SalR323 (salr323) wrote,
SalR323
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WW fic: "Unspoken" 1/10

In honour of Valentine’s day… :)

Back in May last year I wrote a little piece of post-Transition fluff called A Truly Excellent Notion.

I wrote it because I imagined Josh and Donna getting together without ever having ‘the talk’, and because I wanted to write a longer story based on that premise. And at last, nine months later, I’ve finished the story. It’s called Unspoken and starts a year into the Santos administration. You don’t have to have read A Truly Excellent Notion to understand Unspoken, it just serves as a fluffy little prologue to the angst. :)

My deep thanks go to coloneljack for reading this as an agonisingly slow WIP (so slow that she dubbed it ‘theficthatiskillingmeded’!). Without her constant prodding encouragement, I might never have finished it. And also, my thanks for creating this lovely ‘Unspoken’ icon. Thanks, Linz. :)

Thanks also to caz963 for the meticulous beta, even though she has two jobs and two kids to deal with! If there are any typos, logical inconsistencies, name fluctuations, or timeline gaffs, the fault is undoubtedly mine.

The song that’s mentioned in the story is “The Luckiest” by Ben Folds. You can find the lyrics here.

And so, on with the story. I’ll be posting it here today in six posts of one or two chapters each ETA LJ won't let me post more than a chapter at a time, so if you’d rather read it all at once you can find the whole thing HERE. Sorry, flist, for the spam.

Enjoy!

Unspoken
by
Sally Reeve


Chapter One

Alisa MacCallen closed the slim file on her lap and studied it for a moment, her steepled fingers tapping against her lip. This session, she imagined, would be interesting.

It had been a while since she’d seen her next client, almost two years. The fact that he’d called early this morning, asking for an appointment right now was typical. She seemed to remember it had happened the same way last time, after a break of some months. He was the type who responded to a crisis, looked for a quick answer, and then disappeared again. Alisa had seen his type before, although perhaps not to the same degree; most of her clients had some comprehension of the complexity of their situation, even if they were at a loss as to how to unravel it.

Not so, this one. But it made for more of a challenge, and Alisa enjoyed a challenge. Setting the file aside, she watched the hands of her small clock tick over to three. It sat on a crowded bookshelf above a comfortable sofa so that she could monitor the length of a session without her clients thinking she was clock watching. This next client had noticed though, he’d noticed on his first session.

“You can check your watch if you like,” he’d said, with the wry smile that he used to deflect anything too serious. “I won’t be offended. I have to get out of here on time anyway.”

At first, just getting him to sit still for an hour had been challenging. Those first few sessions he’d spent pacing, reading the spines of her books, looking out the window. But at last, over the months, he’d relaxed enough to sit, but never enough to really open up. He’d announced himself cured a few months after that. Cured and really too busy. Alisa, knowing better, had said nothing. But she’d insisted he take her card and call if he ever felt the need.

And he had called, from time to time. Always in a rush, always looking for that impossible quick fix, and only rarely booking a second appointment. Just like today.

Her office door wasn’t closed and she heard a slight disturbance outside, her assistant sounding surprised and then appearing in the doorway. “Ah… Your three o’clock is here,” she said. “Um, there’s also someone here from the, uh…” Her eyebrows rose. “Secret service.”

Alisa rose to her feet, a little startled. “Oh…well, show him in.”

A tall man in a somber black suit, with an earpiece and an efficient smile, stepped through the door. “Excuse me, ma’am,” he said and proceeded to prowl around the room, glancing here and there, until his eyes fell on the small recording device she kept on the low table. “Are you going to use that?”

“I usually do,” she said. “I don’t have to. That would be my client’s choice.”

The man in black gave a curt nod, thanked her, and left. Outside there was a muttered conversation and then in he walked – her three o’clock.

Alisa smiled. “Hello, Josh. It’s nice to see you again.”

“Yeah.” He nodded over his shoulder at the secret service agent. “Sorry about that.”

“It’s not a problem.” Alisa moved around to close her office door. She could see the other man outside, standing sentry. He didn’t object when she closed the door however. “Take a seat,” she told Josh, and wondered if he’d bother to take off his coat.

She moved to her own chair and sat quietly, watching him pace. “Sorry about the short notice,” he said. Two apologies in a row.

“That’s okay, I had a slow day.”

