What We Believe In
Author's Note: This is more of a sequel than a next chapter, but it references the first part heavily enough that I decided to post it as the latter. It ended up being about three times longer than I expected and took me forever to write; it's also rambly and, in parts, shamelessly fluffy. But I thoroughly enjoyed writing it, so I figured I'd post it anyway and ask for your forgiveness.
As a side note, all of the information about the story MacKenzie is writing is, as far as I know, accurate, although some of it may be a little out of date. The places are real, the programs exist, the sources are valid, and the information is true.
Finally, thank you to everyone who reviewed the first part. The response was overwhelming. I can't seem to leave this universe alone, and I want sincerely to thank everyone who read and enjoyed it even a little.
Seems to me, we are what we believe in.
"You requested me as your thesis advisor?"
"Well, yeah," MacKenzie says. The sound of a door closing comes over the phone line, and he pictures her settling herself on her bed across the city, in her parents' Upper East Side apartment. He wonders what her room looks like, whether there are posters of boy bands on her walls left over from her pre-teen days, or if she puts framed pictures of her friends on her desk, or if the walls are lined with clippings of newspaper articles and photos of her shaking hands with heads of state. "Of course I did."
Will files away the email from his department chair and rubs one eyebrow with a knuckle. "Don't you think that might make people… I don't know, more suspicious?"
"Honest answer, Will. If anything, it will give us an excuse to spend more time together without it being remarked upon."
"I guess." He isn't convinced, but he wants to advise her, even on a purely academic level. He wants to see what she can do, and he wants to be a part of it.
If he also realizes that there's a hot, turbulent feeling in his gut at the thought of anyone else advising her, he tries not to acknowledge it.
"Are you doing okay, Billy?" MacKenzie asks. "Are you getting out? I don't like the thought of you cooped up in your apartment, writing all day by yourself."
"It's air-conditioned in my apartment." He holds up a hand when he senses she's about to object, even though she can't see him. "But yes, I'm getting out."
"Picking up a sandwich from the deli down the street doesn't count."
Will looks out his window and sighs. It's evening, the heat beginning to ease and the streets turning blue and gray, the tops of the buildings a burnished bronze, blinding with late-day sun. People are walking to dinner, eating outside at cramped sidewalk tables or rooftop patios, laughing, scooping hummus and chewing olives. He thinks of the short story MacKenzie read to him before the end of the semester: The Polish neighborhoods have that snow. They have that fruit with the light on it, they have that music you can't find. They had been sitting on the futon in her dorm room, her feet in his lap. He misses her, suddenly, her physical presence, the fact of her skin and the truth of her delicate bones. "I'm fine, Mac," he says.
"I just worry."
"Why don't you come to dinner tomorrow? Dad would love it."
"What about your mother?"
He can't actually hear her shrug, but he's so sure she does that it doesn't matter. "She won't think it's weird."
"Maybe you should tell her we're…" Damn. Dating isn't right, because they don't really go on dates. Seeing each other sounds too casual. "Together?"
MacKenzie hesitates. "I could," she says slowly, and then pauses again, this time for longer. "Would you like me to?"
Will puffs up his cheeks and breathes out slowly. This was not the conversation he'd intended to have. "I –" he says, nervous as he hasn't been for months with her. "If you want." It's a cop-out answer, and he's ashamed of it as soon as the words are out of his mouth. He's the adult here. Jesus, he thinks, that's so true. "Yeah. I think I would like that."
He can hear the smile in her voice. "Okay."
"Maybe ask your dad what he thinks, first?" Will is a little terrified of MacKenzie's mother, in an entirely different way than he's terrified of her father. He understands the ambassador pretty well, but Mrs. McHale is an unknown. Mothers and daughters. He presses his palms against the granite of his breakfast bar and watches three birds swoop above the building across the street, weaving in and out against the heavy clouds in the east.
MacKenzie laughs a little. "Will do. Dinner tomorrow?"
Will clears his throat. "Yeah. Text me."
"Sure." Her voice softens a little. "Bye, Will."
"Bye, MacKenzie," he says, and keeps the phone against his ear even after she's hung up.
Will spends at least twenty minutes deciding what to wear – jeans or chinos, t-shirt or polo? If an Oxford shirt, should he go with a regular spread collar or the more casual button-down variety? He catches himself holding a brown belt in one hand and a black belt in the other.
"This is ridiculous," he tells his reflection. His reflection says nothing, but he thinks it agrees.
In the end, he throws on a pair of khakis and a polo shirt, and at the last minute grabs a sport coat to put over it. He leaves his bed invisible under several layers of discarded clothes, and only once he's in the cab does he realize that he's wearing one navy sock and one black.
The doorman nods at him and the front desk waves him up, so they must have been told to expect him. Will tries not to fidget in the elevator and smooths down his hair over and over.
Ambassador McHale greets him at the door, but MacKenzie is just behind, sliding around the corner on socked feet, grinning at him. Will can't help but grin back.
"Ambassador," he says, holding out his hand.
McHale gives it a firm shake. "Call me John," he says.
"Yes, sir," says Will, and McHale works his jaw in order to hide a smile.
"Elizabeth is almost finished in the kitchen," he says. "MacKenzie, do you want to show Mr. McAvoy around?" MacKenzie nods delightedly. "In the meantime, McAvoy, can I get you a drink? Cabernet?"
"Sounds great," says Will, and nods at him before following MacKenzie down the hall to her bedroom.
She shuts the door behind them. "Hi," she says, and pushes him up against it.
"I don't think –" Will starts, but he doesn't get much farther because she's kissing him, her entire body flush to his, and he's only just able to control the longing moan that's building in his throat.
MacKenzie takes her lips from his and nuzzles into his neck. "Missed you," she says against his skin.
He wraps his arms around her and kisses the top of her head. "I missed you too." He lets them stay there for another moment and then reluctantly pushes her off of him. "Come on. I don't want your dad to walk in on us."
She giggles and opens the door as he looks around the room. It's a little messy, although not as bad as the inside of her backpack. He wonders if she cleaned up a bit for him. The bed is hastily made, a green fleece blanket thrown haphazardly over the end of the white duvet. Soccer trophies and debating medals top the crowded bookcases; she's run out of space on the shelves, so some books lie horizontally atop the shelved ones, and there's a pile on the edge of her desk and another beside the bed. An enormous map takes up one wall, and there are framed newspaper articles and photos of MacKenzie with her parents on the others, but her closet door is slightly ajar, and Will can see that the inside of it is covered with a Backstreet Boys poster. He hides a smile.
"We might as well go back out, then," says MacKenzie. He puts a hand to the small of her back as they go and she makes a contented sound.
Dinner is an unsurprisingly elegant affair, served on Limoges plates, with engraved silver and a crystal decanter that McHale says was a gift from the former president of Switzerland. Will has cause to be grateful for the ambassador nearly a dozen times before the end of the meal; as blunt as he is, he's also a keen navigator of social situations, and he keeps Will engaged and talking despite the reservedness of his wife, who looks at Will with a very obvious air of not having made up her mind about something. It's better than he hoped for, at least.
"MacKenzie says you're working on a book?" says McHale, as Will is leaning back in his chair with a satisfied sigh.
"Similar to your first?"
Will shakes his head. "No, sir. Much less serious. Just a collection of anecdotes and experiences. After spending long enough as a journalist, you start to amass some strange stories. I realized that I enjoyed telling them to my classes, and they seemed to enjoy hearing them. Although," he adds, taking a sip of wine. It's a really excellent cabernet. "Maybe that was just politeness."
"Well, I'm looking forward to it," MacKenzie says. She turns to her father. "Will won't let me read it."
"It's pretty terrible right now," says Will.
"I'm absolutely positive that's not true," says MacKenzie, and they grin a little ridiculously at each other for a moment.
Will drops his gaze and aligns the fork and knife on his plate. "Maybe once I've revised it and it's less embarrassing." He looks up at her again, his voice quieter. "I wouldn't want you to think less of me."
She's opening her mouth to respond, with a soft, surprised look in her eyes, when her mother stands and begins gathering up plates. "MacKenzie," she says.
"Um, sure," says MacKenzie, and starts picking up serving dishes without looking at Will again.
Will pushes back his chair and half-stands. "Can I help?"
"No," say the ambassador and Mrs. McHale simultaneously, in very different tones, and Will sits back down. As the women go through the connecting door into the kitchen, McHale slaps Will on the back and refills his wine glass.
"You're doing fine," he says quietly, and Will breathes out heavily. McHale lets him take a few sips, examining him over the rim his own glass. "MacKenzie said you're going to be her thesis advisor?"
Will twists his neck back and forth to loosen it, uncomfortable. "She convinced me, yes."
McHale smiles understandingly and they share a look. Will is so glad that this man has, for whatever reason, decided to be on his side.
MacKenzie comes back in to finish clearing the table, and her face is flushed, her jaw quivering but jutting out stubbornly. Her movements are jerky, the plates she stacks clattering together, and Will stops her by gently wrapping a hand around her wrist. "MacKenzie?" he asks, and she shakes her head and pulls her wrist away, refusing to meet his eyes.
"It's fine," she says, and leaves again. Will stares hard at the way his fingers are curled around the stem of his wineglass, trying not to notice McHale's eyes on him.
It's barely thirty seconds before there's a ringing crash from the kitchen, and Will is out of his chair before he's had time to process the fact that he even put down his wineglass, McHale right behind him. MacKenzie is standing in the kitchen, shell-shocked and sheepish, one arm still upraised, amid an impressive scattering of broken glass. When she sees the men burst in, she seems to collect herself a little and holds up a hand to placate them.
"I knocked over the salad bowl. It's fine."
"Are you okay?" asks Will, and she nods.
"Yeah, of course. I'll go get the broom."
She lifts her foot to take a step and Will cries, "No!" She stops, one socked foot raised, swaying precariously, looking at him with equal parts curiosity and irritation. "You'll hurt yourself." He considers the remains of the salad bowl. It has shattered spectacularly; he can see a big chunk of glass glinting all the way across the room. His steps crunch beneath his shoes as he walks towards her, wrapping his arms around her and lifting her safely back over the threshold. "Show me where the broom is," he says, "and I'll do it. You and your father can sit."
He re-enters the kitchen, broom in hand. Mrs. McHale is washing the silver. He clears his throat. "Thank you for dinner, ma'am," he says, awkwardly. He wants to thank her for MacKenzie, for beautiful, smart, capable, enchanting MacKenzie, but he doesn't really know how. Instead, he starts sweeping.
After a minute, she turns to him and with no preamble asks, "What are your intentions towards my daughter?"
Will accidentally sends a hunk of glass skittering across the tiles. He straightens slowly. How is he supposed to answer that question? "I –" he starts, and then looks her in the eye. "Entirely honourable." He raises a hand and makes some sort of waving motion. He's not really sure what it's supposed to be. "I know that may be difficult to believe. Because of our… positions. Trust me, I wish that our situation were different, that I were good enough to –" deserve her, he means, but the problem is that if he were a good man, he would never have accepted her lunch invitation that first day, never have brought her to dinner, never have kissed her in the snow, never have seen her again. If he were a good man, he wouldn't have MacKenzie, and so as long as he has her, he'll never deserve her.
Maybe some of this is visible on his face, because Mrs. McHale's expression softens a little, though her lips are still pursed. "John thinks well of you," she says.
"I'm honoured by his regard," says Will, and means it.
She stares at him for another long minute, then tilts her head to indicate the glass-strewn floor. "Well, go on then," she says, and he sweeps.
MacKenzie insists upon walking him out. They had another bottle of wine with dessert, so he wraps an arm around her shoulders to steady her as they leave the elevator and work their way across the lobby.
"We should talk about your thesis," says Will. "You know, for real."
"Sure. Maybe I can come over soon?"
She's resting her head against his shoulder, leaning heavily enough against him that walking straight requires some attention. He smiles. "Whenever you want." They pause at the door and she disentangles herself from him, one hand resting on his chest.
"Billy," she says, and her voice is so serious that he stops smiling.
She moves the hand on his chest to cup his face, looking at him. "I could never think less of you. You know that, right? Nothing you could ever do would change my opinion of you."
Will opens his mouth to say, I doubt that, but closes it because, seeing her look at him so earnestly, so openly, he's not so sure that he does. God help me if I ever hurt her, he thinks.
"Say you understand," she says.
"I do." His voice is rough, and she reaches up on her tiptoes to kiss him lightly, her lips soft on his mouth.
"Okay. Goodnight, Will."
In response, he grasps her hand and squeezes it, tangling their fingers together for a moment. "Goodnight," he says, and he watches her as she squeezes his hand in return, then walks back across the lobby and gets into the elevator. As the doors close, she turns and gives him a little smile, and he waits until he can no longer see her before he walks out into the street to find a cab, and home.
She comes over on Friday night, straight from her internship, dumping her bag on his counter and heading directly to the bedroom to change. "I hate pantyhose," he hears her say.
"Did you get to do anything interesting today?"
"I made copies. Is making copies interesting? I also had to go back to the deli, twice, because first there were no pickles with Troy's pastrami on rye, and then – I kid you not – the mustard wasn't spicy enough."
Will wrinkles his brow in confusion. "What was the deli going to do about the insufficient spiciness of the mustard?"
Mac leans backwards to poke her head out the door and roll her eyes. "That's exactly what I said."
"What did they do?"
"They put more mustard on. God, Will, does it matter even a little bit?"
Will smiles and gets off the couch to mix her a mojito. She loves mojitos, and they're pretty good at letting her relax a little. "No. Why are you interning at a publishing company, again?"
She reemerges from the bedroom, hair loose around her shoulders, wearing one of his t-shirts and, he assumes, a pair of shorts. The shirt comes down to her knees, so it's tough to tell. "A terrible lapse in judgment," she says. "And because the New York Times didn't take me."
