SalR323 (salr323) wrote,
SalR323
salr323

WW fic: "The Road Less Travelled" Pt 4


Chapter Seven

The drive to the airport was a blur; the flight was simultaneously long and short, but it didn’t matter because everything in the world had turned grey. She might have reached her apartment in good time, but it didn’t matter because she didn’t want an early night and she didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning.

Life was tasteless and colourless, and her heart was heavy as stone in her chest. Josh was gone. She felt it now like never before. He was gone, and he wasn’t coming back. She’d done everything in her power to get him out of her life, and had succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. Except they turned out to be her worst nightmare.

She got dressed the next morning mechanically, not even the prospect of her shiny new job enough to lift her leaden spirits. Josh was gone, out of her life. And she’d made it happen. Go Donna!

Skipping breakfast in favour of coffee, she decided to walk to work. It wasn’t far, and it gave her a little time and space to think. Facing Leo wasn’t something she was anticipating with much pleasure. He’d know already – Josh was always as good as his word – but that didn’t make it any easier. She’d let him down, let the Congressman down, and even though she’d warned Leo she was the wrong person for the job, it didn’t make her failure any less painful. Mostly because it was exquisitely personal. She’d lost Josh in every possible way; as a trusted colleague, as a friend and as…whatever they’d been to each other all these years. He was gone, and she’d driven him away.

Arriving at campaign headquarters before she was ready, Donna did her best to ignore anyone she recognised as she headed up to her office. It felt as though her loss was stamped on her forehead: Donna Moss, broken-hearted. But as she stepped out of the elevator into the chaos of the campaign, no one gasped in shock. A few people waved a quick hello, others called ‘Hey Donna’ in the middle of a phone call, but that was it. Life went on, she realised. For everyone around her, life went on as usual. She was the only one who was falling off a cliff with no one to catch her.

Hefting her heavy bag over one shoulder, she wove her way through the desks towards her own small office. It had given her a little thrill last week, to have an office. She’d wanted Josh to see it – to knock before he came in. Now he never would, and she realised that was all she’d really cared about anyway. She’d never been a seeker of status symbols, and she wasn’t now. There had only ever been one person whose respect she’d craved, but she’d gone about trying to win it in such a brutal, backward way that he wasn’t here to see the results of her labours.

Karma, she guessed.

Her inbox had mushroomed over the weekend, and she faced it with a heavy sigh on this most Monday-ish of Monday mornings.

“Hey, Donna!” Before she’d even sat down, Bram was in the doorway. “Leo said to go see him as soon as you were in.”

“Thanks.” She might have smiled, but she could hardly tell any more. Keeping the mask on this tight was already taking its toll. She’d hoped for an hour’s relative peace before she had to discuss what had happened and explain why she’d failed to bring Josh back, but it wasn’t to be. Bracing herself, she left her bag on the desk and headed for Leo’s office. Better to get it over with, she told herself. Less time to dwell.

Leo was up to his eyes in it, as always. He beckoned her in, even as he barked orders into the phone clamped to one ear and rifled through papers on his desk. She felt like she was standing in the principle’s office, hands clasped nervously in front of her, and dreading the next five minutes. But when he eventually put the phone down he smiled at her. “These kids,” he said, gesturing at the telephone, “couldn’t find their way up their own—” He stopped abruptly, as if remembering who he was addressing. “Good job,” he said, changing tack mid flow. “I’m going to need you to get out there and start spinning it before you head out with the Congressman today. He’ll be in town, which will help, but we’re making one short statement and that’s it. Anything else, you redirect the questions back to the issue which today is…” He glanced down at the spreadsheet on his desk, “Medicare.”

“I— I’m sorry, Leo, you’ve lost me. What am I making a statement about?”

He glanced up under his eyebrows. “Josh.”

She was staring, she knew she was staring like the proverbial deer in headlights. “Josh?”

“Did they put something in your food up in Westport? We’re making a statement about Josh joining the campaign. Something short, about putting past mistakes behind us and—”

“Josh isn’t coming back,” she blurted, her confusion at least masking her feelings. “I’m sorry Leo, I tried, but he just didn’t want to come back to— He’s…amazingly happy up there.”

Leo was looking at her as if she’d grown another head. “What are you talking about?”

“Josh. I’m really sorry, but I couldn’t persuade him to—”

“I just got off the phone with him ten minutes ago, he’ll be in town this afternoon.”

