The Pleasure of the President
President Cullen's hands shake in a most un-Commander-in-Chief-ly fashion over the knot of his blue tie. As he well knows by this point well into his first term, blue—with its associations with sky, ocean, and water—is the color meant to inspire calm and peace, precisely the emotions a President would want to invoke when making an announcement about a nation going to war. As if a noose of silk around his neck might magically alter the outcome of this morning's declaration.
"Blue, shmue," his reflection proclaims in a muted tone, largely skeptical of superpowers inherent in clothing but always shrewd enough to follow good advice.
'Not blue—navy,' the First Lady's shrill voice breaks in, contradicting even the minute details of his private inner monologue. Anyone who believes the President of theUnited States is exempt from marital browbeating has never experienced Mrs. Edward Cullen behind closed doors, he muses, a grimace emerging. Their happy First Couple masks may fool the country—the world, even—but it's a damn farce, and one he plans to put an end to on Election Night, whether conceding to his highly unworthy opponent or accepting the country's vote of confidence for a second term. Either way, he reflects with some measure of satisfaction, Calamity Jane and her Louis Vuitton steamer trunkfuls of painstakingly accumulated designer gowns will be escorted off the White House grounds before the next Inauguration, free to inflict her own unique brand of torture on the next poor sucker to fall into her clutches.
Yes, this is so very helpful. Five minutes before opening the French doors of the West Wing and ordering the country's sons and daughters to war, the Most Powerful Man in the Free World is picturing himself a pussy-whipped chump. Get a grip, Cullen, he admonishes himself sharply.
"Mr. President." Admiral Biers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, claps a firm hand on the younger man's shoulder. Had he not detected the Admiral's presence in advance and braced himself, the President would have been pitched forward face-first into the mirror. The Admiral's hands could crush granite; no match, the President observes with some measure of pride, for the power of his own pen.
"Admiral." The President's eyes click back to his own reflection as he fixes his collar, smoothes his lapels and tightens up the button on his suit jacket, each gesture an opportunity to dissipate the moisture from his clammy hands and settle his nerves.
Biers nods solemnly and the President returns the subtle gesture. There's nothing more to say. The Admiral exits through the side door to take his place in the front row, joined by the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of State, and the Vice President. It's more comforting for him to think of them as titles right now, rather than trusted friends. Each has already passed through the vestibule and done his best to fortify the President with the strength needed to bring a country into a war that many feel is not theirs to fight, if the latest polls are to be believed.
Alone again, he glances around the hallway, though he's certain it's empty and secure; McCarty will have seen to that. Empty, that is, but for the agent's reassuring bulk, waiting for his charge at the door. Ever vigilant, McCarty's head methodically scans the assembled crowd through the small rectangular windowpanes with a practiced movement the President has come to know and trust.
Special Agent Emmett McCarty is the very best the Secret Service has to offer; everything about the tightly-wound coil of brawn and self-assurance radiates power. Ready, willing, and more than able to carry out his sole directive—protecting the body of the President of theUnited States—he is prepared to give his life without hesitation. The very idea of that level of commitment and sacrifice is enough to suck the air from the President's lungs if he ponders it for any length of time.
McCarty raises his left wrist to his mouth, the movement drawing his black suit jacket taut across the man's broad back, inching the bottom of his jacket just high enough to reveal the strain of his trousers around thick, muscular thighs. If there's anything more revealed, the President doesn't allow his eyes to wander further. He has no focus to spare this morning, nor mental space to ponder the way his own belly twists when the agent is close by—and he's close by most of the President's waking hours, by the very nature of the job description. That simple reality has grown to be both the President's most agonizing torment and his guiltiest pleasure.
After almost four years as the lead agent on POTUS detail, Agent McCarty knows the President far better than anyone alive: better than Vice President Whitlock—his oldest, most trusted friend and advisor; better than his father—his role model and personal hero; and better by far than the woman who is his wife in name only. He has to wonder if the man knows him so well that tonight's confession will not come as a surprise. And in some deeply buried, hermetically sealed chamber of his all-but-petrified heart, the President prays that he's right about the way he catches the agent looking at him sometimes.
McCarty turns his head, amber shades of Ray Bans shielding the agent's expressive brown eyes from the President's view—eyes which, if exposed, couldn't help but telegraph anxiety beneath the confident façade. The strong line of his clean-shaven jaw is firmly set, and when his incongruously delicate lips move, Agent McCarty's voice drips with the gravity of the situation.
"They're ready for you, Mr. President."
*.-.*"They're ready for you, Representative Cullen." She smiles reassuringly from the doorway of my makeshift campaign office, a glorified trailer in the middle of the booming metropolis of Concrete, Washington, population 753.
Using the oak veneer desk for leverage, I push myself up onto unsteady legs and blow out a huge breath. Big speech today, cameras rolling across the great state of Washington. Once I get started, I know I'll be fine; it's the getting started that brings an angry mob of butterflies to my insides. My right hand goes straight to my hair, an old tic from childhood I haven't quite been able to master when nerves strike. I stride absently to the doorway, the first paragraph of my speech on infinite loop in my head since I hopped out of bed this morning, alone as always.
"Sir," she startles me, and I look up to find that she's blocked the cramped exit, barely big enough for my frame alone and certainly not large enough to accommodate the two of us. It's not the first time a beautiful young woman has attempted to capture my interest with a too-revealing blouse, too hip-hugging skirt, or too-cloying perfume.
"What is it? Do I have spinach in my teeth?" I bare said teeth and she scans them faithfully, a small smirk forming on her lips.
"No, you're good," she concludes, still blocking my path.
"What then?" I cock my tie to the side. "Have I done up my buttons wrong again?"
Her hand at the knot of my tie stops me dead in my tracks.
"No, Mr. Representative," she says, flattening her palm against the swath of silk, and ergo my chest below, and slowly running her hand down my front. "I was just going to tell you," she adds, skimming her hand not-quite-innocently along the tie, mercifully stopping where the fabric reaches a sharp point. "The red tie suits you. You're positively beaming power and confidence."
She bats her lashes and smiles brightly, dazzling me with her own perfectly straight set of teeth situated just inside a pair of glossy, scarlet lips. Power and confidence, indeed.
Unexpectedly knocked off-kilter by this one's bold advances, I clear my throat and reclaim my tie, flipping the end free from her too-familiar fingers. "Well, you picked it out, so you would say that. Job security and all," I quip.
Despite the removal of the tie, her hand remains, five warm fingers and a hot palm against my stomach. A gesture far too intimate, one that would normally make me bristle, but which instead, I find oddly exciting.
She laughs a deep, throaty laugh, swirling her sweet, minty breath between us and making me dizzy. "Ah, yes. I wouldn't want to do anything to jeopardize my exorbitant salary as the Assistant to the Assistant Campaign Chair of Cullen for Governor, 2004."
I snort. "Best job you'll never love."
She lifts a flirtatious brow at the last word. "Oh, I wouldn't quite say that, Mr. Representative." She holds my gaze for an uncomfortable few seconds before stepping back from the doorway. "I believe you have a bid for the governorship to announce?"
I nod briefly, straightening my tie and buttoning my jacket. As the polite applause of the carefully selected audience reaches my ears and I settle in front of the newly minted Cullen for Governor banner, I'm certain of three things:
I've never felt more confident in my life;
I really want to be the next Governor of Washington; and
there's a thoroughly surprising yet pleasant tightening across the front of my slacks that until this exact moment in time, I'd assumed I'd never feel for a member of the opposite sex, as much as I'd wished it to be so through my remarkably lonely and shameful early sexual encounters; the heterosexual episodes ending largely in failure and derision, while the desperate fumbling with boys left me with guilt so powerful it drowned out any physical satisfaction I may have briefly achieved.
