"Same place I've always been
Part 4Tuesday, October 28, 2002
"How many hours until the election is over?"
Donna didn't even have to do the math. "204, two less than the last time you asked us that."
CJ sighed and sprawled back in her chair, stretching her legs out under her desk. Gail II swam in slow circles around her bowl, passing over the little 'Bartlett for America' sign someone had come up with this week. "Is it possible that time actually has slowed down, and just no one thought to tell me?"
"No," Carol answered this time, handing folders over to CJ, who proofread automatically, then signed and handed them back. Carol passed them off to Donna in exchange for the notes for the 10:00 briefing. "Did anything happen in senior staff that we should be aware of so we can avoid Toby and Leo?"
"Nothing too horrific. Toby's on a rampage about the Voters' Bill of Rights--"
"Again," Carol and Donna muttered.
"--but hopefully he'll take it out on Ginger and Zach before he heads for the hill." CJ lifted her eyebrows at the snorts from the other two women. "Hey, have a little faith here. Donna, I need you to sit down with Leo and Rachael from Scheduling to work on the President's agenda until E-Day, then make sure everyone's got copies of the updated interview sheets and the photo-op schedule."
"Heading for Leo's office as soon as I leave here."
"Good." The phone rang and CJ leaned over to check her display before she picked it up. "Yeah, Darryl?" She listened and nodded a few times, then put her hand over the receiver. "Carol, Darryl needs some help finalizing our response on the HR 2461 rider before he takes on Henderson, Liebowitz and Cooper this afternoon; do you have time to give him a hand with the research?"
"Can't, CJ; I'm going with you and the President to the Associated Press luncheon, remember?"
"Damn. Okay." She started to lower her hand from the phone. "Maybe he can steal Zach or Bonnie for a little while...."
"I'll do it." Donna heard herself say, and blinked under Carol and CJ's united stares. "What? I listened to Toby all the way back from New York last week when he was rampaging about that; I know what it's about. No classes anymore so I've got time. And I can help."
"But... this is Darryl," Carol said carefully.
Donna tried not to smile, not sure why she wanted to. "Yes, I got that from when CJ said it was Darryl."
CJ started to say something, thought better of it, and finally went back to the phone. "Darryl? Donna's going to help you out. Yes, Donna.... Yes, I'm sure. What time's the meeting? Got it." She hung up. "He needs it by 1:00. Can you handle it?"
"Sure." Donna nodded briskly and made a note on her steno pad, ignoring all the other implications of CJ's question. "And Sam wants to see you before you leave for the luncheon, CJ -- something about please keep the President from destroying his speech this time?"
It was CJ's turn to snort. "Oh, yeah, 'cause that's so easy to do. Okay, get out of here, let's finish running this country into the ground before we turn it over to the other guys."
"You've been spending too much time with Leo," Donna observed as she followed Carol out.
"Don't remind me," CJ groaned just before the door closed.
Donna and Carol split up at their desks; Carol headed for the press room and Donna swam her way through the sea of staffers to Leo's office.
"Go on in," Margaret said before Donna could even open her mouth, staring at her computer as if the fate of the free world depended on her typing speed. "He's waiting."
Donna hesitated by the desk, caught by something in Margaret's voice. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." Margaret still refused to look up.
Which left one other possibility. "How's Leo?"
Donna crossed her arms. "Margaret."
Margaret kept typing, then stopped. Seeing no one within earshot, she let her hands drop from the keyboard and the expression of alert competence drop from her face. "He's just marking time, Donna," she sighed quietly. "He's so... I want all of this to be over now."
Not sure what to say, Donna put a comforting hand on her friend's shoulder. "Just a few more days, Margaret. We've made it this far, we can keep going a few more days."
Margaret shrugged, picking up a pencil and tapping it against the desk. "It's not the days before I'm worried about," she admitted, eyes fixed on the pencil. "It's the ones right after. When he doesn't have anything left to do."
Donna squeezed her shoulder. "He'll have you and Mallory. He'll be okay."
"Yes, he will." Margaret didn't sound convinced, but she straightened in her chair and plastered the professional smile back on her face. "Go on in, he's waiting."
"Okay." Donna hesitated another moment, then gave Margaret one last supportive pat before tapping on the half-open door. "Leo?"
Leo looked up from his desk and gave Donna a tired half-smile. "There you are. Come on in." A year ago, he would have gotten up, but Donna vaguely remembered the female staffers going to a lot of trouble to break Leo of the habit. Seeing him now, she suddenly understood why; even that little courtesy seemed like it would be an unnecessary waste of his energy. She smiled back at him, then settled on the couch next to Rachael Galvez-Ryan, the tall, harassed brunette who ran the Office of Scheduling with an iron fist and drawers full of forms. Ian Brockmann from the Office of Political Affairs, a blocky blond two inches shorter than Donna, nodded to her from the armchair.
"So, how are we looking until Election Day?" Leo started them out.
Rachael shook her head, leafing through the intimidating pile of color-coded paper on her lap. "If someone sneezes, he has time to say 'Gesundheit', as long as he doesn't stop walking while he does it."
Leo looked at her over his glasses. "That bad?"
"We're starting to schedule his bathroom breaks, and there aren't too many of them."
Donna looked over Rachael's shoulder at the schedule. "So, what are the public events the press will ask about, and what are the private events they shouldn't ask about, but will anyway?"
"The press conference is still scheduled for 10 a.m. on Election Day, urging Americans to get out there and vote--"
"Sam's got that covered," Leo interjected. "No politicking in the morning press conference; we want people voting and we officially don't care for whom."
"Right," Donna nodded. "When do we start caring for whom?"
"About ten seconds after the morning press conference ends," Ian said.
The other three laughed on cue, and Rachael went back to her papers. "Okay, right after the press conference, he's got the Security briefing, and it continues business as usual for Election Day. Very quiet, except for his trip out to vote, which is scheduled for 4pm."
