Hi all! Slowly but surely, I'm coming back, and I hope you're still around as well. This is a lot more "action-y" than I am used to in this piece, but I did want to put the "news" back in Newsroom. It's an experiment, and based on the cliffhanger I had to follow through. So would love to know thoughts! I've long planned on using Qumar in this capacity as a Sorkin-y nod, but then he up and did the same thing with Equitorial Kundu in this season's plotline. So thanks, Aaron Sorkin, for stealing your own idea first and doing it better than I ever could (again).
Finally, just wanted to say, as I'm laid up in a tryptophan coma from yesterday, that I am thankful for all of you. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this chapter. The quote at the beginning, I think, is particularly revealing.
"There is no cure except to live the hell out of our lives, to take it apart, to put it back together, to dig it all up, and then fill the hole. To help ourselves and one another to the best of our abilities. To believe everything entirely, while also calling bullshit for what it is." — Cheryl Strayed, "Tiny Beautiful Things"
Within seconds of their ungraceful burst into Reese's office, everyone is on the phone: Don's yelling at some contact with State and Reese is on the phone with their lawyers and Charlie's on the phone with the NSA or the CIA or somebody and Jim is calling … someone. Jim is calling someone.
She spins through her phone to find Matt Ruhle's information; he's a contractor, so it's sparse, to say the least. There's one emergency contact — his mother, in upstate New York — but it was last updated in 2013. She dials Charlotte, twenty floors below them in the newsroom. "I need everything on Matt Ruhle you can find. Spouse, partner, kids, parents, anything. Personal and financial details. And let's start figuring out if this was a random kidnapping of a journalist or if someone had a beef with him in particular, OK? Call me back in twenty minutes." She hangs up.
"Maggie! Over here!" Don yells, pointing to his cell.
"It's not a landline, you can move with it," she points out. Don looks momentarily stunned.
"Right, here you go, Alexander Graham Bell."
"That reference doesn't make any sense, skippy," she retorts. "Hello?"
"Maggie Jordan? This is Avner Marshall Hall, chief of staff for the Deputy Secretary of State. I understand that you've been in charge of tracking down information about Mr. Ruhle?"
"Yes, he's a freelance videographer and journalist who is based out of Jerusalem; we've used him in the past."
"Is he Jewish?"
"No. I don't know what he is, but he's not Jewish," she says. Her stomach is rapidly sinking, is currently somewhere around her feet. Soon it will be two floors down. "We've worked with him — I don't know how long, I've only been here a couple months — but we've worked with him for a couple of years now. He's good. Dependable, good sources. Smart. Everyone who goes over there is a bit of a risk-taker but he wouldn't take unnecessary risks."
"He's been doing this for five years," Jim says, hanging up his phone.
"Right. He's been doing this for five years," Maggie says into the phone. "Last week we contacted him to do a story about al-Shabaab and ISIS recruiting child soldiers into their operations. He left from Jerusalem to Mogudishu thirteen days ago, and head to Damascus four days later. We last heard from him on Tuesday, a week ago, that he was heading to Aleppo. He arrived safely, he had dinner on with friends on Wednesday, talked to them about his assignment. He was going to try and find a few families where the children had been kidnapped — he was headed into a few rural towns. He was expected to be back by Saturday, but from what we can tell, nobody has seen him. Not too unusual, according to his friends. He was supposed to check in yesterday but didn't, so this morning I tried calling. I couldn't get ahold of him and started calling contacts. When they hadn't seen him, we tried back channels —"
"Who are your back channels?"
"Journalists, in the region. Friendly locals. Word on the ground is that an independent group got an American journalist that they're trying to sell. It sounds ragtag — the leader may have a few debts that he owes guys with bigger guns."
"So he's somewhere in the Aleppo governorate?"
"Possible. It's been five days, so he could be over the border in Iraq right now. You guys haven't heard anything?"
"No," Avner sighs. Maggie decides he must be British. "We're going to set up a secure video line with the Secretary and the Pentagon. Is your team available in twenty minutes?"
"Uh, sure," Maggie says.
"Do you have a secure link?"
"We're a cable news —"
"Do you have a secure link?"
"Yes, in our conference room."
"Maggie!" Charlotte says, appearing in the doorway. She looks young and does a double-take when she sees Charlie and Reese in the room. "I have his family information."
"Don't contact the family just yet," Avner says, overhearing.
"But they deserve —"
"Don't. Twenty minutes." Avner's voice is crisp as he hangs up.
She hands the phone back to Don. "What do we have, Charlotte?"
"There's a wife, Sophie-Anne, and a two-year-old daughter, Lulu. Normally they live in Jerusalem with him, but she's having a high-risk pregnancy and so she moved back to suburban Virginia where her parents live. She's an assistant professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Teaches astrophysics. The number and address for his mother and stepfather are still the same as in the folder."
"She's an astrophysicist?" Charlie sounds impressed. He's always had a weird fixation with space.
"It's easier to see certain stars from —" Charlotte starts.
"Nobody in this room is going to understand the explanation, but Charlie's going to pretend he does," Don interrupts. "Is she Jewish?"
"No, she's French with dual citizenship. The university is kind of a mecca—"
"Wrong word choice," Charlie winces.
