Time for the longer piece! This picks up a few years in the future (in my mind it's 2018 but that's just my head-canon, which is being explored in a far fluffier manner in "Hearts Are Strong, Hearts Are Kind"; everything from season 2 happens), after Maggie left ACN under less-than-ideal circumstances and the rest of the gang moved forward with their lives. While this chapter is largely about Maggie, it's fully an ensemble piece that will account for every major character — especially Don, Sloan, Will, and Mac. And Jim, because you can't do a Maggie story without Jim.
The title comes from an ee cummings poem, transcribed at the bottom. I obviously don't own the poem or the characters.
You leave home, you move on, you do the best you can - Miranda Lambert, The House That Built Me
Nearly ten years after she first moved to New York, Maggie still firmly believes there is magic in the city's springtime. The city's hustle seems lighter and happier: Kids wearing t-shirts dance home from school; coffee dates unfurl on patios; nannies and runners bask in the good weather. It's been almost four years since she left her first big city; while Atlanta is fun and she's made friends and having no winter is great, there's something perpetually romantic about New York that isn't present in Atlanta. It's good to be back, even if it's for work and for two days.
"You know, if I didn't know how busy you were, I might think you were avoiding me and I would get offended."
Maggie looks up at the shadow that crossed her table. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you were stalking me," she replies with a smirk. "Hi, Don."
Her ex-boyfriend reaches down to hug her. "How's it going, Maggie?" He grabs a chair from the next table, and swings it around so he can rest his arms on the back while still facing her.
"Well," she says, closing her book. "How are you?"
"I'm great. I've emailed you a few times. I've even called."
"As you said, I've been busy. But it looks like you followed me to this cafe. How did you find me, exactly?"
"I called your office, and they said you'd stepped out to lunch. I figured there were exactly three restaurants by CNN to try. This was the second one I got to."
"How very entrepreneurial of you," she smiles. "Though usually you're better at reading signs. And signs said I didn't want to talk to you."
"Too bad I'm such a dogged journalist," he grins. "No, seriously. I want to know. How's Atlanta? I haven't talked to you in forever. You look good. The hair?" he motions under his chin, signaling, short. "It's good."
"Thanks. And … yeah. Atlanta's great. Time flies, you know? I've been traveling a lot, there's good people, so much fun. Work keeps me busy. What about you? You're at NBC now, right? And Sloan? She's at Bloomberg still?" She runs a hand through her chin-length, honey-brown bob. He looks good — his hair is close-cropped but product-free and curly, and he's wearing jeans and a light, checked button-down under a dark blue sweater and gray blazer. It's very J. Crew — a far cry from his days of slept-in flannel shirts.
"Yes and yes. She's great. She's managing editor for three hours a day and loves it," he grins. "You've been avoiding me," he smiles and taps his knuckles on the table.
Caught off-guard, she says, "I have not!"
He gives her a look that clearly says she is transparent, and she guiltily says, "Well, you know, work, and life, and suddenly, bam! It's been, what, four years?"
"Almost," he says. "Anyways. I wanted to invite you to dinner."
"Yes. Our place. 7:30 tonight. MacKenzie and Will are coming, so you can't say no."
"I mean, yes, I want to see you, this isn't personal, but I have plans tonight," she lies, her stomach sinking, because Don absolutely can tell lying vs. not-lying.
"Bullshit," he says, his voice affable. "Come on. We want to catch up. We miss you around here, Mags."
She caves. "7:30?"
"Yeah. I may be late, but Sloan's home by 5:30. We're at 160 Riverside Drive, Apartment 14A. It's by …"
"I may have moved but I remember how to get to your place," she says wryly. "I'll see you then."
"Sounds great!" he says. "And don't worry — Sloan isn't cooking."
She smiles, wanly. An evening with her ex-coworkers is not exactly something that interests her, but she knows Don Keefer's tenacious side well. "I have to go," she says. "My lunch is over."
"Of course," he says. "We'll see you tonight."
At 7:30, a bottle of wine in hand, she rings the bell, nervously, at 160 Riverside Drive, Apartment 14A. It's a gorgeous co-op in a renovated pre-war building. It's slightly gothic, very West Side, a block from the Hudson and four from the park. There's a smaller neighborhood playground on the corner and a dog run, as well as the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, down the block. It's idyllic, in a Woody Allen-movie way.
