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the end of the world (as we know it)

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When Leo announces that all non-essential personnel are instructed to work from home, it feels just vague enough that Josh doesn’t worry. He’s never thought of Donna as non-essential, for a start. And “instructed” isn’t quite “must”, isn’t quite “have to”, isn’t quite absolute. 

But Josh’s definition of essential turns out not to be quite the same as everyone else’s. The assistants, all of them, are dismissed. 

Many of them seem relieved to be allowed to work from home. 

And then there’s Donna, acting as if she hasn’t heard the news or perhaps simply matching Josh’s denial about it all with much of her own. Bonnie, Ginger, Carol and Cathy are all gathering the files they’re permitted to take off the premises, and lining up to have the IT guys load up laptops with all the applications required to get through the next few days or weeks.  Donna just sits at her desk, going about her business with only a little more worry etched in her expression than normal. 

Josh looks around the bullpen from his doorway, the unusually empty scene a sight he’d only expect to see on a quiet midsummer weekend. The few who are still there are wandering around with masks on, boxes loaded in their arms as they pack up, or speeding by purposefully, following the routes mapped out on the floor by the one-way system that’s been imposed wherever possible in the building. (Josh is already on Margaret’s watch list of people accidentally flouting the strict protocols due to how many times he’s accidentally turned the wrong way coming out of his office – which he entirely blames on whoever decided he had to walk the entire perimeter of the bullpen to get to Donna’s desk.) 

Just as he’d expected, Donna is exactly where she always is. As she sits with her back to him, he can hear her tapping at the keys of her computer, seeming not to notice the ominous mood of the room. He can see from over her shoulder that she’s preparing notes for his meeting that afternoon, though they both know it’ll be canceled in the intervening hours. He gets it, though. He understands wanting to cling to the last shreds of normalcy they have left. He’s been putting off their conversation all day, recognizing he has to tell her, has to spell it out, even though it makes his chest feel tight just thinking about a day without her by his side. Especially now.

“Donna,” he calls out as he settles against the divider that marks out her area. 

She doesn’t look up at the sound of his voice but responds, in tones of faint exasperation, “Yes, it’ll be done in an hour, don’t worry.”

Here’s the part where he’s supposed to say, casually, like this is all normal, “You’ll still have time to pack up after that, right?” It’s the elusive opportune moment he’d been struggling to find since he got word of the decision from Leo. He’d already argued his case to no avail. No one had argued like he had. In fact, everyone else just sort of accepted it timidly as Josh stood up and said, “I need Donna,” in a room of far too many people, before Leo pulled him aside to remind him it wasn’t up for debate. 

Here, now, he doesn’t quite know how to tell her she falls under ‘non-essential’, that she’s got to leave not knowing when she can come back. So, he lets the silence drag on between them. Long enough that she casually starts, “Have you got all the notes you need from the CDC? There’s a memo from the World Health Organization in there, too, that you should take a look at and I mentioned to Leo that–”

“Donna.”

She only stares at him. There’s fragility in her eyes for a second. Only a glimmer. Something steely in them, too. He knows they’re asking him exactly what he’d pleaded with Leo. She wants to stay. 

“You gotta stop,” he says, as softly as he can manage without his voice cracking. 

He notices her swallow. “There’s a lot to do, Josh.”

“Yeah,” he admits, “and I’m the one who’s got to do it. Me and Toby and CJ and Leo.” 

“I can help.”

“You can help from home.”

“Josh, you need me,” she tells him, with such conviction he almost falls apart, her eyes imploring him to admit a feeling that her words barely scratch the surface of. 

“I do,” he concedes, because there’s no denying that. He needs her so much he’s probably already made a fool of himself with his boss over it. He needs her so much he’d put this conversation off all day when it could’ve been over before lunch. He needs her more than ever, his back against the wall for half an hour this morning just to try and steady the beating of his heart because sometimes, now more than ever, his head is sirens, sirens, sirens. “But you have to go. It’s not me, it’s not my decision. But it’s safer that way. For you.”

“I don’t mind,” she insists, as determined as he’d expected her to be. He can tell she’s trying to keep her voice even and steady, and yet the edge of emotion he can hear hurts just the same. “I can stay. I haven’t–I haven’t got other people to worry about. It’s just me and my roommate. With the cats. But she barely lives with me. She’s staying at her boyfriend’s.” 

He’s distracted by a sudden burst of outrage. “She just dumped her cats on you?” 

“It’s fine. They do their thing, I do mine. Besides, they’re company.” 

Josh feels a strange twinge of jealousy for a pair of cats he’s never met. 

“I don’t mind, Josh.”

“I’m kind of allergic to cats,” he blurts out, the strange thought seeming urgent and relevant for some reason. 

“Okay,” she says, the end of the word lifting like a question as she looks at him like he might be a little crazy. She might not be wrong. 

“Donna, you’re safer at home,” Josh replies, reminding himself more than anyone. “With the cats.”

“And what about you?” she asks, her eyebrows raised in a challenge he’s not quite up to. What about him? He’ll figure that part out when she goes. He hasn’t got a choice. Even if he did, he’d rather be the last one left in the building than leave anyone behind. 

“I’ll be fine.”

She can see through the lie and he knows it, but it’s not like there’s an alternative. Instead of fighting it anymore, she sighs, then gives a resigned nod. 

Josh wants to reassure her that it won’t be long, it won’t be forever, it’s not even that big a deal. The words get stuck in his throat as she stands up, steps forward and wraps both arms around his neck, holding on tight.

He starts to say, “I don’t think we’re meant to–”

Donna clicks her tongue at him and squeezes tighter. “Josh. Just let me say goodbye.”

Josh surrenders with a slow, solemn nod against her head before he drops his face to her shoulder and lets himself be swallowed by the warmth of the embrace. The effect is instant. He feels the tension drop from his shoulders, an uncharacteristic wave of calm washing over him – even if only for a moment. 

When Donna draws away, she gives him a half-decent attempt at a smile.

He clears his throat and says, “Say hello to Bert and Ernie for me.”

She picks up a few papers from her desk and shuffles them, as if just needing something to do with her hands, but he can hear the emotion thick in her voice as she tries to sound casual: “Their names are Petunia and Lady Kitten de Bourgh.” 

“I’m impressed you managed to say that with a straight face.”

She smiles at him, rolling her eyes. “You get used to it.”

Josh laughs faintly, barely more than a scoff of amusement, before he watches her expression turn serious again as she catches sight of one of the communications staffers passing by with a box in his arms. When her eyes meet his again, she paints on a different kind of smile and shifts away, back into her chair, busying herself with the folders laid out beside her keyboard.  

“You’ll be okay?” Josh checks, already making tracks back to his own office, knowing the answer is far more complicated than anything she could reply to his offhand question but needing the lie. 

“If you will,” is all she says.

It’s exactly how he feels in return. And it’s definitely not okay. 

 

*

 

Josh walks around the West Wing like a loaded gun after that. 

He tries to argue his case again with Leo as Toby, Will and CJ look on. The others seem resigned to the general ennui of the building, with not a hint of the same fight on behalf of their own assistants. When the fire of his anger burns itself out and Leo only groans in frustration, Toby steps in to warn Josh, “You keep making a fuss about this, she’ll be working for a different office by the end of the week.” 

“I don’t like what you’re implying.”

“And I don’t like that you’re so short-sighted about this, you can’t see what it looks like to anybody else,” Toby spits back, his voice raised now. 

“Josh, we all know what Donna means to you,” CJ offers, trying to diffuse the tension, sympathy in her voice but a pointed look on her face that rubs Josh the wrong way. 

“My hands are tied right now, Josh,” Leo adds, effectively ending the discussion there and then.

 

*

 

Josh soon finds himself holed up in the Roosevelt Room with Toby, wondering what he did in a past life to deserve such punishment. They’ve been at each other’s throats since their little spat in Leo’s office. Now Leo’s demanded they hash out a plan for legislating on the public health policies recommended by the president’s advisory committee. 

To his credit (at least from Josh’s perspective), Toby hadn’t complained when Josh had – without warning – brought Donna along via a video call on his laptop. She’d unwittingly ended up a mediator, positioned at the center of the conference table between them both, taking notes and supplying information as they discuss whatever options they can summon on zero sleep and a carb-only diet of muffins and bagels. They’ve been at it for well over an hour, Josh with his elbows on the table and his head in his hands as Toby leans back in a chair on the opposite side of the table, struggling to keep his eyes open at this point as he absently spins a pen around his fingers. They’re exhausted from briefing after briefing, first from the Chief Medical Advisor to the President, then the Secretary of Health and Human Services, then the Council of Economic Advisors. 

“It’s masks,” Josh says, circling back to the hurdle they can’t seem to jump. “That’s the sticking point, Toby. Every member of Congress is already opposing a mandate we haven’t even called for yet.”

Toby sighs. “You ever think about what you’d get done with all the time we spend trying to talk Americans into doing what’s good for them?”

“Toby.” 

“I think I could learn the cello.”

 “Toby,” Josh repeats, grouchier this time. He glances up at Donna on the screen, noticing a hint of a wry smile on her lips. 

“I’m telling you, a little less time convincing the public to act in their own interests? I might’ve been the next Yo-Yo Ma.”

“You’d have been good,” Donna chimes in from the laptop. 

“Can we focus, please?” Josh scratches his head roughly, then rubs both hands over his face in the hope it’ll wake him up a little. “I’d like to take something to Leo, at least, at the end of this.” 

Toby sits up straight, pulling himself closer to the table. “It’s not gonna pass.”

“Toby–”

“It’s not gonna pass, Josh! Our guys will hate it because it’ll make them unpopular, the other side are gonna make it the first frame of their campaign ads next time out as they proudly protest against this shocking attack on our civil liberties.”

“But it’s the only thing we can control!” Josh yells, smacking his hand against the hardwood table and feeling the sting of it. His voice still raised, he continues, “Worst case scenario, millions of Americans die. How does that look on your campaign ads? We’re months away from a vaccine, weeks from adequate testing facilities at best and we’ve barely moved on Medicare in five years! This is what we can do. Today.”

“It won’t pass,” Toby says, his voice quiet as a whisper compared to Josh’s. 

“We have to find a way. There has to be something–Donna? What’ve we got in the way of leverage?”

