"'Cause living ain't easy, man, but dying is worse
And you can't move on with your head in reverse
There ain't no clear choices, just reality
If it ain't one thing, then it's two or three
And if you blow it bad, well, you can blame it on me..."

   -- Lowen & Navarro, "Looks Like Sunshine"

Part 3

Saturday, October 19, 2002

Dan paced in front of Rockefeller Plaza. The traffic buzzed down Fifth Avenue in front of him, children squealed their way around the skating rink behind him, the occasional workaholic in a business suit shoved their way to cabs around him, the golden statue of Prometheus loomed over the entire scene, and Dan didn't actually pay attention to any of it. He just shoved his hands further into his pockets and continued pacing.

Wardrobe wasn't going to be happy if he got his jacket wrinkled -- it had taken him twenty minutes to talk them into letting him leave the building in the suit he was supposed to wear on air that night. But Wardrobe also did a much better job of dressing him than he could usually manage himself, and they were susceptible to pleading looks. And, when all else failed, bribery. But what were a few pizzas between friends, for a good cause?

A cab pulled to the curb several feet away and a blonde woman slipped out. Dan's head snapped up as she bent back in to pay the cabbie, then turned, scanning the crowd. Yes, it was Donna, looking professional and pretty damn gorgeous in a dark suit and a red blouse, a long trench coat over it all. Dan straightened his tie, buttoned his suit jacket, and tried to look cool as he walked over to meet her.

"Donna, hi."

She smiled shyly when she saw him, and tucked her hair behind her ear. "Hi, Dan. Sorry I'm a little late, but we had kind of a last-second crisis and I had to help CJ."

"Oh yeah?" He put a hand at the small of her back and directed her towards the corner. "Anthony's is across the street. What was the crisis? And did it have anything to do with nuclear weapons?"

Donna shook her head. "Not unless you count the ones Toby was considering setting off. That's Toby Ziegler, our Communications Director? Anyway, someone left a page out of the President's speech when they put it into the teleprompter, so the President was ad-libbing for four minutes while we tried to find a complete copy and get it to the right place. I don't think anyone in the audience actually cared about the change in global per-capita income since World War II, or his secret recipe for chili, but the President seemed to be having a good time. So was the press corps," she added with a grimace. "Sam and Toby were in back trying to find ways to commit murder."

Dan manfully tried to stifle his chuckles, but they slipped out anyway. Donna glared half-heartedly and he held his hands up. "No, I'm sorry. I, too, have dealt with the evils of teleprompters; that's why I can laugh. One time, Casey and I got to ad lib for two minutes of airtime -- and that's a lot of airtime -- because not only did the teleprompter go haywire, but that was one of the nights when the network also went haywire and we couldn't print out the scripts."

Donna gave him a dubious look that made her look very cute. "So, some nights when you two are turning papers over and passing them back and forth...."

"We're playing Hangman during commercial breaks," Dan confirmed. She laughed as the light turned green and they crossed Fifth Avenue, their strides matching.

Anthony's was crowded, but not obnoxiously so; Dan waved to Elliott and Chris, sitting at the bar with a few other crew members watching the Stanford/Arizona game, and followed the maitre d' to their reserved table. He even remembered to hold Donna's chair for her; Natalie would have been so proud.

"This is very nice," Donna said, after they'd ordered their drinks (whiskey sour for Donna, who didn't have to work; club soda for Dan, who did). "Kind of cozy and elegant."

"Yeah, it's a good place to talk. Quiet and--" Someone did something stupid on the football field and the crowd at the bar groaned and catcalled noisily. Dan squeezed his eyes shut. "I don't know them, honestly."

Donna ducked her head, her hair hiding her face; he was still pretty sure she was grinning. "It's all right. You should hear the West Wing during the World Series. I assure you, when the Yankees are two runs down, no one's paying any attention to running the country."

"Well, that's certainly a comforting thing to hear. So we're safe as long as no one declares war in the bottom of the ninth?"

"Probably." Donna's forehead wrinkled thoughtfully. "And even if they did, I'm fairly certain we could put the game on one of the monitors in the Situation Room."

Dan's laughter attracted the attention of the gang at the bar; he sent a visual death threat their way and they all became instantly engrossed in the game again. When he looked back at the table, he found Donna pressing her lips together, trying to control her expression.

"Oh, go ahead, laugh," he sighed, with a wide gesture of permission. "I forgot half the crew would be hanging out here before the show. We're going to have an audience."

