Author's Note: I wrote this very fast, in a sort of white heat of frustration after first seeing "Things Fall Apart," and posted it on JDFF in April 2005. It was meant partly as an answer to Liza Cameron's post-ep for the same episode, "Fifty/Fifty," which showed Donna reflecting on her exchange with Josh in the bar and coming to the conclusion that they both deserved an equal share of the blame for everything that had happened between them. This was my idea of what was probably going through Josh's head at the same time.
The Blaming Game
She's left, and he's sitting in the bar, feeling like he's just been slapped in the face. Hard. It's not the sort of slap that's going to sting for a minute and then go away; it's going to hurt for a long time, maybe forever. He's a grown man; he doesn't cry, doesn't play that game. He plays the blaming game instead.
He blames himself; he always has. He's the guy who does guilt like other people do cigarettes or candy. It's made him a compulsive fixer, Leo's said, but he doesn't know how to fix this kind of thing. He never has. He knows polls and numbers, he knows congressmen and senators, he knows the rules of order for the House and the Senate inside out and backwards. He knows politics. He's never known women. Except in the biblical sense, of course: sex he can handle. Just not the emotions that tend to come with it, or, in this case, without it. He knows that and he blames himself for it, but he doesn't know what to do about it. He's tried therapy. It hasn't worked, obviously.
He's never known women, and, of all the women he's never known, he's never known this one the most. He'll think he's got her down; think he knows who she is and what she wants, where he is with her and what works with her and that he's safe, and then he'll blink and everything will have changed. He doesn't do change well; he never has. Leaving Hoynes was one of the hardest things he'd ever had to do, until he had to leave Bartlet. He'd never have done that if Leo hadn't pushed him out the door; doing what Leo wants or needs has been one of the unchanging rules he's lived by for the last eight years. Loyalty is his middle name—along with guilt, of course—but that's partly because he's just so bad at change.
He doesn't blame her when she changes on him like that. He's never blamed her, not really. Oh, he gets angry, but he doesn't stay angry long. Not with her, not with other people. He's a blow-up-fast kind of guy, but the flip side of that is he always cools down fast, too. He doesn't hold a grudge, not against people he cares about. Not against anybody, really, except Republicans, and what he feels for them when they're not immediately provoking him isn't anger, it's disgust. Of course, they do a lot of things that provoke him, a lot of the time.
So he doesn't blame her, he doesn't blame other people; he blames himself. Blaming other people would be breaking The Rules; not Donna's Rules, the ones she instigated after he'd been shot, back when protecting him had been something she'd seemed to want to do—not Donna's Rules, but his own. Josh doesn't blame the people he cares about. He doesn't blame his sister for staying in the house, even though she was old enough to know better than to try to put a kitchen fire out alone; he blames himself. He doesn't blame his mother for all the things she did and didn't do after Joanie died; he blames himself. He doesn't blame his father for hiding in his work when things got tough at home, and teaching his son to do the same; he blames himself. He doesn't blame Leo or Jed Bartlet or Matt Santos when things go wrong, no matter how big a deal it is or how little they've told him about it—MS, assassinations, running for President without intending to win; he takes in their anger and their blame when things are rough, and blames himself. Those are his rules, the ones he's lived by for so long he doesn't even know he has them, doesn't even know they're there. He just blames himself.
He knows every stupid thing he's done with Donna, and a lot of stupid things he actually hasn't done but thinks he has. He always knows when he's been a fool; he just doesn't see it coming in time to stop it. And because he knows this about himself, he never knows how to fix things afterwards—he knows he's probably going to do something that will just make them worse. He blames himself.
He knows he was stupid to fall for her in the first place, and stupider still to let himself fall so hard. He'd tried not to. It was a bad idea, wanting a woman who worked for you. Stupid enough when they were on that first campaign trail, with little hope of winning the nomination, living out of fast-food cartons and the backs of buses but still with such a sense of responsibility, not just to the candidate, but to the country and the world. There's nothing I take more seriously, he'd told her, and he'd meant it, but still, he'd taken her seriously too, in spite of her inexperience and her lies and her lack of any kind of record suggesting an ability to settle down to serious work. He doesn't blame himself for that—hiring her was one of the smartest things he's ever done—but he remembers how he felt that first day when she looked at him with those eyes, and that hair, and that smile, and how he promised himself he wouldn't let himself feel those things, he'd be a good boss and a good man and look after her, and now he blames himself.
