But then I watched 'King Corn' again and then I read caz963's The Theory of Evolution and I couldn't help myself.
I'm a sucker for angst. And happy endings. :)
Title: Hands on a Miracle
Author: Sally R
Summary: Non-canon post-ep for 'King Corn'
With huge thanks to coloneljack for brainstorming the story, then making me write it. And also to caz963 for sorting out the typos, repetitions and dodgy time line. :)
Dying behind these tired eyes
I've been losing sleep
Please come to me
“Miracle” – Foo Fighters
Josh had never been a drinker. Not in college, not even when he was clerking. It had never been his style. Not really. The thing was – the thing he was acutely aware of was – that when he did drink for real, it wasn’t a good thing. It wasn’t to have fun or to unwind. It was medicinal, for its anesthetic value. And he was pretty damn sure that was a bad idea.
So, as a rule, he avoided it. But tonight…? After yesterday’s elevator ride from hell he’d taken care not to run into her, but nonetheless he’d glimpsed her as he reached his room and, God, the sight of her ached like a sore tooth. So tonight, all bets were off. Tonight, he needed that anesthetic. And he needed it fast.
“Scotch,” he said, sliding onto the bar stool. “Double. Actually, make that two.”
The kid behind the bar threw him a look, but said nothing. Maybe he recognized him, although Josh doubted it. He probably saw a hundred middle-aged suits every night, drowning their sorrows in this anonymous hotel bar, and no doubt he vowed he’d never be one of them. Josh remembered vowing the self-same thing, back when he was young and couldn’t conceive of youth as a transient state.
Depressing. Profoundly depressing. He threw back the first shot in one go, and almost choked on the fire. He tamed it with a gentler sip from the second and hoped it would start working its magic fast. They used to chop off a guy’s leg with nothing more than a couple of shots of whisky inside him; he wondered if their pain had been any more acute than his own.
To be so close, yet so far away? It should be against all the laws of nature. That the silence between them could be filled with so many needles, when once it had been filled with nothing but joy, seemed impossible. That he could miss her so much, and yet want to yell at her until his voice gave out, was an intolerable contradiction. That she could have betrayed him, left him…
It was a knife in the back that never stopped twisting, a wound that never healed. But what really got to him, what really carved out that empty ache in his chest, was the fact that he still wanted her back. Despite her betrayal, despite the cold looks and icy words, he wanted her back. More than anything. And he hated himself for that, for being so weak and foolish.
Leo was right, Donna had moved on. Why the hell couldn’t he?
With a sigh Josh knocked back his second drink and ordered a third. When the kid set it down in front of him he said, “Want me to set up a tab?”
Josh smiled bleakly. He knew how pathetic he looked, but couldn’t really bring himself to care. “Room 702.”
“Tough day?” the kid asked as he fiddled with the till.
He nodded, as if he understood. “I hear you.”
Josh snorted. “You don’t have to… I don’t want to bare my soul.”
“Good,” the kid smiled, picking up Josh’s empties. “Because I’m off in an hour and I’ve heard it all before.”
He laughed at that. “You’ve heard it all before? You’re what? Twenty?”
“Twenty-six. And yeah, I hear it every night. It’s either business or a woman.” He narrowed his eyes. “In your case… I’d say a woman.”
Josh stared down into his drink. “You had a fifty-fifty shot. I’m not impressed.”
“Did she leave you?” He threw the question over his shoulder as he moved to the back of the bar. “For another guy?”
Motionless, his fingers curled rigidly around his glass, Josh said, “It’s not… It’s not what you think.”
“Everyone says that,” the kid replied. “It’s always the same.”
Josh knocked back half his third drink, pleased that at last his head was feeling a little fuzzy around the edges. He wasn’t sure the pain was fading, but give it time. Give it time. “You’re a little young to be a cynic, aren’t you?”
The kid shrugged. “She left you for another guy, right? Younger? Better looking?”
Josh frowned. “That’s…debatable.”
“Ah – ‘Frailty, thy name is woman.’”
Give me strength. “Hamlet loved his mother too much. I’m not sure that’s a reliable case study.”
“You’re sitting here drinking yourself into oblivion. How many case studies do you need?”
Josh couldn’t help but smile at that. “I have to go and do work now,” he said, finishing his third double and blinking at the way the bar suddenly tilted away from him.
“Want me to keep ’em coming?”
“Yeah. Couple more.” He nodded at a booth behind him. “I’ll be over there.”
“You bet,” the kid smiled. “And sir?”
Josh paused as he slid from the bar stool, grateful for the excuse to regroup and find his balance. “Yeah?”
“You should get yourself laid. It’s better than whisky.”
He didn’t bother to answer; the day he took relationship advice from a kid who’d barely started shaving was the day he’d resign himself forever to a lifetime of celibacy. Sadly, he thought as he weaved his way toward the booth, that day might be close at hand…
Donna Moss couldn’t sleep, and it was all his fault. All because he could never use a damn key card… It had become a standing joke; she used to suspect that he did it on purpose, just to get a rise out of her. But tonight? God, the tension still coiled in the pit of her belly. He’d seemed so…Josh. So distractedly hopeless. And maybe she shouldn’t have helped him out, but seeing him standing there, fumbling with the door…? Eight years of instinct was hard to ignore.
But if she hadn’t helped him out, she wouldn’t have ended up standing so close that she could detect the faintest hint of aftershave and recognize it instantly as the one she’d given him for Christmas two years earlier. Not that he would have remembered that, there was no reason to read anything sentimental into the fact, but still… It took her back to another time, reminded her painfully of all those other hotel nights and days, when they’d been on the same team. When they’d been a team.
And if she hadn’t helped him out she wouldn’t have seen the hesitant, nervous smile in his eyes tonight, and she wouldn’t be staring up at the dark ceiling, remembering all the other confusing looks they’d shared over the years. Remembering how much she’d always loved his eyes – when he took the trouble to see her at all, of course. When he didn’t treat her like a glorified typist and trample all over her stupid, soft heart.
