SalR323 (salr323) wrote,
SalR323
salr323

WW fic: "The Road Less Travelled" Pt 3



Chapter Five

Westport, Connecticut was exactly what Donna had imagined. Full of well-kept family homes, dripping wealth and self-satisfaction. Affluence was everywhere, from the Suburbans on the street to the manicured lawns. Life was good here, and it showed.

She smiled to herself, imagining Josh growing up among all this privileged comfort, and wondered where he’d gotten the drive to go out and try to help the rest of the country achieve as much. It would be easy, in a place like this, to put up the barriers and try to keep it all for yourself. It had always been one of the things she’d most admired about Josh; he’d grown up with the good life, but somehow that had only fuelled a fundamental sense of egalitarianism. It said something about him, she figured.

But her smile soon faded as the cab pulled up outside the Westport Inn, her stomach tightening into knots. She’d spent most of the night and the entire flight up here trying to work out what to say to him, but she had nothing. Absolutely nothing. He had to know she was coming, which helped. Although she was half afraid – or half hoping – that he might be gone by the time she arrived. Either way, she was about to find out.

The hotel was small and quaint, fitting in with the general ambiance of the town. She doubted it was as old as it looked, but the faux-colonial thing was done with enough subtlety to be charming. There was a small bar, all dark wood and deep, comfortable chairs over to her right, and a set of wooden stairs leading up toward the rooms. It looked like the perfect romantic weekend getaway, ironically. The stark conformity of a Marriott might have been more appropriate for her mission…

Once she’d checked in, Donna found herself standing in a large, beautifully decorated room and wondering what to do next. If Josh was still staying here she figured all she needed to do was sit in the bar and eventually she’d spot him either leaving or arriving. But she didn’t want to, not yet. Her head wasn’t together enough, she had too many voices talking inside her mind and she needed some space. A little light and air to gather her thoughts.

So she quickly changed into her jeans, threw on the thick sweater she’d packed, and headed out into the cold fall air. It really was beautiful; even in the town you could glimpse the fall foliage and the tang of the sea air was everywhere. As she strolled, she tried to imagine growing up here and felt, for the first time since she’d known Josh, a little stab of envy. He’d had all this, and most likely a beautiful house and— And a sister who’d died, leaving him a legacy of survivor’s guilt. No amount of wealth could compensate for that.

It occurred to her that guilt might be at the root of Josh’s incredible drive and ambition. Perhaps the only way he could justify surviving was to climb as high and as fast as possible? To prove he was worthy of having survived. It made sense and—

Donna stopped dead in the middle of the street, struck by a mini-epiphany. She could identify with him, she realised, she could identify with that sense of ‘why me?’. That sense of not wanting to waste a moment of your life, of feeling that anything less than achieving your maximum potential was an insult to those who’d died – the better, smarter, more valuable people who’d died.

Oh God… Was that what she was doing?

Her heart was racing, her breathing short and shallow as she forced herself to start moving again. Oblivious to where she walked, her mind was turned utterly inward.

Was that why she’d walked out on Josh to go work for Bob Russell? Because Admiral Fitzwallace had died, and she – a glorified secretary with a crush on her boss – had survived? Was that why she’d done it so violently and with so much rage? Because C.J. had laid bare the foolishness at the centre of her life, and Fitzwallace had died in her place?

A surge of emotion brought thick tears to her throat. She swallowed them hard and kept walking. It was an aimless walk now, as she went over every little detail of the past year, trying to understand herself at last. Her mom had said she’d grown hard, and she’d felt hard. She’d felt cold inside, angry with everyone, but mostly with herself. Angry because she’d idled away the best years of her life, staying in a job she loved a lot less than her boss. Angry because Josh was right – she hadn’t put herself forward for anything, she hadn’t finished her degree, she hadn’t applied for any other jobs. She’d done nothing to further her career, because that would have meant leaving him and that was the last thing she’d wanted to do. So instead she’d twisted herself up into a knot of resentment and thrown her anger at Josh.

But what had she really wanted? A job with more responsibility, where she could shine and grow, and yet a job where she still worked with him every single day? There was no such job. C.J. had been right, she’d missed a hundred opportunities outside the White House – and within – because she hadn’t wanted to leave Josh.

And then she’d turned around and blamed him for that, gotten herself so mad at him that when she’d eventually had the courage to take control of her life, she’d left him in the cruellest way possible. Because she was angry and hurting and wanted him to hurt too.

She stopped again, finding herself on the edge of a picturesque little marina, and stared out over the sparkling water and bobbing sail boats. It seemed appropriate; this moment of self-revelation felt as bright as the sunshine. And for the first time in too long, she knew what she had to say to him. There was fault on both sides, and she could admit that now because she understood herself at last.

Maybe he had held her back, maybe she’d let him. But the anger, that deep, gnawing anger, wasn’t for Josh. It was the anger of a survivor struggling to find her way in a world turned upside down, it was the anger of someone lashing out at those closest to her. She understood that now, and she needed him to understand it too.

Rachel was right, she had to tell him the truth. They had to discuss it, out in the open and like adults. She almost laughed at the idea, but there was a first time for everything.

Right?

***

It was late afternoon before she got back to the hotel and the cold had penetrated to the bone. Her toes were numb, her fingers ached even inside her thick leather gloves, and she was beginning to dream of hot chocolate with whipped cream and perhaps a brandy chaser. Just to ward off the chill.

Her plan was to get back to her room, shower and then head down to the bar and hope to bump into Josh over dinner. If he didn’t show up, she’d do the same at breakfast. If that failed, she’d have to indulge in some skulduggery to discover his room number. But first things first, she thought as she pushed through the doors into the hotel. Shower, hot chocolate, and a brandy.

The girl at reception smiled politely, got her room key with minimal fuss and asked Donna if she’d found the town without a problem. Donna was in the middle of replying when a burst of cold air from the opening door made her shiver. She sank a little deeper into her coat, thought again about the imminent hot shower, and reached out for the room key. But the girl handed it over absently, her attention suddenly fixed on the newcomer. “Did you have a nice afternoon, sir?”