Feeling those things was stupid enough on the campaign trail; stupider still, when they were in the White House, steps away from the Oval Office, doing the most important work he'd ever done or ever hoped to do. He'd tried not to feel those things, and when he couldn't help that he'd tried not to show them, but he certainly hadn't succeeded, at least with the first part. He'd done better with the not showing, until last summer, when all ideas about protecting himself or her from the consequences of making his feelings known had been blown to hell and back again by that bomb in Gaza. He'd put his heart on his sleeve when he'd left the White House that day, while the others were walking into the Oval to meet with the President about one of the biggest crises the country had had to face on their watch. His heart on his sleeve and his job on the line: Leo had told him to go, but he hadn't known what the President would make of his absence. Not much, he suspected; he hadn't come in for a lot of respect or trust from either the President or Leo since then.
Or C.J., either, despite that sympathetic hug she'd given him when he'd come back, his tail between his legs, and told her about Donna's Irish boyfriend and tried to pass it off as if he didn't care, but she'd known, and he'd known she knew. It hadn't been easy, losing out on the promotion he'd been in line for when Leo had his heart attack; it hadn't been easy, having one of his best friends move from a position under his to be his boss; it hadn't been easy, working his heart out to prove he could still play the game and having the China trip taken away from him; it hadn't been easy, swallowing Donna's digs about it and trying to keep his chin up. But he's a team player, and he doesn't blame the President or Leo, he doesn't blame C.J., he doesn't blame Donna; he blames himself.
He screwed up with them and he screwed up with her, but he doesn't really know exactly what he did wrong. Something to do with red wine and flowers; he's always made a mess with Donna over flowers. Something to do with missed lunches, but he's missed a million lunches, with her and everyone else he knows, and she's been used to that; he doesn't really know why it mattered so much to her now. They could have talked that morning, when things were easy for a few minutes and they were singing together, enjoying each other's company, but she'd wanted lunch. Something about being interrupted; something about a salad. They could have been interrupted at lunch just as easily; he wears a pager as well as a cell phone, and he's interrupted all the time. And he's never had more responsibility than he'd had that week; he'd been acting C.O.S., in charge of the White House, with no deputy to lean on, either, and the President in the middle of his first major public MS attack lying paralysed on the other side of the world, and Russell and Hoynes getting set to run for the Democratic nomination, which would hand the election over to Vinick and the Republicans, and oh, the world maybe about to come to an actual as well as a figurative end, and was there something he, Josh, was supposed to be doing about all this? Lunch with Donna had seemed like one thing he could put off. He'd known she wanted it, of course; known he was frustrating her; known she was mad. He just hadn't realized how important it was to her, or understood why.
He knows now that she'd wanted something more, of course. What had she called after him down that hall? "This job isn't going anywhere for me." She'd certainly gone places since. He can see now that she must have been frustrated; he'd underestimated how much she really could do on her own, how much she was ready to grow. When he'd gone to see her that first time, in Will's office, he'd honestly expected to find her in the bullpen. It hadn't been intentional, though. He hadn't looked down on her; hadn't even thought of her, most of the time, as working for him; when Colin had asked him how they knew each other he'd said they worked together, and that was how he'd thought of it. He hadn't meant to keep her back, not really, but he'd needed her, needed her skills and her strengths, and couldn't imagine functioning in that insane job without them. You don't take the bottom planks out of your lifeboat and throw them overboard when you're tossing on the high seas. And, of course, he'd needed her, quite apart from the job—needed her conversation, needed her caring, needed her closeness, even if he couldn't get as close as he wanted to, and even if she didn't need him the same way.
Be the man, Toby told him, but he doesn't know how to be a man around women. At least, not around this woman, not any more. There'd been a time when it had been easier: being a man had meant taking on Cliff Calley and his noxious little betrayal of Donna over her diary; being a man had meant going to bat for Donna when she'd risked her job to protect that utterly undeserving little rat, Jack Reese. I'd vouch for Donna with my life, he'd said then, and he'd meant it. A boy ran out of the house, but being a man meant being willing to die for someone you cared about, and he had been: he'd given up that NSA card so he could die with his friends and with the people who worked for him. With C.J. and Sam and even Toby. With Donna. He knows how to do those things, but he doesn't know how to figure out what's wrong when Donna's angry and digging at him and not telling him straight out why and what she wants him to do, beyond do lunch. He doesn't blame her for that; he blames himself.
