They were hushed for exactly twenty-five steps.
Tired as they were, it was a beautiful morning. All three of them felt a little sad, a little less confident and a little more determined than they had yesterday. It wasn’t raining, but it obviously had been, and everything was softer and quieter than it would have been in dry weather; Toby, Josh and Donna were quieter too. They had campaigns and letters and workdays to plan.
"Until," Donna said, still quiet, "we do what’s hard – Until we start, until we get – to work –"
She was silent so long that Josh looked around Toby at her. "Donna?"
"You were talking?"
"Yeah, until we get there, let's not talk about politics, okay? I'm too tired."
"You got off the shuttle," Josh pointed out.
"By the time I changed my mind ..." she said, one hand drifting in the direction their ride had irrevocably gone.
Still, it felt good out here. "It's cool for September," she commented.
"We're going to talk about the weather?" Toby asked.
They didn't, though. They were silent again until step twenty-six, when Josh tripped and turned an ankle.
To his credit, the yowl wasn't as loud as the one that escaped him when he tripped over a fire hydrant last month. Still, it was a serious yowl on an otherwise quiet morning, and it had the effect of utterly ending the silence.
"Keep your voice down!"
"Because you're shouting!"
"It's a quiet morning, Josh!"
"I think was would be more appropriate, Donna."
"Does anybody care I have a broken ankle?"
"You do not have a broken ankle."
"Look at it!"
"It's not broken, milksop!"
This stopped Josh. "I'm what now?"
"I think she called you bread soaked in milk," Toby helped.
"What the hell kind of word --"
"It's from the 14th century."
Josh smirked. "That's some pretty old milk."
"Put your foot on the ground, sissy britches," Donna said, and, somewhat confused, he nonetheless complied.
"Are you sure --" Toby began.
"It's just twisted! Let me look."
Donna started to look at Josh's ankle, but he yanked it away. "Uh uh."
She raised her eyebrows in silent challenge.
"You called me bread," he complained.
"Okay." Donna shrugged flippantly. "Toby. Let's go."
Toby and Donna started walking. Josh hopped three steps behind them on one foot before he fell. Donna stopped walking and rolled her eyes. Toby put his head in his hands for a moment.
Josh, sitting on the wet street looking up at them, shrugged. "We almost made it," he said, not at all apologetic.
Then for a minute there was silence again on the rainy street. Donna sat down beside Josh, cast one long, silencing look at him, and then turned her gaze to his ankle.
He managed not to yowl again, but she knew from just one look that there was no way he was walking to work like this.
"All right, we're going to need a cab," Donna said.
"Is it broken?"
"You twisted your femur?"
"I'm asking, do I have a broken ankle?"
"You're femur isn't anywhere near your ankle."
"Donna, do I have a broken --"
"No, Milquetoast, you don't."
"Is … that another bread reference?"
"Dear god," Toby said, very quietly.
"All right," Josh said. "It's getting light. One of you go find me a taxi."
"What does it getting light have to do with --"
"I was just saying."
"Why don't either of you carry phones?" Donna asked rhetorically.
"It's not like your phone is going to help us out here, Donna," Toby said.
"It's Josh's phone," she answered darkly. "It's Josh's phone, and I've been carrying the damn thing all over the country."
"Wasn't Milquetoast a comic strip?" Josh answered.
Toby threw his hands into the air. "Is a taxi just going to roll up out of the blue, or are we going to --"
"Hey!" Josh tried to jump up and down; as he was sitting on the road, it didn't work very well. Still, Donna saw the taxi he was shouting at and took off after it herself. Damn. Wet streets and the lack of light -- she would never catch up, the driver was never going to see --
"Hey!" She shouted louder than Josh had as the taxi slowed, then drifted to a stop.
Panting, splashing through puddles, she reached it and opened the door. "Hi," she gasped, trying to get her breath back.
"No rush, no rush," the driver said amicably. "Breathe first."
Donna breathed for a second and then pointed behind her. "My friend there can't walk. Will you wait while we drag him over here?"
