"And I am out with lanterns, looking for myself."
Josh woke up on Christmas morning with the usual emptiness in the pit of his stomach and a brand new throbbing in his palm. He could feel the blood pulsing angrily against his stitches underneath the fresh bandage. It hurt a hell of a lot, although not quite as much as it had when the efficient young doctor at the ER had cleaned out the cut last night. It had taken her nearly an hour to pick out all the stray shards of glass. Josh could still hear the sound they'd made as they plinked against the metal tray; even now, it made him wince.
Groaning, Josh rolled over and reached for his alarm clock. Working odd hours for the past couple of years had permanently rewired his sleep cycle, and it was hard for him to avoid waking up much later than seven, even on a day off. This wasn't his typical day off, of course. He'd been heavily medicated last night, an unavoidable fact he was sickeningly reminded of when he read (and then re-read) the time: 10:38 AM. He hadn't slept like this since the shooting.
Josh sat up slowly, rubbing at his eyes with the back of his arm, and tried to remember how exactly he'd gotten into bed. Frowning, he thought back again to the stitches, and the doctor picking out the glass. Donna had been sitting next to him, talking to him about...owls? That couldn't be right, could it? But yes, he could remember now, Donna had been talking about this piece she'd read in the Post on deforestation and how it was affecting the common barn owl's natural habitat—and did Josh know there were nineteen species of owls in North America, and actually, barn owls were a different family of owls than the regular family of owl (the true owl), and did he know that barn owls were also sometimes called monkey-faced owls, and did Josh know most owls mated for life, and that when their mate died, the surviving owl often refused to eat or sleep and literally died of a broken heart?
"Is this supposed to be cheering me up?" Josh had demanded, looking over at Donna so he wouldn't have to stare at his hand.
"God, I hope not. Then I'd really be concerned about you." Donna had raised her eyebrows at him, although she hadn't quite glared. "This is because you've got a meeting with the National Wildlife Federation next Thursday, and I want you to listen to what they have to say about the owls. They need us, Josh."
"The owls need us?"
"Yes! They're very delicate, sensitive creatures. Imagine if someone came along and tore your home up out of the ground. That's what happening to these little guys right now! They deserve to be left alone to get on with their, you know. Owl stuff."
"Don't mock. What did an owl ever do to you?"
"What? Nothing! It's just—since when are you so into owls? Have you ever even seen one in real life? Do you have some secret bird watching habit I don't know about? Is there a special spot downtown all your favorite owls hang out at?"
"Yes, Josh. The Beltway is known both for its deforested forests and its booming owl population."
"Hey, I'm kinda sorta wounded, here. I could do without the sass!"
"And I could do without your casual dismissal of the very real threat to the barn owls! For your information, I have seen an owl in real life; there are plenty of them in Wisconsin. One even lived on my cousin's farm. We called him Bucky."
"The owl or your cousin?"
"You're not even a little bit cute."
"I think I'm adorable."
"Mr. Lyman?" the doctor cut in. She'd seemed to be biting back a grin. "We're all finished here."
"What?" Josh gaped at his hand, which had been neatly re-bandaged.
"Yes, you're all set. I'm going to give you a list of aftercare instructions for the stitches, and you'll need to follow-up with your GP in the next week or two. I'm also going to give you some Vicodin. You won't feel it now because of the numbing agent, but you're going to be in quite a bit of discomfort over the next couple of days. You'll want something to take the edge off."
That was an understatement. Josh didn't just want Vicodin: he wanted to slip into a mild coma. He couldn't say that to the doctor, though, so he'd just taken the pills she sent in with a paper cup of water, and then accepted the sample she gave him on the way out. By the time the cab Donna had flagged down for them pulled up in front of Josh's place, he'd been pretty out of it.
Everything had seemed so blurry—Donna paying the driver, and then helping Josh out to the curb and juggling his backpack for him, letting him lean on her as they slowly climbed the steps. Josh wasn't sure how long that had taken, or how long it had been to get inside, or how she'd gotten him out of his suit and down to just his boxers and t-shirt, but it had clearly happened. He should have felt more embarrassed about that, but the lines had gotten fuzzy when Donna had taken care of him after the shooting. He trusted her. He wouldn't have wanted anybody else with him.