Will puts down the bottle of soda water and crosses the room to kiss her, tangling his fingers in the hair at the base of her skull so that when he pulls away, it's thick and wild. "Their loss," he says softly, and then quirks a smile at her. "Any dinner requests?"
They eat at the breakfast bar, as usual, legs tangled together as they work their way through veggie lasagna. Will isn't sure why he has a dining room table, at this point.
"Your thesis," he says, eventually. "What were you thinking?"
"Well," says MacKenzie, reaching past him to spear some lasagna straight off the serving plate. "I was originally thinking that I'd apply for funding to spend this summer abroad. You know, do some research or whatever. But clearly," she looks at him sidelong, "I decided not to do that."
Will does some quick math. She would have had to made that decision by January, February at the latest. Before her birthday, before Namibia. He smirks. "Confident, were you?"
She shrugs. "I also thought that I could maybe expand whatever story I did on Namibia. But now…" She frowns. "Did you know that transitional federal prisoners awaiting trial or sentencing are kept for years in maximum security county jails? Because building federal prisons is expensive, so the Bureau of Prisons would rather pay these really awful places to house them cheaply."
Will frowns. "There's been a lot written about the prison system in America," he says.
"But mostly about private prisons – which are bad enough, don't get me wrong." She takes another bite and chews thoughtfully. "These dinky, local jails were built to house violent criminals, but they're more than half-full with federal prisoners, white-collar high-rollers who will end up being sentenced to three years for tax fraud. It's just good business to draw federal funding, so the jails do their best to cut costs and make their per diem rate attractive for the BOP. We're talking local county jails with annual revenues of over ten million dollars. Plus, the prisoners count as part of the population, even though they can't vote, so that's more state funding for whatever municipality they're in, right there."
Will's frown deepens. It's a good story. A great story, actually. "Who oversees the program and the federal contracts? The Marshals Service?"
MacKenzie raises her eyebrows. "It's unclear."
Will whistles. "Good job, MacKenzie," he says. "You've done your homework."
She grins. "Does that mean I get the weekend off?"
"I think something could be arranged," says Will, and he draws her into his lap.
She sees him nearly every weekend after that. She tries not to think about how comfortable she is, lying late in his bed on Sunday mornings, sipping coffee dreamily in the sun as he works. Not because it scares her that she never wants to leave, but because she knows she'll have to soon. At the start of the semester, they'll have to forget what it's like to wake up together; she'll need to remember what it's like to pretend to be interested in twenty-year-old boys at parties and he'll have to learn to hide the way he looks at her when he walks into a any room that has her in it. These few months feel like a summer carved just for them, as if the millions of people in Manhattan fade to nothing under the blue sky. Will takes her for dinner, to Broadway shows, down to Battery Park to have a picnic and watch the boats break over the waves. MacKenzie knows it can't last.
Still, the autumn surprises them, intruding into Will's apartment at the end of August, turning the evening light a ruddy bronze. On a Friday, the night before she leaves, MacKenzie finishes her internship with as much grace as she can muster and packs her suitcases. After, she calls him from her bedroom.
"You ready?" he asks.
"No," she says, and he says nothing for awhile. She wants to tell him she loves him, because she thinks it's true, but she doesn't want to say it over the phone. Instead, she pictures his face, tired and a little worn because it's past midnight, eyes gleaming in the light of his bedside lamp. She wants badly to run her fingers over the soft fabric of his t-shirt and feel his heat beneath, and clenches her fingers into her duvet instead.
"I can meet you on campus tomorrow," Will says. "Help you unpack. Just… see you." It's been nearly a week, and she misses him.
"You shouldn't," she whispers. There will be people around, thousands of students.
He sighs. "I know."
"My father's driving me, anyway, so I'm sure I'll be completely settled in by lunch."
Will snorts. "It will take you until lunchtime just to bring in all your shoes."
"I miss you," she says, and hears him smile.
"I'll be there next week. You'll see me soon."
"Yeah, I know." She's not sure why she feels so sad about this. Logically, it's ridiculous: she'll actually see him more once school starts, maybe even every day. And he'd started staying at the hotel near the university much more often by the end of last semester so that he'd be close; if he keeps doing that, she might even get to sleep next to him sometimes. It had just been nice, living like real people, without worrying about anyone finding out.
"Hey," Will says, gently. She makes a little noise to acknowledge him. "I miss you too."
She smiles, and says goodnight.
She is notcompletely settled by noon, but everything is out of the car and her father goes to pick up sandwiches while she puts her clothes away and shelves her books. The door is propped open with a box full of plastic silverware and ramen left over from last year, which is why Sloan is able to walk in while MacKenzie is arranging shoes under her bed and cuff her hard on the back of the head.
"Hey!" says MacKenzie, straightening up quickly and smacking her skull on the bed frame. "Ow."
"That was for being the worst texter-backer ever this summer."
"I don't think that's a –"
"I don't care if it's a word," says Sloan, crossing her arms. "You suck."
MacKenzie rubs the back of her head gingerly, wincing. "I know. I'm sorry."
Sloan sighs. "It was because of Will, wasn't it? I'm going to kill him –"
"Please don't," MacKenzie says, but Sloan doesn't seem to notice.
"– well, not kill him, because I actually kind of like him, but give him a dressing-down, anyway. Except for not literally – that's more your department, I guess –"
"Sloan," says MacKenzie, horrified, and runs to close the door.
"Keep your voice down!" MacKenzie whispers.
"Why? No one could know who we're talking about."
MacKenzie considers. "That's true, I guess."
"Anyway, I'm going to have to have a chat with William." She slides her phone out of her pocket. "What's his number?"
MacKenzie stares. "What?"
"His phone number. Will's cell phone. Come on, Kenzie, this isn't that hard."
MacKenzie snags her phone from the desk and reads out Will's cell number, which is saved under just "Will" despite her almost obsessive insistence that all of her contacts be properly tagged with first and last names. Will makes fun of her for being so organized electronically while her backpack provides the perfect environment for growing laboratory-grade bacterial cultures. He had actually run her bag through the washing machine last week, claiming that he was afraid carrying it around all semester would give her a previously-undiscovered disease.
"Cool, thanks," says Sloan. "Gotta go – I left my dresses in my suitcase and I don't want to pay for dry cleaning to un-wrinkle them." She's out the door before MacKenzie can respond.
Her father leaves after dinner, and MacKenzie spends the rest of the evening sticking pictures to the wall and unpacking the thousand random things she's accumulated in the last three years: a pig-shaped stress ball named Wilbur, eight types of tea and four chipped mugs (only two of which are stolen from the dining hall), a snow globe her father had brought her from Austria last winter, a wooden tulip she'd bought in Amsterdam. Towels on hooks, clothes in the wardrobe, mirror hung, bed made – at two a.m., she decides she's earned an ice cream sandwich from the all-night convenience store. The air coming through her open window is pleasant, but damp, and she's worn out enough that she feels a little shivery, so she throws on a flannel shirt that she thinks probably belongs to Will and lets herself out of the building.
She picks up some snacks for her room while she's at it, so she's juggling a loaf of bread and some peanut butter and Nutella and Oreos and some more ramen (because you really can't ever have enough, and Sloan eats three packages in a night whenever they're writing papers) when someone bumps into her and she drops at least half of it.
"Hey!" she says, and turns around to see Reese, who ducks his head and looks embarrassed.
"Sorry," he mutters, and kneels to help her pick up the peanut butter jar, which has rolled across the aisle.
"Hey, Lansing!" There are a few scruffy guys near the door, holding several 2-litre soda bottles and looking pretty drunk. One of them is yelling. "Hurry the fuck up." When Reese continues to help MacKenzie collect her fallen groceries, the loud guy rolls his eyes and walks over. "Stop flirting. She's not worth it anyway." He kicks a pack of ramen, and it goes skittering down the aisle and bounces off a display of Nutri-Grain bars, shaking a few boxes to the floor. "Let's go, before they finish all the vodka."
"If it's Popov, it doesn't count as vodka," MacKenzie says, straightening up, her face red. It's almost certainly what they have at whatever party he's going back to, since it's about three dollars per handle and the only thing anyone ever buys. "I didn't realize that grad students had such shitty taste in alcohol." The drunk guy makes a move towards her, and he's sloppy enough to be threatening, so she backs up a step into the aisle shelving and some cereal boxes tumble to the ground.
Reese puts a hand on the guy's chest and says, "I'm coming. Let's go." The loud guy flips MacKenzie off – unnecessarily, she thinks, because it's just fact that Popov is disgusting. It's not like she insulted him or anything. She watches them leave. Just outside the door, Reese stops and points back over his shoulder at the store with his thumb, then waves the rest of them onward and comes back inside. MacKenzie starts picking up the cereal boxes.
"Sorry," says Reese. "That guy's just an asshole." He fetches the ramen package and stacks the fallen Nutri-Grain boxes back on the display.
"Yeah," says MacKenzie, standing, awkward, with her arms full of college-student groceries. She wonders what excuse he made to his buddies.
"How've you been?" Reese asks.
"Good, yeah," says MacKenzie.
"It was. You?"
Reese shrugs and puts his hands in his pockets. "Sure. Just working on my diss. You know." He stares at his feet for a moment, then takes a deep breath and looks back up at her. "Look, I know I was kind of a dick to you in the spring, and I'm sorry. I'd like to make it up to you. Would you – would you like to go out to dinner sometime? Or lunch, we could do lunch."
"Oh," says MacKenzie. She's pretty thrown. "Actually, um, I'm sort of… with someone at the moment." Reese looks horrified and humiliated and makes as if to apologize and escape as soon as possible, so she puts a hand on his arm. "But I appreciate the offer. Really. And I don't think you're quite as much of a dick as I think you think you are."
He half-smiles at that. "I didn't follow that."
She releases his arm. "I think you did." He gives another half-grin, and she notices that he looks tired, and a lot less sure of himself than he did last spring. "Hey, Reese," she starts, hesitant. It's not like they're friends or anything. "Are you okay?"
He had been looking away towards the hot food bar, where a group of completely wasted sophomore girls are trying to figure out how to request mac and cheese on the automatic ordering machines, which seems to involve a lot of shrieking and laughing and oh my gods, but his head snaps back towards her at that. "Of course," he says. He looks even worse now, pale, his eyes dark in his papery face, and she stares at him for a minute without saying anything. Finally, he says, as if his lips are numb, "You weren't there."
"You weren't there," he repeats. One of the sophomore girls trips over her own heels and falls, laughing hysterically. "It was when Professor McAvoy went to get you, and the rest of us walked to the embassy. I was last, and the rest of them had just walked past an alley when I looked into it and the guy standing right there in the alley entrance got shot in the head." He swallows and looks away, squeezing his eyes shut and then opening them to blink rapidly, several times, looking up at the fluorescent lights of the convenience store. There's a beeping sound as the cashier scans someone's items. "Maybe five feet away from me. It was like his head exploded." MacKenzie winces, and Reese grimaces. "Sorry."
"Did you tell them? The others?" Reese shakes his head. "Have you told anyone?"
"I'm telling you."
"Jesus, Reese," says MacKenzie.
He shrugs. "There's not that many people I can talk to about it, you know?"
"You could talk to Will – to Professor McAvoy. You should."
He sends her a sharp look when she says Will, and she curses herself, curses the fact that it's 2 a.m. and she's tired and this guy five or six years older than she is and probably infinitely smarter has just made her give herself away so obviously. But he doesn't push it. "Maybe," he says.
"You should," MacKenzie says again.
"Yeah, okay," he says. "Thanks." He turns as if to go, and she's struck by a thought.
"Do you want to come over?" she asks, and holds up the package of Oreos in her left hand. "I have cookies now."
"Nah, I should get back." He nods his head towards the door in a vague way. "They'll be wondering where I am."
"Sure," says MacKenzie. "See you," and she can't help feeling sad for him as he leaves.
On her walk back to her dorm, she texts Will, I just had a very strange interaction with Reese.
He texts her back almost immediately. Strange how?
He was nice to me. Then he asked me out. Then… I don't think he's doing very well. She sends the text and then adds, Why aren't you asleep?
As she's unlocking her door, he calls her. "I was just reading," he says.
"It's two-thirty in the morning."
"Yeah, well. He asked you out?"
"That's what you focus on? I told him I was with someone."
"Well, yeah," says Will, though he sounds a little relieved. "What do you mean, he's not doing well?" She tells him what Reese said, and can hear him suck in a breath. "Shit. I should have – I should have talked to everyone, individually, I should have –"
"Stop," she says. Are they back to this, really? "How many times do I have to tell you it wasn't your fault?"
He's silent for a moment. "At least a few more," he says, quietly.
MacKenzie puts down the grocery bag on her futon. "Well, at least that was honest," she says, and closes her eyes. She doesn't know what to do for him, sometimes. It hurts.
"Sorry," he whispers.
"Don't be." She twists the plastic handles of her grocery bag in two fingers and listens to the little noises that come over the phone line.
"Maybe he'll email me," Will offers.
"Yeah," she agrees. "Maybe."
She sleeps until ten the following day and is awoken by Sloan knocking on her door. Stumbling across the room, she trips on the last still-packed box and stubs her toe, so she doesn't look up as Sloan comes in, just shuffles back to bed and pulls the covers over her head. Sloan lies down beside her, on top of the blankets.
"What do you want to do?" she asks.
"Sleep," mumbles MacKenzie.
"I brought you tea," says Sloan, and MacKenzie thrusts a hand into the open air and makes a gimme gesture until Sloan hands over the paper cup. MacKenzie pulls it under the covers and awkwardly takes a sip. She takes three more before she feels ready to poke her head out.
"Ugh," she says. "I hate mornings."
