Senator Marsh calls her into his office to meet the new lawyer. Something about a retooling of their campaign's legal management - apparently, this is the place to start. Senate re-elections are around the corner and the most recent polling numbers suggest that Marsh's seat could flip. The entire office is being overhauled.
Nadine is just getting off the phone with another concerned constituent. She's been up to her eyeballs in policy drafts all week, and the oil lobbyists keep trying to strongarm her into increasing support from Marsh's state, and on top of everything the new interns keep forwarding constituents' calls to her damn line when they ought to be handling it themselves. These kids either lack the competence or the initiative, and Nadine has had it up to here with their waffling. It was time to sink or swim.
Or swim. Because re-elections are right around the corner, and this isn't amateur hour.
She loves her job, but she's overworked and underpaid. Her only child wants to go to Julliard, of all places, and she's incredibly proud, but an education in New York City is expensive, and her resources are not endless.
So she's feeling a little harried when she meets this new lawyer, not to mention stressed. But she smiles, and none of that shows.
Vincent introduces him as Michael Barnow, and then Michael Barnow introduces himself as 'Mike B'. Nadine has to bite her tongue so that she won't laugh in his face. What a fantastically juvenile nickname for a working professional.
She looks him in the eye, smiles, and shakes his hand. She's not going to call him that.
Vincent makes it Nadine's job to acclimate the man to the office. She shows Barnow the networks, introduces him to the campaign managers, breaks down their timeline for him. He catches on fast. He's good at his job and he's a sharp thinker, but "Mike B is a rising star!" is what Vincent had enthused, and Nadine just doesn't see it. Barnow has more ambition than humanity; more snark than compassion; and he's cynical despite the fact that he's lived a charmed life. To her that makes him morally suspect. He is the type of man for whom the fruits fall right into his lap simply because he wishes them to.
Washington is full of men like that.
She likes to know exactly who she's working with, so in the coming weeks she digs up some information on him - mostly just the basics. (After all, he's a colleague, not an opponent.) What she finds is this: He's a Rhodes Scholar, a brilliant defense attorney, and has argued a case before the Supreme Court. He's father to a young boy, and husband to a beautiful woman - also a lawyer; she works at some law firm in northern Virginia.
And perhaps most importantly, Barnow is not the type of man that Vincent would've hired himself. He is not a dark horse - he's a star litigator. And when Nadine asks around her circles in Washington, she finds that his name holds quite a bit of clout.
Incidentally, Mrs. Barnow works at the same firm as Arabelle Marsh. The two are colleagues, and friends. Nadine wonders if this is the reason that Senator Marsh has recruited 'Mike B' to his legal staff.
Nadine's met the Senator's wife on a few occasions. The woman loves her husband, but resents his work - she'd never intended to consign herself to a life of politics. And now that she has, she wields her limited influence with impunity, as if it's her right; her consolation prize.
It's possible that Arabelle leveraged her husband to get Mrs. Barnow's husband into the political scene. A senator's office isn't much, but it's something.
Of course, none of this really matters. It's not her job to ask questions - it's her job to get on board.
Their working relationship was rocky, at first. She had no patience for his snark and constant strategizing; he had no patience for her singular loyalties and by-the-book sensibilities.
"This is bigger than just the constituency," he'd lectured her one afternoon. He'd stormed into her office with the latest draft of the healthcare bill, furious that she thought Marsh could sign off on it. "He can't put his support behind this; I don't care what you think the constituents want. Making waves inside the party -"
"If we lose the constituents, they'll flip his seat." Nadine snapped back. "He's up for re-election this year; he can't afford that." Every interaction they had, it seemed, was an argument. "Honestly, how you're more concerned about the damn -"
"Sitting senators don't lose, Nadine! You're focusing on the wrong battle. You need to think bigger!" But he operated on confidence, not certainty - sitting senators lost all the time - and Nadine couldn't get on board. And Barnow was driven by his own agenda more than anything else, and she hated that about him. He was playing a long game, hoping that Marsh's politics would eventually catapult him into a political career of his own.
"You need to think about something other than your own career aspirations," she retorted bitingly.
"This may surprise you, Nadine, but I can think about multiple things at once. And some things are more complicated than my career, your career, Marsh's career. We don't live in a vacuum." He slapped the papers down on her desk. "Just fix this." He stormed out of her office.
She swore, and pounded her fist on her desk in frustration.
Eventually, they found their way to a detente. It took a few months, but in that time they had argued their way to enough good joint decisions that they could find some trust in the other, and it allowed them to settle into a more symbiotic relationship.
Nadine might even concede that Barnow really is worth his salt. He's nakedly ambitious, but he's scrappy too, and he fights hard and dirty as long as someone is paying him to do it. And he attacks his work with tenacity, matching Nadine's formidable work ethic with his own - and someone who can keep up with her is someone she can respect. They still argue, but they work well together too, and now there is less malice and more respect underscoring their disputes.
Nadine is the Senator's Chief of Staff, and anything that passes through this office gets her sign-off, and then Barnow's. Part of his job is to ensure that Marsh's points align with that of the campaign, the party, the constituents, and avoids language that makes them liable to...well, anything, really. She writes (and rewrites) copy all day long; he reads and rereads everything.
Marsh isn't his only client, so Barnow only spends a couple days out of the week in this office, but those days run long - and not just for him, but for Nadine, too. Come in early, leave late. Overworked, underpaid. (Though Nadine suspects that in his case, he is overworked and overpaid.) It's a lot of time to spend with one person, but some days she actually looks forward to it. He's a far cry from those green interns, and it's a nice change of pace to work with someone who actually knows what they're doing. Their strong professional rapport even becomes (and she uses this term lightly) a tenuous friendship.
Some nights, they go out for after-work drinks, but only occasionally. Barnow likes to end a long work day with a nightcap, but she still has a kid at home (for the time being, at least), and so out of respect for her son she often declines. She likes to come home at a decent hour whenever she can.
Roman doesn't mind, of course. It's mostly always been just the two of them and he's used to her work; understands her time. He doesn't resent it (and she only knows that because he's told her as much; if she's being honest, it made her cry with the relief of knowing she hadn't fucked up her only child), and he knows how to take care of himself. He couldn't care less if she stopped for after-work drinks with a colleague.
But the idea fills her with parental guilt anyway. So she only accepts Barnow's invitation when it's less of a shoot-the-breeze affair and more of a work meeting - and it turns out they have a lot of the latter anyway. Despite Nadine's impeccable efficiency, the reports have a way of piling up, and the long hours have a way of running their energy right into the dirt. So they replace the coffee with scotch, the office with a bar (or, if he knows that she's forgotten to eat, a proper restaurant) and suddenly they've kicked the evening slump and are back in business.
Today, they're at a proper restaurant. When she orders her meal, Barnow cuts in and requests extra fries on her behalf. She raises an eyebrow.
"I didn't see you have breakfast or lunch," he says. "I mean honestly, does Marsh ever let you eat?"
She rolls her eyes, but doesn't refuse the extra fries.
They settle into a comfortable silence, wordlessly trading documents between them with practiced synchronicity, and when the food comes, she alternates between signing off on reports and taking bites of her dinner. It is, in fact, her first meal of the day. She eats everything, extra fries and all, because she knows it makes him feel better when she does. He'd never cop to worrying about her, but he doesn't have to. She's become quite good at reading him.
His eyes linger on her sometimes, when they're working. She pretends not to notice, but he doesn't try to hide it - and it's not even just the looks. It's the little touches - a guiding hand on the small of her back, a gentle squeeze of her upper arm, things like that. None of it is unwelcome. He doesn't cross any lines, but he's interested, even if he hasn't said it in as many words. And it's the tone of his voice - he speaks to her differently these days; more regard and less snark than she's ever heard him use with anyone else, including the Senator.
He's married, of course, but it is not much of an obstacle to wanting. Affairs are the norm here. In this town, everything is negotiable, and nothing is inviolable. And he's the type of man who might have an affair.
They split the check, and then he walks her to her car. He'll see her at the office in a few days.
"Do me a favor and actually eat breakfast tomorrow, would ya?" He asks. "You do better policy work when you've eaten."
She rolls her eyes. "There's a compliment buried in there somewhere." But he won't let her close her door, until she reassures him. "Alright, yes, I'll remember!" She promises.
He still keeps ahold of it. "And lunch?"
"And lunch," she says. She feigns exasperation, but she knows his concern comes from a good place.
He's satisfied. "Good. I'll see you on Thursday." He lets her pull the door shut, and watches as she pulls out of the parking lot before he heads to his own car.
When Nadine gets back to her condo, Roman is out in the sitting room, notes spread across the coffee table. It's late, but not unreasonably so, and she knows he's in the midst of finals this week.
"Hey mom," he says, barely looking up as she walks in. He leafs through a textbook that sits open on the floor, an uncapped highlighter poised in his hand.
"Calculus final?" She asks. She hangs up her coat in the foyer closet and slips out of her heels. She goes over to him, leaning over the back of the couch to ruffle his hair lightly.
"European History. Calculus on Friday." He says. He drags the highlighter through a few lines of text, then gathers up a small mountain of index cards from the coffee table and offers them to her. "Maybe you could quiz me?"
She takes them, smiling. "Sure, baby." She drops her bag on the floor and settles in on the couch, shuffling the cards before settling on one. "Okay. The 'Auld Alliance' against the Kingdom of England had been formed between which two kingdoms?"
They make it through half the stack before calling it a night, both of them bleary and exhausted. Nadine helps him to subdue the explosion of paper into neater stacks, sorting them by chapter at his instruction.
"How was your work dinner?" Roman asks. He gathers all of his books and outlines, shoving them into his backpack along with the paper-clipped sheaves Nadine hands him.
"Oh, it was fine. We were just really backed up on reports today, that's all. I'm sorry for being late." She always apologizes, even though she knows he doesn't care.
"Well, you seem like you're having more fun. Even if you're working later sometimes," he says. It's just an off the cuff remark, but it surprises her.
She frowns, pausing. "Really." She's never really considered whether or not her work had become… more fun.
"I don't know." Roman shrugs it off easily. He takes the last stack of papers from her hands. "You should go to sleep. I'm just gonna put all my stuff together then head to bed."
She stands up, twisting her body to loosen stiff muscles. "Okay. Good luck on your final tomorrow. You're gonna crush it," she says, with conviction. She drops a kiss on the top of his head - something she can only manage now when she's standing and he's sitting - and heads off to her room. "Good night."
In her room, Nadine strips out of her work clothes and into her sleepwear, and she considers what Roman has said.
The only thing that's changed at work has been her professional relationship with Barnow. He challenges her, and she enjoys their working dynamic. Now that he is no longer of the singular purpose to drive her crazy (which she swears had been his jumping-off point) she can admit that the work they do together is... fun. Their relationship, their nascent friendship, has been easy to build.
And his interest in her? She can admit that that's fun, too. It's fun to feel interesting.
And she'd be lying if she said she hasn't thought about him in that way. They work so many late nights, it's inevitable that her mind might wander down that path. But he's married (even though he doesn't seem to be a fanatic about it), and that's a line she probably shouldn't cross.
Mike Barnow is, perhaps, the type of man who might have an affair. Nadine just doesn't know if she's the type of woman who would.
In which Nadine is Marsh's right hand woman.
"You wanted to see me, Senator?" She pokes her head through Vincent's open door.
"Nadine! Just the woman I needed. Come in," he says jovially.
She settles on a chair in front of his desk, smoothing down her skirt. "What can I do for you?"
"I wanted to ask you about Mike B. How he's fitting in, his quality of work, all of that. I know that you spend the most time with him." Vincent spreads his hands wide, and smiles even wider. "So, tell me."
"Well," she begins, considering, "He does good work. He's sharp, informed, well-prepped. We work well together. He's good at what he does," she says, and she can admit that freely.
"And he can keep up with you?" Vincent asks, raising a disbelieving eyebrow. His eyes twinkle.
She quirks a little smile. "Eventually we were going to find someone who could." It makes him chuckle.
It's something of a running joke between them. When he'd hired her, she'd been so green, so hungry, and so eager to prove herself. She clocked more hours, wrote more briefs, and read more bills than anyone else could even fathom. She blew the rest of them out of the water, and it didn't take long for Marsh to be impressed by her. He still is. Nothing's changed, except that now she's better at it.
She's feeling a little daring, so she tilts her head and asks, "Did someone recruit him for you?" And when he gives her a questioning look she elaborates, "He's not the kind of person you usually like, is all."
Vincent only smiles. "He isn't, is he? Certainly not like you."
She's not sure what he means by that, but yes - she supposes that she and Mike are quite different people.
"Arabelle thought I should take him on," he reveals, and it confirms everything Nadine had predicted in the beginning.
"I see." She nods, then shrugs indifferently. "Well, he was a good choice."
"As long as you like him." His eyes are still twinkling.
"He's good at what he does."
"And you're still happy, Nadine? With the work, the office, with me?"
He looks at her for a long time, then smiles again. "Good. If you're happy, then I'm happy. I'll let you get back to work."
Nadine leaves his office, her mind already running through the rest of the tasks that need to get done today. She runs into Mike in the hallway. He's on his way to the break room, an empty coffee mug in one hand, but she links her arm through his to catch him and turn him around, and walks him to her own office instead. "Not so fast, Barnow. I've been looking for you all morning. I need you to review the healthcare bill again. Mikulski's aide faxed it over last night…"
The months blow by. Senate elections get closer and closer, and the accompanying deluge of campaign work threatens to drown them all. By the time November rolls around, Nadine could hardly care whether or not Vincent gets to keep his seat; she just wants this chaos to cease.
On the night of, the whole staff is jammed inside Vincent's office to watch the returns roll in on the local news channel. He likes to do it this way; likes the camaraderie of it.
Nadine is sitting at Vincent's desk. The Senator stands behind her, gripping the backrest of the chair with tense hands. He'd insisted that she sit in his seat - at this point, she'd been driving the campaign scene for nearly forty hard and relentless hours, and he had wanted her to just sit down and relax for a second. "There's nothing more we can do but wait", he'd said. His words, not hers. She knows that there is always something more that can be done - he just doesn't want her to do them.
Mike stands next to her, leaning up against the desk. The rest of the staff crowd around the coffee table in the corner, manning the phones, while the interns run in and out, tracking coverage on different channels out in the bullpen and reporting back periodically.
The channel goes on a brief commercial break and Nadine groans. The waiting always kills her.
"Hanging in there, Nadine?" Vincent asks behind her. She nods wordlessly. "They're gonna call it any minute now."
Mike twists to look at her. "I'm telling you, he's keeping his seat," he insists, for what is perhaps the tenth time today. "You're still gonna have a job in the morning." He glances at Vincent for a second, then looks back at her. "And even if we lose, I'm sure he'll write you a very nice letter of recommendation."
Nadine glares up at him. As if her investment in this election is about job security. He must be confusing her for himself.
Vincent only chuckles, going along with it. "You'll stay employed in this town if it's the last thing I do, Nadine," he promises.
"See." Mike says.
"If you two keep talking about us losing, I'm going to -" she stops mid-sentence, because election coverage has resumed on the screen.
"Shut it, chuckleheads!" Mike hollers at the rest of the staff. "They're about to call it."
The office falls silent, everyone seeming to hold their breath.
"And Illinois Senator Vincent Marsh will be serving another term."
Everyone erupts into cheers.
Vincent rolls her seat back and Nadine leaps up, turning around. "Congratulations!" She embraces him. Her grin is irrepressible. She turns to Mike and hugs him too.
Mike plants a kiss on her cheek and hugs her back just as tight. He's relieved. For all his cavalierism about the election, she knows he was at least a little worried - if nothing else, his reaction now gives it away.
The interns come flooding in, exuberant smiles on their faces. Their arms are full; they're carrying glasses, champagne bottles, shot glasses, an assortment of liquor. The euphoria in the room is contagious.
Nadine hears the pop of several corks at once, followed by another wave of cheers, and suddenly an overflowing flute of champagne is thrust into her hands. She is folded into the arms of several staffers and interns as filled glasses get passed around the room, and in between their over-zealous hugs she downs her champagne as fast as she can manage for fear of more of it ending up on the floor instead of in her mouth. She's sure that Vincent wants to make a toast before they all drink, but screw it - she deserves this one.
She gets her glass topped off again as everyone begins to calm down. Vincent starts to speak.
Nadine moves in between bodies until she finds Mike. He's standing in the back, and holds a near-empty glass in his hand. He's been preemptively sipping, too. She stands next to him.
"Next stop, the Presidential Cabinet," he muses quietly, so that only she can hear.
"Always thinking big picture, huh?"
"You know you want it, too."
Nadine doesn't answer him, but she doesn't have to. She believes in Vincent. He has so much more to offer than can be proved in a Senator's office, and she's been waiting for him to decide to make a vertical move. And yes, she'll admit it - she wants to head a bigger staff, be a part of larger diplomacy, and Mike knows it.
She doesn't say any of that. Instead she murmurs, "Vincent is a good man. He'd deserve it."
Everyone is raising their glasses, repeating whatever it is the Senator has just toasted. She hasn't been listening but she raises her glass too, as does Mike.
He turns to her. "So would you," he replies. He clinks his glass to hers.
In which empty nesting nearly breaks Nadine's heart.
In the fall, she sends Roman off to college.
She takes a long weekend so that she can drive him up to New York, with his new life neatly packed into the back half of her sedan. She's already feeling like an empty nester.
She helps him move his things into his cramped dorm room, meets his roommate and his roommate's parents. Two parents.
Not for the first time, she feels a pang for denying that to her own son. He may know his father now, but that doesn't give him back all those fatherless years that he's missed out on before.
She and Roman have lunch at a pizza parlor in Lincoln Square and spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the more touristy parts of the city. She still prefers Ithaca to this, but Roman wouldn't even consider applying to Cornell. He'll be happier here, anyway.
They have dinner, she spends the night at a hotel nearby, and then they have breakfast the next morning before she leaves. She feels grateful that he's giving her all of this time when he must be itching to meet new friends.
She doesn't want to embarrass him, so when she hugs him goodbye, she doesn't tear up. She folds some spending cash into his hands, and tells him to limit his ramen intake, keep a somewhat-regular sleep schedule, and refrain from mixing alcohols. She reminds him to call her sometimes.
"I love you," she says, and hugs him even tighter.
"I love you too," he says. "Drive safe. Call when you get home."
She doesn't look back as she pulls away from the curb, trying to keep it together at least until she's out of his sight. Just before she reaches the highway, she pulls off to the side of the road and bursts into tears.
It's going to be a long drive home.
When Nadine finally gets back to her condo it's late in the afternoon, and she's physically and emotionally exhausted.
She passes by Roman's empty room on the way to her own bedroom, and the dull weight in her chest settles a little heavier. She sends him a text to let him know that she's made it back to DC safely - she knows he insisted that she call, but she doesn't want him to hear that she's been crying. It's silly, anyhow.
A few minutes later, she gets a text back - just one word: Good.
Nadine pulls off her travel-worn clothes and takes a very long shower, changing into something old and comfortable when the water runs cold and she finally gets out. She's wrapping her hair up in a towel when she hears a rapping on the door.
"Who the…" It's a Sunday afternoon, and she's not expecting anyone. She pads to the front and peers through the peephole. Then she undoes the deadbolt and opens the door. "Mike, what are you doing here?"
Mike Barnow holds up a tall paper bag. "I brought you wine."
She steps aside to let him in, not knowing what else to do. She feels a little self-conscious - her hair is piled into a towel, her face is bare of makeup, and her clothes feel uncomfortably thin. She crosses her arms over her chest awkwardly. She's braless.
"Figured you could use the company, what with you empty nesting now and everything," he says, stepping inside. He moves into her kitchen, sets the bottle down on the counter, and starts opening all of the drawers like he owns the place. "Where do you keep your corkscrew?"
She's not opposed to him being here, but she is so confused as to what is going on in her home right now. "How do you know where I live?"
"Lucky guess," he quips.
She feels like she at least has to put her hair down (as if that will make everything else better), so she unravels the towel and clutches it in two uncomfortable hands instead. Her hair falls onto her shoulders in wet ringlets, saturating the fabric of her shirt. She just stands there.
"Corkscrew?" he prompts again. But before she can answer he slides open another drawer and seizes on a winged corkscrew. "Ah, here we go." He sets to work on the bottle. As he's twisting the worm into the cork, he gives her a pointed look. "You are a terrible hostess, you know."
She rolls her eyes, not deigning to respond. "I'm going to go change," she says instead, and walks back to her room. "Wine glasses are in the top right cabinet," she calls over her shoulder.
When she emerges again, towel discarded, bra in place, and more appropriate clothing on her body, Mike is lounging on the couch in the living area. Two glasses of wine sit on the coffee table in front of him.
He looks up at her when she comes out, and pats the spot next to him on the couch. "Long drive?"
Nadine drops into the cushions with a bone-weary sigh. "Long," she confirms, "and lonely."
He lifts both wine glasses and puts one into her hands. He clinks their glasses together, and she takes a long drink.
"Roman is all grown up," she says softly, sadly. It breaks her heart. "I miss him already." She knows she's being all sappy and emotional, but it's all so new and strange and she can't help herself.
But Mike doesn't seem to mind. He wraps an arm around her shoulders and pulls her into his side. "You did good, Nadine. He's a good kid. You're a good mother." She sinks into the comfort he offers her.
He's never actually met Roman before, so Nadine knows he's only saying these things because he wants to make her feel better, not because he actually knows them to be true. Still, she'll take it.
A good mother. She takes another sip of wine as she mulls that over. Well. She couldn't have hoped for much more than that.
Nadine is sitting in her office when she hears a clamoring out in the bullpen.
"This is Gordon," Mike is saying. She can hear it even through the closed door of her office, even if she can't see what exactly is taking place. A tiny little bark accompanies his words, followed by the squealing of very excited interns. He's derailing the entire floor.
Nadine rolls her eyes, knowing that no one can see her. A dog. What does he think he's doing? The interns don't have time for this.
Then he walks into her office - without knocking, which he knows she hates - and immediately drops said dog in her arms.
"What are you - " she sputters, but the puppy, tiny, fluffy, and extremely excited, squirms happily against her chest. It licks her blouse and nips at her fingers, and whatever it was she meant to say evaporates from her mouth.
"This is Gordon," he says again, and she's sure that he's never looked and sounded this affectionate when talking about his human son. "You needed a puppy break."
He lifts a stack of reports off the corner of her desk - the ones that need his go-ahead - and settles himself in one of the seats in front of her to start working through them.
Outside her door, she can hear the excited voices of congregating interns, trying to catch another glimpse of Gordon. "Back to work," Nadine calls; she has to tilt her chin up to speak as Gordon tries to kiss her into silence. They disperse immediately, but she can hear their excited chatter all the way down the hall.
"You know you've killed any possibility of them being productive today," she murmurs to Mike. She scratches Gordon behind the ears. Gordon's eyes close, and his little face nuzzles further into her neck affectionately.
"They always find reasons not to be productive." He waves away her accusation dismissively. He nods toward her and comments, "Gordon likes you." The pup has calmed down somewhat, all the excitement of the morning having already worn him down. He's curled against her chest contentedly, and gives a tiny little puppy yawn.
"Mike, I can't get work done like this, either!" She exclaims helplessly, because she's falling in love with the little thing with each passing second. Honestly, what Mike thought he was doing -
"You're still all down about being an empty nester; it's depressing." Mike says. "I figured if Gordon couldn't cheer you up, nothing could."
It's been a few months since she dropped Roman off at Julliard, and she'd mostly gotten over it. But then she'd spoken to him on the phone earlier this week; he'd said that he planned to spend Thanksgiving with his father, and Christmas break with his roommate's family. Apparently, they have a timeshare in Killington, and there's no way she can compete with a ski resort vacation. So the empty-nest blues are hitting her all over again - she just didn't realize that anyone had noticed.
She cuddles the puppy even closer. "This is only a temporary fix, you know." Gordon presses tiny little kisses against her neck.
Mike grins. "Temporary is better than nothing. Drinks tonight? I'll buy," he offers.
She can do that, now. She lives alone, and she can get drinks every night of the week if she wants to. "Sure." She says. Gordon licks her face, agreeable with her agreement.
It's already growing dark when Nadine is leaving her office for the evening. Mike had left earlier to drop Gordon off at home, but he promises to meet her at the bar.
When Nadine gets there, she snags a secluded booth in the corner and orders for them. By the time Mike arrives, their drinks are sitting on the table along with a platter of loaded fries.
He stops in front of the table, raising an eyebrow as he watches her lick salt off of her fingers.
She gestures for him to sit, and then waves her arm over the spread with a flourish. "Dinner. Did you eat today?" She grabs another piece.
Mike slides into the booth across from her. "I agreed to buy you a drink, not dinner. You're taking advantage of my generosity."
"But I'm sad, remember?"
He watches her pull away a couple of cheese-coated fries. "Clearly."
"Come on, I can't eat all this by myself," she coaxes, pushing the plate toward him.
Mike relents. "Fine, but don't make a habit of this." He takes a few pieces for himself.
"I am now child-free, so expect me to make a habit of this," she shoots back, and he quirks a tiny smile.
It's been a long time since she's lived alone, but Nadine is allowed to miss her son and still find a way to revel in the freedom of his absence.
She's earned it. She may as well allow herself to enjoy it.
In which Nadine and Mike grow closer, and Nadine and her son grow further apart.
When the new year rolls in, they hit the ground running. More time, higher ambitions, greater fervor. Vincent is posturing for something, but Nadine doesn't yet know what exactly that is.
True to her word, she gets dinner with Mike - or sometimes just drinks - more often. They learn more about each other; bits and pieces of their lives get weaved into every conversation, almost without them noticing.
She learns about his family. He met his wife at UVA; they were - are - college sweethearts. He's lukewarm about it when he tells her, though. There's no light when he talks about his wife, just a different kind of indifference. He's not in love, and Nadine suspects he hasn't been for a long time.
Just to be sure, she asks.
"Are you still in love with her?" She hates herself almost the minute it leaves her mouth - because what kind of question is that? It's his wife. "Wow, I apologize." They're sitting at the bar, and she shifts uncomfortably on her stool and stares straight ahead, avoiding eye contact. She's had a couple more drinks than she usually allows herself, and clearly the alcohol has loosened her tongue.
