Chapter 1: Reprieve
“Change of plans?” He asks from the door to her office and she looks up with raised eyebrows. It isn’t late, but it is a Saturday and neither of them were supposed to be here. Both of them had had other plans, both of them had made a point of advertising that fact after the broadcast the night before.
“Yeah,” she shrugs verbally, dismissive despite the fact it’s obvious that she’s been here for awhile, that she had planned on being here for awhile. She’s wearing her usual winter uniform, skirt and blouse, not pants or even a sweater. There’s no winter jacket in sight, only her blazer tucked over the arm of a chair across from her desk. She hadn’t been out running errands; she had gone from her building to a cab to the lobby downstairs. “Did your masseuse cancel?”
“Stylist actually.” He’s not aiming for flippant but from the way she’s frowning he’s coming off that way even if the glimmer in her eye suggests he’s amusing her. “I was thinking about a new haircut and diamond studded nails. They’re all the rage right now.”
She shakes her head at him and then sighs, frowns a bit more at her monitor before setting her glasses down on her desk to pinch the bridge of her nose.
“I thought you wanted a weekend off.”
“You were supposed to be out of town.” She reminds him with a hint of a smile as her hand slides back down to her desk. “Blonde and leggy cancelled?”
“Blonde and leggy is eighty five years old and named Geraldine, but yes, she stood me up. One of her gal pals invited her to bingo.” He almost gets a laugh that time.
“Isn’t there some sports,” she pauses to consider, “thing?”
“On TV?” He takes a moment to mirror her posture, thoughtful, but edged with something sharper. “Is ESPN still on the air? Have I been gone that long?”
“Less than twenty four hours.” She shoots back, but it’s not as quick as he had expected, not as pointed.
“If you want a break,” he suggests more seriously, “you could head home. The rest of the staff have.”
“Ben was the only one here.” She tells him with a note of warning. “I told him to go home early. Gary’s coming in at eight.”
“So you’re stuck here.”
“It’s almost eight.” It was almost seven thirty but he refrains from pointing that out. His current line of inquiry was making her testy. She hadn’t come in to the office to deal with his bullshit.
“Did you and Jim go see,” he racks his brain for what exactly it was Jim had said the two of them were supposed to see. A film, he remembered that much.
“Something came up.” She shrugs it off, obviously frustrated when he isn’t satisfied. “Maggie.” She finishes and leaves it at that, but that’s more than enough and she knows it.
“So you ended up here.”
He thinks maybe she intends that to be the end of it, but she hadn’t sounded annoyed enough to push him to leave and she hadn’t asked him to go, so he lingers a bit and she huffs out a sigh, glancing back over at him. “You’re here too.”
“I left my notes on my desk. I wasn’t planning on staying.”
“You never are.” She reminds him, the glint of humor back in her eye.
“Bad habit.” He shrugs and she smiles a bit. His or hers it didn’t matter, neither of them could stay away.
“Jim was hearing rumblings. He wanted to- I told him I’d check it out, but there isn’t-” She stops when her phone lets out a squeal, the one he had grown up hearing on the emergency radio stashed in the cellar window well.
He glances from her phone to her but she looks as confused as he is, looks just as disconcerted when his phone echoes the sound.
“Basement.” She spits out, glasses thrown back on her desk, before he has his phone out of his pocket.
He feels the air rush out of his lungs but he nods, casts a quick glance around her office. Neither one of them are prepared for this but at least he has on practical shoes, still has his coat on. The basement, unheated and uninhabited, was going to be cold. “Gym bag?”
She nods, already reaching under her desk.
“Put your sneakers on.”
He grabs the bag he has stashed in the corner of his office, emptying his tiny bathroom cabinet into the front pouch, before heading to the office kitchen. There isn’t much there that’s useful, but he mentally gives thanks for whatever mishap had landed them with five one gallon jugs of water instead of the larger five gallon barrels they needed for the water cooler. He stashes one in his bag and then passes one to Mac when she appears at his elbow, gym bag and go bag both in tow, blazer tucked under the handles of the smaller bag.
“I grabbed the first aid kit and the spare flashlight.”
“All right. Let’s go.”
He takes the stairs cautiously, knowing they’re both going to be stumbling toward the end if they’re not careful. They could have taken the elevator, but that window has passed as far as he’s concerned. He doesn’t want to be stuck suspended in midair if the power goes out, if the generators don’t kick in. Mac seems to share the sentiment because she doesn’t say a word, following in his wake and then stepping down alongside him as they descend.
Twenty five floors and they’re down to the lobby, but they press on. He’s focused on matching his steps to the sound of her breathing. She’s breathing harder than she had been, they both are, but it’s still mechanical and even, controlled. It keeps his steps from faltering, stops him from tripping himself, so he focuses on that until she shoulders the last emergency door open with a sharp, relieved exhale.
They’re on the opposite side of the building from where they need to be, but at least it’s flat, the concrete mostly even underfoot as they continue.
Mac stops short, stumbling a bit at the door, hand slamming into the wall as she reaches for the marker someone had tacked there. Two, she scrawls on the door, number and letters, as has he grabs her arm to steady her.
Stopping isn’t an option. He can see that as she drops her bags on the floor, ignoring the thin layer of grime, and heads straight for the pile of supplies in the corner. There isn’t much, no one could justify spending a significant portion of their budget on what had seemed like an improbable maybe, even as they had rehashed and rehearsed emergency procedures, but there’s more than enough for the two of them: a couple of cots, real blankets, pillows, a pair of five gallon buckets stuffed with supplies.
He assembles the cots in the glare of the single florescent light overhead while she digs through the buckets, taking stock. There isn’t much to it, fold the legs down and slip the crossbars into place, but it does take a bit of effort to slide the last notch and groove into place, enough that he grunts and shoves at the last cot in satisfaction when he’s finished, letting it skid a bit on the floor, the metal whining sharply in the mostly empty room.
Mac’s head snaps up at the noise and he waves her off. “They’re done.”
“Over there.” She ignores him, pointing to the corner across from her. “There’s a stairwell on the other side of that wall.”
“Right.” He hadn’t thought of that. Despite the reality they’d been presented with, he hadn’t considered the structural integrity of the room they’re standing in, but evidently she had.
“As close as you can.” She’s bent back over the buckets so he can’t see her face and he wonders if she’s avoiding looking at him or if she’d rather he not see her, because it’s clearly one of the two. She isn’t tense, but there’s a stiffness in the set of her shoulders, a hesitance before she speaks.
He isn’t thrilled with this either. He doesn’t like the idea of them sleeping on top of one another, but practically speaking he understands. He may have gotten to the point where he doesn’t mind spending time with her, looks forward to it most of the time, but he knows that this much time, in close quarters, with no distraction, is likely to end with an outburst from one of them, with an outburst from him. She only slips up when he’s goaded her, and he can’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t do that.
“Anything else?” He asks when he’s slid the second cot right up to the first and taken a seat.
She sets the lid back on the bucket she had been combing through and sits, arms against her stomach, hands beside her hips. “I let everyone know we were down here. I told them you were turning your phone off to save the battery. I hope that’s ok.”
“That’s fine.” He fishes his phone out of his pocket and switches it off. He figures ‘everybody’ means she had been on the office chat relay, that someone knew to contact her family. He doesn’t bother asking about his. If they happened to hear that the city was about to be obliterated, they thought he was in Jersey, not exactly safe, but safer. “Does anyone know-”
“No,” she cuts him off, shifting uncomfortably on her perch. “No one’s heard anything.”
He nods, lapsing into silence until she shivers and he pats the spot beside him. “You’re cold.”
“I’m fine.” She protests, but she stands and carries her bags over, tucking them under the bed, before dragging the buckets over, while he watches her, amused.
She sits beside him lightly, weight set more on her feet and the frame of the cot than the canvas, but he doesn’t say anything as he reaches down to pull her blazer free from her bag and wrap it around her shoulders, before handing her one of the blankets he had stashed behind him.