For some reason that made him laugh; Alisa imagined that Josh Lyman had very few slow days.

“So…” she said, folding her hands on her lap and waiting.

Josh nodded a little, paced a little, and kept his coat on. “It’s, uh… I don’t really know why I’m here.” Alisa kept silent. “I mean, I know why I’m here… I just, don’t know why.”

“Well, shall we start with the first bit? What made you come today?”

He sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know, I just— I’ve been having trouble sleeping. It’s like, you know, the adrenalin thing again.”

By which he meant hyper-arousal. “You’ve been feeling anxious?”

“Yeah.” He stopped pacing and came to perch on the edge of the sofa. “I don’t get it. I mean, obviously there’s a lot of…stress at work. But it’s… Everything’s so good. I don’t understand why I’m feeling like this.”

“How are you feeling?”

He sighed again and looked out the window. “Like it’s all going to fall apart, I guess.”

“At work?”

Josh shook his head, still staring out the window. “Just…everything. Like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like I’m constantly looking up, waiting for it to happen.”

Alisa let the silence ride for a while. “What do you think it is?” she said eventually. “This thing you’re waiting for.”

He didn’t reply, although she suspected he knew the answer. At least on some level he knew the answer, even if he was unprepared to admit it.

“Have you considered the season?” she asked.

His eyebrows rose, an ironic smile on the lips. She remembered the expression well; half condescension, half avoidance. “You mean…Chanukah?”

“I mean Christmas, Josh.”

“It’s not my holiday.”

Alisa inclined her head to acknowledge the point. “Nevertheless, each time you’ve come to see me, it’s been around Christmas.”

He frowned and looked back out the window. “I didn’t realize that.”

“Obviously, when you were first referred. And then a couple of years ago; you were concerned about changing jobs, and your assistant—”

“Yeah, I remember.” He still wasn’t looking at her, his body language closed.

“And now, today.”

After a long pause he said, “I guess I don’t like Christmas.”

“Many people would agree with you.”

“It’s… Seems like a lonely time of the year. You know? Especially if you don’t celebrate.”

“There’s a lot of forced gaiety about. I think it can be difficult for many people.”

“I guess. But… You know, I usually work. I’ve always worked. But it’s always so quiet. It’s like you’ve been left behind.”

Alisa made a neutral sound of agreement. “That’s something you might find difficult, given your past.”

He looked at her, but didn’t answer. She could see he knew what she was talking about, however. But he wasn’t going to articulate it.

“You don’t like being left behind.”

His shoulders rose and fell in a heavy sigh. “No.”

“Are you working this Christmas?”

Josh smiled thinly. “I’m always working.”

“So you’ll be alone?”

Again, he looked away. “Yeah. Yeah… I guess Donna’s going to her family.”

Interesting, the way he said her name. “Donna? Your assistant?”

“No.” This time there was a real smile, touched with something unidentifiable. “I mean, she was. Now she’s my…I don’t know…partner, I guess. We live together.”

“Ah…”

He looked at her, brow furrowing in suspicion. “What?”

“She’s obviously important to you, that’s all.”

He shrugged his agreement. “We live together.”

“And the last time you came to see me she’d just left her job as your assistant. Around Christmas, if I recall correctly.”

“The…twenty-second,” he said, brushing something imaginary from his knee. “That was the day she left.”

“And she’s going to see her family this Christmas?”

“Yeah.”

“But you’re not going with her.”

He shook his head. “I can’t— It’s too long to be away, and besides…” He nodded toward Alisa’s door and the secret service agent outside. “It’s a lot of hassle.”

Alisa cocked her head. “So you’ll be alone again, Josh? Donna’s leaving you again, at Christmas.”

He laughed. “Just for a few days. It’s not— It’s not like the other time. She’s not leaving me.”

After a moment, Alisa said, “It’s not the same, but sometimes things can feel the same even when we know they’re different.”

Josh didn’t answer, shifting uncomfortably on the sofa. His arms were crossed tightly over his chest and he seemed to be sinking into his heavy coat.

“What does Donna say about the day she quit her job?”

His eyes slid to hers, as if it were a trick question. “What does she say about it?”

“Yes. Have you discussed it with her?”

“The day she quit?” He laughed again, but not from amusement. ““No.”

“Not at all?”

“It’s water under the bridge. We’re past that now.”

