This is the first real assignment MacKenzie has ever had on her own and while she thinks she’s ready, she isn’t sure if she’s ready to go into a war zone and be shot at by militants from six or ten different countries while trying to report the news. This isn’t what she’s learned how to handle from the cool comfort of a sleek, modern studio and it’s certainly not what she’d been prepared for back in her Cambridge days. Still, it’s exciting and new and for so long MacKenzie has been stuck in the same routine - wake up, drink coffee, produce news, go home, dinner with Brian, perfunctory sex, check the wires, go to sleep. Every day, day in and day out for the last six years and now MacKenzie is thirty and nothing seems to ever change. She isn’t married, she doesn’t have children and now’s as good a time as any to experience something new and exciting before going back to Manhattan and her comfortable, safe life.
The anchor they’ve selected for this new series from the front lines is a relative unknown. He’s Will McAvoy, ACN’s former legal correspondent who ended up doing brilliant 9/11 coverage a few weeks ago. That had opened up the door to this opportunity, his own show and staff, and he’d jumped at the opportunity to report live from the front lines in Afghanistan. MacKenzie is under no illusions they’ll actually get an exclusive but she hopes she’ll get a chance to highlight human interest stories, niche things that she never gets a chance to push back home. She wants to do stories about women under Taliban rule, about the regular people and she doesn’t want everything to just be about the American soldiers searching for Bin Laden.
Like anything she does, MacKenzie throws herself headlong into research. By the time she meets Will McAvoy in order to start planning out their first few episodes, she has filled her head with statistics about the region and the typical military units they send in. She knows the load capacity of a C-130 and has basically memorized the Black Hawk operations manual. She thinks she can fly one better than she can drive a car but she guesses the US Military doesn’t want to risk her crashing millions of dollars into the dust.
Will is...MacKenzie isn’t sure about Will yet. He’s suave and charming, pulling out her chair for her and opening doors wherever they go. When they get on the plane to fly to Islamabad before getting a military transport into Kabul, Will carries her bags for her along with his own even though she knows her equipment weighs a metric fuckton. Flying directly into Kabul is pretty much impossible and their trip involves several tiny planes and several bone-jarring rides in Humvees. Will is affable the entire time, laughing and joking with the crew and with their driver.
MacKenzie spends much of her time translating because she speaks a little Urdu and their driver’s English is not the best. When they get to Afghanistan, their first priority is to find someone who speaks the language so they’re not dependent upon the military and MacKenzie finds a capable enough teenage boy who’s happy to help them for a price. He’s a good contact for when they actually want to speak to the citizens of Kabul and not military personnel and MacKenzie gets his name and a way to contact him on a local phone. In spite of popular belief, Afghanistan isn’t all shepherds and mountains. There’s an honest to God city and most people have cell phones.
They head outside the city to rendezvous with the platoon of Marines they’re to be embedded with. It’s a whole other culture, one that MacKenzie feels a bit left out of because their entire unit is men and they don’t feel the need to tone it down for her presence. To them, she’s a fresh-faced girl who’s going to get herself killed in the middle of a war zone and MacKenzie wants to prove them wrong more than anything. She doesn’t know if she can.
Will bunks next to her the first night. He’s a little overprotective, which makes MacKenzie bristle, but she thinks its a coping mechanism more than thinking she’s not capable of taking care of herself. The nights are cool here and she’s grateful for the little extra warmth by having Will pressed alongside her in his own bedroll. The camp is never really truly quiet but it approaches it late after 1:00 AM local time and Will’s voice startles her.
“They don’t think you can do this,” he says, tone a bit incredulous. “They think you’re just a liability that’s going to get us all killed. I told them to go fuck themselves. I think you probably know more about US-Afghan relations than anyone here. How’d you manage that, by the way? Google?”
