Here we were taught by men and gothic towers
Democracy and Faith and Righteousness
And love of unseen things that do not die.
"That's a terrible idea," says Sloan.
"Asking him to have a drink. That's a terrible idea."
MacKenzie groans loudly, puts her head down on the bar, and stares morosely at what's left of her watery scotch until she catches the bartender looking at her suspiciously. She sits up again. "And how would you know what a terrible idea looks like?"
Sloan shrugs and tosses back the end of her G&T. "I could either go with 'I don't,' or 'I've acted on enough of them to know.' Which would you prefer?"
MacKenzie considers. The lights are a little hazy after three drinks in the last hour and a half. Her eyelids feel pleasantly droopy and the edge of the bar is reassuringly cool and solid where she's gripping it with both hands. Dark wood, old and pitted, varnished smooth like the hull of a boat. MacKenzie wishes she had a boat, a little sailboat, maybe a day-sailer that she could take out of a marina in Massachusetts or Rhode Island. Blue jeans and a white sweater and a clear, clear sky. She's never been sailing, but she's sure she'd like it. Sailboats are sturdy, sound, traditional. Like the bar. "I like old, dependable things," she announces.
Sloan opens her mouth a little in surprise at the conversational corner that MacKenzie has turned, but clearly decides to just go with it. "It's a terrible idea," she repeats, which, okay, she might have been going to say that anyway. MacKenzie nods, the glass feeling heavy in her drunk-tired hand.
"Yes," she says, and polishes off the scotch.
She didn't mean to fall for a professor. It's very cliché, and if there's anything MacKenzie strives to be, it's not-cliché. Having a crush on a professor is immature and juvenile and so, so stupid, and those are three more things that MacKenzie strives very hard not to be.
And it's humiliating, because she's never been good enough at being a real person to hide the fact that she has a crush – like a twelve-year-old-girl – on an impressively-decorated journalist. She thinks that maybe this is why she and Sloan get along so well. Sloan has trouble being a person, too. MacKenzie loves her for it.
She's thinking about this as she drops Sloan off at her dorm up-campus and makes her not-too-wobbly way south. Many of the windows she passes are open, blasting heat and repetitive music into the cool night air. Behind the diamond-paned glass, MacKenzie can see bros wearing tanks and salmon-coloured shorts, and girls in high heels and tight black dresses tugging their hems down to cover their asses, and dorm rooms lit with taped-up Christmas lights falling off the wall. It's still early, but she gives only a regretful, half-longing look at the parties. She's pretty sure that her father has an informant on the campus police force. It's the kind of thing he'd do.
She's only two entryways down from her dorm, and so busy trying to avoid a solo cup of beer that comes flying out of a second-storey window that she doesn't see the man until she walks into him, and then "Sor-" is all she gets out before she looks up and sees, in the dim light of the party above, that it's Professor McAvoy, and then she's too busy mentally cursing God and frat boys and Sloan and scotch to finish.
He had reached an arm out to steady her, but he drops it quickly when he sees her face. "McHale," he says, which startles her, because in two months of class, she's never seen a single indication that he knows her name. He usually invites students to speak by pointing.
"Professor," she says, and then, too late, "Sorry."
"That's okay," he says.
A burst of argument from the party upstairs, and the clacking hum of a clothes dryer from an open window to the basement. The air smells strongly of fabric softener and dry leaves. The silence is already awkward, and MacKenzie bursts out, "I thought you live in New York." She's pretty sure that most students don't keep track of where their professors live, and she really wishes she were better at being a real person.
McAvoy doesn't seem to think it's strange, though. "I do," he says. "Most of the time. I have class late on Tuesdays and early on Wednesdays, though, so…" She nods, maybe a little too enthusiastically or too many times, because his mouth quirks in amusement that he quickly tries to hide, and he asks, "You okay?"
"Yeah, sure," says MacKenzie, nodding again. "I was just with my friend at a bar, and now I'm just, you know, going home. Now." She hopes that, at some point, her mouth will once again begin to take instruction from her brain. A cool breeze rustles the leaves of the tree above her head, a linden tree with its heavy perfume. She shivers a little, chilly in her shirtsleeves, and she thinks McAvoy makes a small, aborted move forward.
"So you're a senior?"
She deflates a little. If he knows her name, he should know this, and she thinks maybe the name is just a fluke. Or her father. Probably the latter. She sighs. "A junior."
"With an early birthday?" She wishes the light were stronger. She can't read his face.
"Um," she says, cleverly, and he laughs. It's unexpected.
"I'll see you tomorrow," he says. "You finished your paper?"
"Of course," she says, because if she hadn't, Sloan would have come over, opened a bottle of white, and turned on the TV to bitch at the morons on Say Yes to the Dress while MacKenzie wrote – and MacKenzie hopes that she didn't say that out loud, because she's not supposed to tell anyone that Sloan watches that show, probably not even McAvoy, who doesn't even know Sloan.
She figures she's safe when he just says, "Okay. Office hours are tomorrow at three."
"I know," she says, and then, "Wait, I don't need office hours." Office hours are for suck-ups and struggling idiots who can't hack it. People she knows have assured her that sometimes students go to office hours just to chat, but this seems strange to her. She would never go to office hours, no matter how much Professor McAvoy makes her melt a little when he smacks down that annoying blonde kid who wears hipster glasses. It isn't like she needs help. "Do I?"
"Goodnight, McHale," he says, walking away.
"Wait," she calls. "My father doesn't need to know about the, you know, the bar, right?"
He turns and holds his hands out, palms upward, in confusion or exasperation. "What do I look like, your mother?" He turns around again, shoving his hands in his pockets.
"I don't need office hours!" she yells, and she thinks she hears him laugh as he rounds the corner of the building and disappears.
Great. Now she needs to rewrite her paper.
The next morning dawns as crisp and yellow as the evening had promised, and Will pulls a sweater on over his Oxford and khakis for the first time all year and drinks his coffee on the balcony of his hotel room with the paper laid on the table.
He burns his tongue at page four when he sees the headline, British Ambassador to U.N. Attacks Syria Sex Crimes, which he needs to read three times to even parse correctly. Beneath, the paper continues, McHale draws threats from Islamist militant groups. He reads the article through, and then starts again at the beginning because his heart was pounding so hard the first time that the meaning of the words barely penetrated. He doesn't think the editor is much good: aside from that god-awful headline, "threats" might be an overstatement considering what the general of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria actually said. It still takes his heart a good five minutes to return to normal, by which time he's late, and he has to run to make it to campus on time, yellow trees and blue sky blurring past and the cold air cutting at his throat.
Will collects their papers at the beginning of class, and a sloppy pile of pages accumulates in front of him as they pass their work down the length of the conference table. Some are coffee-stained, wrinkled, water-marked, but he's found that there's very little correlation between the state of the physical paper and its quality. Some of the best work is done at two a.m., with a cup of terrible coffee at your elbow: he knows this.
McHale isn't there. He is not, he is not disappointed.
The blonde kid with fake glasses raises his hand. Will hates that kid. Not that he has favourites.
"Uh, Professor McAvoy? I forgot to print my paper. Can I email it to you?"
Will thinks about saying no. He really prefers a hard copy, something he can hold, with passages he can highlight and words he can circle, with margins on which he can splash a Yes, double-underlined. But he knows that it would be unreasonable, the kind of thing he hated when he was in school, so he sighs and says, "Fine. But do it right this second, because I'll be checking the time-stamp."
The kid's eyes go wide, and Will feels a slight moment of triumph that he knows is beneath him, and that's when McHale walks in.
She looks tired. Pale, the dark circles under her eyes like smears of bruise in contrast. She looks everywhere but at him until she notices that the only open seat is to his right. She slides into it and drops her paper on top of the stack. "Sorry," she says, quietly.
"That's okay," he says, as gently as he knows how, and launches into his lecture.
Three minutes before the end of class, he says, "That's all for today, but –" he holds up a hand to forestall the zipping of backpacks and the impossibly-loud packing of bags – "don't forget to sign up for a conference time so we can discuss your final projects. You should have a topic."
"Professor?" says McHale.
"Domestic news only," he anticipates her. They've had this discussion at least three times now. "Okay, you're done."
She lingers and he sighs. He thinks about asking her how she is, but he doesn't think she'd appreciate it. His lecture, or at least an hour of thinking about journalism, seems to have reinvigorated her a little; there's some colour in her face and her eyes gleam with determination. "Professor, I really think that there's good work to be done on Syria or Egypt –"
"Of course there is. But not by you," he says, "or at least not in this course." He's speaking calmly, but frustration is crawling as heat along the underside of his ribcage. This is the same conversation they had last week, word for fucking word. "There is plenty of unreported news here, and you can't report properly on Egypt without being in Egypt."
"I can go!" she insists. "Over Thanksgiving break –"
"That's four, maybe five days –"
"I'd be good at it, I know I would –"
He smacks the table with the flat of his hand. It's unexpectedly loud, and it even surprises him, so McHale's jump is excusable. "God, McHale, we've been over this and over this. I said no. Move the fuck on." There's a short, strained pause during which he rubs a knuckle over his eyebrow and clenches his fingers to refrain from pulling a cigarette from his pocket. He didn't mean to lose his temper with her.
"Sorry," she says, utterly unconvincingly, and he's relieved that there's nothing more than righteous rage and the certainty of youth in her eyes.
He hesitates, and then, because he can't help himself, he asks, softly, "Are you okay?"
It was the wrong thing to say. Her jaw clenches so tight he's surprised that her teeth don't crack, and her mouth sets in a hard line. "Fine," she spits, and swings her bag off the table to make a dramatic exit. But her bag was open, and loose-leaf paper and two legal pads and a flurry of gum wrappers and snack packages and pencil stubs and pen caps fly all over the floor. He always thought she'd be very neat, pictured her at a desk with a cup full of carefully-sharpened pencils, but apparently not. She's looking at the mess scattered across the carpet in a mixture of resignation and misery, and she turns away from him and kneels suddenly to cover the small noise she makes, like a muffled sob.
He moves quickly, kneeling beside her to help gather up scraps of paper. "Easy," he says, and after a brief struggle with himself, puts a hand on the back of her shoulder. But she shrugs it off, grabs the trash from his hand, stuffs it in her bag and leaves before he can say anything else.
Near the trashcan, a pen cap is still rocking back and forth on the gray industrial carpet. A piece of paper stutters near to the A/C vent. He stares at it for awhile.
"Fuck," he says.
Her last class with McAvoy is on a Wednesday, and that night, she sits at her computer, cracks her neck back and forth a few times, takes a deep breath and writes an email to him before she can change her mind: Hi Professor, I really enjoyed your class this semester and was wondering – would you like to go for a drink with me to celebrate the end of classes? Cheers, MacKenzie McHale. She hits send and blows out the breath, hard, then slams her laptop screen down and tells herself to forget about it. Forget it.
She can't. She checks her email obsessively through dinner, until Sloan smacks the smartphone right out of her hand, and MacKenzie groans and hides her face in her hands and says, "That's it. He obviously doesn't want to and I'll just have to kill myself out of shame."
"Don't do that," says Sloan, without looking up from her tiramisu.
"How can you even eat that stuff?" MacKenzie asks. The dining hall tiramisu is almost entirely whipped cream, and not even good whipped cream. The kind that comes in aerosol cans.
"I'm Italian," says Sloan. "My grandmother is Italian. It makes me think of home."
"That's not even a little bit true," says MacKenzie.
"I have a healthy appetite," says Sloan.
"Okay, well, I'm going to go kill myself out of shame."
Sloan lifts her hand to wave goodbye without looking away from her bowl, but she redirects it in order to scoop up a bit of whipped cream that her fork left behind.