Donna sighed and rolled over, sick of staring at the ceiling. In the light cast by the bedside clock she could see the outline of her briefcase, her shoes, her purse, her coat… No, wait. Where was her coat? She blinked through the grey light and tried to remember. She’d been wearing it when she arrived, and then…
Damn. She’d taken it off in the bar.
It would still be there in the morning, of course. It’s not like people stole coats. Did they? Maybe they did? It was cold, after all. And she liked that coat; she didn’t want to lose it. Anyway, it’s not like she was asleep. Maybe the walk would settle her mind.
Slipping out of bed she pulled on her thick socks and a sweatshirt, picked up her key card and headed out the door.
The hotel was weirdly silent, the hallway neon-lit and full of static. She hadn’t looked at the time, but imagined it to be close to two. Rubbing at her eyes she glanced once at Josh’s closed door and started resolutely for the elevators.
Downstairs it was cold and she hugged her arms around herself in a vain attempt to conserve heat. A few night staff loitered near reception, their faces pale in the corporate lighting. She ignored them and walked into the bar. Will and the others were long gone, but she recognized the booth where they’d been set up – and she recognized her coat, neatly folded on the seat. Irritated, she picked it up. Someone, she thought, could have taken it with them at least! It’s not like they wouldn’t have known whose it was.
But then, she supposed, she’d have assumed it had been stolen and… Yeah. Okay. Over thinking it a little bit. With a sigh she glanced around the empty bar, on the point of returning to her room, when she saw him. Well, part of him.
The booth was almost as far from her own as possible, and in the darkest part of the bar. But someone was there, face down on the desk, head resting on his arms. To Donna, it was a sight so familiar it was almost like stepping back in time.
She hesitated, rooted to the spot with indecision. Josh, Josh, Josh…
What she should do, she knew, was go back to her room. She should sleep and focus her mind on the day ahead. But even as she told herself this, Donna found herself walking slowly across the room. It was a strange, dreamlike, sensation. A strange, dreamlike, time of night. Nothing seemed real, not the empty bar or the silent hotel, or the fact that her heart was tapping out a nervous rhythm in her chest.
As she drew closer, she could hear him breathing. It wasn’t quite a snore, but it was clear he was fast asleep. Despite herself, she felt a flutter of warmth. He must be tired, her soft heart whispered, he must be so tired, carrying all this alone.
She stopped beside the table and took a moment to survey the scattered papers and the pen falling from his still fingers. Reaching out, she pulled it from his hand and laid it on the table. He didn’t stir. Briefly, she toyed with waking him up and sending him to bed. That’s what she’d have done before, when her life had revolved around his. Things were different now and he wasn’t her responsibility anymore, but even so… It was freezing down here, he was only in his shirtsleeves, and she knew his back would kill him in the morning. Especially if he was cold.
No response. Okay, so she wasn’t going to shake him awake. But she couldn’t just leave him here like— An idea sprung to mind as her eyes landed on the coat she held in her hands. It was something, she reasoned. A halfway point. Carefully, she draped her coat over his shoulders and for some reason she found her hand lingering there, close enough to feel the scant heat from his body. And somehow, almost of their own accord, her fingers brushed lightly over his hair and the sensation tied her stomach into a quick, hard knot. Her hand was shaking as she pulled away and—
“Donna…?” It was a mumbled, sleepy dream-word.
But she froze nonetheless, barely daring to voice a whispered, “Yes.”
“Oh, thank God…” She was waiting to hear ‘there’s a pile of stuff on the desk’, but it never came. Instead he sank back into a deeper sleep, a faint smile playing across his lips.
Oh, thank God. No anger, no recriminations, no scorn. Just a profound relief and a hope so raw...
She wasn’t sure what shocked her the most, the honesty in his voice, or the fact that she’d ever expected anything less of him.
Donna hadn’t planned on sleeping, but she must have done because when her wake-up call came she felt as if she’d only just crawled back into bed. She didn’t move right away, however - her whole body felt heavy and lethargic. It was a familiar depression, one she recognized from the days after she’d quit her job when just getting up in the morning seemed to take all day. The ache in her chest was familiar too, and as she lay there staring at the numbers on the clock, she realized that it had never really gone away. The pain of leaving him had never left her, she’d only buried it with success and anger and work. And more work.
But those three words last night had exploded all that, had taken her back to square one. All the lies she’d told herself about how he took her for granted, how he’d hardly notice she was gone, they had all fallen apart. Just like the other lies, the ones about how she didn’t care about him anymore, how she’d moved on, how her juvenile crush was in the past. All lies, all stupid lies that denigrated the truth. There was no crush, there was only love. Real, painful love. And that didn’t go away in a couple of months; she suspected it never really would, however far she moved from him.
She loved him, but she’d hated him too. Hated him for not reciprocating her feelings, for not seeing her. And that’s why she’d left, that’s why she’d left the way she left – to hurt him. She’d known it all along, in her heart, but somehow last night had laid it bare. He wanted her back. He missed her, he needed her. The relief in his voice had told her that much… She could picture his face, now, had she walked back into his office and offered him a second chance. Bristling, yet contrite, a little bravado and a lot of genuine apology. He’d have taken her seriously, she knew it. He’d have done whatever it took to keep her.
But she hadn’t gone back, she never would. Not now. She was forging her own path and that was good. It was healthy. It was a reason to celebrate and yet—
There was a lump in her throat that was all regret, because she loved him more than she’d ever hated him. And she’d left him. Of all the things she could have done to hurt Josh Lyman, that was the worst. She’d known it, and done it anyway. That was why she’d done it.
And she couldn’t forgive herself for that. This morning, less than ever.
There was a time and a place for wallowing, however, and the middle of a campaign wasn’t it. Which was why, twenty minutes later, Donna had hauled herself out of bed, into the shower, and down to the hotel lobby. Her restless night left her feeling a little spacey, but basically functioning – for which she was grateful. It was going to be a full day and –
She recognized the voice as belonging to Rick Bernstein from the Post, and turned with a professional smile. “Hey,” she said. “You’re up early.”
He smiled easily, but it was a fleeting expression. “Listen,” he said, talking quietly and moving a little closer. “This probably isn’t anything to do with you, but I know you were friends and I can’t find anyone from the Santos campaign…”
Her heart thudded once, hard. “What’s—?”