MacKenzie laughs. As if Google could teach her everything she needed to know about this warzone she’s voluntarily suited up for. It goes much, much deeper than that. Ever since she was a girl, MacKenzie has wanted to be her father. Her father, who was a diplomat in such far-flung locations as China and Japan and South Africa and, eventually, America, instilled in her a great love for learning and a thirst to be anything but stationary. MacKenzie has always been cursed with wandering feet and an inconstant heart, a restless desire to move on to the bigger and better no matter what she currently has in her pocket. She’s an idealist, through and through, and while this assignment is partially ambition (she wants to be more than just a senior producer at ACN doomed to never promote) it’s partially because she’s just tired of her life. She’s tired of having the same routine day in and day out and she’s tired of fighting and bickering with Brian, never knowing where she stands. She wants to shed her skin and become someone new, something ephemeral and not easily defined and Afghanistan, in a way, is her way of doing that.
But how does she explain that to Will McAvoy? She imagines his reasons for taking this assignment lay solely in ambition, in the desire to anchor his own show and she isn’t deluded enough to think he cares about the women and children of Kabul when he has his own cushy apartment back in New York just waiting for him to come home and sublet it because he’s moving on to something bigger and better and preferably overlooking Central Park. Will McAvoy and MacKenzie McHale have career paths that are tangent - rocketing straight upward but intersecting only once. She has no doubt that after this, he will move on to his soft existence as an anchor that offends nobody and is loved by everyone and she will continue to be embedded and produce Peabody-winning documentaries. They will never cross paths again.
“My father is a diplomat, appointed as the US Ambassador under Thatcher. I lived in thirty two countries before I went to university and lived in several after. The longest I’ve ever lived anywhere is the last six years in New York and it’s about to drive me mad so I packed up and came out here. My father always says I’m like dandelion fluff. I’m not happy unless the wind is carrying me off somewhere new,” MacKenzie says, laughing nervously. It seems strangely intimate to be talking in the dark with Will, the only sounds the insects and the distant crashes of shelling. There’s bombing tonight and it’s keeping her awake but MacKenzie knows eventually she’ll have to learn how to sleep through it. She’ll have to learn how to tamp down her natural tendency to cut and run when faced with danger and, to instead, ignore those internal warning bells and stand firm.
MacKenzie doesn’t think she’s cut out to be a soldier.
When one of the shells hits dangerously close, she gasps and reaches for Will’s hand in the cool dark. He twines his fingers with hers and squeezes her hand, offering himself as a lifeline and a connection to the life she’s familiar with. They’re doing this together. They’re going to report the news, hell or high water. They’re going to make a difference.
She and Will McAvoy are a hell of a team, so much so that she’s barely remembered to speak with her parents or with Brian. She’s been wrapped up in Will and the work they’ve been doing here in Afghanistan and the outside world has simply ceased to exist. She doesn’t write and the calls are few and far between, which she imagines everyone will chalk up to bad signal. They’ve moved from Kabul up into a mountain village and MacKenzie is producing a story about a school being built by marines here, a school that the women of the village hope their daughters will be able to attend. MacKenzie hopes they will too but the Taliban grip in this part of the country is deep and hard to shake.
MacKenzie makes the mistake of going out without a hijab only once. The men glare at her and the women won’t speak to her. In hindsight, she guesses she should have known not to make such an offensive gaffe in a Muslim country but she’s running on negative sleep and substituting for it with adrenaline and badly-brewed coffee. Later, when she is covered from head to toe, the people are more willing to speak to her. Will is a little more aloof and finds it a little harder to be anything but a white American but MacKenzie comes to this country with an open heart and willingness to learn. She wants to know about schools, about milking goats and herding deep in the mountains, about how the Taliban has made it hard for these people. She learns that not everyone sees the Americans as the Great White Saviors of their country and in some ways, the Taliban represented stability even if the regime is oppressive by western standards.
The thing she learns over and over again is that imperialism is alive and well even if it’s not England colonizing India this time around. The flavor of it is the same and it is not exactly something their country should necessarily be doing. They’re on a mad and merry little chase through these mountains to rout out Osama Bin Laden and while MacKenzie agrees the man’s a terrorist, she cannot help but think they’re doing more harm than good by trying to overthrow the government in this country.
