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“Sharon is a very funny woman, but she has less faith in American individualism than I do.”

“Hang on.  I have plenty–”

“By the way—“

“When did I ever show any lack of faith—“  

“I never said that Barack Obama was a socialist.”

“Seriously?”

“What I said—“

“You know what, you are begging me for—“

“What I sai—“

“—shows you hundreds of times calling the President—“

“His policies—“

“A socialist!”

“Look up the definition, my friend.  They are socialist.”

“By your definition, so were Ronald Reagan’s.  What do you think taxes are? American Individualism cannot build roads.”

“Oh go on, get it all out.”

“Oh, thank you, since the question was addressed to me.”

 

Noise.  It was all noise.

On the stage of a large auditorium at Northwestern University, in front of a thousand young, inquiring minds and under racks of bright lights, Myka Bering let the loud, incessant bickering fade into unintelligible garble.  She, along with two popular fellow cable news journalists, had been asked to sit on a question and answer panel designed to have an honest conversation about political journalism in America. She had refused, at first, loathe to play the ideological goalie for two political polar opposites on camera, but had been strong-armed into attendance by her company’s president, James MacPherson. 

So there she sat, listening to a pair of over-educated four year olds bicker while more educational infants asked the most inane questions imaginable.

She wondered, not for the first time, how she had arrived at this point in her life.

It had been the opportunity to make a real difference in the world which motivated her switch from pre-med to pre-law in college and, after her graduation from Harvard Law, she immediately began to make an impact.  Not long after the conclusion of the biggest case of her very short career, Atlantic Cable News offered her another opportunity – that of teacher and analyst on their cable news network, and then by happenstance, news anchor.  As a kid, she had idolized unflappable news anchors like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, and their diligent commitment to clear-minded truth. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

She cast her eyes to her left and watched the man beside her – a loud-mouthed, belligerent bulldog of a show host who was persistently lauded by her own political party for calling attention to “the issues that matter,” even though those issues were often overinflated if not blatantly manufactured for ratings – and watched his mouth move.  His face was animated, his motions jerky and aggressive, and the sneer he wore was held in place by his contempt for his opponent. Myka secretly loathed the man, not just for his overtly misogynistic attitude, but for his lack of common courtesy. He was everything she hated about Tea Party Republicans wrapped in one arrogant package.

To her right – ironically, speaking for the Left – was a woman she could hold no more respect for.  She antagonized anyone on stage with her into a loud and bitter argument, all while taking whatever words were actually spoken and twisting them into an out-of-context dagger that suited her own agenda.  Everything was an attack with her, and everyone else was to blame. There was no ownership of her own poor behavior, because there were so, so many legitimate social barricades that she abused to exonerate herself from everything.  Myka considered herself a feminist and sympathized with all those social issues, but could never get behind wearing them like fashion brands to grow one’s own legitimacy like so many pundit liberals liked to.

MacPherson had been wrong – this panel wasn’t going to improve ACN’s reputation in the public’s eyes.  This panel served no purpose at all.

She sighed, and rubbed her eyes.  Myka couldn’t remember the last time she had done something that served a positive purpose.

That thought made her uncomfortable.

The bickering continued, unchecked by the moderator, and she began to feel the heat of the stage lights as if it were a heavy weight wrapped around her neck.  Though she had never been prone to anxiety attacks, she began to imagine that one might feel much like this – stuck between an oppressive rock and an aggressive hard place on a massive stage under bright lights.

Look at the horizon, she thought, recalling her father’s words from childhood, and much like she had when she was seven and queasy from reading in the car for too long, she looked past the brightness into the crowd. 

The young faces wore mixed expressions, ranging from mildly amused to completely bored.  Half of them appeared occupied with an app on their smartphone, and the weight of wasted opportunity grew inexorably heavier.  How could she make a difference to people who simply did not wish to engage? With every disinterested face she found, her heart grew heavier.

But when she hit one face, her heart froze completely.

Seated just under one of the spotlights was a woman with raven hair and dark, glittering eyes that looked intimately familiar.  She shook her head, and pinched the bridge of her nose.

It’s not possible, she thought.  She’s not here. She can’t be here.

Her eyes went back to that spot, but the light was too bright, and where the familiar features were there one second, they would switch to someone completely different the next.

She couldn’t tell if she was disappointed or relieved either way.

“Myka.”

The moderator’s voice broke through the noise, drawing her attention back to the stage.  She turned to face him.

“Yes?”

He shook his head and lifted his hand in a way that seemed to beg for her assistance.  “Anything to add?”

She thought about it for a moment, letting her eidetic memory walk through the input she had tuned out of her consciousness, and recalled the topic of conversation just before she’d been pulled back into it – social issues.  Sharon had made a retort about the moral agenda of the right, and their use of codes for disenfranchised groups.

“I think we could use a more precise definition of perverted.”

The audience laughed, and the moderator smiled.  “Okay, we’ll go on to the next question.”

A young man, dressed in a hoodie and blue jeans, stood with a mic in hand.

“Yes, my name is Steven, and this question is for Myka Bering.  Do you consider yourself Democrat, Republican, or Independent?”

She tilted her head, and put on her best charming smile.  “I consider myself a Denver Broncos fan, Steven.”

The audience laughed once more, but the moderator leaned forward.

“Since it’s been brought up, you’ve almost religiously avoided stating or even implying a political allegiance.  Is that because, as a news anchor, you feel the integrity of your broadcast would be compromised?”

“That…sounds like a good answer.” She replied, smiling her best fake smile.  “Thank you.”

She could tell by the set of the man’s jaw that he wasn’t done with the questions, however.  “There was a piece on Vanity Fair’s website – maybe you saw it – that called you the Jay Leno of news anchors – if you didn’t see it, he was very careful to specify that this was in content and format alone and not in looks, of course.”

“Well, I don’t quite have his jawline,” she replied.  The audience responded appropriately.

“He said you were popular for the same reasons – neither of you offend anyone.  How do you feel about that comparison?”

She paused for a moment, trying not to think about the shy and awkward girl that had left Colorado Springs for college and never looked back, or the closed-off, by-the-book woman she had been while practicing law.  ACN had molded her into something better – a figure that could dazzle a crowd and entertain the masses while delivering the news.

She particularly tried not to dwell on the fact that it had been her relationship with one woman that had taught her how to be a personality in public and herself behind the scenes.

She tried not to look back out at the crowd to find the face of that woman under the spotlight.

“Jealous of the size of Jay’s audience,” she finally responded.

She hadn’t given the moderator enough credit, it seemed – where he’d been content to let the other two fight like preschoolers, he pressed her for an answer.  “Are you willing to say here, tonight, whether you lean right or left?”

No.  It’s no one’s business.  “I’ve historically voted for candidates from both major parties.”

The man finally leaned back and smiled.  “Let’s move on to the next question.” 

Myka looked back out to the crowd, finding the young blonde girl standing in front of the mic, and watched as she introduced herself, preparing for another question that will incite bickering and provoke her sarcasm rather than her honesty.

“My name is Jenny, I’m a sophomore and…this is for all three of you.  Can you say in one sentence or less –“

She shook her head, and Myka’s mouth quirked at the unintentional slip – she might be able to handle the directive, but the rest of the panel was exceptionally long-winded.

“You…you know what I mean.  Can you say what makes America the greatest country in the world?”

Myka closed her eyes for a moment – just a moment – and ingested the disgusted, disappointed sigh inwardly.

The leftist on her right answered first.  “Diversity and opportunity.”

The rightist on her left replied next. “Freedom, and freedom, so let’s keep it that way.”

There was a smattering of applause, and a pause.  The moderator pointed in her direction.

“Myka?” 

She faced the girl in the audience and deadpanned her reply.  “The Denver Broncos.”

Laughter filtered through the audience once more, and the girl smiled and shook her head.

“No.”

Myka’s head swiveled toward the moderator.

“I’m gonna hold you to an answer on that.  What makes America the greatest country in the world?”

There had been many, many terrible questions asked in the evening, and she had successfully let the other pundits run their mouths off in response.  There was something important to be said for keeping the middle ground in her field. But of all the questions asked that evening, this was the one she was least interested in answering truthfully, because unlike her characterization as an inoffensive female Jay Leno, her honesty would offend everyone in the room.

“Well, Sharon and Louie said it.  Diversity and opportunity, and freedom and freedom.”

Her eyes went back out to the audience, and came back to that place under the spotlight, where the woman – whomever she was – was fumbling with an object that looked like a legal pad with words on it.

IT’S NOT.

Again, her heart stilled, and she stared hard at the words before the pad went back down just long enough for new words to replace them.

BUT IT CAN BE.

“I’m not letting you go back to the airport without answering the question,” the moderator stated.

The light was harsh and hard to see through, and though those words and that woman seemed to be there one moment, they both faded away into light the next, as if never even there.  And they, like the answer she knew she shouldn’t give, seemed to be a choice she could never come back from.

Six years ago, she had fallen in love with a raven-haired beauty named Helena Wells, who had taught her how to make a difference as a news anchor.  Three years ago, Helena had betrayed her, stealing so much of Myka’s joy that she knew she would never really recover from it. She would float, somewhere in the middle of everything, pretending to be the person with all her charm and skill until she just couldn’t do it anymore.  

How long had it been since she’d made a difference?

Three years, she finally admitted to herself.  It had been three years since she had last accomplished something she was proud of.

She could dodge that ridiculous question, or answer just vaguely enough not to lie, or she could tell everyone the truth.

She could tell everyone what those words said.

“Well our constitution is a masterpiece.”  The pretender in her took over, sensing that she had paused almost too long, covering with the tattered blanket of practiced congeniality.  “James Madison was a genius. The Declaration of Independence is, for me, the single greatest piece of American writing.”

She watched the moderator’s reaction, hoping that would be enough even though she knew it didn’t actually answer the question.

“You don’t look satisfied.”

“One’s a set of laws and the other is a declaration of war.  I want a human moment from you. What about the people. Document’s don’t make this country what it is.”

A human moment…like confessing her love to Helena for the first time.  Like the contented feeling of waking up beside her on a Sunday morning.  Like the pain she’d felt when Helena had confessed to cheating on her repeatedly with a man she’d known at Cambridge.

Helena, who’d ripped her heart and soul out like a ruined page of a notebook, then tossed it carelessly into the wastebin on her way out the door.

Helena…holding the legal pad…at the top row.

Helena, who held the truth.

“What about the—“

“It’s not the greatest country in the world, Professor.  That’s my answer.” 

The room’s answer was not laughter this time – it was silence.

“You’re saying—“

“Yes.”

There was a pause before the man shifted in his seat.  “Okay, let’s talk about –“

But there had been enough talk, and she was tired of all of it.  This panel had accomplished nothing but to allow the two sides of the political debate continue to belligerently disagree with dangerously inaccurate facts.

“Fine.  Sharon. The NEP is a loser of a bill.  Yeah, it accounts for a penny out of a paycheck, but Louie gets to hit you with it whenever he wants.  It doesn’t cost money, it costs votes and airtime and column inches, without which you lose any political seats you have in the battlegrounds.  You know why people don’t like Democrats? Because they lose. If liberals are so fucking smart, how can their party lose so goddamn always?”

The gasp that came from the crowd went unnoticed as she turned to her left.

“And Louie?  With a straight face you’re actually willing to tell these presumably adult students that America is so star-spangled awesome that we’re the only ones in the world that have freedom?  Canada has freedom. Japan has freedom. The UK, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, Belgium, India has freedom! Out of 207 sovereign states in the world, some 180 have freedom.”

The moderator tried to interject – for once in the panel, attempting to wrangle in a panelist – but Myka wasn’t interested in being wrangled.  He’d asked for a human moment, and he’d made one of her. The blanket was gone, burned away in anger or grief or whatever this was that made her want to stop feeling like she wasn’t making a difference anymore.

“And you, sorority girl, just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day there’s some things you should know, and one of them is there’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labor force and number 4 in exports.  We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults that believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies. Now none of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you are, without a doubt, a member of the most entitled, period, generation, period, ever, period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I really don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

The girl lowered her head, and looked close to tears, and Myka’s ire was tempered just a bit by the humiliated look in the girl’s eyes.  She knew that feeling intimately, and instantly regretted the pointed attack. The silence, however, was telling – she had their attention.

Helena always said that the moment to make your most elegant point was after a sharp attack.

