The next morning she decides to get new head shots. She'd fucking rock in business but given her age and resume, it looks like it may take the business world a while to figure that out. Plus all the required traveling would be exhausting and jet lag makes her look old. So she figures maybe it wouldn't hurt to give acting one more shot. She's done some casual theater over the years but she's never really had the time to commit to anything, so her theater resume is sort of crap as well.
It's an absurd twist of luck that a friend's friend's friend knows a guy who needs unpaid extras to be in the background of some movie that afternoon in Central Park. Even better, if they pick her and this becomes a thing for the duration of the movie she can get a SAG card out of it. Which means, hello, doors open everywhere. She whips out her oversized sunglasses and high heels and flounces all the way to the Park.
When she gets there, it's game face on. She's polite, for some reason with a Midwest accent, and is being so incredibly charming and so naturally charismatic that she's certain everyone and their mothers will want her in their films for the next thirty years.
But they want her to play the mother of a 22 year old.
Then they don't appreciate her ad-libbing.
Also, it's hot out.
Obviously she leaves after two hours.
That night she's still cranky when she runs right into Mike, who is taking his turn at the "Let's tell Donna how much she sucks at life" game. Unfortunately, the little shit is pretty effective. Harvey would be proud, if not a little pissed at Mike's success in guilting her about the trial run. Because Mike walks away and she feels worse than she's felt since the day she first left the office.
Even more frustrating, she feels less mad at Harvey than she has in days, and that's really fucking annoying. The anger had been comforting.
It's 103 degrees out so she can't bring herself to go home and face the sticky stillness of her apartment and Camille across the alley looking smug and watering her plants to death. Instead she stops at the liquor store for mini bottles and then tries to go see the only foreign film playing in the neighborhood. Which, given her luck of late, is obviously sold out. She examines the rest of her air-conditioned options.
At this time of day, it's pretty much Brave, or Brave. Figures.
The two automatic machines are out of order so she reluctantly drags herself to the ticket counter.
The teenager behind the counter looks up with a smile, "One adult and of course one child to see Brave?"
"What? Seriously? What kind of question is that? Can't a grown woman go see an animated movie that focuses on female empowerment? Isn't this supposed to be one of the best animated movies of the summer? Aren't I allowed to be curious? Are you in the habit of alienating your customers," She peers at his nametag, "Tad? Wait, seriously? Tad?" She sneers with an eyeroll. "God, you would be a Tad."
The scrawny kid selling tickets stammers, "Ma'am –"
"Watch it with the Ma'am, punk."
"I'm sorry!" He squeaks. "I just thought, well the child right behind you looks like– well, sorry." She looks down and, in fact, the redheaded little boy who has snuck up next to her does in fact look a lot like her. Donna looks around and spots what is likely his father distractedly scolding a little girl in pigtails. She is plopped on the floor eating errant pieces of buttered popcorn off the carpet.
Donna looks back at the little boy with a frown.
"Well, thanks for that, kid."
He looks up at her with wide eyes and then scowls.
She scowls back as she walk away and then feels terrible through the previews.
The absurdity of everything starts getting to her during the sappy parts of the movie. It starts with a snort, and then a gurgle, and then she's full out laughing uncontrollably, the parents and children sitting in front of her focusing more on her hysteria than what's going on onscreen.
She's laughed so hard her eyes are moist and she has to wipe them on the sleeve of the cashmere hoodie she'd kept in her yoga bag, the one Harvey once gave her. She smudges some mascara on the sleeve and then drains her Sprite and the gin she'd slipped into it in one long gulp, and leaves the movie before the final credits start rolling.
When she wakes up on the morning of the trial she has her yoga bag packed and set to the left of her bed, a blue dress fresh from the cleaners on the right.
Her alarm clock radio is blaring a song from two summers ago that vaguely sounds like her brother's old Nintendo game. With her arms folded across her chest, she genuinely can't move.
This time, I'll be Bulletproof.
It feels a little heavy handed, but all the same, it gets her out of bed and into her heels.
On paper, the reasons she is going to the trial are eighty percent Mike's lecture and twenty percent that whole female empowerment thing in that stupid movie.
But as she takes the elevator journey up to the fiftieth floor all she can think about is the taste of the pastries she and Harvey once shared in celebration of his partnership.