The driver smiled a little and pushed back her graying hair. "Meter's running," she said.
Donna thanked her, stood up, closed the door, and took two steps before she stopped again.
Meter. Oh, hell. Did they have any cash at all?
She jogged back. "Hey, Toby, do we have any cash at all?"
Toby and Josh met each others' gazes with widened eyes. "Donna, if you don't have it …" Josh said.
"I don't understand. Did you two just wander around your hometowns in a fog until somebody put you on a bus to college? Toby. Go tell that woman we're not going to take her cab."
"What are we --"
He sighed, and went.
As Toby walked away, Donna sat down beside Josh again. They cast sidelong glances at one another, but it was a while before either of them spoke.
"Think you can carry me?" Josh asked. Donna stared past him and pointedly pretended he didn't exist.
After a moment she started to look more serious. He followed her gaze toward the Lincoln Memorial. Then she turned to stare toward Arlington, and he studied her as she stared.
"What?" he asked finally.
"That's Virginia," she said.
Josh smirked, but only a little. "Yeah."
"I'm just -- It's just --"
He waited, fooling with his shoelace.
"It's just funny to think, looking around, that Virginia is mostly, you know – countryside."
"Full of people who aren't going to vote for us."
"I thought we weren't allowed to discuss politics."
"I'm discussing Virginia."
Josh smiled a little. "It isn't just the Virginia countryside that's full of people who aren't going to vote for us," he said. "But plenty of people are. In fact, just over half, I'll bet."
She smiled briefly at him and went back to staring.
"What?" he asked after a minute.
"I don't know."
"You’re thinking we might lose," he guessed.
"No. I mean, of course. But -- no."
"I'm thinking we might not be doing the job that we -- that we all signed on to --" She shook her head. "I don't know what I'm thinking."
He waited till she looked at him to say, "You're tired. Donna. That's all."
"Yeah. Well, it's six, and there have been entirely too many hours since yesterday." She paused. "Plus my boss has a broken ankle."
That made him smile, and then Toby was back. "Come on."
"The driver knew my name. She offered to take us to the White House if we'll drag our lame friend to the curb."
Josh pointed triumphantly. "Okay. See? We're going to make it back before full daylight." He reached for Donna's arm, and she and Toby hoisted him to his feet. Foot. He held the left one entirely off the pavement.
They made it, eventually, and Donna opened the door. "Thanks for doing this," she said to the driver, who smiled at her in the side view. "The next thing we were going to call was a tow truck." She ignored the dirty look Josh gave her.
"Josh, get in," Toby muttered.
"I'm working on it," Josh whined. He was trying to untie his shoe without putting any weight on his left foot. "I want this shoe off before I sit down."
"Take your time," the driver said. "I like to see government employees going to work early, whether they're dressed for it or not. You folks go fix the stock market or something."
"Do what we can," Josh muttered through clenched teeth.
"Good. That's my college fund."
"How old are your kids?" Toby asked.
"Don't have any."
"I -- thought you meant your kids' college fund."
"Hell no, honey. I don't want to drive this thing forever. I'm going to teach as soon as I can afford the damned degree."
"That's grea-- that's great. We sure need more of them."
"Yeah. Well. What would be great is if you lot would fully fund IDEA. That would be great. "
Josh and Toby made eye contact. "Ye - ah."
"I'm dead serious. It's not like it's a new law. Can't possibly have slipped up on you. Caught you off guard."
"No, ma'am." Josh eased off his shoe.
"Don't patronize me," the woman said. "Special education students deserve funding. Get your ass in the cab, would you? They need funding. Special education funding has become a political non-issue. Nobody talks about it. Early reading. Prayer in schools. The Pledge of Allegiance. That's what they talk about. They don't talk about the profound MR and the autistic kids with no books and no equipment."
"What sort of equipment --" Toby asked warily.
"You know. Swings. Plastic ball pits. Special bikes. Sensory stuff to help kids learn to tolerate touch and relate to their environment."
"No, I didn't know," Toby said. She nodded vigorously at him in the rear view.