Donna grimaces and turns her attention to flick through a bunch of papers she's got laid out beside her. “Well… I was looking up the bills we were working on before and I’ve arranged them in order of how likely they were to pass based on the support each one had gotten before… all this,” she explains, sounding a little more hesitant than when it’s just the two of them in his office going back and forth over some new legislation. “There’s a few on, umm, education, the budget for Medicare, student debt, campaign finance reform, umm…” She gives a humorless laugh, glancing at Toby. "You know, all things that are good for Americans that Republicans would love you to take off the table."'

“It has to be something big,” Toby says, listening keenly. Josh can see the cogs turning.

“I don’t know if any of these are enough to–” 

“Wilkerson’s bill,” Josh remembers. The congressman had been working on a bill to tighten gun restrictions when it came to mental health and criminal history, hustling to drum up support for measures like extended wait periods, longer term background checks and a federal tax on gun sales as a deterrent. It would’ve been shot down in an instant if it hadn’t been for the fact that Wilkerson was a guy with crossover appeal and friends on both sides of the aisle, as well as firsthand experience of the issue. “We have to drop it.”

“You can’t drop that,” Donna cuts in quickly, catching their attention.  

“It wasn’t going to pass, Donna,” Josh tries to reason with her, the note of hurt in her voice making him forget Toby’s presence entirely for a moment. “And it’s got to be something big, something they’re afraid of. Something that’s gonna make them come to the table.”

“But we have to try,” she pushes back, and he understands it. He understands she’s pushing for him. He understands that though she can’t see the scar that marks his chest, she lives with the memory of it every day, and this is the first real chance they’ve had in years to make some genuine progress on gun reform. 

“We have to get this done, Donna. We legislate on masks early and it could reshape the culture of how we think about public health in this country. We have to get ahead,” he rationalizes. “And it’s leverage. It’s not for nothing.” 

Donna’s quick to point out, her voice ever more pleading, “It’s common-sense gun law, Josh.” 

“She’s right,” Toby chimes in, clearing his throat. 

I know that,” Josh fires back, a little more defensive than he means it. “They don’t know that. The American people don’t know that. Or they do, but they don’t care. Not enough of ‘em, anyway.” His bitterness drives him on, his rant not letting up for the furrow of Donna’s brow or the familiar resignation on Toby’s face. “The NRA doesn’t care. They’ll keep funneling money into the next power-hungry puppet’s campaign and pay for their nice house and their fancy car, just so we can’t get it done.”

“This can’t be how it works,” Donna says, with such sincere disappointment that he desperately wishes she were right. 

He’s still holding her gaze through the laptop screen when Toby interrupts to ask him, “What’s your plan? Trade it in for some all-encompassing bill that mandates mask-wearing in all public spaces?” 

The answer’s not even fully formed in Josh’s mind yet. Still, Toby’s broad sketch of the notion is a start. Josh shrugs. “You think it can work?” 

Toby stares at him from across the table, his face inscrutable. He clicks the end of the pen in his hand a couple times, draws in a long breath, then says, “It’s a long shot.”

“Long shot that could save a lot of lives, if the CDC’s right.”

On the screen between them, Donna raises her hand. They both catch it in the corner of their eyes, turning their heads in time with each other. 

“Donna?” Toby prompts her.

Voice careful, she asks, “Have you considered that the people who oppose the mandate might have a point?”

Josh stares blankly at her, coming up against a wall of his own exhaustion as he tries to fathom how she’s ended up at that conclusion. 

“I–I don’t mean that masks are wrong,” she’s quick to add, “but I think the mandate could be the wrong approach. Who’s going to enforce that legislation? Say you decide to start fining people, or arresting people, for not wearing a mask, who decides who gets a warning and who gets a maximum penalty? We can’t ignore that we’re talking about a criminal justice system that we know to be flawed, we know punishes certain groups disproportionately. You make it law to wear a mask in public spaces, what’s to stop white police officers routinely punishing Black civilians over and over again – fining them at their discretion at a time when the average American is struggling to cover their rent and keep their head above water, or arresting them and increasing the health risk to everyone involved? And you apply the same fine to the people who won’t wear a mask because some phony doctor said they were pointless or because it’s their false idea of oppression but, for a lot of them, that $50 is lunch money. It’s not gonna stop them. The ones who are most likely to be fined are often the most likely not to even be able to afford a decent mask to wear in the first place!” 

“What do you suggest instead?” Toby asks, and Josh can tell he’s thinking about it, considering her comments carefully rather than formulating an articulate response to shoot her down. 

“I think it needs to be framed as an initiative, led by the president. Mask Up America, or something... catchier.” She winces at her own choice of wording, the pun unintended. “You call up whichever celebrities still like us and get them on board. I know it sounds… silly, maybe, but–”

“It doesn’t sound silly, Donna,” Josh reassures her, urging her on with a nod. 

“You know how many pairs of shoes get sold every day because Michael Jordan’s name is attached to them?” Donna continues, finding her flow with renewed enthusiasm and sitting up a little straighter. “Every kid in school wants to be seen wearing them. For the kids and students, the ones who are at the biggest risk of being in super-spreader environments, masks have to be cool. And there’s the social responsibility angle for the parents and the socially conscious 20-somethings trying their best. There are ways to send the message to each demographic, we just have to… figure it out.” 

“And what about the people you were talking about, the ones who can’t afford to spend their last dime on a decent mask?” Toby challenges her.

“That’s who the bill should be for.” 

Josh and Toby wait for her to elaborate, both leaning forward toward the screen now. 

“Resources for those communities, making sure they have access to masks at no cost to them. Because there are millions of Americans living so close to the line, it is the difference – a few dollars. Especially now. And it’s better for everyone if we can help those people. The ones who want to be helped.” She seems to realize how much she’s said all at once, stumbling a little over the words as she finishes explaining, “I was thinking it could be a more reward-based approach, with federal subsidies for small businesses producing PPE.” 

There’s a silence hanging there awkwardly as Donna looks between them both, neither one of them saying anything. The pause drags on long enough that she nervously mumbles, “So, that was… That was my idea.” 

“It could work,” Toby says first, after another pause. “It’s a start.”

“We can take it to Leo. See what he says,” Josh nods, unable to suppress the bloom of pride he can feel spreading out across his face. 

“You’re–you’re gonna take it to Leo?” 

You’re gonna take it to Leo,” Josh decides. “Toby and I will just, you know, hold the computer in front of him while you explain it all exactly like that.”

“The national mask mandate was never gonna pass, Donna,” Toby says decisively now, even if he’d been entertaining the notion before. Josh had known as much, too. But everything seems like an option when you’re all out of options. “We don’t have the votes right now. But this could be something.” 

Donna doesn’t seem to quite know what to say. 

Toby sighs, then adds, “But, at this point, what do I know? I haven’t slept in 36 hours and I have no idea what day of the week it is.”

 Josh notices Donna glance gratefully in Toby’s direction, a shy chuckle of laughter releasing some of the nervous tension. She seems to brighten, her posture relaxing a little inside the video chat window.

“My head’s pretty foggy,” Josh chimes in, rubbing sleep dust from his eyes, “but it’s the best idea I’ve heard since we came in here, so let’s figure out a way to make it work.”  

“There’s no guarantee they go with it,” Donna seems to be reminding mainly herself.  

“There’s never a guarantee; it’s all just a wing and a prayer.” 

“Now there’s a way to dampen my spirits,” Toby mutters.

Josh decisively closes the folder of briefing notes in front of him, before drawing back his chair. “Just how the sausage gets made, mi compadre.”

 

*

 

That’s how Josh ends up in Leo’s office, pitching Donna’s plan all over again. And, later, he is tasked with summarizing the idea for the benefit of the president. The president who is currently quarantined in the residence until testing protocols are firmly put in place due to hyper-vigilant concerns around his health, and who, therefore, has been learning all about video conferencing – with Charlie’s patient assistance. 

There’s a few seconds of awkward silence as they start the call, the president putting his glasses on and getting settled before he starts talking – though they can’t hear a word of it. Leo’s quick to sigh and say, “You’re on mute, Mr President.”

“Am I–Is this thing… working or what?” bellows through the speaker suddenly, while the president’s face remains the picture of confusion as his body man appears over his shoulder. “What’s going on, Charlie?” 

“We can hear you now, Mr President.” 

Jed squints at the screen as Charlie goes off-camera. “I didn’t see which one of you said that, but it sounded like Josh.” 

“It was me, sir.” 

“Okay. Well, my wife’s in quarantine, I’ve just told every world leader they’re temporarily banned from entering the country and the CDC is projecting at least a year till we have a safe vaccine, so, what’ve you got for me now, Josh?” 

“It’s about masks, sir.” 

“Oh, good,” Jed replies, his tone dry. “No doubt this’ll have them lining up the streets to vote for every Democrat on the ballot next time.”

“Mr President–” Leo starts, before Josh cuts in. 

“All due respect, sir, I think we have a moral obligation to do what’s right in this instance over what’s gonna look good on a campaign ad. Besides which, we have another year before the midterms.” 

“I can tell already, this is going to be my fun meeting today. And here I thought that would be the medical exam Debbie’s scheduled for after we’re done here.” 

“Sir.” 

Jed waves a hand in view of the camera lens, his demeanor softening just a little. “Go ahead, Josh.”

 

*

 

They work day and night on the legislation. Toby handles message with CJ and Will, and Josh maps out a plan for making free masks available to those who need them while also helping Leo, the president and the Council of Economic Advisors iron out a stimulus package that’s going to be big enough to prevent a double dip recession. He has Donna with him throughout, her face brightening up a laptop screen all day, soon becoming as ever-present as the furnishings.

It’s strange to realize he can miss her even when she’s right there, on his desk.

Sometimes she helps him work out the kinks of the legislative agenda, sometimes she provides him with the research he needs before another meeting, but often they both work in silence.

He gets used to the white noise of her life in the background of his own, the low whir of her laptop fan as the computer overheats and the faint mewls of cats. It’s far preferable to the eerie silence that being inside a quiet White House affords him, a skeleton staff around to offer minimal distractions from the relentlessly bleak challenges his work brings in these early days of such unprecedented global crisis. It’s unsettlingly still where disasters in this place usually fill the corridors with bustle and noise. 

When he really just needs to talk, in the most ordinary of ways, she’s on hand to ramble to him about recipes that claim to take 15 minutes but instead take more than double that time, or her father’s newest hobby, or the latest gossip from the assistants’ group chat. 

