He walks inside like he owns the place, like it's still familiar to him.
Nadine shuts the door behind him and follows him in, making a beeline for the kitchen. "Do you want a drink?" she asks, because she knows how to offer him basic manners and little else.
Mike seats himself on the couch; right in the middle, so that she'd be forced to sit next to him no matter which side she chose. She chooses the armchair instead. His eyes drift past her, taking in the space. Nadine knows he's studying the remnants of her minor deep-clean. She'd left the steam mop leaning out against the kitchen counter; a wicker basket on the floor piled high with clean, unfolded clothes; wet rubber gloves drying out half-draped in the sink. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything important," he says dryly. And she just knows he's judging her for all this; for having the time to deep clean her apartment on a Monday evening, for suddenly not being the workaholic he's known for the better part of a decade, for making decisions he doesn't know the first thing about.
"I have a lot more time on my hands these days. I can spare you a few minutes," she says tartly.
He stops beating around the bush and looks her hard in the eye. "You quit."
"I retired," she corrects.
"Why." Not so much a question as it is a demand for explanation.
She blinks. "Not that it's any of your business," she says, "but it was time for me to step down. I—"
"That's crap and we both know it. Why."
Nadine moves her jaw around, biting down on the beginnings of a rising temper. She doesn't need this today. "I was ready to step down," she repeats. She puts a distinct edge to her voice, a warning for him not to push for something he isn't owed.
"So then what? You're retired now and you're gonna do what? Knit? Feed pigeons on the mall?"
"Don't be rude."
"I'm trying to understand—"
"You have no right to come here and interrogate me about things that have nothing to do with you."
"When you quit on the Secretary of State, it has everything to do with me! Something which, by the way, I had to learn from Bess because you didn't even have the decency to tell me yourself."
"You're being ridiculous."
"Me? You're the one who quit her job for no reason!"
"Okay, what is your problem?" she snaps.
"My problem is that your timing is shit! Bess is on the cusp of realizing she should run for office and you drop your job in her lap!"
"And Jay picked it up."
"Jay isn't you."
"He is more than qualified to be the new me."
Mike makes a disparaging noise in his throat that makes her roll her eyes.
"He will be fine. Elizabeth will be fine. She'll run for office and she'll do it outstandingly."
"Bess would have wanted to take you with her. You know that. You had duty to her and your country."
"And how much is enough?" Nadine asks quietly. "When am I finally allowed to stop serving?"
"You had more to give," he insists.
She shakes her head. "No. It's become an ugly game, Mike. You thrive on it, but I'm tired and I don't want it anymore. Washington is..." she trails off, then starts again. "It doesn't really feel like home anymore." She falls quiet, and the silence hangs there for a while.
Finally, Mike asks, "Are you moving away?"
"I don't know," she answers honestly.
"I heard the news about Roman. I know that congratulations are in order. Grandma."
Her lip twitches. "Thank you."
"Or is that weird? I always called my grandmother 'Nanna'; would that better? Or maybe 'Gammy', except you don't really look like anyone's gammy—"
Nadine snorts and resists the urge to smack him with a throw pillow. "One geriatric term is just as painful as the next, thank you very much." She's just vain enough that all of those terms feel like a sword through her deeply-held illusion that she's still… well... alive.
She can tell he's still laughing at her, but all he says is, "I know you're excited. And I'm happy for you, just so you know. If anyone deserves this, it's you."
"That means a lot to me," she says, touched.
"You're really not sure if you're gonna join them or not?"
"I don't know if it would be a good idea." She knows he'll understand where she's coming from. He knows her history with Roman, all of the painful moments it covers.
And he knows her. "You'll do it," he says assuredly. "You'll do it just as soon as it makes sense."
She nods. He's right, after all. "Mike... why are you here?"
Mike shrugs. "I figured you were leaving DC. I wanted to see for myself if it was true."
"Well. You've seen. And it isn't." There's a prompting in her tone, and Mike takes the hint. He gets up from his seat.
"Right. Well, I should get going."
"It was lovely seeing you," she says politely. She gets up too, and follows him to the foyer.
