Christmas day dawned bright and snowy in Madison, Wisconsin. But despite the twinkling lights, despite the eggnog and roasting turkey, it didn’t feel like Christmas.
It was strange, Donna thought as she peeled a pile of potatoes for her mom, that she should miss Josh so much at Christmas. It wasn’t really their holiday; she’d only ever spent two Christmases in his company, after all. The first had been after Roslyn, when he’d been tired and strung out and not in the mood for company. Not that that had stopped her from turning up with Chinese and a pumpkin pie she’d cooked (burned) herself. He’d been grateful, she thought, but frazzled. It had been nice, but not like Christmas, and she hadn’t minded that at all.
Then there was last year, just a couple of weeks after their trip to the Caribbean, and before she’d really moved all her stuff in. And they’d been so busy with the transition that they’d pretty much worked through, although she’d insisted on a small Christmas tree in his apartment and Josh hadn’t objected. He’d even put a present underneath it for her, which she’d thought sweeter than she let on. And that had been sweet too – an executive case, complete with silver business card holder and a nameplate for her desk: Donnatella Moss, Chief of Staff to the First Lady of the United States of America. She’d laughed and told him the thing was so long she’d need a bigger desk. But she’d appreciated the sentiment; it had felt like his seal of approval.
Or was it a joke?
The snide little thought was corrosive, but compelling.
A joke gift for Chief of Staff Barbie?
She stabbed at a potato in irritation and sent it skittering across the counter.
“You look like you’re a million miles away,” her mom scolded softly. “Or, a couple of thousand at least.”
Donna shook her head and retrieved the potato. “I’m fine.”
“You’re missing Josh,” her mom said. “Of course you are.”
“A little,” she confessed. “But I’m so pleased to be home for once.”
“And we’re pleased to have you. It’s just a shame Josh couldn’t make it too. I feel like we hardly know him yet.”
Donna hid a wince. “I’m sorry. He wanted to… But it’s just not possible for him to get away.”
“No, of course not. And I suppose it’s not so important to him, either.”
“He’d have come if he could have, Mom.”
“I’m just saying that it’s probably not as significant for him…”
Donna turned, her irritation directed as much toward Josh as her mom. “You mean because he’s Jewish?”
Her mother blinked, suddenly uncomfortable. “Well, yes…”
“Is that a problem?”
“Of course not! I was just saying—”
“You were just saying that it wasn’t important to him to be here! As if— As if he didn’t want to be here, as if it wasn’t important to him to be here.”
“All I meant was—”
“He’d have come with me if he could, okay? He would have.” She turned back to the potatoes and started slicing them with a vengeance, trying to get a grip on her suddenly out of control feelings.
After a few moments of silence her mom came to stand next to her at the counter. “I’ve only met Josh twice, Donna. And one of those times was in Germany, and none of us were at our best. I don’t know him well, but what I saw told me that he loves you very much. And for that, I love him. You know I don’t care if he goes to church, or temple, or to a mosque or to nothing at all.”
Donna pressed her lips together, ashamed of her outburst, confused by her anger. “I know, I’m sorry.”
“Things are okay, aren’t they? Between the two of you?”
Donna nodded, not prepared to even think about the question. “Everything’s fine. We’re just busy. There’s a lot going on.”
“You need to make time for each other,” her mom said, reaching for a potato. “Like your Dad and I do.”
Donna laughed, shocked at the tears she felt in her eyes. “I don’t think bowling is really the thing for me and Josh.”
“It doesn’t matter what you do,” said her mom, “as long as you do it together. You’re a team, Donna. You have to make the time to support each other.”
She nodded, but couldn’t find the will to answer because from the family room she could hear the excited shrieks of her nephews and nieces and in her mind’s eye all she could see was Josh’s face when he’d told her he wanted nothing to do with Colin Ayres’ project.
Somehow the two realities seemed irreconcilable.
Despite his promise to the President, Josh found himself behind his desk on Christmas morning. He’d sent Sam home for three days and he really didn’t mind working. What else was he going to do?
But the papers on his desk seemed especially dull, the numbers and figures dissolving into a stream of distracted thought and more than once his eyes drifted out to the sleety drizzle darkening the sky. He missed Donna. He wished she hadn’t wanted to go home, but he couldn’t blame her. Families were important; he knew that more than most. It reminded him that he hadn’t been down to see his mom in an age, and that added guilt to his already un-festive mood.
He checked his watch. Mid-morning, Wisconsin time. He wanted to call her, but wondered if now was a good time. He could imagine a frenzy of gift wrap and eggnog or whatever it was the Moss family did on Christmas morning, and didn’t want to intrude.