She couldn’t move. She couldn’t breathe. All she managed was a stunned, “Oh…”

“He didn’t tell you that?” Leo was shaking his head, smiling that exasperated smile. “Why does that not surprise me?”

“No,” Donna said at last, ducking her head to cover the broad grin brewing somewhere inside. “He… Did he say…?” She hardly dared to hope. “Did he say anything about what changed his mind? Because last time I saw him he was staying in Westport.”

Leo shook his head. “I don’t know. He said a lot, most of it too fast to be understood by the human ear. Something about…Heather – Hannah? – telling him it was a good idea.”

Her heart, which had been struggling back into life, stuttered again. “Hannah,” she said. Of course. “She’s coming too.”

“He can bring the whole town, for all I care,” Leo said, although there was something about the way he was avoiding her eye – as if affording her as much privacy as possible – that put Donna on edge. “As long as he’s in here tomorrow morning, I’ll be happy.”

Donna smiled slightly. “Yes,” she agreed, trying on the sentiment for size. “Yes, me too.” It was better than nothing, after all. And maybe, if she was lucky, she could start rebuilding some of that trust she’d thrown away half a year earlier. Yeah, it was definitely better than nothing.

“Go on then,” Leo said, looking up with a crooked smile, “get out there. Just remember; short and professional. We’re not making a big thing outta this.”

***

As he stepped off the plane at Dulles, Josh realised this had been the longest single period of his adult life that he’d been away from DC. He took a deep breath of air – full of the usual airport aromas of bad coffee and stress – and knew that he was home.

Hoisting his bag over one shoulder, he headed toward the cabs until he remembered he was out of cash and diverted to the ATM next to Starbucks. As the machine bleeped at him, his attention was caught by a TV on the coffee bar wall. It was showing CNN – a sure sign that he was back in Washington – and to his astonishment Donna was front-and-centre, talking to the cameras.

Blindly grabbing his cash from the machine, Josh stuffed it into his pockets and all-but vaulted over the chairs to get to the TV. The volume was low, but loud enough that he could hear Donna saying,

“…and feels that now is the time to call in Democratic talent from all quarters, in order to secure a brighter future for America.”

She looked amazing. So confident, so poised. Who’d have thought she could have grown so much, so fast? Not him, which had been half the problem.

“How does the Congressman respond to the suggestion that this is evidence of vacillating leadership?” one of the reporters asked.

Donna nodded, smiling slightly as if anticipating the smack-down she was about to deliver. Josh swallowed; she was incredibly sexy. “Joshua Lyman made a mistake,” said Donna. “And he paid for that mistake with his job. But Congressman Santos believes in giving people a second chance. We all make mistakes – there’s not a single person out there who can honestly say they’ve never made a mistake. I know I can’t.” She glanced down for a moment, her lips curving into a self-deprecating smile. “At some point in our lives, we all need a second chance – the opportunity to prove that our mistake was an aberration, not the norm. Congressman Santos believes everyone deserves that second chance.”

She paused long enough for one reporter to begin another question, but she cut him off with the doggedness of a woman going deliberately off-message. Josh found himself holding his breath. There was a spark in her eyes that reminded him of the irrepressible Donna Moss he’d first met all those years ago, and he had no idea what she would do next. “On a personal note,” she said, stepping closer to the mic, “I’d just like to add that, in the case of Joshua Lyman, his mistake was very much an aberration.”

She cast a quick look off to the side, and Josh imagined Leo standing there making not-so-subtle guillotine gestures. His heart started to race.

“Josh Lyman is a man who has served his country for over twenty years,” Donna said. “A man who has worked tirelessly to improve the lives of all Americans. He’s one of the most brilliant political minds of our generation; he’s motivated by idealism, by faith in the American people, and by a belief that we all have a right to share in the wealth and prosperity of our nation. He’s never sought fame, he’s never sought office. All he ever wanted to do was to serve his country to the best of his ability, and to make life a little better for everyone. And that’s exactly what he’s done. “

Donna… Josh clamped down on a ridiculous surge of emotion, but couldn’t repress a small smile. Her pride in him was more precious then ever, for having been lost for so long.

