"What I feel inside
Part 1Friday, October 18, 2002
"Now this is a life I could get used to," Dan Rydell sighed happily, sipping at the champagne in the crystal flute he held in one hand, and staring around the Terrace Room of the Plaza Hotel as he tugged at his bow tie with the other hand. "Except for the monkey suit part."
"Knock it off." Natalie Hurley pushed his hand away from his tie, in full make-my-anchors-behave co-executive producer mode. "The President and the Vice-President of the United States are standing across the room, do you think you could behave yourself?"
Dan considered carefully. "Probably not," he answered with his best charming grin. Natalie scowled at him, amazingly uncharmed. Hmmm. She must be building up an immunity. He'd have to work on that.
"Just don't get drunk, don't start playing football with the hors d'oeuvres, and leave your tie and your cufflinks alone," Natalie ordered, sipping her champagne and smiling across the room at some guy in a tux that didn't look nearly as good as Dan's. "Anything else, I can handle."
He grinned down at her again -- charming with an edge of rakish this time, and just a hint of a leer. "Anything?"
She smacked his arm, almost spilling very expensive alcohol everywhere. "I mean it, Daniel! Behave!"
"Fine, fine...." His good mood only slightly dampened, Dan went back to sipping his champagne and studying the room. It had been a while since he'd been at any party with this kind of guest list. Hollywood types, politicians, writers, a lot of JYGRGs (Just Your General Rich Guys), and a sports anchor or two, just to keep things interesting. Oh yeah, and the President of the United States. The food was impressive, the booze was free, and the mood was light. John Hoynes was going to win the election in a landslide; the voting was pretty much just a formality.
Which didn't mean that the Democratic Party wasn't going to make sure of that landslide. This particular fundraiser was $5,000 a plate, and Quo Vadimus had ponied up for four members of the Sports Night crew to attend. Read: to wander around being charming to various VIPs in the hopes of winning some influence in the new White House for the corporation. Dan had no idea what that influence would accomplish, but he was happy about the open bar and the possibility of meeting Abigail Bartlet. There was just something about First Ladies....
The guy Natalie had been flirting with came over and asked her to dance. Natalie lifted her eyebrows at Dan, not asking permission so much as extracting a promise that he would behave if she let him off the leash. He lifted his glass at her in agreement and she smiled, then took the offered arm and headed off into the next room, where the string quartet was playing.
Across the room, his co-anchor Casey McCall and their other executive producer, Dana Whitaker, were carrying on an active conversation with a tall redhead -- Dan groped for the name -- CJ Cregg, press secretary for the outgoing administration. Seriously gorgeous, in that tall, leggy, competent, Sally kind of way that pretty much any guy with a clue totally went for. Dan contemplated walking over to insert himself into the conversation, but something out the wide windows on his right caught his eye.
The lights from the multi-tiered chandeliers in the room reflected off of the glass, making looking through them tricky, but he was pretty sure that that was a tall, slender, very attractive blonde standing out there on the terrace. He wandered closer to the doors and confirmed the attractive part, but that wasn't what held his attention. It was the expression on her face, the deep and utter sadness in her eyes as she leaned on the railing and stared out into the darkness. She looked... sorrowful. Desolate. Alone.
Dan fought his instincts for a solid five seconds. The last thing he really needed at this point in his life, he reminded himself firmly, was to go riding to the rescue of another damsel who probably wouldn't appreciate it. Look how well the last one hadn't worked out. No, he was out of the rescuing business. Absolutely.
He nodded to himself, tossed back his champagne, left the glass on a nearby table, and stepped through the wide doors into the night.
What the hell; it had been a while since he'd done the rescuing thing. He was due.
Donna Moss stood at the wrought iron railing, looking out over Central Park and the skyline beyond it. It was impressive, she admitted with detached admiration; the skyscrapers rose all around her in a brash, in-your-face light show that the more reserved D.C. skyline couldn't match. There were no monuments spotlit, no sense of history and dignity pressing down on her from all sides.
She could get used to this.
Donna could feel the bite of the crisp autumn air on her shoulders and back, left mostly bare by the shimmering white evening gown she wore. She didn't care. Everything felt cold to her now; her world had frozen the night Josh died. Nothing could break through the ice, and that was the way she wanted it.
