Standing on the rug just inside the sliding door, Nadine stretched to the counter, catching the small towel she’d left there as well as the remote for the TV, flicking the latter on while she used the former to pat water from her legs and brush lingering sand from her feet. As she tiptoed through to the bathroom to wash up properly, frowning at the traces of sand she invariably left behind in her footsteps on the tile floor, the news anchor droned on in the background.
“…Barker is now locked in a court case with the Federal Government over such detainment and separation of undocumented children. Official lines from both the White House and the State Department have been that this is a violation of federal jurisdiction…”
Nadine leaned out the bathroom doorway, squinting at the TV to bring it into focus before straightening, flicking the light off, and padding back to the kitchen. “What the hell is Barker playing at?”
“…Senator Morejon’s office released a statement saying…”
“Well that can’t be trusted.” She snorted, shaking her head. Taking a seat at the little table in her kitchen, she tugged the ends of her pants back to her ankles, debating just how crazy the seventh floor would be in all this. A veritable forest fire, if she had to guess. She knew too well that the media only ever got a small fraction of the picture, usually the parts they couldn’t contain and so if things looked this bad from the outside…
These days it took two passes around the house before she could find her phone, it was no longer an additional appendage that she couldn’t live without. She scrolled through recent messages from each of her former colleagues, debating on where to start. They all kept in touch, updating her about their lives and promotions and asking about hers. At first she’d longed for a bit of distance from that world, afraid that she’d easily be drawn back in, but none of them ever suggested her returning, not after the first two or three weeks anyway.
Deciding on the person who could give her the best read of what she really wanted to know, she pressed Blake’s contact and waited. Even if he was knee deep in a disaster, he’d always take her call even if only to say he couldn’t actually take her call.
She was laughing before she even processed the jumble of words. “Rough day, Blake?”
He took a breath and when he started again, sounded calmer. “I hate Governor Barker, I hate Senator Morejon, I actually don’t entirely hate Russell at this very moment. Oh! Did you get the invite about her vow renewal? Matt says she still has the dancing abilities of a drunken foal, you would think that years of this gig and she’d have picked up a thing or two. Jay sprained his ankle playing basketball with Daisy’s pot guy, so when you talk to him later be sure to give him a hard time.”
And that, in a nutshell, was why she’d called Blake first. “Feel better?”
He let out a breath in a giant gust. “Insanely.”
She laughed again. “Now, talk to me, Blake. At least the least-redacted version.”
“Honestly, on this one the media has been covering pretty much everything… unfortunately. Barker won’t budge, Morejon is afraid of his base, and Russell has been attending court trying to get the needle to move. I fear the Secretary is going to go rogue and we’re going to end up with a disaster to clean up.”
“Do you think I should talk to her?”
He sighed heavily. “Probably, but I don’t know when. I’ve been stressing to Nina not to allow anything to encroach on her family time, especially with the renewal thing coming up, but that doesn’t stop Jay and everyone else from calling directly, for obvious reasons.”
“Tell you what, text me once it looks like she’s getting into the motorcade and I’ll get a word in on her way home.”
“That would be wonderful. Please talk her off whatever ledge she’s on by then.”
“How was the beach today?” He quickly shifted subjects. “Tell me boring life things for about two more minutes.”
Retaking her seat at the table, she leaned back, staring out the sliding door at the ocean beyond. “Warm, fresh air, soft sand, beautiful waves, what’s not to love?”
“You didn’t have to make it sound so pleasant.”
“Put in a vacation request and come out for a visit.”
“I think I just might.”
She could hear a commotion beyond him. “Go work, Blake, I’ll talk to you later.”
Staring at her phone, Nadine wondered just how bad this situation could get.
Blake’s text came in just as she was leaving the store, so she sat in her car, windows down for the time being, and dialed a number she’d have memorized forever.
“Oh, Nadine.” Elizabeth’s greeting came out as a sigh. “I miss you.”
