A/N: Here's to Nadine Tolliver and Elizabeth McCord. A damn good team.
2.12 The Middle Way
On the plane ride back from Myanmar, Elizabeth broaches the subject with careful curiosity. If she pushes too hard, her Chief of Staff will withdraw.
But they both clutch glasses of scotch, the flight is at least another ten hours long, and now is as good a time as any. So she asks.
Nadine offers a bittersweet little smile. She hesitates for a second and Elizabeth wonders if she's overstepped. But then -
"You know, I wasn't… I wasn't the best mother," she says, and her lips curl self-deprecatingly. "I was really young, and on my own, and still ambitious. I didn't do everything right. I tried to give him all I could but I… I made a lot of mistakes, too. I disappointed him."
"All parents do," Elizabeth murmurs. She thinks about Stevie; about how, for those few awful weeks back when, she'd feared their relationship mightn't recover. About how easy it could have been for her to end up in Nadine's position, more or less. She can't imagine losing her daughter for years.
Nadine shakes her head ruefully. "Not like me. Not like that." But she doesn't elaborate, and Elizabeth doesn't feel she has the right to push. Instead, she tops off Nadine's glass with another finger of scotch, and the other woman smiles.
"You know, I've tortured people," she offers. Nadine lifts her brow. "Well," she amends, "I've had people tortured."
If Nadine is confused by this non-sequitur, she doesn't show it. "I know," she says, and it's Elizabeth's turn to raise an eyebrow.
"That was a classified mission."
"I know people in the CIA," Nadine says. Elizabeth wonders fleetingly if she should worry over how easily national secrets were apparently traded on the Hill - like it's some kind of barter system.
"I know your dossier back to front," Nadine says. "As I do for all of the potential replacements that Russell Jackson presented to me after Vincent's death."
"Did you want me?"
"Absolutely not." Nadine's reply is so immediate that Elizabeth can't help her bark of laughter.
"I knew it. You hated me before I'd even shown up in Washington!" she accuses, and Nadine merely shrugs - bold, perhaps. Or just comfortable.
"You had no experience in politics. You'd spent the most recent era of your career in academia. Your publications reeked of pedagogical idealism - ma'am," she says, barrelling forward with her bravery, "your accomplishments in the CIA aside, you were quite frankly the last person I wanted to see in that chair. What were you possibly going to bring to my department?"
The corner of Elizabeth's mouth twitches. It must be the scotch. Her Chief of Staff would never dream to be this brash otherwise.
"Obviously," Nadine adds hastily, "I've quite changed my mind since then."
"And thank god for that. Being on your bad side would make everything impossible."
Nadine bows her head graciously.
"Anyway," Elizabeth backtracks, "Where I was going with that is - I've had people tortured. I'm not proud of it, but we were at war and the rules were different. And my ethics were subsumed by my anger.
"I… I had to tell Stevie about it. She was so disgusted by me, by what I had done, that she… she wouldn't speak to me, couldn't look me in the face for weeks." She looks up at Nadine. "We all disappoint our children in one way or another. But I think… they always find a way to forgive us, in the end."
Nadine is staring at her lap, looking like she's trying very hard not to cry.
Elizabeth leans in, earnest. "Your son will forgive you, too."
3.15 Break in Diplomacy
Nadine almost hates herself for her audacity. Her pushiness, in trying to take a crime in which she has no business sticking her nose and turning it into some sort of ace-in-the-hole for diplomacy. She should be ashamed of herself, and is. She should apologize, and will - later.
Elizabeth's dismissal is clear, and Nadine holds her head high as she takes her leave. Inside, she feels about as big as a ladybug. It's an impossible situation, but still, not hers to wrangle. And she didn't have the right to try.
It's just that the entire situation makes her sick to her stomach. This is the world they all still live in - where the most powerful woman on the planet could still be subjected to the predatory whims of entitled men. Nadine could scream with frustration.
When she meets the Secretary by the elevators the next day, she means to lead with an apology - but Elizabeth cuts her off with a rant that almost sounds like a veiled apology of her own. Or at the very least - apologetic.
"Ah - forgive me for interrupting, ma'am," Nadine says, and she says it partly because she can't bear to listen to Elizabeth McCord make apologies to anyone, least of all her. Elizabeth is the last person who should have to explain herself.
She sets Elizabeth up with the unexpected visitor in her office and then sets to her own work with intensity; her sole purpose to keep her hands busy and the day's agenda clear. She'll do good work, and keep her head down while she does it. It's the least she can give today.