She knew the others still worried about her; that was why she was in New York. There was no reason for a part-timer in the Press Secretary's office to have been brought along on this trip, but Sam, CJ and Bonnie had all been slated to come with the President, which left no one in D.C. free to "babysit Donna". Besides, the trip would be "good for her".
She'd felt CJ's eyes on her for every moment of the short flight on Air Force One; Sam hadn't been more than a few feet from her from the second they arrived at the fundraiser. He didn't guard her with the compulsive, smothering obsession of a year ago, but she'd still needed to get away.
The balcony was cold, and clear, and empty. Just like her.
Her lips curved slightly at the last thought; she could almost hear Josh's derisive laughter at the melodrama of it all. 'Jesus, Donna! If you're cold, get yourself and that... what might charitably be described as a dress, back inside where it's warm. And get me another glass of champagne while you're at it.'
She laughed, a bare wisp of breath that held no amusement. Sorry, Josh. I think I'm going to stay out here for a little while longer.
"You know, I like gazing out at New York as much as anyone; in fact, it's kind of a hobby of mine. But you know what's good to have while you're doing it?"
Donna turned, startled by the intrusion, and saw a man standing a few feet away. His tux jacket was open, both of his hands were shoved deep into the pockets of his trousers, and he was grinning at her. He was tall, about Josh's height, and his eyes and hair were brown, like Josh's had been. But his smile was different, and his face was different, and he wasn't Josh.
She wondered idly how long it would be before she stopped comparing every man she met to Josh.
The man continued talking, rocking back on his heels and apparently undeterred by her lack of response. He looked vaguely familiar, but that wasn't unusual at one of these affairs. "Now, some people say binoculars are key, and I know there are those who won't go out gazing without a snack. But me, personally? I always make sure I have... a coat."
He took off his tux jacket and displayed it with a proud flourish. "Now, I can see you came unprepared for tonight's session, but, in the spirit of cooperation between skyline gazers everywhere, I'm willing to loan you mine. Just so you're properly equipped."
Donna stared at him, smiling a little in spite of herself. Whoever this was, he met her eyes with straightforward humor, as if he knew exactly how ridiculous he sounded and didn't really care.
"Thank you," she said quietly. "But I'm fine."
"Sure, you're fine," he shrugged, taking a few steps closer. "I can tell that by the way you're shivering. But, you know, if you don't wear my jacket, it's going to ruin the whole experience for me, and I was kind of looking forward to this." He gestured around at the terrace, then out at the impressive view. "I like to take full advantage of every opportunity."
Well, he was charming. And that grin really was quite something; she hadn't seen anything like it since.... Her faint smile faded away completely, and she looked back over the railing. The man stood in silence for a moment, either regrouping, or figuring out how to retreat with dignity. She didn't much care which.
He was evidently persistent as well; the next thing she felt was his jacket settling around her shoulders. She thought about shrugging it off, but that seemed to require too much energy, so she let it stay. The jacket was still warm from the man's body; it felt good against her chilled skin.
"There," the man said in satisfaction. "Now we're set." He waited for her to respond, which she didn't, absently wishing he'd go away. But then she'd be out here alone again, and that wasn't quite as attractive an idea as it had been a few minutes ago. She was so tired of being alone with her memories....
"I'm Dan Rydell, by the way," he introduced himself. The name rang a chord, and it took her only a moment to pin it down. "I'm--"
"--alongside Casey McCall," she filled in, turning her head just enough to look at him, "and I'm watching Sports Night on CSC."
He blinked in surprise, either that she'd recognized him or that she'd spoken, then the cocky grin reappeared. "Ah, a member of our fan club. Don't believe what you hear, I'm really the brains of the operation. Casey's just the beard."
"I'm sure he is," she responded politely, losing interest in the conversation again now that she'd figured out why he looked familiar.
Dan Rydell, however, showed no signs of losing interest. He waited a long moment, then prompted, "And the name on the fan club membership card would be...?"
Five years of training in politics took over; she was supposed to be being polite to people tonight. "I'm Donna. Donna Moss. I work for CJ Cregg in the White House." Donna extended her hand and Dan took it. He didn't go for the crushing grip a lot of men used, asserting their dominance through muscles. His hand was warm and dry and held hers carefully for a moment before he released it.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Donna Moss." Yes, that really was quite a smile.