"Oh yeah? Maybe they hate you."
MacKenzie glares through sleep-blurry eyes. "They do."
"Yes, well, I already got up and went to the gym and showered and called Will and finished unpacking and got you tea and –"
"You do look unfairly peppy. And you smell good. What shampoo have you been using? Wait." MacKenzie furrows her brow, replaying what Sloan just said. "You called Will?"
Sloan takes a sip from her own paper cup. "Yes."
MacKenzie bolts into a sitting position, the tea in her cup sloshing around. "What did you say to him?"
Sloan shrugs. "Not much. He was very polite, considering I called at seven this morning."
"Sloan. He didn't go to sleep until three!"
"He could have gone back to bed. We didn't talk long."
"What did you talk about?"
"Well, I assume so."
"Hey, don't be like that. We could have discussed the economy. I bet he knows about the economy. Or he could have listened while I talked about the economy…"
MacKenzie holds up a hand. "Can you tell me what you talked about without making me feel like I'm pulling particularly stubborn teeth?"
"Nope, it's a sisterhood secret."
"Will is not a sister!"
Sloan shrugged. "I swore him into the sisterhood. So sue me." She smacks MacKenzie's shoulder. "Get up. You have to help me hang up my posters. I want to use a hammer and nails and everything because we're almost real people now. And because I'm sick of those poster-hanging adhesives falling off the wall halfway through the semester."
MacKenzie groans and flops back against the pillows.
Forty-five minutes later, she's standing on Sloan's desk chair and tilting a framed poster a little to the right.
"No, not that much," says Sloan, munching on the Oreos she took from MacKenzie's room.
MacKenzie makes the desired adjustment. "Give me one of those. I didn't eat breakfast."
Sloan hands her the package. "Well, whose fault is that?"
"Yours," says MacKenzie, digging out two cookies and handing it back. She takes a bite and chews, thinking. "Do you want to go into the city for lunch?"
"Kenzie, we literally just got back here. You want to leave already?" MacKenzie sends her a pleading look, and she sighs. "What does everyone else do during frosh week?"
"Well, yes, besides that."
"…Drink," says MacKenzie, not seeing Sloan's point. "I'd rather go to lunch and catch a Broadway matinee."
"That's going to cost about three hundred dollars. More. Plus train tickets."
"Yeah, because it's the thirty bucks for the train that kills you."
"That's ten percent," says Sloan, "which is non-trivial."
"I want to do something," MacKenzie says, frustrated. "And it's so nice out." It is – warm and sunny and cloudless without being stifling. The air is dry and pleasant.
"No," Sloan says, and she's suddenly serious. "Let's be perfectly honest for a minute. You want to see Will. That's fine, Kenzie, really, but you should be honest. At least with yourself."
MacKenzie stares at the remaining Oreo in her hand. She doesn't really want it. Her shoulders fall a little. "I am," she says. "I know it. It's just… being here, it's hard. Or it's going to be hard once he gets here, too." She sighs, trying to figure out what she means. "I don't know. I just feel so…" Lost, she means, but she isn't sure why.
Sloan takes the Oreo from her hand. MacKenzie realizes that she's been fiddling with it and there's a small pile of black crumbs on Sloan's floor. "Sorry."
"Whatever," says Sloan. "Listen. What do you want?"
Sloan rolls her eyes. "Yes. Thank you. I mean, what do you want with him."
MacKenzie draws back in confusion. "Sloan, are you trying to give me relationship advice? You know you shouldn't do that."
"Yeah, I know. I'm just clarifying. Answer the question."
What does she want? She wants the world to go away so that she can be with him, just the two of them. It's childish, she knows. And it's also not quite true, because she wants to travel with him – to Greece, maybe, because she's always wanted to see the ancient theatres, or to Italy because he's never been and she loves walking around Florence in the evening and she loves the way the paint peels from the buildings in Venice, or even on a road trip across the country, bickering in the car and stopping to take pictures of waterfalls and local diners. She wants to debate with him about the efficacy of the president's China strategy, and she wants to get a rambling house in New England with a library and an oversized fireplace and five feet of snow in the winter.
"I'm pretty sure I'm in love with him," she says.
Sloan tilts her head and doesn't respond for a moment. "That wasn't the question," she says, finally. "But I'll take it."
"How can you know for sure? If you love someone."
Sloan shrugs. "Don't ask me." She frowns, because MacKenzie is looking out the window, jaw quivering dangerously. "Aren't you happy about this? You're in love. Or you think you are."
"No, I'm happy." MacKenzie walks to the window and leans her forehead against it. Outside, kids are still moving in, carrying boxes and study pillows and beanbag chairs across the quad. Two guys are struggling to fit a sofa through one of the doorways of the building across the lawn. "It's just, I thought I'd graduate and get a job, maybe abroad, but anywhere I wanted, and I'd work long hours but it would be worth it, and then I'd be successful and get really good at what I do, you know? And eventually – eventually – I might meet someone and it would be great, because I'd be ready for it."
"And you're not ready for it now."
MacKenzie shakes her head. "I have my whole life ahead of me, and I want him to be a part of it, but I'm afraid that I'll… lose myself in the process. Or change my priorities in a way I don't like." She holds up a hand. "I know, it sounds selfish. Maybe I don't really love him, or I wouldn't be thinking like this."
Sloan sits on her bed. "That's ridiculous."
MacKenzie snorts and wipes at her eyes. "You're just saying that because you don't know what else to say." She's glad that she can call her out on this, that Sloan will know not to be offended. She adores Sloan.
"A little. But I mean it, too. Of course you're allowed to be scared about this. You're allowed to be scared about basically everything. We have to be real people in nine months."
"Yeah, this is what I'm saying." Sloan walks over and puts a hand on MacKenzie's shoulder. "I don't think it means that you don't love him. I think it means you're taking this seriously."
"Okay, then." They stand there for a minute. The boys with the couch put it down, and one wipes his brow. They're blocking the entryway, and a girl is forced to clamber over the couch to get out into the quad. Sloan snorts. "Idiots. They have to stand it on its end and turn it a little. Haven't they ever moved a couch before?"
MacKenzie looks at her. "Freshmen," they say together, and MacKenzie laughs.
Sloan walks back to the bed and tosses MacKenzie the abandoned Oreo. "Come on," she says. "Call Will and let's catch a train. I want lunch."
MacKenzie beams and pulls out her phone.
"How in the world did you get tickets to a Sunday matinee of The Lion King on such short notice?" MacKenzie blinks in the sudden brightness outside the theatre and tucks her arm through Will's.
He grins, looking down the street. "Magic," he says, and she slaps his arm.
"Seriously," he says. She rolls her eyes, but she almost believes him.
"Yeah, all right," she says, softly. The light is behind him, shining on his hair and the edges of his shoulders, and she's just happy.
Will clears his throat and offers his other arm to Sloan, who nods and takes it. They're now blocking the entire sidewalk, but MacKenzie can't bring herself to care. They come out onto 7th, traffic brushing past and the sidewalks choked with humanity, and when Will slows in indecision, MacKenzie pulls him north, towards Central Park.
They meander for the better part of an hour, past lawns thick with couples having picnics, past carriage horses stamping their steel shoes on the pavement, stopping to watch boys sail toy boats in the pond. She thinks, incongruously, of Namibia, of the terrifying path through backyards and watchful streets to reach the Botanic Gardens, of the isolated road through the trees, Will throwing himself into the ditch and the sound of gunfire not far enough away. Her hand tightens on Will's arm, and he moves his hand to rub small, soothing circles against her back and kisses the top of her head, even though there's no way for him to know what she's thinking about. She leans into him, and he wraps an arm around her shoulder. It's awkward to walk like that, but she doesn't want him to take his arm away, so she leans up against the fence around The Great Lawn and pretends interest in watching a game of frisbee between two guys, barefoot on the grass.
Will lets her, for awhile, turning to talk softly to Sloan. He's asking about her classes, MacKenzie realizes after a little bit, genuinely curious about what she's taking and with which professors. She lets their voices soothe her and looks back at the bright lawn, the late sunlight turning the edges of the grass gold. When her cell phone rings, it takes a moment before she even hears it, and she walks away a few steps before answering it so that Sloan can continue telling Will about the two 400-level economics courses she's taking.
MacKenzie pulls the phone away from her ear and looks at the display just to make sure before she says, "Brian?"
"Hi," she says, drawing it out a little. There's a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.
"I'm going to be in your neck of the woods."
"Is that so?" He's being very friendly for a guy who broke up with her the week before prom. She must have been the only one who hadn't been expecting it, because no one else looked twice when he showed up with Laura Collings and MacKenzie showed up alone.
"Yeah, I'll be in New York next Monday. That's nearby for you, right? Maybe we can hang out. You know. Catch up."
There's something in his voice that she doesn't like, and she's about to say no, but then she reconsiders. After all, she's doing well now: great life, great friends, great school, and – she looks over at Will – great boyfriend. He glances up and sees her, smiling back. Why shouldn't she meet Brian? If there's a part of her that wants to lord over him how successful she's been in the last three years, she tries to ignore it. "Sure," she says. "When and where?"
When she returns to the fence, Will slings his arm around her again. "Who was on the phone?"
"An ex-boyfriend. He's going to be in New York next week, so we're meeting for lunch."
Sloan leans around Will. "Brian?"
"Yeah." Sloan's brow wrinkles, but she doesn't say anything.
"Who's Brian?" Will asks.
MacKenzie shrugs. "A guy from high school. We dated for awhile."
"How long of awhile?" Will sounds merely curious, which makes her even more defensive.
"Two years," she says. "Does it matter? Are you worried?" It's meaner than it should be, and when Will steps back a little in confusion, she hangs her head and grabs at his sleeve. "Wait. I'm – Sorry."
He leans back towards her and says, "That's okay," but he still looks confused. She can feel the weight of his gaze, and Sloan's, as if they are a physical thing. Photons pushing up against her. "Come on," Will says, after a second. "Let's get some dinner."
They get Peking duck, which MacKenzie loves. She loves the fact that they carve it at the table, loves the ceremony, the ritual of assembling pancake, hoisin, scallions, and duck, loves that it feels like an event of some kind of importance, loves the crunch and the delicate grease. Will, she knows, just loves watching her enjoy food so much, and his eyes flick between her face and his food for the whole meal.
By the time they finish dinner, Brian's phone call and MacKenzie's defensiveness are nearly forgotten, but as she and Will walk Sloan to Penn Station, Sloan tugs on MacKenzie's sleeve. "Can I talk to you?"
"Sure," MacKenzie says, and Will walks ahead.
MacKenzie feels her eyebrows draw together in bafflement. "Don't what?"
MacKenzie actually stops and stares at her before the jostle of people passing by shakes her into motion again. "It's just lunch. Did you think I'm going to run off and have an illicit affair?"
Sloan drops her voice and points at Will, who is tall enough that his blond head bobs above most of the crowd now separating them. "He loves you," she says, low and intense. "However confused you are about him at the moment. I already had to knock him around on the phone this morning. Do not make me do the same to you."
MacKenzie's mouth thins. "I can't believe you think I'd do something like that." She wants to hit Sloan across the face, or push her, or run away, away, down 7th Avenue to the tip of Manhattan and into the water. Instead, she glares, furious and cold and afraid.
"Well, hate me all you want, but you should remember that you've told me about Brian. You should remember that you spent most nights in the fall of your freshman year feeling miserable about him. And you should remember that he's a douchebag, Kenzie. He's just…"
MacKenzie nods sharply, still angry. "Yeah."
Sloan looks at her levelly for a long moment. "Okay, then."
When they catch up to Will outside of the train station, MacKenzie tucks her hand inside his. It's warm, and he squeezes her fingers as Sloan says, "See you tomorrow" and disappears.
MacKenzie lays her head against his shoulder. "Billy," she says, "take me home."
Later, she's curled up sleepily against him in bed, warm under the covers as he works on his laptop. His bedside lamp is on and her eyes are closed and the sound of his fingers hitting the keys is comforting, and it's late enough that she feels once again like the world outside their room doesn't exist. She's tired, but content to not sleep quite yet, to just lie here next to Will in their little cocoon of light.
Yawning, she murmurs, "What did Sloan say to you on the phone this morning?"
The clacking of the keyboard pauses. "I think she swore me to secrecy." MacKenzie groans and burrows her face into his side. She can feel his chuckle more than she can hear it, deep and rich. "She just said that I was allowed to date you as long as I don't steal you away from her." Will pauses again. "But she's right." He twists to face her, and she reluctantly opens an eye to look at him. "I don't want to isolate you. You should hang out with your friends and do things on campus and enjoy college. I –"
She puts a hand on his chest to stop him. "I have enjoyed college. Right now, I'm enjoying you." She smiles at him, but his return smile is still concerned. "Don't worry. Once the semester starts, I'll be back in the thick of things. I'm just not quite ready to let you go just yet." Stretching, she yawns again and settles back against him. "I love Sloan," she slurs. She's just about done for the night.
"I like her too," says Will, then hesitates. "She also said… she also said she thinks I'm good for you."
"I think it's you who's good for me," Will says, softly.
"Maybe that, too," MacKenzie says, closing her eyes. Will rests his hand, warm and heavy, against her back, and it's so soothing, so safe, that she can't help but whisper, "I guess that's what love is like."
She's tired but she's not an idiot, so she tenses and squeezes her eyes shut in panic, but he just leans over to kiss her hair, and pulls her a little closer. "I love you too," he says. "Sleep well," and he shuts off the light.
As Will is buttoning his shirt in the morning, MacKenzie slips her arms around his waist and he hums contentedly.
"I should get going," she says. "I'll walk to the train station."
He glances out the window and shakes his head. "Take a cab. Looks like it's going to rain. My wallet's on the dresser."
