SalR323 (salr323) wrote,
SalR323
salr323

WW fic: "The Road Less Travelled" Pt 2



Chapter Three

She didn’t go back to the hospital again. There didn’t seem to be any point; Josh didn’t want to see her, and that seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of their friendship. So she buried herself in her work and kept a watchful eye on the news. Sure enough, three days later, Josh went home amid a flurry of beltway speculation about whether or not Santos should fire him. Josh had been charged with dangerous driving and fined accordingly; Santos was holding firm, but Russell was making hay and the papers were full of nothing else but ‘character issues’.

Donna imagined Josh chewing the furniture in frustration, but secretly she hoped Santos would stick to his guns. Josh might be an inconsiderate, arrogant egomaniac, but he didn’t deserve to lose his job over this. Besides, Santos had to know that without Josh his campaign was over. If it had ever stood a chance at all, which she doubted.

And if, deep down, she felt a little flutter of regret – a little niggling guilt about her own, small, role in the incident – she ignored it. Because, unlike Rachel Lyman, she knew the truth and she wasn’t blinded by a mother’s love for her son.

Josh might act hurt, but it was only his pride she’d wounded. She’d proven him wrong on every level, proven that she didn’t need him, proven that he’d failed to recognise her potential, proven what she could become without him dragging her down. And that had to hurt. But beyond the damaged ego, she doubted Josh had felt any real pain. Because if he had, if he’d cared about their friendship, he’d have called her and begged her to come back. If he’d cared about her, he’d have brought her roses and turned his apartment into Tahiti.

He’d done none of those things, and he never would. She’d been kidding herself for years about the strength of his feelings for her, but C.J. had shone a bright light on the truth that night in her office and, despite her little relapse the night of the accident, Donna was determined not to backslide. If Josh didn’t want to see her, fine. If he wanted to play the martyr, that was fine too. It only made him look pathetic.

Still, she thought he should keep his job. People had done worse and stayed in office, and Josh – she grudgingly admitted – was the best at what he did. It would be a loss to the Democratic party if his talent was thrown on the scrap heap.

And so she kept her eye on the news, kept her head down, and tried not to think about him at all.

***

“I’m not resigning.”

Josh eyed Matt Santos over the desk in his Congressional office and shifted his arm in the sling. It hurt, but not as much as he’d expected, given that he was now pinned together like Meccano.

Santos shook his head. “This is ridiculous…”

“I’m not resigning,” Josh insisted.

“You can’t expect me to—”

“You have to fire me.”

“I’m not firing you Josh. It’s ridiculous. So, you were speeding? Pretty damn stupid, but—”

“You have to fire me,” Josh repeated, keeping his voice as even as possible. “The papers are full of character crap, no one’s writing about anything else, and it won’t go away until you fire me. You have to fire me, make a statement about personal responsibility, and demonstrate that you’re a leader. You have no choice.”

Santos was on his feet, pacing to the other side of the office and back. “Josh, without you this campaign is over anyway. You know that. Everyone knows that. I can’t fire you, because if I do—”

“Here,” Josh said, pulling an envelope out of his pocket. “Two names. Get them both on board and you’ll be better off with me gone.”

“And if I can’t?”

Josh just shook his head. “Then it’s over. But if I stay, it’s over anyway. You have to move past this, you’ve got no choice.” He paused, staring down at his scuffed shoes, the words in his mouth tasting bitter. “I’m sorry. It was— I’ve really screwed things up for you.” He allowed himself a brief, sour smile. “You should fire me for that alone.”

“It was a mistake, Josh. We all make them.”

“Yeah, well, this one has consequences that you can’t ignore, and I’m sorry for that. But I’m not lying to you about this. If you don’t fire me, right now, this campaign is over.”

Santos fingered the envelope in his hands. “Will I get them?”

“One, maybe. The other… I don’t know. Try. It’ll help that— It’ll help that I’m not here.”

Before the Congressman could argue further, Josh turned and left. Where he was going, he actually had no idea. Just away. Away from everything, for a while. For good, perhaps. He really didn’t know.

***

“Donna?” Will poked his head into her office. “We need to make a statement.”

“About?”

“Santos fired Josh. We need to comment… it’s a matter for the Santos campaign, blah, blah, but throw in something about being surprised it took him this long to decide. Something about equivocating leadership.”

Donna found herself staring. “He fired Josh? For a speeding ticket?”

“It’s politics, and two weeks away from the National Convention. You’ve got ten minutes.”

“You don’t think…” She got to her feet, uneasy with herself. “You don’t think we should, I don’t know, stick together on this?”

Will laughed. “We’re not together, Donna. They’re the opposition. This is a gift, we have to use it.” He paused, softening slightly. “I know it’s Josh, but he’d do the same.”

“I don’t know…”

“Trust me,” Will said, “he’d do the same. He’d have no choice, and neither do we.” After a moment, and in a slightly awkward voice, he said, “Look, if this is difficult because of your personal feelings I can get someone else to—”

“No,” she objected instantly. “It’s fine. I don’t—” She felt herself flush, and cursed silently. Her stupid feelings had held her back long enough; she wasn’t going to let them do it again. Not ever. “It’s not personal, it’s politics.”

Josh had done this to himself, and it wasn’t her job – or her responsibility – to protect him from his own mistakes. Her head clearer and her determination fixed, she headed out to talk to the press like the professional operative she’d become.

***

It was strange, Josh thought, how unlike home your home could feel. Perhaps it was because he’d hardly been there in six months, or perhaps it was because he’d never really lived there at all. Slept here, occasionally eaten there, but never really lived there. Not for years, anyway.