Yes, that had definitely been a smile. Not the one she'd pasted on her face when she'd evidently remembered her manners, but the one before that, when she'd recognized his name and thrown his own tagline back at him. A hint of a smile that made Dan intensely curious about what the real thing would look like.
"So. Come here often?" he smirked, gesturing around him.
Donna lifted her eyebrows at him, whether to protest his tone or the line, he wasn't sure. "Here the balcony, here The Plaza, or here New York?"
He blinked, then grinned and gestured again, more expansively. "Any or all of the above. I'm easy."
"Well." She considered her answer a lot more thoughtfully than his facetious question would seem to require. "Here the balcony, never. Here The Plaza, once before. Here New York, lots of times, but we never seemed to slow down enough to actually see it."
"Oh, now that's a shame." He took a chance and leaned companionably on the railing besides her, his arm a few inches from hers. She either didn't notice or didn't care. "New York's pretty incredible. Just from here, you can see...." He looked around. "Well, that big dark blur in front of us? That's Central Park. It's much cooler in daylight. And, um, the big tall blurs around us, blocking off pretty much everything else? Those are skyscrapers, probably with very impressive names and history, none of which I happen to know. But they're important, trust me."
She was looking at him now, amusement lurking in her eyes (blue? green? he couldn't tell in the dim light) even through her face was still solemn. "You're a very good tour guide."
And that was a joke. Yes! "Hey, I know my city," he assured her, crossing his arms and leaning back against the railing so he could look at her more easily. "For instance, did you know that the Plaza Hotel was finished in 1907, and cost $12 million to build? Which was quite the chunk of change back then."
She inclined her head. "Okay, that's not bad. But do you know who the first guests to stay here were?"
He opened his mouth, then closed it again. "No, I do not," he admitted sheepishly. "That's not on the plaque in the lobby."
Another tiny smile, this one with an edge of smugness. "On October 1, 1907, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt were the first customers to sign the register. The Vanderbilt Suite in the hotel is still named for them."
"Okay, now that's an impressive piece of trivia." He stared at her in exaggerated respect. "Do you, like, memorize landmark statistics?"
"And you acquired that bit of interesting but essentially useless information where?"
She shrugged with one shoulder and looked at him sideways, from under her lashes. "The plaque in the Vanderbilt Suite. I read it this afternoon when we were waiting to brief the President."
He blinked at her for a second, then started laughing. Her eyes gleamed in the dim light from the door as she finally gave in and smiled with her entire face. It was one hell of a smile, Dan thought, a little dazed under the force of it. Definitely worth the wait.
"And I thought this was going to be a waste of a perfectly good night off," he said, still chuckling. "I'm going to have to come to more of these parties."
She cocked her head to the side, still smiling. "That's right, you're supposed to be on the air. How does the sporting world get along without you?"
"Honestly, I have no idea," he said with an almost straight face. "Casey, sure. But me? Can't be easy." She gave a breathy laugh and he leaned in a little closer, since the cocky routine seemed to amuse her. "It's hard on our fans, too, huh?"
She stopped laughing, her eyes darkening as she shook her head slightly. "I... don't watch anymore. I used to watch with.... a friend. He was the fan."
"He's not any more?" Dan lifted his eyebrows in mock offense. "What did we do to alienate him? Or did he just give up on all sports and run off to be a goatherd somewhere? Which you know, some days, doesn't sound like such a bad idea."
It was almost a physical blow to lose that smile, to see Donna's lively face go still and distant again; Dan instantly felt about three inches tall. And he'd been doing so well there for a while. "Damn. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make a joke--"
"It's okay," she cut him off. "It's okay. I...." She stared back out over the city, her face lost in shadows. "We used to hang out in his office when we stayed late, which was usually, and he'd turn on the TV to keep track of the Mets or the Knicks or the Patriots.... Whatever season it was. And he'd yell at players in the clips like he was watching the game, which he almost never had a chance to, and I'd steal his beer and laugh at him, and...."
She had to stop, tears glimmering in the eyes that stared out determinedly over Central Park. Dan stepped closer, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"I'm sorry," he repeated, trying to will his sympathy through his touch and into her. "Losing a friend.... That sucks."
