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Lot's Wife

Chapter Text

The strange thing was, though, that the real problem wasn’t immediately apparent.

True enough, he’d been found in the loo, collapsed in a bloody heap, then rushed to an hospital emergency room. There followed that tragicomic repartee between a doctor and a bodyguard and a news division president and the woman who was certainly not his girlfriend.

He's out of immediate danger, but we're going to have to stop the internal bleeding. We're prepping him for an EGD.
I don't know what that is.<;
They're gonna put a tube with a camera down his throat.<

And as the doctor produced his own television show with the unconscious anchorman, the visibly-displaced EP of Atlantis Cable Network’s flagship show hovered anxiously in the waiting room, wringing her hands and casting indiscreet glances at a wall clock that seemed Dali-esque in its stubborn resistance to actually mark the passage of time.

After an hour of watching MacKenzie pace laps in the incredible shrinking room in which they were the only two occupants, Charlie Skinner finally thundered, “Mac, sit.”

She froze, mid-stride.

“For god’s sake. Dr. Pak said he’d let us know when—“

“Anti-depressants, Charlie,” she began, in a mournful, small voice. “Booze and pain-killers and anti-depressants, and all because of this shit with Brian—because of my history with Brian—because I—“

Charlie raised his voice to talk over her. “The article wasn’t your fault, Mac. Hell, Will brought the guy in, for Chrissakes. And Will self-medicating isn’t your fault, either. Stop being so hell-bent to assume the blame for things that aren’t under your control.”

Reluctantly, she dropped into the chair beside him.

He bumped his shoulder into hers. “Why don’t you call the office and see what’s going on? It might help take your mind off—“

“You mean, see if Anthony Weiner has committed another indiscretion with a smart phone? Even he would have learned by now. There’s nothing—and Jim and Kendra can—“

“I know they can, but, for the record, I’m not worried about Jim or Kendra or even whether there’s a live shot for the A block—I am worried about you, and I want you to take a break. Get out of here for a bit. Walk outside, listen to the birds, visit the market on the corner and pick up a pack of gum.”

“Charlie—“ She obviously intended to wheedle her way out of following his order.

“Now.” He gestured toward the door. “Go. Two hours, I don’t want to see you back for two hours.”

She raised her phone. “You’ll call if they—“

“Yes. Now—go”

With the karmically ironic sense of timing that had permeated all recent events surrounding Will McAvoy, no sooner had Mac complied than the doctor reappeared.

“He’s in Recovery. No complications. With some time—and, of course, assuming he can keep the debauchery to a reasonable level—he’ll be fine.” The doctor offered a slight smile before pausing and shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He was obviously weighing his next words.

Recognizing the hesitation and the trouble it portended, Charlie dropped his chin and raised an eyebrow. “There’s something more?”

Doctor Pak cleared his throat before continuing.

“We’re not sure, but we think it possible that Mr. McAvoy may have struck his head when he fell. Not at all uncommon in this scenario, I should add. In any event, we took the additional precaution of a CAT scan, just to rule out a subdural hematoma.” The doctor noticed Charlie’s widened eyes and spoke more rapidly to ameliorate the concern. “As I said, no cause for alarm—we’re just doing this out of an over-abundance of caution. He probably got a little light-headed from being sick or the blood loss, perhaps lost his balance—“

“But he’s okay, right?” Obviously, Charlie needed the doctor to say those exact words to fully allay concern.

“As far as we can tell right now,” Dr. Pak hedged. “Everything looks normal but we’ll keep an eye on it, just in case. He may have a small bump on his head for a few days.” He gave a sympathetic look. “Given everything else he’s been through tonight, he probably won’t even notice.”

“When can we—“

“We’ll keep him in Recovery for another couple of hours, just to make sure there isn’t an adverse effect from the anesthesia. Another few hours to move him and get him situated in a room.” The doctor shrugged. “Hospitals don’t move at the speed of light with these things, you have to understand.” He checked his wristwatch and then, in an unconscious redundancy, glanced at the waiting room wall clock. “Probably by ten o’clock tonight. But I should warn you—he’s going to be out of it for most of the night. It would be best to come see him tomorrow morning, not tonight.”

Which was exactly what Charlie relayed to MacKenzie.

 

Slightly after nine the following morning, coffee in one hand and three newspapers bulging under his arm, Charlie arrived at the hospital, smug in his sense of having gotten there plenty early. That is, until he saw MacKenzie in close conversation with the scrub-clad doctor.

He came near, his dignity stinging from the lack of reaction to his arrival.

“Good morning, Mac—I’m surprised you’re here so early—“

“Something’s wrong, Charlie—“ she eked out before the doctor shushed her with an impatient glare.

“Nothing to be alarmed about—anyway, we’re not sure. All the vitals are good, everything is as should be expected—“

Mac had recharged by now. “Things are not right. Will is not right, Charlie.”

“He’s awake and lucid,” the doctor maintained, gesturing to the hospital chart in his hand. “But your friend here, Ms.—“

“MacKenzie.’

“—Ms. MacKenzie—“

“No, no.” She slowed down to enunciate each syllable. “McHale. MacKenzie McHale.”

Whatever, the doctor’s expression clearly communicated. “Anyway, your friend here believes there might be a problem—“

“Might? Charlie—“ her eyes tried to carry the weight of her argument.

“Mac, I don’t—“ For Charlie, the obvious thing was to try to allay her concern, even if it meant adopting a patronizing tone. “Why don’t you slow down and tell me—“

“He’s—there’s something wrong, Charlie, something wrong with the way he’s talking. He’s forgotten—no, it’s like he’s mis-remembered—“

Here the doctor took exception and thumped the chart he held. “He’s aware of the date and the year—he can name the president and half the members of the Senate—he perfectly recited the names of the guests and topics discussed on News Night just two nights ago—“ in an aside adding, “I caught that one myself, so I know he was spot-on.”

“The article, Charlie—after weeks of carrying on, suddenly the magazine piece means nothing to him,” she said, putting her hand on Charlie’s sleeve for emphasis. Then, feeling the need to explain to the doctor, she added, “A magazine profile in New York magazine, a hatchet job that mocked everything we've been—well, it was humiliating and he's taken it very personally.”

Charlie and the doctor exchanged glances and the latter shrugged noncommittally.

“Perhaps it didn’t mean as much to him as we thought—“ Charlie mused, trying to convince himself along the way.

“That isn’t all,” she overrode impatiently, then appeared to pick her words carefully. “He doesn’t seem to remember events, important things—“

“Ah,” the doctor tapped his chart. “Possibly some transitory disorientation resulting from that inadvertent knock on the head when he fainted. A dissociative event. But the scan indicated no real trauma, no subdural bleeding or unusual pressure, so—“

“Charlie, he’s still living in 2007.” She locked her arms across her chest protectively.

“The doctor just told us Will passed the current events test.”

“Yes, well, there are a lot of events that are current, and he isn’t up to speed on some of them.”

“Mac.” Charlie looked around for a flat surface to rest his untouched coffee and stack of papers, “I’m trying to follow you but I—“ He spread his hands helplessly and looked back to the doctor to referee the discussion. “I still don’t even know what we’re talking about. Is Will all right or not?”

“I believe he will make a good recovery.” Dr. Pak was determined to stand by his diagnosis.

“That’s hardly a ringing endorsement,” Charlie frowned. “What about what she was saying?”

The doctor sighed and nodded. “I have other obligations this morning, but perhaps you can visit Mr. McAvoy and give us your assessment? I welcome your opinion, however subjective it may be,” he added, “not to dismiss Ms. McHale’s, of course,” he threw back to Mac, “but just simply to add another perspective.”

 

Having debated and discarded several entrance strategies, Charlie finally just nudged the hospital room door open with his hip and entered. He still carried his coffee, long cold by now and still untouched, along with The Times, The Daily News, and The Wall Street Journal.

“Hey, wake up,” he began in mock-belligerent bonhomie. “Wednesday is calling and you’re needed back at the anchor desk.” He inclined his head and waited expectantly.

Will, in the hospital bed, tethered to several gently chirping monitors, turned his face and worked his mouth. After several moments, he finally managed a raspy grunt of acknowledgement.