She can't remember the exact flavor but they sat in Battery Park Gardens and it was sunny and the pastries were warm and they were sweet and they'd split the last pastry right down the center as he toasted her for being the best damn legal secretary in the world.
Before she knows it, her part in the trial is over. Because she's always been quick on her feet but for the first time, she's not quick enough. That alone seems to be an answer for everyone in the room. He's staring at her intently from behind the defendant's table with a bewildered look she hasn't seen in seven years. It's somehow familiar and unfamiliar all at once. The combination is unsettling.
She wants to explain more, make everyone understand, but her heart is still racing and her mouth is still aimlessly trying to form words and she's not even sure what would come out if it were to succeed.
This time, he holds her gaze until the elevator door closes.
His eyes are fixed on hers, his hair is slightly mussed and his face is completely open, equal measures panic, guilt, and frustration.
But there's a trace of something else across his face and it looks like either confusion or recognition.
She suspects her face looks the same.
She sees him quietly murmur, "Donna…" and step toward her, like this time he might not let her walk away.
It's that which makes her slam the "close door" button repeatedly, locking him on the other side of the elevator door
After running into Mike and listening to his half-assed apology (seriously, she's glad she gave him some epiphany about people being who they are but she deserved at least twenty more minutes of groveling. and a present), she heads into the bar across the street from her house. By the time Rachel finds her, she's surrounded by five men of various ages. She's introducing herself as Debby Ann and she's assumed a pronounced Southern accent. Rachel eyes her tentatively and she grins at her widely, gesturing at the bartender for another round of shots.
"This is my friend Rebecca," she introduces Rachel to the group dramatically.
"Hi y'all," Rachel drawls. Donna frowns. Rachel's accent is really terrible. She need to help her with that.
The boys grin lasciviously anyway.
Rachel flicks her hair off her shoulder and gives a huge smile to the group, "I would just love a," She peers up at Donna questioningly, "A sloe gin fizz?"
She nods her head approvingly. "Rebecca! What an excellent choice. Only Yankees drink those fancy martinis."
Rachel raises an eyebrow. "Of course. Damn those Yankees. Damn them back to, um, back to England." She swivels around in her bar stool so that she's briefly facing only Donna and mouths, "What the fuck?" She gives Donna a gleeful grin. She smirks back.
An hour later and the guys have briefly dispersed to fetch drinks and secure one of the tables near the bar. For a moment, it's just Donna and Rachel. The latter suddenly seems awkward, shifting in her seat and fidgeting with her hair.
"Rachel, just ask it if you are going to."
Rachel looks up with a guilty expression. "No, it's none of my business," she says, resolutely.
Donna smiles gratefully, "No, it really isn't."
There is silence between the two for a long moment before Donna clears her throat.
"I'm not in love with him. But I do care about him a lot. Of course I do. We're like brother and sister. I love him in that way. I would have explained that, if Louis –and if Harvey– had let me. Honestly."
Rachel nods, staring down at her hands.
She looks up at the mirror behind the bar. She finds Donna's eyes and they stare at each other.
"Do you really mean that?" She asks softly.
Donna squints her eyes and start laughing. "Fuck. Seriously, Rachel. Now the whole goddamn office thinks I'm in love with him? Pompous dickhead had to get involved. Like I couldn't rip Louis apart if I just had another second to collect myself. I mean, I'm Donna Paulsen. I'm pretty sure Louis sleeps with a picture of me on his ceiling and even if he doesn't, I know what he has in his left desk drawer. I would have been fine. God, I'm so happy –no, I'm so relieved I don't have to deal with Harvey and pretentious overbearing ass anymore."
Rachel raises an eyebrow.
"No, really. Do you know how many times I've had to eat crappy Indian food on that couch in his office because he just had to have me there while he finished reviewing something that in no way required my presence? Or how many times he's shown up on one of my dates just to see how it's going? And god, don't get me started on the things he said to my parents at dinner last time they stayed at his apartment. I still haven't lived it down. Or seriously, Rachel, the man got us kicked out of the MoMa, the Met, the Frick, and the Union Square Farmers Market –just in the last year! Well, the farmers market thing was more my fault, but he instigated it! He knows how I feel about overripe citrus. Seriously, we are so much better off removed from each other's lives."
She keeps laughing to herself as she drops her eyes to the condensation building on her drink. Her breathing stays even as she runs her finger around the edge of the glass. It's cold to the touch. She wipes her hands on the skirt of her dress and looks back up.