Perhaps it was something about the way the girl was beaming that caused Donna to turn her head and look, or perhaps it was some instinctive sense of his presence, but either way she found herself staring at Joshua Lyman himself. Her heart thudded loudly, and was strangely overwhelmed by the sight of him. How long had it been? Nine weeks since she’d last seen him, on that horrible night in her apartment. And here he was, large as life and radiating waves of cold air from his thick jacket.

“It was good,” he was saying to the girl, his smile easy and more relaxed than Donna had seen in months. “I hadn’t been up there for years and…” His voice trailed off, he was obviously aware of someone staring at him and glanced over.

His shocked expression would have been comical, if it hadn’t been so sharply painful. For a long moment he just stared at her, and all Donna could think was that he looked good. His face was flushed with the cold air, his eyes were bright and there wasn’t even a hint of a dark circle beneath them. He looked well. He looked rested, strong. Relaxed. And then his mouth twitched into a brief, incredulous smile and he said, “Hi.”

“Hi,” she managed in return.

He laughed slightly, but she recognised it as his edgy laugh. “What are you doing here?”

Right to the point, of course. Donna flicked a look at the receptionist who was assiduously busying herself well within earshot. “Leo sent me,” Donna said. “To bring you back.”

Josh just stared at her, eyebrows climbing. “He sent you?”

“I—” She winced at the unexpected pain his incredulity brought. “Can we discuss this somewhere else?”

Josh looked away, picked up his key from the counter and dropped it into his pocket. “Who says I want to discuss it at all?”

She followed him toward the stairs as he made his way through the lobby. “Leo wants you back, Josh. He needs you.”

“He needs me?”

Was it her imagination, or had there been a slight emphasis on the ‘he’? “The…campaign needs you, Josh. The Congressman needs you.”

Josh took the stairs two at a time. “The Congressman fired me.”

“You told him to.”

“Because…that’s what you do with people who break the law and recklessly endanger the lives of others.”

Donna stopped halfway up the stairs. “When I said that? It was my job…”

He slowed, eventually stopping a couple of feet above her, and turned around. “Yeah…”

She sighed. “Can we please just talk about this? Like adults?”

Like adults? We are adults, so by definition however we talk about this is like adults, so—”

“Meet me in the bar in half an hour,” she said, starting to climb the stairs again.

He watched her walk past him, and she thought again how vital he looked. So different from the man she’d last seen, and that suddenly reminded her… She stopped at the top of the stairs. “How’s your arm?”

“Mended,” he said, giving it a little wiggle. “Amazing how fast you can heal, isn’t it?”

With that he strode up the rest of the stairs and sauntered off in the opposite direction. Donna sighed and headed for her room, wondering if this afternoon’s epiphany had come nine weeks too late.

***

To her surprise, Josh was already in the bar when Donna got back down there half an hour later. Showered and changed, she felt refreshed, yet couldn’t quell the restless butterflies fluttering in her stomach.

Josh was sitting in the far corner of the room, ensconced at one end of a comfortable-looking sofa with his nose buried in – of all things – a book. Donna couldn’t remember ever seeing him reading a book; if it turned out to be a novel she’d know it wasn’t the real Josh Lyman after all. Taking a deep breath, she straightened her shoulders and crossed the room. As she drew nearer, Josh looked up. There was a hint of let’s-get-this-over-with in his eyes that sent her butterflies into a tailspin, but she resolutely ignored them and forced a smile. He barely returned it as he slipped a bookmark between the pages and set his book down on the low table in front of him.

Donna stopped with her hand on the back of the armchair opposite. “I’m going to sit here,” she announced.

“Okay.”

Perching on the edge of the chair, she cast around for something to say and her eyes fell on his book: Long Walk to Freedom. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you read anything that wasn’t a briefing book,” she said.

“It’s good.” Josh replied, still lounged back in the sofa. But she thought she could detect a little tension in his complete stillness, as if his composed exterior might shatter if he moved. “It’s pretty inspiring stuff.”

“It is.”

His eyebrows rose slightly. “You’ve read it?”

“Yes. Yes, I have.” She felt her lips twist into a wry smile. “See? I didn’t spend every evening looking for a hot date.”

Josh’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Yeah… Look, about that. I shouldn’t have said—”

“It’s fine. It was— We both said some things…”

“Yeah.”

Silence fell, as uncomfortable as it always was these days. Eventually, just to end the awkward moment, she said, “You look…well.”

His answering stare was utterly indecipherable. “Thanks.” He didn’t, she noted, return the compliment. In fact his attention had wandered to some point over her right shoulder.

It was time, she decided, to get down to business. “Look…Leo thinks—”

“Hey!” a bright and breezy voice called from behind her. “Sorry I’m late, the meeting ran on about a half-hour longer than was productive and I couldn’t make Mark Swanson shut up.” To Donna’s utter astonishment an effervescent ball of chatter barrelled past her to swoop down and kiss Josh warmly on the lips, before collapsing next to him on the sofa. “Did you get my message?”

“Yeah,” he smiled, looping an arm around the slim shoulders of the woman, one hand toying with the ends of her brunette curls. “I called the restaurant and they’ll hold the table.”

“Oh, great! I’ve been dreaming of spaghetti carbonara all day!”

Donna was frozen with shock. There was a nauseous sensation right at the back of her throat, as if something alive was trying to climb up and out of her gut. All she could do was stare and hope that the floor would open and swallow her whole.

At that moment Josh glanced over at her, and there was a gleam in his eye that looked like victory. Heat rushed to her face, the pain intolerable, and in the split second before she dropped her head to stare at her hands Donna thought she saw something else in his eyes. It could have been regret, but was probably disdain. “Hannah, this is Donna Moss, she’s a…uh…” He cleared his throat. “We used to work together at the White House.”

Hannah glanced over, her dark eyes widening slightly as she noticed Donna. Then she smiled, a warm and friendly smile, and reached out a hand. “Hey Donna, nice to meet you. I’m Hannah Weiss.”

Somehow Donna managed to smile, to hold out her hand and shake Hannah’s. She was pretty, Donna thought. Slightly older than herself, closer to Josh’s age, but the few lines on her face looked like they came from too much smiling rather than ageing; she had one of those wide mouths that seemed awkward when it wasn’t smiling.