Josh closed his eyes and frowned again, ignoring the sharp pain radiating through his arm. There'd been something else, hadn't there? Hadn't he thanked Donna? Yeah, he had; he'd mumbled some slurred nonsense at her, trying to tell her he appreciated what she'd been doing for him. Thanks for the owls, he'd said. Thanks for you. And Donna had brushed her fingers across Josh's forehead, let them linger at his temple. Her touch had shivered through him. Usually, he would have tried not to notice that, or done something to deflect the moment, but last night, he hadn't had the energy to pretend he didn't want her hand exactly where it was. Josh had bent into her palm, and something tightly wound in the pit of his stomach began to slowly uncoil. It was like being able to breathe again.
"We're going to beat this, Josh," Donna had said into the darkness. Her fingers had been trailing into his hair.
How had she always been able to know what he needed to hear? It unsettled Josh. He still hadn't even told her about the diagnosis (fuck, he had a diagnosis). The only thing Josh had admitted to her on the cab ride to the hospital was that he hadn't broken a glass.
"What was it?" Donna had asked. There hadn't been pity in her voice: only kindness. It made it easier for Josh to tell her.
"A window," he'd finally said. "I just needed everything to stop."
Donna's hand settled on his arm. "Thanks for telling me," she said. "I'm so sorry."
"It's no big deal."
She'd just looked at him again, still without pity, but with something almost worse. She was upset, Josh had realized. Donna had been upset because of him.
Josh rose unsteadily to his feet, gritting his teeth against a fresh wave of anxiety. How could he have done this to her? To himself? To everybody, for that matter? Josh hadn't missed the way they'd all been tiptoeing around him yesterday morning, or the intent look on Leo's face last night.
We get better, Stanley Keyworth had said in his measured, matter-of-fact way. Better. Josh could barely remember what that felt like. It had been impossible enough to tell Stanley about the meltdown during the concert, about the flashbacks, and the mindless fear, and the window. God, that stupid window. Josh had covered it up with a heavy tarp and some tape until the super could replace it, but the jagged hole was still there, even if he couldn't see it. He wasn't sure he'd gotten all the glass out of the carpet yet.
Better. We get better.
The truth (the thing that made Josh feel actually crazy, the thing he hadn't been able to acknowledge until right this second) was that he wanted to break another window. Every window. He wanted to keep breaking them until he was himself again. It was the only thing that had made him feel awake in weeks, that had grounded him in the reality of who he was. That first slice of pain had been welcome, cutting sharply through the fog of exhaustion and panic. Oh, Josh had thought, as his hand sailed through the glass, before the banging on the door started, before the horror at what he'd done had begun to settle in. It's finally quiet.
Josh stood in the middle of his bedroom, palm throbbing sickly, heart shuddering, breath coming faster and faster, and there was no music (Josh was sure there was no music) but a siren whined somewhere in the distance and seemed to reverberate throughout his entire body, until he could hear Toby's voice cracking out, "I need a doctor!" And Toby's hands were fumbling to cradle Josh's head, and C.J. was saying his name, and Sam's face was swimming dizzily above him, and the scissors were slicing through his shirt, and the air was muggy on his bare chest, and the sirens, the sirens, the sirens, the sirens—
No. No, it was just the phone. Josh whipped around, gasping, irrational fury and nausea crashing over him. He wanted to smash something. He couldn't bear this, couldn't stand another day of trying to beat this back, to feel so alone and panicky and insane and detached from everything and everyone he was supposed to care about. Josh was so tired. It didn't matter how many hours he twisted around in his sheets, how many drinks he choked down; he kept waking up ragged, kept waking up empty. That emptiness was suffocating. And the sirens—
"Hello?" said a quiet voice out in the living room. The phone had stopped ringing. Now, Josh spun towards the door and staggered forward to fling it open, positive he'd just jumped straight from flashbacks to hallucinations.
Donna stood by the sofa with her back to Josh, wearing a deep green dress that fell just past her knees. All of the curtains were open and the late morning sun was streaming in, catching the gold of her braided hair until it shimmered. The place looked cleaner than it had yesterday; Josh's stacks of papers had been cleared away, and there were no dirty dishes on the coffee table. He could smell coffee and cinnamon, could hear something sizzling in the kitchen, but then his attention jerked back to Donna, who was twirling the cord of the landline.