She laughs, and he feels it through his back. "Don't be ridiculous. I've got it covered." When she starts to pull away, he presses her hand against his stomach to stop her.
"We should have an official meeting about your thesis soon," he says. "Tomorrow? I have to come in for a department meeting at nine anyway. Should be done by eleven." He turns awkwardly to look at her, and she kisses him.
"Sure," she says. "Sounds good."
The department meeting actually wraps up at twenty to eleven, so Will runs to the nearby café to pick up two coffees and one of the scones MacKenzie likes. She's waiting outside his office when he gets back, and he hands her a coffee cup and the pastry's brown paper bag so he can unlock the door.
"I love these scones," he hears her say as they walk in, voice already thick as she chews.
"I know." His desk is clean after a summer of disuse, and his office is stuffy. It feels like someone else's space. As MacKenzie munches and settles into a chair, he pulls his laptop out of his bag and skims through his email, grunting when he gets to one a third of the way down the page.
"Reese," he says, reading.
"Really?" MacKenzie raises her eyebrows. "That's surprising."
"Yeah, it is." He glances up at her regretfully. "Do you mind if I set up a meeting with him for noon? I was hoping to get lunch with you, but I think –"
"Yeah, no," she says. "Of course."
Will shoots off the email and keeps his inbox up. MacKenzie has unzipped her bag and pulled out a legal pad, but is still sorting through the accumulated junk inside for a pen. He passes her one from the cup on his desk. "You haven't even had class yet. I washed your bag last week. How do you already have that much crap in it?"
She glares at him through her bangs as she uncaps the pen and scribbles on a corner of her page to get the ink flowing. "It's all important," she says. "In case I need something in an emergency."
"What kind of emergency could possibly happen here? The café closes early and you have to walk back to your dorm without a midnight snack?"
She rolls her eyes, but when he grins at her, she can't seem to stop herself from grinning back, and he thinks, God, I love her. And then he realizes that he can say it, so he does. "I love you," he says, and her smiles gets bigger and changes, goes soft around the corners of her eyes and shy around her mouth. "Now. Where did you want to start?"
She leans forward in the chair. "I know you're hesitant about rehashing stories that have already been done, so I'll hold off on private prisons for now. There's a place in Virginia called –" MacKenzie flips through her legal pad – "Northern Neck Regional Jail. I thought I might check there first. Look at their litigation history, budgets, that sort of thing."
Will nods, thinking. "Look into their relationship with the state government, too. See if they retain lobbyists, or…"
They talk for nearly an hour, and at 11:50, Will takes a sip of his half-finished coffee and makes a face when he finds that it's gone cold. "That's probably enough to start with," he says.
MacKenzie looks at her pages and pages of notes. "More than," she says. "I'm going to forget something."
"You can come back, then," Will says, and smirks. "Actually, we should do this every week. I've got time –" he clicks on his calendar – "on Monday?"
MacKenzie shakes her head. "I'm going to New York to have lunch with Brian, remember?"
"Right. Tuesday, then?" When she nods, Will adds it to his calendar and closes the window, noticing as he does so that Reese has replied to his email. "Reese is coming by in ten minutes."
"Good," says MacKenzie, shoving her legal pad into her bag and standing. She takes his pen, too, and he hides a smile. He'll never see that pen again. "I'll get out of here, then."
Will catches her hand as she turns, and brings it to his lips, locking eyes with her as he lets his mouth graze her knuckle. Blushing, she whispers, "Bye," and he lets her go, watching her leave.
He sorts through the rest of his emails while he waits for Reese, who shows up six minutes past the hour, looking tired and unshowered.
"Hey, Reese." Will motions towards the chair MacKenzie has recently vacated. "Have a seat."
Reese sits on the very edge of the chair, his messenger bag on his lap, knee jiggling. He looks around the office, the haphazard bookshelves and the threadbare rug, the sunlight drifting through the window to catch swirling dust motes. "Professor," he says, starting determinedly at the vicinity of Will's chin.
Will leans back and breathes out slowly, wondering how best to do this. He's glad that Reese actually emailed him, but he's never known how to deal with this crap. His personal coping mechanisms have always involved a lot of alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs, which isn't something he's about to recommend to a former student. "What's going on?"
Reese opens his mouth once or twice, gripping the arms of his chair, then thrusts himself out of it. "Nothing. This was a –" He hauls his messenger bag over his shoulder. "Forget it." Managing to throw a faked smile in Will's direction, he adds, "Sorry to waste your time," and turns to go.
"Reese," says Will, voice sharp, and Reese pauses, hand on the doorknob. "Sit your ass down." Glowering, Reese shuffles back to the chair and collapses into it. "Cut the bullshit. What happened?"
"Nothing," Reese mutters. "It was just…"
"Namibia, right?" Reese nods and Will prompts, "I went to find Mac. Tess was in charge." He motions for Reese to continue.
Reese takes a deep breath. "We left the hotel. I took McHale's – MacKenzie's bag. Gary had yours. Her duffel kept getting caught on things. I wanted to make sure the girls were okay, so I went last. We were –" he frowns, eyes unfocused – "a block or two north of the traffic circle on Independence – you know, where the street changes names." Will nods, but Reese isn't looking at him. "There was an alley, or not even. A gap between two buildings. I was walking past it when I heard shouting. There were some guys – four. Four guys. One against three. Two of them had guns, and the third had a pipe or something. It was dark, I couldn't really see. I could see the guns, though, because they were pointing them at the one guy. He was crying." Reese swallows, staring at the bag in his lap. "He looked like some kind of mid-level manager. I'm not sure. He said… something." Will can imagine. It's not hard to tell when someone is pleading, Please don't kill me, even when they're speaking a different language. There are some things that everyone understands. "They shot him in the head. Both of them."
Will sees a tear land on Reese's bag, and Reese swipes at his eye angrily with the heel of one palm. Will pushes his chair back and comes around the front of his desk, leaning against it and looking down at Reese.
"Listen," he says, and then stops. "You kept the girls safe. That was what you needed to do right then. You can't have – You can't be responsible for thousands of lives during a food riot. When you're a journalist, when you're in… situations, in places like that, you see a lot of…" Will sighs. This isn't helping. "I was in the Green Zone, 2004. I was tracking a story about federal contractors, the ones they'd brought in for repair and reconstruction, about a lot of the money going missing."
Reese glances up quickly, then back down. "You won a Pulitzer for that."
"Yeah," says Will, his gaze on the corner of his desk, where his fingers are fiddling with a loose splinter in the wood, working it back and forth. "But I was interviewing this American contractor. He was a young guy, maybe twenty-five. Had done two tours already and then came back, as a civilian. Even though he had a wife and two kids, toddlers, at home. The week before, he had carried a soldier to cover when his unit was ambushed, and he had gotten on the wrong side of a few of the local Al Qaeda guys. That's how you know you're doing something right." Will tries to smile, but he can smell the dust of Baghdad, the way it used to coat his jeans and streak his sweaty sheets at night. "We were talking, and he was halfway through a sentence when he was shot through the forehead. Sniper fire. Bullet must have come over my shoulder." He closes his eyes, but then he can see, bright on the back of his eyelids, the man's misshapen skull, half-gone, neat bullet hole in the front, the blood spreading in a puddle through the dust on the street.
He breathes and snaps his eyes back open. His throat feels dry and dusty. "When I was younger, I – Well," he says, "I've spent most of my life protecting… certain people. It took me a long time to figure out that… that I can't save everyone." His eyes sting, which is strange, because he made his peace with this a long time ago. He thought. Months of drinking scotch in his apartment when he returned, the lights of the city too bright, and the air too cool. He looks up at the lights of his office and blinks hard a few times. "I can't save everyone."
Reese is looking at him now, but says nothing, so Will goes on. "The most I can do is what I set out to do in the first place. Tell the truth. As much truth as I can. To anyone who will listen. Tell the truth, even if no one is listening at all."
He shifts against the desk. "There's so much out there that happens that we can't change. The most we can do is see it. Witness. We bear witness. We bear witness. It's not something we wear lightly. It's a burden. The world is a burden. But it's our burden to bear, as best as we can." He waits until Reese looks up, tear tracks glistening down his cheeks. "Do you understand?"
Reese nods, clears his throat. "I do." His voice is thick.
Will nods and stands upright, heading back around to his chair. "You're a good guy," he says, and when Reese snorts, he frowns. "You are. Even when you're an asshole, you're a good guy." He hesitates. "MacKenzie told me she's worried about you."
Reese looks up sharply at that. "That's… nice of her."
"I just mean…" Will sighs and runs a hand through his hair. "You have people on your side, even if you don't know it. Look –" He scribbles on a post-it for a moment and hands it to Reese. "Here's my cell number, if you ever need anything."
Reese nods, fiddling with the zipper on his messenger bag, and Will gets the feeling he's working up to something. His prediction is confirmed when Reese bursts out, "I know you're dating her. MacKenzie."
Will can't breathe. His hand is halfway to his desk drawer, where he left a pack of cigarettes, and he can't move it, and he can't breathe, and he can't think, and he can't open his mouth to deny it even though he has to, he has to.
"I just wanted to let you know," says Reese, "that I won't tell anyone."
"How did you find out?" Will asks through numb lips and lungs that still won't inhale, which was the dumbest thing he could possibly have said because it unconditionally confirms that he is, in fact, dating MacKenzie. But he needs to know, with an urgency that knocks hard against the inside of his ribcage.
Reese smiles a half-smile, but it looks genuine, and Will is relieved about that much, at least. "She told me that she's with someone, and I saw the way you two looked at each other last spring. Really," he says. "You don't have to worry about me, Professor."
Will looks at him for a long time, eventually coming to the conclusion that he really has no choice. "Call me Will," he says.
Reese nods. "Well," he says, standing, looking somewhere to the left of Will's face. "Thanks. For. You know."
"Yeah," Will says. "Sure," and when Reese leaves, he lets his forehead fall forward until it thumps hard against the desk top.
MacKenzie is doing research late that night, glasses on her nose, when Will calls. She glances at the clock in the corner of her screen: it's one-thirty in the morning. She must have lost track of time.
"Northern Neck does retain lobbyists," she says without preamble. "One of which is Kemper Consulting, Inc., which also represents Virginia Central Regional Jail, and has hedged its bets by donating to both Cuccinelli's and McAuliffe's campaigns. But only to the Republican House Campaign Committee."
"MacKenzie," Will says, in a broken voice.
"Will? What's wrong?" She takes her glasses off, heart hammering. He says nothing, and she can practically hear him struggle to express his thoughts. She tries to think of what could have worked him up. "Is it Reese?" That was over twelve hours ago, but she doesn't think he did much else today.
"I told him about something that happened in Baghdad," Will gets out. "I just needed –"
"I just wanted to talk to you for a minute."
"Sure," says MacKenzie. "Sure, okay. I started doing some of the reading for that Law and Politics course I'm taking. Want to hear about that?"
Will sniffs. "Yeah."
"Okay, but do me a favour?" Will makes an affirmative noise. "I want you to put down your drink and have some water and get into bed, all right?"
"Okay," he whispers, and she hears a clink, the sound of his footsteps, some rustling.
Once it's died down, she leans back in her chair. "The professor assigned that book A Civil Action – you know it?"
"Sure," says Will, voice raspy. "About the civil suit in Woburn. Polluted water. They made a movie with… who was it, Travolta?"
"Yeah," says MacKenzie. "I read about a hundred pages. It might be the most depressing work of non-fiction I've ever read, and I've read Night, and several ofPrimo Levi's books, and We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. When a book about a lawsuit is more depressing than books about genocides, you know that it's bad…" She rambles for fifteen minutes, moving on from her reading assignment to the fact that her mother has been complaining about the construction a block over, to a story her father had told her the other day, keeping her voice low and soothing. She finally pauses. "Will?" she asks, and when she doesn't get a response, she knows he's fallen asleep. "I love you," she whispers, and hangs up the phone.
He calls back in the morning, ten o'clock – late for him. His voice still sounds rough. "Sorry about last night," he says.
"You don't have to apologize," she says. She's still in bed, her laptop propped on her knees. "That's what I'm here for." He says nothing. "What happened?"
He's silent for a long moment, and she's about to sigh and change the subject because sometimes she just can't get anything out of him, when he says in a tight voice, "I can't let anything bad happen to you. God, MacKenzie, I just can't."
Frowning, she leans forward. "Nothing bad is going to happen to me, Billy. I promise."
"Yeah." He clears his throat. "You said something last night about lobbyists?" he prompts, and she knows enough not to push him.
Classes start on Thursday, which means she has exactly fifty minutes of lecture before she's done for the week.
"Being a senior rocks," Sloan says at lunch. "Want to do something fun this afternoon?"
MacKenzie pops a piece of a roll into her mouth and chews, considering. "Like what?"
Sloan raises an eyebrow. "First semiformal is in two weeks."
MacKenzie grins. "Shopping it is."
They take a bus to the mall. MacKenzie isn't really looking for anything in particular, which is the most fun you can have while shopping: she finds the six most ridiculous dresses in Macy's and takes them all into the dressing room. In the next stall over, Sloan is trying on a navy one-shoulder, and when they come out at the same time, MacKenzie pouts.
"You look good in everything," she says, but Sloan is too busy laughing to answer.
"You –" she squeaks out. "That – dress."
MacKenzie does a spin. "What, this?" she says innocently, plucking at the hot pink tulle.
Sloan manages to get ahold of herself enough to get out, "The bared midriff really makes it work." She wipes her eyes.
"Well, if that's how you feel about it," MacKenzie says, and flounces back into the dressing room to try the lime-green sequinned number. When she remerges, she and Sloan examine it critically.
"Very chic," says Sloan, "very haute," and MacKenzie almost loses it.
