The third in my "Collection of Prompts" series, requested through the tumblr drabble meme. Prompt: "Just once."
Josh tries to send her home just after two-thirty AM. He's got his wrinkled forehead in his hands when he murmurs that she can go, looks like he might actually drown in the pile of paperwork Leo had sent over. Donna—who's finally given up on her new shoes, and has managed to sweep her painstakingly curled hair up out of her face with the help of about fifty bobby pins—just stares at her ridiculous boss. For good measure, she raises an eyebrow.
"Sure," she says. "I'll just wander on out of here into the ten degree weather with no coat, and no money to pay for a cab, wearing the three inch heels I can barely hobble across the room in. Sounds great."
"You can take my coat," Josh says, without so much as a glance in her direction, "and I'll pay for your cab."
"Nice try." Donna slides into a chair across from him, index cards at the ready. "Talk to me about Kundu."
"Donna." Josh sighs, scrubs one of his hands over his face. "It's really very late."
"I can read a clock. Start talking."
"Or what?" Josh asks, looking up at her so sharply that Donna nearly flinches.
"Or you won't have any notes for your meeting with the ambassadors tomorrow," Donna says. She takes a breath, smooths her dress reflexively across her knees.
Josh studies her, tugging at his already loose bow tie until it comes undone entirely. Donna can usually skim his face the way she'd look for bolded words in a textbook, coming away with a general sense of what's running through his brain. She had to learn to do that early and well: for a person who shouts so much, ninety-five percent of Josh Lyman is below the surface, swimming under layers of self-deprecation and ego and easy charm and swagger. Most people think Josh is arrogant and brash; that he lives and dies by his own success and failure; that he revels in bulldozing his agenda through, no matter the casualties. Donna knows better, sees straight through every single one of his deflections. It makes her job a hundred times easier, and her life (the one that's about more than the White House) a little more complicated. Getting Josh—getting everything from the casual way he jokes about being shot to the cocky, self-assured grin he slaps on when he strolls into a meeting with the Majority Leader to the droop of his shoulders when he needs help but can't ask for it—is what Donna knows how to do.
Except tonight, his face might as well be gibberish. Tonight, Donna doesn't understand him at all.
The snowballs against her window. How he had simultaneously yelled at her for covering for Jack and seemed to have already forgiven her for it. The way his breath had caught, how his guard had dropped, how he'd told her: "You look amazing." His hands on her waist on that too-long, too-bumpy cab ride. Trying to send her home in the middle of a military intervention in Kundu because it's late, when keeping her up at all hours has never seemed to bother him before.
"I need a minute," Josh finally says, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the note cards. "I'm losing focus. Is there any more champagne?"
"The others drank it all. I'm pretty sure Toby took the last bottle with him when he left," Donna says, peering out into the deserted, silent bullpen.
"Well, shit." Josh scratches absently at the back of his neck. "I was kind of counting on a buzz to carry me through these last couple hours."
"Couple hours?" Donna repeats, narrowing her eyes. "Are you telling me you planned to work until nearly five AM?"
"And then, what, crash at your desk for an hour before waking up to put in a full day of work?"
"I was gonna take a power nap during lunch," Josh mutters. Donna folds her arms, considering.
"I have champagne," she announces.
"I have champagne. At home."
"You may be unfamiliar with the concept—it's a place people go when they're done with work. You do all sorts of things there, like sleep. Occasionally, you have a friend over for a drink." Donna flashes him her sunniest, most persuasive smile. "So, friend: how 'bout a drink?"
"But…I have to work," Josh says, brow still furrowed. "There's stuff. To do, that is."
"Well, see, I think we can help each other out. I need to get home (according to you, by the way)—you have a car. You can't focus and want champagne—I have champagne. It's one of those rare nights where everybody wins. Embrace it."
"Who the hell just has champagne lying around?" Josh wants to know, but a reluctant grin is starting to spread across his face. Donna can almost see his dimples.
"It's left over from New Year's, and I can't honestly believe you're giving me crap about free booze. There's a saying about horses that applies here."
"I can think of a few," Josh says. He stretches widely. "Okay, fine. Let's go. I guess we can pick this back up in the morning."
"I've never had to convince someone to let me get them drunk before," Donna says, rummaging around under the desk for her shoes. "You're almost impressive in your maniacal workaholism."
