Author's Note: I first posted this on JDFF in November 2004, when Season 6 was in full swing. It's meant to be set in an imaginary Season 5, in which Zoe was never kidnapped and the Bartlet White House still had some of that cozy, familial feel I loved in the earlier seasons of the show. My take on Leo and Donna was probably colored by the way John Wells was writing them in S5 and S6, though.
My apologies to anyone who's read this before; I'm working on putting all my stories together on this site.
Part 1 of 6
Josh looked at his watch: 4:54. It wasn't his crap watch; it was the new one he'd bought just a few weeks before. It had cost quite a lot of money—more money than he'd ever spent, or even considered spending, on something he was planning to wear—but he'd liked the look of it, and it kept time well. If it said 4:54, then damn it, he could be sure it really was 4:54, not 4:27 or 5:15. There had been a certain rush of satisfaction in spending money on himself, and it pleased him to know the right time, for a change, gave him a comforting feeling of being in control of at least one small part of his life. The feeling, he knew, was entirely illusory, but these days he tried to seize on the small things to be happy about. There wasn't much else to go on.
He gathered some files together and pushed them into his backpack before standing up, stretching—God, he was stiff—and struggling into his coat. The muscles under his left arm objected vigorously; since no one was there to see he let himself grimace, then picked up the pack and walked out of the office. Donna was still in her cubicle, typing something. He paused by her desk and cleared his throat. She glanced up at him, but kept on typing.
"I'm heading out now."
"Out by five on a Saturday night again? What is the world coming to when Josh Lyman doesn't need to work around the clock seven days a week?"
"Yeah, well, we've all got to get a life sometime."
"Another hot date?"
"She must be really something."
"She is. She really is." He was trying to sound casual and amused; he thought he was bringing it off fairly well. He was getting better at this. Of course, he'd had quite a bit of practice by now.
"I'll be leaving soon too. Chris is picking me up."
"Which one is Chris?"
"The tall, blond, handsome one. With the great hair."
"What happened to the tall, dark, handsome one?"
"Jeff. Who also has great hair. He's taking me out tomorrow night."
"Donnatella Moss, are you dating two guys at once?"
"Three, actually. You're forgetting Jeremy, who's taking me out next week."
"Which one is Jeremy?"
"The tall, handsome redhead with the really great, curly hair."
"Great hair seems to be a theme these days."
"Hey, some people have it, some people don't. And then there's the third category."
"It's a hot look."
"Only for inmates in federal penitentiaries, or the genuinely hot. Those with great clothes and aesthetically pleasing heads."
Ouch. He was expecting that, but it still hurt.
"There's nothing wrong with my head. It works quite well."
"What's inside works all right, once in a while. The outside might too, if today was Halloween."
Double ouch. He should be used to this by now, but it still made his stomach clench and did something strange to his breathing. The only way to cover was with a smirk; he went for a big one.
"All the other women think it's cool."
"I thought you said it was hot?"
"Ever think of adding an earring? Maybe a tattoo?"
"I'm working on it. Which ear do you think would be best?"
"Better ask your girlfriend. If she is a girlfriend. You're sure it's not a boyfriend? 'Cause what with the hair, and maybe an earring now, I'm beginning to—"
"Quite sure. Not a doubt in my mind. Not a doubt in any man's mind who looks at her. Not so sure about Chris, though; I've got to tell you, you might want to watch out for him—"
"You haven't even met him. Get out of here, Alcatraz man. It isn't cool to be late for a date."
"A hot date, very hot."
"Do you want me to come in tomorrow?"
"Nah, I'm out of here for the rest of the weekend. Have fun with Chris."
"And Jeff. And Jeremy."
"Them too. See you Monday."
Josh slung the backpack up on his right shoulder, gave her a grin, and moved away, trying for his best swagger. It wasn't until he was around the corner that he let himself relax into a normal walk. His shoulders slumped a little. The backpack felt heavier than usual; his back ached. He nodded to the guards at the front doors and stepped outside. At his car, he threw the backpack into the trunk, where it nestled up beside the suitbag already there. He did a mental check: sweatpants, a couple of t-shirts, change of underwear and socks. Toothbrush, toothpaste. Fresh shirt and tie for Monday morning. Files on the education bill, the Atwater appointment, alternative energy. He leaned back in the driver's seat, aware that he was stalling, and ran his fingers over his face and where his hair used to be. His scalp felt cold and strange. On impulse he pulled the rearview mirror down and made himself look in it. Yeah, he really did look like crap. Worse than crap. It was hard to bring off the hip thing when he was wearing a suit and tie, and when he was so tired, and when—let's face it—hip had just never been his thing to begin with. He flipped the mirror back up, closed his eyes, and sat for a minute, torturing himself a bit more by thinking about Donna and her dates. There'd been a time when he could have sabotaged any or all of them by making her work late, but he couldn't really bring that off when he wasn't staying himself. He stretched a bit, wincing as he caught his left arm the wrong way, opened his eyes again, and sat up. Started the car, fiddled with the radio, looked at his watch again. 5:20; he really had to go now. Sighing, he backed out of his space and headed off for another long Saturday night and Sunday with his really hot date.