MacKenzie doesn't kill herself – at least, not immediately – but she does check her email five more times before bed. She turns out the light convinced that McAvoy is ignoring the request out of politeness and that she will have to resign herself to being horrendously embarrassed for the rest of her life. She considers staying in bed the next day to hide, but she goes to class anyway.
"For I am devoted to my studies and to higher learning," she tells Sloan on the phone as she walks. It's cold, really, really cold, and her fingers are numb where they're pressing the phone to her ear. "It's only one of the many things about me that are wonderful and that McAvoy will never be able to discover because he's turning down my invitation for a drink."
"Shut the fuck up," Sloan says. "Just because you scheduled yourself a nine a.m. class doesn't mean the rest of us are that stupid. God," and she hangs up. MacKenzie slips the phone into her pocket and breathes on her fingers to warm them. They tingle painfully.
She gets scolded five times by two different TAs for checking her phone during class, and when her phone buzzes at lunch, she knocks over her glass of water to get to it.
"Girl," says Sloan, forkful of salad suspended halfway to her mouth.
"I know," says MacKenzie.
"And yet you don't seem to care."
"Not so much, no."
The first word of his email is No, and her sternum is suddenly replaced by a vacuum, a sucking sensation in her chest. But her eyes have already moved onto the rest of the sentence, and her heart kicks on again with a thu-thump that's almost painful. No, the email says, because I won't encourage your underage drinking habits. How about lunch instead? And not until after I've graded and handed back your final project – if you still want to talk to me after that, of course. – WM
MacKenzie panics. "Is he giving me a bad grade? Is that why he thinks I won't want to see him after I get my project back? Oh God, he's failing me."
"Kenzie. Get a grip."
MacKenzie straightens, breathes. "A grip. Right." She gulps some water and Sloan grabs her iPhone so that she can read the email.
"I can't believe you," she says. "You've been freaking out about this constantly, and when he emails back, you pick your final project grade to focus on?"
"Yes." She nods. "Okay. I see your point."
"I want to once again state my opinion that this is a bad idea."
"But you like old, dependable things."
"That's right!" MacKenzie recalls. "I do! How did you remember that?"
Sloan shrugs and finally raises her fork all the way to her mouth. "I'm a marvel," she says. "Medical professionals are wowed. That was my water you drank, by the way."
MacKenzie looks at the table, where her own water glass is lying, tipped over, in a puddle. The boy across the table and two seats down is giving her a pretty impressive glare. He's clearly frustrated that she hasn't noticed it before now. Sloan sees where MacKenzie is looking and rolls her eyes at the guy. "Oh, get over it," she snaps. MacKenzie is tapping the end of her fork against the side of her plate, frowning.
"How long does it take to grade a final project?"
"When's it due?"
"Next week, but I can get it done by tomorrow." Sloan looks at her levelly, and MacKenzie sighs. "Right. Getting a grip."
She suggests a casual place that makes a great burger (melted brie, bacon, caramelized onions, and some kind of delicious sauce – it's unthinkably decadent and delicious) and has old lacrosse sticks and photos of university sports games hung on the walls. She's late, and he's seated already when she walks in.
"Hey, McHale," he says.
"Hi, Professor." She feels incredibly awkward. She wishes she hadn't suggested this, or that he hadn't agreed to it – anything so that she wouldn't have to be standing here, trying not to blush.
He waves a hand to brush off the title and ends the motion by indicating that she should sit. "Please. It's Will."
"MacKenzie." She feels like she should be shaking his hand, as if they're meeting for the first time. The moment passes, thankfully, when the waitress comes to save her. McAvoy – Will – orders a beer, and MacKenzie eyes the draft menu wistfully, but looks up at him and orders an iced tea instead.
"Did you look at your project comments?" he asks.
"No," she says. "I figured I'd wait until after we met for lunch."
He raises his eyebrows. "I didn't think you'd be able to hold off."
He's looking at her so skeptically that she sighs and tosses her head to shift the hair away from her eyes. "Fine, I looked at them immediately. What do you want from me?"
He tries to hide a grin behind his palm. "Nothing."
"Um." She looks down at the table, picks up her fork and then puts it carefully back again in the same place. Her mother was always insistent that she not fidget. "You said some nice things. Thank you."
He waves a hand again. It seems to be a tic of his, and she wonders why she never noticed it before. "Nothing you didn't deserve."
The drinks come, and they both order burgers, though McAvoy – Will – gets his with no tomato. She stirs lemon into her iced tea and looks longingly at his beer. He notices and sighs. "Go ahead," he says, opening a palm in invitation. He talks with his hands. She likes that. "One sip."
MacKenzie can't stop herself from smiling, hard and fast, in that stupid way she has of grinning with her whole face. He looks a little taken aback, for some reason. "Thanks," she says eagerly, sampling the beer. " 'S good. A little hoppier than I like it."
He takes back the beer, raising an eyebrow. "You have a problem, you know that?"
"It's legal in England!"
"Not an excuse, MacKenzie."
She likes the way her name sounds from his mouth, half-teasing, the hum of the M slipping into the K, clicking in his throat and knocking into the lengthened N, the Z almost an afterthought. She tries not to notice so much; he's an interesting man for other reasons, good reasons, with a Pulitzer to his name for his coverage of the first Gulf War. She rests her elbows on the table and leans towards him.
"Tell me about Baghdad," she says, and he does.
McAvoy sets down the second empty beer glass with a hard thunk. "No," he says, "no, you're being misguidedly optimistic again. I told you –"
"You're the one who said in lecture that the information you're looking for always exists unless you're absolutely proven otherwise," she says.
"That's different. I'm talking about optimism about events, about the world, important things –"
"What, everyone should just be a cynic like you?" She steals the very last fry off of his plate. They've lingered so long over the remains of their meal that she's beginning to be hungry again. The bill was paid long before – by McAvoy, of course, who looked so insulted when she tried to hand him her debit card that she didn't push the subject.
"I'm not cynical, I'm skeptical," he says. "There's a difference. Optimism does not, does not equal patriotism. This is the main problem with cable –" He breaks off when he sees MacKenzie look away from him to follow the progress of a delicious-smelling plate of fajitas across the restaurant floor. "Want to go get an ice cream?" he asks.
"It's the middle of December."
He stands. "Come on. Ice cream doesn't have a season."
"It very much does," says MacKenzie, but she's already putting on her coat.
They argue over which of the six ice cream shops to go to as they leave the restaurant. MacKenzie is pushing for the top-your-own frozen yogurt place where you can pile on the fruit and chocolate chips and cookie dough bits and pay an exorbitant amount by weight, and McAvoy is arguing for the standard hard-scoop ice cream parlour, fifty flavours and two bucks for a cone.
"What does that mean?" He tucks his hands into his pockets. His breath plumes out in front of him, neat and white.
"Well, you're a traditionalist. It's obvious." He splutters a little. "It's not an insult or anything. We'll rock-paper-scissors for it."
"Because I'm a grown man! I don't rock-paper-scissors to make my decisions!"
"Ah," she says, sagely. "You're just afraid you're going to lose."
"Okay, McHale, you're on," he says, and stops to make an upright fist. "Best of three."
"Next time, we go to my choice," he says.
Her heart kick-starts like a motorcycle engine at the words next time, but not enough for her to let the point slide. "No, that's not how it works," she says. "It was random chance. We do random chance again next time. It'll balance out eventually."
"But there are rock-paper-scissors championships! I've heard about them. If they have championships, then it can't be a game of chance entirely. Otherwise that would be stupid."
"Yes, otherwise," says MacKenzie, straight-faced.
"I'm just saying, I think you're more likely to win," he says, holding open the door to the frozen yogurt parlour. "So next time, we go to my choice."
He pays for her ice cream, too. "Thanks, Professor," she says, and then winces.
"It's Will," he growls. He's corrected her at least half a dozen times.
She gives a little cry of frustration. "I can't. It's too weird."
"I've been calling you MacKenzie."
"And is that difficult for you?"
"Not particularly. MacKenzie. See, there, I did it again."
"Well, then. You have me at a disadvantage. A feminist would say that your ability to be more more familiar with me than I am with you indicates an underlying power dynamic that –"
"I was just your professor – anyone would say that there's an underlying power dynamic," he grumbles. "Doesn't take a fucking feminist –"
She finishes her bite of ice cream and points at him with her spoon. "You know what you need?"
"Something to hit you over the head with?"
"A nickname! So then it will be less weird for me to use it, because it's not your real name that people call you by."
"I have a nickname. It's Will. Short for William." He pauses. "You could call me William."
"The prince is named William," MacKenzie says.
"Is that an endorsement or a dismissal?"
He groans. "God, please no."
"Billy," she affirms. "Thanks for the ice cream, Billy."
"No," he says. "That is not happening. Turn the conversation right around and walk it back."
"Sure thing, Billy," she says, and he eats his frozen yogurt angrily.
They wander around, staring into the shop windows. It's cold, but she doesn't mind so much, even though she's shivering. Even the lining of her jacket is cold to the touch, and the sun is beginning to duck behind the taller buildings, light turning blue in the early winter twilight. An employee in the jewelry store is beginning to take the expensive pieces out of the window display for the night, and she stops to watch, gazing at the rings and the necklaces, pretty and delicate. Will is looking at her.
"Do you want –?" he starts, but seems to think better of whatever he's going to say. She looks at him curiously until a gust of wind makes her shiver again, and he frowns, untangling his scarf from around his neck. He hands it to her carefully, with a straight arm, as though he's afraid of getting too close. She wraps it beneath her chin, tucks the ends into her coat, and sighs in relief. It's warm from his skin and smells of wool and the easy comfort of cologne.
"Thanks, Will," she says, and the name doesn't feel awkward on her tongue.
He rocks back on his heels, still frowning, and then asks, "What are your dinner plans?"
"Um," she says.
"Because I know this great place, about fifteen or twenty minutes away, and I know students don't often get off campus, so I thought it might be nice if –"
"No, yeah," she agrees. "Yes, of course. That would be lovely." She smiles at him, the gold light of a streetlamp shining on his face and making his hair glow in the blue-gray street. He looks unsure, like a young boy.
"Great," he says. "Good."
"Let me just text my friend and tell her to get dinner without me," says MacKenzie, pulling her phone out.
"Would you like her to come?" Will asks. "There's plenty of space in the car."
MacKenzie tilts her head, considering. It wasn't what she had had in mind, but dinner with Will and Sloan sounds… nice. The way that spending time with people you really like is always nice. Like being with family.
She isn't going to think about that too much. "Sure!" she says. "Hang on. We can go pick her up at her dorm, if that's okay?" He nods, and she texts, we're coming to pick you up for dinner.
She's pulling open the door to Sloan's building when she gets a text back – "We?" – but forty seconds later, they're knocking on Sloan's door. She whips it open, sends a polite smile in Will's direction, says, "Excuse me. One moment, please," then grabs MacKenzie and pulls her into the room.
Sloan spins her around and glares. "What. Is going on right now?"
"We're going to dinner."
"Yes, and a little warning would be nice next time, but that's besides the point." MacKenzie notices that Sloan is clutching a tube of mascara and that there are three shirts laid out on the bed. She tilts her head and points at one.
"That one. You finish your mascara and I'll get you some shoes. Should I be dressed nicer?"
"He won't expect you to be – you've been with him all day." Sloan turns from her mirror and grips MacKenzie's shoulders again. "Kenzie, you've been with him all day."
"Yes, I know. I was there."
"Just…" Sloan breathes out heavily. "Are you sure you know what you're doing?"
MacKenzie tries a smile, but it's a little trembly. "Not in the slightest."