Donna nodded. "The press coverage of that should hit the commuter traffic on their way home."
"Which will send the late voters off to the polls feeling very charitable towards the President and his party," Ian finished confidently.
"Or so we hope," Leo pointed out. "What are we doing with Hoynes that day?"
Rachael consulted a differently colored part of her pages. "Not much. The press conference in the morning, then the Vice President is on his own for the trip to his campaign headquarters."
"Good. What about the lead-in to the election?"
"The President suddenly seems to be very interested in talking personally with Congress," Rachael said with a wry grin towards Ian.
He shrugged in unapologetic acknowledgement. "Tillinghouse, Ramirez, Liebowitz, Wyatt, the other Ramirez, and Grissom are the current list. We're still finalizing the order, and what day each of them will be here."
Donna picked up the ball when everyone looked at her. "The President will greet each incumbent publicly for the cameras outside the Oval Office. We need to balance times on the photo ops, two or three per day, so they don't all run together, or not everyone's going to get the same amount of coverage. Plus, it'd look staged. Which it is, but we don't want it to look that way."
"Right. After the photo ops," Ian stepped back in, "the President and the incumbent will move back inside the Oval for their meetings."
"Where they'll spend the whole time talking about the election unless we actually have something in front of Congress to browbeat them with," Leo concluded. "Charlie will make sure all of the briefing materials are ready to go. The President wants to know if we need to add Shaeffer to that schedule; I think he's looking forward to beating up on him."
Ian started to answer, but Donna beat him to it. "Toby's meeting with Schaeffer today. If he caves on campaign finance, he goes into the lineup; otherwise, he can get elected without any more help from us." Ian turned a laugh into a choke as Leo raised his eyebrows at her. Donna held up her hands. "That's a direct quote from Toby."
"I think I've pointed out before that Toby isn't the best role model you could have around here," Leo advised, before returning his attention to his desk. "Okay, that many congressmen along with the usual Presidential duties should kill most of the week. What else are we looking at on Election Day?"
"If Shaeffer goes on the list, make sure you fill out the request," Rachael warned. "Right after the Security briefing, he's got a meeting with the Secretary of the Treasury, then they're both heading for the Cabinet meeting."
The rest of the schedule was pretty straightforward, considering it was Election Day for an outgoing president; Donna took notes as necessary, contributed where she could, and kept trying not to think about how much older Leo looked today than he had yesterday. After an hour of going over the schedule, a few shuffles to accommodate the press corps and their deadlines, and the introduction of a few more bathroom breaks, Rachael and Ian gathered up their papers and headed out to do battle with the clock and the DNC.
Donna started to follow them, but was stopped by Leo's, "Donna, hang back a second, would you?" She settled obediently back on the couch, bracing herself for the upcoming conversation and beginning a mental countdown. Leo stuck his head out the door to say something to Margaret, then came back in and sat on the couch next to Donna. 3, 2, 1....
"So, Donna. How you doing?"
And there it was. Even knowing it was coming, she couldn't stifle her small groan. Leo leaned forward, looking concerned, and she gave him her best respectful-yet-exasperated look. He grinned and settled back. "I guess I shouldn't ask about your date, then."
"I beg you not to."
"Okay, okay." He lifted one hand in surrender and she relaxed. "It's just that the President mentioned you'd had a rough time in New York, and I wanted to see if there was, well, anything I could do."
"It was pretty bad," she admitted after a moment. "But it was a week ago and seriously, Leo, I'm fine now."
"I wanted to talk to you a week ago, but the situation in Israel blew up--" He stopped and shook his head. "Sorry, bad turn of phrase. Anyway, I should have made time--"
"Leo, it's okay." It was her turn to pat his hand. "Trust me, with Sam hovering over me, and CJ checking on me, and Margaret and Ginger feeding me, the whole 'taking care of Donna' thing was pretty well covered."
He looked old again, guilty and almost fragile, and she understood what Margaret was afraid of. "Good," he said finally. "That's good." Then, "You do know we only do this to you because we care, right?"
She laughed, and he smiled in satisfaction, the odd fragility drifting away until he was indomitable Leo, terror of the West Wing, again. "Which, by the way, means you're still not off the hook about law school," he continued. "Given any thought to those acceptance letters yet?"
"Made any decisions?" he prompted after a moment. "Like, oh, say, Georgetown? You know, Charlie's going to--"
"All right, all right." He held his hands up again as she threatened him with her notebook. "Seriously, Donna... It's not a money thing, is it? Because you know I'll help out with any--"
She stopped him with a squeeze of his hand, fighting back an unexpected lump in her throat. "That's really sweet, Leo, but I'm fine. Honestly. Josh's insurance still has a while to go before it runs out, enough to get me the rest of the way through school. Which I'm pretty sure was what he had in mind." And finding out Josh had made her his co-beneficiary with his mother had been good for another week's worth of sobbing.... This crying thing really did have to stop.
"Yeah, it probably was. Josh always did take care of his own, and you were that. From the day you walked into campaign headquarters." Leo's eyes got far away for a moment, and Donna tightened her grip on his hand again, concentrating on breathing so she wouldn't sniffle.
Leo shook himself out of whatever memory trip he'd gone on and squeezed her hand in return, then let it drop, bracing his palms on his legs. "Okay, enough of this sensitive, sentimental crap. There must be something in this place you should be doing right now besides sitting around talking to an old man."
"Yes, sir, I'll try to find something." She kissed his cheek impulsively as she stood, and he brushed her off with an irritated grumble that wasn't really.
