Silent Night

By Aquila

Disclaimer: I own nothing related to The West Wing, just the thoughts in my head.

Rating: PG

Email: hhinam@hotmail.com

Archiving: Please ask first.

Summary: Josh's thoughts on a snowy night.

Spoilers: A severely overdue post-ep to Holy Night

Author's Notes: Happy Holidays. This is my first and, very possibly, my only West Wing fic. I've written other genres, but I wanted to take on the challenge of writing for such well-made characters. It was definitely a challenge. I actually took a little less than a year to write this, starting it not long after I saw Holy Night for the first time and Josh planted the seeds of this idea in my head. Getting it out of my head was the hard part. There's still a whole bunch of other ideas running around up there, but I don't expect to have time to put anything on paper for a while. So, I hope this brings a smile to your face.  Do let me know what you think. I appreciate the input.

Thanks to my dear friend, Joy for always encouraging my writing and making it look like I know how to spell.

***

Silence is golden.

            At least that's what they tell me. Ask anyone who knows me and they'll tell you I'm not exactly an authority on the subject. But tonight, in my office sitting here in the dark with my feet propped up on the window; I think I'm starting to understand the allure of silence.

            The snow still has us socked in, making the view out my window look something like a Monet painting I remember seeing at the National Gallery once. It's always amazed me how quiet snow is. It's nothing like rain. Rain, by nature, is a noisy phenomenon, drumming on the pavement and windows. But, take that water and freeze it and it becomes nature's greatest silencer, muting the world as it bathes it in white.

            Oh God! It must be getting really late! I'm starting to channel Sam.

            Sam would've been in his element today. Between The President wanting to rewrite the federal budget in less than five days and Leo trying to achieve peace in the Middle East by the close of business, there would've been plenty of fodder for his seemingly boundless idealism.

            I have to admit that I even found myself swept up in the Christmas craziness today, which is saying a lot for the jaded political operative that I am. Nah, who am I kidding? It wasn't some misplaced Dickensian need to strike down the Scrooges of the world that kept me on the phone all night. No, my motives were much more selfish than that.

I think Leo said it best when he told me almost exactly a year ago, "You're walking around with so much guilt about everyone you know dying that you're a compulsive fixer."

I guess I am a compulsive fixer and with so many broken things to choose from I had to start somewhere. So what better place to start than by fixing a roof?

Well, now the roof is on its way to being fixed, under the watchful eye of a UN Relief and Recovery Unit no less, and now I'm back to sitting here with nothing to do. I should go home, but I really have no desire to sit in my empty apartment with a bottle of Jack Daniels and my thoughts. I really don't feel like having to replace another window.

Donna'd kill me if she could hear me right now. But she's not here. Just another thing on my list of things to fix.

My feet drop heavily to the floor and I spin around to gaze out into the bullpen, studiously avoiding one empty chair in particular. The twinkling Christmas lights draped over the partitions blink back at me like the streetlights I was looking at a minute ago. It's so quiet that I think I might actually hear an echo if I were to call out right now.

The President and First Family are in Manchester. Most of the bullpen staff left early for the holiday. Leo went home a while ago after we got that thing sorted out in Bethlehem. CJ packed up not long after that and Toby and his dad disappeared from the lobby about the same time the singers did.  I think the janitor came by with the floor polisher about forty-five minutes ago, but with this watch, who knows?

So now it's all quiet on the western front. You know you're tired, when jokes that bad manage to make you laugh out loud. Well, so much for my echo theory. The sound of my chuckle just dies, like it's been sucked into a vacuum. O.K., now the silence is starting creep me out just a little. It's almost eerie. It's like the silence is become a kind of solid entity. Kind of like the snow outside, gauzy and hard to penetrate. Funny, two years ago, all I wanted was silence, something… anything to stop the sirens in my head. Now it's almost suffocating with its weight.

That's it. I have to move.

My muscles don't seem too pleased with the idea and voice their displeasure as I push myself out of my chair. As soon as the feeling returns to my feet and I'm no longer in danger of falling on my face, I'm out the door. Before I even register my surroundings, I've left the bullpen and am standing in the lobby.

The silence follows me. I feel wrapped in it, like I'm pulling against it. Closing my eyes, I struggle to take a deep breath, but my patched-up lungs don't seem to want to co-operate. Swallowing against the familiar metallic taste that's rising in my throat, I force my eyes open and fixate on the first thing I see. It's the massive Christmas tree that stands opposite the entrance. 

