"I'm glad you agreed to meet with me," Mac started, nervously. In a long list of ways this could possibly turn out, a lot of them were very, very bad.
"I'll be honest, Mac, I was surprised to hear from you." Nina Howard sipped a Manhattan, in a booth at a bar uptown, not entirely sure why she'd been summoned. Swallowing an uneasy chuckle with her sip of drink, Nina waited for some sort of explanation; Will's voicemail playing on repeat in her head the entire time.
"Look, I... don't know how this whole thing works..." Tucking dark hair behind her ear, Mac cleared her throat and tried to infuse good-will and human-decency into her voice. "It's... going around the water cooler at work that, uh, you and Will... dated." Mac barely got through the core-concept without a bit of shameful wincing, but she pressed on. "I... Will hasn't said anything about his... your... you know, private life," Mac struggled, "and well... given what you do," she breathed, "I was elected by the staff, to talk to you. To, you know, ask about keeping the reasons you broke up with Will out of your professional life."
Nina thought maybe she detected a hint of sarcasm over the word professional, but she was too incensed by the whole of the thing to get bogged down in any particular annoying detail.
"I see." Nina eased back another sip of her drink; eyeing Mackenzie. In another life, Nina thought they might have a lot in common- they might've been friends. "So... because I'm not a journalist, because I write for a gossip magazine, I can't keep my mouth shut about my own personal affairs."
In hindsight, Mac was sure Nina's reaction was possibly easily predictable.
"That's..." Rubbing her temples, Mac tried to finagle a de-escalation. "That's not what I'm saying. I like you! And whatever bonehead thing Will did to have you break up with him was completely boneheaded of him, I just..." Mac remembered the last time she'd had a personal sort of conversation with Nina Howard. "Look, I'll just be honest; we're all on thin-ice at News Night, and we're all worried about News Night 2.0 being taken down by our own tabloid magazine. We can't afford any more scandal now, especially Will, and... well, I'm sure you'd like your private life to stay well, private, too."
Thoughtful rationalization was going to have to work with Nina Howard this time, Mac thought, because it was really all she had.
"Have you seen me posting any articles about my other exes? My other personal relationships?" Nina tried not to laugh when Mackenzie's face went white at her tone.
"Well, no, but..."
"But they weren't celebrities, c'mon Mac, you're not a chicken, finish the thought. My other exes weren't newsworthy, because they weren't celebrities, and because Will is, he's in danger of becoming my new full-focus tell-all takedown piece." Slugging back the last of her drink, Nina wasn't sure why Mac's accusations hurt worse than anyone else's. They just did.
"You don't actually call them that, do you?" Mac heard her own voice shrink, "Like... It's not actually called a take-"
"I'm not planning on writing about why I broke up with Will McAvoy," Nina interrupted, exasperated, "and not just because I didn't break up with him, he broke up with me. I'm not planning on writing anything about the two months I dated him." Idly, Nina wondered if Mac believed anything she was saying. "But... a little friendly advice, Mac?" Nina's tone dipped somewhere way colder than friendly, "I'd be less worried about the risk I'm putting Will's job in, and more about the risk you put his job in."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa-"
"You know, you hold your head high, Mackenzie, because you're good at what you do, and you think you do a good, valuable thing. But it's Will's feet you hold to the fire, not your own. My tabloid stories, my take-down pieces, they may not be pretty, and they may not be easy for you to read; Will McAvoy Dates Blonde Socialite From Rockettes, was a headline I was pretty sure I was going to have to write one day. But his dating indiscretions aren't what's going to get him fired, and we both know that. Charlie knows it, too. Your ratings, your insistence that he cross-examine and strong-arm every guest on your show like they're a witness-"
"My insistence?" Mac squeaked. "Is that what he told you?" She genuinely tried to understand.