“I just saw Josh in the bar, kinda passed out. According to the kid on reception he was drinking last night and he’s been there ever since.” Rick shrugged. “It’s nothing I’m interested in, but there are people around who’d love to, you know… And I’ve always liked Josh, so…”
“Yeah,” Donna glanced over at the bar. “Yeah, thanks, I’ll… Drunk?” That was so unlike Josh - how had she not noticed it last night? “Are you sure?”
“It’s what the kid said.”
“It’s… He’s probably just asleep. Working late. He used to do that a lot. I’m sure he’s— Yeah, I’ll just go…”
And she was gone, forcing herself not to run across the lobby, trying not to draw attention to herself. But it seemed like there were press everywhere, and it only took one hack with a grudge, or five column inches to fill… The bar was dark this early, but enough light filtered through from the lobby that she could see that Josh was exactly where she’d left him.
Her heart sank. If he’d just been sleeping, he’d have woken up by now complaining of a stiff back and neck and— How could she not have known he was drunk? She hadn’t seen any glasses, or a bottle or a— Drunk? Josh never deliberately got drunk. Well, hardly ever. There’d been that time after the Carrick debacle, but then he’d had good reason.
“Josh?” Her coat was still over his shoulders, his face still resting on his arms. She shook him a little. “Josh, wake up.”
He didn’t stir.
She raised her voice. “Josh!”
His head jolted up, his face crumpling into a grimace. “Oh…God…”
“Yes,” she agreed.
Peering at her through bleary eyes he said, “Where…are we?”
“We’re in Iowa.”
“Why, in the name of all that is holy, are we in Iowa?”
“Listen to me,” she said, crouching down so that they were face to face. “You are drunk. Outside this bar are ten journalists who would love to fill column inches with a story about Matthew Santos’s campaign manager drinking himself into a coma in a hotel bar in Iowa. So you are going to do exactly what I tell you, do you understand?”
He stared at her. “You’re…still with the Russell campaign?” He said it like he was putting the pieces together.
And somehow, her answer felt like a confession. “Yes.”
“Right…yeah. Ethanol.” Slowly his head sank back onto his arms. “I thought…” He sat up again, this time peering at her coat slipping from his shoulders. He looked like hell, but there was still something in his eyes that touched her. “Did you…?” He shook his head, as if to clear it, which she suspected was a bad idea from the ensuing wince. “Was I dreaming?”
Donna swallowed hard. Echoes of relief still ran through his voice, but they were masked now with confusion – and disappointment. “I thought you were asleep,” she said, keeping it cool. “You looked cold.”
He just stared at her, clearly at a loss. She didn’t blame him; she was pretty short on words herself. “You need to stand up now,” she said. “We have to get you back to your room.”
“I’m fine,” he assured her, pushing up off the desk until he was sitting more or less upright. He was suddenly a ghastly shade of grey.
“Are you going to throw up?” Urgently, she cast around for some kind of bucket or—
“I’m fine.” It sounded like an article of faith, but Josh Lyman was the king of iron resolve.
“If you’re going to throw up,” she said, helping him to stand, “try not to do it on me.”
“Can we…?” He swayed alarmingly. “Not talk about it?”
“Okay.” She cast him a thin smile instead. “You can, you know…lean on me, if you need to.”
“I’m fine…” He took a step, and if she hadn’t grabbed his arm he would have landed flat on his face. “Okay…the floor’s moving.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “It’s not the floor.”
Josh groaned, pressing a hand to his forehead. “I may still be a little…drunk.”
He just closed his eyes, and for a moment looked so overwhelmingly sad that it was all she could do to keep from folding her arms around him. “Come on,” she said instead, taking his arm and resolutely ignoring the warmth of his skin through the thin cotton of his shirt. “Let’s go.”
The hardest part was navigating the lobby. She figured that if he was going to throw up, this was the worst possible place. But in fact, aside from a wobble or two, she managed to get him into the elevator intact. He stood leaning against the wall for the short trip up to their floor, eyes shut and breathing carefully through his nose. She’d never seen him look so sick. Not since— Her hand tightened reflexively on his arm.
It was still early enough that the corridor was mostly empty, but they passed a couple of people on their way down to breakfast. No one she knew, thankfully. And at last she was outside his door, wondering if she should go in – if he was going to be okay alone. He really looked very ill.
“Key?” she said as Josh canted sideways into the wall, his head and shoulder resting there, eyes closed. “Give me your key, Josh.”
He fumbled in his pocket. “Uh…”
“Try the other one,” she suggested. “Back pockets?”
He tried, in vain. And he was sweating now, a thin sheen glistening on his nose and forehead. “I can’t…” Suddenly his hand was pressed over his mouth, eyes wide.
“Oh, God…” She pulled out her own key, pushed him inside and into her bathroom. As he collapsed onto the cold tiles in front of the toilet, Donna gently shut the bathroom door and tried not to listen.
Instead she paced over to the TV, turned up CNN full blast, and attempted to relax. Okay, so Josh was heaving his guts up in her bathroom and she was meant to be downstairs for the morning briefing in ten minutes. Talk about divided loyalties.
The toilet flushed and a moment later Josh appeared, white as a sheet. “I’m sorry, that was…”
“It’s okay.” She waved him toward the bed. “You should lie down, before you fall down.”
His eyebrows rose. “I don’t think…”
He obeyed, gingerly perching on the edge of her bed, head in hands. “I don’t know what I did with my key.”
“You can get a new one from reception.”
He peered up at her. “Yeah…”
Donna sighed. “Okay. I can get you a new one from reception…”
“No. I didn’t mean— I’ll call Ronna.”
“I don’t mind.” And what the hell was that? She was getting protective of a job that wasn’t hers anymore?
Josh noticed it too, because he blinked at her and frowned. “Why…? Why are you here?”
“This is my room.”
“No… I mean… Why am I here?”
She smiled and looked away. “That’s a very profound question, Josh. You might want to consult a priest. Or, you know, a rabbi. But I—”
“You know what I mean,” he said softly.
