Summary: It's a jungle out there …
Fandom: Sports Night
Pairing: Dan Rydell/Sam Donovan
Disclaimer: The characters and situations in this original work of fan fiction are based on the TV series Sports Night (ABC, 1998-2000), created by Aaron Sorkin.
Original Story: In the Jungle, Dark and Dim by out_there.
Thanks to: mythichistorian, for an excellent beta job - any remaining flaws are, of course, my own; and to out_there, for providing such a wealth of potential for me to work with. Also, of course, to musesfool, for running Remix once again, in spite of all the experience of earlier years.
Sam Donovan isn't given to flights of fancy. It's not what he gets paid for. Quite the opposite: cold, hard facts are his stock-in-trade, and not necessarily pleasant ones; he sees the world as it is, not how one might wish it to be, and that's what makes him the best in the business.
This notwithstanding, it used to amuse him sometimes, as he rode in from out of town and prepared to impose his own brand of order onto other people's chaos, to see himself as the mysterious stranger of romance: a lone gunslinger, steady of hand and flinty of eye, a hard-boiled private 'tec, a lordless samurai. One could even, at a stretch, think of him as a modern-day wizard, a conjuror who works his magic with facts and figures, with statistics and demographics and spreadsheets. Or – and this is perhaps the closest to the truth – a tamer of (lions and tigers and bulls and bears, oh, my!) wild beasts.
Nobody ever did, though. Truthfully, no-one really cared that much. Quite honestly, all they cared about was that he should stay out of their way, do his job, then go back to wherever it was he came from and leave them in peace. So long as their own jobs were intact afterward, that was their only concern.
Some of them never even bothered to learn his name. That, in turn, never bothered Sam. He wasn't there to make friends. He'd long ago given up trying.
What he is there to do – then as now – is make an impression; establish the high ground from the moment he walks in.
Like it or not, like him or not, these people have to respect him, need to listen to him, and take his advice. It's what he's here for, it's why they pay him, although he knows they'll fight him all down the line. They always have, they always will. Why anyone would go to all the trouble and expense of calling in a troubleshooter only to squabble and bitch and whine and do their utmost to ignore his every word is more than he's ever understood.
Not his problem. His problem, right here, right now, is to squirrel out what their problem is, turn it inside-out and upside-down and every which way he can manoeuvre it, see how it can be fixed, and tell them so. Then he'll take his money and go, and let them make the best of whatever he's left them.
He smoothes down his rumpled suit, already rehearsing the lie he'll tell, the long-haul flight from some exotic destination: maybe he was basking on a sun-kissed beach somewhere, though his pale skin and sandy hair make him as aversive to sunlight as any vampire. Or skiing in Aspen. Maybe he flew his Lear Jet down to Saratoga …
… no. Not that one. Not even in imagination. Gambling's not his poison of choice, but an addict can't take any chances.
He'll think of something. Something convincing, something good. Something to make them know that he could be anyplace he might choose, and they should be grateful that he chose – of all things – here.
He slings his laptop bag across his shoulders like a bandolier, and steps into the conference room.
Five days ago
When the phone rings, Sam's sitting in his kitchen, hair spiked and messy, bathrobe over teeshirt and shorts, reading the paper, eating breakfast, enjoying the sunshine and the peace and quiet and calm. Just another ordinary day.
He answers the call briskly, professionally, just his name; sits listening, making the occasional non-committal grunt. After a moment he pulls the newspaper toward him and scribbles a few notes in the margin. He asks if he can see some tapes; there's a brief discussion of contract terms and flight plans. He speaks slowly, consideringly, making a big show of initial reluctance gradually diminishing as he allows himself to be persuaded. Finally, "Okay. I'll see you next week," he says, and, "Nice to hear from you, Isaac." And his thumb clicks down, severing the connection.
Then he tips his head back, lets out a long, deep sigh, and then slumps forward, face buried in his hands. You might almost think, if you didn't know Sam Donovan, that he was praying.
If it were pretty much any other man but Sam Donovan, he would be.
A door slams somewhere down the hallway. Then another. It's almost six o'clock, and, one by one, Sam's neighbours are coming home from work, from offices and factories, from a long, hard day full of frustration and tedium and can you believe that guy?! Pretty soon the walls will be buzzing with the sounds of other people's TVs and stereos, and the hallways will be filled with cooking smells and the echoes of distant voices.
That'll be Sam's cue to leave. He never was a people person.
He needs to call his sponsor. He'll need to find a meeting nearby the CSC offices – close enough to be convenient, not so close that there's a chance he'll be seen. It's New York City; likely, he'll have his pick.