His happiest memories – if that was the right word – of this apartment were the months he’d been with Amy. She’d filled the place with her extraordinary personality, filled him too with an energy that he’d never recaptured since their relationship had broken down into political squabbling. One of life’s regrets, he thought as he worked on his second beer. The only other time he’d spent much time at home was after the shooting, and that wasn’t a time he liked to remember. Donna had been there then, of course, looking after him…

He felt a ridiculous surge of loss and swallowed down the lump in his throat with the dregs of his beer. He wondered if that was when she’d begun to find him irritating, or if that had come later. Either way, he didn’t want to think about those days.

But he couldn’t stop thinking about Donna. She’d been at the hospital once, his mom had said, but she hadn’t come back. He wondered why she’d been there at all, but didn’t dare think about it too closely. He suspected the truth would hurt.

He was looking forward to getting away, from her most of all. He knew it was cowardly, that he was running instead of confronting, but the pain of her betrayal was just too…deep. If he didn’t run, he thought he might go crazy – he could feel his anger boiling inside, just beneath the surface, and he wanted to scream, rage against the unfairness of it all.

But he didn’t. Instead he opened a third beer, switched on the news, and there she was…

“…is a matter for the Santos campaign, but the real question is, why did it take Congressman Santos four days to come to this decision? Joshua Lyman broke the law, recklessly endangered the lives of others, and it took Matt Santos four days to realise that this kind of behaviour was unacceptable in his campaign manager. The Vice President agrees with the Congressman’s final decision, but if it had been up to Bob Russell the decision would have been made on day one.”

It was perfect. It was exactly what she should have said, exactly the message he’d have told her to give. Josh raised his beer in salutation. “Et tu, Brute?”

***

It was past midnight, and Donna was brushing her teeth when her buzzer sounded – long and loud. Nervously, she went to the window and peered out. A cab was pulling away into the rainy night, but she couldn’t see far enough to make out who was at her door. Whoever it was, they were insistent. Or, perhaps, they were just leaning on the buzzer. Hoping that they’d got the wrong apartment, Donna pressed the intercom. “Hello?”

“I have to ask you a question.”

It was, unmistakably, Josh. “It’s midnight,” she told him.

“I know. It’s just one question, and I don’t— Please.”

That was a first. “Make it quick,” she said, hiding her sudden nerves behind what passed for banter these days.

He didn’t answer as she buzzed him in, but shortly after there was a rap at her door. She opened it cautiously. His hair was damp from the rain, his broken arm in a sling, his face was pale and he was swaying on his feet. “You’re drunk,” she said immediately, trying to cover the intense sweep of emotion she felt at actually seeing him again.

Josh nodded. “Yes I am.”

With a sigh, she opened the door and let him in. “If you throw up on my new sofa…”

“I won’t.” He glanced around, but made no move to take off his coat. “This is nice. Nice apartment, feels…nice.”

“Hmmm,” she agreed, resisting the urge to take his coat from his shoulders and sit him down. “It’s the middle of the night, Josh. What do you want?”

“A question,” he said, pacing away from her. “Just have to know, before I go. I just—” He stopped and turned to face her, his features unusually open. “What did I do wrong? I mean— I thought we, I thought we were something, and I don’t really get what I did that was so…bad.”

There was a curl of pain, right in the centre of her stomach, and she rubbed a hand across her face, trying to ignore the hurt in his eyes. “Josh, it’s late, maybe we should discuss this when—”

“No! I want to know now, just tell me. Just tell me what it was. Did I— Did I forget your birthday or—”

“Forget my birthday?” She couldn’t help laughing. “Is that what you— You think I’m that childish?”

“No, I… Then, what?”

“You know, the fact that you don’t know is part of it…!” She sighed, and tried for patience. “You never saw me, Josh. I was your dogsbody, but I stayed in that job believing that you were on my side, that you were helping me, that you had my best interests at heart, but it was all a lie. You sold me a bill of goods, Josh. You were abusing my loyalty.”

He stared at her. “Abusing your loyalty?”

“Look at what I’ve achieved without you, Josh! Doesn’t that tell you something about how much you held me back?”

“You think I was holding you back? I didn’t… I didn’t realise you wanted to, you know, go forward. I thought you were happy with me, I—”

“No you didn’t!” she objected. “I told you a hundred times that I wanted to do more, and you never – never – gave me anything. You didn’t want to, you wanted to keep me under your thumb so I’d be there to fetch and carry for you.”

“I gave you what I could, as my assistant. But I couldn’t— Did you think I could just give you a better job because I liked you? That’s not how it works.”

“Really?” she countered. “What about Charlie? When he graduated, the President ordered him to hand his résumé around to all the senior staff! He insisted he got a better job, the President said he wouldn’t let Charlie waste his life carrying his coat around for him, but you, you—”

“What?” He was angry now; she could see it glitter in his eyes, banishing the hurt. “I what? I didn’t force you to pass out your résumé? You know what? Maybe if you’d spent every damn night for five years taking classes at Georgetown I’d have had some clue that your career was important to you! I’m sorry, Donna, but just whining at me to get you a better job doesn’t cut it as a career move!”

“Whining?” she managed to choke past her rage. “I wasn’t whining. I was— I should have known, Mr. Harvard and Yale, that I wasn’t good enough for you. I should have—”

“That’s not what I mean, and you—”

“You knew what I could do! You saw it every day. Will saw it, and he didn’t even work with me. He saw it and he used it and he didn’t care that I didn’t have a stupid degree!”