He doesn't seem to notice her mortification, because he considers the question with serious thought. "No," he says finally. "I don't think I am."
She dares to look over at him. He doesn't look surprised by his own confession, just weary. No one plans on falling out of love with the person to whom they'd promised a lifetime.
"We fight more than we don't," he admits, "And we're not... we're not the same people we used to be."
"Yeah," she offers lamely.
"We grew apart and neither of us noticed."
"It... it happens to the best of us." She smiles sympathetically, and briefly leans her shoulder against his.
They order another round of drinks - she requests just a water this time - and the conversation drifts to lighter topics for a bit. And then it becomes more personal again, swinging round to focus on her life.
"You've never married," he says to her. It's a statement, not a question.
She glances up at him. "No."
"And Roman's father?"
"A brief affair." She puts her drink down. "We weren't in love, and he wanted nothing to do with us. At first."
She tells him the whole story; the prodigal father wanting back in after nearly a decade of silence. After nearly a decade of Nadine doing all the heavy lifting.
"He came back. I boxed him out the first time," she admits, "but Roman needed… wanted… a father figure. He never came out and told me as much, but I could put the pieces together. So I reached out to his father again." She knows she made the right choice, but she still resents that she had to make it. "And now he pops in whenever he's in town. I hate it, but then again it's not about me."
Mike doesn't say anything, but there is support in his silence. He waves over the bartender and orders her another drink.
And because she can't resist, she adds, "Roman likes me more than him, though."
It makes him chuckle. "Children always know who's really there for them." He grasps her hand in an uncharacteristic show of affection.
She smiles and turns her hand over, wrapping her fingers around his. "Thank you," she murmurs. It's innocent comfort, but when she looks up at his face, Mike is gazing at her with an expression that looks a little bit like… longing.
He gives her hand a little squeeze. "Anytime."
Her only child is dropping out of college.
She's so angry she can hardly speak. Roman is saying something on the other end of the line but Nadine is barely listening.
"How dare -" she breathes, but it's too quiet for him to hear through the phone. Her mind is whirling. He's still talking, oblivious to her mental turmoil. Something about needing to get out on his own and do things for himself; something about the oppression of institutionalized learning; something about Dad supporting him in his -
"Wait." She cuts him off sharply. "Your father is encouraging you to do this?"
"What? No, mom - this is my decision. Julliard just isn't the right place for me."
"Roman, you've wanted this all your life."
"And I've changed my mind."
"It's just three more years," she tries, "and then you can -"
"I don't want to waste anymore time."
A headache is beginning to settle behind her eyes. She pinches the bridge of her nose. "Roman…"
"It's really not a big deal, mom. I know what I'm doing. I want to be an artist - you can't grow art within the rigidity of capitalist establishments! And Dad is completely understanding of my decision to leave."
"Your father isn't paying for it!" she screeches. She takes a breath. Takes a second to gather herself.
Roman is silent on the other end. He's waiting her out.
"Look," she says finally, at a lower volume, but with no less fury, "I agreed to finance a college education. I did not agree to this… this starving-artist identity crisis that you just feel like giving a whirl!" She inhales deeply, trying to calm herself back down. "If you want to throw away your future, then you can do it on your own. With your own money. I can't… I can't talk to you about this." She hangs up. "Damn it."
When Mike meets her at the bar later that night she's already three scotches deep and working on a fourth. The bartender is eyeing her, but she is pointedly ignoring it.
Mike takes the seat next to her and regards her warily. She speaks up before he can say anything.
"My prodigal son," she says, words slurring together ever so slightly, "has decided to drop out of Julliard. Julliard." She scoffs. "He wants to be a 'free artist'." She packs that sentence with all the scorn she feels.
"Damn. I'm sorry, Nadine." He squeezes her shoulder.
"So much for being a 'good mother'," she mutters, taking another mouthful of scotch.
"Hey, hey," he says. He turns her so that she'll face him. Nadine stares at him with glassy eyes. "This isn't on you. Every kid gets a dumb move."
"Why couldn't his have been weed?" she says mournfully.
"Hey, c'mere." He pulls her close. "Let's get you home, okay?" He waves the bartender over and hands over his credit card to close out her tab. Then he snakes his arm around her waist and gets her to her feet. She stumbles slightly, so he holds her tighter, keeping her upright and supporting most of her weight. He walks her out of the bar. As he's steering her toward the passenger side of his car, she twists round to look over his shoulder.
"But my car's back there." She throws an arm up, ostensibly to point in the general direction of her vehicle.
"I'm driving you," Mike says firmly. He opens the door and carefully folds her into the seat. "We'll get your car tomorrow." As he tries to close it, Nadine pushes back with her hand. She looks up at him.
"Thank you," she says. Her eyes are wide with drunken sincerity. "You're sweet to me."
"Alright, alright." He shuts the door on her gently. He goes around to the other side and gets in. When they get to her condo, he helps her to her unit, practically carrying her the whole way. When she fumbles her keys, he takes them from her and unlocks the door and then guides her inside.
Nadine kicks off her shoes and drops her purse on the foyer table, then shimmies out of her coat; Mike catches it before it can crumple on the floor. He drapes it over the back of her sofa.
"Come on, let's get you into bed," he says.
She gives him a flirtatious grin. "You wanna get me into bed?"
He rolls his eyes. He turns her around by the shoulders and marches her down the hallway. "You're a lush." When they reach her room, he pulls back the duvet and sheets.
Before he can settle her into bed, she cups his face with one hand and locks her gaze with his. She's standing very close to him.
She leans up and presses her mouth to his. It's a gentle kiss, cautious; giving him the option to pull away.
Mike's hands come up to the back of her neck as he kisses her back, slow and hard. Nadine's arms wrap around and hold him against her.
He licks at the seam of her lips and she opens her mouth to him with a soft moan.
Suddenly, he breaks the kiss. "You're drunk… I shouldn't be doing this," he whispers, and strokes her cheek. "Good night, Nadine." He kisses her on the forehead and walks out of her room, leaving her standing there.
She hears the faint sound of her front door opening and closing. And then she's alone.
The next morning, Nadine nurses a faint hangover. She's sitting in her office, blinds drawn, a glass of water and an untouched packet of saltines sitting on her desk.
She looks up when she hears her door open. Mike walks in. He tentatively places a bottle of ibuprofen on her desk and gauges her face with concern. "Hey. How are you feeling?" He asks softly.
How is she feeling? Her son is a college dropout. Her head is pounding. And she did something very stupid last night.
How is she feeling.
"Not my shining hour," she rasps finally.
"Happens to the best of us," he says. "I'll take you by the bar after work so you can pick up your car."
She nods gratefully, unsure if she deserves this compassion. "Mike, I… I'm sorry. I shouldn't have kissed you like that. I was way out of line."
"You were drunk."
"That's no excuse."
He's looking at her openly, drinking her in. "I wanted it too, Nadine."
This doesn't surprise her, but the fact that he'd admit it so openly does. "Mike…" she whispers, "you're married."
He looks down at his hands. "I know."
She doesn't know where this leaves them.
They put a little distance between each other. At work, it's just work. The shift is a little clunky, but they both need the space to let the dust settle between them. A couple weeks go past in this unfamiliar holding pattern.
And then it's a Friday night and Nadine is woken up in the middle of the night by an incessant pounding on her door. She rolls over to look at her bedside clock; it ticks over to two-thirty. She groans, rolling out of bed. She grabs her robe off of the foot of the ottoman on her way out the room.
"I'm coming!" she calls, and half-stumbles through the living room as she shrugs on her robe, wrapping it tightly around her body. She flips on the lights as she goes, and when she gets to the door she raises up on her toes and peers through the peep hole.
"Oh for goodness sake," she mutters as she undoes the latch on the door. "Mike, it's two-thirty in the morning. What could be so important that you had to wake me up in the middle of the - hey, what's wrong?"
His eyes are red and he looks… well, really angry. She leads him inside, sets him down on the sofa, peering at him.
"Mike?" She places a gentle hand on his knee.
"We just had a fight, that's all," he says finally. "She kicked me out. I was hoping I could crash here." He's a little sheepish.
"Of course. I'll, um… I'll get you some sheets." She stands up, but he grabs her hand.
"Nadine…" And he's looking at her again, in that same way that she looked at him the other night, the same way he looks at her over drinks, the same way they look at each other when they share pieces of their lives... isn't this what they've been working so hard to avoid?
He rises slowly, still holding onto her hand, and brings his other hand up to caress her face. He searches her eyes.
"Mike, what are you doing?" she says softly, because she thinks he wants the same thing she wants, but someone has to take a second here.
"If you don't want this, I'll stop," he whispers, and brings his lips to hers. He kisses her deeply, grazing his teeth against her lips and licking into her mouth hungrily. It's a heady feeling, and Nadine wants nothing more than to fall into it.
But she pulls back a little, because she wants to show him the same courtesy he's shown her. "You're emotional. I don't want to take advantage," she murmurs against his lips.
He frames her face with both hands. It's not just longing in his eyes, now - it's full-on desire. "You're not."
And with that confirmation, Nadine wraps her arms around his neck, pulls him back down to her, and seals her lips to his.
She kisses him hard, and then begins to lead him blindly down the hallway, and Mike undoes the tie of her robe and pushes it off her shoulders as she works the buttons on his shirt. They leave a trail of clothing to her bedroom as they kiss each other fervently, and by the time they topple onto the bed, they're both half naked and touching everything they can reach.
Mike guides her back against the pillows and hovers on top of her. He trails a hand over her bare skin, making her shiver. "I want you so bad," he whispers, as if he can't believe his luck. "You're so beautiful, Nadine."
He stares at her for a long moment, and then she reaches up and pulls his face down to hers for a sweet kiss, wrapping her legs around his waist because she can't get close enough.
They don't talk too much after that.
In which Nadine and Mike work to fulfill Marsh's ambitions. (Perhaps this is only half-true.)
That one-night tryst somehow turns into a full-blown affair when they're not looking.
There's a lot of sex - her condo, although he never spends the night; his car, maneuvering their bodies around the bulky booster seat in the back; a hotel room, when they're feeling indulgent; once, the supply closet near the elevator bank at the office - she'd had bruises on her tailbone for weeks after that.
They're careful, but not paranoid. No scandal from a Senator's office could ever be big enough to cause real blowback - especially when the involved parties were simple staffers - and office gossip is minimal.
It's fun. And Nadine's spent so many years of her life doing the right thing that she revels in the feeling of simply taking what she wants, no questions asked.
She avoids all self-analysis on whether sleeping with a married man is an irreversible trade on her integrity.
She wonders, with heart-pounding anxiety, if the reason that Vincent has called both her and Mike into his office this morning is for what she thinks it is. Vincent has never asked to see the two of them together before.
She walks down the hallway in brisk strides, trying to keep herself in check.
She raps her knuckles on the open door as she walks into his office. Mike is already seated in front of the Senator's desk. She lowers herself in the adjacent seat, and they both face Vincent.
She'd looked it up. Fraternization isn't technically a fireable offense - there are no real HR regulations that actually cover inter-office fucking. And if Vincent thinks that he has any right to scold her on her extracurricular hobbies, after everything she's done and given to this office, well then he could just take that reprimand and shove it up his -
"I called you both in here today because I wanted to discuss the Presidential election."
Nadine pauses. What?
"As in… next year?" Mike asks with a raised eyebrow. "You know, a little heads up might've been nice. I think it's a little late for you to pull a Presidential campaign out of thin air now. Primaries are in six months and you'd be running against the incumbent, so -"
"No, no - not the Presidency. The Cabinet," Vincent clarifies. "I want in on the Cabinet." He gives them a minute to let that sink in.
Nadine feels a swell of excitement growing within her. "You're serious?"
"The Secretary of State is retiring after this term. If the President wins the re-election, he'll be looking for a new one inside our party. His Chief of Staff has already approached me."
She's grinning openly now. Re-election of the incumbent should pose no issue, and the party knows it's Vincent's turn to move up. They can push that nomination through with ease.
Secretary of State. The possibility already feels so real that she can practically taste it.
"We'll… start paving a road in the Senate," Mike says, surprised and pleased himself.
"Good." Vincent's eyes gleam. "That'll be all."
Nadine and Mike both take that as their cue to leave. As they are walking back down the hallway, Mike says to her, "I called it, didn't I?" He sounds almost giddy, trying hard to tamp it down.
She's riding a high of anticipation and excitement. "Supply closet?"
"God, yes." He's riding the same high as her.
She couldn't care less about the bruises she'll wear tomorrow - she could be Chief of Staff to the Secretary of State next year.
They're lying in bed one night in a rare moment of calm. She knows he has to leave soon, but they aren't quite ready to return to reality just yet.
He traces the line of her clavicle with his fingers, his touch infinitely tender. She shivers. He moves down her arm, brushes over the fine bones of her hand, and then finally slots his fingers between hers, joining their hands. He's been different with her lately; gentler, slower, almost reverent.
"I could fall in love with you," he murmurs. It's a statement; matter-of-fact, casual, throwaway. His tone is soft and light, completely contradicting the weight of his words, and the comment almost slips right by her.
She freezes up a little bit when she processes what he's said, and hopes he doesn't notice. "What are you talking about?" They're friends, and of course she loves him but she's certainly not in love with him. That was never part of the deal. They work together; they like each other; they respect each other; they like to blow off steam - but love? She didn't agree to that. She doesn't want that. He's married, for Christ's sake.
Not for the first time, she wonders what the hell she's doing.
He leans up on one arm, facing her. "I mean," he says earnestly, "that I think I'm falling in love with you."
Nadine is at a loss on how to respond. "Mike… this is just… we're just having... fun," she stutters, and wishes that she could be more eloquent and less caught off-guard.
"We can do both," he insists softly. He cups her cheek in his hand, stroking her skin, and pauses, as if he needs to gather himself for what he wants to say next. "I... I want to divorce her."
Nadine turns away so that his hand drops from her face. "You're not thinking with your head." Her voice is slightly strained. He can't divorce. He's looking for a career in politics - divorce is easily lethal to ambitions like his. They both know this. "We both know that you can't divorce her." To lessen the blow of her words, she brings his hand to her lips and kisses the back of it. "We're fine just like this."
To divert his attention, she rolls them over and kisses him hard on the mouth, and he lets her. Before he can say anything else, she slides her way down his body, kissing his skin everywhere she can reach on her way to her goal. She wonders errantly if this is too transparent of her, too much - if he will be offended by her obvious attempt to distract him. But he merely groans and winds his fingers through her hair.
He doesn't mention it again.
Their year is full of Senatorial glad-handing, and Vincent is making nice with every last damn politician he comes across. It comes easily to him. Everything comes easily to him. And he's a good man; charismatic and passionate and honest and good. Nadine is proud to work for Vincent Marsh and always has been.
It's sometime in the autumn that she gets the notice from an old friend of hers from law school - Karen is the Chief of Staff of a Senator in the other party.
Nadine is lying naked in bed, scrolling through some final emails for the night as Mike dresses in the dark. When she opens the email from Karen, her blood chills in a way that has nothing to do with the temperature or her post-sex bliss.
Mike brushes a hand along her bare shoulders affectionately and she quickly closes out of the email. She needs more time to consider its implications first.
She sets her phone aside as he rolls her onto her back and leans over her, fully dressed. He dips down to give her a long, deep kiss. "I'll see you tomorrow," he says against her lips, and she murmurs an agreement. He kisses her a few more times, sweet little pecks, and then leaves. The faint scent of his cologne lingers in the air and on her sheets.
When she hears the front door open and close, she pulls up the email again.
Thought you should know about this.
And attached are images of accounting documents from the other Senator's office - pay stubs and the like. There are several redactions, but she knows exactly what the important part of it is.
She calls the other woman immediately. "Karen, I'm looking at your email. What the hell is going on?"
In which things fall apart. Rapidly.
She takes this discovery to Vincent first thing in the morning. Vincent knows it's serious when she enters his office without knocking, and shuts the door behind her.
"Nadine?" he prompts, putting down the pen in his hand.
"I have something to show you." She slaps the printouts on his desk.
He looks at her for a long moment before he picks them up, flipping through them. "What is this?"
"Barnow has been on Senator Reynolds's payroll for the past six months. As a campaign consultant." It can only mean one thing, and they both know what.
Vincent looks up at her. "Reynolds plans to run for President."
She nods. "He's the party's shoe-in candidate." Reynolds is well-liked and from a swing state. He's going to sweep the primaries next year. It'll be more difficult for him to win the actual election against the incumbent, but in politics it would be foolish to take such a thing for granted. And it's not the point, anyway.
Regardless of whether this Senator can actually upset the election, this is nothing less than a betrayal by Mike. If he is playing a part in trying to help get Reynolds elected, then he is also playing a part in denying Vincent a place in the Cabinet, and her a place in the State Department.
Mike is first and foremost an ambitious man. He's hungry for his own opportunities, and he will throw his support behind someone who can advance his own career. Recently, she'd forgotten that about him.
He's playing both sides of the field - in bed and out of it, she thinks ruefully - but she'd expected professional loyalty. Marsh had expected professional loyalty.
Vincent's expression has hardened. "Get Mike B in here. I'm going to take care of this today."
Nadine is working in her office alone when Mike bursts in later that afternoon. She looks up; he's livid. He doesn't have to say anything for her to know that he's just lost his job here. If she were Vincent, she would have fired him, too.
"You blindsided me."
"You blindsided us," she counters.
"If you thought there was something to be concerned about, you should have just asked!"
"Mike, did you really think the Senator wouldn't see this as an issue?"
"That you're double-crossing -"
"This isn't a spy movie, Nadine! It's not that fucking dramatic. I'm trying to make a living in this town -"
"Oh, spare me," she snaps. "Don't try to make this seem like I've taken away your livelihood. You own two homes; your wife is a brilliant lawyer; you have your pick of the work in Washington. Obviously." She takes a deep breath and smoothes out the papers on her desk to give her hands something to do. In a calmer tone, she says, "There is an implicit expectation of allegiance to the office that you serve. And when there is a conflict of interest, there is an expectation that you will decide whom you're backing and will drop the other. It's that simple."
"There's no conflict of interest!" he explodes. "I do consult work for two Senators - find me a lawyer in this town that doesn't."
"Don't patronize me; you and I both know that you were undercutting Vincent's intent to secure a Cabinet nomination. We expected loyalty." She refers to herself and the Senator in the plural personal, because she is Vincent's right hand. "But I guess you wouldn't know anything about that." It's a low blow, she knows.
"Oh - 'loyalty'. That's rich, coming from the fucking mistress," he spits.
She ignores the barb. "You were never going to be happy tailing Vincent to the State Department, were you?" Ridiculously, Nadine feels tears building behind her eyes and in her chest, and she fights them back. "You wanted something more; you always want something more."
"Is this still about the job?" he asks quietly.
She knows exactly what he's implying, and she doesn't know how to answer him. She's silent for a moment. "My first obligation is to the job," she finally says. She is clear; there is no equivocation, no uncertainty in her tone.
She studies his face - he's disappointed by her.
Mike stalks out the door without another word.
Nadine lets out a long, shuddering breath.
It is partly about their relationship, maybe. And it's partly about the loyalty thing, too. And if she's being honest with herself, it's also partly about the State Department thing.
She's never wanted to hold a political office of her own, but she loves being in the work - and to be one of the highest-ranking officials in the State Department? That's a lot; that's everything; and it's never seemed so attainable before now. And to discover that her colleague, her friend, could be responsible for her possibly losing that? Mike knew how much it was worth to her. She thought he wanted it for her, too.
So it's a little personal. It stings.
Nadine sighs. It's going to be a lonely week.
A couple days go by and she's running through the latest draft of a policy report when there is a gentle knock on her door.
"Come in," she calls distractedly.
"Nadine," Vincent greets.
She drops her pen, looking up in surprise. "Vincent! What do you need?"
Instead of sitting in front of her, he rounds the desk so that he can lean against the edge of it, closer. "I just came in to check on you," he says kindly, his eyes reflecting concern. "I know you were close with Mike B. I know this hurts."
She gives him a sad smile. "We were good friends." And lovers, she doesn't say - though that relationship no longer exists, not to mention their friendship is broken. Whether either is repairable is hard to say.
Vincent gives her shoulder a squeeze. "I know it was hard for you to come to me…"
"It was the right thing," she insists. She'd do it again. She knows exactly where her loyalties lie, and so does Vincent.
So does Mike.
"That doesn't make it easy," Vincent says gently. "I know how hard you work for me, Nadine. I see everything you do. I just want to make sure you know that it doesn't go unnoticed."
She ducks her head, a little embarrassed by the outright praise, but he places a finger under her chin and lifts her gaze.
"I'm here if you ever need anything, Nadine. Anything. Okay?"
She smiles, touched by his concern for her. "Okay."
There's a thunderous pounding on the door and it wakes her up in the middle of the night.
She pulls on her robe and swears, practically running to her door so that she might get it to stop before her neighbors call the police. She glances through the peephole and has a strange feeling of deja vu as she unlocks the door and yanks it open.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" she hisses. She hasn't seen him in weeks. He has no right to be showing up like this anymore.
"Did you tell her?" Mike demands. He pushes his way inside, forcing her to back up. "Is this your way of punishing me from your confused moral high ground? Teach me a lesson, is that it?" He's seriously pissed off, but she has no idea why.
"What on earth are you talking about?" She's bewildered, and can feel the anger swelling up inside of her. Who is he to talk to her like this?
"My wife," he snarls, getting up in her face, "is filing for divorce. Someone fucking tipped her off that I'm having an affair - which is ironic, considering that I'm not, anymore." He's emotional and a little crazed with panic - this could be ruinous to his career prospects, and they both know it.
"I didn't tell her anything!" she exclaims defensively. "Jesus, I've never even met her!" They both fall into a tense silence for a moment, and then Nadine's own sense of self-preservation kicks in, tentatively. "Does… does she know it's me?"
"She doesn't know who; she just knows it happened," he says tersely. "So I'd advise that you lay low for a bit while my entire personal and professional life blows up in my face. Fuck," he swears, and he looks so livid that she unconsciously takes another step back. She wonders for a second if he'll hit her.
He doesn't. And if he notices her trepidation, he doesn't acknowledge it.
It might be easier on both of them, she thinks, if they just burn this bridge down clean. They're halfway there already.
She says, "This is Washington. Adapt or die; kill or be killed." It's the advice she'd been given years ago, right out of law school. The chilly tone in which she delivers it surprises them both. "It's that simple."
He laughs, a short, harsh burst of sound, and there's no humor in it. He's impressed by her, and for all the worst reasons. "I never thought you'd have it in you," he mutters. He can't believe her. "Go screw yourself, Nadine."
The door slams behind him.
Over the coming weeks, the story becomes splashy news in Washington. The Barnows' divorce proceedings are not a quiet affair. It's messy, nasty, scandalous - especially because no one can quite figure out the secret identity of Michael Barnow's Other Woman. The mystery adds fuel to the fire.
Out in the bullpen, the interns speculate while they work. It's exceptionally exciting for them because We knew him, they all say. Or often a hyperbolic variation of it.
"Back to work," she prompts, every time she passes their desks. Her orders are always followed with a flurry of activity and hushed whispers.
Truthfully she hates that he's going through this, hates that she plays a part in it, even if no one else knows. More than anything, she hates that they no longer speak. He was her friend, and despite everything her heart is breaking for him, and she can't even show it. Can't have anything to do with him lest the real secret gets out. And she certainly can't tell anyone.
The guilt feels like it's festering inside of her.
He probably won't find much work in Washington for a while - at least not until after all this blows over. She's already heard from Senator Reynolds's office that Mike has been removed from their campaign - it's not the kind of press they need going into an election this big.
And so, without work and without grandeur, Michael Barnow disappears from Washington altogether.
In which Marsh tries to help Nadine pick up the pieces.
She hears it from another staffer when, sometime early in the year, the Barnows' divorce is officially finalized. Mike's ex-wife still works at the same law firm, but Mike does very little legal work in the metropolitan area anymore. He's moved down to Charlottesville - something about accepting a professorship within UVA's Political Science department. She's sure he'll make an excellent educator.
Her work still feels lonely, sometimes.
Vincent hires a new legal consultant, but it's not the same. This one's a 'dark horse' pick - which is to say, he's still very green and doesn't know how to do much of anything. She has little patience for him and no time to start all over, so she subtly tucks him under the wing of another staffer and hopes he'll catch on fast. She takes all her work directly to Vincent, instead, and they work through much of it together. He doesn't mind - he enjoys her company, he says. And she will admit that she relies on his, these days, as a distraction from her loneliness.
She had cultivated a relationship with Michael Barnow for nearly four years. It's going to take her more than a few months to get past that.
She's in Vincent's office tonight, beating another report half to death. He's at his desk, tie loosened and shirt sleeves rolled up; she's curled up on the couch, heels kicked off, feet tucked under her. It's late. It seems they're always here late.
He sighs and leans back in his chair. "Why aren't we giving these to the new legal guy, again?"
She glances at him over the rim of her glasses. "He still doesn't know what he's doing yet."
"He went to law school…"
"So did you," Nadine points out, amused. "So did I."
They both know exactly what they're looking for in these policy drafts, so the work isn't complicated, just time-consuming. Nadine just needs the extra help in order to get through them in a timely manner, and it's just faster to have the Senator himself go through it with her than it is to teach their legal guy exactly what they need. He can hop on later.
"I miss being able to go over the final thing without doing ten rounds of edits in between," he complains, but she knows it's mostly in jest. If he had a problem with this new arrangement, he'd easily re-delegate.
"Well, Mike and I always took good care of you," she muses. It's the truth - together, they always pushed Vincent Marsh to the top. In retrospect, she wonders if perhaps she was the only one doing the real heavy lifting.
What else is new.
She repositions herself on the couch so that she can stretch out lengthwise, extending bare legs and arching her back. The report slides off of her lap and onto the floor as she unfolds stiff muscles. She doesn't have to look to know that Vincent's eyes are on her.