“Had us worried there for a bit,” Charlie returned, while setting the newspapers on Will’s tray with studied nonchalance. “Mac said you were awake and I thought I’d—“

Will’s gaze was sharp under a clenched brow. “Mac—Charlie, what’s wrong with Mac?”

That took Charlie aback and he fussed with the cold coffee to buy himself a moment. “Mac? I don’t know that anything’s—why, what makes you think—“

Will tried to speak again but seemed to find it difficult, so he motioned to the carafe on the table and Charlie intuited the need to pour some water. He passed the cup to Will, grateful for the pause so he could gather his thoughts and consider the questions to ask that might confirm or dispel worries about Will’s mental health.

Will drank thirstily through a straw, wincing occasionally as he swallowed.

Nothing unusual about that. A raw throat. If not from the vomiting of blood, then likely from forcing a camera down his gullet or from intubation during the corrective procedure.

“How’re you feeling?”

Will milked two beats whilst sucking at the straw, then rumbled, “I should probably sit out the next marathon.”

“Well, you’ll be glad to learn nothing important has happened in the last twelve hours.” Charlie tapped the newspapers. “So, you can afford to take the rest of the week off. In fact, I kind of insist on it.”

“Charlie—“ It was a feeble protest.

“Will, you sound like you’ve been gargling with gravel. I can’t put you on the air.” Pause, then, in a softer tone, “What happened?”

Will visibly hesitated, considered, hesitated again. Finally, he sighed, seeming to acquiesce to other man’s inquiry despite misgivings.

“I was waiting for—you know—and I had a drink—“

“Just one?” Charlie echoed, dubiously.

Will shot him a sour look. “Okay, two. Part of a third. But then I—“

“Didn’t feel so well?”

One side of Will’s mouth twitched up in discomfiture.

“Mac found you—“

“I know.” After a lengthy pause, Will finally grated out, “God. I hate that.” His eyes rolled skyward then back to center. “I hate that she was the one—I mean, there was so much already, what with the Casey Anthony circus—Sloan worrying her about drones and debt—losing the debates—“

“And the magazine article,” Charlie supplied.

Will lifted a hand dismissively. “A little free press for our side that didn’t work out. Oh well.” He shrugged.

Charlie studied Will to see if he was being comic or disingenuous and quickly discounted either possibility. “You really don’t care—“

“I hate that the staff got dragged into it by association—Mac, especially. She deserves better, you know.”

“But you’re not upset about what that guy wrote about you?”

“My own damn fault. In retrospect, I don’t know why I took it so seriously. I mean, I should have vetted him more carefully. In fact, I can’t even remember how I came to consider him, but—”

Charlie had begun to get a niggling feeling. Why was Will being so laissez faire about the journalistic hatchet job, as Mac termed it, in New York magazine?

“I just hope this doesn’t—it would be such a worry for—“ Will started before abruptly changing topic. “You know, she didn’t seem the same earlier—it’s like something—“

This new thread jolted Charlie back to the moment. “Who didn’t seem the same?”

“Mac,” Will rasped with exasperation. “She seemed distant. Reserved, like.”

“Probably just worry on your behalf,” Charlie offered reflexively, before remembering that he really shouldn’t try to put words into Will’s mouth. It could skew any real evaluation of his mental state.

“Christ, Charlie, she jumped a foot when I touched her. She just looked—I don’t know—shocked?” He tried out the word before searching for a better one. “Bewildered? She looked like she’d been confronted with something totally—and I know that she didn’t plan on this happening, me being here—“

A klaxon was now ringing in Charlie’s subconscious. Questions were bubbling up, each one leading inexorably to another. Had Will’s harmful mixing of anti-depressants and alcohol truly been inadvertent? Could it have been deliberate, and, if the latter, what would have been the tipping point? Why was the magazine piece suddenly such a minor thing, when Will had alternately raged and sulked about it for the last two weeks? And why did Will seem so disturbed over Mac’s demeanor?

“Charlie, you’ve got to stop her—”

He was interrupted by a woman in print scrubs pushing a cart into the room. She looked to Charlie as she began untangling leads and said, matter-of-factly, “I’m going to have to request that you wait outside for a few minutes. Time to record some vitals.”

 

Mac was biting her lower lip when she saw Charlie in the corridor. She moved forward to intercept him.

“Well? What did you think? Did everything seem quite normal—“

He took her elbow and steered her back to the now-empty waiting room.

“I think I noticed what you were talking about. Either he’s a better actor than I ever gave him credit for, or he genuinely doesn’t remember—“

“Me.”

“Oh, he remembers you. Just not—not the way we thought he would.“ He stopped and took a new tack. “Has something changed between you two lately? I mean, have you given him some cause to think—“

“No, Charlie, absolutely not. I’m as surprised as you.”

The break in her voice brought home to him her increasing anxiety.

“Mac,” he began, pushing her down into a chair opposite. “He thinks you two are together—“

“I know.”

“—That you’re—“ He made an indeterminable gesture of rolling his hand, seemingly trying to coax more information from her. “Jeeze, Mac, he thinks the two of you are still—“

She gave a tight nod. “Yes. Still.”

He was flummoxed and thought for a moment. “Is it possible it’s his ham-fisted way of saying, Sorry?”

“Sorry?” It came out as a snort. “After I’ve been back for sixteen months—and gone for nearly three years before that—suddenly, now—sorry?”

Charlie gave a weak shrug. “Maybe it was a slow realization on his part. Maybe he got tired of living in armed camps. Maybe the depression had to build to a critical mass, and—“ his eyes brightened as he seized on a likely possibility, “that damned magazine article kicked his ass into gear, in a manner of speaking.”

“Doesn’t explain the last several weeks.” She shook her head. “Charlie, something’s wrong with Will, and the doctor isn’t telling us.”

“Where is the inestimable Dr. Pak? I think we need another conversation and another diagnosis.” He rose and took a few paces before twisting back to look at her.

“One thing, Mac. Just for my own—you know. How did you come to check on Will last night? I mean, what made you think there might be some reason for concern?”

She nodded, eyes bright. “I can’t—not right now—please understand, Charlie.”

Chapter Text

Psychogenic event.

An offhanded comment, hardly a proper diagnosis, from Dr. Pak after Charlie Skinner echoed what MacKenzie had maintained: that something was not right with Will’s memory.

Next came more blood work, the intent of which had been easy to disguise as simple follow up to the esophageal procedure. The neuro-imaging, EEG, and another CAT scan had been harder to pass off to the patient as routine, though, and when Pak brought in a neurologist to consult, the latter met with burgeoning resistance from the sidelined anchor.

Mac, meanwhile, didn’t know whether the best thing (for Will, for his best interests, she always reminded herself, since she felt somewhat at cross-purposes on her own account) was to relate the missing events to him, to re-inflict all the trauma of how their relationship imploded, or to stay silent and enjoy the peace while it lasted. Enjoy the long-missed feeling of Will gazing at her with undisguised adoration and affection.

The new doctor also brought with him a new term.

Dissociative amnesia.

The actual cause of which was, in the absence of standard neurobiological causative factors, something of a local medical mystery. Certainly, Will’s situation—drug and alcohol intoxications, sleep deprivation, possible head injury—prior to the ‘incident’ could mimic symptoms of an amnesic episode.

“Technically speaking,” the new doctor had explained to Mac and Charlie, as he might to children, “the memory isn’t lost. It’s mislaid, bypassed by a new routing of neuronal circuitry. A mislaid memory often can be recovered spontaneously, years or even decades later, triggered by a word or sense memory or anything that causes the bypassed synapse to suddenly begin firing again. In the meantime, your friend might be helped by anti-anxiety medication—perhaps even psychotherapy, although I caution against hypnotism and other aggressive techniques.”

So.

Even if Mac could convince this new Will to return to Dr. Habib for evaluation and treatment, it would doubtless incite confusion for him and awkward questions of her.

Wouldn’t it be better to just allow things to run their course?

The ambiguous nature of the diagnosis may have caused cascading concerns for MacKenzie, but proved a growing source of annoyance to Will, who objected strenuously to a non-physiological diagnosis.