“I didn’t care either! But maybe if your career had seemed more important than finding a date I’d have—”

“You bastard!” she spat. “You sanctimonious bastard! You know that you held me back, you know that you could have pushed me ahead if you’d wanted to and—”

“I couldn’t! It would have looked like I— Like you were— Getting you a job was not my job! ”

“So what?” she yelled. “You couldn’t do it as a favour to a friend?”

“That’s exactly why I couldn’t do it! If I’d—”

“You couldn’t say ‘Oh, look, Donna’s wasted in this job, I bet she’d be great at… whatever’? You couldn’t do that, Josh? You couldn’t, for once in your self-absorbed little life, act like a friend instead of the egotistical jerk-off that you are!”

He started, as if she’d struck him, and just stared at her for a long moment. Then he abruptly turned away and ran a hand over his face. In a quiet voice she barely recognised he said, “I always… I’m sorry. ” He cleared his throat. “I always tried to be a good friend to you, Donna. I tried to look out for you. I’m sorry if I wasn’t good enough, or if I didn’t—” He turned back around, staring at his feet and not at her. “It’s late, I shouldn’t have— Thank you, for telling me. I’m sorry I wasn’t…what you needed. And if I hurt your career, then I’m…I’m sorry about that too. Goodnight.”

“Josh…”

“Goodnight, Donna.” His hand was on the door, but he turned around as he pulled it open and for an instant met her gaze. “I just want to say…good luck. I know you’ll do amazing things.”

“Don’t…” But he was already gone, the door was already closed, and Donna found herself frozen to the spot. It was only then, as she heard the door downstairs clank shut, that she realised she hadn’t said a word about the fact that he’d just lost his job – his career.

She didn’t know whether to be proud of herself, or to weep with shame.

***

The night lasted forever, and yet dawn came too soon as Donna hauled herself out of bed after a restless sleep. Her argument with Josh had kept her awake, replaying in her mind over and over. His arrogance had been unforgivable – maybe if your career had seemed more important than finding a date – and she refused to contemplate the notion that he might have had a point about Charlie and his degree. It had made no difference to Will, and it shouldn’t have to Josh.

Irritation seemed to be in her blood this morning, pumping around her body as fast as the memories of last night’s row spun through her mind. And somewhere at its centre, like the quiet eye of the storm, sat something else – an ache, a deep aching loss.

I just want to say…good luck. I know you’ll do amazing things.

And there had been a gentleness in his voice she’d forgotten about. She’d seen in him then a different man, one who she’d pushed out of her mind. One who, ridiculously, she wanted to pull into her arms and comfort. And yet it was the same man who’d accused her of caring more about her love life than her career, and she couldn’t reconcile those two halves.

Trying to put the whole thing behind her, Donna set the coffee brewing and checked her phone for messages. There were two. One from Will, asking her to come in for a pre-meeting meeting after lunch, and one from a number she didn’t recognise. Half-hoping and half-dreading it was going to be Josh, she listened to the message.

It wasn’t Josh. It was Matt Santos, asking her if she’d stop by his campaign office to meet with him first thing this morning. Astonished, and not a little intrigued, Donna sat and stared at the phone for a full five minutes before the aroma of coffee brought her back to reality. Matt Santos wanted to see her. Why on Earth…?

With a dozen unfocused hopes and dreads running through her mind, Donna got dressed – taking a little extra care, so as to present as professional an image as possible. She couldn’t help wondering if she’d bump into Josh – he’d been fired, but that didn’t mean he might not be there. The thing was, if she did bump into him, she’d need to be prepared. She’d need to know how to react, what to say, how not to look like a total idiot. Friendly professionalism, she decided, was the best approach. He’d wished her luck, he’d said she’d do amazing things – as far as Josh went, that was almost an apology.

Still feeling unsettled, she headed out and arrived at Matt Santos’s office just before eight. It was smaller, by far, than Bob Russell’s outfit, but Donna instantly picked up on the atmosphere that had always been missing from the Russell campaign. There was an energy here, a buzz that reminded her of other campaigns…

“Donna!” To her surprise, Matt Santos himself greeted her as she stepped into the small office. “Thanks for coming…” He looked over at a couple of his staffers. “We’ll need the back office for a couple of minutes,” he said, leading Donna toward a small room that was rapidly being vacated.

When they were alone he shut the door, smiled, and moved around to sit behind his desk. “Take a seat,” he said. “I guess you’re wondering why you’re here.”

“Well, yes, I confess—”

“I had to fire Josh yesterday,” Santos said, his smile fading. “I know you know that, because I saw you giving the Vice President’s response.”

Donna forced herself not to wince, but she could feel a heat coming into her cheeks. “My job is to—”

“I know,” he said, waving away her concern. “Don’t worry, I’m not here to haul you over the coals for calling into question my ability to make quick decisions.”

She smiled, nervously. “Okay.”

“I didn’t want to fire Josh. I wasn’t going to. But… Well, he made me – he said, if I didn’t, the campaign would be over and I think he was right.”

Donna nodded, trying to focus on the Congressman’s words and not get lost in the idea of Josh falling on his sword for the sake of the campaign. It was typical of him and—

You can’t, for once in your self-absorbed little life, act like a friend instead of the egotistical jerk-off that you are! Oh God…had she really said that?

“Donna?”

She started. “Yes?”

“Thought I’d lost you there for a moment…”

“Sorry, I was just… I know what I said in the statement, but I was— On a personal note, I was sorry to hear about Josh. He’s a… He’s a good man.”

