Aaaaand...this is it! The last chapter. I can't believe I'm actually posting it, and am incredibly grateful for everyone who stuck it out. It's been nearly sixteen months, and I really appreciate everyone who took the time to comment and message and like. This ended up being a far bigger endeavor than I anticipated — all in all, I wrote 350+ pages, so a big undertaking for all of us :)
In a few days, I'll start posting updated versions of each chapter. They'll have tighter dialogue + a few updated speeches, but no hugely substantial changes. I'll also have commentary on the chapters (just a couple paragraphs about what I was thinking, etc), just because going through and re-reading them I remembered a lot of stuff. Consider it the bonus edition :) Finally, I'll post a chapter listing all the chapters in order, in case anyone wants to read all 150K words chronologically. It'll also include some "liner notes" about each of the epigraphs and why I chose them.
Again, thanks so much for sticking with it! You're amazing and encouraging and fabulous.
There comes a time, a time in everyone's life
Where nothin' seems to go your way
Where nothing seems to turn out right
There may come a time, you just can't seem to find your place
For every door you open, seems like you get two slammed in your face
That's when you need someone, someone that you can call
And when all your faith is gone, feels like you can't go on
Let it be me, let it be me
If it's a friend you need
-"Let It Be Me," Ray LaMontagne
It's frigging freezing outside, but the staff of Hang Chew's has the heat cranked up almost to eighty degrees, and combined with the number of bodies in the space (it's a Friday, so the ACN crowd is sharing the bar with normal people who work normal hours and go out at normal times), the windows are fogged and the atmosphere inside is almost humid. But Don doesn't mind — compared to the biting winds outside, in fact, it's practically welcome. It's been a bear of a week, with Syria and the Greek economic crisis and a million other things causing long days and sleepless nights, and all he wants is a drink in a place with a roof.
He presses through the crowds, not really seeing anyone he knows. This isn't terribly surprising, since the News Night crew — those without dates and lives, at least — had headed over exactly at nine, and they may have turned in for the night after two hours. He eventually spots Maggie and Tess clustered at a hightop with a few of the younger guys from the control room, and then Mac drinking alone at the bar. Drinking with Mac it is.
"Where is everybody?" he asks, voice slightly elevated, as he slides in next to her.
She shrugs. "Jim went home to Skype with Hallie; Neal met a girl in a … very stylish skirt, and after twenty-four minutes of conversation they headed out, which I think is a record for him; Sloan is out with the consultant from AIG again; and Will left immediately from the studio in a fresh suit, which I can only assume means he's out again with whomever he's dating behind my back. Do you think they're getting serious? I normally wouldn't think so, but the suit has me thinking so."
"Sloan's going out with a consultant from AIG? Again? As in, this is not the first time that it's happened?" He knows that's not what Mac wants him to focus on — Mac wants him to focus on the fact that Will is dating someone behind her back (and the wording there is absolutely insane, but also kind of true) — but he really would prefer not to.
Mac looks at him, lips pursed, a little angry at him for stealing her relationship-induced existential angst. "She met him at a Forbes party a few weeks ago. He asked her out, using his words and leaving little room for confusion, on a normal and proper adult date. Unsurprisingly, she said yes."
"Okay, so Will? Going on a date where he feels the need to wear a fresh suit? That sounds serious," he mocks back. Mac deflates into a pout, and he continues, "I thought she was dating Nina Howard's book agent?"
"No, no, that was ages ago, man," Mac says.
"Good. Book agents murder their wives, you know."
"Ques-tion," Mac cracks the word into two distinct syllables, her voice crisp and loud and businesslike (and just the tiniest bit drunk).
"Why haven't you asked Sloan out yet, again?"
He hedges. "I'm … She's a friend, and a coworker, and I respect her. And … She just seems to be dating a lot, which is her prerogative, but she also — you know the types of guys she dates."
"I know the type — the type that she chooses to, because she's a grown-ass woman. Look at you. Have you even dated anyone since Maggie?"
"I've been busy."
