Mike Ross had been told he was allowed to leave, and he hadn't left yet. He lingered in the doorway with one hand in his pocket. Jessica was still testing the mettle of him, but had already guessed that he was the kind who would ask whether it was okay to ask a question rather than to just come on out and ask it.
"Can I ask you a question?" he said, and she gave herself a mental check mark.
Rather than say anything in return, she just raised an eyebrow.
"Okay, yeah. So, I guess I should preface this by asking you not to tell him I asked, but does he know? Harvey? I mean --"
Jessica knew what Mike meant, but suspected he was still thinking it through. It was not in her to lead such a fractious, troublesome horse to water, not when he would find it himself with a little effort.
"I mean," he said, after a few moments' pause, "have you ever dropped the facade with him? Like you just did with me?"
She regarded him coolly. "Choosing when and when not to speak is not a facade, young man. You might consider that your first piece of advice."
Mike stood still, hand in pocket, eyes level. He did not speak. It was both irritating and charming that he learned her advice so quickly. His open, patient smile indicated that (a) he was not overawed by her manner and (b) he did not fail to notice that she hadn't answered his question. They battled in silence for a little while, but Jessica had her checkmate move ready:
"Word around the office is that you're generally disliked among your associate class. Fucking knowitall is the only epithet I've ever heard spoken in my presence, but I'm sure that's not the half of it."
Mike's little smile soured.
"I don't make it a practice of showing my colleagues the tools I will someday be using against them. It decreases my advantage, and I need every advantage I can get in this business."
He blinked, and his expression turned mulish. Jessica puzzled at that shift, filed it away for later analysis. Mike said, unnecessarily, "So Harvey doesn't know."
"I imagine he's guessed by now. I prefer not to show off around him or anyone else."
"He knows about me, though. I don't think that threatens him."
"He knows you're book-smart. He also knows you are boardroom-stupid. The lopsidedness of your knowledge-base means there's plenty for him to teach you."
Mike tilted his head to one side, the gesture Harvey used to concede a point without saying so. Quick study indeed.
The conversation at an end, Jessica waited for him to realize it and leave. He seemed like a lingerer, though, like the kind who had to talk through recent events to consolidate his understanding of them. She wondered how Harvey endured it: he was not generally a patient man.
"What I said at dinner that night," said Mike, and Jessica gave herself another mental check mark.
She did not even have to wonder about context. "About everybody else being idiots?"
"Not-smart," he corrected. "I, uh, I mean, I know corporate law is the natural home of raging egomaniacs, but that's not how I meant it."
It was a little cruel to pretend ignorance. Jessica had worked through the same thought-process, although she'd managed to do it while applying to college, not while having dinner with her boss. And after all, she hadn't defrauded a double-handful of billion-dollar businesses while pursuing her personal odyssey of coming to terms with her rare talents. "How did you mean it, then?"
Mike folded his eyebrows in a vaguely comical expression of deep thought. Here comes the illustrative anecdote, thought Jessica, and then Mike began to tell.
"I was in the Met once. Almost ten years ago. There was a Dutch masters show, you know, middle-Renaissance and all those photorealistic paintings, and somebody had just put forth the idea that they were so photorealistic because they'd been traced off a camera obscura. This guy standing next to me, probably twenty years older than me, he struck up a conversation about it. We ended up spending three hours debating the theory, optics and physics and lots of math, and I don't even know what, I just remember how it felt to get to discuss stuff at that level. Just, to make a leap of logic and see that the person you're talking to can make that leap with you, and then go further and expect the same out of you." Fond nostalgia dawned over his features, and Jessica worked hard, painfully, to keep the same out of her own. It would not do to let on that she knew exactly what he was talking about. "It was just -- it was awesome. It was like going on a date with the hottest person in the world, except brains instead of faces. He was from the Bronx, a supervisor at a bakery on his day off. We stayed till they closed and they chucked us out on the steps and we said goodbye and I've never seen him again."
"You're very cultured," said Jessica drily, and cleared her throat.
"I think I would be a lot more cultured if I could have managed not to say to him, 'God, it's so great not to have to play dumb with somebody!'"
Jessica stood up and turned to her windows. The night skyline spread out around and below her: it was soothing. It helped her hold onto her mastery. Behind her she could feel Mike waiting hungrily for an answer, some kind of approval or at least a rebuke. She told him, "You're right, that's not a very cultured thing to say."
