"Donna…did we just—"
Minutes, at least several, had passed, and she was still wrapped firmly within his arms. He'd pulled her in so quickly, so unexpectedly, that her arms remained folded into his chest, yet he did not loosen his hold.
"Yes", she replied softly.
He sighed, a long sigh that contained more angst and confusion than release.
His voice was choked with emotion.
"I wanted to tell you…but the further apart we got…"
A tear fell from his cheek to hers, meshing with her own.
"…I wanted it to be different—I wanted the moment to be…happy…and special. Every time I imagined it…god, it was so different…"
She trembled slightly within his arms, and he pulled her tighter.
"Tell me how you imagined it."
"It doesn't matter now"
She felt his chest heave with labored breath and knew that he was as close to breaking down as she was. His voice was pained, desperate, when he spoke.
"Every time we said goodbye...at the end of a day, when we got off the phone…I wanted to say it. You know, just in case something happened…"
He stopped for a minute, taking a shaky breath.
"Like Rosslyn?" she asked gently.
He nodded painfully.
"…or like Zoe getting kidnapped…or Gaza…"
His voice got smaller and smaller as he uttered the last words, and his chest shook with sobs. She heard him struggle, and fail, to keep his voice even.
"Donna, I swear, I wanted to tell you so many times, but…I could just never get it out. And now…"
By now, they were both crying openly.
"Now you know, but I'm so scared it won't change anything."
Now her arms had snaked around him, and he mumbled something that sounded like `I'm sorry' more than a few times into her hair, and they continued sobbing.
It took a long, long while for them to calm. By the time they did, she was holding on to him tighter, and he was stroking the ends of her hair. She was the first to speak, an earnest question.
"How can it change everything," she asked in pained wonderment, "… and change nothing, all at the same time?"
When Josh responded a minute later, the tears had almost left his voice, and his timbre was desperate and soft.
"I *lived* the lie, Donna…hiding my feelings for you became part of me, and I have no idea how to stop."
She sniffled. He held her tighter, which, at that point, was barely possible.
"I don't know how, either."
She sniffled again.
"We're so far past the point of doing whatever you do when you like
another person....normal people go out on dates, and have first
kisses, and go through falling in love together."
"But we're not normal…and we've done it all backwards," he said, finishing her thought.
She nodded against his chest. Neither spoke for a long while.
He hesitated for a long moment. She felt his heartbeat quicken underneath her.
"…I still want to go on dates with you, and kiss you, and fall in love with you all over again. Part of me wants to give you all the… *normalcy* I couldn't give you before. But…I just want you to know that I think dating is for people who are still figuring out whether they really want to be with a person, and I already know the answer to that."
"I think that might be the nicest thing you've ever said to me."
"I wish loving you were enough," he whispered
Even more silence.
"Maybe it is."
He heaved another sigh.
"Donna, I have no idea how to give you what you need."
She let his words sink in, but it was without hesitation that she responded.
"I'm willing to learn what you need, Joshua. Are you willing to do the same?"
He sat her up a bit, taking her face in his hands, honest and shining brown eyes meeting bright blue ones for the first time.
"Yes." * * * * *
They went back to holding one another, her head rested on his chest as both of them replaced words with pensiveness.. At some point, Donna's stomach growled loudly and they became aware that hours had passed between their meeting with the President and their current state. Josh insisted that they order food, and they began their meal silently, presumably overwhelmed by the evening's developments. The air between them remained strained and uncertain, though an undercurrent of warmth that had not existed for months returned. In a rare gesture that was executed shyly, he buttered her dinner roll for her. Just as shyly, she stole a couple of his French fries. They cleaned up together, and after pushing the room service cart out into the hallway for pickup, they stood facing each other, wondering what in the world to do next.
"We have a lot more talking to do. Before, you know--"
"The truth serum wore off."
Silence, then finally…
"We can't talk about everything, Donna. There's too much history."
"We have to start somewhere, Josh."
He took a careful step toward her, and took her hand. He looked back at the sofa, in silent acquiescence of what she was asking. They made their way over, and they sat facing each other again. He joined his other hand with hers and looked down at their intertwined fingers.
"I have questions…I'm just…not sure I really want to know the
"You're going to have to be a little more specific than—"
"What do you want to know?"
"If you lived in the same place, or even in the same hemisphere… would the two of you have…continued?"
She shook her head.
This was clearly painful for him.
"It seemed a lot like you two…had something. New, maybe, but
"I wasn't falling in love with him, if that's what you're asking."
"He fell in love with you."
"We had a long time to size each other up, Donna. We were both there for the same reason."
