"He misses you, you know."
Nadine looks up from her legal pad. "Ma'am?"
The Secretary barely even makes eye contact. That's the only way it works, really; this weird, semi-unprofessional part of their relationship. It's only tenable with a little distance. "Mike B," she Secretary elaborates.
Then again, all the distance in the world might not be enough to make Nadine okay with this. She has a history of blurring the lines between the professional and personal, but there are still things that seem invasive to her. Elizabeth McCord discussing Nadine's love life is one.
Still, Nadine can't resist asking, "He spoke to you? About..." she trails off.
"Well, kind of. I may have brought it up. I may have had some words for him," the Secretary admits. "I told him to apologize to you, for one. Immediately."
Nadine wonders how much the other woman actually knows about the way her little experiment with Mike had imploded. "He did," she says simply. It was just that apologies didn't fix everything.
"And maybe he didn't say that he misses you in so many words, but he didn't have to because of, you know, my stellar CIA training," the Secretary continues. "I was taught to notice these kinds of things."
Nadine raises a brow. "What, remorseful men?"
"Men who want something," she corrects. "Although I will concede that in Mike's case, I didn't need a CIA background to figure that out. It's that fucking obvious."
They've obliterated all sense of professionalism, apparently. Nadine presses her lips together and doesn't say anything.
"Look," the Secretary presses, "I've known Mike Barnow a long time and I've never seen him like this."
With all due respect, ma'am, Nadine wants to say, you don't know the first thing about any of it.
If it had just been sex, it never would have gotten this complicated. They never would have gotten this injured. But Nadine has enough self-awareness to know that it's never been "just" anything between them. Even when they were having "just sex", it had still been more. Because they had been good friends, and he'd been falling in love with her, and those two things had made it complicated, even when the whole point was that it wasn't supposed to be.
"I worked with him before, you know," Nadine ventures. Opening up is a risky move, maybe. The Secretary has known Mike longer than she's known Nadine, and her emotional loyalties may very well lie with him. "Oh, maybe a decade ago. We were both on Vincent's staff when he was in the Senate."
The Secretary raises her eyebrows. "Really."
"We… have a complicated history," Nadine says. She leaves it at that, and the Secretary doesn't push.
"I didn't realize," she says simply, and her words seem softer somehow; kinder. "Look, I didn't mean to pry, just… you were making him happy. And you were happy."
Nadine presses her lips together, keeps her expression carefully blank. "It's complicated," she says again.
She calls Roman again the next week, but the conversation isn't as easy or kind this time. Her fault.
She's packing for New York City, for the Secretary's UNGA appearance in two days' time, and talking to Roman as she packs her favorite pair of french heels. Her quip is thoughtless, and she knows this as soon as she's said it. Roman bristles right away, and she winces, waiting for the explosion. She didn't mean it to be a slight, but she knows he'll take it as one.
"When are you going to stop bringing that up?" he demands.
"No, I didn't mean—"
"You also left school for your art, mom. What I did is no different from—"
"I graduated first," she cuts him off sharply. "It is different."
"And then you ran off to Europe with your fancy English Lit degree and got knocked up," he snaps. His judgment is withering, and it leeches her dry even with eight-thousand miles between them. Nadine is too shocked to respond. "But you're right, mom — I'm the one who made all the wrong choices."
She hangs up on him.
Roman can be as bitingly critical as her. He can be just as mean, too.
Nadine resists the urge to hurl her phone across the room.
He calls back with an apology.
He doesn't even simmer that long — just a few hours — but she's still stewing in it and so doesn't answer. She stares at the voicemail notification on her home screen for a long second before swiping it away.
Nadine doesn't mean to let it affect her work, but the unplayed voicemail sits in her mind and niggles at her thoughts throughout the whole trip, despite her attempts to shove it to the periphery. She's usually good about compartmentalizing things like this, but she's been feeling exceptionally brittle lately. It doesn't require a whole lot of self-reflection to guess why.
And then hearing Russell Jackson tear into the Secretary like that, like every asinine demonstration of free speech was somehow her fault, made Nadine so unbelievably angry. The Marty Hawk ambush had clearly been engineered with the intent to humiliate the Secretary on live television, and hell if Nadine is going to let Russell suggest otherwise. She's had it up to here with people launching undeserved attacks in her general vicinity, and she's going to do something about it. Nadine will deal with her Roman issues later, but Russell Jackson she can take care of right goddamn now. Because the Secretary has done nothing to justify his flagrant disrespect, and shouldn't have to take it.
Nadine hits back with more verve than she's ever dared, and that's saying a lot. She's had her fair share of tiffs with her White House counterpart—they have an entire professional history of arguments that goes back farther than either of them would like to admit—and in none of those cases has she ever lost her temper like this.