Whether it was the incipient hangover, or something else, that gave his voice that rough edge Donna didn’t know. What she did know was that it had a powerful effect on her heart and she couldn’t lie to him, couldn’t pretend it was nothing. She couldn’t tell him the truth either, at least not the whole truth. “You looked in need of a friend.”
There was a long pause, and then he said, “Is that you?”
He sighed and sank his head back into his hands and didn’t move for a long time. At last, muffled through his fingers, he said, “I’m sorry. I really am.”
Donna felt something constrict inside her chest, half-hope and half-fear. She didn’t know how to answer that, how to even interpret his words. So she said, “For throwing up in my bathroom?”
“Yeah.” He sat up, still swaying a little. Still grey as week-old snow. “And for whatever I did that made you hate me.”
“Yeah, you did.” He raked a hand through his disheveled hair and then smoothed it over his rough chin. “I need to get to work,” he decided. “God, what time is it?”
The hairpin turn in the conversation threw her for a moment. “Uh…it’s ten ‘til seven.”
Josh groaned. “Crap. I gotta—” He stood up, stumbled sideways and would have crashed into the bedside table if his knees hadn’t given way first and sent him sprawling onto the bed. “Crap,” he muttered again, this time staring up at the ceiling.
“Yeah,” Donna sighed. “Today’s not going to happen.”
“It has to.”
“Give me your phone.”
He lifted his head. “What?”
“Your phone. Give it to me.”
Silently he pulled it out of his pocket and handed it over, his mute trust in her painfully touching. She tried not to see it, but couldn’t avoid the serious, questioning look in his eyes. Because she didn’t know how to answer the question, she turned away to study his phone. It was the same one he’d had when she left, and she didn’t know why that surprised her. She’d only been gone a couple of months. Quickly she called up the phonebook and found Ronna’s number.
The woman answered after two rings. “Josh? Where are you? I’ve been—”
“Ronna? This is Donna.” She winced. “Donna Moss. Listen, Josh isn’t well. He’s…got some kind of stomach flu. It’s nasty. His room’s opposite mine and I, uh, caught him trying to go down to work but he can hardly get out of bed, so I said I’d call you and, you know, tell you.”
There was a long, doubtful pause. “Can I…talk to him?”
Donna glanced over at Josh who was just staring at her as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. “She wants to talk to you,” Donna said, holding out the phone.
Pushing himself upright, and going a lighter shade of pale in the process, Josh took the phone. “Ronna… Yeah, look, sorry. I can’t—” There was a pause while he listened. “Yeah, tell the Congressman I’ll meet you there. Don’t hold the bus, I’ll catch up somehow.” Another pause. “No, don’t worry about that. I’ll cover it. Yeah. Yeah, have him call me.” He switched off the phone and slid it back into his pocket. “Stomach flu?”
She smiled. “You’d prefer paralytic?”
“No…” He sank back on the pillows and closed his eyes. “I feel horrible.”
“You look horrible,” she agreed, coming to perch on the edge of the bed. “What were you thinking, Josh? You know you have a sensitive system, you should—”
“I wasn’t thinking.”
“I’m sick of thinking. I just wanted to stop thinking about it for one damn minute.”
“About what?” she prompted gently.
He opened his eyes and looked at her. He didn’t bother answering, he didn’t have to. She saw it in his face and it hit her like a bombshell. “Me?”
“What did you think?” He pressed his hands over his eyes as if he could force his mind to clarity. “What did you think would happen when you left?”
She felt the sting of hot tears behind her eyes, but refused to let them fall. “Honestly?” she said. “I didn’t think you’d notice.”
His hands fell away from his face, his expression incredulous. “You didn’t think I’d notice? How is that…?” He barked a humorless laugh. “I don’t even see how that’s possible! You were— I couldn’t get through a day without you, you knew that.”
“I don’t mean… I didn’t mean— It wasn’t about that. It wasn’t about answering your phone and keeping your schedule straight.”
“No,” he agreed. “It wasn’t. It really wasn’t.”
She stared, not sure how to answer, not sure what he meant by staring at her with those serious, dark eyes. She opened her mouth to ask—
And her phone rang. She was late.
Donna left in a flurry, with a promise to come back with a new key for his room. And overall Josh figured her leaving was a good thing. Strange words had been coming out of his mouth, scary truths that he normally kept to himself. It was the scotch talking, and no good ever came of that.
So he found himself in the unlikely position of being alone in Donna’s room, lying on Donna’s bed. If he turned his head he could see that she’d folded up the t-shirt and boxers she slept in and set them neatly on the covers. And she must have made the bed herself because it was still too early for the maid to have serviced the room.
He smiled at that, despite the extra thud of pain it caused. It was such an adorably Donna thing to do and— Adorable? There was that warm, fuzzy glow around his heart that he remembered ignoring so often. He knew what it was now - it had a name, but it had been a long time since he’d let himself feel it, a long time since her name had caused him any sensation beyond a stabbing pain. But now…?
God, he knew he was drunk, because he’d practically gotten a lump in his throat when she’d demanded his phone and called Ronna. Until that moment he hadn’t known how badly he wanted her to just be there. To care if he lived or died.
His head hurt, there was nothing left in his roiling stomach, and all he wanted was for Donna to walk back in through the door and tell him she was going to stay.
It was pathetic. He was pathetic.
Pulling a pillow over his face, he closed his eyes and tried to will the pain away. All of it.
“Today’s message is progress,” Will began, raising his voice to talk over the hubbub. “We are for progress, we love progress and all things progressive…”
Donna tried to focus, she wrote the word ‘progress’ in her notebook and underlined it several times. She’d try and get it into everything she said to the advertisers, and she’d need to start that right away, right after she’d somehow gotten a spare key for Josh. There was no way he could sort it out for himself, he looked like a wreck – and didn’t smell too good either. The last place he needed to be was anywhere near the press. But she wasn’t sure how she’d get the hotel to issue her the card; she could be trying to rob his room for all they knew. Well, she’d find a way. She was meant to be heading out in a few minutes to canvas local activists about—
“…think that would make a difference, Donna?”