"Like that's new. One of the things I'm really looking forward to after we get out of the White House is long, extended periods of time with no cameras and no reporters anywhere near me." She stopped abruptly. "Um, present company excluded?"

"No problem. I'm an anchor, I never take reporter jokes personally." The waiter came over with their drinks and they spent a few minutes with their menus. By the time they'd ordered, Donna's blush had almost faded. Dan regretted that a little; making Donna blush was almost as much fun as making her smile.

"So," he said after the waiter left, propping his elbows on the table and lacing his hands together. "What are you going to do after you get out of the White House? That's only a few more months, right?"

Donna shrugged, playing with her water glass. The ice cubes tinkled quietly against the sides. "Election Day in a little over two weeks, then we get kicked out on January 20, so we can all go home and sleep for the next three years. I know CJ's looking forward to it. She says her nervous breakdown is scheduled for January 21 and by god, she's gonna keep that date."

"That's not a lady I'd expect to be saving up for a breakdown. She's pretty impressive."

"Yes, she is." Donna's swift smile was warm with pride and affection. "She kind of... holds us all together. I don't know what we'd do without her."

"So CJ's going to have a breakdown, and everyone else is going to sleep," Dan summarized. "What are you going to do after you wake up?"

Uh-oh. That was a sore point, judging from Donna's sigh. Way to go, Rydell.

"Well, that's the big question," she answered slowly. "I applied to a lot of grad schools -- Berkeley, NYU, George Washington -- and got in, but Sam and the President and Leo--"


"McGarry -- our Chief of Staff. Anyway, they want me to stay close, to start Georgetown with Charlie in January. Law school. The semester starts a week before Inauguration, when we're all going to be unemployed anyway, so the timing's good. But... I don't know."

"Law school, huh? What's your undergrad degree in? No, wait," Dan said before she could answer. "I'm going to display my incredible psychic powers. You majored in...." He held a hand to his forehead, and looked intently up at the ceiling, before snapping his fingers and pointing at her. "Political science."

"Very impressive," Donna nodded, her eyes very wide and filled with insincerity instead of shadows. Dan liked that much better. "Now tell me my minor."

He started the ESP routine again, then abruptly dropped his hands and shrugged. "You got me. No idea."

"So much for psychic powers," Donna commented wryly. "Communications and women's studies."

"And another shocker from Ms. Moss." He leaned back in his chair. "So, they want law school. What do you want?"

She smiled a sad little smile and shook her head. "Nothing I can have."

Well, that was a conversation stopper. As Dan groped helplessly for a response, Donna shook her head again, more sharply, closing her eyes for a second. When she re-opened them, the shadows were mostly back under control. "How old were you before you knew what you wanted to be when you grew up?"

He blinked at the non-sequitor. "Who says I'm grown up?" Her lips curved up politely at the weak joke, but her eyes didn't leave him. Dan sighed, resigned to being serious, and leaned forward in his chair, propping his elbows on the table again.

"I don't know," he said thoughtfully. "I guess... I was always into sports, playing them and watching them, but I never wanted to go pro at anything. It's weird, almost un-guy-like, I know, but I didn't want to be the guy on the field. I wanted to be the guy up in the booth yelling, 'The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!'"

Catching Donna's amused look, Dan realized he was waving his arms around and stopped. "Anyway," he continued sheepishly, "for... well, for a number of reasons, I got into broadcast, and about 8 years ago I got teamed with Casey in Dallas and -- boom. That was it. It was like I just knew that this was what I was supposed to be doing, and this was who I was supposed to be doing it with."

He stopped again, a little embarrassed, and took a sip of his water. "Sounds crazy, huh?"

"No." Donna shook her head, that bittersweet smile just touching her lips again. "I know exactly what you mean. When I met...." She broke off and shook her head again, saying simply, "I was there once. I know."

Okay. He was pretty sure he knew what that was about. He was also pretty sure that going into it would be a Bad Idea, so he cast around frantically for another conversational gambit.

'Oh, very nice, Donna,' she snarled at herself in silent disgust. 'Dating 101: How not to carry on a dinnertime conversation. Maybe you should have let Zoey give you that briefing before you left the hotel. And CJ thought this was such a good idea.... I should have listened to Sam.'