"You've been knocked on your ass. It's fine, it really is. Somehow that relationship — which was awful for both of you — spun into something significant so you wouldn't feel like a failure, and it's OK to nurse your wounds for a while. And between that and Troy Davis and me asking you to take on bunches more responsibility and I'm guessing you feel some guilt for what happened to Maggie in Uganda —"
"How could I not?" he asks, his voice sounding way more vulnerable than he would like.
"I don't know, I honestly don't. But it's not your fault, Don, it's really not. And you don't deserve this punishment you keep inflicting on yourself."
"That's helpful, thanks."
"I'm going to tell you the same advice I told Jim, to gather —"
"Oh, when you told him to tell my girlfriend that he love her and would prefer she dump me for him? Please. Continue."
"I care about you, a lot, Don. A lot, a lot, a lot. I want to see all of you — you and Sloan and Maggie and Jim and Tess, Martin, Neal, everyone — happy. Fulfilled, professionally and personally. I want you to benefit from my mistakes, because it makes me sick to see all of you repeating some godawful variation of my life, like mine and Will's mistakes are a record stuck on loop." She takes a drink. "I made a vow this year to quit meddling in your lives, but I want you all to start living. And right now it seems like none of you are. Especially you."
"I feel like you just voted me chump of the year, without my knowledge."
Mac heaves a great sigh and leans back. "Why haven't you asked her out? Seriously. Are you scared?"
He shakes his head, quickly. "I'm her friend. I'm also, not infrequently, her boss."
"That's stopped absolutely no one at ACN, including you and Maggie, and you know that."
He shakes his head. He knows, on some level, that he should — that he should just get it done. Lord knows he certainly wants to, has wanted to since August, and she seems like she'd be receptive. Because you never asked me out. Right? That's a sign. She wants him to.
But still. If he's going to ask her out, he's not going to just 'get it done' — he knows that. He needs to get it done in a spectacular fashion. Because it's Sloan and that's what she deserves, dammit.
It's a big 'if,' though. Don has a killer news instinct, but producing fits him so well because it's inherently a fear-driven job. You consider all the possibilities, you cover all eventualities, you find the path of least resistance to putting together a broadcast that does not fall apart on air. Don's not proud of it, but he knows that he's risk-averse. Underneath the yelling and the sarcasm and the impatience, he's cautious. He gets away with it because he's smart, and he's ambitious, and he's proud as hell. But his default is to hug the curb, to take the stairs down instead of dive, to be the guy holding it all together when it goes to hell. If left to his own devices he'd rather do a safe, good show than whatever the fuck Mac is consistently doing with Will (he thinks that has changed a bit now, but he knows himself well). Maggie — even with his half-assed commitment, with the breakups, with the avoiding the big topics — had honestly been his most adult relationship. Life with his dad had taught him not to hope too much, to expect too much, to need too much. You would only get hurt. He knew all of this meant he wasn't a particularly great person, but it meant he wasn't at risk for being a failure. He could get by — not with a whole lot — but with his head held high. Asking Sloan out — with because-you-never-asked-me-out, and their work partnership, and their friendship — it probably wasn't worth it to try.
Because Sloan … Sloan kind of makes him want to be … better. Not even different, necessarily, but just … better. He's pretty sure her you're-a-good-guy-who-thinks-he's-a-bad guy assessment of him is wildly off, since Sloan's an optimistic, idealistic person who believes that the world is essentially a good place, that people who worked hard got their due (except her. She always has a reason why she doesn't deserve the best, which is just pure insanity). But he likes that optimistic quality about her. That is … attractive. And he likes talking with her. And generally, he just likes being around her. When he's producing her show, she makes him a better producer. When he's being her friend, he's a more considerate and empathetic friend. When she's being his friend, he pays it forward — is nicer to Mac, more compassionate with Maggie, more open with Will, easier on Elliot. He's just ... better. He needs her in his life, period.
And that, he knows, means that trying to be anything more with Sloan is the riskiest proposition of them all. He's a practical guy, even cynical, and he can always picture the end of a relationship. It's not often pretty — he usually banks on him fucking it up as the final straw — but it's manageable. If he started something with Sloan, it would eventually end (he knows himself), and that would be a disaster. If he doesn't try, he doesn't fail.
And he can't have failure, not with her. So. He's drinking with Mac and she's out with a consultant with AIG.