Sloan puts the navy dress on hold and they move onto Nordstrom's shoe department. "Boots!" MacKenzie says, and ends up sitting in a chair surrounded by three and a half stacks of shoe boxes.
"So," says Sloan, in a way that makes MacKenzie suspect that this entire trip may have been intended to put her in a good mood and get her into a position where she can't just stand up and walk away. Sloan knows that she'd never leave a good shoe department before she's finished looking.
"What's happening right now?" she asks suspiciously.
"You're trying on shoes."
"Yes, I am. So let's focus –"
"Lunch with Brian on Monday."
"– on that," MacKenzie finishes, looking at her right foot. The leather boot creaks a little as she flexes her ankle. "Yes."
"I just don't want you to –"
"Oh, leave it, Sloan," MacKenzie says. "Besides –" she unzips the boot so that she doesn't have to look at Sloan – "I told Will I love him."
"When? And why?"
"Sunday night. And –" she looks up again, so that Sloan knows she's serious – "because I do."
Sloan looks at the open box by MacKenzie's feet, which contains a beautiful pair of brown Nine Wests. Three-inch heel. "Kenzie, you broke up with Brian three times, and every time, he guilted you into getting back together."
"Yes. He even left a doughnut outside my door on a school trip because he thought it would make me guiltier. Will is a much, much better man. I'm one hundred percent with you. Which is why I love him. I don't understand your point." She opens the next box and starts pulling cardboard and tissue paper out of one boot.
Sloan automatically takes the other and does the same. "My point is that Brian has some sort of weird persuasive mind power over you. Just –" she places a hand on MacKenzie's left ankle, where it's propped on her right knee. "Be careful, is all." When MacKenzie nods, Sloan hands her the boot. "Why would a doughnut make you feel guilty?"
MacKenzie rolls her eyes. "It was a Boston creme." Sloan stares, and she sighs. "It's a long story."
"Tell me," says Sloan, so she does.
Brian looks unfairly good.
He's already ordered a coffee – Typical, she thinks – and is sipping it as he stares out the window. Which means, MacKenzie realizes, that he must have seen her arrive and still decided to not look at her as she walked in. Always the gentleman, Brian.
"Mac," he says warmly as she sits, and for some reason, it pisses her off.
"It's MacKenzie, please," she says.
There's a knowing smirk on his face as he says, "Sure, MacKenzie," and she wonders what he thinks he knows.
They talk until their food comes about school and their summer internships, and in spite of herself, she relaxes. Brian has always been easy to talk to; conversations with him never demand anything from her, and even his blatant arrogance is a certain kind of charm. Against her own better judgment, and the voice in her head that sounds like Sloan saying douchebag, she warms to him a little.
As she flakes off some of her salmon with the side of her fork, MacKenzie asks, "What brings you to New York?"
Brian shrugs. "I was in Boston over the weekend for my grandfather's birthday and decided to stop over on my way back to D.C."
MacKenzie raises an eyebrow. "Why?" He'd have had to buy two different Amtrak tickets, which was unbelievably expensive.
Brian looks at her soberly. "To see you," he says.
She snorts and spears some asparagus. "No, seriously."
"Seriously." When she glances up, he's still looking at her with a sure intensity and there's something in his face that she recognizes. She stares at her water glass so she doesn't have to see it anymore. Condensation has budded on the glass, running in fat rivulets down the side to form a little puddle around its base.
"Why?" she asks again, and it comes out much softer and more vulnerable than she'd hoped. He confuses the hell out of her.
"I miss you," he says.
She forces herself to snort again. "What, you broke up with your girlfriend last week?"
"Yes," he says, and she rolls her eyes, but he goes on. "Because I kept thinking about you."
She feels a surge of triumph at that, and even though she knows that it's beneath her, that it belongs to the 18-year-old who sat alone at prom watching him dip Laura Collings on the dance floor, she can't shake the feeling of having won. She knows he sees it, and she swallows and looks away to give herself some time to settle back into the successful young woman who has achieved academic success and survived Namibia and can claim Will as the man she loves.
"Good for you," she says. "But you missed your shot. I'm with someone now." Someone who is ten times better than you ever were, she adds in her head, but she doesn't say it, because one of them, she thinks, should try not to be cruel. She refuses to think that maybe it's also because she's still trying, in some way, to win him.
She's never liked losing. That's always been the root of her success. It's also always been her biggest weakness.
Brian shrugs. "For now," he says, and she's so furious at him for saying that that the anger kills her appetite and she sets down her fork with fingers that shake as heat rises with a sick bubbling feeling through her chest and throat.
"Fuck you," she says, and tugs her bag off the corner of her chair, fumbling with her wallet for some bills to toss on the table and scraping her chair against the floor as she stands.
"Wait –" Brian half-stands. "Mac…"
"MacKenzie," she hisses, because she can hear Will in her head, the way he whispers Mac like she's something precious and her name is a sacred word, but she's also hearing the way Brian said it after their fourth date, when they lay in Central Park at three in the morning and he kissed her like she could never possibly break, when his voice was rough with passion and she thought that he was everything she could want. She shakes her head, confused, trying to break away.
He knows he's gotten to her, and he's known her long enough to know why. Grabbing her arm, he smirks again, and it's equally awful and attractive. He used to lean against her locker in the morning with the same look on his face, the confidence of having what he wanted, and she recalls the elation she felt knowing that what he wanted was her.
He edges around the corner of the table so they're standing close to each other, so close his breath brushes her face. "Remember when I took you to Cape Cod with my family and we went fishing?" His voice is soft, and she remembers that she used to love him. She wishes she didn't. "It poured and we had to hide under that jetty for an hour." Of course she remembers: she remembers the sound of rain hitting the calm gray ocean, the cold of the water and the sea spray on her skin, the warmth of Brian's body against her, heating her through wet clothes, the way he tasted like brine and rain.
She looks away, and he tugs her chin back so she's facing him again. His eyes are dark and full. They've always been beautiful, soft, even when he was breaking up with her. That night, the whole time he was speaking to her, she had been numb, thinking, Your eyes are so gorgeous. Like a dog's, like a child's. Like they could never lie. He wants her back, and the triumph rushes through her again. She can't look away from his face: the lines beginning to form around his eyes, the dark stubble that has grown thicker since the last time she saw him.
He steps even closer. "I thought you were the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen," he whispers, and when he leans towards her, she doesn't pull away. His kiss is familiar, and warm, and he wants her, and she kisses him back for a long moment before she thinks, Will, and feels awful and sick. She pushes him away, hard, and stares, panting.
"I said, I'm with someone," she says, but her voice is rough and shaky.
"Are you sure?" he asks, smirking, and wipes his mouth.
She grabs her purse and bursts out the door. He doesn't stop her.
She lets herself into Will's apartment. He's on the couch, working on his laptop, feet on the coffee table and Sports Center highlights turned down low. He twists to look at her as she walks in and smiles happily.
"Hey, honey. I thought you were going to go back to campus after lunch."
She nods. "I was." She wants to speak, tell him what happened, so that he can reassure her it's okay. No: she wants him just to know, so that she doesn't have to say it out loud. To her frustration, she feels herself begin to cry.
"MacKenzie," says Will, horrified, putting down his laptop and rushing to wrap her up in his arms. "What's wrong?"
She shakes her head and pushes him away. As much as she wants it, she doesn't think she deserves his comfort; this was entirely her fault, and she was cruel to him and he doesn't even know it. She doesn't want him to have to be holding her when she tells him.
"Brian kissed me," she says, staring at her feet, and she's close enough that she can feel him tense with anger.
"What?" he breathes. "Where the fuck is he? I'm going to –"
"No!" says MacKenzie, putting her hand on his chest. She's sobbing, which is stupid because she has no one but herself to blame. "I let him. And I even kissed him back for a few seconds." Will has gone quiet. MacKenzie feels like something is tearing inside of her. It hurts. "I'm so sorry, Will. I don't even like him, I just –" She turns away and covers her face with her hands. She doesn't want to see the look on his face. "God, I'm sorry."
To her surprise, after a moment, Will pulls her close again and kisses the top of her head. "Sh," he whispers, and she sobs again, in distress and relief in equal measure. "Sh, it's okay."
"No," she insists, but it comes out garbled.
Will gently tips her head back so he can see her face. "He kissed you?"
She nods. "He kept saying how he missed me and wanted me back, and I told him I was with someone and tried to leave, but he stopped me and – he just gets to me somehow. I don't know. He's a jerk, a complete asshole, but he knows exactly what to say to me to make me upset or confused or…"
"Manipulative bastard," mutters Will, and MacKenzie realizes that he's still angry, so angry he's practically shaking with it, but his hands on her face are gentle, and so are his lips when he presses them to her forehead. He draws her towards the couch. "Come on. I have to work, but you can just lie down for awhile." When she hesitates, he brushes her hair back from her flushed, sticky face. His hand feels cool, and she can't help but close her eyes for a moment at the sensation. "Come on, Mac."
"You're being too nice to me," she says as she lets herself be led to the couch. ESPN is showing highlights of the Steelers losing to the Vikings. Will settles himself in a corner of the couch, his laptop balanced precariously on the arm so that she can lay her head in his lap.
"Must be because I love you," he says softly, and she closes her eyes.
She takes the train back after dinner, and calls Sloan as soon as they're out from underground, speaking quietly. "You were right," she says, dully.
Sloan pauses. "I wish I hadn't been. What happened?" MacKenzie tells her, and Sloan asks, "How did Will take it?"
MacKenzie smiles. "Really well, actually. I didn't tell him all the details," she thinks of Brian saying For now and has to pause to breathe through her anger and shame, "but I told him what happened, and he was understanding and sweet and just – wonderful."
"He's a good guy."
"Yeah," MacKenzie says, softly. "The best."
"You're on your way home?"
"On the train."
"I'll meet you at the station."
"You don't have to do –" she starts, but Sloan has already hung up, and MacKenzie spends the rest of the train ride feeling incredibly grateful for the people who love her.
The next day, she meets with Will again about her thesis. It takes twice as long as it should every time she flips through her notes, because she can't manage to look down at the legal pad and away from his face, away from the soft-eyed, tender look he's giving her.
"Um," she says, pages crinkling under her fingers. "Northern Neck gets about three-quarters of its funding from federal sources."
"Yeah. Nothing unusual – most were immediately dismissed. One guy who was shoved against a wall and broke his wrist didn't get an x-ray for nine days, and never got a cast on it. Another had a heart attack and didn't see the inside of a hospital for three days. He was –" MacKenzie searches through her notes, trying to find the quote – "chained to the bed, and brought back each night because the jail didn't want to incur the cost of an officer to guard him." Looking up, she adds, "But that's the worst of it. Pretty awful, but nothing out of the ordinary, really. Food code violations, things like that. Did you know that the incidence of diabetes in the prison population is 11.1%? That's nearly 5% higher than in the general population."
"I didn't," says Will. "What about the political angle – voting populations?"
"It's in Richmond County. Before the jail was built, the county had a population of about 7200. Now it's 9000."
"That's a –" Will pauses, staring over her shoulder as he does the math – "twenty-five percent increase. Exactly." He whistles low. "Good work. What else?"
"Nothing yet. I'm still working a few angles on Northern Neck, then I'll go broader and examine the program as a whole. I've got a list of things to look at here…" As she finds the page, Will comes around the desk and behind her chair to look over her shoulder, leaning in so close that she can feel his heat, smell the faint, rough aroma of cigarettes and the clean scent of his soap. She tries to refocus. "GAO audits, the Marshals Service…" Will hmms, pressing his cheek against hers, and she completely loses the thread of her thought. She can feel him smile, and then he starts pressing hot, open-mouthed kisses against her neck. She grips the arms of her chair tightly, shivers shooting down her spine and heat rushing through her.
"Will," she means to say in warning, but it comes out more as a moan.
"Hm?" he says, without taking his lips off her skin.
"You should stop," she says, but it sounds unconvincing even to her, and when he takes her earlobe between his teeth, she groans.
"Shh," he says, wickedly. "You have to be very quiet."
MacKenzie shifts uncomfortably. "I don't want us to – Will…"
He leans back to look at her for a moment, then walks to the door, locks it, and turns off the lights. "Better?" he asks as he comes back, and she exhales and nods. "Good," he says, and lifts the legal pad out of her grip, plucking the pen from her fingers and laying them both on the chair beside her. With equal calm, he makes a neat stack of the papers beginning to accumulate on his desk and sets it on his office chair. MacKenzie can only watch. She thinks her brain is melting. The light from the window is dusky and thick with the blinds drawn, spots of sun making their way through to spangle Will's button-up and dazzle her eyes when she moves one way or another. Will slips one arm around her back and another beneath her legs, lifting her and turning to set her gently on his desk. Her eyes are wide and she wants, she wants, she wants. When he smiles at her, she can't help but clasp a hand to the back of his neck and draw him in, her mouth almost desperate on his.
He forces her to slow, bearing down on her mouth with infinite patience, gentle, and she gradually submits to his deliberateness. It feels like a dream: his office warm in an early autumn still as hot as summer, the spots of sunlight dancing over their bodies. Outside she can hear voices, students going by on bicycles, children out for walks with their parents through campus, and farther away, cars passing on the street. She sighs in pleasure against Will's lips as he finally deepens the kiss, as he eases her mouth open and adjusts the hand tangled in her hair to tilt her head upward. MacKenzie untucks his shirt so she can smooth her hands against the soft skin of his back, warm and flushed against her palm. She hooks a fingertip under the waistband of his jeans and follows the fabric around as far as she can, to his hips, and he gasps, removing the hand from her hair to pull at the hem of her shirt.