"—Kind of an … attraction for astrophysicists because it's —"
"—Easier to see certain stars from there. Got it," Don says. "When is she due?"
"With her child. When is she due?"
"Early next year," Charlotte replies.
Reese puts his cell down. "My mother is on her way."
"My buddy Adam is coming in as well," Jim says. "Former MARSOC. Now he runs Polaris Securities. He'll be here in twenty to advise us. Charlotte, what else did you learn about his family? Are his parents well-off?"
She shrugs. "I can't say for sure, but mom's a kindergarten teacher and stepdad's a partner at a law firm with two lawyers in a town with three thousand people. His dad lives in Connecticut and his a sculptor. Doesn't appear to be very successful, and the photos of his work make clear why. Never remarried."
"So no," Don says. "What about the wife?"
"Her father was a diplomat and now runs an import-export business. Well off but not like Julia Louis-Dreyfus."
"What does the woman from Seinfeld have anything to do with this?" Charlie asks.
"She's a gazillionaire," Maggie supplies.
"That's the technical term," Jim adds.
"More like the mid-nine figures," Don says.
"How do you know that?" Maggie asks.
"Sloan's family has weird connections," Don shakes his head.
"Focus!" Charlie yells. "The point is, it's random. Yes? It's not a targeted kidnapping."
"Nothing points to that, no," Jim says, scratching his head.
"Is that a double negative —"
"It's not targeted, is what I mean."
"We need to find out who has him, how they got him, and whether or not he's alive," Don summarizes.
"Damn straight you do," a voice Maggie barely recognizes booms from the doorway.
She and Jim jump up. "Leona," Don says, also scrambling to stand, but casually, because he's a big shot now. Though he does call her Leona. Jesus, he's come a long ways.
"Oh my god," Charlotte says.
"Hello, Mother," Reese says.
"I hear we have a situation?"
"Situation is when the cafeteria runs out of blueberry Greek yogurt and the interns whine. What we have is a clusterfuck," Reese says. "We might be looking at another Daniel Pearl or James Foley situation."
"Well," Leona says. "Let's stop that from happening."
"Talking to Washington in … now," Reese says, flicking his wrist up and down quickly to check his watch. "Let's go."
"Where are you going?" Charlotte asks as they all stand.
"Conference room," Jim says. "Thanks Charlotte. Knock three times before you enter again."
"Has anyone gotten any smoke signals from the kidnappers? Any noise about ransom? Proof of life?" Charlie quizzes en route.
"Nothing," Maggie emphasizes. She can't help but feel like she failed somehow. She and Jim assigned Matthew to this — she had said, We want to talk child soldiers in Syria and Jim had said, I know a guy. They may have just gotten him killed.
They are no good, on so many levels.
Jim's phone rings, and he snaps it up. "Adam? Hey. Awesome. Twenty-third floor," he hangs up. "Adam's here. He'll be up soon."
"You trust him?" Don asks.
"With my life. I was embedded with him," Jim says. They enter the conference room, where the link is hot. The camera peers into a blue-lit room somewhere anonymous in D.C., where two men sit at a conference table.
"Avner?" Maggie tries, taking a seat.
"Yes, here," he smiles, and he's basically exactly what she pictured: mannered, with a distinct Roger Sterling vibe and square hipster glasses. His suit is a trendy blue. "You must be Maggie. This is my colleague, Mike Whitesails. He's the senior communications deputy here. And hello, Don. Good to see you again," Mike Whitesails is considerably more disheveled and getting paunchy.
"Hey Avner, hey Mike," Don says with familiarity. "How's it going?"
"Let me guess, you guys played tennis?" Maggie smirks. Don, in his Washington days, seems to have played tennis with every chief of staff, departmental deputy director, and associate editor currently working in D.C.
"Yes, fine, but it was a league of guys with a lot of potential," Don says. "Also, you do remember my mother-in-law is an assistant secretary of state, right? I can know people through other routes."
"Am I missing something?" Jim asks.
"No. Mike, this is Reese Lansing, president of ACN; Leona Lansing, president and CEO of AWM; Charlie Skinner, our president of news; Jim Harper, our international news director; and Maggie Jordan, the senior producer for News Night who figured out that Matt was missing."
"Great. As soon as the Pentagon — oh," a light blinks and another screen opens, "they're here. Perfect."
"Amira Pennington, senior analyst, Syria, here with Trevor Auerbach, CENTCOM; Patrick Odel, AFRICOM; and Martin Ponitz, Defense Intelligence. We asked a friend at the NSA to join, I hope you don't mind. He'll be on in a second."
"I'm here," a voice chimes as another picture appears. "Terrence Hanrahan, NSA."
"We all here, or are we waiting for the president too?" Don quips.
"Glad to see you're taking this seriously," Amira says drily.
"Listen. This guy's on the front line for us. Our code of ethics is the same as yours here: Leave no man behind," Don comes back. "If you guys have all got your party present and are ready to start looking, great. Otherwise I'm happy to use my fucking cameras to broadcast this, my phones to call his family, and my company's coffers to pay whatever the fuck ransom to bring him home. And while they're not the deepest pockets, they're sure as hell easier to access than the U.S. government's. We're playing ball here, we're doing things your way, as a courtesy."
Amira nods. "Noted, sir. "
"Thank you," Reese says. "No, do we know anything about who might've taken him and where they're keeping him?"
