Every night, I tell the same story
Filled with thoughts and deeds that fall out of line

Joey may not, in fact, have been entirely wrong....

As much as I love flying on Air Force One, it has its definite downsides. Sure, you get the guaranteed on-time departures, the stewards bringing you great food, and more leg room than a 747 ever dreamed of offering. Plus, if you get bored, you can go back to the press area and taunt the reporters who don't get any of the above except for the food. (They made me stop doing that; Danny and Katie started muttering about lynch mobs and CJ banned me from the section for my own protection. Yeah, right. Like I couldn't take a bunch of reporters.)

But with the advantages come a couple of fairly serious disadvantages. Trips tend to turn into one of two things -- an extended staff meeting that starts just after takeoff and doesn't end until landing (and usually picks back up in the motorcade). Or, if the President is feeling obnoxious, they turn into long trivia sessions to which we're expected to pay attention and be able to respond intelligently. Or at least coherently.

To everyone's surprise, neither of those happened tonight. The President is wiped out from the airline labor disputes in Chicago (yet another thing we don't have to deal with on Air Force One) and is hiding out in his private rooms, probably watching some sporting event that the rest of us couldn't possibly care less about. A lacrosse game between Uganda and Chile, or something equally exciting. And, for a change, there are currently no crises waiting for us when we land at 2 a.m. D.C. time. Hallelujah -- three hours of flight time without anything to do.

CJ passed out in her chair about an hour ago; she didn't even wake up for dinner, which tells you how tired she is. She's no Ainsley Hayes, but the woman likes her food. Sam and Toby are huddled in one corner of the main cabin, taking advantage of the unexpected free time to work on the President's speech for UNICEF next week. They were fighting about the details until I pointed out the people trying to sleep; they're still fighting, but now they're doing it quietly.

I was actually working, too, trying to figure out how to get three Republican congressmen to come on board HR-569 before the vote on Monday. But Donna fell asleep on my shoulder less than 10 minutes after takeoff and shows no signs of moving. My arm is going numb and I can't take notes without that hand, so after a while, I put down the files and started watching my assistant instead.

And in the peaceful stillness of Air Force One, completely devoid of crying babies and complaining passengers (except for Toby and the press corps, neither of whom actually count), I have just way too much time to contemplate the fact that Joey Lucas may not have been entirely wrong.

It's not the first time I've thought that since Joey's little revelation a few months ago, which I really could have gone a long time without hearing. Contrary to popular belief (which is to say, CJ and Donna), I'm not stupid and I'm not (completely) oblivious. I managed to figure out months ago that there's something between me and Donna that isn't covered by the boss/assistant dynamic.

Even 'friends' stopped covering it at some point. Sam's my best friend, but he wasn't the one who slept on my couch for three months, I don't give a damn who he dates (as long as it's not a prostitute or a Republican), and he never, ever falls asleep with his head on my shoulder. And I would have absolutely no problems with waking his ass up if he did.

I think I stopped breathing about 20 minutes ago, afraid it would disturb Donna. I'm really starting to hate Joey Lucas.

Maybe we could work it out
If I knew what love's about
But I think she's got the best of me this time

The thing is, as long as no one said anything, we didn't have to deal with this change in our relationship. And since the biggest change came pretty much around the time I got shot in the chest, neither one of us was in any kind of *condition* to deal with it.

But the shortness of breath is almost gone, the flashbacks are fading, and Donna likes me. Crap.

Not that this is a bad thing in and of itself. Seriously. Donna is a good-looking woman with an incredible smile; she's fast on her feet, she's witty, and I'm pretty sure she's as smart as I am. Okay, she's probably smarter. The only advantage I've got on her is 15 years of experience in the political trenches, and she's catching up fast (witness her incredible save during Stackhouse's filibuster). Sure, she can be irritating as hell a lot of the time, but since that's mostly self-defense, I can't really say too much about it.

No, Donna's not the problem, and neither is our working relationship, really. We could get around that if we decided to -- get dispensation from Leo, or play some shell games with supervisors and HR, or just suck it up and let Donna be reassigned to Sam or something. That's not the problem.

It's pretty damn embarrassing to admit that my relationship with Donna is the longest-standing relationship I've ever had with a woman. My record before her (and during, if you count Mandy, which I try not to) is something like six months. Even my friendship with CJ didn't kick into gear until after Donna joined the campaign; we were too busy working and I was kind of a pain in the ass.