CJ and Carol were at the 10:00 briefing when she made it back to her desk, but the Communications bullpen was bustling with activity. Election Day hung over them like a thunderstorm, threatening excitement and disaster in the same breath. An apple muffin with an American flag stuck in it was centered on her desk, right in front of her keyboard. It held down a one-word note in Sam's handwriting: "Dinner?" She grinned, scribbled a quick "Chinese, you're buying" beneath it, and tossed it across the bullpen to Bonnie. Then she settled down at her computer, took a bite of her muffin, and lost herself the research for the 2461 rider.
By 1:00, she was prepared for anything Darryl could throw at her, and anything the Terrible Trio could throw at Darryl. What she wasn't prepared for was the sudden vertigo that hit her as she stood by Kathy's desk, and looked at the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff. She hadn't been in it since the day it stopped being Josh Lyman's office and became Darryl Ellington's.
"Donna?" Kathy -- with a K for Kathleen, not with a C for Catherine, and hadn't that been nice and confusing when Sam's old assistant had been helping to bring Darryl's assistant up to speed those first weeks -- looked over from the file cabinets with a smile. A short, round redhead with bright blue eyes and more freckles than Opie Taylor, Kathy was widely regarded as the West Wing's leading authority on chocolate chip cookies, Microsoft Office, and how to fix the copier without calling maintenance. "If you've got the 2461 rider research, I owe you lunch."
"I've got it." Donna took a deep breath, sickness trying to rise the back of her throat. "Is he ready?"
"If he's not, he should be; go on in."
"Okay." One more deep breath, try not to think about all the times she'd strode into this office, make the feet move forward, careful knock on the door frame. "Darryl?"
Darryl looked up from a stack of reports, and stood as soon as he realized who was standing there. "Donna, hey. Uh, good afternoon."
Donna went further into the office, smiling hesitantly, her fingers sweaty against the folder. "I've got the research on 2461."
"Great, great. I really appreciate you helping us out with this. Anything you've got will be a big help." Darryl rubbed his hands together, then ran one over his shaved head before gesturing at the visitor's chair. "Please, sit down."
She lowered herself carefully to the chair, praying he couldn't see her knees shaking, and Darryl leaned one hip on the corner of his desk. Darryl had been a star fullback in college before he'd decided politics was more fun; twenty years later, he still moved with the care of a big man who knew just how easily things could break. He had a wide face with dark brown skin and light brown eyes, and always wore a broad smile, whether he was thanking a staffer for lunch, listening to Toby rant, or cutting a Republican off at the knees. Legend had it that no one had ever seen Darryl in a bad mood. "The most cheerful steamroller in DC politics," Leo called him, invariably tacking on a, "God help us all."
Two years ago, Darryl been an up-and-comer in the party, already being eyed to run Bartlet's re-election campaign. Nobody had foreseen the sudden need for a new Deputy Chief of Staff....
"So," Darryl broke the awkward silence, and Donna jumped a little. He pretended not to notice, rubbing his hands against his pants, then clasping them together. "What can you tell me about why Liebowitz, Cooper and Henderson going to spend two hours this afternoon trying to make me support a rider to 2461 that will ban federal funding for all embryonic stem-cell research?"
Donna busied herself with shuffling her notes, although she didn't need to read them any more than Darryl the Human Tape Recorder needed to take any. "Well," she started, licking her very dry lips, "the basis of rider is that they just want to fill in the loopholes left by the Public Health Service Act, which the National Institutes of Health has been doing a very nice end-run around ever since 1998, when the first stem-cell breakthroughs were made."
Darryl shifted his weight, leaning a little bit farther back against his desk, then cleared his throat and shifted back again. "And those loopholes are?"
"Well, the act forbids federal funding of research on fetal tissue, but NIH guidelines allow researchers to obtain stem cells extracted through private facilities, and then use federal funding to do the research on them."
"Nice end-run, yes." Darryl nodded, crossing his arms over his chest. His shirt-sleeves strained at the seams. "And the Terrible Trio thinks we should discourage this, and they might be right?"
Donna gestured with one hand in a noncommittal shrug. "That depends on whether you approve of embryonic stem cell research in the first place, which Liebowitz, Cooper and Henderson -- along with some of the most conservative anti-abortion groups, and Pope John Paul II -- very loudly do not."
"And they're going to tell me why in great detail this afternoon." Darryl shook his head. "So, we disagree with the Pope, and the 44 million Catholic voters who currently love Bartlet and tolerate Democrats decide to vote somewhere else," he said, mostly to himself. "This is a great issue to hit right before an election."
"That was probably the idea," Donna pointed out before she could stop herself, and Darryl looked back down at her with mild surprise. She almost trailed off, but forced herself to keep going. "Either they blackmail us with the Catholic voting block to get what they want, or they think we lose ground on Election Day."
Darryl tilted his head, his eyes suddenly sharper. "You disagree?"
Donna bit her lip. "Yes, I do. The numbers vary, but polls say that only 26 to 45 percent of Catholic voters agree with the pope on embryonic stem cell research."
"And the other 55 to 74 percent?" he asked casually, still leaning back against his desk.
"Have, or have relatives with, Parkinsons, Alzheimers, Lou Gehrig's disease, or multiple sclerosis. All of which are among the targets of stem cell research."
"Okay, sounds good -- so why are the Pope and the Terrible Trio up in arms about it?"
Donna suddenly recognized Darryl's expression -- it was the same one Toby used sometimes, when he was waiting for someone to give him answers that he already knew, but thought they didn't. Darryl's version was nicer than Toby's, but it was still... irritating. Very irritating. Her eyes narrowed.
"Because harvesting stem cells requires destroying the embryo. The opposition leaders are, for the most part, believers in the theory that life begins at conception; the harvesting process is indistinguishable from abortion. Although it's important to note that as of last year, 57 percent of abortion opponents support stem cell research."
"Interesting." The know-it-all expression was fading, replaced with intense concentration. "What are the alternatives the opposition suggest?"
"Adult stem-cell research. There's evidence that adult stem cells, like those present in bone marrow, can be used for many of the same purposes as embryonic cells."