"There's a village in the southern part of the governorate, Haqib Maskanah, which is run mainly by a local politician —"
"A warlord?" Reese asks.
Trevor Auerbach shrugs. "We don't use that term in Syria."
"They're more political than militaristic; they don't quite have the consolidation of power; and, quite frankly, there's no way, with ISIS and al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda and what's left of the Syrian Army, for them to consolidate arms and gain a strategic foothold. He's a local guy who swaggers and has a chip on his shoulder," Auerbach shrugs. "Anyways. Abdul Aziz Hariq. He's kidnapped journalists and aid workers before, sold them to a larger al-Shabaab affiliated group. Last Saturday, he went to Manbij, the main city in his district, and spent nearly ten thousand U.S. dollars. Scarves, carpets, furniture, jewelry for his wife and daughters."
"You think he sold him for … hostage purposes?"
"There hasn't been any uptick in chatter, so we can't say for sure," Terrence Hanrahan says. "But this is the most likely scenario."
"So what's your plan for getting him back?" Mrs. Lansing asks.
"I need to stress that it is the absolute policy of this Administration and this country that we do not negotiate with terrorists. We do not pay ransoms. We do not do prisoner exchanges," Avner speaks up. "To do so would set a dangerous precedent."
"And part of that is keeping his family in the dark?"
"Until we know for sure who has him and what their demands are, we ask that you do not go to press with this," Avner replies firmly. "This is your first time dealing with this; we have done it nearly forty times since 2004. Keeping this under wraps is the only way we move faster than them, so people outside this room should not find out. We'll contact the family discreetly and see if they've heard anything; frequently, they've received an email and are not saying anything because they've been informed that otherwise, he will be killed."
"I'll contact them, if it's all the same to you," Don rebuts. "It's our network and our assignment that landed him there."
Avner nods. "Very well. Do let me know when you've contacted him and I'll follow up."
"Nobody has answered my question," Leona says. Maggie wants to be as kickass as Leona when she is seventy-five. "What is the plan to rescue him?"
"If we can get a bead on his location, we'll try and send in a team of special ops," Trevor says.
"I'd like a bead on his location, then," Leona replies.
"Yes ma'am," the head of AFRICOM says meekly. Maggie smirks.
"Is there anyone in the area we can talk to? We don't have a lot of friends over there, but surely someone can help out?" Reese suggests.
"You'd wanna talk to Qumar," Jim says.
"He's right," Amira replies. "We have the CENTCOM base there. It's where we would base a rescue operation."
"The Qumari government also has pretty close ties to both al-Shabaab and ISIS, so they're helpful in that regard, too," Jim points out.
Everyone in every little box on the screen stiffens. "We do not condone all of the Qumari government's friends in the area, but the fact remains, that they are our best friend."
"And our richest — they profit off our planes, our bases, and the oil they buy from terrorist governments. We get the politics," Don says.
"It must be nice to be that smug, Mr. Keefer," Amira observes. "Sitting there, throwing fires, getting to cast judgment on how we treat an incredibly difficult and fractious part of the world."
"I'm not trying to be smug," Don explains, his tone keying down. It's true; smug is his default. "I'm just … I'm pissed. We lost one of our guys. He doesn't sign up to die; he doesn't sign up to defend our country. For crap pay and shoestring benefits, he signs up to point his camera and try and make people listen. I've known plenty of these guys in my life, including this one —" he points to Jim, "and they have all the respect in the world for the military. All they're trying to do is point their camera, and get people to listen. So I'd like to get him home, yesterday."
"So do we," Mike interrupts. "You're calling the family now?"
"Yeah," Don says. "I'll call you when we're done." They disconnect.
Mrs. Lansing leans back. "It has been my longstanding policy not to negotiate with madmen, but I will gladly make an exception in this case."
"I think we need to follow the government's lead," Reese says.
"That guy is me," Jim speaks up. "He's Mac. We can't put anything but our full effort behind bringing him home."
"I agree, but we need to make sure that whatever decision we make doesn't lead to five more Macs or Matts or yous kidnapped next week. And paying a ransom to a group designated as a terrorist is actually illegal, and I'm not letting anyone get arrested again. Where's your friend?" Reese changes the subject abruptly.
"I … don't know," Jim looks around, then jumps up for the door. They all follow. "He should be here," they exit. "He's here," Jim announces.
Adam, or who Maggie supposes is Adam, is waiting outside in a crisp, dark suit. He's tall, with closely cropped brown hair and a square jaw. "Jim," he smiles, confirming Maggie's deduction. "Great to see you. And congrats on the wedding. The blender I sent got lost in the mail," he says wryly.
"Yeah, yeah. Thanks for coming in, man," Jim says with a backslap. "This is Charlie Skinner, the head of news, Reese Lansing, the president of ACN, Mrs. Leona Lansing, the president of AWM, Maggie Jordan, the senior producer of News Night, and Don Keefer, the — what's your title, anyways?" Prodigal son, basically.
"VP for breaking and primetime news. And stuff," Don smiles. "Adam, great to meet you, and thanks for helping us out. I have to call his wife, so please excuse me."
"I want to be on the call," Maggie says quickly, moving toward Don.