"Yes," she was saying into the phone. "I've got all that. If you wouldn't mind picking him up, then...no, I think that would be perfect. Thank you. Okay, we'll see you soon. Merry Christmas!"
Josh rubbed his eyes again, not entirely convinced she was really there. He watched her hang up the phone and tug at the long, lacy sleeves of her dress.
"Hey," he said, although it sounded more like a croak than anything.
Donna turned, grinning when she saw him. Josh had never seen her wear a shade of lipstick quite that color.
"There you are," she said. "Sleep well?"
"What's going on?" Josh asked, frowning around at his apartment again.
"One second," Donna called over her shoulder, hurrying off towards the kitchen. "The bacon's gonna burn."
"Yeah! Come in here. I've got coffee."
"Seriously, what the hell is...?" Josh trailed off, coming to an abrupt halt just behind Donna and gaping at the trays of food that seemed to be covering every available flat surface. Some sort of egg casserole was perched on one of the counters, surrounded by a huge bowl of fruit salad, a plate of sausage and thick-cut ham, and two round pans of cinnamon rolls. The next counter was devoted to drinks—prosecco, and orange juice, and ice water, and hot mulled cider, and a steaming carafe of coffee. Donna barely seemed to notice Josh's dropped jaw. She was busy transferring strips of bacon to a plate lined with paper towels.
"Help yourself to anything," Donna said, stepping around him to put the plate down. She paused when she turned back towards the stove, tilting her head to study Josh. Something shifted across her face. "Are you okay? You're pale."
"Yeah. Just my hand." Josh waved it around vaguely. "Um, not that I don't want to see you, but can I ask why you're here? And why you've apparently prepared a small feast?"
"Well, it's Christmas," Donna said with a shrug. "Nobody should be alone on Christmas. And yes, before you start in on the lecture, I know that it's my Protestant holiday, not yours."
"But that's my point. It's Christmas. Your favorite. Shouldn't you be off roasting chestnuts somewhere? Or whatever it is you people do."
"Well, this seems like a pretty good way to celebrate." Donna's laugh was almost nervous. "There's food. There's booze. You have stitches. It's a traditional Moss Christmas already!"
"But..." Josh swallowed, his face going strangely hot. "This is sweet, okay? I appreciate it. But did you do all of this because you think I'm going to break another window?"
"No," Donna said. "It's because you're my friend, Josh. You don't have to tell me anything about what happened, or what's been going on the past few weeks. You never have to tell me. But you're my friend, and you're clearly not fine."
"Yes I am," Josh protested.
"You're not. Of course you're not. What I was trying to say is that it I just want to be with you, because this is terrible, and it's Christmas, and I care. About you, Josh. That's all."
And she stood there in his kitchen on that improbably bright Christmas morning, her eyes the color of a distant but inevitable summer, the sunshine still caught in her hair, her smile fading into something more serious, into a softness she rarely seemed to allow herself around other people. Donna stood there not because she had to, but because she wanted to. She was the one who had guessed—except that wasn't it, not really. Donna had never had to guess.
Donna was the one who knew.
"Donna," Josh whispered, and took a step forward.
"It's all right. You don't need to say it."
"I have PTSD," he told her, because as badly as he wanted to pretend it wasn't true, he needed her to know this part, too. "At the party, I had a...they called it an episode. A flashback. I guess it'd been building up for a few weeks."
Josh expected Donna to tell him she was sorry, or assure him again that they would beat it, or try to make him laugh. Instead, she wrapped her arms around him.
"Okay," she said. "Okay. I've got you." Josh closed his eyes, his head dropping down to her shoulder. It felt good to let somebody hold him. It felt good to think that he was worth holding on to at all.
They stood there in the silence, in the sunlight, for a long moment. Donna didn't ask any questions. Josh didn't hear anything that wasn't there. His hand ached, and his chest ached, and his everything ached, but Donna's arms were still around him, one of her hands smoothing along his back, and the light was creeping over them, and there was no music, no shattering glass. Josh could smell Donna's perfume, that familiar floral scent he'd catch when she bent across his desk to show him something in a briefing memo, or when she swept past him in the bullpen. It was the first time he'd noticed it in weeks.
This is what's real, Josh told himself. This. This. This.
A knock at the door jolted loudly between them. He drew back, his nose brushing against her hair, his fingers slipping from her waist. Donna turned away before Josh could say anything, one hand pressed against her cheek.