After a deliberate pause, Alisa said, “Thinking back to that day – when she left, and you found a temp at her desk…”

His jaw clamped shut and he glared at the glass of water on the low table between them. “I don’t…really think about it much.”

“Do you remember how you felt?”

For an instant his furious gaze burned her, as if she’d asked the most stupid question imaginable. “Yes.”

“It still makes you angry,” she observed.

“I told you,” he said, not uncurling in the slightest, “it’s ancient history.”

Alisa smiled slightly. “But it’s not, is it? If it still makes you this angry then it’s not—”

“I’m not angry,” he insisted, suddenly rising to his feet. “I just— I just need you to fix the sleep thing.”

She shook her head. “Come on… You know there’s no magic wand, Josh. You’re a smart guy. If you want pills, you’re banging on the wrong door.”

Lips pressed tightly together he prowled to the other side of the room. “It’s not— It can’t be about Donna. She’s…” For an instant he softened, his eyes smiling. “She’s by far the best thing in my life. This can’t be about her, it has to be something else.”

Alisa felt a swell of sympathy, let it ride for a moment, and then tucked it away behind a professional curtain. “Sometimes it can be very frightening to let another person become that important to us – especially when we’ve lost people in the past. People we shouldn’t have lost…”

He didn’t look at her, shoving his hands deep into his coat pockets. “You mean Joanie.”

“And your father.”

He nodded. “And…Leo.”

“Leo?” she asked gently. “I’m not sure you’ve mentioned—”

“He was the one…” His anger faded into grief as fresh as tilled soil. “He was a friend of my father’s, I knew him almost all my life. He was my mentor, I guess. He made me get help when— After Roslyn. ”

“And he died recently?”

“Last year.” Josh cut her a sideways glance. “On election day…?”

Alisa cursed her oversight. “Leo McGarry; of course. That must have been an incredibly difficult time.”

“You have no idea.”

“You could tell me…”

An incongruous smile tugged at his lips. “It was…the end of the world. I didn’t know how to carry on, how to do this job without him.” He took a deep breath and looked over at her. “I guess you just keep going.”

“Yes, you do. Sometimes, it’s all you can do.”

“Yeah.”

After another pause Alisa said, “So…two years ago, right before Christmas, Donna quit her job – something you took quite personally.”

He moved to the window, leaned his shoulder against the wall and stared out over the freezing city. “I guess I did.”

“And last year, a couple of months before Christmas, you lost your mentor – just when you needed him most.”

Only a nod this time, lips pressed into a thin line.

“And now it’s Christmas again. I can’t blame you for wondering who’s going to leave this time.”

His head came to lean against the wall and for a moment he looked utterly defeated. “Do normal people feel like this? As if they’re holding their breath, waiting for the next blow?”

Alisa smiled. “You’re normal people, Josh. But when you were eight years old you lost your sister, and that wasn’t normal. You have a…sensitivity, if you like. A completely rational fear of losing those you love the most – those you need the most.”

“I don’t…want to feel like this anymore.”

“You don’t have to.”

He turned, resting his back against the wall. “Tell me how…”

“There’s no quick fix, Josh. This isn’t PTSD, it’s not a condition. It’s your life. Sometimes lives get all tangled up and we need to figure out how to unpick the threads. It takes time, and it takes commitment.”

He nodded as if digesting the information, then gave a deflective smile. “I guess I’m booking another appointment, right?”

***


It was late when Josh got home. Donna roused from a light sleep and listened to him moving quietly about the apartment, heard the thud of his bag hitting the floor, the refrigerator door opening and closing – if he was looking for a beer he was out of luck – and then a muted groan as he collapsed onto the sofa. She glanced at the clock and saw that it was almost one, again. These past few weeks his schedule had gone insane and it worried her. That kind of stress, on a guy whose heart had already stopped once and been stitched back together…

The image turned her suddenly cold and she pulled the covers up under her chin, determined to force such thoughts from her mind. Outside the bedroom the bathroom light switched on and Donna heard him brushing his teeth. With a flicker of fond irritation she sketched a mental picture of the pile of clothes he’d be leaving in the corner. I didn’t want to wake you, would be the justification if she called him on it. And it was sweet, really. Even if it was only half true. Josh, she knew from long experience, was allergic to hangers and closets.