She was the only person Nadine allowed to express such sentiments because she could trust that it would never be followed up with a request to return. Their friendship had blossomed even further in the year and a half since her resignation. “I miss you too. Give me the quick and dirty update before you get to the house.”
Elizabeth laughed. “So this wasn’t just a lucky call then.”
She chuckled as well. “No. I had insider knowledge… I’ve been watching to news.”
The laughter fell away. “I truly don’t know what to do this time, Nadine. I- I just… How could this happen here?” She drew a breath. “Morejon claimed the detention centers are like summer camp for the kids. He implied that they’re happy and don’t really miss their parents.”
“Well, it came out of his mouth so right off the bat I don’t believe that.”
“So it’s not just me then.”
“How are the party plans coming?”
“Good. Henry and I have been taking dance classes.” There was a smile in her voice now. “Not that he needs them and not that they’re doing me any good.”
“Just focus on being happy, feeling joyful, the steps will work themselves out.”
“Says you.” She barked a laughed. “You really aren’t coming?”
“I’m sorry. I’ll come visit soon though.” It was getting entirely too sentimental for sitting in a grocery store parking lot. “Do me a favor?”
“Call me before you go rogue dealing with Arizona. Morejon can’t be trusted and Barker is out for as much attention as he can get. He’s dangerous and his base will support him violating the constitution to put the federal government in its place.”
“Sure. I’ll call. And just so you know, Russell already pointed out that Carlos wasn’t an ally. He called him the leader of the squash Elizabeth McCord club.”
That sounded like the Russell Jackson she’d known for quite a few years. “He’s not wrong. Please be careful.”
“I will. I promise.”
Once they said their goodbyes, Nadine tossed her phone in the passenger seat and started her car, certain that this mess was only going to get worse and her friend was going to wind up right in the middle of it. Putting the car in gear, she spoke aloud to herself. “No way is she letting children suffer on American soil.”
The evening and following morning seemed smooth sailing, according to the media anyway. Nadine knew better. She knew that the endless loop of repeating the same day-old information didn’t mean things were improving, it just meant Daisy and her White House counterparts were getting out ahead of things finally.
It gave her enough faith in her friends to risk stepping away and going for her usual walk along the water and then sink for an hour or two into a new book on the back deck. Lunch came and went quietly before she caught the sound of her phone pinging inside the house. She’d worked out how to adjust the sound settings on her new phone, so she knew the messages were specifically from someone in DC, but there was still no rush to go and check them. They knew they’d get a reply when she got around to it.
Half an hour passed and then it was as if her phone was exploding where she’d left it on the counter, spurring her to her feet to find out what was going on.
There were texts, dozens of them and more coming in every second. Messages from Blake that read just like he sounded when he was anxious and upset. Long-winded expressions of concern with little punctuation. Daisy’s sounded worried. Nadine could actually hear the stress and concern through the screen. Matt and Jay both sounded varying degrees of proud something was being done and yet worried that it was too fast for it to be logical.
Scrolling back to the beginning, she began to work out the general gist of things. Elizabeth was flying to Arizona with only Kat Sandoval, the newest senior staffer and least attuned to Elizabeth’s more impulsive qualities, to escort her.
She supposed there was a margin of logic to that choice. Elizabeth did not speak more than a few passing phrases of Spanish and Jay was on crutches, a situation she had meant to follow up on last night but had lost track of time.
In the next bank of messages, she heard in quadruplicate that the trip was, in a roundabout way, Henry’s idea. They each had their own thoughts on that.
From there, the messages devolved into sheer panic over the million ways it all could go wrong.
In short, she had calls to make just as soon as she got more, calmer, information.
The Secretary of State turning up in Arizona made the news, which Nadine assumed was the point. She’d turned on the big TV in the living room and then had stood right in front of it, reading every movement from the moment Elizabeth stepped out of the SUV and then walked up the ramp. Her arms folded tightly across her chest as she anxiously chewed her lip.
For the first time in a while, she was well and truly afraid. If things were as bad as her gut was telling her they were, there was no way Elizabeth would be letting it go. Not with a host of reporters waiting there for a sound bite. All of America wanted to know the truth of what was happening behind those walls and they were now counting on Elizabeth to be as dependable as she’d proven herself to be and not candy coat it.