Donna sat at her desk, straightening a few papers and fretting about that last conversation with Josh. They'd been having a lot of those lately, and she didn't like them. Didn't like the meanness they brought out in her, didn't like the way the meanness didn't seem to affect him. And they were getting worse; the more untouched he seemed by what she said, the nastier she got. "The outside might work too, if today was Halloween"—that had been really over the top. Their conversations had always had an edge, but not like this. She wasn't sure what she might say next. It disturbed her.
She felt at sea, that was the trouble. Confusion always brought out the worst in her. She didn't like not knowing things; she liked to have her world organized so she knew what was happening and what to do about it. It was one of the qualities that made her such a successful assistant for Josh: his job involved constant chaos, but her job was to bring the chaos under control. Her filing, for instance: it didn't matter how many issues Josh was trying to juggle, she could handle them—and him—if she just had the right number of file folders. For research her trick was index cards. You could count on things like that; no matter how crazy life was getting around you, you could find your answers in the folders, the index cards, the carefully organized hierarchies of computer files.
But, ever since she'd started working for him, the most important constant in her life had always been Josh. It was strange, she knew, to think of him as predictable or constant. Most people who knew him would say he was mercurial, and he was—his moods shifted quickly and frequently, the way his hands moved, or his feet. He could be a laughing extrovert one minute-the life of the party, high off the energy of all the people and ideas buzzing around him—and crash down into himself the next. But there was always a reason for the shift, and she had caught on to his mood changes very quickly, early on in their relationship. It had been an almost instinctive thing; she had seemed to understand him, to know how he was going to react to anything that was going on. She made mistakes, of course—she wasn't clairvoyant—but she'd always been able to figure out why he had reacted in the way she hadn't predicted, and had felt confident that she'd get it right the next time. Which she usually did.
And then, this summer, the ground had shifted under her feet. It had been a seismic change; she couldn't think of it as anything less dramatic than that. One minute she and Josh had been going along in the usual way, with everything quite normal; the next minute a huge canyon seemed to have opened up between them, and the entire landscape of her life had altered. There hadn't even been a warning rumble from the ground.
It wasn't the fact that he'd got a girlfriend. At least, it wasn't simply that. He'd had them before: Mandy, Amy, and countless dates in between. They'd bothered her—Amy had bothered her a lot—but they hadn't created the same sense of disorientation that this new one did.
A big part of that was the fact that she'd never met this woman. Hadn't spoken with her on the phone. Didn't know her name. Didn't know what city she lived in, even, or what they did together. Sex, obviously, but what else? Usually Josh blabbed to her about everything—well, almost everything. That had driven her crazy, but not knowing was driving her crazier. She was supposed to know about his girlfriends, supposed to have met them; hell, half the time she was the one who helped get him the first date. Which was a little sick, she knew, but it had worked—sort of. But now everything was completely different.
One week Josh had been doing his usual thing: working late on Saturday night, Sundays sometimes, and making her work too. They'd eat take-out together, and afterwards he'd drag her out to some bar for drinks, sometimes with CJ or Toby or Will, sometimes just the two of them. Then, one Saturday in July, he'd told her she could go home early because he had to leave at 5:00, and he'd left work promptly every other Saturday night at 5:00 ever since. The next day had been just as strange; he hadn't even called her to bug her about work. He'd leave the office at 5:00 on Saturday night, and she wouldn't hear a peep from him until Monday morning. He must be serious about this woman to be spending that much time with her, that regularly. Donna had never seen him do anything like this before: not with Mandy, not with Amy, not with any of the lesser dates in between.