"That isn't even a word. Probably." Josh shoves a stack of papers (along with the index cards) off to the side of his desk and gets to his feet. "This champagne had better be worth all the mockery."
"It's the good stuff," Donna lies.
Josh settles his coat over Donna's shoulders just as she grudgingly slides back into her heels. When they walk out to his car, Josh's hand is on her back, a little lower than usual. His coat, wrapped heavily around her, smells like cologne and dry cleaning and something she can't quite name, something that makes a fluttery home for itself in the pit of her stomach.
On the ride to her apartment, Donna lets the coat slip, turns her head to stare out the window at the world streaking past. Josh is surprisingly quiet. She glances at him quickly, watching his face. There's something strange working across it. Something complicated. Something she doesn't recognize.
Donna stops looking.
"This is terrible," Josh says, but he's beaming.
"It was on sale," Donna complains, taking another sip of the (admittedly pungent) champagne. "I'm a girl on a budget, remember?"
"Okay, the US government pays you enough to afford something classier than…what did you spend, three whole dollars?"
"Four-fifty, tops. Anything more than that qualifies as the boozey equivalent of highway robbery."
"Thank you for that insightful criticism. I'll certainly take it into advisement the next time I selflessly share a drink with you."
"It would be charitable to call this a drink." Josh prods his glass like it might decide to bite him. "It's basically fizzy rubbing alcohol."
"Oh, for fuck's sake," Donna groans. "I have whiskey, too. It's certainly not up to your Westport-prep school-Ivy League-Fullbright-garden party standards, but I spent over twenty bucks on it, so there you go." Josh blinks at her, mouth falling open. Donna rolls her eyes, ducking back into the kitchen to poke around in her liquor cabinet.
"You've never done that before," he calls after her.
"Done what?" She retrieves the whiskey and a couple of glasses, and then heads back to where Josh is sprawled across her sofa. The rumpled look works for him pretty much all the time, but it especially works for him when he's in a tuxedo. Donna tries not to think about that too much. It's almost as difficult as pretending it isn't weird that they're drinking together in her apartment—alone—at three in the morning.
"Uh, you just never use that type of language." Josh scoots over so that she can sit back down. One of his arms is still draped across the back of the couch. "I didn't know you felt this strongly about champagne."
"You think that because I'm not you and don't saunter around swearing my head off at the office, I never curse at all? What am I, a delicate Victorian heiress? I say 'fuck' all the time, Josh."
"Not to me!"
"Yes, well, you're my boss, in case you've forgotten." Donna leans forward to pour them both a few fingers of the whiskey. "My mother thinks she didn't teach me a thing, but even I managed to absorb her lessons on professionalism. Mostly."
"Oh, yeah?" Josh asks, picking up one of the tumblers. His arm brushes against her shoulders, but he doesn't pull it away. "Lessons such as…?"
"The usual." Donna shrugs, takes a sip of the whiskey. It burns its way down her throat. "Always tuck your blouse into your skirt. If you finish the last of the coffee, make a fresh pot. Never repeat anything to a coworker you wouldn't mind your supervisors overhearing. Foul language doesn't belong in the workplace. Don't sleep with—you know. Anyone. That you work with, I mean." Josh's eyebrows shoot up; he practically chokes on his drink.
"Your mom actually told you not to sleep with your coworkers?" he splutters.
"Well, she didn't phrase it exactly like that, but yeah. That was the gist." Donna sighs. "I guess I should have really listened to her about that one. I thought it would be different with Jack." Josh's gaze flickers down to the glass he's still clutching.
"Because you worked in different departments?"
"Yes. And because we didn't know each other at all. There wasn't a complicated history—we just liked each other. Even if he'd stayed and things hadn't worked out, it would have been so easy to avoid him. To go back to just being strangers." Donna is acutely aware of how close Josh is beside her, can feel the solid warmth of his arm, the way his knee is just barely nudging against her leg. He should move away, she thinks. He always moves away.
"Do you miss him?" Josh asks the question like he already knows the answer. Usually, he'd be teasing her by now, maybe even lecturing her about her taste in men. And Donna—she should be elbowing him in the ribs, pretending to be offended. Biting back a grin, trying not to let it all feed his gigantic ego. That's what they do. That's what they always do.
