TITLE: Variations on Variations: Banter Shift
AUTHOR: Julian Lee, firstname.lastname@example.org
RATING: R, from a linguistic standpoint
FEEDBACK: The elixir of life
ARCHIVE: Sure, just tell me where
SPOILERS: small ones for "What Kind of Day…" and "Lord John Marbury"
DISCLAIMER: Aaron Sorkin owns and makes money off "The West Wing." I do neither.
SUMMARY: "Donna was going to be quietly wounded. She was going to suffer in silence. It was going to suck." (sequel to "The Dinner Party")
Variations on Variations: Banter Shift by Julian Lee
There is a theory of professional relationships that suggests a dynamic wherein, if one partner gets hit by a truck, work can continue uninterrupted.
Donnatella Moss does not subscribe to this theory.
Josh surveyed the highly compartmentalized chaos of his office and cursed his assistant for the third time this morning. "Donna!"
She appeared in the doorway, far too chipper for eight in the morning. "You shouldn’t shout, Joshua."
"I wouldn’t, if I could find anything around here," he countered. "Where are our stats for the Greenpeace meeting?"
"In your hand, perhaps?"
He sighed. Her sarcasm sat much better with him at three in the afternoon. At this hour it stopped just short of obscene. "No, that’s Greenpeace’s data. I need ours."
She nodded, undisturbed by his dark mood. "I’ll go grab it."
She had been gone less than ten seconds when he sensed another presence in his office. "Donna," he snapped, "the file should be—"
"Well, I wouldn’t know anything about the file—" Josh whirled around to see Sam leaning on his doorframe, "—but if you can’t tell the difference between a Donna and a Sam, you may need some rudimentary anatomy lessons."
Josh took a step closer, conscious of the open door. "And who would you suggest as a suitable teacher?"
Sam beamed and tapped his own chest. Josh laughed softly, then went back to collecting papers for the Greenpeace meeting that was guaranteed to be his first disaster of the day. "But first," Sam said, "I need you to tell me: is my tie ugly?"
Josh looked up. "Pardon me?"
"My tie. Is it ugly?"
Josh gestured at the mess on his desk. "Sam, I really don’t—"
"Cathy said it was ugly." Josh suspected Sam’s assistant wound him up in the morning just to see what he’d do.
"It’s fine," he said, not looking at it.
"Really? Is it fine as in ‘it’s fine,’ or is it fine as in ‘go away and leave me alone’?"
"Well, now that you mention it—"
"Sam, I have to make sure Toby doesn’t kill the Greenpeace guys, Oliver Babish wants my head for the antipasto course, and I’m hiding an ornery UN inspector from President Bartlet for the rest of the week. So you’ll forgive me if your tie isn’t—"
"Three seconds, Josh. Take three seconds out of your day and look at my tie."
Josh picked up the last of his files and stood, considering. "Wow. That’s an ugly tie."
"You picked the tie, Sam." He was smiling as he pushed past his slightly offended lover and into the hall.
Until he spotted Donna outside his office, the Greenpeace file in one hand, the other over her mouth. His smile died. She pointed at him. "You—"
"Not now, Donna," he snapped, knowing exactly what came next.
"When?" she fired back.
Josh sighed. This was the kind of conversation you’d rather be captured by cannibals than participate in. But he owed Donna this much. He gestured at the files in his arms. "After this meeting."
"I’ll be waiting right outside that door, Joshua." **I know you will,** he thought, and went to his meeting.
The meeting, as predicted, was long, tedious, and doomed from the start. Toby was belligerent, the Greenpeace representatives snide, and Josh distracted by thoughts of the confrontation awaiting him. Donna was a dear friend. There were plenty of people around the west wing who expected the two of them to become romantically involved. Some days, Donna was one of those people. Now that there was no chance of that romance developing, there had to be a reckoning. Josh just hoped Donna would leave Sam alone.
As hard as Josh tried to prolong the meeting, Toby was trying harder to kill it, and eventually it couldn’t support itself any longer. Toby touched Josh’s shoulder lightly as they collected their notes. "Are you all right?"