“I know,” Santos sighed, leaning back in his chair. “Believe me, this is exactly the last thing I wanted to do. But… I trust Josh, and if he said I had to fire him, well...” After a slight pause, he carried on. “Before he left he handed me an envelope containing two names. He told me that if I could get both of them on board, we’d stand a chance.”

She didn’t know what to say to that, and all that escaped was, “Oh…”

“One of those names was Leo McGarry. The other was yours.”

Donna just stared at him. “Me?”

Santos glanced down at a piece of paper on his desk and began to read. “She’ll make your life easier, knows everything about anyone worth knowing, has fantastic interpersonal skills, and is especially good with the media. She’s got a smart political mind and looks great on TV.”

Again, the heat flared into her cheeks. “That’s… Josh said that?”

“He’s never steered me wrong, Donna. Now, I understand that you might not want to jump ship this late in the game. Especially not to come aboard the Titanic, however—”

“I’ll do it,” she heard herself say. “I’ll come and work for you.”

He seemed surprised. “You know I can’t pay as much as—”

“Doesn’t matter. This is… Part of me feels like I should have been here all along.”

Santos eyed her carefully for a moment, but didn’t comment as he held out his hand. “Welcome aboard, Donna Moss. I hope Leo McGarry is as easy to convince.”

She smiled as she shook his hand. “He will be. He’ll do it for Josh.” Then, standing to leave, she said, “Do you mind if I ask you something?”

“Sure…”

“That note… Did Josh give it to you this morning?”

“No, it was yesterday. Why?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, blotting out their argument until later. She’d think about it later, apologise later. “Thank you. And thank you for giving me the opportunity to work here, Congressman. I’ll do my very best for you.”

“Can’t ask for more than that.”

When Donna was back on the street, heading over to break the news to Will, the first thing she did was pull out her cell and call Josh. His phone wasn’t switched on, so she tried his home number. No answer, but she left a message: “Josh, it’s me. I just had a meeting with Santos and I— Look, what I said last night? I really need to talk to you.” And then, for good measure, she sent him a quick text to the same effect.

A week later, when she’d had no reply to any of her messages, she started to worry.



Chapter Four

The evening sunshine was casting mellow shadows as Donna pulled up outside Josh’s apartment and sat for ten minutes staring up at his window. She hadn’t seen his car outside, but then she supposed it was either being fixed or scrapped. And there were no lights on, but why would there be on a sunny evening?

Her stomach was doing somersaults just being here; she’d driven past twice before she’d had the courage to actually park. She had no idea what she’d say to him, no idea where to begin. All she really wanted was to make sure he was okay, that he hadn’t— That he was okay, that was all that mattered.

Blowing out a nervous breath, she climbed out of her car and trotted up the steps to his building two at a time.

“Hey, Donna,” George the concierge called, as soon as she entered the lobby. “Long time, no see.”

“Hey,” she smiled. “How’ve you been?”

“Good, good. You?”

“Yeah, good. I – uh… Do you know if Josh is in?”

George blinked. “Mr Lyman? He’s not living here right now.”

“He’s not…” Her heart took a nose dive into the choppy waters of her stomach. “What do you mean?”

“It was pretty sudden. He’s still got the lease, but he said he was gonna be away for a while. I’ve got a forwarding address, if you’re interested.”

“Yeah…” He was gone? How could he be gone?

George rummaged under the concierge’s desk, flicked through a small note book, then turned it around and showed her. Donna didn’t need to write the address down; it was Josh’s mother’s. “Is that where he’s staying?” she asked doubtfully.

“I guess. He said he was going home for a while.”

“Ah, okay…” She glanced up the stairs toward his apartment, suddenly gripped by an insistent desire to see for herself – to just step into his world for a moment. “Would you mind if I…? I have a key, and I left a, uh, sweater there a couple of months” – years – “ago.”

George hesitated, but only for a moment. “Sure, why not. Just don’t steal the silverware.”

“You can frisk me on the way out.”

The man blushed a little and laughed. “Careful what you promise, Donna.”

She flashed him a grin, one she didn’t really feel, and all but bolted up the stairs to Josh’s apartment. When she approached the door she found herself shaking. She fumbled the key into the lock and half expected him to emerge, startled, from the kitchen at her arrival.

But his apartment was empty and silent, the sound of the door closing echoing loudly in her ears. The place was in semi-chaos and looked as if Josh had walked out ten minutes ago. A musty aroma touched everything like a layer of dust, and she traced it to the coffee machine and the week – or more – old filter left inside. Wrinkling her nose, she lifted it out and threw it into the trash. Big mistake; opening the trash can released a whole new range of scents you’d never find in Bloomingdale’s.

It was typical.

Leaving the kitchen, she wandered into the living room. A line of empty beer bottles sat on the coffee table, and over on the table by the window she could see the light flashing on his answering machine. Mostly her messages, she supposed. Her heart sank, however, when she saw his cell phone sitting next to the answering machine. He hadn’t got any of her messages, and she felt a flutter of panic when she realised he was completely un-contactable.

No, not completely. She could always call Rachel, she could reach him there.

Taking a steadying breath, she walked toward his bedroom.