Tonight, though, they aren't playing their typical parts. The script is different. Their blocking's all wrong. The timing is off, and they can't catch up, can't match this strange, uneasy rhythm. Donna is scrambling for lines that shouldn't be hers.
"I don't know if I miss him," she says, and finishes the rest of her whiskey. "I wasn't falling in love with him, if that's what you're asking."
"I don't know if that's what I was asking." Josh's knee is now pressing solidly against her thigh. Donna is rapidly losing the ability to care about whether or not they should be having this conversation. "I don't know whether I should ask that at all. I don't know what the fuck I'm doing here."
"What do you know, then?" Donna asks, unable to stop staring at their legs. She has to work hard to keep her hands from trembling.
"I know that I'm relieved you didn't give the Post that quote, and proud that you're the type of person whose first instinct is to protect someone you care about, even when the cost is—well, enormous. I know that you deserve better than a guy who would let your career suffer to salvage what's left of his. I know you're braver and kinder than most people in this business, myself included, and that you rarely make the same mistakes twice." Josh pauses, sets down his glass—and then his arm is somehow completely around her shoulders, and his fingers are brushing against her bare skin, and Donna doesn't want to stop him. "I know that I'm glad you broke-up with him, Donna. And I know that you're…you're amazing. Tonight, and y'know. Always."
"Josh," she whispers. There's nothing else to say.
"Sometimes," he whispers back, "I wish you didn't work for me."
Donna closes her eyes. They don't do this.
"Me, too," Donna hears herself say. Josh is breathing very slowly, his thumb trailing over the sleeve of her dress. Donna doesn't know what the fuck she's doing here, either. All she's sure of is how desperately Josh will regret everything about this. It will eat at him. For all the little innuendos and would-be leers, he's unfailingly honorable. He cares about her reputation, cares about not subjecting the administration to further scandal. He doesn't want to be this cliché. Donna doesn't want that, either. Whatever this is—whatever they are—it's more than a single moment of weakness. It has to be more.
Donna eyes fly open, and then she's shaking her head, scrambling to her feet. Setting her glass down so hard it nearly topples over. Folding her arms tightly across her chest, turning away from him.
"Donna?" Josh gets to his feet, too. He reaches for her elbow, and she jerks backwards. Doesn't know what she'll do if he keeps touching her.
"It's late," Donna says. When Josh finally gets ahold of her elbow, when he pulls her back to him, when he looks at her so intently, his eyes darker than she's ever seen them, Donna realizes what's been throwing her off ever since he showed up to bellow outside her window: tonight, Josh isn't wearing any face but his own.
There's nothing to search for. Nothing to peel back. For the first time in maybe five years, Donna is seeing one hundred percent of Josh Lyman. One hundred percent of something they're both supposed to ignore.
"Donna," Josh says again, but it's not a question this time. His voice has never been scraped quite this raw before, either. "I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry, too," she says, and then she wraps her arms around his neck and hugs him, hard.
He holds her carefully, lets go of her quickly. Thanks her for the drink. Teases her one last time about the shitty champagne. Shrugs into his coat. His face has already shuffled back to something effortlessly casual, something familiar. Something that just about snaps Donna's heart in half.
Josh stops at the door with his back to her, one hand frozen on the knob. His shoulders are hunched, his head ducked. Donna watches, bracing herself against the nearest wall. The sheer want for him aches right through her.
"I just—I just wanted to say it." Josh's words seem to almost disappear into the heavy silence. He doesn't turn around. "Just once."
"I know," Donna murmurs. And then: "I don't miss Jack."
Josh lets his forehead fall softly against the doorframe. Eventually, he nods. Maybe he says good night. All Donna knows is that he leaves, and she doesn't want him to. She stands there for nearly half an hour, wondering if she should quit.
The next morning, she drags herself to the office, and Josh shouts her name about five seconds into her first cup of coffee. He's wearing a fresh suit, but clearly hasn't slept. Right away, he flashes Donna a practiced grin, razzes her about her non-existent hangover. Asks her to bring him three files before they put together the notes on Kundu. Josh's voice is anything but raw. Donna knows all her lines. It's normal, Donna thinks, because it has to be.
By noon, the night is already fading, the reality of who they are coming into sharp, insistent relief. The day stretches on, and Josh and Donna do what they've always done: they work together, just a shade too closely, and they don't talk about it. Not once.