“It used to be. It wasn’t perfect, but we made the right kind of progress.  We stood up for what was right. We passed and struck down laws for moral reasons.  We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our next door neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and when we beat our chest over an achievement, it was worth being proud of.  We built great big things, made ungodly technical advances, explored the universe, cured disease. We cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars. We acted like human beings.  We aspired to intelligence instead of belittling it. It didn’t make us inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election and my God, we didn’t scare so easily.”

She shook her head and gave a half-laugh.  “We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed by great people, people who were revered for their integrity.  And…the first step to solving a problem is recognizing there is one. America…is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”

It didn’t matter if it was Helena in the crowd or not, she thought.  This was about her, and the greatness she had once dreamed of in her arms.  She wanted to believe that the future they’d imagined together could happen, even if they never saw one another again.

“But it can be.”

 

—————

 

Does she know?” 

“No.” 

“So she’ll show up today and—“

“Yup.”

“Pete, she’s going to freak out.” 

Pete Lattimer ran his hand over his face and sighed as he dropped into the nearest chair.  With his back to the glassed-in office that belonged to the anchor of the show he produced, News Night, he looked out onto the news floor that had been his home for six years. 

It was empty.

“Yep, yep…Mykes is gonna flip.” 

“And she’ll be furious with you.”

He sighed and swiveled his chair toward the redheaded.  “She’ll get over it.”

“That’s like saying she’ll get over losing a leg.  Someone should have told her.”

“She was unreachable.  You should come with us, Leena.”  

The flecks in the girl’s light hazel eyes always flashed when she was irritated, and they were lit up like a Christmas tree. 

“I’m just saying, you’re making a dumb decision out of–.”

“Loyalty.  I’m making a dumb decision out of loyalty, you’re making a smart decision out of ambition.  I’m staying, Pete. And you should, too. She doesn’t need or deserve this, and of all people, you should understand that best.”

The short, dark-skinned woman leaned against the desk that Pete had picked as his own perch.  In the silence, she straightened her floral silk shirt and straight black skirt out of habit. Pete cast his eyes down at his own light blue button down and dark grey slacks, noting that there were crumbs left everywhere from the cookie he’d had an hour ago, and swiped lazily at the evidence of his sweet tooth.

“You can be a lot more than an assistant, Leena.  You should be running this company.” 

“MacPherson runs the company, Pete.”

“You know what I mean.”

“And you know I’m right about this.  Myka needs loyalty. She’ll appreciate it after everything that’s happened.”

Pete sighed, then spun in his chair.  “Leena, Myka is so messed up right now I don’t think she’ll remember your name.” 

“What makes you say that?”

“She just walked into her office without noticing that her entire staff is missing.” 

Leena’s head jerked up and around, to the glass wall behind them, where Myka Bering’s tall, lanky form could be seen rooting around at her desk.  She was dressed sharply, as always, but her hair was pulled up in a loose and messy nest that let her natural chestnut curls loose in unusual places. 

“You really should come over with us to ten.” 

The woman in the office glanced out onto the floor as she was looking through her messenger bag for some item or another, then paused in her search to look up again and let her eyes linger for a few seconds before dropping her bag and walking quickly to the door of her office. 

“This is about to get ugly,” Leena muttered.

Myka’s head emerged first.  “Where’s my staff?” When she received no reply from the sparse occupants, she pushed her door open the rest of the way and walked to the edge of the newsroom floor, scanning and finding the two people perched together at a desk.

“Where’s my staff, Pete?”

He rose from his seat slowly, arms out front in defense.  “Mykes, hey…you look good! Listen, Artie wanted to see you when you got back.” 

“That’s not an answer.  Where is my staff?”

Pete swallowed, but kept a smile on his face.  “I’m under orders not to talk about anything until Artie sees you, ok?  Go see Artie. He’ll explain everything.”

For every step she took forward, Pete took one backward.  “I’m not asking him, I’m asking you, my Executive Producer, who is supposed to have the answer to all my questions.  Where is my staff?” 

“Myka…really, go talk to Artie.  I have to…uh…go. I have a pizza meeting to get to.” 

She chased him halfway to the door at the back of the room, but he managed to escape without answering the question.  She turned, temper flared, and began to march toward the chair he had vacated and the woman still standing by it.

“What’s going on?” she demanded.

Leena smiled and stood her ground, though she leaned back a little.  “Myka, hi. Um…welcome back.” 

“Yeah, I’d say it’s a great welcome except there is no staff here to welcome me.  You know something. What do you know?”

“We know what you know.  Well…almost what you know.”

“What’s the part that you know that I don’t know?” Myka growled. 

“I…can’t say.  But Artie Nielsen wanted to speak with you when you got in, shall I call and let him know you’re here?”

Myka stood perfectly still for a moment, eyes narrowed and jaw jutting out just a little.

“Why can’t you or anyone that supposedly works for me tell me what I want to know when you clearly know what I want to know?” 

Leena sighed.  “Artie will explain everything, Myka.  I promise. It’s not what it looks like.  Go talk to Artie. I’ll let him know you’re coming.”

The girl reached for the phone at the desk as Myka thought it over, then turned on her heel and made for the elevator.

“Don’t bother.  I don’t want him to know what hit him.”

The tall woman disappeared around the corner. 

Leena made the call, anyway.

  

—-

 

She bought the heels because they clacked in just the right way.

As the anchor of one of the most respected cable news programs in the country, Myka had learned long ago to look the part at all times, but there was a tiny bit of rebellion in her wardrobe.  She bought pieces deliberately, seeking characteristics in the fabric or the construction that would produce some kind of desired effect.

Like the shoes.  As she walked down the hallway to her boss’s office, the sound resonated off the rich marble surfaces like a gunshot.

It was a warning.

She didn’t bother pausing at the receptionist’s desk, instead walking straight through the open wooden door, coming to an abrupt stop just short of the massive glass and wood office at the back of the room.

“You own this, my friend,” a tinny voice from the phone said.  “You’ve bought and paid for it, and I want to be perfectly sure you understand that this is your responsibility, come what may.  You’re wearing this. This is you.”

On the opposite side of the desk, a short, stout, curmudgeonly man stood with his arms crossed, listening to the disembodied sound of some executive or another’s discontent.  “Miss Myka Bering just walked into my office.”

“Shit, how much does she know, Artie?” came the reply.

“You’re on speaker,” the man in question replied. 

“I don’t know anything.” Myka said, crossing to stand in front of Artie’s impressively large and mostly empty desk.  ”Who is this?”

“Welcome back, Myka!  How was the vaca—“ but the voice was cut off with a beep as the man finally uncrossed his arms and stabbed at the phone.  He straightened then, and smiled at Myka.

“Welcome back.  You look great.”

“What the hell just happened, Artie?”

“Two weeks in St. Lucia was just what the doctor ordered.”  He walked around the large leather chair at his desk and seated himself into it.  “Literally. You have pictures?”

“No.”

“Don’t worry about it, TMZ does.  I hear you were down there with Chris Pine.”

“Chris was at the resort, yes.”

“Well, I’m sure TMZ will drop those rumors eventually.”

Myka had been an anchor for nearly nine years, and Artie Nielsen had been her boss for every second of it.  She placed her hands on her hips as he leaned back in his chair. He, perhaps more than anyone except Pete, knew all the reasons that she would be unlikely to be romantically involved with anyone for the foreseeable future.

“Seriously, what the hell is going on?”

“Something exciting!”

“Hardly anyone that works for me is where they usually are.”

Artie tilted his curly head and pushed his spectacles up on his nose, then furrowed his bushy brows in thought.

“I was in a bar in Da Nang.”

Myka snorted.  “Just now, or the whole time I was out?”

“In 1969.  I was embedded with a combat unit for UPI, and I was sitting there with a warm coke watching a beautiful Vietnamese woman doing an exotic dance in front of everybody.  A beautiful, beautiful woman. And I thought to myself, ‘I will never know what it’s like to be with a woman like that.’ And at that exact moment the woman spun twice, teetered over, and fell right into my lap.  That was a story about how sometimes, things fall right into your lap.”

Myka contemplated letting the man’s coffee — or more likely, whiskey — fall into his lap.  She was getting tired of asking the same questions, over and over again, without any answers at all. “Where.  Is.  My.  Staff?”

“The answer to that question has many parts.  First, we’re trying Steve out at 10 o’clock. He starts in two weeks.”

“Good,” Myka replied.  “Thank you. With the right EP he’ll do great at ten.”

“I think so, too, and I know how much he appreciated you lobbying hard for him.  He really looks up to you.”

“What does this have to do with my staff?”

“He’s taking your staff.”

Myka blinked once.  Twice. “What?”

“Well, strictly speaking he’s taking your EP and your EP is taking your staff.”

“Pete left ?!”  She thought back to his defensive, skittish posture in the newsroom earlier.  “Where is he?”

“Myka—“

“Where is he, Artie?”

The man sighed.  “He bought everyone pizza.  They’re in one of the conference rooms having a meeting.”

Myka turned on her heel and made for the door, satisfied when her steps echoed as loudly as intended.

“Myka!”

It was several seconds before Artie managed to catch up to her, and by that time she was halfway down the hallway, walking toward the conference rooms.  “You’re overreacting!” 

“Am I?”  Myka’s strides were long and fast, and the shorter, heftier man had to half-jog to keep up.  “I gave him his first job, I gave him his first show, I gave him his first chance and how does he repay me?  By poaching Pete.”

“He didn’t poach anyone, Myka.  There’s more to it.”

“It’s pretty simple from where I’m standing.”

“You’re not standing, you’re running,” the older man huffed.

“It’s because of what happened, isn’t it?”

“No!  That’s over.  It has nothing to do with that!”

“Did anyone hear the second half of what I said?”

“This is not why Pete is leaving.” 

“Then why is he leaving?”

The noise Artie made in response might have been a word if there were a few more consonants in it.

She found the conference room filled with Benedict Arnolds, and when she singled out the one she really wanted to yell at she slapped the glass door. 

“Steven Jinks!”

Inside the room, Pete looked at a blonde man with short hair, who looked back at him, and both rose to go to the door.

“Not you,” Myka said in Pete’s direction, “you’re in a minute.” 

Steve Jinks ran his hand over his head and straightened his unbuttoned collar – a nervous habit he’d never noticed he had – and walked out of the room.  “Hey, Myka.”

“Congratulations on the show, you’re gonna do great.”

“Yeah…I’d have called you, but I didn’t know how to get hold of you…” 

“You’re taking my executive producer.” 

Steve sighed.  “Before you go any further, Myka, I strongly objected.  I did, but – “

The door opened, and Pete emerged from the room.

“If this conversation is going to be about me, I’m going to be out here for it.”

Myka folded her arms in front of her chest.  “You asked to leave.”

“I tried to get ahold of you, Myka, but Artie said you couldn’t be reached.”

“You asked to leave.  Pete, you’ve been my EP for three years.”

As furious as she was with him, she could also see in his warm brown eyes how much this hurt him, as well.  “Yeah, Mykes…but this is for the best. You have to believe me. I still have two weeks before I take over with Steve, and in the meantime we’re going to find you another EP.  A better EP.”

“This is because of Northwestern, isn’t it?”

Pete winced at her accusation.  “No, not at all.”

“The timing is curious.”

“This has nothing to do…”  he trailed off and faced Artie.  “Didn’t you tell her this has nothing to do with Northwestern?” 

“Yes,” the grump replied, “and talk to her when you’re talking to her.”

“I want to know why, Pete.”

There was a silence within the group for a while, and Myka knew she was finally close to getting some answers.

“It’s your personality, Mykes.  That’s the reason I’m leaving and the reason the others are.  You’re not the same anymore…and you need a change. Maybe we all do.”

 The anchor’s pulse quickened as her ire grew.  “I am not some despot of a boss, Pete. I’m affable.”

“To strangers!  To the people you interview, but not to me!  Not anymore! You yelled at me in front of the staff!”

“You were talking to me during an interview!”

“I’m your EP, Mykes, that’s my job!”

“I had Stanley McChrystal on satellite from Kandahar while he was being shot at by the Taliban and you were yacking in my ear!”

“I wasn’t yacking, I was telling you not to let him off the hook.”

“Did it really need to be said four times?”

“Yes, because you let him off the hook.”

Myka flung her hands in the air.  “It was two days after the student thing, Pete, I thought it was a good idea to show deference to a three star general.”