But Donna... she's stuck it out for four long years. And I know it's not a relationship in the conventional sense of the word -- there's no romantic crap I'm expected to know how to do, and there's sure as hell no sex. But we talk, we joke, we take care of each other, we interfere in each other's lives as necessary (I've met some of the gomers. Trust me, it's necessary). In short, we've got the strongest, healthiest relationship I've ever had outside of my family.

And if I let myself dwell on the fact that Donna likes me -- that, if I wanted, we could probably have a relationship in the conventional sense (including the sex, which, since I *am* a guy, is not an inconsiderable factor) -- then I start getting tempted to go for it.

Which would, of course, lead to the end of this great relationship in about as long as it takes Donna to announce "I hate you!" and slam the door behind her. See, I've done this before. Some things are just inevitable, and the fact that no woman can put up with Josh Lyman for more than six months is one of them. Whatever it takes to keep any kind of romantic relationship going, I haven't got it. Period.

Friends, I can handle. Sure, I do a lot better some days than others (as CJ and Donna will, again, be happy to tell you), but I've got the basic dynamics of friendship down. Anything else.... Do the words "slow-motion train wreck" mean anything to you?

Now I cover my tracks so she don't see through me
As I paint a laughing face on my darker side

Donna would probably be surprised as hell if she could hear what I'm thinking; her opinion of my ego is, well, kind of staggering. Which is good, because I work at that image. I figured out a long time ago that if you're obnoxious enough frequently enough, people give you your own way just to avoid the hassle. (Toby uses the same technique, and CJ's picking it up, but Sam refuses to learn. Sometimes, he's just too nice for his own good.)

It worked on Donna for about a week, way back when she first showed up in my office and started answering my phone. It was sort of interesting, having someone around I actually intimidated, but I started feeling kind of bad about it after the first few days. She was such an easy target, you know?

Then I discovered what happens When Josh Pushes Donna Too Far.

Let's just say that that shirt will never be the same, and I will never order Donna to bring me coffee in that particular tone again. She expected to get fired for dumping the full cup over my head, and I might have done it if it hadn't been 3 in the morning. But it was, and I couldn't come up with a pissed-off response fast enough. Or much of any response, really.

"Jesus, Donnatella," I'd said finally, pulling at my soaking-wet shirt and staring up at her. "That wasn't what I meant when I said I needed coffee to stay awake."

She looked at me all wide-eyed for a second, like she'd managed to shock herself. Then, I think, she figured she didn't have anything to lose, so she informed me, in her best 'innocent assistant' voice, "But caffeine's not good for you, Joshua. Plus, this was much more efficient."

Sam and CJ were in the room at the time, watching with horror and just waiting for me to explode. I thought about it, seriously. But Donna didn't back down, and Sam and CJ's expressions were *really* hilarious, and yeah, okay, I did actually deserve it.

Sitting there in my soaked shirt, coffee dripping down my face, I started laughing my ass off. Donna blinked at me a few times, then started giggling so hard she could barely stand up, as CJ and Sam stared at us open-mouthed. And thus began the banter. It's hard to be the boss of someone who poured coffee on you, when every time you try to get mad you can still see that Donna in your head, standing there laughing until she cried.

That was the night we started being friends. We've gotten good at it over the years, tossing repartee back and forth at each other as we cruise down the halls of the White House. Donna's a pro at using her bizarre trivia and constant chatter to cajole me out of bad moods, and I think I'm pretty good at getting her out of her post-gomer funks by being egotistical at her -- there's nothing she likes better than taking me down. We've slipped sometimes -- when she brought me coffee the day I almost got fired, and a couple of Christmases ago, when I gave her the book and she started crying on me. But we could always recover, get back in form. No problem.

Until the shooting -- the night we *stopped* being 'just friends'. I woke up in the hospital and it wasn't my cute young banter-buddy beside me; it was this exhausted woman with her eyes swollen from crying, trying to smile at me. The Donna in my head is always going to be that woman now, and I catch her watching me sometimes with this look that says the Josh in her head now is the guy who put his hand through a window to make the sirens stop. We can still bring the repartee, but it comes harder, and sometime, it hits one of us in these new vulnerable spots that we haven't figured out how to protect.

Leo told me, almost in passing, that it was Donna who'd figured out what was wrong with me this last Christmas. I thought I was fooling everyone....

So much for Banter as Self-Defense.

But the lines they always show
As if I didn't know
And I think she's got the best of me this time

Sam and Toby have finally broken from their huddle, which means either they've reached a stopping point, or Toby doesn't trust himself not to strangle Sam anymore. Toby heads right for the wet bar, which he's been doing a lot lately; Sam stands and stretches until he spots me and Donna. She's got both of her hands wrapped around my arm, and her hair is falling over her face and down my sleeve. She flipped up the arms between our seats before she passed out, and her legs are curled up under her so that most of her weight is resting on me.