“Most people watching this won’t know how much they owe to Josh Lyman,” Donna continued, her cheeks flushed a delicate pink. “But I had the honour to work with him for several years in the White House, and so I know that 23.4 million households have been raised out of poverty by the Income Tax Credit Bill Josh drafted and manhandled through a Republican Congress. I know that the poorest 17% of parents now have subsidised day care so that they can work, and study, and provide for their children because of the 2001 Welfare Bill Josh pushed through Congress –

at considerable personal cost. I know that there are 54 million American families who can now afford to send their children to college without re-mortgaging their homes because of the College Tuition Tax Credit that Josh devised because he didn’t think life should be this difficult for ordinary, hard working people.

“Josh did all this, and more, but he’d never take the credit for it. He doesn’t want or expect public recognition. And that’s lucky because all you guys want to report is that one afternoon he drove too fast and wrapped his car around a tree because—”

She cut herself off sharply, and Josh had a ridiculous urge to reach into the TV and see if she was okay. Any minute now, he thought, Leo was going to grab her by the hair and haul her ass out to the woodshed.

“I…” That self-deprecating smile was playing around Donna’s lips again. “I’m sorry – I may have overstepped the mark a little. I just want you all to know that Josh is one of the very best men I’ve ever had the privilege to know, and that it would be a travesty for his talents to be cast aside because of one stupid mistake that hurt no one but himself. And I’m proud that Congressman Santos sees that; I’m proud that Congressman Santos is secure enough in his own judgement to say, along with Alexander Pope, that to err is human, to forgive divine.”

And with that she was walking away from the microphones and the cameras. Josh just stared for an endless moment at the blank space she left behind, and then the anchor woman returned, full-volume, and the post-game analysis began. The spell broken, Josh turned on his heel, grabbed his backpack, and started yelling for a cab. He had to get to Leo. He had to get to Leo fast and convince him not to fire Donna for making the ‘Vote Josh Lyman’ stump speech of the decade.

He just hoped he could wipe the grin off his face before he reached Leo’s office…

***

If Leo McGarry had been the sort of man to drop his head in his hands and curse his own bad luck, he’d have been doing it right there and then.

He’s one of the most brilliant political minds of our generation…

All he ever wanted to do was to serve his country to the best of his ability, and to make life a little better for everyone…

He’s one of the very best men I’ve ever had the privilege to know…

All of which would have been great. All of which would have been exactly what Donna Moss should have been saying, if only she’d been saying it about Matt Santos!

Leo growled under his breath and stabbed at the remote, turning the TV screen dark. These kids… He sometimes wondered if they’d all taken a pledge, the day they joined the first Bartlet campaign, to make his life impossible.

He’d always liked Donna, not least because she’d kept Josh in order with an affectionate ease that most people found surprising. But Leo had always understood. Josh Lyman was the very definition of mercurial – arrogant, hot-headed, sharp tempered, and quick-witted – but he had an old soul buried in there somewhere, and if you were lucky enough to earn his trust he’d lay his life down for you without a second thought. Donna, Leo always felt, had seen that in him from day one and Leo had respected her for that as much as her professionalism.

But this… Short and professional, he’d told her. She’d given him long and personal, with enough fodder to keep the whole news cycle focused on Josh and not the campaign. He should fire her on the spot, or at least take her off the press detail. Send her out to coordinate the mid-west fund raising, or something. Except he knew that, in about ten minutes, Josh would come barrelling in to his office to give him twenty reasons why he should keep her. None of which, of course, would be the real reason.

Crazy kids should know better by now. Should have kids of their own by now, if they weren’t married to their jobs. And who was he to talk about that? But if experience had taught him anything, it had taught him that—

“You can’t fire her!”

Leo glanced at his watch; Josh was eight minutes ahead of schedule. He must have run the whole way.

From behind his desk, Leo watched as Josh dropped his backpack onto the floor and collapsed into the nearest chair. Aside from being breathless – he really must have run – he looked remarkably well. Rocking back in his seat, Leo said, “You saw the press conference?”

“Yeah… Kind of went off the rails there at the end.”

“Yeah, a little bit.”

“She was…” Josh blinked several times. “I think she was distracted, or something. There was—”

“She doesn’t get to make personal statements.”

“No,” Josh agreed, getting his breathing under control. His tie, however, was askew and his shirt half un-tucked. “But if you fire her now, that’s just a whole new story about Matt Santos’s staff and not Matt Santos…”

Which was the single biggest thing in Donna’s favour, and Leo didn’t need Josh Lyman to point that out. “I was hoping you’d have worked this out before you came back,” he grumbled. “Why did you think I sent her up to get you instead of Lou?”

“Lou Thornton?”

“She’s heading up communications.”