It’s deep into another evening, after an anecdote about Petunia’s misbehavior and an ill-fated attempt at toenail clipping (the cats’ toenails, not Donna’s), that she tentatively asks, “So, what about you? How are you doing... with everything?”

Though he’d been half-listening to a series of her amusing Donna stories as he worked, the question draws his full attention. There’s an anxious edge to it, like she’s been wanting to ask for a while. He stops what he’s doing and looks up, leaning his cheek against his fist as he watches the screen. She’s facing the laptop she’s got propped up on some old recipe books in her kitchen, her hair unusually untidy but all the more endearing for it and a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. “I–I don’t know,” he says honestly, the feeling of missing her all that he can think about as he answers. “I mean, the mood around here is... strange, but I–I honestly haven’t had a moment to think about it all, so.”

“No interruptions,” she points out, like it’s a positive.

“No interruptions,” he echoes, trying to sound like he’s agreeing but a strange wistfulness taking him over. “I don’t mind some of them, you know.”

“I’ll remind you of that next time you’re snapping at me for walking into your office at the wrong moment,” she teases. 

Josh smiles along for her, knowing she’d only meant it jokingly, but it hurts to think of any of the fraught moments they’ve shared. He’s struck by a pang of regret for any time he’s made her feel less valuable than she is, or less needed than she is. It’s never been meant that way, those times he’s been short-tempered and impatient. When she gets back, he decides he’ll be a better boss: less moody, more kind. Maybe get her more of those frothy mochaccino whipped cream whatevers she likes so much. He’ll try and be more professional, too. He thinks of how they are, how they’ve been for as long as he can remember. Too close. Always skating far too close to the edge of acceptability. So often, their most fractious days have been the ones when he’s danced the closest to the line. Those moments when the worst of him comes out just to get her to jump away when he can’t bring himself to give up an inch. 

Now, he finds himself longing for it to be a distance measurable in inches and not miles. 

This occasionally-buggy video version of her isn’t the same. Though, she seems just as able to read every microexpression on his face, the worry creeping back in again as she looks at him. 

Just when he thinks he’s done a good enough job of mustering his poker face, he hears her say, “Stanley’s available if you need him.” 

“I don’t, Donna. Really I don’t. I’m just tired.” 

“Then sleep,” she suggests softly. “You’ll be no good to anyone if you don’t go home and sleep some of the time at least.” 

“Yeah.” 

Yeah.”

He takes in a deep breath. “It’s strange here now. Quiet.” 

“You mentioned. You don’t like the quiet?” 

“I wouldn’t mind a little less of it.” 

“It’s not the same, these calls, messages. I miss… everyone.” Her hesitation makes him tense, the space big enough for the truth to sink in. It’s a space big enough for his name and he feels it there, even when she course-corrects to reference the vague everyone .

When he replies, “Yeah, same,” Josh knows she can hear his meaning in it too.

 

*

 

He’s been on the phone all day. One member of Congress after another. 

He finds most of them to be insufferable. A series of cynical opportunists looking to play his urgency to their own gain. 

It’s past nine when he realizes he has the votes. The bill they’d quickly orchestrated to ensure lower income citizens have easy and free access to masks, utilizing otherwise struggling local businesses to redirect resources on the taxpayer’s dime, is going to pass. The president’s already started moving on the mask PR overhaul, having delighted in a rare morning off from meeting with concerned scientists to instead engage with the public figures they think will help send the right message. Josh can’t help but think, finally, something good

Joey emails him not long after, sending over baseline research about public opinion on mask-wearing in preparation for their big initiative. There’s a note at the bottom of her message that reads, “Already seeing a shift in the numbers after POTUS photo op on Wednesday.” 

Already. 

He looks at the numbers. It’s an uptick. 

The line is trending down until it isn’t. Until Wednesday.

He realizes, from behind his desk, a view of a near-empty bullpen through the open door, it’s all Donna’s plan. Not the finer points, not all of it, but the foundation of the idea was hers.

He has to tell her. He has to tell her it’s going to work. He has to tell her because when something good happens, something good amid the relentless bad and terrible they’ve been wading through, she’s the only one he wants to share it with. 

So, at nearly 10 o’clock at night, he winds up outside her apartment, holding two beer bottles in one hand, throwing stones at her window with the other. They tap a little lighter on the pane than the snowballs from last time he was doing this, but nevertheless it doesn’t take long to earn her attention. He’s grinning up at her as she appears there, wearing a sweatshirt he’s pretty sure she’s stolen from him with her hair scooped up into a ponytail. There’s a confused frown on her face as she realizes it’s him, echoing his memory of her the night of the inauguration. 

“Josh?” she calls out, pulling the window open to perch on the windowsill. “What the hell are you–”

“I had to tell you about the bill.”

“The–?” Donna stares at him, baffled. She wraps her arms around herself for warmth, before pointing out, “You could’ve called.”

He walks up a step, edging closer, as he softly replies, “I had to see your face when I told you.”

“You got it done?”

He nods. “It’s gonna pass, Donna,” he calls up to the window with a little extra pep, watching as a small, ginger ball of fluff curls up in her lap, softly mewling. “And–and Joey already sent over the numbers. Public opinion up 4% since Wednesday. Soon, every person in this country’s gonna be wearing a mask in public spaces. Because they can. Because they should. And because of you.” Honestly, he thinks, maybe he should work in communications. He can deliver a speech with the best of ‘em.

“Do you mind not shouting about it because I don’t think that’s going to make me very popular,” she whisper-yells down to him. “I’m pretty sure my downstairs neighbor is a libertarian.” 

“It’s gonna save lives.”

“And it wasn’t just me,” she continues, closing her eyes and shaking her head and determined not to take one ounce of the credit she deserves. “It was the CDC’s guidance and your work and Leo’s and the senators who backed it and–”

“Okay. It was them too. But it was you.”

She looks at him unconvinced. “You’d have gotten there without me.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, tonight you deserve the credit, Donna.” 

“A lot of people are still gonna hate us.”

“Yeah. But they’re gonna be alive to hate us. More of them, anyway. That’s the point, isn’t it? It has to be.” 

“Yeah,” she says, tucking away a smile and looking down at the cat as she strokes her hand over its back. He catches that hidden smile, though, savoring the sight of it for as long as it lasts. It might be the lack of sleep, or the fact that he’s barely seen anyone in person who’s not Toby or Leo or CJ in days, but looking up at her, content and calm and smiling just a little, makes him feel a little of that himself for the first time since she’d walked out of the West Wing. 

When she meets his gaze, her head tilting to one side like she’s checking the damage the last couple of weeks have done to him, he lifts the two beers up. “You wanna sit out on the stoop and have a drink with me?” 

“It’s freezing,” she points out.

“Yeah,” he concedes with a nod, his shoulders shimmying up and down to try and generate a little warmth. “You wanna do it anyway?”

The smile he earns then is something else. He forgets about the cold, he forgets about the fact that he shouldn’t be here at all, he forgets about all the problems they can’t solve. Instead, there is only here, now, her smile. Her beautiful, broad smile that starts shy but, once she laughs and shakes her head again, transforms into something bigger like a light slowly switching on. He can’t help but smile with her, holding onto the feeling as she disappears from the window on the promise of being right down. 

When she reappears in the doorway at the top of the stoop, she’s got her favorite winter coat on and a long scarf wrapped around her neck. She looks cozy. Adorable, really. 

He leaves one bottle of beer on her side before settling on the opposite one, his back to the handrail that lines the steps. “Thanks,” she mumbles, sitting beside where he’s left her drink and taking a sip. 

For a while, they’re quiet. Unusually so. She keeps sneaking glances at him, the lines of her forehead betraying hints of her concern, while he keeps pretending not to notice between glances of his own. He’s tried to convince himself that their hours-long video calls filled with silences are the same as being together, that it can capture that easy comfort he finds in her company. But, this, being here with her in person, makes him realize how much he’s missed her. Something about her presence soothes him. That restless itch to constantly, constantly, constantly be doing things stills for a while. Long enough that he can sit back and enjoy the moment, her face smiling warmly at him from just a step away, not made up of pixels, not interrupted by the tricky connection. For a moment, out here, they are together.

“You know I’d rather be in the office, helping, doing more,” she says eventually, stretching her legs out in front of her.

Josh clears his throat, nodding first. “I know. But you’re helping. Don’t ever think that you’re not.”

She gives him a look. One he knows well. 

Josh tries to avert her gaze. Instead, he fixates on the paper label wrapped around the beer bottle, picking at where the corner’s come unstuck as he says, “I don’t think a day’s gone by since I met you that you haven’t helped me.”

“Josh.”

“You’re good at helping people, Donna,” he tells her before taking another swig. Anything so that their eye contact doesn’t outlast his restraint. All he wants is to hug her. He’d almost dismissed her without a hug goodbye and now it’s taking every bit of willpower he has not to do it all over again. 

“Thank you,” she replies, a blush in her cheeks as she looks away herself. 

Josh watches as a car speeds by, cutting through the long, loaded silence. “My mother told me about the online shopping tutorial you gave her, too, by the way,” he remembers suddenly, a fond feeling curling inside him as he recalls the lengthy answerphone message he’d received that morning. His mom had insisted over and over that he needn’t get back to her since he was so busy and she didn’t want to bother him, before she’d mentioned that Donna had been providing regular updates on his behalf. 

“She did, huh?”

“Yeah.” He nudges her foot with his own. “So don’t ever think you’re not helping enough.”

She almost smiles. “Okay.” 

“You’re extremely overqualified for that,” he adds.

“Well, I knew you were underqualified for it. And I’ve always liked your mother.” 

Josh chuckles and notices the way she relaxes a little as he does. He’s always known she worries about him, especially since Rosslyn, and for a moment it’s worth coming here just to see her stop worrying – if only for a night. Tomorrow, he knows, he’ll go back to missing her and she’ll go back to worrying about him. It feels wrong – achingly so – not to be able to close the gap between them and wrap her in a hug, but he resists it. 

 

*

 

It soon becomes a routine: him on her doorstep, or her on his. They sit on the stoop eating takeout that one of them has bought until it’s cold and they’re making small talk just to avoid going home. 

Each time, she asks if he’s heard anything new, any updates.