On the other hand… Screw it. He picked up the phone and dialed. Donna picked up after a couple of rings.
“Hey,” she said, a little hurriedly.
“Merry Christmas,” he smiled, rocking back in his seat and gazing out the window. “Are you having fun?”
“Yeah.” There was a pause. “Shame you— Anyway, you busy?”
Not really, although that seemed like the wrong answer. “It’s quiet here. I miss you.”
“Yeah.” Her voice dropped lower, and in the background he could hear the burble of happy voices. “I miss you too.”
He closed his eyes and let her words drift through his mind on a wave of gentle guilt. “Did you open my present yet?”
He smiled at her confusion. “It’s in your coat pocket.”
“Really?” She was smiling, he could picture that beautiful, light-up-the-room smile of hers.
“Did you think I’d forget?”
No answer, which didn’t bode well. “Which coat?” she asked, and from the slight breathiness of her voice he guessed she was walking upstairs.
“The— What do you mean, which coat? The black one. The long black one. How many do you have?”
“I have six coats, Josh. But I know the one you mean.”
“You’re away for three days and you took six coats?”
She sighed, her tone saying ‘idiot boy’. “I own six coats, I have two with me.”
“Two? That’s…one hundred percent redundancy, that’s—”
“Josh? This, with the gift in the pocket? It’s very sweet. Don’t spoil it.”
If she’d been in the room he’d have kissed her, just because. “Did you open it yet?”
“I’m still looking.”
“It’s in the pocket.”
“I’m looking in the pocket.”
“It’s in the—”
“Josh!” He shut up. “Okay, here it is. Awww, you wrapped it and everything.”
“Of course I wrapped it!” He sat forward in his chair, elbow on the desk and closed his eyes to better imagine the scene. “Are you opening it now?”
“Yes. This paper is gorgeous. Did Margaret get it for you?”
“I can buy gift wrap! You don’t need an art degree to buy—”
“Oh my God, Josh!”
Her breathless exclamation shut him up; more accurately the grin plastering itself across his face shut him up. “You like it?”
“It’s… It’s gorgeous. Oh my God, it’s so perfect. Are these…? Are these real?”
He loved how, even now, she took nothing for granted. “Yeah, well that’s what the woman in the shop told me. I thought the color… I don’t know, you always look nice in red.”
“I’ve never—” Her voice was suddenly husky. “I’ve never had anything like this. How could you…?” He heard her sniff. “Why aren’t you here, so I can kiss you to death?”
“I’m beginning to ask myself that same question.” Eyes squeezed shut, all he could hear was her voice; everything he wanted to see was in his mind’s eye. “I really miss you.”
“I can’t sleep without you.”
“Call me tonight?” His eyes drifted open, returning him to the real world with a depressing jolt.
“Okay.” He sighed and stared down at the papers on his desk. “Well… I’m glad you like the necklace.”
“I love it. Thank you.”
“Have fun today. Drink too much, eat too much. Don’t kiss anyone under the mistletoe.”
“No one but you.”
“You’d better believe it.”
There was a pause, and then she said, “I do love you.”
“Yeah.” He sighed, because he wished he was there, and he could have been there, and he didn’t know why he wasn’t. “Yeah… me too.”
Sometimes he didn’t understand himself at all.
“So things are going well, then?” Alisa asked in that tone Josh knew meant I find that hard to believe.
He shrugged and stared out the window. The sun was low in the sky, the clouds a dark, January-gray; he hated this time of year, the endless winter and the forlorn, abandoned holiday decorations still hanging limp in the sleet. “I think we both understand each other.”
“You and Donna?”
“No, me and Martha Stewart.”
Alisa smiled faintly.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean— I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. You seem a little tense today, Josh.”
He laughed. “I run the country. It’s my job to be tense.”
“Does it help?”
“Does it help you to run the country when you’re feeling like this?”
He eyed her narrowly. “You don’t know how I’m feeling.”
“You pay me a hundred dollars an hour to know how you’re feeling, Josh.”
“That could change!” he growled, getting up and pacing toward the door. He stopped before he got there, though. And felt like an idiot. “I’m sorry. I really don’t— Today’s not a good day. There’s stuff going on with—” He gave a grim smile and turned around. “I actually can’t tell you most of it. Let’s just say, there’s a lot going on at work. I shouldn’t even be here.”
“And yet you are…”
Alisa’s professionally expectant face asked for – but didn’t demand – more.