In the meantime, methodical as always, he turns the newspaper back over; he hasn't quite finished the crossword yet. It's yesterday's crossword, and yesterday's paper, picked casually from the floor as if Sam were a good citizen, clearing away trash, recycling to save the planet. The orange juice he's drinking is weak and tasteless, the last few dregs in the carton rinsed through and eked out with water from the tap; his coffee's no better, the grounds now on their third re-use, flavour just a memory and caffeine buzz more a forlorn hope than anything else. He's eating a stale bagel, and eating it dry; there's nothing in his refrigerator, not so much as a rind of cheese or a smear of butter.
The refrigerator doesn't work anyhow. He only keeps it to help delineate his postcard-sized kitchen area from the bedroom. Or living room, depending on the time of day.
This, here and now, late September in this year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine, this is Sam Donovan's life: lonely, empty, jobless, friendless, and virtually penniless; he has just under ten dollars in his pocket, all of it in small change, nickels and dimes. But for a lackadaisical landlord and, ironically, the goodwill of his own ex-wife, he'd be homeless, too. He's an expert in his field – the expert, some folk used to say – but his one-time friends have forgotten his name. The call from Isaac Jaffee is the first time his phone's rung in six months.
There's a sort of poetic justice, in all of this, if you look for it – which Sam doesn't care to. Because what Sam does, when he does anything at all, is destroy other people's livelihoods and lives.
That's not exactly what it says on the job description. He's a TV ratings expert, part demographics analyst, part time-and-motion studies man, far too large a part a bullshitter who depends on a combination of blind luck and sheer chutzpah. Even he's not sure exactly how all those roles are divvied up. The only thing he knows is it's a winning combination; he has a knack for what will work and what won't, what makes good television and what doesn't, and he knows how to turn an underachieving, underperforming show around and, in a matter of weeks, have it claw its way up the ratings charts till it forces people to sit up and take notice.
Two problems there. Number one, you don't just walk into a TV studio and sweet-talk the staff into doing things your way. These people aren't stupid – well, okay, a lot of them are, but in general they're talented with it; they know what they're doing, or they think they do, and they have their own ideas about what makes good TV. And the trouble with that is, plenty of the time they're right: good TV is exactly what they're making. That's problem number two. There's no money in good TV; it's not what the public wants. Give them trash, give them reality, whether it's fat women wrestling in Jell-O or wannabe rockstars who can't hold a note in a bucket, give them heartless practical jokes and braindead daredevil stunts. Don't give them thought, don't give them wit and style and, above all, don't give them intelligence. Nobody wants to work that hard. All that anyone wants after they've put in their eight or ten hours' daily grind and sat in traffic for another hour more is to slump into their couches, open a can of beer, and watch teenagers piss on each other and dogs dance on their hind legs. Or vice versa. Doesn't much matter. Bread and circuses is what the people want. It's what they've always wanted. There's a little less blood these days, but otherwise we haven't come so far from Roman times.
So there you have it: Sam Donovan, so good at his job, at putting bright, enthusiastic, talented people out of work and replacing them with half-trained monkeys. And now, here he is, on the skids, down on his luck, at the end of his rope: broke and unemployable.
Oh, yeah. That's justice.
Once upon a time, Sam had had a life like anyone else. He'd get up bright and early in the morning, shower in hot water and dress neatly in a suit and tie, kiss his wife goodbye then pick up his briefcase and head off to the office – any office, any place he was called to – to put in a full day's work of devastation and decimation. He'd been irresistible back then, smiling and funny; he'd insinuated himself into people's lives, made them like him, made them trust him, and then …
Well. He hadn't been the one who'd had to break the news. He wasn't the one who'd had to look into their eyes while he took away their life's work and ground it into the dust beneath his feet.
So why had they started to haunt him?
That was where the trouble began, the long, slow slide toward what he was now. There'd been a few bad nights, sleepless and, when he did sleep, filled with ugly, troubled dreams, dreams of things, shrieking, mocking things that swung from treetops, others that slid, slow, sly and secret, rustling through dead grass, flashes of striped or spotted things with sharp, sharp claws and gleaming teeth, every one of them feral, untameable, red in tooth and claw. A few bad nights had turned into many, then more, then every night, until he was afraid to go to sleep, afraid of what the darkness would bring. And, when it came to that, he'd looked around for courage, and found it at the bottom of a bottle.
He'd started drinking to try and numb the hollow feeling inside, but, somehow, it'd backfired: instead everything else had become numb, until finally nothing but the hollowness remained. Get therapy, Lori had said, but he'd laughed at her. Seriously, did she think he was going to shell out a thousand dollars a month to be told what he already knew? His subconscious wasn't that subtle: it's a jungle out there, that's what it was telling him.