Ruptured esophageal varices were fine, but Psychiatric Disorders?

Not on your life.

“Fuck that! A little too much scotch one night and some quack wants to slap a label on me so he can get his name in a professional journal. We just need to get home, get back to work—resume our lives, Mac.”

Declarations like this ratcheted up MacKenzie’s discomfort, because he obviously didn’t yet comprehend what had been lost. When it came to the two of them, Will was absolutely unaware of any change to their relationship from years earlier. Any confessions, repudiations, or self-imposed exiles. Any absence or return.

It was easy to keep him from discovery while he was in the hospital. He seemed remarkably oblivious to the exchange of glances between his few visitors when they detected peculiar references . He began to sense an incomprehensibly strange reserve in Mac, a moment’s hesitation when he took her hand, a slight waver to her voice, a delay in her conversation.

It was almost as if she was on the verge of telling him something important but couldn’t find the right moment or words.

 

“What’s to worry about?” Slouched in the chair in Mac’s office, Sloan dug her spoon deeper into the cup of yogurt. “This is your Etch-a-Sketch moment. The relationship reset button. So, what you have now isn’t so much a reconciliation as a ‘never parted.’ You can just pick up where you left off.”

“Sloan, there’s a lot to worry about. For one thing—as you well know—there is, floating somewhere in the ether, an emailed confession that was mistakenly sent to 100,000 people—“

“178,000 people,” Sloan corrected.

“Thank you,” Mac returned, without meaning it, and with a glare that suggested she still held Sloan partly to blame for that fiasco. “178,000 opportunities for someone to tell him—“

“No one would, Kenzie.” Sloan tossed the empty cup into the trash. “Most of those people come nowhere near Will’s orbit, so they would never get the opportunity.”

“That only leaves us with the 433 employees here at ACN.”

“Granted—but Will’s the high kahuna at ACN, so how many of those people would actually have the balls to—“

“I can name two right off the top of my head: Reese Lansing and Jane Barrow. Reese would do it just to get into Will’s head, and Jane would do it just to get under my skin. Besides, Sloan, you forget that this information is all in the public arena and Will is a public figure. So, there’s Page 6—professional snark from Tony Hart and his morning crew or professional sabotage from Jane Bar—“

“Mac, how are they going to know there’s a need to fill him in?”

“Also—what happens when he remembers on his own?” Ignoring Sloan’s logic, Mac spun off on another worrisome tangent. What she didn’t commit to words was her anguish at knowing any recovered memory would just hurt him a second time.

“He may not. Didn’t the doctor tell you that sometimes they never—” Sloan searched for a calming phrase, sensing that Mac was walking an emotional tightrope.

“Yes, but for most people the lost memory does return.” Inevitably. And if Will had ever been close to forgiveness, this would close the door forevermore.

She paused for a breath and a new concern. “And there’s the more immediate problem. He’s going to be released tomorrow and he thinks I’m going to take him home and—you know. He thinks we—and I don’t live there and haven’t for years, and he’s going to expect that we do, and I’ve got to—“

“Just play the percentages, Kenz. Right now, he doesn’t remember what broke up the two of you. He’s the same guy you loved four years ago and who loved you. He loves you right now—I mean, I think so, from what you told me. I think you should just roll with this one until—“

“Until?”

There was an uncomfortable beat where neither said anything out loud.

“Well—until you can’t. Until you get called out on it by him. But perhaps by then he’ll be so overwhelmed with new feeling for you that he’ll forgive and forget what happened in the past.”

 

The following morning, Lonny emerged from Will’s apartment and held the door wide.

“S’all clear.”

Will rolled his eyes at the pronouncement and made an indistinct grumble.

“Thank you, Lonny,” MacKenzie said, quickly and with emphasis, so as to override Will’s blatant displeasure at still being under the bodyguard’s protection. Holding Will’s forearm, she steered him past Lonny and over the threshold.

“It’s not as if there’s—“ Will began.

Lonny cut him off with a glare. “You’re in for the day, got it? When you know your schedule for tomorrow—“

“He’ll be staying in tomorrow, too,” Mac volunteered.

“Like hell.”

Lonny gave a quick glance to Will before seeming to dismiss him and his opinion. He looked back to Mac. “Roger that. Call me if anything changes.”

“Things will change,” Will muttered before obediently dropping onto the modern leather-and-chrome sofa Mac had positioned him in front of.

“Thanks for everything, Lonny.” With a sharp, reprimanding look to Will, she went to close the door after the other man’s departure. “He’s just doing the job he was hired for, Will.”

“I didn’t hire him.”

“No, but you’re the beneficiary.”

He made a snorting sound and reached for the TV remote. “You’re confusing me with the Lansings. They’d insure Idi Amin if he could deliver one-point-five million pairs of eyes at eight p.m.”

“Well, Jane’s got the slot for another week—“

“See? A perfectly good analogy.”

It was her turn to snort with amusement. “You may have a point. And Mrs. Lansing did send that very questionable gift basket of spicy condiments.”

“Well, old Leona’s never shied from wearing her heart on her sleeve.” The light banter with Mac seemed so natural. He turned on the TV to ACN, but muted the sound. He’d never liked the grate of the afternoon commentator’s voice.

She paused and studied him with concern. “How about something to eat?”

“I’d rather have a scotch. C’mon, Mac, I just ate a couple of hours ago.”

“Scotch is off the menu indefinitely. And the doctor said you should eat small but frequent meals. It will help your recovery.” She smiled indulgently. “Humor me.”

“That’s what I’ve been doing since—“

She broke it off by proceeding to the kitchen and opening the fridge with an air of authority. “Eggs,” she said as she retrieved them, placing the carton on the counter. “Milk. Butter.”

“Wait—none of that was here when I—“ He trailed after her, reaching to steady himself on the counter, then, with a glare, defying her to comment on his balance (or lack thereof).

“I went shopping yesterday.”

He made another indistinguishable noise and frowned slightly.

She extracted a skillet from a cabinet and turned on a burner. With a practiced air, she produced a bowl, broke two eggs, added a little milk, and began to whisk.

“You seem to know what you’re doing.”

“Why do you sound so surprised?”

He shrugged. “Domestic MacKenzie isn’t something that readily comes to mind—I mean, I don’t—“ He let the words trail off.

“Well. Thanks anyway. And, yeah, I haven’t usually—shit—“ She realized the pan was overheating and moved it from the burner. For a suspended moment, she hesitated over the burner controls.

“Top right,” he offered.

She turned the dial hard, but somewhere in the millisecond it took to retract her hand, she realized that she may have inadvertently but plainly displayed her unfamiliarity with the kitchen. He would be able to divine from her reaction that she was a stranger in his apartment. And although it was a conversation she had planned this afternoon, she had hoped to ease into it gently, not so abruptly.

She brought her eyes to meet Will’s.

“You don’t seem very familiar with—I mean, it seems as though you haven’t—”

“Even I can cook eggs—“ she began, trying to deflect with a bit of self-deprecating humor.

“Oh, I don’t doubt that. It’s just that you haven’t done it here, before.”

That was when she truly realized the gig was up. Her admission took a moment. “No.”

There was a protracted pause in which he looked down, then over his shoulder to the short hallway, then back to her. “And if I go into the bedroom closet right now, I won’t find any of your clothes, will I?”

She, too, paused before finally shaking her head.

“What’s going on, Mac?”

“Will—I—“ She tried to think of words, but none came. She wanted to spare him the hurt of the truth (again), but there was no way to be gentle.

He inhaled deeply and averted his gaze. “I know I screwed up with the meds and the booze. Wish I hadn’t, but there you are.” His mouth hitched up in a wry half-smile. “And I don’t know for sure, of course, but I’m guessing that perhaps the reason why I took that path was because of—us, what’s become of us—it seems obvious that something has—and I don’t understand why this—“

“Billy.” She reached across the counter for his hand. “Nothing is as—hopeless—as you’re imagining—I still care, we’re still—“

He broke his hand from hers and placed his palms on the counter. “Let me get this out, Mac. You’re here, I appreciate that—but I’m just not sure why you’re here. I mean, I feel like I’m in an alternate reality. No, wait—“ he tried to cut her off, before she could try to soothe him out of his worry, as she’d been doing with decreasing success all week, “don’t. Let me finish. You like me, but you don’t love me. Everything is the same as it was, except that you and I are locked in some loop and I can’t figure out what the hell—“

“Dr. Pak said you probably sustained a concussion when you fell—“

“I didn’t fall far and I didn’t fall hard and I’m asking you, Mac. Because I think you know.”