Since they have to separate for a moment as her blouse comes between them on its way over her head, she takes the opportunity to lean back just enough to unbutton his shirt, slowly, one excruciating button at a time. Watching her with dark eyes, Will lets her, and she eases the shirt off his shoulders and over his arms, relishing the quiet sounds it makes slipping over his skin and falling to the floor. He stands between her legs as they dangle off of the desk and takes her in his arms again, one hand splayed between her shoulder blades, his thumb swiping across the bumpy vertebrae of her neck as she sighs at the feel of his skin against hers. Everything feels so good.
They stay like that for a long, long time, just kissing each other, their shirts forgotten on the floor, until one of his hands in its explorations of her skin brushes across her breast and the sensation makes her practically twitch with pleasure. "Will," she says, wrapping her legs around him. "Please," and he flicks her bra undone, pulls it off, and mouths at her nipple. She groans, letting go of him to brace herself with her hands behind her on the desk, head thrown back. He teases the other nipple with his left hand, his right clasped around her ribcage so that she can feel each finger every time she breathes in. MacKenzie scoots forward a little so that she's flush against him, grinding into him, and they both moan, and she breaks the contact of his mouth on her by leaning forward to frantically pull at his belt, his button, his zipper, pushing down his pants and boxers in one go. Toeing off his shoes, he steps out of his clothes as he does the same for her. She leans back on her hands so that he can peel her jeans off of her hips, and he reaches down with two fingers to tease at her.
"Please," she begs, and he kisses her quiet, slipping both fingers inside of her, slick and soft and hot. Her hands are still braced on the desk, which is a waste, so she moves them to hold both sides of his face. He's looking down at what he's doing to her, and she doesn't know how many women he's done this with before but it must be at least several and still his eyes are wide and awed as he watches his fingers slide in and out of her. She cups his cheeks and says, "I love you," and his gaze flickers up to hers, but she only has a moment to enjoy it because his thumb grazes her clit and she has to close her eyes and let her head fall against his shoulder. "God, Will, I want you. Please. Please." She's said that a lot now, but he doesn't laugh, just kisses her neck as he removes his fingers and mouths his way to a spot just under her ear, pulling her a little closer so that he can slide into her in one long, slow motion. She muffles the sound she makes against his shoulder and his fingers tighten convulsively on her waist.
"God, Mac," he groans, and she can't help but feel a little triumphant even though she hasn't really done anything. She can feel him holding himself back, going so slowly it's driving her crazy, and she wraps her legs around him, changing the angle enough that she's panting, hips twitching forward to meet him on each thrust, hands behind her on the desk again, a little slick with sweat on the polished wood. He thumbs circles at her clit again, and she's so close. "Will, Will," she says, and comes, forcing herself to be quiet. He gathers her up, and in another moment or two he's coming as well, pressing his face into the niche between her neck and shoulder as he groans.
They just rest there for several minutes, breathing into each other as they come down, until Will takes her face in his palm, leans back, smirks, and says, "Same time next week?"
And she laughs.
The semester flies by, as usual, in a rush of class and reading and Will and late nights working on assignments and Will and thesis research and Will. They meet officially every week, and even though they see each other most other nights, too, half the time those meetings end with them locking the door to his office and turning off the lights. Sometimes they just make out, the radiator humming beneath the window, and MacKenzie loves it, and loves him, and she even loves working on her thesis with him. She's the only senior who isn't complaining about thesis work, and whenever she's sitting in the dining hall listening to their whining, she has to work hard not to smile, remember to nod sympathetically.
It isn't just Will that makes it enjoyable: she feels like she's teetering on the edge of something with this story, like she's doing something real.
"There are two programs that allow the Marshals Service to contract out regional facilities," she tells him. "IGAs – that's inter-governmental agreements, between the Marshals and state and local governments, for a per-diem rate – and the CAP program, where there's a per diem rate and the Marshals help pay for construction and renovation. That's how Northern Neck is contracted."
"Who oversees the CAP program?" Will asks, leaning forward and tapping a pen against his desk.
"I don't know."
Will raises his eyebrows. "Find out," he suggests.
She calls the Virginia Board of Corrections, which claims that they have no oversight over regional jails, suggesting that she try the Sheriff's Association; the Marshals Service eventually, after nearly two months, gets back to her, their spokeswoman saying that they don't oversee CAP jails. MacKenzie feels giddy.
"No federal oversight!" she says to Will over the phone. He's in New York and she's sprawling on her dorm bed. Her room is stuffy with the heat on, so she's cracked the window, and a draft of frigid air is whistling by her ear. "That always makes a splash."
Will huffs. "MacKenzie," he says, "remember that there are real people involved, yeah?"
She's instantly ashamed that she's let her journalistic excitement overrule her humanity. "Yeah," she says, guilty. Most of all, she really doesn't want Will to be disappointed in her.
"Trust me," he says, as if he can hear her thoughts, "I get it," and she smiles in relief.
She wades through budgets and budgets and budgets and government reports and GAO audits. The OIG has audited the CAP program, including most of the regional jails involved, but not Northern Neck – it's been marked as "pending" for the "next few months," but that was in 2005 or 2006. MacKenzie sends a Freedom of Information request for the OIG's review of the jail. In early December, a week and a half before the end of the semester, she gets a letter saying, "After a thorough search, please be advised that no responsive documents were located in the OIG."
She works late on Monday night and arrives at Will's office at eleven on Tuesday still bleary-eyed, slumping into her chair. "What's next?" she asked. "I'm a little stuck."
Will frowns, as he always does when thinking how to approach something. "You should visit Northern Neck," he says. "These long stories, investigative pieces, they're always better the more details you have. If you can describe the place –"
"Brilliant!" she says, sitting upright quickly enough that some of the coffee she's holding sloshes through the opening in the plastic lid, scalding her fingers. She winces, transfers the cup to her other hand, and gently sucks the coffee from her skin. "You think I can get in?"
"Sure," says Will. "Call them."
"I can do it now?" she suggests.
"Go for it." He watches her with amusement as she eagerly pulls out her laptop and finds their number, dialling and waiting with ill-disguised impatience for the answer.
It's a frustrating call, but the first time she gets stonewalled, she puts the phone on speaker so that Will can hear, and he comes over to whisper suggestions in her ear. She even has to use his name three times, but twenty minutes later, she's been given permission to get a tour of the facility that weekend, and she's practically giddy. Will heads back around his desk to his laptop, punching in the address on Google Maps.
"It's nearly a five-hour drive," he says. "What time on Saturday?"
"One-thirty. I'll be okay driving," she reassures him. "I just need to borrow a car."
"You could have mine," Will says, "but it will be in New York. I have a meeting with my book agent on Saturday morning. I'm sorry." He looks troubled. "I'm also not crazy about you driving five hours each direction in one day. Especially in December."
"Don't be ridiculous," she says. "And I'll find a car, don't worry about it."
"Let's meet on Friday before you go, then," Will says. "Go over what you're looking for. Keep in mind that you won't be able to bring much in. They usually don't allow cell phones, or even watches. You'll need to take notes by hand. If they even let you have a pencil."
"Sounds good. Worst case, I have a great memory." Grinning, she pops out of her chair and leans over his desk to kiss him goodbye when her phone rings. She glances at the display and feels her stomach churn. She sets her coffee down. "It's Brian."
Will looks at her. "Do you want to answer it?"
She shakes her head. "No." She sighs. "Yes. I want to know what he wants."
Will nods, gently wraps his hand around her wrist because her palm is pressed flat against his desk. "Go ahead."
Taking a deep breath, she answers the phone. "Hello?"
"Mac," Brian says, and she curls her fingers around Will's.
"It's MacKenzie," she hisses. "What do you want?"
"I want to see you again."
"I'm in the area."
"Did you think that would convince me? Even if I wanted to see you, which, let's be absolutely clear, I do not, I'm too busy to come to New York –"
"No," says Brian. "I'm at the train station on campus."
"What?" MacKenzie notices that she's gripping Will's hand so tightly that both their knuckles are white, but she can't seem to let go. "Why?"
"To see you."
"Get back on the train and go home," she says, and glances up to see Will mouth at her, He's here? She nods and lets go of his fingers to cover her phone with a palm. "At the train station," she whispers.
Will tilts his head for a minute and then, surprisingly, grins. "Let's go meet him," he says.
She grins back for a delirious moment, and then feels her heart sink and shakes her head. "We can't," she said, "we can't let him know that you and I…" Will's shoulders slump. "I'm sorry," she says, helplessly.
"No, you're right," he says. She realizes that Brian is talking in her ear.
"Shut up," she says into the phone. "I'm not going to see you. We're not going to get back together. I'm done with you."
"It's really cold on this platform." His voice is tinny through the line. "You won't just have coffee with me?"
"You really can't take no for an answer, can you?" she asks, but her eyes are on Will, who looks sad and defeated.
"Maybe you should go meet him," Will says, and MacKenzie covers her phone again.
"What? Are you insane?"
Will looks at her sadly. "I love you, MacKenzie. So much. But you shouldn't have to – sneak around, and…"
She hangs up the phone without looking at it. "Where the fuck is this coming from?"
"I need you to be happy. You shouldn't have to hide. Maybe you should meet Brian."
MacKenzie crosses her arms. "Oh, and you think meeting Brian will make me happy, do you? You've made the executive decision, that in your infinite wisdom you know exactly what I want –"
"I'm just saying," Will talks over her, and she has just enough time to think that this is getting out of hand incredibly quickly, "that maybe I'm not what's best for you."
"And how, pray tell, would you possibly know that?"
"I'm old!" he says, which pisses her off more than anything else he's said so far. "And maybe I'm taking advantage of you, or isolating you, and you should –"
"Don't tell me what I should or shouldn't do, you smug, heavy-handed –"
"– you should maybe just fucking consider rethinking your –"
"I'm an adult!" she yells. "I make my own decisions, and I don't appreciate you trying to protect me as if I need it."
"You're the one who dated him in the first place."
MacKenzie steps back, surprised at the new direction he's taking. "Is that what this is about? You're jealous?"
"I'm not jealous, I'm just looking out –"
"For my best interests? Yeah, right," she says. "And I don't need you looking out for me, thanks. What makes you think I should get back with Brian? What makes you think that I'm secretly regretting my decision to be with you? What the fuck –"
"You kissed him," Will roars, and she can see the betrayal in his eyes that he never let her see before. If she weren't so incredibly angry with him, she might feel guilt or pity, but as it is, she wants him, just a little, to hurt as much as he's just hurt her.
"Will, fuck you." He's out of words for the moment, so she barrels right on, holding up a hand that's shaking with rage. "You know what? Brian was an asshole, but at least he was never condescending. At least he never treated me like I was weak. At least he respected me that much."
That's way, way over the line and they both know it, but she can't bring herself to care. Sending him a disappointed, angry glare, she snags her backpack from the ground and walks out.
They don't speak for the rest of the week. MacKenzie cries herself to sleep that night, trying not to think of Will alone in his apartment because she loves him even though she doesn't think anyone has hurt her more than he just did in the space of five minutes.
Sloan is sympathetic but refuses to take sides.
"You're my best friend," MacKenzie tells her. "And he was awful, Sloan."
She shrugs. They're at dinner on Wednesday night, but MacKenzie is just pushing her food around her plate while Sloan shovels down dining hall rice pilaf with her usual enthusiasm. "Yeah," she says, and then swallows. "But so were you. You goaded him into it."
"I did not. I just called him out!"
Sloan looks at her disbelievingly. "You and I and God and everyone else knows that Will is the most protective, old-fashioned modern man the world has ever seen, with a completely incomprehensible guilt complex the size of Australia. You rejected every possible way he tries to relate to you and the world. And then you accused him of being jealous. What did you expect to happen?"
MacKenzie stares at her, her mouth slightly open as Sloan attacks her pork chop with a dull butter knife. "When did you start understanding people?"
Sloan shrugs. "I don't. You guys are just really easy."
If anything, the conversation makes MacKenzie feels worse, because she maybe understands what made Will say what he did, but it doesn't change the fact that he said it, and she's pretty sure that he meant it.
On Friday, she walks into his office and sits across the desk from him stiffly, her back straight. He doesn't look up from his email, clearly informing her that he has more important things to do, until she clears her throat.
"They're letting me bring a pencil," she says. "So I'll have handwritten notes."
"Good," he says, all business, and something in her chest quails at his tone. This, she thinks, must be how he speaks to other people. It's not angry or mean, just efficient, which is somehow worse. He raises an eyebrow, face collected and smooth. "I take it you found a car, then."
She nods. "I asked Reese if I could borrow his. When he found out why, he insisted on coming with me."
Something drifts across his face, relief maybe, followed by something more complicated, but he stamps down on it ruthlessly. "Reese?" he asks, his voice unsure, but before she can respond, he strengthens his tone and waves a hand in dismissal, a gesture that's achingly familiar. "Fine. His decision."
Clenching her jaw in anger, she rises. "Anything else?"
"No." He looks back at his laptop.
"I'll have a report for you next week by email," she snaps. "I don't see a reason for us to meet again this semester."
He looks up at that. "No," he says. "Me neither."
She manages to keep her head high as she walks out without looking at him again.
Will is cold all Saturday morning. He wakes up shivering under his covers, his nose feeling frozen, and only manages to get up and face the frigid air of his bedroom when he'll have to skip a shower in order to make it to his meeting on time. He puts on thick socks, a t-shirt, a flannel shirt, a wool sweater, and his heaviest coat and scarf, and is still freezing for the entire trip to his agent's office. It's forty degrees outside and sunny.
He knows the weather is not his problem.
Every time he glances at his watch, his brain automatically starts calculating MacKenzie's approximate position. He stops looking at his watch.
Although he's under the impression that he's very polite and responsive in his meeting, after fifteen minutes, his agent shoves her chair back from her desk and says, "What the hell's your problem today?"