"So why aren't we researching those?" he challenged.
"We are. The NIH wants federal money to fund both approaches, instead of being limited to adult stem-cell research, which itself currently seems to be limited. Adult stem cells are rare, more difficult to harvest, and current research points to them being multipotent, instead of pluripotent. If that's true, the cells don't have as much differentiation potential and can't--"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let's stick to English here, okay?" Cut off mid-fact, Donna blinked up at Darryl, and found him laughing down at her. She was offended for a second, until she saw the warmth behind the amusement, and the way his arms and shoulders had relaxed. "Obviously you were the right lady for this assignment, Donna, but you're going to have to slow it down so us dumb jocks can keep up."
She made a rude noise before she had time to stop herself; Darryl's grin got wider and she found her own lips curving in response. He stood up and wandered over to lift the head off the donkey-shaped jar on his credenza. "Want a cookie? Kathy makes them, and I hear they're as good as Mrs. Landingham's." Donna hesitated, then took one. Chocolate chip, of course.
Darryl took a cookie for himself, replaced the lid, then settled back down on his desk, leaning towards her with his hands braced to either side. "Okay, let's start from the top. Donna, I need some facts to throw at these guys, I need some numbers, and I need them in twenty minutes. Bring it on."
Donna took a bite of her cookie, then took another deep breath that came much more easily than the ones before it. "Okay," she started. "The first thing you need to point out is that most, although not all, of the embryos for research come from fertility clinics, and would otherwise be destroyed...."
Dan stared out the window of Isaac's office, wishing for the first in, well, forever, that Isaac didn't have such a good view. All those big buildings, the shining glass, the gorgeous New York skyline.... Just looking at it was putting him in a bad mood.
Behind him, the other four continued their conversation. It had started out as an early-afternoon meeting, honestly intended to discuss the direction of the show for the next month or so, and they'd actually done that. Until Isaac's amused anecdote about the previous day's board meeting, when one of the younger Quo Vadimus VPs had come up with the 'great idea' of having Dan and Casey do the upcoming Halloween night broadcast in costume. Cal Trager had joined with Isaac in instantly quashing it, but the subsequent retelling had given them all a good laugh, which had led, inevitably, to the current discussion of "great Halloween costumes I have known".
"...so I walk into the party, and the first thing I spot is this tall bunny across the room," Casey was saying.
"Dana, you actually went to a party dressed as a Playboy Bunny?" Isaac asked. "I didn't know you had it in you."
"Well, that wasn't exactly her costume." Casey was obviously enjoying drawing the story out as long as possible. "In fact, when I found her, she was trying to figure out how to drink a margarita without her costume getting in the way."
"The whiskers were too long? The nose?" Natalie's question, Dana's anguished moan.
"Nooooo." Dan didn't have to turn around to see Casey's grin. "The head was too big."
"The Easter bunny?" Natalie gasped in delighted horror. "Dana, you went to a party as the Easter bunny?"
Dana's voice came out muffled; in the wavering reflection from the window, Dan saw that she had her face buried in her hands. "I lost a bet. That's all. I lost one lousy bet, and Casey is going to keep the story alive forever!"
"Oh, but that one's too good to let die," Isaac chuckled. "I don't suppose you had the sense to get pictures?"
"We couldn't," Casey shrugged in mock apology. "She wouldn't take the head off all night. It was the first and only party Dana Whitaker has ever left completely sober."
All three of them started laughing; Dana crossed her arms and glared at Casey. "Go ahead, laugh, McCall. In fact, you can keep laughing when I bring in the pictures of you after your mummy costume came unwrapped. In the middle of the dance floor. When, if you remember, you weren't wearing anything underneath it."
Casey straightened abruptly in his seat. "On the other hand, it's entirely possibly I was making that whole Easter bunny story up."
Dana nodded in smug satisfaction. "Thank you."
Casey leaned over to Natalie. "Possible, but not likely," he added in a loud whisper. "And we did manage to sneak a few pictures before the party ended."
"Hey!" Dana's outraged yelp came almost in unison with the smack of her hand against Casey's arm. Isaac managed to control his laughter long enough to break it up before divorce proceedings could begin.
"Daniel," he called across the room, once the sparring couple had been exiled to opposite corners. "Are you going to join us today, or is there something fascinating outside my window?"
"Is someone naked out there again?" Casey perked up. There was another loud 'smack' -- obviously Dana didn't feel compelled to abide by the separate corners thing -- and he subsided.
"Nobody is naked, I'm sorry to say," Dan answered without turning around. "Just the same old New York."
He didn't have to look to know they were trading concerned glances. 'Oh god, here we go. What's wrong with Dan this time?' Isaac's would be asking. 'That girl from DC again,' Natalie and Dana's eyes would answer. 'Leave him alone until he wants to talk,' Casey's would warn them all.
And it wasn't 'the girl from DC.' Not entirely. It was just... a bad trend. Seriously. "It's not like it was some huge thing. Just a date. A date that went reasonably well until it ended with a psychotic episode."
There was a long silence behind him. Crap. He'd said that out loud. He hunched his shoulders and stared out the window.
"Do we want to ask whose psychotic episode?" Casey finally asked.
Dan rolled his eyes up to the ceiling, then closed them. "No, you don't, hers, and we're not talking about this."
"Actually, we are talking about this," Isaac said. "In fact, I think it's worth pointing out that you started the talking."
"Well, now I'm stopping the talking!" The silence returned, abruptly thicker, and Dan realized he'd just broken The Rule. The only rule everyone on Sports Night could be relied on to follow, the single and sole guideline no one had broken since it had been established by unanimous, if entirely unspoken, consent, and he'd broken it. They'd called in sick to stretch a weekend out, they'd 'forgotten' meetings with people they were avoiding, they'd cursed into the mics while the show was on the air. But no one -- no one -- ever raised their voice to Isaac.