“Are you here on vacation?” Hannah was asking.

“Ah…no, actually. I’m here to see Josh— I mean, I was sent here, by my boss, to see Josh.”

Hannah nodded as if it was the most interesting thing in the world. “Right. Is your boss in the White House?”

“She works for Matt Santos,” Josh said, his gaze just shy of Donna’s.

“Wow!” Hannah seemed genuinely impressed. “On the campaign? How exciting!”

“Yeah,” Donna nodded. “It is. It really is.”

“So how did you get involved with that? I’ve always wanted—” She laughed suddenly, a wide open laugh that was impossibly attractive. “Sorry! I sound like such a geek. I just find the whole thing so fascinating, you know, and especially for a woman. That must have been hard, right?”

“Oh…yeah,” Donna nodded. She felt like she was walking blind through a minefield. “Well, you know, I had some, uh, help…along the way.”

She sensed Josh shift in his seat, rather than saw him. “We should probably be going,” he said to Hannah.

Hannah glanced at him, then back at Donna. “Have you eaten?”

“Ah—”

“We’re gonna grab dinner at this great Italian place. It’s not far.” She looked over at Josh again. “That’s okay with you, right?”

Hannah didn’t seem to notice the ‘hell no!’ expression in Josh’s eye, but to Donna it was as clear as if he’d spoken out loud. “Sure,” he said, the word barely audible through his gritted teeth.

“I— Thank you,” Donna said, and realised she meant it. “I think I’ll probably just turn in, it’s been a long day.”

“Really?” Hannah looked disappointed. “That’s a shame, I’d love to talk more about what you do.”

Donna laughed, and hoped it sounded less bitter than it felt. “Josh can tell you much more than I can, I was just a secretary—”

“You weren’t,” Josh said. “You weren’t just a secretary.”

“I basically answered the phones,” she said, forcing another smile. “So…”

Jaw tight, Josh’s smile was small and brittle as he gazed down at his hands with a little shake of his head. Into the silence, Hannah said, “Is that what you do now?”

“No. I’m… Actually I’m the spokesperson for the Santos campaign.”

Eyes wide, Hannah smiled again. “That’s impressive. Wow…you know, I’d love for you to come and talk to my ninth graders. Especially the girls. I teach poli-sci at Staples, and it’s so hard to get girls interested.” She chuckled. “I was like the only girl taking poli-sci at high school, remember Josh?”

“Yeah,” he nodded, smiling. “I remember.”

She looped her arm affectionately through his. “Josh was top of the class – of course – and I used to copy his homework!”

Donna forced another smile. “So you…knew each other at high school?”

“Oh yeah.” She leaned forward conspiratorially. “Josh was a bit of a dork back then, but he’s grown up very nicely.”

“Okay, okay…” Josh was on his feet, his smile somewhere between awkward and panicked. “Let’s get going before you bring out a year book or something.”

Hannah laughed and reached for her purse. “Now you mention it…” But she was getting to her feet, turning to smile at Josh with so much affection that Donna felt her heart dissolve and trickle out through the soles of her shoes. As Hannah slipped her arm around his waist, she smiled at Donna, “It was nice to meet you. Maybe we can all have lunch tomorrow or something? I’d really love to hear about the campaign and everything.”

Donna nodded woodenly. “That would be…yeah, I’ll have to check my schedule.” Ugh! Pathetic.

Josh said nothing, just cast her a serious parting look before he turned and ushered Hannah toward the door, one hand at the small of her back.

It was only then Donna realised he’d left his book behind.

***

The logical thing to have done would have been to take his book to reception and hand it in. But, for some reason, Donna found herself carrying it up to her room, sitting cross legged on the bed, and flicking through the pages. Her eyes glossed over the text, her mind too preoccupied with what had happened in the bar to take anything in, but just holding the book gave her a strange sense of comfort.

Comfort… Part of her rebelled at the idea, hated herself for needing it. But the other half was tired of fighting it, of pretending her feelings weren’t what they’d been for so long, and she couldn’t muster the energy to deny the truth. The sight of him with the bubbly Hannah Weiss made her sick with envy, because Hannah had a part of Josh that Donna would never have. She doubted she even had his friendship any more, and any potential beyond that was long gone.

She’d driven it away, broken it in her struggle to assert herself. Perhaps it had been inevitable, but increasingly she was wondering if she couldn’t have moved on in a less destructive way. If she couldn’t have kept their friendship intact, couldn’t have made it clear that she’d still be there for him when he needed her.

But those were could haves now, and Donna made a point of never dwelling on what might have been. The book in her hand was weighty and solid, and felt like her last link to him.

She stopped in her random flicking through the pages, smiling to herself as she realised he’d scrawled something in the margin. She couldn’t read what he’d written, but half a paragraph was underlined. On the next page there was more, and throughout the book there were little notes and underlinings. Only Josh, she thought, would annotate a book he was reading for pleasure. She ran her fingers over the writing, as if she could feel something of him in it, and then moved on until she reached the page where he’d stopped reading.

Her heart stuttered as she opened it and his bookmark fell out into her lap. With trembling fingers she reached down and picked up the photograph, recognising it instantly as the one she hadn’t found in his apartment; the two of them, laughing together, his arm around her shoulders. She still loved the photo, loved their easy familiarity and missed it like oxygen. But that wasn’t what stopped her heart. Neither was it the fact that he’d kept the picture at all. What made her fingers turn ice cold and her cheeks flush hot was the fact that the picture had been ripped into pieces, and then carefully taped back together.

She could see him doing it, see his fingers tearing the photo apart. She could imagine him staring at the fragments in anger, and then regret. She could imagine him fishing them out of the trash and taping the photo back together with almost as much anger as he’d ripped it apart. And she was shaken – really shaken – that he’d ever been that angry with her. When, she wondered, had it happened? After she left? After her statement to the press when he’d been fired? Or after one of their brittle encounters on the road?

With a sigh, she traced a finger over the tape and turned the photo over. On the back, in a black pen that wrote over the tape, Josh had scrawled ‘The good old days’.