“Well you took it out on me in front of the staff, just like you are now!  And then you took it out on the staff!”

Myka stopped talking and looked around – everyone in the conference room had turned to watch the scene she was putting on outside, and the three men on her side of the door all wore concerned looks on their faces.

“You’re a smart, talented, beautiful woman, Mykes, but you just called conservatives idiots and liberals losers.  That’s not the Myka Bering I made friends with. That’s someone else, someone bitter and tired, and I don’t know that person.” 

Myka took a half-step backward after the words finally sank in.  She remembered how uncomfortable and miserable she had been on that stage three weeks ago, and was forced to wonder how long she’d been this person that nobody liked. 

And how, even in a moment of utter honesty, she remained so unrecognizable to the people who knew her best.

“We’re here for whatever you need,” Steve said.  “We are. Just let us know.”

She muttered a thank you as she felt a hand on her arm.

“Come on,” Artie said.  “I need a drink.”

 

 

ACN was a subsidiary of a much larger company, set up in a tall modern skyscraper with elegant old-style touches.  From the second basement to the penthouse, it was filled with employees that worked for one woman – Irene Frederic, the third-generation owner of the second biggest media company in the country.

So the palace of publicity, naturally, had a full-service restaurant on the 31st floor.

Myka sat quietly as Artie ordered his drink – an 18 year old scotch – and Myka was tempted to have one, as well.

She stared out the window and down to the street level, where tiny ant-like people scurried about for business or for pleasure or for something in between.  She wondered if any of them were happy. She wondered if any of them were liked.

“I’m likeable,” she finally said.  “I have the focus group data to prove it.” 

Artie snorted as he tipped the glass back, downing far more of the fine scotch than its quality deserved in one gulp.

“I hired you an EP,” he said. 

Myka stared at him for a moment, wondering how many bottles of the stuff he’s had before she arrived that morning.  “What do you mean?”

“Yes.”

She frowned at the non-answer answer.  “I’m never going on vacation again. You hired an EP.  For me. Without letting me meet him first?”

“Her.”

“Fine.  Her. Without letting me meet her first?”

Artie smiled, lifting the glass to his lips again.  “No, you’ve met her.”

The way Artie’s face was hitched into something resembling amusement sent a cold shiver down her spine.  She leaned back, hands in front of her as if her boss and mentor had just handed her a plate of steaming earthworms for lunch.

“You…Artie…please tell me you didn’t.  You didn’t.”

“You were unreachable,” he replied.  “Only one person knew how to get in touch with you.”

You, Artie!”

“I had to right the ship, Myka.  You know for this particular job, there is no one better.”

She ran her hand over her face and leaned it onto the table, letting her forehead rest against her palm. 

“You are too big an asset to screw around with, and your focus group data isn’t saying what it said three weeks ago.”

“But Helena, Artie?  Of all people, you had to hire Helena Wells?  What is this, a punishment?” 

“She’s been embedded for two years.  She had her guys file stories from caves!  She comes home and wants to have a normal life again and there’s nothing for her at CNN?  Nothing for her at ABC?”

“You’re not addressing the question.  Why here?” She couldn’t keep the anger out of her voice.  “Why me ?” 

“She’s exhausted.  Not like at the end of a long day.  She’s mentally and physically exhausted, hasn’t had more than four hours sleep a night in two years.  She’s been shot at in too many foreign countries, and she’s been to way too many funerals for someone her age.”

Myka slumped, burdened by a weight she had forgotten she wore.  It was a shackle she had taken on while dating Helena, and one she could never entirely shed herself of even after they were over.  Even before she left to be a foreign correspondent, Helena had seen too many funerals, most notably that of her daughter. They hadn’t yet met when Christina died, but the child’s father had taken her with him to pick something up at work one day  – just a quick errand that wasn’t meant to take more than half an hour – on September 11, 2001.

“I...I feel for that, Artie, I do, but—“

“Ask any ten people in the business, eight of them will tell you she’s the best you can get, and the other two would be stupid!”

“And I’d be one of the eight, but Artie, it can’t happen.”

“It’s already happened.”

“I won’t give my approval.” 

“She’s coming up from D.C. this afternoon with one of her people.” 

“Listen to what I’m telling you, Artie, I won’t work with her.”

“The deal’s a day away from being signed.  Three years.” 

“I have approval over my executive producer.”

Artie lifted a bushy eyebrow.  “You would think so, wouldn’t you?  But business affairs went over your whole deal.” 

“I don’t have contractual approval?”

“Nope but you know what?”

Myka dropped her head to her palm again.  “How do I not have contractual approval?”

“Your contract is up for renegotiation in 18 months, you might want to have your agent work that in.”

“I’m a lawyer, Artie.  I’ll settle this now.”

She wasn’t mad at him – not really.  Artie was right to hire Helena – she was, without a doubt, the best executive producer money could buy.

But if her first day back from vacation had taught her anything, it was that she – Myka Bering – had changed…and it was all thanks to Helena Wells. 

How much worse would things get if they were forced to not only see each other every day, but work side by side for the next three years?

 

————

 

Her first thought as she walked away from the bank of elevators and toward the floor of the newsroom was that things didn’t look like they had changed much.  Even from a distance, despite some computer upgrades and the installation of niceties like LED TVs to monitor the news feeds, the layout and lighting and smell remained the same.

Her second thought however, as she neared the opened door and noticed what was visibly absent, was that everything was very different.

It had been years since she had set foot in a working newsroom, and more time still since she had been in charge of one, but at noon on a weekday with a show at seven, there should have been people everywhere preparing that evening’s rundown.  Instead, she was met with the murmur of one on-air show (was that Amanda Collins?) and a floor that was nearly bereft of human life.

She set her battered duffel bags down – she’d carried them around for the last three years, and was happy for the break – and walked inside, her mouth slightly agape as she passed by empty seat after empty seat.

Something was…off.

She spotted the single person left in the room – a girl of maybe 24 or 25, frowning into her monitor – and walked in her direction. 

“Excuse me.  I’m H.G. Wells.  I’m supposed to be meeting with Myka.” 

The woman took a moment to respond, and Helena watched carefully as the girl finished her work before responding.  Ordinary people would be put off by the delay, but she had to respect someone in an environment like this that was more interested in finishing the thought than starting a new one.  When the last keystroke was struck, the girl’s hazel eyes looked away from the computer and locked with hers. 

“I’m sorry.  You’re H.G. It’s nice to meet you.  I’m –“

“H.G.?”

Their conversation was interrupted by a familiar voice from across the room.  She turned, already smiling, as Pete approached.

“Hey hey hey!  Look who’s back stateside!”

The pair embraced, though gently.  The last time they had seen one another had been less than amicable.  Helena had assumed that Pete, like Myka, would need an adjustment period.  Pete might have held back any real enthusiasm, but he wasn’t one to hold back his emotions.  If they were going to argue, he would have started by now…and the lack of animosity was a welcome relief.

“Hello, Pete,” she replied.

He looked to the girl – Leena, Helena mentally corrected after reading her nameplate – and smiled.  “Helena gave me my first summer internship. Wouldn’t be here without her. Speaking of which, don’t tell me you’re here to interview for my job.” 

Helena smiled.  “No, I’m here to do your job.”

Pete frowned.  “Um…wait. You were hired?  Here?”

“Yes.”

“I…don’t understand.” 

Helena narrowed her eyes at Pete and took in his shifted posture.   This was what she had expected out of him to begin with, not the warm greeting she had received.

She turned to Leena.  “Where is Myka?” 

“Um…her agent’s office is just down the street.  She’ll be back any minute.”

“She’s…at her agent’s office.”

Leena responded with a “Yes,” but drew the e out as her eyes shifted from face to face.  “I said to much, didn’t I?” she finished, looking at Pete.

“Yup,” Pete answered, nodding his head.  “And now, I understand.” 

Helena tilted her head.  “Leena, let me try to guess at something and you tell me how close I am to being right.  This whole arrangement was done behind Myka’s back, and she’s stormed off to her agent’s office to find out why she doesn’t have approval.”

The girl pursed her lips before nodding her head.

“Okay…okay.”  Helena lifted her hand to let it run through her hair, accidentally pulling a few of the dark strands into her face when she brought the hand back.  “You’re going to see some things when she gets back…I’m going to just sit here until then, all right?”

Pete pulled out a chair and let her sit before pushing her into the desk, then pat her shoulder in an almost sympathetic manner.  “Good luck,” he murmured before making a quick escape.

Helena sat in place, stunned, for a few minutes before she decided that silence was a terrible option.  With no activity to listen to and the feeds on commercial, she turned back to the only other person left in the room, now seated back at her desk. 

“So…Leena.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Ma’am?  How old do I look?”

“No…it’s…I’m sorry.  It’s just that I heard you were embedded for a while.” 

“Twenty-six months.  Anything happen while I was gone?” 

“That’s why I called you ma’am.” 

“Well,” Helena drawled, “so did the Marines.”

Leena smiled a bit.  “You don’t look like you’ve been in a war, if it helps.”

Helena waves her hand.  “First thing I did when I got back was buy women’s clothes.  Maxxed out three credit cards. But I thought, hey, the economy is booming.  Why not?”

Leena gasped.  “Oh, God.”

“I’m kidding.”

The younger laughed nervously – maybe relieved – but the girl’s tension was easy to spot.

The cell phone on Leena’s desk rang just then, and Helena turned away as the call was taken, to give her the courtesy of privacy despite sitting two feet from her.  She listened as she carried a conversation on with someone at the other end of the line. There were a few moments of disjointed, one-sided words that made no sense without context, and long pauses in the meantime.  She didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but that was the thing about cubicles, and therefore news rooms like this – everyone inevitably knew each other’s secrets, because there was nowhere to hide them.

“No, Mother, I’m making this choice because it’s what I want to do.”

The girl continued to listen, her mouth moving as if to interject, but invariably she was forced to close it.  After several more attempts to speak, she was finally left with few recourses.

“Nine o’clock.  Yes, Mother. I’ll meet you there.”  Then the conversation ended.

Helena watched as Leena fought back tears for a few moments before rising and walking around the desk, grabbing tissues as she went, and then bent in front of the girl.

“Your eyes are red.  Look at me.”

The girl wordlessly obeyed, and as Helena dabbed at the tears on Leena’s face, she spoke softly.

“You’re Mrs. Frederic’s daughter, aren’t you?”

Leena pulled back a little.  “How did you—“

“I would imagine that the staff is at some sort of meeting at the moment – and probably not one that involves working for Myka.  If they still intended to do so they would be at their desks right now. You are the only one that has remained, and somehow your mother is aware of that.  She would have to be highly aware of the inner workings of this company, and few of its executives would even care about the staff in this division. Also, I’ve met the woman – ‘Mother’ seems more appropriate than any other endearment.”

Leena looked down at her hands.  “I’ve tried not to let people see that connection.  I even use a different last name.”

“Why didn’t you move to ten o’clock with everyone else?”

Leena looked up and sighed.  “Loyalty. I’m Myka’s assistant.”

Helena watched the girl for a few moments more, assessing this barely-graduated child with too many familial expectations, seeing perhaps more of herself than she would have wished on anyone.

“No,” she replied.  “Associate Producer.  You’re an Associate Producer now.  I’m crazy about loyalty. You’ll report to—“

“H.G!  H.G!” A disembodied voice shouted her name from somewhere behind her, enthusiastic and slightly alarmed.

“Her,” Helena finished as a petite redhead came rushing through the glass doors, deftly dodging the duffel bags left at the entrance.

“Did you know that—“ the newcomer cut herself off when she noticed that there was another person within earshot.  “Um. Hi.”

“Claudia Donovan, this is Leena—“

“Yes.  Leena,” the girl interjected, cutting off her last name.  “Hi. Nice to meet you.” 

Claudia nodded and shook the offered hand.  “It’s…yeah, nice to meet you. I’m sorry. I have to borrow H.G.”

She didn’t wait for an answer – the red-haired girl dragged Helena across the office floor a second later, then turned to face her when the pair was suitably out of earshot.

“Did you know that Myka Bering didn’t know that you were hired as her EP and that she is at her agent’s office right now?”

“I didn’t know that when the day began, but I know it now.”

“I quit my job for this, H.G, and so did the other three people you told me to bring.”

“Our show was cancelled.  We were out of a job, anyway.”