Rachel is staring at her with an inscrutable expression.
Rachel shrugs, hands up in surrender, "Okay. Got it. Not in love with Harvey. No one thinks that anyway, I'm sure. And surprise! This just in, Louis is an asshole. Also, Ryan in accounting smells shoes when he thinks no one is around. Like full-on nose shoved in the insole sniffing. The office has bigger concerns, I swear."
She leaves soon after, muttering something about early meetings, Louis and a broken fax machine. She leans in close to say goodbye and whispers, "I really am sorry. I didn't mean to push. But just so you know, he really isn't the same without you."
Donna sighs but Rachel continues, "Which means Mike is a mess. He stapled his tie to his shirt the other day. It took me two minutes to get it out."
She rolls her eyes as Rachel flushes slightly. Rachel rolls her eyes right back and gently nudges her shoulder with Donna's. She turns to walk away and then rocks on her heels and spins back. Rachel hesitates a minute before adding, "And with Harvey, his being a mess, for him it's subtle, yeah, but I don't think it's in a brotherly way. So, there's that."
Rachel crooks a wary half-smile at Donna and then blows an awkward kiss to the men returning to the table and quickly heads out the door.
She's on her eighth drink of the night when she starts thinking about exactly what she said to Rachel, and the way she said it. And she can't stop thinking about it. And this time she can't quite get her breathing right.
Donna ends up having a two-night stand with a performance artist named Alfonzo and she keeps her phone off the entire time. When he asks, she puts her number into his phone with one digit wrong and walks down the streets of New York with her head held high.
When she gets home she opens all her windows, waters the dead spider plant, and takes a long cold shower in an attempt to cool down her apartment.
Finally she turns her phone back on and finds seven missed calls, four of them from him, not his assistant.
Donna keeps picturing his face while she sat there on the stand, Louis pushing and pushing, a room filled with people watching eagerly, the whole while his eyes remaining fixed.
She deletes all of his messages without listening and pulls up the last three. The first is from the career counselor she had called last week, wanting to schedule their appointment. The second is from the HR representative of a law firm she's dealt with in the past. Apparently they received a tip that she is looking for a change and would she be interested in coming in for a chat? The last message is from Barbara. Pearson & Hardman is settling the case. It's all over.
She's trying to absorb all of this as she sheds her clothes and changes into yoga pants. She ends up on the fire escape, last spaghetti jar/wine glass in hand. She's somewhat comforted to see Camille across the alley, watering the plants like she does every day. Though, it occurs to Donna, someone really really needs to talk to that woman about overwatering. This is getting absurd. Donna stares at her intently until suddenly Camille looks up. Donna waves. Camille stares at her for a moment and then resumes watering her plants. Donna frowns and then flicks her off to her back. The heat is rising up from the pavement below and the air is loud with the hum of nearby air conditioners. She can hear someone watching Jeopardy in an apartment upstairs.
And then abruptly she gets up and makes her way to the kitchen, where she finds the nicotine patches she and Harvey bought when they quit together seven years ago. She frowns at the box for a long moment, irritated that she associates nicotine withdrawal with the days she spent trying to forget the way his fingers slid around her waist.
She rolls her eyes at herself and slaps an expired patch on her lower stomach before tossing all but one of her remaining cigarettes in the dumpster behind her building.
Then she goes out and buys a set of real wine glasses because enough is enough.
There are ten different ways she would know it's him but this time it's because of the slope of his shoulders.
She considers rushing past him but he has on his second favorite suit so she knows it really isn't worth the effort.
And it isn't, because before she knows it, he's offering her her job back.
She can see it, this time. The choice she's making.
She considers the voicemails on her phone from the four more law firms that have called since word got out that she was available. She thinks about the headshots she never had made, and the McKinsey application she never finished filing.
But she's pretty sure that of all of those possibilities, none would feel as right as this one, standing here on the sidewalk with an impishly joyful expression lighting up Harvey's face as she's reminding him that she is the best damn legal secretary, nay, the best legal mind in the world without a law degree, Mike be damned. She can't stop grinning either, because she's got a ridiculously huge check in her pocket. And she's smiling over the check but she's grinning because he knew.
Suddenly he's reaching up and pushing away an errant piece of her hair but the same hair is back in her eyes so quickly that it may not have happened at all.
"Alright," he abruptly begins walking up First Avenue.
