Five months later...
Nadine normally teaches two lectures on Wednesday mornings. On the Wednesday that the McCord campaign team is scheduled to arrive in California, she cancels both lectures and drives an hour down to Stanford University to the meet and greet—one of several events the McCord campaign is holding in the state.
Nadine, despite her commitment to staying out of politics, keeps close tabs on the McCord campaign, and has done so since its inception. Sometimes she phone banks for them through the local field office. She'd do more, if she had the time, but the college has added several sections to her spring semester course and now she's giving twice as many lectures as she had in the fall. Still, she does what she can, and she always keeps an eye on the polls and the media coverage. No matter the professional or geographical distance, she will always hold an allegiance to Elizabeth McCord. That will never change.
She knows that Mike is Elizabeth's campaign manager, but not because Mike told her. After running into him at the art gallery several months ago, they no longer operate inside that easy rapport that had been so painstaking to establish in the first place. They don't text or email or call each other anymore. They don't communicate at all.
Blake has been keeping her in the loop instead.
Text me when you get to the venue, he had told her last night. We'd love to see your face first.
Their bus is expected to get to the campus an hour ahead of the event, and Nadine gets there about ten minutes ahead of that. A generous portion of the parking lot has been blocked off for the campaign bus, but the rest of it is already quite full by the time she gets there.
She sits in her car, shoots off a text to Blake, and watches through her windshield as event workers scurry across the green, handling all the last-minute details. There's a massive platform stage mounted in the main quad and the entire area is roped off with stanchions set up on either side in anticipation of the crowd. Already, large handfuls of students have begun to queue up. Elizabeth is a strong favorite by this state as a whole, but especially by the liberal, idealistic young voters that populate its universities. At Berkeley too Nadine has been seeing an incredible showing of support.
Her phone goes off.
She looks up. In her rearview mirror, she sees the massive bus pull into the parking lot. The students gathered on the quad begin to cheer, with no signs of stopping any time soon.
As people begin to de-board, Nadine gets out of her car. She recognizes some of the younger campaign workers as former State Department interns. She's not surprised that so many of them would have followed Elizabeth McCord on this path. Of her old colleagues, she sees only three: Daisy, Blake, and Mike. And of course, Elizabeth herself.
She walks toward the bus. Daisy notices her first and squeals, rushing over to wrap her in a hug that nearly knocks her over, and that attracts the attention of everyone around them.
"Oh my god, hello, hi," Nadine sputters, laughing a little as she hugs Daisy back.
"I didn't know you were going to be here!"
"Well, I told—"
"I wanted it to be a surprise," Blake says, appearing behind Daisy. He's looking very smug, clearly pleased by his own tactics. He wraps the both of them in a tight group hug and then turns them around, back toward the bus.
"I wasn't surprised," Elizabeth offers. "I taught Blake everything he knows about deception and trickery. He can't get this stuff by me." She's the next person there to hug her. "Hi, Nadine."
"Elizabeth. Hi. Congratulations."
"Oh, don't congratulate me just yet. There's still a hell of a battle to be fought."
Nadine pulls back from the hug. She shakes her head. "No. I've been waiting almost three years for you to run for President. This is worth congratulations."
Elizabeth is a little bemused. "Well then in that case, thank you for being patient with me." She smiles. "It's good to see you again. Clearly the California climate agrees with you."
"I'll take this over the DC humidity any day," Nadine agrees. "And the DC winters."
From behind Elizabeth, Mike's voice cuts in, good-natured for the most part. "This California climate's made you soft," he says.
"Not possible," Blake shoots back.
"And we're moving," Daisy interrupts pointedly. She ushers them all toward the quad. "Come on, we have a speaking engagement, everyone."
Nadine is a little disappointed to see Mike taking long strides to get ahead of her; his avoidance is blatant. She's getting his message loud and clear.
But Blake, bless him, falls into step with her as they make their way to the platform stage.
"No Jay?" she says.
He shakes his head. "He doesn't like all this travel, what with Chloe still being so young… He runs the office at headquarters."
