Title: Settle
Author: A.j.
Spoilers:Season 6.
Rating: PG

Summary: Ten years on, it seems more like a dream than anything else.

Ten years on, it seems more a dream than anything else.

Sitting in a coffee shop four blocks from the Illinois Center in downtown Chicago, Donna feels as much removed from anything related to Washington D.C. as she ever can. The buildings are steel and gray. Taller. More square.

She is forty-five, successful, and financially independent. Her last serious relationship ended with Jeff claiming custody of her cat.

There are moments – days even – where she stops in her life and can't quite believe it's real. It's too far away from everything she'd ever imagined as a child. An adolescent. A young woman.

Her dreams are so different.

The blue mug in her hands is warm and smooth. She likes this place because the scones are good and it's quiet. She should be going back to her office. She has meetings all day long; an afternoon jam-packed with people who need things from her. Want her time and her ear because she can do things for them. Make things happen.

Her sense of déjà vu is pinging constantly of late. It takes everything inside, sometimes, not to trip when her assistant hands her a file while desperately trying to keep stride with her. Donna remembers this walking. Has been doing it for twenty years.

That number solidifies in her brain, burning all thoughts of business and reality away. Ten years on, and she deserves this time away. This remembrance.

Strangely, it's the last days of her time in D.C. that are the least clear. Elections and bitterness. Therapy and loss. Numbness. Walking away.

She came to Chicago with considerably more than she brought to Naushua, but at the same time didn't. She had experience and drive, but felt and was hollow. A recommendation letter rubber-stamped by a retiring president, and the threads of friendships broken in her fingers.

On the day she'd shoved her last suitcase into her new car and handed over the keys to her old apartment, Josh had turned up. Strangely quiet and un-
Josh-like, he'd run his fingers across her cheek and kissed her forehead before whispering his goodbye into her hair. She still won't let herself remember his eyes. Just his hands brushing across hers as she turned and walked away.

She hadn't looked back.

It hurts a little, not to know what's happened to him. But not enough for her to change it.

Josh doesn't seem real anymore. Not in her mind. None of them do. Eight years is a long time to know someone. Spend nearly every waking minute with them. The White House was a crucible of sorts, she mused. Pressure and heat and intensity that either crushed you or made you stronger.

She never expected for it to break them.

The breaking. That's the only thing that still feels real.

Even ten years on, looking back would hurt worse.That she hatesthem – all of them – still burns. Because she still does. Just enough. And there's enough of the young woman who really believed left to save them from that. To save him.

And that's all she can offer the demons in her mind.

But she still misses him. Them. Him.

The smell of cinnamon and vanilla tug at her, drawing her back to Chicago and the wintery picture out the window. Fat snowflakes are dancing to and fro outside, playing in the air currents that flow down the artificial cliffs of the loop.

Across the street, she can make out a little girl and her mother. Chestnut hair is peeking out from underneath the little girl's green bobble-hat. For a second, the winter sun turns it a blazing shade of red. The mother is smiling down at the child, and though they are far away, Donna thinks there's great joy in that look. Snow swirls around them, and for a single instant, they both laugh inside a wind tunnel of flakes.

Donna remembers that dream. Loses herself for a bit in the what-if. Can almost feel small fingers in her own.

When she finally blinks away from the image, the cup in her hands is cool, and her watch tells her it's half past one. She stands calmly – swiveling too quickly in heels has become more of a risk in recent years – smooths her skirt, and pulls on her hat and gloves.

She is alone. She is happy.

But some days, she dreams.