She nodded without looking at him. "Yes. It does."
They stood in silence for a moment, then Donna shook her head, drying her eyes with two fingers in the careful gesture women use when they don't want to destroy their makeup. "I'm sorry; I really am getting better at not crying all over complete strangers. It's been... almost two and a half years."
Dan shrugged and dropped his hand, digging his handkerchief out of his back pocket for her. "No problem. If a beautiful woman hasn't cried on my shoulder, it's pretty much a wasted day for me." He stopped and considered. "That didn't come out nearly as sensitive and romantic as I wanted it to be."
And hallelujah, she smiled again; it was tentative and teary, but it was one of the real ones. "I got the idea. And you're very sweet." She wiped her eyes carefully. "I should be getting back, someone's going to--"
"Donna." They both turned as a tall, dark-haired man in a custom-tailored tux came through the terrace doors. "There you are. We've been looking for you." His face (even prettier than Casey's, Dan noted with mild disgust) was tight with more concern that Dan really thought was warranted. It was a party for the President, for god's sake; it wasn't like any crazed kidnappers (or bombers, he thought with a shudder) were going to sneak in past the Secret Service.
Donna didn't seem surprised by either the man's arrival, or his concern. "I'm fine, Sam," she said, moving away from the railing toward him. "I just wanted some air."
The guy -- Sam -- met her halfway from the door and put his arm around her shoulders; a neat trick since her heels made her the same height he was. In the process, he managed to put himself very pointedly between Donna and Dan, meeting the other man's eyes with something that was either a challenge or a threat. Possibly both, Dan reflected, and did his best to look harmless and unthreatening. Which was hampered by the fact that this guy was irritating him a lot.
"You need to, you know, tell someone before you wander off, okay?" Sam said to Donna, taking his eyes off Dan long enough to look at her.
"I'm sorry," Donna told him, "but I'm fine." She seemed to remember their audience and turned back towards Dan. "This is Sam Seaborn; we work together. Sam, this is Dan Rydell."
Seaborn frowned, then his face cleared, some of the suspicion leaving his eyes. But not all of it, Dan noted. "Sports Night. I thought you looked familiar."
"You know, I get that a lot," Dan smiled with more good humor than he was feeling.
"Dan loaned me his jacket," Donna told Seaborn with an odd firmness. "He's been very nice."
Seaborn didn't look convinced; he looked like loaning a lady your jacket should be reclassified as a deadly sin. Or at least a felony. "Well, that was nice of him. But it is cold out here; we should go back inside."
He gave the jacket a pointed look; Donna lifted her eyes to the sky with a resigned expression, then slipped the jacket off her shoulders. Seaborn instantly put his arm back around her, as if to replace it.
"Thank you for the loan," Donna told Dan as she handed him the jacket.
"No problem," Dan said, accepting the jacket but not putting it back on. "Always willing to help out a fellow skyline gazer." That won him another small upturn of her lips; nothing compared to that earlier, dazzling smile, but not bad.
"Thank you for the company, too." She waved a little with one hand, then let Seaborn escort her back into the ballroom, with his arm still around her and a last hard look over his shoulder at Dan.
Dan looked after them for a long minute, rocking back on his heels in thought. Finally, he nodded, put his jacket back on, and made his way back into the ballroom, working his way through the crowd until he found Natalie. She was talking happily with a soap star and two more guys in tuxes, neither the one she'd been dancing with; he rolled his eyes and pulled her away under the pretext of dancing.
"Nat, I need a favor," he said as they circled the small dance floor. "Do you know anything about a woman named Donna Moss? She works in the White House."
Natalie frowned cutely. (Dan actually thought it was beyond Natalie's ability to do anything un-cutely, but he knew better than to say that where she could hear him, or she'd very cutely break his arm and both of his kneecaps.) "That sounds familiar.... Let me get back to the studio and I'll look her up for you, okay?"
"Sure." Dan tried to look casual. "No rush. Whenever you have time."
Natalie studied him, obviously not buying the casual act for even a second. "Dan...." she said threateningly, drawing his name out.