In the evening, she watches Andrada's press conference in their smaller teleconference room with the rest of the staff. There's a trace of a sneer on everyone's face when it begins, and it hardens into a collective anger as Andrada begins to shadowbox for the entertainment of the press corps. Nadine stalks out of the room first, keen to leave before she spits any number of curses wholly unbecoming of her workplace.
She pours herself a scotch in her office. She works through her unopened emails as, through the glass, she watches her colleagues trickle past, gather their things, and leave for the day. She thinks she'll wait for Elizabeth to get back before she follows them. Just… just to make sure. The Secretary hardly needs or welcomes yet another person looking out for her, but sometimes Nadine gets it into her head that Elizabeth makes an exception where she is concerned.
Faintly, she hears the elevator ding, followed by the thin clack of heels on the marbled floor. Even from here, Elizabeth sounds exhausted. The footsteps slow to a stop, and then pick up again, growing closer.
There's a gentle tap against the glass and Nadine looks up. Elizabeth leans into her open doorway. "You've got room for one more?"
"Of course." Without even having to ask, she produces a second tumbler from her drawer and pours out another drink. Elizabeth collapses into the couch, and Nadine walks over and hands it to her. "Cheers." She re-situates herself in the chair across from the other woman, and they sip in a heavy silence.
Nadine breaks it. "We all watched the press conference." She means for it to come out nonchalant but she can't help the tightness in her voice.
"Yeah," Elizabeth says, the word tinged in derisiveness. "Sometimes, democracy just blows."
Nadine tilts her head.
"Russell's words, not mine."
"Ah. Well. Cheers to that." Nadine takes another sip, wondering how she ought to go about making her apology. It's overdue, at this point. She takes a breath. "Ma'am, I just wanted to say that I'm sorry for -"
"You don't have to, Nadine," she says softly. "I know. But there's nothing to forgive." She smiles briefly, thought it doesn't reach her eyes. "You meant well, and I mean… I agree with everything you'd said. It's just not really as up to me as I'd like - as a woman."
Nadine looks up sharply, and the truth of it, the unfairness of it, presses heavy on her chest.
"This is just… still the world we've got," Elizabeth murmurs, staring into her glass, and she almost sounds dejected.
Nadine is silent for a moment before she speaks up. And boldly. "We'll fix it for your daughters," she says. As if the act is as simple as their convictions.
Elizabeth's answering smile, this time, is real.
3.18 Good Bones
Elizabeth has never seen any of them look this defeated, but it's seeing Nadine in tears that really forces her to take stock of her team.
It's been a vicious week and they need a second to bounce back, and she gets that. She can give them that. But she also knows that these things can chip away at you over time. Sometimes, they can wreck you completely.
What had Nadine called it? The abyss.
They leave her office no more uplifted than when they'd trudged in, despite Jay's poignant offering. Elizabeth tells them to take the day for themselves, but they all simply seal themselves inside their respective offices and call it a day. She does the same.
In the late afternoon, she's about to have Blake call her motorcade around when a soft tap at the door makes her look up.
"Nadine, what can I do for you?"
"I have your briefing books for tomorrow, ma'am," she says, and her voice still seems to lack its usual color. She walks in and sets them neatly on the desk.
"Thank you. I was just about to leave." And then, almost gently, she asks, "Are you okay?"
Nadine inhales shakily as she smoothes down the front of her skirt with her hands. "No," she says plainly, "But I'll get there." She sounds more like she's trying to convince herself of this than Elizabeth.
Elizabeth thinks that it was cruel of her, maybe, to rely so entirely on Nadine as their liaison with Diane Cramer throughout this nightmare. Of all of them, Nadine has had to absorb secondhand the most hurtful and personal blows. It must be breaking her heart.
She rounds her desk and lowers herself in one of the chairs, implicitly inviting Nadine to do the same. "Sometimes, you do everything you can, and still…" she trails off. Tries a different approach. "It's okay that it hurts. It means you still have a conscience." Lately, Elizabeth has been wondering about her own.
Nadine crosses her legs and stares at the carpet. "I think I'm losing my taste for the fight," she admits. She amends her statement. "For losing."
Her confession sends a small chill down Elizabeth's spine. Her Chief of Staff is the scrappiest person she knows - never once has Elizabeth known her to back down from the fight. And if she taps out now, Elizabeth doesn't know what she'll do.
She'd once watched Nadine make a phone call to a policy advisor in Treasury that quickly became heated - and then at the drop of a hat, Nadine had begun to sob over the phone. Loudly, obnoxiously, believably. She'd ended the call with a sniffling "Oh, thank you so much," and her face had put itself back together again by the time she'd hung up the phone, . She'd looked up at Elizabeth and shrugged nonchalantly. "People get nervous around 'hysterical' women. It's more effective than yelling. Anyway, he'll send over the audit logs by close of business today."