Sloan suddenly pulls her into a hug and then, just as suddenly, lets go. "Let's not keep him waiting," she says.
Three and a half minutes later, they re-emerge, MacKenzie having borrowed some of Sloan's mascara and a pair of black heels. She sees Will note the change – it would be hard for her to miss that, with the way his eyes slide down, down her legs and back up – but he doesn't say anything. Sloan, though, sees his face, his wandering eyes, and opens her mouth to comment. MacKenzie elbows her in the ribs.
"Will, this is my friend Sloan Sabbith. Sloan, Professor Will McAvoy."
"Will's fine," he says, offering his hand.
"Sure," says Sloan, and MacKenzie sees Will breathe a little sigh of relief.
"Sloan's an economics major," says MacKenzie, leading the way back outside.
"Planning to work on Wall Street?" asks Will.
"No," snaps Sloan, who MacKenzie knows is thoroughly sick of the question.
"That's what you get for coming here for your economics degree," MacKenzie reminds her.
"Sorry," says Will.
Sloan gets over it quickly, with the mercurial swing of focus at which she's so adept and which MacKenzie can never imitate. Things get stuck in her head, somehow, knocking around into each other until she becomes tired of the unchanging view of her own psychological landscape, the same thoughts in the same cold-water spin cycle. She wonders if that has anything to do with being unable to dislodge Will from her mind for the last several months, anything to do with the reason why she is here, now, walking to his car in the darkening winter night.
She insists that Sloan take the front seat, and listens as she and Will talk animatedly for the entirety of the car ride, Sloan grilling him eagerly and Will taking it with calm assurance. He's surprisingly patient, she thinks, when he wants to be; he never seemed that way in class. But he's relaxed here, one hand on the wheel with the heat blasting in the warm and slightly stuffy sedan. It's a very clean car. Her father's car was always very clean, and growing up, she thought everyone's was the same, but she's realized since coming to college that most people's vehicles are stacked full of crap in the back seat, blankets and baseball caps and manila folders and sunscreen, with a detritus of old receipts and food wrappers on the floor, drifting up like city dust against the seats and doors. She's content to sit in the warm bubble of glass and leather and steel and watch the lights speed by in the darkness, people's houses glowing outside, and feel safe.
Will opens the car door for her when they arrive, and she shivers in the blast of icy air as she steps out. The air is thin and tastes of the snow that hasn't fallen all season. Will sees the shiver, again, and raises an arm as if to wrap it around her, like a tic, a reflex he can't control, but he drops it quickly. She steps a little closer to him for the walk across the parking lot.
The restaurant is small and comfortably loud, three rooms crammed together, with interestingly-shaped bottles of colourful glass standing on every flat surface. They're seated in the back room, with a wall of windows through which MacKenzie can see the silhouettes of black tree limbs against the navy sky. Will assures them that in daylight, there's a view of a creek tinkling over rocks at the edge of the wood, and she is charmed. The menu is short and the wine list is long, and MacKenzie loves the place already.
Sloan's reading the wine list, and MacKenzie tries to catch her eye and shake her head to warn her off, but Sloan says, "Oh, Kenzie, they have that chardonnay you like!" and that's distracting enough that MacKenzie says,
"Really?" She grabs the wine list to look. "I haven't seen it anywhere but Des Ciels."
"You've been to Des Ciels?" Will asks. She blushes. It's no wonder that he's surprised, since the tasting menu there costs over a hundred dollars a plate, one-forty if you add the wine pairings, and it's not generally the kind of place that college students go. Sloan looks at her, unsure.
"My father took us," MacKenzie mutters, and Will doesn't say anything, just flags down the waitress.
"Which chardonnay?" he asks, and MacKenzie grins with her whole face again. "Just this one time," Will warns as the waitress walks away. "Because it's a special occasion."
Will's eyes widen a little in consternation, so MacKenzie saves him by saying, "End of classes. Obviously." She smiles at him again, more tempered this time, for his boy-like expression, for buying her favourite wine and sharing his beer at lunch even though he didn't really know her, for arguing with her about ice cream and handing over his scarf in the cold. "Thanks, Billy."
He colours and tries to hide it by looking hurriedly down at his menu. Across the table, Sloan mouths, "Billy?" and MacKenzie shrugs and tries not to smile.
They end up ordering a second bottle and drinking most of it, so MacKenzie's limbs are pleasantly heavy when they stand to put on scarves and button coats and struggle into gloves. She points at the bathroom. "If you don't mind…"
"I'll go warm up the car," says Will, and Sloan follows her into the bathroom.
"Jesus, Kenzie," she says.
"I really like him," MacKenzie says. "Really a lot."
"He's in his mid-thirties!"
"Are you going to sleep with him?"
MacKenzie huffs and leans against the wall. "It's a bit early to be thinking about that, don't you think?"
"Please," says Sloan. "I'm not other people. Are you going to sleep with him?"
"I haven't decided yet."
There's silence for a moment, and MacKenzie can see Sloan sifting through responses and throwing them out, one by one. Finally, she sighs. "I know you know," she says, "But I'm going to remind you anyway that he could be fired, you could be a joke for your entire career, and –"
"No one will –"
"– and," Sloan holds up a hand to forestall her, "you could get your heart broken." MacKenzie snorts. "Kenzie, he's thirty-something and you like him really a lot."
MacKenzie smiles a little and scuffs her toe along the floor. "I really do," she says.
Sloan stares at her for another moment and then jerks her head at the stalls. "Go on," she says.
Outside, it has started, finally, to snow, and the car's headlights catch flakes falling thick and fast, like tiny moths or white fireflies. The car is almost warm, and MacKenzie ducks her nose down into the collar of her coat and fumbles with the seat belt. She rests her head against the cold window, her breath fogging the glass and glittering like a Fourth-of-July sparkler when a streetlight slides past. The wine is heavy in her veins and she thinks she can hear her blood rushing around, like there's a sea inside of her. Sloan is quiet, and Will presses the radio on, turning it down to a low, staticky hum, and MacKenzie closes her eyes and feels the road singing along beneath them.
Will parks on the street, and they walk with Sloan to her building. As she disappears through the door, she gives Will a little wave and MacKenzie a long look that MacKenzie knows is supposed to be meaningful but that she can't quite figure out the meaning of. She pauses, then turns to Will.
"Thanks," she says. "I had a good time today." She looks at his face and then finds that she can't, so she looks down at her feet instead, at the way snowflakes are piling up against the heels she borrowed from Sloan. Her toes are incredibly cold. Will lays a gloved hand on her shoulder, and she's surprised into looking into his face again. It's impossible to read. Maybe if she knew him better – but she doesn't; she's only known him, really, for a few hours, and she cannot read the currents under his face, and anyway, people with all their complicated thoughts and feelings and histories, with their own worlds inside of them, have always been to her a book that she cannot open.
"Come on," he says. "I'll walk you home."
They're quiet, following the gentle slope of campus downwards. Snow is catching in Will's hair, sparking in the streetlights the same way that sunlight glitters off a lake in high summer. He is reassuringly solid beside her, and he follows her to the door of her building. She stares at the wooden door, the entryway number painted in gilt beside it, and then turns to face him.
"Would you like to come up? I have hot chocolate, and milk that hasn't even expired."
"We shouldn't," says Will, and she looks away, because it isn't like she doesn't know that.
"Yeah, no, sure," she says, staring at the linden tree under which she once bumped into him. It's bare now, with snow dusting its bark. She doesn't move. Neither does he. She tries not to hope too hard. "Oh, why not?" she bursts out. "Why not? You're no longer my professor. Just hot chocolate."
"MacKenzie," he begins, and lifts a hand to cup her face. She tries not to lean into it, tries not to close her eyes, but it's a battle lost from the start. She lifts a hand and places it on his chest, on the V where his coat lapels leave his sweater exposed because she's still wearing his scarf. His heart flutters under her hand like the wings of a trapped moth or a paper crane against her palm.
"I know," she says. "But, please, just –" She can't say it; she is too shy or too embarrassed or too young, or else she doesn't want it enough – but that can in no way be true, because her blood is pressing up against her ears with how badly she wants him. In the end, it doesn't matter, because when she fists her hand into his sweater and makes a frustrated sound, he grabs her elbows and pulls her to him and kisses her sweetly, warmly, their breath pluming out through their noses and snowflakes melting on their faces. She kisses him back, trying to remember it, trying to make it good, this one and only kiss she will ever get with him. His lips are soft and taste of wine, and he is so warm that she can't help the little sound she makes when he lets her go, the sound of something being broken or lost.
"Goodnight, MacKenzie," he says, his voice rough, and she nods and faces the door so that she doesn't see him walk away through the snow. She's still staring at it, trying to remember what she's supposed to do with the wood and metal, with the hinge and handle, when his footsteps stop a few yards away.
"I'm teaching a grad seminar next semester," he says. "Four, maybe five students. On international journalism. We'll go abroad during spring break." He pauses. "You could petition the department for permission to enrol."
She makes an effort not to spin around quickly, and it is an effort, to turn her head, her body, to take a tiny pivot step with her right foot. "Will," she says.
He makes his hand-waving gesture, that tic of his, and her chest expands so quickly that it's like her heart and lungs exploded. She breathes deep, forces herself to ask, "Is this a good idea?"
He shakes his head. "No," he says. He is not smiling.
"Okay, then," she says. "I'll see you after the holiday."
He nods, still somber, and walks away. She wants, badly, to call him back, to say – something, to say something, to make him come upstairs so that they can drink hot chocolate and watch the snow fall outside her window. He rounds the corner and is gone.
Will spends the winter break with three bottles of Scotch and an old typewriter. He keeps busy; he is writing a book, planning his classes, filing paperwork with the department so that he can take next semester's students overseas. On Christmas Eve, he talks to his sister, apologizes unconvincingly for staying on the East Coast, fails to sleep, and takes a long walk through the city thinking of nothing until the sky is turning pink over the silent Midtown buildings, reflected in the lidless windows of banks and corporate headquarters. He doesn't dwell on anything.
On January 2, the heat in his apartment stutters and dies. He spends one night, shivering, beneath three blankets, and in the morning he calls his landlord, throws some clothes into a suitcase, and books a room at the hotel near campus. The university is deserted and peaceful, snow lying undisturbed over the quads and piled into blue heaps on bicycle seats. He chain-smokes cigarettes. He sits in his office and writes, and writes.
He cannot stop thinking of her. He tries very hard not to notice.
On the first day of class, he arrives early. There are four graduate students, and three of them arrive before she walks through the door. He smiles in relief and welcome. "Mac – Hale," he corrects himself. "Glad you could make it."
"I'm not officially enrolled," she says, standing just inside the door and gripping the strap of her bag tightly at her shoulder. "The department hasn't given me permission yet, but I didn't want to miss…" She trails off, looking around at the grad students, who are displaying the familiar expression of distaste that they wear whenever forced to interact with undergraduates. Will hates grad students almost as much as he hates undergrads. His feelings really just depend on which he's teaching during any given semester.
"That's fine," he says. "Come on in. Have a seat."
Will is always frustrated by the necessities of the first class: going over the syllabus as if his students can't read, waiting to hear everyone's names and departments. There are two grad students in the journalism department, one in international relations, and one in political science. They all introduce their thesis or dissertation topics unprompted, speaking about abstract concepts with confidence and opaque jargon. MacKenzie is looking more cowed by the moment. Will really hates grad students.
"I'm MacKenzie McHale," she says. "I'm a junior in the journalism department."
The political science guy snorts, not even trying to hide it, and MacKenzie sinks down a little in her seat. The girl from the IR department leans forward and says, "You're British. McHale? Like Ambassador McHale?"