“I was offered any other show I wanted at CNN.”

“Well I know, but I wasn’t.”  There was a little huff at the end of Helena’s statement.

“That’s not the point.”

“It’s actually really aggravating.”

“H.G…”  Claudia grabbed the older woman’s arms.  “I put down first and last month’s rent, and that’s a lot of fucking money.  Do I have a job in New York?”

“Of course you do.”

Claudia’s eyes narrowed.  “Are you sure ?”

Helena took a breath.  “No. But that’s not going to change anything for you.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“I’m very observant.”

Claudia stared at her boss for a moment, the mild aggravation at her quirks swallowed in favor actually accomplishing her goal, which was to squeeze someone so typically guarded and private for personal information.  “Why didn’t you tell me there was some kind of history between you and Myka before I moved up here?

“Because it’s personal, and I do not often entertain personal questions.  When was the last time you were in love with a woman?”

Claudia lifted an eyebrow.  “What?”

“Passionate love!  High school love, Hollywood love…”

The redhead’s next wordswere filtered through her clenched teeth.  “You know the only reason I’m still standing here is because I have nowhere else to go, right?”

Helena smiled and tilted her head.  “The question begs to be answered.”

“Never, H.G.  I have never been in love with a woman.”

“You know I wouldn’t judge you if you had been in love with a man, right?”

“Good thing to know…just one thing I don’t understand.”

“Tab A, slot B, Darling, it’s all very natural.”

“I don’t understand why you chose this exact moment to lose it. ”  Claudia’s voice dropped to a whisper, but her words were hissed out rather than spoken.  “Why are you afraid of Myka Bering?!”

The question – the implication – brought Helena up short for a moment, and her banter was lost to silence once more.  Earlier, when she realized what had happened, she felt that same paralyzing shiver crawl up her spine. It was a cold, unfamiliar feeling – especially for her – to dread anything.  She had been shot at, actually shot, stabbed, threatened, and had lost so many people she cared about. Walking into an ex-lover’s office and taking a job she deserved should not affect her this way.

And yet, it did.  That’s what guilt does to those with souls.

“I’m not afraid of anything,” she finally replied.

Claudia looked entirely unconvinced.

“Listen, do you see that girl over there?  Leena? I just made her an Associate Producer.”

“I hope she enjoys the five minute promotion by a delusional boss,” Claudia snarked back.

“I want you to make friends with her.  I want you to mold her and shape her into the best damn Associate Producer you can.”

“I’ll do what I can between now and whenever Myka comes back and fires you.”

“Shush.  Just do as I say.”

“Why?”  The redhead’s eyes narrowed, brown irises barely peeking through her skepticism.  “What’s in it for you?”

“Her mother is Irene Frederic.”

Claudia’s eyes widened right back up.  “Come on, H.G. That’s low.”

“No, hear me out.  She doesn’t want anyone to know that, and she’s struggling to do her best on her own, under another name, but she’s being pressured by her mother to do more for herself than stay with Myka, and if I had to guess she’s also being pressured by Pete Lattimer to move to ten o’clock.  She’s me, fifteen years ago.”

“And now you’ve made her an Associate Producer on a team that has three minutes to live.”

Helena lifted her hands.  “All right…all right. You’re right.  You’re right, Claudia. You’ve done everything I’ve ever asked of you, and more that I would never ask anyone to do.”  She reached into her purse and plucked out her phone. “Tell me where you want to go. I’ll make the call.”

“H.G.”

“Fly away, little bird…”

“Stop it!  H.G.—“

“Something great is about to happen here, Claudia, and you are going to want to be a part of it.”

“Then tell me what happened with Myka Bering!”

She deserved an answer, because Helena hadn’t lied – she valued loyalty in people because she had seen its worth many times over in the girl – no, young woman – before her.

She valued loyalty because once, not so long ago, she had discarded it for a regrettable evening, and it had cost her everything she loved.

“I can’t.  I just can’t.  But this is a solid promise:  We’re going to do the best news on TV.”

“Or?”

“We’ll all be filling out job applications at Dave & Busters, but we’ll be doing it together.  Now sit right here. Sit. And just wait. I will make this work.”

Claudia did as she was asked.  Helena placed her hand on a narrow shoulder and squeezed before she started walking toward Myka’s still-empty office.

“H.G.?  Where’s the rest of the staff?”

“They left to ten o’clock.”

Claudia’s seat creaked as she threw herself backward in it.  “Great.”

Helena knew Claudia would forgive her, eventually.  This indiscretion was a minor one, and not meant to be an actual indiscretion at all in the end.  If the day went south, she would find her four staff members a good place to land. She even felt reasonably certain that, after everything, she could negotiate to have them stay on if she was let go.  She could do that. Myka would –

Heels clacked loudly on the marble floor just in front of the open glass doors, then halted as abruptly as Helena’s thoughts as she looked up and was met with the most beautiful and frightening of sights.

Myka Bering stood before her, dressed crisply and towering over everyone in heels she didn’t need, still wearing her fitted tan overcoat.  Her curly hair was longer than when they last saw one another, and messed from the wind. Helena hadn’t thought it possible for her to become more beautiful – she had been wrong.

The hurt in those deep green eyes, however, was a different creature.  It had been left to fester for years, and grown even more terrible than the last time she had been struck by that wrath.  The memory of Myka’s anger had haunted her nightmares for years. Now, that memory would have a companion. 

“Hello, Myka,” Helena finally said.  “It’s good to see you.”

“My office,” came a clipped, terse reply.

Helena nodded.  “Of course. Lead the way.”

Myka gave her one more glance before taking her next step.

“Someone tell Pete Lattimer his party’s over, and that I need someone on the assignment desk in case there happens to be, what do you call it?  News?”

Myka didn’t look back as she shouted her proclamation, and Helena winced – she could already see the damage her betrayal had caused.  She took a last look back at Claudia, and read on her senior producer’s lips the words, “I think I understand now” before she followed Myka through the glass door of the anchor’s office and let it shut behind her.

Helena Wells was definitely afraid of Myka Bering…especially this Myka, who would not have come back without the resolution she wanted.

This Myka Bering would be afraid of nothing.

Except jellyfish, she mentally corrected, which is perfectly normal.

 

———

She took notice of all the details – the tightness in her gait, the disorder in her usually tidy office, the absence of any pictures on her desk.  None of these things were the case three years ago, and Helena knew she was facing a challenge. The woman before her had…changed.

“I tried to get in touch with you while you were on vacation…no one seemed to know how to do that.  Or at least, they weren’t willing to say.”

Myka didn’t reply, glancing instead at the copy of the Times left on her desk.

“Actually, I’ve tried to get in touch with you a lot of times over the last three years.  Did you get all those e-mails?”

“Yeah.”

“What did you think?”

“I didn’t read them.”

The paper was dropped back in place, and the taller woman dropped herself into her seat.  Helena followed suit, taking the armchair placed in front of the desk.

“I understand.”

Silence was her answer.  She shifted in the armchair and cleared her throat before continuing.

“You look good after your vacation.  Rested. I’ve never been to St Lucia.  Is it great?”

“Yeah.”

“I understand you were down there with Chris Pine…it’s not my business.  You can go anywhere with anyone.”

“Thank you.”

The short, clipped answers were understandable, but useless – they were delaying the inevitable, and Helena wasn’t a fan of letting problems linger.

“Hey, this can work.  In fact, I think it’ll work great.  I asked my agent to negotiate a three year contract, and you know me…I THINK that’s the longest contract I’ve ever–”

“It’s not a three year contract anymore.”

A dark eyebrow shot up.  “I’m sorry?”

“It’s not a three year contract anymore.  It’s a 156 week contract that gives me the opportunity to fire you 155 times at the end of each week.  We’ll wait a few months to make sure it’s not a story someone can shove up my ass after Northwestern. We’ll do it then.”

“How did you get my contract changed?”

“I gave the network back some money off my salary.”

“How much money?”

“A million dollars a year.”

“You paid a million dollars to be able to fire me whenever you want?”

“There million, and not anytime I want, just at the end of each week.”

Helena was shocked – honestly shocked – by the lengths Myka had gone to just to ensure she had that kind of leverage, but more shocked by another detail revealed in the conversation.

“How the hell much money do you get paid?!”

 

——-

 

“Pete?"  Leena called as the man in question walked into the newsroom, the rest of the ten o'clock staff in tow.

"Speaking,” he replied with a grin.  Leena motioned him over to the desk where the new arrival sat, anxiously awaiting the fates of her boss and herself.  She stood immediately after hearing her name, anxious to meet the people she was supposedly maybe probably not working with.

“You should meet Claudia Donovan, H.G.’s senior producer.”

Claudia shook Pete’s hand immediately, having recognized his name and description from stories H.G. had regaled her with overseas.  He was, according to the descriptions, a kind and generous, if occasionally juvenile man.

“Hey, good to meet you.  Were you with H.G. in Afghanistan?”

“Yeah, and Iraq…and sometimes when you’re in Afghanistan it turns out you’re really in Pakistan.”

Leena chuckled, but Pete didn’t.  “You ever produced for a studio?”

She suddenly got the sense that she was being interviewed…over a hot grill.  “For about a year, in Atlanta before H.G. took me out.”

“She’s crazy, you know?”

Truth was, she did in fact know that, but H.G. Wells was that special kind of crazy that always seemed to be right, an Claudia adored her for it.  She was about to answer when Pete continued.

“I’ve never seen anyone love being an American so much, and when you factor in that she isn’t really American it gets…really…”

She had to take a second to replay the conversation, to remember the introduction, to be sure that the man H.G. Was so willing to praise was the same asshole standing in front of her.  “Yes she is an American, actually. Her dad was Margaret Thatcher’s ambassador to the UN and she was actually born here.”

Forget about the job I may or may not have, she thought.  She wasn’t interested in letting anyone smear H.G.’s personality without cause.

“And immediately shoved in a room and shown Frank Capra movies until she was 21 just like a sophomore polisci major at Sarah Lawrence,” Pete fired back with a laugh.  Claudia delivered a hollow approximation.

“Yeah, exactly like that.  I guess the only real differences are the two Peabodys and the scar on her stomach from the knife wound she got covering a Shiite protest in Islamabad.”

At blessed last, that shut the man up.  With a glance toward Leena, he backed away.   “Welcome,” he concluded disingenuously.

 

——-

 

“Okay, do this to me.  Do this to me all you want, but you can’t do this to them.”

Myka’s eyes hadn’t wandered from the cold stare she’d fixed Helena with just before her first dryly-delivered thanks, and Helena had to actively resist the urge to squirm a little under the glare.  “Who?”

“People followed me here.  Claudia Donovan, my senior producer – “

“That can’t possibly be my problem.”

“They’re in the process of moving.  They’ve put down security deposits, they’re looking for roommates –“

“Yeah they fucked up, Helena!”  Myka’s sudden and swift outburst startled Helena, and she prided herself on not startling – or angering or reacting in general – easily. “They fucked up when they decided to trust you!”

Helena’s heart skipped a few beats as her chest tightened around it.

 

——

 

Funny thing about glass – it’s not soundproof.  Pete, Leena…hell, the entire staff turned to face Myka’s office after the outburst. 

Claudia may have expected it.  Claudia also knew that Helena was fighting for her, but she put her head in her hands anyway.  Whatever happened between them, Myka had been left very, very angry.

She was a smart girl.  She could read the subtext.

A familiar beep sounded from somewhere nearby, alerting the room to a new item of breaking news.  She looked up out of instinct and glanced around for the source, then noticed that she appeared to be the only one that had heard it come in.

“Got a ping,” she said out loud.  One of the staff members – some girl about her age that had come in with the party crowd, turned to look at her briefly before turning back to her monitor.

“Excuse me, Pete?  You have a news alert.”

He looked toward the redhead, then frowned before heading to the monitor to check on it.

“It’s yellow,” he replied, before walking back to….whatever it was he was doing that he was trying to make look like something other than eavesdropping on the conversation in the other room.

Claudia drummed her fingers against the desk and twirled in her chair for a few moments before curiosity got the better of her.  A swift swipe of her wrist brought the computer next to her out of its screensaver, and she quickly found the new alert.

“There’s been an explosion off the coast of Louisiana.”

This got the attention of a few people nearby.  “How can there be an explosion in the middle of the water?”

Claudia thought about it for a moment.  Something was biting at the back of her brain, begging her for notice.  Something huge.