"So, you said you had to go to a 'rundown' meeting at 8," Donna said out loud, with determined cheer that she hoped didn't sound as forced as it felt. "What's that? I assume you don't just sit around insulting each other, although that's what it sounds like."

Dan looked startled at the sudden change in mood and topic, but rallied quickly. "No, no, some nights that's actually pretty close to how it goes." She smiled and nodded her head to encourage him. "Well, rundown is when we go over the plans for the show -- what's going to go where, how long it's going to be, who has to pad their story and who has to cut theirs. Kind of like going into a huddle right before a football game, if you want to really misuse a sports metaphor."

"So what's on the show tonight?"

Dan lifted his eyebrows at her -- apparently her 'I'm fascinated' face needed more work -- but straightened in his chair, folding his hands on the table. "Well, we've got the Tennessee Tigers tearing up Texas, the Blue Devils raising hell at Ohio State, and the Bulldogs sinking their teeth into UT-A," he announced in a professional 'sportscaster' voice. "Plus, we'll take you to Los Angeles, where the Irish can't fight their way past the Air Force. All that coming up after this."

"Is that your opening for tonight?" Donna laughed as he finished. "You sound just like you do on the air."

"Hey, I'll have you know Casey and I slave for hours over those lead-ins. They're a very serious part of our jobs." His lopsided grin spoiled the lofty declaration. "But yeah, that's what the lead-in is, unless something critical and earthshaking happens in the sporting world in the next two hours."

"And that would be defined as?"

"What, critical and earthshaking?" He shrugged. "I don't know... the Big Ten seceding from the NCAA? The Mets and the Yankees deciding to merge since they're in the same city anyway? The re-formation of the XFL?"

"Anything but that last one would be fine."

"Amen. The Mets/Yankees thing would be pretty interesting, actually. Not on the level of, you know, peace treaties being signed or anything, but it would definitely be a great story to break."

Donna caught herself relaxing, letting herself enjoy listening to a very cute man talk about his obviously beloved job. This wasn't so bad. She could do this. "So what's the best story you've ever broken?"

"Best story as in coolest, or best story as in biggest of my career?"

"Are they different?"

"Oh, yeah."

"Okay." She settled herself, resting her elbows on the table and her chin on her hands. "Tell me both."

Their meals arrived in the middle of his story about a football star named Christian Patrick, his assault on Natalie, the small brunette she'd met at the party, and the hard decision the 'Sports Night' crew had had to make about an interview with the jerk. Over lasagna (his) and chicken parmigiana (hers), he spun another story about The Tennis Player Who Would Not Die. She countered with Senator Stackhouse's filibuster from the year before, and they compared notes on how to kill time while waiting for someone to lose/stop talking.

The crowd at the bar got noisier, and Dan shouted at them good-naturedly a few times to "hold it down, already, people are trying to eat." He was pretty much ignored. Over dessert (spumoni and cannoli), they compared the hazards of the JFK Expressway with the perils of the Beltway, and debated whether National Airport was less of a pain in the neck than LaGuardia. Dan almost choked on his drink during Donna's straight-faced retelling of Charlie's death-defying (and Secret Service-defying) marriage proposal to Zoey; he reduced her to helpless giggles with The Many Catastrophes of Casey and Dana's Wedding.

By the time the check came, Donna was starting to remember what having a good time felt like. Naturally, that was when Dan looked at his watch and sighed, "Damn. I've got to get back upstairs pretty soon."

She was actually disappointed, but started gathering her coat and purse without comment. "Another rundown meeting?"

"Yeah. One last chance for Dana and Natalie to freak out, then makeup and wardrobe. We're on the air in about an hour-fifteen." He signed the check when the waiter brought it back, and helped Donna out of her chair with exaggerated courtesy. "Want to walk back to Rockefeller with me?"

He looked at her hopefully when he asked, like he wanted an excuse to prolong the date, and something quiet and warm spread through her stomach. "Sure. I'd like that."

The noise from the bar got louder as they left; Donna swore she could see Dan's cheeks reddening as he waved his coworkers off. "I really am sorry about them," he apologized once they were out on the street. The chilly wind caught them, swirling Donna's coat around her and threatening to steal Dan's jacket. "I keep forgetting there's a reason I like to hang there -- it's because everyone else hangs there."

"No problem, it was fun. Honestly."

Dan shoved his hands deeper into his trouser pockets, the very picture of depression. "Now you're just trying to cheer me up."

"Yeah." Donna wrinkled her nose. "Kind of strange, huh?"