A small flare of new hope is ignited, that I might actually, some day, not only achieve my political aspirations, but also—dare I imagine it?—experience wedded bliss, fatherhood, and some semblance of normalcy.
Knock it off, Representative. That old tired gay man's fantasy ain't ever coming true, and falling victim to its irresistible allure is only going to bring you a world of hurt you cannot afford.
I step up to the podium, my carefully constructed speech reliably arranged on the platform by my most trusted assistant. Logic abandons me; I can't resist finding her before I dive into the well-rehearsed opening, and I'm rewarded in spades when I do. Standing on the sidelines, ever rooting me to greatness, Jane smiles warmly and winks unabashedly, adoring eyes making me feel like I can do anything.
"Good afternoon, fellow citizens of Skagit County…"
*SPECIAL AGENT McCARTY*
"My fellow Americans…" The President clears his throat and corrects himself. "Ladies and gentlemen…"
Agent McCarty watches with a growing sense of dread as the President nervously paces the hallway. We got this, McCarty bolsters himself for the challenge ahead. Acknowledging the "go" signal in his earpiece, he straightens his shoulders and nods to the man in the vestibule.
"On my signal, Mr. President," the agent reminds him, same as he has every outing for the last four years. It doesn't escape either man's notice that the President fails to respond with his usual quip, "As if I'd think of going anywhere without being ordered by you." No, not this time.
A shot of adrenaline rushes through McCarty's system as he grasps the handles of the French doors. Snipers on the roof have the West Wing covered from the north and south, and his fellow uniforms have the area fully secured, he has every reason to trust. Still, each time the agent steps out ahead of the man whose bodily safety is his life's work, he is utterly cognizant of being a surrogate target—a highly skilled bull's-eye, to be sure—yet in the end, first and foremost, a human shield.
Countless hours in the gym coupled with thorough training and field experience courtesy of the Navy SEALs have afforded him a hyper-awareness of his body's responses in high risk situations. Today's press conference is exactly such a circumstance. The agent recoils as the hot, humid Washington, D. C. atmosphere hits him like a wall of fire, blistering licks of heavy air settling inside the collar of his wool jacket. Perspiration beads on his forehead before he's even taken one step forward onto the bluestone path toward the podium.
It's not the weather that brings up the agent's heart rate, though; it's the damned exposure. The East Room would've been the safer choice; four easy walls and a ceiling, every Secret Service agent's dream venue. He hates that the President is so vulnerable out in the open air and he hates that both he and Director Banner failed to convince the Commander-in-Chief to deliver this unpopular news indoors.
"Has to be the Rose Garden," the President had insisted, his mouth tight and unwavering.
The agent knows that look, just as he knows that all the badgering in the world won't change the stubborn Presidential mind. He blames it on that shrew of a First Lady for beating the man down so often and so thoroughly that the rest of the team have to let him win a few—for his sanity and theirs, and frankly, for the country's, as well. He also understands the enormous toll this decision has already taken on the President; his usually bright eyes now wounded and pained, his normally elegant stature hunched and apologetic, his easy good humor muted and severe.
McCarty's rehearsed the logistics over and over in preparation for this moment, each time failing to reach the end of the President's speech without experiencing nausea. Not a good omen for a man whose finely-honed instincts have saved countless lives, including his own, several times over. As he hardens his mind against the punishing rays of blistering sun being absorbed by his black suit, McCarty also fights the uneasy feeling growing in his gut. Try as he might, and God knows he will give it his all, Agent McCarty knows that someone is going to get hurt today.
"All clear," the voice in his ear informs him, and McCarty lets the President know with a subtle nod that he's ready. Without taking an eye off the crowd, the agent catches the President in his peripheral vision and tracks his first ominous footsteps through the French doors and into the bright light of day. He refuses to wear sunglasses—"It makes me look dishonest, like a poker player trying to hide a bluff"—and McCarty knows the President will suffer that much more today with the glare of the mid-morning sun directly in his eyes. The President looks every bit the "dead man walking" as he takes another step forward, closes his eyes and lifts his face to the sun, draws a deep breath, and forces it out again. Agent McCarty can't decide which of the two of them is less eager to be here in this brutal August steam bath.
Come on, get this over with already. The agent wills the President to screw up his courage, as he's watched him do admirably before so many difficult moments. McCarty turns his head back probably five degrees more than he really should, bending the rules because the situation calls for something extraordinary. Catching the President's eye, the agent marvels at the transformation; his mask of resolve locked into place, the President radiates an aura of confidence that he has the world well under control. McCarty enjoys a shallow breath of reprieve, and possibly a secret moment of intense personal satisfaction that perhaps his proximity has helped the President achieve this measure of strength. Their leader will deliver his words with the perfect blend of compassion and intestinal fortitude, the very hallmarks of his presidency, and the country will rally once again behind the president with the highest popularity rating in the history of political polling.
The President's stride now is measured and sure, and McCarty steps aside to allow him passage. Perhaps the agent hasn't given him enough clearance, or perhaps—as McCarty would prefer to believe—the man draws comfort from his bodyguard's presence. Either way, the President's elbow grazes the agent's as he passes by, his hand nervously fidgeting with the button of his expensive suit. Only the agent can detect the slight quake of the President's hands as he grips the sides of the podium and aligns himself behind the microphone previously arranged by the capable White House staff to the specifications of his 6'2" frame.
As the President fights the strong urge to squint toward the teleprompter, Agent McCarty continues to scan the crowd vigilantly. The security routine is fresh in the agent's mind, having rehearsed just yesterday afternoon, the speech read by one of the many president-doubles on the nation's payroll. Men who stand roughly the same height, having hair of a similar color blend (though the style itself is so unpredictable, it's hard to believe anyone can ever emulate him in this), and able to grow a crop of facial scruff macho enough to be convincing at great distances, at best. Matching the eyes is a feat they'll never achieve, not until the day they find another man whose eyes change color with his moods: bright emerald when he's concentrating and absorbing every word he hears; soft hazel when he has to speak with a family who's lost their home in a flood; flashing forest green when he's angry over some injustice that's crossed his desk or aroused by passion for a cause, or a person.
Yes, Agent McCarty is a man who knows what arousal looks like. It looks an awful lot like the face he's seen in any mirror, any time during the last four years, ever since a certain charismatic, brilliant, humble, witty, inspirational President became his life's work and heart's desire. And oh, by the way, the man happens to be drop-dead gorgeous.
'Drop dead'? Fuck, Em, the agent chides himself, that's exactly what might happen if you keep drifting. This is no time for mooning over Presidential chin scruff and passionate eyes, not when the President's sending our soldiers into harm's way, placing himself in the very eye of the storm.
President Cullen's voice is clear and resolute, holding no trace of the apprehension the agent knows is present just below the surface. And McCarty acknowledges with awe that the golden tone of this man's voice is yet another attribute that will never be satisfactorily impersonated.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I wish I could greet you with 'Good morning,' but I'm afraid that is just not possible. Today is a grave day."
*.-.*"Good evening. I want to thank the University of Michigan for hosting this first presidential debate." Howls and cheers of 'Go, Blue!' Pause. "Wolverines, it is time. To heal! Our! Country!"
His voice jars me. There's simply no other way to explain it.
