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The first time, only Nadine hears it.

Nadine was still getting used to the new Secretary’s lanky yet ever present assistant who seemed to have not yet grown fully into his limbs, leaving him at times with the coordination of a new foal. The comparison only amused her more when she learned her new boss literally grew up raising horses and still owned some, so perhaps that was why she was able to take her shadow’s mishaps in stride.

The three of them had been on their way to meet with a congressman on the Hill and since she knew the way by heart, Nadine was leading the pair in. Up the entrance stairs she rushed and was almost to the doors when she heard an exclamation and the sound of something solid hitting the ground. Whirling around, Nadine found Blake crumpled at the bottom of the steps, both hands around one knee. The Secretary was already looking him over with a focus born of two decades of motherhood.

The DS agents hovered nervously on the sidewalk, eager to get their new charge inside to safety, but she was busy verifying her assistant was not seriously injured. The words slipped out as she took in the way his knee was swelling, concern lacing them. “I think you’ll be okay, Baby, but you need to stay off it and get some ice.” The Secretary had turned then to her detail. “Can we get or make ice packs from somewhere? And can you help him back into the SUV? No sense in him trying to walk on it.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” The men had instantly responded, but Nadine had let the words roll around in her mind. ‘Baby’.

=MS=

Months go by and if it happens again in that time, none of the staff catch it, but then Blake spends much more time one on one with their boss than any of the others do.

It’s the second time Nadine hears it, only barely though. She’s the one standing three paces from the doorway as a heartbroken Secretary passes Blake as she flees to her office after the news of Prince Obaid’s funeral. He’s tucked in the small alcove between the rooms and the Secretary must skirt around him. As she does, Nadine catches the small pat on his arm, surely a reassurance that she’s okay to calm the concern on his face.

“Thank you, Baby.” The words are barely even a whisper. Years later, as she’s making her final descent to her car in the elevator, Nadine will think back to that one being the one she heard the most. That quiet thanks made so intimate in those quiet, private times when the Secretary thought it was just the two of them, she would reminisce, the Secretary would forgo his given name for that term of endearment.

=MS=

Jay never notices until they are packing up to head home from Brussels. Even Nadine’d moved past her initial horror over having to bail Blake out of jail and had joined in teasing him, but it’s when Jay back tracks to pick up something he’s forgotten that he overhears the Secretary giggle, an indulgent tone in her voice.

“I’m sorry, Baby.” She snickers. “Embarrassment you may never live to hear the end of aside, you did good work for me.”

His brows rise, but a part of him isn’t surprised in the least. Grabbing his things, he slips away again unnoticed.

=MS=

Matt’s first time is en route to the break room the wrong side of midnight for something to fuel his body to keep going. The senior staff are the only ones on the floor, working in shifts to bring the trade summit back together. He realizes he can hear his boss’s voice before he rounds the corner and it doesn’t take tradecraft to work out by the first part of her statement just who she’s speaking to. Blake only marginally functioned on no sleep at all before, but since permanent high alert for triggers and panic attacks had become part of their everyday routines, he’d slipped.

“I told you no more coffee, Baby. Try some herbal tea or something, but you need to either figure out how to calm down or I’m going to have to force you to go home and sleep properly. You’re getting all wound up about things that aren’t important.”

Somehow, having watched the relationship between his boss and his friend for almost two years, he’s not surprised and simply shakes his head before finishing his trek into the room, grinning when they both turn to him for support in making their own case.

=MS=

Daisy’s the only one still awake, or so she’d thought. It’s a red-eye flight back from Europe; they’d been busy the entire five days and were all accordingly exhausted, but one person was in worse shape than the rest. Blake had developed a sinus infection, rendering him essentially useless. Now he was supposed to be sleeping on the couch in the small office, heavily medicated.

Through the open doorway, Daisy can hear the Secretary’s voice and she makes the leap that her coworker isn’t entirely asleep just yet. Their boss’s tone is comforting, maternal. “I know the pressure up here makes it so much worse, but I promise you’ll be okay once we land and you get some rest, Baby. Try to sleep.”

She hears movement that sounds like the Secretary leaving the room and she slams her eyes shut again to avoid being noticed.

=MS=

The staff never mentions it to one another, never discusses it so none of them are aware of it happening more than the time they hear it. They don’t know how common it is until the day they all hear it together.

It’s rare they all rally to handle a crisis that isn’t rooted in international diplomacy, but something that should’ve been an innocent action lands Alison McCord in the hospital and sends Blake into a tailspin of guilty panic over his facilitation of how it started. He’s pacing the family room of the hospital’s surgical floor, hands running through his hair and sending it up in chaotic spikes as he makes tight turns, muttering under his breath.

The McCords are down the hall waiting for word, leaving the rest of the staff to watch their friend freak out on their own until the detail make a unilateral decision that Blake needs help calming down.

Elizabeth suddenly appears in the open doorway, watching them all but especially Blake before stepping in and forcibly stopping him, dragging him into a hug. “This isn’t your fault, Baby. None of it.” Her tone leaves no room for debate on the matter, but the four of them watch and listen as their friend tries to debate it anyway.

“I was supposed to stay with her the entire time!” He starts, pulling away, his voice high and fast and loud. “I was supposed to stop something like this from happening!”

They watch her catch him by the arms and seem to shake him a bit. “This was not your fault.” She repeats it again and the room goes suddenly still and quiet. It seems as even the rush of recirculating air hesitates before all sound and movement return again in an almighty rush as Blake sinks to the floor and she with him, repeating words of reassurance and compassion as she holds him steady while he falls apart.