on his injuries she hadn’t even considered the consequences beyond that. But if the police were involved…? If he was charged with anything, it meant the end of his career. Santos couldn’t keep him on, no one could touch him. Worse still, if he were convicted. She felt sick to her stomach.

Unable to sit still, unable to face breakfast, she paced to the far side of the room and back. How could he be so stupid? But he always drove too fast, she’d told him a hundred times. If he was edgy – and when wasn’t he? – he’d put his foot down and growl at traffic. She’d told him so many times that this would happen if he didn’t—

Oh, God, the police!

It was killing her, not being there. A year ago she’d have been the first one there and the last to leave. A year ago she’d have been telling the police that they couldn’t interview someone with a concussion, and calling his lawyer, and making sure the nurses knew he was allergic to amoxicillin and—

Your choice, the quiet voice whispered. You didn’t want to look after him anymore, did you?

She ignored it, because it had never been about this. It had never been personal.

Liar. It was always personal, that was the whole point. It was always too personal, and that’s why you left.

Pushing the voice away, she headed into the bedroom to get ready for work. Her watch said it was six, which meant about eight more hours until she could get down to the hospital. Eight hours… It was ridiculous, but she just wanted to be there, to make sure he was okay and to—

To take care of him.

She smiled wryly at herself in the mirror. Despite everything, it seemed, she couldn’t shake that instinct. And yet something was different, something felt different.

You used to be such a sweet, caring girl…

Her cold truth of her mom’s rebuke settled like snow on her heart. When, Donna wondered, had she decided that looking after her friends was something shameful?

If the question had an answer, she didn’t want to hear it. Not right now. So she pushed it out of her mind, went to work, and spent the day counting down the hours until she could visit him. Once she got there, once she was with him again, everything would be okay. She just knew it.

***

As it turned out, however, her meetings snarled up like rush-hour traffic. By the time she’d escaped her meeting with advance, it was gone three-thirty. She’d told Will where she was going, and he’d waved her off with a ‘tell him he has to get better fast, so we can kick his ass at the convention’.

Donna doubted she’d pass on the message.

But her spirits were bright as she pulled into the hospital parking lot. Perhaps bright wasn’t quite the right word, but she felt energised, full of nervous tension. Partly it was sleep deprivation and adrenalin, but mostly it was pure anticipation. She was going to see him, to see with her own eyes that he was okay. At last!

This time she had better luck with the duty nurse, found out his room number and made her way up to the third floor. She was halfway along the corridor when she slowed, spotting someone in uniform standing outside the room at the far end of the hall. Something squirmed uneasily in the pit of her belly…

Cautiously, she drew nearer and just then the door opened. Another policeman walked out, along with a young woman with the look of a lawyer about her and an older woman Donna instantly recognised.

It was Rachel Lyman – Josh’s mother.

The two policemen said something to the lawyer, and then they headed toward Donna. The lawyer spoke briefly with Rachel before she followed them. Donna stood to one side, letting all three past.

Rachel had already turned back toward Josh’s room and Donna had to hurry to catch her up. “Mrs. Lyman!” she called, and Rachel froze. Slowly she turned around, her angular face sharp and chiselled.

“Donna,” she said in a restrained voice. “I’m surprised to see you here.”

“You’re…? I’m here to see Josh,” Donna said with a suddenly nervous smile. She’d never seen Rachel so cold. “How is he? They wouldn’t let me in last night because—”

“He’ll be fine,” Rachel said, turning away. “Thank you for your concern.”

It sounded like a dismissal, but Donna assumed she was reading her wrong. She’d always gotten on so well with Rachel Lyman; this had to be because she was stressed-out, tired and upset. “Is there anything I can do for you?” Donna asked, falling into step next to her. “Do you need anything? Do you need somewhere to stay or—?”

“No. Thank you.” Rachel slowed as she approached the door to Josh’s room. It was ajar, but all Donna could see was the end of the bed. She could hardly wait to get inside, to be with him, and even this little delay chaffed.

“Is he cranky?” she asked, her gaze darting between Rachel and the door. “Or maybe they have him on—”

Rachel moved, placing herself between Donna and the room. “This is…this is a little awkward for me, Donna. But I just don’t think it would be a good idea if you saw him right now.”