I've heard plenty of rhetoric in my day, most notably from the windbag incumbent president who's been my assignment for the past two years, and before that, his useless sidekick of a VP. I can spot bullshit a mile away, which really isn't all that difficult to do in our nation's capital. On a good day, the air is 90% full of it, and the other 10% is just blind faith mixed with humidity. Not much to get excited over.
Not until he took the stage.
From the ecstatic cheers of the assembled audience, I can tell I'm not the only one who's heard something promising in the Governor's voice. My attention is wholly focused on my charge, but that doesn't mean I have to listen to Newton's misquoted statistics, smug digs at the Democrats, or long-winded expositions of his own imagined virtues. And it doesn't preclude me from feasting my eyes and ears on the new kid on the block, all part of the surveillance detail, of course.
Seeing the young Governor from the state of Washington on TV does not prepare one for the live experience of the man poised to take the world by storm. The spotlight illuminates his brash crop of hair, making it glow a supernatural bronze. His genuine smile wins the crowd, or perhaps it's the contrast of the soft curve of his lips set just above that sturdy, square chin. Anyone still not a fan by the time he walks on stage is captivated by his entirely endearing two-fingered regular-guy wave. Above all, I decide, it's the eyes. Honest, gentle eyes that radiate integrity and sparkle with curiosity.
It's not all bad being pressed into duty behind the scenes; in fact, I count my lucky stars for my unimpeded rear view of the debaters. It's this unique vantage point that allows me to see what others cannot. Admittedly, my ears perk up because the subject is near and dear to my heart.
President Newton: Governor, are the rumors true about your experimentation with homosexuality, or as some would have us believe, your preference for it? I feel the country has the right to know what kind of man they're voting for.
Governor Cullen: You mean, like whether their President might have some prejudiced and probably discriminatory feelings toward a minority group based on sexual orientation?
The crowd goes ballistic.
President Newton (never one to quit while he's behind): I meant, whether a man running for the highest office in the land might just be perpetrating a big ol' lie. And also, whether the good citizens of the United States of America might expect their president to become…distracted, shall we say, when entering into negotiations with other world leaders?
Hissing and booing from the audience follow his outlandish, inflammatory remark. My attention turns to the Governor, along with every other head in the room. And that's when it happens. The Governor turns his body toward the President, crosses his left foot in front of his right ankle, and tucks his right hand into his front pocket.
He knows he's going to win, I marvel, with immediate admiration. And while I'm busy admiring, I take in the way his trousers strain against the sweet curves contained inside them.
Cool as a cucumber, with a tone one might use with a small child, the Governor asks, "Mr. President, do I have this right? Are you insinuating that if elected, I might agree to some nefarious scheme in order to increase my chances of getting into the pants of foreign dignitaries?"
Uproarious laughter rings through the auditorium, and I have to actually bite my lip to keep from smirking, myself.
The President, backed into a corner of his own design, sputters like a fool and tries one last time to win the issue. "Governor Cullen, are you avoiding my question?"
More hissing and booing, with the volume knob turned to high this time. The Governor stares him down in disbelief. Dude,did you really just ask me that? He considers whether or not to answer, and then finally, quietly, sadly, he gestures off stage to his left, where the beautiful, if not notoriously ambitious, highly female Mrs. Edward Cullen is silently witnessing the whole ordeal.
"Would you like to ask my wife if she's sufficiently desired, Mr. President?"
Interesting, Mr. Governor. You haven't said what you desire.
The moment I'm relieved of my post, I find Director Banner back stage. "I want this one."
"He's a long way from winning the White House," Banner answers without turning my way, but we both know he's full of shit, and I stare at him pointedly until he acknowledges me.
"Agent McCarty, you know it's Black's turn."
"Sir, this one isn't about taking turns. This guy is a rock star. Everyone wants a piece of him. He's going to need the best."
"So I've noticed," Banner retorts. "The guy needs a security platoon just to cross the street, and he hasn't even been elected yet. It's insane!"
A wide smile breaks on my face. "You think he's gonna win."
In a hushed tone, Banner admits, "Whatever that guy's selling, I'm certainly buying."
"I want him, sir. I'm the best guy you've got and I can keep him safe."
Banner rubs his face in consternation. "Emmett, you know his back story."
"Just rumors, and all in his distant past. You've seen his wife. Besides," I try to lighten the mood, "he says he never swallowed."
He doesn't appreciate my humor. "A politician's wife doesn't mean any more than that banner waving behind him, as you are well aware, Agent. You and I both know he's got yearnings that a President can ill afford to act upon. And you're asking me to put my openly gay agent under the man's nose and tempt him for four years or more?"
"Tempting, eh? Why, boss, I never knew you cared," I say with a smirk, which he answers with an eye roll.
"I care plenty, and that's why I don't want to put you in a position where your judgment might be compromised."
"Now you sound like the President," I say with growing irritation. "You afraid I'll be daydreaming of gettin' jiggy with him and my enormous boner will get in the way of my pistol hand? How about giving me a little credit?"
"Don't get fresh with me, McCarty. You know this has nothing to do with sexual discrimination! This is no different from the reason I'll never place that hound dog Black on First Lady detail. Can you honestly sit here and tell me you're not all kinds of hot for the Governor?"
Even if I had it in me to lie to my boss, he'd see right through it. I cross my arms and scowl. And he's right, he didn't deserve my accusation. "Sorry," I mumble toward the floor.
"Hey," he says gently, nudging my arm with his elbow. "I hear he's considering Whitlock for VP. Good-looking guy…straight as an arrow…you could look all you want, no harm, no foul."
"Look, I appreciate what goes into this selection. I just want to know I have a shot at this gig."
Banner releases an exasperated sigh. "I'll give it some serious consideration."
"After serious consideration, with the support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the authorization of Congress, I gave the order to deploy American troops to Iran early this morning."
"Mr. President! Can you tell us how many-"
"Mr. President! How long do you expect-"
"Mr. President! What is the justification-"
"One at a time, please?" The President feels a trickle of sweet start down his forehead and resists the urge to pull his embroidered handkerchief from his suit pocket. Could it possibly be any more oppressive out here? he wonders miserably."Yes…Brian?"
"Mr. President, what is the Constitutional justification for putting American troops at risk when our country has not been directly threatened?"
The President pulls the glass of ice water from the shelf below the lectern, takes a long draw, and returns it before answering.
"A nuclear Iran is a threat to democracy every -"
There's a blur of motion followed by a harsh blow to his left side. A loud THUD as the President is tackled to the ground. His right elbow breaks the fall with a sickening crunch. Terrified shrieks and confusion. Suffocating darkness and stifling heat.
"Fuck, I knew it!" Angry words whispered over his head. Hot, quick breaths, pounding heartbeats at his back. Arms encircling his midsection, a strong chest against his shoulders.
Two gunshots ring out. A twitch of the body surrounding him and a muffled cry of anguished pain.
"HEMLOCK IS DOWN!"
He recognizes Black's authoritative voice.
Heavy footsteps rushing toward the huddled men. Hands reaching in, finding the President, pulling him away.
Urgent voices as the scene recedes from earshot. "McCarty! Dammit, answer me, Emmett! McCARTY'S HIT! MAN DOWN!"
"Is he okay?" the President begs, torn away from the scene. No answers. Please, God, let him be okay, he prays.
"Keep your head down, Mr. President," he's warned by one of the dark suits surrounding him. His feet barely touch the ground as he's ushered to safety in a cloud of shoulders, elbows and legs.