When he finally crawled out the other side, Lori was gone. Any other woman would have left him with nothing. Lori had left him everything – everything but the one thing that mattered. I don't want your money, Sam, she'd said, it was never about the money. But you can't ask me to stand by and watch you do this to yourself – as if he ever had, or ever would. He'd never asked for anything, not from her, not from anyone. She gave, though, as though he were a beggar in the street; he'd find notes from the landlord to say the rent had been paid for the month, or come home and there would be a grocery bag left sitting on the kitchen table. He wonders, now, how she thinks that makes him feel; knows that any man worth the name would have too much pride to live on his ex-wife's charity.
But if it's that, or starve, then what choice does he have?
Oh, the jobs hadn't dried up because of his drinking. That's another irony. When he'd been drinking, he'd been king of the castle, cock of the walk, monarch of all he surveyed. All those things, and more. He'd been the golden boy, untouchable; he couldn't put a foot wrong. It was when he got sober that it all went downhill.
When you're sober, you have noplace to hide from your conscience. And Sam Donovan had looked into his heart one day, and known that he couldn't do things the bosses' way any longer; that, instead of lowering expectations, he would raise them. Damned if there wasn't a market for smart TV for smart people – who said that, what wrong-headed piece of received wisdom was it that he'd founded his whole career upon? It was time to stop expecting the worst of people and, instead, see how high they could climb, given half the chance.
Funny; he'd been right. Just not right enough. And it hadn't made him popular: not with the men in the sharp suits and the shiny shoes, the men with the small, mean, closed-off minds who knew television, and knew that this wasn't the way it worked. And so, no phone calls. Not for the past six months.
"Nobody likes a smartass, Sam," Lori had said to him, time and again. "Just do what they tell you to do. It's their game – you have to play by their rules. Don't you?"
But he couldn't. He couldn't surrender, and he couldn't go back to the way things were. Not now he'd seen the way things could be.
Six months is a long time between paycheques. But Isaac Jaffee … Sam remembers him from the old days. He's one of the good guys. He trusts Isaac. Trusts him, and will do his best to save his show for him.
The tapes arrive the next day, Fed-Exed over, as Isaac had promised, along with a plane ticket. Sam checks it out, and grins. First class, just like he'd asked. That's good. He'll cash it in, fly coach, pocket the change. There's nothing quite like the feel of cash in hand, though it's so long now that he's almost forgotten what it does feel like. He pops a tape into the ageing VCR; it swallows it with an ominous clunk, then whirs into slow, reluctant life. He sits down on the floor, leans back against the couch, and makes the acquaintance of the boys and girls of Sports Night.
Might as well get to know them. He's going to be stuck with them for quite a while.
One year later
Dan pushes the door open with his hip, edges through crabwise, arms laden with brown paper sacks. Sam glances up from his laptop and tries to look preoccupied and stern. As usual, he fails, but at least he manages to hide his smile beneath his moustache somewhere.
Sam has developed something of a soft spot for Dan. Possibly it's residual guilt. After all, if Sam had done his job the way he should have done, then Dan wouldn't be here now. The first note Sam had scribbled, that first time he'd watched Sports Night on tape, that note had read 'Why does a show like this need two full-time anchors?' He'd written it automatically; then he'd looked down, read his own words, crumpled the paper, and let it drop. No more ruined lives, not by his hand.
There would never have been the slightest doubt which one the network would've kept, and which one let go. You keep the one who wins awards, who makes the Top 100 lists; the one who doesn't stir up public outrage with his naïve and ill-informed idealism. Sam knows that there are plenty of people at CSC, up at the corporate levels, who would've been glad to have seen the last of Dan Rydell, who consider him at the very least a potential embarrassment. Perversely, that only makes Sam happy that he made the choice he did.
Not only for that reason. Sam – he's said it before, and he'll say it again, he isn't in this business to make friends, it's in and out the door, strictly business. That's the theory. But Dan refused to let him get away with that, would have none of it. Dan is kind and charming and generous, Dan genuinely cares about people and wants them to be happy, and Dan is not above resorting to guerrilla tactics to achieve this. He made Sam fit in, forced him to accept himself as a part of this weird, semi-functional Sports Night family; he didn't give him a choice. Sam did his best to remain aloof, but Dan was implacable; in the end he had his way. And now, when he thinks about it, sometimes Sam forgets why he ever wanted to hold out in the first place.