I find myself transfixed by the twinkling lights. Christmas isn't my holiday, but I have to admit there is a lot of beauty in the season. Take the music for example. Oh, I don't mean songs you hear over and over again on the radio like Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer. I mean the carols and the suites that have survived over hundreds of years. Closing my eyes again, I can hear the men's choir that was here earlier, the Whiffenpoofs, from my alma mater. I remember the last song they did, Oh Holy Night. It's one of Donna's favourites and consequently, one of mine. I have to admit, she has good taste. There's something about its simplicity that just hits you. I can hear it now, floating over the lobby, and amazingly enough, it fills me with peace.

It took a long time before I managed to separate the sound of sirens from music, Christmas music especially. Even last year, over a year after the shooting, carols and seasonal tunes still had me climbing the walls. But tonight, as I stand in the dim hallway, the memory of the melody washes over me and leaves me smiling. As Stanley would say, I think I've had a breakthrough.

Instinctively, I reach for my phone. I'm halfway through Donna's number before I realize just how unwelcome my call would be right about now. She's probably testing out her four-poster bed, complete with dust ruffles, with Commander Fantastic.

Wow, that thought just leaves me cold… and ill. I don't know what bothers me more, that this was one date I couldn't sabotage; or that I can't share my latest step toward mental health with the one person I really want to. Ever since the little incident with the window a few years back, actually since well before that, Donna's always been a phone call away. I could call her whenever I've been down, or up or just in need of someone to talk to. I didn't have to hide from her. Actually, for a while there, I don't think I could. I mean what was the point? She already knew me well enough to tell I was very quickly unspooling back then. What more did she need to know? Besides, it felt good to have someone to talk to, like my very own personal psychological trainer.

            Then it stopped. We were trying to survive a congressional hearing, people prying into our private lives and we shut ourselves off, even to each other. I'd pick up the phone, desperate to share, but then I'd remember her weary look and tired eyes and I didn't want to add to her burden. The one time we really could've used each other, and neither of us was there. I guess that's why Cliff and Amy happened, but I try not to think about that. Truth be told, I didn't make much progress in the mental health department during those months; at least not in the forward direction. But even with all the crap we've been through this past year, Donna's always managed to be there for every step of my recovery. Tonight, she missed a step.

            I have this sudden, overwhelming need to stand with my back against a wall. It's gonna have to wait until I'm back in my office though. I think the night guard is quickly coming to the conclusion that the Deputy Chief of Staff has finally lost it and is getting ready to call the Park Police.

            Flashing him what I hope is an intimidating glare; I head back into the bullpen. A glance at the clocks on the wall tell me that I should have gone home hours ago, regardless what time zone I consult. The exhaustion hits me then and I contemplate just turning around and heading back out the door. Thing is, I need my coat… and I guess my backpack too.

            My beeline to my office is interrupted however when I pass her desk. Her chair suddenly looks more inviting than all my other prospects and before I can think things through, I'm surrounded by all things Donna. I don't think I've ever seen the bullpen from quite this angle. You know what they say about walking a mile in someone's shoes. I think I'm gonna have to stick with the chair though. I don't think I could handle Donna's heels… not to mention what Toby and CJ would say and… Man, that thought just derailed spectacularly.

            Taking a deep breath, I'm suddenly overwhelmed by the scent of vanilla hand lotion and I know that this time the tightness in my chest has nothing to do with any open-heart surgery. Closing my eyes, I remember soothing hands that smelled of vanilla, easing the pain and fear whenever I woke up sweaty and shaking. I remember those hands tying my ties, fiddling with them for what seemed like forever until they were just perfect. I remember those hands holding tightly to mine, while the emergency room doctor cleaned the leftover glass from my palm.

            God, I had no idea just how much I missed that smell! Then it hits me. I want it back. No, not the smell of vanilla… well yeah, I guess sort of. I want the ties, the hand holding, the… thing we had before, before Amy and Jack and… Cliff. I want us to work again. This one thing has just made it to the top of my list of things to fix. Problem is, I have no idea how to fix this one.

            I guess I've known for a while that things with Donna and I were still a little off, but I never really looked at it too closely. I mean, on the surface, things were fine; the office was running smoothly and frankly, I was a little busy with the fate of the free world to worry about. O.K., it was just an election, but when you think about it… Anyway, we were busy. Then we won and I had a moment to stop and think. And Commander Fantastic happened.