Josh’s eyebrows would have risen into his hair, if he’d had enough left. “If you’d sent Lou I’d be half way to Newfoundland by now.”

“Josh…” Leo sighed. “I need you here. I really do. But I can’t have this. I can’t have you disappearing to Houston, or Westport, or the Epcot Centre because your feelings are hurt. And I can’t have Donna Moss using the campaign mic to make personal statements of loyalty to her former boss.”

Josh winced a little bit and had the good grace not to be able to look Leo in the eye. “Yeah…that’s… That’s a problem.”

“I need this to be fixed.”

Josh’s gaze snapped back, guarded and curious. “Fixed as in…?”

“As in I never have to devote another minute of my life to thinking about it!”

“I can fix it,” Josh said slowly. “I think. But… There’s something you need to know, before I sign on the line.”

Leo folded his arms, expecting everything and nothing. “Go on…”

“I’m here for the campaign. If we win, I’m not looking for a job in the administration.”

Not for the first time in Leo’s life, Josh had managed to surprise him. “Is that because you think the Congressman would offer me Chief of Staff? It’s got your name on it, Josh. If you want it.”

“I don’t.” There was an odd expression on his face, half amusement and half surprise. “I’ve got… I did some thinking the past few weeks, and— I’m forty-three years old, Leo. And what have I got? An apartment I never sleep in and a VCR I can’t programme. I don’t even have a dog.” He shrugged. “There are just some other things I want to do with my life before… Well, while I can.”

Leo watched Josh sitting there, with his rumpled suit and determined eyes, and thought that his father would never have been more proud. With a tug of bitter-sweet affection, he realised that Josh had grown up at last and that it was time for him to move on. Leo was going to miss him, but he wasn’t going to hold him back. Not for one second. “You’re the smartest kid I’ve ever known,” he said fondly. “But that, right there, was the smartest thing you ever said.”

Josh just smiled and took it as the blessing it was intended to be.

***

Donna climbed out of the cab, lugging her heavy bag after her, paid the driver and then just stood for a moment gazing up at the tall building that was campaign headquarters. It was almost midnight, and when she’d called in at the end of her day Leo had told her to go home and get some sleep. But she had a stack of things she needed to get done before the morning, and in truth she knew that sleep would elude her tonight.

Leo had had some sharp words about her impromptu speech. They’d been gently delivered, as always, but left her in no doubt that any kind of repeat would cost her her job. She’d apologised profusely, of course, and yet part of her didn’t regret it. She felt as though she were breaking out, shaking off the fears that had kept her in check for so long. She’d meant every word, and she’d wanted people to hear it. Okay, so the middle of the Santos campaign wasn’t the right place for her personal testimony, but there was never going to be a better one. Josh was everything she’d said he was, and more. He deserved to be recognised, if not by the world then at least by her. And knowing that he was here with Hannah had made it easier; there would be no insinuations about her motives, nothing of which to accuse him. They were both safe.

And it had felt good. It had actually felt good to say those things at last, to offer her feelings freely, without hope of anything in return. She felt cleansed, in a way. Free, and ready to move onto the next chapter of their relationship. She hoped, she very much hoped, they could be friends again, just like they used to be. And perhaps, with Hannah in his life, that friendship would be less complicated and more easily expressed.

With a little sigh, she thought that perhaps she was rather too determinedly looking for silver linings. But what was the alternative? Twenty-four hours ago, she’d thought she’d never see him again. This was better, this was so much better that it made her smile as she hefted her bag over one shoulder and headed into the building. Tomorrow morning he’d be in the office and they’d be working together again, just like the old days. Only better. Maybe, after all, he would be the one to teach her to fly.

There were only a few lights on when she stepped out of the elevator on their floor. A few desk lamps still shone, but the main lights were off and it lent the place a strange kind of silence. Later, she knew, the office would never sleep. But it was still early in the campaign, and Leo insisted they pace themselves. Carefully, she made her way toward her own office – that thought still made her smile – and amused herself with thoughts of the jokes Josh would make about that little reversal. Maybe he’d bring her coffee one day? Or maybe she’d bring him coffee, she thought as she rounded the corner to her office; after all now that she wasn’t his assistant she could—

She crashed right into someone coming in the opposite direction and almost shrieked in fright. A stack of papers went flying, someone cursed, she looked up and found herself staring into the shocked face of Josh Lyman.

After a lengthy moment of staring, he said, “Hi.”