Her stomach flipped over painfully and she dropped the photo onto the bed. It landed with the picture showing and as Donna stared down at their laughing faces she understood, for the first time in her life, that you really don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.


Chapter Six

Habit, born of half a lifetime in professional politics, had Josh awake and out of bed early. He’d never been the sort to enjoy dozing; once he was awake, he needed to be doing something. Anything. Sleep was, he thought, a fundamentally boring necessity of life.

Not that he had a lot to do right now, but his body clock didn’t seem to know that. Which was why he found himself standing at the floor to ceiling windows, gazing out over the hotel garden and toward the ocean. There was an on-shore breeze, he could tell by the way the low grey clouds were scudding across the blue sky. His Dad would have told him rain was on the way; his Dad had always watched the sky like some kind of Melvillesque fisherman, apparently oblivious to the idiosyncrasy of such a pursuit in a New York litigator.

But Josh never watched the sky, his attention was always fixed downward. Nose to the grindstone, ear to the ground. Always working harder than the next guy, always climbing one rung higher. Sometimes, not often, but sometimes he wondered what was at the top of the ladder. It was an awkward question, because in his experience the only thing at the top of the ladder was another ladder. High school, Harvard, law school, legislative director in the House, Floor director in the Senate, Deputy Chief of Staff in the White House, campaign manager for Matt Santos… Always another ladder to climb, and to what end? He didn’t even have time to admire the view. He didn’t even know if there was a view.

With a sigh he turned away from the window, his gaze coming to rest on Hannah still sleeping in his bed. In the thin morning light her face looked pale against her dark curls, and it struck him that perhaps that was the view. Perhaps there really was nothing at the top of the ladder unless you carried it up with you. And perhaps that’s what he’d been doing wrong all these years; he’d been climbing alone.

But now he wasn’t alone, and he wasn’t climbing. He was just…enjoying the view. It felt good, he realised. It felt comforting, like coming in from the cold on a dark night. Outside he could still hear the storm raging, but right here he was out of the wind and enjoying the peace. For now.

He hadn’t forgotten that Donna was here, with an offer from Leo, trying to pull him back into the maelstrom. And there was a large part of him that wanted to go; he was rested, his mind was sharper than it had been in months, and he still craved the buzz of the race. But these past couple of months had given him a glimpse of something else, of a sorely neglected side of his life, and it made him hesitate.

Did he really want to return to a world where your closest friends would betray you for political advantage or a career opportunity? It was a cliché, but was there really more to life than ambition? The thought had crossed his mind before, but it was only now, as he watched Hannah sleep, that it lingered for more than a moment. In the few weeks since they’d bumped into each other again he’d come to know her well; it wasn’t difficult, because she was an open book. There was no artifice about her, no double-talk. Hannah was exactly what she appeared to be – a smart school teacher with a broad smile and an affectionate heart. She taught at one of the best schools in the country, she knew everyone in the entire state, as far as Josh could tell, she loved her job and felt no need to prove anything to anyone. She was content, and her happiness was contagious.

She was, in short, the exact opposite to the ball-busting beltway type he’d always dated. And he liked that about her. He liked it a lot, and wondered if that wasn’t what his life was missing these days. Someone to ground him, to anchor him to the world that existed outside DC. Someone to make him laugh, to take care of him – to know what he needed even when he had no idea himelf. Someone who’d just be there for him.

And maybe that was Hannah? Maybe she would—

A polite knock at the door announced the arrival of breakfast. Hannah opened a sleepy eye and smiled. She was always smiling. “Hey,” she said, and he wondered if she’d been awake the whole time he’d been staring at her.

He returned the smile. “You hungry?”

“Mmmmm,” she agreed, sitting up and pushing her tangled mop of hair back from her face. “I hope they bring those muffins again.”

“They will,” he said, heading for the door, “I asked them to.”

“And you always get what you ask for?”

“Always.”

She threw him a look that was half bemused and half amused as he turned and opened the door. If they didn’t bring the muffins he’d—

“Hi.”

It wasn’t breakfast. It was Donna.

“I’m sorry to stop by so early, but I figured you’d be up anyway.”

It was Donna. Donna was standing outside his room in jeans and a sweater, clutching a book in her hands. Behind him, Josh could hear the rustle of bedclothes and the bathroom door closing. He couldn’t think of a thing to say. Donna was there, and his stupid, treacherous heart was thundering.

“You left this behind in the bar,” she said, holding out his book.

All Josh could see was the bookmark poking out from between the pages, and all he could think was that Donna must have seen it and realised exactly what it meant. Which meant she knew. Suddenly he felt like a beached turtle that had lost its shell.

“Josh?” Her head cocked to one side, brow crumpling into one of her irritated frowns.

“Thanks,” he managed to blurt, almost snatching the book from her hands. “I’d, uh, forgotten…” How to speak? Gah!

Donna smiled hesitantly. “We still need to talk about…you know, the campaign and Leo’s offer. Well, not so much an offer, really, as a direct order to the troops, so…”

He could hear Hannah moving around behind him and tried to close the door a little. “Yeah, okay. Uh, now’s not really—”

The door was pushed from his hands, opening widely. “Donna?” Hannah, as usual, had no sense of discretion. “Wow – you’re up early.”

Donna stared for a moment, and then her cheeks turned a delicate pink and she backed away. “God, I’m so sorry, I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t mean to intrude, I was just—”

Hannah slipped an arm around Josh’s waist – a little possessively, perhaps? – her usually open face cautiously curious. “It’s okay,” she said. “We were awake, weren’t we Josh?”

“Ah…yeah. It’s fine,” he said, strangely upset at the sight of Donna’s obvious distress. “It’s not a problem, we were awake...”

Donna’s blush only deepened at the implication. “Okay, well I’ll leave you to—”

“You want to have breakfast with us?” Hannah asked abruptly. Her smile was back, if a little more reserved than usual, and her shrewd, dark eyes were watching Donna with interest. A little too much interest for Josh’s liking…

Sensibly, Donna shook her head. “No, I don’t think that’s—”

But right then the room-service guy showed up with breakfast, and Donna was snared. “Wonderful timing!” Hannah enthused, dragging Donna in by the arm and ordering extra everything from the waiter.

