Title: Less Traveled By
Originally published: Dec. 22, 2008
She was the last person Toby expected to see in the hellhole that was the Newark airport during the holidays. No one had heard a word from her since before President Vinick's election of three years ago when she had disappeared from Bingo Bob's campaign headquarters one morning shortly after the DNC convention, leaving behind only an all-too-brief letter of resignation on her desk. Will was furious and vowed that she would never work on another campaign. Toby always had suspected that Will was nursing delusions of grandeur and found satisfaction in further proof he was right.
Those who did not have a stick up their butts were quite understandably worried at such un-Donna like behavior. Explanations ranged from family illness to undiagnosed PTSD. Not that anyone had told him any of this, the disgraced former White House Communications Director who had always had a soft spot for the young woman. But those same fools had thought it was appropriate to call her former boss, who, it was widely known, hadn't spoken to Donna since the convention when the DNC, in its infinite stupidity, nominated Bing Bob. As if anything good ever came from choosing the path of least resistance. No wonder Josh had left Washington in disgust.
No, Toby had to hear the news from Josh himself, who had called hoping that Donna had been in touch with him. Josh had sounded frustrated, and not a little worried, but there was nothing either one of them could do except hope that she was safe and happy.
Toby had only seen her once since then. During Leo's funeral, Toby had felt someone sit down next to him. It was Donna. She didn't say anything during the service, but she held his hand tightly. He didn't want to make her uncomfortable by asking too many questions; she seemed to be as reluctant to provoke attention as he was. When Josh passed by them, she flinched when his gaze fell on her and squeezed Toby's hand even tighter. Josh, for his part, never asked Toby any questions other than to inquire if she was okay.
Whatever her reasons were for fleeing, Donna seemed to be doing well now. In fact, she had never looked better. Her hair was long and pulled back from her face the way she used to wear it when she was working at the White House. And yet, she looked different. She projected the confidence of woman who had come into her own, rather than a young woman still unsure of her own worth.
He really owed Josh a phone call. It had been… over a year, he was embarrassed to realize. He hadn't meant to let things go for so long. Josh had left him a few unreasonably cheerful voicemail messages since then, but Toby had yet to call him back. The Finger Lake region must agree with Josh and everything was basically the same for Toby. At least he would now be able to face all that sickening exuberance with good news of his own. His own life may still be a mess, but there would be something satisfying about being able to put his friend's fears to rest when he tells him about seeing Donna.
Suddenly, as if aware she was being watched, Donna looked up. Her astonished expression was quickly replaced with a beaming smile.
"How are you, Donna?"
"I'm fine! Forgive me for not getting up." And Toby noticed for the first time that Donna Moss (or whatever last name she was now known by) was pregnant.
"Please!" Toby replied holding his hand up for her to keep still, settling down in the seat next to her so she wouldn't have to crane her neck. "How far along are you?"
"Five months. I won't be able to travel very soon, so we... we thought we would brave the holiday rush," Donna explained, twisting her wedding ring, as if unsure how to explain her marriage.
Toby pretended to ignore that. He simply did not want to know. He didn't want to tell Josh about Donna's husband. The fewer details that Toby, and by extension Josh, knew about that particular piece of good news, the better.
"Where have you been?"
"In school, for the most part," she said with a smile.
"You went back to finish your degree?" Toby asked, as pleased and proud as he would have been if Donna had been Molly or Huck.
"Yes, at the University of Wisconsin. I lived with my parents to save money."
"Well, that must have been..." Astonishing. Frustrating. Horrific. "An experience."
"I suppose that's a word for it," Donna laughed. "I think it worked out for the best though. I think acting like a family was good for all of us. So was getting my diploma. No matter what I did, it always bothered me that I never finished my degree."
"What are you doing now?"
"Working in a library. I've only have one semester left before I get my M.L.S., but I think I'm going to have to defer that for a while." Donna smiled as she placed her hand on her belly, totally unperturbed in the delay in achieving this degree.
"A Master's of Library Science? I take it you enjoy your work."
"Yes, I do. Isn't it strange? It's the complete opposite of the political world. Quiet, structured, no running on pure adrenaline. I should be bored out of my mind, but I really love it. I originally started working at my universities library to get the tuition break, but it didn't take me long to realize that I had stumbled on a really good fit. I like the order of it all and, when it comes down to it, public service is still public service."