Winter is cold in Afghanistan and after the fall of Kabul, there’s very little to be done in cities any longer. The fighting has moved to more remote areas and while they are still with Marines and on Army installations, it’s nothing approaching luxury. She and Will spend hours shooting B-roll while bumping over cut-throughs that pass for roads and MacKenzie has never known this kind of exhaustion. And yet, there’s good here. There’s good in a hospital being built after bombings have destroyed the few buildings in one of these villages. There’s the delight of a girl attending her first day of school and learning to read and write. Nothing is black and white.
One cold December night, close to Christmas, they ride up on a village they’ve visited a few times to find it hollowed out and burning. A bomb landed here and cut a path of destruction through the village seeking out a high-level military target, heedless of the casualties it would leave behind. Some analyst buried somewhere in a bunker provided the intelligence that made this strike necessary and the cost-benefit analysis was not in the people’s favor. Will pales a little and MacKenzie blanches, sick to her stomach. She buries her face against Will’s shoulder and they ride back down to camp. MacKenzie has never felt safer than when she’s wrapped up in Will McAvoy’s arms and she thinks it’s because he gets it.
They have been on opposing sides about this military campaign from the beginning but they’re united in this. No matter how badly Will wants the might of the American army to crush the terrorists who attacked on 9/11, no matter how badly he believes that the military should find and kill Osama Bin Laden heedless of the consequences, even he doesn’t believe an innocent village should pay for the sins of one man. He, too, had known these people and seen them go about their daily lives. The price is too high even if the end result is a worthy one.
It’s clear and cold tonight but MacKenzie isn’t shivering because of that. Will invites her to sleep in his bunk and it’s a tight fit - they’re both tall and Will’s 6’4” frame barely fits in one of these narrow beds, much less with another person squeezed in. MacKenzie ends up sprawling on top of him beneath the blankets and she isn’t sure who starts the kiss. Their mouths meet in a messy collision, a Moebius loop that has no real beginning and end. She isn’t sure how his hands end up beneath her t-shirt but she shifts enough that he can cup her breasts; Will’s teeth tug at her lower lip hard enough to leave it swollen and kiss-stung.
They don’t undress so much as shift things out of the way and when MacKenzie sinks down on him, she whimpers because it’s the first sex she’s had in three months and there’d been little preparation. They rock against one another slow and it’s less about pleasure and more about making a connection and feeling alive even though they’re grieving a little for the town and for their illusions being shattered. They’re not innocents anymore and this war they’ve been observers of, that they’ve been viewing through the lens, has suddenly become very, very real.
Will reaches between them and rubs her and even though the angle is awkward she comes, muffling her cries with his mouth and taking him deep as he arches his hips and finishes in her. Afterward, she curls against his chest and cries for a while. She’s not sure why she cries but it isn’t lost on her that Will never asks. He merely offers comfort in his quiet, caring way and his hand rubs up and down her back as she sobs, a slow and steady comfort.
She could get used to this.
Her letters and calls to her parents are solely about Will and very little about her work. She hears she’s been nominated for a Peabody for the piece she submitted about the schools here and she wonders who will accept the award in her stead. Will it be Charlie Skinner from ACN? Will it be her parents? Will she and Will be home to accept it themselves? MacKenzie cannot say. She thinks she could live in this world forever, traveling country to country with Will at her side.
They’re in Pakistan now, in Islamabad and MacKenzie wants to get footage of a Shi’ite protest to add to their ongoing series about the rift between the Sunni and Shi’ite schools of thought. The American public is woefully uneducated about Islam and MacKenzie hopes to get a fair and balanced account of the religion on American televisions so that people can make informed opinions instead of knee-jerk reactions.
She doesn’t feel the knife. One moment, she’s getting video of Will and the next there’s a white hot flash and she’s in the dust. They never find the assailant, everyone too concerned with the bright red staining MacKenzie’s pale blue shirt and she loses blood quickly enough that she doesn’t remember anything at all about the transport from the town square to the hospital. The next few days pass in a blur of surgeries and anesthesia and she only catches snippets of what’s being said.