“Leo says I’ll be the first to know when it changes,” Josh reassures her, though it does little to reassure him. The more he asks, the more it seems to invite the judgment of his colleagues. Toby and CJ give each other pointed looks, presumably assuming he hasn’t noticed their silent communication. 

 

*

 

It’s three weeks before he cracks, before he misses her too much to follow all the rules. 

Technically speaking, it’s Donna who cracks first. But he doesn’t stop her.

She calls him late in the evening to help him prepare for a meeting with Fishlock and Calhoun the next day and, in the midst of his flapping, snaps and says, “Josh, I’m coming over. This is ridiculous.” 

Twenty minutes later, she appears at his door and any attempt at social distancing evaporates instantly. He’s so relieved to see her, he can’t give a second thought to whatever cheap tabloid story might get written about them if anyone were to find out. She sweeps past him into his apartment, occupying the space with the same easy familiarity and confidence that she’d possessed as she helped him recover after Rosslyn. She knows where everything is. Probably better than he does, considering he’s not done much organizing since the days of her holing up here with him as he recovered. 

“Josh, if you just look at the folder with the Killingwood report in it, you’ll find the numbers you need,” she starts to say, no greeting, full speed ahead, charging off to where his papers are scattered on the table. “You don’t need to get snippy. It’s exactly where I said it was.”

“I looked at the report,” he argues back. “Those numbers are–”

She’s flicking through them, scanning the header of each page like she knows each sheet at just a glance. “Exactly what you asked for, Josh.” Donna stops as she seems to find what she’d been looking for.

“No.”

“Josh.” She holds the page out to him, their hands brushing as he takes it from her. The contact makes him realize how long it’s been since he experienced physical contact with anyone. Her hug. Her hug was the last time.

He glances down at the sheet of paper, reading it properly this time. “Okay, yeah, that is–pretty much what I asked for.” 

“‘Pretty much’?” she echoes.

“I mean the font choices are a little–okay, fine, it’s exactly what I asked for!” he acknowledges, holding his hands up in surrender as she folds her arms and fixes him with a stony glare. “I’m sorry.” For a moment, he doesn’t quite know what to do or say next. It’s like he’s forgotten what it’s like to be in the same room with her, despite all the nights spent out on the stoop and all the days with her face filling his laptop screen. Now they're inside the apartment and they're standing a step away from each other, her arms crossed and his dangling awkwardly at his sides. 

“You aren’t getting enough sleep, Josh,” is all she says to him, just the right side of chastising. 

He attempts to lighten the mood, easing into their familiar rapport. “I’m getting a healthy two to three hours a night.”

“Your body wouldn’t know a REM cycle if it slapped you over the head.”

“I’m busy. I’m a busy guy.”

Donna rolls her eyes and plays her part and soon they feel like them again. 

“Listen, I was about to make some food for myself. You want some?” he offers, abandoning the notes entirely as he feels his stomach growl.

“A nutritious, healthy meal, no doubt?”

“Grilled cheese.”

“Fine,” she accepts, pulling off her coat and throwing it over the back of the sofa. “But don’t put ham in mine this time. I think I’m gonna try going meat-free.” 

“Since when?” he scoffs.

“Since I read an article about the carbon emissions of the meat industry, Josh. The farming of animals generates more greenhouse gas than all the world’s transportation combined. Did you know that?” 

“Okay, but don’t say you don’t want ham in it and then eat mine when you change your mind.”

“Does that sound like something I would do?”

He’s shaking his head en route to the kitchen, though still unable to suppress a smile at her audacity. “Listen,” he says, stopping suddenly, as a thought strikes him, “don’t tell my mom about the ham situation, okay?” 

She gives him a solemn nod before promising, “I’ll forward you the article,” and ignoring his sarcasm when he replies, “Oh, would you?”

Sure enough, by the time he’s done making them, Donna’s changed her mind and claimed his in a sudden lapse of conscience. As he takes a bite out of hers, not caring at all that it hadn’t been what he wanted before, he savors the mere fact that she’s here. She spends most of their spontaneous meal reiterating that they really should both give up meat, or even go vegan, for the sake of the environment while he pretends to agree with her just to avoid a spirited discussion on the topic. 

 

*

 

After the dam breaks, neither Josh nor Donna attempt to return to their old routine of two meters apart out on the steps of their respective buildings. Instead, a new one takes its place, still squeezed into the precious hours of an evening when he can get away from the White House. 

There’s a nagging sense of guilt about it that grows every time he carefully avoids mentioning this now-sacred part of his day to Toby, Leo or CJ. Though it’s hard to differentiate this particular anxiety from the rest, the paranoid, guilty feeling is most intense whenever he heads out of the West Wing for the night, as if running into someone as he goes will leave him caught red-handed. It’s there when he packs up his backpack to head out, it’s there as he gives a friendly nod to the guy on the gate, it’s there until Donna shows up at his door because she just had one other thought about the education plan or debt relief or the CDC update that’s just far easier to explain in person. Instantly, as soon as he sees her, the feeling gets filed away with all the other concerns for tomorrow. 

It’s not too bad to begin with when no one’s asking questions, everyone understandably assuming that any hours spent outside the building are spent catching up on much-needed sleep. But he’s started going home more often. Still long after hours, but earlier than normal. With the place so quiet, Toby’s quick to notice. They’re on their way to Leo’s office for their morning meeting when he comments, “You headed out early last night.”

Josh dismisses it out of hand. “Decided to prep for the meeting from the comfort of my home, Toby,” he replies, before realizing that the statement is inherently suspicious to anyone who’s seen the state of his home or spent any time with him whatsoever.

There’s a strange look on Toby’s face but he says no more. 

Still, what feels like a lie begins to weigh on Josh’s mind. He could tell his colleagues, casually mention that Donna helps him out in person sometimes and act like it’s no different to CJ creating an out-of-work bubble with Carol (which is very clearly just a regular wine night), but he knows it’s not the same. He knows it’d be a whole thing. It would put him at risk of being told, categorically, not to do it. Which feels a little different to simply knowing that what they’re doing is probably outside the spirit of the rules.

The same day as Toby’s little comment, Josh ends up having a historically bad afternoon. The misery is a laundry list including, but not limited to: a huge bump in confirmed Covid cases in the latest report, getting yelled at by the president, getting played by a freshman Republican congressman, finding CJ teary-eyed in her office because she’s worried about her dad, his laptop crapping out leaving him limited to phoning Donna for only a couple of brief updates, and a blazing row with the Governor of Florida. It’s been one of those days when the world is weighing on him, the feeling of responsibility more immense than it ever has been. 

Even at long range, Donna’s perceptive ability to know his mood and his mind better than anyone proves reliable. Seeming to sense that he needs her, she calls him just as he starts to doze off on his desk and talks him into coming over. Not that he takes much convincing.

When he gets to her apartment, she takes one look at him and wraps him up in a hug.

Instantly, Josh melts into her arms, forgetting about the fact that he’s still slightly damp from the rain. She doesn’t seem to mind, instead letting him lean against her in the doorway before they’re interrupted by some very feisty meowing. 

Josh lifts his head up to notice the two cats staring at him from beneath a precarious-looking drying rack that’s assembled in the middle of the tiny kitchen on one side of the hallway. Their beady little eyes shine amid the hanging t-shirts and towels. As soon as he notices them, they both decide to stake their claim in the hallway instead, slinking out to sit themselves down just behind Donna like guardians of the apartment. 

“They don’t like me,” he says as he straightens up, Donna’s hand brushing over his shoulder as they separate. 

“You gotta get to know ‘em,” she assures him, her tone as soft and sincere as if he really was hurt about the cats, though there’s the quirk of a half-smile on her lips. 

Josh goes to take his coat off, careful to give Donna’s feline houseguests their space as he edges around them to where the coat hooks are. “If you say so.”

“I’m all out of snacks so I was thinking–”

“You’d order takeout on my card?” Josh raises his eyebrows, waiting for the inevitable nod of admission. 

“Okay, yes, but I promise not to eat your egg rolls this time.” 

He rolls his eyes but hands it over before saying, “I’m not hungry so don’t worry about me.” 

Donna considers him for a moment, her eyes staring intently, perhaps noticing the weariness in his eyes or the droop of his shoulders. Putting the phone to her ear, she dials a number she’s dialed a thousand times before and recites the same list as always, making a point to look at him as she orders for him. When she hangs up, she shrugs unapologetically and says, “You need to eat, Josh.” 

Josh hasn’t got it in him to argue anymore, so instead he lets her guide him toward her lounge as an old rerun of Cheers plays on the TV. It’s a mindless distraction and the perfect excuse to sink down into the couch with her beside him, though he still can’t seem to shake the tension from the day’s endless sequence of bad news. The worst of it keeps replaying in front of him, making it impossible to switch off from, even when he knows it’s time to. 

When the black cat climbs over the arm of the couch to settle in his lap, it begins to feel like even the animals can sense his sour mood, something comforting (despite his previous aversion to the pets) in the way she curls up on his legs. At first, he feels like he’s about to sneeze, the uncomfortable sensation stuck in his nose – and then it passes. He ends up stroking her despite himself, the repetitive motion soothing even to him. He thinks he might even be okay, might be relaxing, and then he hears a siren blaring down the street, the sharp, distinct sound echoing in his mind until he can’t help but say aloud, “Some days I don’t know how we’re gonna get anything done.” 

Donna’s head rolls against the couch cushion to look at him. The long pause she allows implores him to continue.

Josh closes his eyes and lets his head rest on the line of the couch. “It was working, people were listening and now… they’ve got state officials sending mixed messages. If they could just–just get on the same page. It doesn’t need to be partisan. This. This doesn’t need to be partisan. It shouldn’t be.” 

She still doesn’t say anything, just lets him wallow a moment before he sits up again and says, “I shouldn’t be… ranting at you.” 

Donna sighs as she looks from his hand slowly stroking the cat up to meet his eyes, a resignation about her as she admits, “I kinda missed it.” She gives him a little nudge with her elbow. “Besides, you’re right. And you know I won’t say that often because I’m all too aware of what it does to your ego. But you’re right about this.” 

Feeling a rush of guilt for what it means for Donna’s idea and the hope of a gentler approach working effectively, Josh tells her, “We’re talking about an executive action. A mandate.”

“It’s back on the table?” 