"Where are you going?" She asks after him.
"We're going to get breakfast. I have a lot to do this morning." He stops to look around, "God, this neighborhood is terrible. Why do you live down here again?"
She laughs as she walks towards him. "Don't be a snob. You and I both know where you came from."
He lets out a genuine smile, all pretenses dropped. "Fine. Does Gabriel's Diner on Avenue A still have the best coffee?"
She nods. "We share waffles?"
He shrugs in acquiescence.
"And homefries?" She adds.
"No way," he scowls. "You always end up eating all of mine and then I never get any. Just get your own order."
"I can't believe I have to explain this to you again. I can't order them, because then I'm actually ordering them. So you have to order them. Why is that so hard to follow? You have a law degree, from Harvard. A real one, even."
"But you are eating them. God, I hate woman logic. How about I just get two orders and you could eat one of those orders?"
She peers up at him for a long moment. "That's so idiotic it just might work. Though," she adds, "Are you sure breakfast is a good idea for you? You look almost like you've been, dare I say, drowning your sorrows in donuts? That suit seems a little Krispy-Kreme tight from where I'm looking."
"Woman, get your eyes off my ass. And don't joke about those things," He pats his stomach absent-mindedly.
"I'm going to let the fact that you just called me woman slide because I did just get to ogle your ass."
He waggles his eyebrows at her.
"Hey, it's not sexual harassment if it's not in the workplace." She raises her hand to give him a high five and he just shakes his head with a bemused smile.
"You know, if you love me like a brother there is something seriously messed up with your family, especially given our sexual histo–"
"Okay, that's enough of that," she chimes, slapping him on the arm.
"I mean, is now the time when I'm supposed to tell you I love you like a sister?" He scratches his cheek, "Because unlike you, I'm not from way upstate. But maybe-"
She interrupts, "Well obviously no, you're different." She raises her eyebrows. Her smile hints at mocking.
"Oh, really?" he asks dryly.
"I mean, you love me," She says dismissively, gesturing down to her body pointedly, "Just look at me. You've loved me for years. I mean, you love yourself more, but of course you love me. And besides," she turns to face him, walking backwards as she slowly drawls out, "'you need me. I'm irreplaceable. You can't be you without me."
He scoffs good-naturedly but for a moment he holds her gaze with a studied look.
His hand is warm on her waist when he steers her into the diner.
Right as she sits down, he leans in and whispers, "I had to quit smoking again too."
She looks up, startled, but he's already sliding into the booth across from her, gesturing for the waitress to bring coffee.
She ends up eating both orders of home fries and he eats all her fruit salad. But the waffles get successfully split right down the center.
That's as good of an apology as either of them will ever get, and they both know it.
The night of her first day back Donna's sipping a glass of wine when her phone chimes.
"That night, did you mean what you said?"
For a moment, she tries to pretend she doesn't know what he's talking about.
She's sitting on the couch and she's only been home twenty minutes but the sweat is slick along the back of her neck.
She fiddles with the zipper of the dress she had been about to remove and tries not to think about that night.
But the problem is that she can all too easily remember it, drunkenly stumbling through the door of her apartment with his lips on her neck, one hand pulling the pins out of her hair and the other roughly wrapping strands of red between his fingers. They'd laughed together and she'd teased him as they'd both tripped on a pair of shoes she'd left haphazardly in the entryway, followed by wine glasses crashing to the floor when he pushed her against the counter, the darkness of his eyes at the sound of buttons popping off his shirt.
If she closes her eyes, she can probably still conjure up his teeth on her earlobe, his hand grazing her thigh, the vibration of his voice as he repeatedly mumbled her name.
His bewilderment when she finally pushed him away.
She tries to forget drunkenly telling him how badly she wanted him, how if things were different, maybe they could have had…something.
But in this case, she knew they could never go back. She could never go back.
They had sat in silence for an hour after that, his one hand gently cupped around her neck while the other drew lazy circles in her palm.
He brought her coffee and a croissant to work the next morning. She'd snipped that he'd used whole milk and forgotten the whipped cream and he'd responded by loudly telling Louis that she was looking for a ticket to see La Boheme at the Met. She threw a binderclip at him as he disappeared through his door and he'd winked in return.
The sheer normalcy of it all had meant everything was going to be okay. And it was, mostly.