Her head snapped up to see Will looking at her, eyebrows raised in expectation of an answer.
“Uh…” She floundered. “Probably.”
He gave her an odd look, frowned, and said, “Okaaaaay. That’s it people, fight the good fight and if that doesn’t work, cheat.”
As the group broke up, peeling off in different directions, Will made his way toward her. There was a strange look in his eye, almost as if he was nervous. He smiled. “Hey.”
Her own smile was equally uneasy. “Hey. Sorry about that, I was—”
“Something on your mind?”
The eyebrows rose again. “Because I heard— If there’s something you need to take care of here, before we move on…?”
Heat rose into her cheeks. “There isn’t.”
Will cocked his head. “It’s okay if there is, Donna. Hard as it might be to believe, there is life beyond this.” He waved his hand around them. “There are…other priorities.”
“Not now there aren’t. There’s nothing more important than getting a president elected.”
Will gave her an odd look. “That sounds like something Josh would say.”
She just stared, not sure how to answer.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Will carried on, “this is important. But Josh… He’s a little monomaniacal. You don’t have to be like that, Donna. You can take a day to help out a…an old friend. You know, if you need to.” He smiled at her. “The Russell campaign will survive a day without you.”
“I—” She had no idea what to say. “I don’t want to seem unprofessional, I don’t want—”
“I know,” Will said. “You don’t. The technical term is ‘leave’. I guess that’s not a concept Josh encouraged his staff to explore, but I’m not Josh and I don’t mind if my staff take a day off once a year or so.”
Donna smiled. “It’s… I don’t want you to think that we’re—”
“You don’t have to explain. Not only is it none of my business, I’m also not that interested. No offence, but I have about two-hundred other things on my mind right now. You do what you need to do, Donna. We’re leaving for St. Louis in the morning, just make sure you’re on the bus.”
For a moment she was paralyzed with indecision. CJ’s accusatory words, never far from her mind, gave her pause. But then she remembered the way Josh had looked at her, the words he’d almost said and the tension that had been so confusing. She gave a slight nod, looking away so she didn’t have to meet Will’s eyes. “Thanks. I’ll be on the bus.”
“Okay,” Will agreed. “Meet me in St. Louis, Donna.”
It took half an hour of excruciating wrangling to convince the desk staff that she really wasn’t going to rob Josh’s room. In the end, however, she got her way. Just like she always did.
When she got back to her room she felt strangely giddy – like a kid who got to stay home on a school day. She’d hardly spoken to Josh for months, and now here he was, passed out in her hotel room. Life was twisted sometimes. Totally twisted.
Carefully she opened the door, trying to be quiet in case he was sleeping. Which was exactly what he seemed to be doing, flat on his back with a pillow over his face. She tried not to find it endearing and went over to close the drapes, cutting the light to a dim glow. Then she went into the bathroom, poured a tall glass of water and dug out the Advil Extra she kept in her wash bag.
Standing by the side of the bed, she quietly called his name. There was no answer, so hesitantly she lifted the pillow. “Josh?”
Putting the glass and the tablets on the side table, she sat down next to him. “Hey,” she said, gently shaking his shoulder, “you need to take some pills.”
His eyes peeled slightly open. “Wha…?”
“Drugs, Josh. You need some.”
“I’m dying… Why can’t you just let me die?”
She smiled. “Sit up, drink this, swallow some pills, and go back to sleep.”
With a groan, he propped himself up on one elbow. “What time is it?”
“Eight.” She handed him the Advil. “Put them in your mouth.”
“The whole room’s spinning…”
“Is this the first time you’ve been drunk?”
“Then be quiet, take your medicine, and go back to sleep. I’m taking my laptop and using your room to work in.”
He lay back down, but his eyes were still open. “Why aren’t you out with…Bob?”
She didn’t want to answer that. Truth was, she didn’t really know the answer. “Go to sleep,” she said, glancing once over her shoulder. “You’ll feel better in a couple of hours.”
But just as she reached the door, he called her name. He’d made himself sit up, and he looked dreadful. “You don’t have to stay, just because I look pathetic.”
“That’s not why.”
“Go to sleep, Joshua. We’ll talk when you’re sober.”
And with that she left, shutting the door quietly on Josh – but not on the emotions tearing her apart inside.
It had seemed like a good plan to use Josh’s room to work in, but she hadn’t considered two things. First, it was Josh’s room. Second, it was full of his stuff. The content of his bag had been strewn across the bed, a typical reaction to having lost something vital in its depths. She stood for a long moment, clutching her laptop and resisting the urge to repack it.
There was a strange combination of the familiar and the foreign amongst his belongings – pens and notebooks she recognized, files and folders she didn’t. His familiar writing scribbled all over what looked like a speech, and a dozen Santos pins scattered on the bed.
Skirting around it, she found the desk and chair, plugged in her laptop and waited for it to boot up. As she waited, she found herself staring at her own reflection in the mirror on the wall behind the desk. Her face looked paler than usual, with dark circles graying the skin beneath her eyes. She’d looked better and she wondered what Josh saw when he looked at her now. No longer the fresh-faced girl from Wisconsin… But he’d changed too, possibly more than her. The world weighed heavily on his shoulders, she thought. He didn’t smile anymore.
Over her shoulder in the mirror, something caught her eye. She turned and got up to take a closer look. Sitting on the bed, in the middle of the junk, was a t-shirt. The UW-Madison one she’d bought him for Christmas years ago. She’d told him it would look less elitist than the Harvard t-shirt he used to wear, and he’d told her it would look like he had a bachelor’s in cheese making. Things had deteriorated from that point… She smiled at the memory and reached down to pick up the shirt. The cotton was old and worn now and the thought that he still kept it, still wore it – slept in it, probably – turned her already confused heart upside down.
And that terrified her.
Because she was starting to be afraid that if he asked, she’d go back. She’d abandon months of hard work and self-definition just to be with him again. No one had ever had such a pull on her; breaking away had been agony and now it seemed that one accidental encounter was all it took to sweep her back into his orbit.
And she couldn’t let that happen. She just couldn’t.