There was a low table at the far side of the room, in a bay-window, and Hannah led Donna over and made her sit. “Isn’t the light here beautiful?” she asked. “I love this time of day.”

Donna smiled, barely. “Yes, it’s very…light.”

Josh still hadn’t moved from the door by the time the room service guy left. He wasn’t entirely sure that he could move. What the hell was happening?

“Josh?” Hannah looked over at him with a question in her eyes. “Are you going to eat?”

There was no way – no way! – he could sit down and eat breakfast with Donna Moss. “Uh—”

“Come on! Look, they brought the muffins. Don’t let them get cold.”

He was going to sit down and eat breakfast with Donna Moss. He was going to sit down and eat breakfast with Donna Moss while wearing nothing more than his boxers and a t-shirt. Perhaps it was a nightmare? One of those horrible powerless dreams where you have to give the State of the Union butt naked in front of a Republican Congress.

He tried pinching himself, but it was no good. Bereft of any excuses he moved over to the table and sat down. He was opposite Hannah, which was a relief because it meant he didn’t have to look at Donna. On the down side it meant that Donna was sitting next to him, entirely too close because he could actually feel her presence. It made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.

Donna, he noted, was ignoring him and staring firmly at the table. With a sardonic smile he sipped at his coffee and wondered if she was avoiding looking at the unmade bed on the other side of the room. As usual the little flare of triumph the thought provoked was instantly swallowed by a surge of regret.

He wished he knew why he still found it so painful to hurt her.

“Well,” Hannah smiled, offering Donna a pastry. “This is nice.”

***

Hannah Weiss had always been an observer of people. It was one of her many pleasures in life, and she was something of an expert. And so as she ate breakfast and chatted, she watched the little drama play out in front of her with curiosity. Josh looked more tense than she’d ever seen him, said little and kept throwing quick looks at Donna Moss. She was equally tense, although making a better show of hiding it. She’d angled herself away from Josh, toward Hannah, and was quite enthusiastic about her life on the campaign trail. Hannah didn’t say so, but living out of a suitcase like that was pretty much her idea of hell. She was a firm believe in the Dorothy philosophy – there’s no place like home. But what really made her curious about Donna wasn’t her career, it was the fact that she was obviously the woman in the photo Josh carried around with him. The torn up, taped together photo.

These people had history and as she watched them each trying to crawl into their own shell, a few pieces started to fall into place. There was something haunted about Josh. It wasn’t overt, and mostly he deflected it with his quick humour, but there was something aching inside that she’d never been able to reach. At times she’d seen it in his eyes; he’d drift off and his smile would fade and for a moment he was just somewhere else entirely. In those moments she’d wonder what he was hiding from, up here in his home town, but she’d never asked. She knew he wouldn’t answer anyway.

Seeing him this morning, however, stirring his coffee around and around, she saw that expression again. Only this time it was much more raw, thinly disguised. It was one part anger, two parts regret, and obviously had everything to do with Donna Moss. Helping herself to another muffin, Hannah fixed her eyes on Josh. “So how long did you two work together at the White House?”

“About six and a half years,” he said, not looking up. His memory, Hannah noticed, was quite accurate.

“Do you miss it? I can’t imagine a more amazing place to work.”

Neither of them answered. Josh just kept stirring his coffee and Donna’s gaze moved to the window. At last, and clearly only out of politeness, Donna said, “It was the most…” Her gaze darted to Josh and back. “The most amazing time of my life. It really was.”

Josh stopped stirring his coffee.

“Did you work closely with President Bartlet?” Hannah asked, to keep the conversation going. “Is he as impressive in person as he is in public?”

“He’s a wonderful man, just wonderful,” Donna said, her face lighting up. “I didn’t really work closely with the President, but Josh did. Josh was really— I mean, Leo McGarry was the only person closer to the President than Josh.”

“Really? You don’t talk about that much, Josh.”

“It’s mostly boring,” he said, not looking at her. “Mostly about legislative agendas getting screwed up, scavenging votes for bills, not getting done what we needed to get done. Pissing off senators.”

“That was Josh’s forte,” Donna chipped in.

“Bartlet’s Pit Bull,” Hannah smiled. “I read that once.”

Josh laughed a little. “Never believe anything you read in the papers.”

“You had that headline pinned up in your office for months!” Donna protested, her voice warm with humour.

And for the first time, Josh looked at her. It was just a brief look, but there was a nostalgia in it that made Hannah sigh; these two had history, and it was far from dead and buried. She’d seen enough – too much, perhaps.

“Okay. I’m going to take a shower, so—”

Donna was on her feet. “Then I’ll be going. Thank you for breakfast, it was—”

“You don’t need to leave,” Hannah said. “You and Josh seem like you have a lot to catch up on so—”

“We’ll talk later. My flight leaves this evening, so…?” Her attention was fixed on Josh. “I’ll need to give Leo an answer.”

He nodded. “I know.” Then, after a moment, “There’s a little marina out at Compo Beach, it’s—”

“I’ll find it.”

“Okay. Two o’clock? We can…talk, or something.”

Donna’s face was perfectly composed, and perfectly sad. Hannah didn’t know what question Josh had been asked, but she suspected that Donna already knew the answer. “I’ll see you,” she said quietly, then turned to Hannah. “It’s…really nice to meet you. I hope—” She smiled, eyes downcast. “You guys seem really good together.”

Hannah didn’t reply; she didn’t know how to answer the slight tremble of Donna’s lips. “Good luck,” was all she said in the end, “with the campaign.”

Donna smiled, although it didn’t reach her eyes. “Thanks. And you know, if you want to help, just head on down to the local headquarters…”

Hannah laughed. “I’m not sure that stuffing envelopes is my thing, but I’ll think about it.”

“Every little helps,” Donna smiled. And then with a final glance at Josh, she turned and headed for the door.

Josh watched her leave in silence, but the look in his eyes could have melted steel.

And it turned Hannah’s heart to ice.

