"I'm sorry, you're Mackenzie!"
Mackenzie ducks her head to conceal a bemused grin as she watches the flustered blonde flutter nervously around her. "I am," she smiles, owning the name easily, with only the smallest painful flutter of her heart.
Her name will forever be linked to Will for Mackenzie, in a way he probably will never comprehend, but the accompanying pang is something she doesn't want to shield herself from, not anymore. It isn't as though he's ever been very far from her thoughts in the last three years to begin with, and the wistful sting makes her feel closer to him, in spite of everything.
When Mackenzie introduces herself these days, it is proudly, with her head held high, but it hasn't always been this way. For months after she leaves New York, the name which has become a second skin during her time with Will catches awkwardly in her throat, like a gulp of seawater going down the wrong way. It has been Will and Mackenzie for so long, that now Mackenzie on its own just sounds unfinished.
Eventually, the rawness of the wound begins to burn a little less, and Mackenzie learns to stop choking on her own name, although the resulting whisper is hardly an improvement. It is a timid, desperate echo of the life she single-handedly shattered.
"I heard you were embedded for a while," Maggie says.
"Twenty-six months," Mackenzie replies wryly. "Anything happen while I was away?"
She can gloss over her time overseas all she wants, but the truth is that it takes the combined forces of Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan to bring Mackenzie properly back to life.
It takes so many things away from them, hardens all of them, seeing what they see out there on a daily basis. Mackenzie more than most, because she goes into it sad and small and already broken. But it also gives her back her backbone.
It is while covering the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Baghdad on what should be their third anniversary that Mackenzie experiences an epiphany.
"This is Mackenzie McHale, reporting from Baghdad," she mumbles when the red light comes on, loathing every tremulous word that falls from her mouth. She allows herself one fleeting second for sentimentality, as she always does when she steps in front of the camera.
I wish I were the woman he thought I was, she yearns longingly.
But you can be.
Mackenzie's eyes widen perceptibly as the light bulb flares to life above her head, and she takes an involuntary half-step forward before steadying herself.
Will is not hers anymore, she has no claim on his body or his heart, but in her mind's eye she can still see his face. The way the lines around his eyes soften at the anchor desk each time she dons her headset, reassuring him with a whisper that she has him well in hand. Beaming, a swell of pride engulfing him, upon learning that she is being honoured for her work. The delighted gleam in his eye when he discovers that he has finally found someone who can go toe to toe with him in a debate.
Why not be the strong, beautiful, brilliant woman he has seen in her since day one?
Why not be Mackenzie?
Though nobody knows the reason for it, everybody watching sees the change come over Mackenzie during the broadcast. By the end of her report, she is standing that much taller, and when she signs off the air, she is staring down the camera, her gaze confident and unflinching.
This is the day she earns her first Peabody.
Lying awake late that night, Mackenzie gazes up at the crescent moon, and imagines Will doing the same back in New York. For the first time in almost a year, she whispers goodnight to him, halfway around the world, and the guilt doesn't feel ocean-deep and unbearable, ready to drown her without warning where she lies.
A cool breeze picks up, and Mackenzie smiles to herself in the darkness. She can almost hear the wind whispering back to her, in a voice uncannily like Will's. The words wrap themselves around her like a security blanket and carry her off to sleep.
Two years later, that blanket is feeling more than a little torn and threadbare, now she knows Will is making plans to have her on the first available flight back to Washington, and far, far away from interfering with his show. That look on his face when he walks into the newsroom and catches sight of her, it's like he's seeing a very unwelcome ghost.
But Mackenzie hasn't come here with any illusion that the two of them can simply pick up where they left off. She's not even looking for a relationship these days, not with him, not with anyone. All she wants is the job, this job, doing this job with Will the way they both know it should be done.
Only, Mackenzie isn't sure just now that Will knows anything of the sort. His viral, vertigo-induced rallying cry at Northwestern notwithstanding, she has watched him descend further and further into the fray of the media circus, until he appears to be the one leading the pack. Seeing him and his principles unravel on television is one thing, however, and she comes up with dozens of explanations in an attempt to rationalize what her eyes are telling her.