She's braced herself for Sloan or possibly Don to answer the door, not Mac with a four-year-old boy looped in her arms. She stares for a second, jaw down. "Oh, Maggie," Mac exclaims, holding one arm wide to embrace her. "Come in, come in. It is so good to see you," she lets the hug linger. "You remember Max. Max, this is Maggie. You should say hi." She blinks, hard, when she sees him, then blinks several more times to keep an unexpected (but not unsurprising) surge of tears at bay. He is so big.
"Hi," Max says brightly. His hair is very, very dark chestnut, possibly even black. His curls, nose, and chin are all Don's, but he's got Sloan's greenish eyes and a mischievous smile. He's dressed in pants and a top from two different sets of pajamas. "Are you here to play? I have my trains out and I know how to share." She opens her mouth, but can't really speak.
"Maggie's here for dinner with me, your mommy, your daddy, and Will," Mac jumps in. "Maggie used to work with mommy and daddy and now she lives in Atlanta."
"Hi," she says, awkwardly, at last. "Nice to meet you, Max." She thinks she saw him last when he was nine months old, so 'meet' is perfectly appropriate.
"Why don't you go play with your trains, Max?" Mac smiles, and the kid runs off. "Remember to put them away when you are done!" She calls after him, then turns to Maggie. "I'm sorry. Don is running just a few minutes late, so Will is helping Sloan with the girls' bedtime and then they'll be out. It shouldn't take very long."
"Will is helping with bedtime?"
She nods, smiling. "He does the best funny voices."
Sloan comes down the stairs (it was definitely a one-story apartment when they first moved in) and smiles broadly when she sees her. "Maggie!" she exclaims, coming to hug her. "So good to see you. You look great."
So do you," she says, and it's true. Sloan still talks crazy-fast and has that full-on stare, but she looks completely relaxed in her home. She's barefoot with wine-red toes, wearing a white Oxford shirt and calf-length black leggings. Her hair, longer and with more layers than the last time Maggie saw her in person, is parted and half pulled back in a clip. She wears very little makeup, and is just as unfairly willowy as she was when they were working together.
"Can I get you anything to drink? We have beer, red wine, white wine, water..."
"White wine would be great," she smiles, and Sloan heads toward the kitchen. Before she can get very far, though, the door clicks open, and Max streaks past them, yelling, "DADDY!" A dog — Smith, the black-and-white Portuguese water dog they got right after they got married, as a test-run for kids — follows him, toenails clicking, and it's all Maggie can do to refrain from rolling her eyes at the New York perfection of it all. It's Upper West Side apartment porn. She's briefly reminded of Rebecca Halliday and her preference for the UWS. She wonders if she lives in the building.
"Max!" Sloan exasperates, "Quiet voice, sweetheart, you're inside." He's way past them, though, so Sloan finishes her chiding as an aside to Mac, "And your sisters are trying to get to sleep, but why do you care if that happens?" They both laugh a little.
Don has picked his little boy up, though, and stuck his head under the spaceship PJ top, blowing a raspberry onto his stomach. Max laughs mirthfully, and Sloan says, as a head's up, "The girls aren't down yet." Quickly throwing them an 'oops' look, Don extracts his head and swings his son onto his hip.
"Sorry, babe," he says, and the two of them quickly kiss.
"It's fine," she says reassuringly. "Do you want to go say goodnight? Last I checked on them, there was a very involved retelling of 'Knuffle Bunny' still going on."
"That would be great," and he lets Max slide down his leg. He heads up to the girls' bedroom, Max returns to wherever his trains are, Smith follows Max, and Sloan says, "Let me get you that glass of wine," before disappearing into the kitchen. She quickly returns and says, somewhat awkwardly, "I'm sorry it's so crazy — the girls' bedtime is 7:30, which the earliest Don gets home, which is also the edge of acceptability for dinner invitations these days."
"It's fine," Maggie says. "I'm sure it must be crazy all the time. How, um, how old are the girls now?" She wishes she could remember their names — she'd definitely gotten the birth announcement.
