“Josh looked utterly, utterly defeated, and on this night, of all nights, the irony was excruciating.”
Obviously it contains spoilers for everything up to ED Pt2.
What Dreams May Come
The music from the ballroom drifted up, a dissonant joy that jarred against the melancholy silence of the war room.
Never had the term seemed so appropriate, Donna thought, as she surveyed the detritus of battle; stale coffee, abandoned exit polls, half-eaten pizza, empty champagne bottles. And amid it all, like a general surveying the battlefield, Josh drifted from one thing to another as if he couldn’t quite let go.
Donna watched him from the door, just that simple act bringing back a flood of memories. She’d always enjoyed watching him work when he was oblivious to her presence, the way he’d chew on his pen, frown, mutter to himself and occasionally leap up with a sudden ‘Yes!’ when something clicked. But this time was different, for oh so many reasons. Some of them wonderful, one of them incomprehensibly awful.
He looked up at her suddenly, almost as if the thought had alerted him to her presence. He didn’t seem surprised to see her, and she wondered if he was even capable of surprise anymore. Shattered didn’t even begin to describe him. Shell-shocked might have been more accurate.
“You need anything?” she asked, not moving from the doorway.
Josh shook his head and turned away from the board he’d been studying. “No, I’m just…”
She stepped into the room. “The Congressman and Mrs. Santos have gone home to get some sleep,” she said. “The party’s still going on downstairs – probably last until midday.”
He snorted a soft laugh. “You remember the first one? Lasted until…what? Two?”
Donna smiled. “At least. You were very drunk.”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “I was. Leo told me to—” He broke off sharply and sucked in a deep breath. “He should be here.”
“It just… I feel cheated.” He sighed. “ Does that sound horribly selfish?”
“No.” Donna took a couple of steps closer, close enough to touch him, although she didn’t. “You have been cheated, Josh. We all have. It’s not fair. It’s wrong. But it happened, and there was nothing anyone could have done about it.”
He hung his head; she knew he’d never agree with her about that. He’d never agree that this wasn’t, in some part, his fault. But it would be futile to argue the point, especially now, so instead she just reached for his hand. “Come on,” she said quietly, “let’s get some sleep.”
He looked up from under his brow, an unasked question in his eyes. Together?
She didn’t answer, just lead him out of the room in silence. And he followed, numb with exhaustion and grief and shock, but not letting go of her hand – not even when they passed a gaggle of staffers who’d spilled out from the party downstairs. Whether he didn’t notice, or didn’t care, Donna didn’t know. But she didn’t much care either; her own exhaustion was reaching the point where thinking was difficult; her limbs were heavy as lead, and the idea of a soft bed and a dark room was almost the only thing keeping her on her feet. That and the need to make sure Josh was okay. Old habits died hard. Or not at all.
By the time they reached the bedroom the silence between them had grown long, but not uncomfortable. Donna fished out the key card, swiped it, and let them both in. It was only as the door closed quietly behind them that Josh said, “This isn’t my room.”
“No,” Donna agreed, moving past him to switch on the lights. “No it isn’t.”
He rubbed a hand across his face, frowning in confusion. “Donna…”
“Your room…” She moved to stand before him. “There are a lot of…issues there, and we just need to sleep.”
Josh blinked, frowned, and shook his head. “Okay.” She wasn’t sure he got what she meant, but he seemed half a step behind the world right now so she wasn’t surprised.
“Here…” She guided him to the bed and gave him a slight push so that he sat down. “Take off your shoes and get into bed.”
Snagging her pyjamas from the bed, Donna headed into the bathroom to change, which was, perhaps, a little strange, but despite what had happened earlier – God, was it really only this afternoon? – she couldn’t bring herself to strip off right in front of him. These things took time.
When she returned, Josh hadn’t moved. Well, he had taken off his shoes but that was about it. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, head in his hands. He looked utterly, utterly defeated, and on this night, of all nights, the irony was excruciating. Donna didn’t know if her heart was melting or breaking as she came to sit next to him on the bed and rubbed a hand over his back. “Hey,” she said. “Come on…”
“I can’t…” The words came from a long way away, muffled between his fingers. “I can’t…think.”