Suddenly, he's in front of her, gathering the scattered pages from the floor and depositing them on the coffee table. He slides a gentle hand under her lower back, and it hovers in the empty space between her body and the cushions. He hesitates. "May I?"
She nods and leans up silently, adjusting herself so that he can sit behind her. Strong hands slide over her shoulders and press into her skin, working out the knots in her muscles. She sighs in relief.
"You're tight," he murmurs. He presses his thumbs harder into a spot between her shoulder blades and she stifles a groan. "Is this alright?"
"Yeah, that's good," she breathes.
He works his way up to the base of her neck, his fingers now on her bare skin, and she shivers. He brushes away a lock of her hair, and she can suddenly feel the slight pass of his breath over her neck. She turns into Vincent slightly. Her lips part of their own accord, tongue darting out to wet them, and his eyes drop to stare. She's not quite sure what she's doing here. If she wasn't hurting so much, maybe she wouldn't…
"Nadine…" he says softly. His hands slowly run down her shoulders, her arms. He encircles her wrists with his fingers.
It seems like the most natural thing in the world for her to lean back and kiss him.
He's responsive. There's no hesitation, no indecision in the way he kisses her back. He wraps an arm around her waist to pull her closer against him; she frees one hand from his loose grip and curls it around the back of his head, holding him in place as she deepens the kiss. The angle is all wrong, so she twists around and his hands automatically go to her legs, sliding up bare thighs and hitching up her skirt with it. He shifts their bodies so that he's sitting against the backrest and she's straddling his lap with a little moan.
Maybe this is as much as she can have. Being the 'other woman'... maybe that's all she deserves.
She can feel him getting hard against her. Boldly, she slides a hand down and cups him through his pants. He grunts, and then she tugs at his belt urgently.
Vincent pulls back. "Are you sure?"
She's not the one with anything to lose. "Are you?" She's got his belt undone and pants unzipped and then stops, waiting for him to respond.
"God, yes." He pulls her down again and kisses her hard. He tugs the hem of her shirt out of her skirt, and warm hands span her back and grip her waist.
"I think," she whispers against his lips, "that you should go lock the door."
She gets a little paranoid about what they're doing. This isn't just a fling between staffers anymore - he's a Senator and soon he could be the Secretary of State.
He insists that no one will suspect a thing. Everyone, he assures her, is too preoccupied with their own careers to pay attention to them.
She begs to differ. Michael Barnow's wife wasn't too preoccupied.
She doesn't say that, though.
A few months into their little affair, he takes her down to his family's ranch in Caracas for a weekend. Arabelle works so much that she won't even notice, he tells her.
He's good to her. He's kind and attentive and tender, and he makes her laugh. They spend the months wrapping themselves up in the excitement of stolen weekends, late work nights, furtive glances. She knows the routine. She settles back into it easily - like riding a bike.
November comes closer and closer, and the energy that surrounds Washington becomes tinged with the frantic urgency of overworked people. Everyone is just trying to make it through to the election.
On election night, she and Vincent settle in at the Brickmoore with the rest of the staff to watch the returns and drink themselves silly. They sit next to each other, but not too close.
The incumbent wins handily.
The Brickmoore has erupted into nonstop cheers. Nadine is beside herself. Under the table, she folds Vincent's hand into her own and gives it a squeeze.
"Congratulations, Mister Secretary," she purrs into his ear, and when she pulls away he's looking at her like he wants to fuck her right there on the table.
They each slip out of the bar separately, and in all the celebration, no one notices their absence.
But the current Secretary of State doesn't step down.
No one knows why. Nadine is furious when she discovers this, but Vincent has already begun cleaning up the detritus. He is moving right along.
"Next cycle," he keeps saying, grimly determined, but she isn't quite ready to let it go just like that. This was supposed to be his turn.
He refuses to discuss it at all, and it's not good enough for her. She storms out of his office in frustration, deciding to take her lunch break early at the new cafe on K Street.
Inside, she sits alone at a table, trying to calm herself down, and warms her hands around a 'black eye' coffee in a thick paper cup - something the overly-cheery barista had recommended. It is, she decides as she sips on it, grossly overpriced for what it is.
"Sorry to hear about State."
Her heart drops into her stomach at hearing the familiar voice. She looks up. Standing a few paces away is none other than Mike Barnow.
"The State Department," he clarifies. He takes the seat across from her without asking. It's been - what? A year? He looks the same. He looks good. "I hear the Secretary of State isn't stepping down after all. I'm sorry. I know that you and Marsh wanted it."
"Yeah." They lapse into an awkward silence.
He appraises her. "You look good, Nadine," he says finally.
She ducks her head. "Thank you. I... I thought you were teaching at UVA now."
"I am. I'm just in town for a quick staffing consult. Turns out there's still some work for me here," he says, and there's a distinct edge of accusation in his voice that she knows is meant for her. "I'm not quite as unpopular as I used to be."
She doesn't know how to respond to that. She feels a familiar twisting in her gut; a sensation that used plague her at every reminder of him, months ago, when their falling out had still been so raw... and now it's almost as if she never healed at all.
And here she was thinking she'd done such a good job moving on.
"...Well. It was lovely seeing you," she murmurs. She rises and tries to make as graceful an exit as she can, clutching her overpriced coffee in one hand and her heartache in the other.
But he steps in front of her before she can make her escape. "Maybe we can get dinner while I'm in town," he suggests. She can't tell from his tone whether it's a conciliatory offer or if he's just looking to rehash old wounds. She doesn't know if he's forgiven her.
"I… I doubt it," she says. It's the safest answer.
He seems to understand. He leans in to place a chaste kiss on her cheek, and she has to pretend it doesn't ache to feel him this close. "Take care, Nadine," he says, and mercifully steps aside so that she can walk away.
She probably won't come back here again.
A note on the timeline - Conrad Dalton wins the next election (four years from here), and then Marsh finally gets to be Secretary of State. Obvs he and Nadine are embedding themselves in this ill-advised affair, but since this is more or less a Mike/Nadine-centric fic, I hope no one minds that I will skip right over that six-year period of Nadine's life and move right on into the Dalton administration. The next chapter will pick up mid-season 1.
In which Mike returns to Washington.
Series timeline from here on out, with corresponding episode tags.
1.14 - Whisper of the Ax
"Did we just witness Mike B going into the Secretary's office?" She tries to keep her voice from sounding frantic.
Nadine knows he's been doing more and more consulting work in D.C. since she ran into him at the coffee shop seven years ago, but she hasn't seen him since then. They've made a point to avoid each other whenever he's in town, but it seems like even that is out the window, now. He is currently couch-sitting in her department, and he's going to get her fired.
Turnabout is fair play.
"...and his dog. Who is he, exactly?" Blake asks uncertainly.
"They call him the 'Hatchet Man' -"
"- and not for his wood chopping skills."
"Rhode Scholar; brilliant legal career, which led to a promising political career, derailed by his scandalous divorce six years ago," Daisy rattles off. Mike's reputation precedes him. Everyone in D.C. knows who he is.
"He makes a profitable living now as a 'couch-sitter' - he's a guy who moves into a Cabinet member's office and dispenses cool, calculated... advice." Nadine says distastefully.
"Unaffected by a need to advance his interests since he has none."
"And by cool, calculated advice you mean…" Blake trails off.
"Firing people," Matt bites out. He's appropriately concerned. As are all of them.
Blake pauses, then clears his throat. "Okay. What's a 'Black Eye' from Otis Beanery?"
"It's a coffee with a double-shot of espresso from an overpriced boutique on K Street." She hates that place. She stalks away from the group, closes herself off in her office.
It was, she supposes, only a matter of time before they'd have to see each other again. Washington was only so big. Although she might have hoped for the circumstances to be more favorable - her job not being on the line, for instance.
It's a long day. The Secretary spends most of it holed up in her office with Mike, and the floor is conspicuously quiet. The rest of them are too on edge to do anything bolder than tiptoe through their work; they try to put out the biggest fires as quietly as they can.
Jay pokes his head in her office at the end of the day, says they're getting drinks and commiserating, says she's joining them and that it isn't optional. She can do that.
In the bar, Nadine stares at her phone despondently, waiting to receive some signs of life or news or… anything. "She always texts me when she leaves," she mutters. "So… I guess she's still in there with Mike B." They're all going to be fired. She can feel it. If she were Mike, that's the advice she'd give the Secretary.
The waitress comes by with a platterful of shots and it feels strangely like a sentencing. At this point Nadine is making mental notes to update her resume come morning, and to figure out if any of her standing job offers will still have any life in them after this.
They all take a glass.
"See you at the back of the line, kids," she salutes, and tosses it back.
Once they clear the microloans hurdle, she takes herself out for a celebratory little nightcap, like an old tradition from her Senator's days. Just alone; one, and she'll go home.
But when Mike sidles up next to her, Gordon at his heel, she's not exactly surprised.
"Same bar," he comments.
"Same habits," she counters. She gives Gordon a scratch under the chin.
He waves the bartender over and orders something for himself. Same drink.
"I should have lost my job."
"Oh I agree," he says, a little too easily. "That was a big miss. You're better than that. Bess is more forgiving than I would have been." She wonders if that's because he's shrewd or because he still has a vendetta against her.
"But you're still sticking around the office…" She trails off. Ostensibly, that means their jobs are all still in jeopardy.
"Your head's not on the chopping block, don't worry. But she is keeping me on payroll for awhile. Best get used to seeing me around."
"Fantastic," she says under her breath.
1.16 - Tamerlane
It's late. She sent everyone else home hours ago. It's been some of the most stressful days they've faced, and they are all deprived of at least three days' worth of sleep what with trying to get the Secretary home from Iran in one piece. Home to her family.
Well, she is coming home. Whether or not she arrives in one piece remains to be seen.
Nadine is still in her office, unable to wind it down. She's exhausted, but she can't bring herself to go home just yet. She's crying silently, chair turned so that she's facing the window. If there's anyone still left on the floor, she doesn't need them to see her breaking down.
It's a little bit about McCord nearly dying; a little bit about Vincent, too. She's had a lot of time to grow to hate him, but barely a second to register this… this travesty. He used to be one of the best men she knew, and he had betrayed his country. If given a few more months, he would have taken her down with it, ruined her career - and after everything she's given and done for him - in the name of a run for Presidency. Just another casualty to his depraved, 'patriotic' ambition. Fuck that.
There's a soft tap on her door and she blinks back fresh tears. She wipes her eyes furtively and takes a breath before she swivels around.
It's not who she expects, although she's not sure who she'd expect at this hour. "What are you doing here?" she asks in a watery voice.
"Knew you'd probably still be around," Mike says, voice soft. He regards her warily, like he thinks she could break at any second. Maybe she will - she hadn't quite decided yet. He takes a seat in front of her desk. "Is Bess okay?"
"She's on a flight home right now." It doesn't answer his question, but then again she doesn't know if the Secretary is okay. How could she be okay?
"Are you okay?"
She doesn't want to start crying again, but everything is still so raw and she can't help it when her shoulders start to shake. She can't answer him. She presses her hand against her mouth and dips her head down so that at least he can't see her face.
He doesn't even hesitate when he rounds her desk and gathers her up in his arms. She melts right into him. His familiarity, even after all this time, is too difficult to refuse.
"I know you and Vincent were always close," he murmurs, and it surprises her that he can pinpoint exactly what it is that's hurting her and how. And his tenderness, in the face of everything, surprises her even more - if only because it is more characteristic of their old relationship than their new one. Perhaps he makes exceptions on hard days. "You loved him."
That last part makes her freeze. She sniffs delicately. "What?" She pulls away so that she can see his face.
He smiles sadly. "Come on, Nadine. You worked with him for so long... it was more than just loyalty. Of course you loved him."
Oh. She thought he meant…
"Right," she says uncomfortably. Her defenses are down, so it takes her a little too long to cover up the expression on her face.
He picks up on it right away. "Were you and Marsh…?"
She laughs, and the tears start falling again, hard and fast. She's tired of breaking her own heart over secret men. "I guess I just don't learn." Her voice is so bitter.
There's empathy in his eyes, but she can tell that he has no idea how to respond. "You should go home," he suggests finally. "Take the day tomorrow."
"Yeah," she says, even though she absolutely won't. She takes a shuddering breath.
"I'll be around whenever Bess comes back; help with cleanup. God knows you'll need it."
"Alright," she says dully. She gets up and gathers her things. She pulls the door open so that Mike can step out first, and they walk out to the elevators in silence and ride it down to the parking garage. He walks her to her car, and waits for her to get in.
"I really am sorry, Nadine," he says, and he looks sincere. Before she can respond, he closes her door and walks toward his own car.
1.17 - Face the Nation
"We still work well together," he comments. They're walking out of that meeting with Owen Walton, both riding the small high that comes with winning. If she blinks, it could be ten years ago.
"We do." Her phone buzzes, and she checks the message as they walk, smiling absentmindedly.
Mike watches her. "Is that NASA guy?"
She looks up at him in surprise. "I beg your pardon?"
"Hey, I hear things."
She quirks an eyebrow, then turns back to her phone. As she's tapping out a reply, she says, "Not that it's any of your business, but yes."
He scoffs lightly.
"Nothing. I mean, I'm sure he's a nice guy."
She narrows her eyes suspiciously. "He is."
"He seems boring," Mike says bluntly.
"Do you know him?"
"Don't have to. I can see it a mile away. I'm just saying. You could do so much better."
Now it's Nadine's turn to scoff. "Like who - you?" she retorts bitingly.
He grins. "I wasn't offering, but if that's what you want, I'm sure I can block off some time in my schedule to -"
"In your dreams, Barnow." She rolls her eyes. She'd forgotten his arrogance.
"I think you're forgetting about the part where it happened in real li-"
"Can you not shout?" she hisses sharply, even though he isn't necessarily shouting. But for god's sake, they're in public.
"Alright, alright. But if you ever change your mind…" he says, and he could be messing with her, but he could be serious. She can't tell.
"Goodbye, Mike," she says firmly. They part ways; she heads toward the break room, he veers toward the elevator bank.
Behind her, she hears him throw out, "You can do better!"
Nadine shakes her head as she enters the break room. She grabs the electric kettle and fills it with water.
She wants to brush off Mike's flip commentary, because she's content for once. Right where she is - she's content.
I have to tell you something.
She likes Glenn. He's sweet to her, and thoughtful, and he makes her feel light and reasonably happy. Maybe there isn't a whole lot of passion, but there's stability and safety and that's what she needs right now. Isn't it?
For the last six years, I was in a relationship with a married man.
Eight. Make that eight years, and two married men. She didn't tell Glenn that, though.
I am very, very ashamed of myself.
Glenn passes no judgment on the shape of her life. And perhaps more importantly, he doesn't know much about her life. He likes who she is now, independent of anything that's come before, and that is particularly important to her. I don't care, he'd said. We're both grown-ups.
Here's the thing. After years of attaching herself to inherently unavailable men, she's a little out of practice when it comes to... conventional dating. If she's being honest, the whole thing makes her uncomfortable.
And here's the other thing - she doesn't know what she wants. She doesn't know what she wants, and she doesn't know how to get it. How is she supposed to 'do better' when she doesn't even know what's best for herself?
Nadine doubles up on teabags and steeps it until it's almost too bitter to drink. It's a new box; something Glenn had brought the last time he'd dropped by because it's his favorite kind. She hates it, but drinks it anyway. If she uses two at a time, they can be gone in a week.
A few months later, though she'll never admit this out loud, it's Mike's words echoing in her head when she finally takes Glenn to lunch to break things off.
It surprises her, a little, how easy it is to do.
She just isn't ready for another relationship - that's what she tells him. And it's true, of course, but it isn't everything.
"I'm... I'm going to miss this," she offers softly, unsure if she is being kind or cruel. She reaches out across the table tentatively and covers his hand with hers.
That's true, too. But it's not the same thing as saying I'm going to miss you, and he must know that.
Glenn pulls his hand away.
They split the check, and she goes home alone.
She doesn't know what she wants, perhaps, but she knows what she doesn't need.
In which Nadine maybe begins to mend some old fences.
When included, the scenes taken out of the episodes will be written just as they were shown to us. Anyway, here's the next part: a couple of selections from season two.
2.12 - The Middle Way
She spends most of the flight home from Myanmar helping the Secretary wrap up loose ends with the trade agreement. There are a lot of them. She prides herself on her ability to compartmentalize, but today, Roman keeps encroaching on her work headspace.
That's the first time she's seen him since dropping him off at Juilliard. The first time she's gotten to talk to him since he'd informed her, over the phone, about his plans to throw away her hard-earned gift to him.
She just wishes they'd had longer. They'd left things as good as they possibly could have in the time they were allotted - and she has to be grateful for that. But she can't say whether it will be enough of a foundation upon which to fix everything else. The hope almost seems too high.
Of course, he did meet her halfway today. So maybe there is something left to rebuild.
When they land on the tarmac, Nadine bids good night to the exhausted Secretary and makes a stop at the office to drop off some files, thinking she might grab a nightcap afterward before heading home. Something to tide her over before the jet lag can settle in.
She picks her way through the darkened outer office, but stops short at seeing Blake on the floor, files strewn around him.
"What in the world are...?" she exclaims, appalled. This poor boy.
She takes him with her. He could use some mothering, and she misses being a mother.
At the bar, Nadine sticks to one drink, because the last time she let herself get sloshed in this bar she tried to get in bed with the man taking her home. Nadine highly doubts that she'd ever do that again - and certainly never to Blake - but there is a man on the other end of the bar who's been giving her eyes ever since they sat down, and she doesn't want to tempt fate.
And she has no interest in scarring Blake for life.
She buys Blake two drinks though, and then another, because he looks like he could use it. She tells him all kinds of things, hoping that something will stick and maybe even lift his spirits a little. And then she all but pushes him up on stage - mostly because she loves to hear him sing. Maybe it'll lift her spirits.
He has good taste in music. He also has an uncanny sense of what will make her cry, maybe, because when he starts, that's all she wants to do. She presses a hand to her mouth, trying to suppress the tears. Damn it.
But the man at the other end of the bar looks as if he's about to try to come over and talk to her (because emotional women take even less convincing than drunk ones), so she takes a deep breath and then swallows down the sorrow with a healthy mouthful of scotch, sits up tall, and resolutely turns her back on his general direction. She hopes her message is clear.
And when he doesn't show up in her periphery, she thinks that it was.
She gets herself mostly under control by the time the song ends. Blake ambles back to his seat, applause floating behind him, and he's tipsy enough not to notice that anything is wrong with her.
"That was lovely," she tells him, and musters up a smile. He gives her a shy and slightly bleary one in return. She hopes that he, at least, feels a little better. She doesn't.
2.23 - Vartius
Someone pounds on her front door.
When she opens it, Mike is standing there. She lifts an eyebrow. "This feels familiar."
"Work talk." She steps aside to let him in, and he looks around with mild interest. "You rearranged your furniture."
"Yes. Mike, what do you need?"
He hands her a file. "Bess asked me to look into something for her with my pollster friends. Found this on the way."
She takes the file and gives him a questioning look before she flips it open and parses through the papers. "They're all foreign affairs officials," she says, and frowns. She recognizes these names - they were the same ones that were floated by her after Vincent's death. She looks up at Mike sharply. "The White House?" She knows exactly what this means.
"Dalton is having these guys polled. I'm going to Elizabeth about this tomorrow."
"That's a little hasty," she protests. "You can't know for sure that -"
"Don't be coy, Nadine. We both know."
"Give me a day to confirm it through other people," she tries. "McCord won't believe you unless you can bring her something more substantial than this."
But he refuses. "Nope. We don't have time. She needs to get ahead of this." He takes the file from Nadine's hands. "I'm just telling you so that you can get your resume in order, okay? I want you to land on your feet."
He shows himself out the door. "I'll see you tomorrow," he calls over his shoulder.
"Can we have the room?" Mike demands. "You and I have other problems to discuss."
Nadine resists the urge to roll her eyes, and while Jay clears out, she plants herself in the seat in front of the Secretary's desk. She's not going to let Elizabeth take this hit alone, no matter what Mike says.
He regards her incredulously. He turns to Elizabeth, expecting support. "Really?"
Nadine turns to her too, and stands her ground. "Really." Her tone brooks no argument, and the Secretary accepts it without question.
"Really." The little tilt of Elizabeth's head seems to say to Mike, what're you gonna do?
"Fine," he grumbles, looking directly at Nadine. He turns back to Elizabeth. "My friend also told me that his company was commissioned by an unnamed entity - read, the White House - to do a poll on three people: Albert Kopp, Lloyd Frost, and Calvin Hastings."
"They're all heavy hitters with foreign policy credentials," Nadine supplies. "In fact, they were on the short list after Secretary Marsh died -"
"The White House is looking to dump you," Mike interrupts bluntly.
Elizabeth pauses, incredulous. "Oh, come on!" She exclaims. She's chuckling, but he isn't, and neither is Nadine. Elizabeth sobers up quickly. "First of all, Conrad is a friend."
"...And secondly" - she glances at Nadine as if for tacit backup - "I've had a few successes -"
"Listen, you could be Thomas Jefferson, but I'm telling you, it looks like you're about to get canned."
"It's an election year - there could be a million reasons!"
Elizabeth sucks her teeth, considering it. "Well thank you for the heads up Mike, but I'm not worried." She is nonchalant, but Nadine can tell from the way that she holds herself that the Secretary is at least a little worried.
She cuts in hastily, picking up on the cues; Elizabeth wants the room to herself now. "...And now that that's settled, let's let the Secretary get back to work."
"Sure. Why not?" Mike's tone is dry; he is thoroughly unimpressed by Elizabeth's response. He turns and walks out.
Nadine glances at Elizabeth briefly before following Mike out the door.
He pauses for her at the entryway so that they can walk together.
"I told you she wouldn't bite," Nadine mutters.
"Alright, fine. You were right. So see what you can dig up."
"Uh-huh. Way ahead of you."
"We can go over it again tonight. Over dinner."
They stop in front of her office. She turns to him, half-tempted to make a teasing remark over his dinner invitation, but that's not their relationship anymore. And this is a serious matter. "Where do you want to meet?" she says instead.
"There's a new Japanese restaurant on I Street. I'll text you the address."
It's not quite the same as before, but still - she's kind of missed their working dinners.
Mike is already seated in a cozy little alcove at the back of the restaurant, awkwardly cross-legged, when she gets there. There are files in front of him, two glasses of water, and two filled shot glasses already on the table.
She slips out of her flats and lines them up on the steps next to Mike's shoes and pads over to the side of the table that he isn't occupying. She shakes the napkin into her lap.
He looks up briefly, and nudges the water and liquor toward her. "I know you prefer scotch, but I think sake goes better with sushi. Hope you don't mind."
"That's fine," she says, but she reaches for her water first.
He gets right down to business. "Okay. I've done my homework and here's where we are. First up - Albert Kopp. Deputy Secretary under Marsh, now works in the private sector consulting for an NGO."
"I knew him well." She lets out a breath. "The plagiarism scandal from years ago is probably behind him, but the 'everyone in bureaucracy hated him' scandal most likely is not." She'd know - she was one of the bureaucrats who hated him. Intensely.
He'll be the new Secretary of State over her cold, dead body.
She hands back the file.
"I doubt Dalton would hoist him on the rank and file," Mike agrees, and gives her the next one.
"Lloyd Frost. Former high-ranking military officer, two-term Congressman, and ex-Ambassador to Indonesia."
"Frost would never relocate to D.C. -"
"Because his mistress lives in San Diego. Yes, I know."
Mike gives her a lingering look - either impressed by the thoroughness of her knowledge, or simply attempting to gauge whether this is a sensitive topic for her. Probably both. "O-kay." He looks down at the dossier in his hands, moving right along. "Calvin Hastings: former ambassador to the UN, plenty of foreign policy experience, and he's from a purple state, so his constituency would be useful to Dalton." He hands it over.
"Uh-huh. His wife is a veteran. They have three beautiful children. And, he has a history of outside-the-box thinking." She flips up the picture, skimming through the information Mike has put together. "If anything, he's a Secretary McCord 2.0."
"And he's clean."
"Well. If you can't find dirt on him, nobody can."
He seems touched by the veiled compliment. "Thank you. Frankly, I think he'd make a more useful Secretary than Elizabeth."
Over the top of her glasses, Nadine gives him her most withering glare.
"Because he's from a swing state, relax!"
She shoves the file back at him, unamused.
He takes it, her ire rolling right off his back, and sighs forlornly as he turns to look over at his oxfords. "I miss my shoes."
She takes off her glasses and reaches for the liquor. "You're the one who wanted to go here," she points out. She takes a delicate sip.
"I didn't realize I had to be barefoot to enjoy my sushi."
"I'm sure you'll get over it." She slips her glasses on again to peruse the menu. "Now, should we share a chef's platter, or order individually?"
He ignores her question, choosing instead to observe her with probing eyes. He's been wanting to say something to her all evening - she could practically see it dancing on the tip of his tongue this whole time - and now Nadine gets the feeling that he's finally going to let her have it. "You're not the biggest fan of working with me these days," he notes, his tone conversational. "I get it."
She raises an eyebrow, but keeps her eyes firmly fixed on the sashimi selection. If she knows him, he's not done yet.
"But I just need you to understand that some days, I'm the one who really keeps the wheels turning around here." He twirls his finger in a circle, as if he's currently moving all those cogs as they speak. "I can make and break careers in this town -"
"As can I," she interrupts dryly. She's one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes players in Washington, and her influence goes a very long way here. Further, she'd dare say, than his.
"- and even if you wanted to get rid of me, you can't," he continues, "because like it or not, I do hold Elizabeth's ear."
His presumption is unwelcome. And his ego needs deflating - preferably before it pops and splatters her with his insufferable male arrogance.
Nadine sets down her menu and fixes her gaze on him. "Mike," she says in a silky voice, "You may have the Secretary's ear, but I hold her confidence and I run her office. I have dirt on everyone in this department worth having dirt on. Including you." Especially you, she doesn't say. "If I wanted you gone, you'd be gone." She smiles, not exactly reassuringly, and picks up her menu again.
Mike is silent for a moment. And then, wisely, he decides to cede the argument. "...Let's get the chef's platter," he says, and that's the end of that.