"Fifteen months. They're pretty independent. Emerson's sassy, definitely the one who likes digging in the dirt and climbing way too high on the jungle gym. Susannah is more of a girly-girl, but she's sneakier. Emerson tells you before she starts wreaking havoc," Sloan smiles. Names. Thank god.
"I can't imagine Don with teenaged daughters."
"Neither can he," Sloan laughs. "Anyways, how are you? We've missed you. How is Atlanta?"
Maggie looks around. "I'm great. It's great. How about you? Have you redecorated? It looks different."
"Since you've been here last? Yes, I think so. When was the last time you came over?"
Taking a swill of wine, she says, "Um, right before I moved. Probably Max's christening."
"Okay. Yeah, we actually purchased the unit above us when the building went condo and then combined the two so we had enough space. We were really lucky that the upstairs neighbor was happy to sell; otherwise we would have had to move when the girls were born. Renovating was a complete bitch, though. Here, I'll give you a tour."
Downstairs is the kitchen, living room, dining room, breakfast nook, laundry room, a huge library/media center, a family room complete with gym equipment, and a home office with five TVs. Most of the rooms have fantastic views of the Hudson and the bridge. An east-facing terrace snakes along next to the library and looks over the city — she can see the park peeking through the buildings. Upstairs are all the bedrooms, along with an extra one for when the girls get older and are separated, a playroom, and a guest suite. Her favorite part is Max's room, with 'Where the Wild Things Are' murals and a treehouse bed with a slide. They don't go into the girls' room, but she can hear Will reading animatedly.
The whole place is pretty open and modern, but with plenty of pre-war accents — subway tile in the sleek, dark-wood kitchen; built-in bookshelves everywhere; arched entryways; thick crown molding on the windowsills; clean parquet floors; gorgeous expansive windows. It's also pretty homey — there is child-made artwork on the fridge and taped on the walls in the office; there are dishes stacked in the kitchen sink and toys on the floor; books and personal art and family photos are everywhere. She notices a few from their spur-of-the-moment City Hall wedding six years ago. As they're returning to the kitchen, Don and Will slink down the stairs.
"They have trouble getting to sleep?" Sloan asks.
"Annie crashed two pages in. Emmy needed 'Don't Let Pigeon Drive the Bus,'" Will says. At the ridiculousness of that statement — the nicknames, the book titles, the mental picture of Will doing the 'funny voices' — Maggie lets out a quick bark of a laugh, which she quickly suppresses.
"Sorry. Just … Hi, Will," she smiles. "How are you?" It wasn't just a cursory greeting: Will had taken a leave of absence from News Night a month ago for 'health reasons,' which she had quickly found out was a bad bout of pneumonia. She'd sent flowers and called Mac, but had just received a terse 'we're doing fine, will keep you posted darling!' in return.
"I'm well, thank you, Maggie," he smiles. "How's CNN treating you?"
"It's going well. I'm traveling a lot. I just went to California for the earthquake and South Korea for the Olympics," she says. Sloan disappears for a minute, and Don begins pulling out plates and cups, which MacKenzie starts carrying out to the terrace as Will asks Maggie about work. When Sloan returns, she pulls a few bags of Chinese food out of the fridge and informs her husband, quietly, that the 'Wild Thing' is watching a movie.
"Hopefully he'll just pass out," Don mutters back, running a hand along his wife's spine. Maggie watches them, with a pang for this life, this busy, full, expansive, fulfilling, life. Sloan smiles and reaches up to thumb his cheekbone before reaching up to the wine rack.
"Everyone ready?" she says, meting out three glasses of red and handing one each to Will and Mac. Don grabs a beer from the fridge and the monitor to the girls' room. They settle on the patio, Don and Sloan both positioning themselves so they can see into the library, which has windows that look directly onto the outdoor space. Craning her head, she can see Max, tucked up under a few blankets, nodding off to what looks like one of the Despicable Me movies in the library. Smith is sprawled on top of him as well.
"Great babysitter there, Sabbith," Will remarks, and it's clearly a light dig.
"Bite me," Sloan replies, chomping down on an egg roll.