Josh shook irritably loose from Donna's grip and immediately almost fell. She elbowed him into the cab and climbed in behind him.
"Are you, uh, planning to teach special ed?" Toby asked.
"Yes, sir. Autism," she answered. "Which, by the way, could use a little more federal attention. But I guess you have your hands full this morning, what with my investments and their Olympic-diving tendencies. Pshew, damn!"
"Something wrong?" "How long have you been wearing that sock?" She waved a hand in front of her face.
"Well, I could answer that question," Josh said, "but there's a situation with time zones that has me baffled as to how long this day has been."
"Plus we haven't slept since Sunday," Donna sighed wistfully.
"But you're heading to work?"
"They are." Donna jerked her chin toward Josh and Toby. "I guess I'm heading to the building, but I'm not --" she tapped Josh on the shoulder -- "going to work. There's a shower. There's a sofa. That's my plan until at least 10 o'clock."
"But Donna --" Josh whined.
"Shut up," Toby sang under his breath.
"You sleep," agreed the driver. "And you --" she turned around and pointed at Josh before easing the taxi away from the curb -- "find some different socks. And don't break your other ankle."
"And I'll fix the stock market," Toby said. "And I guess Sam can fund IDEA."
"You're mocking me now?" the driver demanded.
"Of course I'm not, ma'am; you've been very generous. I'm just saying -- yeah. We've got a full day."
"You know what? So do special ed teachers. So do taxi drivers."
Josh couldn't hold in his sigh. Suddenly the driver had stopped the car and turned around in her seat. "And what are you sighing about?"
"I'm --" Josh ran a hand down his dismayed face. "Sorry."
"No. What are you sighing about?"
"I'm sighing -- no, forget it."
"Tell me," the driver demanded.
Donna saw it coming but couldn’t stop it.
"I can't FIX everything!" Josh yelled.
The woman raised an eyebrow and stared at Josh with a challenge even greater than the ones Donna could stare at him.
"Sorry," he repeated. "You're not the -- first person we've talked to tonight.”
"Plus Josh yells when he's tired, because he has no manners," Donna added.
"This morning," the driver corrected. "Listen. You all need to go to sleep."
"I thought you wanted us to go fix the stock market and the ... other thing." Josh was too tired to finish the sentence.
"Yeah," the driver said. "Fix. I don't want you to go screw it all up because you're falling asleep. Or busy knocking people out with your socks. Go home. Where do you live?"
"I'm not going home. I've got work to do."
"You're too tired for that." She was staring at him authoritatively. "I'm going to take you to a hotel." She started driving again, and swung onto a different street.
"Uh," Toby muttered.
"Ma'am, really," Donna began.
"No. Listen to me, all of you. You need sleep." She was not to be dissuaded. "This is my country. I'm not going to let three people walk into my capitol when they can barely sit up straight and one of them's wearing filthy socks. You won't let me take you home, you're going to go to a hotel and sleep."
"Oh -- Christ," Josh said, and gave her his address. The driver nodded in satisfaction and changed course again.
On Josh's front steps, they all sat down and watched the taxi pull away. Donna buried her face in her hands. Josh tried to move his ankle without screaming. "I forgot my shoe," he said forlornly.
Toby sighed. "Itinerary. Tuesday. Fix the stock market. Fully fund IDEA. Discover the secret to curing autism. Sleep. Do laundry. The world as seen by Typical American #7."
"I thought you were going to care about people and their problems today," Donna said through her hands.
"I'm too damn hungry."
"I have ... probably ... food," Josh said. "Donna, help me up the ... dammit."
"No." Donna didn't look up, and her voice remained even. "Don't say it."
"I have to say it."
"Don't say it."
"I have to say it."
"Say it," Toby commanded.
Josh closed his eyes, looking pained. “My keys were in the ... motorcade."
Toby looked accusingly at Donna. "You don't have his keys?"
Amazed, she stared at him until he had the decency to look away. Only then did she explain, "He broke his key trying to repair his VCR. He took mine and it was on his key ring -- oh, hell, his car key, too -- in the ..."