“I didn’t think you’d be here until the morning,” she blustered, bending to pick up his scattered papers, using it to cover her sudden rush of feeling.

“Yeah, I was— My apartment stinks, and there was some…stuff to do here, so…” Shaking himself, he crouched down to help with the papers. “I thought Leo told you to go home.”

“Yeah, well… I had some stuff to do too.” She handed him the papers, found him watching her with that little smile of his, and looked away, trying to ignore the way it made her tummy flutter; that path had a Hannah-sized NO ENTRY sign right across it.

“Want a donut?” Josh asked suddenly, getting to his feet.

She blinked. “It’s midnight.”

“I went to ‘Nothing But Donuts’...”

“Okay.”

He nodded for her to follow. “They’re this way…” This way turned out to be the big empty office next to Leo’s. A white board – Josh’s favourite planning tool – stood in the corner, already covered in some kind of chart with notes in blue and red scribbled around the edges.

“It’s an issue diary,” Josh said, dumping the papers he was carrying onto his desk and reaching over to snag the donut box. “Jelly filled or Boston crème?”

Donna peered into the box. “How many did you eat?”

“Are you going to start nagging already?”

“You know how much saturated fat is in these things?”

“No. I have no idea and no need to crowd my mind with that kind of trivia. You want one or not?”

She reached in and took the Boston crème. “I’ll be doing penance for a week.”

Josh’s eyebrows lifted. “Can I watch?”

Donna was tempted to ask if Hannah would object, but took a bite of donut instead. It was sinfully good. She licked the chocolate from her lips, smiled, and found Josh staring at her hungrily. Holding out the donut, she said, “Want some?”

His eyebrows almost hit the ceiling. “Ah…yeah. No!” He cleared his throat and headed around his desk, dropping into his chair. After a moment, and in a lighter voice, he said, “So…how was your day?”

“My day?”

“I saw the press briefing…”

“Ah…” She dropped his gaze and found herself studying the chaos he’d managed to create on his desk already. “Leo gave me the tenth degree about that, so—”

“It was— It was nice. Those things you said, it was…totally inappropriate, but…nice.”

“I meant it,” she said, making herself meet his eye so he could see the truth. “And I don’t think I’ve ever really thanked you – for everything you did for me. For what you taught me, the opportunity you gave me. If it wasn’t for you I’d still be in Madison working for—”

“No.” He was on his feet, restlessly pacing. “That was all you, Donna. You talked yourself into the job. I was just smart enough to listen.”

She smiled at that. “I am grateful…”

“You don’t need to be.”

“I just wanted you to know.”

“Well I do.” After a beat he added, “So does half the country.”

“Half?”

He shrugged. “Okay, several other people also know.”

Donna smiled again, and it turned into a quiet laugh. This is nice, she thought. Just doing this again. It was good enough, and because she knew what life was like without it, she knew she’d never take it for granted again.

Dropping the donut back in the box, Donna licked the sugar from her fingers. “I’d better go do some work,” she said. “And you should get home. You can’t leave Hannah alone on her first night here.” She smiled. “That’s my piece of free romantic advice for the evening.”

Josh was looking at her strangely and paused in his pacing. Then he frowned and dug his hands into his pockets, staring down at his toes. “Hannah’s not here.”

“Ah… Does she have to work out her notice at the school or—?”

“She’s not… We’re not…” He glanced up from under his brow. “She would never want to leave Westport, definitely not for DC.”

There was a strange thing happening in Donna’s chest. Her heart seemed to be simultaneously contracting and expanding; either way, it was doing a poor job of pushing the blood around her body because she was suddenly light headed and breathless. “I don’t understand - you seemed so…happy.”

“I was… For a while there, I thought maybe I could live that life, but— There were things here…there’s something here that I couldn’t leave behind.” Something? Oh God…me? “I think Hannah saw that, she knew that. She’s a very smart woman.”

All Donna could muster was a faint, “Oh…”

“Yeah.”

Taking a deep breath, feeling so exposed her skin might as well have been peeled, she could think of nothing else to say so headed for the door. “Well…you should get some sleep anyway. Make the most of it, while you can.”

“Donna?”

She turned, heart racing.. “Yeah?”

He was just watching her across the silent room, his eyes darker than she remembered but just as intense. She found she couldn’t breathe. “You don’t have to look after me anymore.”

“I wasn’t.”

“I don’t want you to…find it irritating again.”

She frowned. “Find what irritating?”