Another time, Elizabeth had sent her and Jay to the Pentagon to follow up on a stalling State-Defense contract to station forces in Northern Africa to help combat the drug trafficking epidemic. They had returned the following evening with a fully-formed and signed agreement. According to Jay, Nadine had pulled rank, blackmail, and interdepartmental favors to push the negotiations exactly how they'd needed it, as aggressively as she'd had to.
Later, Elizabeth received word, indirectly, that a furious Air Force Colonel was still ranting about how Elizabeth needed to "keep that bitch on a leash."
She had the SecDef fire him so fast that she hopes it made the Colonel's head spin.
"We win a lot of fights, too," Elizabeth tries. This seems like it should be a booze conversation, but it's still much too early in the day to spin that as respectable. "Our bad days are really bad, but our good days…"
Nadine nods along, though she still looks unconvinced. This isn't the time to persuade her that the work is still worth it, though. Not when the wounds are still so fresh.
"Of course," Nadine says halfheartedly. "You're right, ma'am." She stands up to leave, and Elizabeth lets her.
She promises herself that they'll suit up properly next time. They'll save the next girl, and the one after that.
They'll win the next fight.
3.23 Article 5
She would move mountains for Secretary McCord.
'We take the hits so they don't have to,' Russell had said to her once, but she'd known that even before he reminded her. She'll take every hit if it will preserve Elizabeth's vision, and she'll do it gladly. No one could ever doubt whose side she's on. The work comes first, after all.
She feels bad, of course, for throwing Mike under the bus, but even now she doesn't know what she would have done differently. She could have asked him, and he might have lied. She doesn't know him well enough to judge how he'd respond to confrontation - clearly.
He breaks it off, this little experiment of theirs, and she can't even say that she's surprised. She can't even say that she blames him.
So that evening she goes home to her condo instead of Mike's place, and she sleeps alone.
And a few days later she meets Elizabeth by the elevator, carrying the day's briefing books in her arms, and it's back to business as usual.
In Elizabeth's office, they're running through the aftermath of the Article 5 vote, and the return of Bulgarian leadership in Sofia. Russia is backing off, and eastern Europe is breathing again. And on the other side of that continent, France is being consumed by political scandal, thanks to the French media. Thanks to Mike.
Elizabeth sighs. "So Mike didn't take it very well, huh?"
"All of our… accusations."
He's been giving Nadine the silent treatment, and it has been speaking volumes. She wonders what he's going to do the next time they have to work together again.
She shakes her head. "No, ma'am, he most certainly did not."
"Maybe I should call him later and apologize."
"You have nothing to apologize for," Nadine emphasizes. Fierce on this point. Although she's wondering if maybe she should.
Elizabeth locks eyes with Nadine. "Neither do you."
The Secretary's defense of her, in those three words, is so subtle that if Nadine blinked she might have missed it altogether. But it's there, and Nadine catches it, and maybe it's what she needed to hear. Elizabeth knows exactly where Nadine's loyalties lie, and even before they belonged to her she has never made her feel guilty for them.
Perhaps Mike could have done the same.
4.01 News Cycle
Elizabeth had learned early on in her tenure how to take Russell's browbeatings in silence. So this is nothing new. She knows she shouldn't have risen to the bait on live television.
She's settling herself in for a long one - he's got a lot of steam today - and prepares to let Russell wear himself out before she even attempts to defend her own behavior.
Nadine, it seems, has no such patience.
When she jumps in on Russell's tirade, he gives Elizabeth a look - as if he expects her to shut Nadine down.
As if she'd even consider it - her Chief of Staff is on a roll.
"Instead of throwing your own tantrum," Nadine is sneering now, "and blaming the victim for this latest tool of terrorism - why don't you grow a spine and do something about it?!"
Elizabeth doesn't even know what to say. Her eyes dart between the two of them uneasily as the silence grows thick. Nadine stands tall, but Russell's glare is so flinty that Elizabeth half-expects it to turn her to stone.
"...Let's put a pin in that," he hisses, and his voice is so dangerous it would make a lesser person wither. He turns to Elizabeth again, but this time his dressing-down is decidedly less fervid. Silently, she thanks Nadine for that.
When he rounds on Nadine again, she meets his gaze with one of her own, equally as icy.
"Forget about it, Nadine; we're all upset," he mutters. He blows out of there as furiously as he blew in.