MacKenzie stares at her hands, gripping the edge of the table so hard that the joints are white.
"Let's start," says Will.
He ends class ten minutes early, and MacKenzie is up and almost through the door before he gets his final word out.
"Oh, wait!" he calls, and she pauses and turns back, face set and nervous. "I forgot to say – we're going abroad during spring break for some practical experience, as you know. You'll all write your final project on what we see and do there. I'm open to suggestions, but –" he holds up a hand, "the university will not allow us to go anywhere dangerous. No Iraq, no Egypt, no Syria." He very carefully does not look at MacKenzie, even though he can feel her eyes on him, on his face and mouth and throat.
"What about somewhere like the Central African Republic?" she asks, no longer nervous or embarrassed, and then he does look at her, and smile. He has a suspicion that his smile is overly fond, so he quickly drops it and goes to shuffle his papers instead. It's the first class: he doesn't have any papers to shuffle.
"I say 'not dangerous' and the first place you pick is a country in the control of rebels, largely foreign ones, with no functioning government. You and I have very different definitions of dangerous." He risks a glance up. She's quirking her mouth at him. "Alright, you guys can go now."
He catches MacKenzie's eye, and she steps out of the doorway and pretends to look through her bag until the grad students clear out. "I'll call the department head for you," he says. "Get you official permission to be here."
"Thanks," she says. "I wanted to go to Syria."
"I know. Did you think that there was any possible way that would happen?"
"Not really," she says, and they smile a little stupidly at each other. "I take it even Tunisia is out?" He snorts. "What about Mali? They just had an election. Or Namibia."
"Namibia," he repeats.
"They're having their worst drought in over thirty years. The government has promised relief to the rural villages, but in many cases, nothing has come of it, and even when they do deliver, it isn't enough. There's no food, no water. People are down to a meal a day, if that."
Will feels his heartbeat quicken, the way it does when there's something real to do, the way it never does when he's teaching. "Namibia," he says again, and she smiles.
That night, he leaves a voicemail message each for the department head and secretary, and then he emails MacKenzie: I called the department administrators. Let me know when you're official. He adds, It was good to see you, and then deletes it, and then adds it back in and stares it it for a minute. "Fuck it," he says, and clicks send.
She emails back almost immediately: You too, Billy, and he wakes up the following morning thinking of the quirk of her lips and the soft curve where her side melts into her hips.
She's on his class list by the following Tuesday, which is the same day that Will leaves the building ten minutes after class to find his four grad students in a clump outside, two of them smoking, and one of them muttering, "…with that fucking undergrad. I bet her daddy got her in."
"Hey!" he says sharply, probably much too loud; they jump. "McHale was approved to take this class by the department, and I'm the one who suggested it to her, because I know the quality of work she can do – which is more than I can say for any of you. I don't want to hear talk like that in my classes. If you have a problem, you take it up with me or with the department chair, understand?" They nod, say nothing. The IR girl's eyes are wide in her pale face. Will knows that when he gets angry, he yells and looms over people, and the girl is barely five-two. He must have scared her. He sighs, forces his shoulders to relax. "Good. See you on Thursday."
It felt good to yell at them, but he thinks as he walks away across the plaza that he should have stayed silent: he is giving himself away. He worries for a week, then for another one, and still nothing happens except that the grad students become nicer to MacKenzie, though whether it's because they took his reproach to heart or because they're pretending for his sake, he isn't sure. He thinks MacKenzie herself may have something to do with it: her questions are always sharp, constantly pushing him to go deeper into the material, and she's clearly well-informed.
The grad students aren't bad, it turns out: the poli sci Ph.D. candidate, Reese, is kind of an asshole, but Gary and Kendra, the journalism students, are polite and engaged, and the IR girl, Tess, is bright and sweet and treats MacKenzie as an equal. One morning, as Will is pulling out their graded assignments to hand back, she breaks off talking with Gary and Kendra to smile at MacKenzie as she walks in, and says, "Hey, McHale, we were going to go out for lunch after class. Want to come?" Across, the table, Reese rolls his eyes, and Tess says, "Hey, go fuck yourself." When MacKenzie breaks into the biggest smile she's worn all semester, Will has to remind himself not to scratch out the B- on Tess's paper and replace it with an A.
He spends the weekends in February calling every journalist he still considers a friend and asking them who's in Namibia. He arranges meetings and tag-alongs and site visits. He reminds his students to ensure their passports haven't expired. He calls the American embassy in Windhoek and submits budget revision after budget revision to the department until one is accepted. He starts to call MacKenzie by her first name so many times that after awhile, he just leaves it at "Mac," so the grad students think that he's too lazy to say McHale but MacKenzie knows that he's calling her by her first name. She gives him a little smile every time he does it and begins to write Hi Billy at the top of every assignment.
February is three weeks of deep, snowless freeze that bursts into an early spring. The bare trees look out of place against the mild blue sky, and Will walks to class in just a sweater and sport coat. Students in hoodies read on the lawns and throw footballs between the buildings.
A week and a half before they leave for Africa, MacKenzie gets to class early, phone pressed to her ear. "Sure, thanks," she says. "I have to go now, Daddy, I have class. You too." She laughs. "I say hi back. Okay, bye." She pulls a chair out for herself.
"How's your father doing?" Will asks.
"Good. He just called to say happy birthday."
"It's your birthday?" MacKenzie is clearly trying not to smile. "Happy birthday!"
Kendra, following Reese in the door, says, "Hey, cool, happy birthday."
"So you're, what, twenty-one?" asks Will, even though he knows. MacKenzie nods. "So you're legal now."
"In every way," she says, holding his gaze, and he is forced to look down and move his papers around in an entirely unnecessary way.
After class, he says, "Mac, hold up a minute. We have to talk logistics about the trip, because you're an undergrad."
She settles back into her seat, two down from his. "What's up?" she says.
Will brushes off the question with a wave of his hand. "You have to sign a thing. It's no big deal. I'll bring it next class. What are you doing for your birthday?"
She shrugs. "Nothing big. Sloan and I were going to go out after dinner to a bar or something. Low-key, you know?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Will hears himself say, as he tries to catch his brain up to his mouth. "You're twenty-one. I'll take you guys out to Des Ciels."
"Will, you don't have to –"
"I want to," he says, which is true. "If you'd like to come."
She reaches forward as if to grab his hand where he's fiddling with the latch of his briefcase, clicking it up and down on the table, but she seems to think better of it. "I'd love to," she says. "Pick us up outside my dorm? Seven o'clock?"
He nods, and she grins at him and leaves. He stares at the latch of his briefcase, which is suspended halfway between open and locked.
"I'm an idiot," he tells it, and it snaps shut.
"No," says Sloan, "the last one was better. You can wear those sexy red heels with it."
"I love those shoes," says MacKenzie, pulling the dress back over her head and struggling into the previous one. "They make my legs look about a million miles long. Zip me up?" She lifts her hair and Sloan climbs off the bed to help her. They both survey the result in the mirror.
"Good," says Sloan. "Hair?"
"Solid. Curl it a bit, maybe."
"Yeah." MacKenzie opens a drawer to get the curler and plugs it in.
"Are you going to sleep with him this time?" Sloan leans against the wall, eyes sharp beneath their blackened lashes.
"I don't think he'll let me," says MacKenzie.
"He likes you, though."
It isn't a question, but MacKenzie says, "Yeah," and holds her hand above the curling iron to check if it's hot.
"Well, then what? He won't sleep with me. He's too goddamn noble."
"You always go for the noble ones."
"Better than the ones you go for," snaps MacKenzie. It's a low blow, but Sloan just looks as though she's considering it seriously, and then nods soberly.
"Sorry." They're quiet as MacKenzie twirls some hair, holds it, releases. Twirl, hold, release. She's careful not to burn herself, which she's done at least seven times while doing this. She's not as clumsy as she was when she was younger – she was one of those eleven year olds who could walk into a room and somehow break something on the other side of it – but she's enough of a klutz that she has to focus very hard whenever she sets out her mother's good china for Easter dinner, and her fingers more often than not sport band-aids to cover minor burns and scrapes and splinters.
"I'd sleep with you, if I were him."
"I find that not at all reassuring," says MacKenzie, setting down the hair curler. She faces Sloan. "Good?"
"Come on then, we're already ten minutes late."
"That's practically early for you," says Sloan, grabbing her purse.
Will is leaning against the building, scrolling through something on his phone. MacKenzie gets the feeling that he's not actually reading anything; the phone is clearly just a prop to avoid standing around awkwardly with his hands in his pockets in front of an undergraduate dorm. He's wearing a charcoal suit, blue-and-gray striped tie, and, she can see because his feet are kicked out in front of him, one black sock and one brown. "You look nice," she says.
Will looks up startled, and starts, "You do –" and then he stops, staring at her, and MacKenzie can see Sloan give her a smug smile. Will clears his throat. "Uh, you look very nice." He tears his eyes away. "Hey, Sloan."
"Hey, Will," she says, trying not to laugh, and when Will gives a little amused snort of breath and offers Sloan his arm, MacKenzie doesn't begrudge her at all.
At the restaurant, once the maitre d' has shown them to their table and has been forced to pull out a chair for Sloan because Will got to MacKenzie's first, she says, "I forgot about the chairs here." They're Louis XVI-style, oval-backed monstrosities upholstered in velvet, completely and utterly pompous. She loves it.
"Champagne," says Will. "Any preference?"
MacKenzie and Sloan shake their heads – the only champagne they drink is the swill they can get on campus, sparkling wine for three dollars a bottle. Sloan has a line of empties under her window and sometimes buys flowers to put in them so she doesn't look like an alcoholic.
He orders the third-most expensive champagne on the menu, which they're two-thirds of the way through by the time the appetizer arrives: the best ceviche MacKenzie has ever eaten, served in a giant martini glass. She takes a bite and closes her eyes in pleasure. "I love food," she says.
"Hey, I think this martini glass is crystal," says Sloan.
"My ancestors were crystal-smiths," says Will. "In Scotland."
"Oh, so you know all about crystal?" asks Sloan.
"Not even a little bit," Will says, "but I am related to Robert Bruce," and he pours them all more champagne.
MacKenzie's risotto is impossibly good, but Will's duck looks even better. He sees her eyeing it, sighs, and pushes the plate towards her. "Thanks," she says, spearing a slice with her fork.
"Sure," he says, as she takes a bite. Her eyes widen in amazement, and he shakes his head, switches their plates, and flags down a waiter to order another bottle of champagne.
By the time they finish it, it's ten-fifteen and too early to call it quits. "I want dessert," says MacKenzie. "Is there crème brûlée?"
"Of course there's crème brûlée," says Will. It comes with three blackberries, a gooseberry, a sprig of mint, and three glasses of brandy that Will managed to order without MacKenzie noticing. She eats the fruit before breaking through the caramelized crust. Will watches her with amusement.
"It's a balanced diet," she explains, and he looks at her without smiling over the rim of his brandy glass.
As they leave the restaurant, Sloan says, "Kenzie, you have to do shots. It's your twenty-first – you have to do shots."
"Just one," she says. "There was the champagne and the brandy."
"That karaoke bar by the liquor store has a good specials menu," says Sloan.
"Just one," says MacKenzie, who, to her own surprise, is in fact able to get away with having only one. It's an expensive tequila that tastes just as terrible as the cheap stuff, but she likes the process of a tequila shot: salt on her fingers, lick it off, throw back the shot, bite the lemon. There's a rhythm to it, a ritual, like how you say the same things at church each week. Will smiles when she makes a face at the liquor, and she tries not to watch him lick the rest of the salt from his knuckles.