"Instead of throwing your own tantrum and blaming the victim for this latest tool of terrorism—why don't you grow a spine," she spits, fully aware that her voice is rising, "and do something about it?!"
They could have heard a pin drop in the shocked silence that follows. Russell's eyes flash. "Let's put a pin in that," he finally says; very softly, very dangerously. Nadine wonders if he's ever hit a woman before, because at the moment he looks like he's considering it.
But she's done the trick because the rest of his lecture is delivered at significantly fewer decibels, if not with significantly less fury. He glares at her at the end, like he expects her to capitulate. He should know her better than that. "Forget about it, Nadine; we're all upset," he mutters, and storms out of the room.
"I'm not apologizing, Russell!" she shouts at his retreating back. She turns stiffly. "I apologize ma'am," she says. Oh, how embarrassing. She silently wills her blood pressure to go back down.
"Oh… no, it's okay."
She ignores Blake as he enters uncertainly, minding his footing like he's pulverizing eggshells. She sighs and resists the urge to massage her temples. Maybe she should just go ahead and listen to Roman's voicemail.
Because she feels that the ball is in her court, she calls Roman back. They both apologize.
His voicemail had been genuine enough, and Nadine just wants to keep moving them forward.
"So how have you been?"
"Oh," he says, "I'm well. So is Shindy. She's been a little sick recently, but other than that."
"Sick?" Nadine is careful not to let her alarm creep into her voice. It's not like they've got the best healthcare over there.
"She's been vomiting a lot; nauseous all the time. I'm sure it's just a stomach bug."
"Take care of her."
"I will. I am." There's a brief pause. Then casually, he says, "You know, I talked to dad recently."
"Oh?" Nadine hasn't talked to, seen, or heard from that man in more years than she's known him. It's probably for the best, though she possesses no strong feelings, one way or another.
"He's doing well. He's in Minsk, I think. He joined some Slavic troupe."
Minsk was where they'd first met and fallen in lust.
They had never been in love.
"He's still dancing?" she asks, surprised and a little jealous. Her own hips had given out on her a long time ago, and she'd spent half her thirties rehabilitating old dancing injuries. She'd practically been a hop, skip, and a jump away from requiring surgical intervention. Needless to say, she doesn't dance anymore. But it mystifies her that his body might not have betrayed him in the same way.
"Choreographing, mostly. He had back surgery for, like, a herniated disc or something a while back and he says he doesn't move the same way anymore."
She feels a shameful twinge of self-satisfaction at that. At least she'd been able to escape the knife. "I see."
"I can't believe he never got a real job," Roman says, and Nadine stuffs her retort down deep before she forces them to make a pattern of these voicemail apologies.
"Your father is an artist," she says instead, diplomatically. "He would wither working a 'real job'."
"You were an artist once, too," Roman points out.
She shakes her head, even though he can't see it. "No. I couldn't have done it forever. And plus there were other things I wanted to do with my life." She didn't have the personality for the starving artist lifestyle anyway, and had no illusions about that. It had worked just fine when she was twenty and starry-eyed, but it wasn't the life she wanted for herself well into her thirties and forties. "Dancing across Europe was... an incredible adventure for a new college graduate, and a fulfilling gap year experience. But it wasn't a career. And a dance troupe is no place to raise a child." Once she'd begun showing too much to fit the costumes, she stepped away. She flew home, because there was nothing else for her in eastern Europe. Her life—her real life, the one that she would build alone—was back in the States. She doesn't regret her decision.
"But you were good," Roman insists. "Dad always says so."
She raises an eyebrow. "Does he."
"You know, I've never seen you dance before."
"I was much better and more athletic thirty years ago."
"...Do you resent me for it?" His words come out in a rush, like it required a decent amount of courage to pull them out.
"Resent you?" she says, genuinely taken aback. "Resent you for what?"
"You loved dance," he says, skirting the question.
"I did, and I do. I also love what I do now."
"Okay, but you loved dance and you were forced to give it up because you got pregnant with me." There's far less accusation in his voice this time than when he'd said it last time.
And she understands what he's getting at. Her heart twists. "Oh, honey. I chose to give it up. You didn't force me into anything. I wanted to raise you, and I wanted to do it right." Whether or not she was successful is a different story, and probably depends on who you ask.
"But if you hadn't had me, you would still have been dancing."
"Not forever," she reminds him. "Roman, I don't regret it. And I don't resent you. When it comes to the decisions I've made, I wouldn't… I wouldn't change a thing."