"Josh, when you came…I was surprised. I mean, I wanted you there, more than anything, but I didn't know if you wanted to be there, or could be there, or…"
She stopped herself, realizing she was getting off track.
"But *him* coming surprised me even more. He was the absolute last person I expected to see in Germany, or ever again for that matter. We barely knew each other. When he came, which *was* incredibly sweet, I figured out that he must feel more strongly than I did. But I wouldn't have done the same for him. Flowers, yes. Flying halfway across the world, no."
Josh nodded, finally seeming to relax a bit.
"Do you still talk to him?"
"We e-mailed…at first. But we haven't even done that in months."
He nodded again, and held her hands a little tighter.
"I have a question for you…" she began hesitantly, "…one that I
don't know if I want the answer to."
She took a deep breath.
"What was it like…at the hospital?"
Josh's worst nightmare come true, outside of Donna dying for real, was reliving the time when she'd almost died. She'd hinted several times previously—particularly during her recovery—that she was curious as to what had happened in Rammstein. Her mother, with whom she did not have the most open of relationships, had apparently been tight-lipped on details. And Josh was the only one who had been there at the beginning, and therefore knew the most about what happened when she was heavily drugged, and truly didn't remember.
"What do you want to know?" he practically croaked.
"Well, speaking of Colin…what did the two of you talk about?"
"Politics…*you*…" he replied honestly, "When we sat in your room, it was me and him pretending to watch CNN, when we were really just trying to ignore one another. When you were in surgery, we were both so worried—I think that's when we stopped being so competitive and realized we were both in the same boat—we might've…warmed up to one another slightly."
"Warmed up to one another?"
"He told me a story…about how he once took a woman for granted…then he told me not to take you for granted."
Some version of surprise registered on her face, and he thought she might press for more details, but instead she just nodded.
"And did you coming, and staying for so long…did it get you in trouble at work?"
He decided not to tell her that Leo had practically pushed him out the door—he didn't want her to interpret that to mean that he wouldn't have come without Leo's blessing, because he knew sooner or later, he would have come to his senses and gone to her, permission or not.
"No…I had the full support of Leo and the President to make the trip. And, whether I was in Washington or Germany, until I knew you were alright, I was in no condition to do my job anyway, so they just…covered."
She didn't look satisfied with the answer, and when she finally spit out what she was really asking, it blindsided him.
"Did it cost you Chief of Staff?"
He saw her worry, and was awed that she'd carried this around for so long.
"No…" he answered reassuringly, "…even without me going to Germany, there were a lot of reasons why I might've been passed up…for one, the thing I do best is help candidates win elections, and if I were Chief of Staff, I would not have been able to support the next Democratic nominee. Second, there were other people I am sure were in the running—Toby, for one, and obviously CJ. Third…you have to admit, I'm somewhat of a wild card…with the PTSD and various screw- ups over the past eight years..."
She nodded again, satisfied.
"Then I guess my last question about Germany is just…how bad was it? I mean, I always got the feeling that the doctors sugar-coated the story, and I just want to know how close I was to--"
She couldn't finish the sentence, and he was glad she hadn't said the word. He gulped, and held her hands more tightly.
"Pretty close," he answered finally, "…and not just once."
He watched as her face tensed, and knew that he had to swallow his pain, at least for the moment, so he could give her the straight answers she was looking for. He kept his voice even.
"They said it was a miracle the roof over the part of the car you were sitting in didn't collapse under the weight. That's what happened with the others---they broke their necks because their bodies were crushed, but for some reason, the car stayed intact where you were sitting…"
Josh closed his eyes for a moment and fought a wave of nausea, struggling to put himself together so he could finish telling her what she needed to know.
"And then with the embolism…the doctors didn't give me too many details because—you know—I'm kinda squeamish…but they did tell me you were lucky to be alive, and that the damage could have been much worse…I, uh, came into your room right after they took you in for the emergency surgery, and there was blood everywhere which was another indication that things were pretty bad."
She gulped, her skin even paler than usual, gripping his hands even more tightly, waiting for him to continue.
"…and you know you were in a coma, but maybe you don't know that there was an 80% chance you would have permanent brain damage"
Her eyes were far away.
"No…I didn't know."
He watched her carefully as she processed all of this, her eyes growing shiny with tears as he gave her the few minutes she needed.
"You're wondering why you beat the odds, and lived, and nobody else did", he said finally.
She closed her eyes, a tear escaping.
"After Rosslyn...I drove myself crazy trying to figure out why my life was spared…and the only answer to that question is that there *is* no answer. Donna, the important thing is that you're alive now."