In which Nadine considers telling Arabelle Marsh the truth. An interlude.
3.07 - Tectonic Shift
Her insides curdle at the prospect of having to see Arabelle Marsh in person. She's been given so little time to collect herself, and she wonders if the other woman just wants to see her squirm. Arabelle had never given indication of knowing about the affair, but there's all kinds of ways she could have found out. Maybe Vincent's lawyer told her.
She has no idea what to expect.
Nadine considers all the years of her life that she's given to being 'the other woman'. She can recognize, not without shame, how lucky she's been in evading this kind of confrontation thus far, but there's no statute of limitations on this kind of thing.
But like she told Daisy, it's probably just about their ranch in Caracas. She sits stiffly at her desk as she waits for Mrs. Marsh to be brought up to her office. Her mind is whirling with all of the echoed platitudes that had defined the bounds of her choices for eight entire years of her life.
No one will suspect a thing. They're all too busy with their own careers.
This is our money. For after the divorce.
Is this alright?
Does she know it's me?
I think I want to divorce her.
I think I'm falling in love with you.
She pulls out of her thoughts as Arabelle rounds the corner, and rises from her seat. "Arabelle. It's been a long time." She overextends her hand and swallows her nerves. "How are you?"
"I'm well, Nadine. Thank you for seeing me," Arabelle says, coolly pleasant, and Nadine gestures for her to sit. Arabelle lowers herself gracefully on the couch. "Thank you. I can't imagine what kind of day you're having."
"Y-yes, it's a lot. There's still not a great deal of communication and we're… scrambling for information."
"Well unfortunately, that's what I'm looking for. You remember Vincent and I had a ranch outside of Caracas?"
Does she. "Yes I do."
"Well, I kept it going after he passed away, with the same property manager we had for years. She lives in an area that's close to where the quake struck and I have not been able to reach her. I know it's a lot to ask, but I wondered if you could help me find out about her?"
"Of course," she says, because it's the only appropriate response. Anyway, she knows Carla, has been thinking about her since news of the disaster hit this morning. Not that Arabelle would know that. "What's her name?"
"Carla Alvarez… You might have even spoken with her on occasion."
"...Yes, I believe so."
"I feel bad about asking, but... she really is like family."
Nadine jots the name down on a sticky note unnecessarily - for Arabelle's benefit - then looks up at her. "I'll do my best to get whatever information I can." She smiles.
"Thank you, Nadine. It's so terrible what's happening," Arabelle says, standing. "I have fond memories of being there with Vincent. It's such a turbulent place, but he found it beautiful." She moves closer, and Nadine is suddenly glad to have the desk between them. "Something about it really spoke to him." Arabelle is looking her right in the eyes, and Nadine can't help but wonder if this is some sort of test.
She nods. "I remember," she murmurs, wistful. And when Arabelle simply looks at her, she continues, "S-so, I will look into this and get back to you as soon as I can."
Arabelle smiles, but it doesn't reach her eyes. "Thank you. Bye."
"Yeah - bye." Nadine lowers herself into her seat as the other woman leaves, and then allows herself a shaky breath, fumbling her glasses a little. Such a short interaction to leave her feeling so rattled.
For the rest of the day, she wrestles with the dilemma of coming clean to Arabelle, convinced that she cannot endure another meeting with that woman without giving herself away. Maybe it will make her feel better, to tell the truth. Maybe it will bring her closure.
Whether or not she deserves that kind of relief (and Arabelle that sort of pain) is another story.
Nadine feels queasy inside. She thought she was in love. It hardly seems like an excuse now.
Maybe Arabelle already knows. Maybe she's known this whole time. Maybe she's just messing with Nadine because she can - because she feels entitled to. That's the kind of person she used to be. Nadine remembers how Arabelle would try to wield her limited influence over Vincent's career wherever she could, because she could (see: Mike Barnow), and old habits died hard.
Nadine puts off their conversation for as long as possible, because she isn't keen on finding out right away whether or not this woman really is just fucking with her. She arranges to meet Arabelle late in the evening the next day.
And when the time of their appointment finally arrives, she arms herself with a fresh mug of tea and good news, and hopes that that will be enough to get her through this conversation unscathed.
She has to take a few deep breaths before she feels prepared enough to enter her office and face Vincent's wife. "Arabelle, hi."
"I have good news for you."
"Yes, she is. Well, she was injured, but she received treatment at a local clinic and she'll make a full recovery."
Arabelle lets out a breath. "Oh, I'm so relieved. Thank you. As I said, she's like family. And I appreciate you taking the time to do this for me."
"Well, I was glad to help." And before she can stop herself, she barrels on, rather recklessly, "Actually… I was happy to be able to do something for you." As if this small thing was penance enough for all those years of deception.
Arabelle gives her an odd look, and Nadine wonders if this was the wrong move. "Oh," Arabelle says, "why is that?"
Too late to back down. Nadine waffles a little, and then lowers herself into a chair, hoping that the other woman will do the same. Maybe this will feel less intimidating when their height difference isn't so evident. "Well, ah, I feel like we fell out of communication... after Vincent passed... and it was so… well it was... such an abrupt end… We never really... got a chance to talk," she explains, in fits and starts.
Arabelle looks away. "Well the truth is, it's painful for me to be around you, Nadine," she says plainly, and Nadine feels her heart stutter in a little panic.
When Arabelle continues, Nadine finds it hard to breathe. "When the scandal hit, I was blindsided. I felt so ashamed. Realizing I didn't know my husband the way I thought I did. I mean the idea that he was a… conspirator in this rogue operation to blow up the Iran peace deal."
Nadine pauses. Wait. Is she off the hook?
"Covert meetings, secret bank accounts - all of it. And I didn't have a clue."
Nadine shifts gears smoothly, but she really isn't sure what she's supposed to say now. All of that... it's everything she'd felt, too. "Well." She takes a second to gather her thoughts. "What you need to remember is that… he died trying to do the right thing. He was a good man who took a wrong turn for… idealistic reasons - no matter how misguided they were." She tilts her head, thinking that she really can believe the things coming out of her own mouth.
Arabelle's jaw is tense, and her eyes are bright with gathering tears.
"He lost his bearings a little," Nadine continues, "but… that didn't change everything about who he was." He loved me, Nadine thinks. He loved you.
"Yes. That's right. But it also doesn't change how blind I was."
Nadine blinks. She knows all about being blind to Vincent's actions. "You loved him," she says woodenly, trying to keep her voice from breaking. "And we know what they say about that." She gets up, turning around before she can give herself away.
There's a beat of silence, and then Arabelle asks, "Nadine, is there anything else I need to know?"
Her heartbeat is loud in her ears. I slept with your husband. I slept with your best friend's husband. Really, there are so many ways she can answer that question, if only she has the guts. (She wonders errantly whether Mrs. Marsh and the former-Mrs. Barnow are still as close as they used to be; whether they talk about these things.)
But she isn't feeling brave today. "No," she says, making eye contact. "There isn't."
There's a glint in Arabelle's eyes.
She knows - she must know.
"Well. Thank you again..." Arabelle stands up and gathers her things before turning back to look at Nadine. "...for your time." And the word is heavy with all of the contempt that Nadine is sure the other woman must feel for her. Arabelle walks out of the office.
"Take care," Nadine calls, because she's already backed out of confessing once and doesn't know what else there is to say. She rolls her eyes at herself and fervently, shamelessly hopes that she will never have to see that woman again. If this was as much closure as she could secure, she'll take what she can get.
It's good enough for her.
What happens on Election Night...
3.08 - Breakout Capacity
She realizes, with mild interest, that this will be her first election in D.C. without Vincent at her side.
That realization evokes barely any emotion from her. She barely feels the ache anymore when she thinks of him. And anyway, it isn't even half as notable or exciting as the election itself.
And by exciting, she means terrifying. Because there is a very real chance that she'll be unemployed by tomorrow morning.
She goes to the polls early in the day, saying a silent prayer for her livelihood as she fills out her ballot and sends it off into the ether.
When she gets to the office, she runs into Daisy at the parking garage and they ride the elevator up together. The younger woman is glum; understandably so. Alcohol, Nadine suggests compassionately, because a breakup and a Presidential election? That's cause to get absolutely hammered.
"Traditionally, we veterans typically gather at the Brickmoore to cope with the agony and ecstasy of watching the returns come in. Why don't you come with me?" she offers. And then, as they join up with Matt and Blake in the lobby, she extends the invitation to them as well. It'll nearly be a full set tonight.
The rest of the day goes by slowly. She tries to stay busy, but there isn't much to be done at State today besides holding down the fort. Foreign policy will remain in limbo until the election results move the needle in one direction or the other. And perhaps even then.
Jay and the Secretary run around with an understated urgency all day long, busy entertaining Walter Nowack's apocalyptic whims. She knows it must be something grave, but they don't read anyone else in on it so she lets them be for now. Part of her job - and everyone else's - is knowing how to accept being left out of the loop.
She gathers up the others at the end of the day (excluding Jay, who is M.I.A. and most probably still huddled away in some bleak conference room with Nowack) and herds them to the Brickmoore, where Daisy is intent on taking her advice to heart. They've been here all of ten minutes and their lovely, heartbroken press secretary is somehow already stumblingly drunk.
Nadine makes a note to keep an eye on her tonight, but then Blake drags the younger woman toward the Steinway, and Nadine has somehow ended up alone with an increasingly melancholic speechwriter instead. Pile on the alcohol, and he begins to speak like he writes.
And he's intent on pining. Nadine doesn't want to be rude so she lets him. She wonders if she ought to be getting as drunk as Daisy so that she can soldier through this conversation.
"Was it the best sex ever?" Matt is saying, rhetorically. (She hopes it's rhetorical.) "Yes."
She drains half her glass. This must be karma for lying to Vincent's widow the other week.
She's only partly listening to the words coming out of his mouth. He begins to wax poetic - literally - and she has to swallow a smirk before finally retorting, "I don't think anyone ever got laid quoting Prufrock."
He frowns - she thinks he might be offended - but before he can respond, they are interrupted by another voice.
"What up, nerds?"
God. This must be karma for something else.
Nadine drains the rest of her drink before turning around. She should have known Mike would be here tonight. This place is home base for D.C. veterans, and (disregarding his brief absence post-divorce) that class includes Mike just as much as it does her.
"Can I buy you guys a drink?" Mike asks, after they all exchange pleasantries, and suddenly it's the best offer she's heard all evening.
"I don't think so," Matt starts, but she has other ideas.
"Actually, I'd be delighted," she says tartly, and strides toward the bar with a purpose. If she has to listen to Matt mourn his sex life for the rest of the night she'll kill him. What about her sex life? Other people have problems, too.
Mike is right on her heels when Nadine asks the bartender for two scotches, and when their drinks are slid across the counter, she puts one into Mike's hands and clinks her own to it before taking a long sip.
"Someone's a little on edge," Mike comments. He pays for them and then steers her away from the crowd with a hand on her back.
"If I had to listen to Matt for another second I might've socked him in the mouth." She groans. "He needs to get laid."
"Good thing I saved you."
The bar is packed, and getting more and more crowded by the hour. He pushes her halfway up the staircase with a hand at the small of her back so that they might actually be able to stand in one place without getting pushed around by everyone else. "Cheers," he says, and taps his glass against hers.
She takes a sip and then leans back against the railing, scrutinizing him. He's sharply dressed, but something is missing. "Did you vote today?" she asks suspiciously.
"Should I be offended by that?"
"You're not wearing a sticker." Who doesn't wear their voting sticker on Election Day?
"Didn't go with my outfit," he deadpans. "I work in politics, Nadine. Of course I voted."
"Who did you vote for?"
He rolls his eyes.
They slip into conversation easily. It floats from her work, to his, to Citizens United (she should not have gotten him started on that), to Dalton's campaign, to the old Senatorial campaigns that they used to run for Vincent. When she accidentally makes a snarky remark about his 'secret' work with Senator Reynolds, he doesn't even blink.
They're all learning how to move on, it seems. It feels like old times again.
She drinks a little more than she usually would, but the company is nice and the atmosphere is infectious and the scotch is so smooth. He's buying for her, and it's very expensive liquor. She won't complain. The buzz goes right to her head, and she feels warm and giddy.
And when they call Ohio for Conrad Dalton, half of the Brickmoore explodes in jubilation.
Nadine sinks against the railing in slack relief, and smiles so widely that her face could crack in half. Next to her, Mike is flushed and pleased. Historic - this is historic.
She scans the room, looking for the faces of the ones she came with. Blake is still at the piano, and she sees the back of Matt's curly head as he weaves through the crowd; at the door, she thinks she spots Daisy slipping away with her ex-fiance. They're all doing their own thing - they don't need her.
And because she's a little drunk, and because she's feeling elated and reckless, and because she's having such a good time, she turns back to Mike and boldly links her fingers with his. She knows where she wants this night to go. And when Mike looks her in the eye, a small smile playing at his lips, she thinks that he wants it to go the same way.
When a waiter passes, they both set their glasses on his tray and then Mike leads her out of the bar by hand. He is absolutely on the same page as her.
They take an Uber to his house uptown, and when they get inside, he slams the front door shut by pushing her body against it roughly as he kisses the life out of her. She can't help but moan - he tastes just like she remembers. She loosens his tie and begins to unbutton his shirt as his own hands pull free the hem of her blouse and go under, frantically running over her bare torso and bra-clad breasts like he's re-familiarizing himself with her skin. She squeaks when he pulls her forward hard and grinds himself against her; he's not interested in playing games tonight.
Mike works the row of tiny buttons on her shirt with speedy dexterity, and then suddenly her blouse is open and he's undoing her slacks as he kisses his way down her neck and over her chest. He touches his lips to all the sensitive spots on her skin exactly how she likes and her knees get weak. God, he remembers her. She runs her fingers through his hair and tilts her head back, moaning pruriently.
He's nosing his way back up her throat, inhaling the faint scent of her perfume, kissing, a hint of teeth. "You smell good," he murmurs when he reaches her ear. He captures it between his lips as he shoves her slacks to the floor. Nadine steps out of them and slips out of her shirt, presses her half-naked body against him and makes him groan.
"You feel good," she whispers in reply, and circles her hips. It's been way too long for her. She is ridiculously turned on (and by the feel of him against her, so is he) and trembling a little, and if he doesn't do something about it soon she fears she might implode.
Suddenly he picks her up, and Nadine automatically wraps her legs around his waist as he grinds her against him. She kisses him fiercely as he stumbles them through the halls and up the stairs to his bedroom, finally tossing her onto smooth, cool sheets. He crawls on top of her.
She makes short work of the rest of his clothing and finally closes her hands around him like it's her prize. He moans, and she smiles; she's missed that sound. But then he's pushing her hands away from him and she doesn't have time to protest it, because he's kissing his way down her body and sliding her panties down and off.
Mike settles comfortably between her legs and Nadine bites her lip in anticipation. He kisses her hips, her pelvis, her thighs. Her breath hitches. He looks up at her, and when he speaks his voice is dark with arousal. "I've missed you," he rasps. And then he lowers his head and begins to drive her slowly insane.
She can admit to herself that she's missed him, too.
In the morning, her work phone vibrates on the nightstand. She reaches out from under the covers, feeling around for it, and then peeks at the display before she answers the call. Her throat is dry, and there is a mild ache behind her eyes.
"Good morning, Madam Secretary," she answers in a low voice. Her mouth feels like it's full of cotton. She pulls the covers tighter around herself.
"Nadine, can you please get me Walter Nowack in my office ASAP?" the Secretary asks. She's saying something more, but Nadine is still working on pulling herself out of sleep and doesn't quite catch it all.
"Yes ma'am, I'll get right on it."
"...Did you get a dog?"
That rouses Nadine fully. Suddenly, the incessant barking breaks through her haze of obliviousness.
She takes a glance at Gordon, propped against the bed, and her stomach drops. She didn't.
Damn it, damn it, damn it -
"Uh, no ma'am - I'm pet sitting. Okay, bye now." She hangs up and collapses against the pillows with a disbelieving sigh. "Oh my god," she mouths to herself. Shit.
And just to confirm this nightmare of a situation, Mike emerges from under the covers. "So," he says, "waffles?"
She doesn't answer right away, still caught up on the part where she'd been besotted enough to allow him to take her home. To offer. Fuck. She can't even believe herself. Everytime she gets drunk in that bar...
"You're thinking very loudly," he mumbles as he smoothes down his rumpled hair. Then he throws the covers back, completely unselfconscious about being naked around her.
Not like you haven't seen it all before, she reminds herself. Several times.
Mike swings his legs over, getting up. He shuffles around the room and picks up clothing that had been tossed to the floor in their frantic passion the night before - mostly his own. She thinks that hers are still out in the entryway downstairs, but it's all kind of a blur.
He walks over to her, dangling a scrap of black lace from his finger. "Love these, by the way."
She swipes them from his hand and gives him her best death glare.
He's unfazed. "You're not as intimidating when you're naked," he quips, and goes over to his dresser and takes out casual clothes for himself - sweatpants, a hoodie - and pulls them on. "I've gotta take Gordon out. I'll be back soon. There are fresh towels in the bathroom if you wanna shower." He whistles, and Gordon follows him out the door.
She doesn't know how he can be so calm about this. She's freaking out. This was a mistake; they work together. She can't be doing this… this thing with him. It was inappropriate then, and it's inappropriate now.
He isn't married anymore, a sly voice in her head points out. If anything, it's never been more appropriate.
She shuts down that traitorous thought before it can fester. They still work together. It's still a bad idea, and she damn well knows it. She sighs in frustration, and slides out of bed.
Nadine pads over to the adjoining bathroom, body stiff and sore all over. She's not afraid to admit that the sex had been great. Earth-shattering. She'd been screamingly impressed to discover just how well he still remembered her body, and by how eager, how serious he'd been about pleasing it. He'd taken her over the edge with his tongue and fingers twice, and then had proceeded to fuck her within an inch of her life, and had gotten her off again. She can't remember the last time she'd had that many orgasms in one night.
Nadine has to stop thinking about it before she gets herself all hot and bothered again. She has to stay focused. Good sex or not, she can't get back on this ride.
She turns on the shower and steps in before it has a chance to heat up, gasping, hoping that the cold will shock her body awake. She stands directly under the spray as the water grows hot, and examines the masculine shower products on the shelf with distaste. She'll have to make do.
There's a tap on the door, and Mike pokes his head in. "I've left your clothes on the bed, Nadine. I'm starting the waffles. Do you want anything special on yours?"
She looks at him through the glass door of the shower, startled. "I'm not really -"
"- a breakfast person. I know. But I still want you to eat something. Just a little," he says, his eyes trailing shamelessly over her body. "It'll make you feel better."
"Just one then," she relents, and adds, "I like fruit."
"Got it." He leaves her to it, closing the door behind him.
When she finishes, she wraps a towel around her body and goes out into the bedroom and slips back into the clothes from last night, folding her panties into the pocket of her slacks, and heads downstairs.
There are piping hot waffles already on plates - one for her, two for him - and Mike is slicing up fresh strawberries to top them. She pulls out a stool at the counter and sits down gingerly. She'll feel him every time she sits down today.
Gordon approaches her, leaning his front paws against the stool and resting his head on her lap docilely. She scratches him behind the ears. Mike slides the plate toward her, along with a fresh cup of tea.
"Thank you," she says.
"You're very welcome. How are you doing?"
"Slight headache. Nothing nasty."
"Well, this will make you feel better."
"You really didn't have to go through all this trouble." She cuts into her waffle, spearing a piece with a slice of strawberry and taking a bite. She sighs lightly. It's really good.
"No trouble." And with a complete non sequitur, adds, "You were great last night, by the way."
Her lips quirk into a smile. Of course she was good - she remembers his body, too. "You weren't so bad yourself," she murmurs, although she doesn't think she really has to say it. She'd screamed his name enough times last night for him to know that already.
A blush creeps up her neck at the thought.
Mike simply watches her, smirking, and she could take a wild guess as to what he's thinking about. "Can I give you a ride to the office?" he asks.
"I need to go home first. I'm a mess."
"You're beautiful." He says it almost dismissively, as if it's so obvious that it's hardly even worth the mention.
"I need to change my clothes," she points out.
"I can take you to your condo, then. And then to the office, or…?"
"I don't think so. I can get there myself. I appreciate it, though."
"Your car is still at the Brickmoore," he points out.
"I can manage."
"Okay." He lets it go easily. They eat in silence; Nadine makes short work of the waffle, and as she is finishing the last of her tea, Mike clears his plate off too. "Give me ten minutes to get dressed and then I'll drive you home," he tells her. He stacks heir plates and utensils in the sink and disappears upstairs.
She will definitely be late today, but if she goes home and dresses fast and has an Uber waiting outside her door, she might just be able to make it in time for the morning meeting. Nadine calls Walter Nowack to request his presence in the Secretary's office, and then scrolls through the avalanche of work emails in her inbox while she waits.
Mike re-enters in a full suit, briefcase in hand. "Ready?"
Outside, he opens the passenger side door of his car for her, throws his briefcase in the back, and they make the drive to her condo in silence. He knows exactly where he's going, of course.
Nadine decides that this will be a singular transgression. There are a multitude of reasons why she should stay away from him - and why she has. All of them still apply. Last night she had been drunk, and euphoric, and maybe even a little lonely, and she made a mistake, but it doesn't change anything. And she has to cut this off at the knees.
When Mike pulls into the visitor's lot of her building, she steels her resolve.
He puts the car in park and turns to her. "So this was…"
"Probably a mistake," she finishes for him.
There's a split second of surprise on his face, like that wasn't what he was about to say, but he covers it up well. "Probably," he agrees. "Nice mistake, though. I enjoyed it."
"We were just excited, and drunk, and it was a - a lack of judgment, that's all."
Mike considers it. "Lack of judgment or not, you have to admit - we're good together." He reaches out to tuck a stray curl behind her ear. "Always have been. We should go out sometime."
His words cause a sudden, undefinable pang in her chest. All her resistance seems to go right out of her. Softly, she asks, "Mike... haven't we hurt each other enough?"
She refuses to go down this road with him again; it would only end the same way. They are both too difficult, too willful, too…
He nods, but she can tell that he's unmoved. Gently, he tucks a finger under her chin and turns her to face him. "Just think about it," he murmurs. He leans in close and kisses her sweetly on the lips, and she lets him.
It's a goodbye kiss, she decides. Even if he doesn't think so.
He strokes her cheek as she pulls back.
"I have," she says. She looks away, and his hand drops.
Nadine manages to get through the rest of the day without incident. Her colleagues are definitely suffering the physical effects of the previous night harder than she is, sort of. She isn't as hungover as they are, but she's sore everywhere and it's hard to sit down.
She spends more of her working hours than she'd like dissecting the events of the evening, and then most of her non-working hours, too, because she takes a few minutes that night to review the briefing books for the following day and notices that the Secretary has a scheduled meeting with Mike. Right - like he'd said.
And then she lays in bed most of the night thinking about everything, because why should she have a moment of peace?
If she runs into him tomorrow, she hopes he'll be wise enough to pretend nothing happened. Or maybe if she's lucky, she won't run into him at all.
She knows better than to count on luck.
When she dresses for work the next morning, she chooses something sleeveless and form-fitting, slips into the dress like it's armor; and then she fixes her tea exceptionally strong for fortitude. She looks good and she feels good, and she's ready to be cool and professional today no matter what.
It's good preparation, it turns out, because she doesn't even make it to lunch before she strides into McCord's office with Blake and Daisy and sees Mike lounging on the sofa next to his dog. She very deliberately does not look at him; keeps her eyes straight ahead and focused on the Secretary as she gives her the pertinent information.
But Gordon leaps right off the couch and comes over to her, trying to sniff her hands and settle down by her feet, and almost gives the whole thing away. She tries to ignore him, but the Secretary gives her a strange look anyway. The other woman doesn't miss much.
"Sorry; gotta run," McCord says. "Speaking engagement." She exits the office, Blake and Daisy behind her. And then somehow Nadine is alone in the room with Mike and his little sidekick.
He walks over to her slowly, stopping only when he's inches in front of her. She regards him blandly as he searches her face, trying to read her when she's trying very hard not to be readable. "So," he says, "dinner?"
"No, I doubt it." But she can't help the tiny smirk that plays at her lips, because his interest in her is as vibrant as it once used to be, and she is more than a little flattered. Not that she'd ever tell him that. She wonders if he still has a tendency to fuck and fall in love.
Maybe she'll find out.
She is making herself walk away when Mike tries again. "Can I at least call you?"
She stops and turns partway to look him up and down. "You're welcome to try," she quips.
His eyes are still on her as she turns around, so she puts a little extra sway in her hips as she walks out.
If he calls, she won't return it.
Mike totally fucked and fell in love.
In which Nadine eventually agrees to dinner.
Some light smut at the end - if that's not your thing, the next chapter will pick up right after and you won't miss anything!
3.21 - The Seventh Floor
His presence in her office is entirely unexpected. It catches her off guard and scares her half to death. She has just a second to regain her composure. "What?"
"My son. He's getting fat. My ex says it's hormones, but I think she just lets him eat whatever he wants."
She pulls off her coat, hangs it up. "Mike, what are you doing here?" She hasn't seen him since their little election night mishap.
"MSec wants a word, off the books. One of your interns let me in, which should alarm you."
She makes a note to find that intern later. She grabs her badge out of the drawer behind her desk and busies herself with clipping it to her slacks. "I have a very busy day; it was lovely seeing you," she says, a clear dismissal.
He sits up. "Oh, so you - you want me to go?"
"Please." She sits down.
"Okay. Sure. Absolutely," he says and gets up, heading for the door.
She watches him; it can't possibly be that easy, can it?
He turns toward her. "The thing is - I feel like you don't call me back."
Of course it isn't that easy. "That's because I don't call you back."
He crinkles his brow. "Yeah, well… why not?" He approaches, taking a seat in front of her desk and making her sigh.
She takes a moment to figure out how exactly she wants to break it to him. "Mike, um… what we… shared… on election night was -"
"Crazy." He grins, and his eyes positively light up. It was crazy, she agrees, but she's going to go with a different word so as to not give him the wrong idea.