Seeing it in person is another thing altogether, and she can no longer imagine this isn't happening. This man standing before her, this is not her Will, but someone she has never seen before in her life, and she can't quite make out whether his frosty indifference is laziness, arrogance, or something else entirely.
Is he doing this on purpose? she wonders. Could all the ice in the room be an act, an attempt to make her give up and walk away without a fight? Or has she done this, broken him so badly that there's nothing left of the man she loves but this cold, empty shell?
But Mackenzie has never been one to accept defeat so quickly, and she isn't about to begin today. "Will, come on now," she scolds impatiently, suddenly fed up with his childish display.
And that's when it happens. It's like he's just been waiting for her to challenge him, waiting so he can strike back like a venomous rattlesnake. "What do you want from me, Mackenzie?" he demands, shedding the apathetic tone instantly, like skin.
Her name, on his lips, for the first time in three years, and it sounds exactly the same as always, striking like a shot of bittersweet adrenaline to the chest. Mackenzie has never considered, somehow, what this moment might be like, and it unbalances her for just a second. Her mouth dropping open in breathless surprise, her eyes fly up to meet Will's gaze.
He stares back at her, breathing hard. Will has never been able to lie to her with those eyes of his, and this, at least, has not changed. She sees him, really sees him, for the first time in years, and knows in an instant that he has startled even himself with these words. Just for a moment, the shock of it paralyzes him. If there's one thing Will McAvoy hates, it's being caught off guard – he always thinks at least three steps ahead – but he hasn't planned this.
He's backed himself into a corner, making him more dangerous than ever, and Mackenzie can see the moment when this realization dawns. Fear and self-preservation flood his eyes like a tsunami, setting the conditions for the ugly brewing of a perfect storm.
Though she can see it coming from miles away, see him backpedaling so fast he's almost a blur, she is powerless in the face of it, and it still cuts like a vicious knife when he lashes out, his words easily finding their target on her heart.
"Yeah, they f***ed up, Mac, they trusted you!"
It's not the bellowing roar that hurts, nor the fact that he uses a kind of language she has never seen him direct at a woman before, not once in all these years of knowing him.
Though she is bracing herself to weather the hurricane he is unleashing, what stuns her is the single clap of thunder to which he reduces her name, shakes her so much that she has to reach out and steady herself on the edge of his desk.
It doesn't matter, it's just a name, Mackenzie tries to tell herself, though her skidding heart knows that it's a lie.
Of course he's angry, she reasons. Without her around to rail against until now, this eruption has been three years in the making. He needs to get it all out if there's any hope of them working together again.
Luckily, two years in a war zone has taught Mackenzie how to ride out any number of attacks, though she never expected to be tested in her own newsroom. Breathing deeply, she lets the remaining waves of his ire come crashing down on her until the waters between them are calm once more, and it appears safe to venture an apology.
Unfortunately, Will is far from done, and the initial explosion isn't the worst of it.
He smiles cruelly. "Mackenzie," he says, in a brutal mockery of the tender voice he has always reserved just for her, "I just – You have no idea how I've longed to hear those words. I forgive you, can you forgive—"
Mackenzie's knees almost give way beneath her, but she puts on a brave face and quips something back at him, determined not to flinch, or let the horror and betrayal rise like bile in her throat. Whether he knows it or not, he has chosen his moment well – nothing could have hurt her more than this.
It's almost a relief after that, when Will reverts back to the jarring Mac for the rest of the night. At least this way, if she pretends with all her might, she almost believes that he's just another colleague.
It is weeks before she recalls that Will's first instinct, before deploying every defense mechanism known to man, is still to call her Mackenzie.
Thanks so much for reading! I've been sitting on this one for a little while because I wanted it to sound like chapter one does, and it just wouldn't cooperate. I still might revisit this chapter later, but for now, this is probably as good as it's going to get.
I hope you like it … I'm really interested to hear what you think!