As if summoned by some deity with a terrific sense of humor and also a warrant for Don's death, Sloan suddenly crashes into the chair on the other side of Mac, busily signaling to Chelsea and ordering a Cosmo.
"I thought you had that second date with the consultant tonight?" Mac asks, chewing on her straw in a blatant attempt to hide her glee. "Also, a cosmo, that's a surprisingly fruity drink choice for you."
"Yes, Kenzie. It is. But it's been A Day — capital letters absolutely intended — so I am being spontaneous and ordering the brightly colored girly drink. Any questions?"
"Yes — so the second date didn't go well?"
Sloan heaves a sigh. "The upside of dating a revolving door of local gomers, I've decided, is that one develops a finely honed Spidey Sense that goes beep beep beep whenever you're getting too close to a creep."
"Spidey's Spidey Sense tingled; it didn't make noise," Don points out. He feels comfortable pointing that out; it's a perfectly neutral observation.
"Thank you, Peter Parker."
"That's not nearly as insulting as I think you intended it to be; I was always a fan of his." He's trying desperately to tap-dance the conversation away from Sloan and this analyst, who is, he's decided, named something like Scott or Donovan and was a college lacrosse player at a seriously jocked-up, but also insanely competitive, college. He's putting money on Duke but Stanford or Columbia wouldn't surprise him either. "Seriously. Journalist, superhero, not as boring as Superman, who was totally lame — the guy had it all."
Sloan continues to stare around Mac at him, with an expression that indicates he's grown another five heads. "Nerd," she pronounces, and turns to Mac. "And yes. Nothing in particular, I just got …"
"Hinky vibes?" Mac supplies knowingly.
"Yes," Sloan confirms, relieved. She's ten percent more expressive than usual — Don assumes she's been drinking. "Asshole
vibes. Too slick, or something? Anyways. I said I had to wake up at five tomorrow for a live shoot and sent him home."
"Well, whatever, I thought his muscles were too big anyways. Nobody who makes that much money should have that much time left to work out," Mac declares, and Don gets very interested in his beverage. "I'm going to go check on Maggie. It's been forty-five minutes and I feel I need to."
They're left alone. "I'm sorry the date sucked," he offers, finally, officially taking the silence from not-quite-awkward to terribly charged.
She finishes the rest of her cosmo. "Are you?" she challenges. "I mean, honestly?"
"I — yes. Of course." It's been awkward, this getting-back-to-friends business. Once, pre-Maggie, they were close. She gave him much-needed crap for his many short relationships and told him to grow up; he told her not to call her dipshit ex and that basically every guy she dated was an asshole (which they were, right there on top). A long time ago, he would have known about this over-muscled, probably-Duke-educated, definitely-named-Scott consultant the day after she met him. But his relationship with Maggie had cratered many things including, not unsurprisingly, their friendship. She'd quietly made herself scare and now, post-one-year-plus-of-drifting, post-you-never-asked-me-out, post-breakup, he feels it's impossible to go back. He thought they were doing OK at carving out something new — he helped her with Zane, she made fun of his chair tires — but he's not sure. "I'm — Sloan. Above all, we're ... friends, right? After —"
"That thing and that time we'd never mention? Among many other things? Right. We are. Chelsea! Another?" A cosmo appears, and Sloan downs most of it, carefully lining the second impractically-designed glass up carefully next to the first.
"After everything," he says, suddenly unsure of where the conversation is going. He'd like to be more with her, he thinks, but honestly, the thing that terrifies him most about asking her out is the fact that it opens to door to one day losing her.
"We're friends, Don," she says, practically spitting out the words in an attempt to be reassuring.
"Great," he says, though her tone does not make it sound like something remotely appealing. He orders another drink.
Waits till it comes.
Fiddles with the straw.
"You know, you say that, but —"
"Did you really think I was joking? When you said you took my comment as a joke?"
"I — no, Sloan, but it's not like I was in a place to do anything about it." He was with Maggie. Why — How did she even get back on this topic?
"Right, but you could've said anything else. A joke? That was just demeaning."
"I — I didn't know what else to say."
"So you didn't think it was a joke?"
"No. I thought, it was, you know, you thought it was your last day."
"Then why say that?"