"I'm not apologizing, Russell!" she shouts after him, but once the door slams, she turns to Elizabeth and that steel seems to leak right out of her spine. "I apologize, ma'am."
"Oh... thank you. It's okay." She can't remember if Nadine has ever been this blatantly protective of her before.
Nadine is still holding herself like she's wired for a fight. But she lets out a breath, and all that out with it, and lowers herself into the seat across from Elizabeth. She's postured to fix everything that's been broken in the last twenty-four hours, and her resolve galvanizes Elizabeth, too.
They're able to clear away enough of the detritus so that by the time they return to Washington, Elizabeth's murderess standing is at a paltry twelve percent. Or at least it seems paltry - and then she talks to Morejon. His thinly-veiled threats unsettle her more than she'd care to admit.
It stays in her mind all day, but it isn't until her end-of-evening run through with Nadine that she realizes just how heavily.
"Ma'am, are you all right?"
Elizabeth looks up. "Hmm?"
"You seem… distracted."
She blinks a couple of times. "Um," she says, wondering how forthcoming she ought to be. It's not that she doesn't trust Nadine, it's just that she doesn't want the other woman to think she's crazy. Senator Morejon is a lot of bark and little bite.
Though barking causes plenty of trouble in Washington.
"I confronted Morejon this morning," Elizabeth says, and Nadine straightens up in her seat. "He's out for blood. For me and Dalton."
Nadine scoffs. "Senator Morejon is full of air; always has been. He's not going to ruin either of you. We won't allow it."
She sighs. She does know this. "I know, I know. It's just… it's been a rough week. Normally I wouldn't give him this much thought, but…" she trails off.
Nadine dares to stand up and walk over to the cabinet where Elizabeth keeps the drinks and glasses. From its depths she pulls out two tumblers and the good cognac. She turns to check for her approval, and if it were anyone else this would have been presumptuous. But Elizabeth only smiles.
Nadine fixes two glasses and brings them over. When Elizabeth sees how much she's poured, she inhales sharply. "Jesus, Nadine."
"It's been a hard week."
She can't argue with that.
Elizabeth raises her glass. "To the twelve percent of America who thinks I'm a killer," she announces, but Nadine shakes her head.
"To sticking it to fake news. And Marty fucking Hawk."
Elizabeth's grin is wide. "And Russell Jackson." They toast each other like they've won this fight, and maybe they have.
They drink, and it feels like a triumph.
4.03 The Essentials
"I just wish you lived on the West Coast - then you could hang out with us all the time!" Roman says, and his words are a swift blow to the gut.
He uses the same tone that he'd employ even as a child, trying to coax her into giving him something he wanted. This habit hasn't changed in twenty-five years.
She wonders if he realizes he's doing it now.
She bows her head, terrified that she's going to cry in front of him, and she can physically feel her heart breaking inside her chest. She hadn't realized just how much she's been longing for him say this to her; how long she's been waiting for a chance to make reparations. Here it is. He's offering it up to her on a platter.
"What'd I say?"
"Nothing, that's… Yes," she murmurs, looking up once she's sure she won't burst into tears. "That would be nice."
When she ends the video call, she stares at the blank screen for a few moments. This changes things.
She'll arrange with the Secretary to take some personal leave, of course. She'll fly out to Berkeley to help Roman and Shindy get settled, and then… then she'll see. She'd love nothing more than to live closer to them, but her relationship with Roman is still in a tenuous place and they'll have to try it out first. Not everything can be fixed overnight.
But she could do it. She could pick up her life and set it down again on the other coast, with little more than a backward glance. Even if she doesn't end up moving soon or for good, there's nothing tying her here. Nadine loves her work, but she's getting tired; has been for a while now. She can feel it wearing her down a little more with every fight. Andrada. The girls in Kyrgyzstan. France, Russia, China. Morejon. The media circus. The shutdown.
She'd gone into public service because she had wanted to do good - and she thinks that she has. But lately, she's had to fight far too hard to do far too little, and maybe she's finally ready to lay down her arms. Maybe she has a reason to.
Nadine wonders how she ought to break this to the Secretary.
She has no doubt that Elizabeth will support her in whatever decision she comes to, even if it's one that amounts to her resignation. Elizabeth has always been supportive of her - in her work, and in her humanity. Nadine thinks back to Myanmar, and that long plane ride home and all her heartache over her interaction with Roman. And she thinks back to the very beginning, on the heels of Vincent's death; serving a new boss and drowning in her own grief, ashamed and alone. And Elizabeth's compassion for her even then, even when Nadine perhaps did not deserve it.