"Yeah." He abandoned his slouch to grin sideways at her as they stepped onto the crosswalk and she smiled back. Oh, yes. This one was going down in the books as a good date. And catching him hanging back to look at her legs as they crossed the street didn't hurt.

He caught up to her as soon as he realized she was watching him, his grin getting wider. "Can't blame a guy for looking." She laughed at him and he put his hand on the small of her back, escorting her to the middle of the Plaza.

It was colder there, the wind blowing over the ice of the famous skating rink and whipping around the scattered groups of spectators. Donna barely noticed. "This is incredible," she breathed.

Dan leaned against the railing next to her. "Yeah. I kinda forget to look at it sometimes, but... Yeah."

The lights were on all over the Plaza, glowing red, yellow and orange in the windows and down from the walls. Children raced around the outside edges of the rink with varying degrees of skill, as teenagers and a few slightly older couples tried to stay out of their way. Two young women in skating costumes had taken over center ice and were showing off with spins and jumps, getting occasional bursts of applause from the small audience above them. The golden statue of Prometheus gleamed over them all, and Donna sighed happily, feeling more content than she had in... more than two years.

The thought sent a flash of guilt through her, so unexpected in its strength that she almost gasped even as she fought it back. There was nothing wrong with this, there couldn't be anything wrong with this, with being happy watching skaters in Rockefeller Plaza. Even if the person she was watching with wasn't.... Josh wouldn't....

She must have winced, or made some sound, because Dan was suddenly watching her instead of the skaters. "What? Are you cold?"

"No. No, I'm fine," she lied. She was suddenly desperately cold again, and it hurt so much more because, for just a little while there, she'd been warm. Dan's hand was on her arm and his brown eyes were serious and concerned and she wanted to scream because they weren't Josh's eyes, and she wanted to cry because she was so tired of looking for Josh in everyone she met. She was just so tired....

Before she decided to do it, before she had time even to think about it, she closed the inches between them. Her hand came up around his neck, pulling him even closer as she kissed him.

Dan smelled good, she noted -- clean, with a nice aftershave. The warmth of his body reached out to hers and she shifted against him to try to absorb it into herself. His mouth was firm and gentle against hers; she moved even closer, put more effort into it. Dan responded willingly, his hand tightening on her arm and the other coming up to rest on her waist. He was good at this, enthusiastic without pushing anything and it felt so good to be close to someone, to anyone, that she just closed her eyes and pretended....

'Donnatella Moss, what the hell do you think you're doing?'

She didn't know whose voice it was -- it might have been an echo of Josh's, or just her own self-respect, speaking up from wherever it had been hibernating for the last two and a half years. Whichever, it froze her where she stood as she realized what she was doing -- what she'd almost done to a very nice man who didn't deserve to be used.

She pulled away, staring wide-eyed at Dan. His eyes opened as he realized something was wrong and he looked at her, his face caught between worry and puzzlement. "Donna?" he asked. "What's wrong."

She caught her lip between her teeth. "Nothing. Everything. I'm... I'm sorry."

He half-laughed, his eyes still warm with concern, and tried to pull her closer again. His brow wrinkled when she resisted, but he didn't push. "Hey, believe me, kissing someone is never something to apologize for. Particularly if that someone is me."

"Sometimes it is," she whispered.

Unable to meet those eyes, she turned away, hugging her arms around her waist. The warmth was almost gone, fading away under the ice.... His arms dropped away as she moved.

"I'm sorry," she repeated again, for lack of anything better to say. She didn't know what was going on in her head; how could she possibly explain it to Dan? "I just... This was such a bad idea. I should... I need to go. I'm sorry."

Better just to get away while she could. She started walking towards the street, not looking back. The tears burned in her eyes and around the lump in her throat. 'Please let him accept that, please just let it go so I can get out of here and back to where I don't have to do this anymore, damn you Josh, this hurts too much, please....'

And it had been going so well. She'd been having a good time, Dan was sure of that, and he'd certainly been enjoying himself. Then all of a sudden she was kissing him -- which he seriously had no problems with -- and then she was running. Which he had major problems with.

"Donna." Dan took a few fast steps after her, catching up before she'd gotten too far. She jerked away when he caught her shoulders, hunched them under his hands. He pulled back instinctively, then gently took her arm again, and turned her to face him. She stared past him at the rink, her arms still wrapped around herself like armor, and he fumbled for something, anything, to say that would make this right. It helped that he had a pretty good idea of what 'this' was. Only one way to find out for sure, though....