"I realized how it sounded right after it came out of my mouth and I was like oh shit, but he just kinda laughed and nodded. It was a relief, the idea that somebody else felt the same way." Mike moved as he spoke. It was not that he came back into her office from the doorway without permission, but that he came around her desk and stood next to her at the windows. His hands were back in his pockets and he smiled at the city lights. "I was a fuckup, I know it. I knew it then. I'd sit there stoned in front of the TV and be like, Guys, wait, what if Spongebob Squarepants is actually a metaphor for life under Khruschev? and nobody else in the room would know or care who Khruschev was. And I wanted -- I wanted to be able to have a conversation with someone who knew who Khruschev was, or at least was curious about it, but I'd already flamed out of college and didn't know how to do that, I mean, how do you do that? I was 20 years old and it seemed like that whole world was closed to me forever. So to discover it wasn't, that there were people out there who could take on my lopsided knowledge-base and maybe even wipe the floor with me, it was, it was like getting a reprieve from a death sentence."
Beside her Mike put up a hand and touched the window-glass with his fingertips, a gentle greeting. Jessica bit the inside of her cheek and said nothing. Even if he was aware how indiscreet his own story was, there was no reason in the world to reciprocate with more indiscretion. Jessica had not gotten where she was now by showing her vulnerability.
Mike studied his shoes and concluded his anecdote: "I spent my whole childhood getting report cards with the same phrases over and over again: Could do more with his talents. Refused the gifted and talented test because he wanted to stay in the same class with his friends. Brilliant underachiever. I really like the idea of getting brilliant overachiever every once in a while."
They stood at the windows together. Below, the traffic swirled and paused, little yellow headlights like lightning bugs far away. A news helicopter flew by at eye level, not too near, but it could still thrill her, the literal as well as figurative heights to which she'd climbed. Jessica considered the obstreperous, sweet, oversharing, irritating, fraudulent young man beside her.
"Hm?" He sounded distracted as he said it, as if he found the view as enthralling as she did. He dragged his eyes away from the buildings outside and focused on her reflection instead.
"Don't tell anybody else that story," she said.
He chuckled. "Because it sounds way more juvenile outside of my head than it did inside?"
"Because it sounds good." She resisted the impulse to cross her arms. It would seem weak, as weak as it would seem if she moved out from behind her desk before he did. It was her territory; she could not retreat from it. Mike was eyeing her with patient curiosity. She explained, "You already operate at a severe shark deficit; you can't afford to be good at this point in your career."
"Oh." His shoulders fell. She was pleased to see him turn and pace back around to the far side of her desk: his social perception was excellent, and not yet blunted by the fighting pit tactics of his class of associates. Mike got all the way to the door again before he asked, "Will there come a point? Where I can afford to be good?"
Jessica faced him. The least she could do was tell it to him straight. "No, Mike, there won't. Your crimes will always be hanging over your head."
It was not necessary to mention that Mike's crimes would bring down Harvey as well, and probably Jessica herself. The sick little expression on his face made clear that he knew himself to be the poisonous tree, and all the work he did for the firm was tainted fruit. No loyalty in the world could get you past a class C felony. The law just didn't work that way.
He lowered his head, and seemed finally ready to leave the office. Jessica wanted to go home and have a glass of wine by herself and not have to worry about where next the knife in her back might come from. Mike Ross, at least, was too amateurish to do it on purpose, although the chances were good he would be the downfall of her eventually.
"Mr. Ross," she said, as he stepped over the threshold.
He paused, and looked back at her gravely. "Ms. Pearson."
For the first time, she allowed herself a small smile. "You're much more interesting when you're not trying to blow smoke up my ass."
He shone like a spotlight. No wonder Harvey was addicted to him, if he was that starved for regard. He said at last, "And you're much more inspirational when it doesn't seem necessary to try."
Mike's smile was wide, conspiratorial, collegial. He'd forgotten, however briefly, that she was managing partner and he was a lowly associate. As much as she might like him, she couldn't let that slide. She gave him an eyebrow and said,
"Yes you still have to work with Louis."
"Aw, really? I hoped -- we had a moment --"
Jessica skewered him with a look. "Moment's over."
He grinned to himself, and managed to leave without trying try for the last word. He was, after all, a quick study.