She wasn’t entirely sure she’d heard correctly. “What do you…? Is he…? If he’s drowsy or—”

“To be blunt, Donna, I don’t— He’ll be going down to surgery in a couple of hours and the police, I think, will want to talk to you about—” She broke off, her voice trembling, either with tears or anger, Donna couldn’t tell. “I think it would be best if you left now.”

“But…” From inside the room she could hear the quiet murmur of voices and thought she could pick out Josh’s in there somewhere, sounding sleepy and quiet and— Oh God. “I just want to see him,” she blurted, feeling tears standing in her eyes and not daring to blink lest they fall. “Can’t I just—?”

“I’m sorry.” Rachel’s face softened slightly. “Josh— He needs friends and family right now.”

“But I’m his—” Her voice cracked, and she had to swallow hard to keep it from breaking completely. “Will you…” she whispered. “Will you tell him I came by?”

Rachel nodded, her face more saddened than anything else. After a moment she said, “He’s my son, Donna. When he’s hurt, I’m hurt. That’s just the way it is.”

With that she turned away, slipped into Josh’s room and closed the door firmly behind her.

In her whole life, Donna had never felt so hurt.

***

Rachel Lyman leaned her back against the door, watched the nurse fussing over her son, and tried to repress the nagging memories of the last time she’d seen him in this place. Her brief encounter with Donna Moss did little to help, although perhaps it pointed out the differences between the two events.

The first time he’d been fighting for his life, and Donna had fought along side him the whole way. This time he was nursing a broken arm and a bruised ego – not to mention the gash half hidden beneath his hair. And Donna had shown up late, and apparently oblivious to her part in this sorry little mess.

Rachel took a deep breath, which drew her son’s attention. His arm was propped up at an angle beside him, and he winced as he moved; they’d had to let the morphine wear off before the police talked to him, and now, she noted, the nurse was upping the dosage again. Josh’s eyes were beginning to droop.

“Am I going to jail…?”

His idea of a joke. “I doubt it,” she said. “Kristina thinks you’ll get a warning and a fine.”

He nodded, but didn’t answer. He was hiding something, trying to protect her, just like he always did. “Will it cost you your job?” she asked, pulling a chair closer and sitting down next to him.

His eyes were drifting shut. “Probably…” She knew, if he’d been more lucid, he’d have denied it.

With a sigh, she reached out and took his hand. Strong and warm and alive. “Better your job than your life, Joshua.”

“I guess…”

After a pause, and in a deliberately casual tone, she said, “You’ll never guess who I ran into in the hall.”

“Fred Astaire…?”

“Donna Moss.”

His eyes opened, blinked, and struggled to focus on her. “Donna…? She’s here?”

He looked so hopeful, so disbelieving, that it broke her heart. “She wanted me to tell you she stopped by.” He was blinking, as if trying to clear his head. “Did you want me to…? I told her now wasn’t a good time, but if you want me to fetch her I could—”

“No…” Hope was fading from his face, like winter sunshine hidden behind the clouds. His eyes closed again. “No, it’s probably just— She’s probably just here to…laugh…or something…”

Rachel squeezed his hand. “She seemed worried, Josh. It seemed as if she really cared about—”

“She doesn’t,” he murmured sleepily. “That’s not why she’s here… Tell her, tell her…I…” But he was asleep before he could finish his sentence.

Rachel didn’t move, just sat there and held his hand while the nurse told her they’d be back in a couple of hours to give him the pre-meds for the surgery. She listened dutifully, said what needed to be said, and then sat in silence with her sleeping son and tried her best not to blame Donna Moss for hurting him so much that he’d wrapped his car around a tree at eighty miles per hour on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

***

When he’s hurt, I’m hurt.

Rachel Lyman’s words spun through Donna’s mind, endlessly repeating. When he’s hurt, I’m hurt. Her face had been cold, her usually friendly eyes sharp and distant. When he’s hurt, I’m hurt.