Her phone chirped and she picked it up, grateful for the momentary reprieve. Her heart sank at the name on the screen.

Will couldn’t miss her expression. “Something bad? Is it work?”

“Not good,” she agreed grimly, “but it can wait.”

Nina Howard.

“In the hospital, I couldn’t figure it out so I Googled you.” He held up his smart phone to display the technical capability, oblivious to her sharp intake of air.

Oh god—what if he found the email?

“Sort of Googled, that is,” he amended. “There were a lot of entries but the screen was too little to read details, so I just looked at your company bio. You returned to ACN in 2010 after an absence of about 30 months. Evidently did great things for CNN while you were with them. Quite a resume.” He quirked his mouth. “That’s the part I can’t remember, you being gone. And the way I—the way I feel about you—it really seems like I should. Like you being gone would be a big gaping hole in my—so I guess my big question is—“

Here it comes—

“Why did you leave?” His expression was guileless and as pleading as she’d ever seen and it ripped at her heart. “And more importantly—to me, now, anyway—why did you come back?”

Chapter Text

Despite his protestations, Will began to look unsteady by the time he had pushed the eggs (which she had insisted on making anyway) around on his plate, managing only the minimum number of mouthfuls to satisfy her.

“I think I need to lie down for a few minutes.” Pushing up from the counter, he swayed slightly. The room seemed overly warm and bright, and the smell of cooked food had turned unpleasant.

MacKenzie hurried to grab his elbow and try to stabilize him. “Where? Bedroom or –?”

“Doubt if you could navigate us there, so I’ll settle for the couch.” One side of his mouth hitched up wryly.

She guided him slowly back to the living area and helped him recline on the sofa, feet up.

“Blanket?”

“No.” His voice betrayed growing annoyance. “No warm milk, either.”

She nodded and locked her arms, but stood gazing down at him.

“You don’t have to do that.”

“What?”

“What you’re doing.” He flipped his open hand in her direction. “Hover.”

She took a deep breath and plunged back in. “Will. There isn’t an easy answer to your question—your earlier question.”

“Which?”

“Both.” She folded herself into the chair opposite, palms rubbing anxiously over the front of her skirt. “”In retrospect, it was—a good thing—that I left when I did. Let’s say it was by mutual accord.”

“Mutual—“ he echoed, uncertainly.

“Yes, mutual.” It was only a small untruth. “We needed a break in the relationship so—“

“—So you ran off to the front line of an active war,” he completed for her, ensuring the phrase sounded appropriately reductive and ironic.

“At the time, I’m not sure I considered the destination as—“

“—As important as the need for departure?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure you just didn’t want to break up with—“

“Will.” She met his eyes, determined to confront him and end this ridiculous sniping. “I’m sure. And stop this.”

He faltered first, swallowing and breaking his gaze.

“So why’d you come back?”

“Needed a job.” Shrugged. “Needed—“

“—To see me?”

“Oh, yes.” That part slipped out helplessly, but her chin came up in an unconscious gesture of defiance as she weighed adding more information. All of the words seemed so trite and the excuses so weak and transparent. The whole moment between them seemed so precarious and she didn’t want to screw this up.

Again.

“Get some rest.” She moved the bottled water and TV remote to the coffee table, so that they were accessible from where he lay. “I have a couple of meetings, but I’ll be back in a few hours to check on you.”

 

As soon as she left the lobby of Will’s building, Mac returned Nina Howard’s call. She had no idea what the doyenne of gossip wanted of her, and little desire to meet with her, but she needed the intelligence [if that was the right word] of knowing what Nina knew (or suspected) right now.

The timing of Nina’s call was simply too coincidental. Will’s memory loss had somehow gotten out, and Nina must be tracking down leads, searching for the sordid details.

So when Mac reached the food truck at 59th and 5th, she looked anxiously for Nina.

As if on cue, the sinuous blond appeared. The pernicious Nina Howard.

“Why did you want to meet me, Nina?”

“Walk with me, MacKenzie,” Nina said, gliding forward. “I’m under deadline, you know what that’s like, and I have a story I don't want to write.”

“Then, don't write it.”

Nina shot her a fish-eyed glance before continuing. “Will was just released from the hospital—“

“That isn’t classified information.” Mac tried to maintain her guard. “Even the hospital would be able to confirm that much.”

“But they couldn’t confirm why he was admitted in the first place.” Nina stopped and turned to face MacKenzie directly. “Was Will hospitalized for an adverse reaction to vertigo medicine—“ her voice dripped with sarcasm, “—or was it an overdose? And, if it was the latter, was it deliberate?”

Vertigo medicine? Surely Charlie hadn’t resorted to that old chestnut when explaining why Will was off the air for a week.

Mac took a deep breath, stalling while she tried to determine if Nina’s misunderstanding of the actual situation was a good thing or simply a not-as-bad-as-what-she’d-imagined thing. In an unconscious diversionary tactic, she began walking again and Nina fell into step alongside.

“My source says it was an overdose of narcotics—“

“Nina, you were lied to. It was the interaction between several legitimately prescribed medications—“

“I have a pedigreed source, MacKenzie—the kind even you would believe.” She appeared to be calculating. “My source intimated something else, too—that the night of May 1st, the night we got bin Laden—was Will high on the air?”

“Who the hell told you that?” Now, Mac was choking with vehemence. “God damn it, Nina, this is a lie. What would make even you believe—“

The barb clearly registered with Nina although she didn’t remark upon it. But a sudden look of satisfaction crossed Nina’s face and she stopped and faced Mac. “I’d be inclined to give my source the benefit of the doubt since he was clearly right about something else—“

“What was that?”

“You’re still in love with him.” The blond woman was amused. “Will, I mean. It’s touching—in a sort of pathetic way—wearing your heart on your sleeve—and after the way he’s treated you since you came back—the lack of respect he shows you in the newsroom—“

“We have nothing but damned harmony in our newsroom, so I don’t know what you mean.” Mac realized she was now sputtering in anger. She hoped it was convincing. “You’re making wild assertions and you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, I think I do. I saw that throwaway disclaimer in New York Magazine, the one about you and that writer having ‘known’ each other for years. Exactly the kind of line that tries to conceal the cruelty of old lovers who are trying to inflict damage on current lovers.” Pause. “But Brenner trying to jerk your chain isn’t what this is about—“

“What is this about?” Mac’s voice was tense and had climbed slightly in pitch.

“I'm trying to help you.”

“Oh?” Archly. “With trashy innuendo?”

Nina cut her off. “Whatever little triangle exists between you and Will and that writer—well, that’s an intellectual puzzle for me, but it isn’t why I called you.”

“You’ve told me twice now what this wasn’t about—when are you going to finally say what it is about?”

“MacKenzie, you’re not here to stop my story. You’re just here to help me pick which one to run with: Will McAvoy, drug addict, or Will McAvoy, suicidal?”

“But neither of those is true.“

“I have a deadline and column inches to fill, so unless something juicier comes over the threshold between now and—“ she consulted her watch, “—three-thirty, one of those stories will make it to press.”

“You know I would never—“

“I guess I’d probably vote for the deliberate overdose story,” Nina ran on, ignoring Mac’s protestation. “Drug addiction isn’t as salacious as it used to be, and a suicide attempt lends such a nice, tragic air. Plus, that magazine article made him sound a little unstable emotionally, which would make it seem all the more plausible.”

Nina turned and looked back to where Mac had stopped in wordless dismay.

“Let’s say I had a strong suspicion you wouldn’t confirm.” Nina smiled, a wry, bemused half-smile. “But we girls ought to stick together—“

She seemed oblivious to Mac’s sudden expression of distaste.