“Was this what Jim?” He asks hoping for a bit of a distraction and she laughs at the absurdity.
“No, it was nothing like, it wasn’t this.”
She doesn’t seem to want to elaborate. She’s distracted but she doesn’t seem worried so he doesn’t press, he nods instead and lets the silence settle between them.
He’s not surprised by how warped his sense of time becomes but he is surprised how quickly it happens, how immune Mac seems to be, checking her watch, her phone at what he had quickly realized were regular intervals, holding the small screen out in front of her so she can read it without her glasses.
“Jim found Gary. They shut down the subway. He’s at the 14th Street station. One of them. He didn’t say which. He’s safe.”
She sounds relieved so he smiles when she glances over, nods when she smiles back.
“You’re,” she hesitates to fill in the rest and he smiles again, this time for real.
“I was thinking about a snack.” He hadn’t been, but he stands anyway and slips around to the other side of her, gesturing vaguely toward the spot he had vacated until she slides over and he takes her spot, reaching down to paw through his half open bag.
“There’s a couple of bars in the front of my gym bag.” She offers and he switches gears, pulling them out before returning to his bag and the rest of the snacks he had gathered.
He lays them out in his lap and glances over at her, pleased to see she’s settled into the spot he had been occupying, leaning back a bit to glean the last bit of warmth he had left.
“You should,” she picks up one of the bars he had taken from her bag and holds it out to him, “there’s a bit of chocolate on the bottom.”
They’re good is what she means, and less likely to be stale, crushed, or otherwise subpar compared to what he had liberated from the kitchen.
“It’s yours.” He curls her fingers back around the foil wrapper and he hears her sigh, short and a little agitated. “I don’t mind the rest of this junk.”
“Neither do I.” She insists and he knows she must think he’s being petty refusing to take what she’s offering him but he wants her to have it, that little bit of familiarity.
He doesn’t know how long they’re going to be here. He doesn’t know the first thing about what they’re in for, but she does. None of this seems real to him, but it must to her, he knows that, because she’s been here before. She knows first hand what kind of terror filled night they could be in for and she hasn’t batted an eye.
“I want you to have it.” He insists softly and she sighs again.
He feels her grip tighten and he pulls his hand away.
“You don’t have to,” she bites her bottom lip when he looks over at her, “you don’t have to be nice.”
He scoffs with a bit of a frown and the space between her eyebrows furrows.
“You don’t have to-” She tries to start again and he nods. He knows what she had meant. “All right. Just don’t- I’m fine.”
“I know.” He matches her resolution. “Consider it a preemptive apology for whatever I say to make an ass of myself.”
“In that case I’d better have both.” She reaches for the second bar without hesitance, but the small smile she offers him betrays her uncertainty. It wasn’t like her to make a show of pointing out how harsh he could be. It was a line she had been careful not to cross up until a few weeks ago, but he had apologized then for how sharp he had been and he’d been waiting for this small show of faith that meant she had heard him; he was trying.
“I think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself.” He teases, but he lets her take it, tuck it carefully under her leg with an impish grin.
“You can always barter for it back.” She assures him and he laughs outright, not bothering to hide his delight at the obvious impracticality of her statement.
“With what? A foot massage?”
“That’s cheating.” She frowns at him, trying but failing to hide a smile. “They’re my favorite.”
“I can think of a few things you like more.” He tells her seriously and he’s surprised to see her cheeks pink, with embarrassment he hopes, although it’s hard to tell with the studious way she’s suddenly picking at the granola bar wrapper, prying it open, face partially enshadowed this far from the light.
He has no idea specifically what it was she has in mind, but he doesn't need to ask. There's a list of possibilities compiling itself in his head without his consent, half forgotten memories of other times he had seen her blush, flush, turn away to hide the burning rush of arousal.
He needed to stop. He had stepped out of line, made an unintentional faux pas. He needed a moment to regroup mentally, back up and start over. He couldn’t be thinking of her like that, not here, not now.
He rips the corner off the packet of poptarts he knows has been hanging around the office for months if not years and sets about eating it methodically, from one corner to the other, in quick bites.
“The Long Road.” She says softly into the silence as he finishes the poptart and he glances over at her.
“Jim and I,” she picks a bit at her granola bar, nipping a few crumbs from her fingertips, ”we were supposed to go see it, the film. They’re screening it uptown for a couple of weeks.”
“Maggie needed help moving furniture. She and Don broke up. She found a place in Brooklyn.”
“Huh.” He breathes out and she smiles before reaching out to break off the edge of the poptart he hadn’t touched.
“You should eat that before it goes stale. Staler.” She corrects with a grimace. “How did you eat the other one?”
He chuckles at her scrunched up face and waves her off when she holds out what’s left of her granola bar. “Eat. I had dinner.”
“I could have-” She wants to argue, but already he can see her doing the mental math, trying to come up with the appropriate answer to the question she knows he’s about to ask.
“Into the office.” He finishes and she frowns at him as he continues. “I’m not trying to-”
She pops another sliver of her granola bar into her mouth and frowns down at the wrapper, curling one edge around her finger. “I know.”
“It’s only been ten minutes.” He says when he sees her fingers twitch in her lap and she twists around to look at him. She had turned away from him about an hour ago, trying to get comfortable, but now she turns back toward him. Neither of them have said much since they’d finished their snack but she’s managed to keep herself distracted somehow, enough so that she hasn’t noticed that he’s mostly distracted himself by watching her.
“How’d you know?”
“You were going to check your watch? You’re getting sleepy.” He smiles softly, enjoying the way her annoyance only heightens the soft set of her shoulders, the almost imperceptible slowness in the way her eyes flutter open when she blinks. “Your hand didn’t quite move when you thought about picking it up.”
She rubs the side of her hand against her cheekbone and he sees her teeth clench as she stifles a yawn. “Were you really going to meet Geraldine this weekend?”
“Is she really eight five years old?” There’s a petulant note underlying the questions but he manages not to smile as he replies.
“Did she win a date with Will McAvoy? I thought you told Scott-”
“She’s Tess’s grandma.”
“Grandma Gigi.” Mac’s face lights up with sudden glee. “You met Grandma Gigi?”
“Everyone in the office has met Geraldine.”
“No, Will,” she waves a hand in his face to shut him up as she shifts closer. “You-”
“Yes, Mac.” He says evenly, like he’s trying to humor her, and sees her force back a laugh of delight at his, albeit fake, irritation.
“She told you off.”
“She did. Don’t argue.”
“She did not.”
“You’re the bad boss. She did. What did she say?”
“I like Tess.” Mac gives him an unimpressed look and he presses, insistently. “I do.”
“I’m nicer than you.”
“Not to Grandma Gigi.”
“She threatened to beat me with her shoe. I asked her to wait until after she finished her coffee. It was good coffee.”
“You bribed Grandma Gigi with coffee.” He can’t decide if Mac sounds offended or impressed, but she’s definitely laughing, and after a moment so is he.
“She’s a sweet lady.”
“Yeah,” Mac leans toward him, still vibrating with laughter, and lays her head lightly on his shoulder. “I hope she-”
“Yeah.” He cuts her off gently, shifting slightly so she can move closer but she lingers, quieting, until he wraps his arm around her waist and tugs her closer.
The move earns him a soft ‘oof’ of surprise but she settles in without comment, tucking herself in beside him, touching but not curling into him. It may have been impulse on his part but she’s being careful.
“You can try and get some rest.” He offers but she knows she won’t. The lightness of their laughter still lingers in the air, but she’s turned contemplative again, running her fingers over the stitches along one edge of the blanket, plucking at the occasional overlapping stitch.
She’s pried her shoes off and is checking her phone again when the light flickers out and at first she doesn’t seem to notice, but when it doesn’t come back on he feels her stiffen, feels the way her shoulders rise up to press against his where he’s curled against her leaning forward to get a better view of the screen.