“Looking after me. Irritating; like peppermint ice-cream.”

She laughed a little. “What are you talking about?”

“The bits get in your teeth…? You said— You don’t remember?”

A flush stole across her face and she was glad of the soft lights. “I said looking after you was irritating?”

Josh shook his head as if dismissing a bad memory. “Forget about it. I don’t know why I— Just… You don’t need to do that now.”

Donna sighed softly, assaulted by a hundred memories of fetching his coat, finding his bag, slotting plane tickets inside his jacket so he wouldn’t lose them, recharging his cell phone… “It wasn’t about you, Josh. It was about me. If I said that, it was about me feeling frustrated with myself, not you. I always… I always loved that you couldn’t tie your shoelaces without me.”

“I always loved that too,” he said, his voice breaking a little. And for a moment she thought he was going to say more, that the air was going to come alive with the tension she felt in her chest and that something was going to happen. But then he dropped his gaze back to the floor and the moment was over.

Trying not to sigh, Donna turned away. “Goodnight, Josh.”

“Goodnight,” he said, and she could feel his eyes on her, watching intently, until she’d turned the corner and was out of sight.

By the time she reached her own office, Donna’s legs felt like lead. The day was catching up with her and she was beginning to wonder if going home might not have been a better idea. Except then she wouldn’t have found out about Hannah… The thought sent a buzz of excitement through every nerve, making her punch-drunk with adrenaline. Was it possible he’d come back to DC because of her? She didn’t dare to hope, told herself to put it out of her mind, but…it was a futile attempt.

Josh was back, and he was alone. It turned everything upside down again – her life, it seemed, was the emotional roller coaster ride that just wouldn’t end.

Tired, wired, and distracted, Donna slumped into her office and dropped her bag on the floor. Her desk was a patchwork of Post-it notes, and the light on her phone was flashing with messages. She ignored them, glanced at the Post-its and sank into her chair. And that’s when she noticed it.

There, propped up against the desk lamp, was the photo – the one Josh had ripped up, taped together, and used as a book mark. It was just there, sitting on top of the chaos.

Her heart thudded once, loudly, in her chest.

What does this mean?

Carefully, with a slightly trembling hand, she reached out and picked it up. It was still a beautiful picture, worth framing if it weren’t for the criss-crossing of tape. She smiled and ran a finger over Josh’s face. He looked younger there, so did she. Maybe C.J. – she remembered now, that C.J. had been the one with the camera – maybe she still had the negatives. She’d like a pristine copy, she could get them one each, kind of like a—

“It’s yours,” Josh said, his husky voice startling her. She looked up and there he was, leaning against the doorjamb, arms folded and watching her with that intent look again. He smiled a ghost of a smile and added, “If you want it.”

She didn’t know how to answer, wasn’t entirely sure what they were talking about. But one thing she did know, she couldn’t have this conversation from behind a desk. Getting to her feet, her legs no longer weary, Donna circled around to stand before him – not too close, but close enough – the picture still in her hand. “It’s a great photo,” she said. “I’ve always loved it.”

“Me too,” he said, still not moving from his place by the door. Still skewering her with a look that said they really weren’t talking about the photo. God, she hoped they weren’t. After a moment Josh added, “Hannah… She said I should give this back to you. She said…” He hesitated, the pretence faltering. “She said it was yours all along.” His mouth twisted into an ironic smile and she knew he was laughing at himself. “She was right, of course. Everyone knows me better than I do.”

“I thought I’d lost it.” Donna said in a scratchy whisper. “I thought I’d lost it for good.”

His smile faded. “No.” Stepping into the room, closer but still out of reach, he said in a low, heated voice, “It got a little damaged there for a while, but you never lost it.”

Donna looked down, eyes blurring as she studied the torn photograph and ran a finger over the tape. “You didn’t call,” she said, dismayed by the tremor in her voice. “You had an accident, and you didn’t call.”