“—So I’m giving you a heads up. You’ve got a mole in your newsroom, girlfriend.” She turned her face away. “Keep walking. It’s good exercise, and you should get outside more often, MacKenzie. I'm gonna cross the street now.”

 

Nina’s revelations and that oh-so-thinly-veiled threat to publish something unflattering to Will left Mac unsettled and preoccupied when she got back to the newsroom. She had to ask Jim to repeat the litany of information he’d recited only moments before.

“Anthony Weiner is resigning his House seat—there’s unconfirmed speculation he’s going into rehab. Drone strike in al-Waer—seven dead.”

“Who was the target?”

“Still looking for confirmation, but the money is on Abu Azzam.” He shook his head. “We could follow up on the AUMF—“

Mac made a cutting motion with her hand. “Jane can’t carry that off. Get Mike Tapley for an examination of the military value of unmanned strikes. What else?”

“David Cameron has ordered an investigation into the News of the World hack.” Jim glanced up for an editorial aside. ”Sloan told me the stock is in freefall, so Murdoch’s gotta be beside himself.” Then he resumed. “The New York state legislature okayed gay marriage by a vote of 33 to 29. South Sudan became a new nation; Salva Kiir, with two I’s, by the way, is the president.” He looked up from his notepad. “When is Will—?“

“He was just discharged today—it’ll be another couple of days, at least. Jane will have to—“

“I’ll give everyone the good news,” Jim muttered grimly.

“What’s the cover story?”

Jim shrugged. “The staff know he was hospitalized a few days ago—food poisoning is what we were told, officially—mainly for Jane’s benefit, I think, so she doesn’t start redecorating the set or anything.” He leaned over her desk and pointed. “Mac, there are a few things you need to initial—overtime for the union editor on the DSK story.”

She flipped through papers to find the timesheet he indicated.

“Oh, and there’s a couple of little HR things—“

She looked up at the change to Jim’s tone.

“—Both minor, nothing to really worry about. Little personnel conflicts.”

“Go on.”

“Well, Jane wants her name in the title for the duration.”

“News Night with Jane Barrow?” Mac repeated, incredulously.

“Yeah.”

“Out of the question. Even if Will didn’t have the contractual prerogative, it’s still simply out of the question.”

“She’s threatened to take it to Charlie.”

“Let her. He’ll tell her the same thing—more colorfully.”

Jim stifled a laugh, imagining Charlie’s language.

“What else?”

“Really, it’s minor. But—Neal caught one of the interns being careless with information—“

“Careless—how do you mean?”

“Looking at some stuff he didn’t have the need to see—“

“Information about Will?”

“Yeah.” Jim’s hands came up to his hips in a characteristic pose of perplexity. “How’d you guess?”

She didn’t even pause to consider. “Cut him loose.”

“Mac, really, it’s a little thing, we can handle this in house—just stars in his eyes, his first brush with celebrity, that sort of—“

“Today.” She leaned forward. “Get him out of the newsroom.”

Jim was unprepared for the intensity of Mac’s order and he hedged again. “Honestly—I don’t think he meant harm and—“

“Jim, I’m not going to argue this. I want him gone. Someone has been leaking sensitive information from here, from where we work, and I can’t chance whoever this person is. Give him a soft landing, if you want, if you think he deserves it—dayside can probably take him—but get him out of my newsroom post haste.”

“Sure, Mac. Will do.” He hesitated. “So, are you back tonight or—“

“I’m going to ask you to hold the fort for one more night. Will’s first night back at home, and I want to make sure he has what he needs.”

“Roger that.”

“And get somebody researching voter suppression. Redistricting, voting laws, registration, election procedures. Will wants to take this on as soon as he returns.”

Jim nodded and turned, only to whip back around before he got to the door, his cell in hand. “Uh oh—celebrity death. We’ll probably throw that in the C block, unless you think—“

“No, I won’t second guess you.” Of course. The death of a celebrity was news, and the younger the celebrity, the newsier. Mac sighed. “Have someone pull the obit package and check that it’s been updated.”

“Yeah. Oh, and Charlie wants to see you.”

 

“Jim said you wanted me?” MacKenzie eased in the door.

“How’s the patient?”

She sank into the leather chair across from Charlie’s desk.

“He’s home and—confused.”

“Still missing a few details? Well. Sometimes, I wish I could take a little break from facts, too.” He stacked and squared papers on his desk, the recent issue of New York Magazine topmost, and pushed them to the far edge of the glass.

“Any fall-out from that,” she nodded to the magazine, “upstairs?”

“No problem from Reese, of course—he’s okay if people watch us just to deride us, as long as they watch us. Strictly a revenue perspective from him. And,” he sighed, “at times like this, I appreciate the consistency of his point-of-view. But Leona? She may try to disguise it, but she takes pride in ACN, and she wasn’t amused to see her star anchor roasted in print.”

Might as well get the bad news out of the way.

Mac took a deep breath. “I got a call today from Nina Howard. She dumped a lot of information—I’m still not completely sure what her angle is—but she talked about doing a story that says Will is either a drug user or suicidal, and that’s how he wound up hospitalized.”

Charlie’s eyebrows hoisted.

“There’s more,” Mac said, beginning to sound (and feel) apologetic. “She said she had learned that Will had been high on the air the night we did the bin Laden story.”

“That’s not true.”

Mac winced. “Yes, it is—he enjoyed some mild hallucinogenics the night of the party at his place—although, obviously, he didn't know he was gonna have to be on the air later that night.”

“He was high for bin Laden? But he killed it that night.”

“I don't know what to tell you. He's a savant.” Then, seeming to muse to herself, “Perhaps an idiot sav—“

“Who else knew?”

“A few folks in the newsroom who were at the party, but there's no way they went to Nina. I already spoke to them. We think it might have been the summer intern who learned about it second hand. I told Jim to get him out of the office.”

Charlie stayed quiet, obviously chewing over Mac’s words.

“This is it, right? This is what Reese and Leona will use to justify firing Will.”

“Yeah. Very possibly.” He swallowed and looked unhappy. “Nina—when does the hammer fall?”

She leaned forward. “That’s the thing, Charlie. Nina seemed more interested in running with the allegations about Will’s hospitalization.”

“Low hanging fruit? The easier story to place in the public mind? I mean, it’s still current, because he hasn’t returned to the anchor desk yet, and it was reported previously that he had been hospitalized.”

“Yes, and for the record, even Nina Howard saw through the ‘vertigo medicine’ trope,” Mac noted.

“Well, it’s certainly better for us if she gloms onto the hospitalization. Let her throw the vitriol on that, then we can authoritatively refute it. Perhaps even bring out the exasperated physician, get a little righteous indignation. It puts us on defense, but not as bad as the other story would be.”

“I hate to have to see him go through this. There’s been such a string of humiliations and disappointments—the debates, the magazine article, being hospitalized, the other—“ She stopped abruptly and took a breath before continuing. “I mean, he’s been so down.”

Something in Mac’s words made Charlie frown.

“Have you told him yet?”

Pulling back defensively, she allowed, “I told him what I had to—what he was figuring out anyway—that we aren’t living together, that we aren’t together and haven’t been for a while. Thanks to Google, he already figured out that I had been out of country for a few years.”

“But you haven’t told him why the two of you aren’t—“

“Charlie.” She made a frustrated groan. “It didn’t seem—kind—“

Kind? Of course, it isn’t kind. To hurt someone deeply and get to do it twice—“

She made a small squeaking noise.

“Mac, I’m no shrink, but it seems as though he’s cherished some image of the two of you, subconsciously, even despite what transpired. Nobody would want to dash that kind of—and especially not, feeling the way you obviously still—what I’m getting to is that you may have to be cruel to be kind, if you know what I mean.“

After a few moments of silence, he resumed. “You’ve still never told me how you happened to think to check on him that night.”

Her expression cut him off.

“Yeah. I get it. I’m not cleared for that level of access.” He laced his fingers and looked down at the palms. “You back tonight?”