"What would you have me say, huh, Sloan? That I was sorry for not asking you out? Should I have dumped Maggie right then instead of breaking up a month later? Dropped my whole life? I'm confused, Sloan. You'd just given a speech, a good speech, and I was unprepared. And I — I was just giving you an out." He's also unprepared now. She's absolutely confusing.
"If I said that today, what would you say? Just — curious."
"Are you drunk? You seem drunk."
"No? Yes. Answer the question, Keefer."
"I — don't know."
"If I asked you out today — you're broken up with Maggie, as far as I can tell you've been a monk for the past three months, which is pretty unusual for you — what would you say?"
Fucking Christ. "I don't know, Sloan," he fumbles. He's confused. He wouldn't just … This wouldn't be for sex, with her.
"I mean, you say you like me as a person, so do you not find me attractive?" Sloan ponders out loud, all but talking to her glass. "If so, that's OK! I'm just confused, because you've had opportunities. I've … There have been moments, you know, where I just … thought there was something, but I also thought that Will was totally telling the truth when he said that he voted for Kerry in 2004. I know I'm bad at reading cues, I get it."
"OK, I'm not even going to answer whether or not I think you're attractive, because you seriously are just fishing for compliments on that one. Sloan, you're the smartest person I know, and you notice everything. You're incredibly logical. Just because you don't get people's motivations sometimes, because you're —" he stops and gestures.
"Because I'm what?" she insists, turning in towards him.
He sighs. "Because you're optimistic, because you believe the best in everyone, because you're so goddamn good at being you that you sometimes forget that other people can't just … live aspirationally, the way that you do, and you sometimes don't get that — none, none of that makes you bad at reading clues. You're a … freaking detective! Quit deflecting."
She sits back, a look of consternation on her face. "You were giving yourself an out, too," she finally deduces. He spreads his hands in a kind of hey, whatever, gesture. "You really have gotten yourself convinced that you're the bad guy here, haven't you?"
"What do you mean? Of course … Look at the facts," he says, irritated. "I ask Maggie to move in with me for a bunch of legitimately terrible reasons, we break up for decent reasons, she ends up watching a kid die in Africa and is now in some sort of emotional free-fall. There was a spiral, Sloan, and I set it into motion."
Sloan stares at him, again, like he's grown three heads. "Yeah, and Mac set it into motion when she okayed the Africa trip, and Jim set it into motion when he decided to peace to New Hampshire instead of dealing with life, and Will set it into motion when he fucking hired her. You feel more guilt than anyone I've ever met who isn't Jewish, you know that, right?"
"You work in news; I really don't see how that is possible," he grouses.
She is still studying him, that little perplexed crease appearing between her eyes. "So if I'm not wrong in thinking there is or was … something, and you were giving us both outs, and I've essentially asked you out three times, including right now … You really do believe that you're a bad guy. You really do," she sounds a little bit astonished.
"Ok, first off, Ms. Math, I count two times, including now, and you've never actually asked me out. You've just gotten angry at me for not asking you out. Which is not nearly the same."
"A teacher? A coach? An ex? Your dad?" she guesses, ignoring his words. He wonders if she asked him out once before that conversation in August and, if so, if he was actually too dense to catch on. Regardless, the original purpose for asking these questions is forgotten and she's now genuinely worried about his tender psyche.
"None of the above," he lies, throwing down money for his three (four? five?) drinks of the night and her two.
"You're a good guy, Don," she insists, sliding off her stool. "Seriously. What do I need to do to convince you of that?" He knows she's going to follow him, continue this conversation, so he shrugs on his coat and starts walking. He pauses at the door, holds it open for her.
"Sloan," he groans, slipping a hand to the small of her back and guiding her outside. Holy fuck, it's freezing, and he doesn't know where they're going: He lives a 15-minute walk west, and she's a 20-minute cab ride south to the Financial District. "You have absolutely zero proof for your argument, and I have thirty-four years of experiences being me to make an assessment about whether or not I'm an asshole."
"You also have whatever shit somebody said to you rattling around up there, so excuse me if I think I'm a slightly more objective judge of your character, Keefer," she argues back.