"Nothing," says Will. His face rearranges itself into a pout without his permission, and he tries to put it back into a mask of polite confusion, because he's about thirty years too old to pout.
"You're snippy and grumpy. Look, if you have some kind of issue with me –"
Will holds up his hand apologetically. "It's – it's not you. I'm sorry. I apologize."
She sighs, her shoulders losing some of their defensive posture, and regards him. "Are you okay?"
"I…" says Will. "Yeah." He rubs a brow with a knuckle. "Sure." He makes eye contact with her to prove it.
"We can do this another time."
Will's incredibly tempted to say yes, but he'll be damned if MacKenzie will affect everything in his life, everything he'll ever touch. He also can imagine what will happen if he goes home right now: he'll sit around his apartment, cold and alone, and… "No, that's all right," Will says, and attempts a smile. "I'll do better, I promise. Sorry, again."
She raises her eyebrow but doesn't push it further.
When he gets home, he stares at the inside of his fridge for a long time before he closes it and makes himself canned soup instead, turning on ESPN so that he doesn't have to think, so that he can get lost in college football and forget that his apartment is quiet, forget everything.
He stays like that for hours, until his phone rings. It's 3:07.
Focused on the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game, he doesn't take his eyes off the screen as he answers it. Oklahoma is on a third and four, with half a minute to go in the quarter, so he isn't really thinking, and just says, "Yeah."
"Professor – uh, Will? It's, it's Reese."
He frowns and mutes the game. "What's going on?" He thinks maybe that MacKenzie asked Reese to phone him in case Will wouldn't answer her calls (he'd have to think about it, he can admit to himself), but Reese's voice sounds too unsure for that, with something troubling behind it.
When he responds, "There's something going on here," Will realizes it's fear.
"What? Reese, what's happening?"
"There was a – I guess a sort of a riot?"
"Not – not really a riot," Reese hastily assures him. "Just a fight in one of the group units. MacKenzie was telling me on the way down that some of them, the ones without a guard to supervise, sometimes there are fights when the food is brought in, people get beaten. I think it was like that, only a little worse than usual."
"Is MacKenzie okay? Is she there?"
"She was following them around as they brought in the food."
"She was there?" Will turns off the television and jumps off the couch, his heart pounding so hard he thinks it will explode his chest and spread his ribcage all over his walls and they'll have to come with a forensics team to clean up his apartment, with UV lights and plastic sheeting. He breathes, squeezes his eyes shut. "Why does this keep happening?" he whispers, but he doesn't think Reese hears him.
"She's okay," Reese says. "She called me, asked me to call you."
"Yeah," says Reese, a little surprised at Will's question.
"Why isn't she the one calling?"
"They're on lockdown and won't let her out, but they let her use a phone. She had to leave her cell in the car with all her personal belongings. The police are coming, eventually, to take statements, but it's low priority and there isn't much law enforcement around here. We're in the middle of nowhere. And she said that she thinks the police officers are going to question all the jail officials before they get to her."
Will breathes out slowly. "That could take hours and hours." He tries to think. "You should find yourself a motel or something. You guys shouldn't drive back so late anyway." He hesitates, wishing he didn't care, but his heart is still thudding in his chest. "You're sure she's okay? She's not hurt?"
"She said she wasn't," Reese says. "But –" Will's body shuts down, and his hearing goes fuzzy and dim. Reese pauses, briefly, as if unsure whether he should go on. "I think she may have been lying."
"I don't know," Reese says. "I don't know her that well. But she sounded kind of –"
"Jesus, Reese, you might want to fucking lead with that information next time," Will yells. He's tearing his living room apart trying to find his wallet, his keys, his shoes. "I'm coming. I'm coming right now," he says, and hangs up the phone, so afraid that he can't breathe, can't function. They don't have full medical facilities in regional jails this size; they don't even have nurses all the time, and God, he can't think, please be okay, he can't –
Think, he tells himself, forcing his lungs to inhale and exhale, just think for a second. His laptop is on the coffee table and he runs to it, dropping to his knees because there isn't time to seat himself on the couch. There's a flight from Newark to Dulles in an hour and ten minutes. He can make that. Another hour-fifteen of flying time, thirty minutes to rent a car, two hours to drive to Richmond County. His thoughts are sluggish, so slow under the weight of panic. That's five hours. Google Maps says it's a five and a half hour drive. If he goes the speed limit.
As if he even could.
Grabbing his car keys, he barely remembers his coat on the way out the door. If he goes 90 instead of 65 on I-95, he'll save nearly an hour, which is better than flying.
90 is about the slowest he goes.
Just over four hours later, it's dark when he pulls into the jail's parking lot and there's condensation on his windows from the cold. The temperature dropped precipitously when the sun went down, and the air feels sharp against his throat, rough with frantic breathing, as he jumps out of his sedan. Three cars over, Reese opens his door and comes out to meet him.
"You're still here?" Will asks.
"Yeah," says Reese, "of course," and Will feels a rush of affection and gratitude towards him. He hopes that some of it is evident on his face, because his words aren't working very well at the moment.
"Stay here," he says. "I think I'll have better luck getting in if it's just me." Reese nods, and Will opens his mouth to thank him, for everything – for driving with MacKenzie for five hours even though they're not really close, for calling Will, for sitting in a freezing parking lot for hours, for everything – but the words get caught in his throat, so he just nods back and heads towards the jail.
It's locked, of course, and thirty seconds of hammering at the door does nothing, but he knows that no one can withstand an annoying sound for very long, so he keeps at it. After a minute and a half, a guard comes to the door and says, muffled through the glass, "We're outside of visiting hours."
"You have a journalism student in there," Will says. "MacKenzie McHale. She's been here since one-thirty."
"I'm sorry, sir," the guard says, and starts to leave.
"No!" Will yells, so loudly that the guard turns in surprise. "You have to let her out, or let me in to see her."
"We're on lockdown, sir. No one in or out. She should be able to leave in a few hours, if you'd like to wait, or I can tell her that you're here. That's the most I can do. What's your name?"
"William McAvoy. I'm her research advisor, which means that I'm responsible for her safety." It actually means nothing of the sort, but the guard doesn't know any better. Will takes a breath. "I'm also her lawyer, she's been in there for over six hours, and I swear to God that if I don't see her in the next five minutes, I will sue this facility for wrongful detainment and anything else I can make stick, and your supervisor will be incredibly unhappy." He's completely bullshitting: he has no legal standing to do what he just suggested, but he's counting on the fact that the guard doesn't know that. Please, Will thinks, and doesn't finish the sentence in his head.
Sure enough, the guard hesitates and then says, "One moment," and disappears. He comes back within three minutes with another uniformed guard, this one clearly a superior.
"I can't let you in, sir," the new guard says. "It's a safety concern. You understand."
"I don't," says Will. "It's been five hours since the incident. How long do your lockdowns usually last?"
"We're waiting for the authorities."
"Fine," says Will. "I won't disturb your waiting as long as you let me in." He is absolutely not giving up, and the guards seem to realize it, because after another five minutes of frustrating, circular arguing, they finally agree to take him to MacKenzie.
It takes an excruciatingly long time to get to her, because every single door is locked, and the guard in charge needs to swipe a key card and talk into his walkie-talkie for confirmation before any of them will open. Finally, he opens the door to a small attorney room with a metal table and two chairs bolted to the floor and nothing else, where MacKenzie is sitting with her head on the table. She looks up at the sound of the door opening, and he swears and rushes towards her.
"Will!" she cries, and stands, stumbling towards him for a step or two before he catches her and she starts to sob against his sweater – in pain or shock or relief or something else, he isn't sure.
"Sh," he soothes her, stroking the back of her head and trying to forget how her face looked, swollen and bloody and bruised. The two guards have left, closing the door behind them. "Sh, it's okay."
"You came," he hears her say, garbled in her sobs.
"Yeah," he says. "I came." He had still been angry at her as he drove here, all the long miles on I-95, still angry as he argued with the guards, still angry as they led him through the building, but it is literally impossible for him to be angry at her now. Their argument seems so incredibly stupid, so childish and small, next to the fact that she is crying against him in pain and distress, with her face bashed in. He tries to gently push her away from him, unbury her from his sweater, but she just clasps him tighter. "MacKenzie, I need to look at your face, okay?"
She gives out a little sound of misery, but lets him step back and take her face in his hands. Her lip is split, one cheekbone nearly black with bruising and swollen to twice its usual size. A little dried blood lingers just under her nose and, he now realizes, she's holding her right arm awkwardly.
"I just got shoved around a little bit. They weren't trying to get me, or anything," she says. She's trying to sound reassuring but instead she just sounds terrified, and his grip tightens convulsively, quickly, until he remembers that he might hurt her and he makes his muscles relax again. "I just hit the wall and then got knocked to the floor." When he looks at her, unimpressed, she adds, "A couple of times," and gives a little huff that he thinks is supposed to be laughter. "Every time I stood up, actually. Then I tried to crawl towards the door and someone fell on me."
He's picturing it, the chaos and her utter panic, and he doesn't want to, so he asks, "Tell me what hurts."
"I think I sprained my wrist just a little when I fell the first time," she says. "I don't think it's broken."
"Okay," he says, taking the wrist in his hand. It's only a little swollen, and no one point is more tender than another, so he thinks she's right and it's just a mild sprain. But it must also be uncomfortable for her to support the weight of her hand at the moment. He holds it gently as he asks, "What else?"
"I hit the wall and the floor with my face and my head. I got a nosebleed, but not enough for it to be broken, either. It's mostly the bruising –"
"I think your cheekbone might be fractured," he says.
"Yeah," she says. "And I – I hit my head. It, it hurts."
She nods, carefully, and he eases her back to the chair and lets her lay her head down again, pillowing it on her arms. "Dizzy?" he asks.
"Not too bad," she says, "not like I think you were. In Namibia."
He stands beside her and cards his fingers through her hair. "You and I should stop getting concussions, maybe," he says softly.
She gives a humourless laugh. "God, Billy, let's never leave campus again."
"Deal," he whispers, and leans down to kiss the crown of her head.
"I'm sorry," she murmurs. "I'm so sorry. I –"
He shushes her. "We'll talk later, okay? I want you just to sit and be quiet for awhile. Don't worry about it." She reaches for him, tangling her hand in his sweater and trying to pull him closer, but it's awkward with the bolted-down chair and the table in the way, so he very gently lifts her, walks them to the wall and settles down on the floor with his back against the painted cinder block so that she can snuggle into his lap. Her face is smushed into his neck, her breath damp and warm and there against his skin, and he can wrap his arms around her, holding her, just holding her.
After a couple of minutes, she shifts, slurring, "Shouldn't I not fall asleep?"
He shakes his head. "Total myth."
"Really?" Her voice is small and exhausted.
"Really. Sleep, Mac. I've got you," he says, and he means it.
At 9:53, a police officer opens the door and Will rouses MacKenzie enough that she's able to give a statement. He walks her out of the jail, his arm tight around her, holding her up as she leans on him. It would be easier to just carry her, but he doesn't think she'd like being carried out in front of the guards and police officers and jail officials. She shivers when he opens the door, and he leans her against the wall like she's a baseball bat or a walking cane as he shrugs out of his coat and wraps it around her. Then he does pick her up, and heads towards the car, and she doesn't complain, just presses her face into his shoulder and whimpers a little at the motion of his footsteps.
Reese jumps out of his idling car, the windows completely fogged up, and runs to open the passenger door of Will's sedan. Will settles MacKenzie in the seat and cranks up the heat before closing the door and turning to Reese, who looks pale and tired and scared.
"Is she okay?" he asks.
"A little banged up, but she'll be fine. Listen, Reese. Thank you. Thank you –"
Reese shakes his head. "Stop. You couldn't have possibly convinced me to leave her here alone. I did what anyone would have done. What you would have done for me."
Will tries to come up with something to say, some response that will give voice to the turmoil of warm emotions swirling in the pit of his stomach and the V of his ribcage, but, once again, fails. Instead, he claps Reese on the shoulder and says, "Come on. None of us should drive home. Let's find a hotel."
There's a strip of motels about fifteen minutes away, the best of which is a Holiday Inn Express, which almost qualifies as a real hotel. Reese follows him there, and Will books two rooms and has time while the desk clerk is running his Visa to be grateful, so grateful, that Reese knows about his relationship with MacKenzie. He could have booked three rooms and let one go unused, but he's just glad that they don't have to hide anything.
He asks the front desk for toothbrushes and hands Reese his room key before he walks back out to the car, through the dark, frozen air, to wake MacKenzie again. She has just enough energy to get upstairs, leaning on him heavily in the elevator and while he unlocks the door, and stay somewhat upright while he strips off everything but her underwear. Leaving her lying in the bed, he fetches ice from the machine down the hall and returns, wrapping some in his shirt and some in hers.
"Mac," he says, brushing the hair away from her face, and she whimpers. "I know, I know, honey. We have to ice your wrist and your cheekbone, get the swelling down. Just fifteen minutes, okay?"
She doesn't accede with grace, exactly, but the sight of her cheek is scaring him, the discoloured skin stretched tight, so he just sets one icepack against her wrist and holds the other to her face.
" 'S cold," she mumbles.
"I know. We're going to take you home and bring you to the ER tomorrow."
"Don't want to."
He chuckles a little and curls his fingers around her ear. "Of course you don't. No one wants to go to the hospital."
"I want to spend all day…" she starts, but talking seems to hurt her cheek too much and she trails off.
She's asleep before the fifteen minutes are up and he watches her in the light of the bedside lamp for a very long time.
When she hasn't woken up by nine-thirty the following morning, he knocks on Reese's door and asks him to sit with her while Will finds them all breakfast. He returns just after ten with three bagels and a package of cream cheese to find MacKenzie sitting up in bed, listening intently as Reese, sitting in a chair he's pulled up to her bedside, reads The New York Times aloud from his smartphone.