“The numbers are too high. Leo thinks the push isn’t enough.” 

“Then maybe it’s the right call.” She looks down, tucking her chin to her chest for a moment. It’s at that moment that Josh feels hard paws digging into his legs, the cat abruptly standing in his lap to climb into Donna’s instead. 

He watches her stroke her hand affectionately over the animal, her eyes coming back to his with a little more sadness in them than he can handle. It only compounds his own frustration, his own disappointment. “They’re playing us. They’re actively undermining the president’s message so that he has to make the call, so that they can frame it like a big government move.”

Her words are gentle and forgiving as she reminds him, “You can only work with what you’ve got.”

The sentiment provokes such an intense surge of love, it almost blindsides him. Because he should’ve done more, found a way, pushed harder. He has to be everything the job needs from him, that Leo and the president need from him. He understands now that it’s her, too, that he’d been terrified of letting down. Donna. Donna, who takes care of him and worries about him and holds him up when he’s on the brink of collapse. And here she is, forgiving him for all the things he’s not, allowing him a little grace for all the things he couldn’t do.

His voice barely holds up as he near-whispers, “I really wanted your plan to work.”

Donna’s got tears sparkling in her eyes as she replies, “I know you did, Josh.”

For a long beat, they’re staring at each other. Long enough for a strange new thought to creep into Josh’s mind. 

He could kiss her right now. 

And it's funny. He's thought about it before, but only ever abstractly. His mind had been careful not to wander into what if territory in any real way, but now the notion dangles there in front of him. 

She looks beautiful like this, beautiful in a warm, cozy way that is nothing like the beautiful of her dressed up for a date or a White House function she's talked him into letting her attend. She’s got her hair a little disheveled from where it’s fluffed against the sofa and there’s a stain on her sweatshirt and no makeup on her face. But all he can see is the way she’s looking at him, a question in her eyes like maybe she’s thinking about it too. When he catches the way her gaze flickers to his lips, only briefly, it feels like confirmation. It feels like a dare. 

All the reasons they can’t and he shouldn’t fade into the background.

There are a lot of reasons, he remembers vaguely, without being able to pinpoint a single one as he looks into her eyes. What he sees staring back at him looks a lot like longing, looks a lot like that feeling he’s been carrying around with him for weeks now, looks a lot like love.

He’s just about to break, feeling the urge to lean in overtaking his body, when–

There’s a buzz at the door. 

Donna snaps her gaze away, then clears her throat. “That’ll be the, uh… The food.” 

Josh nods awkwardly, watching as she goes to answer it. The cat scampers at the motion, stalking back over to the elaborate cat tree erected on the other side of the room.  

When Donna returns, they eat in relative silence, the laughter track from the TV the only sound filling the room. Even the cats seem to respect the quiet, instead staring watchfully from their tower. 

It’s as they finish up, after covering over the inevitable leftovers on the coffee table and sinking back into the couch, that Josh begins to contemplate heading home. How long can he stretch out this much-needed albeit clandestine respite? Can he use the rain as an excuse to linger a while longer? What would happen if he stayed? 

His distracted musings are interrupted by the sound of another siren passing by the building, this one seeming somehow more urgent than the last. They’ve been coming more frequently lately, or at least it feels that way. His body aches from all the tension it’s holding, each flinch at the sound seeming only to double down on the last, never letting up. He tries not to let it show, knowing she’ll worry at the slightest sign of his PTSD symptoms. 

He turns his face away just enough that she won’t see him close his eyes. But, of course, Donna knows him too well for that to work.

He’s still turned away when he feels her hand cover his where it lies between them on the couch. 

“I hear the sirens all the time,” she says as the sound fades away, leaving only the noise from the TV and the faint patter of rain against the windows. “Sometimes they feel non-stop.”

“Oh, that’s not just me?” he tries to joke. He knows his flippancy is a mistake as soon as he says it, catching the look on her face as he turns to face her, light sparkling in her eyes like she’s only just holding back a tear. “Too soon?”

For a moment, she looks like she can’t decide whether to scold him or cry, and the regret hits him instantly. He wraps his arm around her shoulders and pulls her into a hug, letting her curl into his side as his chin settles on the top of her head. 

“I shouldn’t have joked about it,” he mumbles softly. 

“No,” she sniffs, “but it’s okay. It’s just… today, you know?”

“Yeah,” Josh rasps. He breathes in a long, deep breath before admitting, “It seems like it’s getting harder.”

“Yeah.”

“I shouldn’t be here.”

“Josh.”

He brings her in a little closer. “I’m really glad I am.”

Josh feels her exhale against him, slumping into his hug.

 

*

 

A few days later, Donna falls asleep at his place. On the couch, but still. Overnight.

It doesn’t take long for that to become a habit, too. And there’s this awful dilemma in wanting to be chivalrous and offer her the bed while knowing that his assistant in his bed is a line that once crossed cannot be uncrossed, no matter how innocently it’s intended. 

If Toby knew about any of this, he’d have Josh’s head on a platter in a nanosecond. CJ would be sounding off with run-on sentence after run-on sentence. And Leo? Just thinking about it makes him shudder.

But nothing’s happened.

The only problem is: he knows he wants it to.

It feels different here, in his home. The patter that was their familiar, easy workplace banter comes with new connotations when they’re stood speaking in those long rallies, back and forth, in the middle of his kitchen – him with his hands in the sink as he washes up, her watching the pan on the stove. The mental leaps from here aren’t so far. It makes him realize that what they had to begin with was already pretty close to something other people wear as a band on their fourth finger. 

And maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance Donna’s noticed as well. 

The weekly reunions turn into more, turn into every other night, turn into ending each day sinking into his sofa with her head on his shoulder and the TV on in the background. And does it feel like more than it should be to her? Or does it feel like exactly what it is? 

Everything around them exists somewhere on the spectrum from bad to hopeless, but whatever this is, it’s good. It’s maybe the best thing in his life. The thought of losing it is terrifying and the thought of never finding out what it could be is growing more so. There’s no guidebook on what you do when you realize you’re in love with your assistant. If there is, it’s one word long and it says: don’t

 

*

 

The desire to kiss her, once first realized and acknowledged, never seems to subside. It grows ever more frequent, creeping into even their most focused moments of work. It fills distracted daydreams at his desk, it follows him on walks around the half-deserted West Wing, it deepens every time she looks at him. The feeling is like pulling at a piece of elastic and waiting for it to snap, her as much as him sometimes, when she lets herself lean on his shoulder as she falls asleep or when she flirts away the solemnity of a miserable day. 

They slide further and further into this quasi-domestic situation that, while illicit, feels calming and mundane in a way that balms the profound anxiety of life in the middle of a global pandemic. (Life in the middle of a global pandemic when you’re meant to be running the country.)

There’s a morning when he wakes up bleary-eyed to the buzzing of his phone in his back pocket, the interruption stirring him from an awkward position on the sofa. He’d fallen asleep sitting up, his body slumped on the end with Donna pressed against his side, hours of work talk having kept them up late into the night until eventually they’d crashed. There’s a crick in his neck is the first thing he notices, trying to straighten up his back to help ease the discomfort. The next thing he notices is her. 

She looks peaceful. The worried crinkle above her nose is gone. 

“Donna,” he whispers, trying not to disturb her too much as he shifts upright. He’s careful as he maneuvers from under the weight of her limp, sleeping form, rearranging them so that she ends up leaning against the sofa cushions instead of his shoulder. 

“Mm?” she moans, half-conscious. 

“It’s morning. I gotta head to work,” he tells her, trying to extricate the inherent domesticity from the words somehow, suppressing the impulse to indulge in it. Their unintended early morning closeness leaves him feeling like he’s on a high wire without a safety net suddenly, dangling on the precipice – terrified that any small misstep will come with quite a fall, a swift crash landing waiting for him. He proceeds cautiously, edging away from her as she wakes enough to hold herself up. 

The distance is a mercy. He’s also grateful for the hazy half-sleep she’s still caught in that protects his minor morning existential crisis over their situation from her detection. 

Through a yawn, he makes out, “What time is it?”

“It’s 6:30.”

“Josh,” she scolds him, still a little dozy as her eyes begin to open. Their faces are close when he catches her attention, Donna turning to the side to look at him without the inhibition to moderate her gaze. He sees those green eyes flicker to his lips. He waits for an interruption, or for Donna to abruptly come to her senses and pull further away, but she doesn’t. She just looks at him, as if waiting to see what he’ll do. 

“I have to go, Donna,” he finds himself saying, soft and unsure and apologetic.  

“Have breakfast first,” she insists. 

“I’ll grab something from the Mess.” 

Donna sighs. “I miss the Mess. I miss Jerry.”

Josh stands up, collecting himself at the very limit of his own self-restraint (and managing to half-successfully repress a twinge of jealousy directed at a random Mess worker named Jerry). “You can stay here as long as you like. Work from here if you want. I gotta go, okay? I think Toby needs me about a thing.” 

“Oh yeah? What kind of thing?”

He knows he’s a terrible liar, and yet. “A… classified thing.”

Donna looks at him skeptically as he stumbles off into his bedroom to change and freshen up. It takes him about ten minutes, all told, with half that time devoted to the recurring freakout that he’d wanted to kiss her, that she’s waking up in his apartment, that he’d felt genuinely comforted by it – until the panic set in. 

 

*

 

It begins to feel like a breaking point is an inevitability. One way or the other. It’s only strange that when the breaking point comes, it’s not what he expects at all. 

It’s not a charged moment locking eyes with her.

It’s not a fumbled mistake late into another evening they shouldn’t be spending together.

It happens when he’s all on his own. 

 

*

 

Later that same day, Josh gets word from Leo that there are new changes to the working situation at the White House. They’re allowing a bigger pool of employees back in, the first wave of a long-term plan, with the addition of extra cleaning protocols, a regular testing system, desk dividers, mask requirements and a whole bunch of new rules for Margaret to laminate. 

Donna’s coming back. 

They’ll be working together like they always have. 

“I trust you’ll get off my back about it now,” Leo remarks as he pulls Josh aside to confirm Donna’s on the new list. 