***

It was a cold winter’s afternoon, the sun low in the pale sky and managing to avoid the fast-moving clouds blowing in from the sea. Donna arrived at the marina early, as always, and sat on a low stone wall staring out along the almost deserted beach that curved away to her left. In the summer, she imagined, it was full of kids and families, a perfect place for a day out. Idyllic, really. Not that Josh had ever been at home with nature, or kids, but she thought she could see him here one day. Him and Hannah.

Her stomach twisted strangely at the idea, half pain and half pleasure. As hard as it was to see him with her, Donna couldn’t deny that he seemed happy here – for the first time in a long time. He was relaxed – he was reading a book. For fun! And Hannah… Hannah Weiss wasn’t another Amy Gardner or Mandy Hampton. She was the kind of woman who was interested in everyone, who always saw the good in people, and who was utterly without pretension. She wasn’t Josh’s rival, she genuinely seemed to care about him and wasn’t afraid to show it.

She was exactly what he needed, Donna realised. And she was glad about that, glad to see Josh happy and cared for. It was an odd sensation, because she was expecting to feel teeth-grinding envy. And there was a little of that in the mix too, but mostly she was pleased to see him so at peace. He deserved it. After everything he’d done, he deserved a little personal happiness. Her only regret – and it was an overwhelming regret – was that she saw in Hannah Weiss something of herself, of how she’d been before C.J. had torn the veil from her eyes and an act of terror had turned her life inside out. She’d cared for Josh; she’d spent years watching out for him, looking after him. And she’d loved being the first person he went to in a crisis, the last person to leave him at the end of the day. She’d loved that he needed her.

Yet somewhere along the way, she’d grown to hate it. Looking back, she could hardly understand how it had happened, but she remembered her mother’s words; I don’t like what this place is doing to you, Donna. It’s making you hard.

Her mom was right. She wasn’t like Hannah Weiss any more, she wasn’t the wholesome hometown girl with hayseeds in her hair. She was Donna Moss, spokesperson for the Santos campaign, and player of the game. She wasn’t interested in everyone she met, she was only interested in allies and the machinations of the enemy. She didn’t see the good in anyone any more, she only saw the strategic advantage of their support. She was more like Amy Gardner than Hannah Weiss, and she’d been an eye-witness to the rail crash of that relationship.

It was ironic, she thought bitterly, that in becoming the woman she thought she wanted to be, she’d thrown away the very things that Josh obviously valued. There was probably a lesson in that, although she wasn’t sure what it would—

“Hey.”

She looked up, and there he was, standing a few feet away from her, wrapped up against the cold. She wondered how long he’d been there. “Hey,” she said, getting to her feet.

Josh nodded toward a boardwalk leading out along the beach. “You want to walk a little? It’s freezing.”

“Sure,” she nodded, falling into step beside him and gazing out toward the sea. “It’s beautiful here.”

“Yeah.”

“Did you come down here a lot as kids?”

“At weekends, sometimes.”

“Nice place for kids,” she said, trying not to sigh. Instead, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes, letting the sea breeze fill her lungs. “Isn’t it weird to think that on the other side of the water is a whole different continent?”

“Actually…on the other side of the water is New York. That’s…Long Island Sound, not the Atlantic.”

Donna opened her eyes. “You have no poetry in your soul.”

“So many have said.”

She didn’t answer, but smiled a little. It almost felt like old times, which was more painful than anything since this could be the very last time they did this. Ever. The thought sliced like a cold knife, urging her to get it over with. “I know… I think I know what you’re answer’s going to be,” she said, watching her boots crunching on the sand that blew in eddies across the boardwalk.

Josh didn’t say anything.

“I don’t blame you,” she said, glancing over at him. “This is a lovely place.”

He frowned a little. “The thing is…if I went back? I don’t know what I’d be going back for. Another rung on the ladder? Another ladder? I don’t know.”

“There’s Leo,” Donna said.

Josh just looked at her, a searching look she didn’t know how to interpret. “I’m not sure that’s enough.”

“No,” she agreed, looking back out to sea – or whatever it was.

They’d ground to a halt and after a moment Josh said, “What…do you think I should do?”

She almost laughed, an expression hugely at odds with her leaden heart. “It doesn’t matter what I—”

“It matters,” he said softly. “It matters to me.”

“Then…” Oh, God help me… “Then I think you should do what makes you happy. I think you’re forty-three years old and that if Matt Santos is elected you’ll be his chief of staff, and then you’ll be in the White House for another eight years, which means you’ll be fifty one by the time Sam Seaborne runs. And then you’ll be his campaign manager, and his chief of staff, and after another eight years in the White House you’ll be fifty-nine, by which point you’ll be too old to have a life.”

Josh was watching her with that expression of fond amusement she remembered so well. It was enough to pierce her heart. “So you’re saying I should…?”

“Hannah seems—” She couldn’t say it to his face, she had to drop his gaze and stare off along the beach. “You seem happy here, Josh. You should be happy, right? We should all be…” Her voice wobbled and she cleared her throat, forcing a smile. “We should all be happy.”

“So you think I should…stay?”

It killed her to say it. It just killed her. “Yeah.” She laughed again, to cover the pain. “Don’t tell Leo I said that.”

After a long, long silence, Josh spoke. His voice was rough-edged, but it could just have been the cold wind rasping in his throat. “What if I get bored?”

She smiled another incongruous smile. “I hate to say it, Josh, but…you really need to get a life.”

He nodded, shrugging deeper into his coat. “So…this is it then? You’re heading back to DC tonight?”

“Yeah.” She dared not say more, her voice was brittle with emotion and she thought it would crack wide open if she tried to speak.

“I’ll call Leo,” Josh offered. “Tell him.”

“Okay.” Damn it, a tear was threatening to fall. She turned away and hastily brushed a hand over her eyes, hoping he’d think it was the wind making them water. Clearing her throat, she said, “I should get back and get my stuff.”

“Right,” Josh nodded, his own voice suddenly hard to hear over the roar of the surf.

Donna turned, half looking at him. “I don’t know when we’ll…”

“No,” Josh agreed. “Not for a while, probably.”

“No.” Not ever, maybe.

He laughed suddenly, shaking his head. He too was staring out at the water, hands dug deep into his pockets. “I never thought we’d—” He sucked in a deep breath. “Anyway…you should go. Get your flight.”