"Yeah," Toby sighed. "Okay."
"Okay?" Josh asked.
"Okay. I am leaving you behind. I'm going to the White House. I'm doing my work. I am, am eating. I'm sleeping. You can sit here on your steps and continue to be incompetent." He stood up and started to walk away.
"Toby," Donna said.
"What?" he snapped.
"White House is that way." She pointed behind him.
Toby glared at her for a long moment before he came back and sat down on the steps again. "Okay."
And so they sat.
It started to drizzle. Heavy clouds kept it from being totally daylight, but it was late enough to have been, otherwise.
"I want to go home," Donna said.
"I want to go to work," Josh moaned.
"I want waffles," Toby sighed. They sat some more.
"All right," Donna said finally. "I'm calling somebody for a ride."
"From your Magic Front Stoop Telephone?" Josh asked into the hands he'd pressed over his mouth and nose.
"There are faster ways to kill yourself," Donna informed him as she stood up and walked to his neighbor's door.
They expected her to knock, but she didn’t. After a moment, Toby called, "Donna?"
"Shh!" she called back, and went to the next house down. Listened at the door. Shook her head. And went to the next house down. Baffled, they watched her flash them a thumbs-up and then knock.
Once. Twice. And then the door opened and they could all hear the crying baby that had alerted Donna somebody was awake in there. Josh and Toby couldn’t hear what she was saying, but they watched Donna talk to a young man holding a screaming child. A minute later the guy opened the door wider.
"Toby, go with her," Josh said, craning his neck to try to see inside the distant house.
"She'll yell at you."
"For sending me after her."
"We don't know that guy."
"She's a big girl, Josh."
"A-ha," Josh shouted, forgetting again that he was outside at six-thirty in the morning. "She'll yell at you for calling her a girl!"
Toby shook his head. "If I leave you alone, are you going to break anything else?"
Josh stared at him till Toby stood up. "All right. Just -- stay out of trouble while I'm gone."
Toby reached the stranger's building and found the door open, and the apartment within much quieter than it had been.
"She's fascinated by strangers," the man was telling Donna. Toby knocked on the doorframe.
"Can I, uh --"
"You need to use the phone, too?" the man asked, smiling.
"No, he's following me to make sure I don't get lost or step into the wrong time zone or break my ankle," Donna explained. "Although I don't blame him; I'm sure it was at the request of the first guy to break an ankle tonight. Toby, this is Mr. Lewis and his daughter Keesha. She's fascinated by strangers."
"Come in," Mr. Lewis offered. "I was just showing Ms. Moss to the phone."
"Thank you," Toby said, and shifted till he was a couple of inches inside. He looked at Keesha suspiciously; she gazed adoringly at him.
"You're Toby Ziegler, aren't you?" asked Mr. Lewis, moving closer.
"You work at the White House."
Toby looked at him. "Yes?"
Mr. Lewis shook his head. "Nothing."
"Okay," Toby readily agreed.
A moment later, Mr. Lewis said mildly, "You know what I'd like? I would like one person on the President's senior staff to try to raise a child with a same-gendered partner."
"Well. Sir, I ..." Toby searched his exhausted brain for something smart to say, but instead ended up continuing, "... am not that person."
"Neither am I." The man stared pointedly at Toby. "I'm in the private sector, but David ..."
Keesha cooed and reached for Toby, stretching her entire little body toward him as though her life depended upon wrapping a fist around his tie. He held her warily, and she gurgled and cheerfully spit up on his jacket.
"She's a very pretty baby," Toby said.
"She's smart," Mr. Lewis answered. "Even she gets mad when she sees your boss on television, beginning and ending every speech with a religious analogy."
"A lot of people find it comforting," Toby said, wishing Donna would hurry up with her phone call.
"Several people don't," Mr. Lewis replied, and then smiled. "But I'm being rude. You're dripping. Would you like a towel?"
"Thank you, no," Toby said. "I'm going to be, no doubt, stranded in the rain a while longer anyway."
"You can wait here for your ride," Mr. Lewis offered. "No need to stand around getting drenched."