“It’s…” He sighed, eyed the sofa and went back to sit down. “Everything was fine. When she got back from Wisconsin, it was great. She was…” He smiled at the memory, staring down at his hands. “I got her this necklace for Christmas, and she went nuts over it. I think it was— She grew up in a condo in Madison. She’s never really had, you know…”
“Expensive pieces of jewelry?”
“Yeah.” He laughed softly, a trace of bitterness marring the memory now. “Everything was great when she got back, it was just like it used to be and then… We had this stupid argument.”
“I don’t know. Something about me not respecting her choice of take-out. And ever since then there’s been…I don’t know. Something. A tension.”
Alisa was quiet for a moment. Then she said, “I think you said Donna started work on the project with Colin…”
“Yeah. Last week. He’s got her doing all the scut work, of course. Donna can’t say no to anything, so every spare hour she has she’s poring over those stupid, bleeding-heart ramblings of his…” He sucked in a deep breath, a little surprised at the venom he could taste in the back of his throat.
“So it’s become a little more than Colin just using her photograph?”
“Oh yeah, it’s her pet project now. She keeps going on and on about how important it is, and I know he’s just feeding her a line. It’s all about him, his profile. She doesn’t get that he’s using her, and I can’t say anything because when I do she just throws the whole take-out thing back in my face and I just— I just….” This time his breath shuddered on its way in and he practically had to force his gritted teeth apart to let it out.
“You just what?”
“I just let her get on with it. It’s her mistake, I’m not her keeper.”
“No, you’re not. And you’re right, Donna is entitled to make her own mistakes. But I wonder… I wonder, Josh, if you’ve really explained to Donna how this project makes you feel.”
“Oh, she knows,” he said, staring out at the brooding clouds. “We don’t even talk about it anymore.”
“You just let her get on with it.”
There was a pause before Alisa said, “It seems as though the project is very important to Donna.”
“How do you think it makes her feel, that it’s not something she can share with you?”
He shifted awkwardly. “Grateful, probably.”
“I doubt that.”
Josh flashed her a dark look. “I can’t pretend I like the idea, or that I don’t think it’s a colossal waste of her time and talents. She knows that.”
“Does she know how it makes you feel to look at those photos? To remember those events?”
He chilled, from the inside out: the TV image of the over-turned SUV blazed into his mind, Toby’s desperate voice shouting in the background, his own yelling, over and over, ‘What about Donna? What about Donna? What about Donna?’
He caught his breath. “Huh?”
“I lost you for a minute there.”
“I was… I’m sorry, what was the question?”
Alisa didn’t reply right away. “I’m curious about something,” she said at last. “After the attack on Donna’s convoy, did you suffer any recurrence of PTSD symptoms?”
“I was scared out of my mind. What do you think? I thought she was dead. I thought— I thought she was gone. ”
“Did you seek help?”
“Didn’t need to.”
“Did you tell Donna?”
He laughed. “What? That I was having trouble sleeping without dreaming about hospital waiting rooms and burning SUVs? No. She had enough to deal with.”
“So you kept your distance? Emotionally.”
“Well, at the time I was her boss, so—”
“Yeah, okay. Maybe I did. So what?”
Alisa’s lips pursed into an awkward smile. “I just want you to think about the parallels here a little bit. After the attack you distanced yourself from Donna. Partly, I suspect, because you wanted to protect her from your own feelings of trauma. You didn’t want her to have to worry about you.”
He nodded a grudging agreement. “Your point?”
“How long after that did she leave?”
His heart hitched, but he pummeled it back into place. “Nearly six months.”
Alisa nodded. “And now she’s doing this project – perhaps looking for some support from you – and you’re doing the same thing, Josh. You’re distancing yourself from dealing with something you actually find very traumatic.”
It was strange, he thought distractedly, how his breathing seemed to be much faster than usual even though he was just sitting on the edge of a sofa. “I don’t see…”
“Sometimes telling someone how you feel is healing for both of you. You don’t have to protect Donna from your feelings, Josh. Quite the opposite. By hiding them you could even make her believe that they don’t exist, that you don’t care at all.”
He shook his head, the denial instinctive. “That’s not why— She didn’t think that. She doesn’t. She knows how I—” He was on his feet, looking for his coat. “I don’t want to be rude, but I have a ton of stuff on my desk and I should really go and—”
“Don’t lock her out, Josh. She can help you. You can help each other.”
“Yeah,” he nodded, not looking at her, never wanting to see her smug, calm, preachy face again. “Yeah, I’ll make a note of that. I’ll uh…call.”