Nadine reflects on how different she is - how different she's become - in working to push Elizabeth's vision and build Elizabeth's legacy. In giving the best of herself. In steeping her identity in that kind of integrity. She'd spent the previous six years using her job as a cover to fuck Vincent into submission and be fucked into submission; has a hundred burning memories of cool, smooth wood under her cheek as he'd bend her over his desk and grunt away behind her. She'd allowed it because she liked the thrill of it and loved him, and nothing else mattered as much as either of those things.
Nadine suddenly wishes, very fiercely and fervently, that she hadn't let herself settle for so little. Not when she could have reached for so much.
Elizabeth has pushed her to reach for more; to affect bigger and better change; to do work that matters in the name of her humanity. And it will be harder, Nadine thinks, to walk away from her than it will be to walk away from this job. They've created good things together, and maybe even something that could almost be a friendship.
After the baby shower, Nadine spends her afternoon furloughing 'nonessential' State employees. Including Matt. Including Daisy. As much as Nadine had complained yesterday about people reacting to her as if she's Oz, she does feel horribly like she's playing God with all of their lives.
Matt hands her the final copy of his remarks for her review. "This will be my swan song, I suppose," he says dramatically.
"It's not forever," she tells him, though they both know she can't make any promises more concrete than that.
She reads through his speech and finds herself smiling, even as her heart cracks just a little bit more. Nadine takes it over to Elizabeth's office, wondering how many more times she can break her own heart today.
Several times over, perhaps.
Elizabeth is perceptive. As they talk she somehow knows, even before Nadine has to explicitly put it on her radar, that she is ready to wind it down.
"I don't want to spend the rest of my career fighting," Nadine says, and she knows Elizabeth already knows this to be true. Maybe Elizabeth has been waiting for her to say this.
There's a little heartbreak in the Secretary's eyes that Nadine thinks must match her own.
And then Elizabeth grants Nadine her blessing to leave. And that's all she needs to know that she is making the right decision.
They both stand up. "We made a damn good team," Elizabeth remarks, and Nadine agrees wholeheartedly.
"Yes we did. And...it has been... my great honor to serve you," she says, more sincere than she's ever been. She's never been more proud of the work she's done than in Elizabeth's name and office.
"The honor's been mine," Elizabeth murmurs. "Now - brace yourself, I'm going to hug you."
Nadine emits a surprised "oh!" as Elizabeth folds her into an embrace.
"Thank you Nadine," she says when they pull apart, "for everything."
"Thank you… Elizabeth." Nadine tests the name out loud.
Elizabeth smiles, a little sadly, and as they make their exit, Nadine takes in the office one last time. Her heart fills.
Elizabeth addresses all of the men and women that Nadine has just had to furlough, with Nadine standing by her side one last time. Nadine looks over at the rest of the team, congregated around Blake's desk, and smiles wanly when Jay catches her eye. She'll miss them all.
The team all makes their rounds with the employees, and as they all pass each other Nadine can hear Elizabeth murmuring to them all to meet in her office afterward - that Nadine has to tell them something.
By the time the main hall clears out and they can re-congregate in Elizabeth's office, the team all look at her expectantly. She tells them, and faces fall.
Nadine gives out hugs all around, promising that she'll visit sometimes. That she's proud of them all. That she'll miss them all. They talk for awhile before everyone begins to file out slowly, starting with Blake. And then it's just her and Elizabeth in the office, and when Nadine turns around, the other woman is holding up two glasses and a decanter of scotch.
"One last drink?"
Nadine smiles. "I'd be honored."
As Elizabeth pours, she says, "Now if I ever make it out to the West Coast sometime, I actually want to meet your son. And your grandbaby."
"Assuming I do end up moving out there, you're certainly welcome to visit anytime you like."
"I'd love to. God, we're going to miss you around here, Nadine."
"I'm going to miss being here," she says softly. She's spent nearly six years serving State, and nearly all of her adult life serving her country. It's hard to let that go.
Elizabeth hands her the drink, and holds up her own. "To family. And... to us."
"To us." They tap their glasses together and drink.
"I don't want to keep you. It's already late," Nadine starts, but Elizabeth waves her off.
"Everything else can wait. Are you staying much longer tonight?"
"Just to pack away some things. I'll leave my badge on my desk on my way out." The thought is bittersweet.
"You'll keep in touch with us, won't you?"
Nadine considers the other woman, whom she's served loyally these past three years. She thinks she did right by her.
They lapse into silence. And they finish their last drink together in the heartfelt quiet.
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