"No, you don't, because I don't," Don points out. "Fill Adam in here. Come find me in twenty minutes." He and Charlie head down one way, and Reese and Mrs. Lansing depart for god-knows-where in the opposite direction.
'Why don't we come back in the conference room?" Jim says. "Can I get you water or coffee or something?"
"I'm good, thanks," he grins.
"So Jim was embedded with you? Do you have any stories?" Maggie asks. "The blackmail type, to be clear; not the heroic type."
"Whatever you tell her, remember that I know far worse about you," Jim warns with a laugh.
"Jim always took the top bunk because he was scared of spiders," Adam says immediately. Despite the gravity of the situation, Maggie bursts out laughing. It feels good.
"Eight legs is not natural," Jim insists.
"How long were you over there?"
"I served on active duty through the end of 2013. 2014 was this," he lifts his right pants leg to reveal a titanium leg, "in Germany and D.C. Decided to come to New York after that, got an MBA at Columbia, and followed a buddy into private security. So you're Maggie, huh?" He weights it just enough power so she realizes he knows at least some of her history with Jim. "You're prettier than Jim ever let on."
"I am, on both counts," she smiles lightly. "What do we need to know?"
"It's more like what do I need to know," he snaps to business, then lets them know the long list of information they're going to need to get to him: last contact numbers, various friends in the region, groups he'd interacted with. They're tracking down this information when Don comes back in.
"We may have a problem," he announces bluntly.
"What's that?" Maggie asks, pushing some of her hair back.
"I spoke with the wife, Sophie-Anne. She … was not happy. Hysterical, actually. She hasn't heard from the kidnappers, so she's out of her mind with worry."
"That sounds about in line with how I would feel if I found out my husband had been kidnapped by terrorists," Maggie points out.
"That's not the problem. You know how we said he was comfortable but not, you know, Julia Louis-Dreyfus levels?"
"Is Sophie-Anne a Louis-Dreyfus?" Jim asks.
"No. But his mother … is."
"Matt's mother is the daughter of Matthew Prentice."
"The industrial mogul from, like, 120 years ago?"
"No. That was his — this Matthew Prentice's — grandfather. That Matthew Prentice had a son, Jonathan, who took his money, reinvested it in real estate and stocks, and made even more money. He then had a son, Matthew, who became an engineer and had the first patent for a computer chip in 1956. He turned that into a fairly lucrative business of his own and probably would beaten Steve Jobs to the punch by about twenty years, but he and his wife died in a plane crash in Tahiti, leaving all that money to their only daughter."
There's a pause. "OK, really, how was I supposed to have known all of that?" Jim complains.
"So Matt's mother is worth, what a billion?" Adam gets them back on track.
"She's worth seven billion? And she lives in upstate New York and teaches kindergarten?"
"Well, Sophie-Anne said her house was very nice," Don mocks. "I don't know, but we need to find out why. Because you know what this means?"
"If they figure out who they've got, there's suddenly a much higher price on his head. And since Sophie-Anne isn't an American citizen, she can pay the ransom as long as she's OK with never living in the U.S. again. France pays ransoms for its aid workers, and they wouldn't extradite her for this," Adam says after a beat. Maggie is impressed.
"Yeah," Don sighs, then takes a seat. "So we — or the government — has to figure out where he is, and get him back before they figure out what they're sitting on."
"Would it really be the worst thing?" Maggie asks impulsively.
"Would what?" Jim replies.
"Letting them pay the ransom. It'll get him home. We can broadcast that he's missing, that his mother is a gazillionaire and that his wife is pretty and pregnant and a French citizen. We basically do everything but put up his mother's email address," she feels herself getting worked up and her voice rising. "He's one of us. We have an obligation to do everything with can to bring him home."
"First off," Don says after a beat, "that's extra-governmental, what you're talking about here. That would have ramifications with sources here and in the Middle East. We're not sidestepping the government on this one."
"You were just fronting off to twelve people who probably know the nuclear codes!" Maggie exclaims.
"As a negotiating tactic," he rolls his eyes. "Listen. They have an army, and we just have the threat of public humiliation. One works damn well on governments but not so well on crazy foreign despotic potentates with fanatical religious beliefs and delusions of grandeur. The other works decently well on the crazy foreign despotic potentates with fanatical religious beliefs and delusions of grandeur."
"Good god you used a lot of synonyms for 'whackjob' in that sentence."
"It had rhythm," Don rebuts with a half-shrug. "We're going to give them time to at least get their feet fucking under them."
She turns to Adam. "How much time?"
"If we do this Don's way —"
"—Which you have to, since I am your boss —"
"—How long should we do it Don's way?"
Adam hesitates. "They'll need at least two or three days."
"So after that?"
"While they're doing that, we gather our intel. And then you make a decision," Adam's voice is firm and final.
"What do we do now?" Maggie flounders.
Don looks at his watch. "Well, you have a show in seven hours, so I would suggest you go put that together."
"Seven hours?" she checks. Fuck. She flips to her phone. Three texts and two calls.
"Yeah, it's one," Don says. "You have your second rundown in an hour. Go give me a show. Jim, there's a big world out there. Break news. Adam, I want to speak with you for a bit, is that OK?"
"Absolutely," he replies.
"Fine," she says, and they file out.
"Maggie," Don calls as she and Jim exit.