"We got him." Black hands off the President to the paramedics, who swiftly lift him inside the ambulance, where he's strapped onto the waiting gurney. As the doors close and they speed away from the scene, the President hears, "Hemlock is inbound to Bethesda. Prepare for arrival."
He turns his head to find Agent Black, bent over, head in hands on the bench next to him.
"Is he okay?" the President asks once more, his voice frantic with worry.
Agent Black looks up. "He'll be fine," he answers, then turns his head toward the bulletproof doors so as not to compromise the President's confidence in him.
The siren wails a loud plaintive howl that matches the misery of the two men within the compartment.
This was going to be the night.
*.-.*"This is your night, President Cullen," she says with a gleam in her eye.
"This is our night, First Lady Jane. I could never have done it without you."
My wife winds her hands behind my neck and pulls me close. "You were a diamond in the rough. You just needed a little polishing." On the last word, she raises her eyebrows and presses her hips into mine.
I look pointedly around the hotel suite where hard-working staffers are celebrating my victory by getting shnockered and dancing and tossing off ties and high heels. "Jane," I admonish quietly, shaking my head. "Not here."
If we thought life in the Governor's Mansion was a fishbowl, the Presidency will be a thousand times worse.
"What have we got to hide?" she retorts, the unspoken challenge always between us:Are you having "those" urges again?
"Nothing, darling. I just can't focus on that right now. I need to go out there and give my acceptance speech in a few minutes, and I don't want to be distracted."
Jane takes a cursory glance at my pants and huffs, "You don't look the least bit distracted. Wear the yellow tie. I'll meet you out there."
I close my eyes and draw a deep, cleansing breath. This would all be so much easier if I wanted her. And I really thought I could, thought I did, despite the very wise pre-proposal warnings from my best friend—now officially VP-Elect as of five minutes ago—Jasper Whitlock.
My friend who, understanding he was the last line of defense between his best buddy and a lifetime of hurt, begged the question, "Can you honestly say she's the one you want? The only one you want?"
And to whom my long-suffering sigh and familiar refrain of an answer was wholly unconvincing. "I love her, Jas. She believes in me. Can't that be enough?"
A loud, brisk knock on the door interrupts my daydream and one of the merry-makers opens the door to a solid-looking man in a dark, serious suit. "I need to speak with President-Elect Cullen."
The staffer moves out of the doorway and tips his chin my direction. The Director of the Secret Service steps inside, shuts the door behind him, and engages the deadbolt. He takes three long strides my direction and he's standing in front of me. "Congratulations, sir," he offers, extending his hand.
Clasping his hand, I answer, "Director Banner. So good of you to visit."
He fights off a smile and retorts, "I think you know this isn't exactly a social call, sir. We need to talk privately."
"Sure. This way."
I draw him into the bedroom and fish out the tie I've been directed to wear. Leader of the Free World, my ass. More like Command-ee-in-Chief. I slip the length of silk behind my neck and tug on the ends. "Mind if I...while we talk?"
"Go right ahead," he answers. "Governor, I'm just going to get right to the point. In my line of work, it really doesn't pay to beat around the bush."
"Go for it." I smile, crossing the wide end over the other and turning my shoulders to the mirror.
"National security is my primary mission, and as of four minutes ago, protecting your life just shot right to the top of that list."
"Sounds like we're on the same page then."
I can see from his reflection he's not all that impressed with my sparkling wit.
"I mention that so you understand the context of my next question, and I hope you won't be offended. Governor, my top agent happens to be a gay man, and I need to know how you'd feel about having him as the primary on your detail."
My eyes slide from my newly formed knot to his face in the mirror. Again, not a trace of humor. I turn to face the director and make a show of searching the corners of the room with my eyes. "Where are the hidden cameras? Is Ashton Kutcher going to jump out from behind the bed?"
Banner stares at me as if I've grown a second head. "Governor?"
"You've never…Punk'd?...ah, forget it." My entire body stiffens with righteous indignation as I prepare to school this guy. "I'm pretty sure I've been clear regarding my views about gay rights. Why on earth would you think it would matter to me?" Even I can hear the false bravado in my voice, and this man is an expert at reading people.
"Again, Governor, no offense intended. And for all I care, you could have a thing for billy goats and it really wouldn't make a lick of difference to me, except where it concerns your life or the life of one of my men. But I know about the Fairmont, and in my line of work, I don't have the luxury of time to beat around the bush."
"Psshhh. Wow." I drop down onto the edge of the bed, deflated."My wife and I have-"
"Governor, please." He halts me with his words and a raised palm in front of his face. "You haven't come this far by being naïve, and I know you're not about to start right now, so let's please drop the pretense and have a serious conversation, okay, sir?"
I fall back onto my palms and nod.
"As I said, my top man is out and utterly unapologetic about it." Is he chastising me?"He's also shrewd, committed, a dead shot at forty feet, and—not that I'm an authority on this sort of thing—a decent-looking guy. On top of all that, he's been somewhat of an admirer of yours since Ann Arbor."
Jesus, this guy is giving me a boner for someone I haven't even met yet.
"You know, Banner, if you're trying to put me off the guy's scent, you're bungling the job. Epically."
Finally, a crack in the façade, a small smirk breaks through. "That's not exactly my goal here. I just need to know how the leader of the free world is going to handle having a living, breathing, heavily armed ball of catnip dangled in front of his face, day in and day out, that's all."
I look sidelong at the director. "Again, not really dissuading me here, Banner. Have you considered that maybe you should be asking the man who'll be wielding the gun this question?"
And now, Director Banner smiles full on, and I can actually see a hint of a personality behind the wall of professionalism. "Oh, believe me, sir, I have."
"And?" My lips curl in sweet anticipation.
"He said, 'If there's ever been a man to take a bullet for, Edward Cullen is that man.'"
*SPECIAL AGENT McCARTY*
"…took a bullet just below the right kidney…"
"…no exit wound …lodged between the vertebral ribs… checking for internal bleeding…"
"…ambulance to Bethesda …no, he'll never make it to Hopkins…"
"…yes, Hemlock is secure…"
"I've put two men on Whitlock…yes, I'll let you know…yes, sir."
Banner peels off his suit jacket, jams his phone into one of the inside pockets, tosses it aside on the bench, and rolls up his shirt sleeves. "Fuck it all, McCarty. You've really gone and done it now, haven't you?"
The paramedic in the back of the speeding ambulance catches the erratic motions of the older man bent over the gurney while keeping a close eye on his patient's monitors. Agent McCarty slips in and out of consciousness behind the oxygen mask, waking up only long enough for his eyes to pinch in agony, whether at the pain or the accuracy of his prophecy, Director Banner is unable to discern.
Either way, Banner knows his friend will suffer less if he knows the President's status. Leaning down, placing his mouth near the ear of his most highly skilled agent, the Director says, "He's fine, Emmett. He's just fine. You saved him. You took the goddamn bullet."
The agent's eyes blink once at the Director in recognition before he slips into unconsciousness one last time. He doesn't feel his boss's tear roll down his neck, doesn't hear him say, "Son, I'm so proud of you."
*.-.*"We're so proud of you, son." His back is toward the door and his parents have him locked in a three-way hug in the ante-room as I enter. As I take in Carlisle and Esme Cullen's features, I can see that the son comes by his rugged good looks honestly, and I can clearly project what the future will hold for the almost-President.
Damn, this guy is only going to get better and better, I muse.
I avert my eyes from the intimate family moment, but not before committing to memory the pride and joy on his mother and father's tear-stained faces. I clear my throat so he knows they're not alone.