And just like that, they're talking and laughing like she never left New York. She learns about Sloan's show on Bloomberg; how Emerson and Susannah learned to walk; MacKenzie's attempt to take Max to the aquarium, which ended in a panic attack; and Will and MacKenzie's tiny one-witness wedding in Italy, as well as their massive blowout on a yacht once they got back to New York. She'd been invited, but had sent a blender instead. It had been less than a month after she'd left New York, and she couldn't bear the thought of returning.
About an hour after they sit down, Don and Sloan excuse themselves. Maggie watches them through the window into the library, sees Sloan carefully gather Max in her arms, Don helping her support his head, and then walk slowly out as Don cleans up and deals with the dog.
"They're a good team," Mac says fondly as she watches them exit. At first Maggie assumes the remark is cagily directed at her, but Mac continues, "You think we'll have that, Billy?"
He smiles a real smile. "Yeah. I think we will."
"Are you two pregnant?" she blurts out, startling them out of her reverie. Because while it's cute, that it took them over a decade to find each other, they're both on the older side now.
"No," Will says, quickly.
"But … we are adopting," Mac confirms, just as quickly. She bites her lip lightly, studying Maggie, trying to gauge her reaction.
"Wow," Maggie says, slightly stunned. She schools her face carefully. "That's great. Do you have photos?"
Mac quickly pulls out a cell phone and flicks to a photo, then spins it around. "That's Naureen. Nora. She's three. She's in an orphanage in Peshawar, but she'll be ours in about two months. We're hoping to have her by the Fourth." The little girl is skinny, with startlingly large eyes and a wide smile.
"I'm so excited for you!" Maggie says, and she does really mean it. "She can come in and do News Night and be a producer by the age of five, and cover the Dora the Explorer beat."
The two of them exchange a look and, emboldened by the wine, Maggie says, "What am I missing?"
"She might come in and be a producer, but it won't be of News Night."
She leans forward, elbows on her knees. "Are you not going back to News Night?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Will says. "Of course I am."
"Yeah, for how long, Will?" Don says, coming out and sliding the door shut behind him carefully.
"About four months."
Her jaw drops. "Then what will you do?"
"Weekly newsmagazine. Sunday nights, one hour long, two in-depth segments and a roundtable discussion."
"They kicked my favorite producer upstairs and gave me some new guy."
She stares at Will and Mac. "That's horrible! Mac, you've been good, you've been loyal, they can't just replace you with some snazzy young flake!"
"Why don't you elaborate a bit, Will?" Don prompts, one eyebrow cocked, and she gets the distinct feeling she's missing something. "Because the snazzy young flake might take issue with that statement."
Will rolls his eyes, but says, "MacKenzie here has been promoted to SVP of special investigations. Given that, plus the fact that we're adopting this little girl and we all know I won't be around to see her kids grow up, I thought it would be nice to scale back a bit. So I'll be doing a weekly newsmagazine and handling the pickups and the drop-offs and the bath time and the … whatever."
"He's going to pick up Max from preschool too, aren't you, Will?" Sloan asks, sliding the door behind her and crawling into her husband's chair, swinging her legs over his lap. "We'll send them to preschool together and you can pick up Max and take him home and play trains and make him ants on a log."
"Why the fuck would I feed kids ants, Sloan?" Will practically growls. Sloan and Don share an eyeroll as Sloan plays with the curls on the nape of Don's neck.
"One day," Sloan sighs.
"Who is the flaky new producer?" Maggie prompts, pulling everyone back on track.
They all look at each other, and she does the math. "Don?"
"Yup," he says, slightly bashfully.
"You're going to News Night?"
"You've … done this before." At NBC, he was the senior executive producer of the Nightly News and the New York news director. She knew he was overseeing plenty of long-term projects: The 2016 elections, plenty of international coverage, investigations on voter disenfranchisement, standardized-testing cheating rings, regime falls, the death penalty and race, and political scandals like the NSA tracking. He also had a much bigger audience, and could get home by 7:30 nightly. "Like, it's great, but you've done cable news EP, you did it with Elliot."
Don smiles enigmatically. "I can't tell you how, Ms. CNN, but it will be different. I promise."
She knows she needs to take it at face value, so she says, "I'm sorry for calling you a snazzy flake." She knows there must be more going on, but she takes it for now.