When the bathroom light went off, Donna rolled onto her side and pretended to sleep. She wasn’t sure why, exactly. Maybe she didn’t want him to know she’d been lying awake worrying about him, or maybe she just wanted to surprise him.

Either way she smiled when Josh crept into the bedroom. For a moment he hesitated, as if trying to find his way in the dark, and the bed dipped as he sat on the edge. She couldn’t see him, but she could hear his quiet sigh and the soft scratch of his hand running through his hair. She tried not to think about how tired he sounded.

After a moment he crawled under the covers, instinctively knowing where she was and curling himself around her. One arm pulled her tight against him, his fingers tucked between her ribcage and the mattress, as if to anchor himself to her. He sighed again, almost in relief, and began to relax. Donna loved this silent intimacy between them, loved the weight of his arm and the way their legs tangled together. Aside from the times work had separated them, Donna thought they’d fallen asleep like this every night since their amazing week in the Bahamas.

The memory made her smile and she snuggled a little closer, telling him she was awake. He smiled against her neck, “Did I wake you up?”

“I don’t mind,” she murmured, stroking her fingertips along the arm that held her. “I missed you at lunch.”

“Yeah, something came up.” He kissed her hair. “I had to work through.”

“It happens.”

“Yeah.” After a pause, he added, “How did the thing with those crazy women go today?”

Donna bridled a little; this was against the rules. “If by ‘crazy women’ you mean the Daughters of the American Revolution, it went…not so great.”

Josh tensed, which was exactly why they’d decided never to discuss work in bed. Rolling onto her back, she tried to find his face in the darkness. All she could really see were his eyes, reflecting what little light seeped through the curtains. “I’ll tell you about it in the morning,” she said. “It’s not a biggie.”

“Not a biggie like the ACLU thing wasn’t a biggie? Or not a biggie like the New York Times thing wasn’t a biggie?”

“She’s doing her best, Josh. This isn’t easy for her.” Or me, she might have added.

“Yeah.” He sighed again, touching her face in apology. “I know. It’s just— It’s almost been a year.”

“Shhhh… The golden rule, Josh. We’ll talk about it in the morning.”

“Yeah. Yeah, okay.” After another pause, he said, “So…did you get your tickets to Madison booked?”

“For a price. I’ll be back late on the twenty-sixth.”

“Right. And you’re leaving on the twenty-third?”

She winced a little. “I couldn’t get anything, I’m sorry. I had to go for the twenty-second.”

Josh went very still. “The twenty-second?”

There was an edge to his voice that grated – irritation mingled with something she couldn’t identify. Whatever it was, she didn’t like it. “It’s Christmas,” she said, aware of a sudden brittleness in her own voice.

“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”

“You could come too.”

“Not for that long.”

“The President said no one was working on—”

“I don’t care what he said!” Josh snapped, flinging off the covers and almost jumping out of bed. At the last moment he seemed to reconsider and ended up just sitting on the edge and glaring into the darkness. In a quieter voice he said, “Someone has to stay here.”

Donna propped herself up on one elbow and studied his back, all shadows in the dark room. “Sam lives here now, Josh. He could—”

“He just got married! I don’t think Jennifer would forgive me if I— Anyway,” he sighed, “it’s not my holiday.”

“It’s mine,” she pointed out quietly. “If that counts for anything.”

Josh shook his head. “Donna…”

Rolling onto her back, she stared up at the ceiling. “If you’re just going to be working,” she said, “I’m not going to stay here and eat turkey on my own.”

“I didn’t ask you to.”

“No,” she agreed. “You didn’t.”

“You should do what you want.”

“I am.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

But he didn’t lay down again. After a few moments he stood up and pulled a sweatshirt over his head. “I, uh,” he paced toward the door. “There’s some stuff I need to do.”

“At one in the morning?”

She couldn’t see his face in the darkness, but the tension was obvious in the set of his shoulders. “It’s just… I need it for the morning, it won’t take long.”

“Okay,” she said, not knowing how to respond to the lie in his voice.

“You should…” He waved vaguely at the pillows. “Get some sleep.”

Donna didn’t answer, didn’t trust herself to speak. Anger and concern were battling in her heart, and she didn’t know which she might vocalize given the chance. It seemed safer to remain silent and watch him leave the bedroom, closing the door carefully behind him. When he switched on the living room lights a bar of yellow light sliced beneath the door, and beyond she could hear his bare feet pacing across the wooden floor, to and fro, to and fro.