It's one-thirty before she and Will drop Sloan off. "You okay with her?" Sloan asks Will, because MacKenzie is just drunk enough to have to watch her feet so that she doesn't trip over her heels.
"Sure," says Will, and when Sloan disappears, he puts his arm around her shoulders and leads her south.
"I'm fine," says MacKenzie.
"I know," says Will. His voice is warm, low and deep when her ear is this close to his chest, and she sighs and rests her head against him. They stop in front of her door.
"Are you going to be okay driving back to the city?" she asks. She doesn't like the thought of him, tired and a little drunk, speeding down the dark highway at two in the morning.
He shakes his head. "I took the train this morning. I think I missed the last one out. I'll just go to the hotel, get a room for a few hours."
"Stay here," she suggests instantly, and isn't even sorry about it.
"No," he says. "Absolutely not. I can't."
"I have a single room," she says. "And I put a queen bed in it."
"The size of your bed is so not the dominant issue, here," says Will.
"Come on, Billy," she says. She hasn't called him that all night, and she sees him squeeze his eyes shut, which is all the warning she gets before he presses her up against the stone wall of her dorm and kisses her, pressing himself to her with his hand cushioning the back of her head. She moans, the bottom of her stomach dropping out and out and out, her thigh crushed against his, and she opens her mouth to him; he breathes, jaggedly, and kisses her again, and again, until she is weak and clinging to him and he breaks away to rest his forehead against the cool stone.
"I can't," he says. "You see? I can't. I can't."
"All right," she says, "all right," and she cups his face and caresses his cheekbone with her thumb until he comes back to her a little.
He straightens and smiles at her, catching her hand against his face and kissing her fingers. "Happy birthday, MacKenzie," he says, drops her hand, and walks away.
Sloan helps her pack, for values of "help" meaning "sprawl on the bed while MacKenzie throws things into a pile next to her."
"What are you taking?" Sloan asks.
"As little as possible," says MacKenzie. "I think journalists travel light." What she actually thinks is that she tends to pack a giant suitcase full of clothes and shoes and hair products, and she knows that Will and the grad students will make fun of her if she does. She just likes to be prepared, is all.
"Are you taking Simon?" asks Sloan, reaching behind her back to pull MacKenzie's ancient stuffed bear out from beneath her pillow.
"No," says MacKenzie, and then looks at Simon. "Sorry, buddy."
"It's ridiculous that you talk to him like that."
"It's ridiculous that your face looks the way it does," says MacKenzie, and Sloan throws a shirt at her.
They fly from Newark to Johannesburg and then lounge around the airport for three hours waiting for their connection. MacKenzie barely sleeps on the trans-Atlantic flight, too keyed up, too nervous, too close to the back of the plane. Will, two rows in front of her in the aisle seat, is out pretty much the whole time. She watches two movies and three episodes of Seinfeld, and she hates Seinfeld, but even now, lying across three seats at the gate in Johannesburg, she has only closed her eyes for a few minutes when her body shakes itself awake again. Will is in the seat next to her head.
"The grad students went to get food," he says, and she lifts her head, lays it on his thigh, and closes her eyes again.
Around noon, they land in Windhoek and share a minivan cab to the hotel. They step out of it, wrestling with their bags, into what feels like sweltering heat and a overflow of humanity, all yelling and jostling each other on the street. Only because she is standing right next to Will can she see him frown, feel him tense up.
"What's wrong?" she asks, quietly, and he shakes his head.
"Nothing," he says, but she sees the way his eyes skid up and down the sidewalk, the way he walks close to her, and when she struggles to lift the wheels of her small bag out of a crack in the pavement, he takes it from her and jerks his head at the hotel door. "Get inside," he says.
In the lobby, he checks in and hands out keys. "Gary and Reese, two-twenty-seven," he says. "Girls, two-thirty-four. One of you is on a cot. Sorry." He directs it at MacKenzie, who will clearly be the one on the cot, and she shrugs equably. He is careful to look away before saying, "I'm in two-thirty-five if anyone needs me. Drop your stuff off and meet back here. Fifteen minutes."
She turns towards the elevator, but he doesn't follow; when she looks back, he is gazing through the window at the street, still frowning.
It's fine for the first six days.
That first afternoon, they meet up with one of Will's old friends, Terry, who is freelancing for the BBC. Terry greets him with a warm, back-slapping hug, walks them around the city for awhile, and lets the students tag along to his interviews with some foreign aid workers, who are beginning to arrive in serious numbers. Aid workers, Will has always thought, can smell when blood is in the water just as well as any shark, though the aid workers are (for the most part) considerably better-intentioned. It's late, afterwards, and Terry takes them to dinner. They eat outside as darkness seeps up from the horizon. The heat is beginning to ease, air heading towards cool; the mercury is supposed to dip as low as thirteen Celsius overnight. They linger, and Will lets the students talk, watching MacKenzie lean over the table to argue with Kendra, eyes bright and hair hanging forward as she gestures emphatically.
Terry scrapes his seat backwards, setting his feet on a nearby chair. Will pulls a cigarette and offers him one, and then the lighter, gazing at the people passing on the street. Windows are lit, and the sidewalks are busy, women in bright dresses and men in business suits. It's a nice area of the city, corporate offices with burnished sides glowing in the reflection of the street lamps. Two teenagers stop in front of the restaurant, boys with sloppy smiles. One punches the other on the arm, and they laugh. He can't tell what language they are speaking. Will almost forgets to feel ill at ease, but he knows too well the hum of a country in which something is about to happen, and his skin is itchy in a way that has nothing to do with the sweat drying cool under his collar. He takes a long drag on his cigarette and rests his head against the back of his chair to watch the smoke rise into the dark sky.
"How are things?" asks Terry.
"You know," says Will. "Academia."
"Ever think about getting back out there?" asks Terry, and Will has to breathe through a sudden surge of desire to be back on the street, him and a notepad and a dusty country, no students or papers or department chairs. Breathes. MacKenzie looks over at him, although she is too far away to hear.
"Every day," he says. "Every fucking day."
"No one keeping you at home?"
Will hesitates. "No," he says, and there's no reason that it should sound so much like a lie. Terry smiles at him with a little too much sympathy and orders them both a drink.
They spend the next three days in any village within reasonable driving distance, waiting, cold and without coffee, at bus stops in the shivery pre-dawn and dragging themselves into the hotel just before midnight. Will watches the circles under MacKenzie's eyes darken each morning. The days would be exhausting even after a long sleep and a leisurely breakfast: there is poverty here, dust and little food – and these are the villages within range of help. The elderly watch them with sunken eyes, faces craggy like the side of a cliff where an unwary ship might wreck itself; once, a child clings to Kendra's legs until his mother comes to take him away. On the third day, they meet a seventeen-year-old mother of two who is eating dirt to keep herself alive, and only because he is watching for it is he able to see the way MacKenzie's tired face crumples before she takes a deep breath and smiles for the girl.
She doesn't eat dinner that night, though she does order a drink, and then another one. She's flagging the waiter over to request a third when Will taps her arm and shakes his head at her slowly. When they straggle into the hotel that night, he says, "Mac," quietly, and she stops without turning to look at him.
"I'm pretty tired, Professor," she says. "We've all had a long few days."
He hears the stress on all and thinks that maybe he has done her no favours, noticing her face and no one else's. He pauses. "Sleep well," he says, and she nods jerkily and leaves.
He has scheduled them several interviews with government officials, hoping that their time in the villages would make them sharper with the bureaucrats, less willing to take excuses. It works so well that after the second interview, he has to remind them to make some kind of connection with their interview subject. The sessions are a little bit of a mess, anyway: each of his kids has managed to pick a different aspect of the crisis on which to focus, and the officials are forced to answer first a spate of questions about water-delivery infrastructure and then a set of jabbing leads about archival record-keeping.
Reluctantly, Will gives them some free time to wander the city, maximum two hours at a time in case of emergencies. They spend their nights in the hotel lounge, the students typing furiously on their laptops while he sips scotch and soda and then goes to bed early. It would be enjoyable, for the most part, except for that itch under his skin, the way he can only half-listen to any conversation taking place outside because his ears are tuned to the timbre of the crowd, its swells and breaks and silences. Still, it's not until their last night that Terry calls, voice tight, and says,
Will kills the call without responding and says, "Everyone get packed, right now. Meet in the lobby in five minutes, no more than seven. Just throw everything in your bag." They stare at him, unblinking. "Do it now," he says, and they stand, frantically slamming their laptops closed and ripping their power cords from the outlets. He looks at them: there are only four.
"Tess, tell Mac," he says, and then takes the stairs two at a time.
He's dumping an armload of all of his toiletries loose into his rucksack when he hears the door across the hall open, close, and open again. Someone hammers on his door frantically. It's Tess, looking terrified. "McHale's not in the room," she says.
"Fuck," he says. "Fuck, fuck –" he holds the door open with his foot, drags over his now-packed rucksack and zips it closed as he hands it to her. "Pack her stuff, all of it." She nods and turns to go, but he stops her. "Tess, listen. Listen to me. Take my stuff, take Mac's stuff, get the boys. You're going to the American embassy. It's three blocks away, you'll be fine. Get inside and wait for me there." He hesitates. "If Reese gives you a hard time, tell him that I'll fail him, and then I'll tell every professor at his dissertation defence to fail him. Got it?" She nods. "Go."
He calls the embassy, warning them to expect four grad students; they think he's crazy, or at least whoever takes his call does. Will doesn't care. There's someone taking calls at nine o'clock on a Friday, which means that someone higher up at State probably does not think he's crazy.
On the off-chance that MacKenzie brought her cell phone, and it's on, and it can accept calls in Namibia, he calls the office of the Dean of Undergraduates and requests her personal number. They refuse to give it to him for so long that Will is wondering whether he can call up the UN and ask to speak to the British ambassador without being laughed off the line by the time they finally agree to give him her cell number. He dials, and wishes that he still prayed. It used to be nice, as a boy, kneeling beside his bed and believing, believing that in the morning, the world might not be quite the same.
It rings, which is a good sign, and when she picks up, he has to hang his head between his knees for a moment because he's light-headed. "Hello?" she asks.
"MacKenzie, where are you?"
"At the high school," she says. "It's no big deal, I figured since it's our last night –"
"Don't move," he says. "Don't fucking move," and he hangs up.
It's close, though not as close as he was hoping, and he runs, weaving through people, his leather shoes squeaking. He's not dressed as a journalist – he's dressed as a professor, and he curses himself. He misses the presence of a pen in his breast pocket, jeans and a canvas shirt, and no one in the country who knows him.
She's sitting outside the school on the hood of a parked car, talking rapidly in French to a group of teenagers. She's clearly telling a story, her hands much more vocal in French than they are in English, and the teenagers are laughing at her, the girls throwing their heads back and the boys doubling over. One of them punches her lightly on the arm, and she smiles, pleased.
Will waits until his breathing has slowed, until the dusty air no longer tastes like copper in his throat, and then walks over. It's hard to be casual, but he doesn't want questions, and he doesn't want to scare them, any of them. "Hey guys," he says to the teens. "Sorry, but I have to steal her away." They groan and jabber at her in French, and she apologizes and shakes all the hands thrust her way, disentangling herself and walking with him out of earshot.
Her father raised no fool. She walks fast, face serious. They've gone a few blocks before she asks, "What's wrong?" and he shakes his head, but that's when the dull murmur of the city raises itself to a roar. Farther down Independence Avenue, there is a surging of bodies yelling, marching north from the industrial park and the maze of houses that creep around its edges. Will grabs MacKenzie's arm.
"Will, what is it?" She stumbles and he nearly lifts her off her feet by the arm. He can feel her bones under her skin, the gap between radius and ulna, and he knows he's leaving bruises but can't let go. "What's happening?"