And with that he was gone, out into the bracing cold of the afternoon, the oppressive presence of his security detail lurking in his peripheral vision as he stalked away from his car and down the street. He needed to walk, needed to get those thoughts and feelings out of his head.
Screw Alisa, screw therapy. He hadn’t driven Donna away. That’s not why she’d left. She’d left because of work and— Whatever. He didn’t care why she’d left, because she’d come back and that was all that mattered.
But she had known he cared, she’d known he’d have done anything for her when she got back from Germany. Anything!
He hadn’t driven her away then, and he wasn’t driving her away now. It would be fine. They’d be fine.
Everything would be fine if he could only get rid of the nagging ache right in the center of his chest. That and Colin Ayres…
“Knock, knock.” The voice, with its familiar lilt, startled Donna from her perusal of Mrs. Santos’s schedule.
Colin smiled as he slipped into her office. “Wow, this is as big as my apartment.”
She smiled too. “Yeah, little larger than the last – cubicle – I had here.”
“I bet that’s the truth.” He glanced out through the window, then back at her. His smile was fading, although it still lurked in his eyes. For some reason it reminded her of Josh – back in the old days, when he still used to smile.
“How did you get in here?” she asked, coming around from behind her desk. “Do you have a pass?”
“I snuck in a window.”
Her jaw dropped, before his swift grin betrayed the lie. “Okay,” she grinned back. “Stupid question.”
“You know,” he said, continuing his lazy examination of her office, “I’m not without friends in high places.”
“I thought that’s what I was,” she countered, turning on her heel to track him as he circled.
“Well, you are a friend. And this is a pretty high place, so…” He stopped, and walked closer. “You’ve come a long way, Donnatella Moss. Who’d have thought it?”
“CJ,” she said, giving a serious answer to a frivolous question. “She thought it. She gave me the push. If it wasn’t for her…”
“You’d be sitting outside the office of the White House Chief of Staff, taking dictation?”
“Maybe,” she agreed, suddenly uneasy with the direction of the conversation. “Talking of which, I have a meeting in the West Wing in half an hour, so…?”
“So you need me to take myself out of your way, would that be right?”
Colin nodded, holding out a thick wedge of papers. “I got the full batch of candidates – images and text. I could really use your help going through them, if you have time.”
Time! “I’m sure I can… Well, not today. I’m up to my eyes all week actually. Ah—”
“It’s fine, I can manage it. I just thought you might want to see—”
“No, I do. I’d like to help. Let me think…” She grabbed her personal diary from her desk and thumbed through it. Today had a red line diagonally across it with Josh working through written along it; the State of the Union was only ten days away and he’d pretty much blocked off the whole two weeks. She hadn’t done more than kiss him good morning since Sunday. She snapped shut the diary. “How about tonight?”
“That would be brilliant. Here?”
Donna shook her head. “How about…” It suddenly seemed strange to suggest it, although she couldn’t exactly put her finger on why. “Would you mind coming over to my place? Josh won’t be home all night anyway and I’d rather keep it separate from work. I don’t want it to, you know, appear as if I’m doing this on government time. Does that make sense?”
He smiled at her fondly, his eyes alight – he had nice warm, brown eyes. “You are a woman of principle, Donna. It makes perfect sense.”
There was a pause – a confusing moment where he was looking at her in a way that seemed… She turned away, not sure what had happened, not sure she wanted to know what had happened. “About nine o’clock?”
“Perfect. I’ll bring dinner.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I want to. It’s the least I can do for taking up all your spare time – I know you have a hundred other things you could be doing.”
She smiled, glancing over at him again. “I’m happy to do this. I want to.”
“I know. That’s what makes you such a remarkable woman, Donna Moss. You have a great big, generous heart and I hope—” He stopped himself and smiled. “I hope people appreciate it.”
He shrugged, and nodded toward the door. “I’ll go, before I make you late for your meeting.”
“You like Thai food?”
“Great. See you later…” With a final smile he was gone, leaving Donna with an unaccustomed sensation of warmth in the pit of her belly.
That’s what makes you such a remarkable woman, Donna Moss.
Those words… Why couldn’t they be coming out of Josh’s mouth? Why couldn’t he feel that about her? Why wasn’t he the one making her warm inside? But ever since Christmas – before, if she was honest – he’d been different: cold, detached. He’d made it very clear that he thought Colin’s project was a waste of time, that he wasn’t remotely interested in what she was doing, and so she’d given up trying to talk to him about it.