For an instant she contemplated following him, making sure he was okay. But there had been something in his voice…something that unnerved her. Vulnerability was the wrong word. Accusation wasn’t right either, but perhaps it was somewhere between the two. Either way, it made her feel entirely too exposed and she wasn’t sure she could survive a barrage from Josh Lyman; his aim was always too good and she’d seen him take out stronger and smarter targets than herself.

So instead she pulled the covers up over her shoulders, rolled over and for the first time in a year tried to fall asleep alone in his bed.

***


Josh eventually hauled himself off the sofa at five-thirty, after a night of fitful sleep. He hated that he hadn’t gone back to bed, hated waking up alone. Hated that it was his fault, and at the same time couldn’t shake the nameless irritation that had plagued him all night. More and more, these days, he spent the night tossing and turning and waiting for it to happen – the phone to ring, the secret service to show up. Whatever. Something. He felt like he was living in a constant state of orange alert.

With a sigh, he padded quietly to the kitchen and started making coffee. He automatically made enough for two now, and he loved that. In fact the act of making morning coffee had become a little domestic ritual that he cherished; a point of normality at the start of their crazy days. He made the coffee, Donna fetched the cream (some lite variety) from the refrigerator, while he stuck a bagel in the toaster for breakfast. It was like clockwork, the way they worked together. Unspoken, most of the time, they’d always been attuned to each other – even when they’d been in the deepest denial about the nature of their feelings. And so it was now, only more so. Much more so.

Which only made it harder when she was missing, he thought as he fetched the cream from the refrigerator himself. Everything felt wrong when she wasn’t there; when the other cog in the wheel was absent. He felt wrong, off-kilter, just like that day when he’d walked into work to find someone else at her desk and—

He stopped in the middle of the kitchen, feeling something twisting in his chest. He made a point of not thinking about that day, and probably wouldn’t have now if Alisa McAllen hadn’t brought it up yesterday. It didn’t matter though, because they weren’t trapped in that professional relationship anymore. Donna would never leave him for a better job.

“Hey.” Her sleepy voice startled him, and he turned to see her standing in the doorway to the kitchen. She’d just gotten out of bed and her hair was all over the place; he loved that he was the only person in the world who ever got to see her so undone.

“Coffee?” It was a feeble peace offering, but all he had to give.

With a smile that let him know she understood, Donna headed for the fridge.

“It’s here,” he said, indicating the cream.

Looking a little at sea, she ambled over to the kitchen counter and leaned against it. “You didn’t come back to bed.” Her comment floated halfway between observation and accusation.

Josh didn’t look at her when he answered, he started pouring coffee instead. “I was late finishing, I just crashed on the sofa.”

“You were late starting,” she pointed out, accepting the coffee from him and taking a sip.

“I know.”

A taut silence followed and the only sound in the room was the clink of metal on china as Josh stirred sugar into his coffee. He didn’t know what to say to her, how to explain the fact that, for some reason, being close to her last night had been unaccountably painful.

“If you want me to stay here over Christmas…”

“No.” He offered her an apologetic smile. “No, you should go be with your family. I’ll only be working anyway.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“Yeah.”

“You were… Last night you were all weird about it.”

Josh shook his head. “No, it’s not that. I just— It’s stupid I guess. It’s just the date.”

Donna stared blankly at him. “The date?”

“The…twenty-second?”

Still the blank stare, and he knew her well enough to see she wasn’t faking. “Is there something going on that I should know about?” she asked. “The First Lady said I was clear from—”

“No.” He laughed, although he wasn’t remotely amused. “It’s not work. It’s— You really don’t remember?”

A faint flush touched her cheeks. “No. It’s not—It’s not to do with Chanukah or—”

“No. God.” He couldn’t believe it, he literally couldn’t believe that she’d forgotten. “It’s… It doesn’t matter.”

“Obviously it does.”

He looked at her briefly, then back down at his coffee. He felt ridiculous saying it out loud – if she didn’t even remember…

“Josh?”

“It’s…the day you left.”

There was a long pause and when Donna spoke again her tone was clipped and short. “Left the White House?”

“Yeah.” All he could really see now was the glistening of the cream rising to the top of his coffee.

“You remember the date?”