The youngest Cullen turns his head toward the sound and we lay eyes on each other for the first time, not counting my avid back-ogling at the debate.
Still in the embrace of his parents, he smiles winningly at me, and says, "Gimme one sec, and then I'm all yours."
All mine. A warm rush of excitement surprises me; I'm not one to be star-struck, but this man possesses something that "charisma" doesn't even begin to cover. I manage to find my voice. "Of course, sir."
He nods once, eyes dancing with mirth—and why not? He's about to be inaugurated the forty-fourth President of the United States, and things don't get much better than that for a kid from Skagit County—and turns back to his folks. "I've gotta go. I love you guys," he says, initiating one last group hug.
I again feel uncomfortable to be intruding, but it is, after all, an occupational hazard. It's awfully hard to watch someone's back without, well, watching someone's back.
"We'll see you after the ceremony," his mother sniffs as they pull apart. Mom and Dad both acknowledge me with teary smiles as he shows them out.
My heart pounds in wild anticipation for the two seconds it takes him to shut the door and turn back to where I'm waiting, and already I regret not drying my sweaty palms while his attention was diverted. Now that he's turned his intense gaze on me, there's nowhere to hide.
I'm feeling like a damn fool again turning into a puddle of fan girl over this guy, and I try in vain to convince myself it's the office, not the man, that's got me tied up in knots. Sure, sure, and the last President had the same effect on you, did he? Not buying it, McCarty.
Leading with an outstretched hand, he walks self-assuredly over to me. "So, Agent McCarty, you're the best of the best, I hear."
Humility isn't really my strong suit; I consistently pull in the highest marksmanship scores, my reputation for field work is exemplary, and my genius for logistics is nothing short of legendary. Still, when he says it, I have to fight myself not to belittle the compliment.
"So they tell me," I respond, accepting his hand shake.
Suddenly, we're locked together in what I can only understand as the beginning of something quite out of the ordinary. We're seeing in each other the inevitable intimacy of Protector and Protected, a mutual respect and an instantaneous level of trust not present in any other human bond that demands no less of a person than this promise: I will lay down my life for you.
…And in the meantime, I will lose myself in your sparkling jade eyes and the perfect smattering of scruff along your powerful jaw line and that smile that makes me feel as if we've known each other for ten years, and not ten seconds.
"Well, lucky me," he says, and I swear I see a speck of the devil in his smirk. He loosens his grip first, and our hands drift to our respective sides. "So, how does this all work then? I mean, I've had coverage for the last four months of the election, but this seems, I mean, you seem to be a whole new ball of wax."
There's a sudden shift in the dynamic as he defers to my expertise, and it's enough for me to get my sea legs under me. "Basically, it goes like this. You do everything I say, and I make sure you stay alive."
Jesus Freakin' Christ, McCarty, you're speaking to the President with that cocky mouth! What the hell are you thi-
"That doesn't sound too hard," he answers with an easy smile.
"What's so damn hard about it, David? It's been three days since the shooting. Surely one of your other men can manage to wheel my meager 180 pounds down the hall to the ICU? If not, I'm sure I could enlist one of the nurses into service for her country."
Banner frowns and crosses his arms. "You know it's not that easy, Mr. President. This room is locked down, and my men have the East wing. Do you have any idea what kind of hoops we'd have to jump through to secure your passage to the ICU?"
"No, I sure don't. But if it's anything short of throwing your body in front of a bullet, I don't want to hear about it. Just get it done."
Banner clenches his jaw and fixes "the look" on the President; the same look he tried last week when the President insisted on holding the press conference in the Rose Garden, which ultimately resulted in Banner's best agent eating a bullet. The President turns away slightly, ashamed.
"Director," Jasper says softly. "Can I see you outside please?"
Jasper squeezes his friend's shoulder reassuringly before softly shuffling out of the hospital room, taking Banner with him. The President closes his eyes, but it doesn't stem the tide of painful emotions.
Panic. Confusion. Disbelief. Anguish. Loss.
No, not loss.
GODDAMMIT, Emmett. Don't you fucking die on me, the President orders, though whether he's appealing to the agent or a Higher Power is unclear. Twelve hours in surgery to dislodge the bullet and curb the massive internal bleeding. Two days in critical condition. Seventy-two damn hours of agonizing, crippling fear.
"Mr. President, the First Lady is here to see you again."
"Tell her I'm not up to it, Jake."
"Mr. President, she's threatened to have me redirected to the First Poodle's detail if I don't let her in this time."
The President opens his eyes to Agent Black's pleading expression, and if he wasn't feeling so miserable, he'd burst out laughing from the pathetic vision before him.
"I really fucking hate that dog," Black says, belatedly adding a sheepish, "Sir."
You and me, both, he thinks grimly. "Fine. Let her in."
*.-.*"Let her in, Emmett."
Despite his advice against it, Emmett heeds my order and pulls open the door, stepping aside wordlessly for Jane to pass through. He closes it again silently, resuming his post against the entry wall and ignoring her disparaging eye roll.
"I don't suppose you could leave us alone for five minutes," she bites.
"No, ma'am," he answers calmly.
"Jesus, do you watch him while he takes a shit, too?" Emmett stares straight ahead like one of the Queen's Guard.
Redirecting her malice towards me, where it rightfully belongs, I ask, "Jane, what is it now?"
This week's earth-shattering issues have so far consisted of fabric swatches for the Sun Room curtains, potato salad recipes for the Fourth of July picnic, and hair styles for Truffles, the most spoiled dog to ever live in the White House.
She places a hand on her hip, glaring at me and steeling herself for battle. Marshalling all my skills as a master statesman, I try once again to make peace. "Darling," I say in a softer voice, "what can I do to make you happy?"
Jane sashays closer, clearly having decided to employ some honey since vinegar hasn't been catching her too many flies lately. With the full knowledge we're being carefully watched, she throws first one arm, then the other, over my shoulders. "How about what you used to do to make me happy?" she purrs.
Unfortunately, what used to start my motor running now fails to ignite even one of my cylinders, and all that's left is the cold gnashing of frustrated gears. I receive her open-mouthed kiss on my lips, automatically moving my eyes to the dark figure across the room. Though Emmett is visibly pained, he doesn't look away; instead, he stands taller, commanding my attention.
I am grateful for the stirring below, even if it's brought on entirely by his bearing witness to this latest emasculation. Jane's kisses grow more enthusiastic, and there's groaning involved now, as she buries her fingers in my hair. My hands sit on her hips, but my eyes never leave his.
Suddenly, there's a hand at my chest and a forceful shove. "You pig!" she yells, wiping her lips with the back of her hand. Emmett tenses behind her, and I have no doubt he'll strike if necessary.
"Easy," I say, putting both hands in the air in surrender, willing them both to calm down.
"Easy NOTHING," she spits. "You're as gay as the day I met you! You've been using me for ten years! I'm the friggin'…" she sputters, searching for the most damaging insult she can hurl, "…FIRST BEARD!"
And there it is.
"Jane," I try my calm voice, the one that works best at Camp David. "You know I'm trying here…"
"Trying? TRYING?" she screeches. "We've been married for eight years and you're still TRYING? Guess what, sweetheart? You FAILED!"
I've never seen her angrier; she's never risked going this far before. I don't know if it's Emmett's presence that's egging her on, or she's just plain had it this time. But if we're done, there are truths to be told on my end, as well.