She wanted to go. She wanted to run until her lungs burned and the pain scorched away the tears before they fell. “Okay,” she whispered, barely holding it together. “Bye, Josh.”

He looked after her, hiding everything. “Bye.”

She took three steps away from him before she stopped and turned around. He was watching her, eyes bright and dark in the cold. “Josh…” She couldn’t leave it like this, not like this. “Before I go… There’s something—” She blew out a nervous breath. “There’s something I need you to know, about why I left.”

He tensed, a subtle gesture she only saw in the tightening of his eyes. “I think we covered that in your apartment when—”

“No,” she said. “There’s something else. Something you don’t know. I didn’t leave because—” Oh God, how to say this? “A couple of days before I went to Gaza there was a crash. Do you remember? You were locked in your office with Kate Harper.”

He nodded. “You were locked in C.J.’s office.”

“Yes. And she, uh, she said some things that were… Well, they were difficult to hear.”

Josh frowned. “What things?”

“About me, and you, and why I’d never left a job I’d outgrown years earlier.”

He stared for a moment, then a flash of anger crossed his face. “C.J.? I can’t believe—”

“Don’t be mad at her, she was only telling the truth.” Donna hesitated over that. “What she saw as the truth, and at the time I… Well, I knew she was right. I knew why I hadn’t left, why I hadn’t looked for another job. And I knew it had nothing to do with President Bartlet or the White House.”

His eyes were wide now. “Donna…”

She held up a hand to stall him. “And then when I got back from Gaza, and Admiral Fitzwallace didn’t get back…? I just couldn’t carry on. I knew I had to…try for more. Try and make something more of my life, because I didn’t die and maybe it would have been better if I had, and he’d survived, because I—”

“No! God, Donna—”

“I know you know what I mean, Josh. I know you understand what that feels like to be the one who survives.” His mouth opened, then closed and he nodded slightly. She smiled, the tears had retreated and there was only sadness left. “I blamed you, because you were the reason I’d never moved on, and I couldn’t forgive myself for wasting so much time. Back then, I needed to blame someone. I’m sorry. I’m sorry it was you, I’m sorry I left the way I did. And if I hurt you in any way…”

He said nothing, just stared at her in open-mouthed disbelief. And then he shook his head and barked a sharp, disbelieving laugh. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you tell me what C.J. said?”

“Because the next time I saw you was in the hospital, and I didn’t know how to—” She felt the tears come back, snatching at her throat, and wasn’t sure how long she could keep them from falling. “I should go. I just wanted you to know that it wasn’t you. And I didn’t— I’ve never hated you, Josh. Never.”

“Donna…”

“I should go.”

“I can’t—”

“I know. Goodbye, Josh. Be happy.”

With that she started to walk away, swiping at the wind-blown tears on her cheeks.

“Donna! Donna…wait!”

She turned, the wind whipping her hair into her eyes.

“I…” He was just staring at her. “I… Thank you.”

And that was it. That was goodbye. She nodded once, then fled back the way they’d walked together. A small part of her heart whispered that he’d come after her, that he’d pull her into his arms and hold her and kiss her and make everything perfect. But he didn’t, and when she reached the end of the boardwalk she glanced over her shoulder and saw him standing exactly where she’d left him, staring out over the waves.

She turned away, feeling the first hot tears begin to fall, and knew, for sure, that she’d never see him again.

***

It was almost dark before Josh pulled into the driveway of Hannah’s house, and even though he was already a couple of hours late he didn’t get out of the car right away. Instead he switched off the ignition and just sat staring at the warm, buttery light spilling from the windows of her house. Inside, he knew Hannah would be cooking. She’d promised him dinner tonight, and his stomach rumbled at the thought. He hadn’t eaten this well, this frequently, since he’d left home.

His mom, he thought, would approve of Hannah Weiss. He suspected she knew how to make a good chicken soup too, no cliché intended. Hannah was what his Dad would have called a ‘good woman’, and Josh winced slightly at the notion; most of the women he’d dated would have slapped him across the face for even entertaining such a 1950s concept. But Hannah wasn’t like those women, she was…comfortable. Reassuring. Steady.

She had no interest in pushing him off the career ladder in her attempt to shatter the glass ceiling, no need to go head-to-head with him over welfare reform, or to abandon him in favour of a better job for a who-the-hell-cares candidate…

Hannah was reliable, supportive. And safe. She was a safe bet.

He ran his hands over his face, a vague sense of self-recrimination lurking around the edges of his mind. There was nothing wrong with a safe bet, he thought, as he stared at the warm and welcoming house – as warm and welcoming as the woman within. He’d tried the adrenaline-fuelled high flyers, and had always gotten burnt. What kind of fool would he be not to learn from those mistakes? And yet…

I knew why I hadn’t left, why I hadn’t looked for another job. And I knew it had nothing to do with President Bartlet or the White House.

And yet, was it possible that Donna had just told him the reason she’d stayed with him for so long was because…because she had some kind of feelings for him?

A secret, barely investigated part of his heart told him it was the truth, that he’d always known how she’d felt and that he’d hidden from it, denied it, refused to examine his own feelings until it was too late; until that God-awful week in the hospital with that cold, desolate feeling of loss hollowing out his chest. The exact same feeling that had overwhelmed him the day he’d come to work and found a temp at her desk, or the day she’d started working for the opposition, or today, when he’d watched her walk away from him on the beach...

And he’d let it happen, each and every one of those times. He’d just let it happen, because going after her was impossible. A little pride, a little hurt, and a whole lot of fear had kept him back; if he’d gone after her and she’d turned him away it would have destroyed him. He knew that for sure; a single word from Donna could freeze his heart for good. It almost had.

So this was safer, and safer was good.

Safer was warm light spilling out of a comfortable house, a home-cooked meal, loving arms and the certain knowledge that nothing would change. Safer was home and hearth, and maybe his father had been right all along about the importance of those in a man’s life.

Donna Moss might have wound herself around his heart, but Hannah Weiss would never hurt him.

The question is, a small voice whispered, will you hurt her?