"- Surprising... but frankly, you're not my type," she says primly. It's a bald-faced lie, and they both damn well know it. He doesn't call her out on it, though.
"I get it," he says easily. "The 'Hatchet Man' mystique, it's sexy, but it's intimidating."
"This is what I'm talking about."
"Fine - I like you, Nadine, and I would like to go out with you."
What was this, grade school? "You sound like a teenager."
"Americans have an underdeveloped language for romance - yes or no?"
"No!" Her line beeps, saving her from having to elaborate her protestations. She answers it without taking her eyes off of him. He looks strangely… crestfallen. She ends the call. "I have to go," she says, and when she gets up, he does too.
He walks ahead of her and she follows warily. He stops at the door and turns around. He has one hand on the handle so that she can't escape until she hears him out. "Look, I'll drop the act."
She sighs impatiently, but he just continues, talking over her.
"No more Mike B show - just Mike." He looks her in the eyes, and subtly pleads with his own. "Have dinner with me. Have dinner, at a salad bar, with me and my fat son."
Nadine feels her lips twitch into a small smile. It wouldn't hurt, maybe, to just appease him. "I'll think about it."
He smiles, satisfied. And just before he leaves, he takes her by surprise by leaning into her, so close that she can feel the warmth of his breath on her skin. "You look amazing, by the way," he whispers. And then he's gone.
She takes a deep, shuddering breath.
What is he trying to achieve here?
Nadine gives herself a minute to pull herself together, then heads to the conference room to meet Colin Mitchell's family.
She'd been doing her best to avoid Mike these past few months - it had been made easy by the fact that he'd been doing a lot of consulting work overseas, and ignoring his calls was much easier than ignoring his spontaneous, in-person visits. As she's just proved to herself.
But his admission of real, heartfelt interest in her, coupled with his promise for genuineness (something that she ever only sees on rare occasions, despite how long she's known him) has really taken her by surprise, and so she is feeling perhaps more open to his overtures.
So when he calls her the next evening about dinner, she answers.
She's in her condo when she gets his call; she's already kicked off her heels and peeled away her stockings, and is half out of her work suit when her phone starts vibrating. She picks up on the second ring.
On the other end of the line, he sounds almost relieved that she's decided to give him her time. He arranges to pick her up tomorrow - dinner in Alexandria, he says. New Italian place.
"I thought we were going to a salad bar." Italian is like, the opposite of salad.
"That'll be for another time. My fat son won't be joining us."
That's better, maybe. (Does his son know that she is more or less the catalyst of his parents' years-old divorce? Can children sense that sort of thing? Maybe it's best not to find out.) "I see."
"Wear something sexy." She can almost hear the grin in his voice. "I'm sure that won't be hard for you."
Nadine raises an eyebrow. "Uh-huh, okay," she says dryly.
"See you on Saturday." He hangs up.
"For goodness sake," she mutters, and tosses her phone on the couch as she walks past it on the way to her bedroom. Sexy. She supposes it'll give her something to think about for the next day and a half.
Nadine sheds her work clothes, dropping them in her "to-be-dry-cleaned" pile, and changes into a pair of yoga pants and a soft t-shirt. Almost reluctantly, she opens the doors of her closet and examines her choices, eventually pulling a few options and hooking them on the back of the closet door. A deep blue sheath with a short hem; a low-backed burgundy number; a lacy little black dress with a plunging neckline. It's been awhile since she's had an occasion to wear any of these dresses. They were too revealing for work, and too casual for state dinners, but too fancy for anything less than a date - not to mention how rarely she's allowed herself to be wined and dined anyway.
She leaves them draped over the door to choose later.
She goes for the blue dress.
She's just poured herself into it when she hears a knock at the door - he's early.
"Coming!" she calls, and twists her arms behind her to zip up the back of the dress as she pads over to the front door in bare feet. She opens it and steps to the side. "Come in - I'm not quite ready yet."
But Mike just stares at her and doesn't move. "Wow," he says finally.
"Thank you." She turns around, exposing the back of her half-zipped dress to him. "Actually, could you...?"
The door fall closed behind him as he steps inside, and he puts one warm hand on her waist as the other one draws the zipper the rest of the way up her back. Lingering fingertips brush her bare skin, and then he steps back. "You look beautiful."
She turns to face him again, and a light blush colors her skin. "Thank you."
He glances at the side of her face. "You're missing an earring."
"I'm not ready yet - you're early." Nadine heads back to her room to grab her other earring and slip into her heels. "I'll be right back," she calls behind her.
When she emerges again, both earrings on and heels in place, his eyes travel over her body without the decency of shame. A little reluctantly, he says, "Okay, let's go," and from the way that he's undressing her with his eyes, she gets the feeling that he'd much rather not go anywhere at all.
Dinner is wonderful. The food is good, and the company is better. Mike makes her laugh, his snark keeps her wits sharp, and the conversation brings her a mix of comfortable nostalgia and heady newness. She feels pleasantly warm, and if she's being honest, more than a little worked up.
She is all too aware of his obvious lust - and her own. It persists all throughout their meal, a sharp undercurrent to their banter and discussion, and she'd be lying if she said it isn't affecting her. It's the combination of everything that's reeling her in - the wine, the atmosphere, the electricity between them.
When the waitress comes back to inquire about dessert, he doesn't even tear his eyes from Nadine as he replies flirtatiously, "Absolutely. I need something sweet to end my night."
A shared slice of tiramisu and half an hour later, Mike is walking her out of the restaurant and toward his car. When they get to the passenger side, she reaches for the handle, but he presses her against the side of the car instead. The length of his body covers hers, and he slides one hand over her waist and the other one around the back of her neck. He locks eyes with her for half a second before pulling her into him and kissing her hard.
She moans, unsurprised. The entire evening has been building up to this. She cups his face in both hands and kisses him back. She gently presses her tongue against his mouth; a question. He parts his lips and she slips her tongue past them and licks at the roof of his mouth teasingly. "Take me home," she mumbles into the kiss.
She doesn't have to ask him twice. Before she knows it, he's pushed her into the passenger seat and is getting in on the other side and pulling out of the parking space with haste.
He keeps one hand on the wheel, and places the other one on her bare thigh, brushing the fabric of her dress out of the way so that he can stroke her skin. He starts somewhere near her knee, but a few minutes later, he's moved dangerously high up her leg. Mike moves his thumb back and forth over smooth skin, and she bites her lip and tries not to react. She parts her legs ever so slightly, but focuses on not doing anything uncouth, like canting her hips or pulling his hand up to touch her. She's a grown woman, for god's sake.
His hand slides up even further, but stops just short of the seam where her hips meet her thighs. Fingertips brush against the lacy hem of her underwear, but he doesn't move any higher.
Her head is cloudy with lust, and the ride seems interminable. When, finally, they pull into the parking garage of her place, Nadine is out of the car and Mike is leading her by hand to the elevators. When it opens for them, he pulls her in and is on her again even before the doors have a chance to fully slide closed.
It takes them up to her floor and they stagger toward her condo in a heated embrace, unwilling to let the other one go. Nadine breaks the kiss for a second, fumbling with her keys as Mike licks up the line of her neck and tugs the zipper of her dress all the way down.
She unlocks the door and they tumble inside. He immediately shoves her up against the nearest wall and peels off her dress, following the path of the fabric with his lips. She gasps as he nips at delicate skin, and tries to keep up with his ardor. She pushes his suit jacket off and works on unbuckling his pants.
They're both naked in no time, and then she pulls him to the ground with her and he fucks her right there on the floor.
"God, I've missed you," he's saying in between deliciously hard thrusts, but she can barely formulate any words of her own in reply. He hooks one of her legs over his shoulder, and she can't help but moan as he goes even deeper. Her nails dig into his back, and he only grins. "Like this, right? I remember that you always loved it when I fucked you just like -"
"Stay focused," she gasps, arching into him. She's so fucking close. Her eyes roll back into her head and she bites her lip. He knows that look on her face, he must, because he responds exactly how she needs without her having to explicitly tell him to. And when she tumbles over the edge, he follows right behind her.
They lay there afterward, trying to catch their breath. "Wow," he mumbles, markedly less talkative than he'd been minutes before. She laughs, warmth and giddiness bubbling up inside of her.
After awhile, she leads him to her bedroom, pushing him down on the bed, and climbs on top of him. This time, she rides him slowly.
It doesn't take long for him to grow impatient. He reaches for her hips, trying to take control of the tempo, but she grabs his hands and pins them to the mattress.
She leans down, still writhing her hips achingly slowly. "No. Just like this," she murmurs, her breath hitching slightly.
When Nadine comes again, he holds her hard against him like he's trying to keep her together. She collapses on top of him, sweaty and spent, and he works her hips as he chases his own pleasure. The friction against her overly-sensitive skin is intense but not unwelcome, and she moans desperately, lips against his ear, knowing how much the sound drives him crazy.
Sure enough, he curses and begins to fuck her faster, and when he comes her name falls from his lips like a prayer.
She loves that sound.
Nadine lays draped on top of him as he catches his breath. Mike strokes light fingertips over her spine. "I've missed you too," she murmurs finally, and he tightens an arm around her and presses a kiss to her hair.
Eventually she rolls off of him, grabbing a tissue off of her nightstand to wipe herself discreetly.
She's suddenly nervous, a little. "Do you… want to stay?" she asks uncertainly. Besides their drunken election night tryst, she doesn't make a habit of staying the night with anyone.
But it seems that Mike has no such reservations. He winds an arm around her waist and pulls her back to him. "Yes," he says, and kisses her lips.
In which Nadine and Mike grow closer. Again.
This chapter comes directly on the heels of the last one.
After a while, Nadine murmurs, "Mike, what are we doing?" His arm feels heavy on her waist - maybe oppressive. She hasn't decided yet.
"Resting," he says, his voice slightly muffled against her skin. He lifts his head. "Unless you wanna go for round three? I need some time, but I can go down on -"
"What? No, that's not..." she fumbles. "I mean - maybe - but that's not what I was talking about." Her face heat up a little, which is a little ridiculous considering everything. She turns in his arms so that they're face to face. He looks amused. "I mean, what are we doing?"
He traces the length of her arm with a light touch and considers the weight of what she's trying to ask. "We're… dating," he says. Simple.
She quirks an eyebrow. "Because that went so well the first time."
"That was different."
"But it really wasn't." Besides the fact that he was married then and isn't now (and okay, that is a big difference), everything else really is more or less the same. And she can't allow herself to jump full-in on whatever this is when there is a very real possibility that they will simply implode again. "We still work together," she points out, "and I don't think you ever really forgave me for getting you fired ten years ago."
"That's ancient history. I forgive you - okay?" He brushes a lock of hair away from her face tenderly. "And I would submit that we are not exactly the same people we were a decade ago."
She'll concede that. "So then how do we do this?"
"Why don't we just see where it goes?" he says, and kisses her shoulder. "It'll be our little experiment."
She considers that. "I guess that's okay."
"Good." He pushes her flat on her back and starts kissing his way down her body, making her giggle and moan all at once. "This can be the first test…"
3.22 - Revelation
There are more dinner dates, and they often end in sleepovers. She's still a little skittish about doing anything more than that (movies? mini golf? ice skating? It all seems a little kitschy) and he doesn't push her, which she appreciates.
She stays over at his house more often than he stays at her condo - generally for the convenience. He lives closer to the State Department than she does.
But tonight is the eve of her departure for the G20 Summit in Rome, and they are both at her condo so that she can pack. He lounges on her bed and watches her flit around the room, pulling clothes off hangers and zipping tiny toiletries into her makeup case. Gordon is calm in the corner. Her place isn't necessarily pet-friendly, but Gordon has always been so good that it hardly bothers her.
"Which one?" She holds up two floor-length evening gowns. Staffers do not attend the state dinner, but it's important to come prepared for any possibility regardless.
"The red one." He gestures to the one in her left hand. "You look fantastic in red."
The corners of her mouth lift in a half-smile. His compliments are free and frequent.
She seals the preferred gown into a garment bag and places it as the final item in her suitcase before swiftly zipping everything away. Then she heaves the suitcase off of the foot of the bed and crawls up the mattress, plopping down next to Mike.
He immediately throws a leg over hers and pulls her in closer. "Dinner when you get back?" he queries. "I'll cook."
"I'd like that."
He lightly strokes her bare hip; the skin is exposed where her shirt has ridden up a little. "And call me when you land tomorrow. Please."
She twists around to give him a little peck on the lips. "I will."
True to her word, Nadine calls him once she's arrived at the summit and has settled in her room.
And then later he calls her, frantic, when he gets wind of the drone bombing in Rome.
She's quick to reassure him that they're all fine; she's fine.
"That's a little too much excitement for a banking forum," he says, still sounding a little shaken.
She chuckles, and promises, "The rest of it will be appropriately boring."
She's wrong, though.
The evening of the state dinner, she, Daisy, Matt, and Blake are tending to unresolved business in an empty meeting room when they are rushed out of the building by Diplomatic Security and into the first of the Secretary's SUVs. The rest of the building's inhabitants follow them out in a chaotic deluge.
From the window, Nadine sees President Dalton being whisked into his own vehicle, and a minute later their own door opens and Secretary McCord clambers in, nearly tripping over the hem of her bright dress. The agent closes the door behind her and climbs in front.
"We have to wait," McCord orders tersely to her agents.
Agent Kendall, at the wheel, glances up at her through the rearview mirror. "We can't stay more than a minute, ma'am."
"Where's Jay?" Daisy queries.
"Getting the building's HVAC system shut down." Elizabeth's brow furrows with worry. "He needs to get out of there fast."
They all wait in tense silence when Blake suddenly exclaims, "There he is!" And Elizabeth opens the door so that Jay can dive inside. Kendall tears away the very next second.
It isn't until, following all of the chaos of the thwarted biological attack, they are safely on the plane flying back that Nadine finally has a free second to herself. She uses it to check her phone - several missed calls, and over half of them from Mike. News of the summit evacuation is only just beginning to hit international news outlets, but she bets that he'd learned of it practically in real time. He's probably been beside himself for the intervening interminable hours.
She excuses herself to the back of the plane and dials him back.
He picks up halfway through the first ring, skipping right over the pleasantries. "Jesus, are you guys alright?"
"We're all whole," she assures. "I think the only casualties are the two terrorists who tried to deploy the bioweapon."
"Well thank god for small miracles. Are you in the air?"
"Yes. We land late tonight."
"Good. Well, call me if you need anything, or want the company. I'm around, okay?"
"Okay; thank you."
"But I'm sure you're exhausted." He's right; and if she gives herself a second to actually feel it, she'll be out in an instant. "I'll let you go; I'm sure Bess has a million things for you to do."
"Yeah; talk soon." She hangs up and walks back to the main cabin. There's still work to be done; she can be exhausted later.
The Secretary barely glances up from the sheaf of paper in her hands as she says, "Nadine, will you and Jay start calling your contacts at Interpol? I wanna have those guys identified by the time we land."
"Yes, ma'am." She slips right into work-mode, settling into the pace that's being set by everyone else. They're all just as exhausted as she is, but also just as tireless. There's weak coffee in the carafe on the table - Blake had done his best with the limited resources on board - but they're all mostly feeding off of the low-humming energy of each other. And possibly jet fumes.
She thinks she'll take up Mike on his offer for company, even though she knows it'll be the middle of the night by the time she reaches her condo. She feels a little bad for making that kind of request of him; for dragging him out of his bed and into hers at an ungodly hour, and not even for anything fun. Just sleep. She needs sleep. But she likes falling asleep next to him, and after the day she's had, she doesn't think anyone can blame her for wanting a little comfort.
The plane lands some hours later, and it is indeed incredibly late by the time she gets back to her condo. Mike is already waiting in front of her door when she drags herself out of the elevator, and she musters a small smile for him, feeling instantly warmer.
"Hey," he murmurs, "come here." He takes her bags out of her hands, setting them on the floor, and folds her into his embrace. She leans into him and breathes in the scent of his soap, faint and clean on his skin.
They stand there for what feels like an eternity. Mike finally steps back, takes her bags and her keys and unlocks her door, holding it open for her to walk in ahead of him. She heads straight for the bathroom, starting the shower and stripping out of her clothes. She hears the faint sound of Mike moving around her bedroom; putting down her things, opening drawers, and moving around the space with general familiarity.
She washes the trip off of herself, and re-emerges into her room wrapped in nothing but a towel. Mike is waiting for her with a clean set of pajamas - a tank top and sleep shorts - which he hands to her with a soft kiss to her temple. She murmurs her thanks and drops the towel, pulling them on gracelessly before sinking onto her bed with an appreciative groan.
He climbs in behind her and wraps his arms around her waist, getting as close to her as he can. He presses affectionate kisses to her shoulder and Nadine breathes deeply, soaking up his warmth and comfort. She's asleep in a second.
Getting railed on a near-daily basis does wonders for Nadine's spirits.
Teeny time jump here; not a continuation of the last chapter. Takes place the morning of the beginning of Article 5.
3.23 - Article 5
She wakes up before her alarm. Mike is spooned behind her, and she feels a firm pressure against her lower back. Her lips curl into a sleepy smile.
She stretches languidly, giving her body a few minutes to clear through the haze. And then she turns around slowly, taking care not to disturb him. Mike shifts onto his back, but doesn't wake up.
She watches him for a second before disappearing under the sheets.
She can tell the moment he wakes, because he takes in a sharp breath, his legs tense under her hands, and he pushes further into her mouth. She hums, lightly scratching her fingernails over his thighs.
There is a rush of cool air as he pulls the sheets away, uncovering her.
"Jesus," he groans, his voice still gravelly with sleep. He reaches down, caresses her cheek and pushes her hair away from her face.
She takes her time, working him over slowly, wanting them both to really enjoy this. And if the sounds he's making are any indication, he is.
She goes faster when she can sense that he's close, and then keeps him there until he's practically begging her. She pushes him over the edge only once she decides he's had enough.
Nadine wipes at her lips delicately before crawling up his body. She drops a gentle kiss on his chest. "Good morning," she murmurs, satisfied with her work, and drapes herself on top of him.
"Good morning," he breathes, still in a daze. "Hell of a way to wake up."
Nadine smirks, very pleased with herself.
Suddenly, he rolls her beneath him. "And what should I do with you now?"
He's looking at her like she's breakfast, but just then, her alarm goes off next to them.
She leans up to kiss him sweetly on the lips, one hand reaching over to shut off her phone. "You should let me get ready for work," she suggests in a sultry tone.
He grabs her thigh, hitching it high against his hip as he dips down to kiss her neck. "Maybe you can be a little late today," Mike says in between kisses.
She hums, tilting her head to give him better access. "Absolutely not."
"Are you sure?" He drags his fingertips up to her ribcage teasingly.
She wriggles away from his touch. "Very sure. As much as I love where this is going. Rain check?"
"I suppose," he says, and pulls away from her body with reluctance.
She swings her legs over the edge of the bed before she can change her mind. "I have to shower." She saunters to the bathroom.
"I can join you!"
"That will make me extremely late." Suddenly she feels hands on her backside, and she turns around to give him a lightly admonishing glare but he simply backs her against the far wall of the bathroom and gives her a hard kiss, then reaches around her to open the shower door and turn on the water for her.
"It won't be as much fun if you shower by yourself."
"I'm sure I'll live."
He squeezes a handful of her ass before stepping away. "Your loss, sweetheart." He grabs his toothbrush from the counter, and Nadine steps into the shower once the water warms up. He unhooks his bathrobe from the back of the door and wraps it around himself as he brushes his teeth. When he finishes, he says, "I'm gonna go make breakfast. Take your time, gorgeous," and leaves her alone to finish up.
Nadine heads down the stairs once she's fully dressed, scarf in one hand. She won't be late if she leaves now.
Mike is saying something from the kitchen, but she can't make out the words.
"Are you talking to me?" she asks loudly.
"Well, yeah! Who'd you think?"
She walks through the doorway, winding her scarf around her neck. "I don't know. It's been years since anyone's yelled at me from another room." He marvels the domesticity of it, she knows; that he is able to share that with her is something neither of them would have ever expected.
He beams as he walks toward her. "Welcome back, gorgeous." After her little performance this morning, he'll be in a good mood for the rest of the day. "You want breakfast?"
"I have to go to work."
"...I have to stay at work," she says, a little regretfully.
"Does Bess ever let you eat? Do I need to have a conversation with her?"
She's charmed by his feigned indignation. She smiles, adjusting her scarf a final time, and slings her arms around his neck in a tight hug. His arms automatically wrap around her waist and he buries his face against her neck. She pulls back, pressing a kiss to his lips before walking away. "I'll call you."
"Hey, what did the satellite say to Mission Control?"
"I don't know, Mike." She grabs her blazer where it's draped over the armchair and shrugs it on.
"'I feel like you're keeping me at a distance.'"
She gives him a look. "You can do better than that."
"I know, it was a Hail Mary; you were heading for the door," he says helplessly.
She sits down to slip into her shoes and reminds him gently, "We agreed this was an experiment."
"And it's going pretty well, don't you think? Even Gordon's happy - right, Gordon?"
"I'm keeping this quiet," she insists, and with slight alarm, adds, "Especially at work! I need you to respect that. Okay?"
"For how long?"
"Foreseeable future." She stands up, walking over to him.
"So that's how it's gonna be, huh?" He's not crazy about this arrangement, she knows. It makes it feel too familiar… too secretive, when it shouldn't have to be.
"Mhmm." She gives him another kiss, this one slightly lingering, in appeasement. His hands come up to hover at her waist, but she pulls away before he can try to deepen it. She can't be late.
She grabs her purse from the seat on her way to the front door.
"Okay, just, you know, go straighten out the world, will ya?" he calls after her, and she flashes him a bright smile as she scrabbles blindly for the door handle before closing it behind her.
She was maybe going for a smoother exit, but this will do.
It turns out that getting railed on a near-daily basis does wonders for Nadine's spirits.
She's got a dreamy little smile on her face the whole ride up to the seventh floor, and doesn't even notice it until Daisy does.
The younger woman turns her phone screen to show Nadine the news story she's evidently been talking about while Nadine has been daydreaming. Nadine snaps herself out of her daze. "I was just thinking about that," she says, trying to be smooth.
"Really?" Daisy doesn't sound like she believes her. They step out of the elevator together. "You seem to be in a pretty good mood today, considering everything," she notes a little suspiciously.
"I... guess I just got a good night's sleep."
It's a lie - on a list of all the things she got last night, sleep is definitely somewhere near the bottom.
But it's good enough for Daisy, even if an odd look passes over her face as they part ways in front of their offices.
Nadine's day is long and busy, but for different reasons than she'd anticipated. McCord calls her half an hour after the morning meeting ends to inform her that she and Jay will be accompanying her to Brussels tomorrow, and that they're leaving first thing in the morning. The United States is invoking Article 5.
Cold tendrils of apprehension curl inside Nadine's gut. She hadn't realized that things were at this point quite this soon.
She relays the information to Jay and sees the same worry pass over his face, followed by a grim determination. Ever the good soldier.
She takes the Secretary's noon appointment with Audrey Stewart alone, and then spends the rest of the day rearranging her own appointments of the following day and making preparations for their impromptu trip to Brussels. She works through dinner, then goes straight home to her condo to pack.
She calls Mike on her way home to tell him about the change in plans. He bids them good luck.
"I'll cash your 'rain check' as soon as you get back," he promises, with relish. She can practically see the wolfish grin on his face, and in the safety of her car she allows the blush to creep freely up her neck. He's incorrigible. "You and I have to have as much sex as possible before we all perish in nuclear conflict."
"Your faith in the Secretary's ability to avoid nuclear conflict is comforting," Nadine says drily.
"I have total faith in Bess's negotiating skills. I just want an excuse to have as much sex with you as possible."
She snorts with laughter, rolling her eyes even though he can't see it. "You don't need an excuse, Mike," she quips.
"Good. Fly safe tomorrow. And keep the trip short - I have plans for you when you get back." Mike's tone suggests that his plans consist of any number of wholly filthy and inappropriate activities.
She can get on board with that. "I can't wait," she says, chuckling, and says her goodbyes and hangs up.
There's a silly little smile on her face for the rest of the evening.
The emergency convention in Brussels falls apart in a hot minute.
Nadine observed from the sidelines as Elizabeth straightened her spine and stood her ground, refusing to give Foreign Minister Beauvais yet another inch. But things devolved rather quickly from there - Beauvais stood up and walked away.
She and Jay rose uncertainly as the rest of the room erupted into noise.
Elizabeth's glare was cold and steely, aimed at the back of the retreating French Foreign Minister, and from the way she held her body Nadine could tell that the Secretary was pissed. She stalked out of the room. Nadine and Jay followed on her heels.
Now, Nadine is only half-listening to the Secretary fume - she is more concerned with the cascade of alerts that she's receiving on her phone regarding the Bulgarian government. She tries several times to get the Secretary's attention, when the other woman finally rounds on her in a whirl of frustration.
"We're getting word that several key ministers from Bulgaria's government have fled Sofia."
Elizabeth deflates a little.
"Close to hanging by a thread," Jay notes grimly.
"We need to get France back on board while there's still time."
"If the threat of an insurgent Russia doesn't rattle them, what will?" Nadine wonders out loud.
They keep walking as they consider this point.
"Mike Barnow," Jay says suddenly.
"What about him?" Jay merely stares, and mercifully, she catches on fast. "Right, right! He worked for Perrin's opponent's campaign last year."
"Maybe he has oppo research that could move the needle."
Elizabeth's anger turns into resolve. "Call him. I'll break 'em before I let 'em break NATO."
"I'll call Mike B," she offers to Jay, later, when they're flying home. She hopes she sounds casual enough.
He doesn't say anything beyond, "Okay, sure," so she excuses herself to make the call.
It's on her work phone, and because Mike recognizes the difference (both in the number and what it means for the content of the call), he answers with only mild flirtation and mostly exceptional professionalism.
Nadine schedules him an appointment with the Secretary for tomorrow afternoon. And though she knows she doesn't have to, before she ends the call, she also adds, "Please be discrete about..." she trails off. She doesn't have to see him to know that he's rolling his eyes at her.