Well, that's somewhat up for debate. But the sentiment is true enough.
She pokes her head around Russell's door and doesn't bother with the pleasantries. "You heard about Morejon?"
"I hear about that bastard several times a week," he replies without looking up, "and it's terrible for my blood pressure."
"He's plotting something and it bothers me that I don't know what it is." She steps further into the room uninvited, and lowers herself into one of the chairs in front of his desk.
That finally gets Russell to glance up from his report. "Please, come in," he says dryly.
She tilts her head at him. "Are you still put out by what I said to you in New York?"
"Of course not. That would be ridiculous. Like your outburst had been," he adds pointedly.
"Like your tantrum had been," she fires back. "Russ, I have known you to be many things, and reactionary has never been one of them. I'd hate to see you start now."
He makes a noise in the back of his throat but doesn't dispute her. "It's been a stressful home stretch," he says instead. From anyone else, it would function as an explanation and a pseudo-apology. From Russell Jackson, it's simply a statement.
"It's been a stressful everything, always," she replies, and he chuckles dryly.
"You're right about that."
"How's Carol doing?" she asks kindly.
"Saving babies every day. And me," he says. "And counting down the days until I retire."
Nadine raises her eyebrows. "You're retiring?"
"She wants me to. And maybe I should, after this term."
"Oh, I don't know; I think you've still got some life left in you yet."
He spreads his hands wide. "And what would I do? Arrange the flowers in Elizabeth's White House?"
Nadine frowns. "The Secretary has no plans to—"
He waves her off. "You don't have to tout the line to me, Nadine. We both know it's only a matter of time until she comes around to the realization that she's what this country needs. Her absurd sense of duty won't let her live with the decision to step back."
Nadine presses her lips together. Secretly, she thinks the same thing. But she'll defend the Secretary's wishes as they stand regardless, and if the Secretary's intentions change, well, Nadine will defend that, too. "Maybe I'll retire at the end of this administration," she says instead, shifting the topic slightly. Russell scoffs like he doesn't believe her. She explains, "Politics has been getting exceptionally nasty these days anyway. I'm losing my taste for the fight." Marty Hawk, and the fake news media, and Senator Douchebag Morejon — this latest round of clean-ups has been exceptionally draining.
"It's certainly not the landscape we remember."
"No, it isn't. And Morejon..."
"He can say what he likes. If he gets too noisy we'll figure out how to put him down."
"He's getting too noisy."
"We'll start putting together a binder on him, then. Have Mike B start digging."
But Nadine shakes her head. "The Secretary doesn't approve of oppo research on colleagues."
"Morejon is hardly her colleague," Russell says sneeringly. "And besides, she isn't the one doing the research. You are. I am. Mike is." He raises an eyebrow at her. "We take the hits for her, remember?"
She remembers. And it isn't that she's afraid of the dirty work—she's done every dirty trick in the book, for Vincent especially—it's that she knows that dirty tricks can come back to bite her in the ass. "I'll consider the binder."
"Do what you want. All I'm saying is it's better to have it and not need it than to need it and get screwed."
"He's out for POTUS too, you know. Not just the Secretary."
"Then I'll make the binder. I'm fine corrupting my morals a little further. God knows it's good for my heart condition."
Sometimes his ruthlessness is almost clinical, and Nadine can't help but admire him for it. She is good at her work and loyal to her boss, but Russell is dedicated to his person to an almost pathological degree. Nadine knows that she could be a perfectly competent White House Chief of Staff; a good one, even. But Russell was built for the role, and he's the best one in the seat. "You could stay on as McCord's Chief of Staff, you know," she tells him, purely hypothetically. "If Carol doesn't kill you first."
He looks at her askance. "You would seriously not follow Bess to the White House?"
She chooses her words diplomatically. "Even if Secretary McCord eventually decided to put herself in the running—which is still unclear," she feels obligated to add, "it is not a certainty which of her staff she would choose to take with her, if any."
Russell scoffs. "Please. Elizabeth doesn't know how to clean house; she packs up the whole damn house and takes it with her. She likes to work with who she knows and that has always been the case. You're going to be sitting at this desk next term and we both know it."
"And you're going to arrange our flowers?" The corner of her mouth twitches.
"I'll put a fresh bouquet on your windowsill every week." He opens his hand in a why the hell not type of gesture, and she rolls her eyes in good nature.
"I should go," she says, and rises smoothly from her seat. As she walks toward the door, she throws over her shoulder, "I like calla lilies, by the way." Outside the office, she nods at Adele and gives Stevie a little wave.
Russell calls, "You'll get what I give you and you'll like it!"
Nadine smirks the whole way back to the Truman building.