"I'm pretty sure you knew what you were getting yourself into all those years ago. You had stars in your eyes back then, remember? BIG dreams. I was just your ticket to the Governor's Mansion, and then the White House. Let's call it like it is, Jane. You can't deny you used me, too."
"Yes, sure, I wanted this. For us. For you. I believed in you, and you turn out to be a cheating-"
"I . Have NEVER. Cheated," I insist angrily, pointing an accusatory finger back at her.
"No," she yells back. "Because I left my phone in the hotel room and came back in before you and…what's-his-name could do the deed."
I open my arms in a conciliatory gesture. "I'm getting pretty tired of apologizing for what almost happened one night six years ago. Either you forgive me or you don't."
"Humph!" She folds her arms over her chest and I wait while she gathers steam for her final argument.
"Forget about fucking Fairmont-gate," she hisses. "What about him?" She pokes her thumb back over her shoulder, indicating Emmett.
My eyes follow her gesture, and I catch his expression—he looks like a cobra coiled and ready to strike.
"My security detail?" It pierces me to say it, and I can only imagine how it must wound him. It totally discounts all that he's become to me: friend, confidant, running partner, political strategist—if one can count chess games and Navy SEALs anecdotes as strategy sessions. Though I strongly suspect he tells me the SEALs stories to torture me with visuals of scuba suits and too-tight shorts. As though I need more frames for my Emmett McCarty fantasy reel.
Truth is, I've spent countless nights—not to mention waking hours—dreaming of how his hips might feel, insistently pinning me against the wall of this very chamber; how the bare, sweaty skin of his muscular chest would feel pressed against mine; how his lips might feel when they first touched mine—soft and sweet, or rough and musky? And when I really let my imagination run, I fantasize about sinking to my knees and taking into my mouth what I can only imagine lurks beneath those tight grey gym shorts and making him lose his tightly-held control long enough to yank my hair all the way down at its roots and grunt out my name.
"Pshhhhhh, right," Jane forces out with disgust, snapping my eyes off Emmett and dragging them back to my wife. "Your security detail."
Mercifully, the wind seems to be sucked from her sails and she turns and marches to the door, which Emmett opens accommodatingly. She huffs at him as she passes by, but he's stoic as ever, and simply waits till she leaves and closes the door softly behind her.
Emmett takes a stiff pose again by the door, all the ease of our earlier chess game lost, and I feel as if I've done irreparable damage.
"Emmett…" I start, hoping he'll take up the thread.
"Mr. President," he answers stiffly.
I take a couple tentative steps toward him. "Did you want to finish our game?"
"If it's all the same to you, Mr. President, I think I'll concede this one."
"Sure," I answer, trying to keep the dejection from my tone. "I have some reading I should probably do."
*SPECIAL AGENT McCARTY*
"Look, McCarty, I can't read another word of Vince Flynn to you. Don't you know I have thirty new agents graduating the training program next week and they all need field assignments?
"And have I mentioned I need to polish off my speech for the Director's Award of Valor ceremony—oh, by the way, you'll need to be there for that, preferably with some clothes on, not that you don't look adorable in your johnny there, big guy…
"And hmm…let's see…what else? Oh yes, your friend, the President's been driving me fucking crazy and turning this hospital upside-down to get in here to see you. I don't know what it is with you two."
The Director smirks, even though there's nobody in the room who can appreciate it. Like a few others in the inner circle, he knows exactly what it is with those two.
Thick, hot, unresolved sexual tension.
Two tons of TNT waiting to detonate: the most powerful man in the world, and the guy holding the President's balls in his very hands. The Director chuckles to himself, recalling now how apt his catnip analogy of four years ago turned out to be. Not just catnip, he now realizes; catnip laced with crack cocaine, or whatever substance might make the President threaten the Director's job if he's not delivered to this very seat by noon tomorrow.
No doubt, the Director feels largely responsible for his agent's current condition. While it pains him greatly that his friend was wounded in the line of duty, fact is, the man saved the President's life. And with all indications pointing toward an eventual, complete recovery for Agent McCarty, the Director is sleeping quite well at night.
A shadow passes across the door of the ICU, and Banner stands, relieved of his unofficial post. He bends over the inert body, tubes and pumps and masks going every which way. "I'll talk to you tomorrow, Agent McCarty, and maybe it'll be the day you'll finally talk back."
Banner finds a patch of McCarty's hand that's not taped, bandaged, or plugged into something, and he gives him a firm squeeze. "I gotta go. Black is waiting outside."
*.-.*"Agent Black is waiting outside. If that's all, Mr. President, I'll be going."
With only one week to go before the announcement, it gets harder to leave him every evening. It's utterly true that it's lonely at the top, desolate in fact, and one man's shoulders simply aren't broad enough to carry the burden of ordering one's country into war, no matter how much strength, integrity, and conviction he holds. He has his advisors and his Joint Chiefs and lately, I've heard him on the phone with his father. He even called his minister from back home, desperate for spiritual guidance, poor guy. I just wish I could do something to lighten his load. "G'night, Mr. President."
Hand on the knob, prepared to exit the Oval Office, I turn back. "Sir?"
He's folded forward on the couch, elbows on his knees, hands wringing between them. The Seal of the President of the United States stares back at him, proclaiming in bold relief the President's mastery of this chamber, if not the world. "Hey, uh…I know you're off now…"
My spirits lift. My President is calling on me.
Play it cool, Em. I let go of the door and walk toward him. He senses my movement but he doesn't turn.
What I wouldn't give to reach over the couch and lay my hands on those shoulders, press my thumbs in small circles while I knead the tension from his neck, loosen his tie, undo the collar, slipping the buttons one at a time through the smooth cotton openings.
"I was wondering…" he starts.
"Anything, Mr. President." Heart pounding, anticipation building.
"Would you take a walk with me?" His voice quivers, and when he turns his head, my heart breaks a little bit. He seems so lost and vulnerable.
I look toward the door, where I know the relief shift is waiting, but he didn't ask Black to go; he asked me. "You mean, just …?" I begin dumbly.
The President stands to face me. "Just walk with me, Emmett? I could really use a friend right now."
It takes all my restraint to remain where I stand when every instinct cries out to go to him and pull him into my arms. "Absolutely, sir."
He grimaces a bit at the title, and I realize it's not very friend-ish of me, but what can I do? I couldn't imagine ever calling him by his first name. Not out loud.
Not true, I blush, admitting only to myself that in my increasingly recurrent fantasies, I scream out his first name and he fucking LOVES it.
"So, can you…uh…" He points to his ear and I get the message.
"Oh, um, yeah. Gimme a sec."
I step outside to talk with Black, who understandably doesn't exactly get it. "I can walk with him," he shrugs.
"Yeah, well, we were kind of in the middle of something. I guess he just wants to finish the conversation or something."
"Okay, whatever. I've got the two of you then, just like you were, you know, a regular person."
"Think you can manage that?" I half-sneer, making him smile.
"You gonna carry?" he asks. "Just so I know."
"Yeah, I'm carrying." Bad enough I have to leave him in Black's hands every night when I clock out. If I'm standing next to the guy, I'm gonna have his back, his front, and…ugh, I really need to stop that. "All right, dude. Good talk."
He shakes his head and I meander back inside, where the President is sliding his arms into the sleeves of his jacket and looking none too pleased about it. "God, I wish I could just throw on my sweats like we do in the morning."
I go out on a limb. "Tell you what, let's do that tomorrow night." The President's face lights up, and just like that, we've got ourselves a nightly walk.
Agent Black is less understanding the second time, and by night three, he makes me discuss the "highly unorthodox procedure" with Director Banner.