The plan was simple. Take over the basics he’d need – change of clothes, toothbrush, shower kit – and leave them next to the bed, with his room key and a note telling him she’d be back late and would catch up with him later in the campaign.
Ignoring the fact that she’d promised to talk once he was sober, it was a good plan. Keeping things cool, no danger of her accidentally offering to work for him or confessing to feelings she just couldn’t quash.
The problems, of course, had started with the note. She went through several drafts before she settled on:
Hope you’re feeling better. Here is your room key and a change of clothes – thought you might like to sort yourself out before you left the room. I noticed that you’d run out of toothpaste, so you can borrow mine (don’t squeeze from the middle of the tube). There are more Advil in the bathroom, and you should drink at least a couple of glasses of water because you are dehydrated.
Something came up so I had to go. I won’t be back until very late, so I guess I’ll catch up with you somewhere on the road.
Good luck with everything,
She thought it was pretty good - and yet the image of Josh sitting on the edge of her bed, reading it through his hangover made her feel distinctly…unsettled. She could envision that slightly baffled, slightly hurt look of his so clearly that she almost tore up the note and abandoned the whole plan.
And that was exactly why she had to go through with it. She was obviously still dangerously attached to him, and that only spelled trouble and heartache. The sooner she got away, the better.
Nonetheless, rummaging through his belongings only made the decision harder. It had always been a strangely intimate part of her job, but now it wasn’t even her job and that just made it worse. Grimly determined to feel as little as possible she found a clean suit, clean shirt, reasonable tie and – God help her – clean underwear. Piling it all together with her note and his new key card, Donna checked the corridor was empty and hurried across to her room.
She crept in, afraid now of waking him. Her nose wrinkled at the stale whisky smell in the air and she was tempted to open a window, except that it was literally freezing outside and pneumonia was the last thing Josh needed. He was sprawled on his back, pretty much where she’d left him, although he’d managed to at least kick off his shoes. There was a chair near the bed and she left the clothes there, hanging his suit up on the bathroom door. Then she placed the key and the note next to the bed, where he couldn’t miss them.
This close, she could hear him breathing, deep and regular, and was suddenly reminded of another time she’d been at his bedside watching him sleep. But not in a hotel… She remembered how she’d held his hand and been surprised it felt warm, as if he should feel as cold as the death he’d escaped. She remembered how she had counted his breaths, a subconscious mind-doodle to keep her brain working as she sat there watching him sleep and trying not to think of how close she’d come to losing him.
Josh mumbled something in his sleep, startling Donna out of her maudlin reflections. A lot had happened since then, and a lot hadn’t. If he’d wanted her she’d have been his without question. But he hadn’t, and no matter what he told her about why he’d been drinking, she knew better. He could have picked up the phone to her any time, but he hadn’t. One call would have brought her back, but his pride had triumphed over every other feeling and he’d let her go.
He’d let her go. And she had to stay gone if she wanted to build any kind of life that didn’t revolve around Josh Lyman.
With a sigh she reached down and pressed a light kiss to his forehead, then she turned and left quickly, before the ache of regret got the better of her.
Josh woke slowly, carefully. He peeled open one eye and was relieved to see the ceiling staying firmly in place. That was a good sign. But his whole body felt desiccated, his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, his eyes gluey. He felt, frankly, gross. In every way.
With some effort he sat up and took a moment to let the drilling pain behind his right eye subside. That’s when he saw the pile of clean clothes stacked on the chair, his suit hung thoughtfully from the bathroom door. Only one person would ever think to… He smiled and found it less painful that he remembered.
Cautiously, he got to his feet. The floor was stationary, the walls were in one place, and he managed to drag his aching, dried out body across the room. He needed some water, he needed a shower, and God, he needed to brush his teeth.
He downed as much water as he thought his stomach could handle, then almost wept with joy when he saw Donna had brought his wash bag over. Tooth brush, toothpaste… He’d been squeezing the last molecules out of the tube for a week and his eye fell covetously on Donna’s toothpaste. It was cinnamon flavor, which he despised, but it was better than nothing. He didn’t think she’d mind if he squeezed from the middle of the tube.
Teeth cleaned, he stripped off, stumbled into the shower and emerged, twenty minutes later, feeling almost human. Thank God. He was still shuffling around, as if any sudden movement might shatter his fragile recovery, and so cautiously sank down onto the edge of the bed before he attempted to put on his shoes. Which was when he saw the key card on the bedside table – and the note.
With an odd feeling of dread he picked it up and read it.
I’ll catch up with you somewhere on the road.
That was it? That was the end of their rapprochement? A note?
He thought he might still be a little drunk, because he found himself choking up. She was gone again, just when he’d thought she might still— Didn’t matter what he’d thought, obviously.
She was gone and how could he blame her? He’d screwed up her day completely, thrown up in her toilet and crashed in her room. He suspected she’d only done as much as she had because she could never look away when someone was in trouble. No matter who. It was one of the things he most loved about her, which was ironic given the pain it was causing.
Donna was gone. She was really gone. She’d left months ago and he needed to accept that and move on. So what if she’d covered him with her coat and—
The door opened, he looked up and his heart stopped.
In the end, she just couldn’t do it. She’d found herself halfway down the corridor when her feet had just stopped walking, the pain in her chest stealing her breath and dragging her to a halt. She couldn’t keep walking; she couldn’t leave him again, not like this. It was cowardly and she’d never been a coward. He deserved better, he deserved her respect and he deserved her honesty.
So she’d crept back to her room to retrieve the note – by the look of things, about a half hour too late.
Josh was sitting on the edge of the bed, his hair still damp, his shirt undone and her note dangling from his fingers. When he saw her, his eyes went wide.
“Hey,” she said, sticking close to the door as it closed behind her.
Josh just blinked, then frowned down at his hands. “You…left a note.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “I…didn’t mean to.”
“It wrote itself?”
“I changed my mind.”
He looked up at her, confused. “Okay.”
“I, uh, didn’t want to leave like that again. Without, you know, saying goodbye.”
He didn’t answer, but that hurt, confused look was right there, just as she’d known it would be.