“You don’t?”

“No.” She stalked to the other side of the kitchen, bristling, and he cursed himself for mentioning it in the first place. “This is typical of you,” she snapped. “It’s so typical! We’ve been together over a year – and it’s been a really, really good year – but you’re still obsessing over the day I quit my job. Two years ago!

“I’m not obsessing, I’m—”

“Why not remember the day we first kissed? Or the day we moved in together, or—”

“I do!” Josh protested. “Of course I do, it’s just—”

“Just your little passive-aggressive power play, Josh?”

“My what?”

“The same reason you used to send me flowers in April? To make some stupid, juvenile point about—”

“Okay.” He chugged his coffee down fast, scalding his throat. He couldn’t hear anymore of this. “I have to take a shower. I need to be in the office early.”

“Josh—”

“I’ve got a meeting with Vinick at seven, and he’ll nail me to the wall if I don’t have my facts straight.”

He headed for the bathroom, but she stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Wait.” Reluctantly he turned around. She was watching him with more concern and less anger than he’d been expecting. She tipped her head to try and catch his eye. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” he assured her, but it was a thin lie and Donna saw right through it.

Her hand tightened on his arm, pulling him closer. “Joshua…” she breathed, as if at a loss. And then, apparently struck by an idea, her expression changed and a glint came into her eye. “Any chance you’ll get home in time for dinner tonight?”

He could feel her warmth through the thin fabric of his t-shirt and suddenly craved her touch more than his next breath. “I’ll try,” he promised, pulling her gruffly into his arms.

She clung to him, her voice shaking a little. “Don’t think about that day, Josh,” she whispered urgently. “Never look back.”

“I know,” he murmured. “I know you’re right.”

He felt her relax in his arms, felt her mood lift. “Get home early.” She planted an enticing kiss close to his ear. “We’ll order Chinese and eat in bed.”

Feeling her soft and comforting weight in his arms, Josh kicked himself for spending the night on the sofa; if he could, he’d have gone to bed right then, curled up with her and slept for a week. “Sounds good,” he breathed, kissing her face and then her warm lips. “Sounds fantastic…”

“Yes,” she smiled. “Yes, it does.”

Suddenly he didn’t want to let go, not ever again. Pulling her into a fierce hug, he buried his face against her neck. “Let’s call in sick,” he mumbled, only half-joking. “Let’s just stay in bed today.”

Donna laughed and kissed him again. “We can do that?”

“I wish we could.” He let his forehead come to rest against hers. “I really wish we could…”

It wasn’t the first time he’d said it, but to his shock it was the first time he’d actually meant it. And he had no idea what that fact meant.

***


By eight o’clock, Donna was firmly ensconced behind her desk and the pile of paperwork that greeted her every morning. Most of it consisted of requests by worthy organizations for the First Lady’s patronage, each one more deserving than the last. It would have broken Helen’s heart to have to turn down so many, which was why Donna was careful to make sure that every request came across her desk first. Her own heart, she noted, had become hardened to the task. A perk of the job, or a side-effect? She wasn’t entirely sure, but certainly there were advantages to tamping down on those softer emotions.

It helped her to stay focused, for one thing. Kept her from drifting off into confused thoughts about spending the night alone while Josh slept on the sofa… Stay busy, she told herself, stay focused. It’ll all work out. After everything the world had thrown at her and Josh – bullets, bombs and Amy Gardner to name but three – she knew nothing could upset the boat now. Even the most stable of relationships had rocky moments; she only had to spend a day with the Santos family to see that first hand.

Pushing all thoughts of Josh from her mind, she went back to sorting through the patronage requests. Education was Mrs. Santos’s first priority, so anything that touched on—

Her phone rang. She smiled at the thought that it might be Josh, and picked up right away. “Hey.”

Ella, her assistant, answered. “I’ve got a call from someone called Colin Ayres. He said he’s a friend…?”

Donna found herself staring at her office door in shock. “Colin Ayres?”

“You don’t know him? I’m sorry, he said he was a friend so I—”

“No, no it’s fine. I know who he is.” She hesitated, strangely unsure how to handle this particular ghost. The last time she’d seen him she’d still been in hospital, and it wasn’t a welcome memory. “I’m tied up right now,” she told Ella. “Could you take a number and tell him I’ll call back?”

“Sure thing.”