We must make quite the picture, since Sam lifts his eyebrows at me with a knowing smirk. I roll my eyes back at him. Yeah, thanks, buddy. Tell me something I don't know.

He wanders over, raking his hands through his hair, and settles down into the seat next to mine. He stares at me thoughtfully for a long second.

"You know--" he starts, and I cut him off.

"Don't, Sam." There's nothing he could possibly say that I need to hear. "Just... don't."

"I'm just...." He stops and sighs. "I wish you could look at yourself right now."

"Trust me," I tell him quietly. "I'm looking."

I think my voice gives away a lot more than I wanted it to; Sam starts to say something else, then lets it go, thank God, leaning back in his seat and closing his eyes. It takes him about thirty seconds to doze off. I go back to resting my cheek against Donna's head, and staring out the window on the other side of the cabin.

Toby wanders back after a while and stops to look at us, idly rattling the ice cubes in his half-full glass of scotch. His eyes get a bit paternal when they rest on Sam, sprawled bonelessly in his seat, and I'm going to have to hassle him about that at some point when Sam's not around.

He's not even slightly paternal when he looks at me and Donna; mostly, he's annoyed. He opens his mouth, and I warn him off with a glance down at Donna's sleeping face. Toby likes Donna, all evidence to the contrary, and keeps his peace for the moment. He turns away instead, setting his glass down long enough to retrieve CJ's blanket from the floor and spread it back over her. She shifts, mutters something that sounds suspiciously like "no comment", and settles back down. I have no idea how she's managing to get approximately four feet of legs curled up under her, but that kind of flexibility certainly bears up her claim of being good in bed.

If I ever say that out loud, of course, I'm going to get hit by whatever woman happens to be in range, and Margaret and Cathy are both known for leaving bruises. That's if CJ and Donna don't pummel me first. What is it about my life that most of the women in it can take me down?

Where does it end? I never know
Some things that hurt are best left untold

I've tried sometimes -- usually when I'm at least half-drunk, which admittedly doesn't take much -- to sit down and figure that out, to determine exactly why my relationships self-destruct quite so brutally. Donna's snide (although not entirely inaccurate) comments aside, I haven't been able to pin it down. I know my work hours are a major deal, since women tend to want to, you know, actually see you when they're seeing you. Danielle, the girlfriend before Mandy, told me she was breaking up with me over the phone; she said she felt closer to my voicemail than to me.

Okay, so... that's a fair point.

On the other hand, Mandy was working exactly the same hours as I was when we were together during the campaign. Which might have been the problem right there -- CJ and Toby bitch a *lot* about having to put up with me for 18 hours a day. It's vaguely possible that there could be such a thing as too much Josh Lyman.

Apparently, we're talking a very delicate overdose level here, which, when you think about it, is pretty pathetic.

What's more pathetic is that, when they left, I didn't really miss them all that much. Sure, I missed the sex (did I mention I'm a guy?), but I didn't miss having to deal with someone else all the time, having to figure out how to give them what they wanted and how to trade that off against work and, well, what *I* want. Which is, mostly, to be left alone to work. Women just don't seem to get that. Or I'm just not getting women.

Donna hasn't bailed yet, but then, she gets to go home and escape from me. Except when I was recovering, and then, she could escape to work. How bad would it be if we were together and she didn't have any place to escape to?

How bad is it that I'm so sure she'd feel the need to escape?

But where do you begin to tell someone you love
It's all a mistake
No, it never really was

So, here's the thing -- how do I tell all of this to Donna? "By the way, I'm aware that you might have developed some feelings for me which are not professional and quite possibly pass the boundaries of friendship, but that's a bad idea, and you really shouldn't, because frankly, it's just another example of your incredibly self-destructive taste in men."

Phrase it like that and first she'll hit me, and then she'll quit. I'm actually a little surprised she didn't quit the last time I criticized her dating habits (although, in my defense, the PTSD was starting to creep up on me, and the brakes on my mouth were apparently the first thing to fail. And it took me about a month of therapy to figure that out). That she didn't quit is probably the strongest evidence that Joey's got in favor of her 'Donna likes you' hypothesis. Not good.

Okay, different approach. "Donna, while I understand that this whole thing where I got shot and you took care of me has pushed us over some line that we weren't previously aware existed, you should probably take a nice, long step back across that line for the sake of your own happiness and sanity, and, not incidentally, mine."