"Be careful," Banner says. "There are cameras everywhere."
"But we're just-"
"Walking. I know," he responds with a meaningful twinkle in his eye.
On night four, the President opens up about the deployment, speaking in hushed tones about how conflicted he is, how he doesn't know how he'll live with himself when that first casualty comes over the wire, but how convinced he is that it's our duty to safeguard democracy the world over.
"You're a military man, Emmett. What would your reaction be if you were sent to fight this war?"
"That's easy. I'd pack my duffle pack in no time flat and eagerly await my orders."
He stops walking, so I do, too.
"What about your parents? How would they feel?"
A grin breaks across my face. "That's an easy one, too. They'd be worried but proud. My parents both voted for you—and so did I, in case you've ever been unclear on that point."
He looks down for a second, adorably humbled.
"We believe in you, in your wisdom, your integrity, and your judgment. Knowing how carefully you've considered the situation from every conceivable angle, if you feel this is the right course of action, we're with you all the way." I carefully tiptoe along the fence between patriotic citizen and adoring fan.
He shuffles his foot on the bluestone path. "Thank you, Emmett. That means the world to me."
He starts walking once again, but stops after a couple steps. I pull up alongside him. "Emmett, I know it goes against your training, but do you think you might walk next to me from now on? I mean, when we're just…walking?"
I chuckle. "I'll try." After a few missteps and a few more chuckles, I've pretty much got the hang of it.
Day five starts out perfect and gets better from there. He asks me to tell him stories about my childhood, what it was like to grow up in the Midwest. He listens with great interest when I tell him about our street carnivals, complete with bicycle parades and crepe paper through the spokes, and he laughs when I tell him about the goofy relay races we used to run. The egg in the spoon, potato sack races, and the one always good for a laugh—the suitcase relay. We inch closer together until soon, our arms are touching more often than they're apart. We're both down to t-shirts, courtesy of the sticky August nights in D.C., and when our arms first brush, every hair on my body stands on end. I'm almost positive he feels it, too, the way he smiles and bends in my direction, as if he's gathering strength from leaning on me.
The night before the press conference, we take our time, stopping and starting. He rattles off bits of his speech and asks my opinion. Even though the other agents are around, I don't feel smothered by them out here in the night air. I make one more attempt to change his mind about the venue for the speech in the morning.
"Ugh, you, too? Banner's been working on me all day."
I shrug. "I guess he's a bit fond of you, too."
There's a heavy sigh next to me and I feel his weight shift decidedly in my direction. I push back, my fingers itching to brush his…for starters. I sigh right back. We walk some more.
Suddenly, he pulls up abruptly in front of me and I practically knock him over. "Shit, sorry, sorry," I fumble, grabbing his arms and making sure he's steady before letting go. Sometimes I feel like the Incredible Hulk around him, so big and clumsy.
"No, my fault. I just…" He shakes his head, then looks away. "Oh crap, never mind."
My skin prickles, and it's not just from the physical contact, though that is most definitely awesome. Something's changed, but it's not my place to push and it's the worst possible time for it. He's just reaching for the safe port in the storm right now, and that's me. I can't confuse his attention for what I want it to be. And I certainly won't serve him well to muddle him before tomorrow.
"Maybe we should head back? Kind of a big day tomorrow," I suggest, though it's the last thing I really want.
"Yeah," he says ruefully. "I'm not looking forward to that wake-up call."
"Wake up, you big, stupid pile of muscles! This is your Commander-in-Chief speaking! Open your damn eyes! I have a country to run and you have a body to protect."
Agent McCarty's doctor looks on with obvious anxiety as the President shouts into the man's face.
"Can he hear me or not?"
"We don't really know, sir," the doctor answers and hastens to add, "But we always advocate for a calm reentry into the conscious world."
The President falls back into the lounger next to the bed, embarrassed. "Oh, sorry. I thought the idea was to wake him up."
The doctor grins. "Gently. With a familiar—soft—voice, a touch, a song…"
"I'm not singing," the President protests crossly, causing the others to chuckle.
"Well, sir, whether you serenade him or not, Agent McCarty's vitals are getting stronger, and we expect to see him again very soon," the doctor reassures.
"Best damn news I've heard all week," Black growls.
"What's wrong, Jake, you sick of me?" the President chides.
"Oh, no, Mr. President, of course not."
"I think I've spoiled him, Mr. President," Jasper says, and as many times as the VP has called him that since they took office, the President still can't get used to it. "I only made him run five miles in the morning. He can't handle your training route."
"Yeah, I guess I need a real man to keep up," the President answers wistfully. The room goes silent, the words having struck a little too close to the truth. "David, give me the room, please."
"Mr. President, all due respect, sir-"
"If there's one thing I've learned about that phrase over the years, it's that I will not like what follows. Listen, I know you've called in every favor ever owed you to get me down here and I appreciate it. Really. But the local cops protect this room all the time; surely, if the D.C. Police can figure it out, it will be a cinch for the genius Director of the Secret Service."
"Flattery will get you nowhere, Mr. President."
The President sits forward in his chair, placing his right arm—cast, sling, and all—on the agent's bed. "How about begging then?"
Jasper stands up, indicating his support. The Director shakes his head in defeat. "Come on, Black. Let's go check out the air ducts."
"Thanks, David," the President says with sincere appreciation.
Banner gives him a nod and says, "Ring the nurse's buzzer when you're ready to go." The three of them exit the room, leaving the President alone with Emmett at long last. He scoots his chair up to the edge of the bed and places his mouth close to the agent's ear. "Wake up, Emmett. That's a direct order from your President."
Edward becomes bolder and transfers his upper body onto the bed. Nestling his left shoulder against Emmett's right along the thin hospital mattress, he closes his eyes and imagines them sharing their next late-night stroll. He presses his upper arm against Emmett's, drinking in the closeness of the other man's warm body and enjoying the return of the tingling sensation he remembers from their last night together.
Angling his body toward Emmett's in case they're being watched, which is almost a certainty, the President extends one long, slender finger along the top sheet, grazing the bigger man's elbow, then forearm. Carefully avoiding plastic tubing and heart rate clips, Edward makes contact with one of Emmett's free fingers. After the first touch, it's not quite so scary, and he slides his fingertip up and down several times, getting comfortable with the idea that he's actually touching Emmett, in a way that could never be mistaken for anything less than intimate, even if the man might never know it.
The President marvels at the fact that this simple contact awakens everything in him. He revels in the novelty of it all, the freedom to experience this physical closeness with Emmett, appreciating it all the more because he knows he may never have this chance again.
Feeling braver yet, Edward twists his finger around Emmett's knuckle and locks the two of them together. A cool shiver pricks at the President's skin, raising goose bumps. Though he knows it's ridiculous, he interprets the fact that Emmett doesn't pull away as encouragement, no matter that the man is unconscious.
Cautiously, the President opens his eyes and pulls his hips onto the bed. Propped onto his left side and taking up a minimal slice of mattress, Edward sets his right leg safely out of temptation's way atop his left, and keeps (what he hopes might be mistaken for) a reasonable distance between his own warm body and the outline of the agent's right leg beneath the thin blanket. He inhales deeply and tries very hard not to let his thoughts wander to the tight band of muscles prominent in Emmett's thigh, or heaven help him, what rests just on the other side.
Ignoring the medical paraphernalia as much as possible, the President fixes his eyes on the agent's face, which reads mostly calm but for the occasional twinge of pain that seems to jump beneath the man's eyelids, making the President flinch on his behalf. The two men lay together quietly, the President lulled by the hiss of oxygen keeping his friend's lungs on schedule while his body fights through the injuries.