“An oil rig,” she responded before her mind processed the words.  And then, when her thoughts and instincts caught up with one another, her eyes widened.  A few more keystrokes gave her the confirmation. “Yeah. Well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Pete turned to look at her, his face in a frown.  “All right,” he said to some blonde that Claudia hadn’t yet met.  “Test this on the assignment desk and see if it goes anywhere.”

“Flames reach a hundred fifty feet in the air…” Claudia read aloud.  That tidbit only made the bells in her brain sound louder.

When she turned out to the floor again, no one was paying attention anymore.

 

——

 

“If you’d read any of my e-mails or listened to my voicemails, you’d know that I take responsibility for everything.”

“I already knew that, “ Myka replied through clenched teeth, “and I already didn’t care.”

“That I’m sorry.”

“Are you?”

Helena exhaled on the word, letting that truth out with relief.  “Yes.”

“Helena…I…you have no idea how I’ve longed to hear those words.”

Her delivery was deadpan, and Helena found herself sucking that air back in.

“You’re being sarcastic.”

Myka sat back in her chair, but Helena couldn’t read the expression on her face.

“You always did know me better than anyone else,” she said evenly.

 

 ——-

 

“Rescue crews arrive on location, 12-15 people missing.”

“Still yellow,” Pete growled.

Claudia let out a frustrated huff.  “Pete, come on, they just haven’t changed the color.  Someone should let Myka know or–”

“I’m not knocking’ on Myka’s door right now, and…” he shook his head, guiding Claudia by the elbow back to the seat she had occupied earlier, …"you don’t work here yet, so relax.“  He looked back to one of his staff members and walked away from the redhead. "Anything new?”

“No.”

“There might be!” Claudia interjected.

“There won’t be,” Pete shot over his shoulder.

“An oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded.  There will be.”

Pete stood still for a moment, appearing to think things over.  “Does anyone have any better information?”

Leena spoke up.  “It’s the BP Deepwater Horizon.  50 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana.  The coast guard evacuated seven people, all in critical condition, and 11 are still confirmed missing.”

“Anyone actually on my news staff?” he amended.

“Still yellow,” the blonde intern (at least, that’s who she was in Claudia’s mind) answered.

“Isn’t it possible that AP has other things going on and there’s an intern on the updates?  Because…" Claudia paused as the pieces she’d been trying to put together for a few minutes finally clicked, then gasped.  "They might have bigger problems than the missing crew.”

Pete, who had gone back to…whatever, stopped.  “What do you mean they might have bigger problems than the missing crew?”

“I…hang on a second."  She turned to the computer beside her and within a few keystrokes had the information she wanted.  "The Deepwater Horizon is drilling at eighteen thousand feet below sea level. There are only a handful of things that might have failed, and if it was the wrong one…”

“Pressure?” Leena guessed.

“It would be like trying to toss a hat on a firehose.  This is bigger than 11 missing people. There might be a massive oil spill 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana.” Claudia finished.

Pete stood beside her, arms folded in front of his chest.  “Claudia, right?”

“Right.”

“Remind me what you’re doing here?”

“I may or may not be but almost definitely won’t be a senior producer here under H.G., if she still has a job, which it sounds like she probably absolutely doesn’t.”

“Well, whatever it is, it doesn’t start for two weeks, and right now you are in my newsroom behaving in a way that is bothering me.”

Claudia looked the much taller man in the eyes, and wondered inwardly what happened to a guy that H.G. had such kind words for to turn him into such a giant douche.  Then again, she also wondered how the “friend” that H.G. had described for two years – and she was now absolutely convinced it had to be Myka Bering – could possibly be the prickly woman in the other room.

Maybe it was H.G.  She did have a habit of bringing the devil out in a person.

“Got it,” she said.

He walked away, yammering about a truck and the Rose Bowl, as the phone in her pocket began to buzz.  She looked at the number just long enough to realize it was an international call before lifting it to her ear.

“This is Claudia Donovan.”

Three words later, she was back out of her seat in search of a private conference room.

She might be in Pete Lattimer’s domain, but she was still going to do her job.

 

 

——-

 

 

“For the moment, your people can have their jobs.  Like I said, I have to wait to do anything because there was a press release, but when I hire the new EP – who I will hire by hiring them myself – whoever it is will have to interview the new people.”

“All right.  Well, I appreciate that.”  It was more than she deserved, but less than her people deserved, so Helena pressed for the best result she could get.  “You’re going to like them, Myka,” she said in truth. She knew that Myka would appreciate the kind of qualities her people possessed.  “They’re really good people.”

“They’ll get a fair chance, Helena,” the anchor replied, in a tone as close to soft as any she had made so far.  “I promise.”

What wasn’t spoken in the statement was much louder than Myka’s voice could get.

“Thank you.”

There was long moment of silence in which the pair stared at one another, and it was in that brief span where the differences between this Myka Bering and the woman she had loved truly showed.  Helena had seen the woman angry in ways that should frighten every mortal under God, but her anger had always burned out quickly. Myka had been stubborn, but too kind at heart to hold a grudge.  This vitriol was something stronger, deeper, and far, far more malignant.

Helena was no stranger to the kind of pain that drove one to do things they know they shouldn’t do, but…

“I haven’t started my script.”

Helena nodded.  “I’ll get out of your hair."  She rose to leave, willing enough to accept the hand that karma and this creature her betrayal had created had offered her.  Hand on the door, she was pushing it open when she stopped, having suddenly thought the better of it.

The woman in that room was not Myka Bering – or at least not completely –  and she had already been aware of that when she accepted the job.

She hadn’t come back because she needed money.  She had come to set right what she had so terribly wronged.

"There’s nothing more important in a democracy than a well-informed electorate.”

When she turned to face Myka again, she was met with an arched eyebrow over narrowed eyes.  “I just want to make sure you know that you’re still on this side of the door.”

“When there’s no information or, much worse, wrong information, it can lead to calamitous decisions and destroy any attempt at vigorous debate.  That’s why I produce the news.”

“What’s your point, Helena?”

“You’re spinning out of control.”

Myka lifted her hands and laughed – scoffed, even.  “No I’m not.”

“You’re terrified you’ll lose your audience, and you’ll do anything to get them back.  You’re one pitch meeting away from doing the news in 3D.”

“This isn’t non-profit theater.  It’s advertiser-supported television.  You know how this works.”

Myka’s eyes widened – just slightly – as Helena crossed a barrier both of them had been very cautious of during their conversation.  She walked around the desk and leaned over the woman, hands on either armrest. “I’d rather do a good show for a hundred people than a bad one for a million, if that’s what you’re saying,” she whispered fiercely.

Myka rolled her chair back enough to put distance between them again, and Helena let her go.  “I think I’d like to know what you’re saying.”

“I’ve come here to do a news broadcast like the one you used to do before you got popular by not bothering anyone, Leno.”

“I think Jay and I would rather be employed, if it’s all the same to you.”

“It IS all the same, Myka!  Don’t you see? I’ve come here to take your career and your talent and put it to some patriotic fucking use!  Where does it say that a good news show can’t be popular?”

The anchor folded her arms across her chest.  “Nielsen ratings.”

“Fuck those antiquated little black boxes.  They’re wrong, and you know it. We’re going to do a good news show and make it popular at the same time.”

“That is impossible!”

“Between your brains, looks, and charm, and my own extensive–”

“Refusal to live in reality–”

“We can do the–”

“Impossible, Helena!"  Myka lifted her arms in the air in exasperation.  "Social scientists have concluded that the country is more polarized than at any time since the Civil War.  The Civil War!”

“Yes, people choose the news they want now, but–”

“People choose the FACTS they want now.  What you’re suggesting is not possible.”

“Only if you think the majority of Americans are preternaturally stupid!”

“I do, Helena!  And so do you!”

The would-be producer’s heart broke at those words.  She hadn’t simply hurt Myka. She had destroyed a good, decent, hopeful person.

“I deserve that,” she answered.  “I do. Because you’re right. I do think that.  But Myka, you were always the one that believed it was because people were not properly informed.  You were always the one that believed in that well-informed electorate.”

“I was wrong,” Myka retorted.

“No, I was wrong.”  When Helena crossed into Myka’s personal space again, it was on her knees in front of the seated woman.  “You were right. You were always right. And if you give me a chance, I will prove that to you.”

Myka turned away, but her face revealed for the first time that day a sliver of emotion other than anger or disgust.  Helena couldn’t be sure what it was, but it was something.

“You know what you left out of your sermon?  That America is the only country that since its inception has said over and over and over again that we can do better.  It’s in our DNA. People will want the facts we give them if it’s given to them with integrity. Not everybody, not even a lot of people.  Five percent. And five percent of anything is what makes the difference in this country, so we can do better.”

Myka’s moment of something prolapsed into an odd stare.

“What is it?”

The anchor tilted her head.  “I’m thinking.”

 

——-

 

Claudia was wearing a smile when she emerged from the conference room.  As she approached Leena, the other girl looked up.

“I’d like to speak with Pete.”

Hazel eyes widened, and eyebrows shot upward.  “Are you sure?”

Claudia nodded, and Leena shook her head before pointing across the newsroom.  Claudia smiled her thanks, then walked toward the reigning EP. He looked up, saw her coming, and grunted.

“Look,” he started before she got there, “I don’t mind you observing, but I mind you doing pretty much anything else.”

She ignored him.  “I just got a call from a source.”

Pete frowned, then started walking away.  The redhead refused to give up.

“He’s a senior engineer for BP in London, sitting in meetings where they don’t know how to cap the well.”

Pete stopped, then turned.  “Who’s this source?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

Pete rolled his eyes.  “Anything else?”

Claudia pulled out her notepad.  “A lot, I got two pages of notes from our conversation–”

“Ooookay…”

Pete lifted his hands and walked away, leaving Claudia in the middle of the room, mentally screaming cursewords at his back.

H.G. owed her such an explanation.

 

———

 

“I’d like you to listen to these words, which were written 500 years ago by Don Miguel de Cervantes.”

Myka lifted an eyebrow, but Helena continued, anyway.

“‘Hear me now, o thou bleak and unbearable world, thou art base and debauched as can be.  But a knight, with his banners all bravely unfurled, now hurls down his gauntlet, to thee.'  That was Don Quixote.”

“Helena, I grew up in a bookstore.  That was not Don Quixote.”

“Fine,” she conceded, “it was from Man of La Mancha, but the point remains the same.  It’s time for Don Quixote.”

“And you think I’m Don Quixote?”

“No, I think I’m Don Quixote.  I think you’re the horse.”

“He rode a donkey.”

Helena tilted her head to the side.  “I was attempting to avoid that comparison, Darling.”

Myka lifted her hand to the bridge of her nose.  “I have to write my script,” she muttered.

“I’ll write it for you,” Helena offered.  “I’m a better writer, anyway. The volcanic eruption in Iceland is believed to have started on March 20th and has led to a worldwide transportation disaster.  The suspension of air traffic was in no way caused by America, which I love, you have to believe me,”

“Do you really want me to get into shouting matches with windmills?”

Helena sat back down and leaned across the desk.  “You got yourself into a shouting match. I would have you win it.”

“What does winning look like to you?”

“Reclaiming the Fourth Estate.”  She replied reflexively, honestly, and Myka moved backward almost imperceptibly in her chair as if pushed by an unseen force.  How many hours had they spent tgether discussing that very thing? How many times has Myka lamented the state of the nation, and how many ways had they devised to inform the conversation?  “Reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession. A nightly newscast that informs a debate worthy of a great nation. Civility, respect, and a return to what’s important. The death of gossip and voyeurism.  Speaking truth to stupid. No demographic sweet spot – a place where we all come together.”

It had been Myka’s dream, the reason she had become a journalist and abandoned her promising law career.  She had wanted to really make a difference, and though talking had never been her favorite thing to do, she had been shocked to discover in college that she was actually quite good at making a point.

That quality had been one of the things Helena found most attractive about the other woman.  Really, as she’d gotten to know her better, she had found few qualities she couldn’t love. That inscrutable look returned to Myka’s face, but she cast her gaze downward.  Helena grew bold and crossed one final barrier to take one of Myka’s slender hands in her own, forcing that green-hued gaze back up.