“If you don’t mind—I thought I’d let Jim take it one more night. Will’s first night out of hospital and all, you know.” She remembered something. “Oh, Jim said something about Jane wanting her name in the title for the duration and that she intended to bring it to you.”

“Haven’t heard anything yet.” His mood lightened visibly. “And I so enjoy disappointing her. But Will’s contract is pretty clear on that point, that his name stays on the show unless he consents otherwise.”

“Well, I’ll sit in on the final rundown then head out.” She nodded and rose. “Charlie—“ she paused, trying to summon the right question, “Will’s contract—is it the same as last year’s—“

“Same, same. Probably has another seven or eight months to run, I think, although we’ll likely start some preliminary negotiations at the six month mark. All this hospitalization and magazine articles must be worrying Will’s agent.”

“So, he still has the stipulation about the being able to—“

“—Fire his EP at the end of each week?” he completed for her, sensing where this was leading. “Yeah. I think that’s still in there.”

She forced a smile. “I need to—“ and pointed to the door.

Charlie allowed her the dignity of the departure she obviously wanted.

 

Fearing encountering anyone on the elevator, Mac proceeded down the corridor to the heavy door leading to the stairwell. Her heart was thudding and she wasn’t sure she could hold it together until she reached sanctuary.

Knowingly or unknowingly, Charlie continued to put his finger on the crux of her dilemma.

Should she continue to hide the past, knowing it would probably, eventually, be revealed anyway?

Or should she tell Will—tell him again the hurtful thing she’d first told him that morning four years ago?

Was it better to enjoy the restored look of love and wait for probable disaster—

—Or preempt remembered pain by inflicting it new again?

And her question about Will’s contract had tipped her hand that she was searching for an exit strategy, if things got bad. Again.

She pushed her back against the door, hands alongside, and took several shaky breaths.

A few days earlier, Will suffering a most significant memory loss made her feel as though she’d been given a get-out-of-jail-free card.

And now she was about to tear it up.

So she had to wonder: what was the punishment going to be this time?

Chapter Text

Five Days Earlier

The Brian Brenner piece in New York Magazine dominated the July 11th issue.

It immediately became the pachyderm in the newsroom. Nobody wanted to acknowledge it. Nobody wanted to meet Will’s eyes during rundown meetings, and no one lingered in his presence, lest awkwardness take over.

Will just hunkered down, minimized his presence, limited his conversations with staffers.

Charlie Skinner tried to lighten the atmosphere with a few folksy platitudes and, when that didn’t work, resorted to liquor. His stalwart cure for everything.

By Friday night of the second week, Will disappearing up to Charlie’s office had become a routine. Ostensibly, they were dissecting the night’s show, but it didn’t take much imagination to understand that a certain amount of liquid consoling might be taking place.

So, by the time Will tottered into Hang Chew’s that night, the rest of the crew had already been there for a couple of hours, long enough to dispatch plates of unsavory tuna jerky and contemplate karaoke and, finally, begin drifting away in ones and twos. Mac, who had been keeping company with Kendra and Tess, had just taken a final pour of an inoffensive Cab when Jim nudged her on his way to the door.

“Mac, can I—?”

“I’m fine. On my way in a few minutes myself.”

“I just thought—“

“I can handle my liquor.” Okay, a little too loudly, indignation showing, which might seem to justify his concern. “I’m fine, really. But thanks for asking.”

He nodded at the bar. “I see Will finally made it. So much for esprit de corps.”

“Leave him be. He’s had a really shitty week.”

“Yeah.” He cast a look at the bar then back to Mac. “Well. Tomorrow, then.”

As soon as he disappeared, Mac grabbed her stemmed glass and made for the bar, determined to ambush the elusive anchorman.

“You missed everyone,” she breathed, before discerning from his expression that that had been his plan all along. She recalibrated. “Although I’m somewhat surprised to see you here. Isn’t the booze better in Charlie’s office?”

He gave her a glance, then returned to studying the back of the bar. “It is, actually.”

“Then, why are you here?”

As she’d told Jim earlier, she’d certainly recognized that Will had had a bad week—from losing the debates to the magazine whack job—so she didn’t want to needle him too much. But he was being just a tad too remote, a tad too aloof. She needed to provoke some reaction to restore normalcy.

“Honestly, Will. You skip socializing with the staff most nights, and the one night you finally make it here, you get here too late and too-too to interact with these people. Any of whom, by the way, would instantly go to bat for you.”

He lifted his glass and turned it from side to side, allowing the liquor to trace through the ice. “What makes you think I wasn’t waiting for your little coterie to depart?”

What the hell was that supposed to mean?

“Will.” She hesitated. “I’m sorry about the article.”

“No reason for you to be. This one is all on me.” He rolled his eyes. “Watching the whole debate proposal disintegrate. Piling into the gutter with CNN and the others on stories that were never worthy of the airtime.” He shook his head. “Then, the kid at the end of Camelot—my great conceit. I really misjudged that one.”

She found some righteous indignation on his behalf. “There isn’t—there shouldn’t be any shame in playing to nobler intentions, Will. I always admired that about you, that you were so willing to—“

“—Allow myself to be publicly castigated for idiotic idealism?”

“I was going to say, to stand up for crucial social norms and standards. There’s nothing wrong with idealism.”

He grunted.

“Besides, you have to admit that a certain amount of that venom was aimed at me. Brian was never magnanimous in defeat.” She huffed a half laugh at the ridiculous understatement. “So, I’m sorry for my inadvertent part in—well, this week. Everything that’s happened,” she added, dully.

Several moments of silence passed.

“Mac, I’m just about drunk enough to say this out loud—“

That frightened her a bit. She didn’t want him to say anything that couldn’t be walked back in the morning. They still had to work together—she wanted to continue work with him. Intuitively, she knew that she would probably have greater cause to regret anything he said, however ill-considered or intemperate, than he would.

“Let’s not—not tonight—please don’t say anything you’re going to regret,” she batted back, as lightly as she could, because the last thing she needed was to come across as truculent. That would be the wrong sort of provocation.

“Regret? Oh, I won’t regret it.” He gave the liquor another swirl. “I’ve been—uh, learning to live without you—“

Preamble to cutting her loose again, perhaps?

She strained to suss out where he was going.

Then, after a few seconds of empty air and apropos of nothing else, he added, “And you’ve been hard to get over, Mac.”

There it was.

Get over.

Like a cold. Like pneumonia.

Like plague.

Over.

Like, fin. Kraj. Ende.

Done.

After a corresponding pause on her end, she swallowed and finally managed, “But you have.”

He didn’t say anything. Threw back the dregs of his drink.

“C’mon. I’ll give you a lift home.”

“That isn’t necessary.” A certain necessary pride required that she decline the apparent condescension in his offer. “I can walk, it’s barely a half dozen blocks.”

He gave her the look, then pointedly shifted his gaze down to the Louboutins.

Then, he slipped the cell phone from his breast pocket and tapped the button for his driver.

She wasn’t sure how she should respond. Pride dictated that she skip the ride home (even though he had a point about the impracticability of the footwear) but the very fact that he seemed concerned enough to offer—well, perhaps it warranted hanging around…

She wet her lips and looked back to her pumps on the dirty barroom floor, and she could hear him exhale.

“I’m—uh—I’m sorry—I’m sorry I brought him in.”

Her head snapped up.

“—Sorry, I—uh, you know.” He pushed away his glass and stood up from the bartstool. “Not for me—I mean, I got what I—but the story—that fucking magazine—well, I’m sorry for them,” he nodded after long-departed staffers, “you were right, and they don’t deserve having that tied around their collective necks—and you—“ He broke off. “I guess somewhere I was thinking that you might compare us and find—that maybe it would be obvious—and you would know—“ His voice trailed off and he exhaled heavily again. “But maybe he and I were the really same thing all along.”

“You aren’t.”

He shrugged, plunging his hands into his pockets and rifling the contents. “Maybe you’re just hammered, Mac.”

“Too many maybes. And, for the record—I am not,” she returned with some vehemence. “I am not drunk at all, I just accompanied my staff—“

“Yeah, yeah. Accompanying them being a good way to disguise what you’re doing to yourself.”