Josh heard it, but dismissed it as he opened the car door. He wasn’t that stupid and he knew himself well; he was nothing if he wasn’t loyal. He’d never been the guy who cheated. Not ever.

He sucked in a deep breath, held it for a moment, and then let it go – along with the image of Donna, windswept and beautiful as she’d walked away from him this afternoon. It was over. It was all over, and his decision was made.

Slamming the car door, he headed up to Hannah’s house and rang the bell. She answered right away, all smiles and hugs, and he knew he’d made the right choice. Donna only ever hugged him in extremis.

“So…?” Hannah said, taking his coat and hanging it up. “How did it go?”

Josh blinked, rubbing his hands together in the fragrant warmth of the house; he hadn’t realised he’d gotten so cold. “The…Donna thing?”

“Yeah,” Hannah replied, heading back toward the kitchen. Whatever she was cooking, it smelled fantastic. “What was the big, important thing she’d been sent up here to discuss?”

He followed, his stomach rumbling again in anticipation. “What are you making? It smells amazing.”

“It’s just a beef stew, but the secret is Jerusalem artichokes.”

“Yeah? I’m starving.”

She looked at him oddly, leaning back against the counter. “It’s ready,” she said, “if you want to eat.”

“I’m about ready to chew off my own arm.”

Hannah smiled. “Okay. Fetch a couple of plates? They’re in the second cupboard over.”

He did as he was asked, basking in the warmth and the aroma. This was exactly what he needed. This was—

“So what did Donna want?”

A sliver of irritation pierced the moment. “What?”

“Donna,” Hannah pressed. “Don’t tell me she’d come all this way just to say ‘hi’.”

“It was… It was nothing. Just— Leo wanted to hire me as a consultant on the Santos campaign.”

Hannah’s eyes widened, her smile a little less brilliant than usual. “Really? I thought you said he’d fired you.”

“Yeah, well. A week’s a long time in politics, as they say.”

Hannah nodded, pressing her lips together. “What did—?” She smiled oddly and cocked her head. “So what did you say?”

For some reason, Josh found he couldn’t look at her when he answered. “I said no, of course. What did you think?”

She took the plates from his hands with an indecipherable look and headed toward the table. “I think that I’m a little surprised.”

“Why?”

“Because.”

“That’s not an answer.”

She shrugged. “What do you want me to say? I see you watching C-Span, devouring the papers, yelling at CNN. It’s in your blood, Josh.”

“Yeah, like heroine.”

Hannah shook her head, went over to the oven and pulled out a large dish. When she lifted the lid, the steam swirled and the smell was divine. “You want to kick the habit?”

“Of politics…?” He paused, trying to picture himself spending his life in litigation or corporate law. “I…there’s other kinds of politics. Local, state…”

As she brought the stew to the table, Hannah shook her head. “I think,” she said, “that it’s not politics you’re trying to kick.”

He felt a little tremor of unease ripple through him, like the pain of a hot drink on a sensitive tooth. “I don’t know what you—”

“Josh…” Hannah sighed and took a seat, waving him toward the one opposite her. “Want to know what I think?”

He didn’t. He really didn’t. “Hannah—”

“I think you’re mad as hell that Matt Santos fired you, and that this is your idea of payback.”

He stared at her, he just stared, at once amazed and relieved that she could have got it so wrong. An inappropriate laugh escaped. “I— Yeah, maybe.”

“You’re cutting off your nose to spite your face,” Hanna warned, ladling a huge portion of stew onto his plate. “And I think you’ll regret it.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he said cautiously, “maybe it’s not politics I want to get out of my life. But even so, if I went back there…?” He deliberately left it hanging, wondering if she’d pick it up.

Being Hannah, she did. “If you went back there, I guess I wouldn’t see so much of you.”

“No.”

Unless… Josh felt his heart begin to race, the way it did when he’d worked out how to pin the opposition. Hannah was right, of course she was right. The reason he didn’t want to go back to DC nothing to do with wanting out of politics, and everything to do with escaping the siren call of Donna Moss. But maybe, just maybe, he could have it all.

He looked over at Hannah, through the faint swirl of steam. He looked at her flushed face, her serious dark eyes and unruly curls, he drew in the wonderful aroma of dinner and revelled in the warmth of her house and her heart. So open, so undemanding. So reliable. “What if you came too?”

Hannah’s eyes opened a little wider, and for a moment a flash of a smile lit their depths. But doubt quickly crowded in and her wide, generous mouth only curved a little. “To DC?”

“Yeah. You wouldn’t believe it there, seriously. For someone like you? Someone interested, educated… It’s— It’s just the most amazing place.”

“Wow,” Hannah breathed, setting the ladle down and pressing her hands against her cheeks. “That’s… Unexpected.”

Josh smiled. “In a good way?”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe?”

Her hands dropped into her lap. “I guess… I guess I have a couple of questions, you know, before I decide.”

Unable to resist the stew any longer Josh shovelled a fork full into his mouth and said, “Shoot.”

“Okay…” Hannah wasn’t eating, she was just watching him. Her eyes, he thought, had never looked more intent. “First…where would I live?”

“My apartment,” he said around the food. Obvious, really.

Hannah nodded slowly. “Okay. The second one…” Her brow furrowed and she looked away from him, a brittle smile twisting her lips. “The second one’s not so easy.”

“Okay,” Josh nodded, still eating. God it tasted good.

Hannah took a deep breath. “I’ve… I’ve noticed that, in the book you’ve been half reading for the past couple of months, there’s a photograph.”

The fork stopped halfway to Josh’s mouth.

“I’ve noticed,” Hannah continued, “that the photograph is of you and Donna Moss. And that someone ripped it up, and someone taped it back together. And that you carry it around with you all the time.”

The food in his mouth was suddenly hard to swallow and Josh lowered the fork to his place. His heart beat a sickly staccato in his chest.

“I noticed that most of the time you can’t look her in the eye, but that when you do you can’t see anyone or anything else. And so my question—”

“Hannah…”

“My question is this –” She fixed him with a searching look; a look that demanded the truth. “Are you in love with Donna Moss?”

Josh just stared and found he had no answer.





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