Now this big slice of her life was closed to him and she talked to Colin instead, because he smiled when he spoke to her and he listened to what she had to say about how this cataclysmic event had changed her life. She’d told him things she’d never told Josh, could never tell Josh. Like today – just now – when she’d told him about CJ. So much of her past she had to hide from Josh, so much he didn’t seem to want to know about.
And as much as she loved him – and she did love him – sometimes she just wanted to be heard.
Sam Seaborn stopped in the doorway and took a moment to ponder the inevitable circularity of life. There were places and people that kept reappearing, turning his life on its head each time they showed up – like some chaotic meteor swinging too close to earth and sending all the oceans sloshing backward and forward in its wake. On reflection, he wasn’t sure that meteors could do anything of the sort – maybe it was only the moon. Nonetheless he liked the metaphor, and it was certainly appropriate for this person, in this place.
Josh Lyman; Sam’s personal demigod of misrule. Every time he showed up, Sam found himself abandoning lucrative careers in favor of inhuman hours, little money, and more stress than was healthy. If it wasn’t for the adrenaline high that came from putting ideals into practice and taking a hand in shaping the future of the country Sam was pretty sure he’d still be back in LA.
But he knew what he got out of this, and it was something money couldn’t buy. What he was less sure about – what he’d been unsure about since the day Josh came barging into his office, pasty faced and fighting exhaustion with Redbull and Alka-Seltzer – was what Josh got out of it. The man he saw now, head in hands as he read probably the twentieth briefing book of the day, was not the Josh Lyman who’d been set alight by a speech in Nashua. Time had passed, none of them were the same, but Sam wasn’t sure Josh realized that. He wasn’t sure Josh realized his fire had burned out.
On cue, Josh sighed and pressed a hand over his mouth to stifle a yawn.
“When was the last time you took a day off?”
Startled, Josh glanced up. “—the hell?”
“I’m guessing it was before Christmas, right? I mean – Christmas last year.”
Josh slumped back in his chair. “Did you run out of work?”
Sam smiled smugly and brandished the four pages in his hand. “Actually, yes. Final draft.”
“No, my first novel. It might be a little on the short side, but I heard brevity was the art of wit, so—”
Josh was on his feet, prowling around his desk to snatch the speech from Sam’s hand. “When you say final draft…?”
“It includes comments from State, Defense—”
“You’re just going to keep asking stupid questions, aren’t you?”
“Right,” Josh agreed distractedly as he skimmed over the oh-so-familiar words. “‘…an ethical foreign policy that promotes, through dialogue and example, the expansion of the values for which our forefathers sacrificed their lives’? Defense let you keep that in?”
“I know,” Sam beamed.
“I should get you a medal or something.”
“I’d settle for a day off.”
Josh smiled. “Yeah. Okay. Good work.”
“Yes it is,” Sam agreed. “And you know what else was good work? Amy getting Kendrick to drop the rider on 473 two hours before the vote.”
Josh eyed him from beneath his brows. “Your point?”
“That a ‘Good work, Amy’ would have gone down well.”
“I said that.” He frowned. “Maybe. Whatever. It’s Amy, since when does she care about my approval?”
“Since you became her boss?”
He flung the speech on his desk in exasperation, “And since when do you care that she cares?”
“Because she’s working hard, Josh! Everyone is. And we’re doing good work, we’re making a difference. But you’re storming around here like a lion with a thorn in his paw and people are starting to worry.”
Josh cast him a skeptical look. “Should I call you Androcles?”
“I’m serious, Josh. You set the tone. If you act like you’re dying on your feet, eventually everyone else will too.”
“I’m not—” He circled back behind the protective barrier of his desk. “I’m fine. It’s not like Leo was never hard on us, he had to be. So do I.”
“It’s got to be leavened, Josh. We— We used to play poker with Leo and the President. We used to watch movies, eat chili. Do you even remember those days?”
A flicker of something dark passed across Josh’s face. “Of course I do. But I’m not Leo, Sam. I can’t be—”
“God, Josh, no one expects you to be. But there’s something else. Tell me I’m wrong, tell me there’s not something else going on,” he tapped his head, “in here.”
“I’m fine.” Except Josh had the worst poker face.
“You have to want this, Josh. To do your job? You have to want it more than anything else. And I’m not sure you do.”
Josh was shuffling papers now, eyes cast down. “I do. I worked my ass off to win the election, of course I want this.”
Stepping further into the room, Sam sat down and studied his friend for a moment. “I had three years away from it, Josh. My perspective shifted. Leo… Josh, he sacrificed his marriage for this job. Would you do the same?”