For the first time since the shooting, the President allows his thoughts to drift back to the speech he was prepared to deliver that night, a private speech with an audience of one. No time like the present, he tells himself, taking a shaky deep breath before whispering quietly into his friend's ear.
"So…Agent McCarty…there's this…I've been meaning to…" Yeah, there's the smooth motherfucker we've been hearing so much about in the press.
"Hey. Emmett. You have to know how much your friendship means to me. And I have to say, take away the guns and the twisty plastic earpiece and the Ray Bans, and I'd still happily hang out with you any day of the week, though I have to admit, all those things do…er, enhance the total package, as it were."
He rolls his eyes at his own double entendre. Moving on….
"Truth is, you have one of the sharpest minds I've ever encountered, and you know I get around. Hell, you've been getting around right there with me, sharing it all. The good, the bad, that unfortunate food poisoning incident in Beijing…. But I digress. I don't know what I'd do without your humor to get me through sometimes. Oh, sure, it took a few weeks—okay, months—to break through that tough-guy exterior of yours and get you to actually smile, but once I did…."
The President pauses here, remembering the moment that finally cracked through Special Agent Serious to reveal the man who learned he actually could smile without creating a national incident.
*.-.*Cullen: Agent, have you heard about the day that G. W. Bush and Bill Clinton somehow ended up at the same barbershop?
McCarty: No, Mr. President.
Cullen: Well, I'm told that as they sat there, each being worked on by a different barber, not a word was spoken, both barbers afraid to start a conversation, for fear it would turn to politics. As the barbers finished their shaves, the one who had Clinton in his chair reached for the after shave.
Clinton was quick to stop him, saying, "No thanks, my wife Hillary will smell that and think I've been in a whorehouse."
The second barber turned to Bush and said, "How about you?"
Bush replied, "Go ahead, my wife doesn't know what the inside of a whorehouse smells like."
McCarty: (Turning his head away, cheeks creasing with a wide smile, he clears his throat and turns back) "Good one, sir."
*.-.*"So getting back to your good qualities, I suppose it's worth mentioning that you just risked your life for me, which is…phew. " Long pause. "How am I even supposed to process that?"
As expected, the agent doesn't respond, leaving the President to ramble on.
"But the simple truth is, there's something between us that goes well beyond friendship. If I'm honest with myself, and I'm trying like hell to be, it's been there from the start. Remember when we met on Inauguration Day? Now granted, it's not every day a guy gets sworn in as the President of the United States, so my brain was a bit crowded, for sure. But as God as my witness, Emmett McCarty…" The President takes in one more deep breath and clamps down a little harder around McCarty's finger. "I felt it right then and there."
Having made the big reveal, the rest of the words tumble easily. "Banner warned me, as I'm sure he did you—and that man certainly does not mince words, counseling me to keep the First Peen under wraps—and I tried to listen to him! Oh, how I've tried to ignore the way it feels, knowing your eyes are on me all day; knowing you'd slay dragons for me, move heaven and earth to keep me safe; the way your shoulders hold up a jacket and your running shorts barely cover your…aw, fuck."
The President throws his head back in exasperation, soothing himself with a subtle curling and uncurling of his one-fingered grip on the man lying next to him.
"My what?" A weary voice pushes through the oxygen mask and the President's heart pounds wildly as he turns his head to find his friend waiting expectantly. "Don't…stop…now…" Emmett forces out, interrupted by a cough. "It was…just…getting…interesting."
*SPECIAL AGENT McCARTY*
There's a sharp throbbing pain behind his eyes as the big man awakens to the bright fluorescents, but he knows it's worth every ounce of effort when he senses the presence of the President beside him and hears that warm voice, his words flowing like honey over the agent's ruined body. Four long years, McCarty has been harboring barely concealed feelings for this man he reveres and craves like no other, and there could be no sweeter moment than to hear that his affections have been returned.
"Cover my…?" Cough.
"Don't try to talk," the President admonishes him, with a too-sharp voice, which the agent recognizes as compassion riddled with anxiety and colored with embarrassment.
The agent moves to shake his head, but a sharp stab of pain lets him know that's a terrible idea. "Just…listening," he croaks out.
Tears cloud the President's soft hazel eyes and a rush of air swooshes out his lungs, raining soft breath along the whiskers of the agent's unshaven neck and cheek.
"Well?" the agent pushes once more, a smirk rising under the confines of his oxygen mask.
The President's eyes narrow for one second before he rolls his eyes and gives in to the agent's demands. "Fine," he says quietly. "Your tight ass. Happy now?"
If he could speak, McCarty would probably toss out something like, "As much as can reasonably be expected, under the circumstances." But since he's been commanded not to, he simply smiles bigger in response. The President of the United States—no,Edward—likes his tight ass.
As sensation returns to his extremities, the agent notices something unusual and lifts his right hand to evaluate the situation. "You're holding"…slow, careful breath…"my hand."
Edward smirks. "So I am. Does that bother you?" A belated touch of panic creases the President's forehead, but even in his weakened state, the agent is strong enough to regrip, and in fact engulf, the President's entire hand in his.
The two stare at their joined hands with wonder and awe until finally, the agent lowers his arm, finding even that simple act exhausting.
"They're going to want to know you're awake," Edward states, eyes still locked with Emmett's, neither moving to break their private moment.
"Is this…all we get then?" Emmett asks, his eyes pinched with hurt.
"No. Not by a long shot," the President assures him.
"The First Lady is out of the picture. She's agreed to stick around through Election Night, but that's it. No more charade."
Emmett's eyes close and he allows himself a moment of celebration. "And the rest?"
"We'll be discreet." The President allows himself a cautious smile. "You're going to be out of commission for a while anyway. It'll be easier for us to…meet."
The words thrill the agent, but at the same time, it's bittersweet. "I don't trust…Black…with your…"
"My life? Which you saved. In the most goddamn heroic act I have ever witnessed." The President's voice catches and Emmett feels the intensity of the man's rich green eyes on him.
Edward's voice is barely a whisper, though Emmett has no trouble reading the overwhelming gratitude behind his simple words. "Have I thanked you yet?"
The memory of cracking bones flashes through the agent's mind and he cringes. "I broke…your…arm?."
The President laughs out loud, taking in his measly cast. "Yes, and fractured a couple ribs. You are one massively strong fucker when riled!"
The agent chuckles, then twists in agony. "Fuck, don't…laughing…hurts"
"Sorry," the President answers. "But…while we're on the topic of you throwing me to the ground and covering me with your body?"
"Yeah, um…" the President's face and neck turn a bright shade of pink. "That might be something I'd like to try again sometime."
The agent cocks an eyebrow. He's in no shape to entertain thoughts about having this man's body underneath him, yet he files the idea away for future fantasies. Not that he hasn't produced the imagery before, mind you, but this time, it's different. It's sweetened by the promise inherent in the President's shy request.
The President quickly amends, "Without the gunfire and broken bones next time, maybe?"
The agent laughs again, causing him to howl in pain. "Owwwwww!"
"Sorry, sorry," the President grins sheepishly. "So, if I were to ask you to stick around the White House and find out what this…" Edward squeezes Emmett's hand, reminding the bigger man that they're still intimately joined, "…might be?"
"…And maybe someday, actually hear you call me by my Christian name?"
"What might you say, Special Agent McCarty?"
"I'd say…I serve…at the pleasure…of the President."