It was as if she blamed Donna, as if it was somehow her fault that Josh had driven like an idiot and lost a fight with a tree. It didn’t make any sense. She felt strangely disorientated, as if she’d slipped into a strange dream world where nothing was as it should be. Josh had been in an accident, but he hadn’t called her. Rachel was cold and distant and seemed to be blaming her. Why would she blame her? She hadn’t—

“Donnatella Moss?”

She looked up from the plastic chair on which she was perched, and saw a tall police officer standing in front of her. “Yes?”

“I’m Officer Brookes, I’m going to need to take a statement from you, regarding Joshua Lyman.”

“Oh.” It was all she could muster as she got to her feet. “Here? Or do we need to…?”

“Here’s fine, if it’s okay with you, ma’am. It won’t take long.”

“Okay.” She had her coat in her hands, clutching it against herself as she watched the officer pull out a pad of paper and a pencil.

“Could you tell me the last time you saw Mr. Lyman?”

“It was— Yesterday afternoon, we were having coffee in Georgetown. Well, we weren’t. I was there with my mom, but we bumped into him there.”

Officer Brookes nodded. “How would you describe the tone of that conversation?”

“The tone…?” Her mind seemed to be working in slow motion, not quite grasping what anyone was telling her. Must be the lack of sleep, she thought absently.

“How would you describe your conversation with Mr. Lyman – its tone?”

She shook her head. “It was just… He was talking to my mom about DC. Uh, he asked if we’d been to the Smithsonian. Oh, and we talked a little about our work at the White House – what we used to do there…”

Brookes looked up from his pad, eyeing her carefully. “Would you describe the conversation as good natured?”

“Yes…”

“Did you argue?”

Her heart was racing unaccountably fast. “No, we didn’t— It wasn’t like that. Did Josh say—”

“I’m just interested in your view, ma’am,” Brookes told her. After a beat he said, “Did you leave the café together?”

“No, Josh left first he—” Made an excuse and left. “He left first.”

“How would you describe his mood when he left?”

Hurt. She could hear her mother saying it as clearly as if she were standing right behind her. Hurt and upset, Donna. “It was— I guess he was a little… He might have been a little upset.”

Brookes looked up again. “About what?”

She actually felt sick, her head slightly dizzy. Should have eaten lunch… “Something I said… It was just a joke, but he— He didn’t say anything, but I think he might have, maybe, taken it seriously.”

“What was the joke about?”

Donna snorted a bitter laugh. “Why would you need to know—?”

“I’m trying to ascertain the facts, Ms. Moss. What was the joke about?”

She didn’t answer, just stared at him as the import of his words sank in. Trying to ascertain the facts… Was he comparing her statement with Josh’s? Had he mentioned her stupid joke to them? Was that why— Oh God, was that why he’d been driving so fast? She sat down heavily on the chair, one hand pressed over her mouth, trying to breathe.

When he’s hurt, I’m hurt.

“Ms. Moss?” Officer Brookes looked more irritated than concerned. “Can you answer the question?”

“I’m sorry, I… What was the question?”

“The joke. What was the joke?”

Her mouth was sandpaper dry, her throat tight with unshed tears. “I just… I just implied… Last year, I was caught up in a…bombing, in Gaza. I implied— I didn’t mean it! It was… I implied that it was his fault, that I blamed him for sending me there.”

Brookes nodded and scribbled something onto his pad. “And that was the last conversation you had with Mr. Lyman?”

She nodded. “I haven’t seen him since…”

With a snap, the officer closed his pad and tucked it into a pocket. “Okay, thank you, I—”

“Is that what Josh said?” she asked abruptly. “Is that why he was driving so fast? Did he say that’s what made him drive so fast?”

Brookes shook his head. “I’m sorry, I can’t discuss that. Thank you for your time, Ms. Moss.” And with a nod he walked away to join his colleague by the hospital door. After a brief consultation, they left.

Donna didn’t move; she wasn’t sure her legs would support her weight anyway. It all made a sickening, inevitable kind of sense. Rachel’s anger, the questions the police officer was asking...

They all blamed her.