"You should go get dressed," she said. Josh had to strain to hear her; the knocking had started again.
"What's going on?" He wasn't sure whether he was asking about who was at the door or about the way Donna had ducked her head, about the tension that had gathered in the line of her shoulders.
"You'll see in a minute." Donna straightened up, pushing past Josh and back out into the living room. "Seriously, put on a clean shirt. Wash your face. We'll be here."
"Who?" Josh called, watching the hem of that green dress whip around the corner.
"In a minute," she called back.
Josh looked around the kitchen at all the food, listened to the sound of Donna greeting someone (or several someones) at the door, and guessed.
He'd never felt more ashamed. Or surprised (and, yet: unsurprised). Or fragile. Or predictable. Or exhausted. Or grateful.
Josh had never felt more, period.
"You're eating pie at eleven AM?"
"I'll eat derby pie any time of the day I damn well please."
"Any time of the night, too, actually. Sit down. I got you a plate."
"It's Christmas. Do you want to make Donna's face do the thing? Sit down, shut up, eat pie, be happy, etcetera."
"Fine, fine. Where did the pie come from, anyway? There was only breakfast food last time I came out here."
"I brought it."
"Stop squinting at the best derby pie this side of the Potomac like that, please. It's disrespectful. Also, I paid an unreasonable number of dollars for it ten minutes before the bakery closed last night, and I won't see it go to waste."
"You bought it? Thank God. I was afraid you'd made it yourself."
"Josh, I don't hate anybody that much."
"See? It's good."
"So. C.J.'s having car trouble. Sam went back out to, uh, get her."
"What? Is she okay?"
"Yeah, probably just a dead battery. They'll be here any minute."
"This pie. What the hell's in this?"
"Chocolate, pecans, bourbon, and sin."
"Want coffee? I need a refill."
"You don't have to...you know."
"No, I don't."
"I don't know what I don't have to do. Please, enlighten me."
"Fine. You don't have to be nice to me just because I'm having a thing. A...whatever this is."
"I'm not being nice; I'm getting you coffee. Cream and too much sugar, right?"
"Exactly enough sugar."
"Says you and every twelve-year-old in America."
"You know coffee-guzzling twelve-year-olds?"
"I know twelve-year-olds, and if they guzzled coffee, it would look exactly like this."
"You're right. You're not being nice at all."
"Here. Drink that. While you're at it, listen to me."
"It was a horrific thing, Josh. I don't know how you do it. I don't know—I can't fathom—how you have been doing it. I told the doctor that, and I meant it, and I'm telling you now because I want you to understand something: I will get in the way of anything or anyone that makes this more painful for you."
"Don't worry. That's as nice as I'm going to get."
"Thanks for the pie."
"Yeah. Sorry we were late. C.J. and Sam had to drive to the far end of town to get me."
"But it's Christmas! You gotta be with your sister, man."
"Deanna's watching cheesy movies with her friends and not missing me in the slightest. Christmas Eve was always our big family holiday, anyway."
"Well, thanks for coming all the way out here. Can I take that from you?"
"Nope, I'm just gonna set this down in the kitchen. Donna, should I—?"
"Charlie! I'm so glad you made it! Yes, right here's good. I told you that you didn't have to bring anything."
"It's my mom's old recipe. Caramel apple-pear cobbler."
"Keep your eyes on your plate, Josh. Cobbler is merely pie's sadder, lumpier cousin."
"Merry Christmas to you, too, Toby."
"Hey, Charlie. Where the hell are C.J. and Sam? It's about five degrees outside."
"They're wrangling the rest of the stuff. They sent me ahead."
"Guess I'll go check and make sure they haven't wandered astray. Or, you know, frozen."
"Hang on! I'll come with you, just in case they need a couple extra sets of hands."
"Donna, you're wearing a dress."
"Very observant, boss. See how I'm also wearing a coat?"
"I'm not an invalid, you know. I could go and—"
"We'll be right back. Finish your pie."
"...Hi again, Josh."
"Hi again, Charlie. You really didn't have to come."
"Yeah, I did. Listen, I hope it's okay that I know. About the ATVA thing."
"I figured. Did they talk to you?"