“They work hard, Will, and they deserve to let off a little steam—“

“You work hard, too, MacKenzie—that’s just what you do. But what you never think about is that some things have to be given, not earned.”

“You must need some sleep, Will, because you aren’t making sense—“

“Forgiveness, Mac. It isn’t earned—it’s just given.”

Her breath caught in her throat. Perhaps he wasn’t as inebriated as she thought.

His phone chirped and he glanced at the face.

“Car’s here. C’mon,” he said, reaching for her elbow, prepared to be forceful if necessary. “Time to go home.”

She allowed him to lead her out of the club and to the curb, allowed him to let her scoot across the back seat before he crowded in beside her. He gave her address to the driver, and she was mildly surprised that he knew it at all.

They were quiet for the seven block transit. When the car reached the destination and pulled up to the curb, Will swung out and held the door for her, then leaned over to impart some instructions to the driver. He turned back to her.

“Really, Will—this isn’t necessary, we’re in midtown—“

But he waited patiently while she keyed the passcode into the box and he followed her into the building.

“Perfectly safe, there’s no need for this,” she maintained, with decreasing volume, on the ride up in the uncomfortably snug elevator car. “I mean, I appreciate—“

Then, she was digging through her bag for keys.

Still no response from Will, but when she looked up she noticed he was staring at her in an unusual way. Slightly reminiscent of—

No. It was the liquor. She knew it had to be the liquor, so she discounted that old feeling.

In a swift, fluid movement, he leaned nearer.

“Why have you stayed? My rational mind tells me there is simply no good reason for you to have stuck it out this last year.”

“I don’t—“ Careful, she told herself. You really shouldn’t make admissions at this moment, on too little sleep and too much alcohol and the air, just the faintest air, of something different. Humor seemed the best tack. “Beats a war.”

She caught the realization of something previously unconsidered as it passed over his face. Obviously, he had never conflated the two, his newsroom and a warzone, and the parallels that could be made—trip wires, explosions, personal hazard.

To dilute the impact, she confessed a truth long hoarded. “I just kept reminding myself it was the only way I could be around you.”

She made an awkward attempt at a smile and flashed a key. “Thanks again for—“

Suddenly, he leaned in and pressed his lips to hers, the knuckles of his right hand idly tracing along her jawline. It was a considered kiss, unrushed and reverential.

But the whole gesture took her aback and, to even her own surprise, she pushed him away and inched backward. She’d always found it was best to err on the side of caution.

“This mightn’t be a good—I mean, we’ve both had a lot to drink and—and—“

She paused, unable to commit the last part to words. Because tomorrow you’ll remember how I wrecked your life.

“Ask me in.”

That was the moment that jolted her to sobriety.

She put her hand on the doorknob and turned.

Then, behind them, the door closed in two distinct syllables.

Chapter Text

Bringing Will up to speed was going to be hard, but it had to be done. She’d cemented her courage—and no small amount of resignation—during the cab ride from ACN to Will’s place.

She dug deep for the best Panglossian take on the whole matter. Despite the inevitable and predictable fallout, she had to tell him. He would be hurt, again, but this time he’d surely have to recognize that confessing had been a veritable Hobson’s choice. She never intended the hurt; it just came along with wanting to be honest. And wishing to spare Will the knowledge simply wasn’t realistic—or even practical—in a world with Nina Howard, Google, and radioactive emails.

It might take some time, but they could work through it. This time.

After all, they had been so close to actual communication the other night.

“Ask me in.”

 

Inside was just three feet beyond the threshold and there was no light beyond the ambient light through the windows and everything was sudden carnality, Will pressing his mouth to hers in a hungry kiss that instantly relit memories of touch and taste and smell.

This wasn’t expected. This had never been on the program for the evening, even when he had suggested bringing her home or had begun peculiar conversation.

But he was pressing her against the interior wall now, and she just fell into the kiss, made pliant and submissive by either the alcohol or the sheer surprise of Will behaving in this way. His hands at first had gripped her shoulders, holding her in place, but, gradually, one slid up to cradle the back of her head.

He finally moved his mouth from hers, roving down her neck in teasing nips. Meanwhile, she pushed her nose into his skin, heady with his scent and wanting to immerse herself in it.

When his head came back up, he paused and drew back a few inches, seeming to gauge her reaction. Then, he slowly began a new kiss, gentler, the restraint itself indicating contemplation and greater depth of feeling.

When he pulled back, he seemed amused. “Have I confused you, MacKenzie?”

“Con—you might say that.“ She stopped. Disbelief and, yes, confusion creased her face. “What you said before—are you saying—“

He seemed to grimace and ground the heel of his hand against his chest. “Earlier, I wanted –but you left right after the show and I had to—fuck, this is going to take time, I can’t get around all this in the space of ten minutes.“

“Ten minutes?”

“I just sent the driver around the block a few times.” He shrugged and made a sheepish smile. “Wasn’t sure how this might go. Can I have a glass of water?”

“Of course.” She moved to the kitchen, so grateful for the momentary distraction that she forgot his half-begun sentence, and filled a glass from the refrigerator dispenser. As she turned to take it to him in the other room, he loomed nearby, obviously having followed her.

He took a sip and swallowed gingerly. “What I’m trying to say—again—is that I’d like to give us another chance. And maybe I need you to—crumble—just a bit. Let me in. I don’t know what may have changed since that message I left a few months ago, or if anything has. And even though I told you that you could just ignore it if you weren’t interested— you could have, you know, given me some signal, some idea—I mean, I’ve taken all the initiative here, and—“

He stopped and shook his head as if to clear it. “And if you aren’t—well, then, I guess I need to actually hear your no.” His mouth twisted with irony. “ ‘S kind of pathetic that I can’t seem to say anything unless I’m stoned, right?”

“Initiative?” The injured tone riled her. “I haven’t hidden what I’ve felt,” she got out before realizing that was exactly what she had done. She’d put up a good front, been a good soldier, taken the whatever hits a spurned lover had chosen to deal out without seeking real dialogue. She retrenched slightly, maintaining, “I don’t know what you mean, Will. In fact, I never know where I stand with you, except that it’s always on uneven ground.”

For several protracted moments, neither spoke.

Finally, Will finished the water, swallowing with evident effort. He set the glass on the counter.

“Good idea, I think, for us to talk, Mac. Probably a bad idea to talk after what we’ve consumed tonight. I’m feeling like maybe I should lie down for a bit—the room is kind of spinning and—“ Then he spoke more quickly to head off any inevitable concern, “We can continue this in the morning, or we can agree to forget it, if you’d rather—“

“I love you, Billy,” she blurted, conscious of having blown all her emotional reserve.

He reached for her hand, reeled her to him, wound his arms around her.

But when she drew back to see him, she was surprised that he was wincing.

With a pained look and no further explanation, he made for the door.

 

Purposefully, she exited the taxi and breezed into 2 Hudson, returning Manny’s amiable wave of acknowledgement.

Once in the lift, however, her mind snapped back to the dilemma at hand and her optimism began to fail.

This would be even worse than before, because of the time that had elapsed. She would have to tell him everything—everything from four years ago. Plus the indignity of that scattershot email. And all the revelations would just rip the bandage off Brian Brenner’s most recent felony, the total professional humiliation of Will McAvoy in the customary Georgia font, 13.5 pitch, of New York Magazine.

Sloan was so, so wrong. This wasn’t a second beginning. It was a second apocalypse.

Will’s apartment was dimly lit as she entered. She could hear the ACN fanfare faintly ringing from the one of the wall-mounted televisions, but it took a moment for her eyes to find him, in a chair facing the sliding door to the terrace. He was reclined with his guitar in his hands, idly strumming.

He looked around at her entry.

She suddenly felt as though she was about to drown a puppy.

“Feeling better?”

He swung the guitar down to rest on the floor. “Yeah. Everything okay at work?”

“Well, Jane’s leading a course in mutiny and sedition, but apart from that, everything is wonderful.” She forced a smile.

“Jane’s being Jane. All the more reason for me—“

She rushed forward, hand extended to caution him back. “You just got home this morning, Will, you shouldn’t push it.” Her phone pinged and she glanced at it and then back to Will. “Jim. You mind? I’ll be quick.”