Sunlight cut across the unmade bed, and her eye was instantly drawn to two things. The first was the pink GAP sweatshirt she’d left here back in another life, the second was a haphazard pile of ‘stuff’ in the middle of his bed. There was an empty box laying on its side on the floor, and it looked as if he’d tipped the content out in order to sort through it. At once curious and hesitant, she drew closer – and then stopped dead. There, on the top of the pile, was a picture of herself. Sinking down on the edge of the bed, Donna picked it up. It had been taken a couple of years ago, she remembered. Someone’s birthday. Toby’s? They’d all gone out and someone had brought a camera. Not Josh, he’d never even think of a camera. But someone had – C.J., probably. Donna remembered the photos being passed around the office, but didn’t remember Josh keeping any. There’d been another nice one too; they’d been squashed into a booth, Josh had put his arm around her shoulders, more to get it out of the way than anything else, and they’d been laughing together over something long forgotten. Donna remembered the picture vividly; he’d had a beautiful smile, all affection and dimples. She’d wanted to keep it, but hadn’t dared ask.

Perhaps Josh had…? She rummaged lightly through the pile, but couldn’t see it. There were a couple more pictures though, both of her, as well as every birthday card and Christmas card she’d sent him in seven years. He’d even kept the Valentine’s card she’d sent one year, in which she’d signed herself ‘Your secret admirer in need of a raise’. Then there were newspaper clippings, mostly about Gaza, a couple showing her photograph. And one – she smiled at the sight of it – from her High School newspaper: ‘Former pupil in the White House’. She hadn’t known he’d kept that. She hadn’t known he’d kept any of this.

There were other things too – some kind of trophies from High School, photos of people she didn’t know, although she could occasionally pick out Josh’s young face in a crowd. University, she supposed – the hallowed halls of Harvard and Yale. He was smiling in all the photos, young and full of life, and she tried to remember the last time he’d smiled at her.

She missed his smiles. Especially that small, personal smile that had always seemed to be just for her. It had been rare, but always worth the wait. She sighed and dropped the mementos back onto the bed.

It was painful, she realised, to see herself among the things he’d left behind.

***

The next three weeks passed in a frenetic wave of activity, punctured by molasses-slow moments of reflection. It would strike her out of the blue as she darted between the bus and the hotel, or when she picked up her cell, or smelled coffee with too much sugar – Josh was gone. He was just…gone. Every time she turned around she expected to hear him – or hear about him – but there was nothing but a painful emptiness.

Occasionally she’d see his scrawled notes on a document and the sight of his oh-so-familiar handwriting would send little darts of pain right into the centre of her chest. At first she’d thought it strange that she should feel his absence so keenly now, given that they’d been apart for months already, but then it occurred to her that he’d never really been gone before. She’d always known where he was and their separation – for want of a better word – had been on her terms. She’d walked away, but never far enough that she lost sight of him. They’d been in an elliptical orbit, occasionally coming together, only to be thrown apart again, but always coming back. Always coming back. This time he was just gone, and the space he left behind was vast.

Sometimes a small voice whispered that perhaps Josh had felt this same vague sense of panic after she’d left. She wondered if that’s what she’d seen on his face during their first meeting up in New Hampshire. Perhaps he’d felt exactly this alone, perhaps he hadn’t realised that she’d never really gone, that she’d never escaped his gravitational pull.

Perhaps that was why he hadn’t called her after the accident.

The thought made her uncomfortable inside her own skin, made her unhappy with her reflection in the mirror; it was at odds with her memory of events. The situation had always seemed so clear to her. She’d left her job to prove a point, to forge her own identity beyond the reach of his long shadow, and, if she was honest with herself, to earn his respect. She wanted him to see her, to really see what she could achieve in her own right. And she’d known that he’d be pissed, that his pride would be wounded, and that Mr. Passive-Aggressive would rear his irritatingly cute head. But she’d never imagined that he’d believe he was alone.

Now, sitting in her office and feeling his absence like the lack of a thick coat in the dead of winter, she began to reassess. She began, for the first time since C.J. had dissected her life without anaesthetic, to see things from his perspective.

Josh didn’t leave people. He didn’t leave people, which meant that when people left him he felt it intensely. She’d known that when she’d quit, but she’d told herself she was leaving the job, not him. She’d told herself that, if he’d needed her, she’d have been right there.

She’d never imagined he wouldn’t understand that.

And now he was gone, really gone, and she couldn’t tell him. She couldn’t tell him that, if he’d called, she wouldn’t have stopped for red lights. She couldn’t—

“Donna?”

She glanced up, disorientated for a moment. “Yeah? Sorry I was…”

Leo fixed her with a sharp, knowing look, but all he said was, “I want you to head down and meet up with the campaign in Florida. The President’s going to be making a statement on Cuba, and I want the Congressman on board with it from the start. You can read the papers on the way, and I’ll need you to make several statements to the press throughout tomorrow and the next day.” He paused, possibly taking in her goldfish impersonation. “Think you can handle that?”

Nodding, she said, “Yes. Yes I do.” But in truth she wanted to cry. She wanted to weep because suddenly she knew why it all felt so wrong; it should have been Josh.

It should have been Josh teaching her to fly.

***

What Donna hadn’t realised at the time, but had struck her five minutes later, was that she was going to Florida. Florida, where Rachel Lyman lived and, according to George the concierge, Josh was hiding out. On the flight down she forced herself to read the briefings on the President’s statement on Cuba, but a little corner of her mind was turning over a different problem.

She’d be in Miami, just a couple of hours drive from Josh’s mother’s house. She could call in, make sure he was okay, and thank him for recommending her for the job with Santos. If she phoned he’d avoid the call, but if she just turned up he couldn’t refuse to talk to her. Perhaps she could explain some things, try to build some bridges. And, at the very least, she could see him. Just…see him again.

And so, after she’d checked in at the hotel, briefed the Congressman and drafted her statement for the morning, she found herself in a rental car en route to Cocoa Beach. It was late, gone eleven by the time she pulled into the right street, and she hoped that Rachel wouldn’t mind her dropping by so late. But Josh would still be up, he never slept before one, and Donna didn’t have to worry about Rachel being frightened by such a late caller if Josh was there.