“You’re exhausted,” she reminded him. “You’ve been up for a almost thirty-six hours, Josh. And you haven’t slept more than three hours a night in weeks.”
He shook his head, not lifting it from his hands. “I can’t… I think my head is broken.”
She let her hand drift up from his back to his hair, and leaned over to kiss him lightly on the temple. “The world just changed, Josh. The whole world just turned upside down. We lost Leo, we won the White House and—”
“You,” he said quietly. “And there’s you.”
She smiled at that and lightly ruffled his hair. “Yes. There’s me. Just to complicate things.”
He shook his head and turned it enough to look at her. “Not complicate.”
“The point is, Josh, you expect the impossible of yourself. You need to sleep, you need to rest. You’ve just been through… God, this day, Josh.”
He dropped his hands from his face and sighed. “I don’t want to sleep.”
Because of the dreams; she knew him well enough to see that fear in his eyes. And knew him well enough not to try and talk about it. Instead she said, “The Congressman needs to see you at eleven. If you don’t sleep now you’ll be drooling into your coffee by then.” He cast her a dark look, and she offered a small smile in return. “You have to sleep.”
“I’m too wired.”
“We’ll see.” She got to her feet and pulled him upright, propelling him toward the bathroom. “Go get changed. You can use my toothbrush if you like.”
He smiled slightly, the palest reflection of his normal grin. “I can’t think of anything witty to say.”
“I’m surprised you can think of anything to say.”
He didn’t bother to close the bathroom door all the way, and so as Donna crawled into bed she could see him slowly pulling off his clothes. She was struck, then, by this sudden, forced intimacy. This morning – this morning! – she’d been like a cat on hot bricks around him, too afraid to get close despite the unspoken intensity of their night together. And now…? They were crawling into bed, exhausted, like an old married couple.
The thought struck her at the precise moment Josh stepped out of the bathroom in t-shirt and boxers and flung his clothes at the nearby chair. They mostly missed and ended up on the floor, but he didn’t notice and Donna surprised herself by not caring.
“Is this weird?” he said, standing at the end of the bed and staring at her with a mixture of confusion and exhaustion.
“A little,” she admitted, and with a smile added, “but not in a bad way.” She nodded at the empty space next to her. “Come here.”
He only hesitated briefly before he all but collapsed onto the bed next to her. But he didn’t reach for her, he made no attempt to touch her at all, just lay staring at the ceiling. “I’m so tired.”
Cautiously, aware that this was something they really hadn’t done yet, Donna reached out and ran her fingers down his arm. “Close your eyes,” she said quietly.
He didn’t, he looked over at her instead. “Donna…”
“Shhh,” she murmured, letting her hand wander up to his face. “When I was little, and couldn’t sleep, my mom would always stroke my forehead. Like this.”
He watched her at first, his eyes dark and soulful. So much pain there, she thought bleakly. So much doubt. But slowly, slowly his eyes drifted shut and eventually he whispered, in half-formed words, “Feels…great….”
She smiled, but it was difficult to keep her heavy eyelids open as she stroked his face with her fingertips. Her hand was so heavy and sleep was all around, a thick, black mist crowding in from all sides. She felt him move and roll closer, felt his arm fall heavily across her waist and realised that her hand had stopped moving and was resting between them now, but that didn’t matter because she could feel the warmth of his shoulder beneath her cheek and the slight scratch of his face against her forehead as he breathed deeply and evenly...
The rest was sweet, soft darkness.