“We’re coming to a tipping point.  I know you know that. There’s going to be a huge conversation.  Is government an instrument of good, or is it every man for himself?  Is there something bigger we want to reach for, or is self-interest our basic resting pulse?  You and I have the chance to be among the few people that can frame that debate.”

And when Myka looked away one more time, Helena could finally see through the woman she had become and found the woman she had fallen in love with in the vulnerable expression.  She was still mad, and perhaps would be for the rest of their lives. She was still in pain. But underneath it all, Helena could tell she was truly thinking about what had been said.

“It's…Helena, this idea…it's…”

She squeezed the hand between her palms.  “Quixotic?”

 

——-

 

“Pete!”

The more information Claudia gathered, the worse the news got, and friend or no she wasn’t interested in sitting on the sidelines while a staff of sloths fumbled the biggest environmental story of the last two decades.

“Jeez, we’re on it, Jimmy Olsen.  We have 55 seconds with a Coast Guard liaison.”

“That’s not nearly enough, and you’re chasing the wrong story.”

Pete groaned, but Claudia pressed.

“Listen, Halliburton was the contractor on this special type of concrete that was supposed to–”

Pete turned to face her, his irritation made plain.

“Okay, you’re being disruptive now.”

Claudia fumed as the man walked away from her one more time, and decided to play one last card just to shove it in the arrogant man’s face.  "Hey, how happy is Artie Nielsen gonna be when I phone this over to CBS and he finds out you had it first?“

"All right, that’s it,” Pete said, whirling back toward the girl.  “Get out.”

He pointed toward the door, but Claudia’s anger only grew hotter.  “Okay,” she said, “You’re right. Elevator’s this way?”

Pete gestured toward the door one more time as Claudia took off her credential and set it on Leena’s desk, but then made a break at the last minute toward Myka’s office.  Pete followed after her, yelling along the way, but she made it through the door before he could catch her.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said, trying and possibly failing to tame the tone of frustration in her voice, “but can I talk to H.G. for just a second?”

Pete was right behind her.  “This girl here is a pain in the ass, Myka.  Don’t listen to her.”

“An oil well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico,” Claudia supplied to the women in the room.

"The coast guard is searching for missing crewmembers, I’ll fill you in at the 6 o'clock rundown,” Pete retorted, his tone still dismissive.

"There’s more.”

The man huffed.  “She doesn’t need to hear this right now.”

“Let’s go outside,” Helena offered, but Myka stopped her.

“No, if Pete doesn’t want me to hear it, I’d like to hear it.”

Pete rolled his eyes.  “Bite me.”

“I’ll thank you not to talk to me that way, Pete.  I can still have you fired.”  Myka looked torward the redhead.  “You. What’s on your mind? And who are you?”

“This is Claudia Donovan, my senior producer,” Helena answered.

“What happened?”

Claudia took a breath and pulled out her notes.  “Two calls, within five minutes of one another. The first one was from someone I know at BP in London saying he’s sitting in meetings  discussing all the ways they don’t know how to cap the well.”

“Jesus.”

“The oil is still spilling?”

Claudia nodded.  “Yeah, at a pretty alarming rate.  The first estimate was ten thousand gallons an hour.  My guy says it’s closer to one hundred thousand, and could get as high as a quarter of a million.”

“Why is this well different from other wells?,” Myka asked.

"The depth.  They’re drilling at eighteen thousand feet below sea level.”

“Is that dangerous?”

“Take the Grand Canyon, make it three times deeper, fill it with water, and poke a hole in the bottom.  You can’t just yank the pin out of the planet, and that’s what just happened.”

Just as Myka asked who the second call was from, Artie appeared in the doorway, a mildly haggard and somewhat out of breath Artie appeared in the doorway, which none of them realized was still open.

“What the hell is going on?”

“Nothing, Artie.” Pete replied.  “Myka, can we please get back to work?”

“A rig exploded in the gulf?”

“It’s yellow,” Pete insisted.

“Not anymore,” Artie replied.  “It just got bumped up to orange.”

Pete, looking vaguely alarmed, walked past Artie to verify the information.

“The second call was my person at Halliburton.” Claudia said, picking up where she left off.  “The rig was due to be moved to its next role as a semi-permanent production platform at a new location, and Halliburton was hired to seal the well with cement.” Pete came back in, hands folded over his chest.  “Both of my people are identifying a failure with the cement’s mix as the cause of the explosion, but here’s the thing: Halliburton performed tests on the cement mix, and those tests showed it was gonna fail.”

“Holy mother–”

“Hang on,” Myka said, stopping Helena’s outburst.  “I need to know your sources.”

Claudia glanced at Pete, and hesitated in no small part because she wasn’t interested in giving him the satisfaction.  “Look…you don’t have to trust me, but H.G. trusts me, and you trust her.”

“Try any other strategy,” Myka suggested.

“How high up is the guy at BP?"  Artie asked.

"High enough to be in on the meetings, and I never said it was a guy.”

“Actually, you did,” Myka replied.  “What about your person at Halliburton?”

“High enough.  Look, you guys are going to want to follow up on this, okay?  Open with the Coast Guard search and rescue and then pivot to this, because at the rate things are going it’s going to be the biggest environmental disaster in history.”

“Jesus Christ, can we please get back to work and send Nancy Drew over here away?”

“No, look, after an explosion like that, my source tells me that the first thing that should happen is that the underwater blowout preventer should automatically close.  Flames are still a hundred fifty feet high, so that obviously didn’t happen. Now when they get the fire out, they’re gonna send a submersible ROV down there to turn the preventer on manually, but…"  she searched through her notes unties he found what she was looking for, ”'at that depth with that much pressure, it had to be the mechanics that failed and not the electronics.' In other words, trying it manually isn’t going to work, either.  They’ll have to build relief wells, and that will take months. Months during which 4.2 million gallons of oil will spill into the Gulf every day.“

"Just for the record, there’s, like, 150 quadrillion gallons of water in that Gulf.” Pete supplied.  “I think you’re overreacting.”

“I think you’re dramatically underreacting.”

“I’m the only one that isn’t dramatically doing anything.”

“In four days, you’re looking at the Exxon-Valdez.  It’s a week before the oil reaches Louisiana shores, three days if the wind shifts.”

“Will the wind shift?” Helena asked.

“Only if Louisiana’s luck stays exactly the same.” Claudia replied.

Helena sighed, and shook her head.  “You have to tell her your sources, Claudia.  She can’t trust you unless you trust her.”

The redhead shifted on her feet then sighed and closed the door.  “The BP engineer is my brother. He’s a junior executive and has been there a year.”

“Who’s your Halliburton guy?”

“My big sister.  She’s got a PhD in Mechanical Engineering.”

“You’re telling me you have not one but two siblings involved in the same problem?  How often do you get this lucky?”

Claudia shrugged.  “This is my first time.”

“Wait.  Just wait.”  Pete walked between Claudia and the desk, physically blocking Myka’s line of sight, and leaned over the cluttered wooden surface.  “This situation…this is a search and rescue, which no one is going to be rescued because Michael Phelps with an outboard motor on his ass couldn’t outswim that fire, but never mind that that because you’re letting some kid you don’t know and a woman that you…I don’t know what the hell spin this into oblivion.  If you’re wrong about Halliburton, that’s the first line of your bio, forever. 'Isn’t this the same woman that blamed Halliburton for that explosion?' And by the way,” Pete’s tone was hard and purposefully condescending as he turned to face Claudia again, “you accuse them of negligent homicide, they will take you to court.  They will win. And they will end up owning AWM. They will have their own record label, they will have their own theme parks. You will all – ALL –“ he pointed around at everyone else, “be finished.”

Myka looked from Pete to Artie.  The older man was watching her with a soft expression on his face, as if he knew what she was thinking.  Maybe he did. Myka nodded thoughtfully as Pete finished his rant, then looked in Helena’s direction.

There is the Myka I remember, she thought.

“Throw out the rundown,” she said.

Artie, Helena, and Claudia had moments of private celebration, but Pete was out the door with his hands in the air almost before she finished speaking.  “This is out of control,” he muttered, but the next moment, he was barking orders to the staff outside. “We’re throwing out the rundown! Alan, see if you can get me a spokesperson from BP–“

“Whoa!  Whoa!”

He looked back to find Myka at his tail, her expression almost back to what had become normal.

“Where are you going?”

“I was just told to put together a new show,” he spat.

Myka’s jaw jut out just a bit in the half-beat pause she took before stating anything else.  In that pause, the shadow of a thought seemed to cross her face, but didn’t linger long enough to broadcast what she was about to do. 

“Guys, can I have your attention?” she asked of the room.  The staff turned in their seats and quieted as she continued.  “I’m sorry if I’ve been a little inaccessible or terse lately. Or…for several years.  But if I could just see a show of hands: who is going with Pete to ten o'clock?”

Everyone seated in the room, save one person, raised their hand slowly, each looking to one another for some clue as to what was happening.

“Alright, I appreciate all the hard work, and as a token of that appreciation, I’m giving you two weeks paid vacation, starting...right now.”

The staff shuffled and milled, but eventually started responding.  Myka waked over to Leena, where Helena and Claudia were already standing.

“Hold on, you’re gonna have her run the show?”

Myka bent to a computer screen and began to read what information existed on the disaster herself.  “Yeah, Pete. You were right. I’m not the same person I was before, you’re not the same senior producer I promoted.  Change might be good for both of us.”

“Mykes…don’t do this.”

She stood to her full height – impressively, an inch taller than Pete in her chosen heels – before folding her arms in front of her chest and cocking her hip out.  Pete took a step back after coming to her side.

“I just offered her the most humiliating contract since Antonio got a loan from Shylock.  She took it, Pete. I really don’t know what that is, but I like it.”

“You’re gonna do an entire hour on an environmental story and you don’t want to wait until they’ve spilled enough oil to cover a pelican?”

“That happened an hour ago, Pete, and you were too busy pissing all over this newsroom to keep tabs on it.”

Pete paused, visibly shocked by her accusation, but recovered quickly.  “You’re making a mistake.”

Myka glanced in Helena’s direction briefly, then looked back to her former EP.  “I made the mistake a long time ago. Now get out, and take everyone that doesn’t want to be here anymore with you.  No animosity. When you come back in two weeks, maybe you’ll all understand.”

She left Pete behind to fume and stopped inches in front of Helena.  It was closer than they had been in years.

“I’m not sure I believed a word of those speeches you just made, but can you start two weeks early?”

Helena smiled, then nodded.  “Righty ho, then,” she replied.

 

——-

 

“Everyone out that doesn’t need to be here!  Let’s go!”

The room moved as if a major new event was breaking – ironic, she thought, considering that was actually true – and one by two by three, the roughly thirty people that used to work for News Night filed to the exits.

It was fortunate, she thought, that she didn’t really know who any of them were, or what they did.  Her staff had changed too frequently for her to keep track over the years…or more likely, she stopped caring enough to try.

I’ll fix that , she thought.  I’ll learn the names and talents and favorite colors of everyone that sits at one of those desks from now on.

Or, at least, she would try.  Interns would be difficult to keep track of.  That’s why she paid someone else to deal with them.

The few people left behind started scrambling for information, and the next hour was a blur of phone calls, updates, and frenetic notetaking the likes of which she hadn’t done since she was an undergrad. 

It felt good.  It felt like she was doing something worthwhile again.

She glanced across her desk to the dark-haired woman seated opposite her, and watched as she asked question after question of the man on the other end of the phone line, hammering him for as much information as she could.  Pulling out truths. Laying them bare.

Like she always did.

Myka felt her hand start to shake, as it had in Chicago and as it had the night that she had last seen Helena Wells.  The night she had rightly called her a liar and demanded she leave.

“Myka, please, it was wrong of me, but I couldn’t keep it from you if —“

“If what?  If I proposed?  You’re suddenly honest now because the prospect of marriage means you have to be?  I’m all for full disclosure in a relationship, Helena, but I’m also a big fan of some fucking monogamy.”

“I...I haven’t since—“

“It was more than once?!  How long did this go on under my nose?”

“A….a year.  The first year.”

“The...first year. The whole first year.  I’ve only fucking known you for three!”

“It didn’t mean anything.”

“Neither did I!  Clearly, neither did I!  I was in love with you by our third date and you...you just…”

“Myka.”

“No.  Get out.  Get the fuck out and don’t come back.  Don’t come near me ever again.”

Suddenly, it felt like she was completely out of control.

 

——-

 

“Hey Leena?”