Dan – Dan, with his sweet, crooked smile, and the sombre dark eyes that see through Sam and all his bullshit – Danny broke down all Sam's defences like so much soggy cardboard. It isn't just that he's a good guy, or that he's persuasive, not to say relentless; there's more to it than that. Sam sees reflections, dim and distorted, of himself in Dan, a certain imperfect, frightening symmetry. There's a darkness in Danny that few people ever see; he, like Sam, hears the voices of the jungle in his head. Sam knows it, and he thinks Danny knows that he knows. Sometimes Dan will look at Sam and Sam will look back and there, behind the easy smile, the smooth veneer, he'll see a wildness, caged and trapped and hidden beneath the designer suit and hundred-dollar haircut and way, way, way too much intelligence and education, but still a danger, still a menace, always looking for a way to claw itself out and start mauling.
Sometimes he'll listen to Dan's calm voice and hear, somewhere very far away, the dying echo of a tiger's roar.
But then, other days Dan is just Dan: sweet, simple, straightforward, what-you-see-is-what-you-get. Kooky, quirky, harmless Danny, shouldering his way into Sam's office at half-past midnight, bearer of who-knows-what surprise gifts.
Sam feels obliged to maintain some sort of decent pretext, so he carries on faking the work ethic for a few moments, only nodding a brief acknowledgement of Dan's presence. He's typing gibberish, but nobody else needs to know that. Danny makes it hard to focus. Actually, Danny … makes a lot of things hard. As it were. Would Dana be disappointed to know that? Would Dan? At least two-thirds of the senior staff, Dan included, seem to have nothing better to do than to try to pair Sam off with Dana, apparently for no better reason that he's male, she's female, and they're both unattached. There's no real attraction there. Certainly not on his part – Lori was his one experiment in that direction, and see how that turned out – and no more than perfunctory, for-want-of-anything-better interest on hers.
"What can I do for you this time?" Sam asks at last, making sure to keep his voice carefully neutral.
Dan dumps the sacks on the desk, giving Sam another brief Lori flashback which he brushes off like an irritating fly. "Since you won't come out to Anthony's with us," he announces, "I bring Anthony's to you."
"Dan –" Sam begins warningly, but Dan is pulling out bottles and cans and piling them up in a tidy stack: there's six different brands of soda, there's iced tea, there's water, there's fruit juice …
Apparently, tonight Anthony's is a dry bar. Sam feels his lips give a betraying twitch. He reaches out for a Coke and pretends absorption in popping the lid, watching Dan sidelong as he opens up a can of his own, trying to read the label. "What're you drinking there?" he eventually asks him.
Dan holds up the can: Red Bull. That seems like a recipe for disaster. On his most relaxed day, Dan could give the Energiser Bunny a run for his money (Sam notes the unfortunate rhyme, and lets it go). Add Red Bull to the mix and he'll crank it up to RoadRunner level. Nothing but Ritalin can stop him now, or maybe a swiftly-placed Acme anvil to the skull.
Plus which, Red Bull is pretty vile stuff. "You're not mixing vodka with that?" Sam asks.
Dan blinks and looks down at the can. "Why would I – why vodka?"
"Isn't that what you kids drink nowadays? Red Bull and vodka?" Oh, Sam keeps up with the trends, you betcha!
Dan laughs. He has an intoxicating, infectious laugh, open and full-hearted and free; much like Dan himself, Sam thinks, watching him, watching the curve of his neck and the slope of his shoulders. He thinks, sometimes, that he watches Dan too much, and tries to stop himself (an addict can't take chances!). But over and over again he loses the fight, forgets he's supposed to be fighting, can't recall why he ever thought it mattered.
"Sam," Dan finally says, "I have no more idea than you do what the kids are either up to or down with nowadays. Conceivably, less. Whatever it is, I'm pretty sure that anything I'm doing isn't it." He grins. "I'm past my youth, you know. Hell, I'm practically a geezer. Or whatever. Besides," he adds, "Vodka would totally thwart my cunning scheme."
Sam knows he has to ask.
"You have a cunning scheme?"
"Did I not say?"
"Actually," Sam tells him, "You didn't."
"Oh," Dan says. "Well. I do. I do indeed."
Sam sits back, letting the cold can slide between the palms of his hands which, for some reason, are oddly sweaty. "And this cunning scheme would be - ?"
Dan leans forward. His mouth still curves, but his eyes are huge and luminous and utterly, unmistakeably serious. "I want you to kiss me."
Sam gulps. There are questions to be asked, but this isn't the time. This is the time to think that maybe, just maybe, there really is a god, and then to stop thinking at all. "Oh," is all he says, his voice surprisingly small. And, as Dan leans in toward him, again: "Oh!"
When Dan sits back, he's smiling. Burning, bright.