"Breakfast," Will announces, taking off his coat, which has become suffused with cold in the short walk from his car to the hotel's front door. MacKenzie looks a little better, at least: the bruising in her cheek has spread but the swelling has gone down just a little, and her eyes are bright. She looks worn but convalescent. Will hands Reese a bagel and settles in beside her on the bed.
MacKenzie chews slowly, with the teeth on her uninjured side, while Will and Reese debate which route to take.
"I'm sorry you'll be driving alone," Will tells him, meaning it. "It's a long trip, and that always sucks."
Reese shrugs. "It's not a big deal, really. I've done longer drives solo."
MacKenzie rests her hand on Will's arm. "I can go with him for the first little while. I'll switch cars when we stop for lunch or a bathroom break or something."
Will regards her for a second too long, wondering if she's still angry, if she doesn't want to talk to him. He doesn't want to talk about Tuesday, either; he just wants everything to go back to how it was. You're the adult, he reminds himself, and agrees to her plan.
They're out before eleven, and drive three hours before pulling in at one of the big rest stops in Maryland. Will parks first and walks over to Reese's car to open the passenger door.
"I want a smoothie," MacKenzie says when she sees him.
"It's thirty degrees outside."
"I don't care. Smoothies are delicious at any temperature."
Will hides a smile. "That's not – I don't think that's what you meant."
"No," she frowns, "it's not. I wouldn't want a warm smoothie."
"Gross," Reese puts in as he locks the car.
Will sighs. "Okay, fine, but you need to eat at least half a sandwich, too."
MacKenzie squints at him. "Done," she says, and leads him inside.
Will gets the sandwiches and a coffee each for himself and Reese, and the exchange of food and awkwardly holding the cups while they sort themselves into their cars means that he and MacKenzie don't really look at each other until he's pulling back onto 95.
"Look," he starts, as she says, "Listen." They both laugh awkwardly and she indicates that he should talk. "I didn't mean to imply that – that you need protecting or anything. I don't think you need it. I just… I want that. I want you to be safe. To be happy."
MacKenzie makes a sound of complete frustration and disbelief, and snatches at his hand. "Billy, I am happy. I will only ever be happy with you. And I could never in a million years be happy with that douchebag." She brings his fingers to her lips. "I love you," she says. "Get over it. I'd rather we were found out and you had to quit your job and no one ever took me seriously again and we were forced to spend out lives hiding in some hut in Uganda than be with Brian for even half a minute."
His lips twitch. "I was thinking Angola, actually. Seaside hut." She laughs, but he still owes her an apology. Taking a deep breath, he says, "I want – I need to apologize. What I said about Brian… I'm not jealous. Really. I know you didn't mean to kiss him, or –"
She's shaking her head. "No. That was me. It was a mistake, but I made it. That was fair."
"No, it absolutely wasn't. And I'm sorry. You're right. You can make your own decisions."
She toys with his fingers, curling and uncurling them. "I like that you look out for me, Will. I just want you to know that I don't need you to look out for me."
He smiles wryly. "Well, if I wasn't clear on that before, I certainly am after yesterday," and when she laughs, he feels a million times lighter.
There are, thankfully, not too many people in the ER early on a Sunday evening, and they don't spend too long waiting before MacKenzie's name is called. The nurse asks her at least four times how she got injured, sending mistrustful looks at Will until he offers to leave the room.
"No," says MacKenzie, firmly, and Will shrugs.
Finally, a doctor comes in and orders some x-rays, which means that Will is waiting by himself in the exam room, reading posters about diabetes and the functioning of the digestive system until MacKenzie comes back. In the end, the doctor sends her home with some naproxen, a warning not to strain herself until her concussion symptoms abate, an ace bandage around her mildly-sprained wrist, and the diagnosis of a hairline fracture on her cheekbone which (Will breathes out a sigh of relief) will not require surgery.
Will starts the car and sits there for a moment. They're both exhausted, by the long drive and the hospital and the weekend's events. He sighs, leans back in his seat, closes his eyes for a moment. "Hungry?"
He hears her shake her head, and opens his eyes again to look at her. "No," she says, and he smiles a little.
"Me neither, but we should eat. Let's pick up some soup on the way to the hotel."
"Soup sounds good." MacKenzie leans her head against the window as he pulls out of the hospital parking lot. "I should call Sloan."
"Yeah," he says, and she digs out her phone, dialling and talking softly. He leaves her in the car as he ducks in to get the soup – they have both clam chowder and chicken noodle on special, which is perfect – and hands her the bag as he gets back in.
"She's coming by the hotel in the morning. I had to convince her not to come tonight."
"Do you have class?"
"Yeah," MacKenzie says, "but I think I have a really good excuse not to go."
"I'll write you a note, if you want," Will offers, and she grins at him with half her face. It hurts him to see the other half, still, and he pauses before he puts the car in gear. "I shouldn't have sent you by yourself."
"Will, really. What were the chances I'd be caught in a prison fight?"
"Pretty low," he admits.
"This isn't television. These things just don't happen."
"Clearly they do," says Will, angrily, shifting into reverse. MacKenzie looks at him in silence as he drives them down the street to the hotel.
After three blocks, she asks, "Why do you do this to yourself? Why does everything have to be your fault?"
"That's not…" he tries.
"There are forces in the world other than the great Will McAvoy."
Will shoots a glance at her, unable to tell whether she's pissed at him or concerned for him, whether she's sarcastic or not, but there are no streetlights on this stretch of road and her face is hidden in shadow. "I know that," he says.
"Then why –"
"Because I can't protect everyone, okay? I can't – I can't do it all, but I can protect you, I have to protect you, and I've failed, twice now, and –"
"Okay," says MacKenzie. "All right."
"– and I already told you, nothing bad can happen to you. God, Mac. I couldn't –nothing…" He knows what he means to say, but he can't make himself say it, ashamed and afraid and unwilling to make himself vulnerable. But he's said plenty for her to be able to understand, so he thinks he's done enough. He's done enough.
"Billy," she says. "That's… sweet, and a little fucked-up, but you have to let yourself off the hook for things that are in no way your fault. You're just hurting yourself."
He sighs. "I know," he says, scrubbing a hand through his hair.
"Easier said than done." He pulls into the hotel lot, parks, and then swears. "We don't have clothes or anything. We've both been wearing the same thing for two days." He wrinkles his nose. "I stink."
"I'll tell Sloan to stop by my room in the morning. I think I have some of your stuff. At least a pair of boxers, anyway, and a t-shirt."
"Perfect," says Will. "I'll drive back to New York in my underwear," and MacKenzie grins with unimpeded delight.
By Wednesday, MacKenzie's back to working on her thesis. She spends the day barely able to concentrate in class, although every classmate and most of her professors are shocked enough to spend a good five minutes asking what happened to her face. After her last class, she rushes back to her dorm, changes into sweats and a tank top, and sets herself up on her bed, surrounded by papers, notes, and her laptop. Her glasses teeter on the end of her nose, and she's gripping a pencil with her teeth as she types.
At nine, Will calls.
"You would not believe some of the private prison companies that the Marshals Service contracts with," she says as she picks up. "Also, I started with writing down everything I remember from this weekend – I really should have done it right away when I got back, Monday morning at the latest, I'm already forgetting details –"
"Mac, maybe you should give it a rest, just for a week. You deserve a little time off. After this weekend."
She throws down her pencil, and it bounces on a messy stack of notes. She knows he's just worried about her, but she's not a child and she's not fragile, and she's not just his girlfriend: she's going to be a journalist, and she'll be a goddamn good one if it literally kills her. "I'm not going to be dissuaded from this story, Will, just because something happened to me. This is important. How we treat the people we punish is important. And the worst thing about all this is that we haven't even decided yet how – or if – we're going to punish some of them. These are prisoners who haven't been sentenced. Some of them haven't been tried. What does that make us, as a nation? What does that make me if I stop? So, no, I appreciate your concern, but I am not going to give it a rest."
Will is silent for a moment, and she thinks he's a little taken aback at the ferocity of her response to what was, objectively, a pretty innocuous statement. She's about to apologize when he says, in a rough, quiet voice gravelly with emotion, "That's my girl," and she glows.
He clears his throat. "Did you remember to eat?"
Biting her lip, she says, "No."
"I'll bring something over," he says, and hangs up before she can object.
Forty minutes later, she's moved to the desk so that she can eat and work at the same time and he's sprawled all over her bed. He doesn't usually come to her dorm, but it seems like he's loath to let her out of his sight. Her curtains are drawn; he's squinting in the dim glow from her desk lamp at her beat-up copy of To Kill a Mockingbird.
"Did you just start in the middle of that?"
He shrugs, not looking up. "I know it pretty well. I was looking for – I was – here. 'How could they do it, how could they?' 'I don't know, but they did it. They've done it before and they did it tonight and they'll do it again and when they do it – seems that only children weep.' "
MacKenzie stops, one hand frozen partway through flipping a page on a legal pad, the other holding a french fry halfway to her mouth. Will doesn't look up from the book. "What else?" she whispers.
He does look up then, and stares at her for a long moment across the bed before he flips to the end, to the very last page, and reads, " 'Atticus, I wasn't scared.' He raised his eyebrows, and I protested: 'Leastways not till I started telling Mr. Tate about it. Jem wasn't scared. Asked him and he said he wasn't. Besides –" Will hesitates, then finishes, " 'Besides, nothin's real scary except in books.' "
MacKenzie's gaze is locked on her notes, on her laptop, the words swimming in front of her eyes. The letters lose their meaning, their ability to stand for something, and the sentences turn into straggly dark shapes on the page. "Nothing's scary," she whispers. They had brought the food in, and there was a rush towards them and she'd been afraid, and two guys ganged up on a third – she can see his face, bloodied and mashed in and unrecognizable as a face anymore – and someone had gotten thrown into a wall, there had been blood all over the floor, so much that she'd slipped in it, viscous and thick… She swallows convulsively, and when Will touches her gently on the wrist with two fingers, she gasps. "Nothing's scary," she repeats, and her face crumples as she starts to cry.
Will draws her from the chair onto the bed and envelopes her so it's like the world outside his body doesn't even exist, like he's white noise drowning out the sound of fist hitting flesh, of broken noses grinding and the heavy fall of bodies. She breathes in deep and gives a wet laugh, trying to wipe her eyes even though her hands are sort of trapped under his arms. "I'm sorry," she says, "I don't even know why I'm crying." He presses a kiss against her temple. "I meant what I said before," she tells him, her voice a little surer. "I'm not giving up."
"I never for one second thought that you should," Will says.
He doesn't have to read the last line of the book: He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning. Some things, they both know, can just be assumed.
"Are you going to Nebraska for Christmas?" she asks.
It's three days before the end of the semester, and she's put off asking him for weeks now. "I… hadn't decided yet," he says. They're at the hotel. MacKenzie likes the hotel, with its fluffy duvet and its cool tiles in the bathroom and the fact that she can convince Will to order room service about a quarter of the time. It's just after dinner, and she's full and sleepy, leaning against him as he watches a hockey game. "No, no, not in front of the net!" he yells, and she hides her smile against his side.
"I mean, I understand if you want to, obviously," she says, adding tentatively, "and also if you don't." He grips her hand, and she squeezes it reassuringly. "But I thought I'd – you're welcome to come spend Christmas with my parents and I. You could, you could even come on Christmas Eve and stay the night."
Will looks at her in surprise. "How did you swing that?"
She smiles cheekily, in relief. "I'm very persuasive."
"Well," he says, "I know that," and tickles her a little to make her giggle until he kisses her and she's no longer laughing. "I'd love to," he says, warm and honest.
When he shows up on the 24th with two bottles of wine and a stack of wrapped presents under his arm, her father greets him by taking the wine and saying, "McAvoy, you keep getting my daughter into trouble."
Will looks unsure, guilty. "Yes, sir, I do seem to be doing that. I'm sorry."
"Jesus, McAvoy, I'm joking. Are you only going to stop apologizing when you're my son-in-law?"
MacKenzie, still making her way to the door from the couch, feels the ends of her ears heat and groans in complete mortification. But Will, rather than looking like a terrified hare in the headlights, just smiles and says, "We'll have to see, won't we?" and her father guffaws.
Later, after Will has put his presents under their tree – and seeing him there in her parents' living room, in his favourite sweater, with his Christmas presents under their tree, makes her feel warm inside in a way that she's a little afraid to examine – after dinner, after an evening spent doing the crossword and reading in front of the fireplace, after they've all gone to bed – later, MacKenzie sneaks out of her room with her blanket wrapped around her to curl up on the couch and look at the tree. It's lit up with red and blue and white and green lights, the same ornaments as always hanging on it: her grandmother's angel, the childish art projects from when she was in preschool, the glass bulbs her parents bought on their honeymoon in Venice. A lifetime of accumulated memories.
Hearing footsteps, she looks up to see Will padding towards her in a t-shirt and boxers, and she raises the corner of her blanket so that he can settle under it beside her. "Thought I heard you up," he says.
She's sleepy but almost too content, too happy to actually sleep, so she just makes a noise of acknowledgement and leans against him. They both regard the tree. "I love you," she says.
"I love you too," he says, but breathes in as if he means to go on, so she waits. "Don't be scared," he says, "but – I want to do this every year. Forever." He turns to look at her, eyes serious, reflecting the coloured lights of the tree. "For the rest of my life."
She wants to reach up and touch his face, but she can't seem to move. Instead, she says, "Nothing's scary," and adds, in her head, not with you. Never with you. And even though she doesn't say that part out loud, from the way his hand comes around to cup her neck, from the way he kisses her gently and tender and warm like a promise, she thinks he knows anyway.