Josh smiled reassuringly. "Not really, but I’ll make it."
Toby frowned. "Are you sure? Because as much as I, you know, dislike you, I’d hate to have you collapse or, whatever you did last Christmas."
"Thank you, Toby," he said, trying to keep his tone light. "That means a lot. But really, I just need to go, um, pick a fight with a girl." And with that he breezed out of the Roosevelt Room, leaving Toby to wonder what the hell he’d been talking about.
Donna was waiting for him, of course. Right outside his office, as promised. His mouth set in a grim line, he ushered her into the office. "Now, Donna," he said as he closed the door, hoping someone had seen him go in so they’d know where to look for his body later, "did you have something to say?"
"You," she said, pointing at him just as before.
"What about me, Donna?" He gripped his chair so tightly tiny crescents formed on the armrest.
"You...are sleeping with Sam," she spat.
Well, that was less beating around the bush than he’d expected. He thought, briefly, of denying it, not because he was ashamed of his relationship with Sam, but because he was scared shitless of what Donna was going to do to him. "Yes."
"You and Sam..." she paused, and Josh honestly expected a rephrasing of the first accusation. What he got instead was, "have banter."
"Ah. Yes, we do appear to have developed some banter."
"You and I have banter."
"We do, indeed."
"I thought...*Why,* Josh?"
"Why am I sleeping with Sam?" he asked incredulously.
Something in his surprise must have flicked the next switch in Donna’s mind. "You’re not *just* sleeping with him, are you?" she demanded. "I mean, you have *banter,* for Christ’s sake. This is a relationship."
Josh looked past Donna. On the other side of the bullpen, he knew, Sam was at war with the President’s address to the Democratic Women’s Caucus, throwing pencils at the ceiling and challenging himself to come up with ten synonyms for "impressive" in under twenty seconds. It was one of the many things about Sam that caused the idiotic smile Josh suspected was plastered to his face right now.
Donna’s eyes grew even wider. "You’re in love with him."
If he’d been paying better attention, Josh might’ve given some long-winded bullshit answer about it not being that simple. He might’ve said his relationship with Sam was "complex," or "multifaceted" – ten synonyms for "fucked-up" in twenty seconds. But he was thinking of Sam trying to get pencils to stick in the ceiling, and he had that idiotic grin stuck to his face, so he said simply, "Yes."
And watched her crumple.
**Oh, shit,** he thought. **We’re not going to fight. She’s going to collapse.** I can’t do this. Last month, Sam and Mallory had this same discussion, and by Sam’s account, it had been a knockdown, drag-out, name-calling war. Josh would’ve given anything to be having one of those with Donna. Donna was going to be quietly wounded. She was going to suffer in silence. It was going to suck. "Donna—"
"My God. You’re in love with Sam." Her eyes grew hard. "How long?"
"How long?" he echoed. "How long have I been with Sam? How long have I been in love with him? What kind of numbers are we looking for here?" He couldn’t believe he was being this cruel to Donna, but right now he couldn’t handle her haughty indignation.
"Josh." It was real hurt now, and he felt a little guilty.
"I don’t know what you want me to say, Donna," he said quietly.
She looked at the floor, then stood. "No, I guess you don’t." She walked out of the office. She just needs time, Josh thought. He assumed she’d be over it by lunch. By the end of lunch he wanted a sign that read, "Josh Lyman gets to make no more assumptions."
"Donna?" he called, poking at the piles of crap on his desk for the thirtieth time today, "Where’s my research on the Karnowski rider?"
*Thwap.* Donna threw the folder onto the desk and walked out of the office without a word.
And a bad day got worse. "Damn."
Sam sat in Josh’s kitchen after dinner, staring with ill-concealed lust as Josh ran his fingers up and down the stem of his wineglass. Discovering that Josh owned a set of crystal wineglasses had been one of Sam’s first shocks when they started dating. Learning what Josh could do with those wineglasses had been a far bigger — and better — shock. Especially at moments like this, when Josh had that distracted look on his face, barely aware Sam was in the room; it was almost enough to make Sam come without Josh noticing him at all.