"Two days. We'll give them two days and then we'll talk. But sit on it for now, OK?"
"For what it's worth I'm on your side," Jim informs her as they get into the elevator.
She gives him a small smile. "Thanks."
Jim gets off the elevator on his floor, and she thumbs her notebook for the remaining thirty-seven seconds of her journey. She's absolutely unsurprised by who's waiting at her seat.
"Brent," she smiles, approaching. "Listen, I'm really sorry about being late —"
"You sure you don't want to add an 'again' to that?" he smiles ruefully, standing to leave.
"When I say 'extenuating circumstances,' I really mean it," she says.
"I mean, I'd say I don't mind, except we moved our lunch three times. Not once, three times. It was supposed to be last Wednesday, then Friday, then Tuesday, then today. Three. Which wouldn't bother me — honestly, we're both busy, it happens — but we don't see each other otherwise, or really even talk betwen them, and I'm beginning to feel like you were trying to bail on it and I'm a rube for not picking up on the clues."
"I don't want to bail. I really — I couldn't get away."
"What's going on?" he gestures to the TV. "Because right now you've got an anchor covering what the First Lady might wear to a summit in three weeks." She glances at the TV; he's right. Her case doesn't look good.
"I can't tell you," she says. "I really can't. I'm sorry I missed lunch, but it was pretty important, and when I say I hope you never find out what I was doing because it's that important, I really mean that. It was that kind of meeting."
He pauses, clearly skeptical at her weak defense. "Alright. I … I'm going back to work." She gets the distinct, familiar feeling that he's not going to call her again. "It was … Nice seeing you, Maggie." He turns with a small smile and walks off.
"Yeah," she adds, faintly. Saying something perfunctory like 'I'll see you soon' almost sounds insulting.
For the next two days she throws herself into work to keep the anxiety at bay. On Friday, when she goes to bug Don about the lack of information over lunch, he stops her and says, "Before you say anything, I know it's been two days. I know we need to make a decision. Come over to our place after News Night."
"And talk, I assume," she completes his thought.
"Obviously. Rebecca, Reese, Adam, Jim, Charlie, Will, Neal, and Mac are coming. We're ordering Chinese. Sloan's gonna send you a Google form to fill out with your order. Fill it out to the T. Always fill out Sloan's forms to the T."
"Why are Neal and Will and Mac coming?"
"Well, Mac has valuable knowledge about reporting in the Middle East and Neal has valuable knowledge about how to potentially access his files and trace his digital footprint and do … whatever with that information, and Will was jealous when he found out that we asked Rebecca Halliday for her legal advice instead of his."
That makes sense. "That makes sense."
"Fill out Sloan's Google form."
That night, she's trying to figure out how to knock quietly without waking the kids when Sloan opens the door. "I have a sense," she explains.
"Yes. Also, I heard your footsteps."
"I didn't want to wake the kids."
"No need to worry about that. They're all going to wake up no matter what, because they are lovable, tiny terrorists who have been passing around a head cold like it's a hot potato for the last two weeks. Susannah has it now. Though I appreciate the consideration. You're moo shu pork?"
"And egg roll," she repeats her order promptly, because she filled out her Google doc. Sloan hands her two white cartons and a baggie.
"Mac, Will, and Don are in the library," Sloan smiles. "If you want to join them."
"Tiny, lovable terrorists are going to wake up ten minutes sooner if I'm not listening at the door," Sloan smiles without any teeth. She's dressed simply, in skinny black jeans and a thick, oatmeal-colored fisherman's sweater. Maggie's always envied how defiantly, consistently herself Sloan is no matter what the environment: high-stakes board meeting, breaking-news broadcast, hosting her husband's underlings for Chinese food at 10 pm on a Friday.
"You want company?"
"I have wine, and this isn't my problem," she says, lifting her (very full) glass. "It's yours. And you guys should go solve it before I get to the network and it becomes my problem." She cocks her head. "Someone's coming. One sec."
"I can get it," she volunteers.
"Nah, it's fine," Sloan says. "You eat. Grab wine if you want." She's heading out of the kitchen when the doorbell rings. "Fucking A," she swears. "You get the door. I'll get the kid."
"It sounds like they're still —" a weak cry cracks through the air and Sloan raises her eyebrows to say told you. "Nevermind. Sure."
It's Jim, Neal, and Adam, and she lets them in with a warning: "A kid just woke up. They've been sick and Sloan's not happy."
"Which one? I'm great with Emerson, if she needs help," Jim boasts.
"Yeah, it's probably Susannah, but I think Sloan can handle her own kids," Maggie rolls her eyes. "Come on in. Food's in the kitchen."
"Excellent. I'm starved," Neal grins, and the three head in.
"Hold the door!" Charlie calls from down the hall, and she pulls it back open.
"Glad you could make it," she greets him.
"Couldn't miss it. Literally," he points out.
"Here," Sloan says from behind them, her footfalls simultaneously bouncy and thudding on the steps. Susannah, her head crooked heavily in Sloan's neck and her eyes lidded and a thumb twisted in her mouth, is perched on her hip.
"Does she need some Grandpa Charlie time?" He reaches out, and Sloan shakes her head.
"She's good. Just needs to be held." Charlie shrugs. Sloan smooths out Susannah's long hair.