Donna hung up and listened to the sound of her heart thudding in her chest. Colin Ayres; he stirred too many disturbing memories to let her hear his name with composure. Not just the explosion and its aftermath either, but before that... She had a vivid memory of the night they’d spent together, of how much she’d wanted to feel something just to dull the unbearable ache she’d been living with for so long. She remembered closing her eyes and telling herself it was good for her – she was declaring her independence, breaking the chains that had tied her to Josh for so long. She remembered hating it and loving it, hating him and loving him because he wasn’t Josh.

And she remembered missing Josh so much she emailed every day, even though she never got a reply, and she remembered hating herself for her weakness. For all the excitement of being in Gaza, it had been one of the lowest points of her life. And then it had gotten worse…

Shivering, Donna rose to her feet and paced across her office. Three years ago now, yet still so powerful. The turning point in her life, if she was honest. The bomb blast had broken her body, but CJ had shattered her life days earlier with a few words of painful truth. From that point on she’d struggled to rebuild herself in her own image – to be truer to herself. It had gotten her a long way.

It had gotten her here, and that was the silver lining. She couldn’t forget that. Everything that had gone before had been torn down, and she had no desire to revisit those shabby ruins of her past mistakes.

And yet…Colin Ayres had called her. The question was, should she respond to that voice from her past or let it drift on by unanswered?

***


“A treaty negotiation?” The President leaned back in his chair and measured Josh with a careful look. “Vinick thinks we’ve come that far?”

“He thinks it’s possible.”

“What do you think?”

Josh smiled a little. “I think you appointed Vinick as Secretary of State, not me.”

“I’m still interested in your opinion.”

He shrugged. “I think…if people are talking, they’re not firing bullets at each other.”

“Perceptive.”

“I try to be.”

“And if the negotiations fall apart without a treaty…?”

“Then we’ve lost all kudos in the region—”

“—and might need to start banging heads together. Figuratively speaking.”

Josh yawned. “Literally works for me.”

The President sighed, slouching lower. Josh half expected him to put his feet up on the desk. He couldn’t imagine President Bartlet ever being so… nonchalant in the Oval; even after a year in office he found he was still getting used to the changes. “Except ‘literally’ would probably mean bunker-busters from 20,000 feet,” Santos pointed out.

“Yeah.” Josh rubbed a hand over his face, trying to wipe away the fatigue. Launching Armageddon had never been on his agenda when he signed up for his first poli-sci class at high school.

“You look tired,” Santos said abruptly, sitting forward and leaning over the desk.

“Too many late nights,” Josh smiled, hoping the President would buy the half-truth. Too many sleepless nights was more accurate.

Santos eyed him for a moment, then looked down at the papers on his desk. “How’s Donna?”

“Donna?”

“Yeah, you know Donna. Tall, blond. Attractive. Works for my wife.”

Feeling a little uncomfortable, Josh got to his feet. “She’s good. She’s… Attractive, sir?”

Santos repressed a smile. “You hadn’t noticed?”

“I noticed. About a decade ago.”

“But everything’s okay with you guys? I mean… Don’t get me wrong, it’s just that you’ve seemed a little tense over the past few weeks.”

Oh, for the love of God... “Sir, with all due respect, the state of my relationship with Donna – which is great, by the way – really isn’t something you should be worrying about. At all. Ever.”

“I’m just concerned, Josh,” Santos smiled, getting to his feet. “You need to pace yourself, you need to make time for your life.”

“I know. I am.”

“When was the last time you had a day off?”

He squirmed a little. “A…whole day?”

“I’ll tell you when,” Santos said, pulling a scrap of paper from his pocket. “Sunday, June eleventh.”

“You walk around with that information?”

Santos fixed him with a pointed look. “I had Ronna check.”

“Ah.”

“My point is, it’s December now.”

“Look – I appreciate your concern, sir. I really do. But unless you think I’m not doing my job, you—”

A large hand fell on his shoulder. It was strange, Josh thought, that Santos felt he could pull the fatherly thing even though he was the far less experienced man. “It’s not all about work, Josh. Even in these jobs. There has to be a balance, you know? You have to make it balance out.”

“I do,” Josh assured him. “I do that.”

Santos made a sound in the back of his throat that sounded like doubt. “Take it from me, Josh, relationships can run out of gasoline sometimes. You need to refuel when you can.”