Donna came back to them then. "CJ's busy. Margaret's busy. Mallory says no one is allowed to disturb Sam, because after their conversation in the car, she thinks he needs undisturbed rest for the good of the nation. But she's going to pick us up herself."
"Thank God," Toby muttered. Then, "Isn't Mallory in New York?"
"Yes. I called her in New York to ask her how Sam was doing, and would she please drive three hours to pick us up at Josh's place and take us to the White House."
Toby turned his palms up helplessly.
"I was just telling Mr. Ziegler, the three of you are welcome to wait for your ride in here," Mr. Lewis said. "If your friend with the broken ankle can get down here."
"It's a sprain," Donna said. "He's being a jellyfish."
"Donna, seriously, you need to stop reading the thesaurus," Toby advised in a slightly raised voice.
"Toby, come help me get him? Mr. Lewis, thank you so much."
"Not a problem. Keesha will enjoy the company."
Toby and Donna stepped back out into the rain, which had started coming down harder while they were inside. They found Josh soaked and sleeping across the steps.
Donna nudged him awake with her toe. "Thanks for the tail," she accused before he was awake enough to fully comprehend where he was or what was happening.
"Get up," Toby told him, helping him do it. "We've got to go talk gay rights and religious freedom while we wait for Mallory to get here from Sam's."
Josh shook his head and ran his hands over his face. "Huh?" he mumbled.
"Those are two of your favorite issues," Donna chastised Toby for his tone of voice.
"I'm hungry," he repeated.
"Come on," Donna said to Josh, tugging his elbow.
As they worked their slow way down the steps, Josh suddenly said, "Hey, what's Mallory doing at Sam's? It thought she was in New York."
"We've done this already," Toby said. "Limp faster, would you?"
Josh limped slower, but eventually they were able to climb Mr. Lewis's front steps. Inside, Keesha was just as happy to spit on Josh as she had been to spit on Toby.
"She's going to get all wet," Josh said, indicating his drenched coat, as he handed her back to her father.
"She's already all wet," Mr. Lewis said. "Excuse me for a moment."
They stood exhaustedly around, and then Mr. Lewis returned with a squirming baby and an armload of dry towels.
"Since you've got some time," he said, plunking Keesha on Toby's lap and tossing a towel at each of them, "what do you say we have a chat?"
Twenty minutes later, Sam's car pulled up to the curb. Donna stood and kissed the top of Keesha's sleeping head. "Thanks so much, Andy. You've been very kind. And my best to David for his interview tomorrow."
"Thank you. And Donna, make sure these guys never leave the building without you, okay? I guess I don't want them to wander off and disappear after all." He chuckled at Toby and Josh's thin smiles, and closed the door behind them.
Mallory began to laugh as she surveyed her three passengers, piling with difficulty into the car, drenched and missing various items of apparel -- Josh with one shoe, Toby holding his tie in his hand, and Donna in dripping Indiana sweats with the borrowed towel across her shoulders. As they settled into Sam's car, she realized she herself was in sweats borrowed from Sam. Still, at least she was dry, having thought to bring an umbrella.
"What," she said delightedly, "in the name of God have the three of you been up to?"
Toby and Josh shared a weary look. "You go," Toby muttered.
"It doesn't warrant retelling," Josh supplied. "Just, Mal, tell your dad we don't need to have a Big Block of Cheese Day for a while." He leaned back against the seat and closed his eyes.
"Hang on," Donna said, in a voice that told Toby and Josh they were not going to like her next words. "Actually, Mallory, remind me to tell your dad this would be a perfect week for a Cheese Day. I have a whole list of people to invite, and I am reasonably certain Josh and Toby do, too."
Josh sighed, long and loud and pointed. "You're in a better mood than you were," he observed.
"Yeah," she said. Then, "Yeah. I feel ... like I understand slightly more than half of the population better than I did a few hours ago."
No one in the car, not even Mallory, was awake enough to follow that sentence, but Donna didn't care. She smiled out the window at the daylight and watched the scenery, and especially the people, and finally the White House.