"Why are we in the doorway?" Reese says from behind them all.
"Hey," Sloan says. "Because we thought about it and decided that yes, this is absolutely the best place for a fairly serious and important conversation to take place," she snarks. "We're all standing here because we're all standing here. By the way, thanks for filling out the Google Doc. Much appreciated."
"I didn't have time, and Sloan, we've gotten Chinese food what, twenty times before? You know I like —"
"It doesn't matter. I just doubled Don's order."
"He gets shrimp and I get beef and I hate shrimp!"
"Respect the form, Reese," Sloan says sternly. Maggie thinks she's kidding but knows never to be quite sure with Sloan. "Food's in the kitchen, we're in the living room."
"Hey," Don says as they all enter. He's huddled with Mac, Will, and three containers of food. "Everybody here?"
"Everyone except Rebecca," Sloan says.
"Do you want me to take her?" Don extends his arms in a helpful gesture, but Annie — who looks incredibly sleepy — makes a noise between a grunt and a whine as she re-burrows her head into Sloan's shoulder.
Sloan sighs. "I'm just gonna bounce her," she says.
There's a knock at the door. "I'll get it," Mac volunteers, standing.
"Hey, you did order me kung pao beef," Reese exclaims, tearing the lid of his container off happily.
"Consider that your reprieve," Sloan declares benevolently.
"Hello everyone," Rebecca Halliday announces in that radio-smooth voice of hers. "Ready to hear what sort of fresh hell you've gotten AWM into now, McAvoy."
"Oh, no, this is all the young turks," he replies. "I'm just here in an advisory capacity."
"An advisory capacity, or your FOMO?'
"Listen, mofo —"
"FOMO. Fear Of Missing Out. 's Word of the Year in 2015. Or did you miss that too?" Rebecca retorts smoothly.
"Alright, alright," Don mediates. "Let's focus. Rebecca, your food is there, grab some chopsticks. I'd like to be in bed before 1, please."
"So, catch me up?" Neal says. "What have I missed?"
They take turns chowing down rice and filling in the blanks for Neal, who nods as he shovels chicken into his mouth. Sloan chimes in with a few questions of her own as she walks Susannah back to sleep and they talk different strategies for figuring out where he is.
"Where does State think he is?" Mac asks.
"There are a few camps they see as likely, and they're checking around there. But no suspicious or new movement," Reese replies.
"But if they think they're likely, why won't they raid them?"
"Because they raid and they're wrong, and they know we know," Don summarizes. "Let's go over our options."
"Option one, we leave it to the U.S. government, whose job it fucking is, and stop playing I Spy," Will offers.
"We have an obligation —" Jim starts.
"To get him home safely. Playing vigilante journalist isn't going to help that."
"Option two," Don says, moving the conversation forward.
"Broadcast," Neal says simply. "Go live on TV and say what's happened. Tell the truth."
"Nobody has ever come back alive after exercising that option," Will points out. "We do that and we show our hand. What has worked is letting the U.S. military do their job."
"There's Maggie's idea. We let them figure out that he's rich and contact the family for ransom. The family pays the ransom and goes to live abroad, or they stay here and the government tries to jail a family for trying to rescue their kidnapped son," Jim says. She's a little surprised he credited her, but she'll take it. But she is not convinced this is an unethical path to take.
"No," Don says immediately.
"None of us actually disagree with them paying a ransom, do we, if it gets him back alive? It's a dirty business, but let's not let our morality get in the way of saving his life," she argues back.
"As someone who is going to be sending other journalists to that area, yes, I'm putting practicality in front of that morality, because that puts them at a higher risk of kidnap," Don says. "This one was accidental. But we rig a situation where the next ten guys I send there are at a higher risk? That's on me."
"I agree with Don," Charlie adds.
"Me too," Reese echoes. "We need a plan, and that's not a plan."
"There's something else you could do," Adam suggests. "Go to Qumar."
"What?" Sloan asks skeptically. Susannah is now asleep, so she carefully sits next to Don, peeling the toddler off her and arranging her on the couch. "We're not diplomats. We're not going to negotiate."
"You wouldn't be. The Qumari government has influence in the region, but we can influence them. If we can pinpoint exactly who has him, and they have ties, the government could be our allies. Persuade them to release him."
"The Qumari government is basically a bunch of thugs with a blank checkbook and a U.S. military base. You really think we can — and should — get them on our side?" Don asks. He's not convinced either.
"They are on our side. And I think they have, or can get, information that we want," Adam shrugs.
"And it's that simple?" Charlie says skeptically. "It's never that simple."
"It is that simple. It's negotiating with terrorists," Sloan says.
"They're not terrorists, they're an ally," Mac points out. She knocks her head from side to side, vacillating. "Technically."
"We'd be sending people over there to talk to government officials to nudge them into talking to a bunch of terrorists. That is edging dangerously close to negotiating with terrorists. We're not Sean Connery; we don't play spies on TV," Will says, irritated. "Not one of you has made the case that any of us going over to talk to him would be anything but a grown-up version of playing house."
"I'm with Jack McCoy over there," Rebecca says. "None of you are even on the same block as diplomats — you don't know the definition of tact. But, most importantly, none of you are spies."