At the door, he suddenly spins around to face her again, and she takes a couple steps back, startled. "So," he says, "I'm just gonna go ahead and say this in case I don't get the chance to say it again. In case you leave without telling me, just like you resigned without telling me—"
"For the last time, I don't—"
"No, let me say this. I don't want you to go. I know that I hurt you and I know you don't owe me anything, but I just want you to know that I don't want you to go to California." He spreads his hands wide. "There. I said it."
She sighs a long-suffering sigh. "Mike…"
"I know you said it was never going to work out between us, but I respectfully disagree. I think that if we really put our backs into it, we could make something good."
Was he mad? "That was never an option that was on the table," she says in a hard voice.
"I want it to be. That's what I'm saying."
"Mike, we were just having fun," she says, as if trying to give him back whatever perspective he's missing. Because clearly he's delusional. "That's what we do. We have a little fun, and then it stops being fun because we don't know how not to hurt each other and we've ever been good at anything else."
"We never tried anything else! Nadine, you've always kept me at arms' length, and we've known each other for years."
"What did you want from me?" Her exasperation growing. "Commitment? A future? I never could have given you that."
"I never asked for that. Nadine, you—" Mike exhales in frustration. "You always do this."
"You make assumptions about what you think I want and use that as an excuse to dismiss requests I never even made," he says. "I didn't ask to be your whole life. I just wanted you to let me in a little more."
"I gave you what I could!" she insists. "You're just so used to getting your way that you forget what it feels like to compromise."
"And you're so used to keeping your distance that you forget how to treat the people who love you," he spits.
She freezes. "Wh—what did you just say?" she asks in a small voice.
"Sometimes," he says, more gently now, "you don't know how to treat the people who love you." His fingers curl around her hand. "Nadine... I have always, always been in love with you. Surely you knew that."
She shakes her head. He'd fallen in love with her years ago, and she'd known it then. She just hadn't realized that after all this time... "I thought after the scandal... your divorce—"
"That I stopped?" His shoulders raise and fall. He smiles wanly. "I could never figure out how."
"Please stay here," he says quietly. He squeezes her hand, his skin warm and dry against hers. "I want to fix this. Stay in D.C."
Except she just can't make that promise. And she certainly can't make it for him. She touches his cheek gently. "Mike, we've tried this twice in our lives and we just… we don't work," she says. "Don't you think it's time we let each other go?"
He looks at her for a long time before he responds, stares at her mouth like he misses it. He makes eye contact again. "Yeah," he says finally. She gives him a sad smile and he releases her hand. "I think I knew what your answer was gonna be even before I got here, but I… I still had to try."
He's going to let her go, with no expectations of getting her back again, and this time it feels so very final. Because even if she never moves to California, this is the end of the line for whatever they are. Because now she's going to break away from this little dance of theirs for good; step away from the possibility (and, if she's being very honest, the faint hope) that they might finally find a way to be good again.
And of the decade of fraught history she shares with this man, for all that they've hurt each other, they've also given each other so much. They were good, sometimes. He had frequently made her happy. Her relationship with him, in all its forms and iterations, is one of the most meaningful ones in her life.
Suddenly, the full, heartbreaking weight of that hits her all at once. Because this matters.
"Mike," she says suddenly. And she knows she shouldn't do it, but when he turns, she grips the back of his neck impulsively and presses her lips to his.
It must catch him by surprise, because it takes him a full second to respond. But he catches on quickly, sliding his hands into her hair and opening his mouth under hers and pressing her hard against the wall. Mike Barnow has never done anything by half measures, and this has never been more evident than when he kisses her. It's hard and heated and desperate, and they cling to each other like they're making up for a hundred missed opportunities, exhaling hotly around skilled tongues and swollen lips. Her nails scratch his scalp and she pulls him closer, needs him closer.
He turns her without breaking the kiss and guides her backward, back into the living room, toward the couch, and presses her down into the cushions. He's everywhere, surrounding her, and somewhere in the back of her mind Nadine thinks about how she never seems to realize how much she's missed him until she's this close to him. When is she going to break this pattern?
She begins to unbuckle his belt.