"Food riot," says Will, turns onto a side road, and pulls her into a run.
"We're not going to the hotel?" MacKenzie asks.
"Embassy," he says, and she runs faster. The crowd had almost been at the traffic circle across from the embassy, but the front door is on Lossen, not Independence, and if they can just get there, in only a block and a half –
They almost run into the three guys on the sidewalk, big guys. One has a baseball bat, and one is holding a piece of pipe. The third has an AK. He raises it.
"Pardon," says MacKenzie, "pardon," and begins to babble in French too fast for Will to follow. He watches the three guys instead. They look uncertain, and then MacKenzie says something that makes one twist into a grimace of a smile. He has a nasty scar that turns his top lip up on the left side so that he looks like he's sneering. The three of them smell strongly of sweat and factory grease. MacKenzie pauses, answers a question, and the barrel of the AK begins to sag a little until the guy holding it jerks his head down the street and says, "Allons-y. Go."
Will pushes MacKenzie forward, his hand between her shoulder blades. "What did you tell them?"
"That I'm a French university student and you're my idiot American boyfriend who can't speak any other languages."
"I can speak Spanish!" says Will, although he knows that's not the point. "And conversational German. Also Latin."
"Bet the Latin's useful when you run into Cicero and his thugs," says MacKenzie, and she takes her eyes off the pavement to grin and him and promptly catches her toe on an uneven patch. Will hooks his arm around her middle and sets her upright. The crowd is loud, now, a block away at most, and groups of people are beginning to break off and turn down Lossen.
"Come on," he says, and catches at her hand to sprint for the embassy. At the gate, he waves his passport and they're inside.
It's chaos, filled with Namibians and Americans and shouting officials. The grad students are sitting on their suitcases in one corner, not speaking. Tess cries out in relief when she sees them, and Gary slaps MacKenzie on the back.
Will takes one look at the lines, the crowd, the understaffed windows, and pulls out his phone. He's not messing around: he goes straight for Charlie Skinner at ACN. "Charlie," he says, "it's Will. Who do you know at State?"
Forty-five minutes later, he hangs up and drops his head, scrubbing his hand over the back of his neck.
"Well," he says, making himself look at his students. "They can get us on an evacuation flight on Monday." Monday's not good enough. He's not sticking around for two days – by then, there's no way that the evac flight will make it off the ground. He looks at MacKenzie.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I'm sorry to ask."
She shakes her head. "It's okay. I'll call him." He turns his head away and she says, "B–" and cuts herself off. "Hey," she says instead. "Really. I promise." When he nods, she dials, pauses, says, "Hey, Dad. No, no, I'm fine. But, listen…" She wanders away a few steps and he stops watching her until she comes back and taps his arm. "He wants to talk to you."
Will takes the phone with some trepidation, but his desire to not disappoint or anger the ambassador (because he's a British ambassador, powerful, with the ability to make trouble for the university, and not because he's Mac's father) is so not important. "Sir," he says.
"Yes, sir. Listen, I want to apologize –"
"Shit happens, McAvoy. Anyone injured?"
"Good." Ambassador McHale says, "Let me make some calls. Stay near the phone," and hangs up.
MacKenzie answers the phone twenty minutes later and hands it to Will. "Ambassador."
"French embassy," says McHale. "There's a military supply flight in the morning to Dar es Salaam. Nine-thirty."
"Thank you, Ambassador."
McHale pauses. "MacKenzie speaks highly of you."
"I'm honoured by that, sir."
The pause is longer this time. "Get her home safe."
"Absolutely," swears Will, and hands the phone back to MacKenzie before pulling out his own.
Within three minutes, he's speaking to someone at the Windhoek embassy; he can see the guy, through the glass-fronted service windows, watching his mouth move and hearing the words delayed like thunder from a distant storm. "We can't get you a car," he says. "The roads aren't passable for vehicles. It would be too dangerous." Will pictures the six of them in a car, edging through a crowd holding planks of wood and scraps of metal, glass bottles and semi-automatics, and he winces.
"I understand. Thank you." He hangs up, thinking. Somewhere in his rucksack is a map.
"All right, guys," he says. "We're going to the French embassy." He finds the map, unfolds it and frowns down at the streets for awhile. It's not even two miles away, but that's straight up Independence. MacKenzie's breath in his ear comes fast and short. "Leave behind everything you don't need. Everything, understand?"
When they're ready, a pile of clothes and shoes and toiletries is heaped in the corner. Will asks an official to lead them to a back exit. The woman spends the entire walk through the embassy trying to convince him to stay, but Will can hear the crowd outside the front gate; he wouldn't stay if she paid him.
It's three-quarters of a mile to the entrance of the National Botanical Gardens, but they take a circuitous route and stay off the streets, cutting through properties and behind houses. It takes nearly an hour, and the city is dark, so dark, the kind of blackness that feels textured and alive. Residents have retreated inside, shutting the lights and huddling in their living rooms, and the streetlights have been turned off. The air tastes like dust and it is dry, dry, dry like wildfire.
They have to climb a fence to get into the park, and afterward Will leads them behind a clump of greenery and throws his bag down. "Take ten," he says, and leans against a tree trunk. It's getting cold, now, and there is still no rain, no water anywhere. His mouth is sticky.
"Here," says MacKenzie, crouching beside him. There's a half-empty plastic water bottle in her hand, crinkling a little. He takes a small, cautious sip, swishes it around his mouth, and swallows.
"You okay?" he asks.
"Yeah." Tired, he thinks, but doesn't say it. He's not allowed to be tired, not yet. In the dark, she smoothes her palm across the side of his face. Her fingers are cool. He closes his eyes.
It's maybe a third of a mile through the gardens. They stay off the path although they see no one, and then scamper one by one across the road. There's a sports complex there, soccer field and a patch of trees and then tennis courts. Will opens his phone, hiding the glow beneath a cupped hand, to look at his maps app. Behind the sports complex is a tract of empty land, trees and trees, with a creek running through it. Probably no more than a dry bed now. They could walk along it, or they could take the road just east of them, which is far enough from Independence that they might be safe, especially with the forest between them. He waits, can't decide. MacKenzie leans over his shoulder to look at the satellite image.
"Creek or road?" he whispers.
"Mile or so."
"Little more than half a mile if we go straight to the embassy. We shouldn't, though. Probably another mile."
They glance at each other. MacKenzie looks like a ghost in the blue light of his phone, like a corpse. He tries to un-think it. There is darkness under her eyes, and a small scratch on her cheek from a tree branch. Her duffel drags at her arm.
"I think road," he says, and locks the phone.
The street is quiet and tar-dark, scrub and trees on both sides. He feels uncomfortably isolated, though they are half a mile from Independence Avenue. The moon slips out from behind a cloud. Will feels as though he's in a dream, the kids' sneakers making quiet sounds on the pavement. It's cold now, colder than usual, maybe ten Celsius, and they have little more than thin sweatshirts. Kendra stops to grab two extra shirts from her bag and slip them on; Reese long since donned a leather jacket. MacKenzie is wearing short sleeves and shakes like a blade of prairie grass in a hailstorm. He eases his mouth close to her ear.
"Don't you have a hoodie or something?"
She shakes her head. "Left it at the Embassy," she whispers. He shrugs his rucksack around his body and digs in it until he finds her an old Nebraska State sweatshirt. It comes down to her knees, and the sleeves trail down from her hands. " 'm so cold," she says, sounding exhausted. It is long past midnight, and Will begins to worry that the daylight will reveal them before they arrive at the French embassy.
"I know," he says. "I'm sorry." They are walking behind the grad students; he wraps an arm around her and draws her close. She leans her head against his chest and he risks pressing a kiss against her hair, so lightly that he hopes she won't feel it.
There is a burst of popping noises around the next bend, and the grad students turn to look at him. He points to the side of the road and they all scramble down the ditch. Will watches to make sure they're hidden in the trees before he follows, and he sees the shapes of several men appear at the end of the road. One of them fires into the air again, and Will throws himself down the embankment. The side of his head hits something hard and he crawls, dizzy, to the trees, biting his tongue to keep from grunting in pain.
The men pass, talking loudly, laughing, and Will waits another minute until he is sure that they won't hear six people climbing out from the cover of the trees. He holds his hand against his head; it's bleeding a little, sluggishly, but he isn't concussed, or at least he isn't concussed badly enough for it to matter. His head aches, though, and he has to pause once he regains the road to blink away flecks of light from his vision. His body feels heavy when they start to walk again, and his head hurts, his head hurts.
Houses appear on their right, huge mansions that curve back around swimming pools. Will thinks of the industrial park, less than two miles away, spitting its ashy people out onto Independence Avenue, the hungry and huddled and angry humanity of the streets, looking for food and dignity, and he breathes through the heat in his chest, the boiling in his stomach.
He had been planning to cut even farther east, work north and then make their way west to the embassy in as straight a line as possible, but the streets here are quiet and seem a world away from the riot two blocks west, so he leads the kids north, through backyards and tree groves until the houses are smaller and closer together. Their feet are dragging. His feet are dragging, too, numb with cold and exhaustion, and the ache in his head has settled into a throbbing. They stop once more, but Will only lets them sit for a few minutes before he hauls them up again – the sky is starting to turn gray in the east. He is afraid: they have to make their way back towards Independence, now when they are all too tired to be cautious, fingers and brains numb. The embassy is on Luther, only a block east of the Avenue, and the train station that fronts onto Independence is close, close. Will's heart beats against his chest. Close, close.
He is worried for nothing: Luther Street is empty in the pre-dawn, and the crowd in front of the embassy is small, gray-faced, and quiet. At the gate, MacKenzie speaks to the guards in French, arguing for a long time until they get a supervisor. Then she argues with the supervisor for awhile.
"Do you need me to call –?" he starts.
"No," she says, then raises her voice in exasperation to the embassy official. She sounds shrill in her fatigue and frustration; Will prevents himself from placing a hand on her shoulder. Finally, she sighs, and says, "Ambassadeur McHale a parlé avec quelqu'un ici. Je voudrais le voir, s'il vous plaît." In a few minutes, yet another official appears, sees them, and yells at the guard to let them in.
They're shown to a conference room, where the kids drop their bags with grateful sighs and blow on their fingers to warm them. MacKenzie bunches and unbunches the end of his sweatshirt's sleeves.
"We have four hours," he says. "Get some sleep." He tries to blink away his headache and ducks back into the hallway to talk to the embassy official and meet with his colleagues. When he comes back, an hour and a half later, the kids are passed on the floor, covered with extra clothes. MacKenzie is lying on his rucksack with her head pillowed on her duffel, the hood of his sweatshirt drawn down over her eyes. He wants nothing more than to curl up beside her. Instead, he fishes her phone from her pocket and goes back into the hallway.
McHale picks up on the first ring. "MacKenzie?"
"No, sir, she's sleeping. It's Will McAvoy."
"You're at the French embassy?"
The other end of the line is silent for awhile, and Will can imagine that McHale had to put down the phone for a minute in relief. There's a crackle as he raises it again. "Good. Call me again from Dar." He hangs up.
Will goes to the bathroom and tries to rinse some of the blood from his hair. His flesh is tender and swollen under his fingers, and his hands shake as he dries them. He doesn't sleep, keeping himself awake by pacing up and down the hallway, steps measured and slow. Outside, the sun rises and he watches the progress of light crawling across the floor.
At eight forty-five, they climb up to the roof, squinting in the morning sun, and take a helo to the airport to load into a CC-150. There's a squad of French soldiers in there, leaning against the steel wall, and Will wonders how the hell McHale convinced someone to let six academics on this flight. He sits on his rucksack, watching the soldiers elbow each other and grin. They're young guys, and one of them, with a tiny pencil moustache, smiles at MacKenzie. She sits next to him, starts asking questions, and Will looks away.