“Everything’s ok. Everything’s fine.” He hears her whisper, the slightest exhale tacked onto the end of a long breath. He could have missed it. He probably should have, so he doesn’t reply. He waits instead, waits for her to say something, waits for the light to come back on, but neither happens.
“It’s late.” He prompts her gently, but she’s still quite, still staring at her phone even though the screen has gone black. “We could try and get some sleep.”
“Hey,” he tries again, reaching up somewhat clumsily in the dark to brush her hair back from her face when seconds turn into minutes. “Mac.”
She exhales with a shiver as he brushes the shell of her ear and he feels his own breath stop, feels himself repeat the motion, listening for the same quiet sigh. It’s still there, almost imperceptibly, but the way she leans into his touch is less discrete, although still a ghost of what he remembers.
“Do that again?” She asks quietly after a moment, after he’s stopped and he nods, feeling his chin brush the top of her head as she presses against him, shifting her weight to lean into him.
He smooths her hair against her head with a flat hand and then traces the edge of her ear with the tip of his finger, lightening his touch as his wrist turns, the side of his finger sliding along her jaw, tracing the curve of her chin, barely brushing her lips.
“You didn’t ask me what it was like before.” She tells him as his finger skates over the inner curve of her ear a moment later.
“I thought today might not be the best day.”
“It’s the most relevant day.” Her tone is controlled, a bit wry. The lack of light had startled her but she’s settled in or so he thinks until he feels her jump when the sound of a door, not their door, snapping shut cracks through the air.
“Someone with a flashlight, checking in.” He guesses aloud and he hears his jacket crinkle as she nods.
“It’s sheer dumb luck.”
“Not fate?” He asks somewhat surprised and she heaves a long slow sigh.
“I didn’t think you’d appreciate that as much.”
He wouldn’t have, but he would have understood the sentiment, wouldn’t have begrudged her the comfort of her faith, but she had chosen to try and soothe his fear and he’s not sure what to make of that.
He can hear more than feel her fingers running up the zipper of his jacket, questing for what he isn’t sure until he feels her shift, her hand slipping under the heavy canvas fabric to slide along the softer wool of his sweater, wind its way upward until she’s hooked her arm around his shoulder, burrowed closer.
It’s the first time she’s intentionally touched him. He may have initiated, dragging her over like he had, but this isn’t her returning the hug or brushing her fingers over the back of his when he laid his hand on her arm to get her attention.
“It’s always worse in the dark, and the cold, maybe.” She adds the last part as an afterthought and he instinctively reaches to pull her closer, cursing himself for not insisting she change into something warmer from her gym bag. She had put the blazer on earlier, but she’s still in her blouse and skirt. She has to be freezing even if she is currently wrapped in both their blankets.
They had a flashlight and at least one space blanket in the first aid kit, they could remedy this, but she had been right, things seemed different in the dark, more fragile, and he finds himself clinging to her as much as she is to him, reluctant to let go.
He should get up and find her something to wear but he leans back instead, drawing her with him so that they're sprawled awkwardly across their makeshift bed.
“Most nights when you could hear it outside, farther away, you could distract yourself. Sometimes we would leave the radio on. Those were the best nights.”
“Yeah?” Those had been the safest nights he figures; he wonders about the ones that weren’t.
“The caves were the worst. They either ate up the sound so you were totally alone, two feet from whoever was with you or your were surrounded by a thousand echoing breathing people, only a handful of who actually existed.”
“But it was quieter?” He hazards a guess and his jacket rustles again.
“I was reporting on a war. Quiet wasn’t what we were aiming for.” She falls silent and he listens to her breathe, wondering what it would be like to have the room echoing with the sound: disconcerting, comforting, he isn’t sure.
She shifts a bit and he moves over. Quietly, silently they move in the dark until eventually they've settled more firmly, him leaning back onto the pillows, Mac curled beside him.
“I’d think about you.” She offers as she tips her head toward his shoulder.
“In the dark?”
“Sometimes not.” Her fingers flex against his shoulder and he wonders for a second if she’s going to move closer. She’s halfway onto his cot, but most of her weight must be sitting on the bars running along the sides of the cots. She can’t be comfortable, but if she’s noticed, if she minds, she hasn’t said anything.
“I would,” she swallows, the teasing note in her voice disappearing, “think about us like this.”
“Mac you don’t have to.” He reaches for her, hand grazing her hip. He wants to pull her to him, pull her onto his cot so they’re curled up together, if for no other reason than to shut her up, but she seems to need to tell him.
“It was lonely. That was the thing. I knew all the statistics. I figured I couldn’t do anything about becoming one of them if that’s what was meant to happen. You get used to being scared, as much as you can anyway, but I could never-”
“I never wanted you to be there not like this, but,” he hears her swallow, take another breath as he slides his fingers around the curve of her waist. “I’ve- I missed you so much.”
It’s killing him to hear the raw honesty in her voice, but she’s been like this since she’s gotten back, pushing at him with her honesty, the vulnerability she insisted on showing him even when he lashed out. He couldn’t stop her. He couldn’t say anything without risking a misunderstanding. Without her getting a peek at the anguish in his eyes there was too much he could say that wouldn’t mean what he wanted it to.
“I wanted to fix things. I-”
“I know.” He cuts her off gently. He had saved all her emails even if he hadn’t read them, but he couldn’t have saved the phone messages, not for this long, even if he had wanted to, which he hadn’t, but he’d still had to listen to them, enough of them to know that it was her calling from another unknown number, to know he needed to jam him finger down on the delete button and try and forget the longing he had heard in her voice.
“I think Jim thinks I used to cry,” there’s amusement in her voice edged with a note of triumph that he recognizes as distinctly dangerous. “I got good at being quiet.”
“Oh,” he breathes out when her voice drops off silky smooth, with a smirk he knows is there because even if he hasn’t heard it in years, he’s heard that tone of voice before in the inky black of his bedroom, in the back of a cab on the way to her place after dinner, in the stairwell behind the studio at CNN.
“Mac.” This isn’t a good idea. She has to know that, but he figures that’s what the confession had been for; this isn’t the first time she’d thought about this and she’d wanted him to know.
“No,” she says cutting him off. “I don’t want to mess this up.”
He isn’t sure if she means again, if she means now if they don’t, if she means just in case, but he supposes it doesn’t matter because she’s insistent.
“I heard you.” He cuts her off softly, but firmly, not as carefully as he could have, but he really doesn’t want to hear the rest of what she had to say, not when he knows it’s going to end with ‘you’ with his name, with a ‘Will’ so soft and careful breathing it out was enough to shatter the illusion.
“I don’t want you to get the wrong impression.” He picks out carefully, knowing, by his choice of words, that there’s a good chance that she already has.
“By saying yes or by saying no?” She asks him candidly and he’s thankful that she sounds curious not pouting or upset, not stubborn.
“I-” he sighs. “It’s complicated.”
“I know we are.” She breathes back and he feels her shift to press her face against his chest, hide the smile he know she’s wearing.
“Clever.” He lets the word sit warmly on his tongue, because he knows she’s pleased with herself for making him smile.
I don’t want to hurt you. He can’t quite bring himself to say, not when he knows he still will, because he can’t seem to stop, because he’s still hurting, still angry with her, but there’s more than just anger now that burns at the back of his throat. It’s been months now since he’d had the relief of blind anger. “Right now we’re here and.”
“Tomorrow.” She fills in without an if or a when, not making that call, but addressing his concern. If and or when tomorrow came were separate issues. They only needed to address the one. “We walk out of here like nothing happened. Or is that the problem?”
It’s a pragmatic question. She isn’t passing judgement and he wonders how, wonders if she’s thought about this too, if she’d had this argument with him in her head, if that’s how she’s keeping half a step in front of him.
“Does it matter?” He asks knowing when she answers with a short “no” that she’s not answering his question but her own.
“I’m not.” She considers for a moment. “This isn’t because we’re here. It’s not- it is, but not just because we’re here. I want you, Billy.” She whispers fiercely, “even if it’s just this once, and if we need an excuse, if.”