It must have started the long weekend in July. Josh had mentioned quite suddenly the week before that he was going to take a few days off. Naturally she'd asked him where he was going. He'd said he had some friends who had a place in the Hamptons. Donna had played that up for all it was worth, working on him, pretending to be pretending to fish for an invitation. (She'd have loved one, but she had to cover.) He'd said she'd cramp his style. That had to be where he'd met the woman, because the changes in their weekends had started not long after. Donna pictured them meeting at some swank party, laughing over the catered barbecue together, walking out across the causeway over the dunes afterwards, taking their shoes off, letting the waves splash around their ankles, kissing while the sun set—actually, none of that sounded like Josh at all, but then, neither was missing a chance to come into work on a Saturday night or Sunday. He hadn't looked, when he'd come back, as if he'd had a terrific weekend falling in love on a beach—in fact, he'd looked sick—but there must have been some time for fun before he came down with whatever bug he'd picked up on the trip. He'd certainly sounded pleased with himself when she'd grilled him about it; his smirk had been out in full force. She wondered if the woman was from New York, or somewhere else. If she lived in D.C., Donna thought she'd have come into the office by now; no woman who didn't work there could resist a visit to the White House. And Donna was sure it wasn't anyone who worked there. So she must be from somewhere else, probably Manhattan. She wondered if he was taking Amtrak up to New York every other Saturday night, staying over, coming back late Sunday, maybe even staying Sunday night and taking the Metroliner in early Monday morning, which would explain how tired he always looked on Mondays. She'd looked up time-tables, picturing him driving home, picking up his things, taking a cab to Union Station in time to catch the 6:20 train. She felt like she was spying on him, and she hated herself for doing it, but she couldn't seem to stop.
And of course she tried to picture the woman. She must be really something to have hooked Josh so quickly and so completely. Donna had pictured every possible style of girl—sometimes petite, sometimes tall; sometimes curvy, sometimes thin; sometimes with dark hair, sometimes blonde-but always beautiful, because Josh had been bowled over; always wildly intelligent, for the same reason; always rich (what other kind of woman would you meet in the Hamptons?). After the haircut, she'd added some other adjectives: young, hip, and tasteless.
The tasteless part was what really bothered Donna. Here was this woman who'd met Josh Lyman at a house party, had attracted him, hooked him—hell, made him fall in love with her, by the looks of it—and then changed him. For the worse. Donna didn't consider herself an idiot; she would be the first to say that Josh Lyman could use some change. But trying to make him look more hip really wouldn't have been anywhere near her own list of places to begin. It wasn't his style—although, when he was sporting his sunglasses and his swagger, he could fool you into thinking it might be. Maybe that was what had gone wrong in Southampton: he must have worn his sunglasses and his swagger. Of course he had; it was the Fourth of July, there was a beach, it was the Hamptons. Of course he had. And this idiot woman had decided he was cute enough to be interesting, but not cute enough to be preserved intact. She'd gone after his hair. And that really killed Donna, because, although she would have died before she'd admit it to Josh, she loved his hair. She loved how thick and wavy it was. She loved the way it turned auburn in the sunlight. She loved the ridiculous birds'-nest way it stood up when it was a little too long and he'd been running his fingers through it. She even (God, she was a hopeless case) loved the way it was receding in front. He was a bit self-conscious about that and she knew it, which made him a little vulnerable, a little sweet, and made her feel protective. She knew a lot of guys chose to shave their heads now, rather than cope with the runway-between-two-strips-of-grass look, but Josh hadn't been anywhere remotely close to needing to do that yet. Toby, maybe; not Josh. And, apart from that touch of self-consciousness about the hairline, he'd never really paid any attention to his hair at all; in fact, he tended to neglect it, to let too much time go by between haircuts, which was how it ended up doing that birds'-nest thing. But then he'd gone to the Hamptons for the Fourth of July, and three weeks later he'd walked into the office with a buzz cut, and a couple of weeks after that he'd shaved it clean. Ugh. She still couldn't stand to think about it.
And so she dealt with it the only way she ever dealt with personal things with Josh: she razzed him about it. Hard. And then a little harder. And then a little harder still. It was the way they did things, the way they always had. He reacted just the way he always did, with a smirk and a swagger, as if nothing she said could get through that inflated ego at all. But this time it bothered her more than usual. She wondered why she'd ever thought he was vulnerable, why she'd ever bothered to feel protective of him. Why she'd ever thought she knew him. And that made her feel, not just sad, but lost, as if everything she'd ever been sure of in her life had been taken away from her in a swoop. So she lashed out by thinking of newer and still meaner things to say to him, but saying them wasn't making her feel any better at all.