They laugh. "I've been called worse."
"Sloan, are you moving back to ACN?"
Sloan shakes her head and laughs. "No way. My last year at ACN, I got sent to two hurricanes. At Bloomberg, I cover what I want to cover. Until ACN can promise I won't traipse around South Florida in crazy boots anymore, I'm staying put."
"You looked cute in the boots," Don says.
"You looked ridiculous in the boots," Mac laughs.
"Who knows — I know a few people over there," Sloan says, one eyebrow cocked at her husband.
Everyone laughs, and then Sloan pats Don's back and says, "It's getting chilly. Let's get this cleaned up and go inside."
"I'll help," MacKenzie volunteers.
Maggie, Will, and Don linger as the other two begin gathering dishes and plates. She knows she should help, but it's a gorgeous night and she just … misses New York. There, she said it. CNN is great and Atlanta is nicer weather, but New York was always the dream. It was her first city.
"It's good city, Maggie," Will says, taking a sip of bourbon. "You should come back here."
"Give me a job and I'll think about it," she smiles.
Will and Don exchange another look. "And that's my cue to go," Will says, gathering the leftover placemats.
When he's gone, Maggie looks bluntly at Don. "Ok. What the fuck am I missing?"
"What do you mean?" Don asks, pushing the lone remaining wine bottle towards her.
She sighs, pours herself a glass. "I mean … A. You called me about nine times today, which is double the number of times we've talked since I moved. You tracked me down for something. B. Sloan's show airs at noon, which means she is in around 6:30, at the latest, each morning. But if you're on NewsNight, you're not home till 10, at the earliest, each night. So when are you going to see your wife with this job? And C. You're one of the most ambitious people I know, Don. You want president of a news division, hell, maybe a whole network, and you want it before you're 50. So why are you going back to EP-ing a show you did more than five years ago?"
"Because I'm not going to be the EP," he says simply.
She sits back. "What do you mean?"
"I'm there to ease Will off the air as a favor. I'll be leading the search for a new anchor and EP. As soon I get the show off the ground, I'm taking over as SVP of primetime and breaking news. I'll be overseeing all the shows from 5 till 11 and getting us to be better, faster, with stories in general."
"Oh," she says, because that makes perfect sense. He won't have to be in the studio most days, can get away with watching from home and relying on EPs.
"It'll be four months with a headset, tops," he says.
"Charlie's grooming you," she deduces. It makes sense — he is approaching 75.
He shrugs. "Nothing's written in stone, but it's a good opportunity."
"That's amazing," she says. "Congratulations. You'll be great." She really, really means it. But then she realizes he absolutely can't be telling her things, so she socks him in the shoulder.
"Hey! I have three kids to pick up," he moans, rubbing the non-bruise.
"You can't tell me these things! I work at a competitor, you dipwad! Telling me this is unethical! I could use this information against you!"
"Yeah...About that," he says. "What would you say about, you know, not working for a competitor?"
"I need a job, Don," she says, in a 'duh' voice.
"Well clearly," he says. "I meant, what do you think about working at ACN in New York again?"
"Excuse me?" she blinks.
"I need a senior producer at 8 p.m.," he says, and her jaw drops. "I need someone who knows ACN, gets what I want without me having to explain three times, has experience. You said it yourself — I have kids, and 8 p.m. is the worst time slot for that. Particularly as I'm launching the show and managing the SVP duties, I need someone to help set the tone, manage the day-to-day and back me up." `
She's struck. She knew that was the path she was on — she's a news producer, after all — but she didn't expect it at ACN, from her long-ago ex, at this point in her life.
But while she likes Atlanta, it is not New York. And she loves New York. She loves the busy, center-of-the-world feeling she gets living in New York. She loves the subway and the overpriced lattes and how, when she works until past midnight, so are a million other people. She loves morning runs in Central Park and arguing with cabbies. She wants this.
"I'll take it," she says. "Just one condition."
"Shoot," Don says.
"I can't work with Jim Harper."
love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more frequent than to fail
it is most mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea
love is less always than to win
less never than alive
less bigger than the least begin
less littler than forgive
it is most sane and sunly
and more it cannot die
than all the sky which only
is higher than the sky