A strange, indefinable feeling hits him like a lightning bolt. The thing he’d wanted most for weeks is now there in his grasp and yet he can’t shake the sense that something’s off about it. The thought of their dynamic – the one they’ve been hiding away in their respective apartments – being forced back into the confines of this building and its rules and formalities feels suffocating. It’s not like they’ve ever been particularly professional. It’s just that now he’s thought about their relationship in another light, a new context, he can’t help but feel that returning to what they were would be a step back. He doesn’t know what the step is, only that they’ve taken one, somewhere, sometime in these past few weeks. 

So, all day, the others ask him warmly if he’s told Donna yet. And he hasn’t. He isn’t ready. Each time someone asks, they seem genuinely excited for him and yet he can’t muster that same feeling himself. 

It sits with him for hours. 

He tries to imagine her at her desk again. He tries to imagine the way they go back to normal, a version of normal with new rules about distance and contact that are entirely antithetical to their extremely tactile natures.

The problem is, what had always lingered just beneath the surface now feels undeniable. Utterly undeniable. And even Josh, for all his years of a semi-conscious crush on his assistant, knows that wanting to kiss her all day every day is a problem he can’t simply ignore. He’d feel guilty and sleazy, and it wouldn’t be fair to her. 

Plus, there’s a second wave of guilt that’s been building almost as long: she’s too good. He knows it better than anyone. She shouldn’t be back here, running his errands for him.

It’s a script that runs through his head two or three times over between every meeting. 

After an intense summit with Leo, the president and the Coronavirus Task Force that just about divests him of all optimism, he shuffles back to his office for a video conference with a first-term congresswoman who’d demanded a meeting on resources to aid special needs students forced into home learning. It had been Donna, usually an extremely protective guardian of his time, who’d convinced him the congresswoman was worth talking to. He’d been won over partly because he owed Donna one (or twenty), and partly because he remembered Congresswoman Fleming as an amiable and friendly ally during the campaign. 

It’s as the congresswoman greets him warmly and says, “How’s your assistant doing? She made quite an impression when I ran into her on the campaign trail,” that an idea sparks. Josh quickly starts formulating the kind of plan he never thought he’d have to make. 

“I wanted to talk to you about Donna, actually, before we get into it,” Josh pivots, knowing it’s now or never. He’s always been a little impulsive.

“Donna? Sure. Everything okay?” 

 

*

 

It’s been raining, he discovers when he leaves work a few hours later. The smell of petrichor hits him with the cool fresh air and there’s something poetic about it, he thinks. A kind of pathetic fallacy of sorts. The rain might only be stopped for a while but, at the peak of spring with the bloom of cherry blossom trees and the daylight stretching out a little longer, it is easy to savor the respite between showers.

He lets himself wander around the streets of D.C. for a while in an attempt to gather his thoughts. He’s no speechwriter. He’d considered asking for Toby’s help in the seconds it took before he remembered the circumstances. Instead he’d have to try and articulate himself, his intentions, as artfully as possible on his own. It feels like the premiere night of the high-wire act he’s long been practicing, with an added twist or jump to heighten the stakes; all or nothing, ultimately. 

On that walk, prolonged by every doubt, he talks himself out of it several times over. 

And then there’s the memory of the question in her eyes when he’d thought of kissing her. There’s the memory of her curled into his side like an extension of him. There’s the way she’d intuited everything he needed from her and wrapped her arms around him.

She would forgive him.

Even if he was making a mistake, she’d forgive him.

It’s with that knowledge as a comfort that he winds up at her apartment without a warning call. There’s nervous energy pumping through his veins like he’s thrown back a shot of adrenaline with a caffeine chaser. He presses the buzzer then steps back, hopping from one foot to the other until she lets him in the building, at which point he makes for the stairs, taking them two, three steps at a time. 

He’d spent an hour wandering around D.C. like an aimless puppy, yet now it feels strangely urgent to get to her while he can still hold his nerve. 

Of course, that means when he arrives at her door he’s desperately out of breath. Presumably tired of waiting for the knock, Donna comes out and finds him hunched over in the hallway recovering, a hand over his chest as he attempts to steady his breathing the way Stanley had taught him once. He can feel his heart beating wildly and he’s distracted thinking about it when she appears in front of him, full of concern, his baggy Harvard sweatshirt drowning her and paired with black leggings. Her hair’s down, but he notices a kink in it where it’s usually dead straight, like she’d had it tied up not long before. 

“Josh, what–What’s going on? Your face is frozen in an odd way,” she says, looking at him with a kind of wary hesitance, the corner of her mouth lifted like she’s trying to make light of it. “It’s making me nervous.”

It shakes him out of what he suddenly realizes is a long stare. “I–I have to tell you something.”

“Well, now I’m definitely nervous.”  

“Can I come inside?” 

She acquiesces instantly, leading him into the apartment he’s grown used to. The place is the same as it ever was: a drying rack covered in clothes he recognizes positioned at the center of her small kitchen, two cats staring at him like Donna’s disapproving parents, stacks of paper all over her coffee table, some medical drama muted on the TV, the sidelight on instead of the main light that he know flickers sometimes. He notices that her laptop is still open with the briefing notes he’d ask her to prepare for his meeting with the Speaker. Though not able to read them from this distance, he catches sight of little yellow highlighted notes on the page and thinks regretfully of how he’ll miss them someday, those hints of her that permeate the pages of his daily life so consistently. 

“Something’s wrong, Josh,” she says as they stand slightly awkwardly in the lounge. It’s not a question. 

“No,” he replies unconvincingly, scratching a hand through his hair as he fumbles for that perfect opening line he’d decided on somewhere between Pennsylvania Avenue and Dupont Circle. There’s an order to it, he reminds myself. A way of navigating the situation that has to start with some small, uncharacteristic modicum of professionalism. 

"I recommended you to Fleming," he finds himself saying, and then at the look of total bewilderment on her face, rushes to explain, "For a job she's got opening up."

There's a beat while she absorbs that, and then he catches a flash of hurt on her face that brings bile up to his mouth. He finds, too, that though he’d known it beforehand, speaking the words aloud with all the implications they carry hurts him in some profound way he hadn’t quite expected. It is the kind of hurt that is a fact of life, the way of saying goodbye to an old school to graduate into the next, or waving off an old friend as you move in different directions, not knowing if you’ll see each other again. It is a necessary pain, but the sting is no less real in the moment.

"I work for you," Donna says, her arms folding protectively around herself. 

"You'd have more opportunity to shape policy, to—"

"I work for you," she repeats, with such a steely stubbornness that he almost smiles. It’s an accusation, if anything, though. Her loyalty, as ever, remains absolute in contrast to his – in her eyes, he sees – betrayal. 

“Yeah.” He swallows around the lump in his throat.

“Josh.”

“Donna, you’re better than this job,” he says with renewed fervor, remembering parts of the script he’d drawn up in his head and finding relief in it. The talking points, he reminds himself, having pieced his thoughts together not unlike his boss in debate prep. “You’re too smart to be stuck in an assistant role. You should be running an office on the Hill, not doing grunt work for me. I’ve known that for… for far too long. So, I’m telling you, I think you should take the job.” 

She’s biting on her lip and he can see her trying to hold back tears. He feels an impulse to reach out to her but fights it.

“If you’d rather something in communications, I could talk to Toby, or CJ. Either one of them would be thrilled to have you…” 

She cuts him off: “But you don’t want me to work for you anymore?”

“No, Donna,” he sighs. “I’m holding you back. Anyone can see it.”

“I like my job, Josh. I’m good at it.”

Too good at it. Which is… kind of the point of my telling you all this.”

“Are you... firing me?”

Josh winces. “No, Donna, I’m not…” 

“You’ve spent most nights at my apartment the past few weeks because you need my help, but now you want me to go work for somebody else?”

“I think it’s the best thing for me, too,” he tries to explain, before the hurt on her face truly feels like a knife twisting in his chest. He’s reminded swiftly of the insufficiency of his oratory skills in moments of crisis. 

“Let me–Okay, let me put it another way,” he tries again, searching to find the right answer, the elusive right wording he’d been so sure of on his walk. “Say there’s this guy, okay, and he really wants something.” Josh notices the black cat, who he’s come to learn is called Lady, scratching herself on the opposite side of the room. “Guy really wants a cat.” He ignores Donna’s deepening frown lines as her stare bores into him. “And he’s stuck in a dilemma because to get the cat, well, he’d be, uh, breaking a clause in his lease agreement. He gets to see the cat, visit the cat, all day if he likes, but he just–he really wants the cat to be his .”

It’s at that last word he notices her demeanor change. Only a little. It’s as if curiosity is seeping in, still mixed with hurt and confusion, but there’s just enough genuine curiosity to hold her fire.

Trying to capitalize on it, Josh continues, “And–and he doesn’t even know if the cat wants him back, you know? But he thinks she does, he thinks…” His voice trails off and he swallows, his eyes never leaving hers – as if to look away now would be to allow room for misunderstanding. “Now that he knows he wants… the cat, he can’t think about anything else.”  

It hangs there between them a while, his odd soliloquy. 

He watches her chest rise and fall in deep, even breaths. Her arms unravel eventually and her shoulders seem to visibly drop from the tense square frame she’d held them in, the gesture filling him with hope. She stares at him and then looks about the room, watching the cat herself as if checking she’s deciphered him correctly. 

“Josh,” she says, voice small, “are you planning to steal my roommate’s cats?” 

“No, I–I…” I’m trying to steal your roommate’s roommate, he thinks, desperately fumbling for where to go from there. “I’m not good at this.”

“Josh.”

“Yeah?” He looks at her, slightly resigned and frustrated with himself.

“I quit,” she states so simply and undramatically, he has to check he heard her right.

“What?”

“I… quit,” Donna seems to realize as she says it a second time, straightening up as if preparing to square off with him; she lifts her head to meet his eyes, her resolve stiffening before him. Her voice shifts into something formal and personal and a little cold as she tells him, “We had a good run, but I think I’m going to look for other opportunities. I’ve heard Fleming in–”

“Donna?”

“I quit, Josh,” she says again, a smile creeping in like the first hint of sunlight breaking through the curtains, the corners of her eyes giving it away. “You didn’t hear me the first time?”

“But–”

Donna steps closer. “I don’t work for you anymore, Josh,” she tells him, careful over each word, as if to make clear her own understanding even as his falters. Her eyes are staring at him with an intent that makes his stomach flip, her lids heavy, her smile fading again. 

“What are you saying?” he whispers, his voice barely holding out, taking another step closer to her, no space left between them. 