"I'm not saying you go as diplomats or spies or even tactful businesspeople. Just journalists. You're playing by the government's rules. You're going to pay me a lot of money to track his movements and figure out where he is. But this sends the signal that you're willing to negotiate. We OK it with the government."
"How will that not piss them off?" Jim asks.
Adam shrugs. "If we go to Qumar and they're friendly, we get valuable information. We go to Qumar and they're dirty —"
"It will probably lead to the kidnappers," Will finishes.
"And we can track them much more easily," Neal connects the dots.
"The guys from State did suggest Qumar as a possible source of information," Reese adds, giving them all the tacit yes.
"We're clearing this with State," Rebecca warns.
"Absolutely," Adam promises. "I'm not saying we be spies. At all. Don, Maggie, Jim, you guys in?"
"Oh, whoa, I'm not going," Don says. "I can't go."
"He's right," Sloan says. "My mother is the fourth-highest-ranking official at the State Department. He'll look like a representative of the U.S., not ACN."
"I'll go," Will volunteers.
"You sure?" Adam checks.
"Everyone likes a TV star," he shrugs.
Mac smacks her face into her palm. "Honey, nobody likes when you say that."
They plot for a little while longer, and then Don kicks them all out. Rebecca and Reese exit swiftly, wrapping their expensive cashmere coats around them. Mac disappears upstairs to pick up a sleeping Nora from Max's room, and Sloan goes with her to return Susannah. The rest of them linger in the hallway, fussing with their gloves and coats and debating whether or not the scarves are necessary, until Mac staggers downstairs with Nora. Will rolls his eyes and takes her from Mac, muttering, "You're not as strong as you think you are."
"Pilates is great for the upper-body state, old man," she retorts. "When was the last time you worked out, when you were baling hay in the 60s?"
The rest of them take the elevator down together, and Will and Mac quickly hail a cab. She, Jim, Neal, and Adam look sideways at one another. "Anyone want to get a drink?" she tries.
"I should get back to Mariah — she wasn't too impressed with a 10 p.m. Friday-night meeting that I couldn't tell her anything about," Neal says.
"Same. Well, not the same, but with Alicia," Jim says. She nods, understanding, and Neal moves to kiss her cheek. After a beat, Jim does the same.
She stands with Adam as they walk off. "I'd actually be down for that drink," Adam offers.
She thinks for a second. It's past midnight, but given her schedule, that's fairly early. "Sure," she says. "There's a bar I like a couple blocks over on Broadway."
"You live in this area?"
"Down in Chelsea, actually."
"Yeah? Where're you?"
"Brooklyn? No kidding?"
"I wanted a little extra space."
"So you picked Brooklyn?" she laughs. "I think at this point Midtown has more extra space than Brooklyn."
"The last time I really knew New York was, like 2002," he clearly finds this hilarious too.
"Things are different now, huh?" she grins.
"Little bit. I didn't even realize the cupcake craze was over."
"So you've been abroad since 2002?"
"I grew up in Connecticut, so came down pretty often. Went to Seattle for college, got an engineering degree, and then went abroad after 2006."
"How'd you end up in the military?"
"My dad fought in Vietnam, and always bet my brother and I that we couldn't survive OCS. My brother tried it and couldn't make it in. I bet them both five grand I could."
"And then you ended up in Afghanistan."
"And then I ended up in Afghanistan. It sounds crazy, but I loved it."
"You're right, that does sound crazy. Especially since …" she trails off.
"Well, don't get me wrong. That sucked. A lot. But the camaraderie, the work, semper fi? It's what I needed to be doing in my 20s."
"What were you doing?"
"I was an engineer for about a year, then went into infantry. Made it onto the Ops team and eventually did tactical stuff for them."
"So how did —"
"The leg? Was in a Humvee heading to Jalalabad from Kabul and hit a mine," he shrugs. "Wasn't even in combat." He holds the door to Maddy's open for her. "So you dated Jim once, huh?"
"Yeah. It was a long time ago," she smirks and lifts one shoulder to downplay its seriousness. "Another life, almost."
"What do you mean?"
"You know how sometimes, when you're in the middle of something, and it feels like it's right and it's perfect? And then it ends and afterwards it feels like those things happened to another person entirely, but you're still kind of surprised because everything in the new life is fine too — different, but fine? Doesn't have to be a relationship — it's like, when you graduate college. When you're in it you can't imagine it ending and when you're out it's something new but not the end of the world. It's like that," she says without acrimony. Being around Jim, with his particular combination of stubbornness and arrogance and idealism and smarminess, she's beginning to remember the less-good sides of their relationship. She now remembers the breakup without bitterness, without anger, without anything. She supposes that's the ultimate sign that she's over it: In the fallout from their first kiss, when he's jumped off the Sex and the City tour bus, she'd swiped at him pettily for more than a year. She cared then. Now she feels either empty or nothing.
"I do, yeah," he says. She likes him.
They stay out talking for another hour, and then, like a gentleman, he sticks her in a cab back down to her place. There's a pause when she thinks he wants to kiss her, but she ducks and steps back to avoid it. Still, she smiles on the way home.
Four Sundays later, she's nestling into the plush leather seat on her first private-plane ride when Adam sits down next to her. "Can I get you something from the mini-bar?" he asks, his voice and mannerisms jokingly exaggerated like he's a character in Downton Abbey.