"It's his face, Mac. It may be your mission, but he puts his face to it, and when the ratings suffer for your goals, he'll be the one punished. And it'll have nothing to do with Page Six." Abruptly getting up to leave, Nina couldn't bring herself to apologize for the outburst. If it helped Will, personally or professionally, Nina couldn't be sorry for having said it.
Alone in the bar, two drinks later, Mac mustered her courage, and dialed the number.
"Mac?" Will answered halfway through the third ring, after staring at his phone for the first two.
"Did I wake you?" She asked, out of courtesy or just to stall, she wasn't sure.
"No... is everything alright?" To him, her voice sounded heavy, laden and burdened with maybe sleep or maybe lack-of-it, he didn't know.
"I've just had drinks with Nina Howard," Mac bit her fingernail, and got a sigh as a response from him. "The staff was worried... It doesn't matter, I'm not worried about Nina writing anything about..."
"I'm not worried about that, either." Will still liked Nina, and more than that he found he could almost respect her. If she just stopped calling them take-down pieces, just that alone would've gained her ground. "Mackenzie, what is it?"
"Are you afraid that because of 2.0's ratings you'll lose your anchorship?" Mac swallowed, and the seconds of silence that followed her question didn't instill much confidence that Nina was wrong. "Not like, are you afraid of that happening, I mean are you afraid that it's a possibility? Because, we knew... I knew," Mac corrected, more than ever wanting to be perfectly clear that they were separate and independent people with hopefully mutual goals, "that 2.0's ratings were competing with your old self, and your old show, and they weren't going to compare favorably but-"
"But it's a different caliber of show, and that's not for everyone. Why are we having the same conversation we had two years ago, only our roles have switched? And why were you having drinks with Nina Howard?" Will figured if he asked it as a follow-up, the question might've seemed less absurd.
"It's nothing, really." Mac found herself huddled down in the booth, trying to convince herself that it really wasn't anything. "It's just that, Nina... implied, that our new show, the show we do now, that's a different caliber, and it's... different ratings, were because of, well. Me." She hoped it didn't sound like an apology; out of all the things Mackenzie McHale was sorry for, the show wasn't one of them. She just wanted him to say it, outloud, that their show was what he wanted to be doing; that whether or not she strong-armed him into being the face of her mission, he didn't see it like that.
Leaning back against the headboard of his bed, Will looked out his window and sighed.
He wasn't sure how to contradict her, because nothing she had said had been strictly untrue. It was just a gross oversimplification, and the reality was much more nuanced than it sounded like she was making it.
"Ask me again," Will said, closing his eyes in the dark of his apartment.
"What?" Mac wasn't sure she actually could repeat her question, she was hardly sure of what her question was.
"Not that ridiculous mess you just asked me. Ask me your question again, from when you first got here. One of the opening shows of 2.0, you were furious and I was scared. It was late at night, and I was worried about trading mass ratings for better content," Will's voice drifted into the soft, patient tones it could only for her, "And you asked me-"
"Are you in or are you out?" Mac remembered.
"I'm in." He repeated, meaning it even more than he had originally, and he thought he heard Mac smile. "I think I've heard a version of the conversation Nina had with you tonight," he admitted, and he was sure he didn't want to know anything else they discussed about him. "I told her that she wasn't right. I ended up liking her more than I thought, but she was wrong about some pretty big things, and she made me do Daytime, and I had to break up with her, because I really hate Daytime." Opening his eyes, he heard Mac laugh lightly.
"Okay." With a deep, contented sigh, Mac relented. She just let him win the discussion, and she was happier for it. "You don't want us to back off for the sake of the ratings?" It bore repeating, and she just wanted to make doubly-sure this time.
"I don't want to back off for the sake of the ratings." He said it like a promise, because it seemed important to her. Shaking his head, Will figured that was probably part of the problem. Part of the problems between him and Nina. She'd heard the voicemail he left Mac, she was a gossip columnist, and it would've never worked. Also, she made him do Daytime. "Can I go back to sleep now?"
"You said you weren't sleeping," Mac sounded skeptical, but sated.