Claudia, fresh off a conference call in Myka’s office, drew the girl’s attention from a phone conversation.  As she politely put the person on the line on hold, Claudia took note of the smattering of people still in the room.  Somehow, it seemed, they’d picked up a few stragglers to fill some gaps.

She also noted that Pete was seated at the desk opposite Leena’s, but didn’t have time to call security and have him escorted out.

“Yes, Claudia?”

“I need a favor.  There’s a government agency called the MMA.  They have some kind of oversight over offshore drilling, I don’t know anything about them.  Can you write me a short memo?”

Leena nodded as she reached for a notepad.  “Sure! I’ll have it for you ASAP.”

The redhead nodded her thanks and was about to turn back into the office when Pete spoke up.

“I’ll write it.”

Pete had a phone in his hand and was about to dial a number before Leena responded.

“Pete, I can do it.”

“You’re not the only one with loyalty.  I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. And anyway, you can’t just look this up on Wikipedia.”

“I wasn’t going to.”

Pete turned to Claudia, phone still on his ear.  “She’s Myka’s assistant,” he told her, an explanation and admonishment in three words.

“Actually I’m an Associate Producer.”

Pete pulled his head up and away from the receiver.  “Since when?”

“Since about two hours ago, and you’re wasting my time.  Figure out who my boss is later. I’d like to get this one thing right.”

Pete put the receiver down.  “Knock it out of the park.”

Claudia contemplated going back into the office and continuing her conference calls, but instead pulled Pete aside.  They walked to a slightly darkened hallway, out of earshot of the rest of the room.

“Look, Pete,” she started, “I don’t know what you’re doing here, and yeah a lot of this is still in transition, but right now I have to point out that where I might have been mildly annoying, right now you’re actually disrupting the one employee left in here, and we really can’t afford that.”

The much taller man drew to his full height, but rather than exploding with a sarcastic retort, he ran his hand down his face and sighed.

“Then let me help.”

Claudia shook her head.  “No, look…thanks, but—“

“No, seriously, let me help.  I asked those four people in the corner to stay behind and help out with some of the news desk things.  They’re coming to ten, yes, but they’re good people. I swear it.”

“Look man, no offense, but we need people that are actually interested in doing this right to, you know, do this right.”

For the first time that afternoon, Claudia saw the man’s arrogance break away, and she thought maybe she was beginning to finally meet the Pete Lattimer that H.G. had once called friend.  “Look, I get it. I’m a dick, and you have no reason to like me, but this is still my show for two weeks, even if H.G. is doing my job. I’m invested in it. And as much as it doesn’t seem like it, I do care about Myka.  If she insists on going down this road, I’m going to do what I can to keep her ass covered.”

Claudia still didn’t like the man at all, but she decided to put that aside and maybe, after this was all over, try to wipe the slate clean with him and start fresh.

Maybe.

“Get us a statement from the EPA and I’ll call it an apology,” she replied.

“On it,” Pete replied before turning quickly back to his meager staff.

Claudia walked toward Myka’s office again and watched the man as he went over to the desk of one of those staff members he’d spoken so well of, and stopped short of going back inside to linger long enough to watch him get on the phone again.

“He’s a good man at heart,” Leena offered, eyes on her monitor as she typed out her memo.  “I haven’t been here long, but I’ve been here long enough to know that. The last few years have just…changed people around here.  Or, so I’ve been told.”

Claudia glanced at Leena and smiled.  “Buckle up. I think things are gonna change again.”

 

 

It was 6:30.

Alone in her dressing room, palms pressed to the cold stone countertop, Myka let her head drop and her shoulders sag as the weight of the day started to settle.  She couldn’t let it break her…not yet. She needed to get through the show, and then get home, and then maybe she could sink into a warm shower and let the tears roll away with the stream.

When she looked up again, into the mirror fixed on the wall in front of her, she was startled by what she saw.

She didn’t make a habit of looking at herself much, but for some reason tonight her eye was drawn to all the strange imperfections that had developed over the three years previous.   She noted the deeper frown lines on her forehead, the dark bags beneath her eyes, but it was her lips that startled her most. They were pale without makeup, thinner than she remembered, and the curve of her mouth drooped to far downward.

She hadn’t realized how miserable she was, not onstage at Northwestern, not alone on a beach on St. Lucia.  There, under the glaring makeup lights and after a day of emotional upheaval, she could finally see what she had become.

Myka grasped at the makeup kit, began to angrily slap on a mask that would buy her just a little more time, and worked at it until she looked almost like the person she remembered again.

It was 6:42.

Myka turned to the hook behind her and reached out for her freshly-drycleaned wardrobe, a dark navy fitted coat with a pressed white shirt, not unlike what she was already wearing except that the color combination had been tested in focus groups, and that’s what her audience liked.  She frowned, remembering Helena’s speeches in her office earlier, recalling how the dormant sparks of some long-dead fire licked at the frail edges of her paper soul, and she was afraid of what would happen if that spark caught. Her hands shook on the hangar and as she tore angrily at the clear plastic, and her hands still shook when she took the shirt off the hangar next.

She was afraid that Helena would light her soul on fire.  Again.

She wondered if there would be anything left of her this time.

Dressing was a quick task, and then she ducked into her office to retrieve her notepad before walking down the corridor, into the studio, and over to the glass-topped anchor desk at the center.

She put her notepad down to the right of the embedded monitor.

She picked up the clear earpiece, set just to its side, and put the receiver in her left ear.

She closed her eyes and let the world go away for a moment as she tried to still the sparks, then started to read over all her notes and the new ones as they were handed to her.

“Myka, can you hear me?”

A line was scratched over an entire sentence before she responded to the voice in her ear.  It bought her just enough time and focus to quell some of the lingering anger and sorrow, “Yeah, I’m here.”

“I thought you’d like to know, the first thing I’m going to do is get you a wardrobe supervisor.  That outfit makes you look like a secret service agent.”

Despite everything, she smiled just a bit.  “The colors tested well.”

“It’s the cut and the fabric, Darling, and the colors could stand to be richer.  Charcoal and black, Burberry, Armani, Hugo Boss.”

Myka paused in her scribbling.  “You’re going to make me look like an elite Northeastern maneater.”

“Well, we all know better,” came the reply.

The next line was nearly hard enough to rip through the paper.  A blush must have flushed her face, because the makeup girl came in to touch her up with powder.  Myka waved her away.

“I do think that now may be a good time to talk.”

“Now is a very bad time to talk about anything unless you absolutely have to talk to me about an absolutely important, work-related thing.”

“I do.  I think now is a good time to get a couple of things straight.”

Another line, another deep impression.  “I’m on television in ninety seconds, I don’t think now is a good time to get a couple of things straight.”

“Now is the perfect time, actually.”

She looked up from her notes, a handful of choice words on the tip of her tongue.  “Can people hear me in there?” she asked, the last of her self-control kicking in before she let the colorful metaphors fly.

“They can now,” Helena replied, and Myka mentally cursed her hesitation.  She knows me too well.

“Dammit Helena, take me off.”

“I did a terrible thing and I don’t expect you to forgive me.”

“Take.  Me. Off.”

“You have my contract, but the thing you need to know is that between seven and eight o’clock you are completely mine.  For an hour, five times a week, I own you. In my case, it’s for your own good and the good of all. Say ‘I understand’ so that I can get these guys a sound level.”

Myka looked into the camera, which was between her and the wall that Helena stood on the other side of, anyway.

“I don’t think it’s going to work that way.”

“You don’t?”

“No.”

With seventy seconds left to air, the “Okay,” received in response and the background chatter made her narrow her eyes in suspicion.  She looked down at her notes and tried to drown out the noise.

Sixty seconds.

“Can I get some quiet?”  She yelled into the air, but whatever was happening in the control room continued unabated.

“Myka,” Helena finally said again, “check your preview screen.”

She glanced up – her title graphic was there, but in place of News Night, she read the words, “I Hate America.”

“Get it off!”

“Say, ‘I understand.’”

“Someone’s gonna spill coffee on a keyboard and get that thing stuck on the screen!”

“Say it.”

“It’s a good thing no one’s invented a technology that lets you broadcast a picture or a video across the world in an internet or something.  Because if something like that existed, I’d certainly be in trouble right now. Oh WAIT…”

“Just say you understand!”

Thirty seconds to air…and Helena would let that happen.  She was that stubborn.

“Fine!  I understand!”

“Thank you!”

The click as Helena took her off the room speaker was audible, and Myka closed her eyes again.  The anger mingled with the anguish that was already building – the fight against tears for the next several moments was an epic one, indeed.

Ten seconds.  She looked up, found camera 1, and then looked at the teleprompter as her intro music faded.  When the light on camera 1 went red, she started reading.

“Good evening, I’m Myka Bering.”

The words rolled up, until then the prompter bore one word only:  “VAMP.”

Dammit, Helena , she thought.

“Breaking news tonight…”

 

 

“Claudia!”

Pete and Leena were gathered at Leena’s desk, and the girl was excitedly bouncing, even if the face she wore wasn’t excited.

“Did you figure out what the MMA is?” she asked.

“MMS, Mineral Management Service, and…I think a little bit more.”

The senior producer looked down at Leena’s rushed but still tidy script, at the numbers she had written down, and gasped.

“Come…come with me,” she said.

 

 

“We are trying to gather as much information as we can, but it isn’t easy while we’re being hounded.”

Myka leaned forward as she faced the monitor with the clean-cut, well-dressed, smarmy PR spin doctor from Halliburton.  “Did your company perform any tests on the products used on the Deepwater Horizon?”

“Our company is required to do exhaustive tests on every product we manufacture,” the man in the tv replied.

“Do you have the results of these exhaustive tests done on Zone Seal 2000?”

“Now you’re being unnecessarily flippant.  Look, I am not some college student you can shout at.”

Myka’s temper flared, but she hid it beneath a smirk.

“We’re not going to commercial until he answers the question,” she heard Helena say in her ear.

“No,” she replied, speaking to the screen, “You’re the spokesperson for Halliburton, and I am asking you a legitimate question.”

“Look, I came on this program voluntarily,” he replied, but Myka wasn’t in the mood for the man’s tapdancing anymore.

“I don’t have subpoena power.  Everyone comes on this program voluntarily.”

The man continued to dodge the question by hurling carefully-wrapped barbs, and Myka would swing right back with the same question every time.  In the end, he conceded that he didn’t have the results at his fingertips.

She had fun with that.

She had fun with all of it.

“Good to see you again, Myka,” Helena said.  Myka smirked briefly, then continued her interview.

——

 

“Aren’t the test results on a computer?  Are they buried in the middle of a wheat field?”

Helena smiled as the Halliburton representative did his best to backpedal against Myka’s barrage of questions.  It was painful (if somewhat satisfying) to watch, but also a relief – Myka was waking up, and coming back to herself.  No one could say she was inoffensive tonight.

The door behind her opened, and Claudia – looking a little shocked, actually – ushered Leena through the door.

“Finally,” she said as she took the three quick strides it took to get to the pair.  “What is the MMA?”

“MMS,” Leena corrected, “Mineral Management Service, and they have fifty-six inspectors overseeing thirty-five hundred production facilities that operate thirty-five thousand, five hundred ninety one wells in the gulf region.”

“Fifty six inspectors for thirty-five thousand wells?”

“It gets better,” Claudia said.

Behind her, the show went into a commercial, Myka finally having wrangled a response out of the Halliburton rep.  They had 90 seconds before they came back, and Myka would have to go into a new segment.

They still didn’t have a smoking gun.

“BP statement?” Myka asked over the mic.  Helena pressed her return button.

“Hang on,” she replied, then motioned for Leena to continue.

“Inspections are required monthly on drilling rigs, but Deepwater Horizon was only inspected nine times in 2009 and six times in 2008.”

“BP statement,” Myka repeated. 

“Hang on.” 

“The last inspection was done twenty days ago by Eric Neal, who was sent by himself even though he’d only just completed his training as a government inspector of drilling rigs.” 

Helena felt her jaw drop.  “Are you kidding me?”

“Do we have a BP statement?” 

“I want to hit her with a stun gun,” Helena muttered, then wiped her hand down her face in frustration.  “What I wouldn’t give to have a phone hook-up with this guy.”

Leena looked to the side as one of the directors announced thirty seconds left, then back to Helena.  “You do,” she said. “He’s on hold.”