"Donna, I think I should confess something here," he said carefully. "I am a reporter, sort of, and I do know how to do research. Or actually," he admitted, in the interest of honesty, "how to get Natalie to do my research for me. I know about... about Rosslyn. And about Josh Lyman."

Her breath caught hard and her eyes shot up to his. He met them steadily, seeing the answer to his unspoken question in pools of blue, swimming with unshed tears. Damn, he hated it when he was right. "That is what this is about, right? Because if I'm wrong, you can feel free to, I don't know, beat me up or something, but if I'm right...."

She bit her lip, her eyes coming closer to overflowing, but didn't answer. Dan let his hand slide down her arm to take her hand loosely; her fingers lay limp in his. He ran his other hand through his hair and blew his breath out hard. "Ah, I knew I was gonna screw this up. Look, Donna. I know--"

"You don't know," she cut him off, so suddenly and so harshly that he stopped in midsentence, his mouth still open. She knocked his hand away with one sharp movement of her arm and he let it fall, helplessly. "Everyone always says they know and they don't. You didn't know Josh, you didn't know Josh and me. You don't know what it felt like to be with him, to wait in that hospital, to see the doctor's face when he came to tell us Josh was gone. You don't know what it feels like to wake up every day and know that he's not there, that he's never been there in two and a half years, and he's never going to be. There. Again!"

Her voice rose to a shout by the end, came perilously close to cracking. The tears finally broke loose, trickling down her cheeks and onto the collar of her coat. Wordlessly, Dan dug a handkerchief out of his back pocket and offered it to her; she stared at it, then gave a short, humorless laugh, as some kind of control returned to her eyes.

"Oh, god, I really have lost it," she said, so quietly he had to lean close to hear. She scrubbed at her cheeks with the handkerchief, so hard he could see red marks against her pale skin. "Some date, huh? Dinner, dessert, a walk, a nervous breakdown... Bet this wasn't what you were planning."

"Not exactly. Donna...."

She didn't seem to hear him. "I'm sorry I yelled. I just... I get so tired." She turned her back to him and looked over towards the rink again, talking to the air, or to herself. Or, maybe, to someone who wasn't there. Her voice shook. "Everyone keeps telling me it'll get better, and it never does. Just when I think it's going to, I remember the way he looked when he smiled, or I hear him yelling my name, or I see him on the operating table the night he--"

Her voice did break that time, and Dan took a chance, putting his hands on her shoulders from behind. She tensed, but she didn't look at him, and he didn't let go. "Donna...."

"It was just like you said. I walked into campaign headquarters and Josh told me to answer the phone, and he gave me his ID badge, and suddenly I knew. This was what I was supposed to be doing, this was who I was supposed to be doing it with. We were together for more than two years and I never even thought about going anywhere else, being anything else." She shook her head slightly, staring sightlessly at the ice. "And then Josh left, and he took everything I was supposed to be with him."

"No, he didn't." It came out more certain than Dan had expected; she half-turned to look at him, and her eyes were dry now. He preferred the tears to this dull resignation. "Josh didn't take anything of you, Donna. You just... lost track of some things that he maybe helped you find. They're still there."

She looked like she wanted to believe him, but wouldn't let herself. "You don't know," she repeated.

"Yeah, I do. My younger brother died the day I left for college. A car accident. I spent the next ten years going home to see my family, and being surprised when he wasn't there. Feeling guilty because he wasn't and it was my fault."

That stopped her, dead in her tracks. "Oh, Dan. I'm... I'm really--"

"Don't apologize," he stopped her, not ungently. "I didn't tell you to get another apology, because the first twelve, they weren't actually necessary. I'm just.... I know about trying to deal with crap. I have a very nice therapist named Abby Jacobs who's been helping me do it for about the last three years."

Her eyes widened and she started to say something; he stopped her with an upraised finger. "Just listen for a second. Please." He ran his hand through his hair again, praying he was saying this right, and trying not to think too hard about why it was so important that he did. "I too have known the wonders of guilt and panic attacks; believe it or not, there have been times in my life when I haven't been able to carry on a conversation with anyone for more than a few minutes without having to book. Or without almost destroying a friendship. Ask Casey sometime, he'll be happy to tell you."