They blamed her for hurting Josh, which just wasn’t fair. She’d been the victim in all this. For seven long years, she’d been the victim! He’d exploited her, belittled her, taken her for granted and now Rachel was blaming her for making him—

You always had a smart mouth, Donna. I’ve never seen you use it to hurt someone before.

Her own mother’s voice threw cold water over her righteous indignation and sparked a guilty memory at the flash of triumph she felt every time she scored a point at Josh’s expense. But it wasn’t that she wanted to hurt him, it was just— She’d made a joke. So what? She’d learned from the master of the put-down and—

The sound of footsteps behind her drew Donna’s attention, and she saw Rachel Lyman walking smartly toward the exit. Unable to stop herself, Donna darted after her.

“Mrs Lyman!” she called, catching her up just before she reached the doors. “Wait.”

Rachel turned, her face no warmer than before. “You’re still here, I thought you—”

“I was giving a statement to the police,” Donna said, chin lifting. “Mrs. Lyman, I know… I know that you think this is my fault, and I just want to say that I’m sorry about what happened to Josh but I don’t think it’s fair to blame me because it was just a joke and he knew it and—”

Rachel held up a hand to stop her. “I’m sorry, Donna, this isn’t really a good time.”

“I just want you to know that I didn’t— This isn’t my fault.”

“I have to go,” Rachel said, turning away. “Good night.”

“You have to believe me!” Donna insisted. “This isn’t fair! It was a joke, it was—”

“It was a joke?” Rachel spun around, her wiry frame rigid with anger. “Which bit was a joke, Donna?”

Taken aback, Donna was momentarily lost for words.

“Did you mean the comment about Josh sending you to Gaza? Or did you mean walking out on him without so much as a thank you or a goodbye?”

“I—” Donna swallowed hard, clinging to her hard-won personal confidence with grim determination. “I don’t know what Josh has told you, Rachel, but it’s more complicated than you think. I didn’t— It’s not like Josh didn’t have any warning, I’d been asking for more responsibility for…years, really. He never… I’m sorry, because he’s your son and he’s been hurt, but I have to tell you the truth. He abused my loyalty, he held me back instead of helping me to progress. I should have left that job years ago, and everyone knew it.”

Rachel folded her arms across her thin chest. “Was that his fault, Donna?”

She blinked. “Was…what?”

“Was that his fault?” she repeated. “Was it Josh’s fault that you didn’t find yourself a better job? Was it his job to act as your career advisor?”

“Of course not, but— He lied to me, Rachel. I’m sorry to be blunt, but it’s true. He sent me to Gaza on a make-work scheme, just to fob me off. And he—”

“He phoned me the night it happened,” Rachel said, no hint of a thaw in her face. “I’ve never heard him sound so…flat. So bewildered. It broke my heart.”

Donna sighed, remembering her mother’s words; he’d cried for her. Josh Lyman had cried for her, and it defused her anger with a sweeter pain. “I know,” she said quietly. “I do know how the whole Gaza thing affected him, and I—”

“I wasn’t talking about Gaza,” Rachel said quickly. “I was talking about the day you left.”

“Oh…”

“I’m sure you had your reasons, Donna. I know Josh better than anyone, I know how difficult he can be at times, but… He has a soft heart. He feels things more than he’d ever let you know, and he trusted you. He relied on you. You meant— He doesn’t understand why you left, or why you seem to dislike him so much.”

“I don’t!” The denial burst out unchecked. “That’s not true. I do like him, I—”

Love him? The thought momentarily stung her into silence.

“Well, maybe you do…” Rachel sighed. “I don’t know, Donna. All I know is that you hurt him and when Josh is hurt he retreats into his shell. That’s why…” She trailed off, suddenly awkward.

But it was too late, Donna had already guessed. “That’s why he doesn’t want to see me.”

Rachel didn’t deny it. After a painful pause she said, “You should go home. You look tired.”

“I never meant it to be like this,” Donna said bitterly. “I thought we could be grown-ups. I thought we could still be friends. I’m sorry that he doesn’t want that.”

Rachel didn’t answer, but her face was hard as stone as Donna turned and walked out of the hospital, determined to keep her head held high.




All comments adored! Thanks for reading. :)

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