Sunlight was blazing around the edges of the drapes when Donna awoke, although the room was still dark. Her eyes were gritty, but the cotton wool padding her brain had at least thinned enough that she felt as thought she might be able to think straight. The clock by the bedside said 10.06, which meant she really should be getting up. They should be getting up…
And wasn’t that the strangest thing? For the second time in as many days she was waking up next to Josh. This time, however, he wasn’t faking sleep; he was dead to the world, face half-buried in the pillow. She toyed with the idea of waking him, but was loath to disturb him. Another half hour wouldn’t hurt, especially not if he didn’t have to trail over to his own room for a shave and a change of clothes…
Slipping quietly out of bed, Donna pulled on some socks and a sweatshirt, pulled Josh’s key card from the pocket of his pants, and tiptoed out of the room. It was strange, quite disorientating, to be out in the brash daylight when her body was screaming for more sleep; all the fun of jet lag, without the exotic destination. Pushing her weariness to one side – sleep deprivation had become a way of life over the past six months – she headed for the elevators.
The corridor outside Josh’s room was deserted. Most people, Donna suspected, were still partying on this strange inversion of the morning after the night before. Not that she was complaining as she glanced up and down the hall, and slipped into his room.
She stopped immediately, surprised by the force of her memories – the bed was still a tangle of sheets, the exit poll she’d accidentally brought with her was sprawled on the floor where she’d dropped it the moment the door had closed behind them. The heat and fury of that little encounter brought a flush to her cheeks – in the best possible way. And yet… Everything was under a pall now, the whole world. It didn’t seem possible that a mere day had passed since that reckless, carefree tryst.
Everything had changed in twenty-four hours, and for no one more than Josh. How he’d face the challenges of the next few months without Leo, Donna didn’t know; he’d lost his mentor at the very moment he’d been told to start running the country. And everyone was looking to him for the lead, including the Congressman.
She was afraid the weight of that responsibility might just crush him, and that prospect chilled her to the core. She’d helped him through some tough times before, but this was the cruellest blow of all – she hoped she was up to the task.
With that in mind, she ignored the cold, hard grief in the centre of her chest – she’d deal with that later, in her own time – and headed over to the closet. There was one shirt hanging up, and several in a rumpled heap on the floor. Counting her blessings, she took the last clean shirt, found another pair of boxers, some socks and his razor. A fresh suit would have been nice, but she suspected the creased heap of fabric in the far corner of being his ‘other’ suit.
He needs an assistant, she thought wryly. And then wondered if she hadn’t just volunteered for the job. Again. Better terms and conditions this time, though – and that almost made her smile as she headed for the door.
This time, when the elevator arrived, it wasn’t empty. Lou stepped out; if she was drunk, it didn’t show. “Hey,” she said, “where the hell’s Josh? Haven’t seen him all night, can’t get an answer on his cell. And the Congressman needs him in half an hour.”
Given that she was standing there holding his underwear, Donna figured she had two choices; lie or run. Okay, maybe three. “He’s still asleep. I’ll get him there for eleven.”
Lou’s gaze drifted to the bundle in Donna’s arms, her eyebrows rose, but all she said was, “How is he?”
Donna laughed, half embarrassment and half disquiet. “I don’t know. He’s still asleep.”
“Okay.” Lou nodded, and to Donna’s surprise patted her on the shoulder as she headed on her way. “Good for you.”
Somewhat puzzled, Donna ducked into the elevator and rode it up to the seventh floor. By her watch it was almost ten thirty, which meant he had half an hour to shower and change before meeting with Santos. She pulled out the key, swiped the card, and let herself in quietly. Half an hour was plenty of time to—
Josh started violently at the sound of the closing door, spinning around to stare at her in absolute shock. He was half dressed already, but in the stark sunlight pouring through the window his face looked ashen and disorientated. “Donna…”
She was instantly wary. “Hey. You’re awake.”
He stared at her for a moment, blinked, and rubbed a hand over his face. “I thought— What time is it?”
“It’s ten-thirty,” Donna said carefully. “You’ve got half an hour.”
“Half an hour?”
“Before your meeting with the Congressman.”
“Oh. Yeah…” He was frowning now. “God… Sorry, I just— I thought you’d gone.”
There was a tremor in his voice that stopped her in her tracks, the weight of his clothes in her hands suddenly unreasonably heavy. She stared at him for a moment, her mouth suddenly dry. The subtext was obvious, really. It’s just that this was the worst possible moment for that conversation. Nevertheless… “Did you think I’d just leave you here, alone?”