She had to swallow before she said, “How are you? Are you still…?” She made a twirling gesture near her temple.
“I’m trying to understand about the note.”
“Forget the note.”
“But you’re leaving?”
She hesitated. “Yeah, in the morning.”
“It’s… Is now morning?”
“Tomorrow,” she said with a smile she couldn’t repress. “Tomorrow morning. It’s lunchtime today, now.”
He blinked as if the words hurt. “What did you mean? You said… In the note you said something had come up.”
“I said forget the note.”
“It’s right here, in my hand. I can’t forget the—”
In two steps she was across the room, pulling the note from his fingers. She tore it in two. “Now you can.”
He looked pained. “Donna… I don’t understand. I swear to God, I have no idea what is happening right now.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I don’t… The thing is, I think I probably…owe you an explanation.”
“For the note?”
“No.” He was still staring up at her with that lost look that just about killed her, so she decided to move out of range and sat down next to him on the bed. Not too close though, far enough away that she could concentrate on what she had to say. Fixing her eyes on a point on the floor just beyond her shoes, she said, “I know you think that I left the job because you’d done something to piss me off. And you had, but it’s not what you think it is and I want you to know that.”
There was a short pause. “That’s…the explanation?”
“Yes,” she said, folding her hands in her lap.
He looked at her. “Is there more?”
“I did something, but not what I think I did? That’s…helpful. Thanks.”
“I mean…” Her fingers began to fidget. “I mean, you think I left because I hated you. That’s what you said this morning.”
“Well, empirical evidence suggests—”
“That’s not why I left.”
“You just walked out, no ‘goodbye, it’s been great working with you’. No phone call to explain. No, note. Nothing! If that doesn’t say ‘I hate you’ then what does?”
“Then there are all the snide remarks every time we meet, the way you look at me like I’m something you stepped in—”
“I don’t!” She was truly shocked. “I’ve never—”
“It’s like I’ve committed this huge crime that totally, totally pissed you off and I have no idea what it is!” He turned to her, honestly confused. “What did I do? Just tell me what I did.”
Donna looked down; she couldn’t answer the question with his eyes boring into her like that. “Nothing,” she said quietly.
“No, you did nothing. That’s why I hated you.”
He was silent for a moment. “I don’t understand…”
“I know.” She smiled grimly and lifted her eyes to his. She owed him this, she supposed. It was the penalty for the way she’d left him, for the way she’d deliberately hurt him. “I left because you didn’t see me, Josh. You never saw me, even when I was shouting. I left because…” She swallowed. “Because you couldn’t give me what I wanted.”
“What did you want?”
She laughed, a reflexive self-conscious laugh. “It doesn’t matter now.”
She shook her head and got to her feet. It was impossible to go further - she already felt as if she’d stapled her heart to her sleeve. If he still didn’t get it… “I should go.”
“No.” He jumped to his feet. “That’s absolutely the last thing you should do.”
“You have to tell me. This is killing me, Donna. The last few months…? I can’t concentrate. I can’t think. The whole campaign is going to hell in a hand basket, and all I can think about is why? I don’t understand why. I thought we were close, I thought— I’d have done anything for you. Everything. And I thought you felt— I trusted you. I trusted you completely and you…you just…”
His voice choked off and Donna found herself incapable of answering. Her throat was thick with unshed tears. All she could do was shake her head in a futile denial and whisper, “I’m sorry.”
For a long moment they stood in silence until Josh took a step closer, close enough to touch her arm. “Can’t you just tell me why? What was it you wanted?”
She knew she owed him the truth, but the words were too hard to speak. How could she tell him? How could she not? “I wanted…” The words dried out, her courage failed, and she shook her head.
“I know you wanted more responsibility, and I could have… I would have—”
“No,” she whispered. “It wasn’t that.”
“More input? You had a lot of input, more than—”
“It wasn’t about work,” she heard herself say. And then, because it really didn’t matter anymore, because she didn’t ever have to see him again, she said, “It was… I wanted this.” And she leaned up and kissed him softly on the lips.
Josh didn’t move, didn’t respond, just stood staring at her in shock.
She felt herself flush red, but held her ground and her dignity. “So, now you know why.” She looked away and half turned toward the door. “I’ll, um, just… When you’re done you can just—”
“Wait.” He grabbed her arm and pulled her back around. The stunned look had vanished, replaced by an animation she hadn’t seen in months, years even. “That’s why?” he was incredulous. “That’s why you left? Because…? Because you…? Oh, my God.”
She tried to look away. “It’s not funny, it’s—”
“No, it’s… It’s miraculous.”
Her breath caught. “What?”
“I just can’t…” He was smiling, one hand moving from her arm to her face, through her hair. “I can’t believe it.”
Almost a decade of resolve began to crumble beneath that gentle touch, started to melt in the warmth of his gaze. Donna’s heart was beating double-time, her head spinning. “Do you mean you…?”
He half laughed, both hands on her face now, his fingers light and tender, as if he were touching a miracle. “God, Donna, what did you think?”
She probably smiled, but she couldn’t really tell because he was kissing her like she’d never been kissed before and everything she thought she knew about herself, and him, and the world was flowing out of her mind like a receding flood.
Eventually, after a blissful eternity, he pulled back so he could see her face, and the delight in his eyes undid her completely. “I feel like I’m dreaming…”
Donna found herself grinning like an idiot, which was odd because her eyes were filling with tears. And she couldn’t let them fall, because that would just be so— Too late, her smile crumbled beneath the weight of everything she’d been holding back for so, so long. And all she could do was burrow into his shoulder and hold on tight as he folded her in his arms and held her and held her and held her.
Thank God. Oh, thank you God…
She was coming in from the cold, at last.
Later, much later, Donna found herself sitting in a circular booth at the back of the most out of the way diner they could find. The last thing either of them wanted was to meet anyone they knew.
It was romantic, she thought, in a way that probably only they would appreciate. They’d spent the afternoon in her room, in her bed, and those few hours had changed the world. Her little corner of it, at least. She felt like someone had cut her free, as if she’d been walking around with her heart in a straightjacket for years and hadn’t even known it, and now she was so free she could practically fly. And the strangest thing – to her, the most unexpected thing – was that Josh seemed to feel the same way.