He put on his best 'innocent' expression. "So, you seen Dana and Casey? I always expect Dana to spill something on someone at one of these things, but if I say that to her, she'll do it right off."
Natalie rolled her eyes and began defending Dana, and Dan bent his attention to making sure the former topic stayed dropped. And every once in a while, his eyes strayed across the room to the President of the United States, and the blonde woman standing next to him.
"Rude enough, Sam?" Donna asked quietly as she and Sam went through the doors back into the ballroom.
Sam, caught craning his neck to glare back out at the balcony again, glanced down at her with more than a little guilt. "Excuse me? You know, the President was looking for you, I think he's--"
"Sam." Donna looked at him until he met her eyes. "Dan lent me his jacket and tried to pick me up. He was very nice about it -- sweet, even. You, on the other hand, were rude and possessive and quite obnoxious."
His head dropped and he flushed slightly. "I know," he admitted to his shoes. "I'm sorry."
"I know you are. You always are."
"I'm getting better," he defended himself weakly.
Donna sighed. "No, you're not. And you've got to stop, Sam. We agreed, remember?"
Sam sighed too, dropping his arm. "I know. I know."
Because she loved him, and because fighting with him would take more energy than she had, Donna let him off the hook, slipping her hand into his elbow. "Okay. But you owe Dan an apology, and you owe me a glass of champagne."
"Right." He grinned, relieved at his reprieve, and delivered her across the room to their boss.
The President greeted Donna with a wide smile that was mostly genuine. "Donna! Just the lady I wanted to see. Come here and keep me company; Zoey abandoned me to go off somewhere with that fiance of hers."
Donna obeyed, walking over to stand beside the President; he put a polite hand on her back as he gave her The Look: 'Donna, is this going to be the night you finally start screaming and run out the door to your death?' She smiled back -- 'No, sir, I'm not going to go insane tonight, I promise' -- but she must not have done it very well, because after a very short few minutes of chit-chat with the people who had spent $5,000 a plate to meet him, the President genially steered them off in Hoynes' direction.
"You doing okay there, Donna?" he asked quietly, putting his arm around her waist in the brief moment between handshakes and arm-twistings.
She fought the temptation to lean against his shoulder and won, standing straight and pasting a pleasant expression on her face. "I'm all right. It's just... It's a bad night."
The President's face softened with sympathy, his arm tightening around her. "Yeah, I know the feeling. I keep catching myself looking around the room to see what kind of trouble Josh is getting into."
He and CJ were the only ones who would say Josh's name so casually around her; it had hurt the first few times, but now she was grateful for it. "He would have won the Vice President the election by now."
"Or lost it for him." The President's wry observation made Donna laugh a little, and he looked very satisfied with himself. Then he glanced across the room and breathed out hard. "Oh, hell. Who's supposed to be holding Toby's leash tonight?"
Donna followed his eyes and winced; Toby was standing alone in a group of people, gesturing emphatically with the drink he held in one hand. "I think CJ was going to. The screaming hasn't started, so it's probably okay?"
The President snorted.. "I wouldn't count on it. You know," he added casually, "there's a young man across the room who hasn't taken his eyes off of you since you joined me."
He motioned to a small knot of people by the doors to the other room, where a tall blonde woman was carrying on a lively conversation with CJ, while an equally tall, familiar-looking man and a tiny brunette listened with amused expressions. And standing next to them.... Dan Rydell caught Donna's eye and raised his champagne glass at her with a grin and a wink.
Donna started to return the smile involuntarily, then caught herself and turned back to the President, who was watching her with open amusement. "That's Dan Rydell," she told him, attempting dignity. "We were talking on the balcony for a few minutes."
"Dan Rydell..." the President mused out loud. "Ah, yes. SportsCenter."
"Sports Night," Donna corrected. "Different network. I think that's Casey McCall with him."
"Of course, of course." The President nodded soberly, but there was an extremely suspicious twinkle in his eyes. "I think I'd like to meet those two gentlemen; could you go ask them to join me, please? And point CJ in Toby's direction before he loses us the state of New York."
She gave him a sideways glare that rolled right off of him, then assumed a pleasant expression. "Of course, sir. I'll be right back."
"No hurry," the President assured her as she took a deep, steadying breath and walked towards the group. Towards Dan Rydell. "Take your time."