“Tell me it again but tell me like I’m not your assistant.”

A spark of understanding. It comes more from the look in her eye than her words.

Josh raises his eyebrows, a question she answers by holding steady as, slowly, he leans in. He watches for the slightest flinch of hesitation, holding her gaze until the moment she closes her eyes in anticipation. And then he presses a gentle kiss to her lips. Timid. A close-mouthed peck before he pulls away – far enough to look into her eyes, eyes that linger closed long enough for him to watch her open them again.

It’s miraculous, that brief, momentary interlude where hope transforms into confirmation. 

There’s no more second-guessing every glance, or doubting what feels like truth. He knows, finally, that they want the same thing. His nerves fade, replaced now by relief and joy and desire. All that yearning he’d suppressed is finally given permission.

He stares unabashedly into her eyes and slides his hand over her cheek, holding her face to his palm, fingertips buried in her hair as he brushes the pad of his thumb gently over her lips. 

He kisses her. For real this time. It’s a heated, whole-body kiss that she surges to meet, his hand guiding down her back as she presses herself against him, runs her fingers roughly through his hair, teases him with her tongue. All timidity dissolves, replaced now by heady, uninhibited want. Whatever concerns he’d had about only wanting what he couldn’t have are erased by the glorious realization that he wants her more now than he ever has, her kiss like a dizzying promise of all that’s to come. 

When she draws back to catch her breath, beaming at him with a look in her eye like she’s not quite sure if she believes it’s all happening, he’s helpless to do anything but gaze in awe. He kisses her again, just because he can, and feels her laugh against him.

“Just to be clear, in that analogy, I’m the cat?” she whispers close to his lips.

Josh groans, shrinking with embarrassment before hiding his face in the curve of her neck. She wraps her arms around him in a hug, her body still shaking with laughter inside the embrace.

“You’ve got no future in speech-writing,” she tells him, her fingers stroking tenderly through his curls. But the affection buried deep in her voice as she says it means all he hears is the word future and all he sees is her filling it with color.

 

*

 

Josh waits until the senior staff morning briefing to tell the others about Donna. About Donna quitting, that is. Though the thought of no longer having his days filled with fun facts she’s discovered amid her research or neverending back-and-forths about the issue of the moment is a bleak one, he’s been in a good mood since he woke up. Since he woke up right next to her. Perhaps the good mood is why the others seem so shocked when he tells them.

Leo gives him the same look he usually reserves for trying to solve crossword puzzles, CJ looks at him like he just told her his pet died and Toby just stares ominously. 

It’s Will who breaks the tension by asking, “Is there a card going round?”

Josh narrows his eyes. “Is there a card going round? Not in a pandemic, no.” 

“Well, you, uh,” Will clears his throat, straightening up his posture and smoothing out his tie, “give her our best.”

“Is Donna okay?” CJ asks, rather more concerned. “Did something happen?”

“No, she got offered a job for Fleming on the Hill. It was an opportunity for her to take on more responsibility.” 

“Well, that’s great,” she replies, a little more pep in her voice though still seeming uncertain about whether it is, in fact, great. 

“It is great,” Josh reiterates, for the benefit of everyone. “It’s great. Great, great, great.” 

Will leans across to Josh, muttering, “You’ve said ‘great’ five times now and it’s starting to sound a little like you mean the opposite. Even to me. And I barely know what’s going on.”

As soon as they’re out of the meeting and headed back to their offices, Toby falls into stride with Josh. “You turned into Tony the Tiger back there.”

“Toby,” Josh moans at him. 

“Donna quit and you’re just fine with that?”

“No, I’m not fine.” 

“Well, how come you don’t look like you’re about to punch your fist through a wall?”

Josh scowls at him. “Is that what you were expecting from me?”

“In this scenario? Yes.”

“I’m happy for her.” His voice comes out a little too high. He scratches the back of his neck.

“You’re happy for her?” Toby says, his tone loaded with skepticism. As they turn the corner into the communications bullpen, he pulls Josh off-course and into his office. 

“Toby! What the hell–”

Toby glares at him in silence for a moment before muttering, low and under his breath, “What did I tell you no less than, what, three hundred times about sleeping with your assistant?”

“First of all, Toby, that is absolutely not what happened and I resent the–”

“Then why do I find that so completely impossible to believe?” he barks in Josh’s face. 

“That sounds more like your problem to me, Toby.”

“You kissed her?”

“Toby, why would you–no–I…” Josh starts scratching his head wildly, his eyes closing as he searches for quite the right response to the inquisition he’s now being subjected to. He’s never been known for his poker face. 

“The unprofessionalism in this building is stag-ger-ing,” Toby practically yells back, hard emphasis on the last word. “How many times did I warn you, Josh?”

“Okay, but, what you need to know–”

“Oh, please, Josh, tell me what it is I need to know.”

“–is that we kissed once.” He reconsiders, still correcting himself with the same adamant tone for Toby. “A couple times! But," he says, jabbing an emphatic finger toward the ground, keen to establish a certain level of principle here, "it was after she told me she was quitting."

"Well, I'm sure the Washington Post will be just as keen to specify the order of those events. I'm sure the neat little diagram laying out the very above-board timeline for everyone will appear right underneath the headline 'Senior White House Aide Can't Keep It Zipped For Five Goddamn Minutes'.” 

His hackles raised now, Josh fires back, “I think the Post and the Times and every other goddamn paper in America has bigger fish to fry right now, don’t you think, Toby?”

“Oh yes, let’s look on the bright side that an unprecedented economic crash and global pandemic have given you the best possible opportunity of getting away with an affair with your assistant.” 

“Toby, it’s not an affair and she’s not my assistant anymore!” 

“Oh, you know what, Josh?” Toby’s voice goes up an octave, carried over a ripple of fake laughter. “You’re right. I don’t know why I thought it could be a problem.” 

“I love her,” he blurts out, the words surprising even him. And yet, when they settle, he finds them to be true. Completely, undeniably true. “I’m in love with her.” 

“Yeah,” Toby says, and maybe Josh is imagining it, but he seems to soften just the tiniest bit. “I know that.” 

“I didn’t know before,” Josh tries to explain, realizing that despite everything, he wants Toby to understand that this isn’t him making some big mistake that everyone has to clean up for him. This isn’t Sam and the call girl. It’s not Mandy and the memo. It’s Donna. It’s inevitable. “I didn’t… I didn’t want to lose her because of a... crush or something. But it’s not. I know now that it’s… not. I need her.” Meeting Toby’s eyes, he finds understanding there; it’s understanding loaded with memories of their shared history, of Donna keeping them both sane in the middle of Indiana, of Toby having told Donna about the president’s MS when Josh couldn’t bear to, of the three of them sat in a hospital room after the shooting. “You know I do.” Toby must know better than anyone, really.

Toby gives a slight, begrudging nod and Josh feels relief flood his body, even as Toby warns, “CJ’s gonna hit the roof.” 

“Yeah.”

“There’ll be a feeding frenzy when the press finds out.” 

“Yeah.”

Toby clears his throat. “You love her?”

He can’t help the bashful smile that breaks out across his face as he says, “Yeah. I do.”

Toby, on the other hand, holds the same unamused, inscrutable expression as always as he mumbles, “Took you long enough.” 

“What?”

A little louder, though still shy of a normal volume, Toby elaborates: “I said it took you long enough. To realize. The rest of us got that memo by the time we’d unpacked our boxes.”

“So… you’re fine now then?” Josh surmises, watching his friend wander over to his desk as if ready to be done with the whole situation now. 

When Toby looks up at him, he’s silent for a long, tense moment before he says, “Don’t expect me to help you with CJ. Just let me know when you tell her so I can get popcorn.”

Josh can’t help but throw his head back at the thought. One down, at least. 

 

*

 

Later, when he does talk to CJ, it’s surprisingly undramatic despite Toby’s best hopes. She has a little fun with Josh for a while – “Like I don’t have enough to worry about without you throwing a classic Washington scandal onto the bonfire, Casanova!” – before her facade crumbles to laughter and she reveals a pre-existing strategy plan she’d drawn up for this very eventuality. It involves offering up a few story items to bait the press into alternative coverage if they do stumble upon a whiff of the story, along with a statement to drop into a Friday night briefing a few weeks or months from now – effectively burying it with the rest of the less desirable stories for a small mention in the Saturday papers. 

Toby leaves the moment she stops yelling insults in her moment of theater, but Josh hears her out. He’s particular about the reference to Donna in the statement, careful to ensure the wording is exact and leaves no room for outside interpretation. 

As Josh does eventually go to leave, once it’s abundantly clear that CJ’s grown tired of his input, she stops him on his way out to say, “Oh, and Josh?”

He turns around, pulling on the doorframe as he swivels to face her again. 

CJ stares him down for an uncomfortably long beat before warning him, “You hurt her and I’ll feed you to those sharks in a second.” 

“I’m not gonna–”

Going back to type at her computer, she doesn’t even look at him as she cuts him off: “In a second!”

“CJ! You’re my friend too!” he protests.

“Well, I like her better.”

Josh finds little argument with that, turning on his heels to leave and muttering, “So does my mother.”

 

*

 

“The congresswoman’s been great. Although, everyone walks so slow here, I’m still getting used to it,” Donna’s explaining from the video window on his screen, poking at the salad in front of her as they talk over lunch. She takes a bite, before asking, “Who’d you get assigned, by the way?”

Josh starts: “I haven’t...”

He’s cut off when he notices a man he doesn’t recognize wandering the halls in front of his office, passing once then circling back, looking around the quiet bullpen before he glances through the door at Josh. He’s got a mask on his face and one of the yellow badges everyone has to wear prominently now to say they’re safe to be on the premises. “Ryan Pierce. I’m looking for Josh Lyman.”

“Looks like you found him,” Donna says on Josh’s behalf, though the disembodied voice seems to confuse the kid.

“She’s–” Josh points at the laptop to explain and Ryan nods, lingering in the doorway still. 

“I’ll let you two get acquainted,” Donna says decisively after a mildly awkward stare-down between Josh and the teenage-looking guy loitering in front of him.  

He can see she’s already reached over her lunch to the mousepad when he tries to stop her. “Donna!”

“I’ll see you tonight, Josh,” she tells him, a glare in her eyes that makes him feel a little bad about the cold reception he’s giving the kid. Not bad enough to do anything about it, though. 