She seems to be trying to settle on something. “If you don’t want- that’s ok. That’ll be ok, but I didn’t know that last night. I didn’t know and I’ve spent all this time.”
She falls silent, slides closer as he lifts his hand from her hair, lays it on her shoulder.
“All this time what, Mac?”
“Trying to remember what it felt like. I loved you. I knew you had, me, I- but I couldn’t remember, maybe it hurt too much to remember but I just wanted to feel-”
She’s trying not to cry. If it hadn’t been obvious from the sound of her voice, pitched higher, frailer than it should have been, it would be apparent in the almost imperceptible tick of her fingertips, the way she kept shifting her weight, not squirming but settling and resettling.
“OK.” He breathes out, not agreeing to anything but needing to stop her.
“I shouldn’t be sniveling.” She sniffs once and her voice brightens forcibly. “It’s Will McAvoy kryptonite. I’m sorry.”
“It’s-” He tangles her fingers back in her hair in lieu of finishing the statement.
“I spent so much time imagining, I just want to see if it’s like I remember.”
Will McAvoy kryptonite his ass. He almost wanted to laugh, because she had to know he’d never been able to stop himself from wondering, hadn’t stopped wondering from the moment her cheeks had flushed pink at his earlier, unintended, insinuation.
“Payment in full on receipt of services.” He ventures a cautious joke.
“One chocolate dipped, sinfully delicious granola bar. You can even keep your pants on.”
“Well I don’t suppose you packed a box of condoms for this expedition.” She says it so sweetly that he's shaking with silent laughter before the words have fully sunk in and she giggles, quietly at first and then more loudly until he finds himself grinning like an idiot. He can't remember the last time he had heard her giggle. It had been years certainly. He had heard her laugh since then, unguarded and open a couple of times, but this sound, the wonton child-like glee, he hadn't realized how much he'd missed it.
“What exactly am I agreeing to?” He asks when they’ve both started to sober up and she answers lightly.
“You could lay there with a pillow over your head and pretend you can’t hear a thing, but I’ve gotten good at being quiet.”
“You.” He swallows a couple of times and she giggles again.
“I wouldn’t mind some help of course.”
“The hell you wouldn’t.” He snorts, recovering.
“I’m just so,” she’s squirming closer, turning farther onto her side, winding her fingers between his, tugging his hand from her hip down the front of her thigh.
He hadn’t forgotten she was wearing a skirt, but he doesn’t have a clue when she’d managed to bunch it up above her waist without his noticing. He hadn’t expected the shock of warm skin, the damp fabric of her underwear.
“I’ve been thinking of this all night.” She confides in a sly whisper and he bites back an appreciative moan.
“We can't-” He tries to string the words together but her can feel her breath on his face, imagine the self-satisfied smile lingering before him.
“I'm only asking for this.” She promises, voice still pitched low, still mischievous. “Just this, Billy.”
He feels the familiar ache the nickname and knows she must know that she has him, that he’s only protesting because he feels like he should. He considers, fleetingly, complaining about the one sidedness of her offer, but it had been her that he’d been wondering about, the sound of her, the feel of her. He could remember well enough the sight of her, god help him he could never forget that even when he wanted to, but the other details were hazy.
“If I say yes,” he hazards and he feels her shiver under their combined touch, breath hitching in anticipation. Anything, he knew she would say, and so he doesn’t ask, breathing out his own shaky exhale instead.
Her hand lingers over his as he strokes the inside of her thigh, considering, trying not to lose himself in the memory of how soft the rest of her had been, how perfect. She was here, unexpectedly, willingly. He didn’t want to waste that. “All right.”
Her laugh is tinged with nervousness, anticipation, as she pulls her hand back, biting her lip from the sound of the tiny smack he hears when he runs his hand down her leg, fingers chasing goosebumps as he goes.
He can tell she’s impatient, she was always impatient when she had to keep her hands to herself, but they hadn’t discussed that. They hadn’t discussed a lot of things, things he’s spent a lot of time trying not to think about even if right now it’s all irrelevant. He’s too caught up already, caught up even as he’s trying not to think too much about where this might be going, about what she might be thinking. He trying not to lose himself in her too, but that quickly proves impossible. It feels almost as if he’s dreaming, except no dream of his had ever been this vivid, had ever been this cold.
He slides his hand from her leg to pull her closer, tug the blankets up over himself too, sloppy in his own impatience. She hasn’t said a word but he can feel her quivering, hear her breathing, rapid and shallow, punctuated by longer slower inhales. She’s trying not to wind herself up, but that’s exactly what he wants to do.
He runs his finger over the waistband of her underwear. She hadn’t planned for this; he wonders what she’s wearing. She had never been particularly practical, but there was a huge span between what she normally wore and what she wore to tease him to near incomprehensibility.
“What color?” He asks, “black?” and she nods with a little gasp as he slips his finger under the elastic. “To match the skirt.”
“Yeah,” she breathes out sharp and quick and he smirks, pulls his hand away to run his palm down her leg.
She shifts back to spread her legs wider, but doesn’t protest and he sighs, tries to mentally recalculate while he marvels at the feeling of her skin under his fingertips, wishing he could see her, watch the way her eyes grow dark, her cheeks flush.
Normally there would be whimpers and tiny mewls of protest, but she hadn’t been lying, she had gotten better at keeping quiet, obviously saw some necessity in it, although he couldn’t say he agreed.
“You know if you insist on being so polite and quiet I’m either going to get bored and give up or decide to be rather wicked.”
“Will.” She gasps and he almost laughs at how put out she sounds.
“I’m not going to have to make you start counting ceiling tiles am I?” He asks more gently and he feels her shiver, hears the hitch in her breath as she tries to find a response to his recollection of that particular night, the raspy raw sound of her voice the next morning; counting quietly, it turned out did not in fact keep her quiet.
“It’s too dark in here.” She finally says and he chuckles, going back to his exploration of her underwear, pleased when she whines a bit when he pulls his hand away to run it across her stomach, down past her bellybutton and over the front of her underwear.
God. He breathes out in a rush and he can hear her smile. “I told you I’d been thinking of you.”
“Fuck, Mac.” He exhales a moment too late and she chuckles, reaches over to run a hand up his chest.
“We could you know.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
“But I’m so good at that.” The pout is fake, he can hear the rumble of laughter behind the murky disappointment in her voice and he wonders how he’s suddenly so good at this, at reading her, how they’re so good at this, but he supposes it’s always been different when he’s had her this close, when he’s had her to himself.
“You’re thinking too much.” The frown is real this time. He can’t see the creases it’s making at the corners of her mouth, but he knows they’re there. He may not have lost his touch, but neither had she.
“There are a lot of feelings I’m trying not to feel right now.” He informs her bluntly before he realizes what he’s saying, before he realizes that’s exactly the direction he doesn’t want this to go in.
“You’re not talking about these are you?” Unfazed, she slides her hand down to cup the front of his pants, squeezes until he groans.
“God, Mac. Would you-”
“This isn’t a church. I’m not asking for absolution.”
“Just a little sin.” He prompts and he knows he’s beginning to exasperate her because she grabs his hand and slides it back between her legs.
“Would you just-”
He chuckles at how annoyed she sounds, irritated that this is anything but fantastical, even if right now, in this moment, he’s never wanted to kiss her more.
“Reality not living up to your expectations?” He tempts before slipping a finger under the fabric of her underwear, grinning when he hears her gasp, feels her press closer, whatever retort she had been waiting to deliver lost in a hiss of surprise.
“Better.” She whispers and then smirks a little, unable to resist, “it could be better.”
Better it turns out is a sudden rush of motion that starts with her squirming out of her underwear so he can run his thumb over her clit and slip two curling fingers into her until her hips buck against his hand, and ends with her voice a raspy whisper as she pleads in his ear.
“Will,” she exhales short and breathy, “please.”