“I’m not married.”
“I wouldn’t. I’d walk away and I think you would too. I think… I think you want to.”
Josh’s head snapped up, an incredulous smile on his lips. “You think I want to walk away from this?”
“Does winning give you the same high it did eight years ago? Does sitting in that chair give you the same adrenalin rush you got from being deputy, working with Leo, CJ, Toby…? With Donna? Tell me it does and I’ll walk out this door and never raise the subject again. But I don’t think you will because I think you feel empty, I think you’re one of the most powerful men in the country and it’s not enough anymore.” He paused, watching Josh’s slow freeze to utter stillness. “Tell me I’m wrong, Josh.”
For a moment he didn’t move, and then he did the one thing that disarmed friends and enemies alike; he let his guard down. “I don’t understand it,” he said quietly, looking Sam right in the eye. “This is everything I’ve wanted since I was ten years old. It should be enough.”
Sam almost smiled. “Maybe we shouldn’t listen to our ten year old selves when it comes to determining what constitutes a fulfilling life? Otherwise owning Spiderman pajamas would be high on our list of career goals.”
“It’s not on yours?”
“Josh… It’s okay if you want to move on. Do you know the average burnout time in these jobs? Eighteen months. That’s it! And you’re into your eighth year, Josh. Eight years in the White House…”
“Leo did it.”
Sam didn’t answer, just fixed Josh with a long look; neither of them needed the obvious spelled out. “If you want to move on, if you want to take your life in a new direction, Josh, it’s okay. People do it all the time.”
He frowned briefly. “I don’t… That’s not something I do.”
“If you didn’t, Matt Santos would be back in Texas remembering his glory days as a two-term Congressman and Arnie Vinick would be in the office next door.”
“That was— That was different, I did that for the party. To preserve President Bartlet’s legacy. I wasn’t just quitting my job.”
Sam shook his head and leaned forward. “That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to quit. No one can do this unless this is all they want to do. There’s no shame in having a life, Josh. Or aspiring to one.”
“The President is here because of me. I made him stand! I can’t— You don’t walk away from this.”
“Well, far be it from me to undermine your little ego-fest, Josh, but you’re not solely responsible for electing President Santos. A lot of people, including – you’ll be surprised to know – President Santos, had a role in that.”
Josh shook his head. “You don’t... You don’t just walk away. There’s a principle here: duty, honor, country.”
“Really? Well, I’m sorry because I must have missed the part where we joined the Marines.”
“I’m just saying—”
“No,” Sam cut him off. “I’m just saying – if this isn’t what you want, then don’t do it. Don’t do it, because you won’t be able to do it. No one could. God, Josh, it’s eleven o’clock on a Friday night, you’ve worked twenty hours a day for the last – I don’t even know how long. Donna’s probably forgotten what you look like! What are you doing here?”
Josh glared into the middle distance. “My job. What are you doing here?”
“Dispensing the advice of an old married man.”
“You’ve…been married for six months.”
“It changes you. I’m serious.”
“Is this…?” Josh suddenly looked panicked. “Are you trying to tell me you’re quitting?”
“No! No. I don’t have your job, Josh. And, to be frank, I don’t want it. But I know what it’s like on the outside, and I’m not afraid of going back out there if this ever demands more of me than I’m prepared to give.” He pushed himself to his feet. “You should think about it. You’ve given twenty years, Josh. How much more are you willing to sacrifice for duty, honor and country?”
His friend didn’t answer, just watched with a sour expression as Sam left. But Sam wasn’t worried; deep down, Josh knew he was right. Question was, would he admit it to himself? And if he did, would he act on it?
As he pulled out his cell to call home, Sam figured the odds on that one were pretty much even. He certainly wouldn’t put money on it.
It had been a nice evening. The Thai food was gorgeous and the company hadn’t been bad either. Colin was smart, funny and incredibly knowledgeable about the world. The places he’d visited, the things he’d seen and done… It spun her head. Or perhaps that was the bottle and a half of Sauvignon Blanc they’d sunk between them. Either way, Donna found herself happily curled up in the corner of the sofa, sipping her wine as she listened to Colin describe his three day journey by cargo ship from Bogotá to the Amazonian national park. Their work, long forgotten, spilled across the floor at her feet, in its midst her aborted attempt to put into words her thoughts and feelings about what had happened in Gaza.
“I should dig out the photos some time,” Colin said, reaching for the bottle again. “Some of them were spectacular.”
“Did you sell many?”