Closer. But it's too vague; she'll ask questions and demand explanations and I'm just not going to sit down and explain to her why I am totally incapable of dealing with anything other than her friendship. Why she doesn't *want* me to try that -- because this, where we stand right now, is the best it gets with me.

I'm thinking my safest bet is to stick with the 'oblivious' routine. "Donna? Me? Feelings? I have no idea what you're talking about." It's shifty and dishonest and sometimes more than a little mean, but hey, I'm a politician. That's what I do best.

And it's for her own good. Seriously.

As she lies there, so safe in her dreamland
I stop and I wonder where we'll end up in time

The thing is, Donna knows me better than anyone else; someday, she'll figure out that this -- her and me -- is a bad idea. Then one of two things will happen. She'll quietly step back over that line, and we'll manage to hold onto this strange, fantastic relationship we've got. Or she'll turn around and walk out the door -- but at least she won't slam it behind her.

Donna moves restlessly in her sleep like she can hear what I'm thinking (which I'm relatively sure she can't, despite her claims of ESP). She's probably getting pretty uncomfortable; Air Force One, as I've said, beats the hell out of commercial transport, but it's still not what you'd call relaxing. It takes some doing, but I manage to move her without pulling her hair or waking her. Donna seems more comfortable under my arm, curled up against my shirt, and I'm not exactly objecting either.

She opens her eyes a little as I settle her back down against me. "Josh? Are we landing?"

I tighten my arm around her and rest my cheek on her hair, trying not to think too hard about the sound of my name in her raspy, sleep-fogged voice. "Not for a while, Donnatella. Go back to sleep."

She does, snuggling against me so that I can feel her breathing against my chest. For some reason I have never been able to figure out, Donnatella Moss trusts me enough to sleep curled up next to me.

No way I'm giving that up for the possibility of sex, and the absolute certainty of "I hate you."

Then I turn around and I drift away
Maybe I'll tell her some fine day
But I think she's got the best of me this time

It's getting colder in here, and the distant mutter of the press corps has faded to near silence. A uniformed steward comes through the cabin and I gesture at Donna with my other hand. These guys are well-trained; somehow, he gets 'blanket' out of that and produces one. He spreads it over Donna, but I adjust it around her shoulders, which is tricky with one hand. Good thing I'm talented.

Sam turns and mutters in his sleep, and someone laughs quietly back in the press compartment. Donna's breathing is deep and even, and I can feel the warmth of it through my shirt. Her hair is falling in her eyes and I smooth it back carefully, not touching her face.

The steward comes by again, and whispers that we've got about 40 minutes until landing. I nod and let my head settle against Donna's, closing my eyes. They'll come through and wake us up when we're on final approach; that leaves me about half an hour to hold Donna and pretend that I won't have to let go when we wake up.

It's not entirely, you know, beyond the realm of possibility that someday I'll figure this out. I'm an intelligent guy; there's got to be a way to have Donna's friendship, and be in love with her. Have her be in love with me. People do it all the time, people who aren't nearly as smart as we are. We could pull it off.

Yeah. And the Republican party will sponsor a Gay Pride parade down Penn Ave. next week.

When we wake up, I *will* let her go. I'll hassle her about falling asleep on me, and she'll make a face at me as she gathers up the files that are still scattered around, and we'll yawn our way with Sam down the ramp to the motorcade and back to the White House. And I'll keep playing dumb, and she'll keep playing impervious, and we'll convince ourselves and each other that none of this is happening, so it won't.

It's for her own good.

And mine.

Yeah, I think she's got the best of me this time



Gah. This was my first real songfic in better than five years, but it was damned persistent (and is un-viddable), so it got written. Josh's insistence that this was his song (it's by Lowen & Navarro, by the way, from their album 'Broken Moon') also gave me the opportunity to strike back against a trend in Josh/Donna fic that sometimes makes me a little nuts -- the assumption that Josh, one of the smartest guys out there, is too stupid to have a clue about his personal life. I'm sorry, you don't have the political career he has had without a pretty good understanding of people and how they work, including himself. Now, what he can manage to do with that knowledge is something entirely different... < g >

Thanks to Kiki, for her usual great job of assuring me it doesn't suck; to Dianne, for continuing the assurances; and to PixelVixen for actually convincing me. And always, thanks to the guys, Dan and Eric, who inspire with their words, their music, and their existence.

comments to perri@neon-hummingbird.com

the west wing | seanachais | neon hummingbird