The real question, though, was just how big the blast radius would be once she did.
The nerves had gotten to her waiting. Unable to contain the itch to be involved, a new feeling for her as up to this she’d had no problem simply accepting it wasn’t her job anymore, she dropped into one of the dance classes she often attended to stretch and move the energy away.
She was a stranger here, just some old lady who stood in the back and kept up with the instructor. She rarely talked to anyone outside of pleasantries. When her phone rang unexpectedly, the entire class turned, the instructor shooting her a dirty look.
“Sorry.” She ducked down to turn her phone off, pausing when she saw the call was accompanied by a text from Jay.
‘Turn on the TV.’
Nadine straightened, clearing her throat. “Excuse me?” She was greeted by another frown from the instructor and she gave her best diplomatic smile to try and calm her. “Would it be possible to turn the news on? I believed something has happened.”
She was certain the instructor was about to tell her no, but the woman slowly moved to the TV in the corner, eyeing her suspiciously as she did. As the screen came to life, Nadine’s jaw dropped. There was a sound bite being played, clearly not live now.
“…Assault on our countries core values. Children in cages, crying and terrified…”
She trusted the words Elizabeth spoke. She trusted that her friend never exaggerated or used superfluous language and she could see the horror, the pain, on her face.
“…Elizabeth McCord, you are under arrest for criminal trespass…”
“No.” She breathed the word out, eyes widening in horror of her own as the anchor cut in, repeating for anyone who missed it that Elizabeth had been arrested. “No no no.” She sank to the floor, fighting to get her dance shoes off and her street shoes on quickly, eyes darting again and again to the screen.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. This kind of thing didn’t happen in America, it was the kind of thing she’d tried to help thwart in other countries run by demigods. Never here.
Fleeing the studio, she rushed home where she could start making calls in privacy without risking being overheard. She needed more information, insider information. Maybe, just maybe, she could be of a little help.
“Yes, again, my name is Nadine Tolliver and I am the attorney for Elizabeth McCord and, yes, I am demanding to have a word with my client which you are obstructing at this very moment!”
She’d called Jay. Jay had been with Matt and Blake and even through the phone she’d been able to feel their stunned silence. There had been a small amount of prodding to get them back on track enough to get her the details of where Elizabeth had been taken and then, while she had the three of them on the phone, she’d done her best to give them a bit of a pep talk, ending with a few suggestions on how to handle things from here.
They’d need a bit of a booting later, no doubt, but for now her irritation had to be funneled into something more pressing.
Now, she needed that simmering frustration to deal with getting through Arizona jail red tape.
The line beeped and the man returned. “Connecting you now, Ma’am.”
Another beep and it was Elizabeth, sounding rightfully confused, on the other line. “Nadine?”
Her head fell into her free hand then. “What the hell are you doing?”
There was a pause. “Pardon?”
She sighed dramatically. “I taught you better than this. You don’t go baiting narcissistic demigods with your career. How many times over the years did I have to remind you, no claws?”
“I didn’t use claws!”
“I watched it on TV. You challenged him right there in front of reporters… I’m guessing there was more to that exchange than what happened outside?”
“Yes. There was.”
“… How bad?” When she got no response, she pressed, tone calming considerably. “How bad was it in there, Elizabeth?”
“Cages, Nadine. Like they were dogs at a pound. They were on mats on the floor. There were babies in- in diapers. This one little boy was just soaked through but no one was changing him. And they wouldn’t let me do it.” She sounded close to tears now. “A person comes around to care for them every three hours and the rest of the time they’re just… on their own.” The line went quiet for a minute and then she drew a breath. “I’m guessing you’ve talked to the staff.”
“I got lucky and got the guys all at once.” She tried to add a little levity to the moment. “No need to call Russell, I’m pretty sure I can hear him from here.”
That did get Elizabeth to chuckle a bit. “… Nadine?”
“I think I really screwed things up this time.”