"You know what, that doesn't exactly make me more confident," he says, finally fed up with the argument. He stops, stomping his feet to avoid shivering. "Sloan, you're … impressive. You're the smartest person I know, by a mile and a half, you're … stunningly attractive in a way that normal people aren't, let alone economists; you speak six languages; you've run a sub-four marathon; you donate to charity and find time to volunteer despite having two jobs; you vote in the stupid elections like district alderman and condo-board president; you're funny; you're kind; you don't deal with bullshit and you're not afraid to be you. You stand up for what you think is right, even when it's the stupidest move you could make. You are a good friend, to everyone, to me, to Mac, Will, everyone. Even Maggie! Who you should, based on what you're saying, kind of hate." He notices tears pricking at the corners of her eyes, but whether that's from cold or what she assumes is (and what he knows sounds like) a rejection, he's not sure. "My point is, you deserve to be in a relationship with someone who's amazing. Who holds the boombox over his head, who races through the streets of New York at midnight on New Year's Eve, who pursues you long enough to figure out the reason you didn't meet him at the top of the Empire State Building is because you're paralyzed —"
"OK, I hate to interrupt, but neither Tom Hanks nor Meg Ryan was paralyzed in Sleepless in Seattle, and I have no idea what the other two movies you're referencing are."
What the fuck? "OK, A, I was talking about An Affair to Remember, which was what Sleepless in Seattle is based on, B, how have you seen Sleepless in Seattle and not When Harry Met Sally, which is a hundred and eighty-five percent better than Sleepless in Seattle, and C, what the fuck do you mean you haven't seen Say Anything?"
"It came out when I was, I don't know, seven?"
"The Wealth of Nations was published when you were, I don't know, negative four hundred, but you've read that at least six times."
"That's a classic!"
"So is this!"
"Well, clearly I'm not as perfect as you apparently think I am!"
"Ooooooh, you're not perfect. You're easily the most stubborn person I know, for starters. By like, a lot. I can never tell who you trust and who you don't, because you're maddeningly hard to read," he says. He feels a headache coming on again. A tear slips down her cheek, and she wipes it quickly away, and — holy shit, he just made her cry. He has seen her cry exactly once, and it's terrifying, but it also, on some level, confirms his basic argument about why dating her would be a bad idea. So like the idiot he is, he soldiers on. "And — and this is relevant — you're impressive, and you deserve someone that deserves you, but you keep dating jerks and jackasses that aren't good enough for you, and I can't figure out why! And that's important, since you've built your entire case for why you want to date me on the fact that you think I'm a 'good guy,' but every guy you like is an absolute jerk. Do you not think you deserve someone who would treat you right, or do you just assume that anyone that is a good guy — a genuinely good guy, not whatever the fuck you think I am — would cheat on you and leave you, since a not-great guy like Topher did? I've watched you spend two years getting over him, and then date a parade of bad-guy losers, and that... coupled with the words you keep saying about … me, that doesn't help your case that I'm someone you think you should be dating. You like assholes, and you like me, so … I am applying logic."
She's quiet for a second. A tear seems to literally freeze mid-trickle down her cheek as she steels herself to stop crying. "Well that was, you know, incredibly offensive."
"It wasn't supposed to be —"
"Really? Cause you just told me that the reason you won't ask me out is because either I have absolutely shitty taste in guys, which means that you're a shitty guy too, or that I have an incredibly low opinion of myself, both of which make me think that you think that, on some level, I'm actually an idiot—"
"—I absolutely do not, I'm just saying that you deserve someone better —"
"No, you're saying that I don't know what I deserve and that you, Don Keefer, knows better than I do, despite the fact that I, Sloan Sabbith, can't possibly understand you, since I am not you. So let's get one — no, two — things straight. First, you need to get off the fucking sword that you fell on from atop your high horse. Second, my judgement is just fine. Yeah, sometimes it doesn't work out with whomever I'm dating, but at least I'm taking chances on people, unlike you, who bounced from one two-week relationship to the next until one of those was accidentally with someone who worked for you so it got complicated, and then you didn't know how to deal with the relationship, or your feelings, or her. Your entire dating history is summed up by you randomly tumbling into a girl sideways and hoping that she breaks up with you before you get hurt. And third —"
"You said two."