They sat now, close together. He was tentatively sipping at chicken soup and she was devouring a plate of ribs and fries – today was a day for soul food, she’d decided. She had her eye on cherry pie a la mode for desert. And every so often their eyes would meet and they’d both smile, and then they’d smile at themselves for the ridiculous happiness they saw reflected in each other’s eyes. It was a blissful, dreamlike happiness.
And it couldn’t last; they both knew that too.
Tomorrow they’d go their separate ways and all the complications of real life would settle in around them. The thought was enough to dim the rose-tinted glow, and perhaps she sighed because Josh said quietly, “Are you okay?”
She loved how in tune they were, just like they’d always been. Just like they’d been all afternoon – and God, how incredible had that been? “Just thinking about tomorrow.”
A shadow flickered across his face. “Yeah.” For a moment he gazed down into his soup, stirring it thoughtfully. “You could… What if you came to work for Santos?”
Donna felt her heart sink. She’d expected that question and she knew what her answer had to be. “We can’t work together, Josh. You know we can’t. Not if…this is happening.”
He nodded, still staring at the soup. “Then…?”
“It’ll be over in six months, the campaign.” She smiled a little and reached down to touch his leg to show him she was teasing. “Then you can come and work for the Russell for President campaign.”
Half a smile twitched his mouth, but he didn’t look up. “If he wins I’ll— I don’t know. I’ll go back to the White House if they’ll have me, but I won’t work for Russell.” He looked up, suddenly deadly serious. “I’m sorry, Donna. I think I’d rather see Vinick in the Oval. At least he has—” He took a deep breath, cutting himself off. “Sorry.”
For the first time since he’d kissed her, Donna felt cold. And naive and stupid, and she didn’t like that he could make her feel that way, as if he didn’t respect her choices or her mind or—
“I know you see it,” he said. “I know you know what he is, Donna. You’re too smart not to, but I don’t blame you for working for him. I swear. The Santos campaign is a shot in the dark and I suppose Russell is marginally better than Hoynes. Maybe. And Will— I get the point. Russell wins and Will Bailey runs the show. That’s how it works, God knows we’ve seen enough presidencies like that, but it’s not how it should be and I can’t work for that again. I can’t work twenty hours a day to get a mediocrity elected.”
“But I can?” She didn’t want her voice to sound cold, but she felt cold.
To her surprise, he smiled – fondly, and without irony. “Look at you,” he said, touching her face. “You’re so…. This is the beginning for you, Donna. You’re where I was when I started out, when I was working for Hoynes. You’re making a name for yourself, which is exactly what you should be doing.” His smile broadened, a glint of cockiness returning. “Leave the dark horse candidates to me, and when Santos wins…”
“Do you think he will?” Josh didn’t answer, but he didn’t have to. “Of course you do, or you wouldn’t be working for him.”
“Crazier things have happened.” He leaned in to kiss her. “Take this, as a prime example.”
“Josh… This was always going to happen. It was inevitable.”
He laughed a little bleakly. “It didn’t feel inevitable last night.”
“No.” And wasn’t that the truth? “No, it didn’t.”
Letting out a deep breath that might have been a sigh, he sank back in the seat, “It’s going to be a long six months.”
She joined him, leaning her head against his shoulder. “Do you think it’s a conflict of interest?”
“Sleeping with the enemy.”
That made him grin. “It could be worse. I mean, Will should be grateful I’m a Democrat. Your taste is usually more Republican.”
Donna cast him a look. “Petty jealousy never really worked for you, Josh.”
“Petty? Are you kidding? All that unrequited love nearly killed me.”
“Well, it’s requited now so you can be quiet about Cliff Calley.”
There was a moment when they both stopped and stared at each other in mute astonishment. And then, in a slightly squeaky voice, Josh said, “Did we just…? Was that a thing?”
She gave a hesitant smile. “I guess it was.”
“Wow.” He grinned suddenly. “That wasn’t as terrifying as I’d expected.”
“You’re a brave man.”
“A brave, powerful…wealthy man.”
His eyebrows rose. “What do you want?”
“Many things, Josh. But you’re still a little hung over, so they’ll have to wait. In the meantime, I forgot my purse so you need to buy me dinner.”
His brief smile, all dimples and chutzpah, set her heart racing. “I’m not that hung over.”
Donna lifted an eyebrow. “Then you’d better get the check…”
He didn’t break eye contact for a moment as he pulled out his wallet, put a couple of notes on the table, and got to his feet. Holding out his hand to her, he said, “We’ve got twelve hours before the circus leaves town.”
“This is going to be difficult,” she realized, squeezing his fingers as she stood up.
He pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. “A walk in the park compared with before. And, you know, I have your number…”
“Yeah, we’ll talk.”
“That sounds nice.”
With a smile he pulled her into motion. “Are you going to tell Will?”
“About us? Do you think I should?”
“He’s not going to trust me,” she sighed. “He’ll think my loyalties are divided.”
At the door, Josh helped her on with her coat. “Are they? Divided.”
She considered it for a moment. “No,” she said at last, pushing open the door and stepping out into the cold air. “Not in the sense that I’m going be whispering campaign secrets in your ear while we’re in bed together.”
“You’re not? Because, I gotta tell you, that sounds incredibly sexy.”
Swatting him on the arm, she shivered in the cold. There was a light snow falling, just drifting in the still air, gracing even this commonplace town with a frisson of magic. She smiled up into the night sky, watching the snowflakes dance. “But if I ever had to choose between you and the campaign, you and anything, there’s only one answer.”
When he didn’t reply, she looked over to see him studying her intently. Waiting.
She smiled at the sweetness of that. “It’s you,” she told him. “I’ll always choose you.”
His eyes drifted shut in a brief moment of gratitude, before he wrapped her in a fierce hug. “You too,” he whispered close to her ear. “Always you, Donna. It’s always been you.”
And standing there holding him, being held so tightly in return, all she could really do was smile and watch the snow fall and thank anyone who was listening for the miracle of her life.
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