"I'm sorry," he mumbled into his chest, shoving his hands deep into his pockets. "That was... I'm sorry."
The silence stretched for another long moment, then Isaac sighed. "That's okay, Dan. I'm not as fragile as everyone," he leveled a glare at Dana and Natalie, who were suddenly very busy looking somewhere else, "still seems to think. Now your continued employment," he added, "that's looking mighty fragile. Breakable, even."
Dan laughed, and Isaac grinned, and everyone relaxed. "So, since we've established that we're talking about it, talk about it," Isaac ordered.
"I thought you 'no longer wanted to be subjected to the ongoing soap opera that is our lives'?" Casey asked. Dana poked his ribs with her elbow. "Hey, that's what he said after we got engaged, and I'm going to be bruised for the rest of our marriage, aren't I?"
"Yes, you are. Be quiet."
"There's nothing to talk about," Dan tried one last time, helplessly. "It was a date, it went badly, and while we're on the subject, why do I always get the broken ones?"
They blinked at him silently again, and he made a frustrated gesture with one hand. "You know what I mean! In college, it was Laura, who broke up with her boyfriend every three minutes and needed a shoulder to cry on in-between. Then in Dallas it was that reporter, Darla, who was putting her life back together -- remember her, Casey?"
"How could I forget? She used to get teary-eyed on the air. Covering city council meetings."
"Exactly. Then it was Rebecca, now Donna.... What is it with me and the broken ones?"
Natalie stood and walked over, slipping her arm into his. "Oh, come on, Dan, they're not all that bad."
Dan looked down at her with wry affection. "Says the woman who co-opted me as her date to every club opening, movie and show for six months after Jeremy left for L.A."
Natalie wrinkled her nose at him. "I didn't see you struggling."
"Fight being seen with you? Do I look stupid?" She grinned and squeezed his arm, and Dan turned around to lean his back against the wall. "It's not like I mind, Nat, I just want to know why I always find the hopeless ones. Hopelessly hooked on some guy who's not good enough for them, hopelessly grieving for a guy who died almost three years ago, just... hopeless."
"I think it's because you can't stand not helping people, Danny," Dana said, almost apologetically. "It's kind of what we love about you."
"She's right," Natalie agreed with an rueful grin. "You are so sensitive sometimes, that if it weren't for the sports thing and your occasional obnoxiousness, we might have to kill you."
"So, I'm a sucker. That's great." He grimaced. "Oh, and apparently, I'm also sweet."
Isaac and Casey winced. Natalie and Dana looked clueless. "Sweet as in a good person and nice to be around?" Dana ventured.
"Sweet as in puppies, kittens and other things that don't get sex," Casey corrected her. His wife's glare nailed him at the same time Natalie's did. "What? I'm just saying, women always say that, and that's what guys always hear."
Natalie blinked at him, wide-eyed. "So, every time I've told you or Dan or Elliot that you're sweet...?"
"Oh. Wow. I'll have to remember that."
"And lo, the men of New York will be spared the trauma of sweetness."
"No, I need to remember it so I can use it. I never knew this huge weak point existed!"
"If we could get back to me?" Dan asked loudly, before the battle of the sexes could once again decimate the 49th floor.
"Yes, let's get back to Dan, so I can get all of you out of my office," Isaac agreed.
"You were the one who insisted on the talking," Dan pointed out.
"Yes, and now I'm remembering why I insisted on the no talking," Isaac sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. "Dan, do you like this girl?"
He shoved his hands back into his pockets, and started to answer 'no'. "Yeah."
A bright smile, a quick mind, vulnerable blue eyes.... "Yeah."
"Going to call her?"
"No." That came out very decisively. "I'm not sweet, I'm not a sucker, I don't need everyone to like me, and I don't want to try to fix another broken one." A long moment, then he admitted, "And I don't have her phone number."
Dana made a strange sound, and Dan looked over at her. "What?" Without answering him, or even looking at him, Dana pulled a small, folded piece of paper out of her pocket and held it out. He opened it and saw a phone number with a DC area code written in Dana's nearly illegible scrawl. He looked from it back to Dana. "And you have this why?"
Dana shrugged casually; at least, that's what he thought it was. It may have been some kind of muscle spasm. "It's possible that the subject might have come up, in passing, while I was talking to CJ Cregg. Sometime. Last week."
Dan glared at Dana, then past her at Casey, who held up his hands in silent denial of any involvement. "You've had this for a week -- you've been carrying this around for a week -- and you didn't give it to me?"
Her shrug this time was better, much more relaxed and innocent. Like Dan was going to buy that. "You didn't ask."
He shook his head and looked down at the paper. "What're you going to do with it?" Natalie asked, tilting her head up at him curiously.
Dan refolded the paper, tapped a corner against his hand, then put it in his pocket. "I have no idea. Weren't we supposed to be having a meeting or something?"
"We were," Isaac confirmed, "but since that was obviously unsuccessful, now we're supposed to be working. Everyone get out of my office and start putting my show together, and I don't want to hear any more about any of your pathetic love lives unless it's to invite me to the wedding."
Dana and Casey left willingly, Dan left happily, and Natalie left backwards, so that she could inform Isaac, "My love life is not pathetic." Dan caught her by the arm and dragged her out after him.
It took Dan three hours to get around to picking up the phone, another hour to actually dial the numbers, and by then he only had about 5 minutes until 8:00 rundown. When he got Donna's machine, it was almost a relief. He cleared his throat, left a message he suspected was incoherent, verging on stalkerish, and hung up.
Then he banged his head against the desk several times.
He rested his forehead against the wood, then leaned back in his chair, letting it spin back and forth as he contemplated soccer, football, blue eyes, and the broken ones. Finally, he dug through his desk for another phone number and dialed again. "Dr. Jacobs, please.... Hey, Abby, it's Dan. Got a second to talk? Or, you know, to listen?"