He manages not to laugh at the obvious effort she’s making to keep quiet even now. “I could stop if you’re worried about being too loud.” He teases and she whimpers, too far gone to threaten to kill him which he figures would be the appropriate response because damn it all if he wants to stop. The only thing better than listening to her slowly coming apart like this is watching it, but there's a particular kind of beauty to this too, to the way his heart keeps skipping beats in his chest.
He hadn't realized how much he had been longing to hold her, how much he had needed to hear her murmur his name tinged with something warm and wanting. His dreams, like her remembrances, had never left him, but he had never thought, would never have thought that he wouldn’t want this, here and now, to end.
He can’t draw this out much longer though, not without torturing her and he doesn’t want that, not when she had so recklessly trusted him with this. He should be used to that by now, but this time he wonders at it, at how easily she could slip herself back into his life and curl herself around him, find herself cradled in the palm of his hand, even when he feared he might crush her.
“Mac,” he lets himself breathe out, lets himself feel the word bubble up with an aching honesty. “MacKenzie,” he feels her fingers scramble against his thigh in the instant before her whole body stiffens and then she sighs long and slow, suddenly boneless and content.
“Fuck,” she laughs a little, still trying to catch her breath, hair rustling against his jacket as she rolls her head across her shoulders, shifts to pillow her head on his chest. “You always were,” she swallows, “good at that.”
He smiles at how blissful she sounds and runs his fingers through her hair, lets the weight of her settle against him as they both breathe.
“I should- if you want. I know you said,” she offers some time later, nuzzling his shoulder, sleepy and unguarded and he snorts, shakes his head.
“I’m not asking, and besides I only have one change of clothes.” He reminds her, reaching to slap a hand over her mouth before she can say anything, because he knows exactly what she's going to say and he doesn't need to be reminded of her skill in that particular department right now.
“Will,” she whines, pouting he can tell; he can feel the edge of her lip pressing into his palm. “I really wouldn’t mind.”
He knows she wouldn’t, the act itself or the consequences, they’re too far gone than that, but he still holds back, breathing into the dark, waiting until the pout fades and he feels her jaw shift as she stifles a yawn to pull his hand away. “We’ll talk about it later.”
“Rain check?” She asks quietly enough that he knows she’s half asleep, but he doesn't miss the note of shyness, the temptation toward optimism.
“Yeah.” He picks his head up to brush his lips against the top of her head, “Just get some sleep.”
Chapter 2: Reprise
It’s been weeks since that night in the basement, and while they’d spent a couple of nights at Hang Chews, they’ve been avoiding spending time alone together.
Thanks to everyone's enthusiasm, I've changed the title and added two chapters to flesh the story out a bit. The original warnings still apply, although the latter two chapters are decidedly less smutty (sorry not sorry about the figurative striptease).
“I need your notes for Tuesday’s broadcast.” He can hear her poking around his desk, shuffling things around as he pulls his t-shirt over his head.
“The ones we started last night?” He pokes his head out of the bathroom, catching sight of the hem of her skirt as she leans across his desk.
He can hear her sliding pens off his blotter as he grabs his button up and reenters his office. She’s getting irritated now, he knows, trying less probable options.
“They’re on my dining room table.”
“Not the ones from yesterday’s broadcast.” She turns toward him frowning.
“The ones for Tuesday are on my dining room table.”
“They’re—” she starts to insist but he cuts her off firmly.
“They’re on my dining room table. In my apartment.”
“But I need them.” He’s glad she isn’t pouting because she sounds so exasperated he’s not sure he could stop himself from laughing.
“I can fax them to Jim. He can scan them in and email them to you.”
“You’ll have them in the morning. I can bring them by.” He volunteers despite the fact that it’s the last thing he wants to do: get out of bed early early enough on a Saturday morning to appease Mac who will be up with the sun, waiting impatiently.
“MacKenzie.” He says softly and she exhales loudly, slowly, weight shifting from foot to foot.
“I wanted to get started.”
“I’m headed home now. Stop by and pick them up. You don’t have to come up.” He offers carefully. It’s been weeks since that night in the basement, and while they’d spent a couple of nights at Hang Chews, they’ve been avoiding spending time alone together.
She nods slowly, not entirely pleased with what he’s offering, but less put off by it than the other options he had posed.
“I’ll grab a cab and—”
“Catch a ride with me. Joe can keep you company while I run up and get the notes.”
“We could finish that drink.” He offers as she lingers, looking over his notes.
She looks up, glances over at him and then flips the page, running her finger over a line of text.
“Joe,” she says quietly and he pulls out his phone, setting it on the table, the screen lit up I’ll see you at nine typed out in the text box at the bottom.
She pushes the notepad aside before pulling his phone over to consider it carefully. “Yeah?”
“If you want.” He shrugs easily.
“What do you have?” She’s still staring at his phone but he knows she’s considering, asking to be tempted.
“Jameson, a couple of other whiskeys, several scotches, wine, red and white, there’s gin, vodka if you want a martini.”
“What are you having?” She looks at him with the glimmer of a smile and he feels the corners of his mouth twitch.
“Me too.” She decides with a firm immediacy and he turns away to pour them drinks, hide his smile.
“You could scribble less.” She comments as ice clinks, settling into the bottom of the second glass.
“I wasn’t expecting you to see the notes. I thought I’d make it to the first draft.”
“I always see your notes.”
“Not always the first set.” He tells her, chuckling at little at how put out she looks at the thought. “It’s easier to think when I’m writing.”
“Sometimes,” she adds and he nods. She was right. He was fine as long as one of them had an outline. He’d spent enough time vamping on air with her in the control room to feel confident in that.
He steps around the fireplace, holding out her glass, letting her slide her fingers around his before relinquishing the glass. “What did Jim want last night?”
“At Hang Chews?” The clarification seems to be for her own benefit, so he doesn’t comment, letting her continue. “He had a couple of concerns about one of tonight’s segments.”
“It couldn’t have waited?”
“I don’t know.” She gives him a half shrug, shifting back to slide up onto the table.
“He doesn’t usually interrupt.” It’s an idle comment but he sees her bristle.
“It was a valid concern.” She frowns at him and he waves her off, gesturing with his glass until she reaches for it, taking a sip with a grimace.
He pulls the glass from her grasp, gently but insistently. “I’d like to have something to drink.” He teases lightly, laughing outright when she snatches the glass back and shoves hers toward him.
He had poured them two different scotches. Normally she wasn’t as discerning as he was; she would notice the difference, but it wasn’t often that she cared. Even so he should have figured she would co-opt his drink. She was interminably curious, particularly about the things he tried to keep to himself.
“Why’d you invite me to stay?” She asks him as the last of his drink slips down the back of his throat.
“Does there have to be a reason?”
“There usually is.” She replies, squirming her way off the table to follow him into the kitchen.
“You seemed to want to stay.” That isn’t the answer she’s looking for, so he considers the question as he rinses out the glasses. “I wanted you here.”
He turns to smile at her, at the frown she’s wearing impatiently, waiting for him to get to the point.
“I don’t know, Mac.” He steps back around the island to stand next to her, reach to pluck her hand from where it’s resting against the side of her leg. “I felt like having you around.”
He’s teasing a little. He could have said ‘I wanted to spend time with you,’ but his irreverent tone eases some of her concern, softens the frown into something that looks almost quizzical.
“I thought maybe,” she shakes her head and offers him a smile, polite and more careful than she realizes.
“The rain check, from the other night.” The words slip out and she looks away, hand twisting in his.
“I did have to do some shopping.” He’s careful to keep his voice light. “It turns out my emergency plan wasn’t as extensive as I had thought.”
“I never thought I’d have half a box of condoms stashed in my office.” He offers candidly and she laughs, turning toward him.
“I’m serious.” He smirks watching her smile brighten. “I’d hate to have to turn down a beautiful woman again.”
“So where’s the other half?”
“Next to my bed.” He grins slow and a little coy.