"Why thank you, but I should probably wait. It's a long flight, and I don't want to spend too much of Mrs. Lansing's money," she smiles. The whole expedition is stomach-curdling. She still can't believe Rebecca and the Lansings and the State Department and the NSA and god knows how many other government agencies signed off on this, but they're going. Nobody from al-Shabaab or ISIS has contacted the family yet, but Maggie can't help but think it's only a matter of time. So she and Will and Jim and Adam are flying Teeterboro to Zurich (for a refuel) to Jatara to meet with the deputy foreign minister. It's going to be a tremendously short trip: Between the twenty-hour trip and the time change, they won't be getting until late Monday. They'll crash at their hotel before a lunchtime meeting, and then hopping on a plane to get back in New York by late afternoon Wednesday. They have to make it back, as the next day is Thanksgiving, and Mac will kill Will if he misses Nora's first Thanksgiving.
"Suit yourself," he grins, and gets up to grab a drink.
"Yo, Adam, come play cards. There's a table on this thing!" Jim calls gleefully from down the aisle. Maggie can appreciate that. Who knew there was so much room on a 737? Adam grabs two beers and heads down to join Jim.
Will takes the seat next to her as the guys' conversation drifts over her mindlessly. "Brushing up on your Arabic?" he asks skeptically.
"I always figure out how to say, 'Where is the bathroom?' and 'Stop that man! He has my purse!' in the language I need to know before traveling," she shrugs.
"You're going to spend your entire trip at the hotel, at the Palace, or in a car to the airport, and you're worried about your purse getting stolen? By whom? The Prince? He's the 37th richest person in the world."
"I know it's irrational but —" she hesitates, "when I left ACN, Mac sent me this bag. She told me I needed to take it on all my adventures. It's been to sixteen countries, including South Korea, China, South Africa, and Russia."
Will nods, slightly chastened. He gets it. "So Adam seems very nice."
She smirks. She enjoys whenever Will tries to get personal. She hopes for Nora's sake he never has to give her the sex talk. "He does. Smart too. Gee whiz, Mary Jane, do you think he'll ask me to go to the sock hop with him next week?" she teases.
"I get your point, fine, fine," he says. "I'm … You know we're all very happy that you came back to New York, right, Maggie?"
"I know," she leans back, apprising him.
"And I hope you're happy to be back."
"I am," she replies.
"No buts," she insists. "I'm happy to be back."
He studies her. "Happiness is hard, isn't it? People like you and me, we don't trust it too much. You have it and it's great, you lose it and you never trust you'll have it again. We don't put too much stock in it. We tell ourselves it's not the most important thing to have: We like stability better, we like competency better, we like neatness better. We know there are worse things in life than being unhappy, and we think happiness is a luxury."
"Uh-oh. Now we're getting into squicky territory of the heart, Dr. Will," she says. "See what I did there? Dr. Phil, Dr. Will?" She grins.
"You're a good person. And even if you weren't, you still would deserve to be happy. But letting yourself be happy is hard. It's scary. And you haven't seemed happy since you got back."
She stiffens. "I am, and I have been. How I … act happy, might've changed, but Will, I'm not your twenty-six-year old assistant to scared to correct you when you call me by the wrong name anymore."
He laughs. "No, you certainly are not. You lost the Bambi eyes years ago. Anyways. Just a word of advice from an old man, but it's much easier to let yourself be happy than continue fighting it. Even if the fighting is just reflexive."
She closes her eyes, then opens them. "Thanks, Will." He nods awkwardly and stands to move. As he passes her, she grabs his wrist. "I mean it," she says, looking up at him. "Thanks." He leans down and kisses her temple.
It's a ridiculously long trip, and by the time they land in Qumar she's so tired and disoriented by travel she's not sure she could tell anyone her middle name if asked. They're shipped immediately via Rolls Royce SUV to the hotel, which is owned by the Prince's brother-in-law and has doorknobs that cost more than Maggie will ever make it in her life. They are handed unmarked gold keycards within minutes, and are in the elevator twenty minutes after leaving the airfield. But still — "I just don't understand how we totally missed Monday," she yawns as the elevators glide upwards. "Where did it go? When did it happen for us? What is time?"
"A flat circle," Adam cracks.
"Old joke," she chides, disappointed. The elevator pings at 17. "We're on 21."
"No, I'm on 17," Will says.
"Did you get a suite?" she gasps as he steps off with a wave.
"I'm on 17 too," Jim says, grabbing his bag. "See you guys tomorrow. Get some sleep."
"You don't have a suite," she hears Will inform Jim as the doors slide shut.
She smiles at Adam. "Even though I don't know what day it is — or even what a day is anymore — that plane flight was worth it."
"Not sure how I'm going to go back to business class," he agrees. "You ready for tomorrow?" The elevator pings on their floor.
"I … hope so," she replies. "Terrified. I hope this leads to something."
"He's supposed to be thoughtful. Fair," Adam says. She notices they're at his door, so she slows to a stop. He starts digging for his key, which he stupidly folded into his wallet already.
"Thanks for all your help on this," she says, purposefully loitering.
"Of course," he says, turning away from his door, and he's suddenly so close to her. Her eyes flick up for a second, and he's startled and expectant. She makes a decision, and pulls her lips to his.