He shook his head. “I didn’t try. I was in Columbia for other things, this was just a little holiday – vacation.” He smiled. “See? I’m bilingual.”
“I’m impressed.” And she was, but for other reasons. “Don’t you ever get afraid? The places you go, the things you see there?”
Colin settled back against the cushions and studied his glass. “The world isn’t as scary as most Americans tend to think it is, Donna.” He held up a hand to forestall any protest. “I’m not saying there’s no violence out there, that would be ridiculous. But all the people I meet, everywhere I go, the vast, vast majority are just ordinary folk trying to get by. Just like you or me. I’m no more scared in Bogotá or Lebanon than in DC or Dublin.”
“In my life,” she said softly, “I’ve been overseas one time. That was to Gaza.”
His breath left him in a long sigh and he reached over to touch her knee. “You were bloody unlucky, Donna. And that’s the truth. But when I travel, it’s not with the Stars and Stripes painted on my luggage, if you get what I mean.”
“That’s pretty…” She shook her head and closed her eyes against the knot of anger in her chest. “They tried to kill me because I’m American.”
“You know they did.”
“That’s… That makes me so— I was there to learn! To find out what life was like for people there, to report back. I wasn’t— I was trying to help!”
His hand on her knee tightened. “I know. And the people you talked to, and saw there? They weren’t the people who planted the bomb, they weren’t—”
A key turned in the front door. Donna opened her eyes, her mind a little sluggish from the wine, and watched as the door swung open and Josh walked in. His face went from weary relief to shocked in a heartbeat and he just stood there, bag slung over his shoulder, and stared at her. She was vaguely aware of Colin’s hand moving off her knee as she said, “Josh… I didn’t think you’d be home.”
“I, uh… Sam said I should—” And suddenly his shock was gone, replaced by a coldly ironic smile. “I guess I should have called ahead.”
Donna felt the heat rush to her face; half guilt and half anger, although she wasn’t sure why she should feel either. “We were working on the testimonials for the exhibition.”
“Yeah. I can see that…”
“Joshua,” Colin said, talking over him as he rose to his feet. “It’s good to see you again. Better circumstances and all that.”
“Yeah,” Josh agreed, stepping forward and – to Donna’s surprise – extending a hand. “Good to see you.”
They shook, and it was horrible because Josh’s face was all pinched and pale and not like himself, and he wasn’t looking at her or at Colin. “I, uh,” he said, waving vaguely toward the room he sometimes used as a study. “I have some work so… I won’t— I won’t disturb you.”
“Have you eaten?” Donna asked, half rising as he passed the sofa. “There’s some green chicken curry—”
“I’m not hungry.” He still wasn’t looking at her. “I’m just… Excuse me.”
With that he disappeared into the study and closed the door quietly behind him, leaving Donna and Colin in a profoundly awkward silence.
“I should be making a move,” Colin said at last, keeping his voice low. “It’s late.”
“Yeah,” Donna agreed. “I’m sorry— He didn’t mean to be rude,” she said, stooping to gather the papers from the floor. “I should have told him you were coming over.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“If he’d known—”
“Do you need his permission?”
“Well then.” He took the papers from her hands. “I really appreciate you going through these with me, it was a big help.”
“I enjoyed it.” And that was the truth. “It’s given me some ideas about how to approach my own testimonial.”
“It’ll be fine,” he assured her. “From your heart to your fingertips, Donna. Just write what you feel.”
She laughed softly as they walked toward the door. “If only it was so easy.”
“It is,” he said, leaning in to kiss her briefly on the cheek. “It is that easy. Trust me.”
She smiled. “Okay.”
“Okay then. I’ll see you soon. We can get into the gallery from next week, start getting the photos up. I can’t wait to show you.”
“I can’t wait to see it.” And that was the truth too. “I’m excited.”
He looked at her for moment and nodded. “Me too, Donna Moss. Me too.”
The study door remained closed for the next half hour, and if it hadn’t been so late Donna might have let it stay that way for longer. But it was after midnight, the living room was tidy again, she was ready for bed and she knew she wouldn’t sleep with this hanging over her head. So she girded herself, took a deep breath, and pushed open the door.
She was met by the quiet strains of Schubert, which didn’t bode well. She expected to see Josh at the desk, bent over his laptop, but he wasn’t there. Instead he stood by the window, gazing out at the dark streets, his back to the door. She wasn’t sure he knew she was there until he spoke. “Hope I didn’t spoil your plans tonight.”
His meaning was obvious, and it hurt. “Colin came over to talk about the personal testimonials for the photo submissions – he wanted my help deciding which ones we should include.”