Not long after they take off, the soldiers are napping and the grad students are asleep again, despite the turbulence. Will's head hurts, it hurts, it will hurt forever. He stares at the ceiling and doesn't see MacKenzie slide over to him.
"You should sleep a little," she says.
"When we're home," he says, and she looks at him sadly.
"Will, this isn't – you did everything right, and look, we're fine, it's not –"
He grinds his jaw and looks away. "I said, I'll sleep when we get home," he snaps, and doesn't look back to see if he's hurt her. She moves away, and he clenches his eyes shut.
It isn't the most uncomfortable flight he's been on, but that's mostly because it's only three hours before they disembark in Dar es Salaam. He has just enough time to call McHale again before they're boarding a flight for Newark, and home.
It's after twelve-thirty on Sunday morning when they step off the train onto campus. MacKenzie slept most of the way from Dar and is feeling okay. Not great, but okay. Will looks like he's about to collapse.
"All right, guys," he says. "Forget class tomorrow. Tuesday. Whatever the hell day it is, forget it. We'll meet on Thursday." As the grad students leave, MacKenzie sees him lean against a concrete post and stare at his hands, holding his bag, as though he isn't sure what to do with them.
"Will," she says, and then louder. "Will." He looks up, blankly. She calculates quickly that he has been awake for nearly forty-eight hours straight, a stretch that included leading five college students through a food riot in Africa. "You need to sleep."
"Sure," he says.
"Is there another train to New York?"
"Maybe. One." He shakes his head as if to clear it of water. "No, 's a Sunday. I'll go to the hotel."
"The hotel's a twenty-minute walk away."
"You're not going to make it."
"Sure I am," he says, slumping a little farther against the post.
She reaches to cup his head gently and he gasps in pain and pulls away. His hair is stiff and sticky under her fingers. "Will," she says, frantically, and tugs his head, carefully, into her hands to examine the wound.
"It's fine," he says. "I just knocked it a little. I'm not concussed."
"When?" She probes at it, so, so gently, and his breathing goes tight.
"That was over twenty-four hours ago. Do you still have a headache?"
"Yeah," he says. He's let his forehead rest against her shoulder, and she plays with the hair at the back of his neck.
"Then you're concussed. Jesus."
"I'm fine," he says again, into her shirt.
"Yeah, okay," she says, "you're going to come with me."
He pushes away from her, hands clumsy. It scares her: his hands are always in his control, speaking for him when he doesn't. "No, MacKenzie. No, no."
"Will, I'll sleep on the futon, but I am absolutely not letting you walk off by yourself."
Her position is eminently reasonable, but she's still surprised when he lets his head hang forward and says, quietly, "Okay." She shoulders his bag and draws him away from the post. In the fluorescent light of the train station, he looks ill.
It's five minutes to her dorm, maybe. The walk has never felt longer. It's March still, and the temperature at one a.m. is not far above freezing, with a damp that settles into her bones. Will says nothing. She tries to shift the strap of his bag more securely onto her shoulder, her hands in his sweatshirt sleeves slipping off of it until she gives up.
Will takes the steps one at a time and leans his head against the wall as she unlocks her door. She ushers him inside.
"I'm sleeping on the futon," he says.
"Sure," she says. "That's fine. I'm going to go brush my teeth and then I'll set it up for you. Why don't you just sit on my bed until then?" He nods. When she comes back, he is, as she expected, completely passed out on her comforter, his shoes still on, legs dangling over the side of the bed. She eases his loafers off, unbuckles his belt and slides it out of the loops, lifts his legs onto the bed, and tucks a pillow under his head. It's too hard to pull the comforter down while he's lying on it, so she just reaches towards her chair for the fleece blanket she's had since junior high, green with soccer balls printed on it, and drags it over him. She smooths his hair back from his forehead.
"Goodnight, Billy," she says, and stretches out on the futon.
She wakes at six-thirty, bright-eyed: jetlag, but she doesn't mind. Will is in the same position as when she went to sleep, unnaturally still and pale. She unpacks what little is left in her duffel, tossing most of it into her laundry hamper; she checks her email, tidies her room. At eight, she slips into the hallway to call Sloan.
"S'early," slurs Sloan.
"Yeah," said MacKenzie.
MacKenzie hesitates. "Sort of."
She hears a rustle, like Sloan is sitting up suddenly in bed. "Kenzie?"
"I'm fine, I promise," she says. "I'll explain later, okay? I just might not be able to see you until late. You'll be back on campus starting when? Five or so?"
"Yeah. Okay, sure," says Sloan, sounding anything but, and MacKenzie hangs up.
She calls home, checks in with her father and talks to her mom for awhile before going back into her room. Will is still sleeping. She dumps the contents of his rucksack on top of her hamper and carries it down to the laundry room. He's still sleeping when the washing machine is done, and he's still sleeping as she folds the dry laundry. He sleeps until eleven-thirty and wakes himself by turning his head too hard into the mattress.
"Mac?" he asks.
She leaves her book on the futon and sits beside him on the bed. "Hey," she says.
"What time's it?"
"Eleven-thirty. How do you feel?"
He frowns, reaches a hand back to touch the side of his head. "Dizzy."
"Just lie there for awhile," she says.
He sits up instead, rubbing a hand over his face. It makes a scratching sound against his stubble. "I need a shower."
"There's a men's bathroom down the hall."
She rolls her eyes. "Most people won't be back until later this afternoon. I'll make sure there's no one in there when you go in, and just come out when the bathroom's empty." She slides off the bed and pulls out a plastic bin from underneath it, grabbing a clean towel, a disposable razor, and one of the crappy toothbrushes she gets from her dentist, and tosses it all on her bed with her soap, toothpaste, and shampoo. "Go on."
He comes back looking more human, smelling like toothpaste and her shampoo, with a little colour in his clean-shaven face. He is wrapped in a towel, water droplets glistening in the hollows of his clavicles, and she can feel her eyes darken as she looks at him. She pushes back her desk chair and stands. He lets the door swing shut.
"MacKenzie," he says.
"Shut up," she says, and kisses him. He drops the shampoo and the toothbrush and toothpaste, and the soap and the razor, and places a hand on each side of her face, kissing her back. Water soaks through her shirt where she's pressed up against his warm, damp chest. He pulls back, shaking his head.
"You saved my life in Windhoek."
"I absolutely did not," he says, sharply.
"You came and got me."
"Well," he says. "Yeah."
"I brought you there," he says, suddenly. "I brought you there, all of you, I let you –" She kisses him again and spins them so that his back is to the bed, pushes him backwards and falls un-gracefully on top of him.
"Billy, you couldn't have kept me away with a baseball bat and an AK-47." He winces. "Too soon?"
"Too soon," he confirms, and flips them over so that she is breathless beneath him. "We absolutely should not do this. Absolutely."
"I know," she says, pulling her left leg around his right so that they're intertwined and pushing her hips upward so that she's pressing herself against his thigh.
"Stupidest thing I've ever done," he says, and she isn't sure whether he's talking about agreeing to go to Namibia or the fact that he is lowering his head to kiss his way up the side of her neck and nibble at her ear. She gasps.
"You must never have gone to college," she stutters, and he chuckles, low and deep, and she fumbles at the hem of her own shirt trying to get it off. He does it for her and then unclips her bra with a quick twist of the fingers on one hand, and when he sucks at a nipple she groans, everything inside of her melting into hot wax.
"God, MacKenzie," he says, breathing damp against her chest. "I can't fucking get you out of my head," and it would sound clichéd except that he clearly means it so much he can't breathe, and she rips the towel away and scratches her nails up his back until he rubs helplessly against her for a moment, skin soft against hers. She presses a palm against the flat of his breastbone and flexes her fingers into the muscles there, just to feel his chest expand as he breathes. He lifts two of her fingers and leans his head to suck them into his mouth, the back of his neck curved, muscles tight and vertebrae pressing up against his skin. She arches again, still in her jeans, and he scratches one finger down the inseam to make her throw her head back and push against his hand.
"Billy," she moans. "Please."
"Sh," he says, lips soft against the side of her neck, her collarbone, the curve beneath her arm. "Easy," and he flicks open the button of her jeans. She kicks them off frantically, and he kisses her again: sternum, ribcage, navel. He hooks a finger up and under the elastic of her underwear, rubbing his knuckle along the seam of her thigh, and looks at her seriously. "MacKenzie," he says, "Are you –?"
"Yes," she pants. "Yes, I'm sure, and for the love of all that is holy would you –" He rips her underwear down to her knees, tosses one of her legs over his shoulder, and presses his mouth to her. He curls his tongue into her and she groans. No one has done this for her before.
"I'm never fucking anyone in my peer group ever again," she says, and when his laugh vibrates against her, she groans again and clenches around his tongue.
He is patient, learning her, learning what she likes, and he waits until her language has lost its meaning and become a series of sounds that spills from her mouth before he curls two fingers into her as deeply as he can and circles his tongue around her clit once, twice, until she is coming with "Billy Billy Billy Billy" tripping over her tongue. When she opens her eyes, he is brushing the hair off of her forehead and she pushes herself up on her elbows to kiss him. She breaks away to say, "Condoms in the desk drawer," and takes the few seconds he isn't looking at her to breathe, breathe, breathe.
He's gentle with her and she doesn't want him to be; there's still gunfire behind her eyes when she closes them, and she grabs the back of his thighs to pull him in. "Please," she says, and he lifts her leg onto his shoulder again so that she gasps at the angle. She murmurs to him and he presses his face into her neck, and reaches down between them to circle his thumb around her clit. She's close, so close, when he says, strained, "Mac, I –" and she says, "Yes, come on, Will," and he makes a little sound and drives into her helplessly, and she's coming again as he groans.
He presses a kiss to the side of her forehead and stands to take care of the condom. She hasn't even caught her breath by the time he returns and draws her to him, holding her loosely as she rests her head on his chest to listen to his heartbeat race.
They lie there for a few minutes and then Will asks, "What now?"
She doesn't know, so she says, "Food?"
He hesitates, and she thinks he will argue, but then he says, "Hell, why not?"
She cranes her neck to grin at him. "PJ's? I want pancakes."
"Fuck yeah," says Will.
Will orders six blueberry pancakes with a side of bacon, and MacKenzie get a trio of banana, pecan, and chocolate-peanut-butter. Will looks on, half-intrigued and half-repulsed, as she gobbles the latter. "That's so weird," he says.
"It's delicious," she says, with her mouth full, and takes three strips of his bacon.
Lingering over coffee, he asks, "What's your schedule like tomorrow?"
"Two lectures in the morning and a tutorial in the afternoon." He raises an eyebrow and she adds, "Nothing I can't skip."
He grins. She gulps the rest of her coffee.
They take a train into the city. "I'll drive you back tomorrow," says Will. She took the window seat, backpack at her feet, so he's pressed up against her, thigh to thigh, staring past her at the world as it glides past the train. The sun appears every once in awhile, shining hard on the edges of crumbly brick buildings and cramped houses with chain link fences and dingy auto body shops. "You can make at least one of your classes. You shouldn't skip."
"Yes, I should."
"I'm a terrible influence," bemoans Will, and she turns her head to kiss him just to prove it.
They walk from Penn Station, the day breezy and brisk and the air beginning to taste of rain. She missed rain, in Namibia, and then she remembers the woman who ate dirt and thinks that she has no right, no idea what it means to miss rain.