Donna left Darryl's office with another cookie, an enthusiastic shake from his massive hand, and a promise to take her to lunch if the rider died and stayed dead. Those exact words. She realized an hour later what he'd said, although she hadn't noticed at the time; it didn't bother her, not really, and she wasn't sure how she felt about that.
The rest of the day was as calm and peaceful as any day in the White House. Danny Concannon blindsided CJ at the 2:00 briefing over the Israel situation, and she spent two hours taking it out on Darryl, who pretended to listen, and Toby, who ignored her, until Leo told her to be quiet. Donna, in the room to deliver a message, had done a fast fade, and gone off to warn the assistants that nobody's mood was going to improve any time soon. Zach had taken the opportunity to pull her in on the Voter's Bill of Rights prep work for Toby, which kept her occupied long past 6:00.
Sam stuck his head around the corner of her glass cubicle just before 7. "Donna? Can I see you?" he asked.
"Sure." She went through the 'save, turn on the password protection, turn off the monitor' routine, stacked the rest of her work for tomorrow, and trailed after Sam to his office. "So, are we calling House of Hunan or The Happy Wok tonight? 'Cause I'm really in the mood for crab rangoon -- lots of crab rangoon -- and Happy Wok does it better."
In fact, she was starving; Darryl's cookies seemed to have kick-started her appetite for the first time in ages. She grabbed the take-out menus in passing from where Bonnie kept them, in a folder between her desk and Ginger's, waving at Bonnie as she went by. Inside Sam's office, she opened the folder as she settled down in the visitor chair. "Yes, I definitely want crab rangoon. And cashew chicken, and some egg rolls...."
Sam closed the door quietly. "Donna, why didn't you tell me CJ sent you over to work for Darryl?"
Her smile froze as her shoulders tightened, and she stared the blur of the Happy Wok menu. "CJ didn't send me anywhere, and there wasn't any reason to tell you."
He sat on the corner of his desk, and she could feel the intensity of his eyes on her. "You should have told me, I would have sent Bonnie or Zach to handle it."
"Sam, I volunteered, okay? It wasn't a big deal." She put a lot of energy into studying the menus they all had memorized. "House of Hunan or Happy Wok, make a decision."
"Donna, I'm serious, I wish you'd come to me, let me deal with Darryl. CJ shouldn't have--"
"Shouldn't have what, Sam?" She abandoned the menus to look up at him, unexpected anger tightening her voice. "Shouldn't have let me do my job? Shouldn't have trusted me to be able to deal with people I'm supposed to be dealing with? Shouldn't have done anything concerning me without your approval? You're not CJ's supervisor, Sam, and you're not mine."
"I'm aware of that." Sam's voice was strained with the effort not to shout. "I'm also aware that you've spent the last two and a half years running in the opposite direction whenever you saw Darryl. I was worried."
"Worried about what?" She gestured sharply with the Happy Wok menu. "Worried that I'd have a panic attack in his office? Worried that I'd lose it and start sobbing all over him? Or were you worried that I wouldn't?"
Sam's back straightened, and he crossed his arms over his chest. "Just what the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"I... Nothing." She shook her head, already regretting her outburst. And it had been such a good day.... "It's nothing. Can we just, you know, have dinner?"
"That didn't sound like nothing." His tie was crooked, his shirtsleeves were rolled up, and he was giving her the look he'd learned from Josh somewhere along the line, the 'answer me or suffer the consequences' expression. "That definitely sounded like a something and I want to know what it was."
"It was...." She pressed her lips together against what she wanted to say, settled for shaking her head. "Sam, you can't protect me from Darryl. You can't protect me from my job, you can't... you can't protect me from life, and you have to stop trying. We agreed that you would stop trying."
"That's what you think I'm doing?" His voice still had that unnatural tautness to it, nearly expressionless. She didn't want to look at his face. "I'm not protecting you from life, Donna."
"Oh, really?" But she looked anyway. "You wanted to come track me down when I went out to dinner in New York. You would have if CJ hadn't made you leave me alone. What was that?"
"So now you're blaming me for your bad date?" he asked incredulously.
"It wasn't a bad date, Sam," she shot back, "and I'm not blaming you for anything."
"That's not what it sounds like to me!"
"Well, it's not! But my life is my responsibility and I don't need your help deciding how to live it!"
"You were happy enough for my help when you were trying to kill yourself!"
His shout echoed off the walls, rattled around them until it faded away into a dead silence. Donna discovered that she was on her feet and didn't remember how she'd gotten there. The Happy Wok menu was crumpled in her fist, the rest lay scattered at her feet where they'd fallen. One muscle in Sam's jaw twitched; otherwise, he was suddenly entirely still, his arms still wrapped around his chest as if to protect himself from his own words.
He'd never actually said them before. All the times he'd called late at night, 'just to see how you're doing', all the times he'd hovered over her at the motorcade, at fund raisers and press conferences, all the times she'd found him waiting outside class to take her to lunch or dinner, then watched her eat with badly-hidden intensity -- he'd never once said the words.
She shook her head slowly, not knowing what she was denying. When he spoke, his voice was calm, quiet, so controlled he could have been Toby. "Do you have any idea what it felt like to see what you were doing to yourself? We all thought you were doing fine, we all went back to our lives. Then one day I looked up and you were standing here in this office, and I swear to god, I could see right through you."
"Sam--" She tried to break in, tried to make him stop, and he just kept rolling on.
"You were so pale, I thought you were going to faint, except you didn't. You just kept talking like there was nothing wrong, and there were these circles under your eyes that you couldn't hide with the makeup anymore. And you were so thin I was afraid to touch you. I thought if I did, you'd shatter into a million pieces right there at my feet. I wanted to get out of the office, I had a date with Mallory, and if Senator Stackhouse hadn't started his filibuster that night, I wouldn't even have been there anymore. I think about that all the time -- that if Stackhouse hadn't decided to go on a crusade, I might have just kept on not seeing you, until it was too late."