            It was the tone of her voice when she told me about him. I felt that familiar twisting in my gut that signalled another gomer on the horizon. I try not to analyse that feeling all that much, but it's served Donna and me well, though she'll never know it. So when she asked me to get her a date with him, I did what I always do, go into sabotage mode. I told Jack the most outlandish Donna stories I could think of, in hopes of warding him off while still keeping my promise to Donna.

            It was a brilliant plan really, one worthy of a first rate political operative such as myself. Thing is, there were a few results I hadn't counted on. The Good Commander turned out not to be a gomer and I…

            I don't know what happened.

            One minute I'm looking out for my assistant's interests, the next it's like I'm seeing her for the first time. I know it sounds hokey, but I can't think of any other way to describe it. Don't get me wrong; I've always seen Donna. You'd have to be blind and stupid not to notice what a wonderful woman she is. It's just suddenly it hit me that I wanted her to be my wonderful woman.

            Problem is, she apparently wants someone else. It's probably for the best. I wasn't kidding when I told Amy that what I did reflected on the President. I could just see Lillienfield and his cronies lining up to announce the Deputy Chief of Staff is screwing his secretary. The thought of dragging Donna through something like that literally makes me sick. Yeah, it's definitely for the best. Thing is, it's getting harder and harder to convince myself of that, especially when she gives me that look… Like when I gave her that book for Christmas a few years ago, that watery smile that makes me feel like I can do anything and… O.K. Josh, focus.

So I've been doing the right thing. As far as anyone's concerned, nothing's changed. I didn't just suddenly realize that I couldn't imagine my life without Donna. Thing is, Sam's right. I have a lousy poker face. Leo's already got me figured out.

            I really am trying to keep it together, but I'm beginning to think I'm not so sure I want to. If I'm honest with myself, I've spent five years deluding myself to the point that even I believed there was nothing but a professional friendship. But really, how many people have assistants who know what they look like when they're getting a sponge bath? O.K., how many respectable people?

            There's always been this sort of weird dynamic between Donna and me from the day she scammed her way into my office, hired herself, and effectively took over my life. At first, I used to liken our relationship to Leo and Margaret's. I mean Donna's always taken care of the office and me in much the same way Margaret does for Leo; but it didn't take me long to realize there's so much more to it than that. Donna's my equal in almost every sense of the word. Hell, she surpasses me in more ways than I can count. She's my guardian, my support system, my sounding board… my best friend.

            I used to blame my utter failure in the romance department on my work. It was normal. None of us on the senior staff seem to be able to maintain a relationship with the schedules we keep, the secrets we know. It's pathetic, but I took comfort in the knowledge that I wasn't the only one alone. That's not to say I've been celibate since we began the campaign. No one can forget Amy or Mandy and Mandy won't let me forget Sarah Wissinger. But, none of them took. Amy once told me that I was a hit and run kind of guy and I believed her.

            Then it dawned on me the other day that she was wrong and let me tell you I love it when I can say that Amy's wrong about anything. But seriously, she is wrong. I'm not the hit and run type. In fact, I've been in the longest committed relationship of my life. I just didn't know it.

            Thing is, I think Donna's known it for a while, years if Joey Lucas is to be believed. But, when I follow that line of logic, I can't figure out why Cliff happened or why she's currently at the Washington Inn instead of at the Hawk and Dove with me. I guess she just got tired of waiting for me to pull my head out of the sand. Or maybe I'm completely delusional and there was never anything there in the first place. Still, maybe it was wishful thinking, but I could've sworn that earlier tonight she was fishing for information she thought she already knew.

            "What did you mean when you said 'it's not what it looks like'?"

            I swear my heart literally stopped beating with that one question and I have some experience with that feeling. What could I say? Lay it all on the table and say, 'this one really isn't my doing. I'm really not trying to sabotage your date like I've done countless times because it kills me to see you with anyone who isn't me.'

            I could just see the look on her face in response to that one, her 'Joshua, Josh, Josh' face, letting me down easy just before slipping off to meet Jack. Still, Joey's words to me from years ago keep playing over in my mind these last few days, like some kind of really long mantra.

            "If you polled a hundred Donnas and asked them if they think we should go out, you'd get a high positive response. But the poll wouldn't tell you it's because she likes you and, she knows it's beginning to show and she needs to cover herself with misdirection."

Face it Josh, the numbers aren't lying this time. No more misdirection. She's with him and was never yours in the first place.

            The shrill ring of my cell snaps me out of my increasingly dour mood. Fumbling along my belt, I finally find the damn thing and answer it with a distracted,

            "Yeah?"

            "Josh?"