“Leena!”  Helena smiled at the girl and held her forearm.  “I am…taking you shopping!”

The girl laughed as she turned away, mentally planning the ammunition she would give Myka, and tried not to think about the credit card she might actually have to max out to keep that promise she fully intended to keep. 

This was what they needed.  This was the kind of information a newscast needed to give its audience.

It would be worth every penny.

 

 

The poor man on the other end of the line sounded young and so very green, and Myka felt for him.  The questions she asked of him were relatively simple, but had put him in an awkward position through simple arithmetic – there simply weren’t enough inspectors to properly do their jobs.

“Were you aware that, dating back to September 2001, Deepwater Horizon had shown five red flags for incidents of non-compliance?” 

The man hesitated to answer.  “I’m not sure I’m authorized to speak of that,” he said. 

“I understand,” she replied, “I just have two more questions.”  She tried to put a softer tone in her voice – the man’s assignments were not his fault, and he was voluntarily speaking to them about something that could possibly get him into a lot of trouble.  Thankfully, she didn’t need that much from him…just enough to make the audience think.

“Prior to the inspection on April 1st, how many inspections had you done of offshore oil-drilling rigs?” 

The pause was long.  “None. Except in training.”

“And how long were you in training?” 

Again, the pause was long.  “Four months.”

She thanked the man for his time as Helena let her know that the BP statement was finally ready.  They threw it up on the screen, and she read it aloud…and the more she read, the harder she had to struggle to keep her opinions in check.

“The thoughts and prayers of Tony Hayward and everyone at BP are with the missing crew members of the BP Deepwater Horizon and their families.  We are looking at every possible solution to the problem of capping the well and will, of course, offer our complete assistance to the various U.S. agencies involved in repairing and cleaning up the damage done by this terrible accident.”  She was certain her irritation showed, if only for a moment, when she swiped her fingers across her chin. 

She looked from the camera to the desktop, then back again.

“So, glass half full.  They’re offering to help clean up.  This is obviously just beginning. We’ll bring you more as this story develops.”

The teleprompter moved finally, drawing her eyes back to it, but she didn’t need it.  She hadn’t needed it all evening. 

“Abigail Cho is coming up next with the Capitol Report.  I’m Myka Bering, goodnight.”

The outro music played, and the lights dimmed in the studio as the camera pulled out.  Myka put down her pen and leaned back in her chair. Through the glass, out in the newsroom, she heard applause and some cheering, and looked out to see Artie next to Pete, both on their feet, clapping.

It had been a long time since she felt like she’d done something good.  In Chicago, she had tabulated that distance between then and now, and measured it out in the length of time for which Helena Wells had been absent from her life.  That night, for whatever reason, had reminded her of who she should be.

But Helena was the catalyst.  Helena was the spark.

A chirp sounded from the laptop next to her desk, and she turned just in time to see the news alert for the oil spill turn from orange to red.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, she thought, to let herself catch fire.

Artie walked in as she turned back to the empty studio, two mugs and a bottle in his hands.

“Did the White House call?”

He smiled.  “Valda wants to know what we know and how we know it.”  He rounded the desk and sat his cargo down on the smooth surface, then leaned against it. 

“We’re not giving up the new girl,” she insisted.

“The news alert’s at red.  We got it right.”

“We got the spill right.  We don’t know what we’re doing with Halliburton.” 

“It’s not like you said a sorority girl set the hemisphere on fire.”  He poured the contents of the bottle into the mugs, then handed one to her. 

“Give the internet an hour, they’ll find a way to make it sound like I did.”

“I am too old to live in fear of dumb people.”

Myka snorted.  “I’m not.”

“You’re older than you think,” he replied softly.  “Don’t learn that the hard way.”

He meant something more than what he said.  He usually did. Myka didn’t miss his meaning, but remained silent nonetheless as he moved his mug toward hers and let them clink before lifting his to his mouth.  Myka followed suit.

It was scotch, single-malt and very old. 

He was celebrating.

“You didn’t bring her in to right the ship, you brought her in to build a new one.  You knew Pete would go with Steve to ten. You orchestrated the whole thing.”

The man smiled, and though it was as goofy as any he gave her while vaguely intoxicated, it was as genuine a grin as she’d seen him wear in a while.

“Yeah,” he replied.  “You know, for a long time, I’ve badly wanted to watch the news on my television each night.  Then it occurred to me – I run a news division.”

She laughed, taking one last sip of the scotch before setting the mug down.  “She’s indifferent to ratings, competition, corporate concerns and, generally speaking, consequences.”

“Good, because you just described my job,” he replied.  “I’m Don Quixote. You’re Sancho, she’s Dulcinea and they –“ he gestured through the glass back of the studio, out toward the staff still at their desks, “they’re the horse.”

“Donkey,” she amended, “and how did you know about that?”

“I know everything,” he said.

Myka shook her head and thought back to earlier that day, and the conversation they had, and all the things that Helena had said.  As much as she wanted to deny it, to run away from it, a greater part of her knew she had been right – Myka wanted to do better, and maybe, just maybe, Helena really wanted that, as well.

“Anchors having opinions isn’t a new phenomenon,” Artie said.  “Murrow had one, and that was the end of McCarthy. Cronkite had one, and that was the end of Vietnam.” 

“I’m not those guys,” Myka interjected.

“I’m betting all my money on you’re wrong.”

Myka watched the man in front of her – the man that had given her the opportunity to steer a national conversation for the first time ten years ago, and who had stood by her for every minute of the time in between – as he watched her back.  He’d been more like a father to her than the one she actually had, left behind with her past in Colorado Springs the day she left for college. She could help but think – maybe hope – that the smile on his face and the twinkle in his eyes was something like the pride her father never had in her.

“You know, kiddo, I fucking loved what you said at Northwestern.  That’s why I brought her here. In the old days,” he grunted and tilted his head, “and about ten minutes ago, we did the news well.  You know how?”

Myka remained silent, knowing she wasn’t meant to answer.  He leaned forward, the crooked smile still on his face.

“We just decided to.” 

He stood then, and pushed the bottle closer to her before turning to leave.

In the cold and empty studio, she sat alone with her thoughts for a few minutes more, amazed to discover she felt warmer than she had in a long time.  The scotch was good, of course, but it went far deeper thanalcohol could flow.

The spark had caught.

And here she was, amazed that she didn’t mind.

 

 

The newsroom was quiet, relatively speaking, which was amazing considering there were more people in it now prepping for the ten o’clock broadcast than there had been prepping for theirs.  Helena sat in a chair at an empty desk in front of Myka’s office and watched them go about their business. She was happy to be back in an environment like this. She was happy to be back in that room.

She smiled as she watched Claudia and Leena congratulate each other, knew theirs would be a fast and strong friendship, and was just as pleased to see Pete apologize to her young senior producer for being the distinctive pain in the ass that only he could be.  They too, she thought, would find a common ground quickly, and they would learn to work together well. 

Myka emerged from the studio and walked to Leena’s desk, much to the shock of the young woman behind it, and personally thanked her for all the excellent work she’d done that day.  Helena could tell it meant a lot to the girl, and she was glad for it – she would be able to take this day to dinner with her mother that night and tell the exciting tale of breaking a major news story almost singlehandedly, a story that all the other news programs that evening had failed to go in depth with, and how the end result had been a promotion she wouldn’t have gotten if she hadn’t stuck with Myka Bering.

It wasn’t much, just the skeleton of something new, but it was a start.

She lingered as Myka gathered things in her office, then stood as she left for the night.

“Can we talk for a moment?”

Myka paused at the door and looked over her shoulder.  “Seven to eight is over.”

Helena felt her heart drop, and it looked as if Myka were about to walk on and leave her behind, but when she turned away again she paused just a moment too long.

“Follow me out,” she said.

It took a few moments to catch up to her – Myka’s legs were long, and though Helena was not short, she had to half-jog to keep up sometimes.

“You won’t remember this,” Helena started, “but the first time you met my parents, you had flowers for my mother.  You took my father to a soccer game, and then you met us for dinner…and I wanted to tell you that you were perfect.”  Myka’s face had been stoic, but at the last word, that unfamiliar look reappeared on the woman’s face, and Helena finally found a context for it.  That look – the subtle flare of her nose, the vaguely worried crinkle in her brow, the widening of her soulful eyes – was the outward impression of the inward pain that Helena had stamped her with three years before.

“You were perfect,” she repeated.  “I was not. I just…want you to know that.”

Myka stood still, her hand over the elevator button, as she processed the words.  A few moments later, she pressed the down button. 

“The U.S. men beat Panama 6-0 with a hat trick by Ed Johnson, two goals by Landon Donovan, and an own goal in the 90th minute on one of Panama’s defenders.  Your father ordered a beer, and I ordered a Diet Coke. Then he said, ‘Bering, I wouldn’t typically say this to a lady, but you’re a Republican nitwit and every word you’ve ever said or written about China is incomprehensible bollocks.  But I’m told you’re intelligent despite these flaws, you look lovely on my daughter’s arm, and for reasons that are not mine to understand, my Helena seems to be in love with you. You can have a pint on a fall afternoon without earning my disapproval.’”  Myka smiled, just a little. “We ended up having three.”

Helena looked away – she hadn’t expected the experience of going to a sporting event to be so vivid for a woman that wasn’t much interested in sports, and the amount of detail that she recalled of the event…

She shook her head, then turned back to the taller woman.  “You two were drunk at dinner?” 

Myka laughed.  “Yeah.”

There were tears welling in Helena’s eyes – the same tears she’d pushed away at night, caused by the same feelings of guilt she had run to the Middle East to escape.  Myka was perfect, and she had ruined it all. 

“And he actually called you a Republican?” 

“I’m registered as one.”

“To help steer an increasingly bankrupt moral agenda, not because you blindly follow any party ideals.”

“Voter registration doesn’t ask for reasons, and it doesn’t seem to be working, anyway.”

Helena smiled again.  They were close enough that she could just catch the faintest scent of Myka’s perfume, somewhat surprised and relieved it was still the same as it once was.  She had loved the fragrance before, but in the rare instances where she had caught the scent in another context, it had also stirred an ocean of regret into tidal force.

“Artie says you’re physically and mentally exhausted.” 

“I’ve been exhausted since thirty.  Everyone is exhausted. I just wanted to come back and be in a newsroom.”

The elevator dinged as it arrived at the floor, and Helena was sorry to see it.  She had missed Myka so very desperately, and despite the very deserved animosity leveled at her that day, she was simply happy to be in the woman’s presence again.

“Well, this one’s yours for a week.  Good show tonight.”

“You too,” she said as Myka boarded the car.

She wondered in the next split-second what she would do with her night, with her every night, being so close to the woman she wanted more than anything yet so far away.  She wondered if she could ever make up for the way she’d wronged Myka.

The indiscretion had been early in their relationship, when Helena was still recovering from the personal tragedy of losing a daughter, but she had held that truth for too long.  When she was finally honest about the betrayal, Myka had been rightfully furious. At no point in their intensely passionate relationship had Myka deserved such a violation of trust.

“I thought I saw you, you know.”

Helena took a few steps forward as Myka, leaning out of the elevator car, spoke.

“I thought I saw you in the audience.  That’s how I got flustered. I thought I saw you, but…it was someone else.” 

She leaned back in and let the elevator doors close, and Helena stood there – still – for a moment.

Then her hand shot out into the closing gap, catching the bumper and stopping it at the last minute.

Myka stood in the elevator with her eyebrow lifted as Helena held the door with her shoulder and fumbled through the yellow notepad at the back of her notebook until she found a particular page, then slowly turned the folio around.

IT’S NOT, the page read.

BUT IT CAN BE, read the next.

Myka’s mouth dropped open as she read the words, and her knuckles turned white as she grasped the elevator railing.

“You were there,” she gasped.

“I was there,” Helena affirmed.

“It was you.”

Myka’s eyes rose from the page and their gazes locked.  They stood silent, perhaps reading each other’s souls, until the elevator began to angrily protest being held open.  Helena looked away first, and then began to back away.

But Myka’s hand around her wrist stopped her.

“Have a drink with me,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

There was no hesitation in the answer.  “I would love to.”

Helena moved forward into the elevator car, letting the doors close behind her, and left her fledgling future behind for the evening.

As they descended together, however, she found herself hoping that, despite all the odds and all her sins, she wouldn’t be made to build that future alone.