"And third," she says murderously, "I am at no point getting in a car or taking a drink from some guy with prison tattoos on his forearms. The guys I date are perfectly normal when we start dating and when things start making me feel off — whether, yes, it's Topher cheating on me or Scott just giving off asshole vibes tonight — I leave. I don't give people second chances, I don't stand by my men. If they don't deserve me, they don't get me."
"I'm sorry," he says quickly (he knew
the dipshit was named Scott). "Really, I am. I … I did not mean it the way it came out, and I deserved … all of that."
Her anger deflates. "Don, you have a great opinion of me, which is really flattering and probably not entirely deserved. So I'm allowed to form my own maybe-not-deserved opinion of you. And after knowing you for three years, I think I know you decently well, whether or not you think so. I know that, yes, you can be sarcastic, and rude, and you can be a jerk when you're stressed, and you often yell when it's not entirely necessary. But I also know that you work hard, that you try and do the right thing, but you especially try to the thing that's right for everyone else and not for you; that you frequently take on tons of extra responsibility for everyone else and crap from them without complaining; that you sell yourself short; that you always try to do too much; and you actually care way, way too much about people close to you, and you're terrified of losing them. And a lot of those things are actually things that are also really, really annoying too, but I understand that there are good things about you and not-so-good things about you. Despite those not-so-good things, I still like you a lot as a person. And I get to choose who I like and who I would date, and so, just for the record, if you ever — well, decently soon, I'm not waiting around for you here — but if you, in the near future, get your head out of your ass long enough to figure your shit out, you should know that I would choose you too." She stares at him for a second, then stuffs her be-gloved hands under her armpits and shivers for warmth. "I'm getting a cab. Have a good night, Don."
"Sloan," he calls as she steps off the curb and raises her arm.
"What, Don?" she groans, turning to face him as he jogs up to her. A cab slides to her side.
He's not actually sure, what. He is, in fact, fucking terrified. Because that conversation felt like it, like a moment that, in twenty years, he would thinking of as one of the two or three most important conversations in his adult life. Wherever he ends up and whatever he does and whoever he does it with, it will be because this night is significant, this night demarcated his life into a before this moment and an after this moment. They cannot go back, and going forward, they cannot be the same. You-never-asked-me-out was a blip compared to this. Their friendship had survived that. But going forward, he could either try and have her in all of his life, or one or both of them would inevitably start looking for jobs in another city soon, and she would be in none of it.
(Not that that couldn't — wouldn't — happen eventually, them and this falling apart. He is fully aware of that. But their friendship is dead already otherwise. This, as-is, is a breakup, just without any of the good stuff.)
So he gets to the good stuff.
He kisses her.
It's not a perfect kiss — he's a little drunk and a lot terrified, so everything is swimmy and he's sure he's probably sucking at her bottom lip a little too much. And the weather and the fact that it's probably been hours since she put on lipstick means her lips are chapped and cold. But after her shock dissipates, she reciprocates easily, her hands raising to grip at his elbows. It's not one of the top five kisses of all time, but it settles into something really, really nice, and he moves his hand to her lower back to pull her even closer. He does not want to stop kissing her, and based on her reaction, she is clearly okay with that as well.
The cabbie honks. "You getting in or what?" he yells. Fucking New Yorkers.
Sloan pulls back, breathless. "Yeah!" she says, "One sec."
"It's cold, lady."
She turns to him. "He's right. It's freezing out here. Want to come back to my place for a drink?"
He hesitates. "I should —"
"Don," she interrupts. "You should come back to my place for a drink." She bites her lip — the first signal that maybe she's as nervous as he is.
He looks at her for a second, then nods. "Yeah. I should." He takes her hand, and she lets go of the breath she's holding, and breaks into one of her big Julia Roberts smiles, the real smile with teeth that she uses infrequently. He's coached her, over the years, helped her develop a practiced, inviting, friendly-but-distant, smile for the air, for schmoozing, for loser ex-boyfriends and for trying friends. This isn't it. At all.
He knows it's crazy, but he genuinely wouldn't mind spending the rest of his life trying to get her to smile that way, again and again and again.
He wonders if, now, he might actually have that chance.
Against his better, practiced, cautious instincts, he thinks he might.