            That's it. I've officially lost it. I'm starting to hear Donna everywhere. Maybe it's sleep deprivation or some other sort of delusion. Maybe I should call Stanley…

            "Josh?"

            Nope, wait. It really is Donna. I must have been silent for too long. She sounds worried.

            "Yeah?"

            "Are you O.K.?"

            "Yeah." I quickly add, "I'm fine," after I realize I've uttered a total of three syllables during this entire conversation.

            "Are you sure?" Apparently Donna also noticed my less than Yale-graduate level vocabulary.

            "Really Donna, I'm fine." I think that came out a little harsher than I intended. I swear I felt Donna flinch on the other end. I suddenly feel the need to back-pedal.

            "Donna, I'm sorry. I'm just tired and…"

            "It's O.K. Josh." She cuts me off before I start listing all the reasons why the holidays leave me with a bit of a short fuse. It's not exactly something we ever talk about.

            "Josh, are you still at work?"

            I consider lying for the grand total of about a second, but I know there's really no point. My sigh is all the answer she needs.

            "Josh…"

            Her tone makes me feel like a kid caught up playing past his bedtime and I can't help but launching into a justification.

            "Leo needed help with the thing…"

            "The Church of the Nativity?"

            "Yeah."

            "So, should I expect an announcement tomorrow of peace in the Middle East?"

            And with that one sentence I feel all the tension drain out of me. This is what I needed tonight. This is what has gotten me through a year of campaigning and four years in office. This, all the time, is what I want to get back to. The smile I hear in her voice tells me that she needed this too. Then suddenly I remember where she's calling me from and that painful, hollow feeling settles into my chest.

            But she called me. Why did she call me?

            "Uh, Donna…you called me." I was going to make some sort of snide comment about not having anything better to do than pester her boss when she's supposed to be on holiday, but I've learned from experience that my idea of humour usually falls flat when there's a gomer involved.

            "Yes Josh, I did call you." Though she doesn't miss a beat, I get the feeling that my sudden change of subject kind of rattled her. Her voice is dripping with sarcasm, but I can hear an undertone of uncertainty that gets my full attention.

            "You O.K. Donna?"

            She pauses for a beat and that one instant is all it takes to set off my panic button.

            "Donna, are you O.K.? Do you need me…"

            "I'm fine Josh. Nothing's… I'm fine."

            She doesn't sound anywhere near fine, but she doesn't sound like she's in actual trouble so I'll let it slide.

            "So then, to what do I owe the pleasure?" We need to bring back the banter to this conversation. Something's obviously bothering Donna, but it's equally obvious that she doesn't want to talk about it, so I offer her the only lifeline we both understand.

            "I just… I never said goodbye and… I wanted to wish you Merry Christmas."

            "Donna," I answer in my best teasing voice. "You know I don't celebrate Christmas."

            "I know." And I can hear it. She's smiling that smile. If anyone could see us right now they'd probably think we were insane, two people grinning silently into their phones.

            "I should go." Her voice breaks the spell and I can't explain it but I feel almost a sense of loss, but before I can analyse it Donna charges ahead. "You really need to go home and get some sleep and…"

            "O.K., I'm heading home."

            "I don't hear you packing up your things." She answers in a singsong voice that forces a chuckle from my throat.

            "My bag's already packed."

            "Then get your coat." I swear, some days I think my assistant is omniscient.

            "O.K., I'm going. You should go too. You need your rest just as much as I do." I very carefully avoid the fact that she won't be alone tonight and probably won't be getting much rest. I feel that sick feeling coming on again.

            "Yeah." Curiously, though it was her suggestion in the first place, she sounds about as reluctant to end this conversation as I am and I can't help feel just a twinge of hope that Joey was right all those years ago. I mean nobody's that dedicated to their job, that they'd interrupt a romantic getaway with their boyfriend because they'd forgotten to say goodbye to their boss. Right?

            "Well... Goodnight Josh… and Merry Christmas."

            "Thanks Donna. Merry Christmas to you too."

            "See ya tomorrow." And to think she was worried about the effects of my sleep deprivation.

            "Uh, Donna. You don't work tomorrow."

            "I know."

And I'm met with silence as Donna hangs up the phone. Soon I can hear my heartbeat drumming in my ears as I'm left to figure out what she meant by that. She has this uncanny ability of leaving me reeling with just the simplest of statements.

            As I ponder all that wasn't said, I suddenly can't stop the grin that slides across my face. Maybe, just maybe, this is one thing in my life I can fix after all. I guess maybe they were right. Silence really is golden.

***