He reaches for her other hand, drawing her back with him, carefully moving through the space between the kitchen and his bedroom. Leading her until the back of his knees bump the end of the bed and he sits, tugging her closer.
She’s smiling softly, curiously, so when she draws her bottom lip in, he stands, filling the space between them, waiting patiently as she considers him, hands still in his.
“OK.” She decides and it isn’t until she leans toward him momentarily that he realizes what she’s intending and grabs her elbow, pressing until she shifts back onto her heels, straightening. “Not on your knees.” He shakes his head at the image, at the thought of her like so many other women. He didn’t want that.
“The bed.” She smiles coyly, stepping back, and he shakes his head softly, reaching for her, carefully pulling her closer as she watches him, eyes moving rapidly, studying him.
“No,” he breathes out, close enough now that he knows she can feel the air brush her cheek. “I want,” he swallows, draws his hand up to her face and sighs.
Her brow furrows but she waits for him to continue.
“I don’t want this to be some sort of tit for tat.” He winces at the connotation and tries again. “I’m not asking for a rain check, I’m—” He can’t seem to find the words to describe what he’s looking for so he lets it drop, asking instead, “let me kiss you?”
He sees her hesitate, but she doesn’t shrink back, doesn’t reconsider. He’s surprised her more than anything else, but he doesn’t have time to consider what that means because she’s leaning forward, looking up at him through lowered lashes.
His lips brush hers and he shifts forward half a step to press her closer, his hands kept safely between her shoulder blades until she slides one of her own up the back of his neck. She steps out of her shoes, the kiss breaking suddenly as she drops the four inches to the floor, but then she’s pressed up on tiptoes reaching for him.
She’s cautious, the kiss more chaste than he would like, but she still lets out a quiet gasp as he slides his mouth from hers to brush a kiss along her jaw, nose brushing her cheek as he nips at her earlobe eliciting a quietly moaned. “Yes.”
Slower? He wants to ask because last time hadn’t been enough, hadn’t even been close to enough, but he doesn’t want to make demands, not when he isn’t sure what she thinks of any of this.
His hands haven’t wandered, but hers have. They pluck at the back of his shirt, hook around the bottom of of his belt.
He backs up slowly until he’s sitting, until her knees are pressed into the top of the mattress as she follows him.
“This ok?” He asks because he hadn’t asked for this, had only asked to kiss her, but it’s always been give and take with her and now seems to be no exception.
“Yes.” She yanks more firmly at his shirt, her hands sliding around to press into his chest.
He ignores her silent request, scooting back farther, wrapping his hands low around her hips to press her forward as she leans to keep his lips pressed against her collarbone where he’s nipping lightly, being careful not to raise bruises she’ll curse in the morning.
“We don’t have to—”
“Shut it.” She breathes out between exhales as he goes back to her neck, to the spot below her ear she’ll be telling him to leave alone because it makes her shiver.
“Stop.” She swats at him and he smiles pleased he had anticipated this and tips his chin to kiss her again, letting himself get lost for a moment in the tiny sounds of protest she makes when his fingers ghost too lightly over her ribs, tickling. Lets himself get lost in the feeling of her nails pressed into the fabric of his shirt, the way her knees press into the side of his legs, the faint floral scent of her shampoo, the perfume he had bought her years ago that she still insisted on wearing.
“Will?” She’s made up her mind, tugging his shirt free from his pants with a sudden single-mindedness.
“Mmm?” He hums brushing the end of her nose with a chaste kiss so she can reply.
“This is nice but could we get on with it? I have work to do.”
He chuckles because she’s laughing a little, eyes sparkling as he leans back and cups her face between his hands. “It’s been five minutes.”
“It’s been longer than that.”
It’s an old argument, one that leaves an odd sort of joy bubbling up in his stomach. “But I like this.”
“Me too.” She admits, fussing suddenly with his belt buckle, covering, he supposes, for the way her voice had cracked.
“We don’t have to,” he says gently. “If you’d rather—”
He stops when she presses her eyes shut, breathing carefully. “I said yes. I said— I’m asking for it, just, please— don’t be a gentleman.”
“All right.” He lays his hands over hers, tugging them up until he pulls them free, lets her press her palms into his chest to steady herself.
He unbuckles his belt and pulls it off, tossing it in the general direction of the floor before starting in on the buttons of her shirt. There was no reason either of them had to get naked, but they’d already done it once with clothes on and he’s feeling greedy.
He makes it halfway down the buttons before she slaps his hands away, pulls the blouse over her head and makes quick work of the buttons of his shirt, undoing a couple in the middle one handed so she can grab the back of his neck and kiss him.
“Please tell me you don’t practice, that, in front of the mirror.” He groans as her nails rake down the front of his bare chest.
“Don’t be ridiculous. They’re buttons. I don’t need a mirror.”
“Right,” he huffs a laugh and she grins at him.
“Jesus, woman.” He’s still laughing, grabbing her suddenly to pull her flat onto the bed, roll on top of her. “Let a man breathe.”
“I—” She squirms under him. “Now you’re never going to get your pants off.” She pouts, bottom lip pushed out in exaggerated exasperation as he watches the way her chest heaves as she lays there panting.
“Ten seconds.” He promises her, leaning forward to kiss her, lingering, and she nips at his bottom lip, more aggressive than aggravated, trying to distract him. He’s being too gentle, too tender, not moving fast enough.
“Pants.” She reminds him and he sighs, carefully climbing off the bed to kick them to the floor as she tosses her skirt toward the bottom of the bed where her blouse lays bunched up, sliding off the comforter.
He fumbles through the drawer for a condom before throwing a whole string of them at her and crawling across the bed to where she’s propped up on her elbows grinning.
“I appreciate the enthusiasm.” She teases before he can kiss her to cut her off.
They’re a fumbling mess after that. He manages to get her bra unhooked on the first try but her arms get tangled with his when she tries to pull it off and her fingers bump against his reaching for a condom, sliding it on, and then they’re both still, panting slightly, before he experimentally thrusts into her again.
“Oh.” She grins wide and daring and he wonders how he’d spent a year and a half surviving this.
“Don’t stop.” She repeats again and again until he promises, moving as slowly as he can, and yet it’s over in what feels like a matter of heartbeats, his stomach still fluttering as he rolls onto his back and sighs, reaching for her hand.
“God, Mac.” He breathes and he hears her sigh shakily as he rolls his head to the side to take in her blackened silhouette.
“That wasn’t?” He asks, concerned. “I didn’t—”
“No.” Her hair rustles against his pillow. “That was great.”
She sighs again and doesn’t answer, tugging her hand away, pulling back until he can feel the bed start to shift as she moves away, toward the end of the bed.
“Stay,” he mumbles, but she doesn’t seem to hear him, doesn’t seem to want to hear him when he repeats himself more loudly, more firmly.
“Mac.” He sits up to reach for her and sees her shoulders stiffen, sees her sweater slip from her fingers back to the floor before she bends to pick it up again.
“I want to get an early start.”
That might be true but that’s not why she’s leaving; he knows that.
“Let me call you a cab.” He wants to call her a cab, give her that moment of privacy, but he knows before she responds that she’s going to turn him down. If there were going to be tears they could wait until she got home.
“The train’s faster.”
He ignores the strain in her voice, lets her consider. “Do you want me to walk you to the station?”
“It’s practically across the street.”
“I know.” He says softly, tries to say I’m trying, but he knows she won’t hear him, she’s already wrapping herself up, doing up buttons. The words stick in his throat.
“This isn’t—” he tries, but he doesn’t want to say it, he doesn’t want to go putting ideas in her head. This wasn’t about the sex, but to say any more— he scrubs a hand over his face, “I’d really like you to stay.” Because that had worked so well; he knows that’s what she must be thinking but she doesn’t say it, just stands up and walks over to kick at her shoes, knock them upright so she can slip them back on.
“I’ll see you on Monday.” She offers him evenly and he sighs.
“Call me if there’s anything you need.”