He blames himself for not having looked after her better. She'd wanted to travel, he'd thought, so he'd got her a place on the first trip he could, without thinking very carefully about whether it was a good place for her to be going, or even whether there was anything very useful for her to do when she got there. "Report to me," he'd said, because, after all, he always needed information, lots of it, about every different conceivable subject under the sun. It was like getting her tickets to a concert, something he didn't have to think about very hard. He hadn't had time to think about it very hard; he never had time for anything except trying to keep up with the demands of his job. An important job, that affected a lot of people, from the President on down to the janitors in the schools and factories that would stay open or shut down, depending on the legislation Josh managed to help the President get passed. Still, he doesn't blame her for wanting the trip. He blames the zealot who planted the bomb, and he blames himself.
He thinks that probably she blames him, too. Blames him for her pain and her suffering, for the scars on her leg and her chest, for the months of therapy and the memories and whatever horrors come to her at night. He knows all about it; he's been there. He made sure she saw someone afterwards so she wouldn't go the way he did, but he doesn't know how often she saw him or whether it helped; Donna didn't talk to him about that, and he didn't feel he could ask. She'd been so angry all summer and all fall, ever since she'd come back from that hospital in Germany. Her anger was one of the reasons he hadn't wanted to do the lunch: he'd been pretty sure she was going to say something he wasn't going to like, but he hadn't known what it was going to be and he hadn't wanted to have to deal with it, because he knew that, whatever he said, it would probably make things worse. He may not understand why red wine and flowers and phone calls and salads are such a big deal to her, but he does understand this one basic reason why she's been angry with him, and he doesn't blame her. After all, he blames himself.
Everyone always thinks he's got a big ego. And he does, in a way; you have to have some confidence to get anywhere in politics, and he's gotten places most people never have a chance to visit, even in their dreams. But he's not nearly as sure of himself as people think, not even in politics, and certainly not around women. He's slept with his share of them, but he's never really believed that was the result of anything more than persistence on his part, persistence and a good job. A really good job. A series of really good jobs, actually; since he left law school he's always worked at the center of things, always had some piece of the power pie, the ability to give things to people who want them. A lot of women go for that, especially women in politics, who want the things he has the power to give.
He doesn't think he's unattractive, exactly, but he knows there are a lot of guys out there who are a lot better-built and better-looking than he is, especially these days, when he doesn't get to the gym much anymore, and when his hairline is going back so fast and so strangely. He wonders if he'd have had a chance with her before, in their first year in office, when he was lifting weights and had more hair—if they hadn't had to work together, if he'd been able to go after her the way he did after other women. He'd sometimes thought, then, that maybe she felt a little of the same things he did when they were together. Or later, in their second year—there'd been that night in April when he'd sent her flowers for their anniversary, and she'd been mad at him, and then she'd told him if he was hurt she wouldn't stop for red lights. He'd leaned against the wall and watched her walking away, baffled and wondering and hoping, but not knowing what to do about it. And then he'd found out about the MS, and everything had gotten swept away in that.
It was probably just as well. If he'd tried anything, he'd probably have found out he'd misunderstood her, read her all wrong. It was after Rosslyn and Christmas, after he'd been shot and had a breakdown and been diagnosed with PTSD, and probably she had just been referring to that. She was a kind person, and she'd been distressed by what he'd been through. It would have been wrong to have read any more into it than that.
It's a moot point now, anyway; he'd finally thrown caution to the winds after Gaza and gone to Germany with his heart on his sleeve, but Heathcliff had been there with his chiselled good looks and his dashing technique, and Josh has no problem at all seeing why Donna would want him more than she would her middle-aged, out-of-shape boss, with his receding hairline and his psychiatric disorder and all the other baggage he comes with that she knows too well. The boss who didn't get promoted, who had C.J. giving him direct orders; the boss whose career had hit the skids and, until recently, seemed to be pretty well on its way down the chute and into the garbage. He doesn't blame her for that; he blames himself.
He's a lonely guy. He told Toby once he'd give anything at all to have a living father or a living sister, even ones with pasts as undesirable as Toby's dad's. He'd meant it. He'd gotten Donna her first date with Jack Reese just a few weeks before, because she'd asked him to, because he'd known he couldn't try for her and, anyway, if she was asking him to get her a date, obviously she wasn't interested in him—but when he'd come back to his office that night, and Leo had told him she was gone, he'd felt an emptiness and a coldness like nothing else he'd felt for years. He'd brushed it off and worked with Leo that night, trying to get the Church of the Nativity, of all things, opened so other people could have their happy Christmas, but he's lived with those empty and cold feelings more and more in the years since. They've been worse since Gaza, since Germany, since Colin, since the day Donna stood in the hall at the White House and told him she was leaving.
He's sitting here in the bar living with them now, and thinking about what it's going to be like, living with them for the next thirty or forty years. He can't even call himself her teacher, now; not even her friend. He doesn't blame her, though. He blames himself.