None of which made it any easier to actually climb out of the car once she’d parked in front of Rachel’s immaculate house. The memory of her last conversation – confrontation, more accurately – with Josh was fresh in her mind. She cringed a little at the memory, but he’d asked for the truth and she’d given it to him – a little stronger, perhaps, than was necessary. But she’d been sorely provoked…

Maybe if your career had seemed more important than finding a date!

Jackass. How dare he say that, then turn around and slap her name on the desk in front of Matt Santos? It was typical of him, of the way he’d blow hot and cold and leave her dizzy in his wake. How was she supposed to know what he thought, or felt, when he acted like that? Did he really respect her, or had he given Santos her name to prove some kind of a point? Did he really think she was an airhead chick more concerned with her next date than her next job, or had that just been a lame justification of the way he’d held her back all those years? She didn’t know. She just didn’t know…

Curls of tension crept up her spine, stiffening her neck, and she rolled her shoulders back in an effort to relax. This was what always happened. When they were apart her feelings for him softened, she’d remember all the good times they’d shared, she’d miss his smiles and their jokes and how they’d eat breakfast together at his desk and— And then as soon as he was close this simmering anger broke the surface again, and all she could remember was how he’d humiliated her. How he’d exploited her feelings in the cruellest of ways, letting her kid herself that she was happy in her job because it was the White House, when all along—

It’s not the White House, it’s him.

And here she was, a year and a lifetime later, and she was still in orbit around Josh Lyman. It was pathetic, truly pathetic. She shouldn’t be here, stalking him like some kind of crazed fan. She should leave, she should just drive away. Josh was out of her life, wasn’t that what she wanted? Wasn’t that exactly what C.J. had told her to do? To get him out of her life?

She frowned, her memory of that part of the conversation more hazy. C.J. had said something about that, about her doing anything that didn’t involve Josh Lyman. And she was pretty damn sure that if C.J. saw her here she’d roll her eyes and shake her head and know that nothing had changed.

And what really made Donna mad, what really twisted like a knot of barbed wire in her chest, was the fact that there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it. She’d left him, she’d worked against him, risen beyond her wildest expectations, and none of it made any difference. None of it. Because even if she drove away now, she’d just keep thinking about him, wondering if he was okay, missing him. Missing him with an intensity she’d never anticipated, missing him every time she saw a bagel, or an ad for a Mets game, or the Post, or a backpack, or curly hair, or a position paper, or Kung-Po chicken, or the sun rise and the rain fall. Everything reminded her of Josh.

And then she’d remember how he’d held her hand that Christmas Eve in the ER, how he’d not looked at her once but had just clutched her hand like his life depended on it. Or how he’d sat with her in the cold and waited for Cliff Calley to read her stupid diary. Or how he’d been the only one to figure out she’d lied about Jack Reece’s statement to the press. Or how he’d wished her luck as he’d walked out her door, with such a hurt look in his eyes that she’d wanted to break open her heart and pour out the truth at his feet if only she hadn’t been frozen solid by anger, humiliation, and hard won pride.

And she was still frozen solid. She was pulled so hard in two opposing directions that she couldn’t move a muscle. To love him was a humiliation; it had almost wrecked her career, had made her a laughing stock in front of C.J. Cregg – her idol, in so many ways. But to walk away from him was impossible, because her stupid, stupid heart wouldn’t let go. However hard she tried, she couldn’t stop herself from loving this man. No matter that he didn’t feel the same, no matter that she hated herself for her weakness. No matter that she hated him for making a fool of her. None of it mattered, because she loved him and she couldn’t stop and it was ruining her life.

“Hello? Can I help you?”

Donna started, staring in dismay at the sight of Rachel Lyman standing at her front door peering out into the night with her phone in hand. To call the police, perhaps. Kicking herself, Donna opened the car door and stepped out. She could hardly drive away now; she didn’t want to add terrorising Josh’s mother to her list of indiscretions. “Mrs Lyman?” she called out. “It’s me, Donna Moss, I’m…” What? Just sitting outside your house for the fun of it. Yeah, great…

“Donna?” Rachel looked at once relieved and confused. “What are you doing here? Has—” She took half a step forward. “Has something happened?”

“No,” Donna assured her, walking up the drive to her house. “I’m so sorry to bother you this late at night, I wasn’t sure whether to knock or… I was in town. The campaign’s in town, and I just wanted to— I just thought I’d drop in to say hi to Josh.”

She was closer now, and could make out the confusion on Rachel’s narrow face. Her eyes, Donna hoped, were less cold than during their last encounter, but it was dark and she wasn’t sure exactly what she was seeing. Rachel stepped out onto her wide porch, fixing Donna with an intent look. “He’s not here, Donna.”

Not here? Or refusing to see her? Another wave of humiliation washed up at the idea; she was beyond pathetic. “Okay,” she said, smiling down at her toes in an attempt not to cry, “I understand, I just—”

“No,” Rachel said, taking another step closer. “I’m not sure you do, Donna. Josh isn’t here. I haven’t seen him since I left DC three weeks ago.”

She looked up sharply. “He’s not— I thought he was staying with you? George said he he’d gone home.”

Rachel shrugged. “I don’t know who George is, but he’s wrong. Josh isn’t here.”

Panic fluttered at the edges of her mind. He wasn’t there… He wasn’t anywhere! He was just gone. Oh God, he was just utterly gone and she— Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to ask the obvious question, her fingernails digging deep into her palms as she awaited the answer. “Do you know where he is?”