Donna was still staring at him, as if she was seeing him for the first time. "But you're... I mean, you're...."

"Very, very good at acting," Dan filled in with a rueful grin, shrugging uncomfortably. "I've been practicing for a really long time and I'd like to think that I improve a little every day." He shrugged again, shoving his hands into his pockets. "I have to act a little less these days, which means the $700 a month I pay Abby is actually doing some good.

"But the point is, I know how hard it can be to get through a day." He reached out and touched her cheek, carefully. She didn't flinch this time, and he wasn't sure which of them was more surprised. "I was kind of hoping I could make today a little easier for you to get through, but I think I made it harder instead, and I'm sorry for screwing that up."

"No, you didn't," Donna finally managed to say, her voice barely more than a whisper. "It's not your fault, Dan. You've been sweet and wonderful and much nicer than anyone ever has to be. It's my fault. I'm... I thought I was ready for this. I thought I could...."

"It's okay." And he could almost convince himself it was. "Seriously. We had a good time, right?"

She managed a watery smile. "Yes. We did."

"Got a couple of laughs out of you, right?"

The smile got a little more solid. "Yes."

"Okay, then. Good date." He nodded once, firmly, as if that settled the issue. "No more apologies."

She echoed his nod and started to say something that might have been promising, judging from the softness in her eyes as she wiped them again with his handkerchief. Naturally, that was when the distinct sounds of the Sports Night crew came within earshot.

"Dana's on the warpath, Dan!" Chris called as they went by. "Everyone upstairs five minutes ago or some serious vengeance is going to happen."

Dan swore under his breath, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Look, I've really got to get upstairs; we're on the air in like, an hour. Are you okay in a cab?"

Donna nodded, managing a small smile. "I'm a big girl, Dan; I get around in DC all the time."

"Okay." He hesitated before putting his hand on her back; she hesitated before letting it stay. They walked back to the curb in near-silence, broken only by the squeaking brakes of the cab that pulled up next to them. Dan held the door open for her, and she started to get in, then stopped, putting her hand on his arm.

"I really am sorry. About all of this," she added, with a vague wave of the other hand that encompassed Rockefeller Plaza, Anthony's, and pretty much all of New York. "But I did have a nice time... mostly. And you really are very sweet."

"That's me," Dan managed a smile that was almost natural. "Mr. Sweet. And I'm glad you had a good time."

He stepped back, and she slid into the cab. "Have a safe trip back," he said as he closed the door, then leaned in the front window to hand the cabbie a ten. "The lady's staying at the Plaza Hotel."

"You got it," the cabbie half-saluted. Donna looked at Dan through the window and he waved her off as the cab pulled away. Then he shoved his hands in his pockets and waited until the cab got to the end of the block, before turning on one heel and walking slowly back towards the building.

Natalie, already in 'ohmigod, this is the night the show self-destructs' mode, met him as he wandered into the studio. "You're late," she informed him. "Notre Dame rallied in the fourth; they're in the lead and you may have to rewrite the segment."

"Yeah." Dan trailed silently along after her as they headed for the conference room, until she frowned at him over her clipboard.

"Are you all right? How was the date?"

He had to think about that one. "It was.... fairly typical."

"Typical? Well, that doesn't sound like the guy who left here a few hours ago."

"It's fine, Nat," he brushed her off, picking up the pace. "I'll tell you all about it after the show. How much is Notre Dame up by?"

She stared at his back, then caught up. "7, with 8:54 on the clock as of five minutes ago. We're bumping it to 8, and moving hockey back. We're also pulling the interview with Kobe back to--"

Dan listened to Natalie, nodded when appropriate, and lost himself in the process of making his show perfect, instead of concentrating on a pair of tear-filled blue eyes that didn't see anything but a guy who wasn't there anymore, and never would be again.

The cab driver tried a few times to engage Donna in conversation; he met with silence, and finally returned his attention to New York traffic for the short cab ride back to the Plaza. She slipped out with a murmured, "Thank you," barely acknowledging the bellman who held the door. The elevator was full of people -- most of a wedding reception, judging by the gowns -- and she did her best to ignore them until they spilled out three floors before hers.

Bonnie wasn't in their room, and Donna was grateful for the solitude. She stripped off CJ's blouse, and her own skirt, hose and heels, trading them for comfortable sweatpants and the Lakers shirt she'd swiped from either Sam or Josh somewhere on the campaign trail, when she'd been doing three people's laundry. She wrapped her arms around the soft, well-washed cotton and sank down on the end of the bed, staring out at nothing.