She was surprised to hear her doubting herself. It happened, but it was rare. “It will all turn out okay. I promise.”
“How can you be so sure?”
She smiled. “Because I know you. Because I know the staff and Russell and Dalton… and Henry. And really, if worse comes to worse, it’s a fourteen hour drive for me.”
“You’d drive fourteen hours to come here?”
“To stand by my friend as she defends defenseless children? Of course I would.” The incident was still playing silently on loop on the TV. She paused, watching again as Elizabeth was put into the back of a squad car. “I trust you. When this is over, America will trust you.” She smirked. “It’ll play well.”
That got her laughing. “Oh my god! Now you sound like Mike and Russell.”
“Okay. You go keep your head down and I’ll check back in later. Jay has a good handle on State, so just trust that everyone is doing their best.”
“I will. Oh, Nadine?”
“Thank you for being a lawyer.”
“I knew it’d come in handy one day.”
Once she was done with the call, Nadine sank down onto the couch, wondering how they’d gotten to this point.
Her phone was ringing. Again. In her haze of sleep, for a moment she was back in DC nearly two years ago, fumbling in the dark for a call she couldn’t ignore. “Yeah.”
“Nadine? Nadine, it’s Jay.”
She drew a breath, remembering finally that she wasn’t obligated to take a call at this hour. “What is it?” Rolling to her side from her stomach, she shoved the mountain of blankets away so she could sit up. “What’s wrong?”
“Elizabeth called me from jail and I think I screwed up. Hey, have you seen the video of the little baby goats in pajamas?” He giggled.
Nadine frowned. He sounded off. Odd. “Jay? Are you…stoned?”
“You were doing something recently with Win Barrington.”
“How can you tell?”
She laughed. “Jay. I lived through the sixties, seventies, and eighties. I know what someone sounds like stoned.”
“Do- Do you this Elizabeth could tell?”
“I don’t think she had the same kind of life experiences I did. Anyway, is there a reason for this call or is this the equivalent of a drunk dial?”
“No, no no. I had a reason.”
She waited a minute. Then another. “And?”
“I’m trying to remember.”
“Wait! Oh! I’m supposed to come up with an inducement that Morejon won’t be able to pass up, but I’m, uh, a little buzzed and I’m not sure if my idea is good or will get me fired. You know, Russell reminded me today that there’s a good chance I’ll be in his chair after the next cycle and very nearly acted like he was helping me see what that job is-”
“Wait, wait, back up. What’s this?”
She tried to wake herself up further by rubbing her face. “You will have Russell’s chair… She’s really going to run?”
“We- we’re not officially talking about it.”
She’d only been teasing, before. They’d all teased Elizabeth for years about it, but- “She’s really doing it.”
“Not if she gets felony trespass.”
“Tell me your idea.”
Things calmed down on the news front. The kids being released made the news and she got another glimpse of Elizabeth, this time with Henry and the kids at her side, on the news. All of it read as very presidential. She was going to be proud to support and vote for her friend. Perhaps even manage, or at least be involved in, a campaign office. It’d been years since she’d done that.
Staring into her pantry, Nadine picked a sparkling white and found a glass, carrying both plus her phone out to the beach. Her career with Vincent had really begun working his campaign. She could remember phone banking and going door to door to get his message out, proud then to be encouraging people to vote for such an upstanding man.
She’d been wrong about the man, but the job had taken her nearly to the top of government. She never would’ve made it to Russell’s chair, Vincent would’ve considered her too great a liability for a presidential run, but now she was missing out again. She did support Elizabeth, believed she was the upstanding person Vincent hadn’t been in the end. It would make her proud to start back at the bottom, phone banking and overseeing mass mailings.
Sipping her wine, Nadine watched the sun set. Much later, when it was late by even California standards, her phone rang once again. This time it was Elizabeth on the other end.
“Hello Nadine.” Her voice was relaxed and calm. Perhaps a bit tipsy.
“Hello Madam Future President.” She saluted the air with her glass. “I am here to assist at the pleasure.”