“Okay, good luck with the rest of your day,” he mumbles, still a little grumpy at her sudden signing off. He’d barely had a chance to hear a single anecdote, despite some brief teasing of a coughing incident that had resulted in a minor security shutdown that turned out to be a case of water going down the wrong way for some poor aide. As she gives a little wave on the screen, he signs off, “Love you, bye.” 

Josh watches it register on her face, her eyes going wide, for only a second before the call ends. 

There’s a long, loaded silence in the room as the video call window disappears and he looks above the top of the screen to the kid again. He knows. Josh can tell the kid knows what he just witnessed, the newness of the words ringing in his own ears and the abrupt shock written on his face. Instead of waiting for a romantic moment, the mood right and her company tangible rather than virtual, to tell her he loved her, he’d instead blurted it out in front of a stranger in the middle of a work day. 

To say it left him bad-tempered would be an understatement. 

Ryan seems to brace for it, anticipating the prickly tone as Josh says, “Okay, you have five seconds to explain who you are and why you’ve interrupted my girlfriend’s lunch call on her first day in her new job.”

“I’m Ryan Pierce.” 

Josh’s eyes narrow. “Should that mean something to me?”

“Well, I–”

“Wait. Of the Pierce Bedroom Pierces?”

Ryan only nods.

Josh feels a preemptive desire to groan but contains it, instead saying, “That doesn’t explain what you’re doing standing around my office.”

“Well, sir, I… I got assigned to you.”

“Assigned to me?”

“I’m your new assistant.”

 

*

 

It’s less than twenty minutes later that Josh is storming down the halls of the West Wing to speak to Leo about the situation. He can tell from the twinkle in Margaret’s eye upon seeing him that it’s not going to go well and, inevitably, Leo is there to offer exactly zero sympathy for his situation. Even after he’s reeled off the full list of reasons why he can’t work with Ryan Pierce, based purely on their – so far – three interactions.  

“Listen, I’m happy for you and Donna. She’s the best thing that ever happened to you and you’re the son I never had.” Leo says it as off-handedly as if he were reeling off his lunch order, but Josh can’t help but be touched by the sentiment. However, it’s quickly offset: “But don’t think I’m not gonna have a little fun with you.”

“So you got me the least qualified, most arrogant, nepotistic hire you could find?!”

Leo doesn’t even look up from the papers he’s reading. “You know what’s funny, Josh? That’s almost exactly the brief I gave Margaret. Well, minus the nepotism. That was just a nice little bonus because I know how much you like Roland Pierce.”

Josh gestures frustratedly with one hand before crying out, “I’m trying to serve my country!”

“Oh, relax, would you please,” Leo snaps, finally glancing up with a withering look. “It’s just until Ginger gets back.”

“Really?”

Margaret wanders past Josh to place a sheet of paper on Leo’s desk for him to sign. He glances down and signs it as he replies, “Unless I decide to punish you some more.” 

“Leo!” Josh erupts again.

“It was Toby’s idea. I’m just doing what I can to improve morale around here,” Leo says unapologetically as Margaret makes her exit, the smirk on her face obvious even with her mask covering it, fueling Josh’s frustration even more.

“What about my morale?” 

“Think of it like you’re doing something for the greater good.”

“I thought you were supportive of Donna and I.”

“This is me being supportive.” 

“I don’t feel very supported.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Josh.” Leo pulls off his glasses, sits back in his chair and gives a look of such profound disapproval that Josh can feel himself shrinking. “Would you like me to cradle you like a baby and feed you a bottle?” 

“Is that a real question or–?”

“Josh.”

“It’s just that I, uh, accidentally told Donna I love her for the first time when I was hanging up the phone and I–” 

“So help me God, if you’re not out of my office in the next five seconds–”

“I’ll ask CJ,” Josh says before sprinting from Leo’s sight.

 

*

 

Donna doesn’t say a word about it when he sees her at home that night. Her home. Because of the cats he’s now at least partially responsible for keeping alive, only one of which seems to like him.

She’s standing at the bathroom sink taking her makeup off carefully as he tiptoes around the unsaid. Or the shouldn’t-have-said perhaps, his awkward gaffe from the end of their lunch call looming over him. He’s fresh out of the shower, having wanted to wash away the long day immediately, and rubs a towel through his hair to dry himself off behind her. 

“What’s your day like tomorrow? Wanna do lunch?” he asks, circling around a way to bring up their previous attempt at a midday virtual date but also keen for the promise of another. Getting to see even a glimpse of her, any time he can, improves his mood considerably.

“Can’t tomorrow.” She meets his eyes in the half-steamed up mirror before turning to face him with her back leaning against the porcelain, moisturising her hands as she tells him, “We’ve got a big meeting with a congressman from Texas on this education grant program and I want to make sure I’ve done my reading.” 

“Republican?” 

She shakes her head. “Democrat. Santos. You know him?” 

Josh tries to recall ever meeting the guy, but only remembers that he was in the running for an appointment on the Ways and Means Committee. “Know the name.”

When Josh doesn’t have anything further to say about it, Donna suggests, “Day after, though?”

“Mm.” He tries not to look too wounded before heading out of the bathroom and toward the bedroom, quickly throwing on a t-shirt and fresh boxers before she joins him. 

“You still like me now, even though there’s no sneaking around and I’m not at your every beck and call?” she teases, switching on her bedside light before turning off the main light. 

“Donna.” He lets out a sigh, his hands knotted together in front of him as if pleading with her from across the room. “I think the best way for you to know how I feel about you is that in telling you how I feel about you, I have made my professional life immeasurably worse. And, believe me, I got no regrets. Despite the sequence of administrative failures that are playing out in my office each day.” 

She clearly tries not to laugh, climbing into one side of their bed as he does the same. “New hire not going well?”

“He’s no Donnatella Moss,” he tells her as she shifts over to lie against his side.

“Josh,” she pats his chest lightly, “there’s not a lot he can do about that.”

“I’d like him to try.” 

Donna laughs. “It’s really that bad?”

Josh shrugs, trying to put on a brave face so she doesn’t start feeling too guilty over the change in circumstances. “Leo promised to give me Ginger when she’s back.” 

“Maybe go easy on him in the meantime.”

“I make no promises.”

“You really miss me at work, huh?” She sounds at least slightly pleased about it.

He lets out a long, dramatic sigh and looks down at her. “More than you will ever know.” He strains his neck to kiss her. “But it’s worth it.”

“Maybe we’ll get to work together again.”

He smiles to himself at the thought, but knows not to get too carried away. “No matter how much this Ryan kid does my head in, you’re never getting your old job back.”

“No, I meant… I don’t know. Maybe in a few years I could help you find the next guy.”

“Me and you on the campaign trail again?” Now there’s a thought. 

“Someday.” She shrugs against him. “Maybe.”

“If I see it, the real thing, you’re my first phone call,” he promises her. 

Donna shifts upright a little, her eyebrows lifting as she smirks at him. “Or maybe I’ll find the real thing and tell you about it.” 

Josh finds, when she pulls him up on it, he likes that idea even better. He imagines that phone call and tries to picture the kind of candidate who’d warrant it. He imagines Donna’s voice brimming with hope, her only having to say a few simple words, the way he’d come running. Because she’d know. If she saw it, she’d know.  

“Donna?” he says as she leans away to switch her bedside light out. She quickly snuggles back down on her side, facing away from him, Josh lining himself up with her and wrapping an arm around her waist. 

“Yeah?”

“I love you. I meant that.”

He feels her go very still at first, and then she relaxes against him. The hopeful edge as she says, “Yeah?” reassures him that it’s okay. It’s okay that he told her. 

“Just thought you should know.” 

Where his hand rests on her stomach, she covers it with hers and pulls him in a little tighter. “Can I ask you a question?” she whispers above the silence. “Why now, after all these years? Why’d you tell me now?”

He thinks about it. He thinks about the names turning into numbers on his desk, the countless days of needing someone to call and only ever choosing her, the powerless feeling they’d all been carrying despite all the power of the office. “Some days… lately, it feels like the end of the world. I think I always thought, maybe at the back of my mind, we’d talk about it after the term ended, or…” The thought slips away, because the administration had been about the size of it, those four more years a countdown far from conscious thought until lately. Lately he’d been able to hear the ticking. 

“Time isn’t something everybody gets,” he adds, changing tact, his thoughts lingering on somber daily briefings that remind him of that very fact. “And I didn’t want to waste anymore of it.”

Donna twists in his arms so that she’s facing him, looking at him with eyes that sparkle with tears. She kisses his cheek, his forehead, his lips. 

“I want to be happy, Donna.”

She smiles, her vast, bright grin beaming back at him. 

“You make me happy. No matter what, no matter how badly my day’s going. You make me happy. And I meant what I said about not holding you back anymore.”

She’s quietly resolute when she says, “I loved it, you know. Working with you all that time, for President Bartlet and Leo. I’m excited about this new opportunity and I think it’s time for something new, but I don’t want you to think you were… holding me back.” Her hand moves to hold his cheek, thumb sweeping over the apple of it affectionately. “I chose to stay. I chose to because I loved it.” She closes the gap to press a chaste kiss to his lips. “Although I can’t say I’m not glad to be able to tell you I love you now without violating several different White House rules and worrying the National Inquirer will come after us both.” 

“You do?”

“Don’t let it go to your head,” she warns him before rolling over to turn her back to him again.

He kisses her shoulder, aligning them so that his body is perfectly parallel with hers. And then he tries to fall asleep with the giddy thought that she loves him bouncing around in his head. It’s been a long day, and yet now he feels wide awake. 

“Goodnight, Josh,” she whispers, as if sensing the burst of energy he’s found. 

He closes his eyes, feels her fall asleep next to him as her breathing gets shallower, and waits for sleep to take him too. For all their talk of finding the real thing again someday, he wonders, half-dreaming, if maybe they’ve found it. Right here, this, between them. It leads him to imagine some distant day in the future, after the requisite time has passed for it not to seem brash, when he’ll ask her to marry him with those words in mind. He’ll tell her they’ve already found it and she’ll look at him like he’s crazy. But she’ll know he’s right, because she feels it too. She loves him too, he remembers, as if rediscovering a magical incantation.

He drifts off picturing it, a life after Bartlet, never for a moment considering that maybe The Real Thing comes around more often than he might expect.