He made a perfunctory nod and she took the phone to the other room.

“Mac? Hey, I wanted to update you on a couple of things. Our man with the Romney campaign has had a little mishap—“

“Define mishap, please.”

“Broke his ankle.”

“Should I ask how, or—“

“Um. I wouldn’t. Not right now. But we’re going to have to send someone to New Hampshire to cover for him.”

“Okay, come up with a list of names and we’ll bat it around tomorrow. What else?”

“As threatened, Jane went to Charlie about her name in the title.”

“He told me he wouldn’t budge.”

“Judging from her sulk, I’d say he didn’t. But please tell me Will is coming back soon so we can ship this drama queen back to D.C.”

“Soon,” she promised, throwing a glance at where he sat in the living room, having returned the guitar to his lap.

“Oh, and that HR thing I mentioned to you earlier—it’s sort of resolved itself.”

“How?”

“I had worked out something with dayside, some place he could go—and I was going to let Neal handle it, you know, to give him some experience with this sort of thing, but David—“

“David?”

“Yeah, the intern. He just quit. Probably a good thing, because from some of the things Neal’s told me since, he was so wrong for us. Erratic—high strung, and spiteful for no apparent reason. I can’t even say how he made it here, he doesn’t have the traditional J-school profile.” He paused. “And there ordinarily wouldn’t be any reason for me to bother you further about this sorry tale of misbehavior and hurt feelings except that—“

Now she was on her guard.

“He evidently had been feeding some stuff to one of the gossip rags. Specifically, TMI.”

“About Will.”

“About the both of you.” He paused, and she could picture him running his hand through his perpetually uncombed hair. “But I think Will and/or you may have dodged the bullet. Amy Winehouse died today.”

It was repugnant to feel relieved by a chance tragedy to someone else, but she did. Some singer died, and all the tawdry implications of celebrity excess would be grafted onto that sad tale.

Well. Better hers than Will’s.

“You did right, Jim.” He was obviously still looking for some sort of benediction. “I’ll be in by ten tomorrow morning, and we’ll go over everything then.”

“Sure. Tell Will to get better. That magazine article was just trash-by-the-numbers.”

“It was. And I will.”

She disconnected and went back to the other room. She briefly considered toeing off her shoes as she passed the entryway, but decided to remain more formal. After all, she might soon be unceremoniously shown the door (déjà vu), and nothing made an urgent exit more awkward than a lack of shoes.

As she reentered the room, he gave a wry little smile and pushed back in his chair. “Fires out?” Then, “Why don’t you pull up an iceberg and talk to me.”

Iceberg? Was that a sarcastic comment on what he perceived as her unexplained reserve?

But there was no malice in his mien, so she affected a cheerful tone.

“I’m glad to see you playing again,” she said, indicating the guitar. “I remember you tried to teach me a few chords, but I was too stupid—“

“You wouldn’t practice. You thought it would come easy.”

That stung. Particularly since it could be interpreted to include other areas of her life.

“Here’s one you could do,” passing the instrument to her. “A minor.” He waited as she tried to recall the fingering. “Almost. Index finger here.” He moved her finger to the correct position. “Good. Four strums. Now, to C—move your ring finger up to third fret.”

She made a self-conscious face and tried to push the guitar away. “Will, I think—“

“Okay, now—you remember F.”

“Actually, no, I don’t—“

“I’ll show you.” He manipulated her fingers into a contortion she was certain she’d never attempted before.

“Hurts.”

“Always does, at first. You get used to it.”

“Honestly, Will—“

“E7—that’s an easy one, just two fingers, here and here. Finish the phrase on A. Now, let’s try it in tempo—equal emphasis on each chord—c’mon, Mac. A minor—“

With obvious reluctance, she made a hesitating attempt.

“—C, bring that ring finger up—now F again—“ He adjusted her fingering. “Okay, now to E7. Finally, to A.”

He nodded. “Once more.”

She lost her time and rushed a measure to catch up.

“Slow down—nice and easy.”

She stopped and made a half-hearted smile. “I told you. No musical talent here.” She held out the guitar until he took it back.

“Are you hungry yet? I can call out for something.“

“You just fed me a few hours ago.”

“The doctor said—“

“Forget the doctor, Mac. Sit with me.”

She took the chair adjacent his, tentatively at first, then finally pushing deeper into it with a sigh and a sense of resignation.

“You notice the sky’s gotten real dark?” He caught himself. “Okay, don’t say it—I know the sky gets dark at night. What I mean is—over there—the eastern sky.”

“Storm?”

“Yeah. Coming this way, too, I think.”

With an entrée like that—such an obvious portent—she knew that she could procrastinate no longer.

“Um—Will—this morning, when you asked why I left you and why I returned—I may have glossed over a few important details—“

His chin dropped and his eyebrows went up, implicitly encouraging her to continue. She, in turn, moved nearer.

“Billy, I did something foolish and weak early in our relationship—but never with any intent of hurting you—and over the last four years I’ve said this a thousand times, in person and in emails and voice messages—that I’m sorry, I’m still sorry, and I’ll always be sorry that I screwed up something—“ She momentarily lost her voice and the concluding word took several extra seconds to be forced out. “Wonderful.”

His solemn demeanor made her falter, and he raised a hand as if to shush her.

In the interval, low thunder sounded. Mood music, obviously.

Disregarding his gesture, she spoke quickly, still needing to discharge this final bit of harsh medicine.

He had the right to know.

“But in four years, I’ve never sussed out if the sin was just my having been stupid—or if it was in telling—I always thought we could withstand the truth—but I know that what you heard wasn’t what I meant—and, in retrospect, it was so self-centered of me, seeking my absolution at your expense—and I always thought that if I had it to do over, I wouldn’t—“

“Stop. Just stop, Mac. I don’t need to hear any more.”

Something had fallen into place. She could see it in his face.

“Will, if you want, I can just go and—“

“You don’t have to do this.” He ran his hand along the neck of the guitar and exhaled, before continuing, in a milder voice. “You look tired, Mac. You should get more sleep.”

Now, she was totally nonplussed at the change in mood and topic. She studied him for some other hint of aberration, some sign that his recovery had changed for the worse.

“I mean it, Mac, a little sleep would do you good. Like me, for example. I took a short nap this afternoon, while you were gone, and woke up refreshed. With a clear picture of things.” He allowed the words to sink in.

“Clear—“ she began, stiffening as she realized the import.

“Restorative, let’s say. Helped me put some things in order.”

“You fell asleep and remembered everything? What sort of bizarre fairy tale is that?”

“Well, there was a grim component, too—like me lying on the bathroom floor, blood on my lips, and hearing you call for me. I couldn’t answer, and I couldn’t even imagine how you’d known to come looking. But you were there and I was thinking—before I kind of stopped thinking and blacked out for a bit—that perhaps the best thing to do sometimes is just stop one story and start a new one.” He leveled his eyes.

Here it comes. That remembered coldness, rapier-sharp sarcasm.

It was about to be déjà vu all over again.

“Tell me what you said the other night.”

More background thunder, a bit louder this time, lending karmic gravitas to this whole scene. Her mouth was dry and she was unable to form words. Unable to think of the words, the right words for this—

His head inclined forward. “You told me you loved me.”

She blinked. So not what she was expecting.

He waited for her nod before he proceeded.

“And you’re sure about that, Mac? Absolutely positive?”

What about that forgiveness that you said couldn’t be earned—could only be given?

Another nod. Still too dumb with surprise to respond verbally.

“That’s all I needed. And—let me say, it took you long enough.”

“Took me—?” That broke her silence. “You were the one who took forgiving and forgetting so literally.”

“I may have forgotten what happened, but I never forgot how I felt.” He didn’t appear to be angry at all, and there was a hint of sad understanding in his eyes. Or perhaps she was misreading that and what she really saw was—

He put his hand on her forearm. “Felt—feel—about you. And I brought that asshole in just to give you a chance to disappoint me, which you couldn’t do. But no amount of booze or drugs will ever make me forget how much I love you, so if you want to—“

She flew into his arms.