She nodded unconvincingly, and he pulled her back into his arms. This time she melted right into him, which caused his heart to warm a little more—caused his fears to subside slightly. After holding her still for a few minutes, his heart breaking over the hot tears that soaked through his shirt, he raised a tentative hand to caress the back of her head as he lowered his lips to kiss her forehead lightly. It was subtle, but he was sure she pressed herself a little closer at his gesture. He let his other hand rub her back gently, and they sat like that for a long time, with Josh feeling that, by being there to comfort her, he was doing something right by her for the first time in a long, long time.
"I don't want to talk anymore, Josh"
"Okay…we don't have to."
Donna remained caught in a maelstrom of emotions, both exhausted and energized by the day's events. Part of her felt a deep sense of relief at finally telling him the truth. The relief was, of course, paired with joy and vindication that he felt the same way. As she reflected on all he'd said to her, touched by the pain in his voice and haunted over how he'd cried for her, she was proud of him, and in awe. The truth serum had been a catalyst, but he'd gone many steps beyond what he had to and poured his heart out, nakedly, excruciatingly, for the very first time. Her instinct to take care of him, to protect him from pain or upset had kicked in strongly at several points throughout their conversations. But in recent months, she'd also developed a strong sense of self-preservation, and a small voice inside her (admittedly, a weakening one) told her not to let him off the hook too easily. And yet another voice, certainly the more reasonable one, told her to let him in, but take it slow.
"Let's do something else."
"Anything you want, Donnatella."
What she wanted to do was to lay in his arms forever, with him rubbing her back and his breath in her hair and his smell in her nose, and his heartbeat strong beneath her. But 24 hours before they'd barely been speaking to one another, and 72 hours from then, they would be back in the real world, with no truth serum and no privacy and their lives to get on with. She didn't know what to ask for, what to expect. She argued with herself for another minute, wondering whether she had nothing left to lose or whether now, since they'd laid it all out, she had more to lose than ever. What would someone else in her position do? Continue to be paralyzed by fear, or take whatever she could get for whatever it was worth?
"I was thinking we could just relax…you know, maybe watch a movie? There's a TV in my room."
She felt him tighten slightly, a comforting reminder that he was as terrified as she was. If his room was identical to hers, it was laid out barely—with a TV, various tables, and a bed. She was asking him to get in bed with her and watch a movie. She continued nervously.
"There's wine in the mini-bar…we could, you know, put on our
pajamas, and open a bottle of wine, and rent something on the pay-
"I'd love that," he interrupted softly.
And so, minutes later, she sat in bed in a snug powder blue tank top and snowflake pajama pants, pretending to pay attention to flipping channels, but really waiting nervously for him to join her. She tried to play it cool when he came in, keeping her eyes on the TV, deciding to wait a few beats before acknowledging his presence, but he spoke first.
"You have the same pajama pants!"
He had stopped short, mid-way into her room, glasses and wine in his hand, looking in between them, a small smile growing on his face. They did, in fact, have the same pajama pants on, and she had bought both pair at the same time, from Old Navy, several years before. She was not surprised that she'd done something like that—something so simple but telling of her feelings for him; yet so intimate that she'd never intended for him to find out. She herself had long- forgotten, and blushed at the revelation.
"That's sweet," he said, his voice filled with rare delight.
He was looking her in the eyes now, and they were both smiling shyly. Maybe this would be easier than she thought.
After he'd poured the wine, and proposed a simple toast…
"To our future…" he'd said.
…and held her eyes, and dared to hope for forever with her, he put his glass down on the nightstand and accepted her offer to crawl in next to her. They'd propped themselves up on pillows, and he'd tentatively put his arm around her. He might've breathed an audible sigh when she laid her head on his chest. They settled on watching "Sideways", but he was not in the least concentrated on what played out on the screen in front of him. He was glad she couldn't see his face—glad that he could watch her, unnoticed, for long moments at a time, before giving himself permission to close his eyes, inhale the intoxicating scent of her shampoo, savor the feeling of his arms around her.
For the first time in forever, he felt alive. His senses were sharp, and he was acutely aware of her every breath, every shift of her body against his. At some point, she snuggled closer to him. Her tank top, which was so sexy he'd forbidden himself to think about how the gentle swell of her breast excited him, might've been too little to keep her warm, he thought. He lifted the covers up to her chin and pulled her in a bit tighter. He thought he heard her sigh.