"You're still in Wisconsin?"
"No, it turns out that my parents and I get along much better when we have half the country between us. Something about familiarity breeding contempt," she said with a slightly wicked grin, which probably meant that whatever lingering issues Donna had with her parents had been resolved. "Grad school was a good way to do it without looking like I was running away."
"So where are you?"
He was mulling over the best way to inquire if Donna knew how close her university was to the place Josh currently called home when Donna's face lit up in a way he had only seen it do for one man. But even for Josh, she never let her joy show so openly. Perhaps because it had been Josh who had made her smile like that. Donna was well aware of proper behavior and loving your boss wasn't proper at all. But there was no shadow in Donna's smile now. Whoever this man she married was, she could obviously give her heart to him without fear.
"I leave you alone for five minutes and you start taking up with shady characters," said a voice that sounded very familiar. Toby turned around to see a man who looked remarkably like Josh Lyman. Smirked liked him too.
Toby opened his mouth, but sound refused to come out.
"Good to see you too, stranger!" laughed the man who could not possibly be Josh Lyman (could he?), as he handed Donna some sort of overpriced beverage and settled down next to her.
"Here. Your green tea latte, as requested."
"What did you get?"
"A gingerbread latte."
"Why didn't you get me one?"
"It has coffee in it."
"It's called 'decaffeinated', Josh!"
"It's called 'not what you asked for', Donna!"
"When... HOW?" Toby managed to strangle out.
"Toby, you really have to start returning my calls," admonished Josh. "This wasn't news I could leave on voicemail."
"I'm not the one who decided to eschew all methods of modern communication!"
"I get lousy cell phone reception out at the lake."
"A simple 'Toby, I'm getting married. Call me back,' would have sufficed."
"But then I wouldn't have been able to see your face!"
"We haven't really told anyone," Donna explained.
"Because we're not really in touch with anybody who would care," Josh interjected. Toby decided it was probably admirable the way Josh did not let repeated failure stop him from trying to use humor to deal with touchy subjects.
"Just our parents and the Bartlets, originally," Donna continued with a dark look at her husband, their estrangement from their former colleagues not something she was ready to find funny. "Sam found out when he came to visit this past fall."
"Said he wanted to see the leaves change for some odd reason, but it was his face that changed colors" Josh laughed. Donna shot him a look that graphically said she was trying to remember why she married him.
"So how long have you been..."
"Last May," husband and wife replied in unison.
"No, I mean how long since you two started talking..."
"Last May," all three said at the same time, Toby instinctively understanding that really was the only answer it could be when you thought about it.
"She just showed up on my doorstep one day. I thought I finally snapped and had started having delusions."
"So, you knew where Josh was?"
"Yeah. I felt like such a stalker, but couldn't seem to stop myself from keeping track of him. My whole first year at Syracuse, I had to tell myself that being in the same area in of the country was enough, but it wasn't. So, I got in my car one day and hoped he wasn't going to throw me out when I got there."
"Throw you out? I kept trying to figure out ways to get you to stay! Marriage seemed like the least drastic option."
"It certainly was the most effective," Donna grinned.
"Well, Mazel tov! I'll have to think of an appropriate gift. What do you get a couple after a twelve year courtship?"
"At least I finally got the girl. And without anybody making t-shirts."
"Because that worked so well for me," Toby observed.
"Hey, you're doing all right. You've got that nice job at Columbia and have been welcomed back into polite society," Josh mocked with cheerful pride, reminding Toby that he really had a lot to be thankful for.
"And what have you been doing besides getting married, Josh?"
"Well, I... Umm..."
"Are you even employed at this point?" Toby further teased, wondering what on earth could make him look so embarrassed.
"Yeah! For crying out loud, my kid's not going to have a deadbeat for a dad..." And now he was rubbing his face in agitation.
"Josh, please tell me you haven't got a job wearing a chicken suit!"
"I think you would approve more if I had," Josh mumbled from behind his hands.
"He's a published author," Donna announced with pride.
"DONNA!" Josh moaned in utter mortification.