"No. I mean, I don't work with you that closely. I overheard Leo and the President talking, and then yesterday, I saw your hand. I asked Donna about it after she and C.J. invited me to this."
"It's not fair. And I'm sorry."
"Hey. You don't have anything to be sorry for."
"Please don't be sorry, all right? It's maybe the last thing I'd ever want, you being sorry about this."
"Okay. How'd you hurt your hand?"
"I punched that window over there."
"Yeah. Kinda lost it, I guess."
"You know, after the shooting, I smashed half the dishes in my kitchen. I threw a plate at the wall so hard it left a hole in the drywall. I made Deanna cry. I made Zoey cry."
"You were angry. You have every right to be."
"So do you."
"I don't feel angry, though. Just—I've never been so fucking tired."
"Charlie? Do you ever wish you'd picked a different job? Do you ever wish I hadn't talked you into all of this?"
"No. The feeling hasn't gone away, Josh."
"I told you. It never does."
"Yeah. Uh...also, I've been seeing someone for a month or two. A psychiatrist. It's helping, I think."
"It's something. It could be for you, too, you know? Don't punch any more windows, man."
"Look, I really am sorry. I know you don't want me to be, but I am."
"I'm sorry, too."
"Have some cobbler. I won't tell Toby."
"Thanks. And you should really try some of this pie. It's, like, unholy."
"Is that a good thing?"
"Yes. Trust me."
"I should never have let you haul that thing in here."
"Joshua! The man himself. You should sit down; Charlie just made me eat maybe the best piece of pie I've ever had."
"I know about the pie, C.J. What I don't know is why you dragged an actual real live tree into my living room."
"It's festive. This is a festive occasion! And Donna wouldn't let me bring food."
"That didn't stop Toby or Charlie."
"Unlike Toby or Charlie, I follow directions. Besides, once they finish putting the lights on, you'll understand."
"I don't want to be responsible for this tree."
"I'd never dream of making you responsible for anything."
"I don't like this tree."
"Yeah, that's been made quite apparent by all the whining."
"Don't worry about the damn tree, Josh. Why don't you stop pacing and come sit down?"
"Fine. Just as long as you get rid of it later."
"Obviously. If I left it here with you, you'd kill it."
"Whatever. On January 1st, it'll be rotting on a curbside somewhere, with or without me in the picture."
"There's that holiday spirit we've been missing. You really know how to brighten a room, buttercup."
"Har har. So, what were you going to be doing today, if you didn't have to be here? Don't you have a hundred nieces and nephews to dote on?"
"I don't have to be anywhere. I'm spending New Year's with my brother, assuming the country doesn't declare war on anybody. I didn't really have plans today."
"I bet you're lying."
"I bet you'll never be able to prove it."
"Fair enough. This is nice of you. All of you."
"Loathe as I am to admit this, it's our pleasure. It's been a little rough lately. Frankly, I think we all need this."
"I'm fine. But, ah...can I ask you something?"
"What did you guys say to ATVA about me?"
"Does it matter?"
"I guess not. I've just been feeling...I don't know…"
"You should have been a Catholic."
"You Catholics always act like you have a monopoly on guilt."
"It's the promise of hellfire and mandated penance, I think. Anyway, Josh, we love you. You're hurt. There's nothing for us to do but worry over you and try to stuff you with various baked goods. It's very noble of you, but your guilt is useful to nobody. Just let us do this thing for you."
"You love me, huh?"
"Jesus can't help you now. You know, I always suspected you had a thing for me—"
"I could grind you into pulp, buddy. Don't forget."
"Is that what the kids are calling it these days?"
"How is it possible that you can be so sweet one minute and so unbearable the next?"
"It's kind of the whole charm of me."
"No, you're confusing that with your clueless, dimpled boyish thing."
"Come on, I'll get you a drink. Donna and Sam were making eggnog, I think. Or mimosas. Or something, y'know, festive."
"I'll take a mimosa. And Josh?"
"The tree's going to be magical. Just wait."
"I forgot there was a game on today."
"Me too, almost. Tennessee's crushing the Cowboys."
"Somebody's always crushing the Cowboys, Josh."
"Well, today, it's the Titans. Is that beer?"
"Yeah. Donna wouldn't let me bring food."
"I'll take booze over shrubbery any day."
"Stop being an ass about C.J.'s tree. It'll be better with the lights on."