The idea that she might be even half as affected as he was amazed him. On impulse, he brought his hand up to tuck her hair behind her ear. Looking down at her, he saw her eyes were closed, and wondered for a moment whether she was falling asleep. The day had been exhausting, and he wouldn't be surprised if she were. But when, a few moments later, she reopened her eyes and stared back at the TV screen, he knew this was stirring something in her—the question was, what?
He considered two possibilities—either he was making her uncomfortable, and she didn't know how to tell him so. Or, like him, she had hungered for this—for tender, intimate, private, beautiful moments. When she brought one hand, which he assumed had been laying in her lap, to his chest, and snuggled in yet closer, he responded by pressing a soft but lingering kiss to her hair. She closed her eyes again.
"Is this okay?" he whispered hopefully.
She tipped her head up to look at him, her eyes filled with something he'd never seen before—something good.
"More than okay," she whispered, before closing her eyes again and snuggling closer to him.
Dropping another soft kiss onto her forehead and returning her embrace, he resisted the urge to whisper that he loved her, deciding to save wondering how to build a relationship with her for tomorrow.
Cozy with warmth and drunk with the sensation of Josh rubbing her back tenderly, Donna allowed him to believe she was still asleep. Through barely opened eyes, she watched the room go from pre-dawn to morning light, utterly engaged in savoring the feeling of his arms around her, his heartbeat beneath her. But for the brightening light, she had no sense of time, and when he began planting soft kisses designed not to wake her up on her forehead, she thought she might actually be in heaven.
When she realized she needed to use the bathroom somewhat urgently— that they must have fallen asleep during the movie and slept straight through until morning—she reluctantly stirred, and smiled as she felt Josh's arms react instantly to hold her more tightly. She made a little sound and let her eyes flutter open, chancing a glance up at him. His eyes were filled with unspoken words, and happiness to see her, and fear, and love. They reminded her of how he looked at her in Germany, and something about that reassured her.
"Good morning," he whispered, smiling slightly as he placed a light kiss on her nose.
Her smile widened. This felt like the most natural thing in the world.
"Good morning," she murmured.
She felt goosebumps rise on her skin as he brought one hand from the small of her back up her bare arm, then across her shoulder to cup her chin in his hand. She closed her eyes as he kissed her nose again, and was disappointed when he didn't kiss her lips.
When she let her eyes meet his again, she suspected, from the way his eyes changed, that her disappointment showed.
"I'm sorry…I just don't know how slow we're supposed to be taking
"Why can't we just do what feels right?"
"Donna, there's a whole world of stuff that feels right when it comes to you, and we're not ready for most of it."
Something in his voice shook her, and she let herself ask.
"You never answered my fifth question."
Not waiting for a response, she came out and asked.
"If we woke up one morning, as different people—normal people—with separate jobs that didn't put us under a microscope…how would you want things to be?"
He looked down at her for a long moment, his eyes staring deeply into her as he answered. His thumb brushed gently against her cheek, and he dropped his lips closer to her ear.
"Exactly like this….I would wake up every morning with you in my arms…and tell you every single day how beautiful and special you are, and how you're the best thing that ever happened to me…I would make up for every time I didn't kiss you, but wanted to, which pretty much means I would be kissing you all the time…I would make love to you until—"
He stopped short, and both of them flushed, he from his near-slip, and she from the sudden hotness she felt at hearing the words. She turned and tilted her face up toward him—they were so close now.
"I would make love to you until you told me to stop…I would—"
"That isn't what you were going to say," she whispered.
"No, it wasn't, but saying what I was thinking on that particular topic would be one of those things we're not ready for."
They went back to gazing at each other intensely, and she thought again that he would kiss her.
"Donna…I would make sure you would never doubt ever again how much I love you, and I would do everything in my power to make you happy."
She saw truth, and hope, in his eyes, and she knew that regardless of all her fears, all she wanted—all she had ever wanted—was him.
"Then what are you waiting for?"
As she said it, she nuzzled his nose to his in an Eskimo kiss, and heard him sigh.
And with that, she closed the tiny space between them and pressed her lips to his in a soft, lingering kiss. He cupped her jaw more tightly as he deepened their union, making a little sound when she brushed her tongue along his lower lip. She opened her mouth to him, and he plunged his tongue in slowly, deeply. *My god, this man knows what he is doing* she thought, as her body reacted to the amazing pull of his. Kissing him was soft, but passionate and full of a hunger and intensity she had never exhibited herself, or felt from anybody else before that moment. As his stroked hers, she felt somehow that he was reaching deeply into her soul. And when some indeterminate amount of time had passed and they clung together, out of breath and staring into one another's eyes, they both knew permission had been granted.