"Hey," says Will, lifting and turning her chin with a gentle knuckle. He looks at her and then draws her away from the street, closer into the shadow of the skyscrapers. He cups her face and brushes a thumb from the corner of her eye to her temple, and then again. "Hey," he says again, quieter, but when she tries to smile at him, he looks away, clenching his jaw. "I should never have brought you," he says. "I should never have let you convince me –"
"No," she says. "No, it was amazing. I never had the chance before to – Look, going with you to Africa was – it could have been the most terrible trip in the world –"
"Running into roving gangs of rioters with military assault weapons isn't the worst trip you can imagine?" asks Will dryly, but she ignores him.
"– and it wouldn't have mattered, not at all." Because I was with you, she thinks, but is too afraid to say it, not least because it sounds like a line from a soap opera. "And it wasn't terrible; it was the most incredible – we met people who…" She can't express herself and makes a frustrated noise instead, gesturing with her hands beside her head.
"Okay," says Will. "All right." He kisses her hair and takes her hand, which sends a little bubble of happiness from her toes to her chest.
His apartment is gorgeous, small but with huge lofted ceilings, and clean in a way that indicates he spends very little time there. It's also very spare.
"You need more furniture," she says.
"I wouldn't use more furniture."
"You'd use it if you had it,"she says, and he throws his arms into the air.
He leans against the kitchen counter to watch her go through the apartment, opening every cupboard, poking her head in every closet, and trying out every piece of furniture. When she finally comes to rest in his favourite armchair, he asks, "What do you want to do?"
She yawns. It's after four o'clock and the jet lag is beginning to drag at her. "Never leave again."
"I have movies," says Will, and she smiles.
They settle on Ocean's 11 ("This is my favourite movie of all time!" she says when she finds it. "Well, this and Pirates of the Caribbean." Will says, "I had you pegged as a chick-flick girl," and she hits him with the DVD case) and MacKenzie curls up on his chest with a blanket drawn up to her chin and is asleep before Matt Damon calls Julia Roberts the best part of his day.
She wakes up a little at the end, and when George Clooney says, "I knew what I was doing," she looks up at Will. "So did I," she says.
"Do you?" he asks. "Do you really?" and she looks away.
While he cooks dinner ("You cook?" she asks, surprised, and he says, "I live in New York; I'd be broke if I went out every night.") she wanders into his bedroom to call Sloan. His duvet is shiny, dark gray, and it feels like water between her fingers.
"I can't hang out tonight," MacKenzie says.
"Where are you?"
She wants to giggle, and bites her tongue because she is not a ten-year-old girl. "Will's apartment."
She rolls her eyes. "No, I'm bunking in the giraffe enclosure at the zoo. Yes, really."
"I expect details."
"You bet," she says. "Talk soon," and she hangs up. Walking back into the kitchen, she wraps her arms around his waist and presses her cheek against his back.
"Mmm," he says.
"Onions sautéing in butter always do."
"What are you making?"
"Tomato sauce. It'll be awhile. Sorry, I don't have much in the fridge."
"Sounds perfect," she says.
After dinner, when she's pushing around the sauce on her plate and wondering if she could manage just a little more pasta, he lays his head down on his arms. She reaches over to rub his back between his shoulder blades.
"Does your head hurt?"
"Yeah," he admits, his voice, muffled in his elbow and thick with fatigue, sounding like a little boy's.
"Go lie down. I'll clean up."
She stops in the bathroom on her way to the bedroom and roots around for the Tylenol she knows she saw earlier. He's curled on his side, one hand lying open by his face, and she rouses him by twisting her fingers with his. "Sit up for a moment and take these," she says.
He looks groggy, but does as she says before sinking back against the pillows. She works at the buttons on his shirt and eases it off his shoulders before starting on his pants. "Up," she says, and he raises himself off the bed just enough for her to slide off his jeans. She lifts the corner of the duvet for him. "Get in."
Once he's settled, she fiddles with the things on his nightstand – watch, phone, coaster, box of Kleenex – so that she doesn't have to look at him. "I can sleep on the couch," she offers. "If you want."
His eyes fly open. "Do you want to?"
She shakes her head, and he grasps her wrist. "Come to bed," he says.
"Yeah," she whispers. "Okay."
She wakes in the middle of the night to the sound of rain on the roof. The room is dark, light filtering gray in around the edges of the curtains, and Will is heavily asleep behind her, his arm curled loosely over her side. She is comfortably warm beneath the duvet although there is a faint chill in the air, and she nuzzles into her pillow. The rain is what awakened her: in her sleep, it reminded her of the popping of gunfire on a dark road. She lies there thinking of all the ways things could have gone wrong on Friday until she's shaking. She closes her eyes and sees Will's face, pale and sick like it was in the fluorescent lights of the train station, feels again his hair thick with blood, and she turns to press her face against his chest.
"Will," she says. "Billy," and clutches his t-shirt.
He comes awake and his grip on her tightens. "Hey," he says, swiping his thumb over the back of her neck. "It's okay." He turns onto his back so that she can pillow her head on the soft place under his collarbone and she sobs, once, into the cotton of his shirt. "It's okay."
He kisses her forehead and murmurs until the shaking eases, and she falls asleep again to the sound of his heart beating on, on.
In the morning, she wakes as he is emerging from his shower, and he fucks her gently on the unmade bed, the rain still streaking the windows gray. When she finishes her own shower, her hair wet down her back, he is walking in the door, brushing water droplets from his shoulders, with a bag of bagels, a block of cream cheese, and a package of lox. They eat at the breakfast bar, quietly.
"I could drive you back now," he offers.
"Or not," she says.
"Or not," he repeats, and smiles.
She settles on the couch with some of the reading she was supposed to have done over spring break, her feet in Will's lap. He absently rubs them while he organizes his notes for class and then works on yesterday's crossword, interrupting her reading to ask about nearly every clue.
In the end, she has to call Sloan again to say that she's staying another night.
On Tuesday, they eat breakfast quickly, and then ruin their plan to get on the road early by taking a joint shower. MacKenzie is fifteen minutes late to her first class.
At lunch, she and Sloan find the quietest possible corner of the dining hall. It's the first time MacKenzie has eaten there since before Namibia, and for a moment, everything looks strange, as if she has been away for years.
"Start from the moment you left campus," Sloan says, and MacKenzie does. Sloan listens while steadily working her way through her food, until MacKenzie gets to the three guys outside the American embassy, at which point Sloan seems to forget that she's eating and doesn't remember again until MacKenzie catches her up to her late arrival that morning in Eastern European WWII history lecture.
Sloan sits back in her chair. "I'm processing," she says.
"Sure," says MacKenzie, and attacks her food, which has gone cold.
"Right," says Sloan a few minutes later. "A few points."
"One. You almost died."
"Just making sure."
"Okay, then. Two: you speak French? How do I not know this about you?"
"Also, Italian and some Russian," says MacKenzie.
"How much Russian?"
MacKenzie shrugs. "Where's the bathroom?, Three shots of vodka, please, Your government is corrupt. That sort of thing."
Sloan nods. "Three: is Will okay?"
"I think so. I let him drive us in today and it was fine."
"Four: how was it?"
MacKenzie closes her eyes. "So, so good."
Sloan sips her water and assumes an attentive posture. "Tell me more," she says.
On Thursday, Will gets to class early and sits with his cup of coffee, staring at the table. He hasn't seen MacKenzie since Tuesday morning, though she's texted – I'm bored. This professor is not as good a lecturer as you, and This kid in my class is trying to make the argument that re-interpretations of the law by the Supreme Court don't apply to people who have been indicted but not yet tried. Help me prove him wrong, and What are you doing right now?, and Did you know that echidnas are the only animal that can burrow straight downward?
I did not, Will had texted back. Thank you.
I do what I can, she wrote.
He looks up when he hears the door open, and MacKenzie walks in, followed by a tall man with gray hair. They have the same nose, the same eyebrows, the same sharp expression and energy of motion, and Will is pushing back his chair and standing before he really processes it.
"Professor, this is my father," says MacKenzie, smiling at them each in turn. "Dad, Professor Will McAvoy."
Will offers his hand, and McHale shakes it firmly. "Ambassador, a pleasure," he says.
"All mine," says McHale.
"I'd like to thank you for –"
"No need," says the Ambassador, who seems to have inherited the British love of efficiency far more than the British love of drawn-out courtesy. "I think I should be thanking you." He lays an arm around MacKenzie's shoulder and squeezes gently; MacKenzie smiles up at him, pleased, and Will hopes she looks at him with even half as much fondness. "I was going to take MacKenzie to lunch after your class. Would you like to join us?"
"If that's okay with Ms. McHale," Will says, although it feels as though a flock of migrating monarch butterflies have been re-routed to his stomach, and MacKenzie blushes and nods.
"Excellent," says the ambassador, and kisses his daughter's cheek. "See you soon, sweetheart."
"Bye, Daddy," she says, and the ambassador passes by Tess and Gary on his way out the door.
Will starts the lesson by asking, tentatively, "How's everyone doing?"
"Good." "Yeah." "Fine," he gets, though Tess looks like she hasn't slept well, and, surprisingly, neither does Reese.
He's nervous enough about lunch that he loses the thread of his lecture a few times, and has to ask Gary to repeat his entire argument once. McHale didn't seem angry, but he's British and professional, and he has every right to be angry. Will almost killed his daughter.
It's after he thinks that that he has to ask Gary to repeat himself.
They go for seafood, and Will tries to apologize or to thank McHale four more times before their drinks come. The ambassador's phone rings as the waitress is setting three beers on the table – porter for McHale, lager for Will, and wheat ale for MacKenzie – and he hands it to MacKenzie. "It's your mother."
She stands to take the call outside, and Will has just taken a sip of his beer when McHale says, "McAvoy. Are you sleeping with my daughter?"
Will chokes, but McHale waits patiently until he has managed to swallow and cough. "I –" Will rasps, his throat feeling scoured. "Yes." He forces his gaze off the table and onto the ambassador's face.
McHale is silent for a moment, then says, "Well?"
Will is confused. "Well, what?"
"You've been apologizing every other minute for taking her on a class trip. Aren't you going to apologize for this?"
Will shakes his head. "No, sir."
"I'm not sorry," Will says. "Well." It isn't strictly true, because he is, he's so sorry. "I am, for a lot of things about it, but not in any way that has to do with you." It's honest, at least, and he isn't sure that honesty is the best policy, but he has nothing better. There are no excuses for this.
McHale looks at him for a long, long moment, and then nods at Will's beer. "Drink up, McAvoy," he says, and Will thinks that the ambassador probably knows how difficult it is to deny his daughter anything she asks for.
When MacKenzie returns, Will takes her hand, and she smiles before looking at her father in panic. When he says nothing, she grins enormously and pulls her chair as close to Will's as she can. Will kisses her knuckles and reads his menu. The corners of his mouth will not go down.
Will grades MacKenzie's final project at the breakfast bar while she writes a paper for Practical Ethics on his couch.
"This class is so much bullshit," she says. "I'm writing nonsense."
"And now you know never to take a philosophy class again," says Will. "Did you really get the Namibian Deputy Minister of Regional and Local Government, Housing, and Rural Development to say that rural villages don't offer enough state economic benefits to warrant the expense of the proposed aid initiative?"
"Oh, I called her after we got back. I think she was a little overwhelmed when all six of us were there at once."
Will gives her an A before he's finished reading. Then he reconsiders.
"Maybe I should give you a B+ so that no one accuses me of favouritism," he muses.
She's on her feet in an instant, her binder and pencil spilling onto the floor, and he hides his smile behind his coffee mug. "Don't you dare."
"A- then?" he asks, and when she climbs over the couch to hammer at his arm with her fists, he laughs and grabs her hands and carries her to bed.