"So I have been repeatedly assured. And hey, thanks; this is good beer."
"It's unbelievable beer. At least, according to the kid who sold it to me."
"God, are you seeing this score? Not one damn touchdown on the board. Pathetic."
"You're a Cowboys fan now?"
"I root for the underdog, Sam. I'm a man of the people."
"Don't you usually just cheer for whichever team has the mascot you like better?"
"I mean, it's not baseball, so, you know. Who gives a shit?"
"Yikes. Are they really going into the half without so much as a field goal?"
"This is what I've been trying to tell you."
"Yeah. Yeah, I know."
"...So, I guess it's your turn."
"Mysteriously, I've been finding myself having little heart-to-hearts all day long. I got you guys pretty worried, huh?"
"That's a colossal understatement."
"You know, I can barely remember a time before our friendship. Fifteen years, Josh. Have you ever thought about that? We've been ducking in and out of each other's lives for fifteen years. Last night, I was thinking about that time you took me out after I passed the bar. Remember that? We were drunk on something awful, something you sweet-talked the waitress into giving us for free...what was it? Schnapps?"
"Nah. She called them Scooby Snacks."
"Okay, I'm going to pretend it was Schnapps. Anyway, we were several disgusting shots in and well on our way to trashed, but I'll never forget you telling me why I should ditch the cushy job waiting for me at Franklin & Selino and come help you campaign for Slater. 'The pay's no good,' you said, 'and the hours are fucked beyond reason, and people are never going to remember your name. It's thankless. It's impossible. And it's everything.'"
"I said that?"
"You did. You said it was the most important work you'd ever done. You said governing was the real promise, that it was the only way to effect change, to open doors. You said I was too good to go corporate."
"Yeah, I did. I hated you for it every day, that entire campaign."
"That was a rough loss."
"It was rough because you were so right. Slater would have opened doors."
"I know he would have, Sam."
"I wouldn't have gone into politics if it wasn't for you. I would have taken the cushy job. I did take the cushy job, more than once. I'm not ashamed of that; I had a career to build, and anxious parents to placate, and a slew of student loans to pay off. But you...you always come get me. You make me remember why I fell in love with the law in the first place. You show up, Josh."
"Hey. You all right?"
"Yes. What I'm trying to say—what I'm failing to say—is that I owe this to you, this career I have, this chance I got. I can't imagine my life without you in it. It would be a lonelier, bleaker, far more corporate place."
"Are you sure you're all right?"
"I should have helped you. I should have noticed."
"What the hell are you talking about? You showed up at the hospital every spare chance you got. You wanted to sue the KKK for me!"
"I meant the PTSD."
"How'd you figure it out?"
"It seemed obvious, once I stopped to really think."
"It was the music."
"The music at work all month. It sounds like sirens to me. It's like my head is full of sirens, Sam. I can't get rid of them."
"I have no idea what to say, Josh."
"That's because you said it already. I dunno, can we just watch the game and finish our beer?"
"I'd say yes, but I don't know if I can suffer through anymore of this. It's a massacre. Did you see that fumble?"
"Yeah, I think at this point, the Cowboys are banking on a Christmas miracle."
"Seriously, this cannot be lifting your spirits. Turn it off and come pretend to be sociable."
"I hate being sociable."
"You do not. You're not seeing the silver lining here. C.J. and Toby want to play poker, and you look pitiful enough to guilt them into letting you win a couple hands. Think of the money you can take from Toby."
"And people say I'm the Machiavellian one."
"Speaking of Toby, did he let you have a piece of his pie? This pie, Josh. You've never had anything like it."
"Look at this thing. Tell me the first adjective that springs to mind."
"See? Nice. Nice, not magical."
"I like the little icicle things."
"Forget the icicles. Everyone kept telling me I'd understand once the lights were on. I'm not seeing it."
"Josh, come sit down. Eat some pie."
"If I eat another piece of that pie, I'll probably explode. No, I'm gonna stand here and try to figure out what's so great about this stupid tree."
"All right, but I'm going on record: Christmas trees? Overrated."
"Got it. Shutting up about the tree now. Anyway, did you want to get in on the game over there? C.J.'s dealing."
"In a minute, maybe. How's the hand?"
"It's fine. A little sore, but fine."
"Okay. And how are you?"