"Yes ma'am, Ms. Tolliver," he drawls, and it's not really her kink, but a little shiver runs down her spine all the same.
In keeping with her request, Mike breezes by her with nothing more than a half-second greeting on his way to McCord's office.
She's the one who is apparently not quite so slick. She stares at his ass full-on as Blake leads him to the inner office, certain that no one will notice her shameless ogling.
But Daisy does, apparently.
Nadine is just about to take her lunch when the younger woman slips into the elevator alongside her. And as the doors slide closed, she says casually, "I'm onto you."
Nadine freezes. "I beg your pardon?"
"I saw you, checking out his butt." Daisy is smirking like she's just figured out all of Nadine's secrets.
"To whose butt are we referring?!"
"Oh, Nadine, come on! I'm pregnant and alone. If you're having some awesome, torrid affair, you have to let me in!" she begs.
Nadine tries to convey with her eyes just how crazy she thinks the other woman is, but Daisy, practically giddy in her triumph, barely notices.
"Boom! How long?"
"Since election night - off and on." Well, she can do lunch and girl talk. Why not? "Lately mostly on," she adds with a sassy little grin.
"O-ho, damn! Mike B. Who knew?"
Daisy is extremely excited to talk about Nadine's love life - almost invasively so. She demands exhaustive details as they make the walk to the park, and Nadine manages to offer up answers that are detailed enough to appease the younger woman, but vague enough to keep Nadine from feeling too filthy for doing it. It's a testament to her regard for her colleague that she's willing to share anything at all - she'd never cooperate like this if she didn't love Daisy so much.
They find a free table and Daisy is asking her is he adept and is she happy and are they serious or is she just having fun and how many times does he make you c-
"Oh my god, Daisy," she mutters, and refuses to dignify the last one with an answer.
"That's a lot. That means a lot, right? Damn, Mike! Good for him. Good for you," she enthuses, entirely too eager.
If Nadine felt like being more forthcoming, she might tell Daisy that she and Mike already have quite a long history together, and that that's perhaps the only (or at least, the most important) reason he can do that to her. A lot.
She doesn't, though, because if no one ever finds out about that little era of their lives then she couldn't be happier.
"So do you want it to be serious?" Daisy prods.
"I mean I… I hardly know anything about him, really," she says, and despite everything they've been through, she doesn't think this is a lie. She used to know him, but they're both different people now. "Well okay," she relents, "he has some kind of troubled relationship with his son. His ex-wife seems to hate him. And he's too close to his dog." She wrinkles her brow at the last one. She's never seen anyone love an animal the way Mike loves Gordon.
"Okay, have you done a background check?"
The idea appalls her. "Of course not, no!"
"Have you at least, y'know, trolled him?"
Seems desperate. "Oh, that's… stalky."
"Yesterday's stalky is today's getting-to-know-you!" Daisy whips out her phone. "Take it from the girl who got knocked up by a guy with a false identity," she mutters. "We'll start small - image search."
Nadine presses a hand to her face apprehensively.
"Ah! Correspondent's Dinner photo op with Al Roker! Wow, Mike - the eighties called and they want their tux back."
She titters nervously. She actually remembers that tux - he'd worn it to some Senator's gala they'd both attended years ago. At the time, she'd secretly thought the same thing.
"Oh, look! He's on some charity softball team." Daisy continues to scroll through the search-generated photos when her face freezes for half a second. "Oh." She puts her phone down and clears her throat.
Nadine reaches for the phone. "What?"
"That could be from a while back," Daisy reasons hastily.
Her heart sinks when she sees the picture. "Oh... shoot." That eight year period of her life seems to unfurl again in this very moment.
Not everything has to change over time.
"Almost a while back."
"It's three months ago," Nadine points out regretfully. She looks at the photo again. She is very beautiful, this woman.
"I mean they don't necessarily look together together. Did you guys discussed exclusivity?"
She sighs. "Nope. So I guess that means… that's his business." She hands the phone back, disappointed. Whether she's disappointed more at herself or at him is hard to say. But considering her history - their history - it was perhaps foolish of her to expect him to be exclusive to her when they had not explicitly set such parameters in place. And perhaps even then.
She feels a horrid dull weight settle her stomach all the same. She can't stomach playing second fiddle again.
Daisy looks uncomfortable with this new turn of events, and certainly unwilling to let it lie. "Let's look into it," she says determinedly, and starts scrolling again.
"No, Daisy really, it's not -"
"It is," Daisy insists firmly. Her eyes are glued to the little screen, and she taps on it in a rapid flurry.
Nadine falls quiet. If she's being honest with herself, she does want to know. She picks at her orange distractedly, peeling off the rind in small pieces.
After a few minutes, Daisy says finally, "I think her name is Simone Le Clair." The name isn't familiar to either of them. Daisy turns her phone screen toward Nadine, displaying a professional headshot of the red-haired woman. It is indeed her. "She's French."
Nadine takes the phone, scrolling through the sparse information on the page. "He must have met her while he was doing campaign work over there. It says she works for the European Independence League?"
"They're big supporters of Perrin." Daisy wrinkles her brow. "But wasn't Mike B doing work on the other side of the election?"
"Well if he's in bed with her I suppose that sort of thing hardly matters," Nadine says flippantly. She wants to chalk it up to irrational jealousy (while fervently hoping her jealousy is indeed irrational), but something feels off about the whole thing.
"I… I guess not." Daisy agrees uncertainly.
The Secretary leverages Mike's intel against Perrin to no avail. This surprises Nadine - very rarely does Mike's blackmail material fail to deliver. It's not right - something isn't right.
When she pokes her head into Daisy's office later, it's already early in the evening. "Remember the… investigating we were doing earlier?" she asks. "Maybe we should dig a little deeper."
Daisy frowns, confused. "You know, maybe you should just ask him if -"
"No, no - it's not about that. The information he gave the Secretary turned out to be useless against Perrin. I just think we should maybe take a second look at this whole EIL thing. Something's missing."
Daisy nods. "Okay, sure."
They spend the rest of the evening sifting information. Around dinnertime, Nadine grabs her personal phone from the lockbox and runs down to the cafe across the street to pick up food for herself and Daisy. ("Do you think you can get me just a really big order of pickles?" Daisy had asked. "Just the pickles. Maybe like five. At least five," and Nadine won't try to argue her out of her cravings.)
Mike has texted her to ask if she can get away from work early enough to join him for dinner.
She taps out an answer in the negative, along with an apology. She considers asking about Simone Le Clair - it would only take another two seconds to compose that text - but just as quickly decides against it.
At best, the other woman is a girlfriend about whom Nadine has no right to ask. At worst… well, she doesn't know what 'at worst' could be, but in any case, she can find it out for herself first and then decide what's worth asking about. Now is not the time.
Mike sends a reply. Okay. Will I see you tonight?
She reads it, considers it, and then puts her phone away without responding.
She returns to Daisy's office with her arms full of dinner. A container of nothing but pickles (the cashier had given her a strange look when she'd requested it, and Nadine couldn't blame him), a sandwich for Daisy (she won't get away with a pickles-exclusive diet if Nadine has anything to say about it), and two salads - one for each of them.
"You don't have to eat everything," Nadine tells her crisply, "but there's absolutely no way I'm going to let you eat nothing but salty cucumbers for dinner."
"Thanks, Nadine," Daisy says distractedly. There's a little furrow in her brow; she's staring at two documents rather intently, eyes darting between them, and Nadine can practically see the gears turning in the other woman's brain.
She settles in the chair next to Daisy's desk and pops open a container of vinaigrette. "What is it?"
Hesitantly, Daisy sets the papers in front of her. "Look at this." She points at the highlighted lines, first on one document, then on the other. "That's from EIL; this one is ours."
Nadine looks at them, and then checks them over three times just to be sure. She blows out a breath. "Mike was on their payroll."
Her stomach sinks in a way that feels unfortunately familiar.
In which Mike's loyalties are called into question. Again.
Nadine goes home alone to her condo that night, and goes back to the office early the next morning. During her morning run-through with Blake, she tells him everything she and Daisy had uncovered the night before.
Not only is Simone Le Clair EIL, she is Mike's former boss. And not only is the EIL a center-right think tank, but it's not actually center-right at all. It's radically-right, radically-everything-the-US-stands-against. And for a year, Mike had put himself directly inside of it. She doesn't know what to think, but she certainly has something to say about it.
If Mike is putting the Secretary's work at risk in favor of his other work interests, then Nadine will be damned if she doesn't fix this mess while it's still fixable.
Beyond a few short, cursory texts (I'm tied up at work - maybe this weekend? she suggests noncommittally), she does not talk to Mike. It's not weird, necessarily - they both often get busy - but it certainly will be if she doesn't find out the truth, and fast.
Gravely, Blake agrees that this information deserves the Secretary's immediate attention.
Nadine meets Elizabeth at the elevator and they walk to the other woman's office together. Blake closes the door behind them.
When she tells her, the Secretary is understandably taken aback.
"Mike B is a genuine snake," Elizabeth says in a low and biting voice.
"Ma'am... I would like to believe that he would not betray you like this." And god she wants nothing more than for that to be true.
But she's also seen him put himself first before, and she has no doubt that he is capable of doing it again. Certainly if he is, this offense is much worse than working conflicting interests of two Senators in Washington. This offense is Attorney General-worthy.
She fervently hopes it's untrue.
When the Secretary tells her the following morning that Mike Barnow is not, in fact, jacking them around ("He quit when he found out their real agenda," Elizabeth says, "and I have his pay stubs to prove it"), Nadine could not be more relieved.
Everything is fine, now - he is exactly the person she thinks he is, her work remains uncompromised, and Simone Le Clair is not his girlfriend. It all works out.
"We've found damning evidence of Perrin taking Russian money, and I think it's exactly what we need to push France out of the Article 5 vote," Elizabeth is telling her now. "But it can't be traced back to this office."
Nadine knows exactly what she's getting at. "You need a third party to leak it."
"I need Mike to leak it."
"Would you like me to call him in today, ma'am?"
"Immediately. Have Blake push my afternoon appointments if you have to. And I would like you to sit in on our meeting."
"Of course, Madam Secretary." Nadine excuses herself from Elizabeth's office and dials Mike's number on her work phone.
When he answers he is reasonably cooperative, if a little curt. He agrees to cancel an upcoming meeting of his in order to meet with Elizabeth immediately after lunch, and then hangs up on her in the middle of her goodbye.
"If the video is as damning as you say it is, why not just leak it?" Mike is sitting in the seat next to Nadine and he already looks disinterested in what she and the Secretary have to say to him.
"Then Perrin spins it as American propaganda and France spends a week chasing its tail over whether or not it's authentic -" Nadine points out.
"In which time Russia completes its strangulation of the legitimate government in Bulgaria and it's too late," Elizabeth finishes.
"So you want your old buddy Mike to leak it for you." There's a tinge of distaste in his tone.
"You have the right contacts in the French media."
"And a reputation for discretion."
"Ironic, don't you think?" he mutters, turning toward her, and she gives him a look of confusion. "That I'm the discreet one?"
She bristles ever so slightly, and when she responds her voice is dangerously soft. "I beg your pardon?"
"Something tells me you can handle the moral ambiguity. Now are you in, or are you out?" The Secretary's no-nonsense tone leaves no room for indecision. If he feels any loyalty to this office, then he needs to prove it right now.
But in an almost childish manner, Mike pretends to deliberate it for a few seconds before giving his answer; even when they all know that he will do as the Secretary bids. They all do as the Secretary bids. He may not necessarily work under Elizabeth, but he still serves at her pleasure. "Sure," he says finally, getting up from his seat. "Whatever you want." He gives Elizabeth a parting nod and walks out of her office without another word. Whatever accusations the Secretary had thrown in his direction still wounds him.
Nadine follows him out half a second later, trying not to look too obvious about chasing him down, but he's walking too fast for her to keep up. She has no choice but to practically run down the hall after him. "Hey," she hisses, "hey." She grabs him by the elbow and wheels him around. "Do you mind?" she mutters, and nods toward her office. She has one hand on the door already, prepared to physically drag him inside if need be.
"Why not?" he says blandly, and when she holds the door open for him, he walks inside without protest.
"What's going on?" She's bewildered.
He looks at her in disbelief, as if she ought to know exactly what his problem is. "I know it was you," he enunciates, and when she shakes her head, he continues, "that did the sleuthing, and ran to teacher."
So that's what all this was about?
"Well of course it was me!" she exclaims. "And if you thought I might be in the thrall of some hostile foreign power, then I would hope that you would go to the Secretary too!"
His eyes widen as she's talking, like he can't believe what he's hearing, and he lets out a long and drawn out sigh. "All you had to do was ask. That's all you had to do."
And then she deflates slightly, because it's all being thrown into sharp relief. It makes sense, now, why he's so upset over this.
She's done this to him before - in exactly this way.
He brushes past her. She calls him back before he can walk out. "Mike." He turns back. "My first obligation is to this job," she says soberly. And she thinks - she knows - that she's said this to him before, too.
She can't remember if it hurt this much then.
His eyes dart from her eyes to her mouth, and back again. "I get that," he says softly, and there is something like regret written all over his face. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go do some dirty work." He leaves without a backward glance. She watches him go, feeling a hollow space open up inside of her chest.
Nadine is still in her office when he comes back.
It's late. Jay and the Secretary have already left for Brussels, and the rest of the floor is empty. Mike slips inside, his whispery movements loud in the silence. He says nothing.
She can tell from the set of his jaw that he's still fuming, still angry at her, and the tension between them is thick. She dares to cut through it. "Perrin will be impeached," she offers. A nod to Mike's efforts. It's a small offering, and as safe a place to start as any.
"Yeah," he replies tightly. "You're welcome." They fall into an awkward silence again.
"I know you're angry with me," she says finally.
He blows out a breath. "Damn right I'm angry. It's the same thing with you." All over again, he doesn't say, but they both know it's what he means.
"No. You think you see something that's wrong, and instead of asking me, talking to me, you prefer to take kicks at my career." His tone is biting. "It's getting old, Nadine."
"We were trying to keep NATO from falling apart," she says, and her voice is level but she still sounds defensive. 'We', she said. 'We', where Elizabeth was the second half of that syllable, and it suddenly strikes Nadine how she and Mike have never shared this pronoun, not in any way that really counts. 'We' has always been Nadine and Vincent; Nadine and Roman; Nadine and Elizabeth; Mike and his wife. Never Nadine and Mike. "We were... there was a lot riding on this." He understands that, doesn't he?
"Your work is not more important than mine!"
"It was a time-sensitive issue -"
"You should have asked me."
"You could have told me!" Her voice rises, and so does she. If he wants a fight, well she can damn well give him one.
"There was nothing to tell! I'm not here to tear down democracy, Nadine, I promise," he says acidly. "And by the way, I don't even work for you! I'm not obligated to tell you anything!"
"And I'm not obligated to explain my work-related decisions to you," she snaps back. "I serve at the pleasure of the Secretary first."
"Oh, don't worry, you've made that abundantly clear!"
"Don't make this personal, Mike," she warns. "You already knew this going in." In fact, he's always known it.
"It's not personal at all! You're casting aspersions on my career! Professional courtesy goes both fucking ways, and you could maybe show me a little more of it."
"And to whom do you show professional courtesy?" she asks with disbelief. The entire nature of his work rests on his ability to steamroller others' careers. Honestly, the sheer irony of him telling her that she ought to extend greater...
"You," he says flatly.
"Oh - like every time you criticize the way we do our jobs?" she demands. "Or the time you tried to fire the lot of us -"
"Now who's making things personal?"
She rounds her desk so that she's standing in front of him. "I don't understand why you're so angry about this," she says, and she thinks her bewilderment comes through in her voice. "It's nothing I wouldn't have expected you to do."
"If you think that I'd do that to you, then you don't know me as well as I thought. I wouldn't have blindsided you like that. That's your thing," he spits.
That hurts, but given their history, she can't say that it's untrue. "Look," she tries, a little desperately, because things are starting to feel like they're spinning completely out of her control, "Daisy and I stumbled across a picture of you with Simone Le Clair, and something felt off, so we looked into it. That's all! I didn't intend to ask you about something that might have been nothing at all."
"Or, ask me at all. Even when you did think it was something."
Well, by then it had seemed a little too serious not to take it directly to McCord.
"I was doing my job," she insists.
"And that erases me from the picture altogether?"
"You have always put your work ahead of me!" he shouts, and underneath the sheer volume, he sounds genuinely hurt. "Not just ahead of my work - ahead of me."
She bristles, and her tone is suddenly razor sharp. "Don't pull that card. I don't owe you anything." She likes him and she likes what they have, but she won't allow him to use that against her. Her personal life has no bearing on her professional obligations, and he is only hurting himself by conflating the two.
"I guess not," he says bitterly. "All the years we've worked together and I've never mattered to you the way that…" He stops himself short and looks away, and that hurts most of all.
"That's not fair," she says softly.
But he is already sealing away his vulnerability even as she speaks, and her weak reply does nothing but fuel his anger again. "Are you sure? Because you see one random picture with me and the EIL president and suddenly you think that's enough to -"
"- try and throw me under the diplomatic bus without even -"
"Mike," she tries again, but he's working himself into a seething rant.
"- the decency to just give me a quick phone call to confirm that I'm actually tearing apart world democracy -"
"Mike, I thought Le Clair was your girlfriend!" she explodes, and her eyes widen in surprise at her unintended admission, and all the insecurity that it implies. (It was partly about the Perrin intel, yes, but it was also very much about... this. Damn.) "I thought she was your girlfriend, okay?!"
They're revisiting all kinds of old injuries today, it seems.
He tosses it back in her face in a whirl of cruel fury. "So what if she was? You should be accustomed to playing the mistress!"
The crack echoes in the room when Nadine slaps him across the face. It shocks them both.
She's reeling. He's always known exactly how to hurt her. His recrimination hangs in the air between them, heavy in their stunned silence.
Mike breaks it first. "Damn it, I didn't mean that," he says hoarsely. His cheek is visibly hot with her handprint. He sounds genuinely, sincerely ashamed, but he's over the line, and she's past caring.
"Get out," she says evenly, icily. She's never used that tone with him before. She moves behind her desk, putting it between them like a barrier. She refuses to look at him. She can't; she might hit him again.
To his credit, he obeys without protest.
Interlude: Mike and Elizabeth have a tense conversation.
Mike hasn't stepped foot in the State Department since his last catastrophic conversation with Nadine. He doesn't know how to apologize. There probably aren't words to encompass the extent of his remorse, nor ones that will make her forgive him for what he'd said. They're done, and she had made that abundantly clear. He wouldn't have expected anything else from her.
Bess returns from Brussels having rehung the precarious balance of powers in the world with, he's heard, barely more than an old postcard, and not three days later she wants to see him. She's an old friend but she's also the Secretary of State, so he knows that when she requests something, she isn't asking. She's telling.
Blake has penciled him in for an early-early meeting, and when Mike steps off the elevator on the seventh floor, he makes sure to walk through the atrium and not past the block of staff offices on his way to Elizabeth's office. He doesn't run away from things necessarily, but he'd like to hold off on Nadine for as long as he can.
Blake shoves a paper cup into his hands as he brushes by his desk, and Mike takes a sip as he knocks once on Bess's office door and lets himself in. Black eye coffee. Blake is nothing if not thorough.
Bess is sitting at her desk with a thick report and a carrot muffin, and she dives right into his debriefing as soon as he settles himself in front of her. She catches him up on everything he needs to know; about the NATO situation with Russia, with the Bulgarians, with the French. He gives her a run down on all of the candidates who are trying to seize on Perrin's empty seat and become the new president of France. It takes the better part of an hour, and though he's still bitter about the accusations that had been thrown in his face the last time he'd been here, he tries to keep that out of his voice. Evidently, he isn't trying hard enough.
At the end of it, Elizabeth is watching him carefully. "You're still mad at me for what I said to you," she says.
He doesn't want to talk about it. "Water under the bridge," he dismisses, but she isn't buying it.
She rolls her eyes — actually rolls her eyes — and says, "Cut it out, Mike. You know we've known each other too long to play this game, so just come out and say whatever it is you've been wanting to say to me."
"You're right," he says, "We have known each other too long. So you'll forgive me for thinking that it was long enough for you to realize that I could never have done what you thought I did."
"I wouldn't have been doing my job if I didn't ask," she says.
Mike knows that the only reason she's deigning to address this with him right now is because of their history together; their friendship, their mutual respect; their years of rapport. Not just anyone gets justification from a McCord.
She continues. "Nadine handed me compelling evidence and I—"
"Nadine doesn't always know what she's talking about," he says shortly. And then blinks, surprised that he couldn't keep that in, mad at himself for putting it out there. It gives away much, much too much. He knows that for sure when Elizabeth's eyes widen.
She's silent for a moment and then, as if working herself up to it, says slowly, "Oo-kay. Okay, Mike. Look." She pulls off her glasses, peers at him. "I've been ignoring whatever's been going on between you two out of respect for your privacy, and hers. Don't think I didn't know," she adds, when he opens his mouth to cut her off again. "I wasn't going to say anything, but now I feel like I have to, before it starts affecting more of your work."
"No. Stop. Here it is, okay? I don't care what you two do in your free time, I really don't. You both deserve…" she trails off, starts again. "You both deserve to be happy. I want you both to be happy. But if you're just… I don't know, just fucking with her—"
"—then you need to back off. And I mean that." She's dead serious, and for a second Mike doesn't know what to say. He finds her protectiveness just a little bit ridiculous. He opens and closes his mouth a few times before settling on a response.
"She's a big girl," he says flatly. "She can handle herself."
"I'm not defending her because I think she needs my help. She always has my back, and now I'm going to have hers. Whether she needs it or not."
"Did you ever stop to think that maybe I'm the one in this situation who could use a bit of support?"
"I know you said something nasty to her while I was in Brussels. I don't know what what it was, but I do know that she probably didn't deserve it. Yeah," she adds, off of his look, "I heard about that."
The set of his jaw goes hard. "She..."
Elizabeth waves him off. "No; she'd never tell me something like that. And from the way she's operating no one would even think that there's anything wrong. That doesn't matter to me. You need to fix whatever you broke, Mike. And then you need to keep your personal relationship with her out of my department."
"You gonna give her this same dressing down, too?"
"Nope. Don't need to."
Mike mutters, "You play favorites."
"Actually Blake is my favorite," she quips. But then she softens. "I value your expertise Mike, I do. But I don't need you in order for me to do my job. I do need her, and you and I both know that."
"You're saying that if it comes down to it..."
"...That I will absolutely leave you out in the cold. Yes. I can get by without you."
A decade of friendship, he thinks, and to Elizabeth McCord it's barely worth the ink on Nadine's resume. "Good to know," he says. He stands up a little too swiftly and snaps up the closures on his briefcase. Irritably, he asks, "Do you ever stop to think that maybe she's too loyal to you?"
"That's what's really bothering you, isn't it? That she chose me over you."
He doesn't respond, but they both know what his answer is. He walks toward the door in silence.
"You know, you probably don't deserve her," she calls after him.
His hand on the doorknob, Mike freezes. That… that was a low blow. "You don't know her as well as you think you do," he says stiffly.
"I know her well enough. And I know you even better."
He sighs. Without turning around, he says, "It doesn't matter; it's all irrelevant. Me and her, we're done."
Elizabeth hesitates. "But," she says, and it's a complete sentence all on its own. She wasn't expecting to hear that, he thinks; wasn't expecting that he'd give up so easily, after all those months of hard chasing and phone calls and questions. That they'd give up so easily.
She doesn't know anything about them.
He jerks the door open. "It didn't mean anything to her anyway."
Some building, some breaking.
"Tolliver," she answers.
"Hi, yeah. It's me."
"I — um — hi. This is a surprise." Nadine settles back into the couch and curls her legs under her. Her contact with her son has been sparse, but it has been there, and that's more than she can say about the decade that came before it. Ever since Myanmar she calls him about once every few months or less, and about seventy percent of the time he does either pick up or call her back. But this — this is maybe only the second time he's called her first.
The first time had been after that the dirty bomb had gone off in DC. The news had just broken where Roman was, and when he'd called he'd sounded scared. At least she'd managed to hold her tongue that time when he'd said, "I was worried."
That had been the night she'd permitted Matt to crash on her couch and snoop through her things. She would've offered him Roman's old room, except that all of Roman's things — the bed, the old furnishings — had been put in storage. She'd turned the space into a home office years ago. She'd retreated to her bedroom, shut the door, and managed to have a pleasant conversation with her son, the whole time wondering whether Matt was eavesdropping on her from the living room. She'd decided afterward that she ought to have more calls with her son that weren't precipitated by dangerous events occurring in her vicinity.
It turned out to be harder than it sounded.
"Is everything okay?" she asks Roman now, because she called him already this month. For him to be reaching out after so short a time is just plain odd.
"Of course. I just wanted to check in," he says, but he does sound a bit… not like himself. "How are you?"
"I'm well," she says carefully. "Work is work."
"Good, that's good." He sounds distracted.
"Roman, are you sure you're alright?"
There's a slight pause. She can't even begin to figure out whether or not to worry, so she forces herself to wait for him to speak first. "So actually, ah, Shindy's father passed away last night. He had a heart attack."
Nadine's heart sinks. "Oh. Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that," she says, and means it. "Give Shindy my sympathies." Shindy's mother, Nadine remembers, had died many years ago. Her father had been her only remaining family in the whole world.
"Thanks, mom. I will."
"Do you… does she need anything? Is there anything I can do?"
"No, there isn't. But thank you for offering... I'll tell her you're thinking about her. The funeral is later this afternoon. I just wanted… I just wanted to hear your voice. That's all."
It's scared him, Nadine realizes. These situations had a way of putting one's mortality into perspective. And that of one's family. "I see," she says quietly.
He's silent on the other end, and the pause goes on for so long that she begins to wonder if the signal has cut out. But then he speaks life back into it, his voice crackling through the line, and he says something that surprises her. "I know I haven't been the best at returning your calls all the time. But I did mean it when I said I wanted to try."
"I know. Life gets in the way sometimes; I know that better than anyone."