"Makes sense." She doesn't say anything about how Daisy is still here when her daughter is even younger than Chloe. Daisy has always been hungrier than Jay anyway, more ambitious, for as long as Nadine has known her.
"He'll be sad he missed you."
"Give him my best."
Most of the campaign staff have already dispersed, taking care of last minute logistics. She sees Mike up ahead, in deep discussion with Daisy over something he's showing her on his phone, and Elizabeth making her way over to the queue to chat with some of the students ahead of her speech. More and more people begin to descend on the quad, and not just students. The parking lot is completely full now, with attendants waving new cars away and setting up barriers at the entrance.
By the time Elizabeth takes to the stage, there is a veritable sea of people, and their cheers are deafening. As Elizabeth delivers her remarks, Nadine feels an incredible swell of pride, of loyalty. The gravity of this moment and this movement is profound to her.
Next to her, Blake leans down. "That's our president," he murmurs. "That's her." Everything she feels, Nadine can hear in Blake's voice.
"That's her," she agrees.
After the end of the event but before the team can all pack themselves back on the bus to leave, Nadine finally plucks up the courage to approach Mike. She can't very well be here and simply avoid him entirely. She has things she needs to say to him, a proposition to make. And she'll never forgive herself if she doesn't at least try.
She says her round of goodbyes to everyone else, and then walks up to him once she sees that he's alone.
"Hi," she says tentatively.
He looks up from his phone. "Hi." There's an awkward tension between them that she hates. It's unnatural. It feels wrong.
She gestures around them. "Campaign looks like it's going well."
He nods. "It is. Elizabeth continues to take years off my life with the stress she creates for me—seemingly out of thin air—but… that isn't new. It'll be well worth it to see her get sworn in."
And this, Nadine is reminded, is one of many reasons she respects him and always will. His professional loyalty is nearly impossible to earn, but unshakeable once it's given. He's a good person for Elizabeth to have in her corner, and he believes in her so absolutely that he'd probably carry her through a fire if that's what it took to get her what she wanted.
He's never afforded even Nadine that kind of regard.
Nadine smiles. "It will be."
"And you look well," he says, giving her a glancing once-over.
"You do, too." She hesitates. "I… I'd like to take you to dinner before you leave." She tries to say it confidently, even as she's bracing herself for a response she won't like.
He considers her olive branch.
"We're very busy," he says finally. He's looking somewhere above her shoulder. Not at her. "I don't think I have the time."
While it very easily could be the truth, there's something in the way he says it, the detached apathy of it, that makes it sound like a cheap excuse. "Come on, Mike," she says softly. "I haven't seen you in—"
"Won't your boyfriend have something to say about it?"
She blinks, caught off-guard. "I'm not— I broke things off. A while ago."
"You did, huh."
She gives him a pained look. "How long are you gonna punish me for the way we left things?"
"I'm not trying to punish you. I just… I guess I don't know what you're angling for."
"I'm not angling for—"
"Maybe that isn't the right word," he says quickly. "I just mean… you always push and pull me, and I don't… I don't want to get my hopes up before you tell me what you think you want."
"I want for us to be okay. Friends. Like we actually give a damn about each other."
She rolls her eyes. "Mike, don't be a baby."
"It was a serious question."
She speaks through her teeth. "I'm not going to bleed for you just to show you that I care."
"That's kind of the problem, don't you think? You never have."
And she doesn't know what to say to that.
He has always worn his heart on his sleeve where she is concerned. She has never allowed herself to take the same chances, but she can take that chance now.
Nadine makes a decision.
She lifts up onto her toes and kisses him full on the lips, with all her longing, her adoration, her love—and she doesn't care who sees it.
Let them look.
It takes him no time at all to catch on. Mike brings both of his hands up to cradle her face and kisses her back with just as much feeling, moving his lips against hers slowly, as if he's afraid she'll snap out of it and pull away if he moves too quickly.
After a long moment she finally pulls back, but only to put an inch of space between them. He looks stunned.