The bed looked particularly appealing; she liked the thought of sinking into it and not thinking about anything for -- she checked the clock -- the next 5 hours. But she sighed and dragged herself back to her feet instead, leaving the room and pressing the elevator button for the penthouse. If she didn't check in, there would be hell to pay in the morning.

The agent outside the Vanderbilt Suite nodded to her, and muttered into his radio, then gestured her towards the door. She knocked anyway and heard the President call out, "Come on in, Donna."

The huge living room was startlingly empty. Another agent stood relaxed guard across the room, manning the phones, and Toby was at one of the desks, talking to someone on his cell -- Darryl, Donna realized uncomfortably, about S-527. No one else was around.

The President was sprawled on the couch in ancient jeans and a faded Notre Dame sweatshirt that the First Lady had been heard threatening to burn on more than one occasion. The fuss when it had disappeared a year ago had raised the roof of the Residence, until Zoey confessed to having 'borrowed' it.

"Good evening, Donna," he greeted her, gesturing with his glass at her, then towards the couch. He was in a good mood; Notre Dame must have staged a comeback during dinner. Dan had said....

"Are they winning yet?" She realized halfway to the couch that she hadn't quite gotten around to putting shoes on. Uh-oh, barefoot in the President's presence. She shook her head and curled up in the corner of the couch, staring at the uniforms on the TV screen. They'd turned the air conditioning up again, and she wrapped her arms around herself against the chill.

"The Irish are, in fact, thoroughly trouncing that embarrassingly miserable excuse for a team that the Air Force Academy sent out to play football." The President rubbed his hands together gleefully. "And Mr. Seaborn and Ms. Cregg will certainly be paying up when they return from their night of revelry and debauchery."

"Is that where everyone is?"

"Revelry, yes," Toby said, hanging up his cell and scribbling out something on his notes. "The debauchery isn't scheduled for another two weeks."

"And there wouldn't even be revelry if the wet blanket over there," the President jerked his thumb in Toby's direction, "had given in and gone with them. Instead, he chose to stay here and depress me."

"Some of us still have two more weeks of work to get done, sir," Toby replied calmly, not looking up from his legal pad. "Depressing you is just a bonus."

The President snorted in response. "Want a beer, Donna?"

"No, thank you, sir."

"Oh, see now, you're ruining my plans. I was going to get you loosened up with alcohol, then pry the details of your date out of you."

"Sorry," Donna attempted to smile, "but there aren't really many details to pry."

The president gave her a patently disbelieving look. She stared fixedly at the football team running around on the TV screen, not even looking up when Toby collected his notes and stood.

"Well, as much as I'm going to miss the gloating when Notre Dame painfully extracts victory from the jaws of defeat, I'm going to go finish this speech somewhere quieter," he announced.

"You do that." The President waved him out without rising to the bait. "And for god's sake, Toby, stop in the Oak Bar and get a drink or something. You're making me feel like a slave driver."

"Well, we wouldn't want that," Toby said under his breath as he went past. The President loftily ignored him.

Donna rolled her eyes, and the President looked at her over his beer. "You're amused by the lack of respect shown to me by my staff, Ms. Moss?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, I'm glad someone is." Notre Dame recovered a fumble and the crowd went wild, then the station went to commercial and a very earnest anchorman started plugging the night's top stories, including the Presidential visit to NYU. Donna caught sight of herself, standing behind CJ and Toby on their way in past the rope lines. CJ had been right, the red shirt did look better. And Toby's tie did bleed onscreen. Well, they'd tried to tell him.

She looked away from the screen to find the President watching her. "Admit it. You're going to miss all of this."

"A little." Donna curled up in her corner a little more tightly. "I guess."

"Yeah." The President stared moodily into his glass. "Me too. It hasn't all sucked."

That surprised a giggle out of Donna, and he raised his eyebrows at her. "What? I didn't use it wrong. I have been paying attention to you and Zoey and Sam all these years, you know."

"Yes, sir, you used it right. It's just... it's still a little strange to hear coming from Our Nation's Leader."

"Whatever. I'm still right." He emphasized the statement by pointing his glass in her direction, and she held up her hands in surrender.

"Yes, sir. You're right."

He nodded and took a satisfied sip of beer, returning his attention to his game.