“Yes,” said Rachel.

Thank God… A relieved smile broke out, and she didn’t bother to hide it. “Is he… Is he okay?”

Rachel didn’t answer. “I’m a little confused about your being here, Donna,” she said at last.

“You think…” Donna paused, the words somehow clogging in her throat. “Despite what you might think – what Josh might have told you – I just— I wanted to make sure he was okay. I just needed to know that.”

Rachel studied her again, and then with a smile painfully like her son’s she said, “Why don’t you come in and have a coffee, Donna? We were always friends.”

“I don’t want to intrude or—”

“You’re not,” Rachel insisted, her smile turning rueful. “And we can talk about my son. It’s every mother’s favourite topic of conversation, you know.”

Donna smiled a little at that, although the thought of discussing Josh with his mother, and more particularly, her screwed up feelings for him, was enough to send her running for the hills. But cowardice had never been one of Donna Moss’s faults, and so she forced herself to say thank you and followed Rachel into the warmly lit house.

***

Rachel paused as she poured the coffee, watching the young woman sitting nervously at her kitchen table. Donna looked tired, Rachel thought, just as Josh always did. And there was a pinched look to her face that spoke of unhappiness. She was beautiful despite it all, the kind of long limbed beauty about which Rachel had once dreamed. It was strange, she thought, that a woman so beautiful could also seem so sad.

But then, she reflected, she thought the same about her son.

“You have a lovely home,” Donna said as Rachel set a mug down on the table in front of her.

“Thank you.” She nodded toward the living room. “Let’s go in there, it’s a little more comfortable.”

Settling herself in her favourite chair, Rachel watched as Donna cast around and eventually perched on the edge of the old wooden rocking chair next to the rarely lit fireplace. Rachel tried not to draw any conclusions from the fact that it was where Josh always sat on his infrequent visits, and the chair he’d sprawled across as a boy.

“So,” Donna said, her hands wrapped around her coffee as if she were cold on this warm summer night. “You were going to tell me how Josh is doing?”

Rachel wasn’t entirely sure that she was. Yet. “He’s himself, if that’s what you’re worrying about,” she said, taking a sip of her own drink. “I think he just wanted to get away from it all for a while, to have some time to get things in perspective.”

Donna nodded as if she understood, but here was a crease in her brow that belied the gesture. “But he’s… He’s not brooding? I mean— I know Josh, I’ve seen him— The last time something like this happened he was yelling at the Capitol Building in the middle of the night.”

“Was he?” Not that she was entirely surprised; Josh’s passions were always kept on a hair trigger.

Donna frowned down into her coffee and blew at the steam curling from its surface. “He shouldn’t be alone.”

She seemed to mean it, which did much to soften the anger Rachel felt in her heart. But it did little to ease her confusion. “I have to ask you, Donna… You left him, why do you care if he’s alone or not?”

Donna laughed, but it was as far from amusement as a wail. “I got a new job,” she said, the words falling leaden from her lips, like rote. “I didn’t leave him, I got a new job. I don’t understand why people think—”

“Not people.”

Donna looked up.

“Just Josh,” Rachel said. “He thinks you left him. And I don’t believe…” She hesitated, trying to read the frown on Donna’s face. “You didn’t really think he’d see it any other way, did you? Knowing him as you do.”

Her lips pressed together and she was staring down into her coffee again. “I—” She smiled, but didn’t look happy. “I honestly don’t know what I thought. I just had to get away.”

“From Josh?”

Donna nodded, but didn’t look up.

“Why, Donna? I thought you… Forgive me, but you always seemed so fond of him when we spoke; I thought you were more than just colleagues. I thought you were friends. I thought you cared—”

“Maybe I did,” Donna said sharply, “but you can’t stay in a job just because you…care about your boss. That’s… that’s just pathetic.”

There was a long silence. The only movement in the room was Donna rocking slightly to and fro on the edge of the chair, still staring into mug clasped in her hands. Rachel wasn’t sure what to say; she could see enough in Donna’s face to question Josh’s insistence that she hated him. In fact, Rachel was beginning to suspect that Josh was either utterly inept at reading people or was deliberately blinding himself to the truth about this woman. It was hardly her place to intervene, and yet Donna was sitting here all but crying into her coffee, while Josh was off nursing his broken heart and bruised ego. And if, at seventy-three, you couldn’t stick your beak in where it wasn’t strictly wanted, then what was the point of living so long? Fixing her eye carefully on the young woman, Rachel said, “Are you in love with Josh?”

Donna didn’t move, didn’t react at all. And then a small, self-deprecating smile curved her lips. Funny, Rachel noted, how she smiled when she was hurting. “Rachel…”

“It’s okay,” she said, “I won’t tell him, if he doesn’t know.”

Donna shook her head and stood up. “I really should be going, we’ve got an early morning—”

“Is that why you left him?” Rachel pressed.

Again, the half-smile and the shake of the head. Donna was looking around urgently for somewhere to leave her coffee and settled on the mantelpiece. “I should really—” Her words stumbled to a halt, her eyes arrested by the photograph next to her mug. It was a few years old now, but a nice picture of Josh that a friend had taken when they’d been out sailing one summer, before she’d sold the old house and moved to Florida. It was rare for him to look so relaxed these days, and Rachel loved the picture for that alone.

Donna hadn’t moved, but then, as if she couldn’t help herself, her hand drifted from the coffee cup to the photo and picked it up. That illusory smile still lurked on her lips, but her eyes were full of a sweet sadness she couldn’t hide.