“Don’t forget the notes.” He tries one last time as she slips through the door, and although she stops she doesn’t turn back, her quiet, “thanks,” muttered to his empty apartment.
Chapter 3: Redress and Rebuild
“Keep up, Billy. You’re in love with me. We should celebrate.”
“I’ll call the baker. What kind of cake do you want? Chocolate with—”
She tucks another volume under her arm and rolls her head across her shoulders.
“I think that’s it.” She announces turning to look at him.
“Did you check the index?”
“The index?” Her hair slips forward over her shoulder as she tosses her head.
“To make sure you have the volumes you need.”
It isn’t a question, but he answers like it is. “Yes, but a lot of the time there’s only a reference to a previous—”
“Fuck.” She says blandly looking like she would’ve rather groaned or stamped her foot in irritation.
“You’re welcome to stay. The table is clear. I can move my stuff off the couch if—”
“This is not how I wanted to—”
“You could send Jenna to—”
“I can do this.” She glares at him, daring him to argue.
“I wasn’t suggesting that you couldn’t.”
“I’m not staying all day.”
“That’s fine.” He gestures out toward the dining room and she crosses in front of him, brushing through the doorway without waiting to see if he’s following.
She dumps the pile of books onto the table and returns to dig through his desk drawer while he tosses fresh legal pads and a couple of pens onto the desk from the cabinet behind him. He hardly uses the desk let alone the drawer, but he lets her shuffle through the detritus until she’s satisfied, grabbing the supplies he had left for her.
“If you want my laptop—”
“No.” She cuts him off and he lets it lie as she slips back out of his bedroom, not waiting for his reply.
“I’ll be in the kitchen.”
“That smells heavenly.” She doesn’t look up from the table but he knows she hopes he’s listening despite the fact she’s been muttering to herself for the better part of an hour.
“I can put it in the oven for lunch.” He offers and she shrugs.
He doesn’t dare ask her how it’s going. Based on the way the pile of books spread out over his table has grown, she’s moving along, but he doubts she’s satisfied with the speed of her progress. “1989 was the flag burning case?”
“Texas v Johnson held that the burning of the flag was protected under the First Amendment, five to four.”
“Right.” She flips back through her notes and then drops her pen to rest her head in her hand. “Do you always make lasagna on Saturday?”
“Generally, no.” He moves around the island to lean against one of the stools. “They keep playing Olive Garden ads during the games. I’ve been craving some.”
“There’s a hundred Italian restaurants in the city.”
“None of them make lasagna like my mom.”
“It’s like that, is it?” She can’t seem to help but smile softly.
“The garlic bread is my own invention.” He quips, knowing it’ll goad her into responding.
“Double butter and extra cheese?” She looks over at him as he shrugs.
“It tastes better that way.”
“Yeah,” she shakes her head. “It smells amazing.”
“You can have half the pan as long as you leave me the rest.”
They eat side by side on the couch, the base of her wine glass occasionally clinking dully against the side of his Coke. She’d been surprised he’d had a bottle open but he’d offered her some of the leftover risotto, another byproduct of the Olive Garden commercials, and she’d happily accepted a glass without further comment.
“I can’t.” She groans when he offers her another slice of lasagna and he grins, standing to gather the mess their lunch had made on the coffee table.
“I’ll wrap you some to take with you.”
“You should, you weren’t planning on sharing.”
“It’s all right. There’s plenty left.” He presses gently and she switches gears.
“I should get back to work.”
He portions out the lasagna and picks up the last of the dishes while she disappears to collect a stack of books and the notepad she’s half filled with her slanted script. She settles in on the couch and he keeps to himself, occupying her former seat at the table, flipping through several books of his own, but when he hears her sigh, and sigh again, he gets up and wanders over to where she’s sitting to watch her frown at her work, fingers curled down toward her scalp as she runs her fingers through her hair.
“Is there anything I can—” He steps up beside her to take a look and she turns her head to glare at him, furiously angry he thinks, or not.
“Stop, just stop.”
He freezes where he is, close enough to touch her, and waits to see what she says.
“Just,” she breathes out, “don’t.”
“Don’t what?” He asks gently, careful not to antagonize her because he’s sure now; there’s more bluster than anger, she’s more defensive than she ought to be.
“Stop that.” She narrows her eyes, sliding sideways to put some space between them. “Maybe you can turn it off but I,” she swallows, “I can’t.”
He doesn’t know what she’s talking about and she hasn’t seemed to notice, too caught up in whatever’s running through her head to realize. “Mac?”
“I can’t stop if I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” He lets his irritation bubble up for a second, lets the words come out sharp so he knows she’ll listen.
“You’re professional at the office. I’ll give you that, but the rest of the time you can’t stand to be within five feet of me unless.” She spits out with genuine anger and then stops suddenly, not mortified, not repentant, but embarrassed.
He knows he isn’t going to like the answer, but he asks anyway, carefully steeling himself for the rush of anger he knows is coming. “Unless what, Mac?”
“I’m warming your bed for you.” She puts on a brave face but the words are pained, hesitant and a little cracked around the edges.
“Is that what you think?”
She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t ask him what the hell she’s supposed to be thinking, she just looks at him and waits.
“I’m not being nice to, I don’t know what the fuck. I’m not being a nice guy at the office because I don’t want to be seen as an ass, and I’m certainly not being nice because I want to sleep with you. I’m not being nice.”
“Oh.” It isn’t a question. It’s not a direct challenge, but it’s clear she’s skeptical.
“I’m not being nice. I’m a human being with feelings, for you. I—” He takes a second to close his eyes and breathe around the ache in his chest. “I never stopped having feelings for you.”
“You’re—” She blinks at him, eyes watering.
“An ass, dick, bastard, douchebag?” He tries to fill in for her, figuring she must still be mad, still trying to be mad, but her tears aren’t tears of fury.
“Still in love with me?”
“Fuck, Mac. I thought that was pretty clear after,” he stumbles for the words for a second, “the last time. I asked you to stay because I wanted to talk. I knew you were upset.”
“You let me go.”
“I thought I overstepped, pushed too far. I didn’t want to take advantage.”
“I owed you—”
He cuts her off before she can start. “You don’t owe me anything, Mac. You never have.”
“That’s bullshit.” She manages to spit the words out but there’s no real conviction behind them. “I offered and…” she trails off having a hard time making an argument. “You asked me over.”
“For the notes.”
“You asked me to stay.” She’s still insistent.
“Because I thought you wanted to.”
He can’t tell which one of them is finding the other more exasperating. He’s not listening and she’s not making any sense.
“Fuck, Mac, I’m in love with you. Is that still so hard to believe?”
“You love me?” She echos and he has to stop himself from laughing, confused and a little hysterical.
“I never stopped. Why do you think this has been such a fucking nightmare for us both?”
“I thought you wanted.”
“Sex.” He fills in for her. ”Do you really think I could think that little of you? That I would use you like that?”
She shakes her head and he’s relieved to know she’d known at least that much.
“After Brian,” her gaze flits away and he has to reach to take her hand before she’ll continue. “I felt—”
She doesn’t finish but he knows what she had intended to say: cheap, like she deserved it. “I wouldn’t have blamed you.”
“Mac.” He tightens his grip on her hand, holds on until he’s sure she’s gotten the point, then lays his hand gently over her knee, taking a seat beside her, close but not too close.
They sit quietly. There’s a million things he wants to say but he can tell by her blank stare that she’s thinking through something and he doesn’t want to push her into any sort of premature exposition.
She frowns down at the floor for a while and then stands to move past him, walking toward the fireplace behind him, arm outstretched so she can run her fingers over the ridges of the curtains covering the windows.
“You couldn’t keep far enough away this morning.”
“You were working.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” She turns, swiping a hand over the marble mantle.
“I didn’t want to distract you. I know you hate that.”
“I don’t— it’s irritating.”
“When you stopped for lunch I came over here so we could both eat, when you went back to work I left.”
“You were hovering.”