"I got you to eat that night, and I didn't leave your place until you were asleep, and then I made some calls. And not a single person could remember the last time they'd seen you eat, the last time they'd seen you smile, the last time they'd seen you do anything but work and study. And when I made you go to the doctor in the morning, you fought me every step of the way."
She tried to turn away, to put her hands over her ears, but he caught her wrists, forcing her to look at him. "You were more than twenty pounds underweight, you were anemic, you had vitamin deficiencies so serious they wanted to put you in the hospital that night! But you were so freaked out by just the doctor's office that they couldn't, and I promised them I would take care of you. I promised him I would take care of you, Donna, and I'm not going to screw that up again, goddammit!"
He was shouting again, and she finally screamed back, "Fail who, Sam? The doctor? Or Josh?"
Josh's name caught in her throat, almost tearing it, and Sam's head snapped back as if she'd slapped him. She tugged against his hands and he let her wrists drop as if he'd only just noticed he was holding them. She rubbed the red marks carefully, then wrapped her arms around herself as he'd done earlier, turning away.
"I know I scared you," she said, when she thought she could trust her voice. "I know that, Sam. I scared myself. I'm terrified when I look back at what I was after Josh d-died." It was harder to say the two words than she'd thought. And easier. "I know what you gave up to take care of me. You stopped seeing Mallory again because of me, and I let you, and that was wrong. But I'm grateful for it, Sam. I always will be."
"I don't want--"
"I know." She held up one hand, cutting him off. "I know you don't. But I don't know what you do want, Sam. You say you want to take care of me, but you won't let me take care of myself. You want me to be okay, but you don't trust me to try to be."
"No. You don't. And maybe there's reason for you not to." She forced her arms to loosen around herself, then didn't know what to do with her hands. "But do you know what scares me most, Sam? What scares me the most is looking at the Donna I was last year -- last month, last week -- and thinking that I'll be trapped inside her, inside all that pain and cold, forever."
Her eyes were dry, terribly so, burning as she looked at her best friend. Sam's wounded, vulnerable blue gaze held hers, and she fought the need to do something, anything, to make that look go away. She'd depended on his eyes through the worst days of her life, leaned on his steady strength when her own was gone -- until she'd looked at him early one morning and seen him, and realized how much that strength was costing him. How much his strength was costing her.
She'd been a stranger in her own body for months, years, locked away by grief and guilt. She was a stranger again now, listening to herself speak with no control over the words.
"Do you want that, Sam? Do you want me to grieve for the rest of my life? Do you want me to stay the walking wounded forever, to keep bleeding and bleeding so you can take care of me, and tell yourself you're doing it for Josh? To hold onto me so you won't have to let go of him? I can't do that -- not even for you, Sam. And even if I could, it wouldn't work. It won't keep Josh here, and it won't bring him back. Because he's gone, Sam! Forever!"
Her voice cracked and broke on the last word. Sam's eyes looked bruised, wet trails tracing down his cheeks. "I know that," he managed finally, the words rough and raw and barely above a whisper. "I know he's gone. I miss him, so much."
"I know. I know, Sam." She couldn't manage more than a whisper either. She wanted to hug him, to wipe his face with her hands and to bury hers in his shoulder, to pretend everything was all right. She stayed where she was. And, after a very long time, she turned and very carefully opened the door.
"I'm going to pass on dinner," she said, without looking back. "I'll see you in the morning."
Sam didn't answer until she was almost out the door; she heard his deep, unsteady breath before he spoke. "I never did anything for you that was just for Josh."
"...I know." She ignored Ginger and Bonnie's sudden fluster of activity as she left Sam's office, pretended not to notice Zach's hesitation as she passed, didn't look at Toby standing quietly in his doorway, rough sympathy on his face. She wanted to go home, wanted to bury herself in bed and block out the world that had been almost bright this morning, and was now gray and chilled again.
She wanted Josh.
Going home was no help, even if it was a different home than it had been before. Josh had never been to this apartment; the cats he had yelled at had stayed behind with Christina when Donna had moved out two years ago. It was bigger, which was nice, and she had it all to herself, which was usually nice. Except on nights like this, when she would have sold her soul to have someone to come home to....
"Maybe I should get a cat," she thought out loud, juggling her tote bag and her purse with her mail. "Then I could pretend I was talking to it instead of to myself." The display on the machine read 6 -- she made a mental bet with herself on who they were from while she went into the kitchen.
Nothing in the refrigerator looked good; her earlier appetite was gone, lost when she'd started screaming at Sam. She closed the door and turned away, until an echo of Sam's voice stopped her. '...You were so thin I was afraid to touch you.' Guilt stabbed at her; she opened the refrigerator again, located the most inoffensive flavor of yogurt she had and dutifully scooped up a spoonful.
She kicked off her heels as she wandered back into the living room, continuing to spoon the yogurt into her mouth as she went. Nothing interesting in the mail, just junk mail, bills, and a letter from the lawyer who administered her trust fund, the one Sam had funneled Josh's insurance money into when Donna hadn't been able to make decisions about what to wear, much less what to do with her sudden financial solvency. Trust Josh to find a way to give her a raise when she couldn't thank him for it.
She set the letter aside, and stared at the answering machine. She'd have to listen to them sooner or later....
Click. "Donna, it's Mom. I know you're probably at work, but you know I don't like to bother you at the White House. Still, we haven't heard from you in a while, sweetie; give us a call. Love you."
Click. "Hi, I'm calling from First United Bank and you've been selected--"
Click. "Donna, it's CJ. I didn't see you before you left and I wanted to talk to you about... Well, I'm pretty sure you know what about. So, call me when you get home or I'm going to come over there and it's not going to be pretty. Seriously. I'll either be in my office or in Sam's. Call me."