"I'll try to be better about it," he insists. "I don't want…" his voice crackles out.
"The line cut out. What did you say?"
"I said, I don't want to put this off for so long that it becomes too late," he says. Between the lines, she understands that he's saying, I don't want you to drop dead of a heart attack and the last thing I ever said to you be, 'Unfortunately for you, you can't disown me twice'. Because that's what he'd said to her the last time they talked. She doesn't want that to be the last word between them, either.
Infinitely worse would be if he dropped dead of some freak accident first. She can't even let herself go there. The thought of outliving her only son is enough to make her physically nauseous.
"I won't let that happen," she promises, as much to herself as to him. "But it's trial and error. We're not going to get it perfect the first time around."
"You're right. I will try harder, though," he says again.
"I appreciate that."
There's a small lull before Roman starts talking again. "You know, back when you—" he clears his throat. "Back when you worked for that guy. Marsh."
"That was… that was kind of a terrible scare. Hearing that his plane had crashed. That no one on it had survived."
Nadine herself thought about this often, especially in the year following Vincent's death, and never realized that her son might have thought it, too. She could have been on that plane, easily. She remembers feeling put-out that Vincent had cancelled their weekend plans to fly down to the ranch. If she had pushed — and it wouldn't have even taken much — he would've taken her with him. It would have been so easy.
She used to do that a lot in general — pressure Vincent into taking her places. Vincent, in turn, used to guilt-trip her for trying to hijack so much of his time and attention. But then he submitted to her demands, and she submitted to his, and on and on the cycle went. They manipulated each other to pieces and called it love.
But Roman doesn't know about any of that. And he doesn't know just how close she'd come to being fish food at the bottom of the Atlantic and it's just as well. Children don't get to know all their parents' mistakes, and Roman has certainly already suffered enough from hers as it stands.
"I wanted to call, but I thought that you might have been on that plane. And if I called and you didn't pick up…" Roman trails off. He had been afraid.
Her voice is soft when she says, "So you just didn't."
At the time, she'd been so sick with grief and guilt and a whole host of other things that she'd barely even had the headspace to wonder why Roman didn't care enough to check on her, estrangement or no.
"I'd talked to Aunt Cecilia. She'd told me you were okay, but I know I should have called you instead. So I'm sorry for that."
"Nothing to be sorry for," she says, because it's the only thing to say. They're mending fences now and that's what matters. In an attempt to switch the subject, she tells him, "You know Celia used to keep tabs on you for me. All those years… you wouldn't take my calls, but sometimes you'd take hers."
"Yeah, well, she was never quite as judgmental as you could be."
Nadine can't help but laugh. "You're right." She thinks of all the times she'd confided in her sister — about Roman, his father, her often ill-conceived love life, her work, anything. Cecilia was frequently kinder than Nadine probably deserved. "She's always been good about that."
There's a muffled noise in the background, and Roman says, "Mom, I gotta go. Shindy's awake, I think."
"Of course. Take care of her today, alright?"
"I will, Mom. Talk soon."
"What do you want, Mike?"
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
Nadine appraises him for a moment, then opens her door wider. She steps aside in silent invitation and Mike steps over the threshold, moving into the kitchen as she shuts the door. She knows this had to happen sooner or later; she just isn't sure where she's going to find the energy for it.
She hasn't seen hide nor tail of this man for nearly a week; ever since their little spat in her office, he's been avoiding her like the plague. It's just as well. She suspects he needed the time to screw up the courage; she needed the time to lick her wounds in peace.
By now, it's been long enough that she no longer feels hotly furious when she thinks of his outburst. But she has resigned herself into accepting that he'd meant it. Perhaps not the anger, but he'd certainly meant the words, and it's too late for him to take them back.
You should be used to playing the mistress.
What hurts and disappoints her most is the knowledge that, even after all this time, he doesn't think very highly of her, not really. He couldn't, not if he could say something like that to her face.
"I'm sorry," he says again.
"I'm sorry for what I said to you. It was a nasty thing to say, and you didn't deserve it. I didn't mean—"
"Yes you did," she says quietly. "You meant it."
He closes his mouth. Opens it again. "I didn't mean to hurt you," he tries instead. And that's the truth of it, she knows. They never mean to hurt each other, but they always do.
"That's the only thing we've ever been good at," she tells him. "Hurting one another."
He shakes his head. "No, that's not fair."
"A lot of things that aren't fair are still true. What you said to me? It wasn't fair. But it was true."
"No. I shouldn't have said—"
"And the thing is, you like to hit me there because you know it'll land. Don't deny it," she says over him when he tries to protest it. "But I've made my mistakes and I've paid for them, Mike. I've paid over and over again, so you don't get to use my choices against me anymore. You don't get to pass judgment. You don't have the right."
"I don't," he murmurs. "I know that. I… I can be an asshole sometimes."
She'd dared to think, at one point, that they could get it right this time around — or at least get it different — but it's all just been more of the same. There's too much bad blood between them. It doesn't scrub clean.
"I do care about you, you know," he tries. "Maybe it… it doesn't always show, but I do. I always have."
"I know," she says softly. "I care about you, too." She suspects that some part of her will always care about Mike, despite everything.
She clears her throat. "You know... you'd told me once, a long time ago, that you thought… you thought you were falling in love with me. Do you remember that?"
"Of course I do. You shut me down."
"Yeah. I was trying to protect your career." She could laugh at the irony.
Mike does. "That's new. Remind me again — how did that work out?"
She tilts her head. "Well, I lost you your job, and then you ended up divorcing your wife anyway, and then your entire career trajectory swung wildly off-course… and then you landed right back in Washington."
"And right back in your bed," he adds.
"Yeah, well, we didn't learn our lesson the first time around."
"Seems like it would've all been a whole lot easier if you had just loved me back in the first place."
"I highly doubt that," she says dryly.
"It would've hurt me less."
"I'd always thought your feelings were more a result of the state of your marriage than anything actually having to do with me," she admits.
"They had everything to do with you."
"And then this time around, I assumed this whole exercise was just about you getting back something that you used to have."
"Yeah. I get that now."
"Is that what it was for you?"
"No," she says. "I thought it would be different, but it wasn't, really. I wish it had been." Her mouth twists into a rueful smile. "But we've never been very good at showing each other that we care."
He inclines his head in agreement. "Nadine," he begins carefully, "you know that I have always..." He trails off, seeming to lose his nerve.
"Nothing. Never mind."
And then the silence stretches out between them, filling up with all of the words they'll never say to each other.
When Mike finally speaks up again, his next words are regretful. "It was never going to work between us, was it?"
She thinks she saw this coming since the morning after election night, when he'd caressed her face and asked in so many words if she wanted to give them another shot. At the time, she'd known it wasn't a good idea, but eventually she'd given into him anyway because she has never been great at listening to herself.
"No," she murmurs. "It probably wasn't."
He nods, and the muscles around his mouth tighten. "I should go." He lets her walk him back to the front door, and as she holds it open, he turns to face her. He looks at her for a long time. "Take care of yourself, alright?" he says finally.
"You too, Mike."
No Mike in this chapter, but some scenes that Nadine needed to have.
Episode tag for 4.01 News Cycle.
"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.
4.03 - The Essentials. And then some.
It's a lot of things, really, that convince her that retirement is the right decision.
That Libyan girl was one. Nadine won't hesitate to admit that seeing that tiny body comatose had broken her heart into pieces. She used to be better at inuring herself against those kinds of things, though — enough to do her job, at least. The fact that she couldn't this time bothered her more than she liked. The Secretary didn't begrudge Nadine that moment of humanity, but that was beside the point. It had interfered with Nadine's performance, and that set off alarms in Nadine's head.
Lara Cramer was another. Nadine had cried herself to sleep three nights in a row.
And now all this mucking knee-deep in Morejon's dirty laundry. And standing back and pretending that President Andrada, man-child and sexual assailant extrordinaire, is fit to lead a country. And Jay getting kidnapped in Nice, of all places. Jesus Christ Almighty. What happened to politics?
And now, with this shutdown looming on the horizon, having to prepare potential furlough arrangements while dealing with everyone's hurt feelings and their combined fear and resentment of her (even though none of this is her fault!) is exhausting. Nadine has lost count of the number of times the word "bitch" has been muttered not-so-discreetly in her general vicinity. They all conveniently seem to forget that she isn't half-deaf.
And then in the middle of all of this, just as she's wishing she could be anyone else with any other job, Roman is having a baby. She couldn't imagine a happier piece of news. And he extends her an olive branch that she once thought she would never receive.
I wish you lived on the West Coast. Then you could hang out with us all the time.
It's not as easy as packing up her whole life and shipping it off to California, of course. That would be foolish. But maybe it's as easy as freeing up her time to visit, traveling for pleasure a little more often. She thinks she's earned it.
Nadine can't even remember the last time she used her vacation days. She racks them up but hardly ever takes them. She's pretty sure she's donated more of them to her employees than she's ever used herself. (She gives them to new mothers; the suddenly, severely ill; the freak accidents. Because she had been a working mother, young and alone, and she remembers how much she could have used that kind of generosity. She may be tough, but she isn't cold.) Maybe she can start using those days for herself. Maybe she has reason to.
It niggles in the back of her mind, though, the dangerously hopeful, insidious, ridiculous thought: she could just retire. She could do it. She could leave and not come back. (God, the decadence. It's almost too rich for Nadine to even dream about.)
Because here's the thing. When she tells Elizabeth McCord, I'd like to take some time off, what Elizabeth hears is, I'm ready to step down.
So maybe it isn't horribly, terribly wrong. Maybe stepping down is the right thing to do. Because professionally, Elizabeth knows her better than perhaps anyone else in Nadine's network, and Elizabeth gives her blessing. And that is worth everything.
So Nadine is going to see her son. She's going to watch her grandchild grow. She's going to resign.
The goodbyes are hard. Leaving them is hard. She had personally onboarded both Daisy and Jay to Vincent's roster. And Matt, whom she hadn't wanted at the outset, she's warmed to with time. She likes his heart. And she likes Jay's passion, Daisy's ambition. She likes Blake's eye for detail. She's always had a soft spot for Blake, though she'd never admit it. He's going to change the world they all live in.
They promise to take her out for drinks, once the dust around them settles a little more — "I'll have a shit ton of free time on my hands with the shutdown," Matt points out, "though drinks will not be on me."
"Take up yoga," Nadine advises.
"I was thinking more along the lines of watching all of the Godfather movies in a row, and then catching up on American Horror Story."
Blake offers up his own retort, and then they devolve into lighthearted quibbling, with Jay adding input and Daisy taking Blake's side. Nadine's chest tightens as she tries not to think about how strange it will be not to be part of this anymore.
Her chest stays tight all the way through their last round of office scotch, a last round of hugs, the last goodbyes. It stays tight as she slips back into her office for a last sweep of the space. Movers have already come in to pack up her things. They'll deliver them to her condo in the coming days; she barely even had to lift a finger. The perks of rank.
Nadine takes one last look around at the strange, bare space. It should seem cold, but the emptiness just reminds her of the excitement of her first days in the department; Vincent sweeping in with staff in tow, staking claim over their newly-won territory. The promise of a new beginning.
When Nadine unclips her badge from her hip and leaves it on the clean, bare desk, that promise still feels the same.
She walks out to the lobby and calls the elevator, head held high. At this hour, it opens for her immediately and she steps inside. When the doors slide closed between her and the seventh floor, the tightness in her chest releases all at once.
And she feels like she can breathe again.
Roman calls to tell her that he's had all their stuff shipped to their new place in Cali. He and Shindy will be flying in one week from today.
Nadine will fly out there in three, and stay for two weeks. She'd wanted to get a hotel, but Roman refused to hear of it.
"I'm not going to make my own mother stay in a hotel," he'd said. "We'll have the extra bedroom and it'll be ready for you when you get here. No ifs, ands, or buts."
He insists that she won't be crowding them if she stays (that had been Nadine's fear) and Shindy insists it even harder, so that's the plan now. Nadine will try very hard not to mother them to death during her stay. If she even remembers how.
She discusses everything carefully with Roman before booking her flight. He'd wanted her to stay longer, but she's worried that anything more will be too long. They would surely get into some knock-down, drag-out fight that results in both of them refusing to speak to each other for another decade, and before she knows it Nadine's grandchild will be an adult, and then Nadine will be dead.
She doesn't explain it to Roman quite like that. She knows she's being dramatic. But the point is still the same, and the fear is still valid. She's going to tread lightly.
"We'll see how it goes," is what she says. Perhaps one day she will move out there for good, but for now she is just very excited to spend a couple weeks in their company.
Blake asks to meet her for drinks a week after she resigns. Nadine has no reason to turn him down and, miraculously, Blake finds no reason to cancel or reschedule them. The one good thing about the federal shutdown is that it seems to have freed up his timetable into something resembling a more humane work schedule. He might even be sleeping more than four hours a night.
Probably not, though.
"I've been trying to find your replacement," he informs her as he sucks on the lime from his gin and tonic. "It's very hard." There's accusation in his voice.
Nadine merely smiles. She isn't irreplaceable. "You'll figure it out," she says unconcernedly. "I have faith in you."
And she gets a text from him a week later: Jay is the new her. It's a good choice.
She wants to congratulate Jay personally, but doesn't want to seem like she's keeping tabs. It isn't her department any longer. She has to commit to that; commit to the break-up. The last thing Jay needs is for his predecessor to start comparing his adjustment period to her track record, so she hesitates over the blurb of his contact information in her phone before ultimately deciding not to call. She settles on a simple text instead. Congratulations, and well-deserved, she writes. I couldn't think of a better person for the job than you. And sends it.
Jay responds not ten minutes later. Thanks Nadine, that means a lot. I'll try to make you proud.
There are three pulsing bubbles underneath it. And then a second message comes through. We miss you.
She sets her phone aside, deciding not to reply. She commits to letting go.
This is retirement. It is more free time than Nadine has ever had in her life.
She takes a pilates class three mornings a week, leaving the condo in skintight leggings and a zip-up hoodie. She goes to yoga the other days. She makes time for the farmer's market on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and catches some of the new art exhibits she hasn't had a chance to see. She procures a ticket to the African American History Museum (after pulling some strings), and goes to the symphony with Gail. She cooks dinner for herself, indulges in expensive wine, watches movies. She makes plans with half a dozen people she hasn't seen in far too long, and doesn't have to break a single date.
Roman calls to inform her that he and Shindy have made it to California safely. They're settling into their new home with the excitement and anticipation of all new, young families. The area, the house, is everything they wanted it to be.
Nadine FaceTimes them often. And when Shindy asks her pregnancy questions and baby questions, Nadine omits the "Saving Private Ryan" comparison from her advice repertoire. Shindy's situation isn't anything like Daisy's, anyway — or Nadine's. Shindy isn't a single mother. Shindy isn't alone.
Nadine makes her way out to Berkeley in the middle of the month and she exchanges sharp chill and dry winds for balmy warmth and endless sunshine. She swears she can feel the warmth in her bones, even from inside the cabin of the plane.
Roman and Shindy meet her at SFO, and when he spots her, Roman wraps his arms around her in a tight hug, lifting her off her feet. "I'm so glad you're here," he says by her shoulder.
Shindy is more careful, pressing a kiss to Nadine's cheek and turning to the side before folding her into an embrace. Shindy's belly is big. "Hi, Nadine."
"Hi, Shindy," Nadine says, then pulls back to hold the other woman at arm's length. "My goodness, look at you!"
Shindy takes one of Nadine's hands and presses it to her belly. "She's kicking up a storm. She's so excited to meet her grandma."
Nadine's heart skips several beats as she feels the tiny pulses against her palm. She looks from Shindy to Roman and back again, eyes bright. "She?"
Shindy nods emphatically, absolutely glowing. Roman is smiling so widely his face could crack in two. "It's a girl," he says.
Shindy and Roman's home is a small bungalow-style house with wooden beams and big windows that look out onto the porch. It's got charm. It'll be a wonderful little house in which to raise a child.
They've made a lot of headway inside; there are no moving boxes in sight, nothing left that looks as yet to be unpacked. Not that Nadine imagines they would have brought a great deal with them halfway across the globe. Much of the space is still bare, though the rooms are all furnished with the basics. Roman carries her things into the guest bedroom, which has all been made up for her and looks crisp and blank.
"You get settled; I'm going to start on dinner," Roman says, and sets her bags down at the foot of the bed as she trails in behind him. He heads toward the door. "Shindy and I will be downstairs if you need anything, so..." he pauses in the open doorway and Nadine looks up. "I'm really glad you're here, mom," he says.
"I am too, Roman." She never thought they'd get to this point.
They sit on the front porch after dinner, watching the sun slowly sink below the treeline. Nadine feels happy and warm and full. She swirls a glass of merlot in lazy circles, curled up on one half of the porch swing with Roman sprawled out next to her. Shindy had begged off, pleading exhaustion, and had turned in early. Nadine remembers that kind of tiredness acutely, doesn't doubt that Shindy is feeling it. But she suspects that Shindy leaving them alone has more to do with the girl's grace in giving Nadine a moment to be with her son, than it is about a need to turn in early.
"She's a good girl," Nadine says. She turns to look at Roman. "You got lucky with her."
"I know. And she likes you too, you know. She thinks you're nice." He wrinkles his nose as he says it, like he can't understand how someone else could possibly find his mother nice.
Nadine shoves him playfully. "Shut up. I am nice, thank you very much."
"Yeah, you're alright, I guess," he says, grinning. He clasps a hand on her knee. Suddenly serious, he says, "All those years we didn't talk…"
"I never hated you, mom. I hope you know that. I just need you to know that."
She feels a lump in her throat. "Yeah, I know," she says, even though it isn't entirely true.
"I just thought I'd disappointed you too much."
Somehow, that hurts her more. "No, baby," she murmurs. She covers his hand with hers. "You could never. I... I was angry, but I was never disappointed with who you are."
"Well. Hopefully my kid will be better to me than I was to you."
Nadine pats his hand. "You'll probably be better to your kid than I was to mine."
"You were fine; you did everything. You were a good mom," he says, like he can recognize that now, and it makes her smile. "I'm kind of terrified," he admits. "Shindy will be a great mother; the best. I already know that. She's so good with little kids and babies, but I… I don't know if I will be."
Nadine remembers this brand of twisting apprehension well; how the fear settled deep in the gut like a block of cement and didn't ever really leave. A parents' fear. "You're gonna be okay, Roman. I know it. You have always been good at anything you were determined to be good at." She smiles. "You get that from your father, I think."
He shakes his head. "No," he says, with conviction. "Every good part of who I am, you've given me."
Her two weeks pass by like a whip. Nadine's visit is over before she knows it, and Roman and Shindy see her off at the airport. They make her promise to fly in for Christmas, and she agrees. They'll iron out the details later. They leave Nadine at the TSA line, and she tries not to miss them too much. Not so soon.
She impulsively calls her sister while she waits at the gate. She's still feeling the spirit of family and she makes plans with Cecilia, agrees to drive up to Newark to join her sister's family for Thanksgiving next week. Nadine can't remember the last time she got to do that.
Her flight lands at Reagan National sometime in the early evening, and she waits an hour at the carousel for her luggage before ubering home. She spends the next day puttering around the condo, unpacking and cleaning and running the wash and trying to kick the jet-lag.
Nadine is pulling clothes out of the dryer when she hears the knock on the door. When she walks over, she raises up on her toes first to check the visitor through the peephole. And hesitates.
Finally, she unlocks and opens it.
Her visitor speaks before she gets to. "So you were gonna resign and just not tell me?"
She sighs. "Mike. Come on in, I guess."
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.
Nadine curls her fingers into the pillow underneath her, sinking her teeth into it to muffle a helpless moan as he slides deep, deeper, until she's gasping into the fabric.
They'd never made it off the couch.
She should be appalled by her own weakness, her inability to resist this. But right now he's fucking her in earnest, like he's trying to hit the back of her throat with his cock, and she just doesn't care.
"God," Mike says, from behind and above her. He holds her hips with near-bruising force as he pulls her back into him. This was the one thing they always got right.
She had gotten his pants off first, but he'd just plain gotten her off first — had shoved her pants and underwear down, pushed her onto her knees, and pressed one hand flat on her lower back as he worked the other hand between her legs, sliding two fingers through her heat. He'd gotten her off just like that, working her with his fingers until she'd come so hard and so fast that she'd had to fight for her air.
He was smug as anything. I still know you, she could imagine him thinking.
He readjusts the angle of his hips now, pulling her back with every thrust, searching for—
"Oh!" she moans, arching her back harder. "Oh, God."
"There it is," he murmurs. He begins to piston into her just like that, hitting her right where she needs, fucking her until he breaks her apart at the seams. She cries out into the couch cushion.
She barely hears his groan as he comes right on the heels of her own orgasm. She's too busy trying to get the breath back into her body. He bends down over her, presses his lips to her shoulder, inhales the scent of her skin. She allows it.
She's pure, sated liquid now. A long moment, then he pulls out of her gently, and then he's collapsing into the cushions next to her. Nadine rests her head against her bent arms and sighs. The regret is already nudging in on her afterglow, demanding to be felt. But he pulls her into him, presses his lips to her shoulder blade, wraps an arm around her narrow waist. And she grants herself the luxury of sinking into his embrace because this is the last time she'll allow it, it has to be, and she shamelessly wants to soak up the familiarity of it, the security of it. Only for a second.
She has to talk herself into disentangling herself from his and getting off the couch. Wordlessly, she goes to lock herself in the bathroom.
Nadine pees, flushes, washes her hands. Studies her reflection in the mirror, and god, she looks every bit her age and feels it, too. She wonders if she could get away with just standing here until he gets the hint and leaves. If she can hide out so that they don't have to talk about her poor decision-making skills.
But then there's a knock on the door and honestly, she should know better than to think he'd just tuck tail and leave.
"Are you okay?" he says softly through the door.
"Just a minute." She rakes damp fingers through her hair until the curls fall back into submission. Wipes her hands dry on her bath towel. Pulls down the satin-thin robe hanging on the back of the door and wraps it around herself; ties it tight. She can do a lot of things, but facing him naked for the conversation she's planning to have isn't one of them. Finally, she opens the door.
Mike is fully dressed, though he hasn't bothered with the belt and the hem of his shirt is rumpled and untucked. His sleeves are pushed up to his elbows and the top two buttons are undone. Nadine has to remind herself not to get distracted by him. Mike does not seem to be reminding himself of any such thing — his own eyes roam her body with open hunger. "Are you okay?" he asks again, to her face.
She nods. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have… I didn't mean to… pounce on you like that," she says.
"I don't mind." He's smiling. He steps aside so that she can exit the bathroom and they both drift back to the living area. He has gathered her clothes folded them into a neat little pile, she notices. They're stacked on the arm of the couch.
"I'm not being fair to you," she says. She turns to face him. "I shouldn't be getting close to you when I've already decided… when I already know…"
"You're not doing anything I don't want."
"That's the problem, isn't it."
He shakes his head. "I don't care."
"Mike," she sighs.
"No, you're not hearing me. I don't care." He takes her hands in his. "Nadine, I meant it when I said I love you. I know I should have shown it more, and I know I fucked up, but you have to believe that I mean it. I've never… never loved anyone the way I love you. So. I don't care if you think you're being unfair to me, or if you think you're doing this wrong, or if you think you're using me somehow. Because I'll take it. I'll take whatever you give me."
Nadine steps into him and presses her face against his neck.
"I'll take it," he says again, softer.
She's silent for awhile. Finally she murmurs, "There was always a part of me that hoped we could have worked..."
He waits for the drop. "But?" he prompts.
She has to put herself first this time. She has to think about herself first. She pulls away from him. "But," she says, "I can't make room in my life for could have."
October 2018 (one year later)
There's a knock on her office door.
"Come in," she says. She doesn't have scheduled office hours right now and her door is closed, but that's okay. She has a lecture in ten minutes, but it's just downstairs and she isn't scrambling to prep. She could do it in her sleep, if she had to.
She'd moved out to Berkeley for good around March; had found a nice apartment in Piedmont — not too far from Roman — and had spent her time helping out with her granddaughter. And though she loves the baby, and loves her kids, the endless free time of retirement had quickly lost its sheen. It made her stir-crazy.
Roman had encouraged her to apply for a teaching position at UC Berkeley, and so now she's here as adjunct faculty in the PoliSci department. The hiring process had been swift and easy, and they had given her keys to an office and a bare-bones curriculum around which she was expected to design her class. By the time summer had rolled in, she'd settled comfortably and was itching to work again. She teaches one class (Modern Global Diplomacy) three times per week and has two fantastic grad TAs who split the discussion sections and most of the grading between themselves, though the term papers Nadine likes to look at herself.
Academia is much sleepier than the world she comes from, but she finds that she enjoys the change of pace. She likes the teaching and loves her students, and doesn't even mind compactness of her little office. It's different from when she'd give guest lectures at GW or Georgetown, because these students are hers and she gets to see the way they think, the way they grow, and she loves that. She can understand now why it had been so difficult for Conrad to pull Elizabeth away from UVA all that time ago.
"Come in," she calls again — louder, because it doesn't seem like her voice carried far enough the first time. Her visitor pokes their head around the door. Nadine smiles when she sees who it is. "Hi, Will."
"Hey, Nadine." William Ansell, whose office is just down the hall from hers. He's her age or maybe a little older, and one of the tenured lecturers in the department. He's very much her type — tall, the dark hair that's going salt and pepper, a strong jaw and a kind smile that uses his whole face. In some ways, he reminds her a lot of Vincent, if Vincent had been unmarried and actually a good person.
Not that she's thought about this or anything.
"Do you have class soon?"
"In ten minutes," she says. "Walk me down?"
"Sure." Will waits for her to gather her things into her bag, and then takes it off her arm without asking. She scoots them both out of her little office and locks the door behind her. He walks with her toward the stairwell and holds the door for her. They descend the two flights to the ground floor. "So I was thinking," he says. His voice echoes up and down the stairwell.
"Hm?" She does like him. She likes that he's sweet and he's clever and that his jokes are actually quite funny. She likes that he doesn't take himself too seriously. And he'd been so welcoming and kind, had really helped her settle in. Everyone in her department has been welcoming, of course, and nice — but she just gets on well with Will.