She heard the breath hitch in his lungs and when he spoke his voice was very soft, very quiet. “I didn’t think you’d… If I’d called and you hadn’t come—”

“I would have!” she protested, tears standing in her eyes. “Nothing would have stopped me. I’d have been right there, but they wouldn’t let me in and they wouldn’t let me see you and I thought you didn’t want me—”

Donna…” Her name on his lips sounded like a plea, or a prayer. He looked as confused as she’d ever seen him, rumpled in his jeans and dark shirt, and entirely open. For the first time since the day they’d met, he was entirely open to her. Everything was in his eyes: love, fear, passion, despair, hope. It was all there for the taking, and there was nothing else to do. There was really nothing else to do but let the photo drop from her fingers and fall into his arms. Her heart danced with joy and relief as he wrapped her in a tight embrace and buried his face against her shoulder, his warm breath stirring the hairs on her neck in delicious anticipation. She was smiling – she was laughing – as she pulled him closer, running her fingers over his back and up into his hair, and somehow their heads were both turning until her nose grazed his cheek and his lips brushed against hers lightly, tentatively, again and again, until she breathed his name against his mouth and he…stopped.

His breathing ragged, his lips hovered over hers for an endless, teasing moment, and then, with a small noise in the back of his throat he kissed her. He really kissed her; a scorching, searching kiss that pierced her soul and bound her to him forever.

***

It was a Sunday morning, a week since this new life had begun, and the warm sunshine was peeking through the half-drawn drapes and cutting a golden swathe across the bedroom floor. Donna could see dust motes dancing lazily in the sunlight and it made her smile. If she could have, she’d have danced right along with them. Her soul felt lighter than air.

But a weight held her in place. A wonderful, delicious weight. She looked down from where she sat propped up in bed, sipping her early morning coffee, and smiled. One of the many surprises she’d discovered over the last six and a half days was exactly how tactile Josh Lyman could be. Really she should have guessed, what with all the touching of shoulders and backs and hugging, but this… She’d slept with her fair share of men, she’d be the first to admit it, but this constant physical contact was something new. Not that she was complaining… So here she sat, sipping her coffee, with Josh’s head resting against her leg and his hand across her lap.

She liked his hands. It had been one of the first things she’d noticed about him, after the smile and the eyes. He had long, elegant fingers – artists hands, her mother would have said, although Donna had never seen any sign of him whipping out a paint brush. But nevertheless he had those wonderfully graceful fingers that knew exactly how to touch her…

Smiling at the memory she traced a line across the back of his hand, over his knuckle and along the length of his ring finger and found herself wondering what it would look like wearing a wedding band. She laughed quietly at herself; it had only been a week! Well, eight years and a week, she supposed. But it was enough, for her at least. Josh, she suspected, would need a little longer to figure it out. Not that she was in any rush. This, right now, was as close to perfect as she could imagine.

With a happy sigh she ran a hand through his hair, thick and soft between her fingers, and wondered if all this touching was because he was afraid to let go. Afraid that she might disappear if he didn’t hold on to her. It wouldn’t surprise her, given his history – and theirs, she supposed. She’d left him, twice, and although she didn’t regret it, she knew how much it had hurt. But never again. Not ever again.

She threaded her fingers through his hair again, and saw him smile. God, she loved that smile. And she loved how he liked to pretend he was sleeping so he could abandon the arrogant, self-satisfied persona and just nestle up and hold her close. She loved that he knew she knew that, and that he didn’t care. Ruffling his hair she said, “You want coffee?”

“I’m sleeping,” he mumbled, snuggling up against her with a broad smile.

“Ah. In that case…” Putting the coffee on the night stand, she reached for her phone.

Josh opened a disgruntled eye. “If you’re calling the office, I’m throwing your phone out the window.”

“I thought you were sleeping.”

“I am.” He closed his eyes again and held on tighter. “Doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention…”

Donna smiled and listened to the phone ring. “Careful your ears don’t burn… Hey Mom, it’s Donna… Yeah, good. Listen, I’ve got some news. It’s about me and Josh…”

He sat up abruptly, eyes wide, looking ridiculously anxious given that her mom was his number one fan. Well, number two fan. Donna took his hand and squeezed, relishing the feel of his strong fingers wrapping around hers. Love you, she mouthed, her mom’s excited chatter deafening one ear.

Josh smiled, a heated cocktail of wonder and delight, and drew her fingers to his lips, his eyes never leaving hers. And there, right there, Donna realised that life had made one of those hairpin turns beneath her feet.

She was on a new road now, and it would be rocky in places, the going would get tough, but she knew she’d never abandon it. Life was all about the journey and those you met along the way – and Donna felt privileged to be sharing her path with this remarkable, infuriating, exhilarating man. As she drew his hand back to her own lips and pressed a silent kiss against his fingers, she vowed that they would see this journey to its end together. Wherever and whenever that might be…

~The End~



If you made it this far, thank you! Hope you enjoyed it. :)

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