"I'll be fine, too, Leo."
"Okay. Did Margaret show you the memo on the Patient's Bill of Rights?"
"Yeah, we went over it yesterday morning. I'm almost sure we can get it on the agenda for the leadership breakfast if I get a one-on-one with my guy at the majority leader's office."
"Good. Hit 'em hard. We don't need a meaningful debate; we just want it to be part of the conversation."
"Toby won't like that."
"Let me worry about Toby."
"Better you than me. So, you wanna go play? I think we're betting with candy canes at this point. Charlie and Donna cleaned us out."
"Oh, God help me. Have you people no pride?"
"Not in abundance, no."
"You've got eggnog in there?"
"Yep. The fun kind and the you kind."
"You're a treat, Josh. Let's go. And you know, it wouldn't kill you to pretend to like the tree. It's perfectly nice."
"I agreed it was nice, didn't I? I was promised magic."
"Right. I mean, it's obviously magical. Definitely the, um, shiniest tree I've ever had in my apartment. Not pointless at all."
"Leo? What's up?"
"Sorry. That dumb grin of yours—it reminded me of an old friend's. Just for a second."
They finished the pie, and most of the second one Toby had been hiding in the back of the fridge.
The day unfolded into game after game of poker, into C.J.'s warm teasing, into Charlie arguing about Oxford commas with Sam, into Toby trying to talk Donna into letting him order Chinese food, into Leo surprising them all by making some kind of delicious mulled cider. There were friendly arguments. One very loud game of chess. A burnt (forgotten) turkey. Eventually, Chinese food. And laughter. Real laughter.
Josh found himself outside with Toby, Sam, and a handful of cigars just after Leo left to take Charlie home. They stood on the icy steps as the sun dipped down behind the skyline, a cloud of blue smoke rising around them. Josh coughed through most of it. Toby rolled his eyes while Sam told wistful stories about sixty-five degree California Christmases.
It was one of those moments Josh would think about for years, trying to recreate the snap of the cold; the puff of his own breath; the dark, creamy taste of the cigars. This wasn't the best moment he'd ever had with Toby and Sam, or even the best part of that day—but shivering there with his friends through two cigars each, Josh found himself thinking that maybe, he could remember what better felt like.
It happened again hours later. While everyone got tipsy on his good red wine out in the living room, Josh lingered in the doorway of the kitchen, watching them all. Toby had settled down on the couch next to Donna with a tumbler of whiskey. He was smiling at C.J. with wide, unfamiliar abandon; he didn't seem to realize he was staring, didn't seem to realize there was anybody in the room but her. C.J. was in the middle of telling a long story about her ex-boyfriend, something funny enough to make Sam put his head in his hands and wheeze with laughter.
What a simple thing it was to be human, Josh thought, half-wishing he hadn't had that third glass of wine. So simple: the joys, and the sorrows, and the pain, and the relief. The great beauty of it all (the great cruelty, too) was how easily those things could be yours, and how easily they could slip away again.
"Hey," Donna said, tugging at his elbow. "You're missing it. Come sit next to me."
She pulled Josh back, back to Toby's surprised laughter, to Sam's conspiratorial eye rolls, to C.J.'s stories. To all of them. Somebody had opened another bottle of merlot, and Sam poured them each another glass before anyone could protest.
"Why not?" Sam asked. "We've got time."
Off in the corner, just in front of a window, the tree glowed faintly—and maybe C.J. had been right after all. When Donna made them all stand in a circle around it and flicked off the overhead lamps, the entire room (and everyone in it) seemed luminous.
In the dark, somewhere between the shimmering Christmas lights and the weight of Donna's shoulder against his, Josh's hand ached. He closed his eyes, listening to the thump of his own relentless heart. This is real, Josh thought. This is fine.
And anyway: he'd get better at breathing through it.
A FINAL NOTE:
Like so many people in this beautiful fandom, I was beyond moved by "Noel." This episode is hugely important to me, not only as a West Wing fan, but as a person who suffers from PTSD. I can't explain how much it meant to me to see this illness depicted so realistically and compassionately on my favorite show. Because (not unlike Sam) writing is the lens through which I process the world, this fic was written as a direct response to the complicated way trauma can affect everyone and everything it touches. I'm still not sure I've found the right words, but I hope I've gotten close.
Thank you very much for reading.