She lays the rest of her cards on the table. "I'm moving back east in a few months," she says quietly. "Back to DC."
It takes him a second for him to register what she said, then another second to hear what she's saying. "Are you?"
"And… and I want to try again. I always thought we never worked because the timing was wrong, but that wasn't it."
"It was because I was always pulling away. Because I wouldn't just let myself be happy. I want a chance to do it differently this time. I want you to give me that chance." He strokes her cheek. She curls her fingers around his wrist when he hesitates to respond. "You said before that you wanted me to be happy," she murmurs.
"I did, and I still do. I've always—"
"Then make me happy."
Finally, his face splits into a wide smile. He kisses her again, long and deep, barely able to stop smiling long enough to do it properly. When he pulls away this time, they're both breathless and giddy. He brushes back a stray curl of her hair. "You're really coming back?"
"I'm really coming back," she says. "To stay."
"Back to public service?"
She shakes her head. "Teaching. I have a standing offer at GW, and Roman's taking a transfer to Arlington, so I'm taking this." Nadine is worried that Shindy will hate the east coast winters, will be miserable there, but she insists that she's excited to see the snow, and happy to be wherever her family is. She'd included Nadine in her definition of family.
"I'm glad. You belong in DC."
"Have dinner with me," she says again, and reminds him, "It's my turn to pick up the tab."
He runs a mental check of his schedule. "Tomorrow? We leave late tomorrow night."
"Okay. Call me when you're done glad-handing today," she says, and kisses him again. She feels so much lighter already.
As she turns to leave, she pretends not to notice Elizabeth and Daisy's matching shit-eating grins, or Blake's jaw on the ground.
She's going to get it right this time.
She couldn't get her old condo back, but that's fine. It's on the other side of the city from the university anyway, and though the commute wouldn't have killed her, it's nice not to worry about it all the same. She finds a great high-rise complex in Foggy Bottom instead, and it's close enough to the campus that she could walk there come fall.
All of her things had been moved to the new unit ahead of her arrival. She'd spent most of the previous afternoon deep-cleaning everything and unpacking all her essentials—towels, toiletries—and by evening had the master bed and bath ready to go.
She works on the kitchen and the living room today. The upside of living in a space made for one is that it takes practically no time at all to put together. By late afternoon, she's got the dishwasher cycling on her last load of dishware and she's breaking down boxes to put out with the recycling.
The sun is just beginning to set when Mike lets himself in. She's lucky that she gets to have him to herself today—he's still knee-deep in campaign business, and on the road more often than not. He'd gotten out of it this weekend just to help her with the move, and she's not going to ask questions about how he did it.
"I brought takeout," he announces, walking into the kitchen. He sets the bag down on the island, opens the top.
"Perfect. I have clean plates." She walks over to him, swiping at her brow, and peers into the bag to see what he's brought.
"Thai. I even remembered the papaya salad." When he leans in to kiss her cheek, she squirms away.
"Don't! I'm filthy; I've been cleaning all day."
He pulls her into him anyway and lays one on her obnoxiously. "I'm not squeamish."
She only rolls her eyes, shoving him away playfully.
"Come on, let's eat," he says, "and then I can help you christen your new shower."
"How thoughtful of you."
"I'm all about the helping."
"If you help me put together the desk in my office, you can help me christen that too," she offers sweetly.
His answering smile is joyful and wide. "Oh, you have a deal."
Later, after they've eaten, after they've built her an entire desk (and tested its strength), after they've thoroughly explored the virtues of her new shower, they finally make it to her bed.
They collapse on it, side by side. They lay there in blissed-out silence for a long time, content just to listen to the sound of their breathing.
He lifts her hand to his lips and presses a gentle kiss to the back of it. "I'm glad we're here," he murmurs.
"Me too," she says softly.
And it took them awhile—way too long, probably—but now that it's hers, Nadine has no plans to give it up anytime soon. She feels the warmth bloom in her chest, a wide and uncomplicated happiness she thinks she's been chasing for years.
And she feels herself fall a little bit more in love.