"We have done some good things, haven't we?" she said quietly, as Notre Dame missed a field goal they didn't need. "Justice Montoya, vetoing the Alaska oil exploration, the Gu--"

Her voice unexpectedly caught in her throat and the President filled in, "The Lyman Gun Control Act. Yeah. Josh would have liked that one."

"He would have liked that it was named after him even more."

"Yes, he would have." The President chuckled, reaching over to pat her hand. "It wasn't all bad, Donna."

"No, sir. It wasn't." It was just hard to remember that some days. "Do you...?"

He waited patiently. "Do I what?"

"Are you sorry you made the deal?"

"No." It was her turn to look at him, and he sighed. "Well, maybe a little. There's so much work left to do, and I suppose I regret that we won't be the ones to do it. But I made a deal with Abbey long before the one with Leo and Toby, and I'm glad I'm keeping it. So no, I'm not sorry. Most of the time."

She nodded silently, and the clock ran out somewhere near Air Force's 40-yard line. Notre Dame had pulled it out. The President made satisfied noises and picked up the remote -- before he touched a button, Donna knew what he was going to turn on.

"...and the Fighting Irish refuse to surrender to the Air Force -- all this when we return. You're watching Sports Night on CSC, so stick around."

It was even stranger to see Dan on TV, in the same suit he'd been wearing when he was sitting across the table, than it was to see herself. He looked relaxed and together and in control, and Donna was grateful when they went to commercial.

"So, how did the date go?" the President asked, and Donna realized her fingers were touching her cheek where Dan's hand had rested. She flushed and dropped them as the President went on, "Did Mr. Rydell behave himself, or should I sic the IRS on him to defend your honor? I can still do that, you know."

She shook her head, made herself smile. "No, sir, he was a perfect gentleman. He was.... We had a very nice time."

"Well, that's good. You know, you owe CJ one -- this whole 'revelry' thing was her idea. Sam got himself all worked up and was about three seconds away from finding your restaurant. CJ dragged him out of here by his ear, to go get him drunk."

"Oh, god." Putting her hands over her face didn't help to block out that image. She sighed and let her head fall back against the couch. "Do they, you know, make a greeting card for 'Thank you for saving me from abject humiliation'? Not that I needed any help with that."

The President's eyebrows rose and she realized she'd mumbled the last part aloud. "Oh, I think she'd settle for a cup of coffee. One of those mochachino things you're all so addicted to."

"Good idea." She paid close attention to the Hoynes commercial that was on, noting that his media director had chosen the wrong tie, too.

Of course he didn't drop it; this was the President, self-appointed White House yenta, He Who Must Interfere In Everyone's Lives. "So, where did you go? Was it a good restaurant? There are a lot of very fine places to eat in New York, you know. In fact, it was right here in New York that the very first pizzeria in the Americas opened, in 1895."

She took comfort from the fact that stronger women than she had cracked under the torture of Presidential trivia. "Well, we didn't get pizza, but we did go to an Italian place Dan knows, across the street from Rockefeller Plaza. It was nice. I had chicken parmigiana. And cannolli," she tacked on before he could ask. "We talked about traffic, airports, politics, teleprompters and sports, I walked with Dan back across the street, we watched the skaters, I had a major emotional meltdown, he put me in a cab, and I came back here. And that is what happened on Donnatella Moss' date!"

Okay, that last part had gotten... a little strident. Particularly given who she was talking to. She pressed her lips together tightly, closing her eyes and tilting her head back against the couch again. The President didn't say anything, but she felt him looking at her.

Sports Night came back on, and Dan Rydell's voice started covering the game they'd just watched. She refused to open her eyes to see his face. "I'm sorry," she whispered finally. "It's.... I'm just so tired of crying."

The President sighed, and she felt the cushions give as he leaned forward, heard his glass clink against the coffee table as he put it down (without a coaster, part of her brain noted randomly). "Well, I'm glad to hear that," he said gently, "because I don't like to see any of my girls cry."

She caught the sob before it escaped, turned it into a choke and a sniffle. The President put his arm around her, pulling gently, and this time, her head dropped slowly to his shoulder. He propped his sneakered feet up on the coffee table as Casey McCall took over to cover the Stanford/Arizona game. "It'll be better tomorrow," the President sighed, patting her shoulder, and Donna nodded against him. They both stared silently at the screen as his sweatshirt absorbed the slow trickle of her tears.


Part 4
"the holes you left in me"