Title: Inevitable
Author: A.j.
Rating: PG
Spoilers: Follows events in "Gaza" and "Memorial Day", but takes a hard right before The "NSF Thurmont".
Notes: This is that thing I was kinda telling Amanda about last week. It's short, it's experimental, and I'm not 100 certain it worked. ANGST!

Summary: They lose Donna on a Thursday. Josh is already gone.

The funeral is on a Tuesday.

It's a warm, sunny day in June. The birds are singing, the air is clean, and Josh Lyman is staring straight ahead while Donna's mother sobs on her father's shoulder.

Everyone is crying.

Josh is not.

The service is tasteful and mercifully quick. People stream around the grave, placing dirt and flowers on the shiny black coffin before disappearing into limos and suv's and sedans. A sea of people all in black.

Josh is not the last to leave. He places his rose just on top of CJ's. Accepts the back slaps and Leo's pained looks. Sits quietly while the limo speeds towards the airport and nods when spoken to.

No one is surprised when he doesn't speak to anyone the entire flight back. No one sees how white his knuckles are on the arms of his seat, even though they are looking.

That Wednesday morning he isn't the first person in the bullpen, but he is there. He interviews temps and finally settles on a middle-aged woman named Susan. It is Friday. She smiles at him and knows how to use the intercom in the first ten minutes.

Leo calls Stanley on a Monday. It is rainy day in July, and Donna is nearly two months in the ground. He tells the doctor about Josh's even temper and his kindness. Speaks of how everyone is worried and how Susan brings Josh coffee in the morning and never lets him miss an appointment. Says he doesn't know what to do.

Stanley just smiles sadly into the phone and says Josh is coming to see him, and that's all he can say.

Josh is cautious when anyone corners him, unsure in ways no one would have ever associated with him. Looks sad. Looks haunted. Shakes his head and shrugs. "What's next" he asks.

People learn not to question this. It is easier, and Josh is still doing his job. Possibly better than before. He is focused. Sure. Determined. His success on the Hill is unprecedented and brutal. Things fall into line for Josh Lyman. Josh Lyman gets things done.

It's obvious he really doesn't care.

Leo and the President watch him with shuttered eyes and heavy hearts. But they are two old men with nothing to say. So they say nothing.

Time moves on. Seasons change. Years pass.

On January 21, Josh smiles at his friends and tells them he will be in Manchester at the end of the week. They are smiling now too. They are used to the rings around his eyes and the tension in his posture. They smile and wave. They have ended their time in the west wing. It is a time of letting go.

Abbey Bartlet kisses him on the cheek and hugs him for a full five minutes before walking away. She doesn't look back.

He never arrives.

Two years later, a postcard with a grainy photo of the Grand Canyon on the front arrives in Manchester. The only message is a slanted "Goodbye" that both is and isn't completely Josh.

Josiah Bartlet smiles down at the tiny donkey on the front and hugs his wife to his side, possibly a little tighter than normal.His smileis not a happy one. "I'm not surprised."