He didn’t look up, didn’t answer either aside from a shake of his head. In Josh-talk, that meant ‘yes’.
Donna held out the clothes in her arms. “I went to get these for you. I’m sorry, I should have said something first. You were asleep and—”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said, but she could see that his fingers were fumbling with the buttons and she could hear the anxiety in his voice.
“Josh…” She sighed and came to sit next to him, dropping the clothes on the bed at her side. “You have to listen to me now.”
His hands grew still and his head tipped to one side, so he was looking at her sideways. But he didn’t speak.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said quietly. “Not today. Not tomorrow. Not for as long as you want me around.”
He looked away, down at the floor and sighed. “You know when you wake up? There’s that split second before you remember…”
“I know.” She reached out and took his hand, squeezing gently. “I know, Josh.”
“It was like this, after my father died. And I was thinking… Even then you were the one— I mean, you were there. Organizing stuff. And yesterday…you were there and—” He looked over at her, his face achingly sad . “Who would…? I mean, if anything ever happened to you, who would—?”
She couldn’t answer him, all she could do was enfolded him in her arms and whisper his name. “It’s not going to happen,” she breathed. “That’s not going to happen.”
“Shhh, Josh, don’t. It’s not going to happen.”
“You can’t know that, you can’t—”
“I know. Okay? I’m not going anywhere. I promise.”
He held her tighter, so tight it almost hurt. “I don’t know how I’ll… I don’t know what to do next. ”
“Just take one step at a time, Josh, that’s all you can do.”
His hold on her loosened slightly, his head coming to rest against hers. “Thing is… I can’t be Leo.”
“No, you can’t. You have to be Josh.”
“What if…? What if that’s not good enough?”
She pushed back far enough that she could take his face in her hands and look him right in the eye. “All of this was you, Josh. All of this, right from the start. You made this happen. Not Leo, not Matt Santos. You. It’s all you.”
“We’re talking about running the country…”
“That’s what happens when you win elections.”
He smiled sadly. “Without Leo…”
“I know.” With a sigh she leaned over and kissed him on the forehead, then pushed him gently back. “Without Leo. And downstairs, in twenty minutes, you have to persuade the Congressman that he can be President of the United States without Leo.”
Josh blinked, frowned, and then his face settled into a familiar expression of iron resolve. “Yeah.”
“He’s more afraid than you are, Josh, and he’s counting on you.”
“I know. I know he is.”
“And you… You can count on me. I promise.”
“I do,” he said quietly, fixing her with an intent look. “I always have.”
Someone knocked loudly at the door. “Donna?” It was Lou. “Tell Josh to hurry the hell up – the Congressman’s about to flip and we need to get him in front of the cameras in the next half hour!”
Josh’s eyebrows shot up. And then, to Donna’s surprise, he called out, “I’ll be there in a minute. Don’t let him drink any caffeine.”
Donna smiled at the amused look on his face. “I guess the cat’s out of the bag then…”
“I’d say the bag’s been shredded and used as kitty litter,” he agreed, reaching for the clean clothes on the bed. “Okay.” He sucked in a deep breath, blew it out in a long sigh, and pushed himself to his feet. “I have a President Elect to talk down from a panic attack.”
Donna smiled. “Yes you do.”
He took one step toward the bathroom, then stopped and turned back. “So I’ll…see you later?”
“Sure. In about ten minutes, probably.”
He smiled, a little hesitantly. “I meant…tonight?”
“I know what you meant. Like I said, I’m not going anywhere.”
And for the first time since they’d heard about Leo, Josh’s smile reached his eyes. “You should probably at least – you know – get out of bed,” he said. “Or I might have to fire you…or something.”
She laughed softly, and thought that his smile, like sunshine after rain, was one of the most beautiful things she’d ever seen. But she didn’t tell him that. All she told him – all he needed to hear right then – was, “Go take a shower. We’ve got a country to run.”
Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed it!