There were fewer late nights and for a while, they virtually stopped discussing their personal lives. And in those first few weeks, eye contact was a battle. She hadn't been sure what she'd see in his face, and she wasn't sure what she'd show in hers. And it seemed like neither was willing to find out.
But they were both so committed to being Donna and Harvey that through sheer force of will, one day they really were just Donna and Harvey again. And every day after that, until the whole thing just seemed like an absurd memory.
It's been ten minutes and she's still staring at her phone thinking about his question. She's typed three variations of "fuck no" before she finally sends, "It was a long-time ago."
Her dress is off and on the floor when a mixture of curiosity and vanity gets the best of her, "Did you want me to?"
A moment later she resends the message, "Do you want me to?"
He doesn't respond but she knows him well enough to guess it's a little from column A, a little from column B.
She finishes her wine with a gulp, places the glass on the counter and just grabs the bottle instead.
When she wakes up the next morning there are two new messages from him, sent at 2am, and then at 3:30am.
"I bought us a new can opener. but I want the old one back. Bring it? "
"I still remember every second"
On her second day back at work she realizes it's finally the day the air conditioning repairman is scheduled to show.
Donna could say she's learning to like the heat but honestly, it's hell on her hair.
She's on the phone trying to guilt her neighbor into helping when Harvey beckons her into his office. He nods at her and then informs Mike his assignment for the day is to sit in her apartment and wait.
Mike stares at the two in disbelief when Harvey gives the order. "Seriously? That's what you are going to use me for today? No offense Donna, but Harvey, c'mon. Just give Donna the day off."
Harvey shrugs at Mike, "Kid, I say, you do. No questions."
Mike slumps down, "God, Karate Kid again? That's the third time this month. You're getting old. It's not even fun anymore."
Harvey tilts his head, "Ya know, sometimes I wished people was like dogs, Luke."
"Done that one too," Mike interrupts, glancing over at Donna. "Cool Hand Luke," he explains.
"Um, hello? I know," she scoffs dismissively.
Harvey continues over them both, enunciating his words loudly, "And like dogs, they just did what they were told. So for that, Mike, you can even take some work with you." He looks over at Donna, gesturing with his arms open-wide. "I think that's a generous offer, isn't it? Very magnanimous of me."
She smirks, "Magnanimous? Oh definitely." Her face turns completely serious, "But I swear to god Michael Ross, if you touch even a single item in my apartment, I'll know it. You think I'm kidding, don't you? But I'm not. I'll know if you've opened doors, cabinets, or closets. I'll know if you've touched either my silverware or my pillows in an inappropriate way, so help me God. And my underwear drawer? You cannot even imagine the hell that will rain down on your testicles."
Mike grimaces, "What the hell, Donna? What do you think-"
"Mike, hush. Grown-ups are talking. Do. You. Understand. These. Instructions? And no beautiful-minding with the magnets on my fridge or anything else weird like that."
Mike shakes his head and gives a mock salute before hitching his messenger bag over his shoulder and heading out the door.
She peers at Harvey for a moment. He's staring back at her with an enigmatic half-smile.
"That was nice of you," she pronounces suspiciously.
"I think Mike would disagree," he leans back in his chair slightly.
"No, I meant for me."
He rolls his eyes and turns back to the work on his desk, "Yeah well, as I've said before, I really do worry about how you sleep at night."
Donna pivots on her heels and begins walking out the door, throwing a glance in his direction, "All these years and you still haven't learned that my night-time habits are none of your business?"
He looks up intently, "Maybe I want them to be."
They regard each other for a long moment while she remains framed in the doorway. She keeps waiting for him to look away, to smirk, or even offer her a wink.
He just stares back with that inscrutable expression.
Finally she cocks her head with a smile, "Maybe."
His gaze holds, warm and steady, "Maybe."
"Or," she raises her eyebrow, "Maybe you should be more concerned with your morning habits. There's a wrinkle in your dress shirt. Or wait, god Harvey, is that a coffee stain? What the hell happened to you while I was gone?"
He looks down, hands frantically running over the soft white fabric, "What? Fuck. Where it is?"
By the time he looks back up she's safely situated at her desk. He narrows his eyes at her with a shake of his head but a boyish grin is seeping out.
She shrugs her shoulders with a casual flip of her hair.
He shoots a rubber band at the window between their desks and gives her a quick wink.
But this time it feels like something.
Author's Note: Thanks for reading! All comments are very appreciated.