“Yes, sir,” Josh agreed, edging toward the door. “Refuel. Well, in fact I was just heading home to, you know, pump some gas.” Santos lifted an eyebrow and Josh winced at the unintended double-entendre. “Uh, I mean—”

Fortunately, at that moment, Ronna appeared in the doorway. “Sir, they need you in the sit-room right away. It’s China.”

The President gave a curt nod and started moving, Josh falling in at his side. “I guess you’ll have to stop for gas later,” Santos said with a smile. Josh cut him a pained look. “One gas metaphor too many, huh?”

“About three too many. Sir.”

“Are you saying I need to work on how I deliver personal advice?”

“No, Mr. President,” Josh insisted. “I’m absolutely not saying that. Giving personal advice is the last thing I think you should be working on.”

Santos just shook his head and lengthened his stride, leaving Josh trailing in his wake.

***


By ten thirty, Donna figured he wasn’t coming home for dinner. He obviously wasn’t going to call and let her know, either. It rankled, but she told herself not to be petty. This was the price you paid for dating – was that the right word? – one of the most powerful men in the country. And she could hardly claim to be surprised, it’s not like she didn’t know what his schedule would be like. On the other hand, it’s not like she’d had much of a choice; you can’t choose who you fall in love with.

In my next life, she thought as she picked at the chicken with cashew nuts, I’m going to fall for Mr. Nine-to-Five Family Man. We’ll eat together every night, talk about how great our kids are, whether we can afford a bigger house and-- “Die of boredom, probably.”

With a sigh, she put down the take-out box and thought about all the work she’d shoved to one side to make it home by nine. She knew it wasn’t as easy for Josh, she knew that, and yet…

And yet.

He wasn’t here, and she was lonely. Couldn’t help that, couldn’t stop herself missing him, however good his excuse. Helen Santos probably felt the same, and she knew Abby Bartlet had put her foot down a few times. Crazy women, all of us, to choose this life. These men.

Uncurling her legs, Donna hauled herself from the sofa and padded into the kitchen. She made room in the refrigerator for the rest of the take-out, knowing full well it would never get eaten. But her mother’s voice on her shoulder was deafening, You could have that tomorrow. Waste not, want not.

Deciding to at least make the most of an early night, she switched off the lights – just leaving a couple on for Josh – and headed into the bathroom. There was a Post-it note on the mirror, she’d found it when she’d gotten home but hadn’t moved it. This was one of Josh’s things, one of the incredibly sweet, unexpected things he occasionally did.

You’re beautiful, he’d written. I love you.

Sometimes she found them in her coat pocket, occasionally on her desk. When he went away, there’d be a note under her pillow. It was adorable really, and yet tonight it only seemed to highlight the fact that he wasn’t here. And she missed him all the more.

She left the note in place while she brushed her teeth and cleaned her face, then took it into the bedroom with her and slipped it into the back of her diary. She kept all the notes he sent her, like a pack rat hording against a famine. Stupid, really. Putting her diary down, her eyes fell on another piece of paper. It had been in her jacket pocket when she got home from work and she’d set it on the night stand when she’d changed. It stared up at her now in the bold handwriting of her assistant, challenging her; Colin Ayres, it said, followed by a DC number.

Should she call him? Would it be rude not to? He’d flown all the way from Gaza to Germany, just to make sure she was okay, and she wasn’t sure she’d even thanked him properly. So much of that time was a haze. He’d kept in touch for a while after, but she hadn’t really been herself and then life had turned upside down the day she left Josh— The job. She meant the day she left her job. That was Josh’s fixation rubbing off on her and she didn’t like it.

Suddenly irritated, she picked up the paper. It wouldn’t hurt to call Colin and find out what he was doing in DC. She harbored no lingering romantic feelings; their affair had been extremely brief and mostly based on the fact that he wasn’t Josh. Nevertheless, Colin had been a nice – interesting – guy and he’d cared enough about her to fly to Germany. That was more than just a one-night stand, and he deserved to have his calls returned. At the very least.

Sitting on the edge of the bed she picked up the phone and dialed. After two rings a familiar, accented voice answered. “Colin Ayres.”

Stupidly nervous, Donna found herself smiling. “Colin, hi. It’s Donna. Donna Moss…”

~~~
Continued here.

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