Unfortunately, Sam recognized that expression. Pain. He knew Josh’s day hadn’t gone well, but that particular look meant something personal had happened. "Josh?" He didn’t respond. "Mir?" (Miracolo. This is a thing Sam calls him sometimes, and he’s not sure how he feels about that.)
Josh looked up, his dark brown eyes clearing after a sojourn someplace far distant. "Huh?" He noticed his hand, and Sam’s slightly parted lips as he leaned across the table. Smiling apologetically, Josh quickly drew his slender fingers away from the stem. Sam whimpered in disappointment. "Sorry."
Sam frowned. "Mir, are you OK?"
"Really? ‘Cuz you’ve been tense all day. And this afternoon, after your Greenpeace meeting, Donna gave me some really funny looks, and the couple times I tried to talk to her, she kinda blew me off."
Josh’s eyes sparked. "She did?"
"Yeah." Thank God Sam didn’t seem to think too much of it. "So, what’s going on?"
"Nothing." It rolled off Josh’s tongue as easily as if he believed it.
Sam clearly did not. "Mir—"
"Nah. It’s—" Josh cleared his throat. "It’s nothing." He couldn’t understand why it was so important to him that Sam not find out about his fight with Donna.
Sam didn’t buy a word of it, but he knew when Josh wasn’t going to talk. "OK." He folded his napkin carefully and tucked it under his plate. Then he looked up at Josh and smiled. Josh swallowed hard, an unmistakable shiver running along his spine. That was the smile that led directly to the bedroom. "Mir?" Sam’s voice was little more than a purr.
"Uh…yeah?" Josh’s head spun, and he tried to catch his breath.
Sam trailed his fingers along Josh’s arm, and the heat that blazed through Josh’s body could’ve burned an entire city block. "You know that thing you were doing with the wine glass?"
Josh honestly couldn’t remember having done anything with the wineglass, but he had a pretty good idea what Sam was talking about. "Yeah," he said, his voice an octave lower than normal.
"You wanna come over here and…do it to me?"
A voice in Josh’s head – one that sounded unhealthily like his mother – warned him against using sex to avoid his problems. That voice, he decided, had never been given the chance to fuck Sam Seaborn.
**I’ll deal with Donna tomorrow,** he promised himself as he stood and came around the table to where Sam was looking up at him, hungry and impatient. He leaned down and claimed Sam’s mouth with his own. **And maybe someday I’ll tell Sam what happened.** But his hands were being guided to the buttons of the younger man’s shirt, and any hopes he had of rational, emotionally cleansing conversations leaked right out his ears. There were worse ways to avoid your problems.
The next morning he was back to being livid. "Donna, may I have a word with you?"
Donna came into the office immediately and stood in front of his desk, back perfectly straight, hands folded primly. Her outfit was far more severe than the one she’d worn yesterday. "Yes, Joshua?" **So it’s going to be one of these now,** he thought bitterly.
He sighed. "Close the door, please." She did so. "And sit down."
"Are you sure that would be appropriate, Joshua? I wouldn’t want to violate the boss/assistant—"
"Sit down, Donna," he growled. She dropped into the chair, and he tried not to believe he saw a glint of triumph in her eyes. "We need to talk about what happened yesterday."
"No, we don’t."
"We do, Donna, if for no other reason than it turns out you spent your afternoon harassing Sam."
"I did no such thing."
Josh swore inwardly. He’d exaggerated, and that was a mistake. "I want you to leave Sam alone, Donna. If you have problems with our relationship, those problems are with me, not him, and I want you to leave him out of it."
"He’s in it, Josh," she countered, her eyes flashing. "As a matter of fact, he *is* ‘it.’ When I think…"
His eyes narrowed. "Think what, Donna?"
"How long have you been together?" she demanded.
"About a month and a half."
Donna’s eyes widened. "A month and a half?" she echoed.
"About that, yeah."
"And I imagine there was some flirting that went on before that?"