"You? You write?" Toby asked in utter disbelief. The man could turn out a readable memo, but that was a far cry from writing a book.
"I can, in fact, string sentences together, Toby."
"I don't recall hearing anything about you publishing a book. Good or not, your C.V. would be enough to get the talk circuit interested."
"I used a pen name."
"That embarrassing?" Toby asked.
"Well, not to me, but since I managed to escape anyone retaliating with physical harm when I was still in politics, I would rather not have anyone coming at me with a 2x4 for something I wrote."
"It's going to come out sooner rather than latter, Josh," Donna pointed out. "Hollywood films have a way of shining a rather bright light." Josh's face twisted in disgust, but he did not object.
"Your book has been optioned?" Toby asked in surprised. This was getting more and more surreal by the minute.
"The first two actually." Josh shrugged. "I think they're already filming The Character Assassination."
"The Character Assassination? You're Noah Moss? Moss... Oh my god." Toby's hands planted themselves on either side of his forehead as if that might help turn the world right side up again. It hadn't worked while he was at the White House and it wasn't working now. What he wouldn't give for one of his rubber balls.
"I know. Of all names he could have... Oh damn," Donna waved a hand as she searched for something to wipe away the tears that has started fall. "I'm sorry. Don't mind me. It seems as soon as I got pregnant I started to leak more. Don't you DARE say it, Joshua! It's just that he choose that name when we weren't even speaking to each other."
"Well, I wasn't really speaking to anybody around that time. I was kinda too angry. At the world." Josh, for his part, looked embarrassed at getting caught acting so sentimentally. "It didn't mean I stopped caring."
"A feeling I'm not unfamiliar with," Toby offered.
"Well, it was an unusual experience for me! At first, I started writing as a way to vent some steam. What better way to work out your frustrations than to plan the violent death of your enemies under the guise of writing a political thriller, right? But then Sam came to visit and I made the mistake of letting him read it. Next thing I know, he's on the phone to some guy he knows in LA and I'm signing a book deal."
"And becoming an international bestseller."
"We're not talking words that will touch the heart of a nation here, but I can spin a pretty good story," Josh shrugged.
"Well, your prose is pedantic and you are overly fond of modifiers, but somehow the result is still a good read," Toby admitted grudgingly.
"You've read his books?" Donna exclaimed. Josh just stared at him slack jawed.
"This hasn't been the first time I've been trapped in an airport," Toby replied defensively. "And it's rather enjoyable trying to identify on whom each character was based. It was clear you were an insider." Toby shook his head, still trying to process. "Donna's right. People are going to figure it out. It's been a hot topic in political sectors for the past two years. Time Magazine ran a piece about likely candidates just a couple of months ago."
"Yeah, I saw that. I didn't even make the list of contenders. You did, though," Josh snickered.
"As a dark horse contender. Will Bailey seems to be a favorite choice."
"Ironic, really, considering I killed him off in my first book."
"You are enjoying this too much."
"Well, yeah. I wouldn't do it if it wasn't fun. Hey, should we be worried about your flight?"
"No, it's been delayed for another three hours. You're going to Donna's parents for Christmas?" Toby asked, but was surprised when Josh shook his head.
"No, Texas. For some reason, Matt claims that it wouldn't be the holidays if I didn't show up and he hasn't met Donna yet."
"Yes, he has. He sat on me once," Donna said cryptically, but Josh just smiled, seemingly familiar with the story already. "And my parents never cared if I skipped the whole home for the holidays thing, so having Christmas someplace warm sounded nice."
"Matt? You mean Matt Santos? You're still in contact with him?"
"Yeah. I think he and Helen adopted me somewhere along the way," Josh said, half-seriously. "They have me out to visit a couple times a year."
"He's been getting a lot of national attention lately," Toby observed.
"And that's nothing compared to the attention he's getting in state," Josh grinned. "They want him to run for Governor, but he says he won't unless I'm the one running the campaign."
Toby raised his eyebrows at that, but Josh merely shrugged his shoulders.
"I can't tell if he says that because he thinks I need to stop living like a hermit or because it's his version of 'when hell freezes over.' He's got an odd sense of humor. So, where you are off to? It's not like you to be part of the holiday crowd."