"Would you want to get coffee later? My treat."
The invitation takes her by surprise, though later as she's delivering her lecture (and unable to focus on anything she's saying, distracted as she is by the memory of that smile) she won't know why it had surprised her. Except that perhaps she'd been so preoccupied with sorting out her own opinions of Will that she'd never stopped to consider that he may have opinions of her.
She smiles at him, warmly pleased, as they emerge out onto the first floor of the building. "I'd love to get coffee with you," she says. At the side entrance of the lecture hall, Nadine sees a handful of students milling about, some of whom she recognizes from her class, burning the last few minutes before they have to go in. She wants to burn hers here, talking to Will.
There's a look of giddy relief in his eyes, as if he'd worried she might actually turn him down. "Great. I'll come find you when you're done." He hands her back her bag, and his hand brushes against hers in the exchange. "Have a good class," he says, and disappears back up the stairwell, back up to his office.
Nadine pauses, needing a second to process what just happened.
One of her students walks by her and grabs the lecture hall door, but doesn't go inside. "I saw that," the girl — Lisa — says confidentially, hanging onto the door. Nadine turns to look at her, giving her a one-eyebrow-raised kind of stare that does absolutely nothing to faze the young woman. "He totally has a crush on you." Lisa gives her a shit-eating grin.
Nadine fights a smile of her own. Lisa is one of her favorite students, though Nadine would never admit it. "You think so?"
"It's so obvious. I see him in lecture sometimes, you know. He sits in the back. I thought he was like, evaluating you or something, but he says he just thinks your class is really interesting."
"He's such a dork sometimes. I told him he should just man up and ask you out already."
"Oh, you have to give him a chance!" she says, and it's a whole wide-eyed plea. "He's so nice and he's such a good teacher and everyone likes him. I took his class last semester and it was like my favorite one ever, except for yours obviously. And he's so cute. If I didn't have a boyfriend and Dr. Ansell wasn't like the same age as my dad, I would totally—"
"Okay, okay, point made! Get inside, Lisa, you're going to be late."
"You're going to be late, professor," she says, shit-eating grin firmly in place.
"I do have a confession to make," Will announces over his black coffee with mock-seriousness.
"And what's that?"
"I've been sitting in on your lectures." At her puzzled look, he adds quickly, "Not every day! I'm not a creep, I promise — just. Occasionally." He shrugs, and the amusement dancing in his eyes is a reflection of the one in hers. "I admit I was curious."
Nadine doesn't give away that she already knows. "Had to size up the new guy?" she asks instead. She breaks off a piece of the orange cranberry muffin that sits on the table between them. Will had gone and gotten Nadine her preferred soy latte, but had also come back with a whole tray of confectionery goods. ('I'd never let you go hungry,' he'd said. 'What kind of person would that make me?')
"Had to see this new Washington insider we'd landed. This hotshot who came all the way out west to teach world diplomacy."
She snorts at his dramatic description, at how he just lathers it on. "And what you got was little old me instead. Sorry to disappoint."
"Oh, definitely not a disappointment." God he's smiling again, and Nadine has no explanation for the way this sets off a cascade of butterflies in her stomach. "I was quite impressed, truth be told. Even with all my lofty expectations." He's just teasing her now, but she doesn't mind. It's nice not to have to take anything too seriously these days.
"Good to know I pass muster," she says facetiously, and that's all she says, because she refuses, refuses to fish for the compliments he seems so eager to dish out. She has some pride, thank you very much. "Which one did you sit in on?" Or not.
"Oh, let's see. The one on the intersection of media and international politics; American intervention on human rights violations; the balance of powers in the UNSC; Secretary McCord's execution of the Iran deal—"
"Jesus, that's half my syllabus!" she exclaims. "You creep."
He holds his hands up in mock surrender. "Hey, in my defense, your classes are very conveniently scheduled in the break between my morning lecture and noon discussion. So sometimes I poke my head in."
"'Sometimes'," she repeats, slightly flustered.
"Your class is interesting," he says simply.
"Well." She takes as sip of her latte, gathering her thoughts. "I'm planning on doing a negotiation simulation with them later in the semester."
"They'll love that."
"Maybe you could lend me a hand since clearly you have nothing better to do than take my class." Her mouth twitches.
He laughs (thankfully), and holds his hand to his chest. "I would be honored," he says expansively.
"I should come sit in on one of your classes," she adds, reaching for another piece of the muffin. "Size you up."
"You should. In fact, I think I'm offended that you haven't done that already. The interest here is clearly one-sided."
She looks up quickly. He's watching her, a little smile playing on his lips, and her heartbeats trip over themselves. She wills the blush to stay off of her face. "It's not," she says simply, and he smiles widely. The butterflies are uncontrollable.
It's Sunday and she's promised Roman that she would join them for lunch today. She lets herself into their house with her own key, and she's hardly put down all the things in her arms (her purse, the produce Roman had asked her to pick up from the grocery store that was on the way, some of the baby's things that had been left behind at Nadine's apartment the last time they'd visited) before Shindy's placing the baby into them.
"Well hello, my sweetheart," Nadine coos, pushing her nose against that warm baby scent. Ava snuggles into her neck without a fight. "Hi, hon," Nadine adds, leaning in to kiss Shindy's cheek.
"Hey Nadine," Shindy says. "Roman's out back; we thought we'd eat outside today."
"That sounds lovely." She follows Shindy through the house and onto the back patio, then maneuvers the baby into her high-chair.
"Hey, mom," Roman says, and pulls her in for a hug. He's got the whole spread already set up on the patio table. He turns his attention to his daughter; fits the tray onto the top of her high-chair and spreads some tiny puff cereal pieces over it. Ava grabs for them immediately. "She's already eaten, but she won't mind hanging out with us for a little bit. We just got her up from her nap."
Lunch is good; nothing fancy, but by the time she's done Nadine feels full and a little sleepy herself. Shindy gets up and takes Ava inside for a diaper change.
"Everything going well at work?" Roman asks.
"It's great." She doesn't tell him about Will or their dinner date last night, even though its front and center in her mind. That's not really work-related, anyway. She says instead, "I was talking to Elizabeth the other day—"
"Your old boss Elizabeth?"
"Mhm. I'd love to bring her in to guest lecture. But it's… she hardly ever has business on this side of the country, so it would be hard to execute."
"Yeah no, that would be insanely great. She'd be phenomenal."
"She was the one who brought it up, even. She misses academia sometimes, I think," Nadine says, and she knows all about that feeling. Nadine misses her old job, too. Occasionally.
Roman pauses. Then he says, a little hesitantly, "Mom, you are happy out here, right?"
She turns to him, a little surprised. "Oh honey, of course I am. I get to see you guys all the time. I get to teach. I get to slow down. Why wouldn't I be happy?"
Nadine had loved her job, but she had given everything to it, and in the end it had half-digested her. The goal had always been to get out of Washington in more or less one piece, and she saw her opportunity and took it. Every day she knows that this decision was the right one.
Her phone buzzes in her pocket. She pulls it out and checks the text — it's from Will.
Can't stop thinking about you.
Nadine puts her phone away (she'll respond later, when she's not in the middle of what feels like a semi-serious conversation) and tries not to smile like an idiot.
"Just making sure," Roman says.
"Trust me," Nadine assures, "I am right where I want to be."
She's in her office the next morning when she gets the email.
I'll be in San Francisco for a few days next week on a consult. I'd love to see you when I'm out here if you have the time. Let me know.
Nadine clutches at the pillow under her head, arching her back.
"Shit. Oh Jesus, Nadine—" Will pants, quickly following her over the edge. She wraps her arms around him as he dips his head down to kiss her neck, keeping most of his weight on his forearms as he catches his breath. "You're gonna kill me," he murmurs, and she feels his lips curl into a smile before he turns to kiss her jaw, then her lips.
She kisses him back softly, then again, harder. "We can't have that," she says.
She likes him well enough. She's let Will take her on several dates now, the last few having ended at his house, and she has no complaints about any of it. She likes that he can make her laugh, and she likes the way he looks at her and likes the way he fucks her.
Maybe she's just starved for something good.
After a while she sits up, swinging her legs over the side and fluffing her hair as she gets out of bed. She locates her bra and underwear on the floor and grabs them on her way to the bathroom. She does her business and gets back into her undergarments before exiting the bathroom.
Will observes quietly as she picks up her dress and slips back into it. He's still laying in bed, sheets covering his lower half. "You could stay," he says. "We don't have work tomorrow. I have nowhere to be. And I'd love to make you breakfast."
She smiles briefly. "Thanks, but I promised my son I'd watch the baby in the morning. Another time," she says, and walks over to the bed, leaning down to kiss him appeasingly. She's lying, but she doesn't feel bad about it. As much as she enjoys his company, she could use a little time alone this weekend.
Will wraps an arm around her waist and pulls her down, one large hand drifting down to her ass as he gives her a proper kiss. "Okay then. I'll see you soon?"
"Sure, I'll call you." Nadine kisses him one last time before slipping out of the bedroom. She gathers her coat and purse from the living room, steps into her shoes, and lets herself out.
Once she's back in her car, she pulls her phone out of the front pocket of her purse (she never used to be able to do that—just put her phone away and not look at it all night—back when she worked at State). No missed calls, but there is one text from Mike.
He'd sent her an email last month about meeting up while he was in town for business, but then had had to cancel the trip after his son had broken his leg during hockey practice. By the time Mike had been able to reschedule the work trip, in between all of his standing obligations at State, nearly a month had passed.
Over those weeks, they had begun to correspond with increasing regularity, graduating from emails to texting on a weekly basis. Because they were friends, Mike had rationalized. They were old friends, and it didn't have to be weird. They could make it not weird.
Will be in SF Tuesday through Friday next week. Hope we can still get dinner. Let me know, his message reads now.
And texting him is nice. She likes feeling like his friend again, with minimal commitment and minimal collateral. She likes pretending that none of the things that happened between them were poisonous or irreparable.
She sits back, sighs.
Maybe she's deluding herself. Maybe it's all just the precariously-constructed illusion created by digital intimacy; a friendship made to seem healed and whole by the distance, time, and lack of face-to-face interaction. Maybe seeing him in person would wreck that.
Still, she reasons, it's just dinner. Even she can't mess that up.
Tuesday would work, she types back. She puts her phone away, starts her car, and drives home.
She doesn't see Will all weekend, but she does call him, as promised.
"Miss you," he says.
"You just saw me two days ago." She rolls her eyes even though, secretly, she kind of likes that about him. He's direct about what he wants, but not in an overbearing way. He doesn't expect her to prioritize him over other things and doesn't get mad when she doesn't. It's easy to be with him. It's the least complicated relationship she's been in, perhaps ever.
"Still. Miss you."
"How about you come over later this week? I'll make you dinner," Nadine offers.
"I'm not free until Wednesday."
"Mm, Wednesday's no good for me."
"Thursday, then. There's an art exhibition opening downtown. I'd love to take you."
She smiles. "That sounds wonderful."
"Great," Will says warmly. "I'll see you in class tomorrow."
"You have got to stop coming to my lectures," she admonishes. "My students see you there, you know. They ask me questions. They think something's going on."
"Something is going on," he teases.
"You're impossible. I'll see you tomorrow."
"See you tomorrow," he says, and she can just tell that he's smiling. "Bye, Nadine."
"Hey," Will says, his head peeking through her open office door.
The day is winding down; Nadine has a few more papers she wants to get through before she leaves to meet Mike for dinner. They'd decided on a restaurant right in the heart of the city, and she already knows it's going to be a trek.
She looks up. "Hey, you."
There's no one around, so he steps right up to her desk and leans across to kiss her. "I've had a change of plans and now I'm free tonight, so maybe I can take you to dinner if you don't have anything going on."
"Oh, actually I'm supposed to meet up with a friend tonight," she says vaguely, but he doesn't press her for details.
"Okay. Well, have fun."
"But we're still on for Thursday?"
"Can't wait." She smiles.
"Me neither. Alright," he says, rapping his knuckles against the doorframe, "I'll let you get back to grading."
She makes her way through a few more papers before it's time to head out. And although she leaves campus with plenty of time she's still late getting to the restaurant, and Mike is already seated at their table when she arrives.
He sees her first and waves her down, standing. He walks around the table to pull her chair out for her, and when she reaches him he gives her a friendly hug. His smile is so warm and genuine that it almost isn't even awkward.
"Hey, I'm sorry I'm late," she says, settling in. She shrugs out of her coat and drapes it over the back of her chair, sets her phone on the corner of the table out of the way, and hangs her purse. "Traffic sucked and then I had to circle the block three times to find a parking spot. Should have Ubered."
"Don't worry about it. It's good to see you," he says. "You look good."
"Thank you. So do you."
"So uh," he says, picking up the menu, "this place has a great wine list. We could get a bottle of that Salentein Malbec you like."
"I don't think I could help you finish a whole bottle. Maybe just a glass."
He raises an eyebrow. "You didn't eat anything today, did you?"
She doesn't answer for a long time, pretending to study the menu. "I ate breakfast," she finally offers, without looking up. She doesn't need to see the way he is probably most definitely judging her.
"Uh-huh. It's eight PM now."
"Tuesdays are my long days."
"You're in academia," he says.
"It's midterm week."
"They give you grad TAs for a reason."
"I like to read the papers myself."
"Of course you do," Mike huffs, not sounding surprised in the least. "They're just undergrads, you know. They don't really have anything to offer you yet."
"Some of them would surprise you." She scans the menu. She is hungry, now that she's had a second to think about it.
"Then I suppose you can send us some White House interns," he replies. "In two years."
"Yeah, I hope so."
The waiter arrives to take down their drinks, and he orders them two glasses of Malbec without making any comment about Nadine's alcohol tolerance.
"So what business brings you all the way out here?" she asks him, once the waiter leaves.
"Consult with Mayor Breed."
"You cleaning house?"
"Couch-sitting," he corrects.
She waves dismissively. "Same difference. You know," she says, "you'd think there would be at least one qualified advisor in this entire state who could have managed that dirty work."
"Yeah, like you," he points out. "Except I hear through the California grapevine that you've been turning down all offers since the minute you got here."
She shakes her head. "It's not for me. If I wanted to stay in politics I wouldn't have retired from politics."
"You don't regret leaving?"
"No," she says truthfully. "I'm happy with what I'm doing now."
He smiles briefly. "You look it."
"Anyway," he says, turning the topic back, "I'm just doing this as a favor to my ex-wife."
"London's an old college friend of hers."
That makes a little more sense—because it isn't like Mike to lend his time and expertise to city politicians just for the heck of it. "I see."
"And when she took over for Ed Lee, she kept his staff," he says, his tone dry. "Didn't boot a single person. It's complicating her agenda, now."
Nadine presses her lips together. "Can't imagine what that's like."
The waiter returns and sets down two globes of red wine. "Here you are," he says. "Are you guys ready to order?"
They put in their orders and hand back their menus.
"Cheers," Mike says, lifting his wine. She taps her glass against his and takes a sip, knowing it'll go straight to her head if she isn't careful.
"So how's the Secretary?" she asks.
"She's good. Still waiting for her to admit to herself and everyone else that she's going to… well, you know," he says lamely, scanning their surroundings.
And she does know. When she worked for her, Nadine had no problem toting Elizabeth's denial to anyone who dared suggest otherwise, but she knows it's only a matter of time before the Secretary reverses course. And Mike, who is always thinking ten steps ahead, probably already has a campaign strategy ready to go. Just waiting for a green light.
"And everyone else?"
"Good. Jay has really…" he stops short because compliments don't come that easy, not from him. "He's not you, but he makes it work."
"And who's the new Jay?"
"Ah. Kat Sandoval."
"Oh," Nadine says, surprised. She hasn't been keeping up, evidently. She only knows Kat by reputation, but it makes sense how the woman could be Elizabeth's speed.
"Leave it to the Secretary to be the one person who could pull that woman back into politics," she mutters.
'Yeah, no kidding," Mike agrees.
"Do you like her?"
He shrugs dismissively. "Do I like anybody?"
"You like me."
He chuckles. "Yeah, I guess I do," he says, and he says it so easy that it's like the sting of their last encounter really has faded out. It's been over a year since she's seen him, anyway.
They talk about State, Mike's son, her son, her granddaughter—it's easy and nice and it doesn't feel forced. She had worried for nothing. She eats half her meal and boxes up the rest.
"Dessert?" he offers.
"We could share something," she says agreeably, and he flags down their waiter for a menu. They both know she'll have two bites of whatever it is and let him have the rest.
They settle on a tiramisu and a decaf coffee for Mike. The waiter whisks away the menus again, and then Nadine folds up her napkin and sets it on the table.
"I'm going to go to the restroom," she says, excusing herself.
She heads toward the back, uses the facilities and washes up, feeling good and feeling pleased. She hadn't thought it was possible for them to be friends again, hadn't realized that was something she wanted. It's certainly taken them long enough.
When she returns to their table, the dessert is already sitting there, two forks resting on the plate.
Mike nods toward her phone. "Someone's been texting you," he says as she's settling back into her seat. She glances over and sees the screen glowing, lit up with message previews. There's something tight in his voice that wasn't there before. It's minute; she wouldn't have noticed it if she didn't know him so well. He's bothered. Jealous?
"Oh," she says. She glances at the previews and sees that they're from Will. As best she can tell, they don't seem urgent or important, so she doesn't make a move to pick up her phone. She doesn't want to make a big deal of it.
Mike is watching her. "That's okay," he offers. "You can get it if you want." He hands her a fork, and digs his own into a corner of the cake.
"Thanks," she mutters, and unlocks her phone. She quickly scans through Will's messages and then locks her phone again, slips it into her purse without replying. "Not important."
"You were smiling," he says. "You're seeing someone." His inflection is halfway between a statement and a question.
"Um, yes," she says. She scrapes up a tiny bit of mascarpone with her fork, feeling foolish for feeling flustered. "Yeah, I am."
"That's great," he says neutrally. And suddenly that awkwardness she'd been trying so hard to avoid now thickens the air between them.
"Yeah?" she says, and if she sounds a little suspicious she can't help that. They've never been able to heal old wounds, and she's never been able to anticipate which one he'll weaponize. Because he does that sometimes.
It's fine either way. He can feel however he wants about it.
"Yeah," he says. The waiter returns with the check and she snatches it up, grateful for the distraction. But Mike somehow already has his credit card out. He tucks it into her hand with a grin. "You can get it next time."
She'll allow it. "Alright then." She slips the card into the pocket and props up the book on the table. They sit in silence as the waiter breezes back around to collect the book, and as they wait for it to be brought back. They work on finishing the dessert.
The waiter finally makes it back around, sets down the book. "Thank you for dining with us. Have a great rest of your night, guys," he says with a winning smile.
Mike re-pockets his credit card and scrawls in a tip and a signature. He looks up at her. "Ready?"
She nods, gathering her purse and her coat. He follows her out of the restaurant and onto the street. It's dark now, but the area is still fairly busy.
"Where did you park?" he asks.
She points up the street. "Two blocks that way."
"I'll walk you. My hotel's in that general direction anyway," he says. They walk in silence for a while before he speaks up again. "I meant it, you know. Earlier."
She looks at him. "Hm?"
"It's great that you're seeing someone."
"Oh. It's… well. Thank you. I'm not sure if… It's still pretty new, so..." she fumbles, trails off. Clears her throat and tries again. "Anyway. Thanks."
She rewinds her mental calendar. "Maybe a month."
"Where'd you meet?"
"We teach in the same department."
"Teacher hot for teacher." He nods solemnly.
"Oh my god Mike, no, it's not—"
"I'm kidding!" he says, laughing, and she rolls her eyes at his antics. Mike asks, "But you like him?"
"Yeah." Her mouth lifts in a half smile. "He's a good guy."
"You deserve that," he says sincerely. They fall silent again, walking side by side. He speaks up again. "I really… I do want to see you happy, Nadine. I want that for you."
She chances a sidelong glance at him, but he's looking straight ahead. She leans into him, brushing her shoulder against his. "I want that for you, too," she says. Neither of them step apart again, and they walk the next block with her arm pressed against his.
"This is me," she says when they reach her car. She unlocks it with the key fob, and Mike opens the driver side door for her. She turns into him. "I'm glad we got to do this. Thank you for dinner."
"Thank you for making time for me," he says, and envelops her in an easy hug. "Get home safe."
She stands shoulder to shoulder with Will and stares up at the massive display mounted on the wall in front of them. They study it for a good minute in silence.
"I don't get it," she says finally, voice hushed.
"Is it supposed to be… sexual?" Will tries.
"Freudian," she agrees.
He snickers. "At least the champagne's good." The champagne is good—and expensive. Her glass is almost empty.
"I thought art was your thing."
"Yeah, I thought so, too." He links his fingers with hers and leads her to the next piece. "I'm questioning that now."
The voice comes from somewhere behind them. "Nadine?"
She turns in surprise. "Mike?"
Mike walks toward them, glancing between her and Will, a smile fixed on.
"Um. Will, this is Mike Barnow. Mike, this Will," she says, sounding a little strangled and unlike herself and wrong.
Will shoots her an odd look, but then Mike holds out his hand, and he shakes it firmly. "It's nice to meet you," he says politely.
"I didn't expect you'd be here," Nadine says.
Mike hikes a thumb over his shoulder, in the direction of a group of people milling about behind him. "I know the curator." Of course he does.
"Nadine, I'm gonna get us a refill," Will offers, rather tactfully, and takes her empty glass out of her hands before excusing himself.
Mike looks at her, a little scrutinizing. "I didn't know you liked modern art," he says.
"I don't," she says honestly. "It doesn't make sense. Are you planning to purchase something here?"
He makes a face. "I don't think so. Just because I know the guy doesn't mean I agree with his taste." His eyes drift over to Will, across the room. Will has two fresh glasses of champagne in his hands but has stopped to chat with someone who he seems to know. "That the professor?"
He nods and doesn't say anything else. His face is carefully blank, but Nadine has known him too long not to see that he's dying to say something.
"Oh, come on, Mike. Don't do that."
His eyes flick back to her. "Do what?"
"You know what. You clearly have something you want to say, so just say it."
"Barnow," she says warningly.
"It's just harder than I thought, alright? Seeing you, here, with that guy." She frowns. Mike simply shrugs, unembarrassed with his honesty now that it's been pulled from him. "It just looks like… like what I wanted with you. What you refused to give me."
That deflates her. "You and I were different," she mumbles. "The circumstances were always… not this."
"It's just a little disheartening, I guess. That's all."
"I always cared about you," she offers. "I still do."
"I know you think that's comforting, but it's not," he says sharply.
She grows icy, defensive. "What would you like me to say?"
"Nothing. You asked me to say what was on my mind. I did."
"I can't change our history."
"I know. But back then, when I imagined my future, and you in it, it was never like this."
She looks away. "Don't," she says quietly. There's a hard lump in her throat, but she bites the inside of her cheek and refuses to cry.
"It doesn't matter now." He looks at her for a long moment. "You should get back to Will," he says. He walks away.
Nadine looks up at the ceiling, blinks hard. She exhales slowly and straightens her spine. She turns and finds Will in the crowd.
"Hey there," he says. He hands her one of the champagne flutes he's holding, and then does a double take when he sees her face. "Hey, what's wrong?"
She tries a smile. "Nothing. Nothing, don't worry about me."
"Is it— Did that guy say something to you?"
She shakes her head. "It's nothing—really."
"It doesn't look like nothing," he murmurs gently. "Who was that guy?"
"Just someone I used to work with, that's all."
"You must know him well if he can upset you like this," he prods. "Were you two close?"
"Oh," she says, voice wavering involuntarily, "close enough."
Will studies her, worried. "Let's get out of here," he says.
She nods, embarrassed for being so visibly rattled. "Yeah, okay."
He sets their untouched glasses on a nearby table and leads her out of the gallery.
He drives them. Once they get on the freeway, she notices that he's taking them toward his place.
"Actually," she says suddenly, "Can you take me home? I just… I think I need some space."
He glances over at her. "Of course. Whatever you want," he says. He takes an earlier exit to re-route them toward her apartment.
In silence, in her head, Nadine turns over her conversation with Mike the whole ride home.
"Here we are," Will says, turning into her apartment complex. He pulls in front of her building and puts the car in park, understanding that she isn't going to invite him up tonight.
"Thanks, Will. I'm sorry about tonight."
"Don't worry about that. Are you going to be okay?"
"Yeah, I will be."
"Okay," he says, and doesn't press. She's grateful for that.
Will is the kind of man she ought to want. He's safe — she knows she can count on him to treat her gently, to be there, to keep her company. No surprises, just steady support. If that is what she wants.
Is she just lonely?
"I'll see you at work tomorrow. Good night," she says, and leans over to kiss him softly.
"Good night, Nadine."
She gets out of the car. She doesn't look back as she lets herself into the building.
Mike's words echo in her head all weekend.
She thinks about what she might have done, if Mike had been bold enough to invite her up to his hotel room the other night. She probably would have gone. She knows better than to reach for him, but that's never stopped her from wanting to.
When I imagined my future, and you in it, it was never like this.
She can't get him out of her head.
She didn't cheat, but this doesn't feel fair, either.
She shows up at Will's door that evening unexpectedly.
"Nadine? Are you okay?"
"I don't think this is working," she blurts out. Better to get it all out on the table at once.
He pauses. "What?"
She holds his gaze, and tries hard not to wonder if she's blowing up something good for no reason at all. "I'm sorry. I can't keep doing this."
"Nadine, I don't think I understand what's going on."
"I just… I think you're looking for something completely different than what I can give—"
"How about you let me decide that for myself?" he interjects gently.
"—and I think I've just been using you as a distraction," she confesses hollowly. "That's not fair to you."
He looks at her for a long time, unreadable. "Alright," he says finally. "Okay. Well, you've clearly made up your mind."
"I should go. I'm sorry, Will."
When I imagined my future, and you in it, it was never like this.
Later, at home and alone, Nadine wonders if maybe she just never learned how to be happy.
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.
Three years later and we have finally reached the end! Thanks so much for reading!