Click. "Donna, this is Adira. I talked to Leo this afternoon, and thought it might be nice to talk to you. I'll be home all night -- hope to hear from you soon, dear."
Click. "Donna, it's Bonnie. Are you okay? 'Cause Sam sure doesn't look like he is. Call me if you want to talk, or if you need to go out and get drunk, or whatever. I'll be around. Bye."
Click. "Hey, Donna. I, ah, I wanted to make sure you made it home all right. Um... CJ's on the warpath, you should probably call her before she starts beating up on Sam. Or, ah, on anyone else. I'll, ah, see you tomorrow."
Click. "Donna, hi. This is Dan Rydell. Um, I'm not stalking you, seriously. Dana gave me your phone number -- that's Dana Whitaker, my producer? You met her at the party. Well, she got it from CJ, don't ask me why, I think there's some kind of conspiracy going on... Anyway, I just wanted to see how you were doing, maybe debate the finer points of... well, pretty much anything. Um, I'm never home, but you've got the number at the studio, so... Give me a call if you get the chance. Bye."
She'd been almost smiling at the worry in Toby's message -- how much of her confrontation with Sam had leaked into the bullpen, to draw Toby out? -- so the last one caught her by surprise. Dan had called her. Dan Rydell had gotten her phone number (CJ? and Dana Whitaker?) and had called her for no apparent reason except to, well, call her.
She played his message again, then again. Yes, that was Dan Rydell, and he sounded... nervous. Dan Rydell, against all odds, had not only called her, but been nervous about it. She absently scraped her spoon against the bottom of the yogurt carton, licking it clean, then putting it down as she stared at the answering machine.
A framed snapshot stood on the table next to the machine, where it would be the first thing she saw when she got home. The West Wing operations bullpen, moving-in day. She was crouched over a pile of boxes on the floor of the bullpen, wearing faded jeans and a plain yellow T-shirt, and shaking a handful of file folders at Josh. He stood over her with his hands on his hips grinning down at her, his Mets t-shirt faded and completely inappropriate for the White House. She had never been able to remember what she'd been harassing him about, but he looked totally unthreatened, probably because she was smiling up at him even as she yelled. They weren't touching, but they had been so focused on each other that they hadn't even noticed Margaret standing there, camera in hand, until after the flash had gone off.
Donna had the formal picture, the one taken right before the Inaugural Ball, on her desk at work. But this one meant more. That picture was two people dressed up in clothes they wouldn't normally wear, off to do things they normally wouldn't do, with people they normally wouldn't have done them with. This one.... This one was Josh and Donna.
She didn't remember picking the picture up, but she was clutching it when she laid down on her bed, ignoring her clothes, her messages, and everything else in favor of oblivious sleep.
"So, what's up with this guy?" Josh leaned back behind his desk, idly playing with a pencil.
Donna lifted her eyes from her notebook to give him her best 'get real' look. "Well, I'm not going to marry him, if that's what you're asking. He probably called to make sure I hadn't had a nervous breakdown that the Secret Service could trace back to him. Or just to be nice to the crazy person."
"Whatever. Didja have fun working for Darryl today?"
She tapped her pen against the steno pad. "Yes. I did. I felt... useful. I'd forgotten what that was like."
"But it wasn't as much fun as working with me, right?"
"No, Josh," she answered in her best indulgent tone.
Josh grinned. "As long as my place isn't being usurped or anything."
The word came out raw with emotion, and stopped both of them for a moment. Then Josh ventured, "So, you gonna call this guy back?"
She sighed. "God, Josh, weren't you the one who always complained about hearing about the gomers?"
"Yeah, I was. But how can I hassle you about the gomers if I don't know anything about the gomers?"
"Never stopped you before," she muttered. "And he probably doesn't actually want me to call him back. Not after the last time."
"If he has half a brain, he wants you to call him back." Josh delivered the compliment in his usual off-hand fashion, the one that had always left people torn between hugging him and hitting him. "So... what do you think about this guy?"
Donna rolled her eyes, slouching a little in her chair. "His name is Dan, and I haven't really thought about him much at all. I'm still... getting used to the idea of feeling again." He nodded like he understood and maybe he actually did. "It's not... He's not you. He's sweet and he's funny and he's... I don't know, gallant. But he's not you."
"Well, it's not like anyone else could be," he smirked, twirling the pencil in his fingers.
"Yeah, right." She rolled her eyes again. "But not even you could have called Dan Rydell a gomer."
"No. No, you may have actually achieved non-gomer-ness this time. Which is probably a sign of an upcoming apocalypse or something."
"Bite me, Josh."
"In the White House? Leo would kill me." He grinned, his dimples flashing, and she smiled back helplessly. Then he stretched out his arms, yawning, and looked at his watch. "Man, it's late. You should get out of here. Go home."
She stood, then paused to look at him. "You're okay? You don't need anything?"
He shook his head. "Nah, I'm fine."
She nodded. "Okay." Another step towards the door, then she turned again. "I miss you, Josh."
"Yeah. I know." He smiled again, the gentle one she'd only seen once before, on the day his father had died. It had been the first time she'd hugged him, the first time he'd hugged her back. "Get out of here, Donnatella. I'll catch up with you later."
Donna nodded once more, then left, trailing her hand against the wood of the door as she closed it behind her.
When she opened her eyes, she was staring out her bedroom window, the gray of the sky slowly being replaced by light. Her cheeks were wet and her body ached from motionless sleep; the picture was still clutched to her chest, her fingertips tracing the wooden frame. She stared at it for a long time, then out the window. "I love you, Josh," she whispered finally, and reached over to gently place the picture on the bedside table. Then she got up, and started getting dressed for work.