"C.J.," Toby sighed. "She and Danny just adopted a child and somehow this means my presence is required out in California."
His news was greeted with simultaneous expressions of delight. Donna started peppering him with questions to which he didn't know the answers.
"You know that you can call her and ask her yourself."
Josh and Donna exchanged embarrassed glances and Toby felt an unexpected wave of sympathy.
"Call her. Neither one of you did anything to be embarrassed or ashamed about. Taking the road less traveled doesn't mean you have to leave your friends behind. Here. Hand me your cell phone. I'll give you her number."
"Well, Donna has nothing to be ashamed about, but C.J. may just hang me by my finger nails," Josh said, edgy as if he expected her to suddenly materialize behind him and whack him with a file folder. Toby smiled, a sneaking suspicion suddenly confirmed.
"She hasn't read String Theory Conspiracy yet so she has no idea who Jane Rogers is," Toby offered as passed Donna's cell phone back to her. Josh visibly relaxed.
"You figured it out?" he asked, a bit too nonchalantly.
"Jane fell into too many pools for me not to." Toby's eyes twinkled. "I planned on giving C.J. a copy. Sign it for me?" Reaching into his bag, he pulled out a hardcover copy of Noah Moss's latest.
"You didn't wrap it?" Donna asked.
"Was I supposed to?" Toby replied, watching with great amusement as John gingerly signed his book as if it were a bomb about to explode.
"Excuse me, Mrs. Lyman," an airline desk representative interrupted. "We are about to board soon, if you and your husband would like to make your way over to the gate door." Josh and Donna thanked the woman for her thoughtfulness and began to gather their things.
"Who says that customer service is dead! She doesn't even know who we are," Josh crowed.
"Pregnancy has its own celebrity," Donna said with a roll of her eyes as she took her husband's proffered hand to rise to her feet. "Hey Toby, are you going to the Bartlet Library dedication ceremony this spring?" she asked suddenly.
"I hadn't planned on it." He hadn't expected to be invited, to be honest. "Are you?" Donna shook her head and pointed at her stomach. Josh shrugged as he slung both his carryon and Donna's over his shoulder.
"Well," he said. "I'd be leaving Donna with my half of the diaper duty if I did, so probably not."
"Please," Donna scoffed. "Toby, just go and take him with you. You guys get so weird about stuff like this." Josh rolled his eyes as if he had been getting this a lot.
"Hey," he said, giving Toby a nudge with his elbow. "I'll go if you go."
"God, I married a teenage girl!" Donna threw her hands up in exasperation and Toby burst out laughing. He couldn't help it. The crowds, awful holiday music and delayed flights be damned. This was the best he had felt in far too long.
"Providing my invitation doesn't get lost in the mail, if you have me up at the lake in exchange, you've got yourself a deal."
Donna made them shake on it. Hugs were then exchanged as were promises to keep in better touch. Toby watched them go and then opened the book that Josh had just handed back to him. He unsuccessfully bit down a shout of laughter as he read Josh's inscription:
Don't kill me.
Love, Josh aka Noah Moss
This would make it even more amusing when C.J. finally figured out just who the clever lead reporter for the fictional Washington Gazette was supposed to be. A thought suddenly struck him. Picking up his bag, he ran after Josh and Donna, catching them right as they were about to head down the jetway.
"Josh! JOSH!" His friend turned back. "You're not allowed to use me as a character!"
"Too late. Already did, Dr. Stein," Josh laughed at Toby's shocked expression and with that he was gone.
Toby looked down at the copy of String Theory Conspiracy in his hands. He was the basis for the physics professor?
Wait... didn't Alex Stein wind up with C.J.'s Jane character at the end? Toby didn't know whether he should laugh or tear at what little was left of his hair in aggravation.
Well, he shouldn't be so surprised. Josh was a romantic, after all. He just never imagined as he watched Josh and Donna's relationship unfold that Josh had been observing him in return. And good friend that he was, Josh wrote him his own happy ending since he was unlikely to experience that particular scenario in real life.
He began to smile in spite of himself. If Paul McCartney wasn't signing that drivel that he tried to pass off as a Christmas song directly over Toby's head, he might have been at risk of catching the holiday spirit. And wouldn't that just tilt the earth on its axis?