Elevated HCG. Fetus nonviable. Uterine tear. Six units of blood. Brian Brenner.
When she finally wakes for good, she’s not in Pakistan any longer. Her first word is “Will,” and when she cracks open her eyes, it’s not Will but Brian slumped in the chair at her bedside. There’s flowers and cards and signs of multiple visitors but she wants to know where Will is. Brian informs her in a gravelly voice that Will stayed with her in Pakistan and flew over with her on a military transport to Landstuhl, in Germany, and then immediately took a flight back to New York. Nobody’s spoken to him or seen him since.
They’d contacted Brian because she’d listed him as her emergency contact on her paperwork with ACN and he’d called Will, frantic about hearing his girlfriend had been stabbed in Islamabad when his last contact with her had been in Peshawar. She’d spent the better part of two years traveling the other side of the world with Will McAvoy and had barely deigned to send him a note but now she was lying in a hospital bed and he was the only one who could make decisions about her care.
MacKenzie’s brain is foggy but she sorts out what happened after the fact, learns that she’d been fourteen weeks pregnant and unaware of it. She learns that Will found out about Brian while she was bleeding out and had only abandoned her once it seemed like she’d pull through. She learns that the knife caught her just right and damaged her left Fallopian tube and uterus such that she’ll never bear children.
It’s a hell of a lot to process. She spends weeks and weeks in rehab before they deem her well enough to travel back to the US and she’s dependent on Brian in a way she doesn’t want to be. As soon as her plane touches down at JFK she does two things: she breaks up with Brian and she takes a cab to Will’s apartment. Will is the only one she wants to see after this, the only one she wants, but when she goes to his place to make the grand overture, he leaves her standing out in the rain.
Calls. Emails. Interoffice memos. They all go unanswered. MacKenzie makes and breaks appointments with every psychiatrist in Manhattan and has an entire pharmacy taking up residence in her bathroom. Those little orange bottles seem to tell her that she’s failed and that she can’t hack it, that her meteoric rise to stardom has been cut short by hubris and that she’ll never recapture it.
She watches Will take over as the night anchor five days a week on ACN and he’s more handsome than ever, bright blue eyes and gorgeous hands. It was two years in a foxhole (well, 28 months) but it was the best two years of her life. She watches him every night even though it hurts and eventually she takes a job at Fox, only to quit it later when she cannot stomach bullshit any longer. She writes a book. She collects another Peabody for a six-part documentary that she cuts and edits from their leftover footage and collects it herself without Will in sight.
Calls. Emails. Desperate voicemails at 3:00 AM. None of it is returned and MacKenzie pops Xanax dry, wonders if this is who she is now. Will’s only going up, even if he’s selling out his integrity to do it, and she’s spiraling out of control. She makes the mistake of calling Brian again and they fuck on occasion, something that makes her feel dirty and used. She’s the one who cheated, who used her indifference toward Brian to justify her dalliance with Will and now it’s all fucked up because all along it was Will that she loved. Will’s the one for her. He’ll always be the one for her.
Seven years after she came back from Pakistan, she turns up at Northwestern and goads Will into giving a real response to the inane questions posed to him. She forces him to use his intellect and his savvy to tear apart both the right and left to get to the truth of the matter. She’s been producing him from her couch for the better part of seven years now and she’s an expert at it, even if nobody else is aware of it.
When she arrives home from Chicago, she flushes her Xanax down the toilet and faxes her resume to Charlie Skinner. It’s against medical advice but if she’s going to do this, really do it, then she’s going to do it with a clear head. Later, possibly sooner rather than later, she might end up regretting this decision.
She sees him for the first time in years and he’s livid but he’s Will and she thinks she can do this. She thinks they can finally do the news.
“What are you thinking about, hon?”
MacKenzie shifts and turns so she’s facing him and reaches out to touch his face. He’s older, has a few more lines, but she has her own. It’s time to just be them and forget about all the baggage.
“I’m thinking about Afghanistan at Christmas.”
He’s the only other person in the world who understands.