“I was, I was trying to— you looked frustrated.”
“I’ve been frustrated.”
“I know. I wanted to help.”
“You could have asked.”
He snorts softly and she smiles reflexively, ruefully.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You made it quite clear when you got here you didn’t want anything to do with me. You were here for the books and you were leaving. If you could have gotten copies from the library outside of business hours you wouldn’t have been here.”
“I never said—”
“You didn’t have to, Mac.”
“I—” She bites her bottom lip, silent for a moment. “I thought you’d be mad at me forever.”
“I wasn’t, I wasn’t mad.” He tries to keep the sting out of the word but he can see she knows she’s made him angry. “I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s my—”
“I’m not mad, angry. I’m not— I’m in love with you and I don’t—”
“It’s not about the sex.”
He has to stop himself from groaning. “Mac. I—” he presses his eyes shut and bites back a laugh. “The sex is fantastic, but that’s not why.”
“But it could be, maybe?”
“Now?” She grins at him and he feels his stomach flutter.
“Are you propositioning me?”
“I did want to throttle you a minute ago.” Her grin grows, turns sassy.
“Five minutes ago,” he starts and she waves a hand at him, dismissing the idea.
“Keep up, Billy. You’re in love with me. We should celebrate.”
“I’ll call the baker. What kind of cake do you want? Chocolate with—”
“Take me to bed, William.” She draws out his name, eyes sparkling, hips swaying as she stalks back over to the couch. “It’s been too long.”
“It’s been a—”
“Billy.” She cuts him off sharply. “Keep up. I’m going to go get naked. You’d better hurry up and join me.”
He follows her, knowing he shouldn’t, not until she’s sorted through whatever it is she’s avoiding, but he’s never been good at denying her when she asks. He follows her, watching her drop clothing, like breadcrumbs, across the floor of his dining room through to his bedroom.
“Oh,” she seems a bit surprised he’s followed her, pleased all the same.
“I’m not taking my clothes off—”
“Kinky.” She purrs and he takes a step back, bumping into the door frame.
“Until we talk about this.”
“Billy.” It’s whiny but he doesn’t miss the flicker of doubt in her eyes, the turned down corners of her mouth the pout is supposed to hide.
“You don’t believe me.”
“You told me once,” she stalks forward, stopping a few steps in front of him, “that you would give me—”
“Everything you ever asked for.” He finishes along with her. “I also promised not to hurt you and I done fucked that up. I don’t want to do that again. I don’t want to hurt you ever again.”
“I’m not asking you not to.” There’s a note of annoyance in her voice but she doesn’t elaborate.
“I need to know you’re not doing this to hurt yourself, to pretend like you can live with this, us, not meaning anything.”
“You could never be nothing.” She says firmly, but he can tell he hadn’t been far off the mark.
“I—” She considers. “It only hurts because I love you.”
“Then tell me how to make it stop hurting.” He knows he’s pleading, but he doesn’t care. He wants to fix this, wants her.
“Take me to bed, Billy.” The nickname is soft, tender, quivering at the start of a sigh or a sob, he isn’t entirely sure, but she’s serious, he can see that. “Tell me you love me.”
“I do love you, Mac.” He steps forward, fingers tangling in her hair, tugging slightly when she glances away.
“I love you.” He says firmly, slowly, seriously, watching her eyes fill with tears. “I’ll always love you, Mac.”
She swallows, nods, reaches up tentatively to brush a hand against the side of his face, smiling when he turns to kiss her palm.
“Did you want to get dressed?” He asks after a moment, after the vulnerability in her eyes has faded to an open curiosity as she traces the contours of his nose with her index finger.
“No,” she draws her bottom lip in and then grins at his surprise. “I still want you to fuck me.”
“I’ve never heard you—”
“I know. I kind of like it. What do you think?”
“I—” He can’t come up with anything to say which pleases her more. “OK. Yes.”
“Will what’s this?”
He’s half asleep, remembering now why he had never had insomnia when he had been with Mac the first time, so it takes him a minute to realize that she’s said anything, another moment to realize he’s supposed to answer.
“It’s a drawer full of condoms, Mac.” He yawns jaw cracking and then sighs.
“That’s not the only thing in here.” She says curiously and he’s suddenly much more awake.
“Shit Mac, that’s your ring.”
“My ring?” There’s a lightness to the question but he isn’t sure if that’s because she’s pleased or if it’s because she’s laughing at him, at how much of an idiot he is for having forgotten he’d stashed it there.
“I wanted...chocolate souffle.” He loses half the sentence to an aborted yawn. “I wanted to take you someplace nice or talk you into playing hooky so we could go watch one of those black and white films in the park, the romantic ones with whatever, that’s not the important part.”
“So you’re suggesting...” she moves through the words slowly. “Do you always keep it in your sex drawer?”
“It’s not— and no, I always keep it with me. Normally it’s in my briefcase.”
“You were coming over, to work. I didn’t want you to go through my bag and find it accidentally. I wanted to ask you when—”
“You have a sock drawer.”
“I thought you might, I don’t know, need socks. Your feet are always cold.”
“I don’t mind.” He can tell she’s smiling although he’s too busy trying to untangle himself from the sheets to try and lean far enough around her to check.
“I do.” He says firmly and she snorts.
“You weren’t planning on sleeping with me, but you were worried about my cold feet?”
“I knew you’d end up on the couch if you stayed like I figured you would.”
“And?” She prompts as he kicks his ankles free.
“You like to sit with your feet up on the couch.” It’s an easy explanation. “You would’ve jammed them into me, all ten ice cube toes.”
He scoots over behind her and peers over her shoulder. She has one arm resting on the lip of the drawer, fingers dusting the top of the ring box, her other hand cradled palm up in her lap.
“Can I open it?”
He hesitates and then nods. This wasn’t anything like what he had wanted, what he had expected, but if this is what she wants, he’s willing to give it to her.
She picks up the box and turns it over, spins it around then rights it again. “Can you open it?”
“Yeah. Here.” He reaches around her, pressed up close and flips the top of the box back like he’s done a thousand times in the last month. “It’s not much, but I thought—”
“It’s perfect.” She breathes out with a quiet contented gasp. “It’s—”
She turns toward him, suddenly, forcefully. “I wanted you to remember. That’s all I wanted, and you— you did, and—”
“It’s perfect?” He suggests and she nods, leaning to bury her face in his chest.
“I told you once and, and...”
“It’s hard to forget when your face lights up like that, like the world has just handed you the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen: a rainbow, a cooing baby, that damn movie.”
“It wasn’t so bad.”
“It was horrible. It was—”
“The worst thing either of us have ever seen.”
“Yeah.” He chuckles. “I’m glad we watched it though.”
“So you could buy me the perfect ring?” She pulls back to ask and he shakes his head, smiles shyly.
“So you could have that look on your face again. So I could be the one who—”
She nods and he stops talking, pressing gently against her hip with one hand until she turns toward him more completely and tucks herself under his chin, curled toward him with her ear on his chest.
“That first— the night in the bunker. I woke up after you fell asleep. I kept praying we, I thought maybe, but I couldn’t let myself.” She sighs and he strokes the back of her head.
“I spent the entire night dreaming I had to let you go. Worst perpetual nightmare ever.”
“You bought the ring after that?” He feels her hands slide up his back and realizes she’s still holding the ring box.
“I thought about it for a couple of days, but yeah.”
“You’ve been carrying it—”
“I’ve carried heavier things.” He cuts in softly. “I would’ve much rather— this was better.”
“Did you think about what might— if I said no.”
“I hurt you. You don’t owe me anything. If that’s what you want—”
“Yes which way?” He prompts immediately, feeling his heart jump into the back of his throat.
“I’d like to be Mrs. McAvoy, although you know I’m not changing my name, and I want a designer dress, and a new pair of shoes. And,” she adds thoughtfully, “a place with fewer windows and our own basement, in case,” she pulls back to grin at him wickedly, “you need a little reminding.”