Rachel felt her heart filling fit to burst. “Life can be complicated.”

“Yes,” Donna agreed, her eyes still fixed on the photo. “Yes it can.”

“Josh thinks you hate him.”

She flinched, but nodded. “I don’t.”

“You should tell him that.”

Her gaze lifted to Rachel. “I can’t find him.”

Rachel smiled, pushing herself to her feet. “George was right about one thing, Donna. Josh has gone home.”

Understanding dawned instantly. “He’s in Westport?”

“You didn’t hear it from me.”

Donna smiled at that, the first smile that wasn’t employed to hide something else. “Thank you,” she said, carefully putting the photo back; Rachel had seen her treat Josh with as much care once upon a time.

She very much hoped that she would see it again.

***

Westport, Connecticut might as well have been on the moon for all the chance Donna had of going there in the foreseeable future. If she’d thought the campaign for the nomination was hard, the real campaign was on a different scale entirely. She was living out of a suitcase, flying from one issue to another, living or dying by the polls and the message, without an evening off, let alone a free weekend.

They were all burning the candle at both ends, and the tension was beginning to show. Even Leo’s phlegmatic outlook was taking a dent; he seemed more harassed than she’d ever seen him, even at the White House. And if she’d thought carefully about why that might be, perhaps it wouldn’t have been such a surprise when he threw down his pen in the middle of the morning meeting and growled, “We need someone else.”

All eyes fixed on him, some nervous, some confused. Lou, Donna thought, looked slightly insulted and it was she who said, “Someone like who?”

“You know who,” Leo said with a sigh.

“Yeah, well,” Lou snorted, “short of putting out an APB…”

Donna went very still when she realised who they were talking about. And it made total sense; Leo was missing his right-hand man, his go-to guy.

“Yeah,” Leo sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. “Okay, so what’s next?”

There was a moment’s silence into which Donna heard herself say, “Are you talking about Josh?”

Leo fixed her with a sharp look. “You know where he is?”

No hiding anything from Leo McGarry, but that wasn’t really the issue. “You can’t hire him after the Congressman fired him. Can you?”

“Maybe. This is a different campaign, and he wouldn’t be campaign manager. A consultant, maybe. Someone to— Are you in touch with him, Donna?”

She flushed a little at the unspoken implication. “No. No, but I know where he is.”

Leo paused, considering, then said, “Okay. Okay, let’s get on with this…” He flung a quick look at Donna. “We’ll discuss Josh later.”

Later turned out to be the following week, the day after Donna got back from five days in Texas. She had two days at the office, before heading out to meet the campaign back in California. Her desk was almost buried under work, which was why at nearly midnight she was still going strong and trying to weigh the benefits of pro-plus over another cup of coffee when Leo appeared in her doorway.

“So,” he said, “Josh is holed up, licking his wounds, in Westport.”

“I don’t have an address or anything,” Donna said, “but his mom said—”

“You spoke to Rachel?”

“Yeah, when we were in Florida a few weeks ago. I’m sure if you asked her she’d give you a contact number, or something.”

Leo nodded. “Yeah. I’m not gonna call him.”

The flurry of disappointment was more surprising than it should have been. “You’re not?”

Leo shook his head. “No. You’re going to go get him.”

For a stunned moment she couldn’t say anything. “Me?”

“Yeah. You’re on a flight tomorrow.”

“No… You don’t understand, that’s really not a good idea. I’m the last person you should send. Send Lou or—”

“Josh hates Lou. The feeling’s mutual, I think.”

“Yeah, well,” she laughed, “Josh isn’t too fond of me right now, so you—”

“Come on Donna…”

“We’ve hardly spoken since I left my job.”

“Why do you think he’s out there at all?”

She blinked. “What?”

“What do you think he’s doing, camped out in Westport, Connecticut?”

“He was fired, his career—”

“He wasn’t fired,” Leo countered. “He asked to be fired.”

“Because if he hadn’t the press would have—”

“Gotten over it, probably.”

She stared at him, confused for a moment. “The Congressman told me—”

“Donna…” Leo stepped into the room and closed the door behind him, he was half smiling but Donna wasn’t sure if it was amusement or irritation. “Sometimes, you kids… I need Josh back here, I don’t need him sulking in Westport. Go fetch him.”

Shaking her head, she got to her feet, inexplicably nervous. “No, I’m sorry, you don’t understand. Josh and I—”

“The day you left the White House, Josh got on a plane and flew to Houston. Did you know that?”

She didn’t. “Houston?”

“To ask Congressman Santos to run.” He paused, letting it sink in. “The day you left, Donna. What does that tell you?”

She laughed nervously, staring down at her desk. “That he didn’t like the temp?”

“Donna…”

“He doesn’t want to see me,” she said, keeping her eyes fixed on the desk so that Leo wouldn’t see the tears forming. “He wouldn’t see me at the hospital, he’s left his cell in his apartment…” She forced out another smile. “So, sending me down there would—”

“Just go talk to him Donna.”

She shook her head. “I don’t know where he is.”

“Yeah,” Leo sighed. She heard a soft rustle and then he slid a piece of paper over the desk toward her. “I do.”

Westport Inn, 1595 Post Road East.

Donna looked up. “That’s where he’s staying?”

“And where you’re staying too. Your flight leaves at ten thirty tomorrow.”

She picked up the note and turned it over in her fingers. “How did you find him?”

Leo smiled. “It’s what mothers do for old friends of their husbands.”





More to come!

  • Post a new comment

    Error

    default userpic
  • 4 comments