He snorted a dry laugh. “Of course he did.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I’m not an idiot!”
“I can’t believe you think—”
“What am I supposed to think?” he snapped, spinning around to face her. “I come home and find you and him all cozy on my sofa—”
“We were talking!”
“He had his hand on your leg!”
“He was— We were talking about Gaza! He was comforting me.”
“Oh please!” Josh threw up his hands in disbelief. “He wasn’t comforting you! He wasn’t after your great wisdom and advice, either, Donna.”
“You don’t know what—”
“Don’t be so naive! He’s trying to get into your pants. That’s what this whole thing is about, and if you don’t see that then you’re more stupid than I thought.”
It felt like she’d been slapped. As the air rushed into her lungs in a sharp gasp she saw it register on Josh’s face too. He closed his eyes briefly, pursed his lips. “I didn’t mean—” he faltered. “I didn’t mean that.”
But he did. She knew he did, because it’s exactly what he’d always thought of her and he’d only started hiding it in recent years. She lifted her chin. “Perhaps,” she said icily, “you see in him what you see in yourself, Josh.” He didn’t answer, just stared at her with unreadable eyes. She couldn’t hold that look and turned away. “I’m going to bed.”
He didn’t follow, and as she walked toward the bedroom she heard the study door shut, cutting her off from the divine tones of The Ave Maria. And from Josh.
She’d never felt so lonely in her life.
Eventually the music stopped, but Josh didn’t stir. For a while he listened to Donna moving around the apartment, turning off lights, going to bed. And then she was silent too. Outside in the rainy night an occasional car rolled past and, inside, Josh found he couldn’t move from the window. He was cold and tired, and strangely frozen. All he saw reflected in the night-black glass was the tableau that had greeted him; Donna all ease and smiles, and that man with his hands on her. Touching her.
He’d been back in the hospital as soon as Ayres’ face had registered; the endless waiting they’d endured in a barely civil silence still festered, largely unexamined. Bad enough that Donna had been hurt, bad enough that he’d nearly lost her; worse, that this interloper had stood between them, this nobody who could touch her in ways Josh couldn’t, who had touched her, had held her, and God knew what else.
He felt sick. The memory made him nauseous.
And now here Ayres was again, insinuating himself into her life, charming her away from him. And if she left… For a moment it felt as though he couldn’t catch his breath, as if his heart had actually stopped beating.
He closed his eyes, squeezed them shut, and let his forehead come to rest against the cold glass of the window. He wanted, so badly, to feel her arms around him right now, to hear her telling him everything was okay. But she’d been so cold when she left, and he was so angry. So angry at her.
He’d trusted her! Loved her. Let her into his life in ways he’d never done before, and now this… He didn’t even know why he was so shocked; it wasn’t the first time, after all. Deep down, he’d always known how it would end; one day he’d come home from work and find her gone. That’s how it would be. She’d be gone, her stuff would be gone, and it would all be over. Just like before, only worse. Infinitely worse.
An emasculating surge of tears bunched in the base of his throat and he fought them back viciously. He sucked in a shaky breath, trying to steady himself, and felt a gentle hand on his back.
“Josh?” His breath became a gasp as he turned and saw her standing beside him, her face concerned. “Can we…? Can we just not do this?”
“Yeah…” He turned away from the window as if he were waking from a nightmare, expecting her to move away and turn cold and distant. But instead, her hand caught his and squeezed tight; he felt as if he’d been given a reprieve. He could breathe again, but he couldn’t quite look at her. “I— I’m sorry if I was a jerk, before. I didn’t mean…”
“I should have told you he was coming over. I’m sorry too. It was just work.” She tipped her head a little, trying to catch his eye. “You know that, right? There’s nothing else going on.”
Josh nodded. “It’s just— It was late, and I was… I missed you.”
Her free hand touched his face with a painful softness. “Come to bed, Joshua. It’s lonely without you.”
“Donna…” There was so much to say, but he choked on the words. He didn’t know how it was possible to love and fear her so much, but when he met her eyes all he wanted to do was lose himself inside her and forget it all. Just forget it all.
With a sad little smile Donna reached over and kissed him. “I hate it when we argue,” she murmured against his lips. “I hate it.”
“Me too.” Except sometimes it felt as if arguing was all they did. Arguing, and then this… Her skin was silk beneath his hands, her body warm and firm and insistent as they stumbled into the bedroom and into each other and screwed away another fight.
But they were dancing on a fault line; sooner or later, Josh knew, something was going to give.