He grinned in spite of himself. "Only about twelve years’ worth." Josh’s memory flashed to the night 9980 passed, staring at Sam in panic over a sea of macking same-sex couples.
Donna sprang from her chair. "AND YOU DIDN’T TELL ME?"
Josh winced. "Donna – jeez. I didn’t – we weren’t – what business of yours—" and that, also, was a mistake, but of a completely different kind. Josh wondered how many different ways he could be an ass today.
"It was entirely my business, Josh," she said, and her voice was like a wounded animal’s, dangerous in its pain. "You and I have a dynamic totally unlike any boss/assistant relationship I have encountered. I thought we were friends. I thought you trusted me."
"Donna," he said softly, surprised by the depths of pain she was revealing to him, "I do trust you. It’s just…Sam and I could be in a lot of trouble if this gets out. It could ruin us, personally and professionally." He bit his lip uncertainly, then decided that all the lies had to go. "There’s also the fact that, until about a week ago, I was totally unsure of my footing. I’ve never been romantically involved with another man, let alone one who was my best friend the day before. I spent a good three weeks deciding if I was staying with him or running like hell. We…this is going to sound really dumb, but we didn’t want anyone touching the relationship before the glue dried. I didn’t want to hurt you. I would *never* do anything to hurt you."
Suddenly, there was a tear tracking down his assistant’s cheek. Josh froze. **Oh God, what am I supposed to do?** "Donna?"
Donna shook her head. She would not be this woman. She would not be the "but what about us?" girl. Because she finally understood that there was no "us." Had never been. And now, would never be. She wiped the tear away hastily and forced a smile onto her face. She slouched a little, which she knew Josh would take as a good sign. "I’m sorry about Sam. I *was* a little mean to him."
"So, you’re not going to do that anymore?"
"I am not going to do that anymore."
"And we’re still friends, right? I mean, you’re OK with all of this?"
She stared at him. She couldn’t lie, not if she respected Josh even a little. "No, Josh, I’m not OK with this. It’s a huge thing that you’re in this crazy relationship that I don’t know what I think of, and it’s far worse that you didn’t tell me about it. The breach of trust — and, Christ, Josh, if the press finds out – if the President gets into *any* trouble because of you two, so help me I’ll—"
"We have that covered," Josh assured her. "President Bartlet will *not* suffer because of our relationship." He stared at her but could see no twinkle in her eye that suggested she was toying with him. "You really are upset that I didn’t tell you."
"Yes, Josh. I really am." She held out her hand to him; he took it hesitantly. "But we’re still friends."
He breathed an enormous sigh of relief. Losing the connection he shared with Donna would’ve been about the last thing he could have handled today. "I’m sorry, Donna. About…everything." She nodded, not sure she could trust herself to speak. Josh let go of her hand and came around the desk, engulfing her in a hug. "We have to get past this," he whispered. "Otherwise, who’ll hide my files and steal my office furniture?"
Laughing through her tears, Donna smacked his arm and broke the hug. "I *file* your files, Joshua; I don’t hide them. And I only moved your chair once, to have it fixed. Which you never thanked me for, by the way." She bit her lip, remembering too late what happened the day that chair went missing.
Josh laughed it off. "I got a little distracted." He kissed the top of her nose. "Thank you for having my chair fixed, Donnatella."
She smiled. "You’re welcome. See? That didn’t hurt a bit." **At least one thing today didn’t.** "Now hurry up, or you’ll be late for your meeting with Ed and Larry."
"But it’s only – my watch still sucks, doesn’t it?"
"Tell Sam you want a new one for your birthday."
"But then you couldn’t tell me my watch sucks."
"And we know how much more important that is than the deputy Chief of Staff getting anywhere on time." She shoved a folder into his hands. "Go get briefed. I hear they got their info from some other encyclopedia this time." She walked out of his office and sat down at her desk, burying herself in work again.
He watched her for a minute before reading to the Mural Room. Something had happened, some balance had been tipped, and Josh knew his relationship with Donna would never